I hated that town. Sprawled across the rotting foothills of a dead mountain chain, the city was a mass of Old South racism and corruption, filled with inhabitants too poor or too sentimental to leave for someplace better. The city sweltered in the mid-summer heat, smog from traffic mixing with lethal amounts of pollen and dust to form a soup that killed asthmatics as effectively a whiff of mustard gas.
I had acquired a sum of money from a job a few months back, and my needs were modest, so I had nothing better to do than hang out at the fountain downtown, or at the coffee shop nearby. I met Charlie first, when I noticed some truly phenomenal photographs on his laptop. They were all of beautiful, decayed structures, some of which I had seen around town. Charlie never made eye contact as he explained, in his mild, halting speech, that he didn’t take the photos, those were Jack’s, but he handled setting up Jack’s website.
A few evenings later, I was sitting on the floor of Jack’s tiny apartment, drinking beer and talking with a small group of kids that were most excited by abandoned and condemned buildings, fire hazards, and other signs of urban decay. They called themselves urbexers, or urban explorers. The leader of the group, Jack, was passionate about his photography, and was working his art into his college thesis. Jack was tall, with a surfer’s build that could have landed him a contract to model for Abercrombie and Fitch, if it weren’t for his shock of unruly blonde hair. Jack’s girlfriend, Annie, at first seemed to perform no function asides from looking very good and hanging onto Jack. I asked Charlie about her once, and he said that Annie was a very good listener, which is what Jack seemed to want.
Shane was huge. He topped four hundred pounds, standing well over six feet tall, with thick slabs of muscle overlaid by thicker slabs of fat. He was from some no-name community in the forested hills of middle Alabama, and he dressed as if he was prepping for a deer hunt. For all of his size and massive presence, he was calm and very quiet, perhaps in response to Jack’s constant diatribe about the architectural methodologies of whatever.
The last member of the group was Petya. She was a transplant from some formerly Soviet-bloc country, uprooted from all that she knew and rudely shoved into the semi-rural Alabama soil, watered a bit and told to deal with it. Lucky for her, Petya was tough as a weed, and thrived. She was short and hard, looking more like a thirteen year old boy than a nineteen year old woman. She had discovered country music early after her move, and took to it with a passion that verged on neurotic, to a point that her speech was a heavy Southern drawl punctuated with weird Slavic inflections.
Jack’s obsession was photography, specifically taking pictures of decaying urban structures. If given a chance, he would talk at great and exhausting length about the ‘moral imperative’ of photographing ruins, as we ‘owed’ the original laborers and craftsmen some of our attention to the artisanship of their hard work. Jack met Charlie in high school. Over the next few years the pair developed their infiltration skills and expanded their group to encompass others with similar interests. Jack seemed to be the idea man, and had an uncanny talent for finding unexplored sites all over the area. Once Jack had located a site, Charlie would come up with a way to get in. Not only was Charlie an expert locksmith, he had made friends with many of the librarians and city records-keepers in the area, so he was often able to provide historical maps and records for the sites.
We bounced along a poorly-maintained road in Shane’s van, listening to Jack crow about our target for the night. Shane did not appear to be a very smart person, given his size and usual closed-mouthedness. However, it was his idea to buy a white panel van and affix official-looking “State Department of Infrastructure” decals to it. He had mounted yellow bubble lights to the top, and black and yellow caution tape around the bottom. When we stopped, he pulled a few orange traffic cones off of a metal mount on the front of the van and placed them in front and behind the van.
“Isn’t that kind of conspicuous,” I asked.
Shane smiled. “Yep. Ain’t no ‘damn hooligan kids’ want to be conspicuous. So the van must be here on official business.”
“Here it is, man,” Jack clapped me on the back. “Holy of holies, the Water Works Tunnel. Half a mile straight through a mountain. And Charlie can get us in.”
I turned, and looked at the small metal door set into the side of a hill. “It doesn’t look like much. And I didn’t think it was that hard to get into.”
“It’s not,” Charlie said, “But we’re going into the Side Tunnel.” Charlie walked around to the rear of the van, and pulled out a pickaxe.
I would not have been more shocked if he had pulled out a severed head. As a rule, urbexers greatly disapprove of any actions that change a site. They don’t litter, they don’t graffiti, and on some message boards there are long-running arguments about even using chalk to mark for wayfinding.
“What’s the Side Tunnel?” I asked.
“You’ll see soon enough,” Petya said, handing me a head-mounted flashlight.
I grabbed my backpack, which was heavy with gear: snacks, extra flashlights, and water bottles. Jack grabbed a shovel from the back of the van, and Shane another pickaxe. Moments later the van was closed and locked, orange cones glowing in the dim light. Charlie produced an actual key to the lock on the metal door, and hauled it open. He caught my look, and said, “Helps to have friends at City Hall.”
One by one, we walked single file through the door into the Water Works Tunnel. Petya closed the metal door with a grunt, and the boom echoed through the darkness. The Water Works Tunnel was much like every other tunnel, low, cramped and moist, with an unpleasant smell. Dirt caked the exposed brickwork, and in some places iron piping lay exposed.
