Rumo and his miraculous.., p.41
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.41

           Walter Moers
 

  Gornab the First

  What is certain is that the attested history of the Hellian nation begins with Gornab the First – although to call it a ‘nation’ in the strict sense would be mistaken. The Hellings were then only a few hundred subterranean creatures – beings with poorly developed brains and eyes, snow-white skin and silver hair – who had banded together by chance and been intimidated and subjugated by Gornab’s strength and brutality. There are many legends concerning the physical strength of Gornab the First. It is said that he could split whole boulders with his head, and that he single-handedly carved Hel out of the rock with his own bare fists. Anyone aware of the immense strength latent in his stunted descendant, Gornab the Ninety-Ninth or Last, was inclined to believe these legends about him.

  The Gornabian Dynasty can be divided into ten periods, each of them embracing ten generations. Thus the First Epoch extended from Gornab the First to Gornab the Tenth, the Second Epoch from Gornab the Eleventh to Gornab the Twentieth, the Third Epoch from Gornab the Twenty-First to Gornab the Thirtieth and the Tenth Epoch – the only one to span just nine reigns – from Gornab the Ninety-First to Gornab the Last.

  The despotic dynasty

  According to the Red Prophecy, the accession of Gornab the Hundredth would mark the beginning of a new era, so the hundredth Gornab could also be referred to as Gornab the First and Gornab the Ninety-Ninth as Gornab the Last.

  One Gornab succeeded another without a single break in the line of succession, and each bequeathed his heirs the burden of spiritual, moral and physical decline. It may justifiably be wondered whether the history of Hel and its inhabitants would have taken the same course had its very first ruler been a less malign individual. The Hellings were not incorrigibly evil or vicious; they simply knew no better. They did include some thoroughly pacific and good-natured souls, but there were relatively few of them. Gornab the First combined all the qualities that go to make up the ideal tyrant: he was a power-hungry, bloodthirsty, quick-tempered, cunning, unscrupulous megalomaniac. His character and political views coloured the ruling dynasty’s style of leadership – and the culture and mores of an entire civilisation – for nearly a hundred generations. Gornab the First’s twelve sons took after their father to such an extent that, when he was frail and defenceless enough, they joined forces and stoned him to death. They then engaged in a years-long feud until, after nine perfidious murders, only one of them was left to ascend the throne: Gornab the Second, a parricide and fratricide of whom all we know is that he had eleven fingers. And so it went on for twenty generations. One tyrant followed another and Hel gradually developed from a system of caves into a city.

  The conduct of the royal family, however brutal and barbarous, was considered exemplary. Oppression, corruption, lies, torture and murder were not only commonplace but taken for granted even by peace-loving members of the community. It was to their credit that the city never subsided into chaos. Most alchemists and architects, who constituted the intellectual elite of Hel, belonged to their number, but so did some other citizens from various sections of the city’s population.

  Alchemy and architecture were the only arts recognised and practised by the early inhabitants of Hel. The city was growing continuously, so architects and construction workers were always in demand. Alchemy was a strange mixture of the arts and sciences, embracing literature and medicine, physics and philosophy, chemistry and biology. Music and painting were virtually unknown in Hel, and sculpture played only a subsidiary role in its capacity as an offshoot of architecture.

  The Hellings’ diet included worms and insects, many varieties of which lived in the volcanic soil, as well as fish, crabs, snails, water spiders and the non-light-dependent plants that grew in Netherworld’s subterranean sewers. Regarded as special delicacies were Kackerbats, which were hard to catch, Woolspiders, large numbers of which inhabited the tunnel systems of Netherworld, and various kinds of mushrooms, which proliferated in the city’s sewers. There was such a wide variety of subterranean species that food never ran short – one reason for the city’s steady expansion.

