The alchemasters apprent.., p.17
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.17

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘That’s true. They’re curious birds.’

  ‘Not birds, vampires,’ said Ghoolion. ‘That’s the best thing about them: the fact that they’re vampires.’

  Echo frowned. ‘What’s the good of that?’ he demanded.

  ‘Oh, come,’ Ghoolion said with a grin. ‘You’re young. Anyone of your age would love to be a vampire. To be able to fly! To drink blood! To be feared by everyone! The mere rustle of your wings would send people into a panic.’

  He might have a point, Echo reflected. It was rather tempting, the thought of being a creature that inspired universal fear, he had to admit.

  ‘Yes, you’re right,’ he said. ‘It might be interesting.’

  ‘I took your interest for granted,’ the Alchemaster said, smiling. ‘You’re already on your way, so to speak.’

  ‘On my way? Where to?’

  ‘To your nocturnal companions, the vampires. What you’ve just eaten was a black pudding made of Leathermouse blood.’

  Echo recoiled in horror.

  ‘What?!’ he exclaimed. ‘You mean you kill Leathermice?’

  ‘No, I’d never do that, but they die just like other creatures. They fall from the rafters occasionally and I collect them.’

  Echo was feeling sick.

  ‘How disgusting,’ he said.

  ‘Not at all. Be honest, you quite enjoyed that black pudding.’

  Echo could hardly deny this, having wolfed it with such gusto.

  ‘Anything seasoned with curry powder tastes good,’ said Ghoolion. ‘That’s why I don’t use the stuff too often - it makes things too easy. I could curry glazier’s putty and you’d enjoy that too. Before bleeding the Leathermouse I marinated its corpse for a week in an infusion of Blue Tea, Hypnium and Crazyroot, so the metamorphotic effect should be quite something - far more potent than that of salmon fishcakes. Give my regards to the Leathermice! You’ll now get all the exercise you wanted.’

  ‘Eh?’ said Echo. ‘W-what’s happening to me?’

  Ghoolion’s face was expanding and contorting, turning into a whirling spiral, a rotating vortex that sucked in everything around it: the stove, the whole kitchen and, last of all, Echo himself.

  There followed a moment or two of absolute darkness with a chill wind whistling in his ears. At last he plucked up the courage to open his eyes.

  He was high, high in the sky. Malaisea lay spread out far below, many of its windows illuminated. All around him, silhouetted against the moon and the racing clouds, were hundreds of shafts of black lightning: his companions the Leathermice.

  ‘I’m a Leathermouse,’ he thought. ‘I can fly.’

  An aerial armada of vampires was streaming into the night sky from a hole in the castle’s roof.

  ‘Night-time!’ they cried.

  ‘Time to go hunting!’

  ‘Time for blood!’

  ‘Watch out for curtains!’ cried another.

  Then, as if in response to an unspoken word of command, the whole squadron swooped down on the town.

  Echo had never felt so liberated in his life - released from the constraints of gravity and denuded of all his fat. He was now a wiry Leathermouse equipped with powerful wings. Wings, he possessed wings! That thought alone filled him with a feeling of profound contentment. Flapping steadily up and down, his wings seemed to function by themselves. ‘Of course!’ he thought. ‘After all, I don’t have to keep telling my legs what to do. I don’t have to learn to fly, I already can.’

  Malaisea resembled a roof tile shattered into hundreds of little fragments. The cracks between them were its thoroughfares, which were waiting for him to explore them. Echo experienced a fierce desire to dive down and test his new-found ability to fly by soaring around every twist and turn in Malaisea’s labyrinth of streets.

  On the other hand, wasn’t this an ideal opportunity to escape? The mountains lay over there. These wings of his could easily enable him to reach them in a matter of minutes and fly far beyond them. But Echo was already too much of a Leathermouse - a vampire - to think like a Crat. He was here for a very specific reason: to drink blood. Being a vampire, he knew the natural reason for his thirst for blood. Unless he maintained the everlasting cycle of drinking and digesting the red fluid, his cells would decay and he would die a painful death - reason enough to accompany the other members of his new species.

