I have two very unusual keepsakes on one of my many bookshelves. One is an empty glass vial, the contents of which dried up long ago. The other is an unusual metallic nugget. When I have visitors, and they inevitably begin to peruse my bookshelves, I am most often asked about the piece of metal. In answering, I start by telling about the glass vial. I do this because they both came from the same experience, and I cannot tell of one without telling of the other.
In my senior year of college, I had an encounter that I will never forget. My college campus had a series of underground maintenance tunnels. Once a year, it was my job to enter the tunnels and clean them. In most places, they were little more than crawlspaces, save for a few more open areas. Spending a few hours in claustrophobic darkness with only roaches, rats, and abnormally large toads for company was not ideal. In hindsight, it wasn’t so bad at all. Rather, it wouldn’t have been if not for the circumstances.
I realized something was off when an hour passed and I hadn’t spotted a single rat. Normally, I would have spotted at least seven of them in the first half hour. I counted my blessings and continued to scrub the floor, sending a small horde of roaches scurrying up the walls. There were still plenty of disgusting critters keeping me company down here, so I decided not to let the absence of rodents concern me.
As I crawled forward in the tunnel, my fingertips touched something that went skittering ahead in the darkness. Curious, I scanned the tunnel ahead with my flashlight beam, hoping to catch a glimpse of what I had hit. My eye caught a flicker of movement to my left just as the object rolled into the wall. I reached out and plucked it up, turning it over in my hand.
It was a small glass vial. The surface was badly scuffed. A few patches of dry glue and yellowed paper were all that remained of what had once been a label. The vial’s stopper was missing, probably hiding in some other dark corner of the tunnel system. What interested me the most about the vial was the fact that it wasn’t empty. There was a thin glaze of liquid inside, clinging to the glass. The liquid was a bright purple color. It reflected the light from my flashlight and seemed to faintly glow. I had seen plenty of strange things down here in the tunnels, but never anything this unique. I wrapped the vial up tight in a spare rubber glove and slipped it in my pocket.
I cleaned the tunnels for another hour before I heard the sound. Someone was moving in the tunnel above me; I could hear the shuffling of hands and knees against concrete. Assuming it was my coworker, and realizing that I was running low on cleaning fluid, I called him on the radio.
“Twenty-one to Six,” I said, using our radio callsigns. The shuffling over my head stopped abruptly, and a moment later he responded.
“Go for Six.”
“Could I borrow some of your cleaner? I’m in the tunnel below you.”
Several seconds passed before my coworker replied. “I’m not in the tunnels, Twenty-one. I’m up in the shop.”
I furrowed my brow, instantly confused. If he was in the shop, then who was in the tunnel above me?
“Twenty-one to Base,” I said, hailing the maintenance office.
“Go for Base,” came the reply.
“Is anyone else working the tunnels today?”
There was silence for a brief moment. It felt much longer.
“Negative. It’s just you in there, Twenty-one.”
My throat dried up. “Copy,” I managed to croak back.
The shuffling above me had stopped. The tunnel was eerily quiet: no chirping of roaches, no croaking of toads, no scurrying of rats. I still hadn’t seen a single rat down here. Remembering this, I calmed down. I figured that maybe there had been a cat or something in the tunnel above me. There were plenty of cats on campus, and sometimes they went into the tunnels to hunt. It was easy to let one’s imagination run wild in these dark, damp tunnels.
I delved further into the tunnels, scrubbing the walls as squeaky clean as I could. The air was filled with the scent of lemon, which fought back against the less pleasant smells that lingered down here. I took a deep breath. The air made me gag. There was some other odor down here, besides the lemon and the stench of underground critters. I inhaled through my nose, less eagerly this time. My nostrils burned. The smell was unmistakable. Something dead was nearby. The ceiling had risen overhead; most people would have had to duck their heads to walk in the space. I’m not much taller than five feet, so I was able to walk upright.The tunnel let out into an open area where it intersected another tunnel, so there was more room to move around. I swept the room with my flashlight beam, following my nose to find the source of the fetid stench. My search didn’t last very long.
