Chapter 8: The Jungle of Fungus

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.

I kept track of Nurri Kala’s flight in that Cimmerian night by the whiteness of her body in the Bakketes arms. Baku heeded me faithfully and flew as close to her as possible despite the terrific onslaught of the Shamman bats which tried, as usual, to beat us to the floor of the vast cave.

The handless and armless bats, I gathered, far outnumbered our Bakketes. But the latter were fleet of wing and soon we left screeching legions behind us. An instinctive sense of direction on the part of the Bakketes was carrying us toward the tunnel which led to the lower Cave of Kahli where Morgo pursued his peaceful life.

But I shouted before I was out of the proverbial woods. I was too quick to accept safety and the outstripping of the Shamman bats.

The Bakkete holding Nurri Kala uttered a piercing cry and began to sink. Baku flew closer.

Twenty Shamman bats had quietly joined our flight, flying as fast as they could, deceiving us into thinking that we were rid of our enemy. Now they swung suddenly to attack the man carrying the girl.

I saw one bat encircle the girl with his talonesque legs and try to tear her from the Bakkete. The others attacked him with their teeth and clouted him with their powerful wings.

Nurri Kala screamed and her cries were suddenly silenced. Had she been killed? Had she fainted? She was in the thickest part of the aerial fray.

I could not use my gun for fear of shooting her. Morgo was engaged with one of the other Shamman bats. I saw him reach for the flying monster with his bare hands which closed about its throat. Life was hard to rout from the bat, but Morgo’s strength was mighty. The bat pounded Morgo with its leathery wings and tore him with its talons, but Morgo was relentless. The huge bat weakened, gasped and then fell limply out of sight.

The Bakketes were impotent in helping their stricken mate. They tore at the Shamman’s wings with their long fingers, and other screeching creature, unable to fly with one wing ripped off, crashed downward.

Then the fighting mass of Bakketes and bats broke. I could not see Nurri Kala. My fear was that she had been dropped by the man who was beset so strongly. A Bakkete wavered, tried to keep aloft, and then he, too, drooped and fluttered downward, his wings shattered. The Shammans scattered and vanished in an upward rush of air and beating wings.

Morgo flew close to me.

“We have lost her,” he cried. “We have lost that beautiful creature!”

“Did they make her prisoner?”

“I could not see, Derro. But we are not strong enough in numbers to fly higher and search the stalactites.”

“Then let us make certain she did not fall to the rocks below. We will search there,” I said.

And while the army of Bakketes, battered and bleeding from their combat, hovered over us, a protecting cloud of friendly wings in the gloom, Morgo and I descended to the sea of stalagmites. Sight was well-nigh impossible in the darkness, but we carefully flew low over the area which we thought was directly below that of the previous scene of attack. The gray hulks of the chalky fingers were visible but no whiteness – as that of the girl’s body – gleamed in the shadows between those pillars.

The Bakketes took to screeching again. Wings beat on wings, two bodies fell close by us. Another fight was in progress in the gloom overhead. Zorimi had sent his bats back to annihilate us completely, or to make us prisoner, and they had fallen upon our forces noiselessly.

“Can those bats see us?” I asked Morgo.

“They can see anything in the dark.” The Bakkete army fled. We listened, seeing nothing, till the silence of the cave was great and nerve-wracking and devoid of a single stirring wing. We had alighted on a mound, an overturned monolith of rock.

I decided it was best that we seek refuge beneath a pillar of chalk until we had some indication that the Shamman bats had passed overhead in returning to Zorimi’s plateau. Morgo said it was likely that they would fly low in search of us and could be heard. He was confident that they would not follow the Bakketes into Kahli, for they were too great of wing to negotiate the descending tunnel safely.

And then we were attacked. We saw nothing coming. The sudden impact of wings upon us crushed us to the rock, bruising and cutting our bodies. Our Bakketes had been taken off guard again.

The Silurians appeared on every side of us. They dropped from between the legs of the war bats who so silently skimmed over us.

I fired at the nearest scale-skinned creature and darted through the opening, shouting to Morgo to follow me. There was no pursuit, the surprise of the shots momentarily holding the Silurians at bay.

How far we ran I cannot guess. Morgo’s breath was hot on my cheek, our footfalls muffled, noiseless. It was like running on air.

A black hole loomed before us – a small cave – and into it my feet carried me. I found Baku with Morgo. The other Bakkete, Morgo’s carrier, had evidently been destroyed.

The Silurians appeared in the haze of night. They saw the cave and hesitated before entering.

