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Soul StealerThe Alchemist's Son Part II
By Martin Booth
Little Brown For Young ReadersCopyright © 2005 Martin Booth
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Eye of Innocence and Experience
Pip opened her eyes and looked blearily at her alarm clock. The digital numbers flicked over to read 6:57 a.m. She slowly sat up, stretched and, pushing the curtains aside without getting out of bed, peered out of the window. A thin veil of river mist hung over the fields surrounding the old manor house of Rawne Barton, the trees outlined against the gray light like the veins in skeletal leaves. The hills in the distance were barely visible, the quarry little more than a faint dark scar upon them. A robin settled momentarily on the window sill, puffed out its orange breast, chirped once and flitted off. She loved these early moments when she was still half asleep and the world, like her, had not yet fully woken up.
Yet, somewhere in the pit of her stomach, she felt a gnawing apprehension which at first she could not place. Then, gradually, she realized the cause of it. This was to be the first day of term, a new term in a new school-and a secondary school, at that.
Reaching for the window, Pip opened the latch. A cool, damp drift of air filtered into the room. It smelled of the first falling leaves of autumn and the grass her father had mown the day before. Feelingits chill, she snuggled back down under the duvet, preserving the last vestiges of warmth.
Suddenly, through the open window, Pip heard a noise. It sounded bizarrely like an animal roaring somewhere far off, followed by someone clicking heavy sticks together. The hair went up on the back of her neck. It was an unearthly sound, echoing in the mist yet also muffled by it. It was unlike anything she had ever heard before.
As she slipped quickly out of bed, Pip's toes curled with fear as they felt for her slippers. She was afraid, yet at the same time, intensely curious. The noises had to have a rational explanation, had to be made by an animal of some sort and yet, at the same time, she could think of no wild animals in England that, outside of a zoo, even remotely roared.
As she stood up, the noise ceased abruptly. Pip wondered if she had simply imagined it, that it was nothing more than a remnant of the last dream she had had before waking. In recent weeks, her dreams had become quite vivid and fantastical. This, she considered to herself, was hardly surprising after the events of the summer holidays.... Indeed, after them, if there were a saber-toothed tiger loose in the English countryside, released by some evil force or twisted mind, she would not have been at all amazed.
A moment later, her alarm clock went off. Pip tapped the snooze button and, standing in her slippers, turned towards the chair where her mother had laid out her new school uniform the night before-a yellow-and-blue striped tie, a white shirt, a gray sweater and a gray pleated skirt.
The second she took her first step towards the chair, however, Pip froze and then spun around. In the half-light across the other side of her bedroom stood the vague, shadowy silhouette of a person, half hidden by the angle of her wardrobe. She sharply sucked in her breath. The hair on her neck and arms prickled. She felt her hands go immediately clammy and the blood drain from her cheeks. Almost as a reflex, she looked around for a weapon, but all she could see was her badminton racket.
"Fear not. It is I," said the outline, softly.
"Sebastian!" Pip retorted, angrily.
Sebastian stepped into the middle of the room. He was wearing a dark, nondescript cloak draped over his shoulders.
"You scared the living daylights out of me," Pip complained.
"I apologize most humbly," Sebastian replied with a short bow. "It was not my intention to startle."
"Well, you did!" Pip snapped back.
Aware that her midriff was showing, she smoothed down her pajama top to below her waist and rubbed her arms to remove the goose pimples.
Pip and her twin brother, Tim, had met Sebastian during the summer holidays. Knowing him had led them into a remarkable and perilous adventure. They had soon discovered that Sebastian was no ordinary boy. For one thing, he was more or less six hundred years old but had been in a kind of hibernation for most of the time. Moreover, he possessed alchemical powers learned from his father, an alchemist of repute.
Rawne Barton had been built by Sebastian's father on land granted by the King. It was rightfully his home. Still, Pip considered, this did not give him the right to sneak about her bedroom whenever he chose.
"In your time, was it common courtesy to enter a lady's bedroom in the middle of the night?" Pip demanded; then she grinned and added, "What are you doing here anyway, skulking about like this?"
"It is morn," Sebastian pointed out, "not night but, yes, decorum would not have had me linger in your chamber. However," he added matter-of-factly, "I see it my place to guard you through the dark hours. From time to time, I look upon you to ensure you are safe."
"You mean you stand here while I'm sleeping?" Pip replied, somewhat taken aback by the thought.
"Not just you. I watch over Tim, also."
"Does he know?" Pip asked.
