The alchemasters apprent.., p.38
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.38

           Walter Moers

  ‘His hands are trembling,’ thought Echo. ‘I’ve unsettled him, but I mustn’t rush things.’

  ‘Those trees down there have come to fetch me,’ he lied boldly. ‘Izanuela told them what to do if something happened to her. That was what we agreed. The houses in Uggly Lane heard her scream as she fell. That was the signal. They’ve come to fulfil her last wish.’

  Ghoolion didn’t answer. He stared out of the window, listening to the mournful music, then turned back to Echo.

  ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Ugglian Oaks, singing plants. I dealt with far worse things today. Let them sing! They’re too big to get past the door and they’re welcome to besiege the building, I don’t intend to leave it. I’ve enough stores in here to last till doomsday. Besides, if I want to leave the castle I know of other ways out than the front door. Let’s get on.’

  Ghoolion went over to the cauldron and inspected the contents. Judging by the contented way he clicked his tongue, he seemed pleased with what he saw. He took a big spoon and gave the brew a leisurely stir, even though the music was growing steadily louder. Then he laid the spoon aside and picked up the scalpel.

  ‘The soup is ready,’ he called. ‘So are you.’

  The music continued to swell as he crossed the room, becoming so loud and piercing that every glass vessel in the laboratory began to rattle.

  ‘That’s right, sing!’ he shouted. ‘Sing away! Yours is just the music to skin a Crat by.’

  Boom! The whole building shuddered. Plaster trickled from the ceiling and the laboratory floor gave a lurch. Taken aback, Ghoolion stopped short. It was all he could do to keep his feet.

  ‘Hey!’ he cried.

  Echo was also thrown off balance. What was this, an earthquake?

  Boom! Another impact! A glass retort wobbled, fell to the floor and smashed.

  Boom! And another! Books toppled off shelves, dust went swirling into the air.

  Boom! A lunar globe fell from the ceiling and went rolling across the laboratory.

  ‘Hell’s bells!’ Ghoolion bellowed. ‘What’s going on?’

  The floor and walls shuddered again and again. Timbers creaked and cracks appeared in the masonry. Ghoolion reeled around like a drunk.

  Boom! The fireplace belched a dense cloud of soot.

  Boom! The alchemical furnace rocked precariously.

  Ghoolion spun round and tossed the scalpel on to a workbench. He ran to a window and leant out as far as he could.

  ‘It’s those infernal great trees!’ he fumed. ‘They’re pounding the castle walls with their huge wooden fists and using uprooted tree trunks as battering rams!’ He took a closer look through the telescope. ‘They’re wrenching rocks out of the ground and hurling them! They’re going berserk!’ His voice broke with fury.

  Echo was also feeling uneasy now. No one was safe in this crumbling old pile. He simply had to get rid of this confounded chain.

  ‘You must show me to them!’ he shouted above the din. ‘That’s all they’re after. That’ll calm them down.’

  Ghoolion didn’t react. He stood silently at the window, clinging to the sill and staring out.

  Boom! A whole bookcase toppled over, spilling hundreds of ancient volumes across the floor.

  Boom! The Ghoolionic Preserver clinked and rattled. Gas came hissing out of a fractured valve.

  Boom! Fist-sized stones fell out of the walls and landed on alchemical vessels, shattering them.

  Ghoolion tore himself away from the window at last. Having lurched across the laboratory to Echo, he bent down and removed his collar.

  ‘But I warn you!’ he growled. ‘One false move and I’ll throttle you!’

  He gripped Echo by the scruff of the neck and carried him over to the window, where he held him up and shouted, ‘Here he is! Here’s what you’re after! Now stop that!’

  Echo got his first sight of the Ugglian Oaks clustered around the castle. What a spectacle they presented! Izanuela had told him they never lost their temper. They had certainly lost it now! Some were stomping around on their big black roots, massive trunks swaying to and fro as they pummelled the ancient building with their gnarled wooden fists. Others were prising huge boulders out of the ground and hurling them at the castle like trebuchets. The old eyes in their knotholes were blazing with anger. Their mournful music was almost drowned by the ear-splitting creaks and groans they made in their frenzy. They were so engrossed in their display of brute force that none of them paid any attention to Ghoolion or what he had shouted.

