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.
Morgo listened to my story about Jesperson, who for some unknown reason, eloped with the De Haviland and for whom parties were searching the Nepalese jungles when I took off from Darjeeling for a day’s trip to Kenchenjunga. What a day! I had no reason to suspect that Jesperson intended to assail the Door of Surrilana. There had been no talk, in our trip from Bombay to Darjeeling, of his even being in the mountain.
If Harvey Jesperson were Zorimi, what I could not understand was how he came by Her of the Three Heads – the Shining Stone. That was in Jim Craig’s possession in Darjeeling on a night when Jesperson was supposedly lost in the jungles. Had Jesperson gotten the dacoit to steal it? Somehow, I doubted that. I couldn’t believe it.
But if this message – this warning – was to be believed, Lacrosse was or had been alive somewhere. Probably in Shamman. He might have seen us in the arms of the Bakketes and enticed one of those bat men to bring us this message. Yet it was my hunch that Lacrosse was Zorimi himself. Was this a trick on Zorimi’s part to confuse us? And did he know that we still lived after our descent into the cave of the green fungus?
Morgo listened to my spoken thoughts. At length he said:
“Derro, Zorimi knows all things. If we died in the unclean growth, he would have known. If we escaped, that, too, he would know. He has creatures in Kahli that tell him.”
I laughed. The thought of spies in these caverns filled with primitive beings was amusing. But that was what Morgo meant to convey to me.
“Still. if Zorimi knows we live, I cannot see the point of this message,” I said.
“Zorimi’s ways are strange – mysterious I think you say. If life is spared to us, we may learn more.”
Again we took off to seek the Raba of the Husshas. In the air, I could not shake off the idea that Jesperson might have entered the caves in the De Haviland. In view of what I had come to see and learn in the past fortnight, I believed anything was possible. Jesperson was presumably a prosperous jeweler from New York. I first laid eyes on him in Bombay and undertook the commission to pilot him into Nepal.
Harvey Jesperson, a jeweler! Diamonds in the Himalayas! Was that the tie-up? Did Jesperson get his diamonds from one of these caves and sell them in the outer world? As I’ve written, I’d come to believe that anything was possible now.
It was a clever trick of his, stealing the De Haviland after pretending to know nothing of aviation. His desire was to vanish from the face of the earth, penetrate the Door of Surrilana and make his way to his cache. Then he would leave the caves by some other and safer route. But I found all this hard to entertain. Jesperson with his round rosy cheeks and blue eyes and stubby figure was hardly the adventurous type for such an exploit. I refused to consider him in the role of Zorimi.
I noticed now that the Husshas, felling trees and gorging on the leaves and bark, revealed an open space in their ranks. In this traveled a larger ant than the others with fierce mandibles that tore tree fiber and bark apart and swallowed it, his sides heaving with the great gulps.
Morgo circled over this Hussha and I sensed that this was the Raba – or king of these ants. A mutter – a sibilant clicking sound – came from Morgo’s mouth as he hovered directly above the Raba. The big ant reared up on its hind legs and waved its mandibles slowly, a gesture of peace, I thought. The moan of munching in his vicinity ceased and soldiers and workers alike stopped eating and rested.
Baku brought me down to Morgo’s side. The parleying went on – a clicking language that reminded me of Hottentots I once heard talking the side show of a circus. The Hussha tongue was like the Hottentot. That the ant could talk I accepted as fact, though I only had Morgo’s word for it. Probably it was not speech as we know it but an exchange of word pictures in sound signs.
The Raba’s head was twice as large as a man’s and it glistened like a beady ball of malachite, punctuated near the throat by a wide blue slit, the mouth. It was the most monstrous insect head I had ever seen.
And there were no eyes in the Raba.
I looked at the other Husshas. Like the driver ants of Africa, this black, sinister horde, myriad in number, was blind – stone blind. How curious are the quirks and machinations of nature! They lived lustily and moved with military precision – nevertheless they could not see!
Morgo signaled to Baku and we rose high over the jet river of ant life and flew swiftly toward the door to Kahli. My friend had news for me and I was eager to hear it. We reached Morgo’s cave without mishap and, on landing, I went hungrily for my cigarettes to quiet nerves somewhat disturbed by the sight of the ugly ants. What if we had fallen in their midst? I remembered the messenger Bakkete’s fate!
“The Raba is our friend,” Morgo told me. “He will turn the army of Husshas into Shamman tonight. ”
“They will not pass through Kahli?” I cried aghast, thinking of what might happen in this pleasant land if the black ants marched through it.
