"While Alfheim Online is a competitive PVP game, that does not mean harassment outside of the scope of combat will be tolerated. The fact that this is a virtual environment where players can directly affect the tactile senses of others means that extra care must be taken to prevent and punish sexual harassment and the violation of another's physical space. Lingering physical contact between one avatar and another that is not part of combat or another acceptable action (such as a Touch-based spell effect) will present the receiver of this action with a prompt asking them to confirm whether or not this contact is unwanted. Depending on the player's set preferences, accepting this prompt will either repel the initiator of the unwanted contact with system-generated physical force, or teleport them to the nearest NPC jail for 24 hours..."
Alfheim Online manual, «Anti-Harassment System»

5 May 2023: Day 181 - Midmorning

"Well, well," Sakuya said as Klein and his group materialized on the other side of the portal. "Look what the Cait Sith dragged into this raid."

Klein was aware that he was grinning stupidly, but he couldn't really help it. It seemed like it had been ages since he'd seen the tall, elegant Sylph clearer, and the last time they'd met had not precisely been under the best of circumstances. Hands at his sides, he bowed to her with what he thought was an appropriate level of respect, then yelped as Thelvin nearly collided with him from behind on his way through the Corridor Crystal's portal. The heavier man's mass almost sent him sprawling before Thelvin's hand snapped out and grabbed his belt, pulling him back upright.

"Yeah, by the way, Leader," said Issin. "Might want to not stand in front of the portal that people are stepping through."

Klein liked to think he'd managed to straighten himself quickly and smoothly enough to plausibly pretend that he'd meant to do that. He glanced over his shoulder past Thelvin—who snorted, not the least bit fooled—just in time to see the deep blue rift in space ripple and collapse behind the player who'd opened it. "That portal?" he said.

"That portal," Issin said.

"That portal," Thelvin added a moment later.

Klein scratched at the base of his neck, keenly aware that he'd beclowned himself. He turned to the pretty woman who'd first addressed him. "Sakuya," he said. "How ya been?"

"Reasonable," she said with a wry grin and a noticeable lack of commitment or detail in her answer. "I see you found your friends."

"You remember?"

Sakuya raised one dark green eyebrow. "As if I could forget." She turned to a cluster of Sylphs whom Klein assumed must be the other members of her group. "This guy," she said with a laugh and a gesture of her thumb towards him. "The day after launch, right? The Sals were kicking our asses with both feet. He shows up in the Ancient Forest with this Imp friend of his and meets up with one of ours, and of course we all think they're raiders, spies or the like. And he spins this story—"

"It wasn't a story," Klein protested, as if that weren't completely obvious in retrospect.

"—about how all of his riaru friends made different characters from different factions, and he just wants to pass through to look for them. So I took him to Skarrip—"

"At swordpoint," Klein put in.

"Long story short," Sakuya said, giving Klein an amused look, "I got Fearless Leader's blessing and gave him an escort to the Cait Sith border. Never saw him again; I figured he'd gotten himself ganked."

"Great story," Thelvin said with a clap of his gauntleted hands as he walked up to them. "Wish I'd been there."

"No you don't, Thel," Sakuya said, giving him a poke in his thickly armored side with one delicate finger; Klein wondered if he even felt it.

"But we'd better get moving," Thelvin continued without missing a beat. He glanced over to the other Sylph group; there was a tall man there with light green hair restrained by a rare-looking gold circlet inset with jewels, and the expression on the man's face radiated impatience and annoyance.

Sakuya glanced at the man as well, her own expression clouding. She twirled one finger in the air, rallying her group. "Kidding aside, Klein, I'm glad you found the people you were looking for. Those were dark days."

"For everyone," Thelvin said as they approached the door to the boss room and gave it a long look up and down. His gaze slid over to a nervous-looking Puca woman with round, thin-rimmed glasses—Klein did a double take at that; as far as he knew, physical handicaps like nearsightedness didn't translate over from the real world, which meant that she wore them because she wanted to. Then the tall Cait Sith glanced at him. "Klein, you and your people are the only ones here who have any firsthand experience with this boss. You mind if I rearrange groups real quick?"

Klein frowned. "My guys and I usually all party together; you know that. What did you have in mind?"

Thelvin's intelligent eyes darted between each of them. "I want to move Issin over to one of our Ranged DPS groups, and Harry to Melee DPS. Then I want to take Bourne and Sasha here and put them in your group."

Klein looked back at the Puca woman; from the timing of her reaction to Thelvin's naming, he assumed that she must be Sasha, and that the freaking gigantic Gnome man beside her was Bourne. The woman had long braided brown hair and he supposed she was sort of cute, if you were into those nerdy types—she was no Alicia, that was for sure. Alicia. Damn...

He forced that distracting train of thought away and mulled over Thelvin's request for a moment. Dale was their healer, while Dynamm and Kunimittz were magic DPS with buffs and debuffs, respectively. Both Bourne and Sasha were wearing robes, which suggested he was turning the party into a mage group, with Klein tanking. "If that's what you think is best," he said finally. "Issin, Harry, you guys cool with that?"

Issin grinned, drawing an arrow from his quiver and twirling it in his hand. "Remember bro, I used to be in Thelvin's group about six thousand years ago. I trust his judgment."

Harry simply shrugged amiably and hefted his shield. "Up to you, Leader."

Klein turned and bowed to Thelvin. "They're in your hands, man. Take good care of my buddies."

"And you take good care of Sasha," Thelvin said, deadly seriousness invading his words in contrast to all the previous levity. "No matter what happens, you keep her alive. Understand? Bourne will explain what's going to happen and what you should expect."

"Don't worry," Klein said fiercely, giving the Puca woman a confident look that he hoped was reassuring. "No one dies in my party."

·:·:·:·:·:·

It was Silica's first time in the sewers below Arun. By the time she'd reached the neutral capital of Alfheim in the second wave of players following the clearing of the Valley of Butterflies, the areas that had been level-appropriate for her were either much deeper in the Lower Sewers below even the areas where Kirito and his friends were currently farming, or the outdoor areas that surrounded Arun and the World Tree in Yggdrasil Basin and the four named valleys that led to it. Given the choice between disgusting tunnels filled with slimes and rats and who-knew what else, and fields of flowers and grass filled with animal and pixie mobs, she'd had no difficulty deciding where she wanted to spend her time partying.

But that had been five months ago; an eternity for someone her age. She'd had a lot of growing up to do in the time since, and the outdoor zones turned out to have their own fair share of gross mobs that turned her stomach and made her want to take a two-hour bath after fighting them. Now, with the benefit of all those months of experience and hardening, the reality of the Upper Sewers was far less distressing than she'd expected. Once they'd cleared their way past the first layer of claustrophobic tunnels and found a path leading down to the next level, the architecture had opened up and revealed a network of vast stonework chambers with lots of open space and high ceilings in which Pina could spread his wings and fly.

