Archie Greene and the Magician's Secret (9 page)

T
he next day, Archie stood beside Bramble as one by one the other apprentices arrived for the meeting. They were in a large room in the back of Quill’s Coffee & Chocolate House that was used for museum business. Chairs were arranged in neat rows facing a raised stage with a lectern.

‘I can’t remember another meeting like this and we’ve had Greaders in Oxford before,’ Bramble said. ‘The museum elders must be worried.’

Archie was feeling self-conscious. Most of the other apprentices were several years older than him and seemed much more sure of themselves. A tall boy of about fifteen entered the room. He had dark hair swept across his face that he kept flicking out of his eyes.

‘Who’s that?’ Archie whispered. Bramble grinned and raised her eyebrows appreciatively.

‘That’s Rupert Trevallen,’ she whispered back. ‘He works in the Natural Magic Department – in the mythical menagerie.

‘And that’s Enid Drew, from Supernatural Magic,’ Bramble said, indicating a girl with short black hair and glasses.

She suddenly nudged him in the ribs. ‘Look who else’s here! Your friend Arabella Ripley!’

Archie followed her gaze and spotted Arabella standing on her own by the door, with a bored look on her face.

‘I wonder what she’s doing here,’ Bramble said. ‘Oh look!’ she exclaimed. ‘Meredith is talking to Rupert. I’m just going to say hello. Back in a mo.’

She set off across the room with a determined look on her face. Archie watched as she kissed the auburn-haired girl on the cheek and beamed her best smile at the tall boy, whose face reddened at the sight of her.

Without Bramble at his side, Archie suddenly found himself in a roomful of strangers.

The only other person he vaguely knew was Arabella. He tried to make eye contact to be friendly, but she ignored him. Archie felt awkward. He was just wondering whether it would be better to stand there on his own or go over and join Bramble and her friends, when the
door flew open and a tall man with grey hair and a silver moustache strode into the room.

He wore a dark suit with a crisply pressed white shirt and a pink bow tie. Under one arm he carried a silver-topped walking cane. Archie recognised him from the picture Old Zeb had shown him. The man marched up onto the stage and clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention. The room immediately fell silent.

‘Apprentices,’ he said in a loud voice. ‘As most of you know, I am Vincent von Herring, head of Mortal Magic. I am also the chairman of the Dangerous Books Committee, and it is in that capacity that I have called this meeting today. I have done so for your own safety and for the safety of the museum.

‘But before we get started, I would like to introduce two new apprentices. Archie Greene joins us as the new apprentice bookbinder.’ Archie felt his cheeks burning as all eyes turned to look at him. Embarrassingly, he had no control over his face, which had turned a bright shade of pink. ‘And our second new apprentice is Arabella Ripley,’ Professor von Herring continued, ‘who joins the Supernatural Magic Department as a bookminder. The third new apprentice cannot be here today for reasons that will become apparent.’

All heads swivelled to look at Arabella, who tossed her head imperiously.


That’s why she’s here!
’ whispered Bramble who’d come back to stand with Archie. ‘She must have just had her twelfth birthday. I bet her parents pulled some strings to get her an apprenticeship. She would still have to pass the Flame test, of course, but all her family have been apprentices so it’s in her blood.’

‘Miss Foxe, please,’ chided Professor von Herring, glaring at Bramble. ‘We are here on a matter of the utmost seriousness.’

He paused to make sure he had the full attention of his audience. ‘As some of you may have heard, the other new apprentice was attacked outside of Quill’s – a boy by the name of Peter Quiggley. Luckily, he was released without serious injury. Mr Quiggley is at home and is expected to make a full recovery. But he was held captive for several hours and was threatened by a person or persons unknown who thought he had information regarding the whereabouts of a magical book.’

A hush fell on the room. From his breast pocket Professor von Herring removed some spectacles and put them on. The lenses were thick and made his brown eyes look like two trout swimming in bowls of water.

‘It has also come to the attention of the museum
that Geoffrey Screech, proprietor of the Aisle of White bookshop, is missing. Mr Screech has not been seen since Monday – the same day that Mr Quiggley was attacked. The two events may be linked. If they are then this could well be the work of Greaders operating in Oxford. If that is the case then they have almost certainly received information that a very powerful magic book is near by.’

