Theodore stumbled into the dark, feeling as if his body had been stretched across the whole Whirlwood. The air stunk of blood and excrement. When his eyes adjusted, he found himself standing in a grimy stone dungeon. The walls radiated a faint plum colored light. Cell lined corridors webbed out in all directions.
He heard crying and followed the sound. He found Rupert, weeping on the floor, his face buried in his hands.
“What? Who’s there?” The pooka peeked through his fingers. “Huh?! You!” Rupert thrust an accusing finger. “You’re that dungeon inspector! But you’re not a dungeon inspector at all! You lied to me!” He threw his arms in the air. “You’re just some huckster office guru! Ugggh!!”
Theodore knelt. “I’m sorry I tricked you, Rupert. I came to the Circle worried a friend might die. In any other situation I would’ve waited out due process like a civilized creature. There’s no good reason for you to be punished because of me.”
Rupert’s frown softened. “Well. At least you’re nice about being a no good, vile, weedling cheat. Suppose I can’t stay mad when Benny was so excited about your ideas.” He shook a floppy ear out of his face. “What’re you doing here?”
“I wanted to pull you out of here before the door closed,” Theodore said.
Theodore looked behind him and realized there was no passage back the way he came. “Oh.” He had made a grave miscalculation.
“You didn’t bring a fold-whistle.” Rupert slapped his own forehead. “Nice going, dummy! Now we’re both stuck here!”
A sound echoed off the halls, like groaning steel. Theodore peered down the shadowed corridors and wondered what he had gotten himself into. “Where are we?”
Rupert laughed at him. “The labyrinth! Deepest point in the fold! It’s where the Circle puts you if they really want you to suffer. You want to inspect dungeons? Go nuts!”
Theodore pressed his palm into his face. “Is there a way out?”
“You’re asking me?!” Rupert said. “Really wowing me on this rescue job, boss. How about you try finding the exit yourself and tell me how that works out for you?”
Furrowing his brow, Theodore could think of no reason to argue. He’d learned to navigate the Whirlwood. How much worse could a fairy dungeon be? Rupert followed him with arms crossed as he wandered up and down the maze of corridors. Theodore kept a mental map as they went and groaned as he found himself fed back into the starting chamber again and again.
“It doesn’t make any sense!” Theodore said. It was dawning on him how bad he had screwed up. “There has to be a pattern! A trick! Even the Whirlwood has rules!”
Rupert’s expression was insufferable. “It’s not supposed to have a way out, smart guy. Hallways are rigged to shuffle to keep you lost. Doesn’t matter how clever you are, or how good at lying, nothing short of the right magic is getting us unstuck.”
That was it. Theodore reached into his pocket and pulled out the spool of golden thread Thistle had given him. “This might help.”
Rupert’s eyes lit up. He snatched the thread out of Theodore’s hands. “Where did you get this?!” He sniffed at it in big huffing nostril snorts. “This is alteration magic! Sylph weave? A divining spell! Mother of Magic. Someone gave up a lot of Fates to make this.” He looked up. “Where’s the other end of this?”
“Outside the Circle, near Moss Tub Lake?”
“Oh, that’s perfect!” Rupert uncoiled the tail end and gave it a firm yank. The thread went rigid and shot down one of the corridors, the spool spinning in Rupert’s paws. “If it’s even possible to walk out of here, this will show us!” He handed it back to Theodore and together they followed the string through the twisting corridors.
Wrapping the thread back around the spindle as they went, Theodore passed empty cells and hanging gibbets. His skin crawled as they crossed a row of torture devices wrought in iron: A rack lined with pulleys, chairs threaded with straps and chains, breaking wheels, and a hollow bull of scorched brass. Theodore hoped they were as disused as they looked. At least the prison in the capital was kept relatively sanitary. The path ahead grew dim. The enchanted stone in the wall gave off less light. Delving deeper, they found an intersection of hallways.
“I can’t even see the thread!” Rupert said. “Which way?”
Theodore squinted. “It’s… not going down any of them. It’s leading us into this wall.”
“What??” Rupert let out a wail. “No! I actually got my hopes up I was getting out of here!”
“Wait,” Theodore said. He tugged on the thread, and it moved along the surface of the wall like a fishing line over a pond. Reaching out, his hand passed through as if there was nothing there. “It’s an illusion!”
Rupert hopped through the wall. Theodore heard him gasp and went in after him. Inside was a large round chamber darker than the rest.
“Who… who’s there?” A voice called out. Scratchy and labored. “Is someone there…?”
Theodore leaned into the shadows, pulling Rupert in with him. There was no way of knowing if this was friend or foe.
“Hello?? Is anyone there?” The voice sounded desperate. “I need help! Please! I’m begging you!”
Theodore crept closer, peering into the dark. He found a nymph slumped against the far wall. A broken longsword was pierced through his torso. He was alive, emaciated, and propped against a wall. He scanned Theodore with wild eyes. Theodore recognized the sword. The Grayweather family crest was emblazoned on the hilt. That sword belonged to his father.