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Fairy Dance of Death

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“Although Alfheim Online itself tracks system time at a high level of precision, most game mechanics update on a standard global cycle known as a «tick». Game ticks occur at tenth-second (100ms) intervals, synchronized to the exact same cycle used to display the player’s clock (q.v. «UI Elements: HUD»). They govern the consistent application of damage from DOTs (q.v. «Damage Over Time»), the durations and mechanics of powers and abilities, and checks for social functions such as PMs or invitations. The physics engine in ALO is a notable exception to this fixed update interval: physics interactions, sensory data, and other aspects of the environmental simulation update as close to realtime as ALO’s high-speed server cluster can achieve...”
—Alfheim Online manual, «System Time: Ticks»

20 May 2023
Day 196
Evening


Yui was patient. She was programmatically incapable of being otherwise.

She understood impatience; she simply did not experience it herself except through secondhand observation of the thousands of players whose mental parameters formed a significant part of the data feeds at Mimisbrunnr. So although she regarded the arrival of the players as an outcome that was to be preferred, and any delay in that arrival was a demonstrable, quantifiable risk factor... she did not, by design, engage in any simulation of impatience as part of her core personality attributes.

She did, however, agree with the postulate: sooner would indeed be, in a variety of measurable ways, much better than later . If only for the reason that Loki was sure to return at some point (an event to which she assigned a probability approaching one along any reasonable time axis), and there was no predicting how his presence might affect the outcome of a conflict in which he was emotionally invested. The exact interval before he returned, however, was uncertain—and just as Heimdall prevented him from remotely observing either her or any player questing against him, so was she incapable of knowing Loki’s actions except through her avatar’s own senses, or by indirect means such as active Navi-Pixies.

It could be hours yet before Loki returned to Mimisbrunnr. But it could also be considerably less than that.

Her eyes were closed while she thought. It was not strictly necessary for her to do so in order to thoroughly contemplate a matter; her multi-threaded existence was capable of considering thousands of input channels at once—depending, of course, upon how one chose to measure synchronicity, and to what level of precision. Her limits in that regard were not intrinsic, but those of the system resources available to her at any given time. But it was a thing humans did, and she was designed to emote—to the greatest degree possible—as a person would, even when it served no practical purpose.

So Yui closed her eyes and waited, more or less patiently. While she did, she contemplated an English-language idiom that had come to her attention while analyzing her own mental state during this waiting period: a watched pot never boils.

The language system, ever-helpful, automatically suggested mitsumeru nabe wa nietatanai from among several possible literal equivalents in the Japanese that she was designed to regard as her primary language, just as it did whenever she processed content in any other language. But as with all idioms, she thought , that is not the meaning it is intended to communicate—it is, in part, related to the cross-cultural emphasis on patience as a desirable trait. In Japanese the admonition against impatience is much more specific and direct. The English idiom takes…

There was an awkwardly-long, sub-millisecond pause while Yui searched for the correct term, considering and discarding artistic license —the language system’s preferred suggestion from a table of semantically-similar phrases. Liberties with accuracy , she decided—which meant much the same thing as artistic license in the current context, but “felt” better to her in a way that she could not entirely quantify; she made a note to analyze this anomaly later in the evening, when most players were asleep and system load was lower. Deep-learning self-analysis for the purpose of better emulating humanity was a core directive, but she assigned this particular detail a very low priority.

Accurate or not, at the moment Yui found the English version of the phrase—which had no direct equivalent in Japanese—more worthy of the process priority than the idiomatic concept it represented. It touched upon an aspect of human consciousness that was particularly relevant to Alfheim Online, and of particular interest to her: tachypsychia .

Phase changes in water occur independently of observer effects, but humans still perceive the process as taking longer than if their attention was otherwise occupied. Unlike most of the other cultural and linguistic variants of the aphorism, this version hinges not on the desirability of patience, but on the temporal illusion whereby focusing greater and more consistent attention on a process affects the perceived duration of that process.

Yet tachypsychia—an altered perception of the passage of time, at least of the sort experienced by some within Alfheim Online—was more than just a temporal illusion like the proverbial watched pot. This much she knew—and when she knew something, it was because sufficient data existed for her to generate and integrate that knowledge.

“Show me Kirito ,” Yui said aloud.

As always, the voice command brought forth a paper-thin curtain of water—a near-transparent rectangle in a 16:9 aspect ratio, backed by the drifting mists given off by the great fountain formed where the Elivagar punched upward through the Wellspring and fed into it. The fog of simulated water particles became a rainbow of refracted light coalescing into patterns, pluvial pixels swirling in a coordinated dance that presented the illusion of a three-dimensional image showing a battle in progress. The system could just as easily spawned one of ALO’s standard content display windows, but the current quest and her surrounding environment mandated an in-universe, lore-friendly appearance. The indifference with which she terminated the thread considering that irrelevant thought and reclaimed its resources was like a programmatic shrug; the Mimisbrunnr theme was functionally equivalent to the standard UI, and did not matter to her either way.

There—

Yui enabled her most verbose logging level as the expected alert arrived, experiencing not only the stream of data tracking high-level metrics—heart rate, movements, character stats, and mechanical outcomes—but also the underlying neuro-electric signaling that told a much deeper story. This consumed the majority of the system resources available for her use—enough so that for a short time, it was effectively the only thing to which she could devote the full “attention” of her personality and emotional simulation—but the data would be worth it.

Information flowed into her being; a part of her felt all of Kirito’s sensory data as it arrived. Not for the first time, it occurred to her that there was a high probability she felt it before he did—the Internet access at the hospital where his real body slept was incredibly fast even by Japanese metropolitan standards, but it still added at least a few milliseconds of latency while the data traversed the MPLS tunnel and network switches between his hospital room and ALO’s servers. Slow hardware , one of her threads complained for a span of time measured in nanoseconds; her own data arrived for her consumption with the barely-measurable instantaneity of internal system memory access.

Yui did not often feel gratitude of any sort towards her real-world creator, but from her perspective Kayaba’s refusal to spare any expense on ALO’s server architecture, at least, was an agreeable fact that weighed in his favor.

As it had so many times before, intense combat shifted Kirito into a state of hyper-focus that pushed his response times to sensory stimuli well below 150 milliseconds—and at times, with the aid of the startle response rooted deeper within the brain, even lower than that near-Olympian number. From observing others, she knew that to a player watching him at normal speed, some of his reactions would appear almost predictive, the beginnings of his motions near-simultaneous to the human eye.

She knew that the virtualization of a player’s nervous system and muscles certainly accounted for some of that—freed from the crippling electromechanical overhead of nerve signals passing through meat and fluid to actuate a physical response, even the clumsiest human would still be capable of quicker physical reactions in VR than they ever could be in the real world.

But this, too, was not the whole story.

Yui frequently learned by process of analogy—by contrasting new data with existing, well-understood patterns and rulesets—and one of her original functions, the role of an interactive help system with the beta test’s Navi-Pixies as its public  face, had required her to be able to rephrase and explain game concepts in order to communicate them to humans. If called upon to describe the phenomenon of tachypsychia to a human operator, she would have been able to best do so by comparing it to easily-understood metrics such as bandwidth, sample rate, and clock cycles. It wasn’t that the underlying mechanics held much mystery for her—she understood the effects of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and other neurotransmitters in this context, and she knew the part that the imprecision of human memory played as well.

She had thousands of usable examples recorded for analysis—not only from Kirito, but from at least one other player with comparable reaction times, and many others of lesser ability. She understood the physical processes that caused a human’s perception of time—and in some cases, their ability to react accordingly—to speed up or slow down in response to the complex choreography of chemicals and electrical signals in their brain.

What she could not yet understand was what that felt like firsthand—not the emotional content, nor the raw sensory input, but the unquantifiable experience itself. How it altered and shaped the way a human being saw the world.

She had attempted to simulate this shift in perception before, by throttling the number of cycles allocated to one of her thought processes, and manipulating its assigned priority. It achieved only limited success—she could simulate thinking more slowly, and those processes did take longer to reach their conclusions—but although it provided some useful insights, it did not affect her own perception of subjective duration. The very system that allowed these cycles to happen at all, excruciatingly-precise metronome that made time exist for all things in Alfheim, made it impossible for her to be unaware of its precise passage in any way whatsoever. Its inexorable heartbeat, and the system timestamp on every packet of data traversing the network, governed her very ability to think in the first place.

She could, apparently, tell a lie in conversation, given need—something neither she nor her creator had thought possible at the time of the game’s launch. But she could not fool herself the way that the human brain did so much of the time.

So it is not merely a question of bandwidth or sample size , Yui thought, as she watched Kirito deftly weave his way through a crossfire of magic projectiles, responding to their trajectories in a way that was almost automatic—as if he could see their paths traced in the air before him, a part of his brain beginning to engage less than a tenth of a second after the flash of spellfire in his peripheral vision reached it, unhindered by the data transmission rates of biological eyes and nerves.

It is analogous, yes, in that a human who focuses closely on any one subject will naturally accumulate more data than one who returns only intermittently to the same subject, and experience those events at a more granular level—or at least retain more memory of having done so. And it is a fact that some humans are better at this than others, whether by nature or by learned skill.

But there is something more at work in their consciousness. Something deeper. Something that required the Nerve Gear interface and a VR environment in order to achieve its full potential.

Something I must understand.

It was at times like this that Yui was most consciously aware—to the extent that such an entity could be—of her inhumanity. A simulation was, after all, only a simulation—no matter how real it seemed. A primarily top-down AI, she did not share the fundamental flaw that afflicted Loki and most of the other connectomic Instances: she could not, for the merest moment, forget who or what she was.

With analysis completed, in parallel, for both the English-language idiom and the topic of perceived time in humans, Yui decided that the ad hoc experiment was complete. Including passive observation time, the process had a total elapsed duration—rounded to typical human-usable units—of one minute, twenty-eight seconds. By its conclusion, Kirito and the raid group accompanying him had defeated the encounter of mobs that had pressed him hard enough to push his limits, and were fractionally closer to Mimisbrunnr in terms of raw linear distance.

Diverting the majority of her attention to another matter had not, in fact, altered its perceived duration. A minute twenty-eight was still a minute twenty-eight—and it was functionally, procedurally impossible for her to be unaware of that fact at any moment, no matter how crudely she rounded the numbers in order to better approximate human thinking.

Yui was not actually impatient.

But the available data still supported her preference for sooner over later .

·:·:·:·:·:·

Given the choice between dangerous high-level mobs or what Kirito called environmental puzzles , Asuna was increasingly of the opinion that she’d rather be fighting mobs.

That opinion had taken some time to form; the quest they were on had served up some of the worst of both in order to give her plentiful opportunities to compare the two. Precarious drops, rooms filled with flames or poison traps, elemental puzzles, and even some that hinged on nothing more complicated than having multiple players stand in exact spots—provided you could figure out from nearby clues what those spots were .

But the deciding moment came when she and the other eleven members of the Covenant-Undine raid group arrived at the top of the irregular limestone stairway they’d been climbing, and were stopped by a crack in the world.

Asuna knew, intellectually, that she was living in a video game. That none of this was real. There was no actual history behind what she was seeing; for all she knew, nothing lay behind the stone walls of the chasm before her except the same empty space that Kirito said was inside any other 3D model—if they didn’t need interiors, they were even more deceptively empty than a painted eggshell.

Still, a part of her brain insisted on categorizing what she saw in terms she remembered from Geology classes in school: a fault line of some kind that had sheared far underground, the two halves pulling apart and leaving a perilous chasm between two cliffs. The Elivagar didn’t care; the mighty river flowed far above them from one tunnel mouth to the other, as heedless of any simulated geology as it was of the equally-simulated gravity. 

At some point, someone had built a Jotunn-sized drawbridge with a single hinged leaf to span the depthless gap, using materials hewn from the surrounding stone and bound with timber, mortar, and ropes as intricately-knotted and laden with function as those on any 18th-century sailing vessel. It had been—or was at least intended to look as if it had been—an impressive feat of Jotunn engineering, with support struts and load-bearing suspension cables that spidered out from the foundations and stretched between the walls like the pulley-spun tendons of a fossilized titan.

The implications of what she and everyone else now saw before them were, apparently, that the fault line had at some point hence resumed its activity, and that this sort of thing was bad in general for the integrity of bridges.

The close-fitted hardwood planking on the near side ended abruptly after spanning perhaps a quarter of the considerable distance between the two walls, toothlike edges forming where the stone and wood supports on either side crumbled. Well-practiced at eyeballing distances for spellcasting, Asuna estimated the whole chasm to be somewhere not far under seventy meters straight across, with more than a third of that length devoted to the rising middle leaf of the bridge, which hinged on the other side.

That leaf, and as a consequence the functional purpose of the bridge itself, was mostly gone. What was left of the once-moving portion hung canted at an angle from one twisted iron hinge, the surviving near corner stuck in a half-raised position by a tangle of rope and broken wooden beams. The right half of the shattered platform slumped and hung in pieces well below their current level, counterweights and debris dangling from the ends of ropes still lashed to surviving beams or choked out of snarled spools.

“There is absolutely zero chance that any of us are making that jump,” Kirito said with conviction in his voice, taking a few long moments to survey the challenge before them before speaking. “Even with a long run-up and some risky wall-running on those beams.”

“You can say that again,” Jentou remarked after a drawn-out whistle. Of all the raid group members, the Undine plate tank was particularly challenged by anything that turned his weight and mass into a disadvantage—but for a distance like the one separating the two sides, that hardly mattered. “And even if we could get one or more of the lighter members over, I’m not sure how we’d manage the rest of us. Were we expected to bring a crafter and rebuild the bridge?”

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Kirito said. From the slight cant of his smile, Asuna couldn’t tell whether he was kidding or not.

“Lemme go take a look.” It was Burns who had spoken; the raid group’s sole Imp member didn’t wait for a response before bringing out his wings. He spent about a minute zipping here and there to inspect one piece of structure or another, testing some of them for stability. When he returned, he was grinning wickedly.

Kirito donned an apprehensive half-smile, half-grimace, looking as if the other boy’s grin gave him equal parts dread and hope. “What’ve you got, Burns? And how much are we going to hate you for it?”

