"Simon?" she croaked in a painfully hoarse whisper. She looked at him as if seeing him for the first time. "Simon?"

Gently Simon helped her sit up. A sudden gust of snow blew in through the open doors. Sarah was staring at him, remembering now. "Simon, you haven't?" she whispered. Simon glanced up at Sir Hereward, not daring to reply.

The ghost looked down at Simon sadly. There was nothing to say. He would have done the same for his own mother, he thought.

"Simon," said Sarah. "You didn't let them out. Did you? Oh no . . ."

Sarah sank back to the floor and Simon gently let her go. He sat beside her, head in his hands. He'd done wrong. He knew he had. But he'd had a choice only between two wrongs. And what choice was that?

Chapter 26 Absences

Beetle," said Marcia as they halted outside Larry's Dead Languages and Beetle fumbled for his key. "What are your plans for tonight?"

Beetle thought glumly what his plans had been: Jenna's fourteenth-birthday party at the Palace. He'd been looking forward to it for months. He knew that the cancellation of a party paled in significance against what had happened at the Palace that night, but if you'd asked Beetle which he regretted most right then, he would have admitted it was the party.

"None," he replied.

"In the continued absence of my Apprentice" - there was an edge in Marcia's voice - "I would greatly appreciate an assistant - a knowledgeable assistant. An assistant who does not run off and spend his valuable time with a disreputable old Alchemist." Marcia almost spat the last few words. She recovered her poise and continued. "So, Beetle, what do you say to spending the night at the Wizard Tower and helping us with our preparations for the Fumigation tomorrow?"

Once again Beetle had the uncomfortable feeling of being second choice to an unavailable Septimus. But the offer was not one he wanted to refuse. The alternative was creeping up to his tiny room at the back of Larry's Dead Languages while trying not to wake the irascible Larry - something he had not yet managed to do. Larry was a light sleeper and always woke with a string of Latin curses, which, with his recently acquired knowledge, Beetle now understood perfectly.

And so he replied, "Yes, I'd like that very much."

"Good." Marcia looked pleased.

As Beetle and Marcia walked up Wizard Way, the Safety Curtain lighting up the night behind them, both were occupied with thoughts of who might be marooned in the Palace inside the Darke Domaine. Beetle's thoughts led to his terrifying afternoon - and it was only then he remembered the book he had snatched from Merrin's grasp.

He fished it out of his pocket and handed it to Marcia. "I forgot. Merrin had this. I snatched it just as he was doing the BeGone. I'm sure you've got a copy but I thought you'd be interested."

Marcia stopped in her tracks, which happened to be under a torch post. She stared at the unprepossessing, sticky little book in her hands and let out a long, low whistle. Beetle was a little shocked - he didn't know Marcia whistled.

"Beetle, I most certainly do not have a copy - there is only one of these," said Marcia, turning over the dog-eared book in amazement. "I have wanted to get my hands on this for years. It is the index - the key to the secrets - of a very important book." She looked at Beetle, her eyes shining with excitement. "Beetle, I cannot tell you what a relief this is. I have to confess that what I saw at the Palace tonight frightened me and frankly, I wasn't at all sure we could get rid of it. I was afraid we might never be able to use the Palace again - that it would be Quarantined forever." Marcia shook her head in dismay.

Quickly Marcia flicked through The Darke Index. "Amazing . . . just wonderful. This is the real thing. Beetle - you have saved the day!"

Beetle grinned. "Gosh," he said. "I didn't realize it was that important."

Marcia turned to him. "It is pivotal. You see, now - for the first time for hundreds of years - we can use the Paired Codes. They are our protection against the Darke but we have been unable to read them ever since this disappeared along with The Undoing of the Darkenesse. I found that moldering in the Marram Marshes, but it's no good for the really important stuff without this." She waved The Darke Index triumphantly. "Now we shall be able to get rid of that nasty little concoction of Merrin Meredith's down at the Palace with no trouble at all!" Marcia looked at Beetle with a broad smile. "I do hope it will be all right if I borrow this tonight?"

