Rumo and his miraculous.., p.42
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.42

           Walter Moers
 

  Its impact on his deranged mind was total. Gornab the Sixty-Second would be the first king of Hel to translate the pictures in a children’s book into reality. The art-loving monarch’s greatest passion was architecture and the construction of monumental buildings. Hel was strewn with empty palaces commissioned by Gornab and built to his own designs, but the city’s subterranean location naturally cramped his style. Gornab the Sixty-Second yearned to extend his architectural activities to Overworld, but his advisers had always managed to dissuade him. The alchemists’ failure to come up with an antidote to sunlight rendered building on the surface impossible, they told him, but they were sure that such an antidote would soon be discovered.

  While Gornab the Sixty-Second was leafing through Nongo’s picture book, his overwrought brain had a flash of inspiration that set off a chain reaction of megalomaniac visions and ideas. His architectural ambitions, the Theatre of Death, the Homunculi, the Vrahoks, the alchemistic, arts, Nongo’s illustrations, Overworld and Netherworld – all became fused into a plan which, although malign, had its attractions.

  Gornab summoned his advisers and architects, his generals and alchemists, and the directors of the Theatre of Death. He proposed to have a city built in Overworld by Homunculi, who were capable of working in sunlight, and connect it to Netherworld by a flight of steps. Once the city was built, they would leave it and return to Hel.

  The king’s advisers exchanged puzzled glances and applauded wearily. Yet another of Gornab’s insane, ruinously expensive schemes.

  Then, he went on, they would wait. Wait like a patient, hundred-eyed spider. Wait until the city filled up with Overworlders – which it would, he added, for nothing attracted ordinary folk more than a well-built city.

  The architects nodded. That made sense to them.

  At length, one night when the densely populated city was wrapped in slumber, the Hellian army would ride to the surface on Vrahoks, anaesthetise the inhabitants with alchemical gases and bear them off to Hel.

  Now the generals nodded. They approved of putting the Vrahoks to practical use. The alchemists, who controlled the Vrahoks, nodded likewise.

  The captured slaves, Gornab went on, would be found employment as labourers in the lead mines and sewers, smelting works and armouries, et cetera. As for those prisoners who were particularly strong and good at fighting, they would be put on show in the Theatre of Death for the entertainment of the masses.

  At this the directors of the Theatre of Death broke into rapturous applause. They had always dreamt of butchering slaves on a grand scale.

  Then, cried Gornab the Sixty-Second, when the empty city had replenished itself, it would be harvested a second time. And a third and a fourth, and so on ad infinitum. To the benefit of Hel and the glory of the Gornabs.

  The advisers and architects, generals and theatre directors were dumbfounded. No Gornab had ever before had such an appealing idea. They conferred in low voices. This was truly the first royal idea in the history of Hel that made sense. It would solve a whole series of problems at a stroke. Gone would be the difficulty of procuring slaves. The army and the Vrahoks would at last have something more constructive to do than wait, generation after generation, for the far-off day when the Red Prophecy would fulfil itself. The theatre would acquire some new attractions and the demented king would at last be too preoccupied to keep everyone on the hop with a deluge of hare-brained ideas. An Urban Flytrap! It was crazy but brilliant.

  The Urban Flytraps

  A tumultuous period of planning and preparation followed. To avoid endangering Hel itself, the architects decided to build a stairway up an existing volcanic shaft located at a safe distance from the city – one that led to a sparsely populated region of Overworld.

  Then they went to work. Having surveyed the area, they proceeded to design the Urban Flytrap’s buildings and lay out its streets in contemporary Overworld style. The Homunculi had to carve a spiral staircase into the sides of the volcanic shaft, a formidable task that left many of them dead from exhaustion. Then the city itself was constructed. One of the architects suggested enclosing it with a massive wall that would create a well-fortified impression, thereby attracting exceptionally warlike individuals with whom to stock the Theatre of Death. Last of all, the top of the spiral staircase was cunningly concealed by roofing it over with a black dome of impregnable Netherworld iron. Accessible only from below, this sank into the ground when opened. At last, when all was complete, everyone withdrew to Hel. The seed had been sown; it only remained to wait for the first harvest.

