The alchemasters apprent.., p.36
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.36

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘What’s happened?’ asked Echo, skipping excitedly to and fro. ‘That fox the ghost dived into came to life.’

  ‘Only the fox?’ Ghoolion said breathlessly as he hurried across the room. ‘You’ve no idea what a can of worms you’ve opened!’

  The Alchemaster darted over to the only wall in the laboratory not lined with shelves. He pressed some of the black stones and the masonry began to move as it had in the case of his golden treasure chamber.

  ‘The ghosts can’t achieve anything in the world of the living,’ said Ghoolion, who was now hurrying over to Echo, ‘but they evidently can in the world of the dead. They’re roaming all over the castle, awakening one mummy after another.’

  ‘You mean they’re bringing all your stuffed demons to life?’ Echo became more agitated still.

  ‘Yes, it’s enough if one ghost enters them. Sometimes two or three do, but they all wake up, and each of the creatures I stuffed has designs on my life!’

  Echo didn’t know what to make of the situation. Ghoolion was frightened. That was good. Woodwolves and Hazelwitches were roaming around the castle. That wasn’t so good.

  The Alchemaster opened the door of the alchemical furnace.

  ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ Echo demanded.

  ‘You may not believe me,’ said Ghoolion, picking him up, ‘but I’m not running away, I’m saving your life - temporarily. I refuse to be beaten so easily.’ And he thrust Echo into the cold furnace. ‘Hide in there and keep as quiet as you can.’ He closed the furnace door as tightly as the chain permitted.

  ‘Why not unchain me and take me with you?’ Echo asked anxiously through the bars. ‘Where are you going?’

  ‘I alone can do what I have in mind,’ Ghoolion said. ‘Just keep still and nothing may happen to you. And pray that I succeed.’

  He went back to the wall, which had opened to reveal a small chamber.

  ‘What’s that little room,’ Echo asked, ‘a hiding place?’

  ‘It isn’t a room,’ Ghoolion replied, ‘it’s a lift. Wish me luck!’

  The stones began to close up again. It looked as if the Alchemaster were being walled up alive by some unseen agency. Then he disappeared from view.

  Echo crouched down on the floor of the alchemical furnace, which stank of cold ashes, sulphur and phosphorus. He dreaded to think of all the creatures Ghoolion had burnt alive in there. Tensely, he peered into the laboratory through the bars.

  The room was suddenly bathed in light. A whole flock of ghosts had come flying in, casting a silvery glow over everything in sight. Having made a few circuits of the ceiling, they proceeded to dive into the cauldron one by one.

  ‘Snowswallow,’ thought Echo. ‘Voltigork. Ubufant. Zamingo. Cralamander …’ There they went, back to their ‘home in Death’s domain’.

  In the end only one was left: his taciturn friend the Cooked Ghost. It slowly revolved in the air as if looking for someone. Then, with a final flash of light, it dived into the cauldron and disappeared.

  ‘Good luck,’ Echo said under his breath and strained his ears again. He wished he had bidden the Cooked Ghost a less cursory farewell, but the menacing noises - the panting and growling, hissing and whispering - had now become so loud that he had other concerns. He listened with bated breath.

  Then in they came. In the lead was a hunchbacked Hazelwitch with limbs of gnarled timber and a costume of green leaves. Her long wooden fingers were clasped together and her yellowish tongue kept darting in and out of her mouth like a snake’s.

  The Corn Demon that glided in after her seemed to consist of nothing but a mouldering shroud. A dark hole yawned in its cowl where a face should have been and it made a sound reminiscent of the gusts of wind that sometimes moaned in the castle chimneys.

  The next figure to appear was entirely swathed in a winding sheet. A Cyclopean Mummy, it smelt so abominable that Echo shrank away from the bars. Its movements were slow, like those of a sleepwalker, but Cyclopean Mummies were said to possess immense physical strength. They were further reputed to break every bone in their victims’ bodies and watch them as they slowly expired.

  A Grim Reaper entered the laboratory. The bald head protruding from its grey robe gleamed in the candlelight, and Echo couldn’t have said whether the horrific visage beneath it was a mask or its actual face.