“No, they do not come in here, Derro. It is an understanding I have with the Raba. Once I saved him from the river in a lower cavern, and in his strange way, he is my friend. No, the Husshas will enter Shamman through another opening that leads from Verizon.”
“How long will it take them?”
“A day and a night to reach the plateau, I think.” Morgo was fascinated with the idea of mustering such an army for the attach on Zorimi. “The Husshas can hide during the period of light. They will remain in the chalk and under the plant growth in Shaman, moving secretly.”
Again I thought of the Driver ants. They hide from the tropical sun of Africa during the daytime under leaves – often building tunnels across sunny patches – with leaves or the bodies of soldier who were destroyed by the sun. There was no heat to fear in Shamma; only the eyes of Zorimi’s people.
“By tomorrow night,” Morgo went on, “they will be able to swarm over the plateau. But there is another danger, Derro.”
“Surely not Zorimi’s magic?” I laughed.
“Worse than that. The red ants of Shamman. The Rortas. We never saw them. They live deep in the soft chalk, yet they are not unlike the Husshas in the way they live. They have an army life and while they are smaller and less strong, their bite is full of poison.”
“Poisonous to man?”
Morgo nodded. “To all creatures that breathe. Their bite stops the breathing.”
So these Rortas were capable of injecting a poison that, once in the blood, caused asphyxiations. I began to ply my friend with question. Were they enemies of the Husshas? Could Zorimi command them? Were they controllable?
“Yes, they are enemies of the Husshas – and Zorimi can speak to them as I spoke to the Raba. I think that if he knows the Husshas are in Shamman, he will turn loose the Rortas to combat them.”
“Then the Husshas will be destroyed!” I said, feeling that our plan was threatened with failure.
“Unless they kill the Rortas first. Their long killing teeth are not hurt by the Rorta poison – only their bodies. And the Husshas are clever fighters.”
I considered this doubtfully. Were we turning loose forces that might ultimately defeat our ends? Morgo said that the Husshas were treacherous. And now he spoke of venomous Rortas. I feared the more for Nurri Kala’s safety.
“If the Husshas take a day and a night to reach the plateau,” I said, “when will we have to be on hand?”
“Tomorrow night when the light begins to fail in Shamman. The Husshas will travel tonight and all tomorrow. I will send Bakketes to learn of the girl’s safety when it is dark. If she is dead, then I want Zorimi for a prisoner. I mean to learn from him the secret about me.”
This was my first inkling that Morgo was thinking about his identity too strongly. Zorimi’s betrayal of such knowledge had whetted my friend’s curiosity. Yet I wondered if Zorimi still lived. Hadn’t I seen him drop with my parting shot?
We spent the day resting and plotting. And when night came, Morgo went out on the ledge and summoned the Bakketes – four of them – to act as our scouts. I noted that Baku was one of them.
A little later, I missed Morgo and searched for him. He was not in or about the cave. The Shamman servants could tell me nothing when I made incomprehensible signs to them. But I understood. Baku’s presence among the scouting Bakketes was the key. Morgo had gone with him – to make certain that the information we wanted was correct.
But why had he refused to take me along, or tell me of his intention? I worried and tried to keep away and could not.
It was Morgo who aroused me from a heavy slumber the next morning. He had the shower baths ready and made me bathe with him before he would tell me a word of the previous night’s adventure. He parried my questions with laughter and splashed under the cold water the servants poured on us. I shivered and began to regret the introduction of such a custom into Kahli.
At breakfast he broke his silence. “I thought you needed rest, Derro. After what happened to you in the cave of the unclean growths, you were tired. You are not used to our life here – and tonight we will need your strength with mine – for Nurri Kala.”
“Then you did see her – alive?”
He nodded. “Yes, I had Baku carry me to Shamman. I knew if I told you I was going, you would have gone with me. But you needed sleep more than adventure – we were lucky – and went unobserved. None of the Shamman bats smelled us out.”
“But you did see her – Nurri Kala?”
“I did. At the opening to the room with the skulls. She was inside talking with Zorimi, her beauty glowing with the light of The Flame. I am sure she is not a priestess of Zorimi’s evil worship.”
“I know she isn’t.”
“Zorimi is said to know all things – all that happens in living creatures’ heads.” Morgo gave a little laugh. “He did not know that Baku held me at his window that I might spy upon him. When I saw that the white girl lived, I was happy. We flew back to Kahli immediately. Tonight we shall have her with us.”
“I hope so.”
“You fear the ants? But we have the Bakketes, Derro. They will carry us over the fighting.”
I shook my head, worried.
