Chapter 1: The Quest Begins

Student of Trinity and Nikki stood in the Tech Support Forum, surrounded by open crates and scattered supplies. Student of Trinity wore chitin armor and a leather helmet. His sling, some tools, and a wand of lightning hung from his belt. "Looks like we're running pretty low."

Nikki wore a heavy cloak and carried two pens. "Yeah. I hope the next shipment arrives soon."

"This looks like it will fit." Student of Trinity held a leather jerkin out to Nikki.

"Is this really necessary?"

"It could be dangerous out there and we'll lose a lot of time if we die," Student of Trinity said.

"Well, I'm not going to wear the skin of some poor murdered animal." Nikki grabbed a metal helmet and threw it into his inventory. "You had better not have packed any meat, either."

"Not for you."

"Good. Do we have everything?"

"I think so."

"Then let's go."

Riibu entered the forum invisibly and crept over to them. She took a deep breath and resumed visibility. "I'd, um, just like to wish you both good luck. It's a very brave thing to do, you know. I wish... well, anyway, Nikki, I know you're only going in the hopes that you can find out what happened to Aran, so--"

"--how did you--?"

"--so I really hope you're successful. Er, Nico, um, she, um, asked me to give you this." Riibu held out a mechanical pencil.

Nikki took it reverently. "Wow. It's her favorite one. And she wanted me to have it? I knew she liked me! But... why didn't she give it to me herself?"

"Er, she's, um, busy. Everyone's busy. Speaking of which, I've got to go." Riibu resumed invisibility and fled the forum.

Nikki slipped the mechanical pencil up his sleeve. "Well, are we going to go stab some bots or are we going to stand here all day?"

"We're going to--"

Ephesos entered. "Good. You're still here. Are you two going to be visiting Bots Aplenty, by any chance?"

"If we don't find anything through Google, yeah," Nikki said.

"Okay. Attorukkip requested the Return Life spell, and I completely forgot about it until too late. Would you be willing to deliver it?"

"No problem," Student of Trinity said.

"Diki's still writing up the Balm of Life recipe, so it could be a few more minutes. Sorry."

---

Dikiyoba, Zeviz, and Randomizer sat at a table in the General Forum. Dikiyoba was carefully copying down the Balm of Life recipe from an alchemy book. Zeviz was reading a book on magical barriers. Randomizer watched over his shoulder.

"Do you mind?" Zeviz asked.

"Yes. My neck is beginning to hurt from looking over your shoulder for so long. You want to move over so I can sit down?"

Zeviz slammed the book shut.

"Well, fine. Be that way." Randomizer wandered off.

Ephesos, Student of Trinity, and Nikki sat at the table. Zeviz reopened the book.

"Barriers, huh?" Student of Trinity glanced at it.

"Yes. Drakefyre has something planned, I'm sure."

Ephesos opened his book to the Divine Restoration spell. "He probably has several things planned, at the rate he's ordering people around."

"Dintiradan, you and Lurker get the Deth Ray set up in here. Lazarus, Niemand, what are you doing in here? You know what you need to do."

"Er, right."

"Alorael, have you got a crew put together yet?"

Alorael watched as Lazarus and Niemand set down their weapons and went into the Tech Support Forum. "I'm trying."

Stareye passed a book to Drakefyre. "Give that to Synergy."

"Right. Salmon, take a look at the moat. Make sure the bridge can still be collapsed and there's no debris nearby to help them cross. Synergy, this is for you." Drakefyre tossed Synergy the book.

"Yes! Magery, A Deeper Consciousness, And You: A Beginner's Guide! Thank you, Stareye! Thank you, Drakefyre! This is an amazing, fantastic, terrific opportunity. I assure you I am excited and more than ready for this profound and wondrous knowledge. I won't disappoint you. This momentous responsibility shall--"

"You can learn magic without an acceptance speech, you know," Salmon said.

Zeviz shook his head. "I can't concentrate with all this noise."

"Me neither. Let's go find somewhere quieter," Ephesos said.

"Wait." Dikiyoba handed Ephesos the recipe.

Ephesos pulled out another piece of paper and handed them both to Student of Trinity. "Good luck."

"Yeah. Let's slip out without a lot of commotion, all right?" Nikki said.

