The alchemasters apprent.., p.7
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.7

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘Is that a fact?’ Echo said warily. ‘When was the last time you cracked one?’

  Ghoolion thought for a moment. ‘The last time? Let’s see. It was, er … er …’

  ‘Well?’

  ‘It was …’ Ghoolion was clearly racking his brains. ‘It was … Good heavens, it was when I was a student!’

  For the first time, Echo detected something in Ghoolion’s expression that wasn’t born of a cold heart or iron self-control: a look of genuine dismay. However, it disappeared as quickly as it had come, to be replaced by his habitual mask of authority and grim determination.

  ‘Well?’ he snarled suddenly. ‘Shall I cook us a ghost or not?’

  Echo recoiled. Ghoolion’s tone was as sharp as a sword thrust.

  ‘Please do,’ he said in a subdued voice.

  The Alchemaster laid the bellows aside and drew his cloak around him. ‘Alchemists have always engaged in a variety of ludicrous attempts to transform one substance into another,’ he said. ‘Lead into gold, blood into wine, wine into blood, wood into bread, bread into diamonds. It used to be considered quite professional for an alchemist to sprinkle a stone with magnetised quicksilver when the moon was full and hope that it would turn into marzipan.’

  ‘But lead into gold - that works, doesn’t it?’ Echo asked diffidently. He had heard of such a feat at some stage.

  Ghoolion sighed. ‘I can see that, alchemistically speaking, your state of knowledge is that of a medieval village idiot. I shall have to begin at rock bottom.’

  The little Crat gave another start, but not at a thunderclap this time. The Alchemaster could be really hurtful at times. He moved away, looking offended.

  ‘Gold and lead!’ Ghoolion said scornfully. ‘Those early alchemists tried to transform two of the densest substances on our planet.’

  Echo had crept behind an untidy stack of battered old books.

  ‘Well?’ he called from his hiding place. ‘Why not?’

  ‘The denser the substance, the less susceptible it is of transformation,’ Ghoolion replied. ‘You might as well try to teach a brick to fly. Volatile substances are our only chance - any well-informed alchemist will tell you that.’

  Ghoolion uncorked a glass bottle containing a reddish liquid, thereby releasing a tiny cloud of pink vapour. Echo could have sworn the vapour giggled as it dispersed. His curiosity rearoused, he emerged from his hiding place.

  Ghoolion was now standing in front of an oil painting, a most impressive representation of a volcanic eruption.

  ‘The years of study I’ve devoted to painting disasters have taught me an important lesson,’ he said, engrossed in the picture. ‘No one who has observed how systematically a fire incinerates a town, how methodically a volcano buries a village in lava, how deliberately a tornado ravages an island, or how murderously a tsunami inundates a whole stretch of coastline and all its inhabitants, can believe that those natural forces act blindly. They think - they’re rational beings like you and me!’

  As if to confirm this audacious theory, there was a blinding flash outside, followed almost immediately by a peal of thunder.

  Echo flinched. ‘But a thunderbolt like that one can’t have anything very nice in mind.’

  ‘Of course not,’ Ghoolion said brusquely. ‘Elemental forces think elemental, violent thoughts. Destruction is their purpose in life, their function, their destiny. They cleanse the earth of inessentials without compunction, without wasting an ounce of their strength on mercy or compassion. They think big.’ The Alchemaster continued to gaze at the painting. ‘But the crucial question is,’ he went on, ‘how do their thoughts manifest themselves?’

  Echo strove to picture the thoughts of a forest fire, but his powers of imagination were insufficient. All he could visualise were billowing flames and charred trees.

  ‘Where there’s fire there’s smoke,’ said Ghoolion. ‘Once you’ve managed to conceive of smoke as the cogitations of fire, the stench of sulphur as a volcano’s nightmare and steam as the ideas of a geyser, you soon come to realise that the whole earth is a living, thinking being.’

  Echo didn’t like the turn the conversation was taking, nor did he care for Ghoolion’s increasingly ominous tone of voice. Another flash of lightning lit up the laboratory and an ear-splitting peal of thunder set all its glass vessels rattling.

