ForumsArt, Music, and Writing[ARCHIVE] The Way of Moderation

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Strop
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This thread is for people who want to keep up with the actual story material of the contest without having to wade through several hundred user posts in between. It is presently solely kept by me.

I actually have an external website on which I hope to more properly archive the happenings of the WoM.

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Strop
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Strop
10,841 posts
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A New Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Over there!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---


I Say What I Mean & I Mean What I Say

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"Cen, are you alright?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But can I speak to you, then?"

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

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

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

"For about three seconds."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes."

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

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

"Uh."

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

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

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

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

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

Strop paused in the door.

"I think she broke up with me."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

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

"I beg your pardon?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Why was the tournament founded in this instance?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Moderator Strop? Any comment?"

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

"Fair enough, but, a rap battle?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you agree with Klaus' views?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Go on."

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strop hung his head. Silence followed for several seconds.

"No." He finally answered.

"In what way?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

The Way of Being

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slowly, he lifted his head and spoke:

"I would like to say the following."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strop
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The Stone Cold Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

It Won't Change Anything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I dunno derp

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

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

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


Stitches Are a Luxury

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

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

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

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---

Rebuild

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With uplifting music and stuff!

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

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

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

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

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

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

---


Friendship is Mudfighting

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

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

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

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

Strop
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Strop
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Just When Everything Was Starting to Make Sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"STOP GRABBING MY BOOOOOOOOBS!"

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

"Zophia, I feel stubble!"

Nill stiffened. "What!?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another two seconds passed.

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

---


Ladies & Gentlemen & Everyone In Between

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Interesting. Do go on," Moe said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

This Is It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a pregnant pause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strop
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Strop
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A New Era

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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written by Xzeno

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

---

A New Era (continued)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody, even those right at the back of the arena, leaned forward to get a better look, but naturally, the text on the wheel being so darn small, it took a supadoopahawesometasticmegamegamagnifying glass for even Dan to be able to read the name that came up. But sure enough the Wheel had chosen.

"Our newest moderator in Armor Games is... Gantic!"

The silence went from electric to stunned, as everybody started looking around in confusion. Gantic? Who was this great being on whom the honour had suddenly been bestowed? It was a good half a minute before anybody bothered to look down, to discover that the great being happened to be a two-foot tall white rabbit who used Alligator Mouthwash, who was presently hopping his way down the aisle to the stage. Everybody stared as the diminutive new mod as he cleared the staircase in a single leap, and turned to them, adjusting his monocle as Cormyn handed the 'fone to him.

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"Such is life." Gantic said.

The crowd blinked. In the background the lone maniacal laugh of a hyena could be heard. After a suitable pause, the rabbit turned to Cormyn. "Grant me a celery patch, and I'll patch this city up with celerity."

At first, there was a confused mumbling as the people tried to decipher the Gantique. Then they collectively decided to pretend that they understood it and roared with approval.

"Just so you know," Gantic said, just loud enough for only Strop to hear, while fixing him with what Strop could only feel was a disapproving look. "You will find that I am no lapine dog to your horseplay. Oh dear, what is the time, I'm late for my meeting!"

Hurriedly pocketing his wristwatch, he hopped off the stage and bolted towards the exit. As one, the entire audience rose and started piling down the stairs after the rabbit. As the crowd flooded the entryway, carrying their new hero on their collective shoulders, Strop was left, standing on the stage, completely alone, wondering about everything. Especially whether he really would give up true love for unlimited power, or his destiny, whatever that might be. And whatever true love might be, too, for that matter.

The arena looked so much larger when it was empty, but the perspective was warped by the presence of the thirty foot behemoth of a Wheel of Moderation, that had been abandoned in the wake of the last two minutes. Strop slowly walked up to it, running his hand over the restored woodgrain, and gazing at the almost indecipherable scrawl of names. He pushed at the lip of the bottom of the wheel, marvelling at how smooth the action of the turn was, and reflecting upon the mechanism the wheel concealed, which Devoidless had managed to overwhelm so long ago. For a minute, he stood there, fighting a rising urge in his chest, and took a hold of the wheel, firm enough to spin it...

...if he wanted to...

...or if he couldn't hold himself back.


* historical note: Gantic was actually modded by Carlie, and, as far as I can remember, prior to the commencement of Cormyn.

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In Memoriam

"We are gathered today not to mourn, but to celebrate..."