In the corner of the room was a dead cat. Under regular circumstances, this would not have been a surprise. As I said, cats came down here all the time to hunt the rats. Sometimes they got lost and never made it back to the surface.
This particular cat hadn’t gotten lost. The cat lay on its side. A swarm of greedy flies buzzed around the carcass. Oddly enough, the cat didn’t look like it had been dead for very long. On closer examination, however, my stomach heaved. The cat’s belly had been split open, and most of its internal organs were missing.
I stared perplexed at the macabre sight before me. What would have done this? I had heard of coyotes preying on cats around campus, but I’d never heard of a coyote getting into the tunnels before. Nevertheless, the evidence of some grisly predator’s presence in the tunnels lay before me on the concrete floor, covered in flies and smelling of decay. And yet, I wasn’t certain. There was something about the wound that unnerved me. It didn’t look like it had been torn open. The tears in the cat’s flesh seemed too clean.
Careful to keep my hands far away from the gaping wound, I lifted the dead cat and slipped the carcass into a trash bag. The swarm of flies buzzed around my arm and face, but a few quick sprays from my cleaner fluid dispersed most of them. I kept my eyes on the tunnels, looking for signs of whatever animal had done this. There were no signs of claw marks or bloodied tracks anywhere nearby. Something on the wall, however, caught my eye.
I stepped forward to examine the concrete wall of the atrium. There was a smear of liquid that had caught the light from my flashlight. At first, I thought it might have been blood. It was much too bright to be blood. The color was wrong, too. My hand dipped to my pocket, where the wrapped vial rested snugly against my leg. The smear was purple, just like the remnants in the vial; it seemed to absorb the light and hold it within. I ran my hand over the smear, which probably wasn’t the best idea. When I did, I noticed something unusual. Everything down here was damp and warm, but the liquid was cold to the touch. I rubbed my fingertips together, feeling the texture of the strange substance. It was thick like syrup or oil and just as sticky. I looked around for a pipe or something to wipe it on and settled for the wall.
As I continued my work, I noticed an unusual sensation spreading through my fingertips. They felt tingly and spiky, like when an appendage falls asleep and you have to smack it around to make the pain stop. I wondered if the purple goo was some kind of chemical the other teams used down in the tunnels. I had never seen it before, but it was possible.
“Twenty-one to Base,” I said to the radio.
“Go for Base,” came the reply.
“I found this weird purple goo down in the tunnels, and got some on my hand. Can you see if anyone knows if it’s dangerous?”
“Thank you,” I said gratefully. As I continued into the tunnel ahead, I began to notice more than just an absence of rats. I hadn’t seen any cockroaches since finding the cat carcass. Even the toads had fallen silent. Most people would have been thrilled to find that the vermin weren’t showing themselves, but down here it didn’t feel right. I found myself looking over my shoulder every so often, or shining my flashlight further ahead into the darkness. I was getting nervous. . .
“Base to Twenty-one,” shouted my radio, breaking the silence and making me set new world records in the high jump. Down here, the signal wasn’t very good, so the dispatcher’s voice was tinny and strained, making it sound inhuman. I rubbed the top of my head and answered the radio.
“Go for Twenty-one.”
“None of the boys know anything about purple goo. Are you playing with chemicals down there?”
“Negative,” I responded, my cheeks flushing despite having no reason to do so. “Might just have been a trick of the light.”
There was silence from the radio. After several seconds, the dispatcher’s voice came through again.
I cringed, knowing I was going to be the butt of more than a few tasteless jokes around the time clock later. Still, I was confused. If none of the other crews used a purple chemical, then what was smeared on the wall? What had been in the mysterious vial that was now tucked away in my pocket?
Just then, a low groaning sound echoed through the tunnels. Every hair on my body stood up, and I pointed my flashlight ahead into the darkness. The tunnel was empty. It was completely empty. No roaches scattered in the light. No toads went hopping into hiding. And, par for the course, no rats scurried madly away. Base had assured me I was alone in the tunnels. They had no idea how right they were.