There were around fifty apprentices in the room and all of them were hanging on Professor von Herring’s every word.

Von Herring peered over his spectacles with a solemn expression on his face. ‘There is a chance …’ he paused, ‘… that this book is one of the Terrible Tomes!’

There was a collective intake of breath. Von Herring continued.

‘As apprentices it is
vital
that you understand the seriousness of this threat. There are seven Terrible Tomes in all. I will not name them all here. But I can tell you that they include the dark spell book of Hecate the witch, known as
The Grim Grimoire
, and
The Nosferu
, which was written by Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, in the blood of his enemies.’

He paused for dramatic effect. ‘Yes, that’s right, Count Dracula himself!

‘And that’s without even mentioning the darkest of all the books of supernatural magic – Barzak’s
Book of Souls
.’

The apprentices exchanged nervous looks.

‘Four of the Terrible Tomes are currently under lock and key in the museum crypt, but three remain unaccounted for. If one of the missing Tomes should fall into the hands of a Greader it could destroy the museum and all the magic in it.’

Von Herring looked around the room. ‘A boy has already been attacked. If any of you have information about this matter you must tell me immediately. Do you understand?’

The apprentices all nodded. ‘Good. Now are there any questions?’

There was a moment’s silence and then a voice spoke up. ‘Yes, Professor. How would we recognise one of the Terrible Tomes?’

Archie turned his head to see who had asked the question. He was surprised to see that it was Arabella Ripley.

‘Well, Ms Ripley, that is an excellent question,’ von Herring said, his trout eyes settling upon the new apprentice. ‘But I am surprised that with your family connections you do not know the answer already!’

A few of the apprentices sniggered nervously.
Professor von Herring smiled unkindly. Arabella looked furious.

‘What’s the joke?’ Archie whispered to Bramble.

‘It’s complicated. I’ll tell you later,’ Bramble whispered back.

Von Herring was speaking again. ‘The answer to Ms Ripley’s question is that – as her grandfather discovered – it is almost impossible to tell the Terrible Tomes from the run-of-the-mill magical books that fill the museum bookshelves. Indeed, one of the properties that the seven share is the ability to disguise themselves as seemingly unimportant books. Only if they are threatened will they momentarily drop their guard to reveal their true nature. But such glimpses are very rare and take a trained eye to spot. They are also resistant to most forms of magical security so they have to be handled very carefully indeed.

‘That is why it is vital that you report any suspicious books or behaviour. Do I make myself clear?’

A
s they left the room, Archie’s head was buzzing with what he’d heard. All around him the apprentices were chattering among themselves. They sounded like a swarm of excited bees. They filed out of the function room back into Quill’s.

Archie was thinking about what von Herring had said about reporting anything suspicious. The books in the Aisle of White had told him that something was stealing their magic. He wondered whether he should tell someone what he knew. But it would mean explaining he was a book whisperer and Archie doubted that anyone would believe him. Just then, Bramble grabbed his arm.

‘There you are,’ she said. ‘Let’s get a hot chocolate and I’ll tell you about Arthur Ripley.’

A few minutes later they were seated at a table with a Choc-tail and two straws.

Bramble spoke in a low voice so that she wouldn’t be overheard. ‘Arabella’s grandfather Arthur Ripley was head of Lost Books. He persuaded the museum elders to give him special powers to track down the Terrible Tomes. But it turned out he wanted them for himself.

‘It was about twelve years ago now. Ripley got into the crypt somehow and tried to take the four Terrible Tomes kept there. A fire broke out. No one knows how it started – probably magical combustion. That can happen if a lot of magic is suddenly released. Luckily the crypt is enchanted so none of the books in there were damaged. But the fire spread to other parts of the museum and some books were destroyed. Anyway, by the time they put it out Ripley was burned to ash. They couldn’t even identify his body.’

‘That’s grim,’ said Archie.

‘Yes, but a lot of people thought he had it coming,’ said Bramble. ‘Arthur Ripley had made a lot of enemies.

