Chapter 18: Into Zaan

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.

We were well rested by the time Baku returned with his bat men. He reported to Morgo that our party could be carried easily over the cliffs, into the glaring white deserts that lay beyond. Preparations for our trip were made, and much to my chagrin, when I examined the three guns I carried, I found them water-soaked. But there was still some ammunition in my pockets that had escaped the moisture. I wished I had had the sense enough to bring along cleansing oils, for now, without my weapons of civilization, I was reduced to the fighting power that was Morgo’s – a knife and my hands.

We three committed ourselves to the arms of the Bakketes and shot upward toward the top of the towering black cliffs, into the warmer strata of air. I ordered Baku to fly over the balanced stone which so captivated my attention.

Morgo called to us to desist, but I was insistent. As we neared the giant boulder, I estimated that it was at least fifteen or eighteen feet in diameter, and that the shelf on which it rested was not of the strongest rock. Part of this balancing stone actually projected over the brink of the cliff, and far below I could see the black, snaky thread of the thunderous river.

There were no signs of human life near the stone, but Baku cried out sharply, and banking, veered to one side and flew higher. Four small stones flashed up at us, describing long parabolas in the bright light.

From behind miniature crags stepped whitish men, hairless, and quite like Morgo and myself in stature. They fitted new stones into their slingshots and let fly at us. They were the protectors of the balancing stone, a rock sacred to them – and they drove me away as a likely menace to its security. I could see that they were of the same primitive type as the Shammans and the people of Kahli, with smallish heads set on thick necks fastened to strong, heavy bodies. They wore no skins and their reason was obvious: this new cave into which we ventured was hot. It became torrid as the day wore on.

Rejoining Morgo and Nurri Kala, we flew over broad wastes of desert floor – hot flat rocks. The air between them and my eyes quivered as it does when one looks at a radiator or a fire on a warm day. The cavern was low ceilinged, and as vast as its great desolation. A whiteness was discernible everywhere. There was not the slightest trace of vegetation or animal life.

But one fact I noticed. I could not see a possible source of light. It came from the far end of the cave toward which were moving.

The Bakketes breathed with effort and I felt Baku’s body grow moist. This was the first time I ever noticed that. His tongue hung out of his mouth and he reminded me of me sweltering in Wall Street in mid-August, helpless victims of a city’s infernal heat.

Without a word, the Bakketes dropped to the floor of the cave, and I felt the heat rising up in swirling streams. When we alighted, Morgo and Nurri Kala cried out in pain, hopping about, first on one foot and then on another. The hot rocks were scorching the soles of their feet. I could feel the heat through my golf shoes.

Quickly I tore off my windbreaker and flung it to the ground. The man and girl jumped on it and stood there brushing the moisture from their foreheads with florid arms.

“The heat is great, Derro,” Morgo said, “but we will get used to it. I have been here before. I know.”

“I think these rocks are hot enough to dry my guns,” I said, and I fished the automatics from my pockets. Laying them on a hot rock, I saw the beads of moisture rapidly disappear from the gun-metal sides.

Our landing had been forced. The Bakketes were exhausted by the sudden heat to which they were not accustomed. But they could not land and subject their feet to the heat of the stone floor, so they floated over our heads in circles trying to regain their breaths.

“Is it wise to go into Zaan?” Nurri Kala asked me.

“Why not?” I said. “We want to see The Shaft – the source of light in the caves.”

“It is to Zaan that Zorimi goes,” she said. “We are crossing his path, perhaps. He is evil.”

“If Zorimi has escaped from Shamman, he will not bother us, I think. He has had enough of us – or he should have by this time. He must know that he cannot defeat us, Nurri Kala.” These were Morgo’s words and he spoke them proudly.

“It is to Zaan that Zorimi goes to gather the Shining Stones,” the girl went on. “I seem to feel his presence again. It is an unclean feeling, like that I had when I looked at the balancing rock. There is evil in Zaan.”

“We cannot get out of Zaan,” Morgo explained to her, “except by going back up the river to the Land of the Cicernas – or taking the one other door I know of. Surely you do not want to risk the river again?”

She shook her golden head. “But I am still afraid. There are things that I feel now – that I cannot describe. But they are of evil, Morgo. Let us be careful.”

