Episode 7: The Next Generation

Episode 7: The Next Generation Dikiyoba Mon, 06/04/2012 - 04:41
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Spiderweb Software Message Board is under attack yet again, this time by a noob army whose like has not been seen since the Ur-Noob's assault on Spiderweb. The army's commander is oddly chivalrous yet recruited vicious trolls and a mysterious hacker into the army. Can Spiderweb and its satellite board ally, Calamity Refuge, break the siege, or will the noob army finally bring Spiderweb Software Message Board down?

Chapter 1: Spiderweb Software Message Board

Chapter 1: Spiderweb Software Message Board Dikiyoba Mon, 06/04/2012 - 04:48
A pall hung over the neighborhood. The streets were silent and empty. Even the noobs and spambots had left. Only old posts and desiccated leaves remained, blown into every crevice and corner. The buildings out here were cheap, one-story structures, built on a whim and then quickly abandoned and left to crumble.

But in the distance, Spiderweb Software Message Board stood tall and proud. Midday light reflected off its shatterproof windows and polished stone blocks so that it shone like a landlocked lighthouse. For much of its history, the stone facings had been gray to cream with faint blue undertones, but now they were as dark as the dregs of black coffee.

The buildings closer to the message board were larger and sturdier, but they, too, were largely abandoned and beginning to crumble. Even the Ermarian Network, once a museum that bustled with visitors and regular posters alike, was rarely visited and had exhibits in need of repair. The only occupied building—or more accurately, an underground bunker—was Calamity Refuge Forums. A few furtive figures, their identities obscured beneath overlarge cloaks, lurked on the stairway down. Even the flowering dogwoods at The Sanctuary were beginning to die.

Spiderweb Software Message Board defied the desolation trend. It was a boxy, twelve-floor tower surrounded by carefully tended greenery: rows of dense hedges and manicured lawns. Lush succulents lined the walkway that led to a small courtyard and the front entrance of Spiderweb. But a close examination of the yard revealed unsettling details. Curved, needle-sharp spines grew from the hedges while the succulents along the walkway pulsated and oozed. A sign on the lawn declared “Warning! Active traps! Do not step on the grass!” A series of irrigation canals doubled as a moat while the bridges over the canals were connected to machinery that enabled them to be drawn up or collapsed from controls somewhere inside Spiderweb. The front door was solid, sturdy wood and a steel portcullis could be lowered for additional protection. The entire building was fire-proof, flood-proof, earthquake-proof, and virtually unassailable.

On the roof of one of the abandoned buildings, three figures lurked behind a blind. Two of them were ordinary noobs—short humanoids with pale, blotchy, and waxy skin and a tendency to talk nonstop. The third one was troll. Trolls were mysterious and highly variable in appearance. This one was young and looked a lot like a human, albeit an ugly one. He watched Spiderweb Software Message Board through binoculars. The two noobs babbled to each other. One of them turned to the troll.

“im ungrry wen canw e ete”

“Here.” The troll tossed a can of spam at the noobs. The noobs opened it up and fought for the chunk of meat. The troll turned his attention back to Spiderweb. His commander had sent them out here to scout Spiderweb’s defenses and to wait for it to be hacked. The troll wasn’t sure what his commander had planned or how it would be hacked, but he knew that the hack would allow the entire army to sneak into Spiderweb. It couldn’t be much longer now.

Chapter 2: A Much Interrupted Party

Chapter 2: A Much Interrupted Party Dikiyoba Mon, 06/04/2012 - 04:54
In the General Forum, Nikki oversaw the set-up of his surprise party. Nikki was human, tall and lightly-built, with the pale skin of someone who lived most their life at night and slept through the day, or of someone who had just spent a lengthy vacation in Avernum. He wore lightweight leather armor and a bowler. He was armed with a hunting bow and a pouch of mechanical pencils and pens. He could be moody and scornful, but he could also be incredibly charming—which helped explain why he had so many people willing to help with decorations despite his standing in the middle of the main hall shouting constant advice.

“Dintiradan, we need more champagne glasses. Slarty, fill those balloons more. I want them to stay airborne, not deflate halfway through the night. Sylae, what are you—don’t you dare hang up that poster! Hey! Hey! No ponies at this party! I want robots or ninja turtles or something awesome like that. Aran, that streamer is uneven. You should redo it. Hey! What did I tell you about that poster? Take it down, take it down. Thank you. Does anyone know where Actaeon and Rowen have got to? They’re supposed to be bringing in tables.”

Meanwhile, the kitchen was fast becoming desserted. Seven people were making at least nine cakes and one pie with only four ovens. Spilled batter and frosting covered the counters while dirty bowls and utensils filled the sinks. The only person who didn’t seem to be flustered or frustrated was Lilith, currently adding the final ingredients to a rum cake batter. She was human, tall with short blonde hair. She looked fairly young but somehow felt much older. Perhaps the sense of age she gave off was due to the fact that she had been at Spiderweb Software Message Board since its very beginning and so had lived through a host of events and traditions that hardly anyone else remembered, but no one knew for sure. Occasionally the rumor mill decided she wasn’t actually human but a demon or rogue AI in disguise. Still, it was awfully hard to imagine anything like a demon or rogue AI drinking a bottle of rum and then licking off the spatula.

