“Mitch!” Ian cried, sprinting around a bend in the Corridor. His words echoed up and down the empty hall. “Wait up!”
Mitch swung around to see Ian running at her full speed.
“Wow,” he said, screeching to a stop just inches from where she stood. “You look different.”
“You come all the way here to tell me that, Ian Holtfield?” Mitch asked crossly.
“Look, Little Scarlett—” Ian grinned as Mitch bit her lip angrily. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but—”
“I think I’m rescuing my friends. What are you doing?”
“Making sure you don’t get yourself killed.”
“No one asked you to do that.”
“Oh come on! I saw that look you gave me back there.”
“This look,” Ian said, dropping his face into a pathetic plea for help.
“Oh, I am SO sure!” Mitch snapped. “Sorry, but this Corridor ain’t big enough for me, you, and your ego! Now if you’ll excuse me—”
“Oh, great gravity, Scarlett! Lighten up!” Ian rolled his eyes. “I’m here to help. You can’t save the world by yourself.”
“I know I can’t. That’s why I’m rescuing my friends.”
“They’re my friends too, you know!” Ian shot back.
Mitch smirked, knowing she had managed to get under Ian’s skin.
“Well then,” she said, grabbing his arm. “Come on!”
Ian broke free of Mitch’s grip. “You come on!” he called, racing ahead of her. The two chased each other through the Corridor, sliding across the floor and darting around the towering columns.
“It can’t be far off!” Mitch panted as they rounded another bend.
“How do you know?” Ian cried. “It all looks the same!”
“My timepiece!” Mitch called back. “It’s starting to pull. We’re right about—THERE!—LOOK!—REECE! IZZIE! STOOOPPP!!!”
The two swung around as Mitch and Ian came crashing into the stardoor to the Sun King’s Court. A bolt of electricity sent them all flying backwards.
“Mmmrrff…” came a groan from under the pile.
Mitch untangled her limbs from the others and pulled Reece up from the floor.
“REECE!” she cried squeezing her arms around his neck. “Oh Reece! You’re alive!”
“MITCH!” Reece wheezed, too happy to mind that his windpipe was being crushed.
Ian and Izzie stared at each other, astonished.
“Ian,” Izzie said finally. “It’s really…you?”
Ian nodded wide-eyed, unable to stop staring at Izzie.
“I know—” Izzie said, feeling embarrassed. “I must look so different.”
“Not really,” Ian said, shaking his head. “No…you look very much…the same.”
Izzie flushed. “Oh Ian—” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. None of us did. I didn’t—”
“It’s okay, Cruz,” Ian said, pulling her into a hug. “It’s okay.”
Izzie let out a loud sob and squeezed Ian tight. Then she released her grip and wiped her eyes, turning to Mitch.
“Oh you!” she exclaimed, giving her a big hug. “What a sight for sore eyes.”
“You too, Izzie,” Mitch said, hugging her back.
“And this must be Reece,” Ian said tossing Reece’s hair. “Wow man, you sure have changed!”
Reece laughed. “You’re exactly the way I remember you.”
“Well,” said Izzie, looking around. “Where do we go now?”
“What do you mean?” Mitch asked, surprised at the question. “Home, of course!”
Ian shook his head, understanding Izzie’s meaning. “Not the way we came. The chambers don’t open from the inside, and there’s no direct timeline to present from the Corridor, the way there is from the past.”
“What are you saying?” Mitch asked, her eyes filling with fear.
“We have to go down,” Ian said, pointing to the stardoor. “To go back.”
“Ohhh nooo,” Mitch said, her face turning white. “I am NOT going through that thing again! There must be another way!”
“I’m afraid there’s not,” Reece said with a sympathetic smile. “They’re right, Mitch. The only way back home is through a timechute.”
“If we go right now,” Ian said urgently, “we’ll have just enough time to shoot back out to the present before moonset. C’mon!”
“Okay—just hold on one minute!” Mitch said frantically. “May I remind you all that Zahlamaer is down there? Stirring up a storm of destruction as we speak? Are you all crazy?”
Izzie’s eyes widened. “What do you mean Zahlamaer is down there?”
“I mean he’s down there! In the Sun King’s Court! The marquis told me all about it.”
“Richelieu?” Reece asked in disbelief. “You got intelligence from Richelieu?”
“Yes!” Mitch nodded furiously. “He thought—well—he thought—” She paused, looking at the floor. “He thought I was my mama.”
