“Floating around?” cried Aunt Zelda. “Rabbits don’t float.”
“These rabbits were. I passed quite a few, just lying on their backs. Like they were sunbathing.”
“Sunbathing?” squeaked Aunt Zelda. “At night?”
“Aunt Zelda,” said Jenna sternly, “forget the rabbits. There’s a storm coming.”
Aunt Zelda stopped fussing and surveyed the three damp figures in front of her.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “What was I thinking about? Go and get dry by the fire.”
While Jenna, Nicko and Boy 412 stood steaming by the fire, Aunt Zelda peered out into the night again. Then she quietly closed the cottage door.
“There’s a Darkenesse out there,” she whispered. “I should have noticed, but Boggart’s been bad, very bad…and to think you’ve been out in it…on your own.” Aunt Zelda shivered.
Jenna started to explain, “It’s DomDaniel,” she said. “He’s—”
“Horrible,” Jenna said. “We saw him. On his ship.”
“You what?” said Aunt Zelda, openmouthed, not daring to believe what she was hearing. “You saw DomDaniel? On the Vengeance? Where?”
“Near the Deppen Ditch. We just climbed up and—”
“Climbed up what?”
“The ladder. We got on the ship—”
“You—you’ve been on the Vengeance?” Aunt Zelda could hardly understand what she was hearing. Jenna noticed that her aunt had suddenly gone very pale, and her hands were trembling slightly.
“It’s a bad ship,” said Nicko. “Smells bad. Feels bad.”
“You were on there too?”
“No,” said Nicko, wishing now that he had been. “I would have gone, but my Unseen wasn’t good enough, so I stayed behind. With the canoes.”
It took Aunt Zelda a few seconds to take this all in. She looked at Boy 412.
“So you and Jenna have been on that Darke ship…on your own…in the middle of all that Darke Magyk. Why?”
“Oh, well, we met Alther—” Jenna tried to explain.
“And he told us that Marcia—”
“Marcia? What’s Marcia got to do with it?”
“She’s been captured by DomDaniel,” said Boy 412. “Alther said he thought she might be on the ship. And she was. We saw her.”
“Oh, my. This just gets worse.” Aunt Zelda collapsed into her chair by the fire. “That interfering old ghost should know better,” snapped Aunt Zelda. “Sending three youngsters off to a Darke ship. What was he thinking of?”
“He didn’t send us, really he didn’t,” said Boy 412. “He told us not to, but we had to try to rescue Marcia. But we couldn’t though…”
“Marcia’s captured,” whispered Aunt Zelda. “This is bad.” She stabbed at the fire with a poker, and a few flames shot into the air.
A long, loud rumble of thunder rolled across the sky right above the cottage, shaking it to its foundations. A wild gust of wind found its way through the windows, blowing out the storm candles and leaving only the flickering fire to light the room. A moment later a sudden downpour of hail clattered against the windows and fell down the chimney, putting out the fire with an angry hiss.
The cottage was plunged into darkness.
“The lanterns!” said Aunt Zelda, getting up and finding her way through the dark to the lantern cupboard.
Maxie whined and Bert hid her head under her one good wing.
“Bother, now where’s the key?” muttered Aunt Zelda, scrabbling around in her pockets and finding nothing. “Bother, bother, bother.”
A bolt of lightning shot past the windows, illuminating the scene outside, and struck the water very close to the cottage.
“Missed,” said Aunt Zelda grimly, “just.”
Maxie yelped and burrowed under the rug.
Nicko was staring out the window. In the brief glare of the lightning he had seen something he had not wanted to see again.
“He’s coming,” he said quietly. “I saw the ship. In the distance. Sailing over the marshes. He’s coming here.”
Everyone scrambled to the window. At first all they could see was the darkness of the approaching storm, but as they watched, staring into the night, a flicker of sheet lightning played across the clouds and showed them the sight that Nicko had glimpsed before.
Silhouetted against the lightning, still far away but with its sails flying in the howling wind, the huge Darke ship was cutting through the waves and heading toward the cottage.
The Vengeance was coming.
THE DRAGON BOAT
Aunt Zelda was panicking.
“Where is the key? I can’t find the key! Oh, here it is.”
With shaking hands she drew the key out of one of her patchwork pockets and opened the door to the lantern cupboard. She took out a lantern and gave it to Boy 412.
“You know where to go, don’t you?” asked Aunt Zelda. “The trapdoor in the potion cupboard?”
Boy 412 nodded.
“Go down into the tunnel. You’ll be safe there. No one will find you. I’ll make the trapdoor Disappear.”
“But aren’t you coming?” Jenna asked Aunt Zelda.
“No,” she said quietly. “Boggart’s very sick. I’m afraid he may not last if I move him. Don’t worry about me. It’s not me they want. Oh, look, take this, Jenna. You may as well have him with you.” Aunt Zelda fished Jenna’s Shield Bug out of yet another pocket and gave the rolled-up bug to her. Jenna tucked the bug into her jacket pocket.
Boy 412 hesitated, and another crack of lightning split the air.
“Go!” squeaked Aunt Zelda, waving her arms about like a demented windmill. “Go!”
Boy 412 opened the trapdoor in the potion cupboard and held the lantern high, his hand trembling a little, while Jenna scrambled down the ladder. Nicko hung back, wondering where Maxie had got to. He knew how much the wolfhound hated thunderstorms, and he wanted to take him with him.
“Maxie,” he called out. “Maxie boy!” From underneath the rug a faint wolfhound whine came in reply.
Boy 412 was already halfway down the ladder.
“Come on,” he told Nicko. Nicko was busy wrestling with the recalcitrant wolfhound who refused to come out from what he considered to be the safest place in the world. Under the hearth rug.
“Hurry up,” said Boy 412 impatiently, his head sticking back up through the trapdoor. What Nicko saw in that heap of smelly fur Boy 412 had no idea.
Nicko had grabbed hold of the spotted scarf that Maxie wore around his neck. He heaved the terrified dog out from under the rug and was dragging him across the floor. Maxie’s claws made a hideous scraping noise on the stone flags and as Nicko shoved him into the dark potion cupboard he whined piteously. Maxie knew he must have been very bad to deserve this. He wondered what it was he had done. And why he hadn’t enjoyed it more at the time.
In a flurry of fur and dribble, Maxie fell through the trapdoor and landed on Boy 412, knocking the lantern from his hand, putting it out and sending it rolling away down the steep incline.
“Now look what you’ve done,” Boy 412 told the dog crossly as Nicko joined him at the bottom of the wooden ladder.
“What?” asked Nicko. “What have I done?”
“Not you. Him. Lost the lantern.”
“Oh, we’ll find it. Stop worrying. We’re safe now.” Nicko hauled Maxie to his feet, and the wolfhound skittered down the sandy slope, his claws scrabbling on the rock underneath, dragging Nicko with him. They both slipped and slid down the steep slope, coming to rest in an unruly heap at the bottom of some steps.
“Ow!” said Nicko. “I think I’ve found the lantern.”
“Good,” said Boy 412 grumpily. He picked up the lantern, which sprang to life again and lit up the smooth marble walls of the tunnel.
“There’re those pictures again,” said Jenna. “Aren’t they amazing?”
“How come everyone’s been down here except for me?” complained Nicko. “No one asked if I might have liked to look at the pictures. Hey, there’s a boat in this one, look.”