"The single most avoidable source of damage in Alfheim is «falling damage», which is incurred when a player's avatar strikes the ground or an intervening object after falling in an uncontrolled way. Strictly speaking, the damage is not directly linked to falling, but rather to collisions between objects in motion. The damage incurred depends on the materials involved and the force delivered by the combination of mass and velocity; the same damage calculations are used for impacts by flying solid objects. Please note that while water can soften a relatively slow fall, a player can still take fatal damage from striking the surface of a body of water at sufficient velocity, just as in the real world."
Alfheim Online manual, «Falling Damage»

5 May 2023: Day 181 - Midmorning

Kirito knew he was staring, but even when stopping to think about it he couldn't come up with any other reaction that would've been appropriate under the circumstances. He couldn't muster anything beyond letting his jaw continue to hang agape, and it bothered him; he felt like there ought to be something supportive or even intelligent that he could say. The words just wouldn't come.

Asuna found hers first, although she only managed to awkwardly echo what Yuuki herself had said. "D-died?"

Yuuki slowly arched her back with a grimace, trying to inch herself fully upright against the wall. "Maybe. I don't know," she admitted. "I'm still kinda fuzzy. The last thing I remember was hovering in front of you. Then it's like I blinked, and the next moment I was waking up again here."

Kirito felt even more confused after this answer, and was surprised to find that that was possible. "I don't understand," he said. "What did you mean by died? Do you think someone was messing around with your NerveGear?"

She shook her head and tried stretching again, as if waking from a long night in which she'd slept fitfully at best. "It's probably…" she hesitated, seeming uncomfortable with whatever subject lay hidden behind her words. Whatever opinion she had, she was reluctant to air it, or maybe unsure of how sound it was. "Never mind. I think I'm okay now."

"Yuuki," Asuna began. "We just watched you completely black out for a minute or two. The last time anything like that happened was in the first days of the game."

Kirito nodded along. No communication had ever come from the outside world, but given what Kayaba had said during the tutorial about the NerveGear's two-hour grace period for lost connectivity, Kirito and most of the players he knew assumed that these "blackouts" had been when their real bodies were moved to hospitals. They were usually—but not always—in the middle of the night, and almost everyone had suffered at least one. Those blackouts had usually been a lot longer, which Kirito supposed made sense if they were intended to allow their bodies to be moved from their homes to an appropriate support facility. It was possible that her network connection had simply flapped.

Now that he thought about it, that would perfectly explain the way Yuuki's avatar had suddenly gone limp, and why the condition hadn't been anything that they could cure or heal. What it didn't explain was—

"I remember when it happened to me," Asuna said, continuing after a few moments of thought. "But that's just it—I remember it. There wasn't any… discontinuity. Like I remember just being in this black space, and being stuck there for what must've been half an hour. It was boring and scary at the same time. But it wasn't like… it wasn't like flipping a switch, not the way you described." Kirito nodded his head again; he remembered his own panic and fear when the game world, his avatar and even his HUD had suddenly vanished and placed him in the featureless void that a person in FullDive saw when they weren't receiving any sensory input from the server. He'd been stuck there for some time, and he'd been lucky that the area in which he'd been hunting was clear of aggro mobs.

Still, Kirito knew that he himself had blacked out during particularly intense fights, coming back to himself only after it was done and realizing that he'd done something crazy or extraordinary while he was… out. Whatever the truth of what had happened to her, Kirito had to admit that Yuuki actually was looking much better now. There was still apprehension on her face, but it was understandable under the circumstances. She was no longer shaking, and as she got back on her feet and stretched one more time, she didn't seem any different than usual—except perhaps a bit quieter, a little more subdued.

It was that lull, that quiet, which allowed Kirito to catch the faint echo of something new over the noise from further down the canal. He straightened, turning his head one way and the other to try to give his long, pointed ears a clear line to wherever the sound was.

"You heard that too?" Asuna asked.

Kirito nodded as he stood. "From the Spillway. I wasn't sure at first, but it sounded like—"

"Someone yelling," Asuna said with alarm.


The air was filled with screams. High and shrill, young and scared, they overlapped with each other and rose and fell until they blended into a cacophony of terror that defied every attempt Silica made to get the situation under control. It took her some time to realize that she, too, was contributing towards this wall of noise, and that this probably wasn't helping matters any.

And then, at the conclusion of a guttural chant that she barely even heard until the final syllable was spat out, there was dead silence.

Not silence—Silence. The spell energy washed over the group of children until it met the sealed gate against which they were trapped, the bracketed ellipsis icon of the status effect blinking into existence beside their status ribbons like white breakers in a wave. In the span of a single breath, there was no more sound—but no less fear. Eight sets of wide, terrified eyes looked back at their adult assailants unblinkingly, stunned into stillness by the loss of their voices.

"That's better," Prophet said with a grunt as he lowered his left hand from its casting position. Into the sudden near-absolute silence there was a low tone receding with a faint doppler effect which could be heard over the rushing of the water below. Beneath his hood, Prophet's yellow eyes glided to the left to follow the sound; Silica did so as well and saw a fading violet flight trail heading downstream through the major waterway that cut beneath the span of the bridge. She did a quick count—Jeinaa was missing on this side of the gate; the children on the other side had—thank goodness!—fled by the time the killing started.

Prophet glanced down and snapped his fingers once; an Imp with spiked metal gauntlets and a serrated dagger with a glowing tip flew out from beneath the bridge. He, too, was hooded; Silica couldn't clearly see his face, but she could tell he was looking at the man who'd just summoned him.

"After her," Prophet said curtly.

The noise that came from the Imp was almost petulant. "But I'll miss all the fun!"

Prophet simply stared back the hovering man. "Then you'd best stop wasting time."

As Silica watched anxiously, wanting to do something to stop this, the Imp shot off at once in the direction of his prey with a high-pitched giggle trailing behind him. Their Spriggan captor then turned back to the group of children, gaze flicking between them as if he couldn't stand to have it linger on any one of them for long. His eyes finally came to a rest on Rosalia's fiery Remain Light where it hung in the air at waist level, not far away.

