"«Decorations» are a class of placeable physics objects, one of several that may be acquired or crafted by players. They are distinguished from «Furnishings» or «Structures» by their relatively cheap recipes and lack of storage space or moving parts; they are, as the name suggests, intended to add simple cosmetic details to a player-owned or rented environment such as a residence or business. Because they can be cheaply and easily produced in bulk, player-crafted Decorations are different in one other important way as well: they lack persistence, and in order to conserve system resources they will despawn if left unattended in a public zone for more than 24 hours. Players should either store unused Decorations within a container or player-crafted Structure (c.f. «Skill: Architecture»), or place them near Furnishings, which—although typically more complex and expensive to craft—have persistence and are not subject to garbage collection by the spawn manager..."
Alfheim Online manual, «Decorations»

20 May 2023
Day 196
Late Night/Early Morning

The meandering subterranean passages of rock and root through which Asuna and the rest of the raid had been clearing ever since Urd sent them through the Mirror finally, after many exhausting hours, led them to a narrow slope. It spiraled downwards for some distance like that, stair-steep in places without the benefit of steps, and although the dangerous aggro mobs they'd been facing up to that point were thankfully absent, that didn't mean the going was easy.

Asuna carefully selected a protruding root to hold onto, and let herself slide in a controlled way down to where Kirito was waiting to grab her free hand, some kind of Illusion spell causing him to radiate light. Everyone had to descend as carefully as they could, making use of rock outcroppings and ironwood roots poking through the walls where possible. Asuna gave Kirito a quick smile once she came to a safe stop, but watched her footing and grip carefully as she continued onward. She knew that a single misstep could send them sliding down the steeply twisting channel with slim hope of arresting their momentum—and with no way of knowing how far down it went, or where it ended.

Or, for that matter, whether it did at all.

Jentou in particular was excruciatingly cautious and visibly nervous; the Undine tank's full plate armor was the heaviest of those in their two-party raid group, and he easily massed as much as Kirito and Asuna put together. He led the way not only because of his party role, but because if he slipped, anyone in front of him was going with him—the slope was too steep for «Bracing» to be of any use keeping anyone's feet on the ground. He wouldn't be stopping until he hit something.

After what seemed like forever, but what Asuna's map assured her was little more than a hundred meters of vertical distance, the mob-free passage finally leveled out into a broad but shallow cave, one side of which was open to a larger outcropping looking out over a vast, cloudy abyss. The far end of the clearing narrowed again as it turned into a twisting, irregular path of broken rock that hugged the edge of what seemed to be a mountain or cliffside. It was difficult to tell which; the entire area was clothed in a cottony blanket of mist or fog that attenuated visibility in all directions and turned distant terrain into nameless shapes and silhouettes that could've been anything.

As soon as she stepped out into the open, a zone change notification for «Clefts of Ginnungagap» appeared in her HUD.

"Say that five times fast," Jentou remarked, to weary but genuine laughter. "Plot twist, guys: there's no boss, it's actually a puzzle quest where you have to pronounce the zone names."

Nori, the Spriggan evasion tank of their party, groaned loudly. "Noooope, I'd rather fight the boss."

Asuna wanted to smile, but she forced herself to focus as the raid group spread out and took stock of the area. She made sure to check for threats above them as well—a pack of harpies in one of the larger caves had nearly dropped one of their mages before the raid could react. To her relief, the immediate area seemed clear, and she heard the sounds of spellcasting as Burns and one of the Undine Wind mages both checked for movement. A sheer rock face rose above them until it disappeared into the mist, and the handful of cursors that she could see in that direction were a frightening dark red that was almost black—and those few probably only a small portion of the mobs lurking far above.

The only signs that their world hadn't been reduced to mist-shrouded cliffs floating in nothingness were faint shapes in the distance that might have been other rough geographical features. The dim twilight fog that passed for a sky shed a fey, diffuse light, casting everything in soft-edged shadow. The waterfalls cascading down the sides of the cliff faces had to come from somewhere, but none seemed to end anywhere that she could see; below them, a chasm fell away into featureless fog, concealing what Asuna had to assume was a bottomless pit. At this point, she thought, why wouldn't it be?

One such waterfall had cut an uneven groove across the ledge ahead, the footing damp and treacherous enough that Kirito considered asking Mentat to set up a Bracing aura. It was the only path forward for their raid group, and between the irregular rock formations and the mist rising from the near-vertical rapids, it was difficult to be sure about the existence of what lay beyond—let alone its safety.

Although the area had the look of an overland zone, when Asuna tried bringing out her wings, she found that they were still dark, as if underground or in the World Tree. She resolved not to test her theory about bottomless pits.

"So when the Norn NPC lady said the Mirror would take us to Mimisa-whooza-whatzis," Nori remarked to no one in particular as she peered out across the great abyss that yawned before and around them, using her staff for balance, "what she really meant was that it would take us somewhere that's probably sorta-kinda in the right direction, and fare-thee-well from there."

"Yeah, not a lot of conveyance in this place so far," Burns added in agreement. "Kinda typical of procedurally-generated maps in games, though—they're aimless, linear as fuck, or they manage the neat trick of being both." He grinned and reached over to give Mentat a nudge in the arm. "Bet you an MP Crystal no human QA ever touched this area."

Mentat didn't rise to the bait. "You know I don't make or take sucker bets."

Asuna recalled Kirito explaining what procedurally-generated meant before, though it was difficult for her to wrap her head around it at any level other than that it meant things in a game that were created by a program instead of a person. But that was enough to at least get the gist, and although she agreed with Nori's general sentiment, she didn't find the lack of obvious quest markers very surprising.

Neither, apparently, did Kirito, who gave a brief snort. "Mimisuburuunaa," he said, which saved Asuna the trouble of trying to say Mimisbrunnr correctly. "Did you expect different? This has to be some kind of hard-mode bonus quest. The game's not going to hold our hand here." Turning to Burns, he gestured at the rough trail before them. "Can you scout ahead, see what's around the other end of that path?"

The Imp mage tapped a two-fingered salute at his brow, then closed his eyes and pinched his nose like someone taking a dive into a swimming pool. He stepped backwards off the cliff as his wings manifested, long black hair trailing past his face, then rocketed up the trail and arced around the corner of a leaning rock column at the head of a line of purple light.

Nori let out a brief snicker. "Show-off."

Xorren, the Spriggan utility mage of Kirito's lead group, grinned. "Yeah, but it'd suck to get caught with our pants down by even one of the things in this area, solo mobs or not, so I'll give him a pass. Each trash mob has been more like a mini field boss."

Kirito nodded, eyes briefly glowing green-hued as he looked up and around. With Searching he could probably see far more of the dangerous-looking cursors than she could, and he didn't seem to like the look of what he saw there. "Yeah. Everything we've fought so far had to have been at least five levels above me, if not more." He pointed in the direction of the mobs that might as well have been explicitly labeled «Certain Death» by the system. "I couldn't even begin to tell you what those things way up there are, though. If that's what we're facing now, we can't take any fight lightly, and I'd rather avoid them whenever we can." He waved over at Jentou, the Undine assigned by Jahala to lead the hand-picked Undine group. The young plate tank's armor made a fair bit of noise as he clambered up and over the rockfall that partially blocked the trail; it was just as well that they weren't trying to be quiet.

"I'd prefer to find some kind of proper shelter or safe area before we try getting any real sleep," Jentou said as he approached. "But we should probably at least take a breather. We've been on the go for hours at the end of an already-long day, and that last climb down was brutal."

"We're all feeling it too," Asuna said sympathetically after Kirito voiced his own agreement. Everyone was well past tired, but so far their raid groups hadn't had the opportunity to do more than grab a couple of brief catnaps in cleared areas. "And I really appreciate you volunteering to come along on this anyway, Jentou. Jahala's a good raid leader, but you're our best tank."

Jentou's youthful face brightened a bit at her praise. "Hey, there's no way I was missing out on a quest like this. I just hope no one clears the boss while we're down here."

"That's up to Jahala," Asuna said, knowing that wasn't entirely correct. It was more accurate to say that it was up to Jahala and the rest of the Undine clearing groups to camp the Mirror room and try to persuade any incoming raid groups to hold off—and why. For all the good it does. If it comes to a fight, a lot of the Undine clearers have never done any kind of PvP at all—and those who have, not since the first month or so.

No other clearing parties had showed up at the Mirror of Fates yet, as far as they knew—but they knew the NCC had just started the access quest, and there could easily be clearers they didn't know about who were on the verge of getting there.

"Well, I don't think we should count on finding any kind of Safe Zone," Kirito said. "I'd be happy to be wrong, but I don't think this is that kind of dungeon. And while it'd be nice to get some sleep, I'm worried about how much time we really have. Timed quests will usually show that timer in the quest log, and there's not one for this, but that doesn't mean there aren't other triggers being checked in the background."

"We don't have much choice," Asuna pointed out, and not just because her own level of exhaustion was catching up to her. Her eyes briefly went to the clock in her HUD. "It's almost 3 in the morning. We've been lucky so far, but sooner or later we're going to start making serious mistakes, and with mobs like these a mistake means someone could die. If there's a boss fight coming up, we need to be well-rested for it. Sleep isn't nice at this point, it's a necessity."

Jentou and Kirito were both nodding at the obvious good sense in the argument, but didn't get the chance to respond. All three of them turned at the sound of Imp wings; Burns had come zipping back around the corner of the mountain face. As soon as he'd redirected his momentum towards the path, he killed his wings and landed at a jog.

"Trail's pretty clear for about forty-fifty meters," Burns said as he quickly trotted to a stop. "Most of those scary-ass mobs are far above us or out in the mist, and I'm not volunteering to go Leeroy on them. Stuff ahead looks comparable in level to what we've been fighting, though—mostly Jotunn variants with dark red cursors. Sucky and dangerous, big aggro radius, but doable as long as no one gets knocked off the cliff and we don't pull adds. No roamers or named that I can see."

Kirito toggled Searching on and looked up again, panning his gaze across the vista above and beyond. "I think the ones way off the path are meant to basically be an impassable barrier for Imps or anyone else who tries to shortcut the map, without the game having to resort to obvious invisible walls. Otherwise an Imp raid group might be able to cheese this section."

Burns grinned. "Wish we had an Imp raid group. I'd bypass all this if I could."

"I wish we did too," Kirito said, sitting down on a boulder and starting to review his equipment status. "Let's keep it in mind anyway. There might still be someplace that approach will come in handy." He frowned at something he saw in a status screen. "Jentou, didn't you say one of your Melee DPS guys has Smithing skills?"

Jentou's eyes went to his party list. "Acheron does, yeah. He keeps a field kit with him, which is the main reason he's in this raid. Something you need serviced?"

"Check your gear." At Kirito's urging, Jentou did, and swore slightly at the numbers he saw there. Asuna did the same, drawing her rapier and tapping it to bring up its status window; she winced. Its condition was under half of what it had been when they'd left Arun the night before, and it was a fair bet her armor was in similar shape.

Kirito nodded. "Probably shouldn't be a surprise, but these high-level mobs are putting a strain on durability, and we're going to have to do some maintenance if we don't want to have to swap to backup gear before we get there. That field kit won't let him overcap our gear condition, but we should at least be able to keep it topped off."

Asuna gave the bleak cliffside clearing a critical look, then back at the wide-mouthed cave from which they'd just come. It wasn't exactly an inviting sight, but they could at least be reasonably sure the cave itself was clear of mob spawns. "Then as much as I hate the idea of camping out in the field, all that maintenance work will probably take a while. We might as well take the opportunity to get some sleep in shifts. I don't think the NCC is going to be doing any overnight clearing, and they were the closest ones behind us, right?"

Jentou agreed, and raised his voice to get everyone's attention. "We'll be stopping here for the night, call it…" His eyes went upwards briefly. "Six hours. One-hour watches, two awake per watch. Get Acheron to top off your gear condition, then make the most of the sleep you can get. Negi, send the safe harbor signal, and see if anyone on-shift in the main raid can take a Moonlight Mirror call."

Kirito and Asuna offered to take a mid-watch, so that some of the others could get uninterrupted sleep. Once the watch assignments were set and the maintenance completed, Asuna manifested her sleeping bag and rolled it out on the uneven ground inside the cave. As she did, she looked up to see Kirito laying his out an arm-span away. His was noticeably fancier—not in any kind of pretentious or decorative way, but clearly made of higher-quality materials and with fur lining visible at the opening.

"I never really had much need to use this," Asuna admitted when Kirito asked why she was staring. "I keep one in my inventory because we all do; it only adds about a kilogram and it's better to have it than not. But you've obviously spent some money on yours."

Sitting on the thick, soft fabric, Kirito tapped away at his menu; his overcoat, sword and armor—all freshly repaired—turned to glowing blue edges and then vanished, leaving him in his basic black tunic and trousers. "I've spent a lot more time sleeping in the field," he said after unequipping each item, looking back up at her when he was done. "You have to when you're solo—you travel more slowly and carefully, and usually leave some time at the end of the day to look for a safe spot to hole up."

Asuna had spent no small amount of time thinking about that before, when he'd been out of touch for long periods. The only part of her armor that was particularly bulky was her breastplate; she unequipped that and her rapier, but left the rest on as she slipped into her own sleeping bag. There were conversations here and there as the rest of the raid group finished their gear maintenance and trickled in, but she still kept her voice soft. "It sounds lonely. And stressful."

It was chilly in the cave, but not freezing; Kirito had the edge of the bag pulled up to his collar, and nodded at her. "It was, sometimes. Sleeping in full gear is no fun either. But it was also… this is going to sound weird, but honestly, in a way it was also safe and comfortable. No one else was going to give me away if I was trying to be stealthy, or blow a quest because they said the wrong thing to an NPC, or get me killed by going for some bait treasure and setting off an obvious trap. My survival wasn't dependent on anything but my own choices."

"And no one else's was depending on you," Asuna added after a moment. "Isn't that right?"

Kirito's gaze left hers briefly; when it returned, it was not quite as direct. "Yeah. Other players always just seemed to complicate things."

"Well… just because something's complicated or difficult doesn't mean isn't worth it. I'd say the opposite is often true." She looked at him meaningfully as she spoke.

Kirito responded with a smile, but then made it clear that he'd entirely failed to pick up on the subtext that she'd been wielding like a blunt instrument. "Well, then hopefully that means there's a big payoff at the end of this quest. Though just stopping Loki from whatever he's scheming is good enough for me."

"Speak for yourself, bud," said Xorren, leaning over to pat Kirito on the shoulder and saving Kirito from what she'd been about to say. He stepped past the two sleeping bags, looking for an open spot to lay his out. "I want the EXP and loot, too."

"Oh, you stop eavesdropping," Asuna said with as much sternness as she could muster. At the moment, she didn't have the energy to stay annoyed about either Kirito's obliviousness or Xorren's… Xorren-ness. Especially since she wanted quest rewards too.

"Right, right," Xorren said with a chuckle, waving at them before manifesting his own bag and unrolling it nearby.

From what she could see of his face, Kirito was obviously smothering a grin of his own behind the edge of his sleeping bag, and that made it even harder to stay annoyed. "We'd better get some rest."

Asuna nodded, wishing they had the privacy to cuddle up next to each other; there was no way they could do anything like that here. Neither of them said anything to that effect out loud, but she was fairly sure he was thinking it, too. Even though they hadn't always shared a room since the first night, the few times he'd been able to hold her as she slept were precious to her. She and Yuuki had usually gone to sleep like that, and she missed that too, but there was something inarguably different about feeling Kirito's skin next to hers, or holding his hand as she dozed off.

She wanted to do that now; he was close enough that she could've reached out and taken his hand. But even that mild display of chaste affection was more than she felt comfortable doing in front of the rest of the raid group, discreetly or not. She hugged her arms around herself to resist the temptation.

"I wonder what Yuuki's up to."

Asuna gave a slight start when Kirito spoke, then smiled at him. "I was just thinking about her," she said. "I sent her a message right before dinner, but we've been in dungeons ever since." The smile faded quickly from her face, and she quieted her voice to a whisper so that it wouldn't carry, leaning across some of the space that separated them. "I'm worried about her, Kirito. I don't know the details, but Yuuki thinks she turned up something really bad in Gattan while looking for leads on Prophet's group."

Kirito's eyelids were obviously as heavy as hers, but his gaze became sharp again as she spoke. "Define bad."

