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[ARCHIVE] The Way of Moderation

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Posted Jan 1, '12 at 9:07am

Strop

Strop

10,823 posts

Moderator

Call to Arms

Even through the driving rain and oppressive grey that seemingly obscured anything and everything, Strop's ears pricked. "Did I just hear my name?"

This was met with general sounds of apathy and non-commitment. "I dunno, my hearing isn't that good." "You can't possibly hear that through all the rain." "Maybe you ought to see a psychiatrist."

Strop gave Devoidless a dirty glare in return for that last jibe. "Look, just keep flying, we gotta get to the Main Street and set up a perimeter."

"Is that even going to work?" Ever the skeptic (for good reason, it seemed), Dank clung to his security hammer. "There's, what, seven of us and what, a million of them? And even if the courts are the main entry point, Ubertuna's gone so his 'magic-shield-we-never-really-tested-but-probably-didn't-work-anyway' is definitely not there anymore, meaning if they find their way through the forests... or worse yet, those giant mutant trolls..."

"Okay, shut up now," Strop rubbed his head. "If we just had a little time, we could figure something out, right?"

The sound of rain was the only reply.

"I know I heard my name," Strop said to himself, folding his arms. Just then, his ears pricked again. "And there it was again. Except louder this time, and HEY WHAT THE!?"

Devoidless' passengers were almost thrown off as the dragon suddenly banked and dropped, and not a moment too soon. Just where they had been earlier, several missiles and cannonballs streaked through the air, and exploded somewhere in the distance. Below them, the street was full of people. Wet, slipping over each other in a squalid tangle, smashing everything in their path indiscriminately. And behind them, a writhing mass pushing relentlessly forward, until it engulfed the people in front like a wave, no, a tsunami of stampede. And that was when the mods realised that this was already the Main Street, and time was not on their side.

Instinctively, Devoidless let forth a mighty fireball that engulfed the front of the wave of rioters, causing some of them to panic and curl up, but they were merely buried under another wave of scrambling rioters. Dragonmistress yanked back on his top horns, yelling "It's no use in this much rain!"

"This isn't a good place!" Strop shouted as the rising tide of people threatened to swallow them, "Voidy, get us up and back to the castle stat!"

Devoidless hissed, itching against his better judgement to get stuck into the rioters, "Here's as good as anywhere else!"

"It's different! They're running from something, and at this rate they'll be at the castle in just over minute!"

Gnashing his teeth, Devoidless blasted off again, and as they rose, Strop peered towards the gates, muttering to himself. "What could they be running from though..." but being a horse, he couldn't see. Asherlee, with her soldier's eyes, however, could. "Are those fishmen? Huh. Bet they'd be handy in these conditions."

Strop froze, and inside, the penny finally dropped. "MANTAAAAAAAAAAAA!?!?!?!?"

---

From the other end of Main Street, Manta heard the voice reply to him, and his heart immediately pumped harder, stirring his blood up. "Hear that men?" he called. "That's the sound of a certain ninja pony in need of help! We'll meet them in the middle and crush the lot, and then it's glory and fame for all of us!"

It sounded like such a great idea, that nobody could think of any other way to respond. "TO ARMS!" the cry went, and with a great roar, they all shook their bones and took off in pursuit of the rioters.

http://i438.photobucket.com/albums/qq105/strawpony/Way%20Of%20Moderation/11-4-1.png

---

"Uh, I think the fishmen are coming this way too," Asherlee stated, looking back over her shoulder.

"Ugh, and this is why we wanted to users to stay put," Strop facepalmed. "We- we, uh..." for some reason he couldn't finish the sentence.

"We were doing fine by ourselves?" Moe finished it for him, and for a little twist, added "How ironic that the one thing that might save us now is the same thing that exacerbated our situation."

"I'd say you were joking, Moe, but I know you better than that. In which case, you must have gone crazy."

"Maybe that's why the tournament hasn't gone over so well for you."

Strop was about to reply, but then decided against it. Defeated, he looked the other way. "Devoidless, could you put us down at the courts?"

"You mean this crater that used to be the courts? Right here. Now everybody off." With that, everybody tumbled off, landing in the giant, shallow crater. Now that the rock had been cooled off, it had ossified, morphing into a strange trabecular honeycomb that made stepping on it a hazard. Strop prodded it with his hoof, and found it as sturdy as it was hazardous to run across.

"That'll slow them down a bit, at least. Now, if we could set up some kind of defence..."

"Uhm," the others asked him. "What kind of defence are you talking about?"

They all looked around them. They had no equipment, no supplies, and the bricks that lay scattered about were only useful for throwing. All they had was themselves, their banhammers, their flagging powers, and one minute before the end of the world descended upon them.

Strop glanced down at the unobtrusive pouch tucked away into his ninja suit, and considered. "Well, guys, I think this really might be our last stand."

"Oi!"

The mods whirled around.

"You didn't think we'd let you go down by yourselves, would you?"

http://i438.photobucket.com/albums/qq105/strawpony/Way%20Of%20Moderation/11-5-1.png

Emerging from the curtain of rain was a young man with an odd bald patch on his head, a rifle casually slung over his shoulder. With his head bowed, his face was but a shadow, until a bolt of lightning arced across the sky overhead, ending with a thunderous crash. In a single, illuminating moment, Strop realised who it was and why he didn't recognise him.

"Thoad! Where's your helmet? And what are you doing here?"

"We're defending our city. And saving your sorry *****." Thoad smirked. The lightning struck once more, and behind him, in front of the walls of Armor Castle, complete with barbed wire, caltrops, mounted sniper posts... it was a veritable defence wall, and even as the moderators looked at it, heads popped over the edge, cheering and waving banners and the flag of Armor Games. Amongst them, Strop could see several familiar figures, including the ever forgetful KingRyan, and the ever reticent Crimson.

Strop was rendered almost speechless. "But... how?"

---

People Power- a flashback

"Wha?" Thoad said, surprised that somebody (other than Rose) was actually addressing him. He could have sworn that he recognised the wolfskin, but something wasn't quite right. "Nemo? No wait, last I remember, Nemo didn't have boobs. Speaking of which, nic-"
"That doesn't matter," Nill said, cutting him off. "What matters is that I know you. You're one of those final eight guys from that Way of Moderation tournament, right?"
"Semi-finalists," Thoad specified. "I made it to the last four-"
"Yeah whatever," Nill said, again cutting in. "I remember you also have a big mouth."
Thoad bristled, unfamiliar with speaking to somebody even more blatantly offensive than he tried to be sometimes: "Hey, what are you saying? It's not like Leon, Crimson or Frank-"
"Which is why I need that big mouth of yours."
"Huh?" Thoad could have sworn that missing part of his scalp also deprived him of part of his brainpower, until things clicked. "Oh! Right. You won't find a bigger mouth than mine!" he proudly proclaimed.
Ten seconds later, several familiar users had gathered, including the few veterans who had hung around from the days of old, and some of the other notable candidates from the tournament.
"What's the noise about?" Chill asked, nonchalantly sipping his coffee and watching the crowd gradually grow around them.
"What noise?" Kingryan croaked, "I didn't hear anything."
"If you didn't hear anything, then how come you came over so quickly?" Chill interrogated Kingryan, but the old man had already fallen asleep on his feet again.
"Right," Nill said. "I have stuff to do. You have fun, okay?"
Thoad whirled around, "What, aren't you going to stick around and help out? Weren't you a moderator before?"
Nill shrugged. "I'm not one now, and frankly, I'm more useful elsewhere." She turned and started threading her way through the gathering throng. "Leadership, problem solving, courage, charisma. A moderator needs these things, but these things aren't reserved to moderators alone. You've always been waiting for a chance to prove yourself, so why not now? Realise the meaning of people power, instead of entrusting your fate against your will to some ditzy ninja pony."
"It did seem like he had a plan," Chill offered, still remembering that strange favour said pony had asked of him.
"But not one for us," Thoad muttered, Nill's words sinking in.
"Well, I trust you'll take the matters into your own hands, then, instead of waiting for your demise," were Nill's final words before she vanished into the flow of the congregation.

---

Thoad stood in a courtyard of unorganized loons. His fists were clenched, his arms were flexed, and in his mind was only the thoughts of the darkening horizon. He could only think of the approaching doom of the raiders. The fires within the city that raged fueled his growing anger, until it became something he couldn't bear. With gusto, he stomped onto the cobblestone floor under him. He yelled into the air, "LISTEN UP, I'M THE ONLY ONE HERE WITH AN ACTUAL PLAN!" he screamed, releasing a portion of his rage into the air.

    It took a good ten minutes of our sweet, precious time to calm down and gather around. Thoad found a box- it looked like it was filled with junk someone looted- and stood on it. Thoad, be it his imagination or real life, heard someone yell "My box of soap!" Thoad sighed, and let his aching, shoddily-pieced-together head hang. He inhaled deeply and brought his head up.

    "Are we really going to let someone like this win?" Thoad called into the crowd. People stood bewildered, as if they were promised a plan and instead got a braveheart moment. "We've been losing to a bunch of green kids who don't know how the hell to beat Electric Box? We're losing to guys who couldn't write a good review if their lives depended on it?"

    A random AG user called out, "We're losing to ourselves?"

    Thoad didn't regard him, "We're losing to the scum of the internet? /b/ is better than these guys!"

    A different AG user yelled, "And /b/ sucks!"

    Thoad remained serious, "Even though I cannot voice my opinion about /b/ without thinking that they're going to sick lulzsec on me, we will not allow ourselves to be slaughtered and herded like chickens- which is to say, to no avial- by such complete pieces of unmitigated crap. Are we going to stand for this in our very homes?!"

    No one was getting into it yet. Thoad pointed to a boy in the audience who didn't seem to enthralled, "You! Would you allow your obnoxious 8 year old cousin to go into your room, take a dump on your pillow, and then let him kick you in the shins?"

    Another user interjected, "His shins!"

    To which Thoad quickly corrected himself, "kick you in your shins?"
   
    The user in question jumped in newfound excitement, "Hell no!" he screamed.

    Thoad threw his arms in the air, "You're going to let these people do this to us?" He did a 180 on his box full of soap, and pointed to one of the few female users, who was hiding as a male (Read: dressed in drag) "Are you going to let this happen?" Thoad pointed at users everywhere in the crowd around him, "Are you? Are you going to let the worst people that anyone's ever known take a dump on your beloved pillow, the one that granny spent hours knitting just for you?!"
   
    The crowd threw their arms in the air and cheered, "Hell no!" they all screamed.

    "God as our witness, we're not going to let these horrid atrocities go un-noticed!" Thoad yelled out.

    A user from the world politics/religion forum yelled back, "God doesn't exist!" Several other users were quick to correct him, and a small argument took place amidst a debate.

    "Unimportant! What does matter is that it is here," Thoad stomped on his box, "Amidst the cobbles of the greatest icon we could ever have, that we will not take this sitting down! We will not allow these new***s to break out borders, and we will not rely on our protectors. We are the men and women of armorgames, and we will fight!"

    The crowd began to cheer, and were full ready to do whatever necesarry to defend their beloved AG. Even the anti-religious and religious nuts had agreed to set their theistic beliefs aside in order to defend their precious icon of fortitude. "Here's the plan!" Thoad roared, "It's got a total of 4 steps to it! First step, I need a big trench around our draw-bridge. That'll trap some of the little ones. I need a team of 10 to work on sharpening sticks, becuase we're going to be putting those at the bottom of that trench!"

    Someone asked in the crowd, "Won't that kill them?"

    Thoad remarked, "We have no mods, who's going to stop us from properly defending what we so rightly own? This is our house, they're going to learn why they shoudln't intrude in our house." The crowd cheered some more.

    "Step one and a half! Who here has caltrops?" A few users ninja-trainee users stepped up and raised bags high above their heads before disappearing back into the crowd, "And forum gamers, who has d4s?" A few users stepped forth with large bags of d4s- like true ninjas. Thoad laughed heartily, "Good! I'll be pitching in a bag as well. I want these caltrops lining the area to the drawbridge. Now then, Crimson has left us-"

    Users became shocked, as a collective gasp surged through the bulk of the crowd. Thoad was quick to set their fears to rest, "He hasn't abandoned us, he's out to go get somethign to help with the second part of my plan. He's getting a spell to make a large wall sprout from the ground. In the mean-time I need you folks to ready bows, find battlestations, and raise a zipline pole. To jury rig a zipline you just need to use some of the ropes around here and have a nice sturdy but smooth cloth to zip down in. I need the zipline to end here, in this courtyard."

    The users remained silent, and were excited to hear more instructions, "I also need a team of people to gather throwable objects from the castle. Don't break anything that looks important or take anything in glass. Just because it's shiny doesn't mean its good to throw. I need things like scrap pieces of wood we couldn't use for spikes and rubble or cobbles that are falling out," Thoad took a breather, and allowed people to understand what he was talking about, "Come to think of it, save some of the wooden spikes for the base of the wall too, that'll stop some of the raiders from charging it."

    Thoad stepped down from his box full of soap, which was then pulled into the crowd to its rightful owner, "Folks will be up in the towers throwing the junk down on the raiders, what won't kill them will knock them out, while brave fighters on the ground will lure the raiders into accessible positions. When the situation is compromised and you are all tired, we're going to escape here..." Thoad walked to the far side of the courtyard, in a side-man-hole seen in the renaiisance era of Roma. "This leads to a sewer system that probably has a large conduit. I'm going to be setting traps down there while all of you are doing your jobs. You'll find riddles to get past the traps I'll be setting. The conduit inside will allow escape if necesarry, but the remaining fighters would be able to easily knock the new***s into the sewer water. Got it?"

    Thoad waited for no answer before running off into the castle to gather trap-making supplies. The boy searched frantically for threads or thin wire, fishing wire, hell, even a cheese wire would be okay. He looked for springs, sprockets, spare parts, tiling, anything that coudl coneivably be made into a proper trap. After gathering enough materials for a good six traps, he was ready to go. The crowd remained cheering, and by forum, they split up. Through their own accord, the people of the forums gathered into groups and each set upon a task set by the questionable zombie survivalist.

    His first trap was fairly simple. Using a block of charcoal "borrowed" from the shiny large chimminey in the main hall, Thoad scrawled an easy riddle on the side of the rock, "The English Seven Sins shall lead you to the river of styx." Thoad then de-cobbled the french-styled sewers. In each 8th spot where a cobble would be, he took did not place a rod meant to trigger a pressure plate. To the left, he dug and placed a mechanical spring large enough to push the cobblestone blocks held by more mechanical rods. A flag at the top left of the set of cobbles would show where to start. Turns out, the armorgames workshop held a lot of nice puzzle solving materials.

    Each cobble was roughly the size of a foot, so it was greatly conveinent that Thoad was able to set this trap up. Each 8th cobble would be the safe way of passage. Any new*** who hadn't read the riddle would be pushed into the waters or blocked by the spring, and would have to rip off the trap.

    "Alright, next!" Thoad got up from his shoddily made work, and continued through the sewers. Every so often, there would be a stream of light on the small walkways. The smell was as pungent as Thoad's gratuitous sweat. Running from half-trolls and struggling to not kill those who deserved it was oddly hard. The men and women (Read: Men pretending to be women) rioting in the streets paid no attention to the boy running from the fires. The ex-ZSC member, caked with fire of trolls and actual fire, encountered a mugger. He held a bandana with an armorgames logo tagged on.

    Needless to say, the recently hardened boy was in no mood for dealing with people. He appeased the man by giving him the few bits of valuables he had on him, namely his helmet with gold ZSC letters on it. Soon after, the survivalist took his belongings back with a hearty choking. The boy hadn't done it all too often, but he was fairly sure that he wouldn't die.

    Thoad set out to make more traps, each one more elaborate and seemingly insane than the last. Surely the only person who would be able to understand the lecherous clues to get past would be a qutie smart fellow or someone who knew Thoad incredibly well. There were a total of six traps- one painfully easy, the rest painfully difficult.

---

Tower Defence

"That's incredible," Strop said, shaking his head slowly. "If I had known, no, I should have known."

"There there," Moe verbally patted him on the back. "Now that you know, we can all move on."

Thoad guided the moderator squad through the labyrinth of traps, emerging from the moat onto the yard not fifty yards from the castle, at the base of the wall, complete with a makeshift trench surrounded by obstacles and caltrops and other spiky objects of doom. As hastily constructed as it was, the wall couldn't have been more than ten meters high. But, standing right at the bottom, such that it actually obscured the view of all but the highest tower of the castle, it seemed almost substantial. A rope ladder tumbled down, and they clambered up, to be greeted with raucous cheers and backslaps from the volunteers clad in makeshift armor from helmets to saucepans and trash cans. As surreal and illogical as the whole mess was, everybody allowed themselves the indulgence of basking in the warmth of the moment.

But as moments went, this moment wasn't to last very long. From this vantage point, it was plain to see that the rioting mob was recovering from the chaos of Manta's dash and their sudden encounter with the treacherous crater, and were picking their way towards the first of Thoad's traps. Strop motioned to Thoad. "Quickly now, what do you have going here?"

"The traps are set to go, Crimson's manning the siege defences, seeing as he was the one who made the wall. Chill's next to him, on buffs and enchantments, that'll slow the new***s up a bit. And then we have a thousand battle ready AGers ready to defend this castle to the death!"

Strop nodded in approval. "That's good. That's really good. Now, what's-" He stopped suddenly as an old man stumbled into him and groped his muzzle. "Hm, that feels like a certain bogan horse-"

"Let's not start that now, Kingbogan," Strop chided the amnesiac archivist. "And what are you doing with that sword?"

Kingryan swung it around feebly, almost knocking his crown off in the process. "I'm here to fight off those young whippersnappers..."

"No you're not, not in this way, you aren't," Strop steered him away from the wall's edge, where he was more than a little worried the veteran might topple over the edge. But with a sudden burst of strength, Kingryan shook him off.

"How dare you treat me like that, you're but a young whippersnapper yourself!" he rasped. "First you won't let me participate in the tournament despite my efforts, now you won't let me defend my own city!? They burnt down my library. My library, the archives that I kept since Beta! Now, all I have is this sword. And... these books, that people turn into when I hit them with the sword... but this is my own body, I'm my own person, and you should at least grant me that right in this time to do with it as my convictions compel me to!"

Standing before the old man, Strop actually took a step backwards. He saw a fire in his eyes he hadn't seen in any citizen since the fires started consuming the city, including his own. But if anybody would know best in this time, it wasn't him, no, it was the veterans who had been around since the very beginning. He put a hand on the old king's shoulder, partially to steady him, partially to appease him.

"It's not that," he said. "I told you we needed your archival skills, now I ask you to lend us the power of your quill."

"Well now that you put it like that," KingRyan grunted, "What would you have me do?"

"Ever heard of a command console?"

"A what?"

"A command console. Your quill would be perfect for setting one up and you could update it with all the info from the upcoming battles."

"What battles?"

Evidently the fires weren't particularly sustainable, Strop thought to himself. "Look, gimme a moment," he said, turning aside so quickly he didn't notice KingRyan promptly falling asleep on his feet, in time to see the other moderators getting mobbed by the volunteers on one side, and Manta and his fishmen charging (completely oblivious) towards the traps attempting to ambush the raiders trying to cross the crater. But first things first, "Guys guys guys, give them some room... and take a breather."

"What, now?" Asherlee asked him. "This day isn't close to over."

"No it isn't, but nothing's going to be any good if we all pass out from exhaustion, right?"

Zophia, Asherlee, DM and Dank looked at each other and shrugged before they nodded, a little tension easing out of all their shoulders. This left one dragon and one brain-in-a-jar, and the dragon was busy smoking a cigarette, or more accurately alternating between attempting to light a cigarette (and failing) and coughing his lungs out. As quietly as he could, Strop addressed Moe, who was quietly propped on the wall.

"Look, I know the whole taking on everything myself is a problem, but you need to take five too."

"It's okay," Moe said. "I've had problems too."

Strop crouched until he was at the level of the jar. "Regardless of your state, you're the most powerful of all of us. We've all known that from the beginning. But I think what you need is just a little extra time to rein in everything that's going on."

"It's different, but it's starting to make more sense now." Moe confirmed. "Five minutes. I'll work something out."

"Alright, good man, er... brain." Strop awkwardly corrected himself, before rising. "Devoidless!"

"I'm still good to go," Devoidless grunted, blowing fire on his soggy cigarette one last time before thoughtlessly crushing the butt against the helmet of a passing volunteer.

"That's good, because I need to borrow your wings again," Strop said, clambering aboard without waiting for permission. "Guys if you're ready, the other users could use some platoon leaders." He didn't really need to say anything, for the other mods had already peeled off and had started dividing the volunteer army up. Strop nodded to himself, then kicked the dragon's flanks.

"Right 'voidy, we're gonna net us some fish."

---

Fish net

"Chaaaaaaaar- oh what the f-"

Manta, in his youthful enthusiasm (a phrase often attributed to Strop but Manta was probably Strop's junior by quite a margin), hadn't appreciated where he was going or the consequences of his blind charge, so intent was he on leading his men against what he could see of the enemy that he didn't realise he was running straight into tricky terrain until his foot got caught in the vulcanised rubble, as did everybody else's. Then it was suddenly a matter of gingerly extricating their feet from the ground before swinging wildly at their similarly trapped opponents. It was a squalid affair: with everybody almost rooted to the spot, trying to grab each other but slipping and sliding off in the pouring rain, it almost looked a bit like an ice hockey match.

"I can't even use half my power, men, this won't do!" Manta yelled into the din.

"You're telling us! What do we do now?" one of his fellow tribesmen yelled back at him while gouging the nostrils of some hapless troll. Manta thought about this a moment, took a swing at the nearest target, then thought some more.

"I don't know! Men, we chaaaaaar-"

A bandaged fist clocked him upside the head, sending him reeling, then teetering back and forth as his feet lodged in the ground again, planting him firmly down. "Hey, what was that for!"

"You idiot, Manta, we wanted to keep the raiders away from the castle, not chase them to our doorstep."

"Strop? Strop!" Manta slicked back his sopping wet hair. "Aw come on man, I'm happy to see you too! And here I was thinking you'd thank me for whoopin' these guys, but no, you gotta ruin the moment!"

"Hey," Strop backpedalled, "I am glad to see you and your, uh, fishman friends here, but I'd be more glad if you hadn't sent an entire stampede towards the castle, if you know what I mean."

"Oh hey, sure, the castle probably can't stand up to much right now, I get it." Manta was quick to realise and quicker to speak. Strop doffed him on the head again.

"Could you like not broadcast that to the entire world while you're at it? Look, I need you to divert as many of these rioters from the crater and down the side streets. Taunt, melee, make noise, do what you do best, okay? Buy us some time, coz when it comes down to it, you're the one who's gonna be on the frontlines at the moat."

Manta nodded enthusiastically. "Got it."

"One other thing," Strop held up a hand, "I've sent for Chill, he'll temporarily provide you with some ranged backup. Kingryan will relay your route to you, you'll see instructions when they come. There's a wall on the other side of this crater, don't try to cross the ruins of the courts, Thoad's set up traps there. Crimson's built a wall at the moat, the rendezvous point is there. Try to stay fresh up to that point, and good luck. I'll see you at the wall."

With that, Strop tip-toed along the craggy ground, before jumping up onto the remains of a brick wall. The rain seemed to stop for a moment, then a great wind swept over everybody as a big black silhouette swooped low, snatched Strop up, and rose into the sky again.

Manta summoned his leader voice. "RIGHT MEN, LETS FALL BACK!"

Five Minutes

With the addition of a few veterans and leader figures, the wall was looking slightly more organised. It was still a crowded chaos, but there was some method to the madness. Now everybody seemed to have some kind of weapon in their hand, and positions were filled strategically. Under the sound of the pounding rain, a quiet undercurrent of uneasiness ran, and everybody hunkered down, like Rebel troopers on a Corellian frigate.

Strop landed back on the wall with a tap. "Thanks 'voidy."

"I'm going to run reconnaisance. And shred any airborne hostiles."

"Sounds good, I'm going to put Kingryan on a tactical vantage point in one of the castle guard towers. If you could relay extra info to him that would be good."

"Roger that." In a rare display of camaraderie, the two bumped fists, awkwardly. Devoidless turned and crouched, ready to spring into the air, but was stopped.

"A question, 'voidy."

"I'm all ears, ponyboy."

"...will you be doing any more burninating today?"

There was a long pause. "I don't think so."

"I thought as much," Strop nodded. "Still, it goes without saying. Engage at will."

"I would have done as much anyway," Devoidless grinned sardonically, before taking off. Strop jumped up onto a makeshift wall tower, scanning for familiar faces. Having spotted the unmistakeable figure of the larger-than-most Spartan, he jumped down and found a small conference.

"Oh hi Strop," Thoad grinned, obviously enjoying the new dynamic. "We were just inventorising and delegating."

Strop cast his eyes around, and realised there was one notable (but unsurprising) absence. "Has anybody seen Leon?"

Thoad scowled visibly. "No, he hasn't been around since all this started. What good would he be?"

Strop shrugged the question away and changed the topic. "Nevermind then. I'm going to send KR up to the North guard tower. Dank, you've got the skills, so do you think you could set him up, then replicate his setup here, and set up a remote interface between the two locations?"

Dank made a show of looking reluctant, but his words suggested otherwise: "Seeing as desperate times call for desperate measures, I'll do it."

At Thoad's raised eyebrow, Strop explained. "How'd you like a virtual interface that shows you everything that goes on in this battle, so you can send commands to any unit?"

Thoad brightened visibly. "Command any unit? Hell yeah!"

"Good," Strop said shortly. "You can do it then, coz I suck at RTS."

Then he turned and started sifting through the crowd, calling for Kingryan.

---

Meanwhile at the other end of the wall, a crisis was unfolding. Several users were running around with their hands in the air, their heads in their hands, and various other variations of distress and despair.

"What's going on?" Zophia asked.

"We've just discovered we have precisely enough munitions to defend against about five minutes of sustained assault." Crimson explained dourly. "That is to say, once my scrolls run out, which they probably will, the wall won't last much longer."

"Hm," Zophia chewed her lower lip. "That's not good."

"No," Crimson agreed. "It really isn't."

They stood around, watching the users panic for a few seconds. Then Zophia remembered she was holding the 'fone. She raised it to her lips.

"ATTENSHUN EVERYBODY!!!"

As expected, practically everybody was now staring at her, a familiar sight whenever she used the 'fone. "Well, uh, we're about to embark on the most critical battle yet, to defend the castle." There were some cheers, but they did little to ease the tension. "Thing is, we might, uh, be running short on munitions." A definitive ripple of consternation spread through the ranks at this, but Zophia hushed them all. "What we need are some brave volunteers to travel to the Wilderness to collect two items, gems and arrows. Some volunteers? Any volunteers...?"

Alas, nobody stepped forward. Rather, they all stepped aside, one by one, the crowd parting like the Red Sea, until a lone figure stood isolated in between all of them. Belatedly, it realised its position, but by this point it was too late.

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"Well what do we have here," a familiar ninja horse, attracted by the noise, strode onto the scene.

"A volunteer for the munitions run!" Zophia chirped. Strop looked the figure up and down, a lean, young man dressed so unobtrusively in faded clothes and cape it looked as if he was trying to blend in, slouched, head slightly bowed, and now shifting a little uncomfortably since Strop was almost literally breathing on him. In reflex, he tightened his grip on his satchel and bow. Finally Strop nodded approvingly.

"Fancy that, a runner and an archer! You look just the man for the job... er... what was your name again?"

"Maverick, sir, and it's an honour to meet you." Maverick stammered, still slouched.

"Believe me, the honour isn't in the meeting, it's in serving alongside your fellow AGers!" Strop riposted. "And you've done us all a great honour, volunteering for this mission!"

"Well, I didn't really vol-"

"What we need!" Strop obliviously continued, "Is time. Time is of the essence, here, so really, what we need, are Arrows of Time! Being an archer I know you'd know where to get those, yes?"

Slowly, it dawned on Maverick that volunteer or not, he was going on this mission, and he could not fail. "Yes. Yes I do." he declared, drawing himself to his full height. It was at this point that Strop realised that Maverick was actually taller than he was, which was slightly awkward.

"Well, right. Good, er, man," Strop said, slapping him on the back. "In that case, go now, and God speed, Maverick, God speed."

Maverick needed no further reiterations. With newfound admiration, along with the hopes and expectations of a city on his shoulders, he set off for the wilderness, and soon slipped behind the curtains of the rain.

Strop watched Zophia go back to attempting to mix her paints while preventing them from running in the downpour. Even now, he couldn't tell whether things were coming together, or falling apart. One way or another, by the end of the day, it probably wouldn't matter.

