Mitch blinked. Once. Twice. Three times.
An electric bolt cut through the black space.
Mitch gasped, startled by the sudden burst of light, and felt herself standing on firm ground. As the darkness dissolved, she held her breath waiting, hair standing on end and every nerve in her body pulsing with electricity.
Small white lights began to appear. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them. Mitch squinted at the shapes coming into focus around them. Arches and pillars and doors. The lights grew brighter, illuminating the dark space before her.
“Whoa!” She exhaled deeply as the Corridor came into full view.
Before her, a curving marble walkway stretched into an impossibly long arcade. Hundreds of spiraling columns rose up from the glittering floor. They stretched so high they seemed to simply vanish into the vaulted ceiling, which flashed wildly with a storm of electrical charges. Suspended in midair throughout the length of the hall were thousands of tiny pointed stars, their slow rotations filling the dark Corridor with twinkling light.
Overwhelmed by the magnificence of it all, Mitch took a step back and ran up against something hard. She swiveled around and found herself staring at a solid stone door. Tilting her head upwards until her neck ached, she ran her eyes over the fine detail. The door was beautiful, the color of a sparkly twilight and inlaid with designs she recognized from The Corridor Atlas. An elaborate system of silver crossbars and bolted locks told her this was one of the doors separating the seven chambers of the Corridor.
Suddenly, Mitch felt quite trapped, and very alone.
She wondered whether Reece was feeling the same, staring at his own imposing door a million miles away, locked in his own empty chamber of time. She considered the weight of his mission with growing concern.
If Izzie had been able to destroy Zahlamaer, then all would be well. Reece could simply drop into the moon cycle at Carthage to retrieve her and head back to Ol’ Cypress, where the Collective would celebrate their tremendous victory.
But there was also the terrifying possibility Zahlamaer was still out there. Mitch wouldn’t allow herself to think about what may have happened to Izzie if Zahlamaer had discovered her before she was able to make her move…or if she had tried, but failed. In either case, Reece would be headed straight into a trap! She shuddered at the idea of her sweet friend finding Zahlamaer in Izzie’s place when he passed through the timegate. What hope could a kid like Reece Rainier have against the world’s most ancient and powerful chrontercog?
Mitch’s mind was churning with terrible thoughts, but she knew she needed to focus. She had her own mission to complete, and it wasn’t going to be an easy one.
Ian had been trapped in the Sun King’s Court for nearly a hundred moon cycles. There was little chance he would be patiently waiting at the flarefield for a tracker to come retrieve him after all that time, which meant Mitch was going to have to search the king’s vast lands to find him. She knew the timeshafts would help her travel great distances with ease, but she was still under pressure to recover him quickly.
Here in the Corridor, time stood absolutely still, but the seconds would start ticking again as soon as she passed through the timegate. The Corridor could only be opened when the energy of a full moon connected with the energy of a flarefield, so she had just a few short hours to find Ian and get back to the flarefield before moonset. If she didn’t find him tonight, she wouldn’t be able to get back until she did find him, or someone came for her.
Well, Mitch thought to herself, no one was going to get anywhere if she spent an eternity staring at an old door. She turned back to the Corridor, fumbling in the pockets of her coat for the compass Miki had given her. It was a strange piece, with several sets of ticking gears and needles that swung wildly, but Miki had shown her how to set it to the coordinates of the stardoor she needed to find. Mitch twisted the several knobs in different directions and was pleased to see the compass steady itself, set to alert her when she reached her destination. She secured the watch to her wrist, took a deep breath, and stepped into the hall.
The squeak of her sneakers on the marble floor sounded unnaturally loud after the long period of perfect silence. She wondered how much time had already passed since she’d entered the Corridor. It was impossible to tell. She craned her neck up as she passed one massive spiraling column after another, marveling at the idea that this was just one of the millions of chambers containing billions of moon cycles spread out over the Corridor. Of course, only a few had been mapped. These were the complicated blueprints that filled the pages of The Corridor Atlas, a book Mitch had come to learn a lot more about in the last month.
As it turned out, the atlas at Ol’ Cypress was actually one of four in existence. The books were created by an ancient order of magicians who were determined to find out everything they possibly could about the mysteries of time travel. They moved into the Corridor and began separating the endless expanse of hall into 1,000-year chambers in order to study and map the moon cycles. The magicians recorded their discoveries in four atlases. Three were given to the heads of the magical orders responsible for training young magicians in the three magical arts. One would always be kept in the Corridor for safekeeping.
Over the ages, the orders split apart, and their atlases were scattered and lost throughout time, but the Collective had managed to recover one, at a great cost. It was invaluably precious and terribly powerful, filled with old, volatile magic, and only to be studied under careful guidance.
This had explained Graham’s outrage at the discovery Oren had taken the book from the safety of Ol’ Cypress and planted it in his attic for Mitch to find.
