"Who be you? Sum."
"How be you? Darke."
"What be you? The Apprentice of the Apprentice of the Apprentice of DomDaniel."
"Why come you here? I seek the Apprentice of DomDaniel."
Septimus was so absorbed that he did not notice Jenna and Nicko slipping into the spaces on either side of him. They waited patiently until he had stopped muttering and then Jenna spoke.
"We are coming with you," she said.
Septimus looked shocked. "What?"
"Nik and I . . . we have decided to come with you. We don't want you to go alone," said Jenna.
This had the opposite effect from what Jenna had intended - Septimus suddenly felt totally alone. He realized that they had no idea about the utter impossibility of their request. He shook his head.
"Jen, you can't. It's not possible. Believe me."
Jenna saw the look in Septimus's eyes. "Okay . . . I believe you. But if we can't come with you, then I at least want to know where you are going. Marcellus knows, even Simon knows, so I think Nik and I deserve to know too."
Septimus did not reply. He stared out at the water and wished that Jenna and Nik would leave him alone. He needed to disconnect.
But Jenna would not let him. She reached beneath her witch's cloak, took out The Queen Rules and opened it to a page she knew well. She thrust it under Septimus's nose.
"Look," she said, stabbing her finger at a grubby, well-worn paragraph.
Reluctantly Septimus squinted at the tiny type. Then he gave in. He got out his birthday present from Marcia and moved the Enlarging Glass across the page. He read:
"The P-I-W has a Right To Know all facts pertaining to the security and wellbeing of the Castle and the Palace. The ExtraOrdinary Wizard (or, in absentia, the ExtraOrdinary Apprentice) is required to answer all the P-I-W's questions truthfully, fully and without delay."
With his head full of what he had to do, Septimus didn't immediately recognize what he was looking at - and then it came back to him. He remembered the morning of his birthday, which seemed so far away now. He smiled as he recalled Marcia's comment about "the wretched red book with its tiddly-squiddly type, the bane of every ExtraOrdinary Wizard's life." So this was what she had meant. And in remembering the Wizard Tower and the Castle as it had been, and with Marcia's beautiful birthday gift in his hand, Septimus somehow felt less alone. He felt part of everything once more and he also, he realized, felt relieved. He wanted to tell Jenna where he was going, he wanted her to be part of what he was doing. Even though she couldn't come with him, she could be thinking of him while he was there, wishing him safely through the Darke Halls to the other side. Septimus wasn't sure that he should be telling Nicko too, but he no longer cared about should or shouldn't.
And so, as they drew near to Bleak Creek and they saw the telltale chop of the water that heralded the Bottomless Whirlpool, Septimus told Jenna and Nicko how he was going to find Alther and bring him back to the Castle through Dungeon Number One. He told them not to worry because he had the Darke Disguise. And even though he didn't believe it, he told them that he would be fine and he would see them soon. When he had finished talking, Nicko and Jenna were silent. Jenna wiped her eyes with her sleeve and Nicko coughed.
"We'll be there waiting, Sep," said Jenna.
"Outside Dungeon Number One," said Nicko.
"No. You can't do that."
Jenna put on her best Princess voice. "Nicko and I will be waiting for you at the entrance to Dungeon Number One. No, don't say anything, Sep. We can get through the Darke with my witch's cloak. You are not in this alone. Got that?"
Septimus nodded. He did not trust himself to speak.
A shout from Rupert broke the moment. "Nik - she's beginning to go!"
Nicko leaped up. He could feel the pull of the current beneath them and the flapping of Annie's sails told him that the boat's prow was being pulled into the wind and she was losing way - they were heading toward the wisp of spray that marked the Bottomless Whirlpool. Nicko raced back to the stern. He grabbed the tiller from Rupert - who was not a natural sailor - and yelled, "Oars! Everyone, get the oars!"
Annie's four long oars were snatched off the roof. Standing along the sides of the boat, Sarah, Simon, Lucy and Rupert dug them into the water. Frighteningly slowly, the boat's progress toward the Bottomless Whirlpool halted.
