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Fairy Dance of Death

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FDD Cover Image

Author Foreword - 02 Oct 2014

Thank you for your interest in Fairy Dance of Death. It's no coincidence that I originally began posting this story on Nov 6th, 2012—exactly ten years to the day before the canonical launch of Sword Art Online. It seemed an auspicious day to begin a complete "reboot" of the SAO universe.


This is an AU fic starting from the premise that Kayaba was obsessed with fantasy and Norse Mythology rather than swords and melee, and developed ALO rather than SAO, trapping 20,000 players inside the Death Game of Alfheim Online. If you don't know what ALO is, you probably haven't seen past episode 14 of the anime or read the Fairy Dance volumes of SAO—and you probably should do that first in order to get the most out of this story and avoid spoilers, although the story of FDD will progress markedly differently than the SAO or ALO arcs.


Many of the differences between this universe and canon SAO will be shown as the story progresses, but in order to avoid confusion from mismatched expectations, there is one thing I wanted to make clear at the outset: while this fic is set in the world of ALO, it is not the game of ALO that we know from canon. It would be better to describe it—for the most part—as a blend of SAO game mechanics, the setting and races of ALO, and a whole lot of original content.

If you're very familiar with both games and see something that makes you think "that's not how it is in SAO/ALO", just remind yourself that this is an AU fic and that the discrepancy is probably intentional—I take a lot of pride in the amount of excruciatingly detailed research and world-building I do for my writing, and I sincerely hope you will enjoy the result.


The first two Acts of this story were originally posted on between 11/2012 and 8/2014. During that time, Fairy Dance of Death became the second most popular SAO fic on FFN, with thousands of regular readers. I have become increasingly frustrated with FFN's excessive content restrictions, lack of tags or decent formatting options, and draconian filtering of anything that even looks like a URL; after the completion of Act 2, I took a hiatus to work on refining the outline for Act 3—and while I'm at it, work on migrating FDD over to AO3. I haven't decided whether I will eventually stop posting new chapters to FFN, but my long-term intent is to either move the story here, or maintain this as an alternate "multimedia" version of the fic. Please bear with this process.

 Differences from FFN version:

  • Diabel's name is spelled Diavel as in canon.
  • The format of the in-universe date headers at the beginning of each chapter has been adjusted.
  • Wording and small details polished here and there; none of the changes are material.
  • Some typos and factual errors corrected.
  • Planned addition of more media, such as chapter illustrations and an optional "minimap" interface showing where the character(s) are.
  • Most notably, I added this foreword and consolidated several later "short" chapters from my brief experiment with that style so that their length was more consistent with the surrounding chapters. This has had the result of chapter numbers changing from what they were on FFN as follows:
01-17 02-18
18-20 19
21-22 20
23+ FFN -2

I tried to arrange things so that they evened back out for the post-transition chapters, but it just didn't work.

Reference Material and Links:
Home page:
FAQ (very minor spoilers):
Interactive World Map (no spoilers):
Timeline (major unmarked spoiler warning):
TV Tropes page (major unmarked spoiler warning):
Tumblr (minimal spoilers, tagged):
Majutsugo, the Language of Magic:

Chapter Text


 ACT 1: Launch

"Alfheim Online may be a game, but you don't play it—you live it."
—Akihiko Kayaba, interview dated 10/24/22

6 November 2022
Day 1 - Afternoon

With a smile, fourteen year old Kazuto Kirigaya reached across his desk to turn off the television. The sudden silence in the room seemed to echo with half-remembered bits of the newscast, which had been reporting on the launch of the world's first true Virtual Reality MMORPG: Alfheim Online. He'd only been half-listening to it anyway; most of his attention had been focused on his desktop computer as he skimmed social media sites and the Fulldive forums for last-minute information about the game. The only time the news had commanded his full attention was when there was an interview with Akihiko Kayaba—the genius behind the Nerve Gear VR technology and the developer of Alfheim Online.

But the clock said 12:58 PM Japan Standard Time, and that meant he had less than two minutes until he could actually be playing the game.

Kazuto gracefully shut down his computer and gave his room a last once-over, making sure snacks and drinks were by the side of his bed so that he wouldn't have to log out for long when he took breaks for sustenance and basic needs. After one last swig from his water bottle, he sat down on the edge of the bed and picked up the bulky Nerve Gear helmet that would be his brain's interface to the virtual world.

Had Kazuto spent much time thinking about girls rather than video games and advanced computer programming, he might've been embarrassed by the way he ran his hands across the surface of the Nerve Gear, caressing it almost like a lover. But in a way, it was fitting: during the two months he'd been part of the closed beta for ALO, he'd certainly spent far more time wearing that helmet than with his family. After all that time spent in Alfheim, the fairy world of magic and adventure almost felt more real to him than the world in which his body lived and breathed. When he was in that world, he was free—completely unbound from the limitations of the physical world. In Alfheim, all he needed were his wings and a good sword.

It was time. Kazuto slipped the Nerve Gear onto his head, settling back onto his bed and getting comfortable. There was a small digital heads-up display inside the helmet showing vital data like the device's battery life and network connection; it also had a clock. As he watched, the seconds ticked down to 1:00 PM one by one.

At 12:59:59, a final grin of anticipation touched Kazuto's face as he spoke the voice command that initiated the startup sequence, stripping him of any awareness of the outside world and replacing his senses with input from the game engine.

In Japan, one common method for creating pseudonyms was to combine syllables from their given and family names—a method of abbreviation popular for various other phrases as well. So when the system prompted Kazuto for his username, he gave it the same name he used for his character: the first two mora of his family name followed by the last from his given name.

K-I-R-I-T-O, he typed on the holographic keyboard hanging in the air before him in ALO's chargen room, romanized rather than using kana. After entering his password, the game surprised him by prompting him whether or not he wanted to load his beta character data. Kirito had been under the impression that there was going to be a full wipe of the player base after the beta, and it was going to shock him if they actually let him carry over the levels and items he'd gained there.

After a moment of indecision, he accepted the prompt. Depending on how much carried over, it might be a little unfair—but given the nightmarish difficulty curve of the game, any advantage would be welcome. And if nothing else, it would save him the tedious process of selecting a race and customizing his character. Certain hair and skin tones were only available to certain races, but nearly any aspect of facial or body structure could be manipulated to the heart's content within the bounds of that racial archetype.

Early in the beta, Kirito had experimented with a few different races—the Salamander tribe was especially popular due to their prowess with weapons and mastery of fire magic, and he'd been frankly stunned at how many people enjoyed playing the diminutive feline humanoids called Cait Sith. But it hadn't taken him long to discover that he vastly preferred the unpopular Spriggan race for a variety of reasons—not least of which, he admitted to himself a little sheepishly, was that he thought their dark ash-gray skin and predominantly black clothing was really cool.

Sure enough, the game skipped past the giant roulette wheel of the race selection screen and the unthinkable complexity of the character customization. A player could always simply accept a randomly generated appearance, but Kirito couldn't stand that—he'd spent a long time crafting the appearance of his final character, modeling it after one of his favorite manga protagonists.

The chargen room faded to black, and black shifted to the not-quite-black that a person sees with their eyes closed as the murmur of a crowd rose from a distant, hollow sound into something more substantial that surrounded him on all sides.

Kirito opened his eyes, and for the first time in over a month looked upon the virtual game world of Alfheim, staring down at his hands and his avatar's dark-skinned Spriggan body as he stood in the center of a vast plaza. He didn't have a way to see his own face yet, but everything else was exactly as he remembered it, aside from the equipment he wore—which was all the basic default starting gear. He extended the first two fingers of his left hand and drew a vertical stroke in the air, and grunted in satisfaction as the system menu opened with a gentle chiming sound, hanging in the air at around chest height.

A look at his status screen confirmed his suspicions: he was back to a level 1 character, and while he still had the pair of starter spells given to all Spriggans and the first two skills he'd selected, both his spells and skills had been reset to one point out of the thousand it took to master them: complete beginner level. It was going to take months of grinding to get him back where he was before the wipe.

He sighed, but there was no real regret in it—he hadn't expected anything to carry over in the first place, and it had spared him the hour it'd take to try to recreate his character's appearance. That was an hour he could be spending getting a head start on everyone else.

Dismissing his menu with a wave of his hand, Kirito took his first good look around at his surroundings, and started in alarm. He'd expected to spawn in the Spriggan starting city of Penwether, where he'd be surrounded by others of his own faction, but he found himself in the middle of a vast plaza filled with thousands of players from each of the nine races, all of them mingling and marveling at their surroundings. Now and then a flash of colored light would appear in an empty spot somewhere in the plaza, pixels resolving into the spawning avatars of players as they logged in. Towering far above the spires of the city he could see the vast trunk of the world-tree Yggdrasil, in whose roots the city nestled. On an overcast day the branches of the tree would be lost to the clouds above; even on a day of clear blue skies like today the tree canopy was hazy with the kilometers of distance and cast a broad shadow across the land as the sun traveled.

"Welcome, traveler!" The voice came from somewhere behind and to his right; Kirito whirled, startled, and found himself facing an NPC with the glowing question mark of an available quest hanging over her cat-eared head. The amber-haired Cait Sith woman grinned toothily. "Bet you're confused, aren'tcha?"

"A little," Kirito admitted. "I thought I was going to spawn in Penwether like we did in the beta. But this looks like the neutral city of Arun, in the shadow of Yggdrasil itself—and we shouldn't be able to get there yet."

The NPC nodded as the game's natural language processing algorithms parsed his words and decided that he'd responded the right way to trigger the quest. A small icon popped up in his far left peripheral vision; when he tried to focus on it, the quest update window grew in his HUD and explained that this was a tutorial quest—one which Kirito knew hadn't been in the beta. That was a good sign; it suggested that he could expect a lot more new content that hadn't been there before.

"On any other day," the nameless Cait Sith NPC went on, "of course everyone'd begin their adventure in their race's starting city. Today, the High King Oberon has summoned all of you here under a flag of truce to meet your fellow faekin and hear what he has to say."

"Will we get sent back when the event's over?" Kirito asked with some alarm. While there were a few low-level or relatively safe areas around Arun, the trip back to Penwether would be long and incredibly dangerous at level 1. And that was just the danger from mobs—there would also undoubtedly be players from opposing tribes out hunting as well, once this truce was lifted. He'd be frankly shocked if they intended to leave all of the players here.

The catgirl shrugged fluidly, tail twitching. "Got me, buddy—now you know as much as I do. But the High King won't be speaking for hours yet, so I'd say go spend some time making friends and making money. I hear there's been a problem with slimes down in the city sewers, so you might want to ask a guard about that."

On saying this, the quest marker over the NPC's head disappeared. Another update appeared in Kirito's peripheral vision, recapping what the NPC had said and giving him a reminder about the typical-sounding starter quest for killing the slimes. He ignored it for now; it was probably the sort of thing that would reward him a mere handful of Yuld—the game's currency—and a pittance of EXP.

He had some familiarity with the city of Arun already, so it didn't take him long to find an NPC equipment vendor that could outfit him with something better than the starting dagger and black cloak given to his race. For 20 coins he got a basic leather chest guard, and 50 more bought him a bronze one-handed long sword. Here in the shadow of the world-tree, the shop probably sold some incredibly high-end equipment worth thousands or even millions of Yuld—but at level 1, he couldn't even see them in the shop menu anyway.

That would do for the time being, but it nearly wiped out his starting money. He contemplated some food in case he ended up being out hunting for an extended period of time, but decided against it—he was just going to poke his head outside of the city Safe Zone and see if he could find some low-level mobs to grind, get back in the swing of things.

But first, to see if he still had what it took to fly. Until this point, the glistening black translucent wings that hung from his back during flight had been absent. Now they appeared at need as Kirito tried to remember what it had felt like to train himself to use Voluntary Flight, imagining that he could feel the wings growing from his back and getting them to respond to specific muscle movements. It took a few twitches and false starts, but it was like riding a bicycle: a little tough to get at first, but once you did, you never really forgot. In moments he heard the familiar deep thrumming sound of his wings beating, shining iridescently with the stored power of the sunlight that allowed him to fly.

Kirito crouched, tensed, and kicked off the ground.

It all came flooding back to him in a rush of exhilaration: the endless hours and days spent in this game, fighting and flying and fighting and flying and flying some more. He looped a few times, swooped past an NPC vendor while doing a barrel roll, and wove through the columns surrounding the plaza before shooting back out into the open air at the center.

"Hey there, flyboy!"

The flippant call caught Kirito off-guard, distracting him as he looked around for the voice. He swerved to narrowly avoid a pair of Undines in blue mage robes, and ended up bouncing off one of the large animal statues dotting the plaza. He landed in a tumbling, undignified heap, annoyed but grateful at least to be in a Safe Zone and not to have taken falling damage from the crash. As he sat up and rubbed his head, a lanky Salamander with a garish striped bandana wrapped around his shock of red hair jogged up to him and crouched nearby. "Hey, sorry about that. You okay?"

"I'm fine," Kirito grumbled, looking the Salamander up and down warily. The kinds of players who gravitated towards Salamanders tended to be aggressive, and more often than not they'd been a real threat. He was in no danger here in the city, but he felt the need for caution nonetheless.

Seeming to catch the look, the Salamander held up both hands, palms-out. "Don't worry, I'm not sizing you up for a PK or anything—I don't play like that. I was actually hoping you could help me out."

"Help you?" Kirito said in surprise. "No offense, but… you know this is a PvP game, right?"

"Well, sure, but there's nothing says we can't work together too—I read that there were lots of mixed-race parties and guilds in the beta. That's why I tried to get your attention, actually. I thought to myself: 'Klein, my boy, that guy there was a beta tester. That's the only way he could be flying around so naturally like that.' You were, weren't you?"

Kirito turned away, still watching the Salamander out of the corner of his eye. "Um, maybe. Why?"

Klein put his palms together before him and bowed deeply. "I'm begging you to take pity on a poor newbie and teach me how to play this game!"

Kirito's jaw dropped. It was true: there was no rule preventing players of different races from cooperating. Races could even be officially allied if their elected leaders were on friendly terms, and it wasn't particularly uncommon for different races to party together if they weren't at war. But although there were plenty of mobs and bosses for PvE play, ALO had been designed from the beginning with player-versus-player combat in mind, and the game mechanics and long-term quests of the game had made most of the factions neutral to each other at best.

Moreover, Salamander players had had something of a reputation in the beta. Because of their racial advantages with weapons handling and fire magic, they were very popular with aggressive players who enjoyed PvP combat—and more than a few griefers as well. But there was something completely earnest about Klein's entreaty that made it hard to suspect him of ulterior motives, and Kirito knew from experience what he must be going through as he acclimated to the virtual environment and game system.

"All right," Kirito said finally, trying for a smile. "First thing you're going to want to do is learn how to fly." 

Quickly setting aside her confusion at being dropped in Arun after listening to the NPC's speech, Argo wasted no time at all. Her inside information had been accurate up to this point; the game had allowed her to import her Cait Sith character data from the beta and skip the time she would've spent in chargen, and the rumors of a special world event appeared to be true. Her source hadn't said anything about everyone spawning in the city of Arun, but she wasn't about to argue—it would make it much easier to make contact with all of her previous contacts from the beta who'd been lucky enough to get one of the 20,000 copies of ALO from the first printing.

She had at least thirty names of people who'd emailed her before logging in to tell her the character name they'd planned on using, and most of them planned to roll characters of the same race as before. It wasn't worth fretting over the fact that the production version of ALO lacked an in-game web browser or any other way of contacting the outside world—that might bother some people who depended on being able to look up FAQs and guides while they were playing, but Argo had been blessed with an encyclopedic memory that let her recall just about any word or phrase that she'd seen or heard at least once. It wasn't eidetic memory—to her chagrin, she couldn't imprint images or memories or anything else the same way; it would've greatly expanded her ability to act as an information broker—but words stuck, and so did information if she read it or heard it aloud.

Sitting on a bench in one of Arun's major traffic areas and chewing on a broad peppermint-flavored leaf, her large mobile cat ears twitched to track passing conversations with half of her attention while she manipulated her game menu in front of her, rapidly tapping out messages to her contacts and adding them to her friends list when she got an affirmative response.

"Come on, Ki-bou," she muttered after sending a reply to one of her Imp contacts, her tail lashing in mild annoyance. "I know you're here. You could take five seconds to answer me."

Swiping her menu closed, she hopped off of the bench and jogged off towards the central plaza at the foot of the World Tree. She received several new-message notifications in the time it took her to reach her destination, but for the moment she ignored them, looking around for the player she needed to meet. So many players of the same races looked alike when they were all wearing starting equipment, but the sharp eyesight of the Cait Sith race let her pick out her quarry quickly enough—he was one of the very few dark-haired Sylphs she'd seen yet.

"What took you so long, Skarrip?" Argo planted her hands on her hips, trying to look severe. Between the inherent cuteness of the Cait Sith race and her own diminutive stature, it didn't quite have the desired effect. Skarrip favored her with a bemused smile and arched an eyebrow.

"You'll forgive me of course for having real-life obligations. I'm here now, though."

"Real life? What's this riaru you're talking about?" Despite her impatience, Argo had a hard time being too angry at Skarrip. He had always been one of her best inside sources in the beta, and was downright obsessive on the subject of ALO's aesthetics and game mechanics. When he shrugged at her rhetorical question, she made a small fu sound, a vocalized puff of air. "Well anyway, spill. What've you got on this world event?"

Skarrip shrugged again. "The High King Oberon—"

"You mean a GM playing him."

He continued as if she hadn't interrupted. "—Is supposed to appear at five-thirty for a special announcement. Everyone needs to be there for it."

Argo's tail lashed in a figure eight. "I got that much from the catgirl NPC. What've you got that's news?"

"If I could tell you anything else, my dear," Skarrip said with splayed hands, "I assure you I would 'spill'. Do bear in mind that my job has a confidentiality clause."

"That you regularly break on my behalf."

"A fact which you'd do well not to speak too loudly if you want me to remain in a position to help you."

Argo paced in a circle around her contact—it wasn't quite accurate to call him a friend—stopping as he said this and poking him a few times in the small of the back. Skarrip didn't turn except to cant his head in her direction whenever she came about, still wearing that infuriating smile. "You're hiiiiding something," she said, drawing out the verb slowly into a nasal sound.

"And so I am. Aren't we all?"

Returning to face him from the front, Argo crossed her arms in front of her chest and added foot-tapping to her repertoire of impatient gestures. "I don't have time for your games today," she said finally. "I have a network to rebuild. Let me know when you can tell me something useful, hm?"

Skarrip inclined his head, a few locks of dark violet-black hair drifting with the motion. "I shall do just that. Your abrasive personality quirks aside, it's nice to see you again, Argo."

"Meh," she said, hiding a brief smile. "I got stuff to do. Send me a message once in a while."

Trotting away from Skarrip and the irritating enigmatic attitude he liked to put on, Argo drew open her menu and began replying to the messages that had accumulated while she was wasting time with him. Over the course of many conversations during the beta, she had narrowed him down to one of two or three people affiliated in some way with Argus. It was possible he was one of the company's social media organizers or bloggers, but based on his name and in-game racial preference she was leaning strongly towards the opinion that he was the lead artist for the Sylph race, Rintarou Sukagawa—someone who was known to be a player himself, but whose actual character was unknown.

Like her other Argus contacts, he frequently came up with some particularly juicy insider info, which made him useful—but just as often he had a habit of putting on airs and pretending that he was more important than he really was.

She could smell it a kilometer away when he was bullshitting, and today was one of those days—he didn't know anything of worth about the supposed opening day event, or else he would've sold the info to her.

"Excuse me," said a female voice as someone tugged on the hem of Argo's cloak. Startled, she hopped in place and whirled around, tail slashing the air. A slender Undine girl in the usual starting gear was standing there looking horribly embarrassed and hopelessly confused, shifting from one foot to the other as she stared around at everything as if it was the most bewildering thing she'd ever seen.

"I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm incredibly lost and you look like you know what you're doing." She tugged nervously at one of the locks of long blue hair that spilled over her shoulders.

"That's not all I know," Argo said smugly. "Argo's the name, and you've come to the right person if you're looking for info. What'cha need?"

"Well, it's just… this is my first time in the game—any game, really—and I've never done anything like this before. What do you do here?"

Argo boggled at the question, her petite jaw hanging open for a moment and revealing tiny, needle-like fangs before she shut it with a clapping sound. "You're kidding, right?"

"I wish I was," the girl said with building embarrassment, the pale skin of her cheeks darkening as she looked down at her feet. "This is my older brother's game, but he had to leave suddenly for a business trip yesterday. I was curious what all the fuss was about, and fairies sounded kind of neat—so I decided to try it out."

It was too much. Argo doubled over in high-pitched laughter, drawing stares from passers-by which only increased the Undine girl's discomfort. "Sorry, sorry, sorry. So lemme get this straight. You're borrowing your brother's Nerve Gear, you've never played a video game before, and you decided to login to ALO of all things?"

"I've played some games before," the girl said a little defensively, brows furrowing and eyes flashing in a way that hinted at a temper lurking somewhere under the surface.

"Like what?" Argo asked, finally recovering her composure.

"Well," she said, reaching reflexively to where her pocket might've been if she'd been in her own skin and clothes. "I've got a bunch of them on my smartphone. I really like the one where you have to knock down the dancing inugami with flying cats."

Argo lost it again. 

"Piikei?" Asuna said finally, face contorting in even further confusion at the lengthy explanation. "I've never heard the word before. What does it mean?"

"P, K," Argo replied, sounding out the Latin letters slowly and separately, then repeating the English words they stood for. "As in Player Killing. It means attacking another player and reducing their hit points—their life—to zero. Did you even read the manual?"

Asuna shifted uncomfortably, feeling incredibly stupid. It was not a feeling she was accustomed to, and she didn't like it one bit. This world of magic and fairies was starting to rapidly lose its luster for her. "There's a manual?"

"Oh for—" Argo stopped abruptly, and sighed, looking up at the much taller girl through a messy veil of auburn bangs. "Okay, listen. I don't make a habit of giving out information for free, but you're a complete noob and I'd hate to see you get ganked on your first day. So here's how it works. When you created your character, you saw there are nine races, right?" Asuna nodded. "Each race is competing with the others to clear the huge dungeon in the trunk of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. The first race that makes it to the top gets an audience with King Oberon, who's supposed to allow them and two of their allies to… ascend, you could call it, into a higher form that has the power of unlimited flight."

"Unlimited flight?" Asuna had heard that players could fly in the game, but didn't really know anything about how it worked yet. Once again she kicked herself for not reading the manual—or for that matter, knowing that there was one in the first place.

"Yup," Argo said happily. "Flying is awesome and everyone loves it, but you can only fly for about ten minutes max before you have to rest your wings—and you can't fly underground or in dungeons. So getting to the top of the World Tree is kinda like the game's grand quest."

Asuna pursed her lips, thinking. "So what did you mean about… PKing?"

"Well," Argo said as if she was explaining gravity to a child, "only one race can win an audience with the High King, right? And they can choose two allied races to go with them. So…"

"So it means every race is competing with every other," Asuna interjected, pleased that she'd been able to figure it out before it was explained to her. "Wait, that means the game's all about fighting each other? Not against monsters?"

"Sorta," Argo said. "It's a PvP game—err, player versus player—but there are plenty of monsters to fight. In fact, that's the main way you earn EXP and level up."


Argo sighed again, palm sliding across her face. At that moment she seemed to react to something Asuna couldn't see, her eyes drifting off to her left, and she muttered under her breath. "Well it's about time, Ki-bou." Looking up at Asuna again, the catlike girl said, "tell you what. You know how to open your menu, right? Go into Options. Look for Help. And RTFM."

Asuna started to open her mouth to ask what RTFM was, but Argo interrupted irritably with the English words: "Read The… Friendly Manual." Then, back to Japanese: "Gotta go. Good luck!"

As the catgirl who'd identified herself as Argo ran off, Asuna realized she'd been terribly rude and had neither introduced herself nor thanked the girl for her help. With a sigh of her own, she gazed up at the impossibly massive tree that towered above the city, her eyes traveling up and up until they strained to make out the twisted, gnarled forms of the lowest branches, which were nearly lost in the haze of distance and the sparse clouds that drifted across the sky. Faintly, far above even those branches, she could see what looked like a collection of structures—what might've been a city, or a castle, or something. At that distance, it was hard to tell.

It was a lot to take in all at once for someone who'd never played an MMO before, let alone the world's first VRMMORPG. She knew she'd be wise to take Argo's advice and study the manual as if she were cramming for her entrance exams, if she wanted to get anywhere in this game.

The thought struck her as funny. An hour ago, she hadn't had the slightest idea what to expect, other than that it was some kind of "virtual reality" game and that it was a world of fairies and magic—and a bunch of other stuff her brother had rambled about without explaining the acronyms or strange terms. She'd just logged in to try it out and see what he was so obsessed about, and here she was thinking about cramming to learn how to play as if she had any intention of doing so.

She giggled furiously, and didn't care now who gave her odd looks. Now that some of her desperate confusion was gone, she could go back to the sense of wonder she'd felt when she first logged in, marveling at the sights, sounds, smells—and the fact that there were sights, sounds and smells at all in this virtual world. It was nothing short of a technological miracle that her body—her avatar, she'd heard it called—could actually sense these things as if it was her real body, in the flesh.

It was magnificent. At that point, she was just as happy to leave silly obsessions like fighting other players and adventuring to the top of the World Tree to the gamer geeks who actually enjoyed that sort of thing. She could be content just walking around in this world and being immersed in and amazed at it.

Asuna laughed beautifully as she spun in place, dancing in a little circle with her arms held up as if they could touch the sky. In that moment, she was happier than she could remember being in a long time. 

Kirito had made it look easy, but he'd had the advantage of hundreds of hours spent in Full Dive during the beta test. Klein, on the other hand, had to begin with the much less intuitive "joystick" method, which involved a virtual controller gripped in the left hand that allowed fine control over the player's flight. Many players never got the knack of using their back muscles to control their wings, but it was an essential technique to master if you wanted to fight in the air effectively.

As he finished sending a message and swiped his menu closed, Kirito arrived at the conclusion that Klein wasn't going to be mastering Voluntary Flight anytime soon. After about an hour of practice, the new player could maneuver reasonably well using the joystick method, but had barely been able to get so much as a twitch from his wings without it. At that point, Kirito flagged down an NPC guard and initiated the slime-killing quest in order to give the two of them some combat practice, a task which sent them down into the dank, labyrinthine sewers beneath the city.

"It's like this," Kirito explained as the End Frame of a slime's death animation played, the mob disappearing in a puff of brackish smoke and rewarding him with a tiny amount of Yuld and EXP. "You progress in two different ways in ALO: leveling up your character by earning EXP, and increasing your skills by using them. Leveling up gives you a small boost to your flight time and maximum HP and MP, and gives you access to new spells, skills and gear. Each time you level up you also get five stat points which can be distributed how you like between STR, AGI, INT, or VIT. Strength increases your weight limit and physical damage. Agility increases your speed, evasion and accuracy. Intelligence increases your magic damage and your maximum MP, while Vitality increases your damage resistance and maximum HP. With me so far?"

"I got that much," Klein said, eyeing another slime that was roaming close to where they were. "And it's like some of those old first-person RPGs, where you have to use your skills and spells in order to get better at them and unlock new ones."

Kirito nodded, smiling. "You got it. Now you try this next one. This time, don't just run in swinging. Open up your spells menu and tap the Fire Bolt spell; it should be the one starting spell that all Salamanders get."

Klein manipulated his menu interface in the air in front of him. It was invisible to Kirito, as were the menus of any other players. "Okay?"

"Now," said Kirito, "you should have an option in the menu for pronounce. The system will read you the incantation for the spell—you need to listen carefully and say it exactly the same way. It can be faster or slower, so that you can time it to go off when you want to, but the rhythm and pronunciation have to be just right. Try it slowly the first time: focus on your target, aim your left hand, and recite the words."

"I feel so goofy doing this," Klein said with a grin as he raised his arm. "Hijan!"

It took a couple tries, but on the third hijan, an anemic bolt of flame leapt from Klein's fingertips and shot towards the slime, drawing a skreeee sound from the target as it struck.

"Great!" Kirito shouted. "Now you've got its attention, and you started the fight by doing some free damage to it. When it gets close, unleash one of your sword skills."

"How do I do that?" Klein asked as he waved his cutlass threateningly at the approaching mob. It was a glob of sewage about the size of a small dog, and would have been less intimidating if it didn't smell so convincingly awful. The slime hissed as it bounced towards Klein and struck him with a tendril of goo.

"Not like that," Kirito replied with amusement as he slouched against the wall, watching Klein run in circles slashing wildly at the mob. "The system's waiting for you to move your sword just right so that it detects the starting position for an art. When it does—"

"Some help, please!"

"Giving it to you if you'll listen," Kirito said, grinning. "When you get the right position, your sword will start to glow and you'll feel a kind of tension build up. When you're ready—release it."

Klein's HP was dropping slowly from the weak attacks of the slime, but he hadn't been doing much damage in return either. He kicked the slime away to get a little breathing room, and settled the sword with the back of the blade on his shoulder in a particular way. When he did, the blade began to emit a pale orange light, and as the slime propelled itself towards Klein for another attack, the Salamander suddenly shot forward in a streak of light and left a glowing red trail of damage on the enemy. A few moments later, the mob exploded into its death animation.

"See?" Kirito said, strolling up to Klein and punching him lightly in the arm. "Nothing to it. You'll be farming bosses in no time."

Klein pumped his fist in victory, grinning. "Are all the spells that easy?"

"Not a chance," Kirito said. "Generally speaking, the more powerful and higher level the spell, the longer and more difficult the incantation. Some of the higher-level spellwords are really hard for Japanese people to pronounce without a lot of practice."

It took a few hours to finish killing enough slimes to complete the tutorial quest, but by that point Klein had found his rhythm and the two of them spent some additional time hunting the slightly higher-level rats for extra EXP. Their first level-up had come fairly quickly, but it was getting close to dinner time before the pair saw level 3. By mutual agreement they headed back up to the surface to turn in the quest and vendor off all their trash drops.

With their inventories emptied and some money to their names, it was time to tend to their empty stomachs. As they sat on a rooftop eating the basic bread loaves they'd bought, Kirito had to explain to Klein that the hunger he felt was the game's simulation of their character's state—a state that had nothing to do with whether or not his body in the real world felt hungry or not.

"It's really easy to spend too long in Full Dive, eating regularly and having a great adventure, and then come out hours later and immediately realize that your real body is starving or dehydrated."

Klein whistled. "Good thing I came prepared, then. I've got a pizza ordered for 5:30, and that's not too far off!"

Kirito laughed. "That's hardcore. What, are you planning on missing Oberon's big speech?"

"Oh, that's right! Well, I'm sure the Fairy King won't mind if I slip in a little late with pizza and ginger ale on my breath."

As the two players shared more lighthearted joking, unwinding from the last few hours of flight practice and grinding, Kirito gazed up at the distant lower branches of Yggdrasil, pondering what wonders still awaited him that high above. During the beta they'd barely scratched the surface of the massive dungeon within the trunk of the world-tree, let alone reached the top where it was said that Oberon awaited to reward the first race of fae to seek an audience in his presence.

It was a prospect as exhilarating as it was daunting.

"Hey, Kirito," Klein said after a long pause. "What are you planning on doing after this? I mean, after the main event, whatever it is."

"Hm? Well, we'll probably get sent back to our starting cities after this, so I guess I'll start questing and grinding in the ruins around Penwether. I know a lot of good spots there."

"Yeah, I bet you know all sorts of stuff. Can't believe how lucky you were, getting into the beta."

Kirito shrugged, a little embarrassed. "Well, in a way we're all lucky—with only twenty thousand copies in the first printing, anyone who's here in this world right now is lucky. I'm just glad I got to come back. It's not like outside, where so much of what you can or can't do is dictated by where you were born or who your family was. In this world… the only limit is your skill as a player."

"I can see what you mean. So hey, I wanted to ask you something. I logged in with a bunch of my real-life friends, former guildmates from other games. Each of us was going to pick a different race, but I don't think anyone was planning on rolling a Spriggan."

"They're not very popular," Kirito admitted. "Illusion magic isn't generally all that useful in combat, and most people prefer the races with an elemental affinity." He reached over and poked at Klein. "Salamanders are pretty popular."

"Maybe so, but you're doing just fine. I haven't run into the other guys yet, but when I do, I'd like to introduce you—we should all go out partying together, I think you'd like them."

Kirito shifted uncomfortably. Klein seemed like a nice guy, and it had been fun pairing up with him for the last few hours. But at his heart, Kirito preferred to adventure solo—it was another reason he liked playing a Spriggan; the race had a reputation for being loners who hired out as freelance mercenaries.

Again displaying the ability to be observant when he wanted to, Klein waved his hands. "But I mean, it's okay if you don't want to, Kirito. I know most people like to PvP in this game, and you've got no reason to trust a group of strangers. You taught me a lot today, and I'll pass that on to my buddies. If you ever want to party up again, I'd love to! If not, that's cool."

Kirito nodded quietly, suddenly at a loss for anything he really wanted to say. He glanced at his HUD, saw the time there, and managed to produce a smile. "You'd better get going," he said. "Your pizza's going to be there in a minute."

Klein shot bolt upright. "Oh, hell! How could I forget! This world's just too immersive. Thanks, man, I owe you again."

The soft sounds of Klein's menu opening played in sequence, and then a bewildered outburst from the Salamander yanked Kirito's attention away from the slowly setting sun on the horizon. "What the fresh hell?"


Klein swept his menu closed and then opened it again. "I can't find the logout button. I could've sworn it was supposed to be right here?"

Kirito rolled his eyes. "It's in the system menu, right at the bottom."

"That's where I am!" Klein said, stabbing at the air with his finger impatiently.

Sighing, Kirito opened his own menu and casually sent it spinning to the bottom. And then he blinked, not sure if he was seeing correctly. The logout button was there, all right—but it was a blank button, bearing an icon but no label. When he pressed it, it displayed the same kind of curt animation that he'd get from trying to select a grayed-out, disabled option. "That's... really odd."

"I guess we should expect some bugs on launch," Klein said, sounding as if he was trying to sound blasé and worldly about it.

"Tell you what," Kirito said as he rose to his feet and stretched, wiggling his wings. "Let's see if we can find a GM who can log you…"

Kirito trailed off as a rising wall of noise made it difficult for him to hear his own voice and leaves stirred around his feet, scuttling across the rooftop like an army of insects. What had begun as a light breeze built into a gale-force wind whipping around them, stealing their words from the very air. Klein was shouting something, but Kirito couldn't catch it. The wind built to a crescendo, and the light of a teleportation effect flared around the both of them.

When the teleport light faded, Kirito was standing in the middle of the gigantic plaza where he'd first spawned, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of players. As he watched, players continued teleporting in by the dozens, all of them looking just as confused and startled as he felt. Aside from the expensive and rare Escape Crystals and some kinds of rumored high-level magic, there was no instantaneous fast travel in Alfheim—between their wings and the ability to ride tamed mounts, players had to get anywhere they wanted to go on their own. Kirito had only been teleported a few times when he got stuck in bugged world geometry, and never forcibly—a GM would warn a player before doing that.

The setting sun seemed to freeze in place on the western horizon, framed between two of the mountains that straddled Butterflies Valley leading to the Sylvan lands. The hue of both the sun and sky shifted rapidly to a deep orange-red, throwing a crimson cast across everything and making the deep blue hair of some Undines appear almost black. The air, thick with the fears of the assembled players, was filled with sparkling motes of light, like the after-effect of a spell or the dwindling luminescence of a dead player's Remain Light. Gradually those motes drifted towards the trunk of the world-tree, beginning to coalesce into a vaguely humanoid form over a hundred meters tall.

Rather than the High King Oberon, however, the figure that appeared wore the hooded robes of a GameMaster—one of the administrative helpers in the game who would help run quests and deal with bugs. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say that the robes of a GM appeared—but no one seemed to be wearing them. Although they seemed to be draped around a gigantic human form, it was a form that was unseen and without substance: the depths of the hood were nothing but the blackest night, and the gloves that emerged from the voluminous sleeves were not attached to arms. Kirito watched with a sense of growing apprehension as the massive figure raised those hands high, spread its arms dramatically, and began delivering the most important tutorial of his life.

Chapter Text

"Understand this: Alfheim Online is no longer merely a game. Players may no longer respawn in their home city when they die, and the only means of resurrecting a player's Remain Light are through rare items and high-level magic. If your HP drops to zero and your Remain Light disappears, the Nerve Gear will destroy your brain—ending your life forever, in this world as well as the real one."
—Akihiko Kayaba, Alfheim Online tutorial

6 November 2022
Day 1 - Evening

Kirito studied the features he saw in the slender mirror with a growing sense of horror. He still had the ash-gray skin of a Spriggan, as well as the pointed ears sticking out and back from his head at a slight angle, but the youthful, androgynous face was very recognizably his real one. When his mirror—along with everyone else's—expired into a spray of blue polygons with a shattering sound, he looked up and around at the other players and suppressed an inappropriate urge to laugh nervously. It seemed like everyone had changed. It was like being at an otaku convention of one kind or another, surrounded by people of all shapes and sizes wearing fairy costumes. It looked absurd.

No one was laughing.

"Kirito…? Is that you?" Turning towards the sound of his name, Kirito saw the Salamander player he'd been partying with earlier. Klein didn't look significantly different than he had before—less handsome, a little scruffier, but that garish bandana would've tipped Kirito off if nothing else had.

Kirito nodded, visibly shaking off the sense of shock he felt. "Listen to me, Klein. I don't know what's going to happen now, but I know I don't want to be standing around here. I'm going to make for Spriggan territory—it's just through the pass to the east. There's a lot of tough monsters in the way, but I know some safer routes to get there. There's a really good leveling spot south of Penwether—"

Kirito didn't get to finish. Kayaba—having watched all of the players react to his "proof" that this was now their reality—had one more message to deliver. The growing sounds of discord and dismay in the crowd fell silent once again as the booming voice echoed across them.

『I will now teleport all of you back to your race's starting zones. Tomorrow morning the system will hold a vote for each race to select who will lead them for the next month. This vote will be held once every thirty days. Choose well: your survival depends on it. 』

『This concludes the Alfheim Online tutorial. Good luck, players. 』

When the sparkling blue light of the teleport effect faded, Kirito found himself standing amidst a number of other Spriggans in what he recognized as the ancient beige stonework of Penwether—somewhere in the merchant district, if his guess was correct. He could hear the sounds of other teleports finishing, and although he could only see a handful of his faction in his immediate vicinity, he knew that there must be hundreds of others being randomly sprinkled around the town.

Tamping down the panic that threatened to claw its way back to the surface, Kirito thought hard. There was nothing he could do now for that poor newbie he'd spent the last few hours playing with. Very likely he'd been teleported back to Salamander territory, which was a long journey to the very south end of Alfheim through both Undine and Imp territories.

And then an uncomfortable thought seized him. Should he want to help that player anyway? ALO had been intended from the beginning as a PvP game. The fact that real death was now a consequence of your Remain Light disappearing didn't change the nature of the game—only the stakes. Kayaba's terms for clearing the game had explicitly pitted the races against one another with mutually exclusive goals, and from a purely pragmatic standpoint he'd be wise to consider any Salamander—any other race, really—as a potential threat.

Kirito bolted from where he was standing, breaking into a run before kicking off the ground and taking to the air. He knew exactly where he needed to go first, exactly what quest he needed to find—and he prayed it was still the same as it had been in the beta. Within an hour, he knew the area surrounding Penwether would be flooded with Spriggan players all competing for mobs and EXP. Some of those conflicts would be violent. The problem would only get worse from there once the neighboring races—Leprechauns to the northwest and Undines to the south—began hunting beyond their immediate territories, looking for unclaimed mobs.

It was frustrating, not being able to fly as quickly as he used to with his beta stats. Now and then Kirito could see distant specks in the sky that must be other players, their own speed as limited as his as they sped towards whatever destination they'd chosen. He was willing to bet that anyone taking to the sky like that with a specific location in mind was a beta tester like him, and hoped none of them were after the same quest.

The town of Lithjagg was several kilometers to the south, near where the vast expanse of ruins marking Spriggan territory began to give way to the low wetlands common to the Undine areas. Technically these were "neutral" territory—neutral in the sense that it was no-man's land. As with Arun, all players would be safe in a neutral town like Lithjagg, but in the open areas surrounding it any players could freely hunt any others. Kirito didn't think that most players would be able to overcome the emotional barriers to killing this quickly, but he didn't want to count on it—nor did he want to count on everyone else necessarily even believing Kayaba's story.

But Kirito believed it. He'd voraciously devoured any materials written by Akihiko Kayaba, as well as the scant few interviews he'd granted the media. He had very nearly idolized the man. There was no question in his mind that everything Kayaba had said in that tutorial had been the truth: death in the game meant death for real.

As he skimmed the treetops at his maximum flying speed, occasionally rising or evading just enough to clear an unusually tall trunk, he heard a chime sound in his ear that very briefly muffled the sound of the wind rushing past him. When he saw the name glowing beside the mail notification, he pulled up and settled to a precarious perch at the top of a tree to rest his wings for a few moments, refocusing on the icon in his peripheral vision to open the message.

「This changes everything. We need to talk. -Argo」

Asuna aimlessly walked the streets of Parasel in a state of numb shock. She had done so ever since Kayaba's so-called "tutorial", ever since she was forcibly teleported back to the Undine starting city along with thousands of other players of her… race? Species? Faction? Tribe? That catlike girl, Argo, had used the word "race" before, but it was really just an arbitrary distinction between the fake bodies that all of the other players in this game wore—it was hard to take seriously.

In truth, she wasn't sure what she should think. At first the whole thing had seemed like some kind of story cooked up by the people running Alfheim Online, a fun trick to pull on the game's opening day. The blood-red sky, the ominous evil-looking guy in the robes, the fourth-wall-breaking threats about logging out and dying… scary stuff, but for all she knew maybe that was all roleplaying—part of the immersion. Should she be playing along? She'd opened her menu and looked for the logout button, and like so many others had found that it didn't work. Perhaps someone who had actually read the manual would know the real way you were supposed to get out of the game.

But when she'd looked around at the other players to see how the supposed veteran gamers were reacting, she had seen neither amusement nor enjoyment. In fact, she was one of the few people who hadn't looked to be either furious or terrified; that had scared her far more than the words of the massive robed figure. And when she'd looked into the mirror, seeing her real face there with slender elfin ears tapering back through her light blue hair, she'd let out an involuntary scream before dropping the mirror and clapping her hands over her mouth.

She didn't know what RPGs were supposed to be like. Maybe this was all still part of the opening day ceremonies, still some kind of intense, immersive joke that a longtime gamer would take in stride. But if it was… it had stopped being funny—or fun—a long time ago.

It was well past 10 in the evening now. She was long since late for dinner; her mother would be furious. At this rate she was going to be a wreck at school in the morning—assuming there was school in the morning. At one point she'd been consumed by a horrified thought—what would happen if her mother, in one of her fits of pique, decided to yank the Nerve Gear off her head. Would she truly die? Would she get a "game over" message? Would she even know if it happened, or would her awareness simply come to an end in blackness that she'd never even see coming? The thought had taken her to the edge of hysteria, and she'd had to force herself to think about something else in order to get control.

She was scared out of her mind, and she wanted to go home.

Perhaps that was why she was walking, despite having no destination or purpose to the journey through the dark streets of the Undine starting city. Maybe if she walked long enough, far enough, she'd find a way home—meet someone who would laugh and assure her that this was all part of the game, and show her the hidden command she was supposed to use to get out. She could leave and never, ever come back.

Nobody laughed. Nobody reassured her. And nobody—not one blue-haired person out of all the ones she passed—seemed to know any more than she did.

Asuna didn't know where she was now, but she wouldn't have known one part of Parasel from another if she'd been told anyway. All she knew was that she was exhausted—physically and emotionally—and that her feet were tired and sore. She stopped and leaned against the damp gray stone wall of the nearest building, the surface cool against her palm from all of the moisture in the air. And then her knees buckled as she began to cry, great wracking sobs that shook her body while she slid slowly down to a sitting position, leaning against the wall and hugging herself with a white-knuckled grip on her opposite shoulders. For a moment, a stray and absurd thought flitted through her head: gratitude that her wings seemed to disappear from her back when they weren't in use; she probably would've crushed them against the wall otherwise.

"Young miss, are you hurt?"

Trembling, Asuna slowly raised her eyes to the unfamiliar voice, peeking up at its owner through bangs that were plastered to her tear-streaked face. The voice belonged to a young adult man with electric-blue hair that was cut relatively short, save for a pair of long locks that trailed down from his own bangs and temples nearly to his shoulders. He was wearing a blue tunic that matched his hair covered by a simple bronze breastplate, and she could see the grip of a sword sticking up at an angle from one shoulder.

She swallowed once to try to regain her unsteady voice, and said, "I-I don't… I don't think so… I mean… nuh-no one hit me… I j-just… I'm just…"

The stranger crouched beside her and put a hand gently on her shoulder; she flinched away. Withdrawing the touch with a grimace, he ventured, "You're scared like the rest of us."

"Is this r-real?" Asuna asked suddenly, in a seeming non sequitur. Never before had the answer to a question been so important to her.

The man's eyes dropped to the ground. "I don't know. I think so. Otherwise don't you think someone would've logged us out by now?"

A low moan escaped Asuna's throat, and she turned away from the stranger, leaning her head against the cold stone. "Please leave me alone."

Asuna heard him sigh, heard the tinkling of metal buckles and the soft sounds of fabric rustling as the man stood. "Very well. I'm sorry to bother you." He started to walk away, then stopped, half-turning and looking over his shoulder at her. "If you're tired or cold, miss, there's an inn just a few doors down from here." When she didn't answer, he added, "I'm staying there myself, in room 2C. If you need somewhere to stay tonight, I'll pay for a room of your own."

She looked back up at the kind stranger, a little bit of strength returning to her. Swiping a hand across her face, she sniffled once and asked the man's name.

He folded an arm across his chest and bowed to her. "You may call me Diavel. I like to think of myself as a paladin—of a sort."

A weak smile touched Asuna's lips as she gave her own name, gone just as quickly. Diavel answered it with a firmer smile of his own, and said, "You should get some rest, mi—Asuna. Who knows? Perhaps if we go to sleep, we'll wake in our own bodies." Then he raised his gaze to the moon hanging in the sky just above the level of the rooftops, his smile fading to an expression that was very troubled indeed. "And if not, then we all have a critical choice to make in the morning."

The central courtyard of the city of Gattan was filled to capacity and then some, the sandstone and packed-mud walls lit by hundreds of torches and abuzz with the conversations of thousands of players. The crowd was a sea of flame-colored hair and similarly-hued clothing, and here and there a burst of actual flame was seen as someone cast a spell—whether for practice, demonstration, or to settle an argument. Klein saw plenty of the latter; it was a good thing the city was a Safe Zone.

There was a stage at one end of the courtyard, a dais of stone that rose about a meter and a half from the ground, paved with a tessellating pattern of octagonal and square bricks. Several Salamander players stood upon it, arguing with each other; occasionally someone was shoved off the platform or someone new would climb up to join the loud debate.

Klein stood about thirty meters from the stage, not paying much attention even when players took the floor and addressed the crowd, speechifying and making their opinions of the situation known. From what he could see, not many other people cared about what they had to say either.

In Klein's eloquent estimation, the situation was way fucked up.

Periodically even the minimal attention he was paying to the pontification of the other Salamanders would be diverted to his HUD as he got a message from one of his friends. So far all but one of his real-life buddies had contacted him back to let him know they were okay, and to confirm that they, too had been teleported to their race's home city. Based on the limited information he'd gotten from each of them, he was starting to get a rough idea of where everyone was located in relation to everyone else—and a very good idea of just how hard it was going to be to get back together.

He was on the verge of blowing off this pointless gathering and heading towards Imp territory to pick up the first friend when a loud voice boomed out from the stage, projecting to be heard above the din. "Alright, enough of this crap, listen up!"

Klein, along with a significant number of other players, turned his eyes to the stage. The new speaker was a stocky Salamander with orange hair styled into short cactus-like spikes, a long sword in a dark gray scabbard slung over his shoulder. He stood at the very edge of the platform, fists on his hips, and tried to look severe.

Jerking a thumb towards himself in a very Western-style gesture, the man spoke with an Osakan accent that sounded like he was playing it to the hilt for effect. "The name's Kibaou, and you need to hear what I've got to say. Is there anyone here who's dumb enough to think that Kayaba was feeding us a line of bullshit when he said that this was a Death Game?"

There was a general murmur of discontent and negation, and a small handful of heckles from people who apparently really were that dumb. Kibaou seemed to ignore the latter. "You heard what the man said. Only one race can reach the top to get unlimited flight, and with the height and time limits on our wings, unlimited flight's the only way we're gonna reach that." He pointed off in the far distance, where a swirling purple vortex of light could be seen hanging in the sky above the World Tree even from this far south.

Kibaou paced back and forth along the edge of the stage, scowling as he continued punctuating his words by gesturing sharply at the phenomenon that had appeared shortly after Kayaba had finished speaking. "That is the way out. And we need to get there first. And you know what that means." He stopped and bellowed out, "it means we, as Salamanders, need to stick together! It means that anyone else trying to get there—any other race trying to get there—is a threat to us!"

Klein felt increasingly cold as he listened to Kibaou speak, and especially chilled by how receptive the crowd seemed to be, murmurs of approval and even outright cheers far drowning out the objections and cries of dissent. It wasn't that the man was necessarily incorrect about the stakes—it was his attitude, the absolutist posture of us-versus-them. Every bit of it rubbed Klein the wrong way, made him think of the friends who were scattered across this game world waiting for him.

Kibaou pounded his fist into his palm, riling up the crowd. "We need to band together and start leveling up, patrolling our territory and protecting our hunting grounds. We need to fight our way back to Arun so we can start clearing the World Tree. And we need to strike first against anyone who gets between us and our freedom! Who's with me?"

The answer, to Klein's dismay, was: far, far too many. Anger growing, he pushed his way to the front and shook his fist in the air. "Who the hell do you think you are?" Klein yelled loudly, trying to be heard above the growing noise from the crowd. "Some of us have friends who logged in with us! The rest of them are trapped in here just like we are! What do you expect us to do, kill them?"

Kibaou scowled darkly down at this interruption that was too loud—and close—to be ignored. "It's us or them, dumbass. Only one race can win the prize that means freedom—them and two of their allies. That's gonna be us. You want to save your friends, you tell them to side with the Salamanders." A ragged cheer rippled through the crowd, and more than one player gave Klein looks just as dark and unfriendly as Kibaou's. Another chill ran through him as it began to dawn on him just what a dangerous position he was in. He turned and began pushing his way through the crowd, followed briefly by Kibaou's taunts.

As he made his way towards one of the side streets leading out of Gattan, a hand touched his arm. "Hey."

Klein jerked away from the touch, turning to level a glare at the speaker and ready to fight. The man he faced was massive—and given what had happened with the mirrors, Klein knew that had to be what he really looked like, save that the player himself probably didn't have an anime-like sweep of deep wine-red hair or thick eyebrows of the same color. At his side was another Salamander player almost as large; there was a definite family resemblance between them.

The man held out both hands, palms splayed, and spoke in a deep, gravelly voice. "Easy. I just wanted you to know that I appreciated what you just said. We might be in competition with the other player races to clear Yggdrasil, but that doesn't mean it has to come to open war. We're all still human beings."

Klein relaxed a little—just a little. After a moment, he nodded slowly. "Yeah, tell that to cactus-head up there. Seems like he's got a lot of fans."

The larger man grimaced; the other man beside him folded his arms and spoke next. "What Eugene's trying to say is, we should think about sticking together—or at least keeping in touch. We don't like the direction this is going, but right now we seem to be in the minority."

"What's your name?" Eugene asked.

When Klein hesitated, the other man said, "I'm Mortimer. This is my younger brother—my real brother, I mean."

"Klein. And don't get me wrong, man, I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks Kibaou's playing with fire—"

"So to speak," Eugene put in with a smirk. Mortimer rolled his eyes and took a swipe at his brother, which he absorbed without flinching.

Klein waved a hand. "Whatever. Like I said, I'm glad we agree on this, but I've got friends who are depending on me—my real friends, from the real world. I gotta go find them."

Mortimer nodded slowly. "I understand. Just please consider this: if everyone who opposes this kind of warmongering leaves the Salamanders, who is left to stand in his way?"

It was an uncomfortable question, and it produced an uncomfortable silence from the three of them. Mortimer nodded again after a few seconds. "That's what I thought. We can't ask you to abandon your friends, and your loyalty does you credit. Just think about what we said." He lifted his left hand and manipulated his menu, sending a friend request to Klein.

Klein held the taller man's gaze for a few beats—or what would have been a few beats if his avatar had a heart to keep time. Finally, he reached up and pressed the Accept button.

"If we're gonna be voting on a leader tomorrow," Klein said as he made to leave, "you've got my support. Maybe you should get up there and make your own speech."

"He's right, Mort," said Eugene. "I think it's time you took your own advice and made your opposition public. Right now that bastard's got everyone fired up, and if morning comes and they don't have another option to think about, they're gonna vote for the biggest mouth."

"You going to go up there with me?" Mortimer said with a wry smile.

Eugene shrugged. "Don't see why not, bro. We're in this together." He glanced at Klein. "Keep in touch. We'll let you know how things go."

Turning without answering, Klein resumed heading towards the gates of Gattan, quickening his pace. He was halfway to the front gates when he remembered something, and held up his left hand to summon the flight controller. With a harsh buzzing sound, he rose into the air and left a faint trail of red light in his wake.

Something ugly was happening, and he didn't want to be there when the shit hit the fan.

"War," Argo said simply.

The other Cait Sith sitting around the low wooden table froze, each in their own manner. Sudden and absolute silence descended, the overlapping conversations ceasing at once as a half-dozen sets of mobile triangular ears flicked towards the unpalatable word that Argo had dropped on the table like a litter box offering.

"And we should believe that because…?" The speaker was a male Cait Sith with silver and black tabby streaks in his ponytailed hair.

"Do you even know who she is, Raikouji?" another put in, sitting up from her leisurely sprawl across the sea of pillows in the common room. She displayed sharp, prominent fangs as she spoke, glaring across the table at him.

"The Rat," he answered acerbically, putting bite into the nickname. "We were all in the beta, Alicia; I'm not dense."

"Coulda fooled me," Argo remarked as she picked at her teeth with one of the steel combat claws she wore. "I thought it was ostriches that put their heads in the sand, but I guess it happens to cats too. Who'da thunk?"

Raikouji shot to his feet with a snarl, forming fists and hair standing slightly on end. "This isn't a roleplaying game anymore, Argo! We're prisoners, not fucking cats!"

Argo looked pointedly at Raikouji's tail as it lashed the air, then up at him with raised eyebrows and a smile of feigned innocence. "Yah, it's not a game anymore, Raiko-pin. So why don'cha pull your head out and start acting like it? You think I said war 'cause I like the way the word sounds? I'm telling you, I got no less than three people inside the Salamanders telling me—separately—that they got an influential faction talking about going to war."

"Against the Imps," said another of the Cait Sith beta testers present, a young woman in mage robes with long braided silver hair who was sitting in seiza beside Raikouji. She gave him a significant glance and waved him back down until he was seated again.

"At first," Argo said, nodding. "You think it stops there?"

A grain of sand could've dropped on the table and made a racket.

"She's right," Alicia said finally. "Look, we all know what kinds of players like to play Salamanders. And if the racial distribution is roughly the same as it was in the beta, it means they probably have half again as many players as we do—and easily twice as many as the Imps. They'll roll over them like they were nothing."

"Good!" Raikouji blurted out to a room of shocked looks. "That takes them to Undine territory, not ours. Let them weaken themselves! They still have to go through the Sylphs in order to get to our territory. Let me know when that happens."

"They could cut through Butterflies Valley once they reach Arun," Alicia pointed out. "Or simply blockade it, and cut off our own access to the World Tree. They'd have the manpower to spare for that."

Raikouji fixed her with his gaze, yellow-green eyes filled with impatience. "So what do you propose? And please, keep in mind that this is all moot if none of us get elected tomorrow."

Alicia shrugged and leaned back onto the stack of multicolored pillows, lacing her fingers behind her head. "How about not blowing off a potential threat, for starters?"

"I'm not 'blowing off' anything, Miss Rue. I'm telling you that A, what the Salamanders do on the other side of the damn continent is Not Our Problem, and B, that there isn't a lot we can do anyway unless they actually do threaten us directly. Hell, if they take out the Imps and Undines, that's two less factions that can clear the game before we do."

"'Fewer'," said one of the Cait Sith who hadn't yet spoken, a man in light plate armor with a full-length tunic that matched his short brown hair who sat cross-legged next to Alicia.

Raikouji turned to him, momentarily derailed. "What?"

"You said 'less'. The correct word would be 'fewer'."

There was a chorus of groans around the table, and Alicia picked up one of the larger pillows next to her and whacked the player who'd made the grammar nitpick, unbalancing and keeling him over backwards with a yelp. Ears flattened against her head, she practically spat out her reply. "Less, fewer, who cares? Is anyone else here not okay with giving zero shits about the idea of the Salamanders 'taking out' several thousand players? Which, I'd like to remind you, is another word for mass murder under the circumstances?"

"I return your attention to Exhibit B," said Raikouji as he met her stare across the table. "Namely, the fact that we are not exactly in a position to do anything about it even if we wanted to."

"We could warn them," suggested the grammar-correcting Cait Sith as he sat up and threw the pillow back at Alicia, who caught it and hugged it to her chest.

"I know, Fenja, I've already warned my Imp contact," said Argo with a dismissive wave. "Not that it does much good until tomorrow when they have a leader to warn."

"And the Sylphs?" asked Alicia, chin pressed against the top of the pillow she was hugging. "They're our neighbors, after all. Don't you have any contacts there?"

"Maybe," Argo said evasively.

Fenja frowned. "I thought we agreed we were putting all our cards on the table tonight."

Argo let out a long sigh. "Yeah. And I've already warned them. Again, not that it does much good until the elections tomorrow morning." Raikouji spread his hands, as if to say that there was nothing more to be done for it.

Alicia just shook her head. "Okay, look. We're all tired, and we're getting on each other's last nerves. Other than me and Rai, anyone else put their names up for the vote?" When no one else raised their hands, she nodded. "Okay. Well, I guess that gives us a pretty clear choice, doesn't it?"

"You're assuming no one else outside this room submitted their bio," Fenja pointed out. "There had to be what, at least a thousand of us out there when we were ported back from Arun?"

"More than that," Argo said. "But you gotta know the option's there in the first place. It's buried in the Community menu." She smirked. "Nobody reads the manual."

"But we can't be the only Cait Sith beta testers who made it in," Fenja replied reasonably. "Just the ones who know each other. There'll be others."

Alicia shrugged as she stretched languorously. "What does it matter? One way or another, we'll know in the morning."

The sun was just beginning to rise over the mountain range that formed a natural barrier across Imp territory when Klein received the message from his friend telling him to come out of hiding. Chagrined at the necessity of even having to hide in the first place, he crawled out of the shallow cave atop the rock outcropping and spread the tall, dry grass that shielded it from view. Below he could see one of the main entrances to the vast expanse of underground caverns that encompassed Imp territory, with a small number of players of that race either standing around talking or on their way back into the caves.

Klein could see Kunimittz down there at the center of a knot of players, talking with them animatedly. It was striking how well the wedge-shaped poof of deep violet hair fit his real-life appearance, even though the racial hair colors hadn't been changed to match their real ones. Klein was just about to send him a message asking when it was actually going to be safe when he saw his friend—still talking to the other players—point directly up at where Klein was hiding, then make a beckoning motion.

Swallowing nervously, Klein stood and summoned his flight controller, dropping off the edge and floating slowly down to the ground near the group of players. Several nearby Imps started with alarm, a few even reaching for their weapons—until Kunimittz ran forward and gave Klein a huge bear hug, laughing and slapping him on the back. "Oh, man, am I glad to see you! Have you heard from the others?"

"Everyone except Issin," Klein replied, looking over at the group of players Kunimittz had been talking with. Some of the looks he was getting were not exactly friendly. Some were overtly hostile. "Are you sure this is okay?"

Kunimittz laughed. "Well, I wouldn't come wandering into the Everdark by yourself, buddy, but no one's gonna attack you while I'm here with you." He looked around meaningfully and spoke up. "This is the friend I was telling you about, hear? We've known each other for years on the outside; he's okay."

The announcement seemed to thaw a bit of the hostility emanating from the other Imps; a few even smiled at him. There were still a handful of dark looks thrown his way, but Kunimittz met them with an even stare until they turned away.

"It's like that here too, is it?" Klein asked, rubbing the back of his head in a nervous gesture. He felt like the proverbial mouse at the cat convention.

"What, the Salamanders are being dicks? Color me shocked."

Klein laughed, as did a few of the nearby Imps. "Like you wouldn't believe. Sounds like you've been talking to some veteran players."

Kunimittz nodded. "Yeah, there's a handful of beta testers who stepped up and were helping some of us grind last night." He gestured towards one of the Imps who'd laughed, a tall man in light plate with long jet-black hair and a broadsword. "Seems like we're a relatively small group over here—Freikel says just under a thousand players—so a lot of us have been getting to know each other. You already vote?"

"Sure did," Klein replied with a grimace, thinking of the building conflict he'd left behind between Mortimer and Kibaou the night before. "You?"

"Yup. For Freikel, in fact—he's a great guy. Yo, Fry! Come on over here and meet my friend."

The named player broke away from his group and approached, giving Klein a slightly wary look as if sizing him up. "Fry, this is Klein, one of my best friends on the outside. Klein, Freikel. He was in the beta, and he's been a huge help to a lot of people."

"Good to meet you," Klein said as he bowed.

Freikel eyed Klein with a look that was still a little cautious, then relaxed and tried on a smile, bowing in return—albeit a touch less deeply. "A pleasure," he growled out—at least, his voice sounded like a growl; Klein had to assume he always sounded like that, because he was still smiling. "Call me Fry. Your friend Kunimittz here is a quick learner." Then his gaze sharpened again. "Are you here to take him away?"

Klein and Kunimittz looked at each other, then back at Freikel. "I mentioned last night that there are six of us," Kunimittz said. "We all made different characters, and we'd been planning to meet up and party together. At least, before… that stuff happened and we all got separated."

Freikel looked like he'd bitten into a lemon. "I'll be honest," he said bluntly. "I'm not happy about that. There are few enough of us as is."

"Fry, I told you that I'd been planning to leave when I found my friends."

"And you also know the situation we're in," Freikel said, frowning. "Look, no offense intended, Klein—I've got no grief with you. But you know what's at stake here now. For all of us. You're talking about taking a player away from an already small population—and at that, someone I'd very much like to have in my party. And that's on top of the fact that a lot of Imp players tend to be soloers."

Klein folded his arms across his breastplate, nodding. "I can't really blame you. But to be just as honest—you can't make him stay, either." He looked over at Kunimittz. "It's your call, man. If you gotta stay here, you gotta stay. I'll smooth things over with the others. It's just… I thought we were gonna all stick together."

Kunimittz looked genuinely torn. He glanced between Freikel and his old friend, an increasingly conflicted expression dominating his face. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, and when they opened, he turned to Freikel and bowed. "I'm sorry, Fry. I need to stick with my friends. You've still got my vote, and you'll be a great leader—and once we've regrouped with everyone else, I promise I'll talk to the others about coming back and helping the Imps with clearing."

Freikel took a deep breath, and sighed, letting it out slowly. "All right. I suppose I can't really force you to stay, anyway." He gave Kunimittz a lopsided smile. "I'll hold you to that promise, though."

"Count on it," Kunimittz replied with a grin.

Klein cleared his throat. "Hey Fry, listen, you've been real decent about this, and I appreciate it. So I want to give you fair warning about something."

Freikel raised his eyebrows. "Warning?"

"Yeah. I left Salamander territory late last night, so I don't know how it went… but when I was on my way out, there was a major jackass named Kibaou trying to stir up shit and get everyone psyched up for war with the other races. Another guy, name of Mortimer, was going to publicly oppose him—but like I said, I left before that went down."

"And you couldn't have mentioned this earlier?" Freikel's expression was as tight as his tone.

Klein spread his hands. "I've been here for what, five minutes? I'm telling you this out of respect and courtesy. I want no part in that fight—we're headed west to Sylph territory to pick up Dynamm."

"Back across Salamander lands," Freikel mused. "Be careful. If what you say is true… they may not look too kindly on you traveling with one of ours."

"We'll watch our backs," Kunimittz said. Turning to Klein, he held up his left hand and summoned the flight controller. "Ready to go?"

Klein held out a hand to Freikel, who shook it after a moment. When they parted, he brought out his own controller. "Ready as I'll ever be."

At first, the sound blended into that of the insects hiding in the tall grasses that sprouted from the mountainside like hair. But as Klein and Kunimittz began to rise into the air, the sound grew until it turned heads all across the clearing in front of the cave where they were gathered, a buzzing drone almost like that of a flight of propeller-driven aircraft.

No, Klein thought suddenly. Like wings.

Freikel's sword was in his hand before Klein even realized he'd reached for it, the blade pointing up at the sky. "Is this what you were talking about, Klein?"

As Klein looked up, following an invisible line drawn from the tip of Freikel's broadsword to the west, he saw an angry-looking cloud on the horizon that was painted with the colors of the setting sun—except that the sun was currently rising to the east. It was too far to make out individual parts of the cloud, but with a sickening feeling Klein knew what he'd see if he was close enough.

The Salamander army had come. And they weren't waiting for the leadership vote to happen.

Chapter Text

"…Faction Leaders function similarly to guild leaders, except for an entire race; in addition they have a variety of powers over the laws and foreign relations for a given race (q.v. «Leadership Powers», «Alliances», «War»). It is important to protect them: should a Leader ever be killed, his or her race's territory will become the territory of the attacker's race for a period of one week or until the next election cycle, whichever is longer…"
—Alfheim Online Manual, «Faction Leaders»

7 November 2022
Day 2 - Morning

However quickly a player might fly, they were still outpaced by the speed of sound. The buzzing thrum of thousands of Salamander wings reached Klein and the others long before the army itself, and even though the approaching horde was large enough to have been seen practically as soon as they left Gattan, they were still much too far to make out individuals and left the Imps with a few minutes of warning. Klein and Kunimittz returned to the ground, landing near where they'd been when they took off.

"Everyone, calm down!" Freikel shouted, his deep voice echoing in the narrow valley that spread out from the cave entrance. "We don't have time for panic. Yashik, you're the fastest—get to Everdark right now and warn everyone what's coming. Sekitaro, send messages to the other beta testers on our team and tell them to start organizing defensive chokepoints at all the cave entrances. Neha—"

"Who put you in charge?" demanded one of the Imps who hadn't been named.

Before Freikel could answer, all of the Imps suddenly appeared to be distracted by something, their eyes going to their left. At the same time, Klein received an incoming system message, which expanded into a purple window in front of him when he focused on it.

『07/11/22 07:00 AST — Salamander Leadership voting closed. For the next 30 days your «Faction Leader» will be «Kibaou». Please congratulate him!』

When Klein looked back up at Freikel, he noticed a new icon appear beside the Imp's HP gauge: a gold star. Freikel leveled a withering gaze at the Imp who'd challenged him, who had the grace to look away. "You did," he said flatly. "You all did. Now move like you've got a purpose, people!"

"What can we do to help?" Klein asked before he could think it through.

Freikel paused for only a moment, black eyes darting between Klein and Kunimittz. "You two can get the hell out of here as fast as possible," he said. "Because in about two minutes I'm not going to be able to guarantee your safety—nobody's going to be able to tell you apart from the army that's about to land on us, and in the midst of battle no one's going to try."

Kunimittz looked tormented. He started to step forward and object. "Fry—"

"GO!" Freikel roared before turning and beginning to shout more orders to the disordered collection of Imp players still standing there.

Klein and Kunimittz rose steadily into the air as the sound of approaching doom grew until it was near-deafening. They left red and violet trails of light behind them, arcing up and over the ridge where Klein had spent the night hiding and veering to the northwest to try to swing around the Salamander forces. The players below shrank to ant-like specks scurrying around and preparing their defensive lines, and then disappeared altogether.

"Are we doing the right thing?" Kunimittz said loudly, trying to be heard over the rush of air and the noise from the assault force. He kept venturing looks back, as if he could still see Freikel and the others from that far away.

"We're doing the only thing we can," Klein answered just as loudly, not entirely sure that he was right. "We've got to go find Dynamm and the others."

"Uh, Klein, hate to be the harbinger of pants-wetting news, but we've got a problem."

One look to the southwest told Klein exactly what his friend meant. While the bulk of the Salamander forces were descending towards the mountains, he could see several crimson lines of light arcing away from the main force—and towards them. It was a sure bet that they could see the flight trails of Klein and Kunimittz just as easily.

If it had been a straight pursuit, they would've had the advantage—the Salamanders were likely far closer to the end of their flight time from having come this far, and Klein and Kunimittz could likely outdistance them. As it was, the three Salamanders altered course northwards to cut them off, and despite swinging to the northwest to try to go around them, Klein grimaced when he realized that they were going to have no choice but to deal with the problem.

When they were close enough to tell the individual players apart, Klein and Kunimittz pulled up short and turned their backs to each other, hovering in the air and facing outward as the three Salamanders surrounded them with weapons drawn. He tried rising in order to be able to fly above them, but they matched altitudes whenever he did.

One of the Salamanders approached and addressed Klein from just outside of melee range, pointing with his sword and glaring at him from under bushy reddish-brown eyebrows. "Suppose you explain what you're doing running away with an Imp, boy."

"Boy?" Klein snarled, his cutlass in his hand. "Listen buddy, I don't know what kind of horseshit Kibaou's filled your head with, but you need to stop and think about what you're doing. This is my friend. We're all people, not fairies."

"Sounds like he's one of Mortimer's people, Corvatz," said the Salamander off to Klein's right. "The commander said to take prisoners if we can."

The voice of the third spoke from behind Klein, nervousness in his tone. "Um, guys, seriously, isn't this getting out of hand?"

"Shut up, Malten," Corvatz snapped before quickly returning his attention to Klein. "Look, we need every Salamander we can get, so if you move aside and let us deal with this Imp, we'll permit you to go back to Gattan unharmed."

"Mighty big of you," Klein said sarcastically. "I think I'll pass. We're leaving. Make your play or get out of the way."

Corvatz's eyes narrowed dangerously and he raised his sword as if preparing to give a signal. "So be it. Salamanders—"

"Hijan!" Klein uttered quickly, snapping his hand out and blasting Corvatz at point blank range. The damage was attenuated by the natural fire resistance of Salamanders, but it was still a solid hit that knocked the target back. As the burst of flame dispersed, Klein was already lunging forward, one hand on the flight controller while the other lashed out with his cutlass and slashed an angry red line across the metal chestplate of his opponent. In his peripheral vision, Klein saw a bolt of violet-black energy crackle across the air and impact the Salamander who'd been closing in from his right, temporarily blinding the man as he howled and clawed at his face.

"Let's go!" Kunimittz shouted, rocketing past the blinded Salamander and swinging the end of his mace hard into the player's chest, knocking off a chunk of his HP and sending him tumbling backwards through the sky with a trail of red particles.

Parrying an enraged swing of Corvatz's sword, Klein forced him back by sending another blast of fire for him to dodge, and shot off to the west right on the heels of his friend. Chancing a look back, he could see the Salamander that Corvatz had called Malten still hovering there with wide eyes and a stunned look on his face. Klein sketched out a quick salute to him and increased his speed as much as possible.

"We're in deep shit, aren't we?" Kunimittz called back as a pair of fire bolts shot past them.

"Not as bad as you think!" Klein shouted. "Now that we've got a head start, I don't think they can catch us. They've been flying for a while, and we'd just taken off—their wings ought to run out before ours do."

Klein thought back to the Spriggan player who'd helped him out in the first hours of the game—while it was still a game. They'd only known each other for a few hours, but the things Kirito had taught him had probably just saved his life. Klein resolved to return the favor someday—however he could.

A wave of heat traveled up his body as another fire bolt narrowly missed him by mere centimeters, searing the air as it passed. He could hear indistinct shouting in the distance, and when he looked back he saw Corvatz already turning and descending quickly towards one of the sculpted mesas that jutted out of the desert floor. The other Salamander that had still been with him didn't seem to notice that his superior had peeled off, and fired off another bolt that Klein—seeing it coming—was able to dodge.

Then the player's wings began to quickly flicker and lose their luminescence, their beat slowing until they stilled against his back. Too panicked to recover and glide, the man screamed as he plummeted towards the ground in a wild, tumbling spin.

Torn, Klein clenched his free hand and swore. "I know I'm gonna regret this… Kunimittz! Keep going!" So saying, Klein performed a tight loop and shot towards the ground at top speed, wings emitting a throaty buzz. The other Salamander, gravity-powered, was quickly approaching terminal velocity—but the maximum flight speed of even a level 3 character like Klein was faster still. The question was whether he could get to him in time.

The ground was approaching fast. Klein reached the Salamander when they were a mere hundred meters from the sand dunes, but when he tried to grab him he didn't have the strength to arrest the other player's fall. Grateful yet again for Kirito's flying lessons, Klein put every ounce of effort into stopping the other player's uncontrolled tumble and shouted to be heard. "Stop freaking out and pull back on the controller! You can glide to the ground!"

Klein wasn't immediately sure he'd gotten through—the way they were both plummeting, it was hard to read the other's face, and to just barely avoid crashing himself Klein had to sharply pull up and hover. But before the other Salamander could make a sandy crater in the desert floor, Klein saw his darkened wings spread, turning the helpless fall into the beginning of a lateral glide. The Salamander struck the ground at an angle, bouncing head over heels across the dunes and kicking up sprays of sand like a stone skipping across a pond. When he came to a rest, his hit points were close to the red zone… but he was alive.

Klein warily approached, ready to apply a burst of speed and flee if he had to. The other Salamander groaned as he slowly picked himself up, rivulets of sand pouring out of the gaps in his armor and from his hair. His eyes darted up and to the left where his HP gauge would be and widened; he looked up at Klein with an unreadable expression. "Thanks," he said. "I mean it. You saved my life."

"We're all in this together," Klein said. "No matter what that bastard Kibaou says, never forget that."

The Salamander nodded, shaking more sand out of his armor and rubbing his head. "Sorry about earlier. You better get going, though. Corvatz might come back once his wings recharge."

With a wave, Klein shot back into the air and headed towards Kunimittz—who, having ignored Klein's words, was hovering and watching from a short distance away. He drew close and hovered beside his friend.

"It's all good now, man. You ready to keep going?"

When Kunimittz didn't answer right away, Klein snapped his fingers in front of his friend's face. Blinking, Kunimittz shook his head quickly and waved his hand the way he would to dismiss a UI window.

"Hey, you all right, bro? You look spooked. Did something happen?"

Kunimittz swallowed hard and turned away. When he spoke, his voice was hollow with grief. "Yeah. That would be the understatement of the day."

"They what?"

The outraged shout echoed in the common room of the inn, silencing conversations and drawing stares—more stares, that is, than a bedraggled Imp had already drawn from the room full of Undines. The player's black-on-black eyes had a haunted, shell-shocked quality to them, and his gaze dropped to the mug of untouched tea he was holding in both hands as he answered.

"They invaded and conquered us. It was an early morning surprise attack, just after the closing of the leadership vote, and they… well, nobody was expecting anything like that. Not right on the day after… you know."

"I don't understand," Diavel said over his own tea with a troubled frown. "How did they manage to do that? You should've all been safe within the borders of Everdark. They'd wouldn't even be able to hurt anyone there unless— " His eyes suddenly widened as he inhaled sharply.

The Imp looked up from hooded eyes and nodded. "They killed him. He must've taken at least ten of them with him, but there were too many. It was the last thing I saw before I fled into the tunnels."

"Zerg rush," said another Undine at the table. When everyone else looked confused at the unfamiliar English words, he waved a hand in vigorous dismissal. "Another game. Not important."

"I get the idea, Jentou," said a third with a knowing grimace. "They swarmed him."

Jentou nodded in confirmation. "And then their whole city, yeah. That's basically what it sounds like." He turned back to the Imp. "I hate to ask this, Geddes, but… do you know how many they killed?"

Geddes shuddered and set down his cup. "I don't know. It wasn't like it was an outright massacre—they only killed those who kept fighting them. But we all got a system message when Freikel's Remain Light disappeared, warning us that Everdark was now Salamander territory. After that, it was… well, it was like there wasn't much point. Most that I saw either ran for their lives, or threw down their weapons and surrendered. Those who didn't do either…" It didn't need to be said. Everyone at the table got the point.

Finishing his drink, Diavel drummed his fingers lightly on the table, gaze slightly unfocused as he thought. Finally, he raised his eyes again to the Imp sitting across from him. "On behalf of the Undines, Geddes, we appreciate you bringing us this tragic news. You and any other Imp players who've fled the Salamander aggression will have amnesty here in Parasel, no questions asked. I'll make an announcement to that effect."

The Imp's eyes swam with the beginnings of tears, turning them into glistening black marbles. "Thank you," he whispered. "Today has been…"

"Today was a tragedy and a crime against humanity," Diavel said severely, his eyes hard. "One that this Salamander would-be tyrant will come to regret."

"What will you do, Leader?" Jentou asked. "You know we're behind you. When the rest of the Undines hear what's happened, everyone will be."

Diavel's fingertips rapped the table again. "For now, giving shelter to any Imp refugees will have to do. Jahala, I need you to start asking around and gathering a list of beta testers. We'll need a core cadre of experienced players to organize and lead border patrols. We need to know if the Salamanders plan to move on us, too—and we need to put a stop to it if they do."

"We should be safe in Parasel though, right?" asked Jahala as he took notes in a window hanging in front of him. "I mean, worst case scenario they could surround the city and keep us from venturing out to quest and level up… but they couldn't maintain that kind of siege indefinitely, and they can't enter the city without being at our mercy because of the Safe Zone."

Diavel nodded. "We'll be safe here." Then he grimaced. "Provided they don't kill me, too."

"Then with all due respect, Leader," Jentou said firmly, "you're not allowed to leave Parasel."

Diavel gave Jentou a rueful look. "I know. Believe me, I'm not happy about it—I'd much rather be out there leading the clearing groups. But we can't let things get to that point—we can't let them bottle us in here. If that happens, we'll all start falling behind in levels and skills, and we won't be able to stand against them when it counts. We need to protect our territory, and we need people to keep going out and getting stronger."

Jahala's hands tightened into fists where they rested on the table. "If they come with the kind of numbers they sent against the Imps, we won't be able to stand against them."

"No, we won't," Diavel agreed, expression resolute. He rose from his chair in one smooth motion, a decision forming in his mind as he glanced at each player in turn. "Not alone."

It took several minutes looking through menus and help files before Diavel found the functions he needed to set Parasel as a Safe Zone for Imp players, and when that was done he discovered that he didn't need to make any kind of announcement to advertise it—from what Jahala and Jentou immediately told him, the system seemed to broadcast rule changes to all the other members of his faction. Still, he knew there would be mass confusion and unanswered questions if he didn't say something, so he crafted a brief announcement mass-mail that called upon all available Undines to gather outside the gates of the spindle-like castle that rose from the island in the center of Parasel.

With most players still reluctant to venture outside of the Safe Zone less than 24 hours after Kayaba trapped them in the game, the vast majority of the Undine population was in a position to heed the call. A massive crowd in blue and sea-green colors grew quickly in the appointed spot—as their leader, Diavel had access to the faction stats and knew that there were exactly 2,471 living Undine players; from the look of it as he flew overhead, nearly all of them were there. He landed atop the gatehouse of the castle in a crouch and stood on the edge of the roof, raising to his lips an object that resembled a conch shell and using it to amplify his voice.

"Undine players, hear me! I know many of you are confused by the system message you received about Imps being granted the protection of our city's Safe Zone, and you're probably wondering why I've summoned you all here. I don't wish to waste your time, so I will speak plainly: the Salamanders have launched a surprise attack and slain the leader of the Imps, invading and subjugating their home city. From the reports we've received, many players were killed in this act of aggression—many human lives extinguished forever."

The outcry that this produced was easily the equal of the din that had greeted Kayaba's original announcement. Diavel waited until there was a suitable lull before tapping the narrow end of the conch and speaking again.

"Kayaba may have placed us in competition with each other to escape this world, but we must not allow him to rob us of our humanity in the process! I have opened our city to any Imp players seeking refuge from Salamander aggression, and I ask you all to open your hearts to them as well—many of them will have lost friends or family this day. In the meantime we must do all we can to prepare ourselves so that we can stand against any further acts of war.

"Among those of you like myself who were beta testers, I know that some are reluctant to reveal this fact to others. Now is not the time for isolationism or selfish ambition. I ask you all to come forward and contribute your knowledge and skills to the defense of our city. You may come to me privately if you wish—but I need to know who you are so that we can best utilize our most precious asset: people."

Diavel knew that from where he stood high above the crowd, no one could see his face clearly. Nevertheless he steeled himself against whatever fears and grief he felt, doing his best to don a mask of strength and resilience. To quell some of the unrest he could hear rising from the crowd, he swept his arm out in a grand gesture and went on. "Understand this! So long as you remain within the Safe Zone of Parasel, the Salamanders can do you no harm. So long as they cannot take the life of your leader, they cannot do to us what they did to the Imps. This will leave many of you reluctant to venture outside, even at the cost of limiting your ability to quest and level up. I will not judge you for that—for the safety of all of you, I myself cannot leave.

"But by the same token, your best defense against the Salamander threat is to make yourselves strong! My second in command, Jahala, will be organizing parties to patrol our borders and guide refugees towards the safety of Parasel. Those of you who join these patrol parties will have the opportunity to earn EXP fighting against the mobs—that is, computer-controlled monsters—which populate the wetlands surrounding our city. Even if you don't join these border patrols, I encourage all of you to travel in full parties for safety, and earn as much EXP as you can. The stronger we get, the more quickly and safely we can fight our way back to Arun and begin clearing Yggdrasil.

"There is one other thing you can do for yourself and the rest of the Undine faction," Diavel said, holding out a hand and uttering a few quiet syllables that produced a pulsating blue glow in his palm. "As most of you know, one of the advantages of the Undine race is in healing magic—only we can access the very highest-level spells of that type. All of you will have received a modest single-target heal as one of your starting abilities. No matter what kind of character you play, I urge you to train even that basic heal spell as much as you can. Eventually the most skilled of you will gain access to resurrection spells which will allow you to revive someone before their Remain Light disappears. I cannot overstate just how critical this is—it is literally a matter of life and death now."

There was one last point to make, and it was not a trivial one—though he feared it was likely to be controversial. Bringing the conch up one last time, Diavel took a deep breath. "The Salamanders have the advantage of numbers, and we will need allies in order to resist them. In aid of this, I will be sending envoys to the leaders of the other player races, warning them of the Salamander threat and seeking friendship wherever we can find it. If you see a party of Spriggans or Leprechauns—or anyone else—try offering your services to them as a healer in their party. We will gain far more by building bridges and alliances with the other races than by narrow-minded protectionism. And when we reach the World Tree, we will do so in a position of strength—and find a way to win freedom for everyone in this game!"

Even had Diavel anything further to say, it would've been drowned out by the spontaneous cheers that erupted like a tidal wave breaking across the assembled mass of Undine players. Although it was his wings which carried him into the air then on a thin pillar of blue light, he felt as if he could've been lifted by the force of that sound alone.

Kirito grimaced as he read the message, grinding his teeth without being aware he was doing it. His fist tightened around the snugly wrapped hilt of his sword, and when he realized he was still holding it he gave the blade a habitual flourish and sheathed it on his back. His gaze drifted to the south as if he could see through the dense mountain range that bordered the Undine lands not far from where he stood, as if he could peer through the many kilometers of distance and solid rock and see the Salamander army on the other side.

If this was true—and Argo had never before given him bad information—it confirmed his worst fears. Thus far he'd been able to avoid unnecessary conflicts with other players, and considering the lethal stakes he was more than happy to continue doing precisely that. At level 6 he reasoned he was probably well ahead of the curve—but magic had an uncomfortable tendency to act as a force multiplier, and a full party of Salamanders bent on PKing anyone they met would still have a pretty good chance of being the end of him, regardless of how much stronger he was on a one-to-one basis.

Still, the thought of launching a day-one blitzkrieg against the Imps… if this had been the beta, or if Kayaba hadn't trapped them all here in a life-or-death struggle to survive, he would've been struck with profound admiration at the lantern-sized Gnomish steel balls that the Salamander leader had to be carrying around under his hakama. As it was, he only felt a sense of deep revulsion at the thought of how many players had to have died in that assault. A duel or killing in self-defense would be one thing, though thankfully he hadn't yet had to put that to the test—Kirito had every confidence that he'd prevail in any fair fight.

But what Argo had described was simply murder.

Kirito thought long and hard about his options. The pay was fair, and he knew Argo was good for it—that was never in doubt. It was certainly more than the Yuld he was earning from the quest mobs he'd been fighting, and he could always grind along the way.

Looking around in all directions across the sprawling wetlands, Kirito made certain that there was no one within sight—on the ground or in the air—and sat down to rest his feet and wings while he responded.

「Understood. I'm close to finishing an important quest, but as soon as I'm done I'll head back north and bring word to our leader—her name's Yoshihara. I don't know her but that's what the system message said this morning. -K」

The response was swift. 「Anneal Blade, right? Don't take too long—you know I'll make it worth your time. And be careful, Ki-bou. These guys aren't screwing around, and I don't wanna lose you. -Argo」

There were any number of ways a person could've taken her parting comment, but the platonic nature of his longstanding friendship with Argo meant that only one of those had the slightest chance of crossing his mind. He grinned slightly as he tapped out his reply on the holographic keyboard hanging in the air in front of him.

「Don't worry. If I get ganked, I won't be around to collect the fee and you can afford to buy another Spriggan contact. -K」

Argo's reply was creatively profane, and made him laugh out loud as he got back to his feet and stretched his sore muscles.

Shading his eyes with the bridge of his hand, Kirito took one wary look back in the direction of Imp territory before breaking into a run. He needed to find more of the right type of mobs to wrap up this quest quickly—the reward for completing it was an absolutely essential piece of equipment, especially if he was going to have to potentially defend himself against Salamanders.

His boots left muddy footprints in the stagnant, shallow water of the lowland marshes as he kicked off and took to the air, the deep thrum of his wings cutting a swift path across the Undine sky.

Slashing at the air as if she could cut the message window to pieces with her claws, Argo was so incensed that she had to repeat the gesture twice in order to get her menu to close. Ears flat and tail twitching without conscious thought as the system interpreted her emotional state, she filled the room with another colorful and lengthy diatribe about Kirito's ancestry, hobbies, sense of self-preservation, wits or lack thereof, likely perversions of choice and preferred computer operating system.

"So does that mean he'll do it?" Alicia asked once Argo seemed to have gotten it out of her system. "You were a bit vague on that point."

Argo bared her teeth. "Yeah, he'll do it—the stupid, careless, free-wheeling ox-brained son of a—"

"I get the picture," Alicia said with an amused twitch of her ears—before her good humor collapsed and she let out a sigh. "At least that's one thing that's gone right today."

"Screw Raikouji—"

Alicia made an appalled face. "Rather not."

"—it's not your fault the rest of our faction is filled with idiots who can't see the big picture here. If we're all still alive this time next month, you'll get another chance." Argo paced around the small room as if she was trying to walk a groove into the floor, tail still slashing animatedly with her level of agitation. "I need to head north. I don't have any ears in the Puca, and it's bugging me not knowing what's going on up there."

It was a striking admission from Argo, and Alicia doubted that it was one she would've given if she was any less upset. Whatever this Spriggan contact of hers had said, it had really gotten under her skin. "Good luck," she said. "When you see the Puca, say hi to all four of them for me."

Argo snorted. Alicia's joke was an exaggeration, but there was a grain of truth in it. Only the Spriggans were less popular—or less populous. Out of the two thousand players in the closed beta, barely 150 of them had been the musicially-inclined race of fae. Barding magic required a certain amount of actual musical or singing ability on the part of the player, or at least the aptitude to use one of the simplified instruments that resembled a controller from a play-along music video game.

Alicia stood by the window of the inn room, her hands clasped behind the small of her back. She canted her head in Argo's direction as the younger girl manipulated her equipment menu and donned her traveling cloak. "You realize that Rai's going to be super-pissed if he finds out you're reaching out to the other races behind his back. He wants us all to sit tight, work on leveling up, and protect the city of Freelia and its environs."

Argo's brown eyes glittered with reflected candlelight as she drew her hood up over her head and fixed Alicia with an uncomfortable stare. "Raiko-pin can pound sand. He doesn't own me." The door shut behind her with a slam, leaving Alicia alone and momentarily speechless.

Freelia was in most areas a colorful, vibrant city—the Cait Sith, as a whole, were a popular race and tended to attract fun-loving players with a good sense of humor. You had to be able to laugh at yourself at least a little bit in order to play an anthropomorphic feline and put up with the inevitable teasing from players who liked to grab your tail.

But like most of the cities, it had been designed to also include a few artificially run-down "slums" with appropriately-themed NPCs and quests. It was into these alleys and side streets that Argo quietly disappeared, her Hiding skill melting her into the shadows as she trained it up.

Now and then she would turn her keen eyesight on a particularly dim or shabby stretch of street, night vision enhancing the low light and bringing some of the darker corners into relief. In one of these byways she crouched and made a sound with her tongue against the roof of her mouth, hand slipping into her cloak and emerging with a small object grasped in her slender fingers. She set it on the ground and went motionless, making the tchtch sound again and waiting patiently.

Before long, movement stirred in the dark, soft and barely audible noises scuttling against the packed dirt street. A sleek gray form a little smaller than her forearm with a tiny yellow cursor was momentarily visible in a patch of moonlight, although her night vision let her track its progress until it paused before her offering, whiskers twitching suspiciously and beady black eyes taking in its surroundings before venturing to nibble at the small chunk of cheese.

Activating her race's Beast Taming skill, Argo reached out and stroked the rat's smooth fur, placing her palm on the ground and letting the creature clamber up onto her shoulder as its cursor turned green.

"You're a pretty one, aren'cha?" she whispered. "We're gonna be good friends, you and I."

The rat sat up on its hind legs and sniffed the air, then pushed at the hem of her hood until its nose poked around the front where it could see her face. She reached up with a fingertip and touched the rat on its forehead, activating one of Beast Taming's optional child skills. Her eyes flashed briefly with an amber light that was mirrored in her new pet's tiny black orbs, and the same light sheeted across the rat's body for a moment.

"But first," she told her pet quietly, taking to her feet again, "I've got a little task for you."

A squeaking sound was the only reply—but words weren't necessary through the bond that she now shared with the simple creature. Argo smiled a secret smile of anticipation in the shadow of her hood.

"Eyes and ears, my little friend," she said as she began heading in the direction of the castle that she could see towering above the sprawling city of Freelia. "Eyes and ears."

Asuna sat with her legs dangling over the edge of a small stone foot bridge, one of hundreds that spanned the Venitian-style canals and channels that criss-crossed the city of Parasel. There was a damp chill in the night air, but it didn't seem to touch her—according to the help files, the Undine race was resistant to cold and could breathe underwater for a time, though she hadn't put the latter ability to the test and wasn't sure she wanted to try. She'd bought a loaf of bread intending to pick off pieces and feed it to the fish she could see just below the water's surface, but was annoyed to find that it didn't work that way—she could take bites out of the bread and even cut it with her starting dagger, but as soon as she threw a piece at the water it burst into a tiny spray of blue polygons, its durability exhausted.

So the hard bread had become her late night snack, and as she worried at it with her teeth she kept ruminating over the speech that her faction leader had given earlier in the evening. The shock and fear she'd felt at the news had quickly turned to outrage, and that in turn had been replaced by determination as she'd found herself swept up in the rollercoaster of emotion that Diavel had inspired in the crowd. She hadn't earned so much as a single experience point yet, but after a few minutes of practice she'd been pleased to find that casting the basic healing spell she started with wasn't so difficult as she'd feared. It was only four syllables if you counted the moraic N at the end, and the cadence wasn't hard to get.

"Zuyasun," she whispered softly for practice, feeling the now-familiar warmth as the light of the basic healing spell flared in her hand, depleting a small amount of the blue bar she could see just below her HP gauge. She wasn't hurt and there were no other nearby targets, so it faded quickly without effect—but she'd made it happen. She could use magic. If the circumstances hadn't been what they were, she might've been giddy with joy over the discovery.

What Diavel said had stayed with her. Here, perhaps, was something that she could do—something that might save someone's life. It was a thought she'd seized upon like a castaway grasping for driftwood, the idea that she might be able to do some good in this digital purgatory without having to fight another person.

"You've gotten good at that," observed a familiar voice from the opposite end of the bridge. A twitch of surprise shot through Asuna before reason asserted itself and reminded her that no harm could come to her within the city limits. Diavel stood a few meters away, limned in light as he leaned against a lamp post. "Have you been out questing?"

Asuna shook her head. "Goodness, no. I'm still scared to leave the city." She looked down at the dagger she'd been using to slice the bread.

Diavel followed her eyes, misunderstanding the look. "Still just the starting weapon? Nobody's leveled up their Smithing yet, but there are NPC shops where you can buy something better fairly cheap."

"It's not that," she said, sheathing the dagger and putting the remainder of the bread back in her inventory. She'd been delighted when she figured out that she didn't have to carry it around in her hands. "I just don't want to fight anyone. I don't think I could."

Diavel made a thoughtful noise, coming over and sitting on the edge of the bridge a few paces away from her. "You don't have to. But you should at least learn to defend yourself. Do you plan on using your healing magic?"

Asuna nodded. "I think so. I'd like to, at least. It's something I could do to help people without fighting."

"Well, yes and no," Diavel said. "It's true that you could level up your Water Magic skill and improve that spell without ever drawing your weapon. But you'd still be at level 1, and it would forever limit the power you could achieve and the spells you'd have access to. You wouldn't be able to get new skill slots for Holy Magic, which is required in combination with Water to use the strongest recovery spells—including resurrection. And even if you could, you wouldn't have the MP to cast them. Moreover… out in the field is where healing is most critical. If someone can get back to the city alive, even with only one hit point left, they're safe and can heal themselves."

Asuna hadn't considered that. There was so much she had to learn if she was going to be stuck in this world. "I can't do it," she said quietly. "Please don't make me."

"Nobody will make you do anything," Diavel assured her. "But the mobs in the wetlands immediately surrounding the city are all very low level, and none of them have dangerous attacks. You could earn some EXP and practice your skills in relative safety without ever raising your hand to another person. And with that basic heal you've gotten so good at casting, you shouldn't have anything to worry about."

The idea outright terrified her. Even the lowest-level… mob, she supposed they were called… could kill her if she was careless. If she stayed in the city, she was safe. They all were. She didn't understand why anyone would want to go out there and take the risk.

But there was truth in Diavel's advice. He'd been in the beta—whatever that was; it seemed to signify that he'd played the game before—and he'd been elected the Undine leader. He obviously knew far more than she did, and if he said that her "level" limited the spells she could use, he was probably right. As well, what he'd said about healing being needed outside the city rather than within the Safe Zone made all too much sense. If she wanted to save lives, eventually she'd have to be where they needed saving.

"I need to think about this," she said after a long silence.

Diavel nodded as he rose to his feet. "Of course." He started back across the bridge, and then stopped halfway there. "I think there's more strength in you than you realize, Asuna." And so saying, his wings materialized on his back and carried him off in the direction of the castle where he now resided.

When morning came, it brought with it a clarity of intent that she hadn't felt since she first logged into Alfheim. It took her a bit of asking around, but before long she found herself walking into a rustic shop with a sword and shield painted on the sign that hung above the door. A bell tinkled above her head when the door opened and closed, making her smile in momentary nostalgia, and as she looked around at the bewildering array of arms and armor on display, she saw that she was the only person in the store other than the obese, smiling shopkeeper.

"Excuse me, sir," she said as she approached the counter. "I need a better weapon than this." She tapped the dagger belted at her side. After a moment, she added, "and maybe some kind of armor to protect myself."

"You've come to the right place!" the shopkeeper said jovially, smiling at her in an automatic sort of way. "What can I get you?"

"I'm not really sure," Asuna admitted, panning her gaze around the room again as she thought about it. "What do you recommend?"

The smile remained fixed on the man's face. "It's difficult to say," he replied in an odd tone of voice.

Asuna looked at him in confusion. "Well, I certainly couldn't say—I don't know anything about weapons. I don't want to fight other players, just… mobs."

Still the same smile, as if it was painted on his face. The shopkeeper scratched his head and gave her a confused look that was easily a match for her own.

