This time its "Doc Savage: Up from Earth's Center" part 3, By Lester Dent
The nature of the cavern underwent a change as they descended. It grew somewhat in proportions, becoming more precipitous but not unpleasant. The air took on a different and more pungent quality. And the strange blossom-like odor they had noted earlier becoming more pronounced.
At length and alarmed by the growing pungency of the aroma, Doc Savage stopped and used some materials from the equipment case he had been carrying -- a few chemicals capable of making a fairly accurate analysis of almost any substance -- to examine the air for dangerous gas. Monk's party joined him for this and stood watching tense and poised as if momentarily expecting that the intense silence -- which had become a ponderous force against their peace-of-mind -- would explode or in some other way become a danger.
The analysis having shown nothing dangerous (not even what the odor was!), they resumed the descent in the same manner as before with Doc Savage and Wail leading, Monk and Linningen trailing a precautionary distance to the rear.
Doc still kept the rope end fastened to Wail, giving the man 20 feet or so of play which seemed ample. Wail had not objected and, in fact, it was a good safety measure because the way was becoming increasingly trying.
Suddenly, things began happening.
The rope -- which Doc had been keeping snug -- did not respond with the proper feel when Doc tugged it. Lunging forward, Doc found that Wail had adroitly slipped the rope and secured it to a rocky stalactite, numbers of which were to be found around them.
"Wail!" Doc rapped and dashed the beam of his flashlight about.
Monk yelled anxiously, "What is it, Doc? An ambush? You need help?"
At that moment, Doc caught a flicker of expensive gray coattails vanishing in a thin forest of stone pillars. He sprang forward.
"Wail's escaping!" Doc shouted over his shoulder to Monk. "You and Linningen stay where you are! Don't leave the trail we've been following. You might never find it again!"
Monk howled that he understood. And he added an imprecation directed at Mr. Wail.
Doc himself had an opinion of Wail at the moment. More respectful. The man was fleet -- faster than Doc believed such chubbiness would have permitted. However, they were on good firm footing as his flashlight disclosed.
Then it came to him how incredible it was that Wail could make such speed in blackest darkness. Wail had no flashlight! Yet the man was making respectable time. And doing it almost without sound.
Angered by Wail's performance and disgusted by his own gullibility in being duped by the rope tied to the stone -- even though that had been for only a few moments -- Doc made better speed himself than he would have conceded he could make.
The chase went on-and-on. Wail managed to keep tantalizingly out of reach although he seemed to be losing his lead. Doc fell twice.
Finally, when Wail began to change course, Doc gained confidence. He used the black-light generator continually now, pumping the generator handle with his fingers. It like their flashlights was hand generator-driven. So the problem of batteries that would exhaust themselves was not a plague.
They must have covered, Doc reflected, at least 2 miles of labyrinthine caverns before he got close enough to chance a lunge at Wail. To his disgust, his fingertips merely gave Wail's expensive suit a futile rake. The near-capture stimulated Wail to greater speed and he drew slightly ahead.
And now Doc began to believe (and condemned himself for being fool enough to think so) that in some fashion, Wail could make his own illumination. That incredibly, there was a kind of luminous aura about the fat little scoundrel.
In a voice more of anger than terror, Wail shouted, "You'd better go back, Savage!"
"That," Doc retorted, putting on a burst of speed, "would be a fine break for you now that you're about to be caught."
Wail responded by spinning around a stalagmite so that Doc momentarily lost trace of him. A scraping sound -- a small noise with frenzy in it -- drew Doc ahead. He came to a narrow fissure which slashed into the stone about 45 degrees from the vertical and which seemed to extend endlessly.
Wail was squirming along the fissure, standing upright, moving sidewise. Doc followed. For the next several minutes, each man put everything into effort. And as the fissure narrowed, Doc fastened his hands into Wail's coat.
A stifled shriek came from Wail. The man exerted himself tremendously. There must have been a crevice because he pushed ahead literally dragging Doc Savage. And then suddenly Wail was out of the crevice into a larger chamber beyond. And out of his coat, too.
Carrying Wail's garment, Doc sprinted after the man. There seemed to be light here -- a phosphorescent-like illumination of greenish-purple nature. At least, Doc was able to see Wail. And presently he hurled Wail's coat! The garment entangled the chubby man's feet and the latter fell headlong. Doc landed astride him.
Wail was limp and very still for a long time. When finally he spoke, it was to say "Damn you!" in the bitterest of tones.
"I didn't think you had it in you to give me a chase like that," Doc told him tiredly.
"Damn you!" Wail repeated acidly. "If it hadn't been for your nagging, I would never have come back here. I don't think I would have had to. I could have coped with that Williams. He didn't have full powers, either. I don't think he ranks any higher than I do."
Doc said, "So you're still keeping up that pretense."
