The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.1Walter Moers
Table of Contents
Ghoolion the Terrible
The Alchemaster’s Castle
The Fat Collection
The Alchemaster and the Ugglies
Invisible Caviar and Sewer Dragon’s Knilch
The Mother of All Roofs
The Cooked Ghost
Master and Pupil
The Smallest Story in Zamonia
Ghoolion’s Torture Chamber
A Legal Consultation
The Wine Tasting
The Tree of Nutledge
The Fat Cellar
The Snow-White Widow
The Golden Squirrel
Black Pudding and Vampirism
The Rusty Goblins
The Last Uggly in Malaisea
The Second Nut
The Botanical Theatre
The Cheese Museum
Alchemy and Ugglimy
The Love Potion
Ghoolion Gets Busy
The Wedding Gown
The Engagement Party
The Last Breakfast
The Treasure Chamber
The Wrong Heart
A Temporary Reprieve
The Dance of Death
Love at First Sight
ALSO BY WALTER MOERS
The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear
A Wild Ride through the Night
The City of Dreaming Books
This edition first published in the United States in 2009 by
The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.
141 Wooster Street
New York, NY 10012
Copyright © Piper Verlag GmbH, München 2007 Translation copyright © 2009 John Brownjohn
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.
Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available from the Library of Congress
eISBN : 978-1-590-20518-1
‘Up is down and ugly is beautiful.’
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.
Picture to yourself the sickest place in the whole of Zamonia! A little town with winding streets and crooked houses, and looming over it a creepy-looking castle perched on a black crag. A town afflicted by the rarest bacteria and the oddest diseases: cerebral whooping cough, hepatic migraine, gastric mumps, intestinal acne, digital tinnitus, renal measles, mini-influenza, to which only persons less than one metre tall are susceptible, witchinghour headaches that develop on the stroke of midnight and disappear at one a.m. precisely on the first Thursday of every month, phantom toothaches experienced only by persons wearing a full set of dentures.
Picture a town where there are more apothecaries and herbalists, quacks and tooth-pullers, crutch manufacturers and bandage weavers than anywhere else on the Zamonian continent. Where ‘Ouch!’ is the conventional form of greeting and ‘Get well soon!’ takes the place of ‘Goodbye’. Where the air smells of ether and pus, cod-liver oil and emetics, iodine and putrefaction. Where people vegetate and wheeze instead of living and breathing. Where nobody laughs, just moans and groans.
Picture a place where the buildings look as sick as their occupants: houses with hump-backed roofs and leprous façades from which shingles keep falling and plaster dust trickles down the walls - houses precariously leaning on each other like cripples in danger of collapse or precariously poised on crutches of scaffolding.
Can you imagine that? Good. Then you’re in Malaisea.
Living in Malaisea shortly before our story begins was an old woman who had a Crat1 she named Echo. She had christened him that because, unlike all the cats she had previously owned, he could talk.
The old woman’s death - she died of old age, peacefully and in her sleep - was the first true stroke of misfortune Echo had ever experienced. Until then he had led a thoroughly comfortable feline existence complete with regular meals, plenty of fresh milk, a roof over his head and a tray of Crat litter emptied twice a day.
But now he found himself back on the street, having been locked out by the new owners of the house, who were anything but Crat lovers. Little Echo lacked the criminal initiative essential for survival in the merciless world of the streets, so it wasn’t long before he became terribly run-down and emaciated. Chased away from every door, bitten and roughed-up by roving dogs, he lost his joie de vivre, his healthy instincts - even his glossy fur - and looked more like a wraith than a Crat. He felt he had hit rock bottom as he sat there on the pavement with his matted fur falling out in tufts, begging passers-by for something to eat.
But the inhabitants of Malaisea, whether human, Demidwarf or Turniphead, shuffled heedlessly, mechanically, past him like sleep-walkers, just as they had always done. Their faces were pale and anaemic, their dark-rimmed eyes glassy and mournful. They made their way along with heads bowed and shoulders sagging, many of them looking as if they might expire at any moment. Some were racked with terrible coughs, others wheezed or sneezed and blew their noses on voluminous, bloodstained handkerchiefs, and many wore warm scarves round their necks. But this was nothing out of the ordinary. All the townsfolk of Malaisea looked like that every day - and the reason for their appearance had just turned the corner.
Ghoolion the Terrible
For, just to set the seal on this dismal scene, Malaisea’s alchemist-in-chief, the Alchemaster, was coming. If ever a nightmare decided to materialise and go walking through the real world, old Ghoolion’s was the form it would choose to adopt. Like a scarecrow or a figure from a chamber of horrors come to life, Ghoolion put all living creatures to flight, from the smallest beetle to the strongest warrior. He seemed to stride along to the strains of some terrible march inaudible to anyone but himself, and everyone avoided his searing gaze for fear of being blinded, hypnotised or accursed. Ghoolion was well aware that everyone hated and feared him. He not only revelled in that knowledge but seized every opportunity to spread panic throughout the streets of Malaisea.
