Lance Grayweather pulled Theodore’s chain and knocked him off his feet. He loomed over Theodore, ten feet tall and dressed in shining armor.
“You’ve wasted enough time, Theo,” Lance said. “You need to start taking your training seriously.”
Theodore spat the sand from his mouth and staggered to his feet. “This isn’t real,” he told himself, his heart pounding. “You’re dead. This is just a dream.”
The phantom of his father tugged on the chain leash. “What’re you babbling about? A knight who stays sharp is in no danger of dying. You’ll understand that if you open your ears. Now come!”
Theodore tried to stand his ground, only to be dragged across the soft sand. The tower was right there but his father was pulling away him away from it.
“Let go of me!” Theodore said. “I have a job to do!”
“As do I,” Lance said. His hand wrapped around the hilt of the sword at his belt. It slid from its sheathe with a gentle scrape. “I have to make you a proper Grayweather.”
“You can’t do anything!” Theodore said. “You’re dead! Just a ghost I dreamed up!” He tried to pull the shackle off. He knew none of this was real. Why was it so hard?
Theodore rolled out of the way as Lance brought his sword down. His father swung again, forcing Theodore to lean outside the arc of the blade. What would happen if he was killed here? If Theodore could not wake up, if he had no control over this place, he could not afford to take a single hit.
Yes!” Lance said, ecstatic. “Just like I taught you!” He chopped and sliced, cutting only air. “You’ll be a knight like me in no time!”
“I don’t want to be like you!” Theodore said, winded. “I never did! But you would never leave me alone! Even after you died, after you ran off got yourself killed like I knew you would, everyone is still trying to make me like you! I don’t want any of it!”
His feet slipped on the sand. He couldn’t keep this up forever. Theodore needed to do something, but what? Thistle said they needed to confront the nightmare, but what did that mean? He didn’t have a weapon and they were already fighting. He looped his hand around the chain.
Lance readied his blade, staring down at him. “You’re a knight, whether you like it or not.”
“I know!!” Theodore yanked the chain into the air, using it to block the sword. He hoped it would break the chain, but it didn’t. Of course it didn’t. “I haven’t got a choice!”
An insufferable smile spread wide on his father’s face. “Then you understand. This is what you are. A soldier.”
Old bitterness filled Theodore, like a cup overflowing. He hated this man, with every fiber of his being. Looking down, he noticed that while dodging he’d dropped the toy knight Oboe had given him. It reminded him about what she told him, about what the creatures of the Whirlwood needed. About what knights were to her.
“I am a knight,” he said. The chain went slack in his hand. “But maybe, I’m a different kind.”
Lance lowered his sword. He was smaller now, no larger than Theodore. His grin was gone, replaced with a face somber and soft.
“You hate me,” he said.
Theodore felt his anger itch, but he put it aside. Tears budded instead. “I didn’t know what to feel, after you were gone. Everyone wants me to pretend to be you. I wanted to run away, but I guess I can’t. I have a job to do. If I’m going to do this, I need your help.”
Lance vanished. The chain fell to the ground with a thump. Theodore stared at the empty space. His father was gone, but he was still shackled and the cuff would not come off. Typical. Stepping closer, he found his father’s sword lying in the sand with the other end of the chain linked to it. Theodore took the weapon. There was no sense dragging it.
The city was in bad shape. The windstorms had gutted the dream world, leaving scattered ruins. There was still one place untouched. Theodore made all haste to reach the tower. The base of the tower was buried in sand thanks to Zither. Theodore stabbed the sword in the ground and rolled up his sleeves. He dug through the hot sand with his finger, hoping to unearth the entrance. Before he could make any headway, Zither blew another gust through the city and buried it all again.
Theodore let out a growl of frustration. There was no time for this. He plucked his feet out of the fresh dune, grabbed the sword, and struck the tower out of anger. The steel wall tore like vellum.
He stood there, stunned. A prod with his hand revealed that the tower was rock hard to the touch. He stabbed at the tower with the sword and the wall ripped. It cut through like there was nothing in the way.
Theodore made another incision and, with a little work, carved out an opening large enough to step through. The iron collapsed inward and Theodore dropped down inside.
It was empty inside. The tower was hollow. The only thing contained was a rickety looking iron-wrought spiral staircase that reached all the way up to the top. Theodore wasn’t sure what he expected. A lavish mansion? He clambered onto the steps and resigned himself to a long climb.
A shock of wind rocked the tower as he scaled the stairs. The tower groaned and creaked, visibly leaning under the stress. Theodore clung to the thin railing, wondering if it would hold. There was no going back. He pressed on, pushing himself to double his pace, wondering how he could feel this exhausted while fast asleep, until he reached a door at the top.
It was locked. Theodore glanced back at the long drop behind him, and decided to try knocking.
“No! Get away!” A voice answered. It was the duke. “I won’t let you take me! I won’t!!”
“I’m not here to hurt you! This is the Ranger Deputy!” Theodore said. “Let me in! I want to help!”
“This is a trick!” Felix said, hysterical. “It’s always a trick! I won’t open the door! I won’t! Get out of here! Begone!!”
Exasperated, Theodore pushed the sword through the door and sliced its hinges off. It fell open, and Theodore stepped through into a small bedroom. He expected to see the duke. Instead, he found a child.