“Back like a hundred years ago, when the Dunn brothers built this thing, there wasn’t a good way to get water from the Cahaba river into town,” Jack said. “So they bored this tunnel right through the mountain, out the other side to where the river is. The Side Tunnel, though –”
“Please be quiet,” Charlie said, “I’m trying to count.” We had been steadily making our way down the tunnel. The darkness before and behind was absolute. I had been in darker places, but the close confines were beginning to make me anxious. Jack moved away from Charlie, back to me.
“Anyway, like about halfway through the mountain, the Dunn brothers got to a spot that they couldn’t get through. They had to bring in heavier machinery, some kind of steam drill rig. You see how tight it is in here, man? They dug a tunnel off to the side, then they expanded it. They were under a deadline, like nearly about to lose their contract, so they made the miners work day and night. They actually set up a small camp in the Side Tunnel. There were like sleeping areas with beds built right into the walls. They even had a small camp store. Eventually, the miners got through the tough spot, and the Dunn brothers just walled up the Side Tunnel. Nobody’s been in there since.” Jack’s words echoed sibilantly down the tunnel.
“Nobody until us,” Shane laughed.
“Is bullshit,” Petya said. “Is no such thing as Side Tunnel. Is Jack being full of the shits again, like with that room under the fountain down town.”
“Hey, that was real,” Annie said. “He couldn’t get the –”
“Please be quiet, guys,” Charlie said, playing his flashlight around the floor and sides of the tunnel. “Help me look for an iron valve or gear or something.”
We stopped talking, and began looking around the tunnel. I followed the large iron pipe for a few feet, and said, “Hey, is this it?”
Charlie shined his light on the valve, then on a folded back photocopy of his map. “Yeah, that’s it. Now, Shane, try that wall right there. Right across from here. See if it’s brick, behind that dirt.”
The pickaxe was incredibly loud in the tunnel. “Good thing there’s a mountain between us and anyone that might hear that,” I said, holding my hands over my ears. Petya smirked and handed out ear covers from her backpack. Shane bashed the wall with the pickaxe a few more times, then scraped at it with the side of the axe.
“Yep, that’s concrete over brick, right there,” Shane said, pulling a crumbling red brick loose with his pick. Jack eagerly grabbed the sledgehammer. He and I took up positions on either side of Shane, and we began to hammer away at small spots on the wall. Several minutes later, Jack’s sledge punched through the wall a few feet farther down the tunnel.
“I’m through!” Jack yelled, “Come help me!” Shane and I moved near him, breaking the hundred year old brickwork. Annie made a few feeble attempts at moving bricks out of the way, until Petya shoved her aside.
“You might break a nail,” Petya growled, and began stacking the rubble into two careful piles on either side of the widening hole in the wall. Charlie donned gloves and helped, and soon we stood before a small hole that appeared to open into another larger chamber.
Charlie handed Jack the large spotlight. “After you, sir,” Charlie said, bowing slightly and extending his arm towards the hole in the wall.
Jack grinned, and ducked into the hole, followed by Annie, Charlie, Shane, Petya, and finally, me.
From the other side, the bricked-over section was much larger than the small opening we had made, at nearly six yards across. There were a few wooden crates stacked on the sides of the tunnel, covered by dirt and dust-covered tarpaulins. The tunnel was narrow at first, but seemed to widen at some distance away. Its walls receded into the gloom, out of the reach of the small bright beam of light cast by Jack’s spotlight. Jack moved the light around slowly, illuminating the Side Tunnel for the first time in over a hundred years.
“How big was this tunnel supposed to be?” I asked.
“According to the map, maybe thirty feet wide and two hundred feet long,” Charlie said.
“It’s a hell of a lot bigger than that,” Shane said, staring off into the darkness. “I think it gets a lot wider down there.”
“Ok guys, let’s get what we came for,” Jack said. “Annie, hand me my camera bag. We need to document this as we go through it, so we can have photos of the tunnel in its pristine state.” As Jack set up his photography gear, we dispersed, each of us shining lights around the first part of the tunnel. I noted to myself that none of the group seemed particularly willing to go farther down the tunnel. Jack began snapping photos, the flash flaring like lightning.
“Hey guys, look at this,” Shane called, from farther down the tunnel. The light from his flashlight made him seem small in the darkness, and his voice echoed strangely. Charlie, Petya and I walked down the tunnel to where Shane stood.
“This isn’t supposed to be here,” Charlie whispered. I had heard that line before. Hell, I’ve said it before. Suddenly, I was gripped with a panicky certainty that I should leave. Drop my pack, ditch these fools, and run all the way to the doorway in the mountainside, open it, and keep running. Maybe all the way to the ocean. I shuddered once, swallowed, and pushed it down. I had a job to do.