"Pretense? Look around you!" Wail blurted.
Warily suspecting a trick, Doc glanced about. He had been conscious of the strangely unholy purplish illumination. Now its abnormality and downright impossibility hit him a full blow. Not impossibility, exactly, because there was indeed luminance.
"What makes the light?" he demanded of Wail.
Sneeringly, the fat man retorted, "Nuts to you! From now on, you're going to have too many questions for me to bother answering. You remember that crevice we just squeezed through? Well, that's the one the earthquake opened."
"The one Gilmore Sullivan found?"
Then Doc caught himself. "Cut it out, Wail. I've had enough of this Hades stuff."
"Oh you have, have you?" asked Wail. "Just where do you think you are, anyway?"
More at a loss for a reply than he would have liked to admit, Doc countered with a question.
'What goes on here? Some kind of secret mining operation? Are they mining atomic fission materials?"
Wail refused to answer. Doc rolled him over, lashed the man's hands securely, took turns of the rope around the chubby body, and retained the rope end as before.
"This time," he said, "you won't slip out of it so easily."
"It's too late," Wail said. "Just look around."
"I intend to do so."
This alarmed Wail and he gasped, "No, no! You can still escape … maybe. One thing is for sure. You can head off Williams, the girl, and her brother."
"You seem certain that Williams and his prisoners haven't reached here yet," Doc remarked.
"Of course they haven't! We circled around them on the way down."
Doc jerked Wail to his feet, returned to the mouth of the fissure, and used his black-light projector. He didn't find traces of the Williams party. There was no sign of fluorescing footprints.
"No, no! Please!" Wail croaked when Doc turned away from the fissure. "Go back! I'll even show you the way!"
"Shut up," Doc said. "We're going to learn what goes on here."
He advanced a step at a time, patting his pockets to make sure that a half-dozen small high-explosive grenades that he had placed there earlier were safe. Wail was almost a dead weight. He had to push and drag the man along. He kept the flashlight ready. But there was no real need of it. The grim and inexplicable glow that seemed to pervade everywhere furnished at least adequate light for walking, although it was impossible to see a distance of more than a few yards.
Harsh premonition of impending Evil wrapped a clammy sensation about him. But Doc Savage went steadily ahead for he was a man who -- while taking every precaution against any logical danger -- was not inclined to permit mere forebodings to stay him. He was well familiar with Danger. He had walked its path many times before. And he believed that care and a reasonable amount of discretion -- plus the right kind of action at the right time -- was ample armor.
However, he was not prepared for the whispering sound he presently heard. He stopped, arrested by the note. For it was not vocal nor even human. But it had a multitudinous quality and seemed to come from many directions at once.
Then his eye caught movement over to his right. He tensed … faced that direction … and made out a dim, shapeless object or substance that seemed to have nothing in the way of reality except motion. Doc was a brave man. But his skin broke into gooseflesh and revulsion jerked at his stomach as he perceived that a grim, uncanny shape was taking form.
So great was the horror created in him that he stood, rooted, paralyzed. The instinct to flee beat in futile weakness against the frozen coldness -- terror if it were that -- which held him motionless.
The shape became a mass -- formless and gibbous and evil. It had movement and body, but little else that seemed natural. It had no arms, no legs. It was headless and leathery with a sour gray color that shed the ugly purplish-green light with a skull-like sheen.
It came toward him, lurching and rolling so that he could not actually tell how it progressed. There was some odor. Not the flowery one but a dead scent of lifelessness and emptiness.
"Why, I saw the thing earlier and mistook it for a large boulder," he thought. "And it isn't alone!"
Electrified by the last thought and struck by premonition, he whirled to see a towering mass flying at him -- too close upon him to be avoided!
So violent was the impact with which the thing struck Doc Savage that he was driven reeling, knocked breathless, stunned! The flashlight flew from his grasp. It seemed utterly unimportant that he carried a spare. He was down and the forms were lunging for him.
Wail shrieked now! Terror choked the outcry down to a small thing such as a mouse would make. And Wail wheeled and went flying away, ignored by the creatures which were assaulting Doc Savage but in no way reassured by that.
The weird assailant proceeded to attack by falling forward upon Doc Savage. As soon as he understood that, Doc moved with frenzied speed and was partially successful in evading the attack, only his right foot being caught.
But the weight of the thing was terrific, the pain in his foot a splintering agony forcing him to cry out. Doc gave the attacker a savage kick with his free foot! It was the wrong thing to do because it was like kicking solid stone. He wrenched wildly, sure that his foot would never come free of that great weight.
Then it did and he stumbled backward, gaining his feet, hardly able to use the foot.
He ran, though, as he had never run before! And he kept presence of mind enough to combine flight with pursuit of Wail.
