The alchemasters apprent.., p.19
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.19

           Walter Moers
 

  The offender will be summarily punished

  in your presence, if you so desire.

  These noticeboards conveyed such a vivid impression of the bleak professional existence led by the Uggly who lived here that Echo suddenly felt profoundly sorry for her. Besides, his craving for some Placebo Wart Ointment had become quite overpowering, so he decided to make his presence known at last. But what was the best way to attract an Uggly’s attention? Should he call? Knock? Scratch at the door? Echo opted for a method he seldom employed: he miaowed as piteously and plaintively as he could. An encounter based on mutual compassion might be the best way of avoiding any unpleasantness.

  The door opened almost at once, and more quietly than Echo would have thought possible in the case of so old a building. He had expected to hear rusty hinges squeal in agony, but the door half-opened as quietly as a flower coming into bloom. Nothing happened for a while. Then the silence was broken by a voice that sounded as if its owner had lived for centuries on unwholesome, trance-inducing substances.

  ‘If you aren’t the Alchemaster, come in.’

  Cautiously, Echo squeezed through the crack. The contrast between the cool night air and the steamy atmosphere inside, which smelt of soup and other less familiar aromas, was such that he felt he’d been wrapped in damp cotton wool. The Uggly was standing with her back to him, lit by the dancing flames of a stove. The weird music had ceased.

  ‘You must be really hungry, Pussycat,’ she said in a deep bass voice, ‘to come begging for food at night in Uggly Lane, of all places. Didn’t anyone tell you it’s haunted by the Decapitated Tomcat?’

  ‘I’m not hungry,’ said Echo. ‘Nor am I a pussycat.’

  The Uggly turned round and Echo had to make a supreme effort to resist the impulse to dash out of the house, hissing and yowling. He had seen some real-live Ugglies in the days when there were still some left in Malaisea, but only at long range, because they exuded a very special scent which a Crat’s sensitive nose found hard to endure. Imagine a damp, hollow tree trunk in which a whole family of polecats has died and decomposed, and you may gain some inkling of an Uggly’s body odour. Hitherto, Echo had only seen the creatures from afar, so his sightings of them had been rendered indistinct by distance, but now he was face to face with a full-grown specimen.

  The Uggly’s face was a living affront to all the laws of harmony. Her nose seemed to have grown first to the right, then to the left, then to the right again, and it tapered to a point disfigured by a third nostril. The other two nostrils were so unnaturally flared that you could see up them even if you were taller than the Uggly herself. Thick, greasy tufts of hair sprouted from them like mouldy strands of eelgrass from submarine caves. Her pupils and irises differed in size and colour, her lips were grotesquely thick and painted black, and her ears protruded further than those of a Leathermouse. Her skin was as pitted as the moon’s surface, and standing up here and there were wiry hairs resembling bent rusty nails. The rest of her body was mercifully concealed beneath an ankle-length robe of coarse black linen gathered at the waist by a cord. On her head she wore the skin of an octopus.

  ‘You can speak?’ she said. ‘Then you aren’t a pussycat at all, you’re a Crat. I didn’t think there were any left in Malaisea.’

  Echo started to relax. There was nothing menacing about her hideous looks. The best explanation for an Uggly’s outward appearance might be that it was Zamonian natural history’s attempt to indulge in a touch of black humour.

  ‘If you aren’t hungry, what brings you here?’

  ‘To be honest, an irresistible urge to buy a tube of wart ointment. Except that I don’t have any money,’ Echo confessed.

  The Uggly’s demeanour underwent an immediate change. She opened her eyes still wider and stared at him with her hands fluttering nervously. Then she hurried over to a saucepan on the stove. Having put the lid on, she flapped her hands as if shooing away a swarm of midges.

  ‘Oh dear,’ she exclaimed, ‘I must have left the lid off my soup by mistake. How silly of me! Its fumes arouse an urge to buy my wares, which is, of course, strictly prohibited - and rightly so.’ She favoured Echo with a smile that almost sent him scampering out into the street. Her teeth might have been sculpted by a dentist anxious to promote dental hygiene in his patients by showing them examples of every dental disease known to science.

