Daggers: Joining the Blackguard
She lay on the bed, put the VirBridge helmet on, and turned it on.
"Initializing," said the robotic voice. "Alice identified. Welcome back."
Launch Valia Online, she thought.
"Launching Valia Online in five. Four. Three. Two. One."
The world turned pitch black, and white letters appeared in the middle of her vision.
Connecting to Valia Online servers… OK
Checking latency… 0 ms
Logging in… OK
Do you want to resume your journey as Samantha Hidden Daggers?
A moment later, the letters disappeared, and a slow music started playing. V-Soft's logo appeared floating in the nothingness, followed by Valia Online's logo after a few more seconds.
She hated that wait. It was useless and annoying. Still, she had to deal with it.
Finally, the white letters came back.
You will get in your body in 5…
The sensation of being in her bed slowly changed. Soon, she felt as if she was standing on firm ground. The warmth of her room gave way to the cold air of the Underworld.
She opened her eyes and found herself in a medium sized room, about twenty meters by twenty. It was entirely made of white painted metal, as were all novice areas in the Dark Temple.
People were fading in and out in the room, all of them in white robes with the Devourer symbol on it. Searchers, all of them; that’s how the drow called the novices.
She wasn’t an exception, albeit she had two small sheaths for her daggers over her robes on her waist. Her long white hair went to her hips and contrasted with her black and slightly blue skin, as mostly every other draw in the vicinity. One of the drow around, though, had a well-known green hair. She made a point of ignoring her brother.
There was light in the room – the novice rooms were the only illuminated ones. A white crystal half Samantha's height was floating a few centimeters above the ground in the center of the chamber, a purple rune glowing on the floor beneath it. The crystal shone brightly, lighting all the room.
Casting shadows on the walls near which they stood, seven Blackguards oversaw the only room in all the Dark Temple where it was possible to log in or out.
Standing still, a silent black menace, they were the elite military of the city. Her brother had been right: she liked their style. And today she'd join them.
One of the Blackguards approached from the wall.
"Samantha Hidden Daggers, come with me." It was a woman, not a man. The girl obeyed.
A single door left out of the room. Darkness filled the corridor, and a dark aura came from it as if battling the influence of the light. As the Blackguard approached, black tendrils embraced her.
She remembered her first time in that room. Her brother had pretended to be attacked by the tendrils. While some nearby first-timers had gotten scared – one of them even left the game – she had just watched impassively.
He had got annoyed at her lack of reaction, she had got annoyed at his immaturity, and they had moved on.
Back to the present, she walked into the darkness. The tendrils were cold but harmless. Once in the corridor, she prayed aloud.
"Please, Devourer, guide me."
Status effect received: Total Darkvision (level 5 – max)
For 59 minutes, 59 seconds, you:
» Can see in the dark as if it was a sunny midday.
That was the first thing all Searchers learned: to find your ways in the world, you needed the Devourer. He was the drow people's Lord and Provider.
The Temple's corridors were narrow and short, effectively creating a maze. That was the second thing Searchers learned: the Devourer helps, but you must also be able to walk by yourself.
Samantha followed the Blackguard through the corridors, making sure to memorize the path back. They passed by lots of doors, each of them in one of three colors: white, gray, or black. There weren't many white or black ones on the second floor. Gray ones, though, were many.
Etched numbers and letters differentiated the doors from each other. As far as she could tell, there was no order to it; 2-HUD stood between 2-ACS and 2-UUU, for instance.
They also passed by people. Drow after drow walked everywhere, either wearing the faithful robes or the Blackguard clothes.
She had been surprised the first time she left the Temple and learned that all Blackguards walked invisibly. It was supposed to give the populace a sense of fear, but the sheer number of visible Blackguards in the Temple made her much more aware of their power than their absence.
They tried too hard to play the psychological game. Sometimes, people just needed a tangible reminder of their weakness to put them in line.
After a couple of minutes, she realized they were getting to a deserted area of the floor. Fewer and fewer people walked by until she found herself alone with the Blackguard. The doors around were all black, too.
It was a first time for her. The maze design of the floor discouraged exploring. So did the lack of people.
Assassination was fair game between the Searchers, as long as it was one on one, unplanned, not witnessed, and not assisted by anyone. Getting your friend to block a corridor wouldn't work, nor would inviting someone to an empty corridor. Even following someone was forbidden.
