Chapter 16: The Secret River

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 had but one course to take; to use the Bakketes in locating Morgo and Nurri Kala. My army training came to the fore, and I used Baku as intermediary.

He was instructed to organize scouting parties of six and as many as there were caves neighboring Kahli. These Bakketes were to go to the white man’s aid, if it was possible, and one of them was to return immediately and notify me. Under no circumstances were they to engage the Shamman bats in a fight, I said, unless such combat was unavoidable. I did not want to endanger the lives of my friends in any way. My guns, I told myself, would cope with the situation when I reached the scene.

Seven parties took off from the ravished cave while Baku flew among them, exhorting and commanding the designated leaders to do nothing that would imperil those they sought – if they lived.

When the Bakkete flights were out of sight, I busied myself with loading four automatics and stuffing into my pockets all the ammunition I could carry. I was likewise determined to prevail upon Morgo to use a gun hereafter. His primitive weapons were too inadequate to cope with the forces of evil in the caverns, that were apparently mustered against us.

Hours passed. Three of the search parties returned from short flights. Baku informed me that they had nothing to report. The caves they visited were destitute of all life, including the Shammans fleeing from their own homes.

Through those hours of vigil, I scoured the cave for any sign of Morgo’s death. I could find none, and I was certain he still lived. Even when my eyes fell upon his bowie knife – and I knew he was among his enemies, unarmed – I persisted in optimism. The knife was lying behind a stone near the mouth of the dwelling. He had fought, I reasoned, even when he was dragged out upon the ledge.

At last, a lone Bakkete winged its way toward me.

I sent Baku to meet him, to hurry him along, to ascertain his information. Baku reported. Morgo and Nurri Kala had been sighted in the Land of the Cicernas. The name meant nothing to me at the time, for I was elated on hearing that the Bakketes had effected a rescue and were bringing my friends back to Kahli.

Another hour went by and the yellow light grew dim. Soon it would be dark. The rescuers were nowhere in sight.

Had something happened? I became uneasy.

Baku strained his sharper eyes but could not locate my friends in the air.

It was high time I made up my mind. In my hands existed the most effective death-dealing weapons made by man. In my hands rested the fate of the white youth and the girl.

“Baku,” I cried to him, “take me into the Land of the Cicernas. Something has delayed Morgo and the Bakketes carrying him.”

He nodded quickly and I caught an anxious light in his little eyes. “Cicerna – kills. Cicerna – bad.”

We went to the ledge and as I was scanning the darkening horizon of pinkish stalactites, now dimmed to terra-cotta red, there was a gret hue and cry in the air from the direction of Shamman. Bakketes flew out of the deepening gloom and screeched panicky words to Baku. I sensed impending danger – and again though at once of Zorimi. What new horror had he unloosed upon us?

But I was wrong. The horror that approached was of our own unleashing.

The Bakketes reported that the Husshas and Rortas had penetrated Kahli. They were swarming through the cave, clogging the tunnel linking the two caves. The Raba was no longer respecting the truce he made with Morgo, for Shamman was devoid of bountiful food and his hordes were hungry. Kahli represented the finest aspects of a meal – and the black ants were bring the venomous reds with them.

My first thought was for instant flight. But I bethought myself of the supplies and ammunition in the cave. They must be preserved. The ants would climb the cliffs, scenting the Mannizan meat in our larder. They would wreck the cave more completely than even the depredations of Zorimi’s henchmen.

Single-handed, for I could not explain myself clearly to Baku, I tumbled rocks into the mouth of the dwelling and piled it high, trusting to luck that the voracious ants would not break through this impromptu door of stone and chalk. My fingers bled but my conscience assured me I was doing a wise act.

Then I committed myself to Baku. By this time the air was filling with terrified Bakketes. They knew, as did the Shamman bats, that their aeries in the lofty stalactites were no longer safe from the insects that clambered everywhere in quest of edible flesh.

“To the Land of the Cicernas!” I cried to my Bakkete.

