CHAPTER 10: Nightstalker

Sundown came fairly early to the Balkan mountains at this time of year.  It was not a spectacular event.  The air here was so pure that there were few pollutants in it to refract the light and give the rainbow effect to which New York City dwellers are often treated.

Doc Savage stood on the balcony that opened of his room.  The sheer walls of the castle fell away beneath him, and beyond them, cliffs dropped jaggedly to the lake.  This protected western side of the castle had several of these small balconies.  He watched as the golden after-glow of the sun faded and became a soft mauve...purpling the lake and velvet hills to the north.  Lights twinkled in the small villages to the south.  It was a quiet, beautiful land -- a peaceful land that had not in the last four or five hundred years been successfully invaded!

"Odd...since it is on the border of a notoriously warlike nation," Doc mused.

General Tepesh's small contingent of troops could obviously not be responsible for this peace.  They, according to the villagers, had been around for only the past six or so months.  What mysterious force had kept this small fiefdom inviolate for half a millennium?

"That had got to be part of the mystery," thought the bronze man.  He was remembering Johnny's earlier statement concerning a cave filled with several hundred years worth of dead men.

As he turned to re-enter his room, a dark shape above him caught his eye.  It was huge and menacing, and had obviously come from somewhere further up on the castle walls.  It disappeared into the blackness of the northern sky.  Doc's gaze followed it for as long as he could see it.  Had it seen him?  He couldn't be sure, but something told him that the glowing red spots in the darkness that had swung in his direction had been eyes!  A small chill passed through Doc.  Could Johnny have been right?  Doc shook his head, as if the clear it.  "Ridiculous!" he told himself.  "That was just a large bat...or bird of prey."

There was a clatter of horses hooves in the stableyard.  That would be Renny and Long Tom.  Doc swung through his room to the stairs and was descending the stair when he heard Monk's roar from the courtyard.

"Doc!  Johnny!  Ham!  Dang blast it!  Where is everybody?"  Monk was frantic!

A bronze shadow materialized beside him.  "What seems to be the trouble, Monk?"

"Yahhhh!"  Monk jumped a foot into the air.  "Oh, dang it, Doc!  Don't sneak up on me like that!  Every time you do, it scares me outta seven years growth!"

"What seems to be the trouble?" repeated Monk's bronze leader.

"Well...I met a witch -- a real one, Doc -- and I can't find Johnny and Ham...they're missing...and Renny's and Long Tom's horses have just come back without them...an' one of the horses has blood all over the saddle!  Is that enough trouble for ya?!"

Doc whipped to the stableyard where two grooms were quieting the terrified animals.

As Doc walked towards them, the two horses rolled their eyes and stood trembling in fear.  This was decidedly odd, since Doc's usual effect on animals was a calming one.  He examined the saddlebags, finding the radio locating set and the map Long Tom had stuffed into the pockets just before he had been bush-whacked.  He also noted the dark stain which sprayed the saddle.  He touched it -- it came away red on his fingers.  He walked to the light and examined it.  "Blood, all right," he murmured.  He sniffed it and took a tiny bit on his tongue.  "Human!"  His eyes flashed a golden copper-red in the flickering torch light of the courtyard.

He returned to the horses and examined their hooves.  On the toe of each shoe was a small raised crest of the House of Aldea.

"All of the Countess's horses have these crests on the shoes?" he asked the groom.

"Yes, sir -- but only the Contessa's private mounts, such as these.  The troop horses and peasant horses do not."

"Then it should be fairly easy to backtrack these," Doc said.  "See that no one leaves the castle for a while...especially using the entrance where these horses came in."

Doc returned to the castle with Monk on his heels.  He raced to his room where he scooped up his equipment vest and donned it on the run back down the stairs.

"Monk, you stay here and learn what you can of Johnny's and Ham's whereabouts.  I noticed the car was gone from the grounds in front.  Maybe the servants know where they went."

"Awwww Doc, can't I come with ya?  Looks like Renny and Long Tom have run into some trouble!"  Monk hated to be left out of what promised to be some rough and tumble action!

"No."  Doc was firm.  "I need someone here to liaison with Johnny and Ham when they return."  He did not mention that he knew he could make better time on the backtrail alone.  He studied the map, etching it into his memory...then handed it to Monk.