  ‘Pure pandemonium,’ Echo whispered to himself. He didn’t know whether to be delighted or horrified. The giant trees hadn’t come to liberate him; they were bent on sheer destruction.

  ‘They aren’t calming down!’ Ghoolion exclaimed. ‘They’re getting wilder and wilder!’ He tightened his grip on Echo.

  Instead of replying, Echo twisted his head round and bit Ghoolion’s hand - bit it harder than he’d ever bitten anything or anyone before. The skin split open like paper and his teeth sank in up to the bone. Even the Alchemaster couldn’t ignore pain of such intensity. He uttered a yell and relaxed his grip. Echo promptly took advantage of this to squirm and struggle, hiss and scratch. He raked Ghoolion’s face with his claws and inflicted four deep scratches on his cheek. One claw on his other paw caught the Alchemaster’s long nose and laid it open from bridge to tip. And still Echo raged on, biting and lashing out in a fury. Ghoolion suddenly found himself holding a wildcat armed with a hundred teeth and a thousand claws. He dropped Echo, who landed on the windowsill, and retreated a few steps.

  ‘Never touch me again!’ hissed Echo. He arched his back in a way that made him look twice as big. His eyes gleamed belligerently. ‘Never again, you hear?’

  There was a massive jolt and a long crack appeared in the laboratory floor. Ghoolion went staggering backwards, caught his foot in it and fell headlong.

  ‘You little devil!’ he yelled as he scrambled to his feet. ‘You said they’d stop this if you showed yourself.’

  ‘I lied!’ Echo shouted back above the din. ‘I learnt that from you! You should have listened to the Snow-White Widow! Never put your faith in someone else’s honesty!’

  This remark seemed to hurt the Alchemaster more than all the bites and scratches he’d sustained. The anger in his face gave way to a look of bewilderment.

  ‘You mean they haven’t come to set you free?’ he said. ‘Why, then?’

  ‘To avenge Izanuela!’ Echo shouted. ‘And to send you to perdition. She’s too powerful for you. She’s defeating you after her death.’

  Another violent jolt brought down a beam that grazed the Alchemaster’s head. He swayed and clutched his bleeding ear but stayed on his feet. A second beam came crashing down on the Ghoolionic Preserver, smashing numerous glass vessels and spattering the room with chemical fluids. The stone lintel above the door became dislodged and fell with another crash. Within moments, a heap of collapsing rubble had precluded any chance of escape.

  ‘Then you’ll go to perdition with me!’ Ghoolion yelled, pointing to the blocked exit. ‘Those Ugglian Oaks don’t seem too eager to save your life.’

  Echo was prepared to fight if the Alchemaster went for him again, but Ghoolion displayed no sign of aggression. Bereft of all his authority, he simply stood there, swaying under the impact of the blows his castle was receiving. It was as if he himself were being struck.

  Yet another violent jolt upset the cauldron. The alchemical soup flowed out across the floor and disappeared down the cracks.

  Ghoolion staggered over to Floria’s corpse. Taking it by the shoulders, he hoisted it into a sitting position. ‘Floria!’ he sobbed. ‘What am I to do?’

  The Alchemaster was begging a cadaver for help! Echo would have liked to revel in his triumph, but this wasn’t the moment. The castle was disintegrating around them. If the building was done for, so were they. Ghoolion’s question to a dead woman wasn’t unjustified. What could they do?

  There were three possible
routes out of the laboratory. One was the doorway, which was hopelessly obstructed. The second was the cauldron, the gateway to another world, but that held little appeal. The third was a window, through which anyone so minded could leap to his death in the town below.

  Izanuela’s route …

  Echo opted for the last-named exit. He looked over at the Alchemaster. Floria’s skeleton rattled as he shook it, but that was her sole response: a shake of the skull.

  ‘Floria!’ he cried again. ‘What am I to do?’

  Ghoolion’s alchemical universe was going up in smoke. The whole laboratory was a mass of crackling flames fed by volatile liquids escaping from shattered retorts. Stones were falling from the ceiling, powdered chemicals swirling into the air, glass vessels exploding, gases hissing. More and more cracks were appearing in the walls. The castle was doomed. It would soon collapse with an almighty crash.

  Echo exchanged a final glance with the Alchemaster. Ghoolion’s expression conveyed none of his former majestic malevolence, just fear and consternation. That was how Echo wanted to remember him: as a pathetic madman.

