Furthermore, the waning flashlight beam was less able to pierce the dust mist. The yellow light was reflected and refracted by the fog of particles. More than once I became disoriented and nearly ran head-on into a wall.
The last of the explosions passed, but a dynamic process had been set in motion, and the mountainside was seeking a new order that would release long accumulated tensions and pressures, that would fill all unnatural cavities. On both sides and overhead, the mighty rock began to crack and pop in the most astonishing manner, not with the one-note rumble that you might expect but with an unharmonious symphony of queer sounds like balloons being punctured and walnuts cracked and heavy pottery smashed and bones splintered and skulls fractured; it thudded and clattered like bowling pins scattered by a ball, crackled like cellophane, clanged and crashed and boomed like a hundred husky blacksmiths wielding a hundred big hammers against a hundred iron anvils—and frequently there was even a pure, sweet ringing sound followed by an almost musical tinkling reminiscent of fine crystal being struck, being shattered.
Flakes of stone, then chips, then pebbles began raining over our heads and shoulders. Rya was screaming. I grabbed her hand, pulled her after me through the stone sleet.
Larger chunks of the treacherous ceiling began to fall, some as big as baseballs, clattering onto the floor around us. A fist-sized rock hit my right shoulder, and another hit my right arm, and I nearly dropped the flashlight. A couple of sizable missiles hit Rya too. They hurt, all right, but we kept going; we could do nothing else. I blessed Horton Bluett for having provided us with hard hats, though that protection would be insufficient if the whole place fell in on our heads. The mountain was imploding like a Krakatoa in reverse, but at least most of it was falling in our wake.
Suddenly the tremors subsided, which was such a welcome change that at first I thought I was imagining it. But in another ten steps it was clear that the worst was past us.
We reached the leading edge of the dust cloud and ran out into relatively clean air, spluttering and wheezing to clear our lungs.
My eyes were watering from the dust, and I slowed a little to blink them clear. The yellow beam of the flash pulsed and flickered constantly as the last power in the batteries was sucked away, but I saw one of our white arrows ahead.
With Rya running at my side again, we followed the sign we had left for ourselves, turned a corner into a new tunnel—
—where one of the demonkind leapt off the wall to which it had been clinging, and took Rya down onto the floor with a shrill cry of triumph and a murderous slashing of claws.
I dropped the fading flashlight, which blinked but did not go out, and I threw myself at Rya’s attacker, instinctively drawing my knife rather than my pistol as I fell upon the creature. I put the blade deep into the small of its back and dragged it off her as it shrieked in agony and anger.
It reached back for me and sank the claws of one hand through the leg of my ski suit, shredding the insulated fabric. Hot pain blazed up my right calf. I knew that it had torn my flesh as well as the pants.
I slipped one arm around its neck, pulled up on its chin, ripped my blade out of its back, and slashed its throat—a series of swift actions that seemed like ballet movements and could have occupied no more than two seconds.
As blood spurted from the savaged throat of my enemy and as the thing began to seek its human form, I sensed, rather than heard, another goblin coming off a wall or ceiling behind me. I rolled away from the bleeding demon even as I withdrew my knife from it, and the second attacker crashed down on top of its dying companion instead of on me.
The pistol had fallen out of the pocket in which I’d holstered it, but it was beyond arm’s reach, between me and the demon that had just leapt off the wall.
That creature swung to face me, all blazing eyes and teeth and claws and prehistoric fury. I saw its powerful haunches flex, and I barely had time to throw the knife as it launched itself at me. The blade tumbled just twice and sank into its throat. Spitting blood, blowing thick clots of blood out of its piglike snout, it fell upon me. Although the impact of the fall drove the knife all the way through its throat, the goblin managed to sink its claws through my insulated jacket and into my sides just above my hips, not deep but more than deep enough.
I heaved the dying beast off me, unable to stifle a cry of pain as its claws tore free of my flesh.
The flashlight was almost dead, but in the moon-pale glow that remained, I saw a third goblin rushing me on all fours, providing as low a profile and as narrow a target as it could manage. It had been farther away, perhaps almost at the end of this tunnel, which gave me just enough time, in spite of its speed, to dive for the pistol, raise the gun, and fire twice. The first shot missed. The second smashed into the hateful porcine face, blasting out one of its scarlet eyes. It pitched to one side, slammed against the wall, and was convulsed by death tremors.