"That Silence spell is going to wear off soon," he said without preamble as he stepped forward, causing the collection of kids to take a step back—only to find that there was nowhere to go; the rearmost of them were backed against the gate and it was a long drop on either side to the channel below. "The first one who speaks without permission, dies." He made a sound deep in his throat, and spat meaningfully at Rosalia's Remain Light; the effect passed straight through it and disappeared into the slow stream running through the center of the bridge. "If you have any adolescent delusions of immortality, or any doubt that I will end you before you can finish casting a spell… feel free to ask her opinion."

He crouched beside the Remain Light, staring intently at it. The way it was positioned between him and Silica put a reddish cast on his ash-hued skin, giving him a demonic appearance that she found sickeningly appropriate. He stretched out a finger and poked it into the silent red flames; they had no substance and offered no resistance to the motion. "Any moment now, Rosalia. I know you can still hear me in there." His words were clipped, simple, but delivered with a slow and steady cadence.

"Are you looking forward to meeting Her?" A pause. The Remain Light offered no reply.

"Are you wondering how it feels when the device kills you?" He traced a finger around the edges of the flames; they seemed to have no reaction, and simply wrapped around his hand until it passed.

Prophet's eyes once more darted around in a methodical way, as if he was always keeping track of his surroundings to some degree, then back down at the center of the dwindling light. "Think there'll be any pain? If you'll wake at least once before..." There was a flicker, a shimmer; Prophet's low-voiced taunts trailed off as he watched the last remaining sign that Rosalia had existed in this world begin to shrink and sputter until it went out completely. "Well, consider your curiosity satisfied."

He looked up from his crouch and met Silica's eyes; she gave an involuntary whimper and choked it off as soon as she realized the status was no longer in effect—and she wasn't the only one. "Good girl," he said. "Keep control of yourself, and you live a little longer. For now, we wait."

Slowly, with hesitation born of fear and uncertainty, Silica raised her hand, head bowed, as if seeking recognition from an extremely strict teacher. She heard a snicker from the backstabbing Imp that Rosalia had called XaXa, and a more ambiguous grunt from Prophet that preceded one bitten-off word. "What."

Silica took this as hopeful evidence that she wasn't going to get cut down by this crazy Spriggan simply for asking the question—and hoped that this didn't amount to very short-lived wishful thinking. "Um… what are we waiting for? I mean, why are you keeping us here?"

Prophet was considerably taller than her; it took no effort on his part to look down on her. But even if he hadn't loomed so, his posture still would've radiated contempt for her existence. "We're waiting for a package. In the meantime, I'm trying to decide whether or not you're worth the effort."

Silica barely managed to get out the follow-up question. "The effort for what?"

"To kill you," he said bluntly, eyeing them disinterestedly. The words provoked an immediate ripple of whimpers from behind Silica, and more than a few hissed warnings of silence from the others. "The lot of you must be level 5 or 6 at most. It'd be like popping bubble wrap."

"Popping bubble wrap is fun," said XaXa earnestly, flexing his free hand and making a pinching motion. "Nothing better for relieving stress." Silica was struck suddenly by the absurd realization of how he sounded; he couldn't have been much older than Keita and his friends. It stood in stark, disturbing contrast to his words and the deadly threat that lay behind them.

"Noted," Prophet said. "You see the problem, though. They'd DOT to death in seconds from one of Black's poisons. Even a scratch from any of our weapons would pop them. I doubt we'd even get any EXP."

"Maybe," XaXa said apprehensively, sounding as if he was on the verge of having his toys taken away. "But... there's a lot of them. Quantity over quality?"

"No," Prophet said firmly. "Sometimes you have to know when to throw the little fish back. The hunt will be sweeter, the reward for delivery to the Mistress richer, after they've leveled up a lot more. And then they'll spend the rest of their lives wondering if today they're strong enough to be worth killing."

Silica couldn't be sure, but she told herself fervently that this meant they weren't going to be killed outright here. At least, she did until her mind insisted on avoiding the subject, wandering to irrelevancies. There was something about Prophet's voice that was almost mesmerizing at times. Something she couldn't place, something exotic—a hint of an accent, somewhere, lingering in his otherwise flawless Japanese. She didn't have the right words to narrow it down further than that, but every now and then it grabbed her attention in something he said, as if giving her an excuse to focus on something other than the peril they faced.

It was still taking everything she had to put on a good face for the younger kids; when she was sure the fear didn't show, she turned and briefly looked over her shoulder, trying to persuasively fake her calm and confidence. They were all looking at her as if they expected her to do something—especially Sachi. She couldn't bear that look for long.

XaXa scowled beneath his hood, folding his arms across his chest with an annoyed grunt. "We could at least play a game while we wait," he protested.

Prophet angled his head slightly over his shoulder. "You have something in mind?"

In the blink of an eye, the scowl turned to an eager grin. "I like the one where we make 'em fight each other... and the last one alive goes free."

"The last time we did that," Prophet said wearily after a pause, "Black killed the winner anyway."

XaXa made a show of looking around and shading his eyes with his hand, as if peering into the distance. "Well... I don't see him here now. Who knows how long it'll take him to get back... especially if he and the girl both run their wings dry?"

Silica heard several choked-off sounds of dismay from behind her. She could sympathize—she herself wanted to shut her eyes, curl into a ball and pretend that this wasn't happening. She felt someone squeeze her from behind, a head pressing against her back and smaller arms wrapping around her waist. Another set of arms followed the first.

Prophet made a thoughtful sound, looking back at his captives. Silica reached down and gently pried the hands from around her, and positioned herself unmistakably in the center of the bridge, between the others and their captors. She was aware she was shaking badly, but she forced herself to meet the man's bright amber eyes, swallowing and setting her jaw defiantly.

A smile slowly twisted the corner of Prophet's lips. "I have an idea."


It was not Sasha's first time in combat. She'd experienced something like this before: the heightened sense of awareness that came with imminent danger, the moments that seemed to stretch on and the ones that flew by before she knew they've happened. The sudden spikes of fear and adrenaline that threatened to freeze her into inaction and then urged her to act now.