Shane was standing in front of the first building of what seemed to be an abandoned town. I counted over eight buildings, on either side of a smooth dirt ‘street’ extending down the tunnel. The buildings were rudely finished, with unpainted grey boards cracked and warped with age, but mostly whole. The cavern in which they stood was quite large, but the roof was low enough to see by flashlight.
“Jesus,” Jack said, startling all of us.
“Quit that, asshole!” Petya growled, punching Jack in the arm. “You scared shit out of me, standing here in scary tunnel with ghost town.” She got closer to him, with a finger in his face. “You are full of shit again, Jack. You set this up to pull prank on this new guy, yes? Ya’ll knew this was down here!”
Jack backed up a step. “Hey, man, back off. We had no idea this was down here. Are you serious? We had to break through a damned wall. How could we’ve known this place was even down here?”
“The news articles I found did say they built a camp for the miners,” Charlie said. “This whole area was sealed up until we knocked a hole in the wall, and it seems pretty dry down here, so the buildings were basically mummified.”
Petya rolled her eyes. “Is exactly what we need. Mummy buildings.” She slugged Jack on the arm again, and stomped off.
“Yeah, a camp, Charlie,” Shane said. “This ain’t a camp. This is a whole town. There’s what, a dozen old buildings down here?”
“I want to get out of here, Jack. Take me back to the van,” Annie said, and leaned on Jack in such a way as to press many exciting parts against him.
Petya rolled her eyes. “We’re not going back now, Annie. We just got here. If Jack is right, we’re first. We’re never first at anything.”
That seemed to steel Jack’s resolve. “She’s right, Annie. This is the type of thing that lands me a National Geographic deal.”
Charlie glanced at Jack. “Us, Jack. All of us.”
“Of course, man. We’ll all be famous. Let’s get a shot of that building there,” Jack said, with the distracted look that indicated he was no longer thinking about the current conversation.
Annie and Shane cautiously investigated the shack on the opposite side of the tunnel. Petya and I walked down the tunnel, past the first few buildings, to a larger clearing. The center of the clearing held a large stack of ancient, mostly-burned wood in a circular fire pit. A few rusted metal cans lay scattered around the pit. To the left and the right of the fire pit, tunnels extended and disappeared into the darkness.
I had done my research for months, looking in the basements of dusty college libraries and used book stores, scouring thrift stores, yard sales, and once I got to Birmingham, reading the papers, looking for reports of the missing. I had more doubts than clues, with only the scars upon my face as evidence that the thing that I sought was real, and not a paranoid fantasy of my own making. I knew I was in the right place when I saw what lay in front of us.
At the end of the Side Tunnel, carved into the raw rock wall like some hillbilly Petra, rose the face of a large building that could only be a church. The carvings had a crude look to them, columns and lintels hammered out of the stone with miner’s chisels by men who might have seen a drawing of a Roman column in a newsprint. Crosses decorated the facing at various points, but my eyes were immediately drawn to the symbol above the only door. I recognized the symbol’s loops and angles, but only in reverse, as I have only seen it in one other place: my own mirror, as a faint white tracery only visible now under the bright glare of the light reflecting off the scarred skin of my forehead.
At that moment of recognition, as if in sympathy, my scars began to itch. Faintly, but the itch was there, a subtle warning. Get out. I knew I should listen, but it had taken so long to catch the faintest trace of the trail.
“Hey, look, a cave. I wonder what’s inside?” Petya said, with a knowing smirk. She shouldered her pack and walked into the doorway. I had no choice but to follow her. The doorway opened into a small, low tunnel, carved out of solid rock. After a few feet, the tunnel turned sharply left, and turned again to the right, then opened into a larger room with a downward-sloping floor. The remnants of wooden pews sat rotting silently on either side of the narrow aisle leading down to the front of the room. At the front of the room, a few large leather sacks leaned against a round structure that appeared to be an altar.
As we moved closer, Petya let out a stifled squeak, and stopped. She glanced at me, but I already knew. The leather sacks were in fact the desiccated remains of three people, hunched, headless and kneeling at the altar. I stepped closer. What I had originally thought of as an altar was in fact a pit, or a deep well, its bottom hidden far below. “Bodies?” Petya said. A sidelong glance at her face showed me the shocked, bruised look about her eyes. She grimaced, then shouldered her pack. “Jack will not be happy about this.” Urbexers hate finding bodies. At the least, bodies are creepy and unpleasant. At the worst, they can entangle a crew in months of police investigations, red tape, and possible trespassing charges.
“Let’s try to steer Jack away from this for now,” I said. “In fact, let’s head back.” Petya nodded, and we left the church, Petya glancing over her shoulder at the well.
When we arrived back at the clearing, Jack was missing. Annie was furious, eyes rubbed red and raw, upbraiding Charlie and Shane. “That’s rule number one, Shane! ‘Stick with your buddy.’ You guys act like I’m just eye candy, treat me like I’m Jack’s Barbie doll who can’t do anything, but I’ve been on more crawls than either of you two in the last year! Where were you, Shane? What were you doing?”
Shane stared at the ground, scuffing the dirt floor of the tunnel with his work boots. “We … were just..”
