Tertius Fume smiled. “That, Miss Overstrand, is where you are wrong. For you are no longer mistress of your own domain.”
“Indeed?” Marcia replied, raising her eyebrows as though amused by what the ghost had to say.
“Indeed, Miss Overstrand. Those are the Rules. Once the Gathering is in the Wizard Tower we are—as you so rightly said—all equals in this place.”
“I understand the Rules perfectly well, Mr. Fume. It seems that you are the one who does not. There is no Gathering in the Wizard Tower. As such a stickler for procedure, Mr. Fume, you will surely be aware that for a Gathering to exist it must be Complete. This one is not.”
“Of course it is.”
“It is not.”
“A certain DomDaniel is not here.”
A faint cheer went up from the thin blue line of Ordinary Wizards. Tertius Fume looked furious.
“And, Mr. Fume, he never will be. I DeepCleaned him last year. The Gathering is not Complete—and indeed it never can be. So I suggest, Mr. Fume, that you and all these delightful ExtraOrdinary Wizards—whom it is a great pleasure to see, thank you all so
much for turning out in such nasty weather—you can all go back to your haunts and do far more interesting things with the rest of the evening. Good night, all.”
Outside the Wizard Tower, a thin figure wearing a brand-new scribe’s uniform stood in the shadows of the old dragon kennel, sheltering from the rain. He was clutching a beautiful urn of lapis lazuli bound with gold bands. The urn was almost as big as he was. It was also extremely heavy and the muscles in his arms felt as though they were on fire, but Merrin didn’t dare put down the urn, as he was not sure he would be able to lift it again. He felt miserable and more than a little annoyed—this was not what he had had in mind when Tertius Fume promised him what the ghost had called a strategic role in the Darkening of Septimus Heap’s destiny.
As the rain dripped from his hair and ran down his nose, Merrin knew that he could not hang on to the heavy pot much longer—he decided to dump it and go. Merrin was staggering across the Courtyard clutching the urn when a horribly familiar voice stopped him in his tracks. “Get out of my way, Apprentice. How many times do I have to tell you, boy?”
Terrified, Merrin dropped the urn; it landed on his foot. “Ouch!” he yelled. He grabbed hold of his foot and looked around in panic for the source of the terrifying voice from the past—where was he? And then, very slowly, the owner of the disembodied voice began to Appear. Merrin screamed. He couldn’t believe it—the cylindrical black hat…the piggy black eyes. He thought he might be sick—it was all his worst nightmares come true. DomDaniel had come back to haunt him.
Quickly Merrin shoved his hands in his pockets. He didn’t want his old master to see the Two-Faced Ring.
“Take your hands out of your pockets and stand up straight,” growled the ghost. “You’re a disgrace.” With that, to Merrin’s great relief, the ghost of DomDaniel continued on its unsteady way, floating haphazardly across the Courtyard and wobbling up the steps to the Wizard Tower. As DomDaniel reached the top step Merrin saw the silver doors open and a stream of bright light from the Great Hall illuminate the white marble steps. Even from where he was standing Merrin heard the collective gasp of surprise come from inside the Tower. He watched the doors slowly close and he smiled—he wouldn’t want to be Septimus Heap in there now. No way.
Merrin’s hand closed around a small bag of coins in his pocket—his advance pay for his first week at the Manuscriptorium. He brightened a little—the coins were enough to buy thirty-nine licorice snakes from Ma Custard’s.
The thought of Ma Custard’s welcoming sweet shop and the memory of Ma Custard’s kindly smile as she had watched him choose his first ever sweet made Merrin suddenly feel happy. Why stay where he wasn’t wanted?
