CHAPTER 16: Doc's Choice

Renny, Long Tom and Ham moved stealthily through the tunnels.  They had left their escort back at a central cavern, from which branched several tunnels.  Most of the tunnels were filled with gas by now.  Many had the bodies of men -- some buried by cascading rock -- others obviously trapped and killed by the seeping gas.

They worked their way eastward, marking passages as they went so that they could find their way back.  They conversed by way of compact amplifying devices built into the breathing apparatus.  Earlier editions of these devices had had no such refinements.  They had had to 'talk' by utilizing the deaf and dumb sign language.  Since this often led to difficulties in communication, Doc had developed the miniaturized amplifying devices these newer models contained.

"Did you see the stuff in that last cubbyhole?" muttered Long Tom.  "These caves have been used by men for years -- centuries!  Some of that gear was a hundred years old!"

"At least!" snorted Renny.  "I thought you said these hills were off-limits to the peasants!"

"So we were led to believe in the village," interjected Ham.  "I wish Johnny were here -- he could tell us if these artifacts are local or imported.  My own theory is that the local people don't come here...this stuff all belong s to people who have used these caves for invasion or espionage purposes!"

"Then why hasn't the country been invaded in the past several hundred years?  Aldean rule is at least five hundred yeas old!" rumbled Renny.

"I don't know. I think maybe Doc has an idea, but he's not saying till he's sure," muttered Ham.  "Which, of course, leaves us pretty much in the dark...as usual!"

"Look at it this way," philosophized Long Tom, "A little mystery keeps life interesting!" 

They moved deeper into the tunnels, going through areas where the air was still pure; pockets of fresh air created by erratic drafts in the surrounding  gas.

Suddenly, a movement ahead of them in the cavern caught their attention.  Their lights picked up the terrified face of a man.  He scuttled backward into the dark cave, screeching as he went.

"Hey!" yelled Renny, "We're here to rescue you...Holy cow!  Why'd he run?"

"They've been trapped down here all last night and today," suggested Ham.  "Their minds are probably close to snapping!  And...look at us!  With this gear on, we probably look like phantoms and demons in the flash's light!  Did you hear what he screamed?"

"I can speak some of the area language, but the local dialect generally loses me," muttered Long Tom.

"He said...'wŁtrich!'...that's 'monster'!" explained Renny.

"More accurately, 'bloodthirsty monster'," Ham corrected him.  "He thinks we're werewolves or vampires...or worse!  At least, since he's alive and kicking -- or should I say running? -- the air in here is O.K.  Should we take off the devices?"

"No!" said Renny, as he eyed the cavern walls.  "There's no telling when the gas will penetrate here.  We're safer this way -- even if it gives those guys the 'willies'!"

"He went down this way," Long Tom offered, flashing his beam down an offshoot of the tunnel they were traversing.

His light picked out a group of men huddled in a rubble-blocked tunnel.  They were obviously terrified.  One nervously aimed a gun in the direction of the light.

"NO!"  Renny forgot what words of the language he knew.  "Don't fire -- we're friends!"

The babble of foreign sounds reverberating in the closeness of the cave only tipped the cup of the gun-man's terror over!  He fired wildly at the approaching figures!

"Holy cow!  Run for it!  They're nuts!"  The three men turned and charged back through the tunnels.  They could hear the men screaming in hot pursuit of the 'demons' they had 'scared off'.

"Renny," gasped Ham, "Shouldn't we..."

"We should run like Hell!" roared Renny.  "When they hit a gas pocket with those weapons firing, this cavern is gonna go 'BLOOEY'!"

Suddenly, behind them, there was a great flash.  A cataclysm of sound and rushing air and debris threw them forward, battering them nearly senseless against the walls of the tunnel.

They weakly picked themselves up.  The floor of the cavern was shaking.

"RUN!" yelled Renny.  "Everything's coming down!"

They ran!  They had almost made it back to the central cavern where the Aldean servants waited when the tunnel around them collapsed!

* * * * *

The Countess had quietly cleaned up after the departing three men, ringing for the servant girls to take away the remains of their repast.  She then proceeded to gather up Doc's soiled clothing which his men had discarded in a corner.  It was in pretty poor condition.  She curiously extracted a number of vials and containers from padded pockets.

Johnny took charge of these, explaining some of their uses.

