"Hate, often referred to by veteran MMO players as 'aggro', is a game mechanic used to measure a mob's level of aggression towards a target. Hate is tracked separately for each player, and is incurred by performing actions that the mob perceives as hostile, such as attacking it or healing its enemies. There are skills and spells which increase or decrease hate, allowing a player to try to attract or avoid a mob's attention, but the majority of hate with a mob is generated by dealing damage to it. At any given time, a mob will prioritize its target based on a variety of factors, including a player's accumulated hate, current actions, and physical proximity to the mob..."

Alfheim Online manual, «Hate Mechanics»

5 May 2023: Day 181 - Midday

"Hate wipe!" yelled the gray-haired Salamander who'd named himself as Heathcliff. The words drew immediate reactions of dismay from everyone.

Sasha was no exception. She wasn't a complete newbie—she'd known what aggro was even before this raid, if only because there were spells designed to increase or decrease hate with a mob. She'd been using some of those buffs herself in this battle to mitigate the aggro spikes from her shield-breaking spell. But when she turned around at Heathcliff's yell and saw the towering Jotunn boss already running towards them with a stride that ate up at least ten meters per step, all of that knowledge washed away in a paralyzing flood of terror. Three times now she'd faced this sight, and even knowing then to expect the mob's attention hadn't made it any easier to face certain death coming her way, trusting only that the healers in her group would keep her alive.

This time was different. This was so much worse. And everything seemed to happen in the blink of an eye—or rather it would have, if she'd even been able to blink.

There was a word that she'd seen once, long ago in a classic novel that she'd read for a college English Literature class. The book had been about rabbits, of all things, and it had stuck in her head primarily because of her interest in linguistics: the author had made up fictional languages for all of the animals in the book. She remembered that when the rabbits were scared out of their wits, facing a deadly predator, they froze in an instinctive state of paralysis they called tharn—capable only of staring motionlessly at their death as it approached. She'd thought it rather silly at the time.

But there in those first brief moments, when her body unwillingly locked up while Klein and Heathcliff dashed out to intercept the boss, Sasha finally understood on a visceral level exactly what the word meant—what it was to go tharn. And knowing that it was so didn't make it any easier to snap out of it.

What did help was when she felt herself suddenly shoved by strong hands; the rough contact broke the spell and spurred her to movement in a sudden rush of adrenaline. With Bourne falling in step right beside her, watching to make sure she kept going, she started to run as fast as her legs would carry her back towards the Cait Sith mage groups—perpendicular to the path between Hrungnir and the Salamanders. It felt like the two of them had barely gotten moving before the giant's earth-shaking footsteps stopped briefly, and there was a terrible metallic clamor from somewhere behind her and off to the side—too close! Her peripheral vision caught a glimpse of a large object hurtling towards them very quickly, and both she and Bourne instinctively threw themselves to the ground to avoid it.

That "object" turned out to be Klein, who flew past them while tumbling bandana over boots until he struck the floor limply some twenty meters or so away and rolled to a stop. Alarmed, Sasha focused on him just long enough to pop his status ribbon, relieved when she saw that his health wasn't going to drop any further than it already had—he was just stunned, and wasn't in any immediate danger.

The same couldn't be said for her. "Come on!" Bourne urged, trying to get back to his feet while reaching out to offer his hand to her. Inwardly swearing at the awkwardness of trying to do anything athletic in these unfamiliar robes, she pushed herself up as quickly as she could—and then found herself losing her balance again when a nearby blow from the boss made the floor lurch unexpectedly beneath her feet. As Bourne kept her from falling, she couldn't help but look back at the source of the noise, fearful of another human projectile—and cried out when she saw just how close the boss was. Its flailing fists were knocking aside the unbuffed Salamanders like bowling pins, and with sudden horror she saw Tetsuo crushed to the floor under the impact of the Jotunn's stony fist, his HP bar reduced to an almost invisible slice of red. Hrungnir raised the fist again for a finishing blow.

"No!" she screamed. "Let go of me!" She tried to jerk her arm away from Bourne's grasp, couldn't, and raised her other arm instead. "Zutto famudrog—"

"Don't cast!" Bourne yelled, yanking at her sharply.

"—shippura yasun!" The Focus reticle appeared centered on Tetsuo's avatar, and a wave of blue energy sheeted across the surface of his body from head to toe. His HP spiked immediately upwards, just past green, and when he scrambled away from the attack, the glancing blow he took only cost him half of what remained rather than turning him into a Remain Light.

Sasha knew what had to happen then, and it was no surprise at all when Hrungnir lifted its fist from the ground and turned its eyes on her. She hadn't needed Bourne's warning; she'd known that casting a healing spell on the target of a mob's attack risked pulling aggro onto the caster. She'd known that she might very be trading her life for Tetsuo's.

But there was simply no way that she was going to watch a child die. Especially not someone who, while not technically one of her charges at the orphanage, was still dear to her—and to the people she loved.

She tried to turn and run anyway—it wasn't as if she wanted to die. She even felt a rising note of hope as Bourne let go of her arm and started to chant the words to his Mountain Retreat spell, knowing and trusting that he meant to cast it on her, hoping that it was in time.

It wasn't. She felt the entire world hit her at once, and then nothing else.


Just a few short minutes ago, Klein had been giving plenty of flak to Sakuya for rushing into a dangerous situation with no plan. And it would've been easy to blame her for the fact that he and his group were right in the middle of this mess; it was at her urging that they'd broken off from the Cait Sith raid and approached the Salamander lines in the first place. They could've been back with the other mage groups in the joint raid, watching Eugene's raid group get curbstomped by the boss from a safe distance.

But somewhere in the back of his mind, as he screamed his defiance and charged into danger, a fleeting thought ran through him: that a part of him almost wanted to apologize to her for the grief he'd given her over her impulsiveness. She'd had her reasons; they'd sounded like good ones, or else he wouldn't have come. And now here he was, for reasons of his own, dashing directly towards a mob the size of a five-story building. Did he have a plan? Hell no. If irony could kill, the air in Hrungnir's boss room would've been lethal poison.

"Dale!" he yelled as he finally spotted his group's healer; the Gnome had been one of the lucky ones who had retreated out of Hrungnir's range in time. "Get them up! Then give me every tanking buff you've got!"

"The Sal tanks don't have aggro yet!" Dale yelled back, running back in despite his protests—back in, and towards the multicolored collection of Remain Lights that were gathered near Hrungnir's stomping feet as the boss sent player after player flying away from it.

"That's what the buffs are for!" Klein shot back. "Use your AOE rez, your de-agg, and then lay everything on me!" He dropped to his knees suddenly and slid on his shinguards as a Salamander in heavy plate went hurtling through the air above him. "Goddamnit, I hate red-zone state changes!"

It wasn't just the hate wipe, although that was crappy enough. Klein could swear that Hrungnir packed a much bigger wallop now than it had before. Earlier in the battle, he'd been able to take hits from the boss, although he'd had all of Dale's buffs stacked on him at the time. But that last kick he'd taken had nearly one-shotted him even through his armor's damage mitigation—and he was equipped with quality gear; that shouldn't have been possible.

It sure as hell called into question the game's balance, as far as Klein was concerned. But this wasn't the time to be analyzing Kayaba's design principles.

Klein saw Sakuya dive and flow into an evasive roll, her sword held out to one side like an axle. Hrungnir's wind-bladed axe sliced through the air just above her while she was in mid-roll, and when she came back up to her feet she spun and slashed at the giant's outstretched elbow, sword emitting the characteristic deep crimson of a "taunt" technique—an attack that would earn her additional hate on top of the damage she was dealing.