But none of her fights while traveling or adventuring compared with what she faced here. She could swear, in that moment when she locked eyes with Hrungnir, that there was something sentient in that look. Something gazed back at her from inside the boss of the 25th gateway, something that was horribly offended at what she'd done to it. Something which wanted her dead in a way that no other mob she'd ever faced had; she could almost sense the killing intent radiated from it, a trick of perception that she'd heard described to her by Kirito but never herself felt.

She felt it now. It terrified her.

A little over fifty meters. She knew the ranges of her spells and was used to eyeballing those ranges; she could estimate how much space separated her from the boss: a distance about half the length of a regulation football field; a distance that was maybe two or three times its own height. She'd seen it move frightfully quickly before, and she saw it again as it pivoted on its heel and shifted its great mass, kicking off with a lunge that batted aside a Cait Sith's bear-like pet as if it was an origami sculpture. That first stride covered more than ten meters of the gap between them just as Dale finished his incantation; she saw the Heal Over Time effect appear beside her status gauge and her HP began slowly ticking upwards. That seemed gradual, but she knew from timing it outside of combat that the ticks were updating every tenth-second.

Wham. The ground beneath her feet shook noticeably as Hrungnir's next step came down well past the halfway point, and as soon as she felt Dale's hand leave her shoulder she scrambled backwards, unable to stop herself from trying to put more space between her and the freight train that was bearing down on her.

"Don't get too far!" shouted a voice from nearby that she thought was Bourne's.

She heard the shout, and she knew her flight was pointless, but her legs weren't listening to the rational part of her. That part occupied a very tiny corner of her brain now, forced out by what she distantly recognized as a fight-or-flight reaction. Even knowing this was no real help—her avatar was doing what her brain told it to do, and her brain was telling her and anything that would listen to get the hell away from the gigantic dangerous monster now.

Wham! She could hear more chanting and even more shouting, but she couldn't focus on any of it, couldn't process anything except the incoming boss and the incomprehensible fact that it was after her. She'd known to expect this, she'd been told what was likely to happen when the shield broke—but it was one thing to know this intellectually, another to see what had to amount to nearly 30 tonnes of monster bearing down on her with a personal vengeance. She panicked.

WHAM! The next footstep was so close that the impact caused her to lose her balance and fall to the ground. It was then that Sasha knew, with appalling certainty, that she was going to die here. She'd never belonged here to begin with, had no place being here alongside so many seasoned warriors who'd been depending on her to give them a victory. What a bitter self-deception that had been—as if she could make any kind of difference in beating a gateway boss!

Worse, it was a self-deception that had consequences for more than just her. She could, in those final moments when the boss reared back and wound up for a crushing blow, see the truth of it—how the whole scenario had appealed to her vanity, something to which she was no less susceptible than anyone else. She'd wanted to believe that her research was valuable, had wanted to prove it. That vanity had led her to this place, and it was going to leave the children without a proper adult caretaker. She cursed herself for a bitter fool.

Sasha threw her arms over her face and screamed as the Jotunn swung its massive fist towards her.

Then her world abruptly became darkness and silence.


Asuna was not far behind Kirito in coming to her feet. They looked at each other, and he could tell they were both having the same awful thought. The Spillway was a large circular basin where the canal they were in and several others collected and merged into the Grand Channel. But it got its name from the array of waterfalls that cascaded down from the endpoints of the canals in the Upper Sewers.

Where the raid party was supposed to be.

There was a sudden rise in the noise level. What had before been faint hints of raised voices and some other steady sound in the distance suddenly became the fierce thrumming of wings and a high-pitched yell as the source of the disturbance—a very young female Imp whose dark ponytailed hair streamed behind her like a windsock—flew straight down through the Spillway and cut the corner sharply, coming into view. She continued down the canal at high speed as if she was being chased by a named mob, causing Kirito to wonder if that was exactly what had happened; maybe the kids had pulled something they couldn't handle. But there shouldn't have been anything down here that dangerous!

Before anyone could react properly, the distraught Imp girl—Kirito recognized her from the raid group, but couldn't place her name—pulled up a short distance away from their group and came to a hover. She began to open her mouth as if to say something, starting to stretch out her hand.

And then she exploded.

There was no AOE blast, no damage source Kirito could've pointed at to blame for the sudden death—her avatar simply erupted into violet flames. He thought he'd caught a glimpse of something in the air, but from his perspective it was as if all of her HP had simply disappeared in the span of a moment. As the three of them stared in shock, the combustion of her avatar completed, leaving behind only the churning purple flames of her Remain Light—and a throwing pick that clattered to the wet stone with a metallic tinkle. Kirito's gaze locked onto the sound, and his eyes widened when he recognized the material of which it was made.

You need to be at least level 31 to wield anything alloyed with Dzarri Vespid Crystals. That's player-crafted, clearer-quality gear.

Behind the Remain Light hovered another Imp they hadn't seen before, both hands empty; one was poised before him in the final frame of a throwing technique. He was hooded and cloaked, only the fact that he could fly at all indicating his race; most of his face was in shadow. A triumphant grin hung beneath those shadows, a grin that lasted only long enough for him to notice the other three players.

Barely a second had passed since the Imp girl's avatar had turned into a Remain Light.

"Oh—" he said.

Two longswords cleared their scabbards with a chorus of metallic hisses as Kirito, Asuna and Yuuki actually began to process what had just happened—and reacted. Kirito was already in motion.

"—SHIT." The Imp PKer did a flip in the air to reorient himself, and flew back the way he came in a burst of acceleration just as Kirito's sword slashed a diagonal blue arc through the fading violet of his flight trail.

"Rez her!" Kirito shouted to Asuna once he recovered from the freeze at the end of his technique, dashing down the damp walkway set into the side of the canal with his sword trailing behind him. Asuna was the only one who hadn't drawn her weapon; she had already started moving towards the Remain Light and now had her hands pressed together in the opening motions for one of her resurrection spells.

Rationally, he knew the chase was hopeless—there was no way he could catch a player in flight on foot, not even an Imp flying underground. But this girl had been under his protection, she'd been his responsibility—and whoever this other Imp was, that player had just killed her in cold blood. Right in front of him.