  The discovery of Overworld

  It was only after more than twenty-five generations, in the reign of Gornab the Twenty-Seventh, that Hellian alchemists and soldiers ventured on their first expeditions to the surface of the planet. Shafts of volcanic origin had been discovered at an early stage, but it was a long time before anyone dared to explore them. The wildest theories prevailed concerning the perils of Overworld: that its atmosphere was poisonous, for example, and that every kind of monster lurked there. The explorers were all the more surprised to find breathable air in Overworld. However, the pale-skinned Hellings found sunlight hard to endure, so they made their excursions by night. They covertly observed Overworld’s inhabitants and their habits and, when they returned, wrote sensational accounts of them for Hel’s Alchemistic Academy. Because living in sunlight was unthinkable and the Hellings had a deep-rooted fear of the unknown, they refrained from making direct contact with the Overworlders and confined themselves to scientific observation.

  Their visits to the surface had not gone unnoticed. They themselves were watched by disreputable denizens of the night who dogged their footsteps and tried to follow them when they returned to their subterranean city. These adventurers, mainly bandits and mercenaries, were the first Overworlders to explore the secret routes to Netherworld. Many of them died in the process. They fell into chasms, were devoured by subterranean beasts, or froze to death in the Fridgicaves, but some of them found their way to Hel and entered the underground city. The treatment they received was understandable: they were taken prisoner, tortured, and finally, since no one understood their language, put to death. But the legend of Netherworld inexorably spread among the lawless members of Overworld’s population. The thin trickle of fearless individuals, mostly escaped prisoners or others who had little or nothing to lose, never ceased. As time went by the Hellings grasped that they could obtain valuable information about Overworld from these fugitives and adventurers without having to expose themselves to sunlight. They learnt each other’s language and began to communicate. In the end, even the most pig-headed Hellings realised that cooperation with the Overworlders could be mutually advantageous. They made a pact with the immigrants. They granted them asylum and traded with them in return for a guarantee that Netherworld’s existence would remain a secret known only to a circle of initiates.

  The population of Hel was not exactly enriched by these new citizens, almost all of whom were criminals, smugglers, arms dealers and mercenaries. To the Hellings, the newcomers were living confirmation of their own way of life. They were just as evil and unscrupulous, if not more so. At the same time they triggered an unprecedented economic boom. The Hellings’ dubious dealings with Overworld provided an entirely new source of income. The criminals acquired weapons in Hel with which to commit their atrocities on the surface, and some of their ill-gotten gains found their way back to the city. Slaves were imported into Netherworld and exploited there as cheap labour. These outside influences had an effect on Hellian culture, and in time Zamonian gained acceptance as Hel’s principal language.

  The city’s wealth increased with every generation of rulers. Mineral deposits – gold, diamonds, coal – were discovered in its environs. The caves beneath it were explored and developed into sewers, and it progressively expanded downwards. Hel came more and more to resemble a huge metal-processing plant. Every street had its smelting ovens and urban life took its rhythm from the clang of hammer on anvil.

  The Vrahok Wars

  It was in the Fourth Epoch that the so-called Vrahok Wars began. To describe them thus is misleading, however, because it conveys the impression that they were a series of armed conflicts between two nations. Far from being a civilised people, the Vrahoks were creatures wholly devoid of intelligence and obedient only to their instinct for survival and procreation. They were a scourge of nature, though one of vast dimensions, and they hailed from a Netherworld r
egion reputed to have connections with the sea, perhaps because the inhabitants of Hel were always alerted to an impending Vrahok attack on their city by an overwhelming stench of brackish water and rotting fish – which very often proved their salvation. For all that, the warlike ferocity with which Hel was besieged by hordes of monstrous Vrahoks during the Fourth Epoch created the impression that they were an organised army, so the numerous battles the Hellings fought against them went down in the annals as ‘wars’.

  Terrible and costly though the Vrahok Wars were, the inhabitants of Hel not only prevailed over their attackers but managed to train them for their own purposes. This was attributable mainly to an alchemistic discovery based on a novel form of hypnosis employing the sense of smell. It was the alchemist Khemon Zyphos who subdued the mighty monsters with the aid of an acidic perfume. From then on the taming and control of the Vrahoks devolved upon the Guild of Alchemists, which thereby reinforced its influence on the royal family.