This is a sewer? she wondered as the raid group of children made their way through some kind of broad tunnel with a river of brackish water running through the center, the flow spilling into a cavernous nexus where arched stone bridges carried criss-crossing channels of water to various side tunnels. Pina gave a joyful cry as he flew out of the mouth of the tunnel and did loops out in the open air in a way that made Silica wish she could fly underground. Several of the children in the raid were Imps; they could fly underground and were having no end of fun teasing the others who couldn't every time an area like this opened up and let them flex their wings.

"Be nice, Jeinaa," Sachi called out as one of the Imp children reached out to swat Robert when she buzzed past the group. But Robert was laughing too, and when Jeinaa zoomed past the group again, he swung his little round shield and tried to knock her out of the air.

"Robert!" Silica squeaked. "Not cool! Remember, we're not in a Safe Zone anymore; you could actually hurt her!" Pina, picking up on her alarm, yipped his own stern admonition.

"It's not just my imagination, is it?" asked Sachi as she watched Silica's pet water drake soar happily through the open air, taking advantage of the fact that there weren't any aggro mobs to worry about in the immediate vicinity. "He's gotten bigger."

Silica nodded, keeping an eye on the kids as they picked their way down the stairs. "Especially in the last few weeks. I don't know why—I haven't fed him anything different! Maybe he's leveling up too?" Sachi giggled.

In truth, Silica had some idea—or at least a vague suspicion. When she'd gotten the Pneuma Flower that allowed Sasha to resurrect Pina, her pet had seemed no different than she'd remembered him, and if there had been any minor differences, she'd been too overjoyed to have him back to notice them. She had noticed that her Rapport stat with him had maxed out, which didn't surprise her from what little she knew of how that system worked—saving his life had to count for quite a lot!

But she hadn't thought anything of it until about a week later, when he'd seemed to… grow.

Pina had always been about the size of a small dog—really, if not for his wings, he wouldn't have been much bigger than her pet cat back in the real world for which he'd been named. One of his favorite places to rest used to be on top of her head, nested between her large triangular ears—something she found impossibly cute and really missed having him do. But gradually, over a period of weeks, he'd put on more and more mass until now he was almost half her size. He couldn't perch on her shoulder or her head anymore, although he still loved to curl up next to her when she slept.

"Silica?" Sachi's voice came from far below her.

"Hmm? Oh! Sorry!" Silica silently berated herself for not paying attention; she was supposed to be one of the grownups here! The others had finished carefully making their way down the stone stairs that zig-zagged down the side of the wall towards the next walkway, and she was the only one still standing at the mouth of the tunnel. Pina flew up and chirped at her, butting her face with his; she laughed and hop-stepped down the stairs to catch up with her friend.

Silica liked Sachi quite a lot. Despite being several years older than her, there were times when she almost seemed like Silica's imouto—Sachi's level was lower than her own, and from what she understood the older girl's fear and social anxiety had once been far more crippling than it was now. She felt protective of Sachi the way she might've if she'd actually had a younger sister of her own, and she wondered if the time they'd been spending together had had anything to do with the way the Undine girl had started to come out of her shell and shed her fears.

As she watched Pina fly over to Sachi and give her a similar head-bump, she recalled that he seemed to like her, too. Silica wondered if that was carried over from her in some way through the bond they shared as pet and tamer, or if it was his own volition. A part of her knew, deep down, that Pina was just a collection of coded behaviors the way mobs were, but there were times when he seemed so real, so alive—like he had a personality of his own, very different from the feral water drakes in the Valley of Rainbows where she'd first found him.

"C'mere, Pina!" she called out. The drake swooped obediently over with a high-pitched kyuui sound, hovering in front of her. "Lemme show you something cool," she told Sachi with a grin. She opened her menu and navigated to her inventory, set it visible so that Sachi could see what she was doing, and switched over to a new inventory tab that had appeared a week ago. "Pina's got his own inventory now!" she said, pointing at the header at the top of the tab.

"Cool!" said one of the children who'd gathered around to watch whatever it was the "older kids" were doing. "So you can give him all your heavy stuff!"

Silica laughed, tossing her head in a way that made the twin sidetails of her hair bob. "Naaaah. His weight limit isn't very high, but it does let me do this." She dragged several items from her own inventory onto Pina's, and when she was done, swept her menu closed. "Pina, Home!"

The water drake gave off a loud trill of acknowledgement, then spiraled up through the air until he reached the level from which they'd just come, chirping one last time before zooming back down the long tunnel to the entry level.

"What did that do?" Sachi asked.

"Pina's gonna take a bunch of stuff and drop it off back at the church," she said proudly. "Someone'll let him in, and he'll take it right up to our room! Then he'll come back and find me wherever I am."

"I want one!" said Jellica with a pout, the Sylph girl's head tilted upwards with a look of longing until Pina was no longer visible.

Silica patted the slightly younger girl on the shoulder with a smile. "I'd show you how to tame one if I could," she said. "But only Cait Sith can tame mobs."

"That's not fair!" Jellica said insistently. "Who made that rule?"

"It's just the way things are," Sachi said. "Just like you get the Wind Magic skill for free and are better at it. Same with me and Water Magic."

The young blond girl's expression remained mildly sullen. "It's still not fair," she said. "Everyone should be able to have pets."

"Anyone can," Silica said. "But a Cait Sith has to tame it first. I tell you what—when we get back, I'll talk to Miss Sasha. Once you guys get to level 10, I'll take you to the Valley of Rainbows where I found Pina, and I'll see if I can tame a water drake for anyone who wants one. Okay?"

There was a chorus of enthusiastic acceptance from more than a few of the kids, which made Silica wonder if she'd just made a promise she couldn't keep. She hoped not. "Come on," she said, seeing some of the others begin to fidget in boredom; half of the raid group had already started making their way across the bridge to an unexplored branch tunnel waiting on the other side.

Silica carefully stepped along the meter-wide strip at the edge where the water wasn't running—it was risky; the stone was slippery from all the dampness and the drop to the deeper channel below looked like it was a long, long way. But from the few tentative steps she'd taken, the surface of the concave depression in the middle of the bridge where the ankle-deep water flowed was even more slippery, coated with a layer of some kind of algae or other nasty, unnamed substance. The running water had tugged at her feet as she went, and she'd nearly lost her footing more than once before deciding to take her chances along the rim.

When she looked up, she saw Sachi ahead of her taking the same cautious steps, and the cluster of younger kids still making their way across the bridge were imitating them. Sachi's hands were trembling where she held them out to her sides for balance, and she stopped for a few beats to look back, giving Silica a nervous smile.

