Septimus knew the way to Professor Van Klampff's house far too well for his liking. Almost since his first days as Apprentice, Marcia had sent him over every Saturday morning to knock on the Professor's door and collect one of the many and complex pieces of the ShadowSafe. But even if the Professor had a piece readywhich was a rare eventand actually gave it to Septimus, Una Brakket would waylay him at the door and demand it back. She did not, she would tell Septimus, trust a boy with such a valuable object. Marcia herself must come and collect it. A long-distance battle had ensued between Marcia and Una, with Septimus batted to and fro like a shuttlecock. Every Saturday morning, Septimus would wait outside Professor Van Klampff's house for as long as he could stand being laughed at and shouted at by a group of boys from the Young Army Resettlement Home, who always hung around the pier, daring each other to jump into the water.
Eventually, to Septimus's relief, Alther had advised Marcia to give in and collect the components herself. Una Brakket may have a point, Alther advised; the ShadowSafe was indeed a complex and highly Magykal device, and it was not fair to make Septimus responsible for it. Just to irritate Una, Marcia had taken to occasionally arriving unannounced in the early hours of the morning.
Half an hour ago, the boys on the pier had watched the ExtraOrdinary Wizard stride down the Snake Slipway and give a vicious tug on the bellpull that hung beside Weasal Van Klampff's thick wooden door. Marcia had waited impatiently on the Slipway. She tapped her purple python shoes irritably on the stone cobbles while she heard mutterings and scufflings inside the house, until Una Brakketwho knew by the long, insistent ringing of the bell that it was Marciaopened the door. Eventually.
And now Septimus was back at the dreaded front door once again. Alther was no protection, as the ghost could choose to whom he would Appear, and quite understandably he chose not to Appear to a bunch of mocking boys. But Septimus, in his bright green tunic and shiny silver Apprentice belt, had no such choice. Sure enough the chorus of catcalls soon started:
"Too stuck-up to talk to us then, are ya?""Greeny-guts, greeny-guts!""Hey, caterpillar-boy! Whatcha doin' back here again?"
And so on. Septimus longed to turn the lot of them into caterpillars, but it was against the Magyk codeand the boys knew that.
"Here we are," Septimus told Alther, as he reached up and save the bellpull a hefty tug. Far, far away, unheard by either Alther or Septimus, a small bell rangmuch to the annoyance of the housekeeper. Septimus knew they were in for a wait; he turned to the ghost who was hovering behind him, staring up at the house. "Do you think you'll be able to come inside?" Septimus asked Alther, hoping that he would be able to.
"Hmm ... I'm not sure," replied Alther. "It looks familiar. I remember going to a party down by the Moat. It was quite a party toowe all ended up in the water. I think it was in this house, but ... well, I'll soon find out when we go inside."
Septimus nodded. He knew that, as a ghost, Alther could only go to places that he had been during his life. Alther had pretty much traveled all the roads and alleyways in the Castle, and, as ExtraOrdinary Wizard, he had been in most of the official buildings. But people's houses were another matterAlther had been a popular young man in his day but even he had not managed to be invited to every single house in the Castle.
The door was suddenly thrown open.
"Oh, it's you again," said Una Brakket, who was a tall,spiky-looking woman with extremely short black hair.
"I need to see the ExtraOrdinary Wizard," said Septimus. "Please."
"She's busy," snapped Una.
"It's very urgent," Septimus insisted. "It's a matter of life or death."
The housekeeper shot Septimus a suspicious look. She stood at the door for a moment, weighing the two almost equally unpleasant prospects of having Septimus in the house or having the ExtraOrdinary Wizard angry with her for not letting Septimus in.
"All right then. Come in." The housekeeper held the door open and Septimus entered, closely followed by Alther. But, as Alther crossed the threshold of the house, there was a sudden violent rush of air, and the ghost was hurled straight out the door and Returned to the street.
"Bother," muttered Alther as he picked himself up off the cobbles. "I remember now. The party was at the house next door."
