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The Archive: Part Three

Through the Gate

By Alexander McEvoyPublished 4 months ago Updated 2 months ago 15 min read
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The heels of Warrick’s boots clicked against the floor as he walked over to where she sat. There was too much noise in the hall now for Jadzia to hear the echoes anymore. It wasn't deafening, but it managed to drown its own echoes.

Visible behind him, people swarmed around a large truck - an invention made possible by relics found in the Archive, though barely understood by even their most skilled Robbers. They loaded it with the food, water, and other supplies that would be needed on the long march into the depths of the Archive.

He stopped before her, still grinning. That stupid grin of his, the one that always decorated his face when he wanted something, which was basically all the time. He turned it on her, glowing with a self-assurance she could only dream of matching. If only it was fully real.

She had seen enough of him over the past few years, seen enough to know when he was bluffing. When his facade was just that. But she was unable to read what lay behind the false face, so she returned his easy smile and asked him how he had slept.

“Decently,” he dropped his pack at their feet and somehow managed to lounge while standing up. “You know how it is the night before we set off, though. Far too much excitement to just go to sleep at a reasonable time.”

He was lying. There was that telltale tightening at the corners of his eyes to prove it. But she didn't know exactly what he was lying about. Warrick defied understanding, almost as though he was allergic to it. Nothing was ever surface level with him, there was always another secret.

“How does your father feel about you going with us?”

“Why do you bring him up every time, Jadzia? You know what he thinks about all of this,” Warrick waved vaguely at the hall and the Robbers carefully preparing for the doors to open. “Perfectly happy that I have a hobby, frustrated and disappointed that I don't go to tea parties.”

“Dangerous down there,” she said, trying to match his breathy careless way of speaking, “I always make sure to make peace at home before I come down.”

The wounded look he threw her way lanced into her stomach. It had not been even a remotely fair hit, and she would have to apologize for it later. Anyone who entered the Archive, Delver from the Company or Robber from the Club, should know better than to tempt the fates with talk like that. If something went wrong, though no one would ever say anything against her, there would be the knowledge, sitting at the back of her mind, that she was responsible.

“Hey,” Warrick said, leaning down slightly to look her in the eye, “stop that. It's an honest question and I'm grateful you care enough to ask. Just... uhh... maybe next time don't try to condemn us all to a horrible death, yeah? Maybe you've no interest in getting a girl,” he winked at her to let her know that he would not be letting up about Erdene any time soon. “But me? I definitely want to have my chance at love when we get out of here.”

Joking about the doom she had invited on them all. It was a superstition even older than the moratorium on tempting the fates, the kind of thing that people had been doing long before the Archive was first discovered. Reaffirming one's desire to live, especially through humour, had a habit of making sure people lived to see whatever it was they wanted. Assuming the gods were in a good mood that day.

“Come on,” she said, jumping to her feet. “Looks like the herd is ready to roll.”

In the interest of making their limited resources last as long as possible, none of the ashen faces staring at the gates were hidden behind their gas masks. According to careful study, the dead air of the Archive would not be immediately dangerous. Probably. Nevertheless, the risks of the expedition meant that every Robber had on their belt a metal cannister with the mask inside. Easily accessible. Just in case.

“The canary ready,” asked Jadzia.

“Yep,” said Warrick, idly rubbing a bracelet on his right wrist for luck. “And the cycler is fully stocked. So, more than enough air for us.”

“Good, let's get moving.”

As one, they took the first steps towards the Archive, and the door slowly started to grind open. A crack appeared in the seemingly solid wall before them, bisecting the carving of a bearded man in flowing robes with arms outflung that decorated this side. That frieze, as well as similar ones that adorned the gates of Archive Delvers Limited, was one of the leading reasons for the belief that the Ancients had been human of some kind.

No one would have guessed that the carving hid a door to a labyrinth except for the steel rods, nearly as thick as Warrick was tall, that had locked it shut. Every time the doors were cranked open, Jadzia wondered why the Ancients had buried their knowledge underground. And, more concerningly, why they had decided to lock it as one might lock the door to the Pits of Damnation.

