Septimus felt near to despair. If he was not in the antechamber, where was he? Unbidden the answer came to him - he was lost. Totally and utterly lost. Far more lost than he had been during the night he had spent in the Forest with Nicko a few years back. To stop himself sliding into panic Septimus thought about what Nicko would say right then. Nicko would say that they must keep going. Nicko would say that sooner or later they would come to Dungeon Number One, that it was only a matter of time. And so, taking an imaginary Nicko with him, Septimus set off once more into the Darke.

Almost immediately he was rewarded with the sight of three plain, square entrances set into the smooth rock wall. Septimus stopped and considered what to do. He remembered Simon's advice and Marcellus's words came back to him: Apprentice, I truly believe we can trust him.

Septimus stepped through the left-hand entrance.

Another empty space full of wailing and fear met him. Imagining Nicko by his side, Septimus walked quickly on and before long he came to two more porticos standing side by side. Once again he took the left one. It led him into a long, winding passageway down which a foul wind funneled. It screamed at him, buffeting him and at times throwing him against the walls, but Septimus pushed on, and at last he stepped out of the passageway and into yet another empty cavernous space where, once again, he turned left.

Another tedious hour of walking followed. By now Septimus was footsore and weary, and the Darke Disguise felt as though it was wearing thin. The chill of the air was striking deep into him, and he could not stop shivering. The wailing was at times so loud that he felt he was losing touch not just with his own thoughts but with who he was - with himself. A deep, dark fear began to seep into him, a fear that even the imaginary Nicko could not keep out. But Septimus struggled on. It was either that, he told himself, or sit down and become another pile of bones.

Eventually he was rewarded by the sight of a distant portico. As he drew nearer his spirits rose cautiously. Surely this was the entrance to the antechamber - it fitted the description exactly. He picked up speed, but as he came closer he saw something that sent him very nearly over the edge of despair. He saw a small skeleton propped up against the side of the lapis pillar.

Septimus stopped dead. He felt sick. What were the chances of two skeletons sitting beside two identical porticos? He walked slowly forward until he was standing in front of the skeleton. It was small, delicate, and its skull nodded jauntily at the pillar. Septimus forced himself to look at its left hand. On the little finger was a cheap brass ring with a red stone.

Septimus sank to the ground - he had come full circle. He leaned back against the cold lapis and stared into the darkness in despair. Simon had deceived him. Marcellus was a fool. He would never find Dungeon Number One. He would never find Alther. He would be here forever, and one day some unfortunate traveler would find two sets of bones propped up beside the arch. Now he understood why the skeleton was there. Whoever it had once been had also gone around in circles - how many times? Septimus looked up and found that he was eye to eye with the skull. Its teeth seemed to smile at him conspiratorially, the empty eye sockets to wink, but after the vast desert of empty spaces the bones felt like company.

"I'm sorry you didn't make it," he said to the bones.

"No one makes it on their own," came a whispering reply.

Septimus thought he was hearing his own thoughts. It was not a good sign. But even so, just to hear the sound of a human voice, he said, "Who's there?"

He thought he heard a faint reply that blended into the wail of the wind. "Me."

"Me," Septimus muttered to himself. "I am hearing myself."

"No. You hear me," said the whisper.

Septimus looked at the skull beside him, which returned his gaze mockingly. "Is it you?"

"It was me," came the reply. "Now it is not. Now it is bones. This is me."

And then something made Septimus smile for the first time since he had left Annie. A small figure began to materialize -  the ghost of a girl aged no more than ten, he guessed. She looked like a miniature version of Jannit Maarten. She had the same wiriness about her and wore a child's version of Jannit's work clothes - a rough sailor's smock, cutoff trousers and her hair in a small, tight plait down her back. Septimus was almost as pleased to see her as he would have been to see Alther.

"Now you see me?" she asked, her head tilted to one side in an echo of her skull.

"Yes, I see you."

