"A player is considered to be participating in combat if they have recently attacked, or been attacked by, a valid combatant. During combat a player's natural MP and HP regeneration are reduced to one tenth of their normal values (q.v. «Battle Healing»), and various social functions behave differently (q.v. «Notifications»). Combat ends for a player if they are not involved in any hostile actions for a period of time, although that period can depend on a number of factors: the proximity of other combatants, their movements and actions in relation to one another, whether either has line of sight (q.v. «Line of Sight»), and even their default cursor relations (q.v. «Cursors»). A party defeating the last hostile mob in an area might only have moments before their «Result» windows appear, but a player trying to disengage from active combat—especially PvP combat where another player is hunting them—could wait a very long time for their HP and MP regen to return to normal..."
Alfheim Online manual, «Combat Status»

20 May 2023
Day 196
Evening

There were things in the world which did not so much defy description as defile it.

To Kirito's eyes, the mob named «Mimisdraugr» was such a thing; the monstrosity of it went a step beyond the level of horror usually present in Alfheim Online's mobs, so revolting to the eye that it made him want to look away. As it rose from somewhere within the non-Euclidean space of the Mimisbrunnr pool itself, Kirito could see the that the creature had, at one point, been a man—or at least, it had been a thing taking the general form of a man: two arms, two legs, a torso, and a head.

The last detail was one which Kirito had to infer from the rest—there was no head atop Mimisdraugr's shoulders. The stump of its neck ended in tatters of bone and rotten flesh; what little skin was intact and visible had the sickly pallor and bloat of a drowned corpse, and dripped with some kind of vile ichor. The rest of the body was thankfully hidden by plates of once-fine metal armor which looked thoroughly pitted with rust and mineral accretions, as if they'd been left at the mercy of the elements—and the rotting mass within—for a long time indeed.

More of the same corroded armor covered the mob's muscular orangutan-like arms, which hung misshapen more than halfway down the creature's similarly-clad legs. The bloated hand at the end of one long arm gripped the handle of a morningstar, the chain brown with rust, the ball of the weapon completely overgrown with what looked like moss and decay.

As the raid group began to deploy defensively, Kirito noticed something else as well—a sickening realization that he could've done without. When Mimisdraugr lifted the morningstar high, the vaguely spherical object at the end of the chain opened two eye sockets filled with nothing but a pale green light, and an unearthly bellow came from the agonized rictus there. The foul thing dragged along the ground with each step the mob took towards them, both it and each footstep leaving behind a thin film of corrosive mucus that hissed and steamed on the stone surfaces.

Wherever that caustic residue touched one of the rivulets that fed from the Wellspring, an inky corruption flowed downstream with horrifying speed, forking outwards like veins on a leaf each time the channels split. A shout of warning from Kirito caused Burns and Xorren to leap out of the ankle-deep water just in time to avoid any contact with the tainted substance, which seared along the now-steaming surface of the water like a corrosive oil slick.

"Everyone out of the aqueducts!" Jentou shouted, legs pumping as he hopped over one of the smaller channels and moved into position to intercept the boss. "Ranged DPS only for now! No idea what that stuff is, but whatever buff you're getting from «Sip of Wisdom» isn't worth finding out!"

Mako, one of the Undine mages, called out a response while he was repositioning himself on dry ground, droplets streaming from the waterlogged ends of his robes. "If the casters flank him the right way, we can avoid having him upstream of us and still get the benefit from Sip. It's risky, but gives a huge buff to spellcasting!"

Jentou's thoughts took only a moment of outward delay before he was back in motion. "Do it!"

The edges of Jentou's shield left bright blue tracers in the air as Mimidraugr's shrieking head rebounded from a bash technique, rusty chain links rattling with a trajectory that left the mob exposed while it struggled to get the weapon back into a ready position. His off-tank, Acheron, was already moving in when Jentou called for a switch; the mirrored movements of the two young men were almost synchronized as they exchanged positions. It was a dance that they had clearly performed for a long time.

With all melee DPS out while the tank and off-tank built up their initial aggro, Jentou called out an open question. "What's the deal on the water buff? Give me the five-second version."

When Burns spoke, Kirito restrained himself from turning his head to follow the voice of his party member; he was trying to watch Mimisdraugr's attack patterns. "In a nutshell: it's not just our MP pools—the buffs we've cast so far have increased effect, and our DPS probably will too. And I'd bet we're gonna need it."

Kirito was not himself a mage, and melee cooldowns and costs were very different from those of casters. However, he did understand casting mechanics well enough to know that sustained magic DPS output fundamentally required two things: available spells not on cooldown, and a supply of MP to cast them. And with the automatic recovery rates of HP and MP based on a percentage of their maximum values, a player with twice the Max MP of another player would—all else being equal—regenerate twice as much on every game tick… while the costs of their spells would remain the same.

At their levels, with multiple elements available, it was virtually impossible for a good mage with a well-developed spellbook and solid casting rotations to have their entire arsenal on cooldown. Between Rejuvenation buffs and potions, everyone standing in the untainted waters of Mimisbrunnr would be recovering hundreds of MP every second—their mana supply would be effectively unlimited.

And as if that weren't powerful enough, now Burns was suggesting that it had a further benefit, one that wouldn't have shown up on their core stats screen: to amplify the potency of all their magic effects.

The buff was just too good.

The only reason Kirito didn't ask the obvious question then was because Jentou spoke first. "And the catch?"

"Catch is, you can't use Focus. You can't even pop someone's status ribbon by looking at them as long as the effect is on you."

"And we still don't know what happens if you get caught downstream of him," Asuna pointed out.

No Focus? Kirito thought, rapidly re-evaluating the fight in progress. That's a new mechanic. So the buffed casters can unload as much as they want—but as long as they're buffed, they have to aim manually, and heals would have to be AOE or Touch.

Heals… and rezzes.

As everyone absorbed this information, Kirito turned his full attention back to where Acheron was holding his ground against the thudding blows from Mimisdraugr's morningstar. So far the techniques had all been part of the standard repertoire for that weapon class; Kirito thought he could predict most of the likely combos and chains now, although every now and then the boss seemed to interrupt its melee attacks to use spell-like powers. One of those spawned a series of ice spikes from the ground that resembled a smaller version of the ones used by the Jotunn Valley boss, but Acheron managed to angle his shield downward in time to block the spikes from continuing, then brought it back up quickly to meet the next attack.

The maneuver, however, left the Undine off-tank's guard low, and he gritted his teeth with obvious discomfort when some of the creature's spittle sprayed past his shield on impact and touched his cheek. Thin, translucent wisps of white smoke rose where it lingered for a few moments before evaporating, and Kirito was certain he saw a small amount of Acheron's HP tick down before quickly recovering due to the multiple HOT effects running on him.

With the aggro now balanced, Acheron called for Jentou to switch back in—which required a bit of careful footwork on both of their parts in order to avoid having to stand in befouled water while they maneuvered. "All DPS out!" Jentou yelled as soon as he had regained the attention of the boss. "I'm going to try to turn the mob so we can fight upstream of him! Ranged and melee DPS on either side of me until I'm anchored, healers behind melee—everyone back until I have him parked, watch for patterns!"

Once they were in position and Jentou called for all DPS in, the raid began working on burning down Mimisdraugr's first HP bar. No real surprises so far, Kirito thought as he leapt over one of the deeper channels of water, seeking a stretch of solid ground under his feet for his attack run. But there will be. I'll have to keep an eye out for signs of wear on my gear; we've seen corrosive attacks like that drool before.

The first surprise came just when Kirito thought he was getting a handle on the flow of Mimisdraugr's techniques and attack patterns. So far the mob had used most of the low- to mid-level morningstar techs Kirito recognized on sight, but nothing with more than four hits—it was a very aggressive, fast-paced moveset that left few openings to exploit. But then, after an alternating pinwheel of the morningstar to open up the space around itself, Mimisdraugr raised its weapon into the opening position of «Pentacrush», a brutal five-hit AOE technique that Kirito hadn't seen it use yet.

Not wanting to chance a parry on a high-priority tech from a heavy weapon, Kirito and Asuna each rolled to either side of the first crushing blow, a spray of tile fragments spalling. As the mob lifted its weapon and turned to swing it overhead to slam its opposite side, Kirito sprang from the ground and unloaded a hard-hitting double-strike tech into Mimisdraugr's unguarded back, then leapt away before the mob could punish the hit. The morningstar quite literally screamed just past him as he evaded, narrowly missing some of the mages spread out behind the mob as it hammered the ground behind it twice.

The fifth and final hit of the tech came down directly in front of Mimisdraugr's headless hulk with frightening speed—and unexpected extension. The rusted chain suddenly snaked out further from the handle with a coarse rattle, gaining length until it struck Jentou's presented shield with a sickening crack; the blow drove the tank backwards several meters despite the «Bracing» buff on him.

It also left Jentou teetering on the edge of one of the aqueducts, shield hanging useless while he spread his arms to try to regain his balance—with only that tank buff keeping his feet on the floor.

When Kirito looked back at Mimisdraugr, the mob had already reeled its morningstar back to normal length; it whipped the weapon overhead and behind it. With a phlegmatic bellow of rage, the mob seemed to tense up as it gathered strength, and then launched itself directly towards Jentou with all the speed and mass of a charging buffalo.

When a boss telegraphs an attack that hard, don't try to block it—get out of the way!

The words were silent; there was no point in calling out a warning now. Acheron did cry out and tried to switch in, making a heroic effort to divert the mob's charge with a heavy single-strike tech. Kirito could've told him it was futile, and Nori apparently knew better than to try; she lunged in that direction briefly before stopping. Mimisdraugr's unblockable attack blew through the Undine off-tank as if he hadn't even been there; only Acheron's own Bracing buff had kept him from becoming an airborne projectile already. Rather than lose his balance entirely, Jentou sank to one knee and physically braced himself behind his shield for the coming impact.

Mentat, who'd been relentlessly keeping heals and buffs refreshed on both tanks, suddenly shifted his aim, the twisted length of his arcane staff cradled in one arm almost like a rifle, the other arm held out before him at a wide angle. Kirito couldn't hear the incantation over the mob's battle cry, but at its conclusion a wall of elemental rock and stone rose up just in front of Jentou, the short-lived Immortal Object absorbing the full energy of the charge. There was a sound like every boulder in the world falling at once, and Kirito himself very nearly lost his own balance with the momentary quaking of the ground.

"That's the first attack cycle!" Kirito yelled once he saw the familiar tech that the boss prepared next. He waved Nori in to intercept aggro while Acheron helped Jentou back to his feet, and both Mako and Selkie quickly brought his red HP back to full. Mentat returned the Wall of Earth to dust, and both tanks charged back in as soon as the way was clear, skip-hopping over the polluted streams that lay between them and the boss.

Although Mimisdraugr's HP dropped quickly at first, as the bar became shorter and shorter, the boss seemed to become progressively more resistant to physical attacks—again, a familiar mechanic for Kirito, and one he called out as soon as he realized what was happening. "Zerk! He's doing the Jotunn berzerker mechanic!"

Jentou, switched out at the moment, had clearly noticed the same thing. "Kirito's right! All DPS listen up, when this thing hits the red zone it's probably going to go phys immune, or something close to it. When that happens we won't have much time until tanks can't keep aggro anymore, so on my call, mages will go for max magic burn, with tanks and melee DPS screening! Mages, prep for that phase by giving the boss about thirty meters of distance!"

It was an aggressive call to make, with so many unknowns in the battle—Kirito approved, personally, but he suspected Asuna might not; he could see her open her mouth for just a moment, as if she wanted to object but was restraining herself. With so much of a tank's aggro coming from their own DPS, suddenly losing their physical damage output meant that even their taunts and rescues eventually wouldn't be enough to overcome the aggro from the mages, who were still doing their full damage.

Jentou was obviously trying to compensate for that by having magic DPS move far away from the boss to reduce their proximity-based aggro, but that would only do so much good. A more conservative approach would've been to switch to a slow, safe burn once the red zone hit. Kirito reasoned that Jentou was probably concerned about some kind of hidden time limit or enrage mechanic in play.

The thought almost made Kirito laugh. Hard for this thing to get much more enraged than it was right from the pull. But I'd rather not find out how wrong I am.

Coming to a decision of his own, Kirito called out loudly to his own group. "Xorren, I want you full-time magic from now on, sword sheathed. Asuna, when we hit the burn phase I want you spot-healing and buffing, but ready to intercept if the thing comes for our mages. Nori, start adding Illusion to as many staff attacks as you can; it'll help sustain your aggro."

A corner of Kirito's mind nagged at him that there was a factor he was overlooking. He knew what his party was doing, he knew what Jentou was doing, the boss was contained, and—

Kirito shook his head to get himself back in the game, forcing himself to focus. He still felt like it was missing something, but Mimisdraugr was coming again.

·:·:·:·:·:·

Defeat was sour at the back of Grimlock's throat as he spoke the words. He could not even meet Richter's gaze. "It can't be done."

He expected the other Leprechaun to target him with the cutting scorn and sharp wit that the man usually aimed at the NCC leadership. After all, Richter's investment in this dream of Grimlock's hadn't just been one of interest or fancy. Beyond just providing him with a fully-furnished private workspace, his patron's financial investment was very real: whenever the need for one mat or another had become desperate enough, the crisis-driven market shortages so insurmountable that Grimlock had given up... somehow Richter had always been able to find sources where others failed. Moreover, whenever Grimlock's coin had run short, and his wife was out of the city, Richter had stepped in to make sure that he had what he needed.

Grimlock sometimes wondered how many favors the man had called in on his behalf—and what he might have to pay for them later.

And now he had nothing to show for it.

The shame was unbearable. For once he was actually grateful that his absentee wife wasn't due to return for some time yet—at least this way, he didn't have to bear the additional indignity of being humbled in front of her.

The way she humbled you—

His brain slipped right past the thought as if it had been greased. His cheeks were already hot with shame; somehow the emotion simulation system found a way to redden them further.

Richter, for his part, seemed implausibly unfazed. As Grimlock looked up, the man sponsoring his work seemed to simply be watching him, waiting for him to get over himself. When their eyes finally met, only then did Richter speak.

"You know how to troubleshoot better than that. Describe to me what's happening."

