The alchemasters apprent.., p.33
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.33

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘How nice,’ said Echo.

  ‘Breakfast with the two individuals I care about most,’ Ghoolion purred as he refilled the Uggly’s cup. ‘You wouldn’t believe how much this means to me.’

  ‘Too true,’ thought Echo. ‘I wouldn’t.’

  Ghoolion laid the coffee pot aside and drew himself up to his full height.

  ‘This is a special day from many points of view,’ he said. ‘Let’s start it off in a worthy manner. How would you like me to show you both the best-kept secret in this ancient building?’

  The Treasure Chamber

  Echo kept wondering what secret he could mean. The Snow-White Widow? The fat cellar? But they didn’t go down to the cellar, they climbed the stairs to an upper floor.

  ‘Before a man of honour marries his beloved,’ said Ghoolion, ‘he discloses his financial circumstances.’ He was going on ahead as usual, leading Echo by his chain with Izanuela following obediently behind. ‘Well, in my case that’s quickly done. I’m merely the municipal Alchemaster of a small and impoverished town. I don’t even receive a salary and my meagre inheritance was soon used up. True, I own the biggest property in Malaisea, but who would care to live here apart from me and the Leathermice?’

  ‘I would!’ Izanuela said softly.

  Echo suppressed a sigh.

  Ghoolion smiled. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you would, and for that I’ll be eternally grateful to you. But who else? The castle may look impressive from a distance, but any potential purchaser who inspected it more closely would run off screaming, especially if he learned of the building’s gruesome history. Fundamentally, therefore, I’m just a poor devil living in a dilapidated ruin. Right?’

  ‘What if you are?’ said Izanuela. ‘Money isn’t everything.’

  They came to a halt in a room Echo had already visited dozens of times before. It contained nothing special, just some dusty pieces of furniture.

  Ghoolion went over to a bare wall of blackened brick and paused in front of it. For a few moments he seemed to be collecting his thoughts or trying to remember something. Then he proceeded to press various bricks like an organist manipulating the stops of his instrument.

  ‘He’s crazy,’ thought Echo. ‘Even Izanuela should be starting to realise that by now.’

  Ghoolion stepped back. There was a sound like an enormous clock beginning to tick. Clickety-clack it went. Metal springs contracted and expanded with a whirring noise. The bricks in the wall started to move in and out and behind one another, grating together as they rearranged themselves to form a steadily widening aperture of triangular shape.

  ‘An ancient mechanism left behind by the Rusty Gnomes,’ Ghoolion explained. ‘It still works, but I don’t know how.’

  So he knew of the existence of the dwarfish race whose skeletons Echo had discovered in the building. Echo made no comment because he was far too fascinated by what was happening now. Light was issuing from the aperture. Only a little at first, but the bigger it got the brighter the light became.

  ‘What’s that?’ Izanuela enquired nervously.

  ‘It’s the entrance to my treasure chamber, my blossom,’ Ghoolion replied. ‘Or should I say, to our treasure chamber? Your assumption that you were being wooed by a poverty-stricken wretch wasn’t entirely correct, so the fact that you accepted my proposal notwithstanding does you twice as much credit. It has intensified my love for you to an immeasurable extent! I should now like to acquaint you with my true financial circumstances. Kindly follow me, my dears, and feast your eyes on a thing of beauty: the greatest treasure in Malaisea!’

  He ducked through the opening, which had now attained the dimensions of a doorway, gently pulling Echo after him. Izanuela hesitantly followed. They were suddenly bathed in a golden glow that seemed to come from all directions at once. The chamber was as spacious and high-ceilinged as several others in the castle, but this one was unique. It consisted entirely of gold. A gold floor. Walls papered with gold leaf. A gold ceiling composed of massive gold panels. A huge, thick carpet woven out of gold thread. A candelabrum of gold with gold candles. A gold fireplace with gold coals in a gold grate. Gold pictures in gold frames on the walls. A gold library comprising thousands of gold books. Cupboards, armchairs, upright chairs and a long refectory table, all of gold. A gold pipe in a gold ashtray. Even the knocked-out ash and the charred match were of gold. Beside them were a half-eaten apple and an open book with a pair of glasses lying on top of it. They, too, were of solid gold.

