Chapter 12: The Labyrinth of the Rortas

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.

My automatic dropped from my numb fingers and clattered on the floor. The pain from the big mandibles forced open my eyes.

Morgo had slipped – in eel fashion – from the pressure of his enemy’s mandibles, freeing one arm. His knife ripped and hacked at the black tong until he was free of it. The Hussha rose to its legs to hurl its weight upon him, to crush the life out of him before devouring him.

Nimbly, he leaped back and the black ant, missing its quarry in its rush, toppled to the floor. Morgo’s bowie knife was driven far into its back as he leaned over the Hussha. A thick, suety stream of gore burst from the creature’s side and Morgo jumped aside to avoid the torrent. He slit the back of the Rorta that menaced Nurri Kala and his mighty arms swept her from the reach of the fire. She regained her strength, pushed Morgo from her and pointed to me.

In another moment, he had driven his knife into the body of the black ant that held me relentlessly. I felt the grip of the Hussha’s tongs slacken, but they still hung to me while the insect writhed in its dying agonies. Morgo quickly cut the mandibles that bound me to the Hussha and I sank to the floor.

A glance at Nurri Kala assured him that she was all right. Then he picked me up in his arms as if I were a two year old and ran toward the jagged frame of The Flame’s orifice.

“Can you climb that wall, Nurri Kala?” he cried breathlessly to her. She nodded. “Then go ahead of me. I will carry Derro.”

The girl sprang at the wall. Her hands and feet found holds that the sharp eyes of Morgo had spied. She moved with startling agility and was soon high above the frieze of skulls with the pyre of flames roaring at her side, scorching and blistering her fair skin.

Morgo slung me over his shoulder like a sack of meal and began his ascent. My weight slowed his progress but his might carried the two of us upward with ease.

With my head hanging down and the pain within me numbing my senses, I was aware only that my eyes gazed into a sea of struggling black and red ants. The Husshas that would have followed us – we were good fleshy prey – were forced to turn their attention to the venomous Rortas. The chamber of skulls was a shambles, its floor smeared with gore and the dotted bodies of the reds and the blacks fighting for supremacy.

Nurri Kala had reached a ledge. Morgo told her to follow it and we were presently in a dark gallery. This was one of the many corridors that honeycombed the plateau of The Flame that Morgo told me about – the one into which he had fallen the first day we met Zorimi.

For a time we watched the Husshas pore into the chamber below from Shamman through the far opening. And the red Rortas piled down the steps on the opposite side in a steady, cascading stream. The advance of the black ants was so formidable, there was no turning back or aside for them. Those that were not killed by the poison of the Rortas, marched straight into the hissing flames.

The Rortas, feeding this chamber without control, could not stem their own advance and mingling with the black ants, were swept in the procession of death into the pyre. At last, I thought, the strange forces of nature that sent the blind ants to destruction were in our favor.

But I hoped too soon.

Some sixth sense warned those insect that they were parading to their doom. They sought other means of escape. They moved toward the walls and presently, were climbing the sides like flies, reds and blacks alike, titanic monsters of the insect world.

“We must risk getting away from them by taking this tunnel,” Morgo said. “It is our only hope.”

I insisted on being set on my feet. A few steps convinced me that I could still walk. And I did not want to be a burden to Morgo in this flight for our lives. The pain subsided a little and I was able to stagger and stumble along with the support of Morgo’s supporting arms.

We plunged into the darkness of the tunnel, Nurri Kala just ahead of us.

“If we can find a path that goes higher,” the girl said, “I think that we can cross over the ceiling of the chamber and get into tunnels in which I know my way.”

“Then use your own judgement, Nurri Kala,” Morgo said to her. “Be our leader in this darkness.”

We moved forward as quickly as possible, despite my weakness. The ants were behind us. I could hear their scraping and scratching in the tunnel.

Nurri Kala got us to an ascending tunnel, and I felt the walls grow damp and the odor of decay assailed my nostrils. We were leaving the vicinity of The Flame. I was numb but my sense of direction told me that we were easily above the chamber, turning into a corridor over its roof. Still the sounds of the ants escaping death in the chamber and pursuing us, were audible.

