Halfway down Wizard Way, Beetle saw Jenna racing up the other side. With her long hair streaming out behind her, the light from the torchlights glinting off her gold circlet and her red cloak flying, she sent oncoming pedestrians jumping out of her way and left them staring after her. Above her a small, invisible lovebird desperately tried to follow the glinting circlet through the crowds as it zigzagged toward the Wizard Tower.
Beetle walked quickly across the wide thoroughfare of the Way. He still found it hard to shake off one of the rules of the Manuscriptorium that all scribes signed up for: no running, shouting, swearing, singing or dancing in Wizard Way. It was a rule that, during his time at the Manuscriptorium, was taken very seriously, and up until now Beetle had not broken it. But as Jenna disappeared fast toward the Great Arch that led into the Wizard Tower courtyard, he broke two of its tenets at once. He set off at a run and yelled, "Jenna! Jenna!" And then, as people stopped and stared at him, he felt that maybe he was being disrespectful, so he yelled, "Hey, Princess Jenna. Stop!"
Jenna did stop, not for Beetle but to push through the crowd that had gathered around Maizie Smalls, who had crossed the Way to light the very last torch. As Jenna tried to dodge around Beetle - just another body in her way - he put his arm out to stop her.
Jenna looked up, eyes blazing in anger. "Get out of my way - oh Beetle, it's you, it's you!" She threw her arms around him.
"Ooh," said someone in the crowd. "Ooh, look! It's the Princess and that boy who was the - "
"Let's get out of here," said Beetle, reluctantly disengaging himself. He took hold of Jenna's arm and walked her briskly away.
"Beetle - what happened? You didn't come back! I was so scared. How did you get here? Hey, where are we going?" Jenna demanded in rapid fire while Beetle steered her across the Way and into the shadows of The Skinny Bones' Bob - an extremely narrow opening that led off Wizard Way and would take them into Ramblings Alley.
"We are going to Gothyk Grotto," said Beetle.
"Why?" Like a stubborn pony, Jenna stopped in her tracks and shook her head. Beetle halted - when a pony stops in The Skinny Bones' Bob, everyone stops. Jenna regarded Beetle with one of her finest Princess stares. "Beetle," she informed him, "I am not going another step until you tell me what is going on."
"I'll tell you on the way, okay?" he said.
"What, to Gothyk Grotto - that dump where all the weirdos hang out?"
"Yes. Please, Jenna, can we get going? It smells horrible here."
Jenna gave up. "Okay. But this had better be good."
* * *
Jenna was entirely accurate in her description of Gothyk Grotto. It was a run-down, dark and dingy shop at the end of Little Creep Cut, somewhere in the middle of the scruffiest part of the Ramblings. As Beetle pushed open the door, the sound of a theatrical monster-style roar blared out above their heads and made Jenna - and the UnSeen bird - jump. The bird recovered itself and flew in just as the door banged closed.
Beetle and Jenna stood for a moment, trying to make sense of the place. At first it seemed to be in total darkness, but soon they noticed a few flickering candles, which were moving slowly, randomly appearing and disappearing. The unearthly sound of a nose flute drifted out from some distant place, and the stuffy air was filled with the smell of particularly pungent incense, which set Jenna sneezing. As their eyes became accustomed to the dark, Jenna and Beetle could see dim shapes of figures holding the candles as they wandered between towering stacks and teetering shelves.
Suddenly a flame flared in the gloom and they saw a tall boy lighting two candles nearby. The boy walked over and handed the candles to Jenna and Beetle with the words, "Welcome to Gothyk Grotto."
"Wolf Boy!" gasped Jenna. "What are you doing here?"
"Huh?" said what sounded like Wolf Boy's voice.
Jenna raised her candle and looked at the boy. It wasn't Wolf Boy, but there was something about him that reminded her of him. The boy was about the same height and build as Wolf Boy, but his hair was short and spiky and even in the dark, Jenna could see it was black, unlike Wolf Boy's light brown.
"Sorry," said Jenna. "I thought you were someone else."
"Yeah. Well, sorry I'm not Wolf Boy, whoever he is. Cool name."
"It's odd, you sound just like him. Don't you think, Beetle?"
"Just like," agreed Beetle.
"Beetle's a cool name too. Yeah. Hey. Wow. Man, you're the Princess. Wow. What're you doing here?"
"We've come to see if you sell copies of the Two-Faced Ring," said Jenna.
"We want to know," said Beetle very clearly and slowly, "if you sell - or have ever sold - copies of the Darke Two-Faced Ring?"
"The Darke Two-Faced Ring," Beetle repeated.
"Jeez," said the boy.
"So . . . do you sell them? Have you ever sold them?"
"You really want to know?" The boy seemed flummoxed.
