Twilight Eyes Page 45

I must have swayed a bit on the landing because, from behind me, Rya put a hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Are you all right?”


The single flight of stairs was steep. Most of the cellar lay out of sight to the left, and I could see only a small, bare patch of the gray concrete floor.

Cautiously I descended.

Rya and Cathy followed me, and our boots made a hollow tonk-tonktonk on the wooden steps.

A thin but noxious odor increased as we went down. Urine, feces, stale sweat.

At the bottom we found a large basement devoid of all the things one might ordinarily expect in such a place—no tools, no lumber for the husband’s current carpentry project, no containers of varnish or paint or stain, no home-canned fruits or vegetables. Instead part of the space was used for an altar and part of it was occupied by a large, sturdy cage made of iron bars set five inches apart and running from floor to ceiling.

Though silent and staring now, the hideous occupants of the cage were undoubtedly the source of the caterwauling that had brought us down into this godforsaken hole. Three of them. Each a little more than four feet tall. Young goblins. Pre-adolescent. They were clearly members of that demonic species—yet different. Unclothed, striped with shadow and smoky amber light, they peered from between the bars, and as they peered, their bodies and faces underwent slow, continuous changes. Initially I sensed the difference in them without understanding what it was, but then I quickly realized that their metamorphic talent was running out of control. They seemed to be permanently trapped in a twilight state of endless flux, their bodies half goblin and half human, bones and flesh transforming again and again, ceaselessly, in what seemed to be a random pattern. They could not lock themselves into one form or the other. One of them had a human foot at the end of a mostly goblinlike leg, and hands on which some fingers were those of a goblin and some those of a human child. Even as I watched, a couple of the Homo sapien fingers began to change into four-knuckled digits with vicious claws while some of the goblin fingers began to melt into a more human design. One of the two other creatures blinked at us with hard, mean, but entirely human eyes in a countenance that was otherwise monstrous; however, as I stared in disgust at that unnerving combination, the face began to seek another form that combined human and goblin features in a new—and even more horrendous—way.

“What are they?” Rya asked, and shuddered.

“I think they’re . . . deformed offspring,” I said, moving closer to the cage, though not close enough for one of the occupants to reach through the bars and snag me.

The creatures remained silent, tense, watchful.

“Freaks. Genetic breakdowns,” I said. “All the goblins have a metamorphic gene that allows them to switch at will from man to goblin and back again. But these damn things . . . they were probably born with imperfect metamorphic genes, an entire litter of freaks. They can’t control their form. Their tissues are always in a state of flux. So their parents locked them away down here, just like people in other centuries used to hide their idiot children in cellars and attics.”

Behind the bars, one of the gnarly miscreations hissed at me, and the other two took it up at once and with enthusiasm—a low, sibilant, threatening sound.

“Dear God,” Cathy Osborn said.

“It’s not just physical deformity,” I said. “They’re completely insane, as well—insane by either human or goblin standards. Insane and very, very dangerous.”

“You sense this . . . psychically?” Rya asked.

I nodded.

Just speaking of their madness, I had made myself vulnerable to the psychic outpouring of their deranged minds, which I had first apprehended upstairs, at the open cellar door. I sensed desires and urges in them that, although too strange for me to understand, were nevertheless comprehendably perverse, bloody-minded, and repulsive. Twisted lusts, dark and demented needs, disgusting and frightening hungers . . . Again, as best I could, I damped my sixth sense in much the way that I might have cut off the draft to a furnace or fireplace, and the furious blaze of psychotic emanations slowly subsided to a barely tolerable little fire.

They stopped hissing.

With a crisp, crackling noise their human eyes blistered, flared red-hot, became the luminous eyes of goblins.

A piggish snout began to push out of an otherwise normal human face, accompanied by the squishing-crunching sounds of reformation—but halted halfway through its development, then shrank back into the human visage.

One of them made a thick, mucous-wet, hacking noise in the back of its throat, and I suspected this was laughter of a sort, vicious and chilling but laughter nonetheless.

Here, fangs sprang out of human mouths.

There, a canine jawline began to build up, heavy and savage.

And here, a perfect human thumb abruptly blossomed into a four-knuckled stiletto.

