Chapter 2: A Much Interrupted Party

In the General Forum, Nikki oversaw the set-up of his surprise party. Nikki was human, tall and lightly-built, with the pale skin of someone who lived most their life at night and slept through the day, or of someone who had just spent a lengthy vacation in Avernum. He wore lightweight leather armor and a bowler. He was armed with a hunting bow and a pouch of mechanical pencils and pens. He could be moody and scornful, but he could also be incredibly charming—which helped explain why he had so many people willing to help with decorations despite his standing in the middle of the main hall shouting constant advice.

“Dintiradan, we need more champagne glasses. Slarty, fill those balloons more. I want them to stay airborne, not deflate halfway through the night. Sylae, what are you—don’t you dare hang up that poster! Hey! Hey! No ponies at this party! I want robots or ninja turtles or something awesome like that. Aran, that streamer is uneven. You should redo it. Hey! What did I tell you about that poster? Take it down, take it down. Thank you. Does anyone know where Actaeon and Rowen have got to? They’re supposed to be bringing in tables.”

Meanwhile, the kitchen was fast becoming desserted. Seven people were making at least nine cakes and one pie with only four ovens. Spilled batter and frosting covered the counters while dirty bowls and utensils filled the sinks. The only person who didn’t seem to be flustered or frustrated was Lilith, currently adding the final ingredients to a rum cake batter. She was human, tall with short blonde hair. She looked fairly young but somehow felt much older. Perhaps the sense of age she gave off was due to the fact that she had been at Spiderweb Software Message Board since its very beginning and so had lived through a host of events and traditions that hardly anyone else remembered, but no one knew for sure. Occasionally the rumor mill decided she wasn’t actually human but a demon or rogue AI in disguise. Still, it was awfully hard to imagine anything like a demon or rogue AI drinking a bottle of rum and then licking off the spatula.

Lilith put the cake pan in the oven and then went to the liquor cabinet to grab another bottle of rum for the frosting. To her surprise, the liquor cabinet was almost completely cleaned out. “That’s odd.”

“What’s odd?” Excalibur asked. He was also human, but this was hard to tell because of the suit of plate armor he wore at all times. Only when his visor was raised could others see the human face underneath, adult but still young enough to be marred by acne. An enchanted sword was strapped across his back. He was an excellent fighter, direct and courageous, but not always the wisest.

“Eh, not important right now. I’ll look into it later.”

---

Several hours later, Nikki’s party was in full swing. Streamers and balloons hung from the walls and rafters of the main hall. A stereo played songs by Radiohead and The Beatles. Nikki leaned against a pillar. People came by occasionally to congratulate him. He thanked them politely, but he seemed disaffected by something. Most of the Spiderwebbers were crowded around a refreshments table filled with cakes (and one pie). A few people were eating, but most were simply comparing the cakes to decide which one was the best.

“Mine is the biggest.”

“Dikiyoba’s is decorated with a dinosaur. You can’t get any better than dinosaurs.”

“Bah, forget dinosaurs. You should have decorated it with Rainbow Dash.”

“Mine is the most original. And the most mathematical.”

“That’s a pie. That doesn’t count.”

Arancaytar, one of the moderators, coughed. He had heavy-lidded eyes and unruly hair that never laid flat no matter how he combed it. He wore red wizard robes because he thought of himself as a technological wizard. He wore a tool belt bursting with screwdrivers, pocket manuals, fuses, wiring, spare cable, alternate connectors, and everything else needed to repair, debug, and re-code electrical devices. He also wore a bandolier that held additional gadgets and a large wrench for reprograming attacking people or monsters into unconsciousness. “Let’s not get carried away here. We’ve already had the spam tossing competition and the food fight isn’t scheduled until the very end. Let’s see what what’s scheduled to happen next.”

Lilith raised an eyebrow. “You have a schedule written out?”

Arancaytar didn’t look up from the schedule as he replied, “Sadly, yes. Nikki gave it to me. He was very insistent. Oh, yes. Nikki’s speech.”

Nikki turned off the stereo. “Yay, Aran, you remembered!” He clambered onto an empty table. “Attention, everyone! First of all, let me thank all of you for attending my celebration. This is a really great community and I enjoy having most of you around.” He paused until the clapping, whooping, and w00ting had died down. “Next, as you should all know, this celebration is because–”

A shout from the table holding the punch bowl and champagne cut Nikki off. Dintiradan, a human dressed entirely in black and with his head hidden by a flat-topped helm, grappled with a small arm protruding from beneath the tablecloth. Dintiradan tugged and the person beneath the tablecloth slid into view. He was a young human, only about twelve or so, with freckles and a black costume cape. The boy’s pants and shirt were now soaked with spilled champagne.

“Hey! Let go of me!” the boy shouted.

“Who are you and how did you get in here?” Dintiradan asked, “Anyone recognize him?”

“Nope.”

“No.”

“Nuh-uh.”

“That’s Mysterious Man,” Lilith said.

“Yowza! Looking good there, Lilith,” Mysterious Man said.

Lilith crossed her arms. “And you’re still twelve, I see.”

“Always.” Mysterious Man nodded.

“That doesn’t explain why you came back and why you were stealing the champagne,” Dintiradan said.

“I wasn’t stealing.” Mysterious Man hiccupped. “You guys sent me a note telling me you had a bunch of alcohol that had to be drunk before it went bad. So I came here to help you with it. See. I have a note!” He pulled a wet note out of his pocket and waved it at Dintiradan.

Lilith took the note and read it. “That’s what it says.”

Arancaytar read the note too. “It looks official, too. But we certainly didn’t send it.”

“Can we deal with this after I give my speech, please?”

