The defeat of «Hrungnir the Impervious», the 25th Gateway boss, was a turning point—and so were Loki's emergence as an antagonist, Sakuya's acquisition of the Sylph leadership, and the discoveries unlocked by Sasha.

Alfheim is changing in ways both expected and not. The trio of Kirito, Asuna and Yuuki have gone their separate ways for the time being, each with their own individual quests.

Prophet is still out there... somewhere.


ACT 3


"While shared public spaces such as the streets of a city can be relied upon to have the same default set of permission as any other «Safe Zone», the rulesets of owned or rented spaces operate differently. Zones with secured access such as homes, workshops, or inn rooms can be modified at any time within the «Zone Permissions» submenu of their keyed owner(s) while that player is inside the zone . The settings which can be altered vary from location to location, and range from allowing or prohibiting duel requests or spellcasting all the way up to permitting PvP or PvE combat. For the purposes of game balance, any ruleset changes are immediately broadcast via system notification to all players currently within the affected zone..."

Alfheim Online manual, «Zone Permissions»

6 May 2023: Day 182 - Morning

Sakuya liked her life neat and tidy; chaos was death to her ability to focus. In the beta she had eventually conditioned herself to deal calmly with the haphazard spectacle of combat, and her six months trapped in the death game had gone a long way towards turning it into just another job—but she still found disorder and noisy crowds unpleasant at best.

There was a reason for this. In college she had been paired with a roommate who was something of a clutterbug, and no amount of gentle prodding or acerbic comments would get Marisa to pick up after herself. The disarray made her feel out of control of her environment in a way her family's well-ordered home never had, and that feeling built up stress and made it impossible for her to fully concentrate on her studies. The next roommate had exchanged one type of chaos for another; that one had been a social butterfly who liked to bring her friends back to the far-too-small dorm room to hang out—loudly.

So when she graduated and moved on, she committed herself to never living with a roommate again; she'd learned her lesson. Her apartment back in Japan was a study in minimalism, nearly devoid of unnecessary things beyond her penchant for expensive clothing. Said clothing was, like everything else she possessed, neatly and carefully put away in its place at all times. Having everything around her quiet and in good order was calming.

However, she had learned one more lesson from the second roommate: there came a point where the surrounding noise and chaos became so overwhelming that it circled back around on itself and elevated her to a state that was almost zen-like. It was not a state of peace, precisely… it was a state of detachment, like that of a person who has endured so much that they become numb to it. Her sister had once colorfully referred to it as having no fucks left to give. The phrase was in English; she'd had to look it up on the Internet and had been very amused at the explanation and the sheer volume of accompanying pictures.

It was that state in which Sakuya now found herself, and there was nothing at all amusing about it. The cacophony of distraught and insistent voices which followed her attempt at explaining the situation had grown to a point where it became a dull buzz in her ears, and eventually she closed her eyes and tilted her head back, letting it wash over her as she tried to reclaim her calm. She could feel the warmth of the sun on the left side of her face, and she imagined that warmth seeping into her and purging her of fear and agitation.

When she opened her eyes again, she spoke only one word—and she spoke it so quietly, so softly, she doubted anyone heard it over their own voices. "Enough."

Ironically, it was that low utterance that got results where nothing else had. One by one the multi-sided arguments and demands trailed off as the speakers realized that she'd said something, and that they hadn't heard it. A dozen pairs of eyes in various shades of green and brown turned towards her if they hadn't been on her already, and a few beats of silence settled in the room. Sakuya stepped into that silence before the questions could begin anew.

"I realize that you're all upset. But use. Your. Brains. Now look." She drew an invisible line in the air with her right hand to open her system menu, the motion causing several Sylphs to flinch as if they feared she was about to do to them whatever she'd done to Skarrip. The new administrative option in her menu threw her for a moment, but she disregarded it and deftly navigated until she reached the Zone Permissions submenu, setting it visible and spinning the display so that it faced the others.

It had been a calculated risk, since she hadn't actually had the chance to check what the settings for this room were. She was prepared to wing it no matter what she saw; there were arguments she could try making either way. But there it was in the plain block lettering of ALO's UI. «PvP Combat: Disabled». Skarrip had had the authority to change that setting for a room that he owned, and a faction leader owned their own office. He hadn't changed it—she would've been notified if he had. The result still confused her for a moment; she was fairly certain she remembered losing a little bit of HP during her struggle with Loki. She pushed the stray thought aside quickly.

"Look," she repeated, panning her eyes across everyone present, and tapping her finger at the air right behind the translucent window. "Take a good, hard look and think. This room is a Safe Zone. It is completely, utterly, and totally one hundred percent impossible to reduce another player's hit points in this room outside of a duel."

"Then how—"

"I'm getting to that," Sakuya said, interrupting Chimiro and pressing onward. She knew that the administrative assistant had truly liked his faction leader, and that the day-to-day organizational minutiae of the faction had been his responsibility, not Skarrip's. He was well-respected; she was going to need him—and that meant she had to get him on her side.

"It is impossible for a player's HP to go down in a Safe Zone outside of a duel," she repeated for everyone's benefit, driving the point home. "Yes, I killed Skarrip. I challenged him to a duel because he committed a horrible crime, and he let me do it."

"Why—"

The question had come from what seemed like everyone at once, and she held up a hand palm-out. "Why? I don't know. I honestly do not know what the fuck was going through his head. Maybe he was trying to atone somehow, retain some shred of honor. But the fact is, I could not have done it unless he allowed it to happen. Does anyone here think there is any other possibility?"

Her father was an attorney, and there was a phrase Sakuya had heard more than once from him: never ask a witness a question to which you do not already know the answer. She was taking another risk here by inviting them to use their imaginations, but she wanted them to really think this through—to stop reacting emotionally and think.

Her answer was more silence—some of it sullen, some of it thoughtful, but all of it uncomfortable. She nodded. "That's what I thought. Now—"

"What was his crime?"

Chimiro again. The short, stocky man was among the sullen ones; he was not going to be easy to win over. She met his eyes. "I will discuss that with you privately," she said. "Because you do need to know. But it is something that is not ready to be public yet—it could have enormous political consequences."

Politics were something Chimiro understood; she could see his expression change slightly at this revelation. He nodded slowly, and turned to face the small crowd just inside the doorway. "I'm very sorry," he said. "I know you are all upset and desperate for answers, but could I ask you to please give me a few minutes alone with… with Lady Sakuya?"

"Are you going to be safe alone with her?" That idiotic question came from a young woman near the back; Sakuya couldn't see much more than her face and the twin blonde ponytails that draped behind her ears. She fought back the urge to roll her eyes.

Chimiro glanced once at Sakuya, making her very glad that she'd resisted the urge. "As I am unlikely to consent to a duel invitation, Gwellen, I think you need not worry. No matter the circumstances, we must all live with the fact that Lady Sakuya is now the leader of the Sylphs. Even if she could harm me, I don't see what she might gain from doing so other than provoking further animosity. Now please, leave us for now—and try to avoid spreading rumors until we know the facts. I'd appreciate it if you all kept the details to yourselves for now."

I'm sorry I ever thought of you as a witless bureaucrat, Sakuya thought to herself. She glanced around the room from corner to corner, and then briefly regretted it as she looked to the east and was badly dazzled by the morning sun. She quickly faced the opposite direction and waited for her vision to clear while Chimiro ushered the others out, frowning at the spots and distortion in her field of view. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut for a moment, then relented when she realized that it wouldn't have any effect on what was essentially an optical effect applied to her avatar.

At last Chimiro slid the door shut behind the last Sylph to leave the room; he paused there for a moment with his fingers on the handle, head bowed slightly. When Sakuya was about to speak, he turned and looked over his shoulder. "Wait please," he said quietly.

Sakuya held her tongue. Perhaps a minute passed; when it did, he faced her and took, then let out, a deep breath. "They're gone," he said, walking slowly towards her until only a few meters separated them. "But you can't put them off forever. Five minutes ago, every Sylph in Alfheim will have received the same system message we did. Rumors will spread—are undoubtedly already spreading. And whatever the truth is, the rumors will be far worse."

Sakuya couldn't stop herself from wincing. "I know."

Chimiro tilted his head up to look her in the eyes. His gaze was unwavering and hard. "Yes, I expect you do. So tell me what it is Lord Skarrip did that compelled you to murder him, Sakuya."

