Rumo and his miraculous.., p.39
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.39

           Walter Moers
 

  Rumo marvelled at this unusual sight.

  Even the drips that fell from the stalactites and collected in the pools were glowing, so that it seemed to be raining blue light. Black winged creatures, possibly birds, possibly bats or worse, were wheeling above the subterranean valley.

  Rumo drew his sword and held it up to give Krindle and Dandelion a better view of this weird panorama.

  ‘Well, I’ll be …’ whispered Dandelion.

  ‘Where is the blue light coming from?’ asked Rumo.

  ‘Probably from a phosphorescent fungus of some kind,’ said Dandelion. ‘I’ve often seen this kind of thing in caves. I was a Troglotroll, don’t forget.’ ‘It’s Netherworld,’ said Krindle.

  The rocky terraces, which had been worn smooth by the drips from Oil Lake above, were slippery and offered few footholds. One false step might have ended in a breakneck glissade, but Rumo climbed down with care and reached the valley floor unscathed.

  The mist seemed denser and more luminous down below. The blue water fell in a fine drizzle, and Rumo could see and smell that the murky pools were filled with viscous oil. The smell of this subterranean landscape was unlike any he had met before. It was strange and mysterious, noisome and dangerous. He shut his eyes. The Silver Thread was dancing in the middle of the vast cavern, but its extremities were hidden in the blue mist beyond. He decided to follow it.

  The pools of oil became more numerous and their smell more intense, and Rumo had to steer clear of them more and more often. Seated beside many of the pools were furry little creatures with hooked beaks. They cast inquisitive, suspicious glances at the intruder and sped him on his way with nasal squawks of indignation.

  The noxious smell eventually became so overpowering that it almost took Rumo’s breath away. He climbed a slope, reached the summit and halted abruptly.

  ‘What is it?’ asked Dandelion.

  Rumo was gazing out across a huge expanse of oil. It stretched from one side of the cavern to the other and disappeared into the distance. This was no pool, it was a lake. Rumo’s route was barred. When he shut his eyes he was shocked to discover that the Silver Thread had vanished! Either the powerful stench of the oily lake had overwhelmed it, or it had snapped. Undecided what to do, Rumo paced restlessly up and down the shore.

  Swaths of blue mist were wafting across the lake, glowing and pulsating like a living creature.

  Rala wakes up

  The first thing Rala noticed when she opened her eyes was an acrid smell.

  It was pitch-dark, but something must have woken her in the middle of the night. All she could remember was falling into bed with limbs like lead. She could hardly move her arms, she’d spent so long giving swimming lessons in one of the small lakes outside the city.

  She had at last returned home to find Ornt El Okro, the old cabinetmaker, standing outside her door. He looked as if he’d come to tell her something, but he merely said ‘Good evening’ and vanished into the dusk. Why had people been behaving so oddly towards her in recent days? There was nothing she regretted more than that dive into the river.

  She ate some bread, drank a mug of milk and flopped down on her bed, where she just had time to think of Rumo before falling asleep.

  And now she was awake. Her aching limbs still felt heavy. So heavy she could scarcely move a muscle, let alone stand up. So heavy, she couldn’t move at all. Overcome with panic, she tried to kick and cry out, but all she produced was a terrified growl.

  Instinctively, she sniffed the air. There was this vile, acrid stench that seemed to cling to her, but there was another smell too.

  Metal.

  Yes, her nose told her that her body was encased in metal – in a leaden sheath that enclosed her completely.

  That was when panic really gripped her. She was in a coffin. She’d been buried alive.

  The Dead Yeti

  ‘Rala!’ Rumo called desperately across the lake. ‘Rala!’

  ‘Rala! Rala! Rala!’ the echoes replied from overhead. They seemed to bounce off the stalactites like bagatelle balls. There was an ominous crack and fragments of rock came showering down from above. The furry little creatures with hooked beaks darted behind boulders, and into nooks and crannies. Then, with an almighty crash, a stalactite the size of a tree trunk broke off the roof of the cavern and plummeted into the pall of mist that floated above the lake. It sank with a mighty gurgle, then silence returned.

  ‘Nice place, this,’ Dandelion remarked.

  ‘Hey!’ said a low voice from somewhere in the mist. ‘Are you crazy?’

  Rumo drew his sword.

  ‘Action stations?’ asked Krindle.