“Baku will lead us into this hole in the ground,” Morgo said. “Join hands with me. Eyes are good in the dark. It is our only hope of escaping them.”

Thirty Silurians, their scaly bodies now weirdly luminous, could be counted at the mouth of the cave. To fight meant defeat for us. Death or being taken prisoner and returned to the tortures that only the evil genius of Zorimi could devise. My ammunition was low, far too low for comfort.

One by one, the Silurians began to file into the hollow that held us. They feared my gun, I knew, but they were probably impelled by Zorimi’s orders to risk death in the hope of overpowering us ultimately. They were to bring us back to him dead or alive. They were to fight, girded with the assurance that their bodies were invulnerable – when my last round was fired.

I saw nothing. I merely took hold of Morgo’s sinewy wrist and moved forward, led by him, as if in a dream. The path twisted, declined, and we had to crawl in places where the ceiling was too low and narrow. The walls of this cave were repulsive to touch. At first I was puzzled and then I discovered the cause. They were not of chalk as were the other formations of Shamman but of something soft like the down on a baby’s head. Yes, they were hairy.

This soft growth, warm and loathsome when it brushed my fingers or face caused me to shudder involuntarily. And from it seeped a faint scent, like that of decay, indescribable decay, but nevertheless the decay of dying things. This odor grew stronger and permeated the air the farther we went.

We could hear the Silurians stumbling, scraping and groping their way after us. I even imagined I could hear their cautious, labored breathing. In actuality, I heard just that. For in a sudden burst of light from the very floor beneath our feet, a glow that threw Morgo and Baku into sharp silhouette, I looked back and saw the nearest Silurian within arm’s reach of me.

I had to shoot him. His falling body, the effect of his death and startling report of the automatic momentarily stayed the Silurians advance upon us as they hissed with fear.

Baku cried out shrilly, terrified. Morgo stepped back abruptly, almost upsetting me – but too late.

The floor of the cave gave way under us, and we fell through a fuzzy, malodorous substance that glowed with a greenish hue. My fingers fought for some support by the substance flew through them, ripped and tore. It was the sensation of being shot through a giant mushroom.

I struck something hard – rock or chalk formation. My body was spun around. Morgo and I became an interlocked mass for an instant, each holding to the other for support, to stay our terrific avalanche downward through this awful suffocating substance that breathed decay into our nostrils. Then we were whirled apart, and I rolled over and over. My head hit a sharp bit of hardness, and I forgot the rest of that descent into the bottoms of Shamman.

Morgo was holding my head in his lap, rubbing the brow, when I opened my eyes again. His features were dim and slowly they cleared. He became recognizable and so did Baku.

“What happened?” I tried to grin. “Who hit me?”

“We are in the forest of unclean growths,” Morgo informed me, a note of concern in his voice. “We cannot stay here too long or our breath will be stilled.”

Our breath? I was aware that my own breathing was impaired. There wasn’t enough oxygen in the air.

“Do not breathe too hard, Derro,” Morgo warned me. “I know of this place though I have avoided it. If you fight for air you will never get enough. Breathe slowly and you will last.”

My vision was better and I saw all. We were resting at the base of a slope of gelatinous matter cut by a deep furrow. That furrow was our path – made by our falling and rolling bodies. Above it was the hole through which we had dropped. The slope and its soft coating broke our fall.

The smell of decay was nauseating. My head reeled and I did my best to breathe slowly. We were in a cave, the walls, every part of which, were a quivering gelatinous mass, the substance coated with downy hair. All was greenish and livid white in spots.

Green mold! I had seen gray-green mold on stale, damp bread! This excrescence in which we were stranded, I now recognized.

Fungus! We were lost in a forest of fungus!

The cryptogamous growth fluttered over us, depending mostly from the roof of the cavern. It fed upon the Carboniferous-looking trees and shrubs in upper Shamman, upon the filth of that upper cave’s flooring. Of that I was certain though my knowledge of such putrescent life was exceedingly limited. Yet mold and fungus did thrive on dead, organic matter.

The bed of the cave was less thickly covered with the undulating growth. Here and there it was punctuated with a titanic mushroom or toadstool like an umbrella for giant leprechauns. I wondered if we could tread our way through it to some exit. The fear of dropping into a deep hole and suffocating to death in its decay made me cold and nervous. I was not afraid of death – but I must confess to a pronounced fear of the means of death.

“Is there a way out of this jungle of fungus, Morgo?”

“Baku says he knows a way, though he is not certain, Derro.”

“Let him seek it out then.”

