Chapter 24: The Black Books

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.

The flood had laid its heavy fingers well across the once fair face of the Cave of Kahli by the time we left Morgo’s dwelling. The waters were not deep, and long lines of Shammans, Zaans, Silurians and animals, neither molesting the other save when their paths crossed, were wading their way toward the upper reaches of Shamman. As yet, no Shamman bats had put in an appearance.

I wondered if the bats we saw rushing pell-mell into Zaan were bottled up there with Zorimi and Nurri Kala. Yet I tried to assure myself that there were other exits – other means of escape than through the destroyed Land of the Cicernas.

As we made our way to the tunnel, reinforced by the Bakketes who had stayed on in their stalactites after the raids of the red and black ants, I saw the floor of Kahli streaked with veins of water holding living creatures. It looked as the seams of the cave leaked, that we were within a container the sides of which threatened to cave in upon us.

I saw a column of Silurians marching upon one of Cicernas. When the two met, there was a clash for the right of way. The scale-skinned men fought hard with their impregnable bodies, but the might of the powerful chicken wings hurled them heavily to the ground. The wings were a force the men could not overcome and they had to give way, the water gurgling about their ankles while the chickens marched by in great numbers.

At another point, we saw the Shammans beat off the small Mannizans, killing several in their efforts to reach the tunnel first. Later, they ran afoul of the large Mannizans, the rat breed, and met with rebuff. The rats were fierce in their insistence of the right of way and they swarmed over the column of Shammans, trampling men, women and children – terrified primitives whose one thought was for their lives.

The tunnel up to Shamman was dry and we took hope. On entering the great gray cavern, we found the light weak and waning. Either The Shaft was failing because of the rising waters in Zaan or the means of reflecting the sun’s rays through other caves and corridors was being cut off by the crumbling of those chambers.

As yet there wasn’t a living creature in all Shamman. We made our way over miles of bleak gray wastes and stunted trees on which the ants had found lean pickings, toward the plateau of The Flame. There was no thread of smoke to guide us. The pagan fire had died out, untended by its keepers, who fled from the plague of red and black ants.

Morgo proved himself an able general of his Bakkete army. He decided not to take possession of the Shamman stalactites but to press on into the higher and darker cave close to the Door of Surrilans. We flew over the plateau and continued on toward the distant opening, beyond which was a hazy darkness.

In that vast cavern that once was compared to the plains of Kansas, I saw Shammans and small Mannizans running in the gloom below. Some of Shamman’s creatures had gone in this direction when the Husshas and the Rortas invaded their cave while the others went to warmer reaches of Zaan.

It was cold and I saw Morgo shivering when we landed. The Bakketes who went aloft to inspect the dripping chalk stalactites fed by the ice of Kanchenjunga kept in motion for the scant warmth activity gave them. The floods were driving us into a state comparable to the Ice Age of old. Wood was gathered from the weird trees that thrived in this cavern darkness, and Morgo made a fire in a depression – a veritable corral of towering stalagmites. He was anxious for secrecy even in this wilderness of chalky monoliths.

“Now let us return to the plateau,” Morgo said. “When the Shammans and Silurians return, they will not be eager for fight. They are badly frightened by the flood. And it is to the plateau that Zorimi will come -”

“If he still lives,” I put in pessimistically.

“He will. And he brings Nurri Kala, too. I know it, Derro.”

Baku and four other Bakketes took us from our fire, tended by the remaining Bakketes, into Shamman. Morgo and I were landed on the mound of the dead flame while the other bat men were sent off to watch for the Silurians and Shammans.

I led the way down the roughly hewn chalk steps to the chamber of skulls. A chill draft swept through it and whistled up the shaft that was the former chimney of the sacred pagan fire that Zorimi kept burning. We climbed over Hussha and Rorta remains, most of which were nearly wholly devoured by the ants. An odor of death and decay pervaded the place.

Morgo was content to wait calmly for word of Zorimi’s return. He meant to kill the magician and take Nurri Kala from him. And I think he hoped by that deed to wind favor in her eyes. But I insisted that we search fro the room which Nurri Kala had described – the room where the Bibles were said to be hidden.

Reluctantly, Morgo accompanied me. We went back up the steps to a landing that gave upon a long corridor. In the dim light I saw several wooden doors, heavy and closed. We tried the first, and it swung open. The chamber was small with a little window. A pallet was in one corner and upon it I found a flying helmet. It was Harker’s – that of the man whose drying skull graced the horrible bony frieze in the chamber below, the hall of human sacrifice.