This was not the time for hesitation or hedging. There were things that she knew she couldn't tell Chimiro—things that would brand her as insane at best. Loki. The thought came and went; she banished it from her mind, lest she let any part of it slip. But there was plenty of truth to go around, and those truths ought to be enough on their own merits. "Skarrip," she said, refusing to grant the man the pretentious title he no longer held, "hired assassins who murder children."

"Preposterous," Chimiro snapped immediately.

"I wasn't finished," Sakuya said, folding her arms under her bust. "There's a Puca woman in Arun named Sasha—"

"Yes, she runs the orphanage. Lord Skarrip spoke of her."

Sakuya tried not to be irritated at yet another interjection. "She has somehow decoded the language that is used for magic spells in ALO. For reasons I don't fully understand, Skarrip wanted her dead. He said something to the effect that what she'd discovered was too useful—his words, not mine—that he wanted no other faction to gain her knowledge or assistance. So he hired an assassin to take her out. Except that she wasn't where he'd expected her to be—at the last minute, the Caits brought her along on the raid. So instead of her, Skarrip's assassins killed one of her children—a ten-year-old Salamander boy named Robert."

Chimiro's mouth jogged soundlessly before he found his voice. "But that… no… Lord Skarrip would not have… I mean… surely a child's death was not his intent—"

"It doesn't matter what his intent was, Chimiro!" Sakuya said, voice rising before she got it under control again. "Don't you get it? He hired assassins. He hired them to kill a woman whose only offense was being smarter than you and I put together. That in and of itself is bad enough! And surprise, surprise—when you hire killers, they end up killing someone. Do you think the collateral damage mattered to Skarrip, as long as the people dying weren't Sylphs?"

This time when Sakuya paused to gather her words, there was no interruption. Chimiro's face was devoid of expression in the way only someone who is tightly controlling themselves can be. "So yes, Chimiro, I killed Skarrip. I killed him because what he did was not only horrible and amoral, it's put all of our lives at risk. What do you think is going to happen if Mortimer finds out that the leader of the Sylphs hired a Spriggan to kill a Salamander child? What do you think would happen if the rest of the factions found out?"

Chimiro's expression was no longer under control—he had gone completely pale, something that was impossible to miss in the harsh sunlight beaming in through the eastern bay windows. Even if none of her other arguments had penetrated, she was sure that the political angle would get through to him. The possible consequences scared the hell out of her, too.

"I…" Chimiro's voice was slightly hoarse; the man's brown eyes dropped towards the floor. "This is difficult to believe."

"I have witnesses," Sakuya said, pressing the advantage while she had it. "Clearers from three different factions drove off the assassins before they could kill anyone else. Sasha herself will attest to the incident."

"But what of Lord Skarrip's involvement?"

"I'm glad you asked," Sakuya said, leaning back and seating herself on the front edge of Skarrip's—no, her—desk. This was her final play, and she was painfully aware of just how big of a gamble it was. "You see, I'm not the only person who learned about Lord Skarrip's crimes—nor was I the first. There is one other who knows, and it is someone whose testimony you will find impossible to dismiss. Someone who told me the truth when he found out, and did so at great risk to himself."

She turned and looked towards the western end of the room then, smiling with acidic sweetness at an extremely faint, shimmering outline that she had spotted earlier and could now make out much better than when she'd been waiting for her sun-dazzled vision to return to normal. "Isn't that right, Sigurd?"

The effect concealing the hidden figure began to disappear in rapidly-eroding patches, revealing the avatar underneath as if the transparency was water evaporating quickly from the surface. Sigurd's footsteps brought him within a few strides of Sakuya and Chimiro as the last of the effect dissipated, and he looked alternately at each of them with an expression that was somewhere between wary and furious. "How," he seethed, "did you know I was there?"

"Transparency isn't invisibility," Sakuya said, one hand planted on her hip as she regarded one of her least favorite people in the world. "It caps out at what, somewhere around fifteen percent opacity? Most of your texture was lost against the background, but I could still see a distortion around the edges." She allowed herself a slight smirk, relishing the look on his face. "As for knowing it was you… even if I didn't recognize your profile, you had to have been there for at least three or four minutes, and you weren't in any hurry to get out of here so you had duration to spare. That means incanting the spell at mag seven, minimum. I don't know many people with Wind that high who were hanging around here."

"I get it," Sigurd said with a hint of a glower to his tone. "You never were stupid."

"No," Sakuya said. "Nor am I a murderer." She tilted her head to regard Chimiro, who was only then managing to suppress his shock and surprise. Although she directly addressed the administrative assistant, her words were meant for Sigurd's ears as much as his. "I didn't come here planning to kill Skarrip, Chimiro. I came here to confront him. But what I said to you about him hiring assassins who killed a child is the truth. And Sigurd knows that as well."

When she turned back to the other Sylph clearer, she fixed her eyes on his and held that gaze, purging even the slightest trace of weakness or uncertainty from her face by effort of will. His lips were pressed into a fine line, but she could see his jaw working around slightly—as if he was having a hard time not saying the things that came to his mind.

Be smart, Sigurd, she thought fiercely. For once in the time that I've known you, show some goddamn sense. I could've easily thrown you under the bus here.

"Is that true?" Chimiro asked, his round face still ashen. Sakuya could sympathize; his world must be falling apart around him as much as hers had.

Sigurd's gaze did not leave Sakuya's for some time—long enough that she wasn't sure if he was even going to answer Chimiro. The longer the staring contest went on, the more she began to worry that Sigurd was going to be stupid enough to deny it—whether out of allegiance to a man he thought dead or simple hatred for her; it was impossible to tell. At last his narrowed eyes drifted to the side where Chimiro was standing. "It's true," he said with obvious reluctance. "Lord Skarrip did order this thing done."

It took every bit of self-control Sakuya possessed to not sigh in relief then. Chimiro, on the other hand, looked as if he'd been struck in the forehead with a polearm. His knees wobbled slightly, and he very nearly went to them before straightening himself and swallowing audibly. "If I…" He coughed slightly. "If I had not known both of you for half a year, I'd suspect the two of you of colluding in Lord Skarrip's murder in order to seize power. I am still not entirely convinced. But Sigurd has always been loyal to our leader, and I cannot imagine him admitting that trees have leaves if it was you who'd asserted it so—or vice-versa. For the two of you to agree on anything…"

"Yes," Sigurd said darkly, forest-green eyes flitting back to Sakuya. "It is quite the singular event."

"Chimiro," Sakuya said, reaching out and briefly resting a hand on the shorter man's shoulder. "You respected Skarrip, and this all must be a terrible shock to you. I need you to know that I didn't come here with the intent of killing him. The fight that ended his life was his choice—if it hadn't been, it could never have happened at all in a Safe Zone."

Chimiro nodded, the motion jerky. "I accept that. It's just…"

"I know," she said. "But now I need you to move past what's happened and pull yourself together. I need you out there right now doing damage control."

"I have to tell them something," Chimiro said. "But if word of what Lord Skarrip did gets out… you're right; it would put all of us at risk."

"Skarrip was a larper," Sakuya said, drawing and ignoring a frown from Sigurd. "I know that there were plenty of rumors about how much of a grasp he still had on the real world—rumors that not many people took too seriously because it didn't seem to stop him from being an effective leader. Start by telling the crowd outside… tell them that we learned Skarrip had been plotting to sabotage the clearing efforts because he no longer wanted to leave the game."

Chimiro frowned. "As much as I fear the political ramifications of the truth coming out, I'm not sure I find the idea of outright lying to everyone much more appealing."

A thought suddenly struck Sakuya right between the eyes. She couldn't understand why she hadn't seen it earlier. What she's discovered is far too useful to allow it to spread, Loki had said when he was still Skarrip. At the time she hadn't fully understood the comment, and had assumed he'd meant he wanted to keep her research out of the hands of the other factions. But that had been Loki talking. The interspecies psychodrama in this world has provided me with no end of entertainment thus far, he'd said, and I desire that should continue… indefinitely.

Oh my God, Sakuya thought. "It's not a lie," she answered. "I think that was exactly why he wanted Sasha dead—because her research could have helped everyone clear the game that much faster. Her approach to magic was essential for beating the 25th gateway boss… and I don't think that will be the last time we need her knowledge to progress, either." When she looked at Sigurd then, even he was wearing a horrified expression. "I don't think Skarrip ever intended to leave the game—or for anyone else to."