  ‘I don’t know,’ said Rumo. ‘There’s someone out on the lake.’

  An unfamiliar, unpredictable life form? Talking mist? Living oil? Nothing would have surprised him.

  A shadow detached itself from the mist and a small craft glided into view. A gigantic figure in a black hooded cloak was propelling it along with a pole.

  ‘Are you out of your mind, youngster?’ the figure whispered. ‘Fancy shouting like that! That confounded stalactite only just missed me.’

  ‘I’m sorry,’ said Rumo.

  ‘Ssh!’ hissed the huge muffled figure. ‘We only talk in whispers around here, understand?’

  Rumo nodded.

  ‘What are you doing here?’ The giant had gently grounded his punt.

  ‘I’m looking for my friends.’

  ‘Hey, are you another of those hounds? Yes, you are. Were they your friends?’

  ‘Who do you mean?’

  ‘Listen, youngster: your friends did come this way and you should thank your lucky stars you weren’t with them. You’re alive, they’re doomed to die, so go back where you came from and enjoy life. You’re a lucky dog, ha ha!’ The giant prepared to push off again.

  ‘Wait!’ Rumo shouted.

  Rock dust came trickling down from the roof of the cavern.

  ‘Ssh!’ went the giant. ‘Are you tired of life?’

  ‘Do you know where my friends went?’ Rumo whispered.

  ‘Maybe.’

  ‘Can you take me there?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘Because I’m not as crazy as you are.’

  ‘Can you ferry me across the lake?’

  ‘I could, but I won’t.’

  Rumo deliberated. ‘What if I yell and bring the house down?’

  ‘You wouldn’t dare!’

  ‘Rala!’ Rumo shouted at the top of his voice. ‘Raaalaaa!’

  Crack! Another stalactite broke off and came hurtling down. It landed in the lake with a muffled splash, sending ripples across its oily surface.

  The giant winced. ‘Climb aboard!’ he hissed. ‘And for heaven’s sake pipe down! You really are suicidal!’

  Rumo leapt aboard.

  ‘Sit down and keep quiet!’ the giant whispered.

  Rumo complied. The giant pushed off. Silently they glided into the luminous mist.

  ‘Did you see them?’ Rumo whispered.

  ‘I may have. I may have seen a pack of hounds being transported across the lake by Vrahoks. Maybe they were unconscious and suspended in nets. Then again, maybe not.’

  ‘Vrahoks?’

  ‘Did I say Vrahoks? Maybe I did, maybe not.’

  ‘Can you take me where my friends were taken?’

  ‘Maybe, maybe n—no, that’s impossible.’

  ‘Did you know I can sing? Not very well, but nice and loud.’

  The giant grunted.

  ‘Blood!’ Rumo belted out. ‘Blood! Blood must spurt and blood must flow!’

  The stalactites creaked like icicles thawing in the sun.

  ‘Ssh! Stop that, you idiot! I can’t take you there, it’s too far. I’ll ferry you across to the other side, but that’s all. After that you’ll have to manage by yourself.’

  ‘All right.’

  They glided along in silence for quite a while. Then the giant said, ‘Tell me, how
come you know that Demonic song? Where have I heard it before?’

  ‘Hey!’ Krindle exclaimed inside Rumo’s head. ‘I know that voice!’

  ‘May I ask who or what you are?’ Rumo hazarded.

  The figure turned to face him. A wisp of glowing blue mist floated past its cowl and lit up a death’s head with huge, close-set eye sockets and a massive, prognathous lower jaw. Weirdest of all, the skull was composed of black bone, not white.

  ‘I’m dead,’ replied the skeletal ferryman.

  Rumo gave a start and recoiled a little.

  ‘Hey, no need to be scared. I said I was dead, not that I was death in person. Don’t mistake the message for the messenger.’

  ‘Just a minute,’ said Krindle. ‘I’ve heard that somewhere before. That voice … I know that voice …’

  ‘And take care how you shuffle around on that seat, you could cut yourself on my scythe.’

  Rumo looked under the seat. Sure enough, a gigantic scythe was lying there.

  ‘Scythe? Of course!’ Krindle growled. ‘It’s him, by all the Demons! It’s the one who killed me!’

  ‘A scythe?’ Rumo looked puzzled. ‘I don’t see any grass down here.’

  ‘I use it to cut off heads.’

