A new day had risen. Theodore marched at the head of a half dozen royal knights, their armor clacking with each footstep, their capes bright with the nation’s colors: Green and burgundy. The best men and women the palace could spare. Theodore tuned the Aura tracker as they passed through the tree line of the Whirlwood. The Governor made sure Theodore would be ready when they found Whisper.
Something went wrong. The tracker malfunctioned. Aura trails sprang out of the machine in thirty different directions. Theodore stared at the tangled ribbon of light. There was no way they were close enough for the machine to activate. Had Whisper masked her location with false signals somehow? That wasn’t going to work. After the incident with the prince Theodore took the time to commit the aura tracker’s entire instruction manual to memory. Whisper’s vile scheme was nothing in the face of a well-documented trouble shooting section.
Theodore spun the amplifier wheel down, lowering the sensitivity, until only the strongest signal remained. A single beam of tracking light cut through the Whirlwood like a beacon. Even at the lowest setting, the signal was massive. Tracking the prince required him to get within a few miles at least. Was she that close? How bright was Whisper’s aura?
There was a chance she was hiding in the Fairy Circle. This time, Theodore took precautions. He sent word ahead by messenger bird for the Fair Lady to expect them, and drafted a search warrant. There was no need for a repeat of his botched attempt to save Oboe.
They moved in like a thunderstorm. Whisper was out there somewhere, and they were going to put a stop to her. Theodore had never felt so powerful before in his life. Or at least he would have, if the knights didn’t need to keep stopping to catch their breath.
“Do you need to wear all that armor while we hike?” he said. “It looks exhausting.”
Sir Marla Whitesail, the senior officer, braced herself against a tree and grimaced. “It is an honor to wear these colors!” She broke into a rasping cough. “We would never disgrace our country by being seen without it!”
“The creatures won’t care,” Theodore said. “We don’t know how long this will take. Let’s at least stick your greaves and gauntlets in a backpack until we get closer.” At least Conrad’s men had the sense to dress lighter.
“No!” She said, gasping and wheezing. “Honor!!”
Theodore paced. He was anxious to keep moving. The halts gave him too much time to think about what happened. His throat tightened. He tried to swallow the memory, but it was still there. The thoughts ate away at him from the inside any time they stopped.
He had killed Ella. Or whoever Ella really was. What would Oboe think of him? His mind flashed with the blood and screams of his father killing those creatures in Crookhole Mine. All those lessons in murder were still there. They were part of him. When he grabbed the sword in the vault, his heart had pounded with excitement. It was the same thrill he felt when he stalked the Tall Man through the streets of the city. The same rush of triumph when he stabbed him with the knife.
Theodore ran his fingers over the ring. He could feel the Tall Man far off, drinking tea in his home in the Hollows. What he did to the ghast was inexcusable. He had told himself he would never hurt another creature, but he was still his father’s son.
What was going to happen when they found Whisper? He could not imagine her surrendering. There would be violence. Even if he did not swing the sword, he was responsible.
No. She was an enemy of the State. She tried to abduct the crowned prince. Oboe would say they needed to fight. She would tell him that they couldn’t let bad people do bad things. He needed to stop Whisper, and the thought of stopping her made his heart pound with dark excitement. She had to be stopped, but the storm that was coming terrified him.
“Let’s go already!” Theodore said, unable to stand another moment. “Come on!”
“Alright, alright, alright!” The knights grumbled, but assumed their formation.
Theodore pressed on, leading them deeper into the folds of the Whirl. He pushed everything inside down tight. Right now, the mission was the only thing that mattered. He needed to stay focused.