The morning of his fourteenth birthday, Septimus was up before dawn. Quickly he cleaned and tidied the Pyramid Library - as he did every morning, even on his birthday. He found an unwrapped present from Marcia hidden under a pile of books to be filed. It was a small but very beautiful gold and silver Enlarging Glass. Attached to its ivory handle was a purple tag, which read: To Septimus. Happy Magykal Fourteenth Birthday. With love from Marcia. Septimus put the Glass in his pocket with a smile. It wasn't often that Marcia signed her name "with love."

Some minutes later the heavy purple door that guarded the entrance to the ExtraOrdinary Wizard's rooms swung open, and Septimus headed for the silver spiral stairs at the end of the landing, setting off on a visit he had made every day since he had returned from the Isles of Syren. Taking a chance that there were no Wizards about so early, he put the stairs into emergency mode and whizzed down to the seventh floor. Dizzy but exhilarated - there was nothing quite like an emergency run to wake one up - Septimus stepped off the stairs and walked a little unsteadily along a dimly lit corridor toward a door marked ICK BAY (the S having recently evaporated during an Ordinary Apprentice's spell that had gone wrong).

The ICK BAY door opened quietly and Septimus stepped into a dimly lit, circular room with ten beds arranged around the wall like the numbers on a clockface. Only two of the beds were occupied - one by a Wizard who had fallen down the Wizard Tower steps and broken her toe, the other by an elderly Wizard who had "felt a bit funny" the previous day. Two of the clockface spaces were taken by doors - one that Septimus had just come through and another, at the seven o'clock space, leading away from the sick bay. In the center was a circular desk, in the middle of which sat the night duty Wizard and the new sick bay Apprentice, Rose. Rose, her long brown hair tucked behind her ears, was busy as ever, scribbling in her project book and devising new Charms.

Septimus approached. Rose and the Wizard gave him friendly smiles. They knew him well, for he visited every day - although usually not so early.

"No change," whispered Rose.

Septimus nodded. He had long given up expecting to hear anything different.

Rose got up from her chair. It was her job to escort visitors to the DisEnchanting Chamber. Septimus followed her over to the narrow door set in the wall at the seven o'clock space. Its surface had a shifting quality to it, typical of the effect that strong Wizard Tower Magyk produced. Rose placed her hand on the surface and quickly withdrew it, leaving a fleeting purple handprint behind. The door swung open, then she and Septimus stepped into an antechamber. The door closed behind them and Rose repeated the process with another door in front of them. It too swung open, and this time Septimus alone walked through. He entered a small pentagonal room suffused with a deep blue light.

"I'll leave you now," whispered Rose. "Call me if there's anything you need or . . . well, if there's any change."

Septimus nodded.

There was a heady smell of Magyk in the chamber, for within it a gentle DisEnchanting force was allowed to run free. The force circled counterclockwise, and Septimus could feel it warm upon his skin, tingling like drying salt water after a swim in the ocean. He stood still and breathed in deeply a few times to balance himself. For anyone with any Magyk in them, DisEnchantment is a peculiar thing to be close to, and the first few times he had entered the chamber Septimus had become extremely dizzy. Now that he was used to it he merely felt wobbly for a few moments. However, something that he had never quite got used to was the eerie sight of the DisEnchantment cocoon - a delicate hammock made from the softest unspun sheep's wool - which appeared to float in midair, although it was actually suspended by invisible Forrest Bands, invented by a long-gone ExtraOrdinary Wizard.

Feeling as if he were walking underwater, Septimus slowly approached the cocoon, pushing through eddies of DisEnchantment. Swathed in the wool lay a figure so insubstantial that sometimes Septimus was afraid she might disappear at any moment. But so far Syrah Syara, the occupant of the cocoon, had resisted disappearing - although it was a known risk of DisEnchantment, and the longer the process went on, the greater the risk became.

Septimus looked at Syrah's bluish face, which reflected the light of the chamber and seemed almost transparent. Her brown hair had been neatly plaited, giving her a prim, doll-like appearance - so different from the wild, windblown Syrah he had first met on the Isle of Syren.

"Hello, Syrah," he said quietly. "It's me, Septimus." Syrah did not react, but Septimus knew that that did not necessarily mean she could not hear him. Many people who had successfully emerged from DisEnchantment were able to recount conversations that had taken place in the chamber.

"I'm early today," Septimus continued. "The sun isn't even up yet. I want to tell you that I won't be able to come and see you for the next few days." He stopped to see if his words were having any effect. There was no reaction and Septimus felt a little upset - he had half hoped that a flicker of disappointment might cross Syrah's face.

"It's my Darke Week coming up," Septimus continued. "And . . . um . . . I want to tell you what I'm going to be doing. Because you've done it and you know how scary it feels before you go . . . and I can't tell anyone else. I mean, I can't tell anyone who's not completed an Apprenticeship to an ExtraOrdinary Wizard. Which doesn't leave many people - well, only Marcia and you, in fact. Of course there would have been Alther before, well . . . you know what happened. Oh, I know he was a ghost and there are lots of ExtraOrdinary Wizard and Apprentice ghosts around but Alther is - I mean was - different. He felt real, like he was still alive. Oh, Syrah, I miss Alther. I really do. And . . . that's what I wanted to tell you - I'm going to get Alther back. I am. Marcia doesn't want me to, but it's my choice and she can't stop me. All Apprentices have the right to choose what they do in their Darke Week and I've chosen. I'm going down into the Darke Halls."

Septimus paused. He wondered whether he had told Syrah too much. If she really could hear him and understand every word he said, then all he had done was to leave her alone to worry about him. Septimus told himself not to be silly. Just because he had grown to care about what happened to Syrah, it didn't mean that she cared equally about him. In fact, he told himself, if she was aware of his visits she was more likely to feel relieved at the prospect of getting a rest from him. He grinned ruefully. Something Jenna had said to him more than once recently came back to him: "Not everything revolves around you, Sep."

