The alchemasters apprent.., p.15
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.15

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘That’s extremely interesting,’ said Echo. ‘I know so very little about this castle. Theodore told me a bit about it, but …’ He bit his tongue. Damnation! The name had just slipped out.

  ‘Theodore?’ Ghoolion said suspiciously. ‘Who’s he?’

  Echo racked his brains. ‘Oh, Theodore is … or rather, was … my mistress’s, er, manservant. Dead, I’m afraid. A terminal disease.’

  ‘I see …’ Ghoolion murmured. ‘This manservant, did he really know something of the history of my castle?’

  ‘Very little, as I said. Only old wives’ tales and ghost stories - the usual Malaisean gossip. You know the sort of thing.’

  ‘Yes, the townsfolk do a lot of talking, most of it nonsense. For instance, that this castle sprang from the ground overnight, like a mushroom. It was neither built by ghosts nor inhabited by dragons, and it isn’t a living creature. But I can’t tell you how it really came into being. The only certainty is that its builders knew quite a lot about constructing durable masonry. They were the first occupants. Very few traces of their presence have survived. Just a handful of primitive tools, some crude furniture and fragments of pottery. I don’t think they could write - there’s no documentary evidence of it, anyway. The next occupants were soldiers, probably mercenaries. Not very sensitive souls, that’s for sure. They stormed the building and killed all its occupants. Then they lived in the castle for several generations, together with their families, and used it as a base for wars, sieges and similar activities - anything mercenaries are hired to do. They brought back wagonloads of loot including works of art, weapons, jewellery, paintings, furniture and tableware. They also stacked their enemies’ heads down here to dry for use as skittles in summer and fuel in winter. Then, one day, they simply disappeared. They must have packed up all their belongings and gone off on a campaign which ended badly for them. Either that, or they drowned in some marsh or other.’

  There was a door at the end of the passage. Ghoolion opened it to reveal a flight of stone steps leading into the bowels of the earth. He set off down them with Echo following reluctantly at his heels. No longer built of masonry, the walls were hewn out of the living rock. The steps clearly led still deeper into the crag on which the castle was perched.

  ‘The building then stood empty for a long time and became a temporary abode for crawling, flying creatures,’ Ghoolion went on, ‘because no one with an ounce of common sense would have moved into a place belonging to a horde of brutal mercenaries who might return at any moment. Not until enough time had gone by to preclude that possibility was it occupied by vampiric nomads, who settled down here.’

  ‘Great!’ thought Echo. ‘Vampires on top of everything else!’ He wished he could shut his ears as well as his eyes, then he simply wouldn’t have listened to the rest of Ghoolion’s gruesome story.

  ‘Like Ugglyism, vampirism was one of the biggest scourges of the Zamonian Middle Ages. It was practised by a widespread sect devoted to the belief that drinking other people’s blood rendered you immortal. The Thunderthirsts, an extended family so called because its members only went hunting for blood during thunderstorms, took possession of the castle for hundreds of years and terrorised the surrounding area. When thunder pealed and rain drummed on roofs, their victims failed to hear them force doors and smash windows as they broke into farmhouses in order to go about their grisly business. Becoming more and more demented and murderous with every succeeding generation, they eventually took to killing each other and wiped themselves out completely.’

  Ghoolion had now reached the bottom of the steps. He set off along a dark passage flanked by low wooden doors with rusty locks.

  ‘These are the dungeons of the castle, he said, ‘its prison and cemetery combined. Almost every door conceals a skeleton. Many of the cells are so small, their inmates couldn’t stand, sit or lie down in them. Can you imagine being incarcerated like that, often for decades?’

  No, Echo couldn’t, nor did he want to. What was the point of this spine-chilling guided tour?

  ‘The castle then stood empty for a century,’ Ghoolion continued relentlessly as he strode along the passage, ‘because it was believed to be haunted by the ghosts of the vampire clan. When a storm was brewing the farmers still bolted their doors and waited, armed to the teeth, until the last peal of thunder had died away. The town of Malaisea did not grow up around this ancient pile until the Thunderthirsts had become a distant legend. But the building retained its evil reputation. Nobody wanted to live in it of his own free will, so the townsfolk used it as a prison and lunatic asylum for exceptionally dangerous criminals and incurables. Hopeless cases from all over Zamonia were sent here to be locked up in these cells.’

