The alchemasters apprent.., p.37
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.37

           Walter Moers
 

  ʻYes, just one. You can ask yours now.’ The Snow-White Widow closed her curtain of hair. Echo registered this with relief because it spared him the sight of her terrible orb. He didn’t take long to think of his question.

  ‘Where’s the Alchemaster?’ he asked. He might have abandoned all hope, but he wanted some definite information on that point at least.

  ‘I’ve no idea,’ said the Snow-White Widow. ‘He was outside my cage the last time I saw him. After he’d opened it.’

  ‘You didn’t kill him?’

  ‘That’s your second question. Still, I think it’s important enough to answer. You mustn’t imagine I was merciful to Ghoolion in any way. I’m absolutely merciless, but I’m under contract to him.’

  ‘Really?’ said Echo. ‘I’m also under contract to him.’

  ‘You don’t say! That’s interesting. What’s the contract about?’

  ‘Well, to cut a long story short …’ Echo hesitated. He still found it hard to utter the words. ‘It entitles him to kill me before the night is out.’

  ‘How nice for him,’ said the Snow-White Widow. ‘However, it won’t come to that. Why not? Because I’ll kill you first.’

  Echo tried to steer her away from this ticklish subject. ‘What’s your contract with him about?’

  ‘That’s three questions you’ve asked me,’ she said coldly. ‘It’s getting to be too much of a good thing. I’ll have to kill you now, and I’m sorry to say it, but yours will be an extremely painful death.’ She broke off. ‘Pah! Of course I’m not sorry, I couldn’t care less.’

  Echo had another try. ‘But only Ghoolion has the right to kill me,’ he said. ‘He’s kept his part of the bargain.’

  ‘There’s nothing about that in my contract with him. First come, first served. He should have acted sooner. I don’t suppose he thought I’d be so quick off the mark.’

  ‘You really are quick,’ Echo said. ‘I’ve never seen anything or anyone quicker.’

  ‘Good of you to say so,’ she said, flattered. ‘There are times when I wish I could hold myself in check a little. I’d get more pleasure out of it.’

  ‘Then do so!’ Echo urged her.

  ‘Do what?’

  ‘Slow down, of course.’

  The Snow-White Widow seemed to be considering this. ‘Slow down? When? Now, you mean?’

  ‘Exactly. You’ve got to start some time.’

  ‘You really are a cunning little fellow. I’ve never spent so long chatting with any of my victims. But you’re wrong if you think your gift of the gab can dissuade me from doing what I do best. Listen carefully: I’m addicted to death. I can’t help it, I enjoy seeing other creatures die. It makes me feel alive. That’s why I’m now going to say what all addicts say when someone urges them to kick the habit.’

  ‘Which is?’ Echo asked anxiously.

  ‘They say: Yes, I will. Definitely! Tomorrow without fail! But today I’m going to make a real pig of myself for the last time.’

  Echo had run out of ideas.

  ‘Well, it’s been nice chatting with you,’ she said. ‘But watching you die will be even nicer.’ Several strands of her hair descended on him. ‘I’m sure white will suit you,’ she added.

  The strands of hair penetrated his fur. They reached the skin and felt around for some throbbing veins that would help her venom to permeate his body in the shortest possible time.

  ‘I can’t make up my mind which vein to choose,’ she mused. ‘Your heart is beating so fast, they’re all throbbing away like mad.’

  ‘Stop!’ A thunderous voice shook the laboratory. ‘He’s mine!’

  At lightning speed, the Snow-White Widow withdrew her hair from the furnace and spun round.

  ‘Phew!’ Echo expelled the air from his lungs in a rush. How long had he been holding his breath? The sound of Ghoolion’s harsh voice was music to his ears.

  ‘What do you want?’ hissed the Snow-White Widow.

  Echo tottered to the mouth of the furnace and craned his neck to see what was happening outside.

  The Alchemaster was standing in the doorway to the lift, which was open again. The Snow-White Widow, who was hovering in front of the alchemical furnace, had transferred all her attention to him. Ghoolion gathered his cloak around him and strode briskly across the laboratory.

  ‘With all due respect, Queen of Fear,’ he said, ‘you’ve had plenty of chances to assuage your hunger. You’ve exterminated a whole host of demons. Their powdered remains are floating all over the castle - it looks like a blizzard. At least leave me this little Crat.’