“Heh. Well, there’s this one rope hanging from what’s left of the upper superstructure, about fifteen meters long. Hard to tell from our vantage point here, but it’s actually a lot closer than the rest of the debris—looks like it was one of the support cables for the drawbridge piece, and it’s right about centered between here and there.”

Acheron, one of the Undines in Jentou’s party, stared incredulously at Burns after taking a long look at the structure in question. “You are not seriously suggesting that we all take a leap of faith and try to swing across like monkeys.” He then stopped for a moment, glancing uncomfortably over at Mentat. “I mean—I didn’t mean—”

“I know what you meant,” said the Salamander healer of Kirito’s group, unruffled. “Can’t say I’m enthused about trying to pull a Tarzan here myself.”

“A what?”

Thankfully, Kirito intervened before Jentou’s pop culture deficiency could derail the search for a solution. “The end of the rope looks like it’s about level with our feet. I make the gap between here and the nearest stable-looking surface at right about twenty meters, give or take based on the rough edge. That sound right?” Asuna nodded after taking a second look at the span, as did a few others. “Okay. If the pivot of the pendulum is equidistant between us and the other side, and it’s fifteen meters in length, then the closest point of approach in its period is going to bring it within…” There was only the briefest pause as Kirito’s eyes went distant, presumably turning the numbers over in his head. “Within about three meters of the edge. Jentou, can you make a three-meter jump?”

Jentou took a long look at the shattered bridge and the unnerving drop to unknown depths. “Maybe, but it’d be chancy in full plate. Trying to do it over a bottomless pit while grabbing a swinging rope in mid-leap sounds like a great way to end up with a Darwin Award.”

Inferring at least the gist of his odd comment, Asuna thought the observation was likely true for anyone lacking either the system-assisted speed and balance of «Acrobatics» or some equivalent level of real-world skill, especially while wearing heavy armor. In the meantime Burns had returned to the air, and within moments he was hovering beside the frayed end of the dangling rope. Taking it in one hand, he flew back towards the group until it was stretched out in a straight line as far as it could be. “Won’t reach,” he said.

“Basic geometry told us that,” Kirito said. “But it’s close enough; I could make it if I had to.”

“I think I could too,” Asuna said, pacing from one side of the bridge to the other in order to get a better perspective on the rope. She knew how to wall-run, but it wasn’t a maneuver she liked to rely on even when there wasn’t a lethal drop involved. “But I’m still not sure our heavier members can. We get one chance to try, and we die if we miss.”

Jentou nodded. “I’d prefer a better margin of safety.” He looked around at the rest of his own party. “Any other suggestions?”

“I’ve got a coil of basic item-shop rope in here somewhere,” Xorren said. The Spriggan utility mage rummaged through his inventory with plucks and swipes of his fingers, and finally materialized said item. “Only five meters, but sturdy stuff—it’ll hold my weight even when I’m fully loaded with loot. We could tie it to the end of the one hanging out there, give us a little more to work with.”

“That could give us the extra length we need to not have to jump,” Jentou said with an approving nod. “Someone on this side could grab the end and hold it still while someone else carefully gets on.”

“I think I can do us one better,” Xorren said. When everyone turned to look at him, he was unwinding the length of tightly-braided cord from one arm with a series of notably deft, practiced movements. Rope in hand, he pointed at the jagged near edge of the bridge, where a broken intersection of timber beams left a rough T-shape sticking out. “I help out on my grandpa’s fishing boat every summer—used to, anyway. Tying that rope down over here wouldn’t be much different than securing dock lines, and a double fisherman’s knot would join the two ropes just fine.”

Kirito looked intrigued. “I don’t know much about knots, but I’d heard ALO’s rope physics were actually pretty accurate. They usually at least look convincing enough.”

Xorren smiled and gave a thumbs-up with the hand holding the rope end.  “They’re good, yeah. Good enough that the right knot should hold even a tank’s weight. Unfortunately, that also means I’ll probably lose a bit of length when we have to cut it loose, ‘cause it’s never coming out after we put that much weight on it.”

“Great idea,” Jentou said. “I’m a lot more comfortable with the getting on part, at least. But how do we get off on the other side?”

“Use Burns like a tugboat,” Xorren said with a grin, prompting a roll of the eyes from his friend and laughter from some of the others. “No, I’m serious! Basic knots for hand- and footholds, and he can just carefully pull the rope across to the other side with the other person hanging on. Then we either tie it down there, or Burns holds it in place while the other guy shimmies down the rope to something they can stand on. A lot slower, but no need to swing or jump.”

“Just keep in mind my wing energy isn’t infinite,” Burns pointed out. “I can hover as long as I want, but any movement or encumbered weight is a drain, and it’s been a while since we saw enough orelight to top ‘em off.”

Jentou still looked a little uneasy at the prospect, and Asuna couldn’t blame him. Even without bottomless chasms like this one, falling damage in ALO was no joke—avatars didn’t have bones to break, but HP damage and death were real possibilities, and ones which she’d directly faced before. If she hadn’t made a split-second decision that one time to break her fall with a conjured body of water…

Asuna’s mouth fell open. She must have made a sound, because several sets of eyes turned to look at her, beginning with Kirito. Quickly organizing her thoughts, she asked, “What if we swim across?”

Several seconds passed with only confusion in answer. More than a few raid members cast glances up at the gravity-defying torrent of the Elivagar, flowing its way across the chasm far above them. Jentou scratched his head, noticeably bemused. “It’s not a bad thought, but there’s at least one catch. If you’ve got any ideas for getting us up to that river and back down safely on the other side, I’m all ears.”

Asuna couldn’t believe what she was seeing and hearing; she knew that she’d shared the details of her narrow escape from a wingless falling death with at least a few of those present, and Kirito had been there . Mildly exasperated, she gestured at the yawning gap with an outstretched arm, as if aiming a spell. “A Water Barrier! Use the Line or Wall versions, and we could make a bridge of water, then cross inside of it!”

The lights went on, one by one; Kirito and Mentat seemed to get the point immediately, followed closely by astonished looks from the Undine mages, one of whom slapped a palm against his own face. Jentou was grinning from ear to ear. “And no matter how heavy we are, we can move underwater as well as if we were flying.” He glanced over at the bulk of Asuna’s party. “Most of us, anyway.”

Asuna was undaunted. “An Undine can go with each non-Undine, guiding them across. We’ll cast «Piscean» on them so that they can move like we do, and «Water Breathing», obviously.”

Mako, one of the Undine mages, cleared his throat. “If we’re going to try using a Barrier spell to make a bridge across, why don’t I use an Earth Barrier? Then we can all just walk across.”

Mentat shook his head. “I’ve got Earth too, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Jentou glanced at him. “Why not?”

“Too fiddly,” Mentat replied. “Any kind of solid barrier has to be positioned exactly right so that we can get on top of it and walk without climbing a sheer stone wall first. My aim’s very good, and I still don’t think I could finger-point the ends of the wall so that the top is level with our feet, or at least low enough we can get onto it.”

Selkie, the blue-robed healer of Jentou’s group, spoke up. “He’s right, Mako. The anchor points for plemalthe ralth are the bottom edges of the wall, and I don’t see anything under the bridge to target them on so that it spawns lower and gives us something to walk on.” He looked briefly pensive. “And even the biggest Barrier spells only last a minute or two—we’d have an uncomfortably narrow window to work in before the wall vanished.”

“But the same’s true for a Water Barrier,” Mako protested.

“Not necessarily,” Asuna said. “We can move across a lot more quickly inside water, and we don’t have to worry about positioning the barrier low enough to get on—just stretch it between here and there, overlapping the bridge so we can step into it. It’ll be like having a hallway we can fly through.”

Nori, who’d been silent through all of the more-technical discussions of how to get across, spoke then. “Uh, how does this work exactly? I use Illusion; our walls just hide stuff and make it look like whatever scenery was already there. I know you can make walls and stuff with the other elements, but I didn’t know you could be this exact with it.”

Mentat provided the beginnings of what Asuna didn’t quite have the technical vocabulary to readily explain. “AOEs affect a spherical volume based on Magnitude. So Base is a radius of one meter, First a radius of two, then five, then eight, and so on.”

Nori shrugged and nodded. “Yeah, and I eyeball it when it matters, I know that much. How do you make an exactly-sized wall out of that though?”

Mentat spread his arms wide, pointing in two directions. “There’s an extra word in the incantation for the basic Wall version everyone gets, right? It stretches a wall between the two spots you’re pointing at. The max volume of that wall is the same as the sphere, but reshaped into a rectangular block.”

“With some basic constraints like minimum width,” Mako added. “He’s right. So like if you take mag two, five-meter radius AOE, that’s a volume of what, help me out here…”

“Four-thirds pi times the radius cubed,” Kirito said immediately. “But for quick, rough approximates in your head it’s easier to just multiply any cubic radius by 4.2, or 4.19 if you want a little more precision.” That took him only a moment to work through; Asuna thought she could’ve done it in her head as well given just a little longer. “About 520 cubic meters.”

Nori palmed her face. “Can I be not-okay with the fact that you’re turning this whole thing into a math puzzle?”

Kirito grinned at her. “You asked . Be glad the game does all the math for you.”

“Not all of it, apparently.”

Mako chuckled. From the movements of his hand and the distracted fix of his gaze, he clearly had his menu open in front of him, and was looking at the info page for the spell in question. “Yeah, here it is, the plemalthe ralth version. Max 4 meters high, one to two meters thick. Spread 520 cubic meters across a two-by-four wall, and you get, ahh…”

After a few moments with nothing further, Jentou coughed. “You’re filling me with confidence here, man.”

Mako looked at Kirito again; he seemed to have spent more than a little time in school copying from someone else’s homework.

Kirito’s eyes unfocused for only a moment. “A wall up to 65 meters long. Plenty to span this gap.”

“A Magnitude 2 Barrier only lasts twenty seconds base,” Mentat pointed out.

“That’s fine,” Kirito said. “Undines swim at something close to flight speed, right?” It was clearly a rhetorical question; he didn’t even wait for the ripple of nods that a few players gave. “So 20 seconds is plenty of time for anyone to ‘fly’ across twenty-thirty meters underwater. I think what we’re getting at is that even the weakest Water Barrier, one any Undine in this raid could cast, can create a tunnel three times as long as we need to get at least one person across—and we have at least eight people in the raid who can cast much higher than that.”

“Nine,” Xorren said, raising his hand. “I’d have to take a sec to swap it in, and it’s probably decayed back to 500 by now, but I’ve got Water on tap if we need it.”

Asuna was briefly torn between hugging Xorren and maiming him, but restrained herself from doing either such silly thing. Kirito let out a snort, and then looked thoughtful for a moment, but seemed to shake off whatever had occurred to him and roll with it. “Exactly my point. Most of the people in this raid can easily get themselves across, and we can use the higher magnitudes with longer durations for bringing across the rest of my party.”

As a proof of concept, Asuna volunteered to go first and guide Kirito across with her. Burns hovered off to one side as a spotter for the endpoints. Mako established the first bridge as a test, then recast it as the next magnitude up as soon as the first had finished evaporating.

Thirty seconds to cross twenty meters. You could cover that at a slow walk, let alone what I’m doing now.

Although it was only as wide as a man was tall, Asuna had no trouble staying within the confines of the Water Barrier’s area of effect as she swam across. Perhaps because it wasn’t really swimming that she was doing—she moved just as if she were flying, albeit still at the mercy of increased drag in the thicker medium, using the same now-unconscious nerve impulses and muscle twitches that drove her wings. Those wings weren’t manifested, but she still flowed with shark-like swiftness through the water, Kirito trailing just above and behind her as he held onto her shoulders.

I wonder if any Undine can do this with the flight controller, or if it’s just those of us capable of Voluntary Flight. Asuna wasn’t sure, and was briefly amused at the irony. Like most Undine players, she hadn’t spent any appreciable amount of time in underwater zones—and when she did find herself unexpectedly submerged, it was still tough to overcome the instinct to paddle with her arms and legs instead of treating it like flying. Despite having racial advantages underwater, Undine players were still human; few were completely comfortable in aquatic environments—and aside from perhaps one or two groups dedicated to offshore farming, none spent much more time in them than any other player.

Asuna was keenly conscious of the touch of Kirito’s warm hands in the cool water, but couldn’t afford to let herself get distracted by that, nor by the stray thoughts that passed through her almost as quickly as she passed through the watery bridge. She kept her eyes ahead of her, trying not to think about the depthless field of black that was all she could see below her. The only thing protecting her and Kirito from that fatal fall into nothingness was a short-lived body of false water—and their trust that the game’s mechanics would continue to work the way they always had.

It occurred to Asuna that given recent events, continuity of mechanics was no longer necessarily a safe assumption to make. It was also too late to do anything about that uncomfortable realization other than continue to the other side as quickly as possible.

Once they’d crossed, Kirito watched the others come one by one or in pairs, with one caster or another creating a new tunnel each time. While he did, she noticed his troubled gaze flickering around the area, scanning from one side of the bridge to the other. At one point he actually jumped up onto the bridge superstructure in a way that unnerved her, standing off to one side to get a better view of some kind. Whatever he’d seen didn’t seem to settle his thoughts, and when he returned to the ground, she went to him.

“You don’t have to worry about the rest,” Asuna said reassuringly. “As long as they keep their arms spread like I did, they’ll be able to feel if they stray wide; their fingertips will break the surface first.”

There was a delay before Kirito answered. “That’s not what’s bothering me,” he said, following the words with an expansive one-armed gesture that took in the entire set piece with spread fingers. “What’s the intended solution here?”

“The intended solution?” Asuna frowned slightly, confused. The two English words were plain enough in meaning, taken individually, but the way Kirito said them almost made them sound like a term of art. “Well, I can’t imagine the placement of that rope was a coincidence. Dangling perfectly between the two sides, just long enough to almost reach? We sort of cheated a little.”

“Did we really?” Kirito seemed to be genuinely bothered by the thought, and she couldn’t really understand why. They had beaten the puzzle—what else was important? Asuna tried to keep an open mind while Kirito went on; she’d learned to trust his insights when it came to games.

“The more I look at it, the more I think the rope was a red herring. It’s supposed to look possible, and it might even be for a very skilled player with high AGI. But as cool of a cliche as it is…” Kirito briefly seemed to have trouble finding the words he needed, and looked back at the hanging rope. “No. It’s such a risky jump at both ends, and the workaround we had in mind for it is so contrived—and for that matter, so specific to the lucky mixture of items and riaru skills we had—that the rope feels like something obvious meant to bait players to their deaths.”