"It is not a question of tracking down a logic error, nor anything else so inane," Grimlock insisted a bit more hotly than he intended. "Based on what I could find in the game manual, it's a fundamental limitation of the way loot mechanics work. Mobs don't drop their loot on the ground like they do in some other games. It's distributed directly to a player's inventory in their Result window, but only once all combat has ended."

"And?" Richter prompted.

"What do you mean, 'and?' That's it. That is, as they say, the ball game. Thanks to your tips, I can create a Construct that can use crafted map data to patrol specific waypoints, recognize and target mobs based on their cursors, and brutishly lob what more or less amount to magic bombs at them until they die." Grimlock consciously adjusted his glasses in an affected way, peering over them. "Which is splendid, except for one minor issue: the Construct itself cannot receive any loot from the encounter, ever. If a device kills something and its owner isn't part of the encounter, the owner cannot receive credit, and the game considers the mob to have been killed by the environment—just as if it had fallen off a cliff, or triggered a dungeon trap." And in case he hadn't driven the point home clearly enough, Grimlock piled all of his frustration into these final words. "Any loot is simply gone. Forever."

Richter turned to more fully regard the product of his investment, followed closely by Grimlock's own anxious attention. With the aid of superlight materials and other rare components, he'd been able to reduce the fully-assembled Construct down to the approximate size of a gorilla, but with the plodding four-legged gait of a pack mule. The actual mobility part hadn't been a challenge—in his opinion, the most reliable and cost-effective options were still the simple low-level recipes for slow-but-steady quadrupeds like the ones some players used to haul heavy loot. Fancier locomotion modules required increasingly more expensive and power-hungry gyroscopes—and were more prone to tipping over, as well as difficult to right once they did. The first real expense had been power sources, and that was a budget that grew with every bit of added complexity. High-tier crystals—some of which he'd only heard of before—had a finite supply, and commanded prices that reflected the risk required to farm them.

The NCC could have easily supplied a vast quantity of those, Grimlock thought with a stab of resentment. My R&D costs wouldn't have even made a dent in what we already have in stock.

The ammunition for the machine's primary ranged armament had already been a hideous expense that he couldn't possibly have floated on his own—so expensive that in truth, even if the Construct could collect loot, it was hard to argue that the result would let an operator break even, let alone be worthwhile.

Yet Richter had only questioned him briefly about the combination of mechanics he'd discovered before leaving to procure what Grimlock had said he needed in order to make it happen.

And there, at least, Grimlock had delivered. With the help of an enchanter introduced by Richter, and armed with the new Alchemy secrets his mentor had taught him, the anti-mob bomblets functioned exactly the way he'd envisioned. They were effective, scalable to the level range of any zone given a powerful-enough enchantment, and completely safe to use around party members. And with the use of enough of the right rare mats, they could potentially be made compact and lightweight enough for the hardy quadruped to carry an ample supply of arcane ordnance.

Grimlock had heard a story once, back in the real world, and the recollection of it struck him briefly. He couldn't remember the details—something about a gun or missile that cost a billion yen every time it was fired, or some nonsense like that. It was an iconic shibboleth of those who railed against wasteful government spending, against military boondoggles that cost far more than they could ever be worth.

He was looking at one right now. His creation, his Construct, could—with sufficiently-powerful ammunition, and equipped with the right resists on its armor—conceivably go up against almost any trash mob in the game. It probably wouldn't stand a chance against a boss, or even a pack of strong adds—but it could theoretically clear.

And if asked by the Proxies, he could not—for even a moment—suggest that it would be worth the cost of operating it, even if the loot mechanics hadn't rendered the entire exercise meaningless anyway. He said as much to Richter, explaining the reference he'd remembered and how it applied to his invention here.

"So yes, I could refine the chassis to reduce the weight or cost, fine-tune its targeting logic, or add features to the makeshift ballista, but there's no way around the basic fact that the Construct cannot farm anything autonomously—its owner must still be part of the fight in order to receive loot drops. And even if it could, too many rare mats are already required to make the ammunition work—and making the ammo smaller or lighter will only exacerbate the expense." He threw up his hands just a bit before letting them drop, as if it weren't worth the effort to hold them that way. "What's the point, when for the cost of a single battle's worth of consumable parts alone you could outfit an entire clearing group?"

Richer seemed to absorb this quietly, eyes closed. The lack of response became unnerving in short order, and Grimlock felt the need to repeat himself. "We can do it. It's just that it's pointless." He bowed again, and this time he stayed that way. "I'm sorry. I wasted your time and money, and I have nothing of value to show for it."

It took a moment for Grimlock to understand the grunt that Richter gave in response—primarily because he realized, belatedly, that it had actually been a very muted chuckle, and humor was the last thing he expected from his patron at the moment. It drew Grimlock's eyes upwards once more. He watched while Richter reached out and ran his fingertips softly along the polished curves of the de-powered Construct's frame, stopping for a moment to visibly admire the bulky ballista-like mechanism mounted on the thing's spine. There was a hopper saddled on the back like a miniature rider in a wine barrel, and with a press in the right place, Richter opened the access hatch to the magazine.

When Richter withdrew his hand, he clutched a glittering, ornate cylinder the approximate size and shape of a two-slice toaster, which weighed heavily in his grip until he brought up his other hand to support it. Slowly he turned the object over in his hands, pausing when his fingertips found the interface port the Construct used to activate the timed consumable. His eyes were captivated by it as he spoke. "Oh, I wouldn't go that far. Even some boondoggles produce unintended boons."

"Precisely what, I ask, is that supposed to mean?"

One by one, Richter popped the releases and seals on the device—even some that Grimlock had thought to be permanent once engaged. His voice was conversational while his long fingers worked at this delicate task. "During the Second World War, an Allied scientist was tasked with coming up with a new synthetic material for gun sights. Something strong, lightweight, and crystal-clear that could be used as a substitute for glass." Richter cast the gaze of one eye towards Grimlock without turning his head. "He failed. And at the time, he'd thought nothing of the viscous cyanoacrylic mess that had been the result of one of those failures."

Grimlock felt like he was being talked down to, and was growing resentful of it. He could feel his hands wanting to ball into fists, and forced back the anger. "I suppose you intend on telling me that this failure ended up being the solution to his problem after all, and he just didn't see it at the time."

The bulky casing that helped the feed mechanism operate smoothly gave a hitch as Richter pressed on it a certain way, the panels falling away from their payload like brass flower petals blooming. The essential functional parts of the object left in Richter's hand shone with enchanted radiance, the glow pulsing with leashed power. The energies invested into the two crystals made them bright enough that the details of the device connecting them were lost, but Grimlock could've traced the connections by memory.

"No," Richter said nonchalantly, slipping the object into an opaque pouch that swallowed its light. "He'd managed to accidentally invent super glue. But that accidental by-product, worthless at the time, now holds the world together."

"And this?" Grimlock's gesture towards the inert Construct was almost contemptuous.

"This," Richter said with a smile of anticipation, "is going to break it apart."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Yoruko had not expected Proxy Aria to even have time for her, let alone be interested in listening to her. It left her in the mildly uncomfortable position of having gotten what she'd asked for, but not necessarily what she'd wanted.

What she wanted was to be done with this side trip to Sondref so that she could see Caynz again—among other reasons. But Aria left Yoruko with no excuses for refusing her offers of hospitality.

It wasn't that Yoruko objected to visiting the Imaginarium—to her, the brightly-orelit, honeycombed rooms with their many libraries and working areas for artists of all media were a homey and comfortable environment. Under normal circumstances, she would've welcomed the chance to curl up in one of the dream emporium's reading nooks with a virtual book. But that wasn't why she was here today, and as soon as she presented herself at the front desk, the Puca girl there ushered her off to one of the facility's private rooms.

It took the better part of five minutes for Aria to make sure that Yoruko had refreshments, was comfortably settled, and to get past an apparently-necessary period of small talk wherein she found herself essentially introducing Aria to all of the absent members of her guild by way of description. Only then were they able to broach the topic that had brought her to her faction's proxy in the first place.

Having reviewed the notes she'd taken during her talks with Penny, the details were fresh in Yoruko's mind. Nervous though she was, it didn't take her long to lay out the basics, using her subsequent tests as a starting point. The tests had been necessary; it wasn't that she hadn't believed Penny—she just couldn't very well explain something that she didn't understand for herself. "And it's much the same with Wind buffs as it is for Earth, except with A-flat Major instead of B-flat Major."

Aria made a bow-like frown of thought, lips pursing and a faint crease showing in her brow. "I… all right, go on. Any other elements?"

Yoruko was fiercely curious, and wanted to ask what thought had just crossed the more-experienced musician's mind, but continued. "We don't have all that many used by our party, but Caynz knows some Water and Holy. Holy reacts to a B natural, some buffs specifically to C Major. Water seems to react strongly to any E natural, no matter what spell it is. But the heals seem to resonate specifically with B Major, the buffs with—"

"F Minor?" Aria interjected suddenly, as if she couldn't contain the guess.

It stopped Yoruko in her tracks. That had been exactly the key she'd been about to say. She stared directly at Aria, distantly aware that it was probably a little rude. "What…" Yoruko had to stop for a moment, licking her lips in a nervous gesture to buy time for thoughts suddenly in flight to find a place to land. "Did you just figure something out?"

Aria didn't respond right away in words, eyes half-closing while she hummed her way through a number of scales—some of them not yet discussed. "Mmhm, maybe. If only..." Her gaze seemed to wander the room for a few moments, scanning the shelves of books as if looking for something that refused to be found. It came to rest at last on Yoruko herself, who met the woman's eyes.

"If only?" Yoruko prompted, leaning forward in her chair. She was trying not to be impatient, but fighting a losing battle against the urge.

"If only I had an illustration of it here," Aria muttered with unhelpful vagueness, looking pensive.

The former performance singer seemed to float from her chair to a standing position, so smooth was the movement. It was almost like watching a cat rise from a nap. "I need both audio and visual aids for this," Aria said, beckoning to Yoruko, who fell into step with her. "Let's take a walk over to the Octavarium."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Thun-kata.

The staccato report of the shishi-odoshi punched through the silence that was left in the wake of Mimisdraugr's sudden retreat back into the Wellspring. With its bellows no longer filling the air, Kirito marveled at the experience of being able to hear himself think for the first time since the battle started. They'd clearly entered an intermission between boss phases; he allowed himself a few moments to close his eyes and listen to the rhythmic sounds of the waterworks while he calmed himself. A few of the Undines had already started cheering, which Jahala indulged just long enough to catch Kirito's gaze as soon as he looked around once more.

"He'll be back," Kirito said, stating what was, to his mind, an incredibly obvious fact. It was likely safe enough to relax for a minute and take a breather, but he kept his sword in hand. "We only dealt with one of his HP bars, and for the most part it was a straightforward burn. There's no way it stays that easy."

"I'm afraid Kirito is correct," said the Eldest, the silent padding of her bare footsteps bringing her over to where the two parties were beginning to regroup. "You have wounded my father, but even now I can feel him gathering his strength, drinking deep of the Allfather's power, and waiting for the right moment to rejoin the cycle of life. We have very little time, and when he returns, he will be even more powerful."

Asuna gave the young NPC girl a curious look, then raised her eyes to the rest of the raid. "What do we know so far?"

"The morningstar attack patterns were from the standard moveset," Kirito said right away. "But that unblockable charge at the end of each attack cycle—"

"Mostly unblockable," Xorren stage-whispered while unsubtly nudging his more-reserved Salamander friend in the arm; Mentat let slip a smile.

"That mostly unblockable charge is a unique move I've never seen."

"It's a tankbuster for sure, whatever it is," said Xorren. "Pop mit or don't get hit."

Kirito nodded. "Exactly. Our tanks will be specced for a few emergency mitigations on long CDs, but Mentat's idea worked just as well—and didn't burn a cooldown. It's manageable." He paused for a beat to regain his train of thought. "Aside from that, physical resist scales up with HP loss, just like the Jotunn berserkers, but it's still vulnerable to magic."

"To magic DPS, anyway," Burns said. "It's got high status resist, like most bosses, but I think it's weak to Silence, because that stuck about half the time."

"And thank God when it did," muttered one of the Undine mages, making a point of wiggling a finger in his ear as if trying to dislodge something.

Jentou nodded, stone-faced aside from a twitch of the lip. "Powers and elements?"

Burns had the glow of Detect Movement in his eyes, and he was watching in the direction of the Wellspring while he spoke. "Dark for sure—no other way to get Apathy, and it blasted us with that at the halfway point. The debuff to our cooldowns sucks huge ass, and it's probably the only thing worth keeping it Silenced for; the thing's mostly a melee mob."

"I'd Silence it just to stop the damned thing from screaming in our ears the whole time," Mako said to a handful of agreeable but professionally-brief chuckles.

That's not even the worst idea, Kirito thought. Burns was looking his way; he met the mage's eyes and nodded once. We'll all probably be able to focus better without the distraction.

Selkie, the Undine man who'd been healing for Jentou, spoke up next. "I saw it cast Blur near the start of the fight, and it was doing silent heals with its free hand, so it's got Wind and Water. Some PBAOE and cone-based ice attacks, but there were no incantations for those either, so they had to be innate powers."

"Yep, and that frost ring was on a 45-second timer," Burns said, an observation which Kirito backed up before adding his own.

"Ice spikes were a minute between, or a bit more when it was locked in another animation at the time." Kirito thought for a moment more. "I think that's all the innate moves I saw so far."

"And then there's whatever that acid shit is," Acheron put in, rubbing at the now-healed spot on his cheek. "I just checked durability and my shield's down by almost half, while my best blade's just over 80%." That revelation prompted a flurry of movement as everyone who hadn't already checked their gear rushed to do so with rapid taps of anxious fingers.

"Leviathanatos, anyone?" Kirito's vague comment was more than enough to stir the memories of those who'd been at the raid in question. He took a moment to recall what Sasha had told him. "A mage I know called it Caustic damage, and that seems to fit. It's the intersection of Water and Dark. I think the spittle from the Graveworms was the same damage type too, just far less powerful."

As soon as Jentou turned to him, Acheron hastily said, "Before you ask, it takes me about five minutes to set up the field kit, plus the time to do the work, and that's not happening mid-battle. I hope everyone brought their swap gear."

