Hi everyone, I’m pleased to say it’s release day for my upper middle grade book, Nekromancer’s Cage.
Get ready for alchemy, witches, musical bandits and talking cats — oh, and add just a little mystery and casual sleuthing to the mix too!
In celebration of its release, I’m posting the first chapter here for your reading pleasure. If you enjoy it, you can find the book here.
‘Here, let me,’ Johnathan said, easily loosening the knot on his mentor’s apron strings so they fell free, enabling the old man to lift it off over his head with shaking hands. It pained Johnathan to see how much Alfred had deteriorated already.
Johnathan had studied under Alfred for three years, learning all there was to know about remedial Alkemy, from how to define a customer’s problems to mixing the right powders for their medicine. The work had been hard, but under his mentor’s guidance, Johnathan had slowly picked it up until he was proficient; in another year, he would have been able to take his exam and become an Alkemical Apothecary himself. Yet, for the time being at least, that dream would have to be put on hold.
Alfred had been diagnosed with Acute Energy Loss, a disease which had no cure and soon would leave him bedridden, unable to work at all. And because Johnathan was not yet qualified to take over, the Board of Alkemists had deemed it necessary to close the shop for good. Alfred’s clients had taken their business elsewhere, and all that was left to do now was to finish packing up their well-used equipment.
‘Thank you, my boy. We’ve only got one job left,’ Alfred said softly, resting on a stool next to the carefully packed boxes containing the many tools and ingredients he’d used daily for the past forty years. ‘The lettering outside needs to be scraped off.’
Johnathan cast his eyes to the floor, a cold, empty feeling settling in his stomach. Scraping away the sign had such a finality to it. He wasn’t sure if he was ready. ‘But I’ll need a ladder for that. Do we even have one?’ he asked, knowing full well that there was one tucked away in the back cupboard, half rotten and full of cobwebs.
‘A ladder?’ Alfred chuckled warmly. ‘Nonsense, John. You’re a gangly young thing; hop up on one of those stools and I’m sure you’ll be able to reach it. There’s a metal scraper in the second drawer to your right. I left it out especially. It should be sharp enough to do the job.’
Opening the drawer, Johnathan found the scraper, a short-handled tool with a flat, triangular blade. He tested it with his thumb and concluded that it was indeed sharp enough. After sprinkling a mix of powders over his newly-earnt cut to help stop the bleeding, he reluctantly gathered one of the round wooden stools and headed outside to where the words ‘A. Vancold: Alkemical Apothecary’ were stencilled above the shop’s broad windows in large, white lettering.
Despite being tall, one of Johnathan’s biggest fears was heights. Even being a few feet off the ground as he was then, trying to balance himself on the stool’s small seat, was enough to make him dizzy. Still, he couldn’t leave this job to Alfred. If the old man exerted himself too much, it would only advance his condition, and by order of the Board of Alkemists, the shop had to be completely bare by the time they were due to leave the premises that afternoon.
So, gripping the outer wall for dear life, Johnathan steeled himself and began scraping the words away. The peelings floated down to the floor like snowflakes, and by the time he was finished, real snow was beginning to fall from the darkening sky.
‘Well, John,’ Alfred said when Johnathan finally came back inside. ‘I think that’s everything.’
With their hearts heavy, they loaded all the boxes of equipment and ingredients into the motor carriage that the Board of Alkemists had provided and then locked the front door before giving the keys to the driver. The driver put them in a small, secure black case and then ticked off the equipment on a list attached to a smart clipboard. Satisfied everything was there, he gave Alfred a single Ren coin for each box and then got into the motor carriage and drove off, taking their whole livelihood with him to be stored in the Board’s warehouse. All except for one small, neatly stitched travel bag.
With his mouth twitched up in a crooked grin, Alfred held the bag out to Johnathan. ‘I can’t do much to help you continue your studies, but at least I managed to save you these. It’s only a small selection, mind, but it should be enough to deal with some common ailments, at least.’
Johnathan took it and peered inside; dozens of tightly packed packets filled it to the brim, each neatly labelled in Alfred’s handwriting. A bundle of ingredients like that was worth more than two week’s pay! ‘I … can’t accept this, Alfred,’ he said, trying to hold back the emotion in his voice. ‘You should keep them; after all, the shop was yours.’
Alfred shook his head. ‘My time is over, John. I’m too old and certainly too tired to do any dispensing harder than making tea. Take them. I’m sure they’ll come in handy.’ He inhaled deeply and put his hands on Johnathan’s shoulders. ‘You’ll make a fine Alkemical Apothecary one day, my boy, I’m sure of it. Don’t let this stop you from achieving your goals. It will take a while to find another shop to finish your apprenticeship at, but you will find one. Anyone worth their salt will see just how good you are if you show them.’
With that, Alfred wrapped his thick cloak tightly about him as a chilling wind blew through the street, and with one last glance at the empty green shop, turned and walked away.
Johnathan stood for a moment, letting the snowflakes build up in his black hair so that, in the light of the alkemically charged Kerical lamps flickering on every few feet throughout the street, he looked just as grey as Alfred had.