  He dropped like a stone by simply folding his wings. Descending in free fall, an absolutely terrifying sensation for creatures incapable of flying, left a Leathermouse entirely unperturbed. It was merely the quickest way of covering the distance between two points with no fear of injury or death. Indeed, Echo was even able to intensify the free-fall sensation and accelerate his descent by flapping his wings a couple of times. He was intoxicated by his own temerity. Creatures with wings, he thought, must all be exceedingly happy.

  A few feet above the roofs he unfolded his wings, checked his descent, and glided between chimneys and weathercocks, flagpoles and plumes of smoke. The whole town was his oyster! He could look down on backyards and secluded gardens, peer into lighted rooms through dormer windows. He could land anywhere he chose on Malaisea’s expanse of roofs. Every tower, chimney and treetop was accessible to him. He no longer had to climb them with difficulty, he had only to alight on them. But he had no intention of doing that now. Who wanted to roost when he could fly?

  Echo banked gracefully down into Apothecary Avenue. At this hour, long after closing time, it was shrouded in darkness. From high above the moonlight and his eyesight had been guides enough, but down here in the shadowy streets he needed a special sense to find his way: down here he had to see with his ears! Utterly confident of his faculties, he shut his eyes. No longer was he a Crat that had temporarily turned into a Leathermouse - no, he was all Leathermouse. A dauntless vampire, a drinker of blood and demon of the night who could only dimly remember having once been a Crat. Brain, hearing, inner eye, wings, sense of balance - all these were functioning in perfect harmony, unimpeded by any hint of doubt or fear.

  He uttered four or five staccato squeaks. They would have been inaudible to most ears, but their manifold echoes lit up the whole of Apothecary Avenue, bathing it in a magical glow before his inner eye. He could see its full extent: roadway, kerbstones, pavements, buildings, windows, doors, roofs, extinguished street lights, pharmacists’ hoardings - everything, and all in a luminous, monochrome blue.

  Echo … How well his name suited him now - better than ever before, in fact! What he couldn’t see was what lay behind the windows of the pharmacies and other shops, because he perceived only the surfaces that reflected the sounds he emitted. The windowpanes appeared to him as luminous expanses resembling rectangular pools of calm blue water. There were people walking along the pavements, though not many at this hour. Echo spotted two nightwatchmen, a handful of ailing citizens on their way to late-night pharmacies and some workers returning home from the bandage-weaving factory, several of whom carried lanterns. It filled him with surreptitious glee to think that he could see them without being seen. He could have pounced on them and bitten them in the neck right away - it would have been too late by the time they heard the rustle of his wings - but for the moment he decided to savour the mere idea.

  Right now he preferred to remain airborne, nothing more. Along Apothecary Avenue he flew, then veered off down a side street. A manoeuvre he might have found dangerous as a Crat walking on all fours was now just a question of a few leisurely wingbeats. He missed a beat with his right wing, flapped his left wing a trifle harder and went swerving round the corner like a wagon on invisible rails.

  Dogs! There was a whole pack of them down there. Five big, ferocious wild dogs with grimy fur and scarred muzzles, they were clearly in search of some smaller and weaker animal to hunt down and tear to pieces.

  ‘Dogs!’ thought Echo. ‘And I’m not afraid of them in the least. If I were a Crat I’d be done for. I’d never make it down that street in one piece.’

  Almost withou
t thinking, he stopped flapping his wings, spread them out sideways and used them as air brakes. Then he went spiralling down towards the dogs.

  ‘It might be fun to rough them up a bit,’ he thought. He even recognised two of the tykes. On one occasion in the past they would have harried him to death if he hadn’t managed to escape on to a roof.

  Echo shot between the dogs like a whiplash. He didn’t do anything to them - didn’t even touch them, just snarled ferociously and flapped his wings - but that was quite enough to send them bounding in all directions, barking wildly. He soared into the air to inspect the result.

  The panic-stricken animals had scattered across the full width of the street. They ran around aimlessly for while, then clustered together again.

  ‘What the devil was that?’ yapped one of them.

  ‘A confounded Leathermouse,’ yapped another. ‘It came out of nowhere!’

  ‘Damn the things! They transmit dangerous diseases. My brother was bitten by one and he’s never been the same since.’