“This is Zorimi’s room,” I said. “Somehow, I smell his evil in it.”

Morgo agreed. He pointed to a little book in a niche in the wall. It had been flung there hastily. I ran for it and opened it eagerly for the secrets it could tell me. It had been a diary but the pages were ripped out.

Still, on one page a fragment remained. It was in a curious, scrawling penmanship, barely legible. Somehow it was familiar to me. I tried to recall if I had ever seen the handwriting of Jesperson, whom I now suspected of being Zorimi. No luck.

But I read: ” – who is the prisoner Lacrosse. I shall take him to Zaan. He can evaluate the stones and – ” The fragment was brief, but it revealed to me that Zorimi had held Lacrosse a prisoner in the plateau, even while we faced him in the chamber of skulls.

It was the magician who brought the naturalist to the Caves of Zaan and for the stated purpose of putting a value on the treasure Zorimi was collecting there before his escape to the outer world. Harker, the geologist,  the better judge of stones, was sacrificed by Zorimi, perhaps because he refused to deal with the evil one. And Lacrosse lived only to reach the torrid Zaan and die there with diamond dust heaped upon him, possibly as an ironic gesture, by Zorimi.

We went into another room, more attractive than Zorimi’s and I recognized in it Nurri Kala’s reflecting glass – a tall mirror of polished silver. On a ledge was the odd flower of diamonds that I saw in her yellow hair the night she was called to participate in human sacrifice. Before Morgo spotted it, I picked it up and stuck it into my blouse.

“Nurri Kala lived in this room,” Morgo said slowly. “I can feel her presence.”

He did not want to leave it. We stood long before the mirror looking at ourselves. Our faces were shaggy with ancient beards and our eyes were lighted with fierce determination. They met in challenge and then Morgo smiled at me. His arm slipped into mine and he patted my clenched hand. I feared his friendship in that instant, for on the morrow he might be my enemy because of the girl we both loved.

“We are friends, Derro,” he said. “I am black-haired and you are red-haired. There is fire in you. But we are friends. Do not let us quarrel over Nurri Kala – when she chooses me?” He laughed as he spoke this last sentence.

“Or when she chooses me?” I smiled at him. His face hardened, but I felt the sincerity in the pressure of his hand.

“I shall try to be brave – if she is that foolish,” he replied. We laughed again and went on to the next room. The door was tied with a cord of hard vines which we cut with our knives.

Within was a spacious well-lighted chamber. On a crude table before which a rock was set for a chair, there was a pile of diamonds. From this Zorimi had evidently been sorting our the different sized stones which were neatly arranged in four smaller heaps. On the floor I saw small bags in which they could be carried.

Morgo exclaimed in surprise. “There they are.”

Following the direction of his finger, I peered into a dim corner and saw a stack of black books. Quickly I drew them to the light of the window, a poor light at that, for the source seemed to be dying slowly, and I rummaged through them.

There were tomes on anthropology, the history of gems, studies of cave life in other parts of the world, textbooks on botany and zoology, and an account book from which the pages had been torn. There were no names of a possible owner on the fly leaves. And there were two small pocket Bibles, grimy, pages yellowed with age and wear.

I studied the larger Bible and found on the front and back covers the genealogy of the Graham family. It dated from 1832 and on the back cover was the entry of  the wedding of Martin Graham, of New York City, to Helen Ferguson on May 10, 1902. It designated Martin Graham as a scientist and his bride as the daughter of the Fergusons of Chicago. Added to this entry was another: “Born to us on July 4, 1904, a son, who we named George, New York City.”

I read on: “Helen died of pneumonia in the Door of Surrilana on August 9, 1914, where my ill-fated expedition seems doomed to failure. I buried her beneath a pile of stones and read the burial service. I pray that I can take George back to Darjeeling.”

1914! That was sixteen years ago when Morgo said he came to the caves after knowing the outer world.

The last entry was blurred. “George and Nesta were hurt in the landslide. I pray that both live. Blake is strong enough to try with me to get down to the warmer climate.”

That was the secret of Morgo’s identity. He was George Graham, the son of an American scientist and explorer. The landslide explained the loss of his memory in his childhood. He had to told me of being struck on the head with a stone, and I had attributed his amnesia to that.