  ‘But only by mistake, as I said,’ she went on. ‘No need to report me to the Alchemaster, is there? Besides, you must have lost the urge to buy anything by now.’

  Echo shook his head to clear it. He was feeling rather bemused. It was true: his urge to buy some Placebo Wart Ointment had vanished, like the curious aroma.

  ‘No, no,’ he said soothingly, ‘I’ve no wish to report anyone.’

  Tearing his eyes away from the Uggly at last, he turned his attention to the interior. It looked more like a cave than a house - somewhere suited more to a bear than a civilised being, though it did contain various amenities such as a big iron stove, a kitchen cupboard, a table and chairs, and a shelf filled with books. Visible between them were some thick, dark-brown protuberances reminiscent of roots. More such rootlike excrescences were protruding from the damp mud walls and dangling from the ceiling. If Echo hadn’t known better, he would have thought the room was situated in the bowels of a forest.

  ‘So what do you want?’ the Uggly demanded, very suspiciously now. ‘Why should you be roaming around Uggly Lane in the middle of the night? Are you spying for Ghoolion?’

  Echo decided to come straight to the point. The Uggly looked as if she could stand the truth.

  ‘My name is Echo,’ he said, ‘and I’ve made a contract with the Alchemaster. It’s a very unfavourable contract from my point of view, so I came to ask if you can help me to break it.’

  A long silence ensued. The Uggly subjected him to a long, unabashed stare. He didn’t know what to make of it. Was she surprised? Annoyed? Amused?

  ‘Let me get this straight,’ she said at length. ‘Did you just ask me to help you break a contract with the Alchemaster?’

  ‘Yes,’ Echo said softly. He dropped his gaze, ashamed of his own presumption. What right had he to turn up at a complete stranger’s house in the middle of the night and make such a request? Looking up again, he just had time to see a bundle of twigs come whooshing towards him before he was struck and sent flying through the air. He crashed into the front door and fell to the floor. Before he could say anything, or even utter a cry of pain, the Uggly made an imperious gesture with her right hand. At this, the door swung inwards and hit him hard in the back. He went rolling across the floor and ended up at the old crone’s feet, whereupon she swung her besom once more and swept him out on to the veranda. Then the door slammed shut.

  With a groan, he scrambled to his feet. How idiotic of him to pin his hopes on an Uggly, of all creatures! He could think himself lucky to have got off so lightly. He drew several deep breaths, made his way slowly down the veranda steps and went a little way back along the lane in the direction he’d come from. Then, in obedience to a sudden impulse, he turned and looked back.

  Hypnotic music was once more issuing from the Uggly’s house. Dark and forbidding, it lay at the end of the lane like the severed head of a giant in whose eyes the last spark of life was being extinguished. Then the windows, too, went dark. A fluffy skein of mist came drifting along and enveloped the Uggly’s house like a shroud.

  Echo looked up at the moon, which was floating, thinly veiled in clouds, above the Alchemaster’s castle. It was now half full.

  Mortal Friends

  When Echo got back to the castle, exhausted and depressed by his futile excursion, he sensed the Alchemaster’s presence as soon as he entered. Ghoolion had undoubtedly returned, even though Echo could neither see nor hear nor smell him. When he wasn’t at home the castle was as dead, silent and motionless as befitted such an ancient ruin. When he was there, however, it seemed to awaken to a secret life for which Echo had developed a kind of
additional sense. He could hear masonry groan and furniture creak, see carpets develop gooseflesh and ripples traverse expanses of wallpaper. Fireplaces yawned and figures in paintings stirred almost imperceptibly, dust devils went cavorting along the passages and curtains seemed to bulge under the pressure of ghostly hands - the whole building came alive with spectral activity. Distant singing filled the air, as did impudent, surreptitious whispers that ceased as soon as one concentrated on them. They might have been attributable to the wind or some other natural cause, but Echo guessed that something more was involved. His suspicion that a sinister relationship existed between the old building and the Alchemaster steadily intensified.

  He felt like an actor on the stage of a theatre whose seats were occupied by invisible spirits. There was nobody to be seen, but one could hear the whispers and stifled coughs that accompanied the drama he and Ghoolion were performing. He still wasn’t sure what roles they were playing. Were they opponents in an exceptionally protracted duel? Mortal enemies, even? No, Echo had absolutely no inclination to fight anyone to the death. Mortal friends might have been the more appropriate term.

