The alchemasters apprent.., p.4
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.4

           Walter Moers
 

  Ghoolion produced a whole succession of sensational delicacies, accompanying each of them with some enlightening piece of information, exciting story or amusing anecdote. Echo had never felt so well entertained or so superlatively well fed. While devouring each course, he watched the Alchemaster busy himself at the stove and listened to his dissertations with rapt attention. The tyrant of Malaisea was showing him some entirely new sides of his personality: those of a perfect host and charming, omniscient raconteur who not only produced one gastronomic sensation after another but served them with the perfect manners of a head waiter in a five-star restaurant. Everything was cooked to a turn, perfectly seasoned, just the right temperature, and as decoratively arranged on the plate as a Florinthian florist’s market stall in springtime. Echo was so enchanted, he forgot all about the next full moon and his impending demise. And Ghoolion continued to produce course after course until, late that night, Echo pronounced himself defeated.

  In the end, the Alchemaster picked up the half-unconscious little Crat, who now weighed twice as much as he had a few hours ago, and carried him into another room, which was kept at a cosy temperature by a big tiled stove. There he deposited him in a wonderful sleeping basket lined with plump cushions, and Echo, purring softly, drifted off into the land of dreams.

  The Leathermousoleum

  When Echo woke up the next morning, it all came back to him in a rush: his contract, the next full moon, being stripped of his fat and stuffed … A prey to gloomy thoughts, he climbed out of his little basket and went slinking through Ghoolion’s sinister domain.

  Although there were no stuffed Cyclopean Mummies or Hazelwitches on the top floor of the castle, the atmosphere was quite intimidating enough for Echo’s taste. The sunlight seemed to be robbed of its luminosity as soon as it streamed in through the tall windows, only to dissipate and disappear down the interminable passages. For the first time, Echo was unpleasantly struck by the absence of the hum of voices to which he’d been accustomed down in the town. Here, all that came to his ears was the melancholy music of the wind, to which motes of dust were dancing in the gloom.

  Shivering, he made his way into the great hall, that prison for prisons filled with long, thin shadows cast by the bars of the cages it contained. He hurried past them with his head down. The cages were empty, but each told the story of one of Ghoolion’s victims and none had ended happily. The teeth and claws embedded in several wooden cages bore witness to their inmates’ desperate attempts to escape, and many an iron bar was encrusted with dried blood. Whether muscular bear or colourful bird of paradise, snake or polecat, Ubufant or Zamingo, all Ghoolion’s captives had ended up in his cauldron. The Ghoolionic Preserver had reduced them to a scent encased in fat and stored in the castle cellar. Echo could conceive of no grislier fate. Everything here reminded him of death.

  But he was hungry nonetheless. Although he had sworn before going to sleep that he would eat nothing for the next three days, all the dishes he’d consumed had been digested. Moreover, Ghoolion’s opulent menu had stretched his stomach to such an extent that it now felt even emptier than before. It dawned on Echo that hunger was considerably easier to endure with an empty belly.

  ‘Ah, there’s my little gourmet!’ Ghoolion exclaimed brightly, as Echo came stealing into the laboratory. He was engaged in weighing some gold dust with little lead weights and a pair of alchemical scales. ‘Sleep well? How about a hearty breakfast?’

  ‘Nice of you to ask,’ Echo replied. ‘I had an excellent sleep, thank you, and I am feeling a trifle hungry - in spite of that banquet last night.’

  ‘Banquet be damned!’ Ghoolion said contemptuously. ‘That was nothing, just a taster. A few hors d’oeuvres.’

  Echo wandered around the laboratory in a subdued frame of mind. Simmering in the cauldron was a large bird whose contorted foot, complete with claws, was protruding from the bubbling brew.

  Ghoolion had noticed Echo seated beside the cauldron. ‘That’s a Doodo,’ he said. ‘Or rather, it was a Doodo. The last of its kind, I’m afraid.’

  ‘Perhaps I’m also the last of my kind,’ Echo said softly, averting his eyes from the gruesome sight.