‘After that, the Dangerous Books Committee was set up and von Herring was brought in to investigate what Ripley had been up to. He discovered a whole load of magic books that Ripley had been hoarding.’

Archie was about to ask what happened to Ripley’s collection when he caught sight of a tall, stooping
man talking to Professor von Herring at the bar.

‘I know that man,’ he whispered to Bramble.

She nodded. ‘Yes, that’s Aurelius Rusp. I wonder what he’s doing here.’

Rusp strode past them, his face set in an angry scowl. The two cousins watched him sweep through the door ray and out the main door.

‘He’s not very friendly,’ Archie observed.

‘Rusp? No, he’s famously unfriendly. A right old grouch in fact. Funny that we should see him today, though, when we were just talking about Arthur Ripley, because Rusp was in the museum on the night of the fire. He was the one who discovered what was going on and raised the alarm. If it hadn’t been for Rusp the place would have burned to the ground.’ She paused. ‘He’s been a bit strange ever since. Very intense.’

‘You think it’s because of the fire?’

‘Yeah, it affected him. He’s always searching for books. Trying to replace the ones that got burned – that’s what Dad says.’

‘Why would he do that?’ Archie asked. ‘I mean it’s not as if it was his fault or anything.’

Bramble shrugged. ‘Who knows,’ she said. ‘Perhaps he feels responsible somehow or feels he should have said something sooner. But there are other rumours, too. Some people say he’s got links to the Greaders.’

A
fter the incident with the poppers, Archie assumed it would be a while before he was allowed anywhere near another magical book. But when he arrived at the mending workshop a couple of days later, Old Zeb had put two books on the bench. Pages had been marked in each.

‘Right,’ said the old bookbinder, ‘orders from the elders are that we’ve got to speed up your lessons. With Greaders about, they want all apprentices to be ready in case of danger. Today, you’ll be learning about the different types of magical books.’

His serious expression dissolved into a gummy grin. ‘You’ll like this,’ he added, a gleam in his eye. ‘It will be fun.’

The old man tapped his nose with his finger. ‘Since you’re so fond of ’em, let’s start with the poppers. Poppers are enchanted books. They
contain spells that are bound to the book until it is opened – then, ready or not, out they pop!

‘There are two types – pop-ups and pop-outs. With a pop-up, the spell pops up but it remains with the book it came from. Once they’re out, of course, it can be a devil of a job to get them back inside the book but at least they can’t wander off. So let’s see a pop-up in action.’ He pointed at the first book, which had a dark green cover and was entitled
The Dodo Bird and Other Extinct Animals
.

‘Go ahead,’ the old bookbinder urged, ‘open it!’

There was a loud popping sound and a large and very surprised looking woolly mammoth appeared in the room, still chewing a mouthful of grass. It had long yellow tusks and a puzzled expression on its face. Its two small eyes regarded Archie down its long trunk.

‘A popper has no idea that it is only a temporary spell so it thinks and behaves just like a real animal or person – a mammoth in this case,’ Old Zeb explained. ‘This makes poppers extremely realistic but potentially dangerous because they don’t want to go back into the book once they’re out. That’s why popper stoppers were invented. It allows them to be safely stored until they
ezaporate
– which means the spell expires or they go back into their book of their own volition.

‘I hope we didn’t disturb your breakfast,’ the old man said to the mammoth. He winked at Archie and produced an apple from his pocket and gave it to the bemused animal. Then he took out a popper stopper and removed the top to release the white mist, which immediately surrounded the mammoth. When the mist was sucked back into the glass phial the creature disappeared with another loud pop.

Old Zeb handed the glass phial to Archie. ‘Put it with the one from the other day,’ he said. ‘It’s not much of a phialling system,’ he added, with a grin, ‘but it’ll have to do!’

Archie smiled at his joke and placed the phial with the mammoth on the shelf next to the one containing Sir Bodwin.

‘Now for the pop-outs. With a pop-out, the spells are not tied to the book so they can go out into the world. They are free-range spells, which can cause problems if the popper escapes. So let’s see a pop-out in action.’

Old Zeb pointed at the second book. Archie opened it and there was another loud pop. This time something blue fluttered from the pages.