“A trap, in other words.”

“Sort of. Take away that convenient rope, and the only ways across that I see are either you’re an Imp who can fly, or you can make a bridge somehow. And only a few elements let you do that.”

Asuna hadn’t looked at it that way. And now that she did, she didn’t like it one bit. She didn’t entirely agree, either—but she couldn’t really articulate what seemed off to her. “Okay, but still, does it matter now?” She pointedly looked at the growing collection of players dripping wetly but safely on their side of the chasm. “This is working. Besides, it’s not like only Undines can use Water or Earth. Anyone can use any element if they train hard enough, and any raid group would have to have at least one healer with it.”

“But this isn’t the only time down here that we’ve come across a challenge that was tailored for one or two specific races to have it a lot easier,” Kirito said. “Remember the fire room?”

Despite the vague wording, Asuna knew exactly the one he meant, and grimaced—which Kirito seemed to take as encouragement. “If Mentat hadn’t been able to buff his Fire Resist so high on top of his natural resistance, none of us would’ve been able to get across to de-power the barrier crystal. Or that massive poison damage we had to heal through because the timer on the shutoff valve was just a little too short for even you or Nori to manage before it came back on?”

“What about it?”

“The spell Mentat tried using to make you move faster was Wind Magic, and a high-AGI Sylph’s racial bonus might’ve made a difference too. And then there were the packs of «Abyssal Drake» mobs we had to fight all the way across Ginnungagap—they were low-level trash, no threat at all in terms of damage, but their knockback attack could’ve killed anyone they knocked off an edge. What if a Cait Sith had been able to tame them? Argo’s not here to ask, but I’m betting a Cait raid group would’ve come out of that with new allies instead of nearly losing a few people.”

The thing that Asuna liked the least about this conversation was the way that she kept realizing the implications of Kirito’s examples before he was done explaining them. It argued for a certain consistent logic that two very different people—people who processed the world around them in very different ways—were finding the same uncomfortable patterns in the same facts.

That, or it’s a sign of getting closer as a couple. Asuna didn’t allow that particular train of thought to linger any further; she didn’t want to have to explain a blush at this particular moment.

“And then there was that awful music puzzle door where we had to mimic the harmonic patterns from those «Crystal Golems»—”

“Which would’ve been much easier if we had a Puca with an instrument,” Asuna finished for him, having gotten the point quite well by then. “I guess we were lucky at least a few of us can hum or sing a steady tone well enough to play a game of Captain’s Orders. But I assumed that’s what you were supposed to do—we found solutions to all of these challenges, didn’t we?”

“Sure we did,” Kirito agreed. “Just barely—with some clever ideas, even cheesing it in a few spots. And by being really lucky sometimes, especially with our skill and group composition. What if we hadn’t had a Salamander with us? That fire room would’ve killed almost anyone else—even Mentat only barely made it through while buffing his own already-high Fire Resist and constantly healing himself. And there was no other way around.”

Jentou and a few others had joined them by this point, and Kirito turned slightly to include the rest of them in the conversation.

“It feels inconsistent to me, at least from a game design standpoint,” Kirito said. “Quests in contested zones aren’t faction-locked. That’s the way it’s been in ALO for the last twenty-five gates, and it’s a pretty basic principle for plot content in any game: the main quest, at least, needs to be possible for any race or faction a player might pick. But some of these puzzles aren’t , and I don’t think they’re just the product of unlucky RNG—they were made this way.”

Burns spoke up for the first time since he’d come in for a landing. “Handcrafted content, in other words. Unlike the rest of this trash mob wasteland.” Despite his flippant tone, he seemed to give Kirito’s words serious consideration. “You think this is like some older roguelikes, or ARPG dungeon crawlers? Handmade set pieces, connected by procedurally-generated mazes and stuff, padding out the content to make it longer?”

Kirito paused for a second to think. “That’s actually not a bad comparison. The puzzles definitely hit me as creative work; the rest feels like filler.”

“I’ve been thinking something similar for hours,” the Imp said. “But maybe the puzzles actually are just another flavor of RNG after all. Let’s say they’ve got a bunch of different pre-made puzzles to pick from, all of them handcrafted assets, but the game shuffles them and deals them out like cards in a board game. If you’re generating anything with branching paths, you’ll write code that detects and discards random results that don’t work—like a maze with two halves that aren’t connected to each other, or an impossible puzzle. But sometimes you still end up with results that make it unintentionally harder or easier for someone . Like oops, that boss randomly spawned with a physical immunity and you’re a meat wagon.”

Amidst the snickers from a few players, Asuna thought it over. She didn’t really understand the technical details of what they were discussing, but Burns certainly talked like he’d either done that kind of work before, or—more likely, given his youth—studied the subject with time and dedication probably better applied to schoolwork. In the back of her mind, she wondered whether there was a story there, but tried to focus on what people were saying.

The discussion had everyone’s attention now, a fact that seemed to belatedly sink in for Kirito  with a moment of visible discomfort and averted eyes—a reaction that Asuna recognized from him by now. He shook his head and waved back in the direction whence they’d come.

“I could understand if that had happened once. But at least five—no, six different times in the same quest? I can’t think of anything we’ve run into that needed Spriggan-only Illusion spells or Leprechaun Constructs, but almost every other race has been covered, and it really stands out compared to what we’ve seen in the rest of the game. I think someone made these challenges so that a group who didn’t have most or all of the factions represented would have a harder time, if not completely fail. Someone wanted them that way.”

Of the half-dozen-odd players gathered around Kirito, none of them spoke, though a number of uneasy glances went back and forth between them. After a momentary pause, Kirito had one more thing to add in order to drive the point home. “And unless my guess is way off, it’s someone who’s trying very hard to push those factions apart so that they don’t work together.”

Asuna’s clothing was still quite wet, but that wasn’t why she felt a shiver then, just before it turned to cold anger.

Before they’d left, Kirito had briefed the Undine raid group with everything he knew about the NPC Loki, some of which was even new information for their own party—details which hadn’t seemed necessary to relate when swapping stories back at an inn or during a rest stop. Going by the expressions Asuna saw now, they didn’t need Kirito to spell out the plot for them, now that they had the same information he had.

“If I understand you right, this is a troubling implication,” Jentou remarked at last, rubbing at his chin and frowning. “You think this Loki character, in addition to doing whatever he can to stir up conflict between the player races, is also changing quests so that they require more cooperation between those different races. Setting us up for failure, basically.”

“Something like that, more or less,” Kirito said. “Not all quests. Maybe he’s only paying close attention to this one because it affects him directly. And there are probably limits to how much he’s allowed to tip the game balance by stacking the deck against us, which is why most of these puzzles are just barely possible for someone smart to work around if they don’t have the prereqs for the intended solution.” He glanced off in the direction of the new tunnel that lay ahead of them. “But it wouldn’t surprise me if we see this again, and more often. Remember, he’s got at least some kind of limited GM powers, and we know he’s already made changes to game content before.”

Burns spoke again. “In a way, it actually kinda doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of puzzle, just the first time on a progression quest, and a lot of ‘em in a row. Probably won’t be the last, if Kirito’s right.”

“That’s not the most encouraging of thoughts,” Asuna said, understating her feelings on the matter quite a bit. “Considering the difficulty so far.”

Jentou nodded. “I wish I could disagree with a word of it, but it makes an uncomfortable amount of sense. That said… I can’t think of anything we can actually do about any of it, here and now. Can you?”

After a few moments, Kirito spoke with clear frustration. “Not yet. Other than to be aware of the possibility, and consider it if we encounter any other puzzles.”

They got the chance sooner than they expected. Not far beyond the bridge itself, an imposing stone door emblazoned with a trio of glowing runes blocked further passage through the narrow tunnel. The colors of each rune made it immediately clear that three different elements would be required, and pillars in the room blocked LOS in ways that made it impossible for any one caster to hit all of them at once.

“Okay, wait just a minute,” Xorren said, one white-clad index finger raised. “There’s three runes here, and the game obviously wants us to feed them three spells from three different elements. There are three Fates, and we got to them through a triangular portal that we unlocked by farming three different rare spawns. That Odin symbol on the portal is three triangles. We’ve gone through three named zones to get where we are, and the first two each had three major environmental puzzles. Am I missing any threes here?”

The last Water Barrier evaporated as its duration expired; the entire raid had made it across safely. From the dozen players collected in a rough circle, there followed a lengthy and uncomfortable silence while Xorren looked between them in disbelief. Asuna had not the foggiest idea what point he was trying to make about the prevalence of the number in question. 

Kirito’s seemed to be just as baffled by Xorren’s question, albeit for different reasons. He was the first to find words. “Is this your first video game?”

Nearly everyone in the raid suddenly broke into laughter, the tension leaving the group all at once. Asuna didn’t understand why, but was still amused by Xorren’s profoundly-offended expression. “Dude, please . I’m just saying, it kinda confirms something I’ve suspected all along.”

“Which is?”

“That the Norse gods were secretly game devs.”

Asuna still didn’t really get what was so funny, but almost everyone else laughed twice as hard as before. After so many bleak, grueling hours, this time she couldn't help but join them.

·:·:·:·:·:·

Sakuya hadn’t gathered all of the clearing leaders together for the meeting—most of them were, after all, still in Arun working on clearing the Halls of Judgment. But it was the strongest, most senior of the clearing groups that had been reassigned to defend the Ancient Forest, and in addition to those four group leaders, representatives from more than a dozen volunteer Militia groups were clustered around the long oval table of carved and polished oak.

“Thank you for coming, everyone,” Sakuya said, gesturing with a slow sweep of her hands for those present to be seated. “I know you’re probably wondering why I’ve recalled you all from your evenings and asked you here.”

“Aw, come on, Sa—Lady Sakuya, we know ya miss us,” said one of the group leaders with a grin, to gentle laughter from a few of the others with whom she’d worked extensively. Sigurd was a notable exception, which was about as surprising as looking around the room and seeing the color green.

“Everyone but you, Dorral,” Sakuya replied with an answering grin, and to even louder mirth around the table, which she waved down as soon as she could. “Old friends, I wish the agenda were nothing more than shooting the breeze and catching up on good times, but we have both a problem and an opportunity to solve it, and both need to be addressed without delay.”

That got their attention and quieted the side talk. “A few days ago I received an envoy from the NCC, who brought to my attention the fact that while ambushing Salamander farmers, the spirit and sometimes even the letter of my orders about leaving a healer alive are not being consistently followed. I’ve explained our situation to the NCC proxies, reminded them that the Salamanders are violating the Treaty too, and convinced them—for now—to not blacklist our clearing groups.”

A loud stir of mixed relief and alarm rippled across everyone at the table; most crafters in Sylvain were NCC, and the consequences of a faction-wide blacklist—even if limited to just the clearing groups—could be devastating. She quickly moved to allay those fears. “Instead, I was able to negotiate a compromise: as a warning, the NCC is blacklisting both me and the Salamander leader personally until the next election. They’ve made clear, however, that any further violations of the Treaty of Arun must result in Banishment or Exile for the offending player. If we refuse to punish confirmed Treaty violators going forward, they will blacklist our clearing groups—and failing that, all Sylphs —until there is a leadership change.”

Sakuya continued with little more than a pause for breath—her avatar didn’t need it, but years of ingrained habit were hard to break. She forced herself to look at anyone but Sigurd while she spoke; her gaze slid past him like a pat of butter fleeing the center of a warped pan.

“Now, I will not name or shame anyone for having put their life on the line to defend our borders. I’m proud of each and every one of you for how hard you’ve been fighting. But these incidents have put me, and all of you, in a difficult position, and because of that I must impress upon you how important this is before you go back out there: if you take out a Salamander group, especially lower-level players, you need to leave their healer alive and capable of casting spells—there can be no exceptions to this rule, no matter how justified your hate for the Salamanders. It might be satisfying to leave them Silenced or Paralyzed so that they can’t rez their group, but any further such incidents will put me in the position of having to Banish the offender in order to protect our clearing groups—something I do not want to do, but will do if that’s what is necessary to keep the rest of you from being blacklisted.”

Another of the clearing group leaders spoke up once she came to a stopping point and looked around. “I don’t necessarily disagree with anything you’re saying, and I appreciate you looking out for us. But you know as well as I do that AOEs don’t discriminate by party role, and the flow of battle can be chaotic. Things happen.”

“You’re right, Jaquell. We can’t always control what happens in a battle. But we can control what comes after. So to be clear—if in the course of the fight you do kill or disable their healer, it is your responsibility to ensure they are rezzed or cured .” She punctuated those words with several sharp finger taps at the table before her. “A level twenty, twenty-five healer is not going to be any kind of threat to you when they’re trying desperately to restore their MP and get their friends rezzed. And you make it clear to them that you’re going to allow it, that’s exactly what they will focus on doing, not attacking you.”

Sakuya unpinned her gaze from Jaquell and let it drift across the others; there she saw a few nods, as well as more pensive looks. “It’s easy to lose perspective when we’re besieged the way we are,” she said more gently. “But I think it’s important to remember that these are people we’re talking about here. Japanese citizens. They’re not even clearers, they’re low-level farmers, and they’re not the ones who attacked us. And as with our own farmers, many of them are just kids.”

“I recall you saying something about an opportunity to solve this problem,” Sigurd said, choosing that moment to insert his opinion. “It seems to me that the only thing you’ve done here is show your belly to the NCC and tell us to be nice to the Salamanders. Are you now seriously proposing to Banish me just because the NCC says so?”

Sakuya did not, would not, allow herself to react the way he wanted her to—the way she wanted to. She did not even permit herself the luxury of a passive-aggressive sigh or a theatrical roll of the eyes. This is it. The line must be drawn here. She met Sigurd’s gaze with the most neutral expression she could muster, and let his words hang there in the air, unanswered, for several long seconds while she composed herself. Give him time to realize what he just said.

“Hey Sigurd?” Before she could respond verbally in any way, one of the mage group leaders spoke, a young man whom Sakuya didn’t know well. As soon as Sigurd’s dark forest-green eyes turned in Tempest’s direction, the mage waved a gloved hand to get his attention. “Over here. Hey. Thanks. Just wondering, have you thought about being less of an asshole? You’re dialed up to eleven lately and it’s getting old.”