The fact that she was in no danger of disappearing before Asuna could rez her was irrelevant, and so were the reasons behind it. If Kirito could catch this player, one of them was going to die. A calmer part of him was shocked when he realized that was his intent; none of the players he'd killed in the past had ever been deaths he sought.

The pitch of another set of Imp wings rose and fell rapidly as Yuuki shot past Kirito in a crimson-violet blur, going faster than he'd ever seen her fly. "I've got him!" she called back, voice bouncing off the angled stone walls and receding quickly. "Go find the others!"

Kirito knew she was right, but it still took him a moment to accept letting their unknown assailant go. When he turned and started running back, he saw the purple Remain Light diffuse and reshape itself into the form of the stricken girl's avatar as Asuna completed the incantation for the rez spell. Practically as soon as she could move again, the young Imp launched herself into Asuna's arms and started sobbing, nothing coherent coming out of her except in fragments.

"Go," Asuna urged to Kirito around an armful of girl. "Back up the passage to the Upper Sewers. I'll catch up once I'm sure she's okay."

Kirito needed no further urging. The passage was actually a long maintenance shaft that led down to the Lower Sewers from a partially collapsed tunnel above; it wasn't far from here and he didn't figure it would take long to find the kids once he got back there. He just hoped he was in time.

The wet thudding of his footsteps echoed loudly in his ears as he dashed back the way they'd come, skidding as he rounded a corner and nearly going sliding off into the canal before getting his footing back. A few more bends in the channel took him out of hearing distance of Asuna and the Imp girl, nearing the side chamber that had a ladder leading up to the collapsed tunnel. He quickened his pace when he heard a commotion ahead, and further still as the commotion resolved into sounds of dismay.

Which was when he ran straight into a sizable crowd of fleeing children; nearly a dozen of them in all. It was more than half of the raid group, and they clogged the path ahead of him. He immediately realized where they had to have come from if they were here now. "You're safe now," he called out, pitching his voice to carry over their cries. "Where are the others?"

A Spriggan boy a little younger than Silica pushed his way to the fore, waving his hands to appeal for quiet. "Some griefers took them hostage," he said quickly.

"How many?" Kirito asked, feeling his whole avatar suddenly turn to ice.

"Two, I think—an Imp and a Spriggan." Which probably meant there were three, if Kirito added the one Yuuki was chasing. "But we were separated from everyone else by a gate and we couldn't find the—"

"There's a narrow bridge, right? I know where it is," Kirito said with growing anxiety, bouncing on his toes as he tried to firmly but gently push his way through the crowd, which began to part for him. "That gate blocks the path down to the Lower Sewers where you are now. I can get it open again." He pointed back the way he'd come as he finished working through the blockage of bodies and kept moving. "Around that way, take a left at the fork, follow the left side of the canal and soon you'll see Asuna, the Undine girl you met earlier. Stay with her—you'll be safe now. I'm going to go help the others!"

Kirito ran through the archway into the side room, and barely paused before leaping straight up into the shaft that led back to the level with the now-closed gate. He didn't have time for a leisurely ascent on the ladder; Kirito landed on one of the rungs, kicked away from it and then back off the opposite wall, repeating this zig-zag leaping pattern until it led him up through the floor in a partially collapsed passage. He landed in a crouch and then took off running again, planting his hands on a fallen section of wall and swinging his lower body over and past it. He didn't stop or even slow, he just willed his body to move as fast as it possibly could—to the limits of his avatar and stats.

If they were trapped by the portcullis at the end of that viaduct, then they weren't far at all—he could be there in under a minute, most of it at a dead run.

Please, please let me be in time.


Time seemed to have disappeared along with the world.

Sasha's mind was still roiling with the fear and chaos that had led up to the boss attacking her, but it was doing so in a near-total absence of sensory input. She couldn't move, could barely feel anything except a steady, even pressure all around her. She had a brief, frantic thought that she really was dead… but then she remembered second-hand accounts she'd heard from players who'd had the experience of becoming a Remain Light; there was a period of a minute while you waited to be rezzed, and during that time she was pretty sure you were supposed to be able to still see and hear everything around you.

Her gaze went up and to the left; she could still see her HUD, and when she focused on her status bar it grew in her vision. There were several effect icons beside it—


The brown icon with a tiny stylized picture of a mountain popped open a small dialog box when she focused on it, describing the «Mountain Retreat» spell effect and noting in tenth-second increments what its remaining duration was: a little over six seconds and counting. A prompt appeared, asking her if she wanted to dismiss the buff; she quickly focused on the No option and the dialog disappeared.

Sasha was not accustomed to feeling stupid, and generally only allowed herself to do so when she'd made a truly elementary and avoidable mistake. She allowed it here—again she'd known what to expect, and again she had let her fear completely drive away her ability to think clearly. Of course there was darkness and silence; she was currently encased in a sheath of elemental stone. When she thought back, she could remember a split second where her body seemed to jerk to a stop as a brief but loud rippling sound covered her entirely and then left her in this state.

But the silence now was absolute; she neither heard nor felt the impacts that must have rained down on her in the moment that she was saved. It was like being imprisoned in another dimension—if she hadn't been able to check her peripheral vision for her HUD to reassure herself that it was still there, she would've been close to panicking again. As it was, she had a creeping feeling of claustrophobia that was rising up within her, and even though her avatar didn't have an automatic breathing animation, she started to feel mentally suffocated, imagining a squeezing sensation all around—

A battle blinked back into existence around her as rock crumbled away into dust.

Sasha cut off a scream of surprise with a squeak as she recovered from the shock of the buff suddenly dropping, assaulting her senses with things that were shouting, chanting, crashing, flashing, exploding, and roaring—and often more than one of these at once. Her entire body shook and her knees felt weak; she sank to the ground and watched through the dispersing dust while most of the melee groups continued to encircle the boss, giving it everything they had. Spell effects rushed past her and the others in the group like multi-color rockets, exploding against its unshielded hide and producing inhumanly loud roars of pain and rage; the mages seemed to be unloading their entire arsenals in order to make up for having to hold their fire for so long. All the while she felt the effects of healing spells repeatedly cascade over her like cool rain, intermittently tinting her vision blue when the energy sheeted over her face.

