Septimus and Spit Fyre burst through the top of the SafeShield and Spit Fyre's nose spine slammed into the Darke dragon's soft white underbelly with a jarring thud. Spit Fyre was sent reeling backward, but the Darke dragon seemed no more upset than if it had been stung by a wasp.

Spit Fyre recovered fast and snorted with excitement. He was at the age when, in ancient times when the world was full of dragons, he would have been looking for his first fight. In those days the dragon community would not have regarded him as an adult until he had fought another dragon - and won. And so, deep down in his dragon brain, Spit Fyre wanted a fight.

So did the Darke dragon's pilot. Merrin leaned out between the bristling spines, his eyes wild with excitement. Using a popular Castle insult for Apprentices, he yelled, "I'll get you, caterpillar boy!"

"No chance, rat face!"

Merrin pointed his left thumb at Septimus like a pistol. "You're dead. And your toy dragon. Yeah!"

In answer Septimus and Spit Fyre shot up past the Darke dragon before it had time to register what was happening. They whizzed by so close that Septimus could see Merrin's zits blazing out of his pale face and the look of hatred in his eyes - which shocked him more than the close-up view of the Darke dragon. As Spit Fyre shot past, Septimus made a very rude sign at Merrin. He left behind a stream of obscenities hemorrhaging into the Darke Fog.

Septimus and Spit Fyre stopped at the very edge of the Fog and looked back. Far below them, at the bottom of the clear tunnel of air that their wake had created, they saw the huge bulk of the Darke dragon. Behind it they could see the fading blue and purple Magykal glow of the Wizard Tower changing slowly to a dull red.

As they hovered above the Darke Domaine, suspended between the stars above and the blanket of silence below, a stillness spread through Septimus and his dragon and together they entered a state that is much sought after by dragon Imprintors but rarely achieved. It is known in dragon manuals (see Draxx, page 1141) as Synchronicity. Dragon and Imprintor became One, thinking and acting in perfect harmony. They hovered for a moment on the edge of the Darke Domaine and looked down at the Darke dragon far below at the end of the trail They had left in the Fog. They knew they must use the line of sight while they had it.

Suddenly They tipped forward and went into a nosepe. Septimus slammed into the broad, flat spine in front of him and wedged there, exhilarated as the air rushed past. They hurtled down like a bullet falling to earth and saw Merrin looking up, yelling and kicking at his dragon. In a beautifully controlled movement, the Synchronized pair decelerated, swooped to the left and headed for the rear set of the Darke dragon's wings. Their nose spine ripped through them. In a shower of splintering wing bones and folds of foul flapping skin they shot out the other side, wheeled around and stopped to view their handiwork.

The Darke dragon tumbled out of control. Its pilot's terrified screams were absorbed by the Fog as it catapulted down toward the Wizard Tower. With a dull boom that traveled through the Fog like distant thunder, the Darke dragon slammed against the failing SafeShield, sending sparks of Magyk into the air and setting off a chain of red distress lights that rippled down to the ground like a lightning strike. Tail flailing, its four undamaged wings beating frantically, the Darke dragon bounced off the SafeShield and fell toward the rooftops of the houses that looked out over the Wizard Tower courtyard. The Synchronized ones watched triumphantly - They hadn't dreamed it would be this easy to get rid of the Darke dragon.

It wasn't. Four wings are enough to fly a dragon - even one as cumbersome as the great beast that Merrin had Engendered. In a hail of smashed chimney pots and roof tiles, his dragon righted itself, perched for a moment on a roof, and, as the rafters caved in under its weight, it rose up into the air, and its six eyes locked onto Spit Fyre. The next moment the Darke dragon was heading straight for Them, mouth wide open, revealing three rows of long, tightly knit teeth like needles.

They waited, daring the dragon to come dangerously near. And when it was so close They could see the tiny black pupils in all six red eyes (but neither of the pilot's - he had his eyes tightly closed) They shot around behind the monster's tail into the ten-degree blind spot, arrowed down underneath the white belly, and then zoomed up in front of the boxy head - which was still staring upward, wondering where They had gone. And then They swiped it hard on the nose with the barb of Their tail. Wap. Dragons' noses are a sensitive spot and a roar of pain followed Them as They shot out of reach once more.

