As Beetle followed the rustle of Marcia's cloak brushing along the stone floor of the passageway, he had the uncomfortable feeling from the way she had slowed down that she was a little spooked. As he went deeper into the passage and lost any glimmer of light, Beetle began to feel pretty spooked himself, but as they turned the seventh and last corner, the light from the Hermetic Chamber flooded the final few feet of the passageway and Beetle relaxed. Half obscured by Marcia's flowing cloak, he saw with some relief - for he'd had the distinct impression that Marcia had been expecting something altogether different - the Chief Hermetic Scribe, Jillie Djinn, sitting at the familiar round table.

The white walls of the Hermetic Chamber made it feel dazzling after the darkness of the passageway. Beetle glanced around - everything looked just as he remembered it. The ancient dark Glass was propped up against the roughly plastered walls, as was the old-fashioned abacus. The large, round table was in the middle and underneath it, Jillie Djinn's tiny feet in their sensible - and sadly scuffed - black lace-ups were resting on the main Ice Tunnel hatch, which, Beetle noticed with relief, was closed and clearly had been for a long time, judging by the dust covering it.

Jillie Djinn seemed smaller than Beetle remembered. The harsh light in the Chamber showed up the shabbiness of her dark blue silk robes - a shabbiness that he had not seen before. Jillie Djinn had always been rather fond of new silk robes and was very particular about keeping them clean, but now they were creased and had what looked suspiciously like gravy stains down the front. Beetle was shocked. But what he found most concerning was that Jillie Djinn was not actually doing anything. There were no books of calculating tables open in front of her, no fat ledgers filled with endless columns of her tiny figures, ready for an unfortunate scribe to transcribe in triplicate the next day. She sat hunched over the bare table, staring into space and hardly seemed to register the intrusion of her visitors. It was as if she wasn't there.

A flash of concern crossed Marcia's face but she got straight down to business. "Miss Djinn," she said briskly. "I have come to collect the Manuscriptorium half of the Paired Code."

Jillie Djinn sniffed and, to Beetle's shock, wiped her nose on her sleeve. But she did not reply.

"Miss Djinn," said Marcia, "this is a serious matter. You must make available to the ExtraOrdinary Wizard the Manuscriptorium half of the Paired Code upon request at any time of day or night. I realize this has not been requested for many hundreds of years, but I am requesting it now."

Jillie Djinn did not react. It was as if she did not understand a word that was said.

Marcia looked concerned. "Miss Djinn," she said quietly. "May I remind you that Paired Code Protocol forms part of the induction Oath of a Chief Hermetic Scribe."

Jillie Djinn shifted uncomfortably and sniffed again. She looked pathetic, thought Beetle. Once so upright and proper, she was now weighed down by her cares. He had never liked the Chief Hermetic Scribe, but now his dislike was mixed with sadness for her. And disquiet - something was very wrong. Beetle glanced at Marcia. She was regarding the Chief Hermetic Scribe with a new light in her eye - like a cat getting ready to pounce. And then, suddenly, she did. Marcia leaped forward and clapped both hands on Jillie Djinn's shoulders. "Depart!" she commanded. A flash of purple lit up the white chamber and Jillie Djinn gave a sharp scream. A loud hiss came from beneath Marcia's hands, and Beetle was aware of something small and dark - he couldn't see exactly what - leaping to the ground and scuttling out.

"A Maund," muttered Marcia. "Someone's put a Maund on her. Vicious beasts and so heavy. What is going on here?" She glanced around the Hermetic Chamber anxiously. So did Beetle. It appeared to be empty, but he was no longer so sure.

"Miss Djinn," said Marcia quickly. "This is of the utmost urgency. You must immediately give me the Paired Code."

Jillie Djinn, relieved of her burden, was no longer hunched. But she still looked haunted. She glanced around the chamber, then quickly ran her hand across the table in a zigzag movement. There was a quiet whirring noise and a tiny drawer opened in front of her. Looking about her uneasily, Jillie Djinn took out a small, polished silver box and placed it on the desk.

"Thank you, Miss Djinn," said Marcia. "I would like to check that the Code is indeed in the box."

