The alchemasters apprent.., p.35
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.35

           Walter Moers
 

  For several seconds they both stood their ground like actors in some theatre of the absurd. The thunderstorm had receded, but rain was still hissing down outside the windows. At length the ghost’s face gradually faded and it shrank to its original dimensions.

  Echo’s heart sank once more. Was that the most this harmless ghost could do in the world of the living, give someone a fright? That would never be enough to deter the Alchemaster from putting his plans into effect.

  ‘Well, I’m damned!’ Ghoolion said, chuckling. ‘That was impressive. Congratulations, you really put the wind up me!’ He clutched his chest. ‘Phew, you belong in a chamber of horrors.’

  Echo was surprised to see a flickering glow appear behind Ghoolion’s back. Faint at first, it grew steadily brighter until Ghoolion himself became aware of it. He uttered a sharp cry, dropped the scalpel and leapt in the air. His cloak was ablaze! He cursed and yelled and tried to tear it off, but he became entangled in it and his frantic contortions only fanned the flames.

  Echo now saw how it had happened. The Cooked Ghost had manoeuvred Ghoolion to a spot in the laboratory where half a dozen Anguish Candles had crawled on top of one another, waiting to set his cloak on fire.

  Suddenly, more fires flared up all over the laboratory. The Anguish Candles ignited bundles of parchments and tinder-dry books, a birchwood besom and a stack of old firewood. They clustered around a glass retort filled with alcohol until their combined heat cracked it. The spirit escaped and caught fire. A wide, blazing stream of it flowed across the workbench and engulfed several jars containing Leyden Manikins, which promptly exploded.

  One exceptionally heroic Anguish Candle leapt off a shelf into a tub of powdered sulphur, which sent up a tall jet of flame and ignited the taxidermal specimen of a twin-tailed Crocodiddle mounted on the ceiling.

  Echo skipped excitedly to and fro on the end of his chain. Chaos, panic - a palace revolution! Great! Some of the smallest of Ghoolion’s victims were rising in revolt, spurred on by the Cooked Ghost, which fluttered overhead like a rebel flag in a gale. The Alchemaster hadn’t expected this for a moment. Scores were being settled here. He was paying for all his cruelty to the Anguish Candles, and they were showing their gratitude to Echo for having put some of them out of their misery. Hadn’t Ghoolion himself said that the greatest solutions should be sought in the smallest of objects?

  The liberated Leyden Manikins also joined in. They knocked over jars and retorts whose liquid and powdered contents ignited or exploded. They opened valves and released gases that turned into hissing jets of flame as soon as they came into contact with the general conflagration. Splinters of glass went flying through the air, which was thick with coloured fumes and stank of sulphur. The hisses and bangs were reminiscent of a firework display. This was a coup d’état, an insurrection! And in the midst of it all, on fire, dancing around and crying blue murder, was the Alchemaster. He eventually dashed out of the room like a living torch.

  Echo couldn’t help coughing and sneezing all at once. Smouldering immediately beside the alchemical furnace was some red powder whose fumes were almost asphyxiating him. He tugged vainly at his chain, realising only now how dangerous his own predicament was. The entire laboratory was likely to go up in flames and turn into a blazing inferno. It would be only a matter of a few seconds before some even more dangerous substances ignited: phosphorus, petroleum and gunpowder, a mixture capable of sending the whole castle sky-high. Resin from the smouldering Crocodiddle on the ceiling was dripping on Echo’s head.

  And then Ghoolion returned, smoking like an extinguished bonfire. His face was black with soot. He had divested himself of the remains of his cloak and armed himself instead with a sodden blanket. Eyes glinting murderously, he used this to belabour any object that was burning or smouldering.

  ‘Take that! And that!’ he yelled as he brought the blanket whistling down on the smaller fires. ‘And that! And that!’ He worked his way methodically across the laboratory, extinguishing one after another. Then he flung the coal-black blanket aside, seized a shovel, and smothered the bigger flames with sand from a fire bucket. The blazing sulphur barrel he simply hurled out of the window, the Crocodiddle he knocked off the ceiling and disposed of likewise.

