Chapter 13: The Plague of the Mannizans

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.

A wailing cry came through the hole widened by Morgo’s hands. It was the signal of a Bakkete.

Morgo shouted to them. I heard the flurry of wings against the cliffs, though my eyes saw nothing. Was this really delivery? Or would the ants reach us first – pick off the last man?

“I am here!” Baku’s welcome voice cried to us.

“Nurri Kala goes first,” Morgo said. She was given into the arms of a Bakkete. “To Kahli. We will join you there.”

“Zorimi goes next,” Morgo cried. “Hold him, Derro!”

I had no idea where the magician was, so I struck a match, my last. Zorimi had scurried to the far side of the cave. He did not mean to be made prisoner by Morgo.

“Zorimi!” Morgo commanded. “This is your only hope of life! Come!”

“No – no!” Zorimi said huskily. He started to climb the wall, moving upward, his hands and feet jabbing into little niches I hadn’t noticed. There was a hole near the ceiling toward which he moved.

Morgo sprang at him.

The ant-engorged door broke and Rortas and Husshas swarmed into the room. My light went out.

“Morgo!” I shouted. “They’re in the room!”

Morgo’s arms guided me to the hole. I felt a Bakkete’s arms take hold of me and I swung off the floor, crying to Morgo to follow me.

I caught my breath and felt easier when I saw the flash of his white body in the air beside me.

“I said we would come through, Derro,” Morgo laughed across the gulf of stillness that separated our flying Bakketes. “And we have the white girl.”

Little did I realize in that moment what the white girl would mean to us – do to us.

The flight into Kahli was made without signs of our enemies. The night of Shamman was empty of the huge bats. But from below came the incessant munch-munch of the Husshas still pouring out of Verizon, marching on the plateau, the goal set by the Raba at Morgo’s request. Shamman would be ravaged by these insects. I decided I wouldn’t give two cents for Zorimi’s chances of escaping the plateau alive. His world was infested with certain death.

On returning to Morgo’s cave, we received the reports of the aerial battle from Morgo. The ranks of the Bakketes were sadly depleted. The suddenness of the Shamman bats’ attach threw hundred of them into the mandibles of the black ants. And the Shammans perished, too, in those tongs.

When the tide of the battle turned against them, the Bakketes scattered in groups to hide in territory free of the ants, beneath stalagmites and the stunted trees and vegetable growths. Yet they were routed by the approach of the red ants which seemed to come out of the earth and move directly toward the plateau of The Flame.

Baku feared for his master’s and my life when he saw the Olympian mound inundated by the black and red creatures. The other bats urged a retreat to the Cave of Kahli but he insisted on waiting until the light came. He still hoped for a sign.

There was a growing restlessness, verging on mutiny in the Bakketes ranks, when the signal call came from Morgo. Then Baku had a hard time locating the source of the call. It was only when Morgo gave his schoolboy’s whistle a second time that the Bakketes spotted the hole in the wall of the cliff.

While this conference was in order, Nurri Kala took over the Shamman servants and directed them in the preparation of a meal I’ll never forget. She personally supervised the cooking of leg of mannizan – which to me was plain mouse – but what mouse, when I ate it with the trimmings she concocted. Also, she had the fat of these huge rodents torn from the meat and gristle and this she applied to the burns on our three bodies, which had been scorched and seared by The Flame. It held some ingredient that soothed like an unguent.

We ate like – like Husshas, I’d say. We devoured and munched til we could eat no more. Never have I needed a meal so badly and never was one so well served up to me.

During this repast, Nurri Kala told us as much as she knew about Zorimi, which was very little. I have recounted that in an earlier chapter for the sake of chronological order. Morgo and I were aghast at the magician’s proposal to make her his mate. The white youth was fiercely moved and left us hunched over our dishes to walk out on the ledge over which the yellow light was just spreading its early morning color.

I was keenly interested in all the girl could tell me about Zorimi’s excursions to the Cavern of Zaan where he amassed the diamonds. After these trips, he periodically disappeared from the caves – sometimes months on end. Where he went, Nurri Kala had no idea. But of one thing she was certain: he always took the Shining Stone – She of the Three Heads – with him, as well as packs of diamonds.

“Jesperson, the jeweler! Jesperson, the jeweler!” the words kept whispering themselves to me. The logic fitted nicely – too nicely, I concluded. If Zorimi was Jesperson in the outer world, why did he so greatly fear my knowing his identity? He alone knew there as a way out of these Himalayan caverns other than the Door of Surrilana. I was a prisoner here until my dying day. He could come and go as he pleased. Or did he fear that I might discover this other exit? Was it so easy to find? That set me to thinking.

But thoughts of Jesperson and Lacrosse and of Zorimi’s true identity were dispelled by the lovely sight of Nurri Kala’s golden beauty. Enigmatically, she studied me with those soft blue and mysterious eyes of hers. Those childlike eyes that I adored – and in a flash, realized that I was adoring.

“Why do you stare at me, Nurri Kala?” I asked. “Are you trying to read my thoughts?”