Lilith put the cake pan in the oven and then went to the liquor cabinet to grab another bottle of rum for the frosting. To her surprise, the liquor cabinet was almost completely cleaned out. “That’s odd.”

“What’s odd?” Excalibur asked. He was also human, but this was hard to tell because of the suit of plate armor he wore at all times. Only when his visor was raised could others see the human face underneath, adult but still young enough to be marred by acne. An enchanted sword was strapped across his back. He was an excellent fighter, direct and courageous, but not always the wisest.

“Eh, not important right now. I’ll look into it later.”

---

Several hours later, Nikki’s party was in full swing. Streamers and balloons hung from the walls and rafters of the main hall. A stereo played songs by Radiohead and The Beatles. Nikki leaned against a pillar. People came by occasionally to congratulate him. He thanked them politely, but he seemed disaffected by something. Most of the Spiderwebbers were crowded around a refreshments table filled with cakes (and one pie). A few people were eating, but most were simply comparing the cakes to decide which one was the best.

“Mine is the biggest.”

“Dikiyoba’s is decorated with a dinosaur. You can’t get any better than dinosaurs.”

“Bah, forget dinosaurs. You should have decorated it with Rainbow Dash.”

“Mine is the most original. And the most mathematical.”

“That’s a pie. That doesn’t count.”

Arancaytar, one of the moderators, coughed. He had heavy-lidded eyes and unruly hair that never laid flat no matter how he combed it. He wore red wizard robes because he thought of himself as a technological wizard. He wore a tool belt bursting with screwdrivers, pocket manuals, fuses, wiring, spare cable, alternate connectors, and everything else needed to repair, debug, and re-code electrical devices. He also wore a bandolier that held additional gadgets and a large wrench for reprograming attacking people or monsters into unconsciousness. “Let’s not get carried away here. We’ve already had the spam tossing competition and the food fight isn’t scheduled until the very end. Let’s see what what’s scheduled to happen next.”

Lilith raised an eyebrow. “You have a schedule written out?”

Arancaytar didn’t look up from the schedule as he replied, “Sadly, yes. Nikki gave it to me. He was very insistent. Oh, yes. Nikki’s speech.”

Nikki turned off the stereo. “Yay, Aran, you remembered!” He clambered onto an empty table. “Attention, everyone! First of all, let me thank all of you for attending my celebration. This is a really great community and I enjoy having most of you around.” He paused until the clapping, whooping, and w00ting had died down. “Next, as you should all know, this celebration is because–”

A shout from the table holding the punch bowl and champagne cut Nikki off. Dintiradan, a human dressed entirely in black and with his head hidden by a flat-topped helm, grappled with a small arm protruding from beneath the tablecloth. Dintiradan tugged and the person beneath the tablecloth slid into view. He was a young human, only about twelve or so, with freckles and a black costume cape. The boy’s pants and shirt were now soaked with spilled champagne.

“Hey! Let go of me!” the boy shouted.

“Who are you and how did you get in here?” Dintiradan asked, “Anyone recognize him?”

“Nope.”

“No.”

“Nuh-uh.”

“That’s Mysterious Man,” Lilith said.

“Yowza! Looking good there, Lilith,” Mysterious Man said.

Lilith crossed her arms. “And you’re still twelve, I see.”

“Always.” Mysterious Man nodded.

“That doesn’t explain why you came back and why you were stealing the champagne,” Dintiradan said.

“I wasn’t stealing.” Mysterious Man hiccupped. “You guys sent me a note telling me you had a bunch of alcohol that had to be drunk before it went bad. So I came here to help you with it. See. I have a note!” He pulled a wet note out of his pocket and waved it at Dintiradan.

Lilith took the note and read it. “That’s what it says.”

Arancaytar read the note too. “It looks official, too. But we certainly didn’t send it.”

“Can we deal with this after I give my speech, please?”

“All right, go ahead,” Arancaytar said, still intent on the note.

“Now where was I? Oh yes. This celebration is because I finally made it onto the Top Ten Posters List. It was a long and difficult trial, but I finally managed to outpost Ephesos.”

“How hard can it be to outpost someone who’s been gone for months?” Nioca asked. Despite being human, he was a priest of a nephilim war god. He wore deep plum robes that looked very imposing from a distance, but up close they were patched and covered in cat hair. He had dark brown eyes and his nose was crooked and smashed as though it had been broken at least once in a pre-Internet fist fight. He was a competent healer, but he much preferred using his magic offensively, going so far as to create and participate in various war games to keep his skills honed.

“Shut up, you giant hairball,” Nikki said, “Now, as I was s–”

A giant middle-aged anthropomorphic rabbit with chestnut fur hopped into a clear space. He wore leather armor and a waterproof cloak. He had a hunting bow slung across his back and used a lance as an extra-long walking stick. “Did I hear someone say hare ball? Everyone do the bunny hop! Hop, hop, hop!”

Nikki glared at Nioca and Harehunter. “Will you shut up and let me finish my speech? Thank you. Right, like I was saying, I’ve just outposted Ephesos. That’s 6160 posts, and I couldn’t have made that many posts if this community wasn’t so great. I’ve been here for almost eight years now. I’ve seen people come and go. There have been parties and sleepovers, discussions and debates, successes and failures, triumphs and debacles—yes, I know those two phrases mean the same thing, I said shut up—friendships, romances, dissension, rebellion, even times when Spiderweb was under attack and it looked as though we all might perish. I’ve–oh, what is it now?”

