Rumo and his miraculous.., p.53
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.53

           Walter Moers

  ‘Twelve Seaspiders’ legs encased in yellow horn and growing out of a pale-blue, crablike body,’ Yukobak recited. ‘No eyes, no ears and no wings, but approximately four hundred long, dangling white antennae. The upper surface of the body consists of extremely hard armour-plate, whereas the bloated underbelly is enclosed in a transparent membrane through which can be seen the bluish, pulsating internal organs, among them a total of twelve hearts. Located in the centre of the stomach is a long transparent trunk that can reach the ground when fully extended. The Vrahoks use this trunk in order to smell, breathe and feed. I earned a commendation for that description in biology class.’

  Yukobak gave a little bow.

  ‘They can sleep and walk at the same time,’ Ribble amplified. ‘Vrahoks are sleepwalkers. This wholly unnatural behaviour is caused by the hypnotic substances the alchemists inject them with. They stagger around in their sleep and wake up whenever they come into contact with something that doesn’t belong in their hideous world, then use their trunks to suck it into their transparent innards. Anything that moves and isn’t a Vrahok or one of the parasites that graze on them gets sucked up that way. When they’ve eaten something you can see their blue intestines digesting it for hours.’

  ‘That’s true,’ said Yukobak. ‘We once went on a school outing to the Vrahoks and saw them being fed with live cave bears. Did you know that Vrahoks are the heraldic beasts on Hel’s coat of arms?’

  Rumo held up his sword to let Krindle and Dandelion share the spectacle.

  ‘Good heavens,’ said Dandelion, ‘what a size!’

  ‘I said we shouldn’t have come this way,’ Yukobak grumbled. ‘Now can we turn round and take the other route to Hel?’

  Rumo looked down at the lumbering giants.

  ‘They’re very slow,’ he said. ‘If they were horses you could walk them and shoe them at the same time.’

  ‘It only looks that way from this distance,’ said Ribble.

  ‘How can they be dangerous if they’re asleep?’ Rumo argued. ‘We’ll walk underneath them. We’ll have to be careful, that’s all.’

  ‘Kill me!’ cried Yukobak, going down on his knees. ‘Kill me right away and get it over with!’

  ‘He’s right,’ said Ribble. ‘What you’re proposing is suicide.’

  ‘I’m not turning back,’ Rumo said firmly.

  A forest of legs

  Immediately beneath the Vrahoks the stench was even more infernal.

  Climbing down into the cavern had been easy, but once there Rumo recognised the full extent of the danger. Running down the giant creatures’ legs were glutinous secretions, big drops of which sometimes fell off and landed on the floor with a splash. The amber-coloured rock was slippery, being almost covered with the stuff. Yukobak, who was bringing up the rear, vomited noisily into the layer of evil-smelling mist that hovered above the ground in places.

  ‘Ssh!’ said Rumo.

  ‘It doesn’t matter how much noise we make,’ Ribble told him. ‘Vrahoks are deaf as well as blind, but watch out for their antennae.’

  The Vrahoks’ antennae were lashing the air on all sides, many of them so thick and strong that they could have beheaded someone at a single stroke.

  The monsters were forever on the move, forever reeling around blindly, tripping over their enormous legs and bumping into one another, but they never once woke up or fell over. They had a sleepwalker’s unaccountable self-assurance. When their armour-plated bodies collided, they filled the cavern with a sound like thunder and cascades of slime came showering down. The bigger they were, the louder the creaking of their joints. As for their footsteps, they sounded like tree trunks crashing on to rocks from a great height. They emitted a series of pneumatic whistles and their antennae lashed the air in time to them. Black, batlike creatures fluttered around between their legs or hung from their bodies in clusters, yard-long snails crawled up and down their limbs.

  Rumo could only hazard a guess at how many Vrahoks there were, but they must have numbered roughly a hundred: ten genuine giants half as tall as the cavern itself, their extremities lost in the mist overhead; perhaps twenty-five half their size and somewhat paler in colour; and sixty or seventy smaller specimens between thirty and fifty feet tall. This meant that well over a thousand legs were performing a ceaseless somnambulistic dance that made the ground vibrate like an earthquake.