The reason was the third lesson: always be prepared. You never know what the future has in stock for you. It can be death, or it can be an opportunity. If it's the latter, you're to seize it. If it's the former, you're to be ready to make it less likely.
There was a single exception to the witness law, and Samantha found it soon enough: a male Searcher was standing still in the middle of the corridor. Players couldn't log out anywhere other than the initial room; if they disrespected this rule and were found, they became subject to assassination.
The Blackguard didn't even slow her pace; one of her gloved hand came from under the cloak, and a black dagger slashed the man in the neck. He died instantly.
"Do not loot him," she said as her arm hid under the cloak again. "Let everything be an offering to the Devourer."
Right enough, before Samantha had passed by the body, a black energy that even her darkvision couldn't pierce evolved it. It was gone in a moment; so was the body.
The Devourer was everywhere in the Temple, and it consumed everything it so wanted.
Soon, they found themselves in corridors with doors devoid of any letters, numbers, or any other means of identification. The more they moved in, the more Samantha got lost.
Finally, they got to the right place.
The Blackguard entered a room, and the girl followed. It was a small space, no more than two meters by two. Once inside, the cloaked woman closed the door. As soon as she did, the back wall disappeared as if it had never been there, and revealed a long corridor.
There were five people in there. Two were Blackguard, one was a Chosen – a Faithful wearing a black robe –, and two were Searchers.
Both Searchers were also women. One had short hair and a sheathed sword on her waist. The other one had had a braided long hair and no visible weapon.
Everyone was leaning on the walls, and Samantha naturally occupied the space between both Searchers as the Blackguard she had followed did the same between the other Blackguards. The Chosen didn't seem to care either way and stood a little deeper inside the corridor.
Samantha noticed he had a red scar around his neck.
"You have Searched and found that spiritual Enlightenment isn't your path," the Blackguard who had guided Samantha said. "You have killed, and learned that the blood of your enemies is what makes your soul sing. You have bled for the Devourer and discovered the Blackguard Path. You have chosen to become a Blackguard."
"We did," the three Searchers said in unison. The woman's words were ritual, and Samantha had been explained beforehand what she had to answer.
"As it should be, you have competition. Struggle paves the Blackguard Path. A Blackguard has all advantages the Devourer gives us, but we still must walk the Path with our own legs, and it more often than not means matching your strength against others. Only the powerful can move on."
"We are strong. We are powerful," we replied.
"So you say. So you have proven. And because of that, you have been selected to be here. But the Path can only be walked by the very best. From now on, you are enemies. From now-"
Samantha stopped listening. She had thought about the ritual words since the moment she had heard them for the first time. They were a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, but one thing had interested her:
'From now on, you are enemies.'
Everything she had learned in her military life pointed at a simple truth: you must always crush your enemies ASAP. And the Blackguard were the drow military.
It was a breach of protocol, and she'd not have done so in real life. But real life was corrupted by bureaucracy and had no way to resurrect a soldier killed on trial. Plus, this was a game with a much darker setting.
She chose the one or her right – the braided drow – as the first victim. All seemed to indicate her as a magic caster, and Samantha feared unknown magic more than she feared the sword of the short-haired drow.
Unsheathing her daggers, she quickly killed the mage with stabs to the neck. Only two critical hits were enough, and she turned to attack the other Searcher.
The short-haired girl had already unsheathed her weapon; it seemed that she hadn't been selected as a Blackguard candidate for no reason.
Samantha thought about shadowing but decided against it. She didn’t know the woman’s skills and it might backfire. Instead, she attacked head-on.
The Blackguards didn’t seem to care as the two girls fought. The warrior held her sword with both hands and tried to slash vertically. Samantha dodged and got close. Her opponent dropped on the ground and used her leg to try to make Samantha fall.
Remembering her last fight in the real world, she jumped. The woman smiled as she quickly got up and used some typhoon-like skill, in which she extended her sword and rotated around herself.
Samantha also smiled.
Shadow Phase, she thought midair.
The world slowed and lost all sound. It turned white, and the people in it became black. She saw the sword coming and bent her body midair to dodge it, fell on her knees on the ground – avoiding to be hit by a secondary rotation of the sword thanks to that – and got up, putting both her daggers through the eyes of the woman.