He’d been fourteen when he began his apprenticeship at the shop, a teenager full of enthusiasm and energy, eager to learn every detail about remedial Alkemy there was, and also some of the general Alkemy that Alfred often spoke about.
His parents had been less than thrilled with his career choice; in a city as big as Nodnol, where nearly everything used Alkemy or Kerical energy – a modern fusion of Alkemy and Lectric energy – it was hard to make a name for oneself in the small, selective circle of Alkemy-based Apothecaries. But Johnathan had ignored their snide comments and attempts to make him interested in a different school of Alkemy (like engineering, which was an ever-expanding field far from short of opportunity), and as soon as he’d finished his final school year, he had run to Alfred and begged him to take him on as his apprentice.
At the time, Alfred hadn’t been thrilled either. He’d had hundreds of customers daily and scant time to teach Johnathan even the basics. But the boy had stood and listened to every conversation, watched every tiny measure of powder or mix of dry ingredients until Alfred only had to say the slightest word and Johnathan would be dashing to the well-stocked drawers and jars to fetch everything his mentor needed. They made a good team, and as Johnathan’s knowledge expanded, both from Alfred’s guidance and from his textbooks on theory provided by the Board, he found alternative ways of grinding and mixing that improved the longevity and potency of the medicine without any changes to the ingredients.
Now that time was over, and Johnathan had to move on. Shaking the snow off his head, he reluctantly pulled the shutters over the shop windows for the last time, and like Alfred had done ten minutes before, turned to head home.
It was bitterly cold, and some of the lamps flickered in distaste as the wind rattled them from side to side. Holding the bag close and turning the collar of his long coat up to try and warm his ears, Johnathan trudged through the throng of people milling about, making his way across the square. Even this late in the evening, Nodnol’s shops and factories were buzzing with activity. There were whole emporiums of spas and beauty parlours, florists, clockmakers, motor carriage garages, haberdasheries, tailors, food markets and a hundred others. Chimneys puffed out colours from across the spectrum, vibrant oranges and pinks to inky purples and blues, every one of them reflecting off the settling snow, and no matter where Johnathan looked, the hum of the city’s determination and drive rattled through him. Normally, he found it inspiring, but today it was mocking, laughing at his and Alfred’s misfortune. All he wanted to do was get away from it.
After twenty minutes, he finally turned the corner and saw the familiar apartment building where he was currently living. It was hardly luxurious, built from grey brick and set back slightly from the buildings on either side so that it was constantly cast in shadow, but the rooms were spacious enough for what Johnathan needed and, more importantly considering his apprentice’s wage, cheap. Most of the other tenants were people who worked long hours and lived on their own, so it wasn’t unusual for professionals to move in – they didn’t care where they lived, as long as they could get their work done, even if they could afford somewhere more expensive. They were always nice enough if Johnathan happened to bump into them, but very rarely did they offer more than a few pleasantries.
He put his key in the lock of the main door and turned it, hearing it click. With a practiced nudge to encourage the rusted hinges into motion, the door opened, and he walked into the hall beyond, about to go upstairs to his rooms. Unfortunately, the noise of his entrance had aroused the attention of Mrs Higgins, the landlady, whose own apartment was just down the hall, and before he could even acknowledge her approach, she was standing in front of him.
‘So, this was it, was it? Your last day at that shabby old shop?’ she asked acidly, adjusting her stiff skirts. Despite being a foot shorter than Johnathan and in her late seventies, Mrs Higgins was one of those people who have such a commanding presence that it’s impossible to ignore them. He sometimes thought it was the severity of her eyes, or perhaps the fact that her clothes were so rigid, they demanded extreme discipline simply to wear them.
‘Uh, yes, Mrs Higgins. We closed the shop down today,’ he replied. ‘But don’t worry, I’ve got enough money for two months’ rent, at least.’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘Are you certain? I don’t want to hold on to that apartment for you with no income, when I know there are far more reliable people around to rent it.’
Johnathan swallowed. Her gaze was so penetrating that he couldn’t help but feel like a child under it. ‘Yes, ma’am, I’m certain. And I won’t be hanging around just waiting for my money to run out. From tomorrow morning, I’ll be looking for another Alkemical Apothecary to apprentice with, I promise you.’
‘Very well, but if I get even a whiff of you being an idle layabout, I’ll have you out of here faster than you can blink. Now, be gone with you, I’m tired. Oh, and if you catch Mr Edwards on your way up, tell him that his rent needs paying for this month. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him for days.’
‘I’ll let him know. Uh, goodnight, ma’am,’ Johnathan said, and hurried up the stairs without giving her the chance to say anything else.
He dashed into his apartment and threw his things on the chair, and then rushed to the apartment opposite, where Mr Edwards lived. He knocked urgently on the door. There was no answer.
‘Mr Edwards?’ he called, knocking again. ‘Mr Edwards, it’s Johnathan from across the hall. May I come in?’
