Chapter 4

The Teddy

Wander had no recollection of having slept during his time at his field, which is why he was surprised to be jostled awake as Niki rifled through her pack. Stifling the urge to yawn, he watched as she pulled out an old leather-bound book. The leather was worn and most of the gilt paint on the lettering had long sense cracked and flaked away, but Wander could just make out the title, "Dreams of the Realm."

"Whatcha got there?" he asked. He meant it out of curiosity but was surprised when Niki nearly dropped the book in surprise.

"Wander!" She exclaimed. "How long have you been awake?"

"Only a bit. Guess I was tired too."

Niki relaxed and sat down beside him again. "My mum made this during her migration. She'd read to me from it when I was just a hatchling."

"Ah, stories she heard on her journey?"

"Well … kinda." She opened the book and flipped to a page with a practiced claw. "It's educational too, see?"

The page showed an image of a teddy bear carrying a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. The expression on the teddy's scarred face could only be described as fierce as it faced what looked to be a dragon with the head of a cat.

"The Teddy and the Teaslewyrm," Niki said, smiling as she ran a gentle claw across the page. "Not everything's a story, though. Here, look at this."

Niki turned to a different page, this one showing an image of a group of harpies of varying colors engaged in a sort of mid-air dance. The page bore the title, "The Caucus of Lumos."

"Blue-jay, cardinal, canary," Niki said, pointing at the harpies in turn, "Macaw."

"Harpies of every color, eh?"

"Oh, that's nothing. You should've seen all the flocks at Ygdrasa before …" Niki's excitement fell almost instantly. She looked sadly at the page for a few moments before closing the book. "We should get moving."

"Niki," Wander said, but she was already rising to her feet. He did so as well before glancing around and asking, "Uh, where's Merry?"

The wisp shot from under the bridge, water dripping from their glowing form. Smiling, Wander said, "All right; back to it."

They walked for about an hour before the trees gave way to rolling hillsides and distant fields filled with the familiar sight of waving grain. Past the fields lay a sleepy-looking little town, itself unremarkable save for the small sun floating directly over the city. Wander glanced back curiously and quickly spotted the normal sun still hanging in its usual spot in the twilight sky.

"Well, ain't that somethin'?" Shaking his head, Wander asked Niki, "Think maybe someone in town knows somethin' about your flock?"

"Maybe," Niki replied, though something in her voice gave the scarecrow pause.

"Hey," he asked, "What's wrong?"

She fidgeted with her talons for a few moments before admitting, "I, um, never really dealt with anyone outside my flock before. Gran warned me outsiders could be dangerous."

"I'm an outsider," said Wander.

"Yeah, but you're harmless," she said, smiling at him.

Wander considered this for a moment before nodding in acceptance. "I'm okay with that. Still, someone in town might've seen your flock. We're gonna reach the place anyway if we keep down this path, so we should at least ask, yeah?"

"Yeah," Niki said, smiling at him.

They continued down the path, soon leaving behind the hills and reaching the first of the fields. The sky grew brighter with every step, eventually becoming a comforting shade of blue and filling the air with all the light and warmth of a summer's day. The real sun was still behind them, although it now looked less like a sun and more like the pale daytime reflection of a moon.

Past the fields of wheat and vegetables were the orchards. Most of the trees were still flowering, though Wander did spot some green apples here and there. The vineyards were next, with rows upon rows of grapes growing along elaborate trellises. Beyond that were fields of tall grass dotted with round bales of straw easily taller than Wander and small farms that tended cows, chickens, horses, and other livestock. There were surprisingly few fences; animals generally wandered around on their own, some alone.

That wasn't to say everything was normal. There were quite a few crops that Wander didn't recognize, and some of the animals were definitely not the sort of thing to normally be found on farms. Something akin to a long-necked dinosaur was slowly pulling a massive plow across an entire field, and a herd of sheep was being led by a six-legged creature with bat wings and a doglike head.

Men and women with animal-like features were working the fields. Minotaurs and centaurs plowed some of the smaller fields while curly-horned sheepfolk watered the crops and long-tailed mousefolk darted along the plowed fields planting seeds. Whatever animal traits they had, everyone working in the fields and orchards eventually looked up and watched as Wander, Merry, and Niki passed. Feeling it best to remain friendly, Wander waved at them. Not a single farmer raised a hand back in greeting. Wander didn't think anything of it until a massive minotaur pulling a large cart stopped and stared at them with a distinctly unfriendly expression.

"Howdy!" Wander called out, only for the bull man to narrow his eyes and flare his nostrils in response.

"Huh," Wander said, scratchin' his head. "Funny. You'd think farmin' folk would be more welcomin'." Niki didn't respond, though she did start to look worried.

The main gate was a simple affair; just two wooden posts with a plank across the top with the name 'Jardinfae' and several simple fairies carved into it. Past the gate was a small and fairly busy square; several stalls were selling what looked like local fruits and vegetables, a stable housed several large saddled animals that presumably could be hired for travel, and a large stone fountain surrounded by people sitting down and gossiping.