Sooner than he expected, he saw Wail and realized that utter terror had rendered the man incapable of doing his best. But Wail was still traveling at a respectable pace.
Turning his head, Doc saw that there was pursuit. There seemed to be dozens of the shapeless objects all bobbing along. An occasional one losing balance and tumbling headlong, but seeming to keep coming even while falling.
Doc whipped a hand to a pocket … located one of the explosive grenades … plucked out the firing mechanism and then hurled it. Excitement caused him to throw the grenade much too hard. It traveled well over the pursuers and landed and exploded at least 10 yards behind them.
The explosion split his eardrums and filled the cavern with blue-white blast flame and cataclysmic noise. It had a surprising effect on the pursuers as well, setting them into utter confusion so that they moved this way and that, bumping together with hard stony sounds and milling senselessly.
Doc overtook Wail. The fat man was lying prone where he had been sent either by a tumble or by the blast force.
Jerking Wail to his feet, Doc demanded, "What are those things? Why did they attack me?"
Wail -- his words a gabble of hysteria -- said, "It wouldn't help if I told you! You're believing nothing I say!"
"Don't quibble!" Doc said angrily. "Come on, let's have an explanation!"
Wail drew in a sobbing breath.
"They're inmates. They're sinners."
"Cut it out!" Doc snapped. "They're some kind of mechanisms disguised as boulders. Isn't that it?"
Wail said, "That's childish and you know it! They're stones all right. They're stones and they can move. But they can't ever escape being stones."
"And you don't call that childish?"
"Not when you're in the outskirts of Hades," Wail replied grimly. "And brother, that's where you are! This is only a mild sample of what it's like down in the main area."
Driven beyond patience, Doc lifted a fist to strike the man. But the pointlessness of that stayed him.
Wail was as terrified as man (or "minor devil") could get, it occurred to Doc. If Wail wouldn't talk sensibly now, he never would.
"Get moving." Doc gave him a shove. "The crevice is over yonder."
"Oh, now you're willing to leave?" Wail snapped.
"Yes. We can come back later with better equipment."
"Once you get out of here," Wail said, "you'll never come back. Not that you'll get out."
Doc shoved him violently! They began to walk carefully and warily through the evil semi-glow. There were now an incredible number of boulders around them. Doc's apprehension ran high until they came abruptly to an end of the stones. He released his breath in relief!
Pleasure was short-lived, however, because they were confronted by a forest of what he took to be some kind of freak trees capable of growth in the cavern. They pushed forward, squeezing between the trunks of the trees which were either purplish in color or so tinted by the lighting. The tree trunks were spongy to the touch like toadstools. And Doc soon found that he could force them apart by main strength whenever they became too thick to permit ready passage.
"Let me set the course," he told Wail when the latter seemed inclined to veer to the right. "We could get lost in here."
"What's the difference? You'll never get out!" Wail muttered.
Seizing Wail, Doc flung him forward, jamming him through openings between the weird trunks. When the way became tight, Doc flung a shoulder against the tree nearest at hand, forcing it to bend.
Instantly there was a vicious hissing sound from the tree. The thing moved! He felt a clutching, slimy, tentacle-like thing around his ankle.
Doc's first thought was that they had disturbed a serpent of some kind. The idea that followed swiftly was that no snake -- even a boa constrictor -- could have such spongy softness.
Then another tentacle fell upon him. And another!
He struck out wildly! In the midst of his struggle, he heard Wail howling. He turned his head to discover the man was also being enveloped. Doc swung back to strike out again at the clammy attackers … but his arm was seized. A tentacle slid around this throat rope-like. Soft and yet strong. He endeavored to kick out and sought to use his arms.
"I'm caught, helpless," he thought. "My God! What are these things? Can this really be Hell?"
A moment later, he was dragged down. The spongy arms covered his face, his mouth.
And then he could no longer breathe …
Monk Mayfair and Dr. Linningen -- after Doc Savage had left them to go in pursuit of Mr. Wail -- did not remain where they were for long. It was Monk's idea that they push ahead on the main purpose of the expedition. Which was freeing the Sullivans from Bill Williams.
"Doc'll catch that Wail guy in no time at all," Monk stated. "He can retrace his way to this spot by the footprints Wail is making. So I can't see that we're needed here. Let's get along."
"I'm game," Linningen said in a tone which denied that he was very enthusiastic.
"You've got quite a bit of nerve," Monk told him approvingly.
"Don't get the idea that I'm not scared," Linningen said.
"I don't care for this cave-crawling myself," Monk said. "Let's whip it up! The sooner we overtake Williams, the sooner gooses are going to be cooked."
They traveled rapidly, running whenever they could. Monk was inclined to be more reckless than Doc Savage so that he took more chances with the precipitous going. Linningen -- a spry man -- managed to keep up although his nerves began to fray.