But if I was alone down here, what had made that sound? This tunnel was as tall as the atrium, so I was able to walk freely in it. I left my cleaning supplies behind and walked forward through the tunnel, keeping my flashlight trained directly ahead. As someone with a fascination for the supernatural, I had seen a lot of monster videos on the Internet. I recalled several such videos where creatures were allegedly filmed in tunnels, creatures with glowing eyes and slender bodies. I could imagine one such creature in one of the adjacent tunnels, inching its way forward, searching the darkness for its next meal. I imagined long, sharp talons scraping over stone, and large glowing eyes peering into my soul. I imagined the creature raising its wickedly sharp talon and letting out a bloodchilling wail right before raking my face open.
A second groan drifted through the underground tunnels, this one much louder than the first one. I nearly dropped my flashlight in fright. I tried to think more realistically. There were no monsters in these maintenance tunnels. I’d been here a thousand times before and never seen anything unnatural, let alone supernatural. There must be some kind of animal down here with me, I told myself. Probably the same thing that ate the cat. I tried to ignore the voice in the back of my mind as it whispered something else. But it didn’t eat the cat.
“Hello?” I called, like the protagonist of a horror film. The concrete walls gave me no answer.
As anyone in my position would have, I was getting very, very scared. I kept my back against the tunnel wall, inching sideways along like a subterranean crab as I continued to investigate the sound. I prayed fervently that I would come across a coyote, or maybe even a fox. At the same time, I hoped that the sound was only my mind playing tricks on me.
A third groan filled the underground. I quickened my pace, sincerely hoping I wouldn’t run face first into the unknown creature. Moving as quickly as I could through the narrow space, I took several turns until finally I came to a dead end. I’d been moving for about ten minutes, and my heart was beating with fury. I decided it would be best to radio Base to send a few more guys down to help me. I knew I would never hear the end of it, but I was too frightened to care. However, I discovered that my radio was no longer clipped to my belt loop. It must have fallen a ways back. Angry and scared, I cursed my bad luck under my breath.
It was about this time when I saw the door. Looking around to try to get my bearings, I realized that I didn’t recognize this area of the tunnels. Most of the tunnels had large copper pipes with peeling insulation running along the ceiling. The ceiling here was smooth. As evidenced by my mission here, the tunnels were usually filthy with vermin and pipe residue. This area was cleaner than a hospital; not a speck of filth dotted the pristine concrete walls, floor, or ceiling. This odd cleanliness unnerved almost more than the dead cat had; it wasn’t unusual to find dead things down here. Finding an entire section of tunnel in mint condition, however, was like coming home to find your bed made and laundry washed when you had left your house in disarray. I began to wonder if someone else was down here, after all.
“Hello?” I called to the darkness. The darkness gave no answer. “Hank, is that you? If you’re playing a prank on me, I swear-”
As I was speaking, I was also backing towards the tunnel wall. I raised my foot to step back when suddenly my heel struck a metal surface. I turned to look behind me, curious and alarmed. There behind me was a metal door I had not noticed initially. This was unsurprising, considering the door nearly blended in perfectly with the concrete walls. If not for the loud clang that interrupted my sentence, I likely would not have noticed it at all.
My fear began to dissipate, replaced by a childlike curiosity, as I scanned the door for a way to open it. There was no knob or handle anywhere in the center. Then, up at the top, I saw a sliding latch that went into the concrete. I reached up, pulling down on the latch. The door creaked open slowly and I cringed, hoping that whatever animal was down here with me wasn’t close enough to hear. I shined my flashlight through the door, and what I saw forced my jaw open.