  ‘You bet he does! Mine, for instance!’ Krindle said eagerly. ‘That’s him, that’s my murderer! Let’s kill him! Please!’

  ‘Shut up!’ Rumo muttered.

  ‘What did you say?’ the skeleton asked suspiciously.

  ‘Nothing,’ said Rumo.

  ‘Ask him what his name is! Ask him what he’s called!’

  Rumo thought for a moment. How could someone they’d encountered down here have killed Krindle centuries ago, up there in Overworld?

  ‘What’s your name?’ he asked.

  ‘My name?’ grunted the ferryman. ‘They call me Skullop the Scyther.’

  ‘I knew it!’ roared Krindle. ‘Skullop the Scyther! Punting around down here, cool as a cucumber? Incredible! He’s a cold-blooded murderer! Draw me and let’s kill him, please!’

  ‘And what’s your name?’ asked Skullop the Scyther.

  ‘Rumo.’

  ‘Rumo? Hey, has anyone ever–’

  ‘Yes, they have.’

  ‘Rumo, you’ve got to kill him, please! He’s got me on his conscience, so kill him! Kill him as brutally as possible!’

  Rumo tried to ignore Krindle’s nagging voice.

  ‘Do you have a story, Skullop the Scyther?’ he asked.

  ‘Everyone does,’ Skullop replied, ‘and mine is good for a couple of laughs.’

  ‘May I hear it?’ Rumo asked politely.

  Like a ghost ship the punt glided through the luminous mist and across the dark surface of the lake. Skullop pushed his cowl back and fixed Rumo with his empty eye sockets.

  ‘Actually,’ he began, ‘I was bragging a bit. I’m not really dead, or I wouldn’t be punting around so happily, would I?’ He gave a hoarse laugh.

  ‘I’m pretty lively compared to a real corpse, but compared to you, let’s say, I’m a semi-corpse at best. My story sounds far-fetched and I don’t expect anyone to believe it. On the other hand, if anyone claims it’s a pack of lies I take my scythe and slice his head off, clean as a whistle, understand?’

  ‘I understand,’ said Rumo.

  The story of Skullop the Scyther

  ‘It all began like this. We were an army of wild Yetis from the Gloomberg Mountains, and we roamed through Zamonia spreading panic and consternation – the way Yetis do when they’re young. We thought we owned the world – which we did, when you come down to it.’

  Rumo stared out across the lake. All the colours of the rainbow were represented on its oily, iridescent surface.

  ‘High old times, those were! I burnt the candle at both ends. No matter what tavern we walked into, the band stopped playing and we were plied with free beer. Who could have stopped us? We were on our way to Lindworm Castle, because in those days besieging Lindworm Castle was the thing for warriors to do.’

  ‘I know,’ said Rumo.

  ‘You’ve heard the story, eh? Yes, you weren’t a proper warrior unless you’d besieged Lindworm Castle. The place was said to be rich in loot of all kinds: the Lindworm Diamond, as big as a house; gold mines in which nuggets could be dug out of the walls with your bare hands; caves full of gems. “Hey, you dozy Lindworms!” we shouted when we reached the castle. “We’re now going to come up and kick your fat, saurian backsides!”’ Skullop chuckled.

  ‘And then they tipped boiling pitch over you,’ Rumo said softly.

  ‘You heard that too, eh?’ Skullop looked taken aback. ‘Yes, those goddamned lizards showered us with pitch. Some mess! But we were Yetis – we weren’t going to be driven back into the mountains by a few bucketfuls of boiling tar! “Hey, you marmot-eaters, you lily-livered pen-pushers,” we shouted, “is that the best you can do?”’

  ‘And then they tipped molten lead over you,’ said Rumo.

  ‘Hell’s bells, you really are well informed. Who’s telling this story, you or me?’

  Rumo made an apologetic gesture. ‘Sorry,’ he said.

  Skullop threw his weight against the pole and punted on. ‘Now I’ve lost my thread …’

  ‘They poured lead over you,’ Rumo prompted him.

  ‘Er, yes, precisely, molten lead. That was another kettle of fish altogether, believe me. We lost half our number. And that was when our luck started to run out.’

  Rumo tried to look sympathetic.

  ‘So we beat a retreat. And now the really heartbreaking part of my story begins, take it from me.’ Skullop grunted with exertion as he poled the punt round a rock protruding from the lake.

