“Mitch!” Graham cried, spinning around to see his granddaughter scrambling down the stairs. “What are you—?”
“No! What are you doing?!” Mitch demanded, looking wildly from her grandfather to the man strapped to the chair.
He was well-dressed in plaid trousers and a wool blazer, but his clothes were ripped and covered in mud and his feet were bare and bleeding. His head was secured in place by a strange apparatus, but his eyes rolled madly about the room. Registering Mitch, he writhed violently against his binds.
“HELP ME!” he screamed.
Mitch started for the prisoner, but she was blocked by a tall figure stepping from the shadows.
“That’s quite far enough,” Oren said firmly.
“You let me pass, Uncle Oren,” Mitch replied fiercely. “This ain’t right.”
“You don’t know what this is, little girl,” Oren warned.
“Mitch!” Graham exclaimed, pushing past Oren. “Oh Mitch, I’m so sorry—I should have explained all this before—well—before—”
“Before we began the interrogation?” Oren cut in. “Oh for goodness sake! I wish the two of you would stop the dramatics! We have work to do.
“REECE!” he shouted. “REECE! Where are you?!”
“Right here, Mr. Arlington, sir,” Reece replied nervously, poking his head around the stairwell.
“Well, get DOWN here!”
Reece scrambled down the stairs.
“Is the briefing complete?”
“Yes, or no?!”
“Well, there was a lot to explain, sir, but I—well, I—”
Oren gave an exasperated sigh and turned to Mitch.
“Are you ready?”
“Don’t you dare rush her!” Graham cut in angrily.
“I agree,” said a man from the shadows.
“Yes, me too,” a woman chimed in. “Poor dear’s already been through the wringer today, bless her heart.”
“That’s right,” said a second woman. “Arlington, maybe we’re moving too fast.”
“Too fast?” Oren asked incredulously. “Too fast?!”
He turned sharply from Mitch to the three figures who had stepped from the shadows.
“May I remind you all that this is Eliot Blackmont?”
He gestured angrily toward the man strapped to the chair. The prisoner had stopped struggling and was now staring sedately into the dark.
“A viceroy of the Trust,” Oren continued. “Who just happened to wander into our headquarters the exact day the Corridor was reopened!”
No one answered. Oren took advantage of their silence to drive home his point.
“May I also remind you that this filthy saboteur lured Vella—”
“That’s enough, Oren!” Graham interrupted. He grabbed his brother’s arm and looked him hard in the eyes. “That’s enough.”
Oren shook off Graham’s grip.
“We’re wasting time!” he huffed angrily. “The Corridor has been reopened! Zahlamaer could be anywhere. We must act now!”
“We all understand the stakes, Arlington,” said the second woman.
Even in the dimness, Mitch could see she was young—late teens or early twenties—with jet-black hair cropped close to her head and bright emerald eyes. She wore a cut-off jean jacket, which showed off her long, thin arms decorated with colorful tattoos. She walked over to Mitch and rested a hand on her shoulder. Mitch looked from the young woman’s coral nails to her catlike eyes and took an instant liking to her.
“We need to do this right though,” she said. She looked down at Mitch and smiled kindly with pretty, full lips that matched the color of her nails.
“I’m Izzie,” she said. “And you must be Mitch. It’s a real pleasure to meet you.”
Mitch smiled and nodded. “You too, ma’am.”
“Oh please don’t call me that,” Izzie laughed, wrinkling her nose. “It makes me feel so old.”
She turned to Graham with dancing eyes. “Your granddaughter’s a beauty, Scarlett.”
Graham’s severe expression softened.
“Well,” he said, digging his hands into his pockets. “I suppose introductions are in order.”
He glanced at Oren, who was still seething.
“That is, if our fearless leader can spare a few minutes for pleasantries.”
Oren glanced at Eliot, who was still staring serenely into space.
“Make it quick, Cruz,” he said crossly to Izzie.
Izzie smiled. “Welcome to the Collective, Mitch,” she said brightly, but her face quickly darkened. “What’s left of us, anyway… I take it Reece has filled you in on who we are and what we do—or have done?”
“Well good, then we’ll get on with the introductions. Like I said, I’m Izzie—Isabella de la Cruz—but please, just Izzie. Isabella sounds so formal,” she said, making a face.
“And this is Miki Masamune and his wife, Eudora Bellefontaine.”
Izzie turned to the man and woman who had stepped from the shadows.
“Call me, Dora, honey,” said the woman in a warm drawl. She came forward to shake Mitch’s hand, and then pulled her into a tight hug.
“Oh Scarlett,” Dora sniffed, tears welling in her eyes. “She’s pretty as a spring bloom.”
“Hello, Mitch,” Miki said, bowing politely. “It’s good to have you home.”
His formality gave way to shock when he locked eyes with Mitch. He turned suddenly to Graham.
“Her eyes are shining!” he exclaimed.
Everyone in the room drew close and peered searchingly into Mitch’s eyes. Startled by the sudden attention, Mitch stared back, afraid to blink.
