"A Non-Player Character, or NPC, is a type of interactive computer-controlled entity in the game. An NPC simulates a person with whom players may interact, and serve to offer or progress quests, deliver exposition, or provide a variety of services. They may be distinguished from a mob, player or GM avatar by their white cursor, and as they have no HP gauge they typically cannot engage or be engaged in combat unless scripted to change into a mob. Quest-related characters may appear quite lifelike in the context of their own quest, depending on its scope and their complexity, but when dealing with the average service NPC players are advised to avoid modern slang, metaphors, and other interactions that may only confuse their simpler AI."
Alfheim Online manual, «Non-Player Characters»

6 May 2023: Day 182 - Morning

Asuna was not the least bit surprised to find that her sleep came fitfully, when at all.

She had killed a man. No—a boy. He'd been an awful, horrible person, but he'd still been a person, a boy not much older than her, and she'd deliberately murdered him.

And murder was the only possible word for it—it had felt differently at the time, but looking back now, she couldn't deny on some level making the deliberate, knowing choice to sacrifice herself to bring him down, forgetting in the heat of the moment as she leapt that an Undine wouldn't take the damage from the fall that he would.

Murder. She hadn't been able to let that go all day yesterday; those moments had cornered her whenever there was silence and forced her to relive them, to defend her choices.

What's more, she couldn't defend them—couldn't even try. And so they went on tormenting her once she fell asleep as well, accosting her in her dreams with little details that she'd sooner forget. She remembered the very last moment that she'd felt the physical body of his avatar before it had burst into a Remain Light and left her tightly hugging herself, right before she plunged through it and into the sewer waterway—which thankfully had been deep enough for her to not strike bottom; that probably would have killed her where the water didn't. She remembered his raspy voice, screaming obscenities in her ear right up until the moment of their impact on the water's surface; despite his youth it had an odd cadence that she couldn't really find the words to describe, and she couldn't scrub it out of her mind.

Most of all—and worst of all—Asuna remembered the flush of pleasure she'd felt when she'd realized that it was going to work, and that she was going to end one of the bastards who had murdered Robert. She hated that most of all, because it had felt so incredibly satisfying—and that sickened her to her core; it made her feel utterly ashamed of herself.

It had been the first time in this death game that Asuna had killed anyone. She'd fought battles with other players, yes—but only in her own defense or that of others, and never with killing intent. She knew that wasn't true for a lot of people, not after six months in Alfheim... but it had been true for her, and she wished it still was. She knew Kirito had taken more than one life before, and after the third time coming abruptly awake, shaking and sobbing, she couldn't fathom how he managed to handle it. Did he ever sleep?

Only Yuuki's warm presence snuggled up beside her let her find any peace at all that night. Her own troubled mind kept waking her up, but the game seemed to shut off outside stimuli when it detected that a player was asleep; it was a small blessing of game design that at least prevented her own insomnia from keeping Yuuki awake.

There came a point when Asuna knew that she wasn't getting back to sleep; she needed to do something other than lie there in bed with the darkness and her thoughts, staring at her HUD. She checked the clock in her peripheral vision as she carefully disentangled herself from Yuuki's arms—it was just after six in the morning. She supposed there were worse hours to find herself awake; when she peeked through the curtains of the room in eastern Arun where they were staying, she could see hints of orange beginning to color the dark and cloudy skies beyond the Canopy of the World Tree.

After taking a few moments to equip her clothing, Asuna slipped out of the front door and onto the landing deck of the rented room. It was one of many such rooms built into the bark of a great root that rose in the midst of the smaller eastern side of the city; each room had its own small balcony that served as a place for guests and visitors to still their wings before entering, or to let them build up their flight meters before leaving after a long stint indoors. She sat herself down at the edge and dangled her feet over the open air, leaning to one side against the railing while she watched the sky grow gradually brighter. The beautiful view went a long way towards driving out the self-flagellating thoughts which had plagued her all night.

The better part of twenty minutes passed like that, the oranges shifting to yellows which promised that the sun would be making its appearance very soon. She could hear the wings of different races in the distance as players began to wake up and set out on their day's agenda, the higher-pitched sounds carrying further than the deeper ones. One in particular stood out for how close it was, and when she leaned forward and looked down, she saw Kirito flying up from his own room's balcony towards hers. They'd agreed to both get rooms at this particular inn so that they could get a head start going east in the morning, and it looked like Kirito was an early riser.

Kirito's landing was so delicate that his booted feet barely made a sound on the platform once his wings went silent. Asuna gave him a tiny smile when he walked over and stood beside her where she sat, arms folded on the railing before him as he looked off to the east. "Trouble sleeping?" he asked.

A defensive reflex immediately rose up in Asuna before she shut it down. She was still too ashamed of herself to try to protest or give him grief for his assumption—especially since it happened to be true. She looked down at her dangling feet, past them to the city below. She realized that she was more taken aback by wondering how he'd known in the first place. "How do you do it?" she asked.

"Do what?"

She turned her teal eyes up towards him then. "Sleep," she said. She didn't pretend not to know what they were talking about.

Kirito had glanced down at her briefly when she'd first spoken, and when she met his eyes again she saw no judgment in them. "You get to a point," he said, "where you kind of have to. These aren't flesh-and-blood bodies, but the game still simulates fatigue, and our brains need REM sleep sooner or later."

"That's not what I meant," Asuna said, looking away once more. "I just don't understand how you can live with it. I don't know how I ever will."

She felt a light touch on the top of her head; when she looked up she saw that Kirito had reached out to rest his palm there in what was obviously meant to be a reassuring gesture. For the briefest span, when she looked back at him, she saw a note of alarm on his face—as if he realized that he might've overstepped her boundaries and was expecting her to berate him for the unsolicited touch even if it didn't cross whatever threshold existed for the anti-harassment system. Before he could snatch his hand away, she reached up and covered it with hers, trapping it against one of the braids at her temples. She felt him relax.

It had been unsolicited, but it was far from unwelcome.

The thought startled her when it passed through her. Yuuki had sometimes teased her in good fun about how close she and Kirito were getting, and had chided her gently on more than one occasion for being too standoffish with him, but she'd never really stopped to think about it further than that. What point was there? He was a loner, a solo player, and she had responsibilities in the Undine clearing group—responsibilities to push forward and clear the game, to win freedom for as many people as possible. She liked him. She even thought that maybe, if circumstances had been different, she might've been able to—

No. Just… no. She shook her head as if to ward off the words even in the privacy of her own thoughts; Kirito seemed to take the motion as a hint, and moved to withdraw his hand. She closed hers more tightly around his without conscious thought, maintaining the contact.

"Asuna?" Kirito said questioningly. She turned her head a little, enough to see the flush on his ashen skin.

"I'm a murderer, Kirito," she said as tears began to form in her eyes. "Even once we clear the game, even once we're back in the real world, I'll still be a murderer. That stain will never go away. They're probably keeping track of who kills who, and the police will be waiting to arrest me when I wake up. And I'll deserve it."

"No," Kirito said at once. "If they know that much about what's happening in the game, then they'll have to know the circumstances, too. They'll know that you killed someone who had just killed a child, and that it was self-defense. They might even give you a medal for it."

"I don't want a medal!" Asuna screamed suddenly, tears flying off of her cheeks as she whipped her head around and looked up at him. Kirito took a step back; she grasped for his hand as he retreated, and missed it. A bit more quietly, but with a voice still full of grief and shame: "And it wasn't self-defense, either. He was retreating, Kirito. He was flying away, mocking us, and I couldn't bear the thought of him getting away with what he'd just done." To Asuna's chargin, the system responded to her emotional state by making her nose feel runny and her eyes persuasively burn with her tears; she wiped ineffectually at her face with the sleeve of her robe. "I couldn't even tell Yuuki that I did it on purpose. She feels even more strongly than I do about taking a life; it's forbidden by her religion."

"You don't have to tell her what you did, you know," Kirito said after taking some time to think about it, appearing to relax a little. She was grateful; it gave her the time she needed to settle her emotions a bit again. "It's personal—and not really something she needs to know. Look, Asuna… I won't tell you that you're wrong to feel this way, because you're not. I'm not proud of the things I've had to do in this game. You wanted to know how I sleep? Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I stare at the ceiling and wait for sleep, and all I can see are the faces of each player I've killed."

"And now you're putting yourself on a mission to kill even more." That still ate at her. Why had she agreed to go along with his plan? Why had she done so almost without hesitation when he talked about hunting down Prophet's group—a hunt that could only end in someone's death?

It was because—

"They need to be stopped," Kirito said, as if he'd read her mind. "I don't know how many people they've killed before this—I'm guessing a lot. What I do know is that they have every intent of killing again. And I have a responsibility to stop them. You don't have to come with me for that—in fact, it might be better for you if you didn't."

"Oh no you don't," Asuna said, bringing out her wings just long enough to lift herself gracefully to her feet. "If you go off and do this alone, you're going to get yourself killed, Kirito. I'm not going to let that happen."

"Asuna," Kirito said, his expression conflicted, "I thought about this a lot last night. I don't know if I'll be able to protect both you and Yuuki if you come with me."

"This again?" Asuna said. "You don't have to; I'm a healer. If anything, I'll be the one keeping you alive."

"Even if it means you have to take a life in order to save one?"

The words stopped Asuna cold. She felt momentarily dizzy, and during those few beats her eyes couldn't focus. "Even if," she said softly after a far-too-long pause, unable to look him in the eyes.

The silence stretched on and on; neither of them seemed to know what to say after that. It left Asuna with no company but that of her own racing thoughts, which were full of regrets and second-guessing of herself. Sometimes, when she was talking to Kirito, it felt like her mouth had a mind of its own—like she couldn't stop herself from saying things that were uncharacteristic for her, even though she always found that they were true once she'd had time to think them over after the fact. She felt like her mind was becoming a mess of contradictions and hypocrisy.

