The alchemasters apprent.., p.22
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.22

           Walter Moers
 

  This bred a reassuring sensation that they’d worshipped Gnorkx enough for the time being. Absolute silence fell. A Demonic Bee somewhat bigger than the rest ascended a low mound in the middle of the chamber.

  ‘This must be our leader,’ thought Echo. At all events, he felt bound to obey the insect implicitly. Indeed, he would have been prepared to carry out every one of its orders to the letter.

  The big bee broke into a solo dance. It turned in a circle and fluttered its wings, waggled its antennae and shook its head. This meant:

  ‘Gnorkx is great! Gnorkx is immortal! Because we serve him, we too are immortal. We shall be so even when we die, and will dwell on the sun with Gnorkx the Great for evermore!’

  To Echo, this seemed absolutely logical. The leader’s words were carved in stone and incontrovertible. It would never have occurred to him to doubt them. He felt an overwhelming desire to endorse them.

  ‘Gnorkx is great!’ danced the throng of bees and he joined in.

  The bee-in-chief crossed its antennae, fluttered its wings twice and nodded its head. This meant:

  ‘Today is a very special day!’

  ‘This is terrific,’ thought Echo. ‘I’m not only getting to know the life of the Demonic Bees at first hand, I’ve hit on a very special day as well. Perhaps they’re holding a celebration, or something of the kind.’

  ‘Gnorkx is great,’ the leader danced. ‘His name is sacred, so all who deny Gnorkx must be exterminated.’

  ‘Hear, hear,’ thought Echo. ‘All who deny Gnorkx must be exterminated, that goes without saying.’

  ‘We are merciless and pitiless,’ danced the leader. ‘We ruthlessly annihilate all who dare to oppose Gnorkx the Great.’

  ‘Yes, sir!’ thought Echo. When Gnorkx’s interests were at stake, mercy and pity were out. Someone had said it at last. This bee had taken the words out of his mouth.

  ‘And that’, the leader danced, ‘is why we must die this very day!’

  ‘Eh?’ thought Echo.

  ‘The everlasting war against the Elfinwasps requires us to make the ultimate sacrifice, and we shall give up our earthly life willingly for the privilege of dwelling on the sun with Gnorkx the Great for evermore.’

  ‘Hang on a minute,’ thought Echo, ‘I’ve got no quarrel with the Elfinwasps.’ Besides, he was averse to dying. Surviving for as long as possible was much more to his taste. And what was the point of a war that lasted indefinitely? Anyway, what was all this nonsense about the sun? Nobody could live on the sun, they’d get burnt to a crisp. His Crat’s common sense reasserted itself.

  ‘The Elfinwasps fly away from the sun, not towards it. That means they deny Gnorkx’s existence!’

  ‘They probably fly away from the sun because it dazzles them,’ thought Echo. ‘Sensible creatures!’

  ‘We possess a powerful weapon: our stings. But we can use them only once because we die thereafter. Stinging entails dying!’

  ‘Stinging entails dying!’ danced the bees. That seemed logical, so Echo joined in.

  ‘But Gnorkx is great, and that is why he summons us to him when we die, to dwell on the sun with him for evermore. Stinging entails dying, but dying entails eternal life!’

  ‘Stinging entails dying, but dying entails eternal life!’ danced the bees.

  ‘Nonsense,’ thought Echo. ‘Dying entails dying.’ He was the only bee to have stayed put.

  All at once, absolute silence fell. Not a single Demonic Bee dared to move - apart from Echo, who realised that his situation had become awkward. Nervously, he took a step sideways and waggled his antennae. Not that he knew it, this was the beginning of an inadvertent remark in the Demonic Bee idiom:

  ‘Gnorkx is …’

  Still no one moved. He took a step backwards. This meant:

  ‘not …’

  He turned on the spot to see what the other bees were doing. This meant:

  ‘great.’

  All the bees waggled their antennae in extreme agitation. Their leader drew himself up to his full height. Echo had just danced an outrageous statement. No inhabitant of the Demonic Beehive would have dared to make such an assertion, namely:

  ‘Gnorkx is not great.’

  The next dance routine the leader performed was quite complicated. He fluttered his wings, turned on the spot four times, rubbed his antennae together and shook his head repeatedly. This meant:

  ‘I fear we have a heretic in our midst. Those who are anti-Gnorkx are pro-Elfinwasp. As Gnorkx’s champions in the everlasting war, what do we do with those who deny him and side with the Elfinwasps?’