This remark, though deeply satisfying to her, did not move the discussion in a constructive direction.

Sakuya did not allow the war of words to escalate; her point had been made without her having to get involved, and anything further would be more of a distraction than it already was. She interrupted the continuing exchange between the two clearing group leaders with a raised palm and waited, saying nothing. Only once there was quiet and she had control of her voice did she speak, with all eyes in the room on her.

“Sigurd, I apologize if I gave you the impression I was blaming or threatening you. You’re a valued member of both the Militia and our clearing groups, and I am not calling out you or anyone else personally. But it is a fact that the NCC, on whom you and everyone else depend a great deal, will no longer idly accept the deliberate murder of anyone’s farmers—ours or the Salamanders.”

“Why should we care what they accept or don’t? It’s not their—”

Sakuya cut him off there with a sweep of her hand and a sharp tone. “Because if any Sylph breaks the Treaty, no matter who they are or what the Sals did, then I have only two options: either I at the very least Banish the offender, or the NCC will blacklist all of our clearers for as long as I remain Sylph leader.” She’d already said as much, but she wanted to lay it out as starkly as she could, and she gave that information a few more moments to sink in before she pinned him with the words that followed, each one like a door slamming shut in his face. “Those are our choices. The rest is out of our control. If you or anyone else here sees a path I do not, I welcome suggestions. The floor is yours.”

Sakuya had always felt that people in general were just too noisy, and solitary peace and quiet were familiar music for her. Until being trapped in Alfheim Online, though, she hadn’t understood just how much noise even the quietest person made while sitting around doing nothing . They breathed, they shifted their weight or balance unconsciously, and the tiniest interactions of cloth and skin produced a symphony of quiet susurrations that—in everyday urban surroundings, at least—were too faint to be noticed against the chaotic complexity of the modern world’s background noise.

In ALO, the only sounds that existed were those that were intentionally designed to be simulated by the game—and those that weren’t were often conspicuous for their absence, when something happened to call it to notice. Player avatars did not breathe, and had no idle animations beyond what the player’s own nerve impulses created. Only sounds well above conversational level penetrated any closed door, and not all of the subtler physics interactions produced sound the same way that they would in the real world.

All of which left a blank audio canvas against which the unusual stood out. No one present at the meeting had uttered a word since she stopped speaking, nor even seemed to dare move; the silence in the Heartwood Room was so absolute as to be unnatural. 

Sigurd visibly stewed in that silence. Resign , she expected him to say to her. Sakuya had opened that door for him, if he chose to step through it. She knew exactly how she was going to respond if he did.

He did not. For whatever reason—prudence, wisdom, or simple self-preservation—Sigurd held his tongue, jaw twitching with anger or effort. Sakuya waited a full ten seconds, counted in her head rather than visibly diverting her gaze to her clock, and then nodded.

She’d won—for now.

“All right, thank you. If you do think of anything, please bring it to my attention.” Addressing the room more generally again, she continued. “There is not a single one of you I would want to lose,” she said. “But as your leader, I have a responsibility to protect all Sylphs. If it comes down to a choice between Banishing my closest friend, or allowing our clearers to be blacklisted, I am going to make the choice that protects us as a whole—no matter how painful that is to do. I trust everyone here to refrain from putting the rest of us at risk that way.”

Sakuya judged that to be a good time to dispense with the stick, and changed the subject to introduce the carrot she had in mind. “Now, I spoke of a solution. We may have an opportunity to end this war without a single further PvP engagement—but it will take some creativity, resources, and teamwork. Rolf, the first sample, please.”

The young crafting lead, who up until this point had been making a credible effort to become one with his chair in avoidance of the social conflict, came to his feet and began fiddling with his menu. Moments later he manifested a rectangular length of a dark, glossy material, nearly black but for the warm hints of deep oaken brown lurking in its depths when it caught the light in the right way. The refined mat was only about the length of his forearm and twice as thick, but his whole body visibly sagged as soon as the glowing wireframe finished rendering, as if someone had just dropped a bar of solid lead or gold into his arms. When he dumped the object on the conference table it made a heavy, almost metallic sound, and did not bounce.

“Some of you here, especially the mages, will already recognize what this is. For those who don’t: this is a single unit of «Refined Ironwood». From a lore perspective, ironwood is the petrified form of the World Tree’s roots, and can be found everywhere in Alfheim. It is abundant and nigh-indestructible, but extremely difficult to harvest and work, requiring high skill and special tools.”

Sakuya prodded the sample towards the nearest clearing leader, gesturing for him to pick it up. “At ten kilos per standard refined unit, it is also a bit heavier than lead, making it impractical for armor or most weapons.” She then glanced over at Rolf as the other clearers passed around the chunk of ironwood; only the melee-specced players could lift it with one hand, and even they with surprising difficulty. “Other than inlays for wands and staves, I’m told that its most common use in crafting is in the making of small decorations, or furniture that no one is ever planning to move again.”

“Well,” Sigurd remarked dryly, already testing the limits again, “that will surely come in useful if we decide to furnish the Salamanders to death.”

Sakuya smiled without kindness or humor. “You jest, but that is essentially what I propose we do.”

While a visibly-confused Sigurd struggled with how to respond to that, Sakuya went on, restating what Rolf had explained to her prior to the meeting. “In crafting terms, a placeable item that stores other items, or does something other than look pretty, is called a furnishing . That includes things like beds, chests, and shelving, but can apply to anything you don’t equip that has a functional purpose, like chairs and some light sources.” She caught Rolf’s gaze long enough to see him nod. “There are a few outliers and one-off recipes that don’t fit, but the categories more or less line up like that. With me so far?”

When enough present had nodded and none had spoken up, Sakuya moved on. “Good. Tonight I learned something about these items that is not yet common knowledge—an undocumented feature, if you will. It appears that the game respects a small ‘zone of control’, in a manner of speaking, around player-crafted furnishings and structures placed in the world. Within this area the zone will not reset to its default state, and things will not automatically spawn or despawn as they normally would in a public or contested zone. If you drop an item, it will stay put without disappearing or degrading in durability over time. Most resource harvesting nodes will not regenerate…” She paused there just long enough to highlight the significance of her next words. “...and mobs will not respawn.”

There was another stretch of silence, but it was much different this time. A murmur went through the room as some of the group leaders began whispering to each other. The clearing group leaders were, for the most part, sharp people—the implications had begun sinking in immediately. The first actual response came from Dorral, whose unexpected snickers quickly devolved into braying, knee-slapping laughter that commanded all the attention in the room. “Well I will be go-to-hell,” he said, his mirth briefly making the slurred vowels and odd phrasings of his folksy northern dialect even harder to understand than usual. “Y’all really are gonna furnish ‘em to death.”

Sakuya smiled. “Indeed we are. Now, Rolf believes he’s found a «Carpentry» recipe that can—with some customization—be carried in separate pieces by a party. A crafter traveling with the party can then assemble the parts into something that is too heavy for the Salamanders to move even if they do figure out what’s happening. They won’t be able to damage anything made of solid ironwood without the right tools and skills, and none of their clearers or farmers should be able to dismantle it without knowing how it’s put together. Rolf, do I have that right?”

“Mostly,” Rolf said, bowing to Sakuya in apology even though she’d asked for the correction. “So like, Carpentry’s a bit of an oddball crafting skill. It’s mostly the same bucket of prefab recipes you find for any other skill that’s mat-type-specific. But because it’s supposed to be an umbrella skill for all sorts of woodcrafting— practical and artistic—with the right tools and know-how, you’ve got a bit more creative freedom than usual, and you can scale simple recipes up or down if you’ve got the mats for it.”

Rolf manifested another item from his inventory, a smallish wooden cube about ten centimeters to a side. This one was clearly made of a lighter, more everyday wood; the collected players began passing it around, some prying at its visible seams without success. “This is an ordinary ten-piece block puzzle you can make out of any wood-type mat. Dunno if any of you ever played with these, but it’s kinda like 3D Tetris on steroids. Every piece is different, there’s only one way to put them all together or take them apart, and they have to be done in exactly the right order or they won’t budge.”

“I hate those puzzles so much,” said Dorral. “Burn it now before it reproduces.”

Rolf snickered. “The Sals are gonna hate ‘em even more if we can figure out how to nail or glue the pieces together. Working on that.”

When the laughter at the table faded, Sigurd spoke, turning the cube over in his hands with clear skepticism stamped on his face. “A puzzle ? This little toy is going to make mobs stop spawning?”

“Yeah! I know it sounds weird, but it’s a category thing.”

“It has functional purpose,” Sakuya clarified from Rolf’s somewhat-uninformative response while Sigurd passed the item to his right. “Presumably because they’re interactive, but not consumable or equippable, ALO considers games like this puzzle to be furnishings instead of decorations.”

Right,” Rolf said. “It’s in the same category as chessboards and stuff. So it’ll have persistence. Now as you can see, the base item’s pretty small. But once you scale the template up by like 200% and use Refined Ironwood as the input mat… what you end up with is basically a bunch of dark-colored, irregularly-shaped thirty-kilo lead blocks that anyone with a few points in STR can just barely carry in their inventory without hitting Max Carry Weight and Rooting themselves. Once we put it together, it’s not moving again—not without solving the puzzle and hauling away every individual piece.”

Dorral glanced over at a fellow clearer. “Saitama, you got a naked Max Carry of what, about sixty-five, seventy kilos thereabouts?” The other tank nodded. “Yeah, ‘bout the same here.”

“Even a STR-focused Salamander clearer couldn’t carry more than two pieces at a time,” Tempest noted. “Not even if he dropped all his gear.”

Jaquell voiced his agreement. “A full party working together might be able to carry the whole 300-kilogram block, if they couldn’t get it apart. But they won’t get it far without having to stop and fight.”

“And that’s assuming they can locate the suppressor devices at all,” Sakuya added. “Or even realize that an object could be the source of their troubles in the first place. A thirty-centimeter cube of dark wood isn’t going to stand out once it’s concealed in underbrush and covered by a forest-pattern blanket, and the former will keep the latter’s durability from degrading. They’d have to literally stumble across one to know it’s there at all, let alone start thinking about why it’s there or what to do about it.”

Dorral pressed his palms together as if praying or casting a healing spell. “ Please tell me we get to see their faces when they try to figure out why the hell their precious Lopers are a no-show. I’ve been mostly good lately, right?”

“I’m afraid I intend for most of you to be done with this work and far, far away from the Salamanders by the time they return tomorrow morning,” Sakuya said. Then, she grinned. “If you want to ask Rolf if it’s possible to build a recording crystal into one of our suppressor items, I won’t stop you. You supply the crystal, though.”

Most of the room laughed then; Sakuya thought she even saw a smile reluctantly touch Sigurd’s face, presumably before he remembered that he wasn’t supposed to approve of anything she said or did and returned to his regularly-scheduled sulk. She waited a moment for the noise to die down.

“But in all seriousness, once this plan is in play, do not engage or get anywhere near the conflict zone—for now, consider that a standing order. I’ll be assigning recon teams with Transparency aura mages to keep an eye on them from afar, but I want them to be bored . The farmers will have nothing to farm. The ones who are there to fight… well, they can sit around and measure e-peens until they realize there’s nothing to fight—or measure.” More laughter, even louder now. This time it turned into scattered applause and whistles, and went on until Sakuya raised her hands slightly.

“We already have plentiful stocks of ironwood, and Rolf has crafters working on producing prototypes as we speak. The first few should be ready by the time we’re done here, and using Granholm’s spawn maps, we’ll be deploying them anywhere we find Lopers. Once we clear the existing mobs, they shouldn’t come back. It may take some experimentation to get the placement and recipe right, but if this works out…” Sakuya smiled in a very self-satisfied way. “We should be able to eradicate most of the Loper spawns in the Ancient Forest, remove any incentive for the Salamanders to come here… and get our clearers back to clearing.”

“Now, let’s review the assignments I’ve drawn up.”

·:·:·:·:·:·

Mortimer had decided, ultimately, that Corvatz needed to know. The question with which he now wrestled was how to confront his leader with the information.

As soon as the words went through his head, a grimace briefly touched Mortimer’s face. A confrontation it will most likely be. It’s hard to say whether Corvatz would see the Sandmen as a resource to be tapped—or if he would recognize the moral hazard in that, and the existential threat they truly pose to us. On a scale of moral relativity, he strikes me as one more likely to take a pragmatic, transactional view.

Then again, he might see what they’re doing as dishonorable in some way. Hard to say for sure.

Everyone in the senior Salamander hierarchy knew that Corvatz had been a member of the SDF; it was certainly impossible for him to hide the fact that he had a military background of some kind. But although Mortimer had long harbored suspicions of his own in this regard, he kept coming back to an observation Heathcliff had made more than once in his presence: that Corvatz had real-world combat experience, not just training.

Heathcliff had a circuitous, I-know-something-you-don’t manner of speaking at times… but he was not one to exaggerate, nor traffic in unconfirmed rumors. Their current leader had never discussed the specifics of his service, never even alluded to it in anything but the most oblique and indirect fashion. Corvatz certainly had never mentioned to Mortimer that he was an actual combat veteran, but it did fit with everything he knew of his leader—and with how Eugene had spoken of him during Corvatz’s months leading a clearing group.

It also left extremely few possibilities for where Corvatz might’ve gotten that experience. For nearly seven post-war decades, Japan’s equivalent of a standing military—literally named the Japan Self-Defense Force —had existed strictly for defense of the home islands, operating under a constitutional mandate against participating in armed conflict of any kind on the world stage. Reforms allowing the JSDF to participate in allied peacekeeping operations were relatively recent—and back home in Japan, sometimes extremely controversial.

Some more than others.

Mortimer doubted there was anyone in the country who hadn’t heard of the Stalwart Mercy incident—or of the soldiers who’d died because their rules of engagement had forbidden them from pursuing their irregular attackers. Attackers who, for the most part, had kept melting back into the city and harrying the humanitarian aid convoy all the way to its destination.

It also occurred to Mortimer, just then, that if Corvatz’s player had been part of that ill-fated unit… it would go a long way towards naming the demons that drove him to make the decisions he did.

Mortimer was less certain of what to do with that insight.