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Huddled together in their Sunday best, the heart of the community had united, at the crack of dawn, on the grassy hill behind Armor Hospital. What remained of the moderators, and those who wished to remember what they had gone through together, stood, gazing at the humble stone that had been laid to rest, as testament to those who had been lost in the heights of battle, and that which had been found in the depths of despair.

"Today and always, we shall honour the courage of those who gave their lives to defend our home. May we always be thankful, and strive to work together in harmony..."

As the speaker droned on, the moderators shifted on their feet, staring at the grass, still wet with the morning dew. Surreptitiously, Nemo nudged Devoidless.

"You don't really think Ubertuna's gone is he?"

Devoidless didn't answer, but Dank had overhead, and snorted. "You don't really think anybody would come back from being eaten by a shark, do you?"

"I know, I know," Nemo sighed. "It's just hard to believe that he'd just, you know. Go like that."

In the background, the speaker was going strong: "...age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn..."

"I know what you mean, yes," Dank finally acquiesced. "Sometimes I find myself thinking he's probably skulking around a sewer somewhere, like always."

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You just got Trolololed

"...Thus, let us never forget the noble sacrifice of the one called Thoad the Toad, whose resourcefulness under pressure created the most vital of defenses during the battle. But let us also never forget the contributions he made, as a much loved veteran of the community, and leader of the Zombie Survival Club..."

One of Thoad's ZSC officers proceeded to the memorial, and laid down the only piece of Thoad anybody had found after the battle, his helmet.

"I don't buy it." A grey-suited Cen muttered.

"Me neither," Strop muttered back. "It's just too neat. And too cliche."

"It doesn't matter what everybody else thinks," Cen agreed. "He'll come back. He always does."

At the other end of the mod line, the girls were similarly gossiping. "I heard the devs found Flipski's left arm," Dragonmistress whispered.

"And parts of his neural circuitry!" Asherlee confirmed. "Admin said they'd have a shot at rebuilding the big guy."

A loud squee rang out, followed by a whinney as Strop startled. The speaker presiding over the service was forced to pause, and he fixed the moderators with a tired stare. Strop clapped a hand over his mouth and looked away, only to notice that Zophia was doing the same. Needless to say, the rest of the service proceeded without further incident.

"Really though," Zophia bubbled at the group as they started to disperse from the hill. "Do you really think he'll be the same?"

"There are a lot of contingencies," Moe noted. "After all, you are asking a question about what identity is, and how much of it relates to physiology."

Voidy could not help himself. "That's funny, coming from a brain. In a jar." And then he added. "Talking about a robot."

"That's precisely the point," Moe said, unfazed. "I am no dualist."

Remarkably, out of the mods, only Zophia didn't quite understand. "...duellist?"

"Which means the option to believe is open to me. Can not reconstruction be the same as construction? Either way, I choose to leave the question open."

Moe paused, perhaps to reflect. "Because Flipski and I were... are friends. I am fond of him, so it would be undisciplined of me to say yes. But I am fond of him, so it would be sorrowful to say no."

And with that, the crowd trickled out in all directions, until all that remained was the stone, and the faint impression of hopes and memories.

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Sunsets

The Wall Scene

Strop leaned against the short wall of the much bigger wall surrounding the city. It was a nice evening, a bit of a breeze picking up which was a welcome break from the dry heat that had picked up shortly after the rainstorm had ended. Behind him, down in the city, people were still doing a bit of work, trying to use the last bit of proper light, before they would go home. This was not really of interest now, however, nor was the forest that laid in front of him, looking golden in the light of the setting sun, and much more peaceful than it actually was. No, he was there for a whole other reason. Cen was standing a few steps to the right of him, looking down at the workers while holding a cup of what Strop assumed with tea.

Strop was disappoint. He just thought Cen had become a manly man, but instead of embracing this change, and start growing some hair on his chest and a full beard, Cen was moping about in a t-shirt that wasn't fitting him well, and now drinking something as boring as strawberry tea.

Strop snapped out of the obvious sidetrack. This was not important right now, since it was getting too late for a brisk run over rooftops anyway. And he was kinda tired after a whole day's supervision of the workers and pretending he was being productive, when he really had been reading the latest chapters of One Piece and possibly dreaming about going on an adventure with Luffy, though if someone had asked, he would deny ever having any affiliation with pirates.

At that he turned to Cen. "So, I herd u liek mudkips?"

...actually no, that's not how it went.

At that he turned to Cen. "You might wonder why I called you here."