"Yes, please," said Beetle, trying to be patient. "Have you? Ever sold them? To anyone?"
"You'd better come this way," said the boy. "Follow me, please."
With a distinct feeling that they had done something wrong, Beetle and Jenna set off after him. Following the boy was no easy task. He wore a long black robe, which swept the ground and blended into the background, and he obviously knew his way around well enough not to need a candle as he weaved quickly between the shelves and stacks, which were set out as a double labyrinth. Jenna went first, and the only way she kept up with the boy was by following the swish of his gown over the rough wooden floorboards. They wound their way through the seemingly endless canyons of merchandise (the labyrinth was planned to lead customers past everything twice), trying to keep up with the boy at the same time as not tripping over assorted plaster bones, cheap black cloaks and tunics, false Gragull teeth (a Gragull being a mythical bloodsucking human), bottles of fake blood, buckets of heavy jewelry embellished with skulls, Charms, bits of dead hamster (the latest craze), stacks of books of popular spells, piles of board games, glow-in-the-dark paint, jelly insects in jars, spiderwebs, wolverine eyes and a thousand other examples of what was known in the Castle as "Gothyk Grot."
At last they emerged from the labyrinth into the back of the shop - a dusty space piled high with unopened boxes and lit by a few tall, black candles. The eerie sound of the nose flute was louder here and came from behind a small door (painted black, naturally) that was set deep into an ornate gothic arch. The boy beckoned them to follow him and headed for the door. Jenna hurried after him, tripped over a pile of cardboard skulls, and steadied herself against the arch. It wobbled alarmingly.
The boy knocked on the door. The sound of the nose flute ceased - much to their relief - and a voice called out, "Yes?"
"It's me, Matt. I've got a nine-nine-nine here. It's the Princess and the ex-Manuscriptorium Clerk."
"Very funny, Marcus. Get me a cup of tea, will you?"
"No, really, I have. And it's the Princess, Mr. Igor. Honest."
The voice on the other side of the door sounded irritated. "Marcus, I've told you about telling stories before. Now go and get me my cup of tea. Okay?"
The boy turned around to Jenna and Beetle and shrugged. "Sorry," he said. "He gets funny at twilight. I'll go and get him a cup of tea. He'll see you after that."
"But we don't need to see him," said Beetle, exasperated. "We only want to know if you have ever had any fake Two-Faced Rings."
"Exactly. So you have to see him. It's the rules. Sorry." The boy grinned apologetically and disappeared back into the labyrinth.
"This is stupid," said Jenna, "I'm not waiting here all night." She rapped loudly on the little black door and then, without waiting for a reply, she went in. Beetle followed.
A man with a long, extremely white face ending in a wispy, pointy beard was sitting at a small desk playing a solitary card game. He did not look up but murmured, "That was quick, Marcus. Just put it down here, will you?" When no cup of tea appeared in his line of sight the man looked up. His jaw dropped. "Good ghouls!" he gasped. He leaped to his feet, scattering the cards, and bowed awkwardly. "Princess Jenna! It is you. I am so sorry. I had no idea . . ." He looked around. "Where's Marcus gone? Why didn't he say you were here?""Well, Matt said I was here," said Jenna, confused."Matt, Marcus, same thing," said the man obscurely. "Oh, please, please sit down, Princess. And you, scribe Beetle." He waved his hand to stop Beetle from explaining. "No, don't say anything. I know what happened. But once a scribe always a scribe, eh? Now to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit? What can I do for you, eh?"Jenna got to the point. "We need to know if you have ever sold copies of the Two-Faced Ring."Igor went a shade whiter. "So it is a nine-nine-nine. Oh dear, how very embarrassing. I do apologize. But it's part of the terms of our licence, eh?" Igor reached below the desk and pressed a large red button. Then he looked up and smiled awkwardly. "Purely a formality of course," he said. "Do please sit down." He indicated two unsteady wooden chairs that were pushed up against the wall. Igor watched them gingerly sit down, not taking his eyes off them for a moment. "Well, your Grace - ""Please, just call me Jenna," Jenna interrupted."It seems a little familiar. Princess Jenna if I may. Eh?"Jenna nodded."Well, Princess Jenna, if it had been anyone else asking this I would have to keep you in custody here until the arrival of the duty Wizard. But as it's you, eh, I wouldn't dream of keeping you against your wishes. Naturally." Igor looked highly embarrassed."What do you mean?" asked Jenna."Well, it's like this, eh? We have what we call a Notification List of certain Darke objects, potions, Charms, Spells, etcetera. Top of the list is the Two-Faced Ring. It is, as Marcus said, code nine-nine-nine. If anyone asks for something on the list, we have to notify the