While Merrin wandered around the Manuscriptorium, intimidating Jillie Djinn and writing rude words on the scribes' desks, the events he had set in motion were beginning to unfold.
At the top of the Palace, a Thing UnLocked the door of a tiny, windowless room at the end of Merrin's corridor.
"It . . . is . . . time," it said.
Muddy, disheveled and aching all over from being Fetched, Simon Heap slowly got to his feet.
"Follow," came the Thing's hollow voice.
Simon did not move.
"No," croaked Simon, his throat painfully dry from lack of water.
The Thing leaned nonchalantly against the doorframe and looked at Simon with what might have been a mixture of amusement and boredom. "If you do not follow, the door will be Locked," it intoned. "It will be Locked for a year. After a year has passed, the only person able to UnLock it will be your mother."
"She will be pleased to see you again, no doubt." The Thing made a noise like a strangled chicken, which Simon knew was, in Thing terms, a laugh. "Even though you will be no more than a pile of slimy rags in her attic."
"In her attic? Is that where I am?" asked Simon, who had no memory of the Fetch.
"You are in the Palace." The Thing moved back through the doorway. "If you do not follow now, I shall shut the door. Then I shall Lock it." The door began to close. Simon imagined Sarah Heap pushing it open some time in the future - maybe years later.
"Wait!" He ran out of the room.
Simon followed the Thing as it moved in its peculiar crablike shuffle along the attic corridor and descended cler-clump cler-clump the same narrow stairs that Jenna and Beetle had climbed that afternoon. Simon dreaded what he was going to find. Were his parents prisoners of the Thing too - or worse? And what about Jenna? He knew that if any of them saw him with the Thing, they would assume this was his doing. They would blame him for everything. Simon felt a wave of his old self-pity come over him but he pushed it away. He only had himself to blame, he told himself sternly.
The Thing shambled surprisingly swiftly along the wide upstairs corridor and Simon followed in its wake, feeling as though he were wading through molasses. He took this as a good sign; he had been told that this was what walking through the Darke felt like but he had never noticed before.
An oppressive silence pervaded the Palace. Even the nighttime ghosts who regularly haunted the Palace were quiet and stilled, except for one - a governess - who was in a complete panic. Her intermittent screams cut through the air and sent shivers down Simon's spine. Many of the ghosts had been making their regular evening promenade along the corridor, hoping for a glimpse of the Princess, when the Darke had unexpectedly descended. They were now stuck, unable to move through the thickness of the Darke, and Simon could not help but Pass Through them. Every time he felt the soft waft of chill, slightly stale, air he felt sick. But one ghost that Simon did not Pass Through was Sir Hereward - Sir Hereward Passed Through him.
During the onset of the Darke Domaine, Sir Hereward had remained faithfully at his post outside Jenna's bedroom, his sword at the ready. What it was at the ready for, Sir Hereward was not sure, but the ghost was not going to be caught napping by a little bit of Darke. But as the Darke deepened and infiltrated every last nook, every last cranny, even Sir Hereward got twitchy. Twice the ghost had felt something go into Jenna's room - he had heard the telltale groan of the door and the squeak of the curtain rings as the curtain was pushed aside - but twice his sword had run through nothing but air. Sir Hereward longed for some light to see by and a good clean fight with something real. So when Simon's human footsteps crept by, creaking the ancient floorboards, disturbing the air in a way that ghosts and Things do not, Sir Hereward ran up the passageway that led to Jenna's room and ambushed Simon with a bloodcurdling yell of, "Have at you, Sirrah!"
"Argh!" yelled Simon, totally spooked. The Thing looked back briefly and continued its crab walk toward the gallery at the top of the main stairs. Simon resolutely followed the Thing, but Sir Hereward was not going to let his enemy escape so easily. He chased after him, aiming sword swipes at him as he went. Simon felt as if he were being attacked by a demented windmill. Again and again, Sir Hereward's sword came swishing down on him. Even though Sir Hereward's sword had no substance, it was a highly unpleasant sensation having a ghostly sword slashing through him. Indeed such was the anger of the ghost wielding it, that the sword actually Caused a sound - a sharp whoosh - as it sliced through the air. Simon knew that if Sir Hereward's sword had been real, he would no longer be in one piece, or quite possibly even two or three. It was not a comforting thought.
