Marcellus regarded his two charges closely. They were as prepared as they could ever be, he thought. Now they would have to put things to the test - it was time to step into the Darke Domaine. He beckoned them to the end of the passageway. They stopped where the Fog rolled in front of them, close enough to reach out and touch, and Marcellus said, "I will go first, then you two walk together. Keep a steady pace, breathe quietly. Keep your mind clear, for it will tempt you to stray from our path with beguiling thoughts of those you once loved. Do not react to anything and above all, do not panic. Panic draws Darke things to it like a magnet. Understood?"

Jenna and Septimus nodded. Neither could quite believe they were about to step into the shifting wall of Darkenesse of their own free will. Both Septimus's Darke Disguise and Jenna's witch cloak protected them from the beguiling thoughts that drew people into the Darke Domaine. It was odd, thought Jenna, that her witch cloak allowed her to see the Darke Domaine for what it truly was: a terrifying blanket of evil.

Once again they exchanged glances, then together they followed Marcellus into the Darke Fog.

Septimus's Darke Disguise felt like a second skin. He moved easily through the thick Darke Fog, but both Marcellus and Jenna struggled. Jenna's witch's cloak gave her less protection - it did not totally enclose her in the way Septimus's Darke Disguise did and it was not nearly as powerful. Marcellus's cloak gave even less protection - he did not dabble with the Darke quite as much as he liked people to think he did. But any remnants of Darke offer protection in a Darke Domaine and Marcellus and Jenna managed to struggle along, even though they felt as though they were wading through glue and breathing through cotton wool. Waves of fatigue washed over them, but by force of will they managed to keep going.

After some minutes they came to a halt - they had reached Wizard Way. Marcellus peered cautiously out. He looked right and left and right again in exactly the way Jenna remembered Sarah doing when they used to cross the Way when she was little. Then Jenna had known what Sarah was looking out for, but now she had no idea what it was Marcellus was watching for - or how he could possibly see anything. Marcellus beckoned them forward and they stepped out into Wizard Way.

It was not a good place to be. The Darke Domaine felt heavier here and it moved around them like a living thing. Sometimes they felt something brush past them, and once a Thing's finger poked at Marcellus but he swept it off with a Darke curse and the Thing scuttled away. They walked steadily down the middle of the Way and concentrated on breathing slowly and calmly, in and out, in and out, as they measured their steps along the familiar - yet now so strange and frightening - Wizard Way.

As they walked on, Septimus began to get a strong sensation that there was something approaching behind them. It was a sense that he had learned to develop over his Apprentice years and he knew it was good. Remembering what Marcellus had said, he fought the urge to look back, but he could not rid himself of the feeling of a great creature bearing down on them fast. So fast that if they didn't jump out of the way right now . . . Septimus gave Marcellus and Jenna a hefty shove - not so easy in a Darke Domaine - and leaped to the side.

He was just in time. A huge black horse thundered past, his eyes wide and wild, mane streaming in the Darke and Lucy Gringe clinging on, screaming silent, terrified screams.

Thunder's flight had the effect of clearing a temporary path through the Darke. Marcellus quickly recovered himself and steered Jenna and Septimus into the horse's wake, where they moved quickly along the horse-shaped tunnel that Thunder had created through the swirling blackness. For Marcellus and Jenna it was a relief to be out of the weight of the Darke, although they knew it would not last long - the space was already being invaded by a dull murkiness. At the end of the tunnel they could see that Thunder had halted, and the muffled sounds of shouting drifted toward them.

Jenna risked an excited whisper to Septimus. "Mum . . . I can hear Mum."

Septimus was not sure it was Sarah. It sounded more like Lucy Gringe to him, and there was a deeper voice there too.