  ‘If the earth is a living, thinking being,’ said Ghoolion, raising his voice to make himself heard above the tempest raging outside, ‘I should be able to find a way to read its mind. To read and decipher its thoughts and ultimately, even, to influence them!’

  A violent gust of wind blew into the laboratory, causing the Anguish Candles to flicker wildly and utter moans expressive of their hopes of being extinguished. Memorandum sheets went fluttering through the air and animal skeletons tinkled like xylophones. Then the wind dropped. The Anguish Candles stopped flickering and resumed their customary lamentations.

  ‘Yes!’ cried Ghoolion. ‘Then I could take a hand in the process of creation - in Nature’s everlasting creative activities, which are forever bringing forth new life!’

  Half a dozen thunderbolts exploded simultaneously, all round the tower. They lit up the laboratory as bright as day, projecting multiple versions of the Alchemaster’s shadow on the walls. Startled, Echo dived under a stool. He waited anxiously for the thunder to die away, then asked in a tremulous voice: ‘When are we going to do our trick, Master?’

  Ghoolion stared at him vaguely, like someone suffering from memory loss and trying to recall the name of the person addressing him.

  ‘Hm?’ he said. He peered into the massive cauldron. ‘The ghost brew is hot enough,’ he muttered. ‘The electrification of the atmosphere and the extreme humidity shouldn’t be detrimental to the success of the experiment - conditions are positively ideal, in fact. Good, let’s begin. I’m going to cook a ghost. Will you assist me?’

  ‘Only if I don’t have to eat it!’ Echo replied.

  Ghoolion laughed hoarsely. ‘Don’t worry. We can start right away. Everything is in readiness.’

  He went over to an iron cabinet and opened it. A dense cloud of icy vapour flowed out, almost concealing him from view as he rummaged around inside. At length he brought out two balls of fat and held them up to the candlelight.

  ‘Graveyard Gas and Murkholm Mist,’ he said. ‘That’s all we need. This is going to be a very simple ghost.’

  He closed the cabinet, strode back to the cauldron and tossed one of the balls into the seething liquid. As it melted, Echo heard a high-pitched, long-drawn-out sigh that almost froze his blood.

  ‘That was some gas from the Graveyard Marshes near Dullsgard,’ Ghoolion explained. ‘It doesn’t matter much what former living creature it belonged to. It’s dead, that’s the main thing.’

  Echo plucked up his courage and leapt on to a table for a better view of what was happening inside the cauldron.

  Ghoolion tossed the second ball into the brew. As the fat melted, a tiny white snake wriggled out of it, swam around on the seething surface for a while and then submerged.

  ‘That was a sample of Murkholm Mist. Incredible, the treatment that semi-organic substance can stand. You can boil it in water, even in molten lead or hydrochloric acid. You can put it in the alchemical furnace and subject it to extreme temperatures. You can encase it in ice for a year, marinate it in mercury, shut it up in a vacuum, batter it with a sledgehammer. None of those things will affect it. But watch …’

  Ghoolion produced a flute from his cloak. Then he put it to his lips and proceeded to play a simple, melodious tune that sounded like the setting to a nursery rhyme. The vaporous white snake surfaced once more, writhing like a worm on a hook. Ghoolion stopped playing.

  ‘Music. Music drives it insane,’ he said. ‘It can’t endure music, however beautiful, except trombophone music. You see? It’s dying. It’s committing suicide by dissolving in the water. Now it’s combining with the Graveyard Gas. That’s the second stage.’

&n
bsp; Echo watched in fascination as the vaporous snake sank beneath the surface of the brew and dissolved. Hearing a noise, he looked over at the Leyden Manikins. For some reason they had started to rampage around inside their jars and hammer on the glass sides. Ghoolion paid no attention. Reaching into the pocket of his cloak, he brought out some black powder and tossed it into the cauldron. The liquid reacted in a surprising manner. It turned green, then red, then purple and finally green again.

  ‘The desiccated dung of Time-Snails,’ said Ghoolion, as casually as if he’d added a pinch of pepper. ‘What happens next has no real scientific basis. It’s simply a way of killing time until the requisite chemical and interdimensional processes in the cauldron have taken place. This is when the traditional spells are chanted. They don’t do a thing, but I can’t help it, I’m fond of the old hocus-pocus.’

