The alchemasters apprent.., p.25
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.25

           Walter Moers
 

  She looked up at last.

  ‘It’s as I feared, my friend: this isn’t going to be a stroll in the park. All right, I’ve got most of the ingredients here and the rest I can get from Ugglies of my acquaintance. But there’s one that’s almost impossible to obtain. It’s a plant that has become almost extinct. No Uggly knows where it’s still to be found.’

  Echo’s heart sank. All his elation had gone. ‘What’s it called?’ he asked dejectedly.

  ‘Cratmint,’ she said. ‘An extremely potent herb.’

  ‘Cratmint?’ he exclaimed. ‘I know where to find some!’

  ‘Really? Where?’

  ‘On Ghoolion’s roof. A big clump of it. In full bloom.’

  Izanuela looked relieved. ‘That’s wonderful. I thought we’d had it.’

  ‘I can pick a few leaves and bring them to you. No problem.’

  She perused the book again.

  ‘Hm …’ she said. ‘A few dead leaves won’t do. I need the whole plant - alive. You’ll have to dig it up, roots and all.’

  ‘But I can’t,’ Echo said miserably. ‘It’s far too big for a Crat to manage.’

  Izanuela gave him a long look. Echo stared back. Profound silence reigned for a while. Everything was so quiet, the Graveyard Ghost could be heard whispering to itself.

  ‘No,’ Izanuela said, ‘you can’t be serious!’

  ‘Yes,’ said Echo, ‘there’s no alternative: you’ll have to come up on the roof with me.’

  Cratmint

  There was only one time of day when Echo and Izanuela could risk an excursion to the mother of all roofs, and that was when the Alchemaster was at work on his dinner menu in the kitchen. He would be so preoccupied that they could sneak through the laboratory unobserved. The Leathermice would already have left at twilight.

  The following evening found Echo waiting impatiently at the castle entrance, ready to guide the Uggly to the roof. She turned up late, as he’d feared she would. There was something different about her when she finally walked in. Her lips looked glossier than usual and her complexion less greenish.

  ‘What took you so long?’ Echo demanded.

  ‘I spruced myself up a bit,‘ she said sheepishly.

  ‘For whose benefit? This isn’t a date, you know. You’re here to snaffle a plant.’

  ‘I was almost ready before I remembered that. I’m always in such a spin where Ghoolion’s concerned.’

  Echo went on ahead. Izanuela followed him along one of the galleries in which the Alchemaster had hung his disaster paintings. The scenes looked almost lifelike in the wildly flickering candlelight. ‘This is even more of a madhouse than it looks from outside,’ the Uggly said wonderingly. ‘Who painted all these pictures?’

  ‘Ghoolion,’ said Echo.

  ‘He’s a man of many talents,’ she whispered. ‘I’d never have believed he could paint as well. These pictures are absolutely -’

  Echo came to a halt and swung round abruptly. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘you’re besotted with Ghoolion already. You aren’t here to indulge your passion for him; you’re here to make him fall in love with you. Can we please concentrate on the matter in hand?’

  ‘Of course,’ said Izanuela. ‘But these pictures really are something!’

  They climbed the stairs to the floor on which Ghoolion had displayed most of his stuffed mummies. Echo deemed it advisable to issue a warning.

  ‘Don’t get a fright when we turn the next corner,’ he said.

  ‘There’s a Corn Demon there, but it isn’t alive. It’s stuffed.’ ‘Ghoolion stuffs Corn Demons?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘He’s a man of many talents,’ she repeated admiringly. ‘Really multitalented!’

  A chorus of whispers floated past their ears. It sounded as if a host of disembodied spirits were flying down the passage.

  Izanuela shivered. ‘Eerie here, isn’t it?’

  ‘Yes,’ said Echo, ‘but you get used to it.’

  When they rounded the corner the Uggly uttered a piercing shriek. ‘Aieee!’ Her cry re-echoed from the lofty walls.

  ‘Are you mad?’ Echo hissed. ‘I did warn you!’

  ‘But it looks so lifelike,’ Izanuela whispered as she squeezed past the horrific figure. ‘Goodness me!’

  ‘Pull yourself together! Here are some more of the brutes.’

  They slunk past Woodwolves, Hazelwitches and more Corn Demons lurking in niches or mounted on pedestals as if preparing to pounce. Izanuela pulled a face whenever she caught sight of one.

