CHAPTER 12: Into the Arms of Death!

A bronze whirlwind had exploded behind Renny and Long Tom!  They had both been hurled bodily from the mouth of the cavern.

They picked themselves up and looked behind them.  There was no more cavern!  Tons of rock had closed it completely!  Dust and debris still roiled in the moonlight.

"DOC!" Long Tom yelled!  Shoving his pistol into his belt, he ran forward and began tearing at the fallen rock.

Renny joust stood and looked with horror at the cave-in.  Doc had saved them -- but at what a cost!  Buried beneath the collapsed hillside!

Could Doc still be alive in there?  Renny doubted it -- but Doc had pulled off seemingly impossible tricks to save his own life many times before this, so it was possible.  If Doc was alive -- and Renny decided that he'd only believe in Doc's demise when he saw his lifeless body -- he'd need help...fast! 

Suddenly he was shaken nearly off his feet.  Great rumbling s all along the ridge of hills sounded -- followed by shots, explosions and muffled screams!

"What the..." Long Tom ceased his frantic digging and backed off as the after-shocks cascaded more debris where he had been standing.

"The whole ridge is coming down," rumbled Renny.  "Whoever set this trap for Doc has cooked his own goose!  All the caverns are so inter-connected and honeycombed here that destroying one knocked out the support factors of the others!"

A drifting cloud obscured the moon, as another shock of settling earth jerked both of them off their feet.  It was a fortuitous happening.  The whine of half a dozen bullets cleaved the space they had been standing in.  They scuttled for cover behind a large boulder, whipping out their pistols as they went.

Flashing fire from discharging guns and the returning light of the moon showed them where their ambushers were located.

"Lurking out here to kill anyone who survived the cave-in!" muttered Renny as Long Tom picked off a sniper.  "Dammit...shoot to wound!  Doc would..."

"Doc's trapped, dying or dead...because of them!" Long Tom's voice was icy rage.  "They'll get a s much mercy from me as they showed him!  You shoot to wound if you want to -- I'm not wasting any ammunition...we don't have that much, and a wounded man can still shoot back!"

Long Tom grimly put another bullet between the eyes of a sniper.  "Doc's still in there!"  He pointed to the collapsed cavern.  "If he's not dead already every minute they detain us here increases his chances of dying before we can get him dug out!"

Renny eyed the cavern.  "It's gonna take more than just us to dig him out -- that's a major engineering project!"

"All the more reason for haste!  Time is on their side!  Doc's death is their primary objective at this point."  Long Tom peered around the boulder and was rewarded with a barrage of gunfire.  There were at least half a dozen men out there.  That was enough, in the darkness, to keep them pinned down for hours!  In those hours, Doc could surely die!

Suddenly, from the direction the snipers came a ghastly scream -- followed by shots and snarls.  The single scream was followed by others!  There was a great thrashing in the underbrush...then, silence!

Renny and Long Tom peered from behind the boulder.  The bushes rustled and from them a dozen large, gray wolves stepped into the clearing, blood dripping from their jaws.  They advanced in a closing semi-circle on Renny's and Long Tom's hiding place.  More followed them.  Close to thirty wolves ringed their position.

They looked at each other.  It was the end, they knew!  Their ambushers had had far more men and fire-power than they...and had been overcome!  The bloody muzzles of the approaching pack gave grisly, silent testimony.

The pack stopped half-way across the clearing and parted as two wolves pushed to the fore.  One was a hoary, white old wolf...the other, a sleek, black young leader.  The black's eyes glowed red in the moonlight.  The two leaders stopped and assessed the humans before them.

"Oh boy...here it comes..." whispered Long Tom.  Renny could only nod in mute agreement.  They braced themselves for the charge of the savage beasts before them.

With a growl, the great black wolf cleared the ring of encircling grays.  The white followed on the black's heels.  They trotted away form the group and headed along the ridge, disappearing in the vicinity of the collapsed cavern.  As if this were a signal, the thirty-odd gray wolves melted away into the night.

Long Tom and Renny were dumbfounded!  They couldn't believe what they had just seen.  A trip across the clearing to view the remains of half a dozen men convinced them that what had happened was real!

"Holy cow!" breathed Renny, as they surveyed the carnage.  "you think it's safe to beat it back to the castle?"