  ‘We sacrifice them to Gnorkx!’ the colony replied.

  Echo didn’t join in. ‘It’s high time I made myself scarce,’ he thought. ‘Let’s see what I can do with these things on my back.’

  He fluttered his wings, rose into the air and went zooming off. The serried ranks of the Demonic Bee army didn’t dare move until ordered to do so by their leader.

  ‘I’m managing pretty well already,’ thought Echo. ‘Maybe my experiences as a Leathermouse are paying off.’ And he flew down a narrow tunnel leading off the big chamber in the centre of the hive.

  The leader went into another dance routine meaning ‘Kill him as painfully as possible!’. Even before he could add another ‘Gnorkx is great!’ the entire colony rose into the air and set off in pursuit.

  ‘Buzzing along like this isn’t as nice as flying like a Leathermouse,’ Echo couldn’t help thinking, despite his panic. ‘There’s something mechanical about it.’

  Just wide enough for two bees to pass one another, the narrow tunnel he was flying along soon ended in a fork. He wondered which way to go, but how did you get your bearings in a Demonic Beehive? He opted for the passage that was more brightly illuminated. Of course, that was how Demonic Bees got their bearings: they made for the sun. For Gnorkx.

  The chorus of humming behind him grew louder, which meant that his pursuers were gaining on him. He tried to put on speed but found he couldn’t fly any faster. He was a bee, not a Leathermouse. Bees flew at a walking pace. The next turning took him along an even brighter tunnel. He could already see sunlight streaming in at the far end - he would soon be out of the hive.

  Something would occur to him once he was outside, he thought. There were bound to be places he could hide. Then he would lie low until this confounded trip was over. If only he didn’t feel so tired! His pursuers’ angry buzzing was growing ever louder.

  Echo flew out into the open. Dazzled by the sunlight, he was suddenly overwhelmed by the immensity of the world outside. He was flying over a verdant Zamonian meadow with flowers shedding their pollen all around him. There was life and colour on every side. Rabbits were lolloping across the grass, butterflies sipping nectar, midges darting through the air. Echo looked back. Demonic Bees were pouring out of the hive in droves. He looked ahead again - and saw a gigantic bird swooping down on him.

  No, the bird wasn’t gigantic, it only seemed so to a tiny insect his size. It was a relatively small bird: a Cyclopean Tuwituwu, in fact. To be more precise, it was Theodore T. Theodore, Echo recognised him by the pale dot over his single eye. The Tuwituwu opened its beak and headed straight for him. It was out hunting.

  Echo could neither advance nor retreat. His mind was in a whirl. Was this a form of retribution? Was he to be eaten by Theodore because he’d eaten him? No, that made no sense. How could the Tuwituwu be here if he’d eaten him?

  ‘Echo?’ someone called. ‘Echo?’ It was the Alchemaster’s voice.

  With his own name ringing in his ears, Echo disappeared into Theodore’s open beak. Everything went light and dark, light and dark by turns. Then he bade farewell to his existence as a Demonic Bee.

  The Banquet

  Echo opened his eyes to find himself looking into the Alchemaster’s face. Crouching down beside his basket, Ghoolion was just replacing a big hypodermic syringe in his cloak.

  ‘Now you know what collective insanity feels like,’ he said. ‘Tha
t’s another experience granted to very few.’

  Echo rubbed his eyes and yawned.

  ‘I brought you back from your trip before time because I was worried about you,’ Ghoolion went on. ‘You were groaning and moaning and kicking like a mad thing.’

  ‘I was a bee,’ Echo said reproachfully. ‘A Demonic Bee.’

  ‘Yes,’ said Ghoolion, ‘it was essential, I’m afraid. That’s why I put an undeactivated bee in the honey and diluted your milk with Blue Tea. It must have been a fantastic metamorphosis.’

  ‘It certainly was,’ Echo said grumpily. ‘But why was it essential?’

  ‘For the same reason I turned you into a Leathermouse,’ the Alchemaster replied, as if both transmutations were a matter of course.

  ‘There was a reason?’ Echo asked, struggling into a sitting position. ‘What was it?’

