"The «Status Ribbon» is an element of a player's Interface layer that displays information about targeted players or mobs. It appears when Focus is placed on the target's Cursor, and is rendered as a thin colored ribbon in a quarter-circle around the target's left side at approximately shoulder level. The ribbon itself serves to display the target's health, with the amount of color filled in the gauge indicating the portion of HP remaining without displaying the exact numbers. When relevant, icons will appear beside the Status Ribbon indicating guild affiliation and active status effects. Please note that two important pieces of information are not displayed on the ribbon: the target's remaining MP, and their character name. Both are shown only in a player's HUD display of party members (c.f. «UI Elements: HUD»), and character names are otherwise exposed in the UI only to their faction leader or to the target of a duel request."

Alfheim Online manual, «Status Ribbons»

5 May 2023: Day 181 - Midday

The first time had been one of the most frightening experiences of Sasha's life.

The second had been an improvement only in that she knew what to expect—knowledge which failed to make it much less terrifying when Hrungnir turned its gaze upon her again, this time barely hesitating before rushing her. Knowing what was coming had done nothing to dispel the paralyzing fear that had gripped her as she waited for Bourne's spell to encase her in elemental stone, moments before the colossal boss of the 25th gateway would have reached her. Then she had again been sheathed in blackness, and that at least was a fear alleviated by foreknowledge—instead, relief had washed over and through her as soon as she checked her HUD and saw the icon for «Mountain Retreat» in her Active Effects display. Those seconds of silence and peace had been a welcome breather, as if she'd been playing a single-player game where she could press Escape to pause the action while her heart rate slowed.

Now, as she prepared to cast her shield-breaking spell for the third time, Sasha reflected that it was just as well that Kayaba hadn't programmed in the need for a player's avatar to use the restroom—she was fairly certain that she would've lost control and soiled herself at some point during this battle. She didn't know how the others did it, enduring day after day of this kind of life-threatening intensity.

It wasn't that she hadn't been in battle with a mob before. She wouldn't have reached level 27 if she hadn't put in countless hours fighting "normal" mobs out in the fields of Alfheim. But comparing those experiences to this raid was like comparing preschool to her university entrance exams. It wasn't even remotely the same thing, and more than once she'd felt like a naive little child who'd been suddenly expected to write a ten-page essay on world history, with her entire future at stake.

A tap on her shoulder brought her out of her thoughts, and she realized with embarrassment that she'd let her attention drift inwards after the last wave of adds had been burned down. Bourne, the massive Gnome healer who'd been assigned to protect her during this battle, gave her a searching look. "Everything all right, milady?"

Sasha nodded quickly, looking around to make sure she hadn't missed anything important. The protective triangular formation into which Klein had arranged their group had loosened up a bit now that there was no immediate threat near them, and the tank groups had the boss "parked" on the far end of the cavernous chamber. They were tying it down—not with spells or effects, but by generating so much aggro that it had no interest in breaking away to deal with the mage groups. The latter were diligently avoiding the use of any attack spells or ranged projectiles while Sasha's MP regenerated and the tanks built hate.

Realizing that she hadn't really answered Bourne and that he might not have seen her nod, she hastened to speak up above the din of clashing metal and the offended bellows of the Jotunn boss. "I'm fine. Just trying to calm myself while I wait for my MP to finish recovering." She paused, and then asked, "why do you keep calling me 'milady'?"

A faint smile appeared on the man's craggy, bearded features. "Are you not a lady?"

"You know what I mean," she said, giving him a look filled with what amusement managed to make it through her nerves. "Are you a roleplayer?"

Bourne's head turned to track the boss as Thelvin's main tank group rotated out to recover while one of the off-tank groups switched in. "You might say that," he said.

Sasha laughed, then. "I did say that. I'm sorry, I meant no offense by it."

Bourne made a small sound of good humor that was almost swallowed by the background noise, reaching down and unlimbering his warhammer. He tapped it to check its status window; he'd actually needed to use it during the last wave of adds. "Well, milady, then consider this thought: is life not about the roles we choose to play? In another world, you were another person, and perhaps you wore different faces and titles depending on the company you kept. You would speak and act differently amongst your students than you would with friends, and different still before your elders."

"Code-switching," Sasha said, recalling a lecture on the topic from her Linguistics studies. She didn't bother to correct his assumption that she'd had students; in reality, she had been the student, albeit one studying to become a teacher. "It's a part of learning to get along in different contexts—learning to automatically adjust your vocabulary and manner of speech in the presence of others. We all do it, some better or worse than others; most people just don't have a name for it."

"Aye," Bourne agreed, eyes tracking relentlessly around the battlefield. The rest of Klein's group was ignoring their conversation—not, she suspected, out of rudeness or disregard, but because they couldn't follow it and had to stay focused. "But it is more than that. The way we think informs the way we speak, but the reverse is true as well. That is why I speak as I do." He carefully returned his weapon to its place on his belt, slipping the pommel loop back onto the blunt hook there. "What I'm trying to say is: we are who we choose to be. In that other world, you were a woman of learning, a human being in a human body. No doubt you bore another name, one to which you no longer answer."

He reached up and ran a finger briefly across one of the elongated, pointed ears that poked out from beneath his reddish-brown hair. "Here you are Sasha of Arun, Puca mage and scholar of the language of magic, mistress of Alfheim's only orphanage. You have already adapted to your new circumstances, chosen to become someone different—someone who is a part of this world. You play a role as surely as I do. If anything… it is those who cling to their former lives and selves here who are the roleplayers, pretending to still be something they are no longer."

A flashing in Sasha's peripheral vision drew her attention to her HUD; her MP was somewhere just above 80% and the regenerative effect of the MP potion was about to expire. She slipped a hand into the pouch at her side to withdraw another vial, and her fingers found only one. Grimacing, she took it out and quaffed it without hesitation.

"Running out?"

Sasha finished the potion and nodded, letting the empty glass vial drop from her fingers. It struck the ground and burst into blue particles with a tinkling sound that was barely audible over the noise of the battle on the other side of the room. "Last one."

"Worry not—I have more, and I suspect it's the last you'll need anyway."

As she watched the blue bar of her MP gauge begin ticking slowly upwards again, Sasha gave Bourne a grateful look. "What about you?" she asked, well aware that she was encroaching on the forbidden territory of asking about a person's life back in Japan. "Who were you back in the world… before you became Bourne of Nissengrof, Gnome battlemage and—if I'm not mistaken—a scholar of magic in your own right?"

Bourne briefly got a far-off look his eyes. "No one, I'm afraid," he said after a few moments, with a great solemnity of tone that suggested he meant it earnestly. "No one at all."

"I find that hard to believe," she replied. "Some of the things you've said, the way you talk about language usage… I get the impression that your education was similar to mine in some areas."

