The alchemasters apprent.., p.34
The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.34Walter Moers
The Alchemaster gave Izanuela a lingering look.
Echo’s heart was in his mouth. What would Ghoolion do next? Laugh hysterically? Fall on his knees? Turn into a raven? In his case one had to be ready for anything.
‘So that’s what you want?’ he said. ‘That I let Echo go?’
Izanuela nodded, looking him steadfastly in the eye.
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘No,’ Ghoolion cried, drawing himself erect. ‘With respect, my blossom, you cannot gauge what that would mean - no one could. You might as well ask the sun to stop shining or forbid a storm to break. My whole life, my whole life’s work would forfeit its meaning just like that!’ He clicked his fingers. Izanuela gave a start.
‘It would be like ripping the heart from my body and devouring it before my eyes. Would you really do that to me? Is that really what you want?’
The Uggly, who hadn’t been expecting such a reaction, was utterly at a loss. She didn’t even dare glance at Echo in search of support, she merely continued to stare at Ghoolion, doing her best not to faint.
A long, awkward silence fell. Echo didn’t dare breathe.
‘However,’ Ghoolion said gravely, ‘that’s precisely why I shall do as you ask. I’ll show you what true love means. I already lost my true love once in my life and nearly went mad as a result. This time I shall hold on to her at the expense of my life’s work. So be it.’
He took the little padlock key from his cloak and bent down. ‘Well,’ he whispered to Echo, ‘how was it?’
Echo was bewildered. ‘How was what?’ he asked.
‘My monologue, of course!’ Ghoolion said in a low voice. ‘I’m not a trained actor, after all.’ Straightening up again, he said loudly, ‘Did I sound relatively convincing? What do you think, Izanuela?’
The name jolted Echo like an electric shock. He had addressed the Uggly by her real name! No more ‘blossoms’. No more ‘Florias’.
Ghoolion suddenly underwent a remarkable transformation. All the loving kindness and compassion left his voice and demeanour. He reassumed the callous, tyrannical expression he wore in his darkest moments. This was the Alchemaster in his true persona.
‘Do the pair of you know how people of the Middle Ages discovered whether an Uggly was innocent or guilty?’ he asked. ‘They hurled her off a roof. If she survived by flying through the air, she was guilty. If she fell to her death, she was innocent. Simple but just.’
He went right up to Izanuela and gave her a push. Only a gentle one, but enough to throw her off-balance.
‘Whoops!’ he said.
Izanuela took a few clumsy little steps down the sloping roof and tumbled over the edge without a sound. Not until she had completely disappeared from view did Echo hear her long-drawn-out, high-pitched scream, which must have been audible all over Malaisea.
He dashed to the edge of the roof himself, only to be brought up short by the chain in Ghoolion’s hand, and stared down in horror. Izanuela was plummeting into space like an enormous wedding bouquet, leaving a long, multicoloured trail of flowers behind her as she spun and somersaulted through the air. She plunged into Malaisea’s expanse of rooftops and her scream died abruptly. All that could be heard thereafter was the whistle of the wind.
‘So she was innocent!’ Ghoolion exclaimed, looking perplexed. ‘Who would have thought it?’ He pocketed the key again, then dragged Echo away from the edge of the roof. ‘I must advertise for another Uggly at once,’ he said. ‘What’s the use of a municipal Alchemaster if he doesn’t have a single Uggly to torment?’
The Wrong Heart
‘I can’t make up my mind which was your biggest insult to my intelligence: the belief that I wouldn’t have rendered myself resistant to that herbal potion of yours, or the childish expectation that an Uggly could triumph over an alchemist. I really can’t decide between the two. And to think of all I’ve taught you about alchemy, the mother of all sciences! I’m immensely disappointed in you.’
Ghoolion had chained Echo to the alchemical furnace. He was striding back and forth across the laboratory and fiddling with various pieces of equipment while he lectured his captive. The clouds that could be seen racing past the windows grew steadily thicker and darker until they were pierced by only an occasional ray of sunlight. The room was fitfully illuminated by Anguish Candles, of which Ghoolion had lit several dozen.