“If the Shamman bats attack us, we will be beaten to the ground. The ants – red or black – will have us then. And there will be little we can do. What are a few arrows or bullets against millions of onrushing ants bent on making a meal of you?”
“Have courage, Derro. And I have another plan. We must try to take Zorimi, too. I want to talk to him. Make him tell me the secrets he knows – and then remove his evil from this life.”
Morgo’s voice rang with a fierce intensity as he uttered these last few words. He was an avenger now – the scourge of evil things in cave life that had been good to him!
I spent the day cleaning two .38s, mending the torn-out sleeve in my wind-breaker and trying to prevail upon Morgo to use a gun. He would have none of that, however. His arrows, he said, were his weapons and he preferred a knife to all the guns in the world, for fighting in caves was at close grips. He was more accustomed to man-to-man combat and overpowering an enemy than quickly killing him. Decidedly, he was not a killer.
The yellow afternoon light began to wane. Morgo hurriedly gave instructions to Baku. And presently the legions of Bakketes were in the air before our dwelling. The prospect of meeting the Shamman bats held no fears for them. They, too, were fighters, when Morgo called upon them for aid.
I cautioned Morgo not to take off before darkness was well upon the caverns. We must run no risk of being seen. We must avoid the Shamman bats. But Morgo pointed out that the Husshas were undoubtedly close to the plateau – that there was little time to lose. We had, perforce, to be at Zorimi’s mound when the Husshas began their attack.
I committed myself to Baku. The feelings of a man about to go over the top surged through me. I wanted to take Morgo’s hand and thank him for saving my life in the cave of the green fungus.
“Do not let us grasp hands, Derro,” he said to me, his eyes apparently reading my thoughts. “We are not parting. We will meet again.”
“You’re an optomist.”
“Our cause is right. We will come through and see each other again.”
I thought of the ants, and the bludgeoning winged Shamman bats. “I hope so.”
I was filled with dire forebodings. Our luck could not hold out forever. We had tried it deeply, too, in escaping those fingers of decay that coiled about us in the jungle of fungus. My Irish pessimism put me in good spirits.
We went aloft and straight for the tunnel into Shamman. The light began to vanish quickly – the eternal wick being lowered in the rooms of those eternal caverns beneath the Himalayas.
I wondered how the Husshas could travel so rapidly. A day and night to cover at least two hundred miles. Their bodies were great in size, I remembered, and I speculated on their moving with the speed of a fast horse. Little did I know that they could move even faster.
The stalactites of gray Shamman were devoid of the bat men of that cave. Steadily, wary of attack from above, we moved on the plateau. I could barely make out the thread of smoke from The Flame.
The spiked floor was a sea of veiled grayness below us. It moved like a leaden, molten sea beneath us. All was still. There were no signs of a living creature in all Shamman.
Morgo cried out to me and I heard him urging his carrier Bakkete on the faster. Looking ahead, I saw a black line emerging from the gray sea of stalagmites.
The Husshas were leaving their cover. They were attacking. They were ready to swarm upon the plateau of The Flame!
Baku flew lower than the legions behind us. I drew my gun.
I knew that if the Shamman bats fell upon us and we were beaten down into the river of black ants, Shamman and Bakkete alike would perish.
Now the top of the mound was alive with men and women – the Silurians. They had seen the Husshas. They understood. They knew what death in the mandibles of the big warlike ants meant.
Nearer and nearer we moved in narrowing circles. Still not Shamman bats were in sight.
I saw Zorimi now, a puny figure, running hither and yon, exhorting the Silurians. But they move steadily away from him, clambering down the other side of the mound, fleeing into the darkening grayness of Shamman’s ugly floor. They did not mean to fight if they could help it.
A scream burst from my lips.
The Husshas were at the base of the plateau. Their hordes flooded around it. In a few minutes, all retreat from the mound would be cut off by a circle of mandible blades.
Where was Nurri Kala? That was my only thought. Probably within the mound.
The Husshas began to climb the sides of the plateau – their bodies wagging from side to side. They were like flies strolling up a high wall. The precipitous sides were no obstacle to them.
Shrill, pitiable shrieks came from the far side of the plateau to which the Silurians had retreated. The last to leave the mound had fallen into the black crushing tongs of the Husshas. Death was already loose in the home of The Flame.
Zorimi was now a lone figure, standing on high crag, looking up at us.
What was he waiting for? Where were his bats?
I wondered too easily.
The whir of wings sounded overhead. The Bakketes screeched. The Shamman bats screeched more savagely. I could see their onslaught in the thickness of the descending gloom. Thousands met thousands fiercely. Bakkete and Shamman bat, bodies locking mortal combat, dropped into the pools of Husshas. The moan of munching began. The scores of fallen bats were like manna to the marching insects.