The large Gnome shrugged, becoming unusually quiet. Sasha let the matter drop, not wanting to pry; some people were very sensitive about the lives that had been stolen from them by Kayaba. If Bourne really felt like he'd been a nobody back in the real world, it said quite a lot about why he'd embraced his new self in this one. And if he really was a larper, he probably didn't like to break 'character'—to be reminded of whatever petty life he'd left behind. After everything he'd done for her today, respecting his desire for privacy was the least she could do. "Well, I'm glad you're here," she said, reaching up and twining one of her braids around her finger. "I wouldn't be alive if you weren't."

A new voice, rich with impatience, interrupted whatever Bourne might've said in response. "What's the delay over here?"

Everyone in Klein's group turned to regard the new arrival—the long-haired swordsman in light plate armor who appeared to be leading one of the Sylph mage groups. His expression was one of imperfectly-restrained annoyance as he stepped forward from his group and looked at Sasha. She couldn't even begin to guess why his face darkened so much when his eyes fell on her. "How much longer is it going to be until you can cast that shield-breaking spell of yours again?" he demanded. "We're wasting far too much time while you socialize."

"The lady's MP must recover sufficiently to cast the spell," Bourne said, turning slowly until he faced the Sylph. He didn't raise his voice or make any threatening gestures, but he loomed over the man by sheer size alone. "It should not be but another minute or two, and until then there is nothing to be done for it. Unless you'd care to volunteer an MP crystal, you'll just have to wait."

"Chill out, man," Klein said as he, too, stepped forward, crossing his arms. His weapon was sheathed, but Sasha didn't doubt he could have it ready in a moment. "I'm glad you guys came along to help, but Sasha's a lot lower-level than the rest of us—give her a break."

"Yes, about that, Salamander," said the Sylph man, who clearly did not care for being reprimanded by one of Klein's faction. "Why is she here?"

The withering look Klein gave the man in return was the very definition of stink-eye. "We need her to break the shield, dude," he said, as if explaining the concept to someone who had not, in fact, been there for the entire battle thus far.

"I know that," he said with rising testiness. "But Lord Skarrip said that the intent was for her to teach the spell to one of us. Someone of her level has no business being on this raid, and as I recall she has responsibilities she ought to be attending to—somewhere else she was supposed to be. This battle wouldn't be taking nearly as long if you'd brought someone level-appropriate or stuck to the original plan." He turned his ire-filled gaze back upon her. "No offense," he said without any apparent sincerity.

"None taken," Sasha said with equal sincerity, having reached her limit. "If you like, sir, your group is welcome to take my place. I'm quite happy to teach you everything you need to know to compose and cast the shield-breaking spell so that I can go be where I'm supposed to be. Do you have something with which to write?" She paused long enough to give him a chance to respond to the rhetorical question; he said nothing. "No? Well, it's quite simple, really. First, you need a single mage who has Fire, Wind, Water and Earth, all at a skill level of at least 500—the higher, the better. Any of you?"

She looked at each of the mages in his group, none of whom seemed to want to meet her eyes. Klein's group had fallen dead silent, too. "Well, that's unfortunate. Still, assuming you did have such a mage, he or she would need to wait until you identified the order of the elements for each of the boss's phases, concatenate the element spellwords with the conjunction pa, and then select the appropriate spell effects, arranging them so that they will map to the corresponding elements in the correct order. You would inflect the first three in the Sequential form—but then, you don't know what that is, so permit me to explain. For a Malign effect verb, you inflect -u to -i; for example, plorjabu to plorjabi. Then—"

"Never mind," said the Sylph man, cutting her off and turning his back on her with a flutter of his cape before she could continue her lecture. "Just be quick about it."

"Sigurd!" called the voice of the tall green-haired woman who led the other party as she approached. "Am I missing a strategy conference over here?"

"It's nothing, Sakuya," Sigurd said as he threw one last look over his shoulder at Sasha. "Get back in place and be ready to DPS. It won't be much longer now."

For all the noise echoing off the distant walls of the boss room from where the tank groups were keeping the four-armed Jotunn busy, there was a circle of silence that fell around Klein's group as the Sylphs returned to the flanks of where the mage groups were arranged. When Sasha turned back to her own group, she found everyone looking at her speechlessly in a way that made her abruptly very uncomfortable.

"What?" she said finally, once again feeling like the only person in the party who wasn't in on the secret.

It was Klein's snicker that finally set everyone else to laughing, setting an example for the rest of his group. Even Bourne's face seemed to crack a bit.

"Pwned," said Kunimittz, grinning. The single unfamiliar word sent the rest of the group—minus Bourne—into laughter again.

Sasha didn't have the faintest idea what he meant by that, but she smiled anyway.


"Asuna!" Kirito screamed, reaching pointlessly over the side of the bridge for a few moments before realizing how foolish and useless the gesture was. He'd reacted automatically to the sight of her launching herself out to grab onto XaXa in mid-air, and to the inevitable drop to the Lower Sewers that followed. It took him a moment to remember the Undine affinity with water, and realize that she wouldn't take falling damage hitting it the way XaXa would. He wondered if she'd planned it that way, or simply acted impulsively with no thought for her own safety—if she'd truly grabbed onto him with the deliberate intent of killing him.

He wasn't sure which of the two possibilities he preferred.

The sound of Imp wings rose from far below, from the opposite side of the bridge. Kirito pivoted that direction with his weapon presented, wary of attack from a new source. He could see a violet flight trail some distance beneath the level of the bridge, and the Imp at the head of it was diving in the direction of the splash and column of water that rose from Asuna's point of impact.

"I've got her!" came Yuuki's voice echoing its way up the walls of the chasm. An incredible wave of relief rippled through him when he heard that; he'd been worried about Yuuki herself, and wondering how long it would take Asuna to get back up the hard way.

From above, Prophet's laughter reached Kirito's ears a moment later, bringing his gaze sideways with a glare. "PK by falling damage," the other Spriggan said, chuckling as he crouched on one knee at the top of the stairs and watched Yuuki's flight trail burn its way down to where Asuna had fallen. "Classic. I'm going to have to remember that one."

The other Imp, the late arrival with the slender frame who by process of elimination Kirito assumed had to be Wraith, hovered above and said nothing, turning and rising smoothly in the direction of the tunnel that led back towards the surface. Prophet shrugged as he took a look down at Kirito and spoke again. "Eh. XaXa was an idiot anyway. Enthusiastic about his work, but an idiot. I'm sure the Mistress will agree that was a creative kill worth celebrating, regardless of who was on the receiving end."