  Gornab the Sixty-Second, who found the waiting almost unendurable, gave orders for the first harvest to commence after barely a year. His soldiers rode their Vrahoks to the surface by night, opened the dome and found the whole city asleep. They anaesthetised its inhabitants and bore them off to Hel.

  As luck would have it, the city had been occupied by thousands of sturdy mercenaries. These provided excellent material, not only for the Hellian army but even more so for gladiatorial contests in the Theatre of Death. The Urban Flytrap’s very first harvest had proved to be a bumper crop.

  Gornab the Sixty-Second closed the entrance to Overworld in preparation for the next harvest. Spurred on by his success, he ordained the design and construction of more Urban Flytraps.

  The second one, which was built to the north of Hel, was not a great success compared to the first. The surrounding district was densely populated, and rumours soon spread that there was something suspicious about this city that had sprung from the ground overnight. The only people who strayed there were shady individuals, and the ensuing harvests were poor. Because it snowed a lot in this area and the roofs of the mysterious city were nearly always covered with snow, the Zamonians christened it Snowflake.

  The third and last Urban Flytrap to become operative under Gornab the Sixty-Second did not have to be built at all; it already existed.

  The impatient king had this time called for a different type of city to be built – one that didn’t necessitate waiting until it was ready for harvesting but could be raided like a larder, regularly and as required.

  The Jellyfog

  The architects and alchemists racked their brains over this task until someone suggested simply using an existing city. The alchemist who put forward this idea already had one in mind, namely, Murkholm in North-West Zamonia.

  ‘Murkholm?’ Gornab had asked. ‘What’s so special about it?’

  ‘Murkholm, Your Majesty,’ the alchemist replied humbly, ‘would make an ideal Urban Flytrap. It’s inhabited by the notorious Murkholmers, a bunch of bandits and smugglers with whom Hel has been in contact for centuries. There are volcanic shafts connecting it to Netherworld and, last but not least, its isolated position is an advantage. Then there’s the Jellyfog.’

  ‘The Jellyfog?’ said Gornab, who was always interested in scientific phenomena. ‘A jellyfish composed of fog?’

  ‘That’s one way of putting it, Your Majesty. Murkholm is eternally swathed in a blanket of fog that lies over it like a giant jellyfish. Having studied the said fog for a considerable time, I’m firmly convinced that it’s a living creature, not a pall of vapour. It probably comes from the sea and its body is no more substantial than mist. It may genuinely be a gigantic variety of jellyfish.’

  ‘Why are you convinced that it’s a living creature?’ asked the king.

  ‘Its sylphidic density is too high for a meteorological phenomenon,’ the alchemist replied. ‘What’s more, it displays rudimentary signs of intelligence. It responds to music and makes noises. Ordinary fog doesn’t do that.’

  ‘And what does it have to do with our Urban Flytrap?’

  ‘Well, Your Majesty, I couldn’t help thinking of our conquest of the Vrahoks. They, too, are powerful sea creatures of rudimentary intelligence, so we might be able to hypnotise the Murkholm Jellyfog with our alchemical gases. We know that these have a mesmeric and anaesthetic effect on most life forms – we use them when harvesting our Urban
Flytraps, after all. By enriching the Jellyfog’s sylphidic circulation with our gases we would transform it into a gigantic trap that would hypnotise and immobilise all who entered its orbit – ready for us to come and collect them.’

  ‘Hm,’ said the king. ‘You’re an idiot. Why? Because our allies, the Murkholmers, would also be poisoned! Another bright idea like that and I’ll have you cut into a dozen pieces.’

  The alchemist flinched. ‘Your pardon, Majesty,’ he said quickly, ‘but there’s an answer to that problem too. As you know, we immunise our Vrahok riders against the gas by habituating them to it gradually. We need only do the same to the Murkholmers. They’re rapacious enough to go along with the idea.’ So saying, he bowed low and fell silent.

