Beetle was somewhere dark and uncomfortable - very uncomfortable. He was crushed into a tiny space, his knees folded up to his chest and his arms twisted up around his head. He tried to move, but he was wedged so tightly that he felt as though he were in a vice. He fought down panic. What had Merrin done to him?
Beetle's discomfort was quickly turning into something much more nasty. Pins and needles were running down his legs and already he couldn't feel his feet. His hands buzzed and tingled. His left hand was closed tightly around the book he had snatched from Merrin and was wedged in the same corner that his head was stuck in. His elbows and knees were jammed up against something hard and they hurt - really hurt. But the worst thing was the overwhelming feeling, growing stronger every passing moment, that if he didn't stretch out right now he would go crazy.
Beetle took a few deep breaths and tried to quell his panic. He opened his eyes wide and stared into the dark, but although some light did seem to be filtering through from somewhere, he could not make sense of anything. The small amount of light helped Beetle get some control over his panic and he discovered that he could wiggle - just a little - the fingers of his right hand. Painfully he stretched them out and tapped, then scratched, the confining walls, trying to discover what they were made of. A splinter under his fingernail gave him the answer - wood. A great stab of fear shot through him - he was in his own coffin. Beetle heard a wild, despairing cry like that of an animal caught in a trap and a chill ran down his spine. It took him a few seconds to realize that the cry came from him.
Beneath the sound of his heart thudding in his ears, Beetle was becoming aware of noises filtering through from somewhere outside the coffin. It was an indistinct, muffled murmuring. In his dark prison, Beetle's imagination flipped into overdrive. He'd read that Things murmured. Particularly when they were hungry - or was it angry? Beetle tried to remember. Did Things get hungry? Did they even eat? If they did, would they eat him? Maybe they were just angry. But angry wasn't good either. In fact, it was probably worse. But what did it matter? Right now he'd give anything to get out of the coffin, to be able to stretch out his arms and legs and to uncurl his spine. In fact, he'd happily face a thousand Things in exchange for just being able to stretch out to his full height once more.
Beetle groaned out loud. The murmuring grew louder and drowned out the thumping of his heart, and then one of the sides of the coffin began to shake. Beetle closed his eyes. He knew that, any minute now, a Thing would wrench off the side of his coffin and that would be it. If he was lucky he'd get a few seconds to uncurl himself, to straighten his twisted arms and legs - but only if he was lucky. And after that? After that it would be the end of O. Beetle Beetle. Beetle thought of his mother and suppressed a sob. Mum, oh Mum. She would never know what had happened to him. But maybe . . . maybe that was for the best . . . With the sound of murmuring growing more agitated, Beetle braced himself for the worst.
Suddenly the side of the coffin was ripped away. Light flooded in. Beetle fell out of the Manuscriptorium Pending Cupboard. He landed with a painful thud on the floor. Someone screamed.
"Crumbs, it's you," gasped Foxy.
Beetle lay on his back, dazed. He felt like a piece of Jell-O that had been tipped out of its mold before it was properly set. Tentatively he opened his eyes and found himself looking straight up Foxy's nose - which was not Foxy's best aspect.
"Wargh?" he croaked feebly in reply.
A crowd of scribes had gathered around Beetle.
"Hey, Beetle, you all right?" asked a girl with short brown hair and a concerned expression. She kneeled down and helped him sit up.
Beetle nodded slowly. "Yeah. Thanks, Romilly. I'm fine. Now. But I thought I was about to be . . . um, not fine." He shook his head, trying to get rid of all the terrifying thoughts that had crowded in on him during the last few minutes.
Suddenly a horribly familiar voice rang out. "What - atchoo - is going on here, Mr. Fox?"
Foxy leaped to his feet. "Nothing, Miss Djinn," he gasped. "Just a small, um, accident with something in the Pending Cupboard. A boomerang Charm. It . . . came back. Unexpectedly."
The short, rotund figure of the Chief Hermetic Scribe, swathed in her navy blue silk robes, stood at the entrance to the Hermetic Chamber on the other side of the Manuscriptorium. Luckily, due to her cost-cutting measures, the lights were very dim and she could not clearly see what was happening in the shadows beside the cupboard.
Jillie Djinn sneezed again. "It seems you cannot keep control of even a simple Charm, Mr. Fox," she snapped. "If there is another incident - atchoo atchoo - like this - atchoooo - I shall be forced to reconsider your recent appointment."
"I . . . I . . ." Foxy stammered.
Jillie Djinn blew her nose loudly and with great attention to detail. It was not a pretty sight. "Why, pray, was the Charm not given to me for stocktaking?" she demanded.
Romilly could see that Foxy was struggling with an answer. "It's only just come back, Miss Djinn," she said.
"Miss Badger, I asked the Charm Scribe, not you," said Jillie Djinn. "And it is from the Charm Scribe that I require an answer."
