Disclaimer: I don't own Sword Art Online or Final Fantasy.

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6:15 p.m., November 6, 2022, Mist Continent: Midgar.

"…this marks the end of the tutorial, and the official launch of Final Fantasy Online. Players, I wish you the best of luck."

Stunned silence. Creeping, dawning horror as the realization sets in:

This is actually happening.

A world of magic and wonder, twisted into a misty landscape of sudden death by tooth and claw, sword and sorcery. The grand quest of a lifetime, an escapist's dearest fantasy made real and personal, now a cloud of miasma looming over the earth and stifling every breath.

Find the source of Darkness. Fight. Save the world…or die.

Someone screams.

And ten thousand people go mad.

"Come on, Klein!"

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FFO Field Guide, Chapter 1: Basics and Survival

…according to Kayaba, if a player's health drops to zero, you will have 60 seconds to apply a Phoenix Down or the spell Life to revive him. If neither of these actions takes place within those 60 seconds, the fallen player's NerveGear will kill him.

NB: It's known from the Beta that Phoenix Downs are rare items, and that Life is a high level, MP-costly White Mage spell which will be unavailable for the foreseeable future. And neither of these are an option for a player on his own. So don't fight alone.

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7:00 p.m., November 6, 2022, Mist Continent: Horunka

As a former Beta tester, Kirito knew that many resources in FFO were finite to some extent, and those that weren't operated on an acquisition cooldown. Many quests which awarded rare items or skills could only be completed by one player for a given length of time before its timer reset and the quest became available once again.

Kirito also knew from experience what gear he needed ASAP in order to stand the best chance of surviving in this world. For starters, the «Anneal Blade», which he could get as a quest reward in this village. Aside from having a high number of possible enhancement attempts, that particular sword's stats made it well-suited to the Dark Knight Job which the boy had picked up immediately after logging in that afternoon. An emphasis on strength suited Kirito's play style, but he'd likely forego heavy armor in order to increase his speed alongside it…

The boy mused grimly as he slew «Little Nepenthes» methodically, losing himself in the flow of sword strikes, base Dark Knight abilities, and practiced evasion. With Kayaba's sadistic revelation, this fantastic world had gained an oppressive atmosphere even beyond the faint Mist hanging in the air, and the familiar dance of combat was the only thing tamping down Kirito's unease.

At least farming these mobs was already paying dividends, he thought to himself as he began assigning stat points from his recent level-up…

A sudden rustling in the bushes snapped the player's raw attention back to his surroundings. Kirito jumped back wildly, laying hands on his sword's hilt, but breathed more easily—a little—as another player slowly revealed himself.

"…S-Sorry, for startling you like that. I should have called out from the start."

"…No, me too…sorry for the overreaction."

The conversation and tentative arrangement that followed did not relieve either boy's wary attitude.

You couldn't be too careful in this brave new world…

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FFO Field Guide, Chapter 2: Sword Skills and the Job System

…in addition to Sword Skills, combat in FFO is built around the Job System. Each job is associated with a corresponding crystal, which—when acquired and equipped by the player—allows access to that job's particular Skills, Abilities, and gear-specific stat bonuses. Players can change Jobs by equipping a different crystal at any time (assuming they own one), but doing so outside of a safe zone will incur a steep stat penalty for 5 minutes. Various NPC-run Guilds, particularly in the starting city of Midgar, will award crystals after the completion of their associated questline, but there are certainly many hidden Jobs and acquisition methods—with the exception of receiving or taking one from another player.

General Skills—such as Acrobatics, Cooking, Battle Healing, Equipment/Weapon Classes, etc.—can be used and trained by any Job, but some will only reach their maximum or even useful potential with particular Jobs (ex: a Thief using Sneak, or a Paladin equipping a Shield). Many Job actions are furthermore limited to particular weapon types.

Idiot's Guide: If you're a White Mage, even if you've got the Skills, don't bother wearing plate armor and swinging around a greatsword. You won't get the gear's extra stat bonuses or be able to cast spells, and you'll look like a n00b.

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4:00 p.m., December 2, 2022, Mist Continent: Tolbana.

"…and in this game, the Job I rolled is Knight!" Diavel concluded in his introduction.

Other players in the Boss Planning Session heckled him good-naturedly at the self-evident quality of that proclamation. At this point in the game, Knights—with early defensive and tanking abilities—had the strongest incentive to equip shields, given their Strength requirement, and the blue-haired orator displayed his proudly.

Kirito smiled lightly as the charismatic player endured the verbal poking with good cheer before turning to more serious matters. With men like Diavel leading the charge, they might actually have a chance at making progress in FFO. Exploring the countryside, uncovering the game's global storyline, and clearing dungeons naturally took coordination. But even beyond logistics, people needed a motivating spirit to energize them and give real life to their efforts.

People needed a hero in dark times. Maybe Diavel could be one for all those players too afraid to leave Midgar.

When Kirito at last noticed that the others sitting in the amphitheater had formed into parties, he looked about in a panic. Catching sight of a cloaked and hooded girl alone and not terribly far away—a Fencer, from the look of the rapier hanging at her side—he scooted over rapidly.

It might not be a full party, but maybe he'd be able to scrape by with even one companion…

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FFO Field Guide, Chapter 3: The World of Aincrad

Geography: Aincrad is a large world with multiple continents and islands, and allegedly has every kind of environment or climate zone found in the real world—and then some. This includes caves, forests, swamps, mountains, and extreme biomes such as deserts, volcanic terrain, etc. Only the Mist Continent has been partially explored to date, as others have yet to be unlocked.

