Marcellus had other ideas. "Sit down, Apprentice," he said sternly. "This is important."

Septimus remained standing. "No, it's not. It's an old tinderbox. That's all. You can't fool me."

Marcellus Pye smiled. "It seems I already have, Apprentice. For this is not what it appears to be."

Septimus sighed. Nothing ever was where Marcellus was concerned.

"Patience, Apprentice, patience. I know this chamber is cramped, I know it is stuffy and foul, but what I am going to show you can only be revealed here. It will not survive outside the Darke for long." Marcellus looked up at Septimus, his expression serious. "Septimus, I cannot - I will not - let you venture defenseless into the Darke. Sit down. Please."

With another sigh, Septimus reluctantly sat down.

"You see," said Marcellus, picking up the tinderbox, "like all Darke Disguises, this is not what it appears to be. As you too must be when you go into the Darke."

"I know. Masks, MindScreens, Bluffs - I've done all that stuff with Marcia."

"Well, of course you have." Marcellus sounded conciliatory. "That is no more than I would expect. But there are some things to which even the ExtraOrdinary Wizard does not have access. That's what we alchemists are - or were - for. We kept in touch with the Darke. We went where Wizards did not dare."

This was no more than Septimus had suspected, given Marcia's warnings about alchemists, but this was the first time he had heard Marcellus admit to it.

Marcellus continued. "As an Alchemie Apprentice it is only right that you too should know how to work with the Darke. It is all very well the Wizards sticking their heads in the sand like one of those birds . . . oh, what are they called?"

Septimus was not sure. "Chickens?" he suggested.

Marcellus chuckled. "Chickens will do nicely. Like chickens, they peck at what is in front of them but they do not understand what it truly is. Sometimes they call it something else, like Other, or Reverse, but that does not change anything. Darke remains Darke whatever you call it. So now, Apprentice, you must decide whether to take your first step into the Darke the Alchemie way - and see what is really inside the tinderbox - or the Wizard way, and see no more than an old flint and some dried-up moss. Which is it to be?"

Septimus thought of Marcia and he knew what she would say. He thought of Beetle and he really wasn't sure what he would say. And then he thought of Alther. Suddenly Septimus had the oddest feeling that Alther was sitting right next to him. He turned and thought he saw a momentary flash of purple, a suggestion of a white beard. Then it was gone, leaving Septimus with the certain knowledge that he would never see Alther again unless he said, "The Alchemie way."

Marcellus smiled with relief. He had been extremely worried at the thought of Septimus venturing into the Darke in the customary just think good thoughts and it will be all right Wizard style. The old Alchemist was also just a little triumphant. He had, for the moment, won his Apprentice back.

"Very wise," Marcellus said. "Now you stop being a chicken and embark on your first conscious step into the Darke. Septimus, you understand that this is only to be taken if you truly wish to do it. Do you?"

Septimus nodded.

"Then say it."

"Say what?"

"That you want to do this. Say 'I do.'"

Septimus hesitated. Marcellus waited.

There was a long pause. Septimus had the heady sensation of being about to step over a threshold that even Marcia had not crossed.

"I do," he said.

As though someone had thrown a switch, all the candles in the chamber went out. The temperature plummeted.

Septimus gasped.

"We must not be afraid of the Darke." Marcellus's voice came through the fumes of extinguished candles. Septimus heard the Alchemist click his fingers. At once the candles burst back into flame, but the chamber remained cold -  so cold that Septimus could see clouds of breath misting the air.

Marcellus now had Septimus's full attention. "Apprentice, your first step is to choose a name to use when you are dealing with the Darke. Wizards - if they venture this far - usually reverse their whole name, but they do not realize how dangerous this is. You will never be free of the Darke if you do this, you can always be Found. We Alchemists know better. We take the last three letters from our name and reverse them. I suggest you do that."

"S - U - M," Septimus said.

