Marcia, Septimus and Jenna emerged from the Great Arch and paused for a moment, looking down the newly liberated Wizard Way. It was a beautiful frosty morning. The sun was creeping out from behind a bank of clouds and slanting rays of the early morning light glanced low along Wizard Way. The first serious snowflakes of the Big Freeze were beginning to fall; they drifted lazily in the fleeting sunlight and settled onto the frosty pavement.
Marcia took a deep breath of the clear, sparkling air and a wave of happiness very nearly overcame her - but she could not allow herself to be completely content until she had successfully UnSealed the Hermetic Chamber. And found Beetle alive.
Marcia had steeled herself to expect many things waiting for her in the front office of the Manuscriptorium but she had not expected the Port Witch Coven. They had taken a trip to see the last moments of the Wizard Tower and, becoming bored with how long it was taking, they had crowbarred the planks off the door to the Wild Book and Charm Store. They were just emerging, covered in fur, feathers and a light sprinkling of scales when, to their collective horror, they saw that not only had the lovely Darke Fog disappeared but that that ghastly ExtraOrdinary Wizard woman was waiting for them. Dorinda's piercing scream spoke for them all.
To Jenna's delight, Marcia saw the Port Witch Coven off the premises with great effectiveness. They left so fast - even the Witch Mother managed a rapid hobble in her spikes - that they forgot about Nursie, who sat unnoticed beside a collapsed pile of books. Nursie had discovered a stash of dusty licorice snakes in the back of a drawer and was contentedly chewing them. Nursie had what she called a penchant for licorice.
Marcia raced into the Manuscriptorium itself, closely followed by Jenna and Septimus. The place was strewn with upturned desks, ripped paper and broken lamps. Everything was covered with a sticky gray dust, which Septimus realized to his disgust was shed Thing skin. Quickly they picked their way through the debris. At the stone arched entrance to the Hermetic Chamber they stopped.
"The Seal is gone," Marcia said heavily. "I fear the worst."
The seven-cornered passage looked ominously well used - there was a slimy Thing trail on the floor. Like giant slugs, thought Septimus. He stepped into the passage and called tentatively into the dark. "Beetle . . . Beetle." There was no reply.
"It sounds . . . dead in there," he whispered.
"I think," said Jenna slowly, "that it sounds more like something is blocking the passageway farther up."
"It is just possible that the Seal is still holding farther in," said Marcia.
"Can it do that?" asked Septimus. "I thought it would all go at once."
"We'll just have to see, won't we?" Marcia said briskly and she disappeared into the seven-cornered passage. Septimus and Jenna set off after her.
As he rounded the sixth corner, Septimus cannoned into Marcia. "Oof!"
Marcia was standing at a dead end of pitted stone. "It's still Sealed," she whispered excitedly. "It really is quite amazing. The Seal has been chipped away but I think . . . I think it's still okay."
"Does that mean that Beetle is . . ." Septimus could not finish his question. The thought that Beetle might not be okay made him feel sick.
"We can but hope," said Marcia grimly.
Grimacing Marcia placed her hands on the filthy, sticky surface of the Seal. In the light of the Dragon Ring, Jenna and Septimus watched as the surface of the Seal healed itself. Soon it was smooth and shimmering with Magykal purple once more, lighting up the seven-cornered passage and showing the revolting film of slime and Thing skin in glorious detail. Septimus thought of how the Seal must have shone through the Darke when the Things had first arrived and taunted them - no wonder they had attacked it. He would have added a Camouflage.
Now Marcia began the UnSeal. Jenna retreated from the sudden onslaught of Magyk, which was highly concentrated in the narrow confines of the passageway and made her feel queasy. But Septimus was fascinated. He watched the shiny surface glow even brighter and slowly begin to retreat before them. Step by step Marcia and Septimus followed the Seal until it stopped at the end of the passageway. They waited anxiously, watching the diamond-hard surface slowly became translucent until they began to see the shadowy impression of the Hermetic Chamber beyond.
The Seal thinned until there was no more than a shifting swirl of Magyk piding them from the Chamber. Through it Septimus could see Beetle slumped at the table. He could not tell whether he was alive or dead.
Once more Marcia stretched out her hands - which Septimus noticed were trembling - and laid them on the last vestige of the Seal. At her touch it melted away and a rush of air whooshed past them into the Chamber.
"Beetle!" Septimus ran across and shook his friend by the shoulder. Beetle felt so cold that Septimus jumped back in horror. Jenna appeared at the entrance to the Chamber. They both looked at Marcia in panic.
Marcia strode over to the siege drawer, which lay upturned on the table with a tangle of licorice bootlaces spilling out from it. Where was the Suspension Charm?