This was getting her nowhere—the man was completely unhelpful, and possibly touched in the head. Asuna was starting to get annoyed. "Look, I'm just asking for a little advice. If you can't help me, you can't help me, but just say so."

After a few beats, the shopkeeper said, "Can I help you?"

Asuna nearly blew her top at this, but just when she was opening her mouth to give the idiot shopkeeper a piece of her mind, something clicked for her and she felt extremely silly. Of course he couldn't give her advice—he wasn't a real person. When she looked at him closely, she realized that she couldn't see the green cursor or HP bar that appeared above any other player when she focused on them—the cursor was white and there was no thin ribbon of green in a quarter-circle around his head.

Blushing furiously and grateful that no one else had been there to see her make a fool of herself, she thought it over. It needed to be something she could use with one hand, leaving the other hand free to cast spells—at least, she assumed so. Something lightweight—she wasn't very strong, didn't want to be slowed down by a lot of weight, and she knew she'd never be able to lift some of the bigger weapons or swing around something heavy like a mace. She didn't want something so small that she'd have to be up close and personal with a monster like she would with the dagger, but she didn't know how to shoot a bow.

Her eyes traveled the length of the shop several times before alighting on something she'd missed the first time, hanging high on the wall behind the counter. It was perfect: one-handed, light, quick, and with enough reach to keep from having to get right up in an opponent's face.

"Excuse me," she said, pointing tentatively at the back wall. "How much is that rapier?"

Chapter Text

"The only way to escape this world is to pass through the vortex that has opened high above Yggdrasil itself—and the only way to reach it is to clear the dungeon within the World Tree and defeat the boss that waits at the top. Whosoever delivers the Last Attack to this boss will win the favor of High King Oberon, who will grant that player's race and two of its allies the power of Unlimited Flight."
Akihiko Kayaba, Alfheim Online Tutorial

7 ~ 8 November 2022
Day 2 - Evening

By the time Kirito was able to return to Lithjagg and turn in his quest, he was exhausted beyond belief. He'd spent half the evening his first night in the game and nearly the entire second day grinding the quest mobs for the rare drop that he needed, and was ready to lay a curse upon the family of whoever had designed the game's random number generator when he finally got his hands on the precious flower he needed.

A short night's sleep in Lithjagg relieved most of Kirito's exhaustion from the previous full day of questing, and by midmorning he finally arrived at the Spriggan home city of Penwether, a complex of ancient-looking stone structures that surrounded a towering pyramidal ziggurat which contained the vast majority of the city itself. He approached the main entrance fully expecting to have to wait a while before he was able to see Yoshihara, the elected leader of the Spriggan faction.

What he hadn't expected was to be told that she wasn't there.

"Sorry bud, she went out to the Scarhill ruins with her party." The bored-looking, overweight Spriggan guard sitting on one of the lower steps of the ziggurat didn't seem the least bit sorry, nor did he appear to have much interest in conversation. His replies were perfunctory and disinterested, as if he'd much rather be anywhere else doing anything else other than being stuck with the job of sitting there and answering for his leader's whereabouts.

"Out?" Kirito said incredulously. "She left the city?"

The other Spriggan eyed him askance and managed the impressive feat of sounding both bored and sarcastic at the same time. "No, she's astral-projecting herself out to the ruins so that she can grind EXP in two places at once. Next stupid question?"

Kirito palmed his face and peeked at the man through his fingers. "Fantastic. Does she have any idea what's going on in the game right now?"

The guard made an exasperated sound and finally turned his full attention on the player badgering him, crossing his arms. "What do I look like, her secretary? If you want to talk to her so bad, why don't you buzz off and go there yourself? I'm sure she'd love to play 20 questions with some random kid while she's trying to level up."

Turning away in disgust, Kirito stalked off and found a patch of grass to sit in while he thought, wishing that he knew anyone who was traveling with the Spriggan leader. He'd tried sending her a message, but by default players couldn't receive messages from someone who wasn't a friend or guildmate—you had to toggle off that privacy feature manually, and you had to know it was there in the first place. And even if he'd been allowed to send her a private message, it probably wouldn't have reached her or her party as long as they were in a dungeon anyway.

In the beta, Kirito had loved playing a Spriggan. Aside from the aesthetics of the race and the proximity of the useful Anneal Blade quest, Illusion was more useful to a creative-minded player than it was given credit for, and the small population and individualistic attitude that prevailed in the race's typical player base suited his solo nature. But there were times when being part of a very small, casual faction with no real direction or structure had its drawbacks.

This was one of them.

The Scarhill ruins, Kirito knew, wasn't especially far away—it was a popular low-level dungeon northwest of Penwether, buried in the forest like most of the other ruins that dotted the Spriggan lands. He could probably reach it in under an hour if he pushed himself and only stopped to rest his wings.

Briefly he considered firing a message back to Argo and telling her that he couldn't find Yoshihara, but the fact that his nominal leader had left the safety of her home city wasn't something he wanted to tell even a friend—not even Argo, who he trusted more than anyone else in this game.

Besides, Argo's reply was likely to be: well, go find her thenthat's what I'm paying you for.

He didn't think the Salamanders were likely to be launching any incursions this far north when they hadn't even—to his knowledge, anyway—hit the Undines yet. But it wasn't a chance he wanted to take, and he had agreed to deliver a message.

It was the last point that decided him. His working relationship with Argo was built on mutual trust and reliability, and he had a reputation to uphold. Or so he liked to think. Gathering himself, he stopped by an NPC smith to repair all of his gear to top condition, and set out for the ruins at his maximum cruising speed.

In a way, the diversion was convenient; Kirito needed to head towards Leprechaun territory anyway in order to have a chance at finding a player weaponsmith of any skill this early in the game, and Scarhill would be more or less on the way. When he had to land in a winding glen in order to make his first rest stop, he found a mossy log that jutted out over the trickling river and sat down, drawing the Anneal Blade from his back and lovingly running a palm down the length of the glossy black blade.

It had been his favorite sword in the beta—even after he'd outleveled it and needed to upgrade to something more powerful, he still kept it in his inventory for when he had to go hunting lower-level mobs for crafting or upgrade materials, cherishing its balance, appearance and upgradeability. The one he now held across his lap had yet to be upgraded at all, and he didn't trust the low skill levels of the NPC smiths to try to sharpen it for him—for that, he would seek out a dedicated player smith and spend some time gathering the materials that would maximize his chances of a successful upgrade.

It was well after noon by the time he reached Scarhill, and the midday sun had finally burned through the haze of fog that tended to accumulate at ground level in the forest. True to its name, the ruins were an ugly wound of orange stone cutting into the side of a gentle slope in the forest, a place where the land grew rough and uneven as it prepared to yield to the colder regions leading to Leprechaun territory. Although the color of the stonework framing the entrance to the underground passages stood in stark contrast to the verdant forest around it, the structure was so overgrown with moss and vines that it was easy to miss if a player didn't know exactly what they were looking for. Hovering far above, he surveyed the entrance to the dungeon from a safe distance.

If Kirito had been a few levels lower or any less skilled, the pair of tall golem-like mobs guarding the entrance would've posed an insurmountable threat—they were intended to be taken on by a party with a minimum average level of 4. Even at his level, it was still a risk, but the EXP from defeating them would be worth it—and the alternative was to use an Illusion spell to disguise himself as a monster and hope they didn't aggro him as he passed.

The problem was that even armed with his beloved Anneal Blade he doubted he could take them both at the same time.

Considering and rejecting several strategies, Kirito suddenly swooped lower, narrowing his eyes and taking a closer look. What he saw made him breathe a sigh of relief. When he focused on them one by one, each of their HP gauges appeared individually rather than both gauges appearing at once when he looked at either mob. As in the beta, they were individuals—not a linked encounter. Had they been an encounter, there would've been no way of pulling them individually; aggroing one would bring them both running no matter how he did it.

A plan began forming in his mind. Opening his menu, he navigated until he reached the detailed info window for one of his spells, nodding in satisfaction as he confirmed its maximum casting range. Armed with this knowledge, he landed safely outside of the aggro range of the golems and looked around until he found a rock about the size of a plum.

Holding his left hand palm-up, he brought the hand up to his mouth and whispered a series of arcane syllables. As each fell from his lips, they turned into visible ripples above his palm which resembled the way intense heat would distort the air. When the incantation was complete, he held his palm out and focused on a spot about twenty meters to the left of the entrance, then clenched his fist. The magical energy disappeared as if crushed in his grip, and at the point on the ground where he'd focused there appeared a motionless replica of Kirito himself.

The red cursor of the left-hand golem flashed once, and it immediately turned and charged at his decoy. As soon as it was in motion, Kirito held the rock up in a throwing position. It began to glow as he assumed the correct posture for his Thrown Weapon skill, and a moment later it shot across the distance separating him from the second golem, striking it. Just as the first golem reached his decoy and struck at it, causing it to disappear in a puff of black smoke, the second golem charged at him, safely pulled out of the other's aggro range.

It would still have been a difficult fight, but Kirito was prepared. The golem's attacks were slow and relatively easy to dodge as long as he was only fighting them one-on-one, and Kirito used his high AGI and knowledge of the mob's attack animations to predict where it was going to strike and evade into a position for a counterattack. It took a little over a minute of this dodge-and-strike pattern to whittle down its health, until finally it gave a great shudder and crumbled into an inert pile of stone which burst into a spray of blue polygons moments later.

He had just finished clearing the second mob the same way when he heard a slow clap behind him, from the direction of the entrance. Still in the state of intense focus he went into while fighting, he spun with his weapon ready, relaxing only when he saw that the source of the noise was a full group of Spriggan players who'd just emerged from the ruins.

"Now that was well-done, kid. Solo, no less." The speaker—and, he assumed, the person who'd given him the half-hearted applause—was a tall spearwoman with a cocky posture and expression, wearing a few pieces of leather armor. Her medium-length ash-gray hair was held back by a black hairband, and she gave him a searching look as she stepped forward, followed closely by the rest of her party.

Flourishing and sheathing his sword, Kirito saw that she was the only woman in her party and put two and two together. "Yoshihara?" he asked.

The woman stiffened and sharpened her gaze. "Who wants to know?"

Kirito didn't flinch away from that intense look. "Someone with a message. Someone who doesn't have time to play guessing games. Are you?"

He could see her party members adjusting the way they stood and loosening their weapons in their sheaths, and widened his own stance slightly as a precaution. The woman held out a palm that stilled her group. "I'm Yoshihara, yes. Who told you where to find me, and what do you want?"

"A fat guard with an attitude problem, to answer the first question. As to the second, I have urgent news about what's happening far to the south."

Yoshihara rolled her eyes. "Geniha talks too much. I'm going to kick his ass when I get back. All right, speak your piece."

Relaxing a little, Kirito folded his arms across his chest. "The Salamanders launched a surprise attack against Everdark yesterday morning, killing the Imp leader and taking over their city. There's a good chance they could continue their war march up the eastern coast. Someone hired me to warn you about that, and to bring you a message from the Undine leader: an offer of an alliance against the Salamander threat."

"Right," Yoshihara said sardonically. "Because what I want to do in the first few days of this Death Game is get you, me and everyone else in my faction killed by taking sides in someone else's war."

"It'll be our war if the Salamanders crush the Undines next."

Kirito could see several members of her party giving each other uneasy looks. Yoshihara herself looked unmoved. "Look, thanks for the offer, kid, but whatever testosterone-laden dick-waving contest is going on down south, I'd rather wait and see how it shakes out. Go back to the Undine leader and tell them…" She hesitated, mulling over her words, then grinned. "Tell them the Spriggans wish them the best of luck, and maybe we'll see them at the World Tree."

"Oh man, you have no idea how happy I am to see you guys!"

Running across the small Sylvan glade in the Ancient Forest where they'd agreed to meet, Klein gave his old friend a hug—a manly hug, complete with vigorous back-slapping—and stepped back. "Not half as glad as I am to find you alive, Dynamm." He whistled. "Damn, it's uncanny just how much this character looks like you."

Dynamm reached up and stroked his wispy mustache. "You think? The game wouldn't let me pick pure black as a hair color, but this dark brown is a fair stand-in."

"It's not the hair," Klein said, grinning. "It's more like… well, the Salamander and Imp characters me and Kunimittz rolled have some pretty obviously nonhuman features. Between his eyes and my eyebrows…"

"Unibrow, you mean."

Klein whacked Dynamm lightly on the side of the head. "It's not a unibrow! They're just bushy. Anyway, you Sylphs look a lot more… well, normal. Human-like."

"Except for these," Dynamm said as he reached up and tapped one of his angled, pointed ears.

Klein waved at the air. "Details."

Dynamm laughed. "So what about the others?"

Sighing, Klein found a tree stump to sit down on in the clearing and looked up at his friend. "I still haven't heard from Issin. Dale's up with the Gnomes, and Harry One's just east of there with the Leprechauns. Both of them are sitting tight until we get there, and from what they said it's pretty peaceful up on that end of things so far. But that's all the way on the north end of the continent—it's a hell of a road trip from here."

"Issin was rolling a Cait Sith, wasn't he?"

Klein nodded at Dynamm's question. "Which makes it weird that I haven't heard from him—far as I know, nothing bad's going on up there either—but I can't send him a PM. Every time I try, the system gives me this funky message saying that the recipient doesn't accept blah-de-blah."

Dynamm scratched at the scruff on his chin. "Well, the Cait Sith are just north of here, and our relations with them are—not really friendly, but not hostile, either. Once we get through Sylph territory, we can look for him there." Frowning, he glanced eastward at the dense treeline. "So what's this I hear about some heavy shit happening with the Salamanders, dude?"

Klein groaned. "My man, you do not even want to know. Some warmongering asshole took advantage of all the chaos and anger after we were all ported back to our home city, and got everyone worked up into a frenzy. They came down on the Imps like a ton of bricks, killed their leader, and took over. We just barely got out in time."

Dynamm looked pale. "Did they seriously just wipe them out? Like, kill all those people?"

Kunimittz shook his head. "Nah, I've gotten a few messages from some friends I made before this all went down—they're okay. From what they're telling me, the Sallies—that's what they call the Salamanders, though not to their faces—basically told everyone who surrendered or was captured that they work for them, now. And that if they fight loyally for the Sallies, they'll be one of the allied races that get to come along when they clear the World Tree and get out of here."

"Or they can rot in a cell until they change their minds," Klein added grimly.

Dynamm let out a low, slow whistle, running his hand over the forest-green bandana that covered his head like a skullcap. "Talk about your offers you can't refuse."

"Shh!" Kunimittz suddenly made a sharp shushing sound, waving for attention. "You guys hear that?"

Klein hadn't heard anything, but a few moments later it became a moot point. The foliage at the edge of the treeline parted as a half-dozen Sylphs emerged, weapons drawn—two of them with bows that already had arrows nocked, one a mage who had his hands held out meaningfully, obviously prepared to cast. Jumping to his feet, Klein swore under his breath, his hand moving away from the hilt of his sheathed cutlass and slowly raising into the air.

One of the Sylphs stepped cautiously forward, taking one hand off of her very long katana and signaling the others to hold their positions. Klein swallowed hard and began to sweat a little. If she hadn't been holding a weapon on him and leading a party of people who looked ready to cut him down where he stood, he would've been reduced to a stuttering puddle by how stunningly beautiful the tall, elegant-looking Sylph was—he could almost imagine how she must look in real life, without the wide-set elfin ears and dark green hair, and caught himself wondering if her hair was really that long.

From the expression on her face, though, she was in no mood to be flirted with. Her eyes flicked swiftly between the three of them, lingering on Kunimittz and finally Klein. "You're not a Salamander raiding party," she said slowly. "And you're too loud to be spies." She glanced at Dynamm, suspicion and anger in her eyes. "And I have no idea what you are doing here with them. So why don't you explain yourself."

Klein coughed, trying to compose himself. "Well, it's like this—"

"I wasn't talking to you," the woman remarked evenly, still looking at Dynamm.

Dynamm looked more embarrassed than afraid. "These are my friends from the outside. We were supposed to all meet up and party together, but we got separated when that insane GM warped everyone back to their starting cities." He pointed at Klein. "He was our guild leader in the last game we played."

The woman's katana lowered fractionally. She turned her gaze on Klein. "Now you can talk. Where do you stand on the war?"

"The war?" Klein repeated blankly. "Have they attacked you guys, too?"

She looked at Klein as if he was an idiot child. "We've been repelling raiding parties from your people since yesterday afternoon. Mostly Salamanders, sometimes with Imps mixed into the party." She glanced significantly at Kunimittz. "We set up rotating border patrols as soon as we got word of what happened to the Imps, so they haven't been able to come in force—just in parties small enough to slip through the picket."

"That's not us," Klein said immediately.

"I can tell," the Sylph woman said as she slowly sheathed her katana in a long purple scabbard, slinging it behind her. "You're much too noisy and ignorant. But we also can't have you running freely around our territory."

Bristling, Klein started to argue the slight, then decided that under the circumstances he'd rather be thought ignorant than dangerous. "We've got no intention of staying," he said. "There's another friend we need to search for, a Cait Sith. All we want to do is pass through to their lands."

Scrutinizing Klein and his companions for a few more moments, she finally waved at the rest of her party; they lowered their weapons and returned arrows to quivers. "I wish I could allow you to do that," she said. "But as I said, I can't permit you to roam Sylph territory freely. And the next patrol you encounter may not ask questions before attacking." She gestured at one of her group, beckoning him forward. "Kestral , I want you flying point on our way back. If you see any other patrols, be ready to explain the situation before they run into us."

"Where are we going?" Klein asked.

The Sylph party leader fixed him with her emerald green eyes. "I'm taking you to Sylvain, our home city. Our leader will be in a position to grant you safe passage, if he believes your story. For your own safety you'll be traveling as our prisoners, but if you agree to behave and do as you're told, we'll forego any kind of bindings."

"Can't you just escort us to Cait Sith territory?"

"That's not my call to make," she replied simply, as if that settled the matter. "Will you come peacefully?"

Klein turned up both palms in a gesture of futility. "I don't see what other choice we have."

The woman finally smiled, albeit thinly. "Perhaps you're not as dumb as you seem. Come."

Not for the first time, Klein thought it was just as well that the person who'd insulted him was a beautiful woman who was in a position to slice him into very small pieces if she wanted to—otherwise he might've been tempted to protest.

If there was anything funnier than a flying cat, Argo mused, she had yet to come across it. The very first time she'd ever seen another Cait Sith materialize yellow dragonfly-like wings from their back and start flitting around like a fairy wearing nekomimi, she'd laughed so hard she nearly hurt herself—and that was a feat, considering that actual damage in the game world didn't cause pain as such.

While she normally preferred to stick to the ground when she was trying to remain discreet or stealthy, when covering long distances there was no substitute for flight. And as she soared as fast as she could high above the surface of the ocean, she had to admit—it was a lot of fun once you got used to doing it without that obnoxious controller taking up a free hand.

The island on which the city of Freelia was built was roughly similar in shape and topography to Shoudoshima, albeit larger, spanning about eighty kilometers along the east-west axis with a harbor on the south side nestled between a pair of finger-like peninsulas. The similarity was such that she sometimes wondered if it had been intentional; sadly, Argo had yet to find a vendor anywhere in the city that sold olives. The channel separating it from the mainland was just narrow enough on the north side to be crossed in one flight, and before she descended in a glide to the opposite shore she could see far enough across the vast grassy plains to just barely catch sight of the Puca home city on the northern horizon.

The nearness was deceptive; it was probably nearly 100 kilometers away and would take her most of the day if she went by air after factoring in breaks to fully rest her wings. Spending part of the time on foot, it would be getting on towards dinner before she reached her destination, but she'd be far less likely to be spotted by hostile players and would have more chances to earn EXP along the way from solo mobs.

All of these estimates, of course, were assuming that nothing delayed her along the way. And as a flashing message icon in her HUD reminded her, that was a losing assumption—it wasn't exactly safe to fly blind while trying to respond to PMs.

「Spriggan leader's not taking sides, and she's an idiot. She said to tell the Undine leader "good luck and see you at the World Tree". I need to head to Lepu territory to get my sword upgraded. -K」

Argo blew out an exasperated breath and swore. People were so short-sighted and stupid. Her mind raced as she chewed on the message she wanted to send, then hit Reply and attached a quantity of Yuld to the message.

「I don't have time to play telephone back-and-forth with the Undines right now, Ki-bou. I need a big favor from you. Go to Parasel and tell their leader—use these exact words—'the Spriggans are sympathetic to your cause, but are reluctant to take sides and widen the conflict. Send word if the Salamanders invade.' Here's the money I promised—more if you do this for me.」

There was a lengthy silence from Kirito's end—long enough for her to deal with a weak insect mob that swooped down from above and tried to attack her. As she depleted the last of the beetle's HP with a combo from the combat claws strapped to her forearms, she got the new message notification and opened it without even looking to see what kind of EXP and money she'd gotten from the fight.

「This is way out of my way, and you're asking me to lie about what Yoshihara said. I don't like it. Why me?」

Argo sighed. Kirito could be so infuriatingly single-minded and straitlaced sometimes, and she really needed to get going. Her fingers flew over the virtual keyboard that hung in the air in front of her just above waist-height.

「 The Undines need to think they're not alone in this, but we can't promise an alliance we can't deliver. They need to hear this, and they need to hear it from a Spriggan. Help them if you can.」She thought about it for a moment, then added: 「This is an important job, Ki-bou. Don't let me down.」

Without waiting for a reply, Argo quickly scrolled through her game menu and began searching her expansive contact list until she found the name she wanted. Tapping the icon, she opened a new message.

「Heads up,」she wrote.「You said you'd pay for any good intel. I just got word that the Undines and Spriggans are talking about an alliance to push back the Salamanders. If your guy moves on them, it's gonna get ugly and could bring in others. -Argo」

Under normal circumstances Argo wouldn't have delivered the info to a buyer until she was paid, but in this case the payment wasn't the point—merely a tasty bonus. And strictly speaking, nothing she'd said was really a lie. She hit Send and cautiously scanned the area for hostiles as she waited, seeing nothing in her immediate vicinity but non-aggro animal mobs.

A few minutes passed with no response. Argo started walking north, and was considering pulling one of the nearby herbivores when she got a notification. Quickly, almost eagerly, she opened the message—and what she saw there made her smile broadly, as much from the contents as from the money that was electronically added to her purse when she opened it.

「Finally, something worth paying for. I'll pass it on to Kibaou. No names as per our agreement. Send word the moment you hear anything else useful. -Corvatz」

Asuna was fairly certain she was lost.

It shouldn't have been possible to get lost. All she'd needed to do was stay within sight of Parasel and stick to the easy mobs in the low wetlands that stretched out to the sea shore on the outskirts of the city. But the terrain was wet and icky and clutched at her boots when she walked, and after about an hour of trudging through the wetlands on foot she'd thought that perhaps this was as good a time as any to learn how to fly.

So she'd opened up the now-familiar help menu and searched until she found the entries on flying, and giggled when she held up her left hand and saw what looked like a floating joystick appear in her grip. Slowly and tentatively at first she'd followed the instructions—manipulating the controller to rise a few meters into the air, then letting go of it to hover in place and free up her hand. She could feel the strangest feeling between her shoulder blades as the wings moved, and once she felt like she'd gotten the hang of going up and down she decided to try going somewhere.

The exhilaration that had filled her then was unlike any other in the fifteen years she'd been alive. She'd laughed joyfully as she soared through the air, swooping and diving and practicing until a tingling sense of weariness on her back warned her that her wings were about to give out. So as she'd read in the manual, she'd glided to the ground to give them time to recharge.

And then abruptly realized she had no idea where she was.

Asuna kicked herself for not trying harder to find a party to go out with. But she didn't know anyone in the game other than Diavel, who was very busy now, and she knew he wasn't allowed to leave the city anyway. Besides, she hadn't been intending to go far.

Sighing, she looked around and tried to get a sense of her surroundings. In contrast to the flatness of the terrain in the area around Parasel, the place where she'd glided to the ground was punctuated by rolling hills that rose out of the swampy ground almost like islands, tall grass and cattails obscuring her view. She could see the red and yellow cursors of mobs here and there, none of which seemed close enough to bother her, and wondered for a moment what the difference between the red and the yellow was. She supposed the red probably meant "more dangerous" in some way, especially since one of the red cursors was hovering over the scaly back of an alligator that floated half-submerged in the water.

Since she was here, she reasoned that she might as well resume "leveling up", as they called it. She'd already received one such message after a battle, and it had startled her until she saw the English word "Congratulation!" at the top of the window followed by a handful of smaller messages about her HP and MP increasing.

Drawing her rapier, she allowed herself a momentary smile at how far she'd come in such a short time. The night before, she'd been petrified at the mere thought of setting foot outside of the city. And the first time she'd engaged a mob in combat, the dog-sized beaver had almost scared her into immobility before she remembered how to use the one rapier technique she'd found in her Skills menu. Now here she was lost in an unfamiliar landscape, and she was actually able to think about fighting some of the monsters around her without trembling in fear.

Perhaps even with a little bit of anticipation.

Pushing her way through the reedy grass, she got up onto the relatively dry ground of the hillside and picked a target—a large green frog the size of a post box which gazed at her indifferently as she approached. The yellow cursor over its head was slightly darker than the others, almost a light orange, but it seemed to take no special notice of her even though she had a weapon in her hand. Licking her lips and steeling herself, she held the rapier in the now-familiar posture that began the skill, and then launched herself forward in a streak of green light.

The frog gave out an extremely offended croak as she struck it, turning its cursor red, and she saw its HP meter go down a little bit. That made her frown—the mobs she'd fought before had lost nearly half their life when she hit them with that attack, something her Skills menu called «Linear». Since she had to wait a little bit before she'd be able to repeat that technique, she jabbed at the frog once more and then jumped back in disgust as a glistening tongue shot out of its mouth, narrowly missing her.

Another «Linear» took the frog's HP gauge down a little further; another strike like that would have it at the halfway point that would turn the green ribbon yellow. This time when it used its tongue attack she was ready; instead of jumping backwards she sidestepped and swung the rapier in a slashing motion that scratched a glaring red line of damage across the slimy tongue. She suppressed a brief surge of nausea and dodged again as the frog leapt into the air and slammed into the ground where she'd just been standing. She felt a wave of slight numbness briefly run through her feet as shockwaves rippled out from the point of impact, and a small amount of her HP gauge ticked away.

Sweating from exertion and nervousness, she struck with her rapier technique once more while the frog was recovering from its attack, and smiled as she saw its HP gauge turn yellow. This mob seemed to be a lot tougher than the others she'd fought so far, but if she kept this up she could handle it.

As soon as she landed her attack, the frog jumped again, this time ramming her in the midriff with its snout and sending her flying backwards to land on her butt. Her eyes widened when she saw how much of her HP that had taken away, and she was so rattled she actually had to repeat the incantation for her heal spell twice before it was successful, recovering most of her HP but depleting a third of her MP bar.

A little panicked, Asuna picked herself up and dove out of the way just in time to avoid another ground-pounding slam attack from the frog, landing face-first in a deep puddle of muddy water that soaked her through. Scrambling to her feet, she parried another tongue attack and held her rapier out before her, green light surging up the length of it as she launched and struck with another «Linear» attack.

The rapier shattered into polygons.

Stunned, Asuna stared at the spray of blue particles as they drifted through her fingertips and dissolved into the air. She had no idea what had just happened, but it didn't take her more than a moment to realize just how much trouble she was in. She cried out as she barely evaded another strike from the frog's tongue and struggled to run, staggering through the mud and knee-deep water that grasped at her boots and conspired to restrain her.

A blow struck her squarely in the back, a powerful sense of numbness spreading out from there as she went sprawling back into the mud with a scream that ended in a mouthful of disgusting water. Turning over, her legs bicycled as she tried desperately to push herself back away from the mob, wide eyes going to what was left of her HP gauge. She tried to cast her healing spell, but kept failing as she spat to rid her mouth of muddy water.

As the frog leapt into the air, she knew what came next would be the final blow, and she closed her eyes with a choked sob and threw up her arms futilely as she waited for death.

A pressure wave washed over her, and a mortal shriek split the air accompanying a shattering sound of the death that she was certain was her own. But when she dared to open an eye and look up, instead of the amphibian mob she saw a cloud of glimmering blue polygons falling around her like cool rain. Standing over her was a slender youth in a black hooded overcoat, equally dark unruly hair settling around his face as if he'd just come to rest from a swift motion. He held at ready an elegant long sword that matched his attire, the silvered edge of the obsidian blade reflecting the attenuated sunlight that filtered through the light fog.

The boy's black eyes scanned the area intently as he slowly stepped in a half-circle before relaxing his stance. The sword slashed out and down in a movement that startled Asuna before she recognized it from samurai movies as something you did to flick blood from a blade, and in one smooth motion he sheathed it on his back and turned to look down at her.

Asuna tried to find her voice, but between her shock at still being alive combined with the lingering rush from combat and her near-death experience, she couldn't make the words come out.

Then, as the adrenaline rush left her body empty of anything except shock, it ceased to matter. Her eyes rolled back into her head as darkness swallowed her.

Chapter Text

"Each race has a home city, which is considered a «Safe Zone» within which only players of that race (and of any races designated by their leader as an «Ally») are safe from harm. There are other towns and cities scattered throughout the world which are unaligned with any race; these function as «Safe Zones» for all players. Any place in the world not designated as a «Safe Zone» is a «Contested Zone», within which any player may be attacked by any other at any time…"
Alfheim Online Manual, «Safe and Contested Zones»

8 November 2022
Day 3 - Afternoon

Whenever Asuna slept, she forgot that she was trapped in a Death Game.

For whatever reason—denial, wishful thinking, or perhaps just a barrier to preserve her sanity—her dreams of the last few days had been filled not with monsters and fairies and magic and the risk of death, but with memories of the real world; of schoolwork and her mother's nagging, the impenetrably technical conversations when her father talked about his work, or even occasionally of the obnoxious boy in Classroom 4 who kept bugging her for a first kiss. There was no rhyme or reason to them, and when she awoke it was to the disappointing realization that however uncomfortable her dream might've been, it was nothing compared to the reality in which she was trapped.

This dream was of her mother. But it wasn't the mother who disapproved of nearly everything she did, who pressured her to excel at her studies so that she could attract a suitable husband, and who would never let her hear the end of it if she ever escaped from Alfheim Online. In this dream, she was still a child tiny enough to hold in her mother's arms, and when she looked up at her mama the only expression she saw was one of unconditional love.

As she rocked Asuna in her arms, her mother spoke of the future that lay ahead of her, and Asuna didn't know whether they were things half-remembered that her mother had ever actually said, or merely the things that she'd always wished to hear from her. It didn't matter. She felt safe, secure, protected, and loved.

When her mother said nothing for a time, Asuna closed her eyes and smiled, letting the gentle rocking motion and the sense of security lull her to sleep. It stayed with her as the dream began to fade, the fuzzy-edged quality of dreaming replaced slowly by the sharper, clearer senses associated with the waking world. She could feel a warm pressure against her and a comforting, mesmerizing sense of motion; a chilly wind briefly gusted across her skin and brought forth goose bumps.

Slowly, groggily, she opened her eyes to the world, trying to recall where it was that she'd gone to sleep. She was lying on her back, looking up at an early evening sky—no, that wasn't correct, she realized after a moment. She was being carried. Her eyes shot open the rest of the way, and she craned her head to see above her a young boy with ash-gray skin and hair as black as his clothing, one arm supporting her back and the other under the crook of her knees. Her body swayed slightly with each of his footsteps.

Asuna screamed.

The boy jumped—literally jumped; she could hear a deep sound that she assumed must be his wings as he took flight and soared backwards a bit in surprise, nearly losing his hold on her. As he landed, she beat at his shoulder and yelled. "Who are you? Put me down, put me down!"

The boy's face darkened in a blush, and he stammered as he looked around. "Uh—um, I-I don't think you want me to do that."

"Yes I do!" Asuna yelled, pounding the presumptuous boy again and again in the shoulder and arm with both fists. If she could've reached his head, she would've hit that too. "Now get your hands off me, you pervert! I said put me down!"

He flinched and looked down at her, conflicted, and then shrugged. "Okay."

The next thing Asuna knew, she felt a shock of cold lance through her as she fell into knee-deep water. She sat up, sputtering and spitting out the brackish water, and glared at the boy with a heat that she was sure could've launched a high-level fire spell if she knew how to cast one.

The boy rubbed at the back of his neck and wore an expression like he was struggling mightily with something. Finally his chest hitched a few times and he broke out laughing, hugging his arms across his belly as he nearly doubled over.

Furious, Asuna bolted to her feet and reached for her rapier as muddy water sheeted off of her and dripped cold fingers down her back. Her hand closed on nothing but air, and she looked down at her side in surprise, seeing the empty sheath where it had been.

Suddenly, as she realized why her weapon was missing, the memory of where she'd been and what she'd been doing flooded back into her. Her face turned bright crimson as it occurred to her that the boy hadn't been taking undue liberties with her—at least, she didn't think he had been. He'd interceded when she was moments from death, destroying the monster that had been about to kill her.

And then he'd laughed at her after dropping her in the water.

Forcing her hands back to her sides, Asuna found that she couldn't manage to unclench her fists as she glared at her rescuer, who had backed away a few steps with a look that suggested he was expecting her to blast him with a spell. "You could've put me down on my feet, you know," she grated out.

"Sorry, sorry," he said with an uncertain quaver in his voice. "You just… well, you were hitting me and you really seemed to want down now."

She looked down at her clothing. It had been soaked through and caked with mud after her battle with the frog mob, and her most recent dunk hadn't really done much to improve its condition—or hers, she realized as she got a glimpse of what she could see of her hair. And said clothing was clinging to her in a most indecent way that made her cheeks color once more. Fury and certainty rose in her again. "You did that on purpose."

Coughing slightly into his hand, the boy gave her a more serious look. "I saved your life, you know. A little gratitude wouldn't be out of line."

Still trembling with anger, Asuna gradually unclenched her fists and straightened her posture. She gave him a bow—a very shallow and brief one—and ground out the words as if each one caused her pain. "Thank you for helping me." That obligation seemingly settled, she took a few moments to look around her. The terrain was flatter than it had been where she'd gotten lost, but she still couldn't see Parasel. "Where are we?" And then she looked back at him. "And what are you?"

Surprise flickered across the boy's face. "Uh, you mean my character's race? I'm a Spriggan. Our territory's to the north. As for where we are…" He raised an arm and pointed at one of the hills. "We're actually not too far from your home city—once we cross that ridge you should be able to see it, although now that you're awake we can just fly there."

"We?" Asuna said. "I am going home. You are not going to follow me."

He chuckled nervously and ran his fingers through his hair. "Um, actually, I'm kind of going to Parasel myself on business. What were you doing out in that part of the swamp without a weapon, anyway?"

"I had a weapon," Asuna protested. "But while I was fighting that thing, it… well, it did the blue sparkly thing like when you kill a mob."

"Ah. You broke it," the boy said, nodding knowingly. "Its durability must've run out. When was the last time you repaired it?"

Asuna had a sinking feeling she knew what was coming next. "Repaired?"

The boy sighed, covering his face and shaking his head; it made her feel even more stupid than what then came out of his mouth. "You have to repair your equipment, you know. When you bring up an item's status window, it'll tell you how much durability is left. The better the item, the more wear and tear it can take. Here."

Following the last word, the boy opened his game menu and did something in the air with his hands; a window appeared in front of Asuna with the word Trade at the top. As she watched, he added a sum of money and a small handful of items to the Trade window and prompted her to accept it.

"I don't know what kind of weapon you like to use, but there's some money to replace the one you broke, along with a few pieces of light armor that dropped on the way here."

Asuna gaped. She had no idea how to judge the items he was offering her, but the money was easily an order of magnitude more than she'd started with. A slight flush tinged her cheeks and she stammered a bit. "I-I can't… I mean…" Suddenly she narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "What do you want out of this?"

"Want?" The boy gave her another confused look. "If I wanted anything in return I wouldn't have accepted the trade before you could add anything to it."

"That's not what I'm talking about. I just don't want you giving me stuff and then expecting… I mean…" Asuna was appalled at how dense this boy was. Was he really going to make her spell it out?

His face darkened dramatically as he raised his hands in protest. "N-no! That's not it at all! I j-just… I just wanted… I mean, I just didn't want you to get hurt or anything, and I thought it'd help!"

Peering warily at him, Asuna finally decided that he was actually telling the truth about his motivations—he was just too awkward to be some kind of predator. Her expression softened a bit, and she reached up and touched the Accept button, then made a throat-clearing noise. "Thank you. Um. My name's Asuna."

"K-Kirito," he said, still blushing.


He shook his head quickly. "No, just Kirito. So, um, anyway, Asuna… good luck. I'd better get to Parasel before it gets dark."

Asuna nodded, trying in vain to swipe some of the mud from her clothing. "I need to get back too." She eyed Kirito sidewise, an edge climbing back into her voice. "We're not traveling together. We just happen to be going in the same direction."

Kirito smiled, which only managed to stoke her annoyance again. "Of course."

Whatever Klein had expected the Sylph home city to be like, it was as nothing compared to the quintet of spires he could already see rising above the trees a few kilometers away—four which tapered to a point, arranged foursquare at a scale he could only guess at from this far away; one in the center in the shape of a spindly hourglass, connected to the four corner spires (and they to each other) by angled walkways that looked as fragile as spiderwebs. The sun was just beginning to set on the far side of the city, backlighting the towers and making it seem to glow.

He knew they just happened to coming from the east and be here at the right time, but it felt like the city was putting on a show just for them, designed to awe their uninvited foreign visitors. Klein just barely caught a delicate chuckle from above and to his right over the white noise of the passing air as they flew; when he looked up he saw the woman with the overly long katana covering a smile. "Your expression," she said in answer to the unasked question. "You look like a kid who's just seen Tokyo Disneyland for the first time."

A little embarrassed, Klein tried to concentrate on where he was flying as he felt himself start to drift in the direction he was looking. "It's pretty amazing," he admitted. "Kinda making me wonder if I didn't roll the wrong character."

When he didn't get a response, he glanced over and saw the Sylph woman giving him a speculative look. "What?"

"Nothing," she said as she leaned into a slow turn while they all began banking towards an open platform on the central spire. Klein did his best to follow, looking back briefly to make sure Kunimittz and Dynamm were close behind.

"You haven't told me your name, you know."

Klein had to focus on what he was doing during the more difficult landing maneuvers, so he couldn't see her—but he could've sworn she was laughing at him as she replied. "No, I haven't."

That was not exactly an answer. "I'm Klein. These are my friends, Kunimittz and Dynamm." He gestured to each player in turn as the three of them carefully settled themselves to the platform before dismissing their hand controllers.

His captor seemed to be one of those more experienced players who'd managed to get the hang of Voluntary Flight; she swooped down until she was less than a meter above the platform and then stilled her wings, allowing herself to drop gracefully to the floor. After a delay so long that Klein thought that she either hadn't heard him or was ignoring him, she glanced back at him over the shoulder of her elegant green yukata. "Sakuya. Come—the more quickly we deal with this, the sooner you might be able to resume the search for the rest of your friends."

As soon as they entered the central spire of Sylvain, Klein decided that his first impression had been correct: when it came to their home city architecture, Salamanders had definitely gotten the short end of the stick. The walls looked like polished hardwood with frames and decorative work in some kind of semi-translucent green crystal. Lanterns hung from the ceiling at frequent intervals, making the corridors and rooms seem to almost glow the way the city itself had with the benefit of the sun's backlighting. A wide central shaft linked the very top floor of the spire with the very bottom, and Klein could see Sylph players coming and going in mid-flight one direction or another, more than a few of them giving him looks of distress or curiosity until noticing that he and Kunimittz were being escorted by armed Sylphs.

A few floors above where they'd entered, Klein and his party were finally led into a large round room with wrap-around bay windows looking out in every direction across the city. In the very center of that room was a Sylph man with violet-black hair that looked like a shade he'd expect to see on an Imp, but which complemented his dark green hakama and golden half-cape remarkably well. Both hands moved through the air as if he was doing more than one thing at once within his UI, and he raised his eyes from his work as Sakuya led her party and her charges in.

Casually brushing his windows closed after a few final gestures, he rose from his chair. "Sakuya. So this is what that terse message of yours meant. And you said that they weren't part of a raiding party?"

Sakuya stepped forward and bowed. "No, not that we could tell. We had no reports of any attacks in their immediate area, and they weren't…" She trailed off.

"'Weren't'?" prompted the man that Klein presumed must be the Sylph leader; there was a gold star next to his HP gauge.

"They weren't behaving suspiciously," Sakuya said finally. Glancing back over her shoulder again at Klein, she deadpanned, "other than being in the wrong part of the world."

"Name's Klein. We just came here to pick up our friend Dynamm here." Klein jerked his thumb towards the named player. "Honestly, we're just trying to reunite with all our friends from real life, so we'd like nothing better than to head north and get out of your territory and out of your hair. Not that Sylvain's a bad place! It's pretty. I mean, it glows; that's pretty cool. But it's kinda between point A and point B, you know?"

Listening to Klein babble, a thin smile crossed the man's face for only a moment. "I believe I see what you mean, Sakuya," he said at last. "This one does not strike me as a Salamander skirmisher. You say there was no evidence they had been involved in any hostilities?"

Sakuya shook her head. "None at all, Skarrip. They were having a conversation about their other friends when we came upon them, and they came without incident when we asked."

At swordpoint, Klein thought, but didn't say out of an uncustomary abundance of wisdom.

"And they wish to travel north to the Cait Sith?" Skarrip asked, hands clasped at the small of his back.

Sakuya nodded before Klein could respond. "By your leave, yes. I see no harm in it, providing no one else along the way mistakes them for raiders—but I knew you'd prefer I brought them here first."

Skarrip inclined his head respectfully to his subordinate and began to pace his way around to the front of his desk. "Just so. You did the right thing, Sakuya; we have no way of knowing what our foes might try next. The Salamander surprise attack against the Imps was… unexpected. A remarkable piece of luck, really. Had they not caught the Imp leader in the open at just the right time, the Imps might have held them off indefinitely in the narrow confines of their tunnels, where Salamander numbers would count for little; their attackers would be unable to invade their Safe Zone. Now the Salamander leader has tasted victory and finds he likes the flavor, but we are teaching him an expensive lesson about how difficult it is to subdue another race when he can't simply checkmate them in the first few moves. We can hope he will soon tire of throwing people at us."

Klein couldn't help feeling a chill at the way Skarrip described acts of war that had claimed a number of lives—as if they were merely strategic decisions made on a game board rather than the deaths of real people, at least one of whom Klein had met and known, however briefly. He tensed, but tried to keep his immediate dislike for the man from coloring his tone. "And then who do they start throwing people at?"

Skarrip's shoulders rippled in a shrug of plain indifference. "Who can know? My sources tell me that the increase in border skirmishes here coincides with a cessation in hostilities against the Undines. Should Kibaou find that he cannot easily dominate either of his nearest neighbors the way he did the Imps, we can hope he will turn his attention away from open warfare, and north towards Yggdrasil. And perhaps in a month's time when control of Everdark reverts to the Imps and they can elect a new leader, we shall see a shift in the way of things."

"You know a lot about what's going on in here," Klein observed.

Donning that thin smile again, Skarrip tipped his head very slightly. "It is not widely known outside of this room, but neither is it any great secret that I was a beta tester. It gives one something of an advantage."

Klein was beginning to tire of Skarrip's pretentious manner of speech and know-it-all attitude on top of his earlier callousness. He cleared his throat, covering a scowl with his hand as he coughed. "Well, that's great for you and all, but meaning no offense… we've got a friend up in the Cait Sith and we don't know if he's even alive or not. We'd really like to get going. Are you keeping us here?"

Skarrip shook his head. "No, of course not. Not now. Sakuya, please take two of your team and escort these gentlemen to the Cait Sith border without delay. What they do once there is no longer any concern of ours." He made a curt sweeping gesture with his hand, and moved to return to his chair.

"Nice guy," Klein remarked tonelessly as they wound their way through the passageways back to the platform at the top of the spire.

Sakuya gave Klein an unreadable look as she walked beside him. "You don't much care for him, do you?"

"I don't like anyone who treats other people like disposable game pieces. Especially not now that getting taken off the board means a little more than losing a 1000-yen bet."

"Hm." He wasn't sure what to make of her monosyllabic reply; Sakuya went on after a moment as they stepped out into the darkening evening sky. "I will say this, Klein: he's been extraordinary considering the pressure we're all under. He got us and our defenses organized, and he did it before the Salamanders were done consolidating their gains after taking Everdark. And whoever his sources are, they're very good."

Klein had plenty of time to chew on this as the six of them—he, Kunimittz, Dynamm, and their three Sylph escorts—flew northward, stopping only when necessary to rest their wings. Nothing delayed them with battle, but the stars were just becoming visible by the time the forest began thinning out, yielding to lush prairie further to the north and a dimly-visible ocean a few kilometers to the west.

At some arbitrary point, Sakuya signaled for everyone to land at the top of a hill, pointing to twinkling lights in the distance. "You can just barely see Freelia from here. Follow those lights and you should reach the city within a few hours, depending on how often you stop to rest—though there's a long bridge you'll probably have to cross; at a starting character's speed you can only fly across the entire channel if your wings are fully charged. You're in Cait Sith territory now, and I don't know how seriously they're taking their border protection, so be prepared for anything."

Klein nodded, trying to commit all of this to memory. "Thanks. I think we'll be all right from here. The three of us in a mixed party are probably less likely to look like one race or another trying to attack."

Sakuya smiled at that, squinting one last time at the city lights on the horizon. "Listen, I don't remember that many people from the beta, but there was a friend, Cait Sith I partied with a few times who seemed nice—name of Alicia Rue. I thought I saw her briefly on opening day so I'm pretty sure she was trapped in here—I'll try sending her a message; maybe she'll be willing to help you."

Klein's answering smile broadened at Sakuya's offer, and he gave her a courteous, grateful bow. "Thanks, Sakuya. You didn't have to go that far. And I appreciate you vouching for us with Skarrip." He started to bring up his menu, and then before he could complete the action, thought to ask. "Friends?"

Sakuya made no move to initiate a friend request of her own or encourage one from him, but there was a twinkle of mischief in her otherwise cool expression. "Don't push your luck. Now come on, get going." She swung the scabbard of her katana from where it was slung at her back and lightly whacked Klein in the behind with it, drawing laughter from both her group and Klein's friends as he jumped in surprise.

Petulantly rubbing his injured dignity, he gave one look back at Sakuya and her group as he headed towards the northwest. She had a hand over her mouth, but he could've sworn she was grinning.

In Argo's estimation, coming to Sondref had been very nearly a complete waste of time. Not only was she unable to unearth so much as a rumor of any beta testers—at least, none who would admit it—as near as she could tell, there was almost nothing happening in the Puca home city that would make it worth taking the time to cultivate any contacts. For a race that was supposed to appeal to musically-inclined people, no one seemed to be in the mood to sing. There was a pall of hopelessness that hung over the city, which itself felt something like a ghost town—it had been designed to accommodate over three thousand players, and she would've been surprised if there were half that many in residence.

Or perhaps they were all sitting in their rooms moping. Given the mood that she'd witnessed so far from those who were actually out and about, it was a distinct possibility. Scarcely anyone batted an eye at her presence in the town, despite the fact that technically any one of them could've attacked her without fear of being harmed in return.

By the time she'd fed herself, spoken with a few of the locals and caught up on all of her messages, Argo decided that in order to get anything done here she was going to have to go directly to the top. The Big Top, in point of fact. A giant, brightly-colored pavilion tent in the center of the city was Sondref's version of a castle or executive residence, and from the outside looked like nothing so much as a circus.

As soon as she pushed aside the canvas covering the front door and stepped inside, however, it was as if she'd been transported into a garish, luxurious palace. The floors were paved with rugs bearing complex and colorful geometric patterns, and tapestries in a similar style hung from fastenings to form the walls and ceilings; censers and sconces were placed over uncovered stone for safety, and they filled the rooms with light and warmth that drove away the chill which perpetually tried to claw its way in through the tent this far north.

Although the first few rooms that she entered were empty, eventually she pushed through a colorful hanging veil that separated one room from another and found a slender blonde woman in a bright green dress sitting at a simple mahogany desk, fingers moving through the air in a way Argo instinctively recognized as the movements of someone working with one of their game menus. She looked up briefly, back to her menu, and then quickly back up at Argo with wide eyes as she reached for a dagger at her side.

"What the—who are you? What are you doing in here?"

Argo sat down across one of the empty chairs in the room and put her feet up on the chair next to her, snatching an apple from the table and pushing the hood of her cloak back as her tail curled around across her lap. "Name's Argo. I deal in information. Are you Merifelle?"

From long experience, Argo had found that audacity could sometimes be far more disarming and effective at jarring people out of their usual habits and reaction cycles than slapping them in the face. The woman's jaw worked overtime as she struggled for words, hand still on her dagger. "I—yes, I'm Merifelle. Why are—"

"I'm trying to figure out why everyone in this town's acting like they're already dead and their bodies just haven't caught on. It's depressing. You're their leader, I figured you'd know." She took a bite of the apple and tilted her head towards Merifelle with raised eyebrows, both ears forward with her full attention.

Merifelle stared at Argo for a few seconds, and seemed to come to some kind of decision, perhaps realizing that there wasn't anything that Argo could do to harm her here in her own Safe Zone—quite the contrary. Her hand slipped slowly away from her weapon and she set her lips in a thin line. "Isn't it obvious?" she said, twisting the thick braid that hung over her shoulder between her thumb and forefinger. "We're never getting out of here."

"Way to inspire folks."

The woman's eyes flashed dangerously. "Oh, screw you. You know the terms for escaping this game—get to the top of the World Tree, or be one of the two allies of someone who does." She barked a bitter laugh. "How many people do you think are likely to need the Puca for allies?"

The logic behind her fatalism stunned Argo. It wasn't that she herself hadn't thought through that same line of reasoning before, it was that it had come from their leader—the person who was supposed to be their advocate and inspiration. If even she had fallen into this kind of pit of hopelessness, it was no wonder the city had such a funereal atmosphere.

Chewing and swallowing, Argo gestured with what remained of the apple. "Maybe that's not the only way out."

"Oh, there's another way out, all right," the woman said in an odd, hollow tone of voice. "I know quite a few people who've already taken that path."

Argo didn't let herself think about what that meant. "I'm talking about a way back to the real world. A way for everyone to eventually get out of here."

A glimmer of hope blossomed cruelly in Merifelle's eyes. "You're lying."

"I'm gonna let that slide, 'cause you don't know me. In the beta, they called me The Rat. I was the person everyone came to for information. If you needed to know it, you asked Argo. Same here and now, you just don't know it yet. So listen." She took one last bite of the apple, considered the core, and dropped it unceremoniously on the rug. "You remember what Kayaba said? His exact words?"

When Merifelle shook her head, Argo quoted the euphemistically-named tutorial verbatim from memory: "'The only way to escape this world is to pass through the vortex that has opened high above Yggdrasil itself—and the only way to reach it is to clear the dungeon within the World Tree and defeat the boss that waits at the top. Whosoever delivers the Last Attack to this boss will win the favor of High King Oberon, who will grant that player's race and two of its allies the power of Unlimited Flight.' That's what he said. To the letter." And, Argo didn't add, in the precise cadence in which he'd originall spoken the words.

Merifelle blanched as the exact quote brought back the far-too-recent memories of that day. "So? Then you should understand why we're screwed."

Argo stared unblinkingly at Merifelle. She could do that almost indefinitely, and she knew it unsettled people who weren't used to the fact that ALO avatars didn't need to blink. "Words are my stock in trade, and I think Kayaba chose his very deliberately. You happen to hear the word 'first' anywhere in there? Anything saying that the boss wouldn't respawn, or that it couldn't be done more than once?"

Merifelle had to finally look away from that stare. "What are you trying to say?"

One of Argo's ears flicked as an insect buzzed near her. "Think about it. Nine races. Three get to go through. That leaves six. Three more fight their way up there and meet the terms. They go. That leaves three, who do it one last time."

As Merifelle turned back to her, jaw agape, Argo said, "I'm saying I think we can all go home—but we gotta clear Yggdrasil first, and that's gonna take a long time and we'll need every player we can. So why don'cha put on your big-girl panties, stop feeling sorry for yourself, and do something useful for the people who're counting on you—and for me. Nyo?"

There was a very long, very pregnant silence. The light from the coals in the censers and the flickering flames of oil lamps reflected from the tears that trickled down Merifelle's cheeks. "What do you need from me?" she whispered as they dripped from her chin onto the white-knuckled hands clasped in her lap.

Swinging her legs off the arm of the chair, Argo leaned forward. "I need you to keep in close touch and tell me what's going on around here, how your people's leveling is going, if anyone starts attacking you, that sorta thing. I'll pay you for info, and the more useful the info, the better I pay. If you need to know something—game mechanics, quests, intel—I can sell it to you. Sometimes I might have jobs that suit a Puca, too." She hesitated as she rose to her feet, and then added: "You also might wanna reach out to your neighbors and start thinking about alliances."

Nodding, Merifelle took a deep, shuddering breath. "I'll see what I can do."

Pausing at the doorway as she pulled her hood back over her head and pushed aside the veil to the outer room, Argo spoke without looking back. "Do better."

Once Kirito and Asuna took to the air, it didn't take them long to reach Parasel. While it was more or less a straight-line route, it did not escape Kirito's notice that the Undine girl avoided looking at him the entire time except whenever she noticed their flight paths were straying too close to each other, at which point she'd give him a huffy look and make a point of veering off by a few meters. After the second time this happened, Kirito just rolled his eyes and started showing off a little, weaving and maneuvering in ways that someone using the controller interface—someone like her—simply couldn't do.

It did not seem to improve her opinion of him, but it did make him feel a little better.

When at last they drew close enough to Parasel that they could pick out the complex network of canals and bridges that formed the city blocks, Kirito called over to her. "Hey, Asuna."

She eyed him warily as they started to descend. "What do you want?"

"Don't take this the wrong way, but would you mind flying with me until we reach the castle?" When she opened her mouth immediately, Kirito—anticipating the objection—added, "I'd rather not cause a misunderstanding and get attacked by some overzealous guard. If you're with me, they're less likely to think I'm a spy or something."

Asuna looked at him with an expression that suggested he was pushing his luck, then turned her attention back to where she was going. She didn't respond, but she didn't peel off and go elsewhere either.

Before long they descended to the courtyard just inside the castle gates, Kirito touching down in a light jog while Asuna carefully came to a stop and lowered herself to the ground. A trio of Undines in armor were standing in front of an elaborate fountain in the shape of a breaching dolphin, and when the one facing his direction caught sight of Kirito, his eyes widened slightly and he gave a man in plate armor a sharp tap on the shoulder, pointing.

"I'm sorry to intrude," Kirito said as he drew within speaking distance. "I'm looking for your leader; I have a message for him. Could you tell me where to find him?"

The man with the plate cuirass gave Asuna and her dreadful, muddy condition a worried look, then turned back to Kirito. "I'm Diavel, and I lead the Undines. Welcome to our city. Have you brought me a reply from the Spriggan leader, then?"

Kirito had had plenty of time on the journey south to carefully think through exactly what he was going to say and how he was going to say it. Since he wasn't exactly bringing a message from Yoshihara, he didn't nod; instead he gave his answer and let Diavel draw his own conclusions. "The Spriggans are sympathetic to your cause, but are reluctant to take sides and widen the conflict. That said, please send word if the Salamanders invade."

Diavel sighed, and glanced at one of the men beside him, who shrugged.

"Told you so," the man said to his leader.

"Less than I'd hoped, more than I'd expected," replied Diavel with a shrug of his own. "It means that door isn't necessarily closed. We can work with this." Glancing over at Asuna and taking note again of the shape she and her clothes were in, his voice took on a tone of concern. "Are you okay, Asuna? You look like you've had a rough time."

Pointlessly brushing her hands against her dress as if it would do any good—and as if her hands themselves weren't just as dirty—Asuna nodded. "I got attacked by a tough monster and my weapon broke, but I'm okay." And then, seemingly as a reluctant afterthought, added, "thanks to him." Kirito looked embarrassed.

"Is that so?" Diavel gave Kirito a measured look, as if seeing him in a new light. "You surprise me. I'm glad to see there are others willing to set aside the artificial divisions Kayaba has sown and stick their neck out for someone outside of their faction. You have my thanks, Spriggan—Asuna is dear to us, and should not have been out alone."

Asuna's face clouded in a way that Kirito, despite their short acquaintance, was quite familiar with by now. Seeing her turn that look on someone other than him made him smile slightly. "I'm not a child, Diavel. I was doing just fine up until that point."

Diavel bowed slightly. "Of course you were. Forgive me. Why don't you go clean up and get some rest?" Returning his attention to Kirito as Asuna made a haughty noise and took off, he gave another bow. "Again, thank you—both for bringing me your leader's message, and for helping out one of my people. Please tell the Spriggan leader that your people may come and go freely within our city and territory, so long as their intentions are peaceful." When Kirito nodded, he went on. "May I have your name, so that I don't have to keep calling you 'Spriggan'?"

"Kirito. I'm a solo player."

There was a flash of something in Diavel's eyes—familiarity?—that was quickly suppressed. "I'd like to find a way to thank you for what you did for Asuna. Where will you go from here?"

Since Kirito didn't really feel like sharing his itinerary with this man, he gave a vague, indirect answer. "To get paid for delivering you that message. Then to grind some more, like everyone else."

"So that was a job, then? Not a mission from your leader?"

Kirito shrugged. "I told you I'm a solo player. A mercenary, if you like."

"You're a Spriggan, all right." Diavel's smile then was knowing, as if he had a fair idea of just what kind of play style attracted players to the race.

"Like I said." Hesitating, Kirito added, "If you want to show me gratitude, I don't suppose you can recommend a player weaponsmith yet with a useful skill level?"

Diavel shook his head. "I'm afraid not. The game is less than a week old, and weaponsmithing skills are not an Undine specialty. You'll want to find a Leprechaun for that." Glancing at something over Kirito's shoulder, he made a noise of approval. "That's a fine sword you have. I see why you don't want to use an NPC smith to upgrade it."

The conversation was getting uncomfortably close to subjects which might reveal that Kirito had been a beta tester—something he didn't exactly care to advertise. He was all but certain that Diavel had been, based on his recognition of the Anneal Blade and some of the other things he'd said—but no one Kirito recognized. "Well, if you'll excuse me…"

"Wait a moment," Diavel said quickly. "If you're for hire, would you do something for me?"

Kirito gave Diavel a serious look, meeting his eyes. "That depends on the job. I won't kill other players for you."

Diavel shook his head, holding up his hands. "No, no, nothing like that. But if you're heading to Leprechaun territory to upgrade your sword, I'd like you to convey my respects to them and offer solidarity against the Salamander war of aggression—as well as open a line of dialogue with their leader about exchanging healing services for smithing."

In other words, Kirito was to be a courier again. Boring, but since he was going that direction anyway, he might as well get paid for it—the services he sought there were likely to be expensive. "That's a long, dangerous trip. Four thousand. Half up front, half when I bring their reply—regardless of what it is."

"Why you—" One of Diavel's companions, who'd been silent up until this point, stepped forward angrily.

Diavel held up a hand sharply. "Easy, Jahala. What he asks is reasonable." Opening his menu, he initiated a trade window; moments later Kirito nodded in satisfaction as his pressed the button to accept the payment. "All best speed, Kirito. The Salamanders have been probing our borders with small groups, as if they're considering an invasion. They seem to have backed off today, but I don't know why—or how long that will—"

"Sir! Leader!" the cry was from an Undine in light scout's armor who soared down from above, one hand tilting his controller as he eased into a landing with the look of hours of practice. Kirito froze when he saw the look on the man's face.

Diavel didn't seem to like what he'd seen any more than Kirito did. He shot a look towards the man he'd called Jahala, who fell into step as Diavel closed the distance with the returning Undine. "What is it, Laffa? You look like you've—"

It was a measure of the gravity of the news that the scout actually interrupted. The words that came next justified the breach of protocol. "Sir, there's been a killing. Witnesses say it was an Imp."

Chapter Text

"«Bosses» are exceptionally powerful mobs with two or more HP gauges which spawn in a specific location. They typically act as gatekeepers to stop players from progressing until the boss is defeated—such as the «Valley Bosses» blocking the four major paths to Yggdrasil, and the «Gateway Bosses» which periodically block progression through the many levels of the World Tree dungeon. Most bosses do not respawn once killed, but all drop significantly better items than average mobs and are typically balanced for raid groups of two or more complete parties…"
Alfheim Online Manual, «Bosses»

8 ~ 9 November 2022
Day 3 - Evening

"We weren't expecting any trouble," the Undine explained after visibly steeling himself. "We've gotten used to seeing Imps heading towards the city singly or in pairs, and these two didn't really strike us as any different. Our group was heading out to patrol, and right after we passed them we heard someone speaking a strange language—a spell incantation, I guess it was."

"Then what?" Diavel asked.

"Then everything went black," the other player said. "Literally black—I couldn't see anything but my HUD, and there was a flashing icon of an eye beside my HP gauge."

"Blindness status," Kirito said confidently, drawing a look and a nod from Diavel.

"Dark Magic," the Undine leader confirmed. "That would definitely suggest an Imp player's involvement; they get early access to a spell that inflicts a brief blindness status."

"I could hear Drake and Masumo yelling, and I knew they had to be as blind as I was. Then there were screams… and then nothing. It all took ten seconds at most, maybe—when the status effect expired, all I saw was a pair of blue Remain Lights flickering, and they expired not long after. No Drake. No Masumo. No Imps." His face fell. "I'm sorry, Diavel. I shouldn't have turned my back—"

Diavel cut him off with a curt gesture. "It's not your fault, Heigris. It's mine. I told everyone to treat the Imps as friends and to welcome them."

Jahala finished scrolling through a list and set his interface visible, showing something to Diavel. "They're dead all right," he confirmed grimly.

"We have to get people trained up with rez spells," Diavel said with an anguished look on his face. "I don't suppose you could describe the two assailants?"

Heigris shook his head. "Imps," he said, looking annoyed with himself. "Male. On the tall side; one of them pretty solidly built and with square features. I wish I could be more specific, it's just… I didn't take any particular notice of them until afterwards, you know?"

Something had been nagging at Kirito, and it finally fell into place as he listened to this last exchange. "Why are you still alive?" he asked the Undine survivor bluntly.

Jahala scowled; Heigris shook his head and looked just as upset as Diavel did. "I don't know," he said. "They had plenty of time to kill me too while I was blinded. If they had, nobody would've had any idea who did this—we would've just disappeared. It's like—"

"They wanted you to know," Kirito said, turning and looking at Diavel. "That was the point. They left him alive so that you'd know an Imp did it. The question is: why?"

Diavel looked like he'd eaten something extremely foul and couldn't simply spit it out. "I can guess." At a look from Jahala, he said, "they're trying to drive a wedge between us and the Imps. And it's working. Because between this and the border skirmishes, if we have no way of knowing whether an Imp is a real refugee or an assassin working for the Salamanders, then we won't be able to let any of them roam free—the risk to our people is too great."

"And that," Jahala said with a grimace, "will drive them right back into Everdark where the Salamanders have control over them."

Diavel nodded, sighing. "Someone working for Kibaou is entirely too intelligent for my peace of mind. And now assassins." He gave a disgusted scowl, as if simply saying the word tasted horrible. "I can understand fighting for your life. I can even understand the Salamanders who were manipulated into Kibaou's war, although I think a time will come when they have to come to terms with what they've done and live with it. But this is…"

"Premeditated," Kirito said, receiving nods of agreement from both Diavel and Jahala. "And not just premeditated, but seemingly random in their choice of targets. This was someone who either doesn't believe or doesn't care that PKing is murder now."

"And either one makes them very, very dangerous," Jahala said.

It also made them someone Kirito had absolutely no desire to meet. It reminded him that he had somewhere to be. Somewhere else—somewhere not here. Glancing at the darkening sky, he turned back to Diavel one last time. "Is it all right if I spend the night in an inn here?" he asked. Getting a nod of approval from Diavel, he uncrossed his arms as his wings sparkled into existence on his back. "In that case, I'll be off. Good luck with your assassin."

Despite his flippant tone, the incident gnawed at Kirito as he flew to the edge of the major canal that split east and west Parasel, looking for an inn he knew would be nearby. It was just as well that he was heading northward; it would be a bad idea to either get in the middle of the conflict between the Salamanders and Undines, or tangle with these Imp assassins who seemed to be preying on the latter. He could've offered to help, but that would've involved taking a job from Diavel whose implicit purpose was to hunt down another player—something he'd already said he wouldn't do.

Besides, he had another job to do.

And payment to receive, as well. So once he had rented a room for the night and flopped down on the simple bed that was provided, he stared up at the ceiling as he opened his menu and started a new private message.

「Message delivered to the Undine leader. Got his name for you if you don't know it already, and some info for you about the job he hired me to do and the incident that interrupted us. -K 」

Kirito smiled to himself. That was suitably vague, and should have Argo dropping whatever she was doing to find out what he knew—which should ensure he got paid promptly. While he waited for a response, he closed his eyes and thought through his game plan for the next few days.

It would probably take the better part of the next day to cross Undine and Spriggan territories, stop in at Penwether and deliver Diavel's response, and carefully venture into Leprechaun territory. He didn't expect trouble—the Leprechaun racial affinity was for smithing and crafting, after all, and in the beta they'd welcomed players of all races on the theory that it was more customers for them—but it wouldn't hurt to be cautious, especially since it would likely be evening before he got there.

He had just been about to drift off to sleep when he heard a loud bang out in the hallway. Generally most sound from either side of an inn room door was attenuated for privacy reasons, but shouts, knocks, and very loud noises would get through. He sat up with a start, swung his legs over the side of the bed, and stuck his head out through the door.

Nothing. No, something—there was a brief pop-up message on the door across the hall, but it disappeared before he could see what it had been. Nothing else stirred; Kirito shrugged and closed his door.

Stretching both arms high above his head, Kirito checked the time and frowned. It had been close to an hour since he sent his message to Argo, with no response. She wasn't exactly on the clock for him or anything, but it was very rare that she didn't respond to messages within a matter of minutes—about the time it took to finish a fight or find a place to land.

Or perhaps she was napping. It was getting fairly late, after all.

It's not as if I can spend it tonight anyway, he thought as he crawled into bed for real rest. Need to save up for when I get to Domnann.

Asuna had expected slamming the door to help, and was sorely disappointed when the entire building didn't rattle from the force. It was yet another reminder that she was in a virtual world; a real building would've creaked and trembled for a moment or so after slamming a door that hard, as if a small earthquake had just passed through. Here in Alfheim, the door would close as hard as she could swing it, and the sound of the impact was the satisfyingly deep bang of solid hardwood—but there were no aftershocks, nothing to indicate that the 3D model of the inn was in the least bit affected by her tantrum. Instead there was a mystifyingly vague system message, «Immortal Object», appearing for a few seconds in the center of the door.

It had not been the best of days.

At the very center of things, she knew, was the near-death experience she'd had. She'd been stupid, so incredibly stupid, and it had nearly gotten her killed. Success had made her careless, and the early part of the day had been filled with growing confidence in her ability to use the game's combat system to fight monsters and level up her character.

To make matters worse, she had been rescued by that infuriatingly smug Spriggan boy, and then condescended to by Diavel—both of them treating her as if she was some helpless, fragile thing they had to protect. The very thought nearly set her temper flaring again, and she had to force herself to calm down enough to think about what she was doing. The dive that she'd taken into one of the canals on her way home had left her feeling much less filthy and had actually been quite enjoyable—that is, until she'd felt what must've been a fish brush up against her leg, sending her clambering out of the water with a loud squawk. At least, she hoped that had been a fish.

Remembering what Kirito had told her about equipment durability, she tapped the leather chest guard the way he'd shown her and brought up the square purple window that showed its name and stats. As she suspected, in addition to being completely filthy it was near the point of breaking just like her rapier had. The pop-up said 17/250 with the first number in red, and she assumed that this meant it could only take 17 more… points? Damage, at any rate, and not much of it if 250 was its perfect condition. One or two more hits probably would've done it.

Sighing, she selected the option to remove it, then removed the rest of her clothing and equipment until she stood in front of the mirror, examining herself. The system didn't seem to allow players to remove their base undergarments, so it was just as well that the water that had soaked her previous outfit didn't seem to affect these core items. It was almost as if they were there purely to affect her appearance for decency's sake.

Opening her game menu, she scrolled through her inventory menu and examined the items that Kirito had given her or which she'd received as drops before that incident. She didn't know how to judge them, and when she examined their stats it only showed her something called an armor rating and durability, but she reasoned that they had to be better than the starting equipment she'd been wearing—especially in the condition they were in.

One by one she tried selecting Equip from the icons that appeared when she tapped on the name of an item, and watched as it materialized on her body—fading in as any previous item faded out. As she kept cycling through the items, her anger and embarrassment began to fade and she found herself enjoying such a silly little thing. It was a bit like playing with a kisekae doll, and as soon as the thought occurred to her she grinned and started really getting into it, alternating quickly between two chestpieces and watching both her stats and her appearance change.

Okay, she thought. I'm starting to see where some of the fun is here. And if she was honest, she had to admit that when she'd been doing well against the low-level mobs earlier, it had been really fun once she'd gotten past her initial fears. She still felt a bit awkward swinging the rapier around, but her speed and reaction time felt… enhanced somehow, as if the game was judging what she could do by what her Agility stat said instead of by the capabilities of her physical body. And when she executed her «Linear» skill, the speed with which the system moved her body and shot her towards the target was something she could never have hoped to achieve in the real world. It made her feel a bit like a manga character who'd been given super powers. She wondered if it would get any more powerful if she yelled "Linear!" while she was using the skill, and decided against it since she hadn't seen anyone else doing anything so silly.

All in all, it was a feeling of empowerment that she could almost get used to. And it was almost enough to banish some of the nagging ache that was always there in the back of her mind, reminding her that she was a prisoner in this world and that she could die here—threatening to undo the strength that she'd begun to find.

When she was done, she posed in front of the mirror once more and smiled. She'd settled on a light, thin metal chest guard with an armor rating almost twice her old starting equipment, a pair of winding bronze bracers spiraling around her wrists which she'd picked for appearance as much as anything else, a pale blue tunic that came down to her knees and was secured with a black leather belt, and a pair of high-topped boots that seemed to increase her AGI slightly.

She looked the proper hero—a thought that nearly started her laughing at herself again. All that was missing was a new weapon, but she could take care of that in the morning. For the time being, sleep was a must.

When morning came, Asuna re-equipped the gear she'd selected the night before and set out to the commercial district of Parasel. She supposed she might be able to get a replacement for that cheap starting rapier if she went to the NPC shop she'd found before, but her experience the day before had taught her how important durability was—and she now had a lot of money burning a hole in her status menu, courtesy of that Spriggan boy.

She frowned as she found her thoughts drifting again to Kirito, grateful despite herself for the way he'd helped her. As rude and presumptuous as he'd been, he'd also saved her life and given her money and items—and asked nothing of her except that she fly with him as far as the castle so that he wouldn't be attacked. Perhaps it was because she was a girl—so far she'd had to fend off more than a few male players who seemed to regard a pretty girl in a video game as some kind of rare animal they had to have in their party. But when she thought about it honestly, she couldn't recall him ever looking at her like that—as if she was nothing but so much meat. He'd been horribly, obviously embarrassed when she'd accused him of wanting to take advantage of her.

Asuna shook her head vigorously, forcing Kirito out of her mind and paying attention to where she was going as she almost walked off the edge of a sidewalk and into a canal. The commercial district was right in front of her, and when she looked around she could see more people here than when she'd been here before—there were a few players with what looked like mats of woven reeds who had items laid out in front of them, which she assumed must be for sale.

A few minutes of searching paid off as she found a lovely slender blade that matched her tunic. She couldn't remember what the stats on her cheap rapier had been, but when she looked at the status screen of the one this Imp player was selling, she saw the durability numbers of 2000/2000. She had to assume that meant it was considerably sturdier than the one that had failed her. It also had a stat she hadn't seen before—a minimum level of 3. When her eyes went up and to the left, she saw the number 3 in white beside her HP bar, and she remembered seeing the "Level Up" message twice while she was out.

"How much is this one?" she asked.

The scruffy man sitting cross-legged on his mat rubbed at his chin and looked up at her with dark violet eyes that seemed to be one of the dominant colors of his race. "It's not rare, but the AGI boost is decent. Call it 600?"

Asuna opened up her menu and looked at her status screen. The number 2517 glowed where her money was indicated; she had started the game with 100 and spent at least half of that on the starting equipment. It was extremely expensive compared to that junk, but she had no way to judge whether or not it was a fair price. Looking back down at the rapier and feeling a pang of longing, she made a decision. "I'll take it."

With a weapon at her side, she felt much more complete—less like she was missing an essential article of clothing. As soon as she noticed this feeling, she shook her head in mild disbelief. What am I becoming?

A soft tone sounded in her ear, and in her peripheral vision she saw a message icon from Diavel; it was marked as a system message—as a city-wide announcement. She focused and brought it up in front of her.

『Fellow players, by now you've heard the rumors of the murders that took place earlier just outside the city Safe Zone. Although the murders were perpetrated by at least two Imp players, it is important not to judge them all by these actions—least of all those who have sought refuge in our city from Salamander aggression. Unfortunately, the perpetrators of this crime are concealing themselves within said refugee population here in Parasel. We have also started seeing the Salamanders using groups of Imps working for them to sneak into our territory and ambush parties. We have no desire for hostilities with the Imps, who are just as much victims of this as we are—but we cannot ignore the risks. As a consequence, I deeply regret that we must revoke the protection of Parasel's Safe Zone effective at noon today for all Imp players, and ask that any who wish to remain to be sponsored by an Undine who can vouch for their peaceful intentions. This notice is being delivered to everyone within the city Safe Zone, so our resident Imps should be receiving it as well—with my sincere regrets for the Salamander actions which have made it necessary.』

When Asuna was done reading the message, her eyes refocused beyond it and met the wide eyes of the Imp player who had just sold her the rapier. Before she could say anything to reassure him, he swept up his items and selling mat into his inventory screen and took off running the moment they disappeared. She checked the time, and saw that it was just after 11:30. Here and there she saw violet streaks of light slowly rising into the sky as other refugees—or were they?—decided they weren't waiting until the deadline to leave. She had a hard time blaming them.

What would happen at noon? Would they just start killing any Imps that were still in the city and didn't have a sponsor? She couldn't imagine Diavel doing anything like that, but who knew what other players might do? People could do awful things when they were scared—this whole situation with the Salamanders was proof of that.

Just minutes ago the commercial district had been filled with conversation and dickering—friendly or not—as people went about their business. Now it was as if a dark blanket had fallen over it; the conversations were muted and players kept looking around suspiciously or over their shoulders, as if they expected Imp assassins to emerge from a nearby building or something similarly irrational. Asuna decided that she'd had enough, and headed down a side street towards one of the NPC vendors selling bread.

She wasn't sure what it was about the sound that got her attention, and it was only the newly-hushed quality of the player conversations in the market that let her catch it in the first place. It was coming from the deep shadows of a narrow alley between two buildings, and when she peered into the dimness she could see a small form huddled against the wall. Something in that form or the choked sounds that came intermittently from it dredged up very recent memories of an Asuna not too different than herself who'd broken down under the pressure of her situation until pulled out of it by the kindness of a stranger.

Asuna ventured cautiously down the alley, and when she came close enough for the other person to notice, a girl raised her head and looked up at her. At least, she thought it was a girl. It was so dark in the alley that it was hard to tell anything other than that she was an Imp—her violet-red eyes seemed to catch what little light there was, and the girl made a frightened noise and shuffled away a little bit.

"It's okay," Asuna said quietly, crouching and holding up her empty hands. "I won't hurt you."

The girl barely seemed to be able to get words out through her trembling. And she was young—probably too young to be in the game; from the size of her and the sound of her voice, Asuna would've been very surprised if she was much older than 13. "A-and w-w-hat about when we're not s-safe here anymore?"

Stopping as she noticed the girl retreat whenever she drew closer, Asuna sat down and leaned against the wall the same way. "Then I still wouldn't hurt you. Why would I?" The girl shook her head and said nothing.

"Well, I won't. I'm Asuna. What's your name?"

Sniffling, the girl rubbed her eyes and looked back up. "Y-Yuuki."

Asuna started in surprise, eyes widening. "That's your name? Yuuki?" When the girl nodded warily, Asuna fought to contain her reaction, but eventually laughter burst through her smile. In answer to Yuuki's confused look, she said, "I'm not laughing at you, Yuuki. I'm…" She leaned a little closer, and stage-whispered unnecessarily. "Can you keep a secret? A really big secret?"


"Yubikiri?" Asuna smiled as she held up her pinky finger. Yuuki smiled too—the first time she'd done so—and pinky-swore.

"I laughed because that's my name too—my family name, my real one. Yuuki Asuna."

The girl giggled, wiping her nose with her hand again. "Konno Yuuki. And you're right, that is funny."

Asuna held out her arm. "Come here, Yuuki, it's okay." Hesitantly, the girl scooted closer until Asuna could put her arm around her; Yuuki shivered and then leaned against Asuna. "I'm sorry you got stuck in this mess. Are your parents in the game with you?" Her arm tightened a bit as Yuuki shook her head and made a tiny mewling sound that might've been the word no. "Anyone?" Another shake of the head.

Swallowing the pity and grief she felt hearing this, Asuna reached over with her free hand and stroked the girl's hair. Yuuki hesitated for a moment before clinging to Asuna and burying her face in her shoulder. Holding the lonely little girl in her embrace, Asuna closed her eyes and tried to be stronger than she felt. "Well you've got me now, Yuuki. And I won't let anything happen to you."

Argo's eyes were closed, but her senses were elsewhere.

Most schools of magic had some form of tracer—that is, a spell familiar which would follow a person and report on what they saw and heard. The Cait Sith, who had no special affinity with any school of magic, instead had a child skill of the Beast Taming abilities unique to their race: Gokantsuki, or Sense-Possession.

It could be done with most animals, but few Cait Sith bothered to level it up due to the risks and limitations associated with it—the most serious of which being that while in "possession" of a pet, a player was oblivious to the surroundings of their own body, due to the Nerve Gear replacing the player's own senses with the input from their pet. In the beta, this had merely been an annoying disadvantage. Here in the Death Game of ALO, it was tantamount to an invitation to be killed.

To the best of Argo's knowledge, she was the only player ever to have come close to mastering it in the beta, and one of the few to use it on any regular basis. By this point she had become very good at finding hiding places to hole up while she checked in on one of her "spies". So while her real body was curled up deep within the hollow of an old tree far from the nearest dungeon or common hunting ground, her mind was seeing and hearing through one of her rats.

She was, in point of fact, spying on her own leader.

"We have to do this if we're going to break through to Arun," Raikouji said as she directed the small rodent to cautiously poke its head into his executive office. The ease of doing this was yet another reason she preferred small, simple creatures like these rats—she didn't have to have a contest of wills with them to get them to move. Tamers who dealt with combat-oriented creatures like fire drakes had to put a lot more effort into getting those intelligent creatures to do their will.

"Sir, to be honest I don't think we're ready. The average level of our group is barely 8, and you're talking about a boss." As the rat swung its tiny head to track the source of the voice, Argo could see a Cait Sith swordsman she hadn't met before—from the look of him, his group's main tank. Behind him were a pair of others, also unfamiliar to her.

He looked scared.

"A field boss, not an Yggdrasil boss," Raikouji said dismissively as he paced. "And I'm not asking you to fight it. You're there to scout. To make sure it's still in the same spot, and to get someone to use their Identification skill to analyze it and make sure there are no surprises when we raid it. Seriously, Thelvin, how hard is this?"

"I don't know," Thelvin said with a hard look. "You do. And that's sort of the point I'm making." He turned and addressed the others of his group who were present. "Fatewind, Issin, would you give me a minute?" As the two named players headed towards the door, Argo took advantage of the distraction and quickly nudged the rat to slink along the wall and hide under another table closer to the two remaining in the room, positioning it to hear more clearly.

When the door closed behind them, Thelvin rounded on his leader angrily. "The fuck is your problem, Rai? You know I've got a patrol group made up of newbies. There's not a single tester in the lot other than me. This is a job for one of the clearing groups; they've been leveling up more and training to take on bosses."

"Yes," Raikouji shot back in irritation. "And that's what they're going to continue to do. I don't want to risk our clearing groups scouting a boss battle."

Thelvin stiffened, ears flat against his head and tail slicing the air furiously. "In other words, we're expendable."

"Call it what you like. I call it your goddamn job. At least with you there, your group stands a good chance of getting the information we need and pulling back in one piece. If I send a group of complete noobs, we won't get anything back."

Anything, Argo noted silently. Not "anyone". You're such a dick, Rai. And I know exactly why you're doing this, even if Thelvin hasn't figured it out yet.

Thelvin seemed to take note of the same choice of words, his amber eyes burning as he stared at his leader. "You don't really give a shit whether we live or die, do you Rai? You just want your damn scouting data."

"Honestly, Thelvin? No. I'd really rather not lose a beta tester, but the most important thing here is to know for sure what we're facing so that we can clear the valley boss and get to Arun before the other races do. Other than protecting our territory, everything else is secondary until we reach the World Tree. Now are you going to do your job, or do I need to go find a group of noobs to do it for you?"

Still standing ramrod-straight, Thelvin stared at Raikouji for a few more moments before giving him an excessively, pointedly crisp salute and turning on his heel to leave. The only thing he could've done to make the implied insult clearer was to have goose-stepped on the way out. As soon as the door slammed shut, Raikouji swept the contents of the nearest table onto the floor in a fit of anger, his snarl of frustration accompanying the sounds of cups and plates as they shattered and dissolved into polygons.

"For fuck's sake, Thelvin," he muttered as he looked at the mess he'd just made. "Just shut up and get yourself killed already." Realizing the foolishness of the fit he'd just thrown, he sighed as he bent and began picking up the tray and silverware.

And came face to face with Argo's pet, which was hiding under the table he'd just assaulted.

Argo couldn't force the pet to say anything, but as Raikouji made a sound of surprise and disgust, its AI emitted a squeak on its own initiative and bolted for the front door. She tried to override it and guide it towards the more likely refuge in the nearby pile of pillows around Raikouji's work table, but the pet's AI had sensed imminent danger and in its "panic" state it wasn't listening to her.

The last thing she saw was a shadow as Raikouji's boot descended.

Having now met female players in two different factions other than his own, Klein decided that yes, he really had chosen the wrong race to play.

It was hard to think of the player in front of him as anything other than a catgirl. The only obviously feline features were her ears, tail and the tiny fangs she showed when she opened her mouth—the rest was human, or at least human-looking. But beyond that, she moved like a cat. Her tail seemed to have a mind of its own, moving and drifting in lazy motions that seemed to track her attitude at any given time; her ears twitched occasionally to track sounds and seemed highly mobile. Combined with her grace and diminutive stature, the overall effect was painfully cute.

Klein wasn't quite in love, but he really wished he had a phone number in this world to give out. The girl, for her part, seemed largely unimpressed once she got over the shock of seeing a Salamander, Imp and Sylph in the same party.

"Wish I could tell you where he is," Alicia said with upturned palms. "Truth is, I don't really know the guy. Seen him once, or someone who matches that description at least—he had a bow and was on border patrol duty."

"Great," Klein said. "Somehow we managed to avoid getting stopped by the one patrol party that would've been helpful."

Alicia laughed, tail following her in an arc as she spun in place and beckoned for Klein to follow her onto the massive bridge that lay at the base of the hill on which they were standing. "Come on. Let's head to Freelia and ask around. I'm sure someone will know your… what was his name?"

"Issin," said Klein and Kunimittz at roughly the same time. Klein went on. "Is that going to be okay? It would suck to get attacked somewhere that we can't defend ourselves."

"It's fine. Raikouji's got us keeping a close eye on the southern border, but pretty much anyone I know assumes that if you're in the city and nobody else is attacking you, you've probably got business here or are in someone's party. We're kinda laid back up here."

"That's good to hear," Klein said with considerable relief. "Things are pretty tense down in Sylph country."

Alicia's tail lashed once, hard, as she walked. "Yeah, well, they've got good reason. From what Sakuya said in her message, they've been getting hit by the Salamanders pretty much every day." Klein just barely caught the corner of her eye as she glanced back over her shoulder at him.

"Sorry," he said. "I wasn't involved in all that. I didn't exactly choose to—I mean, I chose to play a Salamander, but that was before—I mean, it's…"

Laughing at his discomfort, Alicia threw a backwards look that was slightly friendlier than the first. "It's okay," she said. "Nobody knew what was going to happen here when we made our characters. If anything, I give you props for having the guts to get out of there and go looking for your friends. It's pretty cool of you."

Rubbing uncomfortably at the back of his neck, Klein tried to move past being flustered at the unexpected compliment. "Yeah, well, they've been my buddies for years, and we were all supposed to meet up and form a guild again in this game. I couldn't just leave them."

Alicia's next look suggested that yes, he very well could've—and that she thought better of him for having not.

Once their wings had all rested, they took to the air in order to cross the remainder of the bridge connecting Freelia with the mainland. It had been difficult to get a sense of its size from the ground, since it stretched so far as to almost disappear in the haze of distance. But from the air, Klein could see just how massive a structure it truly was. White stone arches rose every twenty meters from the water, supporting a paved span wide enough for three wagons to travel abreast. That span ran for what must've been well over a kilometer until it reached the island city, meeting the horizon like an illustration demonstrating how to draw in perspective.

Alicia seemed faster than Klein and his friends—undoubtedly due to her use of Voluntary Flight—but even capped at their cruising speed, it was only a matter of minutes to travel the length of the bridge. Klein could see yellow trails of light arcing above the city here and there as Cait Sith traveled from one place to another the more efficient way, and clusters of these flight trails could be seen here and there painting short-lived lines of color across the sky as groups headed out for patrols or questing.

"So Alicia," Klein said as they carefully maneuvered for a landing near an NPC weaponsmith. "I know Salamanders have fire, Dynamm says Sylphs are wind, and Kunimittz uses darkness magic. What are Cait Sith good at?"

"Well, we don't really have any kind of elemental affinity, but we do have the ability to tame various kinds of animal mobs and use them as pets. At higher skill levels we can even train mounts for other players."

"Hey, that actually sounds pretty useful."

"It can be," Alicia said with a wink and a twitch of her ears as they worked their way through the crowd. "I can't wait til we start getting some people with leveled-up Beast Taming; it's a good source of cashflow for the faction. Plus, high-level dedicated Beast Tamers can solo really well with a combat pet."

Dynamm chuckled, giving Klein a swat on the shoulder to get his attention. "Hey, Issin never said anything about playing a pet class. He did mention he wanted to use a bow like in our last game, so maybe he really is the guy on patrol that she mentioned."

Alicia touched a fingertip to her lips thoughtfully. "Well, we do have better eyesight than most of the other races. But we're popular with people who want to play archers, so it could really be anyone. And you haven't heard from him yet?"

Klein shook his head. "We're using the same names we did in our old guild, but every time I try sending him mail I get some weird system message that says he's rejecting it."

Frowning, Alicia stopped in mid-stride and adopted a pensive look, displaying fangs as she lightly bit her lower lip. "Oh!" she squeaked suddenly. "I bet I know. There's an option for whether you want to get messages from people who aren't in your party, guild or friends lists. It's off by default; I bet he never set it."

Klein smacked himself in the forehead with the heel of his hand, suddenly feeling very dense. "That's got to be it. Someone showed me how to turn that off on the first day, and I forgot it was there. But then why hasn't he messaged me? He should be able to, right?"

Alicia shrugged. "Beats me. But I bet I know someone who can find out." She drew open her menu and navigated through it, hands poised in a typing position as she sent off a new message. "On my map it looks like she's still a ways outside the city, but I should hear back before long. She knows everything. And what she doesn't know, she can find out—for a price." Raising her gaze and grinning as she closed her menu with a practiced sweep of the hand, Alicia's eyes sparkled with a hint of teasing. "With everything you three have seen and been through on your way here, I'd be willing to bet you have plenty of information to barter. So here's some free advice: when you meet Argo, don't tell her everything you know for free. Use the info as bargaining chips to find your friend."

"It's like that, is it?" Klein was starting to take a dim view of how common this kind of mercenary attitude seemed to be in the face of their circumstances.

"Oh, don't get me wrong. Argo's awesome. Love her to death; she's one of my best friends. But she lives and breathes information. Tell her what you're looking for, find out what she wants for it, and see if you can save some money by offering news of your own. I think she'll especially want to know anything you saw while you were with the Salamanders."

While Klein nodded and tried to think of how to offer that kind of information without giving it away in the offer, Alicia's eyes darted to the side. "Oh, there she is. Hang on."

Reaching up and touching something within her view, Alicia's eyes flicked back and forth as she read the incoming message, getting wider by the moment. "Oh, that rat-fuck son of a—"

"Problem?" Klein asked, by this point doubtful that he was ever going to be able to pick up a party member without some sort of drama ensuing. He marveled at how he could immediately spot Alicia's change in mental state from the shift in body language; her ears were back and her tail moving in an agitated way that caused him to wonder if that was something she did on her own—and if so, how—or if the game was doing it for her.

"You said your friend's name was Issin, right? Isshiin, spelled Ai-essu-essu-ai-en?"

"That's right," Klein confirmed as Alicia repeated his friend's name phonetically and then spelled out the English letters with which it was written, a vague sense of worry creeping up his back at the question. "What's wrong?"

In lieu of an answer, Alicia grabbed Klein's wrist and yanked him back in the direction they'd come, pushing brusquely through several groups of people before finding an open spot. As she let go of Klein and leapt straight up, bringing out her wings, she snapped, "Fly!"

Klein hesitated only long enough to make sure Kunimittz and Dynamm were right behind him, and then brought out his controller and followed his Cait Sith escort as quickly as he could accelerate. "Mind telling me what's going on?" He yelled over to her as he drew within shouting distance.

"Long story short, your friend's gotten caught up in Cait Sith politics and is in serious trouble. And if we tear a hole in the sky, we might have a chance of catching up with him in time."

"In time for what?" Klein asked, with a sinking suspicion that he knew already.

Alicia didn't turn to look at Klein. She simply kept her eyes in front of her, ears flattened to her head against the wind as she cruised, and said, "In time to keep him from being boss bait."

Chapter Text

"Although a protected player's HP will not decrease within a Safe Zone unless they are currently in a duel, combat is still possible. Damage dealt to a protected player is converted into a knockback effect proportionate to the damage that would have been dealt by the attack, and physics forces created by any attack—the sense of impact, in other words—is unaffected. Players should be cautioned that while they may attack unprotected players without fear of taking damage in return, their target is not entirely without defensive options…"
Alfheim Online Manual, «Safe Zone Combat»

9 November 2022
Day 4 - Morning

Argo had lost pets during Sense-Possession before. It wasn't pleasant. Aside from the transient feeling of disorientation that always accompanied transitioning between your own avatar and your pet, the abruptness of the transition when it was due to the death of the pet left a player in "stun" status for a short time as they mentally reeled from a sensory impact of an intensity not unlike getting hit by a truck.

But never before now had it been painful. It was, in point of fact, the first time Argo had ever felt anything approximating pain within the virtual world; impact and temperature could be uncomfortable, but damage always left a queer numbing sensation that she suspected was actually the system absorbing or suppressing painful stimuli in some way. She had no idea why that hadn't worked here, or why it had been changed—but if that was going to be the way of things going forward, it meant she'd have to be much, much more careful when "possessing" her pets.

Further proof that Kayaba hates the Cait Sith, she thought as she lay half-curled into a fetal position within her hiding place, twitching and forcing a guttural scream to come out instead as a muffled, drawn-out keening sound less likely to carry far. She could still feel the crushing weight of Raikouji's boot as it came down on her rat pet, the sickening sensation of its body being shattered before knocking her back into her own avatar as if someone had struck her in the forehead with a sledgehammer.

A soft, familiar noise that came from nowhere and everywhere caught her attention and drew her out of her state of shock. Opening her eyes, she focused on the flashing message icon and used it as a kind of touchstone to try to calm herself and drive out the lingering waves of pain. When at last she could uncurl her body, she rolled over onto her back and reached out with one trembling finger to open the message, eye scanning from side to side.

「Hey babe, got a fun one for you. Get this: Sakuya (you remember her, right?) sent over some Salamander named Klein with a Sylph and an Imp in his party, looking for a Cait Sith friend of theirs from IRL. Sounds like the start to a joke, right? A Salamander, a Sylph and an Imp walk into a bar… anyway, the cat's name is Issin, or something like that. Thin, medium height, short brown hair, probably an archer; might be in a patrol group. Think you can help a girl out? Klein's kinda cute for a Sallie, and you gotta love loyalty in a guy. ~Allie」

Argo couldn't decide whether to be exasperated at Alicia for chasing after a boy when they were all trapped in this deadly world, or stunned at the way that her friend's problem dovetailed with what she'd just witnessed. Alfheim might be hundreds of square kilometers of surface area, but it was a small world all the same, even with ten times the players as in the beta.

Her hands still shook; as she went to reply she fumbled the gestures a few times, then began carefully tapping out an answer.

「Your boyfriend's got a serious problem. A few minutes ago—before the bastard killed my rat—I overheard Rai sending Thelvin out with a party of noobs to scout the valley boss, and one of the players in his group was named Issin. Thelvin was the name one of the testers who ran against Rai for leader. You do the math. -Argo」

Letting out a quiet groan along with a held breath as she hit Send, Argo shut her eyes tightly for a few seconds. "Raiko-pin," she whispered. "I am so going to burn you for this."

She needed to head south in a hurry, but her job wasn't done here. There was one more conversation she needed to have, and it was not one that filled her with joyful anticipation.

「Drop whatever you're doing and pay attention. I need to know everything you know about the boss in the Valley of Butterflies, and I need to know it NOW. -Argo」

While she waited for a response, Argo closed her eyes again and counted to ten, trying to clear her mind of the lingering trauma from the abrupt loss of her rat. Above and beyond their usefulness and the unpleasantness of the death-disconnect, she knew that she sometimes had a tendency to get too attached to her pets—they were, after all, just mobs; they weren't even really AIs in any proper sense of the word. Still, she could almost imagine each of them having a personality, and she had to give them names in order to distinguish between them in her own mind when she was maintaining more than one.

A new message icon broke into her train of thought; she was relieved for more reasons than one at the interruption, although her relief was short-lived as she scanned the reply.

「And a good day to you too, my dear. I'm afraid you're going to have to be a little more specific, though—I know quite a lot about the valley bosses. I was, after all, part of the joint clearing party between your race and mine. Also, do keep in mind the position this puts me in. -SR」

If Argo could've punched her UI, she probably would've taken a shot at it. She took a moment to purge the irritation she felt; anger was counterproductive. With the benefit of a clearer mind and steadier hands, Argo's reply went out in almost as little time as it took for her to read the message.

「Don't jerk me around, Skarrip. I don't have time for your games, and considering what your employer did to everyone here, your confidentiality clause is worth less than a slime's fart to me. Someone is going to die if I don't get some hard info right now, and you know I'll pay or trade you for it.」

「As always, your arguments are compelling and eloquent. Very well—a trade, then. I shall answer your questions about Fellrach the Ravenous. You, in exchange, will provide me with information of equivalent worth from your Salamander sources about where and when they plan to strike next. -SR」

She could almost hear Skarrip's smug tones as she read his message aloud, unconsciously imitating his voice. It tasted foul in her mouth. He'd always been a pretentious little twit in the beta, but he'd been a useful pretentious twit. Something in him had changed after Kayaba had trapped everyone in this Death Game; he seemed to slip more and more into his character role every time she corresponded with him. He still had good information lurking somewhere in his head, but prying it out of him meant putting up with a ton of nonsense.

Argo didn't have to like the people she did business with. But it helped smooth things along. She hesitated only a moment before sending a terse reply.

「Agreed. Start talking.」

Asuna didn't really have any idea what was going to happen at noon when Imp players would no longer be protected by the Safe Zone in the city of Parasel. The uncertainty meant that whatever else she wanted to do with her day, the safest bet would be to return to her room with Yuuki and keep the girl out of sight until emotions cooled off, despite the fact that they were both very hungry. No one had harassed the two of them yet, but more than one player gave Yuuki ugly or suspicious looks, and Asuna was the recipient of a few such glares herself. She did her best to return those glares in kind.

Before heading back to the privacy of her inn room, Asuna decided that a little nourishment would probably do the both of them a lot of good. She guided Yuuki into an NPC kissaten and ordered tea and cakes for both of them, resigning herself to the extravagant splurge.

"I don't understand why they're so angry," Yuuki said bitterly as she cradled a cup of hot tea in her small hands. "I didn't do anything to them."

