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The Archive: Part Four

Whispers in the Dark

By Alexander McEvoyPublished 3 months ago Updated 3 months ago 12 min read
Image Created Using AI

Ghosts whispered in the dark.

No one truly knows how many people died in the Archive, but the number is higher than most people are willing to consider. Yet still lower than the worst fears of the newest apprentices. Since the earliest days of delving, men and women disappeared into the infinite black below Koldrum, leaving no trace of their journey aside from the rare find of a mess tin or an abandoned respirator.

Warrick walked a slow circuit around the sleeping expedition, occasionally lighting his hand-torch and playing its pool of light across the featureless walls. Featureless might be too unkind a word for those walls, they all but shone with faded glory to his eyes, glittering with potential.

Despite the crushing weight of the city over his head, despite the consuming dark, and the whispers of the dead, he felt as though it were the only place he could truly breathe. Edwin's ghost followed close on his heels, matching his every step just out of sight. Just out of reach. Just as he had always seemed in life.

“Have any wisdom for me today,” he asked the dead, wondering what his imagination would provide to answer the question. They were not real ghosts, of course, there was no such thing as visitors from beyond the grave. Even if they dogged his steps when the dark crept in from every side. “Well, if you come up with anything, do let me know. I could certainly use your advice.”

He did not know of anyone else who saw or heard the spirits of the dead. Jadzia, the one time he had mentioned it to her, all but cringed away from the very thought of ghosts. Whatever plagued her when she stood guard over the expedition, she was not keen on sharing. Then again, most people weren't. The other Robbers kept their experiences on watch to themselves, hiding it like something shameful from their past.

That had taken him by surprise, when first he learned of the taboo that the other Robbers put on their night watch experiences. Some things, he supposed, were better kept private, but he never imagined that it would be something as universal to Robbers as the whispers in the dark. Or at least, what he assumed to be universal.

One of his greatest failings was the general assumption that everyone else thought the way he did. But what kind of a failing was that? His was the only way of thinking he had ever known, and despite what his school masters and tutors had tried to teach him, it was the only way he could comprehend. So, what if others were confused by him? Or intimidated by his bizarre ability to notice what others missed and miss what others saw so clearly.

With a deep inhale, he breathed out a powerful puff just for the joy of hearing it echo around the nearly silent tunnel. The sound was deadened, as though the darkness around him drank it in just as it did with his light, but he ignored that. Just as he tried to ignore the whispers that toyed with the edges of his sanity. He shone the torch at the opposite wall, trying to avoid the thought that it barely seemed to reach despite the relatively short distance.

Inky blackness, that was how he had once read the archive described. Something more akin to the insides of a monstrous beast that consumed everything sent into its depths. It devoured the light just as it devoured sound... just as it devoured Robbers and Delvers alike if they spent too long within its endless, shifting corridors. Leaving behind only ghosts that whispered to him, and seemingly no one else.

Once upon a time, he had tried to ask Raiden about the whispers, figuring that out of everyone, the old Robber would be man enough to admit to his hidden fears. But he had turned his suddenly wide and bloodshot eyes on Warrick at the words, and quickly remembered something he needed to do in another room. Curious thing that, and it left the younger man wondering what exactly everyone else heard or saw that so unsettled them.

Maybe it was the same as his other difficulties. Things that were barely worth a comment to him were of the greatest interest to everyone else. And the reverse was also true, he tended to ask people minute questions about things that were either irrelevant or else ones they'd rather not be asked. It was always so hard to understand where that line was, given that it shifted about depending on whom he was talking to. Damned frustrating.

Flicking on his torch again, he shone it down the tunnel, ahead of the Expedition. So far, things had been remarkably uneventful. There had been no hint of danger, though The Archive did seem quieter than usual. Fewer wide-open spaces than he was strictly used to. Every journey into the place was different, of course, but there had been some connecting themes on his previous expeditions. For example, there had always been more art before.

More art along the walls, intricate carvings that bent the eye, seeming to grow like vines even as he watched them. This time, there was nothing but the blackness and the grey, featureless walls. Nothing to break the monotony of travel for them, deep under the streets of Koldrum, where the sun had probably never shone.

Questions about how exactly space and time worked in the Archive, since no matter how far they travelled they always reemerged at one of the known Koldrum Gates. It was as though the Archive looped infinitely back on itself, coiling around and around, going ever down into the depths of the planet without ever genuinely going lower. A mind-bending concept.

The light of his torch glinted off something just at the edge of its range. Heart suddenly thundering in his ears, Warrick moved carefully forward, free hand holding his Shrieker. There were any number of things that could have reflected the light. There was no reason to suspect that it was anything truly valuable, but things in the Archive moved. There was no guarantee that whatever it was would still be there by the time he had roused other Robbers to help.

After a moment’s reflection, he pulled his gas mask out and fastened it over his nose and mouth. There were goggles too, but he didn’t bother putting them all the way on, if he needed them, he would have enough time to pull the things down off his forehead before anything bad happened. Switching on his mask by closing the non-filtered intake valve, he closed the rest of the distance to the metallic glint and stooped.