  The birth of the Homunculi

  One momentous consequence of the Vrahok Wars was the creation of the Homunculi. The plan to manufacture an artificial army to fight off the Vrahoks was another alchemistic idea. Having obtained a certain fluid from the subterranean oil lakes, the alchemists mixed it with various secret extracts and called it Mothersoup – the substance from which the Homunculi were created.

  A gigantic cauldron of Netherworld iron was set up in the centre of Hel, filled with Mothersoup and heated over a huge fire. Pregnant Netherworld creatures of the most diverse kinds, including Speleotoads, Osteocrabs, Tubular Hogs and Beaked Weevils caught in the caves beneath the city, were thrown into the soup and brought to the boil. As the expectant mothers disintegrated, so their cells mingled with the primeval, oleaginous substances. In due time the Homunculi arose from this seething, bubbling brew. Hybrid beings equipped with trunks or beaks, crabs’ claws or pigs’ trotters, they reconstituted themselves out of the components of the boiled-up creatures referred to above, each in its own bizarre way.

  However, the Homunculi were not successfully created until long after the Vrahoks had been conquered and tamed. Thus Mothersoup was used for the production not only of soldiers, but also of an army of slaves that could be replenished ad infinitum. This never-ending stream of Homunculi – cheap labour capable of performing the most arduous and dangerous tasks without demur – became a mainstay of Hel’s prosperity. The Homunculi formed a third caste inferior to the Hellings and the immigrants from Overworld. They became an ever-growing section of the population burdened with the heaviest obligations, the fewest rights and the lowest life expectancy of all.

  The Theatre of Death

  When the Vrahok Wars ended, the citizens of Hel wanted some recompense for all their tribulations and privations. It was Gornab the Fifty-First who had the idea of building the Theatre of Death.

  Having watched the last of the Vrahok Wars from the safety of his palace balcony, Gornab the Fifty-First thought it the most entertaining spectacle he had ever witnessed. The cessation of hostilities plunged him into utter despair, and he did not recover his spirits until the idea for a theatre occurred to him. He ordered his architects to construct, in the centre of the city, a huge octagonal stadium where exhibition bouts between Vrahoks and slaves could be staged for his enjoyment. They were originally intended for his personal delectation, but shrewd advisers persuaded him to admit the general public as well.

  Experience showed, however, that it was not a good idea to stage fights with Vrahoks. They were far too wild, became too enraged, broke the hypnotic spell of the alchemical perfume and often turned dangerous. Although only the smallest specimens were sent into the arena, they were forever running amok. They trampled their keepers to death, devoured members of the audience and – on one occasion – almost made a meal of Gornab the Fifty-First himself.

  So fights involving Vrahoks were abolished in favour of contests of the most multifarious kinds: between slaves and Homunculi, slaves and mercenaries, or slaves and wild beasts less difficult to control than Vrahoks. It was when Gornab the Fifty-First discovered how much pleasure he derived from bloodbaths in which Vrahoks did not participate that the Theatre of Death really came of age. From now on it was destined to be the cultural centre of Hel.

  Degeneracy

  Meanwhile, the moral and physical decline of the royal house took its inexorable course. The Gornabs became progressively smaller and more hideous, their sardonic grin broader. Henceforth, the hallmarks of the Gornabian dynasty included epileptic fits, bouts of hysteria, mania and depression, and paroxysms of rage.

  No one would have dared to tell a Gornab to his face that he was insane, so the court physicians defined illesses as virtues, hallucinations as flashes of inspiration and attacks of St Vitus’s dance as transports of joy. They turned dementia into a cult. When their kings had a fit they administered highly alcoholic stimulants designed to send them more frantic still. When they were suffering from melancholia they did their utmost to depress the royal mood still further. Many generations of courtiers regarded it as modish to ape their sovereigns’ behaviour, simulating paroxysms of rage and imitating their hysterical laughter. Ugliness and infirmity became the universal ideal of beauty and anyone in Hel who took pride in his appearance strove to look as ill as possible.

