Start Of The Dark

It was just about as quiet as you could reasonably expect Level 654 to be. A Knight crept cautiously down the hallway, slinking not to stay out of sight, but out of earshot. The dull, incandescent light of the overhead bulbs would keep them perfectly lit, no matter what they did, but what they could avoid undue attention with was their noise levels. The unfortunate side effect of being a Knight is the sound of your armor, but this unit had forgone the traditional sabatons for comfortable, functional white sneakers. It turned a corner, and found itself in the most far out community the MEG had established to date.

The conversation in the room went from a passive indoor conversation's volume to dead silence. The outpost's residents began the first stages of panic preparations, some grabbing rudimentary weapons, others getting ready to run. As they prepared to evacuate, the Knight held up a finger, reaching the other behind it's head to finagle with a clasp. A metallic click, some rustling, the shulff of a helmet being removed, and the people sighed in relief at a familiar face. Junior Researcher Diana Evelynn shook out her hair and stepped into the hallway proper. "You fellas wouldn't know where a gal could get a drink, would you?"

The hubbub settled, she sat down at a nearby bench. Say what you will about the Outer Levels, but their sense of style is unparalleled. The sheet metal from the walls had been pounded with what was probably the homemade hammers that were still sitting behind the counter of the distribution center. When you have nothing better to do, why not make your food depot a bar? Diana taps the bar twice. "Something that isn't Almond Water, please. I don't react well to it." The man behind the counter begins to rummage through a M.E.G. crate, which leaves two people at the bar. The first, of course, is Diana, but the second…

"Haven't seen you in a long time. What have you been up to, Archivist?" The voice came from a lady, half slumped over the bar with a drink in her hand. Her camera sat on the bar, a spare lens in a state of disassembly that had been pretty clearly given up on. Diana turned her head slowly, and met the gaze of the other bar attendee.

"No fucking way… Nicole! Why haven't you been by my office lately?" She offers a hand, but Nicole Matthews slaps it aside, and goes in for a hug. Diana, a bit reluctantly at first, accepts.

Matthews gestures vaguely at everything. "The Ants have kept me pretty busy. The Frontrooms have great research on migration patterns… in three dimensions. If I want to track these little guys, I have to follow them where they go. Which includes Level 654, of all places." She takes a sip of her beverage. "I don't think you'd be there to meet me anyways, given that you're sitting here right in front of me," she says, pointing at the helmet Diana had brought with her. "What's with the digs?"

The bartender brings Diana her drink. "Oh, that's… well, you knew about the glove. I guess the outfit just kinda… grew on me?" This earns her a squint from Nicole. "Jeez, I haven't seen you since… well… oh man, this isn't going to be fun…" Diana sighs, resting her head in her hands.

"What? What's wrong? Diana?"

"Nicole… we lost Isle."

The song playing at the bar is the only thing making it clear time hasn't stopped.

"Ze… the glitches?"

"More or less. It's… a bit hard to explain."

They each finish their beverage.

"Nicole…" Diana begins.

"No. It's… it's okay. I should be used to this kind of thing by now. I'm okay." After scooting her chair in, she starts placing her camera equipment back in her bag. "What brings you about this area?"

"I'm looking for information. Some more on this stuff, this armor. I've gotta find someone… urgently."

The photographer puts on her coat and slings her pack over her shoulder. "You need to go see Blanche." Rummaging through her bag, she pulls out a binder. Flipping through the pages for a few seconds, she pulls out a page torn from a book and hands it to Diana. "The signature on this page will take you to her, when you're ready. But before you go, Diana?"

"Yeah?"

"When you get back to Level 1, tell Emilie and the others I miss them. I don't know if I'll get a chance before I… before you get there first. Okay?" Diana looks at her, at her face, in her eyes. Once, there had be optimism in those eyes. Now there was only cold resignation.

"Okay."


This hall was empty, and therefore perfect to use for the jump. Diana didn't really think she needed to use this particular method; with the Monarch's Estoc and the knowledge that she would be heading to Level 906, she was pretty confident she could have gotten there herself. However, from what she could read, it might be nicer to knock on the front door rather than breach and clear from the back.

