"Ouch," he said. "There's some kind of Darke Seal on the door. My hands can feel it." Wolf Boy's palms were very sensitive.

"No!" Jenna gasped. "There can't be. We've got to get it open."

Septimus placed his hands on the door and took them straight off again. "You're right, 409," he said. "I'll need to do some kind of Reverse...not so easy without a Darke talisman. Rats."

Jenna knew that when Septimus said "rats," things were bad. "Sep - please, you have to get them out."

"I know, Jen," Septimus muttered.

"Wait," said Wolf Boy. "I've got just the thing." He opened the leather pouch that hung at his waist, and everyone reeled back.

"Eurgh!" Lucy gagged as the stench of the rotting Grim tentacle tip filled the enclosed space. "I think I'm going to be sick."

"No, you're not," said Jenna briskly. "What is that?" she asked Wolf Boy.

"If Sep wants Darke, he's got it," Wolf Boy replied, lifting out the dark splotch of slime and handing it over.

"Thanks, 409," said Septimus with a rueful grin. "Just what I always wanted."

Septimus took the disgusting tentacle tip (which reminded him of Spit Fyre's tail at its worst) and rubbed it all around the edge of the door, muttering something under his breath at the same time - something that he took care no one else could hear. Then, doing his best not to gag, he handed the mangled mess of flesh back to Wolf Boy. Wolf Boy made a face and stuffed it back into his pouch.

"Do you always carry that?" asked Beetle.

Wolf Boy grimaced. "Not if I can help it. Let's give it a push now, okay? One, two, three..."

Septimus, Beetle and Wolf Boy put their shoulders to the door. Still it did not shift.

"Let me do it," said Jenna impatiently.

"But Jen, it's really heavy," said Septimus.

Jenna was exasperated. "Sep," she said, "listen to me. Three words: hut, snow, Ephaniah."

"Oh," said Septimus, remembering the last time he had told Jenna she couldn't manage to open a door.

"So let me do it, okay?"

"Yep. Of course. Stand back, 409."

Jenna took hold of the wheel and pulled. Slowly the door to the lead-lined strong room swung open.

No one dared look in.

Chapter 43 Breakout

Nicko fell through the door like a sack of potatoes. Jenna caught him and toppled backward with his weight.

"Nicko! Oh, Nik - are you okay?"

Gasping like a fish out of water, Nicko nodded. "Argh...eurgh - Jen, what are you doing here?"

Snorri rushed out with a small orange cat tucked under her arm. "Nicko, Nicko. It is all right now," she said, putting her arm around him.

But Jenna, despite herself, was still worried. "Nik," she said, "where's Milo?"

Nicko's answer was lost in the general commotion of the strong room emptying, but the bark of a command answered Jenna's question.

"Quiet!" came Milo's voice. The relieved hubbub ceased. The crew - bloodied and unkempt, a dozen assorted shapes and sizes in a mixture of nightshirts, striped tops, dark blue breeches and some with braids to rival Lucy Gringe - fell silent. Milo strode out, white-faced, his silk nightgown crumpled and bloodstained - but very much in charge. He scanned the narrow, packed corridor, wishing he had his spectacles. "Jem!" he called out. "Jem, where are you? Did you let us out?"

Jenna - mistaking "Jem" for "Jen" - felt suddenly pleased. Milo had actually thought of her. "Yes, it was me!" she shouted.

"Jenna?" Puzzled, Milo looked around. The light was dim; it was at times like this that being shortsighted bothered him. He saw his crew lined up along the corridor and, to his surprise, he also saw - yes, he was sure it was - Septimus and Beetle with two ragged teenagers of dubious cleanliness. Where had they come from? And then, to his amazement, he caught sight of Jenna - pushed into the corner, half hidden by Nicko and a tangle of ropes.

"Jenna! But - how did you get here?"

Taking Milo by surprise - and herself too - Jenna rushed forward and flung her arms around him. "Oh, Milo, I thought you were...I mean, we thought you were all dead."

"A few minutes more and we would have been," said Milo, smiling down at Jenna and somewhat awkwardly patting her on the head. "However, last year I installed a ventilation system with filters for some exotic cacti I was after. Very efficient but not designed for fifteen people. We were struggling in there, I can tell you. Now - let's see what those thugs have taken. Grabbed what they could and ran for it, I suppose. Vicious brutes. I would have fought them barehanded but..."

"But what?" Jenna snapped. She had heard too many stories like this from Milo.

"But when they have a knife to someone's throat, what can you do?" said Milo. Nicko's hand reached for his neck, and as it did Jenna glimpsed an angry red line just below his ear. "Nicko!" she gasped. "Not you?"

Nicko nodded. "Yeah," he said bitterly. "Me. Again."

Jenna quickly revised her opinion.

Milo's thoughts were elsewhere. "You," he said to the nearest crewmember, "go and fetch Jem. I need to know what he's found down there. He's lucky to have missed all this."

The man turned to go, but Jenna stopped him.

"No," she said to Milo. "He's not lucky. He's dead."

"What?"

"They - those thugs - they killed him."

A gasp of dismay spread through the crew.

"Dead?" Milo looked stricken. "Dead. So...where is he?"

"We...we took him to a rock near the beach. We - well, Sep, really - tried to help him, but there was nothing we could do."

"Volunteers to go and bring Jem up," Milo shouted.

A forest of hands was raised. Milo chose four of his crew - those who did not have any injuries from the Crowes' vicious knives - and the party set off quickly down the corridor. "The rest of you get yourselves down to the sick bay and sort yourselves out. Then up on deck. I want this ship fixed and ready to go on the next tide."

"Aye, sir," replied the crew.

"Jem was a good man," said Milo sadly as the crew disappeared around the corner.

"A good man and a good medic, too."

"I could help with that," Septimus said. "I know some basic Physik."

Milo, however, was not listening. "Come, all of you," he said, spreading his arms wide and sweeping them along the corridor in front of him. "You've done very well - defeated those pirates, eh? Now we must see how the Cerys has fared. Oh, if I could get my hands on those thugs right now..."

Jenna was irritated that Milo was ignoring Septimus's offer of help - but it was the way he was shepherding them as if they were a group of excitable toddlers that really annoyed her. "Well, you can get your hands on them if you want to," she said, thinking she was calling his bluff. "They're in the hold."

Milo stopped dead. "In the hold?"

Jenna noticed Milo suddenly looked very pale. She was not surprised. She had known all along that Milo was scared.

"Yes," she replied. "In the hold."

"With the... chest?" whispered Milo. "Are they in the hold with the chest?"

"Yes, of course they're in the hold with the chest. Sep and Wolf Boy pushed them in. It was two against three - they were really brave," said Jenna pointedly, although she didn't mention that they had been invisible at the time.

They had turned a corner and were now walking along a passageway, which was on the other side of the cargo-hold bulkhead. A series of heavy thud s were coming from the hold.

"How many of them are there?" he whispered.

"Three," said Septimus. "We pushed in three."

"Sounds like a lot more than three right now," said Wolf Boy. "I suppose it's the echo or something."

Milo looked terrified. Jenna felt embarrassed for him - how could he possibly be so scared of three idiots locked in a hold? Worse than that, he was now talking to himself.

"It is not possible," he was saying. "They cannot know what it is. It is not possible." Milo took a deep breath and appeared to collect his thoughts. "I am going up on deck," he said.

"We must secure the hold. Nicko, will you come too? I shall need your help." And with that he rushed off. Nicko, pleased to be useful once more, followed him. Jenna watched her father run along the passageway, his silk nightgown flying, his velvet slippers flapping on the boards like a pair of pigeon's wings. "He's crazy," she said.

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