Prologue: A Crossing of Paths

I t is Nicko's first night out of the House of Foryx, and Jenna thinks he is going a little crazy.

Some hours previously, on Nicko's insistence, Septimus and Spit Fyre took Jenna, Nicko, Snorri, Ullr and Beetle to the Trading Post - a long string of harbors on the edge of the land where the House of Foryx lies hidden. Nicko had been desperate to see the sea once more, and no one, not even Marcia, felt able to refuse. Septimus objected a little more than anyone else. He knew his dragon was tired after the long flight from the Castle to the House of Foryx, and they both faced a long journey home with the dangerously ill Ephaniah Grebe. But Nicko was adamant. He had to go to - of all places - a ramshackle net loft on Harbor Number Three, which was one of the smaller harbors on the Trading Post and used mainly by local fishing boats. Nicko told them that the net loft belonged to the bosun on the ship that he and Snorri had sailed on all those years in the past, bound from the Port to the Trading Post. In mid-crossing Nicko had saved the ship from catastrophe by doing an emergency repair of a broken mast, and in gratitude the bosun, a Mr. Higgs, had given Nicko a key to his net loft and insisted that anytime Nicko was in the Trading Post he could - indeed must - stay there. When Septimus pointed out that that was five hundred years ago and the offer may not still stand - let alone the net loft - Nicko had told Septimus that of course it still stood, an offer was an offer. All he wanted, Nicko said, was to be near boats once more, to hear the sea again, and to smell the salt in the air. Septimus argued no further. How could he - or any of the others - refuse Nicko that?

And so, with some misgivings, Septimus left them at the end of the dingy alleyway that Nicko insisted contained Mr. Higgs's net loft. Septimus and Spit Fyre had returned to a snowy tree house near the House of Foryx where Ephaniah Grebe, Marcia and Sarah Heap waited to take them back to the Castle.

However, after Septimus's departure, all had not gone well at the net loft. Nicko - surprised to find that his key would not fit - had to break in, and no one was impressed with what met them inside. It stank. It was also dark, damp, cold and, apparently, used as the local fish garbage dump, judging by the pile of rotting fish heaped up below the small, unglazed window. There was, as Jenna irritably pointed out, nowhere to sleep because most of the top two floors were missing, allowing a fine view of a large hole in the roof, which the local seagull population was apparently using as a toilet. Even so, Nicko remained undeterred. But when Beetle fell through the rotten floor and was left dangling by his belt over a cellar full of unidentifiable slime, there was a rebellion. Which is why we now find Jenna, Nicko, Snorri, Ullr and Beetle standing outside a seedy cafe on Harbor Number One - the nearest place to eat. They are looking at scrawls on a chalkboard offering three varieties of fish, something called Pot Luck Stew and a steak from an animal that no one has ever heard of.

Jenna says she doesn't care what the animal is as long as it is not Foryx. Nicko says he doesn't care either - he will have one of everything. He is, he says, hungry for the first time in five hundred years. No one can argue with that.

And no one in the cafe argues with them either, quite possibly because of the large, green-eyed panther that follows the tall blonde girl like a shadow and emits a low, rumbling growl if anyone comes near. Jenna is very glad of Ullr's company - the cafe is a menacing place full of sailors, fishermen and assorted traders, all of whom notice the group of four teenagers sitting at the table by the door. Ullr keeps people at bay, but the panther cannot stop the endless, uncomfortable stares.

All choose the Pot Luck Stew, with which, as Beetle observes, they do not strike lucky. Nicko proceeds to do as he threatened and eats his way through the