'Ants', as they're more colloquially referred to by the population, are a species of small, fur covered Entities known to be less than dangerous to residents of the Backrooms. However, to presume one to be harmless is folly. Alone, one could bruise you, but in packs, they're quite dangerous. You would do well to avoid them, as darling as the cute little things are.

Always looking after you,

Blanche

It was clear why Nicole had been keeping it around, but Diana was much more interested in the signature. In the documentation, 906 was accessible only via this signature, and therefore was the ticket to what she needed to know. She gently placed her finger on the surface of the parchment, and felt, ironically enough, the first typical clip she'd performed in over a week take hold, a lurching pit forming in her stomach as she fell through the floor.

She was roused by a loud whistling, a shrill screech that cut through what had been a pleasant moment of calm up until moments ago. With a warriors yell, Diana leapt from the chaise lounge she'd been resting on. The same swift movement brought Seven's gladius from it's sheathe, pointing frantically in the same directions as her eyes as they darted about the room. Nothing moving, nothing moving… there! A figure!

"Welcome to my Archives, Diana Evelynn. Care for some tea?" Diana brandished the sword in the general direction of the movement. "Now now… is that how one treats their host?" The figure, draped in an elaborate cream tea dress, moved a kettle from atop a small flame suspended in the air, and began to pour it into an ornate tea pot. "No, really. Do tell me if that's proper. I wouldn't want to offend the customs of a guest." She produced a tin, rifling through the contents, and selected a bag of loose leaf tea, which she then placed daintily in a cup. "How do you take your tea?"

Diana walked slowly throughout the room, tracing a slow path to the door, sword always at the ready. She wasn't quite interested in leaving the room yet, but she wanted the opportunity to be available should she come to a consensus. "Iced, with almost 100% the saturation rate in sugar. Who are you?"

The figure walked around the front of the table to the other side to begin pouring, and as she did, the tea cup vanished, replaced by a long pint glass filled with ice. She tipped the pot into it, tea bag already in pot. "I believe you suspect who I am already, but to assuage your doubts, I am Blanche, keeper of the Cygnus Archive and mistress of this level. Would you like to introduce yourself as well?" She extracted a container of sugar cubes, and counted out a few sugar cubes. She placed a single sugar cube on the counter, and then two, and then one thousand, one hundred, and eighty five of them. She then placed them into the pot and began stirring with a small spoon.

Diana eyed her hostess. "My name is Diana Evelynn. I'm an Archivist with the M.E.G., and I'm looking for information. Can I clarify anything else for you? I'm an open book."

Blanche finished stirring the sugar in and poured the sweet tea into the glass. The heat of the water cracked the glass, but she picked it up anyways, stirred the mixture, and placed it on a doily in front of Diana, where it rested with a seamless construction, no cracks to be seen. "The clarification was only customary. I know precisely who you are, of course. You've been working with the M.E.G. after coming into contact with them 2 years ago, and you produce edited versions of accounts of the 'Levels' in this place. You've also had quite the kerfuffle over the past week with a group called the Black Knights, and you're here because you've lost a good friend of yours in the ensuing battle. I am, of course, speaking of Knight 783, and not the late J who was lost in a more euphemistic sense at the same time."

The Archivist squinted, sheathing the gladius and sitting down. "How do you know this? Have you been watching me?" Picking up the glass of sweet tea, she inspected it, looking for faults or evidence of poisons.

Blanche sat, cross-legged, and began to sip her tea. "Only momentarily, while you've been here. Let's simply say I can read any book within my library, and leave it at that. You're one to catch on rather quickly, at any rate."

"What happened when I arrived? Why did I just come to, instead of arriving conscious?"

"You've experienced the consequences of something I'm well versed with, but I'm not sure why you did at all. It's safe to say that you'll never worry about it again, should you return."

Diana took the opportunity of her speaking to take a sip. The concoction was simply the most saccharine beverage she'd ever tasted, with only a hint of the flavor of tea (an admittedly high quality one, rather wasted on the Southern delicacy). "This is marvelous. Reminds me of home."