  Rumo gave the signal to advance, urging Yukobak and Ribble ahead of him with his sword. The smallest Vrahoks worried him most. Their movements were quicker and more unpredictable, their antennae lashed out more viciously and their legs kept coming dangerously close. Huge blobs of slime landed just beside the trio, adding to the layer already on the ground. Yukobak tripped and slid into the viscous mass on his back, whereas Ribble glided over it like an ice skater.

  ‘We’ll never make it,’ cried Yukobak, close to tears. Rumo reproached himself for having put the childish creature in such a dangerous situation and resolved to take more care of him.

  Two of the biggest monsters bumped into each other in their sleep. There was a crash like the sound of two huge wooden ships colliding. A curtain of slime descended, enveloping Yukobak from head to foot and knocking him to the ground. Rumo and Ribble, who had leapt aside just in time, hauled their spluttering companion to his feet and hurried on. Yukobak was in shock, but the incident seemed to have had a beneficial effect on him, because he now strode on quite mechanically, without the exaggerated caution that had so often made him stumble.

  Rumo’s path was barred by two of the smaller Vrahoks, which were still some ten times his height. They were circling each other with slow, graceful steps, almost like a pair of dancers. Meanwhile, the giants that had collided were reeling around to left and right of them on legs ten times as long. There was no hope of getting past them.

  Before Rumo or Ribble could stop him, Yukobak simply marched on, right into the midst of the smaller Vrahoks’ dancing legs. They had no choice but to follow him, either to protect him from the worst or to be trampled underfoot. They proceeded as carefully as possible, crouching low and tucking their heads in, whereas Yukobak, quite heedless of the creatures’ lashing antennae, strode on straight as a ramrod. The Vrahoks’ legs came down almost once a second, one of them so close to Rumo that it nearly grazed him. In a flash it was raised again, the knee joint creaked like a tree about to fall and he hurried on.

  Yukobak, it seemed, was already outside the danger zone. He had simply walked on and halted when he saw that he was past the cavorting Vrahoks. He beckoned to Rumo and Ribble, smiling as though they were out on a picnic. Now it was Ribble’s turn to slip on the slime and fall headlong. Rumo was about to help him up when a whole bunch of antennae descended on them, so he threw himself face down in the slime. The antennae passed close overhead and were then retracted. Rumo and Ribble scrambled to their feet and hurried on. Panting hard, they reached Yukobak’s side.

  ‘What kept you so long?’ he asked with a foolish grin.

  Rumo turned. The Vrahoks were still dancing round each other, but at a safe distance. Rumo, Yukobak and Ribble were enveloped in a malodorous pall of mist, but they scarcely noticed it, they had already endured such evil smells.

  Ribble pointed into the mist. ‘The exit to Hel must be over there,’ he panted. As if in response to an order, Yukobak turned, marched off in the direction indicated, and disappeared into the vaporous gloom.

  Rumo and Ribble hastily followed him. They heard a dull thud, then Yukobak’s startled voice: ‘Ouch!’ he exclaimed.

  ‘What’s the matter?’ Ribble asked when they reached him. Yukobak was rubbing his head. ‘I bumped into something,’ he said.

  Like a curtain, the mist drew aside to reveal a Vrahok’s leg. It belonged to one of the gigantic monsters whose bodies were invisible in the mist overhead. Rumo noticed that the hairs on the leg were beginning to stand on end.

  ‘It’s waking up!’ Ribble whispered.

  The Vrahok awakes

  He was righ
t. The Vrahok awoke with a sound such as only a deaf creature of its vast dimensions could have made. Its roar rent the air and made the antennae of the other Vrahoks vibrate. Hundreds of Kackerbats detached themselves from the monsters’ bodies and took wing.

  This wake-up call caused absolute pandemonium in the cavern. The stamping and whistling and creaking of joints combined to create an ear-splitting din and the agitated Vrahoks lurched round in confusion. The hairs on the huge leg trembled, but the leg itself remained rooted to the spot. All at once an immense trunk emerged from the mist and descended on Yukobak. Rumo was at his side in a flash, but the trunk enveloped them both, sealed them in with a squelching sound and started to hoist them into the air.

  ‘Yukobak!’ Ribble shouted, horrified but helpless, as the trunk disappeared into the mist with its prey.

