Rumo and his miraculous.., p.49
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.49

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘What’s your name?’ Urs asked when he reached him – not that he was really interested in his opponent’s name. He needed it in order to utter his last words. ‘Kill me, So-and-So!’ he intended to cry, and he wanted to get the name right.

  Evel the Octopus

  ‘My name is none of your business, little doggy, but I’ll tell you it because it’s the last thing you’ll hear in this world. My name is Evel.’

  Urs’s paw tightened on the hilt of his sword. Evel? It was someone of that name who had killed Koram Morak, his foster-father.

  ‘Evel the Octopus?’

  The Hoggling inclined his bristly black head.

  ‘Did you ever come across a Koram Morak?’

  ‘What is this, a guessing game?’

  ‘The name Koram Morak means nothing to you?’

  ‘No. Never heard of it.’

  Urs released his grip on the sword hilt.

  The Hoggling clasped his brow. ‘No, wait …’ he said. ‘Koram … Koram Morak? Wasn’t that the Vulphead with all the scars? Of course! It was … yes, one winter years ago! He was reputed to be North End’s finest duellist. A tough customer, yes, but no technician. I split his thick skull in half. With a Two-Handed Slice.’

  Urs’s paw tightened again.

  He had come to another decision. He wouldn’t die today after all. Someone else would.

  ‘All right, Evel, let’s begin,’ he said. ‘Show me why they call you the Octopus.’

  What followed turned out to be the most remarkable contest on the programme that day – in the view of many spectators, one of the most remarkable ever. Remarkable because it was the longest ever fought in the Theatre of Death. Remarkable, too, because it lasted so long although the outcome seemed certain after only a few seconds. Evel the Octopus, one of the theatre’s undefeated swordsmen, stood no chance against the much smaller Wolperting. He never even got a chance to display the dexterity that had earned him his nickname. Urs severed a sinew in his right wrist in the first minute, so he could only fight on with his left arm. Between the first minute of the duel and its grisly conclusion, Urs inflicted as many wounds on his opponent as the latter made vain attempts to land a single blow. In the end, after fighting for several hours, Evel begged Urs to put him out of his misery.

  But the most remarkable feature of this fight was that Urs refused even to administer the coup de grâce. In order to end his torments, Evel was compelled to fall on his sword.

  ‘Who is tath Tingerwolp?’ asked Gornab, when he saw Evel stretched out in his own blood. The interminable fight seemed to have put him into a trance from which he was only just awakening. ‘Wath’s his mane?’

  ‘His name is Urs,’ replied Friftar who, as director of the Theatre of Death, had done his homework.

  ‘I kile him!’ Gornab declared. ‘I’ve vener nees anyone linfict so chum naip on his nentoppo. Tup him on the slit of rafourites.’

  ‘I’ve never seen anyone inflict so much pain on his opponent either,’ said Friftar. ‘A great talent. I shall naturally put him down on the list of favourites.’

  ‘A tipy Negeral Tocktick wasn’t tchingwa. Where’s he neeb all tish mite?’

  ‘Yes, Your Majesty, a great pity General Ticktock wasn’t watching. I don’t know where he’s been all this time. They say he’s shut himself up in his tower and doesn’t want to be disturbed. I should feel happier if he performed his duties at the theatre occasionally. Shall I command him in your name to present himself here?’

  ‘No, no,’ the king said quickly, ‘he’s prabloby bysu. I won’t tusdirb him.’

  ‘Yes, Your Majesty. General Ticktock is probably busy with important matters – for the benefit of Hel.’

  Friftar clapped his hands and loaves were distributed among the audience free of charge. Then he added Urs’s name to the favourite performers’ list.

  In Yggdra Syl’s domain

  ‘I’ve got roots all over the place down here,’ squawked the Kronk. Although it was indefatigably leading the way, panting hard as it surmounted the obstacles in its path, it never stopped talking. Yggdra Syl was seizing the chance to hold a conversation. ‘There’s another, and another, and another! See them? Those roots are my eyes and ears. I’m omnipresent down here. My world exists wherever they grow, but it ends wherever they don’t. From my point of view you’re going nowhere, so to speak. I’ve no idea what goes on outside these tunnels, I’m dependent on rumours. I occasionally question the travellers who get lost in my labyrinth, like you, but they’re few and far between. And anyway, you never know where you are with the types you meet down here.’

