Chapter 12: I Smell A... Thief?

Ecksian had Ephesos laid out in an open space.

"So how does this work, exactly?" EcksianBot hovered over Ecksian's shoulder.

Ecksian rolled up his sleeves. "Just watch. And stay back. You don't want to get in the way of this spell." Black smoke poured from his hands until it completely obscured the body. Ecksian chanted under his breath.

EcksianBot watched wide-eyed as massive sparks crackled off the smoke cloud. After several minutes, Ecksian stopped chanting and dropped his hands. The smoke cloud was pulsing gently.

"Is that it?" EcksianBot asked.

"Rise!" Ecksian said. There was an echoing bang and the smoke lifted.

An oak leaf floated down onto EcksianBot's head. It plucked it off. "Strange. Where did this come from?"

The last of the smoke cleared, revealing a huge pile of leaves where Ephesos had been.

"What!?" Ecksian kicked the pile several times. Leaves flew left and right. "Why didn't it work?"

"Is it possible that something could have interfered with your spell?" EcksianBot asked.

"It's possible, I suppose. Well, let's just try again. That mage is still in good shape, right? Have one of the bots drag him over here."

---

Zephyr Tempest fidgeted in an alleyway. The dozen imps surrounding him were equally restless.

"Where is he? You said he'd be here by now," one of the imps whined.

"Just be patient!" Zephyr Tempest snapped.

One of the imps stepped out into the street. "Hey! I see people coming this way!"

"Is Zeviz with them?"

"Uh... no."

"Then get back here and stay quiet. We are here to deal with Zeviz only."

"No!" The imp tried to run, but only made it a few steps before it came to an unwilling halt. Zephyr Tempest was pointing at it, his eyes glowing icy blue again.

"I summoned you. You... will obey... me."

The imp took a hesitant step back towards the alley.

One of the other imps nudged its nearest companion. "Let's go, while he's distracted. Otherwise we'll be here forever."

The two imps tried to slip away. Zephyr Tempest saw them. "Obey! Me!" The two imps slowed and then stopped.

The difficulty he had controlling them was clearly visible to the other imps. All but one of the remaining imps made a break for it.

"Stop!" Zephyr Tempest yelled. The imps froze in their tracks. Zephyr Tempest slowly sank to his knees as he fought to control them.

The imp that had remained behind now launched itself at Zephyr Tempest. He was concentrating so hard on holding the other imps back that it didn't notice the attack until too late. The imp's fangs sank into his throat.

Suddenly free, the other imps charged heedlessly towards Jewels, Salmon, Marlenny, and Drew.

---

Garbage Gatherer nudged her husband. "It's been dark for several hours and the nymphs are getting anxious. Are we going to travel tonight or not?"

Filth Finder stood up slowly. "All right. I'm ready."

"Mom, Dad, look!" Dreck Disperser pointed to a gigantic blue rat that had stepped into the alleyway.

Garbage Gatherer quickly placed herself between the rat and the rest of her family. "Stay away," she hissed.

---

In the Geneforge Forum, Iffy stared at his summon. The demon muffin stared back, drooling slightly.

"Yes! Yes! I did it! I did it!" Iffy danced about excitedly. He accidentally stepped on the pentagram, scuffing up one of the lines.

The demon muffin lunged at him, narrowly missing his leg.

"Hey! You can't--" Iffy began.

The muffin lunged again, biting down on his arm.

"Let go! Let go! Ow! Ow ow ow!" Iffy drew his dagger with his free hand.

The demon muffin let go of Iffy's arm and clamped down on his hand, dagger and all.

Next, Iffy kicked at the muffin. It released Iffy's mangled hand to snap at his foot.

"Ha!" Iffy dashed off. The muffin pursued more slowly until Iffy tripped on an exposed tree root and fell flat. Then it pounced, mouth agape. Iffy was only halfway up when the demon muffin landed on him. "Ahhhhh--!"

---

Dintiradan and the Lurker were carving runes into the chair when they heard Iffy screaming.

"What should we do?" the Lurker asked.

Dintiradan shrugged. "Do? It's only Iffy."

"I know, but aren't you even a little concerned?"

"Well, I suppose his yelling will attract someone else's attention and they'll come investigate it, which means they might find us, so I suppose so. Let's hide the chair and see what's up."

---

Once again, the smoke cleared. EcksianBot sighed. "Well, the body is still there at least. Did it work this time?"

"Rise!" Ecksian said.

Zeviz slowly stood up. "Brains?"

"None of that!" Ecksian said.

The zombie fell silent.

"Good. Never say 'brains' again. Now, sign this." Ecksian handed Zeviz the completed request form and a pen.

Zeviz looked at the pen in his hand in confusion.

Ecksian sighed and pointed. "Write your name on this line here."

Zeviz still looked confused.

"Your name is Zeviz," EcksianBot said helpfully.

The zombie signed the form and attempted to hand it back to Ecksian.

"No, keep it. Take this form to Ermarian. EcksianBot will show you the way there and give you further directions. I'll be along as soon as I activate a few more bots. Understand?"

"Got it," EcksianBot said.

"Brain?"

Ecksian sighed. "No saying 'brain' again either."

---

Drew was the first to spot the charging imps. "Looks like we've got company."

Marlenny readied her bow. "But where did they come from?"