"All right," Kirito said finally, the skepticism gone from his voice. She looked up at him and saw a weak smile that was a twin to the one she'd worn when he'd joined her this morning. The smile then faded enough so that it was almost not even there at all. "I don't want to end anyone's life any more than you do, Asuna. I just don't see any other way that these people can be stopped, and it's a burden I'm willing to bear if it means stopping Prophet."

"We'll bear it together, then," Asuna said, both horrified and elated at the words coming out of her mouth. "Because you're right—they do need to be stopped. But maybe, between the two of us… maybe we'll be able to find an alternative so that we don't have to have their deaths weighing on us for the rest of our lives."

As Kirito nodded, his eyes went up and to the left. She saw them go distant for a moment, and realized he must have received a private message. "Can we put this on hold for about, say, half an hour?" he said after his focus returned. "Once Yuuki wakes up, we can still head towards the Valley of Rainbows together."

"On hold?" Asuna said, confused about what could've pulled Kirito away this early in the morning. "Why? Who was that from?"

"That was Sasha," Kirito answered, sounding uncertain of how he should feel about the Puca woman's message. "She wants to talk to me face-to-face before we leave. And she wants you to come, too."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Running the gauntlet with Sigurd had at least been useful; he'd confirmed Sakuya's suspicions and given her plenty more to tell Skarrip. The second gauntlet she had to run was far less productive, and it brought back her real-life distaste for bureaucracy—to say nothing of well-meaning office drones who mistook rigid adherence to process for an end rather than a means.

"I'm sorry, Sakuya," said the stocky administrative assistant, bowing low. "Lord Skarrip is quite busy at the moment, and I'm afraid—"

"Don't give me that crap, Chimiro," Sakuya said as she continued walking towards the door to the executive office. "We both know he's sitting at his desk while he waits for the leadership vote results to come in. This is important."

"Be that as it may," Chimiro said, hastily trying to put himself between Sakuya and the door again. "You don't have an appointment, and these things must be done a certain way—"

Sakuya sighed and put a hand to her face, halting in her tracks. "Look," she said, "I know you're just trying to do your job. Fearless Leader probably asked you to run interference and keep anyone from interrupting; good on you. But you've also got discretion, and it's time to think for yourself and use it: this is a matter of life and death, and it really cannot wait until later."

As Sakuya stepped back from the door, Chimiro relaxed a little and did the same. "I understand," he said, making it plainly obvious that he didn't and thought she was exaggerating. "And I empathize with your concerns. But Lord Skarrip's preference for the morning of a leadership vote is clear: no interruptions. If you'd like to leave a message, I would be happy to—"

"Nope," Sakuya said, suddenly pushing past the hapless assistant. "Not playing this game today, sorry." Before Chimiro could do anything other than squawk a surprised protest, she quickly slid open the heavy wooden door and went through, surprised to find that it was actually unlocked.

Skarrip sat facing the northern set of bay windows opposite the entrance; the morning sun streamed in through the eastern set and turned the left and right halves of his chair and desk into dark and light, respectively. She couldn't see the Sylph leader at all from where she stood, but she could see the shadows he and his furniture cast across the western side of the room.

"I knew you'd come," he said without turning or rising from his chair. "I've been waiting. Leave us, Chimiro."

"How very cliché of you," Sakuya said coolly as the assistant bowed and shut the door behind him, at the end of her patience with the excessive dramatics and pretensions from those around her. She realized that her hand was again on the hilt of her weapon as she stepped forward, and wasn't quite sure why—it wasn't as if it would be of any use in this confrontation, or persuasive in getting her leader to deal with Sigurd. She let her hands relax to her sides with conscious effort, a little perturbed with herself at how on-edge she felt. "If you were expecting me, you should've told your poor assistant to let me in. Did you really mean it, or was that line just part of the leadership roleplaying game, too?"

"We all play our roles, Sakuya," Skarrip said with a touch of weariness, as if the subject bored him. She could hear him shifting his weight in the plush chair, and it rocked slightly as he did. "Some more deeply than others."

Sakuya halted on the other side of his player-crafted hardwood desk. "Speak for yourself, sir. I don't care to forget who I really am for the sake of fitting into this world. Maybe you'd rather not think about it, but the reality is that we've been trapped inside of a game by a terrorist with a god complex. This isn't a fantasy world—it's a very pretty prison cell with gameplay."

The laughter that then drifted up from the other side of the chair was unlike any that she'd ever heard from Skarrip before. His large, high-backed chair was on a swivel; he slowly spun it around with a push at the floor, turning himself to face her at last. He was grinning, and that alone was enough to unnerve her. Skarrip occasionally smiled, and faintly at that. He never grinned.

"You said you were expecting me," Sakuya said, gathering her courage by pushing forward. "Does that have anything to do with robbery and murder?"

Skarrip's eyebrows rose slightly. "You've been talking to Sigurd."

Sakuya's mouth dropped open. "So he told you?"

"Of course. Do you think Sigurd breaks his fast without my leave?"

Sakuya was horrified. From Sigurd she could've believed this. But Skarrip? She'd suspected he might've turned a blind eye, not knowing all of the details, but his words made it sound like he had a more direct hand in this atrocity—like it was done at his order. She struggled to find words. "T-to what purpose? What possible threat were those children to us? And why, when their caretaker was helping us—"

"The children? No threat at all," Skarrip answered. "But the primary objective was to secure that woman's research… and eliminate her so that it could not be reproduced. What she's discovered is far too useful to allow it to spread." He spread his hands. "A partial success, at any rate. She was supposed to be in the Sewers, not along on the raid, and the collateral damage is… shall we say, unfortunate."

Sakuya knew that her jaw was hanging wide open, but she couldn't help it. She felt like the reality she lived in and knew to be true was being rewritten every time her leader spoke. "What in the actual fuck, Skarrip?" She leaned forward and planted her palms on the edge of his desk. "What the hell did you think was going to happen when you sent an assassin after someone who was traveling with a bunch of kids? Seriously, how broken are you that you'd even think doing something like this was a good idea?"

"Surely you realize that kind of question seeks no answer."

"I got a tip from someone who told me Sigurd was up to something," Sakuya said, anger rising in her. "They were half-right. They should've warned me about you, too."

Skarrip's smile bordered on smug. "Ah, but they did."

That brought Sakuya's building tirade to a halt, momentarily replacing it with confusion. "I don't understand."

"Who do you think sent you that note? And why do you think they used the letter S from the Latin alphabet rather than something a bit more specific, like Shi or Su in katakana?"

This did not aid Sakuya in dispelling her confusion. She was aware that he had her reacting, now, and that she needed to regain control of the conversation. But if Skarrip had been behind that anonymous tip, then why—

"Why?" Skarrip said, as if plucking the thoughts from her mind. "Oh, but this is so entertaining to watch. You think you've pieced it together, and then suddenly find you're as lost as ever were. Work through it, now."

"You gave Sigurd orders to contact an assassin in Arun," Sakuya said, fuming at the condescension she could hear in Skarrip's voice. "At the time, you thought that Sasha was going to be in the Sewers. But before we even left, you sent me an anonymous note telling me to watch 'S'. You knew I'd assume that meant Sigurd, but it also could've referred to you."

Skarrip made a steeple of his fingers in front of him, not too different from the opening gesture of a healing spell. He looked amused by her conflict. "Keep going."

She could see it, but it didn't make sense to her. "So you wanted me to catch him… doing what you'd told him to do? Wait, you said you were expecting me… you wanted this confrontation?"

He inclined his head slightly. "Thank you for not disappointing me."

"You're not Skarrip," Sakuya said suddenly, certainty rising in her as all of the wrongness and incongruity she'd been feeling finally found a name. "Who the hell are you?"

Skarrip's unsettling grin twisted. "What possesses you to say that?"

"Because I knew Skarrip in the beta," she said, hand again instinctively settling on the grip of her sword where it lay in her sheath. "He could be a pretentious jackass, but he wasn't a roleplayer, he never talked like a cartoon villain, and he never would've signed off on this murder-conspiracy crap. Now who are you, truly?"

Skarrip tapped his fingertips together, gazing at her just over them with eyes gone briefly distant, as if recalling a faint memory. "Ah, yes, that's right—you did know him. Well then, who do you think I am?"

Sakuya swallowed hard, fighting to keep her expression neutral, her face free of fear or indecision. Whatever happened after she spoke next could very well take her fate completely out of her own hands—if it wasn't already. "I think you're Kayaba. I think you took over this account at some point after the game started so that you'd have a character with power to play, and it's been getting harder and harder for you to stay 'in character' as the real Skarrip, whoever he was."

Skarrip's laughter then was like the high-pitched bark of a medium-sized dog, and Sakuya jumped slightly as he slapped the edge of his desk once. There was genuine amusement in his face as he stood up and began to pace around one side, looping slowly around the desk towards her. Sakuya automatically turned and took a step back to keep space between them, which gave him pause before he smiled again. "That's an interesting theory you have there."

Oh god, Sakuya thought, frozen in place. She tried very hard not to flee right then, knowing that it would do her absolutely no good if she'd been right. Where could she possibly go?

"It is true that I am not the person who once wore Skarrip's name and body in this world," Skarrip said conversationally, stepping around Sakuya until they stood almost side by side, facing opposite directions. "That man is long dead, and I do tire of pretending to be him. But your wits have led you astray on one important point."

He leaned in towards her; Sakuya was too terrified to do anything but ineffectually lean away. "This Kayaba person of whom you speak?" he said, his whisper intimate as a smirk touched his face. "I am not he."