  By now, Echo was feeling ripe for a straitjacket himself. The flagstones beneath his paws were mossy and damp, and he kept treading in puddles. Occasionally, too, he startled some living creature, which flew off with a whirring sound or hissed as it wriggled away. The rows of subterranean cells seemed endless, even though Ghoolion strode briskly along as he continued his depressing recital.

  ‘What happened next was too crazy even for a lunatic asylum. Patients deemed to be incurable recovered their sanity overnight, whereas sane psychiatrists lost their reason. Notorious criminals considered to be mentally sound went suddenly mad and became more dangerous than ever. Guards and nurses unlocked the cells and fraternised with lunatics and murderers. Total chaos reigned. This was attributed to an unknown disease which cured the insane and drove the sane mad. Before long, it was difficult to tell the sane from the insane and criminals from their guards. Such nurses, doctors and guards as were still compos mentis ended by unlocking all the cells and running off, leaving the building and its inmates to themselves - with appalling consequences. Lunatics tried to cure the sane by unspeakable means. The building was ruled for years by a so-called King of the Crazies - I’ve read his autobiography, which he wrote with the severed hand of his favourite psychiatrist. It was he who had the glass removed from all the windows. This was to enable him to fly freely into outer space when commanded to do so by the inhabitants of Harpalyke, one of the moons of Jupiter. He remained firmly convinced of this until his death, which occurred the day he thought he’d heard the call and jumped out of a window. Instead of landing on Harpalyke, the King of the Crazies went splat on the cobblestones of Malaisea, where he left a stain that can still be seen to this day. It has gone down in the town’s annals as “the Harpalyke Stain”.’

  Echo was mentally and physically exhausted. His legs were almost buckling under him and his brain was scarcely capable of absorbing any more of this ghastly tale, but Ghoolion showed no sign of bringing his tour to an end.

  ‘The rest of the inmates gradually died off,’ he continued, ‘and the building stood empty for another two-and-a-half centuries, largely because people were afraid the mysterious mental illness might still be lurking there. It was temporarily occupied by a pack of werewolves, but only until they were smoked out by what was, by Malaisean standards, an exceptionally efficient mayor. The townsfolk decided to seal the building and abandon it. Since it evidently brought its occupants no luck, it could be left to fall into decay.’

  Ghoolion came to an abrupt halt. They were standing in front of an ancient, lichen-encrusted door that looked as if it might disintegrate at a touch.

  ‘And that was how this tough old pile came into my possession. The townsfolk thought I was crazy when I waived my salary in return for free accommodation on taking up my post as the municipal Alchemaster-in-Chief. They not only allowed me to live in the building rent free - they formally made it over to me. That took it off their hands, at least symbolically.’

  Ghoolion gave a hoarse laugh. He depressed the latch and pushed the door open with his bony shoulder.

  The Snow-White Widow

  ‘This door is never locked,’ Ghoolion said with a grin. ‘It isn’t necessary. If anyone broke in to steal what lies behind it, he’d soon regret it more that he’s ever regretted
anything in his life.’

  They entered the dark chamber together. Ghoolion raised his lantern and its multicoloured glow picked out something in the gloomy interior. In the middle of the chamber was an object resembling a small, conical tent made of red cloth. It was about two metres in diameter and a metre-and-a-half high.

  ‘What’s that?’ Echo asked apprehensively.

  ‘You’ve every reason to feel afraid,’ Ghoolion whispered. ‘Fear can be a very salutary emotion.’

  Echo had no intention of going near the thing, whatever it was.

  ‘If it’s so dangerous,’ he said plaintively, ‘perhaps we’d better go.’

  ‘What, turn back having come this far?’ said Ghoolion. ‘Without even looking to see what’s hidden beneath that cloth? You disappoint me, my young friend. Where’s your alchemistic spirit of adventure?’

  ‘My alchemistic spirit of adventure isn’t strongly enough developed for me to want to risk my life.’