My feet left the stone ledge as we vaulted into the air, flying high over the panic-stricken denizens of the roof. I had the four guns with me and two knives – and I was ready for a squad of Uhlans or all the Silurians harbored in the Himalayas.

Nurri Kala saw the dust of the flashing leaves subside. The trunk of the fallen tree was sprawled on the grassy floor of the cave and a Cicerna was cackling piteously, its cries coming from the dense foliage. She could not see Morgo.

Was he, too, caught in the foliage? Was he at grips with the giant chicken? Her eyes told her nothing.

The other Cicernas flapped their wings and stared up at her, toward the top of another tree. She wondered why they looked into the other tree and presently, she brought her eyes up and saw.

Morgo was struggling to gain his balance on a limb of the tree, dangling with one foot and hand caught about the slender branch. Then she understood what had happened. The whipping apart of the interlocked branches had catapulted the white man from his perch into the other tree where eager hands took hold. And the falling tree imprisoned one of the slow footed Cicernas in its mass of foliage.

Morgo was breathless. His body, hurled through the air, struck the limb to which he clung, and the wind was knocked out of him. He took deep gulps of air and quickly recovered himself with ease, and pulled himself into a sitting position on the branch.

“I am all right,” he shouted across the intervening gulf to the girl. “I still hold my luck.”

His eyes cast about for a passage in the branches to the girl’s tree. He wanted to be at her side in the face of this ugly danger. Yet there seemed to be no means of approach. A small avenue of trees separated them, and there were now no interlacing branches to help him.

The Cicernas, momentarily frustrated in the destruction of these strange white creatures, set to work once more, gnawing at the bases of the trees that held the man and girl. Their elemental minds told them that this was the one way to bring their prey to earth. The cries of the imprisoned Cicerna beneath the foliage had stopped, and Morgo sensed that death had visited it.

The vast cave was as still as a graveyard save for the sound of beak tearing wood – the gnawing at the trees. Morgo could not estimate the time nor could he think of a way to escape this new attack. Nor could he and the girl go on indefinitely, jumping from tree to tree, while the Cicernas gnawed down the forest.

His blood ran cold when his eyes told him that there were no branches strong enough to carry him across to a neighbor. He studied Nurri Kala’s plight and wondered.

The girl was aware of her own predicament. She, too, child of the caverns and used to emergencies, had sought a way out, to save her life. There were no branches that could bear her weight in escaping to another tree.

“I am trapped, Morgo,” she called to him. “What shall we do?”

He made no reply. If only the Shamman bats would return, he would gladly surrender to them with the girl, rather than face the death that waited for them in the beaks of the Cicernas. He cursed the fate that had deprived him of his knife. With only that, he would have dropped to the ground to take on the Cicernas.

Nurri Kala called again to him. She was looking up at the darkening roof, pointing. He glanced up.

Were they Bakketes or Shamman bats that were on the wing?

He gave his cry – the schoolboy’s signal. The bats were far to his right. They continued, a group of six, moving away from him. He gave the call again, straining his lungs and throat.

The Cicernas ceased their gnawing and looked up at Morgo, startled.

The bats wheeled indecisively. Morgo gave his cry.

The creatures in the air flew toward the captives in the trees. They were Bakketes.

Morgo watched them with a happy pounding heart. He and Nurri Kala would escape the Cicernas. The chicken fiends, suspecting the aerial rescue, renewed their efforts. The trees trembled. The foliage shielding Nurri Kala fell to one side and the trunk slide from its roots.

Morgo’s hand fell upon his hidden cross. He murmured a supplication to the deity of his childhood and his eyes watched the approaching Bakketes. He was surprised to see one of them turn away from the group and fly back toward Kahli.

The Cicernas tore at Nurri Kala’s tree, beat it with their wings and shoved it with their heavy bodies to bring the foliage closer to earth. Gently, like a foundering ship, the tree sank down.

