Twilight Eyes Page 2

From the Eveready pocket flash, which he had propped on the fat rubber bumper of the car, light streamed across his face, diminishing in intensity from chin to hairline, distorting his features, creating queer shadows above his prominent cheekbones, and making his bright eyes seem fantastically sunken. Without the grotesque effect of the light, he still would have had a hard, cruel look, thanks to a bony forehead, eyebrows grown together over a wide nose, a prognathous jaw, and a thin slash of a mouth that, because of the overly generous features that surrounded it, seemed even more a slit than it really was.

Because I held the knife at my side, shielded from him by the position of my body, he still did not realize the degree of his danger. With a boldness born of the smug superiority that is characteristic of all the goblins I have ever encountered, he tried to bluff me.

“Here, what’s this?” he asked gruffly. “What’re you doing here? Are you with the show? Never seen you around. What’re you up to?”

Looking down at him, heart pounding, sick with terror, I could see what others could not. I saw the goblin within, beyond his masquerade.

And this is the most difficult thing of all to explain, this ability to perceive the beast within, for it is not as if my psychic sight peels back the human countenance and reveals the lurking horror underneath, nor is it that I can discard the illusion of humanity and obtain an unobstructed view of the malignant illusionist who thinks he deceives me. Instead I see both at once, the human and the monstrous, the former superimposed upon the latter. Maybe I can best explain by way of an analogy drawn from the art of pottery. At a gallery in Carmel, California, I once saw a vase with a gloriously transparent red glaze, luminescent as air at the open door of some mighty furnace; it gave the impression of fantastic depth, magical three-dimensional realms and vast realities, within the flat surface of the clay. I see something much like that when I look at a goblin. The human form is solid and real in its own way, but through the glaze I see the other reality within.

There in the Dodgem Car pavilion I saw through the midnight mechanic’s human glaze to the demonic masquerader within.

“Well, speak up,” the goblin said impatiently, not even bothering to rise from his knees. He had no fear of ordinary human beings, for in his experience they could not harm him. He did not know that I was not ordinary. “Are you part of the show? Do the Sombra Brothers employ you? Or are you just a stupid, nosy kid poking into other people’s business?”

The creature within the human hulk was both porcine and canine, with thick, dark, mottled skin the shade and character of aged brass. Its skull was shaped like that of a German shepherd, the mouth filled with wickedly pointed teeth and hooked fangs that seemed neither canine nor porcine but reptilian. The snout more closely resembled that of pig than dog, with quivering, fleshy nostrils. It had the beady, red, malevolent eyes of a mean hog, around which the pebbled amber skin shaded darker until it was the green of a beetle’s wings. When it spoke, I saw a coiled tongue unfold part way inside its mouth. Its five-fingered hands were humanlike, although with an extra joint in each, and the knuckles were larger, bonier. Worse, it had claws, black and gnarled, pointed and well honed. The body was like that of a dog that had evolved to such an extent that nature meant for it to stand upright in imitation of a man, and for the most part there was an appearance of grace in its form, except in its shoulders and knotted arms, which seemed to contain too much malformed bone to allow fluid movement.

A second or two passed in silence, a silence occasioned by my fear and by a distaste for the bloody task confronting me. My hesitancy probably seemed like guilty confusion, for he started to bluster at me some more and was surprised when, instead of running away or making a flimsy excuse, I flung myself upon him.

“Monster. Demon. I know what you are,” I said through clenched teeth as I rammed the knife deep.

I struck at his neck, at the throbbing artery, missed. Instead the blade plunged into the top of his shoulder, slipping through muscle and cartilage, between bones.

He grunted with pain but did not howl or scream. My declaration stunned him. He wanted interruption no more than I did.

I tore the knife out of him as he fell back against the Dodgem Car, and taking advantage of his momentary shock, I stabbed again.

If he had been an ordinary man, he would have been lost, defeated as much by the temporary paralysis of terror and surprise as by the ferocity of my attack. However, he was a goblin, and although he was encumbered by his disguise of human flesh and bone, he was not limited to human reaction. With inhumanly quick reflexes he brought up one beefy arm to shield himself and hunched his shoulders and drew his head in as if he were a turtle, the net effect of which was to deflect my second blow. The blade sliced lightly across his arm and skipped over the top of his skull, gouging his scalp but doing no serious damage.