A human in druid robes had just burst into the main hall from the lobby. He breathing heavily and his green robes were covered in mud. “I came as quick as I could. How bad is it?”

“Eph! You’re back!” Nioca said.

“What’s the matter?” Excalibur asked.

“What do you mean, what’s the matter? I got a message saying that the trees in the Blades of Avernum Forum were hit by some sort of blight and that you needed my help in order to save them. Give me a few minutes to recover, and then I’ll see what I can do.” Ephesos sank to the ground, catching his breath and oblivious to everyone’s puzzled looks.

Arancaytar looked to the other mods. “But we didn’t send a message. Did we?”

The other mods shook their heads or shrugged.

“Not to mention that the trees are fine. I was just down in the BoA Forum earlier today,” Dintiradan said.

“But… but then who sent me this message and why?” Ephesos pulled out a folded note similar to the one Mysterious Man had. Arancaytar took it and scanned over it. “It looks like one of ours all right. How is this possible? Do you think any other oldbies got one of these messages?”

“If they did, I’m sure they’ll all come barging in as soon as I start talking again.” Nikki crossed his arms and scowled.

Arancaytar crossed the main hall and offered Ephesos a hand up. “Sorry, Nikki.” In a whisper he added, “Don’t worry, we’ll figure this out and give you a real welcome once Nikki is done talking.”

“–laughed, I’ve cried–”

“I don’t know if I should stay. I’ve got a lot to do elsewhere.”

“Oh, come on. Stay for a few days. We miss having you around.” Arancaytar saw Ephesos’ hesitation. “Stay the night at least. It’s getting late, and we do have lots of cake at the moment.”

“–been insulted, but most of all I’ve–”

“Ooh, cake. Do any of them have chocolate frosting?”

“I think a few do.”

“Well, I guess I can stay a little while, then.”

Nikki picked up on their whispering and stopped speaking. He kicked over a chair at his table in frustration. “Seriously, you two? I was almost done, and now you’ve made me go and lose my place. What’s next? Will Tyranicus suddenly decide to die?”

“Hey! I haven’t died in eight months!”

“Will some newb come rushing in demanding to know which game to play next and ending all his sentences with the word ‘LOL’? Will–” The lights flickered. “–the electricity decide to go out?”

Every light in the main hall suddenly went dark.

“You had to ask, didn’t you?” Lilith said.

Arancaytar dug out a flashlight. Its beam highlighted the annoyed, puzzled, resigned, and amused faces of various Spiderwebbers as he scanned the room for anything odd. “It’s probably just a blown fuse. I’ll take care of–does everyone else feel that?”

“Forumquake!” Excalibur shouted.

“Everyone, take cover and stay calm,” Lilith said, taking her own advice.

There were a few cries as people went to hide under heavy tables or doorways, bumping into chairs, pillars, and other people as they did so. The floor shook violently. Several champagne glasses slid off the edge of their tables and shattered. Streamers parted from the rafters, floating down to come to rest across tables and the floor like discarded snake skins. Arancaytar’s flashlight rolled across the floor. It finally rolled square into a pillar, where it stayed for the rest of the forumquake, its beam illuminating an empty patch of floor. As the shaking died down, the lights flickered back on. People crawled out from underneath tables.

“Hey Nikki, I don’t think UBB liked your speech,” Lilith said.

“No, we probably just overloaded the server temporarily. Sorry, Nikki, but we’ll have to cancel the rest of your party,” Arancaytar said, “It’s getting late anyway, so why don’t we all head to bed? There are plenty of guest rooms for those of you who usually sleep elsewhere. The mods will take a look at things in the morning. Hopefully everything will be easy to fix and we can finish the party in the morning.”

---

The young troll and two noobs were still waiting outside of Spiderweb Software Message Boards. They watched the forumquake and saw a small crack appear in the garden, just in front of the moat. The troll sent his companions down to check out the crack. Ten minutes later, they were back. They reported that the crack opened up into a tunnel that led to the Exile Trilogy Forum. The troll grinned. He pulled out his cell phone and sent a text to his commander: way n is clr

Interlude #1

Interlude #1 Dikiyoba Mon, 06/04/2012 - 04:59
The following is a transcript of Machrone’s interview with Dintiradan of Spiderweb Software Message Board. Interview reprinted with permission of Talk Show at Ten.

A small table with two chairs sits center stage. Machrone enters from the left and faces the studio audience.

M: Welcome to Talk Show at Ten! Today’s guest is Dintiradan, a member of Spiderweb Software Message Board. For years Dintiradan had been the resident Evil Overlord, but last year he abandoned that gimmick. Today we finally find out why the Evil Overlord retired and how he is handling life on the straight and narrow. And now, without further ado, let’s welcome Dintiradan!

The audience applauds. Dintiradan enters from the right. He is humanoid, but his armor prevents an identification of his race. He wears a flat-topped helm and gauntlets of blackened steel. His tunic, pants, belt, and boots are also black without any insignia or decoration. The only other color to be seen is an occasional glimpse of dull gray mail from the hauberk he wears under his tunic. Machrone shakes Dintiradan’s hand.

M: Welcome to Talk Show at Ten, Dintiradan. How are you today?