Was she trying to get aggro under control too? Here, in the middle of the Salamander lines? She would've been smarter leaving and running back to her own people—Klein knew none of the Salamander AOE attacks would hit him, since as a fellow Salamander his cursor would be green to them, but Sakuya was neither a member of their raid nor of their faction; hers was certain to be yellow to them. Most AOEs would hit Neutral and Hostile targets alike—it meant she was taking a hell of a risk.

But the ability of AOEs to affect targets with a yellow cursor cut both ways. Klein caught a glimpse of bright lights in his peripheral vision as Dale's rez spell began to re-form the avatars of not only Bourne and Sasha, but every fallen Salamander within 25 meters—which was more than a few. The act drew an immediate surge of aggro from Hrungnir, which prompted Klein to jig to the right in order to cut off the boss.

"Oh no you don't!" Klein yelled as he triggered one of his emergency skills, a long-cooldown taunt attack of his own. This one had a brief Stumble effect, and Klein blessed his luck when he saw the debuff actually apply successfully. The short window during which Hrungnir lost its balance and had to recover was enough time for Dale to cast his aggro-reduction spell and put distance between the two of them—sufficient distance for the boss to re-prioritize Klein as his target.

With Dale starting to stack tank buffs on him again, and Hrungnir's HP down to a fine red sliver, there was no point in holding back any longer. Klein unloaded every high-damage, high-aggro attack he had, and when Hrungnir tried to kick him out of the way again, Dale's damage shield and reactive heal prevented his HP from dropping below the halfway point, and the knockback-reduction buff kept his feet on the ground and prevented him from sliding more than a few meters. A rippling blur of green crossed in front of him as Sakuya dashed into the opening and used a sword technique to parry Hrungnir's follow-up attack with the axe—damn, she was moving fast, almost too fast to follow; Klein assumed she had to be buffed by a speed-enhancing wind spell that he'd seen Dynamm use a few times.

"Switch!" Sakuya yelled as she dodged backwards and easily avoided a crushing blow from the stone fist. Klein didn't need the cue; he was already lunging back in and used a quick two-hit combo to draw a glowing red cross of damage on the Jotunn's forearm before it pulled its arm back again. The Salamander main tank group had joined the fray as well, struggling to get the aggro under control and focused on one person so that the ranged DPS groups could resume their barrage. It was starting to get a little tight in there, which meant that someone ought to focus on parrying the mob's—

As the thought struck him, Sakuya came leaping back in to do exactly that; the long curved blade of her nodachi bled a trail of yellow-green light with the execution of a powerful technique aimed at intercepting Hrungnir's descending axe blade before it could hit one of the Salamander swordsmen who'd just switched in. But the icon on her status ribbon for the «Blur» buff had flickered and disappeared while she was already committed to the technique; it threw off her timing. She picked up on it quickly enough to get her blade in between the Jotunn's wind axe and her body, but even the glancing blow slammed her into the floor with about a quarter of her HP remaining.

What the hell are they feeding this thing? Klein wondered as he rushed back with the urge to parry the attack with a technique of his own. He knew he wasn't going to get there in time, but it didn't matter—someone else was closer. The Cait Sith melee groups had reached the fight, and Thelvin executed that shield dash technique that Klein had seen Heathcliff do earlier, swinging his shield up when he came to the end frame of his attack and absorbing the brunt of the follow-up from the Jotunn's earth-enchanted fist. But the kick that came next must have depleted what little HP the Cait Sith raid leader had left; he staggered backwards a few steps before combusting into bright yellow flames. Klein raged and swore, throwing himself back towards the fight.

Sakuya attacked at almost the same time that Klein did, unleashing a quick crosscut technique that tore a glowing red rent across the massive leg in front of her before jumping back out. She hadn't even had time to yell for a switch; Klein's blow landed only a moment later. But the blade of his sword rebounded off of the mob's skin with the familiar purple flash of an «Immortal Object» warning. "State change!" he and several other people yelled.

It was really only then that Klein realized something that should've been completely obvious: Kayaba is a sadistic bastard. Seriously? He's going to throw in another stage for this thing after all we've been through? Fuck you, man. With a lawnmower.

But Hrungnir fell to its knees then, the impact cracking the tiles beneath it. The mob's HP gauge and cursor disappeared, and it coughed a bit with a sound like an asthmatic elephant, sounding like it was starting to say something.

And your unskippable cutscene dialogue, too, Klein thought as he did the next-best thing to spamming the X button on a controller that he didn't have: he ignored it. His averted gaze was drawn immediately to Thelvin's burning Remain Light, and when he looked at Dale, his friend shook his head, not even needing the question said. He turned the rest of the way around until he saw Bourne and Sasha standing a relatively safe distance away, and whistled sharply at them. "Do you have any rezzes left, Bourne?"

The Gnome healer paused only briefly before calling back. "Cooldown for another minute and—"

"Then get her out of here!" Klein said, returning his attention to the boss just in time to hear it wrap up what must've been a pretty short monologue. It let out what sounded like a laugh with its last breath, and its skin began to rapidly frost over like a time-lapse video until it shattered into millions of sparkling blue polygons that rained across both raid groups.

Klein had expected at least some cheering when the thing died, but most of the players on both sides had apprehensive looks on their faces until each player's after-battle result screen appeared. As usual, it had lines for the EXP and Yuld that he'd earned—which were significant; the numbers there almost made him do a double take. A number of items had dropped as well, and above all of these things, it had another message in a slightly larger typeface, the one that everyone had been waiting to see.

Last Attack: Sakuya (Sylph).

When Klein looked back up from his window, he saw a lot of very unfriendly looks passing back and forth between the Salamander forces and Klein's raid group, and Sakuya herself was the conspicuous object of attention from a number of her own raid members until their eyes returned to their result windows. Klein hadn't really paid close attention to the drops on his own, but from the brief glance he'd given the numbers and items there, and the fact that he'd leveled up, he knew. As a member of the same raid as Sakuya, he'd shared in the rewards. All of them would.

And he was just as sure that the players in Eugene's group wouldn't. Whether they'd done enough damage to earn EXP from the encounter or not, they wouldn't get any rare drops—and they definitely wouldn't get the bragging rights.

It didn't take long for someone on the Cait Sith side to raise their voice. "What the hell was with that kill-stealing bullshit there?" That set off a ragged chorus of agreement from the winning side, compared to the sullen silence that still radiated from most of the Salamanders.

"Shut up!" Klein yelled, pushing his way through until he reached Thelvin's Remain Light. "Does anyone have a rez?"

Looks went back and forth between the healers and other mages in the joint raid group, conversing back and forth and one by one shaking their heads or letting their gazes drop.

A woman in the nearest Cait Sith group spoke up. "If I had one that wasn't on cooldown, I'd already be using it. I think any of us would."

Except that the Salamanders weren't. He knew plenty of them still had to have spells that weren't on cooldown, and so did everyone else there. And for whatever reason, out of whatever sense of duty or fear they had, they weren't moving. They were looking at each other uneasily even under the weight of the stares from the other raid group, but no one took a step forward or admitted to having available spells.

No one, that is, until there was a stir behind the Salamander lines as someone began pushing through. Corvatz's voice barked out almost immediately. "Get back in formation!"

Eugene's deep voice immediately cut through all of this, booming out over the Salamander raid group in a tone that invited no dispute. "Rez him."