‘Who do you think planted that Cratmint on the roof?’ he demanded. ‘Do you honestly think I haven’t familiarised myself with the Ugglimical Cookbook from cover to cover? What do you take me for? Eighteen uggs of Arctic Woodbine! Two uggs of Old Man’s Scurf! Four and a half uggs of Pond Scum! One ugg of Sparrowgrass! Floral mumbo-jumbo! Botanical hocus-pocus! Don’t make me laugh!’
Echo didn’t speak. Scarcely aware of Ghoolion’s presence, he seemed to hear the Alchemaster’s voice through a layer of cotton wool. He was still too much in shock to feel either fear or anger. The same scene continually unfolded before his inner eye: Izanuela in free fall, leaving a multicoloured trail of flowers behind her.
‘I thoroughly enjoyed watching you through my telescope,’ Ghoolion went on, ‘when you slunk off to your stupid conspiratorial meetings. Did you imagine I wasn’t aware that the two of you were skulking on my roof? And as for that ludicrous scene in the fat cellar! You must have thought me totally insane if you believed I couldn’t remember whether or not I’d locked the door to my holy of holies.’
‘I was hoping love would triumph over insanity,’ Echo retorted when he eventually found his voice. ‘But that was naive of me.’ He now noticed a new smell in the laboratory. It was unpleasantly cloying and penetrating.
‘I’m proof against boiling fat and water,’ Ghoolion cried above a distant peal of thunder. He went over to the cauldron. ‘So why shouldn’t I be equally proof against love? One’s heart can develop calluses, it’s only a question of practice and I developed mine during all the nights I spent beside this cauldron, rendering down the animals whose essences I intend to compound tonight. Don’t imagine that they didn’t affect me at first, all those anguished screams and death rattles! But one thin layer superimposed itself on another until my heart acquired the armour plate that now protects it from all the nonsense known as love and compassion, grief and pity. You picked on the wrong heart, the two of you!’
Ghoolion opened one valve and closed another, releasing a cloud of blue vapour. He tapped the sides of several jars containing Leyden Manikins, then turned back to Echo.
‘But you must admit how skilfully I joined in your little game. It gave me great pleasure to put my acting skills to the test. I have to confess that the potion and the perfume had a certain effect on me - one I found hard to resist. I developed a genuine affection for the Uggly, but it only made my play-acting easier. Up on the roof, when the perfume was at its strongest, I found it a positive effort to push her off. Believe it or not, I would sooner have taken her in my arms - her, an Uggly! That’s really saying something, so to that extent I pay tribute to her. A toast to Izanuela!’
He picked up a glass of his black slime and drained it at a gulp. The windows were illuminated by a first flash of lightning, closely followed by a peal of thunder. He raised the glass on high.
‘This was my antidote, a concentrate of Leathermouse blood. I draw it off when they’re in the midst of their digestive slumbers. It awakens the vampire in you! Reinforces your dark side! Numbs your emotions! A Leathermouse out hunting can’t afford to feel love or pity. It’s also the finest aid to staying awake all night long. The taste is nauseating and it has certain side effects, but if you overcome them, Cratmint loses its effect on you.’ He put the glass down and proceeded to heat the cauldron.
‘On a normal person the potion would undoubtedly have worked,’ he went on, ‘but I’m not a normal person. The perfume I might have withstood even without an antidote. I inhale toxic substances day in, day out. Ether, acids, solvents, spirits, hypnotic oils, chloroform, putrescent gases. If they could affect m
Ghoolion went over to a table on which lay something covered with a black cloth, possibly a new alchemical gadget or machine. A brilliant flash of lightning momentarily outshone the Anguish Candles, followed instantly by thunder. The Alchemaster struck a pose and declaimed:‘Let my magic brew revive
that which used to be alive!’
Then he whipped off the cloth and looked down, grinning, at what he had revealed. It wasn’t an alchemical gadget, as Echo had surmised, but a half-decayed corpse. The face was no longer recognisable and bare bones were showing through in places, but he knew at once who it was from her favourite gown: Floria of Ingotville, his late mistress. Hence the cloying smell of decay that filled the laboratory.
