At first, when Marcia came back to the Tower, she was too busy to notice anything amissapart from the spiders. She had, for the first time, an Apprentice to think about; she had the Heapswho were now living up at the Palaceto deal with and a bunch of Ordinary Wizards to sort out and settle back into the Tower. But as Septimus's first summer at the Wizard Tower had drawn on, Marcia had begun to notice, out of the corner of her eye, a Darkenesse following her. At first she had thought she was imagining it, for every time she glanced back over her shoulder and had a proper look, there was nothing to be seen. It wasn't until Alther Mella, the ghost of Marcia's old tutor and ExtraOrdinary Wizard, had told her that he could see something too that Marcia knew she was not imagining thingsthere was a Darke Shadow following her.

And so, for the last year, piece by piece, Marcia had been building a ShadowSafe, which was nearly finished. It stood in the corner of the room, a tangle of shiny black rods and bars made from Professor Weasal Van Klampff s special Amalgam. A strange black mist played around the bars of the ShadowSafe, and occasionally flashes of orange light leaped between them. But at last the ShadowSafe was nearly finished, and soon Marcia would be able to walk inside it with the Shadow following her and walk out again, leaving the Shadow behind. And that, Marcia hoped, would be the end of the Darkenesse in the Tower.

As Septimus stared at his thumb, which was now twice its normal size and turning a nasty purple, he heard Marcia's study door open.

"I'm off, Septimus," said Marcia purposefully. "I've got to go and pick up another part of the ShadowSafe. I told old Weasal I'd be down this morning. It's almost the last piece. We've only got the Stopper to collect after this, Septimus, and that will be that. Good-bye Shadow."

"Aargh," Septimus groaned.

Marcia peered suspiciously around the door. "And what are you doing in the potions room?" she asked irritably, catching sight of Septimus's hand. "My goodness, what have you done? Have you burned yourself doing a Fire Spell again? I don't want any more singed parrots hanging around here, Septimus. They smell disgusting and it's not fair to the parrots either."

"Aargh. That was a mistake," muttered Septimus. "I meant to do a Firebird Spell. It could have happened to anyone. OuchI've been bitten."

Marcia came in, and behind her Septimus could see a slight murkiness in the air as the Shadow followed her into the potion room. Marcia bent down and looked more closely at Septimus's thumb, almost enveloping him in her purple cloak as she did so. Marcia was a tall woman with long, dark, curly hair and the intense green eyes that always came to Magykal people, once they were exposed to Magyk. Septimus had the same green eyes too, although before he had met Marcia Overstrand they had been a dull gray. Like all ExtraOrdinary Wizards who had lived in the Wizard Tower before her, Marcia wore the lapis and gold Akhu Amulet around her neck, a deep purple silk tunic fastened with the ExtraOrdinary gold and platinum belt and a Magykal purple cloak. She also had on a pair of purple python shoes, carefully chosen that morning from a rack of about a hundred other almost identical purple python shoes that she had taken to stockpiling since her return to the Wizard Tower. Septimus wore, as usual, his only pair of brown leather boots. Septimus liked his boots,and although Marcia often offered to get some new ones made for him in a nice emerald python skin to match his green Apprentice robes, he always refused. Marcia just couldn't understand it.

"That's a spider bite," said Marcia, grabbing hold of his thumb.

"Ouch!" Septimus yelled.

"I don't like the look of that at all," Marcia muttered.

Neither did Septimus. His thumb was now dark purple. His fingers looked like five sausages stuck on a football, and he could feel sharp pains shooting up his arm toward his heart. Septimus swayed slightly.

"Sit down, sit down," said Marcia urgently, throwing some papers off a small chair and guiding Septimus down onto it. Quickly she took a small vial out of the Medicine Chest. It had the words SPIDER VENOM scrawled on it and contained a murky green liquid. Marcia took out a long, thin glass dropper from the scary-looking medical instruments that were lined up in the lid of the chest like bizarre cutlery in a picnic basket. Then she sucked up the green venom into the dropper, being extremely careful not to get any in her mouth.

