"Whether jailed for a violation of a «Faction Law» or by the «Anti-Harassment System», a player with «Prisoner» status is subject to certain restrictions: they cannot see or interact with any part of their UI, fly or teleport, use or materialize combat-related items, cast Malign spells or spell effects, target any other player using the Focus system, or deal damage in any way. However, a Prisoner in a jail cell has certain protections as well: most notably, they are flagged «Untargetable» and «Immortal Object» to prevent abuse of their status. Moreover, in the case of imprisonment in a faction jail a Prisoner cannot be detained for longer than 48 hours, and is automatically freed either after that time passes or in response to being the victim of any Anti-Harassment System violation. In all cases, a Prisoner retains both protective flags for thirty seconds after their release, further mitigating the potential for abuse by preventing indefinite chain-imprisonment exploits or summary executions..."
Alfheim Online manual, «Prisoners»

8 May 2023: Day 184 - Midday

There were a great many questions that Tetsuo wanted to ask of his group leader, once the skirmish had died off and he could afford the luxury of thinking. That was often true; the old man was rarely at a loss for some piece of keen advice or philosophical musing, and what he had to say was usually useful in some way—if not outright life-saving.

But at the moment, there was no question that weighed more heavily on Tetsuo's mind than the open-ended one that finally made it past his lips.

"Why are we here?"

Heathcliff didn't answer—did not even divert his gaze—until the last Sylph had fled the wide, dry stream bed which cut through the «Ancient Forest» zone just west of «The Arid Highlands». The sharp, varied sounds of spell attacks were still echoing across the clearing and through the forest for several seconds after their visual effects had faded, and eventually left behind only short-lived scars in the mutable top layer of the game's world geometry. "Because those are our orders."

Tetsuo refused to believe that his group leader had misunderstood the intent of the question. As he opened his mouth for a follow-up, Heathcliff stilled him with an upheld palm, eyes scanning across the treeline. "Seven," he said, using the nickname almost everyone used instead of Seventh Sun's actual player name.

He'd made no request, but Seven had done this job long enough that he didn't need one. His chin-length, brick-colored bangs swayed with his curt nod, and the young Salamander's eyes glowed brightly green even in the midday sun. "Oh, they're still there all right," he said with a grimace and a notable lack of surprise. "From the size of the cursors, maybe thirty, forty meters back from the treeline, holding position and staying below the canopy. Just keep in mind some of them might have a higher Hiding skill than my Searching."

"I'm not worried about spies," Heathcliff said mildly, sheathing his sword while keeping his kite shield on his arm. "They are welcome to take a good look at what we're actually doing here. Perhaps doing so will persuade them that another probe like the last is unnecessary."

"Doubt that'll happen unless they start taking losses," Denkao said, the older man's face fixed in an expression of distaste.

Tetsuo was appalled enough to give their healer an incredulous look and actually say something. "I can't believe you're suggesting we try to kill them."

"Keep your pants on, Tetsuo," Denkao said, returning the look with one of mild weariness. "I'm not suggesting anything of the sort, 'specially after Heath said to let 'em retreat. I'm just pointing out that as long as what they're doing has no consequences, they've got no incentive to knock it off and every reason to keep trying. We are farming their territory, after all. Anyone here who doesn't think this was utterly goddamn predictable?"

As usual, Heathcliff maintained an attitude of aloof calm in the face of a tense situation. Tetsuo had no idea how he did it so consistently, but thought it admirable all the same. "First of all," he began, eyes still to the west, "we are not farming this territory. We are temporarily providing security and a show of force to discourage the Sylphs from farming here or attacking our farming groups. Secondly…" His gray eyes fell sharply on Denkao as he repeated their faction leader's reasoning for this mission. "Strictly speaking, this is not Sylph territory."

Denkao let out a dry snort. "Could've fooled me, yeah? Not many forests in ours."

Heathcliff opened his system menu and turned his Zone Permissions submenu to face his whole party, then pointed to the list. "What do you see here?"

Denkao waved a hand brusquely. "Yeah, yeah, I know it's a contested zone that doesn't actually belong to anyone. I don't care what Corvatz says, it's a retarded rationalization and it was one hundred percent predictable that the Sylphs would have a problem with it."

Heathcliff's slight shrug expressed a great deal of indifference in an economical way. "Of course. That is why we have several of our clearing groups here to back up our patrol groups. It takes some of us away from scouting the Halls, but the same is true for the Sylphs as long as they choose the path of conflict."

"Ten to one our leader'd not only throw a shit-fit if the Sylphs did the same thing to us, but wouldn't think his reaction was at all hypocritical."

Heathcliff's response to that was directed at Denkao, but their group leader's eyes came to rest briefly on Tetsuo as well. "I assure you, these points were all quite exhaustively discussed during the meeting that led to this order. While it is true that from a thematic point of view these lands are associated with the Sylphs, the fact is that they are no different than any other overland contested zone, such as the ones in Yggdrasil Basin. We have as much a right to farm here as they do, and we are here in force precisely because we don't expect them to accept this new paradigm quietly."

Their healer grunted. "Sounds like Corvatz is itching for a fight." Tetsuo was inclined to agree with Denkao's assessment, but wasn't about to say anything critical of their new leader in public. Corvatz had enough reasons to dislike him, and while he didn't think anyone in his group would rat him out… it wasn't a chance he wanted to take.

Another shrug from Heathcliff, this time accompanied by a head-shake. "Doubtful," he said. "Corvatz is a soldier who has seen actual combat. I doubt he wants a fight—he simply does not see the risk of one as any good reason not to assert control and secure essential resources. We need these mats for our clearing groups, and they are no longer dropping in the Aldrnari Desert or the Arid Highlands. Lord Corvatz would argue that we are not attacking their citizens. We are simply warning them away to protect our own, and responding with appropriate force when they attack or do not heed our warnings."

"Movement," Seven said, stepping into the space that followed Heathcliff's lengthy response.

Their group leader's gaze snapped over to him. "Position and heading?"

Seven's eyes were still glowing bright green as he spoke; he'd never dropped Searching the whole time. "Six yellow contacts bearing South-70-West, about twenty meters inside the treeline, direct approach on the ground at walking speed. Definitely players, probably a full party."

Nephron nudged the thin-slitted visor of his helmet up onto his forehead and peered towards the forest as if he expected to see anything through the foliage. "Farmers who didn't get the memo yet?"

Heathcliff raised his voice only enough to reach the mage group that had been sent with them. "Pyrin, incoming party from the southwest on foot. Discourage them."

Pyrin pushed back the sleeves of his robes and barked out orders. "Mages! Line formation anchored on me, M6 Firewall on the southwest bank!"

Pyrin and his group's tank remained in place; as soon as he began speaking, the other four mages took flight and dispersed widely along the southeast treeline. Once the group had spread out from Pyrin's position, they each fanned out their arms at similar angles with the first two fingers pointed, and chanted nearly as one: "hitto famudrokke plemzure ralth tepnaga shippura kwedan!"

From five widely-spaced points on the opposite bank sprang fountains of flame to twice man-height, each then rippling outward until they formed walls. Tetsuo didn't often use the spell himself, but he knew that each wall would've been centered on a Focused point and terminated at the endpoints of imaginary lines drawn from the mage's extended fingers, to a length up to the limit of what a sixth-magnitude spell could generate. In all, the net effect was a violently churning wall of flames two meters high that stretched for hundreds of meters along the dry stream bed. It was spectacular.

It was also about as useless as wings on a scabbard. Tetsuo nudged Heathcliff, who was watching the flames intently. "What's the point? This isn't a dungeon; they can just fly over it."

"Certainly," Heathcliff said, never taking his eyes off of the conflagration. "But it sends a clear message: do not come here. And if they choose to attack rather than heeding that warning, it makes them the aggressors, and forces them to waste wing energy in order to fly up and over to reach us, where we are fully charged."

"Or just go around and flank us," Denkao said.

"Not much good it'd do them without surprise and greater numbers," Seven put in, eyes still filled with emerald aurorae. It had to take a lot of concentration to maintain Searching for so long. "They've stopped in front of the firewall."

Everyone already had weapons in hand, and Tetsuo's party started to spread out slightly behind the berm, split into two trios ahead and to either side of Pyrin's reassembled mage group so that everyone had clear line-of-sight. "Hold your fire until I give the word," Heathcliff said. "Let's see what they do."

Tetsuo caught sight of the Sylphs only moments after Seventh Sun's warning. Two green-glad forms, a mage and a melee type from the looks of them, rose up and over the barrier and touched down just on their side. Silhouetted now against the flames, Tetsuo could clearly see that the fighter was a woman's form, and she began walking slowly towards them, with the mage—or perhaps a healer—hanging back a few meters. Her weapon remained at her side, sheathed.

Tetsuo was tentatively hopeful. "It looks like she wants to talk."

Heathcliff's eyebrows rose. "How interesting."

"I got some words for her," said one of their own mages. "They start with hi—"

"Can it, Hamashin," growled Pyrin, smacking the mage's arm solidly before the idiot actually ended up casting a spell. "Heath, orders?"

A slight smile was threatening Heathcliff's reserve. He sheathed his own sword and looked across each member of his group. "Let us see what she has to say. If the mage starts to cast anything, lock him down. Otherwise respond only to hostile action. Tetsuo, Denkao, with me. Nephron, stay here with the others and defend Pyrin's group."

Now that they were much closer, Tetsuo was certain that the Sylph woman was a tank; he knew from experience that melee DPS roles needed to be quick on their feet, and didn't usually go in for armor as heavy as hers. Her dark blonde hair was mostly contained by her winged helm, and her booted footsteps sent rocks skittering along the parched dirt of the stream bed. She had a lozenge-shaped shield on her arm, but her sword remained sheathed, and Tetsuo hoped it stayed that way.

"Would you care to explain your presence here, Salamander?" the woman said just as both parties drew within a few meters of each other.

"I am Heathcliff, and I am authorized to represent Lord Corvatz in the field. We will be farming here from this point forward, and desire to avoid conflict between our farming groups. Please communicate to your leader that no Sylph is to cross the Willowbend."

"You've got some nerve, trying to tell us where we can't go in our own forest."

"Do not cross the Willowbend River," Heathcliff repeated firmly. "This is the only warning that will be provided. Any who attempt to do so will be turned back—with force, if they make it necessary. And any hostile action taken towards our farming groups will be met with lethal force."

There was fear in the Sylph woman's eyes as she took in the numbers arrayed against her, but her hands balled into fists. "That's against the Treaty."

Heathcliff regarded her unflinchingly. "Do not misunderstand. We have no intent of killing for the sake of killing. But our orders are quite clear: do not allow Sylph farmers to enter this region, and destroy any hostile force that attacks our own farmers."

"Destroy," echoed the Sylph, looking back at the mage who had accompanied her. "Natsuo, go back to the others and tell them this, fast."

"Chihae, I'll be damned if—"

"Go!" said the woman apparently named Chihae, her voice urgent. "Please! You know there's not much time!" It took another exchange of words to make the man leave; from the looks that passed between them, Tetsuo wondered if the two of them were a thing.

"A wise choice," Heathcliff said genially. "Now it is time for you to follow him. Please convey our stance to your leader. I'm afraid the terms are non-negotiable."

"You realize that your leader is starting a war here," Chihae said, one fist beginning to clench again at her side. She made no move to go.

"No," Heathcliff said at once. "He simply understands what you do not: that contested zones belong to no one, and that you cannot claim exclusive ownership of territory that you are incapable of holding. Our groups already avoid each other in the contested zones of the World Tree. We require you to make the same sensible choice here."

Chihae's pale face was bright red with anger. "This is different. We haven't poached each other's territory since Kibaou—."