Reece swallowed hard.
“I don’t know why,” Mitch added quietly.
“Your eyes,” Ian answered. “It was definitely your eyes.”
Mitch frowned. “But my granddaddy always told me I had my daddy’s eyes. Just like his, and my Uncle Oren’s.”
“You do,” Ian nodded. “Those amber eyes are a tell-tale sign you’re a Scarlett, but the way they flash, that’s all your mama.”
“Yep,” Ian went on. “Vella’s the only other magician in the world, far as I know, whose eyes flash like that. Gold to green, blue to black. A different color every time she blinks. I saw it when we were back there in the Great Hall. Maybe ’cause you were afraid? I don’t know. But my guess is the marquis saw it too, that night when you ran after him, and that’s why he let you into the chateau.”
“Wait a minute,” Reece interrupted. “Let me get this straight. Richelieu thought you were your mama, so he invited you in?”
“Seems so,” Mitch said gloomily.
“Well…did he say why?”
“Apparently they were friends.”
Reece looked from Ian to Izzie.
“But I thought—I thought—”
Ian shook his head quickly, giving Reece a warning look.
“What? What’d you think?” Mitch asked sharply. She looked at the three of her friends, and felt a sudden stab of anger. Once again, she was in the dark about things that had happened in the past—things that had to do with her family and that affected her life—while everyone else seemed to know what was going on. Well, she had had it with all the secrets, and the people keeping them from her! She had a good mind to pull every last one of their secrets out by force!
“Whoa! Little Scarlett!” Ian warned. “Don’t get crazy. You don’t want to mess around with mind control. Especially not with your friends.”
“Get OUT of my mind, Ian Holtfield!” Mitch shouted, stomping her foot.
Izzie and Reece looked at each other, confused.
“Graham Scarlett,” Ian explained. “He charged me, remember? And like I told this one—her mind is going to stay open to me until she learns how to CLOSE IT!”
“Tell me what you know about my mama!” Mitch shouted.
“It’s not our place!” Ian shouted back.
“Ian!” Izzie cut in. “Stop yelling at this poor girl. She’s just asking about her family.”
“She thought about trancing us all!” Ian protested.
“You wouldn’t know that if you hadn’t been snooping around in her mind.”
“No buts! Mitch is an agent of the Collective now, not some little girl we’re trying to protect. We shouldn’t be keeping secrets from her.”
“They kept secrets from ME! BIG ONES!”
“And how do you feel about that now? Angry right? And you have every right to be! And so does Mitch. So let’s stop this now. No. More. Secrets!”
Izzie looked seriously from Ian to Reece to Mitch.
“Your mama was in the Trust!” Reece blurted out.
Mitch rolled her eyes. “I kinda’ picked that up living with the marquis for a month, but thanks.” She smiled in spite of herself at the look of desperation on Reece’s face.
“She was a double agent,” Izzie added. “That’s important to understand. She started out in the Trust, but she came over to our side. Your Uncle Oren recruited her, and he wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t seen some powerful good in her.”
“Right!” Reece exclaimed. “That’s why none of this is making sense! Miss Vella—er—Crawford—was stripped of her viceroyalty when Zahlamaer found out she turned. That’s a BIG deal! Everyone in the Trust would have known about it. No one would have taken her in!”
“Unless she really hadn’t been stripped of her viceroyalty,” Ian offered.
“What are you saying?”
“That maybe—just maybe—Crawford wasn’t a double, but a triple agent.”
“Impossible!” Izzie exclaimed. “I knew her! She was like a mother to me when my own mother died.”
“I know, Izzie. She was good to me too, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t a spy.”
“She was a spy,” Izzie insisted. “For the Collective!”
“Or for the Trust.”
“There’s no way—no possible way!”
“Think about it! Why else would Richelieu let Mitch in? Why would he tell her so much? About his plans? About Zahlamaer?”
“Wait!” Reece exclaimed, remembering what Mitch had told them. “Mitch, I know you want to know about your mama, but we’ve told you everything we know. All we’re doing now is speculating, and that’s not going to do anyone any good.”
He frowned at Ian.
“The fact is, we need to talk with your granddaddy—and your Uncle Oren—about all this, but we’re not going to be able to do that if we spend the rest of eternity arguing between ourselves in the Corridor. We need to get back. And we don’t have much time!”
Mitch stared at Reece, her head spinning from Ian’s accusations about her mother. She was angry and confused, but she knew Reece had a point.
