Chapter 10: Jesperson!

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.

In my delirium, evoked by the gases from the red lips on which I lay, I dreamed that Morgo was caught in the coils of fungus, fighting mightily to tear them asunder, to overcome their insidious strength and save me. I could see him, in Baku’s arms, enmeshed in the drooping, swaying threads that held sinews of steel.

Vaguely he moved toward me. Baku’s pterodactyl wings beat sturdily, cutting the threads, sending them in wafting spirals to the floor below. Nearer and nearer Morgo approached.

A lucid moment came over me and I cursed the tricks a dying man’s brain play on him. I was doomed. I knew it. And all of Morgo’s might could not avail me anything in this life.

Again my senses departed and I saw my friend through a haze. He cried out to me to take courage – I dreamed the words – and I could only see his lip moving without sound coming from them. Now he was caught tightly, the thread coiled many times around his body. His bowie knife flashed in the green glow and the thread was severed, the coils still hanging from him. He was urging Baku closer to the lip that were now sinking backward. At any moment I would slide into the heart of the giant red-mouth fungus, to perish, slowly suffocating in the odor of inner putrescence.

My fingers bit into the reddish crust for a hold. The stuff flaked off at each grasp. I was slipping. Only my feet had a small purchase. The lips tilted sharply inward. Another degree and I could hold on no longer.

Why did I fight for life? It was so foolish! I was doomed. The thought of my gun occurred to me. There was salvation. A death that held no qualms for me. It was quick and neat and my consciousness would not then be fodder for this relentless fungus. A bullet would send me sliding into the red maw, unaware of what would happen to my flesh.

I held fast to the flaking lip with one hand while the other struggled for the automatic in my belt. My fingers reached the holster. I got it out. It slipped into my hand and the trigger finger felt its mark.

Quickly, I brought the gun up to my temple. Just one shot! I would remember nothing else!

“Derro! Derro!” A hand touched my wrist, grasped it. “Are you alive?”

I guess I just groaned.

The automatic was knocked from my grasp. Two strong hands caught my wrists. I felt myself being drawn off the reddish lip, the flaky stuff sucking at my clothing.

The rest I don’t remember – and don’t want to.

When I came to my senses again, cool sweet air was being pumped in and out of my hungry lungs. Morgo was pressing my stomach to make me breathe harder. Without his aid, my respiration was dangerously close to stopping.

“Sleep, Derro, sleep,” Morgo whispered. “We are safe now, away from unclean growths.”

I sighed and knew that he and Baku had successfully made the fight from the jungle of fungus to upper Shamman. It was still dark and I feared sleep.  Whenever I closed my eyes I saw those green threads whipping themselves around me, drawing me up to the red lips. I felt those lips turn inward to suck me into the bowels of the fungus itself. I was afraid of sleep now, but my body was sorely tired and its energy spent.

“Baku has gone for another Bakkete to carry us,” Morgo said. He spoke of other things but I dropped into a deep, exhausted coma so deep that even nightmares could not reach me there.

It was morning when I woke up. We were back in Morgo’s cave in warm Kahli. The Bakketes had brought us there during the darkness, through I was sound asleep throughout the trip.

I ate ravenously, as did Morgo. Conversation was imminent but we had to feed our strength first. My flying clothes needed cleaning, being covered with the mold from the green world, and one of the Shamman servants saw to that. And I had to bathe my body to rid my mind of the thought that any part of the fungus still adhered to it.

Morgo was highly amused by my ablutions. He bathed in a river he spoke about but never in his cave. His laughter was merry and boyish while he watched the Shamman servants douche me with cold spring water that made me gasp. Bowl after bowl of the clear liquid was thrown over my head and body, and I scraped myself clean.

Presently Morgo slid out of his skin and submitted his massive proportions to a similar ceremony. He thought it swell and promised more such showers every day. His thews rippled like pythons under his white, gleaming skin as he squirmed under the cold splashes. I noted his strength and was thankful for it – for that, as well as his courage, had saved my life the night before. Then we went out out on the rocks overlooking Kahli, to bask in the warm, yellow light and dry ourselves.

I broke open a carton of cigarettes and smoked. Morgo declined the invitation to join me in this luxury. He had tried a cigarette the week before – with dire results. Tobacco was not for this primitive son of the gods.

“I have been thinking,” I said, “about the girl, Nurri Kala.”

Morgo’s eyes brightened and he looked at me. “She was very beautiful, Derro.”

“I do not believe her dead. The Shamman bats took her. And I’m positive Zorimi has her again.

“Zorimi must want her badly to have a bat take her prisoner instead of killing her.”