Merrin was not quite brave enough to completely disobey Tertius Fume so, with a huge effort, he lifted the urn and heaved it up the marble steps. As Merrin stood shakily on the top step, wondering how to drop the urn without it landing on his toes, two tall Magykal
figures dressed in ancient chain mail stepped out of the shadows on either side of the door. In synchrony they each drew a dagger, took another step toward Merrin and then leveled their daggers at his throat, the purple lights from the Wizard Tower flashing on the sharp blades. Terrified, Merrin forgot any worries about his toes; he let the urn drop with a great thud and fled. The Questing Guards stepped back and melted into the shadows once more.
Merrin did not look back. He ran, leaping down the steps, tearing across the Courtyard, his footsteps echoing through the Great Arch. There he stopped and from his pocket he took what looked like a scruffy old tennis ball.
“Sleuth,” he addressed the ball, “show me the quickest way to Ma Custard’s.” The tracker ball bounced slowly up and down as if thinking, then it shot off, taking a sharp left turn down Cutpurse Cut and then an immediate right into Dogbreath Dive. It was a three-mile run to Ma Custard’s but Merrin didn’t mind. The farther away he was from his old boss, the better. He followed the ball through rush-lit tunnels, over tall brick bridges and through countless back gardens, and then, tiring at last, lost sight of it down a narrow, dark cut. But he was lucky—the cut led straight to the sweet shop and as he arrived, puffing and panting, Sleuth was bouncing on the spot, impatiently waiting for him.
Merrin caught the ball, shoved it into his pocket and barged into the sweet shop. He was going to need a whole truckload of licorice snakes to help him get over the shock of seeing his old master again. And maybe some slug sherbets, too.
And some spider-floss—lots of spider-floss.
T he ghost of DomDaniel was
enjoying himself. It had been a long time since he had been out anywhere interesting. The loss of the Two-Faced Ring had taken him out of a kind of limbo that he and his ghost had existed in after Marcia’s Identify. The Call to the Gathering had been so strong that at last his ghost was set free—a little shaky maybe, but out in the world at last.
DomDaniel was particularly enjoying the dramatic effect of his entry into the Wizard Tower. The look on the face of that awful woman, what was her name—Ghastlier Overland? Nastier Underhand?—well, that was worth waiting for.
And it was good to see old Fume again. There were others he recognized too: that scruffy boy with the Dragon Ring—an Apprentice by the look of it. He’d seen him before…somewhere…what was his name? Oh, his memory was terrible. Almost wiped out by the…thingy. It was so unfair. What was that—what, what? Was someone saying his name?
Marcia Overstrand was indeed saying DomDaniel’s name. “DomDaniel—it can’t be! I do not believe it. It is absolutely not possible.”
Tertius Fume was triumphant. “Clearly, Miss Overstrand, it is perfectly possible. The Gathering is now Complete.”
Pleased that all eyes were upon him, the ghost of DomDaniel bowed extravagantly to his audience and, forgetting that he was a ghost, he tried to sweep off his cylindrical hat but his ghostly hand went right through it. A little flustered, he straightened up and, aiming for the middle of the action, DomDaniel shuffled over to Septimus and Marcia, who were perched uncertainly on the spiral stairs, watching the crowd part to allow the rotund ghost room to advance toward them.
DomDaniel favored the three occupants of the spiral stairs with another bow, this time remembering to leave his hat alone. Marcia returned his oily smile with a fierce glare.
Tertius Fume began to speak. “This Gathering
has been Called on the momentous occasion of the Draw for the twenty-first Apprentice Queste.”
A gasp came from the assembled ghosts—particularly loud from the nineteen who had lost their Apprentices to the Queste.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” snapped Marcia.
“I would not call the Gathering ridiculous
if I were you, Miss Overstrand.” There was a general murmur of agreement from the floor and Marcia realized she had to tread carefully.
“You deliberately misunderstand me, Mr. Fume. It is the very idea that Septimus should make the Draw for the Queste that is ridiculous. That—as even you
must know, Mr. Fume—happens in the very last hour of the Apprenticeship. My Apprentice, Septimus Heap, is only just beginning his third year—thus he is not eligible for the Queste Draw.”