CHAPTER 17: The Deadly General

Johnny and Monk tumbled into the kitchen, where the women were scurrying like frightened mice.

"The tombs?  Where?" Johnny rapped. 

The women were too frightened or muddled to answer.  Monk began flinging open doors until one belched dust and swirling dirt.

"This way!" he yelled, diving through the opening.  Johnny followed, soon caught up to Monk and assumed the lead.  The exertion was telling on the homely chemist.

"Dang place has more doors than Doc's office has push-buttons!" muttered Monk.

"Yeah..." agreed Johnny.  Then he stopped dead in his tracks.  "Doc's OFFICE!!  Oh, Lord!"

Monk all but crashed into him.  "What the..."

"Monk!"  Johnny was near-hysterical.  "You've got to go back!  You've got to save Doc!  Monk...the Countess is the vampire!"

"Are you daft, or something?" queried Monk.

"No...you see, it's the one clue in the back of my mind that I couldn't remember!  In Doc's office the night the Countess and the Premier were there -- I saw the whole room reflected in the window just before that plane shattered it!  Everyone was there -- except the Countess!  There was no reflection of her...the chair she was sitting in was empty!"

"You're sure?"

"Positive!"

"Oh, no...we left her alone with him!" gasped Monk.  "But...what about the guys?"

"I'll see about them...you get back to Doc!  He's got some protection on him, but it may not be enough!"

Monk turned and scurried for the upstairs.  Johnny hesitated a moment, as if unsure of which direction needed him more.  The yelling of men decided him.  He turned and raced into the tombs.

The mouth of the tunnel still boiled with dust.  Further in, Johnny could hear coughing men digging wildly at a collapsed wall.  The great central cavern had apparently withstood the shock of the falling tunnels due to its dome-like structure.  The stable-boys and grooms that had followed Renny, Long Tom and Ham into the caverns were digging frantically at one of the tunnel mouths.  Johnny joined them.

They dug for some time -- each minute seeming like an hour in the dust-choked atmosphere.  Johnny wished he had retained some of the breathing devices -- but they were all with the three trapped men!

Suddenly, a huge slab flew into the chamber!  Behind it was a massive fist!

It was only minutes  later that all three adventurers were standing -- dirty, disheveled, but distinctly alive -- in the great chamber.

"Large wedge of stone fell and shielded us when the rest of the tunnel collapsed," Renny said by way of explanation.  The three had only sight cuts and bruises to show for their harrowing experience.

"Damned idiots panicked and started shooting!" growled Ham.  "They're all dead in there, that's for sure!  So much for Doc's grand rescue scheme...we can't say we didn't try!"

In the moment of silence that followed that pronouncement, they were able to faintly hear the choked scream of horror that came from the upper reaches of the castle. 

"Doc!" Johnny charged from the cavern.  The three had heard the note of wild hysteria in the gaunt geologist's voice. T hey leapt after him as fast as their battered bodies could take them.

* * * * *

Monk had charged through the kitchen, scattering serving girls and cooks.  He raced to the stairs and looked up.  He could just make out Doc's doorway from where he stood.  Next to it was the figure of a man.  Monk knew that figure!  It was General Radu Tepesh!

With a bellow, Monk flung himself up the stairs.  At the top of the stairs, he was grabbed from behind.

Monk had always been a scrapper-par-excellance, but he was not at the peak of his condition at this particular moment.  Under normal circumstances, his attacker wouldn't have stood much of a chance against Monk's massive strength.  Monk, however, was still weak from the loss of so much of his own blood.  he was quickly clubbed unconscious.

"Doc...I've failed you..." was his only thought as blackness claimed him.

Svorza grinned at his chief.  "The bronze one is yours, Master!" he sneered as he dropped Monk's inert form to the floor.

"Keep watch here.  There may be others coming."  Tepesh eased the door open and slipped into the room.

Svorza slipped back into the shadow.  He had no doubt that his leader would finish the bronze devil that had haunted his dreams ever since he had first seen him on the flying field of Long Island.

He had not even time to squeal when a cold hand reached out of the blackness and snapped his neck.  His dying sensation was one of terrifying red eyes boring into his very soul!

The dark form hovered above Monk for a moment, then moved to the door that Tepesh had entered.

* * * * *

She had been poised above Doc Savage's throat when she had heard the stealthy steps outside the door.  Wishing no interruptions to their unholy nuptials, she had drawn back and become an insubstantial shadow near the door.

Monk's fate had alerted her to the second menace at the head of the stairs.  It was the work of mere seconds to dispose of that one.  A moment more assured her that the gorilloid chemist had suffered no permanent harm.  She was glad -- for she had grown to like these friends of her beloved.