‘Take this splendid dragonfly,’ Old Zeb said, his eyes sparkling.

Archie regarded the small blue creature that was now sitting on a bookshelf watching him. With a
shock, he realised that it was a perfectly formed miniature dragon, about twelve centimetres long, complete with tiny talons and leathery wings. At that moment it snapped its tiny jaws and snorted a jet of fire from its nostrils.

‘That isn’t an ordinary dragonfly is it?’

‘No,’ chuckled the old bookbinder. ‘It’s called a snapdragon, and they can give you a nasty singe if they catch you off guard.’

He held up the cover of the book, which was called
Magical Miniatures
. ‘There are all sorts of nasty little beasties in here.’

The snapdragon opened its wings and launched itself into the air. It made a circuit of the workshop and then tried to dive bomb Archie, who ducked. Next it unleashed an attack on Old Zeb, who dodged out of the way just in time as it scorched the stool he had been sitting on. Then it flew through the open door and disappeared up the passageway.

‘Shouldn’t we try to catch it?’ asked Archie.

‘Oh I don’t think it will cause too much trouble,’ said Old Zeb. ‘They only last a few minutes and it can’t get past the curtain because it’s enchanted.’

At that moment they heard a shriek from upstairs.

‘Oh dear, sounds like Marjorie has found the snapdragon,’ said Old Zeb.

Archie grinned. ‘Or more like the snapdragon has found Marjorie!’

The old bookbinder pulled a face like a mischievous schoolboy. ‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ he said, but he didn’t seem too concerned.

‘What other sorts of magical books do you know about?’ he asked Archie.

Archie tried to remember what Bramble had told him. ‘Well, there’s drawing books,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ nodded the old bookbinder. ‘Jolly treacherous they are, too. Technically speaking, you know, they are magic portals – doorways that can pull you into another world, so I won’t show you an actual example. Too dangerous.’

*

Later that morning, Archie was just finishing stitching a loose leaf into a book of magical recipes called
The Culinary Cauldron: Banquets That Go With A Bang
, when Old Zeb yawned and stretched.

‘We’ll do one more book, and that will be enough for today. Pass me that old almanac. It should have been done days ago, but with Geoffrey still missing we’re in a bit of a muddle.’

Archie recognised the Ripleys’ almanac. The old bookbinder squinted at its leather cover through
his magnifying glass. ‘
The Alchemists’ Household Almanac
,’ he wheezed. ‘Dated 1603 – it’s over four hundred years old.’

Archie thought about his book. Horace Catchpole had said it was over four hundred years old, too. Perhaps there was a connection.

‘Hmmm – unusual cover,’ mumbled Old Zeb. ‘Made from some sort of lizard’s skin. Well I never, it’s chameleon. You don’t see that very often. How interesting. Perhaps that’s why it’s a Special Instruction? I can see it’s got a crooked spine, too. We’ll have to see about that.’

The old bookbinder placed the book in the book press. Then he turned a large screw handle like a wing nut until the wooden jaws of the press closed on the book. As he did, Alex heard a voice screaming.

‘Help me! Please help me! The old man is cruel – he is killing me! Nooooo!’

Archie covered his ears with his hands and tried to block out the pitiful shrieks. Old Zeb turned the screw another turn and the screaming stopped. Archie felt a mix of sadness and relief.

Old Zeb looked at him. ‘Whatever is the matter?’

‘Didn’t you hear it?’ asked Archie, shocked.

‘Hear what?’

Archie glanced at Old Zeb but the old man looked unmoved. If he had heard the cries he did
not show it. What the books had told him must be true, then – no one else could hear their voices.

Old Zeb unclamped the almanac. To Archie’s great relief the book was silent.

The old man handed the almanac to Archie. ‘Go and ask Marjorie if we know anything else about its history.’ He paused and then added, ‘But bring the book straight back to me. That’s very important. Don’t let it out of your sight. And remember …’

‘I know,’ said Archie, ‘third door on the right.’

*

Archie’s mind was still reeling as he made his way up the stairs. What was this strange gift that he possessed? What was he meant to do with it? He peeked through the velvet curtain. The bookshop was empty except for Marjorie.