"Then why allow you to kill him?" Sigurd demanded.

Sakuya shook her head. "I wish I had an answer for you. My guess? Because he was off his rocker. He's been getting worse, and you both know it. Maybe he was so delusional he didn't really think he'd die. Maybe a dramatic abdication was exactly what he wanted for the role he was playing."

Chimiro absorbed this in silence. "Very well," he said once he'd gathered his thoughts and come to a decision. "I will speak to the others. For the time being, I do not suggest leaving this room—let the immediate uproar fade a bit. I will return and let you know what the mood of the city is like."

"Thank you, Chimiro," Sakuya said as she bowed low and remained that way without looking up. She did not raise her head again until she heard the door to the office slide shut once more.

With mild annoyance, she noted that there had only been one set of receding footsteps; Sigurd remained in the room with his arms crossed, an unreadable but dark expression on his face.

"You're still here," Sakuya remarked.

"How observant of you," Sigurd said.

"Why?" she asked as she circled the large wooden desk. Her weapon and its sheath shimmered on her back and then disappeared as she unequipped them before settling heavily into the swivel chair behind the desk. It had been large enough to conceal Skarrip from her view when turned away; it nearly swallowed her when she sat in it.

Sigurd didn't answer for a few moments. She could almost see the thoughts racing behind his eyes, although she couldn't begin to imagine what they were. "Your story," he said quietly, "doesn't add up." He took a few steps towards the desk and faced her across it, leaning slightly forward. "You lied to Chimiro."

Sakuya lifted an eyebrow. "Of course I did. The alternative was telling him that you were the one who hired Prophet on Skarrip's orders. Be grateful that the satisfaction I'd get from outing you for what you did is outweighed by your usefulness as the leader of our clearing groups."

"That's not at all what I meant," Sigurd said, eyes dropping to the mess on the desk. He flicked one of the overturned chess pieces with his forefinger, sending the pawn skittering across the desk. It almost landed in Sakuya's lap; she snatched it out of the air before it could. "You didn't defeat Lord Skarrip in a duel."

Sakuya busied herself examining the piece in her hands while she tried to figure out how to respond to Sigurd's challenge; it was entirely too perceptive and close to the truth for her liking. In real life, the wooden chess piece would've been scratched or even broken from the punishment it had taken. Its 3D model was unblemished; she doubted the item had enough durability to warrant a damage skin. Glancing back up at Sigurd, she saw that he was still staring at her intently, waiting for an answer.

"I'll humor you," she said, flipping the pawn back towards him. He deflected it disinterestedly with the back of his hand, not even looking as it clattered to the floor. While they locked eyes, she could hear the faint tinkle of the piece shattering as the last of its minimal durability was exhausted. "How else could I have killed him here in his own office, if he didn't consent to it?"

"I don't know," Sigurd said. The admission was almost stunning; it worried her that he was willing to make that concession. "But it wasn't a duel. There was no Winner notification in hanging in the air. That window doesn't disappear that quickly."

Shit, Sakuya thought, fighting to keep the alarm off her face. The idea of a duel had been the only thing she could come up with that fit within Alfheim's known game mechanics, but it was only afterwards—still in the middle of everything—that she'd begun to realize how many holes were in that story. She'd hoped no one who had ever actually seen a duel had been present; she was fairly sure Chimiro had never even seen PvP combat at all. "Fine," she said. "So what do you think happened?"

"I said I don't know!" Sigurd snapped suddenly, slamming a fist down on the desk and making all of the scattered markers and pieces jump. "Damnit Sakuya, what in the hell happened in here? There was no duel, so don't bother trying to come up with an explanation for that. But it should've been impossible to PVP in this room otherwise!" He straightened and jabbed his index finger towards the entrance to the spacious office. "There were maybe ten seconds between the time that the system notification went out and the time that door unlocked itself. What the hell did you do with Lord Skarrip's Remain Light?"

It was at that point that Sakuya lost her composure. Of all the little details that had been so wrong about this entire encounter… she'd been so fixed on the way Skarrip had transformed into an NPC and then a mob, it hadn't struck her as out of place that he'd shattered into polygons rather than combusting into a Remain Light. Only players became Remain Lights, and whatever Skarrip once was… he hadn't been a player when she'd struck him. Her jaw hung open slightly, and for a few moments all she could do was stare at Sigurd, eyes wide.

Sigurd didn't give her a chance to recover. "You're hiding something, Sakuya. Something bigger than Lord Skarrip's murder. I didn't have to cover for you with Chimiro—who do you think he would've believed if I'd told him you were lying? The leader of our clearing groups, Lord Skarrip's most trusted field man? Or the woman who killed him?" Sigurd's lips twisted into contempt as he planted his palms on the desk and loomed over it. "You owe me. All I have to do is go to Chimiro and tell him that I only lied because I was afraid of what you'd do. And I will do it if you don't come clean about what the fuck happened in this room."

If there was one thing to which Sakuya had never responded well, it was blackmail. The threat put steel back in her, and she stood from the chair and fixed Sigurd with cold fury. "A word to the wise, Sigurd," she hissed. "Don't play your trump card at the beginning of the game. You might well be able to destroy any credibility I have left by telling stories to Chimiro. But now I'll know it was you who did it. In fact, if anything like that ever happens… you can bank on the fact that I'll simply assume it was you, whether it was or not. And guess what happens then?"

"Spare me your—"

"Shut up and listen," Sakuya said flatly. "I'll make this as plain and simple as I can: burn me, and you burn with me. Whether or not I have credibility, I still have the ability to exile you. And I will."

"Which sends an announcement to the entire faction," Sigurd said. "You will never be able to leave this city alive if you do that."

"Whereas you won't be able to enter it alive," Sakuya said. "Or even come close to it. Your cursor will be red to the NPC guards."

"Only until the next election," Sigurd said smugly. "You think the next faction leader won't reverse that?"

"I'm sure they will," Sakuya said. "But by then it won't matter. Because the next thing I will do is tell Argo that you were the one who hired Prophet and caused Robert's death. Perhaps no one here will believe me… but she will. And if that information goes out to The Rat's network… the whole world will know." She drew a finger across her neck in an unmistakable message. "You'll be a walking dead man, Sigurd. You won't be able to step one pixel outside of a Safe Zone without someone trying to take your head."

Sakuya then had the pleasure of watching Sigurd's smug expression evaporate immediately into stark fear before his face went blank. "You bitch."

"I'll take that insult as an admission of defeat," Sakuya said, slowly lowering herself back down to the seat so that the shaking in her legs wouldn't betray her. "Get a grip on yourself, Sigurd—it doesn't have to play out that way. The only way I'm going to pull that trigger is if you fuck me over first. Do your job as a clearer and don't try to betray me, and none of that happens."

Never in the time she'd known him had she seen Sigurd as angry as he plainly was then. His fists clenched and loosened repeatedly at his sides, and his jaw trembled with helpless rage; his glare could have killed. "No," he said with finality. "I'm calling your bluff. You still haven't explained what went on in this room that ended Lord Skarrip's life, and if I don't get an answer, I'm bringing us both down. Exile me and I'll send a message to Chimiro telling him you're a fucking liar and a murderer. Your victory will be short-lived and Pyrrhic."

"Tell Chimiro, and I exile you and get The Rat to sign your death warrant," Sakuya retorted.

"So be it," Sigurd said coldly. "This is your last chance, Lady Sakuya. You can give me the truth of what happened here this morning. Or you can keep your secrets and start a war that kills us both and destroys the Sylphs."

Sakuya wasn't quite certain how long they stared at each other after that, eyes locked. An avatar's eyes did not dry in the air; a player had no need to blink and no reflex for doing so. Most people did anyway out of a lifetime of habit, but those who knew it was unnecessary could hold a staring contest indefinitely. More than once she was tempted to open the Faction Leader's administrative menu and put an end to the mess that her world had become—to trade a future of walking on the edge of a blade for the certainty of closure, even if that closure meant her death.

She couldn't. And as the moments dragged on, she realized that it was pride as much as anything that was pushing her to that point. She couldn't tolerate the idea of giving in to Sigurd. It felt like surrender; the prospect almost nauseated her.