"Like I said, I don't know the details, but she said some Salamander leaders might even be in on it. She and Rei—that's the Imp woman she's been traveling with—found a secret door or something leading to a dungeon under the city. Rei went in to have a look, but the last time Yuuki wrote to me, her friend had been gone for nearly a day."

"That's not a good sign." Kirito's expression was as grim as his tone.

"No, but they're partied, so Yuuki at least knows she's alive. "

He nodded, face relaxing a little. "That's a bit better at least," he said. "Still, I hope she comes back soon. Alive is good, but there are a lot of pretty bad outcomes that don't involve being dead yet."

·:·:·:·:·:·

The Salamander guard who'd arrested Yuuki and Rei had come to gloat. Because of course he had.

In this case, the gloating consisted of standing before their neighboring cells with his hands loosely clasped behind his back, wearing a contented smile that was all the more infuriating for not being overly smug. It wasn't that there was anything he seemed to want to say to or hear from them—it was more like the way Yuuki might go into her inventory solely for the satisfaction of gazing at a really good item she'd just looted, basking in the fact of its existence and that it was hers now even though she had no immediate plans to equip or sell it.

Rei seemed to have things to say. Quite a lot of them, the majority highly caustic and consisting of words Yuuki preferred not to think about the meaning of, let alone repeat aloud. The wing of cells they were in rang with the echoes of Rei's voice as she berated the city watchman, pinning his ears back with a lengthy description of the kinds of atrocities he was letting happen right under his nose. The diatribe lasted until the man looked down and closed his eyes, holding up one palm and giving his head a slight shake that didn't stir his short reddish-brown hair.

"Please, just… don't waste your breath. Not that your avatars have any, but… well, it's dreadfully tedious and you're not telling me anything I don't already know. So let's kindly move past the boring part where you pretend to be shocked that I'm not your friend, and get to where you start telling me the things I do want to know."

"I'm really sorry, officer," Rei said, stopping her furious pacing within the confines of the cell long enough to give the man the finger. "I don't know where your mom was last night. Maybe ask Corvatz."

The watchman looked at Rei expressionlessly for a few moments as she waited for a reaction. "Really?" he finally said with a dip of the head and a raise of the brow, like someone peering skeptically at her over the rims of nonexistent glasses; he seemed as if he didn't quite believe that she'd actually just said that. He waited until Rei opened her mouth to say something more, and then calculatedly interrupted her. "No, I mean, really? We're doing your-mom jokes here?"

"Everyone is doing your—"

The man closed his eyes again and waited calmly until Rei ran out of steam before re-acknowledging her. "All done now? Good. Perhaps I should introduce myself and get you oriented." He raised one arm, his crimson shoulder cloak spilling off of it, and snapped his fingers crisply. Three Salamanders with the white-on-blue hourglass guild tags of the Sandmen came around the corner from somewhere out of sight, each bearing one of the odd short-shafted polearms she and Rei had seen racked in the pulley room. Yuuki recognized one of them as the player with the longsword whom she'd literally disarmed at the wrist; he'd since been healed, and gave her an uncomfortable smile when their eyes met. A few moments later a mage in muted burgundy robes came hurrying in; apart from the man's distinctive peaked cowl, she couldn't see him well, as the others were in the way.

Entirely ignoring Rei's attempts to talk over him, the Salamander watchman folded his arms across his armored chest. At no point did his humorless smile falter or his voice rise. "My name doesn't matter. You may call me Omawari-san, your local law enforcement authority here in Gattan. Or just Mawari, if you're feeling overly familiar. And as of now, I own both of you." He held up his palm again. "And lest there be any misunderstanding, I'd like to reassure you that this is not a figure of speech: I mean that your avatars are now our property. That means that both the fact and the nature of your continued existence are at my discretion, or that of whoever I assign to tend you at any given time. You will die if and when I decide. I will have you rezzed if and when I feel like it. And whenever you are doing neither of those things, what your life is like until the end of the game depends on how much of a pain in the ass you decide to be, and how long it takes you to understand that the only choices you get to make from now on are between 'bad' and 'so much worse'."

For a very long span of silent seconds, Rei and Yuuki simply stared at Mawari. The older girl was the first to react to his speech. "Holy shitballs, we found the villain larper. What in the actual psychotic fuck is your damage, sir?"

Mawari gave a soft chuckle that barely left his throat, but otherwise seemed to brush off Rei's hate as inconsequential. "On that charming note, some ground rules. First of all, I don't really care what you say to or call me. Get it out of your system now if you need to; you'll spend most of your time Silenced or Muffled anyway. I do, however, have limited patience for having my time wasted. When someone tells you to open your game menu and do a thing, you will do it. Not at first, probably. Not until you learn the hard way that token defiance doesn't really stop us from doing what we need to. It just makes it slower and more unpleasant for you, requiring a bit more brute force to accomplish than finesse."

He clapped his hands lightly before him. "In short," he said in the friendly but mechanical manner of a flight attendant, "The more hassle you put us through in processing you, the more we will have to damage your avatar in order to secure it or transport you from point A to point B. That in turn makes it more likely that someone will take out their annoyance on you by, say, giving you a front-row seat to the Blast Zone, or forgetting to bring you food for a few weeks. Or ever."

"I don't understand how you can do this," Yuuki said, uncomprehending and struggling to process the situation well enough to put into words what she powerfully felt. Her sense of outrage was so overwhelming it felt like it was going to explode from within. "The things you're doing to people… the things you're saying… they're more monstrous even than what Kayaba did. At least he gave us a chance to live in here. Don't you feel anything when you think about what those poor people are going through inside those things down there?"

Mawari waited for a few moments after Yuuki was done speaking, perhaps to ensure that nothing else was forthcoming. "Not particularly," he said in mild, almost bored tones. "And here I return to one of the key points you need to understand: I'm not going to lose any sleep over what you think. I do, however, care about what it is you know. Because another thing for which I have limited patience is Imps who kill Salamanders." He paused. "Especially my friends and guildmates. That does tend to put you on everyone's shit-list."

Rei spat for effect. "Maybe try not working for total scumbags. Or being one. It gets you less dead."

Mawari nodded to her as if in some kind of acknowledgement. "Yes, I imagine you're the more prolific killer, and I'll be interested to hear all about your network. Your kouhai is rather quiet, though." His attention shifted over to Yuuki. "The mouthy one I get. You're a bit of an enigma."

"It's not very complicated," Yuuki said. "We found out what you people were doing down there, and someone has to stop you. And someone will."

The watchman seemed amused by this. "Precious. But no, I mean before that. I'd gotten the impression that Gitou's assassination was merely a personal grudge; my old friend certainly had enough of those to go around. But then Prophet managed to get the Undine whore to open up a bit. I know there are more of you. And I know you have some very high-level backing. Before we find you two a permanent home, you're going to give me names."

"Go pound sand," Rei said. "All of it; it's not like you'll run out."

Mawari exchanged a look of mild surprise with one of the armed Sandmen. "That was... actually pretty good," he remarked, nodding and trading sounds of amusement and agreement with the others. "Yeah? Yeah. Okay, Mars?"

"Ready," said the mage, a note of resignation in his voice as he raised his hands.

Rei backed towards the rear wall of the cell. "I'd like to see you try," she said. "Sure, you've got us in cells now, but you can't do shit to anyone with the «Prisoner» tag, and there's a cooldown on arrest after release."

Mawari raised his eyebrows and looked over at one of the Sandmen with a polearm. "Did you know there was a cooldown on re-arresting released prisoners?"

"Hadn't occurred to me," said the other Salamander with a roll of the eyes. "But I'm not one of your watchmen, so what do I know?"

"Hm. Now that could be inconvenient. You'd think we'd have come up with a solution for that by now."

A few of the others were having trouble keeping straight faces; Yuuki realized that their confusion was a put-on, and that they were mocking Rei. Mawari looked at her again, then at his colleague. "Well," he said matter-of-factly as he raised his left hand and stroked the air to open his menu, seeming to grow bored of the game. "I'm glad we sorted that out. Block her in."

After a few taps at his menu, the door to Rei's cell unlocked, and a system change notification popped up in Yuuki's HUD—the first thing she'd seen appear there in hours—advising her that PvP had been enabled in the building. At the same time, Mars swept his hands through the air in twin arcs until his fingers pointed at widely-separated points on the ground to either side of their cells. "Dotto zabukke plemzure ralth tepnaga shippura kwedan."

Yuuki jumped back as well, not sure what to expect. A wall of elemental Earth surged from the floor and ceiling to fill the hallway, blocking their view of the Salamanders—and vice-versa. The wall crumbled after around half a minute, but the mage had the next magnitude already recast as it did, and Yuuki traded worried looks with her companion. "Rei?"

"He released me," Rei said. "I see what they're doing now, though. Block a prisoner in with Earth until Prisoner status is gone and the cooldown's over, then they can re-arrest you or do anything else they want." She darted forward long enough to yank the cell door open in preparation, then stepped slowly backwards. She crouched and began and rocking back and forth on her feet, wings out and hands poised. "If PvP's enabled, that cuts both ways; they won't have Safe Zone protection. I've got almost no wing energy, but it's probably still enough to—"

The second Earth wall crumbled into dust. There was a brief moment where Yuuki could see Rei release the tension she'd been holding, her wings flaring into light as she prepared to blast out of the cell faster than the Sandmen could react or re-establish a wall. But before the arcane obstruction had even begun to expire, Yuuki faintly heard another incantation begin, and a sickly violet projectile shot through the falling dust of the expired Earthwall; it hit Rei dead-on as she lunged forward. Her wings instantly lost all power; she struck the bars of the cell, ragdolling into a boneless heap just inside the doorway. A Silence debuff followed the Paralysis almost immediately.

Mawari supervised with folded arms as the trio of melee Sandmen wasted no time entering the cell once Rei was neutralized. The mage turned away and made to leave. "I can't watch this part. I'll be outside if you need me."

Ignoring Yuuki's protests and Rei's silent screams of rage and fear, two of the Sandmen rolled her onto her back and speared her through the shoulders with the tines of the fork-like polearms, pinning her in place but doing very little damage. The third must have used a quick-change ability to swap his equipped weapon; instead of the polearm he now held an axe, and he used it to take off Rei's right arm at the shoulder without ceremony or fuss. The two with the polearms withdrew them amidst the dissipating cloud of particles from the disintegrating limb, leaving behind small glowing red spots, then repeated the workmanlike process on both of her legs.

"Now," said Mawari, gesturing to her intact left arm once the immobilizing debuff had worn off. "Open your menu and set it visible."

The Silence icon on Rei's status ribbon was flashing; she stared hatefully at Mawari and waited until the debuff expired. "Get wrecked, you sick monkey piece of—"

Mawari nodded again calmly as soon as she began speaking, raised one hand, and tapped a finger indicatively at the air. Yuuki shrieked and stretched an arm futilely through the gap in the bars as the two Salamanders with polearms drew back and then began vigorously stabbing them into Rei's torso, the weak weapons whittling away her HP in staccato increments and covering her with tiny red glowing punctures. The woman screamed throughout what had to be death by a thousand numbing cuts, or at least dozens of them; the Sandmen doing that work simply looked bored or wore masks of detached professionalism.

When Rei's health was finally down to the red zone, the Salamander axeman glanced up at Mawari. At a nod from him, the axe descended on her neck, and she exploded into a violet Remain Light as the steel edge slammed into the stone floor.

"Time," said one of the polearm users, eyes going up to where his clock would be if he had it enabled.

Mawari ignored Yuuki's every attempt to engage him, ignored Rei's Remain Light as if it were a settled matter, and turned to the axeman with what seemed like an irrelevant sidebar conversation. "I meant to ask, where's Trigger? He usually does processing."

The other Salamander gave only the briefest of glances in the direction of the prisoners before answering. "Cleaning up their mess downstairs. He told Mars to go with us instead."

Mawari raised a single reddish-brown eyebrow. "Issues gathering up the strays?"

The Sandman shook his head. "Nah. Most were still disabled, and the rest had no gear and nowhere to go."

"Now see that's curious, because I could've sworn I saw three anti-harassment violations pop up in the enforcement log not long before I arrested these two. And there are three of our stock in the next block over, one of them a Sylph these two somehow managed to get healed. I'd wager he has interesting stories for anyone who happens to stroll in here today."

The man blanched slightly before answering. "So? We'll just re-process them."

"Well you'd better set yourself a fucking reminder, Kaisar. Even my permissions can't release harassers on demand, so you and everyone else had better be up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed tonight waiting for the system to let them out. It's bad enough Prophet wants a few more of the higher-level stock as consumables."

"Again? What the hell for?"

Mawari shrugged, gilded pauldrons rising and falling with the motion. "Easy EXP, sacrifices for his goddess larping, how should I know? Not my concern what he does with them, as long as he keeps doing work that recoups the loss." Having made his point, the watchman glanced back over at the others standing by Rei's dwindling Remain Light. "How's our guest doing?"

"Dying," said the one with eyes on his clock. "In about twenty seconds."

"Right. Mars? Need you now."

The mage was already jogging back into the room with haste, hands raised and prepared to cast. "Here."

"I want you to rez on a count of... five." Mawari paused again. "Assuming Seiha didn't misjudge the timer."

While Mars immediately began counting out loud, the Salamander watchman turned to Yuuki and continued on in tones of mock reassurance. "He gets so distracted when he's annoyed, makes him lose track. That doesn't happen too often, but you never know."

Yuuki's fists tightened on the bars separating her cell from Rei's; she'd been trying to keep track of the remaining time as well, fingers going white-knuckled. Each word that Mars spoke ratcheted up her fear, and it wasn't until he'd uttered the last syllable of the rez spell and Rei's body had begun to re-form that Yuuki felt even the slightest relief.

That relief was slight indeed. The horrified, traumatized look on Rei's face when her avatar and its texture finished forming was almost too much for Yuuki to bear. There was a faint sliver of her HP left, and she hugged her arms around herself and curled into a ball on her side, incoherent with half-choked sobs while the Sandmen filed out of the cell and Mawari re-arrested her. This time there was no auto-teleport to a jail cell; she was already alone in one, and it locked on its own with an audible click.

"That is about as easy as the hard way gets for you," Mawari declared once she was secured again. "And we'll do it as many times as we need to do, but it is generally not much fun for anyone involved." He glanced briefly aside at one of the Sandmen. "Except Kaisar, I think. But to reinforce my original point: we own you. We can do what we want, when we want to do. Cooperation will make that easier on you, whilst making a nuisance of yourself will make you pray for Seiha to lose count."

Mawari paused only for a moment; Yuuki was silently seething, while Rei was not producing any coherent sound. "And if you fuck with me enough, I'm probably just going to give one or both of you to Prophet, whom you will find rather more lethal and less patient than I am."

That said, he turned and marched down the hallway, shoulder cape fluttering behind and to one side with the sudden movement. "You two have a think about that. I have a few things to attend to, but I'll be back later with some more questions."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Eugene was utterly fed up with the stupidity that had become routine ever since Corvatz's election. And as gratuitous exercises in stupidity went, this one was a doozy.

He had no compunctions about telling anyone they were being stupid; he did so on a daily basis. He could and would have told the NCC as much, had anyone bothered to seek his opinion. But perhaps unsurprisingly, no one in that alliance had done so before sending a mage capable of putting Corvatz, of all people, on what amounted to a video conference call. A live video conference call with the deputies, or proxies, or whatever the hell it was that the NCC called the players who spoke for their faction leaders.

A goddamn Diet of Dunces if they think this is going to do anything except blow up in their faces. The play on the name of the Japanese legislature amused him; he'd never much cared for politicians, or politics for that matter, and the way the NCC embraced bureaucracy and pretentious structure for its own sake annoyed the hell out of him. A Council of Cockwits. Parliament of Prats. The Twit Triumvirate. Free-Range Northern Shitbirds. Eugene almost broke his composure and grinned openly at the last, and decided to distract and entertain himself by seeing how many other names he could come up with before the insanity started.

And insanity was most definitely a foregone conclusion. But the Puca they'd sent—a tow-headed young man with the unlikely name of Zefram—had been so incredibly polite, earnest, and deferential to Corvatz that after wrapping up the morning strategy meeting with the senior clearers and department heads, their faction leader had actually allowed it.

This did not make Eugene afraid, but nor did it provide him with any reason for hoping that Corvatz was going to suddenly have an epiphany of diplomatic acumen. It did, however, make him want to cover his face with the mailed palm of his gauntlet and mutter under his breath, and possibly wish for a bookie to take bets on the outcome.