  The scheme was crazy enough to appeal to a Gornab right away. The Hellings came to an arrangement with the Murkholmers, immunised them, and hypnotised the Jellyfog with gas. Unlike Snowflake, Murkholm was a total success. The gas permeated every part of the city and hypnotised everyone it engulfed, while the Jellyfog remained profoundly and lastingly asleep. Its slumbers, to judge by its restless stirrings, were filled with realistic jellyfish dreams. It flickered and whispered, thickened and thinned, but it always remained in the same place, an eternal pall of vapour that enveloped the city of Murkholm, converting it into a vast and inescapable trap. As for the alchemist who had devised this abstruse but effective idea, he became the king’s personal adviser.

  But the most successful Urban Flytrap of all was the first to be built at Gornab the Sixty-Second’s behest. It changed its name more than once over the centuries, becoming successively known as Toadville, Moomyville and Berttville, after the life forms that inhabited it until the Hellings harvested them. One day a Zamonian named Hoth passed by, entered the city and found it completely empty of everything but an acrid smell. Being a Wolperting, he called the river that flowed through it the Wolper. The city itself he christened Wolperting and proceeded to populate with his own kind.

  A king who builds fake cities and enslaves or kills those who become trapped in them would elsewhere be regarded, no doubt, as a madman. In Hel he was considered a resplendent figure, even though he sometimes stood naked on his palace balcony and loosed off flaming arrows at his subjects. Gornab the Sixty-Second was the Hellian monarch whose ideas had opened the floodgates to Overworld.

  Gornab the Last

  Although the history of Hel had hitherto been one of continuous growth and prosperity, Gornabian victories and conquests, the Seventh Epoch dealt the city some hard knocks: disastrous epidemics, a subterranean earthquake, a plague of insects. It was as if all the Red Prophecy’s dire predictions had come to pass in quick succession. The city had long been too big for such tribulations to destroy it entirely, and life went on regardless. The alchemists devised ways of combating the epidemics, the buildings devastated by the earthquake were replaced with even stouter ones, and the insects were exterminated. But the city’s uninterrupted growth had been halted – a process so gradual that even its rulers failed to notice it. Gornab succeeded Gornab, the Theatre of Death had its ups and downs and the Urban Flytraps were regularly harvested, but little else happened. During the Eighth and Ninth Epochs stagnation gave way to decline and the Gornabs lapsed into apathy. All that still interested them was cultivating their bizarre ailments and presiding over shows at the theatre. Increasingly riddled with corruption, the city eventually subsided, like its kings, into a state of torpid lethargy.

  Gornab the Ninety-Ninth personified all the blunders and atrocities the city of Hel and its rulers had ever committed. The most extravagant and self-indulgent being in Netherworld, he was as crooked, warped, dishonest, stupid and malevolent as any living creature could be. Just as he mistook ugliness for beauty, so he mistook cruelty for art, hatred for love and pain for pleasure. He also mistook just about everything else: right for left, up for down, good for bad, backwards for forwards. He even misplaced the syllables in the words he uttered.

  If there was anyone in whom evil and insanity had managed to join forces and come to life, it was Gornab Aglan Azidarko Beng Elel Atoona the Ninety-Ninth, ruler of Hel, king of Netherworld, and arbiter of life and death in the Theatre of Death.

  Urs awakes

  Urs rubbed his eyes. He was sure of it now: this was no dream. The sensory impressions were too convincing, too realistic, and he was feeling too wide awake.

  His stupor and the acrid smell had worn off. By whatever means, the Wolpertings had been abducted and carted off to this awful place.

  ‘Are we in hell?’ asked Korryn. ‘How did we get here?’

  ‘No idea,’ said Urs.

  ‘What do you think they intend to do with us?’

  ‘Questions, questions.’ Urs sighed. ‘How the devil should I know?’

  ‘I’m only trying to get things straight in my mind,’ said Korryn. ‘Until just now I thought this was all a dream.’

  ‘So did I,’ said Urs, ‘but it’s too unpleasant to be a dream.’