  Echo and Izanuela were dazzled by all this splendour, and even Ghoolion shaded his eyes with his hand. The chamber was invested with its magical refulgence by the dozens of Anguish Candles that were creeping or standing around on tables, shelves and cabinets.

  ‘Isn’t gold the loveliest of all the elements?’ Ghoolion asked without waiting for an answer. ‘Not the rarest, nor the most useful, nor the most effective, but the loveliest.’

  Echo tried to tread on the carpet, but the pile pricked his paws like needles. He swiftly removed them.

  ‘You gilded the whole room?’ said Izanuela. ‘Why?’

  Ghoolion smiled. ‘I didn’t gild it. Everything here is made of solid gold. The table, the shelves, the books, every stone in the walls. Go and touch it.’

  Izanuela went over to the table and picked up the apple. It was quite an effort.

  ‘My, that’s heavy!’ she gasped. ‘You’re right, it’s solid gold!’

  Ghoolion walked across the chamber with his arms outstretched. ‘Yes indeed!’ he exclaimed. ‘Tons and tons of it. More than a hundred men could carry.’

  ‘Was it always here?’ Echo asked. ‘Did you discover this chamber?’

  ‘The chamber and its secret mechanism, yes. I found an old parchment in the cellar and managed to decipher it. It bore the formula required to open the door, the language of the stones. But the walls and furniture, floor and ceiling, carpet and books - they were still composed of the materials such things are usually made of. Stone, wood, iron, wool, leather, paper.’

  ‘I don’t understand,’ said Izanuela. She was admiring her own reflection in a pot-bellied gold vase. ‘How did all these things turn into gold?’

  ‘Echo,’ Ghoolion commanded, ‘quote me alchemy’s four supreme objectives.’

  Echo didn’t have to think for long. ‘To find the Philosopher’s Stone. To construct a perpetual-motion machine. To attain immortality. To transform lead into gold.’

  Ghoolion nodded proudly as the last words were uttered.

  ‘Can you really transform lead into gold?’ asked Izanuela.

  ‘Not only that!’ Ghoolion said triumphantly. ‘I can transform almost anything into gold. Any relatively solid substance. Any metals, of course, apart from quicksilver. Wood, too. Stone. Dust. Wax, as long as it’s firm. Lead too, naturally.’

  ‘You told me once it was impossible,’ said Echo.

  ‘I had to keep it a secret, of course. You have a nimble tongue, my friend, not to mention a command of every language in existence. Imagine what would happen if it became known that I can manufacture gold - any amount of it! This castle would be under siege! Every mercenary in Zamonia would be at the gates. Every criminal would be after me, hoping to torture me into revealing the secret. Every royal megalomaniac would send his myrmidons to get me.’

  Ghoolion gave a mirthless laugh.

  ‘That’s why I confined my gold-making activities to this secret chamber. At first I transmuted small objects into gold: a book, a plate, a stone in the wall. Then bigger and bigger articles - chairs, benches, tables - until everything in here was solid gold. I still bring things here and transmute them from time to time, but it became boring in the long run.’ ‘Why are you telling us all this now?’ Echo asked.

  Ghoolion smiled. ‘Where my future wife is concerned, I consider it my duty.’ He gave the chain a gentle tug. ‘As for you, my dearest Echo, you’re past being able to betray my secret. You’ll soon be taking it to the grave with you.’

  ‘Many thanks
for reminding me,’ thought Echo. The sight of all this splendour had almost made him forget how quickly time was speeding by.

  ‘I only came upon the formula by chance,’ Ghoolion went on. ‘It probably won’t surprise you, Echo, to learn that I discovered the solution to one of alchemy’s greatest secrets in the smallest of objects: a dried leaf from the Miniforest, it was the size of a grain of dust. I had only to interchange a few molecules, but one has to know which ones. Moreover, interchanging molecules is an art in itself.’

  ‘So you’re a very wealthy man, Master,’ said Echo. ‘You never cease to surprise me.’

  ‘I have acquired a certain degree of financial independence, it’s true.’ Ghoolion smirked. ‘But take it from me, the two of you: all this gold means nothing to me in comparison with what I hope to achieve tonight. If I could exchange it all, together with my gold-making formula, for the certainty that I shall be successful, I would do so on the spot. For what is wealth compared to immortality? What good is all this loot if I’m doomed to die? And that brings me to the reason for your presence here, Echo.’

