Chapter 17: The Balancing Rock

Morgo the Mighty by Sean O’Larkin was originally serialized in The Popular Magazine in 1930. I’m serializing it again here. Except for correcting the odd typo, I’m reproducing the text as printed in the original publication.

Morgo threw himself at the long neck of the creature as I looked up into the descending mouth, seeing the red curled tongue and the saw edge of the beak that would tear me asunder. My eyes closed.

The death blow of the Cicerna was never struck. When I lifted my eyelids again, I saw Morgo struggling with the Cicerna, his bulging arms wrapped tightly about the thin neck. He held his head under the snapping jaws and swung his body away from the ponderous wings that tried to flick him off as though he were dust.

He pulled his knife from his belt and slashed beneath the mass of feathered neck to which he clung. The Cicerna’s head toppled off the very thin neck. Morgo jumped from the dead body as it staggered to the water’s edge and fell into the rushing water.

Again Morgo’s might had saved my life. It was his strength and his daring rather than his weapon to which I was indebted.

My other gun was out now, and as the Cicernas once more charged over their fallen members by the tunnel, I riddled their ranks with hot lead, each shot sending a biting report bouncing from wall to wall in the amphitheater in which we were trapped.

Advancing, at Morgo’s suggestion, I fired into the tunnel itself until seven of the chicken fiends clogged it up with their writhing bodies. The others in the tunnel were, for a time, imprisoned. The wall were not wide enough for them to turn about. Soon the barriers would break. And I hadn’t sufficient rounds to slay all the Cicernas in the cavern.

“We must fly,” Morgo said. “It is our only chance.”

I stared at him incredulously. “Fly? Where?”

He pointed to the dark hole into which the river raced.

“Send a Bakkete first!” I suggested wildly. “We cannot fly into that black doom. The ceiling may drop – and we’ll all pitch into the water.”

“We have no time to waste.” He pointed to the barrier of Cicerna bodies. It was giving way with the pressure of the cackling chickens fighting to escape from the tunnel.

“They will be upon us in another minute!”

Morgo shouted instructions to the Bakketes. I saw Nurri Kala gathered up in one man’s arms and borne toward the tunnel. Baku took me. Morgo was the last to leave the rocky shore, just as the Cicernas burst into the amphitheatre, screaming for our blood. They hopped down to the very edge of the bank, and hurled their imprecations aloft to us.

Nurri Kala’s Bakkete approached the dark culvert, but he demurred at entering. He was afraid. The cackling of the Cicernas and the imminence of death had unnerved him. He screeched, and I saw by the glare in his eyes that he was verging on fear-insanity. What if he wheeled about and dropped the girl into the chicken fiends midst?

Morgo took the situation in at a glance and flew over to the Bakkete. He cried out to another bat man and , catching Nurri Kala by the wrists, he swung her from the coward’s arms into the arms of another Bakkete. Then, reassured that the girl was safe, he turned away from the craven bat man and plunged into the Cimmerian night of the tunnel. I held Baku back until Nurri Kala was ahead of me. My thoughts were only for her safety now. The other Bakketes followed us, the frightened man coming last.

The eternally roaring waters beneath us filled our path with a fierce, monotonous boom. It was faster than pulsebeat and sent our hearts racing. I could hear the river hissing as it swept over rocky protrusions. I could hear Bakketes cry out when their wings were nicked on the rocky walls, I heard myself shout involuntarily when my feet slipped into the icy flow. The force of the water was so great that, though we were following the course of the river, my whipped feet were flicked out of the water ahead of me.

The roof of the tunnel lowered, and we all went into the water up to our waists. Only the Bakketes managed to keep pretty well out of it. The river had a life and majestic fierceness of its own, and when it felt our bodies, it whipped them from side to side, trying to eject us from its sacred depth. I took that for a good omen.

The roof went higher and so did we. I thought the tunnel would never end. On and on we flew – until I began to imagine I saw an end to the darkness. But whenever I expected it to be around the next turn, I faced only deeper night.

Baku screeched. I heard him above the torrent’s roar. We fell bodily into the river.

I went under, and turning, grabbed at the bat man. He never released his hold on me and fought to free himself of the water with beating wings. The icy douche gave me a heart shock, and I gasped to force the water from my mouth and nose.