  ‘I see,’ said Rumo.

  ‘Hey,’ said the Kronk, ‘I didn’t mean you! You’re different. You’re on a romantic mission. You’ve got a casket to deliver.’

  ‘Tell me more about the city of Hel,’ Rumo said.

  ‘I’ve nothing to offer but rumours, as I say. I once met a bandit who used to shuttle back and forth between Hel and Overworld. He was quite talkative. He told me the inhabitants of Hel are white-skinned devils who torture their prisoners to death in a big theatre. Things like that, know what I mean?’

  ‘What are Vrahoks?’ asked Rumo.

  The Kronk paused and turned round. Rumo halted too.

  ‘Vrahoks? You want to know what Vrahoks are? To be frank, the things I’ve heard about them are so monstrous I hardly dare repeat them. I can’t even guarantee that the Vrahoks really exist. Some say they’re omnivorous giants, others that they’re transparent and equipped with more legs than a spider. Many people claim that their stench is a lethal weapon in itself.’

  The Kronk hurried on with Rumo at its heels.

  ‘How far can you take me?’ Rumo asked.

  ‘As I told you, my boy,’ Yggdra Syl replied, ‘my roots mark the boundaries of my domain. I can take you there, but it’s not much further now. After that you’ll have to fend for yourself.’

  ‘You’ve been a great help already,’ said Rumo.

  ‘Don’t run away with the idea that I envy your mobility. Mobility doesn’t last. In my philosophy all living creatures are trees. Each of them puts down roots sooner or later. You’ll do so yourself some day, mark my words. And then you’ll put on annual rings and grow old and fat. Like me.’

  ‘Perhaps,’ said Rumo.

  ‘What will you do if Rala is dead?’ Yggdra Syl asked abruptly.

  ‘What?!’

  ‘It’s an unpleasant thought, I know, but haven’t you ever considered it?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘And you don’t want to, eh?’

  ‘Yes. No, I mean.’

  ‘You like words of one syllable, don’t you?’

  ‘Yes.’

  The tunnel had widened, and Rumo noticed that the aerial roots dangling from the walls, formerly so profuse, had grown rarer. The Kronk’s voice, too, seemed thinner and reedier.

  ‘Well, my sphere of influence is coming to an end,’ said Yggdra Syl. ‘I don’t mean to be sentimental or anything like that, but when you set off into the unknown with our casket I shall almost feel that I’m going with you – that I’m surpassing myself, so to speak. In casket form.’

  ‘Hm,’ said Rumo.

  ‘Is “Hm” a syllable?’ asked Yggdra Syl. ‘I shall miss our profound conversations.’

  The tunnel ended in a vast open space. Massive tree trunks loomed up ahead, veiled in pale-blue mist. Rank upon rank of huge trees stretched away for as far as the eye could see.

  ‘That’s Deadwood,’ whispered Yggdra Syl. The Kronk had finally come to a halt. ‘Netherworld’s make-believe forest.’

  Rumo looked more closely. The lifeless grey tree trunks glistened with moisture deposited by the thin, incessant drizzle that was falling from the mist overhead.

  ‘Those trees are made of stone, not wood,’ Yggdra Syl explained. ‘They’re stalagmites that have grown between the floor of the cave and its roof over millions of years. There are many rumours concerning Deadwood, notably that it isn’t an
ything like as dead as it appears. It only remains for me to tell you to be careful.’

  ‘I will be,’ Rumo promised.

  ‘Once you’re past Deadwood you’ll be considerably closer to your destination. Be guided by the black toadstools growing on those stone tree trunks. They point in the direction of Hel, so it’s said.’

  The Kronk raised an admonitory paw.

  ‘One more thing! You mustn’t eat those black toadstools, not on any account, no matter how hungry you are. They’re the only form of food in Deadwood, but they’re said to drive you insane. According to another rumour they turn you into one of the ghosts reputed to dwell in the mist above the trees.’

  ‘You’ve heard a lot of rumours,’ said Rumo.

