The alchemasters apprent.., p.29
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.29

           Walter Moers
 

  Izanuela sighed. ‘That’s the trouble with feelings,’ she said. ‘They’re hard to reconcile with common sense. Believe me, I’m just as horrified by Ghoolion as you are. I’d really sooner poison him than brew him a love potion, but what can I do?’ She cast her eyes up at the ceiling.

  Echo read out the names on the labels: ‘Porphyrio veterum … Numida meleagris … Python molurus … Nyctibius grandis … Stenops gracilis … Moloch horridus … Testacella halotidea. Ah, here are the snails! And there it is: Planorbula armigera!’

  Izanuela snatched the ball of fat and stowed it in her cloak.

  ‘What if he notices it’s gone?’ she asked.

  ‘He’s far too busy at present to count his balls of fat, and even if he did, what …’

  Echo broke off. His sensitive ears had alerted him to something.

  ‘What is it?’ asked Izanuela.

  ‘Ghoolion’s coming!’ Echo could definitely hear the clatter of his iron-shod feet.

  ‘Then let’s get out of here, quick!’ Izanuela’s convulsive movements suggested that she was trying to run in all directions at once.

  ‘Too late! He’ll be here in no time.’

  ‘What shall we do?’ Izanuela whispered anxiously. ‘What on earth shall we do?’

  ‘We’ll simply have to hide.’

  ‘But he’ll see there’s been a break-in. The open padlocks! He’ll search the place.’

  ‘Leave it to me,’ Echo said. ‘I’ve had an idea. Get down behind that cupboard and keep still. And blow out that candle.’

  Izanuela complied. She too could now hear Ghoolion’s footsteps. Echo groped his way to the back of the cellar and crouched down in a corner just as Ghoolion appeared in the doorway. The cellar was suddenly bathed in multicoloured light by the will-o’-the-wisp lantern in his hand.

  ‘Who’s there?’ he called sternly. ‘Who has been suicidal enough to break into my cellar?’

  There was a moment’s absolute silence. Echo’s heart was racing. At last he plucked up all his courage.

  ‘It’s only little me, Master,’ he called jauntily. ‘Echo.’

  He emerged into the light of Ghoolion’s lantern.

  ‘What are you doing down here?’ the Alchemaster demanded sharply. ‘How did you get those locks open?’

  ‘What, me open them?’ Echo sounded mystified. ‘I’m only a little Crat. The door was wide open when I got here.’

  ‘It was open?’ said Ghoolion. He looked dumbfounded.

  ‘How else could I have got in? I thought you’d left it open for me, the way you do the door to the roof.’

  Ghoolion seemed to lose his balance for a moment. He lurched sideways, swinging the lantern to and fro.

  ‘I must have forgotten to lock up,’ he muttered. ‘I’m thoroughly overworked, I suppose.’

  ‘I know you are,’ said Echo. ‘I hardly ever see you these days.’

  The Alchemaster gave a sudden start. His face stiffened.

  ‘You didn’t answer my question,’ he said sharply. ‘What are you doing down here? I thought you were afraid of these cellars.’

  Echo sighed. ‘Oh, nobody with a future as limited as mine wastes time on silly phobias. An idea occurred to me recently, while I was paying my first visit to the Toadwoods. I don’t know what you propose to do with my remains once you’ve boiled off the fat, but one thing’s for sure: I don’t want to be buried there.’

  Ghoolion lowered the lantern.

  ‘I see,’ he said. ‘In that case, where?’

  ‘Well, this cellar is a nice, cool, clean place. The insects and rats can’t get in, and if my fat is going to be stored here anyway, I thought …’ Echo broke off.

  ‘You want to be buried down here?’ asked Ghoolion.

  ‘Yes, in a manner of speaking. If it isn’t too much trouble, you could stuff me like those mummies of yours. Then you’d have a nice memento of me and I wouldn’t be so completely cut off from the rest of the world.’

  Ghoolion grinned. ‘Oh, is that all? You’re going to make a pretty demanding corpse. Anything else?’

  ‘Yes, there is,’ said Echo, ‘while we’re on the subject. I’d like you to put me in a particular spot. Would you mind coming with me?’

  He now had to lure the old man further into the cellar so that the Uggly could sneak out behind his back.