“It is here,” Nurri Kala cried. “I know this path now.”

Morgo sighed and my energies seemed renewed as we pressed closer after her.

We wound to the right and to the left, we descended a sharp decline, passing many darker mouths of corridors from which foul breaths were exhaled in the chilled air. I prayed that the girl was taking us to the top or to an opening in the wall of the cliff that defined the mound. She seemed to know her way, turning into corridors that were only black holes to me.

“I know these walls by the feel of them,” Nurri Kala said. “Many times I have walked through them – playing at exploration. Zorimi forbade it – but I had no other diversion.”

I hoped her former diversions would profit us a little now.

“There is a room with a door, if I can find it,” she called back to us. “Zorimi used it to store his Shining Stones when he returned with them from Zaan.”

Ahead of us I heard a sudden scraping noise. The ants. Rortas or Husshas? Had we circled in our wanderings? Were we about to cross their paths? I listened, pausing for breath.

The scraping sound was still behind us.

And ahead of us now, too.

We were running into another horde of ants. Morgo pressed my hand, signifying that he, too, had heard, and he put a finger to my lips. He didn’t want me to startle the girl with our discovery.

The ants moving ahead of us were now more audible. My body turned cold and a sweat broke out. I was afraid.

We passed a tunnel, sensing it only by the air wafted at us. The ants were in that corridor. The path ahead was once more silent. We hurried on. Two streams of ants were flowing behind us, a molten river of venomous or crushing death.

“I have found it,” Nurri Kala shouted to us. Her voice was distant. “It is the door to the room.”

We ran in the direction of her voice.

She called again, more distantly. Morgo caught my wrist and turned me about and we retraced our steps. When every second counted, the darkness lead us astray. We had entered the wrong tunnel.

Morgo shouted our location. The girl replied and in a few minutes we were touching her hands. I felt the panels of a huge thick door made of a wood unknown to me. It swung on heavy iron hinges.

I gasped with a new fright. Had we reached this supposed haven of safety, only to find the door locked?

“It opens,” Morgo said softly, happily. My relief was so great it weakened me and Morgo carried me into the room, the size of which was denied us by the gloom.

“There is a bar in here,” Nurri Kala said. “Zorimi used to lock himself in when he was counting his Shining Stones.”

She and Morgo searched for it with outstretched fingers. They ran along the walls and then crawled over the floor on their hands and knees.

Morgo muttered in pain several times. “These stones are sharp. They cut my flesh.”

The Shining Stones of Zorimi! I knew them for diamonds! No wonder Morgo’s skin was pierced if it scratched the hard brilliants. I imagined the room covered with a diamond dust that would shame a king’s ransom.

“I have it,” Morgo cried. “The bar. And it is heavy.”

I listened to him closing the door. The sound of the bolt dropping into the iron hafts was music to my terrified ears. For a time, the Rortas and the Husshas were barred from our flesh and blood.

“Derro,” Morgo said to me, “can you strike a fire with one of your — what do you call them – matches?”

Fool that I was, I hadn’t thought of my matches earlier. They might have helped us in our mad plunge through the dark corridors. I took out a pack and lighted a match.

We were in a small chamber about fifteen feet square. The door was at one end and in the wall opposite it there was a tiny hole. When the light went out, Morgo went to the hole and, gripping it, lifted himself until his chin was level with the bottom of it. I saw him thus when I struck a second match.

“I think this hole leads to the outer cave, and not another tunnel,” Morgo said. “The air is fresh and pure.”

But I was paying no head to his words. My eyes were feasting on the sight of the floor. My guess was right. It was strewn with diamond dust, small particles that sang a glittering song in the light. So this was Zorimi’s treasure room. And Zaan was a cave of diamonds. My thoughts harked back to poor Jim Craig’s words – “a mountain of diamonds.” I wanted to visit Zaan.

Morgo was tearing at the hole with his bare hands. I made more light to aid him. Nurri Kala went to his side and began to work with him. The chalk, moist and soft, crumbled under their digging and pulling. The hole widened a little.