These words—and the confusion diluting her fear—were cold comfort. Even if he wasn't that man, the madman who'd trapped them all in this world, he was still someone in a position of considerable power over her—and she was aware of just how thin the ice was under her feet at the moment. "If you're not Kayaba, then who—?"

Skarrip resumed a leisurely circuit around the other side of the desk, returning himself to the comfortable swivel chair and setting himself on a slow spin in the other direction. "And this is where I riddle you, Sakuya," he said, stopping himself with one foot so that he faced away from her; she had no doubt he knew exactly how rude it was. "Do you know why I chose this particular character, as you call them? This particular dead man's manifestation in this world?"

Sakuya shook her head, and then remembered that he was sitting with his back to her and couldn't see it. "No. But you seem to get off on having an audience, so I'm betting that you're about to tell me."

A chuckle. "I had a number of reasons, but not least of them was that the name the dead man had chosen was pleasing to me. I suspect that he named himself so because he admired me in some fashion, or at least some aspect of me."

"Skarrip," Sakuya began slowly as her fear began to give ground to the combined forces of confusion and impatience, with righteous anger once again in the vanguard. "Or whoever-the-hell you actually are. The things you are saying to me... the words are in Japanese, but they make no sense. I honestly, actually, have no goddamn idea what it is you are trying to explain. And that, combined with the fact that you admit to ordering someone to commit a heinous crime and a treaty violation and still haven't adequately explained yourself… well, it's starting to really piss me off."

"Say my name." The words were sharp, abrupt, commanding; any pretense of mirth had vanished in the moment it took him to speak them.

Sakuya stopped, trying to reconcile that non sequitur response with anything at all that she'd said. "What?"

"What is my name? Say it."

"Skarrip," Sakuya repeated, bewildered.

"Sukaarippu," he said, drawing out each mora of the name crisply, with mechanically precise meter and enunciation that would've made even Sakuya's strict college kokugo teacher proud. "Your language's approximation of a phrase in the English tongue. The former owner of this body gave it that name, but when he chose the English letters with which to write it, he spelled it the way it sounded to him as a name, not the way it ought to have been written."

The part about this entire conversation that was giving Sakuya the biggest headache was the fact that every answer from Skarrip prompted more questions—and more black holes of missing rationality for which she couldn't even begin to formulate questions. "What do you mean, 'your language'? Skarrip, I am really not following you and I think we need to get back to the whole matter of—"

A chiming sound in her inner ear interrupted her then, her attention drawn by the flashing icon of a system notification in her peripheral vision. She focused on it just long enough to open the window and scan the text, then immediately closed it again in disgust, looking back up. "Congratulations on your re-election," she said with dry sarcasm.

"Thank you," said a voice that was not Skarrip's. The chair turned to face her again, and the rest of Sakuya's world dropped out from under her.

·:·:·:·:·:·

"I'm sorry," Sasha said as she bowed at the waist until her bangs fell forward to cover her face.

Kirito blinked. Whatever he had expected her to have to say to the two of them, it hadn't been that. His eyes shifted to the side just long enough to see Asuna's look of surprise matching his own feelings; he knew that she'd been expecting another lecture about Kirito's part in the previous day's tragedy or his decision to go after Prophet. He'd spent some of the short flight to the church cautioning her to wait and see what Sasha had to say before getting defensive on his behalf.

It seemed that had been wise advice.

"I…" Kirito rubbed at the back of his neck as he tried to figure out how to respond. "Um, for what?"

Straightening, Sasha gestured with an upturned hand towards one of the seats at the long table in the dining room. Once they were both seated, she pulled out a chair on the opposite side and joined them. "I said some terribly unfair things to both of you yesterday," she said, pulling her single lengthy braid over her shoulder and wrapping it around the first two fingers of one hand in what seemed to be an unconscious habit. "I spoke with the children at length last night—Sachi and Silica in particular, but I gave all of them some time to talk about what happened if they wanted to."

"And?" Kirito asked, feeling a bit of apprehension begin to clear from the air.

She smiled thinly. "You would be hard-pressed to get twenty-plus children to agree that water was wet, but they were unanimous in their gratitude to the both of you. And in retrospect, I was ashamed of how I treated the people responsible for the fact that they are all still alive today." She bowed again from a sitting position, less deeply but with her eyes on the table. "And so I owe you an apology. No, more than an apology. I owe you the same gratitude that these children—who had just been through the trauma and grief that I was only receiving second-hand—were so free in giving."

"You were hurt," Kirito said when she raised her gaze again. "You'd just found out not only that one of your students had been murdered, but that six months of work had been stolen. Anyone would have snapped."

Sasha flinched at the mention of murder, but it didn't stop her from rebutting his words. "But I'm not anyone, Kirito. I'm the adult here and I ought to have known better—ought to have dealt with something like this without taking it out on others." She looked between Kirito and Asuna both, then. "Least of all two of the children who had just been through the same ordeal."

Asuna opened her mouth as if to protest something, but seemed to think better of it. Kirito imagined she was probably resisting being lumped in with the rest of the children at the orphanage; he'd felt a twinge of that himself—but he had a pretty good idea what Sasha was trying to say.

"Thank you," Asuna said after a few moments of silence had passed, the corners of her eyes glistening. Kirito let out some of the tension in his shoulders; she seemed to understand Sasha's intent here as well as he did.

Sasha's head dipped slightly. "They're only words, but as it was words that wronged you, words are what I have to offer."

Kirito again met Asuna's eyes out of the corner of his own, and was relieved by what he saw there. "So if you got to talk to all the kids, I'm guessing you know as much about Prophet and his gang as we do."

"Possibly more in some areas, actually," Sasha said. "Which is part of what I meant by having words to offer. Silica told me that after Prophet turned her and Sachi into Remain Lights, he must have assumed that there was no chance of them being rezzed—because he let something slip that I don't think he intended anyone to know."

Kirito straightened a bit in his seat, his attention suddenly as sharp as his sword. "Please tell us. Anything will help."

"Silica said that he said something about a rendezvous at an inn—I'm sorry, but he didn't mention which one. But he used a particular term to refer to the person they were meeting. Have you ever heard the phrase 'Keroppi fop'?"

"Keroppi is a cartoon character," Asuna said. "I had a sticker of one on my phone. I've never heard the word foppu before, though. It doesn't sound Japanese."

"If he was using the word I think he was, it's not," Sasha said. "It's a somewhat archaic English colloquialism. The closest equivalent in Japanese would probably be sharemono, but that doesn't really have quite the same derogatory meaning as fop does." She paused, drumming her fingers briefly on the table. "It's like a man who's somewhat vain, well-dressed, concerned with appearances and not particularly intelligent."

"I get it now," Asuna said. "I can't imagine what that has to do with a cartoon frog, though."

"Very little," Sasha said. "The two of you probably haven't spent time around too many people from other factions before, but we have all of them here at the church… and well… children can be truly inventive, and are quite quick to pick up on slang. Keroppi is a very nasty slur for Sylphs that is mostly used by Salamanders and Imps. I imagine it refers to their faction's association with the color green." She smiled a little bitterly. "Robert used to get in quite a lot of trouble for calling Jellica that."

"Are you sure?" Kirito asked, suddenly very disturbed. "Is there anything else he could've meant by using that word?"

"Not unless you think Prophet likes Sanrio," Sasha said with a wry twist to her lips.

"So what you're saying," Kirito said, too bothered by this revelation to find any humor in the comment, "is that Prophet was planning on meeting with a Sylph afterwards. And that it might well have been a Sylph who hired him."

"Careful, Kirito," Asuna cautioned. "We don't know that for sure, and even if it was, that doesn't mean it was anyone in the Sylph leadership. There are thousands of people in that faction. I've met the Sylph clearers before; lots of them are really nice."

"And some of them aren't so much," Sasha said. "There was one at the raid who had a very bad attitude, although I got the impression that he was aggravated because I was slowing the raid down by being low-level."

"Still, it's a lead," Kirito said. "It's one more detail that gets us closer to finding out who was behind this attack."

"And one that leads us in the opposite direction from where we were going this morning," Asuna pointed out. She looked at Sasha and explained. "The three of us—Kirito, Yuuki and I—were going to head east through the Valley of Rainbows and then split up. I need to talk to Diabel, Kirito was going to talk to the Spriggan leader and see if she knows anything about Prophet, and Yuuki was going to head south to Everdark and ask about the Imps in his gang."

"I know," Kirito replied. "But we don't have to follow up on it ourselves—we have someone in the Sylphs who can do that for us. Remember Sakuya?"

"The woman who came out of the raid with Sasha yesterday?"

Kirito nodded. "She said she'd talk to Skarrip for us. I can send her another message with this detail and ask her to look into it."

"Assuming she wasn't part of this plot herself," Asuna said. "I mean, she seemed nice, but who knows at this point?"

"I doubt it was her," Sasha said. "The word fop is almost exclusively used to refer to men."

"In English," Asuna said. "That's a pretty subtle nuance. Who knows if Prophet knew how the word was originally used?"

Sasha shrugged. "A fair point, but… I still don't think it was her. She was at the raid when all of this happened, and although I didn't see her interacting socially much, she just didn't strike me as the sort. Besides… no offense, but I have a hard time imagining a woman being willing to kill a bunch of children."

"Rosalia," Kirito said bluntly, offering the most obvious counter-example that came to mind.

Sasha shook her head. "Not even her. Silica told me what happened. Rosalia was scum, but Prophet killed her because she wasn't okay with what he was going to do."