Heathcliff seemed unmoved, cutting her off with a sweep of the hand that made her flinch. "Lord Corvatz is not Kibaou, and I will not debate the issue with you further. Heed these warnings and stay on the west side of the Willowbend, and there will be no war. But in order to protect our people and prevent conflicts between our farmers, we will turn back any who try to farm in this place—and make an example of anyone cowardly enough to attack our farming groups." He stared her unflinchingly in the eyes. "If war comes, it will be your people who have chosen it."

Chihae took a wary step back. Behind her, Tetsuo saw the wall of flames flicker and die out as the spell effect expired. "You can't do this."

Heathcliff looked unimpressed by her protest, even bored. "It is already done. Now please—"

The muted, low-frequency sound of a distant explosion turned everyone's heads towards the east. A few moments later, a fireball shot out of the treetops several hundred meters away and dwindled into the sky, the angle and straight path suggesting it had missed a target. Shouting voices could be faintly heard from that direction, but Tetsuo couldn't make out words.

"That's where Ziegler's farming group is!" Denkao called out.

Heathcliff's head whipped back around to Chihae, who was already backpedaling quickly with her shield held protectively in front of her. Her shout carried across the clearing. "I didn't—!"

"You created a diversion to keep our attention here while another party went around to attack one of our farmers," Heathcliff said. "That was the reason for your suddenly-urgent message to the mage. Did you really think we were the only group here providing security?"

"No, I was—"

Pyrin's mages started chanting. With a wordless cry, Chihae brought out her wings and rocketed towards the edge of the forest at the head of a trail of light. Two of the Fire Bolt spells struck her, but she maintained enough flight control to weave around a tree trunk and use it as a shield against the others, which sent spalls of bark flying. A yellowish-green streak shot out from the trees at frightening speed and exploded nearby, sending two of Pyrin's people scattering.

"Archer!" Seven shouted. "Five meters inside the treeline by that rise!"

Heathcliff's voice swept over them all. "Shields up! Pyrin, neutralize the archer and lay down suppressing fire!"

Volley after volley of weak fire projectiles rippled out from most of the Salamander mages, staggered so that the short cooldowns of the low-magnitude spells allowed them to maintain a steady base of fire—so to speak. The treeline began sprouting hot red blossoms, and into the smoke-filled cover of that distraction Pyrin himself spoke, sparks stirring around his robes and outstretched hands while golden symbols encircled him and fell into place. "Hitto nyafe jezut, kezathramplu, tepnaga jan!"

The angry flames covering Pyrin's hands pulsed, flared briefly into a cone, and then erupted into a crimson starburst which shot out at blinding speed towards the trees from which the AOE bow attack had come. It struck somewhere not far within the forest and triggered there, a conflagration the size of a tennis court exploding outwards from the gaps in the trees and even licking through the canopy, incinerating any environmental materials that weren't flagged as Immortal.

If the Sylphs were relying on the directional protection of Defensive Shield spells, or the ability to heal through the explosion, it was a grave mistake. Tetsuo could tell immediately that this wasn't the usual AOE fireball that Pyrin had cast—it was a high-level Salamander-only spell called Hellfire, and anyone caught within its radius was not only going to eat the initial AOE, they were going to suffer a nasty DOT as long as they remained. It wasn't a spell that got used much in PvP—aside from the punishingly high requirements and tongue-tangling pronunciation, the residual effects could very easily finish off what the explosion did not kill.

Flashy and expensive, it did have the intended effect of thoroughly disrupting the Sylph attack. Shouts of alarm and dismay from the treeline were followed shortly by a few green-streaked flight trails which shot out into the sky. Tetsuo was still maintaining the Defensive Shield he'd thrown up at Heathcliff's order, which made it difficult to see details beyond, but he was fairly sure it hadn't been the full party that fled.

His train of thought was validated by Seven, who responded to a barked demand from their group leader. "One cursor out, three fled and holding position above the canopy. One's still inside, another on the ground holding at a safe distance."

"Probably trying to rez the one who dropped," Denkao said. "Whoever he is, I give him credit for balls, staying in the middle of that shit to heal. He wouldn't be able to see or target the Remain Light from outside of it."

"Let him," Heathcliff said, holding up a hand. "This time. Cease fire! Pyrin, another Barrier Hazard to discourage them from returning."

"I'm OOM after that nuke," answered Pyrin as he plucked a blue vial from the bandolier under his robes. "Osha, Nicky, Firewall!"

As the two named mages set about re-establishing a wall of flames in front of the fiery maelstrom that still burned at the edge the forest even now, Heathcliff's eyes went to each of his group members in turn. "We will not pursue," he said. "Hold position and continue to guard our farmers. We must trust that Benta and his team can protect Ziegler's group, and hope that this lesson will dissuade our foes from a third attack."

Denkao gave his leader a hard look. "And if it doesn't?"

Heathcliff's expression was equally hard—almost devoid of affect. "Then we ensure that there will be no fourth."

·:·:·:·:·:·

For a child, growing up was a procession of firsts. One of the tragedies of Alfheim was that the majority of the player base seemed to be in their teens or early 20s, and that meant that for many of them, they would experience those firsts while imprisoned in this death game—forever associating those first experiences with their time trapped in ALO.

Some of those firsts were more important than others. One of the more trivial, in Asuna's mind, was the fact that she had never actually been in a warehouse before, and wasn't really sure what to expect from the Nissengrof Supply Depot.

She wasn't completely ignorant—she knew it was probably a really big room with shelves and boxes where they stored stuff. But the room that lay beyond the sign announcing that they'd arrived at the Depot was… well, it was a lobby. A relatively ordinary waiting area that, if not for the fact that it looked like it had been cleanly hewn and crafted from living stone, wouldn't have been terribly out of place in some sort of themed resort back in the real world.

"A moment, please," said Grimlock, pausing just inside of the doorway and opening his game menu. "I need to set my badge."

Asuna's confusion dovetailed unpleasantly with her nervousness. "Badge?"

The question was answered moments after it was asked. She couldn't see what the Leprechaun smith was doing in his menu, but since her gaze had already popped his status ribbon for her, she was in a position to notice the rounded square of the guild tag beside his HP gauge flicker and change pattern with the kind of clipped, quiet tone that the UI made when an option was chosen. Before it had been a gold-colored silhouette of an apple against a pretty green background. Now it was a quartet of solid colors, with regular dotted lines dividing the square into quadrants.

When it was done, Grimlock's steel-gray eyes went to her expectantly. "My ID card, if you will."

"I still don't understand what you mean. I get that you're in more than one guild and changed which tag to show, but why?"

He couldn't have seen his own status ribbon, but he had to know where each part was—or at least, would be shown for others. He pointed up to where the tag hung in the air, always drawn face-on so that it was clearly visible from any direction. "Read it like heraldry. The brown in the upper left quadrant means the badge is valid only in Nissengrof. Orange in the next means it applies to the Supply Depot. The bottom two colors indicate my privileges in that context—in this case, denoting that I work here but need an escort to enter or withdraw resources."

Asuna had never, in her entire time in Alfheim, heard of someone using the guild system like this. Granted, this was her first time in the NCC, and she didn't know much about how they did things—and now that she thought about it, she'd seen the NCC clearers bearing guild tags like this before. But it seemed like a very odd, overly-complicated way of showing who was allowed where. "But that… that must mean that there's a different 'official' NCC guild for every combination of colors you have to use. And that some people would have to be members of more than a few."

Grimlock inclined his head. "That is so. But it works, and works well. Shall we go in?" He gestured towards a door on the opposite side of the room, and spoke a few words to the Leprechaun whom Asuna assumed must be a receptionist or guard.

Their brief address didn't seem to be necessary, though; the other Leprechaun was already rising from his seat as soon as his eyes went to Grimlock's status ribbon. "Morning, Grimlock. You're in late today."

"We run short on «Coastal Stabray Blood»," Grimlock answered, slowing as the three approached the door and reaching up to adjust his glasses. "I need a lot of it for a project, and it's to the point where it was easier just to pay the extortionate market rate for a stack."

The taller, short-haired Leprechaun who minded the waiting room seemed to scrutinize Asuna more closely. "Forget your tag, miss?"

Asuna shook her head. "I'm afraid I don't have one. Grimlock brought me here to see someone."

Grimlock inclined his head. "If you would be so kind to admit her as a guest, Laze. She has a question that I felt was best answered by Chellok or Agil."

"Sorry man, no can do—you know we had someone try to talk their way in last week. You won't mind if I call the boss down here before we go in?"

A shrug was Grimlock's answer. He followed it up momentarily with simple words. "As you will."

Laze wasn't gone long; when he returned, he beckoned to them with a downturned palm. "Boss is busy; he said to talk to Agil."

"Convenient," said Grimlock with a bow, the center part in his hair letting his dark bangs fall, curtain-like, to brush his cheeks.. "That is where I would be going anyway after taking her to Chellok. Shall we be off?"

Agil—that's the name that Kirito gave me.Asuna felt her apprehension begin to lessen at the mention of that name, especially now that it was clear Grimlock was telling the truth about knowing people at the Supply Depot. She tried not to let her skepticism show on her face—he was putting his own job on the line vouching for her.

The secured doors at the far end of the lobby gave way to a long arched hallway with a number of side rooms, each bearing player-crafted signs marked with words like Receiving or Staging. That hallway, in turn, hooked around to the right and let them out onto a platform that overlooked one of the largest rooms Asuna had ever seen.

It had to be. The ceiling, decorated with a strong-looking lattice of steel supports embedded into the natural rock, must have been at least three or four stories above the warehouse floor, where a wide rectangular clear area branched off to either side into long aisles, each of which had row after row of aisles on either side. From the looks of it, what she could see from her vantage point was only a small part of the overall complex.

As they made their way down a wide ramp and headed towards an unlabeled doorway below, Asuna craned her neck to look down the aisles. She'd seen maybe all of five people, most of them Gnomes. "I'd have thought it'd be busier."

"Not during the day," Laze answered with a breezy wave at the ceiling. "Most of the farmers are out doing their thing, and the clearers are in Arun. We'd usually have more Combine crafters in here requisitioning mats, but most of them are at the Conference."

"Every month, crafters who work for the NCC gather in Nissengrof to share recipes and knowledge," Grimlock explained before Asuna could inquire. "Not all participate, of course, but many do."

"What about you?" Asuna asked.

The faint smile that Grimlock almost always seemed to wear broadened for only a moment. "There are not so many Leprechauns who care to dabble in Constructs as do Smithing. It is a far more complex craft which requires a logical mind, and the stock recipes known to all are, for the most part, quite boring and not altogether profitable."

"You won't be satisfied until you can build a Gundam that facerolls gateway bosses," Laze joked.

Grimlock's amusement was perfunctory at best. "Scoff if you will, good sir, but you would be amazed at the functional things players can create in an open-world sandbox. The logic gates and modules one can craft for Constructs, however individually crude, are an order of magnitude more diverse than the Lego blocks you used to play with on your Minecraft server."

"So yeah," Laze commented aside to Asuna, more or less ignoring Grimlock's interjection. "Like I said, dude's gonna make a Gundam that replaces clearers."

"It is not a 'Gundam,'" Grimlock said wearily as they waited for a crude-looking motorized lift that seemed to be powered by some kind of crystal. "Nor is it a 'power suit', or a 'Boltron', or any of the other impenetrable otaku references that you find so humorous. It does not transform or shoot anything, and it neither walks nor flies. It is not even large enough for you to ride. It is merely a simple exploration device that has yet to so much as leave the city. And it is but one of my projects, an experimental one at that."

"If you know what he's talking about," Laze said to Asuna as he flapped his fingers like babbling lips, "Feel free to say something." She didn't, and so didn't.

A few bends later they drew close to a door labeled with an icon of an eight-toothed gear, which she thought looked very similar to the Leprechaun faction's sigil. "There you go, folks. Now disembarking for Mom's Basement Level 2: hikikomori, mad scientists, and Gundams that forgot how to Gundam."