The combined effect at its peak was to produce the most insanely loud and cacophonous thing Sasha had ever… heard wasn't even the right word. It was being experienced. The sound and the light and the chaos all seemed to merge into a physical, tangible thing that rocked her back on her heels. She felt an unconscious urge to edge away from the scene, even knowing that there was nowhere to go.

Sasha felt a tap at her shoulder, and looked up. The Salamander with the garish bandana was standing there beside her, eyes frequently flicking between her and the boss as he held out a hand. "Told you," he said with a grin. "We got this."

She stared at his hand for a moment, not fully processing the fact that she was still sitting on the ground and that this was why he was making the gesture. When she looked down at her hands, they were still fiercely trembling; she reached up and he reached out to take her hand halfway, lifting her up effortlessly.

"Thanks," she said. There was more she was going to say, but the sound of her own voice startled her; she'd been screaming, then she hadn't been able to make any noise at all—and then there had been screaming again. To speak normally felt almost jarring.

He let go as soon as she was upright, although he still kept half an eye on her as if expecting that she might tip right back over. Once she was steady, he handed her two slim stoppered bottles filled with effervescent liquid. They both glowed very faintly; one was a translucent red, the other medium blue. "Here, drink these."

Sasha had brought her own HP and MP potions, but she wasn't about to turn down the offer. She thumbed the cork away from the health potion first and tipped it back, gagging a little on the slight fruitiness that was undercut with a medicinal tang; as she was drinking, she saw an effect icon appear beside her HP gauge. She was a little disappointed to find that they didn't slake her thirst at all, but when the red liquid was completely gone, she opened the blue bottle and nodded her thanks to the Salamander before beginning to restore her MP.

Klein, she remembered; that was his name. "The shield's down," he said unnecessarily as he watched the boss and the orgy of combat surrounding it from their safe distance. "You did great. I've never seen magic like that before, but it sure did the job. Scary shit though, huh?"

Sasha barked a very shrill, nervous laugh. "Scary for whom? I thought I was dead."

"Not on my watch," Klein said. He gave Bourne a look. "Although maybe don't cut it so close next time. Dale's only got the one rez, and I'm sure Sasha'd rather not eat the death penalty."

"I had to be sure my spell didn't take effect before Dale finished his incantation," the massive Gnome mage replied. "Or else it would've blocked his regen."

Meaning Dale was the slow link here; Sasha could understand that much of the implication. "Sorry, Leader," the other Gnome said. "Now that I know what to listen for in her spell, next time I'll get the heal on her the moment she casts."

"Next time," Sasha repeatedly slowly. "You think we're going to have to do this again?"

Klein nodded as he continued to observe the battle. "I'd bet on it. It's—aw man, I want a pet like that!"

Sasha looked, but had no idea which of the tamed pets he meant—at least half of the Cait Sith had brought one, and they ranged from oversized forest animals to giant insects and reptilian creatures; some of them were actually being ridden as mounts. In truth, she didn't particularly care what kind of pet struck Klein's fancy, but at the moment it was helping calm her down and distract her from the last dregs of her panic attack—panic that threatened to return at the thought of having that monster charging at her again. She nodded and smiled as if she knew what he was talking about.

Klein sighed. "Guys, we gotta save up for mounts."

"You know," said the Imp in their group. "I bet Alicia'd give you a great one if you asked." He smacked his head theatrically. "Oh wait, that's why we're here!"

There was so much battle noise echoing off the walls of the vast boss room, it took Sasha a moment to realize that everyone around her had stopped talking. Kunimittz now had a completely blank look on his face, as if deliberately schooled to stony neutrality.

"What?" Sasha said, confused.

Klein was next. "Kunimittz."

"Yeah, buddy?"

"Shut up." Snickers came from Klein's other group members. Sasha felt utterly bewildered... but the feeling was helping her calm down, so she embraced it wholeheartedly.

Then Klein's attention seemed to shift, and his posture changed. "Bourne! What's the cooldown on that spell of yours?"

"If you mean Mountain Retreat, two minutes and thirty seconds," the mage said immediately. "One twenty-eight left. Why?"

"Dunno," Klein said, holding a hand up to his brow and squinting. "This just feels too easy. They're all jammed up in there whaling on that boss, and its first HP bar is almost down by half. Bosses like to do something sucky whenever they lose an HP bar; usually it's a transformation or pattern change or something." He shrugged, and looked at Sasha briefly before Bourne. "I just want to make sure that save-the-squishy spell is on tap when we need it. I was gonna maybe ask Dynamm to give his Haste to you or Dale, but I'd rather save it for when it's really needed."

"Unless Hrungnir suddenly breaks loose and comes this way for no apparent reason, don't worry about it," Bourne said with a look towards Sasha. "Cooldown on your spell, milady?"

Having to think about magic calmed her in a way that nothing else had yet. Sasha took a deep breath, and focused on the small icons along the upper-right edge of her view. Strictly speaking, there wasn't any single spell that was on cooldown now—what was unavailable were the individual effects that she'd used in the spell, which were on cooldown at Fourth Magnitude and below for a certain duration. "Also 150 seconds, with about a minute-ten left."

Bourne's eyebrows raised. "I would've expected longer. That's an efficiently-crafted spell."

Sasha nodded, trying to stay with the familiar ground of this conversation instead of letting herself be distracted and unnerved by the combat taking place; the latter seemed to yank her attention away frequently with explosions, the loud metallic din of clashing weapons or the antagonized bellows of the Jotunn the rest of the raid was fighting. She was still shaking a little, and she tried to master it before speaking again, lest it come through in her voice. "I tried to use the lowest magnitude and least expensive effects I could. It's only even that long because nibralth doubles the cooldown. The real limiter here is my MP."

Indeed, when she glanced up and to the left, she saw that the blue bar in her status gauge indicating her MP was still well below half, and the icon for the MP potion was starting to flash—indicating that it was about to run out. She slipped a hand into a pouch at her waist, and found to her relief that her on-hand potions were undamaged; her fingers found the distinctively flared bottle of an MP potion and she started in on it. She looked at Bourne, and saw that he was doing the same thing.