“There is no great danger in Zaan,” Morgo said kindly, soothingly. “I know of a friendly tribe. We will be safe with them until we start back. And now our main need is food. We are all hungry – after our bath in the cold water.”

I was preoccupied with the guns. They were baked dry, and I had little fear of rust now. Gingerly picking them up with the air of my coat, I waited for them to cool and then I reloaded them with the dry rounds. I fired each gun and the staccato report echoed from a thousand directions – a thousand walls from which nature sent them rebounding. Once more I was equipped with the weapons of civilization, and I felt more secure.

Morgo talked with the Bakketes and announced that they were ready to resume the journey to the more fruitful caves of Zaan. He promised us food and water and respite from the heat there – though he confessed, too, that he did not know into what part of Zaan our present course would take us.

We took to wings again, and flew steadily toward the brightness, where there seemed to be an exit from the low roofed cavern in which we were. I found myself becoming acclimated to the heat. Baku seemed to feel less strained.

A hole in the wall soon met our searching gaze, and the Bakketes swooped toward it. We entered this natural door of burning white rook, and traversing a short, dim tunnel, we found ourselves in a still smaller cave, lower than the other and studded with clumps of trees and bushes – all snowy white – bleached by the intense white light which was still greater.

The rocks between the clusters of vegetation seemed to move. At first I thought it was an obstacle illusion created by the heat. I was wrong.

Long, sinuous lizards were basking in the warmth of the light, crawling from tree to tree, feeding on the pure white leaves. My eyes blurred in focusing until they were more used to the absolute lack of color in this long, flat-floored, flat-roofed, flat-walled cavern.

The lizards paid no attention to us when we flew low. They were beautiful creatures, and every ripple of muscle in their graceful backs was a poem in rhythm. They fascinated me, until I was almost hypnotized by their whiteness, and when I closed my eyes to rest them, I still saw the flowing creatures, crawling as though in slow motion pictures.

We left this cave and entered a third through a low door. The Bakketes could not accomplish is on the wing, and we had to walk over the torrid stone. We all cried out in pain when our feet were burned, and quickly went aloft at the very first opportunity.

This new cavern was broad and long, and oddly cooler, though it was still lower than the others. A warm breeze fanned us from the end toward which we flew. It was more profuse with white trees and underbrush which were clustered like tiny islands on a sea of white stone. The ceiling over head was flat and colorless. Lizards were in greater number and larger. I estimated their length at five and seven feet.

The Bakketes descended again, tired and overheated. This time we found that we could stand on the stone floor without having our feet scorched. There was no accounting for these phenomena in my mind.

Morgo strode over to an island of vegetation where some of the white crawling-creatures were eating the leaves and grass. The lizards turned their heads slowly and gracefully, and looked at him, then drew away and continued to munch their food.

Morgo went into the clump of growing matter and pulling some leaves from a tree, tasted them. He signed for us to approach and eat. The leaves were edible, almost like wafers.

Nurri Kala and I started for the trees. I was watching a huge lizard backing away from the grass onto the rocks. Its actions became tense. Frightened, it recoiled sharply.

But not rapidly enough.

A long tongue shot out – a tongue of good ten feet in length – and whipping itself around the lizard, snapped it into the undergrowth. I screamed to Morgo.

The tongue was red and forked like a viper’s. It was the first bit of color I had seen since we entered Zaan. It was a hideous, sinewy whip.

From what mouth had it come? What kind of creature lurked in the undergrowth and fed on the peaceful lizards?

Morgo continued to tear leaves and grass from their roots, gathering them in his arms for us. I called to him again and ran forward to drag him out of the underbrush. A Bakkete, sensing the danger, too, flew low to aid my friend.

The bat man was a few feet from the grassy spot when a tongue licked upward and caught him around the middle. He screeched and I saw a titanic chameleon rear on its hind legs. Its tongue lashed inward into a cavernous mouth and the Bakkete disappeared. As the chameleon’s body slowly sank back to earth, I saw its bulging sides slowly contract, crushing the life out of the bat man that had been devoured.

Nurri Kala, who had witnessed this horror, was screaming.

Morgo, startled, turned and started from the white underbrush.

I saw the flash of red.

My cry was paralyzed on my lips.

