Clutching Beetle’s hand, with her heart beating so loudly she was sure Snorri could hear it, Jenna walked softly through the doorway and stood in the shadows. All she could see was the candlelight reflecting off Snorri’s white-blond hair and the dark shape of Ullr enclosed in Snorri’s arms. There was no sign of Nicko. And then—

“Jen?” A voice came from the shadows beside Jenna. “Jen! Oh, Jen!” She heard the sound of a chair being pushed back from a table and clattering to the ground, felt a whirlwind enveloping her and then she was lifted off her feet and spun around and around—as if she were a little girl once again.

Nicko set Jenna back on her feet, but Jenna would not let go. Beetle saw her head buried in her brother’s grubby sailor’s tunic, her shoulders shaking with—Beetle was not sure if it was tears or laughter. He was still not sure when Jenna looked up, her eyes bright and her smile the biggest he had ever seen.

“We found him. We found him!” laughed Jenna.

47

SEPTIMUS’S QUESTE

S eptimus heard nothing of Jenna’s shouts and thumps through the thick purple door. Angrily, he instructed the door to UnBar.

The girl laughed. “You will not succeed, Septimus Heap. Though ’tis true, the door is a Twin, but all identical twins have some differences. You have just discovered one of them.” The Apprentice appraised Septimus with a disappointed air. “I have spent a long time waiting for a Questor

to arrive. I had hoped for someone more…mature to pass some days with. Do you play cards?”

“Cards?”

“I could teach you a few games. I expect you could manage Snap.”

“Snap?”

The girl sighed. “Possibly not,” she said.

Septimus said nothing. The girl reminded him of Lucy Gringe—although she was much more irritating. He gave up any hope of a reasonable conversation and turned his attention to his new surroundings. He was in a huge octagonal chamber. Above him was a beautiful glass dome through which he could see the darkening sky suffused with the last pinkish rays of the sunset. He was, he guessed, at the very top of the House of Foryx. Watched by the eagle eyes of the ancient Apprentice, Septimus wandered around the chamber. It was a vast place, and the furnishings—the rugs, the lapis chests, the rich tapestries—reminded him of Marcia’s rooms. But that, thought Septimus, did not completely explain the oddly familiar feeling. There was something else…something more essential—the smell of Magyk .

“What is this place?” Septimus asked the grumpy Apprentice.

“The House of Foryx,” came the reply.

“I know that,” Septimus replied, trying not to betray his impatience. “But this place. This room—what is it?”

“You will find out soon enough.”

Septimus sighed. He tried one last question. “Who are you?”

To his surprise the girl actually answered his question. “I am Talmar,” she said.

Talmar. The name was familiar. Septimus tried to remember why—and then it came to him. Suddenly, he felt very odd indeed. “Not…Talmar Ray Bell?” he asked.

A look of amazement appeared on the girl’s face. “How do you know?” she asked.

Septimus grinned, pleased with the effect of his question.

Somewhere in the distance came the silvery sound of a bell. Talmar assumed her air of superiority once more and pronounced, “My Master is ready. Follow me, Septimus Heap.”

With the setting of the sun, the glass dome had darkened. As Septimus followed Talmar through the chamber, candles sprang into flame one by one to light their path. At the far end of the chamber, Talmar drew back some heavy curtains to reveal a figure sitting by a fire on a low, comfortable chair not unlike the one that sat close to the fire in Marcia’s rooms—the one she always insisted was hers.

Talmar beckoned Septimus inside. He stepped through the curtains and the figure—a frail, elderly man with long, wavy white hair held back with an ExtraOrdinary Wizard headband—looked up. The light of the candle flames shone in his brilliant green eyes, making them seem almost on fire.

“This is our Questor, Septimus Heap,” said Talmar.

“Welcome, Questor,” the old man said with a smile. He started to get up and Talmar rushed to his side to help him. As he stood, a little bent and unsteady on his feet, Septimus saw that he was dressed in an archaic set of ExtraOrdinary Wizard robes—from the ancient days when they were embroidered with hieroglyphs in gold thread. Leaning on Talmar’s arm, the old man walked slowly toward Septimus.

“From the Old to the New,” he murmured in an accent Septimus had not heard before. “Greetings.”

“Greetings,” Septimus replied, taking the thin old hand.

The old man looked down at Septimus’s right hand. Septimus followed his gaze and saw the Dragon Ring, which was shining brighter than he had ever seen it do before—like a tiny lamp on his right index finger. “You have my ring,”

murmured the ancient ExtraOrdinary Wizard.

“Your ring?” said Septimus. “But I thought it had only ever belonged to…Oh. Oh, of course.”

“Ah. You know who I am?” asked the old man.

Septimus nodded. Now he understood. “You’re Hotep-Ra,” he said.

As the stars shimmered through the dome and the full moon traveled across the sky, Septimus, Talmar Ray Bell and Hotep-Ra sat picking at a feast of delicacies, which had appeared on the long, low table that Talmar had set in front of the fire. Talmar poured mint tea into three small colored glasses.

Hotep-Ra raised his glass and said, “Let us celebrate the end of your Queste.” He downed the tea in one gulp. Septimus and Talmar followed suit.

“There is but one thing left for you to do before your Queste is ended.”

“Oh?” Septimus feared the worst.

“You must give me the Questing Stone.”

Septimus smiled—there was nothing he would like better. He took the fiery red stone from his pocket.

Relieved to be rid of the Stone, Septimus put it in the outstretched hand. Hotep-Ra placed his other hand over the Stone and Septimus saw the bright light shine through, showing the bones of the hand beneath the skin like dark red shadows.

And then the light began to fade and Hotep-Ra’s hands became opaque once more. He uncupped his hands and the Questing Stone was now an inky black. “You have completed the Queste.” Hotep-Ra smiled at Septimus. “Now for the reason I have brought you all this way: come sit beside me and tell me all that has happened at the Castle in my absence.”

“All?” asked Septimus, wondering how he was supposed to know.

“As Apprentice you will know such things. Now, before you begin I shall place my sign on the back of this stone and return it to you as a memento of your journey.”

Septimus was not sure that he actually wanted a memento of the journey but he said nothing. Hotep-Ra turned the stone over and his expression clouded.

“What is it, Master?” asked Talmar.

“I do not understand. I numbered these Stones with a Hidden tally. As each one was Drawn the number would show itself. This is number twenty-one. This is the last Stone,” muttered Hotep-Ra.

“I thought

something was wrong,” said Talmar, glaring at Septimus. “He is far too young. He has not even finished his Apprenticeship.”

“Has he not?” asked the Wizard, puzzled. “But this is an honor reserved for the last day of the Apprenticeship.”

“Exactly. He must have stolen it. He is no more than a common thief.”

Septimus had had enough of Talmar’s rudeness. He exploded with indignation. “How dare you call me a thief! Anyway, what would anyone want to steal that for?” he asked. “It has been nothing but trouble. And I can tell you that I am the last Questor—it was the last Stone in the Pot. And I can tell you something else—all the others who went on the Queste never returned. It is not an honor—it is a curse. Every Apprentice dreads their last day because of it. And Tertius Fume is—”

“Tertius Fume?” Hotep-Ra gasped. “Has that lying, underhanded, double-crossing streak of Wurm Slime returned?”

“Well, his ghost has,” said Septimus.

“His ghost? Ha! At least he is no longer Living. But what effrontery—I Banish him and he sneaks back as soon as I am gone. When did this happen?”

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