“Okay,” she said finally. “We’ll hold off, for now. But no more secrets!”
Reece and Izzie nodded. She looked at Ian, who tipped his head.
“And stay out of my mind!”
“Do I really need to explain this again?”
“Now look—” Reece hurried on before they could start arguing again. “You said earlier Zahlamaer was down there. Are you sure of that?”
“Absolutely,” Mitch answered, turning her back on Ian. “Richelieu told me he entered the Sun King’s Court at the first full moonrise after the Corridor had been reopened.”
“So that’s why he wasn’t at Carthage!” Izzie exclaimed.
Mitch nodded. “I thought about that too.”
“So he was there, in the Sun King’s Court, the whole time?”
“No.” Mitch shook her head. “He left that same night—said he had some kind of business to tend to, but he’d back in two moon cycles. Wanted this one imprisoned by then.” Mitch gestured toward Ian. “Not a bad idea if you ask me.”
“No one asked you!” Ian shouted over her shoulder.
“But the marquis had other plans,” Mitch continued, ignoring Ian. “He thought he—we—could send Zahlamaer to the Dark.”
“No!” Reece gasped. “The marquis?”
“And me. Apparently he thought we could take him. Right there in the Great Hall.”
“Oh my galaxies!” Izzie said, slapping a hand to her forehead. “A surprise attack—that’s one thing. Catch him off guard and there might be a chance you could push him into the pit before he had time to react. But a frontal assault? That’s just…madness!”
Mitch nodded. “I got the impression maybe the old marquis spent one too many moon cycles at Court. He seemed to think he was invincible.”
“Well, it turns out he wasn’t,” Ian cut in. “I fought him every step of the way, and in the end, I won!”
“We won,” Mitch corrected him, swiveling around.
“As I remember, you were escorted out by the guards.”
“If you’re saying you could have done this without me—!”
“Zahlamaer!” Reece interrupted. “We were talking about Zahlamaer. So the marquis said he was coming. Did he show up? Did you…meet him?” Reece’s face filled with fright.
“No,” said Ian and Mitch at the same time.
“I’ll take it from here, Little Scarlett, if you don’t mind. You were out stargazing by then.”
“Why you braggy little—!”
“So, Zahlamaer—” Ian interrupted, walking around Mitch. He leaned against a column to face Izzie and Reece. Mitch crossed her arms angrily and looked away.
“We didn’t run into him, but I did leave him a little parting gift.”
Izzie and Reece nodded with keen interest.
“What was it?” Reece asked.
Both Reece and Izzie gasped.
“You didn’t!” Izzie exclaimed.
“I did.” Ian smiled triumphantly. “Bound him with a light cord and had him locked in the dungeon. Just like he did to all those poor people.” Ian’s smile faded as he remembered the terror on the faces of the villagers as they were round up and thrown into the king’s prison one moon cycle after another. “All so Zahlamaer could spend a little time in the future,” he added angrily.
“It wasn’t just for that,” Mitch interrupted.
Izzie, Reece, and Ian turned their eyes to Mitch.
“What are you talking about?” Ian challenged.
“Things I know about, Ian Holtfield. While you were off playing court with the countess I was actually working undercover.”
“How dare you bring Celestine into this!”
“Ooohh look! Holtfield’s got himself a little crush.”
You better watch it, kid—”
“ZAHLAMAER!” Reece and Izzie both exclaimed.
“So Zahlamaer—” Mitch started, giving Ian a satisfied smile. “—is not just vacationing in the future.” Her expression turned serious. “He’s looking to stay there…permanently.”
“He can’t!” Reece exclaimed. “It’s against the laws of time travel.”
“I don’t get the sense Zahlamaer gives one lick about the laws.”
“How could he do it?” Izzie asked in disbelief. “How could he possibly do it?”
“I don’t know exactly,” Mitch admitted. Ian scoffed. “But—” she added quickly. “The marquis did say something about a cipher—to OneTime.”
“Whhhaaattt???” Ian interrupted. “You never said anything about that.”
“We haven’t exactly had a lot of time to talk, Holtfield,” Mitch retorted. “Not that you care much to listen.”
“Mitch,” Izzie broke in. Her voice was urgent. “Are you sure about this? Are you absolutely sure the marquis said OneTime?”