  Echo retracted his wings and went into a dive. Just above the animals he spread them again, which not only slowed his descent abruptly but made a sharp crack. The pack of dogs scattered once more, howling. He pursued one of them. It was one of the pair that had chased him that time, a big, muscular beast with a mouthful of huge teeth. ‘Incredible,’ thought Echo, ‘it’s scared of a mouse!’ He found it so easy to keep up with the dog, it seemed to be running in slow motion. He flew close to its ear and hissed: ‘I’m right behind you!’

  The dog uttered a terrified yelp and bounded on even faster. It snapped at him over its shoulder, but so slowly, by Echo’s standards, that he had plenty of time to dodge the animal’s gnashing teeth and soar up into the night sky. Unfortunately for the dog, its momentum was such that it couldn’t stop when it sighted a wall straight ahead. It went crashing into the brickwork like a bag of bones and knocked itself out.

  Echo was ecstatic. He had put one dog to flight and panicked a whole pack of vicious tykes, genuine killers! This was the stuff of which a Crat’s dreams were made. Transforming him into a Leathermouse had been a splendid idea on Ghoolion’s part. Leathermice had a whale of a time and the night was still young.

  He resisted the urge to go on buzzing the dogs. It was tempting, but his spell as a vampire wouldn’t last for ever and he didn’t want to waste it on a few stupid mongrels. He turned down Hospital Lane, a street near his former home. Alluring smells were issuing from the hospital windows, some of which were open - smells of disinfectant and ether, pus and iodine. As a Crat he had always found them unpleasant. To a Leathermouse, on the other hand, they smelt divine because they pointed the way to defenceless patients lying in their beds asleep or unconscious, anaesthetised or half dead. There was also the scent of blood. Vast quantities of it adhered to everything - to surgeons’ scalpels, nurses’ aprons and patients’ bedding. There were also buckets and tubs of it in the operating theatres, whose walls were spattered with the stuff. The hospital was the finest place in Malaisea apart from the Leathermousoleum. It contained everything a Leathermouse’s heart could desire.

  But Echo flew on. First he had to reconnoitre the town. Little by little, his high-frequency squeaks brought the whole of Malaisea into view below him, a ghostly blue panorama. The town looked as if it were built of frosted glass lit from within. Echo glided along the luminous streets, nimbly avoiding taut washing lines and perceiving all the smells that emanated from the buildings in an entirely new way. For a Leathermouse’s sense of smell differed from a Crat’s. Echo caught the scent of bread being baked by the bakery’s night shift, the aroma of the cough-syrup factory, the odour of hops from the beerhouses, but none of these meant anything to a vampire’s nose. Of far more interest were the smells given off by the living, breathing, sweating creatures that resided in those buildings. Issuing from chimneys and open windows, they rose into the night air and combined to form an aroma that encased the town like a bell jar. To a Leathermouse, flying around inside this invisible pall of appetising smells was second only to the actual drinking of blood.

  It was time to make up his mind. He had to select his victim for the night, pick out a scent and follow it to its source.

  Below him lay the residential district where the pharmacists lived. He uttered a few little squeaks and it lit up to reveal a row of neat suburban villas looking like toys made of frosted glass. He stopped flapping his wings and glided down towards a nice big house. Unfortunately, there were some people chatting on the terrace - they were far too wide awake. He flew on. The next house was dark and silent, but all the windows were shut. A piano was tinkling in the one after that. No, its occupants hadn’t gone to bed yet.

  At last, in a large, secluded garden, he came to a house with several open windows. No voices, not a sound, but a sudden whiff of something that prompted him to circle the property several times. Yes, there was someone alive inside, freshly bathed and faintly fragrant. He could smell lavender-scented soap with a discreet admixture of human sweat. A little girl having a nightmare?

  Echo flew in a wide arc, plucking up his courage, then glided straight back towards the upstairs window from which the scent was coming. The curtains were billowing out like long, ghostly arms intent on enveloping him in their folds. What was it that Leathermouse had said about curtains before diving down on the town?

  No matter, he was heading straight for the window at full speed. With wings folded and body vertical, Echo shot through the narrow gap between the strips of material and landed as safely on the windowsill as if he’d done it innumerable times before. Unable to resist a thrill of pride at his talent for flying, he opened his eyes again.