Ceaseless lycanthropic activity. The purpose of the changes was never fully achieved, so the very act of transformation became its own purpose and meaning. Genetic madness.

One of the nightmarish triplets snaked its grotesquely knotted arm between the iron bars, reaching out as far as it could manage. In the hand a closed nest of fingers—some human, some not—opened. They began to stroke the reeking air, somewhat in the manner of a caress though mostly as if the beast were trying to wring something out of the ether. The spider-quick fingers alternately curled and poked and wriggled: strange gesticulations without meaning.

The other two demon spawn began moving rapidly through their big cage, dashing left, darting right, climbing the bars, dropping to the filthy floor again, as if they were frantic monkeys careening around just for the hell of it, though with none of the joy you see in the acrobatic antics of monkeys. Due to their inability to achieve full goblin status, they were not as agile as the demonkind that we had killed in the abattoir upstairs.

“They give me the creeps,” Rya said. “Do you think this happens often—litters of freaks like this? Is it a problem for the goblins?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

“I mean, their genetic makeup might be deteriorating generation by generation. Maybe every new generation brings a greater number of births like these. After all, they weren’t originally designed to reproduce; if what we know of their origins is true, fertility was a long-shot mutation. So maybe now they’re losing the ability to procreate . . . losing it through mutation, as they gained it in the first place. Is it possible? Or is what we see here just a rarity?”

“I don’t know,” I repeated. “You may be right. It’d sure be nice to think they’re dying out and that in time, maybe a couple of hundred years, they’ll have dwindled to just a handful.”

“A couple of hundred years won’t do me and you any good, will it?” Cathy Osborn said miserably.

“There’s the problem,” I agreed. “It would take hundreds of years for them to cease to exist. And I don’t think they’ll just resign themselves to fading away. With that much time to make plans, they’ll find a means of taking all of humanity down into the grave with them.”

Suddenly, the boldest of the freaks snatched its arm back into the cage and, with its misbegotten companions, began to wail as we had heard them wailing when we were upstairs. The shrill ululation rebounded from the concrete-block walls, two-note music suitable for nightmares, a monotonous song of insane desires that one might have expected to hear echoing along the halls of Bedlam.

That noise, combined with the odors of urine and feces, made the cellar almost intolerable. But I was not going to leave until I had investigated the other matter of interest: the altar.

I had no way of knowing for sure that it was, in fact, an altar, but that was precisely what it appeared to be. In the corner of the basement farthest from the stairs, and from the cage of miscreations, stood a sturdy table draped with a blue velvet cloth. Two unusual oil lamps—coppertinted glass spheres filled with liquid fuel and floating wicks—flanked what appeared to be a venerated icon that was elevated above the table on a three-inch-high, one-foot-square, polished stone tablet. The icon was ceramic—a rectangle measuring approximately eight inches high, six inches wide, four inches thick, rather like an odd-sized brick—with a lustrous glaze that imparted considerable depth (and a mysterious quality) to its midnight-dark sheen. In the center of the black rectangle was a white ceramic circle about four inches in diameter, and the circle was bisected by a highly stylized bolt of black lightning.

It was the insignia of the Lightning Coal Company that we had seen on the truck yesterday. But its appearance here, elevated as if for veneration, illuminated by votive lamps, with the airs and trappings of a sacred symbol, indicated that it was something more meaningful and important than merely a corporate logo.

White sky, dark lightning.

What did it symbolize?

White sky, dark lightning.

The squalling of the mutants in the cage was as loud as ever, but my attention was totally held by the altar and by the central object upon it, and for a moment their piercing cries did not bother me.

I could not figure how a species like the goblins—created by man rather than by God, hating their creator while also having no respect for him—could develop religion. If this was, indeed, an altar, what did they worship here? To what strange gods did they pay tribute? And how? And why?

Rya reached past me to touch the icon.

I stopped her before she made contact with the ceramic rectangle.

“Don’t,” I said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. Just . . . don’t.”

White sky, dark lightning.