---

The Way of Moderation: I Dream of Leon

A crystal drop of water feel from the sky. A perfect sphere of clarity, the liquid fell as though frozen in time. Leon watched as it joined a murky puddle below. He watched it ripple and fall silent. For a moment, he felt the infinite blackness below him. Glassy-eyed fishermen and tentacled horrors flitted below him. But from that darkness Edward had risen. There was a silvery flash as Leon drew his blade with cutting speed. He thrust his blade up through the dark wetness as though to pierce the heavens themselves. The gnoll stood, wrapped in gleaming armor, shining sword penetrating the downpour of gray and black.
Leon's ears flattened as he heard the deafening sound of metal on metal. He held his sword half-heartedly aloft, tail tucking between his legs as the earth itself heaved below him. There was an awful crunching of concrete as the street exploded. A geyser of sewer water spurted from the heaving earth as a massive metal thing raised itself from the dark. It pulled itself up, supported on three spindly legs. Caked dirt and concrete fell from its electrum plating as it turned its unblinking eye away from Leon. Its pupil dilated, mighty blue iris vanishing as an enormous red beam carved a line of steam through the thick gray sheets of rain. It struck a building, instantly resulting in its fiery destruction. Iris returning to normal, the tripod thing rolled its bloodshot eye back to Leon. The gnoll, of course, bravely turned his back and ran. He courageously spent a breath whistling for his hyena companion, as though it would need instruction to flee. The tripod leaned the bulk of its body forward and hopped. Its base began to spin, allowing it to land on its next spindly leg, which too hopped forward. So it propelled itself, hopping one leg at a time, leaning forward and twirling its yellow-gold legs. It fired beams of fiery death, keeping pace with Leon as it wantonly obliterated buildings and turned sidewalks into smoking craters. Thanks to the tripod's hilariously inefficient mode of transit, Leon had time to steal a glace at the growing conflagration behind him. Just another day in the life.
Leon tried to dodge down the occasional alley, but the tripod jovially smashed through the flaming wreckage of whatever building Leon had used to cover his escape. Between the heat ray and the thick rain, building after building was reduced to little more than a pile of steaming logs. Leon, out of breath in his heavy armor, had long since slowed to a gentle jog. The thing, he concluded, was incapable of sight while attempting to fire, making it ideal for frenzied pursuit but unsuited for actually achieving anything. Leon smiled at their unlikely kinship. The tripod apparently felt no such brotherhood, as it sent Leon running with another steaming ray.
Chill watched the clouds of black smoke with a growing sense of dread. The blaze was approaching the castle. They had faced many a flamer, but no single enemy comparable to whatever was causing the blaze. Whatever it was, it was a being of utter chaos. If not powerful, it possessed enough bad attitude and moxie to produce a similar effect. Besides, something capable of such destruction was surely " at that moment, Leon and Marley burst from an alley, taking in huge breaths with every stride.
"Figures." Chill sighed.
"Leon!" Manta yelled, bounding towards the armored gnoll. "What do you think you're doing? And how!?"
"Running!" Leon shouted. "What, you think I did that!? I can't set a fire on a rainy day!" Leon stopped to pant. "A desert village on the other hand..."
"Then what in the name of Queen Carlie caused that blaze?" one of Manta's fishmen asked. Leon laughed.
"Oh man, you guys should see this thing. It's so freaking stupid! It hops around with its big giant eyeball--" Leon stretched out the skin under his eye to emphasize the point " "But it can't hit the broad side of a ****** Nazi." Leon cackled as the ragtag band looked up at him. "Oh, it's quite proficient at obliterating everything in its path though. You might want to watch out for that. Toodles!" Leon resumed his mad dash towards anywhere else, cape weighed down by rain, as the yellow tripod burst through the same burning alley from which Leon had emerged.
Its gaze instantly shifted to a new target as Leon streaked off towards safety. For once in its existence, it fired a dead on accurate shot, directly at Chill. Without hope, the boy threw up a wall of ice. To his surprise, the beam reflected off the shining ice, bouncing towards Leon. The ray of fiery karma failed again, however: Leon's cape billowed out of the way just in time. The beam reflected again off his shining armor. The proximity to the beam instantly dried Leon's cape, but the gnoll himself, while wrapped in steel, was as wet as ever.
The beam bounced from the ice sheet, to Leon, then back to the tripod thing itself. Leon winced at the boom. He watched the rainbow of colors dancing across the sidewalk and stared in awe at his elongated shadow, the only sliver of darkness in an otherwise phantasmagorical display. The actual explosion was surely more glorious, but Leon turned around only in time to see the smoking remains of the tripod fall to pieces.
"I'm taking credit for that." he announced as he walked back to the others, brushing imaginary dust from his armor.
Thoad rounded on Leon, trance broken by the gnoll's arrogance.
"Credit for almost getting us all killed? Or credit for burning down half the city?" Thoad demanded.
"Well, if I hadn't bravely run to intercept the beam, that thing would still be standing. But can I take credit for burning the city? I didn't know that was an option."
"That's bull, man!" Thoad asserted.
"Metal Bullman!" Leon corrected, whipping out his sword once again. Thoad made a start for his shotgun, but Leon thrust it harmlessly up through the rain again. "I grabbed the bull by the horns on this one! I-"
"You talk tough, but you're no hero." a fishman interjected.
“Pfft, shows what you know about being a hero. I've run away from more monsters than a fishstick like you has ever seen!” Leon eyed the fishman up and down. He didn't look like the type, but Leon couldn't be too careful. Fishman warriors, in his experience, came in two varieties and this one wasn't carrying sharkbones.
“Run away? Ha, you're just a coward.” the fishman replied, incredulous.
“Look,” Leon said frankly “I'm not necessarily that I blocked that laser on purpose. I'm just saying that my immense capacity for bull**** extends beyond the verbal realm, and you guys should credit me for that.”
“I can't believe this guy!” Thoad exploded. “You talk about all the great adventures you have, but the only thing you've ever done to HELP any of us involved trying to leave us to die!”
“Nonsense!” Leon declared. “I helped Crimson beat the stuffing out of you!”
“That's another thing! As soon as we actually get to a fight, you make your partner do all the work! You're only even in this tournament because of Crimson, and YOU were the one who didn't get hurt! You didn't even DO anything!”
“That's not true! I maimed a fourteen year old boy.” Leon pouted.
“No, your pet did that. And by the way, I looked it up, and hyenas aren't dogs.” Leon's ear twitched.
“I'm sorry, do you have a pet hyena? Did you grow up around hyenas? Were you raised by hyena men? Are you the freakin' Metal Hyena Man? No? Then I think I know a bit more about what is and isn't a dog, than you do, Thoadsy.” Leon growled.
“This, this right here, is exactly what I'm talking!” Thoad shouted.
“You know,” Leon mused “if I didn't know any better, I'd say you were a wee bit bitter.”
Thoad opened his mouth to reply, but his words were washed away by a boom. The wave of sound flooded the ears of the ragtag group, broken only by the sound of steal slicing the air.
“Alright everyone.” Leon barked “time's a-wastin'. Battle stations.” As Leon marshaled the forces, a horde of koalas poured through a newly-created gap in a building. Each wore a gray uniform, complete save for boots. Some sported red armbands adorned with swastikas. Most were armed with carbine rifles. A few held grisly knives or vintage submachine guns. The one closest to the group turned its smoldering red eyes towards them and opened its terrible beak, letting loose a blood-curdling screech.
Leon wasted no time.
“Nazi beaked koalas. I've seen this before.” he stated. “Thoad, I want you to man the traps. You can hold them off in the trenches. Crimson, hang back with Thoad. You're pulling double duty to reinforce defenses and protect Thoad. Chill...” Leon paused in consideration. “Just rework the tapestry of creation according to your whim. Manta, you're with me. We'll lead the fishman squads. Keep the koalas apart. Tight-knit groups will attract fire.” Leon stood, wrapped in steel, blade in hand. The koalas surged forward like a tsunami of white supremacy.
“We're outgunned and outmanned. How are we going to defend the castle?” A nagging voice asked. Leon's steely eyes were fixed on the wave of koalas. Leon raised his sword.
“We pray for heaven and fight like hell!”

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---

Monday Bloody Monday

Mav ignored the blood dripping into his left eye as he scanned the mist around his hide out. Tucked between the roots of a fallen tree, he gripped and ugripped his re curve bow in an attempt to get the blood flowing in his hands again. He crouched, motionless, and flicked his eyes through the shadows once more. It seemed clear, so he broke and sprinted for the next piece of cover.

As soon as he moved, a piercing banshee-shriek ripped through the air like a ragged knife through a cotton sheet. Mav pushed himself further, ignoring the sharp pain in his side as his lungs sucked in air. The cry sounded again, this time much closer. The pounding of his feet against the soft loam of the forest was soon joined by the deeper, harder sound of his pursuer's own feet.

As he ran through the mist, his goal finally came into sight. His house peaked out of the mist, and made itself clear to him. It was a rather run down affair, with a single sturdy door and a small window emerging from the hillside it was built into. Judging by the closeness of his attacker's footsteps, Mav made the quick decision to leap through the window, rather than risk being killed as he attempted to unlock the door.

With a final burst of speed, Mav ran the last bit and leaped at the window.

"Holy shi-"

The moment turned surreal, and Mav saw from the corner of his eye the mottled green flesh and dark eyes of his opponent burst from the left, and leap to intercept him in his momentary flight.

Time realized it's mistake, and sped things back up to normal. With a meaty slap, the beast rammed its shoulder into the midsection of Mav. His breath left him in a forcible 'WHOOOOSH!'. The arrows already embedded into the beast's throat and chest stuck into Mav's gut, and then snapped off from the pressure. With a thud, Mav fell to the the ground and was pressed into it a further six inches as the brute  rolled off him and gallumped off a few feat.

Rib creaking in protest, Mav turned over and inhaled in an attempt to cease the spinning motion of his world. He sat up and drew an arrow on his bow, which was slightly splintered but otherwise none the worse for wear. He pulled back the string, and wheeled the deadly tip around to face the beast. It turned, and reared up onto it's hind legs, and screamed again. With his ear-drums thrumming, Mav got his first good look at the monster.

It was big. Very big. Bigger than big. Enormous. As if in direct compliment to its size, the beast wore a wicked grin plastered onto its face, as if to say 'I'm badder than you, and I know it. Ready to die?'. Its black eyes held a half insane glint, no doubt bought about by the numerous 'NG' brands on its hide and the broken chain still attached to the collar at its neck. Its green flesh was stretched taunt over its frame, and its rib cage was clearly visible. Short, black spines poked out at intervals from it's spine, and the remains of four heavy iron arrows were embedded in the soft area above the collar bone and below the throat. Overall, a very ferocious beast indeed.

At the conclusion of the cry, the beast fell back to its fore-legs, and charged. Firing quickly, Mav shot off another arrow, and it joined its friends inside the beast throat. It flinched slightly, and continued closing in the distance.

100 yards... 75 yards... 50 yards...

Aiming carefully, Mav fired again, and the arrow sped through the air. It struck its mark in the beast's shoulder, and the beast collapsed with a roar. It rolled once, twice, then regained its feet and continued charging.

40 yards... 30 yards... 20 yards...

Mav scrambled backwards until his back was up against the thick oak door to his house. He drew again, and waited.

15 yards... 10 yards... 5 yards...

With a yell, Mav unleashed his third arrow. With a hiss, it flew through the monster's lower jaw, and pinned the tounge down. Blood splattered onto his face to compliment that from the gash above his eye, and Mav tucked down and rolled away from the door.

With a crash, and a showering of mortar from the frame, the beast crashed through the door. Mav ran in behind it, and drew two arrows on his bow. The brute was momentarily stunned in the remains of a bookshelf, and Mav put his boot to the troll's head, and fired point-blank into its spine.

With a shuddering scream, the beast sank further to the floor, and spasms of death wracked the body. Mav ran quickly down into his cellar. Unlike the rest of his house, no brackets for torches were in this room; they had been removed shortly before the invasion so that its contents could be safely housed. Imported from a backstreet dealer from Kong, the barrels contained a coarse black powder which reacted violently when put to flame. Mav had been interested in flight for as long as anyone could remembered, and had been shown an ancient manuscript which showed flight powered by this same power, rather than that powered by man or by a complex system of gears and pulleys.

However, such a moment required the greatest of sacrifices. All four barrels would have to be set on fire, to ensure the death of the troll that had hunted him. Pulling a cord and matches from his satchel, he set one end on fire, and draped the other into the nearest barrel.

Climbing quickly up the ladder into the main room, Mav blew through the ruined room like a whirlwind, and sprinted ouot the door. The troll had managed somehow to crawl out of his house and left a trail of deep crimson blood as it slowly pulled itself back to the city. A milky film had settled over its eyes as death slowly set in, though Mav did not notice this as he sprinted towards the road, Seeing the ditch, he through himself into it and pressed his face into the muddy contents of its bottom. Thankfully he kept his mouth closed, though any prayer of thanks was drowned out by the suddeness of the explosion. The explosion was so bright that it seared through Mav's eyelids, though his face was pressed firmly into the ground.

After a moment of gaining back his sight and hearing, Mav spared a glance over the edge of the ditch and saw that his hill-side home had been entirely blown away by the force of the explosion. A smoking crater was all that remained, and the rain sizzled as it began to fall.

Mav checked his pack to ensure that its contents, so dearly won, were still there. Opening it, he saw that it was still there: The explosive homing arrows were still secure in their bundles, and the fist-sized gems still glowed in their pouch. Mav sighed thankfully, and began the long journey back to the City, or whatever remained.

----------Some Time Later----------

Mav looked ahead, and wiped blood and rain from his eyes. He re-adjusted the straps to his pack and satchel, and crested the final hill. He breathed in deeply, and smoke caught in the back of his throat. With a cough, he reached the top, and looked down into the city and the horrors that awaited there.

---

The Way of Moderation Part Eleven: A Portrait of the Swordsman as a Young Leon

    Leon sent the last marsupial back to hell with a twang! of his longbow. The fishman squads secured various entry points as it fell to the ground, clutching its pouch. The frosty halo around chill subsided as the koala uttered its final heil. Leon's sword ran red, blood seeping into the steel. A little dip in the rain water washed it clean. Leon sheathed it with a grimace.
    "I guess that's the-" he never got to finish his sentence. Predictably enough, the peace ended as suddenly as it began. A roflcopter crashed somewhere behind the wall as horde of bloodthirsty aliens  poured through the alleys toward the rag-tag defenders. Manta was the first to grasp the situation:
    "Leon!" He grabbed the gnoll's shoulder, breaking Leon's trance. "Your squad! Go now! Crimson, you're with me!" Manta, Crimson, and a few fishmen ran towards the frontline. Leon shimmied along the outskirts of the battle almost reluctantly, trying to remember what he had been thinking about. A bolt of fiery energy alerted him to his opponentâ??s ranged weaponry. Leon coolly slid behind a chest-high wall. He glanced up at the fishmen. It was no good: only Crimson could hold off the alien menace, and only for a short time. He and Manta were cowering behind a wall of reflective steel Crimson had conjured while the fishmen tried to flank them. He rifled through his memory for some precedent. Fishmen, he knew, had the greatest monopoly on energy weapons, so it seemed that, with luck, they would be able to devise a strategy against them. Further, he reasoned, both space aliens and fishmen were famed for their psychic powers. Thus a correlation between lasers and psionics. Cause and effect were harder to nail down.
    Leon leaped to his feet, nocking an arrow. The bug-eyed space beasts formed a semi-circle around Crimson's shield. He fired. Every time they met any fishmen with lasers, they ran away. Leon barked an order to Marley, forming a double flank as his arrow struck down an alien. Leon realized he had exchanged a bow for a sword as he charged the disrupted aliens. This wasn't particularly worrying. Marley, and a rank of fishmen, formed a nice meatshield. Nevertheless, Leon maintained an air of contribution, lazily firing arrows into the mob of hostiles. He gesured sharply at Manta, who replied with a nod. Together, the two teams of fishmen easily flanked and pushed back the menacing hordes.
    Their work was not over, however: No matter how many they defeated, they could not seem to stem the tide of trolls. Leon scampered around the outskirts of the battle field, Marley in tow, pestering the aggressors with blade and bow. Occasionally, he shouted key advice to Manta: Demons resist fire, flank armored cavalry, rock beats scissors, ect. A few flamers surrounded Leon, chucking political and religious statements alike, their searing ignorance missing him by inches. He gracefully disarmed the first with his sword, armor protecting him from counter attack. His sword dance chnged from graceful to desperate as the trolls mobbed him. His sword cut shallowly into their armor, steel flashing through the air. He whipped around to see a hulking monster before him, about eleven feet tall, garbed in black armor. Instantly, he struck at it with his quick sword, but each blow glanced off its towering black shield. Try as he might, he could not penetrate its defense. With a swing of its massive steely fist, Leon went flying. His sword slipped from his hands, clattering to the ground some fifteen feet away. Lip curled into a snarl, Leon began to crawl towards it. The black knight delivered a kick, sending Leon rolling the opposite direction.
    He panted, looking around desperately for any weapon, sword far out of reach. Finally, his eyes fell on something: A length of dark wood, dripping with rain and blood, connected to a shining metal ball by a length of chain. A flail. His flail. Teeth bared, he lunged for it, slippery wet wood secure in his steely grip. He jumped to his feet, spinning 180 degrees. He smote the black knight across the helm with his sudden attack. It raised its shield, but Leon's assault was unrelenting, chain allowing the metal ball to strike its foe from any angle. Within moments, Leon dispatched the knight, howling with primal fury. He charged the flank of the bulk of the trolls, flail flying through the air. Leon struck down foe after foe, efficient and merciless as he fought. The flail came from all sides, breaking any defense, all the while held firm in his iron palm.
    As the trolls became aware of Leon's reinvigorated efforts, they devoted more resources to attempting to halt his progress. These he greeted with a howl of bloodlust, drawing his knife with his free hand. Both weapons in hand, he eroded a path through the enemy force. He threw his dagger, catching a small lizard monster in the eye, taking up an Armor Games flag as an improvised polearm.
    Leon soon cut through the flank, meeting up with the defenders. He stood, bloodied, tattered banner at his side, flail in hand.
    "I think" he panted "we should reevaluate our strategy. We can't hold them off for long." Leon let the flag fall, turning buck to the advancing hordes.

 

Posted Jan 1, '12 at 9:09am

Strop

Strop

10,823 posts

Moderator

Watching from above...

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A gentle wind ruffled KingRyan's hair as he stood at the top of the tower. He looked down upon the streets of his beloved ArmorCity and wondered how things could have come to this. Why, it seemed like just last week when he had strolled into the city during the private land sales after receiving an invitation from The Great DanMcNeely himself...surely that wasn't years ago!

Shouts from below woke him from his reverie. He quickly surveyed the placement of the enemy below and made accurate adjustments on the screen he had been given. By now he had managed to control the screen; earlier he was heard to be cursing at the 'newfangled piece of technology.'

While he worked, KR thought about the long scroll he could add to the archives. Ah, KR the archiver. Although...isn't it really archivist? His thoughts trailed off as he noticed larger enemy units arriving in the distance.

'That looks like trouble,' he murmured to himself. They weren't an immediate threat so he quickly sketched in the closer wave of light, ranged units. With a beep the information was sent down to the defensive wall.

Over the next few minutes KingRyan sent details of the next waves of attackers so that the defenders could be more prepared.

After some time he made a side note on one of the transmissions asking for a cup of tea. He was rather disappointed that none came. With a sigh he continued on in his work.

The waves of newf*gs kept on coming; flamers, griefers and trolls in the dozens. His arms began to tired as he moved his frail hand across the screen. Soon the work became monotonous and his mind really began to wander. His arms drooped to his sides as his eyes closed, and he soon let out a loud snore.

'WAKE UP YOU BOGAN!' shouted an automated recording of Strop's voice from the screen as the Sleep-Defence Mechanism picked up his change of heartbeat and breathing. KR jumped in alarm and looked around mumbling something like 'I wasn't sleeping, merely resting my eyes...' His words trailed off as he realised that no one was around. A few things flashed on the screen, so he checked them out and then looked out at the battlefield.

All looked normal - waves of enemies swarming in, pitiful attempts at defense and a lot of mud. At the back he noticed some of the biggest trolls he had ever seen, so he quickly transferred that down to the defenders. In the back of his mind he wished that he could help them out somehow other than this menial task. But the rest of his mind was relieved that he was away from the action.

Something else in KR's mind told him that he should be panicking about the defenders getting overthrown, but something within him was keeping him calm. He then reasoned that it was probably one of the tablets he had taken just before.

More and more giant trolls were starting to appear in the distance, so he once again transferred the data to the defenders. He then saw a single troll break off from the group and start to fly towards him in the tower. In epic style he pulled out his sword and leapt from the top of the tower. Using his robes he glided towards the troll with his sword held high, before bringing it down in a clean sweep. The sharp blade connected with the trolls head, and in a POOF of magic it turned into  thick tome and began to plummet towards the ground. It was then that KR realised that he was also plummeting towards the ground, and he began to panic. The ground got nearer and nearer and-

'WAKE UP YOU BOGAN!' shouted pre-recorded Strop once more. KR jumped again and drew a sharp breath as he looked around. Glancing down at the battlefield, it seemed like the amount of trolls and other enemies had increased dramatically. KR rushed the enter the data in as more and more waves streamed in - now it seemed that the medication was wearing off; his heart pounded in his ears.

There was an explosion from down at the defensive wall, but KR did not even want to look there, and he didn't really have the time.

An intercom buzz rang from the screen (it was a crude buzzing; unlike in the lands of Facebook Skype had yet to be integrated) when KR answered it some part of Devoidless filled the screen as the dragon tried to fit himself into the range of the webcam; without being too far away. Eventually he settled for one of his nostrils. The sound of fighting could be heard in the background.

'Err KR, just letting you know that the giant mutant trolls have made a comeback and are probably going to attack the castle, you may want to ah- ah- ACHOO!'

The screen went black in response to the incineration of the webcam, and then disappeared behind the normal battlefield interface. KR sent the information from Voidy to the defenders before scanning the battlefield himself.

Everything had gotten a lot worse and the constant stream of internet scum could now not be differentiated - it was just a mass of moving bodies. KR thumped the screen and then cradled his face in his hands, it seemed like things were going to get a lot, lot worse.

---

Black Wall Down

Down below, the swarm continued to innundate the defenders down below, each fighter completely surrounded. It was the leftovers, who now numbered more than those fighting, who were throwing everything they had at the wall, be it fists, stones, or even the more explosive kind of projectiles. The traps had long been sprung, and the caltrops, while they served their purpose in slowing everybody down, had been trampled down and sidelined.

In the din of the brutal assault the wall had been sustaining, the subtle warning signs were not apparent. But soon, the spider cracks and the chips of mortar flying off became giant fault lines and massive chunks. Atop, the very floor started to lurch this way and that as the integrity of the wall progressively failed. The defenders were literally thrown into panic, some of them finding the nearest rope or ladder and shimmying down as fast as they could. But as traffic jams formed at the escape points, others simply resorted to jumping off.

"No!" Thoad yelled, commandering the 'fone. "This is our time of greatest need! Maintain a tight formation!"

It was not to be. Even Crimson and Zophia, each leading the disorganised remnants of their divisions, almost bowled him over in their haste to exit the now definitely unstable wall.

"I'm out of paint!" Zophia explained, as she jumped onto the nearest guy rope, holding her brush over her head as she slid down.

"The plan was to fall back!" Crimson cautioned, before he, too, vanished over the wall with a swirl of his cape.

Up above, the sounds of the battle mixed together into one neverending jumble of ear-grating noise, lain over with the static of the persistent showers. Trying to focus on the data, Kingryan pored over the figures on his virtual screen. A whole lot of red dots and numbers were cropping up, and he struggled to make sense of them, not least because he was red-green colourblind. Dank, however, was not.

"This is very bad," he stated sufficiently. "Very bad." This was punctuated by Thoad's tinny, panicked voice buzzing through Dank's (magical) uplink. "Kingryan! I need reinforcements!"

Kingryan threw his hands up. "What do I tell everyone! There ARE no reinforcements! And when everybody retreats to the castle, we won't have anything left to fight them off anyway, and the castle isn't invincible and it'll fall, and-"

Dank cut him off before he asphyxiated from the length of the run-on sentence. He then opened his mouth to say "We need a new plan," but was cut off in turn by a poof of black smoke, which coalesced into the form of a ninja horse.

"We need a new plan," said Strop.

"A fine time for you to say that!" Dank said. "But what?"

"Well," Strop poked his fingers together. "I was thinking that wall isn't gonna hold up much longer, and when it falls, the castle is next."

"We were just saying that!" Dank could barely contain his exasperation.

"But the bigger problem is, well, literally bigger. It's... well, those."

Through the haze of the pouring rain, the looming silhouettes of the approaching mutant giant trolls were growing by the minute. And it was becoming more and more obvious that each of them was at least the size of the castle, and then some.

"By the stubbly beard of McNeely," Dank cursed. "We knew about those too! No amount of wall or tower defense will stop those things!"

As if to make things worse, a huge X appeared on Kingryan's virtual map. The three of them peered over the battlements just in time to see the wall collapse into a million useless fragments of stone, and formerly brave (but now completely disheartened) defenders of AG scattering in every direction away from the circle of raiders, which basically meant towards the castle, but, of course, the castle gates were locked and therefore nobody could really go anywhere.

"Oh, great," Dank muttered. "Not only are we screwed big time, but all the small fry are gonna die too."

Strop grabbed Dank by the shoulder plates. "Don't be so negative! I mean, we're in a bad situation, but it's ... it's still not constructive!"

Dank threw Strop's hands off his stubby frame, "What do you want me to do? Magically save AG?"

"Yes!" Strop shouted. "Yes, well, if you could! That would be great! If you could!"

"Of course I could!" Dank shouted back. "I always have, but real powerful magic, it takes time to code and compile! I thought you would at least understand that!"

"You know very well that I don't understand any of this stuff!" Strop was by this point yelling and gesticulating wildly. For a single instant, Dank remembered the one time Strop attempted to enroll in one of his classes back at the Academy.

"If I may," Kingryan interjected. "I don't think now is the time to be reminiscing about how Strop sucks at magic."

"Shut up, Kingryan," Dank snapped. "Fine. I've got an idea. It won't save AG by itself, but it'll buy us some more time. But to get it going, YOU need to buy ME some time. Ten minutes. I need at least that much."

Strop was already standing on the wall. "I'm on it."

"And I also need every magic user we've got left."

Strop nodded, and prepared to jump.

"And Moe. Get Moe for me."

Strop jumped.

---

You Won't Get Me Alive

http://i438.photobucket.com/albums/qq105/strawpony/Way%20Of%20Moderation/11-8.png

Back on the ground, the riot had turned to a rout. Manta's men continued to fight bravely, but their skirmish was of increasingly paling significance as more and more raiders reached the remains of the wall. Strop arrived just in time to see Thoad standing defiantly atop the rubble, brandishing the 'fone.

"You think this is it?" He yelled at the approaching horde. "You think we're defeated? Well you don't understand a thing!"

Peeking out from a bush, all ninja-like, Strop shook his head. Surely this was suicide, after all, the raiders who could hear Thoad were now forming a circle around him. Four mods, even with their banning powers, had trouble holding them off. One kid with a big mouth and a bigger megaphone... Already the horde were preparing to strike him down.

"Like I said," Thoad said, a demonic smile forming on his face, "You don't understand a thing. You won't get me alive!"

Strop's blood ran cold. Surely he wasn't planning to-

There was a huge bang, a flash of light, and an explosion. The shockwave ripped outwards, blowing the raiders back, falling over each other like dominoes. Even in the bush, Strop had to brace his arms over his face, but as soon as it had passed, he ripped his way out.

"No!" he yelled, though he didn't even realise it. He pawed his way through the smoke, towards the epicenter of the blast, but there was no trace of Thoad to be found. Except lying, in the spot where he was last seen standing, was his ZSC helmet.

It was no time to grieve, but Strop still found himself standing still, hand pressed to his face. One by one people were falling, sacrificed to a pointless conflict. Yet for some reason Thoad's departure was more poignant, perhaps because he was younger, with his ambitions as unfocused and brazen as the shotgun he carried, his dreams unrequited, yet still formed. And now, in one single move, they had all been wiped out.

"Come on, time to haul ***!" A furry, spotted paw swiped at Strop's shoulder, yanking him out of his daze. It was Leon, albeit a sane-looking one, although that could quite easily have been the effect of the altogether insane day. "Manta's lot are done for, so we're making a tactical retreat!"

"Where are you retreating." It was a question, but Strop was feeling strangely numb, rending his affect flat and lifeless.

"The castle, of course! We'll all die if we stay out here."

"And we'll all die if we don't at least hold them off before they turn the castle to rubble. Dank has a plan and we need to buy him ten minutes."

Leon shrugged. "Look, I'm not sticking around to argue. You do what you have to do, and I'll do mine, which is getting all these blithering idiots to the safest place, and that happens to be the castle. Why? Because the only reason it's the main target is because it's the only thing in a mile radius that's still standing. And if your plan works, then we can back you up from the castle. Anyway, bye."

And he left, taking with him the few hundred demoralised, disoriented former fighters of AG, leaving the several thousand invaders eyeing the castle hungrily. And between them, stood Strop.

A ninja may have been powerful, but this particular ninja, along with his compatriots, had been fighting a losing battle all day. What he wanted to do was the sensible thing, paradoxically, which was to turn tail like Leon so he could eke out the bitter last for a few more minutes. But Leon had done that only because he was trusting the task of doing the actually, utterly, stupid to somebody else. Somebody whose nature it was to actively be the hero and save the day, even when it was impossible.

But in this darkest of moments, Strop honestly didn't feel like he was that hero anymore. If the events of the past day had taught him anything, it was that he had strayed from the Way of Moderation so much he was truly not worthy of being a moderator.

Well, nuts to all of that. As ten thousand pairs of feet marched towards his doom, he shrugged his shoulders. If it was just for a few more seconds, he'd go down brawling, since nothing mattered anymore.

Something heavy and hard smacked Strop in the back of the head, sending him sprawling. Rubbing his head, he dragged himself to his knees.

"You really are dense, aren't you," said a familiar voice. Strop blinked, then turned his head upwards, to stare at the figure dressed in a hoodie, inspecting his now visibly dented baseball bat.

http://i428.photobucket.com/albums/qq1/Cerene_Cerine/dense.jpg

"Cen!" Strop's shock was palpable, and a hundred conflicting emotions stifled his tongue. He finally settled on "What the hell was that for!?"

Cen pointed to his jaw. "See this bruise? You want to know how I got it?"

"Fine fine," Strop conceded. "I probably shouldn't have done that. I'm so-"

"Can it," Cen commanded. "You have things to do, right?"

Strop was lost. "...what?"

"There's no point in you dying here. I'll handle this." Cen squared his shoulders and turned his back to Strop.

Strop blinked, not sure whether to faint from shock, or cry tears of joy. Was Cenere turning into the hero he had so desperately tried to mold through countless hours of blood, sweat and character building? Or had he really gone crazy from the stress and he was talking to an imaginary version of Cen?

"Cen," Strop sniffed. "You... you are a real he-"

"Just go." Cen didn't even turn to look at Strop, he just said it in his deadpan voice, baseball bat slung over his shoulder.

Scrambling to his hooves, Strop took a few tentative steps, then burst into a run. "Cen, please... don't die!" he called back.

Cen didn't answer. Instead, his eyes were fixed upon the horde, who, having seen the exchange, had their eyes firmly fixed on him as their new target. He dragged the end of the baseball bat along the ground, drawing a semi-circle in the puddles, before tightening his grip on the handle.

