While Gringe was searching for "horse stuff," Septimus was, as Marcia put it, in conference. He was in Marcia's sitting room, sitting on a small stool beside the fire, with his blue and gold leather-bound Apprentice Diary on his knees. It was open at the page that read "Darke Week."

Marcia had been dreading the Darke Week for some time. Even though she knew that the most powerful Magyk - which Septimus would be using in the next stage of his Apprenticeship - needed a personal connection with the Darke, it frightened her. Some ExtraOrdinary Wizards were perfectly at ease with the Darke. They enjoyed playing with the delicate balance between Darke and Magyk, adjusting it as a skilled mechanic would a finely tuned engine and, in the process, getting the last ounce of power from their Magyk. Marcia, however, preferred to use as small an amount of Darke Magyk as possible, relying more on her personal Magykal power - some purists might have called her an unbalanced practitioner of Magyk (although not to her face). It was, however, true that the most powerful Wizards were those in perfect balance - and this was what the Darke Week was all about. It was the time when the ExtraOrdinary Apprentice acquired personal experience of the Darke that would enable him or her to move toward a Magykal skill that was in harmony with everything - even the Darke.

Marcia had an added reason for being uneasy about Septimus's Darke Week. Recently she had noticed that the Wizard Tower was requiring more Magyk than usual to keep everything running in perfect order. There had been a series of minor breakdowns - the stairs had suddenly stopped one day for no reason, and the floor had begun to display the odd, jumbled message. The previous week the Wizards had had to Fumigate a severe outbreak of Darke spiders, and only the day before Marcia had needed to reset the Password on the doors twice. Each incident on its own would not have worried her - these things happened occasionally - but the cumulative effect had made Marcia jumpy. Which was why she now said to her Apprentice, "I know it's your choice, Septimus, but I would rather you didn't begin your Darke Week right now."

Marcia was perched precariously at one end of her sofa. This was because most of the sofa was already occupied by a willowy man with a pointy beard who was curled up like a cat, fast asleep. The man's long, elegant fingers rested delicately on the purple velvet of Marcia's sofa, the color of which contrasted vividly with the yellow of his costume and his tall hat, which looked like a pile of ever-decreasing doughnuts crammed onto his head. This bizarre sleeping figure was Jim Knee - Septimus's jinnee - who had gone into hibernation. He had been asleep for some four weeks now, ever since the weather had turned wintry. His breathing was slow and regular, except for a loud snore that escaped now and then.

Marcia did not welcome having to share her sofa, but she preferred it to the alternative of Jim Knee being awake. Ignoring a sudden snurrrufff from the jinnee, she opened the Apprentice Almanac - a large, ancient book bound in what had once been bright green leather - which she was balancing on her knee. Slowly she turned the parchment pages until she found what she was looking for. She peered through her new tiny gold spectacles at the closely written text.

"Luckily you became Apprentice at a time that gives you the widest choice of when to do this. You actually have up to seven weeks after the MidWinter Feast in which to undertake your Darke Week. Is that not right, Marcellus?" Marcia looked over her spectacles at a man sitting opposite Septimus in an upright chair, daring him to disagree.

It was only the second time that Marcia had invited Marcellus Pye to her rooms in the Wizard Tower, and she had done so out of a wish to honor an old tradition. In days past, the Castle Alchemist - which Marcellus had once been - was consulted in the timing of the ExtraOrdinary Apprentice's Darke Week. The moment when an Apprentice went alone into the realm of the Darke was an important one, and Alchemists were known to have a much closer connection with all things Darke - not to mention something of an obsession with propitious timing.

The consulting of the Castle Alchemist had, naturally, lapsed with the demise of Alchemie in the Castle. But now, for the first time in many hundreds of years, there was, with Marcellus Pye, a true Alchemist available once again. After much thought, Marcia had decided to include Marcellus in the discussion. She was now regretting her decision - something told her he was going to be awkward.

Marcellus Pye glinted spectacularly in the firelight. He was dressed in a long, black, fur-lined velvet coat, which sported an extravagant array of shiny gold fastenings. The most unusual thing about him, however, was his shoes. Long and pointy, in soft red leather, they tapered to three-foot-long thin strips of leather that ended in black ribbons, which were tied just below his knees so that he did not (very often) trip over them. The onlooker, if they managed to stop looking at his shoes for a moment, would also see that below his dark hair brushed low over his forehead - which gave him an old-fashioned appearance - he too wore a small pair of gold spectacles. He also had a book on his knees, although it was smaller than Marcia's tome. His book, written by himself, was called I, Marcellus. Marcellus Pye was carefully consulting the last section, titled "The Almanac," before he answered Marcia's question.