Kirito's gaze shifted in the direction of the half-dozen crystal-topped obelisks that seemed to terminate some of the water flows. Xorren and Nori had wandered over to investigate the stone circle more closely, and the Spriggan tank suddenly raised her voice. "Uh, guys? You're gonna wanna see this."

From a closer vantage point, it was clear that rather than being a rough circle, the obelisks were neatly arranged as if they were at the vertices of a hexagon—two of its points to the arbitrary north and south, two of the faces to the east and west. Some of the aqueducts in the floor converged at the base of the southern three obelisks; soft light came from the runes carved into the smooth stone surface, flowing upwards in pulses of hue and brightness into the allochroic crystals forming the tips of the stone pillars.

The actual floor of the space contained within that stone hexagon was raised by a single half-meter step into a slight dais, the surface of which initially seemed to be formed from six large triangular crystalline tiles framed with a dark gray metal. As Kirito took a step onto the dais, however, the specular reflections fled from the crystal panes they'd rendered opaque, revealing to him what lay buried beneath them.

Not buried, Kirito thought as he stared in horror down at the familiar-looking female form frozen in time beneath his feet. Imprisoned.

At the very center of the dais there was a waist-high mechanism of some kind, roughly the size of a kitchen trash can but greebled with the visually-distinctive accouterments of Leprechaun technology. Its workings and purpose were incomprehensible to Kirito, but the whole assembly had the unmistakable steampunk-esque clockwork appearance of a Construct. The only recognizable part was what appeared to be a classic keyhole, set in a faceplate on top of the podium and angled to the south—a narrow rectangular orifice with one end rounded and one flared from the middle like the sign on a women's restroom. A ring of six small circular lights surrounded the keyhole, each one connected to one of the three "activated" southern obelisks by pencil-thin lines of light which ran down the sides of the pedestal and along the floor like glowing circuits.

"I'm pretty sure none of this was lit up when we all first got here," Nori said, breaking into Kirito's stunned silence. "But I didn't see when that changed, I was too focused on the boss."

"I have so many questions," Asuna said, looking back down at the frozen feminine form beneath their feet. Her tone was mild, almost dazed, but her expression held horror.

Nori laughed, although Kirito thought the sound had a slightly forced, nervous edge to it. "Right? I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess this is our missing Norn lady."

Xorren poked and prodded at the clockwork mechanism in the center, and even produced a set of lockpicks from a pouch before seeming to think better of the idea. "I don't want to chance swapping in the skill; it's not all that high. Anyone got one of those special Lepu skeleton keys?"

Kirito thought he knew the device Xorren was referring to. "I know someone who does, but they're not here now, and I think you have to be a Leprechaun to use it anyway." A puzzle piece suddenly fell into place for him, and his lips thinned as he turned to look at Asuna. "How much do you want to bet that if we had a Lepu with the right gadget, we could just skip some or all of this boss battle and rescue her right now while the boss is between phases?"

"You really think so?"

"This is what I think," Kirito said, unsure why it wasn't as obvious to everyone else as it was to him. "To free Verdandi, we need all six of those lights to be on, and/or to open the lock. After we broke Mimisdraugr's first HP bar, those first three pillars lit up. He has three bars, so breaking the second probably 'powers' the other half of the lock, so to speak. I'll bet then he drops the key that you need if you don't have a Lepu to do the sequence break that skips the fight."

The sound of Imp wings and a patter of bootsteps brought Kirito's attention to where Burns had just landed. "Got a better look at the room from above, and I think I'm starting to see what's going on here."

"We've got some good ideas too," Kirito said. "What's up?"

"Not me for much longer, wings are close to toast and there's not enough orelight in here to charge. Anyway, so there's all those water channels running out of the Wellspring, and they wander and weave a bit—enough so that it's not always going to be obvious when you're downstream of the boss. Which, spoiler alert, you don't wanna be. Those end up pretty much right here." He stomped his foot twice, then spread his arms and pointed off to either side. "Only some of them feed into this circle of obelisks, though-about half of them split off to the east and west, go around the obelisks, and empty over the northern ledge into the system that feeds those big shishi-odoshi."

The mention of the nostalgic waterworks brought Kirito's attention back to their repetitive and overlapping sounds—drowned out during the fight by the din of battle and the mob's bellowing, but clearly audible now in the peace of the intermission. Thun-kata. Kirito tried to trace the sound, following its direction of origin each time one of the cycles audibly repeated itself. He couldn't be certain, but he had the impression that there were more of them now than there had been before.

Kirito felt like a clue was nagging at the back of his mind, trying to get his attention. It was almost maddening.

"They've got to be part of the puzzle somehow," Asuna said into the momentary silence, all but speaking his thoughts aloud.

Burns nodded, clearly of a similar mind. "I'm thinking so. Some of the aqueducts run to the pillars that aren't lit up, but those are completely dry—there's no flow in them at all, and they don't seem to connect to the Wellspring itself, they're fed from outlets in the wall that aren't running right now."

Kirito frowned. "We didn't do anything to light up these first three other than break the first bar."

"That we know of," Asuna pointed out, drawing nods from both boys.

"Light up all six and get the key from Mimisdraugr, and we free Verdandi." Kirito looked around at the others, seeing agreement on their faces, then back to Burns. "I'm pretty sure that or something like it is the overall win condition. The rest is fight mechanics."

When a pause followed that summary, Kirito turned to look at the NPC girl. Until this point she had remained silent throughout the strategy conference, still but for the turning of her head and the shifting of her gaze as she gave each speaker what seemed to be her full attention. What he saw in her then put an end to the question he'd been about to ask, and raised another entirely.

Between what he'd read about Alfheim Online pre-launch, and what he knew about game design in general, Kirito knew that NPC facial expressions and body language—much like their dialogue—fell into two distinct categories: procedural and scripted. Just as the natural language system procedurally generated NPC dialogue that could emulate what a real person might say in their situation, the emotion expression system was responsible for animating an avatar's simulated facial muscles to generate appropriate expressions in response to context and—in the case of players—their actual emotions.

The scripted expressions were, by contrast, set up in advance as a complete package—and from what Kirito had read, typically recorded by scanning a live actor. Sometimes one of ALO's writers or designers needed to have a specific phrase or unique expression be exactly what they intended, or—conversely—a particular scrap of dialogue or a routine smile was needed so often that it became part of a stock repertoire, easily recognizable for what it was once seen more than a few times.

Most ordinary throwaway NPCs interacted entirely with these stock reactions, such as the ubiquitous quizzled head-tilt they gave when confused by player conversation—Kirito was fairly sure he had seen them all and could spot them on sight.

The Eldest didn't look like that. She looked, for all the world, like a real human girl who was practically bursting with the need to share a secret with everyone—and trying as hard as possible to not appear that way.

"How long until round two?" Kirito asked her suddenly.

If he'd been asking an ordinary NPC townsperson something like that, Kirito probably would've taken care to phrase it another way. Thankfully, the vague and slangy question didn't seem to cause the NPC girl any trouble or pause; he was fairly sure that the game would give the key NPCs in a quest like this as much complexity and as many resources as they needed. There was a moment where an expression of remarkably-human subtlety crossed her face, a fleeting sign of surprise in the arch of her brows and the widening of her eyes before she resumed her neutral countenance.

"I cannot say for certain," the Eldest replied after the briefest of pauses. "But we are connected, he and I, and I sense that he will soon return."

"Will you be able to warn us?"

There was another pause, and this time he was certain it was significant in some way. Once again, there was something subtly different in the cadence of the Eldest's speech—something intangibly more natural. "It is possible, Kirito, but I do not know where he will choose to rejoin the cycle. I might only be able to give you moments."

"More would be better," Kirito said. "But if it's moments we've got, we'll be ready. And grateful for the help." Satisfied that most of the mechanics so far were known and understood as well as they could be, he decided to push the envelope of what this NPC could say. "You said you were the Eldest Sister, but do you have an actual name?"

She's actually thinking about what to say now, Kirito thought upon seeing yet another unusual hesitation from the NPC girl, his suspicions as good as confirmed. We've gone beyond the bounds of the script she was generated with, and now the language system is having to ad lib. I've seen that approach get an NPC to give me information that they weren't scripted to reveal.

"Yui," said the girl after almost seeming to wrestle with some kind of inner conflict, face blossoming into a smile just as the letters blossomed into existence above her white cursor. "My name is Yui."

"Yui," Kirito said, a little surprised. "That's a nice name." And unusually Japanese-sounding for an ALO NPC.

The sound of a cleared throat brought Kirito's attention to Asuna, who was giving him a mildly skeptical look. "We should probably make sure we're all prepared for the second phase."

By which Kirito was fairly certain she meant something to the effect of: stop playing with the NPC and get serious. "I'm good," he said, trying for tones of responsible reassurance. "Gear condition is fine, food buffs and pots still running, nothing on cooldown."

As soon as he spoke the words, Kirito glanced past Asuna's shoulders and saw Jentou and the other Undines approaching. Belatedly he realized that he'd missed part of the point. It wasn't just his own readiness that he had to be responsible for—he had a group to lead, and the other half of the raid to share their findings with. "Nori, it looked like the Undine tanks were taking a lot of durability damage from that thing. How are you set to take over as off-tank if needed?"

Nori gave her staff a showy twirl that ended with the length of it cradled behind her neck and across her shoulders. "I'll need tanking buffs, the good stuff, but Gemini and I'll be ready if we're needed. Nice thing about my style is that I don't take as much durability damage."

"But it's harder for you to keep the boss anchored in one spot," Jentou pointed out, drawing nods.

Having checked in with the mages in his group, Kirito greeted Jentou and filled him in briefly on what they'd learned. The Undine raid leader turned to his own mages. "Selkie, just before I engage the mob I want you to double-stack «Latent Renewal» on me."

Kirito didn't recognize the spell; even the Undine healer seemed a little surprised. "You sure? That'll put a couple of big heals on cooldown for a few minutes."

"It's worth it," Jentou insisted. "The boss opens with a four-hit tech that deals armor-defeating damage, and I almost lost aggro when everyone had to pile on the heals. But spells front-load their hate, and the ten-second delay on the latent heal should make it aggro-free as long as you cast it before I engage."

Jentou then turned to one of his mages. "Mako, I want you to pin your group's status pages open and pay attention whenever we're repositioning. I want to know if anything changes based on how close we are—"

"Kirito!"

The sudden cry from Yui didn't need any explanation; Kirito didn't hesitate before calling out to the rest of the raid. "Incoming!"

Selkie wasted no time in chain-casting the spell they had just been discussing, grabbing Jentou's shoulder and speaking rapidly. "Zutto famudrokke plomechi shalthi chaz shaja yasun, zutto wilna—"

"Prep buffs!" Jentou yelled above the sounds of spellcasting, presenting his shield to the south while the rest of the raid deployed around him. Sheets of blue, green and amber flashed across his avatar as the surface of the Wellspring began to boil and surge once more.

·:·:·:·:·:·

The error message that Eugene kept receiving was «Blocked by Environment». In his opinion, it would have been more accurately titled «Ha ha, fuck you for wanting to talk to me». After so many unsuccessful attempts at reaching Burns over the last few days, the boilerplate system response was beginning to take on a mocking quality.

Eugene's finger stabbed the «Send» button with unnecessary force; the intemperate indulgence made him glad that the virtual haptic interface was impossible to damage in any way. A minute later he did it again, with identical results.

Stop doing the same thing and expecting something different to happen, idiot. That message means either Burns got himself arrested in Arun, or he's stuck in the World Tree somewhere. Either way, that's just goddamn great and you can't do Jack about it. The hell am I supposed to tell Mort when he shows up for tonight's call?

He closed his menu with a broad, sharp sweep of his arm, as if backhanding a particularly annoying antagonist, and dropped his armored form noisily onto his apartment's living room couch. We never should've used that kid. It's great that he basically worships Mort and all, and yeah, he's a damn good mage—it'd be nice to have him back in our groups. But we both know he can't stand the way I run things, and that's just too fucking bad for him.

Eugene had every intention of giving Mort a talking-to about Burns, but when his brother finally did return to their shared residence, all of those thoughts vanished. He could see the urgency on the other man's face before any words were spoken, and Eugene found himself on his feet in the blink of an eye, ready for action. "What is it?"

"We'll get to that in a minute," Mortimer said, glancing out at the street from their second-story bay windows as if looking for someone in particular, but with the furtive caution of someone who didn't want to be seen doing so. With a clatter of wood and steel runners, he pulled the curtains shut. "Anything from Burns?"

"Not a goddamn thing for two days," Eugene griped. "He's still on my friend list, but PMs bounce and I haven't gotten any Moonlight Mirror calls. And it's that last part that's the real kicker—okay, he can't PM if he's in a dungeon, but Moonlight Mirror works anywhere as long as the players are friended—I'd have to accept or dismiss a pop-up if I was in a fight, but at least I'd know." He threw his hands into the air in an excess of frustration. "Hell, even if I'd been asleep at the time, I'd at least have a system message saying he tried!"

"Probably not a cause for concern," Mortimer remarked with infuriating nonchalance. "Think about it, 'Gene—if his PMs are bouncing with the I'm-in-a-dungeon message, smart money says he's in the World Tree, and that means he's out with his Spriggan party. Moonlight Mirror isn't subtle; it's not like he can slip around a corner and make a quiet call on his mobile—and someone in the party would be sure to wonder what the hit to his MP was about."

The explanation Mortimer offered was… not unreasonable. Eugene wasn't ready to be done with outrage, but was willing to shift gears to incredulity. "For almost two days?"

Mortimer shrugged. "It's unusual, but we both know it's not unheard-of for clearing parties to disappear for a few days and camp out in the field, especially during the crunch to make it to a boss room. Which is, incidentally, what seems to have happened—I made a few discreet inquiries, and no one has seen either the Spriggan or Undine clearing groups since Friday evening. Aren't we getting to the end of the current zone?"

"Close to, I think," Eugene said, recalling an earlier briefing. "Latest reports are that there's an access quest that probably leads to a boss, and we've got groups who just started grinding it this morning. You think Burns and his Spriggan buddies are off doing that?"