  ‘That’s quite possible,’ said Ghoolion. ‘More than possible, in fact.’

  Echo was beginning to fathom the Alchemaster’s thought processes. It would never have occurred to Ghoolion that his guest might be distressed by such a heartless remark. Echo’s feelings were a matter of supreme indifference to him. He simply said what he thought, no matter how hurtful.

  Ghoolion jotted down some notes in a notebook, muttering to himself, then reeled off one alchemical formula after another. He seemed to have forgotten all about Echo, who preserved a tactful silence so as not to spoil his host’s concentration. After a while, however, Echo’s little stomach rumbled loudly enough to be heard all over the laboratory. Ghoolion broke off with a start and looked over at him.

  ‘Please forgive me!’ he exclaimed. ‘I’m rather behindhand with my work today, that’s whyI … Listen, how about helping yourself to some breakfast? You need only go up to the roof, where you’ll find everything to your satisfaction.’

  ‘The roof?’ said Echo.

  ‘It’s a fine day and fresh air is healthy. Crats like roaming around on roofs, don’t they?’

  Echo gave a cautious nod. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I like roofs.’

  ‘There’s just one thing…A pure formality.’

  ‘Which is?’

  ‘The Leathermice.’

  ‘What about them?’

  Ghoolion looked up at the ceiling. ‘The loft of this castle belongs to them, in a manner of speaking. An unwritten agreement. I allow them to sleep there undisturbed. In return, they do me the occasional … well, favour.’

  ‘You seem to like making deals with animals,’ Echo remarked.

  Ghoolion ignored this. ‘If you’re going up to the roof,’ he went on, ‘you’ll have to pass through the loft and that’s Leathermouse territory. You must ask permission to cross it, that’s all. It’s just a mark of respect. Unless you’re scared of them?’

  No, Echo wasn’t scared. Leathermice were only mice, after all. Mice with wings, but so what? He wasn’t afraid of their wrinkled faces, or their claws, or their sharp teeth. Crats had claws and teeth themselves - considerably more effective ones than flying mice. They were welcome to try sucking his blood. He would soon show them the difference in status between Crats and Leathermice.

  ‘No,’ he said, ‘I’m not scared.’

  Ghoolion tugged at a string of bones dangling from the ceiling. With a creak, a junk-laden bookcase sank slowly into the floor to reveal a worn old wooden stairway leading up into the darkness.

  ‘That’s the way to the loft,’ said Ghoolion, ‘the Leathermousoleum, as I call it. It is rather reminiscent of a tomb, just as the Leathermice are rather morbid creatures. Give them my regards!’

  He readdressed himself to his grains of gold dust.

  ‘You can talk to them. I can’t, unfortunately. How I envy your ability to converse with animals! To think of all the mysteries of nature I could glean from them!’

  Oh yes, thought Echo, he’d love to be able to converse with animals. He’d probably stretch them on the rack and interrogate them with the aid of thumbscrews and the garrotte.

  ‘Carry on,’ Ghoolion called. ‘Enjoy yourself on the roof.’

  Echo was now standing at the entrance, peering up into the gloom. The stairs were very ancient, the wooden treads worn away and worm-eaten. They looked thoroughly uninviting, each step being warped and eroded in its own particular way. In the dim light, Echo seemed to see gaping mouths filled with splintered wooden teeth, glaring eye sockets and ferocious phantoms. It was all he could do to mount the first step, which emitted an agonised groan at the touch of his paw.

  ‘Up you go,’ Ghoolion called again. ‘They can support my heavy old bones, so a flyweight like you has nothing to fear.’

  Gingerly, Echo started to climb. The s
tairwell really did smell of millennially stale air and rotting cadavers, like an ancient tomb unopened for an eternity, but he bravely persevered, step by step. The higher he went, the darker and mustier it became. The existing smells were joined before long by an acrid stench. Below him, he heard Ghoolion haul on the string of bones, and the bookcase began to creak back into its original position.

  ‘Don’t worry,’ called the Alchemaster, ‘they only bite at night!’ Then everything went pitch-black.