  The first thing he saw was his own moonlit face reflected in one of the window panes. The sight of his wrinkled features gave him a start, but then he peered more closely. He looked wrinkled, yes, but rather dashing, no? Lean and wiry, anyway. Dangerous, intimidating and sort of … well, attractive too. Yes, Echo thought he looked handsome. Up was down and ugly beautiful, sick was healthy and evil good. Nobody understood the Leathermice.

  Night-time.

  Time to go hunting.

  Time for blood.

  He left the windowsill, fluttered into the room and perched on the end of a wooden bedstead. Below him was a mound of crisp white linen bedclothes with something rising and falling at its central point: a little girl fast asleep. He could smell her and hear her. Soon he would taste her as well.

  Echo was suddenly appalled by his own voracity. It was really beyond belief: his dearest wish was to sink his teeth in a little girl’s neck and drink her blood! All that was left of the Crat within him balked at this idea. Wasn’t it the most abominable impulse ever?

  No, he told himself, it wasn’t. There were worse things. He’d tormented mice, tortured insects, beaten up a hamster and pushed a blind mole into a stream. As for what he’d done to that flightless canary, he preferred not to think of it. Compared to that, biting a sleeping girl in the neck was thoroughly innocuous. Why shouldn’t he? Just this once! After all, he didn’t intend to kill her, just nibble her a bit and sip her blood. So what? At this very moment a regular banquet of gore was in progress all over Malaisea - an orgy of vampirism. Was he to be the only vampire that abstained, and on what was probably the only night he would ever spend as a Leathermouse? Never! Besides, this whole episode was a kind of dream, wasn’t it? Very lifelike, admittedly, but it couldn’t be the real thing. It was all taking place in his imagination! That meant he was having a sort of dream about biting this little girl, and who could help the dreams he had?

  Echo hopped down on to the bed, hitched up his wings and waddled over the mound of white bedclothes. He couldn’t help giggling more than once at the thought that he must look like something out of a Zamonian horror story.

  ‘Whoo!’ he whispered. ‘Nobody understands the Leathermice.’

  At that moment the little girl sat up.

  Opened her eyes.

  Saw Echo
.

  And screamed with all her might.

  Echo gave a terrified snarl. The little girl screamed even louder. Panic-stricken, he fluttered into the air. Loud voices could be heard outside on the landing. His ears ached, the little girl was now screaming so loudly. He flew hither and thither, and all at once the room seemed terribly cramped. There were bulky pieces of furniture, hanging lamps and vases of flowers all over the place. He collided with a birdcage and almost got entangled in the wire mesh. Then he made straight for the moon, only to hit his head on a mirror he’d mistaken for the window. Heavy footsteps could be heard outside. The door burst open and two muscular fellows armed with sticks came lumbering in.

  Echo flew straight for the window. Just then, the draught created by the open door sucked the curtains into the room. Their ghostly white arms reached for him once more and this time he ended up in their clutches. His clawed feet caught in the material, entangling him in its folds, and no amount of desperate fluttering and squeaking improved his situation. He found himself hanging upside down, as firmly imprisoned as a fly in a spider’s web.

  Watch out for curtains!

  That was what the Leathermouse had said.

  The little girl had at last stopped screaming and was imploring the two toughs to ‘kill that horrible Leathermouse’. They needed no second bidding: they dashed over to Echo and raised their sticks.

  The little girl fell silent, not wanting to distract the executioners from their work. Echo’s heart was in his mouth. The two men paused for an instant, granting him the moment’s grace accorded to every criminal under sentence of death.

  Echo broke the silence. ‘You’ll ruin the curtains,’ he said hoarsely.

  It was the only thing that occurred to him, and pretty stupid it sounded, even to him, but its effect was remarkable. The men lowered their sticks and shrank back.

  Echo realised only then that he’d done the ideal thing: he had spoken. It didn’t seem to matter that he hadn’t said anything particularly original; what counted was that no one in the whole of Malaisea, neither the men nor the little girl, had ever heard a Leathermouse speak. They obviously mistook him for an evil spirit, or something of the kind.

 
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