“It is best that one of us go with him,” Morgo said. “He may find the opening to Shamman or Kahli and may not be able to return.”

“Why not?”

“I have heard strange tales of this unclean growth. It has hands. It feeds on living men and matter. Weapons cannot defeat it. Your gun and my knife are useless in fighting it. But Baku might save one of us – if he can get through to clean air.”

I got up, stretched my legs and felt life surge through me. My lungs, though respiration was shallow, were accustoming themselves to this dead air, perfumed with mold.

“You go first, Morgo. I’ll wait here for Baku.”

Morgo shook his head. “No, Derro, my mind is made up. You got with Baku. I will wait.”

Of course we argued. Neither would be the first to make his fight for life. At length, Morgo held up a quieting hand.

“We are wasting precious breath, Derro,” he said. “Please go.”

“We’ll toss for it.” I took his bowie knife and explained to him that the side bearing the manufacturer’s mark would be the head and plain side the tail. We would spin it in the air. He who called “heads” would stay.

Morgo nodded and, taking the knife in his hand, spun it, calling, “Heads!” The blade flopped on the quivering fungus at our feet. The manufacturer’s mark was uppermost.

“I stay,” he said proudly. “You go with Baku – and hurry.”

“What is the source of the light in here?” I asked, curious over the greenish pall and not too ready to leave my new friend. “It is night above in Shaman and yet here there is luminosity.”

“The Shaft does strange things, Derro. It is the source of all light in these caverns. I meant to show it to you one day.”

“You will.  You’ll come through.”

“I will wait for Baku – and try – if he comes back for me.”

I clasped Morgo’s hand in mine. He took the little cross of twigs from beneath his skin covering and gaze fondly at it.

“I pray for a safe trip for you, Derro.” His eyes met mine and I saw them shining. “You saved my life when Zorimi would take it. I owe it to you, Derro, to save yours – to pray for it. There is a bond between us now that only death can break.”

“To whom do you pray?”

“To a god my father told me about. I remember nothing about him except that these twigs are his sign. He has been kind and merciful to me in the past. He will help you now when I ask him. I am sure.”

Morgo’s simple faith in the Supreme Being was truly moving. WIth the veils of amnesia upon him, with a primitive existence substituted for his civilized youth, he still held fast to a faith he undoubtedly learned at his mother’s knee.

“Baku,” Morgo cried. “Derro is ready. Take him.”

Before I could protest or say more, ask more, the Bakkete slipped his arms around me, under mine.

“Go!” Morgo commanded Baku. And I was swept from the fungus flooring, watching Morgo, a small figure, become smaller and smaller with distance until he vanished in the sinister green light.

“Have you been in here before, Baku?” I asked my carrier.

“No. But I hear about it. There is a way out.”

That information was small consolation. The cavern was far-flung and the fumes of dead matter seemed more asphyxiating in mid-air than when closer to the floor. I felt faint and fought to hold my consciousness. My mind was a cauldron of quivering green and white and unclean grayish spots. We had eluded the Silurians for something far worse than Zorimir’s Flame.

“Look!” Baku cried.

My eyes opened and I saw a darkish cloud ahead in the gelatinous roof of the fungus where the growth, unlike that of the other part of the cave, hung in long threads that flicked at each other like the tentacles of an octopus. Were these the fingers – the hands – that Morgo mentioned? I tried to doubt and could not.

The dark spot beyond the beyond the wavering threads seemed to be an opening. And though the putrid air was stronger than before, I could feel blasts of something cleaner coming from the direction of the darkness. A breeze seemed to stir the depending threads of fungus and I hoped it was air and not the life in them that gave them motion.

“Save breath!” Baku said. “Danger is here!”

He meant to wend his way between two lines of fungus – an avenue offering possible safety. In another moment we were in the divide, flying as low as feasible to avoid any contact with the slithering, green threads and their fuzzy surface.

I struck out with my fists. It was useless.

A thread of the stuff was flung around my middle. Firmly, with perceptible tugs, it slowly drew us off our course, upward and toward a reddish crust – lips!

Baku’s wings were snarled in the stuff and the thought of woman’s eternal fear – a bat caught in her hair, flapping and squealing – flashed through my mind. I was deposited on the red crust.

The Bakkete was whipped away from me out of sight.

The fumes from the parted lips, a stench from the entrails of a monster dragon, suffocated my senses. I fell against the crust.

Heat! Bursting lungs! Reddish crust, hard to touch!

Green pallor! Unclean white splotches! Gray decay!

Black oblivion.

To Be Continued!