"This is really stupid," he muttered to nobody in particular.

 

Posted Mar 21, '12 at 3:28am

Strop

Strop

10,823 posts

Moderator

What if I said I'd never Surrender

Cen stared at the masses, rushing towards him. There wasn't anything else he could do, a cold fear having numbed his limps entirely that very moment. He really needed to throw up. It felt like something had lodged itself in his throat, either fear or his heart trying to abandon ship while it still could.
This was utterly moronic. This was insanely stupid. This was something only Strop could pull off, and here he stood, essentially because of a weak moment of 'it seemed like a good idea at the time'.
Well, it still did. Except for the aspect of sudden, violent death he was looking at with the storming raiders all heading for his neck in that slow motion run he wasn't sure whether to assume came from some comical effect of the situation, or his mind simply going into overdrive. In this very moment, it could be anything. Fairies. Unicorns. Dragons. Sexy librarian chicks. Anything.
But hell, there was nothing to do about it, and even if he could, it would most likely be at the expense of someone else.
Can't have that.
Ever.
Cen let out a roar of suppressed emotion and swung the baseball bat hard at the nearest raider.

---

"He's doing better than I expected," Strop mused, body half turned, watching Cen face the charge with an extraordinary lack of self-regard. Then a voice in his head, as well as the thousand bodies hurtling in his direction, reminded him of the urgency of the situation. Hesitating one moment more, he summoned the biggest poof he could manage, throwing up a mighty curtain of black, impenetrable smoke.

Godspeed, Cen, he thought, not wanting to acknowledge the next part, but knowing anyway: you're on your own now.

---

But Cen was in the company of many. The smokescreen clouding everything beyond him, it was just him, his baseball bat, and every eye in the vicinity locking onto him and heading towards him.

The bat made no noise as it sunk into flesh and rearranged faces. Every sound was just a jumbled, dull roar drowned out by the rushing of blood through Cen's ears as he waded through the sea of arms and fists pummeling him from all sides. His hands were numb, even the burning in his arms as he swung the bat indiscriminately left and right. As if in a daze, he watched as the bat slammed into the face of a complete stranger, probably about his age, who had no reason to hate or wish harm on him specifically, until that very moment where he swung a baseball bat into his face. He watched as the features distorted, cheeks flapping as the stranger went limp like a ragdoll, a bit of spittle and a bloody tooth flying out as the head snapped to the side, eyes crossed, only to be replaced by another five faces screaming wordlessly.

Cen felt something hit him in the side, and his body buckled. But strangely he felt no pain, he merely turned, his right hand dropping the bat only for the left to pick it back up and sling the head into another face. He pulled back on the bat, but it was held in place by a pair of hands, tugging away from him. Without even thinking, his foot lashed out and he felt something give, and the hands flew away.

Then more hands rushed in, grabbing him, his hoodie, his ponytail. The binding came loose and his hair came free, pulled in all directions. Somewhere, somehow along the way he had lost the bat after all, so he swung blindly with his fists, raindrops spraying out in arcs as his arms windmilled wildly. Possessed by the strength of a beast, he battered everything, drove them back, the fingers that tried to pull him by his locks slipping away. In irritation he flicked his head, hair fanning out before tangling in wet clumps over his shoulders and covering his face, save for his wide, unblinking eyes and bared teeth.

Something hit him from the side, hard. His knees buckled as he was carried, arms firmly wrapped around his waist until he fell against the horde pushing from the other side. When his fists had no effect, he started driving his elbow into the dome of the tackler until they collapsed, but arms had already looped around his chest, locking him in place. Snarling, he shook from side to side but the hold was firm. The body of the man who tackled him was trampled under as more raiders crowded in to claim their pound of flesh, and with nothing left to do, he stomped hard, driving his heel into the foot of his persecutor. As the grip softened he wrested himself free, and was met with fists, many fists and feet, digging into him and driving him back and down. At first he heeded them not, sending his own fists back, but eventually their numbers overwhelmed him and gradually, he saw himself going down, doubling over, until everybody was piled atop him in a mass of wet clothes and flailing limbs and bunched fists pummelling him awkwardly from all angles, none of them causing any pain but all of them stopping him from rising. Even as he was being crushed into the cold hard wet cobblestone, he reached out, clawing at exposed ankles and latching onto legs with his teeth, until finally, with a sigh, the last vestiges of his inhuman strength left him and he himself went limp, sprawled out on the ground, able only to feel the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed.

Vaguely, he felt the toe of a boot prod him in the ribs, but after that, nothing else came, and his vision faded to the impenetrable dark grey of the clouds and the driving rain, and just beyond that, the vague silhouette of the castle.

---

"No!" Was all Strop could manage when he saw the raiders regrouping and charging towards the castle gate, with no sign of a Cen to stop them. He turned to the last few dozen stragglers, trying to manhandle them through the gate. "Hustle hustle hustle, nobody gets left behind!"

And then they were all around him, the raiders, not even paying him or his compatriots any attention, just charging past them and through the open gates of the castle. Armor Games' Castle.

"MAN THE GATES!" Strop yelled, "SHUT THE BLOODY GATES!" Gathering up the last of the stragglers he picked them up and bolted through the door, fairly surfing the wave of invaders deep into the dark main corridor of the castle. Far behind him, he heard a merciful clang as the gates slammed shut, followed by a loud rattling that echoed down the hall incessantly.

Then he was deposited on the ground, the wave of invaders dispersing as they ran amuck, branching into every corridor and room of the castle in their quest to destroy everything they saw.

Standing slowly, Strop collected his thoughts, listening to the rattling of a hundred hands tugging at the shut gates. The castle was sturdier than the makeshift wall, he knew that much, so maybe it could even withstand assault from the outside for the nine or so minutes Dank needed for his grand plan... how many had passed the gates? Maybe a hundred or so, or maybe even two hundred, before it shut? How much damage could that many people cause to the interior of a castle?

He had a more pressing concern to attend to, though. Dank needed every mage he could find, however he could find them. He just hoped that somebody else would be around to bring some order to the rest of the chaos, before it consumed even the castle itself.

---

The Way of Moderation Part Twelve: Leon McAcid

Written by Xzeno

A single torch burned in the dank hallway. Dark wrought iron claws held it in place, burning above the rubble to which the rest of the hall's furniture had been reduced. A gray and white striped foot tip-toed over a fallen hat stand. The blue-hooded gnoll followed, white bow drawn and hyena in tow. Leon grimaced as he tried to make out what was beyond the torch's glow. Vague, dark silhouettes slid in and out of reality, as though beckoning him to join them.
    "Marley, go ahead." the gnoll growled, gesturing towards the darkness with his head. Some ten feet behind his companion, Leon carefully crossed the cluttered hallway, holding an arrow between his front two fingers. His steel armor clinked as he entered the darkness, ears perked up, ready to react in an instant. On his left, he heard a breathy hiss. He whipped around, arrow at the ready. Marley snarled, adopting an aggressive posture as he peered into the darkness. Leon lowered his bow. Just the sound of the darkness slipping through the cracks in the gray stone. Leon moved on.
    He passed from the dark, tight hallway into a dim, tight foyer. A chandelier, knocked to the ground by some event or another, lit the room with, albeit lazily. He saw motion on the balcony. He clanked up the nearest flight of stairs, stepping over a burning support beam. The fire roared behind him, but his focus was on the figure. Down the dark hallway he saw...
    "I thought I saw..." Leon started, turning to Marley. The hyena's nose was in the air, and its eyes burned with determination. "Bullman..." Leon whispered. He started down the hall in pursuit of the image. He barreled down a dark hall, passing wooden doorways on either side. He saw the hulking figure turn down a corridor, silver armor glinting in the light of a candle. He turned down the corridor and into the light.
    No sign of the minotaur. Instead, he saw a hallway glowing with the light of programming magic and flame attacks. Four trolls, armed with black hoodies and Guy Fawkes masks, hurled fireballs at a a group of three Armor Gamers. One of them wore a torn blue SHOPS tshirt, but the other two seemed normal enough for Internet furries. Leon nocked an arrow. He saw a fifth attacker: It was a silver steel machine, rolling on a pair of treads, with a boxy body and a square, vaguely pig-like head. One of the Armor Gamers, a penguin, caught a troll's fireball and hurled it at the pig, but it seemed immune to flames.
    Leon let his arrow fly, catching one troll in the base of the spine. He flipped through the air and fell, shouting. Leon nocked another arrow and fired without hesitation. The remaining two trolls whipped around, hurling fire. One of the Armor Gamers, a rather buxom fox took one troll from behind as Marley pounced on the second. Marley defeated his easily enough, but the fox merely forced the troll to his knees.
    "Surrender!" the fox demand, deep voice resounding through the hall.
    "Never!" the flamer shouted. Leon took him at his word and fired another arrow. Only the pig remained, shooting cylindrical meat at anything that moved. It wasn't as deadly as the flames, but it sure was annoying. The SHOPS footman jumped the pig, punching its ugly metal face. Instantly, it wrapped its arms around him. He began to scream in pain as the pig mumbled incoherently about (dot) and (at). Leon drew his flail. The sharp clang of metal on metal filled the hall. The pig fell, headless. The SHOPS kid stood, coughing. He looked up. Silvery metal streaked his face, and one eye glowed a mechanical red.
    "Are you alright?" the penguin squeaked.
    "Yeah, I'm fine." he groaned. "I just have to..." He threw up a pink paste.
    "You sure?" the penguin mused. Leon tasted the pink glop.
    "Spam." he growled. "He's been infected."
    "We need to get him to Armor Hospital." the fox said, deep voice booming. Leon looked up and down her exaggerated curves.
    "There is no Armor Hospital." the gnoll growled.
    "What, then?" the penguin asked. Leon fired a forth arrow and moved on in silence, hyena in tow.
    A steel hand wrapped around a burning torch. The darkness melted before as he penetrated the dark castle. Leon held the torch high. The shadowy halls snaked in all directions.
    "I'll never find that bull at this rate." he growled. Right on cue, the wall behind him exploded. There stood a hulking figure, even taller than Leon and at least three times as wide. Shining plate armor flowed from a silver steel helmet with massive bull horns. Beneath the helmet was nothing. No glistening skin showed through the *****s in the armor. It was just the shell of steel and then nothing. Leon wasted no time in dashing away. He dodged down the dark halls with wild abandon. The living armor pursued heroically, crashing through wall after wall as it jammed its body through the tight passages. Leon panted for air under the stifling weight of his steel, rounding a corner into a burning orange room.
    Leon blinked. To his surprise, the room was largely intact. The orange glow came from one of the palace's many furnaces. Though the dwarves who tended the smeltorium (technical term) had long since escaped, the furnaces still burned with stocks of coal and lava. A chandelier, lit with burning candles, completed the mood lighting and generally made the room unbearably hot.
    "Marley, here!" Leon called, beckoning to his hyena as he scanned the room for genre conventions. One appeared in the form of a hook to which a rope was tied. Leon didn't even bother to see what the rope was attached to. Leon nocked an arrow. As the living armor crashed through the door, Leon fired. His shot severed the rope. Needless to say, this somehow led to he chandelier crashing down around the steel monster. As it stumbled, Marley leaped at it from the side, knocking it off balance completely. It fell, crashing into the furnaces. It threw up its arms in a silent howl as molten metal and burning coal cascaded around it.
    A metal clang filled the hall as Leon clapped his hands together.
    "That's that then." the gnoll declared as he watched the flames consume the steel shell. Giving Marley a pat on the head, Leon turned to walk away as the shell melted completely in he flames, leaving only the emptiness inside.
    Leon stepped out of the black hallways and into a dilapidated courtyard. He blinked. The courtyard, surrounded by walls, had no ceiling. It was open to the air. Yet the darkness did not relent: night had fallen, with only the moon and stars lighting his way. Leon stepped over a broken fence as his eyes adjusted to the dark. At the center of the courtyard, surrounded by rings of sad looking flowers, was a half-collapsed gazebo. Leon paused briefly to wonder if a half-collapsed gazebo was safe, and to reflect on how it became night so quickly.
    He decided not to worry about either affair. He dodged past a fallen column and entered the gazebo. To his vague surprise, he found he was not alone, and not in the many-toothed horror way he expected. A young woman sat within the gazebo's wooden frame, looking a little on the terrified side.
    "So you're an evil demon." Leon announced.
    "What? Me?" she sobbed. "No I'm... but it's out there. Prowling this courtyard. There were three of us, but it hunted them down. Like a pack of hungry jackals." Leon raised his eyebrows incredulously. She paused briefly before continuing. "It trapped us here, took us out one by one, and left me, to toy with me, and..." she looked up at Leon, eyes wide as a tear slithered half-heartedly down her cheek. Leon remained unmoved. "Alright, so I'm an evil demon. You just had to ruin the surprise. I bet if you were on a date in San Francisco-"
    "Get to the point." Leon growled.
    "Point..." she drifted off for a moment. "Well, I was going to lull you into a false sense of security and then devour your soul. But you just had to ruin that. First part, at least." She and Leon stared each other down for a moment.
    "So the first item is..." Leon began.
    "Definitely still on the menu, yes." the demon announced. Leon made a leap for a nearby shrub as the demon blasted out of the wooden structure in a ball of flame.
    "You seemed like the man of steal type!" she screeched as she hurled plumes of fire after the gnoll.
    "Well, maybe I've turned a new leaf." Leon shot back as he crawled through the bushes. Leon felt the heat of the flames through his steal armor as he rolled from shrub to shrub, but had no interest in a more direct approach. The demon snarled, then let out a primal howl. Within moments, she was joined by a chorus of savage calls.
    "Great," Leon muttered "now I'll be hounded by all sorts of spirits." He made a dash from his bush for the gazebo. A jackal, its edges glowing bright blow as the faded and diffused into the matter around them, charged from Leon's left, snapping at his heels.
    "Quit dogging me!" he shouted, swinging a metal fist at the beast as he ran. He dived behind a shattered bench and surveyed the battlefield. The spirit-jackals were everywhere, prowling around in the darkness.
    "She can really pack them in." Leon observed to Marley, who cowered beside him. As the jackals hedged him in, he hopped to a nearby hedge.
    "Get him!" the demon ordered, her jackals running towards Leon, paws silent in the night.
    "Time to make a split-second decision." Leon announced. He and Marley darted from the bush in opposite directions. The jackals jumped and howled, running into each other as they bumbled after him. He slid down the side of a mucky trench, branches and leaves poking him as he his in the ruined foliage. Leon had a moment to think as the jackals hunted Marley like a dog. They passed his hiding place again and again, failing to see him each time, until, by some unfortunate accident, he flexed his left ankle, joint cracking, just as one passed. Its ears perked up. It stiffed. It let out a howl. Instantly, the demon was at its side.
    "Did you really think you could hid there?" she demanded.
    "It was a last-ditch effort." he admitted.
    "My jackals may have failed, but you know I have other assets." she cackled.
    "You are pretty hot." he conceded as he dodged a ball of flames. He bounded towards the wooden gazebo, only to be cut off by flames and spirit-jackals. He turned back in the direction of the smeltorium, but was cut off similarly. He dived for a birdbath, but he wasn't even granted that luxury. He turned face to face with the demon. Marley skidded to his side, kicking up dirt.
    "Sorry it has to be this way." Leon shook his head.
    "It doesn't, though." the demon giggled. "You and I could do this all night. You can dodge but you can't hurt me." She took a few steps towards him. "Come now gnoll, can't you think of anything better we could spend all night doing?" She walked toward him as she spoke, hips swaying. Her nose was barely an inch from his as she whispered the last word. His eyes sparkled, the bushes and branches reflected in them. With a sly smile, she threw back his hood. At the moment, Leon took a stab at solving the problem. He moved in a flash. His metal fist clasped tightly around the wooden shaft of an arrow, which protruded from her neck, blue fletching illuminated by the flames.
    "How did you..." she sighed as her burning blood bubbled from her neck. Leon turned tail and ran, hyena at his heel, as the demon fell to the ground in a pool of her own flames.
    Leon and Marley skipped through the darkness of Armor Castle, eyes peeled for Bullmen and Bullman-related products. As they rounded a corner, Marley tripped over something and Leon tripped over him. Leon looked up to see the vague utline of a person.
    "Trippy." Leon said in awe, trying to see through the darkness.
    "Do you have any idea who I am?" the figure said promptly.
    "I'm in the dark." Leon shot back.
    "Allow me to illuminate the situation." The figure clapped its hands. Instantly, every torch, candle and lamp in the room lit itself, throwing the figure and the room into a warm light. Leon was standing in the ballroom, but not as he knew it: instead of disorginized wreckage, there were tables set out neatly, with silverware and diners. Instead of a food fight, there was an assortment of fine wines and gourmet dishes. Instead of screaming, there was music, and instead of bloodshed, there was dancing.
    "I can't be party to this." Leon complained.
    "Come now, you must dance. We all have to dance eventually." the figure Leon had tripped over in the darkness extended a gloved hand to him. It was wearing a tuxedo, a tophat, and a mask carved crudely in the likes of a white rabbit. With a start, Leon realized all the dancers wore animal masks, though most were elegantly formed.
    "Bullman." Leon growled, pushing past the rabbit. A mask in the likeness of a dairy cow sat delicately on a woman's nose as she danced across the floor.
    "Holy cow!" Leon exclaimed as he saw her partner: a short man with a strange green mask, with huge black eyes. He fidgeted nervously as he danced, lips moving to create half-formed words.
    "Cowabunga!" Leon shouted, slamming into the boy from the side. He imediately formed the vague semblance of a waltz frame and attempted to dance with the woman.
    "Hey." Leon said simply. The woman made no reaction as she continued to dance, her mask staring at him expressionlessly. "So this is the legendary Armor Ballroom in its full glory." Leon observed. "Nice to finally see it without all that fighting, huh?" The cow's blank eyes hovered in front of him, unblinking and unfeeling. "Cud you at least say something?" Leon pleaded.
    "You're really milking this." she observed.
    "Didn't mean to offend." Leon cackled. "I'm udderly sorry." With that, Leon got the slap he deserved and went off to sample the drinks. Leon took a sip of a fruity drink, wincing.
    "Packs quite a punch." he observed, looking to the center of the floor. There, a woman in a red fox mask bounced across the floor, dancing from partner to partner and power move to power move.
    "Way to be, girl!" Leon called across the room. She grabbed the white rabbit, dancing with him excitedly. She took the lead, maneuvering him around the floor. She kept herself between him and Leon, blocking his view of the rabbit with every sway. Finally, she twirled away from him, leaving him standing alone at the center of the floor. Wordlessly, he removed his mask. A blackness poured from behind the mask, swirling and taking shape as the dancers danced away from it. The tuxedo elted into the darkness as it took form. It stood as tall as a man, lanky arms hanging at its sides, its body tapering into the floor. Swirling tentacles of darkness hung from its face, but beyond these it was featureless. As  Leon approached it, he saw pinpoints of light near its base, twinkling in the infinite blackness. He looked into the swirling darkness, seeing equal parts history and prophecy in its depths. The dancers reeled away, but Leon paid them no mind.
    "Six..." he mumbled, extending a steely hand. He reached towards it slowly, fingertips extending. The octopus-headed blackness made no motion to respond, billowing like liquid smoke. He touched it. Instantly, the darkness vanished. The torches were gone as quickly as they had come. The ballroom was the same disorganized mess he had first seen. The music had been replaced by commotion. Each dancing couple revealed itself to be a dueling pair, Armor Gamers and trolls locked in battles to the death, or at least that's how they seemed to see it. Everyone was on one side or the other, save one Ager who was, blunt in one hand glock in the other, caught between loyalty and trollish nature.
    But Leon still had no mind for them. In the center of the floor, embedded in the stone, where the darkness had been, was a sword, light glinting off its handle. Not just any sword, his sword. He wretched from the stone, whipping around the room. Marley at his side, he held his sword high. Flail in one hand, sword in the other, Leon and his hyena charged into battle. Leon smashed into his opponents like a rolling wave, his weapons branches of steel  whipping about in the wind. He bowled over Armor Gamers to get at his enemies, striking them down with blade and flail. His wild eyes glanced around the room, falling on a familiar figure.
    "Strop!" he shouted as he slashed a troll to the ground. The ninja pony turned to back to Leon mid leap, landing elegantly on a table. He stood slowly, catching the gnoll's eye. Leon panted, eyes locked with Strop's as he batted at a few attackers. Then, the pony gave Leon a quick nod, flipping away from the battlefield. Then, a knight with a tower shield smashed into Leon from the side.
    The gnoll's face slammed into the ground, but he whipped around. The knight raised his shield, fending off Leon's sword strike. He swung his flail, sending it over the knight's shield, bashing his helmet. The knight raised the shield and Leon thrust into his newly exposed midsection. Leon turned, swinging his sword at a pimply teen. He blocked the sword and Leon struck him in the side with his flail. He leaped as a table slid towards him, rolling along it as three trolls charged. He struck one with each weapon as he landed, dodging the third sending him flying into the jagged, broken table with a shove. Someone screamed as a support pillar cracked, sending a chandelier swinging through the room. Leon shoved a troll in its path and dashed into another group. He slid across a wall of ice as it drifted lazily through the room and bowled over a pair of trolls.
    "It's coming down!" A troll shouted, pointing to a growing crack in the ceiling. Leon ran him through with a sword as he watched in horror. Trolls and Armor Gamers both stopped fighting, lowering their their weapons as they watched the ceiling crumble. Leon continued to hack and bash through the trolls even as they tried to have a moment. While everyone else tried to dodge the falling rubble, Leon tried his best to shove trolls into it.
    "Mages! Go now!" someone shouted. Water surged through the cracks in the pillar, snaking its way through the ceiling. As the water froze, Leon slashed three more trolls aside. For a moment, the ice held, keeping the building intact. Then, a deafening shatter filled the room.
    "Everybody out!" a wizard called, indicating a frozen tunnel he had created over the door. Trolls and AGers alike charged for the new opening. Leon tripped one, cackling as he swung his flail. The ceiling began to fold in on itself, collapsing as the support pillars shattered. Leon glanced up, then turned for the exit, shoving people out of his indiscriminately. As he neared the ice tube, he turned around, drawing his bow. He fired a few arrows into the oncoming trolls, calling to the Armor Gamers. His steely gray eyes surveyed the battlefield, coming to rest on Marley, who stood growling at the center of a circle of trolls. Dropping his ivory bow, he charged into the room. Leon crashed through the trolls, scooping the hyena up and tossing him over his shoulder. As he began to dash for the exit, he looked up. The ceiling was falling, chunks of stone and steel surrounding him. With a roar, he hurled the hyena through the opening in the ice. Sword in one hand, flail in the other, Leon glared up, eyes burning as the building fell around him.

    Strop stooped down.
    "Nice bow." said a tall kid in a cowboy hat, leaning against a shattered support beam. Strop brushed the dust off of the longbow's white wood, examining it.
    "This looks like it, boy." Strop said, absent-mindedly scratching Marley's ears. The hyena hung its head, poking his nose at a pile of rubble.
    "I told you, it collapsed on him." the age from the ballroom said, brushing his blonde hair out of his eyes. Strop lowered the bow with a sigh.
    "It's a little long for me." Strop said matter-of-factly. "One for the Armor Museum."
    "Strop..." the kid in the duster began. At that moment, the rubble began to roll down the pile. Sure enough, a dented, dusty steel gauntlet burst through the stone and wood. Leon pulled himself from the rubble, detritus rolling off of his gleaming armor. He was covered in dirt, chunks of ice frozen into his fur. He brushed a twig away with his metal gauntlet, snarling. His grimace became less regal as he patted out a few flames near the base of his cape, and immediately turned back to Strop, grimacing regally. Strop stood tall, the wizard and the cowboy dwarfed next to him, despite the cowboy's great height. Only Leon towered over him, stepping down from the pyre of broken castle.
    "I believe you have my bow." Leon announced, yellow eyes glaring down at Strop. Strop looked up at him. He turned his head to the side, seeing his own reflection in Leon's eyes. "Seriously man, you don't separate a gnoll from his bow. That's, like, some serious... history... cultural... give me my bow."
    "How are you still alive?" Strop asked coolly, handing the gnoll his bow. Leon reached his metal hand out, taking hold of the white wood as he pulled his hood up over his ears.
    "You know," Leon said "that was never adequately explained."

 

Posted Mar 21, '12 at 3:29am

Strop

Strop

10,823 posts

Moderator

The Final Countdown

"Well, Leon, I honestly didn't think I'd ever come to say this, but thank you." Strop dusted his hands and his ninja suit off, surveying the rubble that was previously the Great Hall. "I didn't expect a being of chaos to make order through chaos."

"Don't mention it," Leon said gruffly, examining his bow and trying to wipe invisible ninja horse fingerprints off the lacquer. "Maybe that's why you're having such a hard time."

Strop ****ed his head. "Pardon?"

"I mean," Leon pulled the string back and released it with a twang, causing him to grit his teeth in irritation and fiddle at the ends. "You're chaotic too, you know that? But all you've done is try to be all orderly and stuff. Maybe it's the way you're going about it. It doesn't quite, you know. Mesh."

Strop scratched his head, not sure what to make of the comment, and so decided to ignore it. "Can I rely on you to keep this place in lockdown? Kingryan's position needs securing, so everybody else can remount their defense from the battlements."

Now that his bow was in good order again, Leon nodded, all businesslike: "Consider it done." Briefly, both of them reached out, Strop's bandaged fist and Leon's gauntleted one bumping with a metallic clash. Then with a whirl of his cape, Leon turned, bounded through the rubble and was gone.

Strop turned to the young mage next to him. "I'm glad you made it Chill. We need you and your colleagues most of all."

Ominously, there was a loud, deep thud and the castle walls shook. A bit of loose dust rained down upon them from the ceiling.

Chill nodded cooly. "What would you have us do?"

Briefly, Strop weighed up the situation. Enough damage was done to the castle as it was, would it be worse if he created more, or risked the inefficiency of them getting lost in the sewers? "Freeze the back wall of the hall. I'll blast a hole through it. If you have a signal to gather all your colleagues, now's the time to use it."

"Roger." In a matter of seconds, the wall had frozen over, and Strop had blown yet another hole in the castle with a mighty sidekick. "Dank's waiting for everybody at the Aristocrat Alley." He took a deep breath, and sighed. "He has a plan."

"And what will you do?" Chill stood in the icy portal, a slide of ice forming to the ground below.

Strop looked around, suddenly feeling all forlorn and empty inside. "I will... stand here and wait for the world to end."

---

Black Tuesday

Written by Maverick

From atop the hill, Mav could see clearly the destruction that hounded the city. Thick, black, oily smoke was going up from the city from several raging fires. The facades of several burnt-out buildings stood above the streets, like the blank stare of a once mighty face. Even as he watched, one of the hulks collapsed into the street, throwing up rubble and dust into the alreadly clogged atmosphere.

'I suppose global warming is the least of our worries.' He said, to no body in particular.

An odd sound struck Mav's ears. Or rather, it was the lack of sound that caught his attention. An eerie silence had settled upon the city, much like the quiet before the storm. Upon closer examination, Mav could see small figures scurrying about, all heading towards one section of the town: The Castle. The Alamo of the city, it would seem that the remaining defenders hoped to make their last stand here.

Knowing the importance of his mission, Mav realized that he would have to get to the Castle. And the longer he waited, then the more NGers he'd have to go through. He began to jog down the hill, and towards the city.

Mav soon reached the outer walls of the city. They were strong, tall, and well-built. The Gates of the City still hung securly in their place. However, a large rift had been smashed through the wall, and blocks weighing several tons had been scattered about like so many tinker-toys. After a few moments of cursing, stubbed toes, and clambering over the rubble, Mav entered into the city.

---

Testing out

Five dozen mages. It was a paltry number in the context of the million strong population of AG. And it was barely a fraction of the number of students who attended his classes at the Academy, but he spotted in there some of his brightest and most capable. And it was nearly five dozen more than a single mage with a scheme so big he could not do it alone.

It just might very well be doable, Dank thought as he clanged his hammer down onto the cobblestone of the top of Aristocrat Alley, trying to make himself heard above the din of the downpour. "Students!" He called, and they turned to him, their headmaster. He cleared his throat and subtly employed an amplification script to up his volume.

"This will be your final class for the semester. It will also be your final exam for the semester."

Everybody looked at each other, confused. Why was he talking about school at a time like this?

"This is because the Armor Academy has been demolished due to, uh, well as a consequence of recent and ongoing events. It will take the rest of the semester to rebuild it."

Murmuring rippled through the crowd, but was quickly hushed as Dank slammed his hammer down again, splashing rainwater everywhere. "Listen carefully! I want you to cast your mind back to the course on defining objects, moving objects and collision detection! Because these will be the subjects on your final exam! What is it!?" He barked at the raised hand somewhere up the back.

"What do you expect us to animate?" a reedy voice whined.

"This!" he announced, gesturing to all of Aristocrat Alley. When all he got was blank stares in return, he clarified: "I need you to uproot every mansion and castle on this alley."

The class burst out in a tumult of protest. "What do you mean all of them? There's a hundred houses and sixty of us!" "They're too big!" everybody clamoured. Dank slammed his hammer down again, turning up his volume further.

"What do you mean too big!? Size matters not! Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm?" Everybody subsided, looking a bit forlorn and scared of making an inadvertant dwarf joke. Dank scowled.

"And well you should not. Because this is a group exam, so you all either pass or fail. And if we fail, we'll all either be dead, or homeless. So failure is not an option."

Dank looked at the group again, confusion now being replaced by consternation. This wasn't exactly the pep talk he had imagined in his head, or maybe this what he always looked like as a teacher? He shook his head, trying to clear his head. After all, Strop and everybody else somehow managed to get this many people here, and the castle was still somehow standing. It wasn't over yet.

"Okay let's begin. We have a five minute deadline! Start by lifting the houses from their foundations, and we'll go from there. Once we've put everything togehter, my supervisor will coordinate object movements.

Everybody looked up. "Supervisor?"

A familiar brain in a glass jar popped into view, hovering on nothing but the power of its own telekinesis. "Greetings, class. Please do your best."

