Chapter 6: No News Is Bad News

In the General Forum, Slartuckers's poll was slowly accruing votes, but the main topic of the conversation was the GIFTR's departure.

"I give it a week before they come back," Actaeon said.

"No, I think they'll last at least two weeks," Thralni said.

"Meh. I bet they'll be back here within three days," Dintiradan said.

"Tomorrow!" said Salmon.

"But what if they don't come back? What will we replace them with?" Nioca asked.

"Pink monkeys with an unusual fondness for walnuts!" Archmage Alex said.

"Ooh! And anthropomorphic fish sticks too!" Shard of Fire said.

"I could invite some demon muffins over to--"

"No!" Tyranicus cut Iffy off.

"Do we even need to replace them? Isn't Spiderweb crazy enough without giant slugs or whatever?" Rakshasi asked.

"We need to find something so that the GIFTS don't move back in," Arancaytar.

"You wouldn't need to be so afraid of spiders if you had someone to protect you. Someone like... me," Nikki said.

"I'm going to ignore that comment."

"Come on, you know you want me."

"Seriously, Nikki, knock it off. You're creeping me out."

"Well, you're--"

"--I'm a mod, and I--"

"--yeah, I know you're a mod. But then, you do have to start somewhere--not everyone can automatically be as cool as me."

"Okay, I've had enough of this. Nicothodes, Nikki just called you cute. Stab him."

"He did? Again?" Nicothodes drew her mechanical pencil.

"Um. Bye." Nikki ran off.

"Get back here! No cookies for you!"

Randomizer sat in a corner, staring intently into the scrying pool. No matter what he attempted to look at or how hard he tried, the pool of water showed him nothing but his reflection.

Zeviz joined him. "What are you looking at? Zephyr?"

Randomizer didn't look up. "I'm trying to, but I'm not having much luck. I guess he's, er, out of range or something."

"Do you want any help?"

"Not really. I mean, if you really wanted to... no."

"Okay then." Zeviz walked away.

"You're not cute! You're not--out of the way!" Nikki narrowly avoided Zeviz and tripped over a chair instead.

Nioca cast a shield spell on Nikki. Nicothodes' pencil bounced off his back harmlessly, and Nioca helped him up.

"I hope you've learned a lesson!" Nicothodes said.

"I sure have," Nikki said sarcastically.

"Good." Nicothodes put her pencil away and walked off.

"You know flirting with Aran like that isn't going to make him like you more, right?" Nioca asked.

"Of course I do! Sheesh, Nioca. What makes you think flirting has anything to do with making the other person like you?" Nikki strode off.

Synergy casually approached Drakefyre. "So, what do you think of maybe letting me learn some spells. Just a few basic ones. Haste, bless, and some mental magic--"

"Don't you already know a bunch of mental magic stuff?" Salmon asked.

"What do you mean?"

"All that debating stuff between you and Stillness; it boggles the mind! Well, my mind, at least."

"Correction, Drakefyre. I'd like to learn haste, bless, some mental magic, and an offensive spell powerful enough to turn a certain someone into cinders."

Ephesos, Lazarus, and Niemand sat at a table, ignoring the chaos surrounding them. Niemand had several pages of notes in front of him, and he scribbled down new ideas constantly. "Maybe if we... no, that won't work. But if we... yes, and then we could... of course, it's probably easier if we..."

"You've lost me again," Lazarus said.

"Well, I'm envisioning a chair for this. People sit in it and the options pop up. That's the easy part. Designing the options and preventing people from abusing it will be the hard parts, I'm afraid. That's what I'm trying to figure out right now."

"That sounds like a good idea," Lazarus said.

"I didn't realize we were making something so... permanent. I thought we were just making something to prevent Zephyr from casting any more spells," Ephesos said.

"Oh. Yeah. I guess I got a little carried away." Niemand pulled out a clean piece of paper and started afresh.

"While you work, I'm going to go speak with TM, okay?" Ephesos stood up.

"Hang on, I'm coming too," Lazarus said.

---

The nondescript man and small bot watched the six prototype bots sort through the supplies.

"I'm pleased with their design. What do you think?" the man asked.

"Hard to say. I haven't seen them fight, or how they respond under pressure, or what weaknesses people will find in them, or--"

"All right, I get it. Unfortunately, we only get one shot at this, so unless we notice something drastically wrong with them in the next few days, we'll just go with what we've got. I tested them pretty extensively already, so with a bit of luck, they should work perfectly."

"But how will you make your army?"

"These bots will get a workshop set up and then build new bots. I'll probably have to watch over them until they get it right, though."