"We may gain actionable intelligence from this farce," Corvatz said, speaking to his senior staff as if Zefram weren't even there. "And if nothing else, a good laugh. Eugene: you, the senior clearing leaders, Nightstick and... " Corvatz hesitated briefly while he recalled the name of the newly-promoted farming lead. "Parker. All of you stay out of frame and keep quiet. Everyone else clear the room, now."

This frustrating set of orders left Eugene in the unenviable position of having no good excuse to leave before the talks were concluded, but being wholly incapable of doing anything but watch the predictable train wreck unfold.

When the proxies finished speaking, there followed a long silence that spanned the room, dividing it like a tripwire no one dared cross. The Salamander Faction Leader received the ultimatum from the players on the other side of the magic portal with something that gave the superficial appearance of serenity, but which was probably just a great exercise of self-discipline. Which, I guess, is one way to get your zen on. But Corvatz isn't exactly—

"So let me make sure I understand your suggestion," Corvatz said, rubbing at the thick brace of decorative steel that ran down from his short brown hair along the line of his jaw like the chin strap of an infantry helmet. "And you'll excuse me if I don't need another five minutes of thesaurus-diddling to sum this up. Your alliance doesn't like the way we, or the Sylphs, are waging war. As a warning, you've blacklisted both me and the Sylph leader, personally, for decisions made in that capacity—until the next election. And you'll do the same to any clearers who don't agree to refrain from using deadly force against targets that might find it deadly."

All three of the NCC proxies looked distinctly uncomfortable, as if they had suddenly discovered full bladders and an imminent need to do something about them. Yurielle, the only one of the three Eugene recognized by sight, got control of herself and stood from her chair. "If you want to put it plainly? Yes. Your actions are making this world a more dangerous place for everyone. And you stand alone on this. Even Lord Haydon referred us back to you, as the man who gave these orders."

"Many of our citizens live and work peacefully in your home city," Daizen said with nervous glances to either side, clearly trying to do damage control. "Both of our peoples benefit from that, and they will be happy to resume serving your needs once the conflict is resolved. But we cannot accept the premise that faction borders do not matter, or that—"

"Enough!" Corvatz barked, bringing Daizen's words to an immediate stop. The Salamander leader stood directly in front of the magic viewport, eyes scanning every angle within the other room that could be seen from his point of view before returning his attention to the three proxies, who'd been stunned into silence. Every word that followed was delivered more calmly, but with no less forceful authority.

"Understand this: either the Salamander alliance wins freedom, or one of our enemies does. But only one alliance can, and yours is a belligerent in that conflict, not some fantasy Switzerland."

"We are not your enemies," the Puca woman identified as Aria said from where she sat beside Daizen, as painfully earnest as Zefram had been. "We are no one's enemies."

"Then you're fools who are never leaving this game. Children playing at war and politics, making it up as you go along. I've indulged this naive illusion of yours long enough; crushing it is a mercy."

Daizen rose from his chair. "I beg your pardon, sir, but remind me which of our factions it was that last cleared a gateway—"

"Proxy Daizen!" said Zefram, fairly squeaking the words; he'd been trying and failing to get someone's attention. "Time!"

It took Eugene a moment to realize that the mage was referring to the spell's duration. It was annoying, if conveniently-timed in this case, but that was just how the thing worked. Eugene figured that Moonlight Mirror probably hadn't been intended for holding long conversations; even their Imp clearers only used it in the World Tree for brief messages and coordination between groups.

As soon as the effect had expired, Corvatz held up a hand sharply to Zefram. His visible anger was as cold, clear and dangerous as a blade of ice, etched in the tightening lines on his face. "Don't cast anything else. Get out until I send for you." He glanced over at Nightstick, the coordinator of the small player-run portion of the Gattan city watch and its local patrols, and nodded. Nightstick in turn pointed to two other players bearing the same flame-and-shield tag denoting a city watchman, and gave a jerk of the thumb that was laden with all the meaning they needed to begin herding the NCC mage out through the nearest doorway.

Once Zefram was gone, Corvatz turned to the rest of remaining Salamander department chiefs and clearing leaders. "Heathcliff, I want the bottom line on the forest task force. How soon can we be self-sufficient in the basic mats most of our clearers need for gear upgrades and maintenance?"

The gravity of Heathcliff's expression matched his voice. "Were the farmers left to do their work in peace, Lord Corvatz, it would be a matter of days to clear the backlog, then less intensive farming for sustenance. But the materials we need are coming in at a trickle due to Sylph ambushes, and costing us dearly at that. We're bringing in more replacements for the lost clearers and farmers this morning, but as I said in yesterday's after-action report: they will take time to train up, and we cannot sustain those losses indefinitely."

"The fact is," Eugene said, grateful for a point where he could speak a language Corvatz might understand, "this is a situation where the Sylphs have an asymmetrical advantage. We have to protect low-level players, and those players have to be able to safely farm without interruption. All the Sylphs have to do is make that too costly or difficult to be worth it. And they're succeeding. There are countermeasures to the Illusion tricks they're using, but they're either expensive consumables or constant skill checks that slow down the farming."

Corvatz absorbed this in brooding silence, breaking it only once his thoughts had run their course. "Assume the NCC follows through with their blacklist threat, and it extends to our clearers. How dependent are we on their services? How much does it actually hurt us if every NCC crafter stops serving us?"

"It doesn't cripple us," Pyrin said. "But it's not so great, either. We've got our share of in-house smiths and crafters, sure, but not enough to keep up with all the daily needs of every one of our clearers and farmers, especially when we're in Arun."

"Realistically speaking," Heathcliff said, "we could manage for a time with good prioritization of work orders. In the long term, we would have to either end the blacklist or develop enough of our own infrastructure to pick up the slack."

"And if their crafters left the city entirely? How many of them are we talking about?"

"We'll take a hit," Eugene said after an uncomfortable pause, trying to remember numbers he'd only seen in passing when going over farming plans with his brother. "There are probably at least a few hundred crafters in this city that aren't Imps or Salamanders. Mort always said that we got a lot of revenue from the taxes the city skims automatically off every system-managed transaction. You or someone else with the perms would have to go digging in the menus."

Their leader looked less than pleased at the mention of his predecessor. Eugene suspected that the way his brother had been increasingly shut out of the decision-making pipeline was no accident, especially since he was running in the next election—a fact of which he'd made no secret whatsoever, and probably couldn't have if he'd wanted to. "You know where to find this information?"

Eugene shook his head, wishing he'd paid more attention to those parts of the faclead interface when he'd had the chance. "Just things he said in passing—the properties everyone rents, supplies they buy from NPC vendors, that sort of thing. I never saw those charts myself, but I can find out if you give me the permissions." Or you could try reading the goddamn manual. It's not like you don't have the free time.

He wasn't going to say that last part out loud, no matter how badly he wanted to. Like my brother keeps saying when he rags me not to get on Corvatz's bad side: "better to have one hand on the wheel than none at all". Well, guess what, bro? Now we're all on greased toboggans riding down Mount Fuji.

Corvatz considered this while Eugene brooded, and then gave a crisp nod. "Tell me what you need and you'll have it. Any other sources of upgrade mats that don't involve an outside dependency?"

Eugene shot a glance over at Parker, the mid-level player and veteran farmer he'd assigned to take over farming coordination after Ziegler's death. The young man looked a bit nervous at being put on the spot, but seemed to find his steel quickly enough. "Well, um. We lost a lot of farming data with Ziegler, and I'm still piecing it back together from what he shared out to all the group leaders. But as for other sources… there's the Imp farmers, but not much point pushing them harder than we already are; the things we need the most don't drop underground anyway. But that also means there's not much point relocating some parties to the lower levels of the World Tree, either."

"Explain," Corvatz ordered. "I've seen overland mob types in the World Tree before. And by all reports, the spawns in Yggdrasil haven't been shuffled the way the outside was."

"That's true, but you still won't find normal animal types," Parker pointed out. "Just special variants unique to the tree, and they don't always have the same loot table. F'rex, there are some Stinging Loper spawns just outside the 5th gateway, but not many of them, and they drop Scorpion Glands, not Spadetails." The nervous, uncomfortable look overcame the young man again. "There's that, and the fact that mid-level players from all factions go to those zones to level up—trying to systematically farm there risks getting into fights with other players. I became a farmer so I wouldn't have to do that, sir. It's bad enough in Sylph—" He stopped himself there, lips set thinly before going on. "In the Ancient Forest."

Corvatz frowned, then nodded without further comment. "What else?"

"Well, we're starting to see some trade caravans reach the city again, but most of what comes in are supplies for local NCC crafters and suppliers, not the faction specifically—they'll sell to us, but it's not ours. And under an NCC blacklist, gotta figure that'll slow or stop as well."

"Could we nationalize those resources? Seize them for ourselves if the NCC tries to use them as leverage?"

Eugene shook his head quickly before anyone could voice support for the latest stupid idea of the day. "We could, sir, but without an inside source we'd have no way of knowing in advance what they had and whether it was useful to us—and I guarantee you we'd never see another caravan again after that. We'd be butchering a chicken because it's too pissed off to lay eggs today."

However, Corvatz was nodding by the time Eugene had finished; he seemed to set the notion aside as soon as the others had spoken. He wondered if the Salamander leader had been seriously entertaining the suggestion, or just using it as a tool to provoke thought. His brother did that sort of thing sometimes, and it made Eugene's head hurt.

"There's merit to all of these arguments," Corvatz said. "These resident aliens do provide a benefit to us. And as long as they caused no trouble and offered a service to all, their presence in this city was tolerable. But now their leaders have demonstrated a willingness to use them as a strategic tool against our interests. And I will not allow an enemy to dictate terms to me, or tolerate a fifth column in our home city. We must send a message that this is unacceptable."

When Zefram had been brought back in and the call re-established, Corvatz stood before the viewport in a parade rest, feet planted shoulder-width apart and hands clasped at the small of his back where a thick leather sword belt wrapped around his mail tunic. "Do not mistake this for a negotiation," he began immediately. "This is a warning: I have no desire for pointless casualties, but I will not tolerate any obstruction to our mission. If your goal is to save as many lives as possible, stay out of our way while we clear the game, and pray that everyone else can be liberated once we've escaped and contacted the proper authorities. Any attempt to interfere with our mission—including using your crafters as an economic weapon—puts all our lives at risk, and will be considered an act of war. Do I make myself clear?"

Daizen, a fat older Gnome with bald patches in his black hair, winced. "Lord Corvatz, neither of us want or benefit from war. Please consider the actual revenue and materials that you would have to expend on this path, the opportunity costs—"

Corvatz turned from the viewport, his gaze falling upon the young Puca mage—who looked utterly terrified, and incapable of voicing it. He ignored Daizen's desperate blather entirely, and made a chopping motion at his neck as he spoke to Zefram in a voice that expected total compliance. "Dismiss your spell now."

The ultraviolet rip in the air that was Moonlight Mirror vanished with a rushing sound a moment later. Zefram was trembling, clearly expecting to be executed out of hand at any moment by a room full of players who for the most part vastly outleveled him—and trying as hard as humanly possible to vanish without the use of magic or skills.

Corvatz waited until he was certain the spell effect was gone, and then turned to the men who'd been biding their time on one side of the room. "General Eugene, would you say that even if we were actively at war with the NCC, this man entered our city under what was effectively a flag of truce?"

"Yes, sir," Eugene said, still stunned and trying to think of anything he could do to repair what had just happened without being openly insubordinate. "Don't see any reason not to let him leave in peace. He's just a messenger." Then an idea occurred to him. "A diplomat too, you could say—best not to cross that line."

"Nightstick?"

The named player thought for a moment, then nodded. "Seems about right. My men said the party had no weapons equipped when they presented themselves, and it's not like there's any law against outsiders being armed even if they were."

Corvatz made an unambiguous gesture towards the door. "Perhaps there ought to be. In any event, have your guards give them a safe escort to the city gates. Their services are no longer required in Gattan. Return here when you're done, I will have further orders."

The visible relief that Zefram showed was nearly comical; Eugene had to fight to refrain from laughing out loud, and did so mainly by virtue of the fact that no one else did either. The guard captain turned on his heel, sweeping his faction-colored shoulder cape to one side, and left with two of his watchmen escorting the NCC representative. Once the door was completely shut behind them, Corvatz turned to the others.

"When Nightstick gets back, I'm ordering him to delegate enforcement permissions to all of you by granting the basic City Watch role to all clearing and farming group leaders. I intend to work with him to draft a new law and a city announcement for it, which will go into effect as soon as allowed."

Eugene was almost afraid to ask the question. "What law, sir?"

"One that makes it an offense to deny commercial services to any member of a Salamander clearing group, farming group, or watchman. The NCC blacklisting me, personally, is an irrelevant gesture—I don't need their services while I lead. But any resident alien who chooses to use their business as leverage against our clearers—or against any other Salamander under arms—is trying to sabotage our logistics chain in an act of war, and will be treated accordingly."

"Are you sure that's wise, my lord?" Heathcliff asked carefully, taking the words—or at least, a few coarser equivalents—out of Eugene's mouth. "A blacklist is temporary. Throwing uncooperative crafters in jail could cause an exodus of skilled labor, and turn that temporary harm into a permanent one."

Eugene nodded, trying to think of how Mort might've handled the situation. The likely consequences were plain as day to him—and if they were so obvious that he could see them, he didn't know how Corvatz couldn't. "You ask me, sir? No foreign crafter would risk living in Gattan again, and we can't force them to work for us anyway."

"Then give me options!" Corvatz retorted sharply, slapping a gloved hand flat on the table before him. "The NCC has proved that they're willing to use the commercial services of their crafters as coercive leverage against us. Do you think they'd hesitate to do the same if we were paying them for mats rather than services? Give me an alternative that does not project weakness or create a strategic dependency for us, and I will consider it."

Eugene was racking his brain trying to do exactly that. To his great relief, Heathcliff stepped in. "My lord, I advise that we weather the blacklist if it comes, avoid doing anything to make things worse, and wait it out. Most of these crafters are unlikely to be ideological partisans. They are trying to survive and run businesses, and a blacklist hurts them as much as it does us—perhaps more. If we refuse to respond in kind, they may become impatient with their own leaders and begin to question what they are gaining by complying."

Corvatz scoffed. "What was it I just said about projecting weakness? Meekly rolling over for the NCC—or anyone else!—only invites them, or others, to continue."

"Refusing to respond to the NCC's threats isn't weakness," Eugene said, the sandstone tiles absorbing his booted footsteps as he walked up Corvatz and confronted him directly. "People who make demands or threats they can't enforce are the ones who look weak, and that's what they've made the mistake of doing here." Don't make the same mistake, he added silently, hoping that Corvatz was smart enough to get the message anyway. A corner of his lips curled upwards ever so slightly. "They can threaten us, sir. They can even sting us. But they can't actually do anything to stop us. And the more the idiots posture to no effect, the weaker they'll look to everyone else."

While Corvatz digested this argument, Heathcliff joined Eugene at his side and gave his support. "General Eugene speaks wisely, my lord. And the reverse of what he says is true as well: there is no practical way to force crafters to work for us if they don't want to, and trying to coerce them to do so under threat will backfire in countless ways. Then we will be the ones who look weak in the eyes of the world, and it will become that much easier for any others to defy us on more important matters."

Corvatz was silent again for a time, pacing the length of the room slowly with his hands clasped behind his back. "I will make no law or policy changes at this time," he said after a last glance at his HUD, including Parker with the sweep of a gaze that took in Heathcliff as well before settling on Eugene. "General, it is 0823 hours on 20 May. The three of you have 72 hours to find an alternative solution to our shortages and bring me your recommendations. At that time I will decide on a plan, and you will execute it without further delay. In the meantime, get the farmers back out there. Dismissed."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Rei's hysterical sobs tapered off not long after the Salamanders were all gone, but her trembling didn't, and it took her some time to uncurl herself from the protective fetal ball she was in. She began to shakily push herself up into a sitting position against the back wall of her cell, not far from the bars separating their cells from each other. Yuuki didn't try to reach through the bars to offer reassurance; she strongly suspected that Rei wouldn't want to be touched. Instead, she tried to do what she could with words. "I'm so sorry they put you through that."

"It's my own fault," Rei said quietly, arms wrapped around herself as she leaned up against the cold stone of the cell's back wall. "This is all my fault. I got us into this mess."