  ‘This is a regular chamber of horrors,’ she gasped. ‘It’ll be the first thing to go once I’ve got Ghoolion under my thumb.’

  They were now climbing the stairs to the floor on which the kitchen was situated. Ghoolion could be heard at work in the distance. Saucepan lids were clattering, fat sizzling. He was obviously going full speed ahead and hadn’t heard Izanuela shriek over the noise of the bubbling saucepans and crackling flames. It was now or never!

  ‘Quiet as a mouse,’ said Echo, ‘and as quick as you can.’

  Now came the critical moment. They had to steal past the kitchen. If Ghoolion needed something from the larder and came out just at that moment, it would be curtains!

  Echo padded on ahead and the Uggly followed on tiptoe. The kitchen door was open a crack and Ghoolion’s clattering footsteps could be heard. The air was filled with delicious smells: roast duck, red cabbage, nutmeg … Echo spotted a hole in the carpet and leapt lightly over it, but he was too late to warn Izanuela, who caught her foot in it. She tripped, lost her balance, flailed her arms wildly and measured her length on the floor. There was a dull thud as she landed.

  ‘Unk!’ she went, and Echo seemed to hear a high-pitched giggle coming from the gloomy reaches of the passage.

  Ghoolion’s metallic footsteps ceased. For the space of a few heartbeats nothing could be heard but his bubbling saucepans.

  ‘Hello?’ Ghoolion called. ‘Anyone there?’

  Izanuela flinched as if she’d been struck by lightning.

  ‘Hello?’ Ghoolion called again.

  ‘Miaow!’ said Echo. ‘Miaooow!’

  The Alchemaster laughed.

  ‘Be patient for a little while longer, Echo!’ he called. ‘This is a pretty complicated dish I’m making. It’ll be worth the wait, I promise you.’

  Izanuela scrambled to her feet. They made their way along the passage and up the next flight of stairs. This brought them to the sinister room filled with cages.

  ‘He’s got a nice voice, in my opinion,’ Izanuela said as they threaded their way between the cages of wood and iron. ‘To think he can cook as well!’

  ‘You’re sweet on someone who collects cages,’ Echo hissed. ‘Doesn’t that make you think twice about him?’

  ‘Why should it?’ she demanded. ‘Every man needs a hobby.’

  They entered the laboratory. Izanuela stood rooted to the spot. She put her hands on her hips and looked around.

  ‘Well, well,’ she said, ‘the holy of holies, Ghoolion’s poison kitchen! You’ve no idea how often I’ve fantasised about it. Good heavens, so that’s his Ghoolionic Preserver. What a beauty!’

  She went over to the alchemical device and fingered its controls.

  ‘Yes, yes,’ Echo groaned impatiently, ‘but get a move on. And don’t touch anything! We’ve got to get to the roof.’

  Izanuela minced around the laboratory. ‘So this is where he works, where he does his research! To think I’m seeing it at last!’ She couldn’t tear herself away.

  A gust of wind blew in through an open window, swept up some notes lying on a workbench and sent them whirling through the air, riffled the pages of an open book, stirred up a dancing dust devil of blue powder, then went howling up the laboratory chimney. It was as if Ghoolion himself had crossed the room in spirit form. Izanuela shivered with delight.

  ‘Come on!’ Echo called, and she followed him obediently up the ramshackle stairs to the Leathermousoleum.

 
‘This place is far sexier than I ever imagined in my wildest dreams,’ she burbled excitedly. ‘The decor isn’t quite my taste, but it’s got class. What’s needed here is house plants - masses of house plants. And lilac wallpaper. The windows must be glazed, every last one of them - my flowers would die in this draught. We’ll need curtains, too. Lilac curtains.’

  ‘This is where the Leathermice sleep,’ Echo explained. ‘They’re out at present, drinking blood.’

  ‘Nobody understands the Leathermice,’ Izanuela whispered, looking around the loft. ‘Isn’t that what you said?’

  Echo didn’t reply. They left the Leathermousoleum and came out on to the roof. Echo was eager to see how impressed his companion would be by the fantastic panorama. He was as proud of the view as if the old castle and its roof were his personal property.

  ‘Oooh!’ Izanuela said and froze.

  ‘Great, isn’t it?’ said Echo, going to the very edge of the roof. ‘You can see all the way to the Blue Mountains - there are supposed to be some female Crats living on the far side. Look, that’s Malaisea down there. Like a collection of dolls’ houses, isn’t it?’

  Receiving no answer, he turned round.