Just when the flashlight throbbed and winked out, I thought I saw a fourth goblin creeping roachlike along the far wall. Before I could be sure of what I’d seen, we were cast into perfect blackness.
With pain bubbling like an acid in my slashed leg and burning in my punctured sides, I could not move gracefully. I dared not remain where I had been when the light had gone out, for if there was a fourth goblin, it would be moving stealthily toward the place where it had seen me last.
I eased over one corpse, then climbed across another, until I found Rya.
She lay facedown on the floor. Very still.
As far as I was aware, she had not moved or made a sound since the goblin had exploded off the wall and driven her to the floor. I wanted to turn her gently onto her back and feel for a pulse, speak her name, hear her respond.
I could do none of that until I was sure about the fourth goblin.
Crouching protectively over Rya, I faced out into the lightless tunnel,
cocked my head, and listened.
The mountain had grown quiet and seemed, at least temporarily, to be finished closing up its wounds. If portions of tunnel ceilings and walls were still falling back where we had come from, they were small failures that did not produce enough noise to reach us.
The darkness was deeper than that you see behind your closed eyelids. Smooth, featureless, unrelieved.
I entered into an unwanted dialogue with myself, pessimist confronting optimist:
—Is she dead?
—Don’t even think it.
—Do you hear her breathing?
—Christ, if she’s unconscious, her breathing would be shallow. She could be fine, just unconscious, breathing so shallowly that it can’t be heard. All right? All right?
—Is she dead?
—Concentrate on the enemy, damn it.
If another goblin existed, it might come from any direction. With its talent for walking on walls, it had a big advantage. It could even drop on me from the ceiling, straight down on my head and shoulders.
—Is she dead?
—Because if she’s dead, what does it matter whether you kill the fourth goblin? What does it matter if you ever get out of here?
—We’re both going to get out of here.
—If you’ve got to go home alone, what’s the point in going home at all? If this is her grave, then it might as well be yours too.
—Quiet. Listen, listen . . .
The darkness was so perfect, so thick, so heavy that it seemed to have substance. I felt as if I could reach out and seize damp handsful of darkness, wring the blackness out of the air until light was able to shine through from somewhere.
As I listened for the soft click and scrape of demon talons on stone, I wondered what the goblins had been doing when we blundered into them. Maybe they were following our white arrows to see how we had entered their haven. Until now I hadn’t realized that our signposts were as handy for them as for us. Yes, of course, they had searched every inch of their haven more than once, and after concluding that we had escaped, they had probably turned their attention, in part, to learning how we had escaped. Maybe these searchers had traced our route all the way out of the mountain and were returning when we encountered them. Or perhaps they had only set out to follow that trail shortly before we came rushing along behind them. Although they had taken us by surprise, they appeared to have had just a few seconds of warning that we were approaching. With more time to prepare for us, they would have killed us both—or taken us captive.
—Is she dead?
—She’s so silent.
There. A scrape, a click.
I craned my neck, turned my head.
I tried to remember how many cartridges were in the pistol’s clip. It held ten rounds when fully loaded. I’d used two on the goblin that I’d shot on Sunday in the tunnel with the checkerboard lighting. Two more on the one I’d shot here. Six left. That would be plenty. Maybe I wouldn’t kill the remaining enemy—if there was another one—with six shots, but that surely would be the most I’d have a chance to fire before the damn thing was all over me.
A soft slithering sound.
Straining my eyes was pointless. I strained them, anyway.
Blackness as deep as that in the bottom of God’s boot.
But . . . there. Another click.
And an odd smell. The sour smell of goblin breath.
I fell onto my back, atop Rya, squeezed off three shots into the ceiling, heard one ricochet off stone, heard an inhuman scream, and did not have time to fire the final three rounds because the badly wounded goblin crashed to the floor beside me. Sensing me, it howled and lashed out, got one of its strangely jointed but monstrously strong arms around my head, pulled me against it, and sank its teeth into my shoulder. It probably thought it was going for my neck, for a quick kill, but the darkness and its own pain had disoriented it. As it tore its teeth free of me, taking some meat with it, I had just enough strength and presence of mind remaining to thrust the pistol under its chin, tight against the base of its throat, and pull off the last three shots in the pistol, blowing its brains out the top of its skull.