Ghoolion threw up his arms and cried:‘Let my bubbling cauldron seethe
till the creature starts to breathe.
Brought to life it then shall be
by the power of alchemy!’
He lowered his arms and looked at Echo. ‘As you’re doubtless horrified to note, I’ve long ceased to shrink from anything. I’ve even joined the ranks of the grave robbers! Yes, I went to the Toadwoods armed with spade and pickaxe. Many thanks for your tip about the giant toad, by the way. While I was at the cemetery, I took the opportunity to capture the creature. The smell of Toadmoss made it easy enough to find. What a whopper! It took me a whole night to render it down.’
‘You’re totally insane,’ said Echo.
Ghoolion smiled. ‘You’re repeating yourself,’ he said. ‘I know you think I’m crazy but it doesn’t offend me, it makes me proud. It merely demonstrates your inability to think in my terms. My thought processes are several sizes too big for your feline brain. You can only store facts, not rearrange them and create something wholly different. Only I can do that. It’s an essential requirement if one is to take on the toughest of all opponents. Death, in other words.’
He caressed the corpse with his bony fingers.
‘I’m sure you thought I was claiming immortality for myself alone, but I want it for Floria as well. I want to extricate her from Death’s chill embrace this very night, and for that I need your help.’
Taking a pair of scissors, he cut off a strand of Floria’s white hair and dropped it into the cauldron.
‘Hearken, ghost, to what I say,
and my potent spell obey!
Quit your home in Death’s domain,
realm of sorrow and of pain,
hasten through the nameless portals
that divide the dead from mortals.’
The wind was blowing ever harder through the windows and the light was steadily fading. Ghoolion was getting the thunderstorm he had predicted. Sheets of parchment went flying, chemical powders and clouds of vapour mingled to form miniature tornados, but the Alchemaster seemed to relish the elements’ presumptuous invasion of his laboratory. He adjusted the controls of his Ghoolionic Preserver. In so doing he turned his back on Echo, who took the opportunity to tug at his chain. It was no use, though. Only Ghoolion could have released him.
The Alchemaster’s voice was quite calm now. ‘We’ve lived together for a whole month,’ he said. ‘I trust you can’t claim to have had an uninteresting time.’
‘No, I can’t,’ Echo said truthfully. The glass pistons in the Preserver began to rise and fall with a faint clanking sound, churning up the liquids in the cylinders.
‘I myself have learnt certain things from you,’ Ghoolion went on. ‘Serenity. Composure. Innate poise.’
Echo suppressed a bitter laugh. The old madman and murderer spoke of innate poise while preparing to awaken a corpse to everlasting life and extract the fat from a Crat. Insanity really did seem to be a disease whose victims remained unaware of it.
‘And those’, said Ghoolion, ‘are the qualities that must govern our parting. Serenity, composure, mutual harmony.’ He left the Preserver and went over to a workbench, where he picked up a scalpel and held it in the air.
‘I shall make this as quick and painless as I promised,’ he said.
If Ghoolion had been holding a carving knife or a bloodstained executioner’s axe, Echo might not have been as scared as he was of that surgical precision instrument. Just a diminutive blade little longer than one of Ghoolion’s fingernails, it was sharper than any other form of cutting tool. Sharper than an executioner’s axe, sharper than a cut-throat razor. Such a little piece of steel, yet capable of sending him to his death.
‘I think you now know me well enough to rest assured that I won’t cut off your head or mutilate you in any way. I shall simply make a tiny little incision in your throat, but at just the right spot. The blood will leave your body so fast, you’ll fall asleep for ever before the wound begins to hurt.’
‘Fall asleep for ever …’ thought Echo. What terrible finality there was in that phrase! He had never felt such an overpowering desire to live as he did at that moment.
‘We both want you to bequeath posterity a good-looking corpse, don’t we?’ Ghoolion said, drawing slowly nearer. ‘You see that sack over there? It contains the wood shavings I’m going to stuff you with. They come from the Nurn Forest, which means that they’re particularly durable and costly. I’ve spared no expense, you see. It’ll be centuries before anyone needs to restuff you, which they undoubtedly will. The way I’m going to embalm you, your fur will still be glossy long after the shavings have crumbled away to dust. That, by the way, is thanks to the fat I extracted from a thousand-year-old tortoise. So you see, you’re going to benefit from my research.’
