Rumo and his miraculous.., p.52
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.52

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘Are you [tick] enjoying this as much as I am?’

  If she didn’t want to profane this sacred moment, she really should have answered by now. Even an oath or an impudent response would have been better than this silence. Ticktock repeated the question in a stentorian voice:

  ‘Are you enjoying this [tick] as much as I am?

  No answer.

  He couldn’t understand it. Other victims of such torture would have seized the opportunity to speak, if only to forget their torments for a moment. Didn’t she want to know who was torturing her?

  A terrible thought occurred to him: Surely she wasn’t dead? He hurriedly checked his instruments, but they were all in order. She was still breathing and her heart was beating steadily. The thanatometer was registering sixty-eight.

  ‘I’ll ask you [tock] for the last time, and I expect an answer,’ General Ticktock said menacingly.

  ‘Are you [tick] enjoying this as much as I am?’

  Still no answer. Ticktock was becoming genuinely anxious now. She was alive, his instruments told him so, and her resistance was broken, as witness that scream of hers.

  He caught on at last. Of course! Rala wasn’t being refractory, nor had she gone mad or lost the power of speech. No, she had managed to do something he’d believed to be impossible.

  She had escaped!

  Rala had left the prison of her brain and was hiding elsewhere in her body, that was the only explanation. This time it was General Ticktock’s cry that shook the walls of his torture chamber.

  A short cut

  Yukobak sobbed and wiped away a tear.

  They were still making their way across the bleak expanse of Deadwood. Rumo had just ended his story. Yukobak and Ribble now knew all about his feelings for Rala, his friendship with Urs, the casket, and his plan to go to Hel by himself and rescue the Wolpertings.

  ‘That’s the most romantic story I’ve ever heard!’ Yukobak exclaimed. ‘Are things really like that up there? Unconditional love? Friendship unto death? Eternal loyalty?’

  From the mist overhead came a discordant screech like that of some wild beast. Rumo looked up.

  ‘Deadwood Apes, probably,’ said Ribble. ‘They’re said to be dangerous.’

  Rumo gripped the hilt of his sword.

  ‘How long has she – this Rala, I mean – been your sweetheart?’ Yukobak asked, snuffling.

  ‘Actually,’ said Rumo, bowing his head, ‘she isn’t my sweetheart yet. I still have to, er … win her.’

  ‘Just a minute,’ Ribble broke in. ‘You mean you’re on your way to Hel to rescue a girl and you don’t even know if she loves you?’

  ‘Well, there’s this Silver Thread …’

  ‘What Silver Thread?’ asked Yukobak.

  ‘Oh, you don’t understand.’

  ‘No, I certainly don’t!’ said Ribble. ‘We Homunculi know little about love for biological reasons – well, next to nothing – but why someone should risk his life for a love that may not even exist at all, that I really don’t understand.’

  Yukobak had recovered his composure somewhat. ‘What will you do if you present her with the casket and she turns you down?’ he asked.

  ‘I haven’t thought of that yet,’ Rumo said defiantly.

  ‘Seems you don’t like thinking on principle,’ said Ribble. ‘You prefer to settle your affairs the hard way. With your Demonic sword.’

  For a prisoner, thought Rumo, Ribble was being pretty bumptious. He’d poured out his heart to these two, but he’d clearly lost their respect. He tried to change the subject.

  ‘Tell me a bit about Vrahoks.’

  ‘Ooh, Vrahoks!’ said Yukobak, flapping his hands in mock terror. ‘Vrahoks aren’t so easy to explain. They’re … well, monsters. Creatures like them are too big for this world – they ought by rights to be extinct. They’re very dangerous. And very hard to describe.’

  ‘The alchemists succeeded in domesticating them many years ago,’ said Ribble. ‘They developed fluids and gases that would soothe, stimulate or hypnotise them – whatever they chose. We can actually ride Vrahoks. Not us two, I mean, but some of our soldiers can.’

  ‘They’re dangerous beasts,’ said Yukobak. ‘That’s why we’re making such a big detour: to avoid their caves.’

  ‘What?!’ exclaimed Rumo.

  ‘We’re avoiding the Vrahoks. By the widest possible margin.’

  ‘How long will that take?’

