The alchemasters apprent.., p.18
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.18

           Walter Moers
 

  But he would have to choose his next words with greater care, that much was clear. He was as helpless as an insect stuck to flypaper, so their fear was his only weapon. He must say something even more frightening - so frightening that it drove them from the room. Who or what were the inhabitants of Malaisea afraid of most of all? Of course! Who else?

  ‘Are you mad?’ he snarled. ‘Don’t you know who I am?’

  ‘Er, no …’ one of the men said slowly.

  ‘I’m Ghoolion, Succubius Ghoolion!’ Echo screeched. ‘Your Alchemaster!’

  The hoary old rumour that Ghoolion could alter his appearance and spy on the townsfolk in a variety of shapes was always going the rounds. Many of the inhabitants had seen him disguised as a rat, others as a black cat, and one even as his own mother-in-law. The Leathermouse version was not only novel but effective.

  Echo realised that his words had indeed been well chosen when the little girl leapt out of bed and dashed out of the door. The men shrank back still further, but they didn’t let go of their sticks.

  ‘May you be accursed for a hundred years, just for intending to kill me!’ Echo screeched. ‘Yes, I lay a curse on you both! Abracadabra! Mumbo-jumbo! Hocus-pocus! Gulli-gulli-gulli! Rub-a-dub-dub! Um, err…’ He was only improvising, but his gibberish was enough to send them fleeing from the room. Feet went thundering down the stairs, terrified cries rang out, a door slammed. He was alone in the house.

  But he was still trapped. The men might only have run off to fetch reinforcements and exchange their sticks for knives and axes. Whatever happened, he must get out of here as soon as possible.

  He proceeded to squirm and wriggle, but every movement wrapped the material round him more tightly and his claws weren’t sharp enough to tear it.

  ‘It would be child’s play if I were a Crat,’ he thought.

  But he was a Leathermouse. A mere novice at the vampire’s trade, he had disregarded its cardinal rule: ‘Watch out for curtains!’

  He made another attempt to free himself, but his strength gave out after he’d squirmed and wriggled for a bit longer. He now noticed how tired he was from flying around. Even as a flyer, he’d made a beginner’s mistake by squandering his energy on those dogs. Yes, he was a Leathermouse, but a wholly inexperienced one. He had stupidly landed himself in the worst predicament any Leathermouse could be in. His wings felt bereft of energy and as heavy as lead. He was utterly exhausted.

  ‘Just a short rest,’ he thought, and he stopped fighting the curtains. His breathing steadied, his heartbeat slowed. ‘I must gather my strength.’

  Suddenly, shouts rent the darkness. Echo strained his ears. What was that? He could hear a hubbub outside in the street, trampling feet, the sound of knives being sharpened. A mob was approaching.

  ‘Ghoolion!’ someone shouted.

  ‘It’s now or never!’ cried someone else.

  Echo was seized with panic. They were coming back to kill him, complete with reinforcements and more effective weapons. He couldn’t have chosen the right words after all.

  Another shout: ‘Let’s finish him once and for all!’

  ‘He was going to drink my blood!’ That was the little girl’s voice.

  ‘I always knew he was a vampire!’ croaked an old woman. ‘Kill him! We’ll never get a better opportunity!’

  Echo tried to tear the curtain material to shreds with his teeth, but the more he tried the more tightly it wound itself round his throat, half throttling him.

  ‘I’ll never get out of here,’ he thought desperately. ‘Not alive, at any rate.’

  A door creaked open. Footsteps thundered across the hall downstairs. They were inside the house!

  ‘Hey, Alchemaster,’ yelled someone, ‘now you’re for it!’

  Echo mustered the last of his strength and made another attempt to extricate himself, but the curtain only increased its pressure on his body. ‘This is impossible,’ he thought. The material was steadily contracting. It seemed to be doing so of its own accord, like a boa constrictor tightening its grip.

  Then it dawned on him. ‘No, the material isn’t contracting, I’m expanding! I’m getting bigger!’