  Rumo and Yukobak were deluged with a warm secretion of some kind. Then they felt the suction increase as the Vrahok greedily drew them in.

  Yukobak didn’t utter a sound – he seemed completely paralysed with fear. Rumo pushed the Helling’s head down and ordered, ‘Duck!’

  Drawing his sword, he gripped it with both hands, thrust it through the inner wall of the trunk and performed a Carousel – a circular, sweeping blow that sliced through the soft membrane like wet paper. In company with the severed portion of the trunk, Rumo and Yukobak fell to the ground. The impact was cushioned by the omnipresent slime and Ribble quickly helped them to divest themselves of their slippery sheath.

  The mutilated Vrahok’s roars of pain could have triggered a thousand avalanches. Rumo scrambled to his feet, seized Yukobak’s hand and ran off with him as fast as he could. Ribble ran after them, as far as possible from the Vrahoks’ multitudinous whistles and the pounding of their innumerable feet.

  Bacteriological warfare

  Rala’s body had become a battlefield. She and Tallon were members of a defending army hurrying from hideout to hideout in their beleaguered city while the enemy forces unleashed one attack after another.

  Prickly bacteria roamed the plasma, loosing off their arrows at anything that moved. Toxins were sluiced through Rala’s bloodstream, killing every living thing that failed to escape in time. Her nervous system trembled, shaken by a thunderstorm of electrical impulses, and her lungs were pumped full of alchemical gases.

  Only one part of her anatomy was spared: the brain. That was the enemy’s strategy, to drive her back there and enhance its appeal as a refuge of last resort, so that her spirit could be recaptured and her resistance broken for good.

  But Rala and Tallon did not fall into this trap. They preferred to remain on the run and allow themselves to be borne along by the mass of red corpuscles.

  Rala had learnt that the only sensible method of locomotion was to go with the everlasting flow. Trying to swim against the powerful current would have been futile; in any case, being a corpuscle, she lacked any means of doing so. Once she grasped this it was quite simple.

  Although many veins were now impassable, choked by clots, guarded by bacteria or flooded with poisons, Rala and Tallon kept on finding bolt-holes, detours and short cuts the enemy didn’t know about. Thus, Rala learnt much about her organism’s brilliant structure and how it could be used in escaping from her powerful foe. She could see her own defence forces mustering and hurling themselves at the invaders from all directions. Everything was in constant motion, swirling and seething, pumping and effervescing. Rala could see life itself at work, and the sight of all this activity, which was simply and solely devoted to preserving her existence, made her feel ashamed of having briefly lost heart.

  It was a war between Rala’s natural bloodstream and General Ticktock’s artificial death machine, between two extremely intricate circulatory systems, one of flesh and blood, the other of metal. Ticktock’s soldiers were microbes and bacteria, viruses and toxins, Rala’s were red and white corpuscles. It was a battle between disease and health such as often rages in many organisms, but never as relentlessly, dramatically and ingeniously as in Rala’s body.

  Stonewater Grotto

  On leaving the Vrahok Caves, Rumo, Yukobak and Ribble made their way gently downhill along a tunnel so immense that even the largest of the twelve-legged creatures could have negotiated it. Rumo kept looking round to see if they were following. After a while they came to a blue grotto from whose roof water was dripping into a crystal-clear pool in the centre.

  ‘Stonewater Grotto,’ said Yukobak. ‘The water comes from the springs overhead and it’s drinkable. We can rest here, but not for long. It’s a favourite stopping place for travellers between Hel and Murkholm.’

  Rumo pricked up his ears at the mention of Murkholm, but he asked no questions. He was thirsty and in need of a wash; for the moment, anything else was of little interest. They went over to the pool and rinsed off the Vrahok slime. Ribble removed his funnel and barrel and took a proper bath.

  ‘I still can’t take it in,’ he called as he paddled around in the cool water. ‘We’ve survived the Vrahoks.’

  ‘One of them nearly ate me,’ Yukobak said resentfully.

  ‘But Rumo saved you!’ Ribble retorted, turning over and floating on his back.