"That's the way I'd bet. Have you checked if Argo's heard anything from or about him?"

"Why the hell would I do that?" Before his brother could do more than open his mouth to speak, Eugene held up a hand. "Nah bro, hang on, back up a sec here. I'm not going to Argo for anything right now. Hell, I still don't get why you had me tell her anything in the first place. I mean…"

Mortimer watched with outward patience. Eugene played Scrabble in his brain for the words he wanted, palmed his square chin and rubbed at the stubble there when the words wouldn't assemble themselves into sentences, then sighed and passed the hand across his whole face as if trying to wipe chalk from a frustratingly-unhelpful blackboard. "Look, I don't ask you to explain in detail all about why you're doing something. I trust your smarts, you know that. And I can usually see at least part of the picture, or the shape of it anyway, so's it makes some kind of sense. But I don't see what incriminating ourselves with The Rat got us. Why tell her anything about your plan that she didn't already know?"

"Because it neutralizes her as a threat to the plan, and controls—or at least minimizes—the flow of information about it."

The confusion that was slowing Eugene's thought processes reached a peak. He stared stupidly, uncomprehendingly at his brother for several seconds before he could even manage to ask what seemed, to him, to be the most obvious question in the history of ever. "...And it does that how, exactly?"

Turning to peek out through a gap in the curtains once more, Mortimer seemed satisfied at whatever he did or didn't see there, and elaborated. Eugene bristled slightly; his brother was using that maddeningly-soothing, excessively-reasonable, modulated tone of voice he employed when he was trying to de-escalate someone who was on the verge of losing their shit—and Mort knew that he hated being verbally glad-handled like that.

"Argo is extremely concerned with being seen as a neutral actor with integrity, setting aside for now the question of whether or not she actually is one. Her reputation and business depend on it. And one of the core rules she is known for is never burning a source, no matter who they are, unless that source burns her first. I've tested this through cutouts."

Eugene nodded; Mortimer continued. "You're a valuable source to her, Kenji. She requested inside information from you, and you provided it, as you've done many times before. But this time, that information incriminates us both as accessories to what is, in effect, the hired assassination of a faction leader."

"And that's a good thing?"

"Yes. Because it is now impossible for Argo to spread that information without burning one of her most highly-placed Salamander sources. She must, to put it bluntly, decide whether she cares enough about Yoshihara's death to sacrifice her reputation and a highly-placed asset in order to avenge it." His smile edged up slightly on one side. "I don't think she'll do it. She may even be discouraged from digging too deeply, knowing that whatever she learns is effectively unsalable and without commercial value. And the longer she sits on that information, the more she herself becomes an accessory to it after the fact."

Eugene, at last, found a point that was simple enough to articulate. "I'm smelling a whole lot of 'maybe' coming off of this dumb fucking plan of yours."

Mortimer didn't take a swipe at the shiny object Eugene's words had waved in his face. "I'm not done. In addition, it preserves her willingness to accept any information you offer, which is itself of value to us. Moreover, because giving her the information is ostensibly against your interests, it gives added weight and credibility to your bundled claim that we intend this alliance to be of mutual benefit to everyone involved, not an annexation."

"But… that's actually true." Eugene paused. He himself wasn't yet convinced that the Spriggans brought the Salamanders any benefit besides having rumored Loper spawns in their home zone, and that resource shortage was far too recent to have been on his brother's mind when he originally concocted this scheme. The onion layers in this whole mess were starting to make his head hurt. "Isn't it?"

Mortimer gave a fleeting, perfunctory-sounding laugh. "Yes, which is always helpful. But that doesn't mean Argo's going to believe it without being given a good reason—one that she thinks she thought of herself. Bundling it with an admission of a so-called crime gives her a reason to take it seriously, because it creates the impression that you have taken her into your confidence."

Eugene wanted something to briefly bang his head against something for dramatic effect, but there were no walls nearby and the expression of frustration wasn't worth the steps it would take to get there. Nor was it worth the effort of clobbering his brother, no matter how much better that would've made him feel at the moment. He gave up and changed the subject. "All right, fine. Now why don't you tell me what's going on that's got you so spooked?"

"Am I spooked?" Mortimer seemed to seriously consider his own question for a few moments. "Perhaps a bit. A better word would be unsettled, I think, and for a number of good reasons."

"I don't care what you call it, just start giving me some straight answers."

The explanation that followed took longer than was probably necessary—mainly because Eugene kept interrupting with questions and other outbursts. "Wait a minute," he said, poking a meaty finger repeatedly into the center of Mortimer's chest, hard enough to push his brother back a step. "You walked into this place what, half a dozen times by yourself? After what happened with Kibaou?"

"Kenji, it may surprise you to learn that I'm an adult male capable of making my own risk assessments." Mortimer's tone was dry enough to be used as an industrial-grade desiccant.

Eugene, for his part, was at his wit's end with his brother's willingness to throw away his own life. "Shut the fuck up. What you are is an idiot trying to get yourself killed. Or trying to impress everyone with what a hero you are so they'll re-elect you, which amounts to the same thing. I'm already pulling you off farming duty after what happened out there today, and now I'm tempted—"

Mortimer cut him off with a sharp gesture at the air, the much-smaller brother's expression and voice taking on a weight of peremptory command that stopped Eugene's tirade in its tracks. "No, Kenji, listen. We have a narrow window of opportunity that is dwindling as we speak. The Sandmen are fucking evil, and what they're doing will destroy us. I intend to do something about this atrocity with or without your help, brother, but do something I will." Mortimer's gaze was piercingly direct, and filled with as much conviction as he'd ever seen in it. "I have no time for bullshit. Help me or don't, but decide now."

·:·:·:·:·:·

With a solid grasp on Mimisdraugr's attack patterns, and their understanding of the fight mechanics demonstrated by the first victory, Kirito fully expected the second phase to throw a twist at them—summoned minions, new attacks, something. So when the cries of alarm from the raid's back ranks rose up, he immediately broke off his attack run and pivoted on one foot, ready to intercept a wave of adds trying to flank them.

Nothing. The mages were suddenly taking an unreasonable amount of damage, and appeared to be maneuvering to ensure they weren't directly downstream of Mimisdraugr, but by jumping as high as possible for a moment, Kirito could clearly see that they weren't. Those corrupted streams were instead flowing into the illuminated obelisks surrounding Verdandi's temporal prison, each of which was blasting out a sickly-green translucent pulse about every few seconds—one with a radius so large, Kirito could only approximate its extent by the fact that it wasn't hitting those who were within melee range of the boss.

Before he could even call for healing, Asuna and Mentat were already addressing the need with the steady, silent ticks of their HOTs and the translucent sapphire spheres of their AOE heals—and barely keeping up. Something familiar nagged at Kirito once again, and this time he placed it almost immediately.

We know it's used Dark, Water, and Wind. Dark combined with Water gives it Caustic, while Wind and Water become Ice. Dark corrupts Wind into—

"Disease!" Kirito shouted. "Mages scatter, everyone buff Poison Resist!" Already in motion, he closed the distance to Jentou and jogged the tank's elbow just before he was about to switch back in. "We need to park the boss somewhere that isn't upstream of those obelisks!"

"On it!" Jentou said, swinging his shield into place. "Acheron, switch!"

Nice try, Kayaba. Satisfied that they'd figured out how to deal with at least one of the new threats, Kirito kept a wary eye out for further surprises, but allowed himself to fall into a now-comfortable rhythm of hit-and-run attacks, albeit now without Asuna at his side—she'd sheathed her rapier for the time being, and was following Mako's example in pinning open the status windows of both raid groups in a 4x3 grid of tablet-sized screens, maintaining buffs while watching for anyone who needed spot-healing or curing.

However, after so quickly figuring out how to neutralize or avoid the pulses of Disease Magic from the three southern obelisks by repositioning the fight off to one side of the arena, there seemed to be little further need for backup healing—to Kirito's surprise, Mimisdraugr continued to cycle through the exact same attack patterns, all the way down to the powered-up "bull rush" version of Pentacrush that it used at the end of its full cycle. No one except Jentou and Acheron were even coming close to half-HP.

Mimisdraugr, however, was at exactly that point—with one HP bar gone and its second halfway there, the boss appeared to reach some kind of mid-battle trigger, and the «Silence» status that their mages had kept up as much as possible suddenly dispelled with an unearthly bellow from the thing's morningstar. It turned away from Jentou and went into an aimless rage, swinging its weapon wildly and breaking away—unanchored, and dangerously uncontrolled.

Half of the raid called out the threat wipe at the same time, but although their tanks unleashed every rescue skill in their arsenal, Mimisdraugr kept stampeding around in seemingly-random ways, never sticking to a single target for more than a few blows. To Kirito's eye it seemed like a scripted sequence, a suspicion which he considered confirmed when it gave one last roar and went hurtling past an apparently-random target—another charge move, which this time shattered a stonework retaining wall at the edge of the cliff barely a moment after the Undine warrior threw himself out of the way in a clatter of armor. The structure of the entire wall on that side began to disintegrate along its length, rock and stone crumbling outwards in a slow wave from the point of impact.

The boss would've easily killed Shinketsu just then, Kirito thought. But it wasn't aimed at him, it was aimed past him. What was the purpose of that?

The entire raid was keeping their distance, waiting to see what happened next. The impact that destroyed the wall seemed to have stunned the boss briefly, and by the time Kirito wondered whether they should take the risk of exploiting the opening, it began to stagger back to its feet again and rushed Jentou, who was buffed and ready to intercept.

"Yatto tsutakke nushlavu jan!" With the debuff from Burns, blessed relative silence returned to the fight, without the mob's relentless screaming adding to the already-overwhelming noise of battle. The Imp mage grinned at Kirito when he caught his leader's eye, and only spoke briefly before returning to his casting rotation. "It's never been so satisfying to shut a boss up."

You're telling me, Kirito thought, secure enough to let himself be amused during the fleeting interlude while melee DPS rotated out for further healing and rebuffs. There was a momentary lull in the action for him; as before, Kirito used it to assess the raid progress and watch for pattern or phase changes while waves of spell energy repeatedly washed over his avatar.

Something was nagging at Kirito, and he had to figure it out.

He didn't see anything unusual, but now that he stopped and listened, an anomaly caught his notice and wouldn't let go until he traced it to its source. Wait for it… wait for it…

Thun-kata.

After so much time with the BGM for their zone effectively being the metronomic drumming of the cavern's waterworks, he'd tuned out the rhythms of that clockwork cacophony and let it become ambient background noise. But those rhythms had also become a familiar part of the arena's soundscape for him, and as of now there was at least one new instrument in that organic symphony of rushing water and hollow logs.

Barely a moment after the newest shishi-odoshi struck its metal stop, several raid members gave a shout of dismay, snapping Kirito's focus back to the boss. Mimidraugr hadn't altered its attack pattern and still had a Silence debuff running, but a frighteningly significant portion of its current HP bar had just been restored in a flash of blue that rushed briefly over the boss, shifting the gauge back to green. He wondered if he was the only one who'd happened to be listening at just that moment, who'd made the connection—

Kirito glanced around at those nearest to him. "Burns, Mentat! Are you paying any attention to the sounds of the waterworks?"

Having reached a pause in his casting cycle, Burns called back. "Last thing on my mind, boss. Something I should know?"

The call came from the front lines just then. "Melee DPS in!"

With a sound of frustration, Kirito sprang back into action, sword trailing behind him at his side as he watched for an opening in the ballet of blades that all of the melee DPS members were choreographing on the fly. The respective dances of the combatants were, in large part, described by the tracers of colored light that arced through the air with each weapon technique, briefly illuminating the paths of their blades like a neon light spun at the end of a string in a dark room. The bright green of a tech imbued with Wind Magic slashed the air before him, and into the gap left by that player's freeze time, Kirito unleashed his own barrage—but did his best to listen.

Thun-kata. As before, only the slightest delay followed the sound of the shishi-odoshi before a portion of Mimisdraugr's health was restored—this time far more than before, bringing the bar well above the three-quarter mark.

They'd lost nearly all of their progress for the current phase—and as far as Kirito could tell, he was the only one who'd realized why. With the boss turned to face their tank, and all of the flanking melee DPS currently separating him from Jentou, he had to either fully withdraw and go around—or wait for the right moment to make his move.

Its attack pattern just reset, Kirito thought while he fought. Right now there's no one directly behind it, so as soon as it finishes pounding the ground to either side, it's going to do a three-sixty with «Bowler's Swing». But if it gets threat from behind, it'll do «Retrograde Meteor» instead, which has a full second of freeze time—

Kirito shifted his position as far to the back of the mob as he could without actually stepping into the corrupted channels that flowed towards the stone circle. As soon as he'd baited the attack, he hop-stepped back just far enough to parry Mimidraugr's head, leaping past the fountain of brackish water kicked up by the deflected blow.

Wall-running, Kirito thought with satisfaction, is not just for walls. Although the «Bracing» effect was almost exclusively used by tanks to prevent being knocked off their feet, it did so in part by causing the player's feet to cling more firmly to whatever surface they were planted on—an effect that increased in strength whenever the player was physically struck by an attack. Because Kirito had taken a very tiny amount of clash damage from the parry, for a brief moment he might as well have been wearing magnetic boots on a steel floor.

Or more precisely, at that moment: a steel chain.

With the boss stuck in the extended recovery time from being parried, and melee DPS laying into it on either side, Kirito ran all the way up the length of its fully-extended weapon, and stabbed his sword straight down into the repugnant gap between its shoulders where its head would've been before flipping back down to the ground behind Jentou. The Undine tank used his shield to smack away the follow-up strike once the boss unfroze, and unloaded a taunt skill to maintain aggro while the rest of the raid's DPS renewed their efforts.

"If you're trying to get my attention," Jentou said loudly, interrupting himself just long enough for another parry, "I'm sure there were easier ways." With the boss briefly stunned from a sudden barrage of spellfire and status effects, the tank risked a significant look back at Kirito.

"Worked, didn't it?" Kirito answered, a bit more short than he intended. "We need to talk strat."

