worked for the sound of rat-human heartbeat as well. It wasn’t something he had thought to ask at the time.
Jenna looked at Ephaniah in dismay. He had lost his glasses and his eyes were closed, the long dark lashes stuck together with flecks of ice. His small amount of visible human skin was bluish-white and his sparse, short brown hair was caked with snow and plastered to his skull, which was surprisingly human in shape. Jenna knew she ought to unwind the cloth from his rat mouth and listen for sounds of breathing—or at the very least put her hand on him to check for the rise and fall of his chest—but she found herself very reluctant to touch the rat-man. She thought that maybe it was the nearness of his bulk, which was suddenly overwhelming in all its ratlike strangeness. When Ephaniah was conscious his humanity shone through, and Jenna hardly noticed the rat in the man—but now she found it hard to see the man in the rat. She glanced up at Beetle; he was standing in the doorway staring at Ephaniah. “Do you think he’s still alive?” she half whispered.
Beetle nodded slowly. “Yeah…” he said, moving his timepiece from hand to hand—a nervous habit he had when he was worried. He thought he saw the rat-man’s eyes flicker open for a moment, but he said nothing.
The fire in the stove was blazing now. Steam was rising from the white woolen robes and a musty, unpleasant smell began to fill the hut.
“He must have followed us,” said Septimus, staring down at Ephaniah. “That must have been what I saw…”
“You saw him?” asked Jenna. “Why didn’t you say?”
“Well…I wasn’t sure.”
“Poor Ephaniah,” said Jenna. “He’d be camouflaged—like the Snow Foxes in the Lands of the Long Nights.”
“Yeah. Well, it wasn’t just that. I didn’t want to say because it felt…Darke.”
“Ephaniah felt Darke?”
Septimus shrugged. “Well, I—”
Beetle had been staring at Ephaniah intently. Now he spoke. “Sep.”
There was something in Beetle’s voice that sent a chill down Septimus’s spine. “What?” he whispered.
Silently, Beetle pointed to his own left little finger and crossed the first and second fingers of his left hand—the sign scribes used for the Darke. Now Septimus understood—but Jenna did not. Frightened, she glanced at Septimus. “Get out,” he mouthed.
“Why?” asked Jenna, her voice sounding horribly loud in the silence.
No one replied. The next moment Septimus was beside her and before she knew it she was on her feet being propelled out of the doorway and over the pile of snow.
“But—” Jenna protested to no avail.
“Shh!” hissed Septimus. “You’ll wake it.”
Silent and fast, Beetle closed the hut door. Jenna watched as Septimus placed both hands on the door, just as he had done the night before, and muttered something under his breath. Then he gave a thumbs-up sign and scrambled over the snow. The next moment Jenna found herself grabbed by Septimus and Beetle and running from the hut as though it were on fire with Ullr bounding behind.
They headed down the valley, leaping over the snow and dodging through the trees like a trio of terrified deer. To their right a steep cliff reared up through the treetops and when they reached the base of the cliff, they stopped to catch their breath. They looked back up the valley, searching out the hut, which—if it had not been for the lazily rising wood smoke that was drifting up through the trees—would have been almost impossible to see.
“It’s okay,” said Beetle. “I can’t see it. Of course it might be hiding behind the trees, but I don’t think so.”
“It?” asked Jenna. “What do you mean—the hut’s following us? Are you crazy?”
“I mean Ephaniah,” said Beetle. “Except it’s not.”
“Not what?” asked Jenna.
“It’s not Ephaniah,” said Beetle. “It’s a Thing.”
“Yep. The one from the Manuscriptorium. The one that came with the kid who got me fired and took my job.”
“No. No, I don’t believe it. It’s Ephaniah.”
Septimus glanced back up the valley anxiously. “Come on, let’s get some distance between us.”
They set off again, following the steady downward slope of the valley, keeping into the shadows of the cliff face. Every step that took them away from the hut made Jenna feel as if she were betraying Ephaniah. At last she could stand it no more. “Stop,” she said in a deliberately Princessy voice. “I’m not going any farther. We’ve got to go back.”
Septimus and Beetle stopped. “But, Jen,” they both protested.
Jenna pulled her wolverine cloak around her as if it were a royal mantle and stubbornly stuck out her chin—just as her mother had done on the rare occasions her advisers had dared to disagree with her. “Either you two tell me exactly what’s going on or I am going straight back to the hut. Now,” she told them.
Septimus took a deep breath. He was going to have to make this good, he could tell. “Jen, last night the scrabbling at the door stopped after I did an Anti-Darke Incantation. And that only affects Darke stuff. It wouldn’t have stopped the real Ephaniah.”
“Maybe that was coincidence. Maybe he was getting exhausted or his hands were too frozen…” Jenna stamped her feet through the snow in frustration. How could Septimus be so sure?
“No, Jen,” said Septimus very definitely. “Beetle, tell Jen what you saw.”
Beetle sat down on a snow-covered log—his legs ached after the unaccustomed exercise of the last few days. “I saw a ring. A Darke ring.”
“What do you mean?” asked Jenna.
“It was when I went back to get your pin.”
“The kid shrunk one of his precious licorice snakes and gave it to the Thing as part of a Contract.”
“A Contract? Beetle, what are you talking about?”
Beetle found it hard to explain things to Jenna—the way she looked at him stopped him from thinking straight. But he had to try. He took a deep breath and began.
“That precious scribe of Jillie Djinn’s who was in the Vaults—you remember?”
“Well, it seems he had a Darke Thing
with him. Because when I went back to find your pin I heard him transfer it to Tertius Fume. The kid had to give the Thing a release token and he didn’t have anything except a licorice snake. So he Shrank that and gave it to the Thing.
And that’s what I saw on Ephaniah’s left little finger.”
“The only possible explanation is that the Thing has InHabited Ephaniah. Because whatever form a Thing takes, a Darke ring will stay the same.”
“I didn’t see a ring,” Jenna said stubbornly.
“You weren’t looking, Jen,” said Septimus.
Jenna shook her head in disbelief. She could not rid herself of the thought of Ephaniah lying abandoned in the hut. “I—I don’t believe it. Poor Ephaniah. He must have followed us through that horrible forest. And with his limp he’d never have been able to catch us. And he couldn’t shout, could he? So what did we do in return? We left him outside all night even though he was begging to come in, and now we’ve left him behind to freeze to death. Well, you might think that’s okay, but I don’t.”
“But, Jen—” Septimus’s protests fell on thin air. Jenna was already running back up the valley retracing their footsteps, followed by the faithful Ullr.
“Jen! Stop!” yelled Septimus.
“I wouldn’t shout,” said Beetle. “You don’t know what’s listening. Come on, Sep, we gotta get to her before the Thing does.”
But Jenna, who could always run fast, had already put a good distance between them.
Beetle surprised himself by reaching the hut before Septimus. “Jenna…” he puffed. “Jenna?”
There was no reply. Heart beating fast, Beetle followed Jenna’s scrambling footsteps through the snowdrift outside the door. He found Jenna alone, standing on the wet patch where the body of Ephaniah had lain.
“He’s gone,” said Jenna.