  He climbed the stairs, cursing himself for the undiplomatic way in which he had approached the Uggly. Of course she’d been disconcerted by his precipitate request to help him outwit the Alchemaster! The Ugglies had long been bullied and oppressed by Ghoolion, so why should one of them incur the old devil’s hostility by helping a Crat who had turned up out of the blue?

  Yet the Uggly had somehow taken his fancy. She was appallingly hideous and stank like a sack of dead frogs, it was true, but he’d taken a spontaneous liking to her, or he would never have blurted out his request so naively. She had impressed him - not by her appearance, but by her behaviour. She would have given some food to a stray kitten miaowing at night outside her door. That didn’t accord with most people’s idea of the Ugglies. He felt almost certain that things would have turned out differently if he hadn’t behaved so clumsily. But it was no use crying over spilt milk. If he scratched at her door again, she would probably stick him in the stove.

  Echo was just passing the big room full of furniture draped in dust sheets when he scented Ghoolion’s presence. He hadn’t entirely lost his fear of the place, but this time he knew at once exactly what was going on when he heard the Alchemaster sobbing. He couldn’t feel sorry for him. His initial impulse was to walk on, but he paused and thought for a moment. Then he turned and went in. The night had been a washout in any case, so why not go one step further and call Ghoolion to account?

  Echo uttered a loud, audible miaow as he entered the room. That gave Ghoolion time to save face and wipe away his tears before they confronted each other. With head erect, Echo threaded his way between the dust-sheeted pieces of furniture until he was standing at the Alchemaster’s feet.

  ‘Why did you do it?’ he asked brusquely. ‘I thought this was just between you and me. Why did you have to kill a friend of mine as well?’

  Ghoolion stared at him in surprise. ‘What are you talking about? What am I supposed to have done?’

  Not for the first time, Echo was impressed by the Alchemaster’s sangfroid.

  ‘I’m talking about Theodore.’

  ‘Theodore? Who’s Theodore?’

  Echo froze. It hadn’t occurred to him until now that the dead bird might not have been Theodore after all. If so, his careless talk could put his friend in extreme danger. He decided to remain silent.

  ‘Just a minute,’ said Ghoolion. ‘Theodore … Wasn’t that the name of your late mistress’s manservant?’

  Echo persisted in his silence. If the old devil was putting on an act, he was making an excellent job of it. Ghoolion knitted his brow as if working out a knotty problem whose solution he wanted to find unaided.

  ‘Ah, now I get it!’ he said at length. ‘Didn’t you say he’d died of some frightful disease? But of course, then I must have been responsible!’ He smote his forehead with the flat of his hand. ‘After all, people hold me responsible for almost every fatality in Malaisea, including those resulting from senility and suicide.’ He chuckled derisively.

  ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ Echo said curtly and stalked off, thanking his lucky stars that he’d extricated himself from an awkward situation so easily.

  ‘Oh, come!’ Ghoolion called after him. ‘Surely you aren’t still cross about the Leathermouse episode?’

  Echo paused and turned.

  ‘No,’ he said. ‘It was a very interesting experience, to be honest, but it would have been nice if you’d put me in the picture first.’

  Ghoolion sighed. ‘That’s just the problem. It wouldn’t have worked if I had. My guinea pigs tend to resist, either consciously or unconsciously, and don’t undergo a complete transformation. They simply have wild hallucinations.’

  Echo had to admit that he’d never felt so alive as he had during his spell of existence as a Leathermouse.

  Ghoolion laughed indulgently. Then he did something he’d never done before: he patted his lap. It was an invitation to Echo to jump up and make himself at home there.

  Echo retreated a step. No, that was going too far. The Theodore question was still far from resolved, and anyway, submitting to the caresses of his own executioner was absolutely out of the question!

  Ghoolion grinned. ‘Come on,’ he said.

