"The Flight Meter is a measure of a player's stored wing energy, which is consumed by powered flight and replenished by exposing the wings to sunlight or moonlight. All players regardless of level or stats have enough wing energy for approximately ten minutes of level flight; time spent ascending consumes energy significantly faster, while a powered descent consumes far less. Gliding does not require any energy at all, and a player can safely glide to the ground even when their wings are completely depleted. With all Flight Meters being equal, the distance a player can cover and the altitude they can achieve is determined by their maximum speed—which is affected by their level, Agility stat, racial traits and specific buffs."

Alfheim Online manual, «Flight Meters»

17 April 2023: Day 163

The explosion split the air like a thunderclap, a sharp sound that seemed to almost tangibly divide the world into before and after. Kirito couldn't help but be drawn to the noise by reflex, whirling around just in time to see a turbulent bubble of green energy blossom from the mouth of the elemental earth wall that hid Sasha and Silica from view. The three enemies who'd surrounded them were thrown limply in several directions by the force of the blast, and Kirito thought he caught a glimpse of status effects on their HP bars before they disappeared—two of them tumbling into the underbrush while a third went sailing over the nearest edge of the island itself.

And then, as the wall of earth began to crumble into a churning cloud of dust, Kirito had no more time for distraction. He was beset by three attackers at once, and this time they had a good idea of his capabilities—they'd positioned themselves so that Kirito couldn't easily close to melee range with one of them without exposing his back to the others. The sound of a fast incantation from behind him gave him just enough warning to defend himself, spinning and presenting the flat of his sword to absorb the fire bolt as it homed in on him. He still took a portion of the damage, but nowhere near as much as if he hadn't tried to block.

The others hadn't been idle, however—Mukensha and Rosalia both charged him when he turned to face the mage, and only by stilling his wings and dropping like a heavy stone did Kirito manage to evade their pincer attack. The two pikes clashed with a metallic clamor as they converged on where Kirito had just been, and he took the moment to rattle off the words to his Mirror Decoy spell now that the cooldown was over. The mage was the biggest threat, and Kirito needed the other two off his back while he dealt with him.

But as Kirito launched himself towards the mage, the illusionary mirror image of him splitting off in the opposite direction, he heard Rosalia shout behind him. "Use your Focus! The decoy doesn't have a cursor!"

Kirito cursed silently. It figured that someone in this group would know how to tell an illusionary decoy from the real thing—the game's Focus system would only pop a cursor and HP bar for a real player. A mob wouldn't know or care about this; they would choose a target at random unless they had some kind of enhanced senses. Players weren't necessarily that stupid, which was one of the things that made Illusion Magic of limited use in PvP combat.

In the heat of battle that subtle visual difference could be easy to miss, but now that Rosalia had called it out he wouldn't be able to rely on that trick; there was no point in wasting any more MP on trying. He jinked left and right to evade the projectiles that the Salamander mage blasted at him as he closed, and before the mage could finish a third incantation Kirito tore into his opponent with a flurry of strikes that covered the Salamander's unarmored body with angry crimson lines, tearing great rents in his robes. An echoing scream of terror transitioned into the sound of the man's avatar combusting into red flames, and Kirito burst through those flames at high speed as he fled the other two Salamanders and looked for Sasha and Silica, eyes straining to pierce the dust cloud that was still dispersing.

They were nowhere to be seen. Panic gripped Kirito briefly before he took the risk of looking up at his HUD for a moment, and saw that both of them were alive and their HP green. Whatever Sasha had done had depleted nearly all of her MP, but based on the fact that none of Rosalia's party had tried to use them as hostages again, he had to assume for the moment that they were safe.

He couldn't necessarily say the same for himself. The sound of Salamander wings behind him brought Kirito's attention back to his surviving enemies, and with his sword held out and ready he turned to face Mukensha and Rosalia. The two began to separate as they approached, forcing him to back up and keep his head moving to keep track of both of them.

"Still two to one, boy," Mukensha said smugly as he drifted slowly clockwise around Kirito.

"Outnumbering me didn't help you much yesterday," Kirito retorted as his eyes flicked back and forth, watching for the motions that would signal the opening of a weapon technique from either of them. "And you don't have the element of surprise now."

"Neither do you, my dear," said Rosalia with a crooked smile of anticipation on her blood-red lips. "And everyone here is wise to your little Illusion magic stunts."

"Then it comes down to two things," Kirito said flatly, as if citing from a manual. "Player skill, and our stats and equipment. You already know I'm better than you. If you feel like betting your lives that you're higher level than me and have better equipment, make your move. Otherwise, you'd better find somewhere else to be." His eyes narrowed dangerously as he locked gazes with Rosalia. "Fast."

"Oooh," Rosalia said, tone dripping with mockery. "I don't know about you, Mukensha, but I just got a chill. Now be a good boy—you have something I want."

In answer, Kirito stowed the Pneuma Flower in his inventory and let himself drift slowly backwards, shifting the majority of his attention to Mukensha. Rosalia might be the leader of this group and she talked a good game, but he wasn't buying her insouciance—he could see uncertainty in her eyes, fear of whether or not they really could take him.

On the other hand, he could feel the killing intent radiating from her companion. She wanted the item and the payoff at the end of this—Mukensha wanted him dead. Any remaining doubt Kirito had of this was dispelled when their eyes met.

"Enough banter," Mukensha said, leveling his pike. "You and I have a score to settle, Spriggan."

Kirito didn't get a chance to ask what kind of grudge Mukensha had against him. Before his adversary finished speaking, his stance shifted slightly and his pike began to glow with orange light.

It was just enough warning to get his sword up. The impaling attack shot Mukensha forward in a flash of light, similar to the basic dashing attacks in so many sword styles. Kirito slanted his sword and let the polearm deflect off of it at an angle, taking a small amount of blocking damage from the technique. His counter was met and rebounded by the shaft of the pike as his opponent reversed it, and he carried the motion into the opening for a 360-degree spiral attack that drove back both Mukensha and Rosalia, the latter of whom had just tried to take advantage of his preoccupation with the former.

That technique had a lot of reach and very little recovery time, which gave Kirito an opportunity he didn't often have in the midst of battle: after both opponents flitted backwards to evade the spinning attack, Kirito lashed out with his free hand and chanted a short incantation. As Rosalia charged in to try to run him through again, she ran right into the spell effect; the black energy washed over her and he saw the icon for Distress status appear beside her HP gauge.