The sound of several light thumps and the distant murmur of voices drew everyone's eyes to the ceiling. The murmur was momentarily interrupted by a loud yell, but it didn't sound like one of pain or fear. Sasha smiled. "That would be the children starting to wake up. I usually would've gotten them up an hour ago, but it's a Saturday and given all that they've been through…"

Another collection of irregular thumps worked their way down the stairs. Asuna's upturned gaze went briefly unfocused in a way that usually meant someone was looking at their HUD. "It's almost seven. We should be getting back to the inn before Yuuki wakes up."

Kirito nodded, eyes going to his own HUD where the digits on the unobtrusive clock read 06:58:34. "That, and the system should be tallying the leadership vote any minute now. There's going to be a lot of crowds in the skies and streets today."

Sasha looked surprised, and then sighed. "Oh my, I'd forgotten. That's going to make my day interesting as well; the children are always really rambunctious after the announcement messages go out, and we have sort of a little ritual to keep things structured. Honestly, they make such a big deal out of it, and none of them have even been back to their starting cities since the beginning of this game. I doubt they could pick Merifelle or Thinker out of a crowd if someone described them."

"I couldn't pick Merifelle or Thinker out of a crowd either," Asuna said.

"Kirito!" came a young and familiar voice from the doorway behind him. Footsteps pattered over to where he was sitting, and someone grabbed him from behind in a hug. Kirito reached up and awkwardly dismissed a harassment dialog, then patted one of the arms wrapped around him.

"Good morning, Jellica," Sasha said with a smile. "May I assume from the sound of things that everyone is awake?"

"Almost everyone," said the young Sylph girl, releasing Kirito and stepping back. "Kai was still being a sleepyhead, but Rainy cast some kind of water spell at him that made him really wet, and that woke him up in a hurry."

Sasha frowned disapprovingly. "See now," she began, "just because you can use magic doesn't mean—"

"It wasn't me!" Jellica said quickly.

"No, but you offered to 'helpfully' dry me off with a wind spell," said the young Spriggan boy in question as he came through the same doorway with several of the others. "Which I'm pretty sure woulda blown me out the window."

Sachi was the next to join the fray, if it could be called that. "It's a good thing you didn't, Jellica, otherwise you'd be in Time Out like Rainy." She smiled as she turned her gaze towards Kirito and Asuna. "Hullo," she said.

Kirito smiled at the Undine girl. He was about to respond when a soft chime sounded, a familiar system notification appearing at the edge of his vision. When he focused on it he saw exactly what he'd expected.

『06/05/23 07:00 JST — Spriggan Leadership voting closed. For the next 30 days your «Faction Leader» will be «Yoshihara». Please congratulate her!』

Fat chance of that, Kirito thought before the clamor from the growing crowd of kids in the dining room drove out any ability to focus on his own thoughts. Sasha clapped her hands loudly, clearing her throat in a pointed way. "Everyone, you know how this works. One at a time. Jellica, you can announce the Sylph vote today."

Kirito could not imagine why the young blonde girl looked so happy when she did so. "The Sylph leader is Skarrip!"

There were snorts and snickers from several of the other kids. "There's a surprise!" said one.

"Quiet," Sasha said. "Remember what you learned about incumbency from our civics lessons? It's quite unusual for an elected leader to be voted out unless they've done something to make people unhappy with them. And the Sylphs just helped win an important raid battle. Kai, you're next."

The gangly Spriggan boy nodded with solemn pride. "Yoshihara," he said, his voice quiet.

"I dunno why you guys even bother voting for her," said one of the Salamander boys. "Ain't like she does anything."

"Which is why we vote for her," Kai said stiffly. "Anyway, like you'd know, Genji. You're just repeating what someone else said."

"So are you!"

Sasha sighed, giving Kirito and Asuna a long-suffering look. "You see what I have to deal with," she said with good humor. "Genji, I was going to pick you next, but since you talked out of turn I guess Masaki gets the privilege of announcing the Salamander vote."

The named boy, a youth with short-cropped hair the color of red wine who looked about eight or nine years old, had a puzzled look on his face. His lips moved silently for a moment as if he was sounding something out in his head.

"Well?" Sasha prodded gently.

Masaki looked up at her. "Sorry," he said. "It just took me a sec. I've never heard of this 'Corvatz' guy before."

·:·:·:·:·:·

The temptation for Sakuya to rub her eyes was strong. Even after six months of having her senses spoofed by the Nerve Gear, six months of seeing the impossible brought to life in a virtual reality simulation, she still simply could not process what she was seeing now as anything other than a hallucination.

Where Skarrip had been sitting was someone… else. He had the pale skin and blue lips reminiscent of someone suffering from hypothermia, an appearance that tickled some sense of familiarity—something Sakuya was certain she'd seen elsewhere recently. His blue-black hair rippled down to his shoulders, joined at the temples by a curly beard that sliced around the edge of his thick jaw and rose above his smiling lips, the mustache broken at intervals by the thin lines of old scars. Even his clothes were different; where Skarrip had been wearing emerald-green robes with gold lace, this person appeared to be wearing a deep blue tunic and skirt with black piping over some sort of light mail and leggings. His build was impressive; from size alone he could've almost been a Gnome.

Magic, Sakuya thought. Or rare items. The chair's high-backed and wide; he could've quietly whispered the words to an Illusion spell while I was talking. Or used an item to change his appearance. Or something.

When Sakuya focused on him, she expected to see the green cursor and nameless status ribbon of another Sylph player. Instead, the cursor was white, as if he was an NPC… and it had a name written above it, hanging there in the air.

Her lips moved silently in willful disbelief as she mouthed the name.

"Do you understand now, lost child of Midgard?" he finally said, beginning to rise from his chair. "The chain of events you've fought so valiantly to piece together, that even now your mind struggles to comprehend—these motivations were incomprehensible to you because they were those of an aesir. I am Loki Laufeyjarson, King of the Jotnar. Once imprisoned for all the ages, I was unbound and called forth once more by the Allfather to set trials before those of you who quest to return to Midgard." The corner of his mouth lifted once again in a slight smirk. "And your trials have scarcely begun."

While Sakuya looked on, too stupefied by the insanity of what was happening to muster words, Skarrip—no, she thought, reading the name again, Loki—stood to his full height. The Sylph leader had already been on the tall side, but as Loki he appeared to Sakuya's eye to be at least two meters in height, if not taller. He had a presence that seemed to swell to fill the room, a sensation that Sakuya told herself angrily had to be her imagination—there was no such effect in the game that she knew of; this was in her head. King of the Jotnar. At once the familiarity of Loki's appearance clicked with her—his skin, his eyes and the clothing he wore made him resemble one of the frost giants, albeit smaller and more human-like.

Hrungnir's parting words suddenly rung in her ears. My king is unbound, children of Midgard. He comes for you.

Sakuya shivered.

Loki grinned suddenly, and with malice. "I have a different idea in mind. Not for ages have I seen a people as naturally duplicitous and given to scheming as those of you brought here by the Allfather's will and transformed into fae. The interspecies psychodrama in this world has provided me with no end of entertainment thus far, and I desire that should continue… indefinitely."

Somewhere in all of this, Sakuya found the steel within herself once more. She stopped herself from retreating every time one of Loki's languid paces brought him closer around the desk, and stood face to face with him, tilting her head up to meet his golden-yellow eyes. "The Allfather? You mean Kayaba," she said fiercely. "I'm no programmer, but I know most NPCs can't talk the way you do. They're just not that complex, not unless someone wrote their dialogue in advance—and you're arguing with me. Now enough of the in-character crap, who is it who is actually playing the role of Loki in this game? You've got to be a GM or something, you're wired up to a Nerve Gear somewhere in Japan with your life on the line just like we are, so why are you playing along with Kayaba's bullshit?"

"Your anachronistic protests grow tedious," Loki said, some of the vicious cheer slipping from his face. "Once you may have lived another life in Midgard, but you are here now, in Alfheim. This world is your home—"

"This virtual world," Sakuya said, determined not to gamely go along with this person's need to stay in character—or with the script if he really was a very complex NPC. "The product of Kayaba's imagination. It's nothing more than bits in a computer. Data projected into our minds by the Nerve Gear hardware."

"That is what it was to you in Midgard—" Loki began.

"Earth," Sakuya stated defiantly.

Loki blew right past the interruption; she might as well have not even spoken. "But your minds no longer live in that realm. The Allfather has manifested this as a facet of the true Alfheim that has existed all across time, just as the Loki you see before you now is merely a facet of the eternal existence I have held throughout the ages. And so manifested, it—and I—are as real now as the world from which you came."

"Bullshit," Sakuya said, abruptly reaching her fill. "Whoever you are, whoever you worked for on the outside, what you are now is a crazy person who cracked when we were imprisoned in here. And I'm done listening to your crazy talk." She turned.

Loki sharply spoke a single word, his voice suddenly reverberating inside her mind until she couldn't even be certain what he'd said. Her feet would not lift from the floor no matter how hard she tried and she could barely move otherwise; her eyes darted frantically around her HUD, but she couldn't see a status effect anywhere.

Distantly, she heard the door to the entry foyer lock.

"What the hell—" She could speak, at least. It wasn't Paralysis status; she would've simply crumpled to the ground. There were very rare moments in the game when a player would find their avatars frozen in place, unable to move themselves for a non-status-related reason; most often it was the recovery frame of a weapon technique. But she hadn't—

His voice was in her ear then, a deep rumble that penetrated her unwillingness to listen. Her back fought to arch despite the resistance to her every movement; the fear felt like he had a fist clenched around her heart, a heart that her avatar didn't even have.

"Forget what you thought you knew about reality," Loki growled, his voice like gravel bound in silk. "Forget the world you left behind. And forget this Kayaba person who set the Midgardian side of this in motion. He was but a mortal puppet of the Allfather, his miraculous toy merely a gateway to this world. He no more controls the fate of Alfheim now than a squirrel controls the tree in which it nests."