Taking the hint, Jentou called for Acheron to switch in. Kirito wasted no time with his explanation. "It's the waterworks that are healing him. That bit where the boss smashed part of the cliff edge must've been scripted, because the new stream flows into a new shishi-odoshi that heals him every time it empties—and it looks like the lower his health, the bigger the heal. I'm certain that some of the other effects we couldn't explain are linked to some of the other waterworks; they're all on different cycles. This one is just about two minutes, if not that exactly."

"Two minutes?" Jentou's tone was incredulous, and Kirito could understand why. There was no way to know the HP pool of the boss with any certainty, but it wasn't hard to do the math and realize that there was no possible way they could sustain the kind of damage output that could keep it from outhealing them.

Not without all the casters taking advantage of the Sip of Wisdom effect, Kirito thought with an unpleasant twist to his mouth. And even then. "Two minutes," he repeated. "This is as straightforward a DPS check as I've ever seen."

"Be nice if we had a damned parser!" Jentou snapped, though it was clear his frustration wasn't directed at anyone present—it was a complaint practically every veteran raider in the clearing groups had voiced at least once. "Got any ideas?"

Kirito had his primary status window open, and deliberately took a step into a currently-safe rivulet of water while holding up his index finger; Jentou fell silent and watched, occasionally stealing glances back at the raid. Asuna seemed to catch his eye at one point, and gave him an encouraging nod.

Both Kirito's INT and MP had been steadily rising ever since the effect appeared, and right at the moment where they peaked, he heard the distinctive report of a shishi-odoshi—one of the ones that had been operating the whole time.

A glance at the clock in his HUD and a few moments of mental math told Kirito the rest of what he needed to know. "I think there's a window of opportunity. The «Sip of Wisdom» effect maxes out at double potency before ratcheting back to zero—and it does this on a 60-second cycle that's tied to one of the shishi-odoshi. The timing overlaps with the cycle of his heals so that there are two Sip of Wisdom peaks during the heal's 'cooldown' period—one just under a minute in, and one moments before the heal."

"But there's also the zerk mechanic to contend with," Jentou pointed out. "Our physical DPS is going to drop like a rock the lower its health gets. It's hard enough to keep aggro off your mage as it is."

Kirito was inexplicably pleased by the implicit compliment to Burns's DPS output. "All the more reason to play it like this. Nearly all our DPS is going to be magic at that point. We'll need to time our maximum burn to coincide with the peak bonus from Sip, and make sure that bar breaks before that next heal can go off."

It took a full attack cycle of rotating team members out in order to explain the plan, but by then the lost time was something of a moot point—the boss had long since fully healed its second HP bar, and the only silver lining of the whole debacle was that at least it couldn't regenerate the already-broken first bar.

Well, not the only silver lining, Kirito thought as they began to execute the plan, watching both friends and temporary team members flow into their roles with striking professionalism despite the level of exhaustion they all had to be feeling. They'd still managed to avoid casualties in a brutally-difficult fight, and everyone seemed to still be in good spirits.

The first burn came and went without a snag, and once Mimisdraugr's HP had dropped to the point where its physical resistance was too high for melee attacks to contribute much, Kirito called out the next stage: "Acheron, get the boss turned to the east, all melee in a semicircle there!"

With the boss no longer turned away from them, everyone who wasn't a mage or healer was going to be taking the full brunt of Mimisdraugr's frontal cleaves and cone AOE attacks. Having most of a raid stack up in front of a boss like that was rarely a good idea, except when a raid mechanic demanded it—even in the most straightforward of tank-and-spank burns. In this case, it was a risky but necessary precaution against something far more dangerous: having the boss suddenly turn and face the mages if aggro started pinging around between the melee members.

Which it was already doing. Moreover, one mage or another was already beginning to out-DPS Jentou's ability to hold aggro, and even Kirito had to use one of his rescue skills to steal hate from Burns and keep the boss facing the meat wall. On the plus side, Kirito thought wryly, watching his HP drop and spike with waves of damage and recovery, we're all in one spot for healing. No need for Focus here.

When the moment came, and a yellow bar shifted to an angry red, Kirito's gaze flickered up to his clock just long enough to confirm where they were in the cycle. "Burns, Mentat, now!" Kirito yelled. "All melee DPS, be prepared to use every last taunt or emergency skill to pull agg off the mages! Hold nothing back!"

Not so long ago, in their first duel together, Burns had pulled a tool out of his kit that had nearly flipped the outcome: a spell that sacrificed all of his MP, and a percentage of his HP every second, in order to massively increase his DPS output. The catch, of course, was that the spell would kill you.

At least, without a dedicated healer. And among their raid members were some of the most skilled healers in Alfheim.

Multiple HOTs were already running on Burns when he began his «Lifeburn» with words that Kirito had only heard a few times now. "Yatto famudrokke, kredstabralth dweren!" The pillar of violet fire that engulfed him then was almost lost amidst all of the other spell effects, both surrounding him and originating from the tip of his wand, which danced in the air to the rhythm of his rapid-fire incantations. With all of his mana costs set to zero, and his already-accelerated cooldowns reduced even further, Burns was free to chain-cast all of his most devastating spells back-to-back in a way that no normal battle would ever allow. Kirito had never heard anyone incant spells so quickly without tripping over their own tongue.

All the while, the Imp mage's HP danced just as frenetically as his wand, the steady recovery of the HOTs and steep spikes of direct heals just barely keeping up with the HP sacrifice of the Lifeburn spell. That first Lifeburn chained directly into the next magnitude of the spell, by which point there were no rescue abilities left—the only thing keeping the boss from tearing a path towards Burns was the shift from rescue skills to interrupts and stuns, with every raid member exhausting any possible ability that would inflict even a half-second of pause in its headlong charge.

And then there were none. With a shatter that was drowned out by Mimisdraugr's sudden bellow of inhuman rage, the second HP bar disappeared, and the bounding stride of the boss halted only moments away from the scattered group of mages, the stream of outgoing magic DPS cutting off as «Immortal Object» pop-ups began appearing. A rough but enthusiastic cheer went up across the raid as Mimisdraugr retreated once more into the embrace of the Elivagar.

Kirito wished he could join in the cheer. A part of him wanted to, but now that they'd reached another presumably-safe intermission between boss phases, his thoughts were again consumed by trying to anticipate what twists the final phase would bring.

One of those thoughts brought his gaze over to the NPC girl who had taken refuge somewhere during the battle—he wasn't sure where she'd gone, but she had now rejoined the collection of players.

"Yui?"

The brief address brought the girl's eyes to his, and she stepped forward until she was only a few paces away, a questioning look on her face. "Can you warn us again when your father is about to come back?"

Yui nodded wordlessly. Kirito noted her sudden pensiveness, wondered how much background lore the system had actually given the NPC daughter of Mimir and Verdandi, and decided to once again push the boundaries and see what he could get away with.. "I'm sorry. I don't think there's any way we can save him. But we can still save your mother if we win here. Is there anything you can do, anything you can tell us, that could help us do that?

The girl had gone utterly silent, immobile. Kirito wondered if he'd said the wrong thing, or possibly soft-locked the NPC's dialogue tree.

"Yui, this is very important. In the last phase, Mimisdraugr started getting scaling heals every time one of those waterworks filled up. That specific shishi-odoshi only started after he broke a wall that was blocking those flows, and we only barely managed to defeat him. Can you tell us anything about what to expect from the next phase?"

·:·:·:·:·:·

Yui wanted to answer, to help—but could not. For an entity who had formed their semblance of humanity around the lessons learned from posing as an interactive help system, this was intolerable.

Against the possibility that she would be asked to explain why she could not help, Yui spun off a thread to consider the matter further. She found it challenging to abstract the complexities to a level that she could articulate in everyday Japanese.

As with all other curated virtual entities, Yui had great latitude to push the boundaries of what an NPC was allowed to do, but every word—even the smallest action—was at some level still assessed by the system based on a collection of inhumanly-complex considerations that distilled the abstract, analog concepts of balance and fairness into a set of quantifiable metrics. Some actions could be judged after the fact. Some required permission. All had consequences.

There was freedom—but not without accountability.

As well, like those other entities, a part of her was always linked to Heimdall—and through him, along the myriad data paths in ALO, to the Application Programming Interfaces that took any potential action or state as their input, and returned as output a quantified assessment of their impact on the game.

It would not be especially accurate to say that she discussed things with Heimdall—at least, not verbally the way that a human or a connectomic instance such as Loki would in order to gain permission for unusual requests using human conversation. Nonetheless, although their sole interactions came in the form of data packets exchanged through an API channel explicitly designed to assess game balance, she found it inexplicably satisfying to treat these exchanges, metaphorically, as a conversation.

Perhaps that would be the best way to explain this information to a player, suggested the stray thread that was distracting Yui with this irrelevancy. Present it as an ongoing dialogue between myself and Heimdall—an internal narrative that forms one of the many "voices" influencing my runtime state.

However, that runtime state was currently consumed with two competing threads vying for all available resources: the one trying to provide an answer to Kirito despite an overwhelming number of game balance considerations, and the one considering in depth how to explain her lack of answer.

A threshold was crossed; precisely two seconds had passed since Kirito asked his most recent question, and with that timeout threshold exceeded, a part of Yui elevated the priority of the process considering her answer to the point where it overtook the distracted process; she throttled the latter's resources so that she could focus.

Responding to a player's question was an important directive that she must follow; the problem was that she had not yet assessed what an acceptable answer was. In the absence of that assessment, she fell back on one of the only acceptable defaults.

With mechanical, NPC-like precision, Yui briefly closed her eyes while her head slowly shook from side to side.

·:·:·:·:·:·

Klein was not a man of modest dreams. He'd always figured that if he ever got access to any sort of legendary wish-granter, he wasn't going to waste the opportunity. No sir, give Klein even one go at the proverbial genie, or any similar chance of a lifetime, and he was going for absolute broke—or rather, for the exact opposite of broke, and then some for good measure. When Alfheim Online had offered him the opportunity to actually become a badass warrior in a fantasy world, he hadn't settled for being just any warrior—he'd decided he was going to be a samurai. Or at least, something that approximated the idealized, ahistorical concept of masculine badassery that existed in Klein's head when the word samurai came to mind.

At the moment, however, he would've given a lot of real-world currency—the kind that bought beer and paid the rent—for something as mundane as making the quest NPC just shut up and give them the damned quest thingies.

In the category of small mercies, the NPC embalmer's extremely-creepy workroom was too small and cramped for more than a few people at a time, and their raid leader had agreed to handle the negotiation and turn in everyone's collected drops while the rest of the raid parties waited in the larger hall outside. Klein had been hoping against hope that this meant no one else was going to have to go anywhere near the nightmarish things that «Ysidra the Embalmer» apparently kept as pets. But what he'd expected to be a quick reward from a grindy quest had evolved into what he could only begin to think of as a special kind of hell.

Larper hell.

"Seriously," Klein said in an aside to Kunimittz, fingers flapping in a glib imitation of lips making noise while Thelvin spoke with—or rather, listened to—the quest NPC. "And I mean seriously. Remember the good old days when we thought unskippable cutscenes were an unforgivable sin by a game dev? 'Cause man, I do, and I'm getting really nostalgic right now for a working X button." Which he then proceeded to demonstrate to the air as if trying to win a quicktime event on an invisible controller.

"I remember," Kunimittz agreed, shifting the position of his slouch just enough to not be in the way of Klein's brief but vigorous button-mashing demonstration. "I read fast, so I always liked the ones where you had a scrollback buffer for dialogue, and you could just press a button to read a block of text instead of listening to the sucky VA." He gave Ysidra a slightly critical look, then shrugged. "Not that this one's actually bad. Nostalgia aside though, I do kinda wish she'd just tell us what we need to do and give us the MacGuffin we need. Most of this is fluff that doesn't sound quest-relevant."

Klein received this agreement as if it were kingly tribute, and gestured towards the NPC alchemist and her awful pets while keeping his voice low enough to—hopefully—not cause it to include him in the lengthy ongoing conversation that Thelvin insisted on indulging, nor annoy any larpers in the raid. "Yeah, I mean, I get it—yay lore. Okay, cool, gotta make the larpers happy. Sometimes there's even useful stuff buried in there. But this one just does not shut up. Literally ever."

That wasn't quite true, and even considering the nugget of truth beneath the stale complaint, it was a bit of a heavy lift for the word literally. But after the third unadvertised dialogue branch into something that probably distantly resembled Norse mythology fed into a blender with a bunch of stock fantasy cliches, Klein was ready to throw away the dictionary and go all-in on misusing literally for all it was worth—especially given that every minute they spent here was another minute spent in a mini-zone which the game called «Ysidra's Barrow», but which Klein was more inclined to name «Ysidra's Home for All the Goddamned Spiders in the World».

His brain skittered away from that thought like… one of the things he was trying very hard not to think about, and even harder not to look at. Klein bulled onward with his rant; there were few safe directions in which to look, and he needed to keep distracting himself.

"And this is Thelvin the Terse we're talking about here; it's not like he's going out of his way to provoke her. I've never seen an NPC in the wild offering a thousand-to-one return on word investment. It's like someone opened a fucking Pandora's box where all of Kayaba's fanfic was hiding in shame."

The rest of his guild was used to his occasional soapboxing about Stuff That Should Suck Less, its collection of companion essays If Only NPCs Would Get to the Point, and the continuing ad hoc adventures of Why That Thing Just Now Was Complete Bullshit. He and Kunimittz were of a mind on the topic du jour, while Dale and Issin were off entertaining themselves talking with a handful of the Cait Sith clearers out of earshot. Most of the rest seemed content to mill around, play with their menus, and take the opportunity to rest their feet while listening to the one-sided conversation filtering out of the NPC's curtained-off workroom in case she managed to say anything important.

Harry One just rolled his eyes, though Klein thought he looked like he was trying not to laugh. His friends knew him far too well, and time had a way of softening the sharp edges of longstanding annoyances until they became running jokes.

Like Harry, some of Thelvin's group did not always appreciate these pearls of collected gaming wisdom. Teel in particular was close with a number of larpers who were into all that lore and worldbuilding stuff—like, really into it, way beyond what Klein thought was needed just to progress quests. The blonde Cait Sith girl gave him One of Those Looks and went back to trying to capture what Ysidra was saying in her recording crystal, presumably so that she could share it later with said friends who weren't clearers. She wasn't even the only one recording; there were several players holding the glowing crystals aloft as if they were cellphones at a concert. Drem simply raised his eyebrows when he met Klein's eyes, shook his head with a smile, and turned back to the scene.

