TWELVE: THE THING IN THE DARK
GOBLINS ARE NASTY LITTLE creatures. They live underground, sometimes alone, sometimes in packs. Along with the claws on their toes they have them at the ends of their fingers as well. Plus the teeth, which are a bit like what you’d find in a shark. And whatever you do, never let one spit on you. It’s all over at that point.
I put the flashlight away and retrieved the Winchester from where it leaned against the freezer. I levered a round into the chamber. I still wore the headlamp, which should be all the light I’d need. I would have liked the flashlight as well, but I only had two hands. I’d need both for the rifle. Besides, as much as I would’ve liked the extra light, I always felt better in the darker places of the world with a gun in my hand.
I took myself one deep breath, loosened my tie, released the top button of my shirt, and then stepped into the tunnel. The stone door swung shut behind me, sealing me off from the rest of the world. I sighed.
I hadn’t noticed the noise from outside earlier — the hum of the freezer, the clunk of Clem’s boots on the kitchen floor above as he paced — hadn’t noticed them at all. I surely noticed their absence now. There was nothing down here with me but the sound of my own breathing. That, and possibly a goblin or two. As many cats as had been taken, just from Clem’s house alone, much less his neighbors, I figured I was dealing with a pack of goblins. One alone couldn’t eat that many cats in such a time frame.
I took a glow stick from the backpack, one of them chemical lights that glow green when you crack the tube inside and give it a shake. Which I did before dropping it on the floor behind me. I got moving, rifle pointed forward. I tried to take comfort in the fact that the tunnel, while dark and beneath the surface of the earth, was big enough that I didn’t have to bend or stoop. It was also dry, so that was something.
There was no rhyme or reason when it came to goblin tunnels. Nothing was planned, nothing mapped out. While a pair of goblins had some control over where a colossal slug went, guiding them wasn’t an exact science. Or at least the goblin race had never cared enough to fine tune their control over a slug, not in my experience anyway.
It takes two goblins to guide a slug. I don’t know how they do it, I ain’t never been invited to watch them work, but I’ve been told it takes two. The goblins might have a target destination in mind, such as Clem’s basement, and they can eventually get the slug to where they want it to go, but the path the slug takes ain’t usually a straight line.
I was about a hundred yards in and so far this tunnel did nothing but slope down and to the left. The curve to the left was so gradual that I only noticed when the glow stick I’d dropped at the entrance eventually popped out of sight. I stepped back until I could see it again and dropped another. The glow sticks, as long as I always kept one in sight, would help me find my way back. And they would last for twelve hours, though I didn’t plan on being down here that long.
To be honest, I don’t like being underground. Makes me feel off. Disconnected. The air always seems too thin. To be more honest, being underground scares me more than a pack of angry biters. It’s not debilitating, obviously, but if I’m gonna die I’d prefer to do it with the open air on my skin.
But I was here for Clem, so I bit down my fears and moved on down the tunnel. It continued on with the gradual slope downward and the curve to the left. It was like walking along a giant cork screw. The further I went, the deeper I went, I could feel the weight of the world pressing down, and the pressure only increased with each step.
To make matters worse, there was a smell in the air that I couldn’t quite identify. Stale coffee mixed with burnt toast, maybe some skunk added in, and something sweet. Was it coconut? I tried not to dwell on it.
Eventually the tunnel leveled out and I came to a fork. Two options. Left or right. I was about to continue with the theme of the journey so far and go left when I heard it. A metallic banging from some ways off that sounded almost familiar, though I had to strain some to hear it.
It was coming from somewhere far ahead, down one of the two tunnels. I pointed my rifle down one, then the other. I couldn’t tell which tunnel led to the sound. Maybe both tunnels led to the same place. Wouldn’t surprise me. Goblin warrens are the worst.
The banging continued. I had to make decision.
A moment ago, before the distant hammering had sounded, my gut had told me to go left. So I went left.
The tunnel stretched out for about dozen or so yards and then opened up into a small room with low, rounded ceilings. Like the tunnel, the room was all rock and earth held together with worm slime.
The banging stopped for a moment and I listened.
There was something else out there in the distance, but it was faint. It was like someone singing off key, but I could make out nothing more than that.