“We were making out,” Charlie said. “It happens.”
Annie whirled on Charlie. “Oh for Christ’s sake, Charlie! Couldn’t you have kept it in your pants for an hour? You both have jobs to do!”
“The same goes for you, Annie. Where were you? What were you doing? You’ve been stuck up Jack’s ass all night, so we figured he’d be fine,” Charlie said. In the glow of the flashlights, Charlie glanced at Petya and I, and blushed. “Look, this isn’t helping. We need to find Jack. He couldn’t have gotten far. He’s probably down the tunnel, taking pictures. You know how he gets when he’s found a good subject.”
We spread out. Annie ran to the entrance, but saw no sign of Jack. I checked a few of the wooden structures, but found nothing. When we reached the end of the Side Tunnel, in front of the church, Charlie wanted to check inside. “Petya and I just came from inside there,” I said. I glanced at Petya, who shook her head. She knew as well as I that the revelation of the three mummified corpses in the church would send the rest of the crew into a panic. “If you want, I’ll run in and check. Go look in these other buildings. I’ll be right back.”
Charlie rounded up the others and walked down the tunnel to the right, calling Jack’s name as they went. I turned, and walked back into the church. As I followed the tunnel’s turns, I noticed light shining from the well room. Dreading what I would find, I walked into the small room, and found it as Petya and I had left it: empty, save for the three mummified bodies clustered around the well. And Jack’s large spotlight, positioned at the top of the well.
“Well, shit,” Shane said, in that peculiarly Southern way that splits a single-syllable word into seven or more syllables. He peered into the well, but his flashlight was unable to pierce the gloom at the bottom.
“Looks like Jack is exploring without us,” I said. “We should probably go down after him.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, man,” Charlie said. He was visibly shaken. The whole group was. The three headless, mummified corpses squatting near the well did not help ease the tension in the room, and the group was decidedly angry at Petya and I for not mentioning them.
“You’re going in there after him, Charlie,” Annie said. “You owe it to him. And if you’re too pussy to go in, I’ll go.”
“We all go,” Petya said. “I have seen the scary movies. We don’t split up. Splitting up is when monsters get us.” She shoved Shane out of the way, adjusted her headlamp, and began the descent. Annie followed, then Shane, and then Charlie. I climbed down the well shaft after the others, leaving that strange church in near darkness, illuminated only by the cold green glow of a few long-duration chem-lights left at the top of the well. I have been lost in the dark before, and a little extra light can make all the difference.
The tunnel at the bottom of the well smelled like blood. The others noticed it, and Charlie began some tentative explanation about the amount of iron ore in the walls, but then trailed off. They could sense the wrongness of this place. Under the pervasive smell of rust and blood, there was another, fouler stink. It was not so much a scent, but the memory of a scent, a recollection of the odor of something horrible that once passed this way and might yet come again.
When we reached the first intersection, Charlie asked us to stop. He fished in his backpack and pulled out a can of highly-reflective spraypaint.
“Charlie,” Shane said. Urbexers don’t leave traces. Worst case, they use chalk, because it washes away with water. They don’t spraypaint anything.
“Fuck this place, man.” Charlie popped the top, shook the can, and sprayed a large arrow on the tunnel wall, pointing back to the well. “Fuck it in the ear.”
Petya startled us all with her cackled laughter. “In ear. Good one, Charlie!” That set the rest of the group off, and for a time, eased the growing fear. We turned to the right and followed the new tunnel, periodically calling for Jack. The tunnel forked, split, and forked again.
“There’s miles of tunnels down here,” Shane said. “How are we gonna find Jack in all of this? He’s not leaving any markers, and the floor’s too hard to see his footprints.”
“We’ll find him,” Charlie said. “These tunnels have to go somewhere. What I’d like to know is why they’re here. At first I thought this was a coal mine, but there’s no bracing like I expected. So I thought maybe it was a saltpeter mine. That would explain the lack of bracing, and the crazy tunnels, but I haven’t seen niter on any of these walls. None of this makes any sense.”
Annie, who had been quiet for a while, stopped. “Guys, I saw someone up ahead! Jack!” She yelled, and ran forward. We followed, running in a stooped half-run so as not to hit our heads on the low tunnel ceilings. Annie called for Jack as she ran, gradually outdistancing us with her frantic pace. Up ahead, in the gloom, we saw her pause, turn her head to the left, then lunge down a tunnel branch.
“Annie, slow down!” Shane yelled. Even though the air was cool in the tunnels, sweat beaded his face. We heard a thin shriek, and then sobs. “Annie!” Shane yelled again.
We found Annie sitting on the floor of a room, the first of its size that we had encountered. The floor was hard-packed earthed, like the rest of the tunnels, but there were a few old wooden boards scattered around. Her pack was open in front of her, and she was muttering a quiet stream of obscenities. She had removed a boot and was wrapping her foot in gauze from a first-aid kit. “Sorry, guys. I tripped over a damn board. I guess I was going too fast, and didn’t watch where I was going.” Shane and Charlie hurried over to her, clucking like upset hens. Charlie pronounced Annie’s ankle sprained.