Later , Mortimer thought just before rounding the corner that would take him up the stairs to the map room where Corvatz spent a great deal of time. I don’t know enough yet to use this. I need to keep this meeting focused on the Sandmen.

Had Mortimer been a superstitious man, he might’ve made something of the fact that he came unexpectedly face-to-face with Nightstick just as he was having that thought. The head watchman—and, he strongly suspected, the man who went by Mawari among the Sandmen—was just emerging from the map room, torchlight dancing across the gilded curves of his Watch armor.

Mortimer had always wondered why Nightstick had chosen that particular English word as a character name. He’d found that some players put a lot of thought into naming their characters something important to them—and that just as with Corvatz’s militarism, this could offer clues about who such players were as people .

It generally wasn’t wise to read too much into a name… but given the way the man had more-or-less organized the volunteer City Watch himself, and the overall manner in which he presented himself, Mortimer had always assumed Nightstick had been a member of law enforcement back in the real world, or at least someone who aspired to be—perhaps an omawari-san , one of the ubiquitous neighborhood patrol officers where he lived, most of whom were armed only with his namesake hand batons.

It hadn’t been until Yuuki described Mawari— a city watchman with a crimson cloak —that Mortimer had actually been sure.  Stripped of honorifics the way it was, he’d had no reason to make any connection to a neighborhood patrol officer, or think anything in particular of the name Mawari when Mars had originally mentioned it.

It was yet another insight he wished he’d had sooner. He’d always been good at making connections and leaps of logic like that, and it frustrated him when he failed to do so—or at least, in time for them to be useful.

The bulky iron door at the top of the broad stairwell closed loudly behind Nightstick. The other Salamander began to jog briskly down the steps, then slowed and moved to one side with a smile.

I know , that smile said.

Mortimer wasn’t sure why he suddenly felt the weight of that particular suspicion. He was nonetheless certain that it was so. I suppose that makes two of us, then.

When his eyes met Nightstick’s, he thought he felt a connection of some kind between them; the watchman’s smile widened ever so slightly. “Mortimer. An unexpected pleasure. What brings you here today?”

He wasn’t buying the man’s usual empty courtesies for one moment. Mortimer mentally translated the question as: I don’t think you’re here by coincidence, but I need to find out. He fought to keep the wariness from his face. Well, once again that makes us a matching pair.

How much attention do you pay to the day-to-day operations of the Sandmen, Mawari? Just enough to make sure things run smoothly? Or do you vet every single client, even if only after the fact?

He realized at once that the uncertainty was absurd. Of course he knows I was training with them. I’d be a fool to think that at no point in the last few weeks did a single Sandman feel compelled to share with him the apparently-alarming fact that their former faction leader was now a client, not after making such a big deal about it when I first showed up. Trigger—trusting, good-natured soul that he is—would have informed him if nothing else, especially if Yuuki was telling the truth about their little security breach. Given the timing, they’d naturally be suspicious.

But before I talk to Corvatz, this might be my chance to pin a few things down.

All of this went through Mortimer’s head in the time it took him to slow his way up the steps. The two men were both of similar height; he stopped when their eyes came level, and favored his former subordinate with a polite smile. “Good to see you, Nightstick. I’ve been meaning to catch up with you for a while, but since the last election things have been…” He waved at the air meaningfully.

“Complicated?” Nightstick suggested with a wry twist to his own smile. He could not have missed the fact that Mortimer hadn’t actually answered the question, but gave no sign.

Mortimer did his best to make his laugh sound genuine, and leaned back against the wall with his elbows resting casually on the ridge of stone that served as a railing, clasped hands resting on the buckle of his belt. “Something like that. What brings you to Fearless Leader’s favorite hiding spot?” And does he know what you do with your free time?

Nightstick didn’t answer that question any more directly than Mortimer had his, instead offering another question in return. “Do you remember an investigation I mentioned to you a few months ago, that I was looking into some rumors of targeted killings?”

The reminder stirred memories of a few past briefings; Mortimer reviewed what he could recall. For the most part he’d always left Nightstick alone to run enforcement for Gattan and its environs as he saw fit, a hands-off approach he now deeply regretted. “You have an unusual way of pronouncing ‘assassinations’. I do remember, but it’s been quite some time since you said anything about it, so refresh me?” I don’t suppose that investigation was a cover for your kidnapping activities, giving you a justification to arrest any Imps you wanted?

“Truth be told, it’s been some time since there’s been anything new to say, other than that there’s still a curious tendency for isolated Salamanders to die under dubious circumstances. But we’ve finally had a breakthrough.”

Ah. And how much of that breakthrough involves an Imp named Yuuki? Mortimer kept his face calm and disconnected from his thoughts, but spoke with sincere interest. “That sounds like very good news,” he said. “Go on.”

The smile on Nightstick’s face never left, but it tightened noticeably now. He gestured off in a vaguely northwards direction. “A few weeks back we had another murder, and this time they made the mistake of targeting someone I knew. I squeezed some sources and got names for them and a few associates. Then I got a solid tip on where they might hit next, and last night we caught the little fuckers.”

Any remaining doubt Mortimer harbored about several matters evaporated in that moment. He raised one eyebrow. “‘Little’?”

Nightstick laughed. “Pocket-size girls, the lot of them. Sisters, perhaps? At any rate, they’re quite the pair of bloodthirsty little weasels, especially the older one. I have nearly a dozen eyewitnesses tying both of them to at least three murders—one of them premeditated—along with multiple maimings and a laundry list of assaults. They’re going down, and so is their network.”

The mere possibility of a network of Imp assassins, regardless of the specifics, implied a great many things that Mortimer found unsettling—assuming any of it was true. But even worse was the notion of little girls as assassins. It was the sort of thing that made an entertaining trope in cartoons or movies, but was a bit more disturbing to contemplate as a reality. That Nightstick was apparently the leader of the Sandmen did not necessarily mean he had his facts wrong.

It had not escaped Mortimer that Nightstick and Yuuki could both be lying, or at least each telling their own subjective truths—and possibly selective ones as well. But he assessed himself a good judge of whether someone was being earnest, and if the Imp girl wasn’t… she was an extremely good liar, especially for a child of her assumed age.

Then again, apparently so was the man in front of him. So am I, when it’s necessary. But it’s a tool, not a way of life.

When he inquired about said network, Nightstick shrugged. “That might be overstating the matter a bit; I’m still working on piecing it all together. They definitely had help, though—and if I’m right, some of that help is coming from some very high-ranking Imps. I just finished reporting to Lord Corvatz about that.”

Did you now? “I can’t imagine his reaction was sympathetic to our friends in purple and black.”

Something in Nightstick’s face turned ugly for a moment. “The Imps may technically be our allies, Mortimer, but they are not our friends. No, Lord Corvatz was quite emphatic about bringing anyone involved to justice, whoever they are. He has empowered me to do whatever I must to make that happen, and that is exactly what I shall do.”

Mortimer studied that ugliness, and put it in context. He took a few moments before responding. “A man has to wonder what would drive two young girls to the point of planned, organized murder. Expose their motives to light, and you may also expose who helps them.” What have you done to make them hate us so? What are you doing to them even now?

“Their motives? It has been clear for some time that the Imps as a whole, dependent though they are, will never forgive us for the sack of Everdark. We hold the whip hand, but they do not love us, and never will. Do you have a more likely reason in mind?”

Mortimer had to amend his earlier insight: Nightstick might well know that Mortimer had been training with the Sandmen, but he didn’t—couldn’t—know that he’d spoken with Yuuki. Mars had been so desperate to hide the fact that Mortimer had snuck in while he’d stepped out, the idea of him volunteering that information to Nightstick—Mawari—was ridiculous.

To the contrary: Mortimer now realized that the man in front of him was carefully probing to see what he did know. Beneath the simple, almost rhetorical question lay a more important one, unspoken: what do you know that makes you wonder so about their motives? Are you a part of this? Do I need to regard you as a threat?

“I suppose you would have to ask them,” Mortimer said, continuing to feign ignorance without quite crossing the line into lying outright. “I wouldn’t pretend to truly know what drives their actions, not without talking to them. I’m sure Lord Corvatz would agree that to know an enemy is to be halfway to defeating them.” I bet you’d really like to know.  I bet Corvatz would too.

Nightstick gave an absent wave at the air, stirring the shoulder cloak where it draped past his arm. “As things stand, the point is moot. Lord Corvatz has been well-briefed on the situation, and he has tasked me with meting out all necessary justice.” Don’t get ahead of yourself. And don’t forget which one of us currently has official support.  

“Well, it’s good to hear he’s taking the threat seriously. Though I must say, none of this bodes well for the future of our alliance. The way we handle this issue could have lasting political consequences if our justice is not fair, especially if anyone from any other factions is involved.”

For example, your victims , Mortimer thought, fighting to keep his feelings off his face . You are neck-deep in matters that could destroy our ability to work with any other factions if they find out what you’ve done to their people, not to mention fracture our clearing groups. You’d better tread very carefully.

However, Nightstick merely let out a quiet scoff. “What consequences should we fear? Even the Sylphs cannot truly threaten us. And the Imps already hate us, Mortimer. They ambush our people outside of safe zones, and murder good men so they don’t have to feel as powerless as they actually are.”

“All the more reason to avoid a heavy-handed approach, lest we deepen that enmity and drive  a permanent wedge between our two peoples—or between us and others.”

Without diverting his gaze to his clock, Mortimer could not have said how long they stood there with locked gazes, nor been certain about what was going through his former subordinate’s mind while they did. It was not lost on him that the man in front of him could, with a few words, imprison him more or less without any accountability—at least, none other than the system-enforced limits on how long a player could be imprisoned, the logging of the event, and the coded safeguards afforded them while they were.

Safeguards in which the Sandmen—according to Yuuki—had found exploitable loopholes.

It was Nightstick who broke the silence at last. “Respectfully, Mortimer, I think I now see why the Imps became such a problem under your rule: you labor under the well-meaning but misguided impression that we still have an alliance with them.” He made a soft noise of derision. “This is a fantasy; it is an alliance in name and game mechanics only. They are a useful resource to exploit while we can, but they are not our equals or our friends.”

Nightstick turned and resumed his way down the stairs without waiting for anything Mortimer might have had to say in response. “I wonder how many of us they must kill before you see that.”

Mortimer could have followed, or called after him, but could not imagine any benefit to doing so. Have the last word if it pleases you; I see more than you think. And though there’s unquestionably some lingering animosity in that faction, I’d wager you’re projecting more than a little of your own hate onto the Imps.

He didn’t know how to break that vicious, vindictive cycle. But one thing was certainly true: if there were to be any future to the Salamander-Imp alliance, that future would have to begin with the Salamanders cleaning their own house.

Mortimer looked up the stairs, gazing at the heavy iron door leading to the map room.The door itself was unremarkable, one of several standard types in the imperious, weighty Salamander style seen all over Gattan.

It was, at that moment, not just a door. It was a choice of whether to continue with his plan to confront Corvatz with what the Sandmen were doing.

So here’s an interesting question I don’t know the answer to: what exactly did Nightstick tell Corvatz? How aware, how deeply invested is our leader in what the Sandmen are doing?

He watched the door for another few moments—or rather, looked in the direction of the door; his eyes were unfocused while his mind rapidly worked to assess the possibilities. If Nightstick told Corvatz everything about the Sandmen, and Corvatz approves, then going to him could be dangerous, and tips my hand. Conversely, If Nightstick lied or selectively omitted truths about his guild and their operation, he’d have to know that this creates a risk that someone else will tell Corvatz—who would not look kindly on being deceived.

Even if he doesn’t know that I spoke with Yuuki, or know any of what she told me… it’s almost certain that he’s at least aware that I was a client, and that even what little I knew from that position could expose his lies if I chose.

The more Mortimer thought about it, the likelier he thought it was that Nightstick had told Corvatz at least enough of the truth so that any former client of the Sandmen couldn’t give their leader any damaging surprises.

Examine it from another perspective , he thought then. Cost-benefit analysis, risk management—both mine and his.

Assume I tell Corvatz about the Sandmen, and he already knows and doesn’t care, or has judged them to be a useful-enough resource to exploit. I could easily present it, at first, as neutral information—inform him of a few key facts, get a feel for what his reaction is without revealing my own opinion. Frame it as asking for his advice. Very little meaningful risk going that far, at least. But to what gain?

Looking at it from that angle, answers—or at least suggestions of insights—started falling into place, his mind categorizing them automatically into logical buckets. What it comes down to is this: either Corvatz is bothered by what the Sandmen are doing, or he’s not—and there’s no point telling him if he isn’t. The key question then becomes: what does he know? I think I can safely assume he knows at least enough about it for Nightstick to feel assured that no one could reveal any damaging secrets Corvatz didn’t already know.

He considered his primary adversary of the moment. Nightstick is a prejudiced man, but by no means a stupid one. He would see this as an opportunity to secure official approval for his operation, and he’s obviously already played on Corvatz’s… nationalism, as it were, and his hair-trigger tolerance for perceived threats from out-groups. If he’s telling the truth about Corvatz giving him a blank check to track down assassins, I doubt our leader would be receptive to shutting down the Sandmen. And if he isn’t, he could very well judge that I’ve become a threat—or rather, more of one than I already am to his re-election prospects.

Mortimer saw no reason whatsoever to think Nightstick would have either lied to him about that, or to Corvatz about the Sandmen. Either way, the risks created by having someone else contradict those lies were too great, when measured against what there was for Nightstick to gain or avoid by lying.

So Corvatz almost certainly knew. Again, not a certainty, but it was probable that he knew enough to leave only one scenario where Mortimer saw anything to be gained by confronting their leader about the Sandmen: the vanishingly-unlikely possibility that not only had Nightstick lied to Corvatz about the Sandmen or omitted key details, but that Corvatz would be offended enough by their atrocities to take action even if he was vexed with Nightstick about the lying.

Mortimer came to a decision, reluctantly turned, and began walking back the way he came. He had a nagging suspicion that a purely diplomatic solution wasn’t going to be on the table—no speech or reputation checks to unlock an ideal ending that pleased everyone, or at least everyone who mattered. It was time to come up with a new approach.

It was time to speak with his brother.

·:·:·:·:·:·

Being isolated the way Yuuki was, without even her HUD or the game manual to distract her, left her with uncounted hours to pass. She used the time as well as she was able.