The clamor that followed then was greater than before, and it was so overlapping and conflicting that Klein really couldn't get a read on who was likely to do what. But after a few tense moments, the Salamander lines parted enough for one of their water mages to get a clear line of sight, wasting no time before facing Thelvin's Remain Light and pressing his hands together to began his incantation.

Several Cait Sith rushed forward when Thelvin's body began to re-form, stopping just short of tackling him. Klein let out a breath that he'd probably been holding for the last thirty seconds without being aware of it. Thelvin gave them a tight smile as he used his shield to help push himself back to his feet, and then turned to face Eugene where the man stood at the fore of the Salamander lines. He bowed respectfully. "Thank you for that."

Eugene either ignored or wasn't aware of the looks that Klein could see Corvatz giving him. He just nodded once. "If we kill each other fighting, that's one thing. But there's no point in standing there and letting a man die."

Thelvin gave his own nod of acknowledgement. "And I appreciate it. But that was still cheap as hell, what you did there at the end. We paid for this victory in lives. What did your people do except screw up our raid strategy, Eugene? We had this thing."

"We paid in lives too," Corvatz shot back, pushing his way forward through his front lines. "Salamander lives bought the information you used to beat this boss."

Eugene didn't let him get on a roll, for which Klein was quite grateful. "That aside, this is a contested zone—we have as much right to try to kill the boss as you do."

"Maybe so," Thelvin said, inspecting his sword's status window before returning it to its sheath. "But that doesn't mean it's a good idea. Did you notice what happened there at the end, after your people pulled aggro?"

"I noticed both of our groups trying to kill the boss at the same time," Eugene replied. "With all the attacks coming in, and a target that big, anyone had as much of a chance as anyone else to get the Last Attack."

Thelvin shook his head. "That's not what I'm talking about. You wouldn't have picked up on it, Eugene, because your people weren't here for the whole raid. But I can tell you that as soon as your groups showed up, that boss started hitting a lot harder."

"He's right," Klein said, hoping that he might be able to shortcut whatever debate was about to happen by lending Thelvin's argument credibility. "Right after the hate wipe, the thing started hitting us a lot harder, sometimes even one-shotting people without buffs or a decent damage mit. Hell, it almost killed me, man."

"But we're completely different raid groups," Eugene said flatly. "We're not allied. The scaling shouldn't kick in with the raid sizes either of us brought."

"I think it did," Thelvin said. "I think Kayaba foresaw that if two races that weren't allied formed different raid groups, they could exploit the fact that the difficulty scaling counted the groups separately—basically, cheesing the bosses by double-teaming them. So when you showed up it treated your raid group as having joined ours for the purposes of scaling the boss difficulty."

Both raid groups were almost silent as this assertion settled over them, silence broke only by scattered low murmurs between neighbors. Klein was smart enough to put two and two together—and if it was that obvious to him, he was certain everyone else got the point too.

"So while I thank you for your decency in raising my Remain Light," Thelvin went on, his calm voice betrayed by the furious lashing of his tail behind him, "I think it's best that you and your raid group go on ahead to the gateway, and get a nice head start on your way back to Gattan so that our parties don't run into each other again today. Because your assumptions just about got everyone here killed, and I don't think I'm the only one who's a little bit pissed about it right now."


No one seemed able to relax until the last Salamander party had disappeared down the short hallway that led to the gateway room, and only once the last of them had warped back to Arun was anything approaching normal conversation possible without the specter of potential conflict overshadowing them. Most of the Cait Sith and Sylph clearers were collected around their party leaders, and after the last Salamander group was gone there was a flicker of lights here and there as individual players set their interfaces visible in order to show off a newly-dropped item.

"Well, that was nice and awkward," Klein said finally, keenly aware that he was now the only Salamander in the room. He felt a bit better now that all of his friends were back with him, but being the odd man out in a raid mostly full of cat people was still a weird feeling.

"We'll give them a few minutes to clear out from around the warpgate," Thelvin said, pitching his voice to carry beyond the people gathered immediately around him. "No point in courting any more unnecessary conflicts."

Klein wasn't the only person nodding in clear agreement at that. But there was something else in the larger man's voice; the near-death experience had to still be fresh and raw. "You alright, man?"

A ripple of metal buckles tinkling against armor plates accompanied Thelvin's shrug; the vaguely feline features of the man's face were carefully neutral. "On the balance, I'm glad we won. But we lost five people today, and many more had their progress set back by the death penalty after they were rezzed. Some of those didn't need to happen."

He didn't get any more specific; he didn't have to. Everyone there had to know that Thelvin had lost a significant amount of EXP and skill progress from his one death there at the very end—and since he'd been a Remain Light at the time the boss was killed, there was a good chance he hadn't gotten anything at all from the win. If he wasn't venturing any information on that subject, no one was going to be rude enough to ask.

"I imagine everyone leveled up?" Thelvin asked with what looked to Klein like a put-on grin, noticeably deflecting the discussion from the death penalty. That question, at least, was well within the acceptable bounds of a party member to ask; players were players, no matter their faction—many of them would be hard-pressed to not want to share with their party the fact that they just leveled up. And a player had to really be overleveled for a gateway boss in order to not get a level-up out of it, which was one of the reasons why these bosses were the target of such a competitive race.

Klein had noticed his own level-up window after closing the result window, but he'd only had a moment to look at it before swiping it closed and trying to find a rez for Thelvin. He'd have some stat points that would be better spent later when he could think them over, but now that everyone seemed to be taking a breather, he drew open his menu and searched his inventory for the new drops. One crystal was not all that uncommon a drop from a gateway boss, but this time Klein had been lucky enough to get two: an HP and MP crystal, one of each. There was also a new katana he hadn't had before, but Klein promised himself that he'd save that for later, too—a weapon drop from a gateway boss was bound to be a significant upgrade, and once he looked at it he wasn't likely to pay attention to anything else for a while.

Thelvin looked satisfied at the response he got. Looking over towards Klein's group, he waved. "Sasha! Thank you for all of your help today. We couldn't have done this without you. Whatever drops or rewards you got out of this, you more than earned."

When Klein looked up from his menu, he noticed Sasha grinning from ear to ear—more genuinely happy than he'd seen her since… well, ever, really; he'd just met her today. But happier than he'd seen her for the entire raid, that was for sure, and from the excited way she was almost bouncing on her toes, it was about more than just Thelvin's praise. "Well?" he asked, being purposefully vague in case she was sensitive to others inquiring about her stats.

If she was, though, she was making an exception in this case. "Three levels, Klein. Three. I'm still having trouble believing it; I've never received so much EXP at a time from anything, any quest."

Klein's grin matched hers, and a few of his teammates came over to give her a pat on the back when they heard this. "Right on. Thelvin's right, you did a great job out there, really. I'm sorry we couldn't keep you on your feet there at the end."

Sasha's brief grimace made it clear that she'd lost a fair amount of skill progress as well. "I knew it could happen when I came here. At least Dale rezzed me quickly. Thank you, for that. And to all of you, for protecting me throughout this whole experience."

Dale accepted the thanks graciously, if a bit bashfully. "Well, now that you've leveled up a bit, maybe you could join a clearing group? Don't worry, everyone freaks the hell out the first time they go up against a really big boss like this. Ask Klein, he—"

Klein butted in abruptly, heat rising to his face. "How about we not finish this story, Dale."

Sasha laughed, shaking her head and holding up a hand as if to ward off the notion. To Klein's relief, she seemed to be ignoring Dale's aborted anecdote, whatever it was. "No, even if I didn't have responsibilities, I still want to pursue my—oh!" Her eyes suddenly widened, and she got an eager look on her face, moving her hand in the air in the familiar gestures of using her game menu. "I just realized: level 30 means I should get a new skill slot, which means another element to learn!"