Beetle was quite taken aback. "Oh . . . yes. Of course," he said. "In fact, I'd like you to keep it. Something like that should only belong to the ExtraOrdinary Wizard."

"Very true," said Marcia approvingly. "But thank you all the same, Beetle." She put The Darke Index into her most secure pocket. "So now," she said, "we shall pay a visit to the Manuscriptorium. There is something there I need to collect."

Bother, thought Beetle.

The door to the Manuscriptorium was locked but Marcia had a key. This was a source of great indignation to Jillie Djinn but there was nothing she could do about it. ExtraOrdinary Wizards always had a key to the Manuscriptorium for use in emergencies - which Marcia considered this to be. She turned the key in the unwilling lock and the door swung open without the usual ping. The counter was disconnected every evening before the scribes left the building.

Reluctantly Beetle followed Marcia into the scruffy front office. He had been there too many times that day for his liking.

"It's not my favorite place, either," Marcia said in a half whisper. "But I need to collect the Manuscriptorium half of the Paired Code. Of course we have the Wizard Tower half of the Pair, but unfortunately the Manuscriptorium half is somewhere here in a place known only to the Chief Hermetic Scribe." Marcia sighed. "I just wish it wasn't this Chief Hermetic Scribe, that's all." She looked at Beetle hopefully. "I don't suppose you happen to know where it might be?" she asked.

Beetle shook his head. "I've no idea what a Paired Code even looks like," he said.

"The Manuscriptorium one is a small silver disc with lines radiating out. I think there's a hole in the middle where the ancient Hermetic Scribes used to put a thread and wear it around their neck. They used the Paired Codes a lot in those days," Marcia said wistfully. "The Manuscriptorium half is much smaller than the Wizard Tower half, which we have up in the Pyramid Library. Neither of them look like much on their own, but when you put them together it's quite something, apparently. As we will soon find out." Marcia looked delighted. The thought of once more being able to perform such ancient Magyk thrilled her.

They went through to the Manuscriptorium, which was deserted. It was wreathed in shadows, illuminated only by the light that shone up from the basement where the Conservation, Preservation and Protection Scribe, Ephaniah Grebe, lived and worked. Of Jillie Djinn there was no sign.

"Miss Djinn will be in her rooms," Beetle whispered to Marcia. "She never stays down here after the scribes have gone home. She goes upstairs and eats biscuits. And counts things."

Beetle led Marcia through the lines of desks to the back of the Manuscriptorium to a short flight of worn stairs with a battered blue door at the top. Marcia tippy-tapped up the stairs and tugged irritably at the silver bellpull beside the door. The faraway tinkle of a bell rang forlornly somewhere at the top of the building. They waited for the sound of Jillie Djinn's footsteps descending, but none came. Impatiently Marcia rang the bell again. There was no response.

"It really is too bad," muttered Marcia. "The Chief Hermetic Scribe should always be available in emergencies." She stomped back down the steps. "We'll just have to search this wretched place until we find her. She's got to be here somewhere."

Suddenly something caught Marcia's attention. She pointed to the narrow stone arch at the side of the Manuscriptorium that led to the Hermetic Chamber. "I thought I saw someone go in. Out of the corner of my eye. But she must have seen us - what is she playing at?" Marcia hurried over, her python shoes tapping on the old oak floorboards.

Beetle hung back as Marcia stepped through the arch into the pitch-black passageway that led to the Chamber, but she beckoned him to come with her. He followed her in.

The Hermetic Chamber, the inner sanctum of the Manuscriptorium, was reached by a seven-cornered passage, which was specially designed to catch any stray Magyk that might try to escape from the Chamber or, indeed, enter and disturb the delicate balance within. It was also completely light tight and soundproof - and somewhat unnerving.

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