"Take it easier!" Linningen blurted finally. "I don't like the idea of getting killed in a fall."
"Not this close to Tophet anyway, eh?" Monk chuckled hollowly.
Linningen breathed heavily, traveled in silence, and presently asked, "You still take no stock in the Hades story?"
"Now don't start that on me!" Monk growled hastily. "It was bad enough listening to that guy Wail."
"But you don't believe a word of it, is that right?"
"That's right," Monk said.
"How," Linningen asked, "do you account for the several strange things that happened? Wail's presence on the yacht in the cabin where Gilmore Sullivan should have been. Williams paddling out into the tide rip. The accidents that nearly befell me. And the other incidents."
Monk spoke rapidly. He'd clearly prepared the answers earlier for his own reassurance.
"Wail told how he got out to the yacht. In a rented boat. Gilmore left the same way. It just happened nobody saw either of them. As for Williams and the tide rip, we know now that Williams is not on the up-and-up and he was trying to build up this devil story. That's why he paddled out into the tide. He and Wail are probably in cahoots in this thing."
"Oh, you think there's a plot underway."
"I confess I can't figure it out," Linningen admitted. "Do you feel they're after something? Something in this cave, perhaps?"
"I wouldn't be surprised."
"What, for instance?"
"An ore deposit down here, maybe. You know yourself that there could be. Maybe gold. Or maybe something more practical like tin or a pitchblende deposit."
"I hope you're right," Linningen said fervently.
"I better be right," Monk said. "Because if it should turn out that this Wail put it straight, I'm going to be just a little upset."
Linningen chuckled bitterly.
"Think of the problem we would have when we got outside and tried to make ourselves believed."
"I was thinking of that," Monk said. "Let's stop. Do you hear anything?"
They stood there, listening until their ears began the strange ringing that seems to be the human ear's response to silence that is too utter.
Then they caught -- from ahead and far below in the blackness -- a clatter. Presently it was repeated.
"That's either Williams and his prisoners or Doc," Monk said. "Let's not stand here."
They proceeded on with all the speed they could make and still maintain caution. Monk wrapped a handkerchief about the lens of his flashlight to cut down the display of light to that barely necessary.
There came a moment when Linningen seized Monk's shoulder (nearly startling Monk out of his skin!) and blurted, "Look! It's Williams!"
Far below outlined clearly by a splash of light, they could see Williams moving, driving 2 figures ahead of him.
"Gilmore and the girl are still okay," Monk breathed. "See! Williams is keeping a gun on them -- the way Doc had it figured."
"Come on," said Linningen grimly. "Let's overtake them, end it or get ended ourselves, and backtrack out of here. I've had my caverning for today,"
Monk hurried forward, drawing his pistol. He did not share Doc Savage's feeling that a firearm was a source of trouble and a crutch which a man should not come to depend upon. And whereas Doc never carried a gun, Monk went armed with a type of machine-pistol which he and Renny Renwick (the engineer of their organization) had developed for their own use. The gun could get rid of an astonishing number of cartridges in a few moments and handle a variety of missiles including explosives, armor-piercing, so-called "mercy" bullets, gas pellets, and thermite slugs for melting metal and incendiary purposes.
As it developed, Monk would have done better to keep his hands unimpeded because suddenly -- and at exactly the wrong moment -- his feet slipped on a slimy chute of stone. The underpinning shot from under him and down he went. He slid several yards with all the "stealth" of an unloaded truckful of brick! Worse, in the pawing for security (he didn't know what kind of an abyss he might slide off into in the darkness) he lost the machine-pistol!
Smashing against a solid bottom finally, he lay gasping. Then there was an ear-smacking crash -- the noise of a gun exploding. The bullet hit very close. The lead splashed and went into Monk's cheek skin like needles. He howled and rolled frantically in the wrong direction too because suddenly he saw Williams standing a few feet away and drawing a deliberate aim on him.
Then Williams barked in pain and the rifle was smashed from his clutch. Linningen -- from above -- had hurled a large stone with wonderful aim.
Wondering where Williams had got the rifle, Monk dived at the man. Williams gave up an attempt to retrieve the gun, swung a shoulder, and met Monk's charge with a straight-arm that was very good football. Driven aside, Monk managed to kick the rifle which no doubt Williams must have found around the ledge or perhaps in Gilmore's possession.
"Damn you, Williams!"
Monk said and reversed the rifle as a club. Williams instantly wheeled and fled. The darkness swallowed him.
Monk yelled, "Stop! I'll shoot you, Williams! Damned if I won't!"
Williams kept going. Taking no time to aim, Monk fired the rifle and was presented with one of the lucky escapes of his lifetime. Because the rifle barrel had been bent -- or more likely cave slime jammed into the bore -- so that the whole breech went out. And violently Williams went on. Faster, if anything.
