"While treating tamed pets as disposable resources is a perfectly valid playstyle, Beast Tamers who invest time and effort into one or more pets will be rewarded by building Rapport with them. Rapport with a pet increases gradually as a player spends time interacting with it, and much more quickly when performing actions beneficial to that pet—such as healing it or fighting beside it in combat. A high Rapport with a pet has many benefits, including but not limited to increasing the effectiveness of its link with the Tamer and potentially unlocking new abilities..."
—Alfheim Online manual, «Beast Taming»
28 April 2023: Day 174
Argo wasn't sure why she'd bothered to ask Kirito where he was. Although he was set as «Unfindable» even to his friends, she had other ways of tracking his whereabouts at the moment. What's more, he almost certainly knew that—or could at least guess at it.
But she knew she'd never explicitly told him before that she could track the locations of all of her pets on her map, and that wasn't information she wanted to give out for free—not even to Kirito. Not without cause.
A polite fiction, she told herself. I'm giving him the illusion of privacy—something he probably knows he doesn't have right now.
She found him deep within the suburbs of Arun, in a heavily-forested area that might almost be taken for wilderness—if not for the cobblestone roads that thinly criss-crossed it at haphazard angles, or the occasional smell of woodsmoke long before catching sight of buildings nestled into a clearing here and there. These areas were far from the World Tree, although still beneath its branches—and far from the warpgate that led to the higher levels of Yggdrasil with active gateways.
The inconvenient location made the player population fairly thin; clearers wanted to be closer to the action and merchants wanted to be where the clearers were. Here in the forest, most of the people Argo saw had the white cursor of an NPC. It was a great place to meet in private, but it bored her beyond the telling of it. There was no one to listen to besides quest NPCs, and they didn't have much to say that she hadn't already memorized.
Argo heard the river before it came into view, a narrow channel with slow, gentle waters cutting a meandering line through the forest. The road leaned to the west to cross over it, cobblestone giving way to the wooden planks of a bridge with open sides and a steeply slanted thatch roof. Kirito sat in a patch of shade on the edge of the bridge, facing away from her.
There was a fishing pole in his hands.
Argo stopped where she was, a few paces behind him. One of her ears twitched. A moment later she resumed walking, and dropped herself down into a sitting position beside him, legs alternately swinging as they dangled off the edge. Her attention was drawn to the fishing line where it disappeared into the water as she reached over to Kirito, palm held up. Something seemed off.
Wordlessly, Kirito took his nearest hand off the grip of the fishing rod and reached over as if to take Argo's hand. His stopped just short of hers, however, and with a muffled sound of rustling fabric, a shape rippled down his arm beneath the sleeve of his overcoat. A tiny pair of eyes shone briefly out of the shadow of the cuff, and then a tiny mouse with a green cursor leapt across the intervening centimeters and scampered up to Argo's shoulder.
"Thanks for that, Ki-bou."
Kirito nodded. "You were paying me. I've had worse fetch quests than 'carry small animal from point A to point B'." He turned slightly to look at her. "So what's Skarrip up to?"
Argo momentarily froze, then relaxed. "Who said anything about Skarrip?"
Kirito gave her the kind of knowing smile he used when he was sure he'd been incredibly clever about something. "You asked me to bring a message to one of your contacts in Sylvain. That message didn't say anything about the pet you wanted to hitch a ride back with me."
Argo was pretty certain Kirito had figured out what she was doing. What's more, he had to know that she knew. But she wasn't going to make it easy, so she stared blankly back at him. "And?"
"So the message was a pretense," Kirito said. "You know that Spriggans are only allowed in Sylvain if they're licensed couriers on a job. And you had to know that sending me would attract attention even for a simple message delivery."
"I'm not getting where you're going with this," Argo lied.
"I'm not dumb, Argo. If you want to pretend you are, go right ahead. I think you knew that if you sent me to deliver a message, anyone prying into what I was doing there would be focusing their attention on finding out who I was there to see and what the message was. Not on the spy you had me pick up."