“All right, go ahead,” Arancaytar said, still intent on the note.

“Now where was I? Oh yes. This celebration is because I finally made it onto the Top Ten Posters List. It was a long and difficult trial, but I finally managed to outpost Ephesos.”

“How hard can it be to outpost someone who’s been gone for months?” Nioca asked. Despite being human, he was a priest of a nephilim war god. He wore deep plum robes that looked very imposing from a distance, but up close they were patched and covered in cat hair. He had dark brown eyes and his nose was crooked and smashed as though it had been broken at least once in a pre-Internet fist fight. He was a competent healer, but he much preferred using his magic offensively, going so far as to create and participate in various war games to keep his skills honed.

“Shut up, you giant hairball,” Nikki said, “Now, as I was s–”

A giant middle-aged anthropomorphic rabbit with chestnut fur hopped into a clear space. He wore leather armor and a waterproof cloak. He had a hunting bow slung across his back and used a lance as an extra-long walking stick. “Did I hear someone say hare ball? Everyone do the bunny hop! Hop, hop, hop!”

Nikki glared at Nioca and Harehunter. “Will you shut up and let me finish my speech? Thank you. Right, like I was saying, I’ve just outposted Ephesos. That’s 6160 posts, and I couldn’t have made that many posts if this community wasn’t so great. I’ve been here for almost eight years now. I’ve seen people come and go. There have been parties and sleepovers, discussions and debates, successes and failures, triumphs and debacles—yes, I know those two phrases mean the same thing, I said shut up—friendships, romances, dissension, rebellion, even times when Spiderweb was under attack and it looked as though we all might perish. I’ve–oh, what is it now?”

A human in druid robes had just burst into the main hall from the lobby. He breathing heavily and his green robes were covered in mud. “I came as quick as I could. How bad is it?”

“Eph! You’re back!” Nioca said.

“What’s the matter?” Excalibur asked.

“What do you mean, what’s the matter? I got a message saying that the trees in the Blades of Avernum Forum were hit by some sort of blight and that you needed my help in order to save them. Give me a few minutes to recover, and then I’ll see what I can do.” Ephesos sank to the ground, catching his breath and oblivious to everyone’s puzzled looks.

Arancaytar looked to the other mods. “But we didn’t send a message. Did we?”

The other mods shook their heads or shrugged.

“Not to mention that the trees are fine. I was just down in the BoA Forum earlier today,” Dintiradan said.

“But… but then who sent me this message and why?” Ephesos pulled out a folded note similar to the one Mysterious Man had. Arancaytar took it and scanned over it. “It looks like one of ours all right. How is this possible? Do you think any other oldbies got one of these messages?”

“If they did, I’m sure they’ll all come barging in as soon as I start talking again.” Nikki crossed his arms and scowled.

Arancaytar crossed the main hall and offered Ephesos a hand up. “Sorry, Nikki.” In a whisper he added, “Don’t worry, we’ll figure this out and give you a real welcome once Nikki is done talking.”

“–laughed, I’ve cried–”

“I don’t know if I should stay. I’ve got a lot to do elsewhere.”

“Oh, come on. Stay for a few days. We miss having you around.” Arancaytar saw Ephesos’ hesitation. “Stay the night at least. It’s getting late, and we do have lots of cake at the moment.”

“–been insulted, but most of all I’ve–”

“Ooh, cake. Do any of them have chocolate frosting?”

“I think a few do.”

“Well, I guess I can stay a little while, then.”

Nikki picked up on their whispering and stopped speaking. He kicked over a chair at his table in frustration. “Seriously, you two? I was almost done, and now you’ve made me go and lose my place. What’s next? Will Tyranicus suddenly decide to die?”

“Hey! I haven’t died in eight months!”

“Will some newb come rushing in demanding to know which game to play next and ending all his sentences with the word ‘LOL’? Will–” The lights flickered. “–the electricity decide to go out?”

Every light in the main hall suddenly went dark.

“You had to ask, didn’t you?” Lilith said.

Arancaytar dug out a flashlight. Its beam highlighted the annoyed, puzzled, resigned, and amused faces of various Spiderwebbers as he scanned the room for anything odd. “It’s probably just a blown fuse. I’ll take care of–does everyone else feel that?”

“Forumquake!” Excalibur shouted.

“Everyone, take cover and stay calm,” Lilith said, taking her own advice.

There were a few cries as people went to hide under heavy tables or doorways, bumping into chairs, pillars, and other people as they did so. The floor shook violently. Several champagne glasses slid off the edge of their tables and shattered. Streamers parted from the rafters, floating down to come to rest across tables and the floor like discarded snake skins. Arancaytar’s flashlight rolled across the floor. It finally rolled square into a pillar, where it stayed for the rest of the forumquake, its beam illuminating an empty patch of floor. As the shaking died down, the lights flickered back on. People crawled out from underneath tables.

“Hey Nikki, I don’t think UBB liked your speech,” Lilith said.

“No, we probably just overloaded the server temporarily. Sorry, Nikki, but we’ll have to cancel the rest of your party,” Arancaytar said, “It’s getting late anyway, so why don’t we all head to bed? There are plenty of guest rooms for those of you who usually sleep elsewhere. The mods will take a look at things in the morning. Hopefully everything will be easy to fix and we can finish the party in the morning.”

---

The young troll and two noobs were still waiting outside of Spiderweb Software Message Boards. They watched the forumquake and saw a small crack appear in the garden, just in front of the moat. The troll sent his companions down to check out the crack. Ten minutes later, they were back. They reported that the crack opened up into a tunnel that led to the Exile Trilogy Forum. The troll grinned. He pulled out his cell phone and sent a text to his commander: way n is clr