  Echo took a step closer. Tactically speaking, it mightn’t be such a bad idea to establish a certain bond of trust between himself and Ghoolion. Last but not least, it was quite a time since anyone had stroked him, and being stroked was one of a Crat’s basic requirements, like eating and sleeping. Where was the harm in it? He would only have to bring himself to tolerate the smells that clung to the Alchemaster’s cloak, but he’d become inured to them a long time ago.

  Echo plucked up his courage and, despite his obesity, performed a successful leap on to Ghoolion’s lap. Then he lay down and looked at the old man expectantly. Ghoolion hesitated. His hand hovered in the air for a moment, but he eventually lowered it and proceeded to tickle the nape of Echo’s neck. Softly at first, then more and more audibly, Echo began to purr. And so the two of them - Crat and Alchemaster, victim and executioner - lingered in that eerie room for a long time yet: two ‘mortal friends’ companionably relaxing in the nocturnal gloom.

  The Rusty Goblins

  From now on, Echo made a very serious attempt to get rid of his excess weight. It wasn’t enough simply to watch his diet and spurn fatty foods in favour of healthy vegetables. Getting enough exercise was equally important.

  The Alchemaster’s castle was the ideal place for this. No other building in Malaisea contained as many flights of stairs a Crat could run up and down. The old, uneven stonework was ideal for climbing and the big rooms were a perfect place in which to romp around with the Cooked Ghost. On the roof Echo practised balancing, toned up his muscles and tested the resilience of his joints. When he raced through the lofty chambers he pretended he was being pursued by one of the natural disasters in Ghoolion’s paintings, a tornado or a tidal wave. Sometimes he went downstairs to where the stuffed mummies were kept, brought them to life in his imagination and fled from them in self-induced panic. He imagined himself a notorious master thief, a Crat burglar who scaled the castle walls in order to climb through an open window and rob Ghoolion of his closely guarded alchemistic secrets. He chased mice and dust devils, climbed curtains and ivy-covered trellises, wardrobes and bookshelves, tapestries and threadbare wing chairs, and allowed himself only as much sleep as was absolutely necessary.

  He also resumed his frequent visits to the clump of Cratmint, whose scent had such a therapeutic effect on his spirits and whose leaves, when chewed, provided his empty belly with the comforting warmth it needed. As often as he was able, sometimes several times a day, he made his way to the foot of Theodore’s chimney, but the old Tuwituwu never showed up.

  Echo found opportunities for physical exercise even in the innermost recesses of the castle, behind its walls and
up its chimneys. He explored an old ventilation system that ran through the entire building like a network of veins in which he could creep and clamber around for hours on end. It was inhabited by giant rats and fearsome insects, but not even they could deter Echo from carrying out his rigorous training programme. He also came upon the skeletons of a race of dwarfs with rust-red beards. They were strangely equipped with copper belts on which they wore outlandish tools the like of which he’d never seen before. Lying beside many of them were books filled with columns of figures and designs for mysterious mechanical contraptions.

  Echo discovered that the ventilation shafts ran not only through the castle walls but deep into the ground - deeper even than the creepy cellars. There, in small subterranean caves, he found more skeletonised red-bearded dwarfs and signs of their presence, including strange little machines of wood or metal whose purpose remained obscure. When he set one in motion by nudging it with his paw, as he sometimes did, it would come briefly to life and go creaking and trundling along until it fell to bits from sheer decrepitude. One machine continued to pound away for a whole hour, churning out metal disks adorned with wonderful patterns. Another marched off and drilled holes in a wall of rock. Yet another went on counting out loud in a robotic voice until it emitted a sort of death rattle and expired.

  The deeper Echo went, the eerier and more uninviting his surroundings became. Warm currents of air ascended from the bowels of the earth, fraught with odours that boded no good. He heard noises that aroused his deepest-rooted, most atavistic fears. The subterranean passages led to a world that promised to be even more dangerous than the one above, and he had no wish to venture down there.

  Ghoolion continued to dish up fattening meals, but Echo simply threw them out of the window as soon as the Alchemaster had left the room. He took to hunting and catching his own food, so the mice in the ventilation system found him a positive pest. Having previously led a peaceful existence devoid of natural enemies and regularly sustained by the contents of Ghoolion’s well-stocked larders, those rodents had now become the quarry of a monster armed with claws.

 
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