Student of Trinity nodded. They both left the board relatively unnoticed in the distraction Synergy had caused.

---

"What a horrible place! Your friend lives here?" PiperBot asked.

"Yes," Ecksian said, "He doesn't really like people."

Trash, rubble, and spam were piled higher than Ecksian's head along the pothole-filled road. All the buildings were abandoned and many had broken windows, missing doors, sagging walls, or collapsed roofs. Here and there were buildings that had completely burned down.

"What started all these fires?" PiperBot asked.

"You'll see soon enough."

Smoke rose from a trash heap a few blocks ahead. "PiperBot, scout ahead," Ecksian said.

"Um, okay." PiperBot flew over, staying close to the trash heaps to avoid being seen.

A creature that PiperBot first mistook for a large dog sniffed and pawed at the smoking trash heap. The charred remains of two more creatures and a spambot were nearby.

Then PiperBot saw that the creature had scales instead of fur and had an enormous head. It looked familiar somehow.

The creature caught sight of PiperBot and growled.

PiperBot, safely out of range, stared at it. That was it. Pyroroamer. Geneforge. Spiderweb.

Spiderweb! Why wasn't he at Spiderweb?!

"It's taking too long. Something's wrong." Ecksian drew his dagger and sprinted down the road. When he got close enough, he threw the dagger. It hit the pyroroamer in the head.

Ecksian threw himself to the ground and shielded his face. The pyroroamer exploded. PiperBot was blasted into the trash heap.

Ecksian got up and approached PiperBot. It tried to fly away but collapsed. One of its arms was lying several feet away. "What have you done to me?!"

Ecksian picked PiperBot up and flipped it off, regardless of the hot metal. "I'd tell you, but you wouldn't remember the answer anyway."

---

Two mung rats approached the Bots Aplenty message board. #11 let them pass without comment. They headed straight for the Moderator Board.

"What do you want?" ***** asked.

"We've discovered how the thief managed to get in and steal the plans!"

"Come in."

The mung rats stepped inside. ***** was sitting at the table, tapping his claws. Fatalclaw, the white rat, and two giant rats were also present.

One of the mung rats stepped forward. "We investigated all our potential customers. It was pretty obvious which one was a fake."

"Oh?"

"Yes. Remember OneFoxyFox from Future Furries of America and his story about the place getting hit by trolls all the time? We couldn't find anyone by that name. In fact, that organization doesn't seem to exist."

"Clever," the white rat said, "It was a plausible story and he knew we wouldn't look too closely at it."

"Indeed," ***** said, "Well, now we know for sure that no rats were involved, since, er, Foxy got a tour of the lab, if I recall correctly."

"He did," the white rat said.

"I wouldn't be too sure," Fatalclaw said.

"We haven't turned up any evidence of that yet. A'p'd'r, R'd'p'a, you're free to go," ***** said.

The two mung rats left.

"You really think one tour was enough to enable Foxy to break in, kill a scientist, steal the plans, and escape with no further help?" Fatalclaw asked.

"Do you have any evidence to suggest otherwise?" ***** asked.

"Well, no."

"I can hardly keep telling everyone that it could have been an inside job without any evidence. They'll start thinking I'm just pulling their tails to make sure I stay in power. Or worse, that I'm losing my ability to administer effectively. Leave me now, I must think."

"Of course," the white rat said.

---

Alorael tapped Thralni on the shoulder. "I'm putting a group together to go shut down websites and make sure everyone in the area is aware of the bots. Are you busy? Would you like to come along?"

"Sure. I'll come," Thralni said.

"DV, you're coming right?"

"Wouldn't miss it." Delicious Vlish rubbed his tentacles together gleefully.

"What about you, Nicothodes? Would you like to help me shut down websites and pass the news along to anyone in the area?"

"I don't know..."

"And, of course, there will be plenty of noobs to drive off," Delicious Vlish said.

"Yeah!" Nicothodes reached into her pocket. Then she searched her other pocket. "Hey! Who took my favorite pencil?!"

"Maybe you dropped it?" Riibu suggested.

Nicothodes searched both pockets frantically. "No, it couldn't have. It's my lucky pencil--it can't just get lost. Besides, I know I had it less than an hour ago."

Schrodinger glared at the Mystic. "Mystic! Tech Support Forum. Now."