Cen looked at him with a somewhat bored expression of slight confusion. "Uh, you didn't. I was enjoying the peace up here, then you went to scale the wall after yelling at people to 'Look at this', and then you did three somersaults and kinda zoned out for a bit."

"Oh." Strop mumbled.

Strop poked his fingers together a few times, trying to look innocently guilty and adorable at the same time, before noticing that Cen had taken to ignoring him. Rude.

"ANYWAY," he huffed, pulling out an envelope from only God knows where, and wishes he didn't, and poked it at Cen to get his attention. "I've got this for you. You can thank me later."

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Cen took it after having poked in the face a few times, much more to get the poking to stop than actually wanting to see what it was. It was a brownish regular looking envelope with 'Strop' written on it, except someone had tried their best to disguise this by striking it out several times and then misspelling 'Cenere' underneath. On the back, the new seal of AG was placed to hold the envelope closed, and that was probably the only part of the whole thing that looked remotely professional.

Cen looked sceptically at Strop, who was shaking with badly hidden excitement.

"Open eeet!"

Cen squinted at him tiredly, before unceremoniously ripping the envelope open and taking out the letter, on which his name had also been misspelled, however differently from on the envelope.

Ignoring the squeeing sound Strop made, he read the letter.

And read it again.

And once more.

Strop watched all the colour disappear from Cen's face in a way that, had he been working at the hospital, would have merited an instant transfusion and colonoscopy, but right now was entirely ignored.

Then Cen looked up at him with wide eyes and a general expression of terror.

"CONGRATS" Strop whinnied. He spun around on a hoof and took of laughing, just as Cen pitched into a fit not quite understandable due to rage and Danish, the language of pastries.

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And So They Became Mods

Standing in front of the smoking pit in the ground, all that could be seen was the glow from the pit. Everything else was shrouded in complete darkness. The fires of the secret admin forge burned before Cenere, but it was not the heat that had him sweating.

Gone were the days of wild partying and parody rituals, and for this Cen was at least glad. All the other moderators could do all the song and dance they wanted, but this did not strike him as the occasion for abandonment and celebration. Armor Games was moving onto a new era. It was an era that he was being swept into, along with a two-foot tall rabbit. He turned to the rabbit to steal a glance, but Gantic appeared completely unperturbed. In fact, Gantic was presently nibbling on a carrot.

"If you please," intoned a voice, which Cenere thought might belong to Daniel McNeely, but he could still think of a thousand other candidates. "Reach into the forge and grasp your ban weapons."

Without so much as a chitter, Gantic did so, except his forelimbs were too short to actually reach, so a shadowy figure assisted him by holding him over the pit. Cenere, on the other hand, hesitated. This was something that Strop, that stupid laugh-whinneying jack-*** had set him up for. He didn't want anything to do with this. At least, that's what he had said, but somehow he still found himself standing here, which means that he had gotten up this morning and not jumped out of his apartment window in protest, nor had he run away screaming when the Royal Carriage flanked by the knightly developers had arrived to escort him to his new destiny. So he didn't want to be here, but part of him, well, at least part of him had not not wanted him to be here. "It's character building!", an annoying, tinny horsey soundbyte echoed in his ear.

"Oh what the hell," he found himself saying, and plunged his hands into the smoke.

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Strop was not amused


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And then Cenere and Gantic were set to work, and became pretty much the only active moderators for quite a while...

Strop
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Strop
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The Bells are Ringing

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The great peals of the cathedral bells rang far and wide over the whole of the Armor Lands, heralding the most long-awaited event in the nation's history. From all over the city people came, streaming towards the cobblestone courtyard that lay before the heavy wooden doors of the cathedral. They walked past saplings that started to sprout from between the cracked stones of the old ruins half buried by new buildings and half-finished foundations, and the old trees that lined the walk of Index Road. High above, flocks of birds took flight, the feathers of their wings lit up by the sun shining high above a cloudless sky. The daylight cast a myriad of dappled shadows upon the streets, filtered by the swathes of green leaves that now adorned the branches, swaying gently in the light breeze.

As the people congregated, the concentration of excitement grew, until the atmosphere was buzzing with it. Murmurs were mixed with shouts of recognition and greeting as friends and colleagues who had not seen each other during the frantic times of war and rebuilding finally met once more. Differences were set aside, relationships were restored, and trespasses were forgiven. It was a time for joy, of reflection, and it was a perfect day to get married.