A part of Kirito raged, wanting nothing more than to charge up the stairs and pursue the two PKers all the way back to Arun, to call them out in front of everyone for what they were—if they didn't kill him first. Only the knowledge that there were others in the tunnels behind him who needed him—lives for which he was still responsible—stayed his hand. "Get out of here," he said with clenched teeth, bringing his sword around and angling it up at Prophet. "Go and never come back. We know your names, and clearers will be keeping an eye on the newbie areas from now on."

Prophet reacted to this with indifferent contempt. "You think I care about this zone, boy? Waste all the time you like—Wraith has what we came for. A shame the teacher wasn't here; I had something special in mind for her." He shrugged. "This ended up being entertaining enough, in its own way."

Kirito took a step towards the stairs, barely managing to restrain himself. His voice was someone else's, someone he didn't recognize. "Go. Now. And you'd better pray we never meet again. Because the next time I see you, I will cut you down and camp your Remain Light until you are gone from this world and every other—forever."

Prophet clapped his hands slowly, leaning over the top step a little more—as if daring Kirito to follow through on his threat. "That's the spirit! Now you're getting into the right frame of mind for this world."

"Go!" Kirito screamed, the tip of his sword wavering as his hands shook with rage. Prophet would never know just how close those parting words had come to tipping him over the edge into doing something rash.

Prophet turned then and and snapped his fingers, hopping up into the rounded mouth of the tunnel where Wraith was waiting. The two of them disappeared a moment later, his laughter receding hollowly down the passageway into the distance.

The sound of steel on stone rang out as Kirito fell to his knees and slammed the pommel of his sword into the cold, damp bridge, water soaking through the shins of his leggings. An «Immortal Object» pop-up briefly appeared on the surface of the stonework, indicating that it was a type of world object that could not be damaged or destroyed. It was probably for the better—the repeated blows he struck as he vented his frustration and grief could've crumbled the narrow span out from under him if that flag hadn't been set. As it was, the durability on his sword would give out first, and he had to stop himself before he could destroy the irreplaceable item, already worn from the battle.

Nearly half of the raid group was missing. He'd watched at least one of the Remain Lights disappear. He'd taken responsibility for their lives—how many of those lives were now gone? How could he possibly face Sasha when he returned with the traumatized survivors?

Stop it, he told himself. You can't bring them back now, and this isn't helping anyone. Get a grip on yourself and make sure the others are safe—you can help them.

He knew the words to be true, but he also knew they were delaying the inevitable. Sooner or later, he'd have to take responsibility for his failures.

A voice from the tunnel down to the Lower Sewers pulled him the rest of the way back out of himself, and he glanced back that way while he used his sword to push himself back to his feet. Sachi, the eldest Undine girl from Sasha's group, was there with Silica. He could faintly see smaller figures behind them, wide eyes reflecting glints of light from the torches hanging over the threshold.

"I… I didn't hear that," he said, straightening. "What did you say?"

"Is it over?" Sachi repeated, stepping out into the light and looking around warily. She had the look of a nocturnal animal tentatively venturing forth from its burrow after nightfall, alert for the moonlit shadow of an owl.

Kirito nodded, then glanced back up at the passageway into which Prophet and his companion had disappeared—almost as if he expected them to make a liar of him. "I think so. We drove them off, and I don't think they'll be back. They said they have what they came for." His free hand curled into a fist again, trembling when it couldn't clench any more. He couldn't bear the thought that the PKers had profited in any way from this tragedy. What had they been after, anyway?

The relieved sighs from both Sachi and Silica were audible then, and the Undine girl beckoned towards the other children still hiding in the lower tunnel. Kirito's eyes darted from one to the other as they emerged into the light; he did a mental count of those still present other than Sachi and Silica. It was everyone that he'd run into on his way up, plus the Sylph girl who had been at the mouth of the tunnel when he'd arrived.

That left far, far too many missing. His throat tightened as he willed himself to be able to ask the question that came next. "What… what happened to the others?"

"They were all huddled together, holding on to each other," Sachi said. "They must've triggered the anti-harassment pop-ups, because when Prophet attacked Silica, she told them to say yes to the prompts. They're probably all in jail right now and really scared… but they're all safe, thanks to her." Then a look of grief overtook her features, and she looked down at her feet. She seemed to barely be able to say the words that followed. "All except Robert. He… I… I let him die."

Robert. Amidst the overwhelming mixture of relief and amazement at hearing that the others were safe, Kirito tried to recall the name of the dead boy and put a face to it. He'd seen three Remain Lights when he'd arrived: blue and yellow, which must have been Sachi and Silica's… and the red Remain Light of a Salamander. At once something clicked into place; Kirito remembered a Salamander boy not much younger than Silica who'd been one of the "troublemakers" when he'd been at the church before. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to commit the boy's face to memory.

He didn't get to dwell on it. He could hear Yuuki's wings approaching again, and he glanced down over the side to see her and Asuna rising quickly from below. It was a silver lining, at least, and one more of his worries began to fade.

Then something that Sachi had said finally penetrated, and he turned back to her. "What do you mean, 'let him die'?" Kirito thought back to the battle, trying to remember what had happened—he'd been so focused on surviving the fight with Prophet and XaXa, he hadn't seen everything that transpired once Asuna had arrived.

"I only have one rez," Sachi said, tears beginning to roll down her face. "And I'd already used it."

"That's not your fault," Kirito said at once. "If your rez was on cooldown, it means you'd already saved someone else's life—and they'd be dead now instead, if you hadn't. If anything, this whole thing…" And then, the tsunami of guilt that he'd been staving off returned in force, crashing into him and stripping away his remaining ability to delay the reckoning any longer. His voice broke. "I'm sorry… this isn't your fault, it's mine. None of you would've been here if not for me, and I should've been here when this happened."

"Don't you dare," said Asuna as Yuuki dropped her to the surface of the bridge, the Imp girl's wings flickering more and more quickly with the waning of the last of their flight power. "Kirito, don't you even think about blaming yourself for this."

"But I—"

"No. Just don't. It wasn't your fault, either." Asuna stopped directly in front of him, head tilted up slightly to look at him. She was dripping wet, her hair plastered to her cheeks like strings of blue kelp, but it didn't soften the intensity of her gaze one bit. He looked down and away, unable to bear it.

"You don't understand," Kirito said as he stared at his feet, sword dangling loosely in his grip. His voice rose with each new emphatic utterance. "I told Sasha she was making a mistake by keeping these kids sheltered inside the Safe Zone! I told her she should teach them magic and let them go out! I promised to keep them safe if she went on the raid, and I—"

In the wake of Kirito's cut-off words, the sudden sharp sound echoed. It echoed off the bridge, the walls, and every other surface. It kept echoing long after he looked up at Asuna, stunned, his cheek still stinging from the slap. He met her eyes then, and found in them not judgment, but something… something else. Her arm was still held out crosswise the way it had been when her palm had finished its arc, and with a few steps she erased the remaining distance between them and reached up to gently touch the still-fading red mark on his cheek.