"No, you didn't," Asuna said gently. "But they don't know how to tell the difference between the players who want to hurt them and the players who don't, so they're suspicious of anyone who looks different." She took a sip of her own drink, felt the warmth spread through her and banish some of her unease. "How did you end up in here, Yuuki? Do you have a mom and dad who might be worried about you?"

Yuuki squeezed the cup of tea so tightly, hands trembling, that Asuna thought she might well break it. The girl wouldn't meet her eyes. "I don't want to talk about them," she said in a small voice that was choked with sadness.

"Okay," Asuna said quickly. "We don't have to. But does that mean you came in here all alone?"

A miniscule shake of the head; Asuna almost missed it. "I had my… a friend," she said, hesitating and quickly covering it. "But he… I mean, when all the Salamander people attacked, he…"

Oh, no. Asuna wanted to reach out and hug the poor girl to her, but they both still had teacups in their hands. Yuuki looked up at her through a veil of violet bangs that spilled out from beneath the crimson hairband she wore. "Did you mean what you said?" she asked. "I can stay with you, and it'll be okay?"

"I promise," Asuna said with a surge of ferocity. "And if anyone here tries to attack you, Yuuki, I'll fight them." And as soon as she said it, she realized how true it was: she would stand between this girl and Diavel himself if she had to, consequences be damned. The intensity of her protective feelings towards this young girl she'd just met surprised her—if she was honest with herself, it was as much outrage at the injustice of it all as anything else.

But the gratitude that radiated from Yuuki on hearing this filled Asuna with far more warmth than the tea she'd had. Yuuki impulsively leaned over and hugged her; Asuna could not find it in herself to care about the tea that spilled on the table when she did.

"I want to be strong like you," Yuuki insisted as she embraced her new friend.

Asuna was taken slightly aback. She almost protested that Yuuki had it all wrong, that she wasn't so strong as all that. But when she looked down into the girl's red-violet eyes and saw the faith and hope there, the words died in her throat. What this girl needed right now, more than anything else, was for someone to be strong for her. To make her feel safe, to tell her it was going to be alright, and to make her believe it. Asuna had never had a little sister, but at that moment she understood perfectly how it must feel—and how she'd feel if Yuuki really had been her little sister and had been trapped in this world with her.

No, making her feel safe wasn't enough. She needed to be safe. And if Asuna couldn't protect her all the time, she needed to know how to protect herself.

"All right," Asuna said finally, smiling as she brushed a few locks of purple hair out of Yuuki's face. "I'll teach you what I know. But you know, Yuuki, you get stronger in this game by fighting monsters. That's going to mean going outside where they are. And where other players are." As she said this, she looked up at their surroundings; there were no other players in the small shop where they sat, but she could see the bustle of foot traffic passing back and forth just outside the window.

For a moment, Yuuki looked again like a frightened little girl. But when the moment passed, something in her seemed to harden itself against whatever fear she felt; Asuna could see the change wash over her as the resolve in her voice seemed to age her by several years. "I don't care," she said, lifting her chin. "I want to be strong like Asuna is. I want to go where you go. And I'm not safe anymore here in the city either, am I?"

Asuna just looked at the younger girl in amazement. Was that what she looked like to Yuuki? Was she seeing the same kind of expression of determination that she forced onto her own face, reflected back at her? Did she look like that herself, wearing that mask of strength like an unfamiliar coat three sizes too big?

Wrapping her arms around Yuuki once more and hugging her fiercely, Asuna patted her on the back before letting go and coming to her feet. "Okay, Yuuki. But the first thing we have to do is go shopping for equipment."

Yuuki bounced up from her chair so quickly that it skittered backwards and almost fell over. "Really? Can I have a sword? A really big sword?"

She had some idea of how adaptable younger children could be, but the contrast between Yuuki's earlier timidity and her present eagerness nearly gave Asuna whiplash. She laughed and patted the top of the girl's head. "You can have a sword if that's what you really want, Yuuki. But are you sure you wouldn't rather mostly use magic? That way you could stand in the back and blast the monsters from a safe distance."

Yuuki shook her head. "Nuh uh. If Asuna isn't afraid to fight with a sword, I won't be. I bet we'll be the best heroes ever!"

Asuna smiled as the two of them exited the shop, holding hands. "If that's what you want, I won't stand in your way. We'll be partners, then, you and I—side by side. And someday we'll get out of this place and be friends in the real world, won't we?"

She'd expected this to make Yuuki happy, but as soon as she said it she saw a cloud pass over the girl's face, as if instead she'd just told her that she was never going home. "I guess, yeah," Yuuki said quietly after a moment, something that almost sounded like grief touching her voice briefly. Whatever it was passed before Asuna could ask what was wrong, and Yuuki looked up at her with a smile that might have been genuine. "Come on, let's go look at swords!"

Yuuki's enthusiasm was catching. Asuna grinned as she was all but pulled along by the younger girl in the direction of the market district, their laughter echoing off the walls of the surrounding buildings. Although there were still a fair number of unpleasant looks directed at them, something about the innocent and joyful demeanor of the two of them as they ran through the streets seemed to defuse some of the ire she'd witnessed before. She just couldn't imagine someone looking at Yuuki and seeing a threat.

The departure of most of the city's Imp players had left a hole in the market—Asuna hadn't realized just how many of the solo vendors had been Imps until struck by their absence. There were still a number of Undines vending their surplus loot or the weapons they'd crafted while grinding their Weaponsmithing skills, but the selection was more limited than it had been. It gave the place a feeling that was almost hollow—if she hadn't been there before, she might not have noticed; as it was, the contrast to only a few hours prior was jarring.

Yuuki was in the process of trying out a few practice swings with a long sword when a commotion on the other side of the market drew their attention. She could hear voices raised in anger and a stirring of unrest in the crowd as eyes began turning in that direction, and she frowned at the unsettling sound of conflict.

"Asuna?" Yuuki set down the sword she'd been trying and eased up on her tiptoes to try to see above all the much taller people. "What's going on?"

Asuna shook her head, a sense of unease growing within her as she too tried unsuccessfully to get a look at the source of the problem. "I don't know," she said as she took Yuuki's hand and guided her cautiously in that direction. "Let's find out."

Kirito had intended to get an early start, but the last few days had been exhausting and he'd forgotten to set an alarm before drifting off to sleep. Mentally kicking himself for the lapse, he blinked the grogginess out of his eyes and then noticed a flashing message icon—a city-wide announcement from the Undine leader.

What he read in there did not invest him with a strong desire to stick around.

It wasn't that he couldn't understand the reasons behind the abrupt change in policy. In Kirito's opinion, Diavel had been foolish and hasty in granting Imps what was effectively «Ally» status so quickly. But if the mood of the city was turning against Imp players, that kind of fear of outsiders could just as easily transfer to him—and there was no guarantee that most players, being brand new to the game, would even know how to distinguish a Spriggan from an Imp. It could get ugly, and it could do so in a hurry.

Kirito made a quick check of all his provisions and equipment, intending to get on with his journey as quickly as possible and make up for lost time. He sighed when he saw the durability on his Anneal Blade; it wasn't in any danger of breaking, but it was close to the halfway point and he had no guarantee that he'd be able to repair it again before it wore down—and he couldn't afford to risk breaking it.

The stares that he got when he came downstairs from his inn room seemed to validate his concerns, and made him acutely aware that any of the Undines he saw could attack him without fear of retaliation—his only choice would be to flee until he cleared the city limits. He was reasonably sure he could outfly just about anyone—especially anyone using the flight controller—but he wasn't comfortable staking his life on it recklessly. No one approached him, and he was just as glad for the breathing room.

He had just finished repairing his weapon at the NPC smith when his luck ran out. A sharp tap on the shoulder made him turn quickly to find several Undine players confronting him with severe expressions and folded arms. Had there not been a ceiling over his head he probably would've immediately taken flight without waiting to hear what they had to say; as it was he seriously considered making a break for it—the side of the smithy was open to the market, and he might've had a shot at breaking free.

"What are you still doing here?" demanded the player who'd touched him, glaring at him from sea-green eyes and standing far too close to Kirito's personal space for his peace of mind. The player was young, maybe a few years older than Kirito himself, but that didn't really mean anything—the sword at his side would cut just the same.

Kirito did his best to put a lid on his anger and fear, and looked the other player in the eyes. "Doing business, and then leaving. I won't trouble you."

"Damn right you won't," said a second player, stepping around the other and blocking off Kirito's only potential avenue of escape. "This here's our city—we're protected here, and you aren't. You know what that means?"

"Better than you do, I'll bet," Kirito said, knowing the words to be a mistake as soon as they left his lips.

Three faces scowled at him with near-identical expressions, investing the Undine players with a sameness despite their wildly different hairstyles and builds. The foremost of them who'd spoken first gave Kirito a shove, pushing him back against the brickwork of the forge. Kirito could feel the heat crawling up his back, and under different circumstances the warmth might've almost been comforting.

"You're not so smart, are you, kid? I don't think you appreciate the position you're in. You were supposed to be gone half an hour ago, and now it's going to cost you. It's going to cost you that nice sword you've got on your back there."

"That's not going to happen," Kirito said flatly, resigning himself to the likelihood that these players weren't going to leave him alone. "So let's try a different idea: I leave. You don't harass me while I do. And I don't fly straight to the castle and tell Diavel that you three are keeping me from doing the job he paid me to do."

One of the players, a boy about Kirito's age with deep indigo hair in a conservative cut, looked uneasy; the other two laughed. "Nice try, kid," said the one who seemed to be the head of their group. "Like our leader's gonna hire an Imp player to do his work after that announcement he made earlier."

"I don't think he's an Imp, Gaitner," said the indigo-haired boy. "Wasn't the race that wears black called Spegons or something?"

"Spriggans," Kirito said, nodding without taking his eyes off Gaitner. "You should listen to your friend."

"That's even worse," Gaitner said, hand on the hilt of his sword as his eyes narrowed dangerously. "At least the Imps had our leader's permission to be here before today. If you're not even one of them, you've really got no business here. I'll bet you're a spy!"

"You need to think about what you're doing, Gaitner," Kirito said with far more calm than he felt as he subtly adjusted his center of gravity. They were beginning to draw a crowd, and there was no way the situation was going to end well if it continued on this course. "Can you live with murdering another person?"

Gaitner scoffed, although there was a touch of doubt in his eyes. "Only gullible fools believe that crap about the Nerve Gear microwaving our brains. Now do the smart thing and give me that sword of yours."

It was one of those moments where time seemed to slow to a crawl, and Kirito's awareness of things seemed to heighten until he felt like he could hear the faint tinkling of metal buckles and armor plating as players shifted their weight, the sussuration of clothing, and even the sounds of individual birds and insects in the stillness and hush that fell across the onlookers. He could pick out each of their expressions and moods without trying; had a good idea of exactly which of them were looking on him with sympathy and which shared the anger and xenophobia of his harassers. His gaze passed briefly over a familiar face; the Undine girl he'd saved the day before was there with an Imp player who seemed far too young to be in the game in the first place. Asuna, that had been her name—and from her conflicted expression, she didn't seem to know what to make of this conflict.

Kirito's eyes only left Gaitner for a few beats as he took in all of this, and when they returned they had hardened into decision and determination that expressed itself in one single word: "No."

That one word crossed the air between them and triggered a dangerous gathering of storm clouds on Gaitner's face as his sword came free of its scabbard. "Wrong answer," he said as he lunged and swung the long sword in an overhand chop.

Kirito knew his options were limited. Here in the Safe Zone of Parasel, the HP of Undine players would not decrease no matter what he did; he could be the highest-level player in the game wielding rare weaponry from deep within Yggdrasil's dungeon, and even the most powerful multi-hit sword skills or the most potent combat magic would do no damage to them.

He, on the other hand, had no such protection.

But doing damage wasn't the only way to defeat someone. And Gaitner hadn't used a sword skill; probably hadn't thought he needed to—his attack was an ordinary swing of his weapon, and it was slow. As the blade came down, Kirito's hand flew up to his own sword and drew about a foot of it from the scabbard on his back while turning and ducking his shoulder. Steel rang as Gaitner's blow struck the glossy black metal of the Anneal Blade's exposed length, and as the other player's weapon rebounded up from the deflection, Kirito let go of his sword and let it slide back into the scabbard, grabbing Gaitner's sword arm with the newly-freed hand and his attacker's belt with the other. A twist of the hips and a shuffle-step turned Gaitner's forward momentum into a disadvantage, and Kirito used that momentum and the STR that he'd been increasing to hurl the other player over his shoulder and into the forge against which they'd cornered him.

A protected player's HP might not decrease from damage, but their senses were unaffected. Gaitner howled like a banshee as he dropped into the red-hot coals; the burning would cause no real pain, but the heat would be nearly unbearable—and he didn't seem to have the presence of mind to get over the shock of what had happened and climb out.

The immediate threat dealt with, Kirito spun to face the other two players who'd accosted them. The dark-haired boy was backing away, eyes wide and mouth moving soundlessly, but the third was already charging at Kirito and tackled him around the waist, slamming his head into the waist-high brick wall of the forge. The impact stunned Kirito, and in his peripheral vision he could see a tiny amount of HP lost from the blow. He grabbed his attacker's wrist to stop an incoming punch, and tried to grab the other arm as the Undine went for the dagger at his side. Accompanying all of this was the ghastly music of Gaitner's screams as he struggled to pull himself out of the coals.

Then, with the sound of a sword skill activating, a flash of purple light momentarily blinded Kirito. There was an explosive sound and a harsh jerk; a great weight was lifted from his chest. It was followed almost immediately by a crash and the cacophony of what sounded like pieces of metal clattering to the floor. When his vision cleared, Kirito saw the Undine girl from before standing over him, a new light blue rapier held out in front of her and an expression of resolve on her face. Turning his head, he could see the player who'd been on top of him picking himself up from a pile of armor that had been on display before he went crashing into it.

"Are you people crazy?" Asuna yelled as she brandished the rapier. "He didn't do anything! Now cut it out!"

The boy with the dark blue hair was gone, and the assailant that Asuna had apparently knocked off of Kirito was well on his way to disappearing into the crowd. Gaitner seemed to have finally dragged himself out of the forge, and was curled up on the floor and shuddering as his clothes smoldered. His eyes were wild as they fixed themselves on Kirito from where he lay. "I-I'm g-going to f-f-fucking kill you…"

"You'd better get out of here," Asuna said to Kirito without lowering her weapon. "Before he gets up."

Kirito needed no further encouragement; he was already coming to his feet. He looked at Asuna with wide eyes, down at Gaitner as the man started to shakily push himself upright, and then back at the girl who seemed to have saved his life. "Thanks. I—"

"Don't," she said, not turning to look at him. "This makes us even."

Not being in a position to argue, Kirito nodded once, took three running steps to get clear of the smithy, and shot into the air as his wings burst from his back and hummed into motion.

"Fellrach the Ravenous," Alicia said, raising her voice as she leapt into the air and took flight again, their brief rest stop finished.


Having to pay attention to where she was going spared Alicia from the temptation to roll her eyes at Klein as she slowly sounded out the name. "Ferurakku za Rabinasu. Like most boss names, it's in English; it means Donshoku no Ferurakku. That's the boss that spawned in the Valley of Butterflies during the beta, and it's an apt name."

"And you're telling me your leader sent Issin to go fight this thing?" Klein's tone was outraged. If Issin didn't make it out of this…

"Him and his party—don't know how many, but they've got one veteran player with them. They're supposed to just scout the boss, but if Rai didn't warn them about what they're going to be facing, they could be in serious trouble."

"Did you fight this thing? In the beta, I mean?"

Alicia shook her head. "No, but I heard what the boss was from the clearing group that did. It's a nasty, nasty mob." And then she did turn her head slightly, enough to dart her eyes to the side and catch Klein's gaze. "I hope you're not arachnophobic."

Kumo-kyoufushou? Klein thought, face going pale. "Uh, please tell me that doesn't mean what I think it means."

Alicia laughed; there was no real humor in it. "Suck it up, Klein. We're almost there." Her body bent as she altered her course slightly, aiming due eastward into the mountain range that dominated that horizon. Klein glanced to either side to make sure Kunimittz and Dynamm were still right on his heels, and followed suit.

As they approached the mouth of the valley that cut through the otherwise impenetrable mountains, Klein immediately understood where it got its name. Grassy plains began to give way to thicker and more lush vegetation where small brooks trickled down from the highlands to either side of the valley, and the ground was almost carpeted with flowers and scattered stands of trees in every possible shape or description. The air was atwitter with motion as butterflies—along with other non-aggro insects—flitted from perch to perch or simply rode the thermals in the air, ranging from the size of Klein's fist to nearly the size of a horse.

It could very well be an outstanding place to grind; none of the mobs seemed to have the red cursor that meant they'd attack if you so much as looked at them funny, although here and there the dark mouths of caves lurked ominously in the underbrush and suggested that not everything in this valley was visible at a glance.

Alicia pointed excitedly. "There! I see their flight trails."

Klein couldn't see anything, no matter how hard he strained. "You sure? All I see is empty valley. No boss, no nothing."

"Trust me," Alicia said. "My eyesight's better than yours. That's gotta be them. Come on!" Her arms pressed tighter to her sides, and Klein felt a blast of displaced air as she shot forward in a burst of acceleration.

"Hey, wait! I can't do that! Wai… oh, hell. Kunimittz, Dynamm, fast as you can go!"

As they raced onward, Klein did catch sight of the yellow trails of light that Alicia had mentioned—far, far ahead. Alicia was rapidly putting distance between herself and Klein's group as well, and as he fought to keep sight of her he frowned in puzzlement as he saw the flight trails of the other group suddenly disappear. Moments later, Alicia's as well. It looked like she'd run ahead and caught up with them in time to warn them; they all must have stopped. As he approached, he could see them all hovering in the air near each other, gesturing wildly.

No, not gesturing, he thought suddenly in alarm. Thrashing. He was close enough now to see just how wrong their movements seemed, and before long he could also hear them yelling. Alicia waved at him frantically with one arm as if shooing him away.

It was only the faintest, most fleeting glint of light. In any other circumstances he would've thought nothing of it. But between the way the Cait Sith were moving and yelling, and what Alicia had told him before, something fell into place in his mind and he jerked back on the controller and flipped his legs under him to halt himself, yelling for Kunimittz and Dynamm to do the same.

Now that he was hovering in place, he could just barely see the thin, nearly invisible filaments stretching across the valley and criss-crossing each other, interwoven into a coarse organic net that occasionally caught the sun just right and glistened briefly with reflected light. Nobody had warned the Cait Sith, and they had flown straight into the web.

"Klein!" Issin's eyes were wide as he fruitlessly tried to yank himself free of the trap, one arm pinned to his side by the twisted strands of spidersilk. "Oh my God, it really is you! Get us outta here, man!" Alicia was snarling and slashing at the webbing with the steel claws on her forearms, but there was fear in her eyes as her efforts served only to further entangle herself.

Klein's own fears took form as he prepared to swoop in and try to help. Far below, on the valley floor, a large sinkhole sat yawning underneath the center of the web, and horror filled him as four pairs of glowing red eyes loomed out of the darkness. All eight of those eyes were attached to a massive brown form the size of a school bus that lunged from the depths of the cavern, landing with deceptive delicacy on the surface of the web and scuttling across it. Alicia and a few of the other Cait Sith screamed as they caught sight of it, and Klein's heart dropped into his gut when he focused on the giant spider and saw not one but three green HP bars curling around its left side.

Kunimittz was the first to act. Following a series of chanted syllables, a bolt of seething violet-black energy leapt from his free hand and struck the spider squarely between the eyes; Klein caught a fleeting glimpse of a status effect icon beside its HP gauge as it emitted a high-pitched shrieking sound and tumbled back to the ground with a booming crash. Not wanting to waste the window of opportunity, he flew as close as he dared to Issin. He slashed at the webbing with his cutlass, but the strands actually seemed to stick to it—he had to use a sword skill just to free his weapon.

As he glanced in Alicia's direction, he saw her freeze for a moment and flick her eyes to the left. With her free hand, she reached up and did something—it looked like she was using her menu or receiving a message—and suddenly she yelled, "Klein! The webs are flammable!"

"Get ready to fly, Issin!" Klein shouted as he raised a hand, realizing what Alicia's advice meant. "Hitto kachi rakun!"

Motes of light stirred around Klein as he spoke, forming into arcane symbols which circled around him and froze in place when the incantation was completed. He felt a warm rush down his arm, and from his fingertips a spray of fire fanned out as he waved his arm in a rough oval. Some of the flames licked at his friend, singeing clothes and doing a small amount of damage, but little bursts of blue fire raced away from Issin as the web filaments ignited and evaporated. As Klein clenched his fist to terminate the spell, Issin started to fall forward, and then caught himself as his wings emerged and bore him quickly away from the web.

Klein's jaw dropped. Issin hadn't used the flight controller. "Wait, you can—?"

"I'll show you later!" his friend shouted. "And thank—watch out!"

The warning came just in time. Klein caught motion out of the corner of his eye and instinctively veered to one side, swinging his cutlass around and deflecting an impaling attack from one of Fellrach's legs. Each legtip was like a spear point, and it started to lunge at him again. Before it could strike, a bolt of yellow light lanced in from behind him and struck the spider boss, leaving the afterimage of an arrow embedded in one of its eyes and produced another grating shriek from the mob. Kunimittz and Dynamm flew into the opening, parrying stabs of the spider's forelegs with sword and staff, respectively.

Klein knew they wouldn't be able to sustain that defense forever—not against a boss. They were buying him time, and Klein fervently hoped they didn't end up buying it with their lives. Klein maneuvered over to where Alicia was still trapped, flailing and slashing and yelling as if she could free herself with sheer outrage. "Hold still and brace yourself!" he yelled, raising his hand again.

Eyes wide, Alicia curled herself up as tightly as she could. A moment later, another fan of flame burst from Klein's fingers and washed across the entrapping web, little blue incandescent flashes flaring up as the barely-visible silken prison curled away and evaporated into acrid smoke. Alicia's wings sparkled immediately into action; she shot away from the web and smacked directly into Klein in what was almost a tackle, arms wrapped around him. Klein very nearly dropped his scimitar in shock as she pecked a kiss onto his cheek and then kicked off of him, taking flight again. "Get the others!"

That, Klein saw, was going to be easier said than done—although his three friends were putting up a valiant effort to fend off the boss, they were doing very little damage to it and had no way to really keep it away from the Cait Sith who were still trapped in the web, short of trying to keep its attention by drawing aggro. One of the helpless Cait Sith screamed as one of Fellrach's hind legs stabbed into him again and again, and even another startlingly accurate shot in the eye by Issin wasn't enough to keep the victim from bursting into a flare of yellow flames, leaving behind the dim flicker of his similarly-colored Remain Light. The screams echoed off the sides of the valley for several seconds afterward, and not all of those screams were those of the dead player.

Klein glanced at his HUD, and swore loudly. His Fire Bolt spell didn't use a great deal of MP, but he couldn't target the hair-thin filaments of webbing with it. The Flame Spray that he'd been using to free people had an area effect, but it drained MP quickly—and the blue bar beneath his HP gauge was more than half gone. He looked to the others for help, but it was taking the combined efforts of Alicia and his three friends just to fend off the boss and keep it from killing anyone else. And their HP was rapidly dropping from blocking damage.

He had enough mana to free one person, maybe two, and there were still four Cait Sith trapped. They were running out of time.

A pair of terrified shouts yanked him out of his indecision. He looked in the direction of the sound in time to see Dynamm and Alicia go spinning backwards as Fellrach slashed with both front legs and knocked them away, their HP nearly to the red zone. It took them a few moments to regain control of their flight, but at least it carried them out of immediate danger.

However, it also left Fellrach with an opening. The spider boss charged through the gap and prepared to attack the players immobilized in its web.

And then, in a bolt of inspiration, Klein realized what he had to do. As he raised his left hand and began chanting the words, he accelerated to his top speed and prayed that it would work.

Author's Note 12/23/14: 

Thank you to everyone who has read, reviewed, faved and followed this story so far! It really means a lot to me that people are enjoying it so much, and I read every single review you leave. I have the broad strokes of the plot fairly well defined from beginning to end, and a chapter-by-chapter outline for Part 1 (into which we are currently a little over halfway)-so while I may not always be able to update as frequently as I have been, rest assured that I have a very good idea of where this is going and every intention of getting there.

Chapter Text

"Beyond the automated actions of the «Crime Prevention Code», Faction Leaders have the power to unilaterally issue a variety of consequences to those of their faction who transgress against them. These range from the ability to levy arbitrary fines, all the way up to «banishment» and «exile». A banished player is stripped of their rights and privileges as a citizen of their home city, and no longer receive the protection of that city's Safe Zone. Exile is far more serious, and is the ultimate punishment that a Faction Leader can deal out: the offending player is not only banished, but set as an «enemy» of the faction so that even the NPC guards in their former home city will attack them on sight…"
Alfheim Online Manual, «Crime and Punishments»

9 ~ 11 November 2022
Day 4: Afternoon

Klein didn't know precisely how far the web of Fellrach the Ravenous stretched, or how it was secured. For all he knew, the trap laid by the spider boss floated in the air unmoored to anything whatsoever, and the idea that had flashed through his head would simply waste the last of his MP rather than saving the four Cait Sith still trapped in the sticky, nearly-invisible strands.

It didn't matter. There simply wasn't any more time to think it through or try to come up with something better. Klein could see Alicia and then Dynamm get control of their fall, but both hesitated to rush back in—and with their HP gauges nearly to the red zone, he couldn't blame them; one more solid blow would deplete the last of their health and cause their avatars to erupt into colored flames. And with the lack of any revival items or spells this early in the game, their Remain Lights would dissolve into nothing a minute later and end in their deaths both here and in the real world.

As Klein accelerated rapidly to his maximum speed, Fellrach skittered upwards across the web and through the gap left when it knocked aside the two defenders, rearing back and preparing to strike at the nearest Cait Sith. The player—a young boy with brown hair that flowed past his triangular feline ears almost to his shoulders—gave a cry and tried to get his spear up in front of him, narrowly deflecting the first strike. The impact caused him to shake back and forth in the web, and he nearly lost the grip on his spear.

Klein had had to sheathe his cutlass in order to free up a hand for casting while in motion, but at this point the weapon wouldn't have made any difference anyway. The relatively short spell incantation transformed words into arcane light, and the heat and energy flowed down his left arm and erupted from his fingertips in a sheet of flames that would continue as long as he held his hand that way. Still accelerating, he skimmed about a meter away from the web and shot past and in between Fellrach and the trapped players, the curtain of fire from his outstretched hand cutting through the web like a white-hot knife through plastic wrap.

An impact jolted his leg and almost knocked him into the web; he could see his HP drop and had to assume that the boss had struck him as he passed. As soon as he swooped clear, his MP nearly depleted, he pulled up and terminated the spell, turning to see if he'd managed to pull off what he thought he would.

Tracers of blue like butane flames still flickered away from where he'd fanned the spell across the web, a foul odor stinging his nostrils with every strand that ignited and disintegrated from the heat. He could hear a sickly creaking and ripping sound, and although the web itself was almost impossible to spot except where it caught the light, he could imagine what was happening as Fellrach flailed its legs, a huge section of the web peeling back under the spider's weight below where Klein's flames had cut a long gash across the strands.

"Use your weapon skills to get the rest free!" Alicia shouted at Klein's friends. "If you just hack at the web it'll trap your weapon, but sword skills should cut through!"

As high as they were, Fellrach took a long time to fall to the ground. When it struck, it was with a heinous shriek and a thunderous impact that scattered dirt and foliage in every direction. The spider's legs thrashed and twitched as it fought to right itself, and as Klein focused on the mob, he could just barely see that the falling damage had cut off more than half of one of its HP bars.

It was worth remembering the tactic if they ever faced it again, but even with that slight advantage there was still no way the nine of them had any chance of taking out this boss—not at their level, and certainly not with everyone hurt to one degree or another. Klein turned quickly and went to help Alicia and his crew free the remaining Cait Sith, expending the very last of his MP on a brief burst of flame that loosened the last of the strands trapping the young spearman who'd almost been impaled.

The last player came free from their entrapment just in time. Alicia had to rapidly zip backwards to avoid a hissing, acrid stream of venom that shot past her from below. Klein supposed it made sense that the spider had ranged attacks—otherwise, players could simply fly out of its reach and cheese the battle with spells from afar. But it would've been a lot more comforting if the game designer had overlooked that little detail for once. Needing no further urging, the group of players all flew westward as fast as they could, zigging and zagging their flight to avoid any parting shots from Fellrach until the boss disappeared completely from view.

Even so, they continued flying at top speed until they were well clear of the valley, landing in the vast plains east of Freelia once the first players started running out of charge in their wings. Everyone sat, lay down, or simply sprawled in an undignified way on the ground, some breathing heavily out of reflex despite the fact that their avatars didn't require oxygen. Klein himself sat with his legs almost drawn up to his chest, head in his knees as the ebbing adrenaline in the bloodstream of his real body left him feeling completely drained. The whole battle couldn't have taken more than a few minutes, their travel time getting there less than an hour, but Klein felt like they'd been in pitched combat all day.

A soft presence against his back pulled him out of his thoughts, a pair of slender arms snaking around and lacing the fingers of their hands in front of him. A chin came to rest on his shoulder, and Klein could feel someone's warm breath on his ear and cheek. "Thank you," Alicia whispered. "You could've just saved your friend and left us."

Heat rose to Klein's face, about a hundred possible responses racing through his head and colliding with each other, resulting in a multi-car pileup in his brain that caused his train of thought to come screeching to a halt. Bereft of reason or the benefit of intelligent thought, his mouth continued forward on autopilot to the best of his ability.

Which is to say: Klein gibbered incoherently.

"I uh… er… I couldn't just… I mean, uh… that's very… um… could you say that again?"

A soft giggle sounded in his ear, and Klein could not manage to care too much that he was being laughed at. There was a warm, soft person pressed against his back and she was hugging him and it was very… very. It was very. That was the best Klein's brain could come up with under the circumstances.

"For crying out loud, Klein, get a room!"

Klein's head jerked towards the voice, and he glared about as well as he could considering how beet-red his face was. "Shut up, Dynamm."

Several others laughed, and Klein grumbled without looking to see who they were. Alicia's lips brushed his cheek as she slipped away, laughing. Klein tried to pretend that no, that really wasn't her tail that had touched him in an excessively friendly way as she left.

The sound of a cleared throat brought Klein's head back up, and he rose quickly to his feet as one of the Cait Sith—a tall swordsman in light plate with sleek black hair and a shield slung on his back—approached and bowed deeply to him. "I'm Thelvin, and I'm the leader of this party. Whoever you are—Klein, your friend said?—I can't thank you enough for what you and your friends just did for us."

Still a bit flustered from Alicia's display of affection, Klein rubbed at the back of his neck and gave a weak chuckle. "Klein, yeah. And no biggie. I came to get my buddy here," he said with a jerk of the thumb at Issin, "but it wouldn't have been right to just bail on you guys."

Thelvin glanced over at Issin. "I suppose that means you'll be leaving us, then." He sighed. "You're lucky to have a friend like this, Issin."

Issin came over and punched Klein in the arm. "He's ugly as a tengu, but he's always been a great guild leader." He laughed as he dodged the wild swing that accompanied Klein's outraged complaint. "But yeah, I don't see Harry or Dale with him, so I guess we'll be heading out after this. Sorry man."

Shaking his head, Thelvin waved off the apology. "It's okay. I'm not going to keep you from friends that care that much about you. Everyone can use all the friends we can get in this world, considering the circumstances. You planning on coming back at any point?"

"We might," Klein said. "We were going to re-form our old guild once we all got back together, and strike out on our own. We don't want to be part of all the political crap going on, just fight to clear the game."

"You may not want any part of Alfheim politics," Alicia said as she slipped an arm into Klein's, "but you've already stepped into them without realizing it." She looked meaningfully at Thelvin. "I don't think this was Rai being stupid or callous, Thelvin. I think he was trying to kill off a rival."

Thelvin's hands balled into fists, his face darkening. "I'd wondered. Raikouji was a bit of a conniving asshole in the beta, which was one of the reasons I put my name in for the vote. Couldn't stand the idea of seeing him as faction leader. But when he won, I just shrugged and decided to make the best of it. I didn't think he'd go this far, not with the stakes being what they are." He stared at Alicia with such an intense gaze that she had to look away. "Are you sure about this? And I mean absolutely sure. Because if Raikouji really did try to get me and my entire group killed off… that's unforgivable. Keppino died out there because Rai didn't warn us what we were running into. The rest of the Cait Sith wouldn't stand for it if they knew."

"Argo told me," Alicia said simply. "And I believe her."

Thelvin hung his head and sighed. "Damnit, Alicia. If you'd said any other name, I would've asked for more proof."

"I know. But she said she overheard him talking about it. Have you ever known Argo to be wrong about something like that? Or to lie to us?"

"I don't really know Argo," Thelvin replied, tapping at his armor and checking its condition in the resulting pop-up. "Not like you do. But I don't think there's a Cait Sith beta tester who doesn't know her by reputation, even if they haven't done business with her directly." He glanced over at Klein, realizing that they were leaving him out of the conversation. "We should probably part ways after this. I'm not sure how this is going to go down once we return to Freelia, but I doubt Raikouji's going to go quietly—and as outsiders, you'd have no protection in the city."

Alicia made a disappointed face; Klein caught it out of the corner of his eye and marveled how she could manage to make even a pout look adorable. He didn't know if she was seriously attracted to him or if that was just her personality, but it presented him with an uncomfortable dilemma. A sharp blow on the back sent him staggering forward and jerking away from her grasp; he looked back and saw Dynamm standing behind him and shaking his hand as if it stung.

"That'll teach you to smack someone in armor," Klein grumbled, glaring daggers at his old friend.

"Come on, Leader. Harry and Dale are waiting for us. If we ever make it back to Freelia, you can claim your hero's reward then." Alicia laughed and swatted Dynamm half-heartedly, covering her mouth; Klein flushed again.

"That's amazing," Kunimittz said, his black eyes twinkling. "I haven't seen Klein that red since that girl on our track team—"

"Leaving now!" Klein said loudly, clapping a hand over his friend's mouth and dragging him back to the others in what almost amounted to a chokehold.

"Explain yourselves," Diavel said curtly from behind his desk, annoyance plain on his face.

Asuna bristled at her leader's tone, and folded her arms across her chest. She didn't care for being summoned by anyone, nor did she appreciate being called to the carpet for something that hadn't even been her fault. She hadn't been the one harassing that Spriggan boy, Kirito. She hadn't been the one to attack a visitor to the city without provocation. Only Yuuki's presence at her side kept her from unloading on Diavel with exactly what she thought of the whole situation in a very colorful way; Asuna bit her tongue to hold back the words she really wanted to use.

"He and his friends were attacking some boy," Yuuki said, indicating the Undine man standing several paces to their left. His clothes were scorched and in terrible condition, and it seemed like his armor was the only thing keeping the outfit together. The man clenched his fists and glared over at Yuuki, who thrust out her chin defiantly at him as she went on. "It wasn't fair. He couldn't fight back. So Asuna stopped the fight."

"Look at me! Do I look like he couldn't fight back?" the man snapped. "He was a spy!"

"He was not!" Yuuki and Asuna said at virtually the same time. It would've been worth a laugh if the situation had been any less tense. Asuna couldn't stop herself from piling on. "And it serves you right!"

"That's enough!" Diavel said, impatience rising in his voice as he interrupted before the argument could escalate. Squinting and pinching the bridge of his nose, he sighed and addressed the man with the scorched clothes more calmly. "How do you know he was a spy?" And then, to Asuna: "And how do you know he wasn't? One at a time, please. Gaitner?"

"He was sneaking around the market, and he mouthed off to us. He's not one of us; he wasn't even an Imp—what business did he have being here?"

"That's not a reason to attack someone," Diavel said evenly, his forehead creasing as he frowned. "Just because someone from another race comes to our city doesn't mean they're automatically an enemy. And need I remind you of what happens when someone dies in this game? You could've killed that player, Gaitner. A living, breathing human being. Someone with a family on the outside." When Gaitner opened his mouth to protest, Diavel cut him off with a sharp sweep of his hand. "No, you're done talking. Asuna, did you know this person? Or have some other reason to put yourself in the middle of this?"

"If you'd bothered to ask me first," Asuna said shortly, "I would've told you that it was that Spriggan who came with me to see you yesterday."

"Kirito?" Diavel said in surprise. Gaitner paled, perhaps realizing that he'd stepped in it and that the boy really had been someone known to his leader. "This is the Spriggan we're talking about?" When Asuna nodded, he turned back to Gaitner, who took a step back when he saw Diavel's expression. "That player was here on legitimate business, Gaitner. I hired him. I appreciate that you thought you were defending our city, but that's not how we do things around here. If in the future you think a stranger is up to something, you call a guard." He leaned forward, fixing the man with a gaze that made him shrink back. "But if I ever again hear of you attacking someone in this city without provocation, I will banish you. Are we understood?"

"What about her?" Gaitner demanded, pointing rudely at Asuna and Yuuki. "She attacked my friends! And she's running around with an Imp!"

"A GIRL!" Diavel roared, slamming his palms on the desk as he stood abruptly, causing everyone in the room to jump in surprise. Asuna could not recall ever hearing him raise his voice in anger like that, and from the expressions of the others in the room neither had they—even Jahala looked shocked as the words echoed off the walls. More quietly, but no less angrily, he went on. "Not an 'Imp', Gaitner—a girl. A little girl who can't be much older than what, twelve?" Diavel gestured dismissively, disgustedly. "Get out of my sight. Jahala, please escort him to the castle gates."

When the door shut, it left Asuna and Yuuki alone in Diavel's office. Before Asuna could ask if they could go, Diavel spoke up. "Gaitner might be a distasteful person, Asuna, but he raises an uncomfortable issue." He nodded towards Yuuki as he approached them, hands clasped at the small of his back. "It's going to be... problematic if she stays here in the city with you. People will talk. Some of them will do more than talk."

"Let them talk," Asuna replied, reaching over and taking Yuuki's hand in hers to reassure her. "And if anyone does more than that, I'll deal with them myself."

Diavel's smile had a hint of wistfulness to it. "How you've changed in the few short days since I met you. I knew you were stronger than you seemed."

"I haven't changed," Asuna stated, her voice even. "I'm still the person I was when you found me. I'm just not afraid anymore." She glanced in Yuuki's direction. "And I have someone I have to take care of."

"There's no dissuading you from this course, is there?"

The look Asuna gave Diavel as she turned to face him again was so blistering, it almost made him retreat a pace. "What would you have me do? Abandon her? Send her back to the Imp home city? To the Salamanders? None of those things are going to happen."

"Please," Yuuki said suddenly, her expression pained. "Don't fight over me. I don't want to be a burden—"

"You're not," Asuna said quickly to her. Giving Diavel a fierce look, she added, "no matter what anyone else says."

Closing his eyes briefly, Diavel took a deep breath and nodded. "I understand. It's just…" He took two steps, a third, and placed his hands on Asuna's shoulders. Her mouth dropped open slightly, but she found herself unable to move or muster words as he looked down at her. "I worry about you, Asuna. I worry that you're compensating for your fears by taking these risks. I can only protect you up to a certain point, and with a vote every thirty days, there's no guarantee that I'll always be leading the Undines. A future leader might take a much harsher view on your actions or the company you keep, and there wouldn't be anything I could do to help you then."

Asuna was frozen in Diavel's gaze and the light touch of his grip as he spoke, her thoughts racing. It was true, what he said: the faction leader had a great deal of power, including the ability to banish a player—to expel them from the faction and deny them its services or the protection of the city Safe Zone. She knew—she hoped—that Diavel would never do anything like that to her just because she'd committed herself to taking care of Yuuki. But someone else might. If there was one thing the last few days had taught her, it was that there were a lot of very ugly, hateful people in the world—people who were all too willing to cast aside their common humanity and see everything through the lens of us and them.

And then, as he finished speaking, she angrily shrugged his hands from her shoulders and pushed his arm aside so that she could stand closer to Yuuki and put her arm around the girl, who had tears in her eyes and looked as if she might flee at any moment. "I didn't ask for your protection, Diavel, and I don't need it. I'm not yours to worry about, so stop treating me like a helpless child! If there are consequences for taking in this girl and being the only friend she has in this world, those are consequences I'll just have to live with. Are we done here?"

Diavel looked shocked by her speech, almost hurt. Asuna couldn't manage to care; she was too angry. After a moment he shut his eyes and bowed his head. "I'm sorry. I've upset you, and that wasn't my intention. Of course you may leave anytime you want."

Asuna took him at his word on that, and when she reached down Yuuki's hand almost flew into hers. As the two of them turned and walked towards the door, she heard Diavel's voice call her name once more. Despite a desire to simply keep walking, she stopped with her hand on the doorknob and spoke without turning. "What?"

"Be careful. Please."

She hesitated only a moment after pulling the door open. Then she did look back, and the genuine expression she saw on his face as he stood calmly in the middle of the room softened her ire somewhat. She said nothing more as the door closed behind her, leaving him alone in his office.

Argo breathed a deep sigh of relief as she read the new message she'd received, grateful both for the chance to rest her wings and for the news that came with it.

「Have I mentioned lately how awesome you are? That info you sent saved our butts. We lost one person (no one I knew), but Klein was able to use his fire magic to get everyone else free, and we hightailed it out of there. Looking at the map, I'd guess you're less than an hour out from Freelia. We're going to confront Rai, but we could really use you there when we do—you're the one who knows what he said, after all. Meet us at my place once you get in. ~Allie」

Argo had every intention of doing exactly that—but there were a few things she had to take care of first, and they couldn't wait. It would be nice if Raikouji would do them all the favor of confessing what he'd tried to do straight out—or better yet, if he'd just resign his position and save them the trouble of having to go through this mess.

Nice, but highly unlikely. If he was willing to go so far as to try to have a political rival killed off in order to secure his position when the next vote came around, he wasn't going to give up so easily. To the contrary, there was every possibility that he'd try to concoct some reason to have them imprisoned—or, more likely, simply banish them. She wouldn't even put it past him to consider exile if he was desperate enough, although banishments and exiles were announced to the entire faction in a system message—they were not exactly a subtle punishment.

It was for this reason that Argo's final errands before going to Alicia's home included a trip to an item shop, where she stocked up on every form of traveling supplies she could think of for a long journey. If she ended up expelled from the Cait Sith at the end of this confrontation, she wanted to be absolutely certain she was provisioned for the long haul. She didn't think it would come to that, but she didn't care to count on Raikouji's sense of restraint.

When Argo finally arrived at the room Alicia was renting, she entered without knocking and found her friend sitting at the same low table where some of the beta testers had gathered on the first night they were trapped here, sipping at some kind of improbably-colored fruit drink and conversing with another player that Argo recognized as Thelvin from the scene she'd witnessed earlier in the day. As the door opened, they both fell momentarily silent—Thelvin started in surprise, but Alicia grinned as her ears twitched in amusement; she was used to Argo's habits.

"Come on in, we were just going over how we wanted to approach Rai. Argo, this is Thelvin. Thelvin, Argo."

"We've met," Argo said. At Thelvin's puzzled expression, she smirked and added, "in a manner of speaking. So what're you thinking?"

Thelvin rose to his feet, looking down at the both of them. Argo knew she was short, but even accounting for that he still towered over her; he had to be easily over a hundred and eighty centimeters in height, and that was impressive considering it had to be his real-life build as well. He smacked a fist into his other palm for effect. "We confront him together. He killed one of my friends trying to get me, and now we have a pretty good idea why. I can bring my party along both for backup and as witnesses. Alicia has a lot of pull with the other beta testers, and you have both the eyewitness account of what he said and a reputation that no one will question."

"What exactly did he say, anyway?" Alicia asked.

Argo related her account of the meeting between Thelvin and Raikouji word for word, to the point of closely imitating Thelvin's habitually formal speech patterns and Raikouji's strong Ibaraki-flavored accent. By the time she got to the words the Cait Sith leader had muttered after he thought he was alone, Thelvin's jaw was hanging agape. Alicia just grinned as she looked up at his reaction. "You've never heard Argo do her impression thing, have you?"

Shutting his mouth abruptly, Thelvin shook his head. "It's not just that, it's… how the hell did you know all of that? Were you eavesdropping?"

"Something like that," Argo agreed as she paced around the room, forcing him to turn to face her. "So here's the thing: your plan sucks."

Thelvin's mouth opened again. Before he could make sound come from it, Argo explained. "It's not gonna matter how many people we bring—as far as Raiko-pin's concerned, we got nothing. And he's right. It's my word against his about what he said in that room, and without proof he's not guilty of anything other than sending you guys on a crap mission. And the more witnesses we have, the less likely he is to let slip anything incriminating. Given enough time, I could probably gin up a whisper campaign to undermine him—but that just gives him time to come up with another way to get rid of you. And if Alicia shows up with us, that just puts a target on her back, too."

"Assuming there isn't one already," Alicia pointed out. "I ran against him too, you know."

Argo nodded. "I know. But I'd rather not give him an excuse unless we're sure we can take him down."

"'If you strike at a king, you must kill him,'" Thelvin quoted, his expression grave.

Argo grinned and nodded. "You got it."

"I'm assuming this means you've got something better in mind?" Alicia asked, finishing her drink and setting the empty glass on the table.

Argo explained. And as she did, smiles slowly spread across the faces of the other two Cait Sith, the tips of their tails quivering in excitement. They were the smiles of cats that had just discovered a particularly juicy songbird and were trying to decide how to divvy up their prize.

"You," Alicia said as she stood up and stretched, "are insane." She had a silly grin on her face, and she wasn't the only one.

"Undoubtedly," Argo said as she drew her hood up over her head and made for the door. "Be ready for the signal."

It wasn't a long walk to the castle that loomed over Freelia's skyline, but it gave her plenty of time to think. She could've just flown, but by this point she'd spent enough time observing Raikouji's habits and schedule to know that he probably wouldn't be finished with dinner for at least another five or ten minutes—and she wanted to catch him when he was alone in his office on the bottom floor. As a citizen of Freelia, the NPC guards didn't bat an eye at her, and their leader didn't seem to think that player guards were necessary—any players who would be worth anything as guards, he wanted out leveling up or patrolling the borders.

She was counting on that single-minded arrogance. She understood it—shared it to a degree. Argo worked to clear doubts and stray thoughts from her mind as she walked through the expansive foyer of the castle, ignoring the rote greetings from the NPCs stationed there. She took a side hallway, turned right, and pushed open the doors to Raikouji's executive office without preamble, savoring the look on his face as the doors shut behind her.

Raikouji stood at once, sweeping his menu hastily closed with one hand as he mastered his surprise and glared across the room at her. "You know, Argo, there's this thing called knocking. You should try it sometime. Now what the hell do you want?"

"Your resignation," Argo said, pushing back the hood of her cloak.

For a moment, Raikouji looked just as stunned as he had when she'd walked in the door, eyes widening and mouth forming a perfect 'O'. Then he began laughing loudly, sitting back down and waving at the air. "You had me there for a moment. Here I thought you had some kind of serious business for me, but it seems you've come to tell me jokes instead. Are you applying for the position of court jester?"

Argo's face was a mask of calm; only the involuntary lashing of her tail betrayed her feelings. "Do I look like I'm here to clown around with you? You're done, Raiko-pin. We know you tried to have Thelvin killed, and why. One of his group is dead, but Thelvin himself is just fine—and he sends his regards."

"Now just a—"

"So here's what's gonna happen," Argo continued, talking over his attempt at interrupting her. "You're gonna open your faction menu. You're gonna select the option that resigns your position. You're gonna walk out of here. And when the system holds a new vote tomorrow, you're gonna stay out of it—and never run again."

Raikouji stared at her incredulously. "You're completely mental."

"So I've been told," Argo said agreeably. "But I'm not wrong about this. You're gonna do what I just said, because if you don't then by this time tomorrow everyone's gonna know what you tried to do." And now she let her mask slip, grinning at him wickedly. "It'll be pitchforks and torches, Raiko-pin. You'll be lucky to survive the night. Or… you can bow out gracefully and go join a clearing group. Your choice."

"You're bluffing," he said after several moments of uncomfortable silence. "You don't know a damn thing."

Rather than arguing the point, Argo cleared her throat and deepened her voice, affecting the subtle differences of pitch and consonant voicing distinctive to the Ibaraki region. "For fuck's sake, Thelvin. Just shut up and get yourself killed already."

Raikouji's face went as white as bleached rice when as he heard his own words echoed back to him in something very close to his own voice. "How… but nobody was there! How could you have heard…?"

Argo simply grinned.

And then Raikouji's eyes widened. "The Rat," he whispered. "You fucking bitch. You were spying on me." His hands moved in the air, and Argo knew he had to be opening his menu. "If you breathe a word of this, I'll banish you—no, exile you."

Argo planted her palms on the edge of Raikouji's desk and leaned over it; at her height, she would seem to be staring straight at him through his menu screens. "Oh, do it. I dare you. Do you have any idea what kinda shitstorm you'd stir up by exiling The Rat? If you think that'd put a lid on this whole thing, you're an idiot. I couldn't buy better publicity with every coin in my purse."

Hands trembling with rage, face a mask of hate, Raikouji jerkily closed his menu. "You still don't have any proof, you know," he seethed, visibly trying to get control of his anger.

Argo gave him another infuriating smirk. Her right hand stole into her cloak, and when it withdrew, she held in her fingers a tiny eight-sided object that seemed to be made of some kind of opaque blue crystal. "I do now." And so saying, she stomped her foot twice on the floor, hard. Almost immediately, the doors behind her opened, and Thelvin rushed in with Alicia and his party, who surrounded Argo on either side in order to discourage Raikouji from doing anything rash. "Got it all," she said to the new arrivals.

His eyes were as wide as saucers, and now they showed real fear as his ears flattened against his head in a defensive reflex. "Is that…? But you couldn't have a recording crystal yet. They don't start dropping until we get closer to the World Tree!"

Grinning, Argo quickly slipped the crystal back into her cloak. "You willing to bet your life that I don't know where else to find them? I'm gonna be keeping this in a safe place, Raiko-pin. And as long as you resign before you walk out of this room and never run for the leadership again… that's where it'll stay." It wasn't necessary to explain what would happen if he didn't.

Raikouji got the message loud and clear. Still trembling with a mixture of fury and cold fear, he manipulated his menu for a few moments, finger hovering in the air as he wrestled with his fate, staring hatefully at Argo's smiling face. Finally, he stabbed the confirmation dialogue as if he could kill it by doing so. Every Cait Sith in the room—and, Argo knew, anywhere else in the world—immediately received a system message announcing Raikouji's resignation and the scheduling of a new election the following day.

The seething ex-leader stormed out of the room, followed by Thelvin's cold glare until he slammed the doors behind him. Immediately the other remaining players aside from Argo erupted into cheers. Alicia grabbed Argo and swept her into a hug, laughing as tears came to her eyes. "I cannot believe you pulled that off. Where the hell did you get a recording crystal, anyway?"

Argo pulled out the crystal and looked at Alicia with innocence so perfect that it couldn't possibly fool anyone. "This?" She popped it into her mouth and made an appreciative noise as she sucked on it. Six jaws dropped almost in unison.

Since no one seemed to be able to form words well enough to ask the question, Argo reached up and spat the crystal back into her hand. "What? I like rock candy. It's not my fault he's never seen a real recording crystal before."

"So we can come and go in Undine territory as we please? Well that's mighty big of him. What did you have to pay him for that favor?"

Kirito shook his head at Yoshihara and gave her a straight answer, even though he was fairly certain she was jerking his chain. "Nothing. He just seems to be a genuinely decent person who doesn't buy into the artificial divisions Kayaba forced us into." It didn't seem like a good idea to mention the liberties he'd taken with her reply at Argo's behest.

Yoshihara barked laughter as she retrieved her spear from the NPC smith and confirmed its condition after tapping to bring up the status window. "Isn't that special of him? And by special I mean fucking retarded. He might not buy into these 'artificial' divisions, but they exist whether he likes it or not." Kirito had to jog to keep pace with his nominal faction leader as she headed down the street, and with her back turned he was thankful he didn't have to try to hide the expression her words provoked from him.

"Look kid, you seem nice, but you don't seem to get how this works. One race gets to the top and gets out of this game—them and two of their allies. This Diavel could be a goddamn saint for all I care—he's an idiot if he thinks we're all in this together. For us, it's all about everyone getting as strong as we can so that we can get jobs with clearing groups. At this point, chances are good that the Salamanders are going to be the ones who end up on top—and I'll be damned if I'm jeopardizing our chances of landing that contract by being all officially buddy-buddy with your blue-haired friend. You can do whatever you want."

Kirito had had enough. "Were you born to be this obnoxious and unlikable, Yoshihara, or was it a skill you equipped when you made your character?"

The swing that came at him then was easy enough to dodge; the butt of the spear whipped a few centimeters past Kirito's nose as he leaned back. They were still in Penwether's Safe Zone, so there was no actual danger, and when he saw that there was no follow-up or intent to seriously fight he folded his arms as Yoshihara glared at him. Then a lopsided smile cracked her long face, and she laughed. "Okay, that was a good one. But my point stands."

"Your point being?"

Yoshihara planted the butt of her spear in the ground and leaned on it. "That I don't really care what you or anyone else does, kiddo. You're a free agent, like the rest of us. If you want to be Diavel's errand boy, that's your lookout. Hope you make lots of money at it. Me, I'm going to keep leveling up—and maybe next month someone else will want this thankless shit job so I can actually go join a clearing group. And speaking of which…" She waved at something over Kirito's shoulder. "Hey, Mouse! Shake a leg already, daylight's burning!" She didn't offer any parting words to Kirito; she simply walked past him and went to join the person Kirito supposed must be a member of her party.

Kirito turned away with a sigh and headed towards the exit of Penwether's central ziggurat, bringing out his wings as soon as he reached open air and heading northward without wasting any more time on the person he had the misfortune to have for a faction leader.

It was a long trip to the Leprechaun home city of Domnann, and by the end of the first day Kirito was extremely grateful that he'd visited an NPC tailor and bought a simple but warm fur-lined outfit to equip in place of the lighter-weight one he usually wore. The further north he got, the more he envied the tank types their heavy plate armor, which got very hot to move around in—but which also insulated them quite well in cold weather, with all the padding underneath.

When morning came, he wasted no time vacating the inn room he'd rented for the night in a small neutral village at the edge of Spriggan lands, and struck out to the northwest. His path immediately took him clear of the gradually-thinning forest, the hills covered with sparse brush and frozen soil rather than evergreen trees, although stands of those cropped up out of the ground here and there as well. He was not at all surprised when he felt the first snowflake wet his face; although the game's weather engine was supposed to follow the seasons of the real world, even in the beta the northern reaches of Alfheim had been chilly and prone to frequent snowstorms. He suspected it was only going to get colder as winter pressed on. One of the many islands floating hundreds of meters in the air above the surface of Alfheim even treated him to a rare sight: the waterfall that trickled over the edge of the island was frozen solid, turning it into something that was almost a vertical glacier and made it look like the island was resting on a thin sheet of ice stood on its end.

Kirito could smell Domnann long before he got close enough to see it. The crisp, cold air was devoid of the usual scents of the forest as he skimmed twenty meters above the snow-covered tundra, and as he drew within a few kilometers of the Leprechaun home city his nostrils began to burn with the industrial odors he automatically associated with a smithy: burning wood and coal smoke, heated metals of all sorts, and the acrid stink of the smelting and refining processes and their by-products. The smell got stronger as he approached, to the point where he was thankful anytime he spotted a mob he needed or wanted to pull, because the odor was far less pronounced at ground level.

At last as he crested a particularly steep ridge he caught sight of the city at last, a sprawling collection of low medieval stonework buildings and ceramic tile roofs that crawled down a series of hills until flattening where it met the ocean. The coastline by the city was all steel- and wood-clad hard angles and straight lines that never existed in nature, shaped by the inhabitants into an NPC-run seaport that supposedly shipped goods to unknown destinations far across the sea. Once during the beta, Kirito had stolen aboard one of the ships as it departed and spent several hours on deck waiting to see where it went. He had been disappointed to discover that as soon as the ship lost sight of land, he received a system message warning him to return to the playable area or be forced to respawn at his home city. He had no desire to try the same thing now; he suspected it would end in his death.

No one harassed him as he approached the city and touched down just inside the gates—in fact, he quickly saw that he was far from the only non-Leprechaun in evidence. There were dozens of Gnomes just in the immediate area that Kirito could see, and he also spotted a few other Spriggans, an Undine that looked like he was traveling with a mixed party of Leprechauns and Gnomes, and even a man that Kirito was fairly sure was a Puca looking over a selection of instruments at an NPC vendor. It was a stark contrast with the rampant paranoia of the more southerly regions he'd been spending time in since being trapped in this Death Game, and for the first time in days Kirito almost felt like he could relax.

It was time for the business he came here to do. He opened up his game menu, went to his saved messages, and reviewed the information he'd paid for the day before.

「My contacts in Domnann came up with a few dozen crafters putting a lot of time into leveling their Weaponsmithing. Of course, this early in the game you're obviously not gonna find any master smiths yet, but they'll be plenty skilled enough to upgrade an Anneal Blade if you've got the money and mats. I can give you a further list of names for 100 each, but there's one who stood out in particular…」

The directions Argo gave took Kirito down by the seaport, where Domnann's industrial odors were layered with the briny scents of the ocean—a smell that he actually found pleasant and nostalgic. On the southern end of the port there was a two-story rectangular building that contained a number of facilities that could be rented by blacksmiths who didn't have their own shop—which at this point, Kirito reasoned, was pretty much everyone.

So much heat radiated from the wide archways that led into the building, the thick snowfall actually began melting before it fell to the ground, resulting in an area of paved cobblestones just outside the entrance which was quite wet but clear of snow. And as soon as he set foot inside, he understood why—it had to be a minimum of five or ten degrees warmer inside than it was out on the street, and Kirito found himself wishing that he'd stopped somewhere to change into his lighter-weight clothes before paying a visit here.

Kirito didn't have a physical description for the person he was seeking, only a name which he'd tried unsuccessfully to message and a location where they could most likely be found. But when Kirito looked around the shared space at all the different people working the equipment, he felt fairly confident about his guess: Lisbeth sounded like an English-language female name, and there was only one girl in the entire building that he could see. Her back was turned to him as she hammered at a glowing length of metal laid across an anvil, but the slender body that filled out her pink dress was definitely feminine in shape, and from the number of plain but serviceable-looking swords stacked against the nearby forge, he guessed that she was in the middle of grinding her skill. It spoke well for Argo's information—not that he had ever really doubted it.

"Excuse me," Kirito said once she'd finished the weapon she was working on and set it on the growing pile. "Are you… Rizubetto?"

The girl turned, wiping the sweat from her forehead with a handkerchief and stuffing it down into the pocket of an apron that was improbably white for the kind of work she was doing. She seemed about his age, though it was often hard to tell with avatars. She took a moment to push her collar-length brown hair away from her face and smiled at him. "I'm Lisbeth, yes. Is there some work you need done?"

In answer, Kirito unslung the Anneal Blade from his back, still in its scabbard, and held it out before him. "I need to have this upgraded, and I've brought the necessary materials. May I ask what your Weaponsmithing skill is?"

Lisbeth's smile broadened as she cocked her hips and folded her arms under her modest bust. "I'll have you know that I just passed 200 this morning."

She sounded exceptionally proud of it, and in Kirito's opinion she had a right to be. "I'm impressed. The game's what, only a little over a week old? In order to get your skill that high so soon, you must've been grinding it every day without many breaks."

Nodding, Lisbeth gestured to the pile of swords near her. "Please don't judge the quality of my work by these swords. This is a commission from the militia our leader is organizing—they need a large number of inexpensive but well-made weapons. I'm actually right in the middle of it, but I should be done by this afternoon if you want to come back around, say, three?"

Kirito considered. He could probably pay Argo a nominal fee and get the names of a few other smiths to try in the meantime, and it could mean getting done here a lot sooner. On the other hand, this Lisbeth had a lot of points in her favor: she was the first name Argo recommended, she had a high skill level and was obviously dedicated to her craft, and her work was trusted enough for her own faction leader to give her an important commission. All those things argued for patience, and he still needed to go bring Diavel's message to said leader—he could kill some time doing that while he waited.

"All right," he said, giving the smith a friendly smile as he returned the Anneal Blade to his back and secured the buckles that kept it sheathed there. "I'll be back at three, and then I'll entrust my blade to your skill, Miss Lisbeth."

"Please, call me Liz." The girl bowed at the waist.

"Kirito." He returned the gesture of respect at the proper angle for a customer meeting a skilled crafter. "I'll leave you to your work."

The leader's keep would be easy enough to find, situated as it was at the very highest hill on the west side of Domnann—it was hard to miss, really. Now that Kirito wasn't searching for a place he hadn't been to before, he decided to save time by taking to the air, his wings leaving a flight trail that almost seemed like a shadow behind him. Getting in to see the Leprechaun leader proved less easy—there was a line of people waiting to see him, most of which looked like crafters of one sort or another who were there on business. By the time Kirito reached the front of the line, it was well past two in the afternoon and he was starting to wish he'd gotten something to eat before coming to wait there.

At last Kirito was escorted into a small office that was just on the other side of a door in the waiting area. Like most buildings in Domnann, the stone walls were decorated with intricate knotwork patterns and wrought-metal sculptures, and heat was provided through vents at floor level which were connected to the furnaces and hypocausts in the extensive network of underground chambers beneath the streets. A man in a dark forest-green tunic with wavy brown hair and the sparse beginnings of a beard looked up and gave him a weary but sincere smile; from the way his hands were moving in the air Kirito assumed he had his faction menu open. "Welcome to our city, Spriggan. My name is Thinker, and I'm currently serving as the leader here in our corner of the world. Is there something I can help you with?"

Kirito introduced himself and got straight to the point. "I'm here to bring you a message from the Undine leader, Diavel. He sends his respects and offers two things. First, he's looking for allies to discourage the Salamanders from any further aggression—I assume you've heard about that." When Thinker nodded cautiously, Kirito continued. "Second, he'd like to set up some kind of trade agreement where the Undines provide your groups with healers in exchange for you providing them with skilled smithing services."

"Well now." Thinker rubbed at the scruff on his chin, leaning back in his chair. "With regard to the second request, I think we can definitely come to a deal. I'm putting together a militia to patrol our territory and help any players who get in trouble, and we also have a few clearing groups leveling up who could use heals. From our end, I don't doubt there's any number of crafters who would jump at the chance to relocate to another city where their skills would be uncommon and in high demand."

Kirito nodded. "And the first?"

Thinker sighed. "I'm afraid there I have to disappoint our friends to the south. We're already in talks with the Gnomes and the Puca to form a commercial alliance for sharing skilled crafters and mutual protection. Once we have the details worked out, I'm sure there won't be any problem connecting your neighbors with whatever skilled services they need—but when it comes to war and faction politics, it's in the best interests of our alliance to take a neutral posture. I hope you can understand."

Shrugging, Kirito looked more indifferent than he felt. "It's not my request—I'm just the messenger." He paused for a moment, brow scrunching up as he thought. "You said your name was Thinker… you wouldn't happen to be the admin—"

"Of MTD?" Thinker grinned; it clearly wasn't the first time someone had asked him about MMO Today, a popular gaming news website that Kirito used to check every day back in the real world. "That would be me. At least, it was me." His grin waned a little bit, turning to a rueful smile. "Now I'm just a man with a responsibility for taking care of over 1500 people—plus all the visitors who come here." He glanced towards the door. "More of whom, I'm guessing, are still waiting to see me for one reason or another."

It was an obvious hint; Thinker seemed like a nice guy but he didn't exactly have time to chat about a website none of them might ever see again. That suited Kirito fine—he needed to get going anyway. "Well, thank you. If you'll excuse me—"

Thinker gestured towards the door. "By all means. Thank you for bringing me the message."

Once Kirito had sated his hunger, it was almost three o'clock; he made straight for the port district and touched down outside Lisbeth's rented facilities just as the snow was starting to thicken into the beginnings of a blizzard that made him thankful for the warmth of the smithy. The brown-haired girl was going through the large pile of swords she'd crafted, occasionally setting one aside and counting the others as she arranged them in a neat stack on top of a blanket. She looked up and broke into a wide smile when she saw Kirito there. "You came back! Thank you so much for your patience. All I really have left to do is get these organized, and I can do that later if you want me to work on your sword now."

Unlimbering the scabbard and its straps, Kirito held it out in front of him. "Please. I'd like the first three upgrades to be two Sharpness and one Durability, and I've brought all the necessary mats to maximize the success rate. How much will you charge?"

Lisbeth named a price that almost made Kirito wince—it was a fair price, but he'd hoped to get a smith who didn't have such a good grasp of exactly how much their services were worth. It amounted to most of the money he'd saved up. Once they'd agreed on the terms and he'd traded the required mats to her, Lisbeth took the Anneal Blade from Kirito and drew it from its sheath, letting out a small involuntary gasp of admiration. "It's beautiful. I haven't seen anyone bring anything like this in yet—is it a rare drop?"

Kirito shook his head. "A quest reward. They're very valuable on the market; I doubt anyone would be selling one yet."

Tapping the blade, Lisbeth's eyes scanned back and forth as she read the weapon's properties. "Well, the upgrades are pretty routine stuff, and they'll only take a few minutes. You can wait right there if you like."

Kirito accepted the offer, sitting down on a wrought iron chair that probably would've been far more comfortable if it had a cushion. He was just grateful to get off his feet for a few minutes. Lisbeth laid the Anneal Blade out on the anvil and began the upgrade process, adding the components Kirito had brought her to the window that came up and hefting the hammer that hung from her belt. Her strokes were swift and sure, and each one added another loud ringing sound to the metallic chorus that filled the room as each crafter worked at their own station. At last there was a flash of red that ran up the length of the Anneal Blade, indicating the completion of the process. "Anneal Blade +1," Lisbeth said. "I did Sharpness first. Do you want the second Sharpness next, or the Durability?"

"Durability, please," Kirito answered, gesturing for her to continue.

Lisbeth grinned, twirling the hammer in her hand once. "Coming right up." As she tapped on the weapon again and began setting up to begin, she asked, "so what's the quest?"

"Kimiko's Request," Kirito said. "The starter's in the town of Lithjagg on the edge of Undine territory. You wouldn't want to try it if you've been doing nothing but grinding your tradeskills, though—you have to kill a lot of mobs for the drops, and some of them are tough."

"That's a shame," Lisbeth said as she began hammering the weapon again with a steady rhythm, the blows having nothing to do with actual blacksmithing as it once existed in the real world—they were simply the motions a player was required to go through in order to execute the crafting sequence. As a blue glow flickered across the sword, she gave a satisfied grunt. "I was thinking I could make a lot of money if I got one and upgraded it properly."

"You could," Kirito said, nodding. "You'd just have to get a group to go with you, or hire someone to do the quest and sell you the weapon. But you'd want to keep it unmodified until you found a customer—not everyone will want the same combination of upgrades."

"That's true," Lisbeth said, smiling at him as she began the process one last time. "You're pretty smart about all this for someone who isn't a crafter. You even had all the mats and everything."

Kirito looked away, momentarily embarrassed by the compliment and uncomfortable about revealing exactly why he knew so much. "Anyone who uses a weapon should know how to make the most of it." It wasn't really an answer, but he hoped it sounded profound.

From the sound of her laugh, Lisbeth knew he was holding something back but wasn't going to press the matter. "Well it's a gorgeous sword—I'm glad I got the chance to work on it. Almost done now… fifteen… sixteen… seventeen…"

With a heartwrenching sound of broken glass, the Anneal Blade shattered into polygons.

Author's Note 11/26/12: A few things.

First, Kirito's leveling. It's noted in passing more than once throughout the story that Kirito (and anyone else on a long journey) is typically pulling mobs as he goes. Along with the need to rest the wings, that's what makes these trips take so long—even in the air, there are mobs flying around that you can't always just bypass or train through. Moreover, Kirito has amassed the huge number of materials necessary to upgrading the Anneal Blade and saved up a lot of money—all that had to come from somewhere, and where it came from was the mobs he's been fighting "off-camera". Perhaps I need to be clearer about that.

I choose not to waste time writing about these countless random fights because they're boring. Speaking as someone who's spent years in MMOs, there are few things more tedious and uninteresting to a player than the repetitive grinding of trash mobs. It's even less interesting to read about. Be assured that if there is a fight that is significant or interesting in some way—such as the golem battle a few chapters back—it'll get written in.

As in canon, Kirito is spending a lot of the early part of the game grinding. I'd rather focus on the other things he's doing. For those of you looking forward to some badass Kirito action, you won't be disappointed when the time comes. :)

Second, the breakage of the Anneal Blade. Yes, the usual consequence for an upgrade failure is the loss of an upgrade level. But there is a tiny, extremely rare chance for the weapon to be lost altogether. The original idea for this being a possibility comes from one of the side stories, Rondo of the Transient Sword. However, regardless of the actual reason for the breakages occurring in that story, I decided that in this story it was a legitimate game mechanic—one that is not at all uncommon in real games.

As with all other perceived discrepancies in game mechanics between this story and canon (such as there being "sword skills" in ALO), please remember the foreword I wrote in the first chapter: that I've put a lot of time and meticulous research into this story, and that if you find such a discrepancy (and you will), it's almost certainly intentional and it's best to keep in mind that this is an AU.

Above all, though, thank you for reading and reviewing!

Chapter Text

"While all players can fly for a time using the virtual controller in their off hand, most players will find it far more convenient and effective to learn the technique of «Voluntary Flight», which involves manually controlling their wings by training the Nerve Gear to redirect certain nerve impulses towards the wings themselves. While difficult at first, those who master «Voluntary Flight» will find that it frees up both hands—essential for those who use two-handed weapons, or who wish to use magic with one hand and a one-handed weapon with the other…"
Alfheim Online Manual, «Voluntary Flight»

11 ~ 12 November 2022
Day 6 - Afternoon

Despite the cacophony of noise from all of the different players working at their crafting stations, the sound of a hammer striking an anvil was markedly different from the sharper, longer sound of an item breaking. Before the constituent polygons of the Anneal Blade had even finished dispersing, the other hammers in the room had fallen silent as all eyes turned towards the unexpected and extremely distressing sound.

Lisbeth stared at the anvil for several seconds with her mouth hanging open, completely shocked. Kirito was no less stunned than she was, and had lunged to his feet and started to reach for his beloved blade as if he could stop it from disappearing by grabbing it, hand outstretched in futility. The hammer fell from Lisbeth's nerveless fingers, narrowly missing her foot as it struck the dirt floor with an empty thud. She sank to her knees as if she were a puppet whose cords had been cut, shoulders slumped and tears starting to well up in her eyes. Her mouth worked noiselessly, trying to make sense of what had just happened and completely failing to make words happen.

Kirito made a small whimpering noise deep in his throat, hating the weak sound of it. No matter what, the chance of a successful upgrade would never be greater than 99% even for the first one—there was always a chance, however small, that it would fail. But that should normally result only in a weakened weapon, the loss of one of its limited number of upgrade slots. And with Lisbeth's skill level and all of the mats he'd managed to farm from trash mobs, the chance of success for the third upgrade should've been 95%.

Intellectually, he knew that any failed upgrade had a 1% chance of resulting in the breakage of the weapon itself. But—and there he took a moment to work out the simple arithmetic in his head—that should've meant that the chances of this happening on that third upgrade were five ten-thousandths of a percent. A one-in-two hundred thousand chance. There were extremely rare and powerful items that had a greater chance of dropping than that.

Burying his grief in the numbers was the only way Kirito could keep from crying out and screaming at the blacksmith just then. He knew it wasn't her fault, and it wouldn't be fair to take it out on her. But the temptation to scream at something, someone, was overwhelming.

And in any event, Kirito doubted he could make her feel any worse than what she was probably feeling right then. Tears streamed down Lisbeth's face as she prostrated herself on the ground in front of Kirito, forehead pressed to the dirt. "Forgive me! Please, please, forgive me, I'm so sorry! I've never had that happen before! I shouldn't have been talking while I was working, I must've been distracted and done something wrong… please, I'm sor—"

Lisbeth's sobbing apologies cut off as Kirito knelt beside her and rested a reassuring hand on the back of her head. "It's not your fault," he said, trying to force calm into his voice. "It's just random numbers in the system. There's always a very tiny chance of that happening, even with the probability of success maximized. It was just bad luck."

When Lisbeth raised her head, there was dirt stuck to her face where it had been wet, and the sight of it helped Kirito smile—something she probably needed to see from him. "I… I can't accept that. Please, Kirito, let me redeem myself. Of course I'll refund all of the money you paid me, and I'll make you a new sword."

Kirito shook his head sadly. "I'll take the refund, but you can't replace the Anneal Blade. It's a quest reward, and it's better than anything you could make with normal components."

"Then let's do the quest! Take me south with you, and I'll give you my quest reward when we're done." Lisbeth reached over and grabbed the collar of Kirito's fur-lined shirt with both hands, pleading with him. "Please, Kirito, I'm begging you. My pride won't allow me to accept this. I have to make it right."

Reaching up, Kirito gently brushed the dirt away from her tear-streaked face with his thumb, bringing a slight flush to Lisbeth's cheeks. "I'm grateful for the offer. Really, I am." Her hands slipped away from his shirt as he stood, sighing. "But I'm not going south. That area's getting dangerous right now, and anyway I can't take the time away from leveling up to farm the low-level trash mobs for that quest."

Standing, Lisbeth wiped at her face with her sleeve. "Then maybe there's something else I can do for you." When Kirito raised his eyebrows, she said, "You're right that there's nothing I can make with normal components that can replace your sword. But I might be able to get my hands on an ingot of Gnomish Carbon Steel."

That got Kirito's attention. Of all the varieties of Gnomish metals, Carbon Steel was the strongest that didn't require the help of an alchemist to manufacture. But it was an alloy of several different materials—some of them rare—and was extremely time-consuming to create. By the time they started clearing the World Tree, better materials would become available—but at this point in the game, it would still be very hard to come by, assuming there was anyone at all who had the skill to manufacture it. It was surprising that she even knew about it; he didn't think she had been a beta tester.

In the hands of a skilled weaponsmith, it could certainly forge a sword that would compare to—and possibly even surpass—his Anneal Blade. And despite the appalling blow the game's random number generator had dealt them, he was still certain he was looking at a very skilled smith. One who stared back at him with light violet eyes that pleaded with him for a chance to prove that skill. Gradually the sharp rapping sounds of hammers started back up as it became clear that there wasn't going to be any further interesting drama, and the rhythmic sounds helped Kirito track the seconds that passed while he thought over Lisbeth's offer.

"That could work," Kirito said finally. "But how do you plan on getting some this early in the game?"

Although she still looked fairly mortified at what had happened, Lisbeth's face brightened a little at the prospect of being allowed to set things right. "In the last few days, we've been establishing trade between us and the Gnomes. Raw materials for finished products, that sort of thing. We have a few beta testers who've been tutoring new crafters, and I overheard one of them talking about a Gnome with a Refining skill high enough to make Carbon Steel—someone who's been assigned to grind non-stop in order to be able to outfit their clearing groups." Lisbeth gave Kirito a deep bow. "Take me to Nissengrof, and I promise you, I'll spend whatever I have to spend to get an ingot for you. Even if I have to vendor my entire inventory."

The idea provoked immediate resistance from Kirito, who held up both hands, palms-out. "Bad idea. That's over a hundred kilometers across the Glitafrost Wastes—it'll take most of a day when you factor in the time spent fighting through aggro mobs. I can't be babysitting a level 1 player through that."

It was the wrong thing to say. Lisbeth was up in Kirito's face before he'd finished his last sentence, her nose centimeters from his as her cheeks reddened. "Excuse me? I'm not a complete newbie, you know! Are you saying I need a babysitter?"

Looking a little uncomfortable, Kirito took a step back and looked aside, eyes going back to hers after a moment as he proceeded to forget the first rule of holes and digging. "Um… yeah, kind of. I thought you spent all your time grinding smithing. Have you even left the city yet?"

Lisbeth crossed her arms, a stubborn look on her face. "Of course I have! I'm probably not as high-level as you, but I had to go out and earn some money in order to buy tools and materials, after all."

Kirito sighed, resigning himself to the fact that he was going to have to sign on for an escort quest if he was going to get a new sword. "You're assuming they'll even sell it to you." A point about which he had his doubts.

"They have to," Lisbeth insisted, her assurance seeming as much wishful thinking and hope as anything else. "I've made a lot of money in the last several days, and once I deliver this commission to Thinker's militia in the morning, I'll have a lot more. Whatever I have is yours if it will get us an ingot I can use to forge you a new sword." She opened a trade window, fingers dancing across the numeric pad that popped up. "Here's the fee you paid me for the upgrades. I wish I could return the mats, but… I guess you know they get used up no matter what happens with the upgrade attempt."

Kirito mourned the loss, but more because it had taken days of farming to collect all the drops he needed. And if memory served, he wouldn't be able to farm the components for upgrading a Carbon Steel sword until they broke through one of the valley bosses and got closer to Arun. He accepted the trade and nodded. "I understand. Thanks for trying, Lisbeth."

"Liz," she insisted. "Meet me here in the morning, and we'll head west to Nissengrof."

After setting out the following day, Kirito was relieved to find that Lisbeth proved to be telling the truth about her ability to fight—she was clearly lower in level than he was, but she held her own with her mace as they cautiously cleared a path through the Glitafrost Wastes.

If they'd been able to fly in a straight line across empty space with no interruptions, a pair of players at his and Lisbeth's levels should have been able to make the trip in under an hour. What made it a journey was the fact that that space wasn't empty and free of interruptions; a player had to rest their wings about every ten minutes at most, and there were aggro mobs to clear along the way even in the air. Players could try to ascend and fly above them, but the higher they went the more quickly their wings became fatigued—potentially forcing them to land too soon without a safe place to do so, or spend even more time recuperating.

From experience, Kirito knew that it was safer to take your time and clear hostile terrain as you went, even if it meant taking far longer than necessary at times. As a solo player who preferred keeping a solid safety margin, he didn't begrudge the extra time—and after a few hours of fighting alongside her, he didn't begrudge the necessity of bringing Lisbeth along either. He did begrudge having to use his backup weapon in the meantime, but against trash mobs it wasn't a serious liability—just another reminder to be careful.

The better part of the day passed uneventfully as Lisbeth learned the cautious rhythm with which Kirito covered hostile ground: bursts of speed as far as was clearly safe, a pause to scan the air ahead for aggro mobs, repeating this until their flight gauges were depleted and they had to land in order to rest their wings. Once on the ground, they continued at a walking pace, stopping every few minutes to pull and clear any mobs in the way, proceeding in this way until their wings were fully rested.

It was excruciating, but necessary. In the beta, Kirito had become quite familiar with the usual outcome of trying to "train" your way through the wilderness—that is, fly at top speed and hope that the dozens of mobs you aggroed would tether before catching up to you. Most mobs could fly faster than players; the time saved wasn't worth the risk—especially not now, with the penalty for failure more than just the loss of some EXP and skill progress.

With a steady snowfall that hadn't let up since they left Domnann, the sky was a blanket of grayish-white which diffused sunlight and obscured distance and the passage of time, not to mention a person's sense of direction. Despite the discreet compass in his HUD, it was still very easy to stray off-course or to be forced to take the long way around a higher-level mob or other hazard.

Around early evening—the clock in his HUD said 5:38 PM—he caught sight of one of Alfheim's many floating islands that stirred a flicker of recognition; here in the far north they resembled nothing so much as great icebergs hanging in the sky, but the faint gray silhouette of a temple was one he'd seen before in the beta.

Descending to ground level and stopping to rest, he checked his map and nodded in satisfaction—they were only a few kilometers east of Nissengrof, and the structure he'd spotted on the floating island was a popular low-level dungeon. If it hadn't been snowing, they probably could've seen Nissengrof itself.

"It's not much further," Kirito said quietly as he sat down on a rock near the edge of a vast crevasse, opening his menu and materializing an object from his inventory. The dissipating puff of warmed air from his words was followed by the steam rising from the soup that he'd bought before leaving, and he sighed with pleasure at the first sip from the lip of the bowl.

He could almost imagine a third meter showing up below his HP and MP gauges, a red line indicating body warmth. If there had been such a thing, it would be rising rapidly. Hadn't there been a few games with that mechanic over the years? A few, at least, before he was born. ALO didn't have any such thing, but he knew that prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures could still result in HP loss. He glanced up through the veil of steam and saw Lisbeth sitting cross-legged on the ground, arms hugged around herself as she shivered. Her expression as she stared at his meal was one of longing, and as soon as she noticed him noticing she turned away abruptly.

"Why didn't you wear something warmer?" Kirito asked. "You're from this area; you should know better." It wasn't as if her outfit was particularly revealing, but a coat of some sort wouldn't have hurt.

"'From'?" Lisbeth echoed with some annoyance, glancing sidewise at him. "I'm from—" She stopped, cutting herself off as if she'd been about to give him her real-world hometown. "It doesn't matter anymore. I just… I didn't expect it to be this cold. It never was back in town, or when I went out leveling."

Kirito nodded. "It's worse out here in the open, on the Wastes," he admitted. "Especially with the wind chill, when we're doing all this flying."

A few moments of silence passed; Lisbeth had turned away again. Kirito looked down at what was left of his soup, back up, and sighed. His footsteps crunched in the fresh snow as he walked over and offered the other half of his meal to Lisbeth. She looked up at him, mouth opening wordlessly as if to protest… and then seized the bowl and drank the hot broth greedily. The soup was gone in moments; the bowl shattered into polygons.

"Better?" Kirito asked.

Lisbeth nodded. "Thank you," she said quietly. Her face held a conflicted expression, like she couldn't decide whether to be grateful for the kindness or annoyed at feeling further in debt to him.

Another nod was Kirito's only acknowledgement. Lifting his gaze, he scanned the sky and held out a hand, palm-up. "The snow's picking up. Our wings still need rest, but we'd better get moving before it gets any worse." He paused briefly, then added: "Walking will help keep you warm, too."

It had been a fine idea, but by the time their wings were fully recharged, the rising and falling intensity of the snowstorm had turned into a full-blown blizzard, stripping the heat from their avatars with every gust of frosty wind and cutting visibility to almost nothing. Within minutes, Kirito saw an icon flashing beside his HP gauge—a white snowflake on a blue background that he knew indicated hazardously low temperatures. Every few moments the green bar of his HP flashed once and ticked down just a little bit, a single hit point draining away about once per second.

"We have to find shelter!" Kirito yelled, trying to be heard above the howling wind. The two of them huddled behind the trunk of a lone tree, the narrow bulk of it providing only the most meager protection from the gale. He pulled up his map and set a marker at a point not far to the north. "There's a cave entrance here, and I know where it goes. If we're careful, we can take it the rest of the way to Nissengrof without worrying about the blizzard! Come on!"

Kirito's tone brooked no argument, and to his relief Lisbeth didn't offer any. Perhaps the sight of her HP steadily dropping in a way she was helpless to prevent had helped clarify the situation for her. She nodded once, and as they stood she reached out and took his hand tightly in hers.

"Don't let go," she pleaded as Kirito gave her a momentary look of surprise. "I don't want to get separated!"

Kirito's surprise was fleeting; he banished it with a curt nod and forced his focus back to survival. "Come on!" he shouted as they ran together towards the promised haven, racing against time and exposure. The numbers in Kirito's peripheral vision continued to decrement as the snow fell around them, each flake like a grain of sand counting down what remained of his life.

When Klein awoke, it took some time for him to shed the last vestiges of sleep and place himself. It was his fifth day of imprisonment in this world, but despite spending all of those nights either camped out in the wilderness or tucked away safely in an inn room somewhere, some part of his subconscious was clearly no closer to fully accepting the situation.

It didn't help that the previous night's accommodations were atypical even by the standards he'd endured so far. Whiteburrow was a neutral town a few kilometers on the northern side of the Puca-Cait Sith border, and it seemed to derive its name both from the modest layer of snow that blanketed the frozen ground and from the half-subterranean nature of the local architecture. Most buildings only rose half a story at most from the hills into which they were dug, a wide set of stairs leading down towards the front door of each structure. It was the first inn in which he'd actually had to go downstairs in order to get to his room.

Said room was structured much like a room in a mine shaft, with thick wooden load-bearing supports and a rough-hewn look to the walls of stone and dirt which were visible. Most of those walls were covered by furs or tapestries of one sort or another, and the warm but sparse light was cast by oil lamps and by an ancient-looking iron stove in the center of the room. From the stove a chimney pipe rose to the ceiling, following it all the way back upstairs to the inn's common rooma design which helped to distribute heat throughout the building.

The word cozy came unbidden to Klein's mind as he snoozed his avatar's internal alarm for the fifth time and shut it off with a desultory jab of the finger at the mid-air prompt. He snatched his hand back under the blanket almost as soon as the operation was complete; the air in the room might be warmer than it would have been without the stove, but that didn't mean it was warm. In the dim light he could see Dynamm's form on the other bed just beginning to stir, and with a sigh he resigned himself to the beginning of yet another day of travel.

An hour later the four of them gathered around the hearth in the common room, each cradling a mug of hot tea and soaking up as much warmth as possible while they went over the plan. Klein had opened his map window, set it visible and resized it to show as much area as possible, using a fork to point to where they were and gesture across the fogged-out expanse of unexplored wilderness that lay before them.

"We could go around," Issin suggested, using one of his arrows as a pointer and tracing an invisible line to the west and then northwards. "West to Sondref, resupply there if necessary, then east-northeast through the open areas. We'll make better time than we would having to clear our way through the forest."

"And take twice as long anyway," Kunimittz remarked as he finished his tea and held the mug out for the NPC waitress to refill. "In a straight shot, it can't be more than five or six klicks from here to Nissengrof, assuming the map data you bought is correct."

Issin tapped the tip of the arrow at the map window, which—being programmed to stay in front of the user's chest like all other UI windows—kept trying to move every time Klein fidgeted. He grabbed his leader's shoulder and pushed down slightly to fix him in place so that he could gesture where he needed to. "Your 'straight shot' is across dense forest filled with high-level mobs. We'll be lucky to make Nissengrof by the end of the day, and we'll be fighting every step of the way."

Klein made a tee with both hands, calling a stop to the argument before Issin and Kunimittz could get their backs up—the two of them could spend hours debating the color of the ocean and only end up agreeing that it was wet, and that much would be a concession requiring GM intervention. "Okay guys, I appreciate—Issin, get that damn arrow out of my face!—I appreciate your input, but this one's decided. We're steering well clear of any faction cities we don't actually have to visit, and there's no one waiting for us in Sondref. We take the forest."

"I'm telling you, Klein, the Puca don't care who we are or what we're—"

Klein waved at the air, interrupting. "And the feeling's mutual. Come on, man, let it go. We're not going to Sondref."

Sighing, Issin gave one last annoyed flick of his tail and slid the arrow back into the quiver slung at his back. "Alright, whatever. Your call—you've gotten everyone this far."

That had the benefit of being both conciliatory and true. Satisfied, Klein tossed back the last of his own tea and pushed himself to his feet, marveling at the willpower it took to motivate him to move even a single meter away from the radiant warmth of the hearth. He was on the verge of saying something inspirational to try to pry the others loose from the heat source when he was distracted by a chime and a flashing icon in the air. A mouth that had opened in order to speak hung open as he saw the name listed beside the incoming message icon.

Klein barely heard his friends inquiring after him as he brought up the message, eyes scanning the text and then going back over it slowly to make sure he'd read it correctly.

A pair of fingers snapped somewhere near his face, Klein absently reached up and swatted them away as he read the remainder of the message and quickly opened a window to reply.

"Yo, Leader. Love letter from Alicia?"

If Klein's expression hadn't been enough to clue in his friends that the situation was serious, the complete lack of a reaction to Issin's dig would've done it. Thereafter they gave him a few minutes of respectful silence while he exchanged private messages, all of them raising their eyes expectantly once Klein swept his menu closed with a sense of finality.

"Issin," Klein said; the named player straightened in his seat in answer. "Did you ever do any business with this Cait Sith info broker while you were there?"

Issin shook his head. "Who, the Rat? Nah. I mean, Thelvin mentioned her, and I heard the same stuff the rest of you did. But I never talked to her directly. Why?"

"I was hoping you might have an open line to her," Klein said with a grimace as he took the distraction as an excuse to sit back down and be warmer. "I met someone before I left the Salamander home city, and it sounds like he's in trouble."

"That sucks. But what does it have to do with the Rat?"

"Well, that's the thing," Klein said, scratching at the bandana that encircled his head and restrained his hair. "He asked for her."

As she reflected on the buzz of rumors and speculation about the reasons for the sudden resignation of the Cait Sith leader, Argo had to admit that there was one serious downside to engineering a secret coup: she couldn't sell the truth of what had happened without breaking the terms of her agreement with Raikouji. He'd been intimidated enough to resign his position and lay low during the resulting special election, but if she broke her word on that he'd be free to run in a future election—and the ensuing war between the two of them would be just short of nuclear. She'd win—but it would cost her time and money she didn't want to spend just to burn someone who was already beaten.

But she couldn't just pretend ignorance or refuse to sell the information—there were far too many rumors running around the city already, and her pride and reputation wouldn't allow her to admit to not knowing something.

So Argo did what she always did when she wanted to keep a secret: she set the price for revealing it extortionately high.

Fifty thousand Yuld should do it, she reasoned as she quickly typed out a curt answer to the latest inquiry. She'd set it at twenty thousand at first, but had been alarmed to find at least one taker at that price. What had they been doing to amass that kind of money, less than two weeks into the game? The fact itself was worth holding onto; someone would pay for it.

But it still presented her with a buyer for something she didn't actually want to sell. So she pretended to go back and forth with an imaginary source who was willing to counter-offer in order to suppress the information, and raised the price until she stopped getting responses. A few false leads planted in the city's rumor mill would help divert some more of the pressure from her, giving her time to deal with inquiries that would actually make her money.

Among other things.

"Well?" Alicia asked, her tone impatiently expectant as she swept her arms wide, fabric rippling as it spilled off her left arm.

Argo finished and sent her last message, looking up from the pillow where she sat in the room that Alicia had been renting. She evaluated her friend with a critical eye and gave a twitch of the ears. "A cape? Really?"

"Half-cape," Alicia corrected with a pout. "It's supposed to make me look regal."

"It makes you look like Supercat with blonde dreadlocks," Argo said, sighing as she received and ignored yet another incoming message notification. "Capes suck. If we ever get outta here, remind me to send you a video clip and show you why. And what's with the bell? Afraid you're gonna lose yourself?"

Alicia reached up and fingered the golf ball-sized brass bell hanging from the black collar that encircled her neck. "Oh, Thelvin thinks I need to play up the cuteness a bit."

Argo snorted. "Cute and regal?"

"He says half the reason people voted for me was because I was adorable."

"Knowing the guys in this faction, he's probably right," Argo said. "But you've already got the position. Not like you need to campaign for it now. Just do a good job and you'll be fine." Her face suddenly evolved into an impish grin. "Or could there be another reason, hmm? Any word from your boyfriend?"

Alicia's face colored, her ears flattening back against her head. "He's not my boyfriend! And no, nothing since they went north." She folded her arms and turned, giving Argo a cross look out of the corner of her eye as she flicked her tail in a dismissive fillip. "He's got stuff to do, you know. And so do I. Now besides the cape and the bell, how do I look?"

Argo shrugged, uncurling from her sitting position and rising to her feet. Giving her friend a look up and down, she said, "Other than that? Nice panties."


"Leotard, whatever. Look, you're asking the wrong girl for fashion advice. Don't you have a speech to make or something?"

"I still have"

As Alicia cut off her protest mid-sentence, her eyes went to the left in a motion that Argo knew meant she'd received a new message. After a few moments of her fingers dancing in the air, Alicia's menus suddenly went visible and she beckoned towards Argo. Her curiosity immediately piqued, Argo complied, looking over her friend's shoulder.

「Hey Alicia, thanks again for helping us and stuff. Sorry I haven't PMed you, but we're doing fine and just left your territory. Um... that's not actually why I'm sending you this though. Can you maybe get ahold of Argo? There's this guy I know in the Salamanders, Eugene, and he just contacted me from exile and said that his brother Mortimer is being held in isolation by Kibaou in Gattan. He and Mort were going to challenge Kibaou when I left, and I guess that didn't go so well. Eugene said Argo would know who he was, and said to say "Lugru" like she'd know what that was. So like... yeah. Thanks again. -Klein」

Argo was a quick reader. For short messages like this, she simply memorized the contents at a glance and reviewed them in her head, so she only spent a moment standing over Alicia's shoulder before stepping back and frowning thoughtfully.

Mistaking her look, Alicia said, "I told you he's not my—"

"Chsst!" Argo hissed, holding up a hand as she began to pace a circuit around the room. "Gimme a sec." It was a tough nut to crack. At present her only contact in the Salamanders was Kibaou's own right-hand man, who thought that she was his source of intel on the rest of the world. He'd be no help in freeing a captive held by his boss. And there was no way that she alone could get to—

Alicia was on the verge of noting with annoyance that a "sec" had turned into close to a minute when Argo suddenly halted both her pacing and her train of thought, snapping her fingers. "Alicia, do you have any clearers you can give me for a couple days? I need someone high-level, two if you can spare them." Alicia owed her, and while Argo wouldn't have minded waiting to cash in that chit, pieces were starting to fall into place in her head and she was certain this would be worth it—assuming all went well.

Blinking at the sudden shift in mood and topic, Alicia tapped her lower lip. "Um... I can think of a few possibilities, but asking any of them to go to the Salamander home city for a rescue mission? That'd be suicide."

"Yeah, so it's a good thing that's not what I'm asking."

Alicia crossed her arms under her bust, her tone becoming all business as she regarded her friend with a hint of wariness. "Okay, what then?"

Argo smirked, pointing at her own nose. "I need an escort."

The island hovered about a kilometer east of the mountain range that ringed the center of Alfheim, looking like nothing so much as a miniature mountain itself, turned on its tip and with a forest planted atop the irregular base. At its lowest, the tip was barely fifty meters off the surface of the marsh, low enough that on foggier days the tip would be shrouded in mist and seem to be standing on the ground below. From ground level the trees at the top were barely visible, but as a person rose higher into the air it became clear that there was life atop the floating island—not just the dense clusters of twisted juniper-like trees, but movement that signaled animal or insect life.

Such islands numbered in the thousands in the skies above Alfheim, ranging in size from those barely large enough for a single person to perch atop and rest their wings all the way up to juggernauts massive enough to cause a local cataclysm if they decided to suddenly drop from the air. This one was towards the high end of the middle range, larger than most but by no means the greatest, and even in the system it had a name: players who ventured within ten meters of it would be presented with the purple text «Hammertooth Island» at the height of their peripheral vision. Text like that signaled a zone change—an obsolete term from legacy MMOs, one which in ALO referred to something that was merely useful as a navigational reference and as a trigger to change any BGM that might be present.

Hundreds of meters above sea level, two figures sat at the edge of the floating mountain, resting: a small one in purple lightweight armor trimmed with red, and a taller one clothed mostly in robes with the watery colors common to the Undines. The smaller one kicked her legs absently as they dangled over the grassy edge, and smiled up at the other as they finished the bread and fish cakes that constituted their midday meal.

"Four hundred and sixty-three," she declared with a smugly sing-song tone that might've been annoying coming from someone any less cute.

Asuna laughed at Yuuki, plucking a handful of grass and throwing it at the younger girl; it slowed to a flutter and disintegrated into blue sparkles. "No fair," she said. "I've still got over 600 EXP to my next level. Have you been sneaking out to fight stuff while I was sleeping?"

Yuuki gave a melodic giggle and slipped off the edge—a move that made Asuna's heart leap into her chest until the Imp girl began immediately beating her wings and hovering in front of her. It was nothing short of amazing to her, how quickly Yuuki had mastered Voluntary Flight—something Asuna herself had yet to quite do. For all of the girl's initial terror and shyness, something within her seemed to have blossomed and come into its own as soon as she held a sword in her hand and saw what she could do with it. She took to the game with a natural joy at which Asuna could only shake her head and marvel.

"'Course not!" she protested. "You saw what the manual said—there's an EXP bonus for getting the last attack, and I've been lucky."

More talented than lucky, Asuna had to admit. She also had to admit that Yuuki had her there on the... what did they call it? Game mechanics. They'd been reading the manual together at night for the last few days, materializing the help files as a physical object and sitting on their bed going through it almost like a bedtime story. If the girl was getting a little ahead of her, it was only because Yuuki was being more aggressive in her attacks. This had worried Asuna at first until Yuuki pointed out that Asuna could heal her, but not vice-versa—it made sense for the younger girl to take the "forward" position in fights.

"Come on!" Yuuki said brightly, hovering closer to Asuna and tugging at the sleeve of her robes. "I bet some monsters we fought have come back by now."