The short-haired drow screamed in pain at the same time that the world came back to normal to Samantha. The latter took the daggers out of her enemy’s eyes and struck them in the girl's neck. She died.
After wiping the blood in her victim clothes, she sheathed the blades again and looted the bodies. Two and a half gold coins. Not bad. She left the sword on the ground since she had no way to carry it.
Soon, the black energy evolved both bodies and consumed them.
Finally, she stood back in the middle of the corridor. The Blackguards hadn’t moved.
"Why did you do this?" The guide Blackguard asked.
"You told me they were enemies. I don't have a habit of allowing my enemies to live."
"Arrogance. The training will strip it away. Come." She turned. "Rejoice, Chosen, for your work is over. Do you declare the selection glorious just in the eyes of God?"
"Sure," he said, bored. "Send me this one when you're done with her. I have a job for a Traveler Blackguard." He walked past Samantha and left the room without looking at her.
The three Blackguards started walking, and the girl followed.
She didn't think about the two women she had killed. It was a just a game, after all. Although she had just made it a lot more frustrating to them.
The corridor led to an immensely large bottomless pit. There were stairs on the wall, wide enough for about five people to walk comfortably side by side, leading both up and down. A pillar of black light was in the center of the pit.
She looked up and saw the pillar connect to the big ball of darkness floating above Ter'nodril. She looked down, and it seemed to go on forever.
There weren't Faithful in there, only Blackguards. The stairs led to multiple opening on the walls, and some of them had much more movement than others.
Samantha and her guides just kept going down.
The looks her way increased the deeper they went, but no one said a word.
Fewer and fewer opening appeared on the walls until they stopped appearing altogether. Eventually, they got to the end of the stairs. It was also the end of the walls.
Samantha realized they were over nothingness and the light pillar went even further into the deepness.
The Blackguard woman turned to the girl.
"We will now enter the Vault. There's enough divine magic in there that it'd kill you if you get away from us. When you enter, you will feel disoriented. Stand still until the feeling passes."
The three Blackguards walked to the middle of the hole.
The black light expanded and consumed them in a blink, turning back to a pillar as if nothing had happened.
It didn't affect the girl. She couldn't feel little amounts of fear.
She followed the Blackguards, or at least tried to. A force repelled her as she tried to go over the edge of the stairs. She pushed it as hard as she could but didn't succeed against the invisible power.
The black light widened then, and three gloved hands came out of it. They picked her by the clothes and pulled her.
Status effect removed: Total Darkvision
Status effect received: Mild Divine Backslash (level 60)
You have forced your way against a barrier made of divine magic. No mortal can do so and come out unfazed.
For 59 minutes, 59 seconds, you:
» Cannot be affected by any other status effects
» Cannot speak
» Cannot hear
» Cannot see properly
» Will feel disoriented
It was like instant drunkenness. She tripped over herself and fell on the metal floor; the world kept spinning around her. She couldn't see anything without darkvision; everything around her was pitch black.
With some difficulty, she sat on the ground and put her head in the middle of her knees, hugging her legs next.
The dizziness lowered a little but still didn't disappear completely.
A headache found its way to her and the lack of status effect indicated that it was her real body, not her game body, that was feeling it. She got an idea, then.
A system message appeared in her messages log.
Are you sure you want to logout partially?
By doing so, your character will remain active while you leave.
Please, choose a behavior pattern for your character.
Just stay in this position until I come back unless the Blackguards order otherwise. In this case, obey the Blackguards.
Do you want to log out now?
Thank you for playing Valia Online.
Logging out in 5...
She felt the dizziness go away as she felt the bed under her. She was back to her body.
A quick trip to the bathroom revealed her headache was a consequence of her period. She took a shower, medicine, and ate something.
There was still two minutes to the end of the status effect when she logged back in.
The darkvision returned as soon as soon as the world stopped spinning.
Samantha found himself on a narrow darksteel footbridge. There was only darkness everywhere, up, down, and to the sides. The bridge was floating in the nothingness. It started right where she was – she had been close to falling from it – and went to a whitesteel box about two hundred meters away.
The three Blackguards were standing in front of her.
The three of them were women and completely hairless. No hair in the head, no eyebrows, no hair in other places of their bodies. Their skin was the color of coal, without a shade of blue in it. And their eyes tiny dots for irises and black veins. Their fingernails were black, too.