Nurri Kala climbed higher and her movements only served to send the tree lower. She could see the monstrous heads of the chickens, the beady eyes and the gory red growth on the head of one cackling bird. Snapping beaks ripped at the leaves, trying to pull her body within their grasp.

A Bakkete, heeding Morgo’s commands, swooped over the girl and swept her out of the foliage. The Cicernas, baffled and raging, set up a hideous cry. For a second time, the white creatures had frustrated them.

Another Bakkete released Morgo from his perch and the party of five winged creatures started back towards Kahli. The cackling of the Cicernas ceased with a heavy suddenness. Morgo wondered at the silence. He could not see well in the dim light that was settling over the cave.

An odd call – he did not know it for the crowing of a rooster – rent the quiet. It was not a pleasant sound and it seemed to be a commanding call. Morgo could hear the Cicernas running over the floor of the cave below, their ponderous bodies crashing over the undergrowths.

He was startled by the sight of the leaves and flowers springing up at them. The air was instantly filled with hundreds of bits of streaming color and they hurled themselves upon the Bakketes, clawing at their faces and pecking at their faces and eyes.

More felt his carrier release one arm to shield its face and eyes while he dangled in the other. His own body was beset by these fluttering pieces of gorgeous color which he now knew were the small birds they had first seen – the cockatoos and birds of paradise. They would not be beaten off. They were taking the offensive again the invaders to the Land of the Cicernas on command of the chicken fiend that crowed lustily.

The little birds caught themselves to the wings of the Bakketes and by their very weight, slowly bore the bat men downward. The cackling of the Cicernas was louder, closer at hand and directly below. Morgo and the girl were being dropped into their beaks again.

The feel of foliage was against Morgo’s skin. He called to Nurri Kala to take refuge in the treetops again and he ordered the Bakketes to do likewise and fight the birds with their hands. He set them an example by catching at the cockatoos and birds of paradise, clutching at their feathery brilliance and wringing their necks. The lifeless bodies were tossed to the Cicernas below and this turn in the tide of fighting caused the little birds to become wary – to draw off from the white and black creatures who had entrenched themselves in the trees.

It was into this scene that I dropped with Baku. From afar, I had seen the snowy flurry of little wings and heard the pained screeches of the assaulted Bakketes. Without them, I should have had no guidance in the twilight gloom.

Our advent routed the little birds and they vanished into the leaves where their colors blended with the orchids and strange flowers and vine leaves. We had no desire to pursue or punish.

“Derro,” Morgo cried to me, slipping an arm in mine as I sat beside him on the limb of his tree, “I was afraid you would never come. You have saved me again – and Nurri Kala.”

I paid no attention to this display of gratitude and promptly embarked on an account of what was happening in Shamman – overrun by the ants – and of their appearance in Kahli. His face grew pained as he thought of the pillage of his beautiful country. To return there was futile and would only mean courting death with the Husshas and the Rortas.

“We cannot go back,” Nurri Kala whispered to me. “Let us find a new home, Derro.”

Morgo bridled at her manner toward me.

“Do you and Derro wish to leave me, Nurri Kala?”

Laughingly, I made the least of his interference. “Of course not, Morgo! We’re like the ‘Three Musketeers’ – ever read it?” He shook his head. “All for one and one for all!”

“All for one and one for all!” Morgo murmured after me. His face brightened. “That is a good saying. I like it.”

The girl repeated the old battle cry of Dumas’ “Musketeers” and nodded pointedly to Morgo. He took her hand in his and stroked it gently and she did not withdraw it. I prided myself on having poured oil on waters that might have grown troubled.

“We’re in your hands, Morgo,” I said. “You know these caves. You’ve hunted in them – fought in them – heard tales about them. Where can we go and live peacefully? Where can we duplicate the beauty and bounty of Kahli?”

Morgo thought of several possibilities and, when he was about to speak, Nurri Kala interrupted him. “I want to see The Shaft,” she said. “Let us go there. We can find a home later on.”