  ‘Now for you lot,’ he said, meaning the Anguish Candles and the Leyden Manikins. He proceeded to hunt them down, mercilessly smashing one little creature after another with his shovel or trampling them beneath his iron-soled boots. ‘There, take that, you confounded rabble!’ He dispatched every last one. All that remained of them were motionless splodges of wax or little mounds of peat from the Graveyard Marshes of Dullsgard, the Leyden Manikins’ principal ingredient.

  In the end he stood panting in the midst of a battlefield of debris and splintered glass from which plumes of grey, black and poisonous yellow smoke were rising. He looked around. The laboratory was badly damaged but not completely wrecked. The Alchemaster had quelled the rebellion with a sodden blanket and a shovel.

  ‘You!’ he bellowed, his voice shaking with anger. He aimed his forefinger at the Cooked Ghost, which was still fluttering overhead. ‘Now it’s your turn!’

  He flung the shovel at it like a spear, but it darted aside and the shovel crashed into a shelf laden with test tubes.

  ‘You!’ Ghoolion yelled again, and he went for the Cooked Ghost with his bare hands. To Echo, the Alchemaster’s malign energy, boundless fury and thirst for revenge were almost physically palpable. The Cooked Ghost flinched away as if Ghoolion had struck it with a whip. Then it flew round him in a wide arc and soared up to the ceiling, where it hovered for a moment, trembling. Finally, it swooped down and dived into the bubbling cauldron of fat from which it had once arisen. It did not reappear.

  A Temporary Reprieve

  Echo’s execution was temporarily postponed. Ghoolion proceeded to restore order in the laboratory, substitute more instruments and chemicals for the ones that had been destroyed, repair the damaged tubes and piping, and remix the spilt liquids. His victim’s reprieve lasted for some hours. Meanwhile, the thunderstorm had moved on, to be replaced by a cheerless, continuous downpour.

  The Alchemaster did not address a single word to Echo. All that needed to be said between them had been said. The ceremonial atmosphere Ghoolion had conjured up was no more; that, at least, rebellion had dispelled. The old man was in a black mood. He grumbled and swore as he carried out his laborious repairs. Echo refrained from making any remarks that might darken his mood still more. He crouched beside the alchemical furnace and awaited developments. What else could he do?

  Ghoolion eventually rekindled the stove, which had gone out, and reheated the cauldron. It was growing steadily darker, so he lit some candles - ordinary ones this time. His pathological delight in tormenting Anguish Candles was a thing of the past.

  ‘There,’ he said when he had completed his running repairs. ‘Order has been restored. Those little brutes almost robbed me of the fruits of all my labours. One should never turn one’s back on anyone!’ So saying, he left the room.

  Echo was feeling really frightened now. His temporary reprieve was over and the laboratory back in action. The full moon was shining brightly in the sky, which had cleared. The irrevocable moment had come. All his trumps had been played and none had proved effective. All his friends and allies had either fled or bitten the dust. He could expect no more help from any quarter.

  Ghoolion returned. Every inch the Prince of Darkness, he had washed off the soot and put on his ceremonial red velvet robe and hat of ravens’ feathers. He gave the coals beneath the cauldron a poke and went over to Floria’s corpse.

  ‘This time it will work, my beloved.’ He whispered the words as if speaking to a living person. ‘By shedding Echo’s blood I shall renew your own. Until now I was just a puppet on life’s stage like any other, but from this night onward I shall help to rewrite the book of destiny. I and the universe will meet on equal terms, and Death will be no more than a cur that comes to heel when I w
histle.’

  He hurried over to the Ghoolionic Preserver and opened all the valves. ‘Combine, you juices and acids, fats and lyes!’ he cried. ‘Let the dance of the elements begin! Before long, my spirit will flow into you and reign supreme!’

  The liquids in the piston chambers and glass retorts began to seethe once more, and the more violently the chemicals boiled and bubbled, the more intoxicated Ghoolion became. He went over to a table, took a ball of fat from a receptacle and tossed it into the cauldron.

  ‘Toad fat!’ he cried in triumph as it melted. ‘The penultimate ingredient. All that’s missing now is the fat of a Crat.’

  The laboratory was pervaded by the giant toad’s unmistakable odour. Echo gagged despite himself.