We could not rise as we were whirled forward, spinning like a top on the surface of the river.

I was about to give up the ghost, when Baku ripped me from the river. The water smarted in my eyes, but as I tried to open them, I was conscious of light.

We found ourselves on the opposite bank of the river from the point where we took off. We were in another amphitheater, a replica of the first, but smaller. However, the roof was higher, and light streamed over the craggy crests of the precipitous walls which I saw could scale with the aid of the Bakketes.

All of us had been submerged in the thunderous waters of the secret river and we dripped rivulets on rocks where we lay panting, once more inhaling the ozone of the caves. The Bakketes suffered more from the cold bath than Morgo, the girl, or myself. Our showers back in Kahli, I told myself, had put us in training for that dark icy ordeal in the river’s bosom.

“The roof of the tunnel dropped into the river,” Morgo explained, “just before we reached this open space. That is why we all got wet. I was afraid the Bakketes would not be able to fight their way clear of the water. They are not used to it.”

“I’m about ready to testify,” I swore, “that a Bakkete can do anything! I bet they can make out income tax reports!”

That was a joke I had to explain to Morgo, that enviable son of the caves where there were no income taxes!

We rested by the side of the river while the Bakketes soared aloft on a reconnoitering expedition over the walls of the subterranean amphitheater. I watched them lazily, and my eyes soon fastened upon a huge rock balanced on the very brink of a cliff, directly over the culvert into which the rushing waters roared. The rock was balanced – perilously perched, I should say – on a small mound. It seemed to me that any sudden blow – such as a man’s impelled weight – would send it hurling through space into the river, ripping like an avalanche where it cut into the face of the sloping cliff.

I questioned Morgo about the source of the river, but he could tell me little. He knew that its course was long and that it never rose or fell but flowed evenly at its high speed. He imagined it rose in hidden springs fed by the glaciers on the mountains, a source eternal and abundant.

“And I see,” he added, “that you gaze upon the balancing rock. I know of it.”

Nurri Kala curled herself closer to me, and I felt her tremble as she looked at the rock. “I am afraid,” she murmured. “I have been in this state of mind before – and something always happens. That rock is evil.”

I laughed and chidingly told her that inanimate objects cannot be evil, for that is only man’s privilege. She persisted in saying that the rock was a dreadful force.

“Nurri Kala is right, Derro,” Morgo said with profound earnestness. “The rock is an evil thing. I have heard of it from Bakketes who have flown past this place. And a native of Zaan once told me that if that balancing rock ever fell into the river, all life in the caves would come to an end.”

“Why? What would happen?” I was curious.

Morgo shook his head doubtfully. “I do not know. But that is what I was told. No one in Zaan, which lies over the top of the cliffs, is allowed to go near that rock.”

“Well, if they are so afraid of it,” I said, “why don’t they bolster it up? It could be made secure by heaping smaller stones around its base.”

“No one is allowed to touch it,” Morgo insisted. “There are men up there – near the rock – who protect it. It is their sworn duty. We will see them soon, when we fly past the rock. They say the stone is sacred and that strange, destructive gods dwell within it, waiting to be released to feast upon all life in the caves. Even these guardians do not venture near the rock – and they will kill any one who attempts to do so.”

I reflected on these words. The stone, I figured, was delicately balanced, and had been so for ages. It was not likely that it would fall – if it hadn’t fallen by this day and age. Yet why was it feared and protected? Could only man dislodge it? I knew that while there were breezes – really strong currents of air without much directional force – there was no such thing as a wind or a rain storm in the caverns. No force of nature operated that could topple the stone into the river.

But why should a stone and its falling evoke so great a fear and belief? The end to all life in the caverns! It was beyond me. I put it down as one of those inexplicable superstitions that flowered in the dim days and that was still nursed by primitive minds.

What a noddy I was not to have understood, then and there, as I looked up at the great rock!

What havoc that stone could play was as obvious as the nose on my face – and I didn’t see it – until it was too late. That solitary, mysterious river, fed by a source of abundance, coursing its thunderous way through the dark tunnels! That river that apparently had but one outlet! That river that already knew the secrets of my future!

Instead of turning pagan and revering it, I knelt on its bank and drank from it, quenching my thirst.

To Be Continued!