Wizard Tower.""But why?" asked Jenna.Igor shrugged. "I don't know, eh. The Wizard Tower doesn't actually tell us anything. But I would guess that knowing that these things exist, and then wanting copies of them, shows a knowledge of Darke things that is suspicious, eh? Maybe even dangerous. Excepting yourself, Princess, of course," he added hurriedly. "Of course you have a right to be interested in everything. Totally understandable - totally.""So is that a yes or a no?" asked Jenna."A yes or no what?" Igor looked puzzled."Have you ever sold copies of the Two-Faced Ring?"Igor looked shocked. "Good ghoul, no. Of course we haven't. What do you take us for?""I'm sorry," said Jenna. "I . . . we didn't mean anything bad. We just needed to know."Igor lowered his voice. "Do not seek to know. Keep this ring from your thoughts. Take care, Princess Jenna. Do not meddle with this. Do not name it again." He gazed at a point a few feet above Jenna's head and a frown flitted across his brow. "Be careful, Princess," he muttered. "Walk with the Darke and you do not walk alone." He stood up and bowed solemnly. "Your traveling companions may not be what you would wish for. Marcus will see you out."Still feeling as though they had done something wrong, Beetle and Jenna followed Marcus - or was it Matt? - back through the labyrinth in silence. As they passed a large jar of Gragull teeth, Jenna stopped and took a set."How much are these?" she asked."Free to you," grinned Matt - or was it Marcus?"Oh, thank you," said Jenna with a smile.The boy led them out of the maze and opened the door for them."Excuse me," said Jenna, intrigued, "but is your name Marcus or Matt?"The boy grinned. "Matt.""So why did Igor call you Marcus?""Marcus is my brother. We're identical. Igor thinks we play tricks on him and pretend we're each other, but we don't - that is just so lame. But Igor thinks he's being clever and when we tell him who we are, he always calls us by the other name." Matt shrugged. "It's like that in here. Weird.""Weird," agreed Jenna.Accompanied by the roar of the door monster, Jenna and Beetle stepped out into the wind funnelling down Little Creep Cut. Beetle turned to her, his hair blowing into his eyes, the sharp drops of sleety rain making him blink. "So Foxy was right," he said. "Merrin's got the real thing. This is serious - we need to tell Marcia right away."Jenna wound her cloak around her, pulling the fur edging tight under her chin to keep out the rain. "I know," she said miserably. "Mum is going to be so upset. She's been looking forward to tonight for ages. It's the first time she's had me and Sep together for our birthdays - ever."Beetle and Jenna walked in silence back along Little Creep Cut, heading toward a large signpost that read TO THE WIZARD TOWER. Above them flew the little UnSeen lovebird, buffeted by the wind, stung by the rain, but now with a ray of hope that it might soon see its own true love once again."Beetle," said Jenna."Mmm?""I never mentioned this to anyone before because I thought they'd think I was weird or something, but I think Merrin's been living in the Palace for a long time.""What?" Beetle looked astonished."Well . . . every now and then I've thought I've seen him kind of disappearing around the corner, although I was never totally sure. I even mentioned it to Mum once, but she thought it was just a ghost. But you remember what Barney Pot told Aunt Zelda - that Merrin had ambushed him in the Long Walk? I know no one else believed him, but Barney doesn't tell fibs. And if that is true, then Merrin's been hanging around for at least eighteen months. Which is really creepy." Jenna shivered."That's horrible," said Beetle. "The thought of him just lurking up there. Watching you. Wandering around at night - ""Oh stop it, Beetle!" Jenna protested. "I don't even want to think about it."They had reached the TO THE WIZARD TOWER signpost, which was illuminated by a small torch burning brightly in a holder on the top. The sign pointed down a well-lit lane known locally as Wiz Way. They turned down it and walked briskly between the neat houses, all with their Longest Night candles burning in their windows. As they progressed, Beetle noticed Jenna was becoming increasingly uneasy."Is this the right way?" she asked Beetle after a while."Of course it is." Beetle cast Jenna a wondering glance. He knew that she knew the lanes around the Ramblings backwards."But . . . it doesn't feel like it.""Well, it is. You know it is. It's Wiz Way." Beetle was flummoxed.Jenna had stopped and was looking around, as though seeing the alleyway for the first time. Above her the UnSeen lovebird fluttered hopefully. It was nearly home."What's wrong?" asked Beetle. He glanced up. It felt as if something was hovering above Jenna's head, just outside his field of vision.Jenna rounded on him angrily. "Nothing's wrong. Stop nagging me, Beetle. I'm just not going your stupid way, that's all!" And with that she turned and ran back along Wiz Way, then suddenly scooted to the left and disappeared into a tiny, dark alleyway - the notorious Dagger Dan's pe.