There remained, however, the one before her.  She watched as he crossed the room.  She would be sure of his intent before she acted.  The papers and documents she had found secreted in Doc's clothing had pointed to these two as the ring-leaders of the band of would-be invaders off of which she had been feeding for months.  If he posed no threat to her chosen mate, Tepesh could continue his puerile plotting.  He would get nowhere...and after all, food was food!  Having a handy supply meant she did not have to range so far into enemy territory for sustenance.  Her own people had been safe from her predations for centuries.  She had protected them...and they had protected her!

Tepesh crossed cautiously to the great bed.  It was obvious that he had great respect for the bronze giant's abilities...for he circled the bed, checking the recumbent form form all directions.  He was taking no chances with this one!  The servants had gossiped that he was near death...and so it seemed, but one could not be too careful!  He wet his thin lips.  He should have let Svorza handle this...

He eased the second pillow off the bed and circled to the side on which the bronze man lay.  If Doc Savage were truly as weak as the servants seemed to think, a few moments beneath the suffocating pillow would suffice to kill him!  'Death from respiratory failure' the coroner's report would read.  He would make sure of that!

Tepesh smiled to himself.  It would be so easy!  He could see it now...sorrow over Doc Savage's death would drive the Countess into his oh-so-comforting arms!  He pushed the pillow down on the unconscious face of the man whose death he desired above all else!

The massive form beneath him convulsed weakly.  Feeble as the defense was, it nearly unbalanced Tepesh.  he steadied himself and pushed down harder!

The attack, when it came, was totally unexpected!  One second Tepesh had been sure of victory over his nemesis; the next, he was flying through the air to crash against the far wall!

A cold hand lifted him effortlessly by his neck.  The strength in that grip was terrible!  Tepesh opened his eyes to gaze with horror on his captor.  It was the regal form of the Countess Aldea!  Her eyes blazed blood red in the low light.

"SO..." she hissed, "Miserable, cowardly worm that you are...you would seek to take from me the one man who, in FIVE HUNDRED YEARS, has proved to be the only one worthy of being my mate!  Cur!  He is MINE!  Never will your filthy human hands harm him!"

She tightened her grip on his throat, and he choked and turned purple before she threw him to the floor.

She turned to the bed to assure herself of Doc's well-being.  He was still breathing.  Good!  If he died now, of natural causes, he would be lost to her...truly dead, as were the others she had fed on for centuries.  If a would-be invader left her country after the first attack, she would let him go.  If he persisted in his aggression against her country, she would feed on him a second time...then give him a quick, natural death by tearing out his throat.  Only those who died from being bitten three or more times would become vampires like herself.  She had used this fact to keep her fiefdom from being over-run with the numerous vampires her predations would otherwise have produced.  She returned her attention to the man on the floor.

He had used her moment of inattention to collect himself for a spring.  He leapt at her...and passed through her as she became ebon mist.  

Stark terror suffused his features as he realized the nature of his adversary!  He had not dreamed...!  Here was the answer to the losses his forces had sustained.  He had recognized the bodies of the slain men found in the forest as those missing from his band.  He had been at a loss to explain the nature of their deaths!  He knew he would take this knowledge to his grave if he did not do something...fast!  He sought to dodge around her and break for the door!

A lightning-swift hand snaked out and once again gripped him by the throat.

"Puerile fool!  You will not escape to inform the authorities of my existence!"  She smiled a deadly smile as she dragged him effortlessly to the balcony.  "Nor shall I soil my lips with your cowardly blood when my mate awaits my nuptial kiss!"

She held him above the abyss for a moment, savoring his terror!  It was as much as he deserved for attacking her beloved!

His wail of terror was cut short as he snapped her hand, tearing out his throat.  His lifeless body fell to the rocks below.  She opened her hand, and what had been his throat followed him.

The Countess looked with distaste at the blood that dripped from her hand.  The crimson fluid fell to the balcony floor as her hand became intangible...then re-formed...pure and unsullied.

She looked up.  The sky was lighter, and below her the eastern faces of the hills showed the first tinges of dawn-light!  The sounds of Doc's men racing through the castle reached her ears.  There was no time now for their final joining!

She returned to the bed.  Her cool fingers found Doc's forehead.  "Tonight, my love, at sundown...you will come to me in my...Fortress of Solitude!"  She implanted the command in his mind.  He would come!  They would be one...forever!

She became a shadow that fled tomb-ward as the pre-dawn light brightened.

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.