Merrin was pleased with his afternoon's work. He was getting good at this Darke stuff, he thought. He'd used a Darke Screen and had walked out of the Palace right under Sarah Heap's nose, which had been fun, especially when he had deliberately trodden on her foot. And now, because Jillie Djinn had been snappy with him, he'd fixed that too. She wouldn't ever do that again, thought Merrin, as he smirked into the ancient Glass propped up against the wall.

Merrin peered into the darkness of the Glass and behind him he saw the reflection of the Chief Hermetic Scribe, sitting hunched over the table. He tried out a few more expressions in the Glass, tapped his feet impatiently and wandered over to the Abacus, where he began clicking the beads endlessly back and forth in such an irritating way that anyone else but the cowed Jillie Djinn would have yelled at him to stop it right now!

Merrin sighed loudly. He was bored and there were not even any scribes to annoy. He toyed with the idea of going down to the basement and smashing a few things, but the Conservation Scribe scared him. He wished the Things would hurry up. What was taking them so long? All they had to do was bring the stupid Darke Domaine with them - what was so difficult about that? He kicked the wall impatiently. Stupid Things.

Leaving Jillie Djinn staring into space, Merrin wandered out along the seven-cornered passageway and surveyed the dark and empty Manuscriptorium. It was oddly spooky without the scribes. He wouldn't be spending any time in this dump, he thought, but it would suit the Things nicely. It would keep them out of his way too, and he could hang out wherever he wanted. And do whatever he liked. So there.

Chapter 19 The SafeChamber

As Beetle resumed his place at head of the Call Out, the person who should have been leading it was immured in the basement of a house on Snake Slipway. Not far above him, a loud knocking on the front door by a breathless Wizard went unheard.

Septimus was listening to Marcellus Pye discussing the dangers of, and defenses against, the Darke. Time was ticking on. Very slowly. So far there had been at least an hour's worth of dangers, if not more.

Alchemist and Apprentice were sitting inside a tunnel-like, windowless chamber. The atmosphere was oppressive; the air was fuggy with candle wax fumes, and a faint taint of lingering Darke made Septimus edgy. Unlike Marcellus Pye, who sat opposite him in a comfortable tall-backed chair, Septimus was perched uncomfortably on a bumpy stone bench. Between them was a small table, thick with candle grease, on which yet another burning candle added its contribution.

Marcellus, however, looked at ease. He was in his secret SafeChamber with his Apprentice, instructing him in the defense of the Darke, and that - as far as he was concerned - was how things should be. A SafeChamber was something every self-respecting alchemist always possessed, but never admitted to. In what Marcellus now called "his first life" as an alchemist, five hundred years in the past, he had installed his SafeChamber between two adjoining rooms in the basement of his house. It occupied the space so cleverly that none of the subsequent inhabitants had ever noticed the few feet lost from each room.

Marcellus had constructed the chamber himself - he had had no other choice. In the days of the Castle alchemists, one of the drawbacks of the profession had been that it was impossible to get a builder. Once a builder knew that a job was for an alchemist, he would suddenly become very busy, or fall off a ladder and "break a leg," or have to go away to a distant relative's sickbed. Whatever the excuse, he would certainly never be seen again. The reason for this was that the perils of working for an alchemist had become legend among Castle builders, passed down from Master to Apprentice: "Never work for an alchemist, lad," (or lass, but usually lad). "As soon as the job's done, you'll surely be found floating facedown in the Moat to keep the secrets of what you've just built. However much gold they offer you, it just isn't worth it. Believe me." Although this wasn't true for all alchemists, it has to be said that there was some basis for this belief.

Marcellus Pye possessed many talents but building was not one of them. The outside of the chamber was passable because Marcellus had covered his rough brickwork by putting up great sheets of wooden paneling in both the affected rooms. However, the inside of the chamber was a mess. Marcellus had not realized how hard it was to build walls that went up straight - and stayed that way - so the walls grew closer and closer together, almost meeting at the top. Once he had installed the false wall behind which he kept his most arcane treasures, the SafeChamber was no more than a claustrophobic corridor.