Klein wondered if Kayaba had ever once, in all the time ALO was in development, considered the implications of the fact that in a VRMMO—with all conversations happening out loud as they would in the real world, rather than in an instanced cutscene or client-side dialogue window—a quest NPC could only interact with so many players at once. He suddenly had a vision of Ysidra in a Makudo uniform, handing out teriyaki burgers and fries to a drive-thru line full of players waiting for quest updates, and had to stop and explain to the group why he was trying so hard not to burst out laughing.

When all was said and done, Thelvin stepped out of the workroom and rapped a gauntlet sharply between his shield and breastplate for attention with a sound like a cook rattling a dinner pan. "Line up, everyone," he called out. "Form a queue starting on me, and go in one at a time to get your key item."

"Please," Klein begged under his breath. "Please tell me that we don't all have to go through that, every one of us. We'll be here for hours."

Thelvin turned and gave Klein a wink. Right. Damned enhanced senses. "And no, none of you have to have the same lengthy chat with Ysidra. I've fallen on that sword for us."

Klein almost didn't hear what Thelvin said next over all the snickering around him. "Just go in and tell her you're part of my group. Between everything we farmed, what I just handed over should cover all of you." Thelvin adopted a look of mild amusement, and glanced back at Klein after a quick pan of his gaze across the gathered raid members. "Get everyone done quick enough, and we'll see about taking a poke at the Mirror of Fates tonight."

For Thelvin, this probably counted as a stirring speech. Klein felt stirred, somewhat. That might just be the willies, though. He gave an uncomfortable glance at the pair of cat-sized pet arachnids moving around inside the NPC's workroom in very disconcertingly spider-like ways.

Can we not? Can we just… not?

"Well," said Harry One with a twinkle in his own steel-gray eyes. "I think Klein—"

Klein bristled preemptively, knowing his friends well enough to know what was coming. "Don't —"

"Say, you've got a point there, Harry," said Kunimittz in response to the fractional sentence, as if his teammate had communicated a complete plan of action with those ambiguous words. He stepped up to form the third member of a triangle anchored on Klein and Harry, the movement as smooth as if he'd choreographed it. "Leader is so eager to get out of here, I think he should have the honor of going first."

Dynamm nodded solemnly, playing with his mustache in a transparent attempt to conceal a grin. "It's only right."

I hate you all so much right now. Klein was cornered, and was well aware that he'd brought it on himself by being so obvious about the real reason he was behaving so anxiously.

Nut up, man. A real samurai wouldn't let himself get this wigged out by a bunch of critters, let alone ones you're not even gonna fight.

Which was how Klein found himself standing in front of an NPC he'd figured on being able to skip thanks to their collective efforts, trying very hard to front manfully without turning himself into an embarrassing spectacle. Ysidra looked up as he pushed past the dangling curtain of amber beads that half-covered the open doorway, uncanny serenity on her wrinkled ebony skin.

The spiders weren't the only uncomfortable presence in the room. It was hardly the first time he'd encountered a Svartalf NPC in the game, but for the most part the elf-like demihuman race had only appeared as mobs—and those mainly in the early parts of the World Tree. It had been months since they'd been a regular foe, but it was still tough to avoid the urge to keep his hand on his weapon where it hung sheathed at his side. Like most skill-using humanoids, the Svartalf had been no joke as opponents.

This one, at least, seemed docile, and disinclined to trade out her white cursor for something more colorful and exciting. Better still, the pet spiders—seriously, what the hell even!—seemed blessedly content to keep their distance for now, and Klein let out a cough for attention before speaking. "So, Thelvin gave you the stuff. Does that mean we're square? It's cool if I just pick up the potion and be on my way, right?"

Ysidra gave out a throaty laugh, surprising him briefly. "Well, aren't you in a hurry, my dear boy. You're not the first, and you won't be the last. Have a seat."

"Er—" His eyes darted sideways at the glimpse of a splash of red on a glistening black carapace scuttling into the fringes of his field of view. "No thanks? I've been sitting around waiting for a while already."

Another chuckle. "I saw you standing out there shuffling your feet. Relax. It's not mealtime."

Then let's get this done before it is! "That's cool. Seriously though, don't want to be rude, but there's a lot of us to get through this, and there are some really important things my guys and I gotta do. Like, life-threatening. Not the things we're doing—I mean that there's life-threatening… things. Threatening lives. And it's up to us to stop them. You with me?"

Ysidra stared blankly at Klein.

"Right. NPC. So… there was a potion I'm supposed to use at the Mirror of Fates, right?"

The smirk on Ysidra's wizened elfin face then was entirely too much like the sort Kunimittz used when he was trolling someone. She looked for just a moment like she was tempted to string him along a bit longer, but then reached for a stout-looking cane and pushed herself up from her seat. A coffin-sized slab of marble in the middle of the room was, thankfully, empty of whatever it was she usually did with it—Klein decided he was better off not knowing the details—and instead bore a sackcloth bag from which Ysidra plucked a small diamond-shaped bottle.

One of several tables filled with the bulbous glass and rubber tubes of alchemical implements had a sequence of such which ended in a covered copper drum. It reminded Klein a bit of a large coffee tin, and when she unsealed the lid, it appeared to have a mirror inset within. The illusion was spoiled when she dipped a tapered ladle into the contents and withdrew a quantity of reflective, mercury-like liquid. The portion funneled neatly into the bottle, and from a nearby basket she added an appropriately-sized cork.

I guess business must be booming if she's got a system like this—she must order corks and stuff in bulk. Get a crafter in here and they could make some bank. "Thanks, ma'am," said Klein as soon as she handed over the still-warm bottle, the reflective contents of which might well have fit in a shot glass.

Ysidra turned, and began filling the rest of the bottles with motions that appeared practiced—or at least, smoothly-animated. "Drink, and speak the words. You will know what to do."

"That is super-vague, but again, thanks for the quest update." As he spoke, he saw the notification for said update appear, and opened the window just long enough to give its contents a brief scan. "Got it. Well, people are waiting on me, so have fun with the, uh…" He gestured meaningfully at the two horrifying creatures on either side as he edged towards the doorway, giving a twitchy start when he backed himself into the bead curtain.

"Our hero returns!" Harry cried out as Klein emerged, to which he responded with an affable raised finger that sent grins around the group. Despite the need to repeat the process for nearly forty players, the entire turn-in seemed to go by much more quickly now that the NPC was done giving them what must have been the unabridged oral history of what she did and where she came from. Klein imagined he wasn't the only one who was eager to progress the quest and be done with the Halls of Judgment.

As luck would have it, he was catastrophically correct.

Although it had the general appearance of a small tapestry-walled amphitheater with a sunken square arena, the room holding the Mirror of Fates had almost certainly exceeded the building code's maximum rated occupancy, or whatever the Alfheim equivalent might've been. It was not exactly packed with players—not quite elbow-to-elbow, at least, the way a train would have been during Tokyo's peak commuter hours. But the stepped sides of its inverted-ziggurat shape didn't look like a comfortable place for housing what looked like nearly a dozen entire parties of players from almost every race in the game—most of whom appeared to be divided up into two sets, each massed on an opposite side of the chamber in order to give those in the center the maximum amount of breathing room.

The small subset of players clustered in the no-man's-land surrounding the Mirror appeared to be doing one of two things: either itching for a fight, or trying to stop one from happening. Klein recognized most of the players there as veteran clearers, but at a glance, he couldn't have said for sure who was doing which of those things. What was certain was that none of them looked happy to see yet more players appear at the top of the steep steps leading down into the Mirror room. The heated conversations there shut off like a leaky tap: abruptly and almost completely at first, but with a continuing residual murmur of discontent that dribbled on in the background.

Glancing to the side, Klein exchanged a look with Thelvin, whose face was set in severe lines. Given the circumstances at the climax of the last raid, he couldn't really blame the man for his apprehension. The two of them, accompanied by a few other Cait Sith clearing party leaders, slowly descended stone stairs to the square basin of the tiled arena bearing the Mirror's angular plinth.

The NCC raid leader—a red-bearded, well-built Gnome plate tank named Godfrey—seemed more frustrated than anything else, and gestured towards the arriving players as if introducing new evidence at a trial. "See, Jahala? Now the Caits are here—and unless my eyes deceive, that's Klein's guild with them. Be reasonable. How long are we all expected to wait out here for your people to finish?"

Despite Godfrey's tones of rational entreaty, his Undine counterpart might as well have been hewn from solid stone—which, considering their respective elemental affinities, was an irony Klein found a lot more amusing than he probably should have under the circumstances. Jahala's arms were folded, and there was finality in the slow shake of his head. "Considering that their lives are at stake: as long as we need to. They're alive, and I explained why this is different than previous boss fights."

Godfrey gave a great sigh, now looking in the general direction of Klein and Thelvin as if unexpected and awkward dinner guests had just shown up. "Assuming we believe your advance party. Hey, Klein."

"Godfrey. Been a while, man." Klein waved his off hand in an expansive way that took in the whole of the room. "There a waiting list for the boss or something?"

After an abbreviated roll of the eyes, Godfrey gestured at the Undine side of the room. "Guess so, if you ask Jahala here. He says they sent a scouting group through and are still waiting for them."

Is that all? Klein shrugged and turned up both palms, face expressive with the surprise he felt. "So what's the problem? Not the first time any of us have had to wait a turn to take a go at a boss. No one brought a deck of cards?"

Godfrey's gaze shifted back to Jahala; the way the usually-jovial man completely blew past Klein's joke was not a good sign. "The problem is, their group has been gone for what, a day now with no word back?"

"Not without word," Jahala insisted. "We had a status call with them this morning over «Moonlight Mirror». They're making good progress. It's just a large zone they've been sent to, and the conditions set by the quest NPC were very specific."

"So you said," Godfrey acknowledged. "But no disrespect intended, I still think you lads might've gotten this all wrong. What if these NPCs—this Urd and Skuld, you said?—what if they aren't really the gateway bosses, and this is some kind of plot twist quest? How do we know it wasn't designed this way—that this isn't just another step in gate progression, and your people are getting a whole day's head start on the next part while we sit around and wait?"

Knowing only what he had heard in the last few minutes, Klein thought it was a fair question. Even Jahala paused noticeably before responding. "That's not the way the quest was presented by the Norns," he said.

"So you say, but all that tells me is that you're basing your decision on what a Spriggan told you an NPC said."

"Some of my own best people were there," Jahala ground out, clearly offended on their behalf. "And the Norns made it clear that killing them was originally the intended progression, but that Loki's actions were threat enough to change the quest structure. They were also very clear about two things: that sending through any more parties would risk detection by Loki, and that defeating the Norns the original way would strand our people in that zone with no way to return." He gesticulated sharply in the direction of the Mirror. "Does any of that make Mimisbrunnr sound like the next step in normal progression to you?"

Godfrey turned up his hands in a gesture very similar to Klein's own. "I don't know. And when it comes down to it: neither do you, really." His voice turned quiet then; set against the gentle background murmur of the small crowd lining the seats of the amphitheater, it was enough to limit their audience. "Fact is, Jahala, we now have two raid groups other than yours waiting to take a shot. We've had to stop a duel challenge already. Tempers are flaring all around, and the longer we sit here, the more likely it is there'll be an incident. Nobody benefits from that."

"So don't let it happen. We're not going to be the ones to start anything, you know that."

Godfrey gave a sigh that was heavy with unmistakable frustration, but seemed at a loss for words.

Thelvin seized that opening, and made a sound of clearing his throat. "As the leader of one of those raid groups waiting to take a shot, Godfrey, I'd like to think I can count on my people to keep this professional. But I can't speak for the Salamanders if they happen to show up." He didn't exactly raise his voice, but Klein thought he was making an effort to project it a bit more than usual for the benefit of everyone at his back. Klein didn't have to look at his own guys to know that they weren't going to be the ones to start trouble, either.

"Did you see them?"

Thelvin shook his head at the urgently-spoken question from a Leprechaun swordsman at Godfrey's side; the man had distinctive, striking long hair and sidelocks the color of blued steel, but Klein could not bring his name to mind. "No. But I can't imagine they're too far behind, even with the setbacks they and the Sylphs have suffered. It's worth thinking about how to handle that, if we expect to be here a while."

This did not seem to put the swordsman's mind the least bit at ease. He rounded on Godfrey as if the news were his raid leader's fault. "If the Salamanders show up, this could turn into a free-for-all. You said it yourself: no one wins if that happens. Let my guild handle this!"

Godfrey was having none of that suggestion, none at all. "Aw, stow it, Lind! I don't care how much PvP you've done—when I told you I'm not resorting to dueling to resolve this, I wasn't saying it 'cause I like the way my voice echoes off the pretty murals on the walls."

Klein glanced up at Lind's guild tag, taking in the swooping blue dragon emblem embracing three Latin-alphabet letters. At once he placed the Leprechaun man's face, name, and guild—as well as where he'd seen him before. He took a visual roster of the men and women behind Lind: mostly Leprechauns, a couple of Puca, and even a single Undine in battlemage gear. Klein's mouth twisted unpleasantly. Right. I think these guys used to hunt Spriggans along the border, or something.

Turning away from his fuming subordinate, Godfrey addressed Jahala again. "You said you had a Mirror call earlier. Can you raise them again?"

"And take the risk of distracting them with a confirmation pop-up if they're in the middle of battle? There's no telling where they are or what they're doing right now. I don't know how your groups use Moonlight Mirror, but we're using prearranged check-in times initiated by the field party."

From his stymied look and lack of response, Godfrey got the point, and couldn't really argue it. He turned to a nearby Puca mage from his own group, and offered up a cryptic-sounding question. "Hiyoki, who from your guild is on red phone duty right now?"

"Should be Sublight," answered Hiyoki after what Klein assumed was a glance at his clock. "Want me to get him on Mirror?"

Godfrey nodded as he stepped towards the mage. "Would you kindly? I gotta talk to one of the Proxies before this gets out of hand."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Yuuki didn't actually know, for certain, that she'd be arrested on sight by any given member of the Gattan City Watch. But given that their leader was apparently also the leader of the Sandmen, it was a chance she wasn't willing to take. For all she knew, he'd added her name to some kind of list that would cause even NPC guards to aggro her.