"Repops," Asuna said, remembering the unfamiliar term from the previous night's study and tasting it. She resisted the pull, pushing herself back from the edge a little and standing up. "And I bet you're right."

They quickly fell back into the routine they'd established thus far. Since Asuna was still more comfortable fighting on the ground, they kept the fights there, picking a safe spot to make their stand and Yuuki flying off to "pull" a mob back there. Yuuki had discovered that her basic Blindness spell was very effective for this—it gave her a free hit or two and seemed to really enrage the mob, causing it to focus much of its aggression on the more nimble girl while Asuna struck at its flanks or healed Yuuki as necessary.

It was heading towards early afternoon when Yuuki got the notification; since they were partied Asuna saw the window appear as the girl's face lit up and she gave a delighted yell, spinning in the air. "Asuna, look look!"

"I see it, Yuuki—congratulation." She grinned as she said the word in English, echoing the ungrammatical way it was written on the screen that said Level Up and told the girl how many HP and MP she'd gained. "Do you know where you're going to put your points?"

Yuuki looked pensive as she sat down on the stump of a fallen tree and opened her menu. "I kinda wanna put 'em all in AGI... I like being fast."

"Don't neglect your STR and VIT," Asuna cautioned. "You won't be able to use better swords or do as much damage without STR, and your VIT is your life." Listen to me, she thought. I sound like my brother. A week ago that might as well have been a foreign language to me. Now... now it's becoming as familiar to me as anything I studied in school.

But Yuuki was a smart girl, and she picked up on all of this just as quickly as Asuna—if not moreso, it sometimes seemed. She nodded as her fingers moved over her menu, and when she closed it with a flicking gesture, she looked up at Asuna with an expression of adoration that melted her heart every time. "All done! So what now—"

Asuna gave Yuuki a puzzled look as she dropped off in mid-sentence, the girl's eyes shifting and then widening. "Yuuki, wha—"

Her own question was cut off by a soft weight slamming into her midriff as Yuuki kicked herself off the stump and tackled her, the sound of her wings buzzing into life and carrying the two of them clear as an arrow whistled through the space where Asuna had just been standing. Yuuki's arms were still wrapped tightly around her as they struck the ground and rolled, and as they both picked themselves up off the ground they drew their weapons and saw another Imp player hanging in the air above a few dozen meters away. He was scowling as he drew another arrow from his quiver and nocked it in the wicked-looking dark gray recurve bow he was carrying.

Asuna's heart sank as she saw a pair of players in blood-colored armor rise above the edge of the island and take position to either side of the archer. Without thinking about what she was doing, Asuna stood in between him and Yuuki.

"Now why'd you have to go and do that, girl?" the Imp asked in exasperation. "You ruined my shot."

"Asuna!" Yuuki hissed, trying to elbow past her. "He's trying to shoot you!"

"Save it, Krall," said one of the Salamanders, a youth in a mage's robes with a long orange ponytail. His nasal voice was filled with scorn. "She's obviously an exile who decided to stay here."

The other Salamander, a man who appeared to be considerably older than either, looked between the two of them with an expression that Asuna read as something akin to disbelief. He said something quietly to both, the urgency of his tones audible from where she and Yuuki stood, but not his words. The argument that ensued was not pitched for her ears, but the Imp with the bow never took his aim off of her while it went on.

"Yuuki," Asuna said without averting her gaze from their assailants, trying not to move her mouth too much as she spoke. "They're distracted and we've only got one chance at this. When I rush them, you take off and fly as fast as you can to Parasel. Don't stop until you're there, and tell Diavel what's happening. Understand?"


Asuna was so taken aback by the refusal that she almost turned to look at Yuuki in shock before catching herself. Before she could open her mouth to ask why, Yuuki made the point moot. "I'm staying with Asuna. If I run, you'll die... and then I'll be all alone... again."

Tears welled up in Asuna's eyes unbidden, despite her trying very hard not to let them out. "Yuuki..."

"We go together," Yuuki said, reaching over and setting a hand on Asuna's arm. "They're bullies. If we stand up to them, they'll back down."

Bullies, Asuna thought, her mind in turmoil. No, they're killers. And they're going to kill us...

"Asuna," Yuuki insisted, squeezing her sword arm through the robes.

They're going to kill her...

Asuna's fingers tightened around the hilt of her rapier, still held out before her as if it could block an arrow if the archer decided to let it fly.

"No, screw this," said the older Salamander loudly in disgust, scowling as he turned to leave. "I didn't sign up for this to murder kids."

"NO!" Asuna screamed as she kicked off the ground and shot towards the raiding party, light flaring along her rapier.

The archer's eyes widened, and as he let out a shout a violet light danced along his bowstring. An impact that felt like a thrown brick struck Asuna in the shoulder moments before her own attack propelled her forward and exploded against the Imp's leather breastplate, and a fireball from her left shot just above her head as the archer went tumbling out of control. Arcane symbols sprang up around the mage as he chanted a series of awkward-sounding syllables, and the symbols resolved into a glimmering orange field around him that looked like it was made of thousands of dancing sparks.

He was just starting to chant another spell when Asuna heard Yuuki's voice, and a bolt of shimmering black energy zipped past her and struck the Salamander, a status symbol appearing beside his HP gauge as the black fire smothered his eyes. Yuuki herself was right behind the spell, charging in with her sword drawn and executing a two-hit combo that cut off almost a third of the mage's HP. As she drew close to him, the sparks around him ignited and fire sheeted across her body in retaliation, burning away some of her own life.

Asuna turned her head to check for others, but the Imp was still trying to regain control of his flight and the other Salamander seemed to have abandoned his companions. Taking advantage of the breather, she held out her free hand and chanted the quick incantation for her basic heal, breathing a sigh of relief as the heal countered the ongoing damage over time from the fire shield and started to bring her back towards full.

And then she stopped and stared at herself in shock. Her free hand?

There should've been something else in it. There wasn't. She'd—

She'd flown. Without thinking about it, without overthinking it, in the heat of the moment she'd simply kicked off... and taken flight. All that time they'd spent practicing, with her trying so hard to do what seemed to come so naturally to Yuuki... and in one fleeting moment of desperation she'd just done it.

A dark bolt of energy zipping past her face and a looming shadow in her peripheral vision reminded her that this wasn't the time to get preoccupied. She got her rapier up just in time to redirect Krall's axe, turning the blow but still taking some damage from it. A series of exchanges like that left her battered, but her HP didn't seem to have dropped by the time the Imp backed off a few meters and regarded her warily.

When his eyes shot towards the battle between Yuuki and the Salamander mage, Asuna took the same opportunity and saw that the mage's HP had fallen well into the yellow zone. Reapplying the blindness debuff to him, Yuuki gave him a solid kick that sent him tumbling away and turned towards Asuna, who quickly returned her eyes to the Imp. The archer didn't seem all that happy, whether at having to shoulder his bow for a melee weapon or at the reversal in the odds.

"Get lost," Asuna snapped, leveling her rapier at him. "Before I change my mind."

Either the Imp knew good advice when he heard it, or had decided he'd had enough anyway. With a che sound, he scowled and flew off in the direction that the mage had fallen. At that moment, Asuna couldn't bring herself to care what happened to them once they were out of her sight. She turned just in time to catch a flying bundle of Yuuki, who smacked into her in midair and wrapped her up in a hug.

"Asuna, you were wonderful! Just wonderful! We really showed them what happens to bullies, didn't we?"

Hugging Yuuki close, Asuna closed her eyes and squeezed the tears from them as they hung there in the air high above the Undine lands. "We really did, Yuuki," she said, banishing the fear and anger she'd felt at the ambush. "We showed them who's boss."

"Hey, Asuna..." Yuuki pulled back for a moment and looked up at her. "What did that one guy mean about 'murdering kids'?"

That was the thing that had set her off, all right—the implication of the third player's words had been that no matter what he thought, the other two had every intention of player-killing her and Yuuki. What had they been doing this far north? They were on the far western edge of Undine territory, but there shouldn't have been any danger from PKers up here—that was why she'd chosen this area for the two of them to go leveling up.

"I don't think we were what they expected," Asuna said finally. "I don't think they were after us, specifically, just easy targets... and it bothered that one man that you were so young."

"So I guess not all of the Salamanders are bad..."

Asuna nodded, flying back towards the island and settling to the ground. "They're just people, Yuuki... people who've gotten caught up in something bigger than them. Some of them good, some of them bad, most of them just... complicated."

Yuuki landed delicately beside her, nodding thoughtfully. "I guess that makes sense..." She looked up at Asuna meaningfully, her expression serious. "I'm glad we didn't kill any of them though... that would've been a horrible sin. The worst."

Asuna reached over and put her arm around Yuuki's shoulder, smiling as she pulled her into a hug. "So am I, Yuuki... so am I."

Chapter Text

"While rare drops from mobs will almost always provide the most powerful gear, players should not forget that crafted equipment can be just as effective—and in many cases, far more readily available. Common materials such as iron and steel produce average-quality weapons suitable only for starting characters, but Alfheim Online contains a vast number of recipes for advanced materials which can be used to craft weapons and armor that can rival or even surpass all but the rarest mob drops—in the hands of a player smith with sufficient skill. The catch of course, is knowing the recipe—and finding the requisite components, some of which can be quite rare…"
Alfheim Online Manual, «Player-Crafted Equipment»

12 ~ 14 November 2022
Day 7 - Evening

In most traditional RPGs there were a variety of gameplay tropes that existed for the convenience of players exploring dark areas: the so-called Hollywood Darkness being one of the most common, dictating that even deep underground in passageways that have never seen the light of day, there would still be just enough ambient light for players to make their way. Perhaps these passages would even be lit by Hollywood Torches, which hung unattended on the walls and somehow remained eternally lit even in ruins that had supposedly been abandoned for thousands of years.

Alfheim Online, in Kirito's estimation, had not been designed with the convenience of players in mind.

Once he and Lisbeth had rounded the first bend in the series of tunnels, the light level dropped significantly. Only the faintest glow backlit them as they were pursued by wind-borne gusts of snow, flakes blowing past them and disappearing as they flew into the shadows cast by the two players. In a matter of moments they had to call a stop as Lisbeth tripped over a rock and went sprawling onto a floor she couldn't even see.

"Ow!" Lisbeth cried out. Kirito knew the fall couldn't have hurt, but that didn't mean it was pleasant—or that she didn't react to the impact out of reflex as if it had hurt. She glared up at him, rubbing her knees. "You know, seems to me there's an obvious flaw in this little plan of yours…"

Kirito ignored the dig, searching his memory for a spell he hadn't had a need to cast in a while. "Matto tsutakke, trekul buren." The darkness was momentarily broken by the luminous golden symbols that whirled into existence around him with each spellword, casting a dim warm glow against Kirito's face. When the incantation was complete, the ring of light burst into particles that spread over both he and Lisbeth. At once the ambient light level in the tunnel seemed to rise to that of a partially moonlit night—perhaps not enough to read without eyestrain, but definitely enough to navigate without fear of repeating Lisbeth's fall.

As she pushed herself up to her feet and dusted herself off, Lisbeth gave him a cross look. "You couldn't have done that before?"

"You mean before when we were running through the blizzard while our HP drained away from the cold?" He shrugged as he walked past her, heading down the tunnel without looking back. "Yeah. Probably."

Lost for words, Lisbeth settled for sticking out her tongue at his back and jogged to catch up.

The illumination spell that Kirito kept active did more than keep them from stumbling over unseen rocks—it kept them from stumbling over mobs. Without the Searching skill, they had to rely on visual identification to keep from getting ambushed by a variety of subterranean monster types—some of which blended in disturbingly well with the walls. When they reached a large room that seemed to teem with man-sized centipede-like mobs covered in carapaces almost identical in appearance to the stone of the caves themselves, Kirito insisted that they take the time to clear every single mob in the room.

"Why?" Lisbeth asked as they prepared to pull the first one, lifting her mace from her belt loop and readying it. "Can't we just clear a path through them?"

"You'll see," was Kirito's enigmatic answer, drawing another look of annoyance from the young smith. "Ready?"

"Just pull it already," Lisbeth said with growing impatience, smacking the head of her mace into her gloved palm.

But Kirito had already picked up a pebble and thrown it sharply at the nearest mob. The creature reared up like a cobra, gave a chittering hiss, and sped towards them with alarming speed. Its initial lunge caught only air as Kirito rolled to the side and came up on one knee, blue light trailing from a spinning slash that cut a red line down the centipede's side, severing a number of legs. The spinning motion continued as he pirouetted on one heel up to a standing position, his second sword skill cutting a V-shaped pattern across the creature's back that sparked and seemed to do little damage.

"You need to shatter the carapace with your mace first!" Kirito called out as he danced out of the way of another biting attack, reversing his grip on the sword and stabbing into its underbelly. A moment later there was a sound like breaking pottery as Lisbeth's mace cracked down on the mob's back, exposing pale flesh that Kirito immediately slashed with a series of quick strikes.

They made short work of it after that, and the centipedes that followed were considerably easier once they got into the necessary pattern of exposing and exploiting its weak point. Each time one was defeated, Kirito made a point of collecting the broken shards of carapace that remained on the ground after the mob disappeared in a cloud of blue polygons. Again Lisbeth questioned him on the necessity; again Kirito offered a vague reply that only managed to annoy her further.

The mob population in the caverns seemed particularly dense, and while Kirito had a fairly good idea of where he was going, the necessity of clearing as they went and bypassing more powerful mobs made their progress slow and arduous. It was especially tedious due to the lack of external references; this deep underground the passage of time seemed even more difficult to gauge than outside in the snow, and without a clock in their HUDs it would've been almost impossible to guess at the time of day.

Eventually, Kirito led her up a side passage which rose steadily uphill, gradual in most parts but occasionally requiring them to clamber up steep inclines which needed the use of both hands to pull themselves forward. A renewed chill in the air became a frigid draft that blew past their faces, and when they cleared their way to a fork in the tunnels, Kirito wet a finger and held it up before directing Lisbeth to the right-hand path. There a series of rough-hewn icy steps ascended towards a distant light, and Kirito had to quickly seize Lisbeth's arm once to keep her from slipping and taking a nasty fall back down. He could've sworn he saw her face flush in the dim light before she mumbled her thanks, but didn't press it.

When they reached the top of the stairs, the reason for the draft became obvious. The room was roughly oval in shape, thirty meters on the long end with jagged ice walls that sloped towards a hole in the ceiling. Dim light poured through this hole, light and snowfall—a mound of which collected in the center of the room in a great frozen heap.

Looking around carefully, Kirito nodded. This was the spot. "We'll make camp here for the night," he said as he opened his inventory and turned his sleeping roll into a game object; it materialized in his hands as a shimmering 3D wireframe and then turned solid.

"Here?" Lisbeth asked in dismay, staring at Kirito as if he'd lost his mind. "It was a lot warmer when we were deeper underground. It's freezing here and there's snow coming in through the ceiling." As if to punctuate her words, a thin flurry caught the draft and blew past her face.

"It's also safe here," Kirito said, looking back at her coolly. "No mobs will pop in this room, and I won't have to maintain that spell in order for us to have some light."

"And how would you know it's safe here?" she demanded. Her defiant stance, fists on her hips, lasted only until she shivered and had to wrap her arms around herself again. "You know more than you're letting on, Kirito, and it's not the first time. You've been leading us around in here like you've got a map in your head. Who are you, really?"

Kirito turned away and was silent for a few moments. He didn't really have to answer her, he knew. But he needed her help if he was going to replace his broken sword, and they'd already come this far. "I was a beta tester," he said quietly. "I've been through these tunnels before." He looked back over his shoulder at her, shaking the bedroll out and laying it flat on the ground. "Satisfied?"

Lisbeth was quiet for a few moments. Kirito couldn't begin to guess at what was going on in her head as she looked down and away. "Maybe," she said finally. "But why can't we just get out through that hole in the ceiling? It doesn't look like it's snowing that hard anymore."

As if in answer, Kirito's wings appeared on his back. He wiggled them, but they remained dark, without a hint of the iridescence that indicated they were charged and ready to take to the air; a moment later he dismissed them. "We can't fly underground. Try it if you like; I'm going to get warm."

By the time Lisbeth had opened her inventory and scrolled down to find her bedroll, Kirito had already unequipped his weapons and slid into his own, fidgeting a couple times before he seemed to get comfortable. He lay on his back with the edge of the bag drawn up to his chin, and after a few moments of indecision Lisbeth unrolled her bedding next to his, separated by almost an arm-span of the icy floor.

As she slipped into the welcoming warmth of the sleeping bag and zipped it up around her, she turned her head to look over at this customer, this beta tester, who'd accompanied her on this adventure to replace the weapon she'd broken. He'd seemed so serious before, and he had a ferocious grace when he was fighting, but with his features stilled and his eyes closed, his face was childlike, almost feminine in its softness. He couldn't be older than her, she knew; she strongly suspected that he was at least a year her junior.

But then her mind flashed back to the way he'd fought as they cleared their way through the Glitafrost Wastes and the tunnels into which they fled, and she shook off thoughts of his age. Did age really matter in here anymore?

Lisbeth shivered. Even in her sleeping bag it was still uncomfortably cold, and without really knowing where the thought came from, she found herself wishing for a moment that she'd set up her bedroll closer to his. A flush rose to her cheeks, and she shook her head hard from side to side to banish the thought. It wasn't like that… he was far too annoying to really like him that way. It was just that she was still so cold, even just sharing a little warmth through the fabric might've helped.

She tried to gauge whether or not he'd fallen asleep, but since ALO avatars didn't need to breathe and had no autonomic respiratory animation, his chest was as still as the dead. After a few more moments of watching his face like this, she spoke softly. "Ne, Kirito…"

At first she thought that he'd already fallen asleep. But after a few beats, he let out a drowsy sound that was almost nothing more than a hum, and that might've been interrogatory.

Taking it for the latter, Lisbeth licked her dry lips and went on. "I'm still really cold." When he didn't say anything further, she mustered her courage. "Don't take this the wrong way, but… can I move a little closer?"

She wasn't sure quite how long she waited for an answer, but it had to have been measured in minutes. After a time, she realized that Kirito had probably been on the verge of sleep already, and that he'd drifted off while she was waiting. She chewed on her lower lip briefly, and then squirmed and shimmied until her bedroll was just a bit nearer to his. When this didn't present her with any relief, she kept going until she felt her elbow bump into his through the thick bedding, and quickly jerked her arm away.

It was a little better—perhaps enough. Lisbeth no longer felt like she wanted to shiver every few moments, and she rolled onto her side and pulled her legs up into a half-fetal position, eyes searching Kirito's sleeping features for signs of life or wakefulness. Without really thinking about what she was doing, her arm slowly slipped out of the bag, hand reaching tentatively towards the face of the boy beside her.

Too cold. Before her fingers could brush his cheek, she snatched her arm back into her sleeping bag and hugged it around herself, hands tucked under opposite armpits for warmth. She was asleep almost as soon as her eyes closed.

As the last of the sparkling energy disappeared from Argo's translucent yellow wings, they folded down towards the small of her back and shimmered once before disappearing. A moment later her feet touched down on the grassy plains at the edge of Cait Sith territory, and she jogged to a stop while looking back at her companions expectantly.

Thelvin was the first to land after her, only a little less gracefully but with considerably more noise as his massive armor-clad form dropped to the ground. Rather than Argo's delicate jog, he absorbed the impact of landing by sinking smoothly into a crouch with his arms out for balance, then rose to his full height. When Argo smirked, he arched his eyebrows. "Let's see you do better in plate armor, young lady."

"Did I say anything?" Argo replied impishly as the third member of their party carefully maneuvered himself to join them, breathing a sigh of relief as his feet sought solid ground.

"No, but you were thinking it really hard," Thelvin answered smugly before turning and clapping the other young man on the shoulder. "See, Sasamaru? Nothing to it. Once you form the mental connection and get the hang of it, it's like riding a bike. Just takes practice."

Sasamaru smiled, brushing a few wind-blown strands of his wavy brown hair out of his face. "Still feels kind of weird, though. Like, I can move the wings, but I can't actually feel them, so the only way I can really tell I'm doing it right is by the results." He planted the butt of his spear on the ground and leaned on it as he spoke, obviously worn out from the flight.

Thelvin didn't miss that. "It's definitely a little more tiring at first. You'll be using the muscles on your back too much, twitching places that you don't actually need to because they're close to the nerve pathways that you're trying to signal. You'll get it."

Argo's eyes shifted to where the clock was in her HUD, and she pursed her lips. "Come on, we can talk while we walk. We've got a fairly narrow window to work with here." She was in motion before she finished speaking, quick strides carrying her towards the treeline of the nearby forest.

"Window for what?" Sasamaru asked as he shouldered his spear and fell in with Argo and Thelvin.

"To get to the Lugru Corridor without having to explain ourselves to any Sylph patrols," Argo answered after a moment to think over whether she should charge him for the information; she decided that his knowing would probably be helpful to her. "The next one oughta be passing through the area in about 40 minutes, thereabouts. That gives us twenty minutes to fully rest our wings while we walk, and another ten minutes of flight, with about a ten-minute buffer to clear any mobs along the way. Should be just enough time to get there."

As Sasamaru's mouth hung open slightly, Thelvin covered a grin with one gauntleted hand. When the boy managed to recover his composure, he stammered for a moment. "H-how on earth do you know—"

"I'll tell you for 500 Yuld."

Sasamaru almost jerked to a stop in mid-pace, staggering briefly before jogging to catch up. He looked at Thelvin with wide eyes. "Is she serious?"

Thelvin laughed. "I don't know, ask her. She'll probably tell you whether she is or not—if you pay her 100 Yuld."

Walking between the two, Sasamaru's head swiveled from side to side as if trying to decide if he was being had. Finally, when no one said anything else, he opened his menu and tapped at it for a few seconds, materializing a small pouch in his hand and passing it to Argo. She made it disappear immediately without breaking stride.

"I know a few people in the Sylphs," Argo explained as they entered the treeline, vaulting over a moss-encrusted embankment and sliding down the other side before continuing. "Some of them highly placed. I paid them for today's patrol schedule for the northeastern section of the Ancient Forest. We'll be fine as long as we stick to our window."

The information turned out to be worth the price; the remainder of their journey passed without even catching sight of a patrol, and they ended up having just enough flight time to make it within a few minutes' walk of the entrance to Lugru Corridor. The mountains ringing the center of Alfheim rose up in their vision, visible through the gaps in the tree canopy in a way that dominated the skyline, and the only significant conflict along the way was a pitched battle against a family of carnivore-type mobs that they had the misfortune to encounter.

Before long, they pushed through a particularly thick section of underbrush and emerged in the clearing surrounding their destination. Argo saw Thelvin stiffen abruptly in front of her just as she heard a loud shout from the far end of the clearing.


Argo caught sight of a pair of Sylphs who stood facing each other with their hands in the air as if manipulating a trade window. A third, the one who'd yelled, stood sentry atop a massive boulder easily ten meters in height, his bow already coming up as he drew an arrow from his quiver.

Thelvin shoved Argo behind him roughly as he unslung his shield from his back, swinging it overhand and getting it in front of him just as the projectile shattered against it. He shouted as he drew his sword with his shield held out ready to intercept any further attacks. "We're not here to fight!"

The two who'd been trading had already drawn their own weapons and taken to the air, hovering a few meters off the ground and looking quite ready to do battle. The sentry—a youth with long flowing light green hair—held his fire, perhaps not wanting to waste any more arrows. He raised his voice and called out loudly. "Then why are you here?"

Argo stepped around Thelvin, putting a hand against the flat of his blade and pushing it down. "We're here to use the Corridor. That's all. If you're going to Lugru, we'll all get there much quicker if we travel together."

One of the trading players settled herself to the ground and crossed half the distance separating her from Argo's party on foot. She didn't sheathe her longsword, but it wasn't quite pointed at them either. "Stand down, Gataki." In response, the sentry lowered his bow but didn't remove the arrow from the string. Satisfied, the Sylph who'd approached them called out. "It's true that a party of six will clear faster than a party of three. But you're in our territory. How do we know we can trust you?"

"You don't," Argo replied. "But here are your choices: party with us and we all get there quickly. Don't party with us and we waste time leapfrogging each other and watching our backs. Or fight us now and someone dies needlessly." She paused for effect, and added: "I kinda like Option A the best."

The third Sylph joined the apparent leader at her side, and the two traded looks. Nodding, she sheathed her sword in a single smooth motion, a slight smile cracking her face. "I like the way you think," she said. "I'm Chihae. The mage here is my husband Natsuo. And the excitable one up there on the rock is our friend Gataki."

Argo introduced herself and her party by name as Thelvin sheathed his sword and returned his shield to his back, his expression still serious. Chihae gave the three of them a slight bow. "You're Cait Sith, aren't you? It's the first time we've seen any—I'm not sure Gataki was even sure you were players at first."

"The cursor over our heads oughta be a dead giveaway if you focus," Argo replied. When she focused on each of the Sylphs, she could see a diamond-shaped yellow cursor hanging just above their heads, the color indicating a neutral race. She knew they'd see the same thing above the heads of her own party.

"I know that, but I don't think Gataki did." Chihae gave the boy a stern look. "He does now. Anyway, what brings three Cait Sith to the Lugru Corridor?"

Argo smiled. "It's a really great story. I'll tell you for 2000 Yuld."

Chihae's jaw dropped. "I beg your pardon?"

"You're the Rat," Natsuo said suddenly, a light of realization coming to his eyes. When his wife looked at him oddly, he nudged her in the arm. "Remember that stuff some of the beta testers back in Sylvain were talking about—some Cait Sith info broker who could tell you anything for a price?"

"Well isn't that something." Chihae looked at Argo as if seeing her for the first time as she reached back and tied her dark green hair into a ponytail. "I think I'll pass on the offer. We should get going anyway. Are we traveling together, then?"

"Unless you like the second or third options better," Argo said as she picked at her teeth with one of her claws.

What had appeared at first to be an unwelcome complication to their day turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Chihae's party was solid on DPS, but she wasn't half the tank that Thelvin was. Between his defense and her party's damage output they cleared their way safely and swiftly through the higher-level mobs in the Corridor without anyone dropping into the yellow zone. At one point midway through the journey Sasamaru even leveled up, and his elation at this simple accomplishment put a grin on everyone's faces, lifting some of the remaining tension in the mixed party.

At last they emerged from the dark and winding passageways to find themselves atop a cliff overlooking a vast underground lake, oval in shape and about a kilometer from one end to the other. In the center of the lake was a circular island a few hundred meters in diameter, a high-walled town with bright lights and visible activity built atop it. Connecting the island to the shores on opposite sides was a pair of long bridges supported by shallow arches that rose a few meters from the surface of the water.

The cavern in which all of this existed was massive—over a kilometer in diameter and rising nearly as high, the jagged rock walls and ceilings carpeted with millions of luminescent rocks and gemstones that filled the vast chamber with a cool ambient glow brighter than a moonlit night. In a world filled with stunning scenes of unspeakable beauty, Lugru was one of the sights that Argo would've recommended no one miss seeing.

She had been to Lugru during the beta, and she knew what it had to look like to those who were seeing it for the first time. Out of the corner of her eye she caught Sasamaru along with Chihae and her party standing slack-jawed at the edge of the cliff, and saw the latter's hand entwine with Natsuo's as they shared the beauty of the moment. A beta tester like Argo, Thelvin was somewhat less moved by the sight, but he smiled as he waited for the others to have their fill of it and exchanged a knowing glance with Argo.

"And I thought Sylvain was lovely," Chihae said softly. "To think something like this exists…"

"It's almost enough to forgive that man for trapping us all in here," her husband said. When she gave him a sidewise look, he hastily repeated: "Almost."

Everyone laughed, stirring themselves from the near-trance that had enveloped most of the group. "Come on," Thelvin said, taking the lead as he had for most of the trip thus far, a role into which he fell naturally as a tank. He carefully began picking his way down the narrow, twisting steps that led down the walls of the cavern towards the nearest shoreline. One by one the rest followed, Chihae taking up the rearguard position.

It took the better part of a half hour to cautiously descend even halfway down the stairs, which narrowed and widened and occasionally broke down in crumbling sections, requiring them to perform nerve-wracking hops across the gaps. Everyone was showing signs of weariness when they reached a stretch of stairs that was wide enough to stop and rest. Food and drink came out as all six players leaned against the wall, grateful for the opportunity to rest their feet.

"How much further?" Chihae asked, craning her neck to try to see around the next bend in the path.

"Not much," Argo said. "We're past the halfway point now."

Sasamaru frowned suddenly, squinting into the distance as if trying to see something tiny or far away. "What's that?"

The Sylphs looked, but didn't seem to see anything at all. Thelvin turned his eyes in the direction Sasamaru was looking, and when Argo followed suit she knew immediately what she was seeing. "Flight trail," she said, coming back to her feet.

"That doesn't make sense though," Chihae said in puzzlement as she finally caught sight of the faint violet lines in the air. "We can't fly underground."

Thelvin looked at Argo suddenly, unslinging his shield and drawing his sword. "No, we can't," he said.

Argo nodded gravely as the others armed themselves, alarmed by the actions of their companions. "But Imps can."

The day began for Asuna like most others had. The internal alarm she set each night sounded in her mind, the abrasive ringing audible only to her. As she opened her eyes to slits she reached out and touched the bell-shaped icon hanging in the air before her, silencing the alarm with a sigh. Feeling a familiar warmth, she turned her head and saw Yuuki's sleeping form snuggled up next to her with her arm thrown over Asuna's stomach, her violet hair falling over her peaceful face in a wave.

Asuna felt a rush of emotion wash over her at the sight, and a smile touched her face. Yuuki was such a sweet little girl, and the way she seemed to have attached herself to Asuna made her feel like she had a younger sister to take care of. The duality in her was uncanny at times—she could be so timid and shy, especially when dealing with strangers socially. But after that first day when Asuna had found her crying in the alley, terrified of the city around her, the girl seemed to have discovered an inner strength—or perhaps rediscovered it; Asuna suspected it had been there all along and had simply been scared away from her by her traumatic first few days in the game.

Reluctantly she reached over with her free hand and poked Yuuki in the cheek with her index finger. "Wake up, sleepy. We've got work to do."

Yuuki's eyelids fluttered once, twice, and then opened fully with a smile like the dawn. She uncurled and stretched, her slender arms quivering high above her head. Then, as if a switch had been flipped, she bounced out of bed and grabbed Asuna's arm as if she hadn't just been the one fast asleep. "Well, what're you waiting for! I wanna go to the Rainbow Valley today!"

Asuna laughed as she allowed herself to be pulled up to a sitting position. "I don't think we're quite ready to go there yet, Yuuki," she said. "Remember what Diavel told us: we should be at least level 10 first, and there's a big boss there we need to stay away from."

"But we're almost there!"

"If by 'almost' you mean halfway from level 6 to 7, sure," Asuna said with a failed attempt at a stern look as she poked Yuuki in the belly, causing the girl to double over and giggle. "Tell you what. We'll clear our way to the edge of the valley today, but as soon as we see any mobs with dark red cursors, we turn back. Deal?"

Yuuki stuck out her pinky. Laughing again, Asuna hooked hers with it and they shook. She reached up and tousled the girl's hair and began getting ready.

Leveling up had become a mini-game between them, a friendly competition. It was one that Yuuki usually won due to a fighting style that relegated her to the role of forward while Asuna healed from the back and switched in when she could, but occasionally they would draw close to even with each other. When they checked before heading out, Yuuki was somewhere around 70% of the way to her next level, while Asuna was at the halfway point. She resolved to get in the thick of things with her friend as much as possible today and catch up a bit, at least until they started running into more dangerous mobs.

With each passing day they grew stronger. The first few levels came quickly, but the fifth and sixth had each taken at least a full day of grinding by themselves, and at the rate they were going Asuna would've been quite surprised if they reached level 7 by the end of the day's grinding. But their skills grew as well, as did their ability to use those skills to best effect, and each day they managed to make better time and clear their way deeper into more challenging territory.

To Asuna, who a few weeks prior couldn't have even imagined herself playing a game that didn't fit on her mobile phone, the transformation was still nothing short of astonishing every time she allowed herself to think about it. Every night she and Yuuki studied the game manual together, picking something new to learn about—often with a particular area of study encouraged by Diavel, who'd taken on almost a fatherly interest in checking in on Yuuki's progress when he could spare the time. And every day while they had breakfast in the inn where they stayed, they went over their maps and decided where to focus their efforts, going out and grinding EXP from morning until dinnertime.

It had begun as survival, a necessity in a world where life and death were defined by numbers in the game engine—and that term itself was one that she'd never even heard before being trapped within ALO. But at some point in the days that followed, as she and Yuuki went out together and faced a hostile world side by side, it had become something else.

It had become fun.

That evening, they stood on the edge of a cliff overlooking the marshlands of northwestern Undine territory, a pair of rivers running downhill out of Rainbow Valley towards them and cascading over the edge of the cliff. Mist rose from the swampy landscape far below, coating them both in a chilly patina of dampness that would've been uncomfortable if they hadn't both been overheated from fighting almost nonstop on their way there.

The raging rivers that ran through Rainbow Valley spilled over a series of steppes as they descended gradually eastward towards the cliffside at the edge of the valley, each one resulting in a series of foaming waterfalls that filled the valley with the same kind of thick mist that was currently cooling off Asuna and Yuuki. As the sun began to sink towards the horizon, the perpetual rainbows that filled the valley from the sunlight refracting through the mist grew in intensity and number, a multi-colored halo surrounding the orb of the sun in a broad circle that followed them wherever they went.

They'd been silent for some time, soaking in the fine mist and letting both the scenery and the white noise of the rapids fill them with peace as they came down from the adrenaline rush of battle. Finally, Yuuki reached over and gave Asuna a playful backhanded swat in the arm. "Ninety-two," she said with a giggle. Meaning that she only needed 92 more EXP until her next level.

"Oh shut up," Asuna said without heat, grinning as she pretended to push Yuuki towards the water. "You're going to hit 7 by the time we get back, aren't you?"

Yuuki nodded happily, her violet bangs plastered wetly to her face. "Asuna… how strong do you think we are, compared to everyone else?"

Asuna looked slightly surprised at the direction of the question. "I don't know," she said honestly. "We've been working really hard. I don't think we're that far behind the clearers—they've just started going into the valley here. Does it matter?"

Yuuki looked thoughtful as she hugged her arms around herself, shivering with the beginning of a chill. "I guess it does, kinda," she said. "I mean… we have to be strong here. Stronger than anyone. I don't… I don't want to see anyone else die."

Anyone else. Asuna didn't miss the implication of the word; she knew that Yuuki had come into the game with someone... and that that someone hadn't survived the Salamander assault. She'd never talked about it since, and Asuna hadn't pried. When Yuuki was ready—if she ever was—she'd bring it up herself.

"Oh, Yuuki…" Asuna reached over and put her arm around the girl's shoulders. "You're already stronger than me," she said. "And we're working hard together every day. I think one day you could be the strongest player in the game, if you kept at it."

Yuuki's smile as she looked up at Asuna was positively radiant. "You really think so?"

"I know so," Asuna said confidently.

Yuuki seemed to chew on this for a few moments as she pushed her damp hair out of her face. "Then let's become clearers. We can do it if we're together, right?"

"Clearers?" Asuna's eyes were wide as she echoed the word. Clearers were… they were the ones who took all the chances. They pushed hard into dangerous areas, mapping a trail to wherever their faction needed to go next, always on the vanguard of the Undine efforts to break through Rainbow Valley and get to Arun. They worked tirelessly every single day—

Asuna stopped there, her thoughts screeching to a halt as she looked down at the wide-eyed little girl next to her—the little sister she'd never had, a partner at whose side she'd been fighting every day since they met, fighting to become as strong as possible and get as far as possible.

Hugging Yuuki tightly against the chill that she herself was starting to feel, Asuna laughed suddenly at the irony of it all. "Yes… I think we'll do just that. We can do anything if we stick together."


By the time Kirito and Lisbeth reached the outskirts of the tunnels beneath Nissengrof, it was nearly lunchtime on their second day of travel. The transition was not an abrupt one—gradually the mob population began to thin out, the gaps in between fights becoming longer until it seemed like nearly a half hour had passed since they'd seen the last aggro mob.

A few times they even encountered other parties in the widening tunnels, Gnomes in twos and threes with the occasional Puca or Leprechaun mixed in. The parties usually gave each other space, nodding in a neutral or friendly manner but moving on to their destination. Kirito didn't stop to ask them for directions; he knew where he was going.

At last the sounds of conversation began to filter through the tunnels in rising and falling murmurs, a few voices becoming a crowd. The rough-hewn walls became smoother, and signs were occasionally engraved into the walls giving directions to one location or another; a few of the names were familiar to Kirito. Now they didn't encounter parties so much as individuals, players of several different races moving through the hallways on one sort of business or another.

The hallway finally opened up on a large subterranean chamber lit by hundreds of torches, open-sided corridors lining the walls in a spiral across a dozen levels. Rope bridges criss-crossed the open space, providing access to shops and other establishments which were either burrowed into the sides of the chamber or built in a way that stuck out into the open space.

Kirito turned to look at Lisbeth, who was wide-eyed at the spectacle. "Nissengrof," he said. "Or one of its many parts, anyway. So who's this Gnome we're supposed to be seeing?"

"Chellok," she answered, peering out over the rope railing that lined the edge of the corridor in which they stood. "We'll find him in the Hellforge District."

That gave Kirito a direction, at least. The Hellforge District was another chamber like the one they'd first encountered, a place where most of the noxious metalworking facilities were concentrated in order to keep them from stinking up the rest of Nissengrof. Even with this precaution, getting there was almost as easy as following their noses once they entered the correct side passage. The air was filled with an acrid odor that was reminiscent of the approach to Domnann, except combined with a growing oppressive heat—and so concentrated that the very air seemed to visibly thicken, causing their eyes to swim until they became accustomed to it.

A few questions led them past the vast open pit of the Hellforge itself and into a medium-sized domed room with all the facilities necessary for advanced metalworking and smithing. A few players in the garb of apprentices worked at one station or another, supervised by a massive dark-skinned Gnome who might well have been the largest player Kirito had ever met. The man regarded the two newcomers with a critical eye at first, and after ensuring that his charges needed nothing further, he wiped sweat from his bald head and headed over to Kirito and Lisbeth.

"Can I help you?" he asked in a deep, gravelly voice.

"Perhaps," Kirito said, tilting his head up to meet the large man's gaze. "We're looking for Chellok. We have business for him."

One dark eyebrow quirked. "Business, is it? Well, you can talk to me. I'm Agil, and I'm his business partner." He wiped his hands on his apron and extended one to Kirito in an American-style greeting.

Kirito took the hand, unsurprised at the strength in it. A player's size didn't necessarily mean anything in a game where strength was determined by stats rather than muscle mass, but someone who specialized in any kind of smithing or metalworking had to be emphasizing their STR stat. "Kirito. This is Lisbeth. We understand you might be able to produce Carbon Steel here."

The other eyebrow rose to join the first. "Is that so? Well, you heard right—Chellok is the only player in Nissengrof who can make it right now. But the ingredients are hard to come by, and every bit of it is going to outfit our clearing group. I'm afraid you may have come all this way for nothing."

"Please!" Lisbeth said suddenly. "I… I owe this player a new sword, and we desperately need an ingot of Gnomish Carbon Steel to make it. Just one would do, and we're willing to pay well for it."

Looking between them, Agil shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry," he said, sounding like he meant it. "But they're not for sale at any price. We're about to challenge the boss in the Valley of Giants, and we need every single ingot we can get to maximize our chances of success."

Kirito nodded as if he hadn't expected anything else. "It sounds like your supplies are limited," he said. "Is that because of a shortage of ingredients?"

Agil answered with a nod of his own. "They're not rare so much as they are a pain in the ass to get. What we really need are—"

As Agil spoke, Kirito was already opening his menu and navigating to his inventory. Tapping a stack of items there, he chose the option to materialize them as game objects, and watched the Gnome's eyes widen as a large quantity of stone-like chunks appeared in his arms.

"—Lithopede Carapaces," Agil finished in something close to a whisper.

"I don't know what your formula and success rates are like," Kirito said as he dumped the pile of items on the ground at his feet. "But that's a stack of at least forty. You should be able to get at least a dozen ingots out of that, maybe more—assuming you have the rest of the ingredients you need."

The large black man stared at Kirito in shocked silence for some time, eyes occasionally dropping to the pile of fragments lying on the ground at their feet. He crouched to pick one up, tapping it and examining the status window that popped up when he did.

Lisbeth looked nearly as shocked as she eyed Kirito from where she stood. "You knew?"

Kirito nodded wordlessly, watching Agil and waiting patiently.

At last Agil turned away from them and disappeared into a side room, the faint sounds of conversation there drowned out by the rising and falling wall of noise from the industrial activities surrounding them. When Agil returned, he was accompanied by a short, fat Gnome with gray streaks in his brown hair. Kirito assumed that he had to be looking at Chellok.

The two Gnomes looked down at the pile of Lithopede Carapaces, the shorter man picking one up and repeating the analysis that Agil had performed. Satisfied, he slashed the air with his finger and navigated his menu; in his other hand there appeared a coal-black metal ingot that seemed to absorb the light in the room, barely a glimmer of light reflecting from its surface. He held it out towards Kirito, but raised it just out of grasp when Kirito reached for it.

"On one condition," Chellok said gruffly. "We lost a group of clearers to a fight with a named mob this morning, and the one survivor doesn't want to go back out. Join the raid and fight with us… and it's yours."

Kirito looked the older Gnome in the eyes, a smile cracking his face. He held out his hand, palm-up, and when he held the ingot in his hand he passed it immediately to Lisbeth. He looked over at her and saw her eyes watering up—whether from emotion or from the quality of the air, he couldn't say.

There was only one thing Kirito had left to ask. "I don't suppose you have an anvil she could use?"

"Holy shit, you made it!"

There were back-slapping hugs all around as Klein and his party met up with Dale and Harry One in the upper levels of Nissengrof, laughter and overlapping conversations filling the air and drawing amused stares from the local citizens. Not all of the stares were those of amusement; a few were wary or downright hostile at the sight of a Salamander and an Imp, and Issin's feline Cait Sith features were a source of open fascination for some.

However, no one accosted them or demanded to know their business; the contrast with the paranoia and suspicion in Sylvain could not have been more stark. The friendly demeanor and obvious camaraderie in Klein's group seemed enough to reassure most passers-by of their peaceful intentions, and after a while they simply became an accepted part of the city.

As they sat down in an inn for a meal and drinks, they all began swapping stories and catching up with each other. Harry One had come west with a party of Leprechauns once he learned that Dale was in Nissengrof with the other Gnomes, and the two of them had been going out with pickup groups ever since in order to level up and pass the time.

Klein related the story of his rendezvous with Kunimittz, their flight from Salamander territory and their capture in and escort from Sylph territory. When he got to the point of describing the battle in the Valley of Butterflies, Issin repeatedly butted in and made sure to gleefully provide plenty of details about Klein's supposedly budding romance with the Cait Sith beta tester who'd brought them there—a performance which eventually ended with Klein's drink dumped over Issin's head and a near-brawl between the two of them.

"So where do we go from here?"

Dynamm's question was the question, and it brought everything to a halt. They all looked at each other for a minute; no one in Klein's group had really thought this far ahead. They were together again, every one of his friends who'd joined this game with him—all safe. It had been Klein's driving force ever since the end of Kayaba's tutorial, his primary motivation for his clockwise journey around the edge of Alfheim.

Dale was the first to speak, scratching at the skin under the knotted white band which circled his head just under the hairline of his afro. "We've been thinking about that, Harry and I. Some of the pickup groups we've gone out with have been clearers, and they've been talking about an upcoming raid—they're gonna go after the boss of the valley to the south. It'll clear the way to the capital city, and there might be some really good drops."

Harry One nodded. "Dale's right. We've got a couple of them friended, and now that you're all here… I bet if we asked, they'd be ecstatic to have another group along."

Klein leaned back in his chair with his feet up on the low table around which they all sat, fingers laced behind his head. He looked at each of his group one by one, taking stock of them; each of them in turn nodded at him. "Now that sounds like a party worth crashing. Get a message out to your clearer buddies, Dale. Let 'em know our group's in if they'll have us."

The next morning found them in a meeting with the leader of the valley raid, a stocky Gnome in full plate armor whose two-handed axe seemed almost as tall as he was. He introduced himself as Crichton and gave Klein's party a measured look that was edged with amusement. "Well don't this beat all. Y'all are like a racial sampler plate, got one of every flavor." He glanced over at Dale. "I know you and your buddy can fight. And I reckon your friends can too if they come this far. Gotta say, your timing's something else."

"Why's that?" Klein asked.

Crichton stamped the heavy butt of his axe on the stone floor; it made a hollow ringing sound that echoed in the room. "On account of we're heading out soon's everyone gathers topside. I was about to head on up there myself. You boys might as well walk with me."

The walk in question was a short one; the inn where they'd all met was only a few levels below the frozen surface, and everyone was already fairly cold long before they felt the chilly draft blowing down through the massive archway that led outside. It made Klein quite glad that they'd stopped at an item shop the previous night and picked up winter clothing; the trip from Whiteburrow to Nissengrof had been fairly uncomfortable for all of them.

The rendezvous point for the raid was an open pit several meters deep and about thirty wide, its terraced sides forming a series of natural benches. Whatever its purpose had once been, it seemed to serve quite well for its current use; dozens of players were gathered and sitting in clusters around the edges, talking and laughing and carrying on. Most of them were Gnomes, as he'd expected, but there were others as well: Leprechauns, nearly a dozen of them; a couple of Puca swaddled in mage's robes as well. He didn't see any other Cait Sith, nor any of the other southern races.

There was also a Spriggan.

Klein started in shock as he recognized the Spriggan player on the opposite side of the pit, nearly losing his footing on the terraces as he tried to find a seat. He sat down hard, his friends filing onto the seats near him, and realized that he'd been staring when the Spriggan player turned and looked across the pit, meeting his eyes with an expression that was easily as surprised as Klein's own.

Klein didn't have to try very hard before the name he needed came to mind. He knew the other player couldn't hear him from this far away, but he said it anyway. "Kirito?"

At that moment Crichton flew down into the center of the pit, put a pair of fingers in his mouth and whistled sharply before raising his voice. "Alright y'all, listen up." After a moment, when not all of the conversations had ceased, he bellowed, "I said shut the hell up!"

That did the trick. Clapping his hands together with a metallic sound that rang out loudly in the sudden silence as his gauntlets met, the stocky Gnome grinned and began. "We got ourselves a boss to kill, boys, and this is how we're gonna do it…"

Chapter Text

"The effective use of magic in combat requires more than just the rote memorization of spellwords and the skill level necessary to cast a given spell. It also requires the knowledge of which spells to use, and when. It is not always desirable to use your most powerful spell; it might deplete your MP quickly or have a long cooldown timer, leaving you without it at a critical moment. But most of all, it is essential to know the resistances and weaknesses of your opponents. Imps, for example, are highly resistant to the status effects of Dark magic, and using Fire against a Salamander is an excellent way to waste your MP…"
Alfheim Online Manual, «Resistances and Weaknesses»

12 ~ 26 November 2022
Day 7 - Evening

Argo knew that it was only the keener eyesight of the Cait Sith that allowed her and her two traveling companions to distinguish the flight trails of the incoming Imps from one another at this distance. If she could barely tell herself, it was a sure bet that the three Sylphs with whom they were traveling couldn't—and they might be having trouble even seeing the glowing violet lines that traced a curving path across the massive subterranean chamber of Lugru.

She counted silently, and then turned to the others. "Three incoming. Can't tell what their equipment is like from this distance, but if it's a balanced PK group they'll probably have a mage, a tank, and either an archer or another melee type."

"So we outnumber them?" Gataki said hopefully, sticking several arrows in the ground in front of him and nocking one.

"Yes and no," Thelvin said without taking his eyes off of the still-distant threat. "By numbers, yes, but they have us at an extreme disadvantage. We only have two sources of ranged DPS, plus whatever basic spells the rest of us can muster. They'll have at least one, more likely two… and most importantly, they can fly and we can't."

"And we're stuck on a narrow stairway that's uncomfortably high off the ground," Chihae said grimly as she checked the durability on her sword.

Thelvin nodded. "Just so. I'd say we have about a minute until they get here. Maybe less."

"Hang on," Natsuo said suddenly. "Do we really know that they're out to PK? They could be here for the same reason we are."

"Do you believe in Santa Claus too?" Argo asked cheerfully. The Sylph mage glared at her. "Well neither do I. And I don't believe in parties of Imps deep within Sylph territory who're here to visit their sick grandmothers either. So I suggest if you've got buffs, you start casting them."

"She's right, Nachin," Chihae said, putting a hand on her husband's shoulder as she used what Argo assumed had to be a pet name. "Give your haste buff to Gataki, get ready to use your wind shield if they have an archer, and pour everything else into knocking them out of the air."

"And aim low," Thelvin added. In answer to the puzzled looks from the Sylphs, he explained. "Their wings will tire faster if you force them to ascend."

"What about me?" Sasamaru asked. Argo knew he had to be young, probably around her own age—but at that moment he looked every bit the scared kid that he was. She could sympathize—without the ability to fly, his spear wouldn't be much use in the coming fight.

"Stand over there by Natsuo and be ready to fend off hit-and-run melee strikes," she said after thinking it over for a moment. "Make sure none of them can get close to him."

"They're coming," Thelvin said urgently, his shield held at ready.

Argo saw lines of golden glyphs begin to circle around the bodies of the incoming Imps, and as she counted and interpreted the symbols that coalesced, she yelled. "Blindness! Don't let it hit you!"

"Get behind me!" shouted Natsuo. As Sasamaru and Chihae complied, he quickly chanted a series of spellwords of his own, and a gust of wind rushed past him, forming into a shimmering barrier. Streaks of violet-black energy splattered against the short-lived shield, and Argo saw another splash across Thelvin's physical shield as a flare of blue light reacted from within the enchanted item. A portion of the spell's effects seemed to soak through the defense, causing black fire to flicker briefly in Thelvin's eyes, but he gritted his teeth until his sight returned a moment later.

A streak of brilliant green energy raced away from Gataki's bow, curving in the air and seeking one of the Imps who'd attempted to evade it. Argo recognized the skill; it had probably taken close to half of his MP, but she approved of using the homing attack up-front to try to improve their odds. The bolt took the Imp in the back, exploding in an actinic flash of light and sending him tumbling out of control.

But as Argo had suspected, they weren't the only party with a mage. The Imp caster's robes fluttered vigorously in the wind as he evaded one of Gataki's arrows, and he rattled off a series of words that formed into a javelin of black energy in his right hand, which he hurled with alarming speed at Argo.

Before she could react, Thelvin was in front of her, dropping to one knee and bracing as he absorbed the projectile against his shield. The explosion that followed sent him reeling backwards into Argo, and she saw his HP go down by close to a tenth.

As she went sprawling to the ground, scrambling for purchase on the stone steps, she saw the third Imp arc towards them, skimming the surface of the wall to avoid Gataki's arrows as he readied what looked like a sword skill. Thelvin was still recovering from the explosion; a status icon beside his HP gauge showed that he was momentarily stunned.

Argo extended her steel claws to their full length and prepared to use a technique of her own to block the strike. But before the Imp could reach her, she heard Natsuo chanting again and saw the air shimmer as a gust of wind slammed into the Imp, using his own momentum to slam him against the rock wall he was skimming so closely. He bounced off the wall and struck the stairs, tumbling towards Argo's group as he tried to regain control.

Under the circumstances, Argo wasn't inclined to give him the chance. Ears flat against her head, she dashed towards the injured Imp as he came up to one knee and brought his weapon to bear on her. She recognized the opening motions of the sword skill he planned to use next, and she was already leaping above the attack as his crosscut sliced the air and sank into the rock wall to his right.

As she came down, Argo kicked off the flat of his entrapped sword blade and flipped to a landing behind the shocked Imp, sinking both claws into his back all the way to the knuckles. The player screamed in a very convincing way; even though he wouldn't feel any pain from the blow, she knew it had to be a very unpleasant sensation—and some of it had to be from the fear of impending death as well.

This wasn't the time for sympathy or mercy, though—this was life and death, and Argo chose to err on the side of living. As soon as she was released from the recovery frame of her Double Backstab technique, Argo ripped both claws up and out, and watched the Imp's HP gauge go from yellow to red. That was when Thelvin reached them and backhanded the helpless Imp with his shield, sending him spiraling off the edge of the cliff. The doomed player's screams echoed off the stone walls as he erupted into purple flames in mid-air, his Remain Light hanging there in the air like a flaming tombstone.

Sending a look of wordless thanks to Thelvin, Argo turned her attention back to the rest of the battle. The death of their comrade seemed to have visibly shaken the other Imps, who pulled up short out of melee range and looked at each other. Argo saw Gataki and Natsuo take the opportunity to uncork and drink a small blue potion each, replenishing some of their MP, while Thelvin positioned himself in front of Argo and glared over his shield. "Six to two now, gentlemen," he boomed out, projecting to make sure his voice carried. "Your move."

The Imps exchanged another glance. One of them snarled and held his hands out, beginning to chant while the other looked at him in alarm and opened his mouth. The first mage's words were interrupted by a streak of green that shot out from Gataki's bow; having replenished his MP, he'd chosen to unleash his homing attack again, for which Argo knew the long cooldown timer had to have just ended. It took the Imp squarely in the chest just below his throat, and the explosion of energy sent him tumbling out of control with his HP in the red. The other shook his head and threw one last dark look back at the victorious party before rocketing off in pursuit of his friend.

Gataki whooped loudly at the retreat and called mockingly after them. "Yeah baby! Suck on that why don't you! Assholes."

While that wouldn't have been Argo's first choice of words, it nicely summed up her feelings all the same. She glanced at her HP gauge; she hadn't been touched and there were no lingering status effects. Thelvin had taken a fair amount of damage, but that was what he was there for, and they both knew it. They shared a look; the others might not realize it, but they'd been incredibly lucky. They'd fought smart as well, she knew, and their opponents had made a few critical mistakes—but luck had been with them, and they hadn't lost anyone.

Natsuo turned out to have a little bit of water magic as well; it wasn't necessary to waste potions on healing once his MP had recovered. He and Chihae embraced when they were all done, holding each other tightly as the knowledge that they were safe sank in.

"You fought well," Thelvin said as he watched his HP climb back up to max. "As well as any veteran tester. Gataki and Natsuo especially—your bow and magic, respectively, turned the tide there."

Argo glanced out across the vast empty space above the town of Lugru, watching the flight trails of the two Imps arc slowly towards the town itself. As she did, out of the corner of her eye she caught the floating Remain Light of the defeated Imp flicker once and then extinguish.

She closed her eyes. The light wasn't all that had just been extinguished. At that very moment, she knew, in a hospital room somewhere in Japan, monitors would begin sounding a steady tone as the player's Nerve Gear destroyed their brain, their body probably briefly convulsing in one last reflex before becoming still.

Suddenly she was very, very glad that she hadn't been the one to strike the final blow. She looked over at Thelvin, whose expression was unreadable.

"Let's go," she said with sudden fierceness. "Before they decide to come back with friends."

It was sound advice, and it gave them motivation to drive themselves onward as quickly as they could, but no one else accosted them as they descended the remainder of the way to the bottom, and everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief once their feet left the stairs and touched the ground. They ran the rest of the way, ran as fast as they could across the long, wide bridge that spanned the underground lake until they reached the gates of Lugru itself.

Relief suddenly flooded Argo like a cold wave as she saw a purple message appear at the top of her vision, the words «Safe Zone: Town of Lugru» fading in and then back out a few seconds later. This was neutral territory, and no one's HP could decrease now that they were within the boundaries of the town.

They bid their farewells there to Chihae and her party, their bows considerably deeper and more respectful now that they'd fought at each other's sides. Thelvin exchanged friend requests with Chihae, a fact of which Argo took note; it gave her another possible information source within the Sylphs, and that never hurt.

As the three Sylphs headed off into the town for whatever business had brought them there, Argo recalled the agreed-upon meeting place and gestured for Thelvin and Sasamaru to come closer. "Okay, I'm gonna go meet the person I came here for. I suggest you two go hit the shops in the market while we're here; chances are you might find upgrades for your gear."

Thelvin nodded, punching Sasamaru in the arm. "You heard her. Come on, it wouldn't be a bad idea to replace that spear of yours and get our equipment repaired."

Repairing her own weapons wouldn't be the worst idea in the world, but Argo set the thought aside as she walked the streets of Lugru. She thought she caught sight of the Imps they'd fought earlier, but it was a fleeting glimpse in the crowd—and it didn't really matter; there was nothing they could do here within the Safe Zone.

Her path took her unerringly towards the town's single inn, a large two-story stone building that exuded comfort and safety from the warm glow in the windows. When she pushed her way through the double doors at the front entrance, it didn't take her long to spot her quarry—Eugene was the only Salamander in the common room, and he was… unmistakable.

He recognized Argo as well, and waved her over to an empty seat. She glanced around the room and quickly took stock of the surroundings; there were a few other players in the room—a pair of Sylphs in one of the far corners—but they were occupied with their own conversation. She slid gracefully into the chair across the table from the massive Salamander.

"Eugene. Been a while. How you holding up?"

He shrugged and gave her a rueful smile. "As well as one can in exile, with a brother held prisoner far away."

"Yeah, about that." Argo's brown eyes searched Eugene's face. It wasn't that she precisely distrusted him… but with the stakes being what they were, she had to be sure. "I need to know what happened if I'm gonna help you."

Nodding, Eugene tossed back a cup of steaming sake and steepled his fingers, elbows on the table. "I know you have people in the Salamanders. You probably know that Mort and I opposed Kibaou's power grab and that… audacious assault on the Imps." When Argo simply dipped her head once, he went on. "Kibaou didn't care for that very much. He already had the majority of the faction behind him the first night, and he invited us to some kind of summit between the leadership candidates."

At that point, Eugene scowled darkly. "It was a trap, and we were fools not to see it. He lured us into a room and barred the door, knowing that he couldn't harm us within the city or imprison us without having the leadership vote. And once that vote happened… well, he had the power to do whatever he wanted. He needed Mortimer's strategic genius, but he must've been scared of me challenging him to a duel for the leadership—he kept me imprisoned and isolated, and told Mort that if he didn't cooperate, I'd be exiled."

"Which you are anyway," Argo said. "So what happened?"

Eugene barked a laugh. "I tried to escape, of course. Almost worked, too. There are plenty of Salamanders who aren't on board with Kibaou's methods, and a particularly sympathetic player ended up assigned to guard my room one night. He and I tried to spring Mort, but…" He grimaced. "I was the only one who got away, and Kibaou designated me an exile almost immediately."

Argo grimaced as well. That was a problem. It meant that Eugene's cursor would be red to any Salamander players, calling him out as a hostile. It meant that he couldn't enter Gattan without being attacked by any NPC guards he encountered. In short, it meant that Eugene was in no position to help rescue his brother.

"What do you want from me?" she asked bluntly.

"Your help," Eugene said. "Kibaou's hold on the faction right now is tenuous. To be frank, he's a shitty leader who's in over his head. There's growing unrest both from the aggressive players who are dissatisfied with the lack of progress, and the sympathetic ones who've never supported him. He doesn't allow anyone close who might be strong enough to challenge him, and he's kept Mort isolated so that he can't stir up trouble or even level himself up to become a threat. I could challenge him, and probably beat him—but in order to do that, we have to lure him out of Gattan. And before I do, we have to rescue Mort—otherwise Kibaou will be able to use his life as leverage." Eugene's severe, craggy features looked pained. "I can't sacrifice my own brother."

"You have a plan," Argo observed.

Eugene's nod was firm and sharp. "I do. I mentioned that there's unrest in the Salamanders. We can use that. Kibaou needs to make a play soon, something that will restore his sagging popularity to stave off challenges and keep him on top when the next vote happens. I think he's going to raid the valley boss."

"Why haven't they broken through already?"

"Because Kibaou wants the better drops that come from waiting."

Suddenly it made sense to Argo. There'd been a rumor during the beta that each time a valley boss was defeated, the remaining bosses would become stronger but drop better loot. It was intended to encourage factions to rush to clear them, but a few had realized that if they positioned themselves to raid the last remaining boss, they could maximize their returns.

A plan started forming in Argo's head. At the moment, her only surviving contact within the Salamanders was Kibaou's own lieutenant, a player named Corvatz. She'd been playing him from the beginning, feeding him just enough useful information to lead him to believe that she was his source. He'd be useful, but she wouldn't be able to count on his help for rescuing Mort. She'd need someone else who could safely enter Gattan.

"Alright," she said finally. "I think I know how we can pull this off."

The Valley of Giants yawned before them, snow-covered hills rising steeply until they became mountains which reached for the sky well beyond the altitude limit of any player. The midday sky was light gray in color, overcast but mercifully free of snowfall.

Klein and his party trudged through the snow on the left flank of the raid group as their wings rested, the cold somewhat mitigated by the constant effort of both walking and clearing. Thankfully the trash mobs they encountered were no threat—those which didn't flee before the mass of players became short work. As they were part of a raid group, the EXP gain from these trash fights was minimal—but leveling up wasn't the point of this journey. A much more serious fight awaited them further within the valley.

As they started to encounter the Jotunn that gave the valley its name, Klein had occasion to wonder just how hard these fights would be if his group hadn't been in a raid with more than forty other players. The giants towered over them at nearly thrice man-height, forcing them to take to the air and fight nimbly there in order to combat them effectively.

In these fights, Klein was more grateful than ever that he'd begun to get the hang of Voluntary Flight, and although it was still awkward and tiring, it still made him far more agile than he'd been with the controller. The thought brought to mind the Spriggan who'd helped him on his first day in the game; occasionally he glanced over at the group of which Kirito was a part, but they were on opposite flanks and hadn't had the opportunity to speak.

At last they drew within sight of a massive glacier which blocked the valley ahead of them, the icy cliff rising halfway to the peaks of the mountains that formed the walls of the valley. A sharp whistle rang out and echoed as the raid leader, Crichton, called everyone to a halt.

"This is it, boys! Take a few minutes to rest, get your wings to full and recover all your HP and MP if you ain't at max. Y'all gonna need everything you got in this fight, and that's the truth of it."

Not for the first time, Klein snickered as he wondered how the women in the raid group felt about being called "boys". There weren't that many of them, but the few that were there were hard to miss. Crichton's rural accent had a certain charm to it, but it was sometimes hard to follow.

Still, the advice was good, regardless of how it was delivered. He checked his own group over, making sure everyone was in peak condition and reviewing strategy.

According to Crichton's briefing, the boss was a particularly large giant which would spawn once they got close enough to the glacier. It was slow but powerful, with a frost breath ranged attack that Klein knew would be particularly dangerous to him. It would be resistant to physical damage, which was why the raid was heavy on mages, and it would have a whopping three HP bars to knock down. There would be adds as well, each of the minions nearly a minor boss of its own.

And it was time to face it.

At Crichton's signal, the mages started casting their buffs, stacking every possible advantage on the main tank group as the vanguard advanced. When the lead tank had crossed some kind of invisible line, a deep rumbling seemed to shake the very valley itself, birds taking flight from the sparse trees while snow cascaded from the pine needles and from the walls of the glacier in a fine white cloud. Then the lower part of the glacier itself seemed to explode, chunks of ice anywhere from pebble-sized to the mass of a passenger car spraying outwards in a cone; one such chunk took an unlucky player squarely and nearly annihilated his entire HP gauge from the impact.

Behind this explosion came a roar that seemed to vibrate the air, and from the hole in the glacier emerged what Klein assumed had to be the Jotunn boss. It was truly giant, possibly as much as twenty meters in height and almost half as broad around its barrel chest. Thick brownish-blue hair covered its body, and in its right hand it held a tree, the trunk forming the shaft of the weapon nearly a meter in diameter itself. A great shield of rock and ice the size of a backyard swimming pool guarded its left side.

It charged. For something that was supposed to be slow, Klein had time only to marvel that "slow" was a relative term—with legs that size, it was capable of covering ground with alarming speed. The left and right flanks of the raid split off while the main tank group charged in and took aggro by getting nearly in the giant's face. A blast of frost washed over the main tank's shield, and even despite the protective buffs the attack still took more than a quarter of his HP bar.

But that wasn't Klein's problem to deal with. As part of the left flank, they had a specific role to fill, one that became critical almost immediately as the Jotunn's roar echoed down the valley. A handful of smaller Jotunn came bursting out of the snow and charged towards the main force of the raid. "Smaller" being something of a relative term as well—each of these was slightly larger than the usual trash mobs, only a little less than half the size of the boss itself.

"Adds!" Klein shouted, moving his group to intercept one of the mobs before they could plow into the mage groups or distract anyone else. He parried an enraged swing from the mob's club, creating an opening into which Dale leapt with his war axe, cleaving an angry red gash across the giant's belly.

Its retaliatory swing was intercepted by Harry One's shield, the blow knocking off a chunk of his HP even through the defense and sending him careening back—but when the club rebounded back as well, Klein zoomed in and struck again with a three-hit skill. With Issin's arrows sinking into the mob whenever he had a clear shot, they made short work of the add, and it exploded into a great shower of blue particles after several minutes of intense fighting. Klein took a moment to make sure his team was in good shape; they'd fought named mobs in the field which had been easier than that battle.

And it wouldn't be the last. After at least ten minutes of watching the core of the raid batter the giant's defenses, he saw its first HP gauge finally go into the red and then shatter, leaving two to go. When it did, the giant took a deep breath and blasted a massive cone of frost in a wide arc in front of it, forcing the raid to back up and the mages to focus their efforts on restoring the main tank group's health. During this respite, it bellowed loudly again, and another round of adds burst from the snow and forced Klein's group to rush in again and protect the raid's left flank.

The next HP bar took closer to fifteen or twenty minutes to whittle down, long enough that Klein brought his group closer in so that they could add their own minimal ranged DPS to the fight. They saved their wings for when flight was absolutely necessary, as did most of the rest of the raid—only the melee DPS groups were constantly in flight, and they switched off periodically to give each other the chance to rest their wings and recover HP.

Klein took a moment to glance at the clock in his HUD in between the next round of adds while he waited for a healing potion to bring him back up. They'd been fighting for over half an hour now, and everyone was starting to show their weariness. But he could see the light at the end of the tunnel—the Jotunn's final HP gauge was in the yellow, and although its damage resistance seemed to increase each time it lost a bar of health, the coordinated work of the core groups and the exceptional crafted weapons most of them were wielding was slowly but surely whittling it down towards the red.

That was when everything went to hell.

As the Jotunn's final bar of HP turned from yellow to red, the attacks battering against it suddenly began producing nothing but a spray of purple sparks and the occasional flashing message of «Immortal Object». Kirito couldn't read the text from where he hovered on the far right flank of the raid, but he knew that had to be the message—it was common for bosses to briefly become invulnerable while changing forms or stages. A troubled frown crossed his face; there hadn't been anything about a state change in the briefing.

During the brief lull, the raid groups did what they'd done before whenever the boss gave them a respite from its attacks: they took advantage of it and landed out of its reach, resting their flight gauges and healing each other. Kirito saw the left flank start to close back in towards the raid core, and when his own flank groups started to do the same Kirito did a flip in the air to reverse his direction and flew after them.

The boss reared back, a motion that it had done each time an HP gauge disappeared; any moment Kirito expected it to bellow again and summon another group of adds, and he wondered if everyone on the flanks ought to be closing ranks the way they were instead of waiting to intercept. Then his eyes widened as he saw the club and shield drop from the mob's hands, and as it raised its arms high it formed them into fists.

"Get back!" Kirito shouted, knowing that his voice wouldn't carry far enough—and knowing that it was too late even if it did.

With a mighty swing, the Jotunn boss brought both fists down on the ground in front of it, fountains of snow erupting from the points of impact. The ground in the valley shook; every player who had landed was either unbalanced or knocked entirely off their feet. As shockwaves rippled outward from the blow, spikes of ice burst through the snowpack in a wave that spread outwards for some distance. A number of players were impaled by the ice spikes, and a few of them who were already wounded burst into colored flame from the direct hits, without even time to scream.

Those who survived the hits were trapped in place, hanging there in the air with lances of ice pinning them straight through their bodies. As soon as it recovered from its attack, the Jotunn charged into the main force of the raid, noticeably faster now that it wasn't encumbered by its weapon and shield. Its fists flew with frightening speed, shattering players and the spikes on which they were trapped. With half of the main tank group obliterated, the surviving mages were left largely unprotected, and they scattered in every direction in order to avoid the Jotunn's haymakers.

Blasts of arcane energy lanced out from the airborne mages, and their attacks slowly picked away at the giant's remaining HP—but as Kirito raced towards the disintegrating raid, he knew that wouldn't last. There were too few of them, and nothing they did managed to interrupt the Jotunn's attacks. Over a dozen Remain Lights flickered angrily in the field, and at least half again as many players were well below half health, to the point where a single solid blow could kill. There was no cohesion anymore; Crichton had been among the casualties of the main tank group.

Kirito saw the boss begin to inhale, and knew what was coming. A trio of mages hovered just out of melee range, blasting at the mob to keep its attention while their groupmates tried desperately to heal the wounded. Kirito put on a sudden burst of speed, arms wide, and tackled two of the mages with an impact that sent them careening towards the valley wall.

An instant later, a cone of frost from the giant's breath washed across the one mage he hadn't been able to knock away, freezing him solid as his HP gauge went into the red. And that remaining life disappeared as he dropped like a rock and struck the ground below, shattering into icy fragments and leaving behind only a sickly brown Remain Light.

Kirito didn't wait for gratitude from the two he'd just saved. He took off immediately, scanning the field for any sign of the one person whose help he needed. A splash of blood-red armor showed against the snow where the Salamander he'd recognized before was crouched beside a pair of stunned players, his groupmates trying to snap the others out of it before the giant turned its attention to them.

Landing beside him, Kirito grabbed Klein by the arm. "If you want to save them, come with me now and do exactly what I say."

The Salamander player's jaw dropped. "Kirito, what—"

"Now!" And without waiting for an answer, Kirito launched himself into the air, taking only a moment to check the durability on the new sword that Lisbeth had crafted for him—a matte black longsword named «Midnight Avenger», a meter in length with several inches of serrated edge near the double crossguard. Like the metal from which it was forged, it seemed to absorb the very light around it, with only the cutting edges shining dangerously. As expected of Gnomish Carbon Steel, it was still in excellent condition—it was a durability-type metal, and he had no fears that it would fail to get him through the battle. His own health would be gone before his swords's would be.

A familiar buzzing sound came from behind him, and Kirito looked over his shoulder to see the Salamander player catching up with him, his long curved sword at the ready. "Save that," Kirito said. "And take these." He tossed a pair of blue potions back to Klein one by one; he caught them and drank one immediately, taking the hint.

A third of the raid force was dead—more than a dozen casualties in all—and most of the rest were in complete disarray, if they hadn't already fled. As Kirito and Klein flew towards the boss and veered off in opposite directions to evade a blast of frost, Kirito yelled as loud as he could. "I need you to use your strongest fire attacks! Hit it in the face every time you have a clear shot, and don't stop hitting it until you're out of MP! Don't hold back!"

His voice obviously carried well enough; he saw Klein give him a thumbs up and sheathe his sword. Arcane symbols began circling around the Salamander player, and as the Jotunn charged towards them with fists flailing, a multi-projectile barrage of flame bolts shot out and erupted directly on target.

The howls that arose then from the frost giant were like nothing they'd heard yet. No further adds burst from the snow, and the boss clapped both hands to its face as flames licked between its fingers. Kirito was already soaring towards it at top speed, and in the opening created as the giant raised its hands to protect itself from the burning, the coal-black longsword scythed across the mob's belly with a three-hit combo that noticeably reduced the red bar in the giant's gauge.

Kirito executed a swift loop as the mob's fists pounded together where he'd just been, and as soon as the giant started to inhale for another blast of frost, a series of fiery projectiles exploded against its cheek, causing its hands to fly up protectively again as it screamed in pain. Again Kirito unloaded a sword technique against the giant's unguarded belly, and the mob's red HP gauge began to flash rapidly.

"Now, Klein!" Kirito shouted. "Give it everything!"

The blue bar beneath Klein's HP gauge began to darken as it sank towards empty, and the stream of fire bolts that shot from his hands then was unceasing, every few syllables that came from the Salamander's lips causing golden symbols to spin around him and fire to rush down his arms. A wild swing from the giant grazed Kirito as he rushed in heedlessly, the blow causing his HP to hit the yellow zone. His teeth ground together as he spun in midair and swooped below the next swing.

Just as the stream of fire ceased, the angle of Kirito's wings narrowed and he shot straight up, sword glowing with a feral red light as he began to spin. Once, twice, three times the spiraling blow slashed across the mob's belly, and Kirito's rapid ascent narrowly took him past another clap of the Jotunn's hands as he completed the five-hit technique with a crosscut that opened its throat before arcing up and around to cleave straight down into its skull.

If the howls of pain and outrage provoked by the fire attacks had been intense, the screams from these final blows were nothing short of otherworldly. They didn't seem to erupt from the giant's mouth so much as reverberate within Kirito's skull, cracks in the ice radiating out in every direction from below the mob. Its death howl rose steadily to an almost ultrasonic pitch, finally taking on a distorted metallic sound as its body began to ripple and flicker.

As Kirito landed, his MP completely spent, the Jotunn toppled towards him and began to lose its texture. The surface of its body briefly flashed as a wireframe object, then exploded into a gale of blue polygons that flowed over Kirito like a tidal wave, hair and cloak whipping around him from the overpressure as he tilted his head back and closed his eyes.

Exhausted, Kirito sank to his knees, leaning his forehead against the pommel of his sword as it rested tip-down in the ice. A series of triumphant BGM notes played in his ear, and when he looked up he saw the English text «Congratulation!» hanging in the air in letters two meters tall. A «Result» window popped up in front of him, congratulating him for getting the Last Attack and awarding him with an EXP bonus and an item.

He struggled to focus his weary eyes on the window; as he did, the text sprang into clarity. The item was called «Coat of the Jotunn Lord», and even as tired as he was, he still felt a rush of excitement at the stats on it. As he heard the pounding of footsteps and the buzz and hum of approaching wings, he tapped the window to dismiss it and pushed himself up to his feet.

Turning, he saw the survivors of the near-wipe gathering around him, a mixture of astonishment, grief and anger on their faces. Klein's was not the least of those expressions, and as the Salamander landed in front of Kirito he seemed to be struggling to find words.

Kirito found his first. "Thanks, Klein. I couldn't have done that without your fire magic."

"You're thanking me?" Klein's expression rapidly shifted to incredulity. "You goddamn idiot, we should be thanking you!" Before Kirito realized what was happening, Klein had taken a few steps towards him and seized him in a bear hug, lifting him off the ground for a moment. "Seriously, man," he said as he set a stunned Kirito back down. "You saved the raid. You saved all of us."

"Not all," Kirito said solemnly as he watched the last of the Remain Lights on the field disappear. Without rez items or high-level healing magic this early in the game, hitting zero HP might as well be a death sentence.

One of the Puca mages that Kirito had saved with his mid-air tackle came up and set her hand on his arm. "You couldn't have helped them," she said. "Nobody could've. What you pulled off was… extraordinary. And I'm glad to be alive."

Kirito looked around at the general murmur of agreement that rippled through the survivors. He felt himself wanting to cry for some reason, and he turned away so that no one would have to see. "You'll be able to get through the valley now," he said quietly. "The hole the boss created when it spawned leads to a tunnel through the glacier. There's some tough mobs in there, but even with a half-strength raid group they won't be a threat."

"Um, exactly how do you know all that?" asked one of the Gnomes who'd survived the main tank group massacre.

It was a question that by this point Kirito was sick of answering or evading. Klein saved him the trouble. "This guy was a beta tester," said the Salamander. "He taught me a bunch of stuff on the first day that saved my life when everything went tits-up in Gattan."

Kirito was about to curse Klein for his big mouth when the Gnome who'd asked the question spoke. "That so?" There was a moment or two of silence, and then the tank went on. "Well, we were damned lucky to have you here. Thanks."

For once, Kirito was grateful for the freezing temperatures of the north. They turned his tears into ice crystals on his cheeks, and the wind swept them away before anyone could see.

Asuna wasn't sure why Diavel had summoned both her and Yuuki to his office. They hadn't had any further conflicts with prejudiced players in their faction, they hadn't broken any rules… as far as she knew, they hadn't done anything at all to put themselves on his radar. If anything, they'd been model citizens—she and Yuuki had fought off a Salamander/Imp raiding party, and had been devoting all their time to leveling up.

Usually when he wanted to talk to them about their studies or progress he'd simply come to the inn and sit down with them for a meal. It made her think of the last time she'd been called to his office like this—the time when she'd fought with another Undine player named Gaitner in order to defend that Spriggan boy, an encounter which had ended with her storming out of Diavel's office in anger.

If he had in mind another lecture like that for her, he was going to get a piece of her mind.

She and Yuuki touched down in the courtyard of the castle and trotted to a stop, careful not to slip on the wet flagstone. It had been pouring rain for the last few days, and while that didn't seem to be unusual weather here on the eastern coast of Alfheim, it still left all of the bare stone surfaces in the city slippery. It amused her on some level—for a race that supposedly had an innate affinity for water, she would've expected better civic design.

Maybe they just expected everyone to fly everywhere. It wasn't the worst theory. But flying in the rain could get unpleasant, and she was just as happy to get back on solid ground and get out of the inclement weather once she passed through the enormous gates and into the castle interior. She was cold and wet, but the inside of the castle was lit with countless braziers that heated the air and kept it at a comfortable temperature. As she passed by them on the way to Diavel's office, she wondered whether they ever went out. Was there an NPC whose entire raison d'etre was to make the rounds in the castle and keep them fueled? She'd never seen one if there was.

A prod in her side yanked her attention back to her surroundings. Yuuki smiled up at her. "Where were you?"

"Just thinking," Asuna answered unhelpfully, which drew another almost-ticklish prod from the girl. "Nothing important, just thinking about how strange this world is… how with some things it seems like they went above and beyond to make it so realistic, but so artificial in other ways at the same time."

Yuuki hummed thoughtfully as if she understood. Perhaps she did; she seemed to be a smart girl. "I think I get what you're saying," she said, holding out her arm. "Like my skin. It feels right when I touch stuff, and it looks like skin if you don't look too closely. But it's like there's something missing."

"Hair," Asuna said immediately. She'd noticed the same flaw in the simulation. "The little tiny hairs on everyone's arms; we don't have them there. Or anywhere else. And if you look really closely, you can tell that the texture is… wrong. Like all the little wrinkles and pores and stuff… they're there, but it's like they're drawn on you."

"That's it exactly," Yuuki said, favoring Asuna with another bright smile that just made her melt. "You're so smart, Asuna."

Asuna laughed. "Not that smart. It's just… kind of hard not to notice the little things sometimes."

They had to cut off that train of thought there, as they found themselves in front of the entrance to Diavel's office. His voice called them in as soon as they knocked, and Asuna was relieved to see that he seemed to be in a good mood—he was smiling, and he gestured them both towards a pair of plush chairs in front of his desk.

"Asuna, Yuuki," he said in greeting. "How are you holding up?"

"It's not really a question of 'holding up' anymore, Diavel," said Asuna, feeling a twinge of defensiveness rise in her again. Somehow he seemed to be really good at bringing that out in her. "We've been going out every day and… what's the word? Grinding. Earning lots of EXP." She lifted her chin proudly. "We're almost level 11 now."

Diavel nodded, his smile broadening a bit. "I know," he said. "I can see the levels of all my faction members in the leadership interface. That's actually why I called you here today."

A look of plain surprise took over Asuna's face. "It is?" she asked. "I… well, what do you want from us?"

Before answering, Diavel sat back in his chair, fingers laced in front of him as he regarded them both. "You might have heard the rumors by now. An alliance of Gnomes, Leprechauns and Puca—I guess they're calling themselves the Northern Crafting Combine now—broke through the boss in the Valley of Giants a week ago, albeit with heavy losses. The Cait Sith weren't far behind in clearing the Valley of Butterflies. For reasons I don't quite understand, the Salamanders haven't made a move on the Valley of Dragons yet; they're easily strong enough."

Diavel paused, and looked Asuna meaningfully in the eyes. "We're going to make our play for the Valley of Rainbows in a few days—on November 30th, to be exact. I want the two of you to be there for it."

Asuna sucked in a breath sharply, and heard Yuuki do the same beside her. This was the very last thing she'd expected to hear. "I… well… do you think we're ready for that? I mean, do you really think we're strong enough?"

Diavel almost looked amused. "You don't know, do you?" Since Asuna didn't even know what it was that she didn't know, she shook her head. "You and Yuuki are among the top twenty players in the faction, level-wise. You've been out there every single day, working harder than anyone except the clearers. And if you don't count the actual clearing groups, you're both easily in the top three. You're not only ready for it... we need you."

Asuna was too shocked to speak; she felt Yuuki's hand grab hers. When neither of them said anything, Diavel went on. "Do you want to be clearers?"

"Yes!" they both said at once, looking at each other.

Diavel came to his feet then and clapped his hands once. "Then it's settled. Report to Jahala first thing tomorrow morning. You're going to be part of a raid… do you know what that is?"

Asuna had heard the term before. "A lot of players working together?"

"That's more or less it," Diavel said with a nod. "Think of it like a platoon of soldiers. Players divide up into groups of six, each with a group leader; they in turn are all under the command of a single raid leader. Groups have roles in the raid, and they're expected to know those roles and stick to the plan in order to keep everyone alive and ensure the raid's success."

It sounded overwhelmingly complicated. Asuna was glad that she wasn't the one in charge of planning and leading this raid; she wasn't any kind of strategist or leader. "Okay," she said. "Anything else we need to know?"

Diavel laughed. "Plenty. But don't worry, that's why I'm putting you directly under Jahala. He'll work closely with you over the next few days and make sure you know your role and what you need to do to fulfill it. We need time to assemble all of the teams anyway; we're short on clearers for this raid so we're going to be hiring some Spriggan mercenaries to fill in the gaps."

The mention of Spriggan mercenaries immediately brought to mind that one boy, Kirito. Would he be among them? She wasn't sure what she thought of that—he was a pain in the ass and a loner; she doubted he could be counted on to follow instructions. It was just as well that he'd gone north and hadn't come back.


The soft voice drew her out of her thoughts again, and Asuna felt a squeeze on her hand. She smiled and squeezed back. "It's nothing. But hey, did you hear that? This is our big chance, you and I."

Yuuki grinned at her and practically bounced in her chair. "We're gonna be clearers! We're gonna fly into the Valley of Rainbows and kick some butt! And get lots of cool stuff!"

The girl's good cheer was infectious. Diavel smiled at her and then turned to Asuna. "Very well then, that's all. Why don't the two of you take the rest of the day off and rest? You're going to be quite busy enough starting tomorrow, and you'll need every bit of your strength for the upcoming raid."

Asuna knew good advice when she heard it. She and Yuuki both came to their feet, bowed as one, and took their leave.

The two of them could hardly contain themselves on their way back to the inn. It felt like all of their hard work, all of those long, exhausting hours of grinding, had paid off. It was such a little thing, really… just a name. Clearers. It wasn't as if it gave them any gameplay advantage, or any special privileges. It wasn't even an official title of any kind. It just meant that they had a job to do, and it was really the same job that they were already doing for their daily routine. The only thing that was different was the name, and the fact that they'd be training to participate in this raid thing with a bunch of other players like them.

The prospect was exciting… and a bit scary, if she was honest with herself. As she looked down at the little girl beside her, Asuna felt a sudden pang of worry. What had she gotten Yuuki into? She was a twelve year old girl, and here Asuna was prepared to take her into a massive battle with a powerful boss where they both stood a very good chance of dying. The thought made her feel incredibly ashamed, as if she'd somehow taken advantage of the girl's enthusiasm and gotten her in over her head.

Then Yuuki caught her staring, and grinned up at her. With one blindingly swift motion she whipped the weapon from the scabbard on her back and executed a sword skill at the open air, dealing a crushing defeat to the cobblestone pathway in front of them and causing an «Immortal Object» message to briefly flare up at the point of impact. Yuuki bounced back, flourished the sword and smoothly sheathed it again, grinning fiercely up at Asuna and bowing as if to an audience.

Asuna couldn't help but laugh as she grabbed Yuuki by the shoulders and hugged her. She was a little girl, yes. Asuna herself wasn't more than a few years older. And the thought of bringing her into the kind of danger they faced filled her with a protective urge that surprised her with its ferocity. But at some point in the past several weeks, at some point during all of their practice and studies and the daily grind of combat, this little girl had become something more than that, too.

She'd become a warrior.

Chapter Text

"While player avatars do not breathe, per se, it is still possible to die from «Drowning» status when not under the influence of a «Water Breathing» effect. Undine characters have «Water Breathing» as a passive racial ability; all other races have a «breath meter» which decreases as long as the character is underwater, and which replenishes once they surface. If the «breath meter» depletes entirely, the character will enter «Drowning» status and begin rapidly losing HP as long as they remain underwater…"
Alfheim Online Manual, «Swimming and Drowning»

27 November ~ 1 December 2022
Day 22 - Morning

Nearly all the time that Asuna and Yuuki had spent together since being trapped in ALO had been spent solely as a pair, becoming accustomed to each other's rhythms and roles in combat to the point where it was almost second nature to them. They fought extremely well together, cohesively enough that they drew praise at first from Jahala for their skill.

But none of that had prepared them for the intensive crash course they received over the next several days in how to fight as part of a group.

Yuuki, being used to tanking most of their fights while Asuna healed her, had to learn the hard way that Jahala regarded her skill set as more suited to a role he called DPS—which they learned was an English gaming acronym that meant Damage Per Second. In other words, her role in the battle was to focus purely on dealing out damage… but to do so when and where it was needed, not to simply charge in and flail away at the mob until it died. Doing so in a group against difficult mobs was a surefire way to draw aggro in a hurry.

Asuna, on the other hand, was even more annoyed to find that Jahala considered her role to be that of a healer—which meant that she wasn't supposed to be a damage dealer at all; she was supposed to hang back behind the tanks and DPS and be ready to heal on a moment's notice. She liked fighting with her rapier, and she felt useless for half the fight simply sitting back and doing nothing.

But although weapon skills used very little MP compared to magic, they still used some—and any that she used up attacking was MP that she didn't have available to heal. And once they started venturing out in a full group, she quickly learned exactly why this was so important.

She and Yuuki were almost always fighting solo field mobs—opponents that were intended to be taken on by solo players who weren't part of a group. This meant that they could usually fight mobs that were a little higher level than them, but it also meant that they had never truly been challenged.

That changed once Jahala began leading them into dungeons as part of a full group of six.

When Asuna first heard the word "dungeon", the thoughts that came to mind were of dark prison cells beneath a castle, beds of straw with rats in them, and devices of torture that didn't bear description. Instead, she learned that in MMORPGs the term referred generally to any kind of self-contained area—usually indoors or underground—with monsters and scenery in a more or less consistent style. More to the point, she learned that dungeons were hard—they were usually intended to be tackled by a group, or in some cases by a raid composed of two or more groups.

They began with clearing some of the popular lower-level dungeons in the immediate area around Parasel, using them to work on Asuna and Yuuki's teamwork skills and get them used to their combat roles. Once Jahala was satisfied with their progress, the next day took them into progressively harder dungeons which required Asuna to focus all of her efforts on healing, and which kept Yuuki and her aggressive fighting style on a short leash. By the end of it they were both more exhausted than they had ever been from a day out together, and they fell asleep almost immediately upon returning to their inn room and collapsing onto their bed.

But that was nothing compared to the third day when Jahala brought in a second group to go out with them. Now it wasn't just the individuals in their group who had roles—each group had their own role; the one in which she and Yuuki found themselves was what Jahala called a DPS group—and it turned out to be exactly what it sounded like. While the tanks in Jahala's group focused on holding the attention of a mob and "turning" it so that any of its frontal attacks wouldn't threaten the others, the DPS group stayed behind the mob and focused on doing nothing but burning it down.

Ironically, the shift in tactics meant that Asuna could actually come in and attack with Yuuki—she just had to be ready to heal on a moment's notice, and she mostly used regular attacks rather than MP-draining techniques. Some of the named mobs and mini-bosses they faced in the raid dungeon they visited required more complex approaches, dashing in and DPSing for a fixed period of time and then retreating out of range whenever the cooldown timer on a mob's AOE ability meant that it was no longer safe to be close to it.

By day's end, they both had a much greater appreciation for the complexities and subtleties of fighting as part of a raid group—and a healthy bit of apprehension for the kind of challenges that faced them when they had to fight not as one of two groups, but as one of six or more with dozens of moving parts all trying to coordinate their actions.

When the fourth day dawned, they were as ready as they were ever going to be.

The raid rendezvous wasn't until noon; the two of them had the luxury of taking their time with breakfast, and without the necessity of scouring their maps or worrying about planning. In a way, it was liberating—someone was doing all of that for them now. They'd allowed themselves to sleep in, recovering from the past days of intense training, and they were both all smiles and jokes as they finished their meal.

The only thing that remained was a trip to the market to check for any last-minute gear upgrades and to get all of their equipment repaired to full. Once done, they sent a message to Jahala to let him know they were ready, and headed out to wait just inside the outer gates of Parasel.

Diavel was there waiting for them with Jahala, hands clasped behind his back as the two conversed quietly. Asuna was surprised—certainly Diavel couldn't be planning on coming along on the raid. He'd had almost no opportunity to spend time leveling up in the past month, and it would've been foolish in the extreme for him to expose himself—and the entire faction, for that matter—to risk like that.

But as it turned out, that wasn't why he was there. When he caught sight of her and Yuuki, his smile widened and he waved them over. "I thought I'd see the two of you off," he explained. For a moment he just looked at them one by one, and then he took a deep breath and sighed before reaching out and putting one hand on each of their shoulders. "You've both come so amazingly far since I first met you. From frightened children who'd never played an MMO before, to two of the finest warriors in this faction—possibly in the game. Jahala swears that the two of you are among the quickest learners he's ever seen. I'm incredibly proud of you both. I know you'll do an incredible job out there today."

For once, Asuna couldn't find it in herself to be annoyed at the way that Diavel condescended to her without even realizing it. His praise was sincere, and she took it at face value, nodding at his words. "Thank you, Diavel," she said at last. "We'll do our best. We'll clear the valley boss and come back with a victory for all of us."

"You do just that." As his hands dropped to his sides, he turned to Jahala. "They're all yours. It's about time you got going."

After Jahala sent them both a party invite, they turned to leave, translucent blue wings materializing on their backs and humming into life. As they rose into the air, Diavel called after them one last time. "Asuna!"

She halted her ascent, gracefully spinning in the air and looking down at her leader with a questioning expression.

"Come back victorious, both of you," Diavel called out, his face serious now. "But above all… come back."

Something passed between them then, something that Asuna couldn't quite describe. She didn't try—she had too many other things to think about. She simply nodded once, and kicked her legs in a flip as she reoriented herself in the direction of the Valley of Rainbows.

It took over an hour for them to make their way to the valley, stopping to rest their wings around twice per hour—and it would've taken far longer if so many other groups hadn't already passed through on their way there, leaving very little need to clear hostile mobs as they went. At last their flight carried them up and over the waterfalls at the edge of the valley, and with a growing sense of excited anticipation they wove their way through the mouth of the valley towards a large collection of players they could see in the distance, all of them gathered on the shores of the rivers that poured through the valley.

They weren't the last group to arrive, but as soon as they did, Jahala began breaking up some of the pre-existing groups and rearranging players. He himself was in the main tank group, although he wasn't the MT himself—as the raid leader, he needed to be close to the thick of things in order to call out instructions as needed. Yuuki and Asuna he assigned to a group he called Melee DPS B; with Asuna as the healer it brought their group to five players, the other three being a pair of Undine men with massive two-handed swords and a third with a short sword and buckler.

She was about to ask Jahala why there were only five players in their group when he introduced their sixth.

"You have got to be kidding me," Asuna said with an immediate surge of annoyance which bordered on outrage, arms folded under her bust and thunderclouds gathering on her face. The Spriggan was wearing an elaborate black trenchcoat that he hadn't had before, and the grip of the sword sticking up at an angle from his right shoulder seemed different, but his messy hair and delicate features were not likely to slip her mind anytime soon.

Kirito blinked in confusion at her reaction, looked over at Jahala, and then back at Asuna. He seemed a little uncomfortable as he rubbed at the back of his neck. "Oh, I remember you. You're the girl I saved from that mirefrog that one time. Asuna, wasn't it?"

"As I recall," she said tartly, "the last time we met it was me saving you. Or had you forgotten?"

"That's right," Jahala said as he tried and failed to hide his amusement, taking a step back so that he wasn't between them. "I forgot you two were acquainted. Is there going to be a problem?"

"He's a jerk!" Asuna said, for lack of anything more concrete to pin on him.

"Is she actually going to heal me?" Kirito said as he gave her a slightly worried look.

"If you're lucky," Asuna shot back, her eyes flashing. She could feel Yuuki's hand on her arm, but she wasn't feeling especially charitable or inclined to back down at the moment.

Jahala gave them one more look and then shrugged. "Well, the other groups are already set. You two are going to have to work this out." His eyes flicked upwards towards where the clock in his HUD would be. "And I suggest you do it soon."

As the raid leader walked away, Asuna found herself in a staring contest with the young Spriggan boy. His expression was somewhat thoughtful as he met her eyes, as if he didn't quite understand why she was so annoyed at him and was trying to sort it out in his head. Finally she turned away, arms still folded, and eyed him sidewise. "Try not to get hurt; I don't want to have to use up all my MP on you."

Much to her irritation, Kirito simply smiled. "Don't worry about me. I'll be fine."

"I am not worried about you," Asuna said. "I'm worried about the others in the group who might need the heals more."

Kirito nodded as if what she'd said made perfect sense. "Well then." He walked away without another word, seating himself on a rock and drawing his sword, which he laid across his lap and began to examine. She noticed Yuuki staring at it covetously, and Asuna had to admit that it really was a beautiful weapon.

Once again, she caught herself thinking one of those thoughts that made her stop and almost laugh at herself, at what she'd become. But there was no dissonance in the thought now—it was amusing in an ironic sort of way, but it no longer made her feel displaced somehow, like she'd found herself living in someone else's body, someone else's life.

It had been nearly a month that they'd been trapped in this world. She counted the days; twenty-five since the launch of this death game. By this point there was simply no question in anyone's mind that they were going to be trapped in here until the conditions of the game were cleared—it was, as Kayaba had intended, their new reality.

Asuna realized, as she thought it over, that this was simply who she was, now. Not Asuna Yuuki, a middle school student who got excellent marks and never had time for video games. Not Asuna Yuuki, a frightened girl imprisoned in a dangerous world she couldn't cope with or comprehend.

Now she was simply Asuna: Undine healer, swordswoman… clearer.

And the more she thought about it, the more she thought that perhaps that was just fine with her.

The raid group lined up along the eastern edge of a broad lake halfway through the mountains, forty-two players in groups of six. The main tank group stood to one side of the river that flowed eastwards out of the lake, three groups lining the shore to either side in a crescent shape that partially encircled that end of the lake. The time had come to cast buffs and make any last-minute preparations, and Kirito spent the time sitting placidly atop a large mossy rock near his group, conserving his energy and rehashing what he knew about the boss they were about to face.

He'd already repaired all of his equipment in town, he was stocked on potions, and he even had a single precious healing crystal that had dropped from a named mob on his way back from the northern valley raid. That crystal would restore his health to full instantly; it was an extremely rare drop anywhere outside of Yggdrasil, and uncommon even there. If it came down to it, if he really needed healing that badly… the option was there.

The thought drew his eyes to the Undine girl he'd clashed with earlier. He really wasn't sure what her problem with him was. As far as he was concerned, he'd saved her and she'd saved him—they'd each done the other a good turn, and neither owed the other anything. So why did she hate him so much?

He didn't seriously think she'd refuse to heal him. She didn't strike him as that kind of person, regardless of what she might say in the heat of anger. But whatever was putting sand in her waistband, Kirito would've greatly appreciated it if she'd sort it out and deal with it.

As if sensing either his thoughts or his gaze, Asuna turned and looked sharply up at him. Caught looking, he turned his eyes to the lake in front of him, thick fog clinging to the surface of the water and making it seem almost as if it was an ocean of clouds. He knew what was lurking beneath that water, and it was going to be a tough fight.

He hoped this raid group was up to it.

Some signal passed from the main tank group to the melee DPS groups to either side; Kirito heard the group leaders calling for everyone to form up. He slid off the edge of the rock, his wings thrumming very briefly to slow his fall as he landed in a crouch. The overlapping sounds of chanted arcane syllables resolved into light in a variety of colors cascading down across the main tank as his group buffed him, and without any further delay the tank took to the air and shot across the lake.

