“Marcia, is that wise?” asked Aunt Zelda quietly.
“I am still the ExtraOrdinary Wizard and I will not be kept away,” Marcia declared.
“Well, I suggest you sleep on it,” said Aunt Zelda sensibly. “Things always look better in the morning.”
Later that night, Boy 412 lay in the flickering light of the fire, listening to Nicko’s snuffles and Jenna’s regular breathing. He had been woken up by Maxie’s loud snores, which resonated through the ceiling. Maxie was meant to sleep downstairs but he still sneaked up to lie on Silas’s bed if he thought he could get away with it. In fact, when Maxie started snoring downstairs, Boy 412 often gave the wolfhound a shove and helped him on his way. But that night Boy 412 realized that he was listening to something else apart from the snores of a wolfhound with sinus trouble.
Creaking floorboards above his head…stealthy footsteps on the stairs…the squeak of the second-to-last creaky step…Who was that? What was that? All the ghost stories that he had ever been told came back to Boy 412 as he heard the quiet swish of a cloak along the stone floor and knew that whoever, or whatever, it was had entered the same room.
Boy 412 sat up very slowly, his heart beating fast, and stared into the gloom. A dark figure was moving stealthily toward the book that Marcia had left on the desk. The figure picked up the book and tucked it into its cloak, then she saw the whites of Boy 412’s eyes staring at her out of the darkness.
“It’s me,” whispered Marcia. She beckoned Boy 412 over to her. He slipped silently out of his quilt and padded across the stone floor to see what she wanted.
“How anyone is expected to sleep in the same room as that animal I do not understand,” Marcia whispered crossly. Boy 412 smiled sheepishly. He didn’t say that it was he who had pushed Maxie up the stairs in the first place.
“I’m Returning tonight,” said Marcia. “I’m going to use the Midnight Minutes, just to make sure of things. You should remember that, the minutes on either side of midnight are the best time to Travel safely. Especially if there are those abroad who may wish you harm. Which I suspect there are. I shall make for the Palace Gate and sort that Silas Heap out. Now, what’s the time?”
Marcia pulled out her timepiece.
“Two minutes to midnight. I will be back soon. Perhaps you could tell Zelda.” Marcia looked at Boy 412 and remembered that he hadn’t uttered a word since he had told them his rank and number in the Wizard Tower. “Oh, well, it doesn’t matter if you don’t. She’ll guess where I’ve gone.”
Boy 412 suddenly thought of something important. He fumbled in the pocket of his sweater and drew out the Charm that Marcia had given him when she had asked him to be her Apprentice. He held the tiny pair of silver wings in his palm and looked at them a little regretfully. They glinted silver and gold in the Magykal glow that was beginning to surround Marcia. Boy 412 offered the Charm back to Marcia—he thought he should no longer have it, since there was no way he was ever going to be her Apprentice—but Marcia shook her head and knelt down beside him.
“No,” she whispered. “I still hope you will change your mind and decide to be my Apprentice. Think about it while I’m away. Now, it’s one minute to midnight. Stand back.”
The air around Marcia grew cold, and a shiver of strong Magyk swept around her and filled the air with an electric charge. Boy 412 retreated to the fireside, a little scared but fascinated too. Marcia closed her eyes and started to mutter something long and complicated in a language he had never heard before, and as he watched, Boy 412 saw the same Magykal haze appear that he had first seen when he was sitting in Muriel in the Deppen Ditch. Suddenly Marcia threw her cloak over herself so that she was covered from head to toe, and as she did so, the purple of the Magyk haze and the purple of the cloak mixed together. There was a loud hiss, like water dropping onto hot metal, and Marcia disappeared, leaving only a faint shadow that lingered for a few moments.