Feeling a little awkward, he finished his visit. "So, er, good-bye then. I'll be fine and, um, I hope you will be too. I'll see you when I get back." Septimus would have liked to give Syrah a quick good-bye kiss but that was not possible. A person in the process of DisEnchantment must not be connected to anything that is earthbound. This was why the Forrest Bands holding Syrah suspended had been such a breakthrough - they Magykally broke the connection with earth and allowed the DisEnchantment to work. Most of the time.

Septimus left the DisEnchanting Chamber, made his way through the antechamber and stepped out into the sick bay. Rose gave him a friendly wave, which he returned briefly and, still feeling embarrassed, he left the sick bay and walked back down the corridor, telling himself, "Not everything revolves around you, you dillop."

* * *

However, that day in the Wizard Tower it seemed that, dillop or not, everything did revolve around him. A fourteenth birthday for an Apprentice was a special one - being twice the Magykal number seven - and naturally the entire population of the Wizard Tower wanted to wish Septimus a happy birthday, particularly as there was no birthday banquet to look forward to that evening. Sarah Heap's determination to have Septimus at the Palace that night had not gone down well at the Wizard Tower.

However, as Septimus went about his morning errands - delivering requested Charms to various Wizards, Finding a lost pair of glasses, helping out with a tricky spell on floor four - he detected a melancholy undertone to all the birthday wishes. The Wizard Tower was notorious for gossip, and it seemed that every Wizard knew that Septimus was about to embark upon his Darke Week - the one week that separates the Ordinary from the ExtraOrdinary Apprenticeship. This was despite the fact that the timing of the Darke Week was meant to be a secret.

And so, along with the many "happy birthday" greetings, there were also fervent wishes for "and many more of them, Apprentice." On his rounds Septimus was offered a varied assortment of gifts, all unwrapped - as was the tradition among Wizards in order to avoid the Placement of creatures, an ancient Darke trick that had once given Marcia some trouble. A pair of purple hand-knitted "lucky" socks, a bag of self-renewing banana chews and three Magykal hairbrushes were among those he accepted, but the vast majority were SafeCharms, all of which he politely refused.

As Septimus took the stairs down to the Wizard Tower Hall on his very last errand, he felt unsettled by the sadness beneath the birthday wishes. It was odd, he thought; it felt as if someone close to him had died or - it occurred to him as he stepped off the stairs - as if he were about to die. Septimus walked slowly across the soft, Magykal floor, reading the messages, which were wishing him not only A VERY HAPPY FOURTEENTH BIRTHDAY, APPRENTICE but also BE SAFE, APPRENTICE. He sighed - even the floor was at it.

Septimus knocked on the door of the duty Wizard's room, which was tucked in beside the huge silver doors that led out from the Wizard Tower. Hildegarde Pigeon, a young woman in pristine Ordinary sub-Wizard robes, opened it. Septimus smiled; he liked Hildegarde.

"Happy birthday!" Hildegarde greeted him."Thanks.""It's a big day, fourteen. And Princess Jenna's birthday too.""Yes." Septimus felt a bit guilty. He'd forgotten to get her a present."We'll be seeing her later, apparently. About midday, Madam Overstrand said. She didn't seem very pleased, though.""Marcia's not very pleased about anything at the moment," said Septimus, wondering why Jenna hadn't told him about her visit to the Wizard Tower.Hildegarde sensed that all was not well. "So . . . are you having a good day?""Well, yes, I suppose. I've just been up to the DisEnchanting Chamber. Bet you're glad you're not there anymore."Hildegarde smiled. "Too right," she said. "But it did the job. And it will for Syrah too, don't you worry.""Hope so," said Septimus. "I've come for my boots.""Oh, yes. Hang on a mo." Hildegard disappeared into the tiny room and emerged carrying a box with "Terry Tarsal, by appointment" written on it in gold letters. Terry had recently upgraded his image.Septimus lifted the lid and peered inside. He looked relieved. "Oh good," he said. "He repaired my old ones. Marcia was threatening to get him to make me a new pair in green with purple laces.""Oh dear." Hildegarde smiled. "Not a good look.""No. Definitely not.""There's a letter for you too," Hildegarde handed over a creased and slightly damp envelope.Septimus looked at it. He couldn't place the writing but it looked oddly familiar. And then he realized why - it was a mixture of his own handwriting and his father's."Um, Septimus," Hildegarde broke into his thoughts."Yep?""I know I shouldn't say this as it's confidential and all that but, well . . . I just wanted to say good luck. And I'll be thinking of you.""Oh. Well, thank you. Thank you, Hildegarde. That's really nice."Hildegarde went a little pink and disappeared back into the duty Wizard's room.Septimus tucked the shoebox under his arm and headed for the silver spiral stairs, letter in hand. Only when he was back in his room on the twenty-first floor of the Wizard Tower with the door firmly closed, did he tear open the envelope and read:Dear Septimus,I hope you have a very happy fourteenth birthday.I expect you are surprised to get a letter from me, but I wish to apologize for what I did to you. I have no excuse except to say that I do not think I was in my right mind at the time. I believe that my contact with the Darke made me crazy. But I take responsibility for that. On the night of your Apprentice Feast, I deliberately sought out the Darke and that is completely my fault.I hope that one day you will forgive me.I realize that you are well into your Apprenticeship now and will have much knowledge. But even so, I hope you will not mind your oldest brother giving you some advice: Beware of the Darke.With best wishes,Simon (Heap)Septimus sat down on his bed and let out a low whistle. He felt spooked. Even Simon seemed to know about his Darke Week.