  ‘Yes.’ Yggdra Syl sighed. ‘We must part here. Remember it’s only hearsay, all I’ve told you about the things you may meet on the rest of your journey. The best of luck, Rumo, and take good care of that casket.’

  The Kronk zigzagged back into the tunnel and disappeared into the gloomy labyrinth.

  Rumo turned and set off into the stone forest.

  The insanity drug

  For the first time ever, General Ticktock was feeling proud of something other than himself. He was proud of himself as well, of course, and of having put his audacious scientific and technological theories into effect, but he was proudest of all of Rala. Although he had sensed from the first that her will to live was exceptionally strong, he had not expected her to display such utter contempt for death. She had now been imprisoned in the Metal Maiden longer than any test subject before her, and the thanatometer had never once registered less than eighty. The honeymoon period had ended long ago and the pain he was now inflicting on Rala far exceeded anything her predecessors had endured. What fortitude! And what fury! He had never come across such courage on any battlefield, not in a hundred enemies combined.

  And to think of all he’d done to her recently! For an entire day he had enhanced her physical sensitivity to the utmost with an elixir, then infused her bloodstream with fluids that caused muscular spasms. They must have hurt like dagger thrusts, yet she hadn’t cried out once. Greatly accelerated pulse rate and breathing, of course, and a few twitches, yes, but very little reaction otherwise. And her bodily functions had readjusted themselves automatically. Then she’d fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion. What a brave girl!

  Yes, Ticktock was proud of Rala. Because any relationship should be based on mutual respect, however, he proposed to teach her some respect the next day. For this purpose he would turn his attention to Rala’s most sensitive organ: her brain.

  He went over to his poison cupboard, took out a flask and gazed at the label for a long time. Some weeks ago he had instructed one of his alchemists to develop a drug that would instil fear, and the contents of this flask were the product of that alchemist’s labours.

  Many drugs were capable of instilling fear, but they all contained some contrary element, some property conducive to happiness or relaxation, with the result that they caused an alternation of euphoria and panic. The alchemist had proceeded to extract the euphoric elements from the poisons he selected – thorn apple, deadly nightshade and Deadwood toadstools – by breaking them down into their chemical constituents and isolating the disruptive elements. He then blended extracts of the three poisons into a single toxin capable of inducing hallucinations of the most horrific kind.

  Before taking his new drug to General Ticktock, however, the alchemist had second thoughts. Would it really be capable of meeting the general’s requirements? As everyone in Hel now knew, any underling who failed to satisfy him had signed his own death warrant. How could he boost the effects of the drug to so terrible a degree that Ticktock’s satisfaction would be guaranteed?

  Then the alchemist had a trail-blazing idea. He had to pay off a few old debts, bribe a few people and make all kinds of promises, but he eventually obtained what he wanted: a tiny test tube containing a single drop of red liquid. He hurried to his laboratory and set to work. Having subjected the liquid to retrotransubstantiation and artificial lipaemia, he dehydrated and lyophilised it until he was left with a minute quantity of red powder resembling ground saffron. Then he dissolved the powder in alcohol and blended the resulting tincture with his toxic essence. In layman’s language, the alchemist had laced his poison with a tiny sample of Gornab the Ninety-Ninth’s blood, thereby lending it the requisite dash of genuine insanity.

  Harra’s first and last fight

  Harra looked at the sword in his hand. It felt heavy, cumbersome, stupid, ridiculous. He knew what knives were for – they were for cutting bread – but swords? What good were they?

  Harra knew, of course, that swords were aids to fighting and killing, but those were activities he rejected. This attitude hadn’t made his life as a Wolperting any easier, but there it was. Although he had been born into a species whose members had an exceptional aptitude for fighting, he simply had no wish to fight.

  That was why Harra of Midgard had become a teacher – because he felt called upon to inform the younger generation that a Wolperting could get through life without brandishing a sword. Having retired to bed in Wolperting a few days ago, happy in this belief, he now found himself heaven alone knew where, standing in an arena in front of thousands of outlandish creatures – with a sword in his hand. Anyone would think they expected him to use it!