"It's very windy out there all of a sudden," said Una, puzzled. She slammed the door crossly, leaving Alther floating outside; then she turned to Septimus, who was standing in the gloomy hallway, wishing he was still outside in the sun with Alther.
"You had better come down to the Laboratory," she said.
Chapter 7 The Laboratory
Septimus stepped over a large paper bag full of carrots and followed Una Brakket down the dark hallway. Previously he had only been allowed into the narrow front room that overlooked the street, but, as he followed the housekeeper deep into the gloomy recesses of the hall, Septimus was surprised to find that the house seemed to go on forever. Una Brakket stopped by a low door and lit a candle. Soon Septimus was following her down some steep wooden steps into a damp and musty-smelling cellar. The cellar was long and narrow with a low vaulted roof, and the sounds of the paddleboats being dragged out of the boathouse echoed eerily through the walls. It was stuffed full of what looked like years of accumulated junk: there were heaps of rusty tripods and Bunsen burners, stacks of wooden boxes stuffed full of ancient yellowing papers, piles of broken scientific instruments and even an old pair of ice skates hanging on the wall.
With Septimus trotting behind, Una strode to the back of the cellar and went through a small archway. The light of her candle quickly faded as she disappeared around a corner, and Septimus found himself in pitch-blackness, unsure of which way to gobut that didn't worry Septimus, for the Dragon ring that he wore on his right index finger began to glow, as it always did in the dark, and soon he had enough light to see where he was again.
"Where are you? I haven't got all day," Una Brakket's sharp voice cut through the gloom as she came back to see where Septimus had gone. "I don't allow boys with candles down here," she snapped, noticing the light glowing from his hand.
"But" Septimus protested.
"In fact I don't allow boys down here at all. And if it were up to me I wouldn't even let them in the house. Nothing but trouble, boys."
"Now just put that candle out and follow me." Septimus stuffed his right hand into his tunic pocket and followed Una Brakket into a narrow brick-lined tunnel. The tunnel wound its way deep beneath the streets of the Castle, taking them underneath the neighboring houses and gardens. The candle flame flickered and guttered in the cold gusts of air that eddied through the tunnel, bringing with them damp smells of earth and mold. As they progressed onward, an icy chill settled in the air; Septimus shivered and began to wonder where exactly Una was taking him.
Suddenly she stoppeda thick wooden door barred the way. From a bundle of keys that hung from her belt, the housekeeper selected the largest one and pushed it into the keyhole, which was oddly placed in the middle of the door. Septimus was just peering around her to see what she was doing when a loud whirring noise started up from behind the door.
Una Brakket jumped back suddenly, landing heavily on Septimus's foot.
"Get back!" She gave Septimus a hefty shove and sent him flying back into the tunnel a split second before the wooden door came crashing down in front of them like a small drawbridge.
"Wait there," snapped Una. "You are not to come any farther. I will tell Madam Marcia that she is required." With that Una Brakket strode across the door as if it really was a drawbridge.
Septimus followed her into the Laboratory.
Professor Weasal Van Klampff's Laboratory was the strangest place that Septimus had ever seen, and he had seen some very odd places since he had become Marcia's Apprentice.
The Laboratory was bathed in a low blue light. It was a long, thin, vaulted underground room and contained a forest of murmuring, bubbling vials and flasks, flagons and funnels, all connected by a large glass tube which looped and soared down the entire length of the Laboratory. From the end of this apparatus a blue gas, which Professor Van Klampff believed Kept Shadows at bay, bubbled into the air, giving the whole place a distinctive smell that reminded Septimus of burned pumpkin.
Septimus peered through the blue haze, trying to see where Marcia was. At the far end of the Laboratory he could just about make out the tall figure of Marcia and the stumpy shape of the Professor. Marcia was holding a tall glass tube full of a shiny black liquid; she had been startled by the bang of the door falling open and was staring into the blue vapor to see what was going on.