Far away in the House of Foryx a loud cheer went up.
A s they emerged, jubilant, onto
the balustrade landing, a reception committee was waiting. Two huge bodyguards leaped forward and grabbed Nicko.
Snorri screamed. These were the very same bodyguards—known as Fowler and Brat—who had taken her away after a neighbor had accused her of Ill-Wishing his cactus.
“Let go!” yelled Nicko, struggling furiously. A furor broke out. Snorri aimed a kick at Fowler—a huge man with a gleaming bald head—who had Nicko’s arms pinned behind his back. Septimus and Beetle weighed in, rapidly followed by Jenna. Brat, who was much the smaller of the guards but was surprisingly strong and sported a pair of impressive cauliflower ears, swatted them away like irritating flies.
The Guardian stood in the background, half obscured by the candle smoke, her arm swathed in bandages. “Take him to the fortified room,” she called out. “I do not wish to ever see him again!”
“Don’t worry, Madam Guardian, you won’t.” Fowler laughed. “You can be sure of that. Oof—get off, boy,” he snarled.
This was addressed to Beetle, who had succeeded in getting him in a headlock.
The bodyguards dragged Nicko across the landing, accompanied by Snorri yelling and kicking their shins, and Jenna hanging on to her brother like a limpet. Beetle still had Fowler in a headlock—but to no discernable effect—and Ullr followed the melee, hissing.
But Septimus had stepped back from the fray. From his Apprentice belt he took a small crystal shaped like a shard of ice. Holding it carefully between finger and thumb he pointed the thinnest end at Fowler, who was now trying to drag Nicko and his entourage through a dark archway on the far side of the landing.
“Freeze!” yelled Septimus.
Beetle Froze. Horrified, Septimus realized his mistake. However, having a Frozen Beetle dangling from his neck like a dead weight had put Fowler off his stride, and Nicko seized his chance. He struggled free, grabbed Snorri and in a moment they were running for the stairs. Furious, Fowler shrugged Beetle off, and Beetle toppled onto the floor like a felled tree. “Beetle!” cried Jenna. “Oh, Beetle!”
Nicko hurtled past Septimus, pulling Snorri behind him. “Come on, Sep!” Nicko yelled. “Let’s get out of this place. I’ve had enough—I don’t care what Time we end up in.”
“No, Nik!” shouted Septimus. “No—don’t.”
But Nicko and Snorri were racing down the wide, sweeping stairs, with Fowler and Brat in hot pursuit.
Septimus ran to Jenna. “You’ve got to stop Nik,” he told her. “He’s flipped. Stop him before he’s gone forever.”
Jenna leaped to her feet. “But, Beetle…”
“He’ll be okay. I’ll fix it. Now, go!”
Jenna sped off, pushing her way past the Guardian, who made a half-hearted grab for her, and raced down the stairs.
Septimus left the Frozen
Beetle and leaned over the balustrade. He saw Jenna flying down the stairs, her red cloak streaming out behind. Far below through the candle smoke, he could see the hazy outlines of Nicko and Snorri reach the crowded hall and begin to push their way through, heading for the silver doors. Closing fast were Fowler and Brat.
Mistaking Septimus’s apparent lack of concern, the Guardian joined him. “We will soon have the troublemaker.” She smiled. Septimus did not reply. The Guardian felt suddenly uncomfortable and moved away. She didn’t like the strange unfocused look in Septimus’s eyes and she particularly did not like the peculiar purple mist that was beginning to surround him—she was afraid it might be catching.
Down in the Great Hall of the House of Foryx, Brat had overtaken Fowler and was within an arm’s length of Nicko. He reached out to grab him but at the last second Nicko eluded him by darting behind a large man in a tall, pointy hat.
Suddenly Fowler stopped, looked puzzled, then yelled, “Idiot—he’s over there!” Brat wheeled around to see his quarry heading back up the stairs—how had the boy managed that?
Leaning over the balustrade, Septimus was concentrating harder than he had ever done before. To Project a living person is one of the hardest Projections to do. Septimus was struggling using Magykal powers he never believed he had but, like all Projections, it was not totally perfect. There were fuzzy edges and momentary gaps. Luckily the candle smoke covered up any imperfections and Septimus was careful to make sure the Projected Nicko was running just far enough ahead of the guards for them not to get too close a look. Exhilarated now by his mastery of Magyk, Septimus took the Projection
up the stairs. As the mirror image of Nicko came closer, he stepped back to give himself some distance—for the nearer a Projection
was, the harder it was to maintain. The Guardian noted approvingly that Septimus watched the young thug rush past but did nothing; she had misjudged the Apprentice, she thought. Her long nose shone with excitement as she watched her faithful Fowler and Brat—sweating profusely and bright red in the face—close in. They would have the boy any moment now.
Septimus sent his Projection racing into Nicko and Snorri’s turret and then relaxed. All he had to do now was Project the sound of running footsteps and let the guards exhaust themselves. He looked down to see if Jenna had managed to stop Nicko from leaving, but the candle smoke obscured his view. Septimus longed to rush down and talk some sense into Nicko, but he knew he had to trust Jenna to do it. He had something else to do—something that could not wait. Beetle needed DeFrosting.
The Guardian watched Septimus lead a shaky Beetle down the long sweeping staircase and as they disappeared into the haze of candle smoke she heard Fowler and Brat thudding back down the turret steps. She smiled the kind of smile that you might expect from a horse that, determined to unseat its rider, sees a low tree branch come into sight.
Jenna had caught up with Nicko and Snorri in the checkerboard lobby. “No, Nik!” she yelled. “No, don’t go. Please. Not on your own. Please.”
“I’m not staying here,” said Nicko. “I’m not spending the rest of my life—and then some—locked in a filthy hole under the ground. They took Snorri there for ages. It was awful.”
“It was only a few days, Nicko,” said Snorri.
“Who knows how long it was,” Nicko growled. “This place messes with your head. No one knows how long any Time is—it’s crazy. I can’t stand it anymore.” He lunged for the door to the outside Time but Jenna caught his hand in midair.
“Nik! Just promise one thing. Please.”
“That you’ll wait for Sep and Beetle.”
“If they turn up. You don’t understand, Jen. It’s weird here. People disappear.”
“They will turn up. They will.” As if in answer, the silver doors to the lobby suddenly flew open and Septimus and Beetle rushed in.
“They’re coming!” gasped Septimus. “My Projection broke down when I DeFrosted Beetle.”
“Okay, that’s it,” said Nicko. “I’m off.”
“Nik—wait!” said Jenna. She unclipped the key to the Queen’s Room that hung from her belt and shoved it into a small keyhole almost hidden in the middle of a hieroglyph on the right-hand silver door. As soon as she turned it they heard the sound of the doors Barring.
“That won’t stop her,” said Nicko. “She’s got a key too.”
“It will if I leave it in the lock,” said Jenna with a smile.
“Good one, Jen,” Septimus said with a grin.
They sat in the checkerboard lobby, poised between two worlds. Like her Aunt Ells before her, Snorri was seated on the tall dragon chair. She rested her feet on the thick, curled tail, and her thin frame almost disappeared into the carved dragon wings that formed the back of the chair. Nicko perched on the broad dragon-head arms. Both he and Snorri looked tense and worn.
Jenna, Septimus and Beetle had retrieved their backpacks and were sitting on the cold marble floor, leaning against them.
Nicko looked at them, shaking his head with amazement. “I still don’t believe it—that you’re really here. I just don’t.
We’ve waited so long, haven’t we, Snorri?”