Wander walked through the gate hand-in-hand with Niki, Merry hovering just over their heads. Conversations fell silent as the townsfolk noticed the new arrivals. By the time Wander, Merry, and Niki reached the edge of the fountain, everyone was looking at them.

Trying to act as though he was completely ignorant of the fact that all eyes were already on him, Wander turned to the larger portion of the watching crowd and said loudly, "Howdy, everyone! I'm Wander and these are my friends, Niki and Merry." He put his hand on Niki's shoulder. "Niki's lost her flock, and Merry and I are helpin' her look for 'em. If any of you fine folk have seen 'em, well, we'd both be mighty appreciative to hear about it."

No one responded. No one even so much as twitched. Confused, Wander looked to Niki and whispered, "Uh, I said that out loud, right?"

She nodded, a worried look on her face. Wander could hear whispers amongst the crowd. Most was too low for him to hear, but he heard the words 'crow' and 'wisp' more than once.

"All right, new approach." Wander cupped his gloves to his stitched mouth and called out, "Me looky for lotsa harpies for friend. You see harpies, tell scarecrow, scarecrow and friend happy-happy."

No one replied to him, though the whispering increased with a noticeable edge to it. People were clutching their pitchforks and hoes, and many looked angry.

Niki clutched Wander's arm. "We should go."

"Go?" Wander asked, "We just got here."

"I know, I know, but I got a real bad feeling about this." She tugged his arm toward the gate. "Let's just go, okay?"

Her tone coupled with the townsfolk thus far was more than enough to convince him. "All right," he said. "They probably didn't see nuthin' anyway."

Still holding Niki's hand, Wander led his friends out of the square. They'd barely crossed the gate, however, when a deep voice called out, "Hold it right there."

Wander turned and stared at a figure in a faded brown duster and a matching cowboy hat standing at the far end of the square. His muzzled face was grim, his eyes narrowed, and his paws hovered near the grips of the silver pistols strapped his hips. This all might have been intimidating if it weren't for the fact the figure was barely over a foot tall and covered in brown fur.

"Oh no," Niki whispered, taking a step back.

"Huh?" Wander asked, cocking his head to the side. "It's just a teddy bear."

The teddy bared a mouth of small, sharp teeth at the scarecrow, causing Merry to quickly hide behind Wander's hat. The wisp peeked from the side, their humming spreading a feeling of worry.

"The name's Theodore, and I'm the sheriff of this fine city," said the bear.

"Please," Niki pleaded, addressing not Wander but the cowboy teddy bear, "We aren't here to hurt anyone."

"That's good, seein' as you'll never get the chance," Theo said, eyes narrowing. "Now are you gonna come along quietly, or are we gonna do this the hard way?"

"Hang on just a sec," said Wander, "Just what in the heck is goin' on here? Why's everyone here so dang unfriendly and why in the heck are you trying to take us in when all we've done is walk into town and ask a simple question?"

The teddy stared at him for a long moment before saying, "Some might saw that being in the company of a crow is a crime in itself."

"She ain't a crow. See? She's got white feathers," Wander pointed out.

"Yeah, well she's got more than enough black ones, so you just put your hands up now, alright?"

"We ain't done nuthin' but be friendly to a bunch of right unfriendly folk." Wander said, crossing his arms. "If we ain't welcome, we'll leave … but we sure ain't gonna turn ourselves just cuz folk don't like the color of a gal's feathers."

"There's also the matter of the wisp," the teddy said, shooting Merry a glare that sent it flying back behind Wander's hat.

"Really? You got a problem with them too?" shaking his head, Wander said, "C'mon, Niki … Merry. It's clear we ain't welcome 'round these parts."

"I tried to do this the nice way." The teddy bear shot forward, little more than a blur as he closed the distance and knocked the scarecrow back into a wooden wheelbarrow. There was a ragged cheer from the crowd as the scarecrow fell on his back amid a pile of potatoes.

Wander!" Niki said, moving to help him only to stop as the teddy landed in front of her, both pistols aimed at her throat.

"Now come along quietly." The teddy said, his tone dangerously low as she stood as still as a statue.

A shrill whistle cut through the air. Merry the wisp, their light glowing twice as brightly, rushed the teddy. Crystalline shards formed in mid-air on either side of the wisp like fragmented wings, only to spin wildly as the wisp closed in on their target., The teddy raised his arm in time for his jacket sleeve to block the attack, though the crystalline shards cut deep into the leather.

Wander staggered to his feet as the teddy continued to fend off the wisp's assault. The wisp rushed at the teddy once again, only for the teddy to bat it out of the air with a glowing shield that appeared on his arm out of nowhere only to vanish moments later. Merry bounced across the ground a few times, the shards vanishing.

