Twilight Eyes Page 52

We disturbed coal dust as fine as talcum powder. Nuggets and a few big chunks of coal lay along the walls, and small islands of coal formed archipelagos through the puddles of scum-coated water, and in the walls the sheered edges of nearly exhausted veins of coal caught the frost-white flashlight beams and gleamed like black jewels.

Some subterranean passages were nearly as wide as highways, some narrower than the hallways of a house, for they were a mix of actual mining shafts and exploration tunnels. Ceilings soared to twice and thrice our height, then dropped so low that we had to hunch down in order to proceed. In places the walls had been carved with such precision that they almost seemed poured of concrete, while in other places they were deeply scored and peaked. Several times we found partial cave-ins, where one wall and sometimes part of the ceiling had come down, cutting the tunnel in half or even forcing us to crawl through the remaining space.

Mild claustrophobia had taken hold of me when we’d first entered the mines, and as we proceeded deeper into the labyrinth, that fear gripped me tighter. However, I successfully resisted it by thinking of that world of soaring birds and wind-stirred trees far above—and by constantly reminding myself that Rya was with me, for I always drew strength from her presence.

We saw strange things in the silent bosom of the earth, even before we got close to the goblin territory that was our destination. Three times we came upon heaps of broken and abandoned equipment, random yet queerly artful piles of metal tools and other artifacts designed for specialized mining tasks that were as arcane to us as the laboratory devices of an alchemist. Welded together by rust and corrosion, those items rose in angular agglomerations that were not merely chaotic, as if the mountain were an artist working with the detritus of those who had invaded it, creating sculpture from their trash to mock their ephemeral nature and as if intending to construct monuments to its own endurance. One of the sculptures resembled a large figure, less than half human, with a demonic aspect, a creature bedecked with spurs, razored barbs, and a bladed spine. Irrationally but with disturbing certainty, I expected it to move with a rattle and clatter of metal bones, open a now hidden eye formed by the fractured pane of an ancient oil lamp used by miners in another century, and crack an iron mouth in which bent screws would protrude like rotten teeth. We also saw mold and fungus in a panoply of colors—yellow, bile green, poisonous red, brown, black—but mostly in dirty shades of white. Some were exceedingly dry, and they burst when touched, spewing clouds of dust—perhaps spores—from the ruins. Others were moist. The worst forms glistened repulsively and looked like the things a surgeon, on an exploration of another world, might find within the carcass of an alien life-form. Some walls were crusted with crystallized accretions of unknown substances secreted by the rock, and once, we saw our own distorted images moving across those millions of dark, polished facets.

Abyss-deep, more than halfway to Hades, in a sepulchral hush, we found the gleaming white skeleton of what might have been a large dog. The skull lay in a half-inch-deep puddle of black water, jaws agape. As we stood over it, our flashlight beams were mirrored by the underlying puddle, so an eerily reflected light shone out from the empty eye sockets. How a dog could have gotten to these depths, what it had been seeking, why it had been driven to such a strange pursuit, and how it had died—those were all mysteries that could never be solved. But there was such a strong element of inappropriateness to the existence of this skeleton in this place that we could not help but feel it was an omen, though we didn’t wish to dwell on its message.

At noon, nearly six hours after entering the first mine with Horton Bluett, we paused to share one of the sandwiches he had left with us and to drink a little of the juice from one of the thermos bottles. We did not speak over our meager and uncomfortable lunch, for we were close enough to the Lightning Coal Company’s operations that our voices might have carried to the goblins working in those shafts—though we heard nothing of them.

After lunch we had proceeded a considerable distance before, at twenty minutes past one o’clock, we turned a corner and saw light ahead. Mustard-yellow light. Somewhat murky. Ominous. Like the light in our shared nightmare.

We crept along the narrow, dank, crumbling, lightless tunnel that led toward the intersection with the illuminated shaft. Although we moved with exaggerated caution, each footstep seemed thunderous and each breath like the exhalation of a giant bellows.

At the tunnel junction I stopped and put my back to the wall.



If a minotaur inhabited this labyrinth, it was evidently wearing crepe-soled shoes as it prowled the passageways, for the silence was as deep as the locale. But for the light, we seemed to be as alone as we had been for the past seven hours.

I leaned forward. Looked into the illuminated tunnel, first left, then right. No goblins were in sight.

We stepped out of concealment, into a fall of yellowish light that lent a jaundiced waxiness to our faces and eyes.