Even as my knife ripped up a small patch of skin and hair, he was shifting from a defensive to an offensive posture, and I knew I was in trouble. I was atop him, shoving him against the car, and I tried driving a knee into his crotch to give myself time to wield the knife again, but he blocked the knee and grabbed a handful of my T-shirt. I knew that his other hand was coming for my eyes, so I threw myself backward, pushing off him with one foot on his chest. My T-shirt tore from collar to hem, but I was free, tumbling across the floor, between two cars.

In the great genetic lottery that is God’s idea of efficient management, I had won not only my psychic gifts but also a natural athletic ability, and I had always been quick and agile. If I had not been thus blessed, I would never have survived my first fight with a goblin (my Uncle Denton), let alone that nightmare battle among the Dodgem Cars.

Our struggles had dislodged the Eveready propped on the rubber bumper, which fell to the floor and went out, leaving us to war in shadows, able to see each other only by the indirect, milky radiance of the waning moon. Even as I tumbled away and came to my feet in a crouch, he was launching up from the car, rushing toward me, his face a black blank except for a pale disc of cataractic light shimmering in one eye.

As he descended on me, I swung the knife up from the floor in a skyward arc, but he jerked back. As the blade swept by a quarter of an inch from the tip of his nose, he seized the wrist of my knife hand. With his greater size came superior strength, and he was able to hold my right arm rigidly above my head.

He pulled back his right arm and drove his fist into my throat, a terrible blow that would have crushed my windpipe if it had landed squarely. But I lowered my head and twisted away from him, taking the impact half in the throat and half in the neck. Nevertheless, the punch was devastating. I gagged, couldn’t draw breath. Behind my watering eyes I saw a rising darkness much deeper than the night around us.

Desperate, with an adrenaline-stoked strength born of panic, I saw his fist drawing back to take another whack at me, and I abruptly stopped struggling. Instead I embraced him, clung to him, so he would not be able to put power behind his punches, and in frustrating his counterattack I found both my breath and hope.

We stumbled several steps across the floor, turning, dipping, breathing hard, his left hand still locked around my right wrist, our two arms raised. We must have looked like a bizarre pair of clumsy apache dancers performing without benefit of music.

When we drew close to the scalloped wooden railing that ringed the pavilion, where the ash-silver moonlight was brightest, I saw through my adversary’s human glaze with unusual and startling clarity, not because of the moon but because my psychic power seemed to surge for a moment. His counterfeit features faded until they were like the barely visible lines and planes of a crystal mask. Beyond the now perfectly transparent costume, the hellish details and nauseating textures of the dog-pig thing were more vivid and real than I had ever perceived before—or wished to perceive. Its long tongue, as forked as that of a serpent, pebbled and wart-covered, oily and dark, flickered out of its ragged-toothed mouth. Between its upper lip and its snout there was a band of what at first appeared to be crusted mucus but was evidently an agglomeration of scaly moles, small cysts, and bristling warts. The thick-rimmed nostrils were dilated, quivering. The mottled flesh of the face looked unhealthy—worse, putrescent.

And the eyes.

The eyes.

Red, with fractured black irises like broken glass, they fixed on mine, and for a moment, as we struggled there by the pavilion railing, I seemed to fall away within those eyes, as if they were bottomless wells filled with fire. I was aware of hatred so intense that it almost seared me, but the eyes gave a view of more than mere loathing and rage. They also revealed an evil far more ancient than the human race and as pure as a gas flame, so malignant that it could have withered a man the way the gaze of the Medusa turned the most courageous warriors to stone. Yet, worse than the evil was the palpable sense of madness, an insanity beyond human comprehension or description, though not beyond human apprehension. For those eyes somehow conveyed to me the knowledge that the creature’s hatred of humankind was not just one facet of its sickness but was at the very core of its madness, and that all the perverse invention and fevered plotting of its insane mind was directed solely toward the suffering and destruction of as many men, women, and children as it was able to touch.

I was sickened and repelled by what I saw in those eyes and by this intimate physical contact with the creature, but I dared not break my embrace of it, for that would have been the death of me. Therefore I clung even tighter, closer, and we bumped against the railing, then staggered a few steps away from it.

He had made a vise of his left hand and was determinedly grinding the bones in my right wrist, trying to reduce them to splinters and calcium dust—or at least force me to release the knife. The pain was excruciating, but I held on to the weapon, and with more than a small measure of revulsion I bit his face, his cheek, then found his ear and bit it off.

