“Order, s’il vous plaît!” the marquis called out. “The Royal Council is now in session.”
“Who is she?” a voice demanded from the crowd. “The witch at your side!”
“Madame Duchess,” the marquis replied, his voice full of menace. “I would advise you to speak more carefully in the presence of your Majesté’s sister.”
“Sister!” the room gasped.
“The Majesté has no sister!” the duchess exclaimed.
“SILENCE!” the king roared, struggling to his feet. “I have a sister! Her name is—her name is—” The king looked blankly at the marquis.
Princess Vella, the marquis whispered into his mind.
“Princess Vella!” the king shouted. “And you will listen to her!”
He sat down. The marquis nudged Mitch, who jumped to her feet. She took a few steps toward the sea of hostile powdered faces looking up at her from beneath their towering white wigs. Her heart was beating so hard she thought it would leap right out of her throat and into the lap of the angry duchess.
“Eh hem,” she coughed nervously. “Well…you see…I’m here today to uh…to tell you about something…well, about something that’s…uh…very important.”
She glanced at the marquis, who was watching her closely. Why was she stalling? His eyes filled with suspicion.
“What I mean is—” Mitch stammered. “What I mean is—” She turned back to the Council, knowing she couldn’t hold off the moment any longer.
“LOOK INTO MY EYES!” she shouted.
The words echoed off the walls, swallowed the next second by the sound of doors slamming open. A mob of villagers burst into the room. They surrounded the Royal Council and rushed up the stairs to the pulpit, where Mitch, the marquis, and the king stood, frozen in shock.
“GUARDS!” the marquis shouted, recovering himself. “An attack! An attack on your Majesté!”
The king’s personal guards filed into the room, joined by the soldiers the marquis had imprisoned. They filled in the space between the villagers and pointed their spears at the marquis.
“What is this treason?!” the marquis demanded.
Cries rang out from the court. Several ladies fainted, falling into their swishy dresses, while the men looked wildly from the mob to the king, wringing their gloves and waiting for something to happen.
“Marquis Richelieu!” called a voice from the back of the room.
The council swung around to see Ian standing in the doorway with the Countess de Fontaineflamme and the Baron de Bonville.
“The treason is your own!” Ian charged, advancing toward the marquis. “You have bewitched the mind of our king with magic! Murdered his advisor, the Countess de Fontaineflamme’s uncle! Turned the nobles to stone-hearted tax collectors, and incited the wars that have run our villages into ruin! All in the name of your riches!”
Ian mounted the stairs two at a time and came to a stand-still in front of the marquis, who was trembling with rage.
“You have done it all with the help of this witch!” he pointed at Mitch, who opened her mouth to protest and then snapped it shut, remembering Ian’s urging that she not interfere.
She looked hard at him. This better work.
“You stupid boy,” the marquis hissed. “You think you can stop me with a few filthy commoners and quivering king’s guards? I am the MARQUIS GASPAR RICHILIEU! My powers exceed your wildest dreams!”
He moved threateningly toward Ian, electric flashes running up and down his arms and balling into his fists. The guards closed in, pointing their spears inches from the marquis’ face. His eyes flashed with fear, and the light in his hands fizzled out.
“You are powerful, Marquis,” Ian said evenly. “But you can still die.”
The marquis swallowed against the point of the spear pressed to his throat. His eyes met Mitch’s, which were flashing from amber to green to blue—a different color every time she blinked.
“Vella,” he hissed, careful not to move. “Do it—do it now!”
Ian looked from the marquis to Mitch and her flashing eyes. Suddenly, it all made sense—why the marquis had allowed Mitch into the castle, why he had taken her into his confidence, how he was planning to overtake Zahlamaer tonight.
“Vella?” Ian asked, feigning surprise.
Mitch said nothing, not sure if Ian believed the marquis, or if this was still part of his plan.
“Yes, I can see now, it is you,” he said, a smile playing on his lips. “Your crimes against the Collective are well-known. We will discover their depths later. Guards! Take the witch outside!”
“No!” Mitch shouted. “Ian—I—”
Ian looked severely at her. “Do not touch a hair on her head,” he added quickly. “Her magic is weak now because she is afraid, but it will grow stronger if she is attacked. Do you understand?”
He locked eyes with Mitch, whose face flooded with relief. She relaxed into her bonds and let the soldiers lead her out of the hall.
“The Collective will be glad to see her,” Ian said, turning back to the marquis.
“But you, on the other hand—”
He concentrated on the energy pulsing around them and felt the charge spread from his mind down to his fingertips. He closed his hands around the light and flung it at the marquis.
The marquis’ arms were pulled back and bound by an invisible force. His body stiffened in the grip of the magic, but his eyes flashed with wild, vicious anger.
“Deviant!” he screamed. “You dare to bind me?! You will pay for your insolence, boy!”
“Maybe,” Ian replied coolly. “But maybe you will pay for yours first.”
The color drained from the marquis’ face as he registered Ian’s meaning.