Worse than all that, aside from the boobs – with black nipples – they had no sex; only smooth skin could be found where their vagina once stood.
They smiled with black teeth.
"Worry not," the one in the middle spoke. It was the same voice that had been talking to her before. "This is the consequence of walking the Blackguard Path for decades. You will have time to both desire what we became, and to fight for it. Believe me; I was in your shoes once. I couldn't understand how ignorant I was."
She stood up.
"Come." She extended one hand to Samantha, who took it. They began to walk, and as soon as she walked a single step, her clothes disappeared. She was left wearing only her underwear.
Someone is trying to undress you!
Would you like to give them permission?
Having changed her clothes innumerous times in front of other soldiers, she wasn't a prude. But she wasn't about to allow a game to strip her either. That body might be fictional, but it was how she perceived herself in that world, and she wouldn't get naked in front of people she didn't trust or wasn't comfortable with.
And those hairless, sexless humanoid monsters in front of her definitely didn't make her comfortable.
She had been informed her character's body would undergo changes, but she hadn't expected it to be so... Bizarre. Still, it was only a game, and she would wear the black cloak most of the time. Also, if the woman weren't lying to her, the changes wouldn't happen immediately; she'd have time to get used to the idea.
If she didn't get used to it, she could always start over.
"Interesting," one of the others said. "She can resist some of the powers of the Devourer. Is it a Traveler's skill?"
"Yes," she answered.
They kept walking and the semi-naked woman realized something was trying to push her away. It was faint at first, but it intensified as they got closer to the whitesteel box.
The box was about four meters by for. When they were about a hundred meters from it, the two Blackguards on the side touched the middle one's shoulder; she was the one grabbing Samantha's hand.
Fifty meters away, they covered their eyes with their forearms as they pushed ahead, as if fighting a strong wind that the girl couldn't feel.
A few more meters away, they were visibly struggling to move forward. Samantha felt the invisible force trying to repel her, but it wasn't near as strong as the whatever the Blackguards seemed to be dealing with.
With what appeared to be a Herculean effort, they got to the box, and one of the Blackguards touched it. A door slid in and up, and the repelling force disappeared.
"What was that?" Samantha asked.
"Divine Magic," she answered breathless, "trying to expel you from this place. If it weren't for us, you wouldn't be able to enter this dimension, much less get this close to this cell."
"Why did it go away?"
"It didn't. The Devourer is fighting the magic now. For you. Whom he's waiting for. Go inside."
She did. The walls of the box were thick. She passed the threshold, and the world changed.
Instead of darkness, a white light surrounded her, without even a floor under her feet. In front of here were twenty white metal chains as large as her. They came from infinity and tightly bound a black ball three times her size.
The black ball had a kind of a black mist coming from it, which created a humanoid figure standing before Samantha.
"Chains?" It was the first thing she said.
"The Ways," the childish voice said, and the black figure walked around the ball, touching the chains on the way.
The metal got corrupted as the mist touched it but quickly flared white and went back to normal. Weirdly, where the chain touched the black ball, it didn’t turn back. The misty humanoid was probably a kind of focus power coming from the what she supposed was the Devourer.
"They bind me without weakening me," the child continued. "Direct me without hurting me. Control me without changing my mind. One of the greatest wonders of my siblings, albeit little known and mostly unappreciated." The mist finished the walk around the ball and ‘looked’ back at Samantha. "Or at least they used to. They-"
Suddenly, the mist shifted and became a big monstrous thing. "Hidden!" The deep male voice yelled. "Secretive! Tasty name! Give me! Devour!" The mist threw itself on Samantha and passed right through her like a cold wind, but without visible effect.
"Sorry, Samantha," a female voice said. The mist had turned back into a humanoid, taller than the child this time. "As I was saying, the Ways have been falling for a few hundred years. I begin to forget myself. Believe me, when I say, dear, that if I ever…"
Slowly, the mist disappeared, and a loud male robotic voice shouted from everywhere.
"…turn back to what I was, after millennia of control, the world will pay in blood. Rivers of blood."
In a blink, the child humanoid was back.
"That’s why I need you, Samantha, in my Blackguard. I fear for my Touched ones and the rest of Creation. Mother wouldn’t be happy with me, and She isn’t delicate when She’s unhappy."