  ‘We marched on through Zamonia, zigzagging a bit. Why zigzagging? Because our courage deserted us whenever we came across anything even remotely resembling a castle or fortress – in fact, many of my men used to burst into tears. Well, an army of sobbing Yetis isn’t a very edifying sight, especially when you happen to be in command of it. We badly needed a victory, you see. Just one successful conquest – anything would have done, or the Army of the Wild Yetis would soon be a thing of the past. And then we suddenly found ourselves on the borders of Nairland. Do you know Nairland?’

  ‘Nairland consists of Cogitating Quicksand, so I’ve read,’ said Rumo.

  ‘You mean you’re one of those eggheads who can read? No wonder you’re a bit cracked,’ said Skullop. ‘But you’re right about the Cogitating Quicksand, although I didn’t know it at the time. So we came to the borders of Nairland. No opposing army, no fortifications, nothing. Just sand. I was about to give the signal to advance when I heard a voice in my head:

  ‘“Don’t,” it said. “I’m quicksand – Cogitating Quicksand. I’ll swallow you up.”’

  Skullop uttered a scornful laugh. ‘I thought it was a trick, of course. We’d heard reports of great treasures buried in a volcano in the middle of Nairland and no wild young Yeti was going to be bamboozled by a voice inside his head. So I marshalled my army in line abreast and gave the order to advance.’

  Skullop leant on his pole for a moment.

  ‘Well, we sank into the quicksand, every last one of us. One step and we were done for! Not a pleasant experience, believe me, suffocating in quicksand.’

  He punted on.

  ‘But that wasn’t all – oh no! Quicksand doesn’t just kill you, it does a really thorough job on you: it scours the flesh from your bones. We sank deeper and deeper, and the grains of sand wore away our faces, forced its way up our noses and into our skulls. And then it started all over again. Although we were well and truly dead, we regained the power of thought! My skull is still full of Cogitating Quicksand.’

  The Yeti shook his head gently and Rumo could hear the sand rattling around inside.

  ‘I’ve no idea how far we sank, or through what subterranean channels and tunnels, or for how long, but to me it seemed an eternity. Being buried alive is nothing in comparison! And then, at long last, we
came out in this cavern. We fell through a hole in the roof and landed in this confounded lake – all of us, or as many as were left. The oil has soaked into our bones and made them black and supple. I don’t know what’s in the stuff, but it certainly contains plenty of energy – liquid energy! It’s full of life from ancient times. So now we’re dead but still alive, in a way. We’re undead, you could say – neither one thing nor the other, with our skulls full of thinking sand.’

  Rumo was dumbfounded. Even Krindle had fallen silent. The Yetis’ fate seemed to have impressed him too.

  ‘To keep ourselves occupied we carved some boats out of big seams of coal, and we’ve been punting around here ever since – not that many passengers come our way. Well, that’s my story. Up to date, at least.’

  ‘It’s a really good one.’

  ‘I told you so, didn’t I? And the laughs are on me.’

  The mist, which had thinned a little, was now floating above the oil in a thin, blue, shimmering layer. Not far away Rumo saw some other punts gliding along, manned by cloaked figures of similar size.

  ‘My men,’ Skullop said proudly. ‘My undead men.’

  ‘Where exactly are we bound for?’ asked Rumo.

  ‘The far shore. You want to get to Hel, don’t you?’

  ‘Hel? What’s that?’

  ‘A city. The capital of Gornab’s crazy kingdom. The place they took your friends to.’

  ‘You mean there’s a city down here?’

  ‘And what a city!’

  ‘Who is Gornab?’

  ‘The ruler of Hel. He’s insane.’ Skullop tapped his bony forehead.

  ‘If that’s where my friends are, that’s where I want to go.’

  ‘I thought as much. You really are a screw loose.’ Skullop chuckled.

  ‘Hey!’ he called. ‘Look, boys, I’ve got a customer!’

  ‘Ssh!’ said Rumo, cocking his finger.

  ‘There aren’t any stalactites here.’ Skullop looked up at the roof, which was black and smooth. ‘We can talk normally now.’

  The other craft drew nearer.

  The figures in them resembled Skullop and wore the same cloaks. Black skulls were visible under their cowls, and lying in their punts were heavy weapons: swords, clubs, axes. Rumo began to feel uneasy as they converged from all directions. He put his hand on his sword hilt.

 
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