"You're not going to like this," she said slowly.

"Of that I have no doubt," Sigurd grumbled.

"You're not going to believe it either."

"Try me."

Sakuya leaned close enough to the desk so that she could reach across it, resting a fingertip on the white king—one of the few pieces still standing upright, untouched by the earlier struggle. A gentle push tipped it over, and in its place she stood up the black king. "Tell me, Sigurd," she said carefully, "how much do you know about Norse mythology?"

He scoffed, giving her a withering look. "More than you, I'd wager," he said disdainfully. "My name is taken from it."

Sakuya smiled up at him across the desk. There was not a shred of humor or warmth in the expression. "Good. That gives us a head start."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Asuna had to force herself to slow down. It wasn't that she feared running into any aggro mobs that she couldn't handle… it was more a matter of dignity. A feverish sensation of embarrassment mixed with fear had filled her since she'd flown away from Kirito, and every time she thought about how she'd just behaved she wanted to squeeze her eyes shut to blot it out—but doing so only made the memory more vivid against the backdrop of her eyelids, framed by her HUD. For the last several minutes she'd cut a bright blue line across the sky at top speed, flying as fast as she could like a motorist who'd panicked and put their foot to the floor—perhaps in the hope that the chill of the wind blowing past her face would cool her burning cheeks.

What on Earth possessed you? she demanded of herself. She'd been standing in front of Kirito, talking with him as they prepared to go their separate ways for the time being. He'd smiled in that genuine, boyish way of his, and just when she'd been about to take what he'd said the wrong way, he'd completely turned her around by telling her that the very thing about which she was getting defensive was something he admired about her.

And then she'd touched him.

Even now the thought filled her with embarrassment. It hadn't been a squeeze of the shoulder or anything modest like that. When he'd said what he'd said, it had caught her completely off-guard, and she'd felt an overwhelming surge of… something. A pull, almost gravitational in nature. Before she'd really known what she was doing, she'd found herself leaning against him, and from somewhere deep within her had come her plea for him not to drop the party.

Asuna at least had some idea where that plea had come from: fear. For a moment—one single, terrible, paper-thin moment—she'd felt an awful sense of foreboding, a dread of what would happen if Kirito left their party and something happened to him. Prophet was a Spriggan, and Kirito was headed to that territory—it wasn't completely out of the realm of possibility that they'd encounter each other there. She didn't think he could handle Prophet alone, but it wasn't as if him staying in the party would do them any good if that happened—not with her almost a hundred kilometers from Penwether.

There he would die… and she might never even know it had happened. Even now the stray notion filled her with such a sense of desperate aversion that she had to force herself to shift her train of thought away from it.

That touch. His avatar wasn't a real body, but beneath her palm she'd been able to feel warmth seeping through the lightweight gray leather breastplate that Kirito wore over his tunic, a simulated warmth from simulated body heat. She'd known it was time for her to go, but it had been an inner struggle to make herself do so. With each passing moment she'd managed to back away just a little bit, maintaining the contact as long as she could until at last she'd caught his hand.

On that touch, a parade of scenes had flashed through her mind—memories of times they'd encountered each other by chance, the few meals they'd shared, the things they'd accomplished together, the times they'd saved each other's lives… each scene had felt like a heartbeat that she would've sworn she could hear in her ears and transfer to him through her fingertips. The rational part of her knew this was silly—the simulation of their bodies didn't extend as far as imitating a pulse, and it had taken her a long time to get used to the omission of that simple detail.

In the wake of that momentary recollection, right before her fingertips slipped away from his, she remembered one thought clearly entering her mind—a thought that had come close to surfacing a number of times before, but which she'd vehemently denied and never allowed herself to consciously contemplate until now: I'm in love with him. The thought sent a shock through her from head to toe even now, one which at that time she'd been certain he'd notice. Before her resolve could break she'd looked up at him, brought a smile to her face that was actually genuine, and said goodbye.

And then she'd turned and fled as fast as she could, before he could see the heat rising to her cheeks.

"I'm in love with him," she repeated aloud to the air rushing past her, if only to hear it in her own words from her own voice.

It took her a beat to realize that the impact that stunned her next was physical, rather than the shock of hearing those words come from her mouth. She spun and tumbled in the air, a small portion of her HP depleted by a collision with… something solid. Regaining control of her flight, she righted herself and spun around in a tight circle until she laid eyes on the humanoid avian mob that she'd run straight into while deep in her own thoughts.

Stupid stupid stupid! She didn't allow herself anything more than that brief mental recrimination, her rapier whipping clear of its sheath while she focused on the mob for the brief span it took to pop its cursor and name; the words «Bonemoor Harpy» hung above its head right below a light crimson diamond.

The sight made her frown for a moment. The cursor color indicated that the mob was lower level than her—but not by much; long practice let her estimate its level as somewhere in the mid-to-high twenties. This wasn't the first time today that they'd encountered mobs that weren't level-appropriate for the zone they were in, and the pattern was starting to worry her.

Harpies are dungeon mobs, she thought. I've only ever seen them in this area underground, never in the open sky. And this outdoor zone caps out at level nine!

Then she had no more time for analysis. The harpy swooped towards her, beginning to incant a Dark Magic spell in its raspy voice. Asuna's incantation was quicker; she held out her free hand and used the Defensive Shield spell in its maintained form for the brief moment it took to absorb the debuff, then clenched her fist to avoid wasting any further MP. Two sets of razor-sharp claws slashed through a space where she was no longer as she surged backwards in a burst of speed from her wings. In mid-dodge, she leveled her rapier in the opening motion of her «Piercing Barrage» technique; the system assist immediately reversed her direction while the mob was still frozen in its recovery frame. As she shot forward, her weapon arm turned into a three-hit blur that drilled glowing red holes in the harpy's chest, drawing an offended caw from the creature.

Now she was the one frozen in a recovery frame, but it was only half a second—and she'd been counting on the brief Stun status effect at the end of «Piercing Barrage» to compensate for her freeze time; she could see the icon momentarily appear beside the mob's status ribbon. In the short span while she was still locked in place, she started chanting: "Setto yojikke wemzul dweren!"

It was a trick that Jahala had taught her, and one that had saved her more than once. Most untargeted spells that affected only the caster did not require any specific gesture, only the required number of free hands—and the recovery frame of a weapon technique did not prevent a player from speaking. She didn't know whether it was an exploit or an intended game mechanic, but the upshot was that a quick-thinking player could cast one of a large variety of buffs and heals on themselves while they were waiting to be able to move again.

The spell she'd cast was an Offensive Shield; as soon as the spellcasting runes locked into place around her, the scintillating motes of Holy Magic energy surrounded her avatar and began delivering Damage Over Time to the mob that was in close proximity. It had the desired effect; rather than following up with a melee attack that she couldn't easily block at such close range, it screeched in pain and annoyance and beat its tattered feathery wings to get away from the proximity DOT, moving back to spellcasting range.

That was exactly what Asuna wanted it to do. Holy Magic had her most effective offensive spells; she quickly threw out a bolt of blindingly bright energy that unerringly homed in on the mob. Her wings carried her forward in the immediate wake of that Holy Bolt, chanting a Spiritual Armor buff to absorb damage while she moved her weapon arm into position for a Fire-based elemental technique. "Setto zabukke datranyul dweren!"

Fire was already licking up and down the length of her rapier's blade in anticipation of the attack, and as soon as the last word of her incantation left her lips she sent the now-familiar surge of intent that unleashed the technique. Harpies were weak to fire; her «Cinder Thrust» technique struck with devastating effect. She accepted a taloned slash across her off arm in order to close with the creature as it continued to back away, letting her buff absorb the damage from the hit. A few more blows were all it took to reduce the rest of the solo mob's HP, and its shriek of defeat trailed off into the welcome shattering of glass.

That mob would've butchered anyone level-appropriate for this area who was unfortunate enough to stumble across it, Asuna thought worriedly as she examined and dismissed the Result window. Yet another thing to talk to Diabel about. Did someone train it out here from underground to try to MPK low-level players?

Carefully sheathing her rapier, Asuna grimaced at the thought; using a mob to kill another player was one of the lowest, most cowardly forms of PKing she could imagine. Since no one would get any EXP or items from a player killed by a mob, it meant that the PKing wasn't even done for personal gain of any kind—it had no purpose other than to commit murder.