That wouldn't stop her from attacking, but it would keep her from using weapon techniques—which were the biggest threat in this battle. Without the system assist, Rosalia didn't seem to be that effective at melee combat, and without the added speed and damage from her weapon techniques, he wasn't too worried about damage soaking through his blocking.

With Rosalia effectively disabled and easily fended off, he was free to return most of his attention to Mukensha. They clashed repeatedly, colored sparks like a fireworks display spraying away from where their weapons techniques met and countered each other, a deadly dance that resulted in Mukensha's HP being slowly eroded away. The Salamander was lower-level and was outclassed in equipment if not in skill; he had to know that he had no chance of winning this war of attrition. His only chance against Kirito was to hope for him to make a mistake.

As luck would have it, Kirito did.

It was a simple error borne from Kirito's own confidence in his skills, but it was enough to turn the tide of battle. Most players had an area in the upper right of their peripheral vision where they could see icons for which techniques or spell effects were on cooldown. Kirito had turned off that UI option and most other elements of his HUD because he found them distracting and was good at keeping track of that information. Usually.

After parrying several blows from Kirito's «Triangle» technique, Mukensha responded with the same impaling attack he'd used at the onset of battle. Kirito tried to use the most appropriate counter but misjudged the end of its cooldown timer by barely a second, which left him briefly exposed in the opening motion of that attack, expecting it to be ready. He had only a moment to realize his mistake before the head of the pike plunged into him just below the light chestplate he wore, driving him back and pinning him against a tree.

The look on Mukensha's face was pure ecstasy. Fighting off an overwhelming wave of nausea from the numb, painless sensation where the head of the pike was still embedded in his gut, he tried to swing his sword at Mukensha, but the Salamander shifted his grip lower on the shaft and the respective lengths of their weapons made it impossible to connect.

"Don't bother, Spriggan. You're mine now."

Rosalia made a clucking sound with her tongue as she joined her group member's side. "Tsk, now now, Mukensha, you don't get him until we have what we came for."

"Speak for yourself, Rose. I came to kill the player who killed my brother."

Suddenly Mukensha's grudge made all the sense in the world to Kirito, and his hopes sank. If the man's gripe with him was this personal, there was going to be no reasoning with him, no buying him off. Kirito wondered exactly who it had been, and realized after a moment's thought that there was only one possibility.

"Yes, you know what I'm talking about, don't you, boy? I can see it in your eyes." Mukensha twisted the pike; Kirito began to realize that there was an entire world of unpleasant sensations that fell short of what the simulation categorized as "pain" that should be suppressed. His eyes went up to his HP gauge; he could see it ticking slowly downwards, with a more rapid drop every time Mukensha gave the weapon a twist.

"Ken," Rosalia said sharply, "you're going to kill him before we get—"

"Back off, Rose." Mukensha met Kirito's eyes as his gaze came back down from his HUD. "You know exactly who I'm talking about. You cut him down in the blink of an eye when you ambushed our party. His name was Zanzer, Spriggan. And he was my brother. Not that that means anything to you."

"It was an accident," Kirito managed to grate out, free hand closing on the shaft of the pike in a fist as he tried to use his leverage against the tree to pull it out. "A couple of lucky crits. I was trying... to disable him."

"Lucky?" Mukensha snarled. His bark of humorless laughter was punctuated by another twist. "Not so lucky for him. And not so lucky for you now, either." Hate flared up again behind his eyes as he leaned forward and gave the weapon another vicious twist, spreading his wings to put more strength behind his movements. "Now, Spriggan... die."

"Damnit, Ken—!" For all of her loud protests, Rosalia made no move to interfere. Kirito wondered if perhaps she was afraid of being next if she thwarted Mukensha's craving for vengeance. He looked up at his HUD again, and saw that while his own HP was yellow and dropping fast, Sasha's and Silica's gauges were still full, and their MP was recovering slowly. Wherever they were, whatever they'd done, they were safe. He hoped they were well on their way back to Arun.

With that knowledge, Kirito reflected that this might be the best outcome. Regardless of the circumstances, the fact was that he'd killed this man's brother. He had every right to want and seek revenge for that. They'd fought, and the outcome had been fair. If Mukensha killed him here and now, that would put the matter to rest. Sasha and Silica didn't have the Pneuma Flower and wouldn't try to get another on their own, and with Mukensha's need for vengeance settled, Rosalia's group would have no need to go after either of them again. Silica would mourn the loss of her pet, but they'd be safe.

As the chime warning him that his HP had reached the red zone sounded in his ear, Kirito closed his eyes. He couldn't free himself, and he could see the end approaching. Silently, he apologized to his mother and sister for the pain his death would cause them. He thought of the friends he'd made here in the game—people who would probably mourn his passing, if they ever found out about it. Klein, Lisbeth, Yuuki... and Asuna. Most of all, Asuna. Things had occasionally been tense with her ever since the failure of the Spriggans to sign the Treaty of Arun, but he was surprised at the depth of regret that filled him when he thought about the Undine girl.

A warm sensation and sounds of alarm from Rosalia and Mukensha yanked him back to the here and now, and as his eyes flew open, he looked up at his HUD and realized that his HP was yellow and starting to quickly climb back towards green. Following the gazes of the two Salamanders, he saw Sasha standing some distance away, hands held out and blue energy surging around her. Silica was standing behind her and slightly to one side, dagger out and expression defiant.

"Rosalia!" Mukensha snapped as he torqued the pike roughly in one direction and then the other, trying to overcome the rate at which Sasha was healing him. "Deal with them!"

She gaped at him. "Since when do I take orders from you?"

It was then that Kirito realized what he had to do. While Mukensha and Rosalia argued heatedly, he seized the shaft of the pike again as far down as he could with his free hand, and pulled. Close to 20% of his HP disappeared in a moment as the head of the pike punched through his back with a tearing sound and a spray of glowing red damage particles, and he gritted his teeth and pulled himself closer still.

Rosalia began to shout a warning at Mukensha, but it was too late. Kirito raised his sword, and swung it down with every ounce of strength he had. The blow severed the Salamander pikeman's left arm at the shoulder, along with his two left wings. As Mukensha howled in sudden shock and outrage, his arm and wings disintegrating into a burst of blue polygons, Kirito swung both feet up and kicked out. His opponent went sprawling backwards from the blow, giving Kirito the critical moments he needed to free himself from the weapon that had impaled him.