D: Very well, thank you.

They both sit.

M: Tell us a little about yourself.

D: Well, I’ve been at Spiderweb for six years now. I originally came for Blades of Avernum, but I never made much of a name for myself there. Although have you played Kill Prize, Win Ogre? It’s my best work. (He pauses.) I’m majoring in computer science and my favorite fruit is the kumquat. Finally, although you can’t see it, I assure you I have the coolest beard ever.

M: How did you become an Evil Overlord?

D: When I first arrived, gimmicks were quite popular, even more so than they are now. TM had a thread dedicated to all his name changes, Archmage Alex had his comics, Dikiyoba talked in third person, Alorael and Salmon had their ever-changing signatures, and Ed had his vegetable insults—although that might have been part of his breakdown and not a gimmick. But evil gimmicks were lacking. This was before ET, Ghaldring, and the rebellion, mind you. Spiderweb was a simpler, more trusting place back then. Anyway, I saw my niche and it just so happened that I came across a guide to being an effective Evil Overlord right about then, so I took that as my gimmick and ran with it.

M: But there were already lots of Evil Overlords out there—Sauron, Darth Vader, and Voldemort, to name just a few. What made you different?

D: I’ll admit I wasn’t the strongest, smartest, or wealthiest Evil Overlord out there. And I definitely wasn’t the most evil! But frankly I think of myself as the most determined. Sure other overlords were more patient, but they mostly just waited, and when it was finally time to do something, they did the same thing over and over again and often passed the most difficult work onto their minions. I didn’t do that. I studied theory. I came up with original ideas. When something worked, I used it again. When something failed, I learned from it. And eventually I achieved my ultimate goal—domination of Spiderweb!

M: But you gave up control of Spiderweb after just a few months. What was that all about?

D: I found out the hard way why so many Evil Overlords aren’t dedicated as I was, or do silly things that let some heroic schmuck bring them down. Being an Evil Overlord is about the journey, not the destination. (A few members of the audience laugh.) It sounds corny, but it’s true. Without something to strive for, I was bored and restless. Besides, it was all too much drama. I tried my best to usher in a new and better age, to maintain control and implement new policies, to give the people bread and circuses while brutally squashing any hint of rebellion, everything a good Evil Overlord should do. What did I get in return? Complaining members, whiny mods, annoying newbies, and an endless stream of spambots trying to get inside. Ugh. It wore me out, it really did. I needed to set my sights elsewhere, so I gave my admin position back to Stareye and left to plot my next, even bigger plan.

M: I thought Stareye had you banned the moment you resigned.

D: (Reluctantly.) Well, yes, that too.

M: So why did you decide to retire the Evil Overlord gimmick?

D: While I was away from Spiderweb, I realized that it was no longer a fun gimmick. It was controlling my life. I didn’t have friends; I had minions. I wasn’t worried about school or a career; all I cared about were my evil plans. It was corrupting me. Something had to change. Also, as one of the few Evil Overlords in history to achieve my goals and not be overthrown by some teenage hero, I figured it was smart to quit while I was ahead.

M: What did you do after you retired?

D: I wandered the Internet. I focused on my schoolwork and rebuilt my friendships. I reminded myself how ordinary people lived and thought. Then I went back to Spiderweb. I showed the mods I had genuinely changed and they let me return. (He pauses.) Eventually.

M: How is life now that you are reformed?

D: Pretty nice, actually. I’m no longer wrapped up in scheming, plotting revenge, and dominating. It’s actually a huge weight off my shoulders. In fact, if it weren’t for school and Spiderweb, I would actually have spare time. (Several members of the audience gasp.) I know, it’s incredible, isn’t it? Plus, everyone is so much nicer to me now, and I can even be nice back!

M: What do you miss most about being an Evil Overlord?

D: Being genre-savvy. I used to know what to expect during major events. Now I’m just as clueless as everyone else.

M: What can we expect from you in the future?

D: Not much, I hope. I’m enjoying the peace and normalcy that I didn’t get as an Evil Overlord now, so I’m in no rush to start something new.

M: So no plans for a new gimmick?

D: Not any time soon, at least.

M: We still have a few minutes left. Do you mind if I open it up to questions from the audience?

D: Not at all.

Machrone stands up and faces the audience. Several of them raise their hands. Machrone selects one. An usher hurries over to him with a microphone.

A: If you are really reformed, why do you still wear your Evil Overlord outfit?

D: It’s extremely comfortable and it protects my privacy. I haven’t found anything else that can do both of those things.

Machrone points to another audience member. The usher hurries over.

A: Why do you always hide your face?

D: Next question, please.

A: Did you have any Evil Overlords you looked to as role models?

D: Hmm. Well, I did look up to Xykon of Order of the Stick. Whatever else you may think about him and his goals, that lich is badass.

M: We have time for one more question. Yes, you.

A: Should I get any Spiderweb Software games?

D: Yes, yes you should.

M: Well, that’s all the time we have for today, I’m afraid. Thank you for coming, Dintiradan.

D: No problem. I enjoyed coming. I hope you’ll invite me back someday.

Dintiradan stands and shakes hands with Machrone once more. He exits stage right.