  ‘Well, I still don’t have any Leathermouse or Demonic Bee fat in my collection, and I can’t get hold of any in the time available. It’s quite impossible.’

  ‘Why? You’ve got a whole loft full of Leathermice and dozens of Demonic Bees in your honey.’

  ‘In order to extract a creature’s essential fat, I have to render it down within a minute of its death. Cadavers become useless shortly afterwards. Whenever I come across the corpse of a Leathermouse, it’s generally been dead for hours, sometimes days. The most I can do is make it into black pudding. And you know why I don’t lay hands on the live vampires in my loft.’

  Echo climbed out of his basket,

  ‘As for Demonic Bees, catching them alive is a difficult and extremely hazardous business,’ Ghoolion went on. ‘Only the beekeepers of Honey Valley have mastered the technique. Unfortunately, dead bees preserved in honey are quite useless for alchemical purposes.’

  ‘But what’s that to do with my transformations?’ Echo asked.

  Ghoolion smiled. ‘If I can’t obtain the unadulterated fat of those life forms,’ he said, ‘I can at least preserve their fundamental characteristics: the dogged tenacity of the Leathermouse, the insane fanaticism of the Demonic Bee. That’s where you come in. You’ve experienced them both. They’re both in here!’ He tapped Echo’s little head with a long fingernail. ‘I need only extract them.’

  ‘You’re really fond of doing deals with animals, especially if they cost you nothing,’ Echo grumbled. He proceeded with his morning wash. It was nice to be a Crat again. To hell with Gnorkx!

  ‘Oh, come,’ said Ghoolion, ‘it must have been interesting, surely? Do the bees really communicate by dancing?’

  ‘Yes. But I was nearly devoured by Th - er, by a bird.’

  Ghoolion grinned. ‘It’s impossible to die during a metamorphosis. Do you really think I’d risk your precious life?’

  ‘Nice to know that after the event,’ Echo said sulkily.

  ‘I told you once before: too much information can spoil or even eliminate the hypnotic effect. It must come as a surprise, without any preparation. Anyway, how are you feeling now? I gave you an alchemical injection that curtailed your trip. It also neutralised the other after-effects of the bee venom.’

  ‘I’ve felt better,’ said Echo. ‘Still, I’m not as bad as I was after my Leathermouse trip.’

  ‘There are various ways of ending such a trip,’ Ghoolion said. ‘The commonest is a post-hypnotic command to terminate it if danger threatens; then you either lose consciousness or return to your real body. In this case I summoned you back by alchemical means. You’ve now experienced all three methods.’

  ‘What I still don’t know’, said Echo, ‘is whether I’m really experiencing these things or only dreaming.’

  ‘Why not ask yourself whether your other dreams are real? You go on trips and undergo the strangest experiences every night. How do you know they only take place in your mind?’

  Echo shook his head, which was buzzing with the after-effects of his trip and the Alchemaster’s bewildering remarks.

  ‘Anyway,’ he said, ‘I’ve had enough. I won’t eat another morsel unless you promise not to dish up any more metamorphotic meals. I prefer being a Crat.’

  ‘I promise,’ Ghoolion told him. ‘I already have what I need. It’s in there.’ He gave Echo’s skull another tap. Echo indignantly shook his finger off.

  Ghoolion straightened up, looking serious. ‘Right,’ he said, ‘now for something else. That story you told me yesterday evening …’ He hesitated.

  Echo pricked up his ears. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘what about it?’

  ‘It shocked me at first - quite why, you’ll learn in due course. But then, after thinking about it the whole night long, I recovered my mental equilibrium. I’d like to thank you for opening my eyes. More than that, you saved me from the clutches of insanity.’

  ‘I did?’ Echo looked astonished.

  ‘Yes indeed, and I’ll prove it to you. But first I’ll tell you my own version of the story, then you’ll understand everything better. Come with me, I must show you a part of the castle you haven’t been to yet.’

  Echo followed Ghoolion with reluctance. They’d gone down to the cellars the last time the Alchemaster had made such an invitation.

  Ghoolion hurried on ahead, iron soles clattering, and it was all Echo’s aching legs could do to keep up with him. They descended a short flight of stairs and made their way along a passage Echo had never entered because it smelt so odd.

  ‘You may be surprised to hear that I already knew the story,’ Ghoolion said. ‘It’s a strange coincidence.’