There was a room on the other side of the door, with three tables pushed up against the walls. Each table had something different on top of it. To my left, the table was covered in jars. The jars were filled with all kinds of strange things: bones, claws, and teeth from all kinds of animals; petals, stems, and roots from flowers and plants; chunks of rock and bits of metal. The jars were organized by their contents, but what for I couldn’t fathom. I had entered the room at this point, and I picked up one of the jars, this one filled with eyes, and held it up to the light. The jar was coated with dust; clearly, it had been here a long time. I half-expected one of the eyeballs to turn and look at me, like in the movies. Fortunately, the eyeballs remained inert within the jar. Next to the jar of eyes was one filled with what looked like organs. Small hearts and lungs lay one atop the other. There was a scalpel in front of the jar, coated with dried blood and what looked like hair. I found it unnerving that the jar of innards and the scalpel were the only things on the table not covered in dust.
I turned around to look at the table behind me. It was covered with what looked like components from a chemistry lab. There were empty beakers strewn around, some tipped over and leaking onto the table. There were burners covered with cobwebs and layers of rust. A row of test tubes lined the wall, most of which were broken. I plucked up one of the remaining test tubes, still intact, and held it up to the light. There, in the bottom of the tube, was a single drop of thick, purple liquid. It was the same liquid that was in the battered glass vial and had been smeared on the tunnel wall near the dead cat. My fingertips tingled, and I set the tube back in its holder as I wondered more intensely than ever what the purple goop could be.
My attention shifted to the third table, and I immediately cried out in alarm. There were mechanical components placed at the corners and along the sides. The machines hummed gently as a coil on the right side of the table pumped up and down. Clear plastic tubes ran from the machines to something else that lay atop the table, the thing that had made me yell. There on the table, connected to the strange device, was a human body.
Unlike the cat, the body had been dead for a long time. Also unlike the cat, there wasn’t a mark on it. The body looked like it had been partially embalmed. It’s skin was gray and a little shrunken, so I could just barely make out the bones underneath. It was like seeing an Egyptian mummy with the wrappings taken off, save for a loin covering (for which I was grateful).
The other maintenance guys would never believe this, I thought to myself as I studied the body. This was right out of the pages of Mary Shelley or Lovecraft; I checked my pocket for my phone so I could snap a picture. Unfortunately, my phone was sitting in my chair back in the shop. I looked around for something I could bring back topside with me as proof. Perhaps one of the jars of animal bits? I quickly decided against this; my stomach wasn’t strong enough to carry that all the way back. Maybe one of the burners or test tubes? That wouldn’t prove anything; I could have gotten any one of those items from the science building.
It was then that my gaze fell upon something rectangular on the table with the body, sitting next to the machine. I stepped forward, peering at it. The batteries in my flashlight were beginning to die, and I had to perform some percussive maintenance to get it to work. The light flickered to life, and I returned my attention to the rectangular object.
It was a leatherbound book. Countless loose pages protruded, unaligned, from the sides; the elastic band was taught against the bulging binding. A word I didn’t recognize was written across the front in golden calligraphy: Liberalchima.
A second object rested atop the book, directly beneath the cryptic title. This object was a piece of metal. Cautiously, I plucked up the hunk of metal and examined it by the fading light. The first thing I noticed was that it seemed very heavy for its small size. The second was that the nugget was made of two completely different metals, mottled together in remarkable fashion. I recognized the dull silvery luster of one of the metals as lead. The other I recognized just as easily as a metal that every man dreams of possessing. It was gold.
I stuffed the nugget of lead and gold into my pocket with the vial. What a prize this was, and I couldn’t wait to show the other maintenance workers. With any luck, they would be too busy gawking at the nugget to make fun of me for what happened earlier. Thinking of my fellow workers made me think that I should be getting back soon.
Yet, as I stole another glance at the leatherbound book on the table, my curiosity grabbed me by the hair and yanked me back. I picked the book up and studied the cover. It was much lighter than the nugget of metal, but felt thick with knowledge in my grasp. I pulled back the band and flipped through the pages. The book was filled with bizarre illustrations of complex machines, exotic plants, otherworldly creatures, and precious ores and gems the likes of which I’d never seen or heard. The notes were in English, and another language that looked like Latin. I didn’t bother to read the English ones. I did, however, scan the titles of the sections, which were just as bizarre as the illustrations: The Refining of Mundane Metals, The Humors of Various Monstrosities, Flora of Ryd’n, The Creation and Care of a Homunculus, The Elixir of Life, and a host of others just as fantastic.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I knew enough from speculative fiction novels to recognize the subject matter of these titles. Refining mundane metals, creating homunculi, elixirs of life – this was an alchemist’s journal! Could it possibly be real? I wanted to read every word the book had to say. But there would be no time.