  Accompanying it was a Woodwolf, one of the most dangerous creatures to be found in the Zamonian outback. It walked beside the Reaper on all fours with resin dripping from its jaws. The Woodwolf was the source of the intimidating growls Echo had heard.

  Last of all came a Golden Gondrag. An amphibious creature from the Graveyard Marshes, with golden scales and ice-green, saurian eyes, it left a long trail of slime behind it.

  These creatures had terrified Echo even when dead. Now his fears were truly justified. Having come to tear the Alchemaster to pieces with their claws and fangs, throttle him with their tentacles, poison him with their lethal breath and send him to his death in every conceivable manner, they now found the laboratory deserted. Furiously, they proceeded to look for their quarry. They overturned tables and workbenches, hurled bookshelves to the floor and rummaged in cupboards, but all to no avail. The longer they searched, the more enraged they became.

  Crawling on his belly and taking care not to rattle his chain, Echo retreated as far as he could. The floor at the back of the alchemical furnace was littered with charred bones and teeth, but he didn’t care. It would be only a matter of time before they opened the furnace door and discovered him.

  At least he didn’t have to see the frightful creatures any more, but he could still hear them only too distinctly. The sounds they made were not of this world - they were the stuff of nightmares. Snarls alternated with hoarse giggles and menacing grunts. When two of them bumped into each other, as they did from time to time, they exchanged indignant hisses and growls. Echo couldn’t imagine what they would sound like if they really came to blows.

  He wondered how Ghoolion proposed to deal with half a dozen of the most vicious creatures in Zamonia, not to mention all the others that must still be roaming the castle. Impossible! The Alchemaster had probably lied to him and made good his escape long ago, leaving him as bait for these brutes. He was duplicitous enough to have played such a rotten trick.

  Something was scratching the metal side of the alchemical furnace. The twiglike fingers of the Hazelwitch? The Woodwolf’s claws? There, something was tugging at his chain! They had discovered him!

  Echo braced all four paws against the unknown force that was dragging him towards the door of the furnace by the chain round his neck, but it was no use, he kept sliding further forward. The grille was opened, candlelight flooded in, and he found himself looking into the Corn Demon’s empty cowl: a gaping black hole. The creature breathed on him and the putrid but icy gust of air almost robbed him of his senses.

  ‘It’s all over,’ he thought.

  The Corn Demon exhaled a second time, enveloping him in a smell of ether as cold as the grave. Echo’s legs buckled.

  He felt not only dizzy but as weary as he had after his wild fandango and drinking bout with Ghoolion.

  ‘I want to go to sleep,’ he thought. ‘Just to go to sleep at last.’

  The Corn Demon drew a deep breath and prepared to expel its third, and final, death-dealing blast of air.

  Suddenly, pandemonium broke out. High-pitched screams in the passage outside mingled with growls and snarls from the creatures in the laboratory itself. The Corn Demon turned away, restoring Echo’s view of the room. Hazelwitch, Woodwolf, Grim Reaper and Golden Gondrag - all were staring in the direction of the door.

  More despairing cries rang out. Cries of mortal agony? If so, whose? Who was dying, who was doing the killing? Echo ventured to poke his head out of the furnace. The demons had lost interest in him in any case.

  Their attention was no longer focused on him or the absent Ghoolion, but on the being that had suddenly, as if by magic, come drifting across the
threshold. It was the Snow-White Widow.

  The Dance of Death

  Echo flattened himself on the floor of the furnace. Ghoolion had unleashed the Snow-White Widow and she was now, at his behest, hunting the demons down. Having slaughtered one after another, she had come here to complete her work. But where was the Alchemaster?

  Eager to see what would happen, Echo plucked up the courage to peer cautiously through the bars. Had as many dangerous creatures ever been assembled in one room before? He doubted it. It must be a record and he was in their midst!

  The Snow-White Widow seemed to be enjoying the attention she was attracting. She performed a coquettish pirouette that sent her white hair flying. She danced up and down in the doorway, first to the left, then to the right, then back again. Pulsating like a jellyfish, she rose into the air and drifted, light as a cloud of vapour, to the middle of the laboratory.