The dark tunnel began to spin.
I was going to pass out.
That was no good. There might be a fifth goblin. If I passed out, I might never wake up again.
And I had to tend to Rya. She was hurt. She needed me.
I shook my head.
I bit my tongue.
I took deep, cleansing breaths, and I squeezed my eyes shut very hard to make the tunnel stop spinning.
I said aloud, “I will not pass out.”
Then I passed out.
Though I’d not had the leisure to consult my watch at the precise moment that I’d fainted and therefore had to rely on instinct, I did not think I had been out cold for very long. A minute or two at most.
When I regained consciousness, I lay for a moment, listening for the dry-leaf-windblown scuttle of a goblin. Then I realized that even a minute in a faint would have been the end of me if another of the demonkind had been in the tunnel.
I crawled across the stone floor, making my way around the dead shape-changers, feeling blindly with both hands, searching for one of the flashlights but finding only a lot of vaguely warm blood.
A power failure in Hell is an especially nasty business, I thought crazily.
I almost laughed at that. But it would have been a strange shrill laugh, too strange, so I choked it down.
Then I remembered the candles and matches in one of my inner jacket pockets. I brought them forth with trembling hands.
The sputtering tongue of candle flame licked back the darkness, though not enough to allow me to examine Rya as closely as I needed to do. With the candle, however, I located both flashlights, popped the batteries out of them, and inserted fresh ones.
After blowing out the candle and pocketing it, I went to Rya and knelt beside her. I put the flashlights on the floor, aiming their bright beams so they crossed over her.
She did not answer me.
Still. She lay very still.
The word pale had been coined for her condition.
Her face felt cold. Too cold.
I saw a just darkening bruise that covered the right half of her forehead and followed the curve of her temple and went all the way down past her cheekbone. Blood glistened at the corner of her mouth.
Weeping, I peeled back one of her eyelids, but I did not know what the hell I was looking for, so I tried to feel her breath with a hand against her nostrils, but my hand was shaking so badly that I could not tell if breath escaped her. Finally I did what I was loath to do: I took hold of one of her hands and lifted it, slipped two fingers under her wrist, feeling for her pulse, which I could not find, could not find, dear God, could not find. Then I realized that I could see her pulse, that it was beating weakly in her temples, a barely perceptible throb but beating, and when I carefully turned her head to one side, I saw the pulse in her throat as well. Alive. Maybe not by much. Maybe not for long. But alive.
With renewed hope I examined her, looking for wounds. Her ski suit was slashed, and the goblin’s claws had penetrated to her left hip, drawing some blood, though not much. I was afraid to check for the source of the blood at the corner of her lips, for it might be from internal bleeding; her mouth might be full of blood. But it wasn’t. Her lip was cut; nothing worse. In fact, except for the bruises on her forehead and face, she seemed unharmed.
I had to get her out of the mines, aboveground, before another series of cave-ins began or before another party of goblins came looking for us—or before she died for want of medical treatment.
I switched one flashlight off and slipped it into the deep utility pocket in my pant leg, where I had previously kept the pistol. I would not be needing the weapon anymore, for if I was confronted by goblins again, I would surely be brought down before I could destroy all of them, regardless of how many guns I possessed.
Since she could not walk, I carried her. My right calf bore three gouge marks from a goblin’s claws. Five punctures in my sides—three on the left, two on the right—oozed blood. I was battered, skinned, host to a hundred aches and pains, but somehow I carried Rya.
We do not always gain strength and courage from adversity; sometimes we are destroyed by it. We do not always experience an adrenaline surge and superhuman powers in times of crisis, either, but it happens often enough to have become a part of our folklore.
In those subterranean corridors it happened to me. It wasn’t a sudden adrenaline flood of the sort that enables a husband to lift an entire wrecked automobile off his pinned wife as if hefting nothing more than a suitcase, not the storm of adrenaline that gives a mother the power to tear a locked door off its hinges and walk through a burning room to rescue her child without feeling the heat. Instead I guess it was something like a steady drip-drip-drip of adrenaline, an amazingly prolonged flow in precisely the amount that I required to keep going.
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