Above was the blackness of fighting wings. Below was the jet mass of ants in attacking phalanxes. Morgo and I hung between two brands of death. And Nurri Kala was still invisible.
Following Morgo’s move, I dropped to the plateau.
Heedless of my friend’s shouted warnings, the nature of which I couldn’t make out because of the aerial melee, I ran to the steps I knew of. They led down to the chamber of skulls.
“Nurri Kala!” I shouted. “Nurri Kala!”
A moment later I heard Morgo’s voice behind me, taking up the cry. We reached the smoky blue room of The Flame together. It was deserted on first sight.
Then I saw six Silurians standing guard over the white girl. She pressed her body against the chalk walls, crouching behind them, her eyes freighted with apprehension. She seemed to have some feeling of the danger that beset her. All of us now.
Morgo spoke gutturally to the scale-skinned men. They sprang at him.
I shot two of them. That stemmed their attack and they backed toward the opening that gave on Shamman.
Nurri Kala ran to me and threw herself into my arms.
“To the stairs!” Morgo cried. “We must get back to the Bakketes!”
Holding tightly to the girl, her sturdy grace beneath her silken tunic responding to my guidance, I piloted her toward the stairs we had descended.
The Silurians shrieked, terrified. They ran from the opening, but I saw one of them held fast there. The black ring of a Hussha’s mandibles were about him. He was flicked over backward into the mass of ants below.
The Husshas – blind and hungry and bent on destruction – were about to enter the chamber of skulls. I could see the glint of The Flame’s rays on their massive jet heads. We were all one to them – Silurian and white man – prey!
I stopped halfway up the step that I thought led to freedom.
Coming down, tumbling down, lighted by the fire of the ritual pyre, were the red ants – smaller than the Husshas but more loathsome. These Rortas with their crimson bodies glowed like bulbous balls of illuminated blood.
I drew Nurri Kala back to the floor of the chamber. The top of the plateau was alive with the Rortas. Zorimi had summoned them. Or they had been drawn from their underground borings by the scent of the Husshas, their eternal enemies?
Morgo was close to The Flame, his white body scarlet in its light. He had come to grips with a Hussha, his thews swelling and struggling like fiery snakes in that evil light. I saw him slash the ant’s right mandible from its shoulder with his knife.
My legs were suddenly enclosed in a vise. A Hussha’s mandibles held me fast. I poured lead from my .38 into its great body. Nurri Kala backed against the wall, watching the Rortas who continued slowly to move toward us. Her eyes were glazed with horror.
There were forty Husshas in the chamber of the skulls. Oddly enough, in that moment of peril, my eyes counted them. The Rortas still tumbled down the stairs.
The two tribes of ants met. I saw Husshas recoil. I saw their mandibles peck at the tails of the red bodies. I saw the black ants, bitten by the red, stop abruptly and curl up. Death was upon us all. I could hear the crunch of those huge black insect tongs upon the hard surface of the Rorta’s bodies.
Still the Husshas approached us.
Morgo, Nurri Kala and I back toward The Flame. The heat of that pillar of blazing inferno scorched our white skins. The blistering pain was intense.
A Hussha, rearing awkwardly on its hind legs, threw itself upon Morgo, pinioning his arms to his sides helplessly against its mighty mandibles. He staggered and went down under the heavy black body. I ran to his assistance as his knife slithered impotently over the creature’s sides, glancing off for lack of space in which to strike a blow that would bury the blade.
Nurri Kala screamed a warning to me.
I turned too late. The pressure of another black ant’s tongs caught me at the sides above the hips. The wind was being squeezed out of me in spasmodic tightenings of the Hussha’s grip. I could not turn around to send a bullet crashing into the ant’s vital spots.
The girl, sensing my desire, reached out for the gun.
But instead of taking it, she recoiled with a mute shriek and tottered close to the brink of the fiery pit. I saw a Rorta crawling toward her. Unable to bear the fierce heat, Nurri Kala fought a faintness, induced by horror and physical pain, and then succumbed to it, sinking limply to the floor at the edge of The Flame, its awful heat searing her white flesh.
Morgo’s white muscles quieted in their struggles. Hadn’t he seen Nurri Kala? The Rorta was ready to inject its venom into her beauty, destroying it forever! I saw that his eyes were closed as if in sleep. Was he dead?
I clenched my teeth to fight the pain that flashed through me like liquid fire. My vision faded. The life was being crushed out of me.
To Be Continued!
This ends Part One of Morgo the Mighty. The first chapter of Part Two will post in one month, on April 22.