"Monk, be careful! For God's sake, be careful!" a male voice (evidently belonging to Gilmore Sullivan) shrieked from nearby.
Already lunging after Williams, Monk shouted, "Is Leona okay?"
The voice said she was. It added, "Careful of Williams! He's a devil!"
Which statement -- considering the circumstances -- meant more to Monk than it would normally have conveyed.
Gilmore Sullivan's voice had the thin, weary, desperate quality of a loose fiddle string. Monk imagined him as a collection of bones held together by a few threads of hopelessness. That was -- come to think of it -- about the way he had been described by Linningen, the man who had found him on the rock in the sea.
The chase lacked nothing in feverish effort. Monk had much the same experience as Doc Savage earlier. His quarry began showing signs of speed and endurance beyond human. In Monk's case, however, astonishment was not as intense because he recalled hearing Williams had been a former football notable.
Williams -- a noted football man?
"Who says so?" Monk thought wildly.
Monk himself was a sports fan, one of the breed who read all the records and can quote from them for 20 years back.
"I don't remember any guy of his description!"
Williams had held forth to be a radio commentator in the sports field as well.
"On what station? I never heard of him!"
Monk got no further with his mental inspection of Williams. two things made a sudden appearance to black his mind of anything but action and terror. First, there was the sudden feeling that Williams didn't need any light -- that the fellow could move full-speed through the blackest of stygian murk without illumination. Before that could fully develop in Monk's head, Williams popped into a narrow crevice that slanted somewhat from the vertical. He disappeared.
Plunging into the crack after Williams, Monk found himself in an unnerving position. He was a sitting duck in case Williams had another gun and chose to use it. And Williams would certainly choose. The fact he didn't cut loose now seemed proof he didn't have another.
And there was Monk's claustrophobia.
Monk's revulsion against tight places applied particularly to stone. Now, squirming sidewise through a crevice which seemed to be narrowing, Monk began to have the ghastly conviction that the stone -- several billions of tons of it -- was slowly sliding together to close the crack. The fact that the inroad of terror immediately made his apish body swell was no help.
Finally, he wedged helplessly and had to sink his teeth in his tongue to keep from bawling in an agony of frustrated terror. This happened about 25 feet from the far end of the crevice. Williams -- completing the passage -- immediately pounded on a loose stone and hurled it into the slit in an effort to brain Monk.
The hard-thrown rock was a blessing Monk badly needed! It hit his head, laid open his scalp, and kayoed him for a moment. The brief unconsciousness forced his body to relax. Thus loosened, he became free in the crevice and sagged. Also, dazed rage replaced terror so he did not tighten his muscles until he had scrambled out of the thin passage.
Williams ran. Howling incoherently (the roaring was characteristic of Monk when violently aroused), Monk pursued him!
The cavern gave a weirdly different impression now. There was a feeling of vast space without there really being space. There were columns, passages, weirdly meandering tunnels. A vile pale glow-yellow it seemed to Monk (although there was later argument about that) gave some illumination.
The tangle of stone increased and became labyrinthine, unreal. It was exactly like a forest.
It was a forest, Monk suddenly concluded. The stuff around him was not stone but felt spongy and nasty to his touch. And it was moving! Swaying, writhing, the things about him seemed to be clutching at him!
Now Monk did what he had been planning to do as a last resort. He hauled out one of Doc's explosive grenades, pulled the pin, and got rid of it. He threw the metal pellet carefully sending it through an opening in the impossible thicket of slimy, clutching objects. The grenade exploded about 30 feet distant!
Sheeting flame, noise! Then an odor, sickening and weird. It was a smell that Monk knew instinctively to be the scent of fear.
And then silence. Utter stillness and motionlessness. And Monk -- who had been knocked off his feet by the blast -- chanced to touch one of the tree-like forms that had been slimy and spongy.
And now it was as hard as stone!
There was a voice -- Doc Savage's voice -- shouting, "Monk! Where are you?"
"Damned if I know where I am!" Monk croaked. "It beats me!"
"Did you come in through that crevice?"
"Get back to it. Fast!"
Monk said, "Williams is in here somewhere. There's some kind of tree-sized weeds or something that grab at you. I threw a grenade and … "
"… and you'll never get out of here unless you move fast! Run, you idiot!" Doc interrupted.
Monk got into motion, wheeled, and ran in the direction of Doc's voice. He saw the bronze man presently. Doc was running also, and they sprinted in silence to the crevice.
Doc said, "That crack is a tight fit. But try not to kill any time getting through."
"I don't plan to!" Monk told him.
Then he stretched his arms above his head and began to sidle through the crevice with more speed than he had imagined possible.
Following close behind Monk, Doc said, "It was a good thing you used that grenade. It saved things for me."