"It's okay, Sachi, we're almost there," Silica reassured her. "Just a few more—"

It was the sound as much as the sudden motion that cut her short. There was a loud, echoing thunk, as of solid metal machinery falling into place within thick stone, and a heavy lattice of ornate iron bars slid down along a recessed track in the wall of the tunnel entrance with a groan and rattle, the spiked ends slotting neatly into holes in the stonework of the floor. Jellica narrowly avoided being crushed by the closing of the gate, leaping away with a yell and falling on her back into the dank stream running across the bridge. Her momentum caused her to nearly slide into the line of children still on the bridge site of the gate, stopping just short of disaster. The air filled with the squeals and cries of frightened kids who had no idea what was happening.

Sachi waved her arms, then seemed to think better of the gesture as she herself nearly lost her balance. "Quiet, everyone, quiet! Let's stop and figure this out."

That had taken the words right out of Silica's mouth. She stopped and did a mental count of who was on this site of the gate. Robert, Jellica, Makiko, Jeinaa, a Cait Sith boy with brown-and-silver striped hair named Yewta… she kept counting; including herself and Sachi, there were nine in total, amounting to not quite half of the raid.

"Kai," Sachi said, addressing a long-haired Spriggan boy trapped on the other side with the others, who at eleven was one of the oldest besides her and Silica. "Cast your Light spell and keep everyone together; don't let anyone wander off." The boy nodded, chest swelling at being nominated to be "in charge", and spoke the incantation for the aforementioned spell, aiming his hand at the ceiling of the tunnel to place a stationary light source there.

Silica spoke up. "She's right, everyone. No running off and trying to find a way around—we don't know what's down those tunnels yet, or why that gate closed. All of you over there, look around on the floor and walls, see if there's a switch or anything."

"Maybe somebody stepped on a pressure plate, or broke a tripwire," Robert suggested, scratching at the scraggly red hair that covered his head. "That always happens in movies."

"This isn't a movie," Jellica pointed out, looking at all of the muck staining her forest-green robes with a twist to her face that seemed as if she despaired of having to wear them like that for the rest of her life.

"Nah," replied the Salamander boy as he wiped one of his own soiled hands on her shoulder under the guise of patting her reassuringly. "But it is a video game, and that stuff happens in those too. Plus the guy who made all this prolly watched a whole lotta movies."

"There was that loud sound right before it came down," said Makiko. Everyone around Silica started slightly in surprise; the little pink-haired Leprechaun girl rarely spoke, and when she did it was usually terse banalities like asking someone to pass the salt. "It didn't come from the gate." She looked down at her feet suddenly, embarrassed, as if that had exceeded her allowed quota of words for the day.

"Makiko's right," Silica said, realizing it was true as soon as the girl pointed it out. She turned and looked up in the direction of the tunnel from which they'd came, which poked out from the tall angled wall that rose twenty meters above and behind them, water spilling out in a thin fall that rained down onto and continued across the bridge. "It came from somewhere up there."

"Delayed trap?" asked Yewta brightly, his tabby-striped tail twitching with excitement. Silica frowned; he obviously thought this was the coolest thing to happen to them all morning.

"Let's not start talking about traps," Sachi said, clearly trying to keep the growing nervousness out of her voice. "There's probably just a puzzle here we don't know about."

We should just wait for Kirito, Silica thought. We just saw him a few minutes before we headed down to this level, so he'll probably check in on us sometime in the next fifteen minutes or so. He'll know what to do!

It was a tempting thought, but she didn't voice it. Some of the younger kids trapped on the other side of the gate were already starting to cry, although the more resilient among them were trying to be reassuring. They could be waiting down here for a while, and in the meantime plenty of them would be getting more and more nervous and scared—including Sachi, she suspected.

Besides, wasn't the entire point of this adventure to show that they could handle themselves out in the world? What would Sasha think if they had to go back and tell her that they got trapped until Kirito came to bail them out? It wouldn't matter so much to Silica and Sachi, who could come and go as they pleased, but Sasha might never let the younger ones out of her sight again.

They had to solve this themselves. What's more, she knew, it had to be solvable—something like that didn't happen by accident; it was designed that way by someone at Argus. Sachi was right: there was a puzzle here that they weren't seeing. They just had to settle down, use their brains, and figure it out.

"Jeinaa," Silica said. "You can fly; come with me. The rest of you stay here. Sachi, can you stay and watch everyone while we look for a switch or something?" When Sachi nodded in relief, giving her a nervous smile, Silica turned and started carefully picking her way up the stairs to the top. Jeinaa simply flew straight up, long violet ponytail streaking behind her; she rose slowly so as not to get too far ahead of Silica.

But when Silica was only a few meters below the summit of the last switchback in the narrow staircase, Jeinaa gave a loud squeak and zoomed back away from the mouth of the tunnel. "Silica, watch—"

The warning came just as Silica had reached up to grab the lower lip of the pipe egress, pulling herself up onto one of the drier banks to one side of the channel. The motion brought her face to face with something shiny and alarmingly sharp, startling her enough that she lurched backwards and lost her footing. Her arms flailed for purchase, and only the timely intervention of someone grabbing her wrist saved her from a long fall to the bridge below—or, worse, a longer fall to the water if she'd missed it.

"Thanks!" she said, trying to calm herself as she managed to catch the edge with her other hand and allowed herself to be hauled up into the tunnel. "I thought I was—"

Her words caught in her throat and turned into a choked sound and a glare as she got a good look at her savior.

"What's wrong, dear Silica-chan?" said Rosalia as she let go of Silica's arm, taking a step back and leaning on the shaft of her pike. "Here I thought you'd be so happy to see me."

·:·:·:·:·:·

The cavern was uncomfortably dark. Sasha suspected that if they didn't have a handful of mages leading the way with Light spells, they wouldn't have been able to see anything at all. She recalled that many subterranean zones were lit by orelight—the deposits of naturally luminescent crystalline metals that laced the ground beneath Alfheim; they were used for a vast number of purposes by crafters of all sorts.

But this zone wasn't subterranean—it was buried somewhere in the heart of the World Tree. She idly wondered what the correct term for that would be. Sub-arboreal? No, that would imply it was beneath the tree. Intra-arboreal? She nodded to herself, accepting it for the moment. That would do until she got home; she resolved to visit the Library of Arun and find a book on setsuji—affixes—that would satisfy her curiosity.

"As soon as the young miss here casts," rumbled the voice of the large Gnome man beside her, drawing her attention back to the explanation in progress, "her health is going to drop to almost nothing. When that happens—" He reached out and put his hand on the shoulder of the other Gnome in the party, whom the Salamander of the group had named as Dale. "You touch her like this and cast your basic HOT."