  It was true: his body was expanding, he could sense it in every limb. What was happening to him? He could feel that something about him was changing, his body, his limbs, even his mind and powers of perception. He suddenly felt far stronger.

  He took hold of the curtain once more and tried to tear it. This time he succeeded almost effortlessly - with the aid of a set of sharp, feline claws.

  ‘I’m changing back!’ he gasped. ‘I’m turning into a Crat again!’

  Footsteps came hurrying up the stairs, metal weapons clanked together.

  ‘The door at the end!’ someone shouted. ‘That’s her bedroom!’

  Echo was growing steadily bigger and heavier. He proceeded to struggle with all the strength and agility of a Crat, using his teeth and claws. Threads snapped, cloth ripped. Free at last, he landed heavily on the windowsill and scrambled to his feet. He’d lost his wings and reacquired a tail. His transformation was complete.

  The door burst open. The room was suddenly filled with lanternlight and a babble of voices. A bunch of figures appeared in the doorway armed with axes, knives and sickles. Before even one of the mob could rush in, Echo arched his back, fluffed out his tail and hissed as loudly as he could.

  Silence fell. Nobody spoke, nobody dared to enter. Ghoolion could change shape, this proved it! They had expected to see a captive Leathermouse, only to be confronted by a snarling Crat. What would he turn into next, a ravening werewolf?

  Echo seized his opportunity. He swung round, leapt off the windowsill and made a soft landing on the lawn below. Then he squeezed through a gap in the garden fence and scampered off down the cobbled street as fast as his legs would carry him. Heading for the Alchemaster’s castle.

  Hunger

  Echo felt completely whacked when he opened his eyes the next morning. For a moment he didn’t know who, what or where he was. Was he a Leathermouse or a Crat? Was he lying in his basket or still imprisoned in a curtain? Kicking off his blanket, he saw that he was safely ensconced in his basket. He looked down at himself: four legs and a tail. He was a Crat once more.

  Then it all came back to him. He’d just made it to his sleeping place after crossing Malaisea in the dark, fearful of the dogs he could no longer intimidate in his Leathermouse guise. Having toiled up the steep hill to the castle and all those flights of stairs, almost out on his feet, he’d fallen into a deep sleep. Had it all really happened?

  Whatever the truth, he was hungry now. Hungry? He was absolutely famished! He’d just spent what was probably the most strenuous night of his life and he hadn’t even had a sip of blood.

  He climbed laboriously out of his basket and went in search of something to eat. The kitchen had never looked so neat and tidy. All the food had been put away in the cupboards, which were locked. There wasn’t so much as an apple lying around and the Alchemaster was nowhere to be seen.

  He glanced into the laboratory. The cauldron wasn’t in use and Ghoolion wasn’t there either, which was unusual for this time of day. The vampires were snoring in the Leathermousoleum, and no wonder, after their overindulgence of the previous night. Echo tried the roof: not even a whiff of food there. The pool of milk had dried up, the little boats lay stranded on the grass, empty. Theodore’s chimney, which had always been hung with delicacies like a Christmas tree, was unadorned today. There was no sign of Theodore himself. Echo sighed and went back inside the castle.

  Was Ghoolion making one of his rare excursions into town? Why hadn’t he left him anything to eat? Echo suddenly remembered: he himself was to blame for insisting on a strict diet. But he hadn’t meant Ghoolion to take him so literally. A Crat had to have some breakfast, if only a little bowl of milk and a slice of sausage!

  Impatiently, Echo continued to comb the castle for food. The store cupboards, always left open as a rule, were locked. The most d
elicious smells emanated from them, but the source of those appetising aromas lay beyond his reach.

  Echo’s stomach was rumbling. Must he catch himself a mouse? He felt thoroughly disinclined to do so today. His legs were aching like a long-distance runner’s.

  There, the scent of roast meat! But it wasn’t coming from the larder. Nor from the kitchen. Echo rounded the next corner and there it was: a neatly laid table. It was just right for someone his size, with a white tablecloth, a vase of flowers, and - most important of all - a crisply roasted fowl on a china plate. He sniffed it. It was a wildfowl of some kind - not his favourite fare. He preferred roast chicken, but that was quite immaterial now. He was starving!