"It didn't do me any harm either," Monk assured him. "Something was closing in on me in there and the explosion -- I think it was really the flash of flame -- put a stop to it."
A scrambling and whimpering came from behind them. Turning his head, Doc decided that Mr. Wail was following through the crevice. Wail made good speed. He was on Doc's heels when they finished negotiating the narrow passage.
"I don't like this place," Wail gasped. "Let's get out of here!"
Which could well be, Doc reflected, the understatement of the day.
"They're following us!" Monk said and pointed at the crevice.
Gold sweat stood on Doc's face as he stared back into the split of a passage. He saw that the far end of the crevice was filling with dark masses. They either had no real shape or there was not the light to give them form.
"Get back!" Doc shouted into the crevice. "Get back or we'll use another grenade!"
The warning had no effect. The passage continued to fill with dragging, inexorable figures. And now they were making a sound -- a clicking and hissing -- a sound that was rage and hunger and bestiality.
"Run!" Doc told Monk. "Linningen and the Sullivans are back there somewhere. Keep shouting so they can identify you. And keep a hold on Wail if you can."
Wail shrieked, "Throw fire at them! Flame will stop them. They're afraid of flame! Throw … "
Monk promptly seized him by the collar and hauled him away.
Searching in his pockets, Doc Savage found only 2 more of the explosive grenades. He unpinned one … smothered a frenzied impulse to throw it directly among the horde of pursuers that now packed the crevice far half its depth … and dropped it at a point where he hoped it would loosen a slide of rock that would fill the crevice.
When the explosion came, he was yards away and running hard. The solid stone seemed to jerk away under his feet from the blast force, making him stumble. Somewhere overhead and to the left, a great shaft of stone broke free of the ceiling and fell with a jumbled roar that mixed with and accented the avalanche of stone that was closing the crevice. He could hear loose boulders hopping down inclines.
Sounding far away, he heard Linningen begin bellowing anxiously demands about their safety.
"Go on!" he shouted after Monk. "Keep running!"
He waited until he saw the white ghost of Monk's flashlight beam … felt absurdly grateful that Monk had retained the little flash … and wheeled to watch the mass of stone now jagged and jumbled where the crevice had been. He put his own flashlight beam on the spot.
Several minutes passed. He could hear the excited shouts as Monk and Wail joined Linningen and the Sullivans. He heard them continue onward. Their sounds nearly died away.
Then he heard weak, horrible sounds coming from the mass of fallen stone that had filled the crevice. He heard the sounds grow stronger until at last they became movement. A hideous figure began to drag itself from an aperture between the blocks of broken stone. The creature -- a hideous caricature of humanity -- spread itself over the broken stone, clawing and whimpering.
It began crawling toward Doc Savage, moving on all fours stiffly and on dead limbs.
"Help, help!" it wailed. "We must go back. Help us to go back."
Clawing its way to Doc's feet, the creature clamped its paws about his ankles.
"Help!" it gasped.
Suddenly Doc screamed! It was probably the first shriek of unadulterated terror he had given in his lifetime. He kicked wildly at the creature which had buried its bony claws in his legs.
He fought madly! The thing began to climb up his body, sinking claw-like fingers into his flesh, reaching upward for another handhold.
Doc slugged and pitched about! With ghastly persistence, the thing clung to him getting nearer and nearer his face.
Then the creature was at his throat, trying to drive small blunt teeth through the skin. Doc stumbled and fell, conscious of the thing gnawing (gnawing like a vile rat!) seeking his jugular and his blood.
The tentacles of the creature that embraced him. Indeed, the thing's whole body felt spongy and slimy. And about it was the odor that Monk had noted -- the sickening odor of fear. It seemed to have -- except for its ability to remain fastened upon him -- no real strength. He felt its teeth gnawing madly at his throat with a futile desire to eat.
He remembered then about their fear of flame. His hands were free. The creature seemed to have no desire to pin his hands. He fumbled insanely in his pockets, found his cigarette lighter, and thumbed it into flame.
Instantly, the repulsive thing flew away from him -- covering many feet in one leap -- and flattened itself against the broken stone, wailing with maniacal terror!
Doc Savage sprang to his feet -- more filled with fear than he had ever been in his long perilous career -- and began running. He did not look back. He had no desire to look back.
He climbed until he was spent, shaking …
… and then continued climbing until the pounding exhaustion brought some return of clear thinking. After that, he kept his eyes open and at last chose a place where his final grenade -- judiciously placed -- would bring down a great section of cavern roof, choking any channel below.
He time-fused the grenade and was 400-or-500 feet higher when it exploded, bringing down a thundering mass of stone and sending upward a cloud of rock dust from which he fled in unreasoning terror …
… and which pursued him for a long time, seemingly.