As he began to slip off the butt end of the pike with an involuntary wince, Kirito caught a glimpse of Rosalia rushing at him, her weapon trailing a half-moon of crimson tracers in the wake of the technique she was executing. Before the blow could land, from his right there came a brief surge of hurricane-force wind laced with brilliant green energy, which blindsided Rosalia as if she'd stepped in front of a freight train and slammed her bodily into the tree against which Kirito had so recently been pinned. Her weapon went flying out of her hand and she crumpled to the ground, momentarily stunned. Kirito risked just enough of a glance to see Sasha lower her hands and nod at him.

A cold rage washed over Kirito as he realized how close his life had come to being ended—and how his own guilt over the life he'd taken had allowed him to accept that end. He stalked purposefully through the tall grass towards where Mukensha had fallen on his side, and saw the man aim his remaining arm at Kirito and begin to incant a spell. An almost desultory slash of his sword deprived the Salamander of the hand he needed in order to cast, and Kirito gave him a fierce kick in the midriff that rolled him over onto his back.

"Don't," Kirito said as Mukensha tried to use the stump of his arm to push himself up, leveling his sword. The tip of the blade pricked the Salamander's throat meaningfully.

Very little that Kirito recognized as human remained behind Mukensha's eyes as he glared. "Don't what? Give you a reason to kill me?"

"The thought had occurred to me," Kirito bit out.

An awful smile twisted his face, an expression which had nothing at all to do with mirth. "You mistake me for someone who cares to live. I failed. Just get on with it and let me go join my brother."

"Your brother was an accident," Kirito said. "I wasn't trying to kill him. I was just—"

"Spare me your self-serving excuses, Spriggan," Mukensha spat. "I saw your face when you did it. It didn't even faze you. You just stepped right through his Remain Light and moved on to the next target. And you didn't bother seeing if anyone was trying to rez him, either."

Another rush of anger and outrage flooded through Kirito. "Oh please. Silica told me what your group did before I got there. You killed two people just because they were in the way, and you were trying to rob the survivors. And you've got the nerve to try to guilt me for taking one of you down, and imply that I violated the Treaty? You took your chances when you decided to mug Silica's party—and so did your brother. I'm sorry about what happened to him, but—"

"No you're not," Mukensha said with unparalleled viciousness. It was as if he'd gathered up all the contempt that existed in the world and invested it into every hate-filled word. "You didn't even break stride when you killed him. Just like you didn't react when you killed Kin'oh earlier. Those weren't your first kills, were they?"

Kirito's expression was as cold as the chill that ran through him. He didn't reply; he didn't have to. The answer was plain on his face.

Mukensha tried to sit up again, and spat on Kirito's blade. "You think you're such a big damn hero, showing up in the nick of time to save the girl. You think saving her or stopping hunters like us can wash all the blood off your hands." A derisive snort. "But you're just as much of a killer as I am, so don't fucking patronize me with your hollow sympathy. At least I'm honest about what I do to survive in here. You can't decide whether to be proud of your skill or ashamed of it."

"Shut up." Kirito's fist tightened on the grip of his sword. The knife that Mukensha twisted inside him with every word hurt far more than the pike that had impaled him earlier. Mukensha must have seen the barbs sink home; that horrible smile returned to his features.

"Then shut me up, Spriggan," he seethed through clenched teeth. "Kill. It's what you're good at. It's all your kind is good for."

The urge to do exactly that was overwhelming. Mukensha was right: Zanzer and the Salamander he called Kin'oh hadn't been his first. As both a solo player and a Spriggan, he had a perpetual target on his back, and more than once he'd had to demonstrate his willingness and ability to make a PK group pay a higher price than they were willing to pay in order to take him down. He tried to tell himself that he didn't regret those kills—that they were necessary, that they were a last resort when he was left with no choice. Kill or be killed: the ultimate argument of necessity.

But here he was faced with someone who had very little reluctance to kill—someone who would almost certainly do so again if he went free. Moreover, Mukensha wanted to die. Whatever else he was, he was a grieving brother, and if he couldn't have his vengeance for Zanzer's death, he wanted nothing more than to be reunited with him. Kirito would be doing him a kindness if he took his head.

Realizing he'd forgotten something, he took a moment to glance warily over his shoulder. At some point while he and Mukensha had been focused on each other, Rosalia had recovered and fled the scene—most likely realizing that she had no chance of winning against Kirito one-on-one, especially now that he had a healer backing him up. Looking the other direction, he saw Sasha and Silica standing a cautious distance away, both of them seeming very unsettled. Sasha in particular was trying to stand in front of Silica as if she could shield the girl from what was happening. When the woman's eyes met Kirito's she gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head, her expression all but pleading with him.

It was Silica's presence that decided it for him. The two of them had talked at length the night before about the ambush in Yggdrasil, and while she hadn't really been able to process it in the thick of battle or its immediate aftermath, she'd broken down in tears when it began to sink in that she'd watched two of the players she'd traveled in a party with for days die—and they would never be coming back. They hadn't really been friends... but they'd been people all the same.

No matter how deserving Mukensha might be, was it really right that he force Silica to cope with watching someone else get executed? Sending her and Sasha away would be scarcely better—he'd still have to face them when the deed was done. And at any rate there was no guarantee Rosalia or her people weren't still waiting somewhere out of sight, hoping that the three of them would separate.

"I've got a better idea," Kirito said to Mukensha, taking a step back as he sheathed his sword. "My friends and I are going back to Arun. We're leaving you here. Your wings should regenerate in a few minutes; when they do, you can fly off and find a healer to restore your limbs—assuming any will touch you, after word gets around of what you tried to pull here." He looked off in the direction of the nearest edge of the island on which they stood. The carpet of tall grass ran all the way up to where the rock and dirt ended, such that you could almost fool yourself into thinking that it was just the crest of a hill, rather than the brink of a deadly drop to the valley floor more than half a kilometer below.

Leaning over his fallen foe, Kirito bent until he was close enough to speak words that were only meant for Mukensha's ears. "On the other hand, it's a long way down from here. If you want death so badly, you know where to find it."

·:·:·:·:·:·

"We're not reviving Pina now?"