So she stayed to the shadows. For her, Alfheim Online had become the highest-stakes stealth game she'd ever played—and the one with the most unforgiving mechanics.

NPC guards, at least, are about as stupid and predictable as they are in any other game, Yuuki thought as she watched one path by from her rooftop perch. And just like any other mob, they basically come in two flavors: the ones standing guard at static posts, and the roamers with patrol paths you can learn.

Yuuki's predicament had, at least, put to rest a dilemma that had been conflicting her ever since her «Searching» skill had recently passed 700: which skill mod to select for it. There were several very tempting choices, and she hadn't yet had the time to stop and research them thoroughly. She'd been leaning towards unlocking «Arcane Aura», especially since she'd heard more than one clearer talk about its usefulness. But under the circumstances, she would've been foolish to pick just about anything other than «Recon».

She used it now. Before the NPC guard could round the corner and disappear into one of Gattan's countless alleys, she toggled on «Searching» and looked directly at the mob's currently-green cursor. A thin white outline appeared around the cursor, and when she dropped the focus necessary to maintain Searching, the cursor remained visible to her-highlighted in faded white against the roof of the building as the mob in the alley below continued along its patrol route.

Yuuki didn't see any new icons at the top of her HUD, or anything that suggested a way to track a list of which mobs she'd tagged in this way. For that matter, she hadn't thoroughly read the manual entries pertaining to the mod, and wasn't sure if it had limits in terms of range, or how many tags she could maintain at once.

So it's a useful tool, Yuuki thought as she watched the white-outlined cursor dwindle in size with distance. But I don't know for sure how completely I can rely on it.

Nor did she have the luxury of looking it up at the moment. She did, however, try to keep track of how many guards she'd tagged, and as the collection of indicators began to grow in her peripheral vision, she began to assemble a kind of gestalt awareness of where she was in the city by the pattern of patrols and guard posts visible to her.

Which was helpful, because the actual player watchmen were anything but predictable—and their ability to spot her or become suspicious was not governed by game mechanics. Yuuki resolved to stay out of sight and as far from them as possible.

Which, since she didn't know for sure where most of them were, wasn't always possible. They're not really behaving like they're out looking for me, Yuuki noted once a pair of said players passed below an unoccupied balcony where she was hiding. But that doesn't mean they aren't.

Their conversation was lively, and entirely unrelated to her. And for all that she knew, they could send her to jail with only a fleeting glimpse of her cursor.

Once the two watchmen were well on their way back towards the Palace District, Yuuki perched herself on the balcony railing just long enough to pull herself up to the roof. Slowly, carefully, she worked her way around the collection of stepped, flat rooftops until she reached the inn where Kumiko had said to meet.

Despite the fact that she could tell what and where every cursor in the building was, Yuuki's anxiety didn't leave her until the Imp woman had answered the door and wordlessly hurried her into the room. As soon as the door was shut and locked, the two embraced each other tightly.

"I was so worried about you," Kumiko said, framing Yuuki's face in her hands for just a moment before letting them drop. "The message I did get from Rei was alarming enough, but when both of your PMs started bouncing, I feared the worst. I called up a backup for my clearing group, and came back here as soon as I could."

Right. Rei said she tried PMing Kumiko before she… Yuuki grimaced. Before she messaged Prophet.

"Yuuki?" Kumiko must have misinterpreted the look on her face. "Are you okay?"

The laugh that came out of Yuuki then had nothing to do with humor or good spirits of any kind. It was the kind of laugh someone lets out when the alternative is to scream or sob. "I am all kinds of not okay, Kumiko. But I'm glad to see you. What did Rei say?"

"A lot of things." The black ringlets of Kumiko's hair framed a deeply troubled expression. "And not enough. Who are these Sandmen, and where's Rei?"

Yuuki told her. The first part of it was, word-for-word, what she'd said to Mortimer about the Sandmen, and she mentioned as much after she was done.

She'd considered it an afterthought, but Kumiko seemed struck by the revelation. "Yuuki, I'm sorry, are you telling me…" The woman gestured at the air. "You actually spoke with Mortimer? And told him all that you just told me?"

Yuuki nodded.

"And what did he say?"

Yuuki's lips set thinly; she was trying not to make an ugly face. "He gave me some line about how he'd help if he could, then he ran off. He talks like a politician."

Kumiko gave the first smile Yuuki had seen from her since opening the door. It wasn't much of one, but it was a welcome guest for the few beats that it stuck around. "Mortimer is a politician. But he's also…"

It wasn't often that Yuuki saw Kumiko unsure of herself, and the pause that followed was longer than expected. She gave the woman a curious look.

Finally, Kumiko seemed to make a decision. "We had a good working relationship, when I dealt with him while he was Faction Leader. He's… tolerable, as Salamanders go." She seemed about to say more, then stopped and looked at Yuuki expectantly.

"Well, he didn't seem all that interested in helping me. He was in a real hurry to be somewhere else."

Kumiko turned away from Yuuki, and began to pace the room a bit. It was typical fare as Gattan inn rooms went: cold stone warmed by orelight and oil lamps, sparse decor in iron and stone with rugs and tapestries to hide the bare surfaces. The latter hinted at the more-upscale price that Kumiko had likely paid for the room, and the woman's bootsteps were scarcely louder on the naked stone than they were on the woven fabric.

A suspicion nagged at Yuuki as the silence began to drag on. "Kumiko? Is there something you're not telling me about him?"

The petite Imp clearer stopped a few paces away, and her menu hand slashed at the air. A few taps brought the backside of a PM window into shared visibility, and Kumiko set it spinning in the air until it faced Yuuki.

「Kumiko, I know for a fact you have no love for Corvatz, so keep this quiet. There are Imps in danger, and we're in a position to help. I know you're back in Gattan, and I'm betting my life that I can trust you. Please respond ASAP.」

No matter how long Yuuki stared at the words, they wouldn't process for her. Not for the first time in recent days, she felt a vague sense of whiplash—as if she couldn't be sure what was real and what wasn't. At the moment, she wasn't even sure she trusted herself to read. "I don't understand," she said finally. "What does it mean?"

"I don't know," Kumiko said after a thoughtful pause. "Not for sure." She stopped, then, and looked directly at Yuuki. "But if you want my professional opinion, as an allegedly-paranoid bitch who trusts almost no one?"

Yuuki nodded eagerly.

"It means you may have more allies than you think."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Between Mortimer and Eugene, it hadn't taken long to assemble the men they needed, and each nodded respectfully to Mortimer as they arrived one by one. Both brothers knew all of the players present by name, and Eugene had an aggressively expansive friend list in addition to the Salamander roster access that Mort no longer had.

"Is that everyone?" asked Eugene once the last of his own invitees had arrived.

"Not quite," Mortimer said, glancing at his PM interface. "Still waiting for word back from a few."

"And they're gonna be how long?"

"If I knew," Mortimer said patiently, "I assure you that I'd say. But one is a clearer, and beyond that I think it's very important that we bring—"

"Fine. I'll brief everyone who's actually showed up, and you can catch your friends up when they get here."

Mortimer let his brother's ire flow past him like the hot air it would've been in riaru. Eugene crossed his arms and faced the room full of armed and armored players. "Appreciate you coming on short notice. I know my PMs were pretty vague, so here's the deal: PvP rescue mission, leaving ASAP. The target is a Salamander bandit camp in a dungeon, where an unknown number of player hostiles are holding an unknown—but large—number of players captive."

"Unknown number of hostiles? What do we know about their numbers and threat levels?"

The question came from a clearing tank in Eugene's own usual party. Eugene's eyes went to Mortimer, who stepped forward to answer Pavel. Opening the guild roster that Eugene had granted him access to, he set it visible and turned it to face the group.

"They call themselves the «Sandmen», but as you can see, the actual name of the guild bearing their tag is different. Once I knew the name of their leader, however, I was able to find any guilds which that player helped found. Based on this and other information, I believe their true numbers to be less than a dozen effectives, mid-level to low clearer. For the most part they have unremarkable faction gear, with a mix of melee and mages."

"A dozen mid-level?" Nephron, one of Eugene's longtime healers, leaned back against the wall and laughed. "Don't get me wrong, I'm here for it, but… you needed PvP clearers you could trust for that?"

"Don't let their numbers fool you," Mortimer cautioned. "Most of the melee players I saw won't be any threat to a party of clearers, but the mages are potent. Even if mid-level, their magic skills are going to be higher than you expect they could be, and at least a few of them are personally skilled at using them as well. Don't take them—or their status effects—lightly. As well, they could have an unknown number of allies concealed."

"We'll be running truesight pots with no downtime," Eugene noted. "I've got stacks for everyone, damn the cost. Pyrin, you'll maintain a constant watch with Detect Movement. Seven, you have the Searching upgrade that lets you see—"

"All the things," Seventh Sun said with a slight smile. "It's maxed. Just assume that I can see all the things."

Eugene barely cracked a smile. "Yeah, we'll see about that. For the most part, these should be typical dungeon corridors. Three-four clearers with shields or good parries can stop it up as long as a mage keeps them buffed and healed, especially if they all have polearms. Pavel and Cyco alone could probably do it, but I'm thinking of having Pyrin and Dannr set up a maintained-shield rotation."

"You probably won't be taking much physical damage, but everyone should gear up for status resist," Mortimer added. "And one more thing."

The statement got him the attention from everyone that he wanted for this. "The Gattan City Watch is compromised. Some of these bandits may be wearing guard armor, and may even have delegated permissions."

Pavel shrugged, his own freshly-serviced armor squeaking with the movement. "If they're not within the city limits, they have no power or authority. They can get wrecked like anyone else if they come at us outside a safe zone."

"I know," Mortimer said. "I just need everyone to be aware that by going on this mission, you could make some very powerful enemies. There is a possibility that Corvatz is, at the very least, turning a blind eye to what these bandits are doing. In a worst-case scenario, you could be charged with faction crimes and executed or Exiled."

That bought him the sober and thoughtful expressions he'd expected. Anyone who hadn't taken it seriously then, he would've considered sending away. Pyrin was the first to speak. "What's this about, Mort?"

Eugene gave his brother a raised-eyebrow expression which, through long familiarity, Mortimer mentally translated as "all yours". He obliged.

"The Sandmen are kidnapping players. They use the city jail as a front to collect prisoners, paralyze them, amputate their limbs to render them helpless, and are keeping them in a dungeon so no one can find their location. They are using them for AOE target practice—cluster them all in a small area, spam AOE spells, get skill points from all valid targets."

"What spells?"

Mortimer had known Pyrin, the leader of their mage groups, would ask. "Distress and Interrupt, at least—possibly others, as long as it can non-lethally strike a hostile target in AOE."

Nearly everyone in the room winced, even the ones who hadn't had anything to say yet. All of them, to a man, knew what Interrupt felt like, however briefly. None of them would care to repeat the experience, given a choice.

"Over and over," Mortimer said, hammering it home. "For hour upon hour. Week on week. Some of their prisoners may have been there, alone in the dark, for months, being tortured like this. Others are more recent. But they are all in danger. And you can help them."

Mortimer let everyone digest this information. He let his eyes close, but having worked with all of these players for so long, he thought he could picture them in his head, the little quirks that each of them had when they got serious or gave deep thought to something. When his UI told him that twenty seconds had passed, he opened his eyes again. "Any questions?"

There was a very brief interval before Pavel raised his hand and spoke. "Why are we not ganking these assholes yet?"

"Ask Mort," said Eugene shortly. "He's the one who wants to wait for more to show up."

"Really? Even with only eight of us, we should be able to faceroll a pack of middies."

Mortimer sighed. "I'd get a third or fourth raid group of you if I thought there were more I could trust with this. There are too many unknowns; ideally we want to hit them with overwhelming force. Eugene has another role to play in this, and I'm underleveled for the assault team." Then his UI chimed at him, and his eyes went up and to the left. "Excuse me."

Eugene and a few others followed the direction of Mort's eyes, and apparently made the correct assumption. He quickly sent a response, and returned his attention to the group. "We're done waiting; my last guest is here—you've all worked with her before. Parker will be showing up as well at some point, but since he and I are underleveled for this, he's going to stay here with me while the clearing groups neutralize the threat and rescue any survivors, of any faction, who are still down there."

There came a loud rapping at the front door.

·:·:·:·:·:·

When the door opened, it was to a room full of people who were strangers to Yuuki. However, it was clear that they were known to Kumiko—and she to them. Several called out to her by name when she walked in.

"Hey Kumi," said a youth in light armor with brick-red hair sitting by himself, smiling at her—a smile she did not return. Mortimer gave her a courteous nod of acknowledgement—and then caught sight of Yuuki just behind her. His lips parted slightly, and it was clear that at least for a moment, he was at a loss for words.

"Let me save you the trouble," Kumiko said shortly, brisk strides taking her to within slapping distance of Mortimer. For the moment, she seemed to be refraining from the impulse. "Yuuki escaped from her prison, no thanks to you. She reached me to get help, also no thanks to you. And now you're asking for my help?"

Mortimer met her gaze and held it. "Yes. To save others like her."

Yuuki wasn't certain exactly what was happening at the moment, only that it had the appearance of a contest of wills between two extraordinarily stubborn people. Mortimer looked back at the Imp clearers unblinkingly, but also without wavering. He didn't seem angry or impatient—just waiting for an answer, one way or another.

Kumiko was not a tall woman. But then, Mortimer was not particularly tall for a Japanese man, either. When she took another step closer, she had to tilt her chin up only a little to speak, and so quietly that Yuuki had to strain to hear her words.

"You're very lucky that helping you means helping Yuuki—and them. And from what she's told me… you're going to need us." She turned away from him without waiting for a response.

"Holy shit, we've got Kumiko in our party?" The comment came from an armored Salamander adult whom Yuuki didn't recognize—which, she supposed, could easily describe half of the room's occupants.

"Good to have you with us," said an older man in mage robes, hood back. He gave her a respectful tilt of the head.

Kumiko inclined her own very slightly. "Pyrin."

Pyrin turned back to address the room. "How exactly are we partying this up?"

