I had in the meantime become a successful science friction writer and had a busy schedule giving talks at conferences, signing books, appearing on talk shows, and suchlike. I was a well-known face on the circuit – squinty, asymmetrical eyes, pointy head, bulbous nose and a non-existent chin. I used to receive fan-mail every day, which I always answered. Then one day all of that changed forever – all of a sudden no one wanted to know me, no one wanted to hear what I had to say. My career was over, my self-esteem in tatters and I had no choice but to move on. I became a ruthless rent collector for a seedy inner-city landlord – terror was my trade, pain was the currency in which I traded. Families were evicted onto the street on my say-so, and as time went on I learned to harden my heart to human suffering. I took up dream interpretation as a hobby and, over the years, grew so talented at it that eventually I set up a tent in a fairground and interpreted dreams for a living. I could not interpret my own dreams however – I could make neither head nor tail of them. One day a man came to see me with a particularly strange dream and it changed my life forever. The dream concerned a forest wizard who went by the name of Umgrum, a happy-go-lucky gambler, amphetamine addict and fortune-teller known to his friends as Smokey Joe, and a wandering storyteller known far and wide simply as ‘The Twister’ on account of how he twisted everyone’s words. The dream was made up entirely of shop-worn clichés, in other words. And yet at the same time the tale that ensued possessed a gripping, supernatural quality that was impossible to deny. To start off with the dream was chaotic, lacking in any coherent structure. Mythological motifs came and went, apparently with no connection between them, scenes shifted and changed with neither rhyme nor reason. And then the wondering fortune-teller appeared, covered in the dust of his travels, and launched into an epic tale of the struggle between good and evil. The struggle centred upon the deeds and misdeeds of a mighty hero called Mandragorus, who drew his power from the tea that he made out of the forbidden root. The root gave him the power of the second sight, whereby he could see demons and psychic vampires invisible to ordinary folk, who walked the world heedlessly, as if in a state of sleep. The tea, when imbibed in suitable quantities, would bestow upon Mandragorus the power of Unparalleled Fearlessness, and – when taken in even greater quantities – would trigger a battle frenzy the like of which would terrify even the strongest heart. None could stand against him. A mighty hero, known far and wide by the name of Mandragorus, who drew his strength from the tea that he brewed from the forbidden fruit. From the forbidden fruit. A hero, known far and wide, who drew his supernatural strength from the tea that he brewed. The tea that he brewed. The tea that he brewed. The tea. The day of the Ultimate Battle had finally dawned and the sky had turned an ugly colour. An unhealthy, sick-looking light pervaded the world and not a sound could be heard. Even the birds in the trees had gone quiet; they were frozen to the branches in fear. Mandragorus was digging frantically here and there with his mighty hero’s spade but no root could he find anywhere – the enemy had come in the dead of night and stolen them all. Time was running out as quickly as the water runs out of a rusty bucket with no bottom left in it. What was to be done?