Oddly enough, there was something surprisingly pitiable and even touching in the goblins’ need for gods and for the altars and icons that gave concrete representation to spiritual beliefs. The very existence of a religion implied doubt, humility, a perception of right and wrong, a longing for values, an admirable hunger for meaning and purpose. This was the first thing I had ever seen that implied the possibility of common ground between humankind and the goblins, a shared emotion, a shared need.

But, damn it, I knew from brutal experience that the demonkind had no doubt, no humility. Their perception of right and wrong was too simple to require a philosophical base: right was anything that benefited them or harmed us; wrong was anything that harmed them or helped us. Their values were those of the shark. Their meaning and purpose was our destruction, for which they did not require a complex theological doctrine or divine justification.

White sky, dark lightning.

As I stared at that symbol I gradually became convinced that their religion—if such it was—did not, in fact, serve to make them more sympathetic or less alien than I had always viewed them. Because I sensed there was something monstrously evil about their unknown faith, something so unspeakably vile about the god they venerated that their religion would make Satanism—with its human sacrifices and disembowelment of babies—seem by comparison as benign as the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

With my Twilight Eyes, I saw the black ceramic lightning bolt flicker darkly on the white ceramic circle, and I was aware of waves of death-energy radiating from that ominous symbol. Whatever else the goblins worshiped, they clearly venerated destruction, pain, and death.

I remembered the vast, cold, lightless void that I had perceived when I had first seen the Lightning Coal Company truck, and now I saw the same thing again when I stared at the icon on the basement altar. Infinite darkness. Infinite silence. Immeasurable cold. Infinite emptiness. Nothingness. What was this void? What did it mean?

The flames in the oil lamps throbbed.

In the cage the insane abominations screeched a song of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The stench in the air grew worse by the second.

The ceramic icon, which had first been an object of curiosity and then of amazement and then of speculation, suddenly became an object of unadulterated fear. Staring at it, half mesmerized, I sensed that it held the secret to the heavy goblin presence in Yontsdown. But I also perceived that humanity’s destiny was hostage to the philosophy, forces, and schemes that the icon represented.

“Let’s get out of here,” Cathy Osborn said.

“Yes,” Rya said. “Let’s go, Slim. Let’s go.”

White sky.

Dark lightning.

Rya and Cathy went out to the nearby barn in search of a couple of buckets and a length of rubber tubing—items that ought to be at hand in a cider mill, even now, long after the cider season. If they found what they needed, they would siphon two bucketsful of gasoline out of the police cruiser and bring them into the house.

Cathy Osborn was shaky and looked as if she might be violently ill at any moment, but she gritted her teeth (her jaw muscles popped out with the effort of resisting the urge to vomit) and did what was asked of her. She exhibited a lot more spunk, greater adaptability, and more toughmindedness than I would have expected from someone who had spent her entire life beyond the real world and within the sheltered enclaves of academe.

Meanwhile, for me, it was Grand Guignol time once more.

Trying not to look too much at my savaged victims or at the queer and disturbing shadow that I cast while hunched like Quasimodo in the performance of my gruesome task, I dragged the two dead goblins out of the first-floor abattoir, one at a time. I hauled them through the kitchen, which still smelled of fresh-baked pie, and tumbled them down the cellar stairs. Descending after them, I pulled both na*ed corpses into the middle of the basement floor.

In the cage the ghastly triplets fell silent again. Six mad eyes, some human and some glowing with demonic scarlet light, watched with interest. They showed no grief at the sight of their murdered parents; they were evidently incapable of grief or of understanding what those deaths meant to them. They were not angry, either, nor yet afraid, but simply curious in the manner of inquisitive apes.

I would have to deal with them in a moment.

Not yet. I had to work up to it. I had to shut down my sixth sense as much as possible, harden myself to the unpleasant business of merciless execution.

Leaning over the open top of one of the spherical glass lamps on the altar, I blew out the flame on the floating wick. I carried the lamp to the dead goblins and emptied its flammable contents onto the bodies.

The clear oil made their pale skin glisten.

Their hair darkened as the fuel soaked into it.

Beads of oil trembled on their eyelashes.

The nauseating odor of urine and feces was overlaid with the sharper scent of the combustible fluid.

Still the caged observers were silent, almost breathless.

I could delay no longer. I had tucked the .357 Magnum into my belt. Now I drew it.

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