Fitting in the palm of his hand, the silver relic was nothing particularly interesting – though he almost laughed out loud at his being so familiar with leftovers of the Ancients to find them boring. Current scholarship thought that these things were not dissimilar to pocket watches, but no one had yet learned to read them, and they were valuable for the study of mechanics and gears and such like. Slightly disappointed, he slipped the relic into his pocket and stood, one hand on his mask, but froze.

Behind him, the gentle glow of the few lights set up around the hermetic tents of his fellow Robbers was gone. There was only the solid, oily blackness of the infinite tunnel stretching out before him.

He was alone.

Panick grabbed his thoughts around the throat and squeezed. For a moment he was a child again, staring in stark terror at something not fully within his understanding. He was the man he had been, frozen in place by the news of Edwin’s death. He was himself, eye to eye with a cold vacuum of space where the ghosts whispered in the dark.

“Take off the mask,” they said in voices that he almost recognized. “Take it off. It’s soooo uncomfortable, isn’t it? And doesn’t the air just taste terrible?”

Warrick shook his head and forced himself forward. He knew where he had come from, though it was easy enough to get lost in the Archive. To forget which way was forward and which was back. But he knew for absolute certainty which way he was going. He knew that only a few meters away would be the first line of tents. Knew that, so long as he watched his footing, he would find them again.

“So alone,” whispered the ghosts, their words coming faster and faster. “So alone here in the dark; where they left you, or you left them; did you think of that, that you left them, how long have you been here; there is nothing but there dark down here; take off the mask and breathe it in, go on you know you want to take it off...”

He fought to tune out the whispering voices that no one else admitted to hearing. They were not real. They were only a symptom of his own poisoned brain. He had always been different, always noticed things that others missed. Of course, he thought he could hear voices in the empty silence of the Archive. Of course, he did. Just like he could not tell for the life of him if someone was showing affection for him. There was nothing odd about that.

With each step his body blazed with the desire to run. To sprint headlong into the darkness ahead of him, the darkness that his light could not penetrate. There was no sound but the voices to which he refused to listen, not even the sound of his boot heels on the stone floor. Nothing but his own muffled breathing heard only inside his own head. Almost like a memory of sound instead of...

Clenching his fist around the Shrieker, he held it at arm's length from himself as the tiny relic exploded with sound. Like shallow water after a large stone is dropped, the silence that enshrouded the camp rippled outward, leaving behind the sound of the Canary squawking madly from somewhere almost close enough to touch. The combined cacophony of sound sent shivers through the hermetic tents, barely audible as the Shrieker's horrible noise faded away and the oily silence rushed back to fill the void left behind.

But something had changed, the Canary still screamed its warning to the other Robbers. It roared at them that the very air of the camp was poison. But so long as they either stayed in their tents or else put on their masks before leaving, they would be safe.

Warrick blindly groped his way through the darkness looking for the truck, the terrible voices still whispering in his ear. Their horrible excitement rang in his head as his hand closed around the edge of the truck bed. “wakethemallbringthemoutwesmelltheirblood! bloodsosweetandbonessofine. bonestocrackandbloodtodrink. eyestopopandhairtoburn. burnthemallandletthemdie, diealoneinscreamingdark. whyscreamthedark? embracethedarkandcrackthebones. bonessofineandbloodsosweet...”

He found the large button and pressed it so hard he felt its casing creak. With a crack like thunder, the huge lights that had been set up on around the truck snapped to life, flooding the camp with light bright enough for mid-day and driving back the muttering darkness.

The Canary was still squawking, screaming that the air would kill anyone who breathed it. Warrick checked the gage attached to his lapel, noting how much air he had left in case the miasma lasted that long, and waited for people to emerge from their tents. There were things to do, now that everyone was awake. And hopefully the distraction of necessary checks would drive the memory of the voiceless muttering out of his head.

Jadzia popped out of her tent and ran up to him. Her fingers flew as she manically signed questions at him. Her eyes, visible through the reinforced glass of her goggles, showed naked fear. Fear that only he would be allowed to see.

>What happened?

Tamping down his own emotions, he responded to her. Using as few 'words' as possible, he conveyed the situation and explained about the darkness still gnawing at the edge of the feeble corona of light cast by the massive lamps around the camp.

>Do you know what it is?

>Shadows.

The sign was distinct from the usual one for darkness or bad lighting. Panic flooded her eyes and her hands shook as she asked her next questions. Still battling with his own terror, he explained how it had crept up on him while he tried to find a relic, and explained how it covered the wailing of the Canary.

>We need to move.

He could not agree fast enough, and they broke apart.

She walked with back ramrod straight, catching other members of the expedition as they tumbled from their tents and pointing them in his direction. Typically, as the Lead Robber, she would be the one giving directions in an emergency scenario. But this was her first experience with the Shadows and seniority always landed on the shoulders of the one most familiar with the challenge.