In lieu of answering Silica's plaintive question, Sasha looked to Kirito, who still had possession of the Pneuma Flower.

"Not yet," he said as they began their long glide from the top of Cloudspire Island. Their gradual descent was leisurely, and gave them time to talk without being drowned out by wing or wind noise. "There might be another ambush waiting on our way back to Arun, and it's also possible we could run into a tough mob somewhere. Why don't we play it safe and do that when we reach the church?"

"Aren't you worried about the flower disappearing?" Sasha asked.

Kirito shook his head. "Not now that I've seen it. If it had durability, it'd be listed on the flower's status window. But there's nothing there except the name, just like any other crafting component. That tells me it should only disappear if it's left out in the world for more than a few hours." He patted one of his pockets for effect. "That's why it's in my inventory."

The explanation made sense to Sasha, and Silica seemed to accept it as well. "Thank you, Kirito." Then the girl tilted her head over towards Sasha, smiling for what seemed like the first time since the ambush. "And thank you, Sasha, for what you did back there to protect me. I've never seen anyone do magic like that before; it was amazing!"

Sasha felt faintly embarrassed at the praise, but that was overridden by her pride at being able to come up with such a complex spell on the fly. "You're welcome, dear. It was nothing, really—I just applied what I knew about the language to make up a spell that did what I needed it to do." She gave Kirito a meaningful look.

He didn't miss the meaning behind that look. "I only caught it as the AOE was going off, but it was definitely impressive."

"Thank you."

Kirito nodded. "I'm still not sure I could do that, though. I don't really have any special aptitude for languages. My talents are more with computers, programming and video games. And in here I focus on my sword skills anyway."

Sasha measured Kirito with her gaze—a searching, penetrating scrutiny that usually prompted children to look away uncomfortably. "You like to understand the mechanics of how things work, isn't that right?"

Another nod.

"When we were talking before, you said this wasn't a language so much as a set of… what did you call them? Voice commands."

"Right. Like talking to your smartphone to do an Internet search."

Sasha thought this over carefully, considering whether or not she'd been using the wrong approach on Kirito. Everyone learned different subjects in their own way, and from their own frame of reference—she was a linguist, so of course she best understood the language of magic by approaching it as a language. But this Kirito was a gamer, and from the sound of it someone who related much better to technology than to people.

"Try this, then," she said finally. "Forget what I said about languages. Let's say they are voice commands. Let's say… aren't there computers where you type in keywords to do tasks instead of clicking on icons?"

"Some UIs and older operating systems are like that," Kirito confirmed as they banked wide to go around another island. "It's called a command-line interface. They're less common than they were ten or fifteen years ago, but they're still used by power users…" He trailed off, expression briefly distant before a smile began.

Capitalizing on that apparent leap of intuition, Sasha went on. "So if you wanted to be good at using a system like that, you'd learn all of the commands, and all of the words you'd type to make it do different things. Maybe you could look it up on the Internet when you needed to do some specific thing, but to really master it—"

"You'd need to know all the parameters, switches, or other arguments the commands used," Kirito said, interrupting. "You'd need to know the list of commands, the syntax for each one, and…"

Sasha briefly felt smug about her teaching ability, especially since she only barely understood what Kirito was talking about. "You get it now."

"I get it," Kirito admitted, smiling at her. "You're a Linux mage in a world of GUI apprentices."

Sasha laughed. She hadn't the faintest idea what Kirito had just said to her or what he meant by gooey, but she guessed that it was complimentary and meant that he grasped the import of what she'd been trying to get across to him.

He was complex, this boy. More than once on this outing she'd thought she had him figured out, only to discover a new side of him. In many ways he fit the stereotypes she'd heard about the Spriggan faction: loners, people who don't play well with others, able to kill without hesitation regardless of what the Treaty of Arun said. He'd struck down at least one of their assailants with no visible remorse, and if that Salamander, Mukensha, was to be believed, he'd killed others. The thought was chilling, especially given his apparent age.

On the other hand, when it came to Mukensha himself… Kirito had hesitated. And spared his life when he didn't have to, when he had every reason to end it. Moreover, he'd fought against overwhelming odds to save Silica not once but twice—and had risked his life to help bring her pet back.

This hadn't been the first time Sasha had seen someone die in the game, but it was the first time she'd been exposed to player-killing firsthand—let alone the kind of brutality and killing intent that had taken place on Cloudspire Island. No matter how desperate their situation, and despite the fact that the other party had been trying to rob and possibly kill them, it left a sickening feeling in her gut. When that red Remain Light had flickered and gone out, the light had gone out of someone's life. Somewhere in Japan, a soul was torn from a body whose eyes would never again open. Whoever they were, they had been important to someone.

She tried to remember the dead Salamander's face—she'd only seen it briefly before the fight began. How old had he been? Between the bulk of their armor and the way these fae avatars distorted a person's features, it was sometimes hard to estimate the age of any adult, but she would've bet that he wasn't far out of high school—if he even was.

Had been.

Something of her state of mind must have shown on her face or in her body language; when they first landed at the peak of a large hill near Arun to rest their wings, Kirito approached her. "You all right?"

Sasha almost put up the same kind of reassuring front she would've shown to any of the other kids, but something in Kirito's expression suggested that he knew better. "I was thinking about the player you killed."

Kirito's suddenly looked conflicted. "Sorry I asked."

"I'm not blaming you," she said quickly. "You fought to protect us, and I'm grateful for that. It's just…"

"I still see them, you know," Kirito said quietly, glancing in Silica's direction to make sure she was out of earshot.

Sasha was confused at the seeming non sequitur. "Who?"

"The players I've had to kill. Every one of them. I see them when I close my eyes at night. I see them in the faces of people in the crowd in Arun. I see them every time I see a red cursor." For a time he looked away, gazing off in the distance towards where Arun itself was faintly visible at the foot of the World Tree. They stood on the crest of the hill—not the tallest in sight, but high enough to be able to catch a glimpse of the grand neutral city at the center of Alfheim. After seconds passed with no answer from Sasha, he looked back over his shoulder at her.

"It was different in the beta, you know. PvP was half the point. Sometimes I'd run into people I'd 'killed', and maybe we'd talk about tactics or promise a rematch. Maybe a little trash talk, but that's just part of playing online games. There was a sense of camaraderie with your opponent, and respect for their skill. It was intense, and I took it as seriously as any other hardcore gamer, but it was…" Kirito then turned back and met Sasha's eyes. "It was still fun. Not a matter of kill-or-be-killed."