"That's pretty dangerous. A whole army of bots that can easily produce more bots? What if they turn against you?"

"Oh no, just these six bots will be able to build and repair other bots. The rest won't. And I'll have to program the final bits myself."

"Hmm. That sounds much better. But where will you get all your supplies? It must take a lot of metal to make all that armor."

"Don't worry. I have a plan to deal with that, just you wait." The man glanced out the window. "Hey, what's that out there? Dang! A couple of those cockroaches are trying to sneak past us. Bots, kill them and bring their bodies back."

The prototypes stopped sorting, drew their swords, and charged out the door.

"Well, we'll see how they do in unsupervised combat, I guess. They seem aggressive enough, but you might want to teach them something about subtlety," the bot said.

---

Once he thought they were safely away from the abandoned forum, Filth Finder paused to look back. "It seems we managed to sneak by safely."

Grime Grubber watched the door open and the bots jump out. "Or not."

"Oh no. Run! Head for Spiderweb!" Filth Finder scurried as fast as he could.

"Help! Help!" Grime Grubber yelled.

Ephesos and Lazarus heard the high-pitched shout.

"They managed to get in trouble already?" Lazarus asked.

"It doesn't matter. Come on!" Ephesos ran towards the commotion.

The prototypes were closing the distance quickly when the GIFTR and Spiderwebbers met.

"Killer bots! Abandoned forum! Right behind us!" Filth Finder shouted breathlessly.

Lazarus drew twin broadswords. "How many?"

Grime Grubber hid behind Ephesos. "Six. And they're armed. We came back to warn you about them."

"Only six? Well, the four of us can take them down easily," Lazarus said, "At least, I hope so, because they're too close to run from."

The prototype bots were close enough to be seen clearly now. Ephesos cast divine retribution at the first two. The spell ricocheted off their metal breastplates and fizzled out.

"Er, the four of us might be able to defeat all six of them. Do you think they're immune to magical damage?" Lazarus asked.

"No. I think they just have very good armor." Ephesos cast the spell again, this time aiming for a bot's relatively unprotected neck. The bot stumbled and fell.

Lazarus parried a blow from one bot and struck at another. The sword hit armor and bounced off.

Filth Finder whispered to Grime Grubber, "Now, while they're distracted, we run and we don't stop running until we're past the abandoned forum. We're no good at fighting and I am not going to be be killed by those things."

"Dad!" Grime Grubber said loudly.

Lazarus and Ephesos were too busy fighting to hear him.

"Ha!" Lazarus managed to dispatch another bot by stabbing it in the side.

"Shh! We warned them, which is what we came to do. Now we need to go. I'm not going to let one of us be killed by those bots and I'm not going to make Mom and your siblings risk their lives to come look for us. Follow me. Now," Filth Finder said.

"Uh... coming." Grime Grubber crept to the edge of the battle but didn't follow his father down the street.

Three of the bots focused their attention on Lazarus. The fourth one was moving around too much for Ephesos to aim.

"A little help here!" Lazarus said, "Ow!"

"I'm trying!" Ephesos dodged the fourth bot's next attack and cast a healing spell on Lazarus.

Grime Grubber hurled himself at one of the bots harrying Lazarus. It crashed to the ground. "If... if I die here, then... then do whatever it takes to revive me. Please?"

"Um, okay." Lazarus managed to slice off an arm. The bot paused to reclaim its sword and kept fighting. "You've got to be kidding me!"

The fallen bot picked Grime Grubber up and hurled him at Ephesos. They both fell. Grime Grubber scrambled up in time, but Ephesos wasn't as quick. A bot stabbed him through the chest. The crickets crawled out of his pocket. When Ephesos didn't respond to them chirping in his ear or pulling at his hair, they slunk away.

Grime Grubber grabbed a fallen sword and wielded it as best he could. The bots ignored him, though, and concentrated on Lazarus.

"Don't just stand there, run and tell the other Spiderwebbers!" Lazarus killed the one-armed bot.

Grime Grubber started to run off, but one of the bots left off attacking Lazarus to chase after him.

Lazarus fought desperately, but he was getting tired and unable to hold off two bots at once for long. Eventually, one of the swords buried itself in his side. He collapsed. The bots stabbed him again to make sure he was dead.

Grime Grubber was in sight of Spiderweb by the time the bot caught up to him. "Alorael! Alorael! Help me!"

But Alorael was already asleep. The bot kicked out, sending Grime Grubber to the ground.

"No, please don't. Please--ahhhhhh!"

---

Filth Finder was well away from the battle scene before he realized something was amiss. "Keep up, Grime." He looked around. "Grime? Grime Grubber? Where are you? Grime!"