  The Snow-White Widow turned slowly on the spot. Ghoolion halted a few paces from her. He, too, thought it best to preserve a respectful distance.

  ‘Very well,’ said the Snow-White Widow, ‘I’ll spare the little creature. He’s hardly worth killing in any case. I’ll let him live, then you can have your fun with him.’

  ‘Many thanks,’ said Ghoolion.

  ‘On one condition,’ she added.

  ‘What’s that?’ Ghoolion demanded. ‘Name it!’

  ‘I know I can run as far away from you as I like, but I also know I’ll always return to my prison because you whispered it to me in my sleep.’

  ‘So she’s also under a spell!’ it flashed through Echo’s mind.

  ‘And I also realise I can’t kill you for the same reason,’ the Snow-White Widow went on.

  ‘My life insurance policy,’ Ghoolion said with a grin.

  ‘That’s just the point. I want you to annul our contract and release me.’

  Ghoolion was taken aback. ‘But that’s impossible,’ he protested. ‘If I annul the contract you’ll not only be free, you’ll be free to kill me. I can’t take that risk.’

  ‘All right, then I’ll kill the Crat. Our contract doesn’t preclude me from doing that.’

  The Snow-White Widow whirled round. A strand of her hair darted into the furnace and encircled Echo’s neck like a hangman’s noose.

  ‘Urgh!’ was all Echo could get out.

  ‘Stop that!’ snapped Ghoolion.

  ‘If you’re as worried about the little fellow as that, he must be worth a lot to you. Well, he won’t be worth a thing in a minute; he’ll be dead.’

  She tightened the noose. White sparks danced before Echo’s eyes.

  ‘All right,’ said Ghoolion, ‘it’s a deal. I’ll annul the contract. Let go of him.’

  ‘You agree? Very well.’

  She released the noose and withdrew the strand of hair. Echo could breathe again. Panting hard, he subsided on to the floor of the furnace.

  ‘I’ll annul the contract,’ Ghoolion repeated, ‘but on one condition.’

  ‘So you’ve got a condition too?’ The Snow-White Widow laughed. ‘When it comes to negotiating contracts, you really do drive a hard bargain. Well, go on, what do you want?’

  ‘If I tear up the contract and lift the spell, you’ll be free to kill anything or anyone that crosses your path,’ said Ghoolion.

  She uttered a groan of delight.

  ‘With three exceptions,’ he said. ‘Me, for one.’

  ‘Agreed.’

  ‘Secondly, the Crat.’

  ‘Yes, yes, who else?’

  ‘The inhabitants of Malaisea - all of them. In this town I do the killing.’

  The Snow-White Widow groaned again, but not with delight this time. She sounded dismayed.

  ‘That’s a tough one,’ she said. ‘I’m absolutely famished after all this time. But all right, I’ll restrain myself until I’m on the other side of the Blue Mountains.’

  Ghoolion looked out of the window and up at the milk-white moon.

  ‘I don’t know if you’ve got such a thing as a sense of honour,’ he said gravely, ‘but I’m assuming there’s at least a glimmer of one in every living creature, even a Snow-White Widow.’

  He tore the contract into little pieces and threw them into the fire beneath the cauldron of fat. They hissed and gave off blue sparks as the flames re
duced them to ashes.

  ‘Now lift the spell,’ she demanded.

  Ghoolion clapped his hands three times.

  ‘Is that it?’

  ‘That’s it,’ he replied. His voice was shaking, his forehead beaded with sweat. The Snow-White Widow didn’t move.

  ‘Now it’s your turn to fulfil your obligations,’ Ghoolion said impatiently. ‘Just go!’

  She didn’t budge an inch.

  ‘My obligations?’ she said in a scornful tone after a long, tense silence. ‘What obligations do you mean? I don’t have any to fulfil. Promises at most.’

  It resembled an illusionist’s trick. One moment she was hovering in front of the alchemical furnace, the next she had wound a thick strand of hair round Ghoolion’s neck and pulled it tight. That done, she rose slowly into the air, taking the gasping, struggling Alchemaster with her.