---

Like Taking a Potato Gun Against a Tank

"HOOOOOOOOOOOOOLD! HOOOOOOOOOOOOOLD!" Kingryan croaked at nobody in particular. Not like anybody could hear him: the few hundred AGers who had taken control of the wall were busy dumping everything they could get their hands on at the invaders trying to break down the gate and generally tear the castle apart. Occasionally, an explosion erupted, shaking the walls and sending several people flying to the ground to take cover as chips of mortar rained down upon everybody.

But even as their defense was valiant it was also ineffectual. Looming into view, the first of the giant mutant trolls had come crashing through the ruins of the Armor Courts. Only this time, from Flipski's last-ditch self-destruction, they had morphed yet again. Even larger, they stood well over a hundred meters tall, and seemed to have melted into monstrous hybrids of organic and inorganic material, having merged with various buildings and pieces of technology, like a T-1000 in a steel mill, or rather, like Tetsuo* gone out of control. And they were all back, hell-bent on crushing AG into oblivion.

"What can man do against such reckless hate?" Kingryan breathed.

"Ride out. Ride out and meet them," an anonymous ranger with a black beard declared.

In the midst of all the action, everybody stopped and stared at him incredulously. "Are you stupid? We just came IN here to get away from those lunatics!"

"Well do you have any better ideas!?" the ranger yelled back.

Nobody did. And the trolls came crashing even closer.

* from Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira. That is one messed up movie. I recommend you watch it. But maybe nowhere near or during mealtimes.

---

Coffee

Strop sat, alone, on the ruins of the Castle Hall. He was still breathing hard, and with each passing moment, he could feel his suit, saturated with sweat and rain and caked with dirt and dried blood, sticking to him. He couldn't feel his mouth and was pretty sure he at least had a split lip. All the little and big hits he had taken were starting to mount, and his muscles were all sore and cramping.

How long had this battle been going? It was impossible to tell what time it was, through all the clouds and the rain. It could have been six hours, it could have been more than a day. Despite knowing he shouldn't stop to reflect lest he lose the will to start again, Strop felt it was too late for him. He was spent, and he couldn't think of what he had or hadn't done and what was to happen next.

The shaking of the castle became even stronger and more incessant, causing him to shake as his balance shifted. He looked up, squinting through the hole in the ceiling, and froze. The mutant trolls had reached the castle, bigger and meaner than ever. Even Flipski wasn't able to completely contain them. And this one already had its fist poised, ready to crush the castle with a single blow. And Dank was still nowhere in sight.

And in a few seconds, it would be all over.

Strop dug around in his suit, and brought out a bunch of narrow glass vials. The vials that Chill had given to him a while earlier. The boy genius had taken the trouble to concentrate only the most potent of potent caffeine for use in the most desperate of times. These times being even more desperate than that, Strop considered the sinister black powder. There was a reason he never drank coffee, banned himself from drinking it. The last time he had a mild instant coffee he had palpitations and couldn't sleep for two days. Something like this, then, he knew, would undoubtedly have far more dire consequences. But it was now that he had to make a choice, if only in his intentions: his body, or the city of AG.

Flicking the end off a vial, Strop grimaced and downed the contents of one.

Nothing happened.

Well maybe his body was too far gone to respond to even this deadly concoction. He sighed. While he surely enjoyed protection of the cartoon ninja gods, his constitution was still not quite like, say, that of Phillip J Fry and his unusual ability to drink a hundred coffees to boost his...

...maybe he hadn't reached the critical point of overload yet.

There was a giant crashing and a huge fist the size of a house drove its way into the castle, almost flattening Strop as it ended up where the Great Hall once was. Strop fell off the pile, almost spilling the rest of his coffee everywhere. When he looked up, the giant trolls were standing in a circle all around the castle, slowly but surely drawing back their fists. Even after the miracle of the first fist somehow failing to completely demolish the castle, it was now an imminent inevitability.

"Ah **** this ****," Strop muttered, and downed the other nine vials.

Suddenly-

---

The End of the World

in 8-bit

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Power coursed through his body, filling him with a sensation of rushing that made him want to explode. Yet at the same time, he was calm. Everything made sense. All was right with the world.

Strop looked around. Even the rain had frozen in place. Slowly, he reached out and touched a droplet, watching it ripple then explode. He turned his head upwards and saw one of the mutant troll behemoths, its eyes glowing ominously, fist telegraphed and prepared to obliterate the castle in its entirety. Suddenly, he knew exactly what he had to do, and how to do it.

In the next instant, he was outside, surveying the chaos of the castle's surrounds. He plucked his way through the thosand strong crowd hammering at the walls, and nodded at the frozen figures on the castle battlements, arms poised mid throw, projectiles turning slowly end over end as they were suspended mid-fall. A little ways from the action, Strop saw a familiar figure, a tall young man, looking perplexed as he watched the scene, several precious arrows in hand.

Maverick stood there, jaw gaping as the mutant trolls wound back, ready to crush the heart of AG once and for all. Before he could even think his next thought, a black blur rushed by.

"I'll be needing those, thanks," Strop gabbled as he plucked the Arrows of Time from Maverick's limp-wristed hand. In the next instant, he was gone, a black blur disappearing into the sky.

His nerves conducting electrical impulses even faster than the speed of light, Strop had transcended even instinct. In a single motion he had loosed eight arrows, each finding their mark, causing the trolls to momentarily stop altogether, their fists just metres away from their final destination. Legs pumping, he rushed up the side of the nearest troll, launching high into the air, preparing to summon the greatest of his ban powers, when he looked over in the direction of the Aristocrat alley, and screamed-

"YES, OH MY GOD!!!"

---

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In mid-flight, Strop had half a second to wonder whether Flipski had miraculously resurrected as he had simultaneously shrunk to Lilliput proportions, before what looked suspiciously like Firetail's castle flew past him and directly into the face of the nearest mutant troll. The troll reeled back, losing its footing and flattening several dozen shops on the main strip as it fell with an indescribably loud, earth-shattering crunch. As if in slow motion, Strop looked at the castle, now much the worse for wear after the mighty impact, as it continued its path, seemingly attached to pylons and fences and girders and wires and bits of mortar fashioned to form an arm, an arm that was attached to a giant mech-like figure standing right next to the castle. Even through the pelting rain, Strop could have recognised bits of several of the other houses that used to line Aristocrat Alley in its structure.

Strop grabbed a loose piece of pipe now hanging off the arm, before pulling himself atop it. Dank's final request to him echoed in his head, and he had his suspicions as to how this castle-saving intervention had transpired.

Suddenly, the wires and structures started realigning themselves, wrapping around each other and reforming. With a giant lurch, the castle suddenly retracted along the arm, splitting into several sections and forming a crude fist. The pipe Strop was holding onto whipped back and sent him bundling along the arm up towards the shoulder, where he could make out a hulking head and, to one side, a light that looked very much like an eye. Except, when he got closer, it wasn't just an eye, but Moe, strapped into a command room, streams of virtual text whipping around his jar in a blur. Moe was concentrating so hard that the entire room had lit up with an unholy glow.

"Evidently I need more practice" was all he would say, before the mech gave another great lurch, pitching Strop off and into the air again. Below, the other trolls were coming back to their feet, leaping at the mech, arms outstretched in a tackle. A swathe of forest was felled as the mech braced, part of the body shifting and opening up until it stood on four legs, holding the trolls at bay. On the ground, the castle gates had opened once more, the citizens of AG charging across the moat to meet the hordes of invaders once again. And as he nocked his bow with a grappling hook, Strop saw some specks on the horizon, converging on the fracas on both sides. Friend or foe, he couldn't tell, but he knew that the final victory or defeat would be decided in this battle.

"**** just got real," he muttered to himself.

---

On a Wing and a Prayer

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Frank grit his teeth, thoughts flying through his head thick as the rain that battered his oilskin coat. Armor Games had been an interesting place, sure, but it was just supposed to be a holiday stop for him. Just another stepping stone while he gathered his thoughts about what to do next.

But then what? Where would he go after that? Somewhere else where his thoughts about unfinished business and unsavoury pasts would doubtlessly follow him? After this much time, he knew that it wasn't moderation that he sought. Or maybe it was, but not for moderation's sake itself.

Frank shook his head: that part still didn't make sense. What was moderation for moderation's sake anyway? The tournament itself was a distraction and good for some fun and some fights, at least. Fights that he could approach as a warrior, with no holds barred yet no complaints and a kind of justice. Yes, the justice that he felt lacking in his heart, because a community built upon working and living and laughing and fighting together was what he missed. Or so he thought. How could he have forgotten that these were the things that tied him to his old comrades from the air pirate brigade? Was it that his goggles had become so stained in blood that he lost sight of it? Or was it that he had lost sight of the reasons he once gripped with such desperate fury, to hurl himself from the heights of high society into the tempestuous storms of strugglers and mercenaries? No words came to mind to answer his questions, yet, in the very moment and place he inhabited, the answer already existed.

Behind him, there they were again. They were the lost three-hundred wandering the unruly skies. And after everything had been thought through and all the words had been said, they had forgiven his departure and his absence, their prodigal son, their prodigal leader. And it was only through the things that he had learnt and come to terms with that he was able to talk the brigade into coming along with him on this crazy kamikaze mission.

"On the condition", his first mate quipped with a toothy grin, "that there's sufficient compensation of the fiscal variety."

And that was what was bothering him. He had made that promise to his crew and off they went, but he knew nothing about how to fulfill that promise. He suspected, even from a distance, that Armor Games was ruined to the point it would have nothing left to offer them.

"You look rather lost for somebody whose destination is so obvious."

The voice was startingly close, making Frank jerk his throttle lever and almost spiral out of control. When he recovered, a familiar fai- pixie swooped into view.

"Steady on, ol' chap." Pixel quipped in his characteristically officious tone. "When I heard you bowed out in the semi-finals I thought you were gone for good."

"I guess we were both wrong," Frank shot back with a wry smile. "But I'm sure glad I ran into you."

"Oh?" Pixel looked quizzical. "If it's another fight you're after, maybe it could wait until, well, you know." He tilted his head to indicate the bedlam below.

"Yes, of course, but, well..." Frank trailed off before clearing his throat. "My friends here, they're, shall we say, business people who ordinarily won't have any business with these affairs, if you know what I mean, and, well..."

Pixel stared at Frank, slowly comprehending the air pirate's insinuations, before he burst out in a roaring, ungentlemanly laugh.

"Oh, you rascal!" he managed between laughs. "Normally I would say my money is my money, but in these circumstances, I suppose I could set you up with a loan."

Frank's relief was palpable. "Thanks, that's much appreciated." Pixel blinked at him, partially blinking rain out of his eyes, partially blinking in thought. "And here I was thinking that if I said no, you'd just fly away..."

Frank shifted uncomfortably in his harness before staring dead ahead. "Right now we have something important to deal with, so should we?"

"Indeed," Pixel simply said. The two slapped their mitts together, and the deal was sealed.

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Frank triumphantly raised his sword, rallying the troops onward, and in a deafening roar of propeller engines and warcries, streams of air pirates charged towards the fray. Gunning his own engine, Frank set off, riding in Pixel's slipstream.

"By this way, I charge interest," Pixel reminded Frank.

"You rich *******," Frank countered, before pointing towards the battling magic stone golem and the giant mutant trolls pounding the mortar out of it. "On second thought, maybe we should talk about loans later... wasn't your house supposed to be there somewhere?"

Pixel peered down, noting first that Aristocrat Alley had completely vanished, then noting the suspicious composition of the stone golem.

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His bloodcurdling scream continued all the way down to the battlefield.

---

Courage Under Fire

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"Come on, darn you idiots, don't you have any teamwork!?"

Dank slammed his hammer down in frustration, splitting his abuse evenly between the code he was yelling out, and his students. In the distance, the stone golem was being broken apart, pummeled by eight pairs of giant fists, just as it tore into the trolls with equally magnificent brutality. As it crumbled, bits and pieces cascaded down, only to be picked up by magic and reattached to the main body. Only Dank was not at all satisfied how the golem was regenerating, for due to the chaotic nature of sixty mages trying to work on one thing at once with not a moment to actually talk to each other, the golem was changing characteristics at an alarming pace.

Dank finally capitulated. "Fine, do what you want! Stick any bloody brick anywhere you want, as long as it can still move!" He resumed yelling out more code to try and right the many wrongs of the situation, but was interrupted by a very wet black body smacking him in the face, which promptly sprang back to its hooves.

"You dumb ***!" Dank yelled, but this time the ninja horse completely ignored him, as if in his own little world.

"Go on, get aw-" Dank started, but stopped when he realised that he was far too late: thanks to the wayward fists of a mutant troll and the trajectory its unfortunate target took, his band of mages had been spotted. With an earth-shaking roar, it scraped the ground, picking up hundreds of fighters from the battlefield, and without thought, bundled them towards their hasty lack-of-fortifications.

But Dank didn't even have to speak. Dank looked on, trapped in a surreal moment, as he nocked his bow, and as if on cue, was wordlessly joined by two more archers. Without a moment's hesitation, they opened fire.

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A withering storm of arrows sailed forth, cutting into the ranks of the displaced raiders. Confused and disoriented, they wheeled about, turning back and clashing into the vanguard. Seeing this, Strop emptied his quiver, indiscriminately firing at the crowd, and discarding it, brandished his bow as a club and dashed towards the mess, hooves kicking up mud high into the air.

By the time Dank looked back, the gnoll and the man had also vanished. Despite himself, his brow furrowed and he found himself pausing a moment.

"But what about your vow?" he mouthed after the departed horse.

---

A Home to Come to

"RRRRRRRRRRRAGH!"

The voice was unique, female, but booming and deep and distinctly unfeminine for all the power and aggression that it carried.

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Her swords long broken, Asherlee sank everything she could, boots, fists, her head, into every wimpy and puny foe who flung herself at her. She fought with a power far beyond that which a simple five minute breather could have ever restored, sending bodies flying as if they were simple trash. Likewise, the Dragon Mistress was rejuvenated, coiling her whips and ensnaring every noob her eyes set upon, before hurling them out of the fight. Around them, heroes rose and little-known legends were born as spirits lifted for a last great desperate hurrah against oblivion.

"We must preserve this city, preserve it so our royalty, so Queen Carlie might have a home to come to!" Asherlee roared.

"No matter how long it takes, hold until that moment!" Dragonmistress echoed.

Above them, the air pirates had engaged in earnest. Some split into squads and swooped low, distracting the raiders and herding them into waiting traps, dividing them further to be set upon by fishmen eager to redeem themselves. Others still swarmed around the giant mutant trolls like angry bees to a bear, figuring that they had a much higher bounty, peppering them with musket shot. They took no notice, initially, until the airships weighed in with their great hundredweight cannons, which blew great grooves in the variegated flesh of the mutants. Ineffectually they swung about, batting at the stinging pests, and Moe in the golem pressed his new advantage, charging forth and driving them away from the castle. The heavens rung and the rain blew away as shockwaves from the impacts rippled outwards.

Not content with duking it out, the mutant trolls threw more and more soldiers into the woodworks and the ever changing structure of the golem itself, until it was crawling with the ants that sought to dismantle it from within. Even as their last hope was under threat, the brave soldiers who fought for AG's sake could not disengage in order to prevent the sabotage from taking place, so they watched helplessly as smoke and static started blowing out of the golem as pipes burst and wires were severed, and the hydraulics cobbled together from bits of boiler from many a house started to creak dangerously.

"FLY LIKE SUPERMAN", a maniacal voice cackled, and overhead, a shape dashed along a ridge on one of the giant's bodies, and shot impossibly straight into the belly of the golem. Sailing through the shifting gaps with suicidal recklessness, a ninja blazed through the levels, taking out any enemy he laid eyes upon, before bursting out from the shoulder of the great golem, laughing like a madman the whole time.

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Oh how I wish I had more time to draw action pages. And more scenes without Strop in them. But I gotta move the plot on, so...

Through the air he sailed, burning the dregs of his coffee euphoria, no longer caring for anything but the culmination of all experiences, where every other moment that he had lived came to that one very moment, the singularity that gave way to the next, to the next, to the-

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Posted Mar 21, '12 at 5:52am

Strop

Strop

10,823 posts

Moderator

 

Posted Apr 9, '12 at 10:45am

Strop

Strop

10,823 posts

Moderator

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Final Round: Rhapsody

Strop blinked himself awake in the room, a moment of panic with the unfamiliar surroundings and noises enough to rip him out of his nightmare. He stared at the ceiling for a moment, dying images dancing for his inner eye. He listened to distant steps and conversations, his horse ears twitching with each sound, trying to be able to hear it better or at least conclude whether he should bolt for the door whinnying. It took a few moments more before he recognied the sounds and surroundings as the Armor Hospital.
It was odd. He had been in a fight, a giant battle, but here he was, spooked at the sounds that usually meant safety, albeit a stressed safety. But here he was, in a bed, in a warm room with clean bed sheets. Nothing could harm him here, not if he had been brought here.
He sighed to himself, rubbing his nose against the pillow, calming himself and slowly going back to sleep.
Except a new sound was crawling to his ears and kept his attention on it. It was coming closer, not the usual determined steps of one of the nurses there, but rather a slow, hesitant set of steps.
His muscles tensed when the steps stopped outside the door to his room, and he once again felt the urge to flee whinnying out of the hospital. The door opened and he sat up with a snort.

"I'm sorry, did I wake you up?"
Strop blinked a little, his sensitive eyes taking a moment to adjust to the influx of light from the dim corridors. But he needed no light to-
"Cen! You made it!" Strop was moments from jumping out the bed, only stopping due to an unfamiliar pain in his entire corpus.
"I would appreciate you didn't sound so surprised."
"Oh, I didn't me-" Strop started, only too late hearing the short, chuckling laughter that followed, and he grew silent.
"Don't worry about it. I will leave you to sleep." Cen turned in the doorway, hand on the door handle.
"No, wait!" The horse called out, instantly feeling discouraged from following through with his idea, the reason he had opened his mouth. Instead he directed his thought of something else, something different. "Were you going to watch me sleep or something...?"
"Ah. No." Cen took a step back and closed the door, leaving the room to be illuminated by the window. "I'm just a little tired. I guess I thought it would be okay to sit in here for a bit." He faced Strop again, and motioned towards the chair on the side of the bed, before simply walking the few steps and seating himself in it.
Strop nodded slowly, moving back a bit in the bed to lean against the headboard himself.

"What time is it?" Strop asked, breaking the silence that had lasted a full minute. Apparently enough for Cen to fall asleep, or so it looked as he struggled back to consciousness to reply.
"Uh, five in the morning I believe." He coughed. "You got plenty of time before the nurses will come running to try and get you to perform miracles with the patients. Apparently someone got stabbed in the neck earlier, not to mention that bizarre case of Beaked Nazi Koala bites."
Strop hesitated for a bit, his head suddenly swimming with questions as the full event started to materialize in his head. But none of those questions seemed to be possible to even think of at that very moment. Instead he turned to another, much simpler issue: "Shouldn't you be sleeping too?"
Cen let out a breath. "Perhaps." Strop could see him shrug, the look of tired disregard, the exhaustion.
"Cen..." Strop hesitated, then sighed audibly as if this exhaust of air could somehow clear his mind. It didn't. But he had to... "About those.. things I said-"
"Don't think about it. Get some sleep instead." The other sat up properly in the chair, and judging from the reflection in his glasses, he was looking at Strop.
"But..."
"Get some rest. They are going to rip you apart in the morning." Cen rose from the chair, and moved back to the door once again. "Consider it a rehearsal for your intern-ship, doc."
Strop stared at his back, wondering how he knew. But then again, it was Cen. It actually explained a lot. Cen opened the door, and nodded back at Strop.
"Goodnight."
"Goodnight." Strop moved a bit to lie down. "Could you..."
The door closed. Strop sighed and rubbed his sore nose a bit before going back to sleep. This time without nightmares.

---

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Welcome Back

It was a desolate scene. Under a sky that was just starting to clear, the light of the sun had not yet begun to return, so the swathes of ruins and rubble sat in a cold, damp gloom.

The band of moderators and a faithful few that had ventured out from their hiding places trudged onto the Main Road and stopped dead, taking in the sights of the cobblestone path punctuated by house-sized craters, bricks and broken glass and splinters of wood strewn through puddles and mud, along with bullet casings, shafts of arrows, a multitude of rusting swords and pieces of armor and various kitchen appliances. There was even the occasional burnt out frame of a tank, and the fuselage of a fighter plane, lodged firmly into the ground.

Nobody spoke, they merely huddled together, steam rising from their breath. Each person had something, many things they could have said, but if there was a time for a gathering to descend into a hubbub of conflicting thoughts, it was not now. There was no place to hold such an occasion anymore, for the Freemarket was no more than a vast expanse of charred kindling, and the Atrium had been completely rubbled.

From deep in the cover of the crowd, somebody shifted. Around them the curtains of the ranks parted, until everybody stood around the emerging figure. The knitted scarf was no disguise from the pointed ears and the black one-piece ninja suit. Strop was back on duty, though as to the scope and the direction of what he would do next, nobody, least of all him, knew. And so he too surveyed the wreckage in the same mesmerized silence.

Without the customary fanfare, nobody had noticed the unicorn-drawn carriage, in its full royal trim, draw up behind them. Nobody noticed the knights flanking the doorway to the carriage, nor the billowing skirts hitched up so as to avoid the muck and the grime that covered the floor. It wasn't until the occupant of the carriage had walked through the parted crowd to stand directly behind the ninja horse, that the stillness was finally shattered.

"Wow," Carlie, Queen of the land of ArmorGames said.

In a panicked flurry, everybody flung themselves on the dirty wet ground, prostrating themselves at her feet. Carlie looked slightly mortified, dropping her skirts and gesticulating at everybody on all sides. "No, no, please, everybody rise."

Slowly, in confusion, everybody rose, except the one ninja horse kneeling directly in front of her, head bowed. "Your Highness. I most deeply apologise for my failure. I take full responsibility and wi-"

With an outstretched hand, Carlie stopped him. "Whoa Strop, hold up a minute. What exactly have you failed?"

Strop opened his mouth to speak, but so many ideas crammed his brain at once that he froze. Finally he lamely offered: "My duties as a moderator."

"And in what way?" Carlie raised her eyebrow expectantly.

Again, Strop's mouth refused to move as he willed it, until he admitted defeat and shook his head. "I don't know."

Offering Strop her hand, Carlie suggested, "Maybe we should leave such things for later. Now won't you stand?"

With that, Strop stood up, still wanting to say something, but not knowing where to begin. It then occured to him that apart from the heavy weight he felt upon his shoulders, the last thing he actually remembered was a grotesque pastiche of the city being ravaged by battle. His colleagues being overwhelmed and coming back and being overwhelmed again in a never-ending sea of enemies. Slightly panicked, he started looking around as if it would help. "Where's everybody else? Have you seen Dank? Zophia? Moe? Asherlee? DM?"

"We're right here," Asherlee called out, stepping forward alongside Dragonmistress.

"Guys, you're okay!" Strop said, obviously relieved to see a couple more familiar faces.

"Okay enough anyway," DM said, hefting her right arm. Strop felt an additional stab of guilt as he realised that it was in a sling. "We could be much worse."

"This place, however," Asherlee whistled low and long as she saw the extent of the damage with her own eyes. She then turned to Carlie. "Your Highness. Is this going to delay... things?"

Carlie folded her arms, one hand covering her chin in thought. "I was just wondering about that. I mean... it's gonna take a lot of work."

Strop scratched his head, sure that he was missing something in this conversation. "Uhm, delay what?"

Carlie was still musing. "And it wouldn't be right unless everything was at least back to normal for the citizens too. After all, it'll be an open invite to all citizens of AG."

DM added: "Not to mention that the castle, while still standing, will require restoration too."

Inside his head, Strop's gears were churning. All the things he had observed that made him suspicious but that he had ignored due to his preoccupation with the cursed tournament were coming back to him... it was all starting to add up, but without the last piece of information the sum wouldn't form a whole. At last, he cleared his throat. "Excuse me, Carlie, what are you planning?"

Carlie looked at Strop innocently. "Planning?"

Strop put his hands on his hips. "Yes. Planning. Between your leaving this town for no apparent reason, and Asherlee and DM arriving without even telling me for however long before the whole invasion happened, and these little slips of the tongue they've been making, I daresay you're planning something else."

The three ladies turned to each other, and faint strains of deliberation could be heard from amongst them. "Do you think we should tell him... I don't know, is this really the right place and occasion? ...well it's always the occasion but it's a matter of whether it's even possible to have it here now... maybe it'll give everybody some determination to repair the city..."

Strop cleared his throat again: "Didn't we have a talk about administrator transparency not too long ago?"

"Alright, alright, I'll tell you." Carlie turned to Strop and flashed a big grin. "We're planning a wedding. I'm getting married."

Everybody's jaw dropped open.

When Strop had rehinged his jaw, he had the presence of mind to respond: "Congratulations your highness. Who is the lucky groom?"

He already had suspicions as to whom Carlie would marry. While not a widely known tale, the legend of Carlie's introduction to the fledgling land of ArmorGames was one as important as the legend of the founding of ArmorGames itself. For were it not for a budding romance from a time long before even Beta, ArmorGames might not even have existed, let alone had a queen.
On cue, there was a whinney and the thunder of hooves coming to a sudden stop. A man dressed in a green adventurer's tunic and matching feathered cap dismounted and stood beside Carlie. Among others, Strop immediately recognised him from the almost mythical tales of many a bard, but even being one of the few to have ever met him some years before, when the city was just a fledgling village, Strop had quite forgotten how tall he was.

"I'd like to introduce John, my fiance."

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"Hi everybody," John said, flashing an understated, but self-assured grin. "Good to meet you."

"It's good to se-" Strop started but the shocked silence from the crowd around them was suddenly shattered by an uproar as people realised that one of the unseen legends had appeared in their midst. John and Carlie quickly found themselves bombarded by questions and exclamations and requests for autographs.

Crawling out from underneath the stampede, Strop, Asherlee and DM dusted themselves off. "Well, that settles it then," DM remarked.

"I guess we'll have to rebuild everything first," Strop sighed.

"Silly horse. Was there ever any doubt?" Asherlee teased, punching Strop on the arm.

"No, it's just..." Strop paused, and then shrugged. "Yeah no we have a lot to do."

"Come on then," DM beckoned him with her riding crop. "You're needed at the hospital. And there's somebody I think you ought to see first."

---

Leave Out All the Rest

The feeling of dreading arriving at work and everything that entailed was a relatively new one to Strop, fledgling doctor as he was, but it was one that felt old already. But as he tentatively trod upon the threshold of Armor Hospital, the queasiness gripped him to the very core, almost paralysing his legs.

"Come on, we're not there yet!" Feeling very much like a traitor being brought before the tribunal, flanked by the military police in Asherlee and Dragonmistress, Strop was dragged by the arms through the main corridor. The hospital still bore the deep scars of the battle that had taken place within its walls, including the treacherous pitfalls and traps that Thoad had left behind. Thoad, who had vanished almost without a trace, and had yet to be seen after the battle, like so many others who had yet to be accounted for. The ledgers had to be filled, eventually, but there was only so much time to do it in. With that thought, Strop squared his shoulders. "Right, who was it you wanted me to see first?"

That was as far as he got before some bright spark spotted him and yelled that the doctor was in the house. In an instant he got a taste of what Carlie and John had experienced earlier, except instead of questions and autographs, he got demands and drug chart rewrites.

"Ease up," he yelled, in vain. "The ward round needs to be orderly!"

Somehow, Asherlee and DM managed to herd the crowd to one side so they could usher him into the ICU broom-cupboard, and then stood guard to prevent the crowd from completely imploding the walls of the room. But it didn't stop the clamouring from outside causing a hubbub and general compromise of privacy.

Strop peered into the room, wondering who it was who would require his most urgent attention, and his heart nearly stopped. For in amongst the tangle of wires, tubes and beeping monitors, was a very large, brown, furry, bear-y body.

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"Klaus!"

At first, the bear didn't move. After several moments of silence, the head stirred, and groggily lifted.

"I thought I said already, it's not Klaus, it's K1aus!", the bear said, pointing to his very cracked laser goggles. Strop grabbed the goggles and wrenched them off his face amidst feeble protest.

"Klaus, you idiot, I don't care about those things now. Just open your eyes."

Slowly, Klaus' eyes opened just a crack. "Oh, all my glorious fans! And if I'm not mistaken, the biggest fan of them all, my dear Stroppy!"

Sighing, Strop folded his arms and studied the bear. The numbers on the monitors didn't seem good, at least, as far as Strop could tell. He wasn't so sure about bear physiology. But bedside examination was far more important, and it took but a single glance to tell that Klaus wasn't in a good way. "Klaus, why?" was all he could come up with.

"I thought we went through that already," Klaus grinned wryly, before coughing, wincing, and grabbing his chest.

"No, I meant why did you have to crush us both with McFisty? And why am I still okay, and you're... you're like this? ****it Klaus, why?" Strop's fists clenched and he slammed them down on the side of the bed. "We're friends, man, why did you have to go and do all this?"

"I told you," Klaus croaked, "I didn't do all of it. I didn't even do half of it. All I did was set the ball rolling, and you all did the rest. It was magnificent."

"That's beside the point you *******," Strop snarled. "But we can argue about that later. For now I gotta-" He stopped as Klaus planted a furry paw on his arm.

"It's too late for me, Strop," he said. "I'm dying."

Strop's eyes widened. "No you're not. Don't be ridiculous." But even as he denied it, he could see the numbers on the monitors dropping. Heart rate, blood pressure... Klaus was probably in severe shock from internal bleeding, and Strop knew he had to move fast. "Don't you dare. I'm going to get some gelo*."

"No... no!" Klaus' grip turned vice-like, and Strop nearly fell over as he was yanked back. "Be a real friend, stay here, listen to a dying bear's last wish."

Strop tried to shake himself free once more, but without conviction. Gritting his teeth, he pointed at the nearest nurse, who immediately ran off, then turned back to Klaus. "I won't let you die on my watch, but shoot."

"It's about Klaus," Klaus murmured. Strop glanced at the monitors again, worrying that he was becoming incoherent. "Klaus... he was permanently banned from AG."