For a moment, just a moment while he was talking about the game when it was still a game, Kirito had looked like the boy that he was instead of the killer he'd become. Sasha had spent much of her time in this world trying to create a safe place for the children of Alfheim, and it broke her heart to think of the weight that this boy, this child, had to bear at an age when his worst worry ought to be passing high school entrance exams. She wasn't sure she wanted to ask the next question. "Was it hard for you, your first time?"

His gaze didn't waver. "It's hard every time. But only afterwards. When you're in the middle of a serious fight—if you want to survive it—everything narrows down to just you and the person trying to kill you. Sometimes… sometimes it feels like a part of me blacks out until it's over." He shook himself briefly, glancing over at Silica again. She, too had been quiet, but in her case it was ever since they made the decision not to try rezzing Pina until returning to Arun. She seemed to sense that Kirito and Sasha were having a private conversation, and kept her distance while they rested their wings.

"What about you?" he asked after another interval of silence had passed. "Was that your first time?"

Sasha stared at Kirito in confusion, unsure of what he meant. "My first time for what?"

Kirito's expression was momentarily just as confused as hers, before tightening up. "You don't know?"

"Know what? I don't understand what you're trying to ask. I need some context for the question."

Several times Kirito opened his mouth to answer, stopping before he could say anything as if he'd thought better of the words. "When you blasted away those three players, what status effects did you hit them with?"

She remembered all too well. "About six seconds of Paralysis, followed by nine seconds of Delay stacked with eighteen seconds of Silence. I had to make sure they were disabled as long as possible. Why?"

Kirito nodded thoughtfully. "You were inside that earth wall, so you probably didn't see one of them go over the edge from the force of the AOE. It's a long way to the ground below. You can't fly when you're paralyzed; after six seconds he would've fallen about…" He closed his eyes for a moment, as if doing calculations in his head. "About 150 meters. Six or seven more seconds and he'd hit the ground at terminal velocity. He'd still be suffering from Delay status, but if he kept his wits and was skilled at Voluntary Flight, he might've been able to pull up in time."

The growing sense of horror that filled Sasha as Kirito spoke must have been clear as day. His own expression became sympathetic as he added, "I'm sorry. It doesn't get any easier."

She barely heard him. I just wanted to make sure they couldn't hurt us, she thought, the comforting temptation of denial rising in her. They were just status effects; they shouldn't have been a danger to anyone's life.

But in order to deliver them in an AOE, she'd had to stack those effects with direct damage. And the concussive physics impulse of Wind magic damage had thrown her assailants away from her with great force, immobilized. If that force had carried one of them far enough…

Every race might be able to fly, but falling from a great height could still kill. She might as well have tied that player up, stood at the edge of the island and pushed them off with her own hands.

·:·:·:·:·:·

The Spriggan boy's name was Kirito, and according to Miss Sasha he was a complete and total badass.

Not that she would ever use those words. Tetsuo would've laughed himself silly if she had. But from what little she was willing to divulge of their ambush and the battle that had ensued, the black-haired boy had taken on half of a group of six bandits intent on robbery and murder, and bought Sasha and the adorable little Cait Sith girl named Silica the time they needed to escape the others. Silica's tail twitched excitedly as she recounted choice bits of another battle against even worse odds from the day before, where Kirito had shown up in the nick of time and fought off twice as many bandits single-handedly in order to save her.

Tetsuo suspected that she was exaggerating, and that she had a crush on the boy the size of the Tokyo Tower.

Keita leaned over and stage-whispered to Tetsuo right as Silica's story came to an inconveniently-timed pause. "I guess Miss Sasha wasn't on a date after all."

"Unless she likes underage guys," Tetsuo remarked.

Both of them exclaimed loudly—in surprise despite the lack of pain—as Sasha came up behind them and gave the two of them sharp smacks on the back of the head. "I heard that," she said crossly. "Sachi, what did you tell these boys?"

Sachi appeared to be having a very hard time not succumbing to a fatal case of schadenfreude. She covered her mouth with both petite hands, but Tetsuo could tell she was smiling. "Just that you and some swordsman were going off on a quest," she said, voice muffled.

Sasha turned her burning gaze on both Tetsuo and Keita, who recoiled from the force of it. "One more word," she said. "One more word like that from your uncouth mouths, and you can find somewhere else to sleep tonight. I know both of you clearers can afford an inn."

Tetsuo nudged Keita. "What does 'uncouth' mean?"

"It means you're a jerk," Keita said quietly. Then, more loudly: "Sorry, Miss Sasha. We didn't mean anything by it."

One by one the back-and forth conversations died down, until eventually there was a moment of stillness where Silica and Kirito both looked meaningfully at Sasha.

She nodded, pressing the palms of her hands against the sides of her dress and bunching them into fists briefly. "It's time."

Tetsuo leaned over to whisper to Keita again. "Time for what?"

Keita shushed him with an annoyed look and didn't answer, as both Kirito and Silica made a two-fingered gesture in the air familiar to any player as the motion of opening their menus. Moments later each of them materialized an item in their hands; in Kirito's was a single delicate purple and white flower on a fresh-looking stem, while Silica held a glittering blue feather that seemed to radiate magic.

Sasha took the flower from Kirito and looked at it with a pained expression for a moment. Tetsuo had no idea what was going on; he couldn't even begin to guess at her thoughts.

"Miss Sasha," Silica said, voice suddenly alert with concern, "are you alright?"

Sasha bit her lip, nodding. "I'm sorry, dear. I'm fine. Just... thinking about what this flower cost."

Tetsuo suspected there was more to this quest than anyone was letting on, but for once decided to exercise discretion. Sachi opened her mouth partway as if preparing to pry, but closed it at a shake of the head from Keita.

"Here's «Pina's Heart»," said Silica, presenting the feather to Sasha with both hands as if offering up something intensely precious.

"Does it matter which one you hold in which hand?" Kirito asked curiously.

She shrugged fluidly as she took the feather. "I don't think so. The transmutation recipes I know of so far don't differ in their results based on which hand you use to hold which ingredient." She looked around at everyone, and took a deep breath. "I guess I had better get on with it."

