CHAPTER 13: Doc's Dead!

Renny and Long Tom stumbled through the underbrush.  They were on one of the deer-runs that they knew would lead them close to the castle.  They had traversed this way yesterday on horseback.  It had seemed a lot shorter then. 

Several times on their journey from the cavern they had heard crashing in the brush beside them.  Once it had been a great buck.  'Kicked out' of concealment, it had fled into the night -- its white 'flag' of a tail waving warning to others of its kind.

The next crashing proved to be more ominous.  Paralleling their course on either side of the trail were several great gray wolves.  Their yellow eyes gleamed balefully in the moonlight.  Once a scream near them indicated the wolves had pulled down something.  The scream sounded human.

Long Tom and Renny looked at each other.  "Should we check that out?" Long Tom queried.

"The wolves haven't harmed us...even though they've had more than enough chance.  Y'know, it sounds weird...but I think they're guarding us!  My vote goes to getting to the castle and getting help for Doc above all else!" Renny commented.

"My sentiments exactly!" returned Long Tom.  "We thought this was going to be an open and shut case of political intrigue...but it's been getting creepier and creepier!  I don't mind telling you...there's too many weird things going on here for my peace of mind!"

They moved on towards the castle, the lupine escort following.  At the edge of the castle grounds, they looked back.  The wolves were gone!

* * * * *

Consciousness came minutes or even hours later...Doc wasn't sure.  He did know that he hadn't died.  He hurt too much to be dead!  The cuts and bruises of his entrapment smarted and there was an icy ache deep within him that he couldn't identify.  "At least it proves I'm alive!" he thought.

Doc reached out and felt rock.  It was smooth and debris-free.  He felt his pocket and found his flashlight.  It did not work.  A swift examination by his super-sensitive fingers told Doc that the bulb had been broken by the falling debris.  Replacement bulbs reposed in a padded interior chamber.  It was the work of moments to replace the broken one.  The adjustable lens was beyond repair, so the spray of light would have to suffice.  But...how had the flashlight gotten in his pocket?

He looked around.  The cavern he was in was not the one in which he had been trapped.  Had he somehow, in his delirium, managed to free and drag himself here before unconsciousness claimed him?  It seemed to be the only answer.  The bare, hard rock floor gave not clues.

A cool fresh current of air blew through the cavern.  It was obviously this that had revived him.  Doc tried to rise, and was stricken by a great lethargy -- a consummate weakness!

Something was very wrong!  He was away from the gas which had filled the other cavern.  The current of air was obviously blowing the gas out of this chamber.  His strength should be returning -- but, instead, he was becoming weaker and weaker!  He felt his own pulse and was horrified!  It was shallow, rapid -- practically non-existent!  What was worse, it was getting weaker by the second!  He knew that if he didn't get help fast, he would die!  His death wouldn't be from an outside cause, like gas, this time -- but from the breakdown of the vital functions of his own body!

The puzzling thing was that there was no logical reason that his body should be behaving like this!  Doc mentally gave himself a thorough check-up.  There had been no causative factor to precipitate this kind of physical reaction!  He was a doctor...he ought to know!

He lay back and immediately felt better.  Never had his body failed him as it had on this expedition!   Could he have contracted some kind of debilitation disease?  His doctor's mind scanned the diseases that could produce this kind of weakness.  Most were tropical diseases whose bacilli would not survive in this climate.  In any event, he was well inoculated -- as were his men. 

His men -- there was a clue!  They were all healthy and robust as horses!  Only he had been affected.  What was the one thing he had done that they had not?  He could think of only one thing.  He'd fallen in love!  But it couldn't be that!  Love didn't kill you.  The human race would never have gotten this far if it did!

His head swam and a small chill passed through him.  There was something else...a shadow...if he could only remember...  He began to wonder if he'd finally gone up against something he didn't...or couldn't...understand, and it was this that was killing him!

