Ullr was transforming.

The scrawny orange cat at which Linda had just surreptitiously aimed a kick was no longer scrawny or even particularly orange. As Linda stared, unwilling to release her catch, she saw the NightUllr beginning to appear. The black tip at the end of Ullr's orange tail was spreading over the cat like the darkness of an eclipse traveling across the land. Ullr's fur was becoming sleek, short and shiny; it covered his new muscles, which rippled under his skin, forming and reforming as he grew slowly and steadily, becoming a full-sized panther.

But still Linda kept her grip tightly on Snorri's hand. Enthralled, she stared at Ullr, a brilliant plan forming in her mind. With this great black beast at her side there would be no arguing about her rightful place as Coven Mother—not with a Familiar such as this. He would get rid of old Pamela with no trouble, not to mention any of the other Witches who gave her trouble and, come to think of it, that old nurse next door. The Coven could take over the nurse's place, which would pay old nursie back for setting fire to the bridge. Linda smiled. What fun this was going to be.

And then Ullr underwent his final nighttime transformation: His eyes became the eyes of the NightUllr. Linda looked into Ullr's night eyes and something inside her went cold. She knew she was no match for this creature. Something of the Darke, far Darker than Linda had ever known, stared out from Ullr. She dropped Snorri's hand as if it had bitten her and backed away, murmuring, “Nice kitty, nice kitty cat.”

A long, low menacing growl rose from Ullr's throat; the great black cat's lips retracted in a snarl, baring his sharp white teeth. Linda turned and ran, racing through the throng of watching ghosts. She did not stop until she had reached the Port Witch Coven, where she had to hammer on the door for at least half an hour before anyone bothered to let her in.

Nursing her sore hand, Snorri pushed open the small blue door and she and the NightUllr stepped into Warehouse Number Nine.

29

Warehouse Number Nine

Snorri was fast asleep when Alice Nettles returned much later that night. The Chief Customs Officer was cold, tired and wet after a rough crossing back from a particularly uncooperative ship, but as she pushed open the little blue door, Alice was smiling, for stepping through the door with her was the ghost of Alther Mella.

Alther had had a difficult day at the Palace. By the afternoon, Marcia had joined Jillie Djinn in the Hermetic Chamber with the words “No, Alther, I do not wish to see anyone—not even you. No, I don't know when I shall be out again. Not for months probably. Now go away.” Alther had continued to search the Palace for Jenna and Septimus but there was no sign of them anywhere.

There was, however, an endless supply of stories about what had happened to them.

It seemed to Alther that Spit Fyre was definitely involved, especially since the dragon had disappeared too, but apart from that he could not make any sense of it.

Alther could not bring himself to believe that the note Marcia had found was really from Septimus. He still hoped that Jenna and Septimus had gone to see Aunt Zelda, although as the day wore on and darkness began to fall, he realized that he was clutching at straws, for he knew that Aunt Zelda would not allow either of them to stay away so long.

Silas, meanwhile, grew ever more despondent. By nightfall, Alther finally admitted to himself that Septimus's letter was genuine. He had told Silas that he “still had a few leads to follow up” and would be back the next morning. Alther left Silas and Maxie, both sitting gloomily by the Palace door, awaiting the arrival of Gringe.

What Alther meant was he needed to talk to Alice Nettles.

And so, as Alice was being rowed back across the choppy dark seas toward the welcoming lights of the Port, she had seen the ghost of Alther Mella standing patiently on the harbor wall, as she had once seen Alther many years ago when he was still a Living ExtraOrdinary Wizard. On that memorable day, Alice had been returning from the Castle Court's annual Mystery Winter Picnic. Alther had found out where the picnic was—a windswept affair on Sandy Isle a few miles south of the Port—and had come especially to meet her. Alice had never before, or since, felt as happy as she had at the moment when she had recognized Alther's purple-robed figure gazing out to sea, waiting for her. Two weeks later Alther was dead, shot by an Assassin's bullet.

