Deciding to Shield only Jenna and Nicko—the less people Shielded, the more effective the Shield—Septimus put his arm around Simon’s shoulders and walked him sideways out of the Shield space and then he spun around, clenched his fists and threw them open. To Septimus’s relief a bright band of purple light shot out from his raised hands and, to Jenna and Nicko’s surprise, dropped over them to form a small, cloudy dome. It was a very basic SafeShield, but it did the job. Jenna and Nicko stared out like a couple of mice trapped under a bell jar. The Darke Wizards laughed.

“How very.”

“Quaint.”

There was a sharp snap like bones cracking, a flash of light, and suddenly Edmund and Ernold Heap were each holding a gleaming black stave, smooth as glass.

Simon stared at the staves in horror. He had never seen one, but he knew at once what they were: Volatile Wands. He knew that within them, concentrated in the tiny silver spine that ran through the length of the Wand, lay a distillation of Darke power. Volatile Wands were powerful, accurate and incredibly dangerous. Simon felt sick—they didn’t have a chance.

There was a thunderous craaaack. The walls of the hall shook and from the ends of each Wand a bullet of light emerged, zub zub, heading straight for the SafeShield. Jenna and Nicko threw themselves to the ground but the bullets never reached the Shield—Simon twisted his cloak up into the air and caught them. His cloak burst into flames and, unperturbed, as though his cloak caught fire on a regular basis, Simon threw it to the floor and stamped on it.

“Come on,” he dared the Wizards. “You can do better than that.”

Septimus thought Simon was being a little rash. He had no doubt that not only could the Wizards easily do better than that, but they were about to prove it.

Simon, however, knew the game to play. He knew Darke Wizards fed off fear and that a scornful disdain was the best defense. He also knew that he had to back it up with a show of strength, and so Simon reneged on his promise to Lucy that he would never again mess with the Darke.

Using the last of the flame from his cloak, he Conjured a FireSnake and sent it blazing through the air. It hit the Wizards and wrapped itself around them once, twice, three times and began to tighten. But like all things Darke it was a two-sided weapon. In a moment Shamandrigger Saarn and Dramindonnor Naarn had turned it to their advantage. Using the flame they sent up a plume of black smoke and Threw it over Simon and Septimus, imprisoning them in a circle of burnt-snake fumes. Then Shamandrigger wound the FireSnake around his Wand and hurled it into the smoke, where it scorched Septimus’s hair and fell writhing to the floor. Simon had the presence of mind to stamp on it, but neither he nor Septimus could find a way out of the choking smoke.

Now the Darke Wizards headed across to the SafeShield. Holding their Wands like javelins, they stabbed them into the shimmering purple dome. It emitted a wounded groan and the purple light began to grow dim.

“Jen, I’ll distract them and you make a break for it,” whispered Nicko. “Get to the Queen’s Way. They can’t follow you there.”

“Shut up, Nik,” said Jenna.

“You what?” asked Nicko, not sure he’d heard right.

“Just be quiet, will you?” Jenna snapped.

Nicko felt scared. Something odd had happened to Jenna.

With that the SafeShield died.

Jenna found herself looking into the eyes of her pitiful, bruised, battered and utterly terrified uncles. But lurking deep within she saw the Darke Wizards’ malice. Jenna had been scared a few times since the day she had learned she was Princess, but had never felt as frightened as she did now. Nicko grabbed her hand and squeezed it, and Jenna regained her courage. She squared up to the disheveled, muddy figures and demanded, “What do you want?”

The reply came, filling the hall with fear.

“The end.”

“Of your.”

“Line.”

“As we.”

“Promised.”

Jenna reached up and took off her gold circlet—the one that so very long ago Hotep-Ra had given to the Queen.

“No, Jen!” whispered Nicko, thinking she was surrendering.

“Yes, Nik,” said Jenna. She held the circlet in both hands at arms length as though offering it to the Wizards, while Nicko looked on, shocked and unsure what to do.

Among the many things that Jenna had listened to on her Journey was the story of the Queen’s Committal of the two Darke Wizards to the ring. She had listened to it carefully because it was about something she recognized. But the story had come at the end of a long and tedious day involving many rules and regulations and Jenna had been sleepy. She remembered her grandmother chanting the Committal to her as the evening sun came streaming through the tiny round windowpanes. She even remembered dozily chanting it back. Now—hoping that it would come back to her as she spoke—Jenna began the one thing that the Ring Wizards dreaded to hear: “By our Power, at this hour, we do you . . .”

At the onset of the Committal, the Wizards shrank back.

From within the Darke smoke Septimus and Simon saw a chink of light and threw themselves at it. They burst out, spluttering, to find to their amazement the two Wizards backing away from Jenna. Now was their chance.

Eject? mouthed Septimus to Simon.

Simon nodded and made the sign of two crossed index fingers for the Darke.

Septimus gave him the thumbs-up. If ever there was a time to use the Darke it was now.

“Tceje!”

Nothing happened. Shamandrigger Saarn and Dramindonnor Naarn swung around and pointed the Volatile Wands at them instead of at Jenna, who was still speaking.

“Not working. Need their Darke names,” hissed Simon.

Thinking of his own Darke name, Sum, Septimus took a gamble. “Tceje!” he yelled. “Tceje, Reg and Ron!”

“No!” shouted Jenna as—as if on castors—the Darke Wizards shot away from her, exiting backward like all respectful courtiers had done in the past—but at ten times the speed.

At last Jim Knee sprang into action. He opened the door in the paneling, bowed politely as the Wizards shot through it and then slammed it shut. Beaming, the jinnee leaned against it, looking as triumphant as if he himself had Ejected the Wizards.

“Good one, Sep!” said Simon.

“Yeah.” Septimus grinned.

But Jenna did not agree. “You dumbos!” she said.

“What?” Septimus and Simon said in amazement.

“What did you do that for?” Jenna demanded.

“Just trying to save your life, Jen. That’s all,” said Septimus, looking at Jenna as though she had gone crazy. “Is that a problem?”

“Yes. I mean, no. I mean . . . oh, Sep, you dillop. I had just remembered all the words. For the Committal. But you and Simon just helped them escape.”

33

SCORPION

Jim Knee was shocked. He’d come very close to jinnee suicide, which is what a jinnee is considered to have committed if he allows his Master to be murdered in his presence. Not only is this fairly disastrous for the Master, it is also pretty bad for the jinnee: he is evaporated on the spot into a convenient receptacle, which more often than not ends up in the hands of the murderer. There is an old jinnee saying, “Murderers do not good Masters make,” which is true. However, Jim Knee was not about to impart this information to his Master. It was desirable that his shock appeared to be due to the narrow escape his Master had had.

But no one noticed Jim Knee’s shock—everyone in the room was in a similar state. They gathered around the little door in the paneling where the Wizards had so recently been Ejected.

“What I don’t understand is how they got into the cupboard in the first place,” Nicko was saying. “And when? Me and Jen were here on our own for ages and they could easily have got us then.” He shuddered at the thought. “So why wait until we were all here?”

“It is not a cupboard,” said Simon. “It’s some kind of old tunnel. You can smell it. We wouldn’t have Ejected them into a cupboard, Nik.”

“It is Smugglers’ Bolt.” Jim Knee’s voice gave everyone a surprise. The jinnee had been unusually quiet since he had arrived at the Port Palace.

“Smugglers’ Bolt?” asked Jenna. “What’s that?”

“I thought you knew, since it’s your Palace,” said Jim Knee. “It’s a tunnel to the Castle.”

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