  ‘There’s nothing, absolutely nothing to prevent me from killing you this instant,’ she said. ‘You and your little friend here, followed by every accursed inhabitant of your accursed, disease-ridden town. Because believe me, I’m totally unacquainted with what you call a sense of honour. What’s it supposed to be? Fear of admitting that one has told a lie? Self-respect? Those are sentiments worthy of children or lunatics.’

  Ghoolion’s face had turned blue. His legs were kicking vainly in mid-air.

  ‘You must remember I’ve a reputation to uphold. What’s your name for me? Queen of Fear? Well, noblesse oblige, my friend. Only the merciless merit a reputation for mercilessness.’

  Ghoolion’s eyes were protruding and blood was trickling from his nose. He had almost stopped kicking, his strength was giving out. The Snow-White Widow carried him a little higher.

  ‘I could hang you now, but I could also inject you with my venom like all the rest. I could simply throw you out of a window like rubbish. Smash you against the walls of your laboratory like a wet rag. Tear you into little strips or render you down in that cauldron. The choice is yours. Which would you prefer?’

  Ghoolion’s body went limp. He had ceased to struggle. His spindly hands were quivering a little, but that was all.

  ‘Yes, I could kill you in any number of ways - torture and torment you to my heart’s content. Instead, I’m going to put you down.’

  The Snow-White Widow deposited Ghoolion on the floor like a child discarding a doll it was tired of. His legs gave way. He went down on all fours, gasping for breath. Echo had never seen him so humiliated.

  ‘I’m going to let you live,’ said the Snow-White Widow. ‘What do you say to that?’

  Ghoolion said nothing at all, just sucked in great, greedy gulps of air.

  ‘You needn’t thank me. I’m not doing it out of pity, I’m doing it out of love.’

  ‘What?!’ croaked the Alchemaster. He gripped the edge of a workbench and hauled himself erect, seized a cloth and wiped the blood from his nose, striving to regain his composure.

  ‘I’ve developed something of a crush on you, that’s why. After all, you saved my life, shamelessly exploited my hopeless predicament and used me for your own ends. You’re the first and only person capable of emulating my capacity for evil. Emulating it, mark you, not matching it, still less surpassing it. I’m the Queen of Fear! As for you, you could be my prince consort.’

  The Snow-White Widow floated over Ghoolion’s head to one of the windows and landed on the sill. She was trembling almost imperceptibly, as if chilled by the warm summer night.

  ‘But we’re too dissimilar, alas, and our objectives are diametrically opposed. You want to create new life; I want to destroy all life. That would only lead to arguments, so we must go our separate ways.’

  The Alchemaster had been standing there in silence the whole time. Echo continued to lie low. They were both thinking the same thing: was this another trick on her part? Would she fly at their throats again at any moment? What was to stop her?

  ‘You owe your life to love,’ she whispered, ‘love, not mercy. Never forget that and never again put your faith in someone else’s honesty. Goodbye!’

  She performed a graceful leap out of the window and allowed herself to be borne away by the gentle evening breeze, as weightless and aimless as an innocent seed head detaching itself from a dandelion clock.

  Night Music

  ‘I’ve boiled Throttlesnakes the length of tree trunks in this cauldron,’ Ghoolion said as he reheated the big copper vessel. ‘I’ve disposed of a Red Gorilla that awoke from its anaesthetic and an octopus that tried to drag me into the cauldron with it, but no creature has ever given me as much trouble as you have today. You, a harmless little Crat.’

  ‘Many thanks,’ said Echo. He was once more sitting on the floor beside the alchemical furnace. The Alchemaster had removed him from it and put him there, but without unchaining him.

  ‘That wasn’t intended as a compliment,’ Ghoolion said, shooting an angry glance at his prisoner. ‘I simply meant that the fun’s over as far as you’re concerned. I’ve never been as close to death as I was just now.’

  He took a pair of bellows and pumped fresh oxygen into the flames, which blazed up brightly.

  ‘What was that deal you made with the Snow-White Widow?’ Echo asked. ‘How did you manage to gain control of such a powerful creature?’

  ‘I found her down below the castle,’ said Ghoolion, adding some more logs to the flames. ‘In the catacombs beneath the cellars. She was very ill, terminally ill, but I knew of a remedy for her condition. In return she had to sign a contract that made her my prisoner for ten years. She was weak at first, but when she gradually regained her strength I took the precaution of putting her under a spell while she was asleep. I also built her an escape-proof prison.’