Even one of the Senior Apprentices could take the lead responsibility if they were in that position. It was a rare occurrence, but not unheard of, and each one of them dreaded the possibility of that burden becoming theirs.

Warrick, forcing his breathing to steady in his mask, ordered each Robber and Apprentice to break camp as they approached, explaining with as few signs as possible about the Shadows lurking on the edge of camp. No one needed to be told that the air was poison - the canary would only stop singing when the air was safe to breathe.

With a sound like a gunshot, loud enough to pierce the wail of the Canary, one of the lights on the edge of camp exploded. Stifling his own jolt of surprise, Warrick's orders got even more urgent. They needed to work fast in order to -

A scream cut through his nerves like a strike from a cavalry sabre at full tilt. Swinging around, hand on the butt of his revolver, he looked in horror at a body writhing before the open flap of a tent. Bile rose in his throat as the man thrashed, his screaming nearly louder than the explosion of a second light bulb.

“DROWNTHELIGHT,” howled the voices in his head. “KILLTHEINNOCENTDROWNTHECHILDRENCRACKTHEBONESANDDRINKTHEBLOOD! BLOODSOSWEETANDBONESSOBRITTLE! LIVESSOFRAGILESORIPEFORTHEPLUCKING! PLUCKTHELIVESANDDRAINTHEBLOOD, BLOODSOSWEETANDLIVESSOFRAIL! SNUFFTHELIGHTANDBECOMETHEDARK! BEAUTIFULDARK-”

Rushing to the stricken man, Jadzia tried to force the man’s mask over his mouth. There was a chance, if she could get it over his mouth then maybe, just maybe - but his back arched unnaturally, and Warrick could almost hear his spine crack.

Blood poured from his eyes like the tears of the saints. His nails tried to carve grooves in the stone before snapping, coming away like threshed wheat.

Jadzia jumped back, recoiling as though the man was diseased. He was lost, the only thing they could do watch him die, and if she stayed too close then an errant flail might just knock her own mask from her face.

The dying man's scream cut off, his lungs empty as he convulsed, the body trying to force the toxic air from his system, but it was too late. His eyes rolled madly as his skin withered, flesh melting away as it was sucked from his bones until finally, he lay still with a pool of blood slowly spreading from where he had fallen.

As the last of what he had been vanished, leaving a desiccated husk behind, the Canary suddenly fell silent, leaving only a ringing in Warrick's ears. A ringing and the whispering of the ghosts.

-0-

The above was inspired by a conversation I had with the Estimable Donna Fox (HKB) a few months back during her "The Graveyard Challenge." I highly recommend you go and check it out so that you can find all the wonderful stories in Vocal's very own Archive. Make sure to pack provisions, it's a long journey but trust me, it's worth it.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

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About the Creator

Alexander McEvoy

Writing has been a hobby of mine for years, so I'm just thrilled to be here! As for me, I love writing, dogs, and travel (only 1 continent left! Australia-.-)

I hope you enjoy what you read and I can't wait to see your creations :)

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Comments (2)

  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarran3 months ago

    Alex, thank you so much for this!! "Drown the children, drink the blood, crack the bones, blood so sweet, blood so brittle". These lines were my most favourite part of this chapter!! The "Drown the children" was especially music to my ears. Gosh I loved that sooooo much! Also, blood pouring from the man's eyes, that was a nice touch. So delicious and yummy! This by far is my most favorite chapter!

  • Donna Fox (HKB)3 months ago

    Wow... way to reeeeeeeeally crank the intensity up on the series Alex!! Man that was tense but I loved it!! Very dark but not so much so that it feel soft brand for the series, I felt like you were gearing up for something like this!! The way you describe the Archive reminds me kind of of Uncle Rick’s labyrinth, how it changes and isn’t always the same path. Kind of like it changes depending on the leader… I wonder maybe certain people are like Rachel and have a gift for navigating the Archive?? 🤔 Maybe Warrick??? Oh NO!!! I had a feeling he was about to end up alone when he went after that shiny object!! Bad choice Warrick, the Archive has a mind of it’s own and now it’s got other plans for you!! So the poisoned air (shadows) caused an illusion of sorts that made him think he was alone… man those voices are creepy!!! Brought to mind the basilisk from HP and the chamber of secrets!!! 😰 I like the nice touch of adding sign language in that tense moment as a way of communication through the masks!! Very clever!! I noticed a couple things, I hope you don't mind me pointing them out... "Intimidated by his bizarre ability to notice was others missed and miss what others saw so clearly." Did we mean what instead of was? "With a deep breath, the breathed out a powerful puff just for the joy of hearing it echo around the nearly silent tunnel." Also he instead of the? Sorry to point them out but it would bother me if I had stuff like that and no one said anything... Sidebar: I’m at the part in PJ book five where they went up to mount Olympus to warn the gods about the trap in New York. After he bathed in the river of styx and he got the warning from Athena to stay away from her daughter.... 😰

Alexander McEvoyWritten by Alexander McEvoy

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