  ‘The thing is,’ he said, leading the way, ‘I wouldn’t want to be on display among the balls of fat extracted from loathsome creatures like Throttlesnakes or Spiderwitches, or whatever they’re called.’

  ‘That’s understandable,’ said Ghoolion.

  Glancing over his shoulder, Echo saw Izanuela emerge from her hiding place and tiptoe towards the door. He could imagine how terrified she was.

  ‘I’d like to be displayed back here beside the elements,’ he went on, ‘in a nice, dignified position.’

  ‘I think that could be arranged,’ Ghoolion said.

  ‘I’ve already chosen a spot: here, just beside the zamonium.’

  Ghoolion gave another grin. ‘You want to be displayed beside the zamonium? Not a very modest request.’

  ‘But not presumptuous either, I hope. You told me yourself what an important role my fat is going to play in the development of Zamonian alchemy, so I thought, well …’

  Echo was doing his utmost to prevent the old man from looking in Izanuela’s direction. He spoke as loudly as possible to drown any telltale sounds.

  ‘Well,’ Ghoolion repeated magnanimously, ‘I think that could be arranged. It’s not without a certain logic.’

  Echo glanced over his shoulder again. The Uggly’s backside was just disappearing round the doorpost. Now he could relax. He would have to detain Ghoolion a little longer, that was all. He could picture Izanuela hurrying back along the underground passages, panting and sweating and cursing him under her breath. He hoped she would take good care of the stolen ball of fat.

  ‘Did you know’, he asked, ‘that there’s a monstrous great toad living in a grave in the Toadwoods and that it’s the last of its kind?’

  The Love Potion

  It was late that night - just before dawn, in fact - when Echo ventured out of the castle and hurried off to Uggly Lane to help Izanuela put the finishing touches to her potion. The front door admitted him of its own accord and he made his way down to the cellar, only to find the Uggly fast asleep beside her distillation plant. She was snoring with her head on the table top, surrounded by utter chaos. Dozens of flasks and test tubes, phials and beakers were standing there. Some of them had overturned and butterflies were sipping or bathing in the mingled liquids that had spilled from them. The glass flask of chlorophyll solution was boiling over, the hop dispenser rattling away and spitting out hop pellets, the Twitching Terebinth dancing a fandango in the midst of this mess.

  Echo jumped up on the table and went over to Izanuela. She was talking in her sleep.

  ‘No … Please don’t … Ghoolion, I’m innocent … Don’t barbecue me, I beg you …’

  Echo tapped her gently on the head with his paw. She sat up with a jerk and waved her arms around. Then she saw who it was and relaxed.

  ‘Good heavens … er…I must have dozed off … Sheer exhaustion, I’m afraid …’ She yawned prodigiously.

  ‘Can we carry on now?’ Echo asked.

  ‘Carry on?’ Izanuela said sleepily. ‘What with?’

  ‘The love potion, of course.’

  ‘Oh, the love potion.’ She grinned. ‘It’s done already.’

  ‘You went ahead without me?’

  ‘Of course, we don’t have much time. I worked all through the night. Four disasters. The fifth time, bingo! Then I collapsed. There it is.’ She pointed to a small, unremarkable-looking flask on the table. It contained some clear, pale-green fluid.

  Echo sniffed the cork inquisitively.

  ‘It smells and tastes of nothing at all,’ said Izanuela, ‘but it would rip the heart out of your body and squeeze it dry. A single drop of the stuff and you
d be miaowing at the moon for the next three nights.’

  ‘What do we do with it now?’

  ‘Well, we …’ She broke off. ‘I mean, you administer it to Ghoolion. The whole batch. Preferably in a glass of red wine. He does drink red wine?’

  ‘Certainly,’ said Echo, remembering their carousal.

  ‘Good. I’ve made you a receptacle we can tie round your tummy. We’ll practise how you uncork it in a minute. Tip it all into his wine and don’t even dream of sampling any yourself.’

  ‘I’m not that stupid.’

  ‘Don’t be too sure. The potion may smell and taste of nothing, but it exerts an immense attraction when it’s uncorked. I had to struggle to stop myself from drinking the lot. It was all I could do to cork it up.’

  Izanuela rose and stretched. She turned off the hop dispenser and removed the boiling chlorophyll solution from the heat.

