CHAPTER 18: The Death of a Legend

Monk was just regaining consciousness at the top of the stairs when Johnny, Renny, Long Tom, Ham and half a dozen servants arrived.  The servants eyed the body of Svorza with fear as Johnny helped Monk to his feet.

"You O.K., Monk?" he queried.

"Yeah...but what about Doc?"  Monk's eyes were haunted.

Without a backward glance at the body of Monk's assailant, the five friends raced for the bedroom where their bronze leader lay.  Johnny ran to the bed and examined the sleeping man therein.  He scratched his head.

"Well, I'll be superamalgamated!  If I was Doc...I'd TRILL!" he said.  "This is a propitious eventuality indicating...dammit...I don't know what it indicates!"

"What's up, Johnny?"  The others gathered round.

"There's no new wounds!"  Johnny declared.  "I don't understand it!  I'm immeasurably glad...but I don't understand it!  The bandage and cross have been removed but he hasn't been attacked...that I can see!"

"Where's Tepesh?" Monk asked.  "He was sneaking towards the door when I was jumped and knocked out."

"Tepesh?!  The vampire?"  Renny exploded.  "He was in here?"

"Where's the Countess?  He's got the Countess!" babbled Ham!

Bedlam reigned for the few moments that it took Johnny to collect his thoughts.

"Hold it!" Johnny finally yelled.  "First, let's get rid of the servants so we can talk this out."  He left the room for a few minutes.  When he returned, he shut the door and bolted it.

"They're taking care of that body out there," he said.  "Now...down to brass tacks!  The vampire is not Tepesh...it's the Countess!"

"I don't believe it!" Renny and Ham snapped...almost in unison.

"He's right...it's not Tepesh," said Long Tom.  He was standing at the open window.  "Tepesh is down there!"  He pointed to the rocks below the castle.  They all looked. T hey could see the strangely mutilated body and recognize, even at this distance, the face of the former general.  The great gouts of blood that were congealing on the balcony floor were obviously his.

"Holy cow!" breathed Renny.  "The only other person up here was...the Countess!  An' she's missing!"

"Of course," grimaced Johnny.  "It's dawn!"

The full impact of what he was saying sank in.  The creature who was killing Doc was the one person none of them would have suspected...or would have wanted to harm!

Johnny pondered for several minutes.  "As I see it now," he finally said, "Doc was doomed to fall into this trap from the very beginning!  It combines the two things in the whole world he's never understood; women and...magic!  He could withstand a normal, every-day woman.  He could reason out or work around the occult.  But put them together in the form of a beautiful piece of femininity like that, and have that irresistible piece of deadly femininity fall in love with him, too -- and he didn't stand a chance!  No one would have stood a chance!"

"You sure she loves him?" queried Long Tom.

"Indubitably!  She let me have a glimpse into her -- soul -- I guess.  Make no mistake about it...she loves him!  She'll never let him go!  The blood on his lips makes sense now, too."

"How's that?" asked Ham.

"Well, I had read about it before...and it didn't fit the facts if we assumed Tepesh was the vampire!  You see, there's a ritual that a 'lord' vampire will perform with the one he or she has selected to be its eternal...mate.  It's always a male-female relationship..."

"Sort of a vampire love-story, you mean," mumbled Monk.

"Something like that," agreed Johnny.  "It's a joining -- since each drinks the other's...blood.  It is theorized that this is some kind of a soul-tie so that even if one is destroyed, its spirit will wait for the other one until they are re-united again."

"And she made Doc drink her blood -- to bind him to her for all time!"  Renny let out a long, low whistle.

"Um...she was probably going to complete the ritual by finishing him off this evening, so that in three days he would return to her as her vampire-lover.  Apparently Tepesh busted in...for whatever reason...and delayed her enough so that dawn overtook her.  He paid the price for his meddling, however!"

"You mean...she's going to be back tonight for Doc?" asked Long Tom.

"It would probably be too dangerous for her -- and she knows it!  The cross I hid in the bandage will tell her we've figured out what's going on...and that we'll be ready for her!"  Johnny considered for a moment.  "No...she'll probably rely on Doc's prowess and ability to slip away to a pre-arranged meeting-place.  If she planted a command in his mind, he'll have to go -- when the time comes!"

"What'll we do?  We can't let her have him!  She'll kill him!" despaired Renny.

"We'll have to find her -- this morning -- and...destroy her!"  Johnny was subdued.  The only course open to them was so painful.  They had all grown to love the quiet, gentle, regal woman that had brought such joy to Doc.

"Why this morning, Johnny?  I thought vampires could only come out after dark!"  Monk shivered.

"Remember, we've seen her about the castle in the afternoon," offered the gaunt geologist.  "Very old vampires can move about in subdued lighting in the afternoon.  They just can't change shape until sundown."

"C-C-Change shape...?"  Monk gulped.

"Yes...you know, bats, wolves; a vampire can theoretically transmute its physical make-up to other forms.  The saving grace is that they must be in their coffins during the rising hours of the sun...that's between dawn and noon!  We've got to get going if we're going to find her in time!"

Bone-weary though they were, they started at the top of the castle and worked down.  They tapped walls for hidden passageways.  They explored any nook large enough to hold a human body -- and some that weren't!  A small amount of time was lost extracting Monk from a corner he'd crawled into and gotten stuck in.

It was nearly noon when they had all reached the final level of the tombs.  They had found nothing and were tired. They had unobtrusively picked up some pointed stakes in the stable-yard, and the weight of these had only added to their weariness.