M: Next up we have Rita Cskany, author of the controversial book Premature Baldness, Sandwich Time, and Fiery Portals Straight to Hell: What Wizards Don’t Want You to Know about Portals, Pylons, and Other Forms of Magical Teleportation. She’ll be here after the break.

The audience applauds.

Chapter 3: Hacked!

Chapter 3: Hacked! Dikiyoba Fri, 06/22/2012 - 21:42
It was midmorning. Arancaytar stumbled out of bed and searched for a clean robe to wear. Although his tools and books were carefully organized, the rest of his room was a mess. Discarded and half-finished scripts covered his desk while clothes—some clean, most dirty—were scattered across his floor. He found a robe, snapped on his bandolier and tool belt, and headed downstairs, hoping there would still be some breakfast left.

Twenty minutes, three cups of coffee, and two pieces of toast later, Arancaytar carried a basket of dirty clothes into the laundry room. The laundry room was located in the basement of the General Forum across from the fluffy turtle compound. Fluffy turtle growls mixed with the thumping sounds of washing machines and dryers in use. The air was warm, damp, and filled with bits of lint. Ephesos, wearing clothes taken from the Lost and Found, sat in a corner reading some old threads while he waited for his robe to finish drying.

Arancaytar dumped his clothes into a washer and started it. “Good morning.”

Ephesos didn’t bother to look up. “Hey.”

“You planning on leaving, then?”

“Yep.”

“Is there any way I could change your mind?”

“Nope.”

“Did any other oldbies show up?”

“Dunno.”

“So, uh, what are you reading?”

“AIMhack.”

“Ahh. Well, I’ll leave you alone then.”

“Thank you.” Ephesos turned a page.

Arancaytar left the laundry room and headed back up to the main hall. He scanned the crowd. Everyone was calm and busy doing their own thing. If another oldbie had returned, there would have been a commotion. Arancaytar felt vague disappointment. There were a few old faces he wouldn’t mind seeing again. Oh well. He headed for the Moderator Board.

---

The Moderator Board was hidden within the Announcements Forum. To anyone not of moderator rank, the Announcements Forum was a long, slightly sloped hallway with two doors leading to the Tech Support Forum at the higher end and an open gate leading to the Avernum: Escape from the Pit Forum at the lower end. To the moderators, and therefore to anyone who might somehow obtain mod powers illegitimately, rows and rows of nearly identical doors lined the hallway. Only one led to the Moderator Board. The others were fakes that revealed only a recess in the wall and one of several nasty traps. Some spewed gouts of magical fire. Others triggered a trapdoor that shunted the door-opener to a pit of starving fluffy turtles. Still others dumped buckets of strong acid. A few even summoned a ghostly avatar of Saunders, a former Spiderweb moderator known and feared for her swordsmanship. Perhaps the nastiest trap of all, however, was a powerful magic spell on the entire forum that enabled the door which led to the Moderator Board to be different for each person. When the system had first been installed, moderators died constantly as they tried to figure out and remember which door was correct. Now everyone instinctively headed to their door.

Arancaytar opened the correct door and stepped into the Moderator Board. It was designed to be as boring as possible so that moderators would focus on the task at hand. It consisted of two small rooms with gray walls and brown tiled floors. A ragged and stained quilt hung in the doorway between the two rooms. The larger room contained a conference table with uncomfortable wooden chairs, a projector and projector screen, and several locked file cabinets that held important documents and a handful of emergency supplies.

The smaller room contained a row of bulky machinery along one of its walls. This machinery was connected to almost everything electrical or mechanical within Spiderweb Software Message Board. Defenses could be activated or deactivated. Electricity could be turned on and off. Doors could be opened and shut. The bridges outside in the garden could be raised or lowered. Heat, air conditioning, humidity control, signature length, bans, templates, profile settings, water, gates, alarms, sensors, censors, even the location of forums and rooms within Spiderweb; it could all be controlled from here. All of these things could be controlled from elsewhere since the machinery had a tendency to breakdown or malfunction, but when it worked it did everything.

Wires and cables emerged from the top and back of the machinery to disappear into the walls. Fans sucked in cool air from the Moderator Board while a pipe in the floor carried hot air down to warm the basement. A control panel projected out from the largest portion of the machine. It was covered in a complicated array of buttons, switches, and dials. Only half of them had any sort of label. The labels that did exist were mostly confusing. One simply said “Islands.” Another said “Ave sprkls/acnt/hr.” And what did “D t ch” stand for? The displays on the rest of the machine weren’t any better. Only a few were actually digital screens. The rest were just lights that flashed on and off in various colors. Several of the moderators actually refused to have anything to do with the machinery. They let Arancaytar or Stareye decipher any problems.

Slarty was not one of the moderators afraid of the machinery. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing or what he was looking for, but his gut told him something was very wrong and, as a prophet of the Nine-Headed Cave Cow, he trusted his gut above all else. He cautiously flipped switches and pushed buttons on the control panel, hoping to get a printout of the machine’s recent activities.

Slarty was a large, stout human. He wore a robe made out of black cowhide, a broad white cloth belt, and a stern expression. He kept his beard and scalp shaved. Slarty also had large brown eyes that betrayed his stern expression by revealing his inner emotions half the time and the other half laughing at some joke only they could see. His only weapons were a dagger, a notepad, and an obsessive delight in examining, documenting, and analyzing everything he came across. He did have a tendency to overreach in his analysis, which was why Arancaytar approached cautiously once he saw that Slarty was at the control panel.