Graham placed his hands gently on the sides of his granddaughter’s head and tilted her face upwards. Reece pulled a small flashlight from his bracer and pointed a beam of soft light into her right eye, then into her left, then into her right again.
Mitch’s pupils tightened, but the green flecks in her amber iris began to pulse with light, like stars cut from jade. She watched the expressions on the faces staring into hers transform, one by one, from skepticism to astonishment. It was Oren who broke the silence.
“Well, I’ll be,” he said softly, shaking his head and stepping back from the group.
“Has this happened before, Graham?” Miki asked urgently.
Oren pulled thoughtfully on the end of his mustache.
“It’s remarkable, but it makes sense.”
All eyes shifted from Mitch to Oren, eager for an explanation.
“Well, think about it,” Oren began. “Graham, you lifted the hypnotic spell today. Reece’s briefing—whatever he actually got around to telling her—”
He shot Reece a disapproving look, clearly annoyed Mitch was still in the dark about the role she had to play with Eliot.
“Well, it must have activated some deeply embedded, maybe even inherited memories of the magic.”
Graham gave his brother a warning look, but Oren continued.
“She knows more than she’s even aware of, perhaps. You may have been able to suppress the memories, Graham, but it’s not like you could pluck them out and scrub her mind clean.”
“You think I don’t know that, Oren?” Graham said testily. “Of course she’s got that magic in her still—and it’s of a powerful sort,” he added, glancing at his granddaughter with concern. “But that don’t explain why she’s already shining. Whatever Reece told her couldn’t have done this. It takes years of study for the eyes to shine. It’s as if—”
Graham trailed off, his eyes filling with sudden understanding.
“You did this.”
Oren raised an eyebrow coolly. “Did what, exactly?”
“You stole that atlas from Ol’ Cypress and planted it in my attic!”
Miki and Dora started. Izzie’s mouth dropped open and Reece let out an audible gasp. It was an unthinkable accusation.
“You knew it would have a pull on Mitch,” Graham pressed on. “You wanted to draw her to it. You wanted her to absorb the magic—even if she didn’t understand it at the time—so she’d be ready to go when you…when you…”
He was so upset he could barely speak, but he forced himself to say what he had suspected all along.
“When you opened the Corridor!”
The shock of Graham’s words rattled the room. Miki opened his mouth, about to interject, but Oren beat him to it.
“HOW DARE YOU!” he bellowed. “You suspicious old fool!”
“No one else could have done it!” Graham shouted back. “Us two are the only ones who could have unlocked that cipher. I didn’t do it, so that leaves YOU! I ain’t sayin’ you did it for evil purposes—lord knows you miss that boy of yours something fierce.”
Oren’s face tightened at Graham’s reference to Ian.
“But I know you’re responsible for this, Oren! You hid that book in my attic, knowing it would attract Mitch like a firefly to a flarefield on a full moon. You’ve been planning this for seven years, and now that she’s come of age, you’re going to use her to retrieve Ian! You can’t go back yourself—you got too many time anchors now. And Izzie and Reece would have never agreed to your plan. But with Mitch—you could train her without her even knowing it!
“That’s why you were so sure she was going to be ready when she came down here just now! That’s why you hypnotized her into a proxy trance out there in the bayou! So I would lift the spell, and all the memories of the magic and everything she learned all them years pouring over that atlas would come flooding back. And then you’d be able to use her as you please, and we’d all go along with it, for the good of the Collective!
“Well to the moon with the Collective! And to the moon with you, Oren Arlington! I won’t let you hurt my grandbaby!”
Graham stood breathless, hands tightened into fists and face twisted with fury as he glared at his brother.
The rest of the Collective held their breath.
Oren began to clap in a slow, steady rhythm.
“Well, congratulations,” he said mockingly. “You sure got it all figured out, don’t you, Graham Scarlett? Think you’re real clever now? I suppose there’s just one problem though—”
He paused, one eyebrow raised as if awaiting a response, and then suddenly snatched his hat from his head, threw it on the ground, and stomped on it.
“YOU’RE WRONG! You treacherous villain! How DARE you accuse me of a betrayal like this! I would NEVER open the Corridor, and I would NEVER induce a proxy trance in one of our own! Especially not my own niece!”
He stepped toward his brother threateningly, his voice low and growling.
“Yes, Graham Scarlett, I did hide the atlas in your attic, and I did know Mitch would find it there. I wanted her to absorb the information in those pages. I suspected she was a proxy, just like her mother, and I knew if the Corridor was ever reopened, she would be in grave danger—we all would be—and we wouldn’t be able to spare the time to train her to protect herself. She has that knowledge in her now—she just needs the charge. And you are going to be the one to do it. She will find out what Eliot knows, and she will retrieve Ian, Graham. Not because I miss him something fierce, as you so sentimentally put it.”
He spit out the words, inches from Graham’s face, trembling with rage.
“But because it was Ian who broke the cipher and opened the Corridor!”
“What are you talking about, Arlington?” Izzie interrupted. “How could you possibly know that?”
Oren threw up his hands in frustration and turned to face the others.
“Because I found this in the flarefield that night.”
