Chapter 5: Vestal of the Flame

Morgo the Mighty by Sean O’Larkin was originally serialized in The Popular Magazine in 1930. Over the next few weeks I’m going to be serializing it again here. Except for correcting the odd typo, I’m reproducing the text as printed in the original publication.

We two humans and our three bat men flew for several hours over wastes of gray rock and chalk and stunted trees. Shammans moved about beneath us, but gave us no attention or barrages of rocks and missiles as I expected. Nor were we attacked by the other bats which I saw foraging eagerly for food.

The light that illuminated the cavern waned and darkness came swiftly afoot. Here and there on the floor beneath me I saw tiny fires, and out of the darkness a bat flitted across our path. I could not understand the peace that existed between the bats that attacked the Junkers so savagely and the Bakketes who carried us.

I felt the air grow warmer, and my aerial sense told me were dropping to a still lower altitude – since I reckoned altitude in terms of the outer world’s.

In the dark we penetrated a tunnel that tortuously downward. My Bakkete squealed every time his wing scraped on the jagged walls. These wings of theirs, I learned, were of flesh and blood and bone and were almost as sensitive as my own.

Then I felt that the darkness had grown bigger, that we were again in a cavern as large if not larger than that of the Shamman. The air was sweeter and more languid. I felt quit good and gave no thought to the strain of hanging from my Bakkete’s arms.

We flew another hour, I should guess, and then alighted on a rocky ledge in front of a small cave, the interior of which gave out a dull-red glow.

“We are home,” Morgo said to me, taking my arm. “Let us go in and have – what do you call it – supper?”

“Food is a good enough word for me tonight!”

Morgo’s cave was a big one, and in its center blazed a good fire overhung with earthen dishes crudely shaped. I was astonished. It was hardly the place I expected to find in the heart of the Himalayas.

The whitish walls were covered with drawings – bats, rats, snakes, lizards, strange prehistoric beasts I’d never before seen. My tired eyes were aroused. True, the artistry was crude, childish, but there was faithfulness to form and design. I recognized each animal or reptile immediately and could not help think of those drawings found in Spain, the bison, the reindeer, Paleolithic man’s attempts to reproduce life as he saw it in the Aurignacian Age. Morgo, born a child of civilization, was going through primitive man’s struggles to find himself again – to unlock the secrets of identity held fast in a brain that played hide-and-seek with his efforts.

He lighted a lamp – fat tallow in a soapstone dish – and gave it to me that I might inspect his handicraft the better. I saw stone axes, pierced for the wooden handle, flint arrow points, small and large bows, dishes fashioned from soft stones and a few bowls, marked by way of decoration, to hold food and water.

He answered all of my questions eagerly. He was more interested in hunt than combat. That was why he cover his walls with animal pictures rather than scenes of warfare. He proudly displayed a bed that rested on four legs – a skin-covered frame piled with grass and more skins.

I noticed three Shammans moving about the cave, tending the fire and the cooking food. They were sluggish but docile. Morgo explained that they were his servants, men he spared from death at the hands of their fellows. I later learned that one was a murderer and the two thieves. But they revered the ground that Morgo trod, in their simple way.

Morgo bade me be seated, and I went close to the fire, for the night air was damp, and crossed my legs under me. He was content to squat upon his haunches while the shammans passed his dishes heaped with steaming savory food. I ate hungrily and with relish. There were meats, unusual vegetables and herbs I could not identify. Our meal was consumed without speech, but I could see that Morgo did not devour his share in the savage manner of the shammans. There was breeding in his behavior.

When I finally inquired about the delicious meat, Morgo said that it was mannizan flesh. And to my amazement, I gathered on questioning him, that the mannizan was the ratlike creature I saw in the upper cave. My stomach did not rebel and sleep stole upon me.

My primitive host insisted that I take his bed, while he made himself comfortable on a heap of pelts near the fire. His insistence was so bound up in fraternity, I agreed at once, announcing I would construct a bed of my own the next day.

I stretched out and closed my eyes. But sleep was slow in coming. Once I glanced over at Morgo and found him sitting up, staring fixedly at a small cross – two twigs tied together. This was suspended from a string which hung around his neck. He presently tucked it beneath his garment and curled up and soon began to snore.

Dreams made my night a living hell. I relived the attack of the human headed bats on the Junkers. I saw those two bats sailing silently through the air, one holding Harker with the Shining Stone in his hand, blood red in the gray light, and the other carrying Kenvon’s head. I again recoiled from the dismembered body of the fanatic millionaire who was largely responsible for my plight, here, hundreds of miles inside the Himalayas. I found myself in mortal combat with those big-bodied, small-pated shammans in the forest of dirty-gray stalagmites.

The cave was flooded with a soft, yellow light when I was awakened by Morgo shaking my shoulder.