"This is presumably where they were headed."  He indicated the intersecting lines of the radio beam.  "The horses' backtrail should lead there -- but until I'm sure it does, I'll follow it.  If we're not back by morning, get the police, troops, villagers, anyone you can -- and storm this point."  He was gone into the darkness before Monk could even say "Right, Doc!"

The great bronze form glided into the night.  The rising moon shimmered on the rippling muscles of his body as he ran effortlessly.

The horses hoofprints were easy to follow, since they were fresh.  The prints of the day before had been smoothed by the night breeze of the evening before.

Doc soon discovered that thanks to the moonlight and an uncanny sharpness of his night vision -- that he had not been aware of heretofore -- he actually  made better time without using his flashlight.  This was good, since it might allow him to sneak up on Renny's and Long Tom's captors without advertising his presence.  He pocketed the flashlight and proceeded by moonlight.

The trail was crystal clear to his night senses, all of which seemed heightened to a superlative degree.

Suddenly, he stopped, listened for a moment, then stepped off the trail -- silently melting into the bushes.

A moment later, three shadows that had human forms slunk into view on the moonlit trail.

"See," hissed one, "I told you there was nothing here.  The horses will not even have roused the castle yet!  It will be a while before the bronze devil will come looking for his two men."

A small trilled note wavered on the evening breeze -- then was gone.

"What was that?" whispered another voice.

"I don't know!  Derni, are you all right?"  A mere rustle of sound answered him.

"Hssst...Derni..."  A tiny night insect seemed to alight on the cheek of the shadow-man.  He suddenly went to sleep on his feet.  As he fell, he was caught and laid silently on the forest floor.

"Igor...what had happened to Derni?"  The 'insect' had flitted to the third shadow-man.  Within seconds, he, too, was asleep on the forest floor.

A bronze wraith glided once again on the horses' backtrail.  As he went, Doc re-pocketed several small items that looked like bronze finger-tips.  They had fitted Doc Savage's fingers like a second skin.  This 'skin', however, contained several small needles in each tip.  Doc had only to brush the skin of any enemy to inject a minute amount of potent anesthetic.  The men would sleep for twelve hours -- or until a counter-agent was administered.

The trail was harder now.  The men walking along it had partly obscured it...but not completely!  It was as if they had taken care to leave some of the trail visible!

"They allowed the horses to escape...to lead us back this way!"  Doc reasoned.  "There are probably more traps ahead.  I must be cautious!"

A twinkling in the soft moonlight caught his attention.  Tiny silvery strands, no bigger than a spider's web-line, were strung across the trail.  Doc brushed one with a leaf.  The place where the web-wire had touched was suddenly eaten away.

"Acid," thought Doc.  "Probably mixed with a potent poison!"  The acid would have opened the skin and let the poison enter the bloodstream of anybody or anything brushing the fine wire.  He took a large branch and broke the silvery threads before proceeding.

The trail had been getting fainter; brush and brambles growing in the center of it.  The floor of the trail looked almost natural.  Few would have seen the tiny indication that a pit had been dug there and covered over.  Doc was circling the pit when he heard a small tinkle of glass beneath his boot.

A grim expression crossed his features as he realized he'd just broken one of his own anesthetic balls!

Renny and Long Tom had had these on their persons, no doubt, and their captors had fathomed the purpose of the small glass balls.  They had set the pit trap to draw attention from the sides of the trail.

The anesthetic gas in the tiny glass balls mixed instantly with the air and rendered anyone breathing it unconscious for about an hour.  The funny thing about the gas was that if one held his breath and didn't inhale it, the gas would have no effect on him whatsoever.  In something less than a minute, the gas mixed with the air and became ineffective.

Doc had long ago perfected this anesthetic gas, and he and his men used it often to capture malefactors without otherwise harming them.  It irked Doc to find others using his own science against him!

Doc took about three steps and suddenly went limp...as if he had fallen asleep on his feet.  His falling body crashed into the underbrush.

TAKE ME TO THE NEXT CHAPTER, PLEASE! 

The Doc Savage characters are the property of Conde Nast.  All text and images are  1999 by Paty Cockrum and may not be copied without her express written permission.