The Whispers fell like a plague. Theodore fought to protect his face and eyes as beaks and talons tore his bare skin.
“The door won’t open!” Fife said. Oboe threw her shoulder into it, grunting and straining, but it made no difference. They were cut off. A magic barrier shimmered just outside the balcony.
“How interesting.” Bassoon stepped towards them, veiled by the storm of wings. “Fife Legato. YOU took the sword? You’re nothing but a glorified clerk! You presume to oppose your Queen?”
Fife recoiled at being called out, but looked at Oboe. “I won’t let you harm my sister!”
Bassoon smirked. “I never realized you had a spine. Allow me to fix that.” She waved a hand, and a book case hurled itself at them from across the room. Fife threw out his arm and a translucent dome of magic formed around them. The book case exploded to splinters against the makeshift shield.
“Deputy!” Fife winced as ravens tore at his spell. “Use the sword! You need to slay the Fair Lady!”
Theodore’s grip on the weapon shook. His heart pounded. Visions of pooling blood flooded his mind. He stared at the broken blade. “I can’t!”
“You have to!” Fife said, straining to hold his shield up. “She’s going to kill us!”
“We can’t use it!” Oboe said. “You know how to fight! You showed me!”
Bassoon’s arm punched through the barrier like paper. She grabbed Fife by the throat. The spell failed and the ravens poured in.
“Pathetic.” The Fair Lady lifted Fife into the air. “Even as a traitor you’re useless. Let me give you a more fitting form.”
Writhing in her arms, Fife shrank away into a tiny worm. “There.” Bassoon laughed, and dropped him onto the floor.
“Fife!” Oboe moved to grab him, but dozens of ravens swept in to attack her. She shrieked and struggled to fight them off. Bassoon turned her attention towards Theodore. Helpless, he pointed the sword.
“My, how nostalgic.” Bassoon crept closer. Theodore adjusted his stance as she circled him, trying to remember every technique, Ella’s dying eyes blotting it all out. “You think you can kill me with that sword? You want to finish what your father started?” She bared her teeth through a manic smile. “I have lived for a thousand years. I have lost count of how many I have cut down. Just try it.”
Her left side was open. Theodore pivoted his foot and lunged, blade forward. Her posture shifted. Time crawled. He knew he had made the wrong move. She sidestepped the lunge. He needed to answer, to follow through, but his body wouldn’t listen. All he could think about was his father standing over him, covered in blood, as little Theo cried in the depths of Crookhole Mine.
Bassoon swatted her palm and knocked the sword clean out of Theodore’s hand by the flat of the blade. The sword slid across the floor to the far end of the room. Before he could blink, Bassoon’s fist came down on Theodore’s head like a mace. His head swam, his knees gave out, he fell.
The whole world went numb. His vision went unfocused. The only thing he could make out was the voices.
“Do you see your champion, daughter? The brave pawn you wagered could slay a Queen? Tell me: What does he mean to you, that you threw everything away for him?”
“Leave him alone!” Oboe said, her voice breaking.
“He’s worth more to you than your family, then? Worth more than your Queen?” Her hooves clipped across the floor.
Theodore tried to shake himself from his stupor. He pushed to stand, but couldn’t tell whether up was down. Blinking his vision back, his eyes cleared in time to see Bassoon wrap a tattered silk cloth around his neck. It was Oboe’s mantle.
“I want you to watch what you’ve made me do, daughter.”
She tightened the cloth into a knot. Theodore grabbed at his neck, wrestling to pull himself free, but it was no use. He gasped for breath. It was crushing his throat.
“No!!” Oboe shouted.
Bassoon only laughed. Theodore kicked, trying to think of a way out, but his mind was growing fainter. On the brink of blacking out, there was a roar. A muffled rumbling. The Whispers were screaming. The silk went slack. Something in the room had shifted. Theodore summoned the last of his strength to force his eyes open again.
It was massive. A behemoth. Something between a bull and a bear. Great pointed horns and pointed teeth. Claws scraping against the marble floor. It foamed at the mouth, snarling and furious.
“LEAVE THEO ALONE!!”