"Stupid cow," sniffed Merrin.

Beetle did not disagree.

"Anyway, she didn't fire me - not for long, anyway. Jillie haddock-face Djinn does what I say now, because I've got this." Merrin jabbed his left thumb in the air, taunting Beetle with the Two-Faced Ring - a thick gold ring with two evil-looking faces carved from dark green jade.

Beetle looked at the ring disdainfully. "Gothyk Grotto junk," he said scornfully.

"That shows how much you know, beetlebrain," Merrin retorted. "This is the real thing. Those stupid scribes don't dare mess with me anymore. I call the shots at that dump." Merrin was enjoying boasting to Beetle. Surreptitiously, he slipped his hand under his pillow to check - for the twentieth time that day - that The Darke Index was still there. It was. The small but deadly book that Merrin had acquired during his time working for Simon Heap at the Observatory - and which had led him to the Two-Faced Ring - felt crumpled and slightly damp to the touch, but it gave Merrin a sudden burst of confidence. "Soon I'll be calling the shots in the whole Castle. That stupid Septimus Heap and his pathetic dragon had better watch out, cuz anything he can do I can do ten times better!" Merrin waved his arms expansively. "There's no way he could even begin to do this."

"Do what?" said Beetle. "Hide up in the Palace attic and sniff?"

Beetle thought he noticed a flicker of uncertainty pass over Merrin's face.

"Nah. You know what I mean. This. And I can get anyone to come here I want. Yesterday I got the prissy Princess to put her little foot in, and this morning I got the old Heap Wizard to put his stupid head in. They both got scared and ran away but it didn't matter. We got what we needed."

"We?" asked Beetle.

"Yeah. I've got backup. You want to watch out, office boy, because today I got you good and proper." Merrin laughed. "You thought you were coming to see your stupid dad!"

Beetle had forgotten how obnoxious Merrin was. He fought down the urge to punch him. It wasn't - as Jenna would no doubt have told him - worth it.

"I am here," Beetle said, "because Princess Jenna asked me to investigate some noises in the attic. I told her it was probably rats and it turns out I was right. It's one big stupid rat."

"Don't call me stupid," Merrin flared. "I'll show you who's the stupid one here. You. You walked right in."

"Into what - your smelly bedroom?" Beetle said scornfully.

Merrin began to look less confident. "Didn't you notice anything?" he asked.

"A load of old junk and empty rooms," Beetle replied dismissively, careful to still speak the truth.

"That all?"

Beetle sensed he was winning. He avoided a direct answer and snapped, "Merrin, what are you talking about?"

Merrin's confidence suddenly left him. His shoulders sagged. "Nothing ever goes right," he moaned. He looked up at Beetle as if expecting sympathy. "It's 'cause I'm not well," he said. "I could do it if I didn't have this horrible cold."

"Do what?"

"None of your business," said Merrin gloomily.

Beetle reckoned it was time to make a move. He turned to leave, hoping that he'd done enough to convince Merrin that his Darke Domaine had failed. "Right. I'll be off then," he said. "I'll tell the Heaps where to find you." He began to walk slowly to the door.

"No! Hey, wait!" Merrin called out.

Beetle stopped. He felt immensely relieved but did not want to show it. "Why?" he demanded.

"Please, Beetle, please don't tell them. I've got nowhere else to go. I feel awful and no one even cares." Merrin inspected the sheet for a space where he hadn't blown his nose and blew noisily into it.

"And whose fault is that?"

"Oh, I expect it's my fault," said Merrin. "It always is my fault. It's just not fair." He twisted the Two-Faced Ring anxiously.

A sudden spatter of sleet drummed on the window. Merrin looked up pathetically. "Beetle. It . . . it's cold outside. It's wet and it's nearly dark. I've nowhere to go. Please don't tell."

Beetle hurried on with his plan. "Look, Merrin, Sarah Heap is really nice. She won't throw you out, not in the state you're in." Beetle reckoned he was telling the truth here. "She'll take care of you until you're better."