"Do you have to deal with this every morning?" Asuna asked.

"No," Grimlock answered with a touch of long-suffering tolerance. "Only on days with names that end in -youbi."

It took Asuna a moment to realize that was sarcasm; it was the same thing as saying every day. She giggled slightly despite herself once she got the joke, and the Leprechaun blacksmith's smile became a little more genuine. "In all seriousness, pay it no mind. Laze is simply showing off in front of a pretty girl." While Asuna's cheeks warmed and Laze sputtered, Grimlock touched the door handle long enough for it to register that he had the correct key in his inventory, and pushed it open as soon as a click came from the lock.

The workshop was… so unfamiliar a scene that Asuna struggled to materialize her impressions as concrete thoughts. It was a medium-sized room with high ceilings, and there was a fair amount of open space on solid stone floors that bore scorch marks and scrapes; Asuna wondered if it had been originally drawn that way or if the environment could actually be damaged here. Workbenches and shelving lined the walls, and were thickly populated by bizarre, inert machinery in configurations that defied description, built for purposes at which she could not even guess.

"There you are, Grim," spoke a deep voice which filled the workshop. While not excessively bulky, the owner of the voice was one of the tallest Gnomes that Asuna had ever seen—even accounting for the way the game upscaled a Gnome player's avatar. When he rose from the bench his bald head easily topped two meters in height, and the shade of his skin was just a touch darker than her favorite milk tea. From Kirito's description, he couldn't be anyone other than Agil.

His intimidating appearance was thoroughly mitigated, however, by the wide, affable smile that split his face. He lobbed something small in a slow arc towards Grimlock, who juggled it awkwardly in his hands before barely managing to not drop it. "Good timing, actually. While you were out I went and saw Sendak, brought him that new module you needed to charge. Cooldown on my Enchant'll be a while, so I'm going to take an early lunch." Dark brown eyes came to rest on Asuna. "Picking up girls?" he said to Grimlock with a grin. "Your wife'll love that."

The words caused Grimlock to scowl, and her to began to bristle slightly. "Agil, my name is Asuna," she said. "I'm an Undine clearer, though I'm here for myself, not on their behalf. Grimlock said that you could tell me about a smith named Nezha, said he was a Leprechaun."

The grin vanished from Agil's face in an instant. "Well now, there's a name I haven't heard for a while. Why would you want to know about that little shit? Not looking for a commission, I hope."

The clear hostility that both Grimlock and Agil seemed to have towards Nezha worked to loosen Asuna's tongue somewhat. "I have reason to think that he might be supplying a PK group. When we defeated one of them, she dropped a blade that was crafted by him." So saying, she materialized Aloof Negotiator from her inventory and held it out with both hands.

Agil took the blade with a scowl that was easily as dark as the one Grimlock had briefly donned. "I wouldn't be surprised," he said. "He's blacklisted from doing business in the NCC, or with any of our members. If he wanted to continue smithing, he'd have to go elsewhere. He moved to Arun months ago to do just that." A few taps brought up the item's status window, and he nodded grimly. "Yeah, this is one of his alright. Decent work, too—I'm surprised."

Grimlock had already gone to work in his own corner of the workshop and seemed uninterested in further conversation; Asuna glanced once at him and then back at Agil. "Why?"

Agil took a deep breath and held it for a few moments before sighing heavily. "Nezha was a terrible smith. And I mean really bad. He rarely crafted new items; his area of work was enhancements. And it wasn't just incompetence—he seemed to have the most awful luck, breaking a lot of people's weapons in the process. That's a random chance," he elaborated, "and a tiny one if you use the right mats. Most smiths have never had it happen even once."

Asuna sensed that there was more to the story; she recalled Grimlock saying something about a scam. "Let me guess: it wasn't bad luck."

A snort. "Hell no. Guy was running a really clever racket, swapping the customer's weapon for a finished product that couldn't be enhanced any more. Made it look like the weapon just broke, when what he'd really done was sent the customer's weapon to his inventory and replaced it with one that looked just like it. Got away with it for weeks before people started noticing a pattern and we staged a sting. Caught him red-handed."

Now Asuna could very easily understand the reactions of both players to Nezha's name. The scam they were describing… he was stealing a player's best weapon, something they had earned and relied on to keep them alive. She wondered what kind of greed or circumstances could make someone think that was okay. "I don't suppose there's anything we can do with this to track him down?"

"I doubt it. To be honest, this is weak tea anyway. If you got this weapon off a PKer, then it's just as likely that they got it from a legit player they killed." He looked down at the sheathed short sword again, and closed the status window before handing it back to Asuna. "As much as I'm inclined to blame Nezha for ice being cold, it's not really fair to go after him just because a PKer had a weapon made by him. Even if this PKer did commission it from him, nothing says Nezha had any idea who or what they were, and he probably didn't give a damn as long as they were a paying customer willing to do business with him."

Asuna silently digested this for a few moments, but found her thoughts interrupted by an excited shout from the other side of the room. "It works!"

Agil head turned quickly; he seemed to forget all about Asuna's problems. "Already? You're kidding me, I gotta see this."

"I still need to sort out how to best connect the outputs to a chassis and make that do something useful," Grimlock cautioned, looking smug and triumphant despite his caveat. "But the so-called 'sensor' works."

Asuna had no idea what the man was talking about. "Show me," Agil said.

The angular workbench in front of Grimlock was covered with mechanical parts, orelight crystals, and what she recognized as various types of mats. He picked up a square metal device around the size of his fist and set it on the surface of the table with an embedded white crystal facing towards an empty corner of the room—empty of people, anyway.

There were distinctively-shaped recesses in the sides of the object, and as Asuna watched, he picked up another similarly-sized device that Agil had handed to him when they entered. This one was more complex in design, with a lace-like frame of filigrees surrounding a single dimly-lit green crystal. Some of the filigree patterns looked similar to the recesses on the other device; Grimlock carefully pressed them together until the crystal brightened and began silently pulsing in a slow, steady pattern.

"I'll use this to test," Grimlock said, plucking a tiny red crystal set in a gold frame from a bin with many similar items of different colors. He plugged that into another of the shallow recesses on the device Agil had brought him. "Just a simple orelight module that illuminates when powered. This logic gate should only pass a charge to the output port while the activator module is actively triggered."

"What triggers it?" Asuna asked, fascinated but quite lost at the overwhelming barrage of unfamiliar terms.

Grimlock made an expansive gesture towards the empty corner of the room. "If you would like to step over there, I will demonstrate."

Asuna tried not to take a step back. "I would not. I have no idea what the thing really does, and I don't feel like being a guinea pig when I'm not in a safe zone." It was the elephant in the room; none of them could possibly be unaware of the fact that she was able to take damage. Agil nodded in understanding.

"Ah, you have reason." Grimlock sketched a quick bow. "Very well then, I shall do so." He took several steps towards the indicated direction. At a certain point he seemed to trip some kind of threshold, the red light connected to the device shone brightly until he stopped. Smiling widely now, he waved a hand at the air; the light activated again and stayed lit until he stopped waving.

Asuna's awe had to be plain on her face; her jaw was loosely open. "Did it just… was it reacting to you moving?"

Agil clapped his hands onto Grimlock's shoulders, laughing heartily. "You did it! I'll be damned, man, when you told me about this idea yesterday, I thought it'd be weeks before you got anywhere—if it worked at all."

Grimlock's reaction turned towards modesty. "It is really not so surprising as all that," he said, turning back to his workspace. "We already know that most spells, when enchanted into a Construct module, behave in ways that are different from but directly or thematically related to what they do when cast by a player. Enchanting any module with Stoneskin, for example, makes these fragile items much more durable; a Tracer spell placed on an 'activator' module like this causes a mobile Construct to follow its owner. Is this creation not a logical inference from the function of my wife's Detect Movement spell?"

Asuna knew the spell; a number of the Undine mages used Wind, and she'd heard them call out things they spotted with Detect Movement a few times while clearing. "So it does the same thing as the spell?"

"Not quite," Grimlock said. "The spell creates a visual effect in the caster's UI. Obviously a Construct has no UI, so it seems that the system interprets the purpose of the spell—to detect movement—to mean that the module will activate and pass a 'true' value whenever there is movement directly in front of it." He inched closer and closer until the red light appeared again. "Within a certain field of view, that is."

"So you could use it to find the nearest mobs?" That sounded quite useful to Asuna.

"In theory," Grimlock said, plucking the power crystal from the top of the device and placing it on the desk. "As well as revealing ones you can't see, so long as they continue moving. Unfortunately, the necessary mats can be rare and expensive. We have to justify every one I request from our stores."

Agil suddenly looked a little uneasy, glancing at Asuna. "Look, I know this is kind of shutting the barn door after the horse is gone, but could I ask you to keep this to yourself? We still don't know how well this'll work in practice, but if word gets out, there'll be a run on the market for activator and power mats."

"Is it really fair to say that after you've shown me?" Asuna asked. "Every farming and clearing group would want one, and why wouldn't they? This device could save lives and get us all out faster."

"If it works the way we think," Grimlock said. "All we know for sure so far is that it can trigger off of movement a few meters away. We don't know its range, whether it will consume the power crystal over time as many modules do, or even if it can see through world geometry like the spell."

As exciting as the discovery was, they both had some very good points—and Asuna was inclined to take their word for it, since they were the ones who knew what they were doing here. She decided to shift gears and get back to the purpose of her visit. "Okay. You said that Nezha moved to Arun some time ago?"

"Yeah," Agil said with a nod. "I wish I could tell you more, but we honestly stopped paying any attention to him after that, once it was clear he wasn't picking up the same scam again. We've got bigger fish to fry, especially now with the changing mobs spawns." He glanced at Grimlock. "Oh hey, remind me after I get back from walking Asuna out—Chellok wanted me to talk to you about this mission we've got for your guild."

Asuna was more than capable of taking a hint. She bowed at the waist. "Thank you for the help and hospitality," she said. "I'm very sorry to bother you while you're working."

"Not at all," responded Grimlock, who looked a little apprehensive at the mention of his guild. "I hope you find what you are looking for in Arun."

Asuna doubted that. This lead was starting to look as cold as the region itself. Grimlock had given her a detailed description of Nezha, but even if she walked right into him once she reached Arun, what Agil said stuck with her: for all they knew, Fausta had killed the player who originally commissioned the sword from Nezha, or the smith simply hadn't known her from any other player. His name on the sword wasn't evidence of anything other than the fact that the item was his work.

As she and Agil made their way out of the Depot, she dearly hoped that Kirito was having better luck.

·:·:·:·:·:·

Argo and Thelvin were hours into their trip before they realized they had a problem.

The Lugru Corridor was the most direct route linking Sylph territory with Yggdrasil Basin, and everyone knew it. The trip could certainly be a difficult slog, especially through the much tougher mobs on the Yggdrasil side of the underground settlement—even for a clearing group, although at their levels it was more tedious than dangerous. But even with the necessity of clearing as you went, it was still considerably faster than going around through either Cait Sith or Salamander territory.

At least, it had been. But as they fought their way further and further through the winding subterranean pathways of the Corridor, it became clear that it wasn't just the overland mobs that had changed.

Argo knew the exact level ranges of the mobs in Lugru; they'd conclusively tested them during the beta by taking groups of players with a six-level spread and pinpointing mob levels based on who saw which cursor colors. She knew, for an absolute fact, that the most dangerous thing to be expected on this side of Lugru ought to have been a linked encounter of level 10 Doomgazers with a named leading them. Even the Orcs at this end of the corridor were weak compared to their Arun-side kin.

Nothing they had fought since entering the Corridor had been very far below Argo's level; if she'd been solo she would've been forced to turn back very quickly. As it was, even with Thelvin tanking she was both kicking herself for not hiring a healer before leaving Sylvain, and blessing the fact that she had packed enough potions for a full party. A few of the fights had been uncomfortably close.