A cry rang out from Jahala, standing in the center of the MT group. "Incoming!" That yell was passed along the shore, spreading to either side until it reached the ranged DPS groups on the ends.

They didn't have to wait long. The lake seemed to swell, the fog spilling away from a mound of water that pushed its way up from the depths; waves more than two meters high rippled outwards from the disturbance and crashed against the shore. Then the massive bubble seemed to burst, water cascading away from a dark form that uncoiled and announced its defiance in a shriek that split the air like the roar of a jet engine.

As one the melee DPS groups rose into the air, the valley walls reverberating with the sound of dozens of wings while the gigantic water serpent «Leviathanatos» surged towards the eastern shore, chasing after the tank as the player "pulled" the boss towards the main body of the raid.

The strategy for Leviathanatos in the beta had been a relatively straightforward one: a single main tank group to hold the mob's hate, with melee DPS surrounding it on either sides and burning it as hard as they could, wherever they could reach exposed flesh.

The main complication was the array of thin suckered tentacles lining the serpent's flanks on either side at intervals of every few meters; these would seize any character who came too close to its sides, beat them against its back to stun them, then attempt to drown them. The top priority of the ranged DPS groups was to destroy these tentacles, allowing the melee DPS to close in and burn the boss down.

Projectiles—arcane and otherwise—lanced out from either shore, aimed for the base of the tentacles where they moved less and were easier to hit. Kirito grunted with approval as he saw the mages and archers open with their homing attacks; it would cost them a lot of MP, but far less than they'd likely waste by firing and missing.

Several of the tentacles on the flank facing Kirito fell into the water, trailing streamers of glowing red light from the severed ends. Immediately his group launched into action, closing the distance at top speed and unloading weapon techniques in a flurry of multicolored light. Kirito found himself fighting side by side with the Imp girl who otherwise never seemed to leave Asuna's side—Yuuki, she'd called the girl—their longswords flashing and cleaving great red welts into the serpent's scaly hide. For all her youth, he wondered if she'd been in the beta; she moved like someone who felt perfectly at home in this world, and the speed at which she dealt out damage was easily his own equal.

Kirito kept glancing at the HP bars above the head of the boss, watching the green of the first one turn to yellow, and then finally to red. He was already zipping quickly backwards when the call to pull back rang out.

He knew what to expect, but it was still a stunning sight when Leviathanatos reacted to the loss of its first HP bar by whipping its head around in a complete circle, a blast of corrosive mist spraying out in all directions and doing serious damage to anyone who hadn't gotten far enough away. Kirito saw healing energy cascade over one of the Undine swordsmen in his own group who'd been one of the unlucky ones, and turned to see Asuna's face twisted in intense concentration as she finished the spell.

The spiraling AOE attack ended when the serpent's head sank beneath the churning water for a few moments; at that point inexperienced players might erroneously think they'd defeated it. But before long the wedge-shaped head burst forth once again, and as it reared into the air again everyone could see that the tentacles had regenerated.

This began the cycle again: ranged DPS groups, having taken the opportunity to recover their MP, erupted with a fusillade of attacks that made even quicker work of most of the dangerous appendages, and once again he and Yuuki rocketed back into melee range to continue their assault.

But this time, Kirito knew, the attack patterns would change. During the first phase, Leviathanatos had been content to focus its hate entirely on the main tank group. Now it became much more difficult to avoid pulling aggro; Kirito had to pace his attacks and avoid overdoing it. He saw the others in his group doing the same, and allowed himself a smile; they'd paid attention during the briefing.

Someone in the other melee DPS group hadn't; he went all-out in an unrelenting attack that ended with the serpent's neck twisting until it seized the player in its great jaws. Leviathanatos shook its head viciously from side to side, and only an intense blast of fire magic against the beast's throat from one of the Spriggan mercenaries got it to release its prey. Kirito shook his head as he watched the player desperately try to retreat towards a healer, his HP in the red.

Other than those minor incidents, the second phase passed as smoothly as the first; when the second HP bar reached the red, everyone retreated out of range and let the ranged DPS groups burn it down the rest of the way until the bar shattered and disappeared, leaving only one remaining. Again, Leviathanatos reacted to this outrage with an area attack, this time rising a considerable distance out of the water and using the length of its neck to extend the range of the AOE.

Unfortunately, the main tank group was within that extended range. Fortunately, the mages had been ready with buffs that shielded most of the group from the blast, and a gale-force blast of Wind magic swept past them and parted the searing fog safely to either side of the MT group. The single exception was one of those very mages, who'd been hovering just a little too far off to one side to be fully protected. Already damaged, the acidic breath scoured away the last of his HP, and with a cut-off shout of surprise he burst into blue flames.

Kirito began to grimace as he witnessed the first death of the raid, a raid with a strategy so easy to execute that there was no good reason for there to be any casualties. Then, to his surprise, one of the two healers in the MT group peeled off and raced towards his companion's Remain Light, a lengthy and complicated series of symbols coalescing around him as he chanted a complex spell. A fine blue mist flowed out of the caster's robes and merged with the Remain Light, a translucent blue phoenix shape rising out of it and reforming into the player who'd nearly perished.

Resurrection magic. You needed Water magic at a skill level of 500 to cast even the weakest and most basic rez spell, a sacrifice that exchanged half of the caster's MP and HP in order to bring the target back with one single hit point. As Leviathanatos burst from the water once again, its tentacles regenerated, the other healer in the MT group immediately began healing both players—expending most of his MP in the process.

Kirito had no time to be astonished that someone had actually managed to grind their skill level that high in less than a month, even with the Undine racial advantage; it was enough to know that at least one person in the raid could rez. As soon as enough of the tentacles had been blasted off to give his group a hole in the defenses, Kirito raced back in with Yuuki and resumed their assault.

This time Kirito and Yuuki paced themselves by taking turns, zooming in to execute a multi-hit technique and then back out to give the other an opening, grinning at each other as they passed. It was going well enough until Yuuki seemed to get a bit carried away with trying to outdo Kirito; she blasted the mob's flank with a five-hit combo and then gave it a single spinning slash as she turned to pull back.

It was a little too much for Leviathanatos to ignore. Its head twisted around and it lunged at Yuuki, forcing her to shoot rapidly backwards in order to evade the bite. The maneuver got her out of the way… and within range of one of the intact tentacles. It lashed out with terrifying speed, wrapping around her and slamming her repeatedly against the hardened scales at the crest of its back. After the final blow, it dragged the stunned girl beneath the water and did not come up.

It took Kirito a moment to realize that the horrific scream he heard then came not from the throat of Leviathanatos, but from one of the players behind him. Asuna shot towards where Yuuki had disappeared into the water, abandoning the group entirely. Kirito tried to shout a warning, but before he could get the words out the suckered appendage lunged back out of the water and wrapped itself around Asuna's ankle, proceeding to deal with her in the same manner it had Yuuki.

As he watched the mob batter the Undine girl against its back, Kirito flew in an accelerating ballistic arc to build up altitude and speed, and then folded his wings against his back as he drove himself straight down into the water where both players had disappeared.

The water enveloped him like a cold, wet blanket, muffling the sounds of the battle above and cutting visibility. He could vaguely see a shadowed form in the shape of a player, and he swam towards them until he saw that it was Yuuki, her HP down to the red and still dropping due to Drowning status.

Wrapping an arm around her midriff, Kirito kicked as hard as he could until he broke the surface, his own breath meter nearly gone. The precious healing crystal was in his free hand before he could think about it, and as soon as he could speak again he sputtered out, "Heal!" The crystal shattered with a sound like glass, and red light flowed over Yuuki, bringing her instantly back to full.

The girl's stun seemed to be wearing off, and although she was still disoriented from the experience, she began to awkwardly tread water. "I'm going after her," Kirito said. "Get to shore!" Without waiting for an answer, he dove again just as a barrage of projectiles destroyed the tentacle that was preparing to snatch one of them.

Visibility was still minimal under the murky surface, and there was no sign of Asuna. For all he knew, she was already dead and all he would find was her Remain Light—if that much. He knew she couldn't have drowned; Undines had no breath meters and could "breathe" underwater indefinitely. The same was not true for him, and as he searched and searched, not knowing if he was just going in circles, he watched his breath meter flash as it depleted completely. A status icon appeared by his HP gauge while his life began to tick down, and just when he saw his HP go into the yellow zone he caught sight of a faint shape in the depths.

When he breached the surface again, Asuna's stunned form was draped over his back, both of their HP gauges deep in the yellow. It was just in time to hear an unearthly shriek as someone dealt the final blow to Leviathanatos, causing it to erupt into blue polygons which rained down around them.

As Kirito swam towards the shore, he felt Asuna begin to stir from her stun status, and was uncomfortably aware of the way she was pressed against his back. After a few moments she stiffened; he saw one of her hands form into a fist.

"Please don't," Kirito said wearily.

Asuna stuttered for a moment, and then her voice turned anguished as she yelled out. "Yuuki! What—"

"She's safe," Kirito said as he felt his feet touch the solid ground in the shallows. He stood as Asuna slipped off of his back and looked frantically around, spotting Yuuki sitting on the shore near them in the midst of a bunch of other recovering players. She still looked disoriented, but when she and Asuna caught sight of each other she bounded to her feet, colliding with Asuna in a fierce hug as tears streamed down their faces.

Kirito turned away awkwardly, sitting down on a nearby rock and taking off his boots one at a time to empty them of water. His coat felt like it had doubled his body weight, and if he'd known he was going to go swimming he might've considered unequipping it despite the loss of stats. He did so now, and felt enormous relief at the disappearance of the waterlogged weight from his shoulders.

When he looked up, he saw Asuna and Yuuki approaching him. For a time no one spoke, and from her conflicted expression Kirito wasn't sure if the Undine girl was going to thank him or slap him. They looked at each other wordlessly, each seemingly waiting for the other to say something.

Yuuki was the first to break the silence, looking up at the older girl. "He saved me first," she said. "I was gonna drown."

Kirito had no idea what was going through Asuna's head at that moment, or how she would react to it. Would she be angry that he'd gone after the other girl first? His uncertainty persisted until she stepped forward and shocked him by leaning over and putting her arms around him, hugging him briefly.

He was still too stunned to speak when she finally stepped back and addressed him. "Thank you," she said quietly, before taking Yuuki's hand and walking away.

"Let's go over this again," Argo said.

The Salamander player sitting directly across from her groaned and palmed his face as he leaned back on the pillow where he sat. He seemed to have been expecting a chair back to stop him; he leaned too far and tipped over backwards with a distinct lack of grace. Argo rolled her eyes as he pushed himself back up to a sitting position and complained. "Seriously? Do we have to?"

"Nah," Argo said with an annoyed flick of her tail. "I'll be happy to send you off on this mission completely half-assed, not knowing whether or not you've gotten the plan through your thick skull well enough that it stays there. So like I said, let's go over it again."

Klein gave her the kind of look that suggested he was considering getting up and stomping on her tail to see what kind of noise she'd make. Argo looked back at him evenly, unblinkingly, until he sighed. "Fine, fine," he said, waving at the air. "I'm going southeast with your people as far as the border with the Sylphs. There we're going to meet this Sylph contact of yours, who's going to escort me and Eugene through their territory without getting our asses kicked. Once we get close to the Salamander border I'm going to make a beeline for Gattan while he waits there."

"Good so far," Argo said after popping a piece of candy into her mouth. "Keep going."

"Once I'm in the city, I'm to send word to you and then lay low until Kibaou leaves the city with the raid group, then—" Klein paused, giving Argo a confused look. "I don't get it… why do you think Kibaou is even going out with the raid? He's a faction leader. It's not like he's had time to go out leveling up. He'd be an idiot to expose himself like that."

The rock candy crunched in Argo's mouth as she looked right back at Klein. "Kibaou is an idiot," she said acidly. "And he's desperate. His hold on the Salamanders is crumbling, their war's been at a stalemate for weeks, and he's gotta deliver them a huge win in the next few days before the leadership vote. More to the point, he's gotta be seen there, being a part of it." She paused, considering whether or not the next piece of information was relevant. "And he has been leveling up. He's been going out every day in secret with his most trusted flunkies."

It was a detail Argo wished she'd known weeks ago. Corvatz had let it slip in passing during a recent exchange, and if she'd known that earlier, she could've traded or sold the info to Skarrip and possibly gotten the Sylphs to take him out. It was a bit late now; Kibaou was too busy with raid preparations to be sneaking out to grind.

Klein certainly seemed to be surprised by it, but aside from a bit of open-mouthed goggling he didn't comment further. At Argo's prodding, he went on.

"Okay, anyway, once Kibaou takes off with the raid group, I send a message to Eugene, and he checks the map in his friends list to find out where they're currently keeping Mort. Are they seriously moving him every single day?"

"Yes," Argo said tersely.

"And what then? They'll have him under guard, you know. Springing him'll take a miracle. You have a plan for that?"

Argo smirked, one of her ears giving an amused twitch. "Do you know who you're talking to?"

"A catgirl with an attitude problem," Klein replied.

Argo rolled her eyes once again. "Says the hired muscle with the feather duster eyebrows." Before Klein could explode, she barreled onward. "Save it; we don't have time for this. Thelvin'll have a package for you, and he'll explain that part. The important thing is, once you've got Mort, you get the hell outta there. Don't even bother with the streets; just take off the second you're in open air and fly west as fast as you can. Soon as you're outta the city, get word to Eugene and he'll challenge Kibaou. Got it?"

"Got it," Klein said, frowning.

"Good," Argo said as she came to her feet. "Now get going. I've got business to deal with, and you've got someone to meet at the gates."

When the Salamander had left, Argo rubbed at her temples to try to stave off the headache she felt coming on, and was not at all surprised when the trick that worked in the real world had no effect on her avatar. Over a dozen incoming messages had piled up while she was dealing with Klein, some of them quite important—and it took her a considerable amount of time to deal with them all, particularly since she started receiving replies to the first messages she sent out before she was done with the ones still in queue. It was the better part of half an hour before she had a moment's peace, and she took advantage of the lull to think over the wording of the final message she had to write.

Strictly speaking, it didn't have to be dealt with right then. She actually had no intention of sending it right away—but she wanted the draft to be saved and ready to send on a moment's notice once Klein reached Gattan. After playing out the message in her head, her lips moving silently as she carefully thought through every single word and made adjustments until it was exactly the way she wanted, she re-opened her menu and started typing.

「It's time, Corvatz. I just got word that the Undines have successfully raided the Valley of Rainbows. Your boys are clear to hit the last valley boss.」

She looked it over one last time; even though she could always see words in her head as if they were on paper in front of her, there was always something intangibly different about seeing them written in reality. Satisfied at last, she saved the draft and closed the window.

Now all that remained was to wait.

As soon as Klein left the apartment, a Cait Sith who'd been waiting patiently outside fell into step with him. The man was quite large—easily one of the largest Cait Sith he'd met, a man with jet black hair who stood about as tall as Eugene, but wasn't quite as massive despite the plate armor that encased his avatar.

"You got your plan all sorted out?" Thelvin asked.

Klein bristled. "Why does everyone here assume I'm stupid?"

Thelvin seemed unruffled. "I don't," he said as they turned down the main street towards the front gates. "And I owe you for saving us back then, and I appreciate you coming back with your friends to help us take down Fellrach. But considering the stakes we're dealing with now, I don't feel like leaving anything to chance." He glanced sidewise at Klein. "Fair?"

Klein nodded reluctantly. "Fair," he said. "Is it just us?"

"That's right," Thelvin replied. "The two of us alone will travel faster than we will with anyone else along. I have a group out clearing us a path between here and the Ancient Forest, so we shouldn't have to stop to fight except for maybe a few stray repops. I'll get you as far as Sylph territory, and from there we've arranged for a few of them to escort you—"

"I know," Klein said. "It still blows my mind that they're willing to do that."

Thelvin laughed sharply. "For a chance to throw a wrench in Kibaou's plans, and maybe even take him out?"

Klein had to grin at that and cede the point. "Never mind. So was it Argo who set that up, or Alicia?"

"Yes," Thelvin said, with an answering grin of his own. "Argo set up the contact, but Alicia did the diplomatic footwork. There's more than one reason she's been so busy."

"Not too busy to come and see you guys off," came a familiar voice as they prepared to take to the air. Klein turned to see their subject of conversation leaning against the wall of one of the watchtowers on either side of the city gates, a lopsided smile quirking her face. Alicia pushed herself off and strolled towards the two of them, crossing her arms before her.

"What, you thought you were getting out of here without saying goodbye?"

Klein searched his mind for something witty to say, something that might salvage the situation. He looked at Thelvin, who arched his eyebrows as if to tell Klein that he was on his own. Glancing back down at Alicia, he laughed nervously and started to stammer. "Uh, no, I just thought that since we need to get going as soon as possible, and you've been really busy—"

He didn't get to finish his sentence before Alicia reached up and grabbed him by the upper rim of his breastplate, yanking him down and crushing her lips against his. Klein made a strangled noise of surprise and opened his mouth to protest, which she took for an invitation to deepen the kiss as she reached up with her other hand and wove her fingers into his hair, pulling him closer.

Klein wasn't quite sure how long they were like that, but he was fairly certain that the snicker he distantly heard came from Thelvin. When she finally released him, it took him a moment to straighten his posture and get around to fixing his bandana. Alicia wore the smug expression of the cat who'd stolen the cream.

"You're coming back, right?" she said, wiggling her ears in a way that she had to know was devastatingly cute.

"Well, I mean, the rest of my guys are staying here, I kinda have—"

When Klein saw the look on Alicia's face, he hastily extracted his foot from his mouth and put it to good use scuffing at the ground. "I mean, among other things… absolutely, coming back here. Totally."

The smugness returned to Alicia's face and she nodded, satisfied. "You do that," she said, whistling as she walked away.

Klein blinked once, twice, his mind still spinning as he tried to figure out if that had really just happened. When he glanced over at Thelvin, the taller man was covering his mouth, laughter in his eyes.

"Shut up," Klein said as he summoned his wings and kicked off into the air.

Fortunately, the journey ahead of him turned out to be far less eventful than the walk to the city limits. The clearing groups had done their jobs well; he and Thelvin didn't have to waste time clearing any trash mobs along the way, and when Thelvin handed him off to the Sylph patrol waiting at the border, he learned from Eugene that the other half of that patrol group was blazing a similar trail for them.

Leaving Eugene alone at the edge of Salamander territory, Klein cleared his way to Gattan as quickly as he could. A few weeks ago this would've been a tedious bit of work taking half the day, but by this point he'd leveled up enough that the solo mobs along the way simply weren't any kind of challenge—some of them even refused to aggro him. It took him longer than it had taken the previous groups to move through territory that had already been cleared, but even with the need to rest his wings it was only late afternoon when he finally reached the Salamander home city.

As he stood before the gates of Gattan for the first time in weeks, a mixture of emotions ran turbulently through his head. The last time he'd been here was not a happy memory, and he had no idea what he'd be facing once he entered the city. He knew he wasn't banished or exiled—fortunately, Kibaou had never gotten his name during their brief argument—but somewhere in the city there might be players who would recognize him, either from that first night or from his fight the day after. He needed to be particularly careful to avoid Corvatz, whom Argo had said now held a position of prominence in the Salamanders. Klein was already nervous just standing out here; he wasn't the only Salamander coming and going, and any moment he might run into the wrong player.

Steeling himself, he fired off a brief message to Argo and then headed inside and looked for a discreet place in the entry plaza to watch for the raid.

He didn't have long to wait. Fifteen, perhaps twenty minutes after his message went out, the amount of player traffic in the plaza began to increase significantly. Salamanders and Imps in twos and threes wearing gear that looked higher than average in quality started gathering near the large statue in the center of the open area, some of them beginning to sort themselves into clusters of six. There were even a few Spriggans mixed in, which made Klein think of Kirito and wonder what he was up to—Klein hadn't seen him since the Cait Sith raid on the Valley of Butterflies.

The sudden appearance of the Salamander leader made Klein suddenly very glad for the harsh shadows cast by the desert sun; they allowed him to become more or less anonymous under the awning of an NPC shop along the outer edge of the plaza. Klein opened his menu and signaled Eugene that the raid group was gathering, and as soon as he got a reply he quietly made his way down a side street, breaking into a run once he was out of sight of the raid.

On his way, he stopped at an NPC supply merchant and picked up the most expensive local sake he could find, along with a loaf of basic bread. Thus supplied, he consulted his map and the directions Eugene had given him, and made time as quickly as he could.

Kibaou's desire to keep Mortimer held in out of the way places had one advantage, from Klein's perspective—it meant that he could head to the outskirts of the city where he was less likely to run into anyone on their way to the raid group, and where he was far less likely to run into anyone important. The building he sought turned out to be a collection of storage sheds, and it didn't take him long to find the specific one he was looking for—it was the only one with a guard in front. Taking a deep breath to calm his nerves, Klein brought out the food and drink he'd bought earlier and approached the guard.

The young Salamander standing outside the door looked incredibly bored and unhappy. Klein couldn't blame him—standing here outside this door out in the direct sunlight had to be the Salamander army's shittiest duty. Kibaou would want all his best people along on the raid or out leveling up; anyone he assigned here was not likely high on the totem pole. The guard eyed him warily as he approached. "What's all this?"

Klein held up the loaf of bread and the bottle of sake. "Food and drink for you-know-who."

The guard blinked and looked surprised. "We're feeding him now?"

Wow, Kibaou's an even bigger asshole than I thought. A player's avatar didn't need to eat and couldn't starve to death, but after a while the simulated sensation of hunger got very convincing—and very unpleasant. Feigning complete ignorance, Klein shrugged as he handed over the bottle and bread. "Do I look like I care? I go where they tell me and do what I'm told."

The guard snorted and relaxed a little. "Tell me about it. Hey, wait a minute…" He looked a little more closely at the bottle, and outrage tinged his voice as he waved it in Klein's face. "The fuck is this? They're giving him Hitokiri? Do you have any idea how much this shit costs?"

As a matter of fact, Klein did—and he was glad Argo was paying for it. "How should I know? I hate drinking this crap. Give it to him or don't; I'm outta here." He turned and started walking away, forcing himself not to look back. As soon as he rounded a corner, he brought out his wings and propelled himself up to the roof of a nearby building, crawling along it until he could just peek over the edge.

Gotcha. He was just in time to see the guard look furtively left and right, then uncork the bottle and take a long pull from it. In a matter of moments a look of surprise crossed his face, and both bottle and bread loaf fell from his fingers as he collapsed to the ground, a yellow icon with a lightning bolt symbol flashing beside his HP gauge.

Klein wasted no time, launching himself off the roof and beating his wings just long enough to slow his descent and touch down at a run. The guard was staring up at him from the ground in sheer disbelief, which shifted rapidly to rage as it dawned on him what had happened. The parade of expletives that the guard managed to croak out weakly was music to Klein's ears as he unbarred the door and kicked it open.

Mortimer blinked as his eyes adjusted to the sudden onslaught of light; the interior of the room hadn't been lit. "Klein!" he said, grimacing as he pushed himself to his feet. "Eugene sent a message that said you might be coming. How—"

Klein didn't waste any time with banter. "Come on," he said urgently. "That paralysis poison is only going to last a couple minutes." He scooped the loaf of bread off the ground as they both rushed outside, and tossed it to Mortimer as his wings reappeared on his back. When the other Salamander didn't do the same, he looked back at him. "Come on!" he repeated. "We've gotta fly as fast as we can."

"Can't," Mortimer said over a mouthful of the bread as he tore off a bite to stave off some of the hunger pangs. "I've been inside all day; my wings aren't charged."

"Oh you have got to be—you're not kidding. Shit." He looked down at the guard, then back at Mort. "Then we run. We're not far from the western outer wall. By the time we get there, you should have at least enough flight time to carry you over it. We'll go as fast as we can and make for Sylph territory."

As they ran, Klein thought it over. Once they were outside the walls, they'd still have to travel on foot for about twenty minutes in order for Mortimer's wings to fully charge. That was more than enough time for the guard to recover and alert someone in charge about Mortimer's escape—and for a search party to fly west and catch up with the two of them, even starting from the opposite side of the city.

"Send Eugene a message now!" Klein yelled as they approached the outer wall and launched themselves into the air. "Tell him you're out and he's clear to challenge Kibaou!"

"I did that while we were running," Mortimer said, his wings buzzing into life and carrying him swiftly to Klein's side. "No answer yet."

Klein nodded, looking anxiously back at the city. He couldn't see any flight trails, but that didn't mean a search party wasn't already on its way. As soon as they had to land to rest their wings, he asked again—but there had still been no reply from Eugene. It was unusual—he'd been quick to reply to every message thus far, and this had been the moment he was waiting for.

A thought suddenly occurred to him. "You've got him friended, right? You should be able to see his location."

They kept running as quickly as they could while Mortimer opened his menu and drilled down into it, pulling up a map. He frowned suddenly. "The plan was for him to head east at full speed to intercept Kibaou's group, right?"


"Then why is he still in Sylph territory?"

Klein staggered to a stop, nearly losing his footing in the sand from the sudden deceleration. "He's what?"

"He's on the edge of Sylph territory right now," Mortimer said with growing concern. "And he's not moving."

Klein stared at the map as Mortimer set it visible to him, uncomprehending. "I don't understand," he said. "We had a plan. And he wouldn't hang you out to dry; you're his brother. Right now he should be beelining it for the raid group in order to call out Kibaou, not sitting on his hands, unless—"

"Unless he's in trouble," Mortimer said suddenly, swearing.

Klein scanned the horizon, looking for flight trails—and still not seeing any. It was one silver lining on a plan that was rapidly going sour. There was always the possibility Eugene had been attacked by Sylphs who weren't in on the plan, of course, but that shouldn't have happened—the same group that had brought Klein through unmolested had brought Eugene as well, and Klein had left him just on the Salamander side of the border—in hiding, waiting for the signal.

It didn't make sense. But when he looked back at the map, Eugene's marker was barely moving—and it was moving in the direction of Sylvain.

"We can't do anything for him now," Mortimer said, his eyes distant and his expression thoughtful, albeit pained. "It's up to us."

Klein looked back at Mortimer in confusion which rapidly gave way to alarm. "You're not thinking what I—"

"Yes, I am," Mortimer said, cutting him off. "We don't have a choice. If Kibaou pulls off this raid successfully, there's going to be no stopping him—he'll have the entire faction behind him, including a lot of players who might've been on the fence before. It'll be a grand victory—his grand victory."

Klein scowled, not liking the sound of that at all. Mortimer was right—with that kind of success under his leadership, he'd easily prevail in the coming vote, and he wouldn't give anyone an opening to challenge him again. It was now or never. "Then no offense man, but you're kinda fucked. You're level 1. There's no way you could fight him and win."

Mortimer nodded. "No, there's not." He met Klein's gaze then, and for the first time he understood why Kibaou had felt so threatened by Mortimer, so desperate to keep him isolated from the rest of the faction. Even standing here as a level 1 character in starting gear, the man exuded charisma.

"But you can."

Author's Note 1/29/14: Incidentally, for those who care about these sorts of things, the writing binge of these last few chapters has been fueled almost entirely by a playlist of Hadouken and Crystal Method. Most of the earlier chapters were written while listening to a whole lot of Nightwish and Apocalyptica, but I found that the hard electronica worked better for all of these intense boss battles.

Chapter Text

"Although faction leaders are usually selected by popular vote once every thirty days or following the resignation of a leader, Alfheim Online provides for one other method of succession. Unlike killing the leader of a different faction, the death of a faction leader by the hands of one of their own—whether in a duel or in open combat—results in the victorious player immediately replacing the former leader…"
Alfheim Online Manual, «Assassination»

1 ~ 6 December 2022
Day 31 - Afternoon

Klein knew he and Mortimer couldn't be very far behind the main Salamander raid force. They hadn't encountered a single mob in the last hour; it was as if the landscape had been scoured clean of anything that could be attacked. There had already been nearly fifty players gathered for the raid when he left the plaza earlier, and more had still been arriving—Kibaou, clearly, was taking no chances and intended to swarm the boss. He knew that there should be a variety of drakes and other reptilian flying mobs here in the Valley of Dragons, but absolutely nothing aggroed them.

With this path cleared before them, it didn't take long to catch sight of the raid. They had landed at the edge of a great canyon that split the valley, dozens upon dozens of players in red armor and robes separated into groups. Here and there a player would shift from one group to another at someone instructions; they were still making last-minute adjustments to group makeup and roles. Klein wondered who Kibaou had doing that; he doubted the man was smart enough to make those decisions himself.

They touched down behind a massive rock formation on the western wall of the valley, a location deep in shadow from the afternoon sun. As he got a good look at what they were facing, Mortimer's face turned almost white.

"Good grief, he's a complete moron," he said, his expression aghast. When Klein glanced at his companion in confusion, Mortimer hesitated. "It's a bit hard to explain if you weren't there for the beta," he said after a moment. Klein listened while Mortimer ran down the strategy necessary for defeating the southern valley boss, his expression growing more incredulous with each new detail.

"You're shitting me," Klein said when the info dump was complete.

"I wish I was," Mortimer said with a sour look. "This fight is a difficult one when you do it by the numbers. From the looks of Kibaou's raid makeup... he's going to get them wiped. If he bothered to listen to any of the Salamander beta testers, he'd know that."

"It's almost tempting to let him," Klein said. "If it didn't mean getting more than sixty other people killed in the process..."

"You have to move now if you're going to do this," Mortimer said urgently, pointing towards the raid. "They're starting to form up."

"Wait here," Klein said. "If Kibaou sees you, he's not going to wait to hear a challenge—he's going to go ballistic, and you won't survive a single hit. Once he and I are engaged in battle, then you can move in closer."

He could see the idea frustrated Mortimer, who was already disgruntled at the necessity of someone else fighting his fight for him. The man nodded, and put a hand on Klein's shoulder. "This is it," he said. "Not just this raid is at stake—thousands of lives depend on you bringing him down."

Klein nodded solemnly. "Don't worry," he said as he reactivated his wings and rose on a column of red light. "I won't fail."

The Salamander leader stood atop a large boulder, arms crossed as he looked out at his army with a smug look on his face. With others handling the actual group arrangements and the battle nearly about to get underway, Klein couldn't think of any practical reason for him to be up there—he wanted to be seen. It was the entire point of this exercise.

Good, Klein thought as he flew towards his target, stopping and hovering when only about ten meters of open air separated them. I want everyone to see and hear this. "Kibaou!" he shouted.

Kibaou's head whipped around at the sound, and his smug expression quickly turned to a scowl. "Well if it ain't the big mouth from launch day," he growled out. "I wondered where you'd gotten off to. If you're here for the raid, better go see Corvatz and hope he's got a spot for you."

"I'm not here for the raid, Kibaou," Klein yelled. He took a deep breath, steeling himself for what was to come next, and made sure to project his voice clearly so that it would carry to as much of the raid group as possible. "I'm here to stop you from getting everyone in it killed with this blind rush you're calling a strategy."

Kibaou laughed defiantly. "Oh no, don't tell me—let me guess, you're another one of those beta testers."

Klein should've been so lucky as to get into the beta. But Kibaou didn't know that, and Klein saw no reason to point out his error. "What's being a beta tester got to do with anything, man? You should be happy to have their help."

A sharp bark of laughter, louder than the first, was Kibaou's answer. "Save it, asshole. I've heard this crap before. If you testers wanted to help, you shouldn't have run off after the first day and left us hanging, or tried to undermine my authority." He looked around and spread his arms, obviously playing for the crowd. "Where were you when we moved on Everdark? Where were you when our offensives against the Undines and Sylphs ground to a halt? Where was your advice then—when it really mattered?"

All of this was news to Klein. But it wouldn't have surprised him at all if some of the players with beta experience had wanted nothing to do with Kibaou's warmongering, and had fled for neutral territory. Certainly Mortimer and Eugene had been a real threat to him—and for good reason. Klein hadn't run into any other friendly Salamanders in his travels, but that didn't mean they weren't out there. And from the sounds of it, Kibaou had taken that as a personal betrayal, and turned it into a prejudice against beta testers in general.

"I'm not surprised the testers abandoned you, Kibaou," Klein said clearly and forcefully. "They've got the experience to tell what a shitty leader you are."

"Oh, fuck you," Kibaou said, gesturing in the air to open his system menu. "Congratulations, pal, you just got yourself—"


Klein's full-throated shout echoed off the walls of the valley, momentarily stunning Kibaou into stopping what he was doing. Before the Salamander leader could recover, Klein drew his katana and leveled it at Kibaou, causing a stir of alarm from his guards. "You and me, Kibaou. One on one. If you're such an epic badass, it's time for you to put your goddamn money where your mouth is."

Kibaou's look of shock moved swiftly to outrage, and then slowly became a vicious grin as his wings materialized and carried him into the air. He drew a massive two-handed sword from his back and held it out in front of him at an angle, the tip pointed at Klein's chest. "So that's how you want to play it? Your funeral, pal. None of this 'first strike' crap, either—you won't be the first tester I've had to kill. Are you sure you don't want to just—"

Klein met Kibaou's eyes across the space separated by their swords and killing intent. "Shut up and bring it, you bedwetting piece of shit."

Kibaou's features twisted in rage, and he began to raise his two-handed sword high above his head in what Klein recognized as the beginning position for a sword skill. Before red light had even begun to gather along the length of the Salamander leader's sword, Klein took his left hand from the grip of his katana and rapidly rattled off a series of syllables he knew quite well by now. "Hitto zabu vethleka chazajan!"

As his sword technique began, Kibaou launched himself straight up in order to evade Klein's projectiles. But as the system assist engaged and began to carry Kibaou rapidly down towards Klein in a heavy overhand chop, the homing fire bolts which had missed low began to loop back, taking the Salamander leader in the back. The natural Salamander fire resistance meant that the damage was minimal, but the impact was enough to throw off his aim, allowing Klein to parry the blow by slanting the flat of his own weapon across his shoulder.

A spinning one-handed slash cut through the air just above Kibaou as his momentum carried him downward, flipping almost upside down and stabbing upward. The edge of the blade just barely caught Klein's leg as he evaded, and as Klein shot rapidly backwards he chanted another spell he'd learned recently, summoning a fire shield around him in a shower of incandescent sparks.

Kibaou laughed as he closed the distance. "Go ahead, waste your MP on fire spells, dumbass." A savage crosscut drew an orange arc through the space Klein had just occupied as he flew above the blow and did a flip of his own, bringing the katana down in a two-handed technique that met Kibaou's follow-up strike in a clash of steel. Klein slid the blade of his weapon down until it locked with Kibaou's at the hilt, pushing towards him until the proximity fire shield began applying a Damage-over-Time effect to his opponent. Kibaou snarled at the sudden rush of uncomfortable heat and the slight trickle of damage, and drove his knee into Klein's midsection. The blow was enough to separate them, and the three-hit combo that Kibaou unleashed against him then did noticeable damage even through his successful blocks.

Klein realized what the problem was quickly enough—it was a simple matter of weapon weight and priority. Kibaou's two-handed sword considerably outweighed Klein's katana, not only giving it higher priority in any direct clash, but making it impossible to block without some of the damage soaking through—a problem that Kibaou didn't need to worry about. Worse, Kibaou would almost certainly have a higher STR stat than him—two-handed swords were pure STR-based weapons, while curved swords and katanas required a balance of STR and AGI.

He couldn't go toe-to-toe with Kibaou—it would turn into a war of attrition that he'd lose. He was going to have to rely on evasion and wits to prevail in this battle.

Kibaou rushed at him with a roar, sword trailing behind him and building up a surge of power. Klein held his katana in a defensive position in front of him as if he was going to block… but right as Kibaou unleashed his technique, Klein completely stilled his wings and dropped like a rock. Almost immediately he brought them back into action, shooting straight up and executing a combination attack as Kibaou's momentum carried him past.

The technique exploded against the Salamander leader's back while he was stuck in the recovery frame of his own technique, three consecutive slashes tearing great rents in his armor and leaving behind scars that glowed with an angry crimson light—as well as temporarily dispelling his wings for taking too much damage. Kibaou tumbled rapidly downwards at an angle, digging a furrow in the ground where he struck and bringing his HP gauge close to the halfway point. Klein followed him all the way down at high speed, but when he struck with a sword skill Kibaou evaded it by rolling to the side and coming up to his feet, the katana sending up a spray of dirt as it tore into the ground.

Nothing but white-hot rage filled Kibaou's eyes now, and his attacks were wild as he drove Klein back blow by blow. For all that his character had to be focused fully on STR, Kibaou's anger and desperation granted him speed, and it was all Klein could do to deflect or avoid the flurry of strikes.

Klein's own HP gauge chimed once as it hit the yellow zone, and when Kibaou swept his sword horizontally in a technique meant to bisect him at the waist, Klein's wings took him straight up and above the blow, and he flipped over his opponent's head as if trying to get behind him. Kibaou continued the momentum of his crosscut and let it spin him around, but Klein had been expecting that. Instead of landing behind Kibaou, Klein stopped himself in order to hover at around head height, and freed up his left hand while he chanted the words to the non-homing version of the spell he'd cast earlier.

Salamanders might have a natural resistance to fire, but that didn't mean they were immune—and the head was still a critical location with a damage multiplier. As Kibaou's attempted spinning slash passed below Klein, fire surged down the length of his left arm and sprang from his fingertips in a series of flaming bolts. Those projectiles struck Kibaou point-blank in the face in rapid succession, the explosions sending the Salamander leader flying backwards head-first with a yell of outrage. It wasn't enough to take him into the red zone, but from the fleeting glimpse Klein got of his HP gauge it looked to have brought him down to somewhere near a quarter of his health.

As Kibaou scrambled to get back to his feet, Klein could see something else joining the rage in the other Salamander's eyes. Now there was fear—real fear. "Corvatz!" Kibaou yelled as he lunged at Klein, more damage getting through despite Klein's attempts at blocking. "Help me deal with this fucking traitor!"

Klein snarled as he spun his katana in a series of blows that rang off of Kibaou's blade. "You cheating bastard!"

Kibaou didn't seem to care at this point as he turned his sword desperately from side to side in order to defend against Klein's sudden onslaught. While Klein was locked briefly in the recovery frame from his last technique, Kibaou planted a boot in his chest, knocking him backwards and buying some space and time. "Corvatz, goddamnit, where are you!"

As it turned out, Corvatz was having problems of his own. Klein caught a glimpse of the older Salamander as several of the other raid members tried to restrain him from rushing in. Enraged, he freed up his sword arm and slashed at one of his assailants, trying to break free. The man who'd been holding his arm cried out, and what had started as an attempt to keep him from interfering in the duel quickly turned into a fight between two different factions of Salamander players—a fight that began spreading.

The raid group was now in complete disarray, devolving into a battle for the future of the Salamander race.

A flicker of motion in his peripheral vision warned Klein that he'd been a fool to take his eyes off of Kibaou. He got his katana up just in time to deflect the blade of the two-handed sword across his shoulder, but its new trajectory severed one of his wings, and the follow-up blow sent him sprawling to the ground while his katana went spinning out of his hands. A heavy boot descended on his chest, Kibaou's superior strength pinning him.

Kibaou grinned nastily down at Klein as he held the sword at his throat, voice rising triumphantly. "Not so tough now, are you? Fucking testers, you think you're so much better than the rest of us! You, Mort, Eugene… traitors, all of you! Well now who's laughing, asshole?" The sword point dug into his skin a little, and Klein saw his HP gauge turn a dangerous red color with a deceptively calm chiming sound.

Klein glared back up at him with something akin to pure hate. There was no point now in explaining that he wasn't a beta tester—he'd failed. He didn't know where Mortimer was now, and he supposed it didn't matter—the best he could hope for was that Mort could somehow rendezvous with Eugene and get in touch with the Sylph leadership. Maybe if Kibaou went ahead with the raid after this, they'd wipe after all. "Just get it over with, you gutless coward."

Kibaou's grin disappeared. "Fine with me." He raised the two-handed sword high above his head, flames running up and down its length as he built up for an elemental sword technique. The intent was clear—complete overkill. "Say hi to the rest of the testers in hell, asshole."

The sword descended towards Klein, and he flinched, waiting for the death blow. But the flaming blade dug deep into the ground beside his head, and a pair of small polygon bursts rained down to either side of him, accompanied by the most horrifying scream he'd ever heard from a human throat. Kibaou stared uncomprehendingly at the glowing red stumps of his forearms, emitting a wordless guttural howl that seemed to end only long enough for him to start screaming again as he sank heavily to his knees.

Behind Kibaou stood Mortimer, Klein's sword held out to one side as if he'd just come to the end of a slashing motion. His face was a mask of calm as he took two steps forward and sank his fingers into the cactus-like mass of Kibaou's hair, yanking the Salamander leader's head back and then bringing up his knee, driving the man's face into it repeatedly. Kibaou flailed helplessly as he continued to scream, trying to claw at Mortimer and free himself—but without hands with which to grasp, the difference in their STR stats meant almost nothing.

When only a red sliver remained of Kibaou's HP, Mortimer threw him face-first to the ground and put the tip of the sword to the back of his neck.

"This is for every beta tester you murdered, you son of a bitch."

When the final word fell from Mortimer's lips, he thrust the tip of the blade hard through the back of Kibaou's neck, cutting off the incoherent howling as several inches of the katana were buried in the ground beneath his opponent's throat. Kibaou's twitching body shimmered once, flames running rapidly up and down the length of it and burning away the very texture, leaving only a wireframe filled with hellfire. His 3D model collapsed into nothing, and burst into a single flaming Remain Light.

As Klein looked on in shock, a gold star appeared beside Mortimer's HP gauge.

Argo looked around the table at the seven other players present, searching their faces one by one. Representatives from almost every race in Alfheim were there—although in the case of the Spriggans, calling Kirito their "representative" was stretching matters a bit; Yoshihara hadn't responded to any of the requests to send someone to join them here in Arun.

Still, it was better having someone from that race than not.

Kirito caught Argo's gaze as she looked around the table and smiled slightly. Argo answered with a grin and wiggled her ears, then moved on. To Kirito's right sat a stunning young Leprechaun woman with long silver hair that was tied up in a high ponytail, a pair of locks hanging down across her cheeks. Yurielle inclined her head slightly as their eyes met, and turned to whisper something to the massive Gnome sitting beside her. Agil nodded once and passed whatever she'd said on to the Puca woman sitting between he and Argo, whose name she hadn't gotten yet.

"Is there something the NCC reps would like to share with the rest of the table?" The gravelly voice to Kirito's left came from Eugene, newly-minted commander of the Salamander army and designated representative from that faction.

Sakuya, sitting to Argo's right, leaned forward across the table. The effect on her considerable bosom was noticeable, and Argo would've bet any amount of Yuld that she knew exactly how it affected the men at the table. "Does it matter?" she asked coolly. "We're all entitled to our secrets. I thought we were here to discuss how to avoid the kind of open warfare and indiscriminate killings that ended so many lives in the first month of this death game."

The Undine to her right, a young man named Jahala, nodded and tried very hard not to look in the direction of Sakuya's chest. "She's right," he said. "We can't have a repeat of Kibaou's invasion, or the encouragement of PKing that followed. No matter what differences we've got, despite the fact that we're all effectively in competition to escape this world… there has to be a line."

"There will not be a repeat of the day one invasion," Eugene said firmly. "But as grateful as Mortimer and I are for the assistance of the Cait Sith and Sylphs in getting rid of that tyrant, the unavoidable fact remains that we are all still implicitly in competition."

"Yes, and I notice that we don't have a representative from the Imp faction here," Jahala said, an edge creeping into his tone. "Care to explain that?"

Eugene spread his hands. "It can't be helped. The Imps still don't have a leader—and they won't until tomorrow when this voting cycle ends. There's simply no one who can speak for them—it's still our territory at the moment, and we will represent them here."

"How convenient," Sakuya observed dryly. "Remind me again why we let you go?"

Argo stood suddenly, slapping her hands on the table. "Shut up, all of you." Taking advantage of the sudden stunned silence, she glared around the table as she spoke. "It comes down to this: we are all human. All of us. And we're all prisoners of a nut job with a god complex who—in case you've forgotten—is the person who created the artificial conditions pitting us against one another. The more people who die, the fewer who are left to clear the World Tree. And that could leave us all screwed."

"Thank you, Argo," Eugene growled. "We never would've figured that out if—"

"Are you finished being witty?" When Eugene answered only with a glare, Argo went on as if the interruption hadn't occurred. "The point is: we need rules. Like Jahala said, there's gotta be lines we don't cross. And we all gotta agree on them, sell them to our leaders, and enforce them in our factions… or else human nature is gonna rear its head again, and sooner or later people are gonna start killing each other over who gets to clear a boss or something stupid like that."

"You're talking about some kind of Geneva Convention for Alfheim," Agil said, his deep voice cutting through the tension that hung over the table.

Argo nodded. The analogy had in fact occurred to her, but it was just as well that someone else brought it up first. "That's it, more or less. So let's start having a conversation about just where those lines are."

They talked for hours, most with note-taking windows open; a few who were more comfortable with handwriting used scrolls. Argo didn't get that herself, but it did end up being handy to have paper drafts that they could pass around and share. At one point Sakuya and Eugene nearly walked out on the meeting, but after an intense series of exchanges they both sat back down and confined the degree of their disagreement to dirty looks.

They broke for lunch, giving all of the representatives time to consult with their faction leaders. When they all returned to the inn room, eight scrolls sat on the table—one in front of each chair. The representatives all unrolled them and read through the draft; Argo already had it memorized but she laid hers out on the table anyway so that nobody would doubt that she was taking it seriously.

Yurielle rose to her feet, holding the scroll out in front of her as she read. "So that we never forget that the divisions between us are arbitrarily engineered not by each other, but by the one man who trapped us all in this world;"

"Bearing in mind that no matter our outward appearance in this world, we are all still human beings;"

"With the understanding that strife will occur when human beings are presented with mutually conflicting goals;"

"With the purpose of minimizing the unnecessary loss of life in the course of these conflicts;"

"We, the nine player-races of Alfheim—"

"Eight," remarked Sakuya, unwilling to let that point go. Eugene simply rolled his eyes.

Yurielle didn't miss a beat. "—agree to observe and uphold the following principles:"

"First: that reducing a player's hit points to zero must never be the purpose of any hostile action, and must be avoided whenever possible except in the defense of one's own life or the life of another."

Nods went around the table. That was the core of the proposed treaty—the recognition that being in competition didn't mean they had to kill each other. That PKing for the sake of PKing had to end, and that if there was an opportunity to resolve a conflict without killing, that alternative was—to put it mildly—preferable.

"Second: that any player whose HP reaches the red zone must be allowed to peacefully withdraw from combat if they attempt to do so."

That went along with the first point. Argo and Kirito had argued for "yellow" instead of "red", due to the potential for powerful attacks to take more than half of a player's max HP in one hit, but there was general disagreement about how that would make it too easy for players to initiate hostilities and then escape the consequences of their actions and say "no harm, no foul" if the fight didn't go their way. There had to be a risk to combat in order to make it undesirable.

"Third: that any player who ceases hostilities and submits to their opponent must be allowed to do so without fear of further attack, so long as they do not resume participation in combat."

This point had been absolutely non-negotiable from Argo's point of view, and even Eugene didn't argue it once its purpose was clear: surrender without fear of summary execution had to always be an option, at any time. Players who had nothing left to lose by continuing to fight were capable of desperate atrocities, and a policy of taking no prisoners could easily escalate.

"Fourth: that Damage Over Time effects must not be used against a player whose HP is in the red zone."

Although Argo had wanted to avoid getting into too many specific examples and exceptions—they made it easy to claim that anything not listed there wasn't prohibited—this was an important one. Without this provision, a player could apply a DOT to a critically injured player and claim that they didn't know it would kill them. There was really no justifiable reason to DOT someone in the red unless you were trying to do exactly that.

"And lastly: that any player attempting to revive another player's Remain Light by any means must be allowed to do so without interruption or fear of attack, even in the midst of battle."

This was the provision that had taken the longest to resolve, consuming well over an hour of argument back and forth across the table. Eugene complained that this gave the Undines an unfair advantage, given their racial affinity for healing magic, and even some of the representatives from the Northern Crafting Combine were concerned about exactly how enforceable it was, considering how difficult it could be to tell what spell another player was casting in the heat of battle.

In the end, Jahala had pointed out what in retrospect was fairly obvious: that if someone was standing in front of another player's Remain Light and trying to cast a spell or use an item, it was pretty safe to assume that they were trying to rez the fallen player. And that ultimately, if the entire point of this treaty was to avoid unnecessary deaths, then the benefit of the doubt had to be given when there was a Remain Light involved, considering the very short window of opportunity before it disappeared forever.

When Yurielle had finished reading off the scroll, she deftly rolled it back up and returned to her seat. Everyone exchanged looks, searching for signs of dissatisfaction or dispute.

There were none.

"The Northern Crafting Combine will sign the Treaty of Arun," Yurielle said simply after receiving nods from her two companions. "Anyone who breaches it will be subject to the same consequences as anyone who attacks a member of our faction: they will be blacklisted; banned from our territory, and no NCC member will do business with or otherwise provide services to them."

"So will the Cait Sith," Argo said. She hadn't even needed to consult Alicia; she'd been empowered to make that decision herself. "We'll sort out our own consequences for anyone who screws it up."

"The Sylphs agree to the terms of the treaty," Sakuya said simply.

"As do the Undines," said Jahala.

"The Salamanders will abide by these terms," Eugene said. His face then twisted in a smile. "Breaching them will be a capital crime in Gattan."

"Way to miss the point there, Eugene," Sakuya said with a sigh.

Eugene looked at her. "That was a joke."

"Not funny."

Only one person was left at the table. Argo looked directly across at Kirito, who had already taken the scroll and stored it in his inventory. He seemed distinctly uncomfortable at being put on the spot as all eyes turned to him, and he gave a long sigh as he sat up a little straighter.

"The Spriggans—and by that I mean Yoshihara—won't agree to sign the treaty."

The sounds of outrage that erupted in the room rendered it impossible to tell what anyone was saying, and for close to a minute there was nothing but yelling back and forth, with Kirito looking very much like he'd rather be soloing a floor boss three quarters of the way up the World Tree without a healer. Finally, Argo put her fingers in her mouth and whistled so loudly that everyone clapped their hands to their ears.

She met Kirito's eyes across the table, looking for answers. She struggled silently with how to respond to that, and finally settled for simplicity. "What happened?

Kirito closed his eyes for a few moments as he answered. "I exchanged a few messages with Yoshihara while we were on break. I tried to explain everything to her. She said that even if she was inclined to tie everyone's hands by signing any kind of treaty, it would be impossible to enforce—most Spriggans consider themselves free agents, not members of a faction." When he opened his eyes again, there was genuine regret in them as he met Argo's gaze again. "I'm sorry. It wasn't the choice that I would've made."

"Then you won't be welcome in Sylvain," Sakuya said as she stood. "You can tell her I said that—Spriggans can find work somewhere else if they won't abide by the treaty."

"I'll have to consult with Diavel," said Jahala evenly, "but I suspect he'll be of a similar mind—your faction members won't be welcome in our city or our territory."

The NCC reps looked at each other. "I don't know that we'd go quite that far," Yurielle said, "but any individuals who don't abide by the treaty will most definitely find themselves blacklisted."

Eugene shrugged. "Your faction leader's an idiot," he said. "Do what you want, but if you make trouble in Gattan you'll regret it."

Kirito nodded as each person spoke, and then returned his eyes to Argo. She almost wished that he hadn't.

She and Alicia hadn't discussed this possibility, but Argo had in fact thought about what kind of leverage might be used if any of the factions wouldn't sign on to the treaty. She'd expected the Salamanders to be the most likely ones to pull that. Perhaps she simply hadn't wanted to think about what would happen if Yoshihara ended up being as useless as she'd feared… about what that would mean for Kirito.

As Argo tried to find her words, conflicted, Kirito simply stood and looked back at her, nodding once. "I see."

"I'm sorry, Ki-bou," she said softly.

Kirito gave the very weakest of smiles and shook his head. "It's not your fault." Before anyone else could speak, he turned and left. When the door closed, it had a sound of finality.

Asuna and Yuuki walked side by side through the streets of Arun, discussing the rumors spreading through the city—that there was some sort of summit occurring that involved all of the player races, something so critical from Diavel's perspective that it had required Jahala's presence. The Undine clearing groups had been told to wait until he returned, and that when he did he would have something important to tell them.

In the meantime, she and Yuuki found themselves with a little bit of time to kill, and they had spent most of it wandering the city looking for shops that might have gear upgrades or useful supplies for them. They'd made quite a haul so far, spending close to half of their hard-earned Yuld, and Yuuki was completely over the moon about the beautiful new longsword she'd picked up—she couldn't wait to try it out.

In fact, Yuuki had found several upgrades, not least of which was a new breastplate of a very fine, light metal with a large AGI boost and some other very impressive stats. After unequipping her old gear, she noticed that her inventory was starting to fill up, and told Asuna that she was going to go find a shop to vendor off a bunch of excess loot.

As she watched Yuuki soar off towards the upper terraces of Arun's merchant district, Asuna sighed and trudged onward, looking for the rest of the Undine clearers. A large party of Salamanders had just headed into the World Tree, and although she didn't think Diavel wanted to send their own people in so closely behind their erstwhile—and possibly still hostile—enemies, she wanted to sync up with Jahala once he was out of his meeting and find out what the plan was. She unconsciously adjusted the set of the rapier on her hip and moved on.

As she walked through a park set on the hillside, letting her wings recharge, she was momentarily struck by a pang of recognition that she couldn't place—a vague sense of déjà vu that tugged at something buried deep inside of her. It wasn't until she passed through a winding path lined with flowering bushes that it hit her—she'd been here before. A month and a lifetime ago, on her first day in the game, a very different Asuna had walked this path, staring around in wonder and ignorance of what awaited her. She wondered if they'd even recognize each other, that girl and the warrior she'd become.

As she continued on, lost in her thoughts, she spotted someone that she did recognize. Kirito—she at least thought of him by name now, instead of first recalling him as "that Spriggan boy"—was lying in the grass beneath a stand of trees, fingers laced behind his head and his eyes closed. Asuna wondered for a moment if he was hurt before noticing the serene expression on his face; she realized he had to be napping.

The sight filled her with a surge of irritation that it took her a moment to place. They were all trapped in this world until the World Tree was cleared—it was their top priority; their only priority. They were all weary—hadn't she and Yuuki been pouring everything they had into getting stronger and helping to contribute towards that goal? How could he relax like that, slacking off as if he didn't have a care in the world?

As her shadow from the midday sun passed over him, Kirito's eyes opened slightly—just enough to recognize her before sliding shut again.

"Don't you have anything better to be doing?" she asked with a slight edge to her voice. "There are clearing groups heading into Yggdrasil all the time. They—we—could use your help, and you're lying here being lazy and goofing off."

It wasn't the sort of question that required an answer, but without opening his eyes again, Kirito gave one anyway. "I don't know what your problem is," he said calmly, "but you could stand to relax. This is Alfheim's nicest weather setting. It's the kind of day that was meant to be enjoyed, not wasted inside a dungeon that will still be there tomorrow. You should try it; the grass is soft."

Asuna hadn't really given the weather any thought, other than being aware that it wasn't as wet as it had been in Parasel recently. She looked around at the park, and up at the nearly cloudless sky where the sun peeked around the very edges of Yggdrasil's canopy. Rays of that sunlight filtered through the leaves of the smaller tree under which Kirito was resting, painting both of them with a patchwork quilt of light and dark, warm and cool.

It was a nice day.

She looked back at Kirito, but without prodding him she couldn't have told whether he was aware that she was still there, or if he'd gone to sleep. A profound awareness of just how tired she really was filled her as she looked at his still form, and she sat down on the grass a respectable distance away from him and eased herself back. The grass was indeed soft, the sunlight and the cool breeze soothing, and she could feel the weariness draining slowly from her as she pillowed her head on her hands.

Just a few minutes, she thought. I'll just rest here for a few minutes, let my wings finish recharging, and meet up with the others.

It was her last thought before falling asleep.

"Don't fight it," Kirito explained.

Yuuki looked puzzled. "I don't understand."

Kirito brought Midnight Avenger into position for a single-strike technique; the matte black blade glowed with barely restrained electric-blue power. "It's called «system assist». It's what causes your body to move when you execute a weapon skill, carrying you through the motions. You already know how to adjust the trajectory of an attack in mid-strike; I've seen you do it. But by learning the motions yourself and moving with the system assist, you can accelerate it and increase its striking power. Struggling against it will just make you less effective."

With that, Kirito unleashed the technique he'd been holding back, one he'd performed thousands of times. This time he anticipated the movements and went with them, his sword blade moving in a blue blur that split the air and caused the grass on the hillside to sway as if from a strong wind. Yuuki's eyes widened.

"Now you try it." Kirito sheathed his weapon and sat back down beneath the tree to watch the girl practice. As Yuuki concentrated and tried to match the motions of the system assist, he heard a soft murmur from about a meter to his left, and turned his head to see Asuna's sleeping form start to stir. He had to smile as she rolled over and started to groggily come awake—she had several blades of grass stuck to her face, and she'd been drooling in her sleep. She blinked several times as she pushed herself up on her elbows, looking around as if still trying to place where she was and how she'd gotten there.

Then her eyes widened as she saw Kirito sitting nearby, and her gaze flickered towards the setting sun as it painted the sky with shades of fire. The sudden panic in her eyes seemed to subside somewhat as she spotted Yuuki practicing sword skills in the open grass, and she slowly sat herself up, looking over at Kirito again in confusion.

Kirito smiled, reached up with one finger and made a brushing motion at his cheek. She looked at him, still confused, and then reached up and imitated the motion, wiping at her face and watching in something resembling horror as a few blades of grass went fluttering to the ground.

"How… how long was I out?"

"At least several hours," Kirito answered, looking back in the direction of where Yuuki was silhouetted against the sunset. "I didn't want to disturb you. It looked like you needed the sleep."

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Asuna's head turn to follow his gaze. She was quiet for a few moments as Yuuki executed a two-hit combo against the air once more. The Imp girl waved vigorously once she saw that Asuna was awake, and bounded over towards where the two of them sat.

"Did you see that, Asuna? It's so cool! Kirito here was showing me how to get faster and stronger by overriding the system assist!"

"Not overriding, exactly," Kirito said. "Remember, you're not fighting it. It's like swimming with the current."

"That's wonderful, Yuuki," Asuna said in gentle tones that Kirito found almost shocking. It was like seeing a completely different side of her.

Yuuki nodded, grinning happily. "I hope you had a good nap. I'm gonna go practice some more! I'll show you later!" And so saying, she sprinted back towards the open ground, giving her longsword an elaborate flourish before bringing it into position for a technique again.

"She's a good kid," Kirito said without taking his eyes off the sunset and Yuuki's enthusiastic practice strikes. "I think she'll be really strong one day."

A quiet un of assent was the only response Asuna gave, and they resumed their silence as they both watched the sun begin to set on their first month in Alfheim, the faint murmur of crowds underlying the sounds of Yuuki's training activity the only noises disturbing the peaceful stillness of the scene.

With only a sliver of the sun visible over the distant mountains, it was starting to get a little chilly. Nothing compared to the frigid temperatures of the north, and it wasn't really uncomfortable, but enough to touch him briefly as a breeze picked up and blew past his face, carrying away some of the lingering heat of the day. Kirito tilted his head back against the trunk of the tree and folded his hands in his lap, closing his eyes as a sense of serenity and contentment filled him. Other than the stress and frustration of the treaty summit, it had been a pretty good day. And this afternoon of pure relaxation had gone a long way towards banishing even that weight from his mind.

As he felt the last of the setting sun's warmth leave his body, he was aware of a presence beside him. He opened his eyes to slits just as Asuna wordlessly leaned her head against his shoulder, and then closed them again. He wasn't sure what had prompted her to do that, but it was far from unpleasant, and he was unwilling to do anything that might move or disturb her. After a while, the sounds of Yuuki's practice strikes ceased, and when he eventually opened his eyes once more he saw that the younger girl had put away her weapon and curled up beside Asuna with her head in the older girl's lap.

Kirito could not remember feeling more at peace in his life.


Author's Note 1/30/13: As the above implies, this is the end of the first act of Fairy Dance of Death. I hope you enjoyed it and were satisfied with the conclusion! This is most definitely not the end of the overall story, but it is a point of closure for those who want one. For everyone who's reviewed, faved or followed this story, thank you so much!

Continue to the next chapter to begin Act 2 of Fairy Dance of Death !

Chapter Text

Kibaou is dead, and with him the first month's Salamander crusade. Four months have passed since the signing of the Treaty of Arun, healing some of the wounds from that short war but allowing others to fester.

With familiarity comes comfort. For thousands of players—many of whom are in their formative teenage years, where months are lifetimes—living inside of a fantasy game and fighting for their lives has become familiar and routine. Some embrace their new lives. Others reject them. Most adapt and find ways to cope or make the best of their situation, as long-term castaways and prisoners always have.

Some few, whether they know it or not, are simply awaiting their moment. A turning point where their decisions will change Alfheim—and Alfheim will change them.

ACT 2: Turning Points

"While new spells will periodically appear in a player's spellbook as their skill level in the relevant school of magic increases, players should be aware that the arcane language used to construct these incantations can be used to create custom spells by anyone who takes the time to learn the words of power and how they combine to produce magical effects…"
Alfheim Online Manual, «Incantations and Spellwords»

15 April 2023
Day 161

High in the sky above the surface of Alfheim, higher even than the cloud-kissed branches of the World Tree, a vortex raged.

Seemingly wide enough to swallow Yggdrasil itself, the swirling maelstrom of purple energy had churned unceasingly for nearly six months now. What was in the beginning a terrifying phenomenon that drew the eye wherever you went had become, for most, simply another reminder of their imprisonment—something to be put out of mind and never discussed. For those in the clearing groups, those who ventured daily into the dungeon within Yggdrasil's trunk and pushed ever onward, that vortex held another meaning: it would one day be their freedom.

Theirs, and selected others. For the visionary madman that had trapped 20,000 players within the virtual world of Alfheim Online had left them with a very specific set of conditions for ever being able to leave the game again: pass through that vortex, and you may log out.

But with a player's maximum altitude limited by a flight meter that depleted more quickly the higher they flew, there was only one way to do this: the players of ALO must fight their way through the vast dungeon within the World Tree and reach the top. The player who landed the Last Attack on the boss waiting there would win the power of unlimited flight for themselves, their race, and two allied races of their choosing.

Unlimited flight. During the beta test, it had been a promise of joy for those who enjoyed flying and a significant tactical advantage over flight-limited characters in PvP combat. Now, under the conditions of the death game, it was a matter of nothing less than survival and liberty.

For all its prominence in the sky, the purple vortex that had appeared during Akihiko Kayaba's so-called tutorial was not visible from anywhere within Arun itself—from the vantage point of that bustling metropolis nestled in the roots of the World Tree, Yggdrasil's branches spread wide in every direction and gave rise to Arun's nickname as "The City of Eternal Shade".

As Kirito materialized on the warpgate dais in the center of the city plaza where Kayaba had first gathered everyone on the evening of that fateful launch day, he was struck with a blend of annoyance and ironic amusement at the immediate need to shade his eyes with the flat of his hand. The sun was in that brief two-hour window where it was low enough to clear the branches of Yggdrasil but still high enough in the sky to hang above the mountains on the western horizon. After a day spent clearing corridors and chambers dark enough to require his Illusion magic to see, it was nearly blinding.

His eyes adjusted soon enough, though, and within a few minutes his wings had recharged enough in the sunlight for him to take to the air—his destination wasn't far, and he had a number of errands to run.

First and foremost among those errands was to take care of his gear and keep it maintained at max durability. It was a habit long ingrained by the time the beta test had concluded, and after all these months on the front lines of Yggdrasil it had become as automatic and natural as brushing his teeth had been back in the real world. The store he sought was located on the far eastern edge of the merchant district barely twenty seconds' flight away from the entrance to Yggdrasil's dungeons; a low-level player could've almost run there in less time than they flew, but at Kirito's level he was fast enough to enjoy the convenience. He settled to the ground in front of a corner shop with a round bronze sign hanging over the entrance, and pushed the door open with a shrill tinkle of bells.

A wide array of glass display cases lined the walls and stood as islands in the middle of the shop, each of them filled with an impressive-looking assortment of weapons for virtually any preference. Kirito ran a finger down the edge of one of the cases as he walked by; the weapon within it looked as if it might almost be a match for the rare longsword he currently carried, an elegant cobalt and ebony blade called «Phantasmal Dirge». But almost was not good enough, and he rather liked his sword.

He wasn't the only player in the weapon shop. A pair of Sylphs were browsing through the katana-type weapons near the shopkeeper's front desk, and when they caught sight of him they scowled. Kirito couldn't even bring himself to sigh by this point; he was well aware of what kind of reputation the members of his race had gained ever since their then-leader, Yoshihara, had refused to sign on to the Treaty of Arun. He ignored the dirty looks and turned his attention to the shopkeeper herself.

Lisbeth looked back at him with something that might've been a hint of sympathy as he approached. Not wanting to cost the young Leprechaun smith any more business than his presence might have already, he unslung Phantasmal Dirge from his back and presented it to her wordlessly.

She knew the routine by now. She risked a smile at him as she took the sheathed sword and headed towards the back room.

"Hey lady, I thought Spriggans were on the NCC blacklist. Why're you helping him?"

That snide remark came from the older of the two Sylphs, a man with long flowing light green hair that seemed to be receding from his forehead. He looked down his nose at Kirito, who did his best to blank his expression.

Lisbeth was not quite so restrained. She set the sword on the counter and marched over to the two Sylphs, fists planted on her hips in a posture that Kirito knew portended doom. The Sylph man was tall enough to almost tower over her, but she looked straight up at him as if she intended to duel him.

"Only the ones who don't abide by the treaty. And I can tell you that this one does. As long as they do that, the NCC has no objection to taking a Spriggan's business. Is that a problem for you?"

The younger Sylph tried to push his way around the older one. "What do you think? Of course they can't be trusted, lady, now—"

"Good!" Lisbeth said with exaggerated cheer as she began to push both Sylphs bodily towards the door, almost forcefully enough to trigger the anti-harassment warning. "I'm glad we straightened that out. Now the two of you can get the hell out of my shop while you're still breathing."

The younger Sylph didn't seem to know when to stop. "Our avatars don't breathe—"

"I'll make you breathe just so that I can deliver on that threat!" Lisbeth yelled, her face turning red. "Get out!"

Kirito coughed lightly into his hand as the door to the shop slammed shut, drawing a glance over the shoulder from Lisbeth. "What?" she asked, her tone defensive.

"Keep that up, and you're going to drive away so many customers that Spriggans will be your only source of income." There was a slight smile teasing at Kirito's face, but his concern was earnest—it seemed like every other time he came in to have his gear repaired, Liz ended up blowing her top at some customer or another who was giving Kirito the cold shoulder.

Lisbeth folded her arms under her bust and turned to look squarely at Kirito for a few moments, then relaxed somewhat. She dropped her gaze as he passed him, walking over to pick up his sword from where she'd set it on the counter. "It just bothers me," she said, pausing at the doorway to the workshop with her back turned to him. "It's not your fault the Spriggans have a crappy leader."

"The Spriggans have exactly the leader they want," Kirito said, unable to keep the scorn for his fellow faction members out of his voice. "One who has no interest in leading."

"But that can't be all of them, right? No matter what kind of reputation the faction had on the Internet before the game launched, there have to be players who picked their race for some reason other than wanting to be solo, right?"

That hit a bit close to home for Kirito. He'd originally picked a Spriggan in the beta primarily for their appearance—he mostly preferred to use his sword, so the shortcomings of Illusion magic weren't really a concern for him, and he ended up finding creative ways to make it useful anyway. But from what he'd seen, Spriggan players like him were in the minority—most had known exactly what they wanted when they made their character.

"Not all of them," Kirito said finally. "But enough of the ones who vote."

Lisbeth was a skilled smith, and ALO's crafting interfaces were remarkably simplified. Kirito heard a bit of hammering from the back room, and a few minutes later Lisbeth returned with Phantasmal Dirge, presenting it to him with both hands.

Kirito received it the same way, and drew the sword from its hard leather sheath. Tapping it to bring up its status window, he confirmed that everything was as it should be, and gave Lisbeth a smile as he sheathed it and returned it to his back, opening his trade menu and adding money to it. "Thanks again. I appreciate it as always—a lot of NCC crafters don't even bother to check against the blacklist; they just won't do business with Spriggans at all." Some had even gone so far as to hang signs with "no Spriggans" or similar sentiments outside of their shops.

The look on Lisbeth's face clouded again as she accepted the payment. "They're racist idiots," she said firmly. "I know you're not like that, Kirito. You're always welcome here."

Kirito smiled again, faintly embarrassed. "Thanks, Liz. Anyway, I'd better be going. Ja na."

His fingers had just touched the handle of the front door when Lisbeth's voice brought him to a halt. "Kirito!"

Kirito half-turned, looking back across the shop at Lisbeth with a questioning look on his face. She seemed to be visibly struggling with something, wringing her hands on her apron as she cast her eyes down towards the floor. "Kirito, I… that is… I…"

The question on his face shifted into mild confusion. "Liz?"

Her struggle ended abruptly as she unclasped her hands and held them to her sides, donning a cheerful smile as if it was a mask. "Nothing! It's nothing, sorry… I… good luck."

Kirito blinked at her for a moment, and then tried on an awkward smile of his own, thanking her and walking out of the store.

He was never going to understand girls.

And never was that fact more apparent than when dealing with the person he saw next as the shop door shut behind him. The Undine girl's blue eyes slid to the side to regard him a little cautiously as she walked down the street, absorbed in the animated—and seemingly one-sided—conversation coming from the younger girl walking beside her.

The young Imp girl seemed to be recapping favorite moments from a recent battle the two had been in, but when she saw Kirito she cut herself off in mid-sentence and ran towards him with a happy shout, grabbing him in a hug that was startling for all its strength. It was a stark reminder that in the world of ALO, your STR stat mattered far more than the muscles on your avatar's 3D model. "Kirito!"

Arms pinned to his sides, Kirito smiled uncomfortably and tried to extract a hand so that he could dismiss the anti-harassment warning that had just popped up in his vision. "Hello Yuuki, Asuna." He saw the Undine girl give a sudden start as he spoke their names, but it was gone from her face so quickly that he couldn't be sure it wasn't just the emotion expression system being over-sensitive. He met Asuna's eyes for a moment, and saw some of the reserve thaw from her as Yuuki released him and stepped back.

"We were just on our way back to the front lines, Kirito, you should come party with us! Right, Asuna?"

Asuna opened her mouth soundlessly for a moment, and Kirito could tell from her embarrassed, cornered expression as she glanced between Yuuki and him that the sudden invitation had taken her somewhat aback.

"It's okay," Kirito said quickly, "I have to—"

"I'd really like that," Asuna said, finally managing to smile at him. Kirito couldn't remember the last time she'd done that, and it stopped him in his tracks.

He shut his mouth quickly, looking away. "That would just cause you problems," he said. "With your faction and the other clearers, I mean. Diavel doesn't want Spriggans on Undine territory at all now. You think he really wants his top clearers out partying with one?"

"You think I care what he has to say about it?" Asuna asked sharply. When Kirito returned his gaze to her, he saw an expression to match her tone—and he couldn't be sure whether she was angry with him, her leader, or both. "I can make my own decisions about who I want to party with, and what risks to take."

Kirito couldn't meet her eyes. People he knew losing business over him was bad enough. He didn't want to cause problems for Asuna and Yuuki as well; the last time they'd partied together on the front lines it had gotten Asuna into a huge shouting match with another Undine clearer that ended with both him and Kirito leaving her party.

Better that his isolation not rub off on her. He was happy enough as a solo player, but Asuna seemed to thrive on the social aspect of partying with others and the role she'd taken on as a top member of the Undine clearing groups. The prospect of her being shunned the way he was…

"Thanks for the invite, but I'm not going to the front lines today," Kirito said. "I have to go to one of the lower regions to farm mats for upgrading my sword." It wasn't even a lie—it was where he'd been intending to go.

Not a lie, no… but it was an excuse.

Yuuki seemed disappointed, and Asuna gave him a slightly hurt look. Kirito couldn't face that, and had to turn away. "I'm sorry," he said, trying to force a smile onto his face. "We'll party up another time when we're both going to the same place."

"Yeah," Asuna said, her tone doubtful. "We'll do that. Come on, Yuuki." The distinct sounds of Imp and Undine wings came to life and receded into the distance.

Kirito had to force himself to unclench his fists and stop digging the tips of his fingers into his palms after they were gone. He gave the two of them a few minutes' head start, his thoughts in turmoil. Then, without another word, he brought out his wings and headed towards the warpgate.


"I've been thinking," Argo said.

Alicia Rue flattened her ears back in mock-horror as the two of them walked through the farmer's market in Freelia. "Should I be worried? When you start thinking, it usually ends with you sending my people around the world like game pieces."

"'My people'," Argo echoed with something approaching amusement. "You're starting to sound like a larper. Do you need an intervention?"

Alicia snorted and made an indelicate gesture. Like so many neologisms in ALO, larper was derived from an English gaming term. It was an unofficial—and somewhat pejorative—word that had cropped up in recent months to refer to people who'd completely submerged themselves in their in-game racial identity. Some blurring of the line separating reality from fantasy was only to be expected after six months of living in this world 24/7, but larpers didn't blur the line so much as scuff it out and lose track of the fact that there ever was one.

"Nice," Argo said as she made an unsuccessful grab for Alicia's raised finger. "Very regal, that."

"I call the Cait Sith 'my people', Argo, because game or no game, I'm responsible for their lives. I might not take many things seriously, but that's one of them—or else I wouldn't still be here. So yeah, all kidding aside, I get to be a little worried when you start thinking up some kind of scheme that's likely to require me to ask someone to put their life on the line."

Argo's eyes flickered around the market, looking for any nearby players. Seeing none, she went on in a conversational tone. "What happens when someone clears the game?"

Alicia stopped and looked at Argo curiously. "We've talked about this. Isn't it obvious? Kayaba's terms were to reach the top of the World Tree, defeat the boss there, and get the power of Unlimited Flight so that we can fly through the vortex. Us and two allies. We know what we have to do, so why bring it up now?"

"That's not what I meant," Argo said as she paid an NPC vendor for a bag of candy. "What happens afterwards?"

Alicia was silent for a few moments. "Maybe I don't get where you're going with this after all."

"Okay, then bear with me here. Someone clears the World Tree, gets to fly through the vortex and log out, whee, happy ending. For them. What about the six races left behind?"

"They're fucked," Alicia said bluntly. "Which is why I intend for the Cait Sith to get there first. With the Sylphs as allies, provided they get around to electing a leader who isn't a damned larper. Can't you do anything about that?"

"Not really," Argo admitted. "Skarrip is a Sylph problem. I know Sakuya's been considering opposing him next cycle, but any attempt to get involved from the outside is gonna hurt her chances more than help. But getting back to the point, did I ever tell you about the conversation I had with the Puca leader in the first days of the game?"

"Sort of," Alicia said. "The stuff about second and third waves of clearing, right? I thought that was just a line you fed to Merifelle to motivate her."

Argo's teeth crunched as she chewed on the last bit of her rock candy before it dissolved. "Yes and no. None of us know for certain what's gonna happen when someone clears the game. But I know what Kayaba said, and I'm pretty sure I know how he would've phrased it differently if he'd intended to imply that Yggdrasil could only be cleared once."

Alicia sniffed at the air, nose twitching. "I detect the distinct odor of wishful thinking."

"No, really, listen to me. Have you ever read the online help in this game?"

Alicia shuddered. "Not much since the beta. I learn by doing; manuals put me to sleep."

"That explains so many things."

"Bite me, girl. Did you have a point?"

Argo nodded as they wove their way through the crowd, stopping to let an NPC-driven wagon full of lettuce pass through the narrow street. "Technical writing isn't easy, and Kayaba was excellent at it. He's got a distinctive style; you can see his touch all over the manual. And if there's one thing that stands out, it's his obsession with precision and detail. If there are two words he could've used, you can bet there's a reason why he chose one over the other."

"Point being?" Alicia prodded.

"The point is this: at every single point in the manual or the quest text where he writes about something that happens only for the first character to do it, he uses the word saisho, and usually the phrase saisho no player. He never said saisho even once in his entire tutorial speech. Not that, and not anything like it."

"That's a pretty thin branch to cling to."

"Perhaps," Argo said. "But even setting aside the choice of words, it makes sense. Say what you want about Kayaba, this game is fair. It's well-designed, well-balanced, remarkably free of bugs, and if a player dies it's usually because they made a mistake. That's a basic tenet of good game design."


Argo went on. "And, let's say a third of the players gets to log out. What happens to the rest who are left behind? Does he send the killswitch signal to our Nerve Gears, instantly murdering more than twelve thousand people? Or does he leave us all trapped in here—and if he does, why not press the reset button and give the remaining races another go at it? Whatever he's getting out of this, he won't get it from gratuitous mass murder."

Alicia was quiet for a time as they passed through a thick knot of players of several different northern races. "What of it?" she said finally. "It doesn't change our goal. Let's say you're right, and one of the other races beats us to the top. That leaves six of us, and it almost certainly leaves us without at least one of the larger, stronger races. If we have to clear the entire World Tree again, we'll have to do it without all the casualties we'd incurred up to that point, and with three fewer races to help. And there's no guarantee there won't be a difficulty spike then, or some other new conditions."

"All true. Which is why I've been thinking. Let's say the Cait Sith clear the game first. We're probably one of the larger factions—only the Sylphs and Salamanders are bigger. But we don't have any formal allies. Who do we pick?"

"I've given that some thought," Alicia said. "Unless something changes, I think we should pick the Sylphs and the Undines."

Argo nodded as if this was no surprise at all. "Why them?"

"Well, the Sylphs because they're the closest thing we have to friends. We don't have border problems with them, our clearing groups don't conflict and even work together sometimes. And they're the second largest faction—it would save a lot of people if we can only clear the game once. As for the Undines…" Alicia shrugged as if it was a casual matter. "They're still a big faction, so lots of people to save, and their leader seems like a decent guy. They offer their healing services to anyone, and bless them for it."

"Okay," Argo said. "I see what you're thinking. Here's the problem: I think those are two of the worst possible choices you could make."

Alicia's jaw dropped. "It's not like it's set in stone, and maybe there are better… but the worst?"

"The worst," Argo agreed. "Because it completely screws everyone who's left behind." She began ticking off points on her fingers. "In one fell swoop, the remaining players have lost the beast tamers, some of the best archers, the second-largest faction with a lot of clearers who generally play well with others, and—worst of all—access to advanced high-level rez spells only Undines can cast, along with the majority of the strong healers in the game."

Alicia said nothing, but her ears were flat and her tail lashed furiously.

"I think we need to prioritize so that we leave the remaining six races in the best possible position to quickly clear the game and free another three races. The last three are going to have the hardest time, so ideally we'd want the last ones left to be the Salamanders, Sylphs and Undines."

"Really?" Alicia said wryly. "The three races that can barely stand each other, let alone work together. You call that being left in a good place?"

"I do," Argo said. "Because in order for it to even get to that point, we're all gonna need to set aside our differences and cooperate anyway." As Alicia started to laugh, Argo held up a hand. "I'm not saying we have to like each other. But the leaders, at least, need to look at the big picture. And if we can't reach them, we need to reach the key clearers for each faction. The person delivering the Last Attack is going to be the one who makes the decision anyway."

"You're talking about a conspiracy between the clearers," Alicia mused. "That's not going to go over well if it gets out."

"I don't care. There are a lot of lives at stake here."

"If you're right," Alicia said.

"Allie," Argo said as she turned and put both hands on her friend's shoulders. "When am I not right?"


Brow furrowed in concentration, Sachi pressed the palms of her hands together as if in supplication, and carefully read the words from the spellbook in her game menu. "Okay… zutto mezal kevuchaz shaja yasun."

It was her third attempt, and luck was with her. She'd been having trouble keeping the cadence even while stumbling over the transition between the last two words, but Sasha's explanations had been starting to sink in. As soon as the word yasun passed her lips, the golden runes swirling around her locked into place and a blue glow appeared in the palm of her right hand. She reached out and touched Sasha on the arm, blue energy flowing up and across the woman's body, and watched her smile as her eyes glanced up towards her HP gauge where she would most likely be seeing the effect notification.

Sasha gave her student a look of approval, sweeping a loose wisp of brown hair out of her freckled face. "Good, good. Now here's the twist: add the direct heal at the end of the regen."

Sachi flinched. When Sasha had started teaching her how to use magic, she'd been expecting a whole bunch of rote memorization. There was plenty of that, but learning how to improvise spells the way that Sasha did was… it was like English class, except worse.

Some of this must have shown on her face. Sasha's smile became very gentle, and she nodded her encouragement. "Chaz," she said, giving Sachi a hint.

"I know that," Sachi said proudly. And she did. The word for direct heal effects was usually omitted, since recovery-type spells assumed direct healing by default. But this was one of those situations where it was necessary to use it explicitly. She was very happy with herself for remembering.

At Sasha's prodding, Sachi cleared her throat and swept her menu closed—this spell wouldn't be in her spellbook; she was making it up as she went. "Zutto mezal—"

A portion of her MP disappeared as she stumbled to a halt in mid-incantation, startled by the door to the dining room flying open and several small children running in, yelling. She pushed herself up to her feet. "Jellica, Robert, what's going on here?"

The two children, a girl and boy of ten years respectively, both pointed at each other and loudly protested that the other had started it—whatever "it" was; they hadn't actually gotten around to saying yet. Sachi stuck out her chin and blew a breath up at her bangs, causing them to flutter. "Do you two need to play in different rooms today?"

Sachi heard a chuckle from behind her, and turned to see Sasha covering her mouth. Sachi pouted a little at the older woman and turned back to the children, who had started bickering again. "I guess you do. Robert, go find Gilthar and give him a hand in the garden. Jellica, you stay inside."

"But it's hot inside!" Jellica protested, her blonde curls bouncing as she shook her head vigorously. "I want to go out and play!"

"Then take turns," Sachi said firmly. "But I don't want the two of you playing in the same room until you can play together nicely. Understand?"

A pair of nods, both reluctant, were the only answer. As the children went running back out the door, Sachi sighed and sat back down at one of the many tables in the dining room of the church, leaning forward until her forehead rested on it with a light bump. Since that didn't hurt, she lifted her head and repeated the bump.

"You're doing just fine," Sasha said. "Sometimes they listen to you better than they do me."

Raising her head before it could make an impression in the table, Sachi revealed a wan smile. "I'm glad you think so. Sometimes they make me want to tear my hair out."

Sasha laughed, adjusting her round thin-rimmed glasses on the bridge of her nose. "I've got more than a few bald patches myself," she said with a grin. "Now, where were we?"

Sighing, Sachi glanced up and to the left; her MP was almost completely recharged. "Verb inflection," she said with something approaching a groan.

"Yes. So let's try that again. Add a direct heal to the end of the regen effect."

Sachi chewed on her lower lip. "I think I know… vuchaze?"

The older woman shook her head. "That's the Concatenative form. Conjugate vuchaz for me."

Sachi groaned again, far more pointedly. Her teacher looked back at her unsympathetically; with a melodramatic sigh, Sachi obeyed. "Vuchaz, vuchaze, vuchazi—"

"Vuchaji," Sasha corrected.

"They sound almost the same to me... vuchaji, vuchazo, vuchajazo."

"Good. Which one is the Sequential form?"

It only took her a moment, once she realized which one she'd missed—of course it was the hard one. "Vuchaji."

Sasha gestured for Sachi to go on. Chewing on her lip some more, Sachi nodded and cleared her throat. "Zutto mezal kevuchaji chaz shaja yasun."

She knew immediately that she'd said it correctly; again the intense blue energy gathered in her hand and transferred to her "target" when she touched Sasha on the arm. She counted twelve seconds silently in her head—the expected duration of the heal-over-time effect. At the end of her count, a second flash of blue energy sheeted across Sasha as the direct heal applied itself.

Sachi squealed happily. "I did it!"

Sasha grinned at her, reaching over and ruffling Sachi's hair. The affectionate gesture made her think of her friends from school, who tended to do that to her a lot. She was the youngest of her group besides Ducker, and everyone treated her like a little sister. The thought brought a pang of nostalgia to her, which she pushed out of her head as Sasha spoke to her.

"You've been studying. You used to have a lot of trouble remembering the different inflections."

Sachi nodded, claiming a banana from the centerpiece on the table as a reward for her diligence. As she began to peel it, she said, "I try, it's just… I don't really get what the point is? The game automatically gives me new spells as my Water Magic skill goes up. What's the point of all this work just to make up your own spells?"

Sasha hesitated as she got a far-off look in her eyes that Sachi recognized as deep thought. "Well, it's like the difference between memorizing a handful of English phrases versus learning to speak English. A few rote phrases will get you through most situations as a tourist… but if you get into real trouble, or something comes up that isn't covered by what you've memorized, isn't it better to understand the language so that you can improvise?"

Sachi gave the woman a lopsided smile. "Spoken like an English teacher."

"Thank you very much." Sasha spoke those four words in English with very little accent. They both laughed. "I'm serious, though. You get out more than I do, going out with your friends to earn money for us. Some of the places you go are quite dangerous. The more capable you are at magic, the more comfortable I'll be."

"Is that why you've been spending all these months buying incantations from random people and trying to figure out how the language works? For me?"

Sasha laughed. "For you, Sachi… but also because it's something to do to fill time and keep my mind sharp. I'll never be a clearer; I have all of my kids to take care of." By which she meant the dozens of young children of various races that she'd unofficially "adopted" in order to get them off the streets. "And that includes you. But I know languages, and the language of magic in Alfheim is quite simple compared to learning English. No irregular verbs, inflexible syntax—"

Sachi waved a hand before Sasha could get wound up and drown her in unfamiliar 1000-yen words. "I know, I know. Even if the higher-level spellwords make me feel like I'm choking on cotton."

"That's the idea," Sasha said as she started to redo her braid in order to capture some of the stray locks of hair. "To the point where I'm pretty sure that was the intent. Most languages have a discrete set of phonemes associated with them. The phonemes of these spellwords seem to have been chosen based on how difficult they are for a native Japanese speaker to pronounce—with the higher magnitudes and more powerful effects being the hardest."

Sachi looked directly at Sasha as she spoke. When the older woman came to a stopping point, Sachi reached up and dribbled her finger rapidly across her own lips, making an incoherent burbling sound. The message was clear: please to be stopping the speaking of gibberish now.

Sasha snorted and made a shooing motion. "Go on, you. In fact, why don't you go out and make sure that Robert hasn't buried Jellica headfirst in the garden?"

Fortunately, no such thing had occurred. But the afternoon sun felt nice, and Sachi was content just to sit there in the garden, soaking up some peace as some of the children played in the background. She wasn't sure how much time passed, but eventually a chime and a flashing icon interrupted her daydreams.

「Hey there, Little Cat. Tetsuo just let me know that he has the next two days off from his clearing group. Want to get everyone together tomorrow and hit the World Tree? -Keita」

As always, the invitation from her old friend Keita filled her with a conflicting array of mixed feelings. She missed her friends—not so much as she had during the early days of the game, when no one even knew if the others were alive, but only getting to go out with them a few times a month wasn't enough.

But the worst part was that everyone had… changed.

Sasamaru least of all—he'd always been one of the quieter boys in their computer club, and if anything he seemed to be largely content with his role in one of the Cait Sith clearing groups. But it took more, now, to get him to laugh. Tetsuo even moreso—Sachi missed his boyish smile and easy humor; months spent as one of the clearers serving under General Eugene in the Salamander army had robbed him of both to a large extent. He was still Tetsuo… but something inside him seemed broken, now.

Then there was their nominal "leader", Keita. At least, he'd been their guild leader in a previous game, and before logging into ALO they'd talked about reforming the guild in this game. But he had his own responsibilities in one of the Gnome clearing groups, and with everyone being separated and having to find their own place in the world early on… the guild had simply never happened. But Keita swore that if they could find Ducker, he'd quit his clearing group so that they could rebuild The Black Cats of the Moonlit Night. And in the meantime, he tried to organize these outings together whenever they all had time at once.

Another chime sounded in Sachi's head, and she quickly accepted the second incoming message from Keita.

「P.S.: I don't suppose you've heard from Ducker, have you?」

That, right there, had been what Sachi had been avoiding thinking about. Nobody knew what had happened to Ducker—he'd never contacted anyone. At the time he logged in he'd been leaning towards creating an Imp, but still hadn't been certain. Tetsuo had scoured Everdark looking for him during the first month, and after all this time the likeliest possibility was that during the Salamander invasion, he'd been—

Sachi squeezed her eyes shut, tears welling up in them as she forced herself to stop so much as even thinking that. Hands trembling suddenly, she reached up and opened the reply window, a holographic keyboard appearing in front of her. Her train of thought had taken her to a dark place that no one wanted to talk about, and it was related to the other issue that gave her mixed feelings about going out with her friends.

Put simply, she was terrified of dying. It had always been there in the back of her mind, but being trapped in this death game had brought it to the forefront where it wouldn't go away.

Most of the others were clearers, and they liked to go as deep in Yggdrasil as they could. They knew she lagged far behind them in levels, despite her magic skills being high from all of her practice with Sasha. And the areas they'd been going to recently had been a concession to that, probably at least ten or twelve gates below where they usually fought.

It didn't matter. As soon as she thought about going anywhere near the front lines, her hands started shaking too much to type. It took a few minutes for the panic attack to subside, and when it did she flexed her fingers a few times and then slowly began to respond to Keita's message.


The party of six pushed one by one through the curtain separating the foyer of the inn from the common room, the sounds of conversation and the smells of NPC cooking immediately assaulting the senses. The smells weren't bad, really—now that clearing groups were progressing further into the World Tree, the components they sometimes brought back and sold translated into a gradual improvement in the quality of NPC food.

But no one held any illusions about whether or not it would be good—just acceptable and filling.

A Salamander with sword and shield was the first to enter, a tank named Allister. An unlikely collection of players followed: a pair of Gnomes, one a caster and the other in light armor; a Sylph healer whose craggy face was nearly always expressionless, and a very young Cait Sith girl with a small tame flying creature napping atop her head like a feathered hat.

Rosalia hadn't really bothered herself with the names of the others, but she knew the Cait Sith girl by reputation if nothing else: the so-called Dragon Tamer Silica, a solo player who had somehow managed to tame some sort of water drake from the Valley of Rainbows. She jumped from group to group almost as often as Rosalia did, albeit for completely different reasons. The girl's light brown hair was tied up into pigtails, just below and behind a pair of large triangular feline ears.

And she was young. Excruciatingly, annoyingly young.

From the Cait Sith girl's looks, Rosalia wouldn't have bet on Silica being much over the age of 12, perhaps 13 if she wanted to be terribly generous. Since she did not consider herself by nature to be an especially generous person, she pegged the girl at twelve and cursed whatever indulgent, irresponsible parents had let her log into this game. The girl was simply a brat who'd gotten full of herself because of all the attention lavished on her since being trapped in ALO, and Rosalia was looking forward to seeing her taken down a peg or two.

After the group settled themselves around a large round table, Rosalia put her elbow on the table and leaned her chin in the palm of her hand, trying to find something to improve her mood and failing to find it in the mug of faux ale the NPC waitress set in front of her. Her train of thought simply served to remind her of just how far she and her companions had fallen since Kibaou's defeat.

Not these companions—the very thought caused a sour look to rise to her face, as if she'd tasted something foul in her drink. These people were nothing but marks. Back in the first month of the game, she and her group had been tasked with raiding Sylph territory on a daily basis as privateers, either shaking down travelers for their goods or, when faced with stiff resistance, taking them out.

Those days had been filled with glory and official recognition for her efforts. Things could not be more different now. They weren't criminals, per se; nothing they did broke the laws of any faction, and if on occasion they skirted a little close to the letter of the Treaty of Arun… well, no one who might accuse them of it was around to do so.

But without the official backing of the Salamander leadership, they had to operate independently, and be much more careful about picking their targets. Which was how Rosalia found herself spending days at a time putting up with the inanities and noobishness of random pickup groups like this one.

A random outburst caught her attention; one of the Gnomes in the group had made an off-color joke, and Silica had clapped her hands over her ears and started saying "lalalalala" at great length. Rosalia fought down the urge to wait until the girl uncovered her ears and then go into great detail about the undocumented «Ethics Code Off» function.

So help me, if I have to listen to one more day of this brat's prattling… what the hell kind of mother lets a twelve year old girl login to a game like this?

It wasn't the first time such a thought had crossed her mind. Rosalia simply didn't comprehend women who got maternal urges—she had a few colorful names for them, the politest of which was "baby factory". She didn't feel compelled to protect Silica so much as throttle her. But she could at least grant that kids as young as Silica had no place being stuck in a virtual prison like this. And if they had the misfortune to be born to parents stupid enough to let them get trapped here, she couldn't understand why they didn't at least just stay safely in their own starting city instead of venturing out into a world meant for adults.

Frankly, Rosalia thought, I'll be doing her a favor tomorrow. Once she's done pissing herself pale, she'll probably go hole up with that woman in the church and never leave Arun again.

As far as Rosalia was concerned, that uptight schoolmarm was doing everyone a favor by keeping the kids from going out adventuring. She'd seen some brats even younger than Silica out in clearing parties, of all things!

Glancing at the time in her HUD, Rosalia pushed herself to her feet, feigning a slight bit of wooziness. "All this noise in here is making me lightheaded," she said, forcing pleasantness into her tone. "If none of you mind, I'm going to go get some air."

Allister nodded, giving her a smile. "Take your time. We're all renting individual rooms tonight, so if we're not down here when you get back, just see the innkeeper and meet us back here in the morning by nine. That is, if you still want to party with us."

Rosalia flipped her long red bangs off the right side of her face and met both of the other Salamander's eyes. She knew he wanted to sleep with her, and although she wasn't the least bit interested, his guard would be down as long as he thought otherwise. "Of course I do! But for now, if you'll excuse me…"

It was always helpful when you didn't have to lie—it kept things simpler. The noise really was giving her a headache, although Silica's high-pitched exclamations in particular were not exactly helping. The walk did her good, however, and after turning a few well-lit corners, another Salamander fell into step beside her.

"All set?" he asked.

"Almost too easy," she replied. "The biggest threat is a Sal tank named Allister. Good with his sword, and quicker than he looks. Hit him with the paralysis poison; we've only got the one."

The Salamander pikeman nodded; Rosalia knew from long experience that he was mentally taking notes. "The Gnomes aren't much to worry about. They'll fold when they see Allister drop. The Sylph mage is the healer; he needs to go down fast. Silence him if we can, otherwise we might have to kill him. He doesn't like me or Allister, and I'm pretty sure it's not my lack of charm." Meaning he had a grudge against Salamanders. Which wasn't all that uncommon.

Her companion snorted. "What about the girl?"

"Mukensha, I'm just shocked. Don't you know? That's the legendary idol Silica-chan, The Dragon Tamer." Every syllable was dripping with mockery.

"I know who she is, Rose. What are we doing about her?"

Rosalia had spent a fair amount of time thinking about the answer to precisely that question. "Kill her pet, shake her down for whatever she's got like the others, and send her back to Arun with a spanking. She's just a spoiled brat; there's no need for anything more drastic."

"I think you're underestimating her," Mukensha warned. "She's a fighter. What's more, she's got enough guts to get in close and fight with a dagger. You kill that pet of hers, and she's likely to snap and come at one of us. What then?"

Rosalia lifted one thick red eyebrow as she gave her companion a sidewise look. It was an unpleasant thing Mukensha was talking about, and one that she'd been avoiding coming at directly. "Then deal with the problem. What else do you want me to say?"

Deal with the problem. It was so much easier to say than murder a 12 year old girl, but meant much the same thing. Rosalia shivered for a moment, waiting for Mukensha to argue, to assent, or to say anything further about the task before them.

Somehow, his silence was far more damning.

Chapter Text

"The cursor is a diamond-shaped HUD indicator which appears centered above the head of an entity in the observing player's field of view, once the observer places Focus on that entity. Focusing on a cursor will cause the entity's status ribbon to appear, as well as enabling various spells and game functions which are targeted by Focus, such as duels or party invites. Critical information about an entity is also conveyed by the color of its cursor: white for NPCs, red for Hostile players and mobs, yellow for Neutral or non-aggressive, and green for Allies. Additionally, the strength of a mob relative to the observer can be inferred by whether its color is shaded darker (stronger) or lighter (weaker). The «Options» menu contains a variety of settings for customizing the HUD and cursor behavior to each player's preference..."
Alfheim Online manual, «Cursors»

16 April 2023
Day 162

Rosalia glanced at her HP gauge after the last echoes of the mob's shattering faded away. She wasn't even down by 25%, and some of that should heal normally over the next several minutes if they stayed out of combat. She supposed if she was worried about it she could use a potion, but she'd been very careful not to admit to having any, and she'd deliberately taken a hit she could've parried during the last battle in order to set up precisely this situation.