“I am thinking of what a brave man you are, Derro with the red head. And I have never seen such fiery hair before.” She smiled and dropped her eyes to steal shy glances at me.

“We owe our lives to Morgo,” I said impulsively. “It was his courage and his strength that brought us through all our troubles.”

“He is very brave, too – but he is of the caves. You come from beyond the caverns. I did not think men from that world were so daring.”

“What makes you think that?”

“From what little I remember of it – and that not too clearly. The men did not do the things you and Morgo do. But I expect fine deeds of Morgo. He makes his life here. You have made yourself learn our ways. You have done more than he, Derro.”

“You’re giving me the blarney,” I laughed. “But I always love to hear it from the lips of a pretty woman.”

She drew herself up and tossed her head proudly. “Pretty? Do you think I am pretty, Derro?”

“I think you are beautiful, Nurri Kala.”

“Beautiful? I have heard that word before.”

“And you’ll hear it again, whenever I’m around. Why, I’ll fall in love with you if I’m not careful.”

“Love?” Her eyes kindled with glorious light. The word seemed to awaken some deeply hidden response within her. “I have heard that word. My father used to say it to my mother.”

“I’ll bet he did – if she was anything like you.”

“She was more beautiful, Derro.”

“I don’t believe it!” My Irish gallantry wouldn’t stand for that! Nurri Kala was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen or, I suppose, will ever see again.

Morgo returned to the fireside. “Let us sleep, Derro. We are all weary.” His eyes watched Nurri Kala as she got up. I frowned. The thought crossed my mind and was lost: was he falling in love with her?

I gave up my pallet to the girl and made myself comfortable on a pile of skins near the fire beside Morgo. The embers winked and glowed and a coolness stole into the cave. Sleep did not come to me, though I was exhausted and sore inside from the Hussha’s terrible grip; and I tossed restlessly.

My eyes fell upon Nurri Kala’s white shoulders peeping out from beneath her blanketing pelts. She would catch her death of cold, my civilized mind told me. So I got up and going to her side, drew the covers up over her, pressing them to her throat. Her alabaster skin was soft and warm to my touch.

“Thank you, Derro,” she murmured sleepily.

A little later, back on my pelts, I noticed that Nurri Kala had moved and thrown off the covers. I was about to get up when Morgo stirred and got to his feet. He crossed to the girl’s bed and did as I had done – drew the covers tighter about her throat. She did not speak to him. And as I dozed off, I wondered if he had been watching me.

It was late the next day when I opened my eyes. I had slept the sleep of the dead and awoke refreshed though my insides still hurt. My fears that I was injured internally were soon forgotten in the business afoot.

Nurri Kala was laughingly fixing the cave up, cleaning it cleaner than was the wont of the captive Shammans. She was fastidious, and Morgo obeyed her every wish, arranging dishes here and piling the sleeping skins there, sweeping the dust and ashes over the ledge instead of back into the fireplace. She was demonstrating that feminine touch in a bachelor’s diggings.

“Get up, lazy Derro!” Morgo boomed at me. “Take your shower bath!”

I demurred. Nurri Kala was insistent.

Morgo ordered the bowls filled with water and when I retreated to the ledge he followed me, pounced upon me and started to disrobe me.

“You must take your shower,” Nurri Kala said. “Morgo has been telling me all about it. I must have one, too.”

Breathlessly, with Morgo sitting astride my recumbent form, I explained that where I came from, men and women did not participate in the same bathing facilities. Though I tried to couch my thoughts as delicately as possible, the girl was suddenly seized with an understanding that caused her to blush.

“Oh?” was all she said. When Morgo dragged me back into the cave and stripped me, she refused to come in and witness the ceremony. He doused me with the icy water and I returned the compliment while he choked and sputtered and roared with mirth, calling all the while to Nurri Kala to watch “Derro’s funny custom.” Later when we went off on the hunt, I learned, Nurri Kala had one of the Shammans duplicate the shower for her. She was still shivering from the chill bath when we returned.

Morgo explained that our larder was low and that we needed flesh and greens to eat. A hunt in the forests of Kahli was necessary.

Baku and a Bakkete were summoned and Morgo and I took off, armed with bows and arrows. It was to be my first experience at archery.

We dropped into a thickly wooded spot where Morgo bent close to the ground, studying the earth and looking at the leaves. He pointed out large footprints, oddly fingered, and leaves that had been nibbled.

“Mannizans have been here,” he said. “We shall have Mannizan for food.”

I followed him through the brush and jungle growths while, overhead, the two Bakketes traced our path in the air. Morgo walked with a noiseless, springy step, shoulders thrown back and head cocked to one side. His eyes darted along the ground where the Mannizans had passed.

He stopped and held up a warning finger for me.

“Be careful, Derro,” he said. “They are very dangerous.”

We moved forward noiselessly. I could hear sounds of animals moving behind the forest screen ahead of me. They were gentle sounds and I could not connect them with a ferocious rodent.

Through a rift in the wall of green, we saw them.

Five Mannizans were browsing on the leaves, their noses close to the earth. I was excited. These gray, furry creatures were rats the size of Fords. I had expected to see unusually large mice – not these beasts out of delirium tremens.