"Heal Over Time?" Dale asked. "That's twice as expensive as my M5 heal—even more than my M6. If she'll be that low, why not start running the mags for all my heals, Base to Sixth? And why not the Focus version?"

"Touch has a shorter cooldown than Focus," Bourne said, stepping around a pillar that loomed out of the darkness like a monument. "And the incantation is quicker. The boss will be coming for her the moment her spell hits. I have a spell that will protect her, but you won't be able to heal her while she's inside of it, and you'll only have time to get off one spell before it takes effect."

"Okay," said Dale. "And? That means it's important to make that one spell count."

"Aye," Bourne said. "So listen carefully. My «Mountain Retreat» has a base duration of twelve seconds—one third the duration of your HOT—and in that time, your HOT will heal the same amount as your M3 direct heal, and it'll keep healing for another 24 seconds after that. But your M3 heal has a cooldown of 15 seconds, and if you cast it instead of the HOT, it means all of your direct heals from Base to Third Magnitude would still be on cooldown for three more seconds when my spell drops."

"Vuchaz is on a different cooldown than chaz," Sasha said.

Bourne nodded, giving her a very curious look. "Quite correct, milady. By using the HOT up front, it'll keep healing you while you're protected and all of Dale's direct heals will still be available when my spell drops." He looked over his shoulder at Dale; she could faintly see the larger man's bearded face silhouetted by Dynamm's magelight. "Then you start running the mags, lowest to highest. I'll be doing the same as soon as I get my own regen on her; between the two of us we should have her back up to full quickly. Don't forget to refresh your HOT right before it runs its duration."

Sasha apparently wasn't the only person who was awestruck into speechlessness at the conclusion of Bourne's advice. It wasn't as though she didn't know all of that herself, but up until this point she'd never met anyone else with such a strong grasp of spellcasting mechanics and tactical healing. While she had plenty of experience healing for a small party, she could tell she was in the presence of someone who not only knew his magic—possibly as well as or better than she did—but had practical experience putting it to work in a raid group. She was itching to pull him aside and talk to him about the language of magic, to see if he understood its potential the way she did.

It also drove home another lesson for her—Undines might have a huge racial advantage with healing spells, and exclusive access to some of the most potent healing and resurrection magic, but that didn't mean you had to be an Undine to be an effective healer.

The only sound for a time was the shuffling and thumping of the raid group's footsteps, which Sasha could hear all around her despite only being able to see a handful of people outside of her own group. She could pick out the light sources of the other mages, which followed them like fireflies and created islands of light in the darkness, islands occluded intermittently by the obelisks that jutted toothlike from the broken tiled floor.

"Klein, old buddy," Dale said finally. "I get the feeling I been healing us all wrong for the last six months."

Klein reached over and punched Dale in the shoulder. "No complaints here, man; you've kept us all alive this long. But you better be taking notes."

After what felt like an eternity and a half of carefully picking their way through the obstacle-strewn dark passage, Sasha saw the lead groups come to a halt and extinguish their magelights. There was actual ambient light now, and it came from a dimly-lit chamber that widened, arena-like, from the cavernous hallway and turned into what seemed to be a dead end. Here and there in the room there were what appeared to be giant-sized versions of furniture and litter; gnawed, car-sized animal bones and other discarded detritus were scattered irregularly throughout.

At the other end of this chamber, far out of spellcasting range, was the boss.

It had to be. Sasha hadn't seen a Jotunn mob since passing through the Valley of Giants, but the creature sitting at the stone slab bench and table that rose from the floor looked a lot like every other Frost Giant she'd seen: massive, with extremely pale skin and the blue lips of someone who'd been out in the cold for far too long, covered with brownish-blue hair everywhere a human might grow it.

Except this one was bigger. Much, much bigger. And just as it had been described to her, it seemed to boast an extra pair of arms beyond the two granted to most living creatures, the bottom pair of which were folded in its lap. These arms were supremely muscled, and one of them was lifting a drink of some kind to its mouth.

It paused there just as the rim of the barrel-sized tankard touched its blue lips, yellow eyes sliding slowly to the side as it tilted its head at an uncanny angle and regarded the newcomers to its realm. A rumbling began to echo through the chamber, as if an earthquake were beginning; it took Sasha a few moments to realize that it was a tiger-like growl that started in the Jotunn's chest and resonated through the chamber.

"Formation!" Thelvin called out. "OT groups with mine, establish aggro! Mage groups, no casting except for buffs and heals! Sigurd, hold your people's fire until I call for DPS!"

A familiar fear began to eke into Sasha's bones once again, and it was all she could do to not back away and flee headlong from the boss room. She didn't belong here. She wasn't supposed to be here. Even a glancing blow from this thing could probably one-shot her. What was she even thinking?

She must have been shaking. The Salamander, Klein, seemed to notice; he took a hand from his katana and reached out to squeeze her arm once. "I got you," he said. "Keep me between you and the boss until you're ready to cast."

The ground shook beneath her with every footstep of the boss; when it collided with the Cait Sith tank groups with a sound like a multi-car pileup, it took another effort of will for her not to flee despite Klein's reassurance. She caught a blur of green as the translucent blade of its axe slashed out; Thelvin planted himself and slanted his shield, which redirected the bulk of the force over his head. It reached out with one of its open hands and snatched with frozen fingers at Thelvin, who leapt out of the way of the grab, then tucked his shoulder and rolled further as another empty hand formed a sheath of stone around it and hammered the ground where he'd been. The giant roared in annoyance at the evasion of its prey, and sent a fireball surging towards Thelvin, who couldn't get his shield up in time; the projectile exploded against him and sent him and one of his group members tumbling backwards. The silver glow of a reactive heal sheeted across him to restore some of the lost HP, but he was still almost down by a quarter.

Sasha trembled, and tried to force her hands to be still; she'd never be able to cast a spell while she was shaking this badly. If this was what it was like when someone else had aggro, what was it going to be like when this thing came for her?

Don't think about it, she told herself as the din of battle rose in her ears. Don't think about it. You can't think about it. You're just scaring yourself. You have to just do it. Just wait for the signal. Wait for Thelvin. Thelvin knows what he's doing. He promised to protect you. Klein promised to protect you. Just—

"We've got its attack patterns down!" yelled Thelvin as he backed his group out of range to recover, quaffing a potion while his healer refreshed the HOT and wards on him. The OT groups converged and closed the gap he left, buying him time. "Wind, Water, Earth, Fire! Sasha, give the OT groups ten seconds to build hate and then bring down that shield!"

Ten. This was it. Sasha tried to force calm into herself, tried to force herself to breathe—not because her avatar needed oxygen, but as an exercise, as a way of stilling her thoughts.