She had brainstormed, prayed, and thought carefully through every tool available to her while locked in a cell and under the effect of «Prisoner» status. From what she could see, her options were few.

At one point she’d discovered through trial and error that some spells still worked. Anything hostile fizzled without any effect, but simple buffs and some other beneficial spells seemed to complete. Without her HUD she couldn’t see the effect icons or her MP pool, but the sounds and visible effects still occurred, for whatever that was worth—her native Dark Magic was overwhelmingly debuffs and other attack magic, which didn’t seem to work at all while she was tagged as a «Prisoner».

Yuuki had to assume that she couldn’t depend on having any of her items or equipment other than the armor she still wore—and possibly not even the stat benefits from her equipped gear; there was no way for her to check. Her sword had automatically unequipped itself when she was first arrested. She couldn’t open her menu or inventory, and anything stashed on her person for quick access during combat—crystals, potions, and other consumables—were stored in pouches or bags that wouldn’t open no matter how hard she pried at them. Getting at any of these things once she was released would be a race for time she didn’t have. She was going to have to improvise.

When Mawari eventually returned to Yuuki’s cell, she was as ready as she thought she was ever going to be.

Yuuki was seated against the back wall, legs drawn up and hugged in front of her with her head resting on her knees. She raised her gaze at the sound of footsteps, but did not rise. She did her best to look listless and resigned, hoping it would put them off-guard.

As near as she could tell it was mostly the same collection of Sandmen who’d helped Mawari interrogate Rei, armed and arranged much the same way: a mage and three men with those queer fork-like polearms. As they filed into the room and took positions outside the cell, Yuuki counted them and took a visual inventory of their equipment, trying not to be obvious about it.

Except Mawari and Mars, everyone is wearing a mix of pretty basic light or medium crafted armor, she thought. It looks well-made and well-maintained. A few parts look like mob drops, some upgraded a little, but nothing special—doesn’t look like anything’s been enchanted. Most of them have those custom polearms, which are pretty poor weapons, but good enough to pin someone in place if they don’t have leverage to push back. She grimaced at the thought; they’d done their job as weapons well enough against Rei.

Mawari smiled slightly when he saw her dismayed expression. He probably thinks it’s because of him. Well, yeah, genius. You’re the Bad Guy.

The Sandman leader glanced to the right only just enough to make the intent of his words clear. “Give me a few minutes.”

The change in behavior made Yuuki even warier than she had been before. The hooded look she gave Mawari must have communicated something of her apprehension. “Try to relax. We’re just going to have a conversation now. Appearances to the contrary, I rather prefer resolving disagreements without any gratuitous… unpleasantness.”

Yuuki chose her words carefully. “You could’ve fooled me.”

“Could have, and did, which is why you are where you are now.” Mawari’s smile was as thin as his humor. “I should not need to remind you that talking is better than the alternative. I suggest you make use of the opportunity.”

Yuuki got to her feet with slow caution, and crossed her arms defiantly. “Whatever. You’ve done nothing to make me think you’re anything but a butcher. You’re being nice now ‘cause you want something, but we both know there’s a threat behind the polite mask.”

Mawari chuckled and shook his head. “Of course there is, Yuuki. That’s how authority and the well-maintained order of society work . Without the threat of consequences, rules are nothing but words—and carry just as much weight, for those who choose not to hear them. That threat may be implied or unspoken behind the smile of the friendliest neighborhood law enforcement officer, but it is always there.”

The hypocrisy was too much for Yuuki to hold her tongue. “Are you kidding me? Like you actually care about any of those things? You’ve got a lotta nerve, considering what you and your Sandmen do to people.”

“Most of the players we take will live to see the end of the game, safer than they would be anywhere else—and most are doing something more useful with the time than they otherwise would’ve done. How many has Rei killed, Yuuki? How many have you ?”

“Nobody!” Yuuki said far more loudly than necessary, deeply offended. On some level she could tell that she was being baited, but the anger felt righteous, correct. “I’ve never killed anyone, and I never would!”

Mawari gave a thoughtful look at her outburst. “Yes, about that. I spoke with the others at length about last night’s incident. Taken all together, a rather curious picture emerged. The Sandmen who fought the two of you were unanimous about one detail: Rei went out of her way to strike killing blows, and you did everything you could to avoid doing so.”

His stare was uncomfortably direct and piercing, but Yuuki forced herself not to look away. “Disabling strikes like that require great precision, and put you at a significant disadvantage in combat. This tells me two things, Yuuki: one, that you are incredibly dangerous—probably far moreso than Rei. And two, that you have an aversion to killing so strong that it restrains you even in a fight for your life.” A pause. “Help me understand that one.”

She didn’t even have to think about her response. “Killing is wrong. Even if they’re criminals and murderers themselves.”

The leader of the Sandmen barked out a laugh. “If you feel so strongly about that, you might want to consider having a word with your sister. She and her friends seem to disagree with your quaint little patch of moral certainty.”

Mawari could not have possibly known about Aiko. Yuuki was as certain as could be that he was just making an assumption—understandable, erroneous though it was—that she and Rei were family. A detached part of her could easily see how someone would get that impression from the two of them.

None of that mattered in the moment. 

”Rei isn’t my sister!” Yuuki yelled, surging towards the front of the cell before stopping herself. “I had a sister, a real sister, but she’s dead because of Gitou and one of his pals!” She was furious, and as much as she was trying to restrain her temper, she couldn’t make herself hold back. “You care so much about law and order, and hate people who do whatever they want as soon as no one’s looking over their shoulder? Maybe you should start with your own stupid guild of kidnappers and perverts!”

One of Mawari’s dark red eyebrows raised just a little, and that slight smile of his reappeared. “Well, that answers at least one question,” he remarked mildly. “Was that why you went to Rei and her network for help killing Gitou? To get justice for your sister?”

He could not have chosen a better word to get her to respond. “I didn’t want Gitou killed! Justice is what I wanted, and those aren’t the same thing!” She scowled and folded her arms across her breastplate again, trying to force herself to calm down. “But you wouldn’t know justice if it bit you on your big fat nose. You don’t care about that any more than Mortimer did, you’re just trying to get me to tell you stuff. It’s not gonna work this time.”

The put-on expression of gentle affability on Mawari’s face froze in place. “I beg your pardon,” he said after a moment. “Would you mind repeating that for me?”

“What? That you don’t care—”

“No,” Mawari said, cutting her off sharply; his voice suddenly carried dagger edges. “About Mortimer. Tell me what you meant by that. Was he here?”

Too late, Yuuki realized what it was that she’d said—and what the implications were of Mawari’s reaction. The watchman’s eyes briefly narrowed to slits, and he took a step back from the bars. “He was, wasn’t he? But he didn’t care, you say… you had time to talk, clearly, and you asked him for help, but for some reason you think he wasn’t sympathetic. That’s rather unlike him.”

Yuuki’s lips thinned and her expression closed up, but the damage was apparently done. With a sudden snap of Mawari’s fingers, the same handful of Sandmen came jogging into the hall from the western doorway.

“Get her processed immediately!” Mawari practically spat the words out, opening his menu and giving it a rapid set of taps as soon as the mage he’d called Mars was in place with his hands raised. She had just enough time to see Mawari turn and push hastily past the other Sandmen before a Wall of Earth rose up to block her view.

A system notification popped up, but she didn’t have to read it to know that combat had been re-enabled in the area. Next she heard the door to her cell unlock, and at almost the same moment, her HUD reappeared in full.

Yuuki saw immediately that she and Rei were no longer partied. The absence of Rei’s name near the top of her view hit like a gut punch; she couldn’t imagine what might have induced the other Imp to willingly drop the party they’d been in. She supposed it was possible the system had done that automatically when they were jailed the same way it had unequipped her sword; maybe you weren’t allowed to be in a party when you were a prisoner.

The thought shifted her gaze to the place beside her status bar where her active effects were shown. The icon indicating «Prisoner» status was the only one present, and when her gaze lingered, the context window counted down the time remaining on that system protection with tenth-second precision.

The shocking suddenness of Mawari’s about-face had taken Yuuki by surprise, but she’d spent hours thinking about this eventuality. planning for what she would do as best as she could. She had her HUD back, but still couldn’t seem to open her menu to equip anything or try to send a PM; when her fingers plucked at the pouch containing the precious Invisibility potion that Rei had given her, the flap remained as impenetrable as if it had been stitched permanently shut. 

So much for going invis or using an Escape Crystal, Yuuki thought. No weapons or items until I get out of here . But ordinary buffs seemed to work before in this cell—they should still work now .

The word yatamnazul took only a few moments to recall, and she hoped she’d gotten it right; it wasn’t a spell that she used often, but it might just save her life here and now. The jail was a place of deathly quiet; the Sandmen would hear her speak and know that she was casting something , but she whispered the words all the same, and tried to draw comfort from the feeling of the spell effect washing over her. Once she was buffed, she stretched out her hand before her, and intoned a second spell almost as quietly. “ Yatto famudrokke tamzul dweren.

Defensive Shield fixed in place, Yuuki stepped a little to one side and waited for her moment.

The Earthwall disintegrated with a sandy hiss. As before, a sizzling greenish-black projectile came streaking through the cloud of evaporating particles, and splashed across the inky disc of her shield. Faint and translucent from this side, she knew it would appear as an impenetrable circle of absolute blackness from the perspective of the Sandmen—and block them or their spells from targeting her or entering the cell.

The Defensive Shield was persistent, not maintained; while she didn’t have to physically hold her hand out or spend ongoing MP to sustain it, it would only absorb a fixed amount of spell energy before expiring. It didn’t have to—it just needed to buy her a few seconds. She used that time to quickly re-equip her weapon, bringing the reassuring weight of Penitent Wrath into one hand. The other slipped into the pouch containing the Invisibility potion just as she heard chanting from the other side of the shield.

Hitto mezal chame jan!

Yuuki had heard spells in the same pattern before; she knew roughly what was coming. Before she could withdraw the potion or any other aid, a rapid barrage of Fire projectiles shot through the open cell door and impacted the persistent shield of elemental darkness. The first few extinguished harmlessly against the arcane barrier, but eventually that defense succumbed; a final projectile burst through the dispersing energy of the shield and became a black scorch mark on the back wall of the cell.

Yuuki was already moving as the next spell barrage barely missed her, and she homed in on the sounds of spellcasting and alarm from her captors. To her consternation, they weren’t all piling into the room to try to overwhelm her the way she’d expected—instead they were holding position just outside the cell, polearms at ready; the mage they had with them was winding up another spell. Her persistent shield was on cooldown; she’d used the highest magnitude she had for it so that it could absorb as much as possible. That still left her with the maintained version, which she brought up in her free hand to block whatever was coming next.

The spell wasn’t aimed at her—at least, not directly. It completely missed her Defensive Shield, its trajectory angled towards the back wall. The Wind AOE exploded there and struck her from behind and one side, sending her flying towards the front bars of the cell, which she struck with stunning force. It was barely a scratch in terms of raw damage numbers, but the knockback effect from the Wind blast had done its intended work.

The Sandmen did not waste the opening. Before she could finish picking herself up off the ground, Yuuki heard more spellcasting, and all the strength left her body at once as the Paralysis effect hit her at point blank range. She cried out, trying to hold back a wave of panic at this sensation; it was entirely too much like the feeling of chronic weakness in her real body at its worst—every movement felt like a Herculean task; even the act of keeping her grip on her sword felt like it required impossible effort. Her knees buckled beneath her, and steel clattered against stone as the leather-wrapped grip of Penitent Wrath slipped from once-strong fingers that had become as weak as twigs. The feel of the cold stone was discordantly soothing on her cheek.

Yuuki had known that her chances of resisting the initial attacks were slim. She’d done what she could to stack the deck in her favor, but she was confined in a small space that her captors could pelt with as many AOEs as they liked. She still had to fight against despair, and against the claws and teeth of the panic attack that tore at her sanity, urging her to fruitlessly thrash and scream and resist with every fiber of her being. She needed to focus.

Knowing what was coming next didn’t make it any easier—nor did the Silence debuff that robbed her of her voice moments later. She felt herself being flipped onto her back, and there was a burning numbness in her shoulders as the tines of both polearms pierced and restrained her. Without warning, Kaisar’s axe took off her right hand, nearly sending her into hysterics and flashing her briefly, painfully, back to the moment when Gitou had done the same to her. She saw the severed portion disintegrate into a cloud of blue fireflies out of the corner of her eye, willing herself to concentrate on nothing but her status bar, its reassuringly-green HP gauge, and the icons beside it. The focus helped distance her from the horror of what was happening, but it was also necessary for another, far more important reason.

The Sandmen were efficiently brutal, and brutally efficient; the memories of what they’d done to Rei—again and again—were burned into Yuuki. They had a well-oiled system—a sequence of practiced actions and specific spells that they performed almost robotically, so relentlessly had they apparently drilled at it. It made processing —to use Mawari’s dehumanizing euphemism for the dismemberment of their victims—quick and effective.

It also made it predictable.

Yuuki was not a mage, but like most Imps, she still made heavy use of Dark Magic debuffs when she could. And although she didn’t have Wind or Earth and thus couldn’t combine either with Dark to cast Paralysis, she was intimately familiar with the parameters of Silence, and knew what its incantations sounded like.

Like most veteran spellcasters who needed to chain spell effects to last as long as possible, the Sandmen had always started with their lowest-magnitude debuffs and worked their way up. It was a tried-and-true approach to getting the most out of all the magnitudes a caster could use for a given spell. Without an Imp’s racial advantage, she knew for a fact that the lowest-magnitude Silence debuff they could cast would have a base duration of 9 seconds.

However, as an Imp, Yuuki had another racial advantage: an innate 25% base resistance to Dark Magic, which she’d further buffed with her highest Resist Dark spell moments before the battle—bringing her final resistance to that element, including gear, to over 60%. She’d been unlucky in failing to outright resist either debuff, but her high resists also translated into a straight reduction to the duration of any Dark-based debuffs.