“You haven’t changed anything, have you?” Arancaytar asked.

“I’m trying not to. Where is the button that prints the log, anyway?”

Arancaytar reached over and pushed a button. A hidden slot in the machinery opened up and spit out reams of paper filled with tables and figures almost as unintelligible as the labels on the control panel.

“Thanks.” Slarty gathered the papers up and pushed past the quilt into the conference room. Arancaytar stepped up to the control panel. A fan kicked on and a motor deep inside the machinery hummed as Arancaytar adjusted a few dials. Everything seemed to be working fine, but he’d have to examine everything thoroughly to be sure.

---

Ephesos had traveled several miles from Spiderweb. He decided to stop for a few minutes. Breaking out a water bottle and bag of trail mix, he sat in the shade of a dancing banana tree. Above him, the fruit shook and jiggled.

After eating, Ephesos closed his eyes and leaned back against the trunk. He had to move on soon—there was always so much work to be done!—but just relaxing under the tree felt so good, even if the tree in question happened to be an obnoxious weed.

Within moments, Ephesos was asleep. The fruits swung about. One dislodged from its stem and fell. As late morning turned into afternoon, it slowly jigged off to find a place to sprout.

---

Alorael sat in his usual chair in the lookout tower, which was also his room. From this position, he could see the entire Spiderweb neighborhood. It was also exposed enough that anyone nearby could also see him. This made it an unusual position for a sniper to prefer, but Alorael had long since passed unusual, traveled through gimmicky, and settled down in downright strange territory. He enjoyed it there, and for some reason all the other Spiderwebbers enjoyed his being there too.

Alorael was a human of Korean descent. He was elderly, somewhere between sixty and eighty, but his black hair had few streaks of gray. His attire was a worn but still snappy business suit and bow tie. He always kept his sniper rifle within easy reach. A lifetime of skribbane use had stained his teeth orange-green and given him enough tics, twitches, and jitters that everyone saw him with a permanent motion blur. The twitching only stopped during the few seconds needed to aim and fire his rifle once he had selected a target.

Now he unpacked his lunch. The weather was good, but no one seemed to be about. The only movement he’d seen all day was Ephesos leaving Spiderweb and something on a distant rooftop. It was probably only a bird taking flight or a piece of trash blowing about. Alorael mused on the fact that his eyesight was beginning to fail. He’d aged well considering how long he had been at Spiderweb, but he was beginning to slow down. He sighed. One day he’d have to put his rifle and skribbane down, and then his only joy would be reliving the memories of his early days and beating newbies with his cane. He blinked. Some haze was beginning to form in the east. Odd. The weather forecast hadn’t said anything about clouds. He ate his lunch and watched.

---

A hot gust of wind blew dust and dried leaves into Ephesos’ face. He coughed, awakening suddenly. He blinked away the rest of the dust, pulled a leaf out of a bushy eyebrow, and looked around. What happened? What time was it?

Crap! He must have fallen asleep. He repacked his bag and jogged down the road. He reached the top of a hill and stopped dead. A huge cloud of dust was in the east. His first thought was a windstorm, but it wasn’t moving nearly fast enough. Then he saw about half a dozen figures heading west along the road. Figuring that they might know what was going on, he headed toward them.

When Ephesos got closer, he saw that the figures were all noobs. He hated noobs, since they vandalized property and killed or injured the unwary. Too bad he didn’t have time to deal with them. He needed to find another way around. Unfortunately, the noobs had now seen him and were now charging towards him. He sighed and prepared to cast spells. It would be easier to fight them then to run away.

The noobs charged until they were almost within casting range, and then faltered to a halt. One of the noobs seemed to be in charge of the others and attempted to give orders. It pulled out a white flag. It waved it frantically at Ephesos. “we nott atack! we not atack1” It grabbed another noob that was edging forward and threw it to the ground. “don’t atack! don’t!”

“What are you doing here?” Ephesos demanded.

“we…” The noob stopped to think. “scoting. yes we r scoting.”

Ephesos was taken aback. “Scouting? For what?”

“teh amy!”

“…the amy?” Ephesos’ eyebrows furrowed. What did “amy” mean? Suddenly he realized what was causing the dust cloud.

“yes1 we fight na amy! hay wher r u going ??” the noob yelled, because Ephesos had turned and begun to run back towards Spiderweb.

---

Alorael watched the storm in the east. At first he thought it was an ordinary thunderstorm, but it was staying low instead of rising up into the sky. So it had to be something else. What could it be?

Movement caught his eye. A figure in green was hurrying toward Spiderweb along the main street. Ephesos. Alorael climbed out of the nearest window onto the roof. He made his way to the edge of the roof and waited until Ephesos was in shouting range. “What is it, Eph?”

Ephesos paused just long enough to shout back, “Noobs! Hundreds of them, headed this way! It’s some sort of army! We’re about to be attacked!”

---

Slarty had worked through lunch. He had identified a line of data that had been duplicated. The original was from several days ago, but the duplicate was from around the time of the forumquake yesterday. Now that he knew what he was looking for and where to find it, he soon found several more lines that had been duplicated or had suspicious looking timestamps. He had showed them all to Arancaytar after he returned from lunch. Arancaytar immediately attached one of his scripts to the machinery to scan for any viruses or other disturbances. Now the script activated its sirens.