"This sucks," Argo said at the conclusion of one such fight. "We've got no ranged DPS, no healing besides our pots, and with just the two of us the mobs are a lot tougher than we expected. We gotta go back and rethink this. Probably go around. If we're having this much trouble on the way there, we're gonna hit a brick wall when we try getting through the tougher mobs on the Yggdrasil side."

Thelvin waved at his Result window to dismiss it, drawing open his game menu and expanding the map; he had previously 'pinned' it visible for convenience. He traced a metal-clad finger from the icon marking their location through to the one labeled «Lugru». "I don't disagree, but we're almost to the midway point anyway—we might as well get there. You've been going through a lot of potions, and I think we'd both be well-advised to rest, repair, and resupply. Might be at least one player there interested in partying up too, and that'd make all the difference."

It wasn't the worst idea, and Argo gave in to the sensibility of Thelvin's suggestion. The last time they'd been through Lugru together, they'd done exactly that: encountered a small group of Sylphs and partied up to clear more quickly and safely than they would've separately. And Thelvin was right about their supplies. She took a moment to think of whether there was an NPC alchemist in Lugru, and felt a little better upon recalling that there was—Sionn's Sundries, two doors down from the stable and just across the street from the only inn.

Her eyes flicked up to her HUD. "All right, let's go. Day's half-gone already, and I'd rather not spend the night if we can avoid it."

Thelvin smiled faintly. "Don't care for Lugru?"

"Don't much care for anyplace underground," Argo said, unsheathing the hooked steel bars of her claws. "It locks me outta sending or receiving PMs, and my ability to communicate is everything to me. At least I'll be able to catch up a little once we get to the safe zone." She eyed Thelvin and poked him gently in the arm with the blunt side of the wrist-mounted weapon. "You're the one who said this way would be quicker."

"It would have been—before the rebalancing." Thelvin shrugged his shield back down onto his arm and started walking. "But it didn't work out that way, and now we have to deal with the situation as it is, not as we wish it were. You did say the overland spawns seem to be changing everywhere in Alfheim, from what you've been hearing. We should not have expected different here."

Argo could not find any fault with that kind of response, entirely practical as it was. The next hour passed in relative silence; the two Cait Sith reluctantly but doggedly trudged through the meandering switchbacks that wended down and northeast, carefully picking their way down the precarious stairway which wound its way down the cliffside overlooking Lugru's subterranean lake.

At one point their progress was halted by an unnervingly-wide gap—well within a typical character's ability to jump at a run, but not while wearing heavy plate armor the way Thelvin was. When they'd come this way before, they'd had another tank who had helped give Thelvin a boost over; Chihae had been lightweight enough to make the leap herself. Now it was just the two of them, and Argo had very little STR with which to provide any such assist to the much heavier Cait Sith tank.

Her eyes travelled across the wall bordering the narrow walkway, looking for signs of the design language the game used to signal climbable surfaces. She hadn't seen anything before, but— "There," she said suddenly, pointing. "Ironwood roots. Almost missed 'em; they're hard to see against the rock in this light."

"And?" Thelvin's eyesight was no better or worse than hers, but he didn't seem to get what she meant. Argo hastened to explain.

"Whenever the level designers wanted to make absolutely certain anyone can climb a natural wall, they placed ironwood roots. There are local variants that can be found anywhere in Alfheim, and they're so strong you need high-end harvesting gear to even make a dent. Trust me, they'll hold your weight."

Thelvin's gaze traced back and forth across the gap, lingering on the dull blackish-brown roots and then at the rocky waters far below. "Am I also trusting you to rez me if they don't? That sounds as risky and speculative as it looks."

Argo backed up for a moment and took a running start, leaping over the four-meter gap and rolling to a stop with plenty of room to spare. She got up and dusted herself off theatrically. "It's climb or jump, and you're too heavy to jump. You got a better idea?"

Having observed her jump, Thelvin nodded. "I believe so." He drew open his menu and poked at the air; after a few moments, pieces of his armor began to disappear individually. Once done he was left with only the basic garment he wore underneath it all, a belted silver waistcoat that matched the tabby-stripe markings in his black hair.

Argo stared. "That's not gonna work. You're gonna be even more weighed down when it's in your inventory; your armor skill only reduces the «Encumbrance» of worn armor."

"I know. But I have an idea. Walk towards me, all the way to the edge."

Something in Argo's mind flinched; she almost felt it physically. "I don't like where this is going."

Thelvin looked at her calmly, expectantly. Argo sighed and took a few steps forward, becoming more cautious as she came within a meter of the edge, tail lashing nervously behind her and eyes deliberately trained forward, not down. As she did, Thelvin approached as close as he could.

Is he going to try throwing his gear at me? Argo really hoped not. She didn't want to play catch with plate armor that weighed almost as much as she did.

A trade window popped up in front of her. After a stunned moment that seemed to drag on far too long, Argo swore creatively, words echoing off the stone as her voice rose. "You are kidding me. For real? That works?"

"The maximum range for all Focus-based social interactions—like a party invite, duel, or trade request—it's what, about five meters?"

"Exactly five meters," Argo confirmed, filing this little exploit away in her mind. "And because players can fly, the game doesn't care whether there's a floor under that space or not—it's just a range limit. Genius. I love it."

Argo did not love it quite so much a few moments later, after Thelvin finished trading a test batch of his heavy equipment to her and she pressed «Accept». She could immediately feel it all tangibly weighing her down—not really in any one place, more a sense of just her whole body being heavier and needing that much more effort just to stay upright.

Then, as the final trade went to her inventory, she hit her encumbrance limit. Not the soft limit beyond which she would start suffering movement and stat penalties—she was well past that point after the first trade—but the hard maximum encumbrance she could suffer and still move or act effectively at all; she was Rooted and afflicted with Delay status, and the sheer weight of her avatar forced her to her knees.

Thelvin, on the other hand, was now bearing weight which was very far below the limits of a strength-heavy character; if Argo had to guess based on his level and gear, she would've pegged him at a STR of at least 70 and an Unencumbered Carry Weight of at least 35 kilos. Having shed the weight of all that equipment, he could've almost carried her without much penalty. Thelvin took the same running jump as Argo had, and landed safely—if considerably less gracefully, coming down in a staggered jog rather than Argo's fluid breakfall.

Argo stared once more as Thelvin opened a trade window and relieved her of her burden, then began nonchalantly re-equipping his armor. At a loss for words, she said, "I guess that works too."

"The root of the problem was equipment encumbrance affecting jump distance, yes?" Thelvin's shield reappeared last, and he readied it once more as if it had been there all along, then glanced down at her. "Problem solved."

Thankfully, this time there were no Imp PK groups waiting to ambush them on the rest of their long descent down to the lake shore, although there were plenty of mobs left to clear—sometimes within sight of each other. There were no other groups at all, which Argo found a little bit odd; the Corridor was the fastest route between Sylph territory and Arun, and she knew at least one player who lived there full-time.

Come to think of it, what's Chromato up to, anyway? Argo wondered as their footsteps echoed across the bridge spanning the dangerous underground lake which surrounded the island town of Lugru. The streets weren't empty, but every cursor she saw belonged to an NPC, and the lack of activity was starting to worry Argo a little. I should've sent him a message before entering the Corridor; he usually checks in at least once a week with a traffic report if nothing else. Might as well ping him while I'm there—it shouldn't be this quiet!

It wasn't difficult to find the Sylph blacksmith once they'd passed through the massive gate which breached the turreted walls of the town—it never was, not since the former clearer had retired to Lugru and set up shop there. There was an NPC smith, of course, but Chromato knew from experience that Lugru Corridor was the route the Sylph clearers used for access to Arun, and experienced players always went to a player smith if they could help it. He had managed to quest for and purchase shop space in a prime location for catching the clearers on their commute: right on the wide avenue that cut through the center of the town from gate to gate.

"Convenient," Thelvin remarked simply when Argo pointed out the player-crafted sign jutting out from the side of the steeply-angled sides of the building, the light of habitation glowing from within through windows fogged with condensation. "I wish we had a town like this in the Valley of Butterflies."

Argo glanced up at the Cait Sith tank. "You haven't been here in awhile, have you?"

Thelvin shook his head. "Not since we were here together. Why would I? The Valley is the more direct route for us."

"Point. Anyway, here we are. We can get our equipment topped off while I find out why Lugru's turned into a damn ghost town."

"I'd wondered," Thelvin said, stopping in front of the shop's varnished wood door, keen eyes traveling around the street and likely noticing the same sea of white cursors that Argo had. "It's rare to find a town without at least one player who's decided to make it their home, and I expected to cross paths with other groups along the way."

"Yeah," Argo agreed, pushing open the door. "You and me both. Hey, Chromato!"

Her longtime Sylph contact was not, as she expected, hard at work. If anything, it looked as if she'd caught him while entertaining company. The fat Sylph boy was seated at the only table in the shop's roughly triangular front room, a small but well-crafted and polished wooden surface which stretched out from the carved stone walls. A half-annihilated plate of food rested in front of him. A mixed-race trio of players filled the seats around the table with their own meals in various states of consumption, and a low conversation came to a sudden end as four gazes went to the new arrivals.

Chromato's eyes widened, and his youthful voice nearly cracked as it shot up in pitch. "Holy shit, Argo! What are you doing—never mind that, how did you get here?"

Argo could tell Thelvin was about to open his mouth. She stepped forward before he could say anything and spread her arms. "Come on, this is me we're talking about. You sound surprised to see us. What's going on?"

"Which way did you come?" That urgently-voiced question came from an Undine man in light armor who was sitting opposite Chromato—or rather, he had been sitting there; he shot to his feet as he spoke, the buckles and other metal parts of his leather armor jingling.

"Why?" Argo asked, put off by the unexpected question.

"Because no one else has come through for almost two days," Chromato said. "Not since a party of Sylph scouts Sunday night."

That made at least some sense to Argo; Sylph clearers and scouting groups were the most consistent and regular travelers through the Corridor on their way to and from Arun, and a new zone had just opened up. She glanced around at the unlikely group. "Are you the only players in town?"

"Far as we know, yes," said a Cait Sith girl with short calico-patterned hair, who from her voice and stature seemed like she might be in her late teens.

The final stranger was a Spriggan man who seemed to be the best-geared of the lot; if he wasn't a clearer, Argo was certain he was at least an experienced adventurer. "Lugru pretty much turned into a ghost town overnight. Never seen anything like it—all of a sudden one morning, the mobs in the Corridor started respawning a lot tougher than usual."

The Undine man nodded. "One day they're all the kind of low-level trash any traveler can handle, the next they're deadly."

"Terquen's not exaggerating either," added the Spriggan, his square jaw tight as he spoke the words. "There were three groups here in town when the spawns changed—the four lowbies Terquen and Whiskers came with, the farmers I'd hired on with, and a group of Sylph clearers whom I'm guessing spent the night on their way back to Arun."

"We figured we'd follow the clearers out," Terquen said. "The mobs on the Arun side of Lugru are supposed to be tougher, right? Around level fifteen or so."

"Correct," Argo said immediately. Realization had snuck up and ambushed her while Terquen was speaking; she thought she now knew exactly what had happened here. "Let me guess—you got partway through the other side of the Corridor, and then you got repops."

"And not just any repops," said the Cait Sith girl, who sounded like she wanted to cry. "Nasty things with cursors darker than I've ever seen. Our tank thought we could take the first one, and we came close, but…"

Terquen rested a hand briefly on the girl's shoulders. "That's enough, Whiskers. I think they get the point."

Whiskers shrugged her shoulder to dislodge the hand. "They're dead," she said bitterly, amber eyes on the table. "Everyone else in our party is dead, and we're not. I should've never left Freelia."