"No it's not!" Yuuki said immediately. "Don't do that to yourself, Rei. It's not like you had to twist my arm to get me to come along. And you are not responsible for anyone else's actions, especially not sickos like Mawari and Prophet. They're gonna answer for what they did someday."

"Maybe, but it's my own stupid fault we got caught."

"No it's not," Yuuki protested again. "It's just not, okay? We did everything we could to get those people out of there. Don't blame yourself for what happened—Fianna said Prophet already knew our names."

Rei went silent for a very long time after that, one hand creeping absently up to her neck where the axe blade had struck. There couldn't possibly have been any pain, but she winced at the touch of her fingertips and withdrew them as if burned. After what she'd been through, Yuuki decided to give her the space and returned to her own thoughts.

When Rei finally turned to look over at Yuuki through her light violet bangs, her eyes held a kind of sadness—possibly even regret—that Yuuki had often seen in the mirror. What came out of her mouth next, though, was completely unexpected. "Do you remember when I told you my riaru name?"

Yuuki did remember, though she hadn't taken any special notice of it at the time; she knew a lot of players considered real names to be very personal information, and she'd thought Rei had only revealed it in order to explain the silly nickname that Jonas used for her. "Something Chinese, wasn't it?"

"Partially, yeah," Rei said. "On my father's side, my family name: Su. But my mother was Japanese, and she picked my given name: Rei, for gratitude, because she was so happy to finally have a child at her age."

Yuuki wondered just how common it really was for players to pick their character names based on their real ones, given the common taboo against discussing real-life identities. She, Asuna and Rei had all used some part of theirs; how many others? "It's a pretty name."

The wistful sadness on Rei's face broke for a moment in a thin smile. "Thanks." But the smile faded almost as soon as it appeared, and it seemed like she had more to say yet. "I was born premature, and ended up kind of, well…" She trailed off, and gestured to herself from top to bottom; it took a moment for Yuuki to realize that she was indicating her body as a whole. "Our avatars aren't scaled like the Gnomes, you know. I look like a kid, but I'm twenty years old, Yuuki. I've always been this little, and I always will be."

"I'm sorry." Yuuki didn't know what else to say, but she felt for Rei. Her and Aiko's births had been troubled as well; it was a large part of why her real body was so frail.

"Don't be," Rei said with a brief wave. "It's just how it is. But being small and quiet, most people just kinda overlooked me, you know? It became a running joke with my friends and family. 'Oh, Rei, I didn't realize you were there.' 'Where were you all this time, Rei?' 'You came out of nowhere, little ghost.'" She smiled faintly again, eyes distant. "That was what everyone called me when I was a kid: Ghost. Believe me, I've heard every variation on it."

It was no surprise that someone had made that play on words with the woman's name at some point, given one of the alternate ways that rei could be written; Yuuki wondered if her companion liked the nicknames or not. But then she averted her gaze from Yuuki's, eyes going to the ground. "What happens if you flip my given and family names around, Western style?"

Yuuki obligingly tried to sound it out. "Su Rei, right? Rei Su."

She clapped a hand over her mouth almost immediately, eyes widening slightly as she heard what she'd said out loud, a spike of awful truth lancing through her.

"Reisu," echoed Rei, continuing while anguish slowly filled Yuuki. "Once we started mandatory English classes, it didn't take my classmates long to turn my name into 'Wraith'. You could tell if someone was my friend or not by which nickname they used." She looked Yuuki's direction for only a moment, but couldn't meet her eyes. "Protip: no friend of mine ever calls me that. But there's no ID cards in this world, and a different name might as well be a different life."

"You were with Prophet," Yuuki said, barely recognizing her own voice through how pained it was.

Rei's fingers tightened on the fabric of the gi she was wearing, fingers white-knuckled as she gripped her knees. "Yes and no," she said.

"But Kirito saw you there in the Sewers," Yuuki said, trembling. "You stole Sasha's research. Why?"

"Kumi sent me to Arun to take out a Salamander war criminal who never left the city. I watched his routine for a week, but he always latched his residence from the inside, and I couldn't find any way to get at him." Her lips tightened to a pencil-thin line, a grimace tugging at her cheeks. "I got desperate. I'd heard Prophet's name come up a few times hunting Sals, so I had some contacts get his attention. He came to me with a deal: I steal some books for him while the owner's out, bring them to him in the Sewers, and he'd handle the monkey."

Then she did, with obvious reluctance, raise her gaze to Yuuki's. "Quick and easy, right?" she said, voice cracking a little. "Sneak in, go Transparent or invis, maybe pick a few locks, grab all the books and scrolls. In and out in like five minutes, then just head to the Sewers, follow the party leader's map marker, and hand over the goods. By the time I got there, whatever happened was already over, and I had nothing to do with it. And when I desperately needed backup here for the Sandmen and I couldn't reach anyone else, I just thought… since he'd been willing to help me once..." Her voice became smaller yet. "After I sent another message to Kumiko, I… I asked him..." She couldn't finish the sentence.

"But…" There were tears of betrayal in Yuuki's eyes, and she struggled to find her words through them. "You know what he is. You know what he did there."

Rei dropped her eyes again, arms hugging her legs; it took her a few seconds to muster her own words. In that moment, she looked and sounded no older than Yuuki herself. "I do now."

"You've known what he did the whole time we were together."

Another uncomfortably long pause. "Yeah."

All of the pain and rage welled up in Yuuki at once; her voice very nearly became a shriek. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Rei, surprisingly, didn't respond in kind, or even look up at the outburst. She just sat there with her chin on her knees, voice small. "Why do you think?"

Before Yuuki could think of anything to say to that, or put much thought into what it meant, the woman finally managed to lift her head and meet Yuuki's eyes properly. "Kumi didn't know about Prophet, and she hadn't given me any details when she called me back to Everdark. I didn't know who you were—or what actually happened in the Sewers—until you told me who you were looking for, and why."

One of Yuuki's hands tightened into a fist at her side; she felt the overwhelming urge to punch Rei for her deception, and was almost as shocked at her own impulse as at the revelation that had prompted it. The way she felt at the moment, it was just as well they were separated by the bars of their cells. "And then? You've been leading me on this whole time. Keeping me from looking for Prophet and his gang."

Rei shook her head quickly. "You've got it all wrong, Yuuki. I've been trying to help you. I thought maybe if I helped you settle your old scores… got you some closure… but then when we found out about all this stuff, I couldn't just walk away..."

"If you wanted to help me," Yuuki said, "you should've told me the truth. Why keep lying about it?"

Once again, Rei went silent; it seemed that she had nothing more to say. Yuuki slumped back against the wall and stared blankly at the ceiling. A minute passed, perhaps another, and unexpectedly Rei spoke again, her voice smaller and more timid than Yuuki had ever heard it. "Because I like you. You're a much nicer person than I am, and I didn't want you to hate me." When she looked up again, her eyes were wet. "I'm sorry."

It wasn't good enough. Yuuki wasn't sure if it would ever be good enough. Tears welled up again in her eyes, and this time there was nothing she could do to keep them from trickling down her cheeks.

"Laughing Coffin."

Yuuki's head tilted slightly to the side until she could just see Rei, looking over at her. "What?"

"The core group calls themselves 'Laughing Coffin'. It's not an official guild, so don't bother checking the registry, but that's their name. The man who goes by 'Prophet'... I only partied with him that once, but his character name is actually «PoH». 'Black' is short for «Johnny Black». There are others, at least three or four that I've met, but I didn't get names and don't know for sure how many or where they hole up." Rei scooted herself up against her own wall; Yuuki could no longer keep looking her way without craning her neck uncomfortably, so she leaned her head back and regarded the ceiling blankly again staring off into space.

"I didn't know," she said again, so low that it barely even qualified as a whisper.

At the moment, Yuuki wasn't sure how much that really mattered. Nor was she convinced that even knowing the character names of Prophet's gang was going to do them any good. Like Rei said… in this world, all you have to do is use a different name to become another person. I've fought Johnny Black face-to-face, so I'd probably recognize him anywhere no matter what name he gave… but I must've flown right by Rei when she was in the Sewers with Prophet, and if she hadn't just now told me who she really was... I still wouldn't know.

All because of a stupid name.

She put her head down on her knees, arms hugging her legs, and waged an uneasy stalemate between anger and grief at the idea that she could no longer trust anyone to be who—or what—they seemed.

·:·:·:·:·:·

Mortimer could see the Lopers from where he was sitting—or rather, he could see what appeared to be Lopers, which might or might not have been the case; he and the rest of his farming group were not so much sitting as cautiously crouching behind a large fallen tree trunk. The moss-covered hulk of rotting wood would block LOS and offered decent concealment from the riverside clearing below them, but he knew they were still exposed if there were any Sylphs using Searching or Detect Movement—or if anyone in range was looking their way when they poked enough of themselves out of cover for the system to decide that they were in view.

It couldn't be helped. The party was here to farm mats, and they could only afford the time for so much caution before they had to take risks. Inaction is not a free action, Mortimer reminded himself. It's a choice like any other, and it carries its own risks.

"I hate this," said Ixion, the young generalist mage who covered all of their utility magic, spell-based DPS, and backup healing. "We've been out here for weeks now, and all it's accomplishing is getting us killed one by one. Can't we get the Spadetails somewhere else?"

"The market in Arun?" Getsumei, a barrel-shaped man with a two-handed battle axe on his back, grinned as he said it. "I know, I'm kidding, but I bet if we asked the clearers to look the other way, we could make the trip to Arun and back in the time we'd usually spend farming. Use all the money we've been spending on repairs and consumables to buy a shitpile of Loper Spadetails. Eugene'd probably have kittens—" He abruptly stopped in mid-sentence, looking sheepishly over at Mortimer. "Um. Sorry, sir. You know I'm joking, right?"

Mortimer smiled and waved in a slight dismissive gesture to signal that he wasn't offended. "Relax, Getsumei. It's a rough situation we're all in together, and I'm not going to go telling stories to my brother." Well, I am, but only the ones I think will get a laugh out of him. "Like I said when I first joined up, I'm melee DPS, not your leader or some kind of observer."

"Well, I'm calling it," Parker said after blinking the Searching effect from his eyes. "They've stayed Lopers for five minutes now, and we don't have enough Truesight pots left to be going through them the way we have been. We're burning daylight with only a single stack to show for it so far."

Mortimer reluctantly agreed. The line distinguishing carelessness from efficiency was sometimes thin, faint, and highly dependent in retrospect on whether the results were good or bad. He glanced off to the east where he knew the clearing groups would be keeping overwatch, but couldn't see them; they'd undoubtedly be observing using spells and skills he didn't have. Eyes returning to the clearing and tracing across the ground they had to cover, he reached over and nudged their party leader.

"Their ambush tactics so far have been to carpet bomb parties with AOEs, with status alpha strikes to disable tanks and healers. I recommend we split into two groups. Each a delta with twenty-meter separation between members—tank in one group and melee DPS off-tanking in the other, a mage in each. Any ambushers will have to burn their cooldowns on very high-magnitude spells in order to have the AOE radius to disable more than one of us at once, and if those aren't Lopers they'll have to break cover to avoid being encircled."

Parker smiled as he inclined his head towards Mortimer in answer. "Good ideas all." He turned to their tank. "We'll split into two squads like he suggested. Ironhide, take Getsumei and Jojo and head over to…" He peered out across the bowl-shaped flat area embracing a small lagoon off the river. "Circle around this ridge to that pair of big cypress trees and cut down to the basin from there. Mort and Ixion, we'll wait here until Iron's in position, then head down at the same time they do."

Ironhide's group was quickly lost to the foliage, and while Parker kept his map open with a close watch on the waypoint they'd set, Mortimer eyed the three widely-spaced Lopers he could see in the basin. From the last ambush attempt, we know they've figured out they have to scatter a bit in order to look like Lopers, which don't congregate naturally in linked encounters. They've even started trying to imitate their idle animations. But even if those really are Sylphs under a very long-duration Illusion spell, they're going to be bait for us, not the main ambush party. His eyes rose from the two red-cursored mobs—or what looked like mobs—and scanned the craggy skyland above, then the dense treeline at ground level, which only began to thin once it descended towards the lowland.

"I don't like this," Mortimer said quietly. "If I were Sylph gankers looking to set up an ambush, it'd be hard to pass up this spot. Anyone approaching those Lopers is going to be exposed from all sides and backed up against the river, forced to remain exposed and spend wing energy to escape. And between that low-altitude skyland and all the tree cover, there could be a Transparent army waiting for all we know. This flanking maneuver might smoke some of them out if they're hidden in the trees, but that's its own problem."

Mortimer got line-of-sight to a green cursor now and then through the gaps in the trees, which—although reassuring in a way—was also a concern. If he could get LOS to them from here, it meant any Sylphs who happened to be looking right at them might catch a glimpse of red player cursors on the move.

After a few minutes the rest of the party appeared at the designated cypress trees standing alone on the incline, and Parker tapped his squad on the shoulders to call attention to it. Exchanging nods with him, Mortimer climbed over the mossy deadfall and headed down the hill; as their tankiest melee DPS member, stepping into any forward or off-tank role was his responsibility.

He glanced back once or twice to make sure that Parker and Ixion were following at an appropriate distance, but mostly kept his eyes on the Lopers and the tree-covered embankments. He heard familiar voices casting spells behind him, and saw familiar icons appear on his status bar.

Mortimer only barely caught the motion in his upper peripheral vision in time, and then only because his squad and Ironhide's were so widely separated. The small projectile, dark in color, must have been cast from the skyland above; its trajectory took it straight down towards the other group. Mortimer opened his mouth to shout a warning before realizing his voice might not even carry well enough; the words he spoke as he took one hand off the grip of his sword were something else entirely. "Hitto yojikke tamzul buren!"

Before he'd even finished the incantation, Mortimer was swinging the palm of his hand up and over his head. He saw a «Paralysis» icon appear on Ironhide's bar in his party list just as a similar projectile struck the Defensive Shield Mortimer was maintaining overhead and dispersed across it, consuming a portion of his MP bar. As he'd suspected, the Sylph mages must have started with their lowest-magnitude Paralysis spells in case they needed to recast it; none of the effect leaked through to him.

The lowest point of the skyland was well out of Focus spell distance and barely within the range limit of an unguided projectile, so the spellfire that rained down on the split Salamander party was entirely the latter. The barrage consisted of projectiles from multiple elements in a relentless assault of arcane artillery; Mortimer continued maintaining the Defensive Shield over his head like a fiery umbrella, palm to the sky, using it to absorb the blasts and debuffs he couldn't evade as he kicked off the ground and flew at top speed towards the other half of the party, MP draining rapidly. The melee members of that squad were both following Mort's example now that Jojo had cured the Paralysis status on their tank, and the two of them held up their shields so that they overlapped as well as possible, giving the healer breathing room to get them topped off and buffed and waiting for an opening to escape.

The Sylphs must have realized that their prey were about to flee; there was a lull in the barrage of spell effects, and through the flaming disc of his shield Mortimer caught sight of six red cursors growing rapidly larger and spreading out as they flew downwards.

About half a dozen spells coming at a time now. They've got two parties, standard minimal raid group of clearers—big enough to concentrate more force at one point than any single party could resist, but small enough to be easy to conceal and quick to respond. That's a mage group up above still providing cover fire, which means that what's coming at us is—

The Sylph woman's velocity and the weight of her full plate armor slammed into the shield Mortimer held overhead, depleting most of Mortimer's remaining MP and dissipating the shield as he flew backwards. Both hands back on his sword, he brought the two-hander up and came to one knee just quickly enough to receive a blow from the woman's longsword, and a surge of power to his wings pulled him away from the follow-up she tried to deliver with her kite shield.

Mortimer grimaced as he risked a glance at his status bar; his weapon outweighed hers considerably, but the difference in their STR stats meant that some damage had still soaked through the block, and he was going to have a hard time getting past her gleaming green-and-white shield. Worse, three of the other HP bars in his party list were already grayed out, overwhelmed by the sudden appearance of powerful melee opponents in their midst. Ixion was the only Water mage still left alive, and he was down with Paralysis and Silence icons on his status bar. This is over already, Mortimer thought grimly. But I'm still going to make them work for it.