It suddenly occurred to her that whoever had dragged the mob out from where it belonged might still be nearby.

Unnerved, she looked around and took stock of her surroundings while she hovered in place, determined not to make the same inattentive mistake as before. A densely-packed group of Alfheim's many floating land masses hung suspended in the air not far from her; she'd been lucky that she hadn't flown smack dab into the side of one at top speed—that would've hurt. Well, not hurt, precisely, but it would've caused her a lot of damage even at her level.

If anyone was around, watching and waiting for someone to stumble across their trap, there were plenty of places for them to hide; Alfheim was dotted with many thousands of such islands, singly and in groups, and she was close enough to a large enough gathering of them here that they blotted out much of the sky to the east.

Asuna had always found the skylands of Alfheim to be an enchanting sight no matter where they were—more than anything else in this game, they screamed fantasy world to her, reminding her of 20th-century fantasy novel covers or a few movies she'd seen when she was younger. And since as a general rule mobs seemed to get higher in level the higher you flew, they were popular with players who wanted to level up a bit further without venturing too far away from their home city. They brought back memories of her early days in the game with Yuuki, the two of them going out to spend all day leveling up and having a midday picnic on the highest point they could reach, eating together and watching Alfheim sprawl out to the limits of their vision far below.

The sight took on an entirely different feel for her now. The open sky at her back was now far more comforting than the clusters of drifting islands that ranged from rocks barely large enough for a single person to perch upon all the way up to miniature mountains that were named zones in their own right topped with regolith and foliage. She could at least see where the mobs were in the sky, and knew that nothing was going to suddenly appear there to stab her in the back. Now she felt like she didn't dare take her eyes off of the Shatterpeaks; for all she knew an entire raid group of PKers could be hiding just out of sight.

Stop it, she told herself forcefully. You're getting yourself worked up for no reason. Why would that many people—or anyone at all, really—waste time that they could be spending leveling up or farming items just hanging out here, not knowing when or even if anyone would ever stumble by or from which direction they'd be coming.

As her nervously wandering eyes settled on a distinctively-shaped cluster of grass-topped basalt columns the size of a four-bedroom house, recognition struck and she realized exactly where she was in the Bonemoors: just about a kilometer due east of the entrance to the Valley of Rainbows, right at the western edge of the Shatterpeak Islands. The gravity-defying island of rough hexagonal columns didn't have a name of which she was aware, but it was a well-known landmark that all the clearers knew by sight.

It didn't make her feel any better about the possibility of PKers hiding in the Shatterpeaks, but now she at least thought she knew what to expect from the area. There were dungeons hidden here and there amongst the island chain, and some of them held some fairly high-level monsters compared to the surrounding zone—but Bonemoor Harpies usually only went up to level 12. At Asuna's level she could've sneezed at a level 12 mob and probably one-shotted it.

That harpy hadn't been level 12, though. At the very least it had been twice that; a mob more than ten levels below hers would've had a cursor so light it verged on pink. MPK attempt or not, there was simply no way a mob of that level should've been anywhere on this side of the mountain range ringing the Yggdrasil Basin.

Another uncomfortable thought struck her: maybe I shouldn't assume I know what to expect from this zone. I hope Yuuki and Kirito are all right.

Even though Yuuki was the youngest of them, Asuna was less worried about her safety—she knew Yuuki could solo mobs, and Imps could travel freely in Undine territory, although any patrols they ran into would probably keep an eye on their "guest" until the Imp reached a safe zone or was done with their business. Kirito, on the other hand, was going to be taking enough risks as it was. She didn't really think one of her people's patrol groups would seriously try to kill him if they happened across him—she doubted Diabel would ever approve of that. But that didn't mean they wouldn't attack or try to drive him off in some other way, and if he stumbled into an even tougher mob in the process, like that named scalefly they'd fought earlier…

I have to warn him. Eyes tracking around warily once more, she flew over and landed on one of the grass-topped hexagons of the basalt island, dismissing her wings to let them rest while she opened her menu and began composing a message.

「Something's wrong, Kirito,」 she wrote. 「I just ran into a dungeon mob that had to be around level 25—in an outdoor zone. I beat it, of course, but I'm starting to get worried. We've been running into mobs that just shouldn't be there again and again during the trip east. Keep an eye out—and not just for patrols.」

It took several minutes to get a response, but Asuna didn't mind. She'd been flying nonstop for at least half of her flight meter, and all the maneuvering during that battle had to have depleted it further; she was grateful for the excuse to sit and let her wings recharge. Still, she kept a watchful eye on the islands around her, and when Kirito's reply arrived she alternated between glancing down at it and looking around cautiously.

「Thanks for the heads up, Asuna,」 he wrote. 「I'm starting to think you were right to be worried. In an open-world MMORPG, just about anything can happen once. Twice is chance. But we're well past three examples of out-of-place mobs, and that means this is by design. Whether it's Kayaba's design or a new exploit by some player… I don't know.」

「Either is bad,」Asuna wrote back. 「If this is how the game was made, it means it's probably only going to get worse. And if it's players doing it...」

She stopped there, unsure that she wanted to go any further. Somehow she felt that writing it out, admitting the possibility, was almost like permitting it to be real. Scolding herself for the irrational notion, her fingers began dancing on the holographic keyboard once more.

「If it's players doing it, this could be Prophet's work. We don't actually know just how many players he has on his side, or what they're capable of. For all we know, he could have a whole guild of killers like him.」

「No,」 Kirito wrote back immediately. 「I refuse to believe that there are that many players in this game who are willing to kill for the pleasure of killing. If he had that many people, he would've brought more with him to the Sewers instead of a half-strength party. This is something else. Although speaking of Prophet, I think I'd better try contacting Sakuya and see if she's learned anything.」

Despite half a year spent living and fighting every day in Alfheim, Asuna was sometimes painfully aware of how little she still knew about video games. She hated to admit it—and she knew, after many nights spent thinking it through, that her insecurity over that fact was a large part of why she was so hostile to anyone who made her feel self-conscious about it. But like it or not, Kirito was the exact opposite; in the time he'd been alive he had probably forgotten more about playing games than she'd learned during her time trapped in ALO.

She trusted him, and she trusted what he knew. And while there were a whole world of topics where she would stand her ground and tell him off if she thought he was being stupid, she knew better than to dismiss his judgment when it came to the VRMMORPG side of Alfheim.

「Okay,」 she wrote. 「Just promise me you'll be careful. Knowing what to expect from the zone you're in is a basic part of surviving in this game. If we can't predict what kind of mobs we might run into…」

「I know,」 came the prompt reply. 「I promise. You be careful too, Asuna.」

Asuna reclined until her head tapped lightly against the basalt column at her back, giving the area one last scan before letting her eyes close for a moment. She no longer had the feeling of being watched that she'd been verging on before, and she allowed some of the tension to leave her body in the wake of the relief that she felt upon reading Kirito's final reply. When she felt a bit calmer and ready to move on, she reached out and tapped Reply.

「I will. Kirito, I...」

She froze there, hands poised before her. I can't say it, she thought.

She didn't know if she'd ever be ready to tell him. She wasn't even sure that she was ready to accept it herself. All the reasons she'd resisted that pull for so long, all the excuses she'd given herself for why she couldn't let herself be involved with someone while they were trapped in this death game… they were still valid. They still gnawed at her even now, even though she'd said the words aloud and acknowledged her feelings for what they were.

I can't say it to him. Not now. Not yet. And even if I could… even if I felt ready to… I can't tell him in a PM, of all things.

Asuna came to a decision, quickly backspacing over the characters she'd written and replacing them with something far less dangerous. 「I'll be careful. See you soon.」

·:·:·:·:·:·

Kirito grimaced at his UI. It hadn't been more than a moment since he'd hit the Send button before a new window popped up and confronted him with a message he'd seen many times before: «The recipient does not accept messages from unauthorized senders.»

It usually meant that the person to whom the PM was addressed had the «Accept Private Messages From Anyone» flag set to No, meaning that they could only receive PMs from people who were on their friends list or in their current party or guild. What made this response confusing was that he had exchanged a number of PMs with Sakuya just the night before, and they certainly hadn't friended each other.