The moment one stepped inside the Cathedral, an immense calm that belied the frantic last-minute preparations befell the proceedings. Unlike the rising heat of the summer outside, the stone walls of the Cathedral cooled the air, and the light was replaced by a serene dimness, the grand interior illuminated purely by the stain-glass windows, rebuilt to depict the values of dedication, sacrifice and teamwork that had built the community.

Streams of petals descended as the royal bride, her Royal Highness the Queen Carlie glided up the aisle, smiling at her captive audience, then, as she ascended the stairs towards the pulpit, at her husband to be, one of the original developers and friends of the founding fathers of the nation, John. Hearts swelled as they stood together, gazing into each other's eyes as the pastor began his speech.

"Dearly beloved, we are gathered today..."

Dank, seated amongst the other moderators on the first row of benches, struggled not to burst into tears. "It's just... too much..." he sniffed. On the far end, Voidy was doing the same.

"...witness to one of the great fairytale stories of our time. Today marks a beginning and an end. The end of a chapter that began in college, was marked by long separations and heartache, but throughout all love endured, and love flourished. Thus we now come to the beginning of another chapter, where two become one."

Ninja horse Strop snuck a glance at Cenere, next to him. Predictably, he was stone-faced, or almost, but he had the traces of a smile at the corner of his mouth. Strop wondered what was on his mind, whether it was the discomfort of the grey suit Strop had made him wear for the duration of the Way of Moderation, but had little choice but to wear today as he had literally no other formal clothes... or whether he was thinking about how he, arguably, had been one becoming two, or whether he was just not thinking about any of those things and letting the joy of the day wash over him. Strop, for his part, yet lacked the experience to value these occasions, so sat there twiddling his thumbs, wondering when the first socially appropriate occasion to remove his tie would be.

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"...and do you, John, take Carlie for your wife, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, through health and sickness, 'til death do you part?"

"I do." John's answer was firm, without hesitation.

"Then by the power vested in me, as God is my witness, I hereby declare you man and wife. You may kiss the bride."

And with that, John and Carlie were wed, and the Cathedral exploded in cheers, applause, confetti, and Mendelssohn's Wedding March.

---

As day turned to evening, and sky blue turned into yellows, oranges and purple, the crowd then converged on the Castle, for the reception was to be held in the (re-)re-restored ballroom. The fire burned fierce and strong thanks to a certain dragon's vigilant tending, filling the place with warmth. A grand banquet had been laid out, and laughter echoed to the ceiling as waiters and waitresses wove their way through the guests, purveyors of wine, meals and merriment. Then the music started, and the lights dimmed, and Carlie and John took to the floor for the first dance. The sparkling of Carlie's dress was nearly as dazzling as the smiles they wore, as they regally spun across, and back again. Then, as their number ended, the floor opened to all, and those who were either brave or simply intoxicated by the event enough to get carried away rose and began to dance the night away.

"...such a hurry we just picked up everything from the Alley and assimilated it into the golem. I later realised that it was his house we were using as a left fist!"

"Oh, no way, so that was Pixel's mansion? It sure packed a punch, hahahaha."

"Shut up guys, not funny! That house was really... quite... nice... and uninsured..."

"Come to think of it, I believe I was the one who dismantled it. I'm really sorry about your fireplace, Pixel, but I'm sure its sacrifice was not in vain."

"Crimson, remind me to kill you later."

In one corner of the room, Frank, Pixel, Chill and Crimson all sat, eating and talking together, reminiscing about old times, speculating on new ones. On the opposite side, a crowd had formed around Manta (still wearing his Fists of Fury belt), who was excitedly retelling the story of the Charge of the Fishman Brigade, except with a lot more pow and uppercut. Meanwhile, another, decidedly less meat-headed crowd had formed around Gantic, the rabbit confusing as much as delighting his audience with wild stories that broke the barriers of meaning and comprehension in the process of his word smithing.

Leon, however, was curiously absent, but then again, that perhaps wasn't so much of a surprise, because, like, it totally wasn't his thing.

Strop smiled to himself as he paced up the length of the hallway, for once keeping himself inconspicuous. If nothing else, it was good to see the bonds that had been forged through laughter and trials, ones he hoped would last and nurture. At the same time he could not help but feel that most of them would be lost, as everybody moved through their various stages, but that was how things progressed, and it was worth it if anyone could consider themselves all the richer for their experiences. And since his own time had passed, it were for the best if he could simply fade into the background and let the limelight fall on oth-

An unnaturally large, burly hand grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. "Heya horsey, aren't you gonna dance?" Asherlee started steering him towards the center of the room while holding a bottle of grog in the other.