Overworld: The wilderness of Aincrad is permeated with Mist, an aetheric source and conductor of magic. Concentrated areas of Mist—faintly visible as golden wisps which reflect light like the surface of a bubble—will often have a notable effect on the environment, while also affecting mob type, spawn rate, and strength. Moreover, some of these locations may have veins or outcroppings of materia for players to harvest. More problematic are extremely dangerous areas where Mist has been curdled into Miasma, a much darker and oily-looking manifestation; in these areas, Fiends are the standard enemy, and story elements are likely to play a role in how or why players approach the vicinity. Prolonged exposure to Miasma is detrimental to all living things, whether by inflicting negative statuses on players or by twisting the native flora and fauna into homicidal abominations.

Kingdoms and Nations: Aincrad's territories are divided into multiple NPC-populated and governed zones. The borders of these political regions, including occasional city-states, are closed to players until certain global conditions have been met—typically relating to grand quests or raid dungeon clearing. Each kingdom typically has a number of villages, towns, and cities of various sizes, most of which are labeled as safe zones and offer places of rest and commerce.

Dungeons: Scattered throughout the land are many hidden dungeons of different forms, including caverns, ruins, towers, and more unique instances. These areas come in varying sizes and degrees of difficulty, with mobs and loot found within accordingly. Some are casual and straightforward challenges while others are sprawling labyrinths which serve a particular story focus. It is often necessary to clear a story trial or a raid dungeon in these locations to allow passage into many new kingdoms or political territories.

Given past Final Fantasy games, it is possible that there is a parallel or dark world of some sort which will become integral to the late-game global storyline…

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8:23 p.m., April 8, 2023, Mist Continent: Taft.

"To Kirito!" the group of players declared, clanking mugs.

The player in question looked back at them, feeling vaguely like a deer caught in headlights. "Uh, cheers, guys," he managed.

He was…not used to this kind of attention.

"Uh, Kirito, sir?" said Keita tentatively. "I hope I'm not out of line asking you this, but I was wondering what level you were at, and what your best Job was?"

Kirito's eyes flicked to his HUD before sliding to the side. "…level 20, and I'm furthest along as a Dark Knight."

Both lies. He was level 40, and he'd spent the last two months single-mindedly grinding Sword Saint—an incredibly rare Job which he'd seen could inspire dangerous jealousy in others.

"Really?" asked Keita in awe, "You're at our level and still a solo player? You're an inspiration, sir!"

When the invitation to join the Moonlit Black Cats followed several moments later, the so-called Beater paused, honestly taken aback. Kirito's first instinct was to say no; he was a loner by both nature and choice, and dedicating time to a mid-level guild would cut into his training on the front lines. That was where you found the best equipment, the most money, and the action that trained you to stay alive. Besides which, he'd come to expect a certain level of hostility from other players since taking the heat for the other Beta testers. Hanging around a group would eventually draw notice, which would make things difficult for everyone.

Still.

It was a lonely life…and the small guild did need the help…

At last, halfway through declining with polite regret, he smiled and said instead, "I'll do it."

Kirito thought back to that moment often in later days.

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FFO Field Guide, Chapter 4: Magic and Materia

Magic in FFO falls into two general categories: Job Spells and Materia usage.

In addition to Skills and Abilities, some Jobs have access to lists of Spells. White Mage and Black Mage, which specialize in magic, are archetypical examples. Job Spells are cast from a player's MP pool, and are usually the strongest magical resources that a player has access to…

Materia is crystallized Mist that, when equipped to a piece of gear, allows the casting of a weaker and more MP-expensive version of the spell that materia is named for: Cure, Fire, Haste, etc. Equipping materia also applies status effects and/or stat boosts to that gear, with the effects varying between attachment to weapons, armor, and accessories. It seems that any Job can use any known materia, but the equipped Job's current stats determine a spell's overall strength.

NB: A Knight, for example, will probably not cause as much damage with a Blizzara materia as a Black Mage would with Blizzard (even cast from materia instead of the Job Spell list).

The casting of Job spells typically requires the use of wands, rods, staves, etc. Some magical disciplines, however, instead use martial weapons as a casting focus; these often add elemental/status effects to physical blows or cause mystical damage. Jobs such as Dark Knight, Templar, or the legendary Sword Saint excel in these areas…

Spells fall into several schools. White and Black are the most basic and common…

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9:47 p.m., February 23, 2024, Mist Continent: Lost Forest.

Silica sighed mournfully as she and the older boy named Kirito trudged back to town in the dark. In those terrifying moments after Pina's death, it had been beyond her wildest expectations that she could bring the little dragon back to life, but the new hope offered by the passing swordsman didn't change the fact that she had failed as both a Beastmaster and a friend.

Some player she was.

As though sensing her despondent thoughts, the dark-garbed boy turned his head and said, "It's not your fault, you know."
"…do I know that?" Silica responded morosely, lip quivering ever so slightly.

Kirito opened his mouth almost immediately, but then paused. A shadow seemed to pass over his face before he said more slowly, "Well…let me ask you this. Did you try your hardest?"

She nodded firmly, biting her lip.

"…and did you wind up in that situation because you did something you shouldn't have?"

Silica sniffled. "I should have known it was too dangerous to go by myself!"

Kirito seemed to accept this with equanimity. "But did you do anything that was wrong? Like, bad?" he rephrased.

The young girl thought about that for a moment before tentatively shaking her head. "I don't think so. I mean, I lost my temper with Rosalia, and that's why I left…but I guess not. Not really."

Kirito continued several more paces in silence before saying thoughtfully, almost half to himself, "If we make a decision, then we do have a share of responsibility in its consequences. But that doesn't mean that everything which happens afterward happens because of it. You didn't create the danger back there. Kayaba did. And you tried to solve the problem to the best of your ability once it fell on top of you." Kirito nodded firmly. "So believe me: it's not your fault. And we're going to set things right," he stated in a cheerier tone and with a small smile.

His eyes looked sad, though, Silica decided.

And strangely, because of that, she felt better. On some level, she knew that the swordsman understood her, and that what he was saying was still true.

It helped.

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FFO Field Guide, Chapter 5: Creatures and Enemies

Mobs in FFO come in many shapes and sizes, but can typically be sorted into Beasts, Monsters, and Fiends. Beasts are common enemies, often having appearances and behaviors like those of animals. Monsters are usually stronger and greatly varied in kind, occasionally approaching the bizarre or abstract; some also have magic or special abilities, making them even more dangerous. Fiends are, short of sub-boss or boss monsters, probably the most powerful mobs found in FFO, and are often associated with quests, difficult dungeons, "storyline" episodes, or global events.

Only beasts and certain monsters are known to be tamable by Beastmasters. These companions will remain if such players switch Jobs, but both creatures and players will lose access to most of the perks and special abilities that come with the Beastmaster Job in the meantime…

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9:50 p.m., April 22, 2024, Mist Continent: Marten

"Hey…if you were in their guild, and a super-rare materia like Aeroga dropped, what would you have done?" Asuna asked, pondering Golden Apple's mystery and murders.

Kirito clasped his hands behind his head. "Hm. If I were on my own, I'd probably sell it. I'm not a big magic user, and all of the materia I equip increases my amor's debuff resistance. Makes it less likely I'll be paralyzed or incapacitated. Elemental resists aren't as big a deal as being able to keep moving and heal yourself, most of the time." He dropped his arms to cross them over his chest. "But if I were in their guild?" he repeated dubiously. "Oh, I don't know. The fact is, I play solo. Part of why I do is so that I can avoid situations like that."

Of course, there were other, personal reasons he didn't tie himself closely to guilds and other players, but Asuna didn't need to know that.

"In my guild, the one who got the kill gets it," Asuna said after a moment. "Those are the rules we have to play by…"

When the conversation turned to marriage in FFO, Kirito shifted awkwardly. He was a fifteen-year old boy, after all, and he hadn't given much thought to the things that came with life after this particular virtual world, much less with full adulthood. And anyway, while he was all for enjoying life even in the midst of this death game, it just seemed so odd to get married in Aincrad.

To always have someone nearby. To share in all of your experiences together, the good and the bad. To know that you could rely on someone else, no matter what.

To care for someone, and to be cared for in return.

…well. Maybe there was something to that after all.

For the briefest moment, as he watched Asuna lose herself in her musings and words about that kind of bond, Kirito wondered what it would be like—to be with her.

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FFO Field Guide, Chapter 6: Crafting

Many items in Aincrad are acquired through mob drops, harvesting from the land, or from NPC merchants. Many of the best manufactured items short of raid loot, however, are crafted by players. In general, this activity falls under the Skill categories of: Alchemy, Carpentry, Cooking, Jewelcrafting, Leatherworking, Smithing, or Tailoring.

Alchemy includes the creation of potions (of both restorative and maleficent natures) and other magically-based objects. Carpentry allows for the construction of many wooden objects, including some shields, bows, and furniture. Cooking produces food with small, temporary benefits to various traits such as stats or status effects. Jewelcrafters can use a variety of materials to make many accessories, including earrings, bracelets, rings, necklaces, etc. Leatherworking, Smithing, and Tailoring each can be used to craft their respective classes of armor, which are best suited to different Jobs. Smithing also allows crafters to make most kinds of weapons.

Gear pieces (including armor, weapons, and accessories) made by crafters often have at least one materia slot, with the total number being determined by raw material quality, luck, and player skill level. Generally, high quality equipment has more slots, with three slots being average, six considered excellent, and eight classified as legendary. Likewise, most gear has a limited number of opportunities to be improved by a crafter through the enhancement process; this generally takes the form of higher stats per enhancement, but can on rare occasions reveal a hidden trait such as damage resistance, elemental nullification, etc.

It is possible that other specialized crafting skills exist as well. Some game literature published shortly before the release of FFO alluded to the existence of an Enchantment Skill which could be used to augment or alter the properties of crafted items, but the skill has not yet been uncovered in the game…

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9:30 p.m., June 26, 2024, Mist Continent: Lindarth.

Lisbeth smiled wistfully as she stored away her favorite hammer, closing the inventory screen with a finger swipe. It had been an eventful couple of days, and though it was over now, she felt a tinge of regret at the prospect of a return to routine.

Her greatest work so far—a true masterpiece—now rested in the hands of an extraordinary swordsman. For a brief moment in time, she had felt herself pushed to the limit and beyond; whether it was in her smithing or her sense of belonging in this world as something more than a mere shopkeeper, the thrill of achievement and adventure had kindled a spark deep in her breast.

It didn't hurt that Kirito had exploded into her life like a bloom of dragon's fire…

Lisbeth shook herself slightly and gave a self-indulgent sigh. True, there was a lingering disappointment and a hint of envy lurking in the back of her mind, thinking back to the looks shared by the dark swordsman and Asuna. But still, what kind of a friend would she be if she didn't also feel a welling of gladness that two people she cared about could find happiness with each other?

Nodding firmly, Lisbeth clapped her hands together and rocked up and down on the balls of her feet.

Now, what to do with this new drive, this energy? Maybe she should start questing for more rare materials herself? Beyond a claim to fame as a self-reliant and accomplished blacksmith, those kinds of expeditions might eventually take her to places that both Kirito and Asuna had seen and fought in; and wouldn't that be something, to follow in their footsteps even as she supplied them with the gear they needed to clear the game and take them all home?

So resolved, Lisbeth turned to douse the fires of the forge…

…and paused as her eye finally caught the small notification icon in the corner of her vision.

"Huh," she murmured to herself. "Forgot about that." Opening her menu once again, the smith looked more carefully through the information displayed before her. It took only a moment to realize that the quest log, one of her seldom used tabs, had been updated after producing her best sword to date.

The top entry in the log now read «Cid's Hildagarde».

As the details of the quest scrawled past, Lisbeth slowly began to smile, eyes glinting brightly.

"Well," she said at last with glee, "well, well. Unlock the Machinist Job? Find a long-lost airship and blaze the trail to a new continent? That sounds like a promising start."

And Lisbeth began to stoke the forge's flames again.

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FFO Field Guide, Chapter 7: Non-Player Characters

…as in many games, Non-Player Characters (NPCs) in FFO serve primarily as merchants, tradesmen, and sources of quests. In FFO, the bulk of the NPC population is composed of fairly straightforward characters with limited roles, personality, and interactivity potential. A notable number, however, have impressively complex algorithms driving their ability to respond to human players.

Many of these unique NPCs are related to the main storyline, associated quests, or highly visible positions in the world of Aincrad. This last category includes political and religious figures, Job guild leaders, and cultural icons (such as famed heroes, actors, or other performers), among others. As expected of a Final Fantasy game, these characters cover a wide spectrum of personalities, and each has his or her own motivations, dreams, and style programmed into the game. Experience has shown that the most important NPCs express these traits in surprisingly flexible and subtle ways—sometimes to the point of causing players to mistake them for other players. In keeping with tradition, several of these have inherited legacy names such as Cid, Wedge, Biggs, Gilgamesh, etc.

The system prevents player harassment of NPCs (such as inappropriate contact or hindering their actions beyond a certain degree) first by a warning notification, but quickly followed by a number of more severe measures, including but not limited to: immediate reprisal by invincible guards, the infliction of crippling debuffs, financial penalties, or arrest and temporary imprisonment in an NPC-run jail…

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7:56 p.m., October 17, 2024, Mist Continent: Algade

Argo licked her lips involuntarily. "An S-class ingredient, huh?"

The tall black man behind the counter nodded, a little mournfully. "Said he found it in a forest on the Lemuria continent. Don't know if the spawn rate's better over there, but I figured it was a possibility. I've had a couple of folk come in lately with rare items, and they've all said the same thing. Looks like the frontier's the place to be for quality goods right now."

"That's really helpful, Agil. Thanks," the diminutive information broker replied, mentally cataloging this new tidbit. "200 gil in exchange, as promised. A lot of gatherers have been pestering me for new farming locations since we made it across the sea this summer, and I think someone finding a Ragout Rabbit fits the bill. Figures it was Ki-bou," she added with an affectionate smirk.

The imposing merchant with a heart of gold accepted the trade offer with a nod, saying off-handedly, "Since I've got you here, I wonder if you might update me on how things are going out there. Haven't been on a raid for about a month now, and Kirito didn't stick around to shoot the breeze…" Agil gave another pained look, clearly picturing a lost opportunity for a mouth-watering dish.

Argo's smirk deepened. "Standard 100 gil fee for frontline updates still applies."

Rolling his eyes slightly, Agil opened the trade menu again. "Fair enough. Just don't skimp on the…" he sighed, "…juicy details." There might have been a drop of saliva at the corner of his mouth.

"Who, me?" Argo exclaimed in mock offense, placing a hand over her heart. "What do you take me for, some shill from the Midgar slums?" Waving her hand before Agil could respond, the girl hopped onto a nearby stool. "Don't worry, I'm kidding. Anyway, it's been pretty eventful. You remember when the first party got ferried over to Lemuria by an NPC named Cid on his airship? And you've been over and back at least once since, I expect?" At Agil's nods, the broker continued, "Turns out mid-level Machinists with crafting skills can start making airship components with a ton of materials. I only know about a couple or three players with the Job right now, but my guess is you're going to start seeing a market for the mats pretty soon."

"Hm. Personal airships and a hidden Piloting skill, you think?" Agil said thoughtfully, rubbing a finger across his chin.

"Might be," Argo responded. "It'd make sense on a game mechanics-level since the teleport gates over there don't seem to be functional. Kayaba probably wants to limit the number of players who can move around freely in the new territories for a while."

"By choking travel between continents down to a couple of ferrymen in the meantime?" Agil frowned. "Sounds about right. Hopefully things will pick up around here if we can start making the trips ourselves. I haven't seen some of my regular high-level suppliers for weeks. Kirito was the first clearer back in a while."

"Two days in the air both ways, and another couple between NPC pilots actually making the flights? Not a surprise," Argo said. "I haven't seen Lemuria yet, myself. Better to wait until we've got players making trips every day on their own, and then buy passage from them."

Agil leaned back, sighing lightly. "…it's a marvel of sorts, you know, how all this happens. Like watching civilization on fast forward, with all the exploring and trading springing up in new places. And all the little stories that come with it." He shook his head ruefully. "But Kayaba decided it needed to be a game of life and death. What a waste."

Argo's brows drew down. "Yeah. Funny thing is, though? I guess…I sort of see where he's coming from. Not with killing people and playing God, I mean," she added hastily before settling down in her stool, "but it's just…who's to say how things would have turned out if we weren't trapped here? Would we really be having this kind of conversation—and being this serious about it? I mean, come on, you're paying me what's basically real money to hear about a bunch of people flying on airships to do quests in a fantasy world! Would this kind of stuff really matter to us if our lives didn't depend on it? Would we still be putting everything we had into it?"

Agil's frown briefly lightened with a chuckle. "You ever play an MMO before? Pretty sure we'd still see something like that, yeah, with some people just living in the game metaphorically instead. Only real difference is, they'd still be taking bathroom breaks and naps in the real world."

"Alright, fair enough," Argo echoed, tapping a cheek absently.

"Hey, I get what you're saying," Agil said after a moment, the corner of his mouth turning up. "And I think you're probably right about Kayaba's take on things, in that sense. Have to say, I might not have been so interested in paying you cold, hard cash to hear about the latest if it weren't important to my livelihood now—but it is, with everything else that comes with it, whether we like it or not." The merchant finally pulled on a grin. "But, hey, given that fact, how about we make good on the rest of that hundred gil?"

"…heh," Argo snickered. "Yeah, alright. Okay. Anyway, last I heard from a tank in KoB, there's this abandoned mine full of Miasma, and a missing NPC princess…"

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FFO Field Guide, Chapter 8: Bosses

There are a variety of bosses that can be encountered in FFO. Field Bosses are generally mid-level enemies which control a small portion of the overworld, and may or may not be the subject of a local quest. Sub-Bosses are usually hostile guardians found partway into a dungeon; their nature and strength varies depending on context. Bosses are high-level enemies which often play a role in the global storyline, and are only appropriately handled by raid groups.

Defeating a boss of any level awards a large amount of experience, money, and valuable gear to any party or group which participated in the battle. The player who dealt the final blow receives a rare item through the «Last Attack Bonus».

Clearing a dungeon generally requires that its boss monster be slain. This unlocks additional areas for exploration, through either a literal unbarring of a geographical location or a change in global circumstances allowing further player travel (as seen in the resolution of grand quests or NPC political struggles). Doing so may have additional consequences beyond mere progression, as FFO's story becomes more complex and branching worldwide as events unfold…

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2:40 p.m., October 18, 2024, Mist Continent: Daedalus' Labyrinth

"They say this is the last major dungeon on the Mist Continent," Asuna murmured, her eyes skipping alertly over the cavernous walls and ceiling looming overheard. "I suppose we'll be moving our base of operations to Lemuria soon after we find and kill this boss."

"Probably so," Kirito affirmed, nodding. The swordsman's own gaze swept the floor ahead, searching for traps or hidden passages. "It's kind of exciting, in a way. There's a lot of wilderness over there, from what I've seen, and more ancient ruins than anything we've come across so far. It really is a little like discovering a new land."

"Mm," Asuna affirmed, though she had a thoughtful look on her face. After a few moments, she said slowly, "Hey, Kirito?"

"Yeah?"

"…do you have a better idea of what's going on in Aincrad now that we've come this far?" she asked, her brow creasing slightly. "I mean, I do try to keep up with all the talk and reports from frontline clearers when they complete the big quests or open up new areas. And Argo does a great job of keeping public records and publishing logs when it comes to the game's storyline, but there's just so much, and this is my first time with anything like this. I don't really know what to expect, or how a lot of it ties together into where we're going, if that makes sense."

"I get what you're saying, yeah," Kirito responded. "You've said that you didn't have any real experience with video games or VR before FFO, right?" At her nod, he continued, "Well, in a traditional narrative structure, I think we're coming up on the climax of the second act, which means we can probably look forward to some big reveal which casts everything that came before and then what will come after in a different light. Like, Kayaba started this whole thing by telling us that a source of Darkness is corrupting the world, and that we had to find and defeat it so we could escape."

"I couldn't forget that," Asuna agreed, expression turning down at the memory.

"And when we first left Midgar," Kirito went on, "we started that search by solving a lot of mundane, small-time problems. Helping villages with their harvests, fighting wild animals, that sort of thing. Typical MMO stuff. You could probably say that most of that—the whole first year, really—was the first act. That basically meant getting introduced to the world, but especially to the conflicts between the Mist Continent kingdoms."

"All the intrigue, mercenary work, and some of those battles between NPC armies. Yeah, I remember those pretty clearly, too." Asuna sighed. "And when we started brokering peace treaties and resolving a lot of their bigger problems? And drawing out the ring of cabal sorcerers who were manipulating them all into fighting the wars we got dropped into?"

"That was essentially the start of the second act, yeah," Kirito confirmed. Even as he spoke, he continued scanning their surroundings, occasionally halting their march as he surveyed a suspicious floor tile. "That's where a lot of the obscure magic and classic Final Fantasy elements started coming into play. So, if the game logic holds, figuring out the cabal's agenda and the source of their power is the most likely way to find the Darkness that Kayaba was talking about."

Asuna hummed thoughtfully. "Yeah, that makes sense. I suppose that helps me get my mind around things." She smiled. "So if we keep on top of everything, and find the trigger for the next big set of events, we're in good shape."

Beside her, Kirito frowned. "Yeah…but honestly? I get the feeling that there's something else going on under the surface that we haven't noticed yet."

"How so?" Asuna asked, tilting her head.

"…I'm not really sure," her companion admitted. "It's a gut instinct, more than anything else." He seemed about to say more, but the boy instead pulled up short suddenly and held out his hand in warning.

Asuna's gaze snapped forward. A moment of focus brought a set of mob cursors into sharp relief.

Three Imps and one…make that two Ahrimans.

"Not a problem," Kirito said confidently, unsheathing Elucidator.

"Right," replied Asuna, raising her left hand. "Same as before. Status resists incoming," she added as materia set in her armor began to glow, even as the tip of her rapier flicked through the air in anticipation.

The dark swordsman nodded. "Time to go to work, then," he said with a small smile, and began to run…

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FFO Field Guide, Chapter 9: Limit Breaks

All players, in addition to HP and MP bars, have a status bar in their HUD which shows progress toward filling the Limit Break meter. This meter is filled incrementally in several ways: by dealing damage, receiving damage, and executing combos. The meter depletes slowly over time if these actions are not maintained.

Once the Limit Break meter is full, the player can choose to empty the meter and unleash an extra powerful action. For melee-focused Jobs, this takes the form of an overwhelming physical attack; caster Jobs cast one unique spell fitting their various roles, alternatively dealing out high damage, party buffs, AOE debuffs, or mass healing.

A full meter can only be left unused for one minute before it begins to deplete…

Some of the rarest raid boss drops include Trance Crystals. If crafted into a unique accessory and equipped, these crystals will allow players with a full Limit Break to empty the meter and enter a Trance instead of performing the usual single action. The stats and base effects of all actions performed by a Tranced player are enhanced by thirty percent for thirty seconds…

XxXxX

3:02 p.m., October 20, 2024, Mist Continent: Granzam

Kirito grimaced as a magical blast of wind sent him sprawling to the ground some fifteen feet from where he last stood. Aside from impressive combat skills and quick reflexes, Heathcliff also possessed a high quality, balanced set of gear and materia. With an approach weighted equally well toward offense and defense, the Knights of the Blood Oath guild leader was a force to be reckoned with.

Got to get in close, Kirito thought, rolling back to his feet, past his spells and that shield.

With blades in both hands, the Sword Saint sprinted forward in a sudden burst of motion, eschewing evasion for the sake of closing with his target.

At the center of the arena, Heathcliff smiled ever so slightly. The Paladin raised his shield while readying his sword beside and behind it—a model of cool patience, built like a blood-red wall.

In the instant before the two players collided, Kirito blinked out of sight.

High on adrenaline, feeling almost frozen in time, the teen took in his new position—directly behind Heathcliff—in an instant, and caught the first trace of recognition in the guild leader's stiffening spine and craning neck.

Teleport materia. A swordsman's best friend for getting to that critical opening.

With Elucidator and Dark Repulser both sweeping in for the kill, he pushed every bit of strength into his attack—

—and in that briefest moment of time, feeling as though he were suspended in clear amber, Kirito saw Heathcliff move.

It clearly wasn't with Haste, and it wasn't from the effect of a Trance, but somehow the crimson-armored guild leader slid down and past the oncoming blows.

Off-balance as he touched down, Kirito could do nothing as Heathcliff's sword swept up and cut his health down into the yellow…

XxXxX

Cardinal Administrator Log Report 2024-10-29T14:53:27.367+09:00

Server connection…nominal

[Report: 17 failed bypass attempts since initial boot-up, most recent origin "Virtual Space Management Sector, Communication Intranetwork Management Division."]

Asset retrieval:

Terrain…nominal

Audio…nominal

Construct…nominal

[See more]…

Procedural model generation…nominal

Character behavioral algorithms:

Non-Player Character…nominal

Mob…nominal

[See more]…

Synaptic receiver processing…nominal

Player monitoring subroutines:

[6193 instances]

Bioelectrical measures…nominal

Neural imaging…nominal

Local projection…nominal

[See more]…

Containment protocols:

Incoming Packet Retrieval…nominal

Outgoing Data Stream…nominal

Yggdrasil…nominal

Mental Health Counseling Program 001…ERROR

RECT Progress Bots…nominal

[See more]…

XxXxX

4:37 p.m., November 1, 2024, Mist Continent: Black Iron Palace

"…smile…Mommy…"

As Yui felt the Cardinal system methodically and dispassionately decompiling her program, she noted a number of sensations in the span of her last microseconds of awareness.

The first was a trace amount of what she could only guess was "fear": a sense of distress arising from her facing of the unknown, or of oblivion. Yet this was a small thing, in the grand scheme of things, and it did not overly concern her.

The second was a complex…sorrow, yes: a deep sadness at her departure, her separation from Mama and Papa. This meant no more stories, no more piggyback rides, no more home cooked meals. No more curling up in Kirito's lap as she napped; no more approving looks from Asuna, beaming with soft joy.

The third and strongest was (her rapidly degrading language protocols informed her) contentment—even satisfaction: her actions had protected the two people dearest to her, and they yet lived. They would go on, and continue to love each other…and also her memory.

The last sensation was a blend of curiosity and puzzlement.

She had not imagined it possible to feel such things, much less to recognize and examine them as such. It was one thing to catalog and analyze them in players, her natural charges. Yet they were present here and now in her own mind, so to speak, despite the fact that she could not track their origin within her interaction protocols, or her logic circuits, or even her core processing matrix.

Was this…self-awareness, then?

A bittersweet possibility, certainly, Yui thought to herself even as she felt the last wave of fragmentation—of being torn apart at the seams. To be born…or, perhaps, to hover on the verge of birth before being ripped and erased from the world too early.

Still.

—a trace of thought, reaching out and above to the light—

Perhaps there could still be…more to this life…or beyond…

XxXxX

FFO Field Guide: Argo's Updated Second Edition, Chapter 10: Summoning

…Summoned creatures, in contrast to those tamed in the wild by Beastmasters, accompany the hard-to-acquire Summoner Job, and come in five tiers: Espers, Aeons, Avatars, Eidolons, and Primals.

Espers are constant companions of small size which may serve in a variety of party roles, such as healing, tanking, DPS, or support.

Aeons are more powerful creatures which remain on the battlefield for a limited amount of time, but have access to a range of potent attacks and abilities.

Avatars, even stronger yet, drain a player's MP continuously while summoned, further limiting the amount of time they are available in combat.

Eidolons are more similar in nature to one-shot spells; with a high MP consumption and a once-per-day summoning limit, eidolons enter the battlefield and perform a momentous action—such as high damage, mass healing, or a more esoteric effect—before departing.

Summoners may only access up to three creatures in each tier at any given time, and may only have one actively summoned at a time. Players may select these companions out of their rosters in a safe zone, which calls for careful planning before adventuring. There are at least six known summoned creatures in each tier, with more almost certainly hidden throughout the world.

The game's pre-release literature referred to an even higher class of summoned creatures called Primals, but their nature and full range of power is currently unknown. It is possible that these summons are both exceedingly rare and story-related, given their likely scale and potency. Recent quests on the Lemuria continent have hinted that this could become a factor sooner rather than later…

XxXxX

7:26 p.m., November 6, 2024, Mist Continent: Algade

"Half of the scout party was wiped out?" Klein exclaimed in disbelief. "That's…"

Finding no words, he picked up the bottle and took a long swig.

"No kidding," Agil said grimly. "I don't think the first Lemurian dungeon boss is going to treat us very kindly tomorrow."

Placing down the bottle, Klein sighed. "You're telling me. Poor bastards."

The two fell silent as the tavern's ambiance washed over them, carrying laughter and rambunctious speech with the verbal tide.

Shaking his head, the red-haired Samurai muttered darkly, "Seems like things are getting tougher all the time. I think we're hitting the end-game difficulty curve a little early."

"I know what you mean," his merchant companion replied in a gravelly tone. "Don't give up on us just yet, though. I expect that things will look rosier on the other side of this boss. Number 75, yeah? Not too surprising that there's a jump in the challenge rating."

Klein snorted. "Yeah, I gotcha. Come to think of it, it probably is about time that I'll start running across some new gear. I've had this set for a while, so it probably isn't meant to last me more than a couple more levels."

Agil nodded. "I've been seeing some pretty impressive drops from the frontier zones. Not much longer and we'll seem like giants compared to where we're at now."

"Heh," Klein chuckled, "some of us are already a bit closer to that point than others." He looked pointedly at the merchant Sentinel's looming frame.

"Point taken," Agil said easily. The two leaned back, enjoying their drinks as the world continued to turn around them.

After some moments, Klein asked, in a forcibly light tone, "I know it's a bit early to be thinking about it too much, but do you know what you'll do after we…you know, get back?"

Agil rubbed his chin. "Truth be told, I own a place like this in Okachimachi. I'll be back behind the bar as soon as I can, polishing glasses. You can count on that."

"You think it'll still be there just waiting for you?" Klein asked dubiously.

Agil gave a small smile. "My wife Kathy's about the most capable woman you'll ever meet, so yeah. Matter of fact, I'll probably find it even cleaner than when I left it."

"…buddy, you are one lucky guy," Klein said, shaking his head with a quick grin and comical envy. Agil silently toasted with his stein in response.

The bell at the door jingled as more players passed inside, flushed from the day's endeavors of questing and mob farming. The pair seated at the side bar turned to watch the crowd stretch and undulate as the noise gradually grew to a typical evening's dull roar.

After nursing his drink for a time, Klein said slowly, "…what are our chances?" His tone was flat now, but at a volume mindful of the warm atmosphere around them.

Agil tapped a finger against the bar. "This about tomorrow?" he asked in an even, but matching low voice. "Or are you talking about the bigger picture?"

"Not of beating the game, exactly," Klein clarified. "It's bound to happen eventually. That's how games work, especially when there's an incentive. And man, do we ever have that." He glanced around discretely before continuing, "I mean, what kind of shape do you think our bodies will be in by that point? Some folk are estimating that it's going to take another year to finish the main quest. What will we be coming back to?"

Sighing, Agil sipped his drink. "Hard to say. Medical technology and treatment techniques have come a long way in the last few decades, even for dealing with long-term comatose patients…" He shook his head minutely. "…but there's only so much a few hospitals and their staff can do, really. If the body's not moving, you've got muscular atrophy even with daily therapy. I don't imagine the NerveGears make that any easier. Then there's the bones, digestive tract, and everything else. They get soft and weak without weight and active use."

"…I figured it'd be something like that," Klein said, dropping his gaze for a moment. "Probably won't even be able to keep a slice of pizza down," he added mournfully.

"Hmph," his companion grunted in agreement. "Better than never having it again, but yeah, it'll be rough for a while."

They sipped their drinks.

When their mutual silence had stretched on for another minute, Klein again prompted, "What about the rest of it? I mean, I feel as fine up here," he tapped his temple, "as I ever have, even if I know I'm a pretty easygoing guy. But I also know some people who didn't handle the shock so well."

Agil nodded. "A few of the folk who've never left Midgar, among others."

"Yeah. And then there's the ones who've lost people out here. I mean, really. Almost four thousand dead in two years, Agil," the Samurai said gloomily. "We've seen things, all of us. What does that do to a person? I'll bet you my whole inventory that there's a bunch of shrinks just waiting to jump us once we wake up. They'll be handing out psych evals and prescriptions like candy. PTSD, survivor's guilt, fresh phobias—you name it, they'll call it," he listed, mouth turned down at the corners.

"For some, probably," Agil acknowledged. "But you know, human beings are a bit more resilient than we often give credit. Especially you young ones," he added as an afterthought. "And it's not like the history of mankind has been all that rosy since the beginning, truth be told. Up until the last few hundred years, if you set aside the fantasy elements, a lot of what's happened here in Aincrad wouldn't look too out of place in the grand scheme of things."

"How do you figure?" Klein asked, raising an eyebrow. "And you think that means something here?"