"He's cold," Septimus said. "Really cold."
"Well, he will be cold if . . ." Marcia looked at the licorice. It did not bode well.
"If what?" asked Septimus.
"If he's managed the Suspension." Marcia sounded worried.
And he will be if he hasn't, thought Septimus, but he said nothing. They watched Marcia gently lift Beetle so that he was sitting up, but Beetle's eyes were closed and his head flopped forward like a dead thing.
Jenna gave a gasp of dismay.
"Beetle," Marcia said, shaking him gently by his shoulders. "Beetle, you can come out now." There was no response. Marcia glanced at Jenna and Septimus. There was dread in her eyes.
Time seemed to slow down. Marcia crouched down so that she was level with Beetle's face. She placed her hands on either side of his head and gently lifted it up so that his face was level with hers. Then she took a deep breath. The buzz of Magyk filled the Hermetic Chamber once again, and from Marcia's mouth came a long stream of pink mist. It settled over Beetle's face, covering his nose and mouth.
Hardly daring to breathe themselves, Septimus and Jenna watched. Still Marcia breathed out. Still Beetle did not react, the dead white of his face shining through the pink mist above it. And then, like smoke drifting up a chimney, Septimus saw tendrils of the mist begin to disappear up Beetle's nose. He was breathing. Very slowly Beetle's eyes flickered opened. He looked glassily at Marcia.
Septimus rushed to Beetle's side. "Hey, Beetle, Beetle, it's us. Oh, Beetle!"
Marcia smiled with relief. "Congratulations, Beetle," she said. "The heart of the Manuscriptorium is untouched, thanks to you."
Beetle rose to the occasion with aplomb. "Gah . . ." he said.
They had gathered in the wasteland of upturned desks. Beetle looked pale and was shakily drinking a fortifying FizzFroot, which Septimus had found stashed away in Beetle's old kitchen in the Manuscriptorium backyard. Jenna, Beetle noticed, had not hung around; she had rushed off to the Palace as soon as she could. Beetle, clear-headed after his Suspension, saw what that meant. If it had been Jenna who had just survived two days being Sealed in an airless Chamber, he would not have run away at the first opportunity. Get real, Beetle, he told himself.
Marcia's voice broke into his thoughts.
"The Pick for the new Chief Hermetic Scribe must begin tonight," she was saying. "I must go. I intend to visit each and every scribe myself. I want to see if they are all still . . . available."
Beetle thought of Foxy and Partridge and Romilly. He thought of Larry. Of Matt, Marcus and Igor at Gothyk Grotto, even the oddly irritating people at Wizard Sandwiches. How many of them were still . . . available?
Marcia stopped for a quiet word with Beetle. "It's such a shame," she told him, "that you are no longer part of the Manuscriptorium. I would very much have liked your pen to have gone into the Pot."
Beetle flushed with pleasure at the compliment. "Thank you," he said. "But it would never have Picked me. I'm far too young. And I was never a proper scribe."
"That is of no consequence," said Marcia. "The Pot Picks who is right." She refrained from adding that she had no idea why it had Picked Jillie Djinn. "But perhaps you'd like to stay until the Draw and stand guard. I don't want to leave the Manuscriptorium unattended."
Once again Beetle was flattered, but he was already getting to his feet. "Sorry, but I'd better go and see Larry. Don't want to lose my job there too."
"I quite understand," said Marcia, opening the door to the front office for him. She realized that she should not have asked - Beetle clearly still found the Manuscriptorium an upsetting place to be. Marcia watched Beetle walk out into the morning sunshine and called back into the Manuscriptorium, "Septimus! You're in charge. You have my permission to use a full Restore. I shall be back soon with all the scribes."
From the other side of the partition Septimus then heard Marcia say loudly, "The Manuscriptorium is closed today. I suggest you come back tomorrow when it will be under new management. What? No, I have no idea where the witches have gone. No, I am not a witch, whatever gave you that idea? I am, madam, the ExtraOrdinary Wizard."
As the sounds of Nursie being rapidly escorted off the premises came through the flimsy partition, Septimus smiled. Marcia was back to her normal self again.
* * *
Outside the Manuscriptorium, Marcia found herself plagued with unwelcome intrusions. Nursie was sticking to her like Thing skin and, to top it all, she now saw the familiar figure of Marcellus Pye approaching. Marcia decided to pretend she hadn't seen him.
"Marcia! Marcia, wait!" Marcellus called.
"Sorree. Must dash!" she called out.
But Marcellus was not to be put off. He speeded up, dragging behind him an unwilling companion. As the pair drew near Marcia saw who it was.
"Merrin Meredith!" she spluttered.
