“Okay,” said Nicko. He did a quick turn and, finding a little extra energy, rowed at top speed into the dark archway, where he stopped to catch his breath. The sound of the approaching rowboat drew nearer, but Nicko dared not pick up his oars for fear of making a telltale noise. Everyone held their breath, watching the small gap in the darkness that showed the empty moonlit river. At lightning speed, their pursuers went past so fast that if anyone had blinked just then, they would have missed it.

“They've gone,” breathed Jenna, sinking back into the boat with relief. Nicko picked up the oars reluctantly. He realized that he was going to have to row the boat underground, and was none too happy at the thought. Trying to ignore the beginnings of a panic welling up inside him, he started to row deeper into the darkness.

“That plaque was like the one above the Dragon House, only not so worn away,”

said Jenna.

“Anything under the Castle or in the walls is old Alchemie stuff, Jen,” Septimus said, his face eerily illuminated from below by the light from his Dragon Ring.

“Even the Dragon House?” asked Jenna.

“Especially the Dragon House.”

Jenna looked at Septimus. He did not return her glance but stared straight into the dark. He seemed distant, weighed down and much, much older than his extra one hundred and sixty-nine days. For a moment Jenna felt afraid of what Septimus had become while he had been away. “You know a lot of things now, don't you, Sep?”

she said rather than asked.

Septimus sighed. “Yeah,” he said.

Nicko hated the UnderFlow. The stream smelled odd for a start: kind of musty and rancid as though something had recently died in it, and there were things—soft, squishy things—floating in the water; he could feel the ends of his oars touching them. The tunnel was just not quite wide enough for the stretch of his oars, so with every stroke, the edge of the blades scraped along the side of the wall and a few times brought the boat to a halt. Nicko was forced to pull the oars farther into the boat and row in an awkward rhythm so that the ends did not hit each other.

Nicko could deal with the irritations of rowing, but what he could not stand was the feeling of going ever deeper underground. With every stroke he took, Nicko felt the panic rise higher in his throat. Icy water dripped from the roof of the arched tunnel, which he knew was no more than an arm's length above his head. The whole tunnel was lit only by the dull yellow glow from Septimus's Dragon Ring, and with every pull on the oars, Nicko imagined the walls closing in on him. It was only the presence of Snorri sitting behind him that stopped him from dropping the oars and yelling “Get me out of here.” Nicko closed his eyes and tried to imagine he was rowing in the wide-open ocean, for it made no difference whether he could see where he was going or not. There was only one way to go.

About twenty minutes later, which to Nicko had felt more like twenty hours, he knew that even the thought of the ocean and of Snorri sitting behind him could no longer keep his panic at bay. Fortunately Septimus said, “Here we are, Nik, we're in the UnderFlow Pool. You can open your eyes now.”

“They were open,” said Nicko indignantly. He opened his eyes and saw that they had come to a pool in a huge circular cavern. There was a long stone quay along one side, which was lit by a line of rushlights placed in holders on the walls. The water was inky black with flashes of orange reflecting the flames, and Nicko, who had an instinct for the depth of water, knew that it was very, very deep. But it was not the water Nicko stared at—it was the beautiful lapis lazuli arched roof that spanned the pool.

“The Dragon House,” said Jenna, “it's the same as the Dragon House.”

“Shh,” whispered Septimus. “Someone might hear us, sound carries here.” Quietly, Nicko rowed to the quay and held the dinghy steady. Ullr took a flying leap and landed with a soft thud on the smooth stone. He was followed by Snorri, then Jenna and Septimus. Nicko got out and went to tie the boat to a nearby bollard but Septimus stopped him. “No, shove the boat back into the tunnel where no one can see it, Nik, and let's get going.”

Very reluctantly, Nicko gave the dinghy a push into the tunnel and watched it float away. “We're burning our boats, Sep,” he said. “I hope you know what you're doing.”

40

The Great Chamber of Alchemie and Physik

Three small arches led from the Alchemic Quay. Septimus took a rushlight from one of the holders. “This way,” he whispered.

"Better get a move on. It's a bit of a trek from the Quay, because the only way to get into the Chamber from here is through the Labyrinth."

“Labyrinth!” exclaimed Jenna. “But ... do you know the way, Sep?”

“Shh!” whispered Septimus. "You don't need to know the way through a Labyrinth, Jen. It takes you there. You just follow where it leads you and you will find what you look for. We go through the left archway."

“So ... where do the other ones go?”

“Oh, they'll drop you down into the Great Pitte of Fyre,” said Septimus nonchalantly.

“Oh. Fine.”

“It'll be all right, Jen.” Jenna did not look convinced.

Septimus beckoned to everyone to come closer. Silently they gathered around, a little overawed by the strange, crypt-like feel of the UnderFlow Pool and the flickering, unearthly blue light reflected from the lapis lazuli.

“Let's get going,” said Septimus in a low voice. “We've got to keep quiet and stay together. There are other tunnels that run into this one and we don't want anyone to hear us and come looking. Hang on to that panther, Snorri. Don't let it growl, whatever you do. If anyone sees or hears us, we've had it. Got that?”

They all nodded. Ullr's green eyes flashed and Snorri stroked him, saying, “Kalmm, Ullr. Kalmm.”

They followed Septimus through the archway and set off in single file with the NightUllr padding behind them. His great soft paws were silent as they crept through the narrow opening, but there were muted gasps of amazement as they entered the Labyrinth. In front of them, the flames from Septimus's rushlight lit up great flashes of blue and gold. The Labyrinth was lined from top to bottom in finely jointed lapis lazuli interspersed with strips of gold.

Septimus set a fast pace and they followed behind him, walking upon the most brilliant hues of blue shot through with flashes of gold and deep green. The Labyrinth first took them outward, and then after many turns, Jenna was sure they had begun to walk toward the center. The deep blue of the lapis became almost hypnotic, and Jenna found herself feeling sleepy as she unfocused her eyes and gazed at the smooth blue walls. Every now and then she was woken from her almost trancelike state by the interruption of a dark archway, which signaled an entrance from a tunnel. Here Septimus would slow his pace and listen for other footsteps but they were lucky; it was by now the dead of night and even Alchemie scribes had to sleep sometimes.

Like a small and faithful flock of sheep, Jenna, Nicko, Snorri and the NightUllr followed Septimus through the blue haze of light, walking the long, slow curves, doubling back on themselves and walking the same curves in reverse, until everyone, particularly Nicko, felt dizzy and longed to be out in an open space once more. And then, just as Nicko was despairing of seeing anything but blue walls ever again in his entire life, they reached the center of the Labyrinth, and stepped into the Great Chamber of Alchemie and Physik.

“Whoa-ho.” Nicko whistled. “That is amazing.”

Septimus no longer thought of the Great Chamber as anything like amazing. Every day he had sat in his Siege of the Rose next to Marcellus, whose Siege of the Sunne was at the head of the table set in the middle of the Chamber. Every day had been the same, just another working day for Septimus.

But to Jenna, Nicko and Snorri, the Great Chamber was dazzling. They felt almost blinded by the glinting of the multitude of shiny golden surfaces that caught the light from the dancing flames of Septimus's rushlight. But it was not the small pieces of gold that had caught their attention, it was the two massive chunks of the stuff set into the wall opposite the entrance to the Labyrinth—the Great Doors of Time.

“That's where I came into this place,” Septimus whispered, glancing around the Chamber, half afraid that there might be a scribe lurking in the shadows. On each side of the Doors, standing in a lapis lazuli-lined alcove, was a life-size statue holding a razor-sharp sword.

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