“So it wasn’t just that you didn’t trust me with the magic?” Mitch had asked one afternoon as she and Graham were studying a particularly complicated set of maps.
“No, of course not!” Graham had assured her.
Mitch noticed a flicker of something dark pass her grandfather’s bright amber eyes, but Graham had blinked several times and complained about the dust.
“This old house!” he laughed. “Needs a good wash!”
Mitch eyed him with suspicion, but let the matter drop.
Over the last four weeks, Mitch had more or less memorized The Corridor Atlas, but she knew there was only so much the ancient book—however precious and powerful—could reveal about the modern-day experience of time travel. The Corridor had been closed for the first time in magician memory. For seven years, the energy of the past had been trapped in its halls, and no one could tell what things would look like now that it had been released. Would the carefully charted passageways be the same? Would the stardoors open into the same timechutes? Could the burst of built-up energy that blew open the Corridor have shifted its axis? Even a degree, and the blueprints in the atlas would be useless.
Graham and Miki had poured over these questions in the weeks leading up to Mitch and Reece’s departure. Mitch had always known her grandfather had been a scientist before he adopted her, but she had never really been able to picture him as one. He was just her sweet, sentimental granddaddy who made her sack lunches, sewed patches into the knees of her jeans, and tucked her into bed night after night while she was growing up under his care.
But in the lab with Miki, Graham was transformed. The two maneuvered around stacks of open books, looking through long brass instruments into the sky and pouring beakers of smoking liquid into porcelain crucibles filled with powder that sparkled like stardust.
In his mechanical goggles and long white coat, Reece darted back and forth across the lab, washing glassware and furiously scribbling notes as he flipped the pages of his own Corridor Atlas—a second book that had been obtained from a most unlikely source.
As Mitch rounded another curve of the endless hallway, she let her thoughts turn to the prisoner at Ol’ Cypress. It was really incredibly lucky Eliot should have turned up at Collective Headquarters when he did, though they had no idea how he came to be there. It was Miki who first spotted him staggering through the swamp. At first, he thought it was a stranded fisherman or a disoriented hiker, but as Eliot’s features came into view, Miki wondered if he had lost his own mind. A viceroy of the Trust wandering around Ol’ Cypress in broad daylight? It couldn’t be. But it was.
Miki approached the trespasser cautiously, prepared for a fight, but it quickly became clear something was very wrong with Eliot. He didn’t even seem to notice Miki drawing near. He just stared off into space muttering something about London bridges falling down in Carthage. That was when Miki understood what had happened. Eliot Blackmont had been split in time.
It was one of the terrible dangers of time travel. In order to transport safely from the past back to the present, you had to clear your mind completely and focus on the coordinates. As The Corridor Atlas warned, the slightest distraction could be disastrous. If your mind became fixed on something, or someone, it could be left behind. Your body would end up in the present with your thoughts stuck in the past.
The risk was even greater for proxies. If Zahlamaer could hook into your mind, he could use you, willing or not, to see into the past, or the present, or to travel to a time he needed to see into. And if he was in your mind when you left one moon cycle, it would be lost for good when you got to the next.
When Miki found Eliot staggering around the swamp, he had no idea the Corridor had been reopened, but he knew no viceroy of the Trust would wander into Ol’ Cypress by accident. He also knew if Zahlamaer was hooked into Eliot’s mind, he would be able to see everything his proxy was seeing. So, with Dora, Izzie, and Reece looking on in disbelief, Miki led Eliot into the house, tied a blindfold around his head, and walked him down into the basement.
He set him down onto a chair and carefully secured his arms and legs. As he tightened the strap around his chest, Miki felt something hard. He reached into Eliot’s coat and pulled out a large leather-bound book. Turning it over, Miki gasped. Three gold-leaf words were scrawled across the cover: The Corridor Atlas. For the first time, the Collective had two of the four ancient atlases in their possession.
Miki immediately sent summons to Oren and Graham. Graham had been successful in closing Eliot’s mind, and Oren had learned through his channels that just before he wound up at Ol’ Cypress, Eliot had been spotted crossing London Bridge. He had seemed deranged, wringing his hands and falling to his knees every few steps to duck imaginary flying objects.
From Eliot’s cryptic mutterings, the Collective suspected Zahlamaer was in Carthage, and Mitch was able to confirm the exact moon cycle during her interrogation, but they couldn’t be sure whether Zahlamaer had hooked into Eliot’s mind before the Corridor had been closed or after it had been opened. Still, they knew they had to act, and quickly.
Izzie set off after Zahlamaer, and Mitch and Reece began their training. The month had passed in the blink of an eye, and now here Mitch was, wandering through a timeless hall that had been sealed shut for seven years, with her family and friends so far away.
Her heart began to ache with loneliness. She knew she had a mission to complete, and she was trying to be brave, but she felt so small and all alone. The Corridor stretched on and on before her. Every time she rounded a corner, a new curving hallway appeared, sparkling with the light of spinning stars and electric currents. As Mitch turned down yet another spiral passage, a long line of black, glittering doors appeared to her left. She felt the tug of the compass and stopped in her tracks.