Nursie's hearing was not what it had been. "Yes?" she said.
"And I thought I told you to go home," Marcia snapped at Nursie.
But Nursie did not hear anything. She was staring at the shambling, sniffing figure that Marcellus was dragging behind him.
A red-faced and very harassed Marcellus reached Marcia and Nursie.
"Marcia. I have something for you," said Marcellus. He burrowed into a deep pocket, drew out a small brown box made of cheap card and handed it to Marcia.
Marcia looked at it impatiently. "Springo Spigots," she read. "Marcellus, what on earth would I want with Springo Spigots?"
"It's the only box that Sally had," said Marcellus. "And it's not spigots - whatever they are. I'd rather spigot a spigotty-thing any day than . . . well, you'd better take a look."
Marcia's curiosity got the better of her impatience. She opened the end of the flimsy cardboard box and drew out a small piece of bloodstained cloth. Something heavy fell into her hand. She gasped.
"Good grief, Marcellus. How did you get this?"
"How do you think?" Marcellus replied quietly. He looked pointedly at Merrin, who was staring at the ground.
Marcia took a closer look at Merrin and saw that his left hand was swathed in a bandage. An ooze of deep pink was showing on the inside of it where - Marcia now knew - his thumb no longer was. She stared at the Two-Faced Ring that lay heavy and cold in her hand and felt almost afraid.
"May I suggest that this ring be destroyed," Marcellus said quietly. "Even in the most Hidden of hiding places it will one day give some new fool - or worse - overweening powers."
"Yes, it must be destroyed," Marcia agreed. "But we no longer have the Fyres to do it."Marcellus felt nervous as he offered his solution. "Marcia, I hope you trust me enough by now to consider my offer seriously. I would like to return to my old Alchemie Chamber. If you allow this I could start up the Fyre and within a month we could rid the Castle of the pernicious ring forever. I give you my word I will preserve the Ice Tunnels and meddle with nothing.""Very well, Marcellus. I accept your word. I shall place this ring in the Hidden Shelf until then.""Um . . . I have one more request," Marcellus said tentatively.Marcia knew what it was. "Yes," she said with a sigh. "I will second Septimus to you for the next month; I can see you will need his help. We are all in this together now. We need the Alchemie as well as the Magyk to keep the Darke in balance. Do you not agree?"Marcellus smiled broadly as his old life opened up to him once more with all its amazing vistas. A wave of happiness spread through him. "Yes, I do agree. I most definitely do."* * *While this conversation had been going on, Nursie had taken hold of Merrin's bandaged hand and was tut-tutting over the bandage, which was, even Marcellus could see, a mess. Marcia looked at the pair and felt exasperated. What was she to do with Merrin? She blamed the evil influence of the Two-Faced Ring for much that he had done, but there was no denying that he had chosen to put it on in the first place.Marcia knew that Nursie was the landlady of The Doll House, a dingy guesthouse in the Port where Jenna and Septimus had once spent an eventful night. Some time ago Aunt Zelda had told Marcia something about Nursie that she had not taken much notice of at the time - but now, as she looked at Nursie and Merrin together, and she saw the awkward way they both stood, their beaky noses and sallow skin, Marcia knew that what Aunt Zelda had told her must be true. She turned to Nursie and said, "Do you take in lodgers?"Nursie looked surprised. "Why? You fed up with the Tower, are you? Too much cleaning, I suppose. And all those stairs must be hard on the knees. Well, it's half a crown a week, payable in advance, hot water and bedding is extra.""I am perfectly happy in the Wizard Tower, thank you," said Marcia icily. "However, I would like to pay a year in advance for this young man here.""A year in advance?" Nursie gasped, not able to believe her luck. She could get the house repainted and, best of all, she could afford to stop working for those ghastly witches."To include nursing services and general care and attention," said Marcia. "Also hot water, bedding and food. No doubt the young man would be happy to help around the house once his hand is better.""It won't ever be better," growled Merrin. "It hasn't got a thumb anymore.""You'll get used to it," said Marcia cheerfully. "You are free of the Ring now and you have to make the best of it. I suggest you take my offer to go with the Nurse here. Otherwise all you will be seeing for the foreseeable future is the inside of the Wizard Tower Secure Chamber.""I'll go with her. She's all right," said Merrin.Nursie patted Merrin's good hand. "There's a good boy," she said."Marcellus, do you have six guineas on you?" asked Marcia."Six guineas?" Marcellus squeaked."Yes. You're always rattling with gold. I'll pay you back."Marcellus delved into his pockets and very reluctantly he handed over six shining new