Rose arrived at the two torches that flanked the Palace Gate. She stopped for a moment to catch her breath and then pushed open the gate, on which a large notice had been stuck that tersely read: PARTY CANCELLED. Gudrun the Great - the faded old ghost on guard at the Palace Gate - smiled at Rose, but Rose, almost blinded by the startling brilliance of the Safety Curtain, did not see her.

"Take care, Apprentice," whispered Gudrun. "Take care." But all Rose heard was the whispering of the wind blowing in off the river.

As Rose approached the Safety Curtain she began to feel uneasy. Rose was a sensitive Apprentice who was aware - some said far too aware - of the Darke. And Rose had a talent that she did not yet know she possessed but was soon to discover: she could See Things. Looking out for Bertie Bott, Rose walked slowly across the grass, heading to where she knew the join in the Safety Curtain was - directly in front of the Palace Gate. The twinge of anxiety that had been niggling at her grew greater. Where was Bertie Bott? She could not see him anywhere. It wasn't as if he was hard to spot. There was plenty of Bertie to see. She wondered if, because she was late, he had already gone home for his supper, but Rose was sure that not even a ravenous Bertie Bott would dare desert such an important post.

Reluctant to get any closer, Rose slowed to a halt. She had the oddest sensation that the harder she looked for Bertie, the less she could see. She shivered and pulled her green Apprentice cloak around her, not to keep warm - she was still warm from her run - but to protect herself. Against what, she was not sure.

"Bertie?" she called in a half whisper. "Bertie?"

There was no reply.

Rose decided to use an old Wizard trick. She stood still and turned her head slowly from side to side, letting her eyes "see what they will see." And they did. Suddenly Rose saw the gap in the Safety Curtain, and pouring through the gap were Things. Monstrous, shadowy Things loping toward her like all her nightmares rolled into one.

Rose ran. She ran so fast that she was halfway up Wizard Way before the true meaning of what she had seen struck her. And then she kept on running, as fast as she could, back to the Wizard Tower to tell Marcia.

But Marcia was not there.

Marcia was still at the Manuscriptorium.

Chapter 28 Hermetically Sealed

As Rose raced past the dark windows of the Manuscriptorium, Marcia was inside struggling to place a Locking Band around Merrin's wrists.

Merrin was fighting her all the way, and Marcia was shocked at how powerful he had become. She was using the strongest Restrain she could without putting him at risk, and still he was not totally subdued. Merrin's dark eyes blazed with anger and his feet twitched as he tried to kick out. The gold on his Two-Faced Ring flashed as he pulled and twisted his wrists, stretching the Locking Band almost to the breaking point. After a torrent of verbal abuse, Marcia had also placed a Silent on Merrin but that did not stop his mouth moving. Marcia was - to her regret right then - a good lip-reader.

A loud knocking came suddenly on the outside door. Marcia looked annoyed. "Beetle, see who it is and tell them to go away."

Beetle went into the front office. He opened the door to find Marcellus Pye on the other side. "Ah, Scribe Beetle." Marcellus sounded relieved. "I am glad it is you."

Beetle had long ago given up trying to explain to Marcellus Pye that he was no longer - and indeed never had been - a scribe at the Manuscriptorium.

"Excuse me, Mr. Pye," he said closing the door, "we're a bit busy at the moment."

Marcellus stuck his foot in the door. "I have just been to the Palace for the party, only to find there is a Safety Curtain up." He sounded worried. "My Apprentice, Septimus Heap, was going there and I am concerned for his safety. I thought I'd call in on my way to the Wizard Tower. Is he here, by any chance?"

"No, he's not. I haven't seen him and no, before you ask, I don't know where he is." Beetle sounded annoyed. He was tired of everyone asking him about Septimus. "Excuse me, Mr. Pye, but do you mind leaving now? We have things to do. Would you move your foot please?"

