The alchemasters apprent.., p.14
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.14

           Walter Moers
 

  He would first have to traverse the municipal rubbish dumps, which were probably alive with rats. Then would come grain fields patrolled by Corn Demons, which stuffed all the living creatures they caught into black sacks and drowned them in ponds. Next he would have to wade through the Strangleroot-infested mangrove swamps and make his way across the Murderous Marsh, in which a Golden Goblin was said to lurk. Only then would he come to the mountains, with their vultures and predators, ravines and crevasses, Mistwitches and Gulch Ghouls.

  And after that, the unknown. Echo hadn’t even the faintest idea what awaited him beyond the mountains - if he ever got that far. A waterless desert, perhaps, or a boundless sea, or a bottomless abyss.

  Was he scared?

  Of course he was.

  Did that deter him?

  No. All at once, in obedience to a sudden, reckless impulse, he darted out of the castle gate, down the winding lane and into the heart of the town.

  Malaisea … How long was it since he’d been there? He hadn’t missed them overmuch, the town’s unwholesome atmosphere and chronically diseased inhabitants, the germ-laden air, the incessant hawking and spitting, the bloodstained handkerchiefs and pus-sodden wads of cotton wool in the gutters.

  Ah, Apothecary Avenue, the town’s main shopping street! In this throbbing thoroughfare could be found all that the typical inhabitant of Malaisea could desire: one pharmacy after another, window after window filled with bottles of cough syrup and cold cures, vitamin tablets and throat pastilles, thermometers and catheters, eardrops and laxatives, poultices and ointments for treating Leathermouse bites. The townsfolk pressed their noses to the windows or emerged carrying baskets laden with medicines, showed each other their latest abscesses or surgical scars, and discussed new remedies between coughs and sneezes. Pedlars dispensed hot lemonade or camomile tea, Druidwarfs sold bunches of medicinal herbs, and itinerant physicians loudly offered to take people’s temperature or listen to their heartbeat at minimal expense, on-the-spot diagnoses included. These quacks were obviously in league with the chemists, judging by the suspicious frequency with which their patients, after being briefly examined, made a panic-stricken dash for the nearest pharmacy to stock up on expensive medicines.

  Echo slalomed between the shoppers’ shuffling, limping legs. He soon realised how shockingly out of shape he was and began to regret having filled his belly so full. People kept treading on his tail or catching him with their heels or toes. It would never have happened in the old days. On the contrary, Echo had become extremely skilful at threading his way through the townsfolk of Malaisea. Now, however, he was kicked and trodden on like a punctured rubber ball. He was too slow and he could no longer squeeze through the narrow openings available to a Crat amid the milling throngs of pedestrians on Apothecary Avenue. A boot clouted him on the head, a horse trampled on his tail and a fat woman kicked him full in the stomach. He went sprawling and three people marched right over him as if he were a doormat.

  He let out a yowl, rolled over sideways into the lee of a wall and lay there with his heart pounding like a steam hammer. ‘I’m planning to trek across deserts and forests, and I can’t even get down Apothecary Avenue,’ he thought. ‘I’ll have to look for a quieter route via the outskirts of town.’

  But he knew only too well what that meant: dogs. Roaming the outer districts were the packs of wild mongrels not tolerated in the city centre, and he’d had many a brush with them in the past. In his present condition he wouldn’t stand a chance of giving them the slip. The emaciated tykes were fast on their feet and he was incapable of climbing a drainpipe.

  It was no use, though, he could make no headway, so he took the next turning and made for the quieter streets. His route took him past the bronze monument to the Philanthropic Physician, who had died of hypothermia while trudging through a blizzard to get to a patient, down the Via Dementia, where the psychiatrists were based, across Septicaemia Square and along Lumbago Lane. Still no dogs? Splendid. Perhaps they were engaged in one of their brain-dead forms of entertainment, like squabbling among themselves on a rubbish tip or chasing some unfortunate cat through the municipal sewers.