"It's only just come back, Miss Djinn," Foxy repeated.
Jillie Djinn was not pleased. "Atchoo! Well, now that it is back, I require it for stocktaking. Immediately, Mr. Fox."
In a panic, Foxy hissed at Beetle. "Give it here, Beet. Quick. Before she comes over to get it."
At last Beetle understood what had happened. He put his still trembling hand into the top left pocket of his Admiral's jacket, pulled out the tiny curved piece of polished wood and handed it to Foxy. "Thanks, Foxo," he muttered.
The desks in the Manuscriptorium stood tall and dark under their dim lights, like winter trees at sunset. Quickly Foxy loped through them to the far side of the Manuscriptorium and gave his Chief Scribe the tiny Boomerang. Jillie Djinn took it and looked at Foxy suspiciously.
"What are all the scribes doing away from their desks?" she asked.
"Um. Well, we had a bit of trouble," said Foxy. "But it's all right now."
"What kind of - atchoo - trouble?"
"Hmm . . ." Thinking on his feet was not Foxy's strong point.
"Well, Mr. Fox, if you can't explain I shall have to go and see for myself. Oh, for goodness' sake, get out of my way, will you?" Foxy was hovering in front of Jillie Djinn as though guarding an invisible goal, but unfortunately his talents did not lie in the goalkeeping arena either. The Chief Hermetic Scribe elbowed him out of the way and headed off through the closely packed lines of desks.
The scribes, who had gathered protectively around Beetle, watched the ball of navy blue silk trundle toward them. They bunched themselves into a tight-knit group and prepared for her attack.
"What is going on?" Jillie Djinn demanded. "Why are you not working?"
"There's been an accident." Romilly's voice came from the back of the group.
"Something fell out of the cupboard unexpectedly," said Romilly.
"Accidents usually are unexpected," Jillie Djinn observed tartly. "Enter full details along with the exact time of the incident in the accident log immediately - atchoo atchoo - and bring it to me to sign."
"Yes, Miss Djinn. I'll just go to the physik room for a bandage first. I won't be long."
"Very well, Miss Badger." Jillie Djinn sniffed irritably. She knew something was not quite right. She tried to peer over the heads of the scribes but to her annoyance she found that the tallest scribes - corralled by the quick-thinking Barnaby Ewe, whose head always banged the doorframe - were clustering around her.
"Excuse me, Miss Djinn," said one of them, a gangly young man with wispy brown hair. "While Miss Badger is in the physik room I wonder if you could check my calculations? I'm not sure if I've correctly worked out the average number of seconds that people have been late for their first appointments over the last seven weeks. I think I may have got a decimal point in the wrong place."
Jillie Djinn sighed. "Mr. Partridge, will you never understand the decimal point?"
"I'm sure I very nearly do understand, Miss Djinn. If you could only run over it once more for me, I know all will be clear."
Partridge knew that Jillie Djinn never could resist explaining the decimal point. And so, while Partridge stifled numerous yawns and Jillie Djinn began a tortuous explanation, accompanied by much nose blowing, Romilly Badger smuggled Beetle into the physik room.
The physik room was small and dingy, with a tiny slit of a window that looked out onto the Manuscriptorium backyard. Squashed into the room were a lumpy bed, two chairs and a table with a large red box on it. Romilly sat Beetle down on the edge of the bed and draped a blanket over his shoulders - Beetle was shivering with shock. Foxy came in, quietly closed the door behind him and stayed leaning against it.
"You look terrible," he told Beetle.
Beetle managed a smile. "Thanks, Foxo."
"Sorry, Beet. I thought it'd bring you back to the last place you had been safe - didn't think it would come back to the last place it had been. Stupid thing."
"Don't apologize, Foxo. That cupboard's a hundred times better than where I probably was headed. Just wish I'd figured it out earlier, that's all. I wouldn't have made such a racket." Beetle grinned sheepishly. He couldn't quite remember what he'd said. He had a feeling he'd yelled out "Mum" - or even worse, "Mummy" - but he hoped that maybe it had only been inside his head.
"Nah, you were okay," said Foxy with a smile. He turned to Romilly. "Are you all right?" he asked. "Where did you cut yourself?"
"I'm fine, Foxy," said Romilly patiently. "I didn't cut myself. The bandage was an excuse to get Beetle out of the way."