Septimus pulled his thumb out of Marcia's grasp. "That's poison!" he protested.

"There's a Darkenesse in that bite," said Marcia, putting her thumb on top of the venom-filled dropper and carefully holding it away from her cloak, "and the Spider Balm is making it worse. Sometimes you have to fight like with like. Venom with venom. Trust me."

Septimus did trust Marcia; in fact he trusted her more than anyone else. So he gave her back his thumb and closed his eyes while Marcia dropped Spider Venom onto the bite and muttered what sounded to Septimus like an Anti-Hex Incantation. As Marcia did so the shooting pains up his arm died away, his light-headedness left him and he began to think that maybe his thumb would not explode after all.

Calmly, Marcia replaced everything back in the Medicine Chest, and then she turned and considered her Apprentice. Not surprisingly, he looked pale. But she had, thought Marcia, been working him too hard. He could do with a day out in the summer sunshine. And, more to the point, she didn't want his mother, Sarah Heap, coming around again either.

Marcia had still not forgotten the visit Sarah had made not long after Septimus had become her Apprentice. One Sunday morning Marcia had answered a loud banging on the door, only to find Sarah Heap on the other side, accompanied by an audience of Wizards from the floor below, who had all come up to see what the noise wasfor no one ever dared bang on the ExtraOrdinary Wizard's door like that.

To the amazement of the assembled audience, Sarah had then proceeded to tell Marcia off.

"My Septimus and I were apart for the first ten years of his life," Sarah had said heatedly, "and, Madam Marcia, I do not intend to spend the next ten years seeing as little of him as I did for the first ten. So I will thank you to let the boy come home for his father's birthday today."

Much to Marcia's annoyance, this had been greeted with a small round of applause from the assembled Wizards. Both Marcia and Septimus had been amazed at Sarah's speech. Marcia was amazed because no one ever spoke to her like that. No one. And Septimus was amazed because he didn't realize that that was what mothers did, although he rather liked it.

The last thing Marcia wanted was a repeat visit from Sarah. "Off you go then," she said, half expecting Sarah Heap to appear and demand to know why Septimus looked so pale. "It's time you spent a day with your family. And while you're there, you can remind your mother to make sure that Jenna gets off to Zelda's tomorrow for her MidSummer Visit to the Dragon Boat. If I had my way she would have left days ago, but Sarah will insist on leaving everything to the last minute. I'll see you tonight, Septimusmidnight at the latest. And the chocolate Charm is yours, by the way."

"Oh, thanks." Septimus smiled. "But I'm fine now, really. I don't need a day off."

"Yes, you do," Marcia told him. "Go on, off you go."

Despite himself, Septimus smiled. Maybe a day off would not be so bad. He could see Jenna before she went and give her the chocolate Charm.

"All right then," he said. "I'll be back by midnight."

Septimus headed for the heavy purple front door, which recognized Marcia's Apprentice and flung itself open as he approached.

"Hey!" Marcia shouted after him. "You've forgotten the spiders!"

"Bother," muttered Septimus.

Chapter 2 Wizard Way

Septimus stepped onto the silver spiral stairs at the top of the Tower. "Hall, please," he said. As the stairs began to move smoothly down, turning like a giant corkscrew, Septimus held up the spider jar. He squinted at the occupants, which now numbered only five, and wondered if he had seen the hairy spider before. The hairy spider looked back at Septimus with a baleful stare. It had certainly seen him before. Four times to be precise, the spider thought crossly; four times it had been picked up, stuffed into a jar and dumped outside. The boy was lucky it hadn't bitten him before. Still, at least there was some decent food in the jar this time. The two soft young spiders had gone down very nicely,even though it had had to chase them around the jar for a while. The hairy spider settled down and resigned itself to the journey. Again.