  At last he reached the long, desolate avenue of weeping willows that led straight to the south gate. Only a handful of townsfolk passed him now and the shop lights were going out one by one. Echo heaved a sigh of relief. He would soon be outside the Alchemaster’s sphere of jurisdiction. As for the wilds of Zamonia, he would have to wait and see. Perhaps they owed their reputation simply to gruesome stories spread by travellers showing off. Nomads’ legends, old wives’ tales, campfire folklore - the sort of thing people told their children to scare them into remaining at home and tending the cows when their parents became too old to do it themselves. Strangleroots? He’d have to keep clear of trees. Woodwolves? They certainly wouldn’t be interested in a little Crat. Echo turned off down the lane where the night doctors practised - they were just opening their consulting rooms - even though it would take him in the opposite direction, away from the outskirts of town. Why was he making this detour? He didn’t know, he simply felt like it. His new route took him along the street in which the bandage-weavers worked - their looms were still clattering away, even at this hour - and across Monocle Square, where the oculists and opticians had their practices and business premises. This was familiar territory, his old home district. And there was his street and the house in which he’d grown up. The lights were on, so the new owners seemed to have made themselves at home. But he felt an irresistible urge to press on. Where to? Back to the city centre again? That was odd. And where exactly was he making for? The Phlebotomist’s Scalpel, an inn whose dustbins sometimes yielded tasty scraps? No, not there. Gallstone Hospital, the source of those incessant, blood-curdling screams? No, he really didn’t feel like lingering there either. He made his way swiftly along Incisor Alley, identified by the huge teeth and forceps over its doors as the place where dentists plied their agonising trade. But this wasn’t his destination either. Already feeling dizzy, he skirted the ether factory, where the air always smelt so stupefying, and made his way past the naturopaths’ herb garden, which smelt considerably more fragrant. Before he knew it he had set off up the long, winding lane that led to the Alchemaster’s castle. He was now running as fast as he could, he was so eager to get there.

  Home at last! Ghoolion was standing in the entrance, holding a lantern.

  ‘I’ve been expecting you,’ he said as Echo slipped past him.

  It wasn’t until he was inside that he stopped short and looked around in bewilderment.

  ‘What am I doing here?’ he asked, like someone awaking from a dream.

  ‘Keeping your part of our bargain,’ said Ghoolion and he blew out the lantern.

  The Fat Cellar

  ‘I know you helped yourself to some sustenance on the roof today,’ Ghoolion said as he strode along the passages with Echo slinking after him, ‘so I’ll forget about supper for once, if you don’t mind. However, I’d like to show you something before you retire to your basket.’

  Echo, who was still bemused, didn’t reply. He couldn’t think what had happened, only that he’d done something against his will, and this filled him with a mixture of rage and alarm. He felt as if he’d temporarily lost his wits.

  ‘We’ll have to go down to the cellars,’ Ghoolion said firmly, setting off down a flight of stairs. ‘I don’t think you’re familiar with that part of the castle, are you?’

  No, Echo had never visited it. He would never have descended that age-old staircase and plunged into the dank darkness on his own and of his own free will. Weren’t cellars an ideal place in which to be hit over the head from behind with a coal shovel? Or drowned in a cask of wine? Or walled up alive? Was Ghoolion’s overly pleasant manner just the prelude to an all the more unpleasant punishment for his attempt to escape?

  Having reached the bottom of the stairs, the Alchemaster picked up a lantern and tapped on the glass with his fingernails. At this, the swarm of
tiny will-o’-the-wisps inside it took wing and flitted around, producing a weird, multicoloured glow that made Echo feel uneasier still. They set off along cold, bare, vaulted passages inhabited by more creepy-crawlies than he liked. Black beetles fled into the darkness on powerful legs, protesting in their staccato insect language, when Ghoolion appeared with his ghostly lantern. Spiders sailed down from the ceiling and tottered sleepily across the uneven flagstones. Scorpions the size of king crabs disappeared into cracks in the wall, lashing their tails. The ancient pile overhead groaned as if tired of supporting its own weight after so many centuries.

  ‘Where are we going, Master?’ Echo asked anxiously.

  ‘First I want to show you the fat cellar,’ Ghoolion replied. ‘That’s where your fat will be stored until I process it.’