  ‘Well, it’ll certainly take us an extra two or three days, but there’s no alternative. We can’t march straight through the middle of them.’

  Ribble laughed uneasily.

  ‘One moment,’ said Rumo. ‘Does that mean we could save two or three days if we go via the Vrahok Caves?’

  ‘That’s right.’

  ‘Then we’ll change direction right away.’

  ‘What!’ Ribble exclaimed. ‘Are you mad?’

  ‘I’ve no time to lose,’ Rumo replied. ‘A lot can happen in two or three days.’

  ‘But we’d never get past them alive,’ said Yukobak.

  ‘You originally said it was impossible to get into Hel,’ Rumo retorted, ‘and now we’ve actually got a guide.’

  Yukobak gave Ribble a venomous look. ‘This is all your fault!’ he hissed. ‘The Vrahoks! That’s all we needed!’

  Deadwood Apes continued to screech in the mist above them. Ribble’s head sank deep into his little barrel.

  The corpuscles

  Rala and Tallon had undergone a transformation. They now resembled two red lenses slightly concave on both sides.

  ‘What’s happened to us?’ Rala asked Tallon, who was floating beside her in a vast chamber. ‘Why do we look so odd? Where are we, underwater?’

  ‘We’re red corpuscles, my dear,’ Tallon replied, ‘and we’re in your bloodstream. I thought it was the best way of remaining anonymous. We can change into white corpuscles if you don’t like the colour. Disembodied spirits have that freedom.’

  ‘No, no,’ said Rala, ‘I like the colour. What an amusing dream this is!’

  Numerous other shapes resembling Rala were floating around below, above and beside them.

  ‘You still think this is a dream? I’m starting to feel rather hurt. I go to all this trouble, come back from the dead, prevent you from dying, free your spirit, transform us into corpuscles – and you repay me by thinking it’s all in your imagination.’

  ‘I apologise. It’s so … so unreal.’

  ‘We’ve secreted ourselves in red corpuscles because you can go anywhere in them. We can change shape later on, if you want. Perhaps you’d prefer to be an electrical impulse, then we could race through your nervous system.’

  ‘How do you know all this? I mean, you’re a bear.’

  ‘I’m a dead bear, sweetheart! I know everything.’

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Ask me something.’

  ‘What do we do next?’

  ‘That’s easy: we take off! We must leave this area, we’re still too near the brain. I suggest we make our way down the jugular to the heart. You should have asked me the secret of the universe – something of that kind.’

  ‘That wouldn’t be much help to us at present.’

  ‘Next question?’

  ‘If it’s blood we’re floating in, why isn’t it red?’

  ‘Because it’s really water. Blood consists almost entirely of water. You can swim, can’t you?’

  ‘Yes,’ said Rala, ‘I can.’

  ‘All right, follow me!’

  Tallon joined the corpuscles that were gliding past and Rala followed him, allowing herself to be borne away by the pulsating stream of blood. More and more red corpuscles joined them as they floated down a vein together with some whitish-yellow corpuscles resembling balls of wool.

  ‘Those are white corpuscles,’ Tallon explained, ‘our principal allies. They’re your soldiers, Rala. They resist anything that tries to make your body sick.’

  The white corpuscles formed up like so
ldiers and charged round the next bend ahead of the red ones. They zigzagged from one tunnel to the next.

  ‘How many different routes there are here!’ thought Rala. ‘And how much room!’

  ‘Yes,’ said Tallon. ‘There isn’t a better place to hide.’

  Below them yawned a deep, dark abyss. Some of the red corpuscles threw themselves into it.

  ‘That’s the way to the jugular,’ said Tallon. ‘Can you feel the pull of the current?’

  ‘Yes,’ cried Rala. She was trembling in time to her own heartbeat.

  ‘Into it, then,’ said Tallon. ‘It’s a short cut to the aorta. Down we go!’

  And Tallon and Rala plunged into the dark abyss followed by a mass of other corpuscles.

  The poison cupboard

  General Ticktock was beside himself with rage, but there was no doubt about it: Rala had escaped.

