[ARCHIVE] The Way of Moderation
Posted Jan 1, '12 at 9:09am
Watching from above...
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."
You Won't Get Me Alive
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.
"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
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.
"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.
Strop stooped down.
Posted Mar 21, '12 at 3:29am
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 cocked 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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
The End of the World
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!!!"
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
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.
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.
His bloodcurdling scream continued all the way down to the battlefield.
Courage Under Fire
"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.
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
The voice was unique, female, but booming and deep and distinctly unfeminine for all the power and aggression that it carried.
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.
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-
Posted Mar 21, '12 at 5:52am
Posted Apr 9, '12 at 10:45am
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.
"I'm sorry, did I wake you up?"
"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.
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.
"I'd like to introduce John, my fiance."
"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.
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 cockiest 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
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.
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...
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."
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.
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
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"
"... 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."
"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."
"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
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.
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."
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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
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.
"Is this what you do around here for fun?"
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.