Long Tom cast a glance at the collapsed cave front.  "I don't think we have a choice!  We've got to rescue Doc...even if the horrors et upon us in the woods!   The maps we made are going to hold us in good stead...if we can remember them."

Doc had had the only flashlight, since their had been confiscated by the brigands when they were captured.  Some of the shorter trails were too obscure to negotiate in the shifting shadows so they had to stick to the heavier trails.  They headed for the castle as fast as the intermittent moonlight allowed.

* * * * *

Dirt, dust and falling debris formed a foul miasma in the air as tons of rock settled.  In caverns further along the ridge, the earth still rumbled and fell, but in the cavern where the explosion originated, all was deathly still.

Doc Savage uncovered his head, which he had been protecting with one mighty arm.  He was bleeding in a dozen different places.  The wounds, made by falling shards of rock, were small and uncomfortable, but were not a major problem.  The main difficulty facing him now was to get out of what seemed to be a solid rock prison.

Loitering to check a pile of equipment, he had been behind his men as they had left the tunnel.  Doc had seen Long Tom hit the well-concealed wire and had known what was about to happen.  There had been time for only one action.  Either his men would be buried by the falling rock...or he would!  With a choice like that, there was no choice!  The lives of Doc's men always came first!

He had thrust them bodily into what he could only hope was clear night air, even as the tons of rock descended.  The complicated maneuver of hurling them forward while propelling himself back as far as he could would have torn an ordinary human in two, but Doc had trained his Herculean body for just such emergencies!  His massive muscles had thrown him almost clear of the descending debris.  Almost!  The upper part of  his body was free...but his legs were trapped!

He attempted to move them.  There was no pain, so he assumed there was nothing broken -- but he could not wiggle free of the debris.

Throughout the episode, Doc had maintained his grasp on his flashlight.  An invention of his own, it was run by a spring-driven generator.  One twist would produce a stream of brilliant light for several minutes.

A pencil-fine spike of light lit the darkness.  One twist of the lens end spread the beam into a wider spray of light.  Doc assessed his position.  It would take some time to dig himself free of the enveloping rockslide.

Muffled shots from the direction of the outside argued the need for haste!  His men had apparently run into the gang that had rigged the trip wire after he had entered the cave!  Assuming Doc would find the traps planted in the cave as he went in, the gang had prepared a trap for Doc and his men on the return route.  Someone in the group was fiendishly clever!

He dug with feverish haste, taking care, however, to shore up the pile as he worked.  He didn't want to dig himself out only to have the debris shift and bury him again!

The unstable stuff was treacherous.  Doc had not made an appreciable amount of progress when he felt his head reel.  He stopped, held his breath and listened.  Form somewhere within the cavern came the hiss of pressurized air escaping.

GAS!

Johnny had warned of natural gas pockets!   Apparently this was one that had been ruptured by the explosion!  It was leaking gas into the area where Doc was trapped!

Doc tested the air.  It was already getting difficult to breathe.  He assessed the amount of time needed to extricate himself.  There was only one conclusion.  He was a dead man!

The falling rock had not killed him -- but the gas surely would.  The calm expression on his face did not alter.  He had been too close to death too many times for it to frighten or unnerve him.  Somewhere in the back of his mind he had always known that sooner or later he would get himself into a situation that would be fatal.  He could only hope that Renny and Long Tom were all right.

He went grimly back to digging until his senses once again spun.  Half-fainting, he sagged to the rubble-strewn floor.  Colored lights...like tiny dust motes...played before his eyes.

As he wavered on the threshold of unconsciousness, a tiny current of semi-fresh air revived him.  He lay with his face in the stream of air, breathing slowly and deeply.  He was charging his lungs with oxygen -- not unlike the pearl divers of the South Seas.  In this way, he could possibly hold his breath as he dug.  Doc had strengthened his lungs to such a capacity that he could hold his breath for far longer than the average person.  If the stream of fresh air held out, he might yet succeed in freeing himself.

It didn't.  Even as he formulated the plan, the current of air ceased.  Some falling debris had closed the draft that had been pulling the air stream through the rocks.  A falling rock narrowly missed his head.  It landed, instead, on the tiny flashlight, flipping it out of his reach.  Darkness enveloped him.