To the right the tunnel continued only twenty feet, narrowing dramatically and terminating in a blank wall of rock. To the left it was more than twenty feet wide and ran on for about a hundred and fifty feet, growing wider as it went, until it must have been sixty feet across. At its widest point it appeared to intersect another horizontal shaft. The electric lamps, strung on a cable fixed to the center of the ceiling, were spaced about thirty feet apart; conical shades over medium-wattage bulbs directed light down in tightly defined cones, so there was a stretch of ten or twelve feet of deep shadows between each pool of brightness.

Just as in the dream.

The only appreciable differences between reality and nightmare were that the lamps did not flicker and that we were not, as yet, pursued.

Here Horton Bluett’s map ended. We were entirely on our own.

I looked at Rya. I suddenly wished I had not brought her down into this place. But there was no going back.

I gestured toward the far end of the tunnel.

She nodded.

We drew our silencer-equipped pistols from the deep pockets of our insulated pants. We switched off the safeties. We jacked bullets into the chambers, and the muted snick-snick of well-oiled metal against metal whispered along the coal-veined rock walls.

Side by side we advanced as noiselessly as possible toward the wide end of the shaft, passing through light and shadow, light and shadow.

At the intersection of horizontal shafts I again put my back to the wall and eased forward, cautiously peering into the connecting tunnel before proceeding. It was also about sixty feet wide, but it was two hundred feet long, three quarters of its length lying to our right. The timbers were old but still newer than any we had seen heretofore. Considering the width, this was more an immense room than just another tunnel. There were not one but two rows of amber electric bulbs hung parallel under metal hoods, which created a checkerboard pattern of light and darkness on the floor.

I thought that chamber was deserted, and I was about to step forth when I heard a scrape and a click and another scrape. I studied the checkerboard of light with greater care.

To the right, eighty feet away, a goblin emerged from one of the blocks of shadow. It was unclothed in every sense: draped in neither garments nor a human disguise. It carried two instruments that I did not recognize. It repeatedly raised one of these, then the other, to its eyes, sighting up and down at ceiling and floor, then along the walls, as if taking measurements; or perhaps it was studying the composition of the walls.

Turning to look at Rya, who stood against the wall behind me in the secondary tunnel, I raised a finger to my lips.

Her blue eyes were very wide, and the whites of them were tinted the same muddy yellow as was her skin. The queer light of the tunnel also stained her white ski suit and gleamed on her hard hat, so she appeared to be a golden idol, the image of a helmeted and incredibly beautiful goddess of war with eyes of sacred, precious sapphires.

With thumb and first two fingers I repeatedly imitated the motion of depressing a hypodermic syringe.

She nodded, opened her jacket very slowly in order to make no sound with the zipper, and reached to an inside pocket where she had stashed a plastic-wrapped hypodermic and one of the vials of sodium pentothal.

Sneaking another look around the corner, I discovered that the goblin, preoccupied with its odd measuring instruments, had its back to me. Standing erect but bent somewhat forward, it was peering through a lens at the floor near its feet. It was either murmuring rhythmically to itself or humming a singularly peculiar tune, but in either case it was creating enough noise to mask my stealthy approach.

I slipped out of the secondary tunnel, leaving Rya behind, and eased toward my prey, striving to be both quick and silent. If I drew the beast’s attention, it would surely let loose a cry, alerting others of its kind to my presence. I did not want to have to flee back through the subterranean maze with no head start, with a pack of those demons at our heels, and with nothing gained from our risky intrusion into the heart of the mountain.

From shadow to light to shadow I went.

The goblin continued to warble to itself.

Eighty feet.


My pounding heart made a sound that, to my ears, seemed as loud as the drills and pneumatic hammers that had once worked the coal veins of this mine.


Shadow, light, shadow . . .

Although I carried the pistol at the ready, my intention was to avoid shooting my enemy, to spring upon it in complete surprise, to get a grip around its neck, and to hold it still for ten or twenty seconds, until Rya could rush in with the pentothal. Thereafter we could question it, administering more of the drug as required, for though sodium pentothal was primarily a sedative, it was also sometimes referred to as a “truth serum” because under its influence one could not easily lie.

Fifty feet.

I was not certain pentothal would affect the goblins precisely as it did men. However, the chances seemed good because (except for their metamorphic talent) their metabolism was apparently similar to that of human beings.

Forty feet.