  ‘What do you mean?’ asked Echo.

  ‘I’ve filled your little head with all my alchemistic knowledge, but I’ve left this last piece of information, the formula for making gold, until last. Your brain must, of course, have absorbed it by the time I render you down.’

  Ghoolion produced a sheet of parchment from his cloak and held it under Echo’s nose. It was covered with alchemistic symbols.

  ‘Would you be kind enough to memorise this?’ he asked.

  ‘Hm …’ said Echo, scanning the document. It dealt with cohesive and adhesive forces, chlorophyll atoms, graveyard gas, lime, Leathermouse blood, fivefold distillation processes.

  He didn’t understand the first thing about the formula he was memorising, but by the time he’d finished he knew how to make gold.

  ‘All done,’ he said. His head was buzzing.

  Ghoolion took the parchment and tore it into tiny little pieces.

  ‘He must feel pretty sure I’m going to die if he entrusts me with such a secret and then destroys the formula,’ Echo reflected.

  The moment had come at last.

  Echo cleared his throat. ‘But now, Master, I’ve got a request for you.’

  Ghoolion stiffened. ‘What is it?’ he demanded sternly.

  ‘I’d like to visit the mother of all roofs again. For the very last time.’

  ‘Oh,’ said Ghoolion, relaxing, ‘if that’s all it is, of course you may.’ He turned to Izanuela. ‘I meant to show you the view from up there in any case, my blossom. It’s absolutely breathtaking.’

  True Love

  The three of them climbed the stairs to the Leathermousoleum. The vampires were fast asleep at this time of day, so they were accompanied on their way by the sound of a thousand snores. The stench was so appalling they couldn’t get out on to the roof fast enough.

  Once outside, Izanuela froze just as she had the first time. She clutched her bosom.

  ‘Isn’t this wonderful?’ said Ghoolion. ‘You can see all the way to the Blue Mountains. You’d think they were close enough to touch.’

  ‘Yes, it’s wonderful,’ Izanuela gasped. She swayed, her false eyelashes quivering.

  The view was as impressive as ever, but this time it left Echo cold. With so much at stake, how could he be expected to enjoy it?

  ‘It isn’t until one has climbed through that stuffy Leathermousoleum that the view exerts its full effect,’ said Ghoolion. ‘The best things in life are free. I feel a different person every time I come up here. Lately, alas, I’ve scarcely had time to do so.’

  ‘It’s, er … glorious.’ Izanuela croaked the words, digging her fingers into her floral gown.

  ‘She must get over her fear before she asks him,’ thought Echo. ‘She must put her request in a self-assured tone of voice, not with a dry throat.’

  Ghoolion drew several deep breaths, then pointed downwards. ‘You see Malaisea?’ he said to Izanuela. ‘The town makes such a tranquil, benevolent impression from up here, yet every house is occupied by people who hate me.’

  He laughed.

  ‘And why do they hate me? Because they’re afraid of me. I have to put the fear of God into them in order to control them, otherwise they’d march up the hill and tear me to pieces. It’s an endless vicious circle. If you only knew how tired of it I am. How weary it makes me.’

  The Alchemaster was clearly in a philosophical mood, just as Echo had hoped. But they must keep their nerve and take care not to rush things. The Uggly must calm down first. They must wait for the ideal moment.

  ‘May I take a last look at the lake of milk?’ Echo asked diffidently.

  Ghoolion looked down at him.

  ‘You liked that, didn’t you?’ He grinned. ‘I thought you might like to visit it again, so I refilled it with fresh milk.’ He turned to Izanuela. ‘Would you care to accompany us, my blossom? It’s a bit of a climb.’

  ‘No thanks,’ she said hastily. ‘I’d sooner stay here and, er, enjoy the view.’

  ‘Let’s go, then.’ Ghoolion relaxed his grip on the chain and allowed Echo to precede him up the steps. The wind had got up and it was growing warmer, just as he had predicted.

  ‘You may not believe me,’ he said, ‘but I shall miss your company. Your presence has a beneficial effect on me. I’m reluctant to dispense with it.’

  ‘Very flattering,’ said Echo. ‘You could always change your mind, of course.’

  ‘If only it were that simple,’ Ghoolion sighed. ‘The die is cast, I’m afraid. Tonight’s the night!’

  ‘Are you really sure it’ll work? The experiment, I mean?’