"Uh, I-I wasn't planning on doing so," Strop stammered. "This isn't quite my kind of-"

"Oh don't be silly! You'll do great!" Asherlee scoffed, fairly manhandling him before winking at the other modly ladies over her shoulder, which drew a giggle. Strop took this moment to cast his eyes around the crowd, before he realised most of the other mods were watching with glee.

"Save me!" he mouthed at Nemo, who responded by flashing him a flagrantly pseudo-oblivious thumbs up. Must be revenge for turning him back into a guy.

Similarly, Dank was revelling in schadenfreude, maybe as payback for forcing him to destroy his academy. "Go get 'em tiger!" He shouted.

And with that, Asherlee grabbed his left hand and his waist, and his fate was sealed.

Several minutes later, Strop stumbled off the floor, muttering something about how there was no rule in the book about a man leading if the man was a horse and the woman was more manly than the man. He slumped into the first conveniently empty chair he could find, only to find a grey-suited man wearing a blond ponytail sitting in exactly the same posture, right next to him.

"Cen, what are you doing here! You should be up dancing and enjoying yourself!" he exclaimed, completely ignoring the last ten minutes of his memory.

"I was. You must have missed it," Cen said curtly, folding his arms. If Strop knew better, which he did, he would have noticed that Cen's eyebrows were furrowed in a decidedly annoyed expression. If Strop had known better, he would have not pushed it, but he didn't, so he did.

"Didn't Sai promise to dance with you tonight?" He pointed to the girl with a single pink lock who was currently twirling around on the dance floor. "It sure looks like she's dancing with just about every other dude in the room."

"She said she'd save the last dance for me, so I thought I'd just, you know." Cen shrugged as nonchalantly as he could manage. "Wait until then."

Strop made as large a show of mashing his palms into his face as possible. "Can you see this Cen?" he said. "This is how exasperated I feel, that you actually believe her. Isn't this the same girl who promised you a 'happy hour' at your place, then slept at hers because she totally forgot?"

Cen didn't flinch, but Strop swore he saw the eyebrows lower just a millimeter. "I don't even want to know how you know about that."

Refusing to back down, Strop stared at him. "The point is, if you don't go up there, and tell her that you're having this last dance, right here, right now, she's going to continue to toy with you, like she has all along. This is her game, dude. Either you play her game and beat her at it, or you don't and end up playing with yourself."

At this Cen stiffened noticeably. "You're a ****," he muttered, before rising and glaring at Strop, his eyebrows saying, "I'm going to do what you want me to but I'm not going to like it, so thanks for nothing."

"Be a man!" Strop clapped him on the butt and propelled him to the floor. "Do the right thing!"

Sai paused as her last partner drifted away, and she saw the young man approaching. Always looking so earnest, so serious, with his hair tied back in a ponytail and his thick eyebrows frequently furrowed in thought. Now that he was wearing his shirt and framed by suspenders, he looked... almost dashing, a class above the pimply faced teens that clamoured around her like... dogs around a... hunk of meat. At this a mixture of emotions rose up in her, part fondness, part regret.

"Hi." Cen looked decidedly awkward. Darn, was it supposed to be this difficult?

"Hi." Sai folded her hands on her lap, her innocent look belying a certain expectation, a challenge.

"ASK HER FOR THE DANCE YOU WIMP." Even standing far from the sidelines, Strop was the worst wingman. Ever. Cen squared his jaw and made a mental note to strangle him with that stupid tie of his later.

"May I- no. Not may I. We are going to have this last dance." Far away, Strop flashed him two thumbs up.

Sai blinked and stared at him for a moment, before she resumed her natural air and giggled. "Of course, Cenny. I saved the last dance for you." Then she smiled. Not her usual ditzy smile, but one that showed restraint, preoccupation, and Cen found himself gazing at her again, before they came together, and the music began.

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As the final dance wound to a close, they lingered in each other's arms for just a moment too long, not wanting to look at each other, for then they might be compelled to speak. All that mattered was a moment that had to end, but they could at least try, in vain, to grasp it for a moment longer.

Suddenly, there was a massive crash, and the far wall of the ballroom exploded in a cloud of mortar and dust. Instinctively, Cen whirled around, shielding Sai as a stampede of screaming guests rushed to the other end. Then as one, the moderators stepped forward, forming a wall, as a long figure picked its way across the debris and tables upturned by the force of the intrusion. Then the figure stood to its full, eight foot height, a broad hulking menace wearing a full suit of armor that completely obscured its features. It looked suspiciously like a certain Stark invention, with its crimson and chrome plating, except for the fact that it had a bulging midriff. Then it spoke, in a growling, demonic voice.

