“Fume!” said Marcia, leaping to her feet and thumping her desk with her fist. “Blasted Fume. He’s behind this. I just know it.” Two minutes later, having put the spiral stairs on Emergency FastForward, Marcia staggered into the Hall of the Wizard Tower feeling very giddy and more than a little nauseous.
Outside, the cool air revived her and she strode across the Courtyard, the heels of her purple pythons clattering on the cobbles.
Underneath the Great Arch someone had, much to Marcia’s disgust, left a pile of dirty washing. There was no excuse, she thought, for Wizards to go dumping their dirty old robes at the entrance of the Wizard Tower courtyard. What would people think? With an expression of distaste, Marcia picked up a corner of the robes, looking for the name tag. All Wizards had to sew name tags in their robes so that the Tower laundry could return them to the correct Wizard. It didn’t always help. Once, a certain Ordinary Wizard by the name of Marcus Overland had received Marcia’s robes from the Laundry and had promenaded around the Castle in them for three whole days, acting outrageously, before Marcia had cornered him. Marcus had left shortly afterward.
But as Marcia lifted the grubby blue cloth she suddenly realized that there was a body inside the robes. “Hildegarde!”
she gasped. Quickly, Marcia pulled back the hood, which was covering the sub-Wizard’s face. Hildegarde was ashen but still breathing. Marcia Breathed a small Revive over her and some color returned to Hildegarde’s cheeks. She groaned.
“Hildegarde…what happened?” asked Marcia.
Hildegarde struggled to sit up. “Eurgh…I…Sep…timus…”
“You’re delirious, Hildegarde,” said Marcia sternly. “He most certainly has not gone on the Queste. Now, you wait there and I will go and get someone to—”
“No!” Hildegarde struggled to sit up. Her eyes fixed firmly on Marcia and she said, very deliberately, “I was InHabited by a Thing. I…it gave Septimus the Questing Stone. He accepted it. Said…thank you.” Hildegarde smiled wanly.
“So…polite…Septimus.” And then, exhausted by the effort, she slumped down and fell into a deep, snoring sleep.
Marcia helped carry Hildegarde to the Wizard Tower sick bay—a large airy room on the first floor—then put the stairs on slow and rotated sedately down to the Hall, thinking about what Hildegarde had said. If it had not been for the failed Find, Marcia would have assumed it to be the delirious ramblings of a sudden fever, but now she was not so sure. What if it were true—what if Septimus was on the Queste? That did not bear thinking about. Deep in thought, Marcia wandered through the Courtyard and found her footsteps taking her along Wizard Way.
Distractedly, she answered concerned inquiries about the Wizard Tower from the braver passersby, while all the time her feet took her steadily toward the far end of the Way. Marcia’s feet may have known where they were going—but Marcia herself did not realize it until she had turned the corner into Snake Slipway.
Outside the tall, narrow house on Snake Slipway, Marcia took a deep breath and politely rang the bell. She waited, nervously, rehearsing her speech.
Some minutes later, after two more rings, Marcia heard hesitant footsteps shuffling toward the door. Then the bolts were drawn, a key was turned and the door opened a few inches.
“Yes?” said a hesitant voice.
“Is that Mr. Pye?” Marcia asked.
“I am he.”
“It’s Marcia here. Marcia Overstrand.”
“May I come in?”
“You want to come in?”
“Yes. Please. It’s—well, it’s about Septimus.”
“He’s not here.”
“I know. Mr. Pye, I really need to talk to you.”
The door opened a little wider and Marcellus peered out anxiously. His housekeeper was off for the day and she had told him it was about time he learned to answer the door. He had ignored Marcia’s first two rings, telling himself that if the bell rang a third time he would answer it. Wondering what he had gotten himself into Marcellus opened the door wide and said, “Please come in, Madam Marcia.”
“Thank you, Mr. Pye. Just Marcia will do,” Marcia said as she stepped into the dark, narrow hall.
“And Marcellus will be perfectly adequate,” Marcellus replied with a small bow. “What can I do for you?”
Marcia glanced around, suddenly afraid of being overheard. She knew that the house was connected to the Manuscriptorium via the Ice Tunnels and that the hatch was possibly UnSealed. Anyone could be listening—and that anyone included Tertius Fume. She needed somewhere secure.
“Perhaps you would like to come to tea,” she said. “At the Wizard Tower. In half an hour?”
“Tea?” asked Marcellus, blinking with surprise.
“In my rooms. I will instruct the doors to expect you. I look forward to it, Mr. Pye—um, Marcellus. Half an hour.”
“Oh. Yes. I too shall…look forward to it. In half an hour, then. Good-bye.”
Marcellus Pye bowed and Marcia was gone. He exhaled loudly, closed the door and leaned against it for support. What was going on? And where had he put his best shoes?
“So you see,” said Marcia, pouring Marcellus his fifth cup of tea and watching, amazed, as the Alchemist added three large spoons of sugar to it, “I am so afraid that what Hildegarde said may be true. And if it is…” Her voice trailed off.
She sighed. “If it is true, then I must know all I can about the Queste. And you, Marcellus, are the only person alive who has had any experience of the Queste. Oh, there are plenty of ghosts, of course, but quite frankly I have had enough of ghosts at the moment.”
Marcellus smiled. “And their concerns are not always those of the Living,” he said, remembering what poor company the ghosts of his old friends had been as he had grown progressively more ancient.
“True. How very true,” replied Marcia, remembering the horrors of the Gathering. She looked Marcellus in the eye as if checking whether she could trust him. Marcellus steadily returned her gaze. “I believe there were three Questes during your lifetime,” she said—and then remembered that Marcellus’s lifetime had lasted five hundred years or more. “Or, um, even more…”
“Many more,” said Marcellus Pye. “But during my natural lifetime—as it were—you are correct. Indeed, my dear friend Julius Pike lost both his Apprentices to the Queste.”
“Both!” gasped Marcia.
Marcellus nodded. “The first was a terrible shock. Syrah Syara was her name—I remember her well. I was at the Draw.
In those days, you know, the Castle alchemist worked closely with the Wizard Tower. We were invited to all the important occasions.”
With some difficulty, Marcia restrained a disapproving tut.
Marcellus continued. “I still remember the awful gasp from the Wizards as she Drew the Stone. Julius refused to let her go—Syrah was an orphan and he regarded her as his daughter. Poor Julius had a big fight with Tertius Fume. Then Syrah punched Fume in the nose—forgetting that he was a ghost—and got a huge cheer. Fume got angry and put the Tower under Siege for twenty-four hours and by then Syrah was gone. Had to be dragged on to the Questing Boat by all seven guards apparently—and landed a few punches on them too, we were told.” Marcellus Pye shook his head. “It was a terrible thing.
“Julius didn’t take another Apprentice for some years. He was an old man when it was time for the Draw once more, and no one could believe it when this Apprentice also drew the Stone. It finished Julius off. He died a few months later. And of course the Apprentice—a nice young man, very quiet—never came back. I always thought Fume did it to spite Julius.
To show him who was really in charge.”
“You mean Tertius Fume controls who gets the Stone?” asked Marcia.
Marcellus drained the last of his tea. “I believe so. Somehow he has taken control of the Queste. After Syrah had gone, Julius tried to find out as much as he could about the Queste, but all the ancient texts and protocols had disappeared. It was rumored that Fume had destroyed them because they tell a very different story. I have even heard that the Queste was set up to be an honor—a reward for talented Apprentices.” Marcellus sighed. “But, alas, that has never been the case—quite the opposite in fact. All those who went have never returned.”