“Guards! Take this villain down into the dungeons. Lock him up in the deepest cell and leave him there. His master will deal with him soon enough.”
“NOOO!” the marquis screamed. “Fiends! Release me!” he yelled at the guards. “You will obey me! You treacherous fools! I will have my revenge! I will have my—”
The door slammed shut.
“Madame Countess de Fontaineflamme!” Ian called. “Will you and the Baron de Bonville please join me?”
Celestine and her cousin marched hand-in-hand to the front of the hall and ascended the stairs to the pulpit.
“Frères et sœurs!” the countess shouted, turning to face the crowd.
Hundreds of faces, young and old, rich and poor stared back at her, full of fear and uncertainty.
“The Kingdom du Soleil, once strong and unified, has been besieged by an evil enemy! The marquis has invaded not only the mind of our Majesté, but our homes! Even now, our armies lie sleeping in our beds, vulnerable to the attack of our villagers, who are being imprisoned in our own dungeons! This is all the work of the evil marquis! We must ride now, back to our homes! We must wake up our soldiers, release our people, undo the magic that has cursed our lands!”
“The soldiers will ride with you!” Ian called out.
“WE WILL!” the soldiers shouted.
The nobles looked around at each other. Unprepared for resistance, they allowed themselves to be swept up in the energy.
“To our homes!” they cried, shuffling out of the hall, with the soldiers and the villagers in tow.
Celestine and Fidèle turned to Ian with bright smiles.
“We did it, my man!” Fidèle exclaimed, shaking Ian by the hand.
“We did it!” the countess squealed, her golden hair bouncing on her little shoulders as she jumped up and down.
“We did,” Ian agreed, pulling both Fidèle and the countess into a hug. He took a deep breath and sighed heavily, releasing himself from the embrace.
“And now there is just one more matter to attend to.”
The countess nodded and turned toward the king, whose head hung listlessly to one side. His eyes were full of darkness, staring out into the empty hall as he sucked in ragged breaths of air through his pale, cracked lips.
“Remember,” Ian said. “Just like we practiced.”
The countess took her old friend’s face in her hands and looked deeply into his eyes.
“Lou,” she said gently.
Ian backed his way silently down the stairs and out of the Great Hall. He ran through the foyer and out onto the veranda, bursting into the garden where Mitch was waiting, surrounded by watchful guards.
“Release her,” he commanded.
The guards dropped their spears.
“I will take it from here. You’ve done well tonight. Thank you, Maurice, Jacques, and Germaine.” He touched a hand to the helmet of the smallest soldier. “The Kingdom du Soleil owes you a great debt.”
He pulled a purse from his cloak filled with gold coins and gave the soldiers five pieces each.
“Got all you need there?” Mitch asked drily. “Or could you use a few more?”
Ian smiled mischievously. “I told you…plotting is expensive.”
“Thank you, Monsieur Prince,” the small soldier squeaked.
“Thank you, Germaine.” Ian said warmly. “Now go, be a good boy and see whether the countess needs anything.”
Germaine nodded and trotted after the other two soldiers.
“Okay,” said Mitch. “I admit, that was nice.”
“There’ll be time for compliments, Little Scarlett,” Ian grinned. “But right now, we’re on the run!”
He grabbed Mitch’s hand and pulled her through the maze of hedges and narrow canopied lanes. They wriggled through the bent bars in the gate and splashed their way through the marshy grass, pushing past the thorny briar bushes that scratched at their faces and clung to their cloaks. Hopscotching their way through the flooded swamp on mossy rocks, they entered a small, grassy clearing surrounded by cypress knees. The earth crackled with electricity.
“Come on!” Ian cried, kicking up blue sparks.
Mitch’s heart was beating out of her chest. The old, aching joints of her voyage vessel were on fire from their run through the woods, but as she entered the flarefield, all the pain she felt rushed out through her fingertips and into the darkness. Sparks shot up from the ground. Ian squeezed her hand hard.
“Stomp!” he cried, pulling his own feet up from the sticky mud and stamping them into the earth. Blue light exploded into the sky.
Mitch lifted one brittle leg and then another, pushing her pointy boots into the soft ground. Sparks jumped from the earth, faint at first, then brighter and brighter as they caught fire with Ian’s energy field.
“The coordinates!” Ian cried through the electrical storm whipping around them. “Think hard!” He pulled her into a tight hug.
“Ahhhhh!” Mitch screamed as the winds picked up, lifting them off their feet.
“Mitch!” Ian shouted, grabbing her face. “The coordinates. Think! Think! Th—”
“PRESENT!” Mitch screamed, blocking out Ian’s voice. “Flarefield 6D!”
The marquis jolted awake to the sound of a metal lock sliding open. The iron door scraped against the stone floor and slammed shut. The marquis blinked several times, trying to make out the person standing in the room with him, but the cell was pitch black.
“Who are you?!” he demanded, backing up against the cold, slimy wall. “Show yourself!”
