Rearing up on its hind legs, the Guardian roared defiance. And the Thunder Lance roared back.
Shielding eyes from the sudden flash, the explorers turned away and plugged their ears. Despite the protection offered by the company-issued ear plugs, a Thunder Lance had earned its name a hundred times over.
Like a single clap from an elder god, the lance exploded against the Guardian, eliciting an even greater roar of pain and fear. The monster fell, thrashing as its brain fought a desperate, failing fight against death.
Uncovering their ears, the explorers looked at one another with triumphant grins. A Manuscript Guardian meant that something truly valuable was near at hand. They had an instinctive knowledge about the pieces they chose to guard and were as jealous as the dragon Smaug of their treasure.
Seamus carefully picked his way past the rubble knocked from the ceiling from the force of the blast and shone his flashlight on what was left of the Guardian. Only deep, steady breaths - each one carefully measured and intentional - kept him from losing the meager lunch he had been forced to stomach since the voyage began. Filling his breathing mask.
The air in the Archive was dead. Though some small eddies of it flowed past on occasion, miniscule trickles of freshness sucked down deep beneath the Earth, it was hardly a drop in the bucket. Air in that place could kill; and worst of all, no one knew when it would strike. A Delver could descend into the mind-bending halls a hundred times, a thousand, and never be struck. or it could happen the first, and consequently the only, time just as easily.
“Is it dead,” shouted someone from a safe distance back. Safe, unless the monster was not dead. Unless it had one more fatal leap left in it.
But the creature was dead. Nothing Seamus had ever heard of could keep living after a hole like that was blown through its chest. Not even the Mythobeasts of the Archive.
Forcing himself to turn his back on the Guardian, fighting the tense to run far and fast, the voice screaming at him that something dangerous followed close on his heels, he walked back to the group.
His footsteps echoed around the cavernous hall, chasing away the lingering sounds of the Thunder Lance. Each solid click of every step came back to him a thousand times, from every angle, reverberating off the twisting columns that held aloft a ceiling lost in blackness.
“It's dead,” he said.
“What type was it?” the voice of the other Delver came through perfectly. Thanks to the mics and earpieces built into the rebreather headgear, they didn't have to converse in mask-muffled shouts.
“Looked like a class 4. Lion's head and tentacles on the back with human hands at the ends. Apelike body with what looks like goat legs.” He shuddered at the memory of what the monster had looked like. “I think it is - it was - one of the last of the true mythobeasts.
A shocked murmur ran through the small gathering of Delvers. Every Manuscript Guardian was called a mythobeast, according to Archive Delvers Limited tradition. But after so long, best estimates from the zoology department were that the last of the pure strains were almost extinguished.
More and more, smaller and individually less dangerous Guardians were cropping up. Also, varieties that more closely resembled pure animal strains, rather than the monsters left behind by whomever, or whatever, had built the Archive.
Research suggested that they had first been created to protect the knowledge stored there. But their behavior never matched that pattern, it wasn't the greatest stores of learning that they guarded, not exclusively, at any rate. No two of the Guardians exactly matched each other, almost like they were collecting manuscripts that were of interest only to them.
But that was also where their value lay to the Company. When added to what could be learned from the corpses themselves, the Company sought the Archive's greatest treasures. And the best of the lot was always found in the hoard of a True Mythobeast. Seamus almost regretted their extinction. Having to dig through the infinite Archive without them as a guide to the pay dirt would be a boring way to earn a living.
“Bring the truck up,” said the expedition leader. “B Team will start prepping the corpse for transport back top side. A Team and C Team, we'll push on a bit to see what this guy was hiding. Ready? Let's get to it.”
Seamus fell in line and studiously avoided looking at the wreck that had been the guardian. As he clambered over huge blocks of fallen masonry, he heard the saws buzz to life behind him and silently thanked his parents for steering him away from animal sciences in his youth. Fighting the monsters, trudging through the long dark of the Archive, probably even being consumed by the patches of sentient shadow were better than having to touch, let alone cut open those creatures.
He had seen the inside of a True Mythobeast once before. And on the odd night when the wind howled just right, just enough to snake through his ears and into his dreams, he would bolt up in bed panting, a scream just on the edge of being set free. On nights like those, it took a long time to go back to sleep.
If he thought the twisting, impossible tunnels of the Archive were nauseating, then the insides of a Mythobeast were maddening. Nothing alive, or that had once lived, had any business being that colour. Or that... texture.
Shaking his head viciously, he refocused on the path in front of him trying to lose himself in the steady, rhythmic motion. Step. Step. Step. Right, left, right, left.
“Looks like we've found it,” shouted the expedition leader, cracking a glow stick and throwing it to the ground in front of her. “Everyone spread out and find what we came here for. Just about anything in these hoards is worth its weight in gold to the Company. And don't forget, best find gets the best bonus.”
More sickly green light filled the huge chamber as the rest of A and C Teams cracked their own sticks and planted them in strategic location around the vaulted room. Seamus added his own to a darkened corner and dropped to his knees.
No dust rose from the impact. A good sign.
A little over an hour passed, and a pile of manuscripts formed in the centre of the vaulted room. Every few minutes, a Delver would approach and lay on the tablet containing the digital imprint of the work carefully atop the stack. Seamus himself was about to stand, adding his fourth manuscript to the pile, when he froze, eyes locked on a flagstone in the floor.
Working on pure gut instinct, he dropped the tablet in his hand and attacked the stone with his hand trowel. Chipping away at the mortar surrounding the stone, he barely noticed the expedition leader's swearing over the broken manuscript. Jamming the trowel under the stone, he heaved, feeling the cords in his neck stand out with the strain, until the stone came loose, and he overbalanced right into the legs of the expedition leader.
Exclamations died on the lips of the leader as she investigated the recess Seamus had just uncovered. Laying in a velvet lined box, a golden tablet gleamed in the sickly green light of the glow sticks.
“Looks like we know why the Guardian set up its nest here,” she breathed. “Thing like this, the monster could probably sense it and brought the rest of its hoard here just to live on top of it. Seamus, the Head Archivist is going to be frothing over this; Curation is going to be fighting each other to get to be the one to study it. Holy shit...”
Seamus just cackled. The takings on a tablet like that, most likely an original copy hidden away by the people who built the Archive themselves. He might just be able to retire on the bonus this one earned him. If he survived the journey back to the surface.
About the Creator
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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