"What do you mean you need the Blackguard?"
"You want to join and doesn’t even know what the Blackguard do? Silly. Summon your Destiny Spirit."
<Sualla. Come.> She ordered in her mind.
Before the Destiny Spirit could even appear, pain coursed through her, and she felt as if something was being taken from her ribcage. The sensation ended quick enough; the pain decreased but didn’t go completely away. Samantha found herself panting.
"Sualla." The child came back. "Tasty name for a tasty Destiny Spirit."
Then, she felt as if she had been torn apart. In a split second, she was divided into millions of tiny parts and both the pain and the feeling of being more than one overwhelmed her, making her faint.
Suddenly, she was awake, without any reminiscence of pain or sleepiness. A blue window was floating before her.
You have started walking the Blackguard Path
» Cannot contact or be contacted by your Destiny Spirit
» Sterile body
» Immunity to Divine magic
» Many skill-trees are now impossible to pursue
» A new skill-tree has been unlocked
The world had changed. Instead of whiteness everywhere, she found herself in a very small room made of whitesteel, with white chains – considerably smaller than before – coming from the walls and binding a black ball her size.
"Good, you survived," the robotic voice came from the ball. "Welcome to the Blackguard. If I ever turn on the world, kill me. Otherwise, obey my will, which shall be presented to you through my High Assassin. Leave."
"Just like that? I expected… More."
Suddenly, the chains shook violently.
"Leave!" She didn't move. "Now! Leave!" The monstrous male voice was back, and the yelling was deafeningly loud.
Samantha felt something grab her arm and pull her out of the room, throwing her on a black metal floor outside. She heard the sound of metal slamming on metal.
"You shouldn't test the bounds of the Devourer, Initiate." The Blackguard woman said. She and Samantha were now alone on the bridge.
"Your training begins. Get up and come." The woman walked a few paces ahead and waited on Samantha.
She did so. Or at least she tried to. Putting her hands on the floor and pushing had no effect.
She felt weak, way too weak. There was no visible status effect, but something was clearly wrong. She opened her character stats window.
"What the hell?!"
After a quick check, she found out that all her traits and skills were also gone, except for a single skill-tree that had been unlocked.
It was called 'Shadow Defender', and the first skill in it only gave her darkvision.
She hadn't expected that. She knew she would lose her Destiny Spirit and suffer some pain, but the attributes, traits, and skills penalty were a significant setback.
"You have been born anew. Your power shall grow greater than before in time, but for now, you must adapt to your new body."
Samantha could throw a tantrum. She could cry, complain, yell. But she wasn't just some girl; she was the daughter of the commander of Fort Corvin. She knew when to suck up and obey.
She took a deep breath, put her hands on the ground and tried to raise herself again. And hit the floor. Unfortunately, the auto-pilot mode didn't allow the character to gain attributes, so she'd have to stay there for that.
"This is going to take a long time, Initiate. If you have any questions, you may ask them."
She did have a few questions; only discipline had made her silent until now. "How can I even speak with minus ten intelligence?"
"Intelligence is about studies and arcane arts. Your wisdom and common sense aren't limited by your ability to find the hypotenuse of a triangle."
Makes some sense and has a few holes. I think V-Soft didn’t want to risk some lawsuits by forcing people into dumbness.
"What are the Ways?"
"That is knowledge that an Initiate isn’t allowed to have. What you can know is that the first purpose of the Blackguard is to kill the Devourer should he ever get out of his bounds. For this purpose, we are severed of all our divine connections. It weakens him to create each of the Blackguard, and in doing so, he loses his sanity for a few hours or a few days. That's why he kept small numbers of us around for so long."
"Low numbers? I see a lot of Blackguards around the drow nation."
"As I said: kept, past tense. As of two hundred years ago, since the coming of the Travelers was foretold, he feels the bounds weakening. Therefore, he has been creating as much of us as he can, for he knows that sooner or later the bindings will weaken and we will have to stand up for all Creation. We shall cry the day we have to kill him."
"How is it even possible to kill a god?"
"I just told you: we are severed from divine connections. Divine magic doesn’t work against us and as strong as his physical form might be when he frees himself… Well, that’s why we train so much. Numbers, quality and divine magic immunity: that’s how we’ll kill him."