  The Uggly was standing there transfixed, clutching her cloak in the region of her heart. Her eyes were alight with terror, her ears fluttered in the wind.

  ‘What’s wrong?’ Echo demanded. ‘What do you think of the view?’

  ‘Oooh!’ Izanuela said again.

  Echo came closer. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked. ‘Aren’t you feeling well?’

  ‘I suffer from acrophobia,’ she said between clenched teeth.

  ‘What?’

  ‘Acrophobia. Fear of heights.’

  ‘Why didn’t you say so before? This is the highest point in the whole of Malaisea.’

  ‘I didn’t know it myself. I’ve never been so high before. The highest I’ve ever been is the veranda of my house. Can we go now?’

  ‘What are you talking about?’ said Echo. ‘You’ve got to help me dig up that Cratmint.’

  ‘Impossible, I can’t take another step. I’d no idea. I’m sorry, but it’s just not on.’ Izanuela didn’t even move her lips as she spoke. She was utterly rigid except for her eyes, which were darting to and fro, and her eyelids, which quivered like the wings of a hummingbird.

  Echo hadn’t allowed for this. Precious time was going by. Ghoolion would soon be serving dinner and their return route would be cut off. He would have to think of something quickly.

  ‘Listen,’ he said, trying to sound firm and confident. ‘Evaluate your acrophobia on a scale of one to ten.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Just do it.’

  ‘All right, but I’m not taking another step.’ Izanuela remained rooted to the spot.

  ‘Good. One means a touch of acrophobia, two a touch more and so on. Ten signifies maximum intensity. Got that?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Fine. If you had to define your present fear of heights in terms of that scale, what would it score?’

  ‘Twelve,’ she said.

  ‘The scale only goes up to ten. Please!’

  ‘All right. Ten, then.’

  ‘Good. Now let’s wait for a moment. Breathe deeply.’

  ‘I can’t breathe. I’d sooner hold my breath.’

  ‘Come on, take a deep breath! You’ve no need to move, after all.’

  ‘Hhh …’ she went.

  ‘You see? And another.’

  ‘Hhh …’ she went.

  ‘And again!’

  ‘Hhh …’ Izanuela opened her mouth.

  ‘Well done,’ Echo said approvingly. ‘Right, now define your present fear of heights in terms of that scale.’

  ‘Still ten,’ said Izanuela.

  Echo nodded. ‘Good.’

  ‘What’s good about it? It’s the maximum.’

  ‘But it’s still ten. That shows your acrophobia can’t get any worse, and that you can stand it.’

  ‘True,’ she said, sounding rather surprised.

  ‘Now take another deep breath.’

  ‘Haaa …’ she went. Her left hand let go of the cloak and returned to her side.

  ‘And now?’ Echo asked. ‘How would you rate your fear now? But be honest!’

  ‘Well,’ she said. Her voice sounded slightly less panic-stricken and she managed to prise her teeth apart. ‘Nine, say?’

  ‘There you are!’ cried Echo. ‘Your fear is subsiding - fear always does when a person overcomes it. It’s a law of nature.’

  ‘I still think nine is pretty high,’ she said.

  ‘Now listen,’ said Echo. ‘I know a route to the Cratmint that’s all flights of steps. It’s a bit longer than the one I usually take, but you don’t have to clamber over any slippery tiles. The steps are absolutely safe - solid stone. I’d like you to follow me along that route, calibrating your fear on the scale. Will you do that for me?’

  ‘I should never have opened the door to you,’ she said hoarsely. ‘It was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my life.’

  ‘This business will be over in no time,’ said Echo. ‘Willpower, that’s all you need.’

  He set off up the steps. ‘Come on! Keep your eyes fixed on me. Don’t look down, don’t look at your surroundings, concentrate on overcoming your fear.’

  The Uggly followed him, knees trembling, arms flailing. ‘This is the end!’ she cried. ‘I can see it now: this roof spells my doom.’

  Echo waited for her at the top of the first flight.

  ‘Well?’ he said. ‘You’ve not only taken a step, you’ve climbed a whole flight of steps. How’s the acrophobia? On the scale, I mean?’

  ‘Ooof!’ she went. Sweat was streaming down her face. ‘Well … Eight, maybe?’

  ‘We must hurry,’ he said. ‘Time’s running out.’

  They climbed the next flight of steps. Izanuela grunted, groaned and cursed him terribly, but she persevered.