Septimus got to his feet. "I have to go, Jen," he said. "I'm putting everyone at risk."
"Oh. Oh, Sep."
Septimus hugged Jenna and quickly stepped back. "That witch's cloak is really . . . zingy. It buzzes when I touch it."
Jenna was determined to be positive. "Good. That means it's full of, er, witch stuff. It will get me and Nik through the Castle."
"Right." Septimus forced a smile. "I'll see you there, then."
"At the door to Dungeon Number One. We'll wait for you. We'll be there, I promise."
"Yeah. Okay. I'll go and find Marcellus now."
"Yep. See you, Sep."
Septimus nodded and picked his way back along the deck, past Simon and Lucy, who were sitting like gloomy seagulls on the cabin roof.
"Good luck, Sep," said Lucy.
Simon held out a small, black metallic Charm. "Take it, Septimus. It will guide you through."
Septimus shook his head. Right then it was hard to turn down any offer of help, even from Simon. But he was determined. "No thanks. I don't take SafeCharms from anyone."
"Then take some advice - always take the left."
Septimus reached the cockpit of the boat, where Marcellus had just emerged from the cabin.
"It is time, Apprentice," Marcellus said, with an anxious glance at Sarah. He had just had a fraught conversation with her, trying to impress upon her how she must let Septimus go without upsetting him. He wasn't sure that Sarah was going to manage it.
But Sarah did - just. She enveloped her youngest son in a desperate hug. "Oh, Septimus! Be careful."
"I will, Mum," said Septimus. "I'll see you soon. Okay?"
"Okay, sweetheart." With that Sarah rushed down into the cabin.
Nicko and Rupert hauled the little coracle down from the mast and dropped it over the side, hanging on to its rope. The flimsy round boat made of willow and skin bobbed lightly on the water like a leaf. Aware that everyone - except Sarah - was watching him, Septimus gave a tight smile and climbed down the ladder into the coracle. Nicko handed him the single paddle. "Okay?" he said hoarsely.
With every instinct telling him that he was killing his little brother, Nicko threw the rope into the coracle and set it free. At first it drifted aimlessly, bobbing merrily as if out for a summer's day paddle on a gentle lake. And then it began to turn, slowly at first, as though it had caught a gentle breeze. Moving steadily toward the wisp of steam at the center of the whirlpool, the coracle began to pick up speed and, like a fairground ride from which there is no return, to spin ever faster as it was drawn inexorably toward the edge of the vortex.
And then it reached the point of no return. With a suddenness that drew a gasp of dismay from everyone on Annie, it was whirled into the slipstream of the vortex. Spinning like a top as it raced around in ever decreasing circles, Septimus's green cloak was the pivot around which his tiny black craft spun. There was a final acceleration as it tipped into the center of the whirlpool and was gone.
The creek was still. Annie was silent. No one could believe what they had just done.
Chapter 42 The Darke Halls
Septimus timed his Darke Disguise perfectly. As the coracle tipped into the center of the whirlpool he muttered "ehtolc Sum" and felt the coldness of the Darke veil spread over him like a second skin. After that things were not quite so perfect.
Septimus was sucked into the roar of the whirlpool, whirled around like a piece of flotsam and pulled into its maw. Down, down, down he fell, whirling so fast that all his thoughts spun into a tiny dark place in the middle of his mind and he knew nothing except the roaring of water and the relentless pull of the vast emptiness below.
At that point, without a Darke Disguise Septimus would, like most of the whirlpool's previous victims, have drowned. He would have taken one last breath, filled his lungs with water and been pulled through a hole in the riverbed into a great underwater cave that was hollowed out in the bedrock like the inside of a hundred-foot-long egg. Here, for a few weeks, he would have circled until, one by one, his bones dropped and mingled with the pile of clean, white, delicate sticks scattered on the smooth cave floor - all that remained of those who had traveled the Bottomless Whirlpool over the many centuries that had elapsed since the Great Fight of the Darke Wizards.