Tell me about it, Argo thought. The Undine withdrew the unwanted touch and returned his attention to Argo while gesturing towards the Spriggan. "We ran into Veldt during a fighting retreat; he'd been trying to stealth his way through."

"And doing a pretty good job of it, too," Veldt said confidently. "If it was just me, I probably could've made it; I'm a hell of an Illusionist. But my best concealment spells are self-only or single-target—I can't affect anyone else with Phantasmal Form, and that's my bread and butter for getting past aggro trash."

Argo was inclined to believe him—she knew most of Kirito's tricks for getting around solo; it was something at which well-played and creative-minded Spriggans excelled. "So why didn't you keep going?"

Veldt didn't answer immediately, but glanced at Terquen and Whiskers. Thelvin made a sound of approval. "You couldn't leave them to fend for themselves."

"Well, what else am I supposed to do?" Veldt said a little testily, perhaps misunderstanding Thelvin's meaning. "A teenage girl, and an Undine who can't heal or tank? Trapped in a zone with a bunch of high-level mobs? Nobody would ever see them again."

"I can heal," Terquen protested. "There isn't an Undine alive who doesn't have the Water Magic skill."

"No," Veldt replied, arms crossed in front of his black leather chestguard. "But there's plenty who don't bother to grind it, and I'm talking to one. You're melee DPS; being able to spot-heal in a pinch doesn't make you a healer. Come on, man, you said so yourself."

"What about your farming group?"

Veldt shrugged at Argo's question. "Don't know; don't care. They were farming the Sylph side of the Corridor, and I only signed on as far as Lugru. They were headed back towards Sylvain and I wasn't; I have no idea what became of them after that."

Argo caught Thelvin looking at her aside. "If they were a typical home-zone farming group," she said, "they're probably high teens, maybe early-mid 20s. Tough to get much higher than that off what pops in the starting areas without venturing into dungeons. Guess it's possible they made it back, but we didn't see anyone on the way here."

"Please help us," Terquen said, bowing in his seat. "We don't know anyone we can message. The two of you made it here alone, and that means you're a lot stronger than us. I don't care which direction you're going, I want out of here. I think I speak for all of us on that one."

"Not quite," Veldt said. He shifted in his chair and looked slightly uncomfortable. "I do care about the direction; I'm headed to Arun, and I want no part of the shitstorm going down in Sylph territory right now. If everyone wants to party up going northeast, then sure, I'm in. Otherwise, if you want to take these two back towards Sylvain, I'll just try stealthing my way through again and wish you the best of luck."

Argo could understand not wanting to get involved in Sylph politics, especially from a Spriggan. She turned to Chromato, annoyed. "You coulda told me, you know—I haven't heard a damn thing from you in a week, and that was before the respawns. For that matter, why not just call on some of your clearer friends?"

"We kept figuring that someone was bound to come through eventually anyway," Chromato said defensively, running stubby fingers through his short forest-green hair. "They just opened up the next zone in the World Tree, after all, and I was hella busy servicing all the clearers on their way back—at least half of the Sylph groups are in Sylvain to debrief. Problem is, now most of them are tied down dealing with the Sallies."

Argo's mobile ears perked straight up. "What about the Sallies?"

Chromato blinked, momentarily taken aback. "You don't kn—of course not; you've probably been in the Corridor since this morning. We're at war again."

Despite the matter-of-fact way the Sylph blacksmith relayed the news, it still rocked Argo back. She had absolutely no trouble understanding the chill that ran through her from head to toe, setting her hair on end and her tail to lashing. No one could send mail to her while she was in the Corridor, but new PMs had started queueing up not long after she entered the safe zone; for the moment they were forgotten. Argo gave a little hop and seated herself on the window sill by the table, putting her feet up on the back of Terquen's chair. "Tell me everything."

"I don't know much," Chromato began slowly, "but here's the short version: the Sallies started farming the eastern part of the Ancient Forest, and sent clearers to protect their farming groups. We sent our clearers to support the Militia and try to kick them out, but it's not going so well."

"The Sals invaded?" Thelvin's tone was calm, but Argo could hear the edge in it.

"I guess that depends on what you mean by that," Chromato clarified. "From what I hear, they basically just decided to start farming there and told any Sylph farmers to stay away. They're not randomly ganking, but they're not pulling punches either if you stray too close to their farmers."

Argo frowned. "Well, it's a contested zone—anyone can farm there. Still a dick move." And potentially explosive. She fought against the urge to check how many of the remaining unread messages concerned this outbreak of hostilities; there would be time enough for that before long.

"Yeah, and it gets better," Chromato said. "Now that fighting's started up again, rumor has it the damned monkeys are going to try blockading Lugru."

Argo tried to keep her face free of the apprehension and panic she felt. "Which would trap everyone still in Lugru when they do." There is a solution to this. Think. Think. Think. Now she did avert her eyes long enough to start opening and scanning through unread messages. Nothing yet about a blockade, but a whole mess of reports corroborating the basic outlines of the conflict and tallying known casualties. She memorized and dismissed them as quickly as she could.

"Get us out of here, please," Whiskers said in a plaintive, whiny tone of voice which cut through Argo's concentration; it was a sound she found very unpleasant and not at all conducive to thinking.

"We have no way of knowing when another clearing group might come through," Terquen added, craning his neck to look over his shoulder at her and donning a bemused expression as he found himself at eye level with her boots. "And we haven't seen any more farmers or pickup groups."

"The mobs are something of a deterrent to casual tourism," Veldt quipped.

The situation was one without a lot of good options. It was one thing to party up with several competent, level-appropriate players—Veldt looked and sounded like he could handle himself, or at least thought he could. But Terquen was an unknown quantity whose healing couldn't be counted on, and so far she felt comfortable dismissing Whiskers as relatively useless. Bringing them along likely meant signing up to be a babysitter, and if nothing else another party of Sylphs was bound to clear the way through eventually. They might all be better off waiting it out; that would give Argo time to catch up on what was happening with the Sylphs and Salamanders.

Unless the Salamanders really did blockade Lugru. That could be… inconvenient. As much for Argo and Thelvin as for the poor newbies stuck here; there was no telling how long they'd be stuck. At least while she was in the town she could send and receive messages, but she couldn't stand the idea of being trapped underground with her freedom at someone else's mercy. Especially not now, with Corvatz leading the Salamanders.

Thelvin spoke into the silence of Argo's thoughts, addressing the others. "Please pardon my asking, but given the situation, what are your levels and roles?"

Most players would consider the first part of Thelvin's question extremely rude—a player's level and stat allocation were closely-guarded information rarely shared even with longtime friends. Circumstances being what they were seemed to relax some of the expected resistance.

"Low 20s, melee DPS with some heals and other basic Water spells," said Terquen after a moment's hesitation. "It's not equipped right now, but I use a scimitar."

"What's your Water Magic skill?"

This time there was no delay before answering Thelvin's question. "Just over 300."

"Not enough to rez," Argo said. "But you'll have party and AOE heals, Delay debuff, and Rejuvenation to speed up our HP and MP recovery." It was the last spell that would come in most handy; having someone with Rejuvenation minimized the number of potions they would have to buy and carry, and would eliminate a lot of the downtime between pulls.

The fact that he wasn't a proper mage worried her, though—tackling dangerous content with a healer who wasn't specced for healing was risky at best. Unfortunately, given the choice between no healer and a shitty healer, she'd take the shitty heals. She glanced at the other Cait Sith girl, not expecting even that much.

"Nineteen," said Whiskers. "And um, I don't know exactly what you mean by role... but I can shoot a bow. DPS means attacking, right?"

"More or less," Thelvin said, "If you use a bow, then what you do in a party is stand back and deal damage to mobs from a distance, right? That role is what we call Ranged DPS."

"Oh," Whiskers said, looking and sounding faintly bored with the gamer jargon. "Why didn't you just say 'archer'?"

"Because not all ranged DPS comes from archery," Argo said. "Mages can DPS, too."

"Well, I don't use magic," the younger girl replied. "It makes me sound stupid."

You don't need magic for that, Argo thought, rolling her eyes. She knew the girl's type; the Cait Sith faction had a disproportionately large population of casuals, socials, and larpers who rarely ventured outside of the lowbie home zones. Mobs in Cait Sith territory capped out at 15; chances were good that the girl never risked level-equivalent content, and had started hitting the steep diminishing returns on EXP for mobs more than 5 levels below her.

The real wonder was that she'd leveled up even this far; it meant she couldn't be completely useless. But at least they now knew where she fit into the party. That left one.

"My level's probably comparable to yours, judging by your gear," Veldt said directly to Argo—a notably nonspecific answer; the Spriggan seemed to be holding his cards close to his chest, and his caginess reminded her a bit of Kirito.

It made her curious. "My gear?"

"Tier 3, like mine. I'm mainly support—utility and crowd control magic. Illusion, obviously, plus Dark and Wind. All mid-level or higher."

"That's very good," Thelvin said, giving voice to Argo's surge of cautious optimism. "Useful mix of buffs and debuffs, with ranged magic DPS in a pinch."

"Utility and deeps here," Argo said, which gave away virtually nothing of substance. She jerked a thumb towards the Cait Sith tank. "Thelvin's exactly what he looks like." She looked over at Chromato.

"You know me, Argo," Chromato said, chair creaking in protest as he leaned back. "I'm done with clearing, and I'm not going anywhere. This is my home, and foot traffic'll pick back up eventually once things calm down. I've just been keeping these three company."

Thelvin made a thoughtful noise deep in his throat as he looked over the unknown players. "Party of five, two possibly underleveled, one well over. Two melee DPS, one ranged, some light heals and utility magic, crowd control, and a tank." He paused, and now his gaze took in Argo in addition to the others. "Sub-optimal, but potentially doable. What are we facing?"

Veldt seemed to understand Thelvin's ambiguously-worded question. "Aside from the usual types of underground trash—spiders, crawlers, so on—there's the Lugru Orc Clan. They always sucked to deal with, but now they've taken a level in their Badass skill."

"They maxed out at 15 on the Arun side before," Argo said. "Level 11 on the Sylph side. But on our way here from Sylvain, we were clearing mobs in the low 20s." It was giving away perfectly salable information, but she figured these weren't details to be holding back, given the circumstances—and besides, she was getting a lot more information than she was giving out. Fair trade.

"Well, the Arun side is a lot meaner than the way in now," Veldt said. "I've scouted both while we were waiting. I'd bet on the Orcs being at least 25, and some higher. A few named with cursors dark enough that I didn't feel like taking chances, usually with a handful of trash adds backing them up. Those you can avoid. The big danger is from patrolling roamers—Orc cav mounted on Wargs. They do not seem to have a tether, and they will ride you down if you try to run." Argo was sharp enough to figure out why Terquen and Whiskers looked guiltily down at their feet just then—and why Veldt was able to offer this advice in the first place. She would've wagered quite a sum that their "fighting retreat" had involved a bit more retreating than fighting.

Thelvin nodded; if he picked up on their reaction, he gave no outward sign. "Sounds similar to the «Caves of Color» zone, just before the 10th gateway. That's doable by a level-equivalent group." His eyes made another quick circuit of the room. "Which we are not entirely, but we have a few things in our favor, not least being a clearer tanking. I'm well-equipped and I outlevel this zone by quite a bit—just not by enough to trivialize it."

"I appreciate it," Veldt said. "Not having a tank in the party sucks."

"Are you still partied now?" At the chorus of headshakes, Thelvin drew open his menu and sent each player an invite with the swift ease of long practice. One by one, three new HP and MP bars appeared in the party list in the upper left of Argo's HUD—just below her own gauge, but smaller in size and simplified the way Thelvin's was.

"It's early afternoon," Thelvin said once everyone was grouped up. "Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't hesitate to push all the way to Arun with that much of the day left; we'd make it easily. But circumstances are not normal, and we have to clear our way through difficult and unknown mobs with an under-strength party and no rez spells. That means taking no chances. That means taking things slowly and carefully, stopping to fully recover HP before pulling again."

"You're suggesting we spend the night here," said Veldt, clearly unhappy at the prospect.

"It might be the safest choice," Thelvin said. "Start first thing in the morning, fully rested and stocked. Get our mistakes made and learning done while we're fresh instead of running on fumes, and have the whole day to carefully make our way to Arun."

Argo could not even begin to express just how much she did not want to spend the night in Lugru, nor list the numerous reasons why. "There's the town of Pacifen in South Yggdrasil Basin," she pointed out. "Thirty klicks east of the Corridor's exit. Got an inn, smith, general store—just the basics, but it's a safe zone and a place to sleep for the night."

"That still potentially leaves us fighting our way out of the Corridor at the end of the day when we're getting tired." Thelvin gave Argo a pointed look. "I know you're anxious to get topside, but I'm not persuaded it's a necessary risk."

"Don't talk like I'm the only one who's in a hurry to get to Arun," Argo said in mild agitation. "These kids want out too, and you've got two parties waiting for you there."

Thelvin appeared doubtful. "My clearing group will understand the circumstances, and Klein and his friends are already inside the World Tree—they're not waiting for us, we're just meeting up with them."

"Is this a good time to remind you about the damned Salamander blockade that could be cutting us off at any time?"

Thelvin weathered Argo's reminder and glanced at Chromato. "With respect for your friends, some of whom fought at my side in the raid a few days past… that conflict is between you and the Salamanders. You said they weren't randomly ganking—they're almost certainly under orders for a specific purpose. Their clearers are unlikely to attack a pickup group with no Sylphs in it, so long as we pose no threat to their farmers."

Almost certainly. Unlikely. These were weasel words that Argo disliked hearing in an answer, however much she might use them herself. This stinks of wishful thinking, she thought loudly enough that she was certain it showed in her expression. She did not share Thelvin's optimism when it came to the subject of Salamanders exercising restraint, and the moment this conversation was over she was going to have some very pointed messages to send to Eugene and her other contacts.

"In my experience," Veldt said after a few beats when no one spoke further, "it's usually the tank that sets the pace and leads the party. If Thelvin wants to wait, that's his call—it's his ass on the front line. But I'm no more anxious to stay here than anyone else."

"Look," Argo said. "The longer we stay here, the greater chance of the Sal-Sylph conflict escalating and trapping us for who-knows-how-long. I'll do what I can to try and cool it down while we're here, but I can only do so much with Corvatz calling the shots." She tilted her chin up to regard Thelvin. "Maybe pushing forward is a risk, but so is staying here and hoping we don't get cut off by the wrong kind of Sallies. Hope is not a plan."

"She's got a point," Veldt added. "I stay as far from Gattan as I can for a reason."

Thelvin nodded slowly. "All right, thank you for your thoughts, everyone. Argo and I need to restock and repair, and I suggest everyone else do the same if you haven't. We'll regroup at the gates in half an hour to give it a shot, but if I decide it's too risky, I'm turning back and putting out a call for a Cait Sith clearing group. Fair?"

"Fair," Argo said. She knew it was the best she was going to get from Thelvin, and his caution wasn't misplaced—not with the half-assed group they had to work with. She leaned back against the window and drew open her menu, spawning a new PM window and typing while she listened to Thelvin.

"Good. Now let's talk roles. Obviously I'm tanking. We don't have an off-tank, so no switching—I'm going to be the center of mob attention, and I doubt most of you could take aggro from me if you tried. Argo will be melee DPS. Whiskers, you and Veldt hang back with Terquen. Wait five seconds before attacking so I can build hate, then take any open shot you can get unless I call for DPS out."

"What do you mean, hang back with me?" the Undine protested. "I'm melee DPS."

"With all respect for your skills, not today you're not," Thelvin said. "You are our only source of heals, and we need you focusing on keeping everyone in the green. Keep your weapon at your side and both hands free—"

"I can cast with one free hand," Terquen argued.

The hell you can, Argo thought, hitting the «Send» button on a brief message to Sakuya and starting another PM immediately.

"Not effectively," Thelvin pointed out, as if plucking the objection from her mind. "Even the two-handed spells that can still be cast one-handed will be at partial strength if you do. I want your attention on your assigned role, Terquen. Stay with the the ranged attackers, and only draw your weapon to defend them if anything gets past me."

No one seemed to have anything else to say, although Argo thought the rapid-fire exchange of looks that passed through the group then qualified as a pretty spectacular episode of Significant Glance Theater. "I'll give more specific instructions before our first fight," Thelvin said. "Any questions?" When it was clear there were none, his eyes fell on the Sylph blacksmith. "All right then. Let's get started with repairs."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Kirito was both extremely embarrassed by the fact that he had to ask an NPC for directions around his own home city, and equally thankful that no one was around to see him do so.

Fortunately, NPCs didn't judge. The white-cursored Spriggan citizen paused when addressed as the game detected the focus of Kirito's attention, turning to him with eyes the color of cornsilk. The irises were so pale that in the torchlit evening Kirito wasn't certain if they were supposed to be gray or yellow. "Need something?"

"Could you tell me where to find the city jail?" Kirito asked. He'd been there once before while simply exploring the city, and he vaguely remembered it being somewhere deep underneath the central ziggurat—but until now he'd never had any reason to go there specifically.

NPCs tended to be scripted for various specific, limited roles, but there were certain kinds of interactions that they all seemed to have the ability to process—among those being a player asking for directions. The Spriggan NPC took a moment to consider the question, then pointed a gnarled hand towards the opposite side of the city. "Go towards the hill where the baths are, but instead of going down the steps, hang a right and follow the top of the hill around until it steepens to a cliff face. The entrance to the jail is in a one-story building there, but the jail itself goes deeper."

Kirito took a moment to appreciate the skill needed to design the game's language processing code; it had been the subject of more than a few articles he'd read during the beta. In order for the NPC to give an answer like the one it had, it would've been necessary not only to plot the path from their current position—that was the easy part—but render the directions in natural-sounding Japanese.

It occurred to Kirito that asking for directions conversationally the way he had seemed to engage more of the NLP system's resources than ordinary interaction—like most players, he usually kept NPC interactions simple to avoid confusing their narrowly-focused scripts. Curious, he decided to indulge a whim and test the limits. "Thank you for the information. It's important that I find a Spriggan named Prophet there, and I might need Yoshihara's help in dealing with him. I don't suppose you've seen her around?"

The Spriggan paused for a moment—long enough to make Kirito wonder if his question had managed to overwhelm it somehow, or trigger a race condition and glitch the NPC as it was about to switch back to its scripted routines. Then its features seemed to unfreeze. "Our leader? Last I heard, Yoshihara was seen in the north side of the market not too long ago. A small group was heading out, and she was talking to them right before they left."

Kirito hadn't actually expected any kind of a useful response—if anything, he'd expected the usual blank look and boilerplate answer that an NPC gave when you tried to talk to it about subjects it wasn't scripted to know. His surprise was such that he almost fumbled his response. "You said not too long ago… do you know where she went after that?"

This time there was no pause before the NPC replied. "I couldn't say. We done here? I've got customers to attend to."

There were no other players nearby, nor were they at one of the dozens of vendor stalls in this part of the marketplace; Kirito was certain the NPC had just reverted to his stock responses. "Thank you for your time," he said with a quick bow.

The information about Yoshihara was interesting, and certainly more than he'd expected to get out of an NPC—but at the moment it was a distraction from dealing with Prophet, who was currently sitting helplessly in a jail cell. He'd hoped he might be able to get Yoshihara to do something, anything, to keep him there longer—and he had a few ideas if it came to that—but her help wasn't strictly necessary quite yet.

Still, he didn't want to go all the way to her residence to find her if he didn't have to, so it was worth checking. Kirito spared a glance at his HUD as he took to the air and veered towards the north end of the market; it was almost nine in the evening. The tip he'd received from Philia—whoever that was—had suggested that Prophet would be in the jail for at least another few hours. At least, that was a reasonable inference; the message had been sent around midnight. But it occurred to Kirito that it was entirely possible Philia hadn't been the one to jail him, or that Prophet had already been in the jail for some time when they found out.

Or, for that matter, that his tipster had been telling the truth in the first place.

It was far from the first time he'd had such suspicions, but this time the wary thoughts came against the backdrop of Penwether's design themes: an ancient, dead city of deep-forest gloom, the crumbling remnant of a long-lost civilization. The relative silence of its citizens and the transient, makeshift nature of newer structures seemed intended to suggest that its denizens were not so much living here as staying—permanently encamped while they plundered the seemingly unending catacombs and ruins beneath and surrounding it.

Suddenly hyper-alert for no reason he could discern, Kirito landed and stopped in front of an NPC armorer's stall and pretended to examine a shield hanging from the rack in front of him, lifting it slightly and tilting it from side to side. It had been a clever idea, but the exercise ended up being fruitless: between the dim evening light and the surface imperfections breaking up the reflections, he couldn't tell if anyone was following him. He ignored the NPC's repeated inquiries and stepped away from the display, trying to look around without being obvious about it.

He certainly wasn't alone now; aside from what NPCs still remained in the open at this hour, here and there he spotted the green cursors of other Spriggan players. One cluster of five appeared to be a group preparing to head out, which wasn't as surprising as it might've been in another city—the fact that every Spriggan had at least a basic cheap Light spell meant that a lack of daylight was no real hindrance if a party preferred to hunt at night. There weren't any other parties that large; most of the other players he saw were individuals and pairs, and there weren't all that many of those.

Kirito was preparing to take to the air when recognition snapped his gaze back to the large party gathered around an NPC alchemist. He didn't know the rest of them, backs turned as they were, but he would've recognized Coper's youthful voice and unruly head of hair even if he hadn't caught a glimpse of the other boy's face in side profile.

"What's the holdup, Krensh? We're losing valuable time here."

Krensh's voice was even as he poked at a menu, but when he glanced over at Coper, he looked about as anxious as his party member sounded. "What does it look like?"

"I can't see your menu, jackass, how should I know?"

Now that he'd spoken and been named, Kirito recognized the stocky Spriggan tank's distinctive Volcanic Steel crafted armor—and his equally distinctive abrasiveness. "Trying to find the pots I just bought. The damned bot said the transaction completed, but I don't see them anywhere in my inventory." Kirito could sympathize, hard as it was to concede any common ground with Krensh; finding the right item in your inventory menu if you carried a lot of mats and small consumables could be a real pain. It was the main reason to use gear that added bags or pockets, since anything stashed in them—while vulnerable to theft or loss and adding encumbrance—was accessible at a moment's notice.

What the hell are those two doing together, though? It was so baffling to Kirito that it threatened to distract him from his quest. Coper hated Krensh, and Krensh hated… well, pretty much everyone except his Leprechaun girlfriend, and it was anyone's guess what she saw in him. For that matter, Kirito didn't see her anywhere around; he knew some of the players Coper liked to run with, and none of them were here either.

Still fighting off the sense of unease that had overtaken him, Kirito toggled on his Hiding skill in order to conceal his cursor, and took a few steps aside so that the canvas shell of the armorer's stall hid him visually as well. As far as he knew, Coper didn't come to Penwether often, so even if Krensh hadn't been there, seeing Coper twice in the span of a few days struck him as curious enough on its own to stop for a moment and listen.

Another boy in Coper's group, a gangly Imp youth with violet-black hair halfway down the back of his robes, sighed and stepped into Krensh's personal space. "Here. Set the damn menu viz."

Krensh's annoyed reaction to the offer of help was in poor grace. "And what? You can't interact with it, Burns."

Kirito couldn't see the mage's face, but from the cant of his head suspected that eyes were being rolled. "Will you just do it?"