"Let me go," Sakuya begged, hating the sound of it but hating the feeling of helplessness even more.

"I am no human like you once were," he said, ignoring her pleas as if following a script. "I am no shadow puppet projected from Midgard, yearning to return to a weakening mortal body in a world slowly becoming forgotten by your fellow faekin. Nor am I like the petty, scripted automatons who populate this version of Alfheim and give it false color. I am Loki, and Alfheim is my playground now. And my time playing at leading you Sylphs has grown predictable and boring. You, like most of your kind, are too easily led."

She felt a jerk as her body was whipped around; she found herself suspended in mid-air a meter away from Loki with her arms spread wide. He had his hand held out before him and black energy swirling in his palm; every time his hand moved in the air, so did she, as if he were manhandling her remotely with no effort whatsoever. She had heard him speak no incantation, seen no spell cast—and they were in the middle of Sylvain; he shouldn't have been able to use hostile magic on her anyway!

Then she saw. His white cursor had turned red now, and she felt her entire body go cold and rigid with terror as she saw the nine HP bars curling up around and above his head, higher even than the glowing «Loki» centered above the dark crimson cursor.

Nine. Since each bar could represent any arbitrary number of HP, depending on a mob's level and classification, more than one bar usually indicated a boss of some kind with phases, changes in attack pattern, or something similarly significant. Even the gateway bosses thus far had no more than four HP bars, and more than that was only rarely seen on quest-related bosses that you weren't actually supposed to fight.

The chill deepened as that last thought sunk in. I've provoked an essential quest NPC who's capable of combat. If he enabled PvP in this room, he's going to kill me—and if I'm lucky it'll be by talking me to death.

"When the Allfather incarnated me here," Loki continued, "he granted me the freedom to test your kind as I saw fit, so long as the balance of the world was preserved." His scarred lips twisted in a smile. "Foolish, to ask such a thing of me. He should have known that my notion of balance is quite a different thing than his. The forces that govern this world are simple to manipulate, for one with a tongue such as I."

He swung his hand, dragging Sakuya uncomfortably across his desk and sending the chess pieces he'd been using as markers scattering in a spray across the floor. "The game has changed, lost child of Midgard, and now you are playing by my rules. It's time for your true grand quest to begin."

Sakuya forced herself to think. The change in Loki's cursor wasn't just cosmetic; he was actually engaged in combat with her—she'd lost a very tiny amount of HP when he'd slammed her into the desk. Even a mob shouldn't have been able to cause her to take damage within a safe zone… which meant that either there had to be some sort of plot-related "cutscene" suspension of the game engine's rules in effect right now, or else the owner had changed the permissions—

Sakuya froze, her eyes locked onto Loki's. Some kind of understanding seemed to pass between them.

She could see a system message notification beginning to flash in her peripheral vision, but she couldn't spare the attention to focus on it. She could hear a general commotion outside and banging on the door that grew in volume; the noise drew Loki's gaze to the side, though he did not turn his head. He simply stretched out his unoccupied palm as if holding a distant object in place. "I wonder what alarmed them so," he said mockingly. "And I wonder what they'll think when they come in here and see the disturbance you've created?"

Sakuya stared down into Loki's bearded, smirking face, trying to move any part of her, willing at least her arm to move. It felt as if she was fighting her way through a swimming pool filled with mud, every motion requiring incredible effort and slowed to a fraction of normal speed—the sluggishness was similar to the Delay status effect, but an order of magnitude more powerful. As her hand struggled towards her sword where it dangled uselessly from its straps, her captor's eyes drew a line across the diminishing distance between the two and he gave her a mischievous grin. "Let's find out."

In the moment that Loki clenched his outstretched hand, dismissing the energy knotted up there, she felt all of the resistance leave her body; she dropped as if she'd been suspended from strings suddenly severed. Her hand completed the action towards which she'd been devoting every iota of strength she had, snapping onto the hilt of her nodachi and whipping it out of its sheath in a lightning-fast horizontal motion that twisted her in the air.

Loki's grin never wavered. The moment her blade touched him, his avatar shattered into thousands of azure polygons the way a defeated mob's would have, each of them sparkling in the morning sun that streamed in through the windows and momentarily dazzling her. The force of her unresisted blow spun her all the way around as she spiraled to the ground with her robes fluttering, scattering fading blue motes of light in every direction. By the time she'd landed in a crouch, her long blade held so far out to the side at an angle that it nearly touched the ground, the particle effect raining around her had dispersed. There was no pop-up window, nothing congratulating her for what could only with biting sarcasm be called a victory.

No EXP, no items. And no Remain Light.

He was simply gone—as if he had never existed.

There was a metallic click from the locked door, which rapidly slid open with a loud bang and spilled a few other Sylph players into the room; it looked like they'd been applying force and hadn't expected it to open quite so readily. Their looks of surprise turned to shock as they took in the signs of a struggle and Sakuya's frozen follow-through posture. Chimiro was stuttering while what seemed like ten different questions all tried to force their way out at once, colliding along the way. "S-Sakuya, why a—wh-what the hell—?"

As she stood and carefully sheathed her nodachi, forcibly reclaiming some of her calm, she noticed she had more than one system message that had piled up while she was fighting with Loki. Before trying to respond to anyone's questions with answers she didn't have, she focused on the first one, bringing it briefly to the foreground of her HUD.

『06/05/23 07:08 JST — «Skarrip» has been defeated in combat, and «Sakuya» is now your «Faction Leader» until the next scheduled vote. Please congratulate her!』

Oh my god—

She blinked at the notification to close it and brought up the next one. 『Welcome, new «Faction Leader», and congratulations on your victory. The role you've taken on is one which holds great responsibility, but also the power to influence the course of the game. The next time you open your «Game Menu», you will notice a new top-level category: «Administration». This is where you, as a leader, will—』

"Sakuya!"

Sakuya's nerves felt like they had been stretched to the limit, broken, mended imperfectly, and then stretched again. It was one too many things at once in a string of days filled with such things, and the clamor before her from other distressed players, all demanding answers from her, was pushing her further still. The words seemed to swim before her eyes—

『—this «Tutorial Mode» will acquaint you with the basic functions of the «Faction Leader Menu», beginning with the essential—』

"Sakuya! What happened here?"

What could she tell them? Sorry to be a wet blanket, but the guy who's been leading us for the last six months turned out to be a really complex NPC wearing the shell of a dead player, and quite possibly the end boss. He calls himself Loki, King of the Jotnar, and I don't know why I'm still alive right now. But that's okay! I hit him once and he went poof.

By lunch, half the Sylph faction was probably already going to think she was a murderer, an usurper, an assassin. Best not to add lunatic to the list of descriptives paired up with her name. Her eyes remained fixed on the message window in her HUD, as if seeking refuge there from the necessity of dealing with the growing crowd of players at the door.

『—recommend that you take the time to study the relevant sections of the manual in detail, which have been hyperlinked below—』

"Sakuya," pleaded a woman who she didn't recognize at all. "What have you done?"

Sakuya squeezed her eyes shut for a moment; the sudden change in focus dismissed the message window. The nightmare of the last ten minutes was still real when she opened them again—the truth filled her vision with scattered chess pieces and the uncomprehending looks of the Sylphs who were still pushing their way into the room, most of them not daring to approach much further than that. Even while pressing her for answers, they gave her plenty of space—as if afraid that she'd do to them whatever she'd done to Skarrip, here in the heart of their own Safe Zone.

She had to say something. Anything. No, not anything—the right thing.

There was no going back now. Sakuya made a decision, then and there.

"What have I done?" she said finally, repeating the last question back to nobody in particular, in part to give herself another few moments to think and compose herself. She straightened her posture, rising to her full 175 centimeters, smoothed down her yukata, and adjusted her weapon so that it hung, sheathed, more properly behind her.

"I've dealt with a monster who would've destroyed us all."

·:·:·:·:·:·

There were many things that Argo liked about the virtual world, and in fact preferred over real life. The convenience of Alfheim Online's private messaging system, for example, was hard to beat—especially for someone who made her living by staying in touch with her contacts. Getting dressed and undressed was as easy as tapping items in your inventory or status screen, and simple habits of daily hygiene like brushing your teeth or washing your hands were unnecessary considering that the simulation's level of fidelity did not seem to include microbes.

But aside from the minor detail of being trapped in a death game where people were killing each other, Argo was especially vexed at the moment by one thing: it was impossible for a player to ignore their HUD. She could plug her ears, but the system notifications still made the same noise internally every time she received a PM. She could close her eyes—or in this case, pull a pillow over her face—but even if she afflicted herself with Blindness status, she would still see her HP gauge and the parade of new messages on her notification bar.

Which was really no help at all when she presently wished for the entire world to vanish and leave her alone so that she could wallow in how badly she'd fucked up.

Light invaded through her shut eyelids as someone else lifted the pillow away, and she immediately grasped blindly around her until she found another to replace it. That one, too, was taken from her, and when she opened her eyes she saw Thelvin towering over her, looking faintly amused.

Argo glared. "Fuck off," she said with as much eloquence as she could muster.

"I think I'll decline that invitation for the moment," the large black-haired clearer said with a smile. "Besides, it's Alicia who wants to talk to you."

"I'm ignoring her messages."

"Which is why I'm here."

Lacking any more loose pillows within easy reach, Argo threw an arm over her face. "Jesus Miyamoto Hisashi, have either of you ever heard of the concept of privacy?"

Thelvin let loose a snort. "Do you have any idea how amusing that complaint is, coming from you?"

Argo fumed silently. Thelvin had a point, and she didn't really like it. While she was trying to think of an appropriate response that would sidestep admitting she was being a hypocrite, she heard the door to her room open again. If her eyes hadn't been closed, she would've rolled them; she was starting to regret accepting Alicia's invitation to use the castle as her primary residence while she was in Freelia. It had seemed like such a great idea at the time—complete access to everything going on in the castle without having to sneak in or find an excuse to visit. What she hadn't counted on was that the "complete access" part worked in both directions.

"She still moping?" said Alicia's voice.

"Still," Thelvin said tersely.

"It's been all of half an hour since the vote," Argo complained, pushing herself upright and resigning herself to the fact that she wasn't going to be allowed to mope in peace. The look she gave her two harassers was about a step and a half short of lethal.

"And a lot has happened in that time," Alicia said, padding in and dropping herself into a sitting position onto the pillow bed beside Argo with her tail curled around her waist.

"You mean besides the worst imaginable outcome to the Salamander election, which was exactly what I told you would happen if we won that raid? Besides the fact that I pretty much helped make that happen by sticking my nose into everything?"

"Besides all that," Alicia said. "Didn't you read your PMs?"

"I'm ignoring them."

Alicia sighed. "Read them."

With a weak grimace of resignation, Argo did. It took some time—there was always a flood of information from her contacts after every leadership vote, and she'd been letting them pile up as soon as she learned that Corvatz had unseated Mortimer in the election. At first she was annoyed that Alicia hadn't given her any idea what she ought to be looking for, especially when the first half-dozen messages were largely repeating what she already knew.

Then she found what Alicia was referring to—it couldn't have been anything other than the sudden surge of messages from her Sylph contacts, considering the payload in those messages.

Argo stared at the PM window, despite the fact that she'd immediately memorized its contents; the words weren't going to change no matter how long she looked at them. Her ears were flat against her head, and she could feel the hairs on her neck standing up. "What."

Alicia nodded. "See what I mean?"

Argo was still staring. When she spoke, each word felt like it had to be forced out. "What in the mother of… what happened in Sylvain?"

"That," Alicia said, "is what we'd all like to know." She reached up and stroked the air with her left hand, opening her menu and setting a window visible. "About fifteen minutes ago, I got this message from Sakuya."

Argo leaned over and glanced at the window long enough to have the words in her head. She was aware that her jaw was hanging open enough to bare her fangs, and at the moment couldn't really manage to care.

「Please help me, Alicia. I know we haven't talked much since the beta, but I'm begging you, please. I need to talk to Argo. Things are really fucked up and I have no idea what's real anymore.」

"That was the first one," Alicia said, visibly bothered by the desperation in her friend's message. She used a fingertip to scroll her interface. "I asked her what was wrong, and what I could do. Here's the next."

「I just killed Skarrip, and I need to know who or what he is—was. The real him, I mean. All of our lives could depend on that answer. And if there's anyone who would stand a chance of knowing, it's The Rat. Now please, will you put her in touch with me?」

Argo looked up at Alicia, feeling more confused than she had when she'd read her own PMs. "Who or what?"

Alicia's slender shoulders shrugged. "Got me. I'm just passing along what she said. Do you know who Skarrip was?"

"I've got my suspicions," Argo said, not certain that she wanted to divulge all of those details quite yet. "There are rumors that he worked at Argus. But seriously, Allie, what the hell? I got a dozen messages in holy-crap-thirty-point-font telling me that Sakuya assassinated Skarrip in his own office and took the leadership of the Sylphs by force. Everything you and I both know about Sakuya and safe zones says that's complete bullshit. Is there anything you're not telling me?"

"Argo," Alicia said, the look in her golden eyes almost frightened, "right now you know everything I do about this. Probably more. I'd tell you to just PM her yourself, but she's stopped accepting messages from people who aren't on her friends list, and if the truth is anything even close to the rumors, I can't say I blame her for it."

"I can get ahold of her," Argo said. "But I've always done it through my network, not directly. I don't know that I wanna trust anyone as a middle-man for this."

As soon as the words were spoken, Argo realized that this left her with only one option. She stopped to review what she knew. Skarrip was dead—that at least had enough corroboration to be considered factual, regardless of the circumstances in which it had actually happened. And if Sakuya had killed him—which it sure sounded like she had—then she was now the Sylph leader. And Sakuya fervently, desperately, wanted to to talk to her.

Everything else was still smoke and vapor.

Argo stood up suddenly, wobbling for a moment as the pillow on which she'd been sitting shifted unsteadily under her feet. Thelvin's hand snaked out quickly and grabbed her wrist before she could slip, and let go as soon as she'd steadied herself.

"Argo?" Alicia said, standing a bit more carefully and following with her gaze as Argo made her way over to a bureau and began dragging items from it into her inventory window, each one going translucent and shimmering before disappearing.

"I'm going to Sylvain," Argo said as she stowed all the supplies she could carry without going over her encumbrance limit. "There's only one way I'm gonna get to the bottom of what just happened, and it isn't by sitting around here trading PMs."

"I'll go with you," Thelvin said at once.

"Thanks," Argo said, slashing at the air to close her menu. "But I don't need an escort for this one. I got no idea what kinda situation I'm gonna find in Sylvain, and I might need to be quiet and stealthy." She gave the much taller man a look up and down, eyes lingering on his plate armor. "You're… not."

Thelvin's shrug made her point with the susurration of his shoulder armor's metal plates. "Be that as it may, I'm coming anyway. In a worst case scenario, a tank might be the difference between life and death for you. And if we get there and find that the situation really does call for stealth, I can return and let you go on ahead."

Argo resisted the temptation to roll her eyes straight back into her head. She gave Alicia a look of entreaty, waving a hand at the air. "Can you make him not do the thing?"

Alicia snorted, folding her arms neatly under her bust. "I don't make Thelvin do anything. I ask him and he does."

"So ask him not to do the thing."

"No," Alicia said. "Because I kinda agree with him. Besides, if you do run into a patrol, having the head of our clearing group along will make you look a lot less like a spy, and a lot more like you're on official business."

Argo looked between Alicia and Thelvin, feeling very much like she was being unfairly double-teamed. "It's just Thelvin, right? He's not bringing his whole damn group?"

"If only I were right here and could answer for myself," Thelvin said with a quirk at the corner of his lips. "And no, it's just me. We don't really need a group; there are no mobs between here and there that are any kind of threat."

"Except the lynch mob that might be waiting for us in Sylvain," Argo said, heading towards the door. "But whatevs. It's not on me if you get yourself killed tagging along, Thel."

"I've already died once," Thelvin said, falling into step with her. "I don't plan on doing so again."

Plans, Argo thought darkly, are great when they work the way you expect them to. It was an uncomfortable thought on which to begin the long journey that lay ahead of her, but it was one that came from recent, bitter experience.

Argo was not, in her own opinion, often wrong—a faith in her wits that had been gravely shaken recently.

This was one occasion where she very much hoped that she was.

·:·:·:·:·:·

"Going somewhere?"

Tetsuo froze in place, hand halfway to his inventory screen. After a few beats spent like that, the translucent outline of the item that he'd been dragging there flickered once as the system assumed that he'd changed his mind about stowing the item in his inventory; the potion shimmered and reappeared in the open trunk in front of him.

He recognized the voice of his group leader, but even so he was still afraid to turn and look. But when he did, he saw only Heathcliff silhouetted in the doorway; the older man hadn't brought anyone with him. Tetsuo relaxed a little bit and turned long enough to give Heathcliff a bow of respect; his game menu bobbed in front of him as he did, invisible to the other man. "I'm sorry sir, but I think I need to go back to Arun."

"I imagine we will all return to Arun in the morning,"Heathcliff said, taking a step into Tetsuo's room and looking around. "Lord Corvatz plans on pushing hard to explore the new zone above the 25th gateway, and I'm told he plans on ordering our front-line clearers to permanently relocate there."

"That's not what I mean," Tetsuo said miserably. "I'm going to go stay with my friends. I don't want to be here once Corvatz remembers that I exist."

"Ah," Heathcliff said, tilting his head forward in acknowledgment. "I think I see the issue. You fear reprisals from a man who was harsh to you before, now that he is our leader."

Having his fears laid bare so bluntly did nothing to alleviate them. Tetsuo flinched at the mention of Corvatz's name, and nodded. "Yeah, that's pretty much it. Harsh? Come on, sir, the guy hates my guts. He all but threatened to kill Sasha if she wouldn't cooperate with us, and then it turned out the Caits and Sylphs hired her to help take the last boss. You remember what happened to a lot of the beta testers when Kibaou was leader? Well, Corvatz was one of Kibaou's people. What do you think will happen to me once Corvatz gets around to settling scores?"

"Nothing, I suspect," Heathcliff said with an almost infuriating calm. "Corvatz may have agreed with Kibaou's racial worldview, but he is not the fool that Kibaou was. He is, whatever his other flaws, a professional soldier. You are a valuable asset to my clearing group, Tetsuo. If you continue to be one, I doubt he will do more than glare in your direction. Especially since he will be quite busy with his new responsibilities."

"A soldier," Tetsuo repeated, finding the word uncomfortable to say now. "Is there going to be war again?"

The tall, solidly-built man continued to pace around the room, hands clasped at the small of his back. He stopped in front of a surrealist painting that had been part of the room's original decor; Tetsuo had never really cared enough to take it down or replace it. "I don't believe our leader has any immediate plans to renew all-out war against our neighbors, but I would expect there to be changes in our rules of engagement. Lord Corvatz makes no secret of his disdain for certain aspects of the Treaty of Arun." He shrugged. "If war comes, it will be fought. If not, then we will continue to clear. Either way, we shall do our duty."

"No sir," Tetsuo said to Heathcliff's back. "You'll do your duty. I don't feel like my duty includes killing people who aren't trying to hurt us."

