It's so lovely out." The Witch Mother's voice carried like a bell through the Darke. From the cover of the Maker's Mile Tally Hut, Jenna, Septimus and Nicko watched the five shadowy figures of the Port Witch Coven stroll by, as carefree as if they were out for a walk on a summer's day. A slightly less carefree figure - Nursie under a Darke blanket - scuttled behind them.

"There goes your Coven, Jen," whispered Septimus.

"Stop it, Sep," hissed Jenna. The sight of the five misshapen shadows trolling past made her remember how scared she'd been in Doom Dump. She suddenly felt a little less fond of her witch's cloak as they watched the witches disappear jauntily down the Ceremonial Way.

Jenna, Septimus and Nicko were waiting for Spit Fyre. They had chosen somewhere out of the way where the dragon could easily land. Alther had gone to collect Spit Fyre; he had promised to be as quick as he could, but they all knew so much could go wrong. Every minute in the Tally Hut felt like an hour, but the moment when they saw the shadow of a dragon hovering above felt like forever. No one - not for one second - thought it was Spit Fyre.

So different from the elegant Spit Fyre in flight, the six-winged Darke dragon descended clumsily through the Fog and, after three attempts, landed with a resounding thud on the raised circle that marked the center of the Makers' Mile. It shook the Tally Hut to its foundations.

Jenna, Septimus and Nicko shrank back into the depths of the hut, convinced that the dragon Knew they were there. The frantic beating of its wings during its landing attempts had cleared away the Fog and they could see the Darke dragon frighteningly clearly. Its massive size was the first shock - it made Spit Fyre seem like a delicate dragonfly in comparison. The dragon squatted awkwardly, shifting its bulk from one tree trunk leg to another, while a white forked tongue flicked in and out of its red slash of a mouth. It shook its lumpen head and rolled its eyes - all six of them - as it looked around. The eyes were arranged so that the dragon had virtually 360-degree vision - its blind spot was a mere ten degrees compared with the standard dragon blind spot of ninety degrees. The all-seeing eyes swiveled like glistening red ball bearings as the dragon surveyed the ramshackle remains of the market. Pointed spines barbed like fish hooks ranged down the dragon's back, and its four huge feet were equipped with curved black talons, each one shaped like - and as sharp as - a scimitar. It was a terrifying sight, but the most horrifying thing of all was that one talon had speared a scrap of blue cloth, which had something red and meaty stuck to it. Jenna covered her face. That, she thought, had once been someone, someone who lived in the Castle - someone like her.

A sharp nudge from Septimus made Jenna look up again.

"Look," whispered Septimus. "In front of the Pilot Spine. There's someone there."

The Darke dragon's Pilot Spine was, like Spit Fyre's, the tallest of all the spines. But unlike Spit Fyre's, which was solid and straight, with a rounded top, it curved forward with a razor-sharp barb on the end of it. Sitting in the Pilot Dip was a figure swathed in grubby scribe robes. Jenna knew exactly who it was.

"Merrin Meredith," she whispered.

"Yeah," said Septimus. "He's gotten serious now, hasn't he? He's not just an irritating little tick anymore - he's for real."

"I can hardly believe it," whispered Jenna. "He's so pathetic, but he's caused all this to happen."

"It's the Darke, Jen. He's got that ring and now he's got its power. And he's so stupid, he doesn't care what he does with it. He just wants to destroy everything."

"You in particular."

"Me?"

"Beetle said he was ranting on about you, Sep. You know, about how he was Septimus Heap first. How he was going to get you. Then he'd be Septimus Heap. With a ten-times-better dragon."

"Yeah. Well, he's got a ten times bigger one, that's for sure."

"Not better though."

"No way. Spit Fyre's the best."

Suddenly the Darke Dragon raised all six wings and brought them down fast; a terrific rush of wind swooshed into the Tally Hut along with a foul smell that sent the occupants reeling. It also dispersed the re-gathering Fog and gave them a clear view of what happened next. The dragon shuffled awkwardly around and began a lumbering run down the broad space of the Ceremonial Way, its wings rising and falling like black sails. They watched it go, getting faster and faster until it reached the Palace gates, where it finally took off, rose slowly into the Fog and disappeared into the night.

"Phew," breathed Nicko. "It's gone."

"I was so scared Spit Fyre would come while that thing was here," whispered Jenna.

Septimus nodded. He had been too, although he had not dared to think it. He believed what Aunt Zelda always said: the thought is the seed for deed.

