When he returned, squeezing through a long-forgotten Moat inspection chamber, Marcellus had taken a tall candle, marked the hours off down its length and stuck a pin into the fourth mark as an alarm. Not because he was afraid he might fall asleep, for Marcellus Pye slept no more—indeed he could not remember when he had last slept—but because he feared that he would forget the Appointed Hour, which he had promised his mother faithfully he would not miss. The thought of his mother made Marcellus grimace as if he had just eaten an unexpectedly rotten piece of apple with a fat maggot sitting in it. He shuddered and huddled up inside his threadbare cloak for warmth. He placed the candle in a glass, then sat on the cold stone bench under the Great Chimney and watched the candle burn all through the night, while old Alchemical formulae drifted in and out of his mind in their usual haphazard and useless way.
Above him the Great Chimney rose like a pillar of darkness. Cold wind swirled inside it and howled the way the Creatures in Marcellus's flasks once used to howl to get out—now he knew how they had felt. As the candle steadily burned down, Marcellus cast the occasional anxious glance at the pin and stared up into the blackness of the Chimney. As the flame approached the pin he tapped his foot nervously and started to chew his fingernails, an old habit that he soon thought better of. They tasted disgusting.
To pass the time and take his mind off what he would soon have to do, Marcellus thought about his escapade the previous night. It had been many years since he'd been out in the open air and it had not been so bad. It had been cloudy and dark and there was a pleasant mist that had muffled any sounds. He had sat for a while on Snake Slipway and waited, but Mother had been wrong. No one had arrived. That hadn't bothered him too much for he liked the Slipway; it held happy memories of when he had lived there, next to the house where they now kept those silly paddleboats. He had sat at his old place by the water and checked that his gold pebbles were still there. It had been good to see a bit of gold again, even though they had been hidden under a coating of mud and were badly scratched, presumably by those stupid boats. Marcellus frowned. When he'd been a young man he had had a real boat. The river was deep then, not the silted-up and lazy waterway that it was now. True, the waters had been fast and treacherous, but in those days, boats were big with long and heavy keels, great swaths of sail and beautiful woodwork painted in gold and silver. Yes, thought Marcellus, boats were boats in those days. And the sun always shone. Always. Never a rainy day that he could remember. He sighed and stretched out his hands, looking with distaste at his withered fingers, the parchmentlike skin stretched tight and transparent across every lump and hollow of the old bones inside, and at his thick yellow fingernails that he no longer had the strength to cut. He grimaced again; he was completely and utterly revolting. Would nothing release him? A faint memory of hope came to him and then slipped from his mind. He was not surprised—he forgot everything nowadays.
There was a sudden ping as the pin fell from the burning candle and hit the glass.
Wearily Marcellus got to his feet, and feeling inside the Great Chimney, he clutched at a rung and swung himself onto an iron ladder that was bolted to the old brick of the inside walls. Then, like a misshapen monkey, the Last Alchemist began the long climb up the inside of the Great Chimney.
It took Marcellus longer than he had expected to reach the top of the Chimney. It was more than an hour later when, exhausted and weak, he pulled himself onto the broad ledge that ran around the top. And there he sat, eyes shut tight, pale and wheezing, trying to catch his breath and hoping that he wasn't too late. Mother would be angry. After a couple of minutes Marcellus made himself open his eyes. He wished he hadn't. The faint light from his candle way down at the foot of the Chimney made him feel dizzy and sick with the thought of how far he had climbed.
He shivered in the dank wind and drew his feet up under his cloak; his cracked old toes felt like blocks of ice. Maybe, thought Marcellus, they were blocks of ice.
It was then that Marcellus heard voices—young voices—echoing through the walls of the Chimney. Creaking like a rusty gate, the Alchemist pulled himself to his feet and shuffled toward what, at first, seemed to be a dark window in the wall of the Chimney. As he approached, it became clear that the window was no ordinary window, but more like a deep pool of the darkest water imaginable. Fumbling, Marcellus Pye took a large gold disc from underneath his tattered robes and touched it against an indentation at the top of the Glass. He peered into the darkness of the first Glass he had ever made and, for a moment, looked surprised. As if in a dream he raised his left hand and then frowned. After a few moments, Marcellus stuck out his tongue, and then he pounced.
With a speed that startled his old bones, Marcellus Pye threw himself toward the Glass and pushed his arms through it, his fingers clawing into empty space. The Alchemist cursed, he had missed. Missed. The boy—what was his name?—had escaped. With one last stretch he pushed farther through the Glass and, to his relief, grabbed hold of the boy's tunic. After that it was easy; he wrapped his fingers around the Apprentice belt—this was where the curved nails came in handy—and pulled.
The boy put up a fight, but that was to be expected. What he had not expected was the sudden appearance of Esmeralda. His old brain was playing cruel tricks on him nowadays. But Marcellus pulled with all his strength, for this was a matter of life or death to him, and suddenly the boy's boots came off in Esmeralda's hands, and Septimus Heap— that was his name—came hurtling through the Glass.
The Old Way
Septimus came through fighting. He landed three punches on the Alchemist and numerous kicks that were of little use without his boots, but gave Septimus some satisfaction. He twisted and struggled and at one point he broke free of Marcellus's bony grasp and hurled himself back at the Glass, only to bounce off as though it were a wall of stone.
“Careful, Septimus,” said Marcellus. He grabbed hold of Septimus's tunic and pulled him away. “You'll hurt yourself.”
“Let go of me,” Septimus yelled, frantically twisting and turning.
Marcellus Pye kept his grip on Septimus. “Look, Septimus,” he said. “You'll want to be cautious up here. It's a long way down, you know. You don't want to fall, do you?”
Septimus stopped at the sound of his name. “How do you know who I am?” he asked.
Marcellus Pye smiled—pleased that he remembered now. “We go back a long way, Apprentice,” he said.
Septimus wasn't sure if he liked the sound of that, but the old man's smile calmed him a little. He stood still for a moment and took stock. He was, as far as he could tell, in a dark cave with a very old man. It could be worse, but then again, it could be better. He could have his boots on for a start. And then Septimus's right foot found the edge of the ledge and he realized it could be a whole lot better.
“How high up are we?” Septimus asked, feeling along the edge with his foot, the familiar feeling of vertigo shooting through him.
“I couldn't rightly say, Apprentice. 'Tis a long climb, that I know. 'Tis a long climb down too, so we'd best be going.”
Septimus shook his head and pulled away. “I'm not going anywhere,” he said. “Not with you.”
“Well, that be true, for you won't go anywhere if you don't come with me.”
Marcellus chuckled. “There surely is nowhere else to go up here.”
“I'm going back through the Glass. Back to Jen. I am not going with you.” Septimus pulled away from Marcellus's grasp and threw himself against the Glass again. And again he bounced straight off and staggered back, losing his balance.
“Steady now,” said Marcellus, catching him just before he reached the edge of the ledge. “You will never return through the Glass,” he told Septimus. “I made the Glass. Only I have the Keye.”
Septimus was silent. He was terribly afraid that the disgusting old man was telling the truth. He looked at his Dragon Ring, which was glowing with its usual reassuring yellow light, but it gave him little comfort.
Marcellus Pye shuffled over to the edge of the ledge and eased himself onto the top rung of the ladder. Septimus heard Marcellus moving. He held up his ring to see what the old man was doing, and Marcellus smiled at him, his three long teeth shining yellow with spittle. “Come now, Septimus. Time to see where you'll be spending your Apprenticeship. No need to look so gloomy. There were not many who got the chance to be my Apprentice.”