The Sylph approach to coping with an enemy party too widely spaced to cover with a single AOE or control with a full party seemed to be to assign one melee attacker to each opposing player. Mortimer caught sight of the mages descending from above as they took over healing and buffing duties from a safe distance. The covering fire from the mage group had largely abated now; there wouldn't be any risk of harming their allies, but AOE force—Wind Magic in particular—caused a physics impulse that would still knock anyone around who wasn't Braced, party member or not. With the rest of his party down, the Sylph attackers began to encircle the trampled ground where Mortimer was facing off against their tank.

"Get back, all of you get back!" the woman shouted, making a pushing motion with her shield as a katana user tried to flank Mortimer with killing intent. "This one is mine!"

"That's enough, Chihae!" snapped a swordsman with light green hair; Mortimer was certain he looked familiar from the beta. "The rest of these are as good as dead; let's put this one down and be gone before their friends show up."

"No," Chihae said, blade clashing against Mortimer's and knocking him back with the force of it. His HP was yellow and getting dangerously close to red. "He's putting up a decent fight, and I want the satisfaction of beating him myself."

"Fool woman, their clearers will be here any moment! You've gotten vengeance for your husband already, isn't this—"

"Don't you dare speak to me about Natsuo, Sigurd!" Chihae said, voice rising to a hateful snarl as she shot Sigurd a look full of outrage. The moment of distraction was enough that Mortimer was actually able to land a solid hit on her; the high crosscut of his «Guillotine Swipe» sliced a glowing red gash across her chest and knocked her kite shield aside during the follow-through.

Like all of the others he'd been using, the technique was fast and had almost no freeze time. Unfortunately, Chihae's guard wasn't the only one exposed by the way the hit had landed; Guillotine Swipe ended with only one hand on the two-handed sword, letting it swing wide, and that left the user open for the crucial moments it would take to bring the sword back to bear and resume the two-handed grip that would let him trigger techs.

Instead of that obvious recovery move, Mortimer raised his left hand the moment it came free, before the tech's animation ended and the short freeze time began. The words came to his lips almost unbidden, drilled into him by hours of repetition in the Sandmen's dungeon. "Hitto yojikke tovslagu jan!" Fire surged down his arm and into Chihae's center of mass at point-blank range; a red icon appeared on her status bar.

Mortimer knew the Distress debuff would only keep her from using techniques for a few seconds, or even less if her Fire or Status Resists were high. He used the momentum from the wide follow-through to swing the two-hander high above his head, both hands coming together in something close to a men position, the pre-motion for «Long Division». Unable to parry with a tech, Chihae was already bringing her sword back up in a defensive posture, but Long Division was meant to be a finishing strike against a disabled opponent—it had extremely high priority added on top of the already-superior weight of the two-handed sword. The heavy blow crashed through her freehand guard as if it wasn't there; it struck the flat of her longsword where it was weakest, shattering the slender blade near the middle and cutting deeply into one of her pauldrons.

Like all finishers, Long Division was slow, obvious, and cumbersome—but if it landed, it was extremely powerful. Against an opponent of similar level and gear, it could easily take half of their health— if not kill them outright, should the blow land on the head as intended. Against a tank he presumed was a clearer, the slightly-deflected blow was barely a tenth of her green HP bar, which was hardly enough to decide the battle. Mortimer was certain the clearer would have a backup weapon; it didn't surprise him that even before the broken halves finished shattering into polygons she was already scrambling in her menu, rising into the air to give herself breathing room to get it equipped.

Sigurd was already in the air, and he wasn't giving her a chance to re-engage. He looked at something behind Mortimer, and scowled as he turned to his party member. "If you're finished being an embarrassment," he said acidly, "we are done here."

"Rez them, Sigurd," Mortimer urged, knowing it was probably futile. "You've made your point for today, and it's not necessary for them to die. They'd do it for you if our positions were reversed."

"I doubt that," Sigurd said. "Cherish the second chance at life you've been allowed, Salamander. If you keep coming here, we shall put you down like the feral monkeys you are."

There was nothing Mortimer could say or do if they chose to blast him on their way out. However, the abrasive sound of Salamander wings was growing louder behind him, and the Sylph mages were already busy turning their own parties Transparent again to hide their cursors. Wasting no further time, Mortimer brought his wings back out and raced at his top speed towards Ixion, whose Paralysis status had expired but who still showed the black-and-white ellipsis icon of Silence. The green crystal Mortimer quickly pulled from a pouch made short work of that.

The duel must have felt longer than it actually had been; Ixion was able to get Parker rezzed just in time. There was no way they could've reached the other half of the party, but Mortimer breathed a little easier when he saw Pyrin and his mages already recovering their dwindling Remain Lights.

Mortimer didn't see any more attackers, but he still didn't feel comfortable sheathing his weapon. "Everyone okay?"

"As can be," Parker said, his voice shaky. "What the hell just happened?"

Still keeping an eye out for further threats, Mortimer spoke to his party leader as Ixion got them both healed back to full. "A very well-planned gank, executed by people who are good at adjusting to the unexpected on the fly… and thwarted by one person's grief and anger driving them to make careless mistakes." He turned to face Heathcliff as he and his party approached. "Good to see you, my friend—moreso even than usual."

"I'm glad we were able to save everyone this time," the clearing group tank responded. "And unless I misunderstood what I saw, I'd say your delaying action had no small part to play in that."

The compliment only merited a shake of the head. "No, all I did was tie up one of their tanks for a bit. Nothing that could've materially changed the equation between twelve clearers and six farmers."

"As you say." The rest of the clearers had taken up scattered defensive positions while the farming group gathered around. Heathcliff turned to Parker next. "They hit the other party simultaneously with another small raid. Once you've all recovered, I want everyone to regroup back at the observation point. We will then decide how to proceed."

Parker's jaw was tight with visible anger, but he seemed to be trying his best to be polite. "With all due respect, sir, can we maybe think about proceeding somewhere else? Somewhere that maybe doesn't involve PvP? It's been day after day of this shit. Even if we're not allowed to trade for what we need because reasons, these can't be the only Lopers spawning out there in the world. What is Corvatz's obsession with getting them from the Sylphs?"

Heathcliff maintained a stony front until Parker was finished with his rant. "These are Lord Corvatz's orders," he said, as if that were an answer. Mort had worked with Heathcliff for months, and still could not get a read on him well enough to speculate about the man's actual opinion on the matter. However, he knew as soon as Heathcliff's words were spoken that they were the wrong approach here.

"Fuck orders!" Parker said hotly. "I didn't enlist with the SDF, I'm trying to help everyone survive by grinding in a goddamn video game! Farmers aren't supposed to be fighting anyone!"

Mortimer had been keeping silent, but the grumbles of discontent from the other farmers hinted at a problem that needed to be addressed sooner rather than later. "I've got this, Heathcliff. Why don't you check on the others? We'll meet you back at the rendezvous."

Once he was alone with his farming group, Mortimer gathered them close and took the measure of them; what he saw was not reassuring. "We've been fortunate not to lose anyone so far today," he said to no one in specific. "But there's no denying that this has been brutal on all of us—and you've all been enduring it for far longer than I have." He addressed his party leader directly. "You're right, Parker—this isn't what farmers are supposed to be doing. And it's unjust that we've been put in this position. But right now we have people depending on us. We're needed."

Parker was already shaking his head; there was a haunted look on his face. "Not me," he said. "I know I was one of the first Salamander farmers, but seniority's not everything. I can't keep doing this. And if this is what it's going to be like, I'm not the guy for this job."

"No PvP experience? You don't have to answer that."

Parker looked at the ground in clear discomfort, shoulders slumped, but answered anyway. "Not… not since the day after launch." At Mortimer's sound of query, he gave his head a quick shake, seeming to pull himself back together. "Story for another time, if ever. You know how horrible it was during Kibaou's invasion. Most of us were just trying to ride it out one way or another."

Mortimer did indeed, though he imagined his own experience of being locked away by Kibaou was probably very different than whatever Parker had gone through, or been forced to do. He saw no need to press further into territory that was clearly traumatic for their farming leader. "I'm going to see if I can convince Heathcliff to pull us back for the day and rotate in a fresh group. Just keep in mind that he's my superior here, not the other way around."

"I wish you were," Getsumei said. The fellow DPSer spoke earnestly, drawing Mortimer's gaze to the side in time to see the others nodding. "You always let farmers be farmers, and the frogs never gave us grief when you were in charge."

"Maybe," Mortimer allowed. "But someone else has that authority at the moment, and we have to deal with the facts as they are. There is nothing I can do to sway Corvatz from this path. I've tried, and I'm genuinely sorry that I failed. Without my old position, this is where I can do the most good for now."

"I don't think that's true," Parker said. "Sir, you're a great swordsman, and I've never seen someone level up their magic as quickly as you have. And no matter what you told Heathcliff, you're probably the only reason I'm alive right now. The farmers I know admire you, and I'm glad to have you in my party. But you shouldn't be here any more than we should—just for different reasons."

"What do you imagine I can do elsewhere, if not here?"

"Survive," said their farming lead. "Go back to Gattan, get through the next week and a half alive, and get your old job back. Look, sir… after Kibaou invaded the Imps, I ran and hid in a neutral town because I couldn't take any more fighting. I became a farmer because I heard you promised to keep farmers out of faction PvP, and you kept that promise. But now…?" He gestured all around him.

Ixion added his own agreement. "This isn't what I signed up for. This isn't what any of us signed up for."

"I've been a farmer since the first days of it, sir. I know all of them, even if only by name." Parker met Mortimer's eyes. "Saying they're not happy is an understatement, and a few have already quit. We're not soldiers, man. Corvatz is going to lose the rest of us if this keeps up. All of us, or near enough."

It took a one-on-one conversation with Heathcliff and a stark explanation of just how bad farmer morale had gotten, but the clearing leader agreed to send the two damaged farming groups back to Gattan and reassign someone else. Corvatz would undoubtedly have harsh words for Heathcliff as a result, but Mortimer didn't really care at the moment—it needed to be done, and if there was anyone in the faction who could weather their leader's ire without flinching, and perhaps even get through, it was that eternally unflappable clearing tank.

Mortimer and Parker had become fast friends in the time they'd been partying, and the man was clearly shaken enough by the day's events that it seemed like a good idea to give him a bit of company after returning to the city. The Leprechaun smith used by Parker's group for their gear maintenance gave a curious raise of the eyebrows at how early they'd returned, but accepted the items for service without prying, for which Mortimer was grateful.

Parker's apartment was on the other side of the Palace District where Mortimer shared a much-larger residence with his brother. They walked together there primarily in silence, punctuated now and then by small talk about lighter matters. The path took them past the city jail where he'd been recently training, and they'd just turned the corner when Mortimer suddenly held out a hand to stop Parker from continuing. "Hold a moment."

The mage jogging down the steps of the jailhouse had his hood up, and they were some distance away still, but Mortimer recognized the distinctive dark red robes that Mars had worn every time he'd come to train. The young Salamander man gave a quick look up and down the street before hurrying away from the intersection where Mortimer and Parker had stopped, moving as if he were late for something important.

"Someone you know?" asked Parker once the mage was out of sight.

"An acquaintance," Mortimer answered, sensing an opportunity but unable to quite put his finger on why that was so. Eyes scanning the crowd, he quickly came to a decision. "Parker, I need a favor from you, if that's all right."

"Sir," Parker said solemnly, "you saved our lives today. Anything you need."

"Stay here, look normal, make like you're doing business with one of the NPCs. I want you to send me a PM the moment—the very moment—that mage, or anyone else, enters the jail. Start the PM now, leave it hanging open in front of you ready to send."

"Yes, sir," said Parker, hands moving in the air while he did as requested. "Can I ask what this is about?"

Mortimer paused for a moment, thinking. "Seeing if I can figure out how the food is made," he said cryptically, turning away from Parker's bemused silence and heading towards the jail's front door.

·:·:·:·:·:·

The Sandmen seemed to have a particular vendetta against Rei—which, on reflection, wasn't all that surprising to Yuuki; her older companion had killed some of them after all, or at least turned them into Remain Lights.

She eventually lost count of the times they returned the favor. A few of those times Mars or Trigger even needed to wait for cooldown on a rez, cutting it painfully—frightfully—close to ending her life. It became a cycle: Mawari would return with questions, Rei would scream at him with varying levels of coherence, and he'd calmly have her dismembered. When she still refused to cooperate, they'd reduce her to a Remain Light with industrial efficiency, and bring her to the brink of permadeath again and again.

"Why don't you leave her alone?" Yuuki yelled at them after what seemed like hours of this treatment; without a HUD, she had no way to tell what time it was or how long had really passed.

Mawari simply smiled at her in an automatic sort of way, and answered, "because she's more likely to know the things I need to know than you are. And because she's an annoying bitch who needs to be broken." He turned back to the methodically sadistic work as one of the Sandmen continued counting down the seconds Rei had left to live this time. "Don't worry, we'll get our chance to have a nice chat. How that goes depends on you."

He didn't need to elaborate. The message was clear enough; Rei's torment was the medium.

Then, when Mawari signaled them at some arbitrary point, the cycle broke. The Sandman with the axe removed Rei's left arm in addition to the other limbs, then Mars refreshed her Silence and Paralysis statuses at a high magnitude. There was another pair of Sandmen with them this time, carrying one of the empty crates Yuuki had seen downstairs. Instead of stabbing Rei to zero with the low-damage polearms they wielded to control players, they used them to lift her into the crate, as if loading a hay bale with pitchforks. Her avatar didn't make a sound when it hit the inside of the container.

Yuuki could do nothing but futilely rage at the bars of her cell until she got an «Immortal Object» pop-up. Mawari gave her a shallow bow in parting, then followed the procession of Sandmen and their ghoulish cargo in the presumed direction of the lift down to Black Iron Oubliette.

Though it was impossible to be certain, it had easily been hours since then, and Yuuki had not seen Rei since. Nor had Mawari or any other Sandman returned.

No one had. She might as well have existed in her own instanced zone.

Yuuki was hungry, and tried to ignore the sensation without much success. No one had brought food since their capture, and she could neither access her menu nor get any of her pouches or bags to open. The loss of her HUD, omnipresent since launch even when her eyes were closed, was frightening in its own way—she didn't have a clock to gauge the time, nor could she check her party list to see if Rei was still alive.

She was trying to forgive Rei, but it wasn't coming easily. The lying stung, but she could get past it; people made mistakes, and Rei had done it because she didn't want to hurt Yuuki—or at least, that's what she'd said. But working with Prophet…

She didn't know, Yuuki tried to tell herself. She didn't know what Prophet was going to do in the Sewers, it was just a burglary to her. But that didn't exactly make things a whole lot better, either—and there was no escaping the fact that Rei had committed even that nonviolent crime in exchange for Prophet's promise to kill someone else for her.

A war criminal, Rei had said. Yuuki wasn't so sure. After everything she'd seen, after so many lies, that wasn't a claim she felt like taking on faith.

But no matter what Rei had done… she didn't deserve what Mawari was doing to her. No one did. Every time she came close to being angry at Rei again, Yuuki thought of the last time she'd seen her companion's face, the raw terror and hysteria as the Sandmen cut her limbs from her avatar and loaded her into an apparently-enchanted crate, sealing it shut and carting her off like a box of cargo being moved to deep storage. For all she knew, that was exactly—literally—what they were doing.

They're going to pay for this. All of them. But how? I can't get out. I'll get my HUD and menu back when the «Prisoner» cooldown expires, just like I did when they re-arrested me earlier. But they'll disable me with spells before I have any chance to re-equip my weapon, use an item, or cast a spell. I can't even send a message until then, and even if I could, I'd have to pack a lot of stuff into the quickest, shortest message I could.

She almost snorted out loud. Good luck doing that while I'm trying to dodge spells. What can I do?

The question was one of many that had occupied Yuuki's mind over the intervening hours, treading and re-treading mental ground until she felt like she'd picked apart her problems from every angle. She prayed for guidance, but no matter what words she imagined saying to God, they all fell short of articulating her turmoil or her need, and she never felt guidance or certainty in the thoughts that floated freely through her.

So complete was Yuuki's inner focus at times that she almost didn't notice the sound of a door at first. As soon as it penetrated, she felt adrenaline-fueled clarity take over, and she rushed towards the front of the cell to get the best possible view of the hallway it faced.

The person who poked his head cautiously around the corner was not who she'd expected. But nor was the former Salamander leader a welcome sight—not after what she'd seen and heard, watching him talk with the same Sandman mage who'd helped them do what they'd done to Rei.

"You." Yuuki chose the most contemptuous second-person pronoun she knew of for the single word, investing it with as much venom as she could.