The sergeant of State Police was named Griswold. He was a slender, soft-spoken, middle-aged fellow whose practical outlook seemed unshakeable.
"I think Linningen's explanation is the most practical one," he said.
It was mid-afternoon. Bright sunlight was beating against the pleasant log walls of the lodge and melting the slight skift of snow that had fallen. Doc Savage stood at a window, frowning thoughtfully at the icicles which were forming at the eaves.
"We were down in that cavern 4 days," Ham Brooks said grimly. "I don't get that. There was no impression of being there that long."
Sergeant Griswold ignored that and told Linningen, "Let's have your theory again, Sir. It sounds solid to me."
"I feel it's the only possible explanation," Linningen said. "In fact, it is quite reasonable. It amounts to simply this. Gas. Gas of one sort or another is often found in natural caverns. There was gas in this one. One that was a bit unusual in that it opened the way to hallucinations in the minds of the victims. There are -- as you know -- certain anesthetics that are conducive to hallucinations on the part of the person being subjected to the effects of the stuff. Mr. Savage, I'm sure, can cite you a number. Personally, I recall having some ghastly dreams while having my appendix removed."
"That's what sold me," said the police sergeant emphatically. "They gave me a shot of gas a few months ago to set a broken arm. And the dream I had would scare you stiff!"
"Right," Linningen said. "We had all been pumped full of this Hell-down-below stuff before we went into that cavern. So when the gas got to us, we naturally had nightmarish dreams involving our own ideas of Hell."
Monk Mayfair snorted violently! "Do two people have identical dreams?"
"Well, Doc and I sure saw the same version of the outskirts of Hades," Monk told him.
"Nothing unusual about that. You Mr. Mayfair -- and you Mr. Savage -- have been closely associated for a long time, the best of friends. Naturally, your mental processes would have a similarity. That would account for your identical versions of Tophet."
Monk shuddered. "I'm glad something accounts for it. I tell you, I was a believer there for a while."
Ham Brooks said, "I'm sure Linningen's right about this 'devil' stuff."
"How would you know?" Monk snapped. "You didn't pay the place a visit."
"I know that." Ham touched a bandage which swathed his head. "I slept it out. That Williams guy gave me a whack over the head and left me for dead well back in the cavern. But I've explained that."
Ham nodded at the police officer. "I was still out when the Sergeant found me."
Sergeant Griswold nodded importantly.
"I found -- or rather one of my troopers found -- Mr. Brooks lying unconscious near the trail. I can assure you that Mr. Brooks had no delusions of having visited Hell."
"How could he? He wasn't there!" Monk snapped.
"He wasn't deep enough in the cavern to come under the influence of the gas, you mean."
"Oh, have it your own way!" Monk grinned sheepishly, adding, "God knows I'm glad somebody thought of a peg I can hang my peace-of-mind on! I don't guess I'll even ask you if you can explain Gilmore Sullivan's conviction over a period of months that he had taken a peek at Hell. And they'd sent a junior-grade demon up to shut his mouth."
Linningen looked impatient.
"Longer exposure to the gas -- and remember, Gilmore Sullivan spent literally weeks on end in the cavern -- produced a more permanent breakdown in the mind. The delusions stayed with the victim. They weren't quickly tossed off as you gentlemen and Miss Sullivan have been able to toss them off."
"Okay," Monk said. "I won't argue."
Sergeant Griswold -- whose buttons and leather belt shone brightly -- smiled at them.
"I have gathered a pretty good idea of why Williams kidnapped Miss Sullivan and her brother and took them into the cavern. Williams thought there was a vein of valuable ore to be found there."
Ham Brooks asked, "Where'd you get that idea?"
The sergeant looked confused. "Well, it's logical. How would you account for it any other way?"
Doc Savage spoke quietly.
"We might question Gilmore Sullivan about it."
Sergeant Griswold said that was a good idea -- a darned good idea! -- and they went to the sunny bedroom where Gilmore Sullivan was lying. Gilmore listened in some embarrassment to their questions.
"I'm a geologist and always looking for valuable minerals, naturally," Gilmore explained. "I don't recall finding any gold or anything like that. But after I fell victim of the gas, I might have. And I might have given Williams the idea that there was something like that in the cavern."
Doc eyed Gilmore sharply.
"When could you have given Williams an idea like that?"
"Oh, after I was rescued from the island. Williams was on the schooner, you know."
Doc asked, "Do you remember telling Williams such a story?"
Gilmore hesitated. "Well … no. But there's quite a lot I don't exactly recall."
"Remember how you got on the Island?" Doc inquired.
Gilmore nodded. "In a small sailboat. I landed, then shoved the boat off and let the wind drift it away. I was quite insane."
"You're going to be all right now," Linningen comforted him.
