Beetle tore after Jenna but, unlike her, he was not a natural runner. He soon lost sight of her flying red cloak as she drew ahead of him, leaping over puddles and skidding around blind corners, slipping through the twists and turns of the narrow, dark alleyway as though she had run down it a hundred times before. Doggedly Beetle followed the increasingly faint echoes of her footsteps, and soon he could hear nothing but the sound of his own boots thudding on the stones. Of Jenna there was no trace at all.
Of all the alleyways that led off Wiz Way, Dagger Dan's pe was the worst. The twisting, narrow passage was named after a notorious mugger and cutthroat who had used it as a foolproof escape. Even if closely pursued, Dagger Dan would always get away - and mystify his pursuers - by jumping into the open drain at the alley's dead end, then creeping through the water and filth to his small boat tied up on the river by the drain's mouth.
Beetle could not understand why Jenna had chosen to run down Dagger Dan's pe, of all places. Like him, she had grown up in the Ramblings. She had been to a Ramblings school, and she too would have passed her Ramblings Proficiency Test by memorizing the Ramblings map and undertaking three timed journeys on her own. This was the test that all children had to pass before they were allowed to become Ramblers and wander freely (or Ramble) on their own. But even for a Rambler there were forbidden alleys - and Dagger Dan's pe was at the top of the list.
The pe, as it was known locally, was inhabited by the more shadowy denizens of the Castle - the kind of people who one never saw out in daylight hours and hoped not to see out at night. With its decrepit overhanging buildings exuding the sickly sweet smell of rot (and worse) and the inhabitants' habit of jostling strangers or staring from their windows at every echo of footsteps - usually armed and ready to throw a bucket of slop if they didn't like the look of those making them - Dagger Dan's pe was a place no one chose to go, especially at night.
But as Jenna ran, she was oblivious to everything she knew about the pe. Escorted by the UnSeen bird, she raced along, jumping over potholes, skidding around stinking piles of rubbish, ignoring catcalls and curses shouted from windows far above and even a well-aimed rotten tomato that hit the back of her cloak. Toward the end of the pe, Jenna began to slow down, and she finally came to a halt under the dull light of a rusty lantern. She stopped to catch her breath and looked about, suddenly confused by where she found herself. Above her head the lantern squeaked as it swung mournfully above a dilapidated door studded with nails. Behind her was a boarded-up window with faded lettering above it proclaiming:
FORTUNES TOLD, FORTUNES SOLD.ENTER HERE IF YOU BE BOLD.POSITIVELY NO CREDIT.
A gust of wind rattled the lantern alarmingly. Jenna shivered. Where was she - and what was she was doing here? The long-ago chanted list of forbidden alleyways came back to her and she realized with a sinking feeling that, not only had she run down Dagger Dan's pe, but she was now standing outside the notorious Doom Dump, which some years ago had been the center of great excitement when it had been Fumigated and Locked by a posse of Wizards led by the ExtraOrdinary Wizard herself.
Every Ramblings child knew that Doom Dump was near the end of Dan's pe and Jenna, well aware that the pe was a dead end, knew she must turn around and go back the way she had come. The thought frightened her, and she felt unwilling to move. The lantern squeaked and a spatter of rain soaked into her cloak. Jenna shook her head to get rid of an odd buzzing, muzzy feeling.
Just as Jenna was getting the courage to go back up the pe she heard the sound of pounding footsteps coming toward her. She froze. The footsteps drew closer, and she shrank back into the shadows of Doom Dump, pressing against the wall in the hope that whoever it was coming down the alley would not see her.
To her huge relief it was Beetle who came skidding around the corner.
"Jenna!" puffed Beetle, equally relieved to see Jenna waiting for him. "What are you doing? Why'd you come down here?"
"I . . . I don't know." It was true; Jenna didn't know why. She felt as if she had just woken up from a bizarre dream.
"Let's get out of here," said Beetle, glancing around uneasily. "We'll have to go back the way we came. It's a dead end just around the corner and you don't want to end up there."
"I know," said Jenna, "I know."
Beetle set off quickly and Jenna went to follow - but she could not move. She swung around to check that her cloak was not caught in something but it hung freely. She tugged at her long robe, which, to her dismay, was spattered with mud, but that was not stuck either. Trying not to panic, she lifted first one foot and then the other, and neither of them were stuck - but when she once again tried to follow Beetle, she could not move.
Jenna lost the fight against panic. "Beetle!" she yelled. "Beeee . . . tle!" To her horror, no sound came from her mouth. Above her the lantern fizzled out and Jenna was plunged into darkness.
Beetle had not gotten far when he realized that Jenna was not following him. He felt exasperated - what was she playing at? Annoyed now, he went back to get her, but as he once more rounded the corner he saw that the lantern above the studded door had gone out and Jenna was not there.
Beetle stopped outside the door. "Jenna?" he said in a half whisper. "Jenna?"