“I guess we should take a rest break,” Shane said. “What time is it?”
“About three in the morning,” Charlie said, looking at his watch. “It feels like we’ve been down here for hours.”
“We should go back,” Petya said.
Annie shook her head firmly. “No. I’m not leaving without Jack.”
“Look, Annie, I know you thought you saw him …” Shane said.
“But we don’t even know if he’s down here,” Charlie said.
“Yes he is! We saw his spotlight at the top of the well!” Annie said.
“I know, but that’s just it,” Charlie said, taking a bite of a protein bar. “Jack’s a pro. He wouldn’t come down here without us. I’ve been thinking, what if we have it wrong? What if he left the spotlight behind while he went to find us, and we somehow missed him?”
“Oh my god,” Annie said. “I bet he’s terrified. Someone needs to go back, and leave a note or something!” As she tried to climb to her feet, her ankle turned, and Shane and Charlie both caught her.
“You’re definitely done exploring,” Shane said. “Okay, I’ll take Annie back to the van. We’ll leave notes for Jack along the way. And Charlie,” Shane looked down. “I think it’s time to call the cops.”
Charlie blew out a compressed breath. “Jack’s gonna be pissed.”
“Yeah, he will, but he shouldn’ta run off like this. And there’s bodies down here. And we have an injury. You wanna keep goin’ on these field trips, we better play by the rules.”
“Give us three more hours, Shane,” I said. “If we can’t find Jack by dawn, no problem. We’ll pack up and head to the entrance, and we’ll call the cops. But I think we’ll find him before then.”
“And call Roberto,” Charlie said. Shane tightened his jaw. Roberto was Shane’s ex, and they’d had a bad breakup, but Roberto was a long-term detective on the city’s police force, and could smooth things over for the group. “I know you’re still pissed at him, but we need his help.”
Shane helped Annie up, and she leaned on him as they staggered out of the room. I could tell from the set of Shane’s jaw that he was pissed, but I knew Annie would make him call the cops. So. I had three hours. Maybe less. I hoped it would be enough time. I knew I might be able to break back into the Side Tunnel in another month or so, but my guess was that the site was about to become very popular with a lot of different people. I clenched my fists. I was very close, closer than I had really ever been. I was not about to let the opportunity slip away.
I stood up, dusted off my jeans, and gathered the few items I had pulled from my pack. “Time to go find Jack. There’s a lot of branching tunnels down here, so remember to mark them, Charlie. I think we missed a few when we were running after Annie.” I turned to Petya. “You’re the best mapper we have. Do you have any idea of where we are?”
“Yep,” Petya said, “We are about half kilometer from the well, in pretty much straight line from there. Plenty of places for Jack to be. I say we do maze-logic, pick right-hand wall and follow it until it ends or loops back. We go for ninety minutes. If no Jack, we head back to well.”
“Surely we’ll find him before then,” Charlie said. “It’s after three in the morning. He has to be tired. There couldn’t possibly be anything that interesting –”
Charlie stopped. Turned his head. Then I heard the screams.
Mentally, I was prepared for this. I knew that I had made a conscious decision to lead these kids into a trap, and to use them as bait. I rationalized that by putting a few people at risk, I would be ultimately protecting many more. I knew that was just rationalization. In truth, I didn’t feel guilty about putting my friends in danger. I felt guilty about not caring about them at all, when endangering them put me closer to my goal.
“Annie!” Charlie yelled. We ran out of the room and down a tunnel towards the sound of her voice. I saw her first, lurching against the tunnel wall, dragging her injured foot, eyes deep-socketed and huge in the bleached white mask of her face. Her shirt was splattered with a spray of blood.
“Shane,” she said. “It got Shane.”
“What got Shane?” Petya asked.
“I … don’t know. We were close to the well. Shane kept saying he heard something walking behind us, but when we looked, there was nothing there. So we kept walking. And then, there was something there. And it took him.” Her face crumpled in grief. “It just pulled him right out of my hands. I don’t.. I don’t know if he knew what happened. His face… He just looked so confused..”
Petya took Annie’s hand, and Annie clung to her, sobbing. I knelt with my pack on the tunnel floor, and rummaged through it. When Charlie saw the gun, he stepped back a pace.
“Jesus. Fuck. What the hell is that thing?”
“It’s a shotgun revolver. Six chambers, all loaded. If you have to use it, be really careful. It’s got no safety to speak of.” The gun scared the shit out of me. It was huge, making Dirty Harry’s Magnum look like a squirt gun. It was heavy and unwieldy, and hurt like a bastard to fire, but it was shorter than a shotgun and took shot shells. Which was useful, as I had hand-loaded every shell. I had no idea what might kill, or even hurt, the thing I hunted, but I had my hopes. Buckshot mixed with either rock salt, silver shot, gold shot, mercury, garlic, or finally, Communion wafers and holy water. If that didn’t work, I had some hollow-point solid rounds that I could use on myself, if it came to it. I pulled out two long hunting knives that I had hand-silvered.
