Chapter 1: Spiderweb Software Message Board

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.