Currents of electric blue light shot from the floor to the ceiling, revealing several skeletons chained to the walls. The marquis cried out in fear. Dozens of red, beady eyes stared at him from the darkness.
“They seem to be watching you, Marquis Richelieu.”
“Zahlamaer?” the marquis whimpered. “Zahlamaer, my friend, is that you?”
“The rats,” the voice replied evenly. “They have an intense interest in you.”
“Why do you think that is, Marquis Richelieu? Why do you think they are watching you? What do you think they are waiting for?”
“I—I—I haven’t a clue. I suppose—perhaps—they are hungry?”
“Yes, I think that is it, in part. But I sense something else, Marquis Richelieu. Anger.”
“Anger? Zahlamaer, I’m not sure I—”
“Yes, anger. A desire for revenge. Perhaps they have reason to hold a grudge against you, Marquis Richelieu. Perhaps you have wronged them somehow.”
“Zahlamaer, come now—these are rats we are speaking of—surely—”
“I find it curious, Marquis Richelieu, that you are down here in the dungeon. I expected to find you in the salon, pontificating to the king on some matter, with the boy locked up in this cell, not you. That was my instruction to you before I left, Marquis Richelieu. Do you remember that?”
“I do, Grandmaster, I do—I—”
“You were to discover his secrets and prepare him for my arrival. But now I am here, and he is not. Instead, it is you who is here in his place. As I have said, Marquis Richelieu, I find that curious, and what I find curious I must try to understand.”
“Now tell me,” Zahlamaer said, drawing close. His steely eyes sparkled in the darkness. “What have you been up to?”
“Ahhhhhh!” the marquis cried as his mind cracked open. He felt the memories spilling out. The failed arrest at the Fireside, Vella’s beautiful, flashing eyes, his unsuccessful attempts to track down Ian and the countess, and then—a fleeting thought—what if—what if—?
“NOOOOO!” the marquis screamed, struggling against Zahlamaer’s icy grip.
Steal the cipher…
…and send Zahlamaer to the Dark.
The marquis fell to the floor as Zahlamaer released his hold.
“Please, Grandmaster—have mercy. It was just a thought—I would never—”
A blinding flash exploded from the center of the cell. Beams of sparkling blue light stretched in every direction.
“NOOOOOO!” the marquis screamed. “ZAHLAMAER NOOOOOO! PLEASE!”
A darkness began to take shape, blacker, even, than the darkness of the dungeon.
“I BEG YOU!”
The hole pulsed outward and began to spin, slowly at first, and then faster.
“You have betrayed my Trust, Marquis Richelieu.” Zahlamaer’s voice filled the cell, drowning out the roar of the spinning vortex.
“PLEASE ZAHLAMAER! I AM SORRY! I AM SORRY! I—”
“You deserve no mercy. You have shown none in your own life. You have valued your riches above everything else. You have lived for nothing but yourself.”
“GIVE ME A CHANCE—PLEASE—JUST ONE CHAAA—”
A violent force knocked the marquis off his feet and lifted him into the air. He felt the centuries of magical charges draining from his body. He opened his mouth to scream, but found he couldn’t make a sound. The flashing arms of the spinning black pit reached out to meet him.
“You are a fool, Marquis Richelieu. You placed your trust in the wrong person—a treacherous little girl, not the friend you thought her to be. Vella is where I left her when the Corridor closed. I know because I have just paid her a visit.”
The marquis felt the terrible grip of dark energy pulling him deeper and deeper into the void. He writhed against the force of the magic driving him closer to his end, but he was helpless against its hold.
“You could have never done it, Marquis Richelieu. Had you the power of ten thousand chrontercogs, you could not have sent me to the Dark. There is no rebellion that can stop me. There is nothing that can change the course of my passage through time. I have a mission to complete, Marquis Richelieu, and nothing, in this world or any other, will stand in my way.”
The crackle of electric charges began to fade into the darkness. The marquis felt himself spinning into endless, empty space, and then, just like that, he was released. He tumbled hard onto the cold stone floor, landing face first in a pool of slime.
It took several moments before he realized he was still alive, and several more before he felt ready to move. The marquis pushed himself up to a sitting position. His robes were covered in filth and his jewels had been stripped away. The marquis wiped the slime from his eyes and found himself staring into two steely orbs.
“You are hereby stripped of your viceroyalty, Gaspar Richelieu. Unhook yourself from this moon cycle and never come back. Hide yourself from my sight; for if I, or another of my viceroys, ever see you again it will be your final misfortune. Do you understand?”
The marquis nodded, unable to bring himself to speak. The steel orbs were swallowed by blackness.
The marquis listened to the sound of receding footsteps. The metal lock slid open and the door scraped against the floor. It did not close. The marquis waited until he heard the last echo of footstep from the stairwell, and then collapsed back down into the slime. If he didn’t know better, he could swear there were squeaks of laughter coming from the walls.
New chapters of The Secret Corridor will be published every Friday to CorridorCounty.com. Listen at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Buzzsprout.
Chapter photo created with the assistance of DALL·E 2.