“Why would I have to use it?” Charlie asked, pushing his glasses up and blinking rapidly.
“In case the thing down here with us gets me before it gets you.” I handed the two knives to Charlie and Petya. “Careful with those, too. They’re sharp. I electroplated them myself.”
“Will they work?” Petya asked.
“I have no idea,” I said. “I picked most of this stuff up by watching Supernatural reruns. I’m making the rest up as I go along.”
“We are so fucked,” Petya said, and shook her head.
“I think they’ll work. Worst case, it’ll drive the thing off for long enough that we can get away.”
Annie, who had been very quiet, looked up at me. “You knew.” She lunged forward, and punched me hard in the side of my face. I fell back, and cracked my head on the tunnel wall. “You knew! You knew something was down here, you bastard. You led us all down here as –”
“Bait,” Petya said, and sighed. She stood up from her near crouch, and eyed me with contempt.
I got up, rubbing my throbbing head. “Look, I’ve been hunting this thing for a long time. It’s killed people, and … and it’s my fault. I let it out, so it’s my responsibility to take it down.”
“And you’re the one with the gun,” Charlie said.
“Right. I’m the best chance any of you have of living through this. And I think that if there’s anyone with a chance of hurting this thing, it’s me.” I stood and put the gun into a holster, and put two moon clips each into my jacket pockets. I shouldered my pack. “Let’s go. Annie, take us back to where it got Shane. Everyone stay behind me.” I pulled out the gun again, and we started walking back down the tunnel toward the well.
The trek back was far worse. Charlie’s markers glittered like cats’ eyes in the distant gloom, and we all kept seeing shadows at the corners of our vision. Twice I nearly wasted ammo on a slight imperfection in the tunnel wall. The weight and bulk of the shotgun pistol made it extremely uncomfortable to carry for any length of time, so I eventually settled for keeping it in the holster, pulling it out any time I thought I saw something.
We could see the handholds of the well when we reached the area where Shane was taken. There was a great deal of blood splashed on the wall, and more trailed off down a tunnel that forked off from the main one. “There’s the well,” I said. “You three take the knives, climb up and get out of here. Call for help. I’m going after the thing that got Shane.”
“I’m not leaving without Jack,” Petya said. She looked at Annie, then looked away. I remembered the way Petya looked at Jack, when she thought nobody was looking at her. Fair enough.
“I think we all know Jack’s not … Jack didn’t make it,” Charlie said, wiping his eyes. “But I’m not going without Shane. Or at least finding out what happened to him.” He turned away, weeping silently.
“We’re coming with you,” Annie said. “I’m not leaving without Jack either … or at least without knowing what happened to him. And like Petya said, we don’t split up. You saw what happened to me and Shane when we went off on our own.”
I looked at all of the blood on the ground. “Nobody knows we’re down here. They might find the van, but they won’t find the entrance to the Side Tunnel. I’ve been in this type of situation before. Things change when the cops show up. There will be a cave-in, or a flood, or the cops will walk all down the length of the Waterworks Tunnel and they simply won’t see the hole we made, because they can’t. Or because they really don’t want to. If you follow me … I am probably not going to survive this. So you won’t either.”
Annie took a step closer to me, and shook a fist in my face. “You can get off your white knight hero horse now, asshole.” She grabbed my collar and began to punctuate her sentences by shaking my head. “Find. My. Boyfriend. NOW.”
I stepped back against the wall, and pushed her away. “Fine. So be it.”
We followed the spatters and smears of blood down a long tunnel that snaked and twisted and sloped downward, gently at first, then more steeply. My scars had been itching faintly since I climbed down the well, but the itching had increased to a shrill, insistent whine against the nerve-endings of my skin. I could feel the looping scrawl of each scar, so faint as to be invisible in daylight, etched into my face as if held in place by a net of white hot wires.
The air in the tunnel began to thicken with moisture, the walls shining wetly in the reflected beams of our lights. I stopped, holding up a hand to warn the others. “I see light from up ahead,” I whispered. Somewhere down the tunnel, a pale golden light flickered. I pulled the revolver from its holster, cursing its weight for the hundredth time. We continued down the corridor, cautiously and slowly, partly due to fear, and partly due to the floor, which was very steep and slick with moisture.
The tunnel ended abruptly at a thin ledge that bordered a space, wide and open and chaotic with shapes. At first I could not make sense of what I saw, the lines and forms overlapping and merging, like looking skyward at the moon through an ancient tree. We all stood on that ledge for a moment, gasping, maybe making some small sounds, as our minds fought to process that view. Gradually my eyes traced the subtle lines and edges of structures, clustered against the walls in claustrophobic clots and knots like a type of architectural tumor. The walls of the cavern receded out and away, plunging down into mist-shrouded depths, fading from my view. The structures were lit from indeterminate light sources, limned in a dim gold light that did more to cast shadow than to reveal. As I stared, I began to notice the crumbled ledges, the blank and open entryways, the empty areas on distant walls where whole sections of the buildings had sloughed off and fallen into the pit far below. I noticed the stillness, the silence of the place.
