Night had fallen while Septimus had been marooned in the SafeChamber. He stepped out into the cold, crisp air and headed up Snake Slipway, pulling his cloak tight and walking fast to try and rid himself of the chill that seemed to have settled into his bones. At the end of the slipway he took the Rat Run, a well-trodden alley that led straight to the middle of Wizard Way.

The Longest Night was one of Septimus's favorite times. As a boy soldier in the Young Army, Septimus had looked forward to it; even though he had had no idea at the time that the day was also his birthday, it had felt special. He had loved seeing all the candles placed in every window in the Castle. The practice had been frowned on by the Supreme Custodian and his cronies, but it was too ancient a custom to dislodge and it had become a small symbol of resistance. That particular meaning had been lost on the young Septimus - all he knew was that seeing the lights made him feel happy.

But now the Longest Night had a much greater significance for him: it was a symbol of hope and renewal - the anniversary of his rescue from the Young Army by Marcia. Despite the task ahead of him that night, Septimus strode along the Rat Run with the familiar feeling of excitement and happiness running through him. A few cold specks of sleet settled briefly on his upturned face as he smiled at the ancient houses, all with a single, brave candle burning in each window. He breathed in the fresh air, ridding himself of the cloying fumes of the old Alchemist's house and pushed away his feelings of guilt about Marcia and what he knew she would see as disloyalty with Marcellus.

Septimus was determined to do what he felt was right. It was his fourteenth birthday - a day recognized throughout the Castle as the beginning of independence. He was no longer a child. He was his own person and he made his own decisions.

A few streets away, the Drapers Yard Clock began to chime. Septimus counted six and picked up speed. He was late. He'd promised to be with his mother by six.

As Septimus hurried into Wizard Way he found that things were not quite as he had expected. The Way was crowded - as it usually was on the Longest Night - but instead of people wandering along, chatting and pointing out some of the more interesting windows (for the last few years there had been a serious outbreak of competitive tableaux in many of the shop fronts) everyone was standing quite still, gazing toward the Palace. That was in itself strange enough, but what really worried Septimus was the anxious silence.

"I'm surprised you're not down there too, Apprentice," a voice somewhere near his elbow said. At the word "Apprentice" several heads turned toward Septimus.

He looked around to find Maizie Smalls, who lived up - or was it down? - to her name, standing beside him. She looked worried. "You know, at the Cordon. Around the Palace," she elaborated.

"Cordon? Around the Palace?"

"Yes. I do hope my cat's all right. Binkie hates changes to his routine. He's an old cat now, you see, and - oh . . ."

But Septimus had gone. He was off, heading for the Palace. He made his way through the crowd faster than he'd expected. As soon as anyone saw that it was the ExtraOrdinary Apprentice pushing past or treading on their toes, they stepped back respectfully - apart from Gringe, who stopped him and growled, "Better get a move on, lad. Bit late, aren't you?" But he let him go when Lucy protested, "Leave it, Dad. Can't you see he's in a hurry?"

Septimus looked gratefully at Lucy and pushed on, catching as he went a glance of Nicko talking to Lucy's brother, Rupert. But there was no time to lose saying hello to Nicko; Septimus was desperate to get to the Palace.

By the time he had reached the Palace Gate, Septimus knew that Gringe was right; he was indeed late - too late. Stretching across the Palace lawns, a few yards inside the Gate, was the Cordon: a long line of Wizards, Apprentices and scribes, encircling the Palace, each holding a piece of purple cord that linked them to the next person. From the stillness and the concentration of those forming it, Septimus knew the Cordon was complete. Septimus had never seen a Cordon for real, although the Wizard Tower occasionally held practices in the courtyard and some Apprentices had once - to Gringe's disgust - placed a Cordon around the North Gate gatehouse as a joke. Septimus knew that, ideally, all in the Cordon would have been holding hands, like children in the popular Castle game "Here We Go Around the Wizard Tower," but in order to encircle the longest building in the Castle, each person forming the Cordon needed to use a piece of Magykal Conducting Cord, a length of which all Wizards, Apprentices and indentured scribes always carried with them.

Septimus stood at the front of the subdued crowd watching the Cordon, trying to work out what was going on. Being on the outside of something Magykal was an unfamiliar feeling for Septimus - and he didn't like it at all. But he soon began to realize that he had had a narrow escape. If he had been a few minutes earlier, Marcia would have expected him to take part, and with the Darke Disguise deep in his secret pocket, he would not have dared. The relief of not having to explain that to Marcia almost made up for missing out on a historic piece of Magyk - almost.

Septimus could not resist a closer look. He slipped through the Palace Gate and walked slowly across the grass. As he drew nearer he saw four figures inside the Cordon making their way rapidly toward the Palace doors. One was, of course, Marcia. The second, Septimus realized with a stab of something that could have been jealousy, was Beetle. Beetle was taking the place that should have been his. And there were two others following behind. One he was pretty sure was Hildegarde and the other was a witch. What was going on?