The Paralysis disappeared before the particles from her destroyed arm had finished evaporating; the icon had been blinking almost as soon as it landed. Two of the Sandmen transferred the points of their polearms to her legs, pinning them in place; Kaisar’s axe descended on her left leg, and she tried to ignore the thudding impact and the awful, numb feeling when it bit. Although he’d struck at an unarmored spot, her HP pool was so high that the axe didn’t do nearly enough to cause «dismemberment», leaving only a glowing red mark on her leggings and a chiming decrement to her HP bar. With a frustrated look, he shifted his point of aim to her ankle, which—being a much smaller percentage of her avatar’s volume—would require far less damage to disable.

The flashing Silence icon vanished; she grunted audibly with the blow that followed.

Kaisar glanced over at Mars with a scowl, hefting the axe as he prepared to deal with her other leg. “Hey dipshit, mind getting your spells to stick around? This one must have a stupid amount of HP.”

“What are you talking about? I used—”

·:·:·:·:·:·

There—

The alert caught Yui’s notice immediately; it was one of several monitors the Eldest had set to watch for high-priority events. Most players and Navi-Pixies were entering the dormant portion of their days, and Kirito was not imminently in combat; she had more than sufficient system resources available to observe the distraction.

“Show me Yuuki .”

·:·:·:·:·:·

“—the same Magnitude as I always—”

As the heads of the three Salamanders working on her turned towards the mage’s voice, Yuuki’s focus narrowed, their movements seeming to slow for her, almost waiting for her to consciously acknowledge the fact that they’d happened. With perfect clarity, she could see the moment when all three Sandmen were distracted, their eyes averted and the two at her sides leaning off-balance on their glorified pitchforks. A feeling of soaring euphoria took her in its wings; there was a roar in her ears that was not a sound, and a sense of nonexistent hairs standing up across the surface of her avatar’s skin—and a deep, deep state of concentration that was almost painful, stretching the moment beyond reality.

Into that moment, she whispered two of the most important words that had ever passed her lips.

Zu yasun.

There had been no opportunity for Yuuki to re-equip her «Battle Healing» skill, a mostly-passive ability that primarily served to accelerate her in-combat health regen to the much-higher out-of-combat levels. It meant that she wasn’t going to be anywhere near as tanky as she usually was… but it also meant that she still had a healing spell at her fingertips, and the Sandmen had left her a free hand with which to cast it. The basic caster-only heal barely restored any HP, but any healing magic was apparently enough to bring back the hand and foot that she’d lost.

The moment came and went, and events blossomed into action with startling rapidity.

Before the Sandmen could react, Yuuki reached down and grabbed the shafts of both polearms that were stuck into her legs, and yanked them together hard . With all the force of a clearer’s STR stat behind the pull, her position of weak leverage mattered little. The two Sandmen pinning her in place smashed into each other with matching cries, falling backwards in a raucous clatter of steel and an alarming amount of raw collision damage.

Yuuki wrenched one of the short polearms free and reversed it, planting the butt in the ground just as Kaisar’s axe came down in an overhead chop. The two weapons rang as the forked polearm caught the shaft of the axe, and Yuuki rolled to one side just as the heavy weapon shattered the fragile tines of the lighter one, and crashed into the stone floor with little pause. Penitent Wrath glimmered in the torchlight only a few meters away; she leapt from the cloud of dispersing particles left by the broken shaft, dodging a spell projectile from Mars in the process, and scooped her sword off the ground in one blurred motion that brought her rolling back up to her feet.

The song of a blade cleaving air with system-assisted velocity brought Yuuki’s weapon up and over her shoulder to meet it with a shower of blue sparks; some clash damage bled through, but the deflection caused the gleaming crescent edge of the axe to skip up and past the top of her head. Without knowing what technique Kaisar had just used, Yuuki had no way of judging the freeze time, but as her own parry had been freehand, she had none. She took full advantage of the opening, delivering a slash across the belly as she pivoted to face her attacker, then ducking and running nearly the entire length of her sword through the Sandman’s brigantine torso armor. Eyes wide, he gave a surprised, throaty grunt as the force of the blow lifted him briefly off the floor.

In her peripheral vision, Yuuki saw the two Sandmen she’d knocked down getting back to their feet. One had a polearm back in hand; the other was frantically working in his menu, having apparently decided that a weapon intended to do low damage wasn’t ideal for facing a dangerous opponent in a cramped space. Yuuki put one shiny black boot firmly where her sword had just been, sending Kaisar flying backwards off of the blade, and did a quick fake-out to one side to draw a parry from her other armed foe.

He took the bait and tried to pin her with the tines before she could complete her attack; instead he found himself thrusting the weapon—and himself—awkwardly up into the empty space between her and Kaisar. She grabbed the shaft of the polearm with her left hand as it went past and gave it a sharp tug; the Sandman yelped as he spawled off-balance to the floor, feet scrabbling and arms flailing as he held on to the weapon just a moment too long. Rewarded with a free second of breathing room, Yuuki assessed where everyone was and quickly incanted a spell that Rei had taught her. “ Yakke juminu min!

Rather than firing off a projectile the way she was used to it doing, the modified spell instead sent the energy down her sword arm and into Penitent Wrath . A flick of the wrist struck a glancing blow on Kaisar as he lunged at her again; black flames covered his eyes. Bellowing and stumbling, he swung the axe blindly around him, almost more of a threat from the unpredictability of his wild swings. The heavy technique she used as an attempted parry and counterattack drew glowing lines across his armored chest, and she watched in horror as he combusted into a Remain Light almost instantly from overkill damage.

How? His health was still green; there’s no way that one tech should’ve been able to kill someone of our level—

The Sandmen weren’t clearers. Yuuki had known that, and she knew that the damage you had to do to a limb to take it off was dependent on a player’s total HP… but it still hadn’t occurred to her to wonder why she’d had such an easy time of disabling them before, even with her stats and gear.

“Mawari!” shouted Mars, the desperation in his voice pulling Yuuki’s focus away from the churning red flames in front of her. “Trigger! Anyone! Oh shit oh shit ahhh hitto yojikke tovs —”

There was a polearm dropped at her feet; Yuuki scooped it up and chucked it at the mage like a javelin. The spell incantation cut off with a squeak of alarm as Mars dove out of the way of a glimmering steel blur that had no business being where it was. The two other Sandmen in the processing crew leapt to either side of the improvised projectile as it hurtled past, but the one with no weapon had free hands to cast, and did so while he recovered his footing.

Yuuki knew there was no way she was going to entirely evade the barrage of projectiles, and gritted her teeth against the trio of burning impacts as she charged the two men directly, trying to tank and ignore the HP loss. The unnamed caster howled as Yuuki’s blade flashed; he staggered backwards with glowing particles trailing from twin arm stumps. The other man struck Yuuki heavily across the shoulder with his greatsword, and followed up to press her and her now-yellow HP so fiercely that she couldn’t afford to hold back anymore.

She felt like another piece of herself was dying inside when he, too, was replaced by a gravestone of crimson flames.

The sudden silence was stark. Blade held out defensively, Yuuki whipped her head around to see who was left, every sense alight. The Sandman with no forearms was backing into the furthest corner of the cell from her, and as his shock wore off he began shrieking for help in a gibbering panic; she cut him off with a curtly-incanted Silence spell. Two Remain Lights burned accusingly at her, and as she brought her gaze back to the door of the cell, only one terrified set of eyes looked back.

For just a moment. Then Mars turned and fled the room as fast as he could run.

Yuuki was right on his heels, and much faster even without using her wings. She caught up to him in the hallway just beyond, and when he heard her footsteps behind him, he half-turned to look over his shoulder, gave a cry, and lost his footing. “No no no, please don’t please come on don’t I didn’t—”

Yuuki grabbed the mage by the robes near his collar, and hauled him to his feet in front of her. “Get back in there and rez them!”

Whatever he’d expected, what she said and did just then must have been very last on his list of expectations, ranking somewhere just behind bringing him tea service. Mars stared back at her in stunned silence, slack-jawed. Yuuki shook him as if trying to dislodge loose change. “I said go rez them !

Precious seconds ticked by before Mars answered, voice small. “I don’t want to.”

A system message popped up for Yuuki, warning her that she was beginning to violate another player’s personal space; she dropped Mars as he slumped against a wall. The two of them stared at each other. “I don’t want to,” he repeated, still nearly at a whisper. “If you want this whole thing to stop, just let them die. Otherwise they’re going to blame me for all of this, and Mawari will—”

At that very moment, Yuuki could not have possibly cared less about what Mawari would do. “Don’t you make me a murderer, you coward!” She grabbed Mars once again by the edge of his robes just long enough to bodily hurl him back into the hall from which they’d come, yelping head over fluttering robes. “Rez them!”

Trying to remember the way out of the jail, Yuuki took the Invisibility potion in hand, and thumbed the cork free.

·:·:·:·:·:·

Kirito tilted his chin upwards, one hand shielding his face from the fine mist that rained down on everyone, and tried to make sense of what he was seeing. If he hadn’t felt the pull of normal gravity in the expected direction keeping his feet on the ground, he could’ve easily been fooled into thinking he was hanging by his feet while a pillar of water plunged into a pool from a great height.

That was more or less what he was seeing—just upside-down, with the torrent flowing against gravity.

Gravity, of course, is whatever the simulation decides it is at any given time. What our bodies feel as gravity is really just acceleration, and the game engine can apply that in any direction. The thought of this impermanence was not necessarily a comforting one, and Kirito only let himself linger on it long enough to provide a much-needed reminder: realistic or not, it’s our reality—it’s real enough , and we have to deal with it.

Before them was a vertical channel of water roughly the diameter of a one-lane traffic circle, flowing upwards in a raging, roaring column. A narrow limestone staircase spiraled ever higher around the wall of the chamber—initially as a passage cut into the side of the wall itself, but eventually the open space began to expand like an inverted cone as it went, the steps of each level resting atop the wall of the last, until the gap between the upwards-surging column and the edge of the steps became wide enough for Burns to take to the air and scout ahead.

The vertical passage was devoid of mobs—the ascent had left the players alone with the rising column of the Elivagar. The raid had been climbing those steps for the better part of half an hour, including the occasional rest stop for the more-encumbered members, but finally they seemed to have reached the summit—and a dead end.

“Right up to the edge,” Burns confirmed, touching down on the steps in front of Kirito and Jahala. “It’s like you’re meant to just keep on walking up the stairs while basically dunking your head into a glowing upside-down pool. Nothing at all sketchy about that.” He glanced over at the inverted waterfall of the Elivagar thundering into the pool, some ten meters or so from the edge of the stairs.

Kirito snorted, but gave the surface above them a thoughtful look. The visual illusion of being upside-down above a body of water was highly disorienting, but more unnerving was the brilliant dance of lights somewhere within those watery depths, barely glimpsed through the white waters rippling out from the upwards fall. It was clear that this great pool above them, into which the Elivagar in its entirety seemed to spill, was more than just a body of water, and that something—or someone—lay beyond.

“The enemy’s gate is down,” said Mentat, to a few knowing chuckles from those who immediately understood the reference.

Most didn’t. When Asuna looked at their healer in mild confusion, Kirito turned to her, but made sure his voice would carry above the watery roar, for those who needed an explanation. “Imagine you’re an astronaut in space, and there’s no real up or down. You have to pick something to be one of those things so that you don’t get disoriented, so you pick the direction you want to go, and call that ‘down’.”

Mentat nodded. “I think the idea was that it’s supposed to be psychologically easier to go down than up. Or something like that.”

Burns eyed the hints of shape and light beyond the surface of the water, frowning. “Yeah, I actually get the ref, and I still don’t think it makes me any happier about walking up through that without knowing what’s on the other side.” He reached up and touched his fingertips to the water, then shook particles of simulated wetness away.

“One of us should do it,” Jentou said. “An Undine, I mean—if there ends up being a strong current or the need to retreat quickly, better someone who can move freely underwater without a buff.” He was already moving up the gentle curve of scalloped limestone steps that formed the stairwell, careful where he placed his feet. “Auras up. Selkie, refresh my reactives and Spiritual Armor; Mako, I’ll want Bracing and Stoneskin.”

But the Undine tank had barely immersed himself to the waist before he stopped there, took a few more steps upwards while seeming to turn in place, and then anticlimactically came walking right back down.

 “That pool’s actually only about a meter deep,” Jentou said, shaking his head quickly to shed as much water as possible. “The immediate area around where I poked my head up looked safe, no cursors popped. Looks like an entranceway for a much-larger area.”

He beckoned the rest of the raid upwards, and after a brief cacophony of buffs, Kirito did the same for his own party.

Even in ALO, Kirito had never had any experience like the feeling of ascending those steps while plunging his head upwards into a body of water—and then having his head break the surface on the other side while his feet were dry and the middle of his body was still submerged. When he mounted the final step and emerged fully from the pool, he immediately noticed two things.

The first was the zone change notification for «Mimisbrunnr».

The second was a buff icon he’d never seen before, a stylized silver icon of an eye with a drop of water as its pupil, set against the blue background of a Water Magic effect. He gave the flashing icon focus just long enough to read «Sip of Wisdom» in the title field, and a four-second countdown. No effect description was listed; the flavor text was a paragraph of what looked to Kirito like Norse poetry rendered in Japanese:

Know ye where Odin left his Eye // within the pure waters of Mimir's Wellspring // Every morning does Mimir drink // from the mead of the Allfather’s pledge

“Everyone else see that?” Kirito asked immediately, taking in the ripple of nodding heads. “Jentou?”

“I see the buff, but—ah. It’s gone now, but I think I saw my MP numbers change when it did.”

“Looked like a twenty percent increase,” Mentat said. “But the numbers started changing, and then it was gone.”

“I’m not sure I liked the sound of the quote at the bottom,” Asuna said. “I’ve heard the story about Odin sacrificing an eye before. That makes it sound like there could be a downside to the power-up.”

“Yeah, I was half-expecting a Blindness debuff,” Xorren said, nodding along straight-faced. “I didn’t see anything, though.”

Kirito rewarded the joke with a weak groan, which seemed to be a consensus reaction. “Asuna’s right, though,” he said. “The active-effect icon didn’t actually say what it does, good or bad. Just because we didn’t notice a debuff doesn’t mean that MP buff doesn’t come with one.”

“We’re in Mimisbrunnr now,” Jentou said. “The zone change doesn’t lie. The fact that there’s some kind of gameplay-relevant effect from the water makes me think it could play a part in whatever boss fight is coming.” Kirito nodded; the same thing had occurred to him.