“Yes!” Mitch insisted. “Where else would I have got all this from? No one tells me anything around here.” She pulled a face but went on. “The marquis said Zahlamaer is plotting a ‘final leap.’ He’s going to give all his viceroys the coordinates to the future so they can start some kind of mass destruction—that’s what he said. And while the viceroys are wreaking havoc in the future, Zahlamaer’s going to make his final leap to OneTime. He’s already got the coordinates. The marquis was sure of it!”
Reece, Izzie, and Ian stared at Mitch. Mitch stared back, waiting for someone to speak.
“How long you guys planning to look all googly-eyed like that for?”
Izzie blinked, opened her mouth and then snapped it shut. She shook her head, still staring at Mitch. Ian ran both hands through his hair, tugging at the curls. Reece collapsed onto the floor.
“Say something!” Mitch demanded. “This is giving me the creeps!”
“I just—” started Izzie. “I don’t know what to say.” She shook her head again and sat down next to Reece.
“How did this happen?” Ian said dazed. “How in the world did he crack the cipher? He’s been trapped in the past for the last seven years.”
“He probably didn’t have much else to do besides think about it,” Reece answered. He hung his head between his knees. “I think I might be sick.”
“Hold it back,” Mitch warned. “The Tinkers don’t take too kindly to you messing up their Corridor. Believe me, I know.”
“The Tinkers!” Ian cried. “That’s it!”
“What’s it?” asked Izzie, looking up sharply.
“That’s how Zahlamaer cracked the cipher!”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it!” Ian exclaimed, turning to the stardoor. “Where do all these stardoors lead?”
“To the past?” Reece offered weakly.
“Yes, of course they lead to the past, but where do they lead before they get to the past?”
“To a Tinker’s vault. At least the ones that have been mapped.” Izzie replied. “But I’m still not following you.”
“Okay look. We know the Tinkers moved into the Corridor a long time ago, right?”
“A long time ago, yes, but—”
“But no living magician can say how long ago exactly, right?”
“Right. We don’t know a lot about them at all. Where they came from. How long they’ve been living in the Corridor—”
“Who put them in charge…”
“What do you mean?” asked Izzie, surprised at the remark. “No one put them in charge. That’s the one thing we do know. Timekeepers govern themselves. They don’t interfere in our world, and they certainly don’t let us interfere in theirs. They were probably glad when the Corridor closed. No more magicians tumbling into their vaults, and all the time in the world to read their musty old books.”
“Exactly!” Ian said. “Anyone interested in unlocking the mysteries of the Corridor would be happy if it were closed for a while, right?”
“Do you remember the journal the Rovers’ left behind?” Ian asked urgently. “The one me and you used to study out back by the old oak tree?”
Izzie’s eyes filled with the past. “Of course,” she said wistfully.
“Think back to the last page—that line we couldn’t seem to make any sense of.”
Izzie closed her eyes, picturing the pages of the journal fluttering in the wind, the coppery leaves raining down on her and Ian from the branches above.
“Timekeepers must trust…” she said softly. Her eyes snapped open. “Leaping lightning!”
“Yes!” exclaimed Ian, grabbing Izzie’s hands.
Mitch and Reece looked at each other, confused.
“The Rovers! They were trying to tell us something!” Izzie went on excitedly. “The Timekeepers are part of Zahlamear’s TRUST!”
The word echoed up and down the hall. Several of the twinkling starlights flickered off and on again.
Izzie clasped a hand to her mouth. Ian’s eyes grew wide. He looked around sharply as if expecting Zahlamaer to burst through the stardoor.
“It all makes sense,” Izzie whispered. “Zahlamaer put the Timekeepers here to map the Corridor.”
“He was trying to find the stardoor to OneTime.”
“And he needed a few magicians who were willing to spend an eternity looking for it.”
“So when the Corridor was closed—”
“—Zahlamaer didn’t care. He just hunkered down wherever he came from and let the Timekeepers do the work until it opened again.”
“So one of the Timekeepers must have unlocked the cipher while the Corridor was closed.”
“And when it opened back up, Zahlamaer snatched it from him!”
“Probably sent him to the Dark too.”
“Obviously. What else would he do?”
“Okay hold on!” Mitch exclaimed rubbing her head. “You two are making an awful lot of assumptions here. We’re talking about one weird line in a journal. That’s enough to be sure the Timekeepers are working for Zahlamaer? And where in the world are you getting the whole Zahlamaer sent the Timekeeper to the Dark thing?”