“We shall have breakfast, I thing the word is,” he grinned. “Come and eat.”

I did. And I didn’t question the food or its nature, because it was suited to a king’s palate.

On going outside and standing upon the rocky ledge before Morgo’s home, I looked out over a new world – a cave lighted in yellow which had no apparent source. Morgo’s nest was high up in the face of a gaunt granite precipice, the top of which was lost in a curtain of pinkish stalactites which were the most beautiful I’d ever seen. A broad plain cover with tall, fantastic greenish trees and plants, flora suggestive of the Carboniferous Age, stretched out as far as the eye could see. They reminded me of photos of Sagillariae and Lepidodendra, vegetation of that distant era.

Over this stillnes cruised the Bakketes, feeding on the vegetation, soaring high up in the stalagmites. I soon noticed a musical tinkling sound, the touching of many silver bells. Morgo came out and explained to me that the sound came from the pinkish stalactites when the Bakketes’ wings flitted against them. It was like a heavenly organ, distant and faint and, moreover, very pleasant to listen to.

I accepted life in the Cave of the Kahli as a man does the lotus flower and all its forgetfulness. A week slipped by – I counted on Morgo’s sticks – and the seven days were fraught with minor adventures, my discoveries about this new life. I grew accustomed to flying in the arms of the Bakketes. Baku was assigned to me because of his brief understanding of English. Among the stalactites, I struck the long, musical fingers of chalk and stone and filled this miniature welkin welkin with sonorous peals. I even thought of working out a carillon, a fantastic idea I quickly forgot.

Morgo hunted mouselike creatures in the verdure, and I did not hesitate to eat the dishes concocted from them, remembering I was once fond of chop suey despite the proverbial joke about it. I got to know that a ten-foot dragon fly was called a dragah, that there were pythons in the Carboniferous forests, that ants similar to the Drivers of Africa were most feared by the peaceful primitives of Kahli, a people slightly smaller than the shammans and suggestive of the Chinese sloe eyes. I heard about the venomous chameleons with six-foot tongues which inhabited Zaan, who caught a man with this tongue and gulped him down before you could say Jack Robinson.

Morgo’s world and Morgo’s life was a veritable Paradise – with reservations, of course. But I soon grew to like it. The source of yellow light which came and went, much as outer day, was called the Shaft. Morgo promised to show it to me one day when we went to the Caves of Zaan. There were a people there, he said, that had a white skin and blond hair, who were peaceful, and their cave floor glittered.

I decided that life and adventure within the Himalayas was far  more sensible for me than making a break for the outer world, fighting the cold, the ice and, if I was lucky enough to reach them, the jungles of the Sikkim between Kanchenjunga and Darjeeling. My fate I accepted with a resignation that had less stoicism and more pragmatism in it.

Yet there lurked in the back of my mind a concern for Harker and Lacrosse. Were they really dead? Had they met with Kenvon’s fate? Or were they still inside this mortal coil, as Shakespeare once described the earth? I told Morgo of my feelings and suggested an expedition to Shamman.

“Shamman is a dangerous cavern,” he said. “But I am ready to go into it, if you would seek your friends. I am ready to do what you say.”

I dallied a week more and felt more confident of my power to cope with the constant surprises I met with. Then I suggested a trip to the upper cave in quest of the geologist and the naturalist of Kenvon’s ill fated aerial expedition. My mind had to be satisfied that they were dead or safe and alive.

On the morning of our departure with an army of some three thousand Bakketes, I offered Morgo a gun. He had been taught how to use one but he preferred his bow and arrows, his sling and a bowie knife which he accepted as a gift from me. I armed myself with an automatic and several dozen rounds of ammunition.

The air before our ledge was swarming with Bakketes and, while there was no semblance of military organization, there was order among them. Baku uttered guttural commands, and small groups deployed to the right and the left, preparing for our advance into Shamman.

“Do you know where Zorimi lives?” I asked Morgo on a hunch. “Has he caves he lives in?”

“Yes; he lives close by The Flame.” And he explained that The Flame, something whose smoke he had only seen, was akin to an eternal fire, that Zorimi, the ruler of this underworld, kept ablaze. That it had been blazing for centuries.

“Let us look near it for my friends,” I said. “It is possible that they are held prisoners there.”

Morgo’s dark eyes met mine and flashed. “We will look there if you say so. But many Bakketes must die.”

“You mean we’ll have a fight on our hands for approaching so close to Zorimi’s hangout?”

“It is inevitable, Derro!” Derro was a name he gave me because of my hair. He could not pronounce McRory easily. And derro is a “red bush,” the fruit of which I’d tasted and gagged on.

I could see he was loath to sacrifice his Bakketes in combat with the bats of the other cavern. Yet I was determined on the expedition.