  ‘How sure of herself she must be, to venture into the midst of these demons,’ Echo thought. What had Ghoolion said of her?

  ‘If she stings you, 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. She’s the Queen of Fear.’

  The Queen of Fear … Even the demons seemed to sense her majestic self-assurance, because they preserved a respectful distance from her. Like Echo, they were mesmerised by the sinister beauty of her dancing - by the motions of a unique creature that appeared to be exempt from the laws of nature. It was as if the laboratory were filled with some invisible fluid in which she floated up and down. Her white tresses bunched together or dispersed, formed a dense curtain or separated into thousands of individual strands that rippled in all directions.

  It was the Woodwolf that broke the spell. Wanting to know what a Snow-White Widow tasted like, the savage but stupid beast leapt at her. Its progress through the air was abruptly halted. The Snow-White Widow got to the Woodwolf before the Woodwolf could get to her. Before it knew what was happening, she had encircled its throat and jaws with her hair and perforated its body with hundreds of stings. That done, she floated majestically back to the middle of the room. The whole thing had taken only a heartbeat or two.

  The Woodwolf rose on its hind legs as if to prove that it was master of the situation, apparently believing that it had withstood the attack. But its movements were clumsy and it tripped over its own feet. It clung to the edge of a table, fighting for breath. The other demons watched it spellbound.

  The creature doubled up in agony, uttering howls that would have melted a heart of stone. The howls changed to groans of pleasure and its eyes filled with tears. Again it doubled up, with green froth oozing from its jaws. It gazed around with a bewildered, helpless expression, trembling all over. The leaves that clothed it from head to foot turned slate-grey and some fell off. It doubled up and groaned yet again, shaken by violent convulsions and howling like a whipped cur. Its leaves lost their last vestiges of colour and turned white. They fell off one by one, covering the floor of the laboratory like snowflakes. All that now remained of the huge predator was a bare skeleton with grey organs pumping and pulsating away inside it. Then it subsided on to its knees with a faint sound like ice splintering in the distance. Its bones and organs disintegrated into white flakes until nothing was left of it but a mound of what looked like freshly fallen snow.

  The Golden Gondrag, which was nearest the door, was the first to attempt to escape, but the Snow-White Widow was seated on its back almost before it had taken a step. Wrapping her strands of hair round its limbs like an octopus capturing its prey, she bore it up to just below the ceiling. There she constricted the creature to such an extent that its body bent like a bow and its spine snapped with a horrific sound. The Gondrag screamed at the top of its voice, whereupon the Snow-White Widow simply released her grip and let it fall to the floor in a twitching heap. Then she floated slowly down and performed a graceful dance on her victim’s body, whirling on the spot and impaling it at every step with the venom-laden tips of her hair. Finally, light as thistledown, she resumed her place in the middle of the laboratory.

  The Gondrag could now move nothing but its arms. It waved them convulsively and uttered falsetto screams. Its scaly skin dulled, becoming pale yellow, then grey and white. Before long nothing was left of it, too, but a skeleton that swiftly disintegrated into flakes.

  The Corn Demon was next in line. The Snow-White Widow cut off its retreat in a flash, dived through the hole in its cowl - and disappeared. This was the Snow-White Widow’s most astonishing feat to date, and the remaining demons made noises expressive of consternation.

  Now it was the Corn Demon’s turn to perform a dance. It heaved several of its terrible sighs, which were this time so fraught with pain that they conveyed some idea of the havoc the Snow-White Widow was wreaking inside it. Its whole body twitched and the mouldering grey cloth that enshrouded it became ever paler and more threadbare. The material split open in many places and each rent emitted a hissing jet of green vapour. Eventually, what was left of the shroud also disintegrated into white flakes. All that remained on the spot where the Corn Demon had been standing moments earlier was the deadly Snow-White Widow. She swayed gently to and fro, doubtless debating who her next victim should be.