  Yukobak brushed this aside. ‘I’d never have been in the creature’s trunk, but for him! And now they’re bound to be after us. When the alchemists check on the cave and see what we’ve done, they’ll set the creatures on us. We’ve not only committed high treason, we’ve mutilated a Vrahok. We’re as good as dead and buried, thanks to our new friend here.’ He glared at Rumo.

  Rumo hung his head in embarrassment. ‘We mustn’t stay here too long,’ he said. ‘We must move on.’

  ‘Yes, but which way do we go?’ Yukobak demanded. ‘Where’s this wonderful secret route of yours, Ribble?’

  Ribble clambered ashore and got into his barrel.

  ‘We can’t make straight for Hel,’ he said, ‘or we’re liable to be captured. The area round the city is patrolled by Vrahoks and Bluddums and other riff-raff. We’ll have to climb down to the Coalwater Cascades.’

  ‘Down to the Coalwater Cascades?’ gasped Yukobak. ‘Are you insane?’

  ‘The Coalwater Cascades?’ Rumo repeated enquiringly.

  ‘Yes, they’re a black waterfall to the south-west of the city. There’s a tunnel leading off it into the sewers. We’ll be entering Hel via the cellar, so to speak. A rather laborious route, but it’s the only way of getting into the city unobserved.’

  ‘It’s utter madness,’ said Yukobak. ‘Only suicides go anywhere near the Coalwater Cascades.’

  ‘Good,’ said Rumo. ‘Let’s go.’

  The lethal flask

  General Ticktock was flummoxed. This bore no relation to what he had envisioned in his ambitious daydreams. It wasn’t a concert given by a virtuoso – or, if it was, only a concert marred by blunders and interruptions.

  He had been manipulating his Metal Maiden for days now, opening and closing valves and stopcocks, injecting extracts, toxins and pathogens designed to corner Rala’s spirit and drive it back into her brain. He itched to start questioning her about the dying process, but she was stubbornly evading interrogation. He had clogged her veins or rendered them impassable with poisons, he had hunted his quarry with novel bacteria, he had worked with highly concentrated gases and even with electric shocks, but all to no avail.

  Ticktock let go of the controls and threw up his hands in despair. Once more his cry of fury rang out from the windows of his tower and made the neighbours quake with terror. They had often heard such cries in recent days.

  The general stomped over to his poison cupboard and wrenched the door open. He hesitated for a moment, trembling with excitement, then reached deep inside. Removing the flask he’d weighed in his hand some days before, he read the inscription once more:

  Subcutaneous Suicide Squad

  The time had come. Exceptional situations called for exceptional measures. Rala had brought it on herself.

  He turned the bottle roun
d. Another label was stuck to the back and on it, in tiny letters, were the handwritten words: Developed by Tykhon Zyphos, Court Alchemist.

  General Ticktock sighed. Tykhon Zyphos – what a scientist! The man had been an absolute genius.

  Tykhon Zyphos’s story

  Tykhon Zyphos’s first task, which he had performed to General Ticktock’s entire satisfaction, had been to develop the insanity drug that had almost robbed Rala of her reason. He could not, however, rest on his laurels because the general’s first order had been followed by a second that amounted to a death sentence. As soon as Ticktock had acquainted him with his new request and informed him that, if he failed, he would personally cut off his head, Tykhon Zyphos hurried back to his laboratory.

  The alchemist filled a test tube with neat alcohol, diluted it with a little distilled water and gulped it down. He was done for, that much was certain.

  General Ticktock’s instructions, couched in thoroughly unscientific language and employing vague phraseology, were as follows: Tykhon Zyphos was to produce an injectable fluid containing a microscopic Copper Killer. The general wanted a life form that possessed the same pugnacity, invulnerability and homicidal implacability as his soldiers – the only difference being that it could be sucked into a hypodermic syringe and injected into a bloodstream.

  Tykhon had almost fainted on hearing this. General Ticktock might just as well have ordered him to make time stand still or transform water into blood.

  The commander of the Copper Killers seemed to share the naive popular belief in the omnipotence of modern alchemy, but even that science had its limits! Tykhon was well aware that the alchemists themselves were to blame if their abilities were grossly overrated by the laity. Their eternal secrecy, their professional hocus-pocus, and unfounded claims made by disreputable members of their profession – all had combined to lend them an aura of infallibility.

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