The alchemasters apprent.., p.20
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.20

           Walter Moers
 

  One night, when crawling along a particularly narrow shaft in the ancient ventilation system, Echo discovered a hole through which he could see almost every corner of Ghoolion’s kitchen. The Alchemaster was preparing an elaborate meal. Echo could smell a spicy soup, grilled fish with mushroom sauce and roast pork with crackling. There was a soufflé in the oven and a vanilla blancmange simmering on the stove.

  Ghoolion had served Echo’s supper only an hour or two earlier. For whom could he be preparing such a lavish meal? Certainly not for himself. Was he expecting guests? No, he never had any.

  The Alchemaster clearly thought he was unobserved because he was talking to himself. Echo couldn’t catch what he was saying, the words were drowned by the bubbling saucepans, sizzling fat and clatter of his iron-soled boots. Then he turned so that Echo could see his face. Echo gave a violent start when he saw the old man’s demented expression: he was looking hopelessly confused.

  Ghoolion continued his mysterious activities nonetheless, and Echo had to creep on because the air shaft was alive with loathsome insects. As for the meal the Alchemaster was preparing, he never saw it again.

  Echo was losing weight and getting into better shape. His wits were sharper too, because the less blood his body required for digestive purposes, the more was available for brainwork. He devoted a lot of thought to the possibility of escape instead of wondering what there would be for supper. And that was how it occurred to him to give the Uggly another try. He wouldn’t go barging in like the last time, nor would he go there empty-pawed.

  The Last Uggly in Malaisea

  Walking along Uggly Lane in the dark seemed just as unnerving to Echo as it had before. This time, however, he had a definite objective in view. He also had something in the way of a plan, and this encouraged him to run the gauntlet of the ancient houses and climb on to the veranda of the last Uggly in Malaisea.

  ‘What is it this time?’ demanded a deep, unfriendly voice from inside the house.

  Echo shrank back. How had she known he was there? He’d tiptoed up the veranda steps without uttering a word. Did she really have second sight, or was she simply watching him through the keyhole?

  ‘I’d like to make you an offer,’ he said as loudly and firmly as he could.

  ‘An offer? Like what?’

  ‘Well, my dear madam, when you showed me out the other night, I didn’t have time to mention that I’ve something very valuable to offer in return for your help.’

  A long silence. Then, even more dismissively: ‘I don’t make deals to Ghoolion’s disadvantage.’

  ‘I didn’t say our deal would be to his disadvantage. I’d simply like you to treat me like a normal customer requesting a consultation - a brief conversation. I’ve got something to offer in exchange, as I said.’

  The Uggly made some noises he couldn’t interpret.

  ‘Setting aside the fact that I don’t, on principle, make deals that could get me into trouble with the Malaisean by-laws, what are you offering?’

  Echo cleared his throat. ‘Well, for example, an intimate knowledge of the Alchemaster’s castle, in particular his laboratory, ranging from his alchemical furnace to the Ghoolionic Preserver and the contents of every last test tube. I have a minutely detailed knowledge of the ghoolionisation process and the rectification of metals sensitive to pain. I know how to make a Leyden Manikin that will remain animate for years. How to render quicksilver potable. How to effect the transmutation of gases and preserve all kinds of volatile substances. How to administer seven hundred different kinds of antidotes and what diseases to use them against. How to distil thoughts that rotate clockwise. I’m familiar with the contents of all Succubius Ghoolion’s alchemical journals. I can also recite his chemophilosophical tables backwards. I know quite a bit about spectral analysis, aluminotherapy and ethereal conservation. And that’s only a small fraction of what I can offer you. I even know how to cook a ghost.’

  Another long silence, broken only by the Uggly’s asthmatic breathing.

  ‘How do you set up an aeromorphic barograph?’ she asked at length.

  Echo didn’t have to think for long.

  ‘Er, you calibrate it to a frequency of 100.777 eums, using a fasolatidocal tuning fork, and smoke its lenses over a low fire of fir cones until you can look straight at the sun without going blind.’

  For what seemed to Echo an interminable length of time, absolutely nothing happened. At last the door opened as slowly and silently as it had the first time.

  ‘Come in,’ growled the Uggly. Echo squeezed through the crack and into the house.

