Theodore tried to keep up as the gnome cut across trails, bounding on all fours until they arrived at a stony clearing. The gnome hoped onto his feet and marched circles around a pile of clothes Theodore recognized: It was the prince’s silk doublet.
“Happened right here,” The gnome said. “Boy poofed into a bird. A hay colored hawk with a red tail. Didn’t stay long, though.”
“Did you see where he went?” Theodore said.
The gnome gestured in a vague Northerly direction. “Flew off thatta way.”
“Oh. Is that who you’re looking for?” Pip said, swooping down to perch in the antlers of a white deer. “I think I met that guy. Had a lot of questions about how to be a bird. I figured he was just forgetful. Happens to the best of us.”
“You saw him?!” Theodore could not believe his luck. “Can you find him again?”
“Maybe,” Pip said. “He couldn’t have gotten far. It was past the downs in the Upside Hills.”
That was on the outskirts of the Whirlwood. If the prince made a break for the border, there might be no finding him.
“I need to get there as soon as possible,” he said. “Can you guide me?”
“Sure!” Pip said. “You found my eggs, did my wife and I a solid. But I’m not waiting around for your stubby little groundling legs to follow me.” He took flight. “SHELLY!”
The sky darkened. Something huge moved overhead. Before Theodore had a chance to wonder, a giant pair of talons clamped around him. A huge Roc bird, the size of house, lifted him off the ground with several thundering wing flaps.
“This is my wife, Shelly!” Pip said. “Introduce yourself, Shelly.”
The roc let out a guttural, earth shaking scream that made Theodore fear for his life.
“Shelly says hello.”
“Charmed!” Theodore said, trying not to faint.
“Good, great.” Pip climbed higher into the air.” We’re all properly introduced! Let’s go. Darling, you follow me okay?”
Shelly let loose with another world-ending shriek, which somehow failed to deafen Theodore. He was given no time to recover. Shelly yanked him skyward. The ground disappeared, swallowed by the woodland canopy as he was lifted high and higher into the air. Theodore discovered entirely new ways to scream. It was all he could do to hang on.
The craggy peaks of the Upside Hills mountain range came into view around the time Theodore became acrophobic. Shelly pumped her wings to slow herself. She dumped Theodore onto a cloud-kissed plateau and fluttered to find a perch. Theodore clung to the ground in a crumpled heap and pip landed on top of him.
“Okay, yeah. It was around this place I saw him last. Probably.” Pip gave Theodore a gentle peck to get his attention. “Provided nothing ate him.”
The Ranger Deputy unfolded himself to stand on shaky knees and shook away the vertigo. Conrad’s tracking device fell from his belt and lip up.
“What’s this…?” Theodore said, picking it back off the ground.
He flipped a switch and antennae began oscillating. It let out a loud ping. A ping had to be a good thing, right? A few more button presses and a faint orange aura appeared, hanging in the air and trailing down the mountain slopes. It was tracking the prince.
“Mother of magic,” he said. “I think I have a chance now.”