  ‘We won’t be risking your life,’ Ghoolion said gravely. ‘What I want to show you is potentially dangerous in the extreme, but it’s a unique sight, I assure you. It’s so extraordinary, you’ll never forget it. The decision is yours, of course. If you’d sooner go, we’ll go.’

  Echo hesitated. The Alchemaster’s offer seemed quite genuine, but he was being nagged by curiosity. If he went away now, without looking under the cloth, the image of that red dome and the question of what lay beneath it would be bound to haunt his dreams.

  ‘All right,’ he said, ‘show me.’

  Ghoolion smiled. ‘There!’ he said. ‘That’s the spirit!’

  He raised the cloth to reveal a cloche of transparent glass. The exterior was reinforced with gold latticework, which made it look like an expensive birdcage. Copper valves were inserted in the metal mesh and brass tubes protruded from the cloche at various points. Echo could hear a sound like the subdued whistle of a boiling kettle. Seated inside the cloche was the most remarkable creature he had ever seen.

  ‘There she is!’ Ghoolion sighed. ‘The Snow-White Widow! Isn’t she beautiful?’

  ‘No!’ thought Echo, who had stiffened from his nose to the tip of his tail. ‘No, she isn’t!’ On the contrary, if he had been asked to pick the life form least deserving of the epithet ‘beautiful’, it would have been the one inside the cloche. This was not to say it was ugly, but Echo had never felt so frightened of any living creature.

  The most terrifying thing about the Snow-White Widow was not what could be seen of her, but what couldn’t. Completely enshrouded in snow-white hair, her body resembled an elaborate wig composed of long, silky strands. It was as if a severed head had risen on the tips of its hair and was preparing to frighten the executioner to death with a horrific ballet. The Snow-White Widow seemed to be moving under water or in the atmosphere of an alien planet governed by different natural laws. Individual strands of hair had detached themselves and were waving to and fro - sluggishly, as if they existed in another age.

  ‘Yes, she’s genuinely dangerous,’ Ghoolion said in an awestruck whisper. He cautiously adjusted some valves and the whistling sound died away. ‘Her venom is ten thousand times more potent than that of the most poisonous scorpion, and she can cover short distances quicker than lightning. She sings in the dark and her singing, once heard, can never be forgotten. Never!’

  The Snow-White Widow made a few darting movements under her cloche, faster than the eye could follow. It looked as if she had changed and regained her position by magic. Although Echo wanted to put as much distance as possible between himself and this horrific creature, he was incapable of moving a hair’s breadth. His muscles had seized up and his head was aching abominably.

  Ghoolion had now gone right up to the cloche. ‘If she stings you,’ he said, ‘or rather, if the tips of her hair perforate you a hundred times within the space of a second, you’re done for. There’s no antidote to her venom because she changes it daily. As for its effects on your body, they’re unique in the annals of toxicology. Death at the hands of the Snow-White Widow is the loveliest and most terrible, most pleasurable and painful death of all. Your body deploys vast quantities of hormones to counteract the pain, sending you into an ecstasy of delight, a paroxysm of pain, the like of which no living creature should be compelled to endure. Your hair turns as snow-white as hers, and when your heart has finally torn itself to shreds in agony, your body disintegrates into a mound of white powder.’

  The Snow-White Widow’s movements now became as ethereal and undulating as those of a jellyfish swimming in the depths of the sea. She sent her strands of hair snaking in all directions, froze them in mid-air for one fascinating moment and then, with provocative sluggishness, allowed them to sink once more. Echo found her dance so fascinating that he couldn’t tear his eyes away.

  ‘It’s said that the Snow-White Widow comes from the planet on which Death itself resides,’ Ghoolion whispered, ‘and that Death created her in order to discover what it was like to be afraid of something. That’s nonsense, of course. Death resides in all of us, nowhere else. One thing is certain, though: she’s the Queen of Fear.’

  Echo almost disputed this. He was frightened, naturally, but he felt an increasing urge to go up to the cloche for a better look. He had never been so simultaneously entranced and repelled by any creature.

  Advancing very cautiously, step by step, he stole towards the cloche like a cat stalking a bird.