Jillie Djinn was gazing out somewhere in the distance over Marcia's shoulder. She nodded absently, then an expression of fright flashed across her features.

Marcia was busy opening the box. Inside she saw a small silver disc with a raised central boss, which was exactly like the textbook drawing that she was familiar with. Marcia put her spectacles on and took a closer look. A mass of fine lines radiated from the tiny hole at the center of the disc and scattered along these was an array of Magykal symbols, some of which she had not seen since her advanced codacology week in her final Apprentice year. Marcia was satisfied - it was indeed the Manuscriptorium half of the Paired Code.

There was sudden disturbance in the air. Marcia spun around. She lunged forward, and Beetle saw the little silver disc fly into the air and disappear - then something gave him a sharp punch in the stomach.

"Oof!" He doubled over, gasping for breath.

"Beetle, block the passageway!" Marcia shouted.

Still winded, Beetle threw himself in front of the entrance to the seven-cornered passage. Something bony with sharp elbows hurtled into him and Beetle staggered back. He braced himself, arms across both sides of the narrow passageway so that whatever it was could not pass. As an invisible hand gripped his arm and tried to wrench it away from the wall, Beetle felt something burning dig deep into his flesh.

"Aargh!" he gasped.

"Don't move, Beetle," said Marcia, advancing toward him. "Just . . . stay . . . there."

Beetle's arm felt as though the pointed end of a red-hot stick was being thrust into it, and the look on Marcia's face as she came forward was terrifying. But he did not move. Marcia stopped a little way in front of him, her green eyes flashing furiously. She stretched out her arms and grasped something, as though she were picking up a two-handled pot.

"Reveal!" she said triumphantly. A cloud of purple filled the exit to the Hermetic Chamber and showed a dark shape within it. As the cloud cleared, the gangly form of Merrin Meredith was Revealed, both ears held firmly in Marcia's iron grip.

Merrin swallowed hard and winced. The Paired Code had sharp edges.

"He's swallowed it!" Marcia cried incredulously.

Chapter 27 Bott's Bridge

Rose was late. Things were somewhat chaotic at the Wizard Tower and she had had to fill in at the sick bay until the duty Wizard had eventually turned up from the Call Out. But now, excited by the prospect of being part of the amazing piece of Magyk that was the Safety Curtain, Rose raced down Wizard Way, trying not to be any later for Bertie Bott than she possibly could.

* * *

In front of the dazzling Safety Curtain, Bertie Bott stood resolutely guarding the fusion point, unaware that only a few feet behind him, on the other side of the shimmering purple wall, twenty-five Things were patrolling to and fro, silently looking for the join.

Bertie's stomach was grumbling. He was having cruel visions of supper: sausages and mashed potatoes dripping with gravy, treacle tart and custard and possibly even a small square of chocolate fudge, if he could manage it. Bertie sighed inwardly. He was sure he could. As Bertie wondered whether he would prefer peas or a double helping of mash with his sausages, his stomach emitted the loudest rumble yet. A mere arm's length behind him, the strangler Thing stopped and listened hard.

Bertie was getting extremely cold. Even his finest pre-loved, fur-lined cloak was not keeping out the chill of the Longest Night. Bertie took it off to shake the fur out and thicken it up for a while - a trick he knew from the cloak business - but as he shook it, the edge of the cloak touched the Safety Curtain. Bertie never knew what hit him.

Lightning fast, the Thing punched a hole through the fusion point, grabbed Bertie's cloak with one hand and pulled hard. Bertie toppled backwards into the Safety Curtain. In a moment the strangler Thing had its hands around Bertie's throat and was pulling him in so that he lay across the Safety Curtain like a small, humpbacked bridge - later immortalized in Apprentice textbooks as Bott's Bridge.

On either side of Bertie the Magykal purple light still shone like a luminous wall, but now there was a dark gap, like a broken tooth in a smile. As Bertie Bott lay face-up on the snow-dusted grass, a Darke tide of Things began to flow across him. (Many years later, when the Safety Curtain was Raised by one who wished he had not missed his only chance to see it done, this scene was the first to be replayed.)

Angie Sage Books | Fantasy Books | Septimus Heap Series Books