"Sorry. I mean, yes, Mr. Fox. If I can just squeeze past please, if you don't mind, Mr. Fox. Sorry."
"Oh, give me patience..."
In the time it took for Partridge to untangle himself from Hugh Fox, apologize yet again and flee to the safety of his desk, Beetle had pulled a large brass lever that was set into the wall. A low hiss filled the room and this time it wasn't the snake. Underneath the table a concealed round trapdoor rose slowly from the floor and a chill breath of air came into the room.
"Get down there, Sep, now!" Beetle said urgently. Septimus cast a regretful glance at the snake, which was still tightly coiled around the Flyte Charm and hissing even more angrily, having mistaken the sound of the trapdoor for a rival snake. But with the tread of Hugh Fox's brisk footsteps coming closer, Septimus picked up Marcia's book and slipped through the trapdoor, closely followed by Beetle.
Chapter 35 In the Ice Tunnels
The trapdoor closed above them with a quiet hiss and settled into its seal. Septimus shivered. It was icy cold underneath the Hermetic Chamberand pitch-black. Septimus's Dragon Ring began to glow with its usual warm yellow light.
"You've got some pretty good stuff, haven't you, Sep?" Beetle said admiringly. "But this is a better light for down here." Bettle snapped open a small tin. Inside was a flat stone that gave off a bright blue light, making the white walls surrounding them glisten and sparkle.
Septimus looked around, expecting to find that they were in some kind of cellar. He was surprised to see that they were actually standing in the middle of a long white tunnel, which stretched on either side of them for as far as he could see.
"This is the first place Old Foxy is going to look," Beetle whispered, glancing up at the trapdoor anxiously. "We better get going." Beetle took down from the wall a large board with two metal strips running down either side of it. Beetle put the board on the white floor of the tunnel, sat down on it and smiled. "Jump aboard, Sep." Septimus went to do just thatsuddenly his feet shot out from under him and he landed with a thud.
"Ouch," he gasped. "It's as slippery as ice. What is this stuff, Beetle?"
"Ice," said Beetle. "C'mon, get up, Sep."
"Ice? But it's the middle of summer. Where are we, Beetle?"
"In the Ice Tunnels of course," Beetle told him. "Where did you think we were?"
"I dunno. In a secret room under the Chamber I s'pose. Ice tunnelswhat are they?"
"I thought you knew about the Ice Tunnels. Being the Number One Apprentice and all that. C'mon, Sep, get on the sled."
There was hardly any room left for Septimus. He squeezed in behind Beetle and then realized he had left The Undoing of the Darkenesse on the ice. "Hang on, Beetle, there's no room for Marcia's book."
"Well, sit on it then," Beetle told him, somewhat exasperated. "And hurry up. Old Foxy will be shoving his pointy nose down here any minute now."
Septimus got up, plonked the book down on the sled and sat on it. Septimus felt uneasy; he didn't like the Ice Tunnels at all. A chill wind was blowing, and as it swept by, Septimus could hear the sound of wailing and crying. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
"Right," said Beetle cheerily. "Hold on tight, we're off." The sled shot off like a rocket, nearly hurling Septimus to the ground, but they had not even reached the first bend when the unmistakable sound of a hiss filled the tunnelthe trapdoor was opening. Beetle swerved into the wall and snapped his light tin shut. Septimus shoved his hand in his pocket to douse the light from the Dragon Ring, and they sat stock-still in the icy darkness, holding their breath. Suddenly a beam of light cut through the dark, shining down from the open trapdoor, and the Chief Hermetic Scribe hung his head from the opening looking like a bizarre novelty lampshade. His pointed features peered to the left and to the right, and then his voice reverberated along the tunnel, sounding deeper and more impressive than it really was.
"Don't be ridiculous, Partridge. I can't see Beetle anywhere. Why on earth would he want to go down thereit's not Inspection Day. And why would he take the book? It's no good you trying to shift the blame when it is entirely your responsibility..." The rest of Hugh Fox's tirade was cut off by the hiss of the trapdoor closing.
