The Alchemaster's Apprentice - By Walter Moers

Picture to yourself the sickest place in the whole of Zamonia! A little town with winding streets and crooked houses, and looming over it a creepy-looking castle perched on a black crag. A town afflicted by the rarest bacteria and the oddest diseases: cerebral whooping cough, hepatic migraine, gastric mumps, intestinal acne, digital tinnitus, renal measles, mini-influenza, to which only persons less than one metre tall are susceptible, witchinghour headaches that develop on the stroke of midnight and disappear at one a.m. precisely on the first Thursday of every month, phantom toothaches experienced only by persons wearing a full set of dentures.

Picture a town where there are more apothecaries and herbalists, quacks and tooth-pullers, crutch manufacturers and bandage weavers than anywhere else on the Zamonian continent. Where ‘Ouch!’ is the conventional form of greeting and ‘Get well soon!’ takes the place of ‘Goodbye’. Where the air smells of ether and pus, cod-liver oil and emetics, iodine and putrefaction. Where people vegetate and wheeze instead of living and breathing. Where nobody laughs, just moans and groans.

Picture a place where the buildings look as sick as their occupants: houses with hump-backed roofs and leprous façades from which shingles keep falling and plaster dust trickles down the walls - houses precariously leaning on each other like cripples in danger of collapse or precariously poised on crutches of scaffolding.

Can you imagine that? Good. Then you’re in Malaisea.

Living in Malaisea shortly before our story begins was an old woman who had a Crat1 she named Echo. She had christened him that because, unlike all the cats she had previously owned, he could talk.

The old woman’s death - she died of old age, peacefully and in her sleep - was the first true stroke of misfortune Echo had ever experienced. Until then he had led a thoroughly comfortable feline existence complete with regular meals, plenty of fresh milk, a roof over his head and a tray of Crat litter emptied twice a day.

But now he found himself back on the street, having been locked out by the new owners of the house, who were anything but Crat lovers. Little Echo lacked the criminal initiative essential for survival in the merciless world of the streets, so it wasn’t long before he became terribly run-down and emaciated. Chased away from every door, bitten and roughed-up by roving dogs, he lost his joie de vivre, his healthy instincts - even his glossy fur - and looked more like a wraith than a Crat. He felt he had hit rock bottom as he sat there on the pavement with his matted fur falling out in tufts, begging passers-by for something to eat.

But the inhabitants of Malaisea, whether human, Demidwarf or Turniphead, shuffled heedlessly, mechanically, past him like sleep-walkers, just as they had always done. Their faces were pale and anaemic, their dark-rimmed eyes glassy and mournful. They made their way along with heads bowed and shoulders sagging, many of them looking as if they might expire at any moment. Some were racked with terrible coughs, others wheezed or sneezed and blew their noses on voluminous, bloodstained handkerchiefs, and many wore warm scarves round their necks. But this was nothing out of the ordinary. All the townsfolk of Malaisea looked like that every day - and the reason for their appearance had just turned the corner.

Ghoolion the Terrible

For, just to set the seal on this dismal scene, Malaisea’s alchemist-in-chief, the Alchemaster, was coming. If ever a nightmare decided to materialise and go walking through the real world, old Ghoolion’s was the form it would choose to adopt. Like a scarecrow or a figure from a chamber of horrors come to life, Ghoolion put all living creatures to flight, from the smallest beetle to the strongest warrior. He seemed to stride along to the strains of some terrible march inaudible to anyone but himself, and everyone avoided his searing gaze for fear of being blinded, hypnotised or accursed. Ghoolion was well aware that everyone hated and feared him. He not only revelled in that knowledge but seized every opportunity to spread panic throughout the streets of Malaisea.

He had nailed iron plates to the soles of his boots so that his brisk footsteps could be heard when he was still several streets away, and his bone chain of office rattled like the skeleton of a hanged man swinging in the wind. He gave off an acrid, noxious smell, an effluvium compounded of all the acids and essences and lixiviants with which he conducted his