“Have you got moss in your eyes?!” Thistle said, shaking a tiny fist at Theodore. “Did you see the rest of us walk clockwise around that tree?! Imbecile! Go back and do it the other way!”
Theodore stopped and gave Oboe an annoyed glance. He wondered why she trusted this hateful sylph so much. He knew the Whirlwood was tricky to navigate, it looped on itself in strange ways by magic, but Thistle had the patience of an angry wasp. Theodore turned back and marched around the tree as instructed.
“Good,” Thistle said. “Now if you’re done wasting my time, let’s get on with it!”
The whole troop of fairy ex-convicts started moving again, with Thistle leading everyone somewhere that would supposedly explain everything. The trip felt longer than it was because of the bug man’s belligerent attitude.
“What’s Thistle’s problem?” Theodore said to Oboe. “You let him out of jail and he’s acting like we left him to rot.”
“What do you mean?” She said. “He’s in a way better mood than usual! He’s just a prickly pear, that’s all. Sweet on the inside, where it counts.”
Theodore was skeptical. Against the advice of the duke, and against his own better judgment, he’d chosen to trust Oboe on this. There was a chance this was a mistake. He couldn’t rule out the possibility these fairies were the ones responsible for the attacks. There was no knowing, at least not until he had all the information. He decided he owed it to Oboe to take the risk.
After a few more bends in the trail, and a few more tantrums from Thistle, they passed into a wide clearing Theodore had never seen before. A great round stone amphitheater stood there, worn raw from rain and overgrown with ivy and trees. There was a quiet, with the only sound being wind chimes giving voice to the soft breeze blowing from the East. He followed the fairies inside and saw a sprawling bed of white wildflowers filling the center. Shafts of warm green light filtered through the trees. Rising above the blooms was a monument: A thick stone disc held vertical, a circle comprised of concentric circles and interlocking segments. Theodore recognized it. It was the symbol of the church of the Mother of Magic.
The gnomes, pooka and nymph with them broke off from the group and climbed up the steps into the amphitheater seats. There, they joined a handful of other creatures. A werewolf, several leshy, trolls, and even ferals sat with heads bent or hands clasped. Theodore realized this was a place of worship.
“I didn’t know fairies and ghasts believed in the Mother of Magic,” Theodore said.
“Oh yeah?” Thistle aimed a scowl at him. “Just ’cause humans discovered a religion, you think you get dibs on it forever? Typical.” He shrugged. “Come on, I didn’t bring you here to gawk like a bigot. I got someone for you to meet.”
In the bottom front row of seats was a nymph. She was dressed in a flowing, featureless white mantle. Her hair was like long spiky blades of grass braided together. Her fingers were locked together and her eyes shut in deep meditation. Oboe stayed back as they moved closer.
“HEY GARDNER!” Thistle said, and whistled by blowing through his twiggy fingers. “Wake up! Talk to this guy for me!”
She opened her pupilless eyes. “Hello Thistle.” She stood up. “I see you have brought the Ranger Deputy to see me. Greetings, and welcome to our Sanctuary.”
“You have me at a disadvantage,” Theodore said.
“I am Gardner Feather,” she said with a bow. “I serve here as head priestess for the Outer Whirlwood community. I’ve heard good things about you, Sir Grayweather.”
Theodore tried not to cringe at the title. “Are you part of the Laien diocese?”
“Our scriptures differ, but the message is the same. It is written that we are all part of Her. It is no less true even if we are not of the First Born.”
The words were familiar, even if Theodore had never studied any of the holy texts himself. He had tried once, and found the lack of glossary and cross referencing too irritating to proceed. It was all parables instead of direct explanations. Theodore preferred to have his questions answered by academic textbooks for that reason. His father had never asked him to go to the cathedral to stand in the ring of worship. Lance claimed to believe but only got angry whenever the subject of faith came up. Theodore never pressed the matter. It was one of the few things they did not argue about.
“I’m here as part of an investigation,” Theodore said. “Several fairies have violated a ban prohibiting them to enter certain districts in the city, and using magic illegally on humans. Thistle thinks you can tell me why.”
Her eyes faltered. “He was right to bring you here. Yes. Several members of this community volunteered to sneak into the banned sections of the city. It is something I cannot officially endorse, but neither will I condemn it. They have good reason.”
“And what is that reason?”
“This way,” she said before stepping out into the bed of flowers. The plants seemed to bend around her bare feet. Theodore followed her into the poppies and daisies, trying to be careful not to stomp on any of the blossoms. Eyes down, he was startled when he spotted a body lying hidden among the flowers. A faun, like Oboe, wearing a green cloak and lying at his feet. His body was ashen colored, and weak, like the life had been drained out of him. Theodore looked up and saw there was a dozen others in the flowers as well, all different species of fairy. The faun looked up at him with a soft groan. His expression was feeble, vulnerable, exhausted.
“They’re sick,” Theodore said. “Like the people at the university ward.”