The smile that Bourne wore then was the first he'd really reacted in any noticeable way to their discussion; if anything, he'd been looking a little uneasy ever since the fiasco at the end of the raid. And to be fair, Klein knew, it was understandable—he'd been one of the people turned into a Remain Light and rezzed in time.

Sasha continued sweeping her finger through the air in front of her. "And I think I know just… what… that's odd. What is—?"

"What is what?" Klein asked, unable to see whatever she was looking at and mirroring the puzzled look he saw on her face.

She didn't answer, but Klein could see her eyes tracking back and forth like a printer head as she read something. And for a brief moment, her eyes widened a bit as something—panic, surprise, amazement, or something that looked an awful lot like one or more of those—took over her face. She got control of it very quickly, but Klein had been looking right at her when it happened, and it was a bit unsettling. Almost as much as the guarded look that she gave him when she looked back up and quickly swept her menu closed.

"Everything all right, milady?" Bourne said.

Sasha pulled a smile over the guarded expression she'd just worn, giving her head a quick nod. "It's fine. Actually, I think I've decided to give a bit more thought to which element I pick next, so I'll do that later."

Over Sasha's shoulder, Klein could see a throng of green-clad figures approach Thelvin, and he let the questions drop as he shifted his attention in that direction. The long-haired man who'd been such a dick to his group during the raid stepped forward and gave a short bow, being far more polite now. "We're very grateful for your people's help in bringing us this victory, Thelvin. But I fear the hour grows late, and we should be returning to Sylvain."

Thelvin gave a bow in return that was at least as respectful. "The victory belongs to all of us here, regardless of who got the last attack." His gaze shifted. "My congratulations to you for that accomplishment, Sakuya; I saw you there at the end, dancing in and out with your quick strikes. You haven't lost a step."

To Klein's eye, Sakuya looked a little uncomfortable at being singled out again and having attention drawn to her—but she tipped her head in acknowledgement. "Thanks, Thel. It was good to fight beside you again, even if briefly."

There was nothing particularly flattering about the sour look that Sigurd gave her then. "Yes, we're all quite pleased for Sakuya and the victory she's brought us. But for now, we should be taking our leave. I am certain that Lord Skarrip will be in touch with Lady Alicia before long."

"Or she with him," Thelvin answered. "All right, then, godspeed to you. We'll be right behind you." He lifted his chin and pitched his voice to project, raising his hands. "Okay, time to stop bragging about your drops and pack up. Hang out here if you want, but I'm going back to Arun so I can send Alicia the good news and then put my feet up for the night. Who's with me?"

The answer, judging from the sudden rise in volume, was quite a few people. When Thelvin gave a significant nod towards Sasha and looked at Klein, he returned the nod. Since his friends seemed eager to get back to the Safe Zone anyway, Klein glanced over at Sasha and Bourne. "You two ready to head back?"

"Yes, but I'm afraid this is where we part ways, milady," Bourne said, bowing to her and taking to one knee so that his eyes would be on level with hers.

Sasha looked disappointed at this news. "I was hoping you'd have time to come back with me, have some tea, and take a look at my research notes. I think you'd find them interesting, and no doubt there are things you could teach me as well."

As he straightened again, the large Gnome mage shook his head. "I am sorry, but I have a prior obligation that requires me to return to the North."

"At least let me add you to my friend list," Sasha said, drawing open her menu again.

Bourne looked momentarily hesitant, but then nodded and reached up to touch the air in front of him, doubtlessly accepting the prompt that had just appeared for him. Sasha looked satisfied with this, and turned back to Klein. "I suppose there's nothing more for us here, is there? I wonder if the children will be back from their adventure by now?"

The second bit didn't really make much sense to Klein, but he shrugged and gave her a noncommittal smile. "Why don't we head through the warpgate and find out? I mean, we pretty much owe this victory to you, lady; you should've been the first one to go through."

"I don't really care about all that," Sasha said as they all joined the knots of players heading towards the brightly-lit hallway that led through a newly-open door to the warpgate. "I'm just glad that I'm alive to go through it at all."

The sensation was the same as every other warpgate transition, and by this point Klein was mostly used to the split-second feeling of nothingness and the disorientation of suddenly being in a different place with a different temperature and surrounding noise level. And sure enough, when he came through on the other side it was like suddenly throwing open the doors on a theater crowd; the warpgate was surrounded by clusters of players who all seemed to be pressing for news. A gateway boss raid was a big event, and by now a crowd would have already been drawn by the Salamanders coming through first—and they probably hadn't been in the mood to answer questions. The Caits seemed to already have them riled up.

"If you want to get past them," said a feminine voice to his left, "I have a Transparency spell that I've gotten very good at casting. Our wings will need a few minutes to charge before we can fly over them."

Klein's eyes followed the sound, and he saw Sakuya there with a lopsided smile on her lips. "I thought you guys were going ahead to Sylvain?"

"I'm not Sigurd's biggest fan," she responded, "nor he mine. We'll put on smiles for the crowds for Skarrip's sake, but I'd just as soon give him as much of a head start as the Sals." She tilted her head to the side, giving him an unreadable look. "Present company excluded."

"Ugh," Sasha said from Klein's other side, hands halfway to her ears. "This is almost as bad as being back in the raid. Maybe we should give them a little while to disperse?"

"Trust me, ma'am," Sakuya said, waving a hand absently to ward off a curious onlooker. "They're not going to disperse. Not soon, anyway; this is big news and it'll be even bigger because of all the drama around it. If you want quiet, we need to go someplace quiet." She glanced off to the south, the general direction in which Sigurd and his party were likely long gone. "And honestly, that sounds like a pretty nice idea right now."

"Milady?" It was Bourne's voice, and it drew everyone's eyes over to where he stood—and to the fact that he was still there. "Am I to understand that you'd like to retire somewhere quiet, and there are quite a lot of noisy people in your way?"

The look on Sasha's face was briefly but gloriously impish. "You might say that."

The man's craggy face cracked in a smile. "I did say that." He turned and looked from place to place in the crowd, as if seeking something in particular. Then he held out one hand and barked, "futto tsutakke tamzul buren!"

A flood of green-tinted air surged down his arm and gathered in his palm before filling out into the familiar broad disc shape of the Defensive Shield spell. Wielding it in front of him as if it were an actual physical shield, with his free hand he took his warhammer from the hook at his belt and advanced on the crowd. "Coming through, please," he said with his voice booming out before him.

Between the churning magic of the Defensive Shield spell, the weapon in his hand and his sheer size, people got out of the way with a speed and agreeability that almost made Klein laugh. He understood suddenly why Bourne had chosen the spell he had; shields of all the other elements blocked visibility to a more significant degree, and since the Defensive Shield wasn't an offensive spell, he could still use it to push through if he had to—although then it would come down to a test of STR, which Klein suspected the mage lacked.

He and his group followed Bourne and Sasha through the break in the crowd that the Gnome's stunt had created, and when they finally reached a more open area, the Gnome clenched his hand to dismiss the maintained spell. Turning back to Sasha again, he gave her another bow. "And this is where I truly do leave you, Sasha of Arun. I have little doubt that we will encounter each other again at some point."

"Goodbye, Bourne of Nissengrof," Sasha said, looking as if she was having a hard time keeping a straight face at the exchange of formalities in his way of speaking. "Safe trip home."

"So Klein," Sakuya said once Bourne had disappeared into the multitude of players and NPCs, materializing at Klein's side and looping an arm around his shoulders. "This is terribly nosy of me, but is there any truth to the rumors that you and Alicia are a thing?"

Klein almost tripped, then, as one foot tried to stop almost at the same time as the other—distracted by the sudden eruption of snickers from the people he liked to call his friends. His stumble did have the useful effect of dislodging Sakuya from him, however, and not in an especially graceful way. "Wait, what, there are rumors? I mean, what?"

Sakuya did not do him any favors by laughing then. "Oh, look at your face. There so totally is. No wonder you were so distracted while Hrungnir was doing his stupid dying monologue; you couldn't wait to get out of there and back to Freelia."

Not exactly, Klein thought, but there was still more truth in it than he wanted to admit. He seized on the opportunity to change the subject with great enthusiasm. "What did he say, anyway? I hate cutscenes that you can't skip."

Sakuya didn't look fooled by the gambit—but then, she'd already pretty much gotten her answer anyway. "Oh, just the usual lore and dying-bad-guy nonsense—you know, 'you think you've won, children of Midgard', blah blah, something about his king being unbound. I'm guessing that's an upcoming boss. It was short; you didn't really miss much."

"Children of Midgard?" Sasha asked.

Klein shrugged, not caring all that much. "More Norse stuff? New to me."

The Puca mage made a small, thoughtful sound. "Interesting."

Klein made a face. "Boring is more like it. I kinda feel like we're letting that Kayaba guy win a little bit anytime we play along with his story."

"What about it is interesting?" Sakuya asked, disregarding his comment.

"Well," Sasha said, looking to Klein's great despair as if she was going to wind up into a lecture, "Midgard is what our world, Earth, is called in Norse mythology. It's one of the Nine Worlds that are connected by the World Tree, Yggdrasil. Alfheim takes its name—if not a whole lot else—from another of those realms."

"Huh," said Sakuya, from which Klein could interpret no meaning whatsoever. What she said next was only a little more informative. "I knew some of that, but I still don't know what you're getting at. Sorry."

A struggle manifested itself on Sasha's face for a few moments, brow furrowed as if she was trying to figure out how to explain something. "Never mind," she said. "You're not interested anyway."

"Okay," said Klein, clapping his hands once and rubbing them together, once again trying to win a round at the game of Change the Subject. "So Sasha, this place you live, is it quiet?" He was in agreement with Sakuya; a quiet place to sit down and have a drink wasn't the worst idea.

The question, though, seemed to put a smile back on her face, even amuse her greatly. "As quiet as a raid group's worth of children ever is," she said, laughing. "Although most of them are probably still out at the moment."

Sakuya looked almost as horrified as Klein felt at the prospect of dealing with a swarming mass of kids. "Scratch that idea," he said. "Maybe there'll be an inn that—" He squinted suddenly as his eyes picked out a familiar figure mixed in with the crowd of strangers, and he actually had to stop and look a moment to be sure it wasn't a case of mistaken identity; there were girls with him.

But no, that was Kirito all right—there was no mistaking his youthful features wrapped in a black overcoat strapped with a longsword. Nor the mop of black hair almost as wild as his own; there was a reason why Klein wore the bandana. He called out to the Spriggan, waving.

The name got immediate reactions from both of the women with him. "Kirito?" they both echoed at once, then looked at each other.

"He was at the signing of the Treaty of Arun," Sakuya said, looking puzzled—as if she knew why she knew Kirito, but wasn't sure why Sasha would.

"You know that raid group of children? He was helping keep an eye on them while I was at our raid," Sasha said quickly, excitedly. But then she didn't spare another moment of attention for Sakuya, instead turning and jogging towards the young Spriggan and his company. "Speaking of which, Kirito! You didn't have to come meet me! So how... did…" Sasha stopped there, an odd note coming into her voice as she trailed off.

Now that Kirito was closer, Klein didn't have any trouble understanding her sudden change in demeanor. The look on his friend's face was grave, and it was an expression shared by the three young girls who accompanied him. "Sasha—" he began.

"What happened?" Sasha said urgently before Kirito had finished saying her name, all of the joyful enthusiasm gone from her—leaving a void which was quickly filled by something that looked a lot like panic. Her eyes quickly went between him and the younger of the two Undine girls, and whatever she saw there only seemed to feed her anxiety. "Sachi—"

The look in Kirito's eyes was haunted, and he couldn't seem to raise them from the ground as he went to his knees. The words came out in a rush, but fluently—as if he'd planned on what to say, but really just wanted to get it over with. "We were attacked by a gang led by a PKer named Prophet. Robert is dead. Everyone else is safe."

There was a terrible moment after Kirito dropped this news when everyone in their group completely froze—nobody seemed to even be willing or able to turn their heads and look at anyone else, let alone be the first to speak. Klein couldn't see Sasha's face from where he stood behind her, but her hands were trembling. To him, it seemed like one of those painfully long pauses in the seconds before a boss's scripted AOE was supposed to go off, when he knew what was coming but couldn't do anything but turtle and hope for the best.

Klein watched Kirito and Sasha, and waited for the explosion.


Get it over with quickly, Asuna had told Kirito. It's awful news we have to deliver, but it'll just be worse if we try to drag it out or beat around the bush. So before she can start flipping out or thinking too much about what's happened, give her the basic facts as simply as possible: we were attacked, Robert's dead, everyone else is safe. That last bit is important—it'll keep her from assuming the worst.

It had seemed like good advice at the time. But now, as Asuna watched the fast-forward parade of emotions struggle for dominance on Sasha's face, she wasn't so sure. Sasha had looked so happy, so obviously riding high on the feeling of victory from their raid; it seemed cruel to do what felt like abruptly slapping her in the face with tragedy. Could it not have waited until she got back to the church?

No, she told herself. It's like ripping off an adhesive bandage—the pain is coming one way or another, so it's best to just get it over with quickly. She glanced at the others in Sasha's group long enough to evaluate their reactions; the Sylph woman was open-mouthed with shock, while most of the rest of the mismatched party were looking anywhere but at someone else, avoiding the painfully awkward scene by pretending that it wasn't happening.

Sasha's mouth kept working soundlessly, as if she was trying to say something but couldn't complete the thought—that, or she was trying very hard not to cry out. "You said you'd keep an eye on them," were the first words that eventually made it out, and that much only in a whisper that was almost drowned by the passing conversations of other players. "I should have been there."

Kirito didn't raise his forehead from the ground, but he did try to reply. "I'm sorry, Sasha, but as terrible as this is, it's better that you weren't. Because—"

"They're my responsibility!" Sasha screamed suddenly, eyes flooding with the tears that she'd apparently been holding back. "Mine! I should never have let them out of my sight, should never have relied on you or anyone else to keep them safe! I should have been there!"

"If you had been, you'd be dead now, and so would they!" Asuna said bluntly, stomping a foot on the ground as her own voice rose to match.

This seemed to penetrate the shock, grief and anger that Sasha had to be feeling; at the very least it shut down her sudden outburst. "What?"

"It's true, Miss Sasha," said Sachi, looking as if it took more courage to say this to her caretaker than it had to face Prophet's group. "They were after your research… and I don't think they meant to leave any survivors once they got it. They killed Jeinaa, but she got rezzed. They made Silica and I fight each other, and then killed us both." She didn't need to mention that Asuna had rezzed her; the fact that she and Sachi were standing before her said enough. "They would've killed Jellica too, if Kirito hadn't shown up when he did. And they even almost killed him, too."