  ‘How do you mean?’ asked Echo.

  ‘I knew the young man you told me about. He was an alchemy student and a good friend of mine. We attended Grailsund University together. That’s why the story affected me so much.’

  ‘I wasn’t to know,’ Echo said.

  ‘He was one of the most popular students in our year and a very talented alchemist, even as a youth. If he had set out to turn lead into gold, he’d probably have succeeded.’ Ghoolion laughed. ‘I was immensely proud of being his friend,’ he went on. ‘As I already said, if you want to imagine the diametrical opposite of his good looks, quick wit and natural charm, you need only picture me at that age: ugly, awkward and unsociable.’

  Echo could picture him only too well, but he took care not to say so out loud.

  ‘I clung to him like a limpet. I aped his mannerisms, wore the same clothes, studied the same subjects, cultivated his scientific and cultural interests. I became him, so to speak.’

  They were now descending a spiral staircase. Echo was afraid it led down to the cellars, but they came out in another wing of the castle. The odd smell was stronger here, and he found it more and more disagreeable. The few windows, which were high but very narrow, admitted only a modicum of daylight and fresh air.

  ‘After his finals he went off to Ingotville,’ Ghoolion went on, ‘to experiment with metals there. I stayed on in Grailsund for financial reasons, but we kept in touch and corresponded regularly. He sent me detailed reports of his experiments. I tried to reproduce them on a modest scale - unsuccessfully, of course, but I was happy to go on sharing in his work. One day he wrote that he had seen the loveliest girl in the world. She was the daughter of a powerful lead tycoon, so he could only worship her from afar. He said he had amassed a certain amount of money, thanks to his successful experiments, but the plutocrats of Ingotville were a caste of their own. Then, after a year’s secret adoration, he sent me a letter brimming with optimism. It spoke of a contest whose winner would gain the beautiful girl’s hand in marriage. My friend intended to take part and stake all his savings on the outcome. I urged him to go ahead. The rest of the story you know. His last letter informed me that he proposed to join a mercenary army and go campaigning in the Gloomberg Mountains. I wrote back imploring him to reconsider his decision. I learnt of his death not long afterwards.’

  Ghoolion had uttered the last few sentences in an uncharacteristically low, hesitant voice. The smell was now so offensive that Echo almost gagged. Had he walled up th
e corpses of his animal victims here, or was he hiding something still worse?

  The Alchemaster came to a sudden halt. He turned and looked at Echo.

  ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I’ll tell you the whole truth. I’ve been lying in one important respect, I must confess.’

  Echo had absolutely no wish to hear the truth, nor did he want to follow Ghoolion any further. The Snow-White Widow had been waiting for them at the end of their last excursion. Whatever it was that was giving off this stench, it had to be something frightful.

  ‘The fact is, there isn’t any “friend” in this story. I was wrong when I said I became him. I was him and have always been so. I am the young man who wooed your late mistress.’

  Echo stared at the Alchemaster. He was dumbfounded.

  ‘But that’s impossible,’ he said. ‘He’s dead.’

  ‘So was I, to all intents and purposes,’ Ghoolion said gravely. He turned and walked on. ‘Let me take up the story at the point where I brought my beloved the money. I was already dead inside, but my outer shell had still to meet its end. I was a handsome youth, though I say it myself, but in reality I was just a dead man walking. Having promised my beloved to visit her soon, I went straight to the recruiting office and joined up. We marched off to battle in the Gloomberg Mountains the very next day. I’ll spare you the gory details. Suffice it to say, at the end of the battle I found myself lying on top of a mound of dead soldiers, some of whom I’d butchered myself. I’d been wounded scores of times with sword and axe, but I was still alive. An old alchemist who happened to have got mixed up in the fighting found me, gave me first aid and conveyed me back to his laboratory. Since he also had some knowledge of surgery, he patched me up in a makeshift fashion - makeshift being the operative word.’

  Ghoolion laughed bitterly.

  ‘The first time I looked in a mirror, I realised I’d become a different person. No one would have recognised me. But my outward appearance was not all that had changed. My once handsome face had become this hideous mask and my scalp was bereft of its golden locks, but my heart had become this cold mechanism that ticks away inside me and my carefree disposition had given way to the restlessness that dominates me today.’

 

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