My thoughts were shattered by a familiar sound from the hallway. A long, low moan crept in from outside. My skin crawled like a horde of roaches. It was very near, most likely out in the hall. I clutched the book to my chest, looking around the room for a place to hide. Footsteps from the hall made my heart quicken, and in a mad rush I pulled back the cloth from the chemistry table and dove beneath it. I pulled my legs up in front of my chest and walked myself back until my rear end hit the wall. I realized that I’d left my flashlight on, and I flicked it off just as the metal door creaked open.
Something stomped inside. I listened carefully, praying that the animal didn’t know I was here. The jars on the table across from me clinked and shifted. I furrowed my brow. Why would an animal be messing with jars?
“Still asleep,” muttered a deep, bubbly voice. “Always asleep.”
My breath caught in my throat. I nearly choked. It wasn’t an animal at all. There was a man down here with me. Somehow, I found this exponentially more terrifying. Was this the alchemist who had written the journal? Was this his laboratory? I decided immediately that I needed to get out of here as fast as possible, and listened even more carefully. If I had a shot, I was taking it.
“Sorry, kitty,” muttered the voice in tandem with the sound of a jar being opened. I heard a few squishy plops, followed by the sound of a jar being shut. “Didn’t want to hurt you. But had to. He won’t wake up.”
The alchemist came closer through the darkness, and I sat as still as a corpse. He began to rummage around with the chemistry tools.
“Broken, broken, broken! Everything broken. Why won’t he wake up?”
I cringed at his loud voice. Who he was talking to, or about, I couldn’t fathom. In horror, I wondered if he was talking to the corpse on the table.
The alchemist shuffled over to where the corpse lay. There was a loud thump as he dropped something heavy on the floor.
“Hello, sir,” he growled gleefully. “Rats and cats not enough. Found this one in a ditch. Asleep from drinking. Doing no good. Better off here.” The man fiddled with something in the darkness. I recognized the sound; it was the rustle of a garbage bag. My eyes widened in the darkness. There was another body in the garbage, a fresher one. The alchemist had killed some poor homeless person and dragged him down into the tunnels.
“Yes, sir,” droned the alchemist. “Maybe he’ll have what you need. Maybe you’ll finally wake up. Finally help me-”
The alchemist paused in the middle of his sentence. I heard a sound like hands patting against a hard surface, likely the top of the table.
“Gone. . .” he whispered in alarm. “Gone. . . Where is it?”
The whisper of alarm turned to a shriek of horror.
“The book! Where is it? Where is it?”
I took this as my chance. Hugging the book close to my chest, I bolted forward in the darkness. My shoulder slammed painfully into the metal door, but pushed it open successfully. I ran through the tunnels as fast as I safely could, ducking my head to avoid smacking into any pipes. Behind me, the alchemist hollered angrily in the darkness. I heard the metal door creak open. He was running close behind me.
“Stop!” he cried out. “Stop!”
I did not stop. I ran without thought or care of where I was going. I only wanted to get away from the madman chasing me, to leave these filthy tunnels behind and take my rightful place in the sun, where men were meant to stay. As I ran, he continued to bear down on me. His footsteps were heavy, and it seemed like he would catch me at any moment. A terrifying image of my eyeballs in a dusty old jar flashed through my mind. My pace quickened, but sooner or later I would smack into a wall. If that happened, my fate would be sealed.
I smacked my flashlight against the book, praying that the flickering light would brighten.
“Come on,” I begged. “Come on!”
“Come back!” demanded the alchemist. “Come back!”