  ‘You like doing deals,’ Echo remarked. ‘Even with the most dangerous creatures.’

  ‘One never knows when a Snow-White Widow will come in handy,’ Ghoolion said with a laugh. ‘It paid off, too. You benefited from the deal yourself and for that you should be duly grateful to me. What I have in mind for you will be a picnic compared to what those demons would have done to you.’

  He turned away from the cauldron, took a scalpel from the table and advanced on Echo.

  ‘We’ve wasted enough time,’ he said.

  Echo’s instinctive reaction was to run for it, but the chain brought him up short. He tugged at it desperately but only succeeded in choking himself. It was useless.

  ‘Make it quick,’ he said.

  ‘That I promise you,’ said Ghoolion.

  All of a sudden, music could be heard - the strangest music. Loud, intrusive and disconcerting, it came drifting in through the windows from one moment to the next.

  Ghoolion stopped in his tracks and listened.

  ‘What’s that?’ he said.

  Echo knew the music. It was familiar to him, but not played at this tempo. There had been something tranquil about it - something almost danceable - the first time he heard it. What had Izanuela called it?

  Of course: Twitchstik, the Song of the Ugglian Oaks …

  It now had a rather menacing ring, like the music with which armies impress their grim determination on the enemy. Campaigns were conducted to the strains of such music. It was music for marching to - for killing to.

  ‘I know what it is,’ Echo said.

  ‘You do?’

  ‘You need only look out of the window.’ Echo’s heart was beating wildly again. He fervently hoped he had drawn the right conclusion from the music; his life might well depend on it. He listened closely. There was something in addition to determination in that music. It was the saddest sound he had ever heard: a funeral march.

  Ghoolion had dashed to the window and was looking out.

  ‘Damnation!’ he exclaimed, clutching his chest. ‘I don’t believe it!’

  ‘It’s Izanuela’s house, isn’t it?’ said Echo. ‘It’s Izanuela’s house from Uggly Lane. Its music is unmistakable.’

  ‘It’s all the houses from Uggly Lane!’ Ghoolion yel
led. ‘There must be over a hundred of them. They’re all round the castle.’

  All of them? Echo was surprised. Still, why not? Izanuela had mentioned that all the houses in the street were alive, but she hadn’t said anything about their being so alive they could move from the spot. They must have come to avenge her.

  ‘All the houses, of course,’ Echo amended. ‘I know. I simply meant Izanuela’s house would be there too. It’s their leader, isn’t it?’

  Once again, he could only hazard a guess and hope he was right. He cursed his confounded chain.

  As if unable to believe his eyes, Ghoolion snatched up a telescope.

  ‘How should I know?’ he said. ‘They all look alike.’

  ‘Izanuela’s house is bigger than the others.’

  ‘What?’ Ghoolion squinted through the telescope again. ‘Yes, one of them is bigger than the rest. What sort of creatures are they? Are they plants? I’ve seen plants that can move, but none as big as these.’

  ‘They’re Ugglian Oaks,’ Echo said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. ‘The oldest plants in Zamonia.’

  How desperately he yearned to look out of the window at that moment! What did the oaks look like when they were in motion? Did their roots act as legs and their branches as arms? Were they rolling those mournful eyes in their knotholes? No matter, he must take advantage of Ghoolion’s discomfiture.

  ‘So the Uggly fulfilled our agreement,’ he said coolly.

  ‘What agreement?’ Ghoolion asked without averting his gaze from the astonishing scene.

  ‘Izanuela was also fond of striking bargains with natural phenomena,’ Echo said slowly, ‘with animals and plants.’ He had to choose his words carefully. ‘But not with a view to skinning them and extracting their fat.’

  ‘What are you getting at?’ Ghoolion demanded. He put the telescope down on the windowsill and gave Echo a piercing stare,

  ‘What you can see down there is Izanuela’s curse!’ Echo cried. ‘Your duel with her isn’t over, Alchemaster, it has only just begun. Her power extends beyond the grave. That’s something you’ll never achieve!’

  ‘What are you blathering about?’ Ghoolion snapped. ‘What curse?’

 

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