"Get on with what?" Tetsuo said, his curiosity finally getting the best of him.

Sasha looked at Silica instead of at him, and a gentle smile touched her face. Silica's own eyes were alight with something that might've been hope, the beginning of tears showing as a glimmer in the corners of her eyes, and her tail was slashing the air in an agitated way that Tetsuo doubted she was even aware of. "Bringing back a friend," the woman said finally.

And with that suitably cryptic answer, she held out both hands in front of her, palms up. In her left hand she held the feather; in the palm of her right hand was the flower. She gazed at both for a moment, her lips moving silently as if rehearsing lines.

"Dotto mezal," Sasha began, dark amber energy flaring around her and coursing down her arms, surrounding each hand with a nimbus of light. After a half-beat pause, she went on, each word crisply enunciated and far clearer than Tetsuo thought he could manage: "kejevrelth, shaja min."

For all the fuss and ceremony everyone was making, it was a surprisingly short incantation. Tetsuo only recognized what sounded like the beginning of an Earth spell, and nothing thereafter. The feather and flower both lifted into the air, floating around twenty centimeters above Sasha's palms and connected to her hands and each other by chains of golden energy that filled the room with warm light. Moments after the last word of the incantation, the light became almost too bright to watch for the briefest of moments, and Tetsuo doubted he was the only one who flinched then.

The crackle of energy built to a peak, and both items dissolved into motes of incandescent energy which merged with the scintillae of the spellword runes that scattered from around Sasha's body at the completion of the spell, coalescing slowly into a dog-sized form hovering in front of her. There was a short gust of displaced air as the form solidified and became corporeal, the loose strands of Sasha's braided hair fluttering briefly.

It took a moment for common sense to overcome Tetsuo's instinct to draw his weapon when he saw the water drake hovering there in the air. In that moment he almost lurched from his chair, and felt extremely foolish when it occurred to him that not only were water drakes non-aggro, but that there was no good reason to fear anything in the safe neutral territory of Arun's city limits. His suspicions about what was really going on were verified when the light blue drake gave a keening cry and fluttered over to the Cait Sith girl, whose answering cry of joy could've melted even Eugene's heart.

Okay, maybe that was taking things a bit far. But she really was acting like the family pet had just come back to life—

Tetsuo smacked his forehead. Oh.

The drake—Pina, she called it, crying out the name over and over again—seemed just as happy to see her. It practically mobbed Silica, clinging to her and licking her face in a display that was unlike any behavior he'd ever seen from a mob. Not that he really had any experience dealing with Cait Sith tamers; the only person of that race he knew personally was Sasamaru, and his friend didn't really use the Beast Taming skill much.

Keita cleared his throat suddenly, giving meaningful looks to the others of their group as he stood. "I feel like we're intruding on a family reunion," he said. "Miss Sasha, maybe my friends and I should take our gathering somewhere else."

"No, it's okay," Silica said between giggles as Pina nuzzled her face and then clambered atop her head with a trill. "I'm just really, really happy right now. Thank you, Miss Sasha. And thank you, Kirito. Without the two of you, I would've lost Pina forever. I'll be much more careful about who I go out partying with from now on, and where we go."

Sasamaru had been his usual quiet self up until that point, but Tetsuo caught motion out of the corner of his eye and saw his Cait Sith friend whispering in Keita's ear. The tall Gnome got a broad grin on his face, and gave Sasamaru a sharp slap on the back. "Say, Silica... I don't know what your level is and I wouldn't ask, but maybe sometime you'd like to go out with us?"

The girl's eyes went wide. "Really? I mean... I can go into Yggdrasil, at least in some places, but... are you sure?"

Keita nodded enthusiastically. "To be honest, we don't get together as often as we'd like... but Sachi could really use a friend closer to her age than most of the kids here, and there's usually only four or five of us when we do go out—it'd be nice to have someone else along."

Sachi raised her hand, eyeing Keita. "I'm right here, you know."

Waving apologetically, Keita grinned at her. "Really though. If you want to go out with us when we get together, just say the word. In fact, that's why we were all meeting up here—we've just been waiting for Sachi to get done with babysitting duty."

"We'd love to have you along," Sasamaru added. "Most of us are clearers, so we can protect you."

Silica looked over at Kirito for a moment—for what reason, Tetsuo couldn't guess. He smiled and gave her an encouraging nod, which seemed to be all she needed. She turned back to Keita with a glowing expression of happiness. "Yes!" she said. Tetsuo had to assume that the noise Pina followed up with was assent as well.

"Well then, that's settled," Keita said, gathering everyone up with his gaze. As his friends all got to their feet, Sachi started suddenly and turned to Sasha. "Oh, before I go, I almost forgot to mention. You might want to have a talk with Genji. He and some of the others have been practicing combat magic in the yard, and he tried to sell me some story about you saying it was okay."

"Which I most certainly did not," Sasha said archly.

"Why not?" Kirito said, saving Tetsuo the trouble of butting in and asking the same question.

Sasha gave him one of her well-worn looks meant to make him feel like he'd asked a stupid question. Kirito, to his credit, didn't seem to be buying it. "I'm serious," he said. "Why not let them practice how to take care of themselves? They can't hurt each other here in the city."

"Because it's not just 'taking care of themselves', Kirito. You should know that better than anyone here. It's one thing if they want to practice healing magic or defensive shields. But when they practice how to throw fireballs at each other, they're not just training to stay alive." Her eyes narrowed meaningfully. "They're training to kill. Most of them are too young to really know what that means. I hope they never have to find out."

"I hope so too," Kirito said. "But it would be a lot worse if they had to find that out by dying because they couldn't fend off an attacker."

"They won't have to," Sasha said firmly. "That's why I brought them here. So that they don't have to take risks outside."

"Are you really that naive?"

Sasha wasn't the only person in the room whose jaw fell open then. "I beg your pardon?"

Kirito looked around, found an open door, and made a point of shutting it before turning back to Sasha, his black eyes cold. "Do you really think that none of them ever sneak out when you're asleep or not here? That they don't practice magic whenever they can get away with it? They have wings just like every other player in the game. They get incantations automatically in their spellbook as their skill goes up, just like everyone else. They're kids who are trapped in a world that lets them cast magic spells, a world where they can fly and be fantasy heroes slaying monsters that they know they have just as much power to defeat as anyone else... and you think they're just going to forget about all of that and sit around playing in the yard just because you say so?"