"Merry!" Niki rushed to the wisp and picked it up in her claws. She screeched at the teddy as he took a step toward her. A dark look fell over the teddy's face. He raised a single pistol, aimed at Niki's head.

What happened next was a blur of emotions for Wander; bewilderment at being treated like criminals for no reason, fear and concern for Niki and Merry in the face of imminent death, and anger both toward the teddy and the townsfolk who didn't raise so much as a hand to stop what was happening. Well, if they wouldn't do anything, he'd just have to do it himself. With that realization, something inside him surged to life.

A sudden weight hit Wander's hands as a harvesting scythe appeared in his hands. The tool looked almost crystalline, its translucent surface shifting colors from green to red to blue every few seconds. Confusion about the weapon's appearance faded as Wander was filled with a sense of determination. Gripping the handle tightly, Wander quickly closed the distance between himself and the Teddy, the latter unaware of the former until the glowing blade was only an inch from his throat.

"Now, I ain't got no inclination to hurt ya, but I ain't gonna just sit still while threaten my big sister," Wander said, his hands perfectly steady as he continued to hold the scythe to the teddy's neck.

"Sister?" The teddy repeated as Niki stuck her tongue out at him.

"And frankly," Wander continued, "I don't care what folk feel 'round these parts. Ya don't arrest people unless they commit some kinda crime."

"Like resisting arrest?" the teddy asked, eyes narrowing.

"It ain't resistin' arrest if there ain't no reason to be arrestin', otherwise it's just self-defense as far as I'm concerned. Now are you gonna let us walk outta here in peace?"

"Or what? You'll kill me?"

Would he? Wander didn't know. He didn't want his friends hurt, but to take a life seemed too extreme. Even if they tied up the teddy bear, it was only a matter of time before one of the townsfolk freed him. Would he hunt them down? Would Wander be able to stop him again? These thoughts ran through Wander's head as he maintained his grip on the scythe, forcing the teddy to remain still or risk being an even shorter lawbear.

Fortunately, the situation changed with the arrival of a small figure with a mouse-like nose and a long tail. The mouse-person pushed through the crowd and hurried over to the scarecrow and the teddy. He leaned heavily on his knees for a few moments to catch his breath before finally standing and straightening his coat, which Wander couldn't help but notice was of fine quality.

"Easy now," The mouse-man said, holding up his hands in a calming manner, "There's no reason to do anything we'll regret. Just put away the weapons, and we'll have a nice calm chat."

Wander and the teddy exchanged glances. The teddy let out a sigh and carefully slid his pistols back in their holsters. Wander's scythe vanished moments later, its disappearance as much a surprise to Wander as its arrival.

"My shots would only have stunned," the teddy said, eyeing Wander with a measure of respect. "I know how this must seem, but I'm only looking out for her."

"Damn strange way you got of doin' it," Wander said, crossing his arms.

"Sadly, he's being honest with you," said the mouse-man. "It's a bit of a long story. I'll explain everything in due time as long as you and your companions come with me, good sir … quickly if you please. We should get your winged friend off the street before-"

"Mayor Blumfeld! Just what is going on here?" This came from a lady with a decidedly draconic look who pushed her way through the crowd, using her walking stick like a cattle prod. Her face was framed with dark red scales, and three horns jutted back out of the white hair on her head: one on the top of her scalp and the other two just above her ears. The red tip of a tail was visible just beyond the hem of her old dress, and two leathery red-scaled wings lay against her back.

"and there she is," Mayor Blumfeld said with a sigh. The teddy seemed equally begrudging of the dragon-woman's presence.

"That thing is a menace!" the woman said, her very snout-like nose flaring as she pointed a clawed finger at Niki. "Sheriff Theodore, I demand you arrest it at once!"

"That thing?" Niki repeated indignantly.

"Now, now, Lady Mavis," Mayor Blumfeld said, his voice placating. "We can't go around arresting folk without a reason."

"You know perfectly well that we have a good reason to lock up these horrible degenerates!" Mavis snapped, pointing her walking stick directly at Niki, who scowled back at her.

"That's enough!" Sheriff Theo snapped before looking around at the villagers watching the scene, "Don't the rest of you got something to do? Go on, git!"

The crowd slowly dispersed, Lady Mavis remaining with lips pursed to argue.

"Sheriff Theodore," said Mayor Blumfeld, "Please escort Lady Mavis back to her home."

"I'm not leaving until we have justice," she complained, crossing her arms. "I demand that crow be taken into custody with the rest of-"

Theodore bristled visibly. "I'm the law in this town, not you, Mavis! I'm warning you: cross another line, and you're the one who'll be the one cooling her heels in a cell. Now move!"

Lady Mavis hesitated for a moment before departing, nose in the air in a pronounced huff. The teddy followed her, still shaking his head.

"Come along," Mayor Blumfeld said, gesturing for the rest of them to follow. "We'll talk over lunch at my estate. It's the least I could do after the horrible welcome you received. This way!"