"Ha, puny mortals, I have come to claim what is rightfully mine!"

Several people shrank back at the horrible sceptre, but the mods stepped forward again. "Is that a voice modulator?" Nemo asked nobody in particular. Voidy took another step forward again, and matched his voice, plus several magnitudes of volume. "Is that so, puny mortal? Would you like to find out if you can match a dragon?" He was about to let loose with a burnination before he was pulled back by the other mods. "Easy, 'voidy, people are watching!"

The armored figure let loose a ****y laugh. "You think you can defeat me? It is painfully obvious that nothing has changed, and all of you have learnt nothing! Even if you defeat me today, I can come back again and again as I please, and you can't stop me! You will never stop me!"

Strop felt his blood boil as he recognised the culprit.

"Klaus, have you no respect!? This is a wedding! Give it a rest already you stupid bear!"

Iron Klaus laughed again. "Ah Stroppy, you guys have gotten soft. I crashed your funeral too, but you guys were too busy crying into each others' shoulders to notice! And now that you've foolishly let me into the castle, I'm going to wreck it, and wreck everything!"

Iron Klaus held up his palm and an ominous whining noise started emanating from it, rising in pitch and volume. "Oh, and by the way congrats John and Carlie, nothing personal you guys."

Strop sighed as he poofed his banweapon. Around him, the other mods were doing the same. Along with Administrator Cormyn, they stood together, Cenere, Gantic, Devoidless, Nemo, Zophia, Asherlee, Dragonmistress and Moe were at the ready to perform their duty.

Okay, look, this image is way too large to embed, so click on the link and hope your connection can hack it!

"Ha, the way of moderation never ends, does it," Strop huffed, and leapt into the fray.

Strop
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Strop
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Strop
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Strop
10,841 posts
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Time To Go

It wasn't as much what she said or how she said or when or what it meant. It was the look on her face when she said it, the way she looked away and wouldn't look him in the eyes at all, how she had been avoiding his gaze since the left the reception for the cool, clear air of late summer with its smell of rich grass and dusty paths and the distinct whiff of new going on, despise the autumn waiting around the corner.
"I'm sorry, what?" He had heard what she said, he had even hesitated for a moment to try and grasp it all, but somehow the thoughts was making a mess of his head and his mind was crumbling up the way it did to exams, just... worse.
Not that he didn't understand where she was coming from, why she said it, why it was important to her. She had talked about it, the way you talk about a dream for the future, when you have more time or more money or no obligations. The same way he talked about animating, that distant longing mixed in with the realities that it would never happen and that it didn't matter as much as it perhaps should, because if it did matter that much, it would happen. Not in the future, but right now. A leap of faith somehow, except it always seemed more like stepping off a building and hoping that somehow you miss the earth rather than leaping and hope you hit the ground on the other side of the cliff of your hindrances.
Perhaps that was why it hurt so much, even though she had been preparing him for months, since he had come to her apartment with bruises and dried blood on his clothes and a stupid look on his face because he had tried to save her from someone who was never really the enemy, when he really should have been saving her from herself.
Why hadn't he done so?
Instead, as they stood there under the moon, in the empty streets, far from everyone else awake, the entire city with its new houses and new streets that still hadn't been finished, he could feel her slip away between his fingers.
Sai looked at Cen one last time.
"I'm leaving you."
And so she did.

---

Hello Goodbye

Some things change, and some things don't; the trick is knowing which is which. In the years gone by, the events of the Way of Moderation faded from memories, yet they stayed as vivid as ever in the minds of those who held them. Rather, it was the changing of faces, the gradual exodus through which the collective consciousness which apprehended the spectacle of an age ago was attenuated. The coming and going of generations of users and moderators alike inexorably progressed, until only the faintest of remnants in the form of wizened veterans were left.