"I'll get you for that!" They heard Merrin shouting as They zoomed around in a tight circle, way out of reach.

"You wish!" They yelled.

And so They taunted the Darke dragon and its pilot: ping down, flying circles around it, swooping out of sight only to reappear in exactly the opposite direction from where the dragon was looking. They landed sideswipes with Their tail; They stabbed the underbelly with Their nose spine; They even caught the tops of another two wings in a short burst of Fyre that They managed to summon from an empty fire stomach. The Darke dragon responded to every move - but about five seconds too late. Often it was countering the last attack while the next one was underway, and before long the monster was bellowing with fury and frustration and its pilot was whimpering in terror.

After some minutes, breathless and buzzing with excitement, they swooped up through the Darke Fog for a brief consultation. Hovering on the very edge of the dome of the Darke Domaine, buffeted by the breeze, They breathed in fresh night air untainted by the Darke. Above Them shone a glitter dust of stars and below them the tendrils of Fog waved like seaweed in an ocean current. They felt exhilarated, on top of the world.

But far below the Darke dragon still lurked. They decided it was time to lure the monster out of his Domaine. They figured that the dragon was now so frantic to get hold of Them that it would follow Them anywhere. They took a deep breath of clear air, then dropped down into the Fog once more. They saw the six blazing red pinpoints of Their quarry's eyes - and headed straight for them.

Taking care that the Darke dragon always had Them in his line of sight, They began a cat-and-mouse game with Merrin and his monster, venturing temptingly near for swipes of the scimitar claws - but never quite near enough to make contact. Once or twice the claws came a little too close for comfort and They felt the breeze ruffle Their hair as the blades flew past Their head. And so, taunting and teasing, parrying and feinting like a skilled swordsman, They lured the Darke dragon onward and upward - with no resistance from its whimpering pilot.

They shot out of the Darke Fog like a bullet. Focused only on the tempting barb of Their tail, which was less than a wing's breadth in front of its nose spine, the Darke dragon followed. It hit the cold clear air like a wall. Stunned, it stopped dead. For the first time in its short and nasty life it was without a Darke safety net - there was nothing but the cold black river running below. Its pilot opened his eyes, looked down and screamed.

Feeling its powers begin to trickle away, the Darke dragon threw back its head and bellowed with distress. Released from the muffling effect of the Darke Domaine the noise was loud and terrible. It sounded out across the countryside and sent people for miles around ping for cover under their beds. Far below, in Sally Mullin's Tea and Ale House, Sarah Heap and Sally Mullin looked anxiously out into the night.

"Oh, Sally," whispered Sarah. "It's so awful . . ."

Sally put her arm around Sarah's shoulders. There was nothing she could say.

Outside, beside the newly returned Annie, Simon Heap was pacing the pontoon with Marcellus Pye. Simon had been telling Marcellus that he had decided to go into the Castle. He had so much to offer, so much knowledge of the Darke. At last he had an opportunity to put it to use for good - and that was what he intended to do. But Marcellus had not heard a word Simon said. His last sight of Septimus in the little coracle spinning into the whirlpool haunted him; it played over and over in his head and he could not escape it. The more he thought about it, the more Marcellus doubted Septimus had survived. He had led his dearest Apprentice to his death. Marcellus felt utterly wretched.

The Darke dragon's roar cut through his thoughts. Marcellus looked up to see Spit Fyre, illuminated by the lights shining from Sally Mullin's Tea and Ale House, dropping out of the night sky. The dragon had come to exact revenge and Marcellus didn't care. He deserved it.

Sally Mullin saw Marcellus looking up into the sky. "Some-thing's going on up there," she whispered.

"I wish Simon would come inside," Sarah said. "I wish . . ." But right then Sarah wished for far too many things to even begin, although at the top of the list was a wish to see Septimus again. To take her mind off the hundred awful things that Sarah had imagined might have happened to Septimus, she watched Marcellus.

"He's a bit of a drama queen, isn't he?" Sally whispered mis-chievously, hoping to cheer Sarah up.