"I know that, Klaus." Strop said.

"Shaddup, LISTEN!" Klaus pulled Strop in closer. "You gotta listen. I don't have long left, so this is my last wish, okay?"

"Klaus, just hurry up and get on with it before you actually die."

"OKAY. Well... I know you have your duty as a moderator, but as an old friend, I want you to promise me something..." Klaus took a ragged breath. "After I'm gone, I want you to forget the wrongs I've done... I want you to unban Klaus."

Strop shook his head, "Klaus, I can't do that, I'm just-" Klaus dragged him so close his face was almost mashed against Klaus' chest.

"STROP. Can't you do it for me? It won't even mean anything, since I'll be dead. But it's just so I can rest in peace..."

At this point, the nurse tapped Strop on the shoulder, and held up a few bags of gelo. With his free hand, Strop helped the nurse prime the line and hook the bags up, with a short directive to "squeeze it in stat, this is a bolus." He turned back to Klaus. "Right Klaus, I'll think about it. Now lemme go and just concentrate on staying a-"

Klaus shook his head. "You never listened, Stroppy. You can't know what's good for everybody if you can't even respect your best friend's dying wish."

"No, Klaus, you're not dying." An insistent dinging went off on the monitor, and then another. Strop glanced at the nurse and she shook her head at him, expression grim. "No, Klaus, YOU'RE NOT DYING!" The heart rate was at forty beats a minute, then thirty five, then thirty...

"Goodbye, Stroppy," Klaus said, his head sinking back onto the bed.

"Okay, I'll do it! I'll do it, Klaus, just don't die!" Strop scrambled as far as he was allowed to squeeze the bags. Heart rate of twenty beats a minute and dropping... the blood pressure was already unreadable. It was probably a massive internal haemorrhage, who knew what kind of injuries Klaus had sustained from the battle, it was near a miracle that he had lasted this long. But now if anything he needed a whole team of surgeons and anaethetists and Strop was no surgeon. In fact, Armor Hospital was no hospital, and this blasted ICU was no ICU, it was a god**** broom cupboard and there was nothing he could do, in this moment, to save his friend. "Don't die, you *******!"

"Remember," Klaus said, barely at a whisper, "I love you."

There was a pause, then he added: "No homo."

Then Klaus stopped breathing.

The chiming of the alarms turned to an incessant whine as the monitors flatlined. Behind them, an uproar broke out as Asherlee and DM combined their powers to restrain the clamouring crowd at the dour.

The nurse turned to Strop and held up her hands. "Do you want me to commence CPR?"

Strop waved her down. Wordlessly, he reached up, and shut the monitors down. It was then that he noticed that a complete silence had befallen the scene. He placed his hands over Klaus' brow, and closed his eyes.

"With your passing, you leave behind your transgressions. Rest in peace, Klaus." He then folded his hands over his chest, and bowed his head. Subconsciously, everybody around him did the same.

Klaus sat up.

"Well, that was easier than I expected," the formerly dead bear remarked.

"KLAUS!??!?!?!?!?!?" Strop gaped, bowlegged from the shock.

"Back in brown, baby! None of that stupid K1aus business anymore!" he flashed his ****iest grin and a giant thumbs up. "I gotta say doc, you're a miracle worker!"

"WHAT IS THIS I DON'T EVEN!" was the limits of Strop's eloquence, such was the sudden turn of events.

"God help us all," DM dryly remarked.

"Hey, hey, see this scar?" Klaus quipped, flexing his arm. "You wanna know how I got it?"

"#%*@&^$!" was Strop's reply. At least, initially. When he had recovered, he cracked his knuckles ominously and stared down at Klaus with a glare that could only be matched by Asherlee.

"Klaus, I'm so glad that you saw fit to return to the land of the living, so that justice might be appropriately served for the ruin that you have instigated in your hubristic folly."

"Aw Stroppy, what are you talking about? You totally said my ban would be revoked!"

Strop held up two fingers. "Two things. First, as a moderator, I don't revoke permanent bans. Second, you're under arrest on the charges of circumventing said ban. Actions performed by yourself covered by this charge won't affect your judgement. As per our administrative constitution you will be trialled in a closed court. You may lodge an appeal directly to the administration if you object to the original charge as laid by a moderator."

"YOU CAN'T DO THIS," Klaus shouted. "There are witnesses here! The people love me!"

Strop squared his shoulders and turned away. He grabbed a chart and started scribbling something on a form. "This bear is a danger to both himself and others. I'm authorising the use of physical and chemical restraints. He will be reviewed daily by the psychiatrist liaison until such a time as he is transported to a more secure location."

"WAIT!" Klaus was nearly hysterical now. "DON'T YOU WANT TO KNOW HOW I CAME BACK FROM THE DEAD?"

"No." Strop's answer was as resolute as his stride as he pushed his way to the door, and back into the corridor of Armor Hospital.

* gelofuscine: reconstituted plasma substitute. Derived from cow cartilage.

 

Posted Jul 22, '12 at 7:52am

Strop

Strop

10,823 posts

Moderator

A New Hope

Like forest creatures emerging from a season long hibernation, the many good folk of Armor City who had fled to the Wilderness had begun to emerge from their hiding places in earnest. Streaming through the rubble that used to be the front gates, they blinked owlishly amongst the ruins, they milled around, seeing all that had become of their homes and their livelihoods. But there was one thing that each of them realised that frigid morning. Under the faint rays of the sun filtered by the rainclouds, after all the chaos and despair had given way, there was hope. It was a hope that began as the sounds of terror and battle had been drowned out by a godalmighty thunderstorm of Biblical proportions, followed by the eerie silence of rain.

Even for, or maybe especially for the brave desperate citizens who stayed to fight, nobody really knew what had happened, or how. All they knew was that in a blazing moment of lightning, many had seen, standing knee deep a swathe of unconscious bodies on the main road, the grim visage of Dan McNeely in full battle armor, flanked by those wraiths whose arms shaped ArmorGames itself, the Developers. But everybody knew that was impossible, for it had been years since they had last been seen at all, and there was the further rumour that they were working on a different, even bigger project, or even projects, but by this point nobody really knew what anybody was talking about. So it was assumed that, since some people had confirmed the presence of Queen Carlie, that it had to be her doing, since, even in absence, she had been the official administrator of the City itself.

A sudden fanfare blared through the streets of Armor City, shrill, piercing, yet voluminous and overpowering. It filled every single street within the walls, it made the loose rubble on the pavement dance. It was as if a whole brass band was playing directly into a soopahdoopahawesometasticmegamegafone.

Strop switched the 'fone off, and removed his earmuffs before stepping back into line with the other moderators. Standing in single file along where the Atrium used to be, they fidgeted as they watched the citizens, their curiosity piqued, streaming towards the tiled clearing in droves.

"I hope you know what you're doing, Strop," Dank growled as he cast his eyes yonder at the pile of rubble that used to be the Armor Academy campus. "After all that has happened they're just as likely to lynch us as listen to us."

"I'm aware of that," Strop said, his eyes unwilling to meet with anybody else's. "But we're under instructions, so we just have to hope everything falls into place now."

"It's not like all of the mods are even here anyhow," Zophia mumbled, poking the ground with a stick. "Nobody's seen Nill since we ordered the evacuation to the park, and Moe's still..."

"It's okay," Asherlee cut in, her face grim. "All Moe needs is a bit of rest. There ain't a brain in a jar as capable as that in all this land."

A crowd started forming, and pointing the occasional finger at the group, wondering what was going on. By instinct instilled by the long held natural order, they started sorting themselves into rows and sitting down, leaning on bits of rubble where the benches used to be. Up above, a black silhouette circled, lazily flapping its great leathery wings, drawing further attention to the spot.

"Over there!"

This time, the royal train was unmistakable in its official capacity. The finely embroidered royal coach, in resplendent blue and white trimming, glided over the potholes and the rubble, drawn by two unicorns that seemed to barely touch the ground. Behind them was another coach, flanked by many cloaked figures, each riding their own unicorn. A hushed murmur went over the crowd, as it waited, transfixed by its approach.

The moderators spread into two lines, and the royal train came to a halt between them. There was a pause, then as if on a hidden cue, the carriage doors opened and the flanking riders dismounted from their unicorns. From the carriage emerged a man wearing a crown, and long flowing cape in royal trim, covering battle armor emblazoned with the crest of Armor Games. It was a strangely familiar battle armor at that...

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A sudden cry went up in as much question as it was recognition. "McNeely!" "McNeely!?" The cry echoed and gathered volume as more people took it up, until the place reverberated with a uniform roar.

Dan McNeely, founder and leader of Armor Games, bemusedly scratched his soul patch and placidly waited for the crowd to calm down. When it hadn't after several minutes, Strop decided enough was enough, handed him the 'fone, and slipped his ear muffs back on. Then he gestured. "As you please, your Highness."

Dan studied the 'fone for a moment, before finding the trigger and activating it. "Greetings to you all!" he tried.

Almost instantaneously the crowd was silenced, so Dan resumed. "I am glad to see this many people safe and well. Thank you for gathering to this place. We know that you have many questions about what has happened, and what will happen, so we, the administration, will try to answer them for you."

The crowd started firing up again, so this time Dan held his hands out, quelling it. "We have a number of statements and announcements prepared, so I will ask you to bear with us while we read them out." He scrabbled around and produced a wad of papers, which he proceeded to squint at.

"First, regarding the recent battle, we can officially announce that Armor Games is now safe. There may be a few rogue elements on the loose but on the whole it won't be long before they're rounded up and brought to trial."

There was a mixed silence, in the moderation team's experience, surmised to be due to a mix of confusion, indifference, and utter awe at being even in the line of sight of the great administration team and the moderators all at once. Oblivious to this, Dan read on.

"We will also conduct a full investigation into the events leading up to the  incident. For the time being, though, we are thankful to the moderation team who tirelessly fought to protect the community even in the most difficult of circumstances. Our thoughts also go out to those who were lost while defending our home. We shall hold a service in their honour at a future date."

There was a smattering of applause, which was almost suppressed by the furtive glares some of the team were shooting the moderators. Even in their rank and file, some of the moderators subconsciously inched away from Strop, who in turn subconsciously hung his head.

"At this stage, I would like to announce a very special project that we have been working on for a while, but wanted to wait until definite progress was underway to tell you."

For a moment, the crowd hushed, instinctively knowing that if the administration themselves would venture out from wherever they were, after years of absence, this something must indeed be monumental, even world changing. The way Dan was gesturing, and the way that the caped figures that flanked him were walking towards the center, it had to be a big announcement.

"First off, you may know that our Queen of the City, Her Royal Highness Carlie, has announced her betrothal to one of the members of the Order of the Developers. This said, I'd like you to meet the Development team in full, as we have a few new members to introduce to you today."

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The crowd gasped as one, as the cloaked figures reached for their clasps and whipped them off, revealing their faces. Immediately among them the citizens recognised the tall, dashing John. Some of the veterans even recognised his contemporaries, the likes of Joey Betz, who had been there since nearly the beginning. In the corner of his eye, Strop could see a certain magical quill scribbling furiously.

The excitement generated a buzz that quickly lifted the heaviness of the atmosphere as people started speculating on the new faces, as well as the purpose of announcing this right here and now. Shortly, Dan answered their questions: "This development team has been tasked with a new milestone in the history of our great land. They have been working on the planning of a new city. A city that will eventually replace the one that we are currently standing in."

There was a moment of flabbergasted silence, and then an uproar. There were exclamations of joy, dismay, questions and arguments all at once. The moderators looked at each other and shrugged. There wasn't much point in trying to bring proceedings back to order. Over the top of everything, Dan kept reading from his papers.

"Of course, we would not neglect the repairs so desperately needed by this city. For that very purpose, as Queen Carlie will be vacating her post, we have appointed one of our new developers to be the overseer of this city while we rebuild."

One of the developers stepped forward, and the crowd hushed again. There was no directive, there was no order or even threat. But from the new man's imposing bulk emanated an even more imposing aura of authority, the authority vested in him to rule the city and the ability and intention to start exercising it from the first instant.

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When I first sketched him, Cormyn preferred to be drawn in the kind of contemporary clothes he usually wears, what a rebel.

"Hi everybody, I'm Cormyn. We have a big task ahead of us, so let's work hard together." With that he raised a meaty fist.

The crowd erupted. For the first time in a while, there was certainty beyond any reasonable doubt, no more stalling, no more questionable schemes. There was an intent and power as serious as the internet, and with that, people's hearts united stronger than before.

The moderators all turned and shook hands with their new commander. Strop felt a weight lift from his shoulders, as did the other moderators. "I guess this is what we really needed, after all," somebody muttered. It didn't matter who, for they all felt the same. In the background, a triumphant chant started up as people started streaming off in various directions, suddenly inspired to begin the clean-up of AG post-haste. The royal carriage was loaded again, and the train prepared to set off for Armor Castle.

Strop found himself standing beside the open window of the lead carriage. "Your Highness..." he called for reasons beyond his comprehension, hoping as much as he didn't that somebody heard him.

"Yes, Strop," Dan's head poked out of the carriage.

"About that inquiry... if I'm found guilty of any wrongdoing, I will accept whatever recommendation results from the inquiry."

Dan's reply came without hesitation. "I'm sure you did the right thing. After all, we have great faith in our moderators."

And with that, he ducked back in, and the carriage moved off, leaving Strop standing there, reflecting on what he had done, and the Way of Moderation.

---

I Say What I Mean & I Mean What I Say

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"Cen, are you alright?"

Strop had found it a rather good idea earlier. Not in the same way that other things seemed to be a good idea, and turned out to be stupid, dangerous or both. No, he had taken the time to think it through, wonder if it really was a good idea, which, with the lack of sleep and rest he had managed to pull through the past few days with, had given him a headache after a few moments. Perhaps he should have taken this as a sign that it was not a good idea at all anyway. His intern liked his peace, after all.
The day before had, as this one, been used simply to tend to the wounded citizens, and ignore the grim damage to city outside the windows. It didn't matter much, for the initial excitement of the arrival of the admins was quickly drowned out by the unpredictable rains heralding the arrival of Spring. And if he was to judge by the rumours and conversations around the hospital started by those who had radios or families outside the city, the rain had spread Eastward and to the South, laying as a heavy blanket over the majority of that part of the country. So everybody was paralyzed under the varied drumming of the weather, as if nothing really mattered.

If Strop had been more of a poet, songs and music are not poetry even if they are twin entities, or perhaps more of a believer, he would have thought the rain was washing away the dirt and grime of his own crimes, the evidence of the fighting and leaving everything clean and pure as it should be. When he looked outside, he could see that this was in no way true. Physical rain does not remove wounds to the trust of others. It did however make a good job at making everything slippery, wet and muddy.

At least, this afternoon it was merely a light, wet dust, very fresh compared to the closed in feel of the hospital.

At first he had feared the reaction of the patients, when he started tending to them. He was, at least indirectly, the cause of their wounds and he was the reason it had all happened. He had gone out of line and removed himself from reality; when he should have listened, observed and corrected himself, he had closed his ears, his eyes and gone further to show he was right.
Most of the patients did not share this idea of guilt. To them, he had simply been entertainment for the last... What had it been? Half a year, Two thirds? Three quarters of a year? He had been entertainment and a showcase that the mods were still there, something many of the citizens had doubted.
Of course, a few of them still hold blame against him, but saw no reason for this to change the fact that at this time and place, he was the doctor healing their wounds. He could take his punishment at another time.

All this work had taken his mind off something that would otherwise have worried him. He had not seen Cen since he had woken up in the middle of the night, after the nightmare... Of course, this could just be Cen, being his usual antisocial self, but no one should be alone after such an event.
This had lead Strop to make his way through the rubble and the rain to the residential parts of the city, where the invasion had barely made a scratch. Possibly because there was nothing to steal, and even less to destroy. He had made his way up the stairs to the second floor, just like he had some winter a year ago, the year he had seen his first snow. Much had changed since then. Up the stairs and knock on the door. No need for nasty surprises, or what was basically breaking and entering. Not that moderators knew the meaning of those words anyway.

Cen glared up at him, having a certain worn feel to him, even if he didn't look much different from any other day. Worn, a bit like someone had tried to straighten a piece of crumbled paper. Not to mention the bruises and the poorly bandaged cuts. Actually, it had probably been a stupid question to start off with, like asking someone with a huge gash over their torso if they were hurt. Stupid.

"Uh... I think so... What do you want." Cen didn't look angry, he didn't sound angry either, but his voice still had a sharp note to it inside the hoarse rasping his voice had been reduced to.

"I was... I was just wondering if you were alright. I..." Why did this have to be so awkward and hard. Oh right, breaking trust, neglecting friendship, being a total *** to friend. Right. "I hadn't seen you for a while, so... Besides, you might need medical help?" Strop tried, inching forward towards the door.

Cen stared him down for a moment, an amazing feat by someone already squinting from a lack of glasses and with a massive shiner closing up one eye.

"You know... Because there was a battle, and you might have gotten hurt and..." Strop paused, feeling distinctively like a young colt trying to excuse his lack of homework to an especially strict teacher. "I just wanted to be sure." He ended the sentence, ears flopping sadly to the sides.

"I am fine." Cen continued the merciless stare, making Strop's ears flop even more sadly.

"You don't... look fine." The ninja started poking his fingers together, avoiding the cruel gaze of the other.

There was no immediate reply, which made Strop chance his eyes up from the floor to look at Cen again.

His expression had changed. Not much, just enough to look slightly lost instead of slightly furious. All it had taken was a movement of his eyebrows, and the entire expression had changed.

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Strop decided right then to change tactics. "Can I come in? I need to speak with you." He inched closer.

"I don't want to talk to you." Cen closed the poor, but got stopped half way there by a hoof in the way. At the same time, Strop was oddly happy he had been born a horse.

"But can I speak to you, then?"

Cen sighed, an almost defeated expression on his face, and opened the door to let Strop into his dim den of an apartment. Strop looked around, his eyes adjusting to the unusual darkness provided by blankets hanging from the windows, but just as unusually, the floor was cleared for paper and books, most of which had been relocated under the table in the corner.

Strop trotted the few steps through the kitchen and into the living-slash-bedroom, wondering for a moment if he should take a seat that the table like he had one time many months ago, or he should stay standing, waiting for Cen to take the initiative, but before he could manage to decide, the other had closed and locked the door, moved past him and sat himself down in the bed in the other end of the room, his eyes giving off an almost dangerous gleam in the little light that made it past the blankets. Strop managed to sit himself in one of the uncomfortable dinning chairs at the table, looking back at Cen over the distance.

They sat like that for what felt like a long while. It probably wasn't, since Cen didn't blink in that entire time, but Strop couldn't quite be sure anyway. Cen did have a habit of being just a little unnerving at times. "So. Uh..." There was still time to run!! Out the door, down the stairs and out into the street. Cen would never know what had happened! "You did really great... You know, defending the castle..."

"For about three seconds."

"It was surely more than that! After all, you couldn't get that... beat.. up... uh..." Strop face palmed at himself.

"Technically I got about half of this somewhere else." Cen rested his head in his hands.

Strop didn't quite know how to respond. Actually, he didn't know how to react either, or whether he should be reacting at all. His head was starting to buzz again with everything he needed to say and do and... He took a deep breath and looked up.

"I am sorry for what happened, Cen. I wasn't listening when I should have been, and everything ended up in chaos and horror. It was nothing like I imagined it would be and, when it comes down to it, it was nothing like it should have been in the first place. I am sorry. I did things I shouldn't have, and I said things I didn't mean."

"I am sure you meant it." His voice did not have a trace of anger or sarcasm in it. Rather it simply sounded tired. "I know I did."

The ninja horse snorted. "Even that I was a show pony?"

"Yes."

"... Well, I didn't mean what I said."

"If you didn't mean it, you wouldn't have said it. But just because you meant it, doesn't mean you would have told me in any other situation."

"Uh."

"You think I am a weakling that can't act for myself, can't take charge and have no idea what it is like to be you. I think you were just doing it for attention, are a blockhead and should get down from your, mm, high horse. I think we both disproved those assumptions already, and I have no reason to dwell in them any longer." Cen hesitated for a moment, before continuing with a slightly changed tone of voice. "Which probably makes that entire argument seem a little ironic. Oh well. Either way, you are sorry, I am tired, you may leave." And with that, he swung his legs into the bed and laid down.

Strop frowned as much as a horse might be able to frown, and stared at the lying shape. Then a huffing noise came from him. "I won't." He rose, though without moving from where he stood. "I really am sorry, Cen. For what I said. For that I said it, I guess. It was wrong. Everything was wrong, and I am sorry for what I have done, and I am telling you so. You might not forgive me or anything, but I don't want the ball in my court any more. I am going to tell the other I'm sorry too and see if I can make up for it and how the tournament went, but I wanted you to hear it first, because it probably would have been worse, if you hadn't been around. Who knows what might have happened then. So... That is it. I've said it, I am done." he sucked in a bit of air, before turning on a hoof and heading towards the door. "And you should see a doctor. You look like crap."

Strop marched the few steps to the door and unlocked it, before he heard the cough behind him. He turned around to see Cen squinting at him. "You are the only doctor in this town."

"So what. Find another. I am sure you can use Sai's." Strop turned again.

"I don't think I can use any of Sai's stuff..."

Strop paused in the door.

"I think she broke up with me."

"You think?" Strop looked over his shoulder at Cen, who was leaning against the door frame.

"It's Sai. She isn't exactly made out of the clearest intentions."

Strop took another look, before shrugging and continuing out the door.

"I even got beat up by her ex, because I wanted to save her."

"You are an unlucky man." Strop simply stated.

"This is the wrong time for doing what I tell you to, you *******." The sentence was clear, but without much emotion. It could have been mumbled and somehow made more sense.

The ninja horse stopped again. His tail was moving from side to side, a bit odd for a horse, but not unlike a cat before it closes its bear trap like claws on someone's hand. "Screw you." He walked down the hall, out the door and down the stairs, stiff, snorting.

At least he had said what he had wanted to say. Even if Cen obviously hadn't deserved such civility.

---

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

"To begin with, what is the Way of Moderation?"

"I beg your pardon?"

Seated in the witness chair, Strop scratched his neck, tugging at the fabric of his ninja suit. Where the court used to sit, the administrators had magicked in a new courthouse, along with a new courtyard that they had "borrowed" from somewhere... else. It didn't exactly fit the old aesthetic standards, and one could even have said that it didn't exactly fit, period. It wasn't as if the original one could have been built in the three days since the end of the great battle anyway. But none of that mattered when from the inside, nobody could tell the difference. It was a somewhat more low-key affair, the walls and desks plainer, the stands less haughty. Strop almost missed the gravitas and atmosphere of the old one, but sitting where he was now, he didn't have the luxury of nostalgia. From the gallery, he recognised all the contestants of the tournament, from the wannabes that signed up and didn't even show up, to the ones that put up a good fight, to the who's who of the aspirants, including those who had returned to defend AG in its most desperate hour, the likes of Frank and Pixel, and Manta (and his merry men), Chill, The Bullman, and of course the grand finalists Crimson and Leon (surprisingly even he had turned up to see what all the fuss was about). King "Since Beta" Ryan was, of course, transcribing. And with him being the sole exception as his nose was buried in parchment, everybody else was staring directly at Strop. Including his interrogators, the administration of Armor Games, headed by Dan himself.

"In this instance, we mean the Way of Moderation, the Tournament."

"Ah, right." Strop tugged at his suit again. This time there were no fancy ties, no Strop-on doppelgangers, and almost certainly no crazy disruptions to proceedings. It was just him, uncomfortable questions and awkward answers. Nonetheless this one was open-ended enough, and a good place to start, so, having taken a breath, he began. "The Way of Moderation Tournament was a tournament designed to identify citizens of Armor Land who were willing and possessing of the qualities to become a moderator."

"Who was consulted in the making of the decision to hold such a tournament?"

"At the point the plan for the tournament was conceived, it was Her Highness the Queen, Carlie, presiding over a meeting with the present moderators, including myself, Moderator Ubertuna, Moderator Moe, Moderator Flipski, Moderator Nemo, Moderator Zophia, and Moderator Devoidless."

"Why was the tournament founded in this instance?"

"Ordinarily the Moderators are selected by the Wheel of Moderation. However in this instance the Wheel of Moderation was not operational, and there was nobody capable of repairing it. Most importantly, it was a time in which we had become aware as a team that the land of Armor Games required an additional member to the Moderation team."

"And why did the Moderation team decide that they required an additional member?" Dan's face remained absolutely neutral as he asked the question, though Strop wasn't sure there wasn't at least a little tension that played underneath its surface. Or maybe he was just reading into things.

"We were finding it difficult to adequately cover all the duties of a Moderator. In particular the incidence of citizens disrupting the peace had risen to the point where we could no longer deal with all of them in a timely fashion. Complaints were stacking up, spam was also building up and particularly in the wilderness it was running rampant."

"Okay then." The developers sitting at the magistrate's bench beside Dan were all writing notes and passing them to each other. Strop tilted his head, not sure what to make of it all. But so far, things didn't seem to be going too badly at all. Very suspicious.

"We've now established the premise upon with the Way of Moderation Tournament was founded. Could you now proceed to tell us about the structure of the tournament?"

Strop pondered this for a moment, as the events of the past year came flooding back. The grand plans, the infectious enthusiasm, the wanton destruction and, admittedly, the schadenfreude... all of it seeming as folly, and probably going to sound incredibly stupid, but burning ears and cheeks and all, he had his duty to fulfill to the bitter end. So here he went:

"The tournament was designed to identify one most suitable candidate to nominate for moderation, so it was structured in elimination stages. Each stage was designed to test the mettle and aptitudes of each candidate, and failure to participate in any stage was registered as a withdrawal from the tournament. Once the tournament reached a sufficiently small pool of remaining candidates, they were interviewed, and a final eight were selected, and the structure from that point were rounds of peer-versus-peer action."

"So I see." At this point one of the developers handed Dan a stack of paper, which he perused. "This is a list of the activities for each round... and I'm told underneath this is an inventory of the, uh, collateral damage from each round, as compiled from a series of reports as kept by a certain citizen by the name of Cenere. Would you mind looking over it and commenting?"

The anticipated hand-gripping-the-gullet sensation hit Strop in force. This was the beginning of everything this session was supposed to do, and once he started, like falling down a mountain, there was no stopping until he had reached the very bottom. Shakily, he grasped the paper and looked over it. Yes, it was all dutifully recorded in slightly chaotic cursive, but the words were still all so clear.

"Yes, this is indeed an accurate record of the events of the Way of Moderation Tournament."

"The activities include such things as 'Dodgeball', 'Steeplechase', and a... rap battle. And I also see that Cenere has included a written account of his concerns about the damages to both property and person alike. This does raise concerns with the administration that the activities undertaken as part of the tournament had a significant amount of risk built into them. Would you care to comment?"

Strop took a deep breath, reining in the temptation to utter a few choice curses. He wondered why, in the clear light of day, he couldn't remember any of Cen's protests or warnings. It might have been something to do with the fact that as soon as he so much as sniffed paperwork, he promptly foisted it on Cen. He had after all done his time as the mule of the moderators... this thought made him frown to himself a little, in thought.

"Moderator Strop? Any comment?"

Strop jerked back to the present. "Oh! Well yes, yes I would. I acknowledge that there was risk involved in the activities. In the planning of each event I was hoping to give every candidate a broad exposure to the city at large, as well as a broad range of tasks... um... to demonstrate the, uh, versatility required of a moderator, as well as to test their familiarity with the whole of the city. After all, a moderator's duties extend throughout the entire lands, and many users are known to frequent just a small section of the community. And I will add that Armor City is a vibrant community with many different people and views and many things happening so... often plans had to be altered to adapt to suit circumstances... versatility. You know."

"Fair enough, but, a rap battle?"

Strop rubbed his head. "Well that was going to be a night of general song and dance, but there was a double-booking and the decorater had already... done up the place, so I had to, uh, go with the flow."

"Very well." Dan made a little note on his pad, making Strop cringe. Was Dan not a fan of rap battles? If he recalled correctly Queen Carlie thought the idea was fun...

"I guess the question I'm asking, and I'm sure many of the citizens are also asking, is for some kind of explanation as to how exactly the activities you subj- I mean you set for the candidates relates to assessing one's ability to be a moderator."

Strop ticked another item off on his mental bingo card of "Awkward Questions That Needed To Be Asked in the Inquiry". Then he chewed his lip. Then he decided he might as well attempt to answer the question. "I know it's not appropriate to answer a question with a question, but bear with me: would you find it permissible to give a user who was not a moderator a banhammer of their own and see how they did clearing spam?"

"No, I wouldn't," Dan replied.

"For that reason I had to think of, uh, very indirect modes of testing the various abilities I thought were related to the tasks typical of a moderator."

"This may be true, but it seems that many of the initial tasks are highly agility oriented, which may reflect how you perform your moderator duties but, shall I say, appears to be a trait unique to you as a moderator."

"Indeed. That's due to the fact the task of planning the events fell to me. And since I was the assessor, I had to pick tasks that I was familiar with. But the tasks themselves weren't assessed by the outcome, so much as the attitude, the manner in which they were performed."

He was met with a round of blank stares. "I was looking for character and commitment." He offered. More blank stares. With a hint of desperation, he added, "You have to consider that this was an event that was the subject of most of the conversation of the city for several months! The events had to have spectacle, flair... in every circumstance the way to keep the public order is to keep the public happy, and to keep the public happy we must keep them entertained. I will admit that this did lead to some risk taking, and it did lead to a degree of, uh, spontanaeity, but I had everything planned according to the balance of all factors."

"Fair enough," Dan said, flicking through some more notes, "Though it seems that not every... in fact most of the other moderators didn't agree with your approach."

"Not to make this sound like a blame game, but we did have our differences. In fact three of the moderators actively opposed the idea of a tournament and after they were outvoted they acted to obstruct the proceedings. I would not say that they were there to disrupt the peace of AG itself, so much as act on what they thought was in best interests... but the outcome was that far more damage was done than would have otherwise occured."