"You sir, I know who you are!" Whoosh whoosh.
Sir Hereward's surprisingly powerful boom of a voice filled the thick silence - and stunned the governess into welcome silence.
"I see your Heap hair" - whoosh - "and your scar. The Princess has told me all about you" - whoosh whoosh. "You, Sirrah, are the black sheep Heap" - whoosh. "You are the wicked brother who kidnapped your own defenseless sister!" Whoosh whoosh whoosh Sir Hereward raged.
Doggedly Simon kept going, following the Thing while he tried to work out what on earth he was going to do. But it is hard to think when a one-armed ghost is unleashing a string of abuse and a torrent of well-aimed sword swipes.
Sir Hereward did not let up. "Do not" - whoosh - "think you can escape justice, you cur! I will have revenge!" Whoosh whoosh. "How could you treat a young Princess in such a" - whoosh - "dastardly fashion?"
Simon thought it best to ignore the ghost and keep going, but this only seemed to anger Sir Hereward more. "Sirrah! You run like the coward you surely are" - whoosh. "Stand and fight like a man!" Whoosh whoosh whoosh!
Suddenly Simon had had enough. He stopped and turned to face his tormentor. "I am a man," he said, "which is more than I can say for you."
Sir Hereward lowered his sword and looked at Simon with disgust. "A cheap jibe, Sir, but no more than I would expect. Stand and fight your ground."
Simon felt very weary. He spread out his hands to show he had no weapon. "Look, Sir What-ever-your-name-is, I do not want a fight. Not right now. There's quite enough going on here without that, don't you think?"
"Hah!" scoffed Sir Hereward.
"And I am truly sorry about Jenna - Princess Jenna. I did a terrible thing and I would do anything to undo it, but I cannot. I have written to ask her to forgive me and I hope one day she will. I can do no more than that."
"Silence!" the Thing commanded.
Sir Hereward peered into the Darke and saw the faint shadow of the Thing. But the Thing did not see - or hear - the ghost. Sir Hereward had chosen only to Appear to Simon; he was far too experienced to risk Appearing to anything Darke.
"You scum, Heap," said Sir Hereward, waving his sword around once more. "You have brought Darke Things into the Palace."
Simon felt exasperated. Why did people - and even ghosts - always think the worst of him? "Look, you silly old fool," he snapped, "will you just get this into your head? I hate this Darke stuff."
The Thing - a paranoid entity at the best of times - took this badly. "Silence!" it shrieked.
Sir Hereward took it no better. "How dare you insult me, you blaggard!"
Simon was reckless now. He turned on Sir Hereward. "I'll insult you if I choose, you stupid - aaaaaaaaaargh!" The Thing's hands were suddenly gripping Simon's neck, pushing his windpipe back toward his spine.
"You mock me at your peril," hissed the Thing.
"Garrrr . . ." Simon was choking. The smell of decay filled his nostrils and the Thing's long, filthy fingernails cut into his skin.