"Now I see you. But I could not before you spoke. You look . . . funny." The ghost extended what Septimus could see had once been a very grubby hand. "You must get up," she told him. "If you do not get up now, you will never get up. Like me. Come."

Wearily Septimus got to his feet.

The ghost looked up at him, excited. "You are my first Living. I watch from the shore. I saw those wicked people cast you adrift. I saw you go in," she chattered with the pent-up energy of a Living girl herself. "I followed." She saw Septimus's questioning glance. "Yes, through the whirlpool. It is Where I Have Trod Before."

Septimus felt he had to clear the name of all those on board Annie. "They did not cast me adrift. I came here on purpose, because I have to find a ghost. His name is Alther Mella. He wears ExtraOrdinary Wizard robes with a bloodstain over his heart. He is tall with white hair tied back in a ponytail. Do you know him?"

"No, I don't." The little girl sounded indignant. "The ghosts here are bad. Why would I want to know any of them? I only came back to this horrible place so that I can save you. Come on, I'll show you how to get out."

It took all Septimus's willpower to refuse her offer. "No, thank you," he said regretfully.

"But that's not fair. I have come here to save you!" The ghost stamped her foot.

"Yes, I know," said Septimus, a trifle irritably. He had prepared for many things in the Darke Halls but dealing with a little girl in a bad temper was not one of them. "Look, if you really want to save me then show me the way to Dungeon Number One. You do know the way?"

"Of course I do!" the ghost said.

"So please . . . will you show me?"

"No. Why should I? It's a horrid place. I don't like it."

Septimus knew she had him in her power. He took a deep breath and counted to ten. He could not afford to say something wrong. He had to find a way to persuade her to show him the way to Dungeon Number One.

Suddenly the ghost reached out and he felt the cool waft of her touch across his Dragon Ring. "This is pretty. I have a ring." She waggled her little finger with its cheap brass ring. "But it is not as pretty as this one."

Septimus was not sure whether he should agree with her or not, so he said nothing.

The ghost looked up at him earnestly. "Your pretty dragon. You wear it on your right hand."

"Yes, I do."

"On your right hand," she repeated.

"Yes. I know." Septimus was exasperated. He had had enough chit-chat about rings.

And then, to Septimus's dismay, she said, "You are a silly boy. You want to stay here, but I don't. I am going now. Good-bye."

And she was gone.

Septimus was alone once more. The little skull looked up at him and grinned.

Chapter 43 Dungeon Number One

Septimus sat next to the pile of bones feeling bad. Really bad. Really, really bad. He thought of Beetle, Sealed into the Hermetic Chamber, and himself marooned in the Darke Halls and he knew that there was no hope left for either of them.

He stretched out his hands and looked at his Dragon Ring, the only thing he had left for company. He saw the warm yellow glow and the green emerald eye and he thought it was true; it was a pretty ring. And suddenly something clicked - he understood the little ghost's chattering about the ring. He wore his Dragon Ring on his right hand - he knew he did. He could even feel it on his right hand, on the index finger, where it always was. And yet, when he looked at his hands, the ring appeared to be on his left index finger. Septimus stared at his hands, uncomprehending. And then he understood. That was it. The ghost been giving him a clue - in the Darke Halls everything was Reversed, so when he had thought he was taking the left turning, he had in fact been taking the right. So maybe Simon had not deceived him after all. Maybe . . .

Septimus leaped to his feet and, with renewed hope, he set off once more. He took the apparent right-hand entrance of the first three and found himself in yet another great Hall. He speeded up, almost running in his wish to discover if this really was the secret to finding his way to Dungeon Number One. After choosing an apparent right-hand passageway leading from a small archway that very soon pided into two flights of steps - of which he took the right-hand flight - he pushed open a heavy door and found himself in a huge cavern that was actually lit. Great torches flared from niches carved into the smooth rock walls, illuminating the soaring heights of the Hall, casting long shadows across the smooth rock floor. Septimus felt like yelling with joy. He was getting somewhere now, he knew he was.