"It wasn't your fault," she said, much more quietly now. "You didn't kill Robert, those… those…" She didn't seem to be able to muster a word foul enough to describe the PKers—not one that she was willing to speak aloud, anyway. "They did. And because we were here, they didn't get to kill anyone else."

"But I still told Sasha—"

"Shh," Asuna said, pulling him into her arms. Kirito had no idea how to react to this—nothing in his life had prepared him for it. He leaned into the embrace as his whole body began to shake, his sword dropping into the running water at his feet with a splash and a muted two-beat metallic clank. She sank to the ground with him when his knees buckled, holding his head against her shoulder and stroking his hair while he broke down and sobbed into her. From the occasional twitches he felt from her beneath his cheek, she had to be crying too, at least a bit.

He heard Yuuki's small voice next to him as well, repeating the same words. "It's not your fault, Kirito," she said. "They were bad people and they were going to do awful things no matter who was here."

"And don't go blaming yourself for the advice you gave Sasha, either," Asuna continued, a hitch in her voice.

One of the children spoke then—a girl; Kirito couldn't see who and didn't recognize the voice. "We wanted Miss Sasha to teach us. We wanted to be here." More voices joined hers in agreement.

Kirito wasn't sure how much of the wetness on his face was from Asuna's soaked-through clothing, and how much was from his own tears. One of his arms was still draped loosely around her back while she cradled him, and from somewhere he found the ability to speak again, the strength to lift his head. Asuna's arms slipped away from him when he sat up, leaving him with an unfamiliar pang of regret as he pivoted to face the survivors of the raid group. "I'm sorry," he said, leaning forward in a bow from his sitting position until his forehead nearly touched the stone. "I still feel like I failed you."

"You didn't," said the young Sylph girl who'd been on the verge of becoming the next victim when Kirito arrived. When he raised his head and looked up at her, he saw nothing but gratitude on her face. "You saved us."


Klein had to give Sasha credit—she might look like a total bookworm, but the woman had guts. He didn't really hold her earlier freakouts against her; it wasn't as if she had any experience being in a raid before this. And if he was honest with himself, Klein had to admit that he'd freaked out a bit himself during a raid all those months ago, when he'd gone back to Freelia to help the Caits take down Fellrach the Ravenous once and for all. The first brief encounter with the arachnid boss of the Valley of Butterflies had been scary enough, but when they'd actually engaged him with a full raid group, and all those baby spider adds had come pouring out of its den…

He shuddered. That was not a memory he wanted to relive at the moment. Or at any other moment, for that matter. At least Alicia hadn't been there to hear him scream like a little girl.

Klein forced his attention back to the present as he heard Sasha begin winding up for another one of her shield-busting spells—hopefully the last one; after this Hrungnir only had the one HP bar remaining. Everyone in his party was lined up now, spreading out just a little bit in order to give themselves ample room—once that shield came down, with no more need to worry about taking aggro, it was going to be a free-for-all.

The last word of the complex incantation left Sasha's lips, and arcane energy raced down her arms in colored pulses that shot away from her outstretched fingers one after the other. As they did, Klein watched the green bar on her status ribbon drain rapidly downward until all that remained was a sliver of red. It was a sight he doubted he'd ever get used to seeing.

The projectiles unerringly struck home and filled the air with flashes of light and the fragmented sound of a thousand porcelain dishes shattering all at once. This time there was no hesitation on anyone's part; as soon as Sasha's HP began to drain, Dale began casting his HOT. Moments before that spell landed, Bourne held out both hands and uttered the words to that rock-shield deaggro spell he'd been using to protect Sasha.

And none too soon. Hrungnir seemed to react to the broken shield more quickly every time, and there was no hesitation on the part of the boss either before it viciously kicked one of Thelvin's party out of its path and charged directly at Sasha. The unlucky Cait erupted into yellow flames in mid-air with a cut-off shriek, leaving one of the healers in the MT group rushing in to resurrect him.

Then Klein couldn't allow himself to be distracted by their fate any longer—he had bigger worries to deal with. Elemental stone grew from the floor like a high-speed video of erosion in reverse, rapidly encasing Sasha's avatar only moments before the boss slammed both of its fists down. They rebounded off of the impervious «Immortal Object» status of the elemental stone, and with line-of-sight broken to its target, it immediately turned its attention to the nearest player on its hate list.

Which, as luck would have it, happened to be Klein.

Except Klein knew that luck really had nothing to do with it. He'd built up a decent amount of aggro every time the boss had come for Sasha—not enough to take it from the real tank groups, some of whom were even now charging to try to pull the boss away from the mage groups. But enough to discourage the boss from getting interested in, say, Dale or Kunimittz once Bourne's spell dumped Sasha's aggro. Klein narrowly dodged a swipe from Hrungnir's stone-encrusted open hand, giving the arm a light slash with his katana as it passed over him. Having gotten the thing's attention, he made a point of running between the Jotunn's legs and getting behind it, forcing it to turn in order to face him—in the process making it face away from the mage groups.

The tactic paid off moments later when the boss began cycling through its attack patterns again, sending a fireball towards Klein that came in too quickly to be blocked with magic; Klein braced himself and counted on his innate fire resistance to mitigate the worst of the hit. It still took an uncomfortably significant portion of his HP; perhaps a tenth of it ticked down over the course of the half-second it took to drain. As Klein backpedaled to try to buy himself some space and pull the boss further away from his group, Hrungnir bounded towards him—and then stopped abruptly for a few moments, staggering. A root spell from one of the Sylphs had seemingly managed to get past its status resistances and take effect, albeit significantly mitigated.

The shackles of elemental earth that had grown from the floor and encased its ankles couldn't have lasted more than a second or two, but it had been enough. Klein wearily pushed himself back to his feet while one of the off-tank groups rushed past him, slashing at Hrungnir's legs and landing clean blows. The massive Jotunn bellowed, knocking one of its assailants to the ground in a clatter of steel armor with a fist the size and composition of a boulder. It clenched one of the other empty hands, that fist swirling with blue energy until a small portion of its last HP bar began to regenerate.

"Get some DOTs on that thing!" came Thelvin's shout as the Cait Sith raid leader charged into the fray, tucking and rolling under a lateral swipe from the Jotunn's axe and coming back up to his feet in time to absorb some of a fireball with his shield. His HP was in the yellow, but the large feline tank either didn't notice or didn't let it get in the way of what he had to do. When the off-tank groups withdrew, the boss chasing after them, he was right at its heels.