She refused to worry about, or even acknowledge, the deep rents on the inside of the door. The parallel grooves and gashes that so closely resembled the results of claws on fabric were not her concern. Whatever had made those things was likely long since dead and gone. If any of the monsters that made those gashes still wandered the Archive, she reasoned that they must have long since shown themselves.

The doors ground slowly open, rumbling like thunder in the vaulted hall that led to them, drowning out the steady tread of boots or the gentle hum of the truck's engine. Through the steadily widening gap in the doors, Jadzia could see the first sight of the Archive itself.

Stretching away from them more than a twenty-hour march, it curved gently down, disappearing as the dark consumed it beyond the light from the Hall. Its walls were carved in a relief of faded glory, intricate art works worn smooth by the ages, though there was no wind in that place. Nor was there any evidence of water to wear away the stone.

Naturally, the only conclusion that anyone had come to was that the carvings must have been done according to some artistic trend of the Ancients. Because they were unwilling to admit the possibility that somewhere, deep down in the hungry dark of the Archive, something big enough to have worn down the stone with the movement of its body waited.

No evidence had ever been found of such a monster. A thing called by some of the superstitious as the Prime Mythobeast. They were laughed at by all reasonable people, though. There was no evidence for such a beast except the walls themselves, and there were any number of plausible reasons that that erosion could have happened.

Jadzia was one of those reasonable people, she wanted to laugh at the idea of a Mythobeast so huge as to have done that damage. Wanted to, but still there was always the potential. The chance that maybe the absence of evidence was not in fact the evidence of absence.

Averting her eyes from the walls, she focused on the darkness ahead of them. Tradition dictated that the doors not be closed until the expedition was out of sight. Just in case the massacre of the first expedition looked like it's going to be repeated. She shuddered at the memory of that first journey into the deep dark of the Archive, not that she had been there, of course. But the knowledge that the first ever expedition had been slaughtered without hint of their assailant, barely beyond the light that fell through the Gate sent goosebumps rippling down her arms.

“Bring up the canary,” she said, forcing her voice to stay steady. It was important that she, as expedition leader, kept herself in control. The emotions of the leader generally become the feelings of those being led. So, she must fight down her anxieties. At least, until they made camp, then she could confide in Warrick.

An Apprentice Robber stepped forward, a bright yellow box in hand. Once upon a time, they had used real canaries according to the traditions of coal mining towns across the empire and the world. But those had been found to be unreliable in the Archive. Not all air that hid in the deep darkness below Koldrum was dangerous to birds, even if it were lethal to the expedition itself.

The boy was trembling as he activated the Canary Box, which began humming gently in his hand. Fixing the box to the end of a long wooden pole, he held it as a historic spearman might have held his weapon on parade and walked carefully forward. Standard wisdom said that the thing wouldn't be needed for hours yet, but there had been… abnormal events before; some people swore that the screams of the dying still echoed through the deep places of the Archive. Lost souls looking for the way out.

“Good thing you've got eyes forward,” said Warrick coming up to walk beside her. “That look will scare the kids.”

“Shut it,” she muttered, worried about how the echoes might carry to the expedition behind her. “I know what I'm doing.”

“Never said you didn't,” he adjusted one of his shoulder straps and beat a quick tattoo on the polished floor with his walking stick. “Just reminding you that you don't get the luxury of being uncertain or worried in front of the crew.”

“Do you really think we're going to find something dangerous?”

“Always best to stay on your toes, eh? Never know what's going to pop out of the shadows at us.”

They both grew quiet for a long moment, thoughts suddenly thrown back to their first expedition. On occasion, when the nights were too quiet, too still, without a breath of air to break the summer humidity, she could still hear the chaos of that first voyage into the Archive. Still smell the blood and feel the tension and fear freezing her spine.

A true Mythobeast had emerged from a crack in the wall so small that it should never have managed to fit so much as its head through it. The thing had been long, so very long, and it flowed like liquid across the ground, its terrible roar echoing in her head every time she so much as saw the Archive Gate. With claws like cavalry sabers on the end of tentacles that killed with a slow poison if touched, it had torn through their ranks before vanishing again into the endless dark.