Doc ran his hands over the concealed pockets in his jacket.  Several of his gadgets were still operative, having survived the explosion and rock-fall.  Unfortunately, many had been damaged beyond repair.  One of the items that had been damaged was the same type of portable breathing device utilized a day earlier by Johnny.  Had it not been damaged, Doc would have had a chance -- as it was -- he was in dire straits!  He checked his other pockets quickly.  None of the surviving gadgets would do him any good in this situation.  Flares and chemicals would only consume what precious little oxygen was left in the air.  Explosives would only bring down more rock.  Acids and grapples were useless.  Had he been in a shore area, he might have had oxygen tablets with him -- but in a mountainous area, they had been supplanted by other things.

There was little he could do.  He wracked his amazing mind for a way of escape.  There was none!  Every movement consumed more oxygen than it was worth.  He lay back in the darkness.  He knew he could expect a short period of hallucination before death claimed him.  The appearance of the colored lights when he had nearly passed out earlier told him that.  There was obviously some impure element in the gas that affected the brain to cause it to see things that were not there.

His thoughts wandered in a mental farewell to his men.  There had been good...and perilous...times with Monk, Ham, Renny, Johnny and Long Tom.  If he regretted the fact that he was about to die, it was only that he knew his death would bring grief to these men -- as theirs would have to him.  He dared not even think what it would mean to Orlonda.

Orlonda!  Her face floated in his mind's eye.  His mind reached out to her...

A pinpoint of light lit the darkness where no pinpoint of light could be.  It grew and coalesced into a shimmering cloud of luminescence.

"Hallucination!  It will not be long now," Doc thought dreamily.

The cloud formed a figure.

*Hallucination*

Death floated towards him in the shape of a beautiful woman...with midnight eyes!

"Orlonda!" For a moment, Doc thought she had found him!  "No," he realized, "She is nebulous, ethereal, unreal!  It is the hallucination.  Is it a cosmic cruelty that Death comes in the guise of the only woman I have ever allowed myself to...love?!"

He floated on a sea of delirious detachment as he watched her approach.  With a few deft strokes of her hands, she scattered the rubble that had pinned his legs.

"Impossible!"  *Hallucination* 

She bent over Doc and, as her lips kissed the very breath from his being, he felt a lifting and floating sensation before he blacked out.

Pain wracked his senses.  It was a piercing, bittersweet pain -- vaguely familiar, half-remembered -- that jarred him to consciousness.  The pain started at his throat, then spread to any agony that convulsed his whole body.  It hovered for an exquisite moment, then peaked and melted to hot, flowing ecstasy.  He writhed with the undeniable erotic sensations that flashed, lightning-like through him.

Suddenly, his body shrank in upon itself -- withering, dehydrating, burning,...BURNING??

"No!"  Doc attempted to fight what was happening...but there was not resisting the crimson haze that was enveloping him.  Hallucination or...Hell?!  "NO...surely not that..."

Death loomed above him with a pitying smile on its beautiful face.  Cool lips smothered the fires raging in his body and left only a consuming dryness.

"Drink...join with me..."  A crimson stream had appeared on the snowy bosom of Death.

"No..."  Doc knew that to drink the very blood of Death itself would surely seal his fate -- and probably damn him as well!

"Fool!" whispered a voice, "The blood is the life!  Drink not and doom yourself!  Drink...'ere you perish!"  Death cradled his head in its soft arms, guiding his nerveless lips to the scarlet flood.  he sought to resist, and found that his muscles would not obey him.

The fluid was warm and bitter.  At the touch of its first droplets, life and energy began to return.  Could it be true?  Doc drank -- hesitantly at first -- then deeply.  Since all was hallucination anyway, did it matter?

But...if it were not...hallucination!  If it was, instead, illusion!  If somehow Johnny was right...

With a super-human burst of energy, Doc flung himself away from the enveloping form.

Flaming eyes commanded him to halt as the form enlarged and became a giant blackness in the shadows of the cave.

Doc staggered for a few steps, then fell heavily to the floor of the cavern.  he glared defiance at the flickering red orbs that seemed suspended in mid-air.

A low laugh filled the cave.  "Fearless, defiant and strong!  Yes...I have chosen well!  Soon you will not fight me...you will come to me freely!"

There was a swishing, leathery sound and the thing was gone.

Doc did not see it go -- indeed, he had not seen anything since he had, with the last remnant of his strength, fled the stifling embrace of the thing.  His glared defiance was his last act as an oblivion that was more than unconsciousness claimed him!

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.