“He knows something about her – and you – that neither of us know. But she is white like we are, Morgo – and we cannot let her remain in his hands. I can’t fathom whether he’s a white man who knows the caves or a Shamman who has been in the outer world.”

“I only know that he is evil and must be destroyed. But the girl – we must save her, Derro. We must bring her back to live with us.”

That was in my mind all the while. And I wondered whether I wanted to rescue her from Zorimi because she was a white girl or because she was a woman for whom I felt love. She was beautiful. She was sweet and innocent. She was all a man could ask for. And I refused to admit to myself that I wanted her for a mate. Man are slow to recognizing their love for woman. For they can’t quite understand just how or when or where the process began. Yet I had seen Nurri Kala and had talked to her. I felt that I knew her a little – and wanted to know her better.

“In Nurri Kala,” I said, “we have cause for another expedition to Zorimi’s plateau. But this time we must be more cautious. As for my friends, Harker and Lacrosse, I guess they’re dead.”

But the word “Lacrosse” stuck in my throat a little. Hadn’t I seen Zorimi start when, on impulse, I called him by Lacrosse’s name? Could it be that Lacrosse escaped death in the Junkers crash and was now cast in the role of the magician?

I turned the thought over in my mind. Back in Darjeeling, Jim Craig had muttered about diamonds. He spoke of a mountain-high cache in the Himalayas. And he intimated that the pectoral was the key to the treasure. Now I knew that this key – She of the Three Heads – was called the Shining Stone and that Zorimi used it in his deadly rituals.

The pectoral was stolen from Jim Craig’s body by a dacoit. Was the dacoit in Lacrosse’s pay? Was Lacrosse a man who knew the secrets of these caverns and who went abroad in the outer world with some of the wealth supposedly hidden here? I had only his and Kenvon’s word for it that he was a naturalist from Princeton.

Kenvon was a little mad. It would have been easy for Lacrosse to arrange for the Door of Surrilana map to fall into the millionaire’s hands; for him to finance the flight over Kanchenjunga. Kenvon was gullible, I thought. And it was prearranged that he was to insist on the entrance to the Door. For some reason, Lacrosse might have wanted to hide his hand – even from Harker and me – knowing full well that death was always ahead for us.

The attack of the Shamman bats on the Junkers was unforseen. But after the crash – from which I escaped with my usual Irish luck – Lacrosse produced the Shining Stone and returned to his cave identity of Zorimi. He put Kenvon to death. Hadn’t I seen the decapitated body? And then Harker was carried off to The Flame. Hadn’t I seen his head in frieze of skulls?

Of Lacrosse, there was no trace. And Zorimi betrayed fear when addressed as Lacrosse. My conclusion was not wholly lacking in logic.

Zorimi! In him, I was dealing with a man of flesh and blood like myself, I was confident. He was not a Silurian or a Shamman. His English was too good. And he knew the identities and stories of Morgo and Nurri Kala who came from my world. All this I related to Morgo as we dried and grew warm. He was impressed by the logic of it.

“But, man or magician,” Morgo said, “I am not afraid of Zorimi. And I feel we must do something to save the girl from him. He is evil. I feel that.”

“Since the Bakketes cannot withstand the strength of the Shamman bats,” I pointed out, “we must adopt other measures for her rescue – for ascertaining that she is Zorimi’s prisoner again.”

“I will send three Bakketes into Shamman when the darkness comes. They will be cautious and will seek news of her.”

“Good! But then how can we effect a rescue? Have you no people or beasts with which we can combat Zorimi?”

“There are the ants,” Morgo said thoughtfully, “but they cannot be trusted. Once I saved their leader, the Raba of the Hussha tribe who lives in a cave nearby. They are fearless but very destructive. They might turn on us – or if they kill Zorimi, they might devour Nurri Kala as well as those who try to hold her. Once they are started on warfare and forage, there is no stopping them.”

“We can hover over their advance with the Bakketes and take the girl into the air.”

“To do that we must also fight the Shamman bats. Our Bakketes are not strong enough, Derro. But the Shammans and the Silurians fear the ants. Zorimi’s magic is supposed to keep the Husshas out of Shamman. It is really the dearth of food there which sends them to other caverns.”

“Can you talk to this Raba?” I asked incredulously.

“Of course. These ants have life and manners like our own. They have a language and live in tribes. But they are treacherous.”

I decided without hesitation.

“Then let’s visit this Raba and try to enlist his aid. I’m sure if we can take enough Bakketes into Shamman we can win our point – even against the mightier Shamman bats.”

We went inside and dressed. My clothes no longer reeked with the stench of the fungus and I quickly forgot the experience, helped by events that rapidly piled themselves upon us.