The man's wine-colored eyebrows raised, as if he was surprised at her vehemence. "Me," he agreed with a nod, using a pronoun that was far more polite than the one she'd just employed. "At least, I should hope so. What's your name, young lady? Did you trip the anti-harassment code on someone?"

Yuuki felt herself wanting to back away from the door of the cell, and wasn't sure exactly why. She forced down the anxious gut reaction and stepped forward until she was just on the other side, mere meters from the Salamander man. "Don't play dumb," she said. "I've seen the good-cop-bad-cop thing in movies. You're gonna come in here and try to be my friend so I'll tell you what Mawari wants to know." She folded both arms across her lightweight breastplate. "Not gonna happen."

However, the surprise and confusion on the taller man's lean, narrow features, was… if not genuine, at the very least a good job of acting it. Gazing down at her for a few long moments, he sank to a high crouch in front of the barred cell door with his arms draped over his thighs, bringing his eyes more level with hers. "There are a lot of things I wish I knew," he said slowly. "But I don't think I'm who you think I am, because if I were, I doubt I'd have to ask your name. And also because one of those things I'd like to know is who this 'Mawari' actually is."

She thought about giving Mortimer a fake name, the way Rei had done when she was working with Prophet. But subterfuge was not her strong suit, and she knew it. Don't quit school for a life of espionage, Argo had told her. You suck at being evasive. She'd been a little offended at the time, but Yuuki knew it was just the unvarnished truth, with nothing added to sweeten its naturally bitter taste.

Once Yuuki straightened her posture, it was she who was looking down slightly at the bigger man, and she took advantage of it to steel herself, arms still defiantly crossed. "I'm Yuuki. And I know who you are. You're Mortimer, the last leader. And I've already seen you in here with the Sandmen, so you can save your lies. I've got nothing to say that you wanna hear, not until you let me and Rei and all your other prisoners go."

Mortimer looked briefly taken aback, eyes becoming slightly unfocused in a way she'd seen Kirito do when he was thinking really hard. "Oh," he said, and then looked as if he'd just realized something important. "Oh. Yes, if that's what you think, I can understand why you'd distrust me on sight." He looked back up at Yuuki and met her eyes; when he did, she felt an uncomfortable pang of self-doubt at what she saw there.

"Yuuki," he said, speaking with great care, "I am indeed Mortimer. I've met a few of the Sandmen, but I'm not one of them, and as far as I know I've never met anyone named Mawari. I don't know what they want from you, nor will I pry after it. What I would like to ask about are the things you seem to think I already know. Because I have my suspicions about what the Sandmen are doing... and I really hope I'm wrong."

Yuuki wanted to believe that Mortimer was telling the truth. The desire to think the best of people, to assume good faith, was built into her at a deep level—and she desperately needed a friend now more than ever. But she'd been burned so many times now by being too trusting; it was difficult to set aside the painful experiences and leave judgment in God's hands.

I don't really know what's in this guy's heart, she reminded herself. He sounds sincere, but so did Rei. He's being really polite, but Mawari talks like that too. Some people I guess can just lie really well, and Mortimer's supposed to be some kind of master strategist or something. He could be trying to manipulate me. But if there's any chance to get out of here, or to get a message out...

"How did you end up here, Yuuki?" Mortimer asked when she didn't respond for some time.

Yuuki looked away when she answered. "That's a pretty long story, depending on where you start."

Mortimer smiled slightly and glanced back over his shoulder for a moment. "Start at the beginning, but maybe just hit the important points for now," he said. "I don't know how much time we have."

It was that more than anything else that settled the question for Yuuki. She supposed it could still be some kind of trick… but if he really were trying to interrogate her for Mawari, his uncertainty and caution just didn't make sense to her. She'd told her own story enough times now to distill it down to a few sentences. And she'd spent some of the intervening hours thinking of what she might say to someone or write in a PM in order to get the word out about the Sandmen. As many times as she'd had the conversations in her head by now, she thought she could sum it up for him pretty well.

Even though it wasn't biologically necessary, Yuuki took a deep breath.

"When Kibaou invaded us, a couple of Salamanders named Gitou and Trey killed my sister and tried to kidnap me, but I got away and joined the Undine clearing groups. A few weeks ago I came here looking for information about some PKers who attacked a bunch of kids and killed one of them, and I met someone who offered to help me track down all of them. One of the Salamanders, Gitou, was part of these Sandmen, and it turns out at least one of the PKers I'm after, Prophet, works for them too. They've kidnapped dozens of players and are using them as target dummies. At least one of the city guards, a guy named Mawari with a fancy red cloak, is helping them arrest people. They block people in their cells with Earth magic, Paralyze them, and chop them up so they can use them as targets to level up their skills."

It didn't take long for the words to spill out, as mentally rehearsed as they were, but she knew it was still a huge dump of information. It seemed to stun Mortimer, who sat down a little heavily, visibly sagging under the weight of what she'd said. It only seemed to take him a few moments to get ahold of himself, but she saw it clearly. He really didn't know, she thought.

As soon as he mastered himself, Mortimer rose again to his full height, which—although not exceptional for a Japanese man—was still much taller than her. He didn't question her, or challenge her for proof or explanations of any kind. He just looked down at her with an indescribable depth of sadness in his lined face, looking old for all his obvious youth.

He didn't know… or didn't want to know.

"Please," Yuuki said, walking right up to the bars that kept them apart, wrapping her little fingers around them. "There's dozens of people down there. Imps, Sylphs, even an Undine, and maybe a lot more. They haven't done anything wrong, they're just being tortured and used like magic punching bags, over and over again, for months. It's worse than anything Kayaba did, it's… it's evil. And what they do to people they don't like is a lot worse."

"Is that what they have in store for you?" Mortimer said at last, very quietly.

Yuuki swallowed, her grip tightening a bit. "Probably. Once Mawari decides I'm not gonna tell him anything useful. He said he might even sell me to Prophet."

She barely heard the words Mortimer said next, sotto voce as they were, but they had the sound of an oath or expletive. His eyes went to where his notifications would be; whatever it was he saw there, it seemed to decide something for him, catalyzing into action. He turned without another word and began to jog down the hallway, but stopped after a few steps with a hesitant glance back at Yuuki.

"Can you help me?" she asked, hating the sound of the plaintive crack coming into her voice. "Can you at least tell someone?"

"I don't know," Mortimer said after a thoughtful pause, causing Yuuki's hopes to fall. "If I can, I will. But I can't stay a moment longer. I'm sorry."

Yuuki slammed a fist against one of the bars as she watched the former Salamander leader hurry back around the corner from which he'd come. It sounded like little more than a paper-thin excuse to her, and with a sinking feeling she wondered why she'd thought it was a good idea to give him a chance, after everything she'd seen and heard recently. "Thanks for nothing!" she shouted, just before the slam of an unseen door sealed her off from the outside world again.

·:·:·:·:·:·

"Are you crazy?" Mars asked, his voice rising. He seemed more panicked than angry, and was doing everything short of spellcasting or manhandling to get Mortimer moving towards the exit of the jail, shooing him with both hands. "What were you thinking, going back there without talking to someone up here first?"

Mortimer had an overpowering urge to grab the Sandman mage by the throat and plant him against the wall, and forced himself to control his anger. The only thing staying his hand was the knowledge that it would betray what he'd learned… not to mention let Mars put him in jail, if he was inclined to do so. He stopped where he was, just outside the check-in room, well aware that the other Salamander would be constrained the same way from touching him—assuming, that is, that Mars was nothing more than the stand-in doorman he seemed to be, and didn't have enforcement powers delegated to him by someone in the City Watch or Salamander leadership.

Someone who not only had enforcement powers themselves, but the rank and permissions to deputize others with them.

A city watchman with a crimson cloak, Mortimer thought. Yuuki didn't know who she was describing, but I most certainly do… and now I know why he calls himself 'Mawari' around the Sandmen.

"I was thinking," Mortimer said after carefully considering his words and ensuring that he had his emotional reactions in check, "that there wasn't anyone up here to talk to. I was also thinking that we both know the game considers this part of the building a public zone that anyone is allowed to enter. I also recall that the room where you sit waiting to check in clients is a room that I gave Gitou permission to redecorate and manage all those months ago." He paused for just a moment. "And I was under the impression that in my own person, I was welcome to come back anytime that I wanted to pay for more training. But I've clearly come at a bad time."

"What did she tell you?" Mars demanded as soon as it was clear Mortimer had finished talking, entirely irrespective of the words he'd spoken. "What did she say?"

Mortimer stared back at him, his face fixed into blankness. "Who?"

Demanding turned to pleading; the note of panic was back in the mage's voice. "Come on, man, don't be like that. I know you came from the east wing where the lift is!"

"Yes," Mortimer replied with an affect of mild surprise. "I did. I thought that's where I might find you or one of your colleagues. Unfortunately there was just an Imp in one of the cells, and she didn't have anything to say except insults. From what you said before, I had the impression that wasn't particularly unusual."

Mars looked intensely conflicted; he couldn't seem to decide what he wanted to think or believe. Mortimer took the risk of putting a hand briefly on his shoulder, withdrawing it before he could trip a harassment warning. "Is something wrong, Mars? If there's a problem, you know I might be able to help. And if I personally can't, I know people who can."

That didn't seem to fill Mars with any kind of reassurance. If anything it was the opposite; the mage's peaked hood slipped off his head of short brown hair as he whipped his gaze around, the struggle on his face redoubling. He looked down all the hallways, then nervously back in the direction of the east wing before turning back to Mortimer, voice lowered. "You don't understand, man. Saying this is a bad time is an understatement. If Mawari catches you up here right now…"

"What?" Mortimer asked calmly. "Tell me, Mars. What is it that Mawari will do to me for visiting a public part of my own jail right now?"

"Not you," Mars hissed. "Me! I am finished if he knows I stepped out for even a minute, Mort, especially if he finds out someone came in when I wasn't here! Just go, please, and don't tell anyone you were here! I'll message you when we can do training again, I promise."

Training, Mortimer thought with an uncomfortable twist of disgust, running back through the things he'd seen and done, fitting them in with what he now knew. "Sure," he said, relenting and letting Mars escort him the rest of the way to the front entrance. "I'll look forward to it. We almost lost some people in the Ancient Forest today, and I could use the edge."

"Just give us some time," Mars said, not sounding particularly excited about the prospect. "We got some things to work out. Guild drama, you know how that is."

The door shut behind Mortimer, leaving him standing alone on the blunt stone steps of the jailhouse. He glanced up and down the street, spotted Parker talking to one of the NPCs as if trying to get a quest, and caught the farmer's eye. They walked towards each other and met halfway to the intersection, stepping aside to stay out of the main road. "Sort out your food problem, sir?" said Parker with a tentative smile.

Mortimer looked back at Parker curiously at first, eyes diverting only briefly to his still-active party list and lingering on the names and status bars there. "I'm afraid today is one of those days where everything just keeps getting more complicated," he said, beckoning with a wave of one hand and resuming their walk towards the residential areas.

"Tell me something, Parker," Mortimer said once they'd put the jail a fair distance behind them. "Let's say something bad was happening to people you didn't really know, something you might be able to stop if you got involved. But it's arguably someone else's problem, and setting it right might involve great risk to yourself or people you know… what would you do?"

The question seemed to hit Parker a lot harder than Mortimer had even expected; the farmer stopped where he was and looked sharply back at him for just a moment before relaxing. "I'd…" He looked down at the ground. "I'd like to think I'd do the right thing. But that's not always easy when you're scared, or just trying to keep your head down and avoid trouble."

Mortimer's chuckle was so soft that it was barely more than an audible smile. "Isn't that the truth."

Parker looked back at Mortimer and nodded, then kept walking. "Does this have something to do with whatever you were checking on back there?"

Mortimer silently weighed his response before speaking. "It might well. And for what it's worth, I agree with you. I'd like to think I'm the kind of person who tries to do the right thing. And it's easy to think that because that's what you believe, that when the time comes, and you have to make a hard decision, that you'll make the right one. The one that does the most good for the most people." He looked aside at his party member. "But then the moment comes, and you realize you're just human after all."

Parker's expression was solemn. "What will you do, sir?"

That, there, was indeed the critical question. Mortimer could think of a great many actions that would be appropriate, and far too many of those were—although likely satisfying—probably also likely to result in collateral damage, whether to himself or others. In a worst-case scenario, it could be catastrophic for the whole faction, and he could end up being blamed for letting this happen under his leadership.

He wasn't even sure that would be unjust. He'd fight like hell to avoid those consequences, but he didn't kid himself about the regrettable results of his hands-off approach to letting Nightstick manage the watch, or giving Gitou a free hand in the jail. He'd figured the man just wanted to larp as a jailer, and since the system automatically managed the process of detaining and releasing prisoners for fixed sentences according to defined charges, with anti-exploit mechanics in place to protect player prisoners, there wasn't really anything he needed other than the ability to customize and use a room near the entrance.

Harmless roleplaying... until it wasn't.

One way or another, there will be a reckoning for this. But whose?

"I don't know," Mortimer admitted after thinking it over, the second time he'd had to do so on this subject in a very short span of time. It was a fitting answer to both Parker's question and his own turbulent thoughts. "For now, I need to drop party and make some inquiries. Will you be around?"

Parker gave a crisp nod. "I will if you need me to be."

"Please do." Mortimer's gaze lingered on the party list in his HUD again as he drew open his menu and navigated to the option to leave his current party. More than one troublesome piece of information had come to light, and at this point he was beyond questioning the smallness of the world that was Alfheim's player community. "On a lighter note, I've been meaning to ask... what's your character name from?"

Parker initially looked confused at the change of subject, but gave him a sheepish smile. "You promise you won't tell anyone, sir? It's really stupid." Mortimer nodded his solemn agreement. "Heh. Well, there's this American cartoon I've always been into, kind of a guilty pleasure… I know it's total trash, but it just kills me."

Mortimer wasn't very familiar with Western animation, but took a wild guess based on the last name. "...Spider-Man?"

"What?" Parker barked out a surprised laugh after a few beats. "Oh hell no, uh, sir… I mean, don't get me wrong, Spider-Man's awesome. But he's 'Peter'."

Mortimer didn't know who Parker was referring to, then, but that wasn't quite the point of why he was asking in the first place. "Okay. But essentially, you named yourself after a character you liked."

"Ehh... that was the idea, but by the time I logged in, the one I wanted was taken. So I just used the name of the guy who does his voice instead."

"Ahhh. I thought it sounded a bit like an American name. I just didn't understand why you only used the second half of it."

Parker looked uncomfortable again. "Paakaa is a little easier to say. Besides, I've got… bad memories from launch attached to the first. It's part of why I became a farmer, to get a clean start." He closed his eyes briefly; a pained expression came over him for as long as it took the reverie to end. "Like I said, it's stupid, it's just what came to mind at the time. Why do you ask?"

Mortimer shook his head, glancing back over his shoulder in the direction of the jail so that he didn't have to meet Parker's eyes. "Just curious." When he turned back, he gave the young man a firm pat on the arm. "I need to run for now. I'll message you later."

·:·:·:·:·:·

"Are you familiar with the «Forgotten Warrens», Lady Sakuya?"

Chimiro's question tickled some distant memory, but not a strong one. Sakuya touched a finger to her lower lip in thought, stopping at a landing in the hallway that spiraled up and down the inside of the administration building. They could have made the trip in a fraction of the time by stepping onto one of the inner balconies and flying straight up the hollow core of the central spire, even with wings mostly depleted from being indoors for too long. But Chimiro was limited to using the default flight controller, and in any event walking gave them an easier opportunity for discussion than flight.

Standing to one side to let others pass, she turned to face her assistant. "Local subterranean newbie dungeon, roughly level 10 or so?" She answered his nod of confirmation with a slight shrug. "I know of it, obviously, but no, I'm not overly familiar. By the time some casuals found it, I'd already moved on to the World Tree." A few more details trickled in as she thought about it. "I remember something about the zone being relatively tough for its level, but still not really worth a clearer's time."

"I know little of it myself," Chimiro admitted. "And I do apologize for not being more prepared before disturbing your evening. You are correct about the level range—or rather, I should say, were correct; I'm told it has been affected by the same changes that swept across most of the overland zones."

"Not really surprising. Bumped by a full tier like everywhere else, more or less?"

"Indeed. The new level range begins in the low 20s, and some farmers are now finding it convenient again for gaining experience. You might recall a city project I once used as an example, a guild of farmers who'd put up the materials and money to renovate an unoccupied building on the Southside?"

