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?

Chapter 25 Simon and Sarah

Sarah Heap looked much smaller than Simon remembered. In fact, when the Things that had gone to fetch her came back into the entrance hall, Simon could see no sign of Sarah. For a brief moment of hope he thought his mother was not there after all. But as they drew near, Simon saw Sarah's faded yellow curls just visible inside the press of Things that surrounded her.

Murmuring in the excited way that Things have when they know something unpleasant is going to happen to someone, they pushed and poked the terrified Sarah Heap toward Simon. Sarah stared at Simon in horror, and on her face Simon read what he had been so afraid he would see - his mother thought that this was his doing.

"Mum, Mum, please, I didn't do this. I didn't!" said Simon, instantly back to being a little boy wrongly accused of something.

Sarah clearly did not believe him. "Oh, Simon," she sighed.

But the next few seconds made Sarah change her mind.

"You will open the door now," the strangler-Thing intoned.

"N-no," stuttered Simon.

"You will," the Thing informed him. It shoved a smaller Thing standing beside Sarah out of the way, then it raised its bony hands and placed them around Sarah's neck, which looked, Simon thought, so very thin and fragile.

"Simon," whispered Sarah. "What do they want?"

"They want to get out, Mum. But they can't. They want me to do it for them."

"Out into the Castle?" Sarah looked horrified. "All of them? Out there? With all those poor people?"

"Yes, Mum."

Sarah looked outraged. "No son of mine will do that, Simon."

"But Mum, if I don't . . ."

"Don't!" said Sarah fiercely. She closed her eyes.

The Thing tightened its fingers around Sarah's neck. Sarah began to choke.

"No!" yelled Simon. He sprung forward to wrench the Thing from his mother but the four other Things pounced on him and held him fast. "Stop it, stop it, please!" Simon yelled.

"When you open the door, I shall stop," replied the Thing, pressing into her throat with its thumbs.

Sarah's hands clawed uselessly at the Thing and gasping sounds came from her throat as she struggled for air.

Simon was in despair. "No . . . please stop."

The Thing's blank eyes stared back at Simon. "Open . . . the . . . door," it commanded.

Desperately Simon glanced around, looking for Sir Hereward for help. But the ghost had been pushed backwards by the throng of Things that had gathered for a better view, and all Simon could see was the tip of his sword waving uselessly in the air. He was on his own.

Sarah drew in a loud, rasping gasp and went limp.

Simon could stand it no more - he was killing his own mother. All he had to do was to open one stupid door and she would live. If he didn't, she would die. That one certainty overwhelmed him. Nothing else mattered. Everything else was in the future, but his mother was dying right now, before his eyes. Simon made a decision: everyone would have to take their chance; at least they would have a chance - unlike Sarah, who had none unless he gave in. He stepped up to the Palace doors and placed his hands on the thin film of Magyk that covered the ancient wood. And then, hating every moment of what he was doing, Simon Heap spoke the Reverse for the Quarantine.

The Thing dropped Sarah like a hot potato - humans were not pleasant objects for Things to touch. "Open it," it hissed at Simon.

Simon turned the huge brass door handle and pulled open the heavy double doors. The Things poured out of the Palace like a stream of dirty oil, but Simon paid them no attention - he was kneeling on the worn limestone flags, holding Sarah. She took in a long, wheezing breath, so long that Simon wondered if she would ever stop. Slowly the mottled blue of her face suffused with pink and Sarah's eyes flickered open. She looked up at her oldest son in confusion.

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