Slarty covered his ears. “Turn it off!” he howled.

Arancaytar ran into the machine room. A moment later, the piercing wail stopped. Slarty stepped halfway into the machine room. “What did it find?”

Arancaytar read the script’s printout of results. Then he read them again. His mind was numb. His heart was racing. No. Impossible. Not here. Not now. How could… this was… oh no. No no no no. He couldn’t even think it, let alone say it, but Slarty was watching him, he needed to warn everyone, to get it out. He swallowed hard. His mouth was dry. How could it happen here? How could this happen at Spiderweb? “We’ve… we’ve been hacked.”

Chapter 4: Volunteers

Chapter 4: Volunteers Dikiyoba Wed, 07/18/2012 - 17:18
Ten minutes later, all the moderators of Spiderweb Software Message Boards were closeted in the Moderator Board: Slarty, Arancaytar, Lilith, Alorael, Ephesos, Randomizer, Tyranicus, Student of Trinity, Dikiyoba.

Randomizer was a short, stocky servile. In the pursuit of raw magical power, he had joined a cult that believed self-abuse and deprivation would bring out one’s true magical potential. The resulting scars gave him a fearsome appearance, but he was actually friendly and helpful, if a bit dull. He preferred fighting with spells, but he was also a decent swordsman and wore a short sword at his side.

Tyranicus was a large human armed with a claymore and javelins. He wore only leather boots, a kilt, and a thick layer of woad on his face and chest. He kept his long hair neatly plaited. Although he was a skilled fighter, he was incredibly unlucky. Enemies were drawn to him and bizarre accidents happened with alarming frequency. Were it not for Spiderweb’s Regeneration Entrance, he would have died a long time ago. Currently he was fidgety. Arancaytar had turned off the machine and completely disconnected it to prevent further hacking attempts. Tyranicus found the absence of the machine’s hum distracting.

Student of Trinity was a middle-aged human with gray hair and a short pepper-and-salt beard. He wore a lab coat over a suit of leather armor. He projected wisdom, common sense, and logic. He was self-assured to the point of arrogance, but it made him unflappable in emergencies. He didn’t like fighting much, preferring to solve problems through debate or technology, but he was decent with a sling and a short sword.

Dikiyoba was a dikiyora with the odd habit of speaking in third person. Dikiyoras were a very rare race that resembled fyoras but were intelligent, slightly larger, and had green scales instead of orange or red. Dikiyoba always wore a yellow baseball cap and a small backpack for potions and other supplies. Dikiyoba had once been Spiderweb’s alchemist but eventually retired because moderator duties took up so much time.

Arancaytar and Ephesos had explained everything they knew. Now a stunned silence filled the conference room. Randomizer finally broke the silence. “What do we do now?”

“I think the first thing we need to do is to get Stareye,” Student of Trinity said.

There was a moment of silence as everyone pondered the implications of this. Stareye was the administrator of Spiderweb Software Message Board, but years of dealing with Spiderweb’s drama had left him prematurely aged. He preferred to leave minor tasks to the moderators now and spent most of his time locked away in his room. He only emerged when a situation became serious enough to require his abilities, and to prevent frivolous complaints he filled his rooms with traps.

“I agree. We should get him right away. Does anyone disagree?” Slarty asked.

No one said anything.

Slarty continued, “Then we need two volunteers to go get him.”

The moderators stared at each other for a split second. Then seven of them said, all at once, “Not me!” Dikiyoba finished three syllables behind and Tyranicus said, “What? Wait, no! We have to do it again, I wasn’t ready!”

“You know the rules, you two were last, so you volunteered,” Randomizer said.

Dikiyoba and Tyranicus stood up to go. Tyranicus muttered something under his breath. Dikiyoba said, “Aw, Dikiyoba always has to volunteer.”

Interlude #2

Interlude #2 Dikiyoba Wed, 07/18/2012 - 17:14
A young human, only in his preteens or early teens, knocks on the front door of Spiderweb Software Message Board. The door automatically opens. The human—whose name is Trenton—takes his first steps into the hallowed forums. Trenton is in the middle of a growth spurt, and currently extremely gangly and uncoordinated. Even the simplest tasks seem to send his limbs flailing in at least sixteen directions. He wears modern day clothes: jeans, sneakers, T-shirt, and a jacket.

A short hallway connects the entryway to the main hall. A sign sits in the middle of the hallway, so large and obvious that he has to maneuver around it in order to proceed. It says Please leave your sanity here and has an arrow pointing to the coatroom. Trenton is confused but heads to the coatroom.

The coatroom is large but strangely bare. No coats, cloaks, or hats hang from the wall hooks. Trenton doesn’t know that thievery is rampant at Spiderweb, but since he takes off his jacket and hangs it on the nearest hook, he will soon find out. A jar of extra-long Q-tips and a box of small plastic bags sit on a shelf next to a chute in the wall. Trenton grimaces. What a weird place! Still, he’s heard good things about Spiderweb, so he inserts a Q-tip into his ear and pulls out strands of long, shimmering sanity, as thin and strong as spider silk. He half-expects the process to hurt, but it only tickles. He stuffs the sanity into a bag and repeats the process with his other ear. Then he zips the bag shut and drops it into the chute. The bag is light enough that it lands without a sound somewhere below him.