  He cleared his throat, threw up his arms and declaimed: ‘Let my magic brew revive

  that which used to be alive.

  Let my bubbling cauldron seethe

  till the creature starts to breathe.

  Brought to life it then shall be

  by the power of alchemy.’

  Echo, who was watching everything closely from his elevated vantage point, saw the contents of the cauldron change colour several times and release some iridescent bubbles, which went floating across the laboratory. Ghoolion continued to declaim:‘Graveyard Gas and Murkholm Mist,

  mingled by an alchemist,

  can from their mephitic haze

  other-worldly phantoms raise.

  Spirit, from my brew arise

  and take shape before our eyes!’

  The liquid swirled up and down, down and up, and the rising bubbles were sucked back into the depths by the little whirlpools that formed here and there. Echo had never seen a liquid behave so strangely. The longer he looked at it, the more he thought he glimpsed objects beneath the surface - alarming, shadowy shapes, as if the cauldron were a window into another world. Then the brew rose at several points like a cloth with something moving beneath it. The depths of the cauldron emitted a growl like that of a beast preparing to pounce at any moment. Echo instinctively retreated a few steps, even though he was up on a table and several feet from what was happening.

  ‘Hearken, ghost, to what I say,

  and my potent spell obey!

  Quit your home in Death’s domain,

  realm of sorrow and of pain,

  hasten through the nameless portals

  that divide the dead from mortals!’

  The brew became transformed into a miniature sea in a violent storm, an expanse of countless tiny waves, all of which were converging on a focal point. There, in defiance of every law of nature, the foam-capped, snow-white liquid rose into the air. Ghoolion threw up his arms again and cried:‘Spirit, let your froth and spume

  semi-human form assume.

  But with arms and legs dispense

  - they’d be an irrelevance.

  Simply let your weird ensemble

  washing on a line resemble!’

  The foam swirled upwards like a waterspout, fell back again, then resumed its steady ascent. Echo stepped back and tripped over an old book, almost singeing his tail on an Anguish Candle. The waterspout was now an amorphous shape expanding both upwards and outwards. Echo wondered apprehensively how big the ghost would eventually become. Already as tall as the Alchemaster and still growing, it looked like a shred of wind-wafted silk woven from luminous yarn - a ghostly thing that moved in obedience to the natural laws of another world. Only the thinnest of threads still connected it to the cauldron above which it was floating.

  ‘Now the time has come for you

  from the cauldron’s bubbling brew

  to emerge and bid farewell

  to the regions where you dwell.

  Summoned by my mystic powers,

  leave your world and enter ours!’

  As if actually obeying the Alchemaster’s command, the luminous Something swayed left, then right, then reared upwards. All at once the thread of froth that had connected it to the cauldron snapped, enabling it to drift freely around the laboratory.

  Exhausted, Ghoolion lowered his arms. The thunder had dwindled to a distant rumble. As though resentful of its inability to compete with the happenings in Ghoolion’s abode, the storm had moved on and was raging elsewhere.

  ‘That’s it!’ cried Ghoolion. He sounded relieved. ‘A Cooked Ghost - a trick extremely popular with apprentice alchemists.’

  The disembodied spirit was drifting around like a skein of mist - aimlessly, it seemed. Having floated past the bookshelves and over the Ghoolionic Preserver, it made a sudden beeline for Echo.

  Terrified, he jumped off the table and darted across the laboratory, but their strange guest remained hard on his heels. He vaulted over benches, dived under tables and between piles of books and chair legs, but he failed to shake off his pursuer. Ghoolion burst out laughing.

  At length, completely out of breath, Echo cowered down beneath a chair while the ghost hovered overhead, fluttering like a sheet on a washing line.

  ‘What do I do now, Master?’ Echo asked plaintively. ‘What does it want?’

  ‘You’d better just get used to it,’ Ghoolion told him. ‘It’s a ghost, but it’s quite harmless. It can neither see nor hear. However, Cooked Ghosts sometimes develop an affection for persons present when they materialise, so we assume that they have certain feelings.’

  ‘You mean it likes me?’