It was the first time Tetsuo had ever seen Sasha speechless. He would've given every yuld in his pocket right then for a recording crystal.

"Train them," Kirito urged. "They're going to grow up with or without you, and I'd bet you anything some of the older kids are already sneaking out at night to practice and level up. Eventually some of them are going to get killed because they don't know things they need to know. You're in a position to teach them those things. And with what you know about the language of magic, you're in a position to turn some of them into better mages than anyone else in the game."

He locked eyes with her. "And to teach them how to use their magic responsibly, instead of leaving it up to them to figure that out."

·:·:·:·:·:·

"So let me see if I have this right," Jahala said in between sips at his tea. "You're proposing that the clearers of each faction agree on an order in which to prioritize which races get selected. The purpose being to ensure the races left behind are in the best possible position to clear Yggdrasil again with the remaining population and their skill sets."

Argo grinned toothily across the tavern table at him. "You get a gold star."

"No, Diabel is the one who has the gold star," Jahala said. "Which brings me to my next question: why are you talking to me and not to our leader?"

"Because you're here in Arun and I didn't feel like making the trek to Parasel." It was a good answer, and it had the benefit of being true, but it wasn't the whole story. Argo had decided to engage the lead clearers rather than the faction leaders for a variety of reasons, not least of which was that the faction leaders wouldn't be there when the choice was made—it would be made by whoever landed the Last Attack on the final boss.

But most importantly, the leadership of the clearing groups only tended to change when someone died. Faction leaders were up for re-election every month, and an agreement with this month's leader might be moot next month. This was the sort of thing that didn't really bear pointing out to people who were very loyal to their faction leader.

It wasn't a conspiracy. Not really. It just had a faint family resemblance to one, as if a conspiracy had once met a gentleman's agreement and had an indiscreet liaison that resulted in a plan to save the world.

"You understand I'll have to consult with him before agreeing to anything."

Not for the first time, Argo had doubts about the wisdom of choosing Jahala rather than some other Undine clearer. He'd always been a useful source of information, but he was so straightlaced that she had to be really careful how she approached him and got him to answer questions. She sighed in mild frustration, tail lashing involuntarily; every time it did so it created a dull thump against the wall behind her. "Do you ever think for yourself, Jahala? It's not like he's gonna be there to hold your hand when the boss is defeated."

"Not when it comes to making policy. The Undines put their faith in Diabel to lead them, and he trusts me to carry out his will. I'll present your plan to him, and give him my recommendation."

"Well, when you do, I want you to keep in mind what your faction's all about. You guys wanna save lives, right? Save as many people as possible?"

"That goes without saying," Jahala replied cautiously. "I think everyone wants that—most of us, anyway. But that's the end you're talking about, not the means—and people can differ when it comes to what means they'll employ towards their desired end." He gazed down into the small cup that held the remains of his tea, and shook it gently in a circle to stir up the dregs. "And there are two points in your plan that remain unresolved."

Argo shifted the hard candy she was sucking on into her cheek so that she could reply. "Like?"

Jahala held up his closed fist before him, and extended a slender forefinger as he ticked off his points. "First, the question of plausibility. I've yet to hear any kind of concrete proof that the game works this way—that the remaining players will be given a chance to re-clear the game and escape rather than being trapped forever."

"And you won't. It's impossible to prove until we do it," Argo said. "But consider the alternative: that Kayaba decided to screw everyone left behind and leave them with no hope, no reason to go on. Think about what you know of Kayaba. This is his life's work. He trapped twenty thousand people in here to be his captive audience and playthings. Someone clears the game and leaves behind ten, fifteen thousand players still living in this world. People who wouldn't have much reason to continue playing the game if they had no hope of ever escaping."

"And?"

Argo blew out a frustrated puff of air. Jahala had no imagination. "It's a wasted opportunity, Jahala. Whatever else he is, Kayaba is a GM and someone who put a ton of work into this game. After the game is cleared the majority of the players are still here. Chances are they won't have seen even half of the content in the game by then. Content that Kayaba spent countless hours creating. Why would he piss all that away by not giving the remaining players a reason to keep playing?"

She could almost see the hamster wheel spinning behind Jahala's eyes. "All right," he said finally. "I'll grant that your scenario is plausible. It's not proof, but it's a reasonable argument. So what do you propose?"

"There are nine races, and three can escape at a time under the terms Kayaba gave. So the second wave's got only six races to clear the tree with, and the third wave's gotta make do with only three. That third wave should be the races with the highest population and the most essential skill sets. Put simply: Undines should avoid getting the Last Attack in the first two waves if at all possible, so that every wave has access to the highest-level healing and resurrection magic."

Jahala's expression soured more and more as the explanation went on. "You're asking us to deliberately not clear the game, Argo. You're asking us to gamble the lives of everyone in our faction on whether or not you're right about this."

"This whole thing falls apart if the Undines are part of the first or second waves, Jahala. Most of the best healers in the game will be gone, and a lot more people will die to clear the game—if they can do it at all. I'm not asking you to slack off. Keep clearing. Keep fighting. And keep supplying groups with healers. But when it comes to the final boss, let someone else get the LA so that as many lives as possible can be saved in the waves that follow."

Argo gave Jahala all the time he needed to think that through in silence. The tavern was empty aside from NPCs at the moment; she'd deliberately chosen one of the least popular and most inconveniently-located establishments for this meeting.

He cleared his throat after a minute or so of this. "Let's say Diabel agrees with you. And I can't say that he won't, because the argument about saving lives is likely to be very persuasive to him. Who does get picked first? I'm guessing that you want to leave the Undines, Salamanders and Sylphs for last—the other two are the largest factions."

"You got it."

"First of all, the notion of getting the Salamanders to cooperate with the the rest of us—or vice-versa—borders on wishful thinking. But setting that side, if your priority is to leave the largest and most useful factions for last, that means the first wave would ideally be the smallest and least—" He cut off suddenly, frowning.

"Least useful," Argo agreed, making a loud crunching sound as she finished off her candy. "Meaning that ideally, we want the Last Attack to come from a Spriggan, Puca or Imp—in order of preference—and that no matter who does get the LA, they pick the other two races from that list in order."