Shocked, Sir Hereward lowered his sword."When I tell you to be silent, you will be silent," Sir Hereward heard the bullying Thing hiss to his victim. "If you will not be silent when I command it, I shall ensure that you will be silent forever. Understand?"Simon just about managed to nod his head.The Thing let go. Simon reeled back and fell, retching, onto the carpet."Oh dear," muttered Sir Hereward.The Thing stood over Simon. "Get up. Follow," it ordered.Sir Hereward watched Simon drag himself to his feet and, clasping his bruised neck, stagger after the Thing like a naughty puppy. The ghost began to think that perhaps things were not quite what he had taken them for - and, quite possibly, that Simon Heap was not what he had taken him for either. Determined to find out what was going on, Sir Hereward set off after Simon.Taking advantage of the fact that the Thing could not hear him, the ghost said, "Look here, Heap, I want some answers."Simon looked at the ghost in despair. Why wouldn't he go away? Didn't he see he had enough trouble right then?"Now, this is just between you and me, Heap." He caught Simon's anxious glance at the Thing. "Don't worry, I do not Appear to Things. It can't hear me."Simon looked at the ghost and saw a brief, conspiratorial smile. A small ray of hope flitted across his mind."Heap, I want to get some facts straight. I do not want any lies. Just nod or shake your head. Got that?"Easier said than done, thought Simon. He felt as if his head might fall off. Cautiously, he nodded.The motley procession of the stooping, ragged Thing, followed by the battered young man in his muddy, torn robes and the one-armed ghost moved slowly along the corridor. The ghost began his questions."Did you come to the Palace of your own free will?"Simon shook his head - very carefully."Do you know why you are here?"A slow shake."Do you know where the Princess is?"Yet another slow shake."We must find her. And to find her we must rid the Palace of this . . . this infestation." Sir Hereward sounded disgusted. "Do you agree, Heap?"With some relief, Simon nodded. It was less painful than shaking his head."And are you willing to help me get rid of these . . . Things?"Simon nodded too vehemently and a groan escaped him. The Thing swung around, the procession stopped and Simon's heart raced. He put his hands up to his bruised throat as though trying to ease his neck. The Thing glared at Simon, then turned and continued its crab shuffle into the galleried landing."We need a plan of action," said Sir Hereward, getting into campaign mode. "First we need to - "Simon did not hear any of Sir Hereward's plans. The Thing, tired of Simon lagging behind, was waiting for him. As Simon drew level, it grabbed hold of his torn robes, dragged him along the gallery and pushed him down the stairs. Simon half ran, half fell down to the entrance hall below, where a crowd of twenty-four Things waited for him.Sir Hereward ventured cautiously down the stairs. From his vantage point, he saw Simon's painful progress across the hall, pinched and punched as he was pushed and prodded toward the Palace doors. The ghost reached the foot of the stairs and, with some trepidation, he stepped into the crowd of Things. It was not a good experience. No ghost likes to be Passed Through, but to be Passed Through by something Darke is a truly awful experience. It had never happened to Sir Hereward before, but as he followed Simon across the hall, it happened to him at least ten times. Resolutely the ghost kept going. His job was to protect the Princess, and to do that he reckoned he needed to keep close to Simon. Sir Hereward knew that if anyone had the strength to get rid of the Things, to get the Palace back for the Princess, it would be a Living young man, not an ancient one-armed ghost. And besides, he didn't like bullies. He'd had Simon Heap down as one, but now the boot was on the other foot. Or feet. If Things had feet.Simon had reached the Palace doors. A thin film of Magykal purple flickered across them, to which every Thing gave a respectful distance."Open the doors," instructed the Thing."Don't you dare!" said Sir Hereward, who had suddenly grasped what was happening. "We don't want them all over the Castle."Simon ignored Sir Hereward - he had enough to think about. He stared blankly at the Thing but his thoughts were racing. He now understood why he had been Fetched - it was to break a Quarantine. A truly Darke entity can never get through a Quarantine, which is a powerful form of Anti-Darke. It needed a human being with Darke knowledge - knowledge that the Things knew Simon had. It was well known that Things would seek humans out to do this for them, for no human can be completely Darke - all have some small remnant of good feeling left lurking somewhere. Even DomDaniel had had a tiny bit: the old necromancer had once taken in a stray cat and given it a saucer of milk - a Thing would have skinned and eaten it.The crowd of Things was growing impatient. "Open . . . open . . . open!" They whispered in unison.Simon decided that, whatever the consequences for himself, he would not open the doors. If someone - he was sure it was Marcia - had put a Quarantine on the Palace it was for a good reason, most probably to keep the Darke Domaine isolated to one place and to protect the Castle. He himself would have done the same, and reinforced it with a Cordon too. No doubt Marcia had done something even better - and he wasn't about to mess it up."No," Simon croaked. "I won't. I won't open the doors.""Well said!" harrumphed Sir Hereward."Open . . . the . . . doors," repeated the Thing who had half strangled him."No," said Simon."Then perhaps your mother will persuade you." The Thing clasped its ragged, peeling hands together and, one by one, Simon heard its knuckles crack. He watched it push its way through the crowd of Things and, taking four other Things with it, lope off down the Long Walk in the direction of Sarah's sitting room.Surely, thought Simon, his mother wasn't still in the Palace - was she?