  ‘One can never be absolutely sure. Every venture contains the seeds of failure. Any experiment can go wrong.’

  Echo recalled Izanuela’s moment of weakness on the stairs. She had said something very persuasive.

  ‘Well,’ he said, ‘sometimes it can be better to abandon a venture than come to grief. Better not to climb a mountain than fall to your death. Better not to cross a desert than die of thirst. You can still tell yourself you might have succeeded.’

  ‘That’s an overly convenient attitude to doing one’s duty.’ Ghoolion laughed. ‘It isn’t mine. I’d reproach myself for ever if I didn’t try it. No, you can’t change my mind. Not you, my young friend!’

  ‘Not me,’ thought Echo, ‘but maybe someone else can.’

  They had reached the lake of milk. This time Echo had no eyes for the idyllic beauty of the spot, still less any appetite, but he pretended to drink greedily. He even fished out a crispy roast quail and nibbled it. He had to gain sufficient time for Izanuela to regain her composure.

  ‘I almost degenerated into a vampire myself,’ said Ghoolion, leading Echo around on his chain, ‘but I eventually realised that day existed as well as night. I want to make it up to Floria. It would really mean a lot to me if you gave us your blessing.’

  ‘What a nerve!’ Echo thought. ‘He intends to do me in, but he wants my blessing first.’ But he played along with the Alchemaster’s cruel game and said, ‘You can have it.’

  ‘Thank you,’ said Ghoolion. ‘That means a lot to me. In another world I’m sure we would have been good friends.’

  Echo nodded. ‘Yes, in another world.’

  The sun was now beating down and hot gusts of wind were ruffling the grass. Conditions on the roof were becoming steadily less pleasant.

  ‘Well,’ said Ghoolion, tugging at Echo’s chain, ‘time’s up. We must go back inside now. Duty calls.’

  When they made their way back to Izanuela, Echo could tell from afar that a change had come over her.

  Gone were her darting glances and nervous movements. But there was something else. The overpowering scent of Cratmint was stronger than ever before. She had positioned herself so that the wind carried it to Ghoolion’s nostrils when he and Echo were still halfway down the steps.

  ‘At last,’ thought Echo. ‘She
s recovered her wits.’

  ‘One!’ said the Uggly, just as they reached her.

  ‘One on a scale of one to ten,’ Echo amplified in his head. ‘Good, she’s conquered her fear.’

  ‘What was that?’ Ghoolion asked.

  ‘Er, one …’ Izanuela stammered. ‘One, er, can only describe the view from up here as unique - genuinely uplifting. It’s as if all one’s cares had been blown away by the wind.’

  Ghoolion was standing directly in the current of air that was transmitting Izanuela’s perfume from her to him. He looked mesmerised. His eyes were glazed and he was swaying slightly. His face wore a blissful smile.

  ‘Now it’s my turn,’ Echo told himself. ‘I must appeal to his emotions and arouse his sympathy.’

  ‘It must be a glorious feeling,’ he said shyly, ‘to stand up here in the throes of a new-found passion. I wish I knew what it was like. I’ve never been in love myself.’

  ‘What, never?’ said Izanuela. ‘How sad.’

  Echo gazed into the distance and sighed.

  ‘I’ve heard it said that, over there beyond the Blue Mountains, there’s a kind of Crat that could teach me the meaning of love. But I suppose it’s too late for that now.’

  He cast a surreptitious glance at the Alchemaster. Ghoolion was standing motionless. Was he really unmoved or in an emotional turmoil? Were insanity and compassion, love and malevolence fighting for the upper hand within him? Or had he seen through their amateur dramatics long ago, and was he merely thinking of some alchemical formula to do with the extraction of his, Echo’s, fat? It was impossible to tell, but that didn’t matter, Echo decided. The moment had come. The perfume must now have taken full effect. It was now or never! He gave Izanuela a meaningful nod.

  ‘I’d like to ask a favour of you,’ she said, turning to Ghoolion.

  He pricked up his ears. ‘Ask away, my blossom. Your wish is my command.’

  ‘I’d like you to let the Crat go. I couldn’t bear anyone to die on such a happy day.’

  ‘Perfectly put,’ thought Echo. ‘Boldly and self-confidently phrased in full reliance on the potent effect of the Cratmint.’

 
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