“It’s a city,” Charlie said.
“A dead city,” I said.
“How can it be a city?” Annie asked. “There’s no streets. Those doors open out onto thin air. That makes no sense.”
“It makes perfect sense, if you have wings,” I said. I gestured at a brighter area down the ledge to our right. “That’s where we’re going.” The ledge was smooth, its surface glassy but not slick. It seemed to emit a faint gold light that was only visible from the corner of my vision. We crept down the ledge for a few hundred yards, reaching a wide platform. Against one low wall was a large seat of sorts, and in front of that seat was a long, rounded metallic table. Shane’s corpse glistened wetly on the table, chest cracked open, ribs splayed wide like two open, skeletal hands. The top of his skull had been removed, and a mass of black tubes snaked from the opening down to the table.
“Nooo!” Charlie wailed, and ran to the table.
“Charlie, don’t!” I yelled.
Charlie reached the table, and stopped. He reached out an arm, and gently touched Shane’s bloody face. Shane’s eyes snapped open. I could see his lungs flutter in the raw cavity of his chest. His mouth worked silently, lips pulled back in a rictus grin, tongue thrusting against his teeth. His body began to twitch and spasm, then the black tubes penetrating his skull writhed and pulled taut, and the spasms ceased. Shane’s eyes rolled up in his sockets, and his eyelids closed, almost peacefully.
Charlie whirled to face me, face contorted with rage and grief, silvered hunting knife held in a murderous grip in his hand. “What did this? What the fuck did this to him?”
As if in answer, the thing hit him so fast it was a blur. Charlie let out a brief scream as he was hooked high up into the air, then screamed again, in rage. I saw Charlie plunge the knife deep into the thing’s abdomen, pull it out, and plunge it in again. The thing let out an ear-splitting shriek, and let Charlie go. Annie, Petya and I watched as Charlie fell, tumbling over and over, into the depths. The thing crashed to the floor, and skidded to a stop against the cavern wall.
“Shoot it!” Annie yelled. “Kill it now!”
The creature stood as I raised the gun with two shaking hands. The thing was huge, standing over twelve feet high. It took a staggering step forward on curiously back-bent legs, then another. It shuddered, and I could see a milky, iridescent fluid seeping out of a wound on its belly. Its head snapped up and forward, and its eyes — there were so many — focused on me. I felt a disorienting tilt in my perspective, as if I were seeing myself, and the room, and Petya, and Annie, and the creature, all at once. I felt a curiously mechanical ticking, and felt that the size of the thing was a mistake. It was much, much larger than it appeared. The creature spread its wings, two or four or six, feathered and broad and black and leathery, tipped with hooks and talons, and flapped them once. Its scent billowed over us all, the scent we smelled in the tunnels, acrid and dry like oranges rotting in the desert sun. It came closer to us, and I felt it outside my mind, a pressure that was immense and cold and horribly, inhumanly logical. I waited, even though I could still hear Annie and Petya screaming behind me, screaming for me to shoot the thing. My scars were now twisting and rippling on my skin, white hot and reaching a point so far beyond pain that I could not name it. I focused on that sensation, and steadied my aim.
The gunshot thundered deafeningly loud in the silence of the dead city. The shotgun revolver kicked viciously in my fist, and I nearly dropped it. The creature had closed nearly half the distance between us. It stopped, and some of its eyes seemed to blink. One of its wings seemed to droop, and I saw that my first round of rock salt and buckshot had punched a small ragged hole through its leathery membrane. I braced and fired again. The creature recoiled with a scream, as the silver shot ripped open a jagged swath across its chest. I fired again, and was rewarded with another scream. It was so close that its stink was suffocating. I fired again and again, the thing reaching out for me with so many arms, its wings fluttering so fast they were a blur. Then it had me.
Two of its arms clutched me around the waist, and pulled me up and close. Two more arms reached up with taloned hands, black and scaly, crusted with impossible jewelry, and clasped both sides of my face. It turned my head from side to side, almost gently, and then looked deeply into my eyes. Of the many things I saw in those huge golden orbs, with their rings within whirling and spinning rings, the worst was recognition. The pressure outside my mind intensified, and I felt a snap, like a greenstick fracture from a short, sharp fall, and it came flooding through. It spoke to me then, not in words, but in a purer, an older, style of communication. It thanked me for bringing it more meals, and thanked me even more for bringing it information about the world from which it had been away for so very long. It promised that I was its favorite, and I would be rewarded in some incomprehensible, impossible way. I felt a deep and loathsome love welling up in me for the thing, as a dog would unconditionally love its master. Then the creature screamed, shrieking in real pain, and it was gone from my mind. I felt it recede like a tide, and missed that presence, hating myself for feeling so. I fell to the ground in a heap as the creature stepped back, arms raised to its head.