There wasn’t a trace of sarcasm in his tone. ‘He’s being absolutely serious,’ Echo reflected. ‘He actually thought I’d be interested in knowing what he’s going to embalm me with.’ In his mind’s eye, Ghoolion was already disembowelling him and stuffing him with wood shavings.
Echo instinctively did what all Crats do when threatened. He arched his back, fluffed out his tail and uttered a furious hiss - not that this made any impression on Ghoolion.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘by all means hiss if it makes you feel better. You can scratch and bite as well, but it won’t make things any easier for you. The most you’ll do is turn this into a painful and unattractive proceeding. My hand may slip. I may miss the artery and have to start again. Make another incision. Ruin your fur. Cause you needless suffering. We wouldn’t want that, either of us, would we?’
Echo stopped hissing, straightened his back and lowered his tail. True, it was utterly futile. Why make everything worse? In his own peculiar way, Ghoolion actually meant well by him.
‘Simply lie down and shut your eyes, that’s your best plan,’ the Alchemaster said smoothly. He was holding the scalpel where Echo couldn’t see it and take fright. ‘It’ll all be over in an instant. We ought to say goodbye now. Let’s get this over in a dignified manner.’
‘He’s right,’ thought Echo. ‘Why make a gory, painful and undignified scene? Better to simply shut my eyes and go to sleep.’
‘No!’ cried another voice inside him. ‘Certainly not! Struggle! Hiss! Bite! Scratch! Resist to the last!’
Just then, something white and transparent interposed itself between him and Ghoolion like a curtain being slowly raised on invisible threads. For a moment Echo thought that he was losing consciousness - that his eyesight was failing and he would pass out any minute. Then he realised that the Cooked Ghost was slowly seeping up through the cracks between the floorboards like a luminous mist from the world hereafter.
Echo’s heart leapt for joy. The Cooked Ghost had come to his rescue! Or had it? Whatever the truth, he was filled with new hope by the realisation that he was no longer facing the Alchemaster all on his own. But what could this insubstantial being achieve in a world where physical intervention was denied it?
‘What’s the Cooked Ghost doing here?’ Ghoolion demanded irritably. ‘I thought it had disappeared long ago.’
Malaisea was being stabbed from the clouds by dazzling shafts of lightning, thunder was rumbling around the laboratory and rain lashing in through the windows. Unimpressed by all this, the uninvited guest was hovering a hand’s breadth above the floor with wavelets of light rippling through it. The Cooked Ghost reminded Echo of a flag fluttering in a breeze.
Ghoolion quickly recovered from his shock. ‘Well,’ he said loudly, ‘whatever you’re doing here, you’ve chosen the wrong time and place. We’re busy, so push off!’
Then he laughed and smote his brow with the flat of his hand. ‘What am I doing, talking to a thing that can neither hear nor speak?’
He took a step towards the ghost and flapped his hands.
‘Shoo!’ he cried. ‘Be off with you!’
But the ghost didn’t budge. It continued to hover protectively in front of Echo.
Ghoolion hesitated. Then he put his hands on his hips and turned to Echo with a broad grin.
‘So you’ve forged yet another friendship behind my back, have you? First Izanuela, now a Cooked Ghost? A lovesick Uggly and a hoary old alchemistic conjuring trick? What powerful allies you’ve chosen!’
Echo deemed it wiser not to reply. Ghoolion took another vigorous step forwards - and the ghost moved too. However, instead of retreating as the Alchemaster had intended, it came straight for him and expanded to twice its original size. Simultaneously, it displayed the fearsome countenance Echo had glimpsed more than once, except that this time it was so big and awe-inspiring that it occupied almost all of the ghost’s expanse. Its effect was not lost on Ghoolion, who staggered backwards with his hands in front of his face. The sight was almost unendurable, even for an Alchemaster.
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