But Marcellus did not move - his attention was suddenly taken by something down at the Palace end of Wizard Way. Beetle took the opportunity to close the door. He had to lean against it hard to shut it, and as he turned the key he saw that Marcellus was executing an odd kind of dance.

Beetle decided to ignore him.

Marcellus began banging on the door.

Marcia came into the front office, grasping Merrin by his Locking Band. Jillie Djinn trailed behind like a ghost. "Beetle, what's going on?" Marcia demanded.

"It's Marcellus," said Beetle. "He won't go. He's looking for Septimus."

A look of concern flashed across Marcia's face. "But I thought Septimus was with him."

"Apparently not," said Beetle, a trifle sulkily.

"What's that in the door?" asked Marcia. A long, thin piece of red leather was poking between the door and the doorjamb.

"Oh," said Beetle. "It's his shoe." He unlocked the door and it flew open to reveal Marcellus Pye, equally irritable, on the other side, nursing the squashed tip of his precious red shoe - a birthday present from Septimus a few years back.

"It's ruined," said Marcellus. "Look." He pointed to the torn ribbons that were tied just below his knee.

"You shouldn't wear such ridiculous shoes," snapped Marcia.

"Well, you'd know all about that, Marcia," Marcellus retorted.

While Marcia and Marcellus were bickering, something had caught Beetle's attention - the two torches burning on either side of the Palace Gate had just gone out. Beetle had a bad feeling - why had both torches gone out at the same time? He soon had his answer.

"No . . . no, it can't be!" he gasped.

"What?" asked Marcia, stopping midway through a shoe-based insult.

Beetle pointed down Wizard Way. Like water through a sluice gate, the thick fog of the Darke Domaine was pouring out through the Palace Gate and swirling into the lower reaches of Wizard Way. "The Safety Curtain! It's been breached!"

"What?"

Merrin smirked.

"Marcellus," said Marcia. "Make yourself useful for once. Hold on to this . . . this creature for me. I must see what's happening." She handed Merrin over to Marcellus and hurried out into Wizard Way. She was just in time to see the first torch at the Palace end of the Way extinguished by what looked like a bank of black fog.

Marcia ran back into the front office, slammed the door and leaned against it. She looked as white as a sheet of best Manuscriptorium paper. "You're right. It's breached." And then, to Beetle's shock, Marcia swore.

Merrin broke through his Silent with a snigger.

Marcia glared at him. "You won't be laughing soon, Merrin Meredith," she snapped. "Not when we are getting that Paired Code out of you."

Merrin went pale. He hadn't thought about that.

"Get him out of here, Marcellus," said Marcia. "Beetle, you take Miss Djinn. We must get back to the Wizard Tower now."

Beetle was reluctant. "But we can't abandon the Man-uscriptorium," he said.

"The Manuscriptorium must take its chance."

Beetle was horrified. "No. No. If the Darke Domaine gets in everything will be destroyed. All the arcane Magyk in the Hermetic Chamber and in the old Chamber of Alchemie . . . it will all be gone. Nothing will remain. Nothing."

"Beetle, I'm sorry, there is nothing we can do."

"Yes, there is," Beetle retorted. "The Hermetic Chamber can be Hermetically Sealed. That's why it's built like it is. And the ExtraOrdinary Wizard can Seal it. That is true, isn't it?"

Marcia answered with great reluctance. "Yes, it is true. But to Seal Miss Djinn in there would be nothing short of murder. She wouldn't know what was happening to her. She'd have no chance."

"But I might," said Beetle quietly.

"You?"

"Yes. Seal me in the Hermetic Chamber. I'd guard it."

Marcia was grave. "Beetle, there's only enough air for about twenty-four hours - after that you'll have to do a Suspension. You do know that not all those Sealed in the Chamber have survived, don't you?"

"I'll take a chance. Fifty-fifty isn't bad."

Marcia shook her head. So often Beetle knew far more than she expected. "Three lived, three died," she muttered. "Not great odds."

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