"Let's get out of here!" Septimus muttered under his breath.
Beetle snapped open his light tin and the sled shot off along the tunnel.
They traveled fast and the little sled took the wide bends with practiced ease. After a few minutes Beetle slowed the sled down; Septimus relaxed his white-knuckled grip on the sides and glanced behind him.
"No point in rushing, Sep," said Beetle. "No one will be after uswe've got the only Charmed sled."
"You sure?" asked Septimus, still looking back.
'"Course I'm sure. It is my sled after all. I'm the only one who does the inspections."
"But what do you inspect, Beetle?" Septimus asked, as the sled trundled itself up a steady incline. "And why?"
"Dunno why, Sep. Nobody tells me why. Just come down every week and have a whiz around on the sled and look out for any cracks in the ice, thawing, disturbanceyou know, stuff like thatand check all the trapdoors are Sealed."
"What, there are more trapdoors?" asked Septimus.
"Yeah, loads. All the old houses have 'em down in the cellars. Head down, and don't breathe in whatever you dohere comes Hilda." Septimus ducked just as a thin white streak of wailing mist swept toward them, spiraling along the glistening walls. The Ice Wraith passed over the sled, swirling around Beetle and Septimus as they hurtled along, chilling them to the bone. As Septimus hunched down, he felt his hair crackle with ice; the air in his nose and mouth froze solid, and for a terrible moment he thought he would suffocate. And then suddenly the Wraith was gone, wailing and curling along the walls on her endless tour of the Ice Tunnels.
"Phew," Beetle breathed out heavily as he accelerated the sled up a steep incline. "Okay, she's gone now. She won't be back for an hour or so. Usually takes her that long to do the rounds. We'll easily be at the Wizard Tower by then."
"This goes to the Wizard Tower?" gasped Septimus, struggling to get his breath back.
"The Ice Tunnels go everywhere, Sep. Well, they go under all the really old bits of the Castle. They join up the Wizard Tower, the Palace, lots of the shops down Wizard Way and the old houses down by the Moat. Oops, tight corner coming up."
"Aargh! Not so fast, Beetle. But how come they're still iced-up in the middle of summer? It doesn't make sense."
"Well, I think it happened ages ago after something went wrong with something or other," said Beetle vaguely. "No one wants to get rid of the ice now because they don't want what's underneath it getting out."
"What is underneath, Beetle?"
"I dunno. Hold tight." Beetle swerved to avoid two pale figures in ragged gray robes, and Septimus nearly fell off.
"Sorry, Sep," said Beetle, righting the sled and carrying on. "I hate going through ghosts, especially those two. They keep asking me the way out. Drives me nuts."
The sled trundled on, the runners traveling effortlessly over the smooth ice; it traveled as easily up the gentle inclines in the tunnel as it did down. Septimus had become used to the chill winds and the occasional lost ghost and was almost enjoying the journey when Beetle slammed the sled to a sudden halt and snapped his light tin shut. Ahead of them, a yellow beam of light shone down like a spotlight from the roof of the tunnel.
"What's that?" whispered Septimus.
"Someone's UnSealed a trap," whispered Beetle.
"Who?" asked Septimus, his heart beating fast.
"It's the Van Klampff trap," said Beetle under his breath.
"Look" gasped Septimus. "Someone's coming down."
A pair of feet wearing ice skates dangled through the trapdoor. Septimus thought it must be Una Brakket, for the rotund Weasal Van Klampff never would have fitted through the trapdoor. For a brief moment the skates dangled uncertainly in the spotlight; then a familiar figure dropped down and landed on the ice like a cat. Crouched, as if waiting to pounce, Simon Heap peered into the dark.
"Who's there?" Simon called out a little uncertainly, his eyes not yet adjusted to the gloom.
"Simon!" Septimus gasped.