Strangely enough, for all the posturing and intention to leave things at a suitable juncture, just one wizened veteran remained, that troublemaker, the eye of the storm, the wannabe-ninja horse Strop. Without intending to, he ended up being the longest residing citizen and moderator in the city (in any contiguous stretch, that was), having stumbled across it just weeks after the city had been declared open, and never abandoning his address within it in the years since. Even after he had lightened his duties to the point of being completely irrelevant, he was still around to witness the mod hurricane that was Cenere and Gantic, the resignation of Cenere after working himself way too hard, the almost militaristic regime that Cormyn established, Cormyn's sudden resignation for the sake of his family, the coming of the second dark age of lawlessness and frequent invasions of spam armies, of darkened and empty streets at times resembling a wintry ghost town, and finally the filling of the Community Administrator position by a small, slinky ferret. And while Carlie and John's happily ever after had only just begun, John had sent shockwaves of disbelief through the community when he tendered his resignation as Developer to Dan, and moved to a newer city. All this, while the promised new land drew closer, but never quite materialised to the public eye.

As peculiar as the details were, the cycles turned like the Earth on its axis, or even the Earth in its orbit around the sun, like the seasons. And in the tentative spring time of the land of ArmorGames, the moderation team had both almost completely switched around and come full circle, for the old guard in the form of his predecessors Asherlee and Moegreche had returned, but the rest of the lineup had changed to include a barbarian (whom Strop thought looked like a giant, jolly version of Dank), a Texas Ranger (who was also a monkey), and an eccentric European (or two, in fact, but one of them looked more like a log of wood wearing a hat, was this some eerie reprise to Estel's people?). Along with them, the laws had changed, the unspoken mystique of moderation so irrevocably altered, that Strop found himself out of touch, as if looking at his title as a foreigner, yet at the same time glad that things had moved on almost without him. The land was in safe hands, and better yet, he didn't have a hand in it.

The biggest difference was, his existence was no longer as solitary as the dubious honour of being practically part of the furniture of Armor Castle suggested. Mod or not, he had friends, and friendly faces which greeted him wherever he went. It was a far cry from the Strop who scurried through the city gates under the cover of darkness, clad in all black. And so it was today that he was walking up the Main Street, bags in hand, and-

"You're not in your ninja clothes today," Cenere said from out of nowhere.

Strop barely managed not to startle, then turned to look at Cen. "Yeah no, I'm not." Now suddenly conscious of the fact, he started smoothing his hands over his vest and dress shirt. "This is my working gear. You know, for doctoring."

"Haven't you already been doctoring for two years?"

Strop glared at Cen. "You could at least offer to carry some of my bags."

Cen actually smiled at this, although it was more like an evil smile of taking candy from a baby: "I'm not strong like you. I don't know if I could carry what you've got in there given you've been packing them for like three ye- oof!"

The "oof" was because Strop had just thrown one of his bags at Cen. A lack of crater with Cen sprawling at the bottom of it was proof enough that there wasn't really all that much in it.

"Anyway, I guess you'll be going now." Cen readjusted his glasses. Strop blinked.

"Yeah. Actually, that reminds me." He fiddled momentarily:

http://i438.photobucket.com/albums/qq105/strawpony/epilogue1_zps2f1ff89d.png

"Much better."

With that, he hoisted his bags over his shoulder and started walking again, before he paused. "Anyway, how come you're back? You quit ages ago."

Cen waved dismissively, "Oh, I was just dropping by. Seeing how things were going. You know."

For some reason, Strop found himself chuckling. "Yeah. I know."

The gate clanged shut behind Strop, and declared him logged out. Was it for the last time? Surely not, like Cenere, and many of the other veterans, there would always be something drawing him back. This place was, at least at some point in time, a place that they all called home, even if they had originated from yonder, and had moved on or even gone back to said yonder. Whether they too would return to visit, like Cenere had, was up to them. In his case, an occasional visit really didn't represent much of a change at all from the usual programming.

No, the real difference was that his ninja suit was in one of the bags at his side. Maybe someday, he might don the mask again and soar over rooftops once more in the quest for great justice. But he didn't know when, nor did he need to, because right now, more than ever, he knew where he was going, and what he had to do, and the very first thing out of all of those, was to put one hoof in front of the other. And in his heart of hearts he hoped that maybe a seed of this same determination had started to sprout in the lives that had been touched, or rather, sucked in, chewed up and spat out by the madness that was the Way of Moderation.

After all, one could always hope.