“The stardoor,” she said aloud. The words echoed through the chamber. Startled by the noise, Mitch jumped back and found herself covered in silvery light. She looked up. A single beam of moonlight was streaming into the Corridor through one of the open arches above. Mitch’s eyes followed the slant of light to the sparkling door it fell upon. She approached slowly.
Carved into the stone door was a five-pointed star. Mitch ran a finger along the lines etched into the cold, glassy rock. Four coordinates appeared: 6.5.714.13C.
Suddenly, an icy jolt shot through her body. She pulled her hand away quickly as a great wave of fear washed over her. Something terrible was on the other side of that door.
Mitch reminded herself that she was about to enter a clash—a moon cycle anchored in conflict. She had learned all this. She had read The Corridor Atlas front to back, committed to memory the twisting blueprints and elaborate symbols, traced the evolution of voyage vessels, and studied the physical properties of stardoors, timechutes, and timegates. But now, standing here before a door that was about to open into the spirals of space-time, Mitch felt very unprepared.
She considered going back, retracing her steps until she made her way to the great door, and pounding on it with all her might until someone heard her and let her through. She would go home, kiss her granddaddy goodnight, and lug her tired body up the stairs to the safety of her room where she would curl up in bed and thank her lucky stars that tomorrow’s biggest challenge would be dodging sticky missiles when she boarded the bus for Dry Creek Middle School.
She took a deep breath. Too much in her life had changed over the last few weeks. More importantly, Ian was out there somewhere, trapped in the cycles of time. Although she didn’t know him personally, he was part of the Collective—her family. She had to get him home.
If Reece could be brave enough to go in after Izzie, not knowing if he would find Zahlamaer in her place, then surely she could brave the Sun King’s Court, even if it meant a run-in with the Marquis Richelieu. She shuddered as she remembered his portrait—that cold black stare and wicked sneer—and hoped she would find Ian before the marquis found her.
Mitch let out her breath and made up her mind. She squeezed her eyes shut, pushed on the stardoor with all her might, and shouted into the black, glassy rock.
Once again, an icy current rushed through her. The door crackled with electricity. But this time, Mitch didn’t pull away.
“Pašāru!” she shouted again.
The door wouldn’t budge. Tiny icicles shocked the palms of her hands, but she held fast to the door.
“PAŠÃRU!!!” she cried out, pushing with her body and mind against the door.
Suddenly, the charge went out.
She stepped back, breathing heavily and rubbing the warmth back into her hands. The stardoor opened inward with a low creak, and Mitch found herself staring into a black hole.
Nowhere to go but down, she thought, recalling the map of the timechute she had spent so many evenings pouring over. It had seemed like a great adventure then. Like a roller coaster…only through space.
“Okay,” she said aloud into the darkness. “Here goes.”
She stepped over the threshold, expecting a long drop, but to her surprise, nothing happened. She was still on firm ground.
She took a few steps forward. The door closed softly behind her. Standing in total blackness, Mitch felt her heart pick up speed. Her pulse pounded in her ears, and her icy palms started to sweat. She took another step forward.
A powerful force knocked her off her feet and sent her flying backwards into the cold stone door. She opened her mouth to groan, but the air was sucked from her lungs as she catapulted forward into space. The blackness burst open into a tunnel of light, and Mitch felt herself picking up speed.
A net of gravity pulled the limbs of her body tight. She cried out in pain. Her spine bent backwards into an arc and then curled forward at the shoulders. Looking down, she saw her knees were contorting into swollen, knobby walnuts. Bolts of lightning raced up and down her arms, draining them of color and twisting her fingers into gnarled branches.
Her stomach dropped from under her as she regained speed, rocketing down and around the streaking lights. As she tumbled head over heels through the corkscrew of time, she cursed herself, and the Collective, and every chrontercog who ever lived, for the terror she felt now. This was no roller coaster! This was…
Mitch’s face screwed up in pain. Her nose was being pinched and pulled into a long, crooked beak. Greasy strands of grey hair whipped across her face. She struggled hard against the weight of the gravity to wipe her running eyes, sliding her bony hands from her sagging cheeks to her flapping jowls.
And then, just as suddenly as she had taken off, Mitch came to a dead stop. Her heart caught in her throat. It took a few moments before she was able to regain her senses enough to realize she had not actually touched ground, but was suspended, upside down, in midair.
She blinked several times and twisted her head around in the darkness, finally catching sight of what she was looking for. A small speck of light, much further away than she hoped it would be by now.
“Oh that’s just real great…” she croaked in a strange voice. Her words echoed off the walls of the Timekeeper’s holding chamber. Turning her head away from the light, she took a deep breath, squeezed her eyes shut, and braced herself for the final drop.
Photo Credit: a reimagining of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier