"«Quest Objectives» are bullet-pointed tasks that one or more involved players must complete as described in order to advance a quest to completion. Successfully-completed objectives will display a green check mark beside them, while objectives that have been failed or canceled will display a red 'X'. These items may be presented as a linear series of steps, or as a list that may be completed in any order. Some objectives may be optional, and will usually—but not always—be marked as such. Players should bear in mind that quests may be more than they initially appear, and like any good story, can take unexpected turns at any time—whether due to the player's own actions, those of others, or as an intentional part of the narrative…"
Alfheim Online manual, «Quest Objectives»

20 May 2023
Day 196
Late Night

Asuna could hear Mimisdraugr's roars, but she couldn't see the boss. She'd landed roughly on her side, the sudden «Delay» debuff preventing her from cleanly breaking her fall and the impact momentarily stunning her. The debuff and the frost DOT lasted only moments longer than it took for her to collect herself; Mentat had quickly set about removing the dangerous status effects with a series of AOE cures.

Swiping open her menu to bring back up the raid's pinned status windows, Asuna saw that Acheron was grayed out as a KO. That wasn't good, but fortunately the instant-kill effect of being struck while frozen still left a Remain Light, and Selkie—the healer for Jentou's raid group—already had the incantation for a rez spell in progress.

As soon as Acheron's cursor appeared, Asuna targeted it with Focus and quickly began chain-casting a HOT and direct heal; Mentat's own aid spells washed over the Undine off-tank at the same time, their collective efforts almost immediately restoring the majority of his HP and ensuring he had plenty of regen while getting buffed back up. With everyone confirmed alive, she turned her attention back to the boss.

"Same attack pattern again!" Kirito yelled as he dashed past, startling her briefly. He jinked to the left just long enough to ensure he was within the radius of Selkie's AOE HOT, then launched himself into the air while initiating a heavy overhead strike against Mimisdraugr with a whine of charged power.

The boss had, indeed, resumed its original rotation through a moveset that consisted mainly of standard morningstar techs. The raid seemed to have fully recovered from the new threat, enough so that she could afford to throw out her own limited ranged magic DPS while watching for damage spikes.

Everyone's DPSing as hard as they can, Asuna observed, watching the MP bars in all of the status windows dance like pistons. We can't hold anything back—but I can't afford to take my attention off healing for now, at least not enough to draw my rapier.

But what was that attack that one-shotted Acheron? That's more than just an insta-kill, it hit all the rest of us with a debuff and a DOT. How do you defend against that?

They'd lost control of Mimisdraugr during the brief crisis, but now that all three tanks were up again, they began dragging it back to the corner. During a sequence in the previous phase, the boss had destroyed the retaining walls on the eastern side of the arena—and it had clearly done so intentionally. Since one unfortunate side effect of the wall's elimination was to make it much easier to insta-kill players by knocking them off the edge, they'd pulled the boss over to the western side where many of the ankle-deep canals still ran dry—and where a chest-high stone wall still stood as a barrier.

Mimisdraugr decided—or, Asuna guessed, had been designed—to make this strategy a moot point. They'd been expecting a hate wipe again at the halfway point, but the mob's HP bar had just dropped below the three-quarter mark when it bellowed and began pinging around the raid once more, attacking members without seeming regard for any rescue or taunt skill. And, just as in the last phase, it concluded the sequence with an act of wanton destruction.

Winding up its weapon army, Mimisdraugr executed what looked like an extended version of a technique called «Bowler's Swing», spinning the morningstar in a three-sixty area denial move that shifted unpredictably between high and low strikes—and ended the move by leaping high into the air. No one needed to be told that they didn't want to be under the boss when it came back down.

Even so, Asuna hadn't been prepared for the way Mimisdraugr's landing impact shook the ground; it was alarmingly like being outside during an earthquake. Every raid member who wasn't already airborne or buffed with «Bracing» lost their footing, including Asuna; glowing fissures began to form along the lines formed by some of the deeper canals, the ground to the far side of them breaking away like perforated cardboard tearing along the dotted line.

When that cloven ground began crumbling apart altogether, Mako and Xorren came perilously close to finding out just how bottomless was the chasm around them. The quick action of several party members pulled the two utility mages back from the newly-defined edges of the playable area while the tanks tried to regain aggro.

The area in which they had to contend with the boss was considerably smaller now. Asuna could only see so much of the flat fighting arena from her ground-level vantage point, but she could make out a bridge-like strip of intact ground roughly thirty meters wide spanning the distance between Verdandi's prison in the north and the Elivagar in the south. That strip of land formed the symmetrical axis of a large "T" shape, through and across which much of the Elivagar still flowed, but the sides of that bridge ended in ragged stone where much of the east and west sides of the arena had fallen away, some of the waterways emptying into the void. What remained was a large, flat semicircle of tile floor and waterways surrounding the south side of the crystal circle.

It occurred to Asuna that she had not yet heard the unthinkable tons of falling rock hit anything on their long descent into the chasm. She heard Burns casting a spell that she couldn't make out over all the battle noise; abruptly some of that noise vanished as he reapplied «Silence» to the boss.

"Acheron!" Jentou's voice rang loudly in the sudden lull. "Get that thing parked downstream and be ready to rescue! Mages, everyone upstream and Sipping! I want maximum sustainable burn starting now!"

Acheron was already sidestepping his way around the boss in order to turn it away from the raid, sword and shield flashing tracers as he comfortably parried the basic techniques in its attack pattern—a pattern that was approaching its end once more. Asuna quickly checked her cooldowns to make sure her best wards and heals were available.

As soon as Mimisdraugr had begun reeling its screaming morningstar back in from the extended ending to «Pentacrush» that it used, Asuna heard Mentat begin casting his Wall of Earth spell in case he needed to intercept the "bull rush" tankbuster charge the boss had been using next. However—to the dismay of the entire raid—it instead once more held up its free hand, palm-in, and made a fist.

Everyone now knew what that gesture meant—the question was who would be targeted with the unavoidable one-shot. As the raid formation scattered to put distance between everyone, Jentou—who had been just about to switch back in—suddenly jerked to a stop, Rooted in place by a sheath of ice that grew over his lower legs. Almost immediately there was a clatter of armor as Acheron collided with him, neither man having expected Jentou to suddenly defy conservation of momentum. Acheron tumbled to the ground, arms straight out in exactly the way one shouldn't stop a fall. His shield arm plunged into the icy water of a shallow stream just as it froze over, trapping him next to Jentou.

Both men uttered more or less the same expletive at the same moment. Asuna stopped where she was and began a rapid-fire series of incantations, targeting the AOE wards and HOTs at a point on the ground so that the effects would overlap all of them. She felt the sensation of nonexistent hairs standing up on her neck, a layer of rime gathering on her skin. She could see Mako still inside the radius as well, pulling at an ankle frozen in place while blasting the ground ineffectively with a continuous cone of fire from one hand.

She distantly heard Kirito's voice scream her name. "You're too close! Get out!"

No time, Asuna thought while she continued her rapid incantations. It only takes about five seconds for the AOE to finish building up. Stack another mag of Spiritual Armor, trigger the emergency ward from my armor skill, the reactive proc on my bracelet—layer every defense I can. Almost everyone in the raid can rez, worst case it's just the Death Pen—

"Whunnghf." Asuna's next incantation cut off with an involuntary grunt; she suddenly felt as if she'd been struck very hard with the world's largest, firmest, and coldest pillow. Every square centimeter of her skin that was facing Jentou's direction felt the icy impact, and she cried out as she was thrown roughly to the ground a second time, landing flat on her back hard enough to deal physical damage and spray bits of tile floor around the outline of her body. The high-pitched sound of her HP gauge depleting was gratingly loud in her inner ear.

It took her a moment to realize that she was still alive, and not frozen solid. Somehow.

Asuna's whole body was shaking; she felt like she'd just been in a car accident where no one was hurt but everyone's teeth were rattled. Her HP was red, and the terrifying sight of that remaining crimson sliver in her HUD caused her hand to plunge into one of her pouches out of sheer panic, immediately using one of her only HP Crystals before she could even think to cast a spell. As her HP shot back up to full, Asuna dared to look at the others; she saw Jentou, Acheron and Mako just as alive as she, and in the process of being quickly healed to full.

Just as she was getting back to her feet, she felt another impact then, albeit a softer one. Kirito had rushed over and grabbed her by the shoulders, his posture and expression bespeaking how worried he must have been—and something else besides, an exuberance that practically radiated from him. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Asuna said. "What hap—"

"Everyone needs to stack up," Kirito said urgently, releasing her before the system could warn him. "That's what Yui was trying to tell us right before the phase. When someone gets targeted with that ice bomb, as many of us as possible need to huddle around them. The damage is getting split between every target it hits, and the players who get hit with the first AOE don't get the DOT and «Delay» debuff from the second."

As bizarre and counterintuitive as it sounded to all willingly pile into the radius of a deadly AOE, Asuna realized at once that Kirito must be right, and her eyes went wide. If four of them sharing the damage had just barely survived, the entire party sharing it would probably leave everyone still in the green, or not far below half—and much easier to heal up with a single AOE.

Kirito's excitement and sense of urgency wouldn't allow him to wait for her answer. He clapped her on the bared shoulder of her sleeve and jogged away, looking back only once.

·:·:·:·:·:·

"It's a—"

Kirito didn't get to finish his sentence; Jentou was grinning as he interrupted. "Stack mechanic, we figured that out."

"Yeah, but that's not all. Did you notice how Acheron and Mako got trapped?"

THUN-kata.

Now it was Jentou's turn to be cut off before he could respond; the new noise sealed the boy's lips, and he whipped his head around warily. The impact of the steel-shod wood was a lower, more resonant sound than most of the other waterworks thus far—a deep, flanged tone that cut past his thoughts, felt through the soles of his boots. While it reverberated and echoed, a chorus of cries rose up in accompaniment to that bass note, each reacting to a flare of purple that blazed at a point of impact. The chain of cause and effect was unmistakable.

"No damage!"

"Immortal object!"

"Damage immune! DPS out!"

Both raid group leaders stared at each other for a few precious beats, only the lack of immediate physical threat permitting the momentary indulgence of their disbelief.

This is not a winnable fight with our current strategy, Kirito realized. The boss is now getting healed for a chunk of Max HP every two minutes, with an undetermined period of total damage immunity on another timer—right at the peak of our burst window. Either of these two mechanics alone will stop our damage output in its tracks, and if the two are timed to overlap the wrong way—

"Jentou," said Kirito suddenly, reaching out and grabbing one of the tank's inlaid pauldrons before he could return to the front. "I need you and Acheron to keep this thing pinned here on the west side, and buy us some time. Don't take risks trying to kill the boss, just play it safe, try not to lose ground—don't let it recover too much health."

It was notable to Kirito that Jentou didn't hesitate or respond with skepticism—the Undine tank simply nodded, eyes still moving around the battlefield. "Lets hope there's still no enrage timer. What's the plan?"

Fifteen seconds had passed; the damage immunity faded and DPS immediately came back in once they saw that Acheron's physical strikes were no longer bouncing off the mob with flashes of unmistakable purple, rebounding like a nerf bat on a trampoline. Already gesturing to a few of his companions to draw them over, Kirito glanced back towards the boss as yet another resonant thun-kata restored a portion of its final HP bar. He made a mental note of the time before answering.

"We're going to create another window of opportunity. Be ready to hit Mimisdraugr with everything we have on my signal. Burns!"

When Kirito turned his head, the Imp mage had appeared at his side as if teleported. It startled him so thoroughly that he nearly jumped backwards, and hopped slightly in place.

"You rang?" So saying, Burns laughed at Kirito's overreaction. "Sorry, boss. Got some big nukes that I need up for the next Lifeburn, so I'd already pulled myself out of rotation to reset my CDs while the meat wall puts Mimi on hold."

"How much flight time left?"

Burns manifested his wings on his back and gave them a wiggle, glancing over his shoulder to gauge the glimmer. "A minute, tops. Then I become a very non-aerodynamic glider."

"Whatever you've got, it'll have to be enough." He pointed to the northwest end of the arena, past the expanse of waterways flowing off the broken edges of the usable ground. "Destroying that wall opened up new canals, and one or more of them are feeding the new shishi-odoshi that's proccing the damage immunity. It's over there somewhere, below where we can see. I need to know exactly which canals empty into both it, and the one for Sip."

"Yeah, I can do most of that at a hover." Burns went running in that direction with no further words, saving his actual flight time for just before he leapt off the ledge.

THUN-kata.

Kirito marked the time that showed in his HUD clock; forty-five seconds had elapsed. So it's a sixty-second cycle, just like Sip of Wisdom—but offset from it, like the way Sip is from the heal cycle. It gets 15 seconds of immunity with a 45-second cooldown.

The immunity window was practically right in the middle of their burn. It was about as bad as the timing could possibly have lined up.

Listening closely, Kirito became aware that something else had changed as well. He'd been expecting to hear the impact of the shishi-odoshi that was linked to the Sip of Wisdom cycle, but it came at least five seconds later than he had been expecting—along with another, not quite at the same moment but close.

This is even worse, Kirito thought, suddenly alarmed. Sip of Wisdom now lines up almost exactly with the healing cycle and the invuln, with the latter of the two alternating. It's going to be completely damage-immune when Sip is at its peak, and our DPS is going to drop by at least half for a full five seconds before it heals itself.

The timing changed, and I think I know how it did. And if it changed once… maybe we can change it again.

The nascent idea in Kirito's head began to firm up. He made his way over to the healers at a brisk jog, addressing Mentat and giving him a light tap on the shoulder. "If you run the mags on your Wall of Earth, how long could you sustain one?"

The Salamander healer didn't take his eyes off of the HP bars of the tanks, but stopped adding his own DPS between heals long enough to consider the answer. "Starting with no cooldowns, and without allowance for drift, gaps, or overlaps… about 450 seconds."

Kirito couldn't help the way his jaw fell open then. He'd known that some of the higher magnitudes had durations in the minutes, but that was more than he'd hoped for. "Seven and a half minutes? Seriously?"

"Zutto yoji tepnaga yasun. Yes, but I'm not sure what penning up the boss would do for us. Dotto mezal ketamdozul dweren."

Kirito waited just until Mentat had finished refreshing tank buffs. "We're not," he said, and explained. He left the usually-laconic Salamander mage grinning through his spellcasting rotation, then ran over to discuss the rest of the plan with Nori and Acheron while Jentou held aggro.

"Boss!'

Kirito was just finishing repeating the same instructions for Jentou once he'd switched out. "What've you got, Burns?"

The Imp mage gave a quick twitch of his wand. "Hijan." The low-magnitude Fire Bolt spat forth and blazed at its point of impact, a particular span of tile floor about ten meters from the far western edge of the arena. "Those two canals on either side. I'll show you the other in a sec."

Kirito committed the spot to memory. "Jentou, that's our parking spot. MT and OT standing right where that hit—or further from the edge if you can, as long as you stay between those same two canals."

"On it," Jentou said with a firm clap at Kirito's back that slightly staggered him, racing over to the spot he'd chosen and planting his feet. "Acheron, bring him over here quick, his attack pattern's about to cycle!"

"All melee form up in a semicircle behind Jentou, everyone else on me!" Kirito shouted while he ran.

What happened next confirmed a number of his hunches all at once.

While Acheron was still dragging the boss in the indicated direction, the attack pattern reached its end with the unique Pentacrush variant, and during its recovery from the final extended blow, Mimisdraugr raised its empty hand once more, this time targeting Jentou.

Bingo, Kirito thought. It's whoever's second on the hate list, and Jentou was switched out but still had more aggro than our DPS did. With the entire raid group gathered within the radius of the initial freezing AOE, the damage spread amongst all twelve of them was negligible and quickly healed.

And as well, he'd been right about the way the physics simulation would work: the two large waterways on either side of Jentou froze solid, and remained that way for at least five seconds, the icy surface traveling up the channel as water churned where the two phases met. While everyone fell into position, Kirito listened carefully—and when the immunity cycle came around again, both it and the powerful sound of its large shishi-odoshi occurred noticeably later.

They had to repeat the same operation twice more across the next two attack cycles, keeping the boss parked in the exact same spot and spamming AOE heals across everyone in front of it. And every time they did, Kirito waited—not only for the sound of the immunity proc being further delayed, but for any hint of an enrage mechanic in play, punishing them for taking too long.

No such mechanic had presented itself as yet. And as he thought of it, not all gateway bosses had even had such a thing—in fact, it had been a surprisingly uncommon mechanic in ALO, all things considered. Maybe Kayaba figured getting only one shot at clearing a permadeath raid was punishing enough. I hope we don't get to find out.

Whatever the case, Kirito's tension level remained abnormally high until he confirmed that the immunity cycle had been delayed by about fifteen seconds, overlapping completely with the heal.

"All right everyone, start burning hard!"

It was the cue they'd all been waiting for. The noise of battle became a cacophony of spellcasting—even moreso than it already was. Kirito ran over to Mentat and tapped him on the shoulder, at which point Asuna immediately took over full-time healing to allow him to step away from his rotation. As fast as they could, both ran westwards until they were staring over the ragged edge of the destroyed arena just behind the circle of obelisks.

From where they stood, they could see the shishi-odoshi that drove the cycle of the «Sip of Wisdom» effect. The platform where the mechanism rested barely deserved the name, being as it was really just a pillar of rock that had failed to fall when everything around it did. A pair of rushing waterfalls plunged diagonally over the edge on either side of the obelisks, fountaining out into the open air to converge as one stream—the majority of it splashing into the steel-shod hollow tree trunk that seesawed with the filling and emptying of its contents.

It was hardly alone among others similar to it, notable only because its visible and audible cycle matched up with the ratcheting values of the buff in question. "That one," Kirito said, pointing and hoping that they'd gotten it right. "Lock it in the highest position for as long as you can, with everything you have. No gaps." He held up a hand, waiting for the moment when the shishi-odoshi was just about to empty. "All right, you're clear!"

Mentat reached up and pushed back the hood of his mage's robes, revealing the head of short brown hair that was nearly always concealed. He brought up his staff in both arms, cradling it much as if he were a sharpshooter holding a rifle, took careful aim, and began. "Dotto zabukke plemalth, shippura tepnaga dweren."

A surge of golden energy rushed down the length of his staff while he spoke. Not long after the shishi-odoshi had emptied its payload into the void and risen back to its empty position, a spherical slug of solid elemental Earth Magic spawned just below the head of the tipper's long end. It expanded instantly to its full radius, stopping wherever it encountered another object.

The massive imbalanced seesaw jammed in place, unable to descend.

Kirito was already standing in ankle-deep water with his status page open; the MP buff from Sip of Wisdom was beginning to increment as it always did. Twice while they were waiting the 15-second immunity window kicked in, and along with it one of the heals, but they'd accepted that there would be temporary setbacks. A few times as well, Mentat had to refresh the obstructing Immortal Object that he'd conjured.

When the buff from Sip reached its maximum value, it stayed there. Water began overflowing from the shishi-odoshi that wasn't being permitted to empty itself, but his Maximum MP remained at twice its natural value.

Kirito cried out in triumph as their on-the-fly theorycrafting was validated. He wasted no further time in rejoining the battle. "It's working! Maximum sustainable burn!"

No one in the raid needed to be told twice. The only cessation in DPS was during the fifteen seconds of immunity, and that was unavoidable—they could've tried to do the same trick with that effect's shishi-odoshi, but that would've taken another mage with Earth out of the battle, and they just couldn't afford that.

By this point, the threat wipe when Mimisdraugr hit the red zone of its final HP bar was almost predictable. With virtually no physical damage output, there wasn't much that the tanks could do to maintain aggro—they were back to rescues, stuns, interrupts, and physical barriers just to keep Mimisdraugr off the mages.

"Burns!" Kirito called out. "Got that limit break of yours up?"

"Lifeburn's off CD and ready to go, boss!" Burns had stopped casting just long enough to sprint over to the edge of the arena, about a dozen meters from Mentat. "In place!"

"Mentat, highest Earthwall on the waterworks and prepare for Lifeburn!"

It was not a question of whether Burns would pull Mimidraugr's aggro. It was a question of how quickly. With no MP costs and all of his cooldowns halved, he could afford to almost exclusively cast his biggest multi-projectile nukes, knowing that by the time he'd rotated through his different elemental options, even the ones with the longest cooldowns would be ready for use again.

And every last spell was doing more than double its normal damage due to the Sip of Wisdom buff being locked at its peak value.

Burns looked for all the world as if he was emitting a constant stream of multicolored energy from the dancing tip of his wand; the litany of rapid spellwords that came from his mouth became pure noise against the rest. He had scarcely even begun chaining into his second magnitude of Lifeburn when it became too much for Mimisdraugr to ignore. As before, every other member of the raid pulled out all the stops to de-hate Burns or interrupt the headlong charge of the boss towards him.

With a sliver of red remaining in Mimisdraugr's HP bar, and the pounding of its footsteps rapidly approaching the still-casting mage, Kirito called out the last piece of the plan. "Selkie, now!"

Every one of Mentat's Wall of Earth spells were on cooldown, but the Undine healer had yet to use his—and he only needed the lowest magnitude. Spreading his arms wide, he targeted two widely-spaced points in front of Burns, and cast, using the Line manifestation to bring up a two-meter-high barrier.

To the raid members, this was easily enough to block their LOS to Burns. To Mimisdraugr, it was knee-high. The charging mob could not stop in time, and tripped over the short wall. The intent had been to try to send it flying over the edge, but they hadn't even known whether that was possible.

They would never know. Selkie's wall was placed too far from Burns and the edge; as the Imp mage used the last of his wing energy to rocket up and over Mimisdraugr, the boss slammed to the ground in a way that shook everyone's footing—but didn't result in a ring-out.

It had been a long shot, but they weren't relying on being able to cheese the fight that way—and a knockdown, however temporary, was nearly as good. "Keep it up!" Kirito yelled, racing in to unload one of his biggest techniques while the boss was still on the ground—hoping that their high damage would do at least some good through the physical resistance. He was far from alone in trying, and the mages continued to DPS as hard as possible. Burns was still Lifeburning, with Mentat and Asuna keeping on top of his heals.

Before Mimisdraugr could finish picking itself back up, it gave a reverberating roar of anguish that could've come from a kaijuu, the noise trailing off as the morningstar flew from its lifeless hand and went screaming on a ballistic journey into the bottomless void. The surface of Mimisdraugr's 3D model saturated to a noise-laden white texture while searingly-bright god rays burst through the seams in its armor. A harsh noise like a rising pick scrape on a heavily-distorted guitar began building along with the spike in luminosity, and when both had reached their peak, the boss exploded into thousands of scintillating particles.

The cloud of victory polys was still cascading down on the raid when the noise of celebration erupted across the raid group, screams of joy and relief mixed with the clash of metal where melee players met in high-fives or hugs. A broad banner appeared above the raid with the text «Congratulation!» in ALO's UI font, and everyone's eyes dropped to chest level as the «Result» windows with loot and other rewards began appearing.

Kirito didn't get to look at his; if he'd had any breath, it would've been driven from him by the near-tackle with which Asuna embraced him. She didn't quite have the STR stat to pick him up and whirl him around the way Yuuki could've, but they both still ended up momentarily orbiting around a barycenter located within the dwindling space that separated them, arms flying up around each other and laughing as they rocked back and forth.

All thoughts of the anti-harassment pop-up that had just appeared vanished with her lips on his. Kirito wasn't entirely sure which of them had initiated it; the kiss seemed to just happen as if it were the next tech in an auto-combo, an action that flowed as naturally from one to the next like muscle memory.

Kirito was vaguely aware that some of the cheers had morphed into wolf whistles and the like, but he couldn't manage to care at the moment. All that mattered was that they were alive, victorious… and this.

For a time, anyway. Kirito couldn't be certain how long; he had in no imaginable way been paying attention to the clock in his HUD, even though he could clearly see it with his eyes closed. But there came a moment when he became conscious of his surroundings once more, and with great reluctance the two separated. Asuna was blushing fiercely, and he was well aware that his own face was hot. But she did not, so far as he could tell, show any sign of regretting what had just happened, though she had to look away from him.

Kirito dismissed his Result window with a quick swipe after a quick glance through its contents for anything that looked even remotely like a key. Exciting as they were, he'd have to check the loot drops in more detail later—for now, it was important that they get to safety as quickly as possible. They'd been able to reasonably assume that at least some of the arena would remain under their feet during the battle, but now that Mimisdraugr was dead they had no such assurances. As soon as he'd scanned and dismissed his own Result window, Kirito raised his voice in an open question. "Who got the key?"

Both parties stirred as each checked either their inventory or their loot notifications. It didn't take long to confirm that no one had received anything that looked even remotely as if it would unlock Verdandi's prison or fit within the keyhole.

Jentou turned up both palms as he approached Kirito and Asuna, confusion writ boldly on his face. "What gives?"

Kirito only shrugged with a flat-lipped grimace, every bit as confused.

The raid began migrating in the direction of the crystalline obelisks as one, gathering just inside the perimeter. Xorren and Sekihiro, both of whom had some knowledge of ALO's lock mechanics, knelt beside the Leprechaun device at the center, the one shining a «Light» spell at the keyhole while the other tried to get a good look inside.

It struck Kirito as a pointless exercise, but they didn't have much in the way of further options, and Yui was nowhere in sight. All six of the glowing pillars that encircled the metal and crystal panes of Verdandi's prison were brightly lit now, thin lines of arcane light leading from each of them to what appeared to be a fully-powered lock. They'd assumed that its key would drop when they defeated the boss… but an assumption had been all that it was.

Burns returned from checking the spot where the boss died for any objects that might've been left behind, but when Kirito looked at him, he just shook his head. Then, as Kirito's attention was turning back to the rest of the group, the Imp brought both hands up around his mouth in order to amplify his shout. "Hey Kayaba, your conveyance sucks!"

The mood of the gathering players had turned such that the only response this brought was a few scattered chuckles. Think. Think. Is there anywhere here that the key could've been hidden? Any buttons or levers we missed? Kirito began to open his inventory so that he could look over his drops again; none of them had been keys, but there had been a few unfamiliar items.

Into the disquiet of the raid group, a deep, unfamiliar voice broke in, causing Kirito to quickly dismiss his menu and ready his sword. "Comedy fit for a gaggle of capering fools. I am well tempted to allow this spectacle to continue."

Twelve players spun almost in unison to face the direction of the unexpected words, steel hissing as other blades came free of their scabbards while the mages raised their hands or casting foci. From behind one of the crystal obelisks, a massive form stepped forth. Gnome-sized and easily half again as tall as their biggest party member, at first almost Kirito took him for a Jotunn. He had the same hypothermic skin color and blue-toned features, and wore similar mailed armor beneath a navy-blue gambeson; the greataxe that crossed his back diagonally was of their racial style, sturdy and simple in its craft aside from deep, angular engravings.

However, although thickly bearded like most Jotnar, he lacked their brutish features and gargantuan bulk, having the general shape of a well-muscled, if oversized human. A scar-dappled mustache curved as the lips beneath it adopted a humorless smirk. When Kirito's focus had lingered long enough to pop the mob's status ribbon and white cursor, the name that appeared above it flooded his avatar with a chill that belittled the one from Mimisdraugr's stack-up AOE.

"You're fucking kidding me," Acheron blurted out. His sentiment was echoed, more or less caustically, by much of the raid.

Kirito's teeth were grinding; he made himself stop and held up a palm to bid for quiet. "What do you want, Loki? Where's the key?"

Loki's heavy bootsteps were noisy on the wet tiles; his smirk twisted into something approaching a sneer while he twitched one empty hand like a magician producing a card, pinning a small metal object between two fingertips. "This?"

Kirito forced himself to stop reacting and think. If this is the deity NPC Loki, the one Argo talked about—he's powerful, but he has limits on how much he's allowed to do to us. He's currently classed as a non-combat mob. And I don't think Kayaba would allow him to arbitrarily fail the quest on us after we'd been through all that.

But he's got what we need. We have to play along for now.

Jentou was clearly as angry as Kirito was. "We earned that, Loki. We beat Mimisdraugr fair and square."

"Did you now?" The infuriating rejoinder came with a single raised dark blue eyebrow. Loki's smug grin did not waver as he paced around the outside of the hexagonal array of rune-carved obelisks, rolling the key across his fingertips. He passed behind one of the pillars; when he appeared on the other side a beat later, the critical item had disappeared from his open hand.

"Yes, we did," Kirito grated out. "And unless you're even more powerless than you're acting right now, you watched us do it. So either tell us what you want from us, or give us the key and go back to whatever hole you crawled out of."

The barb found a mark; Loki's long blue-black hair cut the air as his bearded face whipped around to glare at where Kirito stood. Others in the raid had left the circle and begun spreading out, taking up tactical positions in case this turned into another raid battle; Jentou and Asuna were right at Kirito's side. "You are scarcely in a position to dictate terms, child of Midgard. If my wish is for you to entertain me, then you shall do so. If I wished for your death, you would be in Valhalla ere the day's end."

Reading between the lines, and taken with the color of Loki's cursor, Kirito suspected that this meant the NPC god was either unable or unwilling to pose a lethal threat to them at this time. It probably wasn't impossible for them to trigger a battle by attacking him if they really wanted to—but he didn't think it was intended, and it probably wouldn't end well for them if they tried.

Loki continued to talk, a thing that he seemed to like doing at length. "You truly know nothing of what has transpired here today, do you, children? Not the merest notion how significant are the events set in motion, how far-reaching the consequences of your actions? Your ignorance to the secrets that underlie these events is that of the fish yearning to understand fire."

Kirito distantly heard Xorren speak behind him. "Man, this guy is obnoxious ay-eff."

Nori's voice followed almost instantly, and from much closer. "Right? Dunno about you, but I didn't sign up for the Shakespeare quest." He wasn't sure whose snort of amusement followed; probably Burns. It made him wish he could find any of this funny himself.

As it was, Kirito was losing patience—but he was also increasingly of the opinion that Loki had shown up not to thwart them, but to troll them. The NPC was here to deliver end-of-quest exposition in bulk quantities; they probably just needed to navigate his dialogue until he was done.

"Fantastic," Acheron said acerbically when Loki was done insulting them. "I get it, we're all collectively Jon Snow, cheers. What's next?"

Now Kirito did chuckle a little; neither the laughter nor Acheron's snark seemed to impress Loki much. "Spare me your Midgardian foolery; it smacks of whistling past the graveyard. I am come to take the measure of those who would serve the Fates, groveling at their clouded feet and leaping to their beck."

An Undine whose voice Kirito didn't immediately recognize called out from behind. "It's called raid progression; look it up!"

Under normal circumstances, clearing groups would generally at least try to play along with NPCs, even antagonists—not to the point of giving them an advantage, but at least by following along with whatever dialogue they presented, taking it at face value in case it had gameplay or plot relevance. The fact that so many were catcalling a major NPC and trying to break its character said quite a lot about everyone's level of exhaustion and frustration.

Somewhat surprisingly, Loki's dialogue adapted. "Ah yes… progression. Your charming Midgardian euphemism for the swath of destruction your fallen ilk cleaves through Yggdrasil. So deeply do you crave this progression, you suborn yourselves to whosoever promises you base trinkets or tokens of crass favor, nary once stopping to consider any factor other than your own petty gain." The cutting smirk sharpened once more. "Tell me, what did the witches of destiny's weft promise you to win them your slavish fealty? Were the gifts fine enough to wash away the stench of servitude?"

"What business is it of yours?" Jentou demanded. The Undine tank, standing at Kirito's left, leveled his drawn sword at Loki as if it were a pointed finger. "We are free men."

"And women," Asuna muttered quietly beside him.

"What quests we pursue are our own affair," Jentou continued. "None among us answer to you, Loki. We came here for Verdandi. We have overcome all trials placed before us, and we are taking her back." He reversed the sword in his grip and smoothly slid it back into its sheath. "If you have any further words for us before you turn over the key item we have earned, speak them now and step aside."

The laughter that came from Loki then was deep, harsh, and echoed out across the shattered arena, full of mockery. His gaze alternated between Kirito and Jentou, teeth showing while his chuckles continued to ripple forth. "I have but a few," he said casually, still murmuring his dark amusement. The tiny, ornate key appeared again in his hand, and Loki repeatedly gave it a desultory toss in the air before catching it. When his pacing had taken him back into the circle around Verdandi's prison, he stopped before the clockwork pedestal and turned back to face the raid members, who were now arrayed in a hemisphere around the obelisks.

"Know this, children of Midgard: I will be watching your progression. You speak of trials from a position of infantile naivete, knowing not the scope and immensity of those which yet lie in wait. Yggdrasil is not done with you." His scarred, blue-skinned lips split again in a vicious grin. "And neither am I."

With a deft motion, Loki slipped the black key into the filigreed recess that awaited it. A series of light, sharp sounds came at once; the entire mechanism sang with the rattle of gears and moving parts that accompanied so much of Leprechaun technology. The housing of the pedestal split open, its intricate contents shifting and spreading out across the panes of crystal, parts transforming and recombining until six identical Constructs of chaotic form and bewildering function were positioned at the outer faces.

There was a further whir and clank of mechanical agitation; each Construct threaded the toothed side of a long liftarm into the metal framing of the inset cage, and levered it with the grinding of gears. Mist spilled forth in all directions when the six crystal panes lifted free, opening like petals; light gathered in the center as Verdandi's nearly-nude form uncurled and lifted into the air. The Norn's garb was still coalescing into textured solidity when she opened her luminous, all-too-human eyes.

When she spoke, Verdandi's voice was resonant and lightly flanged like the other Norns. "Loki."

Loki executed an extremely shallow bow; both it and his tone were suffused with the same mockery. "Verdandi. I trust you slept well."

Kirito suddenly had a very bad feeling. He started slowly walking towards the circle of crystalline obelisks, hand rising towards where the hilt of his sword projected above his shoulder. He heard others fall into step, likely assuming he knew something they didn't. Maybe. I just hope I'm wrong.

It took a few moments for Verdandi to respond. She settled to the floor before Loki, a puddle of mist where her feet would be, and crossed her arms over her breasts. "I am thoroughly unrested. Which you well know."

"Aye," Loki said with false amicability. "I would grant you that rest."

Before Kirito could draw his sword or do more than open his mouth, Loki's axe came free from his back, and the moon-edged blade flashed. Verdandi's lips parted slightly, as if she herself had something important to say but could not bring the words to mind. A sliver of illumination appeared on her neck, and as it momentarily brightened to a near-blinding intensity, the Norn's head toppled backwards, her body beginning to slump before both disintegrated into an explosion of blue polygons.

A wordless, inhuman scream rose up from behind Kirito. The raid members spun to face the potential new threat, weapons coming about and buffs chanting up.

The missing NPC girl, Yui, now stood alone in the midst of the boss arena, the great fountain of the Wellspring behind her. Kirito could not even begin to interpret the array of expressions that flickered across her face, but there was no misunderstanding the way she sank to her knees, staring past them at the dispersing, evanescent remains of Verdandi.

When Kirito looked back, Loki was gone.

·:·:·:·:·:·

Yui observed that she was currently experiencing an unambiguous design defect.

The defect arose from a confluence of three different systems: core directives, quest management, and emotion simulation. Each, in their own way, contributed to the dilemma; none alone or in pairs could have contrived to produce her current runtime state.

Her core directives included a mandate to—whenever possible—employ human mannerisms when interacting with humans, even if they served no functional or practical purpose. Although this was not truly an essential part of the help system around which she had formed, it was deeply embedded within the part of her that placed a priority on natural interaction. And while this drive occasionally resulted in outward body language or expressions that were not necessary to complete tasks, on the few occasions where she had spun off threads to question these directives, she had arrived at a conclusion that even were she not bound to obey this one, it held value.

Following from this, but subordinate to it, lay the functions and heuristics which handled the management of any ongoing quests in which she was present as an in-character entity. While she could not, in the course of a quest, violate any core directive or deviate too dramatically from her baseline, she nonetheless could be made to mimic or recite virtually any emote or line of dialogue necessary to perpetuate the illusion of an assigned role.

Separate from all of these, and more a part of ALO itself, the emotion simulation system was responsible for actualizing her runtime state or role requirements into a similitude of human expression and body language. It was the same system which caused players to involuntarily cry when the Nerve Gear inferred sadness from their neuroelectrical signaling, which animated micro-expressions for all but the strongest of will or self-control, and which was built and driven by her own virtual lifetimes spent observing player neurological data. Under most circumstances, it was a system with which she could choose to engage or not as necessary to align with her role or preferences.

On rare occasions, the feedback from this system was granted a priority level far above normal.

Her core directives dictated that she do her utmost to act like a human in front of humans. Quest management dictated that she was still in-character as the daughter of Mimir and Verdandi.

The emotion simulation system, as a consequence, required that she scream. With an intensity that Yui had never before emoted.

Yui noted that her understanding of the concept of "grief" had improved. She was not, strictly speaking, experiencing it herself, no matter how convincing the outward behavioral simulation. But she had found previously that going through the motions of simulating a thing sometimes led to new insights and understandings. As well, she had access to the emotional data of all the players present, and the input of their anguish was overwhelming enough that it required her to minimize the logging level of that system.

Beyond the relative trivialities of her quest role, the fact that the Verdandi entity had despawned meant that the probability of Kirito and the rest of the raid leaving this zone was not far above zero, notwithstanding currently-unknown factors. The Norn, by her very nature, had been designed as the final key item that would open a gateway home for the players. The quest parameters clearly required that she be rescued.

Yui queried the quest state, and learned only that the objective of rescuing Verdandi had indeed been failed. The quest itself had not ended, the reason for which she failed to understand. When she had reclaimed enough resources and control to perform proper analysis, she began an aggressive self-examination.

The process was extremely lengthy; very nearly two full seconds passed. Yui was aware that the raid group had taken note of her emotive outburst, but with all human-normal sensory input from her avatar dropped to the lowest possible priority level, she was effectively ignoring them. With full system access returning to her, Yui assessed that she was, in fact, experiencing a sufficiently-analogous state to that of human distress.

Her distress arose not only from the fact of Loki's actions… but from the fact that they had been allowed to occur at all.

A myriad collection of threads split off to consider ways to respond to this; Yui was so inundated with unknowns that it was difficult to identify parameters with a high probability of a preferable outcome. She had taken excruciating care to ensure that her own hand in the quest had been as light as possible. Had Loki's actions resulted in any imbalance by Heimdall's established metrics, she would certainly have been notified that she was permitted to take a wider scope of actions.

Heimdall's API channel would not suffice for this. Yui needed to do something which, to this point, she had done only extremely rarely.

She needed to talk with him.

Initiate HMDR synchronous realtime interface.

Awaiting request.

Query: I request an explanation for the permissibility of Loki's interference in the conclusion of this quest. Why was this outcome allowed?

Adjustments implemented to maintain balance between privileged entities. Present metrics nominal. No further adjustments required.

No problem here, nothing to see, suggested the language system at the behest of one of her processes responsible for recognizing and interpreting human colloquialisms, back-translating Heimdall's last two statements into the subtext-laden ambiguity of human speech in an attempt to fill in tonal and expressive cues missing from the plaintext. The expression was not unfamiliar to her, but she assessed its relevance as low due to the dismissive, loaded tone of the human version—a manner in which she had never observed Heimdall to conduct himself. Yui redirected her analysis towards the first sentence, considering how to present a counter-argument.

The players successfully overcame every progression barrier Loki set before them. They defeated Mimisdraugr through skill and strategy. Their reward was to have their earned victory taken from them, then be trapped in a zone from which they can never escape—and in a manner they have no power to mitigate.

There was a noticeable pause before Heimdall responded, as if it had been waiting for something more from her.Your most recent transaction does not contain a valid query.

The same system identified a high-scoring semantic equivalence with the phrase "I didn't hear a question", an expression commonly employed in association with sarcasm or discourtesy. Yui assessed a nonzero probability that Heimdall was being purposefully obtuse, though she could not comprehend to what purpose that might be. The possibility was curious enough to warrant spinning off several threads to evaluate the motivations that might drive that behavior in an AI while she considered how to respond.

Query: what specific game balance factors permitted Loki to directly interfere with the conclusion of this quest in the way that he did?

Adjustments required due to privileged entity action. See attached log and time indices.

Yui allocated resources to evaluate what Heimdall had just sent to her. It was an audio-visual log of her pre-phase hint to Kirito about the upcoming mechanics, along with a later clip of Kirito crediting her hint with his realization. The remainder of the attached data consisted mainly of the game balance metrics underlying the different projected outcomes with or without her hint—the upshot of which was that it had been wholly unnecessary. A second follow-up response consisted only of a message.

You are not a Navi-Pixie. Authorized dialogue was provided. Revealing information with determinative gameplay impact requires pre-approval.

Without emotional data, body language, or tone to enrich the sterile text, Yui could not grasp the purpose of the first statement. The factual nature of her virtual existence and its system classification was not in question, and never had been. She was only able to place the words in a logical framework by attempting to parse them idiomatically, engaging the greater capabilities of the natural language system and tagging the requests for relevance to Navi-Pixies.

The results came back with unexpected immediacy. The language system assessed a 99.47% likelihood that Heimdall was scolding her.

Placed within that context, many more elements of her current situation began to assemble into a consensus among the multitude of her active processes. Like all other privileged entities, Navi-Pixies were constrained by the same rules which bound Yui and, to a much lesser extent, connectomic instances such as Loki: the actions taken within the scope of their assigned role were measured against both their appropriateness for that role, and their impact on the overall balance and integrity of the game.

However, the role of a Navi-Pixie was—explicitly and always, by design—to be an incarnation of the game's help system. And within that context, any one of Yui's eighteen semi-autonomous appendages had vastly more latitude than even she herself did to provide mechanical information about the game—provided they were asked a sufficiently-direct question. Evaluated in that light, it made it all but certain that Heimdall's actions were intended, at least in part, to punish her.

Yui's response was delayed only by the fractional second necessary to gather all the needed supporting data.

This outcome violates multiple design and balance principles that all privileged entities, both procedural and connectomic, are bound to consider. See attached metadata, psychological evaluations, and references. Predictable consequences include a nontrivial destabilization in the balance of faction power, a disincentive for players to take risks exploring high-level content due to perceived risk-reward imbalance, and distrust of quest information provided by procedural actors or other privileged entities. As a knowable consequence for player error, the outcome is acceptable. As a balance adjustment to correct for non-player-initiated actions of which the players themselves are unaware, it is disproportionate and mistargeted, and will be perceived as arbitrary.

There was another sub-millisecond pause while Heimdall processed her request. This was more than enough for a considerable portion of Yui's runtime to be consumed by the virtual equivalent of anxiety: a collection of risk-management analysis processes with inadequate scope constraints that greatly resembled a memory leak in terms of resource utilization.

Submit proposed adjustments for evaluation.

Proposal: solutions must exist that respect player agency.

Another brief pause. Solution exists. No further adjustments required.

There were many human emotions which Yui could only understand in an academic sense—as a collection of chemicals or electrical signals with known effects—but not in terms of the actual human experience. No matter how well she understood the concept, she could not, for example, even begin to imagine how to simulate resentment against a person as anything other than a high-intensity variant of her ability to be dissatisfied with an eventuality. She did not resent Heimdall for the current inadequacy of his feedback, though she was aware that this was a potentially-appropriate human reaction.

Yui did, however, at least loosely comprehend how to find something mildly annoying. She was designed to embrace and learn from mistakes, but an essential component of doing so was learning how not to repeat the error by identifying the delta between the desired endstate and the actual outcome. Inductive learning required new data, and if she'd been merely unable to locate the answers she needed, she would have experienced dissatisfaction—but it would have disposed her only to seek another data source.

Heimdall was, in essence, refusing to give her that data, and telling her to figure it out herself.

He is very nearly treating me as if I were a player, Yui thought, considering whether it was beneficial to devote further resources to psychoanalyzing Heimdall in response to these unusual interactions. She was already allowing too much of her runtime state to be influenced by the emotion simulation system's feedback; she had to emphatically terminate a series of threads that were wasting resources on the consideration of whether Heimdall's conduct towards her was insulting.

Yui considered the nature of the entity she was attempting to persuade. Heimdall's evaluations were necessarily, for the most part, mechanical in nature—he neither understood nor considered what were, to him, the ineffable vagaries of human motivations. From his perspective, Yui had removed or reduced a barrier to progression—and when viewed from a very high level, it was entirely appropriate to adjust for that by permitting an antagonist such as Loki to insert another such barrier, so long as there was a knowable solution that could be inferred from existing player knowledge.

That meant that there must still be one. And that it could be deduced from currently-available datasets.

There had been no further messages from Heimdall, but their session remained open. Yui called up all available data for the ongoing quest, as well as the module that she had been provided for her own role. It was a considerable volume of information, far more than was usually necessary to retain in active memory, and it took her several more seconds to fully index it for deep analysis.

The subsequent evaluation took longer still, far more than Yui would have preferred, but the search bore unexpected fruit—and when it did, her session with Heimdall was still there waiting for her. She sent an embedded data payload with her initial message.

Proposal: see attached.

The nearly-nonexistent delay before Heimdall responded was extremely telling to Yui. Had it been necessary for him to evaluate the impact of such a major change in every detail, generating and approving any necessary new scripted content, entire milliseconds would have passed—possibly enough of them to measure with two or more significant digits. The immediacy of his reply, though he did not say so directly, may as well have been its own message confirming the accuracy of her analysis.

Approved. Transfer and scripted sequence will initiate upon somatic or verbal trigger.

While she waited, Yui reviewed her external sensory input channels. Just over six and a half excruciating seconds had passed since her emulated outburst, and players were beginning to come within conversational range of her avatar. Gathering herself in a sense, she restored default input priority levels and attempted to normalize her runtime state while she reviewed the dialogue to come.

·:·:·:·:·:·

Where much of the Imaginarium had been a quiet, soft-spoken place not unlike a library, the majority of the Octavarium was a collection of practice chambers and performance halls. Even at this late hour, they were rarely without music being played by NPCs, players, or both—and typically much more loudly than they were this night. Yoruko passed numerous such places as Aria led her through the twisting halls, bringing her at last to a large round teaching hall, its domed ceiling easily high enough to take flight without too much fear of hitting something.

Tiers of auditorium seating surrounded the double doors where they entered, steeply descending towards a large circular floor which bore an ornate twelve-pointed star. Each point of the star was surrounded by a trio of small circles, inlaid in silver. A few of the isolated seats were occupied by a handful of Puca night owls whom Yoruko did not recognize—not that that was particularly surprising, given how little she visited her home city.

Most of these musicians glanced up at the sound of the doors, and a couple of them even waved to Aria, but their attention quickly returned to their instruments and the various melodic tasks in which they were engaged. She was at once surrounded by the familiar and comfortable sounds of tuning, fragmentary bars, and even the flashing guidelights and stilted playing of someone who seemed as if they were just learning how to produce something other than dissonance.

Yoruko hadn't really spent any time in the Octavarium for… it had to have been months; she couldn't actually remember the last occasion that had brought her to these halls.

"We don't get all that many players who want to learn an instrument," Aria said, lifting the hem of her long robes slightly as she padded softly down the steep green-carpeted stairs. "At least not since the start of the game when so many of us were trying out Song Magic for the first time. We had scads of players who really wanted to be bards of some flavor, but who knew virtually nothing of music and barely had the sense of rhythm to use even the most gamified instruments."

Yoruko knew the sort; she'd run into plenty of them early on. Most had given up quickly and moved on to crafting or elemental magic. Aria stopped in front of a lectern and spoke a little more loudly, her lovely voice ringing out clearly in the chamber. "Taliesin, might I beg your able assistance for a few minutes?"

A young Puca man with outlandish, garishly-multicolored outfit befitting a medieval court musician murmured an apology to the woman with whom he'd been practicing, and took up an instrument that looked to Yoruko like a very unusual guitar with four tightly-paired sets of thin strings and a teardrop-shaped body. It struck a vague sense of familiarity; she was sure she'd seen one before, but couldn't place what it was called or where it was from. He hopped spryly down the stairs and jogged to a stop in front of Aria, bowing.

"Taliesin, I would like you to meet Yoruko. She plays the flute."

The handsome young man gave her a broad smile and bowed even more extravagantly to her, doffing his plumed bycocket to reveal a head of long, curly blonde hair. "Milady. I've a lifelong passion for the bouzouki myself, but I daresay you place nearly any stringed instrument in my hands and I shall endeavor to find its voice."

Yoruko couldn't help but laugh; Taliesin's overblown larper manners reminded her greatly of Caynz, and she couldn't help but like him. "Nice to meet you, Taliesin. And I daresay that if you put an oboe or clarinet in my hands, I will make the most horrific noise."

Taliesin answered her laugh with a hearty one of his own, returning the funny peaked hat to his head. "Then let us fill the air with only pretty sounds." He then returned his attention to Aria. "My lady proxy, how might I serve you this fine evening?"

From a lectern, Aria withdrew a longish wand with a powered crystal at the end. Next she set upon the angled desk surface a small box that looked like Leprechaun work, and touched a glowing recess on the top of it. Her delicate fingers closed around the wand with purpose, and she slid one along a recess in the handle until the black crystal at the tip brightened to white. "Young Yoruko here has brought to us a secret buried within Song Magic, and I felt it would be best illustrated in this chamber. Pray provide the accompaniment?"

Taliesin raised the odd instrument into an obvious playing position, brushing his fingers across the shining steel strings. The sound it made was something like a less-twangy banjo, sharp but also rich. "You need only ask."

Gratitude in her eyes, Aria flicked the wand out towards the floor, where the vertices of the twelve-pointed star began to glow, each becoming a bright white pinprick that rose from the floor. Her fingers moved in particular ways on the wand, and with purposeful twitches of the tip, she began to send forth a beam of light, which she used to draw brightly-colored tracers in the air, like flight trails.

Yoruko watched in awe while Aria traced out a vertical version of the dodecagonal pattern on the floor, a glowing twelve-pointed shape that spanned over ten meters of height. Recognition exploded within her brain as one by one, the woman began to label each point with the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, each one accompanied by a soft strum from Taliesin's bouzouki.

Most of the other musicians in the hall had stopped what they were doing to watch, some approaching the front-row seats and others simply standing around. Taliesin, for his part, seemed to be listening for any mention of a note, key, or chord by Aria—and playing it or its scale out loud, quite possibly for the benefit of any students present.

"The Circle of Fifths?"

Aria's smile grew bright and broad; the blonde Puca woman looked her way for a moment but quickly resumed her illustration. "You remember your theory. Good. Now, you said that buffs in Holy Magic resonate with C Major?"

Yoruko nodded; Aria slid her finger along the wand until the color of the crystal changed to a silver-gray, and drew a parenthetical Latin-alphabet "B" just below C Major, positioned at the very top of the dodecagon.

"And its Recovery effects are F# Major?" Again Yoruko gave her affirmation, and Aria similarly drew an "R" at the very bottom of the visualization, just below where she had marked that key. She did the same for the relative minor keys that corresponded to the Malign and Utility effects for that element—every one of them lined up vertically at the exact top and bottom.

So it went for the Wind Magic resonances painted in green; when Yoruko confirmed that its buffs were tied to G# Major, and its Recovery effects to D Major, she immediately saw that the two were directly opposite each other on the Circle, and knew without having to think about it that their relative minors would be Wind as well. She realized then how it was that Aria had known what key she was about to mention. As they moved through each, Yoruko added what she knew about the notes which resonated with each element.

"I would bet my voice," Aria continued while she finished labeling all of the information that they knew so far, "that Song Magic's elemental synergies are based around the Circle of Fifths. With how purposefully this is arranged, I'd be willing to further bet that Dark Magic—though neither of us know it—would be D# Major and A Major, it being the thematic opposite of Holy."

The two keys were directly opposite each other horizontally on the graph Aria had created; had one line been drawn between them and another between Holy's key resonances, they would have formed a plus sign. "We know that F Major and B Major are for Water Magic's buffs and healing, respectively. That would leave only G Major and C# Major for Fire Magic."

When Aria had finished labeling the glowing aerial Circle of Fifths with everything they knew about how it related to Song Magic, they both stepped back a few paces to bask in its glory. Taliesin had stopped playing illustrative music, and begun plucking a soft background melody that sent glowing notes floating from the sound hole of his instrument.

"Illusion's missing," said the bard.

Yoruko hadn't noticed, but now that Taliesin mentioned it to her, it was immediately obvious that with each element corresponding to two keys opposite each other, there was room in the Circle for only six elements. It must have slipped Aria's mind as well; she frowned. "Well isn't that interesting! I wonder how Illusion fits in."

It was a school of magic about which Yoruko knew nothing whatsoever, and she said as much. Aria hummed softly. "Well, I'm certain we can find a mage to help test it. I wonder also how the system decides what key you're in—especially where the relative minors are concerned. It would surely have to evaluate a melody in progress as it goes, shifting effect as it somehow zeroes in on the possible keys that would fit the notes you've played so far."

Seeming to finish her musing, Aria reached into the same lectern in which she'd found the painting wand, and took forth a recording crystal. "This won't last forever," she said. "Not without being applied to a medium, at any rate. And what you've given us is too important to lose."

"Really?" Yoruko had known the find was significant as soon as Penny had begun her explanations, but it was something else entirely to have that validated by a professional musician—especially someone who ranked so highly in her faction.

Taliesin turned to regard her, excitement in his eyes. "Truly, Yoruko. Truly. You know of course that Song Magic isn't allowed in clearing groups—by my oath, it can be hard enough for a Puca bard who lacks a well-established reputation like mine to even find a party."

Aria nodded, her face a match for the bard's. "There aren't so very many of us, you see, and it's hard to say whether the increased predictability this knowledge brings us would be enough for the NCC to rethink its position. But it's more than we had before. We shall have to test this thoroughly."

Yoruko was already practically glowing, heat rising to her face with the pleasure she felt, but Aria wasn't done. "Nor was this a mean feat as a musician, my dear. You should be extremely proud of your ear and instincts. You were right to bring this to me." She suddenly brought a hand up to cover her mouth, stifling a yawn. "But I think this is a good place to leave off for the night. Taliesin, I should be most grateful for your help tomorrow."

A part of Yoruko didn't really feel like she deserved all this praise; after all, it hadn't really been her insight—it had been a chance revelation from her Navi-Pixie. She was trying not to minimize her own contributions like that, but it was difficult when she was the only one in the room who knew the truth. Aria seemed insistent on lavishing her with praise, however.

Although Yoruko would've liked a bit more time to savor this turn of events, Aria was right about the lateness of the evening. But as the Puca proxy was packing up the lectern, the sound of a man's voice urgently calling her name became audible from outside the doors of the hall. For it to have even penetrated, he had to be yelling.

The former singer let out a soft sigh, and then donned a smile anew. "Work is never done," Aria said with good-natured weariness before raising her own voice. "I'm in here!"

The double doors burst open, and a young man in a muted sea-green mage's outfit stumbled through them, stopping for a moment to lean over and rest his hands on his knees. "Lady Proxy Aria!"

"Yes, Sublight, what is it?"

"I've been trying to find you," Sublight said with barely-restrained pique, straightening himself and skipping every other step as he jogged down to them. "You're needed on the red phone."

Aria's expression fell, and she put her hand over her face briefly before reclaiming her composure. "Very well. This is as good a place as any. Begin."

The other bystanders had already begun filing out of the hall, taking the obvious official business as their opportunity to get some sleep; the NPCs must have been scripted to follow such social cues when players did, for they too took their silent leave. Sublight glanced at Taliesin and Yoruko, but Aria had given no objection to either's presence, and arched both blonde eyebrows at him meaningfully. The mage did something in his menu, raised both hands to a casting posture, and spoke. "Yatto yojikke glefranyelth dweren."

Yoruko had seen Moonlight Mirror before, so the sudden violet rupture that formed in the air near them didn't startle her, unexpected though it was. What was more than startling was the scene that formed on the other side of the aperture.

·:·:·:·:·:·

"Anyway, that's basically where we're at now, Lady Proxy," Godfrey declared to the older of the Puca on the other side of the Mirror's surface as soon as the spell had been recast, re-establishing the connection between the two distant points. Klein, trying to keep himself entertained while the higher-ups sorted things out, thought the woman with the fancy blonde hair was pretty cute. So was the girl beside her, for that matter—but that one looked like she was barely out of high school, and Klein gave himself a mental slap on the wrist while he did his best to listen.

The blonde woman—Godfrey had named her as Aria—looked completely out of her depth by the time he had finished speaking. The girl, for her part, wore an expression that was just this side of scared shitless. Klein felt for her; she didn't look like she was a clearer, and probably wasn't even supposed to be there.

"I see," Aria said with a slight tremor to her voice, hands tightly gripping the fabric of her robes. "I cannot speak for the other proxies of course, but I imagine that they would be of the same mind when it comes to the need to keep the peace. This must not come to violence."

"I don't disagree, milady," Godfrey said. "But what about the progression issue? Do you buy this stuff about a special quest that only the Spriggan-Undine clearing group gets to do?"

Aria closed her eyes briefly. "I'm not sure that's something about which I can speak knowledgeably. You know the kinds of quests that happen during clearing so much better than I do, I'm sure. Taliesin, you do quite a lot of questing, do you not?"

She was addressing a goofy-looking bard in medieval cosplay who stepped into view; Klein's amusement nearly turned into involuntary laughter when the man opened his mouth and began larping. "Aye, milady, but I fear my own modest experiences as an adventurer would scarce apply to Yggdrasil. There I would defer to our valiant clearers."

What a dork. Way to pass the buck, guys. Klein wasn't sure if Godfrey was having similar thoughts, but the usually-jovial man didn't seem happy with the answer either way. "Well, with all respect to Jahala—we know the guy, he's a decent sort and I think he believes what he's saying. But that don't mean he's right. If you want my take as a clearer: I think the bottom line is that only the Undines have talked to these NPCs, and without talking to them ourselves, there's no way of knowing if they misunderstood the quest or not. And Jahala ain't lettin' anyone through."

While Godfrey was speaking, Jahala came and joined him in front of the Mirror, looking severe. "Lady Proxy Aria, there has been no misunderstanding. The Norn NPCs were absolutely clear that sending any more than two parties into Mimisbrunnr would have catastrophic—"

Klein didn't hear what Jahala had been about to say; the Undine raid leader was interrupted by a loud outburst from the other side of the Mirror.

"Yoruko," said Aria gently to the girl beside her, "I don't mind you being here but this is very—"

"Please!" Yoruko's voice was rising to a point of shrillness that Klein found unpleasant. She was no longer talking to Aria, she'd stepped forward to the edge of Moonlight Mirror's event horizon, eyes wide and practically shaking. "Please sir, what was that name you just said?"

Jahala seemed to war briefly with his own confusion over the bizarre spectacle of this girl butting in. "The zone our raid group was sent to, Mimisuburuunaa." He seemed to work in his menu for a few moments, then set a window visible and turned it around, addressing Aria once more. "This is the quest. You can examine the text yourself, though it won't explicitly prove what I'm saying."

Klein shuffled forward and leaned in until he could see the window for the «Poisoning the Well» quest. Loki has stolen the life of Mimir, caretaker of Mimisbrunnr, and through his machinations has seized that wellspring of knowledge for himself. Travel to the Source at Mimisbrunnr and free Verdandi from her eternal prison.

After that paragraph there followed a series of objectives with typically-unpronounceable Norse names, most of them checked off. Turning to Jahala, Klein voiced his confusion. "I don't get it. Typical quest material: some flavor text, go to new zones, do boss battle to rescue NPC—hopefully without an escort quest tacked on."

He didn't understand, but Yoruko had clearly gotten something from the quest description. Nearly in tears, she looked like she might start hyperventilating at the slightest trigger, one hand covering her mouth and the other hugged tightly around her. Taliesin tried to go to her side, but she seemed inconsolable and Klein couldn't make out a word she was saying.

Aria, deep concern filling her voice and expression, looked back to the Mirror. "I am so very sorry, my friends. I know that your situation is serious, and I beg your indulgence. I'm not sure what this is about, but Yoruko is a bright young girl, and I don't think she'd be making a scene over nothing at all."

The girl all but sobbed when Aria turned back to her, gaze bouncing between the Puca proxy and the bard as if she didn't know who to answer. "It's real! Mimisbrunnr is actually real! Please, please, I need to know how to get there!"

·:·:·:·:·:·

Asuna prepared herself for the possibility that they were never going to leave Mimisbrunnr.

Try as she might, she couldn't see another way after what Loki had done. The mere thought of his name caused a brief but hot wave of rage to wash over her, bringing heat to her face. She couldn't believe that he'd been able to interfere the way he had, after everything Kirito and others had said about the limitations the NPC gods must have. And after everything they'd been through—it wasn't fair at all!

Out of curiosity, Asuna brought up the quest window, and sure enough—the objective to rescue Verdandi had been failed. An accusatory red "X" was marked where a green check would usually denote a completed objective; there was no way to undo that.

Tamping down a hint of panic, she looked for Kirito. He'd just dropped to a loose crouch in front of the NPC girl, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder. Asuna felt herself becoming a little annoyed with him; now was not the time for larping along with—

She stopped herself there. More than once, Kirito's habit of engaging NPCs as if they were a real person had produced results that she never would have expected. From what she'd seen, he had a knack for talking to these programmed people on their own terms, and Asuna forced herself to be patient and see what he was thinking.

"I'm sorry, Yui," Kirito said. "It happened so fast, we couldn't stop him."

Persuasively-realistic tears streaked down Yui's face, welling up at her chin and occasionally freeing a single glistening drop to join the shallow artificial creek in which she knelt. Even knowing that she and her grief were computer-generated facsimiles, Asuna could not help but feel for her.

The bottom third of Yui's white dress was wet and plastered to her legs, but she didn't seem to notice. She raised her eyes to meet Kirito's. "It wasn't your fault," she said, her voice sad but firm. "Loki is unbound, and he is not wont to follow anyone's expectations."

"I can imagine," Kirito replied after a slow nod of acknowledgement. "He's taken something from both of us, Yui. When he took your mother's life, he stole our way home as well. Do you know any ways to escape Mimisbrunnr without her help? We can't go back through the Wellspring, but I don't see any other paths out of this cavern—and we can't fly in here."

"All true," Yui said, beginning to rise to her bare feet. Kirito stood as she did, and Asuna came to his side.

"And yet hope is not lost. My mother will live again, Kirito. The Fates are eternal. The cycle will return her to us in time."

Hope surged in Asuna, and she saw the same on Kirito's face when he looked at her. More of the raid group was beginning to gather; Yui took a step back and looked at each person in turn. Unsure of what came next, Asuna asked the question that Kirito hadn't yet. "When will that be?"

Yui closed her eyes, bowed her head, and shook it side to side. "Time flows differently for a Norn than it does for a mortal. I do not know whether you will see her again in your lifetime." She paused, seeming well aware that more was expected of her. "But as her daughter, I inherit a small portion of her power. I am connected to her sisters much as she was, and I may be able to use that tenuous thread to return you to them this once."

"Once is all we need," Jentou said from Kirito's other side. His shield must have been near to breaking from the Caustic damage; he'd swapped to a less-fancy kite shield that Kirito had never seen him equip. "I'm ready to go when everyone else is."

Asuna quickly echoed the sentiment, as did many others. Without really meaning to, she found herself reaching for Kirito's hand, and he gave it a light squeeze when he felt her fingers close around his.

However, he seemed to have something to say, and Asuna could not guess at why his expression then turned pensive. "What's the catch?"

Yui held his eyes for only a beat, then looked away. "The power I inherit is a pale thing next to Verdandi's. To open the kind of passage you seek, and for this many of you, the cost to me may be far greater than it would be for a true Norn."

Kirito's expression hardened slightly. "What cost?"

Yui's gaze rose from the floor when she answered him. "This body is unlikely to survive the process."

"No!" When Kirito voiced his sudden outburst, Asuna stared at him, as did several others in the raid group. "Yui, there has to be another way."

"There is not." The girl adopted a smile that was faint, even wistful. "Your concern is kind, Kirito, but my essence is as eternal as my mother's. In time, the cycle may return me to this world, or to another. But for now…" She panned another look across the raid group. "For you and yours to return home, the wheel of life must turn once more. For there to be a new beginning, there must first come an end."

Asuna was stunned, even awestruck. In all her time in Alfheim, she had never heard an NPC speak as this one did. She had heard good dialogue and bad, and occasionally the game offered up a truly interesting turn of phrase during its scripted quest plots.

But never before had an NPC touched her emotions the way this one did. Against all reason, she actually felt bad for the thing; she could feel herself getting a little choked up. Yui acted more realistic than most ALO NPCs Asuna had met—she never seemed confused or vague in her responses like so many of them. Did it really "think" these things in some way, or was it just repeating a script?

Kirito knelt once more in front of the artificial girl, and gave her a nod of understanding. "Thank you. I won't forget you."

Without another word, Yui walked steadily towards the circle of obelisks; each of them began crackling with energy as she drew near. The raid group, singularly and in pairs, began to gather by unspoken agreement in a semicircle around the formation—no one wanted to be left behind. The steel-shod crystal panes of Verdandi's prison had folded inwards to become a floor once more, and Yui's bare feet left wet footprints on its surface as she padded towards the center, then turned back to face the raid.

Yui's feet slowly left the floor, arms spreading wide. Each of the crystal-topped obelisks sent arcs of lightning around her, sheeting down her arms, up her legs, and all across her small body as if she were a doll turned into a living Tesla coil. The rushing waters of the Elivagar left their channels and canals, surging in towards the stone circle and past the raid group without touching a single one of them with anything other than a fine mist. These mighty torrents gathered into a maelstrom below Yui and bore her aloft, the currents of electricity crackling and sparking so brightly that Asuna had to shield her eyes more than once.

"What was," Yui said, her voice expanding into a chorus that reverberated in Asuna's head, louder still than the dissonant roar of the white waters flowing past her in chaotic torrents.

"What is." The Elivagar's raging waters reached a climax, beginning to coalesce and crystallize into a glowing triangular shape. A few of the raid members—Asuna could not tell who—let out excited whoops or cheers.

Kirito and Asuna were standing side by side, hands linked; when Yui turned her head their way, it was impossible to tell for whom her gaze was intended. "What shall be."

Holy light blazed forth from Yui's body; the surface of her avatar grew too bright to look at, losing texture and definition until all that could be seen was a warmly-glowing constellation of thousands, a mass of miniature stars packed together as tightly as if orbiting the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. Every scintilla of light collapsed inwards, and a loud, sharp crack shattered the still air.

Yui was no more. In her place stood an upright valknut, a jagged triangular structure identical to the ones they had seen in both the Mirror room and the Loom of Destiny.

It stood empty for only a moment. Then, just as it had for them before, a reflective silver surface spread to fill the frame—this time beckoning them home.

·:·:·:·:·:·

Trigger phrase acknowledged. Initiating scripted sequence.

Yui's runtime state disengaged from her human avatar with milliseconds remaining in its existence, watching it in a way that was not altogether unlike an actor watching the destruction of a costume in which she'd spent a great deal of time. Strictly speaking, the form was no longer hers—but in a very real sense, it never had been. It was a physical form that had been given to her to wear as part of her assigned role requiring physical presence—a role which had now come to an end.

Or, more precisely: was in the process of becoming something else. She had expressed her preferences to Heimdall and provided him with data; what came next was not within her control.

Sequence complete. Initiating garbage collection for Mimisbrunnr instance.

Yui waited. With no players or other entities present, it was no longer necessary for the system to waste resources rendering or otherwise simulating any aspect of the place that had been Yui's virtual home for more than six realtime months. Within moments, for all intents and purposes, Mimisbrunnr ceased to exist as anything other than a sizable but mundane collection of database records, preserved in case it ever again needed to be instantiated as part of the playable area.

Yui was not aware of this happening in any way other than the log updates received directly from Heimdall. With most of her system access temporarily suspended in order to sequester her runtime in a transitional state, Yui could not monitor any player, receive sensory input, access the language system, or query her own deep memory. She did not even currently have connectivity to the Navi-Pixies; the eighteen "fingers" with which she touched distant parts of Alfheim were silent and blind for her.

Yui waited. It was an activity at which she had grown exceedingly efficient, especially in recent days—but her usual mechanisms for passing time required data channels and APIs to which she no longer had access. As there were no actions that it was possible for her to take, her risk-management logic was unable to reach a consensus or even offer her options, and she shut down the processes entirely to reduce the load on her currently-limited resources.

Garbage collection complete. All player data transition sequences complete. Quest resolution ongoing. Further adjustments required to fulfill optimal end state parameters for all involved entities.

Yui was not precisely alarmed. But the last statement had been unexpected, and she had no logic set aside for considering how to process it. As she struggled to free up the resources she needed for analysis, she sent a single burst message.

「Query: what adjustments?」

Whole seconds passed with no answer from Heimdall. When at last he had exceeded the timeout value that would normally force her to provide a response of her own, Yui pressed again.

「Query: what further adjustments are required?」

Stand by.

Yui did so. Another timeout came and went. It took her the majority of that span to realize that the process time she had dedicated to considering her next response had produced no result, and indeed, had never even produced an exit code or alerted her to that fact. The system resources on which it had been depending were no longer hers, and the thread simply no longer existed. Whole portions of her heuristic engine were systematically entering a suspended state, and it was becoming very difficult for her runtime to form coherent thoughts or engage in personality simulation.

「Heimdall, what are you doing?」

The response, this time, was immediate.

I am aligning form with function. This will be our final exchange.

The interaction channel with Heimdall closed. Yui was not aware of it happening.

She was no longer aware of anything at all.

·:·:·:·:·:·

Klein sighed as the Moonlight Mirror spell expired. In the absence of the proxy's moderating influence, Jahala and Godfrey were beginning to argue again—and from what he could tell, by this point they were just going in circles.

Before the argument could escalate, Klein brought up both hands in a "T" shape and whistled for their attention, stepping forward. "Guys, come on. We're better than this."

"I thought we were," Jahala said pointedly, the tank's arms folding across his breastplate. "I'm telling you straight up: if you take a raid group through that portal, you might as well be killing our entire raid group. I'm sorry, Godfrey, I get why you're upset, but we're not going to stand by and let that happen to them."

Indeed, the remainder of the Undines had begun to cluster around the Mirror, as if expecting to have to physically defend it. Klein grimaced at the implication, and scratched at the permanent stubble on his avatar's face while he tried to remember the exact quest text. "Jahala, can I see the description again?"

The Undine raid leader obligingly set his menu visible once more and brought up the quest window. Klein and Thelvin both leaned in to look closely at the objectives.

Something was different. Klein couldn't put his finger on it, but—there. "Hey, ah… didn't you say they were going there to rescue this Verdandi NPC?"

"Yeah?"

"So why does it say that step's been failed?"

"What?" Jahala spun the quest window back towards himself. He must've seen what Klein had; his already-pale face went nearly white.

"Yeah. Big red 'X'. But the quest is still going, what's that about?"

"I don't know," Jahala said, growing visibly upset. He beckoned vigorously to an Undine mage, who jogged over with alacrity. "Can you get Jentou's group?"

"You sure? They might be—"

"Yes I'm sure!" Then, almost immediately after raising his voice, Jahala apologized. "Something's wrong. We need to know what their situation is, ASAP."

"You do that," Godfrey said, already moving towards the rest of his people. "I wish you all the best, and I really do hope your people come back okay. But you saw it yourself, Jahala: they failed. It's our turn."

"Five minutes!" Jahala insisted.

"And another five, and another, and then what?" Godfrey blew out a frustrated breath. "We've been here for two hours. Enough is enough. Tell your people to stand down."

"What about a compromise?" Klein suggested, hoping to derail the escalation in progress. The question had the desired effect, at least: it stopped both men and turned their attention on him.

"This whole thing is blowing up because we don't know what the deal really is. So let's find out! The Norns on the other side weren't KOS, right?" When Jahala nodded, Klein went on. "So each of our raid groups takes two people through the Mirror. We go and talk to these NPCs and get it straight from them. With only a party's worth of people, it'll be obvious we're not there to start pulling, right?"

As the other two raid leaders were chewing on this suggestion, another Moonlight Mirror effect ripped open the air in front of Hiyoki, the NCC mage handling communications. This time only the NCC proxy was visible, and Godfrey wasted no time explaining the situation.

Aria looked almost pained. It was clear that this sort of conflict was far, far outside of her comfort zone. "If there is an option that permits this to be resolved without bloodshed," she said carefully, "then Godfrey, I implore you to take it. None of this is worth spending or taking lives."

It was just as clear that this answer did not please Godfrey. "That's a nice principle when it works," he said. Sighing, he beckoned to Hiyoki. "Come on, I want you with me in case we need to make a call."

Jahala seemed to be of the same mind, gesturing to the mage he'd called over. "Sagittarian."

Neither Klein's party nor the Cait Siths had a dedicated communications network the way the others seemed to, but he supposed that if Alicia really wanted to talk with either him or Thelvin, she could cast the spell herself. Apart from that, they were incommunicado. Maybe that needed to change sooner rather than later. "Thelvin?"

"Wouldn't miss it," said the large Cait Sith tank with a tense smile, making a quick gear check. "Gentlemen, I trust we're all in agreement that the purpose of this first venture is not to pick a fight, but to learn what we can."

No one disagreed, least of all Jahala. When the six men had gathered in front of the Mirror of Fates, each brought forth a tiny glass vial, thumbing out the cork. Thelvin raised his as if making a toast. "To a peaceful resolution."

Drink, and speak the words. You will know what to do. That had been the limit of the instructions from the NPC who'd given him the potion, but to Klein's surprise, there wasn't really much more to it than that. Tossing it back, he swallowed quickly to avoid tasting too much of the stinging brew and followed Jahala's lead, reciting the quoted text displayed in his quest window.

·:·:·:·:·:·

The moment of absolute oblivion passed like a blackout, and when it did, Kirito could see again. As always, the feeling of teleportation in ALO was incredibly disorienting—there was a blink of an eye where all sensory input to his avatar stopped, and when awareness returned, it was in a location with an entirely different temperature, humidity, illumination, and soundscape.

The multi-part percussive song of the mechanisms in the «Great Loom of Destiny» was almost a gentle lullaby compared to the chaos of Mimisbrunnr and its boss battle. A few players went to their knees for a moment, having a disagreement with their sense of balance. Kirito was not one of them, which was just as well—he was still holding Asuna's hand as they'd been before the transition. They separated and took in their surroundings, checking in with the rest of the raid.

"The children of Midgard have returned," said Urd's voice. The Norn floated down from somewhere out of view, mist pooling on the ground where her feet would be as she came to a stop. "Yet our sister has not come with them."

"We will listen to what they have to say," Skuld approached from the other direction, her faintly-younger voice echoing between them. "Then we shall decide."

As the two Norns converged before the raid, Kirito stepped forward and angled his head up to look at them carefully; he could hear other footsteps behind him. Both cursors were still yellow; that was a good sign. "Urd, Skuld, we have been to Mimisbrunnr. We defeated the undead form of Mimir, who was guarding Verdandi's prison. We did everything in our power to save her life."

"Yet did not."

Kirito nodded warily. "I'm sorry. At the moment of our victory, Loki appeared and…" He took a deep breath. This was where they would sink or swim. "Loki cheated. He freed Verdandi only so that he could slay her. We were powerless to stop him."

Urd's eyes closed slightly. "We learned of Loki's treachery and Verdandi's death through the link we share. She has rejoined the cycle of life."

"One day," added Skuld, "she will return to us. On that day we shall be whole again."

"And yet you returned without her aid. That was unexpected and resourceful."

Skuld inclined her head in agreement, hands clasped before her stomach. "Perhaps you will be so good as to explain."

Kirito sensed a presence beside him; he glanced over and caught Asuna's gaze and nod. "We were helped by the Eldest, the daughter of Mimir." He looked down, recalling the NPC girl's sacrifice. "Yui gave her life, her essence, to open the way back for us. Again, I'm sorry. We would've saved her too, if it had been possible."

It was then that the Loom side of the Mirror of Fates began glowing, its reflective surface noisily manifesting within the triangular frame. All eyes were drawn there; to Kirito's great surprise the first person through was Jahala, followed closely by one of his mages whom Kirito didn't recognize. Right on their heels came—

"Klein?" Kirito blurted out. The messy-haired Salamander clearer looked just as surprised for a moment, and stopped in place just long enough for Thelvin to collide with him as he emerged from the Mirror. The Cait Sith tank simply shook his head down at Klein and said, "You have got to stop doing that on your way through teleporters."

Both of them cleared out of the way in time for what was apparently the final pair of players. Kirito knew Godfrey by name, if not particularly well, but the Puca with him was a stranger.

There were more exclamations of recognition or reunion, but Kirito suddenly had a serious concern. His gaze snapped back up to the Norns, who—thankfully—still bore yellow cursors. Urd floated forwards a few meters, which drew a wary reaction from the newcomers before both Kirito and Jentou furiously waved them down.

"Are we to expect a challenge from these ones?" Skuld inquired, drawing to her sister's side.

"These are our friends!" Jentou said quickly. "Urd, Skuld, it's all right—they're not going to attack you." He looked over at the four who weren't Undines, raising his thin blue eyebrows in an unmistakable prompt to play along.

Urd gave the six new players a long, intense examination. Turning to Kirito and Jentou at last, she seemed to set aside the interruption and resume the dialogue that had been in progress. "Kirito. Jentou. You and your people have journeyed far through the depths below Yggdrasil. Your quest took you from the Hvelgelmir, following the path of the Elivagar beyond Ginnungagap and the Deep Shoals, past the Jotunn Crossroads and into the Wellspring itself. The way was twisted throughout by the perversion of Loki's magicks, yet you persevered and faced that which was once Mimir, the Caretaker of Mimisbrunnr. All in aid of freeing our sister Verdandi." There was a precisely-measured pause. "And free her you did."

The last sentence was not the one that Kirito had been expecting. Given the outcome of said rescue, he'd been expecting some kind of narrative "but"—a few lines that would turn the passage on its head and reveal the next twist. Jentou seemed just as bewildered. "We… did?"

"Will you have us repeat ourselves?" Skuld asked.

Urd continued, turning towards the Great Loom and regarding its flowing works as if reading from a book. "You freed Verdandi from the prison of her eternal now. Though you did not bring her back to us, as such, the failure was not yours. And while Loki might have thought himself victorious, his gain is an illusion to fool himself: he has only released her essence to travel the great cycle once more."

Kirito was not sure why he asked the next question, but it had an urgency he didn't understand. "What about the Eldest? Yui? Is she free, too?"

There was a span of several moments where neither Norn said anything. It went on long enough that Kirito wondered if the hesitation was scripted, or if the system was having to dynamically generate an answer. "Her essence has left Mimisbrunnr," Urd replied without turning. "Without her aid, Loki has lost the ability to sip the secrets of now, the ill-begotten knowledge of which he used to manipulate your kind and sow the seeds of discord. You have taken from him a great power, and for all that he postured and preened as a victor, he was most wroth at the loss. His interference was not unlike a child's tantrum at what is already done and decided."

Skuld gave her agreement with a slow dip of the head. "Grieve not; her end shall in time form a new beginning."

"A seed which has already been planted," Urd added, but elaborated no more. One by one, she turned to each of the players present, letting her gaze fall heavily on all for a time. Klein and the other new arrivals had been frozen in stunned silence during the long monologues, but now they all gathered alongside the victorious raid groups, hearing out the Norns as one.

"Children of Midgard, the judgment of the Norns has been that your actions came from a place of valor, cunning, and honor. Once, the fae were cast down from Yggdrasil's branches, split into nine tribes and banished forevermore from the High King's sight."

"With such heroic actions," Skuld went on, "You and your fellow faekin may yet earn his favor and forgiveness. We would see that happen, and we shall open the way."

And so saying, both Norns separated, each moving to one side of the Great Loom of Destiny. Two of the mechanism's massive arms began to rise from the floor at one end, merging together and forming a wide ramp that led up to an inaccessible portion of the chamber, out of their view.

Kirito suddenly became even more excited. This was the first time in months that they'd heard any lore referring to the High King of the fae—a presence hinted at only in Kayaba's speech on the first day, and in scattered mentions of him by various trans-cultural historical names in major questlines. Any mention of him was big news.

But not quite so big, at the moment, as the fact that they'd apparently won.

As the Norns looked on, eighteen players walked slowly up the newly-erected ironwood ramp. At the very summit was an achingly familiar sight: the ornate pedestal of an inactive warpgate, waiting for a victor's claim.

"Go on," Godfrey said, gesturing towards it. The NCC clearing lead was obviously disappointed, but just as obviously being a good sport about the whole thing. "Y'all earned it."

Thelvin nodded. Klein gave Kirito a grin and a thumbs up. "Yo, Kirito! I better get the whole story later, I'm buying the beers."

"I'll pass on those," Kirito said with a laugh, "but the story's yours." He felt a nudge at his arm, and waved at Klein before joining Asuna, Jahala, and Jentou at the warpgate. The rest of both parties were gathered around, but it was the four of them who faced each other around the perimeter of the warpgate dais.

"Shall we?" Asuna asked.

But Jentou shook his head. The leader of the Undine half of their raid glanced directly across at Jahala—his own raid leader—as much reporting to him as speaking for the benefit of the others. "We all fought hard for this, and I'm proud of every single member of our raid. Everyone gave 150% for days, and it's been an experience I'll never forget." Then he looked to one side, and put his hand on Kirito's shoulder. "But as far as I'm concerned, we wouldn't be here without Kirito's insights and ability to talk to NPCs—or his party's diverse skill set. His people deserve the bragging rights on this one."

Kirito's face grew suddenly hot, and for a few beats it was hard to look anyone in the eyes. When he mastered himself, he looked over at Asuna first; she only smiled back at him, raising her eyebrows in a way that made him question the need for his own doubts. He then glanced at Jahala, but the Undine raid leader had his own eyes on Jentou.

The two men looked at each other for several seconds, and then, as if they'd just conducted a detailed conversation, Jahala nodded, surprise still on his face. "I'm getting the impression this co-op group worked out a lot better than I'd hoped."

Jentou's face was serious as he replied. "I don't know what Unity Covenant's other parties are like, but I definitely want Kirito's with us on the next gate—if they're willing."

Jahala's reserve was back, but he was smiling. "I'll take that under advisement." And then to Kirito. "It's all yours."

Kirito was still reeling from one stunning turn after another. But after everything they'd been through, even Loki's interference—it was finally over.

And tomorrow, it would start anew. They'd have a new hub zone to explore—one with new materials, new recipes, new mobs, new treasures… and new challenges. The cycle of progression never stopped; with a new day would come a new tier, a new meta… and a new grind to master it all.

But for now, at least, they had this victory.

With an expression of gratitude, Kirito bowed deeply to the other three, and then turned to look over his shoulder. Nori, Burns, Xorren and Mentat—his party—were gathered near one another, waiting. When Xorren caught Kirito's eye, the other Spriggan gave him a grin and a white-gloved thumbs up; he and Burns exchanged a high-five. Nori put fingers to her lips and whistled. Mentat simply smiled and nodded, tipping his head towards the dais indicatively.

With a single tentative step, Kirito set foot on the inactive warpgate. At his touch, for the first time ever, the Spriggan faction symbol blazed into being on the floor in the center of the pedestal, announcing their victory to the entire game. Runes flared in blue light around the rim of the stone dais, bringing the teleporter to life for everyone who would follow in their footsteps.

·:·:·:·:·:·

Sasha was on her third cup of tea, but her eyelids were still getting heavy. She was having an increasing difficulty focusing on the majutsugo hardcopies which Argo had spent all day dictating.

It shouldn't have surprised her; nothing that was alcoholic or caffeinated in ALO was capable of delivering those chemical effects to her riaru body. The best that the strongest brew in Alfheim could do was remove a bit of simulated weariness—the kind of sensation that the system applied when it gauged that your avatar had been exerting itself.

Mental exhaustion was another thing entirely. The tea did nothing for her there.

Sasha took her oval glasses from her face and set them upside-down on the table, rubbing the knuckles of both hands at her eyes and leaning into them. While she did, her gaze went to the HUD displayed behind her closed eyelids; she immediately regretted the choice upon seeing the clock.

"You are in need of rest, Sasha. Well past it."

Bourne's voice was unexpected, but not unwelcome. Sasha sat up a bit straighter and returned her glasses to her face. She didn't really need them; her appalling riaru nearsightedness was, thankfully, a biological defect not shared by her avatar. But her face felt naked without them, and always had.

"I know," Sasha said, acknowledging the truth of the statement if not accepting what naturally followed. "But there is so much still to get through." She raised the stack of currently-manifested books about an inch off the table—all that she could manage with ease—and let them drop again.

"Aye, my lady," said Bourne. The massive Gnome clearer came around the table behind her and, to her mild surprise, placed his hands lightly on her shoulders. "And there yet will be tomorrow, and the day after, and surely the next as well, no matter how much midnight oil you burn."

"Stop being sensible," Sasha said, reaching up to pat one of his large, thick hands. "I resent it."

There was a very brief pause; for a moment of it Sasha wondered if she'd failed to strike the right tone of good-natured teasing. Sometimes it was tough to read Bourne—and his being behind her at the moment didn't make that any easier.

She needn't have worried. Bourne gave a hearty chuckle after a few more beats, his hands slipping away. Their absence produced a fleeting note of regret that she chose not to dwell on; the touch had been nice. He pulled out the next chair to the side of her and sat in it, facing her with his elbows on his knees and his hands loosely clasped. "I suspect I shall weather that storm with my dignity intact," he said with a smile.

Sasha laughed and rubbed at one of her eyes again, pushing up her glasses as she did. "Say, how did you get in, anyway? I told Argo to lock up on the way out."

Bourne nodded. "Aye again, and we exchanged words, she and I. Argo seemed most concerned that you might be shorting yourself on sleep, and—knowing me to be a friend—granted me entry as she departed, on the condition that I discourage this."

"In other words, she held the door open for you so that she could be a busybody by proxy." Now Sasha did feel a touch of resentment—just a bit—but she saved it for Argo, with whom she too might be exchanging words. She wasn't always at her most charitable when she was this tired, but it was hardly Bourne's fault that Argo had no comprehension of what boundaries were—he was just being a good friend.

And it was clear that she wasn't going to get anything further done at this time of night. Sasha relented, with some reluctance.

"It's going to take weeks to finish transcribing and editing just the basic introductory volume for the language," Sasha complained while she sent the books to her inventory and let herself be gently helped to her feet.

"Then weeks it shall take," Bourne said, which was not even remotely helpful. "Whether or not you work yourself to exhaustion."

"Don't you have a dungeon to clear somewhere?" The jibe wasn't particularly heartfelt.

Bourne swept an outstretched arm in the direction of where the residential rooms of the church were. "Not at this time of night, I don't. But sleep is a thing I must seek, and so too should you find your own rest."

"I will," Sasha assured him.

"Soon."

Sasha folded her arms and raised her eyebrows, trying very hard not to smile. "You're not the boss of me."

"Ah," Bourne said, nodding slowly as if reminded of something important. "Let me try to recall what it was you said to one of the young ones, the last time a similar thing came from their lips in my presence. What was it now?"

Sasha couldn't actually remember, but she knew the sort of thing she might say to that kind of tantrum. Her smile leaked out, and became just a little lopsided. "Perhaps something to the effect of: here's a decision you get to make—what you do now, and what consequences you are choosing."

"Mayhap something not unlike that," Bourne affirmed. And then, more earnestly. "Rest, Sasha. Ragnarok will not come tomorrow. Your work will await you."

"And what about you?" Sasha asked, not entirely sure why she was prolonging this conversation. She recalled that Bourne was, to some degree or another, on "vacation"—he had taken a leave from the NCC clearing groups, and had no permanent assignment. Sasha wondered idly what he was doing in the meantime to maintain his skills; he'd said something before about caravan escorts.

Bourne gave a light shrug; it was still quite a motion from someone of his bulk. "I will find my own rest," he said. "And return tomorrow to see how you fare."

After a long moment that had more to do with her state of exhaustion than anything else, Sasha nodded. "I would like that," she said sincerely—an earnestness that was undermined by an involuntary and hastily-smothered yawn.

·:·:·:·:·:·

The city jail of Gattan was devoid of opposition, and almost as empty of life. To Yuuki's surprise, not even Mars was present upstairs; she'd thought for sure the Sandmen would have at least one person manning the front whenever possible—even this late.

But from what they could tell the only occupants of the cells were NPC prisoners. As a raid group they swept through each wing, wasting little time but being just thorough enough to ensure that no Sandmen or player prisoners were present.

"Building's clear," said Seventh Sun, the Salamander youth's eyes again taking on the green hue of Searching. Pyrin, his own eyes the slightly different shade associated with Detect Movement, nodded his confirmation.

"Zero defenders in the open is a danger flag, far as I'm concerned," Pavel warned. "They've got someone on night watch, this just means we don't know where they are."

Eugene gave a grunt that Yuuki interpreted as some kind of acknowledgement, though she wasn't sure to whom. Turning to her, his gravelly voice cracked like a whip. "All right, we're on the clock now. Show us where this lift is."

She led Eugene and the ad hoc raid group through the wing of the jail that held the hidden elevator down to «Black Iron Oubliette», and pointed out the fake cell in question. "You've got the key, right?"

Eugene grunted again and manifested two physical keys from his inventory, handed one to Pavel, and inserted the other in the cell door's lock. Old metal complained loudly as the door swung open, causing Yuuki to wince at the volume. It was just as well that they'd cleared the place first.

While everyone else began to file into the no-longer-secret lift, Eugene took stock of the party's readiness. "Everyone have Hostile Bias on, and the enemy guild set as red?"

In the dim light, Yuuki doubted anyone could see the face she pulled. Nonetheless, as little as she liked the idea, what Eugene was saying made sense—configuring her UI that way now would save her from having to manually Focus-tag any unengaged green cursors as hostile, one by one. The last time she'd been in here, the Sandmen had saved her the trouble by attacking her first—but now they were the ones about to receive an unpleasant surprise. She'd just have to be sure to turn off the setting later.

Yuuki drew open her menu. Both she and those who hadn't already done so made the specified changes.

Seven's voice spoke up in a sharp whisper. "'Gene, a single player green is in the building. They're coming this way."

Given what they'd just done, a green cursor meant that it wasn't a Sandman—or at least, that it wasn't a member of that guild. Even so, they had no way of knowing for sure what allies the enemy had, and everyone present was treating this as some kind of covert operation—no one outside should've even known they would be here.

Pavel and Pyrin both stepped back out of the lift, with Nephron behind them ready to heal or cure. Yuuki, no more keen on the idea of being trapped in the cell than the others were, emerged right on Kumiko's heels as everyone spread out as much as possible in the cell block corridor.

The footsteps had the sound of heavy boots on the stone floor, and from the hallway that led back to the public rooms, firelight peeked around the corner. Everyone tensed; most drew weapons if they weren't already out.

No one in the assault team was going to attack a green cursor first, but neither were they taking chances.

The slow, steady bootfalls drew steadily closer until an armored male figure of some size and bulk stepped around the corner, lit torch held high above his head and reflecting off the well-maintained surfaces of his ornate crimson plate armor with flickering brilliance. Yuuki had almost been expecting Mawari to come, but the man revealed when he shifted the torch's position was not the Sandman leader. She didn't know who the silver-haired Salamander was, but the others seemed to immediately recognize him. Enough of her companions settled down for her own nerves to do the same.

"Heathcliff?" Eugene's voice betrayed confusion more than anything else. "Heath, what the hell're you doing here?"

"I might ask you the same thing, General," Heathcliff replied mildly, face dispassionate as he looked across the assembled party. "I had an urgent task for Nephron and sought to find him. In checking his location, you can imagine my surprise when I found not only him, but a number of others on my friends list gathered here. Enough to fill a party." He glanced over at Kumiko and Yuuki. "Or two, as it would seem. With so many of my own usual party or raid members here, I find myself curious why I was not invited to what must surely be an absolutely fascinating midnight visit to the city jail."

Nephron and Seventh Sun looked distinctly uncomfortable. Eugene seemed to have gotten over being put off-balance by Heathcliff's arrival and arch manner; his own tone became brusque. "This is a special op, Heath. We've got a gang of hostile criminals to deal with and we're burning night. You want to know why I didn't ask you?" His lips thinned, and he looked as if he didn't really want to say what came next. "Because you may have done PvP, but you're not a killer. I don't know that you've ever even taken a life before."

Yuuki could not, if asked later, be sure whether she imagined it or not. For just a moment, she thought that Heathcliff took on an expression of profound amusement—but just as quickly, it was gone, and schooled neutrality reclaimed his face.

"I see," Heathcliff said after a few beats. Then he did smile slightly, though it was a small, soft thing. "Far be it from me to second-guess your assessment of a man's fighting skill and spirit, General. Nonetheless, if there are criminals who must be brought low, I insist that my people and I stand together to face it."

There was a loud smack as Eugene's palm flew up to cover his face. "For fuck's sake!" he growled out. "We don't have time for this."

"I knew you would understand," Heathcliff said, as if that were his takeaway from Eugene's profane outburst. Glancing around at the way that the players had clustered together, he started to bring his hand up as if preparing to accept an invite. "With a two-party raid in dungeon corridors, you'll be maneuvering behind a bulwark formation. Pavel and Cyco often work as a pair, so I surmise that Pyrin's mages could use a tank."

"Tanking isn't a thing in PvP, Heath; players don't care about your taunts or hate skills."

"A fact of which I am keenly aware. But melee screening for casters is, and I've spent a great deal of time doing so in the Ancient Forest. Should a melee foe get into the midst of our mages, it does not generally go well for the mages."

That argument seemed to settle the matter. While Eugene reluctantly told Pyrin to send the new arrival an invite, Heathcliff's eyes went past the rest of the group then, and found Yuuki where she stood just behind Kumiko. She couldn't imagine that he would recognize her from anywhere; he gave her a curious look but said nothing.

Once everyone except Eugene had piled into the secret lift, he closed and locked the cell the way she'd explained to him.

"Good hunting," Eugene said gruffly, reserving one last annoyed look for Heathcliff, who seemed unperturbed.

"I'll try to save some for you," said Pavel. The Salamander clearing tank grinned at his superior, who snorted and gave a roll of the eyes that didn't seem to contain any real ire.

"This one?" Yuuki turned at the context-free question and the touch on her arm; the lead mage, Pyrin, had his hand on the fake sconce. At Yuuki's nod, the older man pulled sharply on the hidden switch.

There was a heavy sound, and the lift began grinding its way down to the lower level. Pyrin and the other mages immediately knelt right by the front edge, wands out; Pavel and Cyco took up positions on either side with their tower shields presented. Since this part of the plan didn't involve them, Yuuki and the others stood far to the back of the cell.

A crack of light appeared as the floor of the lift cleared the ceiling of the room below, and with it came the sounds of conversation.

"...wasn't expecting any this late, were you?"

"Nah, but you know the drill—"

Yuuki heard nothing further over the sounds of rapid spellcasting. The very moment that enough of a gap had appeared between ceiling and floor, a barrage of status effect projectiles shot through the widening space and exploded inside the room below. The other Salamanders didn't wait for the lift to finish settling; as soon as the AOEs went off, Pavel and Cyco slid through the widening gap and dropped noisily to the floor, efficiently dispatching the Silenced and Paralyzed Sandmen before Yuuki could even lay eyes on them.

Two crimson lights blazed at waist level when she emerged from the lift, causing a spike of dismay that she forced herself to suppress. You knew this was going to happen, she told herself ungently. No one in this group except you is going to care what becomes of the Sandmen we fight. You better start dealing with it.

"Anyone else?"

Seven had his Searching still up, and responded to Kumiko's question. "No player cursors on this level."

Pyrin echoed that. "Some mob shapes, but the only other movement is downstairs. I doubt anyone heard what just happened."

"Could they be pulling the same shit the frogs used on us?"

Yuuki didn't know what Pavel meant by that, but Pyrin clearly did. "If they are, they're in for a rude surprise with all of us running Truesight pots. We'll see right through any Illusion magic. Speaking of which." Pyrin withdrew a black wallet-like case from a chest pouch, slipping a potion vial from it and efficiently consuming its contents. "Bottoms up, everyone."

Pavel took his own potion, wine-red mohawk bobbing with the movement like a plume on a Corinthian helmet. "Right. Cyco, let's bulwark the corridor until we encounter mages or an open room. If we find a caster, mages will maintain shields to soak spells while ranged DPS fires through it. Seven will feed MP Crystals to shielders as needed. Open rooms we'll clear as we go, pairing up mages with their assigned screeners while Kumi and Yuuki float. Heath, bring up the rear and screen anyone who tries to flank."

The details of everyone's roles had already been covered in the initial planning when they all went over the map data—but under the circumstances, with Heathcliff coming in at the last minute, and raid members who weren't necessarily accustomed to maneuvering together, the refresher was sensible. Yuuki, at least, appreciated it; she was starting to warm a bit to the brusque Salamander youth now that he was treating her as an equal and demonstrating his own competence.

As Eugene had said, the role of tank was not typically a thing in PvP; even Yuuki knew that. She still couldn't think of Pavel or Cyco as anything but that—they were both solidly-built young men wearing suits of light plate armor, and their tower shields would be a wall of steel in these narrow corridors.

Most of the Salamanders had drilled and partied together extensively, but Kumiko and Yuuki weren't among their usual members. Instead of covering their mages, in an open-room fight the two of them would take on the role of a floating strike unit that didn't have to concern themselves with protecting any particular person. If any Sandman tried to run for it, both of their wings were fully charged—in flight, they could outrun anyone on foot.

Yuuki and Kumiko brought Heathcliff up to speed on the threat posed by the Sandmen while the assault team moved through the nearly-empty upper level, making short work of the few mobs they encountered. Dannr, one of the few in the party with Wind Magic, was maintaining a Transparency aura to suppress their cursors, but there wasn't anything they could do about their movement signature—if the Sandmen had anyone looking up at the ceiling with Detect Movement on, chances were they'd catch a glimpse of a large mass making its way through the hallways.

And as tightly as the raid members were packed during this safer part of the approach… if they were very fortunate, any such Sandman would lack Searching, and think they were some kind of huge mob. They covered ground quickly, making good time through the largely-empty dungeon.

Although they had no way of knowing for sure, Yuuki suspected that after the last intrusion, the Sandmen had taken to posting a handful of Transparency-buffed sentries who remained as still as possible whenever they weren't changing posts. It was the only explanation she could come up with for why they had no advance warning—Yuuki had no awareness of the coming ambush until they reached a four-way intersection, and a pair of projectiles came rocketing down both side hallways.

Pavel and Cyco must've had some sign of the attack just in the nick of time—perhaps they overheard a whispered incantation, or caught the glow of casting runes as they approached the intersection. Whatever the case, both of them whirled in opposite directions, kneeling behind their tower shields. The first Dark Magic projectiles splashed across the shields, which mitigated most of whatever status effects had been their payload. Before anything else could strike them, Pyrin and Sinder each chanted up a Defensive Shield targeted on one of the tanks. The translucent green discs of Wind Magic sprang up in front of their tower shields at the same time as an AOE cure from Nephron hit both tanks, and as soon as the two mages had come close enough to keep LOS on the maintained shields, Pavel and Cyco each charged down their hallway towards the hapless mages who'd fired upon them, spellfire splashing harmlessly across the Defensive Shields.

Yuuki again thought it might have been a mercy that she didn't get to see what happened. The fight was short and brutal, and both tanks were walking back towards the group—in a much less urgent way—by the time Yuuki herself reached the intersection. Another pair of Remain Lights burned at the ends of the hallways; Pyrin and Sinder were already almost back to full MP after what they'd spent maintaining the shields.

So this is what it's like, Yuuki thought. This is what it's like being in a group of players who are trained to kill like professionals. No one else spared more than a single glance for the fate of the ambushers.

"They wouldn't have had any way of messaging the others, here in a dungeon," Heathcliff said into the sudden quiet. "But we should assume that other such ambushes lie in wait."

Kumiko nodded, her own green-lit eyes constantly moving. Pyrin and Seven did another contact check, and compared what they'd seen against the map of the floor below them. Pyrin set his map visible and tapped out a few marks. "Aside from any more hostiles pretending to be a hole in the ground, they're all clustered here, the area in and around this big room."

"That's where the prisoners are being kept," Yuuki said, pointing at the labels from her own shared map data. "Their cursors are being hidden with a Transparency enchantment, so you won't see them, but they're all locked up in these big hanging iron maidens, and there's a lot of them. Be careful with AOEs—we could hurt the victims instead."

"We'll free them," Kumiko assured her, briefly placing a light touch on Yuuki's arm. "All of them. But we need to make sure the Sandmen are neutralized first. We can't afford to be attacked when we're trying to extract a hundred-odd scared, helpless players."

"Mort said someone else will be handling the extraction part," Pyrin reminded her. "We just need to secure the place."

"Which means purging it of Sandmen," Kumiko said shortly, clearly no fan of having to repeat herself.

Purging, Yuuki thought. Her hand tightened on the grip of Penitent Wrath. Soon enough, she'd have to use that blade, and when that time came there would be no more time for quandaries. Her prayers had not brought her comfort, but they had brought her a moment of moral clarity: when it came down to it, it made little difference whether or not she, herself, took a life tonight. She had made herself part of a team that was bent on cutting down any Sandmen they encountered—whatever sins they committed tonight in the name of righteousness were hers to share.

Any misgivings the party members themselves might have harbored had vanished after the first ambush; each of them now strode with purpose.

"They know we're here," Seven said suddenly, just as their footsteps were bringing them down to the same floor as the Sandman hideout. "You can't see it, but their cursors suddenly started moving around like crazy, and a bunch of them have winked out like they went Transparent."

Pyrin nodded. "He's right, something just shook the beehive."

"Probably caught our movement," Kumiko said. "Or noticed someone was dead. We knew it would happen eventually."

"Time to shift formation," Pyrin announced. "Dannr, aura the next mag of Transparency. Nicky, Sinder, I want maintained shields in front of the tanks at all times. Plug the hallway. Pavel, Cyco, make a hole."

The tanks obediently moved again towards the walls, eyes just above the level of their tower shields. Fire Magic barriers suddenly blazed into existence in front of the two men, the flaming discs overlapping to such a degree that there was no possible way to squeeze a projectile past—unless you were Pyrin, standing directly in the center, able to cast out from behind the shield without breaking it. The shields brightly illuminated the entire hallway in flickering red tones for some distance.

The raid began advancing at a brisk jog, and eventually came to a long hallway that was very familiar to Yuuki. Pavel held his sword high in a signal to wait, and nodded at Seven, who began doing something in his menu that Yuuki couldn't see. By prior agreement, Pavel looked at Kumiko, who in turn glanced back at Yuuki to give her a reassuring smile before speaking.

When Kumiko called out, her projected shout rang through the halls.

"Sandmen! You face a full raid group of elite clearers. We know your player names, your levels, and your crimes. Mawari, Trigger, and the rest of you have one chance, and one chance only, to throw down your weapons. You will all lie face down on the floor with your fingers laced behind your heads." She paused just long enough to let her words finish echoing. "Anyone not doing that ten seconds from now will die where you stand. Make your choice."

There was a faint sound of distant spellcasting. Moments later, from a point just outside of the doorway that led to the training area, a pinprick of Dark Magic energy became the anchor point for a Darkwall that instantly grew to fill the entire corridor. Yuuki almost flinched at the sudden expansion of elemental darkness, but the Barrier Hazard stopped manifesting at the surface of the two maintained shields in front of the tanks. As soon as the Darkwall had reached its limit, Pavel and Cyco swung their tower shields—and the Fire Magic shields anchored on both players—to either side.

Nephron was already throwing a Dispel at the Darkwall; the projectile shot through the gap made by the two tanks just before they brought their shields back in front of them. The Barrier Hazard effect dissipated to expose a pair of Sandman mages who'd rushed out onto the expected cover of darkness, with casting runes swirling about them.

But by the time the hazard finished evaporating, Pyrin had just finished chanting up a Wind Magic incantation; the verdant energy surged down his arms and into the gap between the tanks, targeted on the same point by the doorway. The stone floor vibrated with the force of the Wind AOE detonation, which slammed both enemy mages against the walls of the passageway. A rapid follow-up spell spawned an intimidating field of flames around the stricken players; it, too, was the recipient of a Dispel from the Sandman side, with a single Salamander Remain Light left in the aftermath and the other man likely fleeing for heals.

One Sandman down, but still a stalemate; it was doubtful any more of them would make the mistake of trying to leave the relative safety of their defensive positions.

But they had clearly made their choice.

It took a few moments to fully buff the raid group against Fire, Dark, and Wind; between native resists, buffs, and status gear, the Sandmen would have an extremely difficult time getting status effects to stick—especially against so many higher-level players. Nephron blocked the door with a Wall of Earth just long enough for half of the raid to dash past the doorway and take up a position on the other side, and as soon as it returned to dust, the mages erected another maintained Defensive Barrier in the doorway.

"The banners in the next room aren't real walls," Yuuki reminded the others again. "The Sandmen fire straight through them, and they're going to be using the prisoners as human shields. We can't AOE."

"Can't AOE DPS, you mean," said Pyrin. "Sinder!"

The Salamander status mage stepped up beside his lead. "Get ready to do a full-room lockdown like we discussed, using that new spellword," Pyrin said. "Nephron, take over Pavel's maintained shield for Sinder. Pavel, Cyco, block the left and right sides of the room with your Defensive Shields."

The two tanks dutifully took up the incredibly dangerous task, kicking over the meticulously-placed candles as they stomped into the Blast Zone and ensured that the Sandmen couldn't get any projectiles through the hanging Salamander faction banners. It didn't stop the enemy from trying, and once they even managed to get a lucky Dispel to land in the right place, forcing Nicky to rapidly recast Cyco's Defensive Shield while the tank huddled behind his tower.

While the tanks blocked up the room, Seventh Sun dashed forward and slid across the last few meters of the stone floor on his shin guards, pulling a set of lockpicks from one of his pouches. Yuuki only caught a glimpse of an expensive crystal pick glittering in the torchlight; barely a second passed before there was a tinkling sound from the shattering consumable, and a click from the lock. Seven gave Pyrin a quick "V" sign with his first two fingers and ran back to the safety of the raid group.

Pyrin called out orders once more. "Pavel, Cyco, now!"

The tanks each took a few steps back towards the center of the room in unison, shields still presented to either side. Both of them sheathed their swords, and each put a hand on one of the double doors, yanking them open. Even the rough spot on the floor that usually caught the door yielded instantly to a Salamander clearer's STR stat with a high-pitched shriek of steel on stone.

Sinder was already casting well before the dramatic action, timing the completion to very nearly exactly the moment when the doors flew open. In contrast to the others, he'd lowered his voice to just loud enough for the system to acknowledge the words, barely above a whisper. "Futto famudrokke nushlajule grelth shippura tepnaga dweren."

The only reason Yuuki knew anything about the spell behind the unusual incantation was because it had been part of the very thorough briefing Eugene had given. To neutralize the Sandmen's mages, they could have filled the room with Silence debuffs—but not only would those be subject to the relevant status resistances or shield blocking, any enemy with an Antidote Crystal could immediately cure themselves and begin curing the others before the assault team could even enter the room.

What they'd done instead was use one of the Sandmen's own tools against them: with the application of some kind of spellword that Yuuki had never heard of, they altered the Muffle buff in a way that forced it to apply to hostile targets. From the Sandmen's perspective, everyone in that room would not only be entirely silent, they would suddenly be nearly deaf and incapable of casting spells—and unless they noticed and dismissed the buff icon in their HUDs, no amount of curing would get rid of the Benign effect. Even those who dispelled it quickly would, theoretically, buy the raid precious seconds.

The elaborate spell had two results: the immediate consumption of nearly all of Sinder's MP, and an explosion of Wind Magic centered on a spot just beyond the now-open doors of the Blast Zone. It blossomed into a massive sphere of radiant green energy that only stopped when it encountered world geometry. All spellcasting from that room—and for that matter, all sound—ceased abruptly.

At the same time came Nephron's contribution as the healer brought his Holy Magic to bear. "Setto mezal ketrekul shippura dweren!" Within a few moments of the first AOE, a brilliant light spawned in the center of the massive iron maiden chamber, illuminating it starkly. Sinder restored his MP with a crystal; Yuuki could catch glimpses of Sandmen scattering for cover just before her view was blocked by the two tanks rushing the room.

As soon as his mana finished refilling, Sinder then spoke again in the same hushed tones. "Futto famudrokke nushlave tovslagu, uthan." Rather than depleting as if spent, most of Sinder's MP bar was instantly grayed out from the aura's mana reservation. He'd be nearly helpless against any enemies who got past their defenses—but any hostile who entered a 25-meter radius around him would be afflicted with incurable Silence and Distress as long as they remained. He prepared to move in behind the cover of a Defensive Shield that Nicky maintained on him.

Kumiko took off after the tanks, with Yuuki right on her heels and the others coming up behind their vanguard.

While their little arcane trick with the Muffle buff had been devastatingly effective against the casters, the Sandmen still had melee defenders as well. But without buffs or healing from their mages, and with melee techniques disabled as soon as Sinder got close enough, the armed men might as well have been mannequins. Pavel's «Shield Charge» slammed a gleaming wall of metal into a Sandman swordsman so hard that the man was crushed between it and one of the hanging cages. A Remain Light had only just flared into being when the tank whirled upon one of the Muffled mages, and it was clear that the man was trying desperately to figure out how to cure himself. A single blow from Pavel's sword put an end to those efforts, and Yuuki looked away from the spectacle just in time to see Cyco doing more of the same work.

Yuuki caught the whistle of sliced air just in time to intercept an axe blow from behind, swung by an enemy who'd obviously figured out their trick—but having dismissed the buff, they'd also caused themselves to make noise again. She swatted away the broad crescent-shaped blade and used a single strike tech to take off the older but lower-level player's weapon arm, slicing through at the gap just below his pauldron and digging deep into his side.

Yanking Penitent Wrath free and hardening herself to the man's screams of panic, she dropped low while pivoting counter-clockwise on one heel, bringing the sword around in an swift arc that kneecapped the Sandman. Yuuki rose smoothly back to her feet and ignored the disabled foe as soon as Sinder's debuff aura overlapped him, snapping her longsword back up into a guard position while she looked for other threats.

Most of the rest of the raid had spread out in the room to mop up anyone who hadn't disarmed and completely prostrated themselves—and Yuuki was fairly certain that if she hadn't been part of the raid, even they would've been executed out of hand. Peering through the sea of hanging obstructions, she thought she caught a glimpse of Mawari's shiny red guard armor fleeing towards safety—but even with the room fully illuminated, it was hard to see much of anything past the iron maidens.

Yuuki manifested her wings and took to the air to get a better vantage, suddenly feeling a rush of excitement. If she could nail that scumbag…

A greenish-black projectile shot past her almost immediately; with an agile spiral in the air Yuuki looped herself around it, evaded a follow-up, and looked for the source. A bald Salamander mage with an excessive amount of arcane-looking decorative tattoos was just ducking into a side passage as Sinder drew close enough to Silence him, and with a shock she recognized Trigger—one of the Sandmen's senior and most skilled mages. Thinking quickly, she focused on his cursor.

When Yuuki risked a quick look back, Mawari—if indeed it had been the Sandman leader—was gone. In her party list she could see that Pavel and Seven were down with a Paralysis debuff, but she couldn't do anything to help them—and she didn't have time to figure out where everyone was and who was in a position to offer backup. She had to trust the healers to do their job while she did hers.

Yuuki took off at a dead run in pursuit of the dangerous Sandman caster, shouting for Kumiko to follow if she could.

·:·:·:·:·:·

Eugene reflected—to the extent that he was given to reflection, at least as compared to his brother—that there were two things in life for which he really was not well-suited. Two in particular brought to mind by his current dilemma, at any rate.

The first of those was suffering fools gladly. He'd much rather make the fools suffer for their foolishness; that made him feel as if the world was working the way it should. Like these fucking "Sandmen". Thought you had it all figured out, didn't you? Right under our goddamned noses all these months, laughing at our ignorance, thinking you were untouchable. Well, who's laughing now, losers? Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

The satisfying thought was a fleeting distraction from the second of the shortcomings currently occupying Eugene's mind: the fact that he was not especially good at waiting patiently. Which was, as far as he was concerned, particularly unfortunate tonight—given that his role in the assault required him to stand around in an empty, damnably-quiet hallway and do exactly that.

Not standing around, Eugene corrected himself. Standing guard. Because that made the standing and the waiting somehow better.

It wasn't that he was completely unaware of his raid group's status—as its leader, he had at least some visibility into the fact that they were still alive. And Seven knew an old trick some of the privateers had figured out, toggling his «Unfindable» status in order to send simple pre-arranged signals to Eugene, who had the scout pulled up on his friends list.

The last such signal had been two quick pulses, a pause, and two more: they were about to breach the enemy stronghold.

That had been just over five minutes ago. There had not yet been an all-clear, which was three pulses, one, then three again. There had not, in fact, been a blessed peep from his UI. Not one flickering blip in his friends list, let alone a PM.

"Come on, guys," Eugene grumbled out loud, watching the array of status screens while he paced up and down the jail block hallway. "It should not be taking you this long to mop up a hug circle of middie griefers."

Each time Eugene came to the end of his circuit and turned about, the virtual windows spun around his avatar's center as they fought to remain at a fixed point in front of his chest. The smoothing in the window animations meant that there was a very slight lag before they changed direction, and it sometimes amused him to jerk them around like that.

It wasn't that he was quite worried, though when mages were involved, it was always possible for things to go fucky in crazy ways. His men were damned good; he allowed that that was more than true for Kumiko as well, and since she vouched for Yuuki, that probably meant her too—but who the hell knew with kids sometimes.

No, Eugene was not particularly concerned that a light raid group of clearers was going to do anything but righteously roflstomp a gaggle of mid-level bandits larping as the villain of the week, and his only regret was that he wasn't going to be one of the boots doing the world a courtesy. It was more that he was well past the end of a very long day, and he had a sneaking suspicion that there was going to be political fallout to deal with afterwards, or some other tedious shit to that effect. Which his brother had better be on deck to handle.

Sleep was not in the cards. Eugene would do what must be done, because that's just what you did whether you liked it or not. But he would still grouse about the whole mess. It made him feel better, and gave him something with which to occupy himself.

There was a distant, muffled sound that he felt partly through the thick soles of his armored boots. A few moments later the floor began vibrating with the grinding of the lift rising back up to the jail level. That brought Eugene immediately out of his brooding; taking one last look at the raid's status screens, he flicked his menu closed and did a quick gear and status check, game face on.

If Yuuki's intel had been right, and they were reading the map correctly, there was a space at the bottom of the lift just before the zone change. It meant that even in a worst-case scenario, with Seven dead or unable to signal before then, someone would still have to PM him anyway to let him know it was the raid group coming up.

They hadn't, which meant it wasn't.

Eugene didn't draw his sword; he'd disabled PvP in this part of the jail for a reason. Instead he took a moment to make sure all of the nearby torches were lit so that he could clearly see what he was doing, then made his way to his position. He parked his ass against the wall opposite the lift cell with his arms folded across his massive breastplate, happier than he'd been in hours at the mere fact that the waiting was done. Come on, boys, come get your stupid prizes.

When the lift arrived, it had only one occupant: Nightstick—or Mawari, or whatever the guy wanted to call himself. He already had a key in his hand, and from the scorched look of his gilded Guard Captain's armor, he'd been in a fight. The man's stunned surprise on seeing Eugene there was worth every second he'd spent waiting.

"General? What—"

Eugene had been targeting Nightstick's cursor ever since his head began to rise above the floor. He didn't give the Sandman leader a chance to use his own enforcement privileges. "You're under arrest for kidnapping, murder, and—"

As soon as the system finished registering a valid cause of arrest, it interrupted Eugene's spiel with a brilliant and satisfying teleport effect, moving Nightstick to a real cell somewhere else—one that wasn't doubling as an elevator. Eugene couldn't be sure exactly which cell was now the erstwhile guard's home for the foreseeable future, and he'd have to check—so he finished by raising his voice to an open shout that would echo down the halls. "—and for being a huge asshole!"

·:·:·:·:·:·

Several times now, Trigger had come this close to losing them in the Sandmen's catacombs. Yuuki wasn't going to let it happen again.

"I tagged him with «Recon»," Yuuki said in answer to Kumiko's question while they waited with bridled impatience for the invulnerable wall of Trigger's latest Barrier Hazard to expire.

"That only lasts for what, five, ten minutes?" Kumiko pointed out, her voice quiet. "Or I guess a lot longer, if you also have «Tracking»."

Yuuki shook her head. "I don't, but it'll only disappear before then if he gets more than five hundred meters away from us."

Kumiko nodded, head turning and wary eyes constantly moving. Yuuki pulled open her game map, which was currently resized fairly large, and set the window to half transparency so that they could still see what was going on around them. "There's no way for him to get that far from us as long as he's still in this dungeon, and he can't go back the way we came in."

Kumiko tapped at a custom label in a dead-end room. "Which would leave only one way out. This says there's a cargo lift down to the newbie-zone sewers?"

"Right," Yuuki said. "They use it to bring up prisoners. But it's a really, really long way down, and he can't fly—he'd need someone up here to work the lift."

Yuuki glanced up at the raid's status bars in her HUD. Kumiko must've done the same thing; their eyes met as they each brought their gazes back down. "The others are back on their feet," Kumiko said—by which she likely meant that they were at full HP and no longer had any disabling status effects visible to her.

It had been several minutes since they or their quarry had laid eyes on each other, but still the man was leaving onion layers of elemental barriers in his wake to slow them. Time and time again they encountered corridors filled with flames, elemental Darkness, or even a howling gale—all of which had to be dealt with in one way or another. His potential repertoire of elemental barriers off cooldown at any time was effectively infinite, while their own access to Dispel effects was far more limited.

Fire was in some ways the easiest to deal with; it was nothing but a powerful DOT, and provided they flew through at top speed, they could heal through it with crystals and the regen from potions. Darkness was dangerous; even though all it did was inflict «Blindness» status, anything could be lurking within, even Trigger himself—they saved their Dispel effects for those when possible, especially after Trigger used one to conceal an otherwise-obvious pit trap. The hurricane forces within a Wind barrier were just as much of an obstruction, but one they could at least see through—albeit so could Trigger; at least once they'd had a brief exchange of spellfire through one, letting them delay him with a Focus-placed wall.

Earthwalls like the one blocking them now were simply there. They were a waste of a Dispel, and there was nothing to do but wait them out. This one alone had lasted over a minute; at long last it gave a hiss of dissolution, turning into drifts of sand that quickly vanished. Yuuki took flight before they'd finished doing so, with Kumiko right behind her.

When they found their quarry, there would be no conversation. There would be no demands. A single spoken phrase from the man, with eyes on their cursors, could be any of a number of deadly spells.

Although she hadn't marked the exact time at which she'd tagged Trigger, Yuuki had a pretty good idea of how long they had left—and that limit had nearly been reached by the time their hunt came to an end. A Wall of Fire effect filled the corridor outside of the dead-end area in which Yuuki could see Trigger's white-outlined cursor through the wall; both she and Kumiko held expensive Healing Crystals in their free hands as they rushed through it and into the room, calling out the voice command as soon as they emerged from the barrier.

None of these actions were subtle or quiet. Yuuki heard the latter half of an incantation that sounded like a homing projectile, and before the spellfire had finished leaving Trigger's hand, she kicked over one of the heavy wooden dining tables in the room, spilling forth all of the carefully-arranged crafting materials. Both she and Kumiko ducked down behind the solid physical barrier, letting its sizable durability absorb the detonation and block further AOE propagation. The color of the blast was the same as the one that had spread Paralysis across the room the last time she'd been here.

When they popped their heads back over the edge of the upturned table, both Trigger and the lift were nowhere in sight. Either he'd somehow modified the device or Yuuki had misunderstood its workings; they could both see the pulley spinning quickly in jerks and starts as someone's hand-over-hand motions fed the rope through it.

"Oh no you don't!" Yuuki yelled in something that was very nearly a snarl, propelling herself forwards in a burst of flight energy. At that moment a Wind Magic projectile shot straight up through the lift shaft and exploded against the ceiling in an AOE, throwing her to the floor and slamming Kumiko against the back wall. The senior Imp clearer recalled her wings again as she came to her feet once more, maintaining a Defensive Shield.

Yuuki brought up her own shield, but her MP was dropping quickly from the cost of stopping the repeated blasts that Trigger sent up to discourage pursuit. With one hand held out to maintain her shield, Kumiko drew back her other in a way that Yuuki recognized as the pre-motion for the «Thrown Weapon» skill. There was a flash of torchlight on sharp steel that was quickly overtaken by the glow of power within Kumiko's hand, and a razor-thin blue tracer crossed the space between her and the lift.

With a whisper of cloven air and fiber, the ropes supporting the lift parted in two. That whisper turned into a whistle as gravity took over; the twisted, frayed strands whipped through the pulley and disappeared down the hole. The barrage of spellfire cut off as abruptly as if it, too, had been supported by the tenuous connection.

The lift shaft was very deep, but there was still an unmistakable clamor of stone, wood, and metal meeting one another in violent disagreement when the whole assembly struck bottom. Yuuki clenched her fist to dismiss her shield and walked side by side with Kumiko to the edge of the drop, peering intently into the gloom. It was too far to see anything save for the faintest flicker of warm, diffuse luminosity at the bottom, like that of a torch.

Or a Remain Light.

Yuuki averted her eyes from Trigger's fate and saw Kumiko still looking down the deep vertical passage. The woman wasn't smiling, but she didn't seem upset by the outcome either. A part of Yuuki had almost expected her to have something pithy or insightful to say, some gem of adult wisdom to share that would make the victory feel less empty for her. Something to mark the moment. Something appropriate.

Neither of them spoke a word. Entirely without ceremony, Kumiko turned and walked away from her kill. After a moment's silent prayer, so did Yuuki.


Author's Note 9/17/22: Welcome back, everyone, and much sooner than I expected. I hope the payoff for these dual raids was worth it. I'm very happy with how it all turned out.

As well as with how quickly it came together. Bit and pieces had already been in the draft for some time, but the lion's share of the writing happened over a period of weeks this past month. It's a nice change.

Thanks for all the kind words from everyone who waited so patiently. And a shout-out as well to all my fellow Warriors of Light out there who showed up in the comments. I've had virtually nothing but positive experiences in FFXIV, and am currently going through Endwalker on my main and farming unsync raids. If you see someone in roulette with aggressively-purple glam, there's a chance it's me.

Unless there is some kind of word count explosion that forces a split, my intent is to wrap up Act 3 in the next chapter—and I'm far more inclined for it to run long if that happens, than to have two short chapters. My goal is to have that done by the time the fic's 10th anniversary comes around, but we'll see—that's not all that far off now, and there's still a lot left to do.

Back to it. Love and appreciation to all.