  Echo felt as if he’d just walked over his own grave. The idea of ending up down here was unbearable. The Alchemaster’s brutal candour had rendered him speechless.

  ‘Here we are,’ said Ghoolion. He halted in front of a lofty stone archway enclosing a heavy iron door secured by seven padlocks. He put the lantern down and set to work on them.

  ‘You’re welcome to think me overcautious, installing all these locks, but this chamber contains the most precious possessions I’ve ever owned in my life. This, for instance,’ said Ghoolion, pointing to the uppermost padlock, ‘is an acoustico-elemental lock. It’s not unlike the open-sesame locks of ancient times, but it’ll only respond to the names of certain elements recited in the correct order. It’s also equipped with a phenomenal safety device that renders it unopenable even by someone who knows the formula. Listen!

  ‘Bismuth, niobium, antimony!’ he cried and the padlock sprang open. He locked it again and told Echo to copy him.

  ‘Vermouth, binomium, myoniant!’ cried Echo, although he had carefully memorised the correct words.

  ‘Try again,’ Ghoolion told him.

  ‘Mouthwash, gargle, cinnamon,’ cried Echo. ‘Damnation! I know the words but my tongue muddles them up.’

  ‘Even I don’t know how these things work,’ Ghoolion said with a laugh. ‘An alchemistic locksmith manufactures them in the Impic Alps, in the strictest secrecy. Bismuth, niobium, antimony!’

  The lock clicked open again.

  ‘Try again now it’s open.’

  ‘Bismuth, niobium, antimony!’ Echo sang out. ‘That’s odd, I can say them now.’

  ‘Too late,’ Ghoolion said with a grin. ‘Now take a look at this one. It’s an unmusical lock made of cacophonated steel.’

  He took a piccolo from his pocket and played some discordant notes that stabbed Echo’s eardrums like needles. The padlock opened by itself.

  ‘Yes,’ said Ghoolion, ‘even bad piccolo-playing has to be learnt.’ He replaced the instrument in his cloak. ‘You have to play the right wrong notes, of course.’

  He proceeded to open one lock after another, each in a different way, for instance by reeling off an interminable series of numbers or using an invisible key with which he fiddled for minutes on end. It was clear to Echo that anyone who attempted to break in would be doomed to fail. Once the last padlock had opened and the last chain had been released, Ghoolion thrust the heavy iron door open and ushered Echo inside.

  The long, low-ceilinged chamber made quite a different impression from the rest of the castle’s dark, crumbling cellars. The walls, which had been neatly plastered and whitewashed, were far from dilapidated and entirely free from insects. The temperature was agreeably cool.

  ‘This is my fat store,’ said Ghoolion. He shone his lantern proudly over the numerous shelves, bathing them in a multicoloured glow. ‘It must once have been a wine cellar, but so immeasurably long ago that all I found here were empty bottles with crumbling corks and red-wine deposits inside. I renovated the chamber completely. I replastered, iodised, sterilised and ghoolionised it. Stored in here are the most precious alchemical ingredients in Zamonia - not even Zoltep Zaan owned such a collection. This is where I keep specimens of all the major elements, my assortment of gases and effluvia, rare minerals, and alchemical substances both ancient and state-of-the-art. The stuff in the laboratory upstairs is only what common-or-garden alchemists would use, but the material in here is beyond the dreams of those amateurs. And it’s all sealed in the fat of rare animals, ready for use in the cauldron at any time.’

  The chamber looked quite unspectacular. Like a wine cellar, in fact, except that orange-sized balls of fat took the place of bottles. Tacked to the shelf beneath each ball was a small copper plaque engraved with the name of its contents. Before long, Echo reflected, there would be another ball whose plaque read ‘Crat Fat’.