Silently, Morgo went about his task of tearing a hole in the side of the room. I saw the diameter grow. The chalk was like putty in the hands of those two children of these primitive caves.

When the hole was wide enough for a body to climb through and waist-high to the floor, Morgo leaned through it. He jumped back elated and rubbed his bloody hands on his sides.

“It is Shamman.” He said. “We are high up in the face of the cliff.”

“But we can’t climb up or down unless we make footholds,” I pointed out. “What good is your opening?”

In the light of a match I saw Morgo grin at me. “Listen to me, Derro.”

He leaned through the hole again and uttered a loud, shrill wail. It was the old schoolboy’s signal call I heard him use when he summoned Baku and the Bakketes.

Morgo’s ruse was a clever one. The Bakketes brought us to the plateau and they would effect our release from its bowels via the hole, if they still lived. Again Morgo called, and paused to strain his ears for an answering cry.

There was none.

The Bakketes were undoubtedly routed or vanquished by the Shamman bats. Zorimi had set a trap for us. He had waited until our forces were concentrated over the mound and then he released his hordes of human-headed bats upon us and had beat our army into the sea of monstrous black ants. And Morgo, with his bare hands, had prepared for us a door to freedom – which we might never use.

Something struck the barred door. Someone was pounding upon it.

“Open! Let me in!” a muffled voice cried. “Let me in!”

It was Zorimi.

He had fled from the Husshas swarming over the plateau to the safety of the secret tunnels. Now these very hiding places were filled with the creatures he sought to escape.

“The Rortas! The Husshas!” Zorimi wailed. “They are coming. The ants will destroy me!”

That voice, though it was Zorimi’s, was more familiar to me with its pitch of terror. Lacrosse? Jesperson? I had heard Lacrosse cry out in fear when Kenvon commanded us to enter the Door of Surrilana. I did not recognize this frightened voice as Lacrosse’s.

“Let me in, Morgo!” Zorimi cried. “I know you are in there.”

“Be careful, Morgo,” I said in a low voice. “It might be a trick – to overpower us.”

“Zorimi has a power over the Rortas,” Nurri Kala said. “He is a magician and does not fear them.” Yet I detected in her words a trace of doubt for the magician’s powers.

We drew close to the door and listened. The man on the other side was breathing with labored efforts. And I could hear the approaching ants – scratching and scraping on the walls of the corridors beyond, moving upon us in their blindness.

“Morgo! Have pity on me!” Zorimi shrieked. “They are near. I can hear them.”

Morgo’s hands fell upon the bar and moved as if to lift it. I scrambled to my feet and laid a resisting hand on his.

“He’s a trickster,” I said.

Zorimi evidently heard me. “This is no trick, Morgo! I swear it! Let me in! Let me in!”

Morgo brushed my hand from his. “I cannot let even him die such a death, Derro. Draw your gun and be ready for trouble. Strike a light, too. I must let him in.”

“No! No!” Nurri Kala cried. “I am afraid. He is evil. It is a trick, as Derro says!”

My gun was in my hand. I knew I could not argue with Morgo. His voice forbade it. A match was lighted.

The bar slid out of place. The door swung inward.

Zorimi, hidden in his cowl of skins, tumbled into the room.

“I mean to learn my secret now,” Morgo said to me as he went to replace the bar, “if it is the last thing I do!”

The bar was whipped from his hand.

The door burst open. In the flickering of my match, I saw Husshas and Rortas coming in upon us – their bulks red and black in the momentary light. I fired into their midst.

Nurri Kala screamed. I felt Morgo dragging me backward to the opening in the cliff.

“We can hurl ourselves out,” he said. “That is a better death than this. I had no idea the ants were so close to Zorimi.”

The magician shrieked out in the darkness. I felt his mass of pelts brush against me as he staggered.

I struck another match to get our bearings.

The door was choked with the ant bodies, soldiers and workers trying to gain an entry. In their eagerness for our flesh – having undoubtedly followed our spore through the labyrinth – they made for us a temporary blockade against the thousands behind them.

To Be Continued!