The Gnome met her eyes, and wiped at his mouth when he finished his potion. "My lady Puca, I don't suppose that you're proficient in Song Magic, are you?"

Sasha looked away in embarrassment, dropping the empty vial to the ground where it shattered into blue particles. "I'm sorry. I've always been terrible at rhythm games, and I can't hold a tune to save my life. It's ironic, isn't it?"

"Aye, maybe just a little," Bourne said. "I was just thinking that it would've been very helpful to have a Puca playing «Freya's Hymn» right now. We could use the MP regen."

Sasha hadn't heard of the song, but that didn't surprise her—she'd given up on leveling up Song Magic fairly quickly once she'd realized that it actually took at least a minimal degree of musical aptitude, something which she utterly lacked. This was the first time she'd ever regretted that choice; it sounded like the sort of effect you'd want to always have on in a party. It also made her wonder why more raid groups didn't hire Puca—or for that matter, why more Puca didn't try to sell their services.

Then again, she didn't have very much contact with other Puca, so for all she knew, they did, and the lack of them here was an anomaly. She considered asking Bourne; he was from the NCC, and had probably gone out with groups that had Puca bards in them.

"Hey Leader," said Kunimittz, breaking into Sasha's thoughts. "Am I the only one who feels bad about just hanging back here like this? They're in there fighting for their lives."

"We're doing what we're supposed to, Kunimittz," Klein replied, not taking his eyes from said battle. "Which is protecting Sasha, keeping her far away from the boss, and avoiding taking any aggro ourselves."

"I know, I know," Kunimittz said with a grumble as another volley of attack spells cast by the mages on their flanks arced out and and struck the boss with flashes of colored light and explosive sound. He glanced at Sasha. "And in case I didn't mention it, oneesan, that was some nice work there with that spell. I just wish I could get in on the fun." He mimed sighting down his arm with thumb cocked and one eye closed, as if holding an imaginary pistol. "I can't miss; I've got perfect LOS on that thing's upper body, just like everyone else."

"Nope," Klein said.

"You sure?" Kunimittz flexed his hands. "They didn't say we couldn't, and it's not like we could pull aggro away from the tanks at this point—we barely have any at all compared to what the rest of the raid has to have by now. One DOT won't hurt."

"No DOTs, Kunimittz," Klein said with a sigh. "I love you, man. But seriously, no DOTs. No nukes. No debuffs. No fucking Fade Blade. No casting. Got it? At least, not until we've gotten past the first HP bar. We don't know what tricks this thing has up its sleeve, and I don't feel like finding out the hard way."

"Fine," said Kunimittz with reluctant grace.

"Hey, look on the bright side," said the Sylph member of Klein's party as he dragged his finger through the air in a way that looked as if he was scrolling through a list in his menu. "When we finally do get our turn, we can go all-out like we never get to. Tanks will have tons of hate and we'll be at full MP with nothing on cooldown."

Kunimittz grinned. "I'm starting to like this plan of yours, Dynamm. Can I have your Haste buff when we get to DPS?"

"Yo!" Klein said. "Look sharp, guys, I think the first bar is about to go."

He was right. As Sasha tried to focus on the status ribbons circling around the side of the boss's head, she could see the topmost one in the red zone. Another volley of spells lashed out from the mage groups, and when they exploded against the boss there was a shattering sound from the first HP bar as it disintegrated into particles. Immediately after that, every blow that landed on the boss produced some kind of pop-up message; Sasha couldn't read it from where she was.

"DPS out! Tank groups on me!" shouted a voice that sounded like Thelvin's. The barrages of attack spells abruptly stopped, as did the noises of clashing metal. The formation of players around the boss expanded rapidly, resettling into clearer distinctions of groups while they pulled back out of range of the boss, which—just as Klein had predicted—seemed to be doing something new.

The Jotunn's wind axe dispersed, as did the sheath of stone around its one fist. Colored energy swirled around each of its four arms—red, yellow, blue and green—gathering at the hands and churning around them as they formed into boulder-sized fists. Hrungnir threw back its head and roared as it beat at its great torso with all four fists, drumming a rhythm on its chest that wove these energies around its body in an ever-tightening pattern of knotwork.

"State change!" Thelvin yelled. "Maintained shields up!"

There was a sudden wave of chanted incantations across the various raid groups as mages quickly cast defensive shields; they formed into an uneven array of interlocking elemental discs in several different colors, which bathed each group in hues which hinted at the individual magical talents of their mages. It took Sasha a moment to realize what was happening—that Thelvin was expecting an AOE or some other attack. When she did, she quickly manifested her own shield, not really sure if she was expected to or not, but unwilling to take the chance of being exposed to damage that she couldn't withstand. "Zutto wilnachikke tamzul buren!"

Water surged from her palm, and the disc of the shield formed rapidly about a meter in front of it. Sasha saw her MP—which was still slowly climbing from the lingering over-time effects of the potion—start to slowly tick back down as long as she maintained the effect. She grimaced at the necessity, but she really didn't want to get caught in—

Then there was a blinding flash, similar to the one from when the shield had shattered; the traumatic recent memory of that made Sasha wince and look away as much as the brightness did. No wave of anything emanated from the boss, no projectiles or flames or the like reached out to strike at the raid force, and with the release of all that built-up energy, shields around the raid began dropping as individual mages apparently decided that an attack wasn't coming after all. Unwilling to waste any more of her MP if it wasn't needed, Sasha clenched her fist to dismiss her own shield, and quickly reached for another MP potion.

When she looked up again, she could now see a faint, familiar shimmer reform itself around the boss once more. Its deep bellows were still echoing from the walls, and as they did, Sasha caught glimpses of movement from just beyond the overlapping regions of firelight and orelight illuminating the room. No matter which direction she turned her head, she seemed to get another hint of movement in her peripheral vision, or a flash of reflected light from a blade.

Klein stepped in front of Sasha with his katana held out in a defensive stance, his own head whipping around. "Anyone else notice that we seem to have—"

"Adds!" came the yell from one of the off-tank groups.