  The Snow-White Widow performed a little, almost coquettish, leap as if to attract his attention still further. For a moment she hovered above the floor of her cage, rotating on the spot as gracefully as a dying waterlily, then sank to the bottom.

  ‘The Snow-White Widow has been known to reveal her true face to some people,’ said Ghoolion, ‘but they were never the same afterwards. Many of them spent the rest of their lives sitting in a corner, babbling insanely to themselves, and they started screaming whenever they were approached by something with hair on it.’

  ‘She really is beautiful,’ Echo whispered. He was now standing so close to the cloche that his nose was almost touching the glass. His fear had almost left him. ‘Her movements are like - ’

  All at once the Snow-White Widow’s hair gave a sudden jerk. Two strands parted like theatre curtains being peered through by an actor sneaking a look at the audience. They revealed an oval shape with a glaring eye in its midst. Echo knew it was an eye although it had neither iris nor pupil. He sensed that he was being stared at - that some malign creature was lurking behind all that hair and scrutinising him closely. Its ice-cold gaze was an unmistakable indication that, were it not for the intervening glass wall, he would be dead beyond a doubt.

  Echo gave a terrified start, snarled ferociously, fluffed out his tail - and leapt straight into Ghoolion’s arms. The Alchemaster caught the little Crat as deftly as if he’d been expecting this and buried him in the voluminous sleeves of his cloak.

  ‘She looked at you,’ Echo heard him say. He never wanted to leave this protective darkness again. ‘I’ve never been granted that privilege. She must have taken a genuine fancy to you. It was true love at first sight.’

  Ugglyology

  Echo couldn’t remember getting into his basket when he awoke the next morning. He must have fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion in the Alchemaster’s arms; and no wonder, after so many gruelling incidents. Although he had slept for many hours he felt completely shattered and was aching in every limb.

  Ghoolion had made him a lavish breakfast - a bowl of cocoa, a plate of scrambled eggs with crispy bacon, three croissants and honey - and deposited it right beside his basket. Echo tucked in at once, finished off every last morsel, then went up to the roof to discuss the previous night’s events with Theodore T. Theodore.

  The Alchemaster was pottering around in the laboratory, wholly absorbed in his work. He paid as little attention to Echo as did the squeaking, snoring Leathermice, who were digesting their latest feast of blood in the Leathermousoleum when he passed thro
ugh. After all his unnerving experiences, Echo relished the fresh air and the view from the roof. He made for the clump of Cratmint and sniffed it until its therapeutic, euphoric properties took effect. Then he climbed to the foot of Theodore’s chimney.

  ‘I told you he has his ways and means,’ Theodore reminded Echo after learning of his abortive attempt to escape and his encounter with the Snow-White Widow.

  ‘But how did he do it?’ Echo demanded. ‘I mean, he’s not a magician or anything, but I felt bewitched. I hurried back to the castle as if he were reeling me in like a fish. It was like sleepwalking while awake.’

  ‘I don’t know how he did it either, but his technique boviously works. He has his ways and means, that’s all.’

  ‘What do I do now, though? I was almost clear of the town, so he knows I meant to run away. Perhaps he’ll kill me even sooner to prevent me from having another try. He looked straight through me in the laboratory just now.’

  ‘Yes, it’s true, your bond of trutual must has been severed, so to speak.’

  ‘I’m at my wits’ end, honestly. All I can do is wait until my time is up.’

  Theodore stared at Echo for so long that the little Crat began to feel uncomfortable.

  ‘Listen, my young friend,’ he said finally. ‘I’ve been giving your broplem a lot of thought.’

  ‘Really? Have you come to any conclusion?’

  ‘Yes. I’m going to have to tell you bit about the Ugglies.’

  Echo made a dismissive gesture with his paw. ‘I’ve no wish to know anything about the Ugglies. I’ve always steered clear of them.’

  ‘And why have you cleared steer of them?’

  ‘Well … Because they smell nasty.’

  ‘That’s one reason, to be sure. The smell of an Uggly takes some getting used to. Any other reason?’

  ‘They’re also supposed to bring people bad luck.’

  ‘Do you believe that?’

 
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