  ‘It would be nice to see you again,’ the old amphibian had called after him.

  ‘So this is the form our reunion has taken,’ thought Echo. The toad was just a smell, an invisible effluvium. He felt guilty for having drawn Ghoolion’s attention to the unfortunate creature. He could still see it in his mind’s eye, wedged tightly into its grave below ground.

  Quit your home in Death’s domain,

  realm of sorrow and of pain,

  hasten through the nameless portals

  that divide the dead from mortals …

  Why had those lines occurred to him at this particular moment? The nameless portals … Were they the toad’s grave? A still unoccupied, anonymous grave … What better division between the dead and the living than a grave? There was some element in the smell of the toad, something emanating from the cauldron of fat, that was prompting him to recite those lines.

  ‘Quit your home in Death’s domain …’ Echo declaimed loudly.

  ‘What?’ said Ghoolion.

  ‘… realm of sorrow and of pain …’ Echo went on.

  ‘Why are you reciting those lines?’ The Alchemaster looked mystified. The cauldron’s contents had suddenly begun to seethe more fiercely than before. Bubbles of fat were rising to the surface and bursting with a series of explosive pops. The smell of the toad grew stronger and stronger.

  ‘… hasten through the nameless portals,’ cried Echo, ‘that divide the dead from mortals!’

  There was a loud rumbling sound from inside the cauldron. The brew bubbled up and boiled over the lip. It streamed down the vessel’s blackened sides and into the flames below, hissing loudly. Echo had never seen this happen before. Neither had Ghoolion, it seemed, because he dashed over to the cauldron and circled it with a look of alarm.

  ‘What’s going on here?’ he yelled. ‘Substances are going to waste! Precious substances!’

  ‘Zamonium and Spiderfat, oil of toad and graveyard peat!’ Echo improvised.

  ‘Hold your tongue!’ snarled Ghoolion. He tore off his hat and hurled it at the floor. ‘You’ll spoil everything!’

  ‘Quit the cauldron and arise,’ Echo declaimed at the top of his voice. ‘Don once more your former guise!’

  ‘Stop it at once!’ Ghoolion bellowed. ‘Not another word or I’ll slit your throat!’ He retrieved the scalpel but hovered irresolutely between Echo and the cauldron, too alarmed by what was going on inside it to act on his threat right away.

  ‘Leave your world and enter mine!’ cried Echo, undaunted. ‘It henceforward shall be thine!’

  More and more of the brew was flowing over the rim of the cauldron. It changed colour several times, giving off iridescent bubbles that drifted across the laboratory as they had when the Cooked Ghost materialised.

  ‘It’ll all be ruined!’ Ghoolion screamed, dancing desperately round the cauldron. ‘All of it!’

  The brew bubbled up more fiercely still. There was a rumble like the eruption of a submarine volcano and every glass vessel in the laboratory started to rattle. The whole room vibrated, small objects danced across the workbenches in time to the tremors and a book fell off a shelf. The air was rent by a shrill, high-pitched note that hurt Echo’s ears. Somewhere in the room, he realised suddenly, a channel connecting the laboratory to another world was opening up. Visitors from the hereafter were announcing their presence.

  And then the Cooked Ghost arose from the foaming brew, brighter than ever before. It did not have to detach itself from the surface with an effort, as it had the first time, but simply turned into a wisp of luminous vapour and floated across the laboratory. Following it just as effortlessly came another equally luminous ghost. And another. And another. And another.

  Ghoolion shrank away from the cauldron, which continued to disgorge a succession of shimmering forms. They congregated on the ceiling and encircled the laboratory like a dome of ghostly light.

  ‘What have you done?’ the Alchemaster demanded in a trembling voice.

  ‘I’ve no idea,’ Echo replied.

  The Demons

  The contents of the cauldron had subsided. The variety of smells that filled the laboratory was exceptional, even for surroundings like these. Although Echo was completely unacquainted with them, he could identify every one.

  ‘I smell Cralamander,’ he said in a low voice. ‘And Snowswallow. And Voltigork. Ubufant and Zamingo, too.’