"That may be true according to the Apprentice calendar," he said. "But - "

"But what?" Marcia interrupted irritably.

"Snur . . . snurrrufff!"

"Goodness me, what is that noise?"

"It's Jim Knee, Mr. Pye. I told you before - he snores. I do wish you would listen."

"Jim Knee?"

"I told you - Septimus's jinnee. Ignore him. I do."

"Ah, yes. Well, well. As I was saying before I was interrupted, according to my own Almanac, which gives considerably more accurate detail, and which my Apprentice helped to - "

"Ex-Apprentice," said Marcia tetchily.

"I have never revoked his Indentures, Marcia," Marcellus countered, equally tetchily. "I regard him as my Apprentice."

The subject of their discussion squirmed uncomfortably.

"Those Indentures were meaningless," snapped Marcia, refusing to let the subject drop. "Septimus was not free to become your Apprentice - he was already Apprenticed to me."

"I think you will find he was Apprenticed to me before he was Apprenticed to you. About five hundred years before, in fact," Marcellus said with a slight smile that Marcia found intensely annoying.

"As far as Septimus was concerned," countered Marcia, "your Apprenticeship came later. And Septimus is the one who matters. In fact, he is the very reason we are both here right now - because we are concerned for his safety, are we not, Mr. Pye?"

"That goes without saying," Marcellus Pye said stiffly.

"And so let me repeat what I said earlier, just in case that too has slipped your mind. Septimus has a window of seven weeks in which to commence his Darke Week. I am worried that if he goes tonight, at the Dark of the Moon, as you have suggested - "

"And as he wishes," interrupted Marcellus.

"He wishes it because you have suggested it, Mr. Pye - don't think I don't know that. If Septimus embarks on his Darke Week tonight, he will be in greater danger than on any other night. Far better that he waits until the full moon in two weeks' time, when it will be less risky for him and also for the . . ." Marcia trailed off. She was anxious that if Septimus entered the Darke at such a potent time it would unbalance the Magyk in the Tower even further, but she had no wish to tell Marcellus Pye her concerns - it was none of his business.

"Less risky for him and also for the what?" Marcellus asked suspiciously. He knew Marcia was keeping something from him.

"Nothing you need to worry about, Marcellus," Marcia replied.

Marcellus was annoyed. He snapped his book closed and got to his feet. He made a slight, old-fashioned bow. "ExtraOrdinary Wizard. As you requested, I have given my opinion. I regret that it was not to your liking, but I repeat: the Dark of the Moon is the most effective time for Septimus to embark upon his Darke Week. It is the most effective time for him to go and, as I understand it, effective is what Septimus wishes it to be. He is fourteen now - today I believe." Marcellus smiled at Septimus. "Fourteen is considered old enough to make important decisions, Marcia. I think you should respect that. I have nothing further to add and I bid you good day." Marcellus bowed once again - deeper this time - and headed for the large purple door.

Septimus leaped to his feet. "I'll get the stairs for you," he said. Marcellus had had trouble with the stairs when he came up and had arrived in Marcia's room somewhat dizzy and dishevelled.

As Septimus escorted Marcellus Pye along the landing, his old tutor looked behind him to check that Marcia had not sent some kind of eavesdropping creature to follow him. He saw nothing and said in a low voice, "Septimus, I hope you realize that I would never have advised you to go into the Darke at this time if I did not have something for you that I truly believe will completely protect you." Marcellus fixed his deep brown eyes on his Apprentice - or not, depending on who you sided with. "I care about you, just as much as Madam Marcia Overstrand does."

Septimus turned a little pink. He nodded.

Marcellus Pye continued, "I did not mention this to Marcia because I believe that even now there are things that should be kept secret from the Wizarding community. They are such gossips. But for you, as my Alchemie Apprentice, it is different. Come and see me this afternoon; there is something I wish to give you."

Septimus nodded. "Thank you, Marcellus. I'll see you later."

Septimus helped Marcellus onto the stairs and set them moving downward on delicate mode - normally used for elderly Wizards and visiting parents. He watched the apparently young Marcellus Pye disappear from view. He smiled - it was in the little details that Marcellus gave his true age away.