The red whip coiled about Morgo’s waist and whipped him around so that he faced the chameleon that attacked him.

He planted his feet firmly on the floor and leaned backward, throwing his weight away from the monster. The white chameleon tugged and sought to flick the man from the floor into its mouth.

Morgo drew his knife and slashed at the red tongue, the thin thread that bound him to death. There was a shriek in the trees and the chameleon, never loosing its hold on Morgo, struggled to its hind legs to spring.

And Morgo’s knife hacked at the steel band of red. He could not cut it and I was amazed.

My gun was out. I threw an arm around Morgo to brace him, adding my weight to that which the chameleon was tugging towards its maw. The creature had a diabolical strength and its greenish eyes flashed furiously.

I fired. I emptied the automatic’s clip of lead into the huge, white body. Morgo sliced at the red tongue.

The chameleon, a moment before a mass of thews, suddenly became flabby. It crumpled and lashed about in the brush, tearing Morgo from his foot purchase. We both fell heavily.

But the creature was dead. And Morgo was still a prisoner in the steel loop of its red tongue.

My fear was of another attack. There were other white chameleons in that cluster of trees. Our only hope was immediate flight.

I ripped my bowie from my belt and went to work with Morgo on the red tongue. It was like cutting through a tough wood fiber. The band of steel was made up of a thousand course sinews. But the two of us hacked off the length of red and ran into the open space, the loop of tongue still tight around Morgo’s waist.

Without a word, I went to work cutting this horrible reminder from my friend. My eyes avoided the thankfulness in his. He wanted to talk, but I told him to save his breath.

When the red loop sloughed to the ground around Morgo’s feet, I insisted that we continue to a safer place. Nurri Kala said that her hunger could wait. And we went into the air with the Bakketes. I remembered, as the scene of the chameleon attack was behind us, that I had dropped a gun in that glade of lurking death. Now I was armed with but two – and questionable ammunition saved from a dousing in the river.

We entered a fourth cave, higher up and cooler. Here the same white vegetation abounded. The floor of the cave was a jungle of it, and weird, colorless birds and bees sang and hummed in the air. What was hidden under the screening leaves I could not see – but I did guess correctly. Again I saw a beautiful, graceful lizard caught by a crimson tongue and whipped out of sight.

Coursing over this bleached world, we hurried to the far end in quest of a door. Bakketes would not attempt a landing where the red tongues lurked. Nor would I, for that matter.

There was a tunnel. It was navigable on the wing.

After entering it in single file, we found it uncommonly long. But in the caves we knew that tunnels always ended, especially when they were faint with light as this one was.

We flew for some time, covering many miles. I began to wonder if the corridor of warm white rock would never end. It twisted, veered upward, sloped downward to the right, and came a passage of zigzagging turns. After rounding each corner we were faced with another bend.

I grew impatient. Baku was uneasy. That was not hard to sense, for in my many hours of flying with him, I became used to the many moods manifested by the action of his body, his muscular contractions, the beat of his stout heart against my back.

Where did this tunnel end? Why was it so long?

I felt a blast of hot air in my face.

The heat swept over us in waves. Baku gasped.

The Bakketes wanted to descend. Morgo exhorted them to fly clear of the corridor first.

Still we zigzagged. First one sharp turn – a short flight, and then another sharp turn. I grew tired of counting these twistings of a corridor linking two caves together in the heart of the Himalayas.

The air grew fresher. The heat diminished. I wondered if we had passed over a furnace in the rock. The monotony of the white stone grew tedious. I longed for a sight of color and took to looking at my dirty hands. The blue veins beneath the skin color – a little relief for eyes tired by bleached whiteness.

We turned a sharp corner and shot out into clear space.

I screamed. Blades of fire dug into my eyes.

The others shrieked. The Bakketes screeching ended as abruptly as it had started.

I couldn’t see a thing.

Darkness laid its fierce grip upon my brain.

I was stone blind. I knew that.

And then Baku’s arms slipped from under mine.

I fell through space – in the darkness that only a blind man can know.

Leaves and branches scratched at my face. Strange bird voices filled the air. My body turned, hurtling in space.

In my darkened brain, I felt the ground smite me a mighty blow. My senses left me as a cry of pain tried to escape my terrified lips.

To Be Continued!