  The tropical atmosphere prevailing in the Uggly’s cavernous abode wrapped itself round his body like a moist fist. The air, which smelt of earth and rotting vegetation like the interior of a greenhouse, was so warm and treacly you could almost have cut it with a knife. A person buried amid the corpses in the Graveyard Marshes of Dullsgard would have felt little different. Echo promptly wished he was back in the draughty old castle. Only jungle beasts would have felt at home here - in fact, it wouldn’t have surprised him if a Voltigork had pounced on him out of the shadows at any moment.

  ‘You’ve lost weight since the last time,’ the Uggly remarked. ‘You’re still fat, though.’

  Echo sighed. ‘I know. I’m working on it.’

  The Uggly gazed at him as fixedly as if she hadn’t the least idea how hideous she was. Echo tried to hold her gaze, but he eventually bowed his head and stared at the floor.

  ‘All right,’ she said curtly, ‘spit it out. What are you really after?’

  ‘It’s quite simple, er …’

  ‘Izanuela’s the name. Izanuela Anazazi, but you may call me Iza.’

  ‘Delighted to make your acquaintance. My name is Echo.’

  ‘Well, get on with it.’

  ‘The thing is, I signed a contract with Ghoolion. It stipulates that he must fatten me up until the next full moon. In return, he can then slit my throat and boil me to extract my fat.’

  The Uggly flopped down on a worm-eaten chair, which creaked and groaned under her weight. ‘Is that so?’ she said. Every trace of hostility had left her voice.

  ‘It was a case of needs must. I was almost dead from starvation.’

  ‘Why don’t you simply run away?’

  ‘I’ve tried to, but I can’t. I don’t know how he does it.’

  The chair uttered a grateful creak as the Uggly got up again.

  ‘But I do,’ she said, raising her eyebrows so that her bloodshot eyes protruded still further.

  ‘Really?’ Echo pricked up his ears.

  ‘Have you ever gone to sleep in his arms?’

  ‘Yes, right at the start. He carried me up to his castle.’

  ‘There you are, then. It was a spell.’

  ‘A what?’

  ‘A spell. One of Ghoolion’s specialities. Not magic, just a post-hypnotic command. Most effective. He must have whispered it to you in your sleep.’

  ‘And there’s nothing to be done about it?’

  ‘Yes, I could lift the spell by hypnotising you myself.’

  ‘Would it work?’

  ‘Yes, unless Ghoolion inserted a mental block. If he did, any further hypnosis would render you psychotic. You might spend the rest of your life imagining yourself to be a glass of milk or the town hall at Florinth.’

  ‘We’d better leave it, then,’ Echo said quickly.

  ‘I’d advise against it too. Too risky. Ghoolion is an expert hypnotist and he’s far too careful to dispense with a blocking mechanism.’

  Echo was impressed by Izanuela’s self-assurance. She didn’t conceal her unlovely features beneath a cowl or in darkened rooms. Hers was a proud, undisguised ugliness that exploited its impact to her own advantage - an ugliness that demanded respect.

  ‘Up is down and ugly is beautiful,’ thought Echo. Aloud, he asked, ‘You mean it’s genuinely impossible for me to run away of my own volition?’

  ‘Yes. Spells of that kind don’t expire
until their author dies,’ Izanuela said in a low voice. ‘You’d have to kill Ghoolion to be released from it.’

  Although it now seemed quite natural to Echo that Ghoolion meant to kill him, the thought of killing the Alchemaster himself struck him as monstrous.

  ‘I could never do such a thing,’ he said.

  ‘It would be the simplest solution, though. There must be enough poisonous stuff lying around in that laboratory to kill a whole horde of Alchemasters. A pinch of something in his coffee, and …’ She blew an imaginary feather off her palm.

  ‘I’m not like that,’ Echo said. ‘It’s out of the question.’

  The Uggly sighed. ‘That’s why you Crats are becoming extinct. You’re too nice for this world.’

  ‘Why are you still here?’ asked Echo. ‘I mean, when all the other Ugglies have moved out? Are you also under a spell?’

  ‘No.’ Izanuela stared at him until her squint became almost unbearable.

  ‘So why not simply leave this town yourself, given that Ghoolion makes your life such a misery?’