Samantha kept trying to get up and kept falling.
"Why did he eat my Destiny Spirit?"
"The Destiny Spirits work under the Guardian," the woman answered as if it explained anything.
"The Guardian is not a god, not divine, but something else. He has no emotions, no mercy, no anger. His only reason for existence is keeping the laws of the world in check. A mortal who can resist divine magic is a corruption of Creation, a ‘cheat,' as the Guardian calls it, and he’d kill us for it. By eating your Destiny Spirit, the Devourer can filter what the Spirit does to you. The Destiny Spirit can still grow your attributes, give you traits, titles, and quests, but the Guardian can’t kill you through it."
The Initiate frowned. "That doesn’t make sense. Why doesn’t the Guardian ask someone else to kill a Blackguard?"
"Because the filter is bi-directional. The Guardian knows all, and he knows you are immune to divine magic. But he can't directly check it in your own body; he needs the Destiny Spirit for that, and the Devourer prevents it."
"I still don't understand."
"The Guardian protects the laws, and one of the laws forces him to verify all information firsthand before acting. If he disobeyed it, he’d be going against the laws and end up having to destroy himself."
The Guardian was the anti-cheat AI of Valia Online. The girl wasn’t very knowledgeable about programming, but it sounded as if the 'confirm firsthand' thing had been made to prevent mistakes by the AI. And the game had found a way around it, to further its own goals.
‘Nature always finds a way,’ came the voice of a movie character to her mind. Were the AIs really alive, as some people claimed?
Of course, by now V-Soft had to know about it and had allowed it to keep going, including the same to happen to players. The fact that it had even happened, though, was a bit scary.
Well, at least she was on the winning side. It was good enough, for now. But she would keep both eyes open for more things like that and tell the commander if she found anything else.
"You said that the bindings are weakening. Shouldn't we kill the Devourer, then?"
"It's weakening, but it's still effective enough."
She frowned. "Why did you pull me out of the room, if that's so?"
"The room itself is also part of the binding. While you were there, the door was kept open, and the binding was further weakened. Also, even though his magic now can’t directly kill you, he’s still a god. He could’ve taken away all air from this rooms and sealed it away. You’d have died all the same."
"I… Never thought about that." It was one of her weakness: she lacked imagination. She could understand and analyze things quick enough, even abstract concepts, but her mind simply wasn’t able to create creative solutions by itself. It made her surprised at the most obvious things.
She hated that side of her.
"Any more questions?"
"Yes. What happens now?"
"You meet the High Assassin, then you train. You’re the first Traveler to become a Blackguard, and the next one will have to wait a few days for the Devourer to come back to himself. We are curious about what you can do."
"The leader of the Blackguards. That’s what we are at our core: assassins, sworn to kill our own master when the time comes. And to kill the enemies of our master while the time is away. More questions?"
"What would I have to do if I ever wanted to stop being a Blackguard?"
"And that is a lie."
"You said the Destiny Spirit is still in the Devourer somehow; that the Devourer filters my connection to it but didn’t sever it. I bet the Devourer did the same to whatever makes me vulnerable to divine magic. I bet I’m not really immune, but that all the divine damage I receive goes to the Devourer instead."
She lacked imagination, but on the other hand, she could see patterns when they were presented to her.
The Blackguard looked silently at Samantha for a long time.
"You have no evidence that the Devourer did to your magic resistance the same that he did to your Destiny Spirit."
"There isn't. But there's precedence."
An audible sigh came from the Blackguard. "You’re already exceeding expectations. Very well. You're right; the Devourer may free you from your condition. But in doing so, you will become a Rogue and be hunted and killed by a team of Blackguards. They will go after you until you die, no matter how much time passes or where in the world you may go. It’s punishment, not a way back to your old path. From my point of view, what happened to you is as good as permanent, so I didn’t lie."
"Rub this smile out of your face; you just showed yourself beyond my ability to handle. Therefore, question time is over." The Blackguard crossed her arms.
"Just a last question: how do I get up from here?"
"By trying enough until your strength attribute gets to level zero. It shall take some time."
And it did.
The less the attribute level, the easier it was supposed to be to level it up. It still took her the better part of two hours to finally stand.
The Blackguard smiled broadly.
"Samantha Hidden Daggers, welcome to the Blackguard."