"Zephyr is probably around here somewhere. Salmon, try to capture one of the imps alive."

"Gotcha." Salmon cast. The line fell short.

Marlenny fired. The arrow struck an imp. Marlenny was about to fire again when she saw another set of figures approaching the imps. "Look!"

"But those aren't imps." Jewels squinted. "Those are... rats?" She whirled her axe, killing two imps.

Salmon finished reeling in. "Hmm. The imps and rats together could make for a tough fight."

A red rat sprinted toward the Spiderwebbers, knocking an imp down as it passed. The rat halted at Marlenny's feet. He held a dagger in his right front paw. "We're on your side; don't shoot at us."

Drew stabbed an imp. Marlenny fired again, but the arrow went wide.

Salmon cast again. The hook buried itself in an imp's wing. The imp screeched and tried to pull it out but Salmon started reeling in. The imp staggered towards the Spiderwebbers as it tried to yank the hook out. Salmon jerked the rod, landing the imp at his feet. "We should have brought Andraste along for this." Salmon kicked the imp in the head, knocking it unconscious.

Jewels hacked at an imp. Marlenny brought down another imp. Drew ran another imp through. The rats dealt with the remaining three.

Drew sheathed his sword. "Well, I guess that's that. What are you doing here?"

Besides the red rat, there were three regular giant rats and a green rat. All of them were armed with rusty and dented weapons.

"We're after a thief," the green rat said, "When we saw you, we decided to help out. I hope that's not a problem."

"Not at all. What's this about a thief?" Drew asked.

"I'll start at the beginning. When we left Spiderweb, we realized there was no future in scrounging for trash in alleyways. So we created our own message board, summoned the rest of us from Untitled Lands, and set to work. Here is our card."

Drew took the card the green rat held out. "You started a company called Bots Aplenty? So, do you make spambots then?"

"Oh no, not at all. I mean, we might have had to make a few when we first set up to survive but we've been completely legit for a long time now, and I'm sure none of any spambots we might have had to make ever reached Spiderweb."

"Where does the thief fit in?" Jewels asked.

"Well, we are well aware of the difficulties in keeping a message board safe and secure. Besides spambots, there are noobs, flamers, hackers, trolls, and other threats. So for the last year we've been designing a bot capable of defending forums from these things. Strong. Smart. Well-armored. And, above all, loyal. We were going to sell them to vulnerable message boards and make lots of money. But a few months ago, just as the first prototype was nearing completion, someone broke in. The plans were stolen, the prototype destroyed, and our best researcher murdered."

"Do you know anything about the person responsible?" Marlenny asked.

"No. We found the thief's workshop just two days ago, but they had already fled. Now we've tracked them to this area. I can only hope no one from Spiderweb was involved."

"Uh... I don't think so. But people have been disappearing lately," Jewels said.

"So you're out looking for them?"

"Yes," said Jewels.

"I suggest we team up. Whoever the thief is, I suspect he or she has already created several of those bots. If so, they could be dangerous," the green rat said.

Jewels shrugged. "Sounds fine to me. What do you guys think?"

"Sure," Marlenny said.

"Fine by me," said Drew.

"Let's see what our little friend has to say first," Salmon said. He nudged the stirring imp.

The imp spat at him and started to rise, but Salmon kicked him back down.

"Where is Zephyr?" Salmon asked.

"None of your business," the imp hissed.

"He's over here," someone yelled from the alley.

The rats and Spiderwebbers entered the alley carefully. Salmon dragged the captured imp along.

The other surviving imp crouched by Zephyr Tempest's body. "Are you looking for him?"

"Well, yes, at the moment. Why is he dead?" Jewels asked.

The imp bared its fangs. "I object to being summoned by crazy mages and forced to do their dirty work."

"But why did Zephyr summon you in the first place?" Jewels asked.

"He wanted us to kill someone called Zeviz."

"Did you?"

"No. Hahaha! I slipped away from Zephyr and warned Zeviz about the ambush. He took a different route."

"When was this?"

"A while back. Now if you'll excuse me, I must be off."

"Off where?" Drew asked.

"To the netherworld, of course." The imp hurled itself at Salmon, knocking him to the ground. The red rat stabbed it. The other imp jumped up. Marlenny shot it.

The green rat shook its head. "Mighty strange creatures."

"So, we know that Zeviz came this way. Then the imp warned him about the ambush and he decided to go a different way. But which route did he take and what happened to him after that?" Jewels said.

One of the giant rats yawned. "I don't mean to be rude, but we've been traveling all day. We need a few hours of rest before we can continue. Besides, tracking is much easier by daylight."

"True. And we also need to contact the others."

"The others?" Marlenny asked.

"Oh, yes. We have another group out looking too. Come, we'll let you stay with us tonight and we'll start searching for Zeviz first thing in the morning."

Jewels looked at the crickets on her shoulder. "What do you think?"

One of the crickets glared at her but two other crickets held it back.

"I'll take that as an okay for us to rest. So, lead on, uh..."

"G'ree't'l," the green rat said.

"Er... was your forum attacked by the thing too or something?" Jewels asked.

"What do you mean?" G'ree't'l asked.

"Your name just seems... unusual," Jewels said carefully.

"Unusual?"

"Oh, never mind. Just show us the way."