She ran her eyes across the rest of the party. In some parts of the World Tree, diffuse sunlight would filter in here and there through patches of translucent membranes in the bark. But here in the dark stretches and winding pathways of the zones just below the 16th gate, the only illumination came from the luminescent plants lining the wide path through the alien-looking forest.

They glowed in a variety of unnatural colors that somehow managed to collectively conspire towards a cool shade of white light which was bright enough to read by in parts. In any event the HUD pop-ups for her party members' HP gauges were always the same fixed brightness. And she could quite clearly tell that she was the one who'd taken the most damage in the last fight.

"Silica, dear, do you happen to have any healing crystals or potions I could have?" Rosalia put on her best smile and tried to look sweet as the young Cait Sith girl looked up at her with a mildly skeptical expression.

"Why do you need them, Rosalia? You're not hurt very much."

Brat! Rosalia covered a narrowly averted scowl with a cough, turning it into a chuckle. "But what if something happens in the next battle, my dear? You have your little pet to heal you."

"His name is Pina."

Whatever. "But the Sylph gentleman here—" She glanced at the party list in her HUD, for the first time bothering to care what the man's name was. "—Jorwyn, he'll heal you, but he seems rather reluctant to do the same for me. I can't imagine why."

"You're not a young girl who needs protecting," Jorwyn said evenly, not even turning to face her. "Your HP looks green to me. I'll heal you when you need healing."

Fighting off the urge to blow her cover there and then by spitting the obnoxious Sylph on her pike, Rosalia looked back at Silica and spread her hands. "You see, love? The boys adore you. They'd never let anything happen to you. I'm not so lucky."

Silica looked up at Rosalia warily for a few more moments, as if trying to figure out if fun was being made at her expense. Finally she reached into one of her pouches and withdrew a slender red bottle, holding it out towards Rosalia with a cautious smile. "I suppose I won't miss one potion."

"Oh, why thank you, my dear, aren't you just the most generous thing?" Stingy brat!

"Next she'll be asking for Silica's autograph," muttered one of the Gnomes—a short, pudgy man in mage's robes with short-cropped brown hair and a bandolier of pouches worn diagonally across his chest. Glancing again at the party list below her own HP gauge, Rosalia saw that the other Gnome had taken a slight bit of damage in the fight; matching that up with the player's status ribbon helped her put a name to the mutter: Lothari. By process of elimination, that would make the skinny thief-type Gnome's name Lacey—a remarkably feminine-sounding name for such a horse-faced man; Rosalia entertained herself for a moment wondering if there was a story behind it. The two of them had been openly fawning on Silica the entire time they'd all been partied together, and Lothari's resentment didn't surprise her a bit.

Rosalia pretended not to hear the jibe as she quaffed the healing potion, the effect status icon appearing beside her HP gauge and her HP beginning to slowly tick upwards. She already had everything she was likely to get out of Silica for now; she'd been hoping to deprive her of a healing crystal or something else more useful than a slow-acting potion, but it was better than nothing—and it was one less bit of help the girl had, if it came to a fight. She turned her most radiant smile on the pair of Gnome players, both of whom glared at her with nearly identical narrow-eyed expressions, clearly thinking themselves far more intimidating than they were. It was almost enough to make her laugh.

No one else seemed to make much of this brief byplay; Allister was already scouting ahead with Jorwyn close behind him, and Silica skipped off once she'd given Rosalia the potion, her blue-feathered pet fluttering along with her. With one last pair of dirty looks in Rosalia's direction, the two Gnomes followed right on Silica's heels.

Rosalia gave them a few moments' head start before following along, opening her menu and checking the area map. She nodded to herself in satisfaction; they were almost in position.

It was time to spring the trap.

Strictly speaking, it was impossible to send private messages to or from a player who was within the World Tree or another dungeon. The game's PM system would reject attempts in either direction with the somewhat cryptic error message «Blocked by Environment». One of her team members, however, had discovered a loophole in this, and it was one they had used more than once to excellent effect.

Drilling down into her Options menu, Rosalia looked for the «Unfindable» flag and toggled it on and off twice in sequence, then back on. Normally, this flag was used if a player didn't want people on their friends list or in their group to be able to see their location on a map. Rosalia knew that Mukensha would be watching her on his area map, and would see the green dot indicating her location flash a few times as it disappeared and reappeared, then vanished.

It was a prearranged signal, one of several. Walking slowly, Rosalia watched Lothari and Lacey disappear around a bend in the trail as it wound its way around a large boulder; when all of the group was out of sight she took a hand from her polearm and held it out palm-first as she whispered words that by now she knew as well as her own name. "Matto yojikke vayezul dweren."

As soon as the last syllable of the Illusion incantation was uttered, she watched while the surface of her 3D model rapidly went transparent, until she could only see her outstretched arm as a ghostly echo against the background of the luminescent forest. Counting on stealth rather than magic to keep herself silent, she crept around the boulder and watched.

She didn't have to wait long. Rosalia saw a flicker of movement as a throwing dagger shot across the path and buried itself in Allister's neck. It didn't do a terrible amount of damage, but almost immediately she saw the symbol for Paralysis status appear beside the Salamander tank's HP gauge, and with a cry he toppled bonelessly to the ground. Jorwyn, annoyingly, did the smart thing: he let the rest of the party focus on the threat while he attempted to cure Allister's status effect.

Before he could get more than two words of the incantation out, a pair of arrows streaked out from the side of the trail opposite where the dagger had come from, one taking him in the shoulder and the other in the back. His HP gauge dropped immediately by more than half from both strikes, and he staggered from the impact, some of his MP disappearing as he fumbled the spell. A glowing violet spell effect struck him as he recovered and tried to cure Allister again, and when he opened his mouth nothing emerged but silent outrage, a different status icon appearing beside the yellow ribbon of his own HP gauge.

Into that sudden silence came Mukensha's sharp voice from the treeline. "Give it up! Your tank is down and your healer is Silenced. Disarm and all you lose today is some money and equipment."

All good so far. The two biggest threats were dealt with, and as she'd expected, the two Gnome players were panicking—Lacey spinning around with his short sword as if unsure from which direction to expect an attack. That idiot Lothari tried casting something, and ended up stuttering his way to failure. A volley of fireballs shot out from both sides of the treeline to encourage the remaining party members to heed the call for surrender.

Rosalia hated to admit it, but Mukensha had been right about one thing—Silica was a fighter, and her spunk was probably going to be the end of her. The girl leapt nimbly over a fireball that struck the ground where she'd been standing, landing in a roll that took her to Jorwyn's side. Rosalia's eyes narrowed as she saw what Silica drew from her pouch, and she almost broke cover to shout a warning before realizing it wouldn't come in time.

"Cure!" Silica yelled, the green crystal shattering in her free hand as the energy flowed over the Sylph mage's body. Immediately the Silence status symbol disappeared from his gauge, and without wasting a moment's breath he incanted the words to a curative spell more rapidly than Rosalia had ever heard anyone speak without mangling the pronunciation. She cursed as she saw the Paralysis status disappear from Allister; they'd only had the one paralysis poison, and if these idiots forced her to step in…

As Allister was trying to push himself back to his feet, a concentrated barrage of projectiles and elements converged on Jorwyn. The Sylph healer had time for a single ragged scream before he dissolved into green flames and left only a Remain Light. Rosalia wryly observed that it wasn't a treaty violation—he hadn't been in the red, he hadn't been trying to rez anyone, and they'd all just happened to attack at once. It was just too bad the Sylph moron hadn't surrendered when he'd been given the chance.

Such things happened in battle.

The last projectile to strike had been an AOE fireball, and both Allister and Silica went flying in opposite directions from the force of the area blast. Fingering the shaft of her pike anxiously, Rosalia took a moment to glance over to where the Gnomes were—where they had been, she corrected immediately; they were nowhere in sight, although she could still see them in her party list below her HP gauge. She frowned. She didn't think either of them had much worth taking, but it irked her that her team had let anyone get away during all of this drama.

That left two combatants, and at this point her companions showed themselves—half a dozen Salamanders, Imps and Spriggans stepped out from the trees, blocking the path on either end. Three of them encircled Allister, who seemed determined to be a complete idiot by fighting on rather than doing the smart thing and submitting in the face of overwhelming odds. Rosalia would have to make sure that whoever killed him coughed up everyone else's share of the loot.

In the meantime, Silica was making a complete nuisance of herself by easily evading most of the attacks directed her way, as if Rosalia's people were moving in slow motion. More than one of them seemed reluctant to go all-out against a young girl, and she seemed quite willing to take advantage of their restraint.

Then, Allister screamed defiantly as Mukensha impaled him on his pike while the Salamander tank was fending off his other two opponents. The force of the blow lifted him up into the air for a moment before he exploded, cutting off his last yell and leaving the flames of his Remain Light flickering angrily in the air at chest height.

The scream caught Silica's attention, her head whipping around towards the sound. As she did, a warhammer took her in the midriff, doubling her over and sending her bouncing awkwardly across the ground to land in a heap, HP close to the yellow. The girl's pet dragon gave a warbling cry and flew to her side, casting one of its limited healing spells. Silica looked up with an expression of gratitude and opened her mouth, seemingly about to thank her pet—of all things, thanking a stupid mob for its scripted behavior, and in the middle of combat!—when the girl's eyes widened in horror. Several homing fireballs blasted the water drake from the air, causing it to explode into a shower of blue polygons and rapidly disintegrating feathers that rained down over her.

Silica had started to push herself back to her feet, but the death of her pet seemed to rob her of all her strength as she collapsed back to the ground, cradling a single feather which was all that remained of the pet. She hugged it to her chest as she rocked back and forth, her dagger lying forgotten on the ground. Tears streamed down her face as she sobbed, crying as if it had been a brother or sister instead of a worthless piece of code in the system. Rosalia would've almost felt sorry for her if it hadn't been the girl's own fault for not surrendering.

"Pina! Pina! No, no, no, Pina, why?" She seemed almost oblivious at first to the players approaching her with weapons at ready, completely absorbed in her shock and grief.

Enough, Rosalia thought. The pet was dead, and so were the tank and healer. The two Gnomes had run off to who-knows-where, and good riddance. She wasn't worried about being outed by them; the two cowards would probably assume she'd run off like they did. And as she'd suspected, the erstwhile Dragon Tamer Silica didn't seem to be in any shape to put up further resistance with the loss of her pet after all. She was probably loaded with healing items and gifts from her admirers; it was time to cash in.

Rosalia was about to drop her concealment spell and take control of the situation when he showed up.


The first bandit died almost immediately. It was a fluke, really—out of the four hits in the sword skill Kirito unleashed, two of them critted, one of them striking a vital location. The Salamander didn't even have time to scream or process the fact that he was doomed before his avatar was consumed by a pillar of flames that resolved into a flickering red Remain Light. Before the others could register what was happening, Kirito segued into a spiraling series of cuts that ended up taking off another bandit's arm at the elbow, the other Spriggan's mace dropping to the ground as it trailed the spray of particles from his rapidly disintegrating forearm. Kirito finished with a boot to the chest that sent the shocked player staggering backwards, and stepped past a thrust from a pike to drive his sword into the next assailant's chest before bringing it around in another twirling slash diagonally across the pikeman's torso.

Kirito spun just in time evade an incoming arrow and parry a blow from another bandit's warhammer. He used the moment's respite granted by the opening not to strike, but to utter a rapid-fire incantation that caused his own avatar to seemingly explode into a cloud of black smoke. From out of that momentary smokescreen, what appeared to be two identical Kiritos dashed forth, each of them forking in opposite directions. As his «Mirror Decoy» imitated his movements, Kirito drove back the startled warhammer-wielding player, getting inside his guard and rapidly slicing him down towards the yellow zone.

As his opponent fled, Kirito spun to see who else was left. Out of the corner of his eye, Kirito saw the two bandits with polearms finally land a blow on his decoy, which vanished in a puff of smoke similar to the one that had spawned it. Taking advantage of their confusion and disarray, he spoke the words to another spell as quickly as he could.

Immediately he was surrounded by dark flames that seemed to suck the very light from the air, and when his vision cleared his point of view was almost a meter higher than usual, the «Phantasmal Form» spell having effectively altered his avatar's 3D model so that he appeared to be a monster of a level and power equivalent to his own. From the look of the massive arms that stretched out before him, he was currently a beast of some sort—Kirito was almost level 41, and he had to assume that this creature was from a zone within Yggdrasil that they hadn't reached yet.

Kirito yelled wordlessly, hearing the guttural roar of his illusionary avatar echo off the inner walls and ceiling of the dungeon, and dashed at the two remaining Salamanders. The spell didn't make him do any more damage than he normally would with his weapon, nor did it give him any special attacks—in fact, he couldn't even cast his own spells or use sword skills while it was in effect. But it would give him a little extra height and reach, and to someone who wasn't expecting it, he knew it looked intimidating as hell. The two bandits shrieked, dropping their polearms and fleeing as if a gateway boss was on their heels.

From his Searching skill, Kirito could tell that there were at least six or seven more bandits who'd remained hidden in the artificial forest to either side. Although he couldn't see them directly, he could see their red cursors in his HUD, moving away about as quickly as a player could on foot. He whipped his head around, using the higher vantage point of his current form to ensure that there was no one else nearby, and then turned to look for the sole survivor of the ambush.

A young girl crouched on the ground beside a tiny blue feather, her tear-streaked face resolute despite her obvious fear as she held her dagger in front of her. She glared up at Kirito as if he were simply the last straw in a day gone horribly wrong, hands trembling.

Then Kirito realized why. Of course—she hadn't seen him change. He focused on the active effect icon in his HUD, and once again he was surrounded briefly by black flames. His point of view returned to normal, and he looked down at his own arms and the weapon he held with a deep sense of relief. He gave his sword a habitual flourish and sheathed it on his back.

"Sorry if I scared you," Kirito said with a little embarrassment as he walked slowly towards her, empty hands held palms-out. He glanced at her HP gauge; she wasn't even in the yellow, but she had to be rattled after that narrowly-avoided PKing. Kirito forced himself not to think about the player he'd unintentionally cut down in his opening strike; it wasn't the first time in this death game that he'd taken the life of another player, but if he let himself start thinking about it he was going to have trouble keeping it together here—let alone sleeping later. With a visible tremor, he drove away those demons and focused on the girl he'd just rescued. "It's just an illusion. You're safe now."

She wasn't buying it—and after the experience she'd just had, Kirito wasn't sure if he could blame her. She held out the dagger with trembling hands as if it would work as a physical barrier between them. "Stay back! I won't let you get away with… with… whatever it was you came here to do!"

"I came here to farm mats," Kirito said with a lopsided smile, still holding up his hands. "I ended up rescuing someone from bandits. You're a bit late to stop me from doing either."

The girl's expression was unwavering. "How do I know you aren't one yourself? You're a Spriggan."

Kirito tried to keep the irritation from his voice as he took another step forward. "And you're a catgirl."

"I am not!" the young girl said loudly, jerking the dagger towards him as he approached. "Just because I decided to play a Cait Sith doesn't make me—"

"And just because I decided to play a Spriggan doesn't make me a bandit or a monster," Kirito said as he took one last step, hand coming to rest over hers where it held her weapon, pushing it lightly down. "Are you hurt?"

The girl's eyes swam as the dagger dropped from suddenly numb fingers, the strength draining from her face and her body as she seemed to realize her weapon was no longer needed. She slumped to the ground, picking the glowing blue feather back up and staring at it as she stammered and visibly lost her composure. "I… I… I'm not… I-I'm okay, b-but… but Pina… Pina…"

Kirito frowned for a moment, thinking that Pina must have been one of the party members who died. Then he took a good look at the feather in the Cait Sith girl's hands, something clicking in his head. "Pina was a pet?"

She nodded. "Pina was my friend," she said. The pain in the young girl's voice was heartbreaking. It reminded Kirito of the way that his little sister had grieved when the family cat died the year before; this girl seemed about the same age as Suguha, too.

Kirito gave her a compassionate smile and knelt down in front of her, bringing his eyes level with hers. "What's your name?"

"Si… Silica." She sniffled again and just stared at the feather in her hands as if it was the last thing of value she had in the world.

"Silica, I'm Kirito. Now, I don't know much about beast taming, but I've heard that sometimes, if the bond between the pet and the tamer is strong enough, it'll leave something behind when the pet dies. Is there a status window for that item?"

Silica looked confused for a moment, and then tapped the feather with one finger, so delicately that she seemed afraid of breaking it. Kirito saw a translucent window pop-up with a single line of text on it.

"«Pina's Heart»," Silica read out loud. Tears welled up in her eyes again, and she squeezed them shut as she clasped the feather to her chest.

Kirito reached out and put a hand on the girl's head, ruffling the hair between her triangular feline ears. "You know, I can't promise anything, but there might be a way you could see Pina again."

The change in Silica was dramatic and immediate. Her eyes widened, hope blossoming in them as some of the grief fled her and her ears perked up. "What? Really? Please, tell me how!"

Kirito scratched at his head as he searched his memory for the conversation he'd had once with another Cait Sith tamer. "Well, I've heard there's supposed to be a way to resurrect a tamed pet if they leave behind a token like that. But from what I understand, it requires an item that comes from some mid-level areas."

"Mid-level?" the girl echoed, her eyes going up and to the left.

Kirito interpreted the glance and hesitated, not wanting to intrude on the girl's privacy. "The floating islands around Arun. You'd want to be at least level 30-35 to safely solo all of them. But I'm sorry; I don't know any more than that."

The look of grief and despair that washed over Silica's face then tore a hole in Kirito's chest. He'd been intending to give the girl some of the spare equipment and drops in his inventory so that she'd have a chance at hunting down and tackling this quest, but she clearly wasn't experienced or high-level enough to do this by herself.

Looking back at the expression in Silica's eyes, Kirito squirmed uncomfortably for a moment before regaining his composure. "I don't know… but I know someone who might."


Argo fought back the urge to roll her eyes as she read the message she'd just received. She would've had to explain the reaction to Alicia and Thelvin, and there was no point in interrupting their conversation for what was really just a business transaction. She gestured for them to continue as she submerged herself in thought for a minute.

Always the hero, Ki-bou. Is that what a girl's gotta do to get your attention? Get jumped by a bunch of half-assed bandits and lose a pet?

It wasn't as if she couldn't understand the sense of loss—she caught herself getting attached to her rats now and then. Sometimes, if she let herself, she could almost imagine the longer-lived ones having personalities. But at the end of the day, she knew they were nothing more than mobs going through their scripted routines, and that any semblance of personhood was just her imagination. And in the months since she'd been trapped in ALO, it had become necessary to remind herself more than once that her tamed pets were far more disposable than she was.

Pet revival had been nothing but a rumor in the beta—there was a popular story about some Cait Sith tamer who'd found a spell that let them resurrect their dead pet, but try as she might, Argo had never been able to track that player down and verify the story. She'd asked Skarrip once, and his response had essentially been that while he wasn't a Cait Sith expert, he did recall a coworker talking about a method involving the use of a spell on a specific rare flower found on one of the floating islands around Arun.

A typical Skarrip answer, in other words: just detailed enough to escape being worthless.

"Alicia," Argo said suddenly, interrupting the conversation her friend and leader was having with one of their lead clearers. "What do you remember about the pet-rez rumors in the beta?"

Alicia halted mid-sentence with her mouth open, jarred by the change in subject. "Uh—what does that have to do with our plans for a mounted raid group? We lose a mount, we just replace it."

"Humor me," Argo said, tipping her chair back against the wall of Alicia's office and giving her an expectant look.

"You'd know more than I would, I'm sure," Alicia said, sighing as she traded a glance with Thelvin. "Rumor was it was some kind of spell, right? And there was a flower, too."

"Pneuma Flower," Thelvin confirmed, nodding. "That at least exists; I've seen one. But it's quite rare—supposedly it only blooms in the presence of a Cait Sith who's recently lost a pet, it doesn't last long so it's hard to sell, and even if you find one the flower itself doesn't have an action pop-up or obvious means of use—only a description."

"Which probably means it's a crafting recipe component," Argo said. Thelvin's information was consistent with her own, limited though it was. "Which is kinda interesting, considering every single version of the story says that there's a spell involved."

"Are you going somewhere with this?" Alicia asked. "We were in the middle of something, you might recall."

Argo gave Alicia a lazy wave. "Don't worry about it. I'll think it through and come up with something." She ignored the bemused looks from her companions as they resumed their planning, and frowned as she returned to the company of her own thoughts, compiling what she knew.

It didn't amount to much, and that bugged the hell out of her.

What she kept coming back to, though, was the one single fact on which all of the rumors agreed: that there was some kind of spell, presumably high-level Water or Holy Magic—or a combination of both—which made the revival possible. A spell which Argo didn't know.

That she didn't know was, in its own way, very impressive. Incantations were really nothing more than a collection of words, and Argo only had to see or hear a word once to remember it. So although she herself didn't use much magic, she knew the words to hundreds of spells and could often recognize them just by listening to the incantation or watching the glowing runes that appeared around someone during casting. And while she didn't kid herself that she knew every spell there was to know, she wasn't aware of any that required material components or which was capable of reviving a pet.

One of her ears was cocked towards Alicia and Thelvin as they spoke, and she heard the topic heading towards territory that was going to require her full attention. There simply wasn't time for her to deal with this, not for something as trivial as rezzing a pet. She opened a reply window and typed quickly.

「Ki-bou, you know pet-rez is just an unconfirmed rumor, right? I don't know why you're wasting your time on this instead of telling the girl to go tame a new one, but here goes. There's some kinda high-level spell that takes a mat called a Pneuma Flower. You can find the flower on one of the islands around Arun, but it'll only appear if your Cait Sith girl is there. The only thing that's certain is that you've got three days to find it—because that's how long it takes for a pet's Heart to become Remains.」

She hesitated, considering just hitting Send right there. That was really all the information she had, and she knew Kirito would pay her for it anyway.

And if it had been any other customer, that probably would've been that. Argo could measure her profitability in part by how many seconds of her time it took her to handle a transaction. But something wouldn't allow her to leave it there, and after a few moments she began to type again.

「That said, if you wanna narrow down the specific spell needed, I know of someone who might—and I emphasize might—have what you're looking for...」

"You're kidding," Thelvin said as Argo finished composing her reply and returned her attention to the conversation at hand. "None at all?"

"None," Alicia confirmed. "Klein said he and his guild scoured the entirety of Zone 22 yesterday after the Salamanders took down the last gateway boss. No aggro mobs. Not one. It's just a vast cavern within Yggdrasil with a glowing lake in the middle—a bit like Lugru, except there's no town, just a bunch of abandoned dwellings on the shores of the lake. Turns out that the gateway boss is all the way at the top of the cavern, and to get there you have to take this insanely long path that spirals around the edges of the cavern until it reaches the top. Takes most of a day just to march up there."

"Unless you're an Imp," Thelvin ventured.

"Yep," Alicia said, leaning back and putting her feet up on her desk. It was a pose that would've been indecent if her outfit hadn't already left so little to the imagination. "So the Sallies sent a few groups of Imps up to scout it out, confirmed that the boss room was there, and they already have a raid force on the way."

"Shit," said Thelvin. "That'll be three in a row. We haven't been the ones to take down a gateway boss since fifteen."

"Tell me something I don't know," Alicia grumbled. "That's why I want to start this program. If we'd had flying mounts, we could've beaten the Salamanders to the top of that cavern."

"There's no guarantee there'll be another zone like that," Argo put in, speaking up finally. "Don't get stuck trying to fight the last battle."

"I'm not. But it's not the first time there's been a spot where being able to fly within Yggdrasil would've given us an edge. I don't think it'll be the last either, and if we tame mounts that can fight, it's an extra point in our favor."

Since there was nothing Argo could say to refute that, she didn't try. She chewed on the idea for a moment, then nodded. "Got a type of mount in mind?"

"Something that can fly, obviously. No shortage of those in Alfheim." Alicia grinned suddenly. "Dragons would be awesome, if we could find some that were tamable."

"There's that one young lady with the water drake," Thelvin pointed out. "She's a casual, but she might be able to tell us what she fed it."

"Great," Argo said. "Let me know when you find a raid group of Navi-Pixies, because they're the only ones small enough to ride a water drake."

"It's a solid idea, though," Alicia said. "I mean, you're supposed to be able to tame any mob in the game as long as it's not a boss or other named, right? There are dragons that are the right size for us to ride."

"And they're all KOS," Thelvin said.

"So we find a way to de-aggro them. It has to be possible."

Thelvin turned to look at Argo, giving her a look that she had to assume was sympathy at having to put up with Alicia's eccentricities, or an appeal to talk sense into their leader. Argo didn't bite; she had plenty of her own eccentricities and a distinct lack of people in her life that put up with them. "Alicia wants dragons."

Thelvin sighed. "Dragons," he echoed.

Alicia grinned, her ears twitching in amusement. "Come on, you two. Tell me you don't want to be part of Alicia's Dragonriders."

Now Argo did roll her eyes. "Anne McCaffrey would like a word with you."


"Never mind. Ixnay on the Agonridersdray."

Alicia folded her arms across her chest. Since she didn't have much in the way of a chest, it was somewhat lacking in effect. "You have a better suggestion for a name?"

"Well, if we're gonna go naming your troupe of dragon-riding cats before we've actually got any dragons to ride, we could always go with something historical." Argo's expression was positively impish.

From Alicia's apprehensively flattened ears, she knew that expression far too well. It was the look Argo wore when she was about to make a joke of which she was inordinately proud, and which was likely to cause everyone else physical pain. "What?"

Argo didn't disappoint. She could hardly contain her grin as she dropped the punch line. "Ryuukihei," she said to an immediate duet of groans from her companions, compounding her sin by repeating the word in English. "Dragoons."


"That's all for today, everyone," Sasha said with finality, closing the blank book she'd purchased in which to compose her lesson plans. The room full of children reacted with the characteristic exuberance that kids have shown for the end of the school day as long as there have been schools. Most of them opened their inventory menus and deposited their classwork there, a sea of flickering 3D models disappearing throughout the room as the tables were rapidly cleared of scrolls and materials to make room for the coming meal.

"Makiko, Kai, Jellica, go help Sachi in the kitchen. Axion, Robert, it's your turn to set the tables. The rest of you have ten minutes of free time before dinner. Scoot!"

It had been hard at first to get the kids to consistently attend her lessons, but when Sachi started leveling up her Cooking skill, the two of them quickly found that food was a powerful motivator. It was impossible to starve from not eating in the game, but the simulated hunger got very uncomfortable in a hurry—so Sasha set the expectation that everyone who wanted regular meals would have to attend three hours of school a day. Anyone who didn't want to deal with schoolwork was free to use their allowance to purchase the cheap, nasty black bread from one of the NPC bakers, fare that would quiet the stomach without sating the soul.

Sasha let out a slow sigh of satisfaction as she watched the flurry of activity. When she'd gone to college to become a teacher, this certainly hadn't been what she'd had in mind. She'd originally wanted to teach English, and had even spent the last two years as a transfer student in an American university in order to polish her language skills. She'd just returned to Japan to finish up her minor in Linguistics, and when ALO launched it had seemed a harmless diversion, a way to spend a few hours unwinding in a virtual world.

But after that traumatic first day, she'd been transported back to Sondref along with the rest of the Puca, a prisoner like everyone else. Like every other starting city, Sondref had had a handful of very young children in its population, and after the Northern Crafting Combine broke through the boss in the Valley of Giants, Sasha had relocated her wards to the neutral city of Arun and established an orphanage in one of the churches there—a place for the different factions to bring the children who were simply too young to be out adventuring, or who had nowhere else to go. Much of their first month in Arun had been spent with Sachi watching the children while Sasha ventured from capital to capital, gathering orphans and street children and bringing them safely to Arun.

Which was how she'd ended up as the caretaker of almost thirty children ranging in ages from eight to thirteen. How some of these children ended up in the game was anyone's guess—there was an unofficial taboo against discussing the outside world, but Sasha suspected more than a few of the kids had indulgent parents who hadn't paid any attention to the purchase of ALO and the Nerve Gear beyond thinking, "it's fairies; that's suitable for kids".

In her less charitable moments, she hoped those parents had spent the last six months feeling as guilty as they should.

Regardless, these children were her responsibility now. No one else was going to step up and take care of them. No one else was going to see that they at least received some kind of minimal continuing education. The faction leaders had enough on their plates just trying to defend their holdings and clear the game, and who knew how long that was going to take—they'd been quite happy to give her and the youngest noncombatants in their faction safe passage to Arun, in some cases even with an escort.

"Miss Sasha! There's people at the door!"

The child's shout from another room brought Sasha abruptly out of her thoughts, and she realized she'd been woolgathering. Shaking it off, she rose from her seat and smoothed out her long dress, answering the call of responsibility.

When she arrived in the foyer of the church, she saw two players standing just outside the entrance, backlit by the dying evening sun. The taller of the two was a teenage boy from the Spriggan faction with youthful features and unruly black hair that was in desperate need of a comb and a haircut. Sasha's practiced eye put his age at somewhere around thirteen or fourteen—she wouldn't turn away someone his age, although he'd be her oldest charge; it might be helpful to have someone older to accompany Sachi when she went out adventuring with her friends.

But after those first impressions, Sasha quickly corrected herself—this wasn't a boy looking for a place to stay. The sword on his back, the long black overcoat he wore, the way he held himself, and even the look in his eyes… this was someone who'd spent the intervening months in this game fighting every single day. Even though she knew no one could be harmed within the city, she still found herself becoming a bit wary of him, in part because of the dismal reputation of his faction.

Her attention then shifted to the child at his side, a Cait Sith girl who appeared to be a year or two younger than the boy—although the feline ears and pigtails made her true age hard to pin down. She too had gear that suggested she hadn't just been hiding out somewhere all of these months, but she looked as if she'd been crying recently, and her body language was that of someone who felt defeated. Sasha wondered what the story was there, and suspected she was about to find out.

Glancing between the two children cautiously, Sasha donned a smile. "Can I help the two of you?"

"Are you Sasha?"

The directness of the boy's question, without preamble or introduction, took her slightly aback, her smile faltering a little. If he knew her name, then he probably knew what she did here… and suddenly the scene made a little more sense. She waved off the boy who'd answered the door, sending him to join the others. "I'm Sasha, yes. Does your little sister need a place to stay?"

The squeak from the younger girl and the stammered protest from the boy told her immediately that her guess had been wrong. "No no no, she's not my… I mean, she does remind me a bit of Su—but well, no… I…"

Sasha laughed, opening the door a little wider, stepping aside. The boy's abrupt discomfort at the question was endearing, and helped soften the edges of her wariness. "Come in, you two. We're just about to start dinner. If you'd like to join us, you can explain why you're here over a hot meal."

The boy's name, she learned, was Kirito, and he'd only just met the younger girl—Silica—that very day, rescuing her from what sounded like a robbery gone wrong. The two of them gratefully scarfed down the food that was set before them, the explanation of the day's events going slowly in between bites.

"And you think I can help you?" Sasha asked when they got to the part about Silica's dead pet. "Why?"

Kirito waved his chopsticks as he chewed, trying unsuccessfully to substitute gestures for words. Sasha narrowed her eyes at his table manners, and he had the grace to look sheepish as he set down the utensils and swallowed. "I'm told that you've been buying up incantations from anyone who will offer a new one to you, and that you have an extensive library of spell effects. You might know the one we're looking for."

Sasha sighed, shaking her head. "Then I'm sorry, Kirito, but I'm afraid you may have come here for nothing. I know of no spell that can resurrect a dead pet. Certainly there's nothing like that in Water Magic, and both Sachi and I are very proficient in that element." She smiled slightly. "That would certainly be an exciting discovery, if true."

"What about Holy?" Kirito asked.

Sasha thought hard for a few moments, and then countered with another headshake of negation. "Not that I'm aware of. I don't have that skill yet, but I've recorded a lot of Holy Magic incantations and there's nothing of the sort."

Kirito set his lips in a line and glanced at Silica, who sat beside him. She looked as if she was about to start crying again. He returned his attention to his food, or what little of it remained.

"Can you tell me anything else about this spell you're looking for?" Sasha prodded. This was an unusual visit, but it would be entirely worthwhile if it led her to discovering a new spell effect that she could add to her body of work.

Kirito chewed, swallowed, and pushed his plate back. "I don't know what element it is, but all of the information I have agrees that there's a spell involved. And we think it takes at least one material component—something called a Pneuma Flower, which we need to go find."

That tickled something in Sasha's mind. She leaned forward a little, adjusting her glasses. "Well now, isn't that's interesting? A material component… I wonder if it's a transmutation effect?"

Kirito raised his eyebrows. "Transmutation?"

Sasha nodded. "Transmutation. It's a Magnitude-5 Earth Magic incantation using the utility verb jevrelth and the touch manifestation min—"

"You might want to explain that in plain Japanese," Sachi said teasingly, as if she hadn't been speaking quite clearly. Looking at the blank expressions on the faces of her guests, Sasha sighed and tried again, simplifying things as if explaining them to a young student. Which, she supposed, she was.

"It's high-level Earth Magic that lets you take two material components and transmute them into a single new component. Long cooldown, moderate MP cost, and you have to figure out the recipes on your own. I've been able to purchase a few recipes from the NCC, but they're all quite ordinary—normal crafting components and such, the sort of thing that's more efficient to refine the usual way if you have the skill."

"Two material components," Kirito mused, tapping a finger on the table. "I wonder."

Sasha gave Kirito time to think through whatever idea was brewing in his head, her gaze shifting around the room to make sure that the other kids were behaving—for certain values of "behaving", that is; she doubted the barely restrained chaos and loud banter that filled the dining hall would have met with anything short of expulsion or detention in any school in Japan.

"Kirito?" It was one of the few times Silica had spoken; she'd been fairly quiet throughout most of the meal and conversation.

"I was just thinking," he said. "Most crafting components don't have anything to indicate that that's what they are. They'll have a pop-up window with their name if you tap them, but that's all—it's up to players to figure out what, if anything, those components can be used for. Supposedly there's an effectively unlimited number of crafting recipes."

Sasha thought she saw where Kirito was going with this, but Silica obviously didn't. "And?"

"And," Kirito went on, "I'm wondering what would happen if you used Pina's Heart and the Pneuma Flower as the components for a transmutation. This is the only spell I've ever heard of that actually takes a material component. And it would explain why the rumors of pet rezzing involve both the flower and a spell."

For a minute, there was quiet at their table. And it was a relative sort of quiet—the rest of the room was very loud with the voices of children, leaving their table as a sole pocket of peace in the din.

"Are you sure about that?" Silica asked finally.

Kirito shook his head. "No. But it's all we have to go on. Isn't it worth trying, if it could mean bringing Pina back?"

The look of dawning hope on Silica's face revised Sasha's opinion of Kirito upwards by quite a bit. "You're right," the girl said. "We have to try. Can we get started now?"

"I think we'd better find an inn to rest for the night," Kirito said. "We're both pretty tired, and we'll have a hard time hunting for a flower in the dark anyway."

"You can stay here tonight, if you like," Sasha offered. "There are several spare rooms, and you're each welcome to one." Rescuer or not, there was no way she was letting the two of them share a room.

Kirito bowed slightly in his seat. "Thank you, Miss Sasha. That's very generous of you, especially considering that we came to you for help."

Sasha quirked the corner of her mouth in a smile. "I run this place so that children trapped in this game have somewhere safe to stay. And whatever else you two are… you're still children, at least to me. So please, feel free to spend the night."

That invitation extended, she turned to Sachi. "Could I ask you to you please stay home and watch the kids tomorrow?"

Sachi looked surprised at the sudden question, and her mouth opened soundlessly a few times before she found her words. "Um, Sasha… you know I was going to go out with my friends tomorrow, right?"

"I know," Sasha said apologetically. "And I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important." Besides that, she knew very well that Sachi had been having mixed feelings about going out adventuring with her friends, most of whom were much stronger than her; she suspected the girl wouldn't be completely bent out of shape if she were kept from doing so by circumstances out of her control.

After a moment of half-hearted pouting, Sachi acquiesced, poking at what was left on her plate in silence. Sasha returned her attention to Kirito, who was watching this exchange with a curious expression.

"I'm coming with you," she said in answer to his unasked question.

Kirito's reaction was immediate and negative. "No offense, Miss Sasha, but I'm already taking along one person who's too low-level for the areas we're going. I can't be responsible for your safety."

"Nor need you be," Sasha replied firmly as she stood, and with a look that expected no argument. "I'm sure I'm not at your level, but I've been to every city in this world and I'm quite capable of taking care of myself. And when you find this flower, you'll need someone who can perform the transmutation."

"We'll bring it back to you," Kirito argued.

"That's if you find it in time. What if your time runs short? Do you know how long this flower will last after you pick it?"

Kirito's thin expression gave her all the answer she needed. Sensing victory, Sasha pushed onward. "I'm a competent mage, and a third person will help you clear any monsters more quickly and cover more ground." She held the boy's eyes, waiting until he averted them before adding the clincher. "And this is my price for helping you."


"Face it: we got owned."

The unpalatable truth hung in the air like a stink that wouldn't go away. No one seemed to want to face it, and silence reigned for close to a full minute before any of the eleven players sitting around the table in the inn room even dared to speak again.

"Be that as it may, he killed Zanzer. Are we going to let that go unanswered?"

Rosalia lifted her eyes from her cup and met Mukensha's across the table, thinking over her words before replying. She knew full well that her credibility was on the line here, and how she handled this disaster could make or break her leadership of this team. "Of course not. But vengeance doesn't pay repair bills or bring back the dead. We have to do this—"

"He was my brother, goddamnit!" Mukensha snarled.

Rosalia planted her palms on the table as she shot to her feet. "And you'll have your revenge! But we have to do this the smart way. Think, Mukensha. Get control of your emotions for a minute and think. We were once the elite of the Salamander privateer groups, and that boy tore through us like we were nothing. Nothing! He nearly killed you while fending off two others!"

It was fascinating to watch. The mask of rage and grief stamped on every centimeter of Mukensha's features slowly ebbed as if someone was sliding a dimmer switch, his fists twitching, clenching, and unclenching on the table until he laced his fingers together, only the fire in his eyes hinting at what still lurked within. "Go on."

"We can't take him in a head-on fight," Rosalia said as she returned to her seat, hating the weakness in the statement. "We need leverage."

"He thinks he's a hero," another of her team put in. "I know his type. He's soft for people like that girl; that's why he jumped us. We can use that."

"We can also try not running from stupid Illusion tricks as if our asses were on fire," Mukensha growled as he glared at the speaker and one other—both of whom had the sense to look away, either ashamed of their cowardice or faking it well.

Rosalia let that stand, since she was largely in agreement with Mukensha, and turned to look at one of the Imps at the far end of the table. "Shadewalker, were you able to follow them after they returned to Arun?"

The named player nodded, deep violet eyes looking almost black in the lamplight. "Aye. They walked to the church, and they didn't come out. I'm certain they're staying there."

There were a number of churches of various sorts in Arun, but Rosalia had no doubt which one he meant. "Both of them? How cute. I wonder if he's dropping her off."

"I don't think so. I overhead them talking on their way there."

"And?" Rosalia prodded with mild annoyance. "Don't make me pull this out of you word by word, Shade."

The explanation that followed was easily the most interesting thing Rosalia had heard in weeks. A smile slowly stretched her full red lips as she leaned back in her chair and steepled her fingers before her. "Well now." She glanced over in Mukensha's direction; seeing him nod, she turned back to Shadewalker and made a shooing motion. "Find a hole near the church and pull it over yourself. I want to know the moment they set out."

Once her scout was gone, Rosalia turned back to the group, panning her gaze across them before looking directly at Mukensha. "You see, dear? We play this smart, and we not only get you your revenge, but we get a payday at the end of it."

"I don't know about you," she purred, "but I do love win-win scenarios."

Author's Note: 

First of all, Argo's "dragoon" joke at the end of her segment. Historically, the word "dragoon" referred to mounted infantry or cavalry of a particular type. There's always Wikipedia if you want the details, but long story short: while the name does derive from the same root word as "dragon", the word "dragoon" has no relation to flying lizards with breath weapons.

The Japanese word for "dragoon", on the other hand, 竜騎兵 (ryuukihei), begins with the kanji for "dragon". The literal translation of the word would be "dragon cavalry", possibly a reference to the archaic firearm from which the term "dragoon" is derived.

Argo is, in short, making a VERY bad joke—a play on words which I'm certain was quite intentional on Kawahara's part when he named them "Alicia's Dragoons" in canon. I'm explaining it here rather than in the narrative because I simply didn't see a way to go into all of that without breaking the flow and ruining the joke—a joke the characters themselves obviously didn't need explained to them.

Now then, on a less fun note, I wanted to address a particular kind of feedback I get now and then in both reviews and PMs. There are a few people who don't like the multi-POV, "ensemble cast" type of format I'm using in this fic—a format inspired in part by authors such as Harry Turtledove and George R.R. Martin, albeit dramatically scaled down in terms of cast. There are others who don't like that I'm spending time on "minor" characters like Klein or Sachi, or that the fic isn't all about Kirito loving it up with Asuna or being an awesome Gary Stu.

So at the risk of losing a few readers, let me be perfectly clear: this isn't going to change. Ever. This is the format in which I've chosen to write this fic, and this is the format in which I will continue to write it. I'm not making this up as I go; I have the story I want to tell already outlined, chapter by chapter and viewpoint by viewpoint. The "viewpoint" characters will shift a bit over time, as they have in Act 2, but I've chosen the characters I have for a reason.

I welcome everyone's input, and I've tweaked things for the better here and there based on the feedback of friends and readers, but the format of the narrative and the characters who appear in the story are not on the table. Please respect this, and thank you again for reading!

Chapter Text

"I have chosen to divide spell effects into four categories based on the inflection of the effect verb. «Malign» effects have an Invocative form ending in -u and inflict damage or negative status effects; they will neither affect players with a green cursor nor take effect at all in a Safe Zone. «Benign» effects end in -ul; they are defensive in nature or produce beneficial status effects and can be cast anywhere. «Restorative» effects end in -az; they heal or recover damage or ailments, respectively, and will not affect mobs or hostile players. Finally there is a broad category of what I refer to as «Utility» effects, which have an Invocative ending of -lth and either modify preceding verbs or have effects which do not clearly fall into the other categories…"
the working notes of Sasha of Arun, «Effect Verbs»


17 April 2023
Day 163

As cities went, Arun was quite small. Roughly the size of the Japanese city of Shimotsuma, the neutral capital of Alfheim had a population of roughly 40,000—and once the valley bosses had been cleared and all of the races converged on Arun to clear Yggdrasil, that population consisted of about a three to one ratio of NPCs to players at any given time. It was the center of Alfheim, nestled at the western base of the World Tree like a piled-up scarf of terraced districts, even built into the very roots of the tree in parts.

But "small" for a city is still quite large, and as Tetsuo took flight and headed towards his rendezvous point, he could see the suburbs of the city which extended out for well over a kilometer from the spiraling core of downtown Arun, largely obscured by the surrounding forest except from a vantage point like his. From several hundred meters above the cobblestone of the city streets, patterns emerged: winding pathways and roads cutting through the forest, the warm brown of clay tiles covering the roofs of buildings, and thin trickles of chimney smoke revealing the presence of life beneath the forest canopy.

Tetsuo wasn't the only one in the air. Dozens of players could be seen at any given time, the contrails of glowing colored light tracing a path across the sky as if drawn with a slowly fading fluorescent marker beneath an unseen blacklight. Those colors ran the breadth of the rainbow; Arun was a safe zone for anyone, no matter their faction or status, and that safe zone extended out as far as the furthest branches of Yggdrasil's canopy. On the other side of the World Tree the sun was already rising above the eastern horizon, the city still glowing with the warm light of oil lamps and the cool glow of orelight in the shadow of Yggdrasil.

Leaving the crimson beam of his flight trail in his wake, Tetsuo drew within sight of his destination, an inn that was burrowed into the bark of the roots. It wasn't the first time he'd been there, not by far, and he still found it odd that the inn wasn't more popular—it easily had the best view of any establishment in Arun, situated high in the roots where they rose as sharply as the game's difficulty curve until they met the trunk of the World Tree. Lamplight shone from windows cut into the living wood, and here and there a balcony jutted out from a doorway to provide a landing pad.

Perhaps vertigo had something to do with it—a fall from this height could be lethal if a player didn't have the presence of mind to simply glide to the ground. But after six months in this game, Tetsuo felt sorry for anyone who suffered from that particular malady, as they were missing out on one of the best silver linings of being trapped in this world: the ability to fly. His translucent angular wings bore him towards the broad semicircular balcony in front of the inn, and he dismissed them from his back moments before his feet touched the well-worn wooden surface of the platform.

He spared one last look back as his hand hesitated on the door handle. The murmur of loud conversation spiked in volume as he pushed the door open and stepped inside, and the mouth-watering smell of some kind of savory stew washed over him.

For a moment, Tetsuo thought he might've been mistaken about the date or the meeting time—when he scanned the room, his group wasn't anywhere in sight. Then movement from one of the far corners caught his eye as his old friend Keita rose from a gnarled wooden seat and waved him over. Ignoring a few dirty looks thrown his way from a pair of Sylph players at the bar, Tetsuo made his way over to join his friend and sank into the seat with a sigh.

"No one else made it?"

His old friend shook his head after finishing a sip of his drink. "Sorry, Tetsuo. I only just got the cancellation messages. Sasamaru got sent out on a mission by his faction leader and won't actually be here until later today, and Sachi's stuck at home with the kids."

Tetsuo almost laughed, but the mental image that came to him was more disturbing than funny. In lieu of laughter, he gave the other boy a bemused blank stare. "I'm going to get up now, Keita. I'm going to walk out the door. I'm going to walk back in, and when I do, we're going to redo this without the part where you make me visualize Sachi as a housewife."

"You know what I mean," Keita said with a grin, hefting his now-empty mug and feigning as if to throw it. "Sasha called in a favor or something and asked her to watch the children at the orphanage. Said something about going out on a quest with some swordsman or something."

"That's a lot of somethings," Tetsuo observed. Then, smiling: "A quest? With some swordsman?"

"Sachi didn't explain," Keita said, clearly pretending not to catch Tetsuo's insinuation. "And I didn't ask."

So Sachi was out, and Sasamaru wouldn't arrive in time to go adventuring today. That only left—

Their eyes met over the table, and neither of them needed to ask whether or not anyone had heard from Ducker. If anyone had, they'd all know by now; it wasn't the sort of thing anyone would keep under their hat. That unspoken understanding led to a silence that stretched on for what seemed like several minutes before Keita cleared his throat and tried to dispel the awkwardness with common ground.

"Grats on Gate 22, by the way. Seems like you guys are on a roll."

Tetsuo laughed, although the sound was thin and strained now. He knew his friend was trying to be gracious, but more than once these reunions had been tainted by the specter of recent conflicts between the Salamanders and one of the other clearing groups. "Yeah, thanks. This boss was nothing, really."

"Pretty straightforward battle?"

Tetsuo nodded, briefly recalling the 27-minute raid with a small smile of satisfaction. "It was almost a letdown when the boss blew up. Everyone was expecting him to shift to a new form or phase, but that was it. Between that and the lack of hostile mobs, it's almost like this zone was supposed to be a chance for us to catch our breath and take it easy."

"Well, just be careful. You know RPGs—breathers like that usually come right before a big spike in difficulty or a major boss."

That thought hadn't occurred to Tetsuo, and he wasn't sure he wanted to thank Keita for the advice—it made far too much sense for his peace of mind.

Keita cleared his throat, sensing Tetsuo's discomfort. "Let's change the subject."

"I've got a better idea," Tetsuo said, grinning suddenly. "Let's go harass Sachi. I miss her, and if she's stuck at the church babysitting while Miss Sasha goes on a date, she'll probably be grateful for the company."

Keita laughed, coming to his feet. "Now that sounds like a much better plan than sitting here by ourselves being glum. Come on, buddy."

Tetsuo had always been a little taller than his friend in real life, but he was still surprised every time they stood together and met eye to eye in this world—it was as if there was some kind of racial bias in the game engine that scaled the avatars of Gnome players so that they were larger than the other races even though everyone looked more or less the way their real bodies did.

Keita punched him in the arm lightly as they headed towards the door. "Race you."

Tetsuo snorted. "You're only suggesting that because your AGI is higher."

"Of course not," Keita said, holding the door open for his friend with exaggerated courtesy. "I'm suggesting it because you're slow and I'll win."

"Isn't that pretty much the same thing?"

Stopping on the landing platform and looking out over the city, Keita laughed. "Nah. I'm trying to be generous on account of our long friendship. Where we put our stats was a choice. But if I say you're slow, it's like saying it's not really your fault. Now readysetgo!"

Before Tetsuo could reply, Keita had already taken a leap off the platform, wings flaring into existence and leaving a sparkling trail of light behind him as he accelerated straight towards the church, the spire distantly visible halfway across the city. Tetsuo leapt after him, grinning.

Big mistake, he thought. Rather than bringing out his wings quite yet, Tetsuo folded his arms against his sides and turned himself into the most aerodynamic shape he could, skydiving straight down.

In the months since joining the game, Tetsuo had found a great many things to dislike about being part of the Salamanders. He didn't particularly like the aggressive relations with other races, for one. That first month under Kibaou in particular had been a nightmare, but after his defeat the political posture and aggressive nature of the Salamander faction hadn't changed all that much—just the way they went about it. And as leader of the Salamander army, Eugene had no softness in him, no give—you performed up to expectations or you answered for it.

But there was one thing he couldn't fault: that expectation of excellence was matched by the effort and skill that Eugene put into training the players under his command. He treated the clearing groups as a kind of special operations military outfit—the elite of the Salamanders. When they weren't exploring Yggdrasil, they trained relentlessly on tactics and game mechanics, and practiced the fire magic granted to every Salamander until they could recite the incantations under pressure without thinking about it. Tetsuo's training regimen was the main reason that the erstwhile Black Cats met so infrequently.

The latest focus of this training had been on advanced flight mechanics. Every clearer was expected to not only be capable of Voluntary Flight, but to master it. One of the senior clearers had crunched the numbers and come up with a chart showing the maximum acceleration and top speed attainable on a per-level basis—and then proceeded to demonstrate how that top speed could be exceeded by using gravity and advanced wing usage to the player's advantage.

Tetsuo knew that he and Keita were around the same level. Tetsuo's was 38, which according to Pyrin's chart gave him an unencumbered base speed—using the flight controller—of 37kph. His AGI gave him a modifier which pushed that to a little over 40kph; he'd done the math. Keita's was an AGI-heavy build; he wouldn't have been surprised if his friend had a top speed of at least 45kph. Both of them could push faster than that as Voluntary Flight users, and they were both weighed down a bit by armor, but in a straight line and starting at the same time, Tetsuo knew Keita would still win—and they hadn't started at the same time.

But now he was grateful for Pyrin's training over the last week. While the gravity physics of the game engine weren't quite the same as in the real world, they were close enough to estimate how fast he'd be going after falling a given distance. He couldn't reach terminal velocity in the distance between the inn and the streets below, and he didn't have any way to accurately measure his airspeed anyway, but by the time he brought out his wings and swooped into a tapering glide he knew he had to be going almost four times his top cruising speed.

He'd lose a fair amount of that speed in his glide, and eventually he'd have to actually use his wings for powered flight, but as Tetsuo glanced over his shoulder he could see that he was already well ahead of Keita—with a lead the other boy would never surmount.

As he soared through the home stretch on approach to the church, Tetsuo could see a number of children in the backyard, and a very familiar blue-clad girl with the dark blue hair of an Undine. Grinning, he beat his wings just enough to kill most of his speed, and then glided silently across the last few dozen meters, landing carefully on the wall of the yard in a crouch. Sachi's back was to him, and he held up his forefinger conspiratorially to his lips as a couple of the kids looked over her shoulder and spotted him.

"I don't care if nobody can take damage in the city," Sachi said to her captive audience, the palms of her hands planted firmly on her slender hips. "Just because Miss Sasha isn't here right now doesn't mean you get to blast each other for fun. You're not supposed to be using combat magic at all!"

"She told me I could practice," said a sullen-looking Salamander boy of about ten.

"Is that what she's going to say when she gets back and I tell her you what you did to Makiko?"

The boy turned a withering glare on a nearby Leprechaun girl.

"It hurt, Genji!" yelled the girl that Tetsuo assumed was Makiko.

"Did not!" the boy shot back. "Nobody feels pain in here!"

"It was hot!"

"You told me you wanted to see some magic!"

"I didn't say set me on fire!"

Tetsuo didn't have very much Wind magic—he trained it mainly for the buffs and debuffs. But while a person's HP couldn't decrease within a Safe Zone, and malign effects such as debuffs couldn't be applied, benign spells—buffs—were fair game. So when Sachi raised her voice and started going off at Genji and Makiko, Tetsuo quietly uttered the words to the Muffle spell—a buff meant to make a friendly player stealthy by suppressing all sound produced by their avatar.

It had precisely the intended effect. As soon as the spell was cast, Sachi's tirade towards the two children cut off abruptly, her mouth moving but no sound coming out. Although with her back turned to him he couldn't see her expression, the reactions of the children were all he could've hoped for: utter hilarity at her expense.

Since Muffle was classed as a beneficial effect, Tetsuo knew Sachi could cancel it anytime she wanted by focusing on the icon in her HUD—if she realized what was happening and thought to do it. From the gestures she was making and her body language, Tetsuo guessed that the notion hadn't occurred to her quite yet.

The deep sound of a Gnome's wings grew in volume as Keita approached, fading away as he began to glide the rest of the way. Attention drawn by the noise, Sachi turned and looked behind her, expression clouding as she saw Tetsuo sitting on the wall and trying to silently laugh himself silly.

Sachi gestured angrily at Tetsuo as Keita landed beside him atop the wall.

"What's that?" Tetsuo said, cupping his hand to his swept-back elfin ears. "Sorry, having trouble hearing you."

Hands balled into fists, Sachi stomped one foot on the ground and said something that probably would've caused him physical pain if any sound had come out. Tetsuo tried and failed to keep a straight face as he replied.

"Well, I missed you too, girl. But missing me so much that you're speechless, that's… I mean wow."

"Come on, Tetsuo," Keita said with a nudge in his ribs. "Drop the spell or tell her how to do it herself."

Tetsuo sighed. "It's only got a few more seconds anyw—"

"—ever do anything like that again I swear—" The sudden burst of noise from Sachi was like flipping on a stereo. She stopped suddenly as she realized that she could speak again, and made a prolonged growling noise that might've been intimidating if it hadn't been so cute, heat rising to her cheeks.

"Admit it," Tetsuo said with a laugh as he dropped to the ground and hugged Sachi. "You really did miss us."


"A language," Kirito said skeptically as they touched down on the second island to continue their search. Silica immediately ran off, looking for signs of the pale violet-and-white petals nestled amongst the roots of the trees.

"You don't believe me?" Sasha said, one brown eyebrow arching.

"It's not that I don't believe you," Kirito said. As he tried to find the words he wanted to say, he scanned the area, keeping an eye on Silica. Green light flickered across his eyes briefly as he activated his Searching skill, conserving his MP by sticking to non-magical means of detection. When he saw only non-aggro animal and insect mobs nearby, he turned back to Sasha.

"You call the words of magic in this game a language. And I get that spells are incantations—a bunch of words strung together. Say them the right way and you cast a spell if you meet the requirements. But it's not like you can use them to say something like, 'I want an apple'. All you can do is trigger spells. That's not a language, that's…" He paused as Silica ducked briefly out of sight, then went on when she reappeared on the other side of a tree. "They're system voice commands."

Sasha looked amused. As Kirito tried to decide whether or not that annoyed him, she tilted her head at him and asked, "What is language?"

Kirito glanced sideways towards her before returning his gaze to where Silica was performing her search. "Is this a pop quiz?"

"Maybe," Sasha said with a laugh. "But you're dodging the question."

"A language is…" Kirito tried to think of all the languages he knew anything about. His native Japanese, of course, and he knew a bit of English from both school and net gaming. More programming languages than he could number, although he wasn't sure those counted. "A language has syntax and vocabulary. It's a bunch of basic building blocks like that, pieces that you can arrange in any way that follows the grammatical rules of the language."

"Mmm. You're on the right track. Fundamentally, a language is a system for encoding and communicating information. A language typically has grammatical rules that give it structure, and a discrete set of phonemes that make it sound the way it does. The language of magic here is no different, it simply has a very narrow purpose: to describe the effects of a magic spell and how those effects manifest in the world."

Her long-winded explanation was briefly interrupted by Silica's shout, which drew their attention down the rough path that cut through the island foliage. She was getting a bit far away, and they walked quickly to catch up, letting their wings rest for the time being.

"You're a Spriggan," Sasha said as they walked. "So I'm sure you use some Illusion spells."

"Of course," Kirito said.

"And surely you've noticed they all have some sounds in common."

She was right, but Kirito had to stop for a moment and recite a few incantations in his head before he could be sure about the answer. "They all start with ma. Most of them with matto."

"The element of Illusion," Sasha said, sounding satisfied. "All incantations begin with the elements used in the spell. I call it the «element phrase». For anything above beginning-level spells, this is followed by the «magnitude phrase», which describes the tier of power invested in the spell. Have you noticed that as your Illusion skill increases and you gain new spells, at certain intervals of power the words seem to follow a pattern?"

"You're losing me," Kirito said, toggling Searching on again to check for danger. "And we're losing Silica again." As they wove their way through the trees, eyes on the ground to make sure the girl hadn't missed anything, he thought through his spellbook—at least, the spells that were firmly ingrained into his memory. Matto kachikke or kachi… matto tsutakke or tsuta… matto zabukke

His lips must've been moving; Kirito caught Sasha smiling at him out of the corner of his eye. "You see?"

"I see the pattern," Kirito admitted, "but I'm not getting the meaning."

"When ma is followed by a magnitude phrase, it becomes matto. The word kachi means 'first magnitude'. For second magnitude you would use tsuta, for third zabu, for fourth yoji, and so on towards the highest magnitude for which I have an example—nyafe jezut for eighth." Kirito was amazed at the deft way Sasha rattled off that particular tongue-twister. "The phrases that follow are what I call effect, targeting and manifestation—and this is where the grammatical rules of the language become more complex."

Unsure if he really wanted to ask the question, Kirito said, "How so?"

"Well, the «effect phrase» in particular. You can think of every magical effect in the game as a verb, describing an action to be taken. The way these effect verbs are inflected changes a number of things about their behavior and allows them to be combined in different ways. Tell me… do you have the Distress spell?"

As a matter of fact, Kirito had several different versions of it—different magnitudes, he supposed they would be called, based on the words in the spell and their increasing costs and durations. "Yes."

"And what about Silence?"

"I have that one too," Kirito said. And then, grinning: "I'm tempted to use it."

Briefly, Sasha looked as if she wished she had a ruler with which to smack Kirito's hand. "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that," she said while pretending nothing of the sort.

"Look, this is kind of interesting," Kirito said, not wanting to give offense, "and it's something to pass the time I suppose. But I don't understand the use for learning all of this. We already unlock all of our spells as we level up the relevant magic skill. And to be honest, I mostly use weapon skills rather than magic."

"A practical use, you mean?" Sasha said. "Well now, I don't have Illusion magic myself, but I've bought the words to a number of Illusion incantations from players who do. So I know that your basic Distress spell should be matto tsutakke tovslagu jan, and your Silence spell is matto tsutakke nushlavu jan. What's the difference between these incantations?"

That much was obvious. "The third word," Kirito said, growing a little weary of Sasha's matronly schoolteacher shtick.

"Correct. The word tovslagu is the effect verb for inflicting Distress status, and nushlavu is the verb for Silence status. The word jan at the end is the «unguided projectile» manifestation—when you cast these spells, you have to aim the first two fingers of your free hand at your target, right? Maybe lead them a bit if they're moving?"

Kirito nodded, still not seeing the practical use of this information when the spells already did what he needed them to do. "And?"

"Let's say you want to inflict both statuses on your target, to stop them from both casting spells and using weapon techniques. You'd have to cast both separately, right?"

"Of course. But I wouldn't. It'd take too long and my enemy wouldn't just stand still while I said both incantations. I'd pick one based on whether the opponent primarily used magic or melee, and cast it in the beginning before closing with them, or if I got a moment's opening and wasn't in striking range."

"And that is why understanding the language of magic is useful," Sasha said triumphantly. "Instead of casting two spells, you could combine both effects. And rather than relying on your aim and a bit of luck to hit them, you can turn any projectile into a homing spell with the vethleka targeting method. That will increase the requirements a bit, but you might find it's worth it."

She pointed at a small, low-level creature, some kind of flying lizard with a yellow cursor above its head. "Try this: matto tsutakke tovslage nushlavu vethleka jan. Focus on the target's cursor when you say the word vethleka. Notice the vowel change at the end of tovslagu? That's the Concatenative form, which combines the effect with the one following it."

"You realize if I do that, it's going to aggro that thing," Kirito pointed out. He made no move to unsheathe his sword.

She looked closely at the flying lizard-thing—the name over the mob said «Dravian Scalefly»— and looked back at him with a sly smile. "I thought you said you were overleveled for this area."

"I am," Kirito said with his arms folded. "Which is why I'd rather not fight trash mobs that aren't worth any EXP and don't drop anything of value."

"Fine," Sasha said, planting her hands on her hips. "Cast it on me."

Kirito blinked in surprise, for a moment unsure whether or not he'd understood her correctly. "What?"

"You heard me. It's not a damaging spell, and at magnitude 2 the status effects will wear off fairly quickly. I want you to see that it does what I say it will."

"I'd have to drop you from the party to do that. I think I'll take your word for it." As Silica jogged over to them, looking downcast, Kirito turned to her. "No luck?"

"Nothing," Silica said with a heavy sigh, her mobile ears drooping. The effect, in Kirito's opinion, was cute enough that there ought to be laws regulating moe behavior from Cait Sith players. "What were you two talking about?"

"Magic," Sasha said helpfully. "Better stay close, dear. We're going to need to stick together once we get to the larger islands."

The island that they then departed was one of the nearer ones to Arun, and one of the closest to the ground—a chunk of floating rock about a hundred meters in diameter and about the same distance from the tree canopy below, thin enough that the roots of the trees on the island broke through the bottom in places. As they took to the air and broke from the treeline, Kirito could see the vast plains and steep forested hills of the region surrounding Arun, an area called Yggdrasil Basin.

Kirito had hunted these islands before, although not while looking for this particular flower. He had a fair idea of what to expect and where the aggro mobs were, and—almost as important—he knew a great deal about the altitudes and sizes of the various floating islands. He planned their route accordingly with the intent of minimizing the time wasted in flight; that it ended up being scenic as well was… inevitable, he supposed, when you were talking about massive islands in the sky.

The majority of the day passed uneventfully—and considering the circumstances, uneventful was just another flavor of failure. The most exciting moments from Kirito's perspective were the occasions when particularly dangerous aggro mobs roamed too close to where they were searching, which gave him an excuse to unwind by clearing enemies that were actually worth fighting.

It was early afternoon before they caught a break, in a place called «Cloudspire Island». As the name suggested, it was one of the highest floating islands in terms of altitude, with the roots of its lowest point almost half a kilometer above the deep valley over which it floated—very close to the highest point that a mid-level player could even reach before their flight meter was exhausted. Whereas most of the others were squat, wedge-shaped chunks of land that looked like slabs of real estate that had ripped themselves from the ground, Cloudspire was vertically oriented, climbing a few hundred meters into the sky and with a surface area at its peak only a little over eighty meters in diameter.

Foot paths spiraled around the rocky stem of the island from bottom to top, occasionally forking into a network of dark caves in side passages set into the rock. The entire island was supposedly hollowed out by these caves; Kirito had never mapped them. Because of the height, Silica herself couldn't quite reach the top; they had to land on one of the lower outcroppings and work their way up around the foot paths.

When they arrived at the top of the island, they found it to be relatively flat except for a mound that rose to several times man-height in the center; trees were distributed sparsely and unevenly over the flat areas, which were thick with waist-height underbrush dotted with rocky clearings. Out of habit, Kirito toggled on his Searching skill and made a small noise of surprise at what he saw.

"No mobs," he said when Sasha queried him. "And by that I don't mean no aggro mobs—I mean none at all. There's nothing alive up here except us."

"That's good news, right?" Silica asked, tugging at his sleeve. "You don't have to clear anything."

"Probably," Kirito said with a nod. "All the same, let's stick together while we search."

"What's that?" Sasha said, pointing towards the large hill in the center of the island.

"I don't know," Kirito said. "It looks like a hill—"

"No, I mean that," she said, and then—seeming to catch that Kirito didn't know what she was referring to, clarified. "There's an unusual stone formation near the base of the hill."

Kirito looked more closely, and realized Sasha was right. What he'd initially dismissed as a natural formation seemed, on closer inspection, to be arranged in a way that suggested it was done by hand—which meant that it was designed that way by the person who made the game. And as they approached it, Kirito saw what looked like writing on one of the larger rocks, chiseled into an artificially flattened surface.

"It looks like English," Silica said, bending over and peering at the rock.

"It is," Sasha said with confidence. When both of the others looked at her expectantly, she sighed. "Did neither of you pay attention in school?"

Kirito's reply was defensive. "I can read it." Sasha nodded to him and smiled, gesturing clearly for him to give it a shot. He cleared his throat and began, enunciating with the exaggerated care of someone speaking a language not their own.

"Grieving brother, grieving sister, listen;
"Faithful fallen owe their lives to you now;
"Gather here and vanquish all resistance…"

He paused, frowning as he tried to puzzle out one of the words in the final verse. Sasha saved him the trouble, speaking up and finishing the poem.

"Then with Jevrelth blossom heart's renewal." She looked between Kirito and Silica excitedly. "This is it. This has to be it."

"Are you sure?" Kirito asked.

"'With Jevrelth blossom heart's renewal'. Jevrelth is the spellword for the Transmutation effect. 'Blossom heart's renewal'. We're looking for a flower, right? And the other component is the pet's 'Heart'."

"'Grieving sister… faithful fallen owe their lives to you now'," Kirito repeated slowly. "I think you may be right."

"What I don't understand," Sasha said as she adjusted her glasses and peered closely at the writing, "Is what the penultimate verse means. 'Gather here and vanquish all resistance'…"

A chill ran through Kirito's body, followed quickly by a surge of adrenaline as the Latin letters inscribed upon the rock began to glow brightly. He pushed both Sasha and Silica away roughly. "Get back! Both of you, now!"

"Kirito, what—"

The ground began shaking, enough so that Kirito briefly had trouble keeping his footing. He continued to shoo his two companions further and further away as he backed up. The rumbling built to a deafening roar which sent birds fleeing from tree branches, and when it did a dark shape began rising out of the grassy side of the mound with a shower of dirt. It was tall but squat, twice the height of a person and roughly humanoid in form, with a body seemingly composed of shifting masses of earth churned with plant matter from the side of the hill. A steady wind whipped around it, stirring pebble-sized fragments of itself loose and occasionally casting them off.

As it gave a great bellow, a red cursor appeared above its head along with two green ribbons of HP and a name: «The Guardian of Breath».

Kirito focused closely on the Guardian as it turned to face him, analyzing it. It was lower level than him, but he'd still have to be careful—this was a named mob, a field boss, and he couldn't afford take it lightly. He leapt to the side as it raised a fist and pounded the ground where he'd been standing, somersaulting and coming up in a defensive stance.

I know this mob, he realized suddenly as he watched it tear a chunk from the ground and hurl it at him. I've fought them before. It's a golem-type, just like the ones that populate the ruins around Penwether. Those attack animations are the same basic attacks the trash mobs use—but it's a unique named version of that basic type, so the question is what special abilities it has.

That question was answered, in part at least, right after he dodged the first projectile. While it was still in the air, the Guardian tore another two chunks of rock from the ground, hurling them at him overhand one after the other. He spun and presented his sword at an angle, deflecting the first rock slightly away, and realized too late that the second one was going to hit him before he could bring his sword into position to deflect it too.

Moments before it could, however, the air in front of him shimmered and a blast of wind rushed past him, forming a brief shield in front of him against which the projectile shattered. The golem's eyes flashed, and it turned to look off to Kirito's left, where he saw Sasha's fist clench as she dismissed the spell.

"Don't cast!" he said as he charged at the golem. "I don't have aggro yet!"

The Guardian ripped another projectile from the ground and reared back to throw it at Sasha; as it did, Kirito leapt into the air, wings blazing briefly, and struck at the mob's arm with a combination attack that drew an X of glowing red damage across it. The Guardian dropped the rock, which disintegrated against the ground in a sparkle of blue polygons, and roared in outrage as its other fist swung around and swatted Kirito from the air, sending him head over heels into the side of the hill.

He raised his gaze in time to see the massive form charging at him, head lowered, and as quickly as he could he stretched out his hand and chanted the words to his «Mirror Decoy» spell. The illusion split off from Kirito as he sprang forward and dodged to the side. It was a 50/50 chance which one the golem would attack; Kirito's luck held as it turned and chased the decoy. When it did, Kirito took advantage of the opening and struck at its exposed back with the longest sword technique he knew, a high-damage combo which ended with a pommel strike inflicting «Delay» status.

The primary downside to this technique was that the recovery time was long; nearly a second. The Delay status slowed the boss just enough so that Kirito was able to evade in time to only take a glancing blow in retaliation. He heard chanting and felt energy wash over him; he spared a glance at his HUD just long enough to notice the Regen effect that gave him a slow but steady heal. As he dodged a follow-up blow, he saw Sasha standing not far away, her hands at ready as she stayed just outside of the Guardian's reach.

With his HP back in the green and the mob's hate squarely on him, Kirito settled into a pattern that was familiar and comfortable to him: defend, evade, strike at the opening; repeat. Now that he knew to expect the double-projectile follow-up, it was easy enough to avoid, and the only other surprise came when the Guardian's first HP bar shattered. The whirlwind around the Guardian grew in intensity, buffeting Kirito with a slow DOT every time he came within melee range and repelling him with concussive force after every blow he landed. But with Sasha's healing backing him up, it only took a few more minutes to deplete the last hit points from the Guardian of Breath.

When its second HP bar disappeared, the Guardian gave one last bellow that echoed through the island, trailing off into something that sounded like an elephant giving a great sigh as it expired. Rather than exploding into blue polygons the way most mobs would upon death, it crumbled into a pile of earth and mulch, and when the last of that had settled, a green shoot surrounded by a blue glow broke through the peak of that pile.

Kirito watched and waited for the boss to shift into another phase; he'd never seen a mob fail to produce a death shatter unless the fight wasn't over yet. But as he watched, that single green stem grew rapidly until a glistening purple and white blossom spread open at its tip.

"Is that it?" Sasha asked as Kirito climbed up onto the mound of dirt and plucked the flower, tilting her head up at him.

Kirito tapped the blossom he'd just picked; a window popped up with the words «Pneuma Flower» and nothing else. "This is it," he confirmed. He looked back to where their third companion had been waiting in safety. "Silica, we found the flow—"

If his sword hadn't already been in his hand, he would've drawn it as he bit off the last of that sentence. When he looked in Silica's direction, he saw her surrounded at by a quartet of players with red cursors in a semicircle, two Salamanders with an Imp and a Spriggan. Two of them had bows drawn and aimed squarely at her; the others had their hands held out as if ready to cast.

"Yes, so you did," came a mocking female voice from behind him. "And now you can give it to us."


There were few things Argo liked better than disappearing in the middle of a large crowd and keeping her ears open—and one of her favorite things about the Cait Sith race was how useful those ears and other enhanced senses could be in her line of work. And now that it housed the majority of Alfheim's player population, Arun was one of her favorite places. Like any city, some places were busier than others, but she had never seen a time when there was not some form of traffic passing through the park that surrounded the warpgate.

Especially now, just before noon—and without the escorts Alicia had insisted on saddling her with for the journey to Arun. At this time of day, the sun was high in the sky directly above Yggdrasil, and the entirety of Arun was in shade. The warpgate was in nearly constant operation as clearers, raids and individual parties of players returned to the city for a midday break—if they could. Almost always they were excited, but occasionally she spotted long faces or overheard enough to realize that someone must have died.

Argo sighed as she soaked up the conversations surrounding her. She knew why she kept such tight control over her secrets—information was her stock in trade. What she didn't understand was why so many other people did so. Most people's secrets were dreadfully boring. Who partied with whom, who was sleeping with whom, real-life names or occupations… all of these things were undoubtedly useful to someone, somewhere, but the vast majority of the conversations she overheard were mundane and virtually worthless, even when spoken in hushed whispers.

Sometimes, she wished that she could forget words.

Moments after a party of Undines stepped down from the dais, the warpgate flared to life once again. A flash of blue light briefly illuminated the scene before resolving into a large collection of players in green regalia, a wall of sound quickly rising as dozens of players whose conversations were interrupted by the teleportation resumed talking.

As the Sylph raid began to disperse, Argo finally caught sight of her quarry. She wasn't difficult to spot: taller than most Japanese women, improbably long hair, an oversized katana and—in Argo's opinion—an equally oversized bust that was only barely constrained by the stylized yukata and light armor the other woman wore. Not for the first time, Argo wondered if Sakuya suffered from severe back pain in real life.

When she didn't get a response to her first call, Argo picked up a pebble and chucked it at the Sylph woman, taking care not to trigger her actual «Thrown Weapon» skill. The tiny rock bounced off of her target's shoulder, and Argo made no pretense of innocence when the other woman gave her an annoyed look before detaching herself from her raid party and approaching.

"Sakuya. Fancy meeting you here. Have a seat; I'm coming to like this bench."

Sakuya snorted delicately and sat down beside Argo, swinging the sheath of her sword around to rest on the other side. "The raid went a little longer than expected. I hope I didn't keep you waiting long."

Argo shrugged, one ear canted towards her companion and the other twitching as it followed other sounds. "Nah. You know me. Just killing time."

"No doubt by eavesdropping on everyone within fifty meters."

Argo affected an unconvincingly wounded expression as she turned to look at Sakuya. "I prefer the term 'people-listening'."

Sakuya gave a wry laugh. "You'll forgive me if I can't seem to see a meaningful distinction."

Argo blew her bangs out of her face with a mildly annoyed puff. "Eavesdropping is such a loaded word. If you sit on a park bench and watch everything that's going on around you, and you happen to see interesting stuff, nobody accuses you of being a peeper. You're people-watching, and it's a hobby 'cause you think people are interesting." She touched her own nose and wiggled her ears. "Me? I'm a people-listener. I listen to everything going on around me. Sometimes I happen to hear interesting stuff."

"And then sell that 'interesting stuff' for thousands of yuld."

"If you got any complaints about pricing, I suggest you take it up with the PR department, conveniently located at the top of the World Tree."

Sakuya shifted as if she was preparing to get up and leave. "Cute. Is that your way of saying 'fuck off'?"

"No, 'fuck off' is my way of saying 'fuck off'. What I said was my way of pointing out that 'info broker sells information for fun and profit' is not exactly the seven o'clock news."

Sakuya sighed. "You know I love these little chats, Argo, but I'm sure you had a business reason for wanting to meet with me, and I'm very hungry. That makes me a little bitchy, so perhaps you'd like to get to the point soon."

Argo paused for a moment as she reviewed the approach she wanted to take. Her eyes flitted from subject to subject as she took stock of who was near enough to hear. "Walk with me."

It took a minute for them to get to a part of the arboretum near the warpgate that was open enough to see who was nearby but secluded enough for a semblance of privacy. As they walked, Argo reached up and tried to pluck a leaf from a tree, failed, and then hopped to get enough height to do so without using her wings. The leaf disintegrated into blue polygons after a few moments in her hand; it wasn't a harvestable item.

"You're in charge of the Sylph clearers," she said finally, rubbing her fingers together as if to brush off any lingering particle effect. "How much does Skarrip trust your counsel?"

Sakuya's expression was one of mild surprise at the question. "More than he does most Sylphs, not as much as he should. Sigurd's the one he listens to the most. Why?"

Argo filed that second bit of information away for future reference. "Has he ever given you any priorities for what 'allied' races to choose if you guys get the last attack? I know you don't have any formal allies at the moment."

That expression of surprise shifted quickly to one of suspicion, which was broken shortly thereafter by a slight smile towards the much shorter girl. "Perhaps I'm still ignorant of the way you do business, Argo, but that does seem like the sort of thing you should be paying me for. Assuming I ought to even tell you in the first place."

Argo grinned widely, fangs peeking out. She stopped beneath a tree to get out of the indirect sunlight and leaned back against the bark, crossing her arms. "Now you're getting the hang of this. Took you long enough. Fair's fair, then—you tell me what those priorities are, and I'll tell you why I'm asking."

Sakura frowned. "That's what you call a trade?"

"Reasons are information. And once you hear mine, you'll understand why this is so important—for all of us."

Turning away, Sakuya took a few slow steps off the marked path, her sandals sinking into the grass and her hands clasped behind her back. Argo couldn't see her face, but she could imagine what was going through the Sylph woman's mind right about then—the weighing of risks and benefits, taking into account Argo's own reputation and the business they'd done in the past. The moment when Sakuya looked back over her shoulder at Argo was almost predictable.

"I don't have any clear orders yet about who to choose. Skarrip feels that it's a bit early to be making a decision that won't need to be made for some time yet. With that said… it shouldn't surprise you that the Cait Sith are on the short-list. You're the closest thing we have to allies right now."

"No surprise, no," Argo admitted. "And I'm pretty sure Mortimer's not getting any birthday wishes from you."

"You know his birthday?"

Argo grinned. "Do you really wanna pay for that information?"

Sakuya paused, as if actually considering it. "No. At any rate, this much you could've guessed. Our relations with the Undines are friendly enough, and of course everyone does business with the NCC."

"So basically, to sum up: you're friends with us and the Undines, which everyone knows; you do business with the Gnomes, Lepus and Puca, like everyone else; and the chances of the Salamanders or Imps getting picked by you are predictably equivalent to the chances of Skarrip getting a girlfriend."

Sakuya looked away at the last bit, but Argo could've sworn she heard the other woman choke off a snicker. "That sounds about right. So?"

"So," Argo said, "tell me something I don't know."

"What do you want me to say?" Sakuya's long green hair followed her in a delayed ripple as she spun and looked at Argo, radiating annoyance. "There is no policy. If you're trying to get a read on whether or not the Cait Sith are still our friends, then you can tell Alicia she has nothing to worry about—especially if I put my name in for the next election. Or, perhaps, she could try asking me herself. Or better yet, asking Skarrip, who's actually in a position to give her a real answer right now."

"This isn't for Alicia," Argo said, nonplussed by the other's irritation. Getting someone annoyed could sometimes bear fruit as they let slip things they might not otherwise, but there was a line and she was treading close to it. It was time to lay everything out and hope that she hadn't misjudged Sakuya. "And it isn't for Skarrip either. He's a larper—he's gotten far too comfortable in this world, and at this point I doubt he gives an inventory full of legendary shits whether or not he ever gets out—let alone if anyone else who isn't a Sylph does. You do."

Sakuya was silent for some time. It was difficult to read her expression; Argo reflected that she might make a dangerous opponent if they ever met over a card table. "I do. And?"

Bait taken; time to yank the line and set the hook. "And I have a proposition for you," Argo said. "But it starts with another question: what do you think happens to everyone left behind when the game gets cleared and three races go through the vortex?"


Three, four … Sasha's count of their assailants ended there. She knew there were more, because the voice had come from behind her, but she couldn't see them without turning around. And considering how bad the odds were just from the players she could see, she wasn't sure it mattered how many more there were. Being outnumbered two to one wasn't a whole lot better than being outnumbered three to one.

Kirito's free hand balled into a fist. "Cowards. You sure need a lot of people to rob a girl, a schoolteacher and a solo player."

"You caused us plenty of trouble yesterday," growled a male voice filled with hate. "But you don't have the element of surprise now."

"Drop the sword, Spriggan boy," came the female voice behind her again. "As you can see, we have archers and mages targeting your dear Silica. Disarm yourself and let us take the flower, and you can all fly away from this when we're done."

"Spells take time to cast," Kirito called out, anger clouding his face briefly before he calmed himself. "And the flower won't be of any use to you. It doesn't do anything except—"

"Resurrect a dead pet, yes, thank you, we know. And there are Cait Sith who will pay quite a lot of money for one. As to your first point…" She laughed; it was a sound that had very little to do with humor. "Try anything, and you'll find out whether or not you're faster than an arrow. Now be a good boy and disarm yourself."

Sasha suspected the other woman was right about their ability to kill Silica before he could get to her—and no matter what he said, Kirito had to realize that as well. At least thirty meters separated the two of them from the Cait Sith girl, and while it might take a few seconds for their mages to cast, the arrows alone could be fatal—to say nothing of what would happen if they all cast AOE spells that even hit near her.

"Just give them the flower, Kirito," she urged. "It's not worth Silica's life."

"It's not just her life, though," Kirito said. "It's Pina's. We might not find another flower before it's too late."

Sasha couldn't believe what she was hearing. Was this boy really implying that the girl's pet, which was nothing but a bunch of data on a server somewhere, was as valuable as a person?

"They don't need me to disarm, either," Kirito went on. "Just sheathing my sword would be enough. They want me completely defenseless for some reason. Why?"

"Kirito," Sasha hissed angrily, "they are going to kill her. Do you not get that?"

"I get it just fine," Kirito replied, his voice pitched only for her ears. "I also get that the moment they take my sword, they can do whatever they want anyway. They're threatening to kill someone outright—doing so would be a treaty violation. Do you really think someone willing to do that has any incentive to let any witnesses walk away from this?"

Sasha shivered involuntarily. He had a point, and she didn't like the implications one bit.

"Enough talking," the woman snapped. "I'm going to give you five sec—"

"Wait!" Sasha said suddenly. "Please, listen to me. The flower's no good without the spell!"

A few moments of silence passed before the bandit woman spoke again. "Explain, and explain quickly."

Sasha took a deep breath, glancing in Silica's direction. The girl was plainly confused and perhaps even a little terrified, but she was keeping it together well, and had frozen in place to avoid giving any of their enemies a reason to attack. "The flower does nothing on its own. You have to transmute it using the pet's Heart item as the other component, holding both of them in your hands."

Another pause. "And I suppose the reason you're along on this little field trip is because you know how to do this."

Sasha attempted to put confidence into her voice, to quell the fear that threatened to creep in. "That's correct. It's a high-level Earth magic effect. If you want to be able to sell the flower, you'll need to know the incantation."

"Sasha," Kirito said softly, "what do you think you're doing?"

"Keeping us alive," she said without looking at him. She half-turned, keeping Silica within her field of view, and looked at the woman who'd been speaking, a Salamander with the race's typical red hair hanging over one side of her face. She was hovering in mid-air a short distance away with her polearm at ready, out of melee range but near enough to close that distance if she had to.

"Rosalia," said a severe-looking pikeman hovering not far from the person he spoke to. "You have a little Earth magic. Do you have any idea what the hell she's talking about?"

"Never heard of it," Rosalia said, looking bored.

"And what's your Earth magic skill again?" Sasha asked sharply, looking at Rosalia in a direct challenge.

Rosalia glared back. "None of your business."

Emboldened and caught up in the moment, Sasha held the other woman's gaze. For better or for worse, she was committed. "Transmutation is a high-level spell with a complex incantation. Unless you're a Gnome, you need a minimum Earth skill of 590 to even see it in your spellbook. Mine's quite a bit higher than that. I doubt yours is."

The expression on Rosalia's face said she'd hit the mark. "Fine," the woman snapped. "Tell me the words to the spell so we can get this over with."

"You understand that I can't speak the words without the magic system trying to cast the spell?"

"Now ask me if I care. If you're not holding the ingredients it shouldn't have any effect, and you losing some MP is just fine with me." Rosalia's eyes narrowed suddenly. "And don't try anything funny. I know what Earth magic sounds like, especially the attack spells. Cast the wrong spell and the ex-Dragon Tamer Silica-chan will be the next name crossed out in the Hall of Memories."

"Sasha…" Kirito looked as if he felt betrayed as he said this. She didn't dare risk trying to reassure or persuade him otherwise. She glanced once again towards Silica, measuring distances by eye and swallowing nervously.

The archers are hovering about three meters off the ground, something like ten or so meters away from her… mages a little further back… call it four, two and five for the dimensions…

"Out with it already," Rosalia said, leveling her pike in Sasha's direction in an implied threat. "Or I start counting."

"All right," Sasha protested, holding up a hand. "All right. Listen carefully, please. The words you want are… dotto mezal keplemalthe lezhayo chotsu vachome ralth shippura tepnaga dweren."

As she spoke the final word of the incantation, her eyes shifted towards a point on the ground near Silica, and she saw a reticule flicker in her HUD at the point of Focus. As the final set of shimmering golden runes locked into place around Sasha, a wall of elemental earth rose sharply out of the ground in a ring around Silica. The archers loosed their attacks the moment the earth wall began emerging, but the wall was an «Immortal Object» and the glowing projectiles shattered against it in quick succession.

He couldn't have known what to expect from her casting, but Kirito wasted no time the moment it was clear that Silica was being protected. He launched himself into the air and closed the distance between himself and Rosalia with frightening speed, the Pneuma Flower held in one hand and his sword in the other. The sword became a colored blur as he launched a series of multi-hit techniques against the bandit woman, driving her back before the pikeman who'd spoken earlier lunged in and bought her a moment's respite.

Then Sasha had no more time to pay attention to Kirito; from behind her she heard the beginning of a Fire magic attack spell, and she leapt to the side just as dirt and grass erupted in a burst of fire from the ground where she'd stood. Sprawling on the ground, she managed to quickly rattle off the words to a Water magic shielding spell that absorbed a follow-up attack, then took to the air and flew towards the ring of earth where Silica was now protected—but also trapped.

Bolts of magic energy sizzled through the air past her as she desperately tried to evade them, and she almost went careening off in the wrong direction as a staccato burst of Earth magic projectiles tracked across her leg and spun her around. Sasha landed awkwardly inside the protective ring wall just beside Silica, her leg numb. As several homing projectiles followed her over the wall, she threw her hands up and rapidly spoke a series of spellwords, forming a whirlwind dome of green energy above them that would steadily drain her MP—but which would last as long as she had MP to maintain it.

"Sasha, what's going on out there?"

"I don't know," she replied to Silica, watching a surge of her MP disappear as a fireball dissipated against her shield. "But whatever's happening, I'd bet that boy can handle it."

Three of the bandits were floating in the air directly over the two of them, and although Sasha couldn't hear what they were saying over the din, she could take a good guess as all three of them stopped attacking: they were going to wait for her MP to run out or for her to drop the shield, then attack. She grimaced.

"Silica," Sasha said urgently as she watched her MP dip below half. "Do you have any magic, and if so at what skill level?"

"A little Water magic for heals and defense," the girl said, sounding as frightened as she ought to as she looked up at what awaited them. "It's… a bit over 240, I think."

"Perfect," Sasha said, leaning close to Silica so the girl could hear her clearly despite the churning wind shield above them. "All I need you to do is throw up a defensive shield just like mine. I'll drop my shield, and then right before I finish casting my next spell, I'm going to look straight at you. When I do that, I want you to drop your shield. You'll only need to hold it for a few seconds. Can you do that?"

"I…" Silica looked up, nervously eyeing the three enemies above the shield. They all had red cursors, which in this case indicated that they were part of a group that was hostile to her. All three of them looked ready to act on a moment's notice: an Imp had his hands raised in preparation to cast, a Spriggan had an arrow nocked on his bow, and the Salamander of the group was grinning down at them as he playfully tossed his short sword from one hand to the other.

"You can do it," Sasha said reassuringly, putting her free hand on the girl's shoulder. "But I need you to do it now, while I still have MP left."

Silica looked at her and nodded, visibly getting a grip on herself.

"Cast," Sasha said.

Silica did, and Sasha waited, listening to the incantation. When she heard the word for the Defensive Shield effect pass the girl's lips, she clenched her fist to dismiss the wind shield, which dispersed immediately and left a roaring silence in her ears from the sudden absence of the rushing air. She heard the Imp start to cast as the maelstrom of wind was replaced by one of water, the element surging out of the walls and imposing a barrier against which his debuff spell dissipated harmlessly.

Can't do Distress without combining this with Fire, she thought. And that'll double the MP cost… but Silence will only deal with the casters, and I need to stop the physical attacks… and Distress will only suppress weapon techniques anyway, not regular attacks…

Sasha spared a moment to glance at her party HUD. Whatever Kirito was doing was draining his MP quickly, but he was alive—and Silica's MP wouldn't let her keep this shield up much longer. She needed to decide now, and the thoughts raced through her mind as she made absolutely certain of what she wanted to do—she would only get one shot at this.

Okay… zure, then Sequential-form navogjiki for Paralysis, then nushlave, end with plorjabu… need tepnaga for the AOE… and better make it magnitude 5 for the increased AOE radius.

Silica's MP dropped below 25%. Sasha looked up, eyeballing the distance one last time, and then began to cast. When she began uttering the AOE spellword, she whipped her head around and looked directly at Silica, who clenched her own fist.

A fraction of a second passed between the moment that Silica's water shield evaporated and the moment that Sasha uttered the word min, completing her own incantation. As a glowing arrow struck the ground beside her, spraying her with stinging dirt and pebbles, she slammed the palm of her hand into the earth and threw her arms around Silica.

A whirlwind erupted from the ground in a tight circle around her and Silica, their huddled forms a calm at the center of the storm. In the span of a heartbeat, that storm exploded in a torrential rush of elemental energy that surged up through the cylindrical channel inside the stone ring and washed across their assailants hovering above, blasting them all away in different directions. Three different status effects appeared beside the HP bars of the bandits in the split-second before all of them went tumbling out of sight.

As the wall of earth ran its duration and crumbled into dust around them, Sasha hugged Silica close to her. Using the last of her MP, she cast one final, powerful spell which surrounded both her and Silica with energy. As the energy coalesced on them, it seemed to eat away at their avatars, the textures of their skin and clothes evaporating into nothingness.

And then they were gone—leaving only a swirling cloud of dust, and a raging battle for survival between Kirito and the remaining bandits.

Chapter Text

"The Flight Meter is a measure of a player's stored wing energy, which is consumed by powered flight and replenished by exposing the wings to sunlight or moonlight. All players regardless of level or stats have enough wing energy for approximately ten minutes of level flight; time spent ascending consumes energy significantly faster, while a powered descent consumes far less. Gliding does not require any energy at all, and a player can safely glide to the ground even when their wings are completely depleted. With all Flight Meters being equal, the distance a player can cover and the altitude they can achieve is determined by their maximum speed—which is affected by their level, Agility stat, racial traits and specific buffs."
Alfheim Online manual, «Flight Meters»

17 April 2023
Day 163

The explosion split the air like a thunderclap, a sharp sound that seemed to almost tangibly divide the world into before and after. Kirito couldn't help but be drawn to the noise by reflex, whirling around just in time to see a turbulent bubble of green energy blossom from the mouth of the elemental earth wall that hid Sasha and Silica from view. The three enemies who'd surrounded them were thrown limply in several directions by the force of the blast, and Kirito thought he caught a glimpse of status effects on their HP bars before they disappeared—two of them tumbling into the underbrush while a third went sailing over the nearest edge of the island itself.

And then, as the wall of earth began to crumble into a churning cloud of dust, Kirito had no more time for distraction. He was beset by three attackers at once, and this time they had a good idea of his capabilities—they'd positioned themselves so that Kirito couldn't easily close to melee range with one of them without exposing his back to the others. The sound of a fast incantation from behind him gave him just enough warning to defend himself, spinning and presenting the flat of his sword to absorb the fire bolt as it homed in on him. He still took a portion of the damage, but nowhere near as much as if he hadn't tried to block.

The others hadn't been idle, however—Mukensha and Rosalia both charged him when he turned to face the mage, and only by stilling his wings and dropping like a heavy stone did Kirito manage to evade their pincer attack. The two pikes clashed with a metallic clamor as they converged on where Kirito had just been, and he took the moment to rattle off the words to his Mirror Decoy spell now that the cooldown was over. The mage was the biggest threat, and Kirito needed the other two off his back while he dealt with him.

But as Kirito launched himself towards the mage, the illusionary mirror image of him splitting off in the opposite direction, he heard Rosalia shout behind him. "Use your Focus! The decoy doesn't have a cursor!"

Kirito cursed silently. It figured that someone in this group would know how to tell an illusionary decoy from the real thing—the game's Focus system would only pop a cursor and HP bar for a real player. A mob wouldn't know or care about this; they would choose a target at random unless they had some kind of enhanced senses. Players weren't necessarily that stupid, which was one of the things that made Illusion Magic of limited use in PvP combat.

In the heat of battle that subtle visual difference could be easy to miss, but now that Rosalia had called it out he wouldn't be able to rely on that trick; there was no point in wasting any more MP on trying. He jinked left and right to evade the projectiles that the Salamander mage blasted at him as he closed, and before the mage could finish a third incantation Kirito tore into his opponent with a flurry of strikes that covered the Salamander's unarmored body with angry crimson lines, tearing great rents in his robes. An echoing scream of terror transitioned into the sound of the man's avatar combusting into red flames, and Kirito burst through those flames at high speed as he fled the other two Salamanders and looked for Sasha and Silica, eyes straining to pierce the dust cloud that was still dispersing.

They were nowhere to be seen. Panic gripped Kirito briefly before he took the risk of looking up at his HUD for a moment, and saw that both of them were alive and their HP green. Whatever Sasha had done had depleted nearly all of her MP, but based on the fact that none of Rosalia's party had tried to use them as hostages again, he had to assume for the moment that they were safe.

He couldn't necessarily say the same for himself. The sound of Salamander wings behind him brought Kirito's attention back to his surviving enemies, and with his sword held out and ready he turned to face Mukensha and Rosalia. The two began to separate as they approached, forcing him to back up and keep his head moving to keep track of both of them.

"Still two to one, boy," Mukensha said smugly as he drifted slowly clockwise around Kirito.

"Outnumbering me didn't help you much yesterday," Kirito retorted as his eyes flicked back and forth, watching for the motions that would signal the opening of a weapon technique from either of them. "And you don't have the element of surprise now."

"Neither do you, my dear," said Rosalia with a crooked smile of anticipation on her blood-red lips. "And everyone here is wise to your little Illusion magic stunts."

"Then it comes down to two things," Kirito said flatly, as if citing from a manual. "Player skill, and our stats and equipment. You already know I'm better than you. If you feel like betting your lives that you're higher level than me and have better equipment, make your move. Otherwise, you'd better find somewhere else to be." His eyes narrowed dangerously as he locked gazes with Rosalia. "Fast."

"Oooh," Rosalia said, tone dripping with mockery. "I don't know about you, Mukensha, but I just got a chill. Now be a good boy—you have something I want."

In answer, Kirito stowed the Pneuma Flower in his inventory and let himself drift slowly backwards, shifting the majority of his attention to Mukensha. Rosalia might be the leader of this group and she talked a good game, but he wasn't buying her insouciance—he could see uncertainty in her eyes, fear of whether or not they really could take him.

On the other hand, he could feel the killing intent radiating from her companion. She wanted the item and the payoff at the end of this—Mukensha wanted him dead. Any remaining doubt Kirito had of this was dispelled when their eyes met.

"Enough banter," Mukensha said, leveling his pike. "You and I have a score to settle, Spriggan."

Kirito didn't get a chance to ask what kind of grudge Mukensha had against him. Before his adversary finished speaking, his stance shifted slightly and his pike began to glow with orange light.

It was just enough warning to get his sword up. The impaling attack shot Mukensha forward in a flash of light, similar to the basic dashing attacks in so many sword styles. Kirito slanted his sword and let the polearm deflect off of it at an angle, taking a small amount of blocking damage from the technique. His counter was met and rebounded by the shaft of the pike as his opponent reversed it, and he carried the motion into the opening for a 360-degree spiral attack that drove back both Mukensha and Rosalia, the latter of whom had just tried to take advantage of his preoccupation with the former.

That technique had a lot of reach and very little recovery time, which gave Kirito an opportunity he didn't often have in the midst of battle: after both opponents flitted backwards to evade the spinning attack, Kirito lashed out with his free hand and chanted a short incantation. As Rosalia charged in to try to run him through again, she ran right into the spell effect; the black energy washed over her and he saw the icon for Distress status appear beside her HP gauge.

That wouldn't stop her from attacking, but it would keep her from using weapon techniques—which were the biggest threat in this battle. Without the system assist, Rosalia didn't seem to be that effective at melee combat, and without the added speed and damage from her weapon techniques, he wasn't too worried about damage soaking through his blocking.

With Rosalia effectively disabled and easily fended off, he was free to return most of his attention to Mukensha. They clashed repeatedly, colored sparks like a fireworks display spraying away from where their weapons techniques met and countered each other, a deadly dance that resulted in Mukensha's HP being slowly eroded away. The Salamander was lower-level and was outclassed in equipment if not in skill; he had to know that he had no chance of winning this war of attrition. His only chance against Kirito was to hope for him to make a mistake.