Right then Marcellus did look rather dramatic. The light from the lamps in Sally's long line of windows caught the gold embellishments on his cloak as he raised his arms up in the air, hands outstretched. They saw him suddenly spin around and shout something to Simon, who came running.

"What is going on?" muttered Sally. "Oh! Oh my goodness. Sarah! Sarah! It's your Septimus. Look!"

Sarah gasped. Hurtling toward the river and - she was convinced - to certain death, was her youngest son on his dragon. And when she saw the horrific shape of the Darke monster that was chasing Them, Sarah screamed so loudly that Sally's ears rang. Sarah and Sally watched the Darke dragon ping like a hawk after a sparrow, its razor claws poised and ready to grab, and when it drew so close to Spit Fyre that it must surely tear the dragon and its rider to pieces any moment, Sarah could bear it no longer - she gave a cry of despair and buried her head in her hands.

A few feet above the surface of the river the Synchronized pair suddenly - as planned - changed course, but in the moment They slowed, the longest claw on the Darke dragon's right foot made contact with Their head. Sally suppressed a scream. It would not do Sarah any good right now. She watched Spit Fyre reel back, wings frantically beating the air. Seconds later a massive plume of river water rose into the air.

The Darke dragon hit the surface and sank like a house.

Sally Mullin gave a great whoop of excitement. "You can look now," she told Sarah as Spit Fyre flew back shakily just above the surface of the river. "They're all right." Sarah burst into tears. It had all been too much.

Sally comforted Sarah while keeping one eye on events outside. When she saw Septimus jump into the middle of the fast-flowing river she decided not to tell Sarah.