Izzie smiled. “Okay, so maybe we got a little carried away, but c’mon Mitch, the rest of it makes sense, right? I think Ian’s onto something. There’s no proof, of course, but at least we have a theory, and that’s more than we had a minute ago.”
Ian crossed his arms across his chest and gave Mitch a satisfied smile.
“Okay, so maybe it makes a little sense,” Mitch admitted. “But so what? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, Zahlamaer did plant the Timekeepers here. Let’s just say one of them cracked the cipher and now he’s finally got what he wanted—the coordinates to OneTime. What does that have to do with us, right here, and right now? Just one thing—one really important thing—”
She looked from Izzie, to Reece, to Ian, who shrugged.
“We can’t go back down there!” Mitch cried, pointing to the stardoor. “Don’t you get it? If Zahlamaer has the coordinates to OneTime, he’s going to be looking to start that mass destruction right quick, and when he finds the marquis in the dungeon and realizes you’re still out there—” She pointed at Ian. “—he’s going to be hoping mad.”
“So, you arrogant clown, if he finds you, you’re a goner. We all are!”
“Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?”
“Dramatic? Dramatic? Hello! It’s Zahlamaer we’re talking about! The oldest and most powerful chrontercog in the world! Are you forgetting what he did to the Rovers? If he could do that with eight chrontercogs and twenty-six magicians, just imagine what he could do to the four of us!”
“So you’re scared? That’s it.”
Mitch clenched her jaw, ready to explode.
“I am!” Reece exclaimed, struggling to his feet. “I’m scared! Really scared. And I’m not ashamed to admit it. C’mon Ian. Let off Mitch. She’s got a good point. We have reason to be scared—all of us.”
Izzie nodded. “We do, Ian. No use pretending otherwise. Like I said before, a sneak attack on Zahlamaer when he’s least expecting it—that’s one thing. But after he finds the little ‘gift’ you left for him, he’s going to be on his guard.”
“That’s exactly my point!” Ian objected. “Zahlamaer’s on the offensive now. You think he’s sitting around in some swampy old flarefield, waiting to see if I’ll come back? No! He’s probably on his way to Ol’ Cypress by now, and the longer we sit here arguing about what to do, the more danger our friends are in. We have to get back now! We have to tell them what we’ve discovered and come up with a plan. Together. It’s the only hope we have!”
“I think we all get that,” Mitch scowled.
“Well then what are you waiting for?!” Ian snapped back. “Enough talking—let’s do this!”
He ran up against the stardoor. “Pašāru!” he shouted, pushing with all his might.
The door crackled with electricity and opened inward with a great bang. Ian disappeared into the darkness.
“Ian!” Izzie called, darting after him. “Wait!”
Reece turned sharply to Mitch. “Come on!” he cried, grabbing her hand and starting for the door.
Mitch pulled back hard. “I’m not going back through there,” she said. Her face was pale and filled with fear.
“No Reece—I mean it.” Her eyes darted back and forth from Reece to the open stardoor. “There must be another way.”
“Mitch, we have to go now.” He looked seriously at Mitch, whose eyes began to flash.
“Whoa!” he exclaimed. “Your eyes! They’re changing color.”
Mitch looked surprised. “Really?” she asked, forgetting about the timechute for a moment. She blinked several times, her amber eyes flashing to green, then purple, then back to gold beneath her dark lashes.
“Ya!” Reece said. “It’s pretty cool.” He tilted his head, staring into Mitch’s eyes. “You know, there’s this whole story about why your mama’s eyes flashed like that. Something about a voodoo curse. Maybe we can ask your granddaddy about it when we get back.”
He turned to the stardoor.
“Wait!” Mitch called. “What do you mean a voodoo curse?!”
Reece smiled mysteriously. “Come on,” he said stepping over the threshold and into the darkness. “If you really want to know…” His voice was swallowed by the sound of a loud whoosh!
“Reece!” Mitch’s cry bounced off the marble walls down the empty hall. “Great!” she exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air. “That’s just real great! Okay Reece Rainier—fine! You want to make your best friend go chasing after you through this blasted tunnel of terror—FINE!”
Mitch rolled up her sleeves and stomped toward the stardoor.
“Voodoo curse,” she muttered, stepping over the threshold. “Like I need something else to worry about right n-n-n-o-o-o-OOOWWW!”
The stardoor slammed shut.
Moments later, somewhere in the vast, eternal distance, another door closed, and the Corridor was empty once more.
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.