Nesta must be Nurri Kala!

I opened the other Bible. There were family tree entries in it beginning in 1866. Mention was made of an ancestor who was a major in the Civil War and of another who was a historian. The last read: “Jeremiah Blake, of New Orleans, married Lois Montgomery, of Atlanta, on October 22, 1905. A daughter, Nesta, blessed their union on November 6, 1906.

Beneath this was scrawled in a shaky hand: “May God preserve my daughter Nesta and little George Graham. Conners will try to take them down to the warmer air. They have been terribly shocked by the landslide and their injuries and seem to be dazed. Graham is dead.”

What fate befell Connors, or who he was, I cannot guess. But it was certain that Zorimi found the children or at least the girl. Morgo – George Graham – somehow managed to enter the caves and establish a life of his own. The girl was brought up by Zorimi.

I explained all this to Morgo, but it revived no recollections in his veiled brain. That he was an American meant nothing to him. He remembered nothing of his father’s expedition to the heights of Kanchenjunga, of the landslide, of how he came to live in Kahli.

Taking the Bibles with us, we returned to the chamber of the skulls, where Baku and another bat man were awaiting us. It had grown quite dark. I feared that light was forever lost to the cave world. The waters would blot out everything.

The other Bakketes presently winged their way in through the opening and informed Morgo that Shammans and Silurians and animals, including armies of Husshas and Rortas, were streaming into the far end of Shamman. They believed that the waters were welling up fast, covering most of Kahli, judging from the panic they witnessed among the refugees.

“Soon they will be here,” Morgo said. “I know that Zorimi is not dead. I am fated to punish him.”

He sat on the ledge and watched the air over Shamman – the gray gloom that was melting into early night. The Bakketes grew uneasy both at this diminution of their day and seeming to sense presences that we could not see with human eyes.

Morgo sprang to his feet and drew back from the ledge into the protecting shadows of the eerie chamber. I saw what prompted this move. Shamman bats, but shadows in the twilight, were gathering over the mound. And the air was filled with smaller birds, darting hither and yon, strangers in an empty world whence the flood drove them.

Two bats swooped from the roof and approached the opening. Morgo commanded absolute silence and we pressed ourselves flat against the shadowy walls, man and Bakkete.

Zormi and Nurri Kala were deposited on the ledge. The magician turned and addressed the hovering bats, revealing to them Her of the Three Heads – that ugly symbol of his power, concentrated in a bloodstained slab of carved diamond. The three awful heads seemed alive – the lizard’s, the woman’s and the bat’s.

The bats murmured contentedly and flew up to their haunts in the stalactites. They paid no attention to the panicky birds whose numbers grew steadily, pouring the darkness a dirge of terror.

Zorimi vanished into the darkness of the cavern and lighted a flambeau. We saw him pear into the yawning maw wherein The Flame once burned.

“Be patient, my children,” he crooned down into the pit. “You will never die. And I shall feed you soon. Be patient.”

“What do you talk to?” Nurri Kala asked listlessly, moving close to him. “There is no one here – nothing that lives.”

“In the pit! In the pit!” Zorimi laughed. “There are living things in the pit – creatures that live on water and fire. My Silurians are far away but I have my other army – in case an enemy shows a head.”

“You still fear Morgo and Derro?” the girl asked. “You could make peace with them.”

“Never! They would not have it – nor would I. There can be but one lord of Shamman and all the caverns – and his name must be Zorimi.”

I knew now that the man was mad. His voice was shrill and high-pitched. “But we go away – tonight, Nurri Kala. There is no time to be lost. This cave will fill with all living life from the other caverns. They will destroy each other in quest for food. The strong will devour the weak. And man must perish – for he is weak.”

“And what of you, Zorimi?” the girl asked. “You are a man, too.”

“I am not of this world, Nurri Kala. Zorimi is immortal. He commands all creatures, human or bestial. We are leaving the caves, my child. I will show you strange great cities and take you across vast seas. The world will adore you – as my wife!”

In his madness, Zorimi sounded like the villain in a badly made talking picture. He was exceedingly melodramatic and he meant to impress the girl, who no longer feared him. He seemed to sense her defiance of his powers.

“I am not going with you, Zorimi,” the girl said decisively. “I will stay here and seek my friends, Morgo and Derro.”