  She was still there physically, of course, imprisoned inside the Metal Maiden with a hundred needles pinning her there like a butterfly. She was alive, too, as the thanatometer’s rising needle showed, but her spirit had fled. Her brain was deserted. Ticktock could now have flooded it with as many poisons as he chose, it would have been no use. He picked up the flask containing the dementia drug and hurled it at the wall, shattering it into a thousand pieces.

  For the first time in his life as a Copper Killer, the general couldn’t help laughing. This surprised him because he hadn’t known he was capable of it. His metallic peals of laughter sounded so awful that he gave a start and promptly suppressed them. What, he wondered, was so funny?

  A girl had tricked him – that was funny. She’d simply escaped from the most secure prison imaginable. Just when he’d shown her her limits, she’d done the same to him.

  Ticktock strode up and down, no longer furious but filled with joyous excitement. The girl was a genius and the battle for her body had only just begun. She wanted him to hunt her? Very well, he would hunt her. She was imposing her will on him and he was obeying. Electric thrills ran through him at the thought. He would hunt her and track her down. Yes, but what then? Kill her? General Ticktock wasn’t sure. This girl was really confusing him. What an exciting game!

  He went to his poison cupboard and inspected his stores. What to do next? She was past being impressed with ordinary drugs. What else was there?

  At the back of the cupboard was a dark-green bottle with a handwritten label. He took it out and read the inscription. It ran:

  Subcutaneous Suicide Squad

  He weighed the bottle in his hand. No, it was still too soon for that. Far too strong a drug for his present purposes. He put the bottle back and surveyed the rest of his pharmacopoeia. So many possibilities! Where to start?

  Friftar’s inspection

  Rolv sat in his gloomy cell, gnawing at the steel bands that enclosed his wrists – a habit, a reflex action dating from the time he’d been compelled to spend with Niddugg the Bluddum. He shut his eyes and concentrated on Rala’s vibrations. She was somewhere nearby, he knew.

  Two things had lately preoccupied Rolv more than the fact of his imprisonment. The first was that sound he’d heard in the arena. For days he had been unable to think of anything else. It echoed and reechoed in his ears and Rala’s fear-contorted face had appeared to his mind’s eye again and again. This recollection had suddenly been followed, when he tried once more to scent her, by an indefinable sensation of relief. Since then his sister’s face had seemed tormented no longer, but cheerful and relaxed – sometimes even amused. Rala was alive and still in the greatest danger, of that he was convinced, but her situation had recently changed for the better. She seemed to be relishing the danger she was in.

  Rolv stopped gnawing his handcuffs and grinned. He was no stranger to this aspect of his sister’s character. Back in the forest her audacity had sometimes scared him to death. On a few occasions she had simply disappeared for indefinite periods. Left alone, Rolv had picked up the same sort of vibrations he was receiving here in his cell. Unrelated to his sense of smell, they stemmed from the brother-and-sister bond that united them.

  She had always come back in those days, often dishevelled and covered in scratches, sometimes bloodstained, but never without some trophy for her brother: a horn, a claw, or a bitten-off tentacle. Although anything but a coward, Rolv was always relieved when tricky situations resolved themselves, whereas Rala could never have enough of them.

  He stretched out on the hard stone floor and tried to sleep. If he wanted his plan to succeed he would need to be well rested. He had decided on a change of strategy. There was no point in bowing to the theatre’s ritual demands and hoping for a chance to escape, the guards were too efficient for that.

  Rolv’s plan was to take Gornab prisoner. This would not be easy, but it wasn’t completely out of the question. Although the arena walls were high, they had definitely not been designed with an eye to repelling Wolpertings. If anyone could scale them it was Rolv. He planned to leap straight into the royal box, neutralise the tall, thin fellow and capture the little monkey who seemed to be the king. He intended to take him hostage. It would be the dwarf in exchange for Rala.

  There was a clatter as some bolts were drawn back and the door of his cell swung open. Standing in the doorway was the king’s chief adviser escorted by a Bluddum of more than usually doltish appearance. Friftar stared at Rolv appraisingly.

  ‘He’s in good shape,’ he said. ‘He won’t be fighting again for the time being. You can shut the door again. I shall hold you personally responsible for seeing that the selected Wolpertings remain in their cells until further orders. What’s your name?’

  ‘Kromek Toomah, sir!’ barked the Bluddum. ‘Sergeant of artillery, weight four hundred pounds, height nine feet seven inches, forty-seven decorations for gallantry in combat.’