He had nailed iron plates to the soles of his boots so that his brisk footsteps could be heard when he was still several streets away, and his bone chain of office rattled like the skeleton of a hanged man swinging in the wind. He gave off an acrid, noxious smell, an effluvium compounded of all th
The street emptied in a flash. Only the emaciated little Crat continued to sit there as Ghoolion rounded the corner and focused his piercing gaze on the only creature bold enough to bar his path. But Echo didn’t take to his heels even then; his one remaining fear was the prospect of starving to death, which now governed all he did. Even if a pack of savage Woodwolves had appeared with a Spiderwitch at their head, Echo would still have sat tight in the vain hope that one of them would toss him a morsel of something edible.
So Ghoolion drew nearer and nearer. Coming to a halt, he bent down and submitted the little Crat to a long, pitiless stare. The breeze stirred his necklace of bones and his eyes shone with undisguised pleasure at the sufferings of a creature so close to death. The stench of ammonia and ether, sulphur and naphtha, prussic acid and quicklime stung Echo’s sensitive little nose like a swarm of bees, but he didn’t budge an inch.
‘Can you spare me a morsel to eat, Sir Alchemaster?’ he whimpered pathetically. ‘I’m awfully hungry.’
Ghoolion’s eyes gleamed even more demonically and a broad grin appeared on his bloodless gargoyle of a face. He put out a long, spindly forefinger and ran it over Echo’s protruding ribs.
‘So you can speak, can you?’ he said. ‘Then you aren’t an ordinary cat, you’re a Crat. One of the last surviving specimens of your breed.’ His eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. ‘How about selling me your body fat?’
‘Very funny, Sir Alchemaster,’ Echo replied politely. ‘I’m very partial to black humour, so you’re welcome to poke fun at a poor little Crat with one paw in the grave. However, please forgive me for not laughing at this particular moment. The laugh stuck in my throat and I was so hungry I swallowed it.’
‘I’m not joking,’ snapped Ghoolion. ‘I never make jokes. Besides, I’m not talking about the fat on your ribs at present - there isn’t any. I mean the fat you’re going to put on.’
‘Put on?’ Echo was puzzled but suddenly hopeful. The very words sounded nutritious.
‘It’s like this …’ said Ghoolion, modifying his tone of voice until it sounded almost amiable. ‘Crat fat is a well-established aid to alchemistic research. It preserves the smell of bubonic plague three times more effectively than dog’s fat. Leyden Manikins impregnated with Crat fat remain animate for twice as long as usual, and it lubricates a perpetual-motion machine better than any other form of grease.’
‘Delighted to hear that my breed is capable of producing a substance of such high quality,’ Echo said almost inaudibly. ‘At the moment, though, I can’t spare a single ounce.’
‘I can see that for myself,’ said Ghoolion, sounding stern and overbearing once more. ‘I shall fatten you up.’
‘Fatten me up?’ thought Echo. That sounded more nutritious still.
‘I shall feed you as you’ve never been fed before. I shall prepare your meals personally, because I’m not only an alchemistic virtuoso but a master chef. I’m talking about the most exquisite delicacies, not just common or garden Crat food. I’m talking about parfaits and soufflés, poached quails’ eggs and frogs’ tongues in aspic, tuna tartare and bird’s-nest soup.’
Although he had never heard of such dishes, Echo’s mouth was watering. ‘And what do I have to do in return?’
‘Donate your fat, as I said. We alchemists need it, but it only works if we acquire it on a voluntary basis. We can’t just go out and slaughter a couple of Crats, more’s the pity.’ Ghoolion sighed and shrugged his bony shoulders.
‘I see,’ said Echo. He was beginning to get the Alchemaster’s drift.
‘We’ll strike a bargain, we creatures of the night. It’s full moon today. I’ll undertake to feed you till the next full moon - regale you with dishes of the highest quality. Parfaits and soufflés, poached quails’ eggs and -’
‘Yes, yes,’ Echo broke in, ‘please get to the point.’
‘Well, then you keep your part of the bargain. I’m afraid there’s still no way of extracting a Crat’s fat without … Need I say more?’
Ghoolion drew a long, sharp fingernail across his throat, just below the Adam’s apple.
Echo gave an involuntary gulp.