  ‘I’m almost as proud of the choice perfume I’ve distilled from the Cratmint,’ she said, indicating the glass retort containing the mint. Its grey leaves, now completely desiccated, were drooping limply.

  She reached inside her cloak and produced another flask. ‘Cratmint perfume, the most potent scent in existence. Its effect on someone who has drunk the love potion is as powerful as that of the moon on the tides or a magnet on a piece of iron. Or a clump of Cratmint on a Crat. Only a hundred times stronger.’

  She deposited the second flask beside the first.

  ‘Those two together’, she said, ‘constitute the bottled essence of true and everlasting love.’

  ‘Are you quite sure?’ Echo hazarded.

  Izanuela glared at him.

  ‘You doubt me?’ she said coolly. ‘Then let’s test some on the Leyden Manikin. A waste, in my opinion, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. We don’t want to leave anything to chance.’

  She took the flask of love potion and went over to the jar containing the Leyden Manikin, which was still languishing apathetically in its nutrient fluid. Then she removed the cork. Her expression changed in a flash. Her eyes widened, her lips trembled.

  ‘Aaah!’ she cried.

  Now Echo, too, felt the mysterious power of attraction. He saw nothing and smelt nothing, but he experienced a fierce desire to snatch the flask from the Uggly’s hand and drain it.

  ‘Oooh!’ cried Izanuela as she dribbled a few drops of the precious liquid into the Leyden Manikin’s glass jar.

  She clearly found it a great effort to replace the cork.

  ‘Phew,’ she said, ‘that was powerful.’

  Echo, too, breathed a sigh of relief.

  The Leyden Manikin got up and toddled around in its nutrient fluid.

  ‘It’ll take a little while,’ Izanuela explained. ‘It’s absorbing the potion through its feet. It’ll go to its head before long.’

  Echo had gone right up to the jar. The Leyden Manikin was beginning to splash around in a more exuberant fashion.

  ‘It’s beginning to work,’ Izanuela said with a grin. ‘Pretend the little creature is really Ghoolion.’

  The Manikin started to dance. Clumsily, it turned on the spot and waved its arms around.

  Echo stared at it open-mouthed. ‘It looks drunk.’

  ‘It’s lovesick,’ said Izanuela, ‘but it still doesn’t know who it’s in love with. We’ll soon see about that.’

  She took the flask containing the Cratmint perfume, unscrewed the top and dabbed a single drop of it on her neck. The underground chamber was instantly suffused with a glorious scent that filled Echo with a profound sense of happiness. He jumped down off the table and wound round Izanuela’s legs.

  ‘And you haven’t even drunk any of the love potion!‘ she said with a laugh. ‘Come, see what the Leyden Manikin is up to.’

  Echo found it hard to tear himself away from her legs. He jumped back on the table and looked at the manikin in its jar.

  The little thing was behaving quite dementedly. It kept butting its head against the glass in an attempt to get at Izanuela, pausing occasionally to sing to her in a high-pitched, piping voice.

  ‘It’s completely infatuated with me,’ she said with a touch of satisfaction. ‘And it’s only an artificial, alchemical creature without a heart or genuine feelings. Imagine what our potion could do to a real, live, sentient person!’

  ‘This is fantastic!’ Echo cried enthusiastically. ‘It works!’

  ‘Of course it works,’ Izanuela said loftily. ‘I told you it was silly to waste the stuff on the manikin. Now I’ll show you what I’ve made for you to use when emptying the potion into Ghoolion’s wine glass.’

  It was a little wineskin which the Uggly had adapted by sewing two leather straps to it. These would be secured round Echo’s body. He would have to support himself carefully with his forepaws on the rim of the glass, then remove the cork with his teeth and apply pressure with one paw, squirting the potion into the wine. It became clear to him that this would entail a feat of acrobatics for which a Crat was not exactly predestined. There was a risk that the wine glass might fall over and spill its precious contents, so they practised this technique until he had mastered it perfectly.

  It was early morning by the time Echo was ready to return to the castle at last. It occurred to them that they had completely forgotten about the Leyden Manikin.

  They bent over the jar together. The little creature was floating on its back in the nutrient fluid, motionless. Its tiny mouth was wide open.

  ‘It must have fractured its skull,’ said Echo.