  Echo’s throat tightened and his legs trembled a little, but he valiantly climbed on, feeling for each step with his forepaws. This ‘mark of respect’, as Ghoolion had called it - he wanted to get it over as soon as possible. What cheek! Nobody had ever said anything about his having to be nice to some lousy Leathermice in order to reach his breakfast. The acrid stench was now so strong that he gagged despite himself.

  ‘Hello?’ he called. ‘Leathermice?’

  He couldn’t detect any more stairs ahead, so he must have reached the top. The floor beneath his paws felt rough and uneven. Above him, in the little light available, he seemed to see a high, vaulted ceiling. Only a few rays of sunlight were piercing the dark grey dome like silver needles.

  ‘Leathermice?’ he called again. Were there any Leathermice up here, or was it all a poor joke on the part of Ghoolion, who wanted to put him to the test? No, Ghoolion didn’t make jokes.

  Echo pricked up his ears. Yes, there was something there - or someone. He could hear a sound like fingers leafing slowly through an ancient book whose pages were stuck together. A rustling, sibilant sound.

  ‘Leathermice?’ he called for the third time.

  ‘You’re repeating yourself,’ said a high-pitched, piping voice in the gloom. It sounded snappish and hostile. ‘Yes, there are some Leathermice here. What do you want?’

  Echo didn’t hesitate. ‘Alchemaster Ghoolion sent me. I have to get to the roof and I’m told I need your permission.’

  ‘Oh, really?’ said the voice, half wary, half contemptuous.

  ‘Yes, really,’ said Echo. He decided to adopt a brisk, self-assured manner. Show no weakness, he told himself. Impudence wins the day.

  ‘To be honest, though,’ he went on, ‘I don’t give a damn for your permission. I’m going up to the roof anyway. I don’t need the consent of a bunch of mice.’

  ‘We aren’t mice, we’re Leathermice.’

  ‘Mice, Leathermice - what’s the difference?’ Echo said scornfully.

  ‘We can fly.’

  ‘We can bite.’

  ‘We can suck blood.’

  This time, Echo got the impression that three different voices had answered him. Now that his eyes were slowly getting used to the darkness, he could see more and more. Something was stirring overhead - no, the whole ceiling was in motion! At first he thought the wind was disturbing some animal hides Ghoolion had hung up on washing lines to dry. But this was movement of a different, animate nature. Long, leathery wings were being unfolded, sharp claws unsheathed, teeth bared. Evil little eyes were staring at him in the gloom. Nestling close together upside down, the vampires were suspended above him like a single, gigantic creature. Echo had expected them to number at least a few dozen, possibly even a few hundred, but he now saw to his consternation that they were clinging to the rafters in their thousands.

  His eyes had finally become accustomed to the lighting conditions, so he could now identify the source of the acrid smell that was almost stupefying him. The rough, uneven floor beneath him was really an expanse of desiccated Leathermouse excrement. He was standing on all four paws in the midst of the biggest sewer in Malaisea.

  ‘What do you propose to do if we withhold our permission?’ demanded a voice overhead.

  Echo urgently needed a new strategy. Grabbing a Leathermouse and roughing it up in front of the others - that had been his original plan. One brief but painful object lesson and the rest would soon knuckle under, he’d thought, but he was now forced to concede that it wouldn’t be that easy. Far from it. He was overwhelmingly outnumbered.

  ‘Well,’ asked a Leathermouse, ‘Crat got your tongue?’

  Echo strove to remain calm. He couldn’t afford to lose his nerve. Was this a trap? A ritual? Was he a gift from Ghoolion, a sacrificial offering to the occupants of his loft? He didn’t stand a chance against them, that was abundantly clear. They would descend on him en masse and bury him beneath them like a corpse in a leather shroud. They would sink their sharp teeth in him and suck him dry within seconds. One more offensive remark, one false move, and there would be nothing left of him but a bloodless husk, a Cratskin riddled with holes. He had no idea where the exit to the roof was and his line of retreat was blocked. He had walked into the trap like a brainless rat unable to keep its paws off a piece of cheese. Breakfast on the roof? He himself was the breakfast in question.