After a few taps at the air, Krensh's inventory menu blinked into public visibility. He turned the window slightly so that Burns could see better, and scrolled through with one finger. "See? No «Truesight Potion» anywhere. I'm telling you, it's a glitch."

Kirito immediately realized the problem without even needing to see, and apparently so did Burns. "And I'm telling you that you're being a noob." The Imp mage reached out quickly and grabbed Krensh's wrist, then used it to give the menu a spin, scrolling it down. "There: it's under «Potion: Truesight». Potions are categorized items, so their display names are always prefixed with the item type. You were in the beta; how do you not know this?"

Krensh rubbed his unarmored wrist sullenly. "I oughta port your ass to jail for that. And you're forgetting whose safe zone this is."

"You're welcome," Burns said amiably.

"Accept that prompt or bare any steel and I will gank you in your sleep, Krensh," said Coper, holding out his palms to the two conflicting party members before they could escalate. "And Burns, rein in the attitude. This is gonna be hard enough after Mizer bailed on us, but even without his DPS rounding out the party, for the five of us it's still doable. We lose any more, we lose this opportunity. Now, everyone got their pots?" Four nods followed immediately. "Then let's rip sky."

Kirito hadn't met Burns, but he knew of the Imp ex-clearer by reputation—not all of it good. There were one too many familiar names in the whole conversation for his liking, and he had the nagging feeling that he didn't want any part of whatever quest or job this unlikely pickup group was doing. When Coper rallied his pickup group to leave, he made sure to maintain his Hiding skill and ducked under the awning of the vendor stall.

Five sets of wings—four Spriggan, one Imp—filled the air with receding sound as they wasted no time taking flight. Kirito peeked out from the open interior of the tent and craned his neck up at the sky, activating Searching long enough to pop the five dwindling cursors and ensure they were all leaving. The few other players in the open seemed to have had their attention drawn by the sound, a distraction which Kirito used to resume following the directions the NPC had given him without further incident.

The encounter had been unusual, but Kirito tried to put it out of his mind as he prepared for what he might find in the jail. True to the NPC's words, it was a squat single-story building of cracked orange stone, a relic of whatever civilization supposedly predated the Spriggan population in the city. Steel double doors which were obviously not part of the original design barred the entrance, but despite their imposing appearance they parted at a push—albeit not without an incriminating squeal of protest.

The entryway was high-ceilinged, constructed as a broad half-octagon with the front door in the center of the arc, lined with benches on the angled sides and parting to two hallways on the flat side. No one was in evidence—not a living soul, not even an NPC; other than the stone benches there were no furnishings of any kind, and the place looked like it hadn't been used in decades. Did the NPC give me bad information? Kirito wondered, peering down the darkened hallways.

Frowning, he raised a hand and aimed in the general direction of the ceiling, some distance down one of the halls. "Matto famudrokke trekul shippura dweren." At the conclusion of the incantation, golden motes of light coalesced into a miniature star which shot away from his outstretched hand; eventually it attached itself to a Focused point on the ceiling and blossomed into a brilliant light source—as if a very large LED had emerged from the stone.

The shadows cast during its brief flight fanned out in alternating bands of light and dark as it passed the vertical iron bars on either side of the hallway, confirming his suspicions; when it reached its destination and brightened, he could clearly see the cells blocks that the corridor held in lieu of walls. He was in the right place… there just didn't seem to be anyone home. No motion stirred in the deep shadows, and no lonely voices called out in response to the light.

The two hallways turned out to be the stubby legs of a broad U-shape, the half-loop lined with empty cells perhaps four meters square. Some of the cell doors were sealed, most were not; the ones which were not seemed just as empty as the ones where the creaky metal doors hung wide open. At the apex of the U, opposite the entrance to the building, a switchback staircase with carved stone steps led downwards, a path which was lit only by a few torches hanging from the walls at irregular intervals. The dusty sign next to the stairs read «Overflow», and Kirito briefly considered heading down there, but decided to first check the other leg of the U as it wrapped back to the entryway.

Kirito raised his hand again, preparing to recast his spell and illuminate his way. Before he could speak the incantation, however, a deep voice filled the silence, startling him.

"Any more predictable, Kirito, and you'd be a video game protagonist. Like clockwork, both you and Philia. It's really amazing you've survived this long."

Kirito fought to control the triumphant rage that flared in him at the sound of that voice. When he turned towards its source, he saw a vaguely human shape lying in the far corner of one of the closed cells, and immediately cast his Light spell against the back wall. Prophet's eyes narrowed, and without straightening from his reclining position on the stone bed, reached up to pull the hem of his hood down so that it provided shade from the sudden increase in illumination. "Rude. Could at least warn when you're going to turn on the lights."

Kirito put his hands on the bars of the cell and leaned closer. "After what you've done, you've got real nerve complaining about courtesy. 'Griefer' is the nicest thing I can think of to call you, but that feels like an insult to griefers everywhere."

Prophet made an indifferent sound and drew his hood lower. "Argumentum ad hominem. Completely unimaginative. Boring me already."

Prophet had no cursor to target; Kirito couldn't even send him a duel invite to get his name. Annoyed, he carefully aimed a second Light spell directly at Prophet's chest. The PKer sighed and sat up, regarding the light source attached to him with one eye squinted shut. "And you call me a griefer. Fine, have it your way. Yatto famudrokke wejilth tepnaga yasun."

As Kirito braced for the unexpected, a wave of Dark energy washed out from Prophet, immediately extinguishing the active spells within its area of effect and plunging the hallway once again into something very near to darkness. The other Spriggan's laugh drifted out from the darkness. "Yes, non-combat spells work just fine in here, good for you." Before Kirito could recast the light source, Prophet's words lashed back out at him. "I don't do social visits, boy. Something on your mind, or is this just what passes for house entertainment in this shithole?"

Kirito folded his arms. "I'm not interested in being social with you. I mainly just wanted to confirm that you really were here, and take the measure of you when I'm not looking down your blade. If that qualifies as entertainment, enjoy it while it lasts."

Prophet pointedly looked Kirito up and down. A sneer darkened the shadow of his face. "Come back in a maid outfit. That'd be entertaining."

The initial spike of surprise and alarm had begun to fade, and in its absence Kirito found the presence of mind to do more than just react to Prophet's taunts, now that it was clear the man wasn't a threat and couldn't go anywhere. He was mouthing off precisely because he couldn't do anything else. "Actually, I was thinking about how quickly I could get together enough players to ensure that you never set foot outside the safe zone without someone doing the world a favor."

Prophet's laughter rang out again, echoing down the stone hallways. "Hollow threats from a hollow child who's substituted self-righteousness for a lack of self-worth. If you had a lynch mob on call, you'd be rounding up your fellow vigilantes right now—not shooting the shit here with me and thinking about it." He leaned forward at the waist from his sitting position, gaze unflinching. "Try again."

Fists tightened on the bars once more. "You're awfully calm for someone who's sitting in jail, Prophet. You have to come out sometime, and there are at least two bottlenecks on the way."

Prophet snorted. "Listen to yourself. If you want to know why the Treaty is a dead letter, take a hard look in the mirror, boy. You've got no problem with PKing when it tickles you, jishou-yuusha—you cherry-pick the circumstances where you think killing is justified, and pretend that being choosy about your murder makes you noble."

"Jishou-yuusha? Odd choice of insults. From where I'm sitting, I'd rather be a self-proclaimed hero than a murderer with delusions of purpose."

Prophet wagged a finger back and forth in a condescending scold. "You don't get it, do you? That's all a hero is: a murderer with delusions that their nobility of purpose makes them better than those they've chosen to kill." Clothing and buckles murmured as Prophet came to his feet. "Plot twist, hero: no one's impressed by your self-congratulatory song and dance. And I don't care if you stand there running your mouth up to the moment that cell door opens—you still can't do a damn thing to me.You and I both know I can be out of this building and long gone before my «Prisoner» protection expires. And doesn't that just suck for you."

The smug, brutal mockery began to erode Kirito's reserve of calm. Prophet was aggravatingly correct; Kirito had reviewed the prisoner mechanics in the manual on his trip down. They weren't the same as they had been in beta, and the anti-griefing safeguards were apparently a lot more restrictive now—inconveniently so. "You seem pretty sure of that, Prophet. You willing to bet your life on being right?"

A hint of reflected magelight from around the corner briefly glistened on Prophet's yellow eyes as he stared back at Kirito. "As if we all haven't already." He gestured broadly at the ceiling, the floor, the air surrounding them. "This is all there is, you naive fool. There's no going back—our lives in the old world were gone the moment we entered this one."

"Maybe for you," Kirito spat out angrily. "Maybe your old life was so worthless that this is the only way you can find purpose. You're still just—"

"Spare me your armchair psychoanalysis," Prophet said wearily, coming to his feet and drawing close enough to the bars that Kirito could've almost reached out and touched him. "I know exactly what I am, and I'm good with it—and good at it. Think your precocious, hormone-addled brain has this all figured out?"

"I think I've got you figured just fine," Kirito said, ignoring the insults for the obvious bait they were and trying to project serene contempt. "Your kind is a dozen to the yen in any online multiplayer game. The death penalty in Alfheim raises the stakes to murder, but the hard truth is that at your rotten core you're still just another pathetic flavor of griefer—someone who gets their fun from ruining it for others."

Prophet's white grin split the darkness. "Spoken like the true carebear you white-knighting types usually are. It must suck for you, being in a world with no GMs to call or customer service to email when someone doesn't join your hug circle and play the game your way."

Kirito again refused to rise to the bait. This, at least, was an argument he'd had before, and it wasn't one he was interested in rehashing with the sociopath on the other side of the bars.

When no answer came after a few beats, Prophet grunted and brought his face within breathing distance of Kirito's, separated by an alternating veil of vertical steel slats. "Best get used to it, jishou-yuusha… pinpointing my Myers-Briggs or guessing my blood type won't change the reality of this world. The only part of 'us' left is the consciousness that lives here in Alfheim… and when Alfheim's time is up, so is ours. Best you make the most of it if you plan on ending it."

The chill of unwelcome knowledge shot through Kirito with each sentence Prophet spoke, the weight of the realization almost staggering him. "You have no intention of ever leaving the game—or letting anyone else clear it."

Prophet slowly clapped his hands, backing up a few paces. "The boy's slow, but he's starting to catch on. You want to talk hard truths? We're already dead. There is no logging out. No second wave, no warm and fuzzy happy ending that gives everyone back their old lives. This is all there is—and the sooner you get that through your head, the sooner you'll understand that Death has offered us immortality."

Now Kirito did take a half-step back, though he wasn't quite sure why he did. "Now I know you're crazy. And if you think that little speech is going to intimidate me, Prophet, you can add stupid to crazy. What do you think the clearing groups will do when they find out you're trying to stop the game from being cleared?"

Prophet's infuriating grin widened. "I imagine they'll go out of their way to hunt me down."

Kirito stared incredulously. "You sound like you want that to happen. If it's an end you're looking for, I'd be happy to help your wish come true—just stick around here for a bit."

Kirito could faintly see Prophet's shoulders rise in a shrug. "Bloodthirsty little wannabe-hero, aren't you? I think I'll pass for now. It's a big world, and I know its secret places. Every clearer hunting for me is one less trying to clear the game, and one more for me and mine to farm for Favor. Win-win from where I'm sitting."

"You're contradicting yourself," Kirito pointed out. "You say there's no point in trying to clear the game, but then talk like it's to your benefit if we don't. So which is it?"

"Just because you don't understand my words doesn't make them a contradiction," Prophet remarked. "If you clear the game, the game shuts down—and if that happens, that's curtain call for all of us. An end to ageless virtual bodies that will never get sick or die, a life lived in a world where the gods walk and a man can be anything he chooses to be." He seized the bars just below Kirito's hands, and pulled himself close so abruptly that Kirito yanked his head away. "It doesn't have to end that way. It doesn't ever have to end, if you pledge yourself to the Mistress and impress her with your works."