Which meant that at some point between then and now—for whatever reason—she'd reset the flag back to its default value.

"What the heck, Sakuya?" He hadn't been intending to speak aloud; the words echoed off the inside of the hollowed-out, lightning-blasted tree in which he'd taken cover to rest his wings, and he briefly leaned out of the hole in the side to look around. Satisfied that there were no aggro mobs or Undine players nearby who could've heard his outburst, he ducked back in and resumed looking at the dialog window as if he'd expected its contents to somehow change in the interim.

It wasn't as if he knew Sakuya that well; she didn't have any obligation to accept his messages. But she'd agreed to go to her faction leader for help investigating and dealing with Prophet's group, and he'd been trying to follow up with her to see what she'd learned. It irked him to think that she might've just told him whatever he'd wanted to hear and then blown him off.

That possibility bothered him more than it otherwise might've. A loner himself, it wasn't that he begrudged her the desire for privacy. It was more that they still didn't know who in the Sylphs had been the point of contact for Prophet's group, or indeed if it had even been a Sylph for certain. All they had to go on was second-hand testimony of a comment by Prophet—a reference to his contact as a Keroppi, a Salamander slur for Sylphs.

But Sakuya was, in the compartmentalized organizational model of the Sylph Militia, arguably one of their most senior clearers. She would have the connections to learn more, and her word would be taken much more seriously by Skarrip than the word of a Spriggan—even a fairly well-known clearer like Kirito. It had been a stroke of luck for them to run into her after the joint raid between the Sylphs and the Cait Sith, and he'd hate to have to start again from scratch in that line of investigation. Especially since neither he nor any other member of his party were in a position to go to Sylvain themselves at the moment.

The raid. Not long after the thought crossed his mind, he realized what the reason for her sudden silence had to be. From what Sasha had said, it was Sakuya who'd gotten the Last Attack on the 25th gateway boss. As soon as word got out, she would've probably been deluged with congratulatory messages and similar spam from other Sylph players, and it was fairly likely that she'd temporarily toggled off PMs from strangers simply to get some peace. He relaxed, feeling a little better about the inability to reach one of their best possible leads in the Sylphs.

Which still left him in the position of needing to reach her somehow. He didn't know anyone in her party, and she'd probably dissolved it after the raid anyway. She wasn't guilded. And he definitely didn't have her on his friend list. So who—

Kirito snapped his fingers as the obvious solution occurred to him. Unsure of why it had taken him this long to think of a certain information broker who still owed him a favor, he swept closed the pop-up window and began typing a new PM to Argo. It only took a minute before he got the first response.

「Little busy here, Ki-bou. What'cha need?」

「Know anyone who's friends with a Sylph clearer named Sakuya?」 Kirito wrote back. 「She's toggled off outside PMs and I need to get in touch with her.」

Kirito could've sworn that the next reply took far longer than it should've; perhaps she'd been in the middle of combat with a mob. When at last he saw the notification in his HUD, the message that followed was bewilderingly cryptic. 「Heh. Doesn't everyone.」

Leaning back against the inside of the tree trunk and staring up at the sky, Kirito tried to make sense of that answer. While he was waiting, a second message came in from Argo.

「So what's the story?」

His reply took only moments.「You first.」

「Not this time, Ki-bou. You were the one asking for information.」

Kirito grinned again, even though she wasn't there to see it. 「You owe me, Ratgirl.」

Argo's next response took him aback. Even for her, it was blunt and abrasive. 「I don't have time for this shit today. If you wanna know something about Sakuya, I need to know what and why. Spill.」

Kirito hesitated before hitting the Reply button. He hadn't yet told Argo about the situation with Prophet and his group's attempt on Sasha's life. What information he'd requested the night before had been carefully worded to avoid giving away too much about what had happened or why he wanted to know, and there was a very good reason for that: once Argo knew, everyone in Alfheim would.

It wasn't that he objected to broadcasting Prophet's crimes to the world—he and Asuna had spent some time last night debating doing exactly that. And doing so through Argo would give their allegations credibility; it was likely to trigger a massive manhunt, which would make it much harder for the man's group of killers to freely move around and operate. It was a reasonable, low-risk approach that could go a long way towards hindering Prophet.

But it would also drive him completely underground. And the deeper Prophet went into hiding, the harder it would be for Kirito and Asuna to find him and deal with him. It was a step that Kirito was prepared to take, if that was the best way to put an end to the threat Prophet posed—but once taken, it couldn't be taken back.

「Last night I asked you for information on unexplained reports of missing players,」 Kirito finally began to write. 「I asked because I'm trying to track down a handful of PKers, and Sakuya had agreed to talk to Skarrip for me and see if he could help us find them.」 He paused. That last bit came dangerously close to being misleading, and while he wanted to be careful how much he revealed to Argo, he didn't want to damage the trust between them. He backspaced over it and rewrote the sentence slightly. 「Sakuya had agreed to talk to Skarrip for me. Last night my messages were getting through just fine, but this morning she's not accepting PMs from strangers.」

「You're set Unfindable. Where are you now?」

Kirito pulled open his map long enough to confirm the position. 「About 25 km southwest of Spriggan territory, just outside the Valley of Rainbows. Trying to not have to explain myself to an Undine patrol.」

「Riiiight. Never mind then. Okay, look: I do still owe you one. So here's a freebie. Things are a bit complicated in Sylvain right now. Sakuya apparently dueled Skarrip for leadership and won, which is probably why she's not accepting outside PMs anymore. You're not gonna be able to reach her. But I'm on my way to Sylvain right now, so if you wanna send her a message, I'll play courier. This once. Deal?」

Kirito sat there for close to a full minute after reading Argo's last message, jaw slightly open as he tried to take in this news. No one dueled for faction leadership if they could avoid it—the outcome would usually be a foregone conclusion. Most of the faction leaders had held their posts since the beginning of the game, if not shortly after, and had had virtually no time to level up. A fight between them and just about anyone else in the faction would be over in a single blow; consenting to a duel would be little different than choosing to abdicate their position.

Why would Skarrip have agreed to that? He'd just been elected by popular vote. Granted, he and Asuna hadn't stuck around at the orphanage long enough to hear the kids read off all of the faction leader results, but he distinctly recalled that Skarrip's name had been the first one they'd announced—so this duel of Sakuya's certainly couldn't have been before then. It had to have been after the vote, then… sometime in the last few hours.

None of it made any sense at all.

But now that Kirito thought it through and put everything in this context, it occurred to him that Sakuya had, in fact, been acting a little strangely when they'd met the day before. He hadn't really spent any kind of time around her, so perhaps it had just been her way, but in retrospect she'd seemed in a real hurry to excuse herself from their company as soon as the subject of Prophet came up. At the time he'd assumed that she'd been upset by the emotional weight of Sasha's reaction, or by the discussion of PKing and child murder. Either had been entirely reasonable possibilities, and he hadn't held it against her.

Looking back now, he could see several alternative explanations. A few of which were very disturbing to contemplate.

「This is important,」 Kirito typed, carefully thinking it through. 「How well do you know Sakuya? Personally, I mean?」

「I don't, really,」 Argo wrote back after a short delay. 「She's Alicia's friend, not mine. I know a bit about her, and I'll tell you for 2500 Yuld.」

Kirito rolled his eyes. At least the amount was within the limit he could send in a PM; it saved him from having to owe her. 「Tell me everything you can. I need to know what kind of person she is.」

「Mid-20s, probably an OL. College-educated. A little OCD. Kind of a classic tsundere; she's a bit standoffish with people she doesn't know or trust, but loyal and friendly with those she does. She's had the same clearing party for the last four months, and she's respected in the Sylph Militia, so she's doing something right. Allie knows her from the beta and trusts her. Big hate-on between her and Sigurd, their lead clearer. She's run for Sylph FL a couple of times, and made a good showing, so she's got a base of support. What's all this about, anyway? I gotta get moving again.」

For a moment, Kirito considered trying to negotiate for more information in exchange for an explanation. He typed several different messages, erasing each one before they were halfway written, and chewed at his lip slightly while he tried to figure out what he could possibly say that wouldn't invite too many more questions. A tingle between his shoulder blades alerted him to the fact that his flight meter was fully recharged, and his menu bobbed in front of him as he came to his feet and brought out his wings.