Monk peered into the last casket.  "Ugh...that ain't her!" he sighed as he closed the lid and leaned over the ornate top.  "Dammit, Johnny!  There isn't a single wall, floor or ceiling that we haven't pounded the daylights out of -- and there's no secret hidey-holes anywhere!"

"Secret...secret hidey-holes!  OH!  For the love of mud!  Where's my brain?!"  Ham exploded.

"Now that's what I been askin' YOU for the last umpteen-zillion years!" sneered Monk.

"What do you mean, Ham?"  Johnny had detected a note of sudden hope in Ham's voice.

Ham walked to the southeast wall and searched for a moment.  Suddenly, he pressed what appeared to be solid stone -- and a door swung silently open.

"This is it..." he said quietly, "It's got to be!  I followed Doc down here one day and watched him open this portal.  He didn't go in -- just looked at the door, closed it and turned around and went back upstairs.  I followed him back up and thought no more about it -- until now!"

Johnny peered into the cobweb-shrouded, phosphorus-lit interior.  "Let's go, brothers.  We don't have much time, and Doc's life is riding on this being the place we're after!"

The cavern, with its centuries-old treasure hoard stunned them.

"Millions...no...billions...!" gulped Monk.  "Doc knew about this...an' didn't say a word about it!"

"It was obviously a secret that he felt it imperative to keep," murmured Johnny.  "Perhaps...if we find the Countess here...we should move her out to the tombs and re-seal this place."  There were nods of agreement from the others.

"The path through the dust leads to this wall and disappears."  Renny examined the wall he was facing.

They all searched, poked and prodded the wall -- to no avail.  If there was an opening or a mechanism to open a portal, it eluded them!

* * * * *

She felt their presence.  Her mind-force reached out and saw them as they searched the castle.  Others throughout history had tried just this.  Her hiding place had never been found!

She mentally followed their progress.  The castle was so much a part of her that even in her sleep-time she was aware of all that transpired within its walls.  Her amused approval at the thoroughness of their search turned to alarm only when the found and opened the secret entrance in the tombs.

Her beloved's aides were capable and intelligent men!  It was a measure of the respect they had for him that they -- who were formidable opponents in their own right -- deferred to his knowledge and leadership.  If they had come this far, they would find her -- she was sure!  She directed her mental energies into a tight, powerful beam towards the second floor of the edifice above her.

"Beloved!  Come to me!  Now!  I am in great danger!"

* * * * *

It was Johnny -- whose years of digging up elusive tombs stood him in good stead -- who found the tiny crack of the hidden door, and discovered that a small amount of pressure on its pivotal point would swing the great stone slab open.

The muted light of phosphorous in the hidden room was slightly augmented by two large, flickering candles on either side of the ornate black casket.  They cast a roseate glow on the sleeping woman.  The five men stood transfixed by her dark, voluptuous beauty.

"Johnny...do we have to do this...?" breathed Monk faintly, "She's so beautiful!"

Johnny touched the ebon cloud of hair that framed the ivory pureness of her face.  His eyes blurred and his resolve began to waver as he watched the tiny hypnotic movement of her lips as she breathed...slowly...faintly...

If only she ad not used her succubus-like powers to seduce Doc!  If only she had given him a chance -- a choice!  Perhaps...

A bronze shadow loomed in the doorway, its eyes flashing red-gold fire!

The mindless hell-fire in Doc's eyes snapped Johnny back to reality!  "Grab him!" he yelled!

The four men hurled themselves at Doc, Pinioning his arms.  His massive muscles bunched and rippled and it was all they could do to barely hang on to him.  Had Doc had his full strength, things might have been different -- as it was -- Johnny beat him to the casket.

With one mighty thrust, Johnny sent the stake through the Countess's heart and into the wooden bottom of the coffin.

"Beloved!" was her death-cry as she crumbled to centuries-old dust!

"NOOOOOO!" Doc's scream was a paean of anguish that was tinged with madness!  Doc's one and only nightmare -- that of standing helplessly by while the woman he loved was slain -- had happened!

The incipient insanity in that scream spurred Monk to frenzied activity.  He reached into his pocket and his fingers closed around a small glass capsule.  The tiny tinkle of breaking glass wasn't even heard, so emotionally charged was the atmosphere of the room.  Seconds later, five forms lay on the cold stone floor.

After a minute, Monk released his breath.  He walked softly to Doc, reached down, touched the wetness on the corded bronze cheeks and began to weep softly.

"I'm sorry...Doc...Oh, God!...I'm so sorry..."

His shaking hands reached to an inner pocket in his jacket.  He extracted a compact chemical case that Doc had designed.  Opening it, he selected a color-coded vial of clear fluid, filled a hypodermic syringe with the potent anesthetic, and emptied it into Doc's veins.  Doc would be unconscious until a proper counter-agent was administered.

Monk could have restored his companions to consciousness by administering a stimulant designed to counteract the effects of the gas -- but he chose to let them sleep it off.  He needed time to think!  When they finally revived, he was ready for them.

"Let's go, you guys!  We've got a lot of work to do!"  He explained his idea to them.

"Do you think we can pull that off?" muttered Ham, who made it a policy to disagree with the homely chemist at every opportunity.

"Monk's right, Ham."  Johnny, too, had heard the touch of madness in Doc's scream.  "It's the only thing we can do to help Doc.  Nothing in his crazy up-bringing ever prepared him to cope with something like this!"

"Let me get this straight," muttered Renny.  "When we bring Doc out of it, he's got to think the whole episode is nothing but a dream!?!"

"Yeah..." said Monk, "A big, very bad...dream!"

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.