"Will she?"

"Of course she will. Sarah Heap will take care of anything. Even you."

Merrin had run out of dry sheet. He blew his nose on his blanket.

Beetle pressed on. "So why don't you come downstairs with me to where it's nice and warm?"

"All right then," said Merrin. He coughed and fell back against his stained pillow. "Oh . . . I think I'm too weak to get up."

"Don't be ridiculous. You've only got a cold," said Beetle scathingly.

"I've got . . . flu. Probably pneu . . . pneumonia in fact."

Beetle wondered if Merrin might, for once, be telling the truth. He did actually look ill. His eyes were bright and feverish and he seemed to be having trouble breathing.

"I'll come with you . . . I'll give myself up, I will," wheezed Merrin. "But you'll have to help me. Please."

Reluctantly Beetle went over to the bed. It smelled of dirty, damp clothes, sweat and sickness.

"Thank you, Beetle," Merrin murmured, gazing oddly over his shoulder into the distance. The hairs on the back of Beetle's neck began to prickle uncomfortably and the temperature in the chilly little room dropped a few degrees lower. Merrin held out his snotty hand and as Beetle leaned forward, steeling himself to take it, Merrin sat bolt upright and grabbed hold of Beetle's arm. Tight as a vice Merrin's bony fingers encircled his forearm. The ring on Merrin's thumb pressed into his flesh and began to burn into it. Beetle gasped.

"Never, ever call me stupid," Merrin hissed, looking intently over Beetle's shoulder. "I am not stupid - you are."

Beetle felt chilled. He knew that something very nasty was standing behind him and he dared not turn around. Beetle did not reply. His throat had suddenly gone dry.

Behind Beetle was a mass of Things, which had sensed Merrin losing his grip on the Darke Domaine. Merrin had acquired them in the Badlands some eighteen months previously, when he had taken possession of the Two-Faced Ring. Once the ring reached its full power, Merrin had Summoned the Things to the Palace because he had what he called "plans."

Merrin's confidence had returned. "You are in my Darke Domaine and you know it," he crowed. "And I know you know it."

Beetle swayed. Merrin's ring was sending stabs of pain shooting up his arm and into his head. He felt sick and very, very dizzy. He tried to pull away but Merrin held him fast. With his free hand Merrin pulled a small, dog-eared book from under the bedcovers and waved it triumphantly at Beetle. "See this? I've read all of this and I can do stuff you can't even dream of," he hissed into Beetle's ear. "You wait, office boy. I am going to show them all in this smelly little Castle and that stuck-up Manuscriptorium that they should have been nice to me. They're going to regret it big time. This is my Palace now, not the stupid Princess's. Soon the Castle will be mine and I am going to have everything I want. Everything!" Merrin was spitting with excitement. Beetle longed to wipe the spittle off his cheek but he could not move. Merrin had a grip like a vice. "And that stupid Septimus Heap, he'll be sorry he stole my name. I'll get him, you'll see. I'm going to be the only Septimus Heap around here. It will be my Wizard Tower, my Manuscriptorium and I'll have a ten-times better dragon than that moth-eaten Spit Fyre he prances around on. You'll see!"

"In your dreams," Beetle retorted, sounding more confident than he felt. Merrin's rant spooked him. There was such a crazy kind of power behind it that Beetle almost believed him.

Merrin did not bother to reply. With one hand keeping an iron grasp on Beetle and the other clutching his open book, Merrin began to chant the words on the page in a low, monotonous voice. A Darke mist began to envelope Beetle. As Merrin came toward the end of the chant, the terrible words reached down to Beetle as if he were at the bottom of a deep, dark pit. His heart raced and he could hardly breathe from the fear that came over him. His vision closed in so that all he could see was a tunnel with Merrin at the end of it, waving his book and opening his huge red mouth to say . . .

But Beetle never heard what Merrin said. With his last conscious effort he reached out and snatched the book from Merrin's grasp.

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