Septimus was almost lulled into a trance by the flickering of a multitude of candles perched in the various nooks and crannies provided by Marcellus Pye's unusual approach to bricklaying. The chamber was streaked black with the soot from their flames, and thick rivulets of wax ran down the walls, glistening in the yellow light. The only thing that kept Septimus from drifting off was the way the bricks in the wall pressed their sharp corners into him as though they were jabbing at him with angry fingers. Every now and then he would wriggle uncomfortably and lean against another, slightly different, pointy bit.

"Stop fidgeting and pay attention, Apprentice," said Marcellus Pye sternly from his comfortable chair. "Your life may - indeed, it most probably will - depend upon it."

Septimus suppressed a sigh.

At last Marcellus got down to the reason that Septimus had come to see him. "You will, I presume, be attempting to retrieve Alther Mella's ghost from the Darke Halls tonight?"

"Yes. Yes . . . I'm going to the Darke Halls. At midnight." As he said the words Septimus felt a thrill of excitement mixed with fear. Suddenly it all began to feel very real.

"And you will seek to enter the Darke Halls through the Dungeon Number One Portal?"

"Yes, I will. Isn't that the only place where you can get in?" Septimus asked.

Marcellus Pye looked quizzical. "Not at all," he said. "But it is the only place you can get to in time for midnight tonight. There are other Portals, some of them extremely effective for matters like this, where you might find your timing is less important. However, none are in the Castle."

Leaving Septimus to wonder why Marcia hadn't told him about these other, possibly more effective Portals, Marcellus took the candle from the table and got up from his chair with a small groan. Looking like the old man he really was, the alchemist shuffled along the length of the chamber to the false wall at the end, which was, Septimus noticed, paneled like the room outside. Marcellus pressed his hand onto one of the panels, slid it to one side and reached into the space behind. Septimus heard the clink of glass on glass, the rattle of small dried things in a metal box, the thud of a book, then a relieved, "Got it!"

As Marcellus shuffled back, Septimus very nearly leaped to his feet and ran for it. The light from his candle threw dramatic shadows onto the alchemist's face, and as he advanced toward Septimus, hand outstretched, Marcellus looked exactly as he had when Septimus had first seen him - a five-hundred-year-old man grabbing at him, pulling him through a glass into a secret world below the Castle. It was not a good moment. It unsettled Septimus more than anything else had in the tense buildup to his Darke Week.

Unaware of the effect he had had, Marcellus Pye resumed his place next to Septimus. He looked pleased. "Apprentice, I have in my hand something that will give you safe passage through the Portal and into the Darke."

He unclasped his fist to reveal a small, dented tinderbox. Septimus felt horribly disappointed. What was Marcellus thinking? He owned his own tinderbox and it was a lot better looking than that one. And it probably worked better too - Septimus prided himself on being able to get a fire going in fifteen seconds. He and Beetle had had a fire-start competition not long ago and he had won best of five.

Marcellus handed him the tinderbox. "Open it," he said.

Septimus did as he was asked. Inside were the usual components of a tinderbox - a small, pronged wheel, a flint, some thin strips of cloth infused with the Castle's well-known, highly flammable wax and some dried moss.

Septimus had had enough. Marcia's parting shot came back to him: "Alchemie stuff is nothing but smoke and mirrors, Septimus. All talk and no do. None of their stuff ever did work. It was complete rubbish."

Septimus got to his feet. Marcia was right - as usual. He had to get out of the oppressive little chamber dripping with candle wax, fusty with Darke secrets. He longed to be part of the everyday Castle world once more. He wanted to run through the streets, breathe the cold fresh air, see the myriad of Castle lights twinkling in the windows, watch people as they promenaded back and forth admiring - or not - their neighbors' lights. But more than anything, he wanted to be with people who weren't fussy five-hundred-year-old alchemists who thought you were still their Apprentice.

Tags: Angie Sage Septimus Heap Fantasy