"I shall be calling the moderators in question to give an account later on, so that we may have a complete picture, so that will be enough on that topic. Although I note," and Dan fixed Strop with a slight glare, "That Armor Castle seems to prominently feature among the damages inventory several times throughout the report, including one instance early in the tournament when it was completely demolished by a wayward banhammer swing."

"But your Highness," Strop spluttered, "that instance wasn't really a result of the activities of the Tournament! There were extenuating circumstances, and I hasten to add, that wayward swing should only have affected my own room, if not for the, um, ageing foundations of the castle, but I digress..." His splutterings died down as he realised he was only digging a deeper hole for himself.

Fortunately, Dan saw fit to ignore the irrelevant parts of his rambling. "I acknowledge that incident was one of several involving the eventual instigator of the attempted revolt and sacking of Armor Games, the former citizen known as Klaus. Now is as good a time as any, so could you describe your relationship with Klaus?"

Strop had to stop himself from automatically disclaiming that it was entirely platonic, and 'no homo'. "I won't deny that Klaus was, and in some ways still is a friend. I'm sure this view is in fact shared by many members of the moderation team and public alike. He was likeable and funny, if always controversial."

A surreptitious glance informed Strop that he hadn't been imagining it all this time, for there were several subtle nods from the gallery. He turned back to the administration and sighed a little. "We were closest in the early days, when everything seemed fresh and possibilities endless. Klaus spent most of his time spinning business in the Freemarket. I guess where we differed was that he wanted to make it big. He wanted to get rich, he wanted power, and when neither was forthcoming, the whole concept of AG's economy soured on him. That's why he ordered the nuking of the Freemarket, and stormed the bank."

"He wanted to destroy the economy?" Dan asked.

"Yes. Klaus explicitly said so, denouncing it as the source of much of the problems of this land."

At this the gallery positively bristled, but nobody spoke, nobody would dare speak out of turn in the presence of AG's most powerful.

"Do you agree with Klaus' views?"

Strop blinked, not expecting this digression. "It's true that the status having a lot of AP confers has been identified as a specific motive for organised criminal activity. And less organised criminal activity."

"Well, we shall have to review that," Dan said, making a note, and leaving the question of what he meant by that on everybody's lips, yet unspoken. "But back to the topic... where did it all go wrong? Would you know?"

"Despite the differences in motive, like many, Klaus' primary concern was thinking of ways to improve Armor City. And like many, he shared frustrations at the limited means by which to do so, for there's only so much we can do with the..." and at this Strop almost trailed off at the realisation of what he was implying, "...tools and infrastructure available to us."

"Interesting," Dan said, one hand stroking his soul patch. "Do you have any specific details?"

"The moderators have submitted a written report on those, which you may have. But with regards to the users, their main issues were to do with backward technology. We, how do I put this, we're stuck in the medieval period and I'm not sure how sustainable it is at this point given the rate of population growth..."

"It is true that this town was started as a much, much smaller project. And as a result of that there are many inefficiencies and the system basically needs a complete overhaul." Dan gestured to the developers flanking him. "Infrastructure is precisely the reason why we're building an entirely new city, though we'll of course endeavour to fix the problems we have in this current city. But we can talk about that more later. We've established at least a motive for the conflict that disrupted the community, as well as identifying an underlying issue with the community at large, so let's move onto the most pressing questions for today's inquiry. Namely, what is the Way of Moderation?"

The question slugged Strop like a blow to the solar plexus. It had been on his bingo list but it was one he really hoped he wasn't asked. At least not in this context. But he might as well not sugar-coat the truth. "Where do I start?"

"You start from the beginning, of course." Dan was spectacularly unhelpful as he was deadpan.

"Well, I uh... to be honest with you the Way of Moderation is a gag line."

"Go on."

"It's the line I use when citizens ask me 'how do I become a moderator', and I would ask them 'Do you follow the Way of Moderation?'. Because asking how to become a moderator is the clearest indication that one doesn't have what it takes to be a mod. I know it sounds like a cruel joke, but to me there's a truth, one that loses its value when it's explained."

"Humour us, Moderator Strop. We're interested in what you have to say."

"Very well," Strop wiped his brow and adjusted his ninja hood. "It's very much like the Wheel of Moderation, I don't know how it works but its function is infallible. In a similar way a moderator knows they can be one, and it is in their nature. They do not have to mold themselves or strive to change their natures, for they've reached the point where they can take on that task. And that's what marks them out from those who speak of moderation and being a moderator, that they don't talk about how they could or should be one. They just know that they are at a point where they could be one at that very moment and nothing would change except the possession of a banhammer."

"You make a true observation," Dan mused, "But nonetheless the correlation between characteristics of a moderator and this behaviour still seems very nebulous. I'm interested in knowing what characteristics you were looking for."

"What I was looking for? Obviously one who has sound judgement, and is willing to exercise it as a commitment to the community. One who can juggle lawfulness and notions of the greater good and act accordingly. Conflict management. Staying calm in the worst of situations, having resilience and persistence. Being able to quickly identify issues and address them to minimise risk and damages." Strop felt strangely nauseous, like the anticipation of having to vomit, the dread lingered somewhere between his stomach and his throat.

Dan finished shuffling his papers, so he stacked them neatly on the desk and pushed them aside. Then he looked directly at Strop. "Now that you've laid those standards, I want you to answer these next questions honestly, Moderator Strop. Do you believe your actions over the past year upheld those standards? Do you believe your actions over the past year reflected your Way of Moderation?"

Strop hung his head. Silence followed for several seconds.

"No." He finally answered.

"In what way?"

"My decisions did not reflect sound judgement. I got caught up in a task and in the panic I lost sight of the greater good. When conflicts arose I only made them worse by ignoring them. It was only in the worst of times when it was too late, that we were able to work as a team to restore things, but up until then I made unilateral decisions with no regard to safety. For all these things I take full responsibility."

Thus Strop's fall from the Way of Moderation was complete. Or rather, it perhaps had been completed a long time ago, but he had only gotten around to admitting it, in full and formal capacity, now.

"Very well. We shall take that into consideration in our deliberations. The other question we have is... the result of the tournament. Did you identify any candidate whom you would consider to become a moderator, based on everything that has been said and done?"

Strop cast his eyes over the gallery, full of said candidates, who were intently staring at him. Many of them had rekindled in them that hungry look moderators avoided like the plague. Others still looked weary, as if they couldn't care less. And many of the finalists themselves were absent, which, for some reason, didn't surprise Strop.

He shook his head. "Honestly your Highness, I don't know. I really don't. I'll have to review everything, hold another round of interviews before relasing official feedback."

"Hmm." Dan McNeely furrowed his brow, as if trying to process absolutely everything that had been said and read in the inquest, and not quite being able to add it up. "I just have one final question for you." Here, he spread his hands, palms up. "Given what you said about the Way of Moderation, it just seemed to me that a tournament would have been the least effective way of actually finding a candidate for moderation. So all I ask is... why?"

Strop was dumbfounded. He racked his brains for an explanation, tried to remember the content of the conversation many months ago in that dark underground room. He swore he could remember somebody else asking him that but by that time it was already well underway so he swept the question aside. Rationalisations about public spectacles and generating interest formed and fizzled before they gained any substance. Counter-accusations directed at the administration were banished before they even made it from his brain to his mouth. In the end, he had but one thing left to say, and so he said it.

"... it seemed like a good idea at the time."

---

The Way of Being

The sounds of general hubbub and conversation came to an end as the administration resumed their seats at the head of the courtroom. Strop groaned as he eased himself into the chair in the witness box. Seemingly, his horsey butt having been parked there for so long, the seat cushion was so compressed that it no longer served as a cushion, so much as a reminder of how uncomfortable it was to be in his position. Even worse, his back prickled from the glares of the several moderators... or at least the few they could find to drag from whatever it was they were doing and cram them into the court room. That was to say, Dank and Zophia. Asherlee and Dragonmistress had turned up for all round general moral support but they weren't really moderators. Devoidless had said something about burning witches at the stake, and besides, he wouldn't fit in the court room.

Silence fell as Daniel McNeely and the Developers resumed their seats, motioning everybody to do the same. Dan had another sheaf of papers in front of him, which he straightened on the table before clearing his throat.

"After several hours of deliberation, we are ready to present our findings to the public. These findings will relate to our assessment of the events of the past year, of the state of the city, and will be followed by our recommendations."

Strop wondered why he felt so short of breath. Surely the outcome would be no surprise to him, having faced the fact as they were written all over the crumbled walls. But nonetheless he couldn't disperse the butterflies that fluttered around his stomach, causing him to freeze up, paralysing his diaphragm... Dan then started reading through the notes in turn in a very regal-sounding voice. "The administration finds that the cause of the widespread destruction in the attempted invasion of the land of Armor Games was multifactorial, but each of the factors relates to a single issue: dissatisfaction of citizens and the resentment of former citizens.

"This dissatisfaction in turn was caused by technological deficites and an overburdened city infrastructure that desperately needs updating. We plan to address this with the building of the new city, but in the meantime, we acknowledge that it is important to improve the present living conditions and safety for our citizens, which we shall address in the process of rebuilding the current Armor City. We must admit that the original city was never built to support such a large population, and we are humbled by the growth that the city has experienced despite its fundamental structural issues. To all of you who visit, live, work here, it is you who make this place great, and this should never be forgotten.

"Importantly, instrumental to the dissatisfaction is the effect of the economy. We cannot ignore the significance of the destruction of the economy as a means to destroying the entire city, and its apparent effectiveness. We would like to propose a different system, one that runs on the exchange of goodwill rather than the pursuit of wealth, and will open discussions with the public later on."

A rippling murmur went around the room, in vague surprise that contrary to expectations, the administration would start out by focusing on the improvements they had to make. The tail end of the murmur was more the speculation on what surely must have followed.

"Now, we turn to the matter of the Way of Moderation Tournament. Upon review of the moderator staffing in the past year, we agree that the motive for the Tournament was sound. There was a shortage of moderators perceived both by the moderation team and the public. To this extent the tournament was justified, given that the usual means by which moderators are selected was not available.

"However, we find that the idea of a Tournament in itself was inherently contradictory to the established perspectives on candidate selection by which its host, Moderator Strop, operated. As the tournament progressed, this manifested in increasingly risk-prone events, wanton acts of destruction, and a general lack of relevance in assessment criteria for each task. Further to this, Moderator Strop's own thoughts, as documented by the user Cenere, reflected his intermittent concerns regarding the viability of the candidates that remained, yet despite this apparent insight, as well as the urgings of his co-host to reconsider his plans, the response seemed only to have been to exaggerate the current course. This is a case of repeated irresponsibility and a lack of judgement in the context of a situation well beyond the scope of any single moderator to handle, but we are confident that despite this failing, each action was done in good faith and the consequences, apparently unforseen, were dealt with in earnest, so the administration would not call this negligence.

In addition we find that for the most part, the moderation team in fact actively worked against each other, unilaterally deciding what was best for the community without reaching an actual consensus. Despite the outcome of the consensus meeting being the founding of the Tournament, several moderators opposed and even sabotaged proceedings, making a dangerous undertaking even more so. It would be reasonable to expect that some of the sabotage was done 'for teh lulz', but in this case that is no excuse for the lack of teamwork that is essential to a successful team.

"Fortunately, the moderation team in general acquitted themselves in the events of the invasion of Armor City by dissident elements and hostile mobs from neighboring cities who had been incited by various fragmentary propaganda. I ask that each of you remind yourselves of this experience, and keep it with you at all times. We, the administration, thank you for your continued efforts even in the face of extreme difficulty, and resolve to provide you with the support you need.

"To conclude, based on these findings, we make the following recommendations." Dan turned the pages as everybody held their breath.

"First, at the soonest possible instance, all instigators and perpetrators of the invasion of Armor City shall be expelled and exiled from the city forever. Also, an audit will be held, and those who joined in the looting will be found and required to compensate for all losses they incurred.

"Second, regarding the moderators, Moderator Strop, by his own admission, failed to uphold the standards of moderation. However, while we have high standards, we do not require moderators to be perfect, so much as earnest and responsive to the needs of the community. Thus we shall not make any recommendations to terminate Moderator Strop's position, rather we shall invite him to submit a response as to his intentions.

"Third, regarding the state of the moderation team, there is still a shortage of moderators, so among the other repairs that must be done, we shall restore the Wheel of Moderation at some point. It will have to be a lower priority than the immediate tasks of repairs, but it will be scheduled nonetheless. We believe it would be counterproductive to institute any disciplinary measures, as the circumstances already clearly dictate what is required from this point onwards.

"And finally, as I'm sure most of you want to know, we will not take any direct action regarding the outcome of the Tournament itself. As he was the host, we shall wait for Moderator Strop to make his decision.

Dan put his papers down, and looked directly across the room. "That is all from the administration. Moderator Strop, do you have any comments?"

Strop sat very still, trying to look around without turning his head. He knew that all eyes were on him, even more acutely than how he had intended throughout the year of the Tournament. In the harsh stinging light of Dan's truthful judgement, he cringed inwardly, feeling the glares of disdain, contempt, disappointment and resentment from each citizen who had, as they suspected, confirmed that the grand efforts and trials of the last year could be said to be little more than a grand folly. And worst of all, lurking in the background, was that feeling of pity conjured up by the amalgamation of everything, poured down upon the insignificant mortal and his hubris from the gallery above.

Images of the past assailed the horse, of the times when as a foal he was picked on for reasons he didn't understand why. In a single moment, he remembered the beginning of his determination, his motive to learn and master the capricious and unknowingly cruel ways of people, and even more so his reasons for being a ninja, as bad a ninja (and a fake one at that) he actually turned out to be. And he realised the crucial difference between where he was then, cowering in the dirt while the other kids lashed him with their taunts, and where he was now, sitting in the chair, people watching him not because they wanted to toy with him, but because they were waiting on him. Regardless of what he had done, this was his time now, and the next move was his, and his only.

Slowly, he lifted his head and spoke:

"I would like to say the following."

He then forced himself to turn, meeting the gaze of each member of the audience. "First, I acknowledge and welcome the feedback from the administration. I admit to the failings as described in the findings, in particular a loss of judgement and a failure to appropriately address concerning developments as they happened. In addition I also accept my part the inference that if I had acted more directly in the interests of Armor City, as part of a team, perhaps the invasion would not have resulted in as dire a situation as we are faced with now.

"In short I admit my failings as a moderator, and that I had progressively wandered from the path I call the Way of Moderation. I shall bear the responsibility appropriate to one with the standing of a moderator, for that is what it means to follow the Way."

That seemed succinct enough, as far as confessions went. But clearly there was a lot more than remained to be said, as the expectant silence that followed suggested.

"Therefore given the recommendations, I will take the following actions: I will carry out my interviews with the final candidates of the Way of Moderation as planned, and will confer with the administration. I will then announce our decision in an official ceremony at a date to be announced within the next fortnight. Only then will the matter of the Way of Moderation Tournament be closed.

"As for what I will do after that... I hereby announce my intention to retire as a Moderator of Armorgames."

There was a collective gasp as all the air seemed to be sucked out of the room. Only the administrators, stony-faced, did not seem to react. Strop hastened to continue: "I do not mean to contradict everything I said earlier, to renounce my responsibilities. But these past few days have afforded much time to reflect upon the past year, and even to a time well before then." He twiddled his thumbs wistfully. "See, me being the ninja horse that fights for great justice isn't really about being a ninja. I'm not actually a real ninja."

In the confused silence that followed, Strop imagined Cen dryly remarking "We already knew that, Strop." Ignoring his imagination, he explained: "But where I came from, because of my past, I had reason to seek strength. Not power for power's sake, but because it was something I lacked so much, to even be able to think I could stand on my own two hooves and decide what it was I could do with my life.

"The Way of Moderation is not the be all and end all, it is only a part of the way of being. And my way of being is about strength. Perhaps I shouldn't say strength, so much as peace and fortitude. For when I was not at peace, I was fearful, fear makes one hostile, panicked, lashing out and desiring to hurt others. True strength is about having the peace to respond to anything, and having conviction in doing so.

"But above all, true strength cannot be achieved in one standing alone. Lonely people cannot be strong, because they have nobody to measure their convictions against, to share their will with. So I will freely admit, when I first came to the land of Armorgames, I was lonely. And I gained many friends, and came to appreciate the spirit of this community. It's in there that lies the true meaning of the Way of Moderation.

"And perhaps it was this that I forgot. We must always remind ourselves of these things, lest we forget. A path isn't a place, it's something on which we tread, and it is the act of walking that we go from one place to the next, while practicing our way.

"I was only too aware that one day I would have to face reality. I am no ninja, but I have mentioned that I am a healer in training. This place taught me many things about what community is about, yet I cannot stay here much longer. The world is calling, I have to step forth, and I suspect that many others feel the same way about themselves.

"At least like everybody here, I will not be leaving empty-handed. Our lives are all the richer for the experiences we have, for the friends that rejoice in good times, and stick together in bad times. I've seen people grow in their abilities, discover things about themselves, learn how to create their own opportunities, and most importantly, to give back. So I will take this opportunity to learn from my mistakes, and to uphold this essential spirit in repairing them. I may have past my use-by date as a moderator, but I won't leave before the right time. And that time isn't just when the people have forgiven me, if ever, but also when I can be sure that this town is in safe hands once more."

Strop was awkwardly aware that he had begun rambling, and straightened. "I guess that's all I have to say for now." Even more awkwardly, he stopped there, tail flicking about as he waited for the reaction.

It started out as a slow, uncertain clapping. Nobody knew who started it, but before long, it was two people, then a dozen, then a hundred, and then the whole room was shimmering in a light, tentative applause that disappated the anger, replaced by a gratitude to their veteran moderator, who had humbled himself in this fashion after a wayward year. A mere shower of applause would do little to clean off the accumulated muck and grime and ruin, but at last, maybe things could start to move on from this point forward.

In a rare moment, Strop truly did not know what to feel. Instead, he bowed his head and clasped his hands together. "You all have my deepest thanks. But we should get going, we have a lot of work ahead of us."

 

Posted Jul 22, '12 at 7:53am

Strop

Strop

10,823 posts

Moderator

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The Stone Cold Truth

"Strop!" Klaus said, somewhat more subdued, almost confused. "Where's my public execution?"

"You're not getting one," Strop said, unmoving.

"And why not!?" Klaus stood up indignantly. "You lock me up here for years without pressing any formal charges, and deny me the right to a fair trial because you think I'm a terrorist, and then to top it all off I'm not getting publicly executed? What kind of country does that!?"

"It's been two days," Strop said evenly.

"Well excuse me for not knowing the difference when there's no sunlight down here!" Klaus pouted. "And what's more, if you're not going to publicly execute me, then are you gonna let me go?" His ears perked up at this thought, and he put his best innocent face on.

Strop was unaffected. "No. We're just going to get rid of you quietly. Nobody needs to make a bigger fuss than we've already made. And now we're going to move on."

Unexpected, Klaus laughed. A deep belly laugh that seemed fitting for only one with as much gut as he posessed. "You guys are so full of ****. All this time, I kept telling you the same thing, about the same problems, and how to fix them, and you wouldn't listen. And then you do all these things and have you fixed the problem? No, you haven't! And instead of finally listening to me like you should have in the first place, you decide to sweep the matter under the rug and 'move on'. Yeah, move on to what? Do you think the administration really gives a rat's *** about this place? Did you see what it took for them to even take notice and poke their heads in and spread a little lightning and thunder around? What do you think it'll take for them to actually make changes?"

Ordinarily Strop would have bristled at this, and they would have launched into a long argument. But they were in a dark and damp prison cell, Klaus was supposed to be getting banned, Strop was supposed to be getting to the hospital and he really couldn't be bothered at this point. So he settled for rubbing his face in mild exasperation. "Having said all that, if you're going to blame everyone and everything else, do you think you would have made any kind of difference yourself?"

"Of course, but you never gave me a chance!" Klaus retorted. "And now I hear you're retiring. What's up with that huh? Don't you care anymore? Or is this another admission that I'm right, because I am?"

At this, Strop visibly stiffened. In the first few hours after the inquest, he thought he was okay with his decision, but then again, that was just in the first few hours. Now, in the light of everything that was happening and that he had to think about, he kinda just didn't want to think about anything at all. Maybe Klaus was right, he didn't have enough in him to care. He wasn't like some kind of manga character which had an infinite supply of moxie. Or maybe he was just still tired from the crazy events of the last week, or maybe year. "I'm retiring because I have to move on. I have other responsibilities and commitments starting up and it would be irresponsible to hold so many commitments that I couldn't perform any of them. And yes, this means I consider my upcoming commitments to be more important. That's just a fact of life that I knew I was going to have to accept. Others have accepted it. You should too."

Klaus' face fell. "Stroppy, my good horse, whatever happened to you? I thought we had something in common. I thought we could have been something special. Changing the world with endless determination, working for the betterment of this place, and now you're cutting and running like this just because it seems hopeless? We were such similar spirits, and how you've... you've changed."

"We weren't alike Klaus. It's true that I took up the job because I wanted to serve a greater good. But you were always more than a touch megalomaniacal."

That unnerving toothy bear grin, that made Strop think of Heath Ledger's (arugably) finest work (perhaps not least because it was also his last), was back. But instead of another joke about his scar, Klaus had something else in mind. "I don't think we weren't alike, no. Surely you enjoyed yourself just a little bit wasting a year of everybody's time holding the tournament? Putting on a grand spectacle and being the center of attention? Making big things happen just because you can? It's in all of us, Stroppy, and I think the real reason you're leaving is because you realised, too late, that you weren't immune to the pleasures of power after all. Not you, rock star ninja that you are. You and I, we were the same, only I've been honest about it this whole time."

Strop sighed. Already this visit had dragged on far longer than he wanted it to, and made him think far more than he wanted to. There was precious little that remained to be said, at least anything useful. So rather than find a suitable way to end the neverending conversation, Strop turned his back and started walking to the iron door. "Klaus, you circumvented a ban. We have to send you away again. Don't come back." He stepped through the door, and shut it behind him with a clang.

Suddenly robbed of his rhetorical complacency, Klaus panicked and rushed to the door and gripped the bars. "Strop, it's not too late! You can stop this! STROP, DON'T YOU REALISE YOU'RE JUST LIKE ME? WHERE DID YOUR VISION TO CHANGE THIS PLACE GO? I THOUGHT WE WERE FRIENDS!"

Strop was already at the spiral staircase that marked the exit from the dungeon, but he turned his head over his shoulder one last time. "We are friends Klaus. Just... not in this place!"

He knew those were the last words he would ever utter to Klaus while standing in the land of Armor Games. As far as he was concerned, the matter was over, and he hoped one day, Klaus might come to agree with him. Either way, he had other things to attend to, so he hurried out of the dungeon, and towards the open air once more.

---

It Won't Change Anything

"You chose not to subside in the face of conflict, instead feeding off that provocation and causing the greatest destruction to this city. Even if you are not as you were then, your crimes cannot be undone. I hence sentence you to permanent banishment from this city."

Cormyn's no-nonsense tone remained rock steady throughout his oration. It was merely addressed to the accused ringleaders and flunkies of the great sacking of Armor City, and the moderators standing around them, but it was delivered on top of the execution scaffold that stood in the middle of the Atrium, in plain view of the users who had gathered to see some closure to the whole sorry episode.

The perpetrators all crouched, hands bound behind their backs, their ankles in shackles. Each wore a uniformly sullen look of aimless rebellion and resentment. But even in this situation, on the brink of declaring a final victory, the mood hung heavy around the moderators. This kind of thing, after all...

"It's unseemly," Dank muttered under his breath, scuffing his armored boot on the woodwork, and thus scoring the woodwork in the process. "Holding a ceremony like this. I preferred making them disappear."

"I guess it's symbolic," Strop remarked, similarly sotto voce. "With the new admin cleaning up this mess of old, and all that you know."

"Easy Strop, I'm starting to feel like a relic now," Her Highness the Queen Carlie half-joked, also under her breath. Strop laughed awkwardly, realising all along the truth they all didn't really want to face but had seen coming. With a population now forty times that when Strop first set hoof within the gates of the city, this was the new regime they needed, and needed to get used to. In the background, Cormyn continued:

"The system of appeals still applies, which is to say you're free to lodge them but seeing as the facts of the case have already been established, the only goal you might achieve is an understanding of why you were exiled. Do not think that this is a means by which you can attempt to regain entry to the city. Our decision has already been made and that is final."

One of the emo smart-alecs, from his crouched position, turned his head upwards and put his best tough face on.

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Something was tugging at the back of Strop's head. It was something that had been tugging at his head for nearly two years now, the two years he had served as a moderator, and he remembered vividly, that it was something that he had brought up specifically to Dan and John way back then. And he figured that now was as good a time as any to bring it up.

"Uh, Carlie, don't you think we might need to consider, you know. Something little more permanent than permanent?"

Carlie shrugged: "Sorry, I don't think they're planning to change that policy."

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I dunno derp

Strop sighed, "...very well." It wasn't as if he didn't know how difficult it was to implement what he was requesting. Issuing an edict that automatically denied access to persons holding passports from certain regions might block as many legitimate citizens as troublemakers, and in a world like this... well, it was all too easy to forge passports. But he didn't know what else to do, and he thought that somehow, maybe magic, magic that the admins knew, might fix it all. As unwanted as it was, he suddenly remembered his late father, architect of these kinds of grand projects people lived in, saying with unmistakeable pride, "I never failed a single job."

And in that moment, he realised that as he grew older, the role that he took on would mean leaving the roles of others to other people, losing that nebulous idealism as his skillsets became more defined. It was that nebulous idealism that allowed people the luxury of hubristic rhetoric of being able to do anything they set their mind to, and it was merely reality that set tangible limits. Thus he concluded that this was a problem that he had to entrust to those whose role it was to fix them, to trust their decisions for better or worse.

Much as he hated to admit it, then it was only a matter of whether other people understood what his job was or wasn't.

Stitches Are a Luxury

Strop trotted down the white halls, his white coat whirling around his legs. There was still a lot to do in the hospital, even though most of the people there was mainly staying because the matron hadn't found them yet and kicked them out. Not because they weren't wounded, but most had seen a doctor, and their only new symptom of anything being wrong was the huge amount of whining. So, nothing physical, at least. Even considering what events they had gone through, one a small handful of users had mental issues, most of which Strop suspected had not been caused by the battle as much as them having been conveniently dropped on their head as a baby. Since there was no psychiatrists around, he had referred them to one of the hospitals in a bigger city, and had hoped they could find their way there themselves.
Even so, here he was on his ward (or rather "entire hospital") round, checking up on the few that was still badly enough hurt to not go home or to the many housings that had been opened up everywhere in town when the rest of the mods had figured out only Aristocrat Way had suffered enough to make the buildings more or less impossible to live in. Or enter, for that matter.
Instead, many of the top citizens of the city had been relocated in the small, shed like buildings outside the walls where newcomer's usually resided before they got a proper place to live. While the official reason seemed to be that they would be able to live there without risk from wild games, Strop suspected at least one of two of his comrades took a hidden pleasure in relocating the top citizens to such humble buildings.
He sighed and turned a corner, before something made him stop and go back. He wasn't quite aware what, before a certain voice caught his ears through a door left partially open. As he showed it open, a familiar pair of grey eyes glared back at him, still without their usual glass shield.
"Cen, what are yo-" Strop stopped short as he actually got to witness the entire scene. "Ouch."
The nurse looked up from the gash to look at Strop for a moment. "Can I help you?"

"Oh." Strop tore his gaze away and focused on the nurse. "No. I... Was just..." He gestured, "Passing by, and..." And gestured some more, "... So, what is going on here?" At least he landed on his metaphorical feet.
"I was just finishing these stitches." She spoke matter-of-factly, her hands still holding the needle.
Okay, perhaps it wasn't a perfect landing. "Have the patient seen a doctor?" He tried again, trying to sound as professional as possible.
"No. He refused and said he just wanted to get thee stitches, then he would be on his way." The nurse looked back at him with a frown. "The matron said it would be fine."
Strop had opened his mouth before the nurse had been done, but the mention of the matron and her decision made him close it again. Not that he was scared of the ol- ELDERLY porcupine, but he did have a way with being quite, what was the word, horrifying. And especially not someone he wanted to go against. But then again... "This patient have not been examined by a doctor at all? He might have... Other injuries. That needs checking. By a doctor. Like me."
Both the nurse and Cen, who had, until recently been staring at the door with a both empty and sharp glare, looked at him like he was stupid. Or crazy. Or quite possibly both. Strop did feel a little of both, actually, but he didn't let his mask of extreme importance slip. When the nurse didn't move, he decided for the next best action, which in this case was clearing his throat in a loud and important fashion, while continuing to look like he was the boss and should be obeyed.
"Can I at least finish this?" The nurse gestured lightly at the stitch work, while Cen seemed to continue to wonder if Strop has been dropped as a baby and then continuously kicked in the face.
"Oh. Yes. Sure." The ninja horse doctor let out a small laugh, and sat down to wait.