  ‘You’re right,’ Ghoolion whispered. He was gazing gravely up at the strange aerial procession circling below the ceiling. ‘I can also smell the many other creatures I’ve rendered down. They’ve returned as ghosts the same way they left: via the cauldron.’

  ‘What are they doing here?’

  ‘I don’t know. I only know they can’t hurt me.’

  ‘Then why are you trembling?’

  Ghoolion didn’t answer. Echo continued to enumerate the smells in the air: ‘A Platinum-Tongued Adder. An Ursine Muskrat. A Ferric Eagle. A Bicephalous Hukkan. A Zinoceros. A Yagg.’

  ‘Be quiet!’ Ghoolion hissed. Echo fell silent.

  One of the Cooked Ghosts detached itself from the rest. It went spinning down like a sycamore leaf and did a sudden nosedive into the stuffed Nanofox that had scared Echo so much on his first visit to the laboratory. The fox glowed brightly and crackled like an alchemical battery. Then the ghost emerged from the stuffed animal and rejoined its circling companions.

  ‘What was that?’ Echo whispered. ‘Why did it do that?’

  Ghoolion’s gaze was riveted on the ceiling. ‘No idea. Stop asking silly questions.’

  The ghosts began to circle so fast that it made Echo dizzy just to watch their gyrations. At length they peeled off, one after another, and flew out into the passage. The Crat and the Alchemaster were alone together once more.

  Ghoolion rubbed his eyes. ‘I’m going to find out what’s up,’ he said. ‘I trust they don’t intend to move in. My castle isn’t a dovecot for Cooked Ghosts.’ He gathered his cloak around him and hurried after the luminous apparitions.

  What struck Echo as almost more astonishing than the recent course of events was the fact that he was all alone in the laboratory once more. He should really have been dead by now - rendered down into a ball of fat. He tugged at his chain, but it was as immovable as ever. What now? He pricked his ears and listened. Ghoolion’s clattering footsteps had died away. Nothing could be heard but the monotonous hiss of the rain.

  No, wait, there was something else! Echo cocked his head and listened more intently. It wasn’t outside in the passage, it was here in the laboratory. Where had he heard that crackling sound before? When the Cooked Ghost nosedived into the stuffed fox. He looked over at it - and the fur on the back of his neck stood on end!

  The creature was stirring. Slowly at first, it turned its head with a sound like gravel crunching beneath someone’s feet. The glow in its eyes intensified, then faded, but its brush was waving gently. It closed its gaping jaws and lifted its left forefoot from the base on which it had been mounted. An electrical crackle ran through its fur, which gave off sparks. Then it leapt down and landed in the middle of the laboratory.

  ‘This is too much,’ thought Echo. ‘Any more of it and I’ll pass out.’

  The creature took three or four steps an
d came to a halt, sniffing the air. Having conducted an appraisal of all the strange scents in the room and homed in on the most interesting, it turned its head in Echo’s direction, bared its teeth and emitted a low growl.

  ‘Steady!’ Echo said involuntarily. ‘I won’t hurt you.’

  But the fox displayed no interest in conversation. It slunk slowly closer, eyes aglow with a ghostly light and saliva dripping from its chops. Whatever had brought it to life had also filled it with murderous intent.

  Echo strained in all directions, but the chain brought him up short every time. ‘I haven’t survived until now, only to be torn to pieces by a canine of the lowest order,’ it flashed through his head. ‘Not here! Not at this stage!’

  Now only a few feet away, the fox was getting ready to pounce. It flexed its hind legs and bared its teeth still more. Its eyes had narrowed to slits.

  Echo arched his back, lifted his tail and fluffed it out. He bared his teeth likewise and contorted his features into a mask of grim determination, looking twice his actual size. Then he hissed as loudly as he could.

  Deterred by this sight, the fox uttered a terrified yelp and shot out of the door like a streak of red lightning. Echo relaxed, but only for a moment.

  There, Ghoolion’s metallic footsteps were approaching once more! Echo could also hear other, unidentifiable sounds. Strange and alarming noises that might have been made by dangerous wild beasts.

  Ghoolion burst in. ‘Quick!’ he said, more to himself than his prisoner. ‘We must hurry!’

 
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