"He knows not," Sebastian answered, "for I do not remain in a solitary position. A sentry who does not patrol the entire castle is not fulfilling his duty."
Pip picked up her hairbrush and started to tug at her sleep-tousled hair.
"Well, it's day now so I don't need guarding. And I've got to get up and dressed. So, if you don't mind ..."
From across the fields came another curt, grunting roar. Pip glanced at the window.
"As for that sound which alerted you, be not concerned," Sebastian said. "It is but that of two red deer stags. My father used to hunt them here with the King. Autumn is coming and they are in rut, the stags fighting over the hinds. Although England is much changed from my father's time, there are still some such creatures in the woods and wilder places. See."
Sebastian pointed to the window. Outlined against the mist down by the river, Pip could make out two magnificent stags, standing as if to attention with their antlers branched into the air. Facing each other against the backdrop of the early morning light, they might have been posing for the painting of a heraldic shield. As she watched, they lowered their heads, briefly clashed their antlers together then, separating, walked sedately off in different directions, to be swallowed by the fog.
"That was fantastic!" Pip exclaimed. "I didn't know such amazing animals lived around here."
"They are dignified beasts," Sebastian declared. "They come down from the moorland to the woods. One usually espies them only at dusk and first light, for they are shy creatures."
"Look," Pip went on, turning her back on Sebastian and continuing to brush her hair. "I don't think we need a security guard. The house has an alarm system for Dad's cameras and computers and stuff. If it's triggered, lights flash, a siren sounds and the security firm gets an alert call."
Sebastian made no immediate reply. There was a soft footfall in the corridor, and the bedroom door opened.
"As usual," said Pip with resignation and without even bothering to glance over her shoulder. "You'll never learn to knock, will you, Tim?"
"Sorry, sis," said Tim, coming in and pushing the door behind him. He was already dressed in his school uniform. "Up and ready?"
"Do I look it?" Pip answered sarcastically.
It was at that moment Tim noticed Sebastian standing in the room. "Hey! What're you doing here?"
Sebastian made no immediate reply. Tim gave his sister a quizzical look, quickly raising and lowering his eyebrows. She glowered back. From the end of the corridor came their mother's voice. "Breakfast!"
Their father's voice followed. "Shake a leg, you two! Bourne End Comprehensive school throws its doors wide open for you. The spectacular light of secondary education shines forth to greet you to the future of academe!"
Pip and Tim exchanged glances. Spectacular was one of their father's favorite words. Sebastian came across the room.
"I must have a word with you before you depart," he announced and, from a pocket in his cloak, he removed a thin, gold chain from which hung a tiny pendant set with a cloudy white stone. He held it out to Pip. "I wish you to take this and wear it at all times, especially when away from Rawne Barton."
"Thank you," said Pip, taken aback with what she assumed was a present. "It's very pretty."
Tim winked at Pip and raised his eyebrows again. She cast him another dirty look in return, yet she did feel flattered.
"This is not a gift," Sebastian announced solemnly as he hung the chain around Pip's neck, securing the clasp, "nor is it mere ornamentation. It is called the Eye of Innocence and Experience and belonged originally to Queen Joan."
"Queen Joan?" Tim repeated.
He had heard of Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria and Queen Anne, even Queen Boudicca, but Queen Joan? The name, he thought, did not exactly have the right regal ring to it. He and Pip had a great-aunt called Joan, and she was an evil old woman.
"Joan of Navarre," Sebastian explained, "was the wife of King Henry the Fourth of England. When the King was absent fighting in France," Sebastian went on, "she was accused by her enemies at court of witchcraft and of trying to kill him by magic. She was arrested and cast into a dungeon."
"And they executed her?" Tim guessed.
"No," Sebastian replied, "she was released when the King returned and showed that the pendant had protected him."
"That must mean the King wore it in battle ..." Tim said.
"Cool!" Tim exclaimed.
"How did you get it?" Pip asked.
"My grandfather fashioned it for the Queen in the year of Our Lord 1400. She later returned it to him, for she became afraid of its ability."
Pip looked down at the pendant where it hung against her skin. It seemed utterly incredible that she was wearing a piece of magical jewelry once owned by a fifteenth-century queen of England and carried by the King into battle.
"What do you mean, its ability?" Pip repeated. She was beginning to feel apprehensive herself.
"So," Tim said, "all your family were alchemists then, not just your father?"
Sebastian chose to ignore the questions but smiled faintly and said, "Study well the gemstone. At this moment it is murky, but there will be times when it is crystal clear. It may also shiver. At that moment, you must be especially aware."