Alice picked up a candle from the tub, struck the flint and lit it. Alther followed Alice through the warehouse as she threaded her way through narrow canyons precariously carved out between the great teetering stacks of ancient cargo. The light from Alice's candle threw dancing shadows across the piles of old wooden chests, furniture, assorted junk and even an ornate carriage with huge red wheels and two stuffed tigers in the harness. Alther jumped at the sight of the tigers' glittering glass eyes, which seemed to stare reproachfully at him as if he was somehow responsible for their fate.

Alice's warehouse was one of many in the old part of the Port, stuffed full with the contents of ships long rotted, brought to the Port by seafarers long dead who had neglected, or refused, to pay the duty on their goods. Now it never would be paid, for much of it was centuries old and the interest on the duty amounted to many times the value of the items.

After many twists and turns, Alice and Alther arrived at the staircase at the back of the warehouse. Alice's clattering footsteps echoed on the steep iron steps as she climbed past the floors, each crammed to the ceiling with its dusty and cob-webbed mix of treasure and junk.

“Can't think why you live in this dump, Alice,” said Alther, teasing, “when you could have the Chief Customs Officer's stately pile on Dock One.”

“Can't think why either,” said Alice, a little breathless, as they were now on the fifth floor and still climbing. “Must be something to do with an old ghost who insists on following me around.” Alice stopped on the sixth floor landing to catch her breath, leaning for a moment against a frighteningly tall stack of Chinese willow pattern plates before thinking the better of it. “Pity you never went to the Customs House parties, Alther,” she puffed. “It would have saved a lot of trouble.”

“You wouldn't be in such good shape though,” Alther replied, smiling. “You look good with all this exercise, Alice.”

“Why, thank you, Alther. I do believe I get more compliments from you now than I ever did when you were ... well, you know.”

“Living, Alice. It's all right, you can say the word. Well, I was a fool then. Didn't realize what I had until it was too late.”

Alice Nettles did not trust herself to reply. She turned and ran up the last flight of steps to the seventh floor, pushed open the door to her warehouse aerie and busied herself lighting the huge stove in the middle of the floor.

Alther floated in a few moments later, following in some of the footsteps that he had once taken many years ago, after Aunt Zelda had discovered some letters hidden behind the chimney in Keeper's Cottage. She had paid Alther a surprise visit, insisting that there was something important in Warehouse Number Nine and she wanted him to help her find it. When Alther had asked Aunt Zelda exactly what was so important, she would only say that she would know it when she saw it. After much arm-twisting from Aunt Zelda, Alther had reluctantly agreed to do a Search.

The Search had taken him three weeks, during which he had become allergic to dust, fallen out with Aunt Zelda and found nothing important as far as he could tell, apart from a nest of rare and very bad-tempered tropical spiders behind the hot water pipes. By then Aunt Zelda had stopped speaking to him. Later, when they had made up their quarrel, Aunt Zelda had told him what she had been looking for. Alther had always meant to go back and search for it again, but like many things in his life, he had never quite gotten around to it.

And so Alther had considered the whole episode a complete waste of time until many years later, when Alice had tried to find somewhere in the Port to live, where the ghostly Alther could visit her. Alther had not frequented many places in the Port when he was Living, so when Warehouse Number Nine came up for sale, he and Alice were thrilled. Alice had bought Warehouse Number Nine, with contents included, and moved into the top floor. Now Alther could visit Alice and wander freely through the entire warehouse without any fear of being Returned, which he loathed.

Up in her aerie, Alice put her candle down on the big table beside one of the small windows looking out over the Port, Alther joined her and together they sat side by side in companionable silence. In a far, shadowy corner, Snorri stirred but she did not wake. Alice glanced at the small figure lying on a thick pile of Persian rugs, snugly covered in a large wolfskin, and smiled. She was pleased to see Snorri safe but ... what was that?

Source: www.StudyNovels.com