Septimus returned to his place by the fire. He and Marcia sat in silence for a while until Marcia broke it by saying, "I don't want to lose my Apprentice. More than that, Septimus, I don't want to lose you.""You won't. I promise," Septimus replied."Don't make promises that you can't be sure to keep," Marcia told him.A silence hung in the air."Sner . . . urrrufff!""Oh, for goodness' sake," Marcia muttered, casting an irritated glance at the jinnee. "Septimus, I didn't want to mention this in front of Mr. Pye, but I am concerned about the recent glitches we've had here in the Tower. Going into the Darke is a two-way thing. It can open up channels for the Darke to come this way too.""I know," said Septimus. "I've been practicing Barriers all last week.""Yes, indeed you have. But it's still risky - and particularly so at the Dark of the Moon. I am asking you to reconsider your decision and go at the full moon instead.""But Marcellus says that this timing is my best chance to get Alther back," said Septimus. "Probably my only chance.""Marcellus! What does he know?" snapped Marcia. And then, knowing she was not playing fair, said, "Alther would agree with me.""How can you know what Alther would think?" retorted Septimus. "You don't even know if he can think anymore.""Oh, Septimus, don't," Marcia protested. "You don't know how often I wish I had stopped the Banish in time. Not a day passes when that awful moment doesn't come back to me. And then telling Alice . . ." She shook her head, unable to go on.They were silent for a while and then Septimus said, "Marcia?""Yes?""You know how you are always saying that we must be honest with each other?""Yeees?""Sner . . . snurrrufff . . .""There's something I want to ask you and I want you to be honest with me.""Of course I will be, Septimus." Marcia sounded offended."If you were me and you had this one chance to bring Alther back - even with all the risks - would you take it?""But I don't have that chance. I have already been into the Darke and therefore I am Known. There is no way I could get into the Darke Halls now."Septimus got to his feet and stood by the fire. He felt he needed the advantage of some extra height. "You haven't answered my question," he said, looking down at Marcia."No, I suppose I haven't," Marcia replied meekly."So, if you were me and had this one chance to bring Alther back, would you take it?"A silence ensued into which even Jim Knee's snores dared not intrude. At last Marcia answered."Yes," she said quietly. "Yes, I think I would.""Thank you," said Septimus. "Then I shall go tonight. At midnight.""Very well," said Marcia with a sigh. "I'll start getting things ready." She got to her feet, picked up the Apprentice Almanac and walked out to her study. She was back a few minutes later carrying a large iron key on a loop of black cord. "You'd better take it now, before I change my mind," she told Septimus. "It's the key to Dungeon Number One."Septimus buttoned the key into his secure pocket. It felt heavy and awkward - a weight he would rather not carry. He'd be glad when he no longer needed it, he thought.Hoping to make Marcia feel better, Septimus said, "I'll be okay. I shall have something to protect me."Marcia looked very annoyed. "If that Marcellus Pye has promised you some kind of Alchemie KeepSafe knickknack - he has, hasn't he - don't you dare believe it's going to make a scrap of difference. It won't. All it will do is lull you into a false sense of security. Alchemie stuff is nothing but smoke and mirrors, Septimus. All talk and no action. None of their stuff ever did work. It was complete rubbish.""But Marcia, I'm sure Marcellus - ""Marcellus! Forget about Marcellus. Septimus, you must rely only on yourself and your own Magykal powers." Marcia looked at her timepiece and sighed. "Midday already. As if it isn't enough that I have to put up with a meddling Alchemist - any minute now there will be a meddling Princess at my door declaiming from that wretched book with its tiddly-squiddly type, which is the bane of every ExtraOrdinary Wizard's life. I really could be doing without fourteenth birthdays right now." With that, Marcia stormed off to her study.Septimus sat for some time, looking into the fire and relishing the quiet - apart from an occasional snurrrufff. He thought about what Marcia had said. Deep down he felt she was wrong about Marcellus - not all Alchemie was rubbish, he'd seen that for himself. But he knew Marcia would never agree. The buildup to the Darke Week was horrible, Septimus thought. Somehow it drove a wedge between you and everyone you cared about. He really wanted Marcia's approval for what he was going to do but it was he who was going into the Darke, not Marcia. He must do it his way - not hers.Snurrruuuuufff.Septimus got to his feet. It was time to go and see Marcellus.