  He devoured the bird greedily, legs, breast, wings and all. But he still felt hungry.

  That left the giblets. They weren’t his favourite fare either, in the normal way, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. He wolfed the kidneys and liver, even the tough little heart. Then he tackled the gizzard. First he’d better see if there was anything unappetising in there. What had the bird been eating? Echo slit the stomach wall with his claws as deftly as a pathologist performing an autopsy.

  The first thing that tumbled out was a juniper berry. Hardly surprising in the case of a wildfowl, thought Echo. He rolled the undigested berry aside and continued his investigation. A hazelnut came to light. Opening the stomach a little wider, he discovered a neat little pellet consisting of tender blades of grass. ‘Hm,’ he thought. A juniper berry, a hazelnut and some blades of grass - why did that sound so familiar?

  And then the truth dawned. His appetite abruptly deserted him and an icy shiver ran the length of his spine. A ghostly voice - the voice of someone he knew well - seemed to ring in his ears:

  ‘I always have a vegetarian breakfast: a juniper berry, a few blades of grass, a hazelnut and three wild strawberries. A healthy start to the day does my gidestive sestym good.’

  Echo recoiled, staring in horror at the bird’s gnawed remains. Yes, the proportions and dimensions were about right … There was only one way of finding out for sure. Paws trembling, he opened the stomach completely. Sure enough, it contained three wild strawberries. He went hot and cold in turn, overwhelmed by a terrible feeling of nausea, and backed away from the remains of his frightful repast.

  ‘No,’ he thought, ‘it’s not possible!’

  He walked unsteadily to the window and leapt on to the sill for some fresh air. But that brought him no relief either. On the contrary, he felt more nauseous than ever and couldn’t help gagging.

  ‘It can’t be true,’ he whispered. Yet he knew that, in his boundless greed, he had just devoured his friend Theodore T. Theodore.

  He tottered to the edge of the windowsill and looked down at the town, which seemed to be spinning below him like a top. Then he vomited into space until he felt as if he’d turned himself completely inside out.

  Uggly Lane

  On a misty night, Uggly Lane looked as if a gang of huge brigands in pointed hats had settled down beside a winding street and were lying in wait for passers-by. As he stole past them, Echo was overcome by the uneasy feeling that the crouching giants might rise to their feet at a secret signal and cudgel him to death. There was something both dead and alive about them - something that reminded him unpleasantly of the horrific taxidermal specimens in Ghoolion’s castle. He was as reluctant to turn his back on those figures as he was on the houses in this lane. He had entered a melancholy limbo midway between this world and the next.

  The wooden boardwalk gave an agonised groan as Echo put his weight on it. He flinched and quickly got down in the roadway, which wasn’t paved like the rest of the streets in the town and consisted of stamped earth. Plump beetles and other insects were scuttling around on it, but he felt marginally safer in the middle of the lane than he did in the immediate vicinity of the spooky-looking houses.

  Wisps of mist were flitting around like Cooked Ghosts, sometimes concealing whole houses from view. An owl hooted, and Echo shivered because the sound reminded him of Theodore.

  ‘Tuwituwu! Tuwituwu!’

  ‘What on earth am I doing here?’ he asked himself, peering anxiously in all directions. ‘No one with any sense visits Uggly Lane in the middle of the night. Why didn’t I come here during the day?’

  Then he remembered why: because he wouldn’t be able to tell which of the houses was occupied until it was lit up after dark - Theodore had made a point of that. But with all due respect to the Tuwituwu’s good advice, not even the most foolhardy of Malaisea’s stray cats and dogs would ever do such a hare-brained thing. There were too many stories told about the reckless individuals who had ventured into the lane by night, only to meet a gruesome end there.

  The story of the Decapitated Tomcat, for example, which was said to appear in the backstreets of Malaisea on the stroke of midnight and the anniversary of its death, walking upright on two legs and carrying its own tear-stained head between its forepaws.