Petya had leaped upon the creature’s back, and was stabbing her long, silvered knife deep into the creature’s eyes. The thing scrabbled its many taloned hands at her, leaving deep scratches on her arms, but she dodged and kept plunging the knife into the thing’s eyes. Finally, with a deep, guttural bellow, she slammed the knife with both fists deep into the center of the creature’s skull. The wings stopped fluttering, and the thing toppled forward to the floor.
Petya untangled herself from the thing’s bulk, and half-stumbled to where I was sitting. Her face was ashen, and she held one arm with the other, blood oozing from long scratches on both. Annie shook herself and ran to Petya, dropped her backpack and pulled out the first aid kit. Neither of them looked at Shane. Once Annie had bound the worst of Petya’s wounds, Petya stood up and walked over to the still form of the fallen creature. She kicked it, savagely, once in the head. She stooped to remove the knife.
“Leave it,” I said. She turned to look at me. “I think it’s better off where it is.”
“It’s dead. I killed it,” she said.
“For now. But it might not be later. And that knife might postpone later for long enough. It’s time to go.”
Annie gestured at Shane’s body. “What about him? We can’t leave him here.”
“I know we can’t,” I said, “But none of us have the strength to carry him out, and we don’t know if that thing is going to wake back up. Or if there’s more of them.” That seemed to motivate Annie and Petya. Annie packed up her first aid kit, and we left the dead city by way of the tunnel from which we entered. I thought I saw the dim golden light growing fainter as we left, and that made me feel a slight bit of hope.
The walk back to the well was long, far longer than I remembered. The lower tunnel floors were sloped upwards, and slick. Annie and I both fell at least twice, which did nothing to improve my headache or Annie’s sprained ankle. Petya had lost a shoe in the fight, and had kicked off the other one before leaving the cavern. I thought about that shoe a lot while walking out of those tunnels. I wondered what some future explorer would think upon discovering that platform in a dead city of angels, and on that platform, the creature’s corpse, and a single shoe.
When we reached the well, I realized something had changed. I could see light at the top, much brighter than the few chem-lights I’d left behind. Annie saw the light and began to shout for help. A familiar voice sounded down the well from the top, and a silhouette of a head blocked the light. “Annie! What are you doing down there?” Jack yelled.
After much hugging and crying and kissing and a fair amount of punching, we got out of the well, and back to the entrance of the Side Tunnel. Petya was unable to climb, due to her injured arm. Jack and I helped get her out of the well using a Swiss seat he fashioned out of rappelling rope. Annie was able to climb out of the well on her own, putting minimal weight on her injured foot.
According to Jack, he left his spotlight at the edge of the well as a light source for some incredibly amazing photographs. Midway through, the ‘cheap’ Zeiss lens somehow fell off of his camera, and shattered on the stone floor. In a panic, he ran to the tunnel entrance to find a replacement, only to realize he had left his case of spares back at the van. Thinking he wouldn’t be long, he ducked out into the Waterworks Tunnel and ran back to the van.
“Yeah man,” Jack said, “This was totally stupid, guys. It was dark, and I was in a hurry to get back. So like, I got my spare case, and shut the back doors, and locked the van, and like, ran around the side of the van. You know those big mirrors on that thing? That stick out like three feet on either side? Yeah I clocked myself bigtime on one. I think I tore it off the mount. Anyway that like, knocked me totally unconscious. I woke up maybe half an hour ago with a killer headache, my face was all bloody, and it was light outside, and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I got my shit together and came back down here, but couldn’t find you guys. It’s spooky as shit down here when you’re alone. I was about to freak out until I heard some noises coming from the well, and then I was really gonna freak out.” He paused to take a breath, and a sip of water from a bottle. “Man, Shane’s gonna be pissed when he sees what I did to the van. Hey, where is Shane? And where’s Charlie?”
Jack wanted to go back immediately. Neither Annie or Petya would allow it. He swore he was going to get a group of people together to find Shane and Charlie, or at least their bodies. He said he would call in every favor he was owed, do whatever it took. His first call would be to Shane’s brothers, both of whom were even larger than Shane, and both of whom owned enough firepower to take over a small country. I agreed, and promised to help, but I was already planning to slip away as soon as I could. Jack’s search party might find the Side Tunnel, but the entrance would be collapsed. Or the tunnel would be there, and even the buildings inside, but the the well would be full of dirt, or simply missing. No amount of drilling, or explosives, or ground-penetrating radar would ever uncover that dead city.
Annie and Petya both hugged me, to my surprise, as we stood in the parking lot across from Jack’s apartment. I shook Jack’s hand, and promised to call him after I got some rest. I put my gear into the trunk of my old, battered blue Toyota Corolla. As I was driving away, Annie embraced Jack again. His eyes caught mine, over her shoulder. Then one lid drooped, in a slow, lurid wink. And in that moment, in the late morning light, the other eye flashed gold, like gold rings spinning inside gold rings. Then it was gone. It could have just been a trick of the light.