He gasped but did not shriek, indicating a desire for privacy even greater than mine and a stoic resolve that I could never hope to match. However, though he stifled a cry as I spat out his ruined ear, he was not so inured to pain and fear that he could continue the battle without flinching. He faltered, reeled backward, smashed into a roof post, brought one hand to his bleeding cheek, then to his head in a frantic search for the ear that was no longer attached. He was still holding my right arm above my head, but he was not as powerful as he had been, and I twisted free of him.

That might have been the moment to thrust the knife into his guts, but restricted circulation numbed my hand, and I could barely maintain a grip on the weapon. An attack would have been foolhardy, my senseless fingers might have dropped the knife at the crucial moment.

Gagging on the taste of blood, resisting the urge to vomit, I backed rapidly away from him, transferring the weapon to my left hand, working my right hand vigorously, opening and closing it, with the hope of exercising the numbness out of those fingers. That hand began to tingle, and I knew it would be back to normal in a few minutes.

Of course, he didn’t willingly give me the minutes I required. With a fury so bright that it should have lit the night, he charged toward me, forcing me to dodge between two of the miniature cars and vault over another. We circled the pavilion for a while, our roles somewhat reversed from what they had been when I’d first crept in through the gate. Now he was the cat, one-eared but undeterred, and I the mouse with one numb paw. And although I scurried about with a quickness and limberness and cunning born of a renewed and acute sense of mortality, he did what cats always do with mice: He inevitably closed the gap in spite of all my maneuvers and stratagems.

The slow pursuit was eerily quiet, marked only by the thump of footfalls on the hollow floor, the bone-dry scrape of shoes on wood, the creak-rattle of the Dodgem Cars as we occasionally put a hand out to steady ourselves in the process of slipping over or around them, and heavy breathing. No words of anger, no threats, no pleas for mercy or reason, no cries for help. Neither of us would give the other the satisfaction of a whimper of pain.

Gradually circulation returned to my right hand, and although my tortured wrist was swollen and throbbing, I thought I had recovered sufficiently to employ a skill that I had learned from a man named Nerves MacPhearson in another, less fancy carnival where I had passed a few weeks in Michigan, earlier in the summer, after fleeing the police in Oregon. Nerves MacPhearson, sage and mentor and much-missed, was a knife-thrower extraordinaire.

Wishing Nerves was with me now, I slipped the knife—which had a weighted handle and overall balance designed for throwing—from left hand to right. I hadn’t thrown it at the goblin when he’d been kneeling at the Dodgem Car, for his position had not allowed a clear and mortal hit. And I hadn’t thrown it the first time that I had broken free of him because, in truth, I didn’t trust my skill.

Nerves had taught me a lot about the theory and practice of knife-throwing. And even after saying good-bye to him and moving on from the show in which we had traveled together for a while, I continued to study the weapon, expending hundreds of additional hours refining my skill. However, I was most definitely not good enough to throw the knife at the goblin as a first resort. Considering my enemy’s advantages of size and strength, if I only slightly wounded him or missed altogether, I would be virtually defenseless.

Now, however, having tangled with him in hand-to-hand combat, I knew that I was no match for him and that a well-calculated toss of the knife was my only chance of survival. He didn’t seem to notice that in transferring the knife to my left hand, I had gripped it by the blade instead of the handle, and when I turned and ran into a long stretch of pavilion where there were no obstructing cars, he assumed that fear had gotten the better of me and that I was running from the fight. He came after me, heedless of his own safety now, triumphant. When I heard his heavy footfalls on the boards behind me, I stopped, whirled, judged position-angle-velocity in a wink, and let the blade fly.

Ivanhoe himself, letting loose with his best-placed arrow, could have done no better than I did with my tumbling knife. It tumbled exactly the right number of times and struck at precisely the right whirling moment, taking him in the throat and burying itself to the hilt. The point must have been sticking out the back of his neck, for the blade was six inches long. He came to an abrupt, swaying halt, and his mouth popped open. The light where he stood was meager but sufficient to show the surprise in both the human eyes and in the fiery demon eyes beyond. A single jet of blood, like a gush of ebony oil in the gloom, spouted from his mouth, and he made croaking noises.

He drew breath with a futile hiss and rattle.

He looked astonished.

He put his hands to the knife.

He fell to his knees.

But he did not die.

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