With the tank groups starting to get the boss under control and pull it back towards its spawn point again, Klein took the opportunity to survey the battlefield. There were a number of Remain Lights still glowing in the dim light of the boss room, and not all of them had healers in the process of rezzing them. He couldn't see the MP gauges of anyone who wasn't in his immediate party, but he wouldn't have been surprised if a number of the casters were starting to get low on supplies—it had been a mana-intensive fight so far. When he looked back at his own party, he saw Sasha emerging from her stony elemental cocoon, with Dale and Bourne beginning to run through the magnitudes on their healing spells to get her back up. She was visibly shaken, but less so than the first few times.

He took a hand off of his katana long enough to cup it over one side of his mouth while he yelled. "Dale! Bourne! Sasha! See if you can get some of the people rezzed who aren't close to the boss!"

"I'm out of MP!" Sasha yelled back, looking fretfully towards some of the glimmering yellow Remain Lights. As they watched, one of the orbs of amber flames flickered and went out.

"Use this," Bourne insisted, withdrawing a slender azure crystal from a sheath on his tunic and handing it to her.

Sasha looked shocked. "But Mana Crystals are—"

"A lot more replaceable than a someone's life!" Klein said, interrupting her and gesturing wildly with his free hand. "Go!"

When he turned back towards the boss, he saw the tank groups switching in and out as spellfire raged forth from the mage groups in streams, projectiles and explosions of light and sound. The star-bright flashes that erupted at the points of impact were so numerous that Klein wondered how the tank groups managed to see anything at all, being right in the thick of it. Everyone—including Kunimittz and Dynamm—was DPSing like crazy, chanting the next spell almost as soon as one had streaked away from them, and he could actually see the final HP bar decrementing noticeably with each new barrage. The boss seemed to share a trait with all the other non-trash Jotnar they'd fought, in that its damage resistance grew with each HP bar it lost—but despite that ability and the increasing frequency with which it interrupted its attack patterns to heal itself, it still didn't take long for them to burn that final gauge nearly to the halfway point.

At the rate they were going, the battle was going to be over soon. Satisfied, Klein spared a quick look over at the three healers he'd sent off. A very grateful-looking Cait Sith was getting back to his feet with a heavy-handed assist from Bourne, and Sasha was kneeling beside another Remain Light as deep blue energy surged around her cupped hands.

It was an itch at the back of his neck that warned him. Klein wasn't quite sure why, but it was a feeling he had learned to trust. A feeling that he was being watched, or that something else bad was coming; he'd occasionally wondered if it was even some kind of hidden skill in the game engine. More than once it had saved them from a linked group of roamers who had pathed near a fight already in progress. Wary of more adds being summoned by the boss, Klein pivoted sharply and checked their flanks and surroundings, then peered into the darkness that led down the corridor from which they'd come.

At first, nothing. Then, as he strained to see, there was movement. A lot of movement. Klein opened his mouth to shout a warning of more adds.

What came out a moment later was: "Oh, shit!"


"Well," Heathcliff mused as the Salamander raid group marched to a stop and formed into a skirmish line. The noise level in the boss room from the ongoing battle was impressive, but they were far enough away yet that they didn't have to raise their voices; even from a distance of a few meters Tetsuo could still hear his group leader clearly. "This is unexpected."

"By you, maybe," Corvatz said as he flipped up his visor and shot a glare over at their raid leader. Eugene either didn't notice or didn't acknowledge the look. Which didn't stop the hard-faced Salamander clearer from pressing the point. "I told you we should've gone last night."

"We weren't ready last night," Heathcliff responded reasonably, letting his shield slide from his back and onto his arm with a fluid one-sided shrug.

"The enemy doesn't wait for you to be ready," Corvatz said, the words having the sound of ingrained doctrine—or dogma.

"Awkward," Tetsuo said quietly, not wanting to draw attention to himself. His own weapon and shield were already equipped, although now that they had finally arrived, it seemed… well, pointless. There was already a raid party here, apparently, and they looked like they were pretty close to finishing off the boss. It was disheartening to say the least, but what could they really do?

The answer to that unspoken question came momentarily. "Eugene," Corvatz said, drawing a line between their group and the raging Jotunn with his sword. "We need to act now or we lose everything. If we maneuver to max spell range and concentrate all of our ranged DPS on the boss right now, we still have a chance to get the Last Attack. And with any luck, our damage contribution will be significant enough for us to get some EXP and items."

Heathcliff made a throat-clearing noise. "Corvatz, you realize that if we do that, we stand a good chance of hitting the Cait Sith groups."

The elder clearer was unmoved, his posture unyielding as he faced his equal. "So?"

Tetsuo blinked in surprise. Even he could see the problem with that—the political problem, that is. He wasn't surprised that Eugene could as well. "No," their general said. "If they were Sylphs, I might consider it—they already hate us, so I wouldn't lose sleep over any collateral damage." A harsh smile tugged at his lips. "It isn't even a treaty violation if they just happen to get in the way of something fired at a mob. But attacking the Caits might well push them into an alliance with someone else—and war with us."

"Are you blind?" Corvatz said sharply. He gestured again with the tip of his blade. "Do you not see the Sylphs mixed in with their mage groups? Do you not recognize two of the senior-most Sylph clearers, including their raid leader?"

"I see them just fine," Eugene growled, sounding none too pleased about the fact—or about the necessity of arguing the point with his subordinate. "What I also see is that only the Caits are close to the boss, and if we attack them, then we turn their possible alliance with the Sylphs into a certain one."

"They've seen us," said Denkao, the healer stepping forward and pointing towards what actually looked like another Salamander standing in the midst of the other raid's mage groups. The katana-wielding man had a striped crimson bandana restraining a shock of orange-red hair, and while it was hard to see from his vantage point, Tetsuo could swear for a moment that he looked familiar.

"Oh for—" Eugene sighed, shaking his head. "Goddamnit Klein, what the hell are you doing here." It wasn't even a question, just a rhetorical complaint.

Corvatz answered it anyway, his voice dripping with scorn. "Helping our enemies—just like that Puca woman who the boy swore wouldn't take a side." He turned his ire-filled eyes upon Tetsuo, who fought not to shrink from it. "Now are we going to act or not? We outnumber them; what can they do?"

Plenty, Tetsuo thought but didn't say. He didn't feel like giving Corvatz any more reasons to dislike him; he had enough already.

The struggle on Eugene's face was plain, but it only lasted a few beats. "Ranged DPS!" he barked. "Advance to maximum range and target the boss! No AOEs, headshots only! We're not going to take the risk of starting a war here today." He turned and waved to the groups surrounding him. "Tank groups and melee DPS, screen and protect the ranged groups but do not engage unless they attack first."