「I don't know if I trust her,」 he finally typed, hoping that the sudden lump in his stomach was just the carefully-cultivated wariness of someone who'd survived over six months as a solo player in Alfheim, and not a portent of things to come. 「Be careful in Sylvain.」

Kirito's wings bore him straight up and out of the hollowed-out tree, and for a short time he took up a perch on the widest part of the trunk's upper lip, using the vantage point to scan the area for threats. A green aurora flickered across his eyes as he activated his «Searching» skill, and pinpoints of colored light faded into view as the cursors of detected entities within a certain range became visible to him whether they were occluded or not. Slowly panning his head around until he was satisfied there were no players within a reasonable distance, he picked a route through the sky that would keep him from running into aggro mobs for as long as possible.

Slightly east-northeast, he thought. At least for the first minute or so. Can't see anything further than that.

It was a habit borne from experience in traveling solo. Unlike most magical detection spells, which were capped at a given range, he wasn't aware of any hard limit on the range of «Searching»—a non-magical sixth sense of sorts that most melee scouts or solo players regarded as an absolute must-have. It was a fair tradeoff, he thought, for using an entire skill slot on one ability rather than on a school of magic that was far more versatile. But practically speaking, there came a point where distant cursors were simply too small to even see, and the more time that passed after he'd used the skill, the more outdated the information was.

The skill required concentration; it wasn't easy to keep it going while in flight—it meant that there would come a point where he'd either need to land at a high vantage point and scan again, or accept a higher risk of running into something unexpected once he ventured beyond the range that he'd scanned. Between the unnerving message he'd gotten from Asuna and the risk of running into Undine patrols, it was time to try out a new spell that had just appeared in his spellbook when his skill hit 645 that morning.

"Matto famudrokke," Kirito began, the first half of the incantation familiar to him; after Sasha's explanations he could now recognize the words as the element and magnitude of the spell. "jetrovanul dweren." The incantation was spoken quietly, but there was no mistaking the brilliant golden runes that whirled around him with each spellword. As soon as the last rune locked into place, they fragmented into golden particles that clung to him and faded into his avatar. When he glanced up at the Active Effects portion of his HUD, he could see an unfamiliar new icon there; focusing on it confirmed that it was the «Assimilation» effect with just over four minutes remaining.

According to what he'd read in the spell description, it would make his cursor appear green to any players who might see him, and reduce the aggro radius of hostile mobs by 90%. It wouldn't stop an Undine patrol from visually recognizing him as a Spriggan, and if he was careless enough to run straight into a mob with a red cursor he'd still have to fight, but he reasoned that it should make traveling at speed across unfriendly territory a whole lot safer. At least any patrol who spotted his green cursor using their own Searching skill wouldn't have any reason to think he wasn't just another Undine.

The spell had a significant cooldown and he wouldn't be able to recast it right away; wasting no more of Assimilation's duration, Kirito kicked off of the treetop and shot northeast, quickly accelerating to his maximum speed.

·:·:·:·:·:·

Northern Alfheim had the season of spring in the same sense that Siberia did in the real world: which was to say, not so much. Granted, even the coldest reaches of Gnome territory were currently somewhat warmer than that frozen expanse of Russian territory, and in spring usually refrained from the blizzards that regularly buried Nissengrof in meters of snow during the winter—but warmer was a relative term, and describing the season as "spring" was being generous when a person's legs still often sank to the knees in the deeper drifts. It made flying an essential ability.

Despite the fact that Sylphs lacked the innate cold resistance of the NCC member races, Griselda didn't mind the temperature or the snow—it reminded her of home. She'd grown up in the Hokuriku region of northwestern Japan, and she'd missed the cold winters and heavy snowfall after moving to Tokyo with her husband. She'd joined the game at his behest; had she known beforehand what kind of climate was associated with which races, she figured she probably would've created a Puca character instead.

Moot point now, she thought wryly as she trudged through the ankle-deep snow with her farming party while they waited for their wings to recharge. She used the blade of her hand to shelter her eyes from the midday sun reflecting off all of the white that filled her field of view, but still had to squint slightly. I managed to end up here anyway.

On the surface, Nissengrof looked from a distance like a thinly spread-out town encircling a massive open pit more than a kilometer across at its widest point. The appearance was deceiving; the vast majority of the Gnome capital existed underground in a sprawling network of tunnels and chambers. Even so, it was hard to miss—steam from the mining and refining facilities deep within the city rose through the open pit in a hazy column that reached towards the clouds, providing a beacon of sorts that could be seen from halfway across the Glitafrost Wastes on a clear day.

This was such a day. Although their farming assignment had taken them far from most of the hidden entrances that would've let them take the tunnels back to the city, Nissengrof's plume meant that there was no need to periodically check their maps to make sure they were headed in the right direction. She stopped for a moment and looked back to make sure there were no stragglers having difficulty keeping up, and held up a hand to call for a stop when she saw the distant figures of their Puca bard and Gnome battlemage a good thirty meters behind everyone else. As her party's footsteps stopped crunching through the snow, she could faintly hear the high-pitched tones of Yoruko's flute.

She cupped her hands to her mouth, the air fogging in front of her words as she called out. "Everything alright, you two?"

Neither yelled a reply, but Griselda saw Caynz wave animatedly; when she glanced at the party list in her HUD, she didn't see any negative status effects or HP loss from either, and there were no aggro mobs nearby. Giving them a wave in return, she smiled slightly and addressed the others. "Let's keep going. They'll catch up."

They always did. Griselda had a sneaking suspicion that there was something going on between the two of them, but she wasn't about to pry into their business or say anything to the rest of the team—it wasn't as if it was causing any problems. Yoruko was a nice enough girl, and her Song Magic was an invaluable addition to the party. As for Caynz… he took his larping awfully seriously, moreso than any other player she'd ever met. But it didn't do any harm, and Griselda found it sort of endearing; apparently Yoruko thought so too.

As they resumed their forward march, a flashing notification icon caught Griselda's eye, and she focused on it without breaking stride, suddenly excited when she saw the name of her husband's Leprechaun character at the top of the PM window. Her excitement faded slightly when she read the terse message.

「Where are you?」

Griselda let out a small sigh. It was so sweet, how much Grimlock worried about her when she was gone, but sometimes it could be a little wearying. She understood why—she knew it bothered him that as a crafter he couldn't go out on assignments or adventures with her, and that he thought he was supposed to be protecting her. She'd offered to help him level up so that he could, but he'd refused every time, insisting that he wasn't suited to combat and that his skills were needed by the NCC.

She slowed a little as she opened a window to reply, watching the ground ahead of her instead of her typing. 「Just west of Nissengrof, dear, and on my way back in. I should be home in about half an hour, maybe less. Do you need me to pick up anything from the market?」

「No thank you,」he wrote back promptly. 「Come straight home when your business is concluded. I have exciting news to share.」

The response piqued Griselda's curiosity. She knew her husband had been working long hours recently, grinding supplies and upgrades for their clearing groups in the push to reach the 25th gateway boss. The Sylphs and Cait Sith had gotten there first, but as far as she knew, no one up here was particularly upset about that—rumor was that there'd been a few NCC members at the raid, and that it had turned into such a mess that the NCC clearers were just as happy to have not been the ones facing down the Salamanders.

That couldn't be the news. So what was it?

「You're not even going to give me a hint, are you?」

Griselda could almost hear the smugness in the text of his answer. 「Not a solitary one. If you're so eager to find out, you'll just have to pick up the pace, won't you?」

She was almost giggling as she typed back. 「You are a cruel and merciless man.」

「Flattery will get you nowhere, my dear. Hurry back now.」

She did. Curiosity occupied her mind during the remaining trip back to Nissengrof, and once her party had deposited the day's drops at the supply depot that Chellok ran, she bid her farewells and took off running. She very nearly sprinted all the way to the apartment she and Grimlock shared, wishing the whole way that she could fly underground like those Imps could. Grateful that she didn't have to actually take the housekey out of her inventory in order to open the door, she let her hand rest on the doorknob long enough for the system to acknowledge that she was keyed for entry. She took one deep breath to calm herself, and walked in.

"Tadaima," she said as soon as she'd taken the first step inside. "What's the news?"

Grimlock looked up from the kitchen table, sipping at his tea. He gestured towards the empty cup on the other side of the table; Griselda seated herself and filled it, letting it warm her hands.

