Chapter 21: Inevitable

In the Tech Support Forum, everyone had been revived but Arancaytar. Nikki sat with his arms around his knees and sighed. "I guess if Galactic Core doesn't work and Return Life doesn't work that he really is dead, then."

"Yeah," Ephesos said.

"Mom said something like this would happen. Why do moms always have to be right?" Grime Grubber asked.

Drakefyre entered. "No luck?"

"No luck," Ephesos said.

"Then it's time to head to the General Forum. We need to discuss our options. Schrodinger, bring Slartucker and Tyranicus out of the Moderator Board, please," Drakefyre said.

Everyone left but Grime Grubber and the rats.

"What about us?" Attorukkip asked.

"I need to ask you a few questions. Then you can do whatever. Do you know anything about Ecksian? Who is he? What does he want with us? How did he get ahold of the bots in the first place?"

"There's not a lot we can help you with. We didn't even know his name until recently. The theft was a complete surprise. But he knew exactly what he was doing, so either he pretended to be a customer or he had inside help. It's being investigated, of course, but our group has been out trying to track Ecksian down for a while now, so we haven't heard any recent news."

"What do you know about the bots?"

"Not a lot. None of us participated in the designing of them, so we don't know many specifics. But they were designed to be defenders, not aggressors. We certainly didn't intend this."

"Well, we did bring back the bots we dispatched, so we can study them for that. But do they have any weaknesses you know of?"

"Hmm. Well, obviously, finding gaps in their armor helps a lot. I suspect the right magic spells would do a lot more than blades or missiles, as well. Other than that, I'm not sure. They are very obedient, so unfortunately Ecksian isn't going to lose control of them. I'm afraid I don't know," Attorukkip.

"Thanks anyway. Here, since your weapons seem to be missing, you can choose something from our supplies."

"Wow, thanks!" Phil said.

Grime Grubber pulled on Attorukkip's tail lightly. "Can... can I come with you?"

"Of course. We're heading back to Bots Aplenty, but maybe we'll get lucky and find your family along the way."

---

Think halted and pointed out a small, rectangular building with peeling blue paint. "Well, there it is. Bots Aplenty."

A blue rat and a bot stood guard at the entrance.

"Hey, #11. I see we've got some bots built now?"

"Just a few. And MadScientist says we need to keep an eye on them, so I'm still stuck on guard duty. What're these bugs doing here?"

"They're with me."

"I can see that. Why?"

"They helped me and they needed a spot to stay for the day," Think said.

"Fine," #11 said.

Think stepped into the board. "Okay, so this is the Business Forum. The others are the Announcements Forum, the Miscellaneous Forum, and The Laboratory. Below that is a small cemetery. The Laboratory is apparently active again, so you'll have to stay there."

"The cemetery?!" Dreck Disperser asked.

"Don't worry. There aren't any ghosts or anything. I've got to report to *****, but I'll join you right after that. Don't worry, no one will bother you."

"Er, *****?" Filth Finder asked.

"Yeah. That's his name." Think walked into the Announcements Forum and pointed at a door. "This is where I leave you for now." He knocked on the door.

"Come in," ***** growled.

Think stepped inside. ***** was a mung rat who sat tapping his claws against the table. There was also a wererat fletching arrows, a white rat, and two giant rats at the table as well.

"You're back. Where's the rest of your group?"

"We... we were ambushed. There were over two dozen bots. As... as far as I know, I'm the only one left alive."

"No! Deathwhisker?" The wererat stood up so fast she knocked over her chair.

"She's dead for sure. I saw it."

"Excuse me, I need a... a moment." The wererat left.

"Start from the beginning," ***** said.

"Okay. We tracked the thief to the area around Spiderweb. Along the way, we met a group of Spiderwebbers who were investigating some disappearances. We also met a family of giant intelligent friendly talking roaches who reported losing a nymph to the bots. From this, we realized the thief was building bots as quickly as they could in order to attack Spiderweb. Unfortunately, Phil was reckless and led the bots to us. One Spiderwebber escaped to warn Spiderweb. The GIFTR managed to escape too, so I brought them here. That's all."

"What do we do?" the white rat asked.

"The GIFTR will of course be allowed to stay here for a reasonable time. It's only fair. Think, you will be responsible for them. Now go."

"Yes. Of course." Think left.

The wererat returned. "Sorry about that."

"No problem, Lady Fatalclaw. So, what to do? I think that depends. On one hand, if Spiderweb falls it will be partially our fault for letting the thief get ahold of the plans. On the other hand, we are not allied to Spiderweb. We are not required to aid them, not when it would result in more rat deaths and leaving this board more vulnerable to attack. So it depends on how the bots are doing."

