She was gone. Theodore searched for her until it grew too dark to continue. He returned to the inn to lie awake with worry until the first hint of dawn. Breakfast was a stale slice of quiche and a pint of coffee to fortify himself.
Her tree was empty, and there was no one at Thistle’s cave. He scoured the valley trails and asked every creature whether they’d seen Oboe. None of the birds, rabbits, bears, or even any of the skeletons had any idea where she was.
“What’s the situation in the Circle?” A pooka asked him. Her golden, anxious eyes were bright against her pitch-black fur. “Why are you looking for that faun instead of working on that?”
“I am working on it!” Theodore said, trying not to shout. “Please, just tell me, have you seen her?”
“I haven’t.” Her long pointy ears drooped. “Sorry. I know you’re taking care of the Circle, but I’m just worried. My family lives there and…” Her gaze wavered. The worst was flashing before her eyes. “…I’ll keep a look out for Oboe, okay? Let me know if there’s anything else I can do to help.”
“Thank you,” Theodore said. He pushed on, feeling heavier. He knew he needed to be training. Tomorrow morning was his last chance to take the test, to become Ranger Deputy again and do something before Conrad dragged him into the Court where he would be useless.
He couldn’t focus. It was worse than when Oboe turned herself into the Circle. It was like she’d taken his mind with her. Dread and worry haunted him, but there was something else as well. The kiss. It lingered in his thoughts.
Theodore had never thought about Oboe in those terms, but then, he had never thought of anyone in those terms. His life was filled with books and work and there was never any time for others until she came into his life. She filled the parts of him he didn’t know were empty and now that she was gone, now that he had told her no, he truly felt the void she left. It was the same feeling he had when she faced execution, but now it was deeper. It had taken root in him. There wasn’t room for anything else.
Oboe wasn’t in danger this time, she was leaving of her own free will, and Theodore knew he could not go with her. Nothing had changed. He still had a duty to perform. What would he even say if he found her? No. It didn’t matter what he said. He was just terrified he might never see her again.
Something lunged out from the brush, a creature striding on long gray legs and parting the branches of trees with spidery fingers. Theodore was so startled he almost lost his balance. He was so distracted that he didn’t notice the entity until it was almost on top of him. It loomed over him, gaunt, staring with a dark crevasse where eyes should’ve been.
“You found him!” A magpie said, swooping to perch in a nearby tree.
“Yes, Pip.” The Tall Man rubbed his featureless face, sounding exasperated. “I explained this to you twice already. The ring he wears binds us. I needed only think of him to sense his location.”
“Wowie!” Pip said. Then added, after a moment to think: “Wow!”
A troll lolloped out of the brush, heaving herself across the clearing to land beside the Tall Man like a boulder. A gnome clambered over her broad shoulders.
“You did it!” The gnome said. Theodore recognized him. It was Lemmy Molehill, the former Redcap he had ‘rescued’ from Silas Jack. The troll was Dina Bonecrunch, another reformed member of the defunct gang. “We shoulda asked you to help in the first place!”
“What’s going on?” Theodore was bewildered to be surrounded by so many familiar faces. “Why are all of you looking for me?”
“There’s trouble,” Dina said. “We need the help of the Ranger Deputy.”
Theodore knew he didn’t have time for this. He was fully booked for disasters. “I’m not the Ranger Deputy anymore,” he said. “They fired me.”
“We are aware of that,” the Tall Man said. “Regardless, the fact remains that you are needed.”
“Yeah! That’s right!!” Pip said. “It’s… what’cha call it. One of those emergency things.”
Lemmy hopped off Dina’s back and scampered up to Theodore, huffing. “Deputy, sir! The other humans aren’t listening to us! They won’t take anything we say seriously. But I know you’re one of the good ones. You’ll help, I know you will!”
Oboe was getting farther away and the world was crumbling around him. Theodore wished he could just let it fall apart. “Tell me what’s happened.”
“A unicorn has been going around, talking to old Red Caps,” Dina said. “She tried to recruit us.”
Theodore did not need to guess who she meant. “Beira Stormbreak.”
“Yeah!!” Pip said. “Did you know? She’s trying to get a whole army together!”
“They’re going to attack North Manor today,” Lemmy said, sucking air through his teeth. “Most of the old Silas Jack gang said no. Not as many people are angry like they used to be, thanks to you, but some said yes.”
“It doesn’t matter how many said yes!” Dina said. “That pointy horse is trying to send a message, but all it’s going to do is piss off the humans!”
“Theodore.” The Tall Man’s calm made every word sound even more grave. “Relations are volatile between humans and fairies, now more than ever. An attack like this could easily spark a war. After what small progress we have achieved, I cannot bear to see my country torn apart. Something must be done.”
This was bad. An attack on the North Manor farming village would mean civilians would be hurt or killed. Silas Jack had organized attacks on humans, but only ever targeted knights. Slaughtering villagers would only inflame anti-creature sentiment, and provoke the capital to bring the full force of its knight orders down on the Fairy Circle.
“Maybe they’ll listen to me,” Theodore said, hoping that was the case. He looked off. North manor, and the capital, were miles away. “I need to get there as soon as possible.”
“I can assist with that,” the Tall Man said. “I have a shadow link nearby that will take us to the city. Come.”
The bogeyman led the group off the trail. They found a copse of trees with their limbs so thick and tangled they cast a dark pool of shade over ground. The ghast reached out and took hold of the gloom, pulling it aside as if it were a curtain, and revealed an inky swirl of smoke and stars beyond.
“Let us make haste.”
Theodore stepped up to the threshold of the magic portal, but paused. He could not ignore this situation, but he had not forgotten why he was out scouring the Whirlwood.
“Pip,” he said. “I need you to find Oboe.”
The magpie threw his wings wide. “You got it, boss! You want me to tell her what’s going on?”
Theodore needed her. There was a chance he couldn’t do this without her but, after what had happened, after everything she had suffered, he knew it wasn’t fair to drag her back into this.
“I want you tell her I’m sorry that I couldn’t go with her,” he said. There was something else. Something he now knew to be true and should have said to her face. “…Tell her I love her.”
Theodore stepped inside the shadow link. As soon as the Tall Man entered after him, the entrance shrank away and both were swallowed.