Prophet's eyes crawled over each of his captives one by one, as if scrutinizing them more closely than before. "You," he said finally, pointing directly at Silica. "The catgirl with the mouth. Your gear is better. You're not a newbie like these others if you're wearing Lindwyrm Hide." Silica's hands self-consciously went to the belt that wrapped around her middle, as if trying to cover it. "And you," he said, yellow eyes again snapping over to Sachi, who flinched away from his attention. "I don't recognize your robes, but they're player-crafted and I'd bet they weren't cheap."

"So what?" Silica asked, hands balling helplessly into fists at her sides as she tried to divert Prophet's attention away from Sachi.

Their Spriggan captor coughed out a laugh. "So the two of you are going to entertain us while we wait."

Silica didn't know what kind of entertainment he was talking about, but she didn't think it was likely to be to her benefit or continued good health. Her hair was threatening to stand on end, and she couldn't stop her tail from lashing, but she at least tried to force herself not to tremble as she spoke. "What do you want us to do?"

"Simple. You're going to take out your melee weapons and fight each other until one of you is dead. That should pass enough time for Wraith to get back with the package."

Silica had to reach out and steady Sachi; the other girl looked as if she was going to collapse. She desperately wanted a way out, and part of her wished that Pina would come back from his house run and save them—but she suspected that against these people, it would just be a quick way of getting her beloved pet killed again. As soon as she realized that, her hopes abruptly reversed and she reminded whatever spirits were watching over her that she'd really rather he didn't come back here after all. She was on her own.

In a way, that thought helped lend her a little bit of steel when she needed it. "If it's just the two of us you want, then let the other kids go," she said, feeling strangely proud of herself for being able to say it or even try to negotiate at all. It was like someone else was speaking the words, and she was only watching.

"No," said Prophet flatly. "You're not in a position to bargain. Here are your choices: fight each other and one of you dies, or refuse and I'll make one of your party members take your place."

Silica looked helplessly back at the others; they were largely huddled against one another as far back against the gate as they could get. A few of them were standing in front of the others trying to look defiant, but the effect was more darkly comical than anything else when put up against the mercilessness of their assailant. What power did any of them really have?

She couldn't let Prophet make any of them take her place. This was her responsibility, hers and Sachi's; she was only even here in the first place because Sachi had needed someone to be strong for her while Sasha was gone. Silica just wished that she had someone to be strong for her, like Kirito—

Kirito! He and the two girls he was traveling with ought to be checking back in on them soon. She wasn't sure exactly how much time had passed, but she was sure that it had been at least ten minutes since their last meetup when this whole conflict began, and the raid had been traveling deeper into the Sewers, so surely they couldn't be too far from where he was…

He'd come. He had to. She just needed to buy enough time for that to happen.

Moments passed as Silica and Sachi looked at each other. They were each standing beside one another, ankle-deep water rushing past them, and each unconsciously took a step back onto the less treacherous ground of the banks on either side of the water running across the center of the bridge.

The water...

"You're boring me," Prophet said with barely restrained annoyance. "Start fighting now, or I'll pick new combatants." He glanced over Silica's shoulder. "Maybe the Salamander and the Sylph. A nice classic fight. They probably hate each other anyway."

Robert and Jellica. She couldn't let that happen. Silica's hands tightened into fists again, and when Prophet went to open his mouth once more, she drew her dagger. Sachi's eyes widened, disbelief fighting to join fear in them. "Silica, what—"

"Please, Sachi, just get out your weapon," Silica said as she held her dagger at ready, not quite yet in the correct position to trigger a technique. "And trust me."

"Yes, trust her," goaded Prophet with a smirk as he watched. "Quickest way to get a blade in your back."

Silica bit back the response that she wanted to give to that, something along the lines of Prophet being guilty of… what was it some of the adults had called it when you accused someone of something that you yourself did? Pro-something… projection, that was it. He's just saying that because that's what he would do. She jabbed out her blade at Sachi a few times, testing the girl's reactions. Each time, Sachi jerked back in a way that was completely unlike the confidence she usually showed now when dealing with mobs—it was as if this one day had undone all the progress she'd made in recent weeks, leaving her flinching even from feints.

"Fight me!" Silica yelled. She felt bad for yelling at Sachi; the girl was already terrified out of her mind, and now she probably thought one of her close friends was angry at her and trying to kill her. Silica's anger wasn't at Sachi, it was at their captors—anger that only intensified when her outburst drew loud laughter from them.

Silica went on the attack again, nervously eyeing Prophet when their maneuvers briefly brought her to face him. The two daggers rattled against each other as much by chance as anything else; Sachi was barely getting hers up in time to deflect Silica's blows, which tended to graze her arms as a result. There was simply nowhere to dodge—the best they could do was circle each other on the bridge, which was narrow enough that she probably could've touched both edges with her hands and feet if she'd lain down across it. Any kind of abrupt movement threatened to cause them to lose their balance; Silica was surprised that Sachi hadn't yet tried to dodge without thinking and sent herself falling off the side. It would've been better if she had.

"You're not even really trying," Prophet said with boredom and disgust in his voice. "If there's no victor in ten seconds, I'm killing you both."

"Silica!" begged Sachi as she held her dagger straight out with both hands, awkwardly interposing it between them. It wasn't even a remotely useful fighting stance; it was a psychological buffer. "Please, I don't want to do this! I can't fight another person!" Her eyes pleaded with Silica as much as her words did. "I can't fight you."

"Do it!" Silica screamed at the top of her lungs, adjusting her own stance slightly into the correct position to initiate a dagger technique. The blade began to muster a bright gleen glow.

"I can't!" Sachi screamed back, and then did.

It was a clumsy attempt, the kind of awkward slash a complete beginner would make when swinging around their weapon before they had any notion of how to activate techniques. Silica knew that Sachi could fight better than that; when she wasn't consumed by her fears, she could actually do her part in a group. But she couldn't even seem to fake fighting another person—and when she swung her dagger at Silica, it was an amateur move that left her wide open.

When she sensed the moment of rightness, Silica unleashed the dagger technique that she'd been charging, and felt the system assist take over as it carried her body into its opening animations. She closed a meter of distance in the blink of an eye, and both she and Sachi cried out when she felt the dagger plunge into the other girl's belly, and saw nearly a third of her HP disappear at once.