At the end of the hallway is a strange stone arch. It and its support columns are skillfully made, but their installation was amateur. A chunk of the ceiling drywall had to be removed to make room for the top of the arch, and the mortar attaching the support columns to the wall is already cracking. Trenton stops to stare at the runes carved and painted into the arch. He can’t understand them, but they don’t look dangerous, so he passes beneath arch. As he does so, he experiences a strange sensation, as if being hit by a cool, refreshing breeze and a warm, comforting draft at the same time. He looks around carefully. Nope. No air vents nearby. It was probably magic, then. Trenton checks himself over, but as this is a Regeneration Entrance and he is not injured, dead, fatigued, nor low on mana, he doesn’t notice anything different. He wonders whether it is some sort of magical search or test. Maybe it is to make sure people actually remove their sanity. Since the runes don’t stop him, he is free to move on.

Trenton continues onward into the main hall. It’s lunchtime, so there is no one around to meet him. He wanders around the main hall, staring at everything. The architecture is well-made but not decorative. Perhaps in an attempt to make up for this, or perhaps just because Spiderwebbers are creative and like art, the walls are covered in it, ranging from cheap posters of memes and stencils of overused quotations through portraits of famous members and screenshots of Spiderweb Software games to gorgeous photographs and amazing drawings. There are numerous doors off the main hall, but Trenton is attracted to the door that says “Dining Hall.” He can hear people laughing and talking from behind it, so he cracks open the door and peers inside. Sure enough, there are plenty of people in the dining hall.

A servile in filthy brown robes spots him. “Hey everyone, it looks like we have another newbie! Did you leave your sanity at the door?”

Trenton nods nervously from behind the door.

“Well, come on in. Welcome to Spiderweb Software Message Board.” The servile stands up, and Trenton can see that he is short even by servile standards. His hands, arms, and face are covered in scars. He takes a step towards Trenton, and Trenton hears the armor underneath his robe clank. “I’m Randomizer. What’s your name?”

Trenton looks around. Everyone is watching him now. Some seem enthusiastic or curious, others disinterested and merely going through the motions, and a few downright scornful. Trenton hesitates, and then throws the door open. Who cares what those weirdos think? He belongs at Spiderweb now. “I’m Trenton.”

“Welcome, Trenton.”

“Hey.”

“Oh no, not another newbie.”

“Hello.”

“Sit over here! Sit over here!” A humanoid wearing a massive suit of armor bounces up and down in his chair and waves his hand in the air to get Trenton’s attention. A wraith of some sort hovers at the table too.

Trenton joins the armored figure and wraith. Why not? “Who are you?”

The armored figure flips up his visor to reveal that he is a human about Trenton’s age. He has an angular face with an overlarge nose and thick eyebrows. “I’m MMXPERT. I’m pretty new here too.”

“I’m Nightwatcher.” The wraith holds out a hand just substantial enough for Trenton to shake it. Most wraiths are arrogant or sullen with a tendency to dress in black and lurk in the shadows, but Nightwatcher is cheery and easily excited. He wears a red robe over his wispy frame. A few tendrils of mist floated up from beneath his collar.

“Oh. Okay. Do you like it here?”

“Oh yeah. It’s the best,” MMXPERT says.

Someone else approaches Trenton. She is a human in her late teens or early twenties and has skin translucent enough that Trenton can see all of the blood vessels in her hands and arms and neck and face. She wears leather armor, cowboy boots, and a vest covered in embroidered patches and pin buttons. The patches and buttons all feature rainbows or brightly colored ponies. She clutches something thin and rectangular in her hands, but Trenton can’t tell what it is. Several pieces of straw are stuck in her hair. “Hi. I’m Sylae.”

Trenton stares at Sylae’s skin in horror. “Are you an Avernite?”

Sylae laughs nervously. “No. I just spend far too much time at Calamity Refuge.”

“What’s Calamity Refuge?”

“It’s my message board. You must have seen it coming in.”

Trenton tries to remember. “Maybe…”

“But I don’t want to talk about that. I just want to know whether you’ve ever heard of My Little Pony.”

MMXPERT says, “Bah, who cares about your stupid ponies?”

“Yeah. We’ll give you the tour, it’s way better than ponies,” Nightwatcher says.

“The tour?”

“Yeah, of General, so you know all the cool places to hang out.”

Sylae snorts. “You two don’t know the first thing about being cool.”

“Oh yeah?”

Trenton tunes out their arguing and looks around. The dining hall looks a lot like his school’s cafeteria, except cleaner and without the hideous floor tiles. Instead, the floor is just dull, gray linoleum. The long tables and chairs are made out of some sort of soft, spongy wood—or at least it looks a lot like wood—with a layer of hardwood covering the base of the legs, the seats, and the tabletops. He ducks under the table to get a better look at the spongy wood. It feels like cork, but it’s much stringier. He sits back up. “What kind of wood is this?”

“It’s a type of cavewood. It’s actually a fungus,” Sylae says.

“You’re asking questions about the place. Does that mean you’re ready to go on the tour?” MMXPERT asks.

The serving table catches Trenton’s eye. He sees that there are a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches left, as well as a pitcher full of fruit punch. “Maybe later. I’m a bit hungry at the moment.”