Seven. Her breaths began to slow, and she focused on each one, on synchronizing them with the count in her mind. She looked up, and saw Klein looking back at her. He didn't seem the least bit nervous or frightened—well of course, he must've done this a dozen times before, and he was actually high enough level to be here.

He gave her an affable smile and a thumbs up. "I got your back, lady. Do what you gotta do."

Four. She closed her eyes and reviewed the order in her mind one last time. Wind, Water, Earth, Fire. The fact that fire comes at the end means that I can use zuru for that instead of tovaku without worrying about element confusion, so that'll save some MP.

"Now!" Thelvin screamed, loudly enough to be heard all the way back in Arun.

Sasha opened her eyes, The OT groups split up from each other, flanking the boss on two opposite sides—keeping it fixed in place and leaving her a clear line of sight directly to her target. Klein had stepped aside as well, and Dale was suddenly right next to her, hand poised and ready to reach out.

"Fuppa zuppa doppa hitto yojikke," she chanted, both hands presented in front of her with the heels of her palms pressed together, thumbs aligned and her other fingers spread wide as she sighted down the tips of her thumbs. With each element she incanted, glowing runes spun around her and locked into place, and multiple colors of spell energy began to gather in her palms.

"Nushlavi plorjabi navraki zure, nibralth… chayojan!"

At the utterance of nibralth, the HP bar in her status gauge started glowing along with the MP bar, both pulsing along the length of them to show what the spell in progress was going to cost. The moment that she finished speaking the manifestation phrase at the end, almost the entirety of her HP and MP drained in an instant with the completion of the spell. A pulse of green energy surged down her arms and erupted from her hands as a projectile-based Silence effect; before it had even finished doing so, it was followed by the blue pulse of the Delay. The Earth-bound Stumble effect was next in a flash of yellow, and at the end came a flaming Direct Damage fire bolt.

The four effects shot away from her in the staccato succession of the multi-projectile manifestation, which—as she'd predicted—assigned each effect to a separate projectile, since the number of effects matched the number of projectiles. One after another they struck the boss over the span of about a second, each producing a heartbeat-length flash of color before the next impacted and overrode it. When the final projectile hit, the shield flashed white. With a sound like every window in a skyscraper shattering at once, a blinding cascade of silvered polygons sprayed outwards like the shower of glass that would result from that; many of the clearers scattered themselves and flattened to the ground before realizing that this was simply an audio-visual effect.

The boss of the 25th gateway, the Jotunn Lord «Hrungnir the Impervious», turned its gaze upon the person who'd dared do this to it. Football-sized glowing yellow eyes fixed themselves upon Sasha across the fifty meters that separated them.

Sasha felt a hand on her shoulder. She barely noticed it as she locked eyes with the thing that meant to kill her.

Hrungnir roared once, and charged.

·:·:·:·:·:·

With each step that Rosalia and the Salamander archer behind her took down the stairs, Silica backed further away, until she found herself turning away from them because it was safer than trying to walk backwards across the slippery bridge. Jeinaa, hovering beside her, gave her a nudge back towards the middle when she felt like she was starting to lose her balance, and glided to a landing beside Silica once the two of them joined the others. "Pass the word," Silica hissed quietly. "Tell Kai to take the others down the tunnel and find their way out. Get away from here."

The butt of Rosalia's pike prodded her in the back, causing her to stagger and almost slip again. "No talking out of turn," admonished the Salamander woman, a sly smile spreading across her rose-colored lips. Two Imps clad in black and purple—one with a slender rapier-like dagger and one with a short bow—took up station in the air on either side of the bridge, hovering in place in a way Silica knew they could maintain for some time. She froze. The aim of the archers was indirect enough that it could've been at any of them, but she didn't want to take any chances—and apparently neither did her captors.

Rosalia looked around meaningfully. "Your pet bird is missing, dear," she observed. "And after all you went through to get that damned flower. How tragic!"

Silica bristled, hair standing slightly on end and triangular ears laid back flat against her head—a reaction that only drew mirth from Rosalia, who covered her mouth half-heartedly with her free hand. "Pina's not dead!" she said hotly. "I sent him on an important mission. And when he gets back, you'll be sorry—he's gotten a lot bigger!"

If anything, this made Rosalia laugh ever harder. "Gods save us from the fate of being cuddled to death by your pet!" The three men with her got in on the laughter at that, although the uncomfortably sharp attention of the two archers didn't waver.

"You're just a big fat bully," came Robert's loud voice from behind her as the Salamander boy stepped forward, hands poised in a way that made the archers tense. "You gotta ambush us 'cause our magic's too good for you to beat us in a fair fight, huh?"

"Robert, shut up," hissed Jellica.

None of this was staying Rosalia's amusement at all. "Yes, Robert, do listen to the little Sylph bitch and stuff a sock in it. What gave you the impression there was anything fair about fights?"

"Hey, nobody calls her that word!" Robert yelled, fists balling.

"Except you," Jellica said to him with a newly-puzzled sidewise look, delicate straw-yellow eyebrows arched.

"Enough!" Rosalia snarled, slamming the metal-shod butt of her pike into the wet stone of the bridge; everyone seemed to jump in their 3D models as the sound rang out like a bell and echoed off the distant walls and ceilings for some time after that. Both of the archers drew back on their bows, an action which drew mewling sounds from a few of the kids and put a sudden lid on Robert's defiance.

Their crimson-haired captor composed herself, looking over the small crowd of terrified children with a smirk again twisting her lips. "We're going to play a little game today, kids," she cooed with a toss of her head that shook her bangs out of her face. "And if you're good little boys and girls—" She glared pointedly in turn at Robert and Silica. "—you all get to go home when we're done and have an exciting story to tell."

"What do you want, Rosalia?" asked Silica, summoning her courage.

"Something your little schoolmarm has stashed somewhere in that rat trap where you live," Rosalia said. "Namely, her notes about the language of magic." Sachi must have reacted in some visible way; Rosalia turned to her with a triumphant look of smug appraisal. "Ah, you know what I'm talking about, don't you? What's your name, my dear?"

Silica was about to speak up and tell Sachi not to answer; Sachi stammered out her name before she could do so. Rosalia smiled with the sweetness of a poisoned apple. "Excellent. Now here's what we're going to do, Sachi."

Everyone gasped as Rosalia suddenly swung and leveled her pike at Silica with one swift motion, the frighteningly-sharp tip just centimeters from her chin. "The lovely young catgirl Silica-chan is going to stay here and keep us company—in silence—and so is the rest of this brat pack. You, Sachi, are going to run along as quick as your little legs will carry you, and you're going to go back to the church and get those notes. You have ten minutes; plenty of time to get there and back if you run. You don't talk to anyone. You bring them back here to me, and you hand them all over."

