It looked different. No longer a scuffed and dismal black, the door was now painted bright, shiny red, just as it had been in what people still called The Good Old Days. In her hand Jenna held the precious key that she remembered Silas locking the door with every night, and which had hung on a high hook on the chimney the rest of the time. No one but Silas or Sarah had been allowed to touch the key because - as Silas had informed everyone one night when its hook had fallen out of the wall and Maxie had hidden the key under his blanket -  it was a precious Heap heirloom. The Big Red Door, complete with lock and key (with Benjamin Heap inscribed on the bow) was the only thing that Silas's father had left him.

Jenna knew exactly what to do with the key. She handed it to Sarah.

"You open it, Mum," she said.

Sarah took the key and looked at it.

Jenna watched Sarah anxiously. She glanced up and saw that everyone else was watching too. Even Marcellus. It felt like an eternity while Sarah Heap stared at the big brass key lying on her palm. And then, very slowly, recognition dawned in Sarah's eyes and the corners of her mouth flickered into the beginnings of a smile.

Hesitantly Sarah placed the key in the lock. The door recognized Sarah, and when she began, very weakly, to turn the key, the lock did the rest for her and the door swung open.

Chapter 35 The Longest Night

A large variety of animals had spent time - sometimes their whole lives - in the room behind the Big Red Door, but Thunder was the first horse. Sam had once brought a goat in but only for a few seconds. Sarah Heap did not, in those days, have things with hooves in her room. But this time Sarah had no problems with hooves. She was perfectly happy to have a huge black horse standing in the corner while her Simon fed him some withered apples that he had found in a bowl on the floor.

Sarah was amazed at the transformation of her old home. As she stood gazing about her, taking in all the changes that Silas had secretly made over the previous year, happy memories came flooding back and began to displace the heaviness and gloom that the Darkenesse had left within her. Now she understood why Silas was always disappearing.

Neither Jenna nor Simon had been back to their old home since their hurried departure on Jenna's tenth birthday, and now they hardly recognized the place. Gone were the piles of books, clutter, bedding and general household "jumble-junk," as Silas had called it. Now there were rows of neat - albeit homemade - bookshelves carrying all the Magyk books that Silas had once saved by hiding them in the attic. The fireplace in the central chimney was swept and laid with large logs; the pots hanging on the chimney were clean and lined up in order of size; the worn wooden floor was covered with rugs (some of which Jenna recognized from the Palace) and scattered with cushions, ready for the chairs that Silas was planning to make.

For Septimus it was a strange feeling to be in the very place where he had been born and yet had spent no more than the first few hours of his life. He stood awkwardly on the threshold. He saw Simon with his arm around Lucy pointing something out to her from the mullioned window that looked out over the river and Septimus realized why he felt so uncomfortable. Simon was at home; this was where he had belonged. It was he, Septimus, who was now the outsider.

Sarah Heap saw her youngest son at the doorway, looking as if he was waiting to be asked in. The sight of him cleared the very last remnants of the Darkenesse from her head. She walked over to Septimus, put her arm around his shoulders and said, "Welcome home, love." Sarah drew him inside and closed the door.

A strange feeling welled up inside Septimus - he didn't know whether he wanted to laugh or cry. But he did know that he felt like a weight he had been carrying on his shoulders without even realizing it had suddenly been lifted off. It was true - he was home.

The Longest Night drew on. Outside the Ramblings the Darke Domaine grew stronger as it spread through the Castle, drawing energy from all those trapped within it. The only spaces that remained clear were the Wizard Tower, protected by its dazzling SafeShield, the Sealed Hermetic Chamber, in which Beetle sat like a butterfly in a chrysalis, a tiny SafeChamber deep within Gothyk Grotto - and the Ramblings.

