I took part in an online scavenger hunt. I wish I hadn’t…

Some of you might be puzzled a bit about the title.

An online scavenger hunt is a series of riddles or puzzles on the internet. Throughout the years there have been quite a few them. The most famous example, without a doubt, are the puzzles created by Cicada 3301.

As long as I can think back, I’ve been interested in puzzles and riddles. I guess it’s a mixture of curiosity and wanting to challenge myself.

When I was little, I spent a lot of time with puzzle games and the likes. Once I grew older, during the advent of the internet, I also started to look for them online.

In the past, I’ve taken part in a few of them. Most of the ones I found were rather simple and usually ended with a troll face or silly message. I know some supposedly reward the winner with a price, like the Cicada puzzles mentioned above. Regrettably, I’ve always missed out on them.

Two weeks ago, I finally got my chance to take part in an online puzzle that was a bit more complex. As I’m sitting here now, typing this out, I wish I didn’t…

It was on a Saturday evening that I stumbled upon a strange Tumblr post. It had been reblogged by a few of the accounts I follow. Most of their content is about curious internet stories and hidden pages. When I saw that a post made the rounds, I took a more in-depth look.

Going through the chain of comments and reblogs, I learned that people had actually deciphered a message included in the post. It led to a page on blogger.com that consisted of several cryptic blog posts.

Most of them were quotes by famous people and a few nonsensical sentences below. Two of the posts even contained images.

It didn’t take long for me to find an invite to a discord server that someone had created to solve whatever this was.

All in all, there were about thirty people on the server. When I joined, only a few were actually online. They were busy talking about the blog post and trying to find a connection between the quotes. So far, it seemed, nothing had proven useful.

There was one user, however, that stuck out between the rest. His name was FireSnake89.

While everyone was talking about the quotes and trying to figure out a hidden message, this guy said it was all a waste of time. His posts were riddled with insults like ‘freaking idiots,’ ‘mouthbreathers’ or ‘tumblrfags.’ I sighed when I saw his messages. Found the troll, I thought.

My opinion of him changed would soon change. It wasn’t long before he proclaimed he’d figured it all out. Of course, people called him out. After five minutes of explaining and mentioning the power of his ‘boundless autism,’ everyone was quiet.

The quotes he said, were all from famous works of fiction. That’s all there was to them. Sure, the theme of the quotes was related, but that was only there to lead people astray. He continued on about different editions of books, publishers, checksums and a hidden message on the website itself.

“It wasn’t too tough,” he bragged, “just a bit tricky.”

Sitting in front of my computer, I couldn’t help but be impressed by this guy. I’d no clue how he’d figured out half of it.

“Let’s see if you dumbasses can figure out the rest on your own,” he wrote and posted a line of numbers and letters:

696e7374616772616d2e636f6d2f626c75727065310a

My first impulse was to enter it into Google, but that didn’t give me any results. A chat message by another user proved that I wasn’t the only one dumb enough to try this.

At first, I started to calculate the digit sum of the numbers between the letters, to see if that give me a hint. It was all nonsense, though. Another attempt at using Google didn’t help either.

I sat there, puzzled, staring at the numbers and letters when it hit me. I’d seen something like this before, hadn’t I? All the letters were from early in the alphabet. There had to be a reason for this.

Right away, a memory from my IT class came back to me. HEX code consisted of nothing but numbers and the first six letters of the alphabet!

Looking at the line that Fire Snake had posted, I realized that the highest letter was indeed an f. That was the highest letter in HEX code as well.

I started dividing up the line into pairs, which gave me this:

69 6e 73 74 61 67 72 61 6d 2e 63 6f 6d 2f 62 6c 75 72 70 65 31 0a

Moments later, I entered it into a HEX converter. I’d expected it to give me nothing but a garbled mess, but what appeared on my screen was the URL of an Instagram profile.

instagram.com/blurpe1

I blinked, pressed convert again, and then entered the URL into my browser. To my surprise, a somewhat typical Instagram profile appeared on my screen.

It was supposedly the profile of a twenty-two-year-old girl. There was a URL that led to a simple WordPress site. The account itself consisted of half a dozen pictures, all of the same girl.

I posted it in the discord chat. Three other users were still trying to figure out what the line of numbers and letters meant.

Once I’d posted it, the chat was quiet for a moment before people asked me to explain.

The first replay came from FireSnake, saying that there seemed to be at least one person with half a brain in here. I’m a bit embarrassed, but I smiled at this ‘compliment’ by someone who was obviously much smarter than me.

For the next half hour, I started to check out the Instagram profile as well as the WordPress site. I didn’t even know where to start. I clicked through the pictures, checked out comments, read through the WordPress site, but I was utterly overwhelmed.

In the end, I said goodbye to the people on discord, told them I’d be there again tomorrow and headed to bed.