"Oh, I see. That's really clever."Beetle and Foxy watched Romilly open the red box, take out a large bandage and wrap it around her thumb.Foxy looked puzzled. "But I thought . . .""Corroboration," said Romilly mysteriously. "Okay, Beetle. I'll go and check if the coast is clear, then we can get you out without you-know-who seeing anything."Foxy held the door open for Romilly, then he quietly closed it and resumed his position leaning against it. "She's clever," he said admiringly.Beetle nodded. He still felt very odd, although he suspected that it was as much being back in his old place of work - a place that he had once loved - as anything Merrin had done."We still miss you," said Foxy suddenly."Yeah. Me too . . ." mumbled Beetle."It's horrible here now," said Foxy. "It's not been the same since you went. Actually, I'm thinking of leaving. And so are Partridge and Romilly.""Leaving?" Beetle was shocked."Yeah." Foxy grinned. "D'you think Larry might want three more assistants?""I wish," said Beetle.Neither said anything for a moment, and then Foxy spoke. "So, ah, what were you doing, Beet - I mean, why did you need a SafeCharm? And why did it bring you back? Things must have been really scary.""They were. You know that Merrin Meredith kid who's been hanging around here?""Him!" spat Foxy."Well, he did a BeGone.""On you?""Yeah.""No wonder you look so rough," said Foxy."Yeah. But that's not the worst of it. He's holed up in the Palace attic - ""You're kidding!"" - and I think he's started a Darke Domaine."Foxy stared at Beetle in disbelief. "No! No. How?""You know that ring he wears - that nasty Two-Faced thing? Well, I always thought it was a fake from Gothyk Grotto, but now I'm not so sure. I think it might be the real thing."Foxy sat down on the chair beside Beetle. He looked worried. "It could be. It kind of makes sense if it is," he said in a low voice. "He's got some hold over Miss Djinn. She lets him do exactly what he likes - I think she's scared of him. The weird thing is, I know for a fact she's fired him at least three times, but he comes back just like nothing happened - and she never remembers. And recently she's started going really strange when he's here, kind of vacant, like she's not there anymore. It's scary.""I'll bet," said Beetle."Yeah." Foxy looked down at his feet, and Beetle knew he was about to say something that he'd had to really think about. There was a silence while Beetle waited and Foxy got his words together. "The thing is, Beet," said Foxy eventually, "this has happened here before. Remember all the stuff with my dad?"Beetle nodded. Foxy's father had been the Chief Hermetic Scribe before Jillie Djinn. He had left in disgrace after becoming involved in a plot with Simon Heap - in his Darke days - to kill Marcia Overstrand."I know no one will ever believe it," said Foxy, "but my dad never wanted to do all that bones stuff for Simon Heap. He had no idea what it was for - he really didn't. But he said the Darke just pulled him in. And once you're in, it ties you up in knots and you can't escape - however much you try."Beetle nodded."I went to see my dad last week," Foxy said tentatively.Beetle was amazed. "You went to see him? But I thought Marcia banished him to the Far Countries."Foxy looked awkward. "Yes, she did. But he got so homesick. He came back secretly. He's changed his name and he lives down in the Port now. It's not in a very nice part of the Port, but he doesn't mind. You won't tell anyone, will you?""Of course I won't.""Thanks. I don't go and see him much, just in case anyone notices, but recently I've been really worried about stuff here and I wanted to talk to him about it. He says it sounds bad. That Meredith kid - he's got Jillie Djinn right there." Foxy pressed his thumb into his opposite palm. "Under his thumb. Just like Simon Heap had my dad.""He's been trouble right from the start," agreed Beetle. "I remember the first day he turned up, he was wearing that ring."Foxy glanced at the door. "You know, I don't think it's fake either," he muttered."But how did he get it, Foxy? The real one belonged to DomDaniel.""Well, he's dead.""But you know the ring will only come off the Other way? He can't have chopped DomDaniel's thumb off.""Nothing would surprise me about that little tick," said Foxy."I reckon I should go to Gothyk Grotto and see if they do copies," said Beetle. "If they don't I'll go and ask Marcia what she thinks.""Well, don't be surprised if a couple of Wizards randomly turn up at the Grot and ask you why you want one," warned Foxy. "I asked for a copy of a Darke Charm once - just to play a joke on old Partridge - and they got quite funny about it."A quiet ratta-tippy-tap sounded on the door. Beetle jumped."'S okay," said Foxy. "Scribe code. All clear. Time to go."A minute later Beetle had been bundled out of the Manuscriptorium and was standing on Wizard Way. It was surprisingly busy. The Traders' Market had closed at sunset and people were now flocking to Wizard Way to watch the lighting of the candle displays for the Longest Night. Beetle leaned against the Manuscriptorium torch post, trying to take in the events of the previous hour or so. He saw Maizie Smalls advancing purposefully toward him. The throng parted to let her through, their upturned faces illuminated as they watched her lean her ladder against the post and nimbly climb up, her flaming TorchLighter at the ready.The little band of children who had followed Maizie all along the Way gathered around the blackened silver base of the torch post and cheered as the Manuscriptorium torch flared up into the deepening twilight. It was a happy moment, but Beetle was not there to enjoy it. The sight of Maizie had jogged his memory and taken away the last of the fuzziness in his head."Jenna!" he gasped.He set off at a run down the Way, dodging between the oncoming pedestrians, heading for the Palace.