“There is a great cave next to Kahli,” Morgo said, “that is called Verizon. It is much like Kahli but warmer, and there are more beasts and reptiles living in it – beasts such as the small mannizan, the snake you call the python, the dog-headed lizards and catbirds. They prey upon the men and women who live there much like the Shammans. But all flee the ants.”

“We shall see. Let us be off.”

Baku and another Bakkete were summoned from their aeries high above the cliff in which we dwelt by a shrill whistle Morgo gave. It was a weird call, not batlike but rather like a small boy giving a secret code call for a pal. I could not imitate it.

We flew over the luxurious greenery of Kahli, peopled with the Kahlis, foraging mice and insects whose wings hummed like a Sikorsky motor, steadily and monotonously. The saffron light fell on all things, the trees and the shrubs and the wilderness of vines that grew beneath the pink, titillating stalactites in which the Bakketes flitted, hordes descending suddenly upon the swarming dragon flies, gnats and needle insects feeding in the green leaves. Life in these caves was much as life outside – the stronger preyed on the weaker and thereby survived. I could not think but how futile civilization was – for it merely replaced on method of preying for sustenance with another.

Instead of flying lower or higher to another cave, the Bakketes turn to the south and approached a door hemmed with chalk formations – the inevitable teeth with which nature endowed this inner world through the age-long processes of moisture dripping from the Himalayas’ skin into their viscera.

We passed through the great stony gate and entered Verizon which greatly resembled Kahli in its flora. It was a replica of that Cainozoic world of forty million years ago when grass ad land forests came into existence and the mammal began its life.

My eyes feasted on what was spread below and above – greener forests than in Kahli – stalactites that were glowing red embers in the bright yellow light. The source of that light was something I hoped to live to see. When our problem of Nurri Kala was solved, Morgo promised to reveal it to me. He called it The Shaft.

A cry escaped me. Morgo drew closer and pointed downward.

A black belt about thirty feet wide and apparently endless wound its way over the floor of the cave, uniformly covering what was beneath it. At no place in the belt could I see greenery on the cave’s sandy floor.

And this belt moved ever so slowly. On command, Baku went lower.

Now I could the life of this belt – black ants, ugly headed and at least five feet long with yard-long mandibles. These mandibles, projecting from the creatures shoulders, worked like tongs, reaching out, ripping apart the desired food, crushing it and stuffing it into the head’s mouth. A faint moan ascended to my ears. It was that of some one munching food, the sound of this army, several million strong, existing – eating its way through life.

I thought of stories I had heard of the Driver ants of Africa. They could destroy an elephant that fouled their path by swarming over it and picking its bones clean in three days. Men and smaller beasts met with the elephants’ fate, too. My heart echoed in my breast. This sight of the Husshas was terrifying.

And like the Drivers, the Husshas were organized – one of nature’s phenomena. Blacker ants, in columns of ten, formed two lines between which slightly smaller ants moved. These were the “soldier ants” and those in the middle column were the “workers”. The latter pushed leaves and mannizan flesh to the “soldiers”, the latter pushed them back or devoured them.

What awful allies! These were to be our “friends” in attacking Zorimi in Shamman. God help us if we failed to get Nurri Kala out of their path!

Baku swung me around abruptly and I saw another Bakkete flying towards us slowly, weakly. Some sixth sense had told Baku of this other’s approach. Morgo had sighted him, too.

The Bakkete tried to fly up to us. Now I saw that he was wounded. One arm was missing and a leg badly mangled.

But in his sound hand he carried something whitish – a piece of cloth.

The Bakkete tried to reach us, holding out the white cloth. His wings, flapping in exhaustion, failed him and he dropped – straight into the black belt of voracious Husshas. He was lost as the living jet river slid over his body. But the white cloth fluttered in the upheld hand, a hand that quivered in death’s agony.

Morgo shouted to his carrier. They swooped down upon the black line of ants. They were close enough for the Hussha soldiers to strike out at Morgo’s white skin with their pointed black tongs.

Morgo reached the still visible hand, caught the wrist and flew upward. The hand came off the arm, eaten away by the worker ants. He tore the white cloth from it and dropped the lifeless paw.

We flew, at a signal from Morgo, to a mound a safe distance from the crawling black belt and alighted there. Morgo opened the cloth.

“Why, it’s a piece of wing cloth!” I cried. “It might be from the Junkers. From my black bird!”

“There is writing on it,” Morgo said.

I peered over his shoulder and read: “Jesperson is Zorimi.” Below these cryptic words was the name “Lacrosse”.

So Harvey Jesperson was in the cave. And this was a message from Lacrosse – who wanted to inter that Jesperson – the man who took my De Haviland on a solo from Darjeeling, was Zorimi the magician.

I refused to believe it.

To Be Continued!