When I got up the next day, the first thing I did was to recheck discord. The chat was a bit more active now, and quite a few people were online. Most of them talked about the WordPress site on which they’d supposedly found a hint. I was about to ask them what they’d found, but I saw I’d got a message by FireSnake. It was a simple one-liner:

“That WordPress site is a red herring, check the hashtags.”

I asked him what he meant, but I saw he wasn’t online at the moment or at least invisible. Needless to say, I didn’t get an answer.

It was about an hour later that I’d put the next clue together, a short little riddle. It took me quite a bit to figure out the answer, but once I did the next step was clear: Using Google Images.

I was about to post it in the general chat of the discord, but the moment I was about to send it I paused. Then I deleted the message and opened the private chat with FireSnake.

This time a reply came back almost instantly.

“Not bad,” was all I got.

After I returned from the kitchen to get another cup of coffee, he’d sent me a couple more messages.

So far, he hadn’t figured out the next step. He said he had a few ideas, but nothing feasible. I asked him why he didn’t say anything in the general chat. His answer was short:

“You think those idiots can figure shit out?”

When I took a look at the chat, I saw that people were still analyzing the WordPress site. To be honest, he had a point.

It was from this time onward that we started to work together.

I’d planned to hang out with friends that Sunday, but I ended up canceling. Instead spent the rest of the day figuring out a few more clues with FireSnake.

To be honest, I’d no clue why he needed my help. Apart from a few flashes of inspiration, I felt utterly useless and always a few steps behind. I was hooked on solving this thing, though. I really wanted to see where it would lead us.

For the next couple of days, I was obsessed with this thing. I did nothing but going to work and trying to figure out clues. Even at work, I spent more time with these online riddles than actually doing my job.

During these days, FireSnake and I scanned various websites, Facebook profiles, talked to automated chatbots and even sent an email to an autoreplier. This whole thing was nothing short of absolutely fascinating.

I also learned a few more things about my new friend. He told me his real name was Mike. He’d been kicked out of university a good year ago and ever since he’d been unemployed. The guy seemed to be the prime example of a basement dweller, but man was he smart. He told me he dabbled in a few things online, like cryptocurrencies, private bot networks, and automated blogs. So far, none of them had really taken off. So for now, he spent most of his days on the internet, doing things like this scavenger hunt.

Needless to say, he was quite the weirdo. Still, figuring this thing out together was fun.

It was near the end of the week that I told him I’d not be around for a while. I’d be attending a family gathering on Friday and Saturday. He gave me his condolences and made a few weird jokes, but said I should have fun. He’d see what he could figure out on his own.

While I was with my family, I still checked discord on my phone every once in a while. There was the occasional message by him, in which he told me what progress he’d made. On Saturday afternoon, he got quiet, though.

Once I was back home, I sent him a message, joking how unexpected it was for him to be stuck that long. I figured he’d be offline, but even after a couple hours had passed, I got no reply.

After that, I decided to follow his progress. It was much harder than I’d expected. Mike had a cryptic way of talking and always forgot to mention half the things he’d figured out.

I messaged him a few more times, asking about some of the clues, but still got no reply. Had he solved the whole thing on his own already? If so, fuck me.

In the end, I decided to solve this thing on my own if that was even possible. I checked the general chat, but people were still way behind.

As I kept going, I noticed a few things. The links that led me on weren’t hard-coded anymore. Instead, they seemed to be dynamically generated. At first, I didn’t know what to make of it, but then it clicked. From a certain point onward, it seemed that people got their own, private clues.

I couldn’t help but smile. This was very interesting. I wondered how much effort went into creating a thing like this. Maybe this was the reason Mike hadn’t answered me? I was sure he’d figured this out days ago and was busy solving them on his own now.

Making progress was tough. I noticed that things got a bit easier, though. Before it had been all about hidden messages and Metadata. Now, it was more about simple riddles or figuring out specific lines of text. Maybe it was to discourage team efforts from here on out? Either way, I continued on.

It was five days ago that one of the clues made me scratch my head. It was clear that I was supposed to figure out a specific location.

I went over it and couldn’t help but laugh when I realized that my home area would fit the clue quite well. I continued tinkering with it, but the longer I did, the more it seemed I’d already found the solution. It was, without a doubt, my home area’s name.

I sat back, a bit confused. So far, all the clues and riddles had been in English and were related to American pop culture. So why did it suddenly talk about an area in the middle of nowhere in Germany?

I shrugged it off. Maybe the creator of this thing had included a few bits and pieces here and there related to my IP address? It wouldn’t be too farfetched, and it was an excellent addition. Still, were those riddles and clues automated as well? Would someone go to such lengths for something like this?

The next clue proofed that he indeed would. I felt weird when I was sent to the Wikipedia page of the next town over. I was supposed to search through the recent edits. In there, I found a link to yet another random blog post.

The next clue, however, sent me to a picture stream, showing locations in my town.

