"Desperate measures," said Marcia, steeling herself.
Some minutes later, if anyone had been able to see through the Darke Fog they would have picked out the arresting sight of Marcia Overstrand climbing shakily up the stepped sides of the Golden Pyramid on top of the Wizard Tower. The wind blew her purple cloak out behind her like the wings of a bird as she moved through the fuzz of Magyk beneath the Magykal indigo and purple lights, following the fainter figure of a ghost - similarly clad in purple - who was guiding her up toward a dragon that roosted on the flat square at the very top of the pyramid.
As soon as Marcia reached the dragon's tail she grabbed hold of one of the spines. "Got you!" she gasped.
Spit Fyre raised his head sleepily and looked around. Drat, he thought, it's that irritating one in purple again. Spit Fyre's Pilot had never told him to come when the Purple One Called, but he had instructed him to let the Purple One fly him. She wasn't very good at it from what he could remember.
Spit Fyre patiently allowed Marcia to clamber into the Pilot Dip and waited while she Reversed her cloak to give some protection from the Darke Domaine. When she told him "Spit Fyre, follow that ghost," he stretched out his wings and, with great control, he flew slowly upward, following Alther as the ghost headed up toward the tiny expansion gap where the four SafeShields joined. As he approached, Spit Fyre performed a rare arrow maneuver - he folded his wings close to his body and then flipped into a completely vertical position, leaving Marcia to use the Panic Spine for what it was meant for - hanging on in a panic. With his nose pointing up to the sky, like a dragon-shaped bolt from a crossbow, Spit Fyre shot through the expansion gap at a tremendous speed and left it as undisturbed as he had done when he had arrowed in two days earlier.
Ghost and dragon flew off through the Darke Fog, heading for the Maker's Mile Tally Hut.
Down below in Marcia's rooms, the big purple door recognized Silas Heap. It opened and Silas stepped inside.
"Marcia?" he whispered.
There was no reply. The firelight flickered, casting weird shadows on the wall of . . . a dwarf and . . . someone balancing a pile of doughnuts on his head?
Silas felt a little spooked. "Marcia - are you there? It's only me. I came to see if you were all right. I . . . well I thought you looked a bit lonely. Might need some company? Marcia?"
There was no reply. The bird had flown.
Chapter 45 Dragons
It's so lovely out." The Witch Mother's voice carried like a bell through the Darke. From the cover of the Maker's Mile Tally Hut, Jenna, Septimus and Nicko watched the five shadowy figures of the Port Witch Coven stroll by, as carefree as if they were out for a walk on a summer's day. A slightly less carefree figure - Nursie under a Darke blanket - scuttled behind them.
"There goes your Coven, Jen," whispered Septimus.
"Stop it, Sep," hissed Jenna. The sight of the five misshapen shadows trolling past made her remember how scared she'd been in Doom Dump. She suddenly felt a little less fond of her witch's cloak as they watched the witches disappear jauntily down the Ceremonial Way.
Jenna, Septimus and Nicko were waiting for Spit Fyre. They had chosen somewhere out of the way where the dragon could easily land. Alther had gone to collect Spit Fyre; he had promised to be as quick as he could, but they all knew so much could go wrong. Every minute in the Tally Hut felt like an hour, but the moment when they saw the shadow of a dragon hovering above felt like forever. No one - not for one second - thought it was Spit Fyre.
So different from the elegant Spit Fyre in flight, the six-winged Darke dragon descended clumsily through the Fog and, after three attempts, landed with a resounding thud on the raised circle that marked the center of the Makers' Mile. It shook the Tally Hut to its foundations.