"It would seem Clark is usually prepared for anything!" smiled the Countess, her eyes widening at the suggested uses of some of the implements.

"There's only one thing that's every thrown him for a loop!" murmured Johnny.

"And that...?"

"Is you!"  His eyes were accusing -- almost as if he blamed her for the bronze man's present condition.  

She stared at him, and it was as if a veil had suddenly been drawn from her eyes.  Johnny all but reeled from the impact of the emotion he saw there!  It was a timeless, haunting, devastating, consuming love.  She drew the emotional veil -- once again shielding her soul.  "And that is what he has done to me!" she whispered.  "No man has ever, ever done to me what he has done!"

She turned from him and walked to a shadowed corner of the room.

Johnny let her go, and sank wearily back into a large chair near Doc's bed.  He had been two days and a night and a half without sleep, and it was beginning to wear on him.  The tension of the situation had eaten up the normally large reserves of energy that, under normal circumstances, would have kept him going for another day before exhaustion would have claimed him.

Monk had fallen asleep on the couch, and both Johnny and the Countess had deemed it good to let him get some rest.  He had given Doc more of his blood than he could really afford without some debilitating side-effects.

Johnny's eyelids drooped.  He jerked himself awake.  He dared not fall asleep tonight!!

The Countess was apparently examining something else she had found in Doc's clothing.  She looked up and saw Johnny's predicament.  She rose and crossed to him.

"Professor Littlejohn, get some sleep.  I will keep watch and call you if anything untoward happens."

"But...you...don't know..."

She touched a finger to his forehead and said..."Sleep".

Blackness, like soft, ebon velvet, swallowed him.

She gazed for a moment at the two sleeping men, and smiled a soft, sad smile.  She turned and glided to the bed.

"Now, beloved, it is our time," she whispered.

The golden eyes of Doc Savage fluttered open.  Had her will called him back to consciousness?  He watched dreamily as her soft, white hands began to undo a bandage that swathed his neck.

Suddenly, her eyes widened in terror, and she shrank away from him.

Something was dreadfully wrong!  He touched the bandage and was aware of something warm.  It was a tiny chain with a talisman -- a cross, his sensitive fingers told him -- that had been entwined in the dressing.

A cross?  Warm to his touch?  The woman he loved shrinking away from it in horror?!

The hot light of understanding flamed in his eyes and a trilling filled the room.  It was trilling such as the world had never heard before!  It held no joyous notes -- only profound knowledge...and a pervading sadness.  His expression begged her to refute the knowledge he had gained.

His hand closed around the cross.  It was warm to his touch, but not uncomfortably so.

She spoke no work -- her eyes said all.  "Take that off and we may be one -- throughout eternity!  Retain it -- and what we had can never again be!"

She could command him to remove it and he would have to obey...he knew this!  WOULD she command him..."

She dropped her eyes.  No...the choice was his.

She did, however, have one last ace to play.  She raised her eyes once again and Doc saw mirrored there the cosmic love for him that had forced her to do what she had done.

His lips tightened to a fine, almost imperceptive line as his eyes closed.

Suddenly, the whole room shook!  Great rumblings filled the night air.

Monk and Johnny snapped awake and rushed to the curtained window.  Pulling aside the heavy draperies, they looked out.

"Oh my God!" breathed Johnny.  "The hills are collapsing!  The caverns have been blown up!  Renny...Long Tom..."

"Ham!" wailed Monk.

The two raced across the room, through the door and down the stairs.  the Countess moved to get out of their way.  She followed them to the head of the stairs, and watched as they disappeared in the direction of the kitchen.  She returned to the shadowed room.

Her eyes widened as she saw Doc Savage's outflung arm.  In his hand was the remains of the neck-bandage and a broken silver chain.  The cross was nowhere to be seen.

Her way to him was clear now!  "But...why?" she mused.  Had he accidentally broken the chain when returning unconsciousness claimed him...or had he chosen to give himself to her deadly embrace?!

Did it matter?  He was hers now.  Her lips brushed his and traveled across his cheek to the pulsing life-stream in his throat.  She paused a moment above the tiny wounds she had made twice before.

Doc's eyes flickered open briefly, then closed...as a deeper unconsciousness claimed him.  His exhaled breath formed two whispered words.

She hesitated a moment, then her eyes flashed fire as the tiny, sharp canine teeth pushed against his jugular.

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.