Agil nodded again. "Some periods and places are worse than others, but there's always been the sort of hardship and conflict that leads to the average fellow taking up arms, no matter where you go. Didn't used to be standing armies in most countries or kingdoms, you know. Any old farmer might need to pick up a scythe or a cheap sword on short notice, soon as the call came. And then he'd be off to battle and war, with no way of knowing whether he'd come home. I expect that gave them their fair share of fears and troubles, same as you'll see today or among some of us…"

He squared his broad shoulders. "But we wouldn't be here today if so many of them hadn't carried on in the past, living out their lives, having and carrying for their families, and getting back to the world they left for a little while." Agil gave a small smile. "So don't dwell on it too much. Think about the clearers you know, and the others fighting their hardest to reach the front lines."

"…heh." Klein rested his chin on his fist. "Yeah. I don't suppose most of them will give up. Whether that's in the game…or dealing with what's happened, after."

Around them, the crowd swelled as parties regaled each other with tales of the day's exploits, adventures, and close calls. A couple of players here and there who looked a hint shaky were quickly handed glasses by their companions and slapped on the back, drawing out tentative smiles which gradually grew more earnest as encouraging shouts called for their stories.

At last, Klein nodded and lifted his bottle.

"Cheers, man."

"Cheers."

They clinked their drinks and drank in the evening.

XxXxX

FFO Field Guide: Argo's Updated Second Edition, Chapter 11: Advanced Travel

…aside from renting Chocobos, using Teleport Crystals (including the much rarer and group-usable version, Corridor Crystals), or accessing Aetherytes in particular safe zones of the Mist Continent, some recent discoveries have uncovered additional means of travel in Aincrad.

Players have found that some islands scattered around the Mist Continent are accessible through NPC ferry services—some less well known than others. These remote locations have typically been the center of side or Job quests, and also serve as high-level mob farming grounds.

With the unlocking of the Machinist Job and the NPC Cid Highwind's airship «Hildagarde», players are now able to charter flights to the Lemurian continent on a regular basis. Additionally, mid- to high-level Machinists are able to craft airship components, which have proven the means to construct personal flying craft after a sizable investment of time and resources. Comments by Cid Highwind have suggested that, following additional modifications acquired through a questline, this will be the means to access another unexplored continent in the far west, which is currently shrouded in turbulent Miasma.

The Lemuria Continent has a number of standing Aetherytes scattered in various safe zones, much like the Mist Continent, but these are currently inactive. Searches are currently underway for the means to activate them and connect them to the existing network, which will presumably allow instantaneous travel across the ocean…

XxXxX

2:20 p.m., November 7, 2024, Lemuria Continent: Labyrinth

Kirito fell to one knee, gasping for breath even as the enormity of what was to come sank in.

They'd just lost fourteen players.

The desperate struggle with the Primal «Ifrit» and its summoner «Lich» could only mark the beginning of a new stage in FFO's storyline…and the taunting of the robed cabal Emissary in the battle's wake promised more of the same to follow.

As Kirito stared at the fading pool of darkness into which the masked NPC antagonist (how typical, he thought) had disappeared, he listened with half an ear to the anxious whispers and moaning around him.

Something…wasn't right.

There was a niggling feeling at the back of his mind. A tickle of intuition, prompting his attention.

Slowly sweeping his eyes across the ruined battlefield, strewn with exhausted players and disconsolate faces, Kirito's gaze paused and narrowed at one sight.

At the center of the platform, looking stoically ahead toward the dungeon's exit, Heathcliff stood still. He was relaxed, the teen could tell: posture upright, but loose—not a trace of tension in his frame, or in his face.

And his HP bar was still green, just above the halfway mark.

Kirito's breath caught as a stream of memories cascaded together, fitting themselves into a complete picture in an instant.

Well. Only one way to know for sure.

He dashed forward, heedless of Asuna's surprised cry. Gripping both sword hilts with a sudden cold fury, he swung—

—and grimaced as the impact with an «Immortal Object» ran up his arms like a jolt of electric fire.

He heard gasps from behind, but Kirito had eyes solely for the crimson-armored guild leader who had only just turned around.

Heathcliff surveyed the dark swordsman for a moment before a wry smile appeared on his face. "I'd wondered if you would be the one to first realize it…"

And as Kirito watched, tendrils of Darkness slowly began to seep from the gaps in Heathcliff's plate armor. In a few moments, the guild leader—Akihiko Kayaba—was encased entirely in pitch black armor, roiling with Miasma.

Kirito set his face grimly. "And I bet that's not even your final form…"

XxXxX

FFO Field Guide: Argo's Updated Second Edition, Addendum

So many of us started playing Final Fantasy Online because it brought back something that mattered to us: a story. A tale of woe and victory, of triumph and terror. We wanted to be part of something bigger and grander, to choose our own roles in a wider world, and to fill in the lines with swathes of color and rich flavor. There's something primal in that, and a storyteller knows it best.

That's why we came. Maybe that's why we were kept here, too.

We've cried and bled these last two years. We've laughed and grown. We've lived and died.

I think that, in the end, when we walk away from Aincrad…there'll still be a little of its magic left in us. Not in spells, crystals, or mystic powers…but in our memories, our bonds, and our characters.

Stay safe. Keep fighting. And take care of each other.

XxXxX

3:00 p.m., November 7, 2024

"A stunning view, isn't it?…I want to believe it's still out there somewhere."

Kirito and Asuna looked on together in silence as Akihiko Kayaba gave an inscrutable smile before he turned and walked away. When he disappeared into the misty aether, there was little else to say.

In another place and time…it might have been nice to see the game through properly.

Well. It was a good fantasy to hold onto. Maybe in…another life…