I'm so sorry, she wanted to say in the transient moment where she met Sachi's terrified eyes and sank her weapon into the girl's body.

But there was no time to say anything. As soon as the blade sank into its target, she felt her body spin around and execute the second part of the combo in «Scoundrel Bunt», the entire reason why she'd decided to use the technique here in the first place. The reversal ended with her driving the pommel of her dagger into Sachi's gut, and the other girl's HP dropped into the yellow zone as the blow delivered knockback force and sent Sachi over the edge of the bridge. Her eyes were wide with betrayal.

For a moment—one single, gloriously sweet moment, as she delivered the blow and froze in place in the final frame of the attack animation—Silica took solace in the thought that her plan was actually going to work.

Then tendrils of violet-black energy lashed out from the ground in front of Silica. They coiled around Sachi's ankles, arresting her brief flight and slamming her back down to the surface of the bridge. Silica didn't understand what had happened until she looked to her left and saw XaXa's hand held out, palm-up.

It had to be some kind of root spell. Roots were debuffs that fixed an opponent in place—they were usually used for crowd control and to keep monsters from moving around or pursuing. They had a significantly reduced duration on players, and were of limited use in restraining them. Despite the gravity of the situation, Silica had a moment where she almost had to admire the innovative use to which the effect had been put here.


"You must think I'm stupid," said Prophet as he took a step towards them. Silica shrank back from the intensity of the look he then gave her. "Undines don't take falling damage on water."

I know, Silica thought. That's what I was counting on. She could see it in Sachi's eyes as realization dawned on her; she'd been hoping that knocking Sachi off the bridge and into the water far below would count as a win and get Sachi out of Prophet's reach. She'd been trying to save Sachi's life. She knelt beside the older girl and put her arms around her; Sachi began to cry as her arms wrapped around Silica in turn and embraced her tightly.

"I dunno about you, boss," said XaXa, "but I think a ring-out counts as a violation."

Prophet nodded, eyeing Sachi and Silica with cold contempt. "Maybe the Salamander and the Sylph will put on a better show."

"No I won't!" shouted Robert as he stepped forward, making a fist and shaking it at Prophet. "I'm not fighting Jellica!"

Prophet gave him a bored look. "Okay." He nodded towards Robert, who appeared very smug at his defiant victory.

Silica didn't see where the two daggers came from, but they trailed a flare of violet light as they spun past Prophet's right shoulder, streaked just over the heads of Sachi and Silica, and struck the Salamander boy in the chest. He combusted into a fiery red Remain Light before his face even had time to register surprise.

"Robert!" shrieked several people; Silica was one of them. Shock ran through her like a physical blow from the suddenness of the violence. There had been no warnings, no arguing, just… one moment, he was there. The next, he was gone.

"See?" Prophet remarked to XaXa, glancing over his shoulder at the Imp as a renewed wall of screams rose up from the terrified group of kids by the gate. "This is what I was talking about. Those aren't even your best daggers, and they one-shotted him. No EXP, I'm guessing?"

"Nothin', boss," confirmed XaXa with a chagrined tone, wincing at the volume of the outcry. "But damn... that noise is annoying. Can I kill them anyway?"

Something in Sachi seemed to snap. She turned her back on their captors, reached towards the boy's Remain Light and held out both hands with determination. "Zutto mezal, kefle—"

The blow that struck her then was unarmed and backhanded; Prophet had simply taken another step forward as soon as she started casting and cuffed her in the head. She fumbled the spell, but her intent didn't waver; she still held out her hands with her palms pressed together in the opening motions. "Please, please let me rez him! Zutto meza—"

At first it looked as if Prophet had punched her in the back, but when his hand drew back there was a glint of torchlight from the translucent edge of his blade. Her HP dropped to a sliver of red and she cried out. Silica scrambled to try to get traction and reach her dagger; she'd dropped it when she and Sachi had hugged each other, and it was so close...

"Please!" Sachi begged, sobbing as Prophet grabbed the dark blue hem of her collar and yanked her back towards him. She pressed her hands together, eyes focused on Robert's Remain Light. "Zu—"

Silica's hand closed around the grip of her dagger. Prophet's blade flashed again. Sachi's avatar erupted into blue flames.

"Sachi!" Silica screamed, sinking back to her knees with tears running down her face in hot streams. It was over now. As long as Sachi had been able to stay alive, she could've rezzed anyone else… but the Undine girl had been the only one with any rez spells. Silica could fight all she wanted now, but the only thing she'd accomplish was delaying the inevitable—anyone who was a Remain Light at this point was as good as dead in less than a minute. The small display beneath her own gauge showing Sachi's status had grayed out, and even the forgotten anti-harassment dialog that had appeared when they'd clung to each other had disappeared.

Silica's train of thought stopped there. Something clicked in the desperation of the moment, something important. As Prophet stepped towards her, she looked over at the half-dozen remaining children who were all clinging to each other the same way as they wailed their fear.

A knife thrust into her side, and there was an awful numbness inside of her where it did, along with an impact that threw her face-first into the shallow stream in the middle of the bridge. She knew her HP was disappearing rapidly as the painlessly piercing blows stabbed down into her again and again, but she couldn't spare any attention for her HUD, and knew trying to defend herself was pointless now. All she had was one last moment of clarity as she pushed herself onto her elbows to lift her face free of the water, yelling at the younger kids as loudly as possible so that her voice carried over the din.

"The harassment pop-ups! Send each other to jail!"

When the final blow fell, Silica at least had the satisfaction of seeing the flares of blue light as the other children began teleporting safely away to the NPC jail in Arun, reported by their fellow party members for violations of their physical space.

Author's Note 2/21/14: Well, that happened.

I've had this sequence planned for a very long time, but even so it still ended up being a very difficult one to write. It's not fun getting inside the heads of people who are scared out of their minds, and even less fun thinking from the perspective of truly screwed-up people like Prophet and XaXa.

Who do you think is going to survive, if anyone? What's Kirito going to do when he gets there? Sound off with your thoughts, and as always, thank you for reading!