Septimus had stopped at what he thought would be a safe distance from the Cordon. He realized he must have muttered something, because the sick bay Apprentice, Rose, who was part of the Cordon, turned around. She smiled at Septimus and mouthed, "Shh. It's silent."

"Why?" Septimus mouthed. Rose shrugged and made an I have no idea face.

Septimus felt beside himself with frustration. A thousand questions ran through his mind. What had happened - had Silas done something stupid? Where was Jenna? Where were his parents? Were they safe? And then an awful thought occurred to him: Was this something to do with the whatever-it-was in the attic that Jenna had asked him to look at the previous evening? Was this all his fault?Septimus set off along the outside of the Cordon. The air was cold, and a sparse fall of sleety snow was drifting down, landing on the winter cloaks of the Wizards and scribes, settling briefly on woolly hats and bare heads alike before melting away. Already the hands holding on to the cords (gloves were not permitted, as they broke the Connection) looked red and cold, and some of the younger Apprentices, who in their excitement had rushed out without their cloaks, were shivering.Keeping watch on the Palace as he went, Septimus tried to think what it was that Jenna had said the night before. There's something bad up there - that was all he could remember her saying. But he knew that he hadn't given her a chance to tell him anything else. He scanned the Palace for clues to what was happening. It looked the same as ever, solid and peaceful in the winter's night - but then something caught his eye. A candle in an upstairs window went out. Septimus stopped behind a line of elderly Wizards wearing an assortment of colorful scarves and woolly hats and stared up at the Palace windows. Another candle died, and then another. One by one, like dominoes slowly falling, click . . . click . . . click, the candles were being snuffed out. Septimus knew that Jenna had been right - something bad was up there."You wouldn't help Jenna because you were so uptight about keeping your stupid head clear for your Darke Week, and now look what's happened," he told himself angrily. "And you went off to some Darke Alchemie chamber when you know Marcia didn't want you to, and so now you've missed taking part on the most amazing Magyk you are ever likely to see. That, dillop brain, is what getting close to the Darke does. It makes you think only of yourself. It takes you away from people you care about. And now you don't have anyone to talk to and it serves you right."Septimus veered away from the Cordon and its Magykal camaraderie and headed off into the night. He had reached the riverbank and was jogging toward the Palace Landing Stage when the ghost of Alice Nettles suddenly Appeared to him. Since Alther's Banishment, Alice didn't Appear anymore, but she made an exception for Septimus. Alice was the only ghost Septimus knew who always seemed to react to the weather and tonight, even though he knew she could not feel the cold, she looked frozen."Hello, Alice," he said."Hello, Septimus," said Alice in a faraway voice. She turned to Septimus and, for the first time ever, the ghost of Alice Nettles reached out to a human being. She put her hands on Septimus's shoulders and said, "Bring my Alther back, Apprentice. Bring him back.""I'll do my best, Alice," Septimus replied, thinking how cold Alice's touch was."You will go tonight?" she asked.The key to Dungeon Number One - and the beginning of his Darke Week - hung heavy in his pocket. But the Cordon had thrown all of Septimus's plans into confusion. He had absolutely no idea what was going on or what Marcia would be doing at midnight. He hesitated.Alice looked anxiously at Septimus. "You do not answer, Apprentice."Septimus saw the stricken look in Alice's eyes and he made a decision. He may have let Jenna down but he was not going to do the same with Alice. He would enter Dungeon Number One whether Marcia was there or not. "Yes, Alice. I will go and get Alther."A slow smile dawned on Alice's face. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart."Septimus left Alice wandering along the Landing Stage, gazing dreamily at the river. He walked slowly along the riverbank, plunged into gloom. Never - not even in the Young Army - had Septimus felt so alone. He realized how he had become used to being in the very center of things, to being an integral and important part of the Magykal life of the Castle. Now that he suddenly found himself on the outside of the Magykal circle - literally - he felt bereft.Septimus trudged through the long grass right at the edge of the riverbank, while the dark, cold waters of the river ran silently by. Tiny snowflakes drifted down and settled on his thick woolen cloak, and the grass felt crisp with frost beneath his feet. As he walked Septimus felt the presence of the Palace looming up on his left side. Like the scene of a horrible accident, his eyes felt drawn to it. And every time he glanced up with a feeling of dread, he saw yet another window go dark, and he could not help but imagine that Jenna was still in there, trapped somewhere.He plowed on along the riverbank, convinced he could have stopped whatever was happening to the Palace if only he had helped Jenna when she had asked him. But it was all too late. Jenna wasn't here to ask him now. He was on his own - and he had only himself to blame.Septimus reached the gate that led through the tall hedge into the Dragon Field. He pushed it open. There was only one creature left for him to talk to - his dragon, Spit Fyre.