‘But one thing I promise you,’ Ghoolion said proudly. ‘Between now and the next full moon you’ll have the time of your life. I’ll introduce you to gastronomic pleasures no Crat has ever experienced before. I’ll transport you to a peak of culinary perfection from which you can look down like a king on your own kind and all the other domesticated felines that have to eat stale codfish out of a bowl. I’ll show you around my secret garden on the highest roof in Malaisea, which contains the most delightful nooks and hideaways any Crat could dream of. That’s where you’ll be able to walk off your meals and nibble digestive herbs if ever too much rich food upsets your stomach. Then you can go on gorging yourself. Delicious Cratmint grows there, too.’
‘Ah, Cratmint,’ Echo purred wistfully.
‘But that’s not all, oh no! You’ll sleep on the softest cushions beside the warmest stoves in town. I shall attend to your well-being in every respect. And to your entertainment! You’ll have the most enjoyable time you’ve ever had, I promise - and the most exciting and educational. You’ll be permitted to watch me at work, even on the most arcane experiments. I shall let you into secrets which even the most experienced alchemist would give his eye teeth to know. After all, you won’t get a chance to use them yourself.’ Ghoolion uttered a cruel laugh, then submitted Echo to another piercing stare. ‘Well, how about it?’
‘I don’t know,’ Echo said hesitantly. ‘I’m rather fond of life …’
‘But you Crats are reputed to have eight lives.’ Ghoolion bared his yellow teeth in an evil grin. ‘All I want is one.’
‘Sorry, but I believe in only one life before death,’ said Echo. ‘The other seven don’t count.’
The Alchemaster drew himself up with a jerk, rattling like an articulated skeleton.
‘I’m wasting my time here,’ he snapped. ‘There are plenty of other desperate animals in this town. Au revoir! No, goodbye for ever! I wish you a long and agonising death by starvation. Three days of torment, at a guess - four at most. You’ll feel as if you’re devouring yourself from inside out.’
Echo had already been feeling like that for several days. ‘One moment,’ he said. ‘Full board and lodging? Till the next full moon?’
Ghoolion, who had turned away, paused and glanced back over his shoulder.
‘Yes indeed, till the next full moon,’ he whispered seductively. ‘The finest gourmet cuisine. Poached turbot afloat in a sea of milk. Menus with so many courses you’ll lose count of them. That’s my final offer.’
Echo thought it over. What had he got to lose? He could either die empty-bellied within three agonising days or survive with a full stomach for another thirty.
‘Cratmint?’ he asked softly.
‘Cratmint,’ Ghoolion assured him. ‘In full bloom.’
‘Done,’ said Echo, and he held out a trembling little paw.
The Alchemaster’s Castle
Although the town of Malaisea contained plenty of weird buildings in which weird things occurred, Alchemaster Ghoolion’s castle and the things that occurred there were the weirdest of all. Erected on a hill in very ancient times, it overlooked the town like an eagle’s eyrie. The whole of Malaisea could be seen from there, just as there wasn’t a single spot in the town exempt from the sight of the creepy castle. It was a perpetual reminder of the Alchemaster’s constant surveillance.
Constructed of black stone said to have been quarried from the depths of the Gloomberg Mountains, the castle was so cockeyed and misshapen that it resembled a monstr
It seemed almost incredible that such an apparently haphazard heap of masonry hadn’t collapsed at some stage in its many centuries of existence. If you knew that its builders were the same as those who had constructed the Bookemists’ ancient houses in Bookholm’s Darkman Street, however, you realised that this type of architecture was designed to last for ever. The castle had been standing there before a town named Malaisea existed.
Echo was so weak that Ghoolion carried him up the winding streets concealed inside his cloak, where the little Crat had fallen asleep from exhaustion. On reaching the castle, he fished a rusty key from his pocket and opened the massive oak door.
Then, still carrying his featherweight burden, he hurried along a series of passages lit by torches and candles and hung with paintings in dusty wooden frames. The pictures were all of natural disasters: volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, tornadoes and maelstroms, earthquakes, conflagrations and avalanches, all executed in oils with great care and meticulous attention to detail, for disaster-painting was one of Ghoolion’s many talents.
Awaiting him when he entered the next passage were three terrifying figures: a Grim Reaper, a Hazelwitch and a Cyclopean Mummy - three of the most dangerous creatures in Zamonia. The chances of encountering all three in one and the same place were just about as remote as being struck simultaneously by a thunderbolt, an asteroid and a blob of bird shit, but Ghoolion didn’t spare them a single glance; he hurried past them unscathed with his cloak billowing out behind him. Fortunately, they were not only dead but stuffed with great skill, one of the Alchemaster’s numerous hobbies being horrifico-taxidermy, or the mummification and stuffing of horrific life forms of all kinds. Several shadowy corners of his domain were populated by these extremely lifelike-looking creatures. No normal person would have cared to bump into them in the dark, or even in broad daylight and in mummified form, but Ghoolion thoroughly enjoyed their silent company and was always adding new specimens to his collection.
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