Eight weeks earlier, both Pip and Tim would have treated this remark with considerable cynicism and wondered which computer games Sebastian had been playing. Yet, after all they had gone through together, they now knew better.
"Aware of what?" Tim asked.
"One cannot say," Sebastian replied, enigmatically. "Accept just that it will warn you of close danger, for it has seen much evil itself and has absorbed much understanding and learning thereby."
"Better wear it in math class," Tim advised with a smirk. "Not your strongest subject, sis."
Sebastian looked askance at Tim. "It will not provide solutions to problems," he said, "but only give caution of matters beyond your perception."
"Shall we really need it?" Pip ventured, ignoring Tim's attempt at humor. "I mean de Loudéac's gone and ..."
"You are stepping into a new world," Sebastian replied.
"It's a new school," Tim rejoined, "not a new planet. We've already seen the headmaster. He's definitely not the spawn of Satan."
Sebastian said casually, "Appearances can be deceptive. It is ever best to be prepared for any eventuality."
"Come on! Shake those legs!" their father shouted from the bottom of the stairs.
Pip held the pendant up. It weighed, she reckoned, barely five grams and seemed almost to float in the air above her palm.
"One more thing," Sebastian added. "It is just for you and Tim. Share it not with others. Keep it suspended within your clothing."
"If Pip keeps it hidden, how will we know when it changes?" Tim asked.
"You will know," Sebastian replied, adding, "May your day be bright."
With that, he turned and left the room. The last they saw of him was the corner of his cloak sweeping around the door.
"Do I detect the heady perfume of romance in the air?" Tim ventured.
"No!" Pip retorted sharply. "You do not! And if you would now get out, I can get dressed." She pushed Tim through the door and shut it firmly behind him.
* * *
As they sat facing each other at breakfast, Pip and Tim were silent, thinking not so much of the daunting prospect of starting at secondary school but of what had happened during the summer.
It seemed quite incredible that, since leaving their junior school in June, they had changed homes, and had discovered and been befriended by the centuries-old son of an alchemist. Even more amazing was the fact that Sebastian had been kept alive through the centuries in order to foil the evil of de Loudéac, his father's enemy-and now they were also involved. They had helped to stop de Loudéac from creating a homunculus-an artificial man-which persisted in giving Pip nightmares.
She looked up at her mother, standing by the toaster, removing the crumb tray and shaking it out over the sink. What, Pip wondered, would her parents think if they knew they had bought a house once owned by the royal court alchemist to King Henry the Fifth of England, who had been burned at the stake in the field outside and whose six-centuries-old son lived in a laboratory in the bowels of the earth beneath the building, approached by a secret passage from their daughter's bedroom?
Pip's thoughts were broken by the sound of her father's car starting up. That morning, he was leaving for a business meeting concerning his television production company and was going to take them to school on their first day.
"Hurry up, you two!" their mother goaded them as she started to gather the breakfast plates and load them into the dishwasher, pushing two lunch boxes across the kitchen table.
Gathering up her school bag, Pip pondered in passing what her mother would say if she discovered the house was being protected not just by an alarm system panel between the fridge and the back door, but also by Sebastian, her children's new friend who wandered through the house at night, somehow avoiding setting off the movement sensors in the downstairs rooms.
"What're you working on now, Dad?" Tim inquired as they drove towards the school, which was on the outskirts of the nearby large market town of Exington.
"You really want to know, Timbo?" his father said.
"Yes," Tim replied, "and I'm not five any more. Let's drop the Timbo handle."
"Sounds like a dog food," Pip added.
"It is," their father replied. "Comes on the market next month."
"And I've you to thank for this?" Tim asked, mortified by the thought.
Mr. Ledger just grinned.
"If this ever gets out," Tim threatened Pip, "the world will know your middle name."
To defuse the situation, their father went on, "I'm actually working on the promotion of a new store loyalty card."
"What's it called?"
"The Kard. With a K."
"Krap name!" Tim declared. "With a K."
"Aren't you ever going to do music videos?" Pip asked longingly.
Ahead, a pupil in a Bourne End Comprehensive uniform was walking by the side of the road. He was stocky and looked scruffy, his clothing creased. He moved in a vaguely apelike fashion.
"I didn't know your school took in pupils from the monkey house," Mr. Ledger quipped.
Excerpted from Soul Stealer by Martin Booth Copyright ©2005 by Martin Booth. Excerpted by permission.
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