"I'm sure Arkansas is lacking in your absence," Blanche says.

"It was lacking even while I was there. Now I'm here. I'll assume you know why?"

"Of course. You're looking for two things, one specific, and one rather open ended. I'm not quite sure I'm able to help with either."

"I need to know where Knight 783 is, and I need to know how I can take these bastards down, once and for all. Maybe in the process get out of this god-forsaken dump. Who knows?"

"You'd do well to watch your tone in my presence, Diana. Manners make the woman, as they say." Blanche gives her a rather surreptitious glance with a furrowed brow over the rim of her teacup.

"Right. What can you tell me?"

"I have the pieces of a solution for the latter, and not a glimpse of the former, not any factual information anyways." She places her teacup on the saucer and then smooths out her dress. "The Black Knights are… well, you know how powerful they are. But are you familiar with why?" Diana shakes her head no. "You'd be easily fooled into believing it's because of their magics, or technology. Perhaps even their fundamental understanding of liminal space." Diana simply stares. "That's the 'Backrooms'."

"Right." Diana nods.

"These are good guesses, but they're all predicated on the true source of their power: symbolism. In Arthurian legend, the Black Knight is a symbol of unknown force, and is used several times over the course of the centuries in which tales of King Arthur and his Round Table were written. Such a pastiche has been replicated across hundreds, perhaps even thousands of honored works in the years since, such as Shrek SuperSlam, released 2005."

Diana shakes her head at the last portion, but scowls. "Okay, sure, they have an etymology to their name, how does that help?"

"To understand their roots is to understand their power, for the power of literary stock is what holds power in this place so intricately tied to the mind. This place is a world of memory, a trap with the lure of nostalgia. Your friend found that out in a very unfortunate way. However, we can use this information to find a weakness. Do you know the traditional foil of the Black Knight?"

She shrugs. "I don't know, the White Knight? Is that a thing?"

"In literature? Yes. In liminal space? Not so much. However, there's a lovely stand-in. You're likely to have heard of them as well."

"No way. Really? I've only heard stories."

"Just as the Black Knights had only been stories naught but a week ago for you."

Diana thought about what Blanche was implying for a moment. "I heard he was dead."

"So have I. This puts you at an impasse. I consider a having goal with an impasse a better state than possessing no goal at all."

"So… let me ensure I understand this correctly: you don't know where Seven is, you do know how to defeat the Knights, but they're dead. I appreciate what you've told me, but I think I need to start searching elsewhere."

"That's up to you. I have more information you might find pertinent."

"Oh?" Diana asks. "Go on."

"I was not familiar with the operations of the Black Knights until now. I am, however, drawing a clear connection between them and operations in the Coliseum."

Diana puts down her glass, now empty. "I'm unfamiliar."

"There is a level some call the Coliseum. It is inhabited by an unknown force, a foe clad in black and indistinguishable from human and entity alike. This is not unfamiliar, is it?"

"Tell me more. How can I get there? I need to know more than just the name of the level."

"The Black Rider, as I've come to know them, resides in Level 470. They accept challenges of skill for an unknown prize. The consequences of failure, however, have been iterated many times. The consequence is death."

After standing, Diana straightens her outfit, and nods curtly to Blanche. "If I win, the prize is mine. If I lose, I'll see the Red Knight soon enough. Thank you for your information."

"Anything for a fellow Archivist, Diana Evelynn." Blanche rises from her repose, and gives a small curtsy. "I'll see you to the door." She turns to inspect the door, but when she does, Diana finds not the alcove leading into a library hallway, but one leading to what could only be described as astral stardust. The glimmering points of light shining through cast strange shadows about the gas-lit room. "Go now, with virtue. I will be entertaining efforts in support of your cause from here. Such a force is equally a blight on me as it is on anyone. Hopefully my work will be of use to you in the future."

"Thank you Blanche. I'd like to see you on better terms some time."

Diana took the single step through the barrier, with new resolve. She would discern the secrets of this Black Rider or die trying.



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