The nurse left the room with a slightly bemused expression, and Strop got up from his uncomfortable seat in the hospital chair. He made a note to himself about finding some funds to get some better chairs, before approaching Cen, who had gone back to staring at the door.
"So... How did you get that gash?" Strop lifted Cen shirt to look at the stitched line running across the others ribs.
"Glass table."
"Seriously?"
"Apparently having a three hundred pound throw himself and me on it was more than it was designed to withstand."
"A... Three hundred pound..." Strop shook his head in bewilderment. "What does that even mean?"
"That means that someone, with a body mass almost three times mine, threw me at a glass table that then broke. It is not that alien a thought." Cen shrugged a shoulder.
"Seriously??"
"No, I cut myself with a sword. It was the most convenient place for self mutilation." Cen gave him an annoyed side glance, before going silent and continuing to stare the door down.
"Uh, okay." Strop put the t-shirt back in place. "And... When exactly did this happen?"
"Two days ago."
"Uhuh. And where...?"
"Said man's office."
"Mhmm. I think we both would get more out of you just telling me what happened, instead of us having to go through this, Cen." Strop sat back on the chair.
"I believe I would get more out of getting a bandage on the stitches and then go home." Cen glanced at Strop for a moment.
"That doesn't sound right." Strop glanced back.
"You didn't particularly care yesterday. Just because I needed stitches doesn't change the story."
Strop turned to look at Cen with his most annoying deal-with-it-bro expression he could muster. "It is pretty pathetic to hold grudges like that."
"It is pretty stupid to hold a tournament to get new mods too, but we can't always be lucky."
"You didn't stop me."
"Sadly you kept avoiding the bear traps I put up."
They sat in silence for a bit, the sounds of the hospital somehow making its wait into the room, muffled and barely audible.
"So, what happened?" Strop spoke as the first of them, deciding to look at Cen with his most careless expression.
"I got my *** handed to me again, after fighting for the people I care for, but doesn't care for me. One should have thought I would have learned by now..."
Strop's ears twitched lightly. "But what happened?"
Cen turned his head swiftly to look at Strop, some of that burned in anger and betrayal he had seen during their - argument being quite visible again. "Sai was kidnapped by her ex. She told me, she didn't love me, and they left. Then, after the great battle of stupidity, I went to try and save her. It seemed like a moronic idea at the time, and guess what? It was. First of all because her ex could break my neck like a twig, second because Sai didn't need saving. Then she broke up with me. Then she kissed me. Then she told me to leave. And call her. And in my delusion, I went to the library to ask for a girl-to-English dictionary, and got kicked out for trolling. So, would it be too much of a bother for you to do your ****ing job and but some bandages on the stitches so I don't rip them out by accident, or do I have to get in a car accident for such luxury?"

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Rebuild

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With uplifting music and stuff!

With everything else finally out of the way, the work could begin. Hammers flew, knocking the crumbling bits of ruins down to the very ground with the sound of steel on brick. Everybody moved with great gusto, for it was their living quarters, their shops, their livelihoods that they had to break down and build up again, and while it was incomplete their lives were on hold, confined to the great swathes of tents in the camps that had sprung up over parts of the Park, and the fields surrounding the burnt out shell of the Academy.

Elsewhere, business was starting to return to normal, in the environment of activity there was opportunity for trade, for argument, for the creation of wild and whacky edifices that turned upon themselves and collapsed only to be reborn again. And in among this mix, many of the veterans remained, working to restore the city they had lived in and battled for.

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For this Strop was glad, for the unique spirit that this city held was not entirely lost. How it might change later, was another matter. And for that matter, some things never did change, such as his inability to find any of the other mods. It was as if they had vanished, once more, just like they seemingly did just before the beginning of the entire affair. He half-thought that he almost missed it, and imagined a characteristically grumpy Dank telling him that he ought to "stop playing dress-up and start working", but perhaps those days were truly left in the long past era that only a yearning nostalgia could evoke.

Now though, through all the clangs and the thuds and the noise of industry, he was content in the moment, with that feeling that all was once again right with the world.

Except it wasn't quite. There was something that had been nagging him, and he suspected that he knew what it was. Or maybe not exactly what it was, otherwise surely he would have said it by now, but rather he knew that he would have to chase the feeling down, and maybe it might become clearer when he got closer.

Yes, that was the way to do it. Like always he'd run down whatever bothered him until it could run no more! With this resolution, Strop trotted off, mallet slung over his shoulder, towards the yet unrepaired residential blocks.

---

Friendship is Mudfighting

Cen wrote this segment, but Strop takes responsibility for the title, hehehe

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The rain was pouring down in metaphorical buckets as Strop made his way over the muddy mess of soaked dirt and the grass that didn't seem quite attached to the earth anymore. The ground was slippery, even to a person with his ninja agility, and his clothes clinging to his limps made his movement no better. When this realisation started to dawn with two hours' delay, he trotted to a halt, looked around the deserted park and took off his ninja mask to properly gulp in the fresh, albeit quite humid, air. Soon after, the unremarkable sound of his fellow running partner could be heard, an unremarkable sound therein that it has been the main sound he had been making since their treck started. Rather than the usual huffing and puffing, it was more of a gasping-for-breath flavour, similar to the sound of someone throwing up their lungs.
At this, Strop turned around and watched the other, obviously less fit, runner get close enough for it to be acceptable to rest. Strop snorted, waiting impatiently for Cen to catch some resemblance of breath.
See, there was something that had been nagging him...
"Something has been nagging me," Strop said. "Ever since I apologised, you have barely spoken a word to me! I thought I had trained you to be better than holding grudges, but apparently not. And then there was those written complaints among the reports, what was that about? Why didn't you come to me about those concerns, then we might not even be standing here right now, in the rain, cold and homeless and without a place with to live that is warm and..." He trailed off, for a moment feeling somewhat redundant somehow, though there should be no reason to.
Cen just stared at him with a mix of dumbfound amusement and a growing urge to violently strangle the life out of the ninja horse in front of him, though the latter was less clear from his expression. "What?" He simply replied, without much vigor.
"I mean..." Strop hesitated, not quite knowing what he actually meant. "I meant you shouldn't hold grudges. It's childish." A nod punctuated this little known fact.
Cen straightened, continuing his stare for a few moments longer, with his hand resting against his chin. "I am not holding a grudge against you."
"You haven't even said anything for the last two hours!" Strop protested, somehow deeming this to be the perfect evidence of his theory.
"You elbowed me in the stitches and then you ran like someone had put your *** on fire." The reply was followed with Cen's entire face moving into an annoyed squint.
"That's not true!"
"It's not incorrect either." Cen paused for a moment, but continued before Strop was able to come up with a witty reply. "I am not holding a grudge against you. I'm just tired, and having a really crappy few days. I'm just not letting it out on little ponies dressing up as ninjas."
"I am not dressed up as a ninja!" Strop snorted. "I am an actual licensed ninja!"
"Then why can I see you?"
"I am letting you."
"A real ninja wouldn't."
"Well, a real FRIEND would."
"Would what?"
"Wo-..." Strop shook his raised index finger with an uncertain certainty, waiting for the cartoon gods to bless him with a witty one-liner, that would end this argument to his advantage.
Any minute now.
Right on the tip of his tongue.
Moments later, he was hit. Not by inspiration, but instead a rather physical fist had jabbed at his shoulder, bringing him back to the very soaked reality he was actually in. He looked at his shoulder, then at the fist Cen had raised with a mostly bored expression, expertly ignoring the implications of what had just happened. Then Cen jabbed at him again.
"What are you doing?" Strop asked.
"This."
Strop recieved another push against his shoulder.
"Would you stop that?!" Strop raised his hands and moved away a bit, a frown appearing on his face.
Cen paused for a moment, appearing to be deeply speculating about this order he had been given, before raising his head. "Nope." He jabbed him again.
A sudden wild spark appeared in Strop's baby-blues, something that could probably be compared to that of a wild horse moments before it starts bucking wildly, if it hadn't been because Strop was neither a wild horse, nor accustomed to bucking. Instead, he did the next best thing, which was pushing Cen hard in the chest. Cen stumbled back for a moment, then straightened himself with the silent composure of a man, who had been carrying the dead weight of a freight train for far too long. Strop mused for a moment on this thought, much too poetic for the situation, but before he could make any remark on the irony, he was shoved equally hard by the metaphorical dead weight of the other. Which, as he managed to contemplate, was easily translated to being tackled in the chest.
He lost his footing entirely, hooves slipping in the muddy mess of grass and dirty, and with as much graceful ninja technique he could muster, he flipped backwards to land hard on his butt.
Cen stared at him with a blank expression. Strop stared back in much the same manner.
A sound made him perk up his ears, surprising and unreal as it seemed. It was a snorting giggle, soon to evolve to a roaring laughter. Not that laughter tended to be surprising, let alone unreal, but in this case, coming from Cen, it was the most surreal moment in the entire history of Strop wrecking stuff. He stared wide-eyed at the bizarre sight as Cen doubled over, gasping for breath, before he finally understood the most important part: He was laughing at him.
"Hey!" Strop exclaimed, getting the prompt response of Cen pausing for a moment to look at him, and then continuing much louder than before.
Strop grunted, insulted with this humiliation - somehow he couldn't see the fun in it all - and rose with all glory and grace of a ninja, before continuing where he left off from the previous attempt to stand, hooves finding absolutely no sturdy foundation. In a last manic effort to save face, he moved the entire kinetic energy of the slipping sliding into returning the unwelcomed tackle from Cen. However, as his face at this point was dangerously close to the ground, it wasn't as much a tackle as a mudslide accidentally aimed at knee height.
They both fell onto the ground, a splatter of mud shooting up just to rain down on the squirming pile of arms and legs, all of which seemingly finding a new purpose, a better purpose. That of chocking the owner of the other pair in mud (no homo).
Shoving, pushing and failed attempts to hold the other down followed, neither of the two getting the upper hand in what looked like the wrestling champion ship for hobos, or alternately something that could have looked hot, had the participants been scandily clad women.

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"Is this what you do around here for fun?"
Strop turned his head to face a sight that made him catapult Cen off his chest as he sat up from the rather undignified position at the bottom of the two-man pile. This very sight was surprising, curious, frightening and unusual, not to forget chocking, peculiar, terrifying and odd. Or, at the very least, it did take him off guard.
A huge man in a coat, suit (and rather nice shoes, Strop noted) was standing before them, looking something like the mafia boss and the mooks surrounding him. And with that, Strop turned his head just to see something that looked oddly like the stereotypical bodyguard, shaved head, ear piece and everything. What the he-
"Nah, just your regular fisticuffs. Good to see you, though I wouldn't have believed it would be here." Cen rose to his feet and stretched out a muddy hand for the man to shake. The man in return gave him a glare, wrinkling his nose in disgust when a droplet of wet dirt fell on his remarkably shiny shoes.
"No thanks, no today."
Cen shrugged and dried his hand in his equally dirty shirt.
"No, I thought I would repay your last visit." The man adjusted his black umbrella a bit.
"Reminds me, how did you like the new table?"
"I think you scratched it when you delivered it."
"Professional delivery was expensive, and I think it was scratched when I bought it."
"I don't think it makes it much better."
Cen crossed his arms. "Then you should have gotten it yourself. Besides, pre-owned stuff is modern these days."
"Whatever you say." The man rolled his eyes and shook his head a little.
Up until this point, Strop had been sitting in dumbfound silence in the mud, staring wide-eyed at the strange occurrence before him, and neither of the participants had seemed to notice him. So, as a small pause in the odd conversation occurred, he managed to collect as much focus of mind to get to his feet, this time without slipping and falling with ninja stealth. This movement caught the eye of both the humans.
"Oh, right. Max, this is Strop. Strop, Max." Cen said nonchalant, as if Strop should already know this man.
"You are saying that like I should already know him." Strop replied with a pout.
"Well, you should."
The man, Max, looked at Strop with a sceptical expression, nodding at him in a distanced greeting, and turned to Cen again. "He actually wears that regularly? I thought you were joking."
"I rarely do." And such, the conversation carried away from Strop once again, leaving him dripping with mud and rain, and with an stupid expression on his face.
"So, any luck with Sai?"
"No, not really. You know how she can be."
Max nodded knowingly, and neither spoke for a while, caught in deep thoughts. Cen was the one to break the growing awkward silence:
"You were bringing me my glasses?"

As Max made his way back to the bodyguards through the thick mud, Strop was watching Cen silently, until he decided said silence wouldn't achieve anything, and broke it with a hammer.
"Who was that?!"
Cen turned to look at him. "Max."
"I got that. But who is he?" He gestured wildly.
"Sai's ex."
"Wha-"
"The guy that punched me in the face, and the reason you have stitches to elbow." Cen tilted his head slightly to look at him over the rim of his new glasses. "You know, that guy."
Strop's expression was without recognition.
"Nevermind." Cen shook his head in defeat, and began walking towards the more firmly grounded part of the city.
"Nevermind what??" Strop exclaimed, following after.
"This?"
"W-" Strop was cut short by a push to his chest, once against threatening to bring him to actions more alike those of a young colt, and not a ninja-rock-star-mod. He managed to hold still for long enough to see Cen grin at him and accelerate into a sprint.
"Later, loser!"
"Hey!"

 

Posted Jun 2, '13 at 10:06am

Strop

Strop

10,823 posts

Moderator

Just When Everything Was Starting to Make Sense

A shapely, alabaster leg slipped out from under the still water's surface, sending barely a ripple as it extended high into the air, languidly waving around. Through the thick haze of the steam rising from the water, it was nearly impossible to see past a single arm's length, but the total silence, save for the occasional drip and trickle of water that echoed around the tiled walls was testament to the absolute serenity of the baths.

Nill allowed herself the indulgence of a long sigh as she slipped further into the water, right to the point where her lips barely stayed above the level. In this position of exquisite slothfulness she ran her fingers over her suspended leg, revelling in its smoothness. She couldn't decide whether the vastness of the hair removal market for ladies was a good thing or the symptoms of a chauvinistic society, but in the thought-sapping environment she was in, she didn't have to care for now. This felt darn good, and that's all that mattered.

The relative coolness of the air around her leg was starting to send shivers up her spine, so Nill finally lowered it back into the bath, whereupon the sudden warmth radiating right down to her bones sent another shiver up her spine. Heaven! In the process she had involuntarily sat up, so she brushed the stray hair from her eyes, put on an imaginary thoughtful pout (she still didn't know if she had the hang of it yet), and pondered.

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Nill was in that place of her life where she was really just beginning to discover herself. Despite not knowing what she was going to do next, after the topsy-turvy times of discovering and getting used to those strange bumps and curves, after struggling to get away from the horrid confines of power and authority and abusing it in various inadvertant ways, and the chaos that was the events of the Way of Moderation, she was now in a place of serenity, having come to terms with her new self. And it was  empowering. Maybe this was just the ticket to her happiness.

Nill stretched out her hand (she noticed her skin was starting to wrinkle, and wondered whether too much Rose-scented bath salts in the water could do her skin a disservice), and peered between the spaces of her fingers. "I am Nill." She said, experimentally.

"I am Nill," she said again, louder, more confident. "I am Nill, a regular citizen of Armor City." The misty air swirled around, stirred up by her speech. "And I will live my life in this way, enabling freedom in others from the ground up."

It had a reall nice ring to it. Yes, this could work. Nill took a bigger breath, and spoke to the empty baths: "I resovle to go from day to day working with my fellow folk to make the most of our opportunity, without exerting authority or interfering in the purest process of liberty. Because that is what I, Nill, the regular girl, believe in!"

Nill basked in the resounding silence following her declaration. There, she said it, and nothing was going to stop her now.

Suddenly, the surface water barely six feet away from her exploded in a spray of droplets and noise, and two dark figures burst upwards and towards her. In a split second of uncanny clarity, Nill could have sworn she saw a big fat bronze diver's helmet.

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Instinctively, she reached to her right, but she didn't have a staff, because that staff was Nemo's, and not Nill's. She would have taken a moment to reflect on every single event of her life and maybe even regretted her lifestyle choices, but it was already too late, and she was grabbed and promptly dunked underwater.

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"But you're not even a hitman, silly," a muffled voice from somewhere inside the diver's helmet chided Strop. The ninja horse tried to keep as straight a face as he could for as long as he could, but barely lasted a second.

In between fits of hysterical laughter, he shouted "Right you are, now quick, drop the salts before she drowns!"

Nill managed to twist free of Strop's grip just enough to burst clear of the water. "What the hell guys!" She choked out between frantic breathes. "What are you do-"

That was as far as she got before Strop readjusted his grip and promptly dunked Nill back in the water. "Looks like we were just in time! We heard you were getting adjusted to your new way of life. Can't have that!" he quipped.

"I don't think she can hear you now," the diver reminded Strop.

"You were supposed to be dropping the bath salts in the water!" Strop reminded the diver.

"Oh! Right!" The diver clumsily fished around before producing a sinister looking blue ball, which slipped right through her fingers and fell into the water.

Immediately there was a hissing and a furious frothing, and bubbles quickly obscured everybody's vision. The water turned the same shade of blue as the ball had been as it fizzed and sputtered. Strop suddenly found himself up against a new burst of vigour from the head and shoulders he had been holding down, and he threw himself forward, trying to cover and restrict bodily motion. But as Nill's actions became more and more frenzied, Strop found himself jinking harder than a cowboy on a bucking bronco, and eventually he lost grip as Nill emerged with an almighty roar:

"STOP GRABBING MY BOOOOOOOOBS!"

Everyone fell back, shocked. The hair still sat, wet and limp, upon the head, obscuring the face, but the voice had come out at least an octave lower than they had grown accustomed to. Gingerly, Strop reached out and pulled some of the hair aside, and gasped.

"Zophia, I feel stubble!"

Nill stiffened. "What!?"

The diver grasped her oversized helmet and yanked it off, and indeed, revealing Zophia's head. "It worked!?"

Strop nodded vigorously. "Yeah! Feel for yourself, Nill is Nemo again!"

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Zophia was about to grope Nemo's stubbly chin when the penny dropped for Nemo, and he jumped up, causing Strop to recoil as he was hit with a sudden exposure-induced blindness. "What the hell guys!!! Explain yourselves!"

"You're a guy again, Nemo, isn't that wonderful?" Zophia clapped her hands together.

"No!" Nemo shouted, still unaware of the implications of the water in the bath only coming up to about his knees. "I mean, maybe... I mean NO! Goddarnit I was just getting used to the changes and not being a mod and thinking that this kind of life would make sense after all and... why? Just why?" He slumped back down into the water and began to sulk.

"I promised I'd tie up every loose end from the Way of Moderation before I resigned as a moderator, Nemo," Strop informed him with a cheesy thumbs up. "And this includes the damage caused by the F-bomb incident."

"Loose end? Is that all I was then?" Nemo pouted.

"Aww don't take it like that," Strop simpered. "You see, since the Way of Moderation hasn't exactly found any new mods and I'm going to be leaving soon, we need as many moderators as we can get right now."

"But I don't WANT to be a-"

"Even if you don't want to be a mod, Nemo, AG needs you, and that's that. And besides, this was an admin decision. Here, I believe you might be needing this." From an unseen pocket, Strop produced Nemo's trousers and shirt, a wolfskin, and a long wooden staff, complete with duct-tape liberally applied to the middle. Nemo stared at it, before tentatively grabbing the staff and wordlessly turning it over.

"Right that's that then!" Strop and Zophia stood and hauled themselves out of the bath and started walking off. "Now that we know that this works, let's go try it on Moe!"

"You were testing it on me!?" Nemo exclaimed, outraged, but was summarily ignored by the other two. "Hey! Hey! WELL SCREW YOU TOO!" After hurling a couple more choice invectives and a bar of soap at Strop and Zophia, he realised that they had already left the baths.

Another two seconds passed.

Nemo stood there, his arms slumped. His brow furrowed for a moment, and then it set. "Hey! You're going to see Moe, right?" Nemo called out, clambering out of the bath and slamming the wolf cap on his head. He donned the rest of his garments as best as he could be bothered, and stumbled back onto the streets of Armor City, one leg still stubbornly refusing to fit into the leg of his trousers.

---

Ladies & Gentlemen & Everyone In Between

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Several heads craned over the top of a multitude of tubes and wires attached to the brain in a jar. First was a pair of pointed ears, flattened under messy hair crammed under a cap, then another pair of pointed ears poking through black cloth, then finally a third pair of tatty pointed ears belonging to a wolf head. The trio stood still and stared at the brain, almost lost in the midst of flashing lights, squiggly lines and incessant beeping.

"Has he said anything at all?" Zophia asked.

"No as far as I know," Strop replied. But as far as even brains went, Moe's was relatively inscrutable, so it was difficult to say what was really going on.

"What about all these squiggly lines?" Nemo poked one of the many monitors that cast the meager light in the cramped "intensive care unit", which was to say the broom cupboard of the "hospital".

"That's, uh..." Strop scratched his chin as he tried to read all the symbols and acronyms on the screen. "I think that's his heartrate. Or his respiration."

Nemo stared at him. "You do realise that Moe doesn't have a heart or lungs, right."

Strop, diligent trainee doctor that he was, whinnied in equal parts shock and embarrassment, then started flailing and shoved the screens to the side. "Shut up! I don't have intensivist training!" He cleared his throat and quickly changed the subject. "Anyway we should assess his consciousness before doing an- hey what are you doing!?"

The flushing waves of embarrassment were quickly washed away by the tides of rising panic as, unsystematically and indiscriminately, Nemo and Zophia started fiddling with every machine that had a tube connected to Moe's brain in a jar. "Don't touch that, it's dangerous!"

Nemo fixed him with a dry glare. "Well Doctor Horse, evidently you know just as much as we do about where to put this antidote stuff, so we might as well not waste any more time, right?"

"Really?" Zophia emerged with several loops of tube wrapped around her nose and ears. "I was just playing with all shiny colours!"

"Nnngh, guh, ddddnn, mmmmmrrrg!" Strop went through the exasperated noises of Homer and Mr Burns combined in rapid succession. "But do you have any idea just how grave the implications of fiddling with the wrong machine is?"

Nemo's glare dropped several degrees temperature. "You didn't seem to mind those when you dropped the antidote in my bath."

"Well that's because!" Strop stopped short of finishing his sentence, before trying again. "Because!"

Nemo brandished the ball of antidote, hovering it near any number of the various pipes and bags as if to threaten Strop. "Oh? Please, do go on."

"This is Moe we're talking about here!" Strop tried to match Nemo's glare, and then wildly lunged for the antidote. Nemo whisked it out of his reach. "You can't be so careless with a brain like that!"

"So just because you think I'm not a genius like Moe, I can be your expendable experiment, is that it?"

"It's not that!" Strop lunged again, tripped on Zophia, and came closer to toppling a whole rack of monitors.

"I'm pretty sure it is that", Zophia interjected, at precisely the wrong time, as was her special talent. "I mean, it's pretty obvious that Nemo isn't a genius like Moe, so why wouldn't you think that Strop?"

"I, uh, HEY!" Strop righted himself indignantly. "Just give me the antidote!" He held his hand out expectedly, but his demand was met with resolute denial.

"Look," Nemo said, standing his distance. "I know how you're the ninja horse hero and everybody loves you and everything, and how you're the best qualified here to figure out what to do with this antidote, but it's pretty obvious that you don't know anyway. And I don't think anybody would know since Zophia made this what, like yesterday? And yet you keep on doing things and trying to control things even when it's not entirely certain what needs to be done. Can't you think about what we've just been through, why we're standing here in the first place, and let other people take care of things that you couldn't?"

Strop almost pondered the truth of this for a moment, but then he doubletaked. "That almost makes sense except you're in a HOSPITAL! I'm sure UpToDate or PubMed has something that will help me out here, so just give me the antidote!"

Nemo eyed Strop. Then grudgingly, he held out the ball of antidote. "Thanks," Strop said, reaching across to take it. "I knew you'd be reasonable about it."

"Psyche," Nemo said, and dropped the ball of antidote into Moe's jar.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Strop screamed. Or that was would he would have liked to do. "Oh god that's a ban," and "OH NO YOU DIN'T" also came to mind. But all those exclamations froze somewhere in his throat, along with the rest of him, as he stood horrified, watching the effervescent ball fizz and bubble and turn Moe's nutrient solution into an odd hue of lavender.

"Oooooooooh," was all anybody had to say, which happened to be Zophia. "Pretty."

In the background, the machines kept on beeping as they always had. The sqiggly lines traversed across the monitors, and Strop wondered whether there was a little blip, or a shift in their morphology... but he couldn't tell. After all, he had no idea what any of the lines meant.

For all that was observable and understandable to them, nothing happened. In that way they stood, hunched in front of the inanimate brain for an indeterminate period of time, counted only by the polyphony beeps, as they went into their hundreds and thousands.

Suddenly aware of what felt disconcertingly like a cold sweat, Strop finally broke the silence of the noise. "Moe?"

Several seconds passed, in which nobody's heart beat, least of all Moe's.

"What do you want?" a familiar mechanical voice suddenly droned.

"Moe!" Everybody lurched forward, before realising that he didn't have a body to embrace, and they all shuffled back awkwardly. "You're awake!"

"Yes, I suppose I am," Moe remarked, characteristically dry.

"We were beginning to worry, you see," Strop poked his fingers together. "You seemed to be unconscious for a long time."

"I wonder," Moe mused. "Certainly I feel tired. More than tired. I can barely remember what happened for the past while. It's as if I, as you might put it Doctor, had run out of serotonin."

Nemo and Zophia were staring blankly, so Strop went on. "That may very well be the case. But, uh... how do you feel now? Do you feel, uh, different?"

"It's hard to say, with such an open-ended question. Perhaps you should specify some parameters." Strop wasn't sure if this was part of his imagination, or whether Moe was back to his technical hifalutin self. Dare he call it a male self?

"Well, what we theorised was that you had been affected by the F-bomb that Zophia dropped on us several months ago. And while most people were cured a few days afterward, two people that we know of were not present at that event. That would be yourself, and Nemo."

"Interesting. Do go on," Moe said.

"As you can see..." Strop took a moment to scratch his head. How did Moe know these things? Was that relevant information? After all, he also seemed to lack eyes... he shook his head rapidly. "As you can see, Nemo has been returned to his former self, courtesy of Zophia's antidote. The same antidote that Nemo dropped in your jar."

"Perhaps it has had some effect, then," Moe stated, as unaffected as ever, and yet Strop had the sneaking suspicion he was being coy.

"Well, do you feel any more male?" Strop finally blurted.

"You're asking me to comment on a topic you know is too controversial for even you to establish a clear principle on. Seeing as I don't have any secondary characteristics, you can imagine how difficult it is to come to any immediate conclusion on what to infer from my observable attributes."

Strop sighed, knowing full well that was what he was already thinking.

"What did he say?" Nemo and Zophia prodded him from behind. Strop chewed his lip before coming up with a suitable translation.

"He's saying that he doesn't have boobs. And science can't tell us whether his brain is male or female because because it's not PC."

"Blast!" Nemo shouted, throwing his staff on the ground dramatically. "And I placed so much faith in the power of science!"

"The process of coming up with the antidote didn't feel all that scientific to me," Zophia said, in an attempt to placate Nemo.

"Perhaps the parameters may be difficult to define, but the process itself presumably involved some degree of trial and error, and some measurable outcomes that required some degree of reproducability?" Moe quizzed Zophia.

"Well, arw," Zophia mussed her hair as she remembered the countless days spent in the company of the now missing Ubertuna, reproducing many a tentacle (oh, poor Ubertuna) in error. "Yes. Yes that would be right."

"Most of the great discoveries in science are accidental, a great deal many more of them not realised until well after the fact." Now Strop could have sworn that Moe was being smug, but he was speaking through a mechanical voicebox, so how that was possible was beyond him.

"Yeah, I'll be sure to write you up in a case study and presumably get laughed outta the medical community when I submit it to the Lancet," Strop snorted. "Come on guys, I think he's gonna be okay." With that he waved Nemo and Zophia out. They couldn't help but peer quizzically at him as they left the ICU.

"Do you think he's really back to normal?"

It was only as they left, that Moe left them a parting note: "If it does mean anything to you, I do feel much better now. Thank you all kindly."

---

This Is It

It really was. Standing on the stage of the Amphitheatre with a panoramic view of the stands, was the perfect position to reflect upon things that had passed when about to commence the closing ceremony to the Way of Moderation Tournament. Approximately a year later and everything was almost exactly as it was back at the opening ceremony, except there were still giant cracks in the stone foundations of the Amphitheatre, a great deal more than that still left to fix outside, and a far smaller crowd than the hundreds of thousands who packed the venue the first time around.

This was just fine by Strop, who found himself virtually alone in his duty to "finish things off", so to speak. It was unreasonable to ask Cenere to be present for this occasion considering what had happened, or whatever was happening in his life. He had told Strop himself, after all, adding "just finish the bloody thing so we can go back to our lives," before slamming the door and hiding himself under his blanket, (not necessarily in that order, it happened so fast). It was also unreasonable to ask any of the other moderators to take a break from either recuperating, or helping rebuild the city. Those were entirely more important, useful things to do. But this was a task he had to do anyway, because nonetheless there were people waiting on him to do it.

Or was there really? Behind him stood the eight... no, not even eight, The Bullman had completely disappeared with not even so much of a whimper and a "I'm not worthy of being a hero", and Thoad, well... all anybody ever found of Thoad was his helmet. And there was no telling how many of the rest of the candidates were still around, or whether they lost interest as soon as they left the tournament. Strop guessed there would be little reason to stay on after leaving, especially not now, with everything that had happened.

The scars ran far deeper than splintered wood, mortar and flesh. This resounded the most in Strop's mind as he began to speak to the audience in the Amphitheater. "Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you all for coming today...

"Obviously, a lot has happened in recent times. Conflict and battle have ravaged this land, changes and an uncertain future face us now. It was ambition, courage, hope and unity even against impossible odds that helped us survive. And so this occasion is to celebrate those qualities, the qualities that bind us as a community and shall remain the cornerstones for the future.

"You have most likely know the administration's, and my comments on this Tournament. I won't dwell on this point longer, except to say that I hope it does not detract from the acknowledgement and appreciation of the display of the finest qualities one could wish for during this tournament, as well as in the recent conflict. Several of the candidates, as well as many others who were not candidates but became inextricably involved in the tournament, distinguished themselves in the service and defence of our city. To this end, we have a few awards that I would like to present, though even this would not do justice to the many that I do not mention now, even seated amongst you.

"Without further ado then." Strop gestured to his right before he realised that Cen was not standing beside him. So he leaned over and picked up a pennant from the pile he had set up. "First, I would like to pay homage to one of our most experienced veterans for his tireless," (at this point he stifled a cough), "service to the community, despite having to retire from the tournament due to health concerns. Even so, his unwavering loyalty to Armor Games had him pick up his quill in its defence when it needed him the most. I therefore present the 'Pen is Mightier' award to King 'Since Beta' Ryan!"

The customary applause followed, and after a delay in which somebody sharply elbowed King Ryan back away, he shuffled on stage from the left in a daze, shook Strop's hand with his right hand, took the pennant with the left, and shuffled off stage right.

"Next, in this world of aspiring superheroes and warriors, I would like to highlight the virtues of the common man. And by common I don't mean dull, or boring, but rather all the dreams and concerns that we all live day to day. When it comes to the tournament, I now know why I've been going about this all wrong. The reason everything fell to pieces was because we were trying to achieve dreams. This world doesn't need selfish dreamers, it needs people who appreciate what they've been given and what they can give back.