guineas. Nursie's eyes bulged. She had never seen so much gold. Marcia added a crown from her own pocket and presented the money to the dumbstruck landlady."Slightly over, I think you'll find," said Marcia briskly. "But it will cover your fare back to the Port. If you hurry you will catch the evening barge.""Come on, dearie." Nursie linked her arm through Merrin's good one. "Let's get out of this place. I never did like the Castle. Nasty memories.""Me too," said Merrin. "It's a dump."Marcellus and Marcia watched Merrin and Nursie head off. "Well, they seem well suited," Marcellus said."So they should be," said Marcia. "They're mother and son."Foxy was the first scribe Marcia tracked down and sent off to the Manuscriptorium. On his way Foxy met Beetle coming out of Larry's Dead Languages."Wotcha, Beet!""Wotcha, Foxo!"They surveyed each other for a moment, smiling broadly."You all right, Foxo?" asked Beetle."Yeah." Foxy grinned."You weren't outside when it got you then?""Nah. Fell asleep by the fire and woke up two days later. Mouth felt like the bottom of a parrot's cage, but apart from that all was fine. But . . ." Foxy sighed. "My auntie's missing. She was out when the Domaine came over our way. Never made it back. Can't find her anywhere. And now . . . well, now they're saying about a Dragon taking people." He shuddered."Oh, Foxy," said Beetle. "I am so sorry.""Yeah." Foxy changed the subject. "But hey, you don't look so good. Was it bad in the Chamber?""Yeah," said Beetle. "Lots of hammering and trying to get in.""Not nice," said Foxy."No. And I never want to see a licorice bootlace ever again.""Oh. Right." Foxy decided not to ask why. Beetle had looked strangely desperate as he'd said "licorice bootlace."Foxy decided to change the subject. "So, um, how's Larry?""Not nice either," said Beetle. "Just got fired, in fact. For coming in late.""Late?""Two days late."Foxy put his arm around Beetle's shoulders. He'd never seen Beetle look so down. "It's all rubbish, isn't it?" he said."It's not great, Foxo.""Want a sausage sandwich?"Beetle saw the welcome lights of Wizard Sandwiches glowing through the dimming light of the late winter afternoon and he suddenly felt ravenous. "You bet," he said.Jenna walked slowly up to the Palace, her footprints showing trampled grass through the snow. Ahead of her the Palace was dark against the late afternoon sky, with the winter sun already having dropped down behind the ancient battlements. It was an eerie sight, enhanced by the occasional crow call from the tops of the cedars down by the river, but Jenna did not see it that way. She had turned down offers from Silas and Sarah to come with her. This was the way she wanted to return to her Palace - on her own.The ancient double doors were half open, left ajar by Simon when he had fled with Sarah in his arms. And guarding them was a familiar figure."Welcome home, Princess-in-Waiting," said Sir Hereward."Thank you, Sir Hereward," replied Jenna as she stepped inside. A flurry of snow entered with her. Jenna hung up her witch's cloak in the cloakroom and closed the door on it with feelings of fondness. It had served her well and who knew? She might need it again one day."You'd better come in too," she said to Sir Hereward, who was still out in the snow."Strictly speaking, Princess, now that you have taken possession of the whole Palace rather than just your room, I should stay outside," Sir Hereward replied."I'd rather you came in," said Jenna. "I could use some company, if you don't mind."A smiling Sir Hereward strode in, and Jenna quickly pushed the doors together. They closed with a bang that echoed through the empty building. Jenna looked around the entrance hall, which was full of shadows and ghosts. She reached into her pocket for the CandleLight Charm Septimus had given her that afternoon and began lighting the first of many extinguished candles.Later that evening Jenna was sitting in Sarah's old sitting room with a bewildered duck in her arms when she heard footsteps coming down the Long Walk. These were not the soft tip-tap of ghost steps but solid boot-wearing human ones. Sir Hereward, who had been standing guard beside the fire, strode off to investigate. He returned - to Jenna's surprise and delight - with Aunt Zelda and Wolf Boy.Aunt Zelda swept her up into a huge, padded hug and Wolf Boy grinned broadly."We're really, really sorry we missed your party," he said. "But it was weird - we couldn't get out of the Queen's Room for two whole days."Aunt Zelda settled herself beside the fire. She looked at the duck in Jenna's arms. "That creature has been in the Darke, dear," she said to Jenna a little disapprovingly. "I do hope you are not dabbling with things you shouldn't. Some Princesses of your age have done so in the past.""Oh . . ." Jenna did not know what to say. It was as if Aunt Zelda knew about her Port Witch Coven cloak hanging in the cupboard."Now, Jenna dear," said Aunt Zelda, "tell me all about it."Jenna put some more coal on the fire. It was going to be a long evening.