The Shaft! That was the source of light for all the caverns buried beneath the Himalayan snowy peaks. Its mystery had always fascinated me – for my father was the most inquisitive man in Kilarney – and since Morgo could never give me an adequate description of The Shaft, I always wanted to see it. In more peaceful hours, we planned an expedition to this unusual phenomenon of nature.

“Not a bad idea,” I ventured, speaking up after the girl. “We may see a likely dwelling on the way – and then we could return to it. Furthermore, I think it a good idea to roam through the caves a bit and locate Zorimi’s forces. You never can tell where they’ll strike next.”

Morgo nodded. “Very good. We will go into the Caves of Zaan. They are lower down and beyond them lies The Shaft – the source of all light.”

The thick and obscuring darkness was now temporary ruler of the Land of the Cicernas. The chicken fiends cackled below us, gathering in great numbers, I judged, and in the trees we could hear the small birds moving quietly.

The Bakketes were summoned from their monotonous wheeling over our heads in the darkness. Baku hung in the air before us.

Morgo asked him if he knew of an entrance to the Caves of Zaan from the one we were in. The bat man reflected and then agreed to pilot us to a crag where we could spend the night while he and his mates sound the entry he remembered vaguely. The Bakketes, Morgo added, knew little of this chicken world because they feared to enter it, but Baku was an intrepid fellow and had done much exploring on his own.

We flew away from the hubbub of Cicerna voices across a damp belt of coolness, to a lofty spire of rock quite unlike the stalagmite formations in the upper caverns. When I recalled the dampness to Morgo he said that it largely accounted for the luxurious verdure in this cave and that it was carried on the breezes from the river. But of the river he could tell me little, saying that he was tired and not certain of his bearings. His knowledge of the river appertained to another section of caves.

We slept until the bright white light of the new day awakened us with its blinding rays. I sought the point from which it came but could find none. As in the other caverns, the light was diffused, and spread over a tropical wealth of greens and colors, flowers and rare palpitating vines. The birds of paradise and cockatoos, that flitted in the trees, paid no attention to the Bakketes mounting guard over our crag.

I was stunned by the exquisite beauty of this Land of the Cicernas. The cave was not as large as the others, for I could dimly see its walls that sloped gently up to the high ceiling, which was studded with thousands of little knobs – embryonic stalactites. Deep in the heart of the mountains, nature had not completed her chalk-and-lime formations.

Yet, I deduced, we were appreciably nearer The Shaft. While the light of distant Shamman was gray, Kahli’s was yellow and now this vast chamber’s was white. And for the first time I saw all the colors of the rainbow in multitudinous combination. My only explanation for the existence of the flourishing flora – for there was no dripping water from roof to floor here, as in the higher caves – was the strength of the dampness in the air.

I wished we could live in this cave. Nurri Kala seemed to divine my desires and we spoke of the beauty surrounding us until Baku flew to the crag. His parley with Morgo was unintelligible, but when it was over, Morgo turned to us.

“Baku,” he said, “has found a tunnel which he believes will take us into the Caves of Zaan. He did not explore very far because of the darkness and the high damp winds but he believes that we must cross the river to reach the place we seek.”

I asked about the inhabitants of Zaan, what sort of place it was.

“I was there when I was younger,” Morgo said. “But I flew in by another door and crossed the river nearer Kahli. Some of the tribes are friendly and some are not. The people are much like the Shammans but instead of being gray and hairy, they are fair and smooth-skinned, like us, Derro. The trees and growth on the ground are white and the caverns are filled with a light brighter than this we now see. The Shaft is in the center of Zaan. It is dazzling, blinding. We cannot look at it by day. By night it glows like a red ember and to touch it will burn the skin.

I was mystified but Morgo could give me no better explanation or description.

He dropped into the jungle with Baku and returned with odd fruits and grasses. These we ate for breakfast, and I’ll say they helped tremendously to stanch a pronounced hunger.

Then the Bakketes carried us to the northern wall of the cave and deposited us in front of a high corridor. Morgo said the bat men could not fly through with us but would follow us through on foot. I was thankful to have them near by – afoot or aloft – for they were our most invaluable allies.