"I see," Heathcliff mused, canting his head to look over his shoulder. His expression was inscrutable. "Duty, Tetsuo, is a very personal thing. It is not something that can be imposed upon a man from the outside—it is something that a man takes upon himself by choice. It means something different to all of us, and sometimes that meaning and its implications for the path before us are the most private thoughts we have."

Tetsuo wasn't sure exactly what Heathcliff was trying to communicate to him. There were times when he enjoyed his group leader's air of enigmatic mystery and penchant for speaking philosophically, but now was not one of those times—now he just wished he could get a straight answer. "So what do you suggest I do?" he asked, looking down at the open trunk and all of the gear still neatly stowed within it. He thought about closing his menu; the way it hung before him was distracting. But it was also ready in case he needed it.

A few footsteps brought Heathcliff over to where Tetsuo was standing, and he felt a strong hand rest briefly on his shoulder. "Whatever sense of duty you feel, and to whom, I suggest that it remain as I said: personal. The world does not need to know what dreams or loyalties drive you forward until your efforts are ready to bear fruit. More often than not, Tetsuo… the world, and those in it, will not understand."

"In other words," Tetsuo said with a touch of bitterness, "you're telling me to shut up and keep my head down."

One of Heathcliff's gray eyebrows rose a centimeter. "Take it as you will," he said. "But consider this: if Corvatz is relocating the clearing groups permanently to Arun, does that not bring you closer to your friends anyway? And with the inability of a faction leader to safely leave their home city, what do you suppose that means for you? Chances are you will see less of Corvatz than you ever have before; he will no longer be present on raids." Heathcliff looked down at his hand and let it drop from Tetsuo's shoulder, turning towards the doorway. "I will leave you to your thoughts. I hope that when we return to Arun, you will do so as a valued member of my group, rather than as a boy fleeing the shadows of the past."

Tetsuo wasn't sure quite how long he stood there before going to close the door to his room. When he did, he leaned back against it, his thoughts awash with conflict. He knew that every second he spent here was further opportunity for his fears to be confirmed, and despite Heathcliff's assurances he didn't know how he could bear living with that sword hanging over his head. The temptation to simply quit was overwhelming.

He knew that if he asked, Sasha would give him a place to sleep, and he could spend all his time going out with Sachi, Keita, and Sasamaru—at least, to the extent that the latter two could escape the obligations of their own clearing groups. They were his friends, his real-life friends, and he missed them terribly.

But they weren't his only friends. For all the teasing and gruff humor that passed between the members of his clearing group, they were the people he trusted with his life almost every day—and they trusted him with theirs. They'd fought at each other's sides for most of the last six months, and at this point he almost knew them better than he did his friends from riaru.

He could abandon the Salamanders. He could abandon Corvatz. But when he thought about abandoning Heathcliff, Denkao, Kagemune and the others in his group, the cold embrace of shame washed over him.

With the heavy weight of a final decision, Tetsuo slowly began dragging items from his inventory menu back to his storage trunk.

·:·:·:·:·:·

With a flanged screech the last mob burst into a twinkling cascade of evanescent blue fragments, which fell like colored snow to either side of Yuuki's extended sword. As soon as she unfroze from the end frame of her technique, she grinned and beat one set of wings to spin herself in the air and face her party members, flourishing her longsword with a sweep and a slash that Kirito thought looked awfully familiar. "Told you," she said.

"Okay," Kirito allowed with a grin of his own. "Three hits."

"It should've only taken one," Asuna said, her own wings bearing her from her support position up to where Kirito and Yuuki were hovering. "Aren't either of you even a little curious why? These are Rainbow Valley trash mobs. They shouldn't even con to us. Why are we even getting EXP from them at all?"

Kirito shrugged. He'd wondered that himself the last few times they'd had to stop to clear an aggro mob along the way, but he hadn't really thought much of it. "I haven't spent much time in this zone since the beginning of the game," he admitted. "And I haven't explored the entire thing. It didn't seem odd to me that there would be higher-level mobs spawning in places."

"Well it is," Asuna said, sheathing her rapier and reaching up to dismiss the window that had popped up at the end of the battle. "Our clearing group makes this run all the time, and we rarely have to stop and clear anything until we reach the Yggdrasil Basin."

"A raid group probably has enough combined character levels in it to scare off any trash mobs that might aggro a smaller group," Kirito replied, settling to the edge of one of the nearby massive brown mushrooms that littered the valley's cliffside. It was a welcome excuse to get out of the midday sun and rest his wings.

Asuna settled down to sit on the edge of the same giant fungus, pulling her legs up and hugging her arms around her knees. "Maybe," she said. "I just don't remember seeing that particular named mob here before."

"ALO is a lot like a living world sometimes," Kirito said, making a routine check of his equipment durability. "It supposedly has a pretty complex system handling everything on the back end, monitoring the economy and the mob ecosystems and keeping them in balance. It wouldn't surprise me if areas changed over time depending on the player activity there. Maybe it's adjusting in some way to the average character level of the people that spend time in this zone?"

Asuna hummed thoughtfully at the conclusion, scooting over to make room for Yuuki as she joined them. "I wouldn't really know about that sort of thing," she said. "I'm not really a computer person. I mean, I'm no dummy, I can use one just fine… I just don't really understand what goes into making a game like this."

"A whole lot of time and dedication," Kirito said with a grim set of his lips. "Kayaba devoted all of his free time for years to making Alfheim a reality. It was his life's project." At Asuna's odd look of skepticism, he hastened to explain. "I used to read everything I could about him. The few interviews he gave, the books he wrote, stories of his life, even the Nerve Gear specs and white papers."

"I don't know what those are, but okay."

"Technical specifications," Kirito said, trying to clarify the jargon he'd used without dumbing down the explanation so much that she might be offended. "I was kind of obsessed with the technology and with the man behind it." He closed the last status window he'd opened, satisfied with the condition of his gear. "Anyway, I guess I probably know as much about him as anyone here. This game, this world, was what he did. This was all he did."

"Such a waste," Asuna said quietly after a few moments.

Kirito didn't really understand what she meant by that, and it must have showed on his face.

"Do you have any idea what a miracle this is, Kirito?" Asuna made a broad gesture around her. "We're completely shut off from our real bodies, and we're experiencing a different world that doesn't really exist. There are so many things Kayaba could've done with this. Even just making it a normal, everyday game for one player would've been incredible! So why… why did he choose to do this? Why this death game, pitting everyone against each other like this?"

Kirito—at a loss for what to say—remained silent. Asuna looked back at him, and even if he hadn't seen a glimmer of wetness in her eyes, he would've known how upset she was from the way her voice cracked there at the end. "It's just such a waste," she said again, as if reinforcing the line of thought that wouldn't leave her alone. "A waste of all that creativity, of all these lives, of all this time and potential… why? What does he want? Is this just some big horrible social experiment to him?"

"I don't know," Kirito said finally. "But I think maybe he just wanted to see what happens. Didn't he say something like that during the tutorial?"

"I didn't really notice at the time," Asuna admitted, a slight flush coming to her cheeks.

"He said something about how his goal had already been achieved—that what he wanted was to create this world and then interfere in it."

"But why?" The question was so plaintive, it sounded like having Kayaba's scheme make sense to her was essential to her peace of mind.

Kirito shrugged. How could he explain it? For all that she'd adapted incredibly well to her circumstances, Asuna didn't really seem to be a gamer—at least, she hadn't been. She probably knew the word gamemaster, or had at least heard it, but he doubted she really understood what it meant—what kind of mentality went into the desire to create a world, run a campaign, and make an adventure immersive and exciting for the players.

If anything, what bothered Kirito was that he thought he understood Kayaba just fine. He himself had played countless RPGs and sandbox games, both local and multiplayer. He understood all too well that desire to create a world and make it real, and if anything he was surprised at how little direct hand Kayaba seemed to have taken in his own creation ever since launch day. As far as Kirito knew, the man wasn't actually running quests or manipulating the world in any obvious way—there was no way he could be everywhere at once. If he was actually playing the game as a player, he was keeping a low enough profile that no one suspected his true identity. Kirito knew that if it had been him instead of Kayaba, he'd have wanted to be personally running the most important quests and playing one NPC or another, pushing his multitasking skills to the limit.

What he didn't know was how to explain that mindset to someone who'd never touched a roleplaying game in their life—not without making himself sound like a sociopath.

When no reply seemed to be forthcoming from Kirito, Asuna glanced over at Yuuki and poked her in the side, making the younger girl squirm. "You're awfully quiet. Actually, you've been pretty quiet today in general. Everything okay?"

Yuuki's own shrug was not exactly an answer; she tried on a smile to accompany it. "I just don't think that guy's reasons really matter. I mean, why should we care what he wants?"

Kirito noticed that Yuuki hadn't actually answered the question she'd been asked. She had been unusually quiet ever since the incident with Prophet's gang, although he supposed that wasn't really that surprising—as far as he knew, that would've been the first time since the Salamander invasion that she'd been exposed to murder first-hand.

For all of her strength and vibrancy, Kirito had to remind himself that Yuuki was still a twelve-year-old girl. If he and Asuna were both cracking under the weight of everything that had happened, he couldn't even imagine how Yuuki must feel or what she must be dealing with. But when he looked at her again, she was wearing a genuine smile, albeit one tinged with sadness.

"It doesn't matter to me what Kayaba wanted," Yuuki said, a solemn note slipping into her voice. "All I can really do is keep my faith and be true to myself."

Asuna put an arm around the girl's shoulder. "It's that simple, is it?"

Yuuki leaned over far enough that she could look past Asuna and see Kirito, making sure he was included in the conversation while responding to her. "Isn't it?"