"The bots are doing well," the white rat said, "I just spoke to MadScientist a few hours ago. There are no problems so far. But it will take at least a week to get a significant number of them built."

"It also depends how the other group we sent out to investigate are doing. They should be back within the next day or two. So I don't think we can make any final decisions for now," ***** said.

---

Everyone waited in the General Forum.

"What are we waiting for?" Niemand asked.

"Schrodinger, Tyranicus, Slartucker, Drakefyre, Grime, and the rats," Nioca said.

"Ugh. I sure wish they'd hurry up." Marlenny glanced over her shoulder at Nalyd and Azuma.

"...please, please, please teach Nalyd necromancy? He is begging you. Begging!"

"Er, no. No thank you," Azuma tried to walk away.

Emperor Tullegolar stopped him. "Be reasonable, Azuma. Surely you could teach him a bit?"

"Er, no, not really."

"Not even if he begs on his hands and knees?"

Nalyd threw himself to the ground and grabbed the hem of Azuma's robe. "He'll do better than that. Please? It's all he's ever wanted to do."

Azuma pulled free. "If that's the case, why haven't you gone somewhere where you can learn it?"

"Okay, Nalyd lied. He wanted to be at Spiderweb more. But now he can do both! Please? Please?"

"Er..." Azuma looked to Emperor Tullegolar helplessly.

"Not even if he promises to be your most faithful servant? Your undying servant, even?" Emperor Tullegolar asked.

"Done!" Nalyd said.

"Er, okay then," Azuma said.

Emperor Tullegolar smirked.

Nalyd jumped upright. "Teach me! Teach me! Please?"

"Oh, Azuma, would you deal with Jeran? He seems to be getting carried away with his sword again."

"Okay." Azuma started to leave.

Emperor Tullegolar stopped him again. "You have someone to do that for you now, you know."

"Oh, right. Nalyd, would you, um, deal with Jeran?"

"Does he get to learn necromancy after that?"

"Um, sometime after that, yeah," Azuma said.

"Yay!" Nalyd darted off.

Azuma grinned slowly.

Jeran Korak was showing off his sword to everyone nearby. "...and it gives +2 to dexterity. Besides that, it does +10 poison damage and +5 acid damage."

"Impressive," Dryth'tor said.

"Yeah. I haven't seen this much compensation in ages," Nikki said darkly.

"It also gives..."

Nalyd approached Jeran Korak. "Emperor Tullegolar wants you."

"Finally!" Nioca said.

"But I'm not finished!"

"Too bad," Nikki said, "Go!"

Dintiradan and the Lurker watched the scene from the top of the steps to the guard tower.

"Look at that. It makes me sick. Why did ET have to come back?" Dintiradan said.

"What are we going to do about it?" the Lurker asked.

"Do? Nothing at the moment. Jeran is ET's worst enemy at the moment. Nalyd's probably number two. We'll just watch and wait for the right time."

Zeviz found Randomizer. "So I see you've got your magic back then."

"Well, no, not really."

"What do you mean? You're glowing!"

"I know, but I haven't actually figured out what I can do yet. I can't cast spray acid or any other of my old spells."

"Then how did you end up getting your magic back in the first place?"

"Well, I, um..."

Randomizer was interrupted by Delicious Vlish.

"So, how was it, Zeviz? What's it like to be a zombie? Do you have any lingering desire for brains?"

"Not that I know of."

"Hmm. They're delicious, you know."

"Right." Zeviz edged away from Delicious Vlish.

Schrodinger, Slartucker, and Tyranicus entered.

"Who is that?" Shard of Fire pointed to Tyranicus.

"Tyranicus. A spell didn't go off as planned," Slartucker said.

"He looks more Celtic than ever," Alorael said.

"Moo?"

"Which thing meant?" Slartucker translated.

"Well, Celtic warriors are blue, naked, and violent. He's got the first two down. Now all he needs is the violence."

Tyranicus snorted.

"Is not funny!"

Drakefyre, Grime Grubber, and the rats entered. Drakefyre nodded to Stareye.

Stareye stepped onto a chair. "Attention, everyone."

The conversations stopped.

"First, I regret to inform you that Arancaytar seems to be permadead."

"What? No!" Riibu said.

"It's true," Jewels said sadly.

"Next, as you undoubtably know, the Spiderweb Software Message Board is threatened by someone named Ecksian. We don't know exactly who he is or what he has against us. If anyone does know, please come talk to Drakefyre or me. What we do know is that he is building an army of bots. He has some proficiency in necromancy too."

