The alchemasters apprent.., p.13
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.13

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘I call this substance Shadow Ink,’ he said. ‘I extracted it from the stones in the dungeon walls. I should explain that, when subjected to the incredibly low temperatures only an alchemical furnace can generate, those stones begin to melt and remain liquid in perpetuity. That’s the origin of Shadow Ink. I strongly advise you never to touch the stuff, it’s as cold as outer space! It took me quite a time to become inured to the pain.’

  Yes, of course, thought Echo. A furnace that generates freezing temperatures, stones that melt when subjected to them. Coming from Ghoolion, the craziest things sounded plausible. It was probably common-or-garden ink. Or shoe polish.

  Ghoolion looked at his hands. ‘It’s a very peculiar, unearthly pain, as if my hands had gone insane. Believe me, right now I’m tempted to cut them off.’ His face betrayed no emotion whatsoever. ‘But I’ve learnt to ignore the sensation.’

  He turned his hands over in the candlelight, and Echo could now see that the black substance really was something special. He had never seen such utter blackness.

  ‘You should bear in mind that the rock from which this ink is made was mined in the heart of the Gloomberg Mountains, which are said to have originated on the very outskirts of the universe. It may be a mineral from some alien planet, even from another dimension.’

  Ghoolion bent over the Anguish Candle and proceeded to wring his hands in its fitful light. A big, amorphous shadow appeared on the opposite wall.

  ‘Let’s see,’ he muttered. ‘What shall we make? Something big? A rhinoceros? A Midgard Serpent? A mastodon?’

  He waved his hands and stuck out a forefinger. The shadow sprouted a trunk and two huge ears.

  ‘Oh no!’ he sighed. ‘Too ponderous. Too bulky. Let’s have something light and airy.’

  He positioned his hands crosswise and linked his thumbs. The silhouette of a butterfly took shape on the wall. He wiggled his hands and the butterfly started fluttering. ‘Or is that too innocuous, eh? How about something bigger? Something with feathers, perhaps?’

  He spread his fingers a trifle and held his hands nearer the flame. The shadow expanded and turned into a bird.

  Echo was entranced. The old man really knew his stuff. The shadowy bird looked extremely lifelike.

  Quick as a flash, Ghoolion removed his hands from the flame. To Echo’s great astonishment, the bird’s silhouette remained where it was. It might have been painted on the wall.

  ‘Hey!’ he exclaimed. ‘How did you do that?’

  ‘Me?’ Ghoolion grinned. ‘I did nothing, that’s the Shadow Ink.’ He clicked his pitch-black fingers three times. ‘Fly, bird!’ he called. ‘Fly!’

  The shadow started to quiver like a puddle ruffled by the wind. Then the bird began to flap its wings and fly back and forth along the whitewashed wall. Echo could even hear the sound of its wingbeats.

  ‘That’s incredible!’ he gasped. ‘It’s magic!’

  ‘Not magic,’ Ghoolion retorted, ‘alchemy. Alchemy of the first order.’

  He clapped his hands twice and the bird landed on the mantelpiece, where it started to twitter and warble like a nightingale in love.

  ‘What kind of bird is it?’ Echo asked.

  ‘Hm,’ said Ghoolion, ‘I don’t really know. You decide. It’s a nightingale at present, but would you sooner have a seagull?

  He clicked his fingers and the shadow disintegrated into black streaks. They reassembled themselves into the shape of a powerful seabird with a hooked beak. The seagull emitted an avid screech.

  ‘Oh no!’ he exclaimed. ‘Seagulls are vulgar, annoying creatures with discordant voices. They’re disgusting carrion that peck out the eyes of dead sailors. What about something more dignified? Something majestic?’

  He clicked his blackened fingers again. Having dissolved once more, the shadow expanded to many times its original size. The next moment a gigantic eagle sat perched on the mantelpiece. Its head swivelled slowly, imperiously back and forth as if it were scanning a boundless plain in search of prey.

  Echo gasped involuntarily. The eagle was huge. Up to now, the little Crat had been the hunter and birds his quarry. In the case of this monarch of the air, their roles were reversed. He had never before been so close to such a big bird.

  ‘Don’t worry,’ said Ghoolion, as if he had read Echo’s thoughts. ‘It’s still just a shadow.’