There was no reply. A cold spatter of rain fell; Beetle shivered in his Admiral's jacket and wound his woolly scarf another turn around his neck. He wished he were somewhere else. And he wished he understood what Jenna was up to - sometimes he just could not figure her out. Assuming that Jenna had plans that she was not telling him about and had tried to get rid of him once again, Beetle grumpily set off toward the pe's notorious dead end. Whatever Jenna might have planned, he was not going to leave her on her own at the end of Dagger Dan's pe.
The dead end was deserted. Beetle's irritation began to be replaced with concern. He peered down into the open drain, beside which someone had thoughtfully placed a rotten plank with the words "Watch Out!" scrawled on it. Beetle took out his blue light and flicked it open, then he gingerly kneeled down and peered into the drain. A bad smell hit him.
"Jenna . . . Jenna?" he called nervously, his voice sounding hollow in the darkness below.
There was no reply, for which Beetle was grateful, until a horrible image flashed in his mind - Jenna lying unconscious far below. He leaned forward and held out his light. Deep down he saw the dark, sluggish waters of the drain half covering - oh no - a dark lump of something.
"Jenna!" Beetle called down, his voice echoing hollowly inside the drain.
Behind him came a cough. "Hey. Lost something?" asked a familiar voice.
"Wolf Boy!" Then Beetle looked up. "Oh, sorry. It's you."
"Yeah, I guess you're right. It is me," said the boy. "So who are you?"
"Beetle. You remember, at Goth - oh, I see. You must be Marcus."
Marcus grinned. "You've been to the Grot, yeah? Matt still there?"
"Oh . . . yes. Yes, he is." Beetle's voice echoed into the drain.
"Good," said Marcus. "I'm late for my shift. Wouldn't come this way if I wasn't in a hurry - it's a shortcut over the wall." He looked closely at Beetle. "So why'd you come here, then?"Beetle pointed his blue light into the drain. "I think Jenna's fallen in. Look.""Hey, cool light," said Marcus. He peered into the drain, and Beetle played his light on the form lying far below in the water. "Nah, that's not anyone," said Marcus. "It's just some old clothes and stuff."Beetle wasn't so sure."You can go down and check if you like," said Marcus. "See if it is - who did you say?""Jenna. Princess Jenna."Marcus whistled in amazement. "Princess Jenna? Hey, what's she doing down here?" He peered in once more. "Well, if you think it really is Princess Jenna, you'd better take a look. There are some rungs going down the side - see?"The last thing Beetle wanted to do was climb down into the stinking drain, but he knew he had no choice."I'll keep watch for you," said Marcus as Beetle carefully removed the two planks and swung himself over the edge. "I won't let anyone do a Ransom on you."Beetle's head was just visible above the manhole. "Do a what?" he asked."A Ransom. You know, when they push you in the drain and won't let you get out until you give 'em all your stuff.""All your stuff?" Beetle was distracted, looking into the drain."Yeah." Marcus grinned. "Not much fun running up the pe with no clothes on, I can tell you. Be careful, the rungs are rusty.""Ah. Okay." Very carefully Beetle began to climb down into the drain. The rungs were indeed rusty. They felt loose against the brickwork and as Beetle cautiously placed his boot into the slime at the bottom of the drain, the last one came away in his hand. He dropped it into the mud with a dull thub and shone his light along the drain.Beetle's blue light didn't show much; it was made for the clean whiteness of ice, not the brown muckiness of sludge. But it did show enough for him to see that the lump that he had feared was an unconscious Jenna was indeed a pile of old clothes. Just to make sure, Beetle waded through the muck, trying to ignore the wetness seeping into his boots, and tentatively poked at the lump with his foot. It moved. Beetle yelled. A huge rat ran out and scuttled off into the dark."You all right?" Marcus's face appeared in the manhole opening."Yeah." Beetle felt a little foolish. "A rat. Big one.""There's a lot around here," said Marcus. "And they're not Message Rats, that's for sure. It's a whole different species, I reckon. Bite you as soon as look at you. You were lucky.""Ah . . .""I take it that's not the Princess?" Marcus asked."No.""You don't want to stay down too long. It's been raining for days now. There might be a rush.""A what?" Beetle couldn't hear Marcus clearly as a low thunder like the rush of blood in his head was filling his ears."A rush. Oh sheesh - hey, look out!"Beetle didn't hear a word Marcus said, but he did hear what was coming along the drain. He leaped up, grasping for the rung, only to find that it was gone. It was, he remembered, lying in the mud where he had thrown it. The roar in his ears grew louder, and the next thing Beetle knew, a hand was reaching down and Marcus was yelling, "Grab hold. Quick!"A few seconds later Beetle and Marcus were lying on the wet cobblestones at the end of Dan's pe, staring down at the wall of water rushing along the drain below."Thanks," gasped Beetle."No worries," puffed Marcus. "Good thing Princess Jenna wasn't down there."Beetle sat up. He ran his hands through his hair as he always did when he was worried - and immediately wished he hadn't. Where was Jenna?