  Ghoolion was glowing with pride. ‘On this shelf here I keep the Zamonian elements: lithium, kalium, rubidium, onth, gophor, caesium, scandium, cnothium, zorphium, nickel, crypton, cnobalt, and so on and so forth. That’s nothing special in itself; it’s the syntheses I’ve created that are unique. Permium and xyloton, for instance, or zursium and hexamite - daring combinations of elements which no one had ever experimented with before me. It took me years to hit on the correct proportions - things didn’t always go smoothly, take it from me. There were laboratory fires and clouds of poisonous fumes, totally unexpected chemical reactions and, on one occasion, a violent explosion. Did you know I have a wooden leg?’

  He rapped the leg in question with his knuckles. It sounded horribly hollow.

  ‘Those rare metals over there - you won’t find any of them in a traditional laboratory: lanthium, samarium, bluddumite, florinthium, gelfic silver, cronosite.’

  He pointed to the relevant balls one after the other. They all looked identical except for minor differences in colour.

  ‘Those long rows of balls over there contain various scents: goblins’ pus and mummy’s sweat, impic effluvium and the autumnal musk of rutting Woodwolves. Seven times seven hundred smells of putrefaction arranged in alphabetical order: fresh, one day old, two days old, and so on. Then come all the fumes and gases: graveyard gas, sewer gas, laughing gas, marsh gas, intestinal gas - you name it. And those balls right at the back contain the really rare items such as volcanic ideas and arsonist’s dreams - and, of course, in the place of honour: zamonium, the rarest Zamonian element of all.’

  Ghoolion turned and pointed to another shelf. ‘Those are the sighs of the dying. I’ve done my best to capture the final exhalations of all my victims. I haven’t always succeeded. It’s a very ticklish business, a fine art, capturing the very last breath of a creature on the point of death - it’s the most volatile and fleeting vapour there is! Sometimes you catch the penultimate breath and miss the last one. Sometimes you sit there for hours and the confounded creature simply refuses to kick the bucket. But I’ve been successful in many cases. Very many.’

  Ghoolion paused for effect, as if expecting Echo to commiserate with him on his victims’ failure to die quickly enough.

  ‘Ah,’ he said at length, ‘I could go on about my treasures for hours, but that’s far from all I want to show you. Let’s move on.’

  If the truth be told, Echo had already had enough - enough of this cellar full of things only a demented alchemist would consider valuable or worth preserving. His arduous attempt to escape had left him weary, bemused and intimidated. All he wanted was to get into his basket and sleep the clock round, but he took care not to say so. He was happy for small mercies: at least Ghoolion showed no signs of wringing his neck. Echo couldn’t help remembering how he had laughed behind his paw at the Alchemaster not long ago. What a complete misjudgement on his part! Here in the cellar Ghoolion was showing his true colours. His mere presence and the courteous tone in which he’d been commenting on all his abominations - down here, that was quite enough to reduce Echo to a state of abject submission. So he trotted obediently after the Alchemaster, waited patiently for him to lock up his treasure chamber and followed at his heels as he penetrated still deeper into the maze of subterranean passages.

  They now came to a spacio
us chamber littered with junk: barrels that had split open, ramshackle furniture, ancient oil paintings in dusty gilt frames, crates of smashed crockery, mouldering ledgers, rusty tools and firewood so old it was almost fossilised. To Echo, the chamber’s most remarkable feature was the number of doors that led off it - dozens of them.

  ‘You’ll be wondering what lies behind all these doors,’ said Ghoolion, ‘but I’ve lost the urge to open every last one. Many are better left unopened, believe me. When I tried that one over there, an enormous insect attacked me. It disappeared into the darkness and may still be lurking somewhere down here. Many of the doors conceal tombstones, others curiosities - skeletons and ancient taxidermal specimens, for example. One room is lined with seashells, none of which I could identify. Some of the taxidermal specimens I took upstairs and restored. I also discovered my first stuffed Demonic Mummies down here. The libraries to be found beyond some of the doors are small but select. The foremost antiquaries in Bookholm would give their eye teeth to possess them.’

  To Echo’s relief, Ghoolion made no move to open any of doors. Instead, he strode straight across the big chamber and along another passage. ‘The attic of a house is said to be its memory and the cellar its digestive system,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘In the case of this building, their roles are reversed. These doors conceal the remnants of its sick and sinister past.’ He chuckled.

 

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