“Sorry,” muttered Warrick, his perpetually cheerful atmosphere evaporating. “That was... sorry.”

It was the stench of the monster she remembered more than exactly what it had looked like. A nearly human face, hidden in the gloom beyond the reach of their lamps had never quite settled in her mind. But the reek of the thing, the scent of infinitely arrested rot and decay still stuck in the back of her throat.

“Do you think there's something wrong with us,” she asked quietly, eyes still on the Apprentice ahead of her. “Coming back down here again and again after...”

“Maybe,” his voice was so soft now, she could almost hear the gears turning in his head. “After that first time... you might remember, I disappeared for a while. I didn't think I could ever handle even seeing the Gate again. But The Archive... it called to me.”

So close to her own experience. She did not, in fact, remember his break from the Club. Her own had been longer and he had been there, casually flirting with Erdene when she finally returned. Exactly as calm and confident as he had always been. Exactly as insufferably friendly and... no that was the wrong word. Exactly as himself as he had ever been. Nothing more and nothing less.

Except, there had been a something in him, hadn't there? Something not quite as he had been before. Later she learned that not long after escaping The Archive, word had come from the Western Frontier that his brother was dead. And he had finally confided in her that the weight of family expectations was taking their toll.

For her part, she imagined being a Grave Robber was something like an act of rebellion for him. A way for him to look his family in the eye and say that his path was different from what Edwin's had been. He was not the perfect noble heir, and if they wanted him for the position, they could only accept who he was.

The thought was too close to what she herself had felt once upon a time that she nudged him with her elbow. It was a small gesture, but her generalized discomfort with physical contact gave it more meaning. He threw a rueful look at her, knowing what a significant gesture that small thing was. She loved him for that, and sincerely hoped he would find someone worth his attentions soon. Maybe even someone that would take him out of the Archive?

No. She could not hope for that. He was a Robber to his very bones. There was nothing else he wanted so badly in his life. He would never stop, even in the event of his father’s death, even when age or injury made him, she knew he would take Raiden's place as elder statesman of the Club.

“Don't you dare bring up Erdene when we make camp tonight,” she said, throwing a look over her shoulder to where the Gate would long since have closed. It was out of sight now, and even if it were open, the light would have been consumed by the dark.

“Wouldn't dream of it,” he said, a small spring back in his step now that they were on a more familiar topic. “Why on Earth would I even dream to mention someone who means so little to you. Hey, actually, do you think she would say yes if I invited her to a ball?”

“Most likely. But then, who from the lower classes would say no to such an honour as the heir of Ulstrom asking them out? Especially if it were one of those noble balls we all read about in the papers. The real question is, would you actually be brave enough to do it?”

“Talk to a woman or go to the ball?”

“For you, both seem about the same. So hard that you'd rather hide underground than meet the challenge.”

“You wound me,” it was said with a smile, and though he would have accompanied this with a friendly smack on the back with anyone else, he held himself back. Not even a twitch of his hands to indicate what he had prevented himself from doing.

Ahead of them, the first atrium in the tunnel slow came into view. The apprentice with the canary box walked a slow circuit of the room, waving his box with more enthusiasm then strictly necessary, but she couldn't blame the boy. It was his first expedition, and he was trying to be impressive.

Piles of standard equipment lay in strictly defined piles around the space. Respirators, filters, water, food, emergency medical supplies, replacement bulbs for their lights, blankets, anything and everything an expedition might need and have forgotten to pack. It was rare as hen's teeth that anyone took anything from those piles, but it was prudent to leave them in this place. The end of the fixed sections of the Archive.

Beyond, through the arch on the other end of the perfectly circular chamber, the tunnel continued straight and down. No one knew for certain how big the Archive was; only that it changed, and one could walk forever in its depths if one were so careless or unlucky as to get lost.

“Alright,” shouted Jadzia. “You can't turn back, but if anyone forgot anything, take it. We're going to stop for thirty minutes so top off your water, make sure your lights are working, and run a final check on the truck.”