  Architects adopted this ideal. Symmetry was banned and preference accorded to the use of ugly, organic and misshapen building materials. Hel’s architecture was characterised by skewed walls, humpbacked roofs and houses sunk in the ground. Buildings were faced with the fossil scales of primeval fish or chitinous Netherworld insects. Chimney stacks jutted skywards like demons’ horns, gates yawned like gaping jaws, windows resembled death’s-heads’ eye sockets. Other favourite materials were genuine bone, fossilised dinosaurs’ teeth, petrified octopus tentacles and crabs’ pincers. If a Vrahok died its armour-plated shell was gutted and converted into apartments. Colour scarcely existed in Hel. Anyone who walked along its leaden grey streets and encountered nothing but pale-faced, dark-robed Hellings could be forgiven for believing that he was in a monochrome world. There was some light, of course, but subdued, flickering and never brighter than necessary. Sunken pools filled with phosphorescent, pulsating jellyfish served as street lights, smouldering torches and candles of black wax stood in window embrasures, and braziers burned in public places. Hel’s murky, unhealthy atmosphere was aggravated by the everlasting smoke and soot.

  Although they were so sickly and so shamefully abused by their physicians, nearly all the Gornabs were immensely long-lived. Even Gornab the First made it to 164, and he would undoubtedly have survived for a good while longer had he not met a violent end at the hands of his offspring. On average the Gornabs lived for between 180 and 200 years and spent the entire time in a state of flourishing ill health. Although it was customary at court to believe that the king was at death’s door, most of Hel’s rulers died of old age.

  Discounting a few cases of arson and some bizarre legislation, the Gornabs’ illnesses and peculiar whims had little effect on public affairs in general. The disease was confined to the palace, their doctors used to say in jest, because the kings’ demented ideas were largely self-imposed.

  For a long time all went well, but then insanity found an outlet, as it were, in the person of Gornab the Sixty-Second. In his case, mental derangement had consequences that would even affect the population of Overworld. It was Gornab the Sixty-Second who, inspired by reading a children’s book, ordained the construction of what became known as Urban Flytraps.

  Nongo Tulk’s picture book

  The alchemist Nongo Tulk, employed at the court of Gornab the Fifty-Eighth as a veterinary surgeon and tutor, had written a children’s book, intended solely for scions of the royal house, which described the basic workings of the political system in a simple but graphic manner. Having lavishly illustrated this volume, he presented it to the king’s son, the future Gornab the Fifty-Ninth, on his tenth birthday.

  Nongo’s pic
ture book gave a simplified view of the world that would not overtax a childish brain. He drew the kings as big, black, immensely powerful cave bears and their subjects as docile, loyal, obsequious albino rats. Some of the kings’ advisers and diplomats he portrayed as faithful glow-worms, others as bloodsuckers and leeches. The city of Hel itself he represented as a cunning spider, equipped with a hundred legs and a hundred eyes, that lurked below ground and bided its time in hiding until, one day, it made its way to the surface. Graphic illustrations showed the spider spinning webs there in the shape of houses. Overworlders of all kinds made themselves at home in them until the spider reappeared and devoured every last one. This episode was meant to symbolise, for the crown prince’s benefit, the fulfilment of the Red Prophecy.

  The book had no effect on Gornab the Fifty-Ninth. He merely glanced through it, burst into tears at the sight of the spider and tossed it into his overflowing toy cupboard. The following two Gornabs were unimpressed, but the precious, hand-illustrated volume was passed down from one generation to the next until it fell into the hands of Gornab the Sixty-Second when he was already middle-aged.

  Gornab the Sixty-Second

  The latter king’s insanity assumed largely manic forms. He was bubbling over with crack-brained schemes. On one occasion he forbade the inhabitants of Hel to speak for a year – they were only allowed to whisper. Another time it was all his courtiers could do to prevent him from marrying a fossilised fish. He painted, composed music and wrote poetry – with equally terrible results in all three disciplines – and was always in search of ideas for further atrocities. One day, while rummaging through the royal library, he came across Nongo Tulk’s picture book.

 
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