"I'm sorry, Sasha," Kirito said, rising from his kneeling position and finally managing to meet Sasha's eyes. "They had two objectives: to steal your notes, and to kill you—probably along with everyone else who was with you. Please understand… we came as soon as we found out what was happening, and we were lucky that they were stalling for time while waiting for someone to rendezvous with them. Between myself, Asuna and Yuuki, we barely survived the encounter and drove them off with only half their goal achieved. If it had been only you, then right now you would absolutely be dead—and the other kids probably would be as well. And nobody would ever know what had happened to you."

Asuna didn't want to look at the pain that was clear on Sasha's face, but she forced herself to anyway. "Why," Sasha began in something like a croak, then cleared her throat and licked her lips. "Why me? Did I… did I bring this on them? By teaching them, or by joining this raid?"

Kirito shook his head. "I don't think so, Miss Sasha. I think it's because of the things you've discovered… the research you've done. I'm guessing that someone wants that for themselves, and doesn't want anyone else to have it. There was more than one group after your notes—Silica says the first was what was left of the bandit group who jumped us on Cloudspire Island, Rosalia and her party. Prophet's group came in and killed them, then threatened the children."

"It all happened so fast," Sachi said. "A couple of minutes at most. They attacked us right after Kirito had just checked in on us."

Asuna couldn't even begin to guess at the turmoil that churned behind Sasha's eyes as she digested all of this. The Puca woman's hands formed her robes into knots where she clutched at them with white knuckles, and she looked between each person in turn who'd spoken or had a part in this, meeting their eyes and staring into them intensely. Asuna eventually flinched away from that look, but when she averted her eyes she saw Kirito meeting it head-on.

"I don't blame you for what happened, Kirito," Sasha said, her voice quiet but firm. "I'm sure you did everything you could to help, and I'm grateful for that much. Blame is for the people who did the killing." Asuna flinched then, too; Sasha couldn't have known what she'd done earlier, but it still cut all the same. "But I do hold you responsible for it—the children were in your care when this happened, and it was your responsibility to keep them safe as much as it was mine. So I need to know: what are you going to do to make this right?"

Defensiveness rose up in Asuna—for once, on Kirito's behalf rather than aimed at him. Someone's life had been ended—you couldn't make that right, no matter how hard you tried. But the thought died before it could be voiced; it reminded her again that she, too, had taken a life today—the first time for her. And it wasn't a critical hit in the heat of battle or anything like that; she'd done what she did with the full knowledge that it would kill XaXa, when he was already retreating. She'd been shocked at how easy it was to do.

She couldn't continue with that train of thought; she'd been burying it ever since it happened in order to keep the guilt from overflowing and drowning her. She tried to push herself back to the original train of thought, and was about to butt in and protest what an unfair question Sasha had posed—after all, what could Kirito really do that would bring Robert back?

But her hesitation had given him time to respond for himself. "I'm going to find these people, Miss Sasha," Kirito said, fire returning to his words. "Prophet. Black. Wraith. I'm going to find out where they hide. How many others there are. Who's helping them, and who their so-called 'Mistress' is."

"And do what?" Sasha asked.

"And destroy them," Kirito said with hard-edged certainty. "I will remove them from this world, because it needs to be done. Me, and anyone else who's willing to help." He glanced aside at Asuna, who didn't hesitate before nodding. She wasn't sure if she could ever kill again if it came to that, but she knew she couldn't stay on the sidelines either. Not after what those people had done today. She felt an inexplicable rush of joy then, and wasn't sure why—not until she looked back at Kirito and realized that she was proud of him. He had to know what any kind of public manhunt for Prophet would do to the already-dismal reputation of his faction, but was actually stepping up and doing something about it. She was a little surprised at how happy that made her.

Sasha, however, did not look pleased at all by this answer. If possible, the expression of sadness on her face seemed to intensify further. "You can't fix killing with more killing, Kirito," she said softly. "I would've thought you'd know that by now."

"I know you can't," Kirito said. "I know that killing Prophet and his people won't bring Robert back, Sasha. It can't ever make that right. But what it can do is stop them from ever killing again. And understand this: if someone doesn't stop them, that is exactly what they will do. They will keep ending people until someone ends them."

"But the Treaty—" Sasha began.

"The Treaty is unenforceable!" Kirito said, voice rising a little before being brought back under control. "I hate to say it, but I'm almost starting to wonder if Yoshihara had a point. What power do the faction leaders have to enforce the Treaty against someone who doesn't care about it? There's no way to keep someone in prison for PKing when PvP is the whole point of this death game—it's not against the law. Banishment? Exile? They have to know the player's name, first!"

"You said you had their names," Sasha said. "Prophet, Black and Wraith."

"Yes," Kirito said, "and I'm going to take them to the Spriggan and Imp faction leaders, as well as to the NCC. Who may or may not do anything with that information. And if they do? What then? If Prophet's group is self-sufficient, Exiling or Banishing them won't slow them down. Putting them on the NCC blacklist would probably only be an inconvenience. But I'm willing to bet that taking them out one by one will make a dent in their ability to prey on others. There can't be all that many players who are as twisted as those people, and I think Prophet is the glue that holds them together and gives them purpose."

The Sylph woman with improbably long hair—who had been looking increasingly uncomfortable as the discussion progressed—made a throat-clearing sound. "Look, I'm sorry to interrupt, but I don't think I belong here, and I should excuse myself. I really need to get back to Sylvain anyway."

The Salamander who led the motley group behind him gave her an odd look. "You sure, Sakuya? A few minutes ago you wanted to find somewhere quiet to relax."

Sakuya nodded, although the expression on her face was anything but certain. "Tragedy has a way of ruining the mood, Klein, and the topic of conversation here doesn't seem likely to lead to anything quiet, does it? We can catch up another time."

"Wait," Kirito said as she turned to leave. "You're still highly placed in the Sylph clearing groups, aren't you?"

"I am," Sakuya said with a hint of wariness. "Why?"

"Because I want you to talk to Skarrip and your raid leader. Bring them this message: a PKer named Prophet and three accomplices attacked a raid group of children and killed one of them, with the intent of assassinating the person who just helped you win your raid and stealing her research. Give Skarrip their names. Give them to the leader of your clearing group as well; I'll send you a message with their descriptions. Any help you can give in hunting these people down… well, you heard what they're capable of."

Sakuya nodded, her lips pressed thin. "I don't disagree, and I'll be sure to have that conversation with Sigurd and Skarrip when I return—so please do send me that message. Now, if you'll excuse me, my wings should be mostly charged by now."

Once said wings had carried her out of immediate earshot, Klein looked around at his friends—who seemed to enjoy the role of third wheel in this drama no more than Asuna would've—then stepped forward and put a hand on Sasha's shoulder. "You going to be okay from here, Sasha?"

Sasha shook her head. "Probably not for a while. But if what you're asking is whether or not I need you to escort me further, the answer is no. Take your friends and get some rest—I know the way home from here, and I have a lot to discuss with these four."

Klein's hand slipped away from Sasha's shoulder; he waved to Kirito and turned to join the rest of his party, who were already waiting for him a short distance away. "Miss Sasha," Sachi said as he went, looking down nervously and sounding reluctant to even speak up. "There's one more thing."

Sasha closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. "There would be," she said finally. "You said everyone else was safe, so it can't be as bad as the rest of this."

"I mentioned that they were after your research," Kirito said. "It looks like they got it."