  ‘Why not? I’ll tell you. When the other Ugglies had gone I learnt what it means to have a monopoly. In the old days we Ugglies used to be deadly competitors, but all at once I was the most sought-after naturopath and fortune teller in Malaisea. Customers beat a path to my door. You’ve no idea what a demand there is for alternative medicine in a town full of sick people.’

  The Uggly gazed intently at Echo, waggling each of her ears in turn.

  ‘Anyway, Ghoolion leaves me alone most of the time. He knows how important to him my presence is. What town needs a persecutor of the Ugglies if there aren’t any Ugglies left to persecute?’

  ‘I see,’ said Echo. He stared, spellbound, at her waggling ears.

  ‘And don’t imagine that the Ugglies who moved out are faring any better as a result. Most of them are vagabonds. They traipse around Zamonia from one fairground to the next, complete with their donkey carts and cooking pots, sleeping rough and going in constant fear of Corn Demons and Woodwolves. I’ve got a roof over my head and plenty of regular customers. What more could anyone want?’

  Izanuela stopped waggling her ears. ‘But what about you?’ she said. ‘What made you think I could help you?’

  ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Echo. ‘Actually, I got the idea from a friend of mine. He thought you Ugglies either know or possess something Ghoolion is scared of.’

  The Uggly gave him the sort of look she might have reserved for imbeciles or children who have said something idiotic.

  ‘What gave your friend that idea?’ she asked pityingly. ‘Why should Ghoolion be scared of us, of all people?’

  ‘Not a clue,’ said Echo. ‘It wasn’t my idea, as I say. Perhaps he thought you could brew a potion of some kind.’

  ‘Oh,’ Izanuela scoffed, ‘if that’s all! Brew a potion? No problem. One that would shrink him to the size of a mouse, maybe? Or make him disappear into thin air?’

  Echo’s jaw dropped. ‘Could you do that?’

  ‘Of course not!’ she snapped. ‘Good heavens, what an exaggerated idea of our powers you have! I mean, look around you. The most effective potion we can administer is camomile tea!’

  Echo looked deflated. ‘Then it was no use my coming here again, I suppose,’ he said with a sigh.

  The Uggly’s shoulders gave a loud creak as she shrugged them.

  ‘I can’t help that, can I? Listen, youngster: Ugglies versus Ghoolion is like a bucket of water against a forest fire, or harmless herbalism against the most dangerous form of alchemy, or fennel tea against the bubonic plague.’

  ‘Yes,’ said Echo, ‘I understand. Many thanks for hearing me out all the same.’

  He turned to go. Izanuela clicked her fingers and the door swung open.

  ‘So why should my conscience be pricking me?’ she cried, rolling her eyes. ‘Just because I’ve no wish to put a noose round my own neck? Or because I don’t feel suicidal and I’m not as hell-bent as you are on crossing swords with Ghoolion?’

  ‘It’s all right,’ Echo said as he went down the veranda steps. ‘It wasn’t my idea, as I say. Goodnight.’

  ‘Hang on,’ Izanuela called.

  Echo paused on the bottom step and turned. He felt a faint glimmer of hope.

  ‘The thing is,’ she said, ‘there’s another reason why I’m still in Malaisea.’

  ‘What’s that?’

  ‘I’m the worst Uggly in Zamonia.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘I mean it. I can’t foretell the future, I can’t brew love potions - I can’t even read cards. I don’t possess any Ugglian aptitudes at all.’

  ‘Is that true?’

  Izanuela gave another shrug. ‘Absolutely. They found that out when I was at school.’

  ‘You mean there’s a school for Ugglies?’

  ‘Of course. I came bottom of the class in every subject. You unerringly hit on the most ineffectual Uggly in the whole of Zamonia. That’s why I’m here. I wouldn’t stand a chance on the open market. When the others were still here I lived on charity.’

  ‘But what about all your customers? Why do they keep coming to you if you’re so hopeless?’

  ‘The herbal remedies I sell them consist of one per cent medicine and ninety-nine per cent hope. The more you believe in them, the more good they do you. I simply roll my eyes a bit as well.’