"A little louder, Ki-bou," Argo said irritably. "I don't think they heard you in Gattan."
After a moment, Kirito sighed and looked back at the fishing line. "I don't mind the job, and I don't mind the pay," he said once the silence dragged on. "But I'd like some warning if I'm being used as a catspaw." Then he made a face, and glanced down at Argo's hands. "So to speak."
Argo sometimes wondered if whatever system ran ALO's dynamic content listened in on player conversations, waiting for someone to make a cat joke to a Cait Sith player. It was the only explanation she could think of for why she couldn't stop her ears or tail from doing something blatantly catlike whenever it happened. She put an effort of will into forcing her tail to stop thrashing, and gestured towards the fishing pole. "When did you pick up the «Fishing» skill?"
"So are you. Since when can clearers afford to waste a slot on a crafting skill? Just how much time have you dumped into leveling this up?"
Kirito's eyes met hers, and Argo realized she knew exactly what he was going to say just before he did it. "You tell me your story, and I'll tell you mine."
Argo weighed her options, deciding which information was pertinent and which wasn't, and how much glossing of details she could afford to do and still give him something of equal worth to the story of Kirito—a well-known Spriggan clearer, the representative from the treaty summit—leveling up his Fishing. "Deal. Spill."
"Oh no," Kirito said, reeling the line back in and standing up in order to give himself room to cast. "I asked you first."
For most people, Argo insisted on payment up front, regardless of who asked first. But she knew Kirito would abide by any deal they made, and when prodded sufficiently he could tell a good story.
"Remember when I approached you about that whole thing with who gets the Last Attack on the end boss?"
Kirito nodded. "What about it?"
"The Sylphs are one of the clearing groups I don't have completely on board yet. I need to know what Sakuya, Sigurd and Skarrip are saying to each other about it."
When Kirito realized Argo wasn't going to give any more without having it pried out of her, he tilted his head towards her with raised eyebrows. "And?"
Argo sighed, kicking her legs again. "And I'm worried about Skarrip. This goes beyond just the larper stuff. The guy says and does some weird shit. I mean like, 'elevator not going all the way to the top' shit."
"So you're saying he's crazy?"
"Big ol' bag of roasted chestnuts. But high-functioning. This is a guy who knows just how off the deep end he is, and he's decided he's really okay with it as long as he gets to keep playing his role. But you know what the weird thing is?"
There was only one correct response to that rhetorical question. "What?"
Argo leaned her head to the side, nudging the mouse on her shoulder. It slipped inside the hood of her cloak and disappeared into her clothing. "I'm pretty sure he knew this pet was there the whole time, every time I checked in on him. Like once or twice I think he actually turned and looked right at it. But it didn't stop him from going on, as if he didn't care that he had an audience."
"Why didn't you just abandon the pet then?" Kirito asked. "I don't know much about Beast Taming, but I know you can release a pet. It's not like there was any way to trace it back to anyone, even if he had the skills for it."
"No, you don't know much about Beast Taming, Ki-bou," Argo replied with a snort. "But this much you could get from the manual: the longer we have a pet, and the more we do for it and interact with it, the more «Rapport» we build with it. I have a lot of time invested in this little guy." Then she gave Kirito a smug look. "Alright, I told you mine, and I gave you a primer on Noob Pet Mechanics 101 as a freebie. So why'd you pick up the Fishing skill, and how high have you gotten it?"
Kirito smiled again as he looked back at the water. "I didn't."
Argo's own smile disappeared. "What?"
"I don't have Fishing."
Argo stared at him, down at the fishing pole, and down to the slow-moving water and the line that trailed into it. "Then… why…?"
Kirito stood up and looked at the rod in his hands as if seeing it for the first time, and shrugged, letting it drop into the water with a splash. "I picked that up at the item shop while I was waiting for you. I needed something to do, and I was curious what it was like."