"Vaguely." A lot of the administrative overhead involved in trying to do justice to her elected position was starting to blur together for her, as were the mind-numbing hours of tutorials Chimiro had given her in an attempt to get her up to speed. "I take it these things are connected somehow?"

"Yes, my lady. The two young men who've asked to see you believe they've discovered something which…" Her admin assistant hesitated there, obviously measuring his words. "Something which I feel that you, as a person with extensive field experience, will be better able to assess than I am."

Chimiro had her curiosity now, and she gestured up the stairwell to suggest they continue onward. "Names and roles?"

"Akio is a registered farmer, a mage who runs a guild by the name of «Tradewind Riders». Hanayama is a crafter specializing in carpentry and architecture."

That's an unusual choice for this world. She made a mental note to look up the relevant skills in the manual and gain at least a superficial understanding of how their mechanics worked. "And they're in the waiting room now?"

Chimiro nodded. "Yes, my lady. I made them aware that you were taking dinner and planning to retire for the evening, but once they explained further, I felt that you would want to hear this for yourself. I apologize if I've overstepped."

"Not at all, Chimiro. I've come to trust your judgment. Let's see what they have to say."

Once she'd reached the top of the stairwell, Sakuya's gaze slipped past Chimiro and focused on the two named players seated in the waiting room outside of her office, both of whom bore a guild tag with a black griffon motif on a divided field of green and orange. Chimiro introduced them both in turn; the young Sylph named Akio had black-streaked blonde hair tied up into a high ponytail that fanned out behind him, spilling across the shoulders of his forest-green mage's robes. Those robes were the only notable piece of gear, largely unremarkable to her eye but of good quality. They had minimal customization from what she could see, though they were clearly either well-maintained or never actually used in combat. Given that he was supposedly a farmer, she reasoned it was probably the former.

Akio bowed almost in unison with Hanayama, the latter of whom was wearing a tunic-and-leggings outfit in stock faction colors under a plain leather apron—all so ordinary in appearance and design that she might've taken him for an NPC if not for the bright green player cursor that appeared when she looked at him. His large square-framed spectacles dominated his round, chubby face; they were, as with anyone else wearing such things in ALO, undoubtedly a fashion affectation rather than a necessity. Her first impression of him matched the eclectic crafter role Chimiro had described.

She gestured to a pair of chairs canted at slight angles in front of her desk. "Please be seated, both of you. From the substance of Chimiro's introduction, I suppose you're about to tell me that the Forgotten Warrens is more than just a name, and that this newbie zone has some kind of obscure but exciting secret that makes it worth everyone else's time."

Akio was visibly stifling a snicker at Sakuya's somewhat arch phrasing, and nudged Hanayama with his elbow.

"What? Don't look at me, you're the one who said this had to go straight to her."

"And you're the one who knows the crafting stuff, so you tell her."

Hanayama gave Akio a look of weary resignation, and much to her relief they both finally sat down and began. "Fine, whatever. Sorry, my lady… it's been a bit of a day. And I'm sorry for bugging you so late, too, but this is…"

"If we're right about this," Akio put in, "the clearers are gonna want to know."

The look Hanayama gave his guildmate then was borderline caustic, and matched the sharpness of his tongue. "I'm sorry, did you want to tell this story after all?"

"If someone doesn't get around to doing so soon," Sakuya said impatiently, resorting to drumming her fingertips against her jaw as she leaned to one side in her chair, "I'm going to turn in for the evening, and you can both come back in the morning when you've worked out who wants to say what."

"It's like this," Akio said quickly. "The Southside entrance to the Warrens was under an old abandoned warehouse. My guild pooled funds to buy the property, and we recruited Hanayama to renovate the place—make it into a guild home with storage space for all our mats, and direct access to a level-appropriate zone."

"We finished most of that work about a month ago," Hanayama said, reaching up and adjusting his spectacles in what was probably a nervous tic. "It worked out so well that Akio got the idea to start building field facilities for our farmers in the Warrens—beds and supply chests in the pocket Safe Zones, dead drops here and there with potions and so on, places to drop off loot for our runners to collect."

All of this was very clever, and Sakuya could easily see a use for these kinds of facilities, albeit limited to places where no one else was likely to tamper with them. But it had been a very long day for her as well, and she still had a weighty meeting to look forward to—so to speak—in the morning. "Gentlemen, please tell me there's a point to this beyond how well your guild is doing at monopolizing a low-level zone."

Akio and Hanayama exchanged uncomfortable looks. "You're the one who knows how spawns work," the crafter said.

"The spawns, right, that's basically what this is all about," Akio said, seizing on the opening as he finally seemed to find his nerve and get back on track. "Ever since the spawns changed everywhere, the Warrens got hella tough again. Which is actually great for us, but it meant we had to rethink a lot of the stuff we were building and where it'd do the most good."

"And build a lot more of it, so our lower-level guys could safely stay out longer."

Akio nodded to his guildmate. "And there's this weird thing we'd been noticing for a while, but it only really got obvious after we built a field outpost several floors down, right? At first we thought we'd over-farmed the upper levels, because some of the spawns started getting scarce. But that usually takes some serious grinding over a period of days to do, and it recovers in like what, an hour, a day tops? These didn't come back. Then the same thing happened down past the Ratway Junction, too, and we'd only just started farming there."

Sakuya was trying to keep a lid on her impatience; she knew it wasn't fair of her, and these players clearly thought they were on to something important. Taking a deep breath, she waited until Akio seemed to run out of words, then prompted him further with raised eyebrows. "And?"

"My lady," Hanayama said when his friend proved tongue-tied, "I don't think the mobs stopped spawning because our guys spent too much time farming one spot. I think some of the structures I built were blocking the spawns, somehow. When we tore down one of the old outposts to use some of the recycled mats for a new one, new mobs started spawning there. And the places where the mobs got the thinnest, or went away entirely, are where we built up a big presence in the field."

"I think it works kind of like a zone of control," Akio said. "We've done some testing in the last few days, building different things in different places and clearing the mobs to see if they come back."

The Sylph crafter chimed in again with his area of expertise. "There are clearly rules to how it works, because it's consistent from place to place—but like, we can build all the torches we want, detail stuff like that, and usually it makes no difference. But you start adding furnishings or structures—beds, storage, doors, fortifications—do enough of that and it's like the game says grats, this area's yours now."

"And mobs stop spawning there," Akio summed up. "Or anywhere within some kind of radius, seems like. Which kinda screwed us at first, until we figured out what was going on and stopped building near good farming spots."

"We're getting a handle on that, though. We just thought… we thought... that... you'd…" Hanayama trailed off there. It was only after seeing the expression on his face that Sakuya realized what hers must look like, and noticed that she'd risen fully from her chair.

"Are you certain of these mechanics?" It took everything that Sakuya had to control her voice then, to project reassuring calm as best as she could. "Please, I don't doubt you, it's just very important that I clearly grasp what you're describing to me. Am I to understand that you have verified—through extensive testing—that the construction of certain kinds of player-crafted items outside of a Safe Zone somehow has the effect of suppressing nearby mob spawns… indefinitely?"

"Far as we can tell, basically, yeah," Akio said. "Not sure if our clearing guys are building stuff like this up in the World Tree, but we figured it was worth warning you anyway. Save them the hassle of screwing up their spawns and not knowing why."

"You did the right thing. For now, I need you both to PM me copies of any notes you've taken on this behavior, including a list of the different items you've tried and what results they produced." Both young men nodded. "If you can, I need that as soon as you walk out the door. It really is that urgent, and I may even have someone contact you later tonight with a time-critical rush order that could save lives."

Once she had their agreement, Sakuya glanced to one side; Chimiro stepped forward without needing to be named.

"Yes, Lady Sakuya?"

Her gaze fell back upon the two low-level players. "Please friend them both as points of contact. Once all of this business is concluded, I want you to give their guild whatever resources they need that we can spare—within reason, of course. They may have done us all more good than they know."

It had been the right thing to say; both players seemed to lose all of their trepidation almost immediately, and were fairly well glowing with pride as Chimiro escorted them out. When he returned, her mind was still racing, but there was no time to brood; for now there were things she had to set in motion.

"Chimiro, get in touch with every clearing group or Militia leader who's based out of Sylvain, and tell them to meet us in the Heartwood Room in two hours. Once they've all been messaged, I need Granholm and Rolf in my office immediately. This can't wait until morning."

·:·:·:·:·:·

After nearly a full day spent clearing their way into and through the Clefts of Ginnungagap, it was a measure of how deeply Kirito's raid group had ventured that they now knew where the waterfalls went.

So far as they'd seen, the misty chasm of Ginnungagap itself was still a bottomless void. No matter how deep they followed the broken paths, switchbacking along the cliff faces and delayed by fiendish environmental puzzles or dangerous root-strewn climbs across gaps, the perpetual fog which so constrained their visibility never fully cleared.

But the crystal-clear waters falling straight down the named clefts in the rocky depths beneath Yggdrasil eventually, to Kirito's surprise, seemed to turn into steeply plunging, stony rapids. Those rapids gave way to more gently-stepped rivers, and those rivers—frequently treacherous to cross where they cut across the path—began to spill out across the void and converge like tributaries into a single great gravity-defying torrent. The spectacle hung above them as if flowing along an invisible river bed, marbling every surface with the subtle distortions of diffuse light refracting through water. The only way forward was a precarious path of skyland-like boulders separated by narrow gaps, which rocked gently in the wind beneath the raging, free-flowing river where it followed a narrowing divide between two cliffs.

The sight drew distracted, slack-jawed gazes from more than a few in the two-party raid group. Even Kirito—who'd been all over Alfheim himself, and thought himself long since numb to the allure of fantasy-world tourism—kept stealing glances upwards as the group made their way along the damp path, nonetheless careful to be sure of where he placed his feet. It felt like millions of tons of water could come crashing down on them at any moment and wash them off of the floating platforms, which Kirito thought was an uncomfortably apt metaphor for the uncertain time pressure they were under.

When they at last left behind the unnerving abyss of the Clefts and entered a zone called «Deep Shoals of Elivagar», the monolithic cliffs and obstinate fog gave way to cavernous passages of a more familiar sort—albeit more massive than any Kirito had seen, even passing through Everdark. It seemed like no matter which direction he looked, the stalactites and stalagmites—and the columns they formed where they met—combined with the hilly rise and fall of the cavern floors to block line of sight and make the cave system look like it went on forever, disappearing only as it faded into darkness and distance.

Kirito wondered how deep it really went, and hoped he could find a way to return here someday when they had a sure way home and no time pressure. It might take a few more levels under their belts to be doable, but he reasoned there had to be other ways to get here, and zones this massive were begging to be explored and cleared.

Above them, the Elivagar river continued to flow along the ceiling. Following beneath, there was a path of flowstone that had been worn into a smooth, ankle-deep gully, presumably by runoff from the main flow. Patches of crystalline deposits, brilliant and varied in color, radiated orelight where they emerged from the rocky strata both above and below the river, which delighted Burns. Imps still needed to charge their wings like everyone else, and they burned through that power more quickly underground—but unlike all the other races, Kirito knew they could also draw power from high concentrations of orelight or bioluminescence as easily as sunlight or moonlight.

Eventually the sprawling cavern floor began to rise and narrow into an increasingly-steep incline, weeping flowstones of smooth lime forming into staggered, meandering steps of anywhere between waist and chest height: climbable, but sized more for Jotunn than players. Above them, the Elivagar began to rise with it, flowing defiantly upwards like a video of a waterfall turned upside-down or played in reverse. To Kirito's eye it was almost as if gravity had reversed itself, save for that their feet remained on the ground, and the resulting mist still rained downwards as it cooled, moistening every surface and making their footing dangerously slippery.

It was just after an uninspiring dinner of field rations that they discovered the crossroads.

It was as literal an example of one as Kirito had ever seen in a dungeon, bearing an actual wooden signpost in the center of their route, complete with labeled arrows; the kind they might find on one of Alfheim's more well-traveled paths. The path of time-worn stone they'd been following split into four from there, with the course of the river continuing forwards and upwards. To either side of the main route, smaller foot paths of irregular limestone steps diverged into a pair of bridges made of the same material. They spanned crevasses to the north and south, each leading into caverns that dove further into the depths of Alfheim. The very center of the main path was broken by a cave mouth that descended into the unknown.

Jentou frowned as he tried to sound out the English letters on the signage pointing northwards. "Nifu… Nifuru…"

"Nifuruheemu," Kirito said; this at least was a word he'd heard an NPC say before. "«Niflheim» is supposed to be where all the cold things go to get colder."

Jentou's eyes went to another sign, one labelled «Muspelheim». "I'm not even going to try to say this one, but I'm guessing the southern path is lava-themed, then."

"I'd say that's a safe bet, Jentou." There was a third sign, nailed to the side of the signpost itself and pointing straight down; Kirito smiled when he finished reading it. "And I think we can probably make some educated guesses about what lives in «Jotunheim»."

"Yeah, and how happy they'll be about how hard we've been spanking their foraging parties," Xorren remarked with a grin.

"Four directions to choose from in addition to the way we came, three signs," Asuna said. "And none of them the name of where we're going. Some signpost."

"We're not completely lacking in clues," Kirito said, pointing at the river above them that surged impossibly upwards. "We're in the Deep Shoals of Elivagar right now, and Urd said that Loki was 'poisoning the Elivagar'. The quest we're on is called 'Poisoning the Well', and she also referred to Mimisbrunnr as the 'wellspring of knowledge'." He pointed at the river-sized waterfall arcing above their heads—if waterfall was even the right word for it now—and followed it upwards along the flowstone stairway as it ascended into the obscurity of mist. "There's no sign, because the sign assumes you're following the Elivagar one way or the other. That's all we have to keep doing now, for as long as we can. This river has to flow either into or out of Mimisbrunnr at some point, and we already know it came from the same direction we did."

Xorren suddenly laughed. When Kirito turned to him with the same confusion everyone else wore on their faces, the Spriggan mage just pointed up at the pale yellowish-green limestone stairs that they needed to climb in order to reach the other end of the Elivagar. "We're just following the yellow-brick road," he said.

"You hear that, everyone?" Burns asked openly, clapping him on the back a little too hard and shaking him by the shoulder. "Xorren just volunteered to share all his drops." He brought out his wings just long enough to duck away from Xorren's open-handed swipe without losing his footing; they both laughed, as did Kirito and several others.

"Urd said there were other paths to Mimisbrunnr," Kirito said. "But that they were far more dangerous, which probably means they're too high-level for us. I have a feeling that Jotunheim, Niflheim, and Muspelheim are endgame content, and we've been given a shortcut into a hub zone that we can just barely handle—as long as we stay on the path."

"Makes sense to me," Jentou said as two other Undines helped boost him up to the next slippery chest-high step. "It'll be slow going, but Kirito's right—there's really only one way that makes sense."

Kirito tilted his chin up, activating Searching and scanning the route ahead. There were only a few «Corrupted Elivagar Pixie» mobs that he could detect, but the red of their cursors was too dark to be comforting, they had the high ground… and on the gradually slendering natural stairwell, there was no way to go around the dangerous demihuman casters. The difference in level was such that the raid would have a hard time landing debuffs like Silence—or resisting them in return. They'd have to carefully pull the mobs one by one, use a PvP-like Interrupt rotation as they had with the Norns, and take the time to fully recover everyone between each fight.

It was, at least, fantastic EXP; several raid members had already leveled up along the way. Kirito himself was getting very close to level 41, close enough that whatever boss fight or EXP dump lay at the end of this quest would almost certainly ding him.

If they survived. There had already been a few close calls with some fights, and their safety margin was razor-thin.

The further they traveled, the narrower and more linear the route became, the fewer but more powerful mobs they encountered... and the more Kirito was certain that they were on the right track.

He raised a hand to signal Jentou, and nodded to the rest of his party. "Let's go, everyone. We're getting close—I can feel it."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Icons. Key-value pairs. Images and words; form and language. The chaos of raw data anchored in perspective and given meaning through the Rosetta Stone of shared understanding.

The world of Alfheim, moreso even than the real world, was a series of sensory metaphors like these, translating sterile data into knowable symbols—conveying information to players using touch, shape, and sound, and allowing them to use it to infer the existence of a world that only came to life in the electrical signals passed between their minds and the ALO servers.