Thunder's tunnel was slowly collapsing under encroaching wisps of Darke Fog moving into the space like smoke from a fire burning something foul. The sounds at the end of the tunnel faded into ghostly whispers, but in those faraway echoes, Jenna was absolutely convinced she could hear Sarah's voice. Suddenly, much to Marcellus's disapproval, she broke into a run. She could not bear the sound of her mother being obscured by the Darke once more. She had to get to her this time.

Jenna flew along the space, forcing Septimus and Marcellus to follow the departing witch's cloak, which spread out behind her like a huge black wing. They arrived at a scene of which Septimus, let alone Marcellus, could make no sense at all.

At first all Septimus could see was Thunder, stamping and tossing his head, rolling his eyes from side to side - a terrified horse longing to flee. A man had hold of his mane and was talking to him in a low voice without much effect, it seemed to Septimus. On the other side of the horse, mostly obscured by Thunder's bulky body and starry horse blanket, he saw the hem of Lucy Gringe's embroidered robes and chunky boots and then he saw Jenna's witch's cloak - with four feet coming from beneath it. And then, as Thunder did a sudden turn, he saw Jenna. She was wrapped in Sarah's arms and had enfolded her mother in her cloak as if to never let her go. Lucy was also hanging onto someone . . .

"Simon!" gasped Septimus. He turned to Marcellus. "My brother. It had to be. Of course it did. He's behind all this. So that's what his creepy letter was about: Beware the Darke. I get it now."

Simon heard every word. "No!" he protested. "No, it's not that. It is not. I - "

"Shut up, you toad," snapped Septimus.

Marcellus did not know what was going on. But what he did know was that the middle of a Darke Domaine was not the place to have a family argument.

"Believe me, this is nothing to do with me," said Simon, half pleading, half angry at being blamed yet again for something he had not done.

"Liar!" exploded Septimus. "How dare you come here and - "

"Be silent, Apprentice!" snapped Marcellus.

Shocked at being spoken to in that way, for Marcellus was always scrupulously polite, Septimus stopped in mid sentence.

Marcellus took advantage of the surprised silence. "If you value your lives, you will - all of you - do as I say," he said with great command. "Immediately."

The peril of their situation hit home. Everyone - even Simon - nodded.

"Very well," said Marcellus. "Jenna, you know where to go so you will lead the way with the horse. It will help that you will both clear the air a little." Simon went to protest but Marcellus stopped him. "If you wish to survive you will do as I say. Septimus, your mother is very weak; you will find your Disguise will stretch to two. It will shield her from the worst of it. I will follow with the young lady and with Simon Heap - for I presume you are he?" Simon nodded. "We shall move in this formation: one, two, three. It is the most efficient way to move through viscosity. We will go silently as one. There must be no dissent. None whatsoever. Is that understood?"

Everyone nodded.

And so like winter geese they set off in their V formation, Jenna with Thunder, Septimus and Sarah Heap sharing the Darke Disguise, followed by Marcellus, who had thrown his cloak around Simon on one side and Lucy on the other.

As they set off, Jenna muttered their destination under her breath. She didn't know why she did, but as soon as she had, Jenna felt sure that she would find the way. She moved quickly out of Wizard Way and into the alleyways that would take her to the nearest entrance to the Ramblings. Deep in the Darke Fog Jenna found that the silence suited her. It allowed her to concentrate, and there was something about the witch's cloak that gave her a feeling of safety within the danger that surrounded them. She moved easily through the Darke, and when she glanced around to check that everyone was still following her, she saw that, like Thunder, she was clearing a path for those behind. Not for the first time she wondered at her cloak's powers.

There was no one in the Castle that terrible night who moved through the Darke Fog with anything approaching Jenna's lightheartedness. Her happiness at finding Sarah safe overwhelmed everything. She hardly cared about the Darke Domaine or Simon's sudden, suspicious appearance. She had her mum back and that was all that mattered.

And every route she had learned for her Extramural Ramblings Certificate all those years ago led to the very place she was now headed: The Big Red Door, There and Back Again Row.

Angie Sage Books | Fantasy Books | Septimus Heap Series Books