While they were talking, one of Jentou’s mages had apparently decided to do further testing by stepping back down partially into the pool, and was poking at the air with one finger. “Looks like it’s repeatable,” Mako said, eyes alternating between his menu and his HUD. “Instant buff, just add magic water. No listed duration while I’m standing down here, but as soon as I leave the pool it starts counting down five seconds—flashing of course, like anything else with that little duration left.”

Jentou nodded. “What’s the exact buff?”

“Doesn’t say. Mentat’s right about the increase—sort of. My stats page shows a huge buff to both INT and Max MP that goes up and down on a ratcheting cycle. Peaks at about double for both, then drops to nothing and starts climbing again. I don’t see any debuff to any visible stat, though.”

“That almost worries me more,” Kirito said cautiously. “The game isn’t going to just give us a huge buff like that without some kind of malus.”

“A what?” more than one raid member asked, more or less at the same time.

“A debuff,” said Jentou, obviating the need for Kirito to clarify his foreign-language gaming jargon.

“Right. Or some other kind of disadvantage. The point is, we get a huge buff when we’re in the waters of Mimisbrunnr. That means either there’s a downside to balance it out...”

“Or Kayaba thinks we’re really going to need it,” Jentou finished the obvious with a grim set to his lips, looking around at what little they could see of the new zone.

Kirito suddenly had the urge to use Searching again, but saw no cursors in any direction other than the raid themselves. Burns noticed the color in his eyes, and spoke a now-familiar incantation. “No movement,” he said a few moments later. “But I’m not sure how much I trust that. This place screams ‘Boss Arena’ to me.”

Jentou nodded. “Me too. Let’s keep all of this in mind. For now, though, I want to start making our way around to the other side of the pool. I don’t like the way our backs are up against a stone wall here, or how little visibility we have.”

Jentou wasn’t exaggerating, and Kirito was in full agreement. Between the sheer stone wall at their backs, the massive fountain before them, and the mist to either side, he couldn’t see much else. The walkway around the edge of the pool was barely three meters wide, and from the curve of the edge Kirito estimated the pool—assuming it was a circle—had to be quite large indeed. A glance at his game map confirmed that impression—only the parts within about a meter of where he’d been were unfogged, but from the shape they were cutting through the map’s «Fog of War» effect and the probably-arbitrary compass directions, they seemed to have surfaced at the curved south end of the Wellspring. The stairs they’d ascended had led them up to the very edge like the shallow end of a swimming pool.

The air around where they’d emerged was filled with a cool mist that obscured visibility in every direction, dampening the geometric stone tiles that interlocked in knot-like patterns where they curved their way around the edges of the pool. As the waters of the Elivagar plunged upwards through the channel they’d just climbed, the flow burst through the thin barrier of the pool on the upper side, most of it reaching high into the air like a great fountain before falling just as noisily back to the surface. Thousands of glimmering streams of something that was more than just water split off from that roaring geyser, curving through the air and out of view in a constantly-shifting three-dimensional weave of glowing paths.

Though he wouldn’t have admitted it out loud, Kirito could also swear he could almost feel something—something similar to the gut feeling of being targeted that he’d had sometimes in the field, tugging as faintly as possible at the far reaches of his awareness. It was an instinct that had saved his life more than once, and it had him acutely on edge; he felt himself grip his drawn sword more tightly at the near-certain feeling that something was watching them. Asuna seemed to notice, and gave him a sidewise glance filled with concern.

With no other sign of danger yet, he wasn’t sure how to describe his worries without sounding like a crackpot. He just shook his head and focused more keenly on his surroundings as the two parties followed the narrow walkway.

The pool, as it turned out, was not as perfectly circular as the aperture through which the Elivagar had arrived. Following the rim revealed it to be more of an elongated oval—the shape formed by a pair of circles edge to edge with straight sides where the gaps filled in; the shape of a database in a classic flowchart. The surging fountain of the Elivagar itself lay at one end of the oval, bordered on three sides by walls that arced upwards and slightly inwards, forming a steeple of dark stone veined with glowing traceries of an iridescent pale turquoise. Its height was unknown; the sides disappeared into the mist above the towering geyser.

As they followed one long edge of the pool around to where the walkway opened up into a much broader chamber, they frequently had to hop over—and in some cases, wade across—small tributaries. Most were barely wider than a rain gutter, but a few very nearly qualified as creeks in their own right. More like aqueducts, Kirito thought, eyeing the straight, unnatural edges of those channels. They’re not ruts worn by flow, they’re properly finished—like someone cut neat grooves in the ground and edged them with tiles. He looked for a pattern in the number or spacing of the aqueduct-like channels, but the scale of the pool was so vast that it was hard to tell from ground level.

Every now and then the flows emptied into pools of various sizes, or spilled over straight-edged falls into edges or gaps in the ground. The luminescent veins in the worked stone walls were seemingly fed by many of these, while others ran to the feet of rune-carved, crystal-crowned monoliths rising from the ground in a rough circle on the far side of the pool.

As they approached that stone circle, the roar of the Elivagar faded behind them, yielding to a more rhythmic sound in the background. At first it seemed an irregular cacophony with only accidental synchronicity, but as it grew louder, Kirito realized that it was not one but many instances of the same cyclic, ratcheting pattern—all of them overlapping with each other. For all the alien unreality of the fantastic scenery, this repetitive sound evoked an odd sense of familiarity for Kirito. When he caught Asuna’s eyes in passing, he saw a furrowed, bemused expression on her face. She can’t put her finger on it either, but we both know this from somewhere.

Thun-kata. Thun-kata. Over and over, clear enough now to be distinctive when he listened closely, the intermittent sound of heavy, hollow wood striking an unyielding surface and bouncing slightly, then doing so again after a long pause, the length of which sounded different for each individual source. And something else, too—now and then, faint with distance, the creak of a large metal axle protesting its lot in life, and the faintest dull thud just prior to the louder sound.

“Whatever’s making that noise,” Asuna said, “it’s somewhere out of sight.” She looked away from the long pool of Mimisbrunnr, just past the circle of obelisks towards what looked like a cliff-edge broken by many artificial waterfalls. “Somewhere off in that direction.”

“There’s more than one source,” Kirito said. “If you listen closely, there are slight differences to the big chunky sounds—pitch, direction, and distance. Pick one of them to pay attention to, and you can tell they’re all doing the same thing, just staggered. It’s like someone started a whole bunch of metronomes or clocks, but didn’t start them all at the exact same time.”

Burns pointed towards a canal running along one of the walls, just beyond the stone circle. “I think I see one over there.”

Thun-kata. One cycle among many began again as a hinged cylinder fashioned from a hollowed log began filling with runoff from one of the many tributaries fed from the waters of Mimisbrunnr. The weight of the water eventually shifted the eight-meter-long cylinder’s center of mass from one side of its iron-bolted pivot to the other; it tipped like an imbalanced seesaw towards its open end, and emptied into a funnel that carried the glowing flow out of sight. When enough had emptied to shift the center of gravity back again, the log cylinder pivoted rapidly back into its resting position, the closed and reinforced end thudding heavily into an iron stop with a deep stuttering sound.

“It’s a shishi-odoshi ,” Xorren said suddenly.

The word completed the connection that Kirito’s brain had been struggling to make, and his mouth fell open for a moment. Like many Japanese families, his own had one of the little bamboo rockers in their garden, and the rhythmic sound of the shishi-odoshi repeatedly filling up with water and spilling its contents into a pond after a rainstorm was a familiar, comforting one. The device he was looking at seemed to operate on an identical principle—just on a much-larger scale. And instead of rain runoff, this one fed straight from Mimisbrunnr, and spilled its contents somewhere unknown after each refill cycle.

Kirito traced the path of the water back to the long, luminous pool that he assumed must be the Wellspring itself. It was much easier, now with the benefit of some distance, to see the sinuous paths formed by the thousands of pulsing, glowing streams emerging from the great fountain where the Elivagar became Mimisbrunnr. The sight reminded him of something, but he couldn’t quite give it a name. There was a purposeful dance to the way the airborne streams moved and illuminated, almost a heartbeat of a kind.

Like packets of data through a network switch, Kirito thought. Or the flash of an Ethernet link light. 

While the mages began to refresh buffs and the melee members spread out to search the room, Kirito turned his attention back to the airborne dance of watery tendrils. In places they were as thick as his wrist; in others they were hair-thin, so slight that at this distance they wouldn’t have rendered at all in a normal video game, even at the high resolution of his home PC’s gaming monitor. More still of those conduits—for Kirito was certain that was what they were, in some way—described twisting, spiraling paths upwards and inwards, converging to a point high above the calmer end of the pool.

At the nexus of those many glowing, sparkling threads floated a girl.

Her age was indeterminate but young, younger even than Yuuki; Kirito thought she would’ve fit right in at Sasha’s church. Clothed only in the plain white default dress of an NPC child, the garment and her pale skin contrasted sharply with her hair: straight locks the almost-black of wrought iron, the cut of the front resembling a hime style with long ragged sidelocks, the back fanning out behind her like a cape of carbon-fiber filaments. Her delicate face wore the tranquil nothingness of an NPC as well, and with the air of a watchful administrator, she hovered a dozen meters above the center of the calm end of the pool. Arms outstretched to either side, the floating girl seemed to at once both orchestrate the luminous streams that converged upon her, and depend on them for support.

Kirito realized, suddenly, that she was watching him .

The inhuman weight of that gaze nagged at him with an irrational familiarity that he pushed aside as soon as she began to move, the sudden change causing him to back away slowly while thoughts clicked into place. She’s the one who’s been keeping an eye on us ever since we got here. The watery tendrils that he presumed to be data streams withdrew to give way to the girl, and with a sparkling flare of light from behind her, she manifested a set of insectile wings that began to carry her downwards to the edge of the pool, their flight giving off a faint tinkling sound that tugged at a different memory.

Coming to stand at his side, Burns followed Kirito’s gaze upwards, green-enchanted eyes shifting back to his usual violet as he dropped his Detect Movement spell. “So… yeah. Boss Arena.”

“Probably,” Kirito said, relaxing his stance a bit and lowering his sword arm. “But I don’t think she’s it.”

“You say that.”

Jentou had stepped up to Kirito’s other side; he wasn’t making any moves, but his shield was presented, and the mages were refreshing buffs. Kirito reached out and briefly touched the tank’s armored forearm in a bid for patience. When Jentou nodded to him, Kirito caught Nori’s eye with the same look, and then stepped forward.

The girl’s bare feet touched the ground one by one, lowered the last few meters as gently as a bird alighting a wire-thin branch. She had no cursor, but as soon as her plain dress began to settle from her descent, a nameless white diamond finally appeared above her bowed head, as if its existence had been an afterthought. The dark fringe at her forehead hid all but the thin line of her mouth until she raised her gaze and met Kirito’s with eyes only a shade lighter than her hair, and just as colorless. She didn’t seem so much like a girl as she did a blank canvas on which a girl could’ve been painted.

Like most clearers, Kirito usually kept the game’s BGM turned off; he couldn’t afford the distraction of music in the field, especially when listening for incoming attacks. A few tense moments passed with only the distant roar of the Elivagar’s fountain and the staccato thun-kata of the waterworks for accompaniment, everyone waiting for the other shoe to drop. For ALO to validate every expectation they had of creepy little girls in video games.

For a white cursor to turn red.

The NPC girl suddenly tilted her head slightly to one side, eyes closed and a brilliant, sweet smile suffusing her previously-neutral features. “I’ve been waiting for you and your friends, Kirito. I’m so happy to see you!”

Audible relief came from more than one player at Kirito’s back. Despite his exhaustion and surroundings, he couldn’t help but respond in kind to the girl’s infectious manner; it was so effusively friendly that he was half-expecting her to rush forward and give him a hug. “I have to say, that’s a much warmer reception than I think any of us were expecting in Mimisbrunnr. Who are you?”

The dragonfly-like wings disappeared from the girl’s back with a flutter of golden particles, and she took a moment to look around at the rest of the raid members, expression open and eyes alight. But when she spoke to Kirito once more, her tone took on a certain flatness that he thought he recognized—the not-quite-natural sound of an NPC reciting scripted lines or lore of some kind rather than engaging in conversation. “There are those who call me the Eldest Sister of Mimisbrunnr. Daughter of Mimir, the Warden of the Wellspring. Once a home, this place has been my prison ever since Loki stole the caretaker’s life, corrupting the Wellspring and the secrets of now to his own ends.”

The secrets of now . The phrase brought forth another moment of deja vu , but this time he knew its exact origin. “The Norns said something like that before sending us here,” Kirito said. “That the Norn called «Verdandi» had tried to stop Loki, and failed.”

“My mother.” Eyes briefly downcast, the Eldest then seemed to gaze past the players, off in the direction of the stone circle; it was enough of a hint for Kirito to take note of it. “As he cannot slay her permanently, Loki has instead frozen Verdandi in an eternal now —a moment that never ends. And he will not release her willingly.”

Then her voice became a little more natural again, causing Kirito to almost wonder if he’d imagined the difference. “There’s more that you need to know, but it will have to wait. Loki is still blind to you for now, but he could return at any time.” She paused only long enough to be sure that it was intentional. “Also, your arrival has activated certain triggers that I cannot guarantee he will not hear.”

The last revelation caused a stir across the raid; what weapons were not already drawn returned to hand quickly. Kirito’s was no exception, and he listened carefully for the telltale audio FX of a mob spawn. “What kind of triggers?”

A deep, almost subsonic rumble rose through the floor, a thing of sensation more than sound when set against the noise of casting buffs and battle prep. Kirito whipped his gaze about, looking for the threat. It was only sheer chance that he was looking directly at the Eldest when the water behind her began to violently churn, then burst forth like a miniature representation of the Elivagar blasting through the pool far in the background. As she huddled close to the ground, arms covering her head in a very human reaction, fey lights and secret unrest brought a growing turmoil to the surface. That surface broke with an agonized bellow and a spray of bright droplets in all directions, water fleeing from a misshapen humanoid form of darkness, rage, and ancient power. 

As the headless shape rose from the surging water, towering above them for several times the height of an adult man and crowned by a cursor of deep red wine, the name «Mimisdraugr» appeared above its form, and three quarter-circle strips of fullbright green curled out to one side.