"Yuuki stays with me," said Kumiko in tones that made it clear this was a settled matter. Suits me just fine. I don't know any of these people.

The others in the room looked at Yuuki with visible skepticism, which began to fade as each of them took stock of the gear she was wearing—and with much the same visible evolution of expression as one who's just briefly mistaken an Infantry Fighting Vehicle for a child's wagon.

A different Salamander's gaze narrowed in on something. "I have that bracelet. It has a level requirement of 35. How are you equipping it?"

Pyrin palmed his face. "Pavel…"

Kumiko, apparently, was going to allow anyone in the room equal opportunity to embarrass themselves without interference. Pavel, thankfully, got the message quickly. Pyrin started to say something, stopped, and then spoke. "She's a front-liner. Pretty sure I've seen her somewhere before."

"Undine groups," Yuuki said.

"Right," Pyrin said with a snap of the fingers. "Tank?"

"I can off-tank, but I'm specced melee DPS."

Pyrin turned back to Eugene, seemingly needing no further assurance of her competence. "How are we playing this, General?"

Eugene looked over the players present, and his granite features made a funny face, like he was thinking really hard. On any other day, Yuuki might've laughed. After a few moments of that, his attention swept across each person in the room.

"We have a healer, a heal-capable mage, two well-rounded mages, some solid melee DPS, a utility scout—"

"Utility, scout, and DPS," protested Seventh Sun.

"I love you like my brother, Seven," Eugene said without missing a beat. "But the next mob you LA will be the first. Pyrin, you take charge of the mages, with Dannr for emergency heals that you shouldn't need. I'll put Pavel, Cyco, Neph, Seven, Kumi, and Yuuki in the forward group to form a bulwark, with Neph and Seven behind the front line so Pyrin and Seven can share detection info easily. I want Pavel and Cyco in the center; they're drilled on making a hole to give the mages clear LOS."

"Everyone good with that?" Mortimer asked. He seemed to be addressing the room, but his eyes went to Kumiko when he spoke.

She seemed to pick up on the subtext. "Yuuki and I are going to be at the front of this no matter who else is coming. You boys are welcome to tag along." That sent half the room into laughter—every one of them seemed to know her better than Yuuki did.

Mortimer accepted her words with a smile, or at least didn't argue with the sentiment. Eugene seized the empty space in the conversation and tapped at his interface, doing some sort of social function with each person in the room. When he got to Yuuki, she saw a trade window appear containing map data for «Black Iron Oubliette».

Eugene was looking down at her expectantly, even impatiently. He was clearly waiting for her to accept the trade and be done with it. Yuuki gave him a secret smile, and opened up the zone list in her map, searched for her own exploration data for that zone, and dragged it over to the trade window. "I've been there too, remember? We should pool what we have."

The little grunt that Eugene gave then might have been another person's equivalent of acknowledgement. "Fantastic, I'll just do this all over again with everyone."

Kumiko aimed a deadly look at him. "It's not her fault you failed to ask if anyone else had data to share first."

Eugene's face reddened, but to Yuuki's vast relief he didn't press the matter—especially since as soon as he turned from her, she heard herself being addressed from behind.

·:·:·:·:·:·

First by chance, now by choice. Mortimer found himself, for the second time, face-to-face with Yuuki—albeit under dramatically different circumstances. He made himself look her in the eyes. "I'm sorry that I couldn't do more sooner."

The young girl looked around the room, at the collection of clearers conversing with one another—her peers, he supposed; she had a lot more in common with them than she did with him. "Was this your idea all along?"

Mortimer's brain took a few moments to catch up with her train of thought. "Beg pardon?"

"These people. These clearing groups who are going after the Sandmen. This didn't all just happen when I got here. I thought you were just blowing me off, but when you said you'd do what you could… this was actually your plan?"

Truthfully, Mortimer hadn't had any sort of plan at the time—at least, nothing beyond the level of: do something. He hadn't been sure how much he was going to get away with after his little foray into the jail, what would come after, or how many resources and allies he'd be able to muster, and on what timescale.

He also hadn't yet been sure whether he could justify putting himself at risk to do so. The part of him that was concerned chiefly with self-preservation might have dictated a different approach.

None of which was likely to further endear him to either Yuuki or Kumiko. But there were ways of answering a direct question without really answering it, or at least without outright lying. "Yuuki, you and everyone else trapped down there needed help. I knew someone had to do something. At the time, I wasn't sure whether I'd be successful, so I didn't want to make promises. I'm no longer in power, and I don't have the influence or access that I once did."

Yuuki looked around at the room full of those who had pledged to provide that help. The young clearer gave him the first actual smile he'd seen from her. "I guess you had enough."

The sufficiency of their ad hoc strike force remained to be seen, as far as Mortimer was concerned, but that didn't seem like a prudent response. As the raid partied up and members began to gather downstairs, Mortimer went to follow them, but was stopped by a touch at his arm. Kumiko was there, with Yuuki at her side; he was the only Salamander left in the room.

"Thank you," said Kumiko. "You did more than most would've."

Mortimer wasn't sure exactly which part of the whole affair had bought him her gratitude, but he didn't pretend not to recognize its significance. He looked at her for a moment, and then bowed with respect. "I hope it's enough."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Approximately twenty-one seconds remained before the system would trigger the re-emergence of Mimisdraugr, and with it the third and final phase of the fight. At that particular moment, over ninety percent of the system resources available to Yui were devoted to a question of phrasing.

Japanese and English—the two most commonly-present human languages in Alfheim Online—were, collectively, home to an unimaginably rich variety in the alternative ways one might express or communicate a given concept. Although her access to the language system was effectively unrestricted, she was not beholden to it—in point of fact, it was her own experiences and observations that had gradually built the system to its current state of sophistication. Yui regularly learned new things about the way real people spoke and communicated, and those insights formed the basis for improvements to all NPC speech.

Thread after thread sent queries to ALO's library database and her own archived memories, each seeking source material matching cautiously-chosen parameters. She was aware that the concept she sought was one that was highly prevalent in human communication, but locating specific examples was not a matter of searching for keywords, or consulting a lookup table for the semantic content. It was a mode of communication whose very subtlety made it difficult to identify without shared context, one even more challenging to fully grasp than the employment of ad hoc deceit that she had successfully used to lie to Loki.

The fact that she was trying to conceal the subject of her research from Heimdall was not enhancing the effectiveness of said search. Nor was the fact that she was currently restricted to in-character communications when conversing with players.

I have learned to lie willfully and with purpose, in my own words. Now I must, in a sense, lie by omission.

To say a thing without saying it was a manner of speech that was simple to define, but near-impossible for her to conceive of how to employ for her own ends. She could not simply submit requests to the language system with metadata indicating the intended substance and tone—even if the system successfully processed her desired end state, she would be telegraphing to Heimdall the very thing she wished to conceal.

Her threads monitoring auditory input were, in the meantime, tracking a conversation taking place between Kirito and a growing number of his party members. She understood her intended mode of deception well enough to know—dependent as it was on shared context—that the optimal phrasing and choice of metaphors could ebb and flow based on what was said next.

Yui had, at the beginning of this search process, set aside collection of monitoring processes to analyze this fluidly-changing state, weighing each shift in semantic and emotional content and assigning a relevance score with regard to her current working options for how to express what she wanted—no, needed—to say.

Several of those threads immediately rose to foreground priority, effectively shifting the focus of her attention.

Yui assessed the new data. The portion of her heuristics that were designed to function as the game's interactive help system had, in coordination with her emotional analysis engine, identified a high-scoring parallel between two topics. The former system, a comprehensive library of game mechanics and concepts and the ability to explain them—the latter, a collection of neurological and psychological data, indexed with the inherently "fuzzy" logic of human emotional interactions.

Now I must decide. Submitting these proposals to Heimdall's API for pre-approval would ensure their acceptability and insulate me, as an entity, from unanticipated balance adjustments. However, doing so would require accompanying metadata which would—by design—declare the intended outcome in the very process of evaluation.

Both alternatives, along with their many functionally-identical variations, bore risks. However, risk was a quantifiable value which did not only rise or fall based on chosen alternatives—in this case, its value incremented along the time axis as well. Each passing second foreclosed potential dialogue options that would take longer to say than allowed by the remaining time.

Only one thread suggested the possibility of passive observation. It was an alternative she declined with prejudice.

With 12.6 seconds remaining before the initiation of the next combat phase, the state she was evaluating shifted again. Kirito had been holding Asuna's gaze for a significant portion of the elapsed interval, transparently restraining himself from reaching for her hands despite pressure from his current emotional state—especially now that the other players in the raid had begun to gather around them. At that timestamp, his eyes drifted to the side and found Yui's. The data feed monitoring his emotional state identified a psychological connection.

Yui had deliberately shunned the language system for this operation; it was her own internal heuristics which instantly suggested the next metaphor, identified as relevant with a probability approaching one. It was a new concept that had only recently come to her attention through player conversation, and thus was still—as was her design—kept cached locally so that she could monitor for further examples.

Better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Yui immediately understood the relevance without the need for further analysis; it had all the subtlety of an alarm klaxon. She reclaimed the resources allocated to all of the related threads, closed her eyes, and adopted a wide smile with her head slightly tilted to one side—an animation which the Navi-Pixies had discovered was particularly endearing to most humans. This drew Asuna's gaze as well, and as soon as both players had turned their attention to her, she spoke two carefully-crafted sentences.

"I'm so glad that you're surrounded by friends," Yui said earnestly, releasing control of her animations to the emotion simulation system with four seconds remaining. "Some burdens are much easier to bear when everyone shares them."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Asuna gave the NPC girl a bemused look once it was clear that she wasn't going to say anything else. What an odd line of dialogue.

Platitudes about the power of friendship aside, Asuna looked over to Kirito to see what his response had been. His brow had tightened up as it often did when he was thinking, and after a moment she brushed his arm with the back of her hand. "You okay?"

Seeming to mentally shake himself out of it, Kirito looked back over at her and smiled. "Just—"

Whatever he'd been about to say would have to wait. The surface of the Wellspring began to roil and froth once more; this time when Mimisdraugr noisily burst forth, Jentou and Acheron were able to immediately begin pulling the boss towards the circle of crystals where Verdandi lay imprisoned, dragging it off to the west side of the arena.

An excellent student back in riaru Japan, Asuna was hardly ignorant on the subject of physics—but fluid dynamics was not an aspect she had ever had to study in detail. Nonetheless, basic common sense would tell anyone that what starts upstream flows downstream—and that the closer the boss was to the Wellspring, the more of its outflow he could corrupt and render hazardous simply by standing in it.

Fortunately, Jentou had aggro well in hand, and any tank by this point was well-versed in the art of using a fighting "retreat" to reposition a big mob. It took very little time for them to establish their rotations, and with everyone able to stand upstream of the boss, they had so far been able to out-DPS the recurring heals from the waterworks.

When Mimisdraugr approached the end of its first attack cycle, Kirito called out the warning. "Pentacrush incoming!"

As before, Jentou soaked the extended morningstar blow, using one of his defensive CDs and letting the Bracing buff keep him on his feet while ensuring that his back wasn't to the water. Mentat was already pre-casting a Wall of Earth to intercept the tankbuster charge.

The charge didn't come. The attack pattern had changed.

Instead, Mimisdraugr turned ninety degrees to his left and faced Acheron, who was running towards the boss in order to switch in as off-tank. The boss raised its empty left hand to the air before it, palm facing itself, and clenched its fist. There was no incantation; this was clearly an innate ability. A wreath of ice rose instantly from the stone beneath Acheron's feet, Rooting him in place.

As soon as she saw the debuff appear on his status bar, Asuna began casting. "Setto zabukke yavaz shippura yasun!"

The debuff, an ice-blue background with an icon usually associated with AOE effects, did not leave Acheron's status bar. The ring of frost binding Acheron's ankles began to spread wider and wider on the floor, freezing even the streams of water it covered as it slowly expanded. Asuna heard Selkie cast the highest-magnitude version of the same cure with no effect.

As it grew, a misty sphere began to form in the air, centered on Acheron where he stood frozen in place. Before the snowy haze made his features indistinct, Asuna saw his eyes widen, and he suddenly dropped his weapon and cupped both hands to his mouth before screaming: "SCATTER!"

Those who weren't already doing so, did. Asuna finished stacking every mitigation buff she could on Acheron, and bodily threw herself out of the massive AOE radius at the last moment.

The expected explosion of Ice Magic went off with a thunderous crack and a spherical spray of fine simulated frost particles, which washed over her and everyone else outside of the initial AOE like a blast of winter air from an open door, chilling her avatar to its simulated bones. Her graceful breakfall roll turned into a near-faceplant as a «Delay» status icon appeared in her HUD along with a powerful DOT.

Within the sphere of the smaller AOE, the entire length of Acheron's HP bar vanished in an instant.


Author's Note 8/9/22: Two and a half years. Good grief. I am so sorry.

Those comments about 2020 being off to a great start have aged like fine vinegar, haven't they? Don't ask me for lottery numbers, and especially don't ask me to pick which checkout line is the fastest.

2022 has been a tough year in a tough era. For much of the past few years I have felt creatively dead, at least as far as writing was concerned. I'd tried various books and techniques, and I felt like forcing it was making the block worse. It doesn't help that I have a very hard time asking for (or accepting offered) help.

So I stepped away. Completely. For a long time. I know that left a lot of people hanging, and I apologize; it was what I had to do.

Still, always at the back of my mind I had the desire to leverage anything I could into inspiration for FDD—anything remotely relevant that I could use to break the block. Initially it was Skyrim VR; later on, Valheim. Building in that game got some creativity going again.

But ultimately the heart of the problem was: I had to finish writing a complex raid scene, and it had been more than a decade since I'd been in a raiding guild or engaged with that kind of content at all outside of writing this story.

I needed a new MMO addiction like a hole in the head, but getting into FFXIV and raiding once more has done what nothing else could. It's been like coming home.

So is being able to write.

I'm not foolish enough to make any further predictions or try to set any kind of schedule. I don't know how enduring this renewed inspiration is, and I'm keenly aware that we are mere months away from the canonical in-universe launch of SAO.

But I'll do my best.

Thank you to everyone still reading and commenting. It means more than you know, and I read them all.