  Then he turned and leapt off the windowsill.

  ‘No!’ Ghoolion called after him.

  But he was already in free fall.

  Izanuela’s Route

  It was over very quickly - far more quickly than Echo had expected. Wind whistling in his ears, the world rotating around him, four or five aerial somersaults and that was it: the roofs of Malaisea were already gleaming in the moonlight just below him. Izanuela’s route … He shut his eyes.

  Then came the impact and a terrible pain in his neck.

  Strangely enough, though, the pain not only persisted but grew worse. How could it, if he was dead? Would this final pain accompany him to the grave?

  He opened his eyes. Fluttering overhead were Vlad the Seven Hundred and Seventy-Fourth and Vlad the Twelfth - he knew this even though the Leathermice hadn’t introduced themselves. They were gripping him by the scruff of the neck and carrying him ever higher.

  ‘Ouch!’ he said. ‘Many thanks. This is the second time you’ve saved my life. Where are you taking me?’

  ‘This you must see!’ said Vlad the Twelfth. ‘It’s not a sight one sees every day of the week!’

  ‘Our lovely home is going up in smoke,’ sighed Vlad the Seven Hundred and Seventy-Fourth.

  They carried Echo even higher - higher than he’d ever been before. He gazed down at Ghoolion’s castle, which now looked as toylike as the town that lay at its foot. Hundreds of Leathermice were fluttering up here in the night air, many of them silhouetted against the full moon.

  Some of the castle’s windows were belching soot and its walls were wreathed in long plumes of dark dust. It was collapsing, subsiding into the ground like a sinking ship. Lit by intermittent flashes, dense clouds of powdered stone were billowing into the air. The building seemed to be howling with pain as its ancient timbers burst asunder and its subterranean tunnels and chambers filled up with rubble. Chemicals exploded, demolishing walls, and stones rained down on Malaisea. Flames spurted from open windows and mushroom clouds of brown smoke blossomed on all sides.

  ‘I told you it was a sight worth seeing,’ croaked Vlad the Twelfth.

  ‘Our lovely home …’ Vlad the Seven Hundred and Seventy-Fourth said again.

  The castle now turned into a many-armed kraken and its turrets into flexible tentacles that flailed around helplessly before being sucked into the depths. For a moment Echo thought he glimpsed the Alchemaster’s face in the midst of the collapsing ruins, a mask of black tiles contorted with stark terror. Then it folded in on itself and was swallowed up. Storey after storey came crashing down: the mother of all roofs; the Leathermousoleum; the laboratory; the wonderful kitchen; the secret treasure chamber; the galleries containing Ghoolion’s pictures; the lunatic asylum’s deserted wards; the libraries; the labyrinthine cellars; the Alchemaster’s fat collection; the Snow-White Widow’s prison. All these disappeared within the space of a few seconds. It was as if one of Ghoolion’s disaster paintings had come to life, a masterpiece that had devoured its own creator. All that remained was a smoking crater with the town of Malaisea clinging to its lip, miraculously unscathed.

  ‘We’ll never find another loft like that,’ Vlad the Seven Hundred and Seventy-Fourth said sadly. ‘We’ll have to vegetate in barns and caves.’

  Echo couldn’t make out where the Ugglian Oaks had got to, the smoke was too thick, but their music had ceased. Had they withdrawn in good time, or had they shared the castle’s fate?

  ‘We must say goodbye now,’ said Vlad the Twelfth.

  ‘Yes,’ said his companion, ‘we must find ourselves a new abode.’

  ‘Of course,’ said Echo. ‘Just put me down in the town. Anywhere will do.’ The pain in his neck was becoming unbearable.

  ‘No,’ said Vlad the Twelfth, ‘we must say goodbye here and now. Right away.’

  He let go of Echo’s neck. Only one of the Leathermice was supporting him now.

  ‘Hey!’ cried Echo. ‘What are you doing?’

  ‘We don’t know,’ said Vlad the Twelfth, ‘not exactly.’

  ‘You’ve saved my life twice and now you’re going to let me fall to my death?’ Echo protested. ‘You’re joking, aren’t you?’

  ‘No, we aren’t,’ the Leathermice replied in unison.

  ‘But this is crazy!’ Echo cried. ‘I don’t understand.’