He lunged, and I felt an appendage brush against my shoulder. I nearly tripped. Then, like a majestic beacon of safety, my flashlight beam sprang to life. Emboldened, and figuring that I could buy myself a few seconds, I turned and shined the light directly into the eyes of my pursuer. He stopped immediately, crying out in agony and shielding his eyes with his hands. He couldn’t see in the bright light. However, I could. And in that moment, I wished I couldn’t.
My pursuer was not an alchemist. It wasn’t even a man. It was some hideous thing, with pebbly gray skin like an elephant and thick, sausage-like fingers. It’s body was brutish yet slim in the middle, a combination that looked as creepy as it was unnatural. Its arms were almost the length of its body, and its hands were as big as a catcher’s mitt, with three fingers and a thumb on each hand. Its face was stunted and puggish, with milky, bulbous eyes like ping pong balls set inside a skull. Its cry was like the deep squeal of a pig as it shielded its eyes from my radiant beam.
“Stop!” It continued to plead, despite being effectively halted by the beam of light. “Don’t take it! I’ll die without him!” Its voice was deep and wheezy. It seemed to gasp for air between words. As an asthmatic, I found myself seized in a moment of pity. But the memory of the dead bodies in the secret room chased such thoughts away.
“Wh-what are you?” I demanded, trying to sound confident. Instead, my voice broke at the end of the third word.
“Dying,” wheezed the creature. “Sir. . . made. . . homunculus. Sir is. . . sleeping. Sir. . . must. . . wake up!”
“Sir?” I asked, confused. Even as I asked, the answer came to me. The corpse on the table, hooked up to the machine with that mysterious purple serum pumping through its veins. . .
“You mean the alchemist?” I asked. “The dead body in the machine?”
“Not. . . dead,” wheezed the homunculus. “Sleeping. Must. . . wake him. Dying!”
I remembered a chapter from the book, The Creation and Care of a Homunculus. If the alchemist had been. . . sleeping for some time, the homunculus must have had no one to care for it. It probably needed some sort of special nourishment to keep it alive. If it needed the book in my hands to wake the alchemist, then the book could save its life. . .
“You killed someone,” I snapped. “The drunk in the ditch! You’re a murderer!”
“Didn’t. . . kill him!” wailed the homunculus. “Man. . . drank. . . himself. . . dead. Found. . . him. Brought him. . . here.”
The homunculus dipped its head to the side in what could have been an expression of shame.
“Need. . . parts. Alchemy. . . needs. . . parts. Need. . . alchemy. . . to wake. . . Sir.”
I found myself stunned, unable to move. This. . . this creature was intelligent. It could speak, it knew shame and fear, and it stood helpless and dying before me. It only wanted to live. Perhaps my decision wasn’t a good one. Perhaps I took too much pity on the horrific creature before me. I can’t say. But I stand by my decision to this day.
With a deep breath, I held the Liberalchima out to the creature.
“Take it,” I said. “Take it, and get out of these tunnels. And don’t let me see you around here again.”
I tossed the book to the homunculus, who caught it eagerly. I lowered the light. The homunculus looked at me with its enormous white eyes.
“I. . . promise,” it whispered. “Thank. . . you.”
With that, the creature turned its back to me, and hobbled back in the direction from which we had come. This is where the account ends when I am asked about the vial and the nugget on my bookshelf. Some who hear this tale shudder in horror at my telling of it. Others simply scoff and reply with “Fine, then. Don’t tell me.”
I went back into the tunnels after that, to see if I could find the door. I did find it, but when I opened it, everything was gone. The jars were gone. The tools were gone. The tables were gone. The machine, the body, and the homunculus were all gone. The only thing I found was a note taped to the back wall where the mummified body had rested. While I display the vial and nugget in a prominent place on my bookshelf, I have kept that note hidden away in a drawer filled with hundreds of other secrets. I’ve never told anyone about the note. This account, however, would not be complete without it.
*To the Tunnel Worker,
Please keep what you know to yourself. And enjoy the nugget of refined lead. It should make for an excellent conversation starter. – V. R.*
Credit : M. R. Ewoldsen
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