Warrick lead some of the apprentices through a stretching routine that his cousin had brought back from the far east while Jadzia directed the preparation of a quick meal. It was normal to take the first meal from the Depot, so that they didn't have to dig into their already limited provisions.

“And you better enjoy this too, it'll hard tack and tinned beef from here on out,” many of the more experienced Robbers chuckled at this - no one actually survived on food like that in the Archive unless someone had royally screwed up thanks to the truck - but the apprentices threw worried looks at her. She was their guiding light in the darkness, and if even she was saying what the more experienced Robbers had already said...

She laughed to herself at the looks of consternation and resignation on their faces. Harmless hazing, that's all it was. A little lie to make them just that touch less comfortable on their first trip underground. The senior apprentices hid their smiles behind their hands, it was the same on every expedition, and they were more than happy to be on this side of the joke this time.

Left to herself, though, with her bowl in hand, she couldn't hide from the worries that plagued her every time the Gate closed behind her. The names of Robbers lost underground floated through her head, each one carved into her every quiet moment. Eventually the Archive killed everyone who braved its depths long enough, Raiden and those like him were the lucky ones, even if they wouldn't call themselves that.

Then there was Erdene. Her name, her radiant smile, the smell of her perfume battled with the fears that the long dark of the Archive would consume her. The fact that Archive Delvers Limited had encountered a True Mythobeast teased the edges of her mind, the monsters were so rare, but their encounters occasionally came in groups. She could only hope and pray that this was not one of those times.

Staring into the steam rising from her bowl, she tried to plan their next move. Plans were only worth so much in the Archive, given how the tunnels tended to shift around when least expected. Though they could usually be trusted to keep the path one travelled clear so that they could find their way out again. Except when they deposited an expedition at a different Gate.

Legally speaking, they had every right to be there, so even if the labyrinth spat them out through a Company controlled exit, there should be no problems. Even if there had been clashes before. Even if the two groups occasionally came to blows over a particularly rare and valuable relic. Even if...

Her first bite of her meal was barely noticed, good only for fuel to make sure she made it through the rest of her mission. Too many thoughts crowded her mind for anything else, even worries or dreams of Erdene were forgotten as she felt the weight of the world over her head bearing down on her. She would make it out, she promised herself that, and when she did she would finally make her move. There was no promise of tomorrow in the Archive, so there was no time to waste.

Though, she did mean to keep that plan from Warrick. He would be insufferable if he knew her plan. She just needed to make sure that he wasn't around when she finally asked the pretty bartender out; otherwise she didn't think she could bear the embarrassment.

Of course, he might be valuable in that... despite how much he delighted in vexing her, he was a good friend and would certainly do everything in his power to make sure that everything went off smoothly.

She could sense the long march ahead of her and forced her thoughts to other matters. Away from wishes for the future; away from fears of the dark; away from the anxiety that she always felt when braving the depths of the Archive. There was only the now.

As her spoon scraped the bottom of her bowl, she stood from her seat and strode over to where her friend sat, quietly talking with one of his other friends. “Rally the troops,” she said in her best Expedition Leader voice. “Time to get moving.”

“Righto, boss,” he said, his every-present grin firmly in place. Then louder, “saddle up everyone! We've got a lot of featureless tunnel to see before we bed down!”

-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 Four

Thanks for reading :)

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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-.-)

"The man of many series" - Donna Fox

I hope you enjoy my madness

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Comments (2)

  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarran4 months ago

    "The chance that maybe the absence of evidence was not in fact the evidence of absence." I reallyyyyy loved this line. It was so profound and true! I also enjoyed the conversation between Jadzia and Warrick! This is all soooo exciting and I can't wait for the next chapter!

  • Donna Fox (HKB)4 months ago

    This just feels like one of those stories that are so classic... like you know that feeling when you open a new book and the first line/ first couple chapters are just spot on??? That's what this is for me!! I can't wait to see where this is going!! I have a lot of theories and ideas of where I think it's headed and can't wait to see where you take it!! But that's also how I know this is a legendary story in the making... My mind is buzzing with what could happen next!! Great work Alex!! Can't wait for part 4!!

Alexander McEvoyWritten by Alexander McEvoy

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