“We will now enter the Labyrinth,” he said, his voice hushed. “Please be aware that it does not run to a standard pattern. There are branches off to other smaller labyrinths and tunnels. Be sure to follow me and keep close. If you lose sight of me, stay where you are and call out. I will come and find you.”
Septimus remembered the Labyrinth well, but then it had been a beautiful, sinuous snake of a tunnel—brilliant with smooth, blue lapis lazuli walls shot through with gold and rare streaks of red and lit by rushlights. Now, like everything else, it was black with soot. Even though Septimus could recall all the tunnels and turnings, it looked so different that he doubted he would be able to find his way now.
Together Marcia and Septimus followed Marcellus through the arch and kept close behind him, the sound of their footsteps dulled by the carpet of soot. Marcellus trod carefully, after his first footsteps had raised a cloud of soot into the air and set everyone coughing and spluttering. The three walked slowly through the black coils of the Labyrinth, as subdued as if they were following a body on its way to its Leaving Boat. Even so, the soot rose into the air and tickled its way into their lungs, making them taste the fire of so long ago.
As the twists of the passageway became ever tighter Septimus knew they must be nearing the center—then suddenly they were there. Shocked, Septimus saw Marcellus staring at the blackened archway that was once the entrance to the Great Chamber of Alchemie. But now the archway led nowhere—it was blocked by a thick slab of heat-damaged metal, curled away at the bottom like a half-opened tin can. Marcellus crouched down to inspect it. “The barricade has blown,” he said.
“It’s done a pretty good job, all the same,” said Marcia.
“Possibly. I need a closer look.” Marcellus disliked the use of Magyk in the Great Chamber and the areas nearby—he was convinced it disrupted the fine balance of Alchemical reactions. But now a little bit of Magyk seemed nothing compared to the devastation surrounding them. “Perhaps, Marcia, you would care to use your FlashLight?”
Marcia switched it on and a guffaw escaped from Septimus.
“What?” asked Marcia irritably.
“You. Marcellus. Me. . . .”
Marcia realized that all three of them were covered with soot from head to toe. “Great,” she muttered.
For once Marcellus didn’t care what his robes looked like. He ran his sooty sleeve over his face, leaving behind a black streak across his eyes like a mask.
Marcia touched Marcellus on the arm. “I’ll do a Remove, shall I?” she offered gently. “The barricade is far too heavy for us to shift any other way.”
“Yes. Thank you, Marcia.”
Marcellus and Septimus stepped back and watched Marcia Throw a purple flash of Magyk across the metal slab. She waited a moment for the glimmering cloud to settle and then beckoned the barricade away from the archway.
The slab of metal began to shift and a sudden niggle of worry attacked Marcellus—there was something he must be careful about. But what?
“Septimus,” he said. “Get out of the way. Take cover.”
Septimus heard the warning in Marcellus’s voice and slipped into the entrance of the Labyrinth. He peered out to see what was happening. Marcia was concentrating hard, unaware that Marcellus was now anxiously hopping around.
“Marcia!” said Marcellus. “Marcia. Can you do a protection thing?”
“You need to do some kind of shield thingy.”
Marcia shot Marcellus an angry look. What was he doing? Didn’t he realize he was disturbing her concentration? If he carried on twittering like that he’d be lucky if he didn’t get the barricade dropped on his stupid shoes. “Thingy?” she snapped.
“Spell. I don’t know. Whatever you call it.”
“I’m doing this now,” Marcia said. “I can’t be doing something else as well. Be quiet and let me concentrate, Marcellus.”
Marcellus gritted his teeth. The slab was shifting and he could see the gap between the stone of the arch and the metal widening: in a moment the barricade would be out. He knew that this was the dangerous part. But why?
Suddenly the barricade was floating in midair and Marcia was conducting it across the space in front of the arch like a seasoned builder directing a heavy weight swinging on the end of a chain. Marcellus breathed out in relief: nothing had happened. “It’s all right, Septimus, you can come out now,” he said.
The thick slab of black metal, still smooth and bright on the inside, was slowly shepherded by Marcia across to the opposite wall and lowered to the ground. It left behind a dark space, beyond which lay whatever was left of the Great Chamber of Alchemie.
Marcellus gulped. “I’ll go in first,” he said.
“We’ll go in together,” said Marcia.
Marcellus nodded. Sometimes he liked Marcia. He raised his candle up and saw something in front of him glimmering. There was someone there, deep in the dark, holding a candle—looking at him. Who was it? Who was in the Great Chamber of Alchemie, waiting for him?
The hairs on the back of Marcellus’s neck stood up as he saw a dark and desperate-looking creature, with eyes staring so wide that the whites glittered in the candlelight. Bravely, Marcellus took a step forward, then another and—“Ouch!” he gasped.
Marcia put out her hand. “Thought so,” she said. “Glass.”
“Glass?” Marcellus ran his hand over the smooth yet wavy surface.
“Yes. A second seal of glass. I’ll get rid of that too.”
Suddenly Marcellus understood. “Stop!” he yelled.
Marcia leaped back.
“Sand,” said Marcellus.
“The fire stop. Sand. Above the Chamber we kept a huge hopper of sand. If it all went out of control we could release the sand and fill the Chamber. To protect it. We had all kinds of fail-safes, you know. We were very careful, despite what people said.”
“But clearly not careful enough,” Marcia said crisply. She was shocked at what she had seen so far.
Marcellus slumped back against the wall. He looked defeated. “The heat has vitrified the sand.”
Septimus was intrigued. He pushed his nose right up against the glass and peered in. “You mean the Chamber is full of solid glass? Like those paperweights they sell in the Traders’ Market?”
“Yes,” said Marcellus. “The whole thing is . . .” He searched for something to say and could think of nothing that didn’t involve a rude word. He borrowed one of Septimus’s recent phrases, “. . . a dead duck.”
Marcia looked horrified. “But what about the Two-Faced Ring?”
“Oh, that will be all right,” said Marcellus wearily. He knew when he was beaten. It was time to tell Marcia the truth about the Chamber of Fyre. “You see, Marcia. The real Fyre is—”
But Marcia was not listening. She was busy shining the FlashLight beam onto the glass. “I’m sure there is sand behind this glass,” she said.
Marcellus stopped his confession. “Is there?”
“I’ll check, shall I?” suggested Septimus.
“Be careful,” Marcellus and Marcia said together—to their annoyance.
Septimus took a HeatStick from his Apprentice belt and placed it on the glass. The glass melted below the point and Septimus carefully pushed the HeatStick farther into the glass, making a hole. Deeper and deeper the HeatStick went until it had very nearly disappeared and Septimus began to think that the Chamber was indeed filled with solid glass. Then suddenly, the end of the HeatStick hit something solid. Septimus pulled the HeatStick out and a trickle of sand began to flow.
“Ta-da!” he announced.
Marcellus laughed with relief.
“I trust you have a couple of large wheelbarrows, Marcellus?” Marcia said.
Marcellus grinned. He didn’t care how many wheelbarrows he was going to need—his precious Great Chamber of Alchemie had survived. The fact that it lay buried beneath hundreds of tons of sand was a mere irritation. His Apprentice would fix that.
Marcellus led Marcia and Septimus back through the sooty snake of the Labyrinth to Alchemie Quay. Marcia looked at her Apprentice and shook her head—his clean-this-morning Apprentice robes were completely blackened with soot.
“I give you permission to wear your Alchemie robes this month, Septimus,” she said. “Frankly, after a day down here, I don’t think anyone will be able to tell the difference.”