He lunged to his feet, then doubled over to keep his head and heart on the same level.  The movement made him slightly light-headed, but he didn't experience the pervading weakness that an upright position brought.

He headed for the closest opening in the surrounding rock.  One breath of the air in the connecting corridor was enough to send him reeling back. It was foul with the taint of gas.  He could not escape that way!  He turned and headed into the air flow.

The cavern formed a winding tunnel that soon connected to a large chamber.  From it tunnels branched off in various directions.  Some of these were foul with gas -- others had clean air blowing into them.  In a few, he could hear the muffled voices of trapped men.  He decided to follow the strongest air stream, since this argued an exit somewhere.

He staggered through the tunnel.  When he came to branches in the tunnel walls, he used chalk from his equipment vest to mark his route.  This way, if he started going in circles he would know.

His spring-run flashlight probed the darkness ahead of him.  There was a sharp turn of the tunnel wall.  He rounded it and stopped dead in his tracks!

Before him, its eyes glowing redly in the light from his flash, was the biggest, blackest wolf he'd ever seen!  Behind it, in a leaf-strewn grotto, reposed an old, white wolf.

Two pairs of red eyes gleamed wetly as they scanned the crouching, bloody figure of the man before them.

The black positioned itself in front of the white -- then lay down and proceeded to ignore Doc.

Doc watched the wolves.  He was bleeding in a dozen places, and had fully expected the scent of blood to excite an attack.  He had braced himself for a charge from the great black one ...at least.

Since the black had moved back into the grotto, the way was clear into the tunnel.  Doc moved as quietly and gently as possible past the recumbent animals.  So dulled were his senses from pain and exhaustion that it wasn't until he was beyond the wolves and well into the continuing tunnel that he realized that the wolves might have let him trap himself in a dead end.

He lifted his head and tested the air.  It had a slightly musty smell tinged with oil or wax.  Oil or wax -- the kind one uses to polish wood!

He staggered forward and came upon a well concealed door -- slightly ajar.  It was from here that the stream of life-sustaining pure air had flowed.  Had not the door been slightly ajar, it was doubtful that Doc would have seen it; so cleverly did it resemble the back end of a cavern -- and so dulled were his normally acute senses.

He squeezed through the portal, and gazed at the chamber into which he had come.  A small trilled note wavered on the air for a second.

Caskets, coffins, stone sarcophagi gleamed in the flash's light.  The tombs beneath Castle Aldea!  Across the chamber was the concealed entrance to the Countess's private chamber.  Did she know of this other cavern connection?

Doc did not attempt to close the portal.  His strength was fading so rapidly that he knew he must reach the upper levels of the castle before it gave out altogether!

The lower cellars and kitchens were deserted.  A look at his watch told Doc it was nearly dawn and servants would soon be swarming here -- but not yet.  He headed for the main floors.

He used the hallway walls to hold himself up now.  His strength was all but gone.  He rounded the corner to the main hall and sighted his men congregated in the hall.  Renny and Long Tom had made it after all!  They were gesturing wildly towards the front doors.

"Brothers..." Doc said.

He saw them turn to him, joy suffusing all five faces.  It was the last thing he saw before blackness claimed him and he crumbled to the crimson carpet.

"Doc!"  The glad cry of his men at his appearance gave way to gasps of horror as their chief dropped before their eyes.

They had just heard Renny's and Long Tom's tale of the incredible night, and had been preparing to organize a search and rescue mission to dig Doc out of his rock prison.

To have him enter in the midst of their preparations wasn't unusual -- Doc had pulled this trick many times!  To have him walk in and collapse was unheard of!

They ran to Doc's side.  Johnny turned him over and reached for a pulse.  He searched frantically, horror growing on his face.  His hand flew to the spot just beneath the ear that was a sure pulse point.

"Johnny...?"  Monk's voice was a tremulous whisper.

Johnny's head drooped.  He heaved a shuddering breath.  When he looked up at his friends, his eyes were grim.  "I can't find any pulse...Doc's dead!"

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.