  ‘We’re waiting for an answer!’ came a menacing hiss from the darkness.

  Echo had to weigh his next words with the utmost care. What tone should one adopt towards a multitude of mortally offended vampire bats? Submissive? Sincere? Bumptious? Disingenuous? All he knew was that his next remark must incorporate a reference to the Alchemaster. If the Leathermice respected anyone at all, that person was their landlord. It suddenly occurred to Echo that Ghoolion had asked him to give them his regards.

  ‘Ghoolion sent me, as I told you,’ he called. ‘Alchemaster Ghoolion, your landlord. Ghoolion the Mighty, whose guest I am. I’m here on his behalf. He asked me to give you his best regards.’ Echo tried to sound as self-assured as before, but he failed.

  ‘So you already said,’ a Leathermouse retorted.

  ‘Very generous of him,’ said another.

  ‘Generous?’ Echo said cautiously. ‘For sending you his regards?’

  ‘No, not his regards.’

  ‘What, then?’

  ‘You.’

  ‘Me?’ Echo was slow to catch on.

  ‘Yes, it’s generous of him to have sent you.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Well, it’s been ages since we had a pudding that could miaow.’

  A derisive snarl filled the air - presumably the Leathermouse equivalent of approving laughter. Echo instinctively went into a crouch, but he suppressed the urge to arch his back or hiss. He was a Crat, not a cat. Now was the time for brains, not claws. Deliberation, not action. Diplomacy, not war.

  ‘A pudding?’ he said. ‘At this hour of the morning?’

  ‘With us it’s late at night. We turn night into day and day into night. We’ve just been gorging ourselves on the blood of the local inhabitants. Now we could do with a nice pudding.’

  A Leathermouse belched unashamedly.

  Echo crouched down even lower. So he really was a sacrificial offering - that was the only reason Ghoolion had fed him yesterday. All that talk about fattening him up for fat extraction had been just a hoax.

  ‘I understand,’ he said softly.

  ‘No, you don’t. Nobody understands us Leathermice.’

  ‘You’re right, friend!’ cried another vampire. ‘Nobody understands us Leathermice.’

  ‘Nobody!’

  ‘Nobody!’

  ‘Nobody!’

  Echo had little choice now but to play for time. And to hope, either that he would have a flash of inspiration or that chance would come to his aid. Should he miaow at the top of his voice? Should he caterwaul for Ghoolion? No, they would be on him in a flash. So what else? In the animal world there were usually only two possible courses of action when you were confronted by a dangerous enemy: attack or make a run for it. He could do neither, but he did have a third option. He must surely be the first of Ghoolion’s sacrificial offerings capable of conversing with Leathermice. It was up to him to exploit that unique advantage.

  ‘Does Ghoolion owe you something?’ he asked. ‘Is that why I’m being sacrificed?’

  ‘What business is it of yours?’ snapped a Leathermouse.

  ‘Well, it’s not much consolation, bu
t if I’ve got to die, I’d at least like to know why.’

  ‘You’re in no position to make demands!’

  ‘Oh, come, my friends!’ called another Leathermouse. ‘It’s only fair. If we’re going to bump him off, he ought to know why.’

  ‘Who says we’ve got to be fair? The others never asked us any stupid questions.’

  ‘That’s because they couldn’t communicate with you,’ Echo put in quickly.

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!

  ‘True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True! True!’

  The cries of assent came from all directions.

  ‘So does Ghoolion owe you something?’ Echo asked again.

  ‘Hm …’ growled a Leathermouse. ‘That would be an exaggeration. We don’t owe each other anything at all - ours is a kind of marriage of convenience. One partner gives something, the other gives something back. That way, everyone benefits.’

  ‘How interesting!’ said Echo, only to be floored again. What did one talk about to Leathermice? He’d already run out of questions.

  ‘But tell us,’ called a voice high up in the rafters, ‘how is it we can understand you? We’ve never understood what a cat says before.’

 

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