‘The almanac you wanted Old Zeb to look at,’ he said, holding it up. ‘Do we know anything about its history?’

Marjorie peered at the book in his hand. ‘No,’ she said. ‘All we know is that it came from the Ripley family. But remind him it’s urgent. With Greaders about we can’t take any chances. The other new arrivals are in there,’ she added, indicating the cardboard box where Archie had put his book, ‘but they can wait.’

At that moment the doorbell clanged announcing the arrival of a customer.

‘Yes?’ Marjorie said. ‘Can I help you?’

Archie stared at the almanac in his hand. Did Marjorie suspect that it was the book the Greaders were after? Was that why it was urgent? And if the almanac was in danger, was his book at risk too?

Archie glanced at the bookcase. He hadn’t heard the books whispering for several days.
The Little Book of Blessings
had said that a book whisperer could talk to magical books. Perhaps the almanac could tell him what was going on. It was worth a try.

‘Hello,’ he whispered. ‘Can you hear me?’

Silence.

He tried again. ‘Are you all right?’

Still nothing. He shook his head. He must be mad, he thought, trying to talk to a book. He made his way back down the spiral stairs. When he reached the shadowy, flagstoned passageway, he heard a soft voice.

‘So,
you
are the book whisperer?’ it said. ‘How interesting.’

Archie peered into the shadows. ‘Who’s there?’ he cried, his voice cracking. ‘Who are you?’

‘You started the conversation,’ said the voice. It was coming from the almanac.

Archie felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. ‘What sort of book are you?’ he asked, suddenly wary.

‘My last master wished me to be an almanac,’ the voice replied, slyly. ‘But I can be any sort of book you desire. What is your pleasure?’

Archie was taken aback.

‘Er … I don’t know,’ he mumbled. ‘I just thought you might need protecting from Greaders …’

‘How perceptive of you!’ said the book. ‘But it’s not just Greaders – the old bookbinder can’t be trusted either. He means me harm. He didn’t need to put me in that clamp. He is cruel. He’s working for the Greaders.’

‘Old Zeb?’ said Archie. ‘Surely not.’

‘The old man isn’t what he seems,’ said the almanac. ‘He has a secret he doesn’t want you to know. It’s behind the second door.’

‘You are mistaken,’ said Archie.

‘If you don’t believe me, look for yourself.’

‘He warned me not to open the other doors,’ said Archie.

‘Exactly, and why do you think that is?’ sneered the almanac.

‘He’s trying to protect me, that’s all. It’s not safe,’ said Archie. He didn’t want to believe what the almanac was insinuating. But a seed of doubt had been sown in his mind.

The almanac seemed to sense his unease. ‘Have it your own way,’ it said. ‘But don’t say I didn’t warn you!’

Archie stopped outside the blue door. It was the same door he had heard strange noises coming from before. He noticed something odd about the door, something missing. Then he realised that there was no door handle. He was already curious to know what was behind it and now he was even more intrigued. He knew he should return to the mending workshop but he hesitated.

Marjorie and Old Zeb had both warned him not to open any of the doors except that of the mending workshop. Now he thought about it, that did seem suspicious. What were they keeping in there that they didn’t want him to see? He was about to move on when he heard a groaning sound, like ice moving.

Archie put his ear to the door and listened.

‘I told you the old man has a secret,’ said the almanac.

‘But what’s in there?’ asked Archie, still unsure whether to believe the book.

‘Why don’t you take a look for yourself?’

‘But how can I open the door?’ Archie said. ‘There’s no door handle!’

‘Surely you’re not going to let a little thing like that stop you?’ said the almanac. ‘You’re supposed
to be a book whisperer, after all! The answer’s there – you just need to put your finger on it.’

Archie stared at the door again. What was the almanac talking about? There was definitely no handle. Unless …

He reached out his hand to where the handle should have been and to his surprise his fingers touched something solid. He closed his hand around it. There was a door handle after all! It was just invisible. The almanac had been right, the answer was there in front of him. And if the book was right about that, perhaps it was telling the truth about Old Zeb too?

Cautiously Archie began to turn the door handle. Very, very slowly he put his weight against it. The door opened a crack.

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