I do not think the creature heard me. I do not think it smelled or otherwise sensed me, either. But it stopped its curious warbling and turned, lowering the unknown instrument from its eyes, raising its hideous head. It saw me at once, for I was at that moment passing through one of the checkerboard’s lighter squares.

Its luminous scarlet eyes blazed brighter at the sight of me.

Though I was within less than thirty feet of the beast, I could not cross the remaining ground in a great leap and come down upon it before it sounded an alarm. I took the only option remaining: I squeezed off two shots from the silencer-equipped pistol. Bullets left the muzzle with soft sounds like the spitting of an angry cat. The goblin pitched backward into a square of shadows, where it fell dead, the first hole in its throat, the second between its eyes.

The ejected brass cartridges went tink-clink-tink across the rock floor, startling me. Because they were evidence of our presence, I pursued them, snatched up one, then the other, before they could roll away into the shadows.

Rya was already kneeling at the dead goblin when I got to it, checking for a pulse but finding none. The transmutable creature had nearly concluded its reversion to human form. As the last of its demonic features faded, I saw that its disguise was that of a young man in his late twenties.

Because death had been sudden, the heart had ceased pumping within a second or two of the infliction of the wounds, so only a few spoonsful of blood had leaked onto the tunnel floor. I hastily mopped up these traces with a handkerchief.

Rya took hold of the goblin’s feet, and I seized it by the arms, and we carried it to the far end of the chamber. There, twenty feet of darkness lay between the last of the lights and the back wall. We hid the corpse, the peculiar instruments it had been using, and the bloodstained cloth in the deepest part of that black cul-de-sac.

Would the demon be missed by its kind? If so, how soon?

On realizing that it was missing, what would they do? Search the mines? How thoroughly? How soon?

Standing on the borderline between a block of shadows and a block of light, leaning close to each other, Rya and I conversed in voices so low that hearing was less important than lipreading.

“Now?” she asked.

“We’ve started a clock ticking.”

“Yeah, I hear it.”

“If he’s missed . . .”

“Probably not for an hour or two.”

“Probably not,” I agreed.

“Maybe longer.”

“If they find him...”

“That’ll take longer still.”

“Then we go on.”

“At least a little farther.”

Retracing our steps, passing the spot where the goblin had died, we ventured to the other end of that wide corridor. It opened into an immense underground chamber, a circular vault at least two hundred feet in diameter, with a domed ceiling thirty feet high at the center. Banks of fluorescent lights were suspended from the ceiling on metal scaffolding; they cast a wintry glare over everything below. In more square feet of floor space than was occupied by a football field, the goblins had assembled a bewildering array of equipment: steel-jawed machines big as bulldozers, obviously designed to chew rock and spit out pebbles; huge drills, smaller drills; ranks of electrically powered conveyer belts that, lined up one after another, could carry off the excretions of the rock-consuming machines; a dozen forklifts; half a dozen Bobcats. In the other half of the room were huge piles of supplies: stacks of lumber; carefully arranged pyramids of short steel beams; hundreds of bristling bundles of steel reinforcing rods; hundreds—maybe thousands of sacks of concrete; several big piles of sand and gravel; car-sized spools of thick electrical cable, smaller spools of insulated copper wire; at least a mile of aluminum ventilation duct; and more, much more.

The equipment and supplies were arranged in evenly spaced rows with aisles between. As we slowly eased twenty yards around the circumference, looking into three of those avenues, we were able to determine that the place was deserted. We saw no goblins, heard no movement other than the ghostly whispers of our own cautious progress.

The gleaming condition of the equipment, plus the smell of fresh oil and grease, led to the conclusion that these machines had been recently washed and serviced, then lowered into this pit for a new project that had not yet begun but which had a start date in the near future. Evidently the goblin I’d just shot had been engaged in some final calculations required before the heavy work began.

Putting a hand on Rya’s shoulder, pulling her close enough to put my lips to her ear, I breathed: “Wait. Let’s go back to where we came in.”

Returning to the mouth of the wide corridor in which I had killed the goblin, I shrugged out of my cumbersome backpack, unsnapped the canvas flap, and withdrew two kilos of plastic explosive and a pair of detonators. I unwrapped the plastique and molded one block into a niche high in the wall, just a few feet back from the point at which that shaft opened into the domed chamber. I put the charge above head level, in shadow, where it was not likely to be seen even by search parties looking for the missing demon. I shaped the second kilo into another dark niche high in the opposite wall, so the two blasts might bring down enough of the walls and ceiling to close off the passage.

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