"Do you have any gimmick other than kidnapping people and threatening them so you can steal stuff?" Silica asked, outrage rising in her again.

Rosalia's eyes narrowed. "Don't push me, girl, or we're going to have problems. If Sachi does what I tell her to, our business here is concluded—all of you go free."

"I don't believe you!" Silica said, finding a further reserve of strength despite having a blade so close to her face that it threatened to make her eyes cross every time she tried to focus on it. "You tried to kill me and Kirito and Miss Sasha back on that island!"

"I don't care what you believe, brat," Rosalia said, the mask of sickly-sweet pleasantness slipping. "That mess didn't have to go down the way it did, and it wouldn't have if your idiot schoolteacher hadn't tried that funny business with her spell." She scowled bitterly. "Maybe you've forgotten, but it was your Black Swordsman who did all the killing there, not us." The tip of the blade jerked closer, making Silica lean away nervously despite herself. "If what I wanted was to kill you, my dear, we wouldn't be having this charming little chat."

"Still amateur hour, I see," said a cold, dead voice that came echoing from above. Rosalia's head whipped around, looking for the source with sudden fear in her eyes. When Silica followed both her gaze and the sound, she could see a black-cloaked figure with the yellow cursor of a neutral race crouched at the mouth of the tunnel from which they'd come.

The figure of the newcomer himself wasn't terrifying—simply mysterious. What was terrifying to Silica was Rosalia's reaction to him; her voice actually trembled noticeably as she replied, although she was obviously trying to put up a good front. "This is a private contract," she called back defiantly, chin lifting. "I'm not using any of your people this time, so it's not your concern how I get the job done."

The figure seemed to flow as he slid from the mouth of the broken pipe, black cloak rippling as he dropped fifteen meters to the wet stone floor with barely a sound. He rose from the crouch in which he landed like a panther moving on two legs, hooded head tilted slightly forward. Every action in his predatory posture was smooth, measured—as if the slippery stone was no hindrance to him at all.

"It's not your job anymore," he said curtly as he drew closer to the middle of the bridge; she took a step back despite the fact that she was holding a pike and he appeared to be unarmed. He glanced around, taking in the two archers; the Salamander between him and Rosalia had shifted his posture so that he wasn't quite aiming at the newcomer, but could do so quickly if needed. The Imp with the slender dagger hovered over and took up a cautious position beside that archer, eyes alert.

Silica could faintly see the ash-gray skin of a Spriggan beneath the hood the stranger wore. The Spriggan's head turned to regard the Imp archer hovering to his left, and while she still couldn't see the man's face, the Imp must have known him—he blanched, short bow dangling loosely in his grip.

"Begone," said the Spriggan man. The single word produced immediate results.

"Shadewalker!" Rosalia sputtered. "Where the hell do you think you're going?"

"I'm not fucking with the Prophet," the Imp called back as he soared towards the tunnel back to the surface. "If you have any sense, you won't either."

·:·:·:·:·:·

"Fifteen," sang Yuuki as the blue slime erupted into a tiny cloud of angular blue particles, dragging out the final syllable as if it was the coda to a song. She grinned as she swept her free hand to the side to get rid of the pop-up window, looking around for a new target.

"Now you're just showing off," said Kirito with an answering grin.

"Was that a complaint?" Asuna asked half-rhetorically, sheathing her rapier. She glanced over at Yuuki. "I was pretty sure I heard him complaining."

Yuuki nodded with mock-solemnity. "That's what it sounded like to me," she said, barely able to keep a straight face and betrayed by the humor in her tone.

"Almost as if we weren't here helping him farm mats."

Another answering bob of the head from the Imp girl, her violet bangs swaying with the motion. "Ungrateful."

"Scandalous," Asuna agreed without turning to look at Kirito—because, he strongly suspected, she was having just as much of a hard time keeping her expression serious. "We should sell the drops."

"Do I get to say anything in my own defense?" Kirito asked, luminescent green sheeting across his eyes as he activated his Searching skill and looked for any sign of red cursors nearby.

"No," said both of the girls, before their attempts at maintaining the ruse collapsed and sent them both into fits of giggles.

When Kirito gave a dramatic, long-suffering sigh that fell short of being heartfelt, Yuuki stifled her laughter and skipped over to him long enough to wrap her arms around his midsection in a brief hug. "Just teasing," she said. "I won't sell your slimy… essencey-things." She made an appalled face, sticking out her tongue and looking up at him.

Kirito couldn't help but laugh—it seemed impossible to take offense to Yuuki; she was simply so earnest in her affections and open friendliness that even her teasing lacked bite. He reached out and gave her hair a quick tousle, which displaced the striped hairband she wore to keep her bangs under control and made her squeak as she detached herself from him and tried to put her hair back in order.

"I don't see any mobs within my Searching radius," Kirito said as he gave another look around, the green aurorae flickering a few times in his eyes before dying out. "I think we cleared this area."

"Again," Asuna said; they'd been down here for a while. "I'm up to eleven Blue Slime Essences."

"A hundred to a stack," Kirito pointed out unnecessarily. "I already had around twenty, but we've got a ways to go."

"You want me to take a look?" Yuuki asked, bringing out her wings and vibrating them into a violet blur as she rose half a meter off the ground, feet dangling as if searching for something solid beneath her. "I can make a quick loop around this level, see if anything's popped. It'll only take a few minutes, be quicker than all of us walking."

Asuna smiled. "That's a good idea, Yuuki. You don't mind?"

Yuuki shook her head; her entire body twisted to and fro in the air when she did. She did a little backflip and swoop in the air and ended up right back in the same position she'd been. "Nah. I love flying! I wish both of you could fly with me down here."

"Sure," Asuna said, kicking a pebble so that it skittered across the wet gray stone of the floor and careened off into the canal beside it with a splash. "Rub it in."

Kirito laughed. "Thanks, Yuuki. Be careful!"

Yuuki made a raspberry sound as she hovered in the air. "Puh-leeze. The monsters are like what, level 6? All three of us could take a nap down here and not be in danger." She brightened suddenly. "Hey, maybe if we took a nap the slimes would get curious and repop!"

That made Asuna laugh as well. "Okay then, you go have fun snuggling with the slimes."

The retort drew a lengthy noise of disgust from the Imp girl, who flew off down the canal in a flash and left a trail of "ew ew ew" sounds in her wake.

Kirito watched her go with fondness. There was something about her that was just so… alive. So vibrant. It was as if she treated each day as a gift, something to cherish and make the most out of—even though she was trapped in this virtual world, impossibly far from whatever family was waiting for her on the outside.