Taking the lead, Morgo entered the tunnel. My old sixth sense cautioned me to draw a handy gun. Nurri Kala walked between us and the Bakketes brought up the rear.

We breasted the darkness of the corridor fearlessly. It was damp and a chill wind stirred through it from the river. The walls were beady with moisture and a fine drizzle fell upon us from the roof. It was cold and each drop sent shivers through us who were accustomed to the warmer air of the lower caves.

A dimness loomed ahead of us. It was the end of the tunnel we were traversing. We ran on and came out upon a rocky shore in a dimly lighted amphitheater of towering precipitous rocks which no man could scale. Near the vault, the light seeped in, but the openings were jagged, and hardly large enough for man or Bakkete to navigate.

In front of us was the river, a gray, cold, watered millrace that gushed from one black tunnel, across our vision, into another huge black tunnel. Faintly, I could make out the opposite side, a good half a mile away.

“There’s – there’s no shore on the other side!” I cried to Morgo, my heart sinking. ” I see nothing but cliff falling right into the waters.”

Morgo nodded. “You are right, Derro. We have seen the river we must cross – but we cannot cross it here. We must turn back and seek another door to Zaan.”

The little party started back to the tunnel through which we had come while I feasted my eyes on this secret river – this torrent unknown to the men of my world. It was an evil stream, the Druid in my blood whispered, and I nodded solemnly to myself. We were in a cul-de-sac with but one means of retreat. The way we had come.

My ears were strained. I had heard something above the rush of the roaring waters.

It was the cackling cry of the Cicernas. It came from the tunnel.

Morgo looked at me anxiously. The Bakketes huddled together, their blood turned colder by the sound of the chicken fiends than by the damp of the rocky amphitheater.

“They are in the tunnel. They have our spore,” Morgo said.

He need not have spoken. I could hear them clattering on the pebbles, cackling shrilly.

We retreated to the river’s edge, our eyes scouring the rocky walls for a niche in which to hide. There was none. And we could not take to the river.

It dawned on me that it was here that the Cicernas came to drink. We were trespassing on their oasis. We were trapped in it.

The first chicken hopped into view from the maw of the tunnel. Five more piled out after it. The Cicernas saw us and were startled. They were as Morgo had described them to me earlier, huge brutish-looking creatures, half chicken, half ostrich, carnivorous monsters of the fowl kingdom.

These, I figured, I could easily shoot. But to what end? Already, the tunnel was reverberating with more cackling. It was filled with Cicernas. They were going to the river to drink.

Three of the birds spread their wings – wings that reminded me of a titanic Fokker – and charged us with widely opened beaks from which belched hideous screams. I took careful aim and shot the leader.

The big Cicerna toppled sidewise and rolled down the back into the river. I saw, out the corner of my eye, its brownish body swept by the racing waters into the black tunnel. I shot the other two beastish birds and killed them. They fell.

Terror seized me. I strode forward and pumped lead into the other Cicernas – those standing at the tunnel mouth – those pouring out of it. Cackled shrieks of horrible agony echoed from wall to wall in the vast rock amphitheater, and deafened us.

A gigantic rooster, its crimson crest bristling, hopped over the dead Cicernas and rushed me. My gun jammed. I threw it aside.

The creature struck at me with its coarsely feathered breast, and I bounded backward and fell heavily on my back, almost stunned. I saw its legs planted astride me. I could not get another gun from my pocket in time to aim at the breast.

The Cicerna drew back its beady-eyed head to dart a deadly peck at me. Its ghastly thin tongue was a white tendril of death. I heard myself scream like a man in the clutch of an excruciatingly awful nightmare.

To Be Continued!

This is the conclusion of the second part of the serial. The next episode of Morgo the Mighty will post on May 26th. Morgo was serialized in four parts when it was published in The Popular magazine but I’m going to present the series in three. The complete serial is twenty-six chapters. Sixteen down. Ten to go.