"So the next award I'm giving to a man who represents the virtues of the common man, an alchemist who was determined to change his lot and aspired to become a teacher, and through seeking and seizing opportunities and persevering is well on the way to passing on his inspiration to a younger generation. So I award this pennant to 'The Everyman', Goumas!"

Much unlike the somnambulant King Ryan, Goumas was rather more enthusiastic about his accolade. Strop swore he could see tears as Goumas accepted his award.

"Now we move to those who stepped up to become commanders and generals for a day. Without their initiative and leadership, it would be safe to say that Armor Castle, and the entire city, would have fallen. It was with no small amount of gratitude that we witnessed the fruits of their growth from the trials they faced for several months.

"To the leaders of the Air Force that countered an airborne threat we were otherwise utterly defenceless against, save for archery and a single dragon, I present the 'Salvation from Above' award to two once-rivals turned comrades, Pixel and Frank!"

Both Pixel and Frank smirked wryly as they casually ambled across the stage and accepted their pennants, and exchanged cursorary and somewhat unnecessary polite words with Strop.

"Many months ago, I dubbed this young participant a Wrecking Ball because of his sheer destructive power and recklessness, (yes recklessness)," Strop turned to hiss at Manta, whom he had obviously been referring to, as an aside. "(Now stop glaring at me like that.) But even in his willingness to charge headlong into combat, he exercised discretion and displayed charisma in galvanising an entire tribe to assist in the front lines. The title ought to be rectified, and so I award the 'Fists of Fury' to the kickboxing fishman, Manta!"

"BOO-YAH!" In sharp contrast Manta punched the air and jump kicked his way to Strop, then held his pennant aloft like a prize-fighter picking up the coveted belt. "Keep at it carp-boy," Strop remarked. "You did your father proud."

"Only a small portion of Armor Games is devoted to the study of magicka, but it is a powerful tool for building. Not just building things to do things with, as in the final line of defence against giant mutant trolls, but also the building of teams, and friendships between very different people, again between former rivals . The 'Magic is Friendship' award is jointly awarded to the child prodigy, and the esteemed veteran, Chill and Crimsonblade!"

In a subtlely choreographed flourish, Chill slid across the stage, skating over a layer of ice that formed just in front of his feet, followed by Crimson who hovered on one of his trademark coded boards, swooping their pennants up as they passed, and sweeping around behind Strop until they were back where they started.

"This award is a tribute to the shy guy, who means well and acts with goodwill, but never stepped forward to promote themselves. That is to say, not until the crucial moment, where a hidden, but bountiful courage and fortitude proved pivotal to our defence. Thus, the 'Lurk Less' award goes to the citizen whose role may have seemed minor, but without his efforts we would have faced a vastly different future: Maverick!"

Several hands propelled Maverick towards the stage, where he swayed, slightly overwhelmed, before slouching in a futile attempt to hide himself in his cape. Strop clapped him strategically on the back, forcing him upright with a quiet reprimand: "Stand tall, man!" before he hurried back off-stage.

"The next award goes to a non-contestant, but through his deeds he changed the course of the history of this tournament. At first we thought it was little more than madness inducing mind-altering substances, but were it not for this herbalist's services and heroism in AG's darkest moments, it is well probable that the mission to save this community would have ended before it began. Ever present, ever confusing, inextricably tied to the events within and without the tournament, is your MVNPC, Hermit!"

As unkempt as always, Hermit emerged from a shrubbery (or maybe he was the shrubbery), saying something which Strop imagined was just as incomprehensible as it was drowned out by the applause of the crowd. He then proceeded to wrap the pennant around his head, fashioning it into a bandana everybody looked on bemusedly, before disappearing back into the shrubbery that, by now, seemed to be equal parts of his clothing as well as bits of scenery he happened to pick up as he walked.

Strop took a deep breath before continuing, and the crowd hushed to an unnatural silence, anticipating what must come next. "This brings us to the obvious award that everybody is waiting for, the MVP. It is difficult to explain exactly what this award stands for, or to justify it being awarded to any one candidate for an act of heroism moreso than any other, for everybody I award today, including this candidate, distinguished themselves with indespensible, irreplaceable service to the land of AG. Perhaps the only way I can say it is that this award goes to the candidate who, through their way of life, reflects the true meaning of the Way of Moderation. This candidate, simply by existing within his nature, without altering anything, flowed with circumstance, without regard to pretenses or hubris. Some may accuse him of quackery, others of sheer luck over skill or substance. Others may point out that with his acts of justice came acts of villainy. I too found myself being confronted by this candidate, having to reassess my notions of justice and the law of this land, having observed his progress through the stages of the tournament, might I even admit at this point, despite my efforts to vet the candidates to my preconceptions of lawful, just candidates. For better or for worse, we are all richer for having met this strangely capabable, paradoxical force of nature."

There was a pregnant pause.

"The MVP of the Way of Moderation Tournament is Leon McAcid."

The arena dissolved into the roar of several thousand voices, applause and stomping. Into the center stage Leon McAcid, once a deranged gnoll trader, now the deranged anti-hero of the moment, strode, his (specially polished) gauntlet raised to grasp the moment, causing the audience to burst out into a chant: "LEON! LEON! LEON!" Cape billowing impressively in a non-existent wind, he bared the breastplate bearing his seal, then magnaminously bowed his head to gaze at Strop with his characteristically toothy grin, even while the chant continued.

"It has a nice ring to it, won't you say?" Leon smirked.

Unsure what to say, Strop merely handed the gaudy MVP trophy to him. Leon stood there, expectantly. With the crowd still chanting his name in adulation, it was at once clear both who controlled the proceedings at that point, yet who the onus was on to respond.

Finally, Strop found the words: "Leon... the battle brought out the best in you. I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or not, I suppose you would say it just is. Whatever may be the case... you were there when we needed you most. And you have my thanks for that."

"That's sweet of you." Leon was still grinning. "But I think the people want to hear from you now."

Strop glared at Leon. "You're not making this any easier."

Leon kept right on grinning. "That's not in my nature."

Strop resolutely turned his back on Leon, and walked to the front of the stage, thumbing the 'fone. "Ladies and Gentlemen, these are all the awards that conclude the Way of Moderation. However!" he hastily pre-empted any surge of protest, "As for the question of who should be next elected to the position of Moderator..."

Around him, everybody continued chanting "LEON! LEON! LEON!" The sounds boxed him in, pressing at him from all sides, beseeching, expecting, demanding him to make the pronouncement. But he knew it would be impossible, and the only thing more difficult would be telling this rapturous audience.

 

Posted Jul 7, '13 at 4:39pm

Strop

Strop

10,823 posts

Moderator

A New Era

Strop had gone to the trouble of chasing down the now-elusive finalists, preoccupied as they were with rebuilding (or not rebuilding) their livelihoods, to figure out their, and therefore in a way, his plans.

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"Yeah the tournament was pretty fun and all," Chill had commented, while blowing another sheet of ice onto the beginnings of some monolith as esoteric as it was transient. "It was really challenging, and I learnt a lot." He then paused to turn away and blow some more ice on his foundation, and when he looked back at Strop:

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"Well no not really," he laughed. "But I did meet a few cool people."

It was a similar story with Frank, who had been patching a somewhat less esoteric airship in the Construction Zone. His stubble growing longer than usual left him with a weary-looking seven-o-clock shadow that matched his bleary eyes.

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"Home is where the heart is," Frank said. "That's what I realised. And mine lies in adventure. And the people I have them with. Mainly the people." With that, he banged a few more nails into the hull of the cabin.

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"Of course I miss the old AG," remarked Crimson, from the remains of his keep. "But times are changing, so I'll go where my friends go and see what happens I guess. Did you know we're starting a new crew?"

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"I thought I'd go back and see my family again," Manta mused between stacking (as many) bricks (as he could possibly handle at once). "It's been a pretty crazy last few weeks and, I dunno, I guess I should see how they're doing after it all." Then he flashed a ****y grin. "Fun tournament, though."

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"...so it's time to spread my wings and fly again, I suppose. What with my house flattened and all," Pixie said with a rueful smile. "There's nothing left for me here." Indeed it was a sentiment shared by many in the wake of such devastation.

Strop had left those conversations with a certain resignation and yet a certain desperation. But in a way he had anticipated all of these responses, for what else was there to conclude, everything being said and done in abundance in the endless iterations of post-mortem analyses. Yet, characteristically, none of his exit interviews shook him so much, as his interview with Leon, in the usual secluded corner of the song and dance of the Tavern.

The Way of Moderation: Interview 2: Live by the Leon

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written by Xzeno

Strop pushed open the doors of the tavern. Hooves falling heavily on the hard wood floor, Strop looked around the dingy tavern, acutely aware of the eyes on him. They stared at him, unflinching as the tavern doors creaked behind him, swinging freely. The room came with him as he crossed the floor, not even looking up as one of the doors fell off its hinges in his wake. Strop winced. He hadn't particularly felt like a ninja much this week, and the tension in the room made him feel less so. Even his target, he noted with some surprise, stared him down intently.
Leon sat in a corner, head bowed, glass of amber liquid held delicately in his claw. His eyes reflected yellow from under the shadow of his hood. He was alone, the only one at the bar with a table all to himself.
“You certainly look mysterious.” Strop noted as he took a seat.
“Evening.” Leon snorted, swishing his liquor around in the glass. Even in the dingy, dark corner, he noticed that Leon's cape was tattered and his armor impossibly shiny. It must have been a sight, Strop thought, to see the gnoll of all people strolling down the ruined street in shining silver armor while Strop himself still carried the weight of the battle with dark-eyed weariness. He decided, then, to start with the obvious.”
“Your armor looks good as new.” he observed.
“I had it repaired after the battle.” Leon shrugged.
“And yet you can't be bothered to patch up your classic green number.” Strop pressed.
“Call me sentimental.” Leon exclaimed, drawing his head up, amber eyes twinkling at Strop from under his hood. Strop blinked. Leon stared at him expectantly. Strop ****ed his head to the side. Leon squinted, then looked away.
“Anyway...” the gnoll continued, “what brings you to this fine establishment? Don't you have work to do?” Strop rubbed his eyes.
“More than you know, Leon. And tying up loose ends is part of that.” Strop replied.
“Well that shouldn't be too hard!” Leon barked. “In fact, I think I saw a couple loose ends pass through here not too long ago.” Strop smiled mirthlessly. Lean sunk back in his chair and took a long drink.
“So what's up?” he asked seriously. Strop looked him in the eye.
“Guess it's over, huh?” Strop mused.
“I guess.” Leon agreed. “I haven't really been paying attention recently.”
“Hard to blame you,” Strop sighed “but I figured you'd be used to the chaos.”
“Well, the ability to follow along and the will to do so are two discrete entities!” Leon clarified, raising a finger.
“You know, Leon, I never did quite figure out where your loyalties lay.” Strop confessed. “It seems you're with me one minute and against me the next.” Leon raised an eyebrow.
“Why do you think that is?” the gnoll mused.
“I don't know.” Strop sighed “You seem very anti-authoritarian.”
“I'm not.” Leon said with a chipper smile. “Not the way you're thinking, anyway. I mean I am. It's complicated.”
“Well, I just mean to say that-”
“Here, let me tell you a story.” Leon cut in. “You know I'm a hunter and a jeweler. And a warrior. But I am also an herbalist and a keeper of lore. I'll explain the role of archers in gnoll tribal culture sometime.” Strop blinked as Leon smiled expectantly. He cleared his throat.
“Well it would be interesting to learn about where yo-” Strop began.
“Right, the story. Do you remember that elf you were trying to pick up during the ninth round?” Leon asked.
“I wasn't trying to pick her up!” Strop protested.
“That's a shame. You'd be right to go for it: those elves are quite kind to their horses.” Leon cackled. “Anyway, where was I... Once upon a time a young elf met a human. This human was of such radiant beauty, such sharp intellect and such magnetic charm that the elf was awestruck. Although it was their first meeting, she knew at that moment she desired nothing more than have that human's hand.
“Their love, you must understand, was a fairy-tale. As though foretold by the stars and as deep as any love could be. To this day, when young lovers make vows, they compare themselves to a love such as this, and know in their hearts that their love pales.
“The human and the elf married without delay, because it was actually a pretty progressive culture back then. I mean, if you think about it, a cultural distaste for human/elf hookups makes a lot of sense, because one's pretty clearly gonna kick the bucket first. I mean, come on, heartbreak is inevitable. Like this one time, Edward and I were talking to this elf dude, and he had this giant riding crab, and when I say 'riding' I mean-”
“Is this story really essential to my understanding of your role in recent events?” Strop groaned. Leon adjusted his hood.
“I was going to spare you the gory details. And believe me, they're gory. Back to the story: They lived in peace for many years, desiring nothing more than one another. However, not all was to be at peace. On the elf's 50th birthday, she was summoned by an order of elfish priests. She was chosen, as it turned out, as their messiah. It was, in their dogma, her destiny to transcend the mortality of flesh and become one with nature.
“Every day, she walked to the temple and meditated, following the priests' guidance as she opened her mind to the power they offered. And that's what ruins most love stories, isn't it, Strop? Power. Starcrossed lovers fall to the petty power struggles of men. But this was no petty power the elf was promised. Although she had only opened half of the mental gates the priests spoke of, the mightiest wizards turned their eyes for fear as she passed. She had the power to raze mountains, to boil seas, to calm storms, never knowing death nor age " to heal or to kill, to to save the world or crush it.” Leon panted, gesticulating wildly. Strop raised an eyebrow. “When the time came for her apotheosis,” Leon continued “she faced the hardest challenge of all. All that was left for her to do was transcend the bounds of her mortal life. To achieve unity with nature, she had to detach herself from material concern and all that tied her to the world.” Leon paused. “Would you be able to turn it down, Strop? All that power... even gods would fear you. The ability, the destiny to bring about a new world order shaped by your ideals. Would you trade that for true love? Could you?” Strop was silent. Leon stared at him intently.
“I don't... think so.” the horse replied at length.
“You're **** right you wouldn't!” Leon roared, pounding a gauntlet on the table. “Oh, but she could. She ran from the temple and never returned. She laid down the life of a god to live out the remainder of her years in bliss, with her love. To this day, when couples (or more, I don't judge) speak of love, they speak of the courage and purity of the elf's love and to this day there are monuments and festivals in her honor.” Leon finished, trying to snap his fingers with a cheery clang.
“So what was the point of that, exactly?” Strop asked.
“The point is that she chose wrong.” Leon growled suddenly, eyes dipping below his hood. “She chose love over power. She had no right. What she did was not courage. It was selfish and petty. To live chose her own happiness when she was meant to save the world? Her name should be a curse! A lament to all the suffering we endure!” Strop sat stunned at Leon's furious outburst.
“It wasn't her way. Love was not her path. It was her way to detach herself from all reality and become The Voice of Nature!” Leon exclaimed, illustrating each point by jamming a claw into the table. “And she blew it. She defied what was her path for the petty joys of love. Which would be a-okay if she was a lover. But she just wasn't. It wasn't her path. She was meant for that power. It was meant for her. That's the lesson of this story, Strop. A lot of people think it's 'choose love over power' or 'choose the world over your own happiness' but it's not. The point is that she made the wrong choice. The point is that she lost her way to preserve her love.”
“So your way is anti-authoritarian, but you hold no grudges against authority?” Strop asked.
“It is somewhat contradictory, I know,” Leon confessed, swishing his drink around “to simultaneously hold that your authority, your order, your very way of thinking is vile, dangerous, fit only for destruction and that it is necessary and good. But it makes sense, doesn't it? Conflicting beliefs are good. I wish to destroy authority, yes, but to ever do so is pointless, just as it is equally pointless for authority to destroy me. Different people think different things and that's just the way the cookie crumbles. The fact that we all fight for different things in a chaotic mess of pointless bloodshed is what makes us strong. Think about the trolls, huh? Was any of that worth fighting or dying for? What disagreement fueled it? It was pointless death and destruction.” Leon sat back in his chair. “And it's beautiful, isn't it? This disharmony. It what makes us what we are. I may hate your actions, loathe your thoughts and despise you for them, but I will never blame you. Not as long as you stay on your path. Ideals don't matter. Results don't matter. The path matters.”
Strop and Leon sat in silence as the minutes ticked by, each lost in their own thoughts.
“I think I'm gonna bounce.” Leon said.
“Yeah, I know.” Strop answered. Another minute passed in silence. “Me too.” Another minute. “Forever, I mean.” the pony continued. “I'm leaving the land of Armor Games and I'm not coming back.” Leon sipped his drink in glassy-eyed silence.
“Yeah, I know.”

---

A New Era (continued)

Strop jerked back to the present, the rhythmic roaring around him reforming into the chant, "LEON! LEON! LEON!" Sure enough, to his right, Leon stood, both expectantly grinning at him, yet with the posture of one who was expecting nothing at all. "Go on, then," he goaded.

A wordless glare was all Strop could and needed to shoot at Leon. With no other recourse left to him, he raised the 'fone, and blurted: "Ladies and gentlemen, the truth is, none of the candidates from this tournament will be made moderator."

Strop counted two seconds of stunned silence before the confused whispers turned into catcalls, shouted queries and finally a full blown outburst of indignation. Whatever happened to the taxpayer's money? Was this all a waste of time? Wasn't this supposed to be about the crowning of a new moderator? What about all the illegal betting on the outcome? After all, it seemed that some people had put good money on Manta being the dark horse (this comment made no sense at all to Manta, being a fish man). In a matter of moments, the arena threatened to break out into yet another riot.

"Beautiful, isn't it," Leon smirked, once again copping a glare from Strop, which might as well have reflected straight off his polished breastplate. Everybody else on stage, still weary from the prior conflicts, started slowly stepping back cautiously. And once again, Strop didn't really know what to do, only this time, he lacked the willpower and the confidence in his own authority to really try anyway. Silently he found himself wishing that somebody would turn up in a fanfare of trumpets and solve his problem for him.

As if on cue, a fanfare of trumpets erupted, piercing the angry noise of the arena. Attentions were grabbed and mouths silenced as an ornate carriage bearing the royal crest of Armor Games, flanked by an honour guard of unicorn cavalry rolled through the archway of the Amphitheatre, towing a strange, tall contraption hidden entirely by a velvet black curtain. Strop stared, dumbfounded, and stayed that way until before he knew it, Administrator Cormyn was divesting him of the 'fone.

"Hi everyone," he said, completely destroying the ceremonial tone that Strop had taken great pains to maintain up to this point. "We had some talks with Dan and agreed that the lack of active moderators was one of the most pressing issues we had to address as quickly as possible. We worked hard on a solution, and so now we are pleased to present to you, the repaired Wheel of Moderation!"

Strop finally noticed that His Highness, Daniel McNeely, had emerged from the carriage, and the honour guard, with their helmets off, were actually the entire development team. With half on each side of the covered cart, they whipped the velvet curtain off, revealing the Wheel of Moderation, just as it had been, except with a great deal many more names on it.

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As much as it was to take in for one moment, Strop found himself applauding the timing and impact of this move, for it had completely captured the audience at the height of their frenzy.  In the tranquility of the now, which had seen Strop completely removed from the locus of control, was he now able to appreciate the beauty that Leon had spoken of. But then again perhaps that was only because he wasn't about to get lynched by about ten thousand angry AGers.

Meanwhile, Cormyn continued. "I understand that previously, the selection of a moderator was the subject of folklore and secretive tradition. But this is a changing community, and we have agreed that increased transparency is instrumental to our viability moving forward."

Strop noticed, at this very juncture, that every other moderator from older generations were curiously, or perhaps not surprisingly absent. Nemo, too, was also absent, and it was he who had most strongly promoted the so-called folklore and mystique. But as Cormyn said, the times were moving on.

"Therefore, we shall not delay any further. We shall spin the wheel now, and declare your new moderator henceforth!"

And just as they said, Dan walked up to the giant Wheel of Moderation, and gave it a kingly heave.

The silence was impressive, for the only sound in that full arena, was the whirring of the wheel, which slowed to a ticking, which eventually became an interminable "plink plink plink", until it finally stopped.

Everybody, even those right at the back of the arena, leaned forward to get a better look, but naturally, the text on the wheel being so darn small, it took a supadoopahawesometasticmegamegamagnifying glass for even Dan to be able to read the name that came up. But sure enough the Wheel had chosen.

"Our newest moderator in Armor Games is... Gantic!"

The silence went from electric to stunned, as everybody started looking around in confusion. Gantic? Who was this great being on whom the honour had suddenly been bestowed? It was a good half a minute before anybody bothered to look down, to discover that the great being happened to be a two-foot tall white rabbit who used Alligator Mouthwash, who was presently hopping his way down the aisle to the stage. Everybody stared as the diminutive new mod as he cleared the staircase in a single leap, and turned to them, adjusting his monocle as Cormyn handed the 'fone to him.

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"Such is life." Gantic said.

The crowd blinked. In the background the lone maniacal laugh of a hyena could be heard. After a suitable pause, the rabbit turned to Cormyn. "Grant me a celery patch, and I'll patch this city up with celerity."

At first, there was a confused mumbling as the people tried to decipher the Gantique. Then they collectively decided to pretend that they understood it and roared with approval.

"Just so you know," Gantic said, just loud enough for only Strop to hear, while fixing him with what Strop could only feel was a disapproving look. "You will find that I am no lapine dog to your horseplay. Oh dear, what is the time, I'm late for my meeting!"

Hurriedly pocketing his wristwatch, he hopped off the stage and bolted towards the exit. As one, the entire audience rose and started piling down the stairs after the rabbit. As the crowd flooded the entryway, carrying their new hero on their collective shoulders, Strop was left, standing on the stage, completely alone, wondering about everything. Especially whether he really would give up true love for unlimited power, or his destiny, whatever that might be. And whatever true love might be, too, for that matter.

The arena looked so much larger when it was empty, but the perspective was warped by the presence of the thirty foot behemoth of a Wheel of Moderation, that had been abandoned in the wake of the last two minutes. Strop slowly walked up to it, running his hand over the restored woodgrain, and gazing at the almost indecipherable scrawl of names. He pushed at the lip of the bottom of the wheel, marvelling at how smooth the action of the turn was, and reflecting upon the mechanism the wheel concealed, which Devoidless had managed to overwhelm so long ago. For a minute, he stood there, fighting a rising urge in his chest, and took a hold of the wheel, firm enough to spin it...

...if he wanted to...

...or if he couldn't hold himself back.

* historical note: Gantic was actually modded by Carlie, and, as far as I can remember, prior to the commencement of Cormyn.

---

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---

In Memoriam

"We are gathered today not to mourn, but to celebrate..."

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Huddled together in their Sunday best, the heart of the community had united, at the crack of dawn, on the grassy hill behind Armor Hospital. What remained of the moderators, and those who wished to remember what they had gone through together, stood, gazing at the humble stone that had been laid to rest, as testament to those who had been lost in the heights of battle, and that which had been found in the depths of despair.

"Today and always, we shall honour the courage of those who gave their lives to defend our home. May we always be thankful, and strive to work together in harmony..."

As the speaker droned on, the moderators shifted on their feet, staring at the grass, still wet with the morning dew. Surreptitiously, Nemo nudged Devoidless.

"You don't really think Ubertuna's gone is he?"

Devoidless didn't answer, but Dank had overhead, and snorted. "You don't really think anybody would come back from being eaten by a shark, do you?"

"I know, I know," Nemo sighed. "It's just hard to believe that he'd just, you know. Go like that."

In the background, the speaker was going strong: "...age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn..."

"I know what you mean, yes," Dank finally acquiesced. "Sometimes I find myself thinking he's probably skulking around a sewer somewhere, like always."

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You just got Trolololed

"...Thus, let us never forget the noble sacrifice of the one called Thoad the Toad, whose resourcefulness under pressure created the most vital of defenses during the battle. But let us also never forget the contributions he made, as a much loved veteran of the community, and leader of the Zombie Survival Club..."

One of Thoad's ZSC officers proceeded to the memorial, and laid down the only piece of Thoad anybody had found after the battle, his helmet.

"I don't buy it." A grey-suited Cen muttered.

"Me neither," Strop muttered back. "It's just too neat. And too cliche."

"It doesn't matter what everybody else thinks," Cen agreed. "He'll come back. He always does."

At the other end of the mod line, the girls were similarly gossiping. "I heard the devs found Flipski's left arm," Dragonmistress whispered.

"And parts of his neural circuitry!" Asherlee confirmed. "Admin said they'd have a shot at rebuilding the big guy."

A loud squee rang out, followed by a whinney as Strop startled. The speaker presiding over the service was forced to pause, and he fixed the moderators with a tired stare. Strop clapped a hand over his mouth and looked away, only to notice that Zophia was doing the same. Needless to say, the rest of the service proceeded without further incident.

"Really though," Zophia bubbled at the group as they started to disperse from the hill. "Do you really think he'll be the same?"

"There are a lot of contingencies," Moe noted. "After all, you are asking a question about what identity is, and how much of it relates to physiology."

Voidy could not help himself. "That's funny, coming from a brain. In a jar." And then he added. "Talking about a robot."

"That's precisely the point," Moe said, unfazed. "I am no dualist."

Remarkably, out of the mods, only Zophia didn't quite understand. "...duellist?"

"Which means the option to believe is open to me. Can not reconstruction be the same as construction? Either way, I choose to leave the question open."

Moe paused, perhaps to reflect. "Because Flipski and I were... are friends. I am fond of him, so it would be undisciplined of me to say yes. But I am fond of him, so it would be sorrowful to say no."

And with that, the crowd trickled out in all directions, until all that remained was the stone, and the faint impression of hopes and memories.

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Sunsets

The Wall Scene

Strop leaned against the short wall of the much bigger wall surrounding the city. It was a nice evening, a bit of a breeze picking up which was a welcome break from the dry heat that had picked up shortly after the rainstorm had ended. Behind him, down in the city, people were still doing a bit of work, trying to use the last bit of proper light, before they would go home. This was not really of interest now, however, nor was the forest that laid in front of him, looking golden in the light of the setting sun, and much more peaceful than it actually was. No, he was there for a whole other reason. Cen was standing a few steps to the right of him, looking down at the workers while holding a cup of what Strop assumed with tea.

Strop was disappoint. He just thought Cen had become a manly man, but instead of embracing this change, and start growing some hair on his chest and a full beard, Cen was moping about in a t-shirt that wasn't fitting him well, and now drinking something as boring as strawberry tea.

Strop snapped out of the obvious sidetrack. This was not important right now, since it was getting too late for a brisk run over rooftops anyway. And he was kinda tired after a whole day's supervision of the workers and pretending he was being productive, when he really had been reading the latest chapters of One Piece and possibly dreaming about going on an adventure with Luffy, though if someone had asked, he would deny ever having any affiliation with pirates.

At that he turned to Cen. "So, I herd u liek mudkips?"

...actually no, that's not how it went.

At that he turned to Cen. "You might wonder why I called you here."

Cen looked at him with a somewhat bored expression of slight confusion. "Uh, you didn't. I was enjoying the peace up here, then you went to scale the wall after yelling at people to 'Look at this', and then you did three somersaults and kinda zoned out for a bit."

"Oh." Strop mumbled.

Strop poked his fingers together a few times, trying to look innocently guilty and adorable at the same time, before noticing that Cen had taken to ignoring him. Rude.

"ANYWAY," he huffed, pulling out an envelope from only God knows where, and wishes he didn't, and poked it at Cen to get his attention. "I've got this for you. You can thank me later."

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Cen took it after having poked in the face a few times, much more to get the poking to stop than actually wanting to see what it was. It was a brownish regular looking envelope with 'Strop' written on it, except someone had tried their best to disguise this by striking it out several times and then misspelling 'Cenere' underneath. On the back, the new seal of AG was placed to hold the envelope closed, and that was probably the only part of the whole thing that looked remotely professional.

Cen looked sceptically at Strop, who was shaking with badly hidden excitement.

"Open eeet!"

Cen squinted at him tiredly, before unceremoniously ripping the envelope open and taking out the letter, on which his name had also been misspelled, however differently from on the envelope.

Ignoring the squeeing sound Strop made, he read the letter.

And read it again.

And once more.

Strop watched all the colour disappear from Cen's face in a way that, had he been working at the hospital, would have merited an instant transfusion and colonoscopy, but right now was entirely ignored.

Then Cen looked up at him with wide eyes and a general expression of terror.

"CONGRATS" Strop whinnied. He spun around on a hoof and took of laughing, just as Cen pitched into a fit not quite understandable due to rage and Danish, the language of pastries.

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And So They Became Mods

Standing in front of the smoking pit in the ground, all that could be seen was the glow from the pit. Everything else was shrouded in complete darkness. The fires of the secret admin forge burned before Cenere, but it was not the heat that had him sweating.

Gone were the days of wild partying and parody rituals, and for this Cen was at least glad. All the other moderators could do all the song and dance they wanted, but this did not strike him as the occasion for abandonment and celebration. Armor Games was moving onto a new era. It was an era that he was being swept into, along with a two-foot tall rabbit. He turned to the rabbit to steal a glance, but Gantic appeared completely unperturbed. In fact, Gantic was presently nibbling on a carrot.

"If you please," intoned a voice, which Cenere thought might belong to Daniel McNeely, but he could still think of a thousand other candidates. "Reach into the forge and grasp your ban weapons."

Without so much as a chitter, Gantic did so, except his forelimbs were too short to actually reach, so a shadowy figure assisted him by holding him over the pit. Cenere, on the other hand, hesitated. This was something that Strop, that stupid laugh-whinneying jack-*** had set him up for. He didn't want anything to do with this. At least, that's what he had said, but somehow he still found himself standing here, which means that he had gotten up this morning and not jumped out of his apartment window in protest, nor had he run away screaming when the Royal Carriage flanked by the knightly developers had arrived to escort him to his new destiny. So he didn't want to be here, but part of him, well, at least part of him had not not wanted him to be here. "It's character building!", an annoying, tinny horsey soundbyte echoed in his ear.

"Oh what the hell," he found himself saying, and plunged his hands into the smoke.

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Strop was not amused

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And then Cenere and Gantic were set to work, and became pretty much the only active moderators for quite a while...