It was a mindset that Kirito himself could appreciate. Back in the beta, long before this had become a death game, the virtual world of Alfheim had felt like a second reality to him—and there were times when it felt more real than the world of flesh and blood, the world to which they were all fighting to return. And now, despite being a prison for all of Kayaba's hostages, he was determined—

"Coin for your thoughts," Asuna said, seating herself on the edge of the canal and drawing her rapier, tapping it to bring up the status window.

"How many?" Kirito asked teasingly.

Asuna covered her mouth; he was fairly sure she was smiling. "Name your price, Argo."

Kirito's laughter echoed off the walls of the Lower Sewers as he seated himself to her left, legs dangling over the side and the soles of his boots centimeters above the surface of the water. He glanced off in the direction that Yuuki had gone. "She's really happy here, isn't she?"

Asuna nodded thoughtfully, following Kirito's gaze. "I think she'd find a way to be happy anywhere," she said after a beat. "I guess her first few days in the game were pretty rough, but ever since then she's been…" She paused, thinking, then flicked the status window of her rapier to close it. "A ray of sunshine," she said after consideration. "Nothing keeps her down."

"Those first days were pretty rough for everyone. Did she login alone?"

There was silence from Asuna for long enough that Kirito wondered if he hadn't said something wrong; he prepared himself for one of the Undine girl's defensive outbursts. "I think she had someone," Asuna said quietly, lowering her voice to the point where it didn't echo despite the fact that neither of them could see or hear Yuuki anywhere nearby. "But whoever it was didn't survive the Salamander invasion. She never talks about her family, either. Not even to me."

Kirito gave this the benefit of his own silence, turning it over in his head and contrasting it with the joy she took in the simple everyday life in Alfheim. "It sounds like maybe she has a pretty unhappy home life," he said. "If that's the case, I can understand why she'd like it in here so much."

"What about you, Kirito?" Asuna turned her head and tilted it up slightly to meet his eyes. "You're a lot like her in some ways, you know. You don't really act like you're trapped here… more like you live here. I keep thinking back to that day, a month into the game, and what you said about Alfheim's weather. You'd spent all day dealing with the faction representatives for the Treaty of Arun, only to get shut out of it because of your stupid leader. But there you were, just enjoying the sun as if you were at a cherry blossom festival."

Kirito again didn't speak for a time—long enough without an answer that Asuna reached over and gave him a light poke. He cleared his throat a little. "I guess if you think about it, don't we all live here? I mean, yeah, we're prisoners. And yeah, we need to fight to get out. But I've talked to some people who feel like Kayaba's stolen their lives from them. And I think that's only true if you let it be true."

It was a curious place to have a conversation like this—deep underground in the sewers below Arun, a zone that twisted and curled around the roots of the World Tree as it sought to touch every district in the neutral capital of Alfheim. "Every day we spend in this world… we haven't lost those days in the real world. We've gained those days in Alfheim. We might be trapped here, but we're still alive, and we still have the ability to make our own choices about how we live those lives. That's something Kayaba can never take away from us—not unless we let him."

Asuna was quiet, too. They remained like that for a time, listening to the metronome of dripping water and the steady susurration of the flow through the canal below their feet; every now and then they caught distant echoes of Yuuki's wings somewhere as she patrolled the zone.

He couldn't have said when exactly it happened; he was lost in his own thoughts. But at some point, he noticed that there was a subtle warmth and pressure on his hand, and when he realized it was there, he glanced down and saw that Asuna had lain her hand across his. Without really thinking about it, he slowly turned his hand over, palm up, and she wordlessly closed hers around it.

They couldn't have stayed like that for long—Kirito wasn't checking his clock, but it seemed like only moments had passed before the sound of Yuuki's wings grew louder once more. As the sound drew near, Asuna's hand slipped away from his, and he came to his feet when she did. Not long after, Yuuki came zipping around the bend in the canal that led to their north, leaving a purple flight trail in her wake. The Imp girl pulled up in front of them, hovering a few meters away from them and several above the canal. "There's a whole bunch of slimes that just popped down thataway, in that big bowl-like room with all the waterfalls," she said excitedly. "I tried to train them here, but they all tethered before I could get them very far."

"The Spillway," Kirito said with a nod of acknowledgement. "That's not too far—just a couple minutes' walk." Now he did check the time, setting his lips in a line. "It's in the opposite direction of the tunnel back to the Upper Sewers, though, and we should check in on the kids in a few minutes."

Asuna made a sound of assent. "Let's do that first," she said. "Then we can come back down and clear all the repops."

"Sounds good," Kirito said. "Let's get—"

"Asuna?" Yuuki said. There was something odd in her tone, a quality that Kirito had never heard before, and it drew his gaze sharply.

Asuna seemed to pick up on it too, turning quickly with a look of concern. "Yuuki?"

The Imp girl's face was slightly slack, her eyes distant. She drifted unsteadily instead of hovering in place. "Asuna, I… I don't feel…"

"Yuuki?" There was alarm now in Asuna's voice, and she took a step towards the edge. "Yuuki, come back here—"

Yuuki's eyes rolled back in her head. She went limp, as if every muscle in her body at once had lost its tone, and her wings abruptly disappeared from her back. She dropped like a stone.

"Yuuki!" Asuna shrieked as the younger girl hit the water with a splash and a spray of muck. Kirito had already been in motion when she fell, but his hands just barely grazed her arm as he dove too late, and he struck the water shortly after she did, the current carrying both of them north towards the Spillway.

His head broke the surface again a moment later, just in time to hear Asuna casting a spell. "—tsutakke rozobul shippura tepnaga dweren!" A Water Breathing icon appeared beside the gauge in his HUD, and he could see the same thing beside Yuuki's smaller gauge below his. He didn't see any other status effects on her besides the buffs they were carrying, and she hadn't lost any HP.

There was another splash, and he caught a glimpse of Asuna's legs disappearing beneath the surface as she dove into the water after them. Kirito swam as hard as he could, fighting to catch up with where he could see Yuuki's cursor bobbing in the water, but the Undine girl was literally in her element, and didn't suffer the same movement and encumbrance penalties that he did. As soon as he saw Asuna catch up to Yuuki and begin dragging her towards the nearest set of stairs rising narrowly along the edge of the canal, he aimed that direction as well.

Despite the fact that Asuna got there first, she was having trouble pulling Yuuki's weight out of the water; Kirito quickly climbed up onto the stairs and grabbed Yuuki's collar with one hand, heaving her out. She draped limply across the stairs, unmoving.

"Yuuki!" Asuna yelled again, reaching down and shaking her. "Yuuki, wake up! Yuuki!"

Despite the fact that she didn't appear to have any status effects or HP loss, Kirito still pulled an Antidote Crystal from his belt pouches. "Cure!" he said, holding it over the Imp girl. The bright green crystal shattered, but there was no change in Yuuki's condition. Asuna rapidly chanted the words to a curative spell that ought to have had the same effect, and when that did nothing she cast a powerful heal that seemed to do no more good.