* * *The freezing water took Septimus's breath away. He swam quickly toward Merrin, who was flailing about in the water, yelling, "Help me! Help me! I can't swim! Help!" This was not strictly true, for Merrin could doggie paddle a few yards, although not enough to reach safety from the middle of the river.Septimus was a strong swimmer and after the night exercises in the Young Army, swimming in the river did not frighten him. He grasped Merrin around the chest from behind and began the slow swim to the safety of Sally Mullin's pontoon. Above him Spit Fyre, dripping blood from a deep tear on the top of his head, circled anxiously, but on instructions from Septimus he flew off and landed on the wide stones of the New Quay. The current in the river was sweeping Septimus past Sally Mullin's pontoon and he knew better than to fight it. He swam diagonally across, heading always for the bank, with Merrin a dead weight in his arms.Simon watched anxiously. He reflected that not so long ago he would have been pleased to see his youngest brother struggling in the icy river, and he felt ashamed of his old self. He saw where the current was taking Septimus and his burden, so he set off down to the next easy landfall, the New Quay where Spit Fyre had just landed. As Simon jogged down the path he heard a yell from the water followed by some wild splashing. He raced to the quay and saw Septimus struggling with Merrin some yards away - the exact distance, in fact, that Merrin could swim.Merrin appeared to have miraculously recovered and was now pushing Septimus below the water. Septimus struggled, but the delicate fabric of his Darke Disguise was torn and ragged and it was no match for the power of the Two-Faced Ring, which strengthened tenfold any attempt at murder. As Merrin pushed the spluttering and fighting Septimus once more beneath the water, Simon dove in.With the power of the Two-Faced Ring - and Merrin himself - fully occupied in drowning Septimus, Simon's old-fashioned punch to Merrin's head had the desired effect. Merrin let go of Septimus, took in a huge mouthful of water and began to sink. Septimus looked at his rescuer, shocked."You okay?" asked Simon.Septimus nodded. "Yeah. Thanks, Simon."Merrin gave a gurgle and slipped beneath the water."I'll get him," gasped Simon, teeth chattering as the icy cold began to take effect. "You get to the steps."But Septimus did not trust Merrin. He swam alongside Simon as he towed Merrin back and when they reached the New Quay, Septimus helped him haul Merrin out of the water and up the steps. They lay Merrin facedown on the stones like a dead fish."We'll have to get the water out," said Simon. "I've seen them do it at the Port." He kneeled beside Merrin, placed his hands on Merrin's ribcage and began to push gently but firmly. Merrin coughed faintly. Then he coughed again, spluttered and suddenly retched up a huge amount of river water. Something went clink onto the stone. At Septimus's feet lay a small silver disc with a raised central boss. Trying not to think about where it had just come from, Septimus picked it up. It lay heavy in his palm, glinting in the light from the single torch burning on the quay."It must have hurt swallowing that," he said.Simon, however, was not surprised. When Merrin had been Simon's assistant at the Observatory he had swallowed a variety of metal objects. But that was not a time in his life Simon wanted to remember - or wanted Septimus to remember either. So he said nothing.At their feet Merrin stirred. "Give it back," he moaned weakly. "It's mine."Both Septimus and Simon ignored him.Simon looked at the disc lying in Septimus's palm. "It's the Paired Code!" he said excitedly. "We must get this to Marcia at once."Septimus did not like the sound of "we." "I'll take it," he said, putting the disc into his Apprentice belt."But I know how to use it," protested Simon.Septimus was dismissive. "So does Marcia," he said."How can she? She doesn't know where to begin." Simon sounded exasperated."Of course she does," snapped Septimus.The sound of running footsteps broke up the argument. Sarah, Sally and Marcellus were racing down to the New Quay. Not wishing to become embroiled in a reunion just then, Septimus gave them a hasty wave and, clutching the Paired Code, he ran off toward Spit Fyre, who looked triumphant. He had won his first fight. He was now a fully fledged, adult dragon.A few seconds later Septimus and Spit Fyre were airborne. Drops of dragon blood marked their flight path all the way to the Wizard Tower.Speechless with frustration, Simon watched Spit Fyre and his pilot disappear up over the Darke Fog."Simon." Sarah gently touched his arm. "Simon love, you're frozen. Come inside. Sally's got the fire lit."Simon felt grateful that she hadn't even mentioned Septimus. He looked at his mother, who was herself shivering despite one of Sally's blankets thrown around her shoulders. He felt so sad for her, but right then there was nothing he could do about it - except what he was about to do."I'm sorry, Mum," he said gently, "I can't. I've got to go. You go back with Sally. Tell Lucy I . . . I'll see you all later." And he walked briskly away, striding up the well-worn path to the South Gate.Sarah watched him go without a protest, which worried Sally. Sarah seemed defeated, she thought. Sally led her friend back to the cafe and sat her down beside the fire. Nicko, Lucy, Rupert and Maggie gathered around her but Sarah neither moved nor spoke for the rest of the night.Marcellus Pye put the shivering, bedraggled Merrin in one of Sally's more dismal, windowless bunkhouses with a pile of dry blankets. As he went to lock the door his prisoner glared at him."L-Loser!" Merrin spat, his nose streaming as his cold returned with a vengeance. "Your st-stupid little key won't keep m-me in." He jabbed his left thumb at Marcellus. The green faces on the Two-Faced Ring shone malevolently. "H-He who wears this is indestructible. Atchoo! I wear it, therefore I am indestructible. I can do what I like. B-Buckethead!"Marcellus did not deign to reply. He closed the door and locked it. He looked at Sally's flimsy tin key and reflected that even without the power of the Two-Faced Ring, Merrin could probably get out - but for the moment, freezing cold and in shock from nearly drowning, he didn't think Merrin was in a state to do anything.On the chilly footpath outside the bunkhouse, Marcellus kept guard, pacing up and down to keep warm, his shoes flip-flapping on the frosty stone. Over and over again Merrin's defiant words came back to him. Unlike much of what Merrin said, they were true. While he wore the Ring, Marcellus knew that Merrin himself was indeed indestructible - and free to wreak havoc. There was no doubt in Marcellus's mind that while Merrin had the ring, the Castle and all who lived there were in grave danger.Marcellus thought of the shivering, sniffling boy alone in the bunkhouse. A feeling of pity flashed through him but he pushed it to one side. He made himself remember the Two-Faced Ring glinting on the taunting thumb and he knew that as soon as Merrin recovered he would be wreaking revenge. There was little time to lose - something had to be done. Fast. Now.Marcellus walked briskly up the steps to the Tea and Ale House. He wondered how sharp Sally's kitchen knives were . . .