Marcellus smiled. "Sum: I am. Very good. If you have to use your name, this is what you say. It is close enough to pass for the truth, but not true enough for you to be Found. Now we get to the reason we are here: Apprentice, do you wish to take on the Darke Disguise?"

Septimus nodded.

"Say it," prompted Marcellus. "I cannot take you through these steps on a mere nod of the head. I must be clear that you wish to proceed."

"I do," said Septimus, his voice trembling a little.

"Very well. Apprentice, place the tinderbox over your heart, like so . . ."

Septimus held the tinderbox over his heart. It sent a stab of cold right through him like a dagger of ice.

Marcellus continued his instructions. "Keep your hand stone still - no more fidgeting. Good. Now repeat these words after me."

And so the old Alchemist began, using Reverse words that Septimus had never heard before, words that he suspected Marcia too had never heard. They chilled him more than the icy press of the tinderbox, more than the freezing air inside the chamber. By the time Septimus had spoken the last words - "I dnammoc siht ot eb: draug sum" - his teeth were chattering with cold.

"Open the box," said Marcellus.

At first Septimus thought the tinderbox was empty. All he could see was the dull gray metal of the insides, and yet when he looked closely he was not sure that it was metal that he was seeing. It looked misty, as though something was there and yet not there. Tentatively, as though something might bite, he put his finger into the box. His finger told him that there was indeed something in the tinderbox - something soft and delicate.

"You have found it." Marcellus looked pleased. "Or rather, it has found you. That is good. Now take it out and put it on."

Feeling as though he was playing a "let's pretend" game with Barney Pot, Septimus pinched his thumb and forefinger together and got hold of something elusive, barely there. It felt like pulling spiderwebs from a jar - spiderwebs that the spider in the jar did not want him to have. Septimus pulled hard, and as he raised his hand high he saw that he was drawing a long stream of gossamer-thin fabric from the tinderbox.

Marcellus Pye's dark eyes shone with excitement in the candlelight. "You've done it . . ." he whispered, sounding very relieved. "You've found the Darke Disguise."

The Darke Disguise reminded Septimus of one of Sarah Heap's floaty scarves, although Sarah favored brighter colors. This was an indeterminate color that Sarah would have condemned as dull; it was also much larger than any scarf that Sarah possessed. Septimus kept on pulling it from the tinderbox, and the Darke Disguise kept on coming, falling in fine, weightless folds across his lap, tumbling down to the floor. Septimus began to wonder how long it actually was.

Marcellus answered his unspoken question. "Its length will be right for whatever you need. Now, Apprentice, a word of advice. I suggest you pull a thread from it now - it is easily done - and keep it with you. It will be as strong as a rope and, in my experience, it can be useful to have something a little Darke that comes easily to hand when one is venturing into these realms."

Not for the first time, Septimus wondered what secrets Marcellus had in his past. But what he said made sense. He pulled a thread from the loose weave and began to wind it into a neat coil.

Marcellus looked on approvingly. "Confidently done. Remember, the Darke power of this exposed thread will begin to evaporate after about twenty-four hours. Do not keep it in your Apprentice belt; you do not want to upset any Charms or Spells. A pocket will do."

Septimus nodded - he'd figured that out for himself.

"Now I suggest you return the Darke Disguise to the tinderbox," said Marcellus. "Any time spent out, even in here, dilutes its power a fraction."

As instructed by Marcellus, Septimus spoke the words "I knaht uoy, esaelp eriter," and the Darke Disguise evaporated into the tinderbox like a wisp of smoke.

Marcellus regarded his Apprentice with satisfaction. "Very good indeed. It obeys you well. Just before you enter the Darke Portal, open the box and instruct it so - 'ehtolc Sum.' Now that it Knows you it will stick to you like a second skin. Take care not to wear it away from the Darke, as it will soon dissolve into nothing, which is why I have to show it to you in this chamber. Use it well."

Tags: Angie Sage Septimus Heap Fantasy