"Something to do," Kirito said, dusting his hands together and crouching down to gaze at the cloudy surface of the river a few meters below. "I put bait on the pole, but I couldn't seem to get a bite."
"That," Argo said after a very long moment in which she was sorely tempted to push Kirito off the side of the bridge, "was probably because you didn't have the Fishing skill."
"I figured," Kirito said. "But you should've seen the look on your—"
It was a short drop to the water, and Kirito wasn't expecting to need to use his wings. Even under torture, Argo would have sworn up and down that bumping him was a complete accident.
He'd kept his end of the bargain to the letter, and Argo couldn't really let herself be too annoyed at him, considering that it had been her own assumptions that had tripped her up. But even so, the tip that he'd given her as a peace offering before heading back to the World Tree was a fairly juicy one, and Argo decided it was worth delaying her return to Freelia in order to follow up on it—the trip to the west end of Arun wasn't that far out of her way.
The church she sought was mid-sized and designed in the same vaguely Scandinavian style as so many other special buildings in Arun: steeply slanted roofs and timber frames, the former to better shed the weight of snow during the colder seasons and runoff during the thaws. Argo circled it once from the air, expecting to see children playing outside; there were none. Nonetheless, she had directed customers here before and was certain she had the right church, and once she'd touched down just inside the front gate she didn't even hesitate before pushing open the heavy oak door.
Most players in Arun had at least heard of the orphanage. Argo had been the one to tip off Kirito about Sasha's hobby of collecting incantations in the first place, and he hadn't been the first person to whom she'd sold that tip. But if what he'd told her in return was true, she was clearly missing more than half the story.
That just wouldn't do.
The sound of a woman's voice drew her from the foyer through a short hallway which looped around the south corner of the church in a steeply ascending stairway. This opened up on what seemed to be a spacious attic with linteled windows on either side, the vaulted ceilings reflecting the steep roof that covered them. A little over twenty children were arrayed in a semicircle several rows deep, and a young Sylph girl of perhaps ten or eleven stood to one side facing an older woman opposite her.
"Is it really okay, Miss Sasha?"
The woman smiled at the girl's words, and gave her an encouraging nod. "You're right to be hesitant to cast against another person, Jellica, but it's okay—you can't hurt me here. Just use the Magnitude 1 version of the Wind Blast spell you've been practicing. It's the one that starts with futto kachikke."
The girl still looked apprehensive, but after a moment she bit her lip and moved a hand in the air; Argo guessed that she was opening her menu and looking at her spellbook. She gave a jerky sweep of the hand as she looked up at her teacher, and held up her other hand with the first two fingers aimed directly at Sasha.
Argo leaned against the railing at the top of the stairway to watch quietly. The girl stammered the first time she tried to cast the spell, fumbling it and losing a little bit of MP; with the second time she squeezed her eyes shut and managed it. A burst of green-tinged wind surged from her fingertips and shot towards Sasha.
As Jellica's incantation neared its successful end, Sasha held out a hand palm-forward and rapidly uttered her own spell. "Zukke tamzul dweren!" Water spiraled out from her palm, manifesting as a translucent disc-shaped shield in front of her. The wind spell struck a moment later, shattering the shield into motes of light and staggering Sasha back about a meter.
The Sylph girl was wide-eyed at this outcome, on the verge of distraught. "Miss Sasha, I'm sorry! Are you okay?"
Regaining her balance, Sasha immediately smiled and waved her hand at the girl. "I'm fine—I told you beforehand, it will get through the shield but it won't hurt me; we're in a safe zone."
"I know that, but still…"
"It's okay," Sasha insisted. "This is part of the lesson. Do you know why my shield didn't stop your spell?"
One of the boys in the front row raised his hand. Sasha shook her head at him and looked back at the girl who'd cast the attack spell, whose brow was furrowed in thought.
After a few more moments, Sasha prodded. "Was there perhaps a phrase in my incantation that you didn't hear?"