"Yuuki!" Asuna sobbed, leaning over and clinging to her friend. "Kirito, nothing's working! Why won't she wake up?"

"Try rezzing her," Kirito suggested despite the fact that she hadn't turned into a Remain Light, his own voice filled with the same helpless grief. Asuna did so immediately, failing the spell twice as she tried to control her choked sobs before finally getting it right. "It's not working!"

"Please, Yuuki," Asuna said, wet blue hair plastered across her cheek as she cried against the Imp girl's chest. "Please come back, I love you, please, please…"

It was then that Kirito saw one of the strangest things he'd seen yet in Alfheim. As he watched, he saw Yuuki's status ribbon flicker once and then disappear, followed a heartbeat later by her cursor. They both then reappeared—so quickly that even later, in retrospect, Kirito couldn't be absolutely sure whether it had happened or if his own tears had simply blurred his vision.

Blinking his eyes clear, he rubbed at them and knelt beside Yuuki, reaching out and putting his hand on Asuna's. She clung to it as if it were a life preserver and she were drowning, sobbing even harder. As she did, Kirito saw Yuuki's eyelids flutter a few times. "Asuna!" he said sharply.

Yuuki must have stirred beneath her, because Asuna was already lifting her head; as the younger girl began to come to, she let go of Kirito's hand and scooped Yuuki into her arms, rocking her and crying out her name repeatedly. Yuuki's arms flew weakly up around Asuna. "Neesan!"

"Don't you ever do that again," Asuna said fiercely, squeezing the younger girl tightly and then gently leaning her back against the wall, stroking her wet hair. "You scared the life out of me! What happened to you?"

Yuuki still seemed unsteady and disoriented; her eyes took a moment to start to track properly and she let her arms drop to her lap as she began to come back to herself. "I… I'm not really sure. But, um… I think…"

"You think?" Kirito said, crouching beside her and taking one of her tiny hands in both of his.

Yuuki swallowed. "I think maybe I died."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Rosalia was utterly terrified, and hated every second of this feeling of weakness. She had never, in her life, been more scared than she was in this moment—not when her stepfather would get drunk and beat her mother into unconsciousness, not when that group of college students had cornered her in her dorm and assaulted her, not on the day that it had truly sunk in that they were all trapped in this death game, and not even when Prophet had held a knife to her throat before and mocked her fear.

He'd been right: fear was her master. It owned her. It drove her.

And she hated him for it. But not as much as she feared him.

"What do you want, Prophet?" she asked, uncomfortably aware that she was echoing the same question that Silica had asked of her only a minute earlier—an exchange of roles that she did not find the least bit reassuring.

"None of your business," said the Spriggan mercenary in clipped tones and simple language as he prowled forward, stopping a few paces from her and her two remaining allies. "Now walk away."

Her grip on the pike tightened. "Damnit, what do you think Corvatz is going to do if he finds out I just handed these kids over to you?"

There was the most imperceptible motion of Prophet's shoulders; it was almost a shrug. "Don't care. That's your problem. They're mine now."

A cold, unfamiliar feeling snaked its way through her at these words. Her voice was entirely different when she spoke next, all of the snark and defiance gone—even the fear for her own life had momentarily fled her. "What…" She licked her lips nervously. "What are you planning on doing with them?"

Prophet raised his head slightly, yellow eyes glittering somewhere deep beyond the tattered hem of the hood. "What's it to you?"

She swallowed, hard, the action catching in her throat and almost making her choke. "Look, I can go, but… I'd rather you didn't kill them if they don't make it necessary. We just need the notes, right? They're…"

Motion stirred beneath Prophet's hood. She could have sworn it resembled a smile. "They're…?" he echoed mockingly.

"Do I have to spell it out?" she snapped. "They're just kids, damnit! Threatening them to get the package for a client is one thing. But I know how you operate."

There was an awful sound, then, like a sick dog trying to cough up something that was killing it. It took her a moment to realize that Prophet was laughing. The sound cut off abruptly, as if someone had put the animal out of its misery. "Start walking," he said, as if the previous exchange hadn't even happened.

The other Salamander near her tensed in a particular way, his short bow snapping up into position with a single swift movement of his arms, the limbs of the bow surging with crimson light. "Screw you—"

He didn't finish his sentence. His eyes widened and his back arched as he grunted and thrust out his chest, something long and needle-like briefly emerging from it before disappearing. The Imp hovering behind the Salamander archer laughed as he snaked an arm around his victim, driving the slender blade of the estoc up under his chin and shutting his mouth with a snapping sound. The tip and ten centimeters of its length punched out through the top of his forehead with a surge of glowing crimson particles, then again as the assassin pulled down his fist and drove it repeatedly up into the Salamander's head at haphazard angles.

He spun in the air, still laughing, and hurled the man over the side of the bridge just before he exploded into a fiery Remain Light. Rosalia could hear children screaming behind her, but at the moment it was more a distraction than anything else, adding to the surreal nature of the turn of events. "XaXa!" she screamed as she watched the Imp's betrayal in horror. "Why did you—" She aimed her left hand at him and started to chant. "Hitto—"

She didn't get to finish either. There was a flash of reflected light from steel as Prophet moved faster than she imagined it was possible for a player to move. Numb fire erupted in her arm when her open hand fell away from it, the gathering spellfire dissipating as the dismembered piece shattered into particles. There was a sudden spreading numbness in her side, too, as something punched repeatedly through the gaps in her armor around her ribs. She shrieked and dropped her pike as she struggled desperately and clutched her maimed arm to her chest, feeling fingers tangle into her hair and yank back her head. A kick crushed into the crook of her knee, forcing her down.

"You know what your problem is, Rosalia?" asked a low, familiar voice in her ear.

Rosalia opened her mouth to scream again.

"You're an amateur," Prophet said as he drew a blade across her throat and separated her head from her body.


Author's Note 1/30/14: What do you think of the format of the last few chapters? As I mentioned before, I've been trying to break out of the strict four-viewpoint structure that dominated the first act, and I think it's starting to bear fruit and greatly improve the flow of the chapters. As always, please sound off in the reviews and let me know what your impressions are; I love the feedback and it's helped greatly improve the story.

Speaking of feedback helping to improve the story, I want to give a shout-out here to the citizens of the Spacebattles creative writing forum, which is where I've been posting previews and hosting discussions of Fairy Dance of Death. Their feedback has been invaluable in helping me polish chapters before publishing them and identify weaknesses in my narrative. Thanks, everyone!

One last thing: if you're confused about what just happened to Yuuki, don't worry—you're supposed to be. So are they. ^_^