  ‘Nobody understands the Leathermice,’ Vlad the Seven Hundred and Seventy-Fourth said darkly, and let go.

  ‘Not even the Leathermice!’ added Vlad the Twelfth.



  And the vampires flew off giggling as Echo plummeted earthwards.

  This time his fall really did take a long time. They had carried him high, high into the sky to a point just short of the clouds. He somersaulted again and again. The full moon and the night sky gyrated around him until he couldn’t stand it any more and shut his eyes.

  But instead of the darkness he was expecting, he saw a golden glow brighter than the interior of Ghoolion’s treasure chamber and, in its midst, regarding him with an amiable smile, was the Golden Squirrel. He could also hear the soothing hum that had accompanied their previous encounter.

  ‘This time we’re really in a fix,’ said the squirrel. ‘I’m here to bring you your third and last insight.’

  ‘I’d forgotten all about you in the excitement,’ Echo replied. He had suddenly become quite calm, nor had he any sensation of falling. Was he still falling? He didn’t care.

  ‘The Cogitating Eggs have developed a special interest in your fate,’ the squirrel went on. ‘They’re hard at work on a plan to make things turn out all right.’

  ‘Really?’ said Echo. The soothing hum was more audible than the last time, he noticed. ‘Why are they so interested?’

  ‘Because you’ve recently become a valuable Crat - the most valuable Crat in Zamonia. The knowledge you’ve gained could prove useful some day.’

  ‘Then the Cogitating Eggs had better be quick,’ said Echo. ‘I shall soon be landing splat on that town down there.’

  ‘I’ll worry about that in due course. Time is standing still while you’re absorbing your last insight. The Cogitating Eggs achieve this by holding their mental breath, or something of the kind. Can you feel the wind in your fur or the irresistible pull of gravity?’


  ‘You see? Relax and enjoy your third insight.’

  Echo really did feel relaxed. With the reassuring hum of the Cogitating Eggs in his ears, he was happy to put his fate in their hands. The golden glow and the squirrel’s friendly voice enhanced the pleasant atmosphere. He was on the point of purring.

  ‘Well, what exactly is this insight?’ he asked serenely.

  ‘This one isn’t like that. It can’t be summarised in a single sentence. It’s a vision.’

  ‘A vision? What of?’

  ‘Ah, to know that you mu
st see it. Visions have to be seen, that’s why they’re called visions. The Cogitating Eggs are currently at work on a way of redirecting your destiny. But I can make no promises! All their work is a mixture of the accurate and the accidental, of precision and pure chance. One can never tell what the end result will be.’

  ‘So how do I get to see this vision?’ Echo asked.

  ‘The way one sees any vision: by opening your eyes.’

  Echo did so and was dazzled. It was broad daylight suddenly. He was still falling, but something strange had happened: the castle was below him once more. Added to that, he was completely enveloped in the scent of Cratmint and surrounded on every side by flowers: red and black roses, marguerites and poppies, flame-red orchids and blue violets, daisies and plum blossom, snowdrops and orange lilies. A long trail of them was streaming out behind him and marking the course of his descent. At last he understood: he was seeing what the Uggly had seen in those last few seconds. This was Izanuela’s downward route!

  The roofs of the town were getting close; soon she would crash into them. That shabby little street down there behind the crematorium: that would be her point of impact. Izanuela drew one more breath, filling her lungs as full as possible with the scent of Cratmint. She held it for a moment, then breathed out - and left her body in its company. Her mortal remains hit the ground somewhere below her, whereas she herself went soaring over the rooftops as light and free as air. Ahead of her lay Uggly Lane, her true destination! Cheerful, contented and intoxicated by her own scent, she swooped down and dived into the lane’s muddy surface, sank through it and mingled with the soil beneath. The countless roots of the Ugglian Oaks absorbed her scent at once. They sucked it in and sent it flowing through their veins.

  A crack appeared in the roadway. It extended from the mouth of Uggly Lane to Izanuela Anazazi’s house. Only an inconspicuous crack, barely a thumb’s breadth wide, but soon more cracks were running off it. Dozens of them at first, then hundreds, they zigzagged in all directions. With a subterranean rumble the ground began to quake and its creeping, crawling inhabitants, alarmed by this phenomenon, fled for their lives.


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