  ‘You could put it that way, although we don’t know whether ghosts “like” anything at all. They themselves are nothing, really. They feel no pain, are devoid of intelligence and have no intentions of any kind, either good or bad. That, at all events, is our present state of alchemistic knowledge. They cannot invade our dimension physically, just as nothing in our dimension can touch a ghost. From now on, this one will drift around our world for ever. It’s bound to frighten a lot of people. Anyone ignorant of alchemy will get a terrible shock when it suddenly floats in through one bedroom wall and sails out through the other. Many people will probably die of shock. Or lose their wits.’ Ghoolion grinned malignly at the thought. ‘Yet it’s as harmless as a fair-weather cloud.’

  ‘Why doesn’t it simply fly away?’ Echo enquired from his refuge.

  ‘It seems to feel at home here. For some reason Cooked Ghosts enjoy being in old, ruined buildings. Perhaps they like the sensation of floating through ancient stonework. Hence the stories of castles inhabited by the restless spirits of departed ancestors.’

  Echo looked up at the ghost, which was still hovering above him. It was, in fact, a beautiful sight, like a lustrous, flowing silver robe. Suddenly, however, he thought he caught a momentary glimpse of a weird face in its undulating folds. That startled him so much that he crouched down even lower beneath the chair.

  ‘But I can shoo it away if you prefer,’ said Ghoolion.

  ‘Could you really? In that case, please do! Please make it go away!’

  Ghoolion simply raised his arms and took a couple of steps towards the ghost. Instantly, it rotated on its own axis, then raced round the laboratory, dived into the dark stonework between two bookcases and disappeared.

  ‘For some unknown reason,’ Ghoolion said with a sigh, ‘I have a deterrent effect on Cooked Ghosts. They never trust me. Odd, isn’t it?’

  ‘Yes,’ said Echo, ‘very odd.’

  Master and Pupil

  Echo was now on fire with curiosity and intensely eager to learn more about the Alchemaster’s technique. What he didn’t know was that the Cooked Ghost’s materialisation was an age-old trick forming part of every experienced alchemist’s repertoire and designed to recruit apprentices.

  Ghoolion’s plan was both simple and perfidious. What he needed for his experiments was a compendium of alchemistic knowledge, his own and other people’s. It would not, unfortunately, suffice to toss an alchemistic encyclopedia and his own scientific notes into the cauldron and boil
them up together, as the quacks of olden days might have done. No, according to his calculations that knowledge had to be transmitted from one brain to another by telepathic means. He would have to drum it into the little Crat’s head in the old-fashioned way, so that he could boil it out again at a later stage. Echo was the only living creature in Malaisea capable of understanding him and absorbing his esoteric knowledge like a sponge. That was the true reason why the Alchemaster was willing to entrust the little Crat with something as well-guarded as the fundamental secrets of alchemy, together with the knowledge he himself had acquired.

  Meanwhile, Echo believed that all this was being done purely for his personal amusement and entertainment. Being haunted by dark thoughts of his impending doom whenever he wasn’t busy eating or sleeping, he welcomed any occasion on which Ghoolion favoured him with his presence and his fascinating store of expert knowledge. He believed that the old alchemist did this partly for reasons of vanity and partly from a pent-up desire to communicate bred by long years of solitude.

  You had to grant Ghoolion one thing: he was a brilliant teacher. Whenever he transformed himself into a sympathetic, omniscient mentor for Echo’s benefit, his whole demeanour changed. He sloughed off all his demonic, domineering, hectoring mannerisms like an ugly cocoon, his strident voice sank to a melodious murmur, his despotic manner vanished and his grim visage transformed itself into a kindly countenance.

  He never gave Echo the feeling that he was teaching him something, far less drumming it into his head. No, Ghoolion’s lessons always took the form of a friendly chat, which only happened to touch on the weightiest problems of alchemy, and Echo played the carefree role of a naive prompter and questioner. He believed that all the mental exertion was undertaken by Ghoolion, who had to extract all this information from his vast treasure house of knowledge and expound it. In reality, however, it was Echo whose brains were being put to the test, because he was using a Crat’s true intellectual capacity for the very first time.

 

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