As luck would have it, Kirito did.

It was a simple error borne from Kirito's own confidence in his skills, but it was enough to turn the tide of battle. Most players had an area in the upper right of their peripheral vision where they could see icons for which techniques or spell effects were on cooldown. Kirito had turned off that UI option and most other elements of his HUD because he found them distracting and was good at keeping track of that information. Usually.

After parrying several blows from Kirito's «Triangle» technique, Mukensha responded with the same impaling attack he'd used at the onset of battle. Kirito tried to use the most appropriate counter but misjudged the end of its cooldown timer by barely a second, which left him briefly exposed in the opening motion of that attack, expecting it to be ready. He had only a moment to realize his mistake before the head of the pike plunged into him just below the light chestplate he wore, driving him back and pinning him against a tree.

The look on Mukensha's face was pure ecstasy. Fighting off an overwhelming wave of nausea from the numb, painless sensation where the head of the pike was still embedded in his gut, he tried to swing his sword at Mukensha, but the Salamander shifted his grip lower on the shaft and the respective lengths of their weapons made it impossible to connect.

"Don't bother, Spriggan. You're mine now."

Rosalia made a clucking sound with her tongue as she joined her group member's side. "Tsk, now now, Mukensha, you don't get him until we have what we came for."

"Speak for yourself, Rose. I came to kill the player who killed my brother."

Suddenly Mukensha's grudge made all the sense in the world to Kirito, and his hopes sank. If the man's gripe with him was this personal, there was going to be no reasoning with him, no buying him off. Kirito wondered exactly who it had been, and realized after a moment's thought that there was only one possibility.

"Yes, you know what I'm talking about, don't you, boy? I can see it in your eyes." Mukensha twisted the pike; Kirito began to realize that there was an entire world of unpleasant sensations that fell short of what the simulation categorized as "pain" that should be suppressed. His eyes went up to his HP gauge; he could see it ticking slowly downwards, with a more rapid drop every time Mukensha gave the weapon a twist.

"Ken," Rosalia said sharply, "you're going to kill him before we get—"

"Back off, Rose." Mukensha met Kirito's eyes as his gaze came back down from his HUD. "You know exactly who I'm talking about. You cut him down in the blink of an eye when you ambushed our party. His name was Zanzer, Spriggan. And he was my brother. Not that that means anything to you."

"It was an accident," Kirito managed to grate out, free hand closing on the shaft of the pike in a fist as he tried to use his leverage against the tree to pull it out. "A couple of lucky crits. I was trying... to disable him."

"Lucky?" Mukensha snarled. His bark of humorless laughter was punctuated by another twist. "Not so lucky for him. And not so lucky for you now, either." Hate flared up again behind his eyes as he leaned forward and gave the weapon another vicious twist, spreading his wings to put more strength behind his movements. "Now, Spriggan... die."

"Damnit, Ken—!" For all of her loud protests, Rosalia made no move to interfere. Kirito wondered if perhaps she was afraid of being next if she thwarted Mukensha's craving for vengeance. He looked up at his HUD again, and saw that while his own HP was yellow and dropping fast, Sasha's and Silica's gauges were still full, and their MP was recovering slowly. Wherever they were, whatever they'd done, they were safe. He hoped they were well on their way back to Arun.

With that knowledge, Kirito reflected that this might be the best outcome. Regardless of the circumstances, the fact was that he'd killed this man's brother. He had every right to want and seek revenge for that. They'd fought, and the outcome had been fair. If Mukensha killed him here and now, that would put the matter to rest. Sasha and Silica didn't have the Pneuma Flower and wouldn't try to get another on their own, and with Mukensha's need for vengeance settled, Rosalia's group would have no need to go after either of them again. Silica would mourn the loss of her pet, but they'd be safe.

As the chime warning him that his HP had reached the red zone sounded in his ear, Kirito closed his eyes. He couldn't free himself, and he could see the end approaching. Silently, he apologized to his mother and sister for the pain his death would cause them. He thought of the friends he'd made here in the game—people who would probably mourn his passing, if they ever found out about it. Klein, Lisbeth, Yuuki... and Asuna. Most of all, Asuna. Things had occasionally been tense with her ever since the failure of the Spriggans to sign the Treaty of Arun, but he was surprised at the depth of regret that filled him when he thought about the Undine girl.

A warm sensation and sounds of alarm from Rosalia and Mukensha yanked him back to the here and now, and as his eyes flew open, he looked up at his HUD and realized that his HP was yellow and starting to quickly climb back towards green. Following the gazes of the two Salamanders, he saw Sasha standing some distance away, hands held out and blue energy surging around her. Silica was standing behind her and slightly to one side, dagger out and expression defiant.

"Rosalia!" Mukensha snapped as he torqued the pike roughly in one direction and then the other, trying to overcome the rate at which Sasha was healing him. "Deal with them!"

She gaped at him. "Since when do I take orders from you?"

It was then that Kirito realized what he had to do. While Mukensha and Rosalia argued heatedly, he seized the shaft of the pike again as far down as he could with his free hand, and pulled. Close to 20% of his HP disappeared in a moment as the head of the pike punched through his back with a tearing sound and a spray of glowing red damage particles, and he gritted his teeth and pulled himself closer still.

Rosalia began to shout a warning at Mukensha, but it was too late. Kirito raised his sword, and swung it down with every ounce of strength he had. The blow severed the Salamander pikeman's left arm at the shoulder, along with his two left wings. As Mukensha howled in sudden shock and outrage, his arm and wings disintegrating into a burst of blue polygons, Kirito swung both feet up and kicked out. His opponent went sprawling backwards from the blow, giving Kirito the critical moments he needed to free himself from the weapon that had impaled him.

As he began to slip off the butt end of the pike with an involuntary wince, Kirito caught a glimpse of Rosalia rushing at him, her weapon trailing a half-moon of crimson tracers in the wake of the technique she was executing. Before the blow could land, from his right there came a brief surge of hurricane-force wind laced with brilliant green energy, which blindsided Rosalia as if she'd stepped in front of a freight train and slammed her bodily into the tree against which Kirito had so recently been pinned. Her weapon went flying out of her hand and she crumpled to the ground, momentarily stunned. Kirito risked just enough of a glance to see Sasha lower her hands and nod at him.

A cold rage washed over Kirito as he realized how close his life had come to being ended—and how his own guilt over the life he'd taken had allowed him to accept that end. He stalked purposefully through the tall grass towards where Mukensha had fallen on his side, and saw the man aim his remaining arm at Kirito and begin to incant a spell. An almost desultory slash of his sword deprived the Salamander of the hand he needed in order to cast, and Kirito gave him a fierce kick in the midriff that rolled him over onto his back.

"Don't," Kirito said as Mukensha tried to use the stump of his arm to push himself up, leveling his sword. The tip of the blade pricked the Salamander's throat meaningfully.

Very little that Kirito recognized as human remained behind Mukensha's eyes as he glared. "Don't what? Give you a reason to kill me?"

"The thought had occurred to me," Kirito bit out.

An awful smile twisted his face, an expression which had nothing at all to do with mirth. "You mistake me for someone who cares to live. I failed. Just get on with it and let me go join my brother."

"Your brother was an accident," Kirito said. "I wasn't trying to kill him. I was just—"

"Spare me your self-serving excuses, Spriggan," Mukensha spat. "I saw your face when you did it. It didn't even faze you. You just stepped right through his Remain Light and moved on to the next target. And you didn't bother seeing if anyone was trying to rez him, either."

Another rush of anger and outrage flooded through Kirito. "Oh please. Silica told me what your group did before I got there. You killed two people just because they were in the way, and you were trying to rob the survivors. And you've got the nerve to try to guilt me for taking one of you down, and imply that I violated the Treaty? You took your chances when you decided to mug Silica's party—and so did your brother. I'm sorry about what happened to him, but—"

"No you're not," Mukensha said with unparalleled viciousness. It was as if he'd gathered up all the contempt that existed in the world and invested it into every hate-filled word. "You didn't even break stride when you killed him. Just like you didn't react when you killed Kin'oh earlier. Those weren't your first kills, were they?"

Kirito's expression was as cold as the chill that ran through him. He didn't reply; he didn't have to. The answer was plain on his face.

Mukensha tried to sit up again, and spat on Kirito's blade. "You think you're such a big damn hero, showing up in the nick of time to save the girl. You think saving her or stopping hunters like us can wash all the blood off your hands." A derisive snort. "But you're just as much of a killer as I am, so don't fucking patronize me with your hollow sympathy. At least I'm honest about what I do to survive in here. You can't decide whether to be proud of your skill or ashamed of it."

"Shut up." Kirito's fist tightened on the grip of his sword. The knife that Mukensha twisted inside him with every word hurt far more than the pike that had impaled him earlier. Mukensha must have seen the barbs sink home; that horrible smile returned to his features.

"Then shut me up, Spriggan," he seethed through clenched teeth. "Kill. It's what you're good at. It's all your kind is good for."

The urge to do exactly that was overwhelming. Mukensha was right: Zanzer and the Salamander he called Kin'oh hadn't been his first. As both a solo player and a Spriggan, he had a perpetual target on his back, and more than once he'd had to demonstrate his willingness and ability to make a PK group pay a higher price than they were willing to pay in order to take him down. He tried to tell himself that he didn't regret those kills—that they were necessary, that they were a last resort when he was left with no choice. Kill or be killed: the ultimate argument of necessity.

But here he was faced with someone who had very little reluctance to kill—someone who would almost certainly do so again if he went free. Moreover, Mukensha wanted to die. Whatever else he was, he was a grieving brother, and if he couldn't have his vengeance for Zanzer's death, he wanted nothing more than to be reunited with him. Kirito would be doing him a kindness if he took his head.

Realizing he'd forgotten something, he took a moment to glance warily over his shoulder. At some point while he and Mukensha had been focused on each other, Rosalia had recovered and fled the scene—most likely realizing that she had no chance of winning against Kirito one-on-one, especially now that he had a healer backing him up. Looking the other direction, he saw Sasha and Silica standing a cautious distance away, both of them seeming very unsettled. Sasha in particular was trying to stand in front of Silica as if she could shield the girl from what was happening. When the woman's eyes met Kirito's she gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head, her expression all but pleading with him.

It was Silica's presence that decided it for him. The two of them had talked at length the night before about the ambush in Yggdrasil, and while she hadn't really been able to process it in the thick of battle or its immediate aftermath, she'd broken down in tears when it began to sink in that she'd watched two of the players she'd traveled in a party with for days die—and they would never be coming back. They hadn't really been friends... but they'd been people all the same.

No matter how deserving Mukensha might be, was it really right that he force Silica to cope with watching someone else get executed? Sending her and Sasha away would be scarcely better—he'd still have to face them when the deed was done. And at any rate there was no guarantee Rosalia or her people weren't still waiting somewhere out of sight, hoping that the three of them would separate.

"I've got a better idea," Kirito said to Mukensha, taking a step back as he sheathed his sword. "My friends and I are going back to Arun. We're leaving you here. Your wings should regenerate in a few minutes; when they do, you can fly off and find a healer to restore your limbs—assuming any will touch you, after word gets around of what you tried to pull here." He looked off in the direction of the nearest edge of the island on which they stood. The carpet of tall grass ran all the way up to where the rock and dirt ended, such that you could almost fool yourself into thinking that it was just the crest of a hill, rather than the brink of a deadly drop to the valley floor more than half a kilometer below.

Leaning over his fallen foe, Kirito bent until he was close enough to speak words that were only meant for Mukensha's ears. "On the other hand, it's a long way down from here. If you want death so badly, you know where to find it."


"We're not reviving Pina now?"

In lieu of answering Silica's plaintive question, Sasha looked to Kirito, who still had possession of the Pneuma Flower.

"Not yet," he said as they began their long glide from the top of Cloudspire Island. Their gradual descent was leisurely, and gave them time to talk without being drowned out by wing or wind noise. "There might be another ambush waiting on our way back to Arun, and it's also possible we could run into a tough mob somewhere. Why don't we play it safe and do that when we reach the church?"

"Aren't you worried about the flower disappearing?" Sasha asked.

Kirito shook his head. "Not now that I've seen it. If it had durability, it'd be listed on the flower's status window. But there's nothing there except the name, just like any other crafting component. That tells me it should only disappear if it's left out in the world for more than a few hours." He patted one of his pockets for effect. "That's why it's in my inventory."

The explanation made sense to Sasha, and Silica seemed to accept it as well. "Thank you, Kirito." Then the girl tilted her head over towards Sasha, smiling for what seemed like the first time since the ambush. "And thank you, Sasha, for what you did back there to protect me. I've never seen anyone do magic like that before; it was amazing!"

Sasha felt faintly embarrassed at the praise, but that was overridden by her pride at being able to come up with such a complex spell on the fly. "You're welcome, dear. It was nothing, really—I just applied what I knew about the language to make up a spell that did what I needed it to do." She gave Kirito a meaningful look.

He didn't miss the meaning behind that look. "I only caught it as the AOE was going off, but it was definitely impressive."

"Thank you."

Kirito nodded. "I'm still not sure I could do that, though. I don't really have any special aptitude for languages. My talents are more with computers, programming and video games. And in here I focus on my sword skills anyway."

Sasha measured Kirito with her gaze—a searching, penetrating scrutiny that usually prompted children to look away uncomfortably. "You like to understand the mechanics of how things work, isn't that right?"

Another nod.

"When we were talking before, you said this wasn't a language so much as a set of… what did you call them? Voice commands."

"Right. Like talking to your smartphone to do an Internet search."

Sasha thought this over carefully, considering whether or not she'd been using the wrong approach on Kirito. Everyone learned different subjects in their own way, and from their own frame of reference—she was a linguist, so of course she best understood the language of magic by approaching it as a language. But this Kirito was a gamer, and from the sound of it someone who related much better to technology than to people.

"Try this, then," she said finally. "Forget what I said about languages. Let's say they are voice commands. Let's say… aren't there computers where you type in keywords to do tasks instead of clicking on icons?"

"Some UIs and older operating systems are like that," Kirito confirmed as they banked wide to go around another island. "It's called a command-line interface. They're less common than they were ten or fifteen years ago, but they're still used by power users…" He trailed off, expression briefly distant before a smile began.

Capitalizing on that apparent leap of intuition, Sasha went on. "So if you wanted to be good at using a system like that, you'd learn all of the commands, and all of the words you'd type to make it do different things. Maybe you could look it up on the Internet when you needed to do some specific thing, but to really master it—"

"You'd need to know all the parameters, switches, or other arguments the commands used," Kirito said, interrupting. "You'd need to know the list of commands, the syntax for each one, and…"

Sasha briefly felt smug about her teaching ability, especially since she only barely understood what Kirito was talking about. "You get it now."

"I get it," Kirito admitted, smiling at her. "You're a Linux mage in a world of GUI apprentices."

Sasha laughed. She hadn't the faintest idea what Kirito had just said to her or what he meant by gooey, but she guessed that it was complimentary and meant that he grasped the import of what she'd been trying to get across to him.

He was complex, this boy. More than once on this outing she'd thought she had him figured out, only to discover a new side of him. In many ways he fit the stereotypes she'd heard about the Spriggan faction: loners, people who don't play well with others, able to kill without hesitation regardless of what the Treaty of Arun said. He'd struck down at least one of their assailants with no visible remorse, and if that Salamander, Mukensha, was to be believed, he'd killed others. The thought was chilling, especially given his apparent age.

On the other hand, when it came to Mukensha himself… Kirito had hesitated. And spared his life when he didn't have to, when he had every reason to end it. Moreover, he'd fought against overwhelming odds to save Silica not once but twice—and had risked his life to help bring her pet back.

This hadn't been the first time Sasha had seen someone die in the game, but it was the first time she'd been exposed to player-killing firsthand—let alone the kind of brutality and killing intent that had taken place on Cloudspire Island. No matter how desperate their situation, and despite the fact that the other party had been trying to rob and possibly kill them, it left a sickening feeling in her gut. When that red Remain Light had flickered and gone out, the light had gone out of someone's life. Somewhere in Japan, a soul was torn from a body whose eyes would never again open. Whoever they were, they had been important to someone.

She tried to remember the dead Salamander's face—she'd only seen it briefly before the fight began. How old had he been? Between the bulk of their armor and the way these fae avatars distorted a person's features, it was sometimes hard to estimate the age of any adult, but she would've bet that he wasn't far out of high school—if he even was.

Had been.

Something of her state of mind must have shown on her face or in her body language; when they first landed at the peak of a large hill near Arun to rest their wings, Kirito approached her. "You all right?"

Sasha almost put up the same kind of reassuring front she would've shown to any of the other kids, but something in Kirito's expression suggested that he knew better. "I was thinking about the player you killed."

Kirito's suddenly looked conflicted. "Sorry I asked."

"I'm not blaming you," she said quickly. "You fought to protect us, and I'm grateful for that. It's just…"

"I still see them, you know," Kirito said quietly, glancing in Silica's direction to make sure she was out of earshot.

Sasha was confused at the seeming non sequitur. "Who?"

"The players I've had to kill. Every one of them. I see them when I close my eyes at night. I see them in the faces of people in the crowd in Arun. I see them every time I see a red cursor." For a time he looked away, gazing off in the distance towards where Arun itself was faintly visible at the foot of the World Tree. They stood on the crest of the hill—not the tallest in sight, but high enough to be able to catch a glimpse of the grand neutral city at the center of Alfheim. After seconds passed with no answer from Sasha, he looked back over his shoulder at her.

"It was different in the beta, you know. PvP was half the point. Sometimes I'd run into people I'd 'killed', and maybe we'd talk about tactics or promise a rematch. Maybe a little trash talk, but that's just part of playing online games. There was a sense of camaraderie with your opponent, and respect for their skill. It was intense, and I took it as seriously as any other hardcore gamer, but it was…" Kirito then turned back and met Sasha's eyes. "It was still fun. Not a matter of kill-or-be-killed."

For a moment, just a moment while he was talking about the game when it was still a game, Kirito had looked like the boy that he was instead of the killer he'd become. Sasha had spent much of her time in this world trying to create a safe place for the children of Alfheim, and it broke her heart to think of the weight that this boy, this child, had to bear at an age when his worst worry ought to be passing high school entrance exams. She wasn't sure she wanted to ask the next question. "Was it hard for you, your first time?"

His gaze didn't waver. "It's hard every time. But only afterwards. When you're in the middle of a serious fight—if you want to survive it—everything narrows down to just you and the person trying to kill you. Sometimes… sometimes it feels like a part of me blacks out until it's over." He shook himself briefly, glancing over at Silica again. She, too had been quiet, but in her case it was ever since they made the decision not to try rezzing Pina until returning to Arun. She seemed to sense that Kirito and Sasha were having a private conversation, and kept her distance while they rested their wings.

"What about you?" he asked after another interval of silence had passed. "Was that your first time?"

Sasha stared at Kirito in confusion, unsure of what he meant. "My first time for what?"

Kirito's expression was momentarily just as confused as hers, before tightening up. "You don't know?"

"Know what? I don't understand what you're trying to ask. I need some context for the question."

Several times Kirito opened his mouth to answer, stopping before he could say anything as if he'd thought better of the words. "When you blasted away those three players, what status effects did you hit them with?"

She remembered all too well. "About six seconds of Paralysis, followed by nine seconds of Delay stacked with eighteen seconds of Silence. I had to make sure they were disabled as long as possible. Why?"

Kirito nodded thoughtfully. "You were inside that earth wall, so you probably didn't see one of them go over the edge from the force of the AOE. It's a long way to the ground below. You can't fly when you're paralyzed; after six seconds he would've fallen about…" He closed his eyes for a moment, as if doing calculations in his head. "About 150 meters. Six or seven more seconds and he'd hit the ground at terminal velocity. He'd still be suffering from Delay status, but if he kept his wits and was skilled at Voluntary Flight, he might've been able to pull up in time."

The growing sense of horror that filled Sasha as Kirito spoke must have been clear as day. His own expression became sympathetic as he added, "I'm sorry. It doesn't get any easier."

She barely heard him. I just wanted to make sure they couldn't hurt us, she thought, the comforting temptation of denial rising in her. They were just status effects; they shouldn't have been a danger to anyone's life.

But in order to deliver them in an AOE, she'd had to stack those effects with direct damage. And the concussive physics impulse of Wind magic damage had thrown her assailants away from her with great force, immobilized. If that force had carried one of them far enough…

Every race might be able to fly, but falling from a great height could still kill. She might as well have tied that player up, stood at the edge of the island and pushed them off with her own hands.


The Spriggan boy's name was Kirito, and according to Miss Sasha he was a complete and total badass.

Not that she would ever use those words. Tetsuo would've laughed himself silly if she had. But from what little she was willing to divulge of their ambush and the battle that had ensued, the black-haired boy had taken on half of a group of six bandits intent on robbery and murder, and bought Sasha and the adorable little Cait Sith girl named Silica the time they needed to escape the others. Silica's tail twitched excitedly as she recounted choice bits of another battle against even worse odds from the day before, where Kirito had shown up in the nick of time and fought off twice as many bandits single-handedly in order to save her.

Tetsuo suspected that she was exaggerating, and that she had a crush on the boy the size of the Tokyo Tower.

Keita leaned over and stage-whispered to Tetsuo right as Silica's story came to an inconveniently-timed pause. "I guess Miss Sasha wasn't on a date after all."

"Unless she likes underage guys," Tetsuo remarked.

Both of them exclaimed loudly—in surprise despite the lack of pain—as Sasha came up behind them and gave the two of them sharp smacks on the back of the head. "I heard that," she said crossly. "Sachi, what did you tell these boys?"

Sachi appeared to be having a very hard time not succumbing to a fatal case of schadenfreude. She covered her mouth with both petite hands, but Tetsuo could tell she was smiling. "Just that you and some swordsman were going off on a quest," she said, voice muffled.

Sasha turned her burning gaze on both Tetsuo and Keita, who recoiled from the force of it. "One more word," she said. "One more word like that from your uncouth mouths, and you can find somewhere else to sleep tonight. I know both of you clearers can afford an inn."

Tetsuo nudged Keita. "What does 'uncouth' mean?"

"It means you're a jerk," Keita said quietly. Then, more loudly: "Sorry, Miss Sasha. We didn't mean anything by it."

One by one the back-and forth conversations died down, until eventually there was a moment of stillness where Silica and Kirito both looked meaningfully at Sasha.

She nodded, pressing the palms of her hands against the sides of her dress and bunching them into fists briefly. "It's time."

Tetsuo leaned over to whisper to Keita again. "Time for what?"

Keita shushed him with an annoyed look and didn't answer, as both Kirito and Silica made a two-fingered gesture in the air familiar to any player as the motion of opening their menus. Moments later each of them materialized an item in their hands; in Kirito's was a single delicate purple and white flower on a fresh-looking stem, while Silica held a glittering blue feather that seemed to radiate magic.

Sasha took the flower from Kirito and looked at it with a pained expression for a moment. Tetsuo had no idea what was going on; he couldn't even begin to guess at her thoughts.

"Miss Sasha," Silica said, voice suddenly alert with concern, "are you alright?"

Sasha bit her lip, nodding. "I'm sorry, dear. I'm fine. Just... thinking about what this flower cost."

Tetsuo suspected there was more to this quest than anyone was letting on, but for once decided to exercise discretion. Sachi opened her mouth partway as if preparing to pry, but closed it at a shake of the head from Keita.

"Here's «Pina's Heart»," said Silica, presenting the feather to Sasha with both hands as if offering up something intensely precious.

"Does it matter which one you hold in which hand?" Kirito asked curiously.

She shrugged fluidly as she took the feather. "I don't think so. The transmutation recipes I know of so far don't differ in their results based on which hand you use to hold which ingredient." She looked around at everyone, and took a deep breath. "I guess I had better get on with it."

"Get on with what?" Tetsuo said, his curiosity finally getting the best of him.

Sasha looked at Silica instead of at him, and a gentle smile touched her face. Silica's own eyes were alight with something that might've been hope, the beginning of tears showing as a glimmer in the corners of her eyes, and her tail was slashing the air in an agitated way that Tetsuo doubted she was even aware of. "Bringing back a friend," the woman said finally.

And with that suitably cryptic answer, she held out both hands in front of her, palms up. In her left hand she held the feather; in the palm of her right hand was the flower. She gazed at both for a moment, her lips moving silently as if rehearsing lines.

"Dotto mezal," Sasha began, dark amber energy flaring around her and coursing down her arms, surrounding each hand with a nimbus of light. After a half-beat pause, she went on, each word crisply enunciated and far clearer than Tetsuo thought he could manage: "kejevrelth, shaja min."

For all the fuss and ceremony everyone was making, it was a surprisingly short incantation. Tetsuo only recognized what sounded like the beginning of an Earth spell, and nothing thereafter. The feather and flower both lifted into the air, floating around twenty centimeters above Sasha's palms and connected to her hands and each other by chains of golden energy that filled the room with warm light. Moments after the last word of the incantation, the light became almost too bright to watch for the briefest of moments, and Tetsuo doubted he was the only one who flinched then.

The crackle of energy built to a peak, and both items dissolved into motes of incandescent energy which merged with the scintillae of the spellword runes that scattered from around Sasha's body at the completion of the spell, coalescing slowly into a dog-sized form hovering in front of her. There was a short gust of displaced air as the form solidified and became corporeal, the loose strands of Sasha's braided hair fluttering briefly.

It took a moment for common sense to overcome Tetsuo's instinct to draw his weapon when he saw the water drake hovering there in the air. In that moment he almost lurched from his chair, and felt extremely foolish when it occurred to him that not only were water drakes non-aggro, but that there was no good reason to fear anything in the safe neutral territory of Arun's city limits. His suspicions about what was really going on were verified when the light blue drake gave a keening cry and fluttered over to the Cait Sith girl, whose answering cry of joy could've melted even Eugene's heart.

Okay, maybe that was taking things a bit far. But she really was acting like the family pet had just come back to life—

Tetsuo smacked his forehead. Oh.

The drake—Pina, she called it, crying out the name over and over again—seemed just as happy to see her. It practically mobbed Silica, clinging to her and licking her face in a display that was unlike any behavior he'd ever seen from a mob. Not that he really had any experience dealing with Cait Sith tamers; the only person of that race he knew personally was Sasamaru, and his friend didn't really use the Beast Taming skill much.

Keita cleared his throat suddenly, giving meaningful looks to the others of their group as he stood. "I feel like we're intruding on a family reunion," he said. "Miss Sasha, maybe my friends and I should take our gathering somewhere else."

"No, it's okay," Silica said between giggles as Pina nuzzled her face and then clambered atop her head with a trill. "I'm just really, really happy right now. Thank you, Miss Sasha. And thank you, Kirito. Without the two of you, I would've lost Pina forever. I'll be much more careful about who I go out partying with from now on, and where we go."

Sasamaru had been his usual quiet self up until that point, but Tetsuo caught motion out of the corner of his eye and saw his Cait Sith friend whispering in Keita's ear. The tall Gnome got a broad grin on his face, and gave Sasamaru a sharp slap on the back. "Say, Silica... I don't know what your level is and I wouldn't ask, but maybe sometime you'd like to go out with us?"

The girl's eyes went wide. "Really? I mean... I can go into Yggdrasil, at least in some places, but... are you sure?"

Keita nodded enthusiastically. "To be honest, we don't get together as often as we'd like... but Sachi could really use a friend closer to her age than most of the kids here, and there's usually only four or five of us when we do go out—it'd be nice to have someone else along."

Sachi raised her hand, eyeing Keita. "I'm right here, you know."

Waving apologetically, Keita grinned at her. "Really though. If you want to go out with us when we get together, just say the word. In fact, that's why we were all meeting up here—we've just been waiting for Sachi to get done with babysitting duty."

"We'd love to have you along," Sasamaru added. "Most of us are clearers, so we can protect you."

Silica looked over at Kirito for a moment—for what reason, Tetsuo couldn't guess. He smiled and gave her an encouraging nod, which seemed to be all she needed. She turned back to Keita with a glowing expression of happiness. "Yes!" she said. Tetsuo had to assume that the noise Pina followed up with was assent as well.

"Well then, that's settled," Keita said, gathering everyone up with his gaze. As his friends all got to their feet, Sachi started suddenly and turned to Sasha. "Oh, before I go, I almost forgot to mention. You might want to have a talk with Genji. He and some of the others have been practicing combat magic in the yard, and he tried to sell me some story about you saying it was okay."

"Which I most certainly did not," Sasha said archly.

"Why not?" Kirito said, saving Tetsuo the trouble of butting in and asking the same question.

Sasha gave him one of her well-worn looks meant to make him feel like he'd asked a stupid question. Kirito, to his credit, didn't seem to be buying it. "I'm serious," he said. "Why not let them practice how to take care of themselves? They can't hurt each other here in the city."

"Because it's not just 'taking care of themselves', Kirito. You should know that better than anyone here. It's one thing if they want to practice healing magic or defensive shields. But when they practice how to throw fireballs at each other, they're not just training to stay alive." Her eyes narrowed meaningfully. "They're training to kill. Most of them are too young to really know what that means. I hope they never have to find out."

"I hope so too," Kirito said. "But it would be a lot worse if they had to find that out by dying because they couldn't fend off an attacker."

"They won't have to," Sasha said firmly. "That's why I brought them here. So that they don't have to take risks outside."

"Are you really that naive?"

Sasha wasn't the only person in the room whose jaw fell open then. "I beg your pardon?"

Kirito looked around, found an open door, and made a point of shutting it before turning back to Sasha, his black eyes cold. "Do you really think that none of them ever sneak out when you're asleep or not here? That they don't practice magic whenever they can get away with it? They have wings just like every other player in the game. They get incantations automatically in their spellbook as their skill goes up, just like everyone else. They're kids who are trapped in a world that lets them cast magic spells, a world where they can fly and be fantasy heroes slaying monsters that they know they have just as much power to defeat as anyone else... and you think they're just going to forget about all of that and sit around playing in the yard just because you say so?"

It was the first time Tetsuo had ever seen Sasha speechless. He would've given every yuld in his pocket right then for a recording crystal.

"Train them," Kirito urged. "They're going to grow up with or without you, and I'd bet you anything some of the older kids are already sneaking out at night to practice and level up. Eventually some of them are going to get killed because they don't know things they need to know. You're in a position to teach them those things. And with what you know about the language of magic, you're in a position to turn some of them into better mages than anyone else in the game."

He locked eyes with her. "And to teach them how to use their magic responsibly, instead of leaving it up to them to figure that out."


"So let me see if I have this right," Jahala said in between sips at his tea. "You're proposing that the clearers of each faction agree on an order in which to prioritize which races get selected. The purpose being to ensure the races left behind are in the best possible position to clear Yggdrasil again with the remaining population and their skill sets."

Argo grinned toothily across the tavern table at him. "You get a gold star."

"No, Diavel is the one who has the gold star," Jahala said. "Which brings me to my next question: why are you talking to me and not to our leader?"

"Because you're here in Arun and I didn't feel like making the trek to Parasel." It was a good answer, and it had the benefit of being true, but it wasn't the whole story. Argo had decided to engage the lead clearers rather than the faction leaders for a variety of reasons, not least of which was that the faction leaders wouldn't be there when the choice was made—it would be made by whoever landed the Last Attack on the final boss.

But most importantly, the leadership of the clearing groups only tended to change when someone died. Faction leaders were up for re-election every month, and an agreement with this month's leader might be moot next month. This was the sort of thing that didn't really bear pointing out to people who were very loyal to their faction leader.

It wasn't a conspiracy. Not really. It just had a faint family resemblance to one, as if a conspiracy had once met a gentleman's agreement and had an indiscreet liaison that resulted in a plan to save the world.

"You understand I'll have to consult with him before agreeing to anything."

Not for the first time, Argo had doubts about the wisdom of choosing Jahala rather than some other Undine clearer. He'd always been a useful source of information, but he was so straightlaced that she had to be really careful how she approached him and got him to answer questions. She sighed in mild frustration, tail lashing involuntarily; every time it did so it created a dull thump against the wall behind her. "Do you ever think for yourself, Jahala? It's not like he's gonna be there to hold your hand when the boss is defeated."

"Not when it comes to making policy. The Undines put their faith in Diavel to lead them, and he trusts me to carry out his will. I'll present your plan to him, and give him my recommendation."

"Well, when you do, I want you to keep in mind what your faction's all about. You guys wanna save lives, right? Save as many people as possible?"

"That goes without saying," Jahala replied cautiously. "I think everyone wants that—most of us, anyway. But that's the end you're talking about, not the means—and people can differ when it comes to what means they'll employ towards their desired end." He gazed down into the small cup that held the remains of his tea, and shook it gently in a circle to stir up the dregs. "And there are two points in your plan that remain unresolved."

Argo shifted the hard candy she was sucking on into her cheek so that she could reply. "Like?"

Jahala held up his closed fist before him, and extended a slender forefinger as he ticked off his points. "First, the question of plausibility. I've yet to hear any kind of concrete proof that the game works this way—that the remaining players will be given a chance to re-clear the game and escape rather than being trapped forever."

"And you won't. It's impossible to prove until we do it," Argo said. "But consider the alternative: that Kayaba decided to screw everyone left behind and leave them with no hope, no reason to go on. Think about what you know of Kayaba. This is his life's work. He trapped twenty thousand people in here to be his captive audience and playthings. Someone clears the game and leaves behind ten, fifteen thousand players still living in this world. People who wouldn't have much reason to continue playing the game if they had no hope of ever escaping."


Argo blew out a frustrated puff of air. Jahala had no imagination. "It's a wasted opportunity, Jahala. Whatever else he is, Kayaba is a GM and someone who put a ton of work into this game. After the game is cleared the majority of the players are still here. Chances are they won't have seen even half of the content in the game by then. Content that Kayaba spent countless hours creating. Why would he piss all that away by not giving the remaining players a reason to keep playing?"

She could almost see the hamster wheel spinning behind Jahala's eyes. "All right," he said finally. "I'll grant that your scenario is plausible. It's not proof, but it's a reasonable argument. So what do you propose?"

"There are nine races, and three can escape at a time under the terms Kayaba gave. So the second wave's got only six races to clear the tree with, and the third wave's gotta make do with only three. That third wave should be the races with the highest population and the most essential skill sets. Put simply: Undines should avoid getting the Last Attack in the first two waves if at all possible, so that every wave has access to the highest-level healing and resurrection magic."

Jahala's expression soured more and more as the explanation went on. "You're asking us to deliberately not clear the game, Argo. You're asking us to gamble the lives of everyone in our faction on whether or not you're right about this."

"This whole thing falls apart if the Undines are part of the first or second waves, Jahala. Most of the best healers in the game will be gone, and a lot more people will die to clear the game—if they can do it at all. I'm not asking you to slack off. Keep clearing. Keep fighting. And keep supplying groups with healers. But when it comes to the final boss, let someone else get the LA so that as many lives as possible can be saved in the waves that follow."

Argo gave Jahala all the time he needed to think that through in silence. The tavern was empty aside from NPCs at the moment; she'd deliberately chosen one of the least popular and most inconveniently-located establishments for this meeting.

He cleared his throat after a minute or so of this. "Let's say Diavel agrees with you. And I can't say that he won't, because the argument about saving lives is likely to be very persuasive to him. Who does get picked first? I'm guessing that you want to leave the Undines, Salamanders and Sylphs for last—the other two are the largest factions."

"You got it."

"First of all, the notion of getting the Salamanders to cooperate with the the rest of us—or vice-versa—borders on wishful thinking. But setting that side, if your priority is to leave the largest and most useful factions for last, that means the first wave would ideally be the smallest and least—" He cut off suddenly, frowning.

"Least useful," Argo agreed, making a loud crunching sound as she finished off her candy. "Meaning that ideally, we want the Last Attack to come from a Spriggan, Puca or Imp—in order of preference—and that no matter who does get the LA, they pick the other two races from that list in order."

Whatever response Argo had expected, it wasn't laughter. The normally sober and serious Jahala leaned back and laughed long and loudly, slapping the table once when his amusement died off. "I didn't take you for a joker, Argo."

"Then you don't know me very well," Argo said. "But that wasn't a joke."

"I wish it had been," Jahala said. "Because there is no way in hell Diavel is going to authorize choosing the Spriggans. Good luck getting anyone to go along with that."

"Is this about the Treaty?"

"What do you think?" The Undine clearer's tone was incredulous; Argo was again grateful for the privacy of the empty tavern. "Their leader refused to sign on, and their emissary made it clear that even if she had, it would've been impossible for her to enforce. They've had months to deal with the consequences, and judging by the fact that they keep re-electing her, apparently this is what the majority of the Spriggans want. I'll bring your message to Diavel, but I can already tell you what he's going to say."

"Which is?"

"That they've made their bed," Jahala said frostily. "And now they can lie in it."

Argo sat up in her seat and met the young man's cold gaze squarely. "This is bigger than faction politics, Jahala. Forget the damn labels for a minute and remember that we're all people. Wasn't that at the heart of the Treaty? The fact that these divisions are artificial, and that we're all human beings?"

He looked back at her just as directly. "Yes. And human beings still have to answer for the consequences of their choices. The Spriggans—that group of people, if you like—have chosen a leader who tells us that they can't be trusted to play by the same rules as everyone else. So why should we do this for them?"

"Because it's not about them," Argo said. "It's not about who deserves to go first, or who wins the Alfheim popularity contest. It's about giving the people left behind the best chance of surviving and escaping this world. Think about it this way: if the Undines were one of the races left behind, who would you most want there with you when you tackled the World Tree again? Who wouldn't you want there?"

She could see that the last argument had penetrated a bit. With a sigh, Jahala set down his teacup and pushed it away from him as he stood. "I'll talk to Diavel. But a word of advice, Argo. You get a lot of leeway because you're useful to everybody, and you're not known for taking sides. And you earned a lot of respect for the way you helped pull everyone together at the treaty summit. But this little idea of yours about prioritizing who gets out first... you're not a neutral party, here—it's your agenda that's on the table. And a lot of people aren't going to like being told that they have to fight to free someone else from this world first."

Argo nodded once. "So don't tell 'em. When the time comes to take down the final boss, there's a very finite number of people who're gonna be in a position to get that killing blow in. They're the only ones who need to know, and they only need to know once we're planning that raid and know who'll be there."

Jahala's ice-blue eyes glittered in the lamplight that guttered as the door to the pub opened, admitting a sullen-looking Salamander woman who made for a seat in the opposite corner of the L-shaped room. He waited until she was out of sight and earshot before lowering his voice and saying one final thing. "We're talking about people's lives, Argo. You're playing a dangerous game."

Argo looked back at him unblinkingly. "Aren't we all?"


"You failed," the cloaked man said. "And you failed spectacularly."

Rosalia said nothing, looking down into her wine glass as if she could find an excuse somewhere in its depths. What was there to say? Of the five warriors she'd brought with her, two were dead and a third—her own nominal second in command, Mukensha—apparently survived despite being abandoned, and had yet to return. The once-feared Titan's Hand privateer unit had lost half of its members in the span of 24 hours, and she knew more were considering leaving and signing on with other groups. They weren't here in the pub with her now, but she'd fought with them long enough to know that much about them.

It was easy to claim that this wasn't her fault, that it was simply bad luck. But groups like these thrived on success and made examples of failures; her ability to lead was dependent on her ability to deliver results.

"You took two simple robberies and turned them into clown shows," the man went on as he paced slowly around the table. His voice was conversational, unruffled, but there was a hint of steel in it, a hidden blade behind the words.

"Look," Rosalia said defensively, "I'll grant that I failed—"

"Such admirable honesty." The compliment was tainted by a sarcastic sneer that the other man didn't bother to conceal.

Rosalia decided against calling him on it; she was in deep enough as it was. "But I don't see what we could've done differently yesterday. We'd already successfully hit that group I'd been watching; how were we supposed to anticipate some high-level clearer showing up and wiping the floor with us?"

"And today? Today you already knew how strong he was. Yet you took only a single group with you and tried to take him on anyway."

"A raid party would've made too much noise and attracted too much attention," Rosalia protested, craning her head uncomfortably to follow the man as he paced around the table behind her. "We were lucky the girl didn't catch on to the tracer as it was. And we had a solid plan to even the odds by using her as leverage. He would've given up the flower if not for that damned schoolteacher."

There was no reply until a few uncomfortable beats of silence had passed. "Do you realize just how ridiculous you sound?"

Rosalia bristled. "Now listen—"

Before the second word passed her lips, she felt a strong hand tangle itself in her hair and yank her head back across the edge of the chair. The move would've risked snapping a person's neck in the real world; she cried out and tried futilely to pry at the wrist of the hand that seized her, squirming in her seat helplessly.

"No," said the voice softly in her ear as he leaned over her, his breath on her cheek. "You listen. Do you know what your problem is? You're an amateur. You do things by half-measures."


"Silence. Back in the world you were likely a waitress or a stripper, or perhaps some yakuza punk's bitch. Once trapped in here you got a taste of power, a chance to be something more." He jerked her head by the hair again to command her attention. "But deep inside you're still the same weak, cowardly trollop who's ruled by her emotions."

As Rosalia pulled desperately at the man's arm, she felt the cool edge of a knife on her throat, and despite herself, she froze. The man laughed. "See? You know that we're in a safe zone, and that this knife can't do anything to harm you. But your fear rules you anyway." He released the fistful of her hair and gave her head a rough shove back upright.

Rubbing the back of her neck, Rosalia looked at the anti-harassment window that was hanging in front of her chest, prompting her whether or not to report the violation of her personal space and send the offender to the nearest jail for a day.

He couldn't have seen her UI, but he had to know what was there. The smile that peeked out from the shadows of the hooded cloak was inviting. "Well? You have an easy way to end this conversation right now. One fingertip will do it. All you have to do is answer yes to the prompt." The corner of his lips curled into a sneer. "And accept what will happen to you when I find you."

Slowly, with a hand she couldn't entirely stop from trembling, Rosalia pressed no.

"Good girl," he said as he slid smoothly back into the seat opposite her. "Now… tell me about this schoolteacher."

Chapter Text

 "An «Access Quest» is a specific type of quest which, upon completion of its prerequisite conditions, flags a player with permission to do something or go somewhere they could not before completing the quest. The prerequisites could be virtually anything, but are most commonly an item or items which the player must collect—items which in game jargon are usually referred to as «Key Items» or «Keys» whether or not they actually look or function like one."
Alfheim Online manual, «Access Quests»

24 ~ 28 April 2023
Day 170

From Kirito's point of view, it was entirely possible that there was something in the known universe more excruciatingly boring than trying to farm quest items that were supposedly an uncommon mob drop. Especially in a game where the random number generator occasionally seemed to possess a novel—or cruel—notion of what "uncommon" was supposed to mean.

Guard duty, for example, Kirito thought as he deflected a last desperate strike from the serpentine «Slitharch sentry», using the opening to eliminate the last of the mob's HP bar. When it shattered into polygons, he swept an eddy through the falling blue particles as he gave his sword a habitual flourish and sheathed it. That sentry was probably far more bored than I was. He was just sitting here guarding an undistinguished patch of ground in front of an unnamed ruin for no reason other than being placed here by a game designer, and he couldn't even wander further than his 50-meter tether.

Kirito's gaze drifted as the sounds of clashing metal and hissing Slitharchs met his ears. At least he didn't have to wait long, he thought. Now that everyone knows what they need to get in order to pass through the portal and progress further, everyone is camping these mobs for the quest item. We're almost to the point of fighting over repops.

It was an unfortunate train of thought to have interrupted by being addressed unexpectedly from behind. Kirito's sword had already cleared its sheath by the time he recognized the voice. He realized his mistake just in time to feel—and look—very foolish. "What?"

The slender Undine girl who'd surprised him was unapologetic, and perhaps a little bemused to have steel bared at her. She shared a roll of the eyes with the very young Imp girl at her side. "Good reflexes," Asuna said. "I asked, how many do you have so far?"

Kirito made a face as he sheepishly returned his sword to his back. He didn't even have to open his inventory to look. "Three," he said.

"You need two more," Asuna pointed out.

"Tell me something I don't know." Kirito gave a shrug that hinted at more indifference than he actually felt. "They'll drop eventually if we keep clearing."

"Camping, you mean," Yuuki said, unnecessarily shading her eyes with the flat of her hand as she turned her head, possibly looking for unclaimed mobs. She gave Kirito a friendly smile that was as sudden as it was brilliant. "Aren't you gonna ask how many we have?"

He didn't exactly care, but Yuuki's open friendliness and his competitive nature got the best of him. "All right," he said. "Since you're so itching to tell me. How many?"

Yuuki giggled and held up both hands with V-for-victory symbols. Asuna's expressed tended more in the direction of smugness as she waved a hand with all five fingers spread.

"All you left out was the word 'neener'," Kirito said with a note of grumpiness.

"Neener," Asuna said obligingly, showing a smile and bouncing on the tiptoes of her boots.

"Thanks. So why are you still here if you've got all five of your keys?"

Asuna's expression changed to one which by now he knew almost as well as her name. It was a withering look she'd mastered through long interactions with him, one which could quite possibly be replaced by nothing more than the word baka, shouted excessively loudly. "Because Yuuki doesn't yet. It's called partying—heard of it? It's something two or more people do when they want to cooperate—"

Kirito turned away. "I think I hear a repop. Leaving now."

"Why are you such an idiot, Kirito?"

The volume of Asuna's outburst not only stopped Kirito in his tracks but made him wince, hand almost coming up to one ear. He caught her eyes out of the corner of his as he glanced over his shoulder. "If you're trying to get me to party with you, you need to work on your sales pitch."

"Oh, stuff it. I've tried asking nicely," Asuna said, unhappiness dripping from each word. "I've tried being blunt. I've tried persuasion and once I even tried just sending you an invite as soon as I saw you."

Something in her words or tone compelled Kirito to turn and face Asuna. She wasn't crying—if anything, she looked furious—but from hearing her he could've sworn that she had been. It took him a few moments to find his words. "Why does it matter to you?"

"Because you're going to get yourself killed, always going solo like this in dangerous areas. Every Spriggan is already walking around with a target on their back, and you're becoming pretty well-known among the clearing parties. I always wonder if I'm ever going to run into you again."

Kirito needed some time to process this. He could never make heads or tails of Asuna or what she wanted, and this was easily the most confusing thing she'd said yet. Confusing or possibly ironic, depending on how well she remembered the circumstances of their first meeting.

When he didn't say anything immediately, Asuna took a step towards him and swept her hand through the air to open her game menu. Moments later a stone object shaped roughly like an arrowhead appeared in her hand with a shimmer and a sound effect, and she held it out to him.

Kirito stared, eyes alternating between the quest item being offered to him and the face of the girl offering it. "You already have your five, Asuna. You can complete the star emblem in the Slitharch temple and go through the portal to the next area yourself."

"Or," Asuna said, reaching out and carefully dropping the item into one of the pockets of Kirito's coat, "I can give you one so that we all have four, we party up, and we farm Slitharchs until all three of us have the last one we need."

The confusion in Kirito's mind was threatening to overwhelm him. Why would she do something like that? he wondered, reaching up to fasten the seal on the pocket and feeling the lump of the item contained within. "I really don't understand you sometimes," he said without heat.

"I know," she said as she manipulated her menu again and sent him a party invite.

There was one thing to be said for being in a party—you could clear a lot faster. The solo mobs here were a bit above Kirito's level, and although he could take them himself, it required time and caution—isolating the right mob, waiting until there were no aggro roamers nearby, and carefully burning it down. The mobs seemed to be on a ten-minute respawn timer, and they took several minutes each for Kirito to bring them down on his own.

With Yuuki and Asuna backing him up, though—or was it the other way around?—they could move a lot faster, and take chances with mobs Kirito wouldn't touch by himself. He and Yuuki, as longsword users, had a good grasp of each other's capabilities and seemed to flow into a rhythm of "switching" fairly easily, dodging in and out and tag-teaming the mob to take advantage of the brief delay while the AI changed targets. And Asuna's healing was nothing short of invaluable, especially to someone whose usual source of healing came from potions.

The routine became comfortable before long, and Yuuki was the first to get her fifth quest item. Thereafter they went through a long chain of fights which yielded nothing but experience and yuld, and then a long interval where there were no enemies. Asuna insisted on re-engaging Kirito in conversation while waiting for repops.

"You work well as a party member, you know. You know what to do when someone calls for a switch, and you shift roles in a fight at least as well as anyone I've seen in the Undine clearing groups, and with a healer backing you up I doubt there's any non-named mob you couldn't bring down."

"So why do I prefer to play solo?" Kirito asked, black eyes alertly scanning the dimly-lit chambers as he listened for the sound of a respawn effect.

Asuna nodded earnestly while she performed her own vigil for repops. "You could be more efficient, do so much more as part of a clearing group," she said. "You could help us progress further, possibly even catch up with the Salamanders and beat them to this next boss."

"And we'd love to have you," Yuuki put in.

"Is this where I point out that at least Mortimer lets Spriggans come and go in Salamander territory like anyone else unless they violate the Treaty? Diavel banned us from Undine cities no matter what, and I haven't exactly gotten a warm reception from your clearing group before."

"And I put an end to that, didn't I?" Asuna folded her arms under her modest bust, rapier sticking out to one side where she still held it in her hand. She gave Kirito a defiant look aside. "I went right to Jahala and had him set the group straight." Yuuki nodded along, occasionally glancing around cautiously.

"By which point we weren't functioning as a group anyway, which is why I left. You want to go through that again?" Kirito just didn't get it. Her faction didn't want his kind in their clearing group or in their cities. Whatever the merits of her arguments about clearing more efficiently, there was no point in trying to be part of a group where the members didn't like each other—they could fail to support each other at a critical moment and get someone killed.

Asuna sighed, sinking down to sit on one of the many damp wooden knots sticking out of the ground. "I just don't understand why you have to play to stereotype, Kirito," she said. "You're not a larper. You don't buy into all the racial divisions. You don't have to be the 'loner Spriggan' that everyone expects you to be. It's not who you are. I've played with you long enough to know that by now."

Kirito was about to ask sharply exactly what made her think she knew that, but held it in. She wasn't right, but she wasn't entirely wrong either. "Do you know why I picked a Spriggan to play?" he asked finally.

She shook her head. Kirito sat down beside her and angled the blade of his sword across his lap, tapping it to bring up its status screen and check its durability. "Because they wore black," he said. "I wear a lot of black in real life, and I thought they looked cool. I didn't care about what magic they used; I liked melee combat. In the first few weeks I tried some other races that didn't click with me, and finally I rolled a Spriggan and stuck with it. You have to understand... in the beta, there were maybe a little over a hundred Spriggan players. It was a small community, and most of the players were solo treasure hunters, so I got used to exploring on my own and being self-sufficient."

"But this isn't the beta anymore," Asuna said. "And the circumstances have changed a bit, don't you think?"

"Pop," Yuuki said quickly, right as Kirito and Asuna reacted to the sound of a mob respawning. A column of brilliant blue light around twenty meters away faded and left a mob with the diamond-patterned lower body of a snake and the muscular armored torso of a man. A wine-red cursor appeared over the head of the «Slitharch transgressor», and all three players were ready when it aggroed and rushed them.

Yuuki was the first to meet its opening strike, her sword cutting a blue arc through the air and repelling the Slitharch's two-handed swing with a loud ringing sound and flash of light. When she called for a "switch", Kirito was already racing into the opening, a multi-hit technique tearing great red furrows in the mob's exposed underbelly and sending it reeling back with a sibilant screech. Then they both forked to either side of the mob, leaving Asuna with an unobstructed line of sight which she used to cast a Delay status spell, slowing the mob's reactions and allowing the three of them to finish it off without any real difficulty.

"See?" Asuna said as she scanned the area for any further enemies before giving her own weapon an inspection for wear. "These are solo mobs, but they're tough enemies above our level. The three of us working together can clear them a lot faster, and with a better safety margin."

"You're not telling me anything I don't know, Asuna," Kirito said with a hint of rising weariness.

"Then why?" The exasperation in her tone was unmistakable. "Why are you so determined to be alone?"

Kirito deliberately took his time checking the status of the rest of his gear so that he didn't have to look at her, kneeling when it came time to examine his boots. "You know I have a target on my back, right? Every Spriggan does. Since we're not signatories to the Treaty, there are some players who make a point of hunting us. And even the people who won't go that far are often openly hostile to us." He closed the last status window, still staring at his foot as if the window was still there to be seen. "Or to anyone traveling with us."

"Is this still about protecting us?" Asuna asked incredulously. When Kirito nodded in silence after a moment's hesitation, she sighed. He could hear footsteps behind him, and then he started slightly as Asuna's hands came to rest on his shoulders. "I can take care of myself, you know," she said a little more quietly.

Confusion and hesitation tore Kirito in several different directions before he came up with what he wanted to say. "I know. That doesn't mean it's a good idea to tempt fate by creating more problems for you and Yuuki."

"Isn't there something you can do?" Yuuki asked after her name was mentioned, dropping down into a cross-legged sitting position opposite Kirito and Asuna.

Confusion overtook Kirito again. "Do about what? It's just politics."

"Change the politics," Asuna said from behind him. "You're well-known whether you know it or not—everyone in the clearing groups knows who you are from your work on boss raids or from seeing you clearing alone, even if they only know you as 'that black swordsman'. I'd be surprised if you weren't just as well-known even among other Spriggans. You could run for the leadership and bring the Spriggans into the Treaty—"

"That's impossible," Kirito said flatly, Asuna's hands trailing off his shoulders as he abruptly came to his feet in a ripple of black. "If I was the Spriggan leader, I wouldn't be able to be a clearer anymore. If I ran on a platform of enforcing the treaty, I'd never get elected anyway. And even if I could and was willing to give up clearing... Yoshihara was right, as much as I hate to admit it. How could I enforce it? Exile? Banishment? Those things don't mean anything to most Spriggans—they've relocated to Arun and hire out their skills anyway."

Asuna grabbed his arm before he could walk away, forcing him to turn and look at her. "I refuse to believe that over a thousand people who just happened to play Spriggans also just happen to have no desire for a real leader and don't care whether or not people get killed. The players in your faction weren't born this way, Kirito. If you show them a better way... they'll follow you."

The last few words faded in his ears as Kirito's attention was snared by an approaching sound. He held up his hand sharply as his eyes went to the west, activating his Searching skill and looking for cursors. Asuna seemed to pick up on the meaning behind his gesture and change in demeanor; she stopped talking and held her rapier ready.

"It's the others," Yuuki said, pointing.

Kirito saw them at almost the same time. A few groups of Undines, perhaps nine or ten players in all, became visible as they made their way up the natural stairway that opened into the World Tree caverns where the three of them had been hunting. Kirito knew most of them by sight if not by name, although there were a few unfamiliar faces—some of whom gave him very ugly looks as the group caught sight of theirs and approached.

"Relax, Kirito," Asuna said, sheathing her rapier and taking a few steps towards the other Undines.

"Give me a reason to," he said quietly, making no move to put away his weapon but holding it casually at his side.

"Looks like this area is bare too," Jahala said with a grimace as he and Asuna came within a few meters of each other.

"Still short on keys?" Asuna asked.

Jahala nodded, sparing a glance for Kirito without commenting on his presence. "We all just rendezvoused and compared inventories. I need one, and so do several others. I was hoping to find you and Yuuki so that we could stake out an area as a raid to get the last drops we need. The Salamanders have the next level down camped and I'd rather avoid conflicts with them."

"What's he doing here?" asked a man with a slightly nasal voice and hooded eyes, one of the Undines who'd been glaring at him ever since they showed up.

"Save it, Kuradeel," Jahala said, though his own expression wasn't a whole lot friendlier. "Obviously Asuna and Yuuki felt it prudent to form a pickup group to speed up their farming."

"Kirito is our friend," Asuna said firmly, her posture daring either Jahala or Kirito to contradict her.

Yuuki stood at her side, nodding. "We don't have to have a reason to want to party with him."

"That being said," Jahala put in, "I'd like you to rejoin the clearing group now so that we can camp this area. We need to get everyone keyed for portal access so that we can move on. The Salamanders aren't far behind."

Kirito was inclined to take that as an opportunity to remove himself from the situation. Before he could, however, Asuna spoke up. "That's not quite fair, is it Jahala? We were here first, and Kirito still needs one more."

"Kirito's progression is his own affair," Jahala replied, holding out a hand to still the discontent from a few of his group members. "Your role as a member of this clearing group is yours."

"Yes, it is," Asuna said in clipped tones. "So don't make me rethink my business by asking me to do something unreasonable and rude. We were camping this area first. There's plenty of pops for you elsewhere. I'll meet you on the other side once we're all keyed." Kirito did not hear a question in anything Asuna said. She was laying out reality as she saw it.

Jahala did not seem to miss that nuance. His jaw set tightly for a few moments before relaxing. "Fine," he said, twirling his finger in the air to rally everyone to him. "I'd like to have a talk about this later, though."

Asuna's reply bordered on unhelpful, in Kirito's opinion. "You may not like what I have to say if you do."

Yuuki seemed to think so too. Once the other Undine clearers had marched off to find unclaimed mobs, she elbowed Asuna lightly in the ribs. "Wasn't that a little too much?"

"They need to get it through their heads, Yuuki," Asuna said, rubbing her side. "They're no better than the Salamanders when they act like that."

Kirito decided prudently not to point out the irony of criticizing someone for their prejudices against one race by making generalizations about another. He made an uncomfortable throat-clearing noise and sheathed his sword. "Don't you have a duty to help your clearing group, Asuna?"

She nodded, then met his eyes with hers. "But my duty to my friends comes first."


"Sallie griefer!"

The slur was accompanied by a rapid motion in Tetsuo's peripheral vision that got his attention just as the rock connected with his head, producing a purple flash of light that briefly dazzled him. By the time his vision cleared, the assailant had disappeared into the alleyway from which they'd ambushed him.

Being in Everdark always made Tetsuo nervous. This was why.

It wasn't that he particularly feared for his life. Although the Imp home city hadn't been Salamander territory since that first month, the degree to which the Imps had become dependent on their Salamander neighbors during that time had led to an official state of alliance between the two factions—an alliance which in practice functioned more as a relationship between vassal and patron. That alliance meant that Everdark was a Safe Zone for Tetsuo just as much as it was for the Imp who'd just harassed him. But it didn't make experiences like that any less unsettling.

There was no point to giving chase and trying to confront the culprit. The city was aptly named; there were no streetlights in Everdark, only a dim glow from the raw orelight embedded in the cavern ceiling a few dozen meters above. Tetsuo supposed that the Imp players who were intended to live here could see just fine; he had to strain his eyes to make out some of the signs, and the narrow alleys between the dark stone buildings could have held anything or anyone. And there were recurring rumors about Salamanders going mysteriously missing after visiting Everdark; Tetsuo suspected that if there was any truth to the rumors, the victims were being ambushed in the caves outside the Safe Zone.

It was no surprise that some Imps felt a need for vengeance after Kibaou's campaign of invasion, conquest and murder. The surprise, from where Tetsuo stood, was that the alliance had persisted at all. Officially, both factions had strict laws against inter-faction fighting and harassment. Unofficially, the power imbalance between the two meant that Salamanders could more or less freely bully Imps in Gattan, while Imps who bothered Salamanders were dealt with harshly in both home cities.

It wasn't right and it made Tetsuo deeply uncomfortable. But it was the world in which he lived.

Twice more he heard catcalls from the alleys; the second time drew the attention of a patrolling Imp watchman who raced off into the darkness, yelling. After that there were no more incidents, likely in part due to the increased density of patrols the closer he got to the entrance to the Grand Nexus where the Imp leadership lived and worked.

There were guards in front of the broad entrance to the network of tunnels and chambers of the Imp executive residence, but they uncrossed their halberds and stepped aside for Tetsuo as soon as they caught sight of the sigil on his armor that marked him as a member of a clearing group. It made Tetsuo feel a little guilty; he was no one of any real rank in the Salamander clearers and wasn't trying to use his status to his advantage—but he couldn't help their reaction, and it was nice to get a reaction that wasn't hostile after his trip through the city and the surrounding tunnels. He at least made a point of nodding to them as he passed.

The light level in the tunnels of the Grand Nexus was a bit better—not only because there was more light, but because the tunnels were more like hallways than the vast caverns in which the core of the city was built; there were no dark corners or huge rooms. Someone had thought to craft hooded lanterns to hang in the hallways, perhaps for the benefit of non-Imp visitors.

When he came to an intersection, he was greeted by a slender woman who seemed to be closer to Sasha's age than his own—although it was hard to tell, between her deep violet eyes and the way her curly black hair framed her face. She detached herself from the wall against which she'd been leaning and stepped into the middle of the hallway, blocking his way without being obvious about it. "Lost, or here for the tour?"

She was also fairly pretty. That didn't help; it introduced a significant delay into Tetsuo's reaction time, a time during which he couldn't do much except stutter. After a few moments of this he made a throat-clearing noise and tried to act like he knew what he was doing. "I'm here to see Lord Haydon. It's important."

"Important, is it?" It was hard to tell where the woman was looking; the combined hue of the orelight and lanterns turned the violet of them almost black, obscuring pupils that were already contracted in the brighter light. It made her gaze very unnerving, and she probably knew it as she openly looked him over. "Lord Haydon is already occupied with important matters. I'm his assistant, Kumiko, and you can talk to me."

As uncomfortable as the automatic deference of so many Imps had been to him, the shift to Kumiko's standoffishness and resistance gave Tetsuo a brief case of mental whiplash that almost derailed him as successfully as her appearance had. "I, um... I don't think you can really help with this."

Kumiko sighed and gave him an impatient look. "See, no offense, kid, but you might want to think about where you are and what you're doing. You're walking into the residence of a faction leader—and not even your own—expecting him to drop everything for whatever personal errand you're on. It doesn't work that way."

"What makes you think this is personal?" Tetsuo asked, trying to regain some momentum.

"Because I know who the leaders of your clearing groups are, and they're meeting with the leaders of our clearing groups right now. And people on official business make appointments."

There wasn't really anything Tetsuo could say to refute that—she had him nailed. "It's really important."

Kumiko folded her arms tightly, unmoved. "People who can't get straight to the point annoy me, and you are beginning to annoy me something fierce. Tell me what you're here for and I'll be the judge of how important it is."

Tetsuo did. Kumiko listened, although he couldn't have said whether she was actually listening or if she was just waiting for him to shut up so that she could send him away; the woman was impossible to read. When he was done, she stayed in place for a few beats, almost-statue-like. Then she turned around and made a curt beckoning gesture, walking away without looking back to see if he was following.

It was progress, and more than he thought he'd be making a minute prior. Tetsuo's armor rattled as he jogged to catch up. "So was that a yes?"

"That was 'your request is interesting and we will see what Lord Haydon thinks of it'. I suggest you be polite and keep your weapons in your inventory. You may be a Salamander, but don't forget that faction leaders have the power to banish specific individuals from their territory, regardless of who they are. Behave, or you may find yourself without the protection of the city Safe Zone."

It was the closest anyone had come to threatening him in a long time, and it was coming from an Imp. Tetsuo couldn't decide whether to be impressed by the woman's courage or offended at the threat, but while he was trying to decide, the implications of having to walk all the way back out of the city without the protection of the area code pushed fear to the front of the line.

Tetsuo had expected some kind of throne room like the one that existed in the palace in Gattan, or at least something more befitting the grandeur he expected of a faction leader. Instead, Kumiko led him eventually into a small, cozy room lit only by orelight that was dominated by a low rectangular table. Scores of scrolls and maps were laid out, and several Imps were seated cross legged in front of the table.

A fourth knelt on the opposite side and tapped at one of the maps with the tip of a long dagger as he spoke, and he had the rapt attention of the others. He was a short, older man with a tied-back mane of gray hair much like Tetsuo's clearing group leader—although in the Imp's case the shade of gray was a little darker.

"I told you, that's why Eugene's asked for more of our people for this one, in addition to the groups already embedded with the Sal clearers. There's going to be a lot of adds, and we'll need at least one dedicated debuff group that can keep them locked down or disabled without killing them—every add you kill buffs the boss."

The three sitting across from the man who'd been speaking nodded thoughtfully. One of them, a broad-shouldered Imp with a spiky purple mohawk that made it difficult for Tetsuo not to stare at him, made a chopping noise at his throat and tilted his head in the direction of the doorway as Kumiko and Tetsuo entered. The older man looked up from the table and glanced at Kumiko with an unspoken question.

"Pardon the intrusion, milord," Kumiko said as she knelt and bowed. Tetsuo imitated her movements after a short delay. "This boy has an interesting question which I think you should hear."

"So he's not an emissary from the clearers?" said the man Tetsuo presumed to be Haydon. "I suppose Eugene would just send a message when he was ready to pull the trigger on this raid. Well, son?"

Tetsuo was growing tired of being talked down to because of his age, but reasoned this probably wasn't the best time to point that out. "I'm told that the leaders can see a list of all their faction members in their menu. Is that true?"

Haydon snorted loudly. "Be a bit hard to govern if we couldn't. Kumiko, I thought you said his question was interesting."

Tetsuo spoke quickly before the Imp leader could decide to dismiss him. "If I give you a name, can you tell me whether or not they were ever an Imp?"

"I can," Haydon confirmed after a few beats of silence, rotating his sitting position on the floor until he faced Tetsuo. "But I'd need a pretty good reason to give you information like that. Who is this person to you?"

"It's not a vendetta or anything," Tetsuo said. "He's a friend from my school computer club. He said he was going to be playing an Imp, but he never showed up after we all logged in and we haven't been able to find him."

Haydon and Kumiko looked at each other. The Imp leader turned to the three sitting across the table from him and made a flicking gesture with his fingers. "Go on, get back to the other group leaders and start rounding up volunteers for the groups Eugene needs. Make sure everyone's keyed for access. We were done here anyway." When the others had disappeared down the hallway, Haydon stood up and met Kumiko's eyes again; they both nodded.

"I suppose there's no harm you can do just knowing that someone is an Imp. What's the name?"

"Ducker," Tetsuo said, spelling out the English letters and then giving Haydon several possible alternate spellings. "He plays rogue types. Probably uses a dagger or a short sword. Kind of a prankster and a joker."

"Lovely," Haydon grumped as he made a gesture in the air, fingers dancing as if tracing shapes or letters in front of him. His eyes scanned back and forth. "Well, the list of players that start with the letter 'D' is pretty short. Are you sure that was the name?"

"Positive," Tetsuo said. "It's his nickname and he uses it in every game we play."

Haydon shrugged and made a very wide, expansive arm movement that Tetsuo guessed meant he was closing his menus. "Sorry, kid. Your friend's not an Imp."

Tetsuo didn't want to ask the next question, but it had to be done. He took a deep, halting breath before trying to get it out. "Is it... is it possible that he was..."

"Killed when your people invaded us?" Kumiko said frostily.

Tetsuo couldn't meet her eyes or Haydon's. "Or in some other way. Ducker was always kind of... hyper and reckless."

"Nope," Haydon said, drawing Tetsuo's attention back to him. "Even if he was dead, he'd still show up in the faction list—grayed out, just like someone in your friends list who dies." Tetsuo wondered briefly how Haydon knew the last bit, and decided he didn't want to ask or even know.

"So Ducker made a character in some other faction," Tetsuo said. It wasn't precisely bad news, but it didn't get him any closer to finding his friend either.

Haydon shrugged. "Or he chose another name. Or maybe he got lucky and didn't log in."

Fat chance of that, Tetsuo thought. He bowed in place once more. "Thanks. It's not what I was hoping to hear, but it's better than finding out he's..."

"Yeah," said Haydon, waving at the air. "Anything else you need? Long-lost girlfriend you want me to track down?"

Tetsuo didn't miss the dismissal behind Haydon's dry sarcasm. "I'm good," he said as he got back to his feet. "Thanks again, and sorry to bother you."

The experience left a bad taste in Tetsuo's mouth, and not just because it left him right back at square one as far as finding Ducker was concerned. It hadn't been the first time he'd visited Everdark, and it wasn't as if the complicated state of relations between the Imps and his own faction were a secret—or even surprising in any way.

But he'd never been treated with the kind of contempt and dismissal that Haydon and his assistant had shown for him—not to his face, anyway. To his face, Imps were always polite and respectful, even the ones in the clearing groups. The only open hostility came from anonymous harassers as he was passing through the city, and it was easy to dismiss them as criminals and cowards. This had been different, and it ate away at him on his way out of the city, occupying so much of his attention that he almost didn't notice the alert notifying him of a new message from his group leader.

「Wrap up your business and meet us outside Everdark. The Undines are preparing to hit the boss and we need to beat them there. Make sure you have all of the supplies and quest items you need. We depart for Arun at 1:00 PM.」

Power, Tetsuo realized as he checked the time and broke into a run, eyes straining to make out the contours of the dimly lit tunnels. It's not about what's right, it all comes down to who has the power. The power imbalance between our factions means that we get to do what we want and the Imps have to suck it up—as crappy as that is, that's what the truth boils down to. But Haydon and Kumiko have enough power, personally, that they don't have to care about someone like me even though I'm a Salamander.

The light was dim enough, and his own thoughts immersive enough, that he didn't notice the other player until he'd run headlong into him, sending both people sprawling to the ground with yells of indignation.

The response from the Imp was immediate and caustic. "Watch where the fuck you're going, monkey!"

Tetsuo's jaw fell open as he and the Imp both unsteadily got to their feet. It wasn't the first time an Imp had called him Saru; like Sallie it was a corruption of the Japanese pronunciation of Salamander, albeit a particularly nasty one given the meaning of the word in everyday Japanese. But as with the frosty treatment from Haydon and Kumiko, it was the first time anyone had ever said it to his face. If any Imp dared call a Salamander that in or around Gattan... Tetsuo hadn't seen it happen, but he could imagine what the reaction of Corvatz or one of the other hard-line clearers would be.

"What's wrong, monkey, Cait Sith got your tongue? Apologize!" The Imp was taller than Tetsuo and more solidly built, and while that didn't necessarily directly relate to power, there was ample strength behind the shove that drove Tetsuo back against the wall of the corridor.

Tetsuo would've been inclined to apologize—it had been his fault for running without paying attention—if not for the way the Imp was escalating the situation and insulting him. He shoved right back, and had the pleasure of seeing the Imp's eyes widen a little at the force produced by his own STR stat. Tetsuo had never been a particularly athletic boy in real life, so it was nice to have the strength to stand up for himself in a world where the only things that mattered were his character's—no, his—stats.

"It was an accident," he said, hand dropping to the grip of his weapon out of wariness. "I wasn't trying to start a fight or anything."

"That's too bad," came another voice from behind him. "Because you've got one now." The words were accompanied by a sharp blow to the back of the head which sent him back to the ground, and Tetsuo was horrified to see some of his HP drop. He hadn't realized that he'd left the city limits of Everdark... and that put the situation in a very different light. A very deadly one.

A hand grabbed the collar of his armor at the back of the neck, lifting him up and then smashing his face down into the dirt. He squirmed and kicked out blindly, satisfied by the yelp and the solid feeling of connecting with one of his attackers, and used the opening to scramble to his feet and break into a run.

It was a short-lived victory. He was running as fast as his feet would carry him, and even with the superhuman speed of his fae avatar he was still shocked to hear the sound of Imp wings behind him, gaining on him. He dove to the ground and rolled just as one of them swooped past him and took a swing with his sword. He heard chanting, something complex and unfamiliar, and as soon as his roll came to a resting point he felt the cold impact of spell energy wash over him. All of his joints seemed to relax, a sense of profound weakness filling him, and while he crumpled to the ground he noticed the Paralysis status effect icon in his HUD. He could barely move his fingers, let alone defend himself.

"That's right, monkey, forgot who can fly in here and who can't? Not so big without your army behind you, are you?" The two Imps stood over him, weapons drawn, and terror warred with anger for control of him.

"You made one mistake too many, monkey," said the one he'd run into as he raised his sword. "You shouldn't have come here alone."

"He didn't."

The two Imps whirled at the sound of the third voice—but not in time. There was a brilliant blue glow and a sound like a traffic accident, and one of the attackers went flying back against the wall, very nearly embedding himself in it from the force of the blow. His face wore a look of stunned disbelief as he slid down the wall, jaw hanging slack. The one with the sword staggered back and tried to initiate a weapon technique, but before he could get into the opening stance the other Salamander drove him back with a viciously quick series of single strikes until the Imp's sword went spinning away from a hand that was missing several fingers.

Tetsuo didn't think he'd ever been happier to see his group leader than he was at that moment—or happier to see a status effect wear off. While strength slowly began to return to Tetsuo's avatar, the older man drove the edge of his shield up under the disarmed Imp's chin and pinned him against the wall, leaning in. "All I would have to do is push," he said calmly, as if discussing objectives in a minor side quest. "You're fortunate that I have no desire to create drama between your faction leader and my own. Assault a member of my group again and I will show no further restraint."

Getting back to his feet, Tetsuo readjusted some of his armor and dusted himself off. "You're not going to—?"

He shook his head, pulled the shield back just a little and allowed the Imp to drop to the floor. The beaten man clutched his throat with his maimed hand and coughed as he tried to stand, glaring at the two Salamanders.

"Now that it is no longer an issue of self-defense, it would be a violation of treaty. Moreover, it would reflect poorly on us as clearers at a time when we must have unity with the Imps for facing the upcoming boss." The other Salamander clearer's sword lashed out, point stopping bare centimeters from the Imp's face. "But do not push your luck. Begone."

The Imps complied with alacrity, one supporting the other as they fled down the dim hallway as quickly as they could. Tetsuo shook his head to clear the last of the lingering after-effects from the debuff. "Thanks, Heathcliff. That fight was actually my fault, I was running to catch up with you and wasn't looking where I was going."

Heathcliff nodded, sheathing his sword and slinging his shield onto his back. "I take care of my group members," he said. "We need to get moving if we're going to catch up with the others."

Despite the admonition, Tetsuo couldn't help but ask one more question. "What if there was no treaty? What if we didn't have to worry about making the Imp leadership happy? Would you still have let them go?"

As they jogged towards the first sign of sunlight at the end of the corridor, the silver-haired Salamander clearing group leader gave Tetsuo an odd, penetrating look. It was a look he'd seen before, and as much as Tetsuo trusted Heathcliff from all the battles they'd fought together, it was a look that never failed to unnerve him. It was as if the man was looking through him rather than at him.

"Have you ever taken a life in this world, Tetsuo?"

He shook his head. "I've never had to. I wasn't part of Kibaou's invasion force. I've fought other players, we all have, but even before the treaty someone always retreated before it came to a killing blow." He hesitated, and then said, "have you?"

Heathcliff nodded thoughtfully, returning his attention to where he was going. There was a span of time where the only sound was the rhythmic drum of their boots on the ground, and Tetsuo had already decided that was the only answer he was going to get when his group leader spoke again.

"More than you will ever know," Heathcliff said finally after they broke out into the open, his gaze refocusing on Tetsuo in that unnerving way. "But not without first giving them a chance to live."


Argo wasn't sure why she'd bothered to ask Kirito where he was. Although he was set as «Unfindable» even to his friends, she had other ways of tracking his whereabouts at the moment. What's more, he almost certainly knew that—or could at least guess at it.

But she knew she'd never explicitly told him before that she could track the locations of all of her pets on her map, and that wasn't information she wanted to give out for free—not even to Kirito. Not without cause.

A polite fiction, she told herself. I'm giving him the illusion of privacy—something he probably knows he doesn't have right now.

She found him deep within the suburbs of Arun, in a heavily-forested area that might almost be taken for wilderness—if not for the cobblestone roads that thinly criss-crossed it at haphazard angles, or the occasional smell of woodsmoke long before catching sight of buildings nestled into a clearing here and there. These areas were far from the World Tree, although still beneath its branches—and far from the warpgate that led to the higher levels of Yggdrasil with active gateways.

The inconvenient location made the player population fairly thin; clearers wanted to be closer to the action and merchants wanted to be where the clearers were. Here in the forest, most of the people Argo saw had the white cursor of an NPC. It was a great place to meet in private, but it bored her beyond the telling of it. There was no one to listen to besides quest NPCs, and they didn't have much to say that she hadn't already memorized.

Argo heard the river before it came into view, a narrow channel with slow, gentle waters cutting a meandering line through the forest. The road leaned to the west to cross over it, cobblestone giving way to the wooden planks of a bridge with open sides and a steeply slanted thatch roof. Kirito sat in a patch of shade on the edge of the bridge, facing away from her.

There was a fishing pole in his hands.

Argo stopped where she was, a few paces behind him. One of her ears twitched. A moment later she resumed walking, and dropped herself down into a sitting position beside him, legs alternately swinging as they dangled off the edge. Her attention was drawn to the fishing line where it disappeared into the water as she reached over to Kirito, palm held up. Something seemed off.

Wordlessly, Kirito took his nearest hand off the grip of the fishing rod and reached over as if to take Argo's hand. His stopped just short of hers, however, and with a muffled sound of rustling fabric, a shape rippled down his arm beneath the sleeve of his overcoat. A tiny pair of eyes shone briefly out of the shadow of the cuff, and then a tiny mouse with a green cursor leapt across the intervening centimeters and scampered up to Argo's shoulder.

"Thanks for that, Ki-bou."

Kirito nodded. "You were paying me. I've had worse fetch quests than 'carry small animal from point A to point B'." He turned slightly to look at her. "So what's Skarrip up to?"

Argo momentarily froze, then relaxed. "Who said anything about Skarrip?"

Kirito gave her the kind of knowing smile he used when he was sure he'd been incredibly clever about something. "You asked me to bring a message to one of your contacts in Sylvain. That message didn't say anything about the pet you wanted to hitch a ride back with me."

Argo was pretty certain Kirito had figured out what she was doing. What's more, he had to know that she knew. But she wasn't going to make it easy, so she stared blankly back at him. "And?"

"So the message was a pretense," Kirito said. "You know that Spriggans are only allowed in Sylvain if they're licensed couriers on a job. And you had to know that sending me would attract attention even for a simple message delivery."

"I'm not getting where you're going with this," Argo lied.

"I'm not dumb, Argo. If you want to pretend you are, go right ahead. I think you knew that if you sent me to deliver a message, anyone prying into what I was doing there would be focusing their attention on finding out who I was there to see and what the message was. Not on the spy you had me pick up."

"A little louder, Ki-bou," Argo said irritably. "I don't think they heard you in Gattan."

After a moment, Kirito sighed and looked back at the fishing line. "I don't mind the job, and I don't mind the pay," he said once the silence dragged on. "But I'd like some warning if I'm being used as a catspaw." Then he made a face, and glanced down at Argo's hands. "So to speak."

Argo sometimes wondered if whatever system ran ALO's dynamic content listened in on player conversations, waiting for someone to make a cat joke to a Cait Sith player. It was the only explanation she could think of for why she couldn't stop her ears or tail from doing something blatantly catlike whenever it happened. She put an effort of will into forcing her tail to stop thrashing, and gestured towards the fishing pole. "When did you pick up the «Fishing» skill?"

"You're dodging."

"So are you. Since when can clearers afford to waste a slot on a crafting skill? Just how much time have you dumped into leveling this up?"

Kirito's eyes met hers, and Argo realized she knew exactly what he was going to say just before he did it. "You tell me your story, and I'll tell you mine."

Argo weighed her options, deciding which information was pertinent and which wasn't, and how much glossing of details she could afford to do and still give him something of equal worth to the story of Kirito—a well-known Spriggan clearer, the representative from the treaty summit—leveling up his Fishing. "Deal. Spill."

"Oh no," Kirito said, reeling the line back in and standing up in order to give himself room to cast. "I asked you first."

For most people, Argo insisted on payment up front, regardless of who asked first. But she knew Kirito would abide by any deal they made, and when prodded sufficiently he could tell a good story.

"Remember when I approached you about that whole thing with who gets the Last Attack on the end boss?"

Kirito nodded. "What about it?"

"The Sylphs are one of the clearing groups I don't have completely on board yet. I need to know what Sakuya, Sigurd and Skarrip are saying to each other about it."

When Kirito realized Argo wasn't going to give any more without having it pried out of her, he tilted his head towards her with raised eyebrows. "And?"

Argo sighed, kicking her legs again. "And I'm worried about Skarrip. This goes beyond just the larper stuff. The guy says and does some weird shit. I mean like, 'elevator not going all the way to the top' shit."

"So you're saying he's crazy?"

"Big ol' bag of roasted chestnuts. But high-functioning. This is a guy who knows just how off the deep end he is, and he's decided he's really okay with it as long as he gets to keep playing his role. But you know what the weird thing is?"

There was only one correct response to that rhetorical question. "What?"

Argo leaned her head to the side, nudging the mouse on her shoulder. It slipped inside the hood of her cloak and disappeared into her clothing. "I'm pretty sure he knew this pet was there the whole time, every time I checked in on him. Like once or twice I think he actually turned and looked right at it. But it didn't stop him from going on, as if he didn't care that he had an audience."

"Why didn't you just abandon the pet then?" Kirito asked. "I don't know much about Beast Taming, but I know you can release a pet. It's not like there was any way to trace it back to anyone, even if he had the skills for it."

"No, you don't know much about Beast Taming, Ki-bou," Argo replied with a snort. "But this much you could get from the manual: the longer we have a pet, and the more we do for it and interact with it, the more «Rapport» we build with it. I have a lot of time invested in this little guy." Then she gave Kirito a smug look. "Alright, I told you mine, and I gave you a primer on Noob Pet Mechanics 101 as a freebie. So why'd you pick up the Fishing skill, and how high have you gotten it?"

Kirito smiled again as he looked back at the water. "I didn't."

Argo's own smile disappeared. "What?"

"I don't have Fishing."

Argo stared at him, down at the fishing pole, and down to the slow-moving water and the line that trailed into it. "Then… why…?"

Kirito stood up and looked at the rod in his hands as if seeing it for the first time, and shrugged, letting it drop into the water with a splash. "I picked that up at the item shop while I was waiting for you. I needed something to do, and I was curious what it was like."

"Needed… something…"

"Something to do," Kirito said, dusting his hands together and crouching down to gaze at the cloudy surface of the river a few meters below. "I put bait on the pole, but I couldn't seem to get a bite."

"That," Argo said after a very long moment in which she was sorely tempted to push Kirito off the side of the bridge, "was probably because you didn't have the Fishing skill."

"I figured," Kirito said. "But you should've seen the look on your—"

It was a short drop to the water, and Kirito wasn't expecting to need to use his wings. Even under torture, Argo would have sworn up and down that bumping him was a complete accident.

He'd kept his end of the bargain to the letter, and Argo couldn't really let herself be too annoyed at him, considering that it had been her own assumptions that had tripped her up. But even so, the tip that he'd given her as a peace offering before heading back to the World Tree was a fairly juicy one, and Argo decided it was worth delaying her return to Freelia in order to follow up on it—the trip to the west end of Arun wasn't that far out of her way.

The church she sought was mid-sized and designed in the same vaguely Scandinavian style as so many other special buildings in Arun: steeply slanted roofs and timber frames, the former to better shed the weight of snow during the colder seasons and runoff during the thaws. Argo circled it once from the air, expecting to see children playing outside; there were none. Nonetheless, she had directed customers here before and was certain she had the right church, and once she'd touched down just inside the front gate she didn't even hesitate before pushing open the heavy oak door.

Most players in Arun had at least heard of the orphanage. Argo had been the one to tip off Kirito about Sasha's hobby of collecting incantations in the first place, and he hadn't been the first person to whom she'd sold that tip. But if what he'd told her in return was true, she was clearly missing more than half the story.

That just wouldn't do.

The sound of a woman's voice drew her from the foyer through a short hallway which looped around the south corner of the church in a steeply ascending stairway. This opened up on what seemed to be a spacious attic with linteled windows on either side, the vaulted ceilings reflecting the steep roof that covered them. A little over twenty children were arrayed in a semicircle several rows deep, and a young Sylph girl of perhaps ten or eleven stood to one side facing an older woman opposite her.

"Is it really okay, Miss Sasha?"

The woman smiled at the girl's words, and gave her an encouraging nod. "You're right to be hesitant to cast against another person, Jellica, but it's okay—you can't hurt me here. Just use the Magnitude 1 version of the Wind Blast spell you've been practicing. It's the one that starts with futto kachikke."

The girl still looked apprehensive, but after a moment she bit her lip and moved a hand in the air; Argo guessed that she was opening her menu and looking at her spellbook. She gave a jerky sweep of the hand as she looked up at her teacher, and held up her other hand with the first two fingers aimed directly at Sasha.

Argo leaned against the railing at the top of the stairway to watch quietly. The girl stammered the first time she tried to cast the spell, fumbling it and losing a little bit of MP; with the second time she squeezed her eyes shut and managed it. A burst of green-tinged wind surged from her fingertips and shot towards Sasha.

As Jellica's incantation neared its successful end, Sasha held out a hand palm-forward and rapidly uttered her own spell. "Zukke tamzul dweren!" Water spiraled out from her palm, manifesting as a translucent disc-shaped shield in front of her. The wind spell struck a moment later, shattering the shield into motes of light and staggering Sasha back about a meter.

The Sylph girl was wide-eyed at this outcome, on the verge of distraught. "Miss Sasha, I'm sorry! Are you okay?"

Regaining her balance, Sasha immediately smiled and waved her hand at the girl. "I'm fine—I told you beforehand, it will get through the shield but it won't hurt me; we're in a safe zone."

"I know that, but still…"

"It's okay," Sasha insisted. "This is part of the lesson. Do you know why my shield didn't stop your spell?"

One of the boys in the front row raised his hand. Sasha shook her head at him and looked back at the girl who'd cast the attack spell, whose brow was furrowed in thought.

After a few more moments, Sasha prodded. "Was there perhaps a phrase in my incantation that you didn't hear?"

The girl's lips moved silently. "You um… I heard the word for the shield."

"Tamzul," Sasha said, nodding and tucking behind her ear a stray lock of hair that had come free when the spell hit. "What else?"

"You said, um… zukke. Wouldn't it have been zutto?"

"It would have been if I'd included a magnitude phrase. But I didn't, did I? So what does that make the spell?"

A very young Salamander boy from the front row spoke up. "A noob spell!"

Argo's loud snickers joined those of the rest of the class, finally drawing Sasha's attention from across the room. The woman looked her up and down, then made a beckoning motion and called out. "I'll be done with this lesson in just a minute, young lady. You're welcome to come sit down with the others and watch in the meantime."

This woman has absolutely no idea who I am, Argo thought as she fought off the urge to laugh, rounding the corner at the top of the stairway and dropping into a cross-legged position next to one of the other kids. Who was she to argue with free information?

Returning her attention to the class, Sasha resumed her lesson. "What Genji was trying to say was that the omission of the magnitude phrase made that a Base Magnitude spell—often called a starting or beginner spell. Jellica, what magnitude was the wind spell you cast?"


"And what do you think that says about what happened when I used my shield?"

To the girl's credit, it didn't take her more than a moment to work this out. "My spell got through 'cause it was higher level than your shield?"

"Not higher level, exactly… higher magnitude. The «Defensive Shield» effect can absorb spell energy equal to its own magnitude before it breaks. If you'd been casting a Base Magnitude attack spell, my shield would have absorbed it and then broken without any getting through. If you hear someone casting a spell at you, take a moment to listen for the magnitude phrase. Make sure you cast a shield strong enough to block it."

"Why not just use your strongest shield?" This question came from a Gnome boy sitting near Argo.

Sasha answered his question with another. "What have we learned about cooldowns?"

The boy's answer was prompt; Argo suspected that had been a well-rehearsed subject. "Higher magnitudes make the cooldown longer for that kind of spell."

"For that effect," Sasha said, correcting him slightly. Looking back over the class, she resumed using what Argo decided to categorize as her "lecture" voice. "When you use an effect, it puts that effect on cooldown for that magnitude and all below it. So if you always used, let's say, your M4 shield, magnitudes base through 4 would be on cooldown for that spell—and because the length of the cooldown increases with the magnitude, they would all be unavailable for longer. There's no need to do that if someone is only using an M2 spell."

Clapping her hands once, Sasha made a gesture that drew all of the kids to their feet; Argo followed suit after a moment's delay. "Now then, let's divide up into pairs. All of you have at least one school of magic at 200 or above. I want you to take turns casting your Direct Damage attack spell at your partner, who will use their Defensive Shield. Cast slowly at first, and don't tell your partner what magnitude you're using until after you've both cast. The defender should listen and try to match the magnitude of their shield to the magnitude of the attacking spell."

Argo made a point of not partnering up with anyone; she was the odd person out anyway. Once the exercise was under way, the schoolteacher took the bait and approached her. "Thank you for waiting. I'm Sasha—can I help you?"

"Probably," Argo said cheerfully. "What's this I hear about you cracking the code for how the magic system works?"

Sasha's smile didn't disappear, but Argo could tell she was suddenly making an effort to maintain it. "I'm sorry, young lady, but do I know you from somewhere?"

Argo shrugged, ears flicking around in different directions as the children around her continued with their exercises. "Not directly, but I'd be surprised if you hadn't heard of me. Name's Argo. I've sent more than a few people your way because of your little spell-collecting hobby." She grinned. "You're welcome. I talked to someone recently who said you'd put a whole lotta time into researching the language of magic and figuring out how it works, and that you can make your own spells."

"That's true, and… wait." Sasha stopped suddenly in mid-sentence, giving Argo a more critical look. "I've heard that name before. You're the information merchant. You told Kirito and Silica to come to me. Why are you here?"

Briefly, Argo wondered what had happened to make this woman so wary of her. Kirito certainly hadn't suggested that his business with Sasha had been anything but satisfactory. She took a good look around the room to give herself time to think of how to adjust her approach, openly admiring the work of the students. This Sasha was obviously not just playing at being a teacher—she was a teacher, and Argo would've bet any amount of Yuld that she'd been one back in the real world. She clearly loved what she was doing.

And if there was one truth that had always been a constant through Argo's school years, it was this: teachers with a passion for their work were easy to manipulate.

"I was really impressed by what Kirito said about your work with the language of magic. Words are kinda my thing, I'm good at languages, and I love a good puzzle. So when I heard that you'd actually learned the language and become fluent in it… well…" She gave Sasha her best smile and shuffled her feet a little, knowing that her youth and Cait Sith features would probably enhance her performance to good effect. "I had to come see for myself, see what I could learn."

Pin pon, Argo thought triumphantly as she watched the expression on Sasha's face change. "Well isn't that nice? You're welcome to join our class, you know. In which elements are you proficient?"

The answer to that was "none"—her skills were largely devoted to melee combat, beast taming and stealth—but that wasn't something Argo was about to admit at any price. Instead, she countered with a proposal of her own, hoping it would moot or evade the question. "Actually, I was kinda hoping we could make a deal. I know a whole lotta spells—I mean, I've memorized the words to them. Hundreds. I'm real good at that. And I'm willing to tell you all of 'em. I'd bet there's some in there that you haven't heard before."

"And?" Sasha inquired. A little bit of the wariness returned to her face, but she couldn't conceal the hunger that vied for expression. "A deal implies some sort of exchange of value. What do you want from me that would be worth what you're offering?"

"Your notes," Argo said. "I want to read your notes about this language—vocabulary, grammar, the works. All the stuff you wrote while you were figuring it out. You can keep them. I just want to read them—they won't even leave this building."

Sasha's look of wariness evolved into mild disbelief. "That's all? You just want to read my working notes? Not even study them—just read them?"

Argo smiled again, face dimpling. "Don't worry, I can remember stuff. We got a deal?"

Sasha hesitated once more, eyes making a practiced circuit of the room; Argo presumed she was looking for students who needed help. Sighing, she made a graceful motion in the air to open her menu. "Why do I get the distinct feeling that I'm making a mistake by doing this?"

"Because you're a teacher, and I'm a kid," Argo replied without missing a beat. "It's kinda your job to suspect shenanigans. In this case, though, I just wanna learn—and unless I misunderstood what's going on here, that's your job too. I got stuff you wanna know, and in exchange you lose… nothing. Win-win. So we got a deal?"

At first, Argo wasn't sure she was going to get a quick answer. Sasha looked at her, almost past her, eyes searching for deception. Hiding feelings and micro-expressions from being animated by the emotion simulation system ranged from difficult to impossible; Argo had a lot of practice keeping a straight face, but this time—as usual—it was so much better that everything she'd said happened to be true.

After a minute of this, Sasha turned to the class and clapped her hands for attention. "Excellent work, all of you. Let's break for lunch; we'll resume the lesson at twelve-thirty and review your progress." Then she faced Argo again, and this time the look on her face was decisive.




Chapter Text

"The expiration of a Remain Light can be averted through the use of resurrection spells and rare items, but even this lesser death is not without consequence. When a player reaches zero HP, they immediately suffer the loss of 10% of the accrued EXP towards their next level, as well as 10% of the points earned in all equipped skills. At low levels, this is not an especially onerous penalty. But at higher levels, when both skills and EXP accumulate far more slowly, a single death can mean the loss of weeks or even months of grinding..."
Alfheim Online manual, «Death Penalty»

4 May 2023
Day 180

People who didn't know Klein very well often assumed that he wasn't very smart. True, he could be dense, especially where women were concerned—but that just meant that he was sometimes slow to pick up on signals that others found more obvious. He was perfectly capable of what he considered to be strokes of genius and insight, they just sometimes took a while—and the last six months in Alfheim had been something of a crash course in adapting to and surviving unfamiliar new situations.

So it was really no surprise to Klein that he found himself reflecting on the wisdom of letting Eugene hire his group as advance scouts for a boss battle—after all, nothing good had ever come of getting mixed up with the Salamander clearing groups. He just wished that the epiphany hadn't come while he and his friends were fleeing for their lives from a gateway boss labeled with the torturously unpronounceable name of «Hrungnir». And that distracting train of thought ended just in time for him to narrowly avoid becoming one with the floor under his feet; he threw himself to the side as a fist like a boulder cratered the herringbone-patterned tiles of the floor, spalled bits of stone and ceramic peppering him with a stinging sensation that the system didn't seem to consider painful enough to suppress.

"Dynamm, Harry, break left!" Coming quickly back to his feet and putting on a burst of speed to avoid the follow-up slash from a shimmering axe blade, he saved himself the time of ordering the other three to break right—the implication was clear, given the wedge-shaped monolith looming before them to let them know what their options were. Klein went left, leaping into the air to avoid the blast radius as an explosion of fire struck the ground just behind them, his natural resistances tempering the damage and leaving him mostly unscathed by the near-miss.

The maneuver worked much like the switch tactic; by splitting his group into two equal parts, Klein had forced the mob to pause for a moment while it prioritized targets and decided which direction to pursue, resetting its attack patterns. It gave them extra meters of space they hadn't had before—possibly enough to get to the entrance or pull the boss beyond its tether radius. Assuming it had one, that is; it had chased them well beyond the chamber in which they'd found it.

The moment's pause seemed far too short; with a grinding snarl, the massive four-armed Jotunn pulled its fist from the ground and lumbered into pursuit of Klein's trio of players. He didn't dare take the time to turn his head to look, but he could feel the ground shuddering beneath his feet as he put on every last bit of speed he could muster, the pounding footsteps growing closer while his group dodged around stone columns to break the mob's line of sight. He could see the imposing double doors where they'd come in, beckoning like sanctuary. "Come on, you piece of crap, tether already!"

It didn't, and Klein could've sworn that the suggestion or the way it was phrased had grossly offended it. A mighty stone-clad fist pounded the ground again mere meters behind him, sending him sprawling into another breakfall roll across the floor. Harry grabbed his arm as he scrambled back to his feet, and Klein saw several wide-eyed Salamanders holding the entrance doors open as his other friends frantically waved him across the home stretch. He heard the air behind him parting grudgingly once more before the giant's weapon, and put everything he had into one desperate lunge.

Only once he'd thrown himself through the door did Klein allow himself to look back. He could see the boss crouching a few dozen meters inside with a tracer of translucent green fading from the air through which its axe had just cut, space that moments before had been home to Klein's head. It gazed at them with what Klein took for rage or a good attempt at faking it; the doorway was too small for it to fit through despite being thrice the height of even Eugene, and it didn't seem inclined to use its ranged attacks on targets it couldn't pursue. Several mages standing outside unloaded spells at it as soon as they had a clear line of sight, most of them crying out as they found their magic reflected back at them with a flash of yellow from the energy field surrounding the boss, an AOE fireball going off in the midst of their group and scattering them like sticks.

"Stop casting!" Klein yelled from the ground.

Eugene, the Salamander in command of the raid force, seemed to have the same idea—but his gravelly bellows and the demonstrated consequences of such stupidity were a lot more effective at gaining compliance than Klein's hasty warning. Before the other Salamander clearers got the doors closed, Klein caught a glimpse of the boss as it turned and slowly disappeared down the hallway without looking back, each footstep vibrating the ground just a little less than the last.