"Don't forget that little bot of his," Lazarus said, "It's dangerous too."

"We've managed to drive Ecksian away temporarily, but it's fairly obvious he will be back."

"So Ecksian is Ed?" Jeran Korak asked.

"You just got here! How do you even know about him?" Drew asked.

"He didn't look anything like Ed. Or sound like him. Or act like him. Or anything like him, really," Jewels said.

"So we need to decide what we are going to do," Stareye said.

"Defend Spiderweb!" Iffy said, "Home of the best computer games ever!"

"Yeah!" Jeran Korak said.

"But there is a very real chance we could lose this war," Student of Trinity said, "Small, maybe, but real. Do we have any other options?"

"Such as?" Stareye asked.

"Well, I don't know. We've moved before. Could we move again?"

Drakefyre shook his head. "I'm afraid that Ecksian will probably follow us. And this is the most defensible place I know of."

"I suppose disbanding for a few months and then getting back together somewhere else probably won't deter him either," Student of Trinity said.

"Ha! Of course not! If I were him, I'd hunt down every last satellite board and Spiderweb-related website," Emperor Tullegolar said.

"And if he has half a brain, he'll make sure we won't be able to find him through Google. Then it would seem we don't have much of a decision to make. It seems we must fight. Or leave," Student of Trinity said, "But..."

"Of course, we cannot force anyone to stay and defend the board. For anyone who wants to leave, you can do so in the next day or two and no one will think any less of you," said Stareye.

"Says who?" Jeran Korak said.

"Shut it," said Lazarus.

"But if you stay, you agree to take orders from Drakefyre or me, or whoever else happens to be in charge. There will be harsh consequences for any misbehavior that endangers the board. However, given the necessity of it, we will temporarily suspend any bannings."

"Yes!" Zephyr Tempest said.

"Temporarily," Drakefyre said, "Are there any questions?"

Synergy raised a hand. "I think now would be a really good time for me to learn a few basic magic spells."

"Any other questions?" Drakefyre asked, "No? Okay, is anyone thinking about leaving?"

"Yes. I'm going to see if I can prevent Ecksian from ever reaching Spiderweb," Student of Trinity said.

"How?" Stareye asked.

"I don't know," Student of Trinity said, "But I'm going to try."

"I'm coming with you," Nikki said.

"I don't mean to be rude, but you're not going to try a repeat of what you did in Ermarian, are you?" Student of Trinity asked.

"No. No more fun and games," Nikki said, "This is serious now."

"Then I'm glad to have you along," Student of Trinity said, "Let's go get supplies."

"What about you?" Jewels asked Grime Grubber.

"I'm going with the rats. I'll probably be back one day, but not right now."

"Oh, I'm sure you will," Jewels said.

Attorukkip joined them. "Ready to go?"

"Yeah."

"Then let's go. Good-bye, Spiderweb!"

"Nice meeting you!"

"Bye, Grime. Again."

"Dikiyoba wishes you good luck."

"See you later, I'm sure."

"Good-bye and good luck!"

"Good luck to you guys, too."

Chrrk!

"Bye!"

"Mooo."

"You have a... sure travel."

"Just leave already!"

"Bye!" Grime Grubber and the rats left.

---

Ecksian put his tools away as the vehicle rolled gently to a stop. "Perfect timing." He turned PiperBot on.

"What? What happened? Where am I?" PiperBot looked around fearfully.

"Hello, PiperBot," Ecksian said.

"PiperBot? Who is that?" PiperBot asked.

"That's your name. You are PiperBot."

"That... doesn't seem right."

"Oh, I was afraid of this. Your memory was damaged. Things will be confusing for a while. But I think your memory will return eventually."

"I... I... how? Who are you?"

"I'm your master. Ecksian."

"You are?"

"Yes."

"But... who is that?" PiperBot pointed to EcksianBot.

"That's EcksianBot. A newer model. Still needs a lot of work. But don't worry. You won't be replaced. I've got a very important job for you."

"You do? What?"

"You'll see." Ecksian opened the door and stepped out.

"Where are we?" PiperBot asked.

"At Google. We're going to visit an old friend of mine."

"And are all these bots yours?"

"Yes. I invented them to serve as guards and workers. You helped a lot. But a group of giant rats attacked our workshop to try and steal the plans to make an army of them. We were hopelessly outnumbered and barely escaped. You were injured in the attack. Does that make sense to you?"

"Yes. No? Um..."

"Don't worry, I'll fill in the details as we go. Let's go, bots."

---

To be continued...