“They are dead, my child. They perished when the walls of the Cicernas country caved in. Now do not resist me, Nurri Kala – or I shall have to put you to sleep.”

“You mean – you mean make me look into your eyes again?” Her tone was one of revulsion.

“Ah, you have not forgotten. You saw these eyes once. And you did forget to obey me. You slept for many days.”

I wanted to spring at the man. It was obvious what he meant. He had the power of hynosis, and it was with that he threatened the girl, hoping to bend her to his will.

“I will never look into your eyes again, Zorimi. And I am not going away with you.”

Zorimi caught her wrists and drew her face close to his. With a jerk of his head, he threw back the cowl that masked his face, but I could not identify him because his back was to me. Then the girl’s face was contorted with horror and she closed her eyes.

“I see that I must make you sleep. I have no time for argument, my child.” His voice then thundered: “Look into my eyes, Nurri Kala!”

Swiftly, silently, Morgo ran across the floor. He was with in reach of the magician when his pattering footsteps reached the man’s sensitive ears. Zorimi shrouded his face and leaped from Morgo’s path to the edge of the pit where he uttered a loud wailing call.

Morgo took the girl in his arms and advanced toward Zorimi. I joined them with the intention of ripping off the magician’s cowl.

A slithering, scratching noise echoed in the pit. Morgo instinctively hesitated, aware of danger. Zorimi laughed and drew the magic stone from his pelts, holding it high over his head.

A moment later, the rim of the pit was lined with faces, long lizard faces, in which luminous green eyes bulged and stared at us. These creatures leaped over the edge and flattened themselves to the stone floor, crawling slowly, with horrible motions, toward us. Zorimi spoke to them in a wailing voice, and they ran thick red tongues over their bluish lips.

They were salamanders – blue-skinned and huge, with spotted backs of the venomous breed. Their bodies were alive with a bluish light that phosphorescent as they entered the shadows into which we backed warily. These relations of the lizard, amphibians, thrived on the heat of high fires. They were denizens of the pit of The Flame. And they heeded Zorimi’s commands.

“Give up the girl!” Zorimi called to us, at the same time speaking to the salamanders, “and I will call off my creatures!”

The slithering bodies halted and the bulging green eyes were so many points of hypnotizing fire in the gloom.

“Not to you, Zorimi!” Morgo cried. “If we die – we all die together.”

“But I want the girl!” Zorimi insisted. He urged the bluish salamanders closer to us, still holding them in check with his orders.

We were beside the stairs. Morgo pushed the girl onto them and shouted to her to run. Zorimi unleashed his uncouth creatures and a score of phosphorescent slugs of blue light were launched at us. The Bakketes screeched and flew out the opening.

Morgo sidestepped the first creature to rush him, and it could not turn quick enough to set its jagged teeth in his flesh. He plunged his knife into its back above the heart and a fountain of luminous blood shot into the air. A weird cry came from the lips of the other salamanders. While several of them fell upon the dead, tearing the phosphorescent skin apart to reach the meat, the others continued to come at us.

We reached the stairs and started up after Nurri Kala. Morgo was behind me and cried out as I slipped, lost my balance and dropped feet foremost into the chamber again. A salamander marked me and slither across the floor in my direction.

Morgo turned to the creature trying to climb the stair under Zorimi’s exhortations. He waited until the salamander was close enough, and then, leaning far over the inclined body, he fell upon it, burying his knife in its entrails. It writhed and nearly threw him into the jaws of the others below before his blade could find the heart.

I imitated Morgo in side stepping the lizard that rushed me but my knife missed its goal. It cut through a shoulder, and the tail of the creature lashed itself around my legs while it doubled to reach me with its fangs.

Morgo knelt on the steps and shouted for me to give him my hands. Unconsciously, so great was my terror, I reached upward and felt the grasp of his powerful hands over my wrists. I was jerked clear of the floor and then Morgo’s mighty thews slowly lifted me and the salamander to the edge of the steps where I sat. Morgo then dropped on his stomach and, leaning over the edge, hacked the salamander’s tail from my body.

We took to our heels, shooting up the steps, just as another speckled lizard, glowing like a pagan dragon, set its jaws for us. Nurri Kala was on the plateau with the Bakketes. They took us aloft and off to the fire we had prepared in the higher, colder cave.

To Be Continued!