But a few minutes later something happened that Septimus had definitely not thought of: the Darke dragon came back. It landed with a thud, the Tally Hut shook, the red eyes swiveled and everyone held their breath. And then once more it lumbered into a turn and galumphed down the Ceremonial Way until at last it took off. Three times the Darke dragon came back and each time the occupants of the Tally Hut prayed that Spit Fyre would not choose that moment to arrive. Each time they became more frightened, convinced that the dragon knew they were there - why else would it keep returning? It was not until the third time when the dragon was a little more skillfully heading into his takeoff that Jenna realized what was going on.

"He's practicing," she whispered. "It's the only space in the Castle where a dragon that big can land and take off."

And they all knew what the dragon was practicing for - the assault on the Wizard Tower.

A few minutes after the Darke dragon had taken off for the fourth time, the smaller, more delicate - and infinitely more welcome - two-winged shape of Spit Fyre came down through the Fog, heralded by the swooping figure of Alther, arms outstretched in his favorite flying mode.

Spit Fyre landed lightly on the very spot the Darke dragon had so recently vacated. He sniffed the air uneasily, in the way a house cat might sniff a pile of lion poo left outside its cat flap. The next thing Spit Fyre knew, three figures were hurtling toward him, one of which was his Pilot. Spit Fyre felt relieved. It had been a nightmare flying with The Purple One. Now she would get off and let his Pilot sit in his rightful place.

The Purple One, however, did not get off.

Pleased as he was to see Marcia once again, Septimus was not prepared to let her fly Spit Fyre. They needed to get away fast and he doubted her ability to do it. He got to the point right away."Get off!" he yelled through the weight of the Darke Fog."Hurry up, Marcia," said Alther, who shared Septimus's opinion of Marcia's flying skills. "Get off and let the Pilot fly his dragon.""I'm getting off. My cloak's caught. Oh these stupid spines . . ."Septimus was hopping from one foot to another in impatience. He yanked the Reversed cloak off a small spine and Marcia clambered down. She surprised Septimus with a fierce hug, helped him up to his seat in front of the Pilot Spine and then took Jenna's place behind him in the Navigator seat. Jenna stifled her irritation - this was neither the time nor the place to argue about where she sat - and she and Nicko squeezed on behind Marcia.Septimus took Spit Fyre up fast with Alther keeping pace alongside. Marcia tapped him on the shoulder."Manuscriptorium!" she yelled into the clear air created by the beating of Spit Fyre's wings.Septimus wanted to get Spit Fyre out of danger. He most definitely did not want to fly to the Manuscriptorium. "Why?" he yelled."Merrin Meredith. Code!""Merrin Meredith's cold?""Not cold, Code! Paired Code. He's got it! He's at the Manuscriptorium!"Now Septimus understood."He's not there!" he yelled. At that moment a massive shadow cruised overhead, accompanied by a foul downdraft of air. "He's up there!"They all looked up. The wake of the Darke Dragon cleared the Fog just enough for them all to see the cruel talons, black and bloodied against the white underside of its belly. For the first time ever Septimus heard Marcia say a very rude word."I'm taking Spit Fyre out after that thing," said Marcia. "I'll get Merrin Meredith if it's the last thing I do."Septimus thought it probably would be."Septimus, fly Spit Fyre back to the Wizard Tower at once. Land him on the dragon platform. You three can get off."Septimus had no intention of getting off his dragon, but he knew better than to argue just then. He turned Spit Fyre around and headed back to the Wizard Tower. Spit Fyre arrowed through the join and took them into the bright, buzzing, Magykal air that surrounded the Wizard Tower. He landed perfectly on the dragon ledge."Wait there, I'll open the window," said Marcia, slipping down from the Navigator seat. She ushered Jenna and Nicko inside and stood waiting impatiently for Septimus to relinquish his place in the Pilot Dip."Hurry up, Septimus. Let me get on."Septimus did not move."Septimus, get off. I am ordering you!""And I am refusing," said Septimus. "I'll get him.""No, Septimus. Get off at once."The stalemate might have lasted a while had not the orange warning lights zipping up and down the outside of the SafeShield suddenly stopped flashing.Marcia gasped. "The SafeShield's failing! Septimus get off! Now!"The blue and purple skin of the SafeShield began to take on a dull, reddish hue. A movement above caught Septimus's eye - tendrils of Darke Fog were beginning to drift down through the join. Suddenly a great curved black claw reached down through the gap.Septimus knew what he had to do."Up, Spit Fyre," he said. "Up!"Before Marcia could do anything to stop him, Pilot and dragon flew up through the dim glow of the failing Magyk to meet dragon and pilot.