We took to the air, Baku holding me in his arms. Morgo followed close by. The ascent through the narrow tunnel was effected quietly, almost stealthily, by the three thousand flying creatures. Through Baku, who gave the orders which were passed from mouth to mouth, I was leader of this foray. Such was Morgo’s wish.

Once more in the cool, gray Cave of Shamman, we rose to the roof and surveyed the land below. Far, far away, I thought I discerned smoke. Mindful of Morgo’s concern about his army, I commanded the Bakketes to remain close to the channel while Morgo and I reconnoitered for our quarry. My greatest fear was for the human-headed armless bats that lurked in the stalactites overhead.

We swiftly approached the thin swirl of smoke.

Three bats dropped form the roof and Morgo cried a warning to me. We were attacked. The enemy bats, unable to seize us with their taloned feet, attempted to crush us to the ground by powerful beating wings. It was the same tactic that crashed the Junkers – smothering us to the cavern floor by raining wing blows upon us and clinging to us.

Morgo killed one creatured with an arrow. I fumbled for my gun, got it out and shot another, crippling it, sending it down.

The third bat drew away, frightened. Yet we were enemies and, perforce, to be destroyed. He singled me out for the final assault. He rushed at me and Baku staggered in mid-air when our bodies met in a terrific impact. The bat encircled me with his legs and started to fly upward.

Morgo shot an arrow and it missed. My gun arm was wedged against my body in the bat’s leg grip. I strained, I tugged, and up and up we sailed, Baku unable to cope with the stronger bat’s strength that was pulling me from his grasp.

At last I freed my hand and fired again. The human face of the bat contorted with pain. He screeched and tumbled downward like an autumn leaf. I was surprised the pistol shots had not reverberated, had not filled Shamman with echoes. Nor did the clash bring down other bats.

Nearing the thread of ascending smoke, I saw that it came from a high plateau. From the center of this mound of rock a tongue of fire licked out occasionally. The flame below its surface was a mighty one, I judged.

We dropped into a sea of stalagmites at the base of the mound. My plan was to climb up on foot, with our Bakketes keeping an eye on us, ready to pick us up if danger threatened. Morgo agreed to this.

The ascent of the mound was difficult. The chalk crumbled in our hands at every step. At times we were held fast to the wall by our feet or only our fingers. But eventually we made a climb of about sixty feet, breathless and muscle sore. Use to flying, clambering taxed us.

The plateau was uneven, rocky and crags jutted up in the shapes of hands, noses, human heads and church steeples. Weird is hardly the word for this gray table of chalk and stone; unholy is better. I sensed it in the very air – for, as I’ve said, I’m Irish.

Moving forward toward the smoke, Morgo and I tread our way carefully. Once I crushed a small snake underfoot and was certain it was an adder. Morgo destroyed three more, being quicker of eye, with thrown stones. Zorimi’s lair, I thought, was well protected.

Mounting a lofty crag to survey this plateau the better, we saw The Flame. It was gigantic – the light of a Titan. It licked upward from a hole in the floor of the deserted mound. The emptiness of the place appalled me, made me uneasy. Once always associated life with fire and here there were no signs of life. I wondered if The Flame was a natural phenomenon, of volcanic origin – but I was to learn the truth – in all too short a time.

Turning to climb down from the crag, I missed Morgo. He had vanished, utterly. I called to him and my voice was muffled by the mammoth silence. My heart pounded wildly. I was without an ally – save for my automatic. But what could have happened to him?

With the thought that he had possibly gone ahead without my hearing him, I move closer to The Flame and its pillar of slow smoke. I would see it plainly and then it would be hidden from view by intervening rock and monoliths.

A hidden fissure in the floor of the plateau yawned at my feet.

I leaped back. My finger touched the automatic’s trigger.

Someone – someone on whom I had nearly stepped – was looking up at me, staring wildly, bewildered.

It was a girl with golden hair. The most beautiful girl these weary eyes have ever seen. She was fair and blue eyed, more gorgeous than Cytherea. And devil of devils! She was wearing a single silken tunic caught in the middle by a silver girdle. Did they weave silk in these caves? I was flabbergasted.

She spoke to me softly in the strange guttural tongue of this underworld. And she was a white girl, not of Shamman.

“I don’t get you,” I said.

Her eyes grew larger. Her lips smiled rapturously.

“You speak a language I know,” she said. “Who are you?”

“Jerry McRory,” I said unbashed. “And who are you?”

“I am Nurri Kala,” she said. “But why are you here? There are none such as you in these caves.”

I tried to explain to her quickly, in words of one syllable, but she gathered little. And then I asked her what she was doing in Shamman.

“I am a vestal of The Flame,” she said softly, reverently. “I have been here for many years, but once I spoke as you do.”

“You’re English or American?” I suggested.

“I cannot remember. Zorimi brought me here.”