  Before Echo could work out what he meant by ‘still’, Ghoolion cried, ‘But that’s enough stupid birds. We need some variety. When it comes to entertaining my honoured guest, nothing is too much trouble.’

  Bending over the flame again, he kneaded his hands together. This time, however, he held them below the edge of the chair, which projected the shadow on the base of the wall. The first thing Echo saw was a hen. It soon metamorphosed into a rabbit, then into a chimpanzee and finally into a fidgety rodent.

  ‘Ah,’ he exclaimed, ‘a mouse.’

  ‘No,’ said Ghoolion, ‘a rat. If you thought it was a mouse, I must have made it a bit too skimpy.’

  He held his hands closer and closer to the candle flame. The shadow expanded to three, four, five times its original size.

  ‘There,’ he said contentedly, ‘that’s far more impressive.’ He whipped his hands away as quickly as he had the first time and the shadow remained where it was. Next, he clicked his fingers and a tremor ran through the rat, which was now the size of a bull terrier. He clapped his hands and it emitted a snarl, then ran to and fro along the skirting board as if imprisoned in a cage.

  It astonished Echo to see that the rat was almost twice his own size. Ghoolion had introduced an unpleasant note into this harmless game. Still, it was only a shadow, seemingly plastered to the wall on which it had come into being.

  The Alchemaster clasped his long, blackened fingers together once more. ‘Now, how about an animal the very sight of which makes one’s heart beat faster?’ he whispered. ‘A creature that inspires such terror that it has no natural enemies? Something really dangerous?’

  Echo had meant to get on Ghoolion’s nerves. The Alchemaster was now giving him a dose of his own medicine. His only recourse was to show as little fear as possible.

  ‘By all means,’ he said calmly. ‘Something really dangerous, why not? What can you offer?’

  ‘What can I offer?’ Ghoolion muttered. ‘Let’s see …’

  He crossed his hands and linked the thumbs again. Then he twisted his wrists in such an unnatural way that it almost occasioned Echo physical pain. He put his contorted hands nearer the candle and long, thin shadows began to dance on the wall like the legs of some outsize insect, eight of them in all. They encircled the chamber like the bars of a cage, making Echo feel as if the walls were slowly closing in on him. The shadowy creature’s dark, menacing body, a loaf-shaped torso, brushed the ceiling high overhead. It was impossible to tell which way it was facing.

  Again Ghoolion whipped his hands away from the candle flame, and again the shadowy figure clung to the walls and ceiling as if it had always been imprinted on them.

  ‘I’ve taken a few liberties with this creature, I must admit,’ Ghoolion remarked. ‘That’s because my knowledge of Nurns5 is limited to medieval depictions and descriptions of them. Very few people have come across them in the wild and even fewer have survived such encounters sufficiently unscathed to give an account of them.’

  Echo hadn’t a clue what a Nurn was, but its mere shadow was enough to inspire mortal terror. The only reason why he didn’t flee from the chamber, spitting and snarling, was that Ghoolion was barring his route to the door.

  The Alchemaster clapped his hands and the shadow began to totter around on its stiltlike legs. The chamber was filled with a sound like the rustle of countless leaves - like a treetop stirring in the breeze.

  ‘Very nice,’ said the Alchemaster, rubbing his hands. ‘An eagle, a rat and a Nurn. A bird, a mammal and a hybrid. What species does that leave?’

  ‘I’ve seen enough, actually,’ Echo ventured to put in. ‘Can’t we
leave it at three? I’m impressed enough by your show as it is.’

  ‘No, no!’ Ghoolion replied with a smile. ‘You underestimate your own stamina. You’ve plenty more. After all, you wanted to play a game, didn’t you?’

  Echo thought it wiser not to answer. He would only spur Ghoolion into making his creations still bigger and more horrific.

  ‘You say you’re bored,’ said Ghoolion. ‘Well, what’s the opposite of boredom? Excitement? Adventure? Suspense? Fear? Desperation? Mortal terror? You’re still just a youngster. You’ve yet to learn the advantages of boredom. If you lived to my age - which you won’t! - you’d learn to appreciate it. Given that you won’t survive that long, I propose to teach you a lesson - one that’ll gain your respect for boredom.’

  He knelt down in front of the Anguish Candle and raised his left arm. Then he bent his wrist and joined his fingertips together. A long-necked, flat-headed shadow appeared on the whitewashed wall.

  ‘Oh,’ Echo exclaimed in relief, ‘a swan!’