  The only wound Harra had ever inflicted with a sword was the notch in the mayor’s skull. It dated from a fracas between the Blacks and the Reds, but that had merely been a skirmish between two rival gangs of schoolboys playing truant and the sword that Harra had swung a trifle too hard had been made of wood. He had almost died of shock when Jowly of Gloomberg collapsed and lay inert in a pool of blood. But then Jowly had opened his eyes and Harra had sworn never to touch a sword again. He gave the thing in his paw another look of distaste and tossed it on to the sand.

  As if this were a signal, the ground promptly opened and two cages rose to the surface from the cellars of the Theatre of Death.

  Inside the cages, insofar as Harra could see their inmates through the massive bars, were two creatures with bristly grey fur and impressively large teeth. Their heads, which were covered with short, snow-white hair, could have been mistaken for death’s heads had it not been for their darting yellow eyes. What were they? Harra’s knowledge of biology was quite sufficient for him to teach it when standing in for a colleague from time to time, but he couldn’t place these animals. Perhaps they were wild apes.

  Friftar gave a discreet signal. There was a click and the cage doors swung open. The creatures seemed temporarily flummoxed by their newfound freedom. They lingered irresolutely in their cages, grunting in a puzzled manner. Harra noticed that each of them was carrying a heavy club.

  Perhaps I’d better go, he thought, but where to? The arena gates were shut.

  The animals ventured out of their cages at last. Although seemingly intimidated by the spectators’ laughter, they bestirred themselves and grew angry when bombarded with loaves and fruit. They bounded across the arena, screeching and flourishing their clubs, until Harra caught their eye. He continued to stand there, watching them as they prowled around him. Yes, they were apes, he was convinced of it. Their gait indicated that beyond doubt.

  The first blow caught Harra between neck and shoulder blade. He was astonished how little it hurt. All he’d really felt was a jolt. His body was evidently capable of secreting a substance that neutralised pain, however intense. That knowledge was a comfort, but Harra disliked the way in which he’d acquired it. He would sooner have read it in a book.

  The second blow landed on his head, the third and fourth blows left him stretched out on the sand.

  No, thought Harra, he would never become a hero in this world, not by any definition of the word to be found in Zamonia’s heroic sagas. He looked up once more at the frenzied apes. Then their clubs descended on him and everything went black.

  Friftar bent over Gornab. ‘D
eadwood Apes,’ he told the king in self-important tones. ‘Wild specimens I ordered to be caught and trained especially for Your Majesty’s delectation. We taught them to be afraid of fire and wield clubs. I’m sure they’ll give us a lot more entertainment in the future.’

  Friftar smiled complacently. It really had been time to make some attempt to restore the Hellings’ pride and self-esteem. He had noticed with mounting displeasure how irritated they were by the contests in which Wolpertings took part. Dozens of the theatre’s best fighters had been worsted by them and he had lost such crowd pullers as Roboglob the Ferryman, the Black Twins and Evel the Octopus. The time had come at last for another Wolperting to bite the dust, and it was he himself who had selected an elderly white-haired specimen as club fodder for the Deadwood Apes.

  ‘Wath a sputid fight tath was!’ hissed Gornab. ‘Wath were you kinthing of, eh?’

  Friftar was puzzled. He noticed only now that there had been no applause. On the contrary, he could hear boos and catcalls.

  ‘Sliten to them,’ Gornab snarled. ‘They’re oobing, you headknuckle!’

  Friftar was utterly dumbfounded. He hadn’t foreseen such a reaction. Fights of this kind had invariably gone down well and the king himself had always been enthusiastic about them. And now the spectators were booing and the king was furious. Had the Theatre of Death undergone some change that had escaped his sensitive antennae? He struggled for words.

  ‘Well, I thought …’ he began.

  ‘You toughth?’ Gornab said venomously. ‘Since when have you toughth? From now on veale the kinthing to me, you clumbduck!’

  The king’s eyes were blazing with the combined insanity of all the Gornabs. Friftar weighed what he was about to say with the greatest care.

  One word out of place, one injudicious gesture, and the situation might become lethal.

  ‘Forgive me, Your Majesty, I was mistaken!’ he said in a voice trembling with subservience. ‘Permit me to assure you that the next fight I arrange will do justice to your sublime requirements and the wishes of the people. I bow my head in the profoundest shame and humility.’

 
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