Sasha took one slow step through the doorway to her study, staring at the empty bookshelves as if they might magically replenish their contents at any moment. "How?" she said, voice rising to a squeak. "How did they even get in?"

"We think one of Prophet's group, the one he called Wraith, snuck in when one of the kids came to the door to let Pina in," Kirito said. "When we got back here, we found Pina locked in Sachi and Silica's room, and Sachi found this." He gestured towards the empty shelves. "The kids who were here at the time said they didn't see any strangers in the church, and didn't notice anything unusual."

Sasha had mixed feelings about this—dominant was her relief that the kids waiting at the church had been spared the trauma of a run-in with this horrific group, but she couldn't help be frustrated at the lack of clues. She'd had to save up to get the books printed mainly because her UI's note-taking buffer filled up quickly, and she could only carry so many scrolls in her inventory before the system became unmanageable. But that meant that aside from what few notes she had in her inventory right now, nearly all of her records had been stolen—all of her research, gone.

On the scale of things, it didn't measure up to the death of a young boy. But it was still a tremendous blow. She had most of the language itself in her head, of course, but all of her notes on MP costs, cooldowns… all of that data was gone. And even the linguistic information would take months to re-create from memory, and she'd almost certainly forget many words that she didn't use in her own magic. Let alone the work of organizing it all neatly the way she had for the books, and then the cost of printing them again.

"I can't deal with this right now," Sasha said, putting her hands up as if surrendering. "You said that the children who sent each other to jail should get out around noon tomorrow?"

"Roughly," Asuna said from the doorway. "We don't have an exact time for when they did it, but it was around then, if you want to be waiting there for them."

"I do," Sasha said. "But for now, I should get back downstairs and spend some more time with the kids. I can't even begin to imagine what they've been through or what emotional trauma they've suffered from this, and I don't want to leave them alone for long." She nibbled slightly at her lip before proceeding, feeling a little guilty for what she had to say next. "Kirito, you and your two friends can stay here tonight if you don't have anywhere to go. But I hope you'll understand when I say that I'd prefer you didn't. Not tonight, anyway."

Kirito and Asuna both bowed, the former stepping back out to join the latter in the hallway. "I understand," he said. "And again… I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for what happened."

"Don't be sorry, Kirito," Sasha said, turning her back on them so that they couldn't see her face or the conflict on it. "Just do the right thing."

She was aware that saying so was leaving "the right thing" entirely up to his interpretation. But he simply made a quiet un of agreement, and the two of them rejoined their friend Yuuki and went back downstairs. A few moments later, Sasha heard the front door latch shut.

The first two fingers of her hand drew her menu open with a pinching motion, the familiar chime sounding as the game's main menu opened in the air before her. It only took her a few practiced moments to go into her Skills menu and scan the list of equipped skills.

She'd begun the day with four skill slots, each filled with one of the elements she had equipped. And she knew that because she'd hit level 30, she should have a new empty slot which hadn't been filled with anything yet.

That wasn't what she saw now when she looked at her list of equipped skills. She still saw Water, Earth, Fire and Wind, in the order in which she'd started leveling them up. And she also saw the new blank skill slot below them, exactly as she had when she'd reached levels 10 and 20.

Below that blank slot was something else that hadn't been there before. An unfamiliar icon that looked somewhat like the interlocked triangles of a valknut symbol sat beside a word entirely in katakana—spelling out the name of a skill that she'd never heard of, knew for certain she'd never selected, and which wasn't occupying one of the skill slots she already had. It was just an extra that had no explanation for its existence.

But it had a description. And as she read through it again and thought about everything that she'd learned in the last half hour or so, she decided that she'd been right not to say anything to Klein, Bourne, or anyone else about this. Not until she knew what it could do.

An accelerated series of ringing tones played as she swept her menu closed with one hand, leaning back against the wall of her study and indulging in a few conscious, calming breaths.

She had an opportunity here, she realized, and it wasn't just this unexplained new skill that had appeared in her menu. These people had come after her because of what she knew. That meant that it was valuable to them. They valued it either because of the power or advantage they thought it would bring them, or because they thought they could sell it. And they wanted to eliminate her so that no one else could have that advantage.

But it was, in the end, only information. And information that has value mainly because of how few people know it loses that value if knowing it is no longer so exclusive that it grants an advantage.

Whatever Kirito and his friends decided to do about Prophet and his group, Sasha couldn't stop them or do much more than she already had to influence them. But that didn't mean she was powerless to fight them. There was one thing she knew for certain she could do that would thwart the intent of these killers and rob them of any profit or advantage they hoped to derive from their crimes. And it was something that, as long as she stayed in a Safe Zone, they were powerless to stop.

She could make sure that everyone knew the things she did.

It was a pleasant thought for a teacher to have as she returned downstairs to her children.


Sigurd, you sick son of a bitch.

That had not been the full extent of Sakuya's thoughts on the long journey home. But it defined the general tone of her musings on the crimes of a man she already greatly disliked. And as much as she detested Sigurd, it was still shocking to contemplate the connection she'd made when Kirito had started talking about what this Prophet person had done—as if she'd discovered a new low to which she hadn't known her colleague would stoop. It had been shocking and unexpected enough that it had been all she could do to keep Kirito and his friends from realizing that she'd recognized the name of their assailant.

She could be wrong. The name she'd overheard while eavesdropping on Sigurd's clandestine meeting earlier that morning could've just been a coincidence. She was self-aware enough to realize that she might be allowing her pre-existing opinion of Sigurd to cause her to jump to conclusions that weren't supported by the evidence.

But she was fairly certain that she wasn't. Too many things fell into place when you added the name Prophet: Sigurd's behavior towards Sasha during the raid, the fact that he knew she was supposed to be somewhere else… it all fit. The only thing she couldn't really pin down was motive—why would he have done such a thing, or ordered it done?

She continued west through the Valley of Butterflies, then south through Cait Sith territory, open plains giving way to a sparse treeline that quickly densified. And when she wasn't dealing with low-level aggro mobs that were more a waste of time than anything else, she was continuously distracted by the need to figure out exactly what she was planning to do about her Sigurd problem—if she was right.

She could go to Skarrip, of course. That was the obvious answer, the responsible one, and it was probably what she ought to do first—there wasn't anyone to whom Sigurd answered other than him, so if nothing else maybe she could get her leader to act like a leader and take responsibility for something his subordinate did.

But there was something in her that just wouldn't let it be at that. Skarrip might punish Sigurd, but he could also very well decide the political fallout of admitting a Sylph had done this wasn't worth it, and find some excuse to sweep things under the rug. She wouldn't put it past him—not with as deep "in character" he'd gotten as the Sylph leader over the months since the game launched. Skarrip seemed to see everything more and more through the lens of racial politics, and the conclusions drawn from that perspective were not always what she would consider healthy.

No, she thought, it might be better to confront Sigurd first. Maybe he'll run his mouth and give me a bit more ammunition to work with.

Ironic as it was for her to actually want to track him down for once, it was a task made more difficult by the fact that by the time she got back to Sylvain and the festival atmosphere that had swept over it with the news of the raid group's victory, neither he nor Skarrip were anywhere to be found. From what she could learn, they had both made appearances earlier in the evening, but first Skarrip and then eventually Sigurd had bowed out and gone somewhere private once Sylvain started turning into a city-wide party—a party that even now, getting late in the evening, was reminiscent of Mardis Gras with more cosplay.