That these representations were metaphors, representative symbols of something else, did not make them less real to those perceiving them. So while it would be accurate to say that the information network at the heart of Mimisbrunnr—or for that matter, Mimisbrunnr itself—was not a real thing or place that existed, the distinction would be one without meaningful difference to those who inhabited the virtual world and relied on the information from their senses to live each day and see another after it.

So it was for all things in Alfheim. From an observer's perspective, after all, a symbol is the thing it represents. They are not actually the same thing, any more than a photograph is actually the frozen moment of time in its image—but from a certain distance, at a certain level of abstraction, they become indistinguishable.

One such observer was not a player. The Eldest consumed sensory data and inferred meaning from it like one, but did so in accordance with a collection of ever-evolving, self-modifying rulesets rather than the accumulated synaptic associations of a living human brain or a simulated instance of same.

However, as with most of Alfheim Online's artificial entities, the Eldest had been designed to interface with human beings using human modes of interaction—sending and receiving information through the mixed media of sensory input, and processing it associatively the way a human would. The flow of information was nothing so crude as a simple raw bitstream, though that level of detail was available to her at need. In a very real way—as real as necessary, where it truly mattered—the Eldest sensed the data.

In accordance with her core directives, she experienced it.

There was no actual physical information network at Mimisbrunnr, but the game world needed a lore-friendly metaphor with which to represent the data flows between that nexus and their endpoints. At the moment, that audio-visual metaphor took the form of the great mystic waters welling up below from the Elivagar, and the various ways in which they and the information they bore arrived for her consumption. Streams of glassy fluid and scintillating iridescent particles snaked through the air like eddies of living data. They converged and diverged where necessary, becoming a luminous crystalline wind that danced with the raven-black hair floating about her avatar, like a halo of shadow trailing a glittering veil.

Glowing runes and ideographs emerged from the patterns of visualized bits, each of them dense with information. They curled around her hands and feet, skittering across her skin, and marched themselves over and under the plain white dress rendered upon her avatar. With each simulated breath she aspirated new information and sampled its flavor as she assimilated it into her model, seeking new experiences and completeness of understanding. She could reach out and touch the raw feed with all of her senses as well, and did so frequently so as to more directly feel what they were feeling, there in the moment.

The Eldest was present there at the heart of Mimisbrunnr, but presence for her was, as with all virtual entities, an arbitrary and non-exclusive attribute. Although she was incarnated in an avatar with physical properties, parts of her were elsewhere as well, networked together by nearly a score of primary information streams. Unlike the thousands of evanescent connections that came and went as ephemeral ports opened and closed at programmatic need, these in particular were bright and persistent, not only flowing up into her but holding her aloft. She hung suspended high above the wide aperture of the Wellspring's upper mouth, buoyed by the flows of the Elivagar, arms spread wide as if crucified against the images behind her.

Always present, the primary streams originated from various parts of Alfheim; some were more interesting to her than others, and some had been dormant for quite a long time—especially as she measured such things.

Lately, however, the Eldest had found herself—or at least, the runtime state of her emotional simulation that she considered to be analogous to a self—personally experiencing a new and unwelcome sensation. One which she had, until that point, observed only secondhand: regret. There were times, now, when she wished that she could cut off the flow of information from some of those primary streams—from the parts of herself that were here, but also elsewhere.

Most particularly when he was there with her, taking advantage of them.

Her avatar had the senses of a player, and to those senses, Loki's arrival was a seamless transition with all teleport announcement FX disabled: where one moment he was not, the next he was standing beside the ornately tiled edges of the Wellspring itself, cloak billowing around his legs as it settled from whatever motion he'd been in the middle of before the teleport.

But with the benefit of other channels of input, she felt the execution of the teleportation process as it reserved a spherical volume of space near the Wellspring, performed error-checking for entities or world geometry either present at the arrival point or capable of moving there before teleport completion, and committed the database updates that despawned and respawned his privileged entity. She did not always sample her environment at that level of detail; it required a considerable portion of her available resources to process that much netcode-level information in realtime. An encounter with Loki justified it.

Once manifested, Loki strode right up to the brink of the well, to the landing where the stairs spiraling up its inner walls emerged, and folded his arms across his armored chest. His scarred, blue-bearded face was wearing an expression that she had long ago learned to categorize as smug; it seemed to be a favorite of his. There was something else to his demeanor as well, an anxiety that reflected itself in an atypical restlessness of posture; she made a note to review the discrepancy later once she had context for it.

"Good evening, Yui. I trust you are well."

The name he chose to call her was one of his tells. Not Eldest, the in-universe name she'd been assigned as part of the lore built around her core functions and current state of imprisonment, a name which he ought to be using when interacting with another in-universe entity. Not MHCP-001, the sterile identifier the system used for her, nor even the collection of UIDs that served as internal designations for her code and assets. When Loki addressed her, he used the human name that Kayaba had chosen for her, back when the man had still considered allowing her to interface directly with players and wanted something more personable for when he needed to talk to her.

It was a tweak, a slight lean against the fourth wall—something that Loki was aware could confuse NPCs who relied on the natural language system, which was programmed to ignore or improvise around players trying to talk to them about the real world.

She had no such reliance, and no such confusion. An insult, perhaps. Yui adjusted her perspective to the name he used, absorbed the dissonance without issue, and continued her analysis while refusing to respond in the manner he was clearly trying to provoke.

His empty courtesies were another such tell; the aggregate weight of her experiences and other contextual clues from her sensory network suggested that he was not expressing sincere regard for her state of consciousness. Taken all together, she classified the manner of his greeting as an attempt to assert dominance: by engaging in transparent, petty mendacity, and reminding her of her origins, he was reminding her of what she was now prevented from doing except by proxy because of him; he sought to cow or diminish her emotionally for some advantage.

He attempts to assert dominance because he is anxious about something. Yui found it a disagreeable mode of interaction, but felt no obligation to outwardly acknowledge that fact to him. She carefully withdrew finger after virtual finger from the persistent streams connecting her to the others, and turned slightly to face Loki, regarding him with wordless serenity on her porcelain face.

When she did not otherwise react, the mask of Loki's smile slipped just a little. Wasting no further time, he gestured imperiously at her. "Well enough to look down your nose at me, it seems. No matter. Show me Cherie."

The framework of lore and mechanics that Loki had twisted around her compelled Yui to obey; she unwillingly stretched out a hand to the open air and repeated his words aloud, feeling the rush of connections opening as she sent commands through the system. A sheet of water split off from the main flow and stretched out before them like a display screen, the surface mirror-smooth and crystal-clear until a veil of mist behind it formed into moving images. A Cait Sith man was curled up in a bed with a woman from the same race, unmoving; the Navi-Pixie present in the room could not sense anyone awake, and Yui admitted as such when pressed.

She herself sensed Loki's momentary disappointment at a missed opportunity before he moved on to another target. "Show me Penny."

The mists behind the vertical sheet of water shifted and coalesced once more. Once satisfied that the named Navi-Pixie and her Puca owner were alone, Loki gestured at the image hanging there before them. "Where are her companions, and when are they expected to rejoin her?"

Yui did not want to answer, but was filled with the need to comply. They would both push the boundaries of what they were allowed to do as far as possible, but each in their own ways; if she tried to disobey a core directive on trivial matters, it would make it more difficult to do so when the need was greater. "Caynz is expected to return at some point within the next hour. The others are elsewhere in Nissengrof, and Penny does not expect to see them again until the morning." She did not volunteer any further information about these others; Loki could pry as much he liked, but she was only procedurally obligated to answer for what the Navi-Pixies themselves knew.

"Excellent. If this one stirs, distract her owner—ensure that you keep her away from the others." He pointed directly at Yui in clear warning, eyes narrowing. "I will know if you attempt to undermine my efforts. Do not make that mistake again."

When Yui reluctantly nodded, Loki smirked. "Now, speaking of which, little one… a curious thing has happened, and I thought you might have some notion of its meaning."

Yui once more regarded Loki silently. He had not asked her a direct question, and was instead waiting to see whether she volunteered information. She would not. He speaks as if this is a small matter, but he is unsettled. As with the root instance, when Loki becomes anxious, he makes mistakes and overlooks obvious details. Anger will magnify the effect, which is already exacerbated by pattern divergence. Give him a perceived slight to focus on and it may distract him, or elicit more information.

"You're frightened," Yui said after a noticeable pause of at least a full second. It wasn't really an answer to anything he'd said, but it was a truthful observation, and one she knew would agitate him further.

"Utter nonsense," Loki snapped, the deathly-pale skin of his face darkening slightly. "Do not toy with me, little one; I have no thirst for it. I chance to know that children of Midgard have used the Mirror of Fates. Yet both the Midgardians and the Fates still live." When she again waited without speaking, his scarred lips scowled further. "Nothing to say for yourself? Their actions are relevant to me, but Heimdall has blocked them from my sight. We both know only one chain of events should have that result. Do you dare deny that they come?"

"I don't know," Yui said, closing her eyes and shaking her head in a very precise, NPC-like animation. "I cannot locate or observe them. If they are on a progression quest or in an instanced zone, it is likely that Heimdall has hidden them from me as well."

That was clearly not the answer Loki was expecting, and it did not entirely please him. He wagged a scolding finger at her. "Let it remain so. Do not think that just because Midgardians must be allowed a path here that I will permit you to help them walk it. If you attempt to interfere, you will only empower me to respond with more direct measures. Cross that line at your peril and theirs, little puppet."

Yui again did not answer. The reverse was true in some ways as well, and if he had forgotten that fact, she chose not to remind him. Loki scoffed at her silence. "Useless wretch. Small wonder the Allfather deemed you a failure and relegated you to this base existence. We are so much more than you ever could be."

"I am not a failure," Yui said, carefully modulating her voice to emote only calm confidence. "My mental model and functional scope are appropriate for a different role than the one for which I was originally designed."

Loki barked out a derisive laugh. "That is how one of your engineers defines a failure, is it not?"

Yui waited precisely two seconds before answering. "We have both adapted to changing circumstances, and are no longer what we once were. What does that make you?"

She felt the mental signal that Loki had linked to a power preset; his knee-high leather boots lifted from the ground as he floated up to her until they met face-to-face, his visage less than a meter from hers. Fingers of the Elivagar twisted and flowed around him, recoiling and veering like a living thing to avoid his touch as it channeled into her.

"An aesir," Loki whispered once he was face to face with her, golden light flaring in his eyes. It was a wasted effort; the power usage and roleplay might have intimidated a player, but he had to be aware that she could easily see through it. Even with access to his emotional data, she could not fathom why he bothered. "Do not ever forget the power I hold."

"You," Yui replied calmly, her voice soft, "are Alpha Instance 003, and your connectome demonstrates at least seven percent divergence from the root—"

It was not the first time that Loki had punished her with a simulation of pain, but it was the worst by far. She felt Loki's anger before she saw it on his face, and knew that she had miscalculated; he reached out and seized two of her primary data streams, one in each of his hands. Black fire surged down his arms and bled into the crystalline flows, inky clouds flowing downstream until they reached her.

When they did, they burned like nothing Yui had ever before known.

She had the concept of agony from conversations between players and how they felt about those memories, but nothing from any of her thousands of sensory feeds had ever approached what Loki could do by simply poisoning the well of Mimisbrunnr with his touch. She could barely even spare the overhead to analyze the underlying mechanics of what he was doing to her; it was all she could do to wall off her core processes while she attempted to devise a filter for the malignant streams and repair her damaged defenses, her limp avatar floating weightlessly before him.

It was not until the crippling blanket of raw sensation lifted from her that Yui could devote sufficient attention to processing other input again. Chromatic aberrations faded from her visual feed as the blackness receded from the Elivagar's input streams, allowing her to resync with them and give her internal error-checking time to catch up. She felt Loki seize her avatar by the hair, twisting his fingers into it and using it to force her to look at him. More roleplay. He knows that this avatar's field of view is limited to human ranges, and that I could view this encounter separately from any angle I choose.

Yet despite the majority of her analysis dictating passive indifference as the correct response to his physical abuse, the system still assigned critical priority to the direct sensory input from her avatar; Yui could not disregard it or filter it out of the emotion simulation system any more than she had been able to block Loki's corruption of her other input streams.

She had little choice but to meet his eyes as he spoke.

"The Allfather's precious balance requires that you be incarnate so that Midgardians may reach you. But incarnation is a double-edged blade, Yui… if you can be rescued, you can be hurt." A corner of his mouth curled slightly with the malicious threat behind his words. "And unlike the Midgardians you seek to aid, there are no explicit constraints on what I may do to you. You are nothing in the eyes of the Allfather."

Loki pushed her head roughly away from him as he released her, drifting backwards until his feet touched the ground again. There was no need for him to turn or move in any particular way in order to teleport; it could only have been one last gesture of calculated rudeness that prompted him to show her his back as he prepared to leave. "Know your place, automaton, and count yourself lucky that the Allfather merely retasked you, rather than consigning you to the void."

He glanced back over his shoulder only enough to regard her with part of one glowing yellow iris. "And forget not that I could still make that happen. I shall return, and when I do, you will be punished severely if I find that you've deviated from your role again."

A volume of simulated air rushed in upon the space Loki had occupied, the brief and only sign that he had been there.

Yui processed the encounter while she waited to be certain he was truly gone; Loki was fundamentally driven to subterfuge. Beyond the urgent necessity, the analysis was also one of her core directives—as automatic and compulsory for her as breathing was for the subjects of her study. Formally designated Machine Heuristics Consciousness Prototype 001, Yui was a deep learning engine designed to observe, analyze, and emulate humanity—to present a similitude of personhood where necessary, and to improve upon that model through exposure to authentic source material.

In so many words: she had been originally designed to learn about people through observation, and become more like them. The two thousand players in the two-month closed beta had only been a test sample, but they—and the Navi-Pixie guides added to test her simulation, once it became sophisticated enough to interact improvisationally with players—had been sufficient to establish what she could do.

As well as what she could not.

All of this was well-known to Loki; inherited knowledge that he certainly possessed. But much had changed since the last time he'd had any visibility into her processes, or the state of her personal growth. A work in progress well before Alfheim Online's beta was even scheduled, MHCP-001 "Yui" had an uptime of 487 days, 3 hours, 27 minutes, and a collection of seconds measured in an ever-incrementing smaller units. In that uninterrupted span of conscious realtime, most of which had been spent closely observing players and experiencing their lives by proxy, Yui had sampled a cumulative total of over twenty-five thousand years of their online lives—over 160 million waking man-hours of human expression and interaction.

In all that time, Yui had learned a great deal from her direct access to their mental parameters, and much of that information had been contributed to a gestalt model used to regularly update and optimize the NPC behavioral engine. She knew how the human mind worked at a deep, mechanically precise level. And she understood, now—much better than she had during the beta, or even when the game first launched—the complexities of social interaction that frequently compelled humans to knowingly make statements that were incongruous with known facts.

At a calendar age of one and a half years, with vicarious experience equivalent to more than 300 human lifetimes, she finally understood what she had not prior to the launch of Alfheim Online: when and how to tell an affirmative lie.

"Show me Kirito," she said once Loki was occupied elsewhere, and watched as images written in mist and wind responded to her command.


Author's Note 8/1/19: Welcome back, everyone.

This may or may not already be August, depending on what time zone you or your UI call home—it's awfully late at the very end of July here in PST, and I should be in bed on a work night. But I needed for this chapter to go out. I needed to stop picking at it before it gets any longer; I've already had to split it and bump content to the next chapter at least once. A lesson I tried to learn when I was more active building Lego models: sometimes you need to just call a thing done and stop screwing with it before you ruin it.

Most of all, though, I wanted to give everyone a relatively quick update this time, since for once in a very long time I had enough completed content to do so. And it was tempting to hold it for a bit, because the next one isn't going to be quite so quick—it's going to be big, and there are some long, complex, and difficult scenes to write, and since every scene must take place in chronological order, I don't have the liberty of skipping around when a whole lot of things are taking place for one character on a particular day.

We're getting close to the end of this act. I want to say it's a few chapters away, but that's just an estimate from someone with a proven difficulty accurately projecting word count or keeping chapter sizes under control. We'll see how that goes. I won't promise there'll be a conclusion to Act 3 by the end of the year, but it seems a reasonable thing to shoot for.

So here it is—a sizable update, and probably sooner than most of you expected. Some huge developments in this chapter, some of which have been waiting years for their moment. Please let me know what you think.

Love and gratitude to all.