At the Palace Gate, at twenty minutes past midnight, a platoon of Guards was on duty, just as it had been every night for the past fifty bitterly cold nights. The Guards were frozen and were expecting yet another long boring night doing nothing but stamping their feet and humoring the Supreme Custodian, who had some strange idea that the ex–ExtraOrdinary Wizard was going to turn up right there. Just like that. Of course she never had, and they didn’t expect her to either. But still, every night he sent them out to wait and get their toes frozen into blocks of ice.
So when a faint purple shadow began to emerge in their midst, none of the Guards really believed what was happening.
“It’s her,” one of them whispered, half afraid of the Magyk that suddenly swirled in the air and sent uncomfortable charges of electricity through their black metal helmets. The Guards unsheathed their swords and watched as the hazy shadow composed itself into a tall figure wrapped in the purple cloak of an ExtraOrdinary Wizard.
Marcia Overstrand had Appeared right in the middle of the Supreme Custodian’s trap. She was taken by surprise, and without her KeepSafe and the protection of the Midnight Minutes—for Marcia was twenty minutes late—she was not able to stop the Captain of the Guard from ripping the Akhu Amulet from her neck.
Ten minutes later Marcia was lying at the bottom of Dungeon Number One, which was a deep, dark chimney buried in the foundations of the Castle. Marcia lay stunned, trapped in the middle of a Vortex of Shadows and Shades that DomDaniel had, with great pleasure, set up especially for her. That night was the worst night of Marcia’s life. She lay helpless in a pool of foul water, resting on a pile of bones of the dungeon’s previous occupants, tormented by the moaning and the screaming of the Shadows and Shades that whirled around her and drained her Magykal powers. It was not until the next morning—when, luckily, an Ancient ghost got lost and happened to pass through the wall of Dungeon Number One—that anyone apart from DomDaniel and the Supreme Custodian knew where she was.
The Ancient brought Alther to her, but there was nothing he could do except sit by her and encourage her to stay alive. Alther needed all his powers of persuasion, for Marcia was in despair. In a fit of temper with Silas she knew she had lost everything that Alther had fought for when he deposed DomDaniel. For once again DomDaniel had the Akhu Amulet tied around his fat neck, and it was he, not Marcia Overstrand, who truly was now the ExtraOrdinary Wizard.
THE RAT’S RETURN
Aunt Zelda did not possess a timepiece or a clock. Timepieces never worked properly at Keeper’s Cottage; there was too much Disturbance under the ground. Unfortunately, this was something that Aunt Zelda had never bothered to mention to Marcia as she herself was not too concerned with the exact time of day. If Aunt Zelda wanted to know the time, she would content herself with looking at the sundial and hoping that the sun was out, but she was much more concerned with the passing of the phases of the moon.
The day the Message Rat was rescued, Aunt Zelda had taken Jenna for a walk around the island after it got dark. The snow was as deep as ever and had such a crisp covering of frost that Jenna was able to run lightly across the top, although Aunt Zelda in her big boots sank right down. They had walked along to the end of the island, away from the lights of the cottage, and Aunt Zelda had pointed up at the dark night sky, which was brushed with hundreds of thousands of brilliant stars, more than Jenna had ever seen before.
“Tonight,” Aunt Zelda had said, “is the Dark of the Moon.”
Jenna shivered. Not from the cold but from a strange feeling she got, standing out on the island in the middle of such an expanse of stars and darkness.
“Tonight, however hard you look, you will not see the moon,” said Aunt Zelda. “No one on earth will see the moon tonight. It is not a night to venture out alone on the marsh, and if all the marsh creatures and spirits weren’t safely frozen below the ground, we would be CharmLocked into the cottage by now. But I thought you would like to see the stars without the light of the moon. Your mother always liked looking at the stars.”
Jenna gulped. “My mother? You mean, my mother when I was born?”
“Yes,” said Aunt Zelda. “I mean the Queen. She loved the stars. I thought you might too.”
“I do,” breathed Jenna. “I always used to count them from my window at home if I couldn’t get to sleep. But—how did you know my mother?”