He pulled a large gold coin from his pocket and tossed it to Izzie. She held it out to Reece, who shined his flashlight on it. Their jaws dropped together.
She gave the coin to Miki and Dora, who studied the piece carefully. A regal face stared back. Miki exhaled through his teeth as Dora raised a hand to her forehead and exclaimed, “Oh my!”
Miki tossed the coin to Graham, who turned the piece over in his hand. It was stamped with the sign of the Sun King.
“It can’t be,” Graham whispered.
“I don’t know how he did it,” Oren admitted. “He probably doesn’t know how he did it, if he knows he did it at all. But Ian has indeed opened the Corridor.”
Oren glanced at Graham, who was still turning the coin over in his hand, looking bewildered.
“I’ll take your shock as an apology, you blithering nincompoop, so we can move on to more important matters.” He glared resentfully at his brother.
“If that coin was blasted into the present, there are surely other pieces of evidence lying about the past. The Trust are trapped for now, but it’s only a matter of time before Zahlamaer figures a way out. I’ll remind you that he, unlike the rest of us, does not need a tracker.”
“It’s too dangerous,” Graham said finally. “I can’t send my grandbaby in there.”
“I’ll do it!” Izzie cried out. “It’s crazy for us to consider sending Mitch in after Ian. Scarlett’s right. It’s too dangerous. Especially if she’s a proxy.”
To this point, Mitch had been so stunned by her granddaddy’s accusations and Uncle Oren’s revelations that all she could do was stare dumbly from one to the other as they exchanged verbal blows. But hearing herself referred to as a proxy yet again, Mitch’s need for answers won out over her fear of being caught between two old bulls butting heads.
“Can somebody please explain to me what exactly a proxy is?”
Izzie started at the question. “You mean nobody’s told you?”
Mitch shook her head sullenly. Izzie looked disapprovingly from Oren to Graham.
“The secrets we’ve been keeping from this poor girl,” she muttered, turning back to Mitch.
“A proxy, Mitch, is a stand-in for something, or, in this case, someone. Zahlamaer.”
Mitch’s eyes widened in horror.
“Yes,” Izzie replied firmly. “Zahlamaer, if given the opportunity, can see into the present through you. And others,” she added. “Like Eliot.”
Mitch looked at the man strapped to the chair. His eyes were closed and he was breathing deeply as if he were fast asleep, but she couldn’t shake the memory of his deranged cries for help.
“The mind is full of powerful energy,” Izzie continued. “Synapses firing electric charges through the brain—memories, thoughts, and emotions darting through a tangled maze of nerves. It’s all highly unstable. But certain people—Eliot—you—your mother,” she added gently, as Mitch locked eyes with hers once more. “Certain people have an unusual ability to focus their minds. It can happen without them even meaning it to. Sometimes it just feels like you’re zoning out, but really you’re focusing on a thought, an idea, even an image.”
Mitch nodded, remembering the way she had felt staring out at the surreal landscape as they floated down the bayou earlier that afternoon.
“In that moment of focus,” Izzie continued. “The mind clears and then opens, and Zahlamaer, if he’s got his mind set on you, can sense it. He comes rushing in, and once he’s hooked in, it’s nearly impossible to get him out.”
“Are you saying…” Mitch gulped. “…that Zahlamaer had his mind set on me this afternoon?”
“Seems like it,” Izzie nodded. “But, as I understand it, you were released.” She glanced at Graham. “Just like Eliot.”
Mitch looked at the prisoner strapped to the chair.
“He was released?”
“Yes,” Izzie insisted. “Mitch, you have to understand. Eliot’s mind was being controlled by Zahlamaer. We had to close it. Your granddaddy’s been working some powerful hypnotism this afternoon. These things are never pleasant,” she admitted, resting her eyes on Eliot’s strained face. “But they’re necessary. As a viceroy of the Trust, Eliot has knowledge of Zahlamaer’s whereabouts. It’s unfathomable he should show up at Ol’ Cypress, and yet here he is. We need to understand why.”
“And that, my dear niece,” Oren broke in, “is where you come in.”
Mitch jumped, almost forgetting Oren and the rest of the Collective were watching her.
“Your grandfather has done admirable work today—as much as I hate to admit it,” he added under his breath.
“But a mind won’t give up secrets to the hypnotist who closed it. So, as the inheritor of your grandfather’s special gift, it’s up to you to find out what Eliot knows.”
“She’s not ready, Oren!” Graham protested, finally snapping out of his trance.
“Oh but she is, Graham,” Oren replied fiercely. “And now you know why. Charge her.”
“Charge her, Graham!”
“You will! If you don’t she will be in more danger than even you can possibly conceive.
Zahlamaer will find her. You know he will. And he will force his way into her mind. Do you want her to end up like this?!”
He gestured to the prisoner. Graham looked helplessly from Eliot to Mitch.
“You will charge her,” Oren insisted.
Graham sighed painfully, rubbing his forehead with the tips of his fingers. He knew Oren was right. He had no other choice. Summoning his resolve, he locked eyes with Mitch.
“Come here, baby girl.”