  ‘Yes, yes,’ Friftar said dismissively. ‘Now take me to the prisoners who call themselves Ushan DeLucca and Urs of the Snows. I want to give them another once-over.’

  Rolv growled softly as the door closed again.

  Flying water

  ‘What about the sun?’ Yukobak asked. ‘Can its rays really reduce you to ashes?’

  ‘Of course,’ lied Rumo.

  ‘And the air – is it poisonous?’

  ‘Certainly,’ said Rumo. ‘You can’t survive in it unless you’ve got three lungs like us Wolpertings.’

  ‘So it’s true!’ gasped Yukobak.

  ‘Nonsense,’ said Ribble. ‘He’s only having you on.’

  Rumo grinned. Yukobak and Ribble were like a couple of children.

  ‘And are there really trees with food growing on them?’ Yukobak pursued.

  ‘Masses of them,’ said Rumo. ‘There are cool breezes and clear water. There are clouds, too.’

  ‘What are clouds?’ Ribble asked.

  ‘Clouds? Clouds are … well, they’re …’ Rumo hesitated. What were clouds actually? ‘They’re water that can fly,’ he said.

  The smell that had been making Rumo’s nose smart for hours was becoming stronger and more unbearable the deeper they went. It was a smell of the sea and rotting fish and seaweed decaying on damp rocks. It was the evil stench of Roaming Rock intensified a hundred times, but mingled with it was another noisome smell: the acrid miasma that had hung over Wolperting.

  ‘Why can I smell the sea down here?’ asked Rumo.

  ‘Why does water fly up there in your world?’ Yukobak retorted. ‘It’s the stench of the Vrahoks.’

  They had left Deadwood behind them a long time ago and were now making their way through vast caverns and stalactite caves. The only living creatures that seemed to exist here were low-flying Kackerbats, which had to be fended off with flailing arms.

  ‘You mean the Vrahoks are close by?’

  ‘In the next large cave,’ said Ribble. ‘On your own head be it. Go and take a look at them and you’ll see what we meant. Then we’ll take the detour after all. What a waste of time!’

  Rumo went on ahead while Yukobak and
Ribble plodded after him, cursing and complaining. His urge to turn back, thereby sparing himself the sight of whatever could produce such a stench, became stronger with every downward step he took.

  After descending a long black stairway, partly natural and partly hewn out of the rock, they reached a plateau at the end of which was a stone gateway with mysterious symbols carved on it.

  ‘The Vrahok Caves,’ said Yukobak.

  By the time they got to the stone portal the stench was almost unendurable.

  ‘Are they guarded?’ Rumo asked.

  ‘There’s no need to guard them,’ Yukobak told him. ‘The smell is enough to keep everything and everyone away for miles around. The Vrahoks have only to be fed and drugged at regular intervals, roughly twice a month. The rest of the time they’re left to their own devices.’

  ‘All right,’ said Ribble, ‘in you go.’

  ‘Once you’ve seen them,’ said Yukobak, ‘you’ll have seen everything.’

  Rumo went through the gateway. On the other side a vast cavern came into view. It looked as if it had been hollowed out by water over a very long period, because every surface was smooth and rounded, and gleamed like polished amber. Rumo’s rocky vantage point was halfway up the side of the cavern, which was about seven hundred feet high and some two miles long. The most remarkable feature of the scene, however, was not the cavern itself but the creatures it housed.

  The Vrahoks

  Although Rumo’s recent adventures had made him rather hard to impress, his sense of wonder returned with a vengeance. They were the biggest and most extraordinary creatures he had ever seen. Some of them were half as tall as the cavern was high, but most were smaller. Many were two hundred, many a hundred and some only thirty feet in height, but they all seemed huge to Rumo, even though he was looking down on them from above. The sight of them put him in mind of many creatures at once: of the big, armour-plated Seaspiders and phosphorescent jellyfish that dwelt in the pools on Roaming Rock, but also of the sightless insects that scuttled over the walls of Netherworld. They were vaguely reminiscent, too, of Nurns, although Vrahoks had more legs – a dozen in all. If Rumo had been asked to describe them in detail, he would soon have run out of words.

 
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