"Mistake," Corvatz said. "If you wait for the enemy to strike first—"

"Corvatz," Eugene said, finally facing the smaller man squarely. "Don't think I don't appreciate your nuggets of real-world military wisdom, because I do. Your counsel and experience have been invaluable in training our army, and I want that to continue. But shut the fuck up and stop arguing with me in the field—a soldier should damn well know better. You have your orders."

To Tetsuo's amazement, that did indeed shut Corvatz up with remarkable efficiency—so much so that he wondered why Eugene hadn't just played that card to begin with. "Yes, sir," Corvatz said crisply. "Melee DPS! Advance in screening formation!"


As much as she wanted to run in and join the melee surrounding the boss, Sakuya had a job to do. Her mages launched volley after volley of attack spells as soon as their cooldowns were over—cooldowns accelerated by Haste buffs that every single Sylph knew how to cast, even if only at Magnitude 1. Sakuya herself was casting more than a few of those, allowing the mages in her group to reserve as much MP as possible for burning down the boss. Anyone who had begun the battle with a Mana Crystal had either already used it or was about to; at this point it was all or nothing. Even with Rejuvenation buffs and potion effects running, they were going to run dry eventually.

But not before we finish off this boss, she thought with satisfaction. This had, in truth, always been her favorite part of any raid. The strategy was not only known, but successfully executed. Only one HP bar remained, and that one was well into the yellow. The tanks by this point had so much aggro that DPS could go all-out without concern for anything other than running out of power—and they were doing so with great enthusiasm.

What was that sports term? Sakuya wondered as a momentary lull came in the waves of spellfire. Most of the mages in her group needed to pause for one reason or another, be it cooldowns or the need to recover MP. She glanced up at her HUD, noting the time left before she could Haste someone again. The home stretch, that was it. We still need to be diligent and not let our guards down, but the end is in sight—as is our reward for a job damn well done.

Klein's abrupt shout from nearby yanked her out of her musings, more from the alarm in his tone than from what he said. She glanced over her shoulder at him, then followed his gaze to the back of the room. Her eyes were as sharp as anyone else's except the Caits; it only took a moment to realize what was happening. "Sigurd!" she called out, the same alarm creeping into her own voice as well. "Sallies!"

The Sylph lead clearer whipped his head around, and rage stamped itself on his features as soon as he took in the sight of the advancing line of Salamanders. "Go run interference!" he shouted back.

Sakuya's jaw dropped. "Are you insane?"

"We can't let them steal this kill out from under us!" If Sigurd had been angry before, his face became livid when attack spells started streaking out from the Salamander lines towards Hrungnir's head and upper torso. "If one of the Caits manages to get the Last Attack, fine—at least we'll get our share of the raid EXP and loot. But if the Salamanders get it, we could end up with nothing! We can't afford that!"

"I'm not committing suicide for you," Sakuya said flatly. "And suicide is what it would be for us to charge the Salamander lines in our condition. Why don't you go?"

"So talk them out of it, I don't care how you do it," Sigurd fired back, half-turning to make sure his group was still giving the boss everything they had. "Our group has better DPS, so we're going to stay here and try to get the LA for the Sylphs. You and your party go take one of the Cait groups and interfere with the Sallies."

Sakuya still wasn't willing to let the point go. "How?"

"Go get the Puca woman and sing them a fucking ballad for all I care, just slow them down!"

Sakuya chafed at Sigurd's tone, and wrestled through the conflicting desires that struck her as the man showed her his back and began chanting to refresh the Haste buff on some of his group. She couldn't stand the idea of the Salamanders stealing their kill any more than he could. But every mote of common sense she possessed told her that Sigurd was taking advantage of the situation by sending her away so that he could try to get the Last Attack—and that what he was asking might very well be asking her to throw herself into near-certain death, depending on how the Salamanders reacted to her.

It wasn't usually a risk they had to take—not as much anymore, at any rate. Clearing parties and raids from the two factions tended to avoid each other entirely whenever possible, because more than once arguments over hunting grounds or boss rights had ended in conflicts of varying intensity. The fact was, Sylphs in general weren't exactly a welcome sight to Salamanders—and the reverse was just as true, if not moreso. And where there was a Salamander ganking party or clearing group, there was almost always at least one Imp—in fact, this very raid group proved to have a few parties from that faction; a number of Imps began rising above the Salamander lines and hovering in place, using their higher vantage point to pour more DPS into the Jotunn. It was so close—the HP bar looked as if it ought to be ready to turn red just about any minute! There was no telling how the Cait Sith raid party might react if the Salamanders stole this kill from them, let alone the reaction from Sigurd.

Something struck her then, a fleeting thought that firmed up as she twisted to pan her gaze around her, eyes drifting past Klein and—

"Natsuo, keep everyone right here!" she called out to the rest of her group suddenly, the fleeting thought forming into the beginnings of an idea. "I don't care what Sigurd tells you, you just keep DPSing the boss, and don't stop until your MP's gone. It's that many more chances for a Sylph to get the Last Attack." Without waiting for a response, she turned and dashed towards Klein's diverse group of players. "Klein!" she called out almost immediately. "I need you to bring your party and come with me!"

The scruffy-faced Salamander gave her a stunned, incredulous look as she approached, then glanced back over his shoulder. The Puca woman and the bigger Gnome mage were on their way back with a few Cait Sith whose HP gauges were deep in the yellow, the colored bars growing slowly while the two mages continued to refresh their healing magic.

"There's no time to explain!" she yelled, coming to a stop a few meters away. "Just please, trust me! We have to go stall the Salamanders!"

"Stall them?" Klein repeated stupidly. "How is walking into the line of fire a good plan for stalling them?"

"Because they're less likely to shoot at your people!" Sakuya replied, exasperated. "You're a fellow Salamander to them, and there's an Imp in your party—plus a Puca and two Gnomes, and they can't afford to piss off the NCC! They're not going to fire on you." She didn't figure it was worth mentioning that the Sylph in his party plus her made two, and that wasn't likely to go over quite as well.

She could see Klein turning it over in his head, and as the man looked from one member of his party to the next in turn, sometimes finding a reaction and sometimes not, she realized that he was actually weighing the risks to them and what they wanted to do. It made her wonder if perhaps she'd underestimated him.

"You've got a plan?" he asked finally, having taken the measure of the group that gathered around him.

"Yes," Sakuya said firmly.

Klein nodded. "What is it?"

"It's…" she hesitated. She'd been hoping she might get away with bullshitting her way this far."It's still a work in progress."

Klein's free hand covered one side of his face. "You have no plan."

"My plan is that they're not likely to kill us," she said earnestly as she pointed past his left ear towards where the boss was parked. "Look at where the other raid group is aiming—all of their magic is going high, well above the heads of Thelvin's party and the off-tank groups. I think they're actually trying to avoid hitting them—out of fear of starting a war with the Caits if nothing else. Worst case they might ignore us and keep DPSing, but I really don't think they'll attack."