"I suppose you're right," Asuna said. "I guess in the end, I just want all of this to mean something. I can't bear the idea of treating it like a tsunami or some other natural disaster. I want to believe that there's something more to this world and our imprisonment here than the fact that it exists."

"It already does mean something," Yuuki said, leaning against Asuna's shoulder. "In this world I can be strong; I can do and see things I would've never had the chance to in the real world. And I met some wonderful people here." There was a brief pause. "I feel really bad that people are dying and everyone's trapped in here, but I'm glad that I get to be here with both of you. I think we should just try to help as many people as we can, and make the best of every day we have left."

Kirito himself was leaned over a little and looking in Yuuki's direction, so he was in a good position to meet Asuna's eyes when she turned to him. Her arm was around Yuuki's shoulders, but something in her smile seemed directed at him. "I like that idea."

There was an unfamiliar and slightly uncomfortable feeling in Kirito's chest, like it was going to swell up and burst if this kept up. He rubbed at the back of his neck, feeling a bit of heat on his cheeks. "Don't worry, Yuuki," he said. "One day we'll clear the game, and then no one will be trapped anymore. Then we can be friends in the real world, too, okay?"

The smile abruptly, unexpectedly, vanished from Yuuki's face as if a switch had been flipped. "Yeah," she said quietly. The smile returned just as quickly, but it had a certain forced quality to it now. "That'd be nice."

Before Kirito could ask what was wrong, Yuuki let herself slide off the edge of the giant polypore and caught herself with her wings as naturally as if she'd been getting up from a chair. "We should probably get going," she said, facing Asuna. "Kirito and I both have long trips ahead of us, and I'd like to get to Everdark before it gets too late."

Asuna opened her arms as Yuuki swooped in for a big hug, the two girls rocking back and forth for a moment. Yuuki gave her a kiss on the cheek and drew back, wearing that same half-wistful smile. Then Kirito had to brace himself as the younger girl flew up and gave him the same treatment, the sound of her wings briefly loud in his ears while she embraced him.

"We'll all keep in touch by PM," Asuna promised. "Come straight back to Parasel if you need anything or it's not safe, okay?"

"I'll be fine," Yuuki said, drifting slowly backwards without turning away from her two friends. "It isn't like the first month when the Sallies attacked… Everdark's a safe zone for me again. I just think it'll be easier to find clues and get people to talk if it's just me—if I'm just another Imp in the city."

"Mata na, Yuuki," Kirito said, bidding her farewell without making it into a goodbye. He was still a little puzzled by the reaction he'd elicited, but like most of Yuuki's such moments, it seemed to be a fleeting thing. "We'll all meet up again soon, hopefully with good news and information to share."

When Yuuki's bright violet flight trail faded, it left Kirito and Asuna alone on the edge of the large colorful mushroom, looking out across the mouth of the Valley of Rainbows where its waters spilled into the low wetlands that sprawled across Undine territory. The moisture which likely fed the fungus growing in the shadows of the cliffsides also fed the valley's namesake optical effects, and not for the first time Kirito found himself struck by the beauty of some of Alfheim's sights. He'd seen photos of impressive waterfalls and rainbows on the Internet back in the real world, but even the best of them seemed like pale, desaturated imitations of this place. Every color was more vibrant, every geographical feature taken to an almost caricatured extreme designed to awe the mind.

All things considered, he was reluctant to do anything to disturb this moment of peace.

Asuna was quiet for a time as well, though Kirito couldn't be sure if she had been as enraptured by the same sight or if she was bothered in some way by the abruptness of Yuuki's departure and shift in mood. Perhaps she—like him—was also content to soak up the peace that surrounded her and bask in a silence that was broken only by the distant roar of waterfalls and the intermittent cries of simulated wildlife.

Unfortunately, peace was not the only thing that was soaking into Kirito—all the mist in the air that helped give the valley its name was starting to dampen his clothing; it was getting a little chilly here out of the direct sunlight. And as little as he wanted to leave, Yuuki had been right—he had a long journey to Spriggan territory in the northeast, and he'd be wise to cut across the northwestern edge of Undine lands as quickly as possible so that he didn't have to explain himself to any unfriendly parties he might meet.

Asuna started slightly when he stood, looking up at him and then coming to her feet as well. "I guess you have to leave now, too."

Kirito nodded. "Spriggans aren't welcome in your territory, let alone in Parasel itself—it'd just be asking for trouble if I came with you."

Asuna's face clouded. "I'll talk to Diabel about that again while I'm there," she promised.

"It's okay, Asuna," Kirito said, not wanting to tread this ground again. "It'll be quicker if I head directly northeast instead of going east with you and then hooking north, anyway."

"It is not okay," she said crossly. "It's hypocritical to talk about how fake the racial divisions are and then turn around and ban an entire faction from your city, and I'm going to tell him so. It's not fair to you—to any of the Spriggans who aren't like your leader."

"All right, all right," Kirito said with hands raised in surrender, unable to stop himself from smiling a little.

"What's so funny?"

He shook his head. "Nothing, really… I just think it's interesting how nothing seems to get you riled up more than the idea of protecting someone else."

Asuna raised a single delicate blue eyebrow. "Is there something unusual about that?"

"Not at all," Kirito said, again giving her a smile that was sincere, if a bit bashful. "It's actually something I admire about you."

To Kirito's surprise, Asuna simply reached out and put her palm against his chest, holding it there for a moment. As heat rose to his face and he tried to think of how to respond to this unexpected gesture, she took a single step forward and leaned her forehead against his shoulder.

"Don't drop the party," she said.

"Asuna?"

She straightened a little, and when she looked up at him, Kirito found that her face was uncomfortably close to his. "Don't leave the party we're in, okay? I want the three of us to stay partied while we're apart like this, so we can all see each other on the map and know each other's status."

Another time, months prior, Kirito might have objected to this request—the loner in him would have chafed at the idea for sure. It wasn't as if he expected to need to join another party before the three of them were reunited, it was just… well, that was really the problem—he couldn't think of any reason not to do it. And he could think of more than a few reasons to agree, especially now.

"Okay," he said with a slow nod. "I'll send you a message once I'm done in Penwether. Then we can decide how to meet up again, and where to go from there."

The parting was like a slow-motion playback of someone slowly losing their grip on an edge—but without the panic of falling. Asuna slowly, with obvious reluctance to relinquish the contact, started to allow her hand to slip away from where it had rested on Kirito's overcoat, eventually hooking a finger behind the strap of his scabbard where it diagonally crossed his chest. She looked down and watched while the weight of her limp hand started to pull it down the length of the strap and away, as if mesmerized by the physics simulation that went into making the movement happen. When her hand dropped, she quickly caught his with it, and held it loosely while she began to back away. Each slow backwards step raised the tension between their hands, turning their arms into a rising suspension bridge spanning the growing gap between them, until the moment when only their fingertips still sustained the connection. When those too slipped away, their arms finally fell to their sides.

Kirito remained completely still throughout this, mind and heart both racing. He felt like he didn't dare move or speak, no matter how confused he was. He couldn't manage to come up with words that didn't sound lame in his head, and he was still in that state when Asuna raised her eyes and smiled at him.

"See you soon," she said. She took one more step back, off the edge of the mushroom and out into the open air, gracefully twisting as she tipped backwards and materializing her wings with an electric blue shimmer. The sweet, high-pitched sound of those wings lingered in echoes for a short time in her wake, leaving behind the fading blue afterimage of her flight trail arcing to the east.

Long afterwards, Kirito imagined that he could still feel the warmth of her hand where it had touched his. He flexed it a few times, almost expecting to see a colored glow there when he inspected it. The sensation lingered for some time, and only once that, too, had faded did he take to the sky and begin his own journey.

第2幕の終わり

END OF ACT 2


Author's Note 8/5/14: And with that, Act 2 of Fairy Dance of Death has come to a conclusion. Some plot threads have been resolved, some set in motion, but many questions remain—and those questions will not be left unanswered by the end of this story.

I have FDD planned as four such acts, which means that we are now at the halfway point of this story in terms of its length. I hope that the ending of this act strikes a good balance between setting up anticipation for what the future holds, while providing enough closure to weather the wait to come.

Yes, there will be a wait before you'll see anything posted for Act 3. I won't bother trying to predict how long it'll be, because it's pretty clear at this point that I'm terrible at estimating or anticipating that. As anyone who knows me or reads these author notes will be aware, my life has undergone an extraordinary amount of upheaval in the two years since I began writing this story. I ended a career and a relationship that had both spanned half of my adult life, found and then painfully lost the woman I loved more than words can describe, rekindled with a vengeance my passion for anime, moved twice, began a new career at the best job I've ever had, and countless other changes for both better and worse.

I won't bore you any further with details here—if you want to know more, I'll probably post about it on my personal web space at Ayashi, or on the Tumblr blog I've set up for FDD updates and general musing that I don't want cluttering up these author notes. The URLs for both can be found in my FFN author bio, for those who are interested.

Life is a process, and for the moment, my process requires some downtime. This is not goodbye, and it is not the end—I have a story to tell, and I won't quit until it is told. This is merely a necessary break so that I can recharge my batteries, regain some balance in my life, and work on the detailed outline of Act 3 without the self-imposed obligation of an ongoing arc or unresolved cliffhanger hanging over my head.

As always, let me know what you think in the reviews, and thank you all so much for your patient and loyal readership. Knowing that there are thousands of people out there who really want to know what happens next is part of what helps keep me committed to this path.

-Brandon

P.S.: I get a lot of people asking questions in reviews posted as Guests. As much as I'd love to answer these, I can't without updating a chapter or spamming my own reviews. So I'm going to take a shot at answering Guest questions on the FDD Tumblr (fairydanceofdeath is its Tumblr username, but go to my profile if you want the full link; FFN is stupid about URLs in stories).