The girl's lips moved silently. "You um… I heard the word for the shield."
"Tamzul," Sasha said, nodding and tucking behind her ear a stray lock of hair that had come free when the spell hit. "What else?"
"You said, um… zukke. Wouldn't it have been zutto?"
"It would have been if I'd included a magnitude phrase. But I didn't, did I? So what does that make the spell?"
A very young Salamander boy from the front row spoke up. "A noob spell!"
Argo's loud snickers joined those of the rest of the class, finally drawing Sasha's attention from across the room. The woman looked her up and down, then made a beckoning motion and called out. "I'll be done with this lesson in just a minute, young lady. You're welcome to come sit down with the others and watch in the meantime."
This woman has absolutely no idea who I am, Argo thought as she fought off the urge to laugh, rounding the corner at the top of the stairway and dropping into a cross-legged position next to one of the other kids. Who was she to argue with free information?
Returning her attention to the class, Sasha resumed her lesson. "What Genji was trying to say was that the omission of the magnitude phrase made that a Base Magnitude spell—often called a starting or beginner spell. Jellica, what magnitude was the wind spell you cast?"
"And what do you think that says about what happened when I used my shield?"
To the girl's credit, it didn't take her more than a moment to work this out. "My spell got through 'cause it was higher level than your shield?"
"Not higher level, exactly… higher magnitude. The «Defensive Shield» effect can absorb spell energy equal to its own magnitude before it breaks. If you'd been casting a Base Magnitude attack spell, my shield would have absorbed it and then broken without any getting through. If you hear someone casting a spell at you, take a moment to listen for the magnitude phrase. Make sure you cast a shield strong enough to block it."
"Why not just use your strongest shield?" This question came from a Gnome boy sitting near Argo.
Sasha answered his question with another. "What have we learned about cooldowns?"
The boy's answer was prompt; Argo suspected that had been a well-rehearsed subject. "Higher magnitudes make the cooldown longer for that kind of spell."
"For that effect," Sasha said, correcting him slightly. Looking back over the class, she resumed using what Argo decided to categorize as her "lecture" voice. "When you use an effect, it puts that effect on cooldown for that magnitude and all below it. So if you always used, let's say, your M4 shield, magnitudes base through 4 would be on cooldown for that spell—and because the length of the cooldown increases with the magnitude, they would all be unavailable for longer. There's no need to do that if someone is only using an M2 spell."
Clapping her hands once, Sasha made a gesture that drew all of the kids to their feet; Argo followed suit after a moment's delay. "Now then, let's divide up into pairs. All of you have at least one school of magic at 200 or above. I want you to take turns casting your Direct Damage attack spell at your partner, who will use their Defensive Shield. Cast slowly at first, and don't tell your partner what magnitude you're using until after you've both cast. The defender should listen and try to match the magnitude of their shield to the magnitude of the attacking spell."
Argo made a point of not partnering up with anyone; she was the odd person out anyway. Once the exercise was under way, the schoolteacher took the bait and approached her. "Thank you for waiting. I'm Sasha—can I help you?"
"Probably," Argo said cheerfully. "What's this I hear about you cracking the code for how the magic system works?"
Sasha's smile didn't disappear, but Argo could tell she was suddenly making an effort to maintain it. "I'm sorry, young lady, but do I know you from somewhere?"
Argo shrugged, ears flicking around in different directions as the children around her continued with their exercises. "Not directly, but I'd be surprised if you hadn't heard of me. Name's Argo. I've sent more than a few people your way because of your little spell-collecting hobby." She grinned. "You're welcome. I talked to someone recently who said you'd put a whole lotta time into researching the language of magic and figuring out how it works, and that you can make your own spells."
"That's true, and… wait." Sasha stopped suddenly in mid-sentence, giving Argo a more critical look. "I've heard that name before. You're the information merchant. You told Kirito and Silica to come to me. Why are you here?"