  ‘No,’ said Ghoolion, ‘we already have a bird. Our collection still lacks a reptile.’

  He narrowed his eyes, and a few almost imperceptible movements of his wrist sufficed to convert the swan into a snake, a black reptile with its head erect and its long body slightly arched.

  The Alchemaster leant forwards and held his arm so close to the candle that he almost scorched it. The shadow of the serpent’s body on the wall was magnified many times over. Ghoolion whipped his hand away, clicked his fingers and clapped his hands, all in a single lightning movement, then rose from his kneeling position.

  Echo was mesmerised. The shadow on the wall wove its huge reptilian body to and fro and opened its jaws to reveal teeth as sharp and pointed as daggers. The snake emitted such a piercing hiss that it jolted Echo out of his trance. He took refuge under the chair.

  ‘Everything has a shadow of its own,’ Ghoolion whispered. ‘A shadow is the dark being that dwells within everything and everyone. As long as it’s chained to us it’s our slave, but once it detaches itself from its owner it displays its true nature, becoming evil, wild and dangerous. Well, there’s the entertainment you wanted - enough of it to render my continued presence here superfluous. Goodnight.’

  Before Echo could reply, the Alchemaster had hurried out of the chamber and locked the door behind him.

  Echo was taken aback. What was this meant to be, a test of some kind? If so, he didn’t know which of his talents was in question. An ability to get out of this room unaided? If that was it, he’d already failed: no Crat could open a door, let alone a locked door. No, this wasn’t a test or a practical joke; it was a form of punishment.

  He peeped out from under the chair and took stock of the situation. The black eagle was still perched on the mantelpiece, the rat scurrying back and forth along the skirting board, the gigantic serpent swaying to and fro like a metronome, the Nurn tottering around on its long, stiltlike legs.

  Echo was calm enough now to think things over. The door presented no escape route as long as Ghoolion failed to return and there wasn’t any other hole in the wall or floor he could squeeze through. Wait a minute, though, what about the chimney? If the smoke flap was open, he ought to be able to climb up the flue provided its sides were rough enough to offer a pawhold. Once on the roof, he need only make his way back into the castle through the Leathermousoleum.

  However, taking this route would be strenuous and not without its dangers. He might get stuck in the chimney and suffocate, or fall down it and break all his bones. A flue could taper towards the top and end by becoming too narrow. Climbing up was always easier than climbing down, which would be a risky proposition.

  The more comfortable alternative was simply to go on lying beneath the chair and wait for Ghoolion to return. If he succeeded in getting used to the presence of these shadowy creatures, he might even be able to take a nap. He curled up in a ball and tried to ignore their snarls and hisses.

  At that moment the eagle uttered a hoarse scream, flapped its wings and rose into the air. As it left the mantelpiece, something happened which Echo found far more astonishing than anything else that had occurred in the course of this astonishing evening. From one moment to the next, the bird ceased to look like a two-dimensional shadow and became a solid body. Transfixed with fear, Echo didn’t move until the eagle uttered another scream, swooped down, landed on the seat of the chair and slashed at him with its big beak. He shrank back and hit his head on a chair leg. The pain brought tears to his eyes and prompted him to leave his uncertain shelter.

  Reaching for the painful spot on the back of his head with a forepaw, he felt something moist and sticky. Genuine blood! Had he broken the skin himself, or had the bird nicked him with its beak? Had these shadowy creatures suddenly become capable of causing pain and physical injury?

  There was a rustling sound overhead like wind blowing through a forest. Echo looked up. The Nurn was quivering in a frenzy and stalking around the room on its long legs. It, too, had ceased to be merely a shadow and become a three-dimensional being, a pitch-black sculpture suddenly endowed with life. Echo wondered if the scent of his blood had aroused its killer instincts. The Nurn raised one leg, flexed it and pointed its foot straight at him. He managed to leap aside just as the tip embedded itself in the floor.

  Long tentacles came snaking down from the creature’s body. With a menacing crack like that of a bullwhip, they lashed the air in search of their prey. Echo zigzagged around the chamber, narrowly avoiding the Nurn’s elastic tentacles and trampling feet.

  He was just about to escape by leaping into the fireplace when the rat, which had also become massively three-dimensional, barred his path. Echo glanced over his shoulder in dismay. To make matters even worse, the huge snake was also wriggling towards him. He could neither advance nor retreat.