"Notice anything different?" Grimlock asked vaguely.

Blinking in surprise, Griselda looked around the tiny apartment. There wasn't much to look at, and she couldn't see anything unusual. Everything was where she thought it had been when she'd left. "Not offhand," she said, a little confused. "Should I?"

Grimlock sighed, looking mildly disappointed as he adjusted his round-rimmed glasses on the bridge of his long nose. "And here I thought you were supposed to be the observant warrior, dear. Try again."

Griselda didn't often look her husband in the eyes, but now she fixed hers on him. "Yuuji, please, you could at least give me a h—" She stopped there as her focused gaze popped his cursor and status ribbon. There was an icon next to the ribbon that she'd never seen before. "Did you… did you join a guild?"

"I created one," Grimlock answered with a smile. "Do you know what that means?"

"I'm not really sure," she said, a bit puzzled. "Does that really do anything for us that being married in the game doesn't already? You only need to have one in order to qualify for an NCC supply con… tract…"

"Yes," Grimlock said with a twinkle in his eye, resting his chin in one palm with his elbow on the table. "Imagine that."

Griselda's voice nearly rose to a squeak of delight. "Oh! Did you really get it? We've been trying for weeks to bring in enough drops to get on the list!"

"I know a few people," Grimlock said slyly. "I've done some work on Constructs recently for Agil, and I was able to persuade him to put in a good word for us with Chellok. That, combined with all of the mats your group has been bringing in, was enough to tip the scales in our favor. All that remained to hold us back from getting the contract was the fact that we weren't part of a registered guild… so I remedied that little detail while you were gone."

Griselda jumped up from her seat and threw her arms around her husband, laughing. "You're terrible! But I'm not going to complain about the favoritism now. You'll be inviting all of us, right? Oh, I've got to tell the others when we meet up after lunch!"

"In due time, dear," Grimlock said from his seat as he reached up and patted her back, voice muffled slightly by her hasty embrace. "Unequip your gear and let us eat."

Their lunch passed in relative silence, the kind of comfortable silence that had grown between them over the few years that they'd been married—the kind that settled when there was nothing that really needed saying. Every now and then she looked up from her bowl of curried manta stew and caught her husband's eyes; when she did, he smiled back at her in a way that made her blush and return her attention to her food.

When they were done, Griselda collected all of the dishes and returned them to their shelves, grateful that the way the game engine handled food meant that no mess remained. She did not at all miss doing all of their dishes in the real world; at least cleanup duty was simple enough to deal with in ALO. She opened her inventory and started reviewing all of her equipment, seeing if any of it needed attention before she went back out; as she did, she realized there was an important question she'd never asked.

"So what did you name the guild?"

The question came out of the blue, but Grimlock didn't miss a beat. "Golden Apple." He looked up at her with an eager expression.

"Golden Apple?" said Griselda, cocking her head slightly as one slender hand paused halfway to her game menu. The words ougon ringo tickled something in her memory, a faint recollection from high school—a life that now seemed even more distant and alien to her than her years of marriage in the real world. "I feel like you're making a reference and I'm not getting it."

"It seemed appropriate," Grimlock said, wearing that secret smile that he sometimes affected when he felt like he was being extremely clever about something and wanted everyone to know it. She'd always found it endearing, but occasionally now it rubbed her a little wrongly, and she wasn't quite sure why.

When no explanation followed, Griselda decided to try to a little trick that Sakuya had showed her while she was part of the Sylph militia. She knew her husband was waiting for her to prompt him for an explanation so that he could show her how clever he'd been, bless his heart, but she didn't really feel like playing that game today—so instead, she changed the game. She remained silent as she might once have at home—not out of deference now, but out of patience; while she waited she continued scrolling through her inventory, looking for the gear she wanted to wear out on the afternoon's farming run.

It didn't take long. Grimlock cleared his throat slightly, drawing her eyes to the side just in time to see him adjust his glasses again. "Mythology," he said. "You know, of course, that this game is very loosely based on Norse mythology."

Griselda nodded, even though the question had been rhetorical—now giving him her undivided attention, albeit with her eyes again slightly downcast out of long habit.

"In Norse legends, the goddess Idunn cultivated golden apples that were the source of immortality for the Aesir. In our case, we farm and produce the materials that—in a manner of speaking, of course—are the source of immortality for our clearing groups. Farming guilds like ours are, if you will, the source of golden apples for the NCC. It's an important job." When he'd finished his explanation, Grimlock looked at Griselda expectantly, pride in his eyes.

"Very clever, dear," Griselda said obligingly with a demure smile, humoring his eccentricities as she always had. She doubted more than half a dozen people in the entire game would recognize the intent behind his choice of guild name. That aside, she did appreciate the careful thought that her husband seemed to put into even the littlest things, and she leaned over to kiss him on the cheek so that he'd know she meant it. "And speaking of that job, it's about time for me to go regroup with the others."

Something flickered across Grimlock's features at those words, something that briefly darkened his eyes and pressed his lips into a line for a moment. It was there and gone before she could really process it. "Yes," he said with a sigh, making it sound like a concession he was reluctantly permitting. "I suppose you must."

She could hear the beginnings of a now-tired argument in his words, and it was an argument she did not wish to rehash—not today; not now. "I should be back in time for dinner," she assured him, re-equipping her weapon last of all. The crafted longsword Grimlock had made for her appeared at her side with a shimmer of light, and she looked at him meaningfully as it did. It wasn't the one that she usually used in the field—she didn't have the heart to tell him, but she'd gotten a mob drop that was better—but she at least wanted him to see her wearing it as she left; she knew it made him feel better about not being able to join her in combat if he was able to supply her with his own two hands.

As she pulled her cloak around her avatar and ventured out into the subterranean tunnels lacing through Nissengrof, Griselda still felt something nagging at her—something about the guild name. She knew she'd heard the term somewhere before, and although she didn't really know anything about Norse mythology that she hadn't learned after being trapped in ALO, the sense of familiarity had settled into place even more strongly after Grimlock had mentioned the name's origin. Something else… something familiar from one of her classes years ago in high school. Greek? Roman?

She shook her head to rid herself of the stray thought as a gust of wind howled down the tunnel and buffeted her face. These were the kinds of little, irrelevant things that you just couldn't think about when you were outside of the safe zone, not if you wanted to stay alert and alive—that had been drilled into her in the earliest days of the game, and the deaths of several party members during the Salamander blitz against the Sylphs had made the lesson stick.

By the time that she reached the rendezvous point and joined her party members, she'd entirely put it out of her mind.


Author's Note 11/6/14: Welcome to Act 3—and the second anniversary—of Fairy Dance of Death!

The appearance of Griselda and a few other new POV characters will set the stage for getting to see parts of ALO that we haven't before. For those of you wondering why the act opens up with such a long Sakuya segment and why Kirito's was relatively short and near the end, don't worry—you'll more than get your Kirito on in this act. Sakuya's segment was simply chronologically the earliest, since it's technically taking place just shortly before Argo's did in the previous chapter.

While FDD doesn't strictly count for NaNoWriMo, I use that for inspiration in November anyway. It helps that the anniversary of the fic and the launch of the game are November 6th. I have quite a lot of material amassed so far for Act 3, and I'm really excited to begin finally getting all of this planning written. I'm targeting one chapter per week in November, posted at the end of the week Chapter 32 on the 14th, Chapter 33 on the 21st, and Chapter 34 on the 28th. The first of those is already written, and work on 33 is well under way.

I doubt I'll be able to maintain that pace beyond November, but that's my goal until the end of the month at least. There's quite a lot that's going to happen in this act, and ideally I would like to have all that wrapped by this time next year. By the time November is out, the plot will have advanced quite a bit, and I'm really looking forward to hearing what everyone thinks of it—so please, as always, let me know in the reviews.

Other than any chapter update notifications themselves, the best way to get the latest news on the fic's progress on the Tumblr and web site listed in my profile. The web site in particular has a significant amount of reference material specific to this fanfic's AU worldbuilding. Some of them can be a little spoilery and are marked as such, if you haven't read all that is published so far, but they're there if you're curious and want to, say, closely examine the Alfheim game map, see how many players were in each faction at the start of the game, or even learn the language used in the spell system.

See you in the updates!