H’m, another amnesia victim, I reflected, thinking of Morgo’s strange tale. And Zorimi was involved in her fate.


“He rules all of Shamman,” she said, darting a glance deeper into the fissure fearfully. “You must go away from here. It is dangerous to be found on this mound. Zorimi says it is the home of the gods – and no place for mortals to tread.”

Zorimi, whoever he was, I decided, was identifying himself with Zeus of the Greek mythology and had convinced the Shammans that his plateau was Olympus, the home of the old Greek gods, a place not to be spied upon.

“I should like to meet Zorimi,” I said. “I’ve lost two of my friends – three, I mean -” I thought of Morgo then “- and perhaps he can tell me where to find them.” I was confident that Zorimi had been at the scene of the Junkers’ crash, for hadn’t I heard the primitive men shout his name? Hadn’t he addressed them?

“Go away, please. Quickly!” the girl implored me.

“I’m not afraid of Zorimi,” I said. “Where does he lie?”

“You must not see him. It means death to any mortal who beholds his face!”

“But you see him – you know him!”

“I am an immortal,” Nurri Kala said naively, sincerely. “It is Zorimi’s will that I am such. I am a vestal of The Flame.”

“Lead me to him,” I said, growing impatient. “Then we can talk later on – about yourself. But I must see him about my friends!”

The girl screamed and her eyes stared over my shoulder. They were laden with a terror I’d never seen in a human before. I turned to see the object of her fear, but two arms were thrown abut me, holding me with the grip of a vise.

I could not budge. I could not move in that embrace of steel thews.

“I am Zorimi,” a guttural voice said behind me – in English. “But it is ordained that you shall not see me with mortal eyes.”

“Who are you?” I cried out. “You’re not one of the Shammans. You’re from the outer world, too!”

“I am Zorimi!”

Zorimi! Could it be that? The thought was odious. I shrank from it. Yet it persisted in my mind. Was Zorimi my friend Morgo, too?”

“You have violated the sanctity of my temple!” Zorimi went on angrily. “You have laid eyes upon an immortal vestal. You have earned death!”

Good God! This sounded like a page out of mythology! His seeing the white goddess of the African jungles! But I was dealing with a golden white girl and a man who spoke the King’s English for all his invisibility! Here was mystery with a capital M, and I so wanted to live – to satiate a sudden curiosity. I wanted to know who Nurri Kala really was! Who Zorimi really was!

“Is it Morgo that speaks to me?” I demanded of the unseen speaker.


Fear was in the voice.

“You know of Morgo, too? Where is he?”

I was satisfied, somehow, that this was not Morgo. And relief surged through me, for I now knew that Morgo had not fallen captive to Zorimi. But I had no idea of his whereabouts or why he disappeared.

“White man,” Zorimi said eagerly, “if you will deliver Morgo to me, I will spare your life.”

“Nothing doing,” I said. “Morgo is my friend.”

“I will do more” – the voice purred – “I will restore you to the outer world whence you came, if you deliver Morgo to me!” Zorimi meant to be tempting but I knew the sinister timbre of his words. I would die in any event, and I had no intention of betraying Morgo.

“Nothing doing,” I said. “Besides, I’ve come to you on a friendly mission -” Zorimi laughed harshly. “I seek two friend of mine who were in an airplane with me – Grant Harker and Sam Lacrosse. Do you happen to know anything about them? Are they still alive? I saw Harker carried off by a bat.”

For some little time, Zorimi did not reply. Finally he said:

“I know of no other white men in Shamman. You and Morgo are the only people of such flesh. But consider my off: tell me where to take Morgo unawares and you shall live, shall go into the world whence you came.”

“I said nothing doing.:

“Fool!” Zorimi stormed, and muttered in his own tongue.

At length he said: “Then you shall serve another purpose on this holy mound, white man. I have long waited for such flesh as yours – or Morgo’s. The Flame craves it! The Flame must be fed! A living body, you shall be hurled into its white heat, to give your life to its Life!”

He uttered thunderous instructions to my captors who proceeded to push me forward and down the steps leading into the fissure of rock in which Nurri Kala was sitting. She heard these ominous words and cried out. But I saw by her eyes that Zorimi had transfixed her, had cautioned her to silence, and she covered her face with her slender ivory hands, sobbing as though she were losing a friend.

Downward I trudge, my feet tripping on the rough steps, into darkness, forced onward by two relentless iron hands that held my arms to my sides. A chill seeped into my very marrow.

The sound of crackling tongues of fire, rising from a mammoth pyre, reached my ears. The heat grew intense, foul smelling, and I thought of hell’s brimstone.

I was to be a human sacrifice to The Flame – to some pagan and perverse form of worship practiced by Zorimi – in the hidden recesses of this dank and dark mound of cavern chalk.

To Be Continued