  He redirected his attention to the royal box. The spectators were also gazing expectantly at the hideous dwarf on the throne. The tall figure behind the king slunk restlessly to and fro, trying to make him as comfortable as possible. He handed him bowls of fruit and golden goblets of wine, plumped up his cushions and fanned him. Now and then he bent down and whispered something in his ear, whereupon the dwarf would utter a discordant bleat of laughter. Despite the dark-robed figure’s obsequious manner, Urs sensed that he was the second most important person present.

  Friftar’s story

  Friftar, chief political and strategic adviser to Gornab the Ninety-Ninth, belonged to a family of diplomats with a long tradition of service at the royal court.

  He made a more elegant impression than hideous, thickset Gornab. Tall, pale and slim, he kept his gestures and facial expressions to a minimum. But he cut a good figure only when compared with his grotesque king. In any other surroundings his demonic features, hooked nose and projecting teeth would have made him look like a veritable scarecrow.

  Anyone who believed that Friftar was a grey eminence who operated a crazy puppet from behind the throne was grossly underestimating the demented monarch. Gornab the Ninety-Ninth was the living manifestation of many evil minds and heir to the most unscrupulous tyrants. Nearly a hundred generations of pathologically bloated egocentricity had rendered the Gornabs hypersensitive to any form of conspiracy. Those who opposed one of them opposed them all, and no matter how carefully and shrewdly they disguised their intentions, they could not conceal them altogether. Gornab the Ninety-Ninth was mad, ignorant, brutal and morally depraved, but the ghosts of his ancestors stood solidly behind him. They helped him to sniff out any plot, however cunning, and anyone who incurred the collective wrath of the Gornabs was doomed to die. Friftar knew this only too well.

  What the king’s chief adviser feared most were his master’s unpredictable moods. Despite his small stature, Gornab possessed immense physical strength, especially in his arms and jaw muscles. When he lapsed into one of his black moods, as he could from one minute to the next, he was capable of attacking people and – literally – tearing them to shreds. The only advance warning of such an outburst was a sudden, introspective silence on the king’s part, as if he were listening to some inner melody. His gaze became fixed and abstracted, his smile still more grotesque.

  The distorting mirror

  Friftar himself had evaded these paroxysms by a hair’s breadth on three occasions. He had leapt aside just in time, thereby exposing another victim to the king’s maniacal fury.

  No, diplomacy and cunning machinations would not have done the trick on their own. Friftar had had to work, hard and tirelessly, in order to secure the influential position in which he eventually found himself. Only well-nigh supernatural patience had enabled him to become indispensable to Gornab – to become a mirror that made the king look handsomer than he was; an echo that sounded more intelligent than the words he actually spoke; a shadow more gracef
ul than his own stunted figure. When Gornab said something Friftar repeated it in more subtle language. When he asked a question his adviser phrased the answer as if the question had already supplied it. And when Gornab uttered his unintelligible gibberish Friftar automatically translated it. In addition to everything else, he was constantly at pains to remain one step ahead of his master. Such was the Herculean task which no one in Hel but Friftar could have performed and which made him irreplaceable. His real triumph was that the king failed to acknowledge this achievement – indeed, that he never even noticed it. This rendered Friftar’s machinations undetectable – even, perhaps, by the ancestors that lurked in Gornab’s sick mind.

  Yes, Friftar really was the second most important person, not only in the Theatre of Death but in Hel and the whole of Netherworld. He had been assigned to the king as a playmate in his boyhood, and from this had developed a relationship that verged on the symbiotic: one could not exist without the other.

  To Friftar, power was as essential as the air he breathed. Gornab, by contrast, needed Friftar as a crutch, because without him he could not even have communicated with his subjects. The court authorities had soon noticed that Friftar’s presence exerted a soothing effect on the unpredictable tyrant and that he was capable of translating His Majesty’s curious gibberish, so they appointed him his constant companion and personal attendant.

  As such, Friftar realised from the very first that he would have to develop his power base very slowly and patiently. For decades he was content to be the buffer between the king, his insane moods and the world at large. He put up with the most abject humiliations, the most irrational mood swings and tantrums – indeed, he treated them as gifts and never tired of giving thanks for them. Friftar waited until all the king’s courtiers had become convinced that he was a boundlessly loyal flunkey devoid of personal ambition – then he made his move.

 
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