  Help came from an unexpected quarter: one of the Nurn’s tentacles smacked into the rat like a sodden rope. The huge creature’s bloodlust was such that it drew no distinction between a rat and a Crat. A dozen more tentacles wrapped themselves round the rodent and yanked it into the air. Squeaking with terror, it vanished into the Nurn’s gaping, rustling maw.

  Now that his route lay open, Echo leapt boldly into the fireplace. Ash swirled around him in a dense grey cloud, concealing him from view for a few moments and enabling him to catch his breath. For some seconds he was as invisible to the shadowy creatures as they were to him.

  Then the ash began to settle and he saw to his utter horror that the chimney was not built of stone. The flue was an iron tube whose sides were far too smooth to climb.

  Through the steadily thinning cloud of ash he saw the snake’s huge black head loom up in front of the fireplace. It opened its jaws and almost lazily retracted its head as though to increase the momentum with which it planned to strike its prey.

  Something rustled above him. The Nurn? Impossible, it was far too big to fit into the chimney. No, it wasn’t a rustle, it was the whirring of wings. In the general confusion, when the pall of ash was at its thickest, the eagle must have managed to fly up the chimney. Now it was fluttering above him, ready to pounce at any moment.

  Sure enough, powerful talons gripped him painfully by the neck and hauled him upwards. He bit and scratched, but his teeth and claws met thin air. The eagle had him securely in its grasp and it wasn’t hard to guess the bird’s intentions: it would haul him out of the chimney, high into the sky, then let him fall. He would drop like a stone and leave his shattered body on the flagstones of Malaisea.

  Echo’s fur suddenly fluttered in a cool breeze and he found himself looking down at the lights of the town far below. He was back outside.

  The talons let go of his neck, but he didn’t go plummeting to his death; he fell a few feet and landed safely on the mother of all roofs. Theodore T. Theodore touched down beside him a moment later.

  ‘Theodore?’ said Echo, rubbing his eyes. ‘What are you doing here?’

  ‘What does it look like?’ the
Tuwituwu demanded, shaking the soot from his wings. ‘I naved your seck, my young friend. Leripous adventures with happy endings may be pytical of Zamonian light fiction, but who wants everything to nulmicate in a tacastrophe?’

  Escape

  Echo slunk back to his basket and lay awake brooding half the night. Why had Ghoolion placed him in such a dire predicament for a mere trifle? Sheer spite? Calculation? Plain insanity? There were really only two plausible possibilities. One was that the shadows could never have harmed him because they were merely projections of his own fears. Alchemistic hocus-pocus, as innocuous as a Cooked Ghost. Hallucinations generated by fumes given off by the black paste Ghoolion had rubbed into his hands. The other possibility: the Alchemaster was simply off his rocker and even more unpredictable than he’d feared.

  He didn’t fall asleep until dawn. When he awoke a few hours later, his mind was made up: he would try to escape that very day.

  Echo stole up to the roof to fill his belly with one last drink from the pool of milk. A drink so big that it would be several days before he had to wonder where his next meal was coming from. Then he made his ponderous way downstairs through the Leathermousoleum and laboratory. He was relieved not to bump into Ghoolion. He neither detected the Alchemaster’s scent nor heard his clattering footsteps.

  Having reached the castle gate, he paused to analyse his feelings. Was he scared? Scared of freedom? Scared of his own temerity? Of course he was. He would be leaving Malaisea, his home town, and going out into the wide world for the first time in his existence. He was an urban creature. Until now he had spent his entire life in Malaisea without ever questioning that fact. He was used to paved streets and footpaths, sheltering walls and roofs, stoves and warm milk, street lights and crowds of people. Leaving the town was like throwing himself into a raging torrent without being able to swim. A cosseted, domesticated Crat completely dependent on himself, he proposed to exchange civilisation for the unpredictable wilds of Zamonia. A wilderness teeming with dangers of the most diverse kinds, with vicious life forms and animals, poisonous plants and malignant natural phenomena. All those hazards were reputed to lie in wait outside - he had only to venture beyond the town walls to come face to face with them. The wild dogs that prowled the fields were far more brutal and dangerous than the dogs of the town - he had often heard them howling. Snakes, scorpions, rabid foxes, Woodwolves, Lunawraiths - these were no mythical beasts but real-life denizens of the Zamonian outback.

 
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