Jenna, Septimus and Nicko shrank back into the depths of the hut, convinced that the dragon Knew they were there. The frantic beating of its wings during its landing attempts had cleared away the Fog and they could see the Darke dragon frighteningly clearly. Its massive size was the first shock - it made Spit Fyre seem like a delicate dragonfly in comparison. The dragon squatted awkwardly, shifting its bulk from one tree trunk leg to another, while a white forked tongue flicked in and out of its red slash of a mouth. It shook its lumpen head and rolled its eyes - all six of them - as it looked around. The eyes were arranged so that the dragon had virtually 360-degree vision - its blind spot was a mere ten degrees compared with the standard dragon blind spot of ninety degrees. The all-seeing eyes swiveled like glistening red ball bearings as the dragon surveyed the ramshackle remains of the market. Pointed spines barbed like fish hooks ranged down the dragon's back, and its four huge feet were equipped with curved black talons, each one shaped like - and as sharp as - a scimitar. It was a terrifying sight, but the most horrifying thing of all was that one talon had speared a scrap of blue cloth, which had something red and meaty stuck to it. Jenna covered her face. That, she thought, had once been someone, someone who lived in the Castle - someone like her.
A sharp nudge from Septimus made Jenna look up again.
"Look," whispered Septimus. "In front of the Pilot Spine. There's someone there."
The Darke dragon's Pilot Spine was, like Spit Fyre's, the tallest of all the spines. But unlike Spit Fyre's, which was solid and straight, with a rounded top, it curved forward with a razor-sharp barb on the end of it. Sitting in the Pilot Dip was a figure swathed in grubby scribe robes. Jenna knew exactly who it was.
"Merrin Meredith," she whispered.
"Yeah," said Septimus. "He's gotten serious now, hasn't he? He's not just an irritating little tick anymore - he's for real."
"I can hardly believe it," whispered Jenna. "He's so pathetic, but he's caused all this to happen."
"It's the Darke, Jen. He's got that ring and now he's got its power. And he's so stupid, he doesn't care what he does with it. He just wants to destroy everything."
"You in particular."
"Beetle said he was ranting on about you, Sep. You know, about how he was Septimus Heap first. How he was going to get you. Then he'd be Septimus Heap. With a ten-times-better dragon."
"Yeah. Well, he's got a ten times bigger one, that's for sure."
"Not better though."
"No way. Spit Fyre's the best."
Suddenly the Darke Dragon raised all six wings and brought them down fast; a terrific rush of wind swooshed into the Tally Hut along with a foul smell that sent the occupants reeling. It also dispersed the re-gathering Fog and gave them a clear view of what happened next. The dragon shuffled awkwardly around and began a lumbering run down the broad space of the Ceremonial Way, its wings rising and falling like black sails. They watched it go, getting faster and faster until it reached the Palace gates, where it finally took off, rose slowly into the Fog and disappeared into the night.
"Phew," breathed Nicko. "It's gone."
"I was so scared Spit Fyre would come while that thing was here," whispered Jenna.
Septimus nodded. He had been too, although he had not dared to think it. He believed what Aunt Zelda always said: the thought is the seed for deed.
But a few minutes later something happened that Septimus had definitely not thought of: the Darke dragon came back. It landed with a thud, the Tally Hut shook, the red eyes swiveled and everyone held their breath. And then once more it lumbered into a turn and galumphed down the Ceremonial Way until at last it took off. Three times the Darke dragon came back and each time the occupants of the Tally Hut prayed that Spit Fyre would not choose that moment to arrive. Each time they became more frightened, convinced that the dragon knew they were there - why else would it keep returning? It was not until the third time when the dragon was a little more skillfully heading into his takeoff that Jenna realized what was going on.
"He's practicing," she whispered. "It's the only space in the Castle where a dragon that big can land and take off."
And they all knew what the dragon was practicing for - the assault on the Wizard Tower.
A few minutes after the Darke dragon had taken off for the fourth time, the smaller, more delicate - and infinitely more welcome - two-winged shape of Spit Fyre came down through the Fog, heralded by the swooping figure of Alther, arms outstretched in his favorite flying mode.
Spit Fyre landed lightly on the very spot the Darke dragon had so recently vacated. He sniffed the air uneasily, in the way a house cat might sniff a pile of lion poo left outside its cat flap. The next thing Spit Fyre knew, three figures were hurtling toward him, one of which was his Pilot. Spit Fyre felt relieved. It had been a nightmare flying with The Purple One. Now she would get off and let his Pilot sit in his rightful place.