Whatever response Argo had expected, it wasn't laughter. The normally sober and serious Jahala leaned back and laughed long and loudly, slapping the table once when his amusement died off. "I didn't take you for a joker, Argo."

"Then you don't know me very well," Argo said. "But that wasn't a joke."

"I wish it had been," Jahala said. "Because there is no way in hell Diabel is going to authorize choosing the Spriggans. Good luck getting anyone to go along with that."

"Is this about the Treaty?"

"What do you think?" The Undine clearer's tone was incredulous; Argo was again grateful for the privacy of the empty tavern. "Their leader refused to sign on, and their emissary made it clear that even if she had, it would've been impossible for her to enforce. They've had months to deal with the consequences, and judging by the fact that they keep re-electing her, apparently this is what the majority of the Spriggans want. I'll bring your message to Diabel, but I can already tell you what he's going to say."

"Which is?"

"That they've made their bed," Jahala said frostily. "And now they can lie in it."

Argo sat up in her seat and met the young man's cold gaze squarely. "This is bigger than faction politics, Jahala. Forget the damn labels for a minute and remember that we're all people. Wasn't that at the heart of the Treaty? The fact that these divisions are artificial, and that we're all human beings?"

He looked back at her just as directly. "Yes. And human beings still have to answer for the consequences of their choices. The Spriggans—that group of people, if you like—have chosen a leader who tells us that they can't be trusted to play by the same rules as everyone else. So why should we do this for them?"

"Because it's not about them," Argo said. "It's not about who deserves to go first, or who wins the Alfheim popularity contest. It's about giving the people left behind the best chance of surviving and escaping this world. Think about it this way: if the Undines were one of the races left behind, who would you most want there with you when you tackled the World Tree again? Who wouldn't you want there?"

She could see that the last argument had penetrated a bit. With a sigh, Jahala set down his teacup and pushed it away from him as he stood. "I'll talk to Diabel. But a word of advice, Argo. You get a lot of leeway because you're useful to everybody, and you're not known for taking sides. And you earned a lot of respect for the way you helped pull everyone together at the treaty summit. But this little idea of yours about prioritizing who gets out first... you're not a neutral party, here—it's your agenda that's on the table. And a lot of people aren't going to like being told that they have to fight to free someone else from this world first."

Argo nodded once. "So don't tell 'em. When the time comes to take down the final boss, there's a very finite number of people who're gonna be in a position to get that killing blow in. They're the only ones who need to know, and they only need to know once we're planning that raid and know who'll be there."

Jahala's ice-blue eyes glittered in the lamplight that guttered as the door to the pub opened, admitting a sullen-looking Salamander woman who made for a seat in the opposite corner of the L-shaped room. He waited until she was out of sight and earshot before lowering his voice and saying one final thing. "We're talking about people's lives, Argo. You're playing a dangerous game."

Argo looked back at him unblinkingly. "Aren't we all?"

·:·:·:·:·:·

"You failed," the cloaked man said. "And you failed spectacularly."

Rosalia said nothing, looking down into her wine glass as if she could find an excuse somewhere in its depths. What was there to say? Of the five warriors she'd brought with her, two were dead and a third—her own nominal second in command, Mukensha—apparently survived despite being abandoned, and had yet to return. The once-feared Titan's Hand privateer unit had lost half of its members in the span of 24 hours, and she knew more were considering leaving and signing on with other groups. They weren't here in the pub with her now, but she'd fought with them long enough to know that much about them.

It was easy to claim that this wasn't her fault, that it was simply bad luck. But groups like these thrived on success and made examples of failures; her ability to lead was dependent on her ability to deliver results.

"You took two simple robberies and turned them into clown shows," the man went on as he paced slowly around the table. His voice was conversational, unruffled, but there was a hint of steel in it, a hidden blade behind the words.

"Look," Rosalia said defensively, "I'll grant that I failed—"

"Such admirable honesty." The compliment was tainted by a sarcastic sneer that the other man didn't bother to conceal.

Rosalia decided against calling him on it; she was in deep enough as it was. "But I don't see what we could've done differently yesterday. We'd already successfully hit that group I'd been watching; how were we supposed to anticipate some high-level clearer showing up and wiping the floor with us?"

"And today? Today you already knew how strong he was. Yet you took only a single group with you and tried to take him on anyway."

"A raid party would've made too much noise and attracted too much attention," Rosalia protested, craning her head uncomfortably to follow the man as he paced around the table behind her. "We were lucky the girl didn't catch on to the tracer as it was. And we had a solid plan to even the odds by using her as leverage. He would've given up the flower if not for that damned schoolteacher."

There was no reply until a few uncomfortable beats of silence had passed. "Do you realize just how ridiculous you sound?"

Rosalia bristled. "Now listen—"

Before the second word passed her lips, she felt a strong hand tangle itself in her hair and yank her head back across the edge of the chair. The move would've risked snapping a person's neck in the real world; she cried out and tried futilely to pry at the wrist of the hand that seized her, squirming in her seat helplessly.

"No," said the voice softly in her ear as he leaned over her, his breath on her cheek. "You listen. Do you know what your problem is? You're an amateur. You do things by half-measures."

"I—"

"Silence. Back in the world you were likely a waitress or a stripper, or perhaps some yakuza punk's bitch. Once trapped in here you got a taste of power, a chance to be something more." He jerked her head by the hair again to command her attention. "But deep inside you're still the same weak, cowardly trollop who's ruled by her emotions."

As Rosalia pulled desperately at the man's arm, she felt the cool edge of a knife on her throat, and despite herself, she froze. The man laughed. "See? You know that we're in a safe zone, and that this knife can't do anything to harm you. But your fear rules you anyway." He released the fistful of her hair and gave her head a rough shove back upright.

Rubbing the back of her neck, Rosalia looked at the anti-harassment window that was hanging in front of her chest, prompting her whether or not to report the violation of her personal space and send the offender to the nearest jail for a day.

He couldn't have seen her UI, but he had to know what was there. The smile that peeked out from the shadows of the hooded cloak was inviting. "Well? You have an easy way to end this conversation right now. One fingertip will do it. All you have to do is answer yes to the prompt." The corner of his lips curled into a sneer. "And accept what will happen to you when I find you."

Slowly, with a hand she couldn't entirely stop from trembling, Rosalia pressed no.

"Good girl," he said as he slid smoothly back into the seat opposite her. "Now… tell me about this schoolteacher."