Still there was no reply. That was odd. Mr Edwards was usually home by this time – even if Johnathan hardly saw him, he couldn’t miss the unmistakable sound of a kettle whistling when he passed his neighbour’s apartment on the way to his own every evening.
Concerned that Mrs Higgins might harass them both even more than usual if he didn’t at least try to give Mr Edwards fair warning about his rent, Johnathan tried once more. He might well have been knocking on the door of a wardrobe, for all the response he got. Wary of intruding upon his neighbour’s privacy, he tried turning the handle. The door was unlocked, so he opened it a few inches to peer inside. He caught sight of stacks of open boxes, filled with notepads of varying shapes and sizes. ‘What in Phlamel’s name is that all about?’ he whispered to himself, automatically using Alfred’s old expression of the famed Alkemist, Nikoli Phlamel, who had first brought Alkemy to Nodnol.
On the few occasions that Johnathan had been in Mr Edwards’ apartment, it had always been pristine and tidy to the point of being art. Never would he have expected to see such a haphazard assortment piled all over the place.
Curiosity overtaking him, he opened the door wider to get a better look. But what he saw shocked him so much that several choice curse words slipped from his mouth. Lying limply on the floor was Mr Edwards. If it wasn’t for the slight rise and fall of his chest, Johnathan would have thought he was dead.
Rushing over, he took the man’s hand. ‘Mr Edwards, can you hear me?’ He squeezed Mr Edwards’ hand; there was a movement in the fingers in response. Good, at least he was somewhat conscious.
Dashing from the room and across to his own, Johnathan snatched up the bag that Alfred had given him and came back to kneel next to the poor man. Fishing through it, he found a powder labelled ‘Essence of Wormkeel’, a staple he knew Alfred would never have let him go without. Fetching a cup of water from the kitchen, he mixed the powder with it until it formed a light paste, and then applied some to Mr Edwards’ upper lip, just under his nose. Within seconds, the man shuddered and opened his eyes.
‘John … Johnathan,’ he said, weakly. Sweat ran down his brow, and his breathing was ragged.
‘Mr Edwards, what happened to you?’ Johnathan asked gently.
But Mr Edwards shook his head and pointed to the boxes. ‘The Super Notes … take … them.’ His eyes shut once more and his breathing slowed to a stop.
Johnathan’s hands leapt to Mr Edwards’ neck, searching for a pulse. There wasn’t one. ‘No!’ Johnathan said under his breath. ‘Come on, Mr Edwards!’ He rooted through his bag again. Please let Alfred have put it in there!
His hands found a packet bulkier than most and as he pulled it out, he saw with satisfaction that it was what he was looking for. Golden Shellhorn, the most powerful single ingredient he knew of to shock a person’s system into action. Taking one of the small golden pellets in his hand, he placed it under Mr Edwards’ tongue and waited. Any second now, any second, and Mr Edwards’ heart would start again. His lungs would take in fresh air ….
Johnathan waited for the Golden Shellhorn to take effect, but with each minute that passed, he knew that he had been a moment too late. He couldn’t save Mr Edwards. His neighbour was gone forever.
Johnathan sat back from the body and buried his head in his hands. What had caused the man to collapse like that? He’d only been in his late forties, and as far as Johnathan knew from their brief encounters, had hardly ever needed to visit a Doktor or one of the Apothecaries. Johnathan just couldn’t understand it.
He dried the streaks of tears from his face and looked at the boxes. Super Notes. That was what Mr Edwards had called the notepads inside them. He got up and went over to the nearest box. On the top of the pile, typed in neat lettering on marbled paper, was a flyer headed ‘Super Notes: the handy notepad that never lets you forget important appointments!’. The flyer went on to detail three different types of Super Notes; ones that sang to you every so often so that you wouldn’t forget what was on them, others that let off an alluring scent, and some that floated along behind you until whatever task or appointment was on them had been completed.
Johnathan grimaced. These sounded like an enchanted gimmick from a Wytch, and though he had never met one, he shared the common dislike for Wytches that all Alkemists had, for a Wytch could do naturally what an Alkemist might spend years trying to achieve, a thoroughly irritating fact of life. Fortunately, most people thought Wytches untrustworthy, for the simple reason that there was no explanation for how their powers worked. Alkemy, on the other hand, had a sound logic and required hours of study to perfect. However, it was not unknown for some in desperate situations (such as those with lifelong illnesses who believed that because a Wytch’s powers were natural, any remedies made by them would be more effective than normal Alkemical-based medicines) to turn to one for help, and for the Wytch to oblige – for adequate payment, of course.
He read further down the flyer and realised it was a guide on how to sell them, with a full price list and tips to make customers interested. Had Mr Edwards truly planned on selling these?
Johnathan bit his lip. An idea had taken root in his mind that he didn’t like, but given he was now jobless, he might not have any other choice. After all, Mr Edwards had begged him to ‘take them’ with his dying words. Would it really be such a terrible thing to try and sell them himself for a while, at least until he found another shop to take him on?