---

The Way of Moderation Epilogue: Team Edward or Team Leon?

by Xzeno

âHey Ed.â Leon said, stepping into the clearing. His shining armor and dark blue cloak stood out against the green-brown backdrop of the forest. Beneath a tree sat what one could only describe frankly as Bruce Lee with an octopus for a head. He wore black pants and kung fu shoes with a black and red sash. His muscular chest was bare, rising and falling with his breath.
âOh, hey Leon.â he said cheerily. With one hand planted on the ground, he kicked his legs up, spinning before landing on his feet. âShmancy armor. It new? Where'd you get it?â Marley bounced from behind Leon, panting happily as he dashed around the clearing with mad glee. He skidded to a halt before Ed, sniffing the aberration with vigor.
âEh.â Leon replied. âI had some blacksmith make it. I thought I'd need it for a job. I guess I can use it if we ever need to seem all law and order-y. Looks like Marley's happy to see you.â Edward Squidlypus stroked his tentacles in thought.
âMarley, huh?â Ed noted, patting the dog. âSurprised he remembers me.â
âWell it is the same one.â Leon replied soberly.
âBut Marley?â Ed pressed. âFeeling nostalgic?â Leon sniffed, looking up.
âI met the minotaur too. Bull Man.â Leon added.
âMetal Bull Man?â Ed volunteered.
âNo.â Leon replied simply. Ed kicked at the grass.
âI like the green better. The blue goes with the sword, though.â Ed said finally.
âOh, yeah, this old thing.â Leon shrugged looking at the sword in his hand. âFigured I'd try my hand at swordsmanship, you know. Goes with the getup. Got a new bow too.â Leon pulled the bow out and held it toward Ed half-heartedly. âIt's cool too I guess.â
âYeah.â Ed said. They both looked around absentmindedly. Leon listened to the birds sing. An undulating chorus of melodic notes filled his ears, pierced by the occasional sharp, piercing cry. Leon's mind drifted, focus shifting from the sweet song to those fierce squawks, half daydreaming urgent messages the birds needed to share. Then he considered not so much the noises but the space between the noises, the rhythm of the silence lulling him into a trance. With a renewed sense of emptiness, he thought of the Bull Man.
âHe didn't have his skeleton with him.â Leon stated. âThe paladin I mean.â
âCan hardly fight without that thing!â Ed laughed, teasing Marley with a stick.
âYou didn't see her, did you?â Leon asked. Ed stopped for a moment and closed his eyes. Taking slow, deep breaths, he sifted through the memories he had collected in the last few months. âGuess not.â he answered finally, shrugging. Leon nodded, shaking loose his idle curiosity. As he pushed any concern he possessed about the minotaur's movements and plans from his mind, he felt himself connect to the earth beneath his feet. He felt vaguely aware of how silly it was to remain dressed up as an Armor Games moderator candidate. From the outside, such a sentimentality might seem appropriate, but to Leon McAcid, the land of Armor Games never even existed.
âDidja find anything for me?â Ed asked jovially. His inane inquiry brushed against Leon's mind, melding perfectly with his glimpse of nature. âMaybe some boots of jumping real high?â Ed launched himself into the air, performing gratuitous somersaults before floating gently back to the ground.
âPretty bad treasure overall.â Leon replied.
âOh.â Ed said, dejected. âI just though that maybe in whatever chest where you got your armor...â
âI told youâ Leon growled âI got it made by a blacksmith.â Ed's mind spun, trying to make sense of Leon's words.
âYou had to pay for it?â Ed moaned. âWhat fresh injustice is this?â Leon shrugged, armor shining brightly in the sun. He watched the grass wave in the wind, each ripple showing him an ocean of gold. For just a moment, he thought of what life would be like had the orc cut the purse all those years ago, rather than smashing the jar with a pointy little rock. Then he remembered he didn't care about stuff. For all he cared the grass could meet the back of his metal hand. He was the metal man. He was empty inside, and he was ready to tell natural scenery what was what.
âLeon McAcid!â Ed shouted, bark flying as his fist smashed into a tree. Leon nodded slowly, sheathing his sword. Ed slowly lowered his hand as silence once again filled the clearing, the panting of Leon's hyena serving as the only source of sound. Leon coughed once. Ed flexed a bit.
âSo what's new with you?â Leon asked finally.
âOh. You know. Enlightenment.â
âOh.â Leon nodded. âWhat's that like?â
âEh.â Ed shrugged. âBoundless wisdom.â
âCool.â Wordlessly, the two of them stood side by side and began to walk.
Green cape flapping in the wind behind him, Leon plodded through the tall yellow grass, chest barely visible above it. Marley bounced merrily behind them as Edward showed off his newest handstand.
âOh, Leon, I forgot to ask!â Ed said. âWhere've you been, anyway?â Leon walked in silence another couple of feet.
âYou know, that was never adequately explained.â he said finally, voice trailing off as they headed into the horizon.

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