  Or the story of the Four Fearless Mongrels, which had gone exploring here for a bet when the moon was full. They returned the following night - amalgamated into a single animal! The poor creatures had been sliced in half and sewn together below the breastbone to form a horrific hybrid with eight forelegs and four heads. But the worst part of the story was that, driven insane by their fate, the four dogs had tried to run in different directions and ripped themselves apart with a frightful rending sound.

  Echo was also reminded of the grisly tale of Sweet Siamantha, a greedy Siamese cat which had visited Uggly Lane in her unending search for sweet things to eat. She was now reputed to roam Malaisea at night, her body stripped of its fur and crisply roasted, a carving knife stuck in her belly and a meat fork protruding from her back.

  But Echo found these scary stories less perturbing than the actual presence of the Ugglies’ houses. They were such awe-inspiring buildings that not even Ghoolion had dared to have them demolished after evicting their occupants. There was something about their gnarled, organic appearance that made them look inviolable and lent them an aura of venerable indestructibility. Moreover, their dark-brown wooden walls still harboured something - some kind of penetrating odour - which no pettifogging lawyers or bullying bureaucrats could drive out. This was the essence of Ugglydom itself, a clearly detectable source of energy that pervaded the entire lane, as potent as any evil curse.

  Since Ugglies were legally prohibited from installing street lights, the only lighting was provided by the reflection of the moon in some rain-filled potholes. Echo paused beside one of these puddles, which looked in the gloom like a pool of blood.

  He had now reached the end of the lane without spotting a single lighted window.

  ‘Good,’ he thought, feeling relieved. ‘There’s no one living here, so I’ll make myself scarce.’

  He was just about to turn round when, only a few Crat’s lengths away, the wind wafted a shred of mist into the air like a conjurer whipping a cloth off a birdcage. It rose into the night sky and there, in the place where it had been hovering only a moment ago, stood the only house in the lane from which light was coming.

  Echo didn’t move. He scowled at the building, which seemed to have sprouted from the ground like a mushroom. He’d been just about to beat a retreat on the pretext of having failed to find the confounded place, but there it was, and he could have sworn it was returning his gaze. Noticeably bigger than the rest, though not by much, it was the only detached house in the lane. Candlelight flickered fitfully behind its soot-encrusted windowpanes and Echo could hear music - a soft, haunting melody. Someone was singing in a deep voice and simultaneously beating time. It struck him as the ideal background music for a ritual in which dogs were sewn together or cats skinned alive.

  For some inexplicable reason, however, the house exerted an attraction on him. ‘I could do with a little Placebo Wart Ointment,’ he murmured to himself as he trotted towards it. ‘And possibly a couple of quality-controlled curses as well.’

  Wha
t was he talking about? Placebo Wart Ointment? Quality-controlled curses? Why should he suddenly develop a hankering for things he’d never even heard of? Why this irresistible urge to climb the steps of the veranda? What was that funny smell?

  He was on the veranda before he knew it, right outside the Uggly’s front door. The little candlelight that filtered through the sooty windowpanes was just sufficient for him to read the noticeboards nailed to it.

  Currently in Stock:

  Quality-Controlled Curses

  Prophecies of All Kinds

  (Accuracy Not Guaranteed)

  Placebo Wart Ointment

  (Discreetly Packaged)

  Aha, so those were the only kinds of services an Uggly was still permitted to offer in Malaisea. Ghoolion had certainly done a thorough job of making it hard for the Ugglies to practise their profession and utilise their special abilities.

  Another notice board read:Warning!

  You enter these premises at your own risk. The ingestion of Ugglian pharmaceuticals, quality-controlled or not, can damage your health. Do not believe a word an Uggly says, especially when she claims to foretell the future. And, if you have a problem with warts, consult your GP or a pharmacist!

  Succubius Ghoolion

  Municipal Alchemaster-in-Chief

  Yet another notice read:This Establishment is Subject to

  Municipal Ordinance No. 52736 pertaining to Ugglies

  Should an offence against one of its provisions

  come to your notice, kindly report this at once

  to the Municipal Alchemaster-in-Chief.

 
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