I leaned back in my chair, baffled. How in the hell. Finding the rough area I lived at was one thing, but finding my exact town solely via IP was impossible. It made no sense. Was it a coincidence? Could it be that this thing was just using different towns in the area?

The riddle this time was simple. It was a URL hidden in the website’s code.

Once I’d followed the link though, I couldn’t pretend that all this was happening by chance anymore.

What I stared at was a picture of my room, obviously recorded by my webcam.

For a while, I sat there, too shocked to do anything. Then m hand shot forward, turning it away before I disconnected it altogether.

What the hell was going on? Then I realized that I must’ve been hacked. This whole thing had just turned into a stupid joke to fuck with me, hadn’t it?

Well, really funny, I thought, really fucking funny. I was sure by now that this was all nothing but a stupid troll. I was about to just close the page when I read the text below the picture.

‘Enter the name:’

Next to it was a text field in which I could enter text.

Yeah right, I thought at first. After a while, though, my curiosity took over. I’d spent more than a week trying to solve this thing, and even if it was all bullshit, I wanted to get to the end.

What name, though? What was I supposed to enter? I looked at the image of my room again. There was my bookshelf, my bed and the pictures on my wall. Was he talking about one of the books? I haphazardly entered the names of various authors, but none of them worked. I leaned in closer and looked at the picture intently.

After a couple minutes, I felt strangely watched and jerked around, but I was obviously alone. I rubbed my temples and told myself it was all a stupid joke.

For the next half hour, I tried everything I could think off. Hell, I tried my own name, but nothing worked.

It was at this point that I noticed something. It was a picture of my girlfriend and I sitting on my bookshelf. When I entered her name, the page started to load, indicating that I’d solved this riddle.

I was waiting for yet another cryptic message, but I was greeted by a page that said ‘WINNER’ at the top.

I frowned, waiting for a troll face or rickroll to appear on the screen, or hell maybe a picture of me sitting in front of my computer, looking like an idiot.

Instead, a short sentence appeared in the middle of the screen:

‘The greatest reward of all is the truth.’

As I read the message list of eight links appeared on the screen below. ‘Secret 1’ was the first going on until ‘Secret 8’.

What the hell? Don’t tell me this was some shitty conspiracy theory or esoteric bullshit. I was prepared for almost anything. To find out that Trump was a lizard person, that Obama was an alien or to see some sort of sick graphical images.

I took a deep breath and clicked the first link.

What opened up was a recording of Facebook.

I stared at it in confusion, but then I realized it was my girlfriend’s profile. How the hell was there a recording of her account?

Whoever was recording this clicked around for a bit before the messenger was opened. One was a conversation with a guy from our group of friends. The cursor moved down and started to highlight messages one after another.

“How are you doing today, sexy girl?”

“Kinky, what about you? :-*”

“Won’t Robert be mad if you send something like this to me? :p”

“Haha, no way, he’s got no clue about us ;)”

As I continued reading, my heart dropped. What the hell was this? Was this… real? Did this mean that Claudia was cheating on me? What the fuck?! What the fuck was going on here?

I clicked back. This had to be some sort of stupid troll that was trying to trick me!

I clicked on the next one and found a different recording. This one was of an email account. At first, I thought it was mine, but when I scanned the screen, I could see that it was my mom’s Gmail account. Why the hell would someone hack her email?

Then I saw the cursor move around once more. One after another, it opened up various emails about cancer treatments and medications. I felt very cold all of a sudden. A thought appeared in my mind, but I quickly pushed it away. Mom had been sick for a while, but she’d said it was nothing but a long lasting cold, hadn’t she?

I went through the other links. As the title said, they all revealed the secrets of people I knew.

One showed me that my best friend had raped a girl, but got away due to the influence of his parents. Another proved that my uncle had been cheating on his wife for years by now.

I don’t know anymore why I kept going, but I clicked through all of them. Afterward, I felt empty, cold, and most of all, crushed.

Again, I read the message that truth was the greatest reward of all.

I cursed at the screen and at this whole damned thing. Why the fuck would anyone do this? Why would someone send me all this information? Was it just to fuck with me? Why?

It was right at this time that discord notified me that I’d gotten a direct message. I clicked and saw that it was from Mike.

“Congratulations on making it to the end. Took you a bit longer than I expected, but it was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it? Thanks for playing, and I hope you enjoyed your reward?”

I was in a pure and utter rage, insulting him and asking him how the hell he’d found out who I was. All I got was another condescending message.

“Now riddle me this. Why do you think I forced you to send me an email and log into your Facebook account? It was too damn easy to get your private data.”

I didn’t type my next message. No, I almost beat it into the keyboard. I asked him what he got from this and why he was doing all this. His answer was as simple as can be. It was only one line that he sent before he blocked me.

“You know, some men just want to watch the world burn.”