  ‘It loved me too much,’ Izanuela said with a sigh.

  Echo couldn’t decide whether the Uggly’s tone of voice was dictated by compassion or pride.

  ‘Well,’ she said, straightening up, ‘I’ve fulfilled my part of the bargain. I’ve brewed the love potion and distilled the Cratmint perfume. Now it’s up to you to keep your promise.’

  Echo nodded. ‘That’s only fair,’ he said.

  ‘Off you go, then.’ Izanuela flopped down on a chair. ‘But first,’ she commanded, ‘tell me about the distillation of thoughts that rotate clockwise and the preservation of volatile substances. I want to learn all of Ghoolion’s alchemical secrets. All of them!’

  Ghoolion Gets Busy

  While the moon was growing steadily rounder, night after night, Echo’s strict diet and his recent exertions enabled him to shed another few pounds. He and Izanuela had agreed to wait until the day before the moon was full. They wanted to catch the Alchemaster at a moment when he was at his busiest. That would make it easier for Echo to administer the love potion unobserved.

  So all that remained for him to do was to kill time in a state of anxious suspense. He wandered around the castle with the Cooked Ghost and roamed the roof by himself or sat at the foot of Theodore’s chimney, waiting in vain for him to return. But his favourite diversion was secretly watching the Alchemaster at his many and various activities. Ghoolion hurried to and fro between the laboratory and the cellar with increasing frequency, fetching balls of fat and boiling them up, concentrating or mingling elements and gases, vital essences and dying sighs. Echo could scarcely endure the smells that prevailed in his laboratory, so caustic and poisonous were the substances he processed there. Ghoolion himself didn’t seem to mind them. On the contrary, the more stifling and unhealthy the atmosphere, the livelier he became. His feverish condition developed into a frenzy, his passion for work into a kind of ecstasy. Having formerly waltzed around his pans in the kitchen, he now danced a tarantella around the alchemical equipment in his laboratory. Sometimes he would abruptly clutch his head or his heart, reeling around and trembling as if about to measure his length on the floor. Whenever Echo saw this he hoped the Alchemaster was about to have a stroke or a heart attack, but Ghoolion recovered every time, pulled himself together and resumed his frantic activities.

  It became ever clearer to Echo that a life’s work was nearing its culmination just as the moon was coming to the full. Ghoolion had spent a lifetime hunting and collecting
things, killing and mummifying them, preserving and hoarding them, arranging them systematically and possessing his soul in patience. Now the moment was at hand: a narrow window of opportunity which had to be opened in order to weld his collection together correctly and condense it into the one true substance: Prima Zateria. Ghoolion was every inch the master chef once more, but the soup he was preparing would be anything but wholesome, least of all from Echo’s point of view.

  The fat store, which Echo now visited more often because Ghoolion left the door open all the time, was steadily emptying. The Alchemaster kept hurrying upstairs with basketloads of balls of fat for processing in the laboratory. To Echo, the most terrible times of all were when he boiled up the sighs of the dying. It broke the little Crat’s heart to hear the sounds that then arose from the bubbling saucepans, but to Ghoolion’s ears they were the sweetest music, and he danced to it more and more ecstatically. The old alchemist had always got by on a minimum of sleep, but he now needed none at all. The more recklessly he squandered his energies, the more abundantly strength seemed to flow into him. He drove himself on with various beverages including coffee and tea, wine and bitter mineral water. Often, too, he brewed a black, treacly concoction which he drank greedily, only to work twice as hard thereafter. Echo had sniffed it once, and a mere whiff had made his heart race for hours. It smelt of eucalyptus and resin, ether and petroleum.

  The Alchemaster scarcely noticed his prisoner any more. He plunked Echo’s meals down in front of him, usually tinned food or precooked stuff from the larder, and didn’t seem to care whether he ate it or not. This helped Echo to discipline himself and stick to his diet. Although he wasn’t quite down to his old, ideal weight, he had considerably improved his agility and staying power.

  One night, as he was sitting on the roof and looking down at Malaisea just as the lights were coming on in the houses, he thought: ‘Those people have no inkling of the drama in progress up here. On the other hand, I have no inkling of the dramas in progress in their living rooms. People die every day and they all get buried in the Toadwoods. Where’s the sense in that?’

 

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