"I'm pretty sure the worst case involves them turning the combined firepower of their mage groups on us for the half-second it would take to obliterate us." Despite his complaint, though, Klein nodded when his eyes met hers again. "But you've got a point, too. I know Eugene—as long as he's still in command here, I don't think he'd do it." He very carefully sheathed his katana, giving the wrapping a quick pat before letting his hands fall harmlessly to his sides. "Come on, everyone." he said with a sigh. "Let's go try talking to the Salamanders."


This is a stupid, stupid idea, Klein thought as he walked towards the Salamander lines, trying not to let his feelings show on his face. Eugene won't order anyone to attack me, and Sakuya's probably right about him not wanting to start shit with the Caits or the NCC either. But that doesn't mean there won't be at least one person there with a grudge who isn't so restrained—especially not with two Sylphs accompanying us.

But he also couldn't help but think about what might happen if the Salamander raid managed to steal the boss kill out from under the Sylphs and Cait Sith. If Klein's own raid still got the Last Attack, then that was all good—there might be some hard feelings about the Salamanders showing up and butting in, but it was unlikely to last.

If the Salamanders took the boss, though, and after more than a few Cait Sith had already died for it… bad news. There could very easily be a serious fight over it; the miracle was that there hadn't been already. And with how tired and depleted everyone here was, it was a fight the Salamanders—fresh from the outside, almost full on MP, and with superior numbers—would almost certainly win. The Caits and the Sylphs had to know that, too—they weren't stupid.

Then again, it's not like the Salamanders didn't lose people to this boss, either, Klein had to admit to himself. A lot more of them, actually, and those lives bought the info that we used to come up with our strategy.

It was a tough call. But as much as he wanted to stay out of this and avoid getting in the middle of what was obviously a highly volatile political situation, he could almost taste the consequences that loomed if the Salamanders got the kill. And after all the effort he and his group had put in to burn this damn thing down… no.

So Klein mentally rehearsed about five different things that he might try saying to Eugene which had any chance of delaying or distracting the Salamanders, and hoped that Sakuya had the sense to keep her mouth shut when they got there.

Well before they reached the raid, however, one of the Salamander melee parties forming a defensive screen in front of the mage groups broke away and moved to intercept them. Klein held up both palms in front him to show that he wasn't armed and had no hostile intentions, and turned the gesture into a wave when they got closer—he was pretty sure he recognized some of the party members from when his group had done scouting work for the Salamander raid.

"That's far enough," said the tank with a long gray ponytail as the melee party came to a stop and spread out in a line to either side of him. His long sword was in his hand but held point-down at his side, angled so that it didn't drag on the ground. An expensive-looking kite shield hung from the other arm, and his slate-gray eyes betrayed nothing of his thoughts as they flitted from one member of Klein's party to the next.

"We just want to talk to Eugene, man," Klein said. "You know me; I'm not here looking for a fight."

"As you can see, General Eugene is currently occupied," said the older tank with a perfectly even tone, as if informing Klein that the World Tree was tall. "My name is Heathcliff, and I will hear what you have to say and decide if it is worth interrupting him." The man's gaze—eyes suddenly alert with surprise—darted towards something behind Klein, who glanced that way in time to see Bourne and Sasha jog up to join them.

When Klein returned his attention to the Salamanders, one of the younger members of Heathcliff's group was even more wide-eyed, his jaw hanging agape. "S-Sasha?" he said, both looking and sounding completely stunned.

"Tetsuo?" Sasha stepped forward to Klein's side when she was addressed; she looked nearly as shocked as the boy. "What are you—" She stopped herself suddenly and lightly bit her lip. "I forgot that you were a clearer."

"You two know each other?" Klein asked. He would not have ever, in any universe, pegged the two of them for acquaintances—let alone friends.

Tetsuo wasn't paying attention to Klein. When he looked again, the expression on the boy's face was still just as stunned as before… but now had an element of hurt to it. "So it's true?"

Sasha, for her part, simply looked confused. "What is?"

"That you're helping the Caits and the Sylphs," Tetsuo said, sounding almost as if this was a personal betrayal.

Something in Sasha's face abruptly hardened, and the glare with which she fixed Tetsuo then was sharp enough to make him look down at his feet. "Don't you take that tone with me, young man," she said, drawing snickers from a few of the older members of Tetsuo's party. "They asked. And they paid for the church so that none of us—you and your riaru friends included—need to grind rent money anymore in order for my children to have a home." She put her hands on her hips. "I might well have offered you the same help if you'd asked first."

Heathcliff made a slight noise of amusement at this exchange. "Will ironies never cease." His gaze shifted again, a frown creasing his forehead as Bourne's massive bulk drew up next to Sasha. "With that said, I would be much more comfortable if you had come alone, Klein. If your intent was to speak to Eugene, then your friends are a complication at best—particularly the Sylphs."

"We should go rejoin the raid, milady," Bourne said urgently, placing a hand on Sasha'a shoulder and leaning in to speak to her without taking his eyes off of the Salamander party. "There is no need for us to be here, and all manner of reasons why we shouldn't be."

"Klein!" Sakuya hissed from behind him, not quite managing to be as quiet as he'd hoped. "We have to do something! The boss is almost in the red!"

The words drew a reaction from the Salamander group's tank—but not the reaction Klein had been expecting. Heathcliff looked quickly towards the boss, and whatever it was that he saw did not seem to please him. If anything, for a moment the otherwise-unflappable man looked almost panicked. He whirled and called out towards the main body of the raid, voice projecting loudly in an effort to be heard over the cacophony of spellcasting. "Eugene!" he yelled. "DPS out!"

A particularly titanic roar from the boss yanked everyone's attention back in that direction, both groups turning as one. As Klein watched, the little that remained of Hrungnir's final HP bar turned from yellow to red. The Jotunn boss leapt straight up into the air, and came down with a stomp that scattered all of the nearby Cait Sith in every direction, laying them out radially like trees flattened by an explosion. The barrage of spellfire from the Cait Sith and Sylph groups ceased abruptly, some of them rushing in to provide emergency healing.

The Salamander raid, perhaps sensing victory, kept DPSing as hard as they had been before. Whether they hadn't heard Heathcliff's shout or weren't listening, the end result was the same: continuous volleys of attack spells lanced out over the heads of Klein's group in a flurry of projectiles, the sound of the overlapping incantations from the Salamander mage groups forming a wall of noise almost as loud as the explosions that resulted.

With dozens of glowing, hissing projectiles of arcane energy now exploding against its body with elemental fury from only one direction, Hrungnir completely ignored the Cait Sith tanks trying to regain its attention. The ground transmitted the thundering footsteps of its charge even at this distance as the boss rushed towards the Salamander raid with frightening speed.