Sergeant Griswold told Doc Savage, "Since you seem skeptical about that Bill Williams, I've asked our head office to check on the fellow. He's supposed to be an ex-football man, a radio commentator, and fairly well known. Right?"
Doc glanced quizzically at Linningen, who nodded.
"That's right," Linningen said.
Leaving the bedroom, Doc Savage sauntered along a hall, down a flight of steps, and stopped before a windowless storeroom before the door of which a policeman stood.
"Your prisoner behaving himself?" Doc inquired.
"Sure," replied the cop.
"Mind if I talk to him?"
"I guess it'll be all right," the policeman said.
He unlocked the door, permitting Doc to enter, then closed and locked the door.
Mr. Wail was lying on a bunk on his back. He turned his head and smiled benignly.
"Good evening. Or good afternoon, rather. How is the inquisition coming?"
"Not too good for you, Wail," Doc told him dryly. "The police have about concluded that you and Williams were in cahoots and after the secret of a vein of valuable ore you thought Gilmore Sullivan had found in the cavern."
"They're nuts," Wail said pleasantly. "I was a devil, junior-grade, sent up to silence Sullivan. Williams was a slightly higher-grade devil sent up to ascertain why I was dallying with my job."
"The police don't believe that, of course," Doc told him.
"Naturally. They're happier with the other story. And I'm happy that they are happy."
"You're going to stick around?" Doc asked.
"I am, you bet."
"As a deserting demon, aren't you likely to be picked up and pressed back into service?"
"Not if I can help it!" said Wail fervently. "I think I can outfox the boys. Remember, I had over a hundred years' experience knocking around down there."
"You like it up here?"
"I sure didn't like it down there!"
Doc nodded. "You're likely to spend a few years in jail if the police have their way."
"No, I won't."
"I'll just walk out," said Mr. Wail blandly. "Stone walls and iron bars do not a prison make. Not as long as I've got a few of my devil powers left over."
Wail snorted one of his best efforts!
"No, you don't see. You don't believe a damned word of it."
Doc turned to the door.
"Well, I'll be seeing you since you're going to stick around."
"No, you won't," said Mr. Wail. "I meant stick around this good old Earth topside. I didn't mean stick around in jail."
"I'm leaving," Wail declared. "I won't be seeing you again. Keep your nose clean."
Doc stepped out. The policeman eyed him carefully. Then the cop locked the door after peering inside to make sure Mr. Wail was still there.
"That little fat guy kinda gives me the willies," the officer confided.
State Police Sergeant Griswold wore a rather odd expression when Doc Savage rejoined him. He had apparently been shouting at Linningen and the psychiatrist was manifestly uncomfortable.
"Perhaps I didn't investigate the fellow fully enough," Linningen mumbled. "You see, he was introduced to me by a friend, expressed an interest in yachting, and I invited him along as a guest. He was an amiable and pleasant guest, I assure you."
"But you think he coulda managed so the schooner went past that island and found Gilmore Sullivan?" Officer Griswold snapped.
"Well, possibly," Linningen admitted.
"What's this?" Doc inquired.
Officer Griswold said emphatically, "Williams was no football player or radio commentator. There's no record of him."
"No record at all of Williams?" Doc asked oddly.
Officer Griswold frowned.
"Now, don't get on that devil stuff again. Williams is just somebody that Wail guy picked up to help him get the ore deposit they imagined existed."
"I hope you can prove that," Doc said fervently.
"You watch me!" Griswold barked. "I'm going to pump it all out of Wail. I'm going down there right now and do that."
The officer stepped through the door of the storeroom with a completely blank and unbelieving expression on his face.
"Where the devil did he go?" he gasped.
The storeroom walls were intact. So were ceiling and floor. And there were no windows.
And no Mr. Wail!
Sergeant Griswold said, "When did you let him out?"
"I didn't let him out!" the policeman declared emphatically. "Nobody let him out. He's gone! Nobody went in there but Doc Savage. And he came out alone after talking to this Wail guy for a while. Isn't that right, Mr. Savage?"
Doc was wearing a thoughtful expression.
"Right to some extent. You didn't hear me talking to anyone, did you?"
"Huh?" The policeman stared. "Wasn't he in there when you went in?"
"Did you really think he was?" Doc countered.
The officer swallowed.
"My God! Why didn't you say the room was empty? No! No, it couldn't have been empty. I looked in after you left and saw this Wail. … Oh, nuts! I was imagining. Why didn't you tell me the room was empty, Savage?"
"I thought it might be some sort of joke," Doc said.
Sergeant Griswold swore.
"I don't know how that Wail got away. But we'll catch him."
The sergeant fisted his hands. "We'll make him wish he was back in the brimstone country where be claims he came from!"
"Want to bet on either statement?" Doc asked dryly.