Then the banging started up again, calling to me, urging me forward. I ignored it. I wasn’t about to rush into anything down here. Instead I took a moment to look around. The room was spherical, like the inside of a big ball, the top half, anyways. You’ll find many such rooms when you travel a slug tunnel. Slugs, just like the rest of us, have to sleep once in a while, even the colossal variety. This room was one of their sleeping chambers, and it was big enough to park a couple of cars.
See, the slug, when it’s done a good day’s work and is ready to bunk up, carves itself out one of these rooms then curls up into a balls and sleeps. Once it has moved on, a tribe of goblins move in. They fill the bottom of the bowl with rock and dirt to flatten it out, then they start decorating. Usually with cat furs and skeletons. What can I say, goblins really like cats.
While this room had the bottom filled in, it was undecorated but for a small rock pedestal in the center. It had a cow skull atop it. I wasn’t sure what that meant.
I stood at the threshold looking in, the light from my headlamp seeing what I saw. Nothing.
There weren’t even any tracks in the dirt.
I took a chance and, rifle in the lead, stepped into the room.
Now that I was in, I could see no less than five tunnels leading out. One of them was right next to the one I’d just exited. Looking into it I could see a faint green glow some ways back. One of my glow sticks. This was the right fork of the tunnel. I shook my head, two tunnels leading to the same spot.
I moved into the center of the room. The metallic banging continued, and from where I stood I could hear which tunnel it was coming from. To be honest, it all felt like a trap, but the noise was the only lead I had. So, dropping a glow stick outside the tunnel that brought me into the room, and another inside the tunnel that was taking me out, I continued on.
I didn’t have many of the glow sticks left. Any more twists and turns and I’d soon be out. Luckily the tunnel I followed was long and straight, no other tunnels leading off from it.
The banging noise drew closer as I loped along and I realized what it sounded like. It was as if someone was hammering on a wire cage, like what you’d see in an animal shelter. I didn’t like what it meant. Not one bit.
After another five minutes of walking I could see a pinprick of light some ways ahead. I switched off my headlamp and crept on toward the light.
I stopped every now and then as the light intensified so that my eyes could adjust. As the light grew, so did the noise. Eventually I’d reached the end of the tunnel. I hung back, as far into the darkness as I could, and tried to spy what was in the room beyond.
The banging stopped. In it’s place was a yowling, like an animal in distress. This was the off key singing from earlier. I crept forward another step and then someone spoke.
“Pretty kitty,” it said. The voice was low and wet, like someone talking with food in their mouth. It was ahead of me, from the room beyond the tunnel.
“Soft fur,” it continued. “Pretty fur. All trapped. Nowhere to go. It okay, kitty. Nice kitty. Lolm try more, get kitty out.”
The banging started up again. I moved closer, rifle ready.
The room was the same size as the last, which would make sense as it had probably been carved out by the same slug. There was a fire burning in a pit lined with rocks in the center of the room. At the far end, on the other side of the fire, sat a row of wire cages. Ten wide and four high. The cages I could see were empty. The cages I couldn’t see were blocked from view because something was standing in front of them.
It was stooped and no taller than me. It wore rags that resembled old bed sheets. It’s skin was scaly with random patches of fur. It held a jagged chunk of rock that it used to hammer on the front of one of the cages, probably the lock. By the sound of the yowling I could only assume that the cage held a cat. Possibly one of Clem’s.
The creature took a breather from banging on the cage. The cat continued to yowl and holler.
“Lolm will open cage,” the thing said. “No fear. Lolm will free you, pretty kitty.”
I wasn’t quite sure what the thing was, the light in the room was bad. But whatever it was, maybe its intentions weren’t of the nefarious type. Maybe it was trying to free the cat. Like I’d said earlier, not all monsters are bad. Most of them just want to get through life with as little fuss as possible. Despite the way it looked, regardless of the gloom and the terrifying location, it was entirely feasible that this creature was actually trying to help.
“Lolm so hungry, pretty kitty.”
Then again, I’ve been known to be wrong.
“Lolm will free you and then he can eat you,” it said.
I stepped into the room, rifle at the ready.
“Lolm’s gonna put the rock down and step away from the cage,” I said. “Or Norman’s gonna put a bullet right into Lolm’s head.”
The thing turned to me in alarm, hissing. It’s eyes were yellow and round like saucers, its mouth wide like a catfish.
I squeezed the trigger.