“You mean our Message Rat was one of them?” asked Jenna, thinking of how she had rather liked him.
“No, no. He got marched off by the Rat Office heavies. He’s disappeared. Poor rat. I wouldn’t give much for his chances,” said Alther.
“Oh. That’s awful,” said Jenna.
“And the message for Marcia wasn’t from Silas either,” said Alther.
“I didn’t think it was,” said Nicko.
“It was from the Supreme Custodian,” Alther said. “So when Marcia turned up at the Palace Gate to meet Silas, the Custodian Guards were waiting for her. Of course that wouldn’t have been a problem for Marcia if she had got her Midnight Minutes right, but her timepiece was twenty minutes slow. And she’d given away her KeepSafe. It’s a bad business. DomDaniel has taken the Amulet, so I am afraid he’s now…the ExtraOrdinary Wizard.”
Jenna and Nicko were speechless. This was worse than anything they had feared.
“Excuse me,” ventured Boy 412, who felt terrible. It was his fault. If he had been her Apprentice then he could have helped her. This never would have happened. “Marcia is still…alive, isn’t she?”
Alther looked at Boy 412. His faded green eyes had a kindly expression as, using his unsettling habit of reading people’s minds, he said, “You couldn’t have done anything, lad. They would have got you too. She was in Dungeon Number One, but now—”
Boy 412 put his head in his hands in despair. He knew all about Dungeon Number One.
Alther put a ghostly arm around his shoulder. “Don’t fret now,” he told him. “I was with her for most of the time and she was doing all right. Kept going pretty well, I thought. All things considered. A few days ago I just popped out to check on various little…projects I have going on in DomDaniel’s rooms at the Tower. When I got back to the dungeon she was gone. I’ve looked everywhere I can. I even have some of the Ancients looking. You know, the really old ghosts. But they’re very faded and easily confused. Most of them don’t know their way around the Castle very well anymore—they come up against a new wall or staircase and they’re stuck. They can’t work it out. I had to go and get one out of the kitchen midden yesterday. Apparently it used to be the Wizard’s refectory. About five hundred years ago. Frankly the Ancients, sweet as they are, are more trouble than they are worth.” Alther sighed. “Although I do wonder if…”
“If what?” asked Jenna.
“If she might be on the Vengeance. Unfortunately I can’t get on the wretched ship to find out.”
Alther was cross with himself. He would now advise any ExtraOrdinary Wizard to go to as many places as they could in their lifetime so that as a ghost they were not as thwarted as he had been. But it was too late for Alther to change what he had done while he was alive; he had to make the best of it now.
At least, when he was first appointed Apprentice, DomDaniel had insisted on taking Alther on a long and very unpleasant tour of the deepest dungeons. At the time Alther had never dreamed that one day he might come to be glad of it, but if only he had accepted an invitation to the launching party on the Vengeance…Alther remembered how, as one of some promising young potential Apprentices, he had been invited to a party on board DomDaniel’s boat. Alther had turned down the invitation on account of the fact it was Alice Nettles’s birthday. No women were allowed on the ship, and Alther was certainly not going to leave Alice alone on her birthday. At the party, the potential Apprentices had run riot and caused a great deal of damage to the ship, thus ensuring that they had no hope of being offered as much as a cleaning job with the ExtraOrdinary Wizard. Not long afterward Alther was offered the ExtraOrdinary Wizard Apprenticeship. Alther had never got the chance to visit the ship again. After the disastrous party, DomDaniel took her up to Bleak Creek for a refit. Bleak Creek was an eerie anchorage full of abandoned and rotting ships. The Necromancer had liked it so much that he left his ship there and visited every year for his summer holiday.
The subdued group sat on the damp beach. They gloomily ate the last of the damp goat cheese and sardine sandwiches and drank the dregs from the flask of beetroot and carrot cordial.
“There are some times,” said Alther reflectively, “when I really miss not being able to eat anymore…”
“But this isn’t one of them?” Jenna finished for him.
“Spot on, Princess.”
Jenna fished Petroc Trelawney out of her pocket and offered him a sticky mix of squashed sardine and goat cheese. Petroc opened his eyes and looked at the offering. The pet rock was surprised. This was the kind of food he usually got from Boy 412; Jenna always gave him biscuits. But he ate it anyway, apart from a piece of goat cheese that stuck to his head and then later to the inside of Jenna’s pocket.
When they had finished chewing the last of the soggy sandwiches, Alther said seriously, “Now, down to business.”
Three worried faces looked at the ghost.
“Listen to me, all of you. You must go straight back to Keeper’s Cottage. I want you to tell Zelda to take you all to the Port first thing tomorrow morning. Alice—she is Chief Customs Officer down there now—is finding you a ship. You are to go to the Far Countries while I try and sort things out here.”
“But—” gasped Jenna, Nicko and Boy 412.
Alther ignored their protest.
“I will meet you all at the Blue Anchor Tavern on the Harbor tomorrow morning. You must be there. Your mother and father are coming too, along with Simon. They are on their way down the river in my old boat, Molly. I am afraid that Sam, Erik and Edd and Jo-Jo have refused to leave the Forest—they have gone quite wild, but Morwenna will keep an eye on them.”
There was an unhappy silence. No one liked what Alther had said.
“That’s running away,” Jenna said quietly. “We want to stay. And fight.”
“I knew you’d say that,” sighed Alther. “It is just what your mother would have said. But you must go now.”
Nicko stood up.
“All right,” he said reluctantly. “We’ll see you tomorrow at the Port.”
“Good,” said Alther. “Now, be careful and I’ll see you all tomorrow.” He floated up and watched the three of them trail disconsolately back to the Muriel Two. Alther stayed watching until he was satisfied that they were making good progress along the Deppen Ditch and then he sped off along the river, flying low and fast, off to join Molly. Soon he was just a small speck in the distance.
Which was when the Muriel Two turned around and headed straight back toward the Vengeance.
There was much discussion in the Muriel Two.
“I really don’t know about this. Marcia might not even be on the Vengeance.”
“I bet she is, though.”
“We’ve got to find her. I’m sure I could rescue her.”
“Look, just because you’ve been in the Army doesn’t mean you can go storming ships and rescuing people.”
“It means you can try.”
“He’s right, Nicko.”
“We’d never make it. They’ll see us coming. Every ship always has a watch on board.”
“But we could do that spell, you know the one…what was it?”
“Cause Yourself to be Unseen. Easy. Then we could paddle out to the ship and I’ll climb up the rope ladder, and then—”
“Whoa, stop there. That’s dangerous.”
“Marcia rescued me when I was in danger.”
“All right. You win.”
As the Muriel Two rounded the last bend of the Deppen Ditch, Boy 412 reached up into the pocket inside his red beanie hat and drew out the dragon ring.
“What’s that ring?” asked Nicko.
“Um, it’s Magyk. I found it. Under the ground.”
“It looks a bit like the dragon on the Amulet,” said Nicko.
“Yes,” said Boy 412, “I thought that too.” He slipped it on his finger and felt the ring grow warm. “Shall I do the spell, then?” he asked.
Jenna and Nicko nodded and Boy 412 began to chant:
Let me Fade into the Aire
Let all against me know not Where
Let them that Seeke me pass me by