  Echo, who had seen more than enough by now, withdrew his head and crawled to the back of the furnace. He shut his eyes, but that didn’t prevent him from hearing the gruesome sounds that accompanied the rest of the Snow-White Widow’s settlement of accounts: the snapping, crunching noises as she broke every bone in the Cyclopean Mummy’s body and the Grim Reaper’s demented screams.

  Silence fell at last.

  Echo opened his eyes but lay absolutely still. Dissected by the bars over the furnace door, the flickering candlelight danced across the floor of his iron prison. That was all he could see.

  Where in the world had Ghoolion got to?

  Echo listened for his clattering footsteps, but there was nothing to be heard. No wind, and even the rain had stopped. Utter silence. What was the Snow-White Widow doing? Was she still in the laboratory, or had she moved on in search of other victims? She might be perched on top of the furnace itself or floating along the castle’s labyrinthine passages. She might be lying in wait for him just outside, or she might be quite uninterested in him. Whatever the truth, he had better remain as quiet as a mouse for the time being.

  Where was Ghoolion?

  It wasn’t fair of a creature not to make a sound. It wasn’t fair that he couldn’t detect the Snow-White Widow’s scent. No sound, no smell. Zamonian fauna of that kind should be prohibited.

  Where was the Alchemaster?

  ‘What makes me think the old man is still alive?’ he wondered suddenly. Perhaps he’d been the first to be killed by the Snow-White Widow after her release. It was highly probable, in fact, for how could such a creature be tamed? She was subject to no laws, natural or otherwise. Ghoolion himself had thought his plan dangerous. He was probably down in the cellar, right beside the Snow-White Widow’s glass cage, reduced to a little mound of white flakes. Or perhaps he was floating along the passages to the castle’s sinister music, in company with the dust to which the demons had also been reduced. He might be a tough old bird, but not even he was immune to the Snow-White Widow’s venom.

  Something was wriggling up the furnace bars like a tendril of ivy. No, it wasn’t ivy, nor was it a snake. It was a strand of the Snow-White Widow’s hair!

  Echo tried to retreat, but he was already up against the rear wall of the cast-iron chamber. The silvery strand insinuated itself between the bars and groped its way inside, then writhed across the floor, making straight for him. A second strand came snaking through the bars. And a third.

  ‘She knew I was in here all the time,’ thought Echo. ‘She’s just been toying with me.’

  The third strand wound itse
lf round one of the bars and pulled. The door creaked open and candlelight came flooding in. Then the Snow-White Widow herself rose slowly into view. Her veil of silvery hair looked as soft and fragile as the finest silk, but Echo wasn’t deceived; he now knew what she was capable of. He stood up, legs trembling. Even if an attempt to escape had had any prospect of success, his fear was so intense that he would probably have remained rooted to the spot.

  The curtain of silver hair abruptly parted and Echo found himself looking once more at that one, terrible eye. Although it didn’t scare him quite as much the second time because he knew what to expect, he found it hard to withstand its gaze.

  ‘I know you,’ the Snow-White Widow said, addressing him telepathically.

  ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘I know you too.’

  ‘I’m glad we’ve met again,’ she said. ‘It’s nice that we can talk at last. The prison Ghoolion built me was made of antitelepathic glass. Not a single thought could penetrate it.’

  ‘You want to talk to me?’ Echo asked in a quavering voice.

  ‘No, not really, I want to kill you. That’s my most pressing desire, but whenever I get an opportunity for some civilised conversation I try to control my murderous impulses. I try to exchange a few words with most of my victims.’

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Yes, when time permits. But they all say more or less the same things, like “No, please don’t! I don’t want to die! Ooh, you’re hurting me! Ooh, I’m in agony!” And so on. Nothing of real interest.’

  ‘I’ve got a wide range of conversational topics,’ Echo said quickly. ‘What would you like to talk about?’

  ‘That’s nice for you,’ said the Snow-White Widow, ‘but I’m too impatient for long conversations. I generally allow my victims to ask one question and try to answer it to the best of my ability. Then I get down to business.’

  ‘Only one question?’ Echo would have gulped, but his throat was too dry.

 

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