She supposed that she could just drop by his home and look for him there—it might simplify things if she could catch both Sigurd and Skarrip together and confront the man in front of his boss. But Sakuya was a little uneasy about setting foot inside Sigurd's residence; she couldn't really be sure what special privileges he might've set on it until she got there. He could, in theory, change the ruleset for the interior of a dwelling he owned so that combat was permitted, although almost no one ever did; that was a setting that cut both ways and took away the Safe Zone that was half the point of having a home. Unlikely or not, though, it still wasn't worth the risk of going, not with the gravity of the issue over which she intended to confront him. There wasn't much she'd put past him at this point.

In the end, her inability to find either of the people she needed to talk to was only part of what decided the matter and sent her home with no results. She was tired and weary, both from a day of combat and travel and from an evening of having to continually but politely fend off other Sylphs who wanted to congratulate or talk to her about the raid. She needed the rest, and she knew Skarrip would at least be in his office first thing in the morning—he always was when there was a leadership vote. And with the computer-administered vote closing at 7:00 AM, she was fairly sure that Sigurd wouldn't be up yet.

Sakuya set her alarm for 6:45, and was asleep almost as soon as her head found a pillow.

When morning came, she was much more confident in the decision to sleep on her conundrum. Her nerves were still frayed from all the stress and conflict of the previous day, but she was well-rested and no longer felt like she was running on fumes. It was a much better state of mind in which to go explain to her leader that his favorite minion was an accessory to murder. Light was just starting to peek over the treetops to the east when she left her apartment and took immediately to the air, staying low at first to avoid being blinded by the sun. Sylvain was usually on the warm side of temperate, but even by local standards it looked like it was going to be a gorgeous day—there wasn't a cloud in the sky, not even northwards in the direction of Cait Sith territory; she could already see player merchants beginning to set up shop in the market district alongside their NPC counterparts, who had probably already been there for at least a few hours.

The first sign that her morning wasn't going to go as planned came when she glided in for a landing at the highest platform of Sylvain's central administrative building. Usually a fairly busy entrance, it was mostly deserted at this time of morning—save for a distressingly familiar figure.

Having psyched herself up for confronting Skarrip about Sigurd's transgressions, the last thing she'd been expecting this morning was to find Sigurd himself standing just inside the overhang by the door leading from the landing platform. She felt the same involuntary rush of excitement that she might've at having stumbled across a roaming aggro mob, and her momentary panic was such that she had to restrain herself from the defensive reflex of reaching for her weapon.

Sigurd noticed, and rolled his eyes. "Melodramatic as always, Sakuya. Just what do you think I can or would do to you, here in the Safe Zone?"

"I don't really care to find out," Sakuya responded as she walked towards and past him. "And complaints about melodrama are rich, coming from a larper."

Sigurd pushed himself off of the wall against which he was leaning, which prompted Sakuya to take a step to the side so that he wasn't so close. "Your attitude is unfair," he said in what to him probably sounded like a conciliatory tone. "I don't bite, you know."

"No," Sakuya said, reaching for the door handle, "and thank the gods for that, because we don't have vaccinations in this world."

The hurt, affronted expression Sigurd wore was entirely too polished to be genuine. "Dear Sakuya, what have I ever done to you to deserve the way you speak to me?"

Sakuya's hand stopped just short of the door, and she turned a slightly incredulous look upon him. She wasn't sure why he was suddenly trying to make nice with her again, but she wasn't having any of it. "For starters?" she said, holding out a hand between them and touching the tip of a new finger with each point she gave. "You've spent months trying to get me to fuck you and join your clearing group, and in no particular order. You're condescending, arrogant, self-important, sexist, and act as though you think women ought to fling their pantsu at you every time you manage to tie your shoes without personal injury. You don't take no for an answer no matter how many different ways I try to explain that I find your company repugnant and your leadership lacking, and when you finally do seem to get it through your head that I'm not interested, you stop pretending to be a nice person." She paused, and looked him directly in the eyes. "All of which pretty much puts you in the category of 'people I wouldn't piss on if they were on fire', but on top of that, you also apparently hire assassins to kill kids."

Sakuya was waiting for the reaction; she wanted to watch it. She wasn't disappointed. Sigurd's eyes had grown increasingly glazed over as he tuned out her running tally of his failings, but when she dropped the last line on him, there was a very brief window when something that looked like panic and fear flashed across his face before he governed his expression again. Gotcha, she thought, erasing any remaining doubts she had about the correctness of her reasoning.

"What was his name?" Sakuya wondered aloud, tapping a fingertip against her lower lip. "Oh yes—Prophet." She watched the spark of recognition in his eyes when she spoke the name. "Someone you know, yes? A strange name for a Spriggan assassin, but then, people like to name themselves after their favorite cartoon or video game characters, so who am I to judge?"

"There's only one place you could've heard that name," Sigurd said through clenched teeth, his mask of friendliness completely torn away. "I'd wondered if you'd been following me, or if you showing up yesterday was just a coincidence." He jabbed an accusing finger towards her. "You fault me for pursuing you, but it seems to me that you are the stalker here."

"In this case, probably," Sakuya said. "Which, on the scale of moral relativity, still puts me a few notches ahead of someone who kills kids. In case you were wondering, I'm okay with that."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Sigurd snapped suddenly. "If you must know, I hired someone to steal a game asset and eliminate a target who poses a threat to our security, and neither effort was successful—the contractor failed at the elimination, and never showed up to hand over the package. There was nothing about killing kids in this; it was just a business transaction. Politics, nothing more."

"Oh," Sakuya said with a sarcastic veneer of regret. "I'm sorry, did your assassin double-cross you and refuse to give you Sasha's work? How terrible for you. It seems you just can't trust people who kill for money."

"Whatever," Sigurd spat out. "I hired him to do something that would benefit all Sylphs. What have you done?"

"Me? I killed a gateway boss while you were trying to kill the person who helped us do it." She had the pleasure of savoring Sigurd's expression as she said this; he'd walked right into it. "And now I'm going to go talk to Skarrip about this bullshit you tried to pull. Because whether it was what you intended to happen or not, the fact is that your hit man killed a little boy. And if clearers hadn't been there to protect the other kids, he probably would've killed a lot more. That is on your shoulders, you pompous piece of shit. Now, is there anything you'd like me to tell Skarrip before I have you Exiled?"

Sigurd barked out a sharp, disdainful laugh. "Exiled? Really? You have an over-inflated idea of your own importance, Sakuya. You may be the leader of the second-ranked group amongst our clearers, but you are not my peer and you are nothing to Lord Skarrip. I am the one he trusts most."

Sakuya nodded. "That may have been true once. We'll see whether he still trusts you after he finds out what you've done."

Sigurd stepped aside, gesturing towards the door. "If you want to disgrace yourself, be my guest. When you emerge crying and stripped of your position, I will still be here—and if you beg, I might still let you join my group."

"Don't start making retirement plans, Sigurd," Sakuya said as she opened the door and put it in between herself and the man's smirk. "This fantasy world of yours is about to come crashing down around you." She shut it quickly behind her before he could say anything else.

Author's Note 6/13/14: Okay, first thing's first: I'm very, very sorry that I had to split this chapter yet again. But it was almost 20k words when I made the decision to split it, and that's with a lot of wrap-up still yet to do! As it is this is still the longest chapter I've ever written for this fic.

But the good news is, since I had to split a very long chapter, that means at least a third of the next chapter is already written... and it really is the last for this act. I'm doing my final move next weekend, so it probably won't post right away, but it will be sooner than this one was.

Things are about to start happening very, very quickly! Please, as always, let me know what you think, and I'll see you in Chapter 30 for the end of Act 2!