  ‘And now?’ Echo asked after three more flights.

  ‘Seven,’ she replied. ‘No, six.’

  Izanuela’s cloak billowed out in a sudden gust of wind, but she doggedly went on climbing. ‘You’ve no need to be scared of Ghoolion,’ she said. ‘When this is over I’ll wring your neck with my own hands.’

  ‘Only one more flight and you’ll be able to see the Cratmint,’ Echo said coaxingly. ‘What’s the score?’

  ‘Five, I’d say. Or even four.’

  ‘You see? Your fear is subsiding.’

  Izanuela reached the top step and stared at Echo in astonishment. ‘How did you do it? Is it a trick you’ve learnt from Ghoolion?’

  ‘No, just a little applied Cratology. Or Echoism, if you prefer.’

  ‘Now you’re poking fun at me. Stop it, or I’ll -’

  ‘There it is!’ Echo broke in. ‘The Cratmint!’

  The plant was still in full bloom. In the moonlight its stems looked white as milk and the flowers silver. Nocturnal insects were buzzing round it, attracted by its powerful scent.

  Izanuela sighed. ‘It’s superb!’

  ‘Is it big enough for your love potion?’ Echo asked.

  ‘The Cratmint won’t be an ingredient of the potion. It doesn’t work like that. I shall distil my perfume from it.’

  ‘Your perfume?’

  ‘The erotic spell depends on two factors. The drink itself will merely cause Ghoolion to fall in love. In that state he could fall in love with anything or anyone: with me, with you, even with a tree. Only the perfume I distil from the Cratmint will point him in the right direction. If I drench myself in it, he’ll fall head over heels in love with me.’

  Echo nodded. ‘I see. Then let’s dig it up.’

  They went over to the plant. Izanuela produced a trowel from her robe and proceeded to dig.

  ‘I’m quite carried away,’ she said breathlessly. ‘It smells divine. It’s the loveliest scent I’ve ever smelt.’

  Echo grinned. ‘It’s the same with me. I love that fragr
ance.’

  ‘Look at all the insects,’ she said. ‘They’re absolutely besotted with the plant.’

  It was true, the beetles and moths whirring around the Cratmint were displaying almost lovesick behaviour. They kept diving into the flower cups and bathing in the pollen.

  ‘Your fear of heights,’ Echo remembered to ask, ‘what’s the score?’

  ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Izanuela said absently. ‘No idea. One or two, maybe.’

  She dug up the plant with surgical precision. ‘One can’t afford to damage the smallest root hair,’ she pontificated. ‘Flowers feel no pain, but they feel something else. There isn’t a word for it in our language, which shows you how ignorant of plants we are. You can hurt them in many different ways.’ Having finally detached the clump of Cratmint from the surrounding soil, she held it up in the moonlight.

  ‘I love this plant - I could sniff it for ever. It’s wonderful.’

  ‘We must go now,’ Echo said. ‘How’s the acrophobia?’

  ‘Acrophobia?’ Izanuela retorted. ‘What’s acrophobia? I feel like dancing in the moonlight with this plant. I’d like to marry it!’

  She clasped the Cratmint to her bosom and drew its scent deep into her lungs. ‘Aah!’ she cried. ‘Come, dance with me!’ Rising on her toes like a ballerina, she tittuped off the steps and on to the sloping tiles. Echo was seized with panic.

  ‘Come on now!’ he hissed. Izanuela was utterly enraptured. There would be a nasty accident if he didn’t take her home. ‘Get back on the steps!’ he said sharply. ‘Move!’

  ‘Acrophobia?’ she cried exuberantly. ‘Acrophilia, you mean! I’m fearless. I’m like a feather in the wind. I’m lighter than air!’

  She leapt boldly over several tiles. When she landed on them with her full weight, they disintegrated like stale piecrust. Her left leg went through and sank in up to her crotch.

  ‘Ow!’ she wailed. ‘Ow, my leg!’

  Echo jumped on to the roof and went over to her. ‘I told you to stay on the steps,’ he grumbled. ‘Come on, we’ve got to get out of here.’

  Izanuela had come down to earth. ‘Ow,’ she wailed, ‘my leg’s stuck.’ Holding the Cratmint in one hand, she tugged at the imprisoning tiles with the other. One of them came away, then another, then a full dozen. The whole roof started to slide. Echo tried to leap to safety, but it was too late. It was like jumping from ice floe to ice floe while plunging down a waterfall.

 
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