The silence that settled after the giant's footsteps could no longer be heard was broken only by a handful of murmurs amongst the groups of Salamander and Imp clearers, and by the curt sound of leather brushing metal as Klein got back to his feet and swept his hands over his armor to shed some of the dirt. He looked up as a large torchlight shadow fell over him.

"I think that little show oughta save us the first round of questions, Eugene," Klein said, tilting his head to one side and then the other in a vain attempt to crack his neck—something that ALO avatars didn't seem capable of doing, and that he habitually kept trying to do anyway. "You saw the thing. Name's Furunguniiru, or however the hell you're supposed to pronounce that Norse stuff. He's sitting in a cozy little chamber a ways in; the hallway winds a bit before you get to him. He's easily as big as the Jotunn Lord my guys and I fought in the Valley of Giants. Except this one's got four arms, no gear, and a worse attitude. And nothing we did scratched it—even spells just got reflected back." He grimaced. "You probably noticed."

"You certainly succeeded in getting its attention," remarked a petite Imp woman with curly black hair who stood with a dozen others of her kind, regarding him and his mixed-raced group with open curiosity.

"If by that you mean, we aggroed the hell out of it, then yeah, lady, you're right on the money."

"I've never seen a boss chase a scouting party that far before," Eugene mused, folding his thick arms across the breastplate of his armor. "It didn't even act like it had tethered—just like it decided that it couldn't get at us here."

Something similar had occurred to Klein, and he didn't like the sound of it one bit. It sounded far too much like thinking, and he preferred that the things he had to kill did nothing of the sort, or at least as little of it as possible.

"We've been seeing more advanced behavior from mobs as we get deeper into Yggdrasil," remarked a silver-haired Salamander clearer whom Klein had seen before but never spoken with or heard named. The man's voice was crisp and smooth, every word precise. "I think it would be wise not to assume that we know how a mob is going to behave just because it resembles a known base type."

Eugene nodded. "I think that's a sound approach no matter what, Heathcliff. I want to hear more from Klein and his group, though. Tell me about its attacks."

"Well, you saw it had four arms," Klein said, liking this boss fight less every time someone opened their mouth. "Each seems to do something different. Lower-left arm tosses fireballs—and they're fast. Faster than a player projectile, and no incantation to warn you it's coming. Small splash radius but plenty of oomph. The upper-left has some kind of wispy transparent axe that's hard to see and is longer than it looks; that's its primary melee attack. The lower right is empty-handed but gets used for grappling and melee—that's the one it pounds the ground with. Upper right is empty-handed too, but I didn't see it attack with it."

Eugene received and digested this information in patient silence. "So the only ranged attack you saw was fire. That's good news for us. Did you learn anything else that could help? Any idea why spells are getting reflected?"

"I think there's some kind of magic shield around the boss," Klein said after a moment, looking back at the doors leading into the boss room as if half-expecting the giant to come bursting through them. "Whenever we struck it, it would flash real bright for a moment. Any physical attack just got an «Immortal Object» pop-up. And you saw what happened when your guys lit into it with spells."

Eugene gave several of the mages in his clearers a pointed look. "And this is why we wait for the scouting data, people. I'm glad you're so enthusiastic, but let's not go off half-assed. Some of you are goddamned lucky we've got solid fire resistances."

"You forgot something, Klein," Dale said once Eugene's little tirade was finished. In response to Klein's raised eyebrows, his oversized Gnome friend elaborated. "Before we hauled ass out of there, I tried hitting it with a Stumble spell to give us some time. You know how the shield around the boss briefly flashed yellow every time the rest of you cast at it? Nobody else was casting right then, and when my Stumble spell hit, the shield flashed green instead. And my spell wasn't reflected. But he sure as shit came after me then."

"There's a puzzle here," Eugene said immediately. Klein wasn't the only person nodding at his words. "A sequence of some kind. Hit it with the right spell at the right time and you… I'm betting that's how we get through the shield."

"So what's with the colors?" asked another of the Salamander clearer leads.

"Yellow was a failure, green a success," Eugene said. "Were there any other colors? Any different reactions from the boss or the shield?"

He looked at his friends one at a time before answering; they all shook their heads. "That was all we saw. Physical attacks got the pop-up message. Everyone's spells except Dale's got reflected with a yellow flash and made you sorry you cast. Dale's got eaten with a green flash but didn't reflect. Nothing did jack for damage or had any noticeable effect."

Eugene turned and looked at his senior clearers. "Thoughts?"

"It's definitely a sequence puzzle," said the Imp woman who'd spoken before. "We've been seeing a few of these here and there as we progress—where you have to hit a key crystal or something with a specific element. That's blocked us a few times until we found someone who had the right school of magic."

"I think you're on to something there, Kumiko." One of the unnamed Salamander clearers chewed at his lip and narrowed his eyes in thought before going on. "Every element has a color. It's the color of the spell effects for that element, and it's usually the color of the flight trail for the race linked to that element."

"Earth is yellow," Dale said, that being the element with which his own race had an affinity. "But that's the color it flashed every time we hit it with the wrong thing."

"No," said Eugene with a snap of the fingers. "That's the color it flashed to let you know what the right element was."

"But obviously just hitting it with the one Earth spell wasn't enough this time," Heathcliff pointed out. "Think it through. What's the next step?"

Klein was starting to get his head around the strategy for this battle, and it filled him with an aggressive desire to be somewhere else, doing something else. Anything else. But he'd been hired to take his group and scout this battle, and that meant giving a full debrief. And the more the raid group could figure out before giving battle, the less likely anyone was to die in the process.

"When we hit it with anything that wasn't Earth," Klein said slowly, "it flashed yellow to tell us what we should be using. Then it flashed green when Dale hit it with Earth. So is the green like a green traffic signal, telling you you got it right?"

"No," said one of the Salamander mages, one who hadn't joined in on the wild flurry of attacks a few minutes prior. There was nothing but confidence in his voice. "Green is the color of Wind. It's telling us the next element in the sequence." Dynamm, the lone Sylph present and the recipient of more than a few unfriendly looks from the Salamander raid, nodded along. Now that the mage had pointed it out, Klein was surprised it had taken even that long—after all, it wasn't as if the veteran Salamanders had any shortage of exposure to Sylph magic in combat. But then, Klein hadn't figured it out either, and he fought alongside Dynamm every day.

Eugene seemed to have similar experience with that magic, and knew a breakthrough when he heard one. His head whipped around, and he smacked a fist into his open hand with a solid metallic sound. "That's got to be it, Pyrin. I know you've got Wind—how many others?" Two hands went up; a boy in light plate armor standing next to Heathcliff and another of the mages. Eugene's lips twisted. "Bunch of slackers."

"Be fair, Eugene," protested the named mage who'd pointed out the significance of the color. "We've only got so many skill slots, and with the Imps handling most of the debuffs, we don't usually need more than one or two people with Wind."

"Let me know when this game becomes fair," Eugene growled, turning to address Pyrin. "You're not wrong, but after this raid I think we're going to sit down and review the skill balance in our mage groups. I may have one or two of you clear up a slot for lesser-used elements."

"That'll mean losing progress in whatever element one of us swaps out," Pyrin replied, dragging open his menu and making vertical motions with one finger as if scrolling through a list. "We'll adapt, but just remember that unequipped skills decay when you don't use 'em for long."

Eugene glanced sidewise at Klein and his group. "We'll table this for later. Any more observations your guild wants to add?"

Klein made a brief circuit of his friends with his eyes; when no one spoke up after a moment, he shook his head. "Nah. Just… be careful with this one, man. It wanted us, bad. And the mechanics are new, uncertain, and full of suck."

Eugene snorted. "We'll learn the mechanics, and we've got a solid group of clearers here that can handle anything. But thanks." He drew open his menu and manifested a small bag in his hand; Klein accepted the payment with a nod. "Good scouting work, but it's time for you to go now—we'll take it from here." And so saying, he turned back to the clearers and loudly clapped his gauntleted hands above his head. "Okay, listen up! MT group on me, OT 1 and OT 2 flanking, mage and DPS groups in reverse chevron formation behind, loose columns with melee on the outside and ranged taking up the rear—"

"Ranged always takes it up the rear!" The catcall came from near the back of the raid, and the nervous laughter that ensued caused Eugene to stare broadswords in the presumed direction of the heckler before continuing.

"Tank groups will form a rotating bulwark—buy us time to experiment. Mage groups prepare defensive buffs, but cast nothing else. I want no attacks except on my word—no debuffs, no DPS, nothing hits that boss until I call for it. All melee groups, until I call for DPS use weapon techniques to parry only—nothing that inflicts status. Pyrin, I want you to shuffle two of your mage groups so that all schools of magic are represented at least once in each group..."

Klein couldn't bring himself to be unhappy about being left out of this one—he had a bad feeling about this particular boss, and he hated timing puzzles with a fiery passion. Besides, his group had been clearing almost non-stop for the past week, and they were due for a couple days of downtime. Maybe he could justify a trip to Freelia…

"Klein?" Dynamm waved a hand in his face, dropping him out of his thoughts.

Absently slapping away the hand, Klein pushed the Salamander raid out of his mind. "Right. Anyone up for a vacay in the Land of Flying Cats?"


Something must have shown on Tetsuo's face. Always attentive, his group leader's slate-gray eyes slid to the side and regarded him with that same unflappable calm that virtually never seemed to escape him. "Don't get yourself worked up without cause," Heathcliff said after a few beats, his eyes going back to Eugene while their raid leader made last-minute adjustments to the group makeup. "General Eugene is quite adept at analyzing mob mechanics and devising strategies to counter them; you need only wait for him to select a course of action and then follow his instructions to the letter. That makes your job much easier."

Tetsuo couldn't quite suppress the snort, but he tried to cover it with a cough—he had no desire to offend his group leader; the man had never treated him with anything but respect. "Um… yeah, I mean, I get it and I'll totally do my job... but how do you figure that makes things any easier for me?"

"Because it frees you from the need to burden yourself with complex decisions in the midst of battle," Heathcliff answered quietly. "You have a defined role in this raid, this group—and no uncertainty about what the right choices are. You don't have to analyze. You don't have to decide. You just have to pay attention to your raid leader, and act on their word." He paused. "It's liberating, in a way. You're giving yourself entirely over to the role you're here to play."

"You know," Tetsuo said following a train of thoughts during which he didn't quite manage to fully engage the filter between his brain and his mouth, "sometimes you sound a lot like a larper."

"Show some respect, kid," came the snappy aside from another of their group members, a stocky Salamander with a thin path of fine red hair framing his jaw. He swatted Tetsuo in the arm for emphasis with the back of one mailed hand, although the blow was light and perfunctory—anything harder would be more uncomfortable for the person punching plate armor than it would be for the person wearing it.

But to Tetsuo's relief, Heathcliff seemed to find this exchange amusing for some reason. "Easy, Nephron." he echoed with the faintest of smiles. "Interesting that you should choose that particular neologism, Tetsuo."

Tetsuo wasn't quite sure what to make of that particular answer. He craned his head to try to see what Eugene was doing back near the mage groups. From what he could tell, their leader seemed to have them taking turns casting low-level spells at the wall as fast as possible. It didn't make any sense to him, which perhaps went a long way towards making Heathcliff's point. He turned back to his group leader with a belated reply. "Interesting?" he prompted.

"Interesting," Heathcliff agreed. "What is a larper, really? I don't find the label particularly useful, nor do I apply it to myself or anyone else. Is it not simply a term for someone who accepts the reality in which we find ourselves?"

"But this isn't reality," Tetsuo said with a frown.

That smile again. "Ah. But what is reality?"

"It's the place where I used to go on dates with Tetsuo's mom," said their group's healer, prompting a few snickers from the others and a roll of the eyes from his intended target, who made a point of not responding to the dig.

"Reality is… um… where things are real?"

"Define real," came the infuriatingly cryptic answer from his group leader. "How do you know what's real and what isn't?"

"Reality…" Tetsuo turned his brain inside out trying to grasp what Heathcliff was trying to say or ask. "It's… the things that actually are. Like, they really exist, and you can prove it."

"Prove how?" Heathcliff pressed. "Based upon what evidence?"

"Well… like… I don't know… like you can see and touch them?"

Wrong answer. Heathcliff looked back at him with that faint ghost of a smile, pointed at his eyes with his first two fingers, and then tapped those fingers on his other wrist. The message was abundantly, embarrassingly clear. Tetsuo looked down at his feet.

"I get it, boss," said Nephron, scratching at the line of his beard. "You're saying our reality is whatever we can actually see and touch and all, at any given time."

Heathcliff nodded with a satisfied look. "It's more complicated than that, but essentially, yes: perception is reality. There is, of course, the physical world we all left behind when we logged in. And do not misunderstand me—I look forward to the final boss battle as much as anyone in this world. But until then, all of this—" He waved a hand loosely at the walls of the World Tree dungeon around them. "This is our reality. The bodies and events in that other world matter only insofar as they permit our minds to continue to exist. The scope of what our minds perceive is what is truly real to us, and right now our minds perceive the world of Alfheim and all of its rules and logic." He looked pointedly at Tetsuo. "The sooner you embrace that truth, the likelier you are to survive to one day return to that other world, that other reality."

A sharp whistle relieved Tetsuo of the need to consider how to respond to that. All eyes in their group turned to where Eugene was standing with the mage groups. He locked eyes with Heathcliff and jerked with his thumb as he called out. "Get over here and bring that kid with you."

They both complied without hesitation; Heathcliff seemed perfectly content to drop the unexpected philosophical conversation about the nature of the universe. "What do you need, General?" he asked once they drew closer.

The Salamander raid leader focused on Tetsuo, giving him a measuring look that threatened to upend the composure he'd been trying to establish. "Tetsuo," he said, with an undertone that suggested he'd spoken the name mostly to remind himself of what it was. "You raised your hand when I asked about Wind magic. You're melee DPS, right?"

"Mostly," Tetsuo answered, nervously fidgeting a little and not caring for the way Eugene was asking about his choice of skills. He hastened to explain. "But I don't need hate skills in my role, and everyone in the DPS groups is encouraged to pick up a school of magic other than fire if we've got the slot. I picked Wind 'cause I party with friends in my free time and it's got some decent buffs."

Heathcliff raised his eyebrows slightly when Eugene turned to look at him. "A fair answer," the raid leader grunted. "And it might come in handy here. Are you good with it?"

"Skill's almost to 400," Tetsuo said with a little surprise. "And yeah, I can cast it in battle, if that's what you're asking."

"Good," Eugene said. "Heathcliff, I'm taking your boy and putting him in Emberlock's group for this fight; they've got no Wind users. He can tank for them if needed, and I'm giving you their tank—chances are the guy won't have much to do until we get the shield down anyway."

Tetsuo's mind whirled at this sudden change in what he'd thought his job was going to be. He looked to his group leader with a note of panic in his eyes. Heathcliff simply shrugged.

"Remember our earlier conversation? You don't have to figure out the right thing to do. You just have to obey the person whose job it is to figure that out. Look to your assist and do what he says." He patted Tetsuo on one pauldron almost paternally.

The advice was still less comforting than Tetsuo would've liked, but as their raid group began to maneuver through the yawning double doors, he tried to push stray thoughts out of his mind and focus on his surroundings, months of training beginning to assert itself and the tricky layout of the cavernous hallways through which they tread requiring all of his attention. The ceiling disappeared somewhere beyond the reach of torchlight, and numerous rune-carved obelisks stuck out from the ground at various heights and irregular intervals and angles like crystal formations. It looked to Tetsuo almost as if they'd burst through the tiled floor at some point in the ancient past, both blocking light and disrupting their formation—which had to loosen up in order for everyone to navigate the field of obstacles.

When they finally laid eyes on the boss, the sight of it nearly robbed Tetsuo of a few breaths. It was the largest boss they faced yet; he would've been surprised if it was much under twenty to twenty-five meters tall, its gnarled fists each big enough to crumple him up and swallow him whole with nothing sticking out. It sat at a stonework table that rose as high as a four-story building, and as the raid group rounded the corner and stopped at Eugene's signal, the giant tossed back the last of its drink and rose from its stool, a low growl rising into a snarl that reverberated from every surface as a red cursor and four HP bars appeared over its head.

"Incoming! MT in!" Eugene shouted. "Off-tank groups prepare to rotate!"

As it gave a great roar, flames danced around one of the giant's hands, coalescing rapidly into a churning fireball that it hurled at the oncoming group. A disc-shaped shield of fire appeared before the main tank group after a rapid chant by the group's healer, but their charge carried them past the attack and the fireball struck the ground a few meters behind them. Before the projectile struck, the air around another hand shimmered and formed into a sickly-green translucent axe, which it whirled without ceremony and swung towards the vanguard of the MT group. Their main tank's own parry sent the axe rebounding back, although Tetsuo saw the attack erode the player's HP despite the successful defense. As soon as the giant recovered, one of its empty hands whipped around and hammered the ground before it, the shockwave scattering several of the players from the MT group with varying amounts of damage and prompting them to rotate out for healing while one of the off-tank groups picked up the slack.

Once the line of defense had been established, Eugene began calling out orders. "Mage group 1, Earth attack on my mark!" That wasn't Tetsuo; he was in group 2 and Emberlock hadn't given him any specific instructions yet. He couldn't clearly hear the incantation over the cacophony of battle, but a barrage of stone spikes shot out from the other mage group, rapidly closing the distance and homing in on their target.

When they struck Hrungnir, they did so with a horrific din and an actinic crimson flash where the projectiles hit. As if someone had flipped an invisible switch, the rock shards reversed direction in an instant and sought out their point of origin. Before anyone could react, they shredded through the mage group on their way to converging on the hapless caster who'd unloaded the high-level spell. His HP went straight to red from his own critical hit, and panic threatened that corner of the raid as that group's healer hastened to restore them all.

"What the fuck?" Eugene yelled, very clearly. "What just happened?"

"It bounced his spell!" Came a shout from the group that had taken the hit.

"Red flash!" yelled someone else; Tetsuo thought it might've been Pyrin's voice. "The sequence changed; we need to use Fire instead this time!"

With the other mage group still focused on healing up, it fell to Emberlock's group to try their hands at the puzzle this time. The fireball that Tetsuo's temporary group leader cast did not get reflected back at them, much to everyone's relief. That relief was short-lived, however; the spell was absorbed with a flash of green, and almost immediately the Jotunn boss ignored the off-tank group holding its attention in favor of aggroing someone else. With horror, Tetsuo watched as the giant plowed through the raid, kicking aside any players who didn't evade quickly enough as it raged its way towards his group of mages.

Tetsuo wasn't specced as a hate tank, but he was the only person in the group geared for tanking at all—there was no one else to intercept the boss. With a shriek that was half-terror, half-defiance, he interposed himself between Hrungnir and Emberlock, planting himself and raising his shield. The force transferred when it met the mob's ethereal axe blade was enough to send Tetsuo sprawling backwards despite bracing for it, nearly a quarter of his HP gone just from blocking the attack head-on.

Before he could recover and get back to his feet, Tetsuo saw a sheath of rock form around one of the Jotunn's empty hands as it swung overhand. Emberlock had barely a moment to throw his hands up and scream before the fist completely crushed him, stoneware tiles spraying in every direction and the flames of the mage's Remain Light erupting from the shallow crater left by the blow.

While Tetsuo tried to gather himself back up to present a defense, one of the other mages panicked and blasted at the Jotunn with a bolt of flame. Again the shield flashed a bright forest-green color, and again the Jotunn sought out its assailant and focused solely on them until they were gone, ignoring anyone else.

Only moments had passed since the mob had torn into Tetsuo's group; he caught a glimpse of one of the off-tank groups maneuvering to try to regain aggro. But as soon as the second attacking mage expired, Hrungnir's vendetta against his group seemed to be done and it returned its attention to the tank groups that had already built up so much hate.

There was nothing he could do for the two who had fallen other than protect their healer while he tried to rez them. Considering the long cooldown timers on revival spells, Tetsuo was grateful when Eugene ordered the healer for one of the melee DPS groups to rez the second dead player, taking no chances on whether their own group's healer would have more than one rez spell to use.

The lesson of this near-disaster was clear even to Tetsuo: whoever landed an attack with the correct element would become the focus of the mob's hate. How the hell were they supposed to keep it from killing their mages? He felt bad for Emberlock and the others even as he saw their Remain Lights coalesce back into living avatars and their HP begin climbing back towards the green—those deaths were going to be costly for them in terms of progress.

As their group recovered, Tetsuo watched the first mage group take another shot at the puzzle mechanics. This time Eugene had positioned the main tank group directly in between the boss and the mage group, and as soon as a fireball rocketed out towards Hrungnir, the Salamander General bellowed, "Now Wind!"

Fire splashed across the boss, once again prompting a flare of green across the magic shield protecting it. And again, as expected, it immediately refocused its ire on the caster who'd struck it with the correct element, footsteps thundering across the open floor of its chambers as it covered ground with deceptive speed for something so gargantuan. Before it could get there, Tetsuo heard a word from a spell he thought he recognized, and several greenish-yellow arcs of energy slashed out from the mage group.

The shield didn't drop, and it didn't flash a new color. Instead it flashed red again, and the spinning blades of wind shot back towards the mage group, focused with narrow intensity on the mage who'd cast them. Only the timely intervention of one of the tanks saved him as the tank put himself in the path of the spell, being far more capable of taking that damage than the squishier caster. That didn't stop the boss, which sent the plate tank flying through the air as it kicked through him on its way to the mage group; he burst into flames as he struck the wall with overwhelming force.

Thankfully, the hate change didn't seem to be permanent—the combined efforts of the two groups' healers and the other mages in the group barely kept the mages alive long enough for the MT group to regain aggro and drag the boss away from the that group.

From the orders that came down next, Tetsuo could guess at what the problem had been—it wasn't just a matter of hitting the elements in the correct sequence, it was doing so in rapid succession. The colored flash from the shield when struck seemed to last for around half a second, and Eugene wanted the second attack to hit during the flash from the first one.

The mind reeled. Tetsuo couldn't imagine getting off a spell in under half a second after casting the last one—it would have to be two different casters, one starting their incantation immediately after the other did, trying to get the staggered timing just right.

It was insane. But that was what Eugene wanted them to do.

And it went about as well as Tetsuo expected. On the first several attempts, either the spells landed out of order, causing the effects to rebound on their casters, or they stumbled over the words as they tried to synchronize their timing, failing the spell. More players fell to the reflected damage and sudden shifts in aggro, and not all of them could be rezzed in time.

Tetsuo finally managed to land a Wind spell at exactly the right time, reasoning that if it didn't matter what spell he used, he'd use one with the shortest incantation he could think of, that would hurt the least if he got the timing wrong: his basic Wind Blast starter spell. When it struck, it produced a bright yellow flash and the boss immediately rushed him, making him extremely glad that he was a plate user who just happened to have some magic.

"Yellow!" That shout came from Eugene as OT 2 rushed in to try to help Tetsuo survive the short-term aggro from the boss. "Mage Group 1, Fire-Wind-Earth! Don't wait for the hate reset!"

In a stroke of luck, the timing of that barrage was nearly spot-on. Tetsuo's HP was very close to red when the boss suddenly lunged away from him and towards the other group, the third and last magic attack producing a blue flash from the shield. With a sinking feeling, Tetsuo realized what that had to mean.

Four arms… one hand that throws fire, one that uses a wind-based axe, a fist encased in stone for melee, and one that hasn't done anything yet… probably because it's Water, and we haven't hurt this thing yet.

There were times when you could almost smell doom in the air—when impending disaster created a stink that penetrated everything, sinking into every pore and filling you with dread certainty. Tetsuo had felt that the night before Kibaou's invasion of Everdark, and he'd felt it on more than one occasion when a raid went bad.

This one was going bad in a hurry. The main tank group was rotated out, low on HP and MP and waiting for potions and healers to do their work. Each off-tank group was assigned to a mage group, and both were barely keeping themselves in the green. Hrungnir plowed straight through the OT group guarding the other mage group, barely slowed by their attacks, and began laying waste to every mage who'd landed a successfully-timed hit, eliminating them one by one and dealing out damage too quickly for the healers to keep up, even with the help of the healers from the DPS groups standing by.

The groups began to fragment, as one by one players turned into purple or red Remain Lights and healers started running out of MP and more and more of their spells went on cooldown.

What began as a failure was rapidly turning into a total wipe. Eugene could see it as well as anyone, and before absolute chaos could break out, he made the call that Tetsuo thought he should've made half an hour ago: "Fall back to the entrance! No more attack spells of any kind, let the tank groups get aggro back and hold off the boss while we retreat!"

But the tank groups were having their own problems. OT 1's healer had died, and one of the healers in the MT group had exhausted all of their MP and potions, which left them with two healers to fend for three groups as everyone else began to flee. Several of the tanks were already in the red, and no one had HP anywhere near the comforting green zone that lay above 75% health.

It took every bit of courage Tetsuo possessed to not run as fast as his legs would carry him like the rest of the raid. The healer from Emberlock's group was right beside him, and before the man could run Tetsuo grabbed him by the collar of his robes and bodily whirled him around, propelling both of them towards the ailing tank groups. "Come on!"

"The hell with you!" yelled the Salamander healer, twisting loose and giving Tetsuo a shove that didn't budge him but made their positions clear. Too shocked and disgusted to waste time putting forth an effort to stop someone that he couldn't make cast his healing spells anyway, Tetsuo ran headlong towards the tank groups and the certain death that he was trying very hard not to think about. It wasn't until he was halfway there that he heard footsteps beside him, and saw Heathcliff rushing in the same direction with his shield held out before him. Both of them were in the yellow, but the look on Heathcliff's face was resolute and unwavering.

An indescribable emotion filled Tetsuo then—something that wasn't worship, but could've easily passed for it. He'd always trusted and respected his group leader, but never so much as he did in that moment as the two of them threw themselves into the fray, weapons and shields stopping blows that would've ended more than one of their comrades. The stakes fueled him with desperate energy and speed, but even that didn't even come close to matching the performance that Heathcliff put on. His shield was almost a blur at times, and although the attacks from the massive Jotunn pushed his HP lower and lower by slivers, virtually nothing moved him, and eventually the boss began focusing all of its attention on the player who had become its biggest aggravation.

"Go," his group leader urged, silver ponytail whipping around when he swung his arm to deflect Hrungnir's axe, the metal of his enchanted kite shield giving off an agonized whine as the blow turned with a flash of dispersed green energy. "Get them to safety, Tetsuo. Go now!"

It was a measure of his loyalty to his group leader that he didn't immediately obey. Instead, he hesitated for a moment, and in that moment a flurry of conflicting thoughts and motivations went through his head: his trust in Heathcliff, his desire to save his friends, despair at the thought of leaving his group leader to carry out what was almost certainly a sacrifice play, and a shamefully-felt urge to get his own self to safety.

Loyalty won out with an assist from self-preservation. "Come on, everyone!" Tetsuo called out, pulling one of the surviving healers to his feet and shoving an MP potion into his hand. "Heathcliff's going to keep it held off here; don't waste this chance!"

As he turned with the last survivors of the tank groups and began their retreat, Tetsuo spared one last glance back over his shoulder. Heathcliff stood alone against the giant, turning the axe-blade with his sword and triggering one of his shield bash techniques to redirect a crushing blow from the Jotunn's stone-clad fist.

The last thing Tetsuo saw before disappearing around the corner was Heathcliff's HP bar flashing once before turning red.


As she swept closed the window of the latest message from one of her contacts, Argo reflected that this was shaping up to be One of Those Days. She was rightfully proud of her vocabulary—which was considerably deeper than shown by the slangy speech habits she affected, and far beyond most people her age—and in the past several hours she was fairly certain she could have run the board at playing bingo with every word even remotely synonymous with "catastrophe". The word "massacre" had been thrown around by more than one player, and from what she was hearing it was no hyperbole.

To put it mildly, the Salamanders had taken a devastating defeat, losing more than a third of their front-line clearers in what had only narrowly avoided being a total wipe. Their clearers were being infuriatingly tight-lipped about the details of the boss guarding the 25th warp gateway; Corvatz wasn't even returning her PMs. Until this last message, the most Argo had been able to pin down was that there was some sort of timing puzzle that was impossibly hard in some undefined way. She was highly skeptical by habit of anything that vague; it had a high probability of being horseshit.

If she'd had her way, she would've been spending all of her time in the various taverns that she knew were frequented by Salamander clearers, reasoning that this was her best chance of picking up something that she wasn't supposed to hear. Unfortunately, this had happened while she was in Freelia meeting with Alicia and the lead Cait Sith clearers—it would've taken most of the day at best just to get back to Arun, and that kind of pace would require her to more or less completely ignore her incoming messages; there was no way she could afford to do that even if there hadn't been a major news event sending waves of panic, uncertainty and excitement through the nine races.

All there had been to work with was a list of survivors, drawn from a source who'd been at the warpgate in Arun when the remnants of the Salamander raid force took a roll call after porting back and regrouping. The list of names was phonetic, making the romanization of many of the more fantastic names of questionable accuracy to begin with, and the vast majority of them had been worthless to her—they were no one she knew, and no one known to her network of contacts.

With one exception. But that exception had paid off.

"Tell me you have «Moonlight Mirror»," Argo said as she abruptly pushed open the doors to Alicia's office with a bang, striding up to her desk.

Alicia stopped in mid-sentence, mouth slightly ajar. It said something about how long they'd been dealing with each other that it only took her a moment to adjust to the sudden interruption. "Um, Thelvin, 'scuse me just a sec, Argowhatthehelldoyouwant."

"I need to know if you've leveled up your Dark Magic skill enough to use the Moonlight Mirror spell," Argo elaborated, speaking only a little more slowly than before. "And yes, this has everything to do with the clusterfuck you're currently dealing with."

"How d—?" Alicia started to speak, then changed tracks when she saw the serious look on Argo's face as the latter pushed back her hood. "Yes, I can cast it. Barely. But depending on how far away they are, at this time of day I could only maintain it for maybe four or five minutes. I think; I won't know for sure until I cast it and see the timer, but it's about that. Why?"

"If you're gonna try hitting that boss, there's someone you need to talk to. You know that casual with the water drake pet?"

"I think I know the one," Thelvin said, settling back into his seat; he'd been far more startled by Argo's entrance than his leader had. "That grade school girl?"

Alicia made a noise of recognition. "The one who did a quest to rez her pet? Didn't you have something to do with that, Argo?"

"Yep, and yep."

Alicia shrugged, one ear flicking towards the doors as their return momentum from Argo's sudden entry finally brought them shut. "Well that's great, except I don't have her on my friends list, and you can only open Moonlight Mirror to a friend."

"I know," Argo said, sliding into the seat beside Thelvin and putting her feet up on Alicia's desk. When Alicia smacked her heels off the edge, she migrated them to Thelvin's lap instead. "You're not opening it to her."


When Kirito finished reading the latest message, he left it hanging there in the air and tapped an icon in the corner of the window to turn it visible. Silica leaned in and read over his shoulder, lips moving silently. After she too had taken her turn reading it, she sat back and flexed her hands on the leather skirt of her armor, the feline tail poking out from the back of it periodically thumping against the quilt that covered the inn room bed on which they sat.

"It'll be fine," Kirito said encouragingly, "Just tell them what you told me."

"But they really should be talking to Tetsuo," Silica protested, something in her tone or demeanor drawing a nuzzle from Pina, who was curled up on the bed beside her. "He's the one who was there. He has all the details they want."

"He isn't here now, though," Kirito pointed out. "He's on his way back to Gattan."

"What about Sasamaru?" she said next. "I don't really know Tetsuo all that well, not like he does. They've known each other for years."

Kirito couldn't exactly remember who Sasamaru was—he wasn't on extremely familiar terms with the group Silica sometimes ventured out with now, a group he'd heard refer to themselves as "The Black Cats" for reasons he didn't quite understand. But whichever one he was, all that was beside the point. "He wasn't at the church when Tetsuo came by after the raid," Kirito said patiently, ruffling the top of Silica's hair between her broad, mobile ears; they twitched at the contact. "You were the one he talked to. There's nothing to worry about—these are nice people from your own faction. They just want to know what you know."

Once Silica had calmed the last of her nerves, Kirito stood up and began following the instructions he'd been given, facing a blank wall and then sending a terse confirmation in reply. A little less than a minute later there was a ripple in the air in front of the wall, as if something was scurrying just under the surface of reality, and the light level in the room seemed to dim as a swirling violet-black portal opened before Kirito. At first its depths resolved only into a reflection of their surroundings, but those quickly faded and were replaced by what appeared to be a window into a torchlit room where several Cait Sith were standing, most of them familiar to Kirito.

They were apparently familiar to Silica as well; she made a slight squeaking sound. "Lady Alicia."

Argo broke in before Alicia could speak. "Listen, I dunno exactly how long this spell will last but it's probably only a few minutes, so let's skip the introductions. You know someone who survived the Sallie raid. What did he tell you about the boss?" Kirito almost had to hide a grin; from the look on Alicia's face, she was caught between being chafed at Argo's behavior and knowing that her subordinate was probably the person best-suited to draw out the essential information quickly.

It wasn't the approach Kirito would've taken with Silica—or for that matter, the approach he had taken when he'd sought her out at Argo's behest—but if this communication spell was limited in duration, then considering the gravity of the information being exchanged it was understandable. He stood beside Silica as she tried to recall everything that her friend had said when he vented all of his the frustrations and shock at the failed raid, occasionally putting a comforting hand on her shoulder when Argo repeatedly interrupted with clarifying or redirecting questions.

"So lemme see if I got this," Argo said finally, glancing at Alicia as if trying to get a feel for how much time was left. When Alicia held up two fingers, she quickly turned back to the portal. "Boss is immune to damage until you solve a timed sequence puzzle. You have to hit it with four elements in the right sequence within about a second of each other, but every person who hits it with the right element gets instant aggro. And we don't know if he does anything different after that because the Sallies never got further than that."

Silica nodded.

"Well that sucks out loud," Alicia said succinctly. Kirito was inclined to agree. In the last few areas of Yggdrasil they'd begun to encounter mobs with strong elemental affinities, requiring more tactical thinking in terms of what kinds of magic to use; one of the reasons the Undines had beaten the Salamanders to taking down the last boss was that it had been resistant to fire.

But this was a huge leap in complexity beyond any boss mechanics they'd encountered thus far. There had to be something obvious that they were missing, some hidden strategy that would allow them to more easily bypass the damage immunity or mitigate the aggro spikes when working through the puzzle. It was hard for him to say for sure; Kirito wasn't specced for de-hate—there wasn't much point to trying to manage aggro as a solo player, and as a longsword user he didn't typically have to worry about drawing aggro with burst DPS during raids. And he didn't really understand the magic system intimately enough to think outside the box on this one; not the way Sasha did.

But from a game design standpoint, it stood to reason. The obvious solution bordered on Nintendo Hard in Kirito's opinion—on outright unfair, really. A common complaint in the beta had been that the magic system was just too difficult, that the words in even some of the lower-level spells were impossible to pronounce because they used sounds that weren't in the Japanese language—particularly consonants at the ends of words, or consonant clusters that were common to languages like English or Russian. Kirito had found otherwise; it took practice, but it was doable. Especially since there was even an icon beside each spell in your spellbook that demonstrated the pronunciation for you, complete with a karaoke-like feature that highlighted the romanized letters spelling out each syllable as the sound played.

He'd read a lot of forum posts complaining about this language-based difficulty and expressing skepticism that a system like this would be commercially viable in a subscription game. In retrospect, the bitter truth was obvious: Kayaba had always known that this was going to become a death game, and those stakes made it more akin to being dropped in a foreign country where you had to learn the local language in order to survive. People had learned quickly by necessity; matters of life and death were highly motivational. But that still didn't mean it was easy, and some people were simply only able to progress so far. Kirito himself had almost been one of them; it had taken him most of a month to be able to correctly pronounce the word jenagul for his basic «Static Decoy» spell.

It was, in a way, the tradeoff for how insanely powerful a really good mage could be. Weapon techniques were far more limited than most spells, but all you had to be able to do was learn to move your body into the starting position for the technique. Once you triggered the art that way, the System Assist would automatically move your body. It meant that virtually anyone could learn to use a melee weapon, no matter what their level of martial training or the limitations of their body had been in the real world.

But fair or not, some people were just better with languages than others, and that went a long way towards determining whether or not someone could play an effective mage. Kirito worried about what it meant, if boss strategies were now beginning to turn not only on whether or not your mages could learn to pronounce a soft th by rote memorization, but on whether or not there was anyone in your raid who could speak the language of magic.

Kirito realized he'd gotten lost in his thoughts when he felt Silica tugging at his sleeve and heard Argo raise her voice. "Sorry," he said quickly. "What did you say?"

"One minute," Alicia put in. "If either of you have anything to add, now's the time."

"I was just thinking about the boss strategy," Kirito said. "There are three parts to the puzzle: you have to figure out the sequence, because it changes every time. You have to hit the boss with four elements in the right order. And you have to keep the boss from killing the players who've hit it with the right elements."

"That's right," Thelvin said. "And that last part is the real sticking point. I think you could train people to pull off the spell timing, with enough practice. And if it were just protecting one person, that'd be one thing—but splitting the defense between four different casters, that's tough. To say nothing of getting the four of them coordinated enough to cast the right spells in the right sequence. I—"

"What if you only had to protect one person?" Kirito asked suddenly, interrupting.

"Impossible," Argo said. "One person can't cast four spells in a row that fast. You're talking about a window of maybe a second or less between hits."

"Not four spells," Kirito said. "One spell."

The pause after he said this was only a few beats, but given the limited time they had remaining and the urgency everyone felt, it seemed far longer. "There is no such spell," Argo said firmly. "Trust me on this: I talked to someone recently who knows more about the magic system than anyone else in this game, and there was no—"

"I know," Kirito said, breaking in again. "I told you about her work, but you're missing my point anyway. Maybe there isn't any spell that would let a single caster solve the puzzle. But if you knew enough about the language of magic, you might be able to create one. And then anyone with the right magic skills ought to be able to use it."

A few more precious seconds of the spell's duration ticked away in stunned silence.

"Find out what this woman knows," Alicia said crisply, sitting up a little straighter and seeming to unleash some reserve of pent-up energy as she reached a decision. "Thelvin, round up every clearer who isn't assigned to patrol duty for the next 48 hours and get them headed to Arun ASAP." Her eyes went back to Kirito and Silica, and she smiled at them. "Thanks, Kirito. Sorry about all that drama the last time you were here—I blame Klein. Silica, could you please stay in Arun for the time being? I want you to be able to brief Thelvin in person once everyone gets there. We may only get one shot at this, and you're the closest thing we have to secondhand information on how this boss works."

"You stick around too, Ki-bou," Argo said rapidly, leaning in front of Alicia so that she could still be seen around the shrinking event horizon of the viewing aperture between the two locations right up until the point where it closed. "I got a new job for you."

When the last of the shimmering portal thinned to an ultraviolet ribbon and collapsed into void with a sound like a cymbal played in reverse, Silica cocked her head at Kirito with confusion written on her young features. "Why does she call you Ki-bou?"


You can't choose your coworkers, Sakuya thought, a reminder she'd had to give herself more than once over the years. But you don't have to like them, just work with them.

It was the way she'd chosen to think about her role in the Sylph "Militia", as Skarrip liked to call the organized groups who performed both clearing duty and border security patrols. Like any other job she'd had in her short life, there were people she could see herself being friends with, and people she had to tolerate. She sometimes had to reminds herself to let go of the latter—to just focus on her job and write off the people who weren't worth the time and drama to deal with them.

If only she could do that with Sigurd. In her opinion, it was the influence of the Sylph clearer that had encouraged Skarrip to become more and more of a larper in the months since the game began, to allow himself to be drawn into the role until there were days when she wondered whether or not they really believed they were ruling over a realm of faries instead of just dancing bits of data on some madman's puppet strings.

"You still haven't answered the question I posed to you, my dear."

Every fiber of Sakuya's body and soul wished fervently at that moment that they weren't standing in the antechamber outside of Skarrip's study, well within the Safe Zone of Sylvain. Her fingers itched to bring her nodachi from its sheath and turn Sigurd into a spiral-cut ham, or at least the closest approximation that an ALO avatar could become. She pushed away the tempting but self-destructive urge with an effort of will and allowed her eyes to slide sideways just long enough to barely meet his gaze. "Yes I did, Sigurd," she said with deceptive calm. "Don't confuse an answer you don't like for one that hasn't been given." There was a calculated pause, and then just as he opened his mouth to speak she went on. "And I am not your 'dear'. I have a name."

"You told me, and I quote—"

"That I'm quite content leading my own clearing group," Sakuya put in, cutting him off before he could put his own spin on her words. "Shall I be plainer, then? I will follow your orders during raids. I will take your suggestions under advisement while we are clearing. I will listen to what advice you see fit to give as leader of the Militia. But I will not join your group, and I have no interest in being one of your fawning fangirls." She faced him directly now, tilting her head just a little as she raised her thin green eyebrows. "Is that answer sufficient for you?"

From Sigurd's expression, he didn't like that answer either—that, or something he'd eaten was disagreeable to him. "You needn't be so curt, milady. I was merely—"

She was spared whatever he was going to say when the intricately-carved cherrywood door panels slid to the side, drawn open by their leader's administrative assistant. "Lord Skarrip will see you now."

How generous of the man, Sakuya thought wryly as she stepped through the door, irrationally annoyed at Sigurd for falling into step beside her. She was well aware of what he was doing, whether he realized it or not; he was making it look as if she was there with him, as if they hadn't in fact been called there separately. Sigurd played little psychological games like that all the time with the people around him, which was a large part of why she found him so distasteful.

That, and his habit of talking to her yukata.

She buried all of this deep within her as their footsteps echoed across the hardwood floor, bringing them to face Skarrip across a desk which was littered with chess pieces that had been repurposed as markers for planning the makeup of their raid groups. "You have news for me, Sigurd?" Skarrip asked without looking up.

"As you expected, milord, there is unrest in Gattan. A Leprechaun merchant who just arrived from there says that there is great tension in the streets, and that he overheard many conversations amongst their clearers expressing skepticism that their leaders could defeat this Jotunn." He placed his palms on the edge of the desk and leaned over it; Skarrip's gaze lifted to meet his as his voice hissed with urgency. "The time is now. We must strike this boss while the Salamanders are demoralized, before they can regroup. It will be humiliating for Mortimer and Eugene, to have this prize taken from them right on the heels of their embarrassing failure on their first attempt."

"You will be unsurprised to find that I agree, Sigurd," Skarrip said as he straightened, smoothing back his dark bangs where they'd fallen forward. "As it so happens, I was delayed in receiving you because I was communicating with Lady Alicia. She has expressed to me an interesting proposition."

That got Sakuya's attention. As she herself straightened a little, Skarrip glanced her direction and nodded as he gestured towards the western-style chairs in front of the desk. "Which, yes, is part of the reason you are here, Sakuya. Please, both of you, have a seat."

Sakuya would've preferred to stand, or even sit in seiza, but it wasn't a battle worth fighting. A few deft finger motions at her menu unequipped her weapon, which disappeared from her back as she settled into a chair.

"I am informed that this boss requires a strategy revolving around specific spells. Since the Cait Sith are, as a whole, less magically-inclined than those of us with a direct elemental affinity, they seek a cooperative raid with our clearing group. In exchange for the participation of our mage groups, the Cait Sith propose to share all that they have learned about this boss."

Sakuya nodded thoughtfully. "A fair bargain, assuming they keep their end of it and have something worth knowing."

"That was precisely the question I wished to ask you, Sakuya," Skarrip said as he laced his fingers together on the desk before him. "You know this girl who leads the Cait Sith, far better than from my limited interactions with her. Can she be trusted? I have heard nothing of any Cait Sith attempt at attacking this boss, not even a scouting party. I am skeptical of what could she know that could justify sharing the spoils of this raid with them."

"It's not so much what she knows," Sakuya said after a few moments with her thoughts. "It's what The Rat knows."

"Ahh," Skarrip said with a sly smile. "How foolish of me to overlook their friendship. The Rat returns my messages, but she has ventured to know nothing of this raid thus far. Of course she would lie for her friend and her own race."

"I doubt it," Sakuya said, daring to contradict her leader. "I think you'll find that if you read whatever she wrote to you, it is literally true. Argo lives by her reputation. I have not known her to traffic in bullshit."

"And you know her so well?" Sigurd asked, voice suspicious.

Sakuya sighed. Was there no end to the man's unpleasantness? "No, I don't. But like most veteran players with sense, I've bought information from her or from one of her proxies." And unlike you, I'm a decent judge of character.

"As have I," Skarrip said. It was the first time he'd ever admitted that outright, but it was entirely unsurprising—like her, he'd been in the beta, and she would've thought less of his competence if she'd learned that he had never once sought out Argo out for intel. "In any event, I'm inclined to agree with Sakuya's assessment. The fact that Argo is withholding information I take as a sign that the offer is backed by substance. The Cait Sith have their own interests in mind, and that is as it should be; self-interest is a reliable motivation. I see no gain for them in pretending to have information they do not—it would risk losses for their race as surely as ours. Wouldn't you agree, Sigurd?"

"With reservations," he said, sounding as if it was an enormous concession.

"If you'd care to sit this one out," Sakuya said with carefully-calibrated sweetness, "I will be happy to lead this raid."

Thunderclouds gathered on Sigurd's face. "That's quite all right."

"You sure? If you have reservations, you may wish to make your peace with them. A cooperative raid like this is no place for misgivings about your allies."

"I lead the Militia, Sakuya," he said coldly, "If I want your counsel, be assured that I will ask for it."

It was a phenomenon that never ceased to amaze her—the way some men stopped pretending to be nice when you made it clear you weren't interested in them. You could learn a lot about who they really were then. She returned her attention to Skarrip without acknowledging Sigurd's dismissive reply, wondering for a moment why their leader allowed the bickering to continue at all when he could shut it down with a word. "I assume we'll be departing for Arun at once, then?"

Skarrip nodded. "Go and gather your group; leave as soon as you're ready. Sigurd, stay a moment."

As the door slid shut behind Sakuya, she entertained herself with various explanations for what business Skarrip might have to discuss with Sigurd behind closed doors. Particularly cheerful were the fantasies about Sigurd getting a large piece chewed out of his ass for his attitude. Preferably in a way that was impossible to heal and took a long time to regenerate, all the while leaving him ass-deficient in a way that would be impossible to hide. His fangirls would probably love it.

She knew such a thing was unlikely; he and Skarrip were too close. But a girl could dream. She was still enjoying those daydreams when the courier stopped her in the grand hall just before leaving the building.

The Imp tapped her shoulder briefly to bring her out of her reverie, and wordlessly held out a scroll. Sakuya rolled her eyes, but accepted it with thanks; the man was just doing what he'd been paid to do by some larper. Why they didn't just send a PM, she didn't know—she allowed messages from people who weren't on her friends list, figuring that it wasn't hard to block someone if they annoyed her. She unrolled the parchment and scanned the short message written there.

「Watch S. He's up to something.」

It was unsigned. When she looked up, the Imp was gone. She grimaced, turning the message over to see if there was anything written on the reverse side; there wasn't. She tapped the sheet of parchment once, but there was no "creator" listed the way there would have been on any other player-crafted item like armor or weapons. That meant it was either a quest reward, an item drop, or purchased at significant expense from an NPC; non-crafted writing materials weren't cheap.

Sakuya was both impressed and annoyed at the pretentiousness of it all. Who the hell wastes that kind of money on a useless message like this, just to be completely untraceable?

She wondered who "S" was in this case. Skarrip? Sigurd? It wouldn't surprise her if either of them had plans that she wasn't aware of, or that said plans were shady in some way. What would surprise her was if the person behind this message had any actual knowledge of them. More likely it was one of Skarrip's political rivals trying to stir up noise—or maybe just someone trolling her.

Still, she was about to head out on a dangerous raid with Sigurd, and she trusted him about as far as… well no, not really at all. And there was always the chance that whoever sent this message—despite having money to burn and seeing too many spy movies as a kid—was actually on the level. So it wasn't really out of her way to keep an eye on him while on this mission. In fact, it might almost be called prudent.

Sakuya crumpled up the parchment and dropped it on the ground, a faint tinkle of glass playing as the item's durability expired and it dispersed into blue-green particles. "Tell me something I don't know," she said to nobody in particular as she headed towards the tavern where her clearers were gathered.

Chapter Text

"A new player begins with two empty «skill slots», which are used to equip the skills that allow them to wield weapons, use magic, and employ other useful abilities. This does not include any skills granted to them as racial bonuses, which are considered «extra skills» that do not consume a skill slot. A player receives their third skill slot at Level 10, and another at every tenth level thereafter. Choosing a skill to equip is done by tapping the icon of the empty slot and choosing from a list of known skills. Such choices are not permanent—a player is not locked into the use of a skill they find does not suit their playstyle, and they are free to experiment. But unequipped skills suffer a gradual decay in their accumulated progress towards the next tier, making a 'jack of all trades' approach impractical..."
Alfheim Online manual , «Skill Slots»

4 May 2023
Day 180 - Late Evening

Tetsuo couldn't keep it in anymore. The question had been eating him alive all day, and it was one he'd never gotten the chance to ask. At least, there had never been anyone to whom he felt close enough to be able to ask. It wasn't the sort of thing you hoped for, not unless you were a complete sociopathic jerk—but now that it had happened, it was right there, and not knowing was driving him to distraction.

As he sat down to join a collection of other Salamander clearers who were having dinner at the same inn, he glanced over the table nervously, then dropped his eyes again. He reached up and opened his game menu, drilling down into his inventory and looking for a particular food item. There were times when he wished ALO's UI would let you filter your inventory to only look at particular kinds of items. You could sort by item type or name, but that sometimes still left him spinning the vertically-scrolling list of items like a roulette wheel, eyes glazing over as he tried to find the particular potion or crafting component he was looking for.

He looked up again, taking courage from the fact that the inventory menu still hung there in the air before him like a veil. He knew that no one else could see his UI, which meant that it wasn't as if it was blocking anyone from seeing him or his expression—but it blocked his view, and that at least meant he could pretend otherwise.

"What was it like?" he finally blurted out, leaning over the table.

Heathcliff raised his eyes from the plate of kebabs loaded with grilled vegetables and drake meat which he was beginning to attack, a look of confusion briefly flickering across his features. "What?"

There was a pause as Tetsuo raggedly swept his menu closed, meeting Heathcliff's gaze for only a moment. "Being a Remain Light," he said before his nerve could leave him.

There wasn't a whole lot of conversation at the tables around them, but what little there was ground to a halt. Tetsuo was keenly aware of the uncomfortable looks from some of the clearers from other groups, a number of whom he didn't know very well.

"What?" he said, in an entirely different tone than Heathcliff had moments before, but no less confused. Perhaps even a touch defensive.

"You're not supposed to ask," said Denkao, an older Salamander from their group whose receding red hairline reminded Tetsuo a lot of a car salesman that he had once seen on a TV commercial. A few other clearers at a nearby table got up and left, as if their appetites had fled them as quickly as they'd fled the boss that had owned them earlier.

"Huh?" Tetsuo said, heat rising to his cheeks in a sudden wave. "How am I supposed to know these things?"

"You just do, okay?" Denkao pressed, giving him a long sidewise look down the table until his view was blocked by Heathcliff leaning back over his plate and sampling some of the well-peppered drake meat. It occurred to Tetsuo suddenly that while he didn't know some of these guys very well, what he did know was that they—like him—all knew people who had died that morning. He abruptly felt like a complete ass.

Their group leader paused before resuming his previous activity: bringing his food to his mouth. "I don't mind," he said, then used his teeth to pull the last of the greens off of the end. The wooden skewer, bare now, burst into blue-green particles.

Those words sucked all of the wind out of the argument. There was an awkward silence for a little under a minute as Heathcliff slowly chewed and finished the bite he'd taken, chewing contentedly as if they weren't all discussing his near-death experience. When he finished he glanced across the table at Tetsuo. "There's a message in the notification area at the top of your HUD that says «You are Dead», and in the center of your vision in large numbers is a one-minute countdown to the expiration of your Remain Light, surrounded by a circular progress indicator. Your avatar disappears, but you can still see and hear what's going on around you, and look around in all directions. You're inside the light, at the center of it, but it's not blinding."

Tetsuo didn't understand how Heathcliff could describe it so technically. That one-minute countdown wasn't just to the expiration of his Remain Light—it was the expiration of his life! When that countdown reached zero, you wouldn't need a system message telling you that you were dead, you would be dead as the Nerve Gear—

He was fascinated and repulsed at the same time.

"Good thing I got to you in time," Denkao said, grinning and punching Heathcliff in the shoulder. The silver-haired Salamander gave their healer a look that managed to be both grateful and tolerant, no doubt through his long exposure to the other man's rough humor.

"Which you will no doubt never allow me to forget," Heathcliff remarked graciously, provoking a solemn nod from Denkao. The solemnity was somewhat marred by the wink that followed.

"Was it scary?" Tetsuo asked, emboldened by Heathcliff's willingness to discuss the matter and unable to rein in his curiosity.

Heathcliff seemed to have to stop and think about it, brow furrowing a little. "Not really," he said calmly. "I just remember thinking that it was ironic."

Tetsuo must have looked as confused as he felt. Heathcliff waved a hand at the air. "Not important," he said. "Anyway, I believe that before dinner was served we were brainstorming strategies for this boss."

"Why bother?" Denkao asked. "You don't really think we're taking another go at it, do you? After pulling us back to Gattan for the night? After the losses we took?" He waved a hand at the rest of the group, who wore the bearing and expressions of those who had seen the elephant—who'd had a taste of war and seen death, albeit death sanitized by the use of glowing red particle effects rather than explicit gore. "Do we look like we're in any shape to go back there?"

"Not tonight, no," Heathcliff said mildly. "But once we've had time to restructure our raid group from reserves and rethink our approach, the time may come. We've done remarkably well at keeping the details from getting out, and while another race may make the attempt, they are no more certain to succeed than we were." Tetsuo could see nodding heads around the inn room as a few more clearers trickled in, and this didn't surprise him despite how weary they must all be—Heathcliff had been prepared to give his own life to save the fragmenting remains of the raid, and there was more than person in the room whose look of fervent agreement as much as declared that they'd follow him right back in there if he asked.

"He's right," Corvatz said gruffly as he dropped stiffly into a seat on the other side of Heathcliff, the shifting plates of his articulated plate armor rattling against the chair back. "We need this victory. We've sacrificed too much to this boss; it belongs to us. And one way or another, we'll do whatever it takes to put it down. Anyone who thinks we ought to just roll over and let someone else have a turn is a fool and a coward."

"I'm sure Eugene's got something in the works," said an unfamiliar clearer from a nearby table.

The expression on Corvatz's face as he twisted around to regard the speaker was measured contempt. "Have you heard anything? Because I haven't. I'll wager Heathcliff hasn't either. None of the group leaders have."

The target of his ire frowned. "Well they're trying to keep a lid on what happened there. Maybe this is just another part of that secrecy."

"Don't be so credulous. Why would we be called back to Gattan if they were planning on going at the boss again right away?" Corvatz snorted, picking up a steaming kebab skewer of his own that looked hot enough to cause HP loss. "We could've just as easily rested in Arun for as long as necessary, so that we could set out immediately. Instead we're here with our thumbs up our asses."

As Tetsuo listened to the murmurs of assent rippling through the clearers, the smell of lamb slow-cooked with some kind of garlic and herb gravy wafted over to him from the table where a few of the surviving mages sat. The savory aroma pulled his attention in that direction just in time for one of their number to arrive. "If your thumb's up your ass, Corvatz, you might want to wash your hands before dinner," said Pyrin as he seated himself, pushing the sleeves of his embroidered crimson robes back so as not to marinate them in the stew that he was about to eat. "Now let's review what we know about the boss."

Tetsuo sighed. It was going to be a long night. He sought distraction in his inventory menu once more.


As Kirito and Silica touched down outside of Sasha's church and trod up the path, he reflected that deja vu was a funny thing. Most players found that to be part of adjusting to being trapped in Alfheim Online; the fact that so many of the NPCs, techniques and other mechanics in the world had precisely-defined animations and appearances meant that it was inevitable to feel some sense of a repeated experience on a regular basis. The artificial, procedural nature of the world and its inexorably consistent logic resulted in a pattern of coincidences that could make you swear you'd seen or heard something before, especially in the midst of battle.

It was because you had. You learned to tune it out.

But this time was different in its sameness to the past. This was the real thing; Kirito was struck that it was only about two and a half weeks prior that he and Silica had been on a quest of sorts to this place to see this person—albeit under very different circumstances. The last had been a time of conflict and grief, a race against time to revive her pet water drake.

This time was pure business. After the Moonlight Mirror spell was over, he'd ended up in an exchange of PMs with Argo that resulted in a new contract: being where Argo couldn't be, talking to someone she didn't have the time deal with firsthand, since he was already in Arun. An up-front payment, with more offered if Sasha created the spell needed for the boss.

It was easy money, and Kirito was perfectly fine with that; he had been farming mats for an expensive upgrade and could use a sudden infusion of cash. The sense of deja vu began to flake away as differences continued to present themselves—this time they walked right in rather than knocking, Kirito announcing himself with gomen kudasai while Silica's loud tadaima rang out; the orphanage had become a second home for her.

They found Sasha in her study, hands moving in the air in the familiar swoops and taps of someone manipulating ALO's menu system. As the two of them paused just outside the open door, she made a final gesture with her index finger and the wireframe outline of a ceiling-high boofshelf began to trace in front of her. The glowing frame filled in rapidly with texture and volume, and a moment later the piece of furniture became fully manifested in the world, settling a few millimeters to the floor with a faint thump.

"Welcome back, Silica," Sasha said as she leaned against the new bookshelf and shimmied it to and fro in an effort to move it snugly flush with the wall. "And you as well, Kirito; I'm sorry, I didn't see you there. How are the two of you this evening?" Pina, Silica's water drake, made a petulant trill as he glided into the room and took perch at the top of the unoccupied, high-backed chair at her desk. She laughed. "And you too, Pina."

Kirito returned her friendliness in kind. "I'm good, Sasha, thanks. Need a hand with that?"

As he said this, Sasha put her heel against the edge of the bookshelf and shoved it into the corner with finality. The sudden movement and loud noise caused Pina to startle briefly; he launched himself and made as if to land on Silica's head or shoulder the way Kirito had seen him do shortly after his revival, but then reconsidered and returned to his previous spot. Kirito couldn't imagine how the pet did that; he didn't look like he'd fit on her head.

"Got it, thanks," Sasha said, smiling and dusting her hands for effect. The smile wavered just a little then, as if something had occurred to her, and she asked, "Is there something I can help you with, Kirito?"

She probably just had the same sense of deja vu that I did, Kirito thought to himself. He smiled disarmingly and held up both hands palms-out, as if trying to reassure a wary opponent that he wasn't waving around anything sharp or heavy. "I hope there is. I've got a client who needs to have a custom spell crafted in order to take down a tough boss, and they're willing to pay. Does that qualify as something you can help with?"

The sudden tension seemed to fade from Sasha's face; her smile had no effort in it now. He was, essentially, offering to pay her for indulging in her favorite hobby. She might have done it for free just to have an excuse to explain it to someone.

"Oh, I imagine I can try," Sasha said with a mix of pride and amusement. She stroked her menu again; a book materialized in her hand. One by one she continued doing this, occasionally stopping to rearrange them. The spines of these books each bore a single three-character word—majutsugo; literally, "magic-using-language"—followed by distinctions of number or topic. Kirito could take a stab at how much it had cost her to have those printed; he was glad it was her hobby and not his. "What kind of effect are you trying to produce?"

At this, Silica stepped forward and began to repeat a story that she'd probably told quite a few times now, the efficiency and clarity of it helped by the paring-down it had gotten when Argo focused in on the most essential details. Kirito helped out a few times when there were words for game mechanics or strategies that Silica didn't know, but in essence it wasn't a very difficult strategy to explain—just a pain to execute.

After Sasha slid the last of these books into their new home, she flicked her hand at the air to dismiss her menu and tapped at her lower lip while she thought. "So as far as you know," she began slowly, "There are only the four elements, and it doesn't matter what kind of spell you attack it with—as long as that spell is of the correct element?"

"Only the four elements," Kirito confirmed. Then he looked at Silica.

"I don't know if the kind of spell matters, or how strong it is," the girl said, amber tail beginning to lash nervously until she hugged it around herself. "He didn't really say. I could PM him and ask."

Sasha made a thoughtful sound. "Please do that. Well, if it doesn't matter which spell you use—I'm assuming it would have to be a Malign spell in order to target a mob—that shouldn't be so terribly difficult. You just need to know the order in which you want to apply the effects… and I think in order to get them to apply consecutively rather than simultaneously, you'd have to inflect them to the Sequential form."

Kirito stepped in before she could turn the discussion into a grammar lesson. "The sequence is different each time," he said as Silica drew open her menu and began typing a message that Kirito assumed was aimed at Tetsuo.

"Is that so?" Sasha said, sounding quite a bit less confident. "Well that's different. You'd have to know the sequence first in order to construct the incantation."

"Could you just prepare a spell for each possible sequence?" Kirito asked.

Sasha gave him a look. "Do you know how many permutations you're talking about? Even assuming the best case, which is that all four elements are always represented in the sequence, and that they never repeat."

Kirito paused to do the math in his head; it didn't take but a moment to realize how foolish the question had been. "Oh." He hadn't thought about that other possibility, either—he'd been operating on the assumption that the sequence would always be those four elements, just shuffled.

"And your mages will have to learn all of them. Or whoever is going to be casting it will, anyway."

"Yeah, I'm not sure if that would work," Kirito said, thinking it through and beginning to see the scope of the problem. "Especially since they're already on their way—they should get to Arun later tonight, and are probably planning on hitting the boss first thing in the morning. I don't know if you can get their mages to memorize twenty-odd new spells on that kind of short notice—at least, not well enough to count on it in the heat of combat."

"I could teach them enough of the language to construct the incantations themselves," Sasha began. "But then… no. Not under pressure like that, I see now." Kirito knew that she did—he'd seen her create spells under fire before, and he could get some idea of how well you'd have to know the language before you could do that without a lot of practice.

They both seemed to take this to its logical conclusion at the same time. "I can't," she said as Kirito began to open his mouth. "Even if I was high enough level, which I'm almost certainly not, I have a prior obligation. I've been promising the children that I'll take them on a field trip into one of the newbie areas below Arun as an incentive for their studies, and we have that planned for tomorrow after breakfast. We're bringing lunches and everything." When Sasha saw Kirito's smile, she laughed a little. "Yes, they're doing well. Really well, in fact. I'm amazed at how quickly they're picking it up, although I really shouldn't be."

Kirito almost laughed, too—but not for the same reason. "The newbie area, you mean the Upper Sewers?" The memory that floated up wasn't what little time he'd spent there in the beta, but rather flashes of the launch day, when he and Klein had spent a few hours questing and grinding in that area as he showed the Salamander man the ropes.

Sasha nodded. "Sachi is going, but although she's old enough and quite overleveled for the area, I'm not sure she's ready to take on the responsibility of leading them outside the Safe Zone."

"Maybe I can help," Kirito said. "I need to go to the Lower Sewers in order to farm components for an upgrade anyway. I was planning on doing that tonight, but I wasn't hired to go on the raid, so I could just as easily do it tomorrow morning instead. I can check in on Sachi and the kids periodically, make sure everything's alright. There aren't any monsters above level 5, and you'd have to go where I'm going in the Lower Sewers to find those."

"And I can go with her," Silica said, speaking up finally and to Kirito's surprise. "We've partied together a lot now, and my level's a little higher than hers. I know she won't be scared if we're out together." Pina chirped affirmatively from his perch on the back of Sasha's chair, lifting his head and spreading his wings in a way that made the chair sway from the shifting center of gravity.

Sasha's eyes widened. Another time, he supposed she might've been skeptical of Kirito's fitness to protect anyone simply because of his age, but she had to know by now how much stronger he was. "You would do that?" she asked. "I mean, I'd want them to check in—or for you to check in on them—about every fifteen minutes or so. They can't get into much trouble down there at their levels, but they still need supervision, and I'd feel a lot better if it was someone who's been there before."

Kirito weighed the matter. A raid of two to four groups—even newbie children—would encounter nothing in that area that posed any threat to them, especially with comparatively higher-level players like Sachi and Silica there. Argo hadn't said how to get Sasha to help them, and up to this point Kirito had assumed it just boiled down to to getting her to make the kind of custom spell he'd been speculating about. Now he was proposing to get her to possibly participate in the raid itself. It hadn't been said explicitly, but really, there weren't a whole lot of other options with a high likelihood of success. All they'd have to do is protect her.

And wasn't that the trick. Argo had implied that Alicia had some solution already in mind for protecting the caster, but even a level-appropriate player wouldn't be able to take too many direct blows from a gateway boss. Kirito didn't know what level Sasha was, but he doubted she'd survive more than one hit, or even splash damage from an AOE. They really had no way of knowing the full scope of the boss's abilities yet.

This line of thought seemed to have occurred to her as well. While Kirito was still thinking it over, Sasha added, "What exactly would you be asking me to do, anyway? I can't imagine my level is high enough to fight this boss, even if I knew how."

"You don't have to fight it," Kirito said. "I need to send a message to the Cait Sith and ask if they're prepared to do it this way. But if you know how to make the necessary spell on the fly, then all you have to do is wait for the raid leader to figure out the sequence, then cast your spell to break the damage shield protecting the boss. The clearers should be able to take it from there, and they'd protect you." That too, at least, was true. They'd try.

Sasha stepped back from the new bookcase and regarded the collection of books she'd just placed there, rubbing her chin and tracing a finger around her lower lip in a series of gestures that Kirito knew meant she was deep in thought. He could guess at some of those thoughts—she had a huge responsibility on her shoulders, and it was one he was considering sharing for a short time.

"Are you sure it's safe?" Sasha asked. There was no quaver in her voice, but he knew what had to be weighing on her.

"It's a raid on a gateway boss," Kirito said in perfect honesty. "I'm sure it's not safe. What I'm sure of, though, is that if you agreed to do this, Alicia would do everything in her power to protect you. I know her—she's a good person." Indeed, she'd treated him remarkably decently despite his being a Spriggan, in part because Argo vouched for him. He was at liberty to come and go in Freelia just like any other player, and most of the Caits didn't harbor much resentment or bias towards Spriggans—or at least, most of them he'd run into were fair-minded enough to give him a chance. That kind of attitude came in part, he knew, from the top down.

"I'll need to talk to Sachi," Sasha said at last. "Make sure she's willing to go to the Sewers without me. And I'd need certain assurances, in case things go wrong… in case something happens to me." Kirito winced. "It could happen," she said. "If I do this, I'm going to ask your client to make sure that we don't have to worry about keeping the orphanage going."

The mercenary smile she donned then as she delivered her terms unnerved Kirito, if only because it was the first time he'd ever seen any expression like that on her face. "Since I first moved here, I've been renting this property from the city, so the game automatically deducts a certain amount of Yuld from my bank account every week to pay for it—and it's not cheap. If Sachi and I don't have to go out hunting for drops to sell and coin to pay our rent, that's more time I can spend with the children and my research."

Kirito nodded, relaxing. It was a fair request, and one of which he entirely approved. And he knew that Alicia could afford it; her treasury was ample and growing, what with the commerce taxes she brought in from her own people. Beast Taming was a lucrative skill—tamed pets like mounts could be sold and their loyalty transferred to another player, allowing them to be used in a limited fashion, although only a Cait Sith with their native skill could develop Rapport with a pet and use them to their full potential.

"All right," he said, having mulled it over. "How many weeks of rent should I ask for from Alicia, and how much per week?"

"I think you misunderstood me," Sasha said, hands set on her hips. "I want her to provide the money needed to buy the property outright."


In Klein's opinion, the world was unfair and possessed of a reliable desire to thwart him in the same way that a grain of sand under the waistband conspired to ruin your day at the beach. He and his guild had just, after a long journey with few breaks other than the resting of wings, finally arrived at Freelia for a little bit of R&R—and now they were being asked to turn right back around and go do exactly what he least wanted to do in all the world right now.

"It'll be fun," Alicia promised. "This boss has a really interesting trick to it, and I just know how much you love a good challenge."

"No, I already know the trick to the boss," Klein said. "We scouted it for Eugene this morning. It sucks."

Alicia's eyes narrowed at him. "You what?"

Klein narrowly restrained himself from a full-on facepalm. "It was just a job," he argued. "We were already in Arun, and I got a message from Eugene this morning asking me if my group was free."

"You could've told me," she said in a suddenly frosty tone. "You know we've been after a win. Argo and I have been busting our asses today trying to get intel on this boss, and now you're here telling me that you were the scouting party? For the Salamanders?"

Now Klein did draw his hand over his face. "I got the PM right before the job, okay? What was I supposed to do, turn it down?" He had another unvoiced, uncomfortable thought: that if he had tipped off Alicia and they'd made a play for the boss, it might've been her people going in blind and getting wiped.

When he got no immediate reply, he went on. "After that we were busting ass to try to get here as quickly as possible, and I didn't want to warn you I was coming. I wanted it to be a surprise."

Alicia exchanged a look with Argo, and rolled her eyes dramatically, ears back. She marched up to him and stood on her tiptoes, pecking a small kiss on his lips and then poking him in the ribs with one outstretched finger. "You're sweet. And exasperating. Now come on; it's going to take you hours to get back to Arun, and you need to get there in time to get some sleep before the raid tomorrow."

"I haven't agreed to go," Klein protested manfully. "And I'd still have to talk it over with the rest of the group."

Alicia folded her arms looking from Klein to his friends and back. They all shuffled in place as if waiting in line at the doctor's office. "Please? I really need you guys there. Especially now that I know the first-hand experience you have! We've got a strategy that will work, really it will."

Klein looked over his shoulder at the others from his guild, seeking backup. He knew all of them had to be as worn out as he was, and couldn't be looking forward to facing that boss again. Maybe Alicia was right, and that with the right strategy it was doable—but that didn't mean it sounded fun.

Issin wasn't there; he was off to track down some of the friends he made when he'd been a part of Thelvin's clearing group in the early days of the game. None of the rest said anything, but they looked vaguely uncomfortable. Klein could guess at why.

"Look, Alicia," Klein said, "we just finished a really long haul after a rough morning and we're all beat… I don't know if I could ask my guys to go through—"

He stopped as Alicia stepped in and stood on her toes again, this time as she leaned up and cupped a hand, beginning to whisper in his ear. Being somewhere in the neighborhood of dinnertime, It was a little loud in the central market, and he had to ask her to repeat more than a few things before he was certain that he'd heard correctly.

"Leader?" said Dynamm from behind him. "Just so you know, your ears match your hair."

Klein barely heard him. He looked down at Alicia, wide-eyed as his jaw worked. "Promise?" he asked.

"Promise," she said with a look that was made of pure elemental flame.

Before the word finished passing her lips, Klein turned around and clapped his hands, stepping towards his group and snaking his arms around the shoulders of Dynamm and Harry. "We're buddies, right?"

"Klein," Harry said, "what did she—?"

"Don't ask," Klein said. "We're buddies, right? All of us? And you know if you guys really needed something, like a tough quest or an epic mount, I'd totally have your back?"

The sound of laughter from behind him triggered defensiveness in Klein; he let go of his guildmates and craned his head around, expecting to see the two Cait Sith girls losing it at his expense. But it was only Argo, and she was cracking up as she tried to keep her hand steady enough to set her UI visible while remaining upright on both feet; a moment after the awkward stabbing motions a series of translucent amber-colored windows appeared in front of her, and she beckoned Alicia over.

"She what?" Alicia's voice shot into a high soprano range at the end of the second word as she finished reading the message over Argo's shoulder. "Oh my god, that greedy little—"

Argo's laughter continued; if anything it intensified at Alicia's own reaction. The brown-haired Cait Sith info broker shook as she tried to suffocate the laughter down to the level of snickering.

"But fifteen—that's freaking ridiculous; do you know what kind of gear I could buy for our clearing groups with that kind of money?"

"You know you can afford it," Argo said, having downgraded her snickers to grinning like an idiot. "Come on, that's good PR if nothing else, and there's an election in a few days. I can totally make sure word of your generous charity gift gets out."

"Um, Alicia," Klein said, hesitant to interrupt. "I talked to my guys, and you got a deal. We're going. On the raid." He looked back over his shoulder and mouthed please. The chorus of snickers, grins and eye-rolling from them told him two things: that they'd do it, and that he'd pay for it somehow.

Totally worth it.

"Oh good," Alicia said, eyes flashing as she blew him a kiss. "Mwah. Thanks. Why are you still here?"

A few moments later, he wasn't.


「I'm sorry,」 Tetsuo wrote. 「I shouldn't even be telling you this much, and please don't tell anyone where you heard this. As far as I know the type of spell doesn't matter—I hit it with a basic Wind Blast spell once. But for all I know that could change.」

Tetsuo looked up from his message window. Most of the clearers had left; the ones who remained were largely senior and veteran members like Heathcliff and Corvatz. Tetsuo supposed he himself qualified as a veteran at this point; the notion struck him as absurd. Silica had very disconcerting timing; she'd chosen to PM him with questions about a boss far above her level. What was unnerving about the timing was that it was the same subject the clearers around him were discussing at the moment.

"I still think there's a correlation between the order of the attacks in its pattern, and the sequence," said Pyrin. "I couldn't prove it without going back there, but what I remember fits."

Heathcliff nodded. "A reasonable possibility," he said. "It's logical to assume the boss was designed in a way that allows clever players to solve the puzzle other than through trial and error."

Tetsuo's eyes dropped back to the window and the virtual keyboard hanging in the air in front of him, just above his cleared plate. 「Look, you're not going on a raid to this boss, are you? Please say you're not—you're way too low level for it.」

He hesitated, then hit Send.

It just didn't make any sense to him. What possible interest could Silica have in prying into these kinds of details? He'd ranted to her when she'd seen him and asked what happened, but he didn't really expect her to be able to answer a quiz about it—she'd just been there when he needed someone to unload on.

Now Sasha, he thought, I could understand if it'd been her. This puzzle's right up her alley, with the whole magic thing. In fact—

Tetsuo sat bolt upright in his chair, eyes wide and mouth hanging half-open as if he'd been prepared to yell. He caught himself before his epiphany could result in an embarrassing outburst; he'd already had one of those tonight.

Heathcliff noticed. He pulled his attention away from the discussion that was going back and forth between Pyrin and Corvatz—although the temperature of the "discussion" was starting to rise enough to warrant reclassification as an argument. Corvatz was the only survivor of the group he had led to the raid; Pryin had come dangerously close to touching upon that fact. Tetsuo's group leader tilted his head towards him. "Something to add?"

Flustered, Tetsuo leaned across the table and beckoned Heathcliff closer. "I was just thinking," he said quietly, trying not to draw any more attention to himself as Heathcliff leaned in. "I know someone who knows a lot about the ALO magic system. She's been studying it as if it was a real language, and all. I'd ask her if she had any ideas about how to beat this boss, but we're not supposed to talk to anyone else about it, right?"

Heathcliff looked very interested all of a sudden, and gave him a nod at the last bit. "At least for now," he said, matching Tetsuo's soft tones. "Presently our biggest advantage is that we're the only ones who have any practical experience with this boss. We have the only firsthand knowledge, and we should maintain that advantage as long as possible." A brief pause. "That said, your friend's area of study is quite interesting, you know. She might be on to something."

"So do you think I ought to send her a discreet message? I don't want to get her involved, but she might have—"

A sharp whistle tore the air and stopped conversations. Tetsuo and Heathcliff looked down the table towards where Corvatz was sitting. "I just got a message," he said. "We're going to regroup in Arun tomorrow afternoon at fourteen hundred. That means setting out first thing in the morning. What were you two talking about?"

Before Tetsuo could stop him, Heathcliff answered. "Tetsuo seems to be acquainted with someone who has a keen understanding of the magic system. It's possible that her approach might hold the key to defeating this boss."

"I don't know if I'd go that far," Tetsuo said quickly. "I mean, Sasha just studies the magic language, that's all. She's been using her notes to teach it to the kids at the orphanage lately. She's not raid material—her level's way too low, and she doesn't take sides in the faction battles."

If he'd expected that to dampen Corvatz's uncomfortable sudden interest, it did anything but. "If she can give us an edge in this fight," he said fiercely, "then we require her cooperation. You'll talk to her when we get to Arun, Tetsuo. In fact, you're going to take me to her so I can find out for myself if she knows anything of value."

Panic flared in Tetsuo, giving him the sensation of goosebumps he knew his avatar didn't actually have. "I can't do that," he insisted, cursing himself for ever saying anything at all. "You don't understand, she's not a combat mage or anything, she's just a teacher. And she's my friend, I can't ask her to get involved."

"Heathcliff, tell your boy to play ball with us," Corvatz said, eyes flickering towards the silver-haired group leader. "I don't think he understands what's at stake here."

"I think he understands just fine," Heathcliff said smoothly. "Which is why I think he'll understand that there's no harm in simply asking her a few polite questions, since we're going to be there anyway. I'll go with you—I might like to meet this person myself."

Tetsuo squeezed his eyes shut, willing the world to rewind about two minutes so that he could redo it without the part where he started running his big mouth. "I'll ask her," he said miserably. "But I can't guarantee she'll be willing or able to help."

Heathcliff nodded as he rose from the table, a wan smile playing at his lips. "Then we'll make sure to leave a little early tomorrow morning, so that we have time to stop and visit your friend on our way. Get some rest, now."

As Heathcliff turned and departed the inn, Tetsuo felt a large presence standing over him where he sat. He turned and looked as Corvatz leaned over and spoke to him quietly, each word a blow despite the soft delivery.

"If she doesn't know anything, then she doesn't know anything," Corvatz said, hand falling heavily on Tetsuo's shoulder. His voice dropped to a deadly whisper as his grip tightened. "But if she does, you'd better make sure she's not helping anyone but us."

By the time Tetsuo recovered enough composure to stop trembling and look up from the table, he was alone in the inn. There'd been no need for older Salamander to finish the thought that lay at the end of his warning.

Or I will.


His business concluded, Kirito stopped at the door to say his goodbyes before leaving the church. "You're staying here tonight, right?"

Silica nodded. "Sachi-neesan and I have a field trip in the morning, remember?" she said brightly. "We have a room to share here now, so I don't even have to pay for an inn when I'm in Arun!"

"You two enjoy that," Kirito said with a smile, imagining the chaos and girliness that the two of them were going to get up to that night. "I'm on your friends list, so if you guys need anything tomorrow, I'll be in the next zone over—you should be able to see my location and find me in a matter of minutes. I'll check in once in a while, make sure you aren't having too much fun."

Silica giggled and pitched her hand in a vigorous wave. "Good night, Kirito. See you in the morning!"

One of the things Kirito liked most about being a solo player in Alfheim was that most of the time, he was free to do whatever he wanted. He didn't have a duty to any faction or group, and it wasn't hard for him to grind money fighting high-level mobs, so there wasn't any real pressure for him to need to do anything for day-to-day living expenses. It meant that once he'd finished whatever quest or job he'd chosen to take on, he had the freedom to do whatever he wanted with the time left.

It occurred to him that now that he'd finished the work he'd contracted to do for Argo, he was left with a night of unexpected leisure time. The farming with which he'd been planning to fill the evening was going to happen tomorrow instead, and with the location of the boss room known now, there wasn't any progression-related questing or clearing that needed to be done.

He decided to wander the streets of Arun.

The first time he'd returned to Arun after launch day, it had felt strangely empty to him. During the beta, the fact that only two thousand players were participating meant that most of the population focused itself around the World Tree. And on that first day, the entire starting player base of the game was in the city. By comparison, it took time for people to make the journey and begin to trickle into the neutral capital of Alfheim; he had been one of the trail blazers.

Now, though… the streets teemed with life, in some places around the clock. It was hard to take any kind of accurate measure, but Kirito would've sworn that it wasn't just the player population—the population of NPCs seemed to grow as more of the player base once again began to aggregate around Yggdrasil; more shops were open and the number of white cursors he saw as he focused from avatar to avatar seemed greater than they had been. The game seemed to generate new quest content dynamically as it went; he knew for a fact that he'd done some quests that hadn't been in the beta for NPCs which hadn't existed before.

It made him wonder, sometimes, what Kayaba was doing. Was he, as so many suspected, sitting at the top of the World Tree and watching in amusement, waiting for as long as it took for someone to fight their way through Yggdrasil and reach him? Was he still working on the game, developing new quests and fixing bugs? Or was he a player himself?

He could be anyone. It made many players reluctant to discuss the subject openly, for fear of retribution from a captor who could be watching or listening at any time.

But Kirito had to admit he didn't think it was likely that Kayaba would interfere in that way. He thought back to all the interviews he'd watched or read, the time he'd devoted to consuming anything that Akihiko Kayaba had written over the years. He'd read everything there was to know about the development of Alfheim Online—everything accessible to the public, anyway. The system was designed so that it could run indefinitely without human intervention, generating dynamic content and adjusting drop rates or other balance issues procedurally.

It had been touted as a win for stability before launch, but Kirito was certain now that it had been designed that way so that Kayaba could lose himself in this world, leaving it to run itself.

It was hard to say what might have been planned in advance, and what might be evidence of some active hand in the game. New crafting recipes unlocked all the time, and the inventories of merchants seemed to be influenced by the variety of materials vendored off by players; things like that could've simply been part of the vast hierarchy of unlocks designed into the game in the first place.

Whatever the reason, he was glad that it meant better food. His stomach rumbled noticeably when he caught a whiff of some kind of hot meat pastries being sold at a corner cafe, reminding him that he hadn't had a proper meal in hours. As he veered closer to the source of the enticing smell, he felt a tingling at the back of his neck, a faint sense of wrongness just before something struck him in the back.

He staggered forward, reaching for his sword, but his arms were pinned by a grip that was deceptively strong considering the tiny hands that he could see. A weight had attached itself to him like a leech, and loud feminine laughter stayed his hand almost as effectively as having his arms restrained by that iron grip. His suspicions were confirmed when he heard the voice that belonged to the laughter. "Gotcha!"

He could've easily lifted the girl's weight as she hugged him from behind, but he pretended to stagger under the load, going to one knee. "Ooof. Yep, you got me, Yuuki. Totally… got me. Um. Can I have me back now?"

Yuuki laughed as she did a flip off of Kirito's back, landing in front of him and moving smoothly into a bow.

"Show-off," he said with a grin as he pushed himself upright and swept tan dust from the knees of his black pants.

"Like you're one to talk," said Asuna as she approached from the same direction Yuuki had. "When was the last time you sheathed your sword without doing some fancy twirl with it?"

It was a dig, but Asuna was smiling as she delivered it; Kirito laughed. Asuna stopped near Yuuki, forming the corner of an L between the two of them. "Have you tried this place yet?" she asked as she gestured economically to the cafe Kirito had smelled.

"Not yet," he admitted. "But I've been meaning to, and I'm pretty hungry."

"You should join us, then!" Yuuki said as she scooted herself quickly into one of the chairs at the outside tables. "Asuna and I used to come here all the time, before she started leveling up Cooking."

Kirito automatically looked at Asuna; Yuuki was prone to extending these invitations at times when they weren't always convenient for everyone. But she was already seating herself beside the younger girl, and when she looked up and caught his eye, she nodded towards the empty seat across from them. "My treat," she said with what to Kirito seemed like uncharacteristic generosity.

"You're leveling up Cooking?" Kirito asked as he took the indicated seat, leaning forward so that his equipped sword wouldn't press uncomfortably against his back.

A familiar wariness settled over Asuna's face. "I just started. Is there something wrong with that?"

Kirito held up a hand in supplication. "No, no, nothing like that. It just surprised me is all. You always seemed so…" A parade of descriptives each presented themselves in turn so that Kirito could discard them as likely to be the Wrong Thing to Say, and he was a little surprised to find that her reaction actually mattered to him. "Serious. You always seemed so serious. It doesn't seem like you, to use a skill slot on something that isn't related to clearing." He could almost feel the specter of Argo's laughter as he said this.

Asuna frowned a little, looking to the side as if embarrassed. "There's more to me than you think," she said quietly as the NPC waiter approached. Her utterance was so low that Kirito almost didn't catch the words. But the moment of awkward silence passed, and she seemed to recover some of her former cheer as she placed her order.

"Are you two here with the Undine clearers?" Kirito asked once they had all ordered. It was more than small talk; he liked the company of the two girls, but not the company they kept.

"Some of them are around," Asuna said. "But we're not going anywhere without Jahala, and last I heard he'd gone back to Parasel for a conference with Diavel."

"Let me guess: what to do about the 25th gateway boss?"

Neither of them seemed surprised by Kirito's reasoned guess. It was the topic of discussion now, even amongst many players not directly connected with the clearing groups. "Everyone's in a tizzy about it," Yuuki said.

Asuna nodded. "Not much information is getting out, but everyone knows it was really, really bad. Bad enough that even though everyone knows where the boss room is now…"

"...Nobody likes the idea of being the next guinea pig to lose half their clearers on a shot in the dark," Kirito finished.

"Which means we've got some time to ourselves," Yuuki said, bobbing in her chair as if she was possessed of too much energy to hold a conversation while sitting still. "What're you up to, Kirito? Waiting around for someone to hire you for the raid?"

"Something like that," Kirito said unhelpfully, deciding not to let on what he knew about the Cait Sith raid plans. He tried to divert the subject. "Tomorrow morning I'm going out to farm mats in the Sewers, and I promised a friend that I'd check in on a group of young kids who're going to be there."

He found both Asuna and Yuuki giving him looks that he'd never before seen on them, both girls wearing disconcerting smiles that made him feel like the subject of someone else's joke. "What?" he said, not understanding their reaction.

The two exchanged looks, their expressions bordering on grins. "Nothing," Asuna said. "I was just thinking that sometimes there's more to you, too." Since that response did nothing to alleviate his confusion, she shook her head. "Sounds boring, though."

"It is," he admitted. "I need a stack of blue slime essences." The spawn rate of that particular color was annoyingly low; it involved a lot of clearing and waiting for repops.

"Want some help?" Asuna asked.

"Um," Kirito said eloquently.

Their orders arrived then, which occupied their mouths and gave Kirito the space to think it through for a minute. He was keenly conscious of Asuna's attention as she ate her meat bun; the arrival of food may have given him a reprieve, but she was obviously not going to let him off the hook.

They'd worked together before in clearing groups and raids. They'd fought by each other's sides. They got along well, when she wasn't being over-sensitive and taking the things he said in the worst possible way. And Yuuki reminded him of his younger sister in more than a few ways; he recognized in himself a protective impulse that he'd felt before. Above all, from a strictly practical standpoint Asuna was an outstanding healer and played her role in a group well. She could handle herself; his problems were his own, not hers.

So why did he always feel this automatic sense of resistance to the idea of partying up with her?

He didn't know. It came from somewhere he didn't recognize, from a motivation or fear that he couldn't pin down. It bothered him, not being able to figure that out. The lack of a reasonable explanation for his feelings left him dissatisfied with the reasons he ended up giving when asked; they felt like rationalizations rather than the truth.

"Come on," Asuna said eventually, winding up as if preparing for a grand argument with half of a pork bun as her weapon of choice. "You know farming goes much quicker when you have company to—"

"I'd like that," Kirito said.

Asuna's argument came to a screeching halt in midsentence. "You would?" She sounded almost shocked.

"Yeah," Kirito said, tasting the idea and finding that it was true. "I would. Like you said, company makes a boring task go by much quicker."

Yuuki, surprisingly, raised an objection; the irony of this role reversal was not lost on Kirito. "I was figuring tomorrow we'd go adventure outside somewhere, Asuna. What happens if they need us for the raid? They won't be able to message us if we're in a dungeon."

"Jahala's still in Parasel," Asuna said dismissively; the kick she delivered to the other girl under the table was probably supposed to be discreet, and failed at that. "I'll send him a PM tomorrow morning and let him know where we'll be, though, just in case. If we stick to the newbie areas right below Arun, we'll be easy to find."

Finishing her meal, Asuna's delicate fingers did a staccato dance in the air, the coda of which ended with a window that opened up in front of Kirito. It was one he'd seen many times before, a simple translucent prompt requesting his confirmation of a routine action.

『Asuna has invited you to join her party. Accept? Yes/No』

His eyes met hers just over the top edge of the window. This time, there was no hesitation before he touched the tip of his finger to the Yes button. The dialog box collapsed and disappeared, and in the upper left corner of his peripheral vision he could see two smaller status gauges appear below his own, labeled with the names of the two girls across the table from him—who were now members of his party. Or more precisely, he was a member of theirs.

"Yay!" said Yuuki, looking happy enough to launch herself across the table in order to hug Kirito. "Welcome!"

Asuna was practically glowing as she put her elbows on the table and rested her chin in her hands. Her smile could have lit up Yggdrasil from the inside. "That settles what we're doing tomorrow morning," she said. "What about tonight?"

It was a good question; Kirito considered it. There were any number of quests he currently had in progress that they could've gone and worked on, but there weren't any in the area around Arun that were at a point where he could benefit from a party. More than anything, really, he'd just been thinking that he'd spend the evening—

"I know. Why don't we just wander around the city and see what we can see?" Asuna suggested, slipping free of the chair and holding out a hand to him as if to help him up.

Kirito smiled, starting to reach out to take the proffered hand, but changing his mind and instead pushing himself to his feet. The party of three roamed off into the nightlife of Arun, setting aside for a few hours the pressure of the death game and the need to progress through the World Tree.

Nobody was raiding the boss tonight, and the quests could wait.

Chapter Text

"Of all the consumable items that can come from mob drops, few are rarer—or more useful—than the category of single-use items known generally as «Crystals». Activated by short voice commands, they have no level requirement for their use, and allow any player possessing one to perform feats that can only be accomplished by high-level or race-exclusive magic, such as healing a player to full in an instant. Some of the rarest varieties have effects which even the most potent fae magic cannot duplicate..."
Alfheim Online Manual, «Crystal Artifacts»

5 May 2023: Day 181

Argo was deeply troubled, and she wasn't quite sure why.

Everything was going according to plan so far. Kirito had secured Sasha's cooperation, the Sylphs were on board with Alicia's plan, and all the clearers had trickled into Arun over the course of the night and settled in to get as much sleep as possible. They were ready to move on very short notice.

Perhaps it was just the dreams. She never remembered much from her dreams, but this morning she'd awakened with an unfocused restlessness, the kind of nagging feeling that a person got when they'd forgotten to do something important. It had put her in a low mood as she dealt with the private messages that had accumulated overnight, and it meant that she'd already been out of sorts when she got to the news about the Salamanders taking a second shot at the boss—

That tidbit, right there, had to be part of it. She knew that she should probably tell Alicia—it certainly qualified as the kind of information that was part of their standing arrangement. But she'd been dragging her feet on that for most of the last half-hour while she followed up on other queries and transactions awaiting her attention, and even those had only been getting about half of her full attention.

The other half brooded. And tried to pin down exactly why she felt driven to do so.

Argo had learned to trust these feelings. While it was, as far as she'd been able to tell, impossible for her to forget words, that didn't mean that she had perfect recall of everything—like anyone else, things slipped her mind, and she couldn't very well be consciously thinking about everything her memories held all at once. This kind of hunch, this feeling of intuition about something as-yet undefined, was a sensation she attributed to her subconscious trying to give her hints about something that she hadn't consciously pieced together yet on her own.

So let's run down what I know that's relevant. This feeling's got something to do with the Sals taking another swipe at the boss. No surprises there—they need a win, badly, especially after the black eye they just got. I can't be worried about them beating us to it, 'cause according to my sources they didn't even leave Gattan until a little less than an hour ago.

She ran that part over in her mind again, breaking it down. Even if they had groups clearing the way for them, it would take them at least a few hours to make the trip. Alicia had actually sent a group ahead the night before and bound an insanely expensive Corridor Crystal to the area just outside of the boss room, so that once everyone was ready they could simply teleport directly there. If the Salamanders had done anything like that, they'd already be there—which strongly argued they were going to have to clear a path up there the hard way.

Which meant that even if the Cait Sith-Sylph raid party didn't leave until the moment the Salamanders arrived in Arun, they didn't have to worry about being beaten to it. So that couldn't be what was nagging at her.

She set the matter aside for a moment as she moved on to the next message in her queue—one of the last ones. It was from one of her agents in Parasel, which was unusual; not a whole lot of drama or interesting things happened in the Undine home city.

「Thought you'd want to know—a whole mess of players just rallied in front of the gates and headed west, including Jahala. Scuttlebutt from everyone who was there says they're enroute to Arun to rendezvous with their other clearers—they're making a play for the gateway boss.」

Argo could've closed her eyes and simply read the message against the slate background of her memory. Indeed, she often did this with messages, glancing at each one just long enough to imprint it and then reviewing the words in her mind; it kept her from having to leave her menus open all the time. But something kept her eyes fixed on the message window and her hands still. Something was moving in her thoughts; something clicked.

This isn't significant to us either, she thought. If the Salamanders can't beat us there, damn sure the Undines can't if they just left. And they might even slow each other down as both groups try to clear their way to the boss.

She grinned suddenly. Wouldn't that just chafe the Sallies, if the Undines beat them to it for the second time in a row. With all the bitching I've been hearing from Corvatz's crowd about Mortimer's incompetence and inaction, it might just—

Argo's smile disappeared. Her thoughts shifted into overdrive.

A minute later, she was running down the hallways of the castle as quickly as she could, calling out for Alicia. She found the Cait Sith leader poking her head out of her office, bemused by all the yelling echoing down the halls. "Someone pull your tail, Argo?"

Argo skidded to a stop by the doorway, holding up a hand in a plea for a moment to gather herself. Avatars didn't breathe or require oxygen, but the system did a fair job of simulating the effects of sudden, unexpected exertion. "We need to talk."

Alicia snorted, ears twitching with what Argo recognized as amusement. "Don't we always." She waved a hand. "Come on, walk with me. I need something to eat before I give Thelvin the go-ahead for this morning's raid and settle in to wait for word."

"That's what I wanted to talk about," Argo said as she fell into step. "I just got news that the Salamanders left Gattan this morning. They're going to take another shot at the boss."

"What? When?" Alicia almost stumbled as one foot tried to keep walking while the other tried to bring her to a sudden halt. "Oh hell, I need to tell Thelvin to go now—"

"Let them," Argo said insistently, stepping in front of Alicia. "Don't do this."

Alicia stared at her, expression incredulous. "Don't what? Take advantage of the Sallies stepping on their junk so we can beat them to this boss? Hon, do I have to remind you when we last had a chance like this?"

"March 1st, 2023, 8:17 PM. Gateway boss 15."

Alicia's stare continued unabated. Argo was unmoved.

"Look, you know I wouldn't ask this if I didn't have a damn good reason. Do you trust me?"

She should've known that particular approach wouldn't work with Alicia here. The other girl's tail gave an errant twitch every few moments as she crossed her arms and replied. "You know I do. And I trust that you have damn good reasons. The problem is that there are over 2400 people in this faction other than you, and they are expecting me to lead them to clear the game."

"Yeah, but does it really matter who clears which gateway?" Argo asked.

"Yes, it does—because boss fights mean rare item drops and huge amounts of EXP, and they don't respawn."

"Maybe," Argo said. "But when it comes to getting out of this death game, only one thing matters: who gets the LA on the end boss."

Alicia sighed and gestured for Argo to follow as she stepped around her and started walking quickly down the hall. "If it doesn't matter who clears what, then why are you so worked up over this?"

Argo wrestled with the reflexive urge to charge for the information. Longstanding friendship or not, Alicia was a customer, Argo had a business to run—and this background was worth a small fortune. But Alicia was already paying her quite a lot for her help with the 25th gateway boss, and there was a strong argument to be made that this fell under the umbrella of information relevant to that work. "I've been hearing noise from my Sal contacts for a while now," she began carefully. "There's a large minority within the faction that was very loyal to Kibaou, and they still resent Mort and Eugene for their coup. Some of them are senior clearers."

"No surprises there."

"No, but after the Undines beat them to clearing the 24th boss right on the heels of the NCC beating them to Gateway 23, they've been making a lot of noise—especially in the last few hours. There's been unrest. The Sals had a good run from 20 to 22, but before that they'd only taken two of the last eight bosses."

"Which still puts them way ahead of us or the NCC," Alicia pointed out. "To say nothing of the Sylphs or Undines."

"You're missing the point, Allie," Argo said insistently, stepping quickly ahead of her again and putting her hand against the wall as a barrier. "To us, that looks really good. To the Sals, who got used to riding high on one success after another once they cleared the Valley of Dragons and got to the World Tree, it looks like Mortimer's ability to keep feeding them wins is weakening."

"Good!" Alicia said, ducking under the arm with her ears laid flat against her head. "If the Salamanders are weakening, that's good for everyone else in this game!"

"No, not good!" Argo shot back as she tried to keep up while walking sideways and gesturing wildly. "These guys got used