Briefly, Argo wondered what had happened to make this woman so wary of her. Kirito certainly hadn't suggested that his business with Sasha had been anything but satisfactory. She took a good look around the room to give herself time to think of how to adjust her approach, openly admiring the work of the students. This Sasha was obviously not just playing at being a teacher—she was a teacher, and Argo would've bet any amount of Yuld that she'd been one back in the real world. She clearly loved what she was doing.
And if there was one truth that had always been a constant through Argo's school years, it was this: teachers with a passion for their work were easy to manipulate.
"I was really impressed by what Kirito said about your work with the language of magic. Words are kinda my thing, I'm good at languages, and I love a good puzzle. So when I heard that you'd actually learned the language and become fluent in it… well…" She gave Sasha her best smile and shuffled her feet a little, knowing that her youth and Cait Sith features would probably enhance her performance to good effect. "I had to come see for myself, see what I could learn."
Pin pon, Argo thought triumphantly as she watched the expression on Sasha's face change. "Well isn't that nice? You're welcome to join our class, you know. In which elements are you proficient?"
The answer to that was "none"—her skills were largely devoted to melee combat, beast taming and stealth—but that wasn't something Argo was about to admit at any price. Instead, she countered with a proposal of her own, hoping it would moot or evade the question. "Actually, I was kinda hoping we could make a deal. I know a whole lotta spells—I mean, I've memorized the words to them. Hundreds. I'm real good at that. And I'm willing to tell you all of 'em. I'd bet there's some in there that you haven't heard before."
"And?" Sasha inquired. A little bit of the wariness returned to her face, but she couldn't conceal the hunger that vied for expression. "A deal implies some sort of exchange of value. What do you want from me that would be worth what you're offering?"
"Your notes," Argo said. "I want to read your notes about this language—vocabulary, grammar, the works. All the stuff you wrote while you were figuring it out. You can keep them. I just want to read them—they won't even leave this building."
Sasha's look of wariness evolved into mild disbelief. "That's all? You just want to read my working notes? Not even study them—just read them?"
Argo smiled again, face dimpling. "Don't worry, I can remember stuff. We got a deal?"
Sasha hesitated once more, eyes making a practiced circuit of the room; Argo presumed she was looking for students who needed help. Sighing, she made a graceful motion in the air to open her menu. "Why do I get the distinct feeling that I'm making a mistake by doing this?"
"Because you're a teacher, and I'm a kid," Argo replied without missing a beat. "It's kinda your job to suspect shenanigans. In this case, though, I just wanna learn—and unless I misunderstood what's going on here, that's your job too. I got stuff you wanna know, and in exchange you lose… nothing. Win-win. So we got a deal?"
At first, Argo wasn't sure she was going to get a quick answer. Sasha looked at her, almost past her, eyes searching for deception. Hiding feelings and micro-expressions from being animated by the emotion simulation system ranged from difficult to impossible; Argo had a lot of practice keeping a straight face, but this time—as usual—it was so much better that everything she'd said happened to be true.
After a minute of this, Sasha turned to the class and clapped her hands for attention. "Excellent work, all of you. Let's break for lunch; we'll resume the lesson at twelve-thirty and review your progress." Then she faced Argo again, and this time the look on her face was decisive.
Author Note 11/6/13: Once again, my deepest and most sincere apologies for the wait on this chapter. As I noted in my profile updates, my life got completely turned upside down this year, and among other things I've been swamped for the last month getting wrapped up at my job, moved into a new apartment and cleaning out the old house.
Now that the dust is starting to settle, my full-time focus for November is this story.
Today marks one year since the first chapter of this story was published-and I figured what better way to mark that anniversary than with a new update? So despite all the chaos in the apartment and stuff waiting to be unpacked, I've been trying like hell to get this chapter finished in time. One year, 19 chapters, 158,902 views, 671 reviews, 949 faves, and 1,020 followers. Thank you, all of you, for your loyal and patient readership! It will not be in vain.