  Echo sighed and turned to go.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘Come back any time, my young friend. I mean, if you feel like a chat or anything.’ Izanuela clearly felt relieved to have thought of something consoling to say.

  ‘Many thanks,’ said Echo, as he walked off down the lane. ‘Maybe I will.’

  ‘There’s one thing I’d like you to explain,’ she called after him. ‘If he’s going to kill you anyway in two weeks’ time, why are you still on a diet?’

  ‘Nobody understands the Leathermice,’ Echo called back.

  ‘The Leathermice?’ she asked. ‘What on earth do the Leathermice have to do with it?’

  But Echo had already disappeared into the darkness.

  The Second Nut

  Now that he was entirely dependent on himself, Echo had to use his own grey matter to devise a new strategy. After running the equivalent of a marathon up and down the castle stairs, he had retired to his basket for a rest and was communing with himself.

  ‘Where is Ghoolion’s weak spot?’ he wondered. ‘Where is he most vulnerable? He smiles, he laughs, he makes jokes - he even weeps occasionally, so he must have feelings like any other creature.’

  He turned over on his back and stared at the ceiling.

  ‘Why does he have such a passion for cooking? Anyone who’s so devoted to an art that gives other people pleasure must surely be capable of unselfishness. Could I appeal to his better nature? If so, how?’

  The ceiling above him suddenly turned gold and something even brighter materialised at its central point. At first Echo thought it was the Cooked Ghost, but then he recognised it as the Golden Squirrel from the Tree of Nutledge.

  ‘Hello again!’ it squeaked. ‘Are you prepared to let me help you undertake some important cognitive processes?’

  Echo stared at the apparition open-mouthed. He could feel a warmth that suffused his whole body with a sense of serene well-being.

  ‘Those are the sympathetic frequencies that emanate from the Cogitating Eggs,’ said the squirrel. ‘They transmit those powerful vibrations from the Valley of the Cogitating Eggs so that I can pass them on to you. I’m their telepathic postman, so to speak.’

  ‘Vibrations?’ said Echo.

  ‘Yes. You could also call them faith. Faith is essential when one has visions like the ones you’re having, otherwise you’d lose your mind.’

  ‘It isn’t my mind I’m worried about,’ Echo replied, ‘it’s my survival.’

  ‘That’s why I’m here. You’re working out a new strategy, aren’t you?’

  ‘I’ve been wondering how to arouse Ghool
ion’s pity.’

  ‘That won’t be easy. He’s got a heart of ice.’

  ‘But I’ve seen him shed tears.’

  ‘Perhaps he had something in his eye. Or toothache.’

  ‘No, there was another reason.’

  ‘Good,’ said the squirrel, ‘that’s a start, but you’d best begin with yourself. Can you remember any incident in your life that moved you deeply? Anything that aroused your pity?’

  ‘No,’ Echo replied.

  ‘Then try! Think! Search your memory!’

  Echo did his best. Pity? Compassion? No, he’d seldom had recourse to those emotions in his brief existence.

  ‘The only person I’ve ever felt sorry for is me.’

  ‘That doesn’t count!’ the squirrel exclaimed. ‘Think harder! Maybe something will occur to you.’

  Echo racked his brains.

  ‘Have you ever wept, but at someone else’s misfortune, not your own?’ the squirrel prompted him.

  Echo recalled the occasion when he’d pushed a blind mole into a stream. Except that he hadn’t wept, he’d laughed.

  ‘That was malicious glee!’ the squirrel told him disapprovingly. ‘That wasn’t pity, it was the opposite.’

  ‘I know,’ said Echo. ‘I can’t think why it popped into my mind.’

  ‘It’s a part of your cognitive process,’ the squirrel explained. ‘Your brain is sorting out suitable emotions. Go on looking. Go back as far as you can.’

  A vague memory surfaced in Echo’s mind. An incident he’d almost forgotten, it was so long ago.

  ‘I do believe I’ve thought of something,’ he said. Tears sprang to his eyes at the mere recollection. ‘It’s a story I heard when I was little.’

  ‘Bravo!’ the squirrel cried triumphantly. ‘Congratulations, my friend. That was your second flash of inspiration. We’ll be seeing each other only once more.’

  The golden glow faded and the squirrel turned translucent.

 
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