"Son of a bitch!" Klein yelled. "What the—"

"Hate wipe!" Heathcliff shouted, shield held before him and weapon at ready.

As soon as he heard the words, Klein realized that Heathcliff had to be right on the money with his assessment. Many bosses seemed to change up their abilities or attack patterns in some way when they lost an HP bar, but Klein had yet to participate in a raid where a boss didn't do something really shitty when its last bar hit the red zone.

It'd be just like that asshole Kayaba to make this boss clear its hate table, he thought viciously. And now the Salamanders just pulled all the aggro.

A moment later, Klein realized in full just how very bad a thing that actually was. This realization came as Hrungnir's massive legs kept rapidly closing the distance between itself and the Salamander raid—a path that took the boss directly through Klein's and Heathcliff's groups.

Both group leaders, for all of their differences, reacted in exactly the same way to this threat to the people they led: they ran out to meet the danger head-on. Heathcliff was several strides ahead of Klein, and while he could hear the metallic jangle of armor behind him from some of the other Salamanders, he hoped like hell that everyone in his group—squishy as they were—had the sense to run. But run where? he wondered.

With no incantation to warn them, a fireball shot out from the Jotunn's arm that seemed tied to that element, the boss throwing it almost like a baseball. Heathcliff kicked himself off the ground, pulling his shield under him; when the fireball exploded beneath the Salamander tank, it launched him some distance further into the air. Then, as he turned his upwards motion into a flip that belied the apparent awkwardness of his plate armor, Heathcliff's kite shield began emitting blue light with the preparation of some kind of technique. He suddenly shot forward as he activated a charge technique that carried him through the remaining space between him and the boss. From that height, the shield bash connected solidly with the Jotunn's face and rocked it back for a moment.

As Klein watched in amazement, the Salamander tank took advantage of the brief window of opportunity by reversing the blade of his sword and stabbing it down into the giant's neck to arrest his fall. He then used the blade to hold himself in place long enough to solidly kick himself away and out of range of a counterattack.

It wasn't in time. The boss seemed to recover before Heathcliff could completely clear its reach; the back of the stone-encased fist struck him squarely in mid-air and sent him tumbling far away. But while Heathcliff's actions had been enough to get its attention, they hadn't been enough to keep it—not with all of the damage the collective efforts of the Salamander ranged DPS groups had been putting out since the hate wipe. Hrungnir didn't even seem to concern itself with the fate of the player it had just swatted away like an irritating bug, it simply resumed its headlong charge towards the Salamander groups, who—a little too late—had managed to mostly stop DPSing while the tank groups formed a defensive line.

Klein specifically remembered thinking to himself, not too long ago, that this whole non-plan of Sakuya's had been a very bad idea. I hate it when I'm right, he thought as he tried to interrupt the boss with one of his hardest-hitting katana techniques. To his dismay, the powerful technique didn't even slow the thing down—instead, there was a terrible impact that Klein felt throughout his whole body, and the world spun around him as he found himself simply kicked out of the way.

With no power to his wings within the World Tree and no way to control his trajectory, the spinning seemed to last an eternity—an eternity during which he couldn't even follow what direction he was facing or where he was going. The only thing fixed in his sight was his HUD, where he could clearly see his HP gauge in the red zone—and a flashing icon for Stun status. He struck the ground and rolled with an overwhelming sense of uncomfortable numbness across most of his avatar, coming to a rest on his side with a 90-degree skewed view of Hrungnir's continued charge.

That charge, aimed directly at the Salamander ranged DPS groups, resumed its heedless path through Heathcliff's and Klein's parties. Sakuya and the five Salamanders tried to slow the boss down while the mages spread themselves out; she and the others found themselves scattered to either side when it brought the wind axe down in an overhand swing that smashed a fragmented crease into the ornate stonework of the floor, a blow that Klein could feel through the ground even from twenty-some meters away. Tetsuo and Sakuya were both sent flying back into the other Salamanders by an open-handed follow-up swipe from its earth-element arm, which slammed another Salamander into Bourne with uncontrolled velocity.

Klein tried to move his head, his movements still sluggish; he could see his sword lying on the ground only a few meters from his outstretched arm. With the Stun status still seconds away from fading, he struggled to get his hand into his belt pouch. There was one Healing Crystal left in there, and if ever there'd been a time to use it…

His fingers touched the smooth, flat edges of the crystal, warmed by his avatar's body heat. He didn't even bother pulling it out to verify it was what he wanted; it was the only crystal item of any kind that he had left outside of his inventory or bank vault. "Heal!" he croaked out.

The crystal shattered in his grasp. Klein's HP bar shot from almost nothing to full in the space of a breath, filling him with a sense of relief that nearly matched for intensity the discomfort he still felt all over his body.

That relief lasted only moments. While he pushed himself to his feet and scrambled to reclaim his weapon, he could do nothing but watch as Hrungnir's wild swings of anger turned Sasha, Bourne and two of Heathcliff's Salamanders into Remain Lights.

Nobody dies in my party...

Never before had those words—spoken more than once over the preceding months, a promise that so far he'd always been able to keep—rung in his ears so loudly. They kept ringing as Klein fought to banish all of the fatigue and numbness that threatened to overtake him with each accelerating step, katana and voice both raised high as he drove himself back towards the thing that had nearly killed him with a loud kiai.

Nobody had ever died in Klein's party before.

And if there was anything he could still do about it, no one ever would.

Author's Note 5/16/14: You see why I had to split that last chapter. As bad as it is to break on a scene like this, it would've been many times worse if you'd had to wait until now to find out what happened after chapter 26 while I wrote a 20k-word chapter—and then get to this.

But we're almost there, and I thank all of you for your patience. The next chapter will bring a close to Act 2—and if it runs long, well, it runs long. If I really end up with enough words for two normal-sized chapters I'll split it, but I'd rather not. There are some pretty hefty reveals and twists coming up that really need to play out all in one chapter in order to have their full effect.

Anyway, as some of you know, I have a significant amount of worldbuilding data for FDD—some in notes and some in spreadsheets (you should see the insane Excel formula I have for assembling spell incantations). And since my current job has to do with constructing data visualizations, I've been putting some of that to work here as well. You know the drill—remove the spaces and change "DOT" to periods to get around FFN's obnoxious and pointless link filter.

ayashi DOT net/foo/sao/fdd-demographics DOT html

Some of the age distribution numbers will get fine-tuned as more and more of the story goes on, but this is accurate enough to get an idea of what things were like when the game started.

And on that note, I think it's about time I posted this thing. Thanks again for all your patient readership—as always, let me know what you think. I'll see you next chapter for the conclusion of Act 2!