Theodore adjusted the dials and levers on Conrad’s tracking tool. It buzzed and crackled in a way that was as inscrutable as it was unhelpful. Perhaps so much time had passed that there was no trace left, or perhaps Theodore had no idea how the contraption worked.
He made useless circles through the same groves and trails. How much time was left? He jabbed at the buttons and worried about Oboe. This was the only tool he had to locate the prince and it hadn’t told him a damned thing. Theodore threw the device onto the ground and buried his face in his hands.
“Hey mister. You dropped this.”
Theodore looked up to see a shadow child: a short, smiling silhouette made of a wispy ink thick smoke. He was holding up the tracking tool. Theodore sighed and took it.
The little ghast leaned forward, staring at Theodore’s badge. “You’re the Ranger Deputy, right?”
Theodore tensed. “Er, yes but-“
The shadow child zipped into the air, floating over the treetops.
“HEY EVERYONE!” He yelled as loud as he could. “I FOUND HIM! HE’S OVER HERE!”
The ground shook. A stampede of creatures flooded into the clearing from every direction. Fairies, ghasts and ferals of all shapes and sizes tore through the foliage and climbed over each other to surround Theodore while all talking at the same time.
“There you are!” “Where have you been??” “I don’t know how to file my taxes!” “Can you help me gather food for winter?” “I need to report a crime!” “Are you going to do something about all these knights roaming around?” “My kids won’t listen to me!” “Help!!” “What’s going on? Why is everyone so excited?”
Theodore splayed his arms. “Stop! Stop! STOP!”
The crowd, to his surprise, went quiet. They stared, giving them their full attention. It took Theodore a moment to gather himself.
“I’m sorry. I can’t help any of you right now. I’m in the middle of a crisis.”
The creatures exchanged a murmur of concern.
“What kind of crisis?” A fox said.
“Do you need help?” A gargoyle said.
Theodore was taken off guard. “You want to help me?”
“Why wouldn’t we help you?” A troll said.
“You’re the first Deputy who’s helped us do things at all!” A goose said.
A pooka hopped forward. “The old ones just yelled a lot and put creatures in jail. You actually care about making things better. It’s like you’re one of us.”
Pip the magpie swooped down to perch on his shoulder. “There’s a crisis, yeah? Only fair we help too.”
“What’s going on??” A skeleton grabbed Theodore by the shoulders and shook him. “Are you in trouble? Is there something we can do??”
This was not what Theodore expected. The creatures looked so anxious to help him. He didn’t know what to say.
“…I need to find someone.” He wasn’t sure how much was safe to share. “It’s on King’s orders.”
The troll let out a low whistle. “Ooo. King’s orders. That’s the biggest of the humans.”
“If I don’t find this person, my assistant Oboe will be executed,” Theodore said.
“We’ll help you look!” There was a murmur of agreement. “Yeah!!” “That way it’s fair.”
“Don’t any of you dare help!”
Fern Hardroot barged her way through the crowd, pushing and shoving. The creatures backed away to let her through.
“That faun is not worth saving!” She said. “Let the humans execute her! She’s wicked and always has been!”
A sylph tried to hush her. “Fern! Don’t! We aren’t supposed to talk about that with the humans!”
“Shut up!” She said. “He needs to hear this!”
Theodore wrinkled his brow. “What are you talking about?”
She smirked. “This isn’t the first time that little assistant of yours has gone wicked. She was banished from the Fairy Circle years ago for the same crime: transforming a human!”
The crowd went silent.
“Is that true?” Theodore asked them.
The fairies present, gnomes, and pooka and sylph, all looked nervous. A wood nymph decided to speak up.
“The Fair Lady shows mercy sometimes. Rather than turn a wicked fey over to humans to be killed, we are made to keep the secret so The Lady can assign a gentler punishment.”
“That doeling is supposed to be shunned,” Fern said. “That is her penance. Instead, she wormed her way into your employ and forced us to acknowledge her. Now she has struck again! I saw it with my own eyes. A twice wicked fairy should not be saved! Let the humans kill her!”
This was a lot for Theodore to take in, yet it rang true. It explained Oboe’s guilt. “Wait. You saw it? You saw her transform a human the other day?”
“Yes, that’s right! I can testify to her sins!”
“Then you can help!” Theodore said. “Where did the prince go? Can you help me find him? Please!”
Fern’s smug grin puckered into a sneer. “Are you listening to me?! Do you mean to play favorites, Deputy?” She jabbed Theodore in the chest. “Just this week you forced me to undo an enchantment that I needed to live! Now you want my help to spare a criminal!”
Theodore winced. She was right. He meant to skirt the law to save someone he cared about.
The troll stepped in and pushed Fern back. “Back off,” he said. “The Deputy knows what he’s doing.”
Fern glared. “And what makes you so sure?”
“I was a Red Cap.” He folded his arms. “Didn’t think I had a choice: Law said I was wicked. Couldn’t get work. Humans wanted me dead.” He put a hand on Theodore’s head. “Then this guy comes along. Gives me a chance. Undid me being wicked. Got me a work visa and everything.”
“Then he’s a fool who likes trusting scum,” Fern said. “Human justice is a sham! Bending the rules whenever they like! I hate it!”
“Laws ain’t perfect and neither are we,” the skeleton said. “Sometimes you need a head filled with good sense of anything. This human’s been good to us. I know I can trust him!”
The creatures cheered and jostled Theodore lovingly. He didn’t know what to say. The resentment he felt toward his job melted. The creatures appreciated him in a way that made the weird direction of his life feel worthwhile.
Fern spat. “You’re all fools! Trusting a human, as if he knew more than our Fair Lady? You make me sick.”
A gnome in mouse furs marched out from under the troll. “Forget the crone!” He said. “I saw what happened too! Let me help!”
“You did?” Theodore bent down. “Where? Can you show me?”
The gnome motioned for Theodore to follow and scampered off. The whole menagerie of creatures went with Theodore, leaving Fern behind to shout and shriek.
“Traitors! Worms! Vile little weeds!” She stomped her feet. “I will have justice! Proper justice! Blood and teeth! Wait and see! I’ll tell the Fair Lady of this! Do you hear me?!”