The Ramblings had been inhabited for a very long time. It went back to the days when many Castle inhabitants practiced a little amateur Magyk of their own, and so there were many remnants of SafeScreens, PassageProtectors, Blessings, HappyHomes and all kinds of spells for good things still hanging around the entrances. The Magyk was faint, but its cumulative effect over the years had soaked into the old stones and was enough to halt the Darke Domaine at every single archway, gate, door and window that led into the Ramblings. It was not, however, strong enough to hold out against the determined assault that now began.

At the ivy-covered archway near Ma Custard's - and at each and every Ramblings entrance - the ragged shadow of a Thing walked out of the Darke Domaine. The Thing stepped through the archway, forcing its way through the ancient echoes of Magyk. With it came the first tendrils of Darkenesse, smothering the rushlight with a soft hisssssss as they went swirling into the corridor. The Thing - which happened to be the one that Spit Fyre had hurled into the river - dripped along the stone flags, sending the candles sputtering out and drawing the eddying blackness behind it. As it passed by the rooms and apartments, the Darke Domaine went creeping under the doors and through the keyholes, and the fearful voices within were stilled. Sometimes there was a scream or a shout of joy as someone thought they were about to meet a long-lost love, but these were soon cut short and followed by silence.

On the top floor of the oldest part of the Ramblings, in the room behind the Big Red Door, Sarah Heap was getting ready for a siege. Against all protests she was about to go and fetch water from the Well Hall.

"I'll come with you," Septimus and Simon said at the same time - and then glared at each other.

Sarah regarded her oldest and youngest sons. "You can both come, but I'm not having you squabbling all the way to Well Hall and back," she said sternly. "Understood?"

Septimus and Simon grunted assent and then frowned, annoyed at sounding so similar.

Flanked by her oldest and youngest sons, both now taller than she, Sarah set off for the once familiar trip to the well. As she walked between them, moving swiftly along the silent passageways, she could hardly believe what was happening. It was all her dreams come true. No matter that her sons refused to speak to each other, or that terrible things were happening in the Castle right then - and no doubt would soon reach them too. She had, for a few precious minutes, her boys back. Not all her boys, it was true, but she had the very two of whom so many times she had despaired of ever seeing again - and indeed had often believed dead.

Sarah's moment of contentment did not last long. As they made their way back from the Well Hall, each carrying two heavy pails of water, they saw a telltale eddy of Darkenesse appear around the far corner of Big Bertha. Quickly they hurried into There and Back Again Row and the Big Red Door threw itself open. They rushed in and the door immediately slammed itself shut. Sarah shoved the key in the lock and turned it.

"It needs an Anti-Darke," Septimus said. "I'll do one."

Sarah didn't like Anti-Darkes. She had grown up in a family that contained both witches and wizards and she was not happy hearing the word "Darke" spoken in her home, even when it was partnered by the word "Anti." Sarah subscribed to the witch view on words - a deed named was a deed claimed. "No, thank you, love," she said. "We'll be safe without. The door has its own Magyk."

Marcellus, who had been feeling rather useless since they had arrived in the room, was glad to weigh in with some advice. "We need all the protection we can get, Mistress Heap," he said. "My Apprentice is right."

Both Simon and Sarah shot Marcellus a questioning look. "Your Apprentice?" said Sarah.

Marcellus decided not to - as Septimus would have said - go there. "I would go as far as to say that an Anti-Darke may be essential for our survival," he said.

Simon could hold back no longer. "That is true," he said. "What we need is a fluid Anti-Darke combined with a powerful SafeScreen. Once those are in place we must have an effective Camouflage - that is crucial."

Septimus gave a snort of derision. Did Simon really expect him to take the advice of the very person who had caused this whole thing to happen?

Simon misunderstood the snort. He tried to explain. "Look, you can do the most powerful Anti-Darke in the world, but it's no good if it's visible. A Darke Domaine will just hammer away at it until it's gone. And sooner or later it will be. Trust me, I know."

Angie Sage Books | Fantasy Books | Septimus Heap Series Books