Morgo frowned. “This is bad. They are not the Mannizans from Kahli. They are of Shamman.”

“Could Zorimi have sent them here?”

“It is possible. Or perhaps they fled from the Husshas. When one predatory beast raids a cave in large numbers, the less strong flee to another cave – a safer place. But these Mannizans are destructive. They kill the herbs and green we eat.”

“Well, let’s kill a few of them,” I said.

Morgo fitted his arrow to the bow string and took aim. Twang! The arrow, a curve of silver in the yellow light, sang through the air. It went into the beast’s soft skin between the head and shoulders.

The Mannizan reared and squeaked lustily, exposing a red, deep mouth lined with fine sharp teeth. Its white whiskers bristled and then it sank on its side and its breathing diminished into death.

The other Mannizans were startled and they looked at their dead mate with curious eyes – eyes curiously human, too. They regarded one another and scrutinized the surrounding trees.

Morgo gripped my wrist lest I speak. He even held his breath. The four huge Mannizans took to staring in our direction. Then they spread out and began to advance upon us.

“Shoot now,” Morgo whispered fiercely. “Shoot between the head and shoulder. It is a vital spot.”

Morgo sent three arrows at the Mannizans. Only one took effect.

I shot at three. None of mine found their mark.

With a loud squealing, a horrible, bloodcurdling cry of rage, they charged us, burrowing through the green undergrowths straight for our feet. I could see their bristling whiskers flat against their heads, their parted lips with the gleaming white teeth ready to rip.

Bow and arrow were not meant for me! I drew my gun and shot two of the rat creatures. They screamed with the pain of the bullet and dropped in their tracks. Another took fright and turned tail.

The third was upon Morgo, its legs pummeling him as it tried to stand erect. Morgo slipped and fell heavily and, as I went to help him, firing at the beastial rodent, its ponderous body struck at me, hurling me aside.

Morgo was beneath the Mannizan, pinned to the earth by its weight – but beyond the reach of its mouth. I got up and took aim and then could not fire as Morgo and the rodent became as one, a whirling, thrashing mass. He kept his head well away from the gnashing jaws. He was fumbling for his knife. If I fired, I might hit him.

Morgo’s fingers clenched the creature’s furry sides, holding himself close. It was his most advantageous position – for if he jumped clear, the beast could rush him – with set jaws. Then with a mighty effort, the Mannizan shook Morgo from it and my friend sprawled on his back, his arms outstretched, the knife glittering in one hand.

I shot at the beast, but it had pounced, avoiding my bullet. Morgo looked up at the descending rodent, at the red tongue hanging from the foamy mouth – calmly, I thought. The Mannizan fell full upon Morgo and drew its jaw back to sink its teeth into the man’s white flesh. The knife cut through the air, touched the furry coat and disappeared. The jaws quivered and the teeth not touching my friend, locked like a bear trap, severing the extended tongue at once.

Again I fired, directly into the Mannizan’s body and, as it rolled over, Morgo leaped to his feet and drove the knife into the vital spot below the throat.

“Now,” he said with a grin for me, “we have plenty of food. Four Mannizans. But I do not like their presence in Kahli. These creatures from Shamman will drive out all the other good meat and plague us. It will make the hunt unsafe. Besides, only a small portion of their meat is good to eat. We must kill many Mannizans of Shamman to kill our hunger.”

He called to Baku who went off in search of other Bakketes. They would carry our kill back to the cave dwelling. Morgo did not permit all the necessary carriers to follow his progress in the jungle, for the bat men frightened the creatures and sent them to cover.

When the four Mannizans were taken aloft and we were in the arms of our carriers, I had Baku skim the treetops. Birds were routed and in their fright a few flew in my face. Yet I was curious about this invasion of Kahli by the Shamman rats.

I learned what I sought. The jungles were virtually filled with these beastial rodents. The men of Kahli, usually peaceful, were fleeing toward the higher ground from the forests in which they lived. I saw whole families on the march. And, too, I saw men and small parties devoured by herds of Mannizans.

One party – men, women and children, their weapons and dishes and skins on their backs – were walking hurriedly from the path of the Mannizans. From above, I saw them moving directly into a herd of the beasts. My cries and shouts to them meant nothing. They feared even me.

The Mannizans got their scent. They rush into the group of primitive humans was awful. The shrieks and moans of the stricken floated up to me. Men went down before they could put an arrow to bowstring. Mothers and babes in arms were crushed beneath the gray herd. My peppering shots availed little save to draw the baleful eyes of the Mannizan upward for a moment while they gorged themselves.

The laws of nature in these caves were cruel and relentless.

The Husshas drove the Mannizans out of Shamman and the rats were driving the people and creatures of Kahli out of their homes to other caves where they undoubtedly would have to put up a stiff struggle for their very existence.

I was thankful the security afforded by the Bakketes placed me above this struggle for life on the floors of the great caves.

Yet I was to know just such a struggle one day. Those laws of nature were to operate against me – and rob me of all that was dear to me.