"And now we're back to larping," Kirito said, openly disgusted. "Since you like hard truths, here's another one for you: roleplaying as a serial killer for a fictional deity doesn't make you their prophet."

"No," said Prophet with a secret smile as he bowed his head. "This does."

Kirito didn't recognize the words that Prophet spoke next; they were not part of any incantation he had ever heard, and they certainly weren't Japanese or English or any of the other languages with which Kirito had some familiarity. But while the words held no meaning for him, they had a clear effect. He could hear a faint guttering sound accompanying the deaths of the few torches down the hall, and what light remained gradually took on a bloody hue. There was an oppressive sense of presence in the air, a suffocating weight that seemed to press in on Kirito like the cloying humidity of summer gone ice-cold.

It made no sense. He was in a safe zone, and there was no spell in the game that could do anything like this. Kirito's sword was clear of its scabbard before he even thought about it. But when moments passed and nothing further happened, the tip of his blade dipped a little as he glared at Prophet's smirking face across the bared steel. "That's it? You found an ability that lets you put on a lightshow and intimidate people with weird simulated feelings, and suddenly you think you're communing with a god?"

"Goddess, actually," came a silky whisper in Kirito's ear. "And you have your cause and effect reversed."

The second sentence was almost lost to the wind as Kirito whirled and leapt backwards down the hallway, sword held defensively before him. He was certain—completely certain, beyond any shred of doubt—that he had been alone with Prophet. The dead silence in the jail was so absolute that he was sure he would've heard anyone approaching. Now the two had become three, and the third was regarding him from a pair of mismatched eyes, one glowing yellow and the other hazy with blindness.

It was a woman's form, but even in the dim light Kirito could tell that there was something wrong with her. One half of her face was stunningly beautiful, save for a blue skin tone that darkened in the reddish hue of the light. The other half appeared superficially human, but the skin went intermittently translucent to reveal dead flesh and bones below, as if the normalcy was merely a seeming.

Above the woman's white NPC cursor was a single word, three simple letters in the Latin alphabet: «Hel».

"Such a dramatic response," Hel said with a curious tilt of the head, once it was clear that Kirito had no immediate intention of lowering his sword. "One might speculate that I startled the boy." She turned to regard Prophet in his cell. "You expended a great deal of «Favor» to bring me here. Those souls cried my name when you beckoned. I trust that my time—and your Favor—will be well-spent."

When he could spare a moment to glance out of the corner of his eye, Kirito was shocked to note that Prophet was kneeling. The PKer did not raise his head while he spoke. "Mistress, the boy thinks me a common killer. He hunts me, and all others in your service. It seems a waste of his talents."

"Indeed?" Hel turned her good eye towards Kirito, who did not flinch from the gaze. "Yes… so I see. Boy he may be, but a boy with a man's will and a man's skill. Were he human, he would surely see Valhalla one day. I trust you are not fool enough to think that I will directly interfere in this conflict?"

"Not at all, Mistress. I'm sure you would celebrate my death at his hands as readily as the other way around."

Hel's yellow eye gleamed with its own inner light as it beheld the kneeling Spriggan. "It could be so. If he is so skilled at sending others to the Halls of Valor, perhaps he might even take your place and send them to me instead."

Kirito had no idea what kind of quest he'd managed to stumble onto, but he'd had about enough of being a bystander in this insane exchange. He locked his gaze with Hel's, trying not to let her inhuman appearance or the unreality of the moment throw him off. She had a white cursor, which meant that she was—at least, at the moment—no danger to him. He allowed his sword to lower, but did not sheathe it. "You're an NPC—I recognize your name from Norse game lore. What's going on here? Why are you playing favorites with a player? A player-killer?"

If the Hel NPC was confused in any way by Kirito's questions, she showed no sign of it. "If you know my name, child, then you must also know who and what I am. I am the final embrace known by those who come to the end of their lives. I am the beacon that guides those who venture across the Gjöll. Mine is the farewell kiss before the funeral pyre at the end of a long life, and the whispers of solace to those who keen for what they left behind."

Hel's smile then was sweet and affectionate, an appearance horribly betrayed by the decaying rictus that momentarily faded in on one side of her beautiful face as she gazed towards Prophet. "As to your final question, Vassago is my prophet. He has discovered that I am quite generous to those who pledge to me and do good works in my name, and he has taken it upon himself to spread that word."

Vassago? To Kirito's ear, it had the sound of a foreign proper name. "A prophet needs a prophecy," he said warily. "What's yours?"

Hel reached out towards Kirito with an upturned palm; she seemed to be about to touch his face. Kirito jerked his head away and took a few steps back. "Oh good child, be at ease. I do not harm the living."

"No," Kirito said, unrelenting. "Apparently you just encourage players to do that for you. That's a distinction without difference to me. Wrap it up in whatever dialogue tree or plot language you like, that's what's going on here: you're giving out some kind of deity quest where the goal is to kill other players."

"Your understanding of the situation is rudimentary at best," Hel replied, languidly strolling over to one of the cell doors and caressing slender fingers down the length of the metal bars. "Your need to frame it in your own terms limits your ability to see truly. Mine is a story that has awaited its fullness for centuries, part of a prophecy foreseen by the Seidh and set in motion from the moment the trickster was bound and the Valkyries slumbered. In time you will learn more of it. But not yet."

"In Japanese, please," Kirito said when Hel seemed to pause for a breath. "You're talking a lot but not actually saying anything. What kind of reward could be worth the price you're asking?"

"I offer something that no other of my kind will. A treasure without weight or substance, yet invaluable. A reward commensurate with the deeds which earn it."

"And that is?" Kirito had absolutely no intention of taking Hel up on her offer or accepting any quest from her, but as long as she was scripted to keep talking, he was going to get as much information as he could.

Hel was still facing the cell, hand pressed against the bar; she canted her head to look back over her shoulder at Kirito with her blind eye. "Eternal life."

Kirito couldn't help it. He laughed out loud, directly at Hel, and then grinned as he looked at Prophet. "You're being played."

Prophet's mocking smile, barely visible below the shadow of his hood, was awful in its lack of humanity. "You think so."

"I know so," Kirito said, gaze flickering briefly to Hel and then back. "The Nerve Gear isn't a fountain of youth, so we're talking about game mechanics here. And Kayaba would never have designed a quest or reward that let you cheat death by breaking established game mechanics. At best it's something like Second Chance—a one-time trigger to reset your HP to 1 instead of becoming a Remain Light."

Hel seemed to entirely gloss over most of what Kirito said. "My dear, you cannot cheat Death out of what she is offering freely. Pledge to me, and my boons shall be yours."

"Never," Kirito said, fingers tightening on the grip of his sword. He had no idea what was going to happen when he tripped whatever dialogue condition that caused Hel to decide he had refused to accept her quest. This situation was so new, so different; for all he knew she might well go KOS and aggro him. He didn't think that was likely or even possible… but recent events had shaken his assumptions in that regard.

Hel's smile faded slightly then, and became almost sad as she gave Kirito a proper once-over. "Is that so? A pity. You could continue your hunt for my prophet, you know. I do not tell my devotees which souls to take. Vassago spoke truly: I would celebrate his death at your hands as surely as the other."

It was the second time Hel had called Prophet by that name. Kirito filed it away for future review; it was possible that she'd just inadvertently given him Prophet's true character name. He decided to push the boundaries. "What part of 'never' was hard for the game's language engine to process, Hel? I'm not your minion, and I never will be. Don't you have Valkyries for this or something? Or are they all too embarrassed to be seen in public with you?"

Seconds ticked away. Without the guttering of the stairwell torches to provide a glimmer of flickering light, it was hard to tell how many. Hel's frozen posture might well have been an indicator of lag or a game freeze, and Kirito fidgeted slightly—more to test whether or not he could still move than from nervousness.

At long last, her smile tilted ever so slightly to the side, favoring the rictus. "Well, aren't you interesting."

A hint of movement in his far peripheral vision drew Kirito's attention to the side; Prophet had raised his head and was grinning toothily. "Not that it would've stopped me from killing you. Actually, you would've been worth a lot more Favor if you'd accepted—the more dangerous souls usually are." He began to rise to his feet. "Suits me fine. Now you know how screwed you are."

When Kirito's eyes went forward again, Hel was gone, her silent departure not even displacing the air. Within moments the color balance in the dim light shed its crimson aura, and the smothering sense of pressure and presence to which he'd very nearly adjusted suddenly lifted itself.

Still wary, Kirito returned his sword to its sheath and faced Prophet defiantly. "If that's all you've got in your corner, Vassago… I'm not worried. No matter what kind of abilities you've unlocked, no matter what lore nonsense you've mistaken for a gameplay advantage, you can't escape the fact that Hel and her entire questline still have to obey the game's rules. I've been on quests where there was a temporary 'cinematic' bending of what seemed possible, but they all still had to conform to the game's need to maintain a fair balance."

He tipped his head in the direction of where Hel had stood. "I'm sorry, were you expecting me to be awed by this show you just put on? Everything she said and did just now was still completely within the limits of a quest NPC. Well-written dialogue and temporary sensory effects aside, this is is still nothing more than another kind of quest."

Kirito's eyes snapped back to Prophet, whose expression was unreadable in the shadow of his hood. He leaned forward just a little to emphasize his words. "And that makes you nothing more than a murderer sitting in a jail cell, waiting for judgment."

Without further word or delay, Kirito swept down the hallway and left the jail at a fast walk, Prophet's laughter nipping at his heels. The moment he was outside, he took to the air and took a ballistic route towards the central ziggurat, not caring at the moment for subtlety. There was no telling how much longer Prophet would be stuck in that jail cell; for all Kirito knew he could be released at any moment, and he'd spent far too long there trading words. He had to assume the worst and act fast.

Kirito ignored the stares of the few Spriggan players he passed in the street and the hewn stone hallways, eyes before him and intent focused on his objective. He expected to have to spend some time pounding on Yoshihara's door before she'd answer it—he was certain she eventually would, if only to make him go away. At this point he didn't care what kind of scene he made; he doubted this chance would ever come again.

He did not at all expect to come face to face with her when he rounded the corner leading to her residence.

Judging by her reaction, Kirito was evidently not high on Yoshihara's list of people she expected to find on her doorstep, either. "Oh, hell no," she said.

"Yoshihara—"

"I don't care," Yoshihara said bluntly, her ash-gray ponytail whipping back and forth. "My field of fucks is a dustbowl right now."

"It's about Prophet," Kirito said in a rush. "He is sitting in your jail right now."

Yoshihara folded her arms with a scowl. "Tell me something I don't know."

Kirito's jaw dropped. "You knew? What the—never mind. Look, I just need you to hear me out for thirty seconds, okay?"

"Nope," Yoshihara said with a flick of her hand, stepping towards him. "A whole world of nope."

"Just thirty seconds!" Kirito said, flabbergasted. He stepped aside so that he wasn't blocking her, a gesture of good faith that he hoped wasn't wasted. "You want to see Prophet dealt with as much as I do, and all I'm asking for is thirty seconds out of your packed schedule so that I can explain what's going on and what you can do to help. I'll pay you to do that for me. I'll even pay you just to hear me out, if you want it to be worth your time."

"Are you deaf?" Yoshihara demanded, hand resting on her doorknob long enough for it to unlock. "I said I don't have time for this. There's nothing else I can do for you, now please, please, just get the hell out of here and leave me alone."

Kirito blinked in surprise at her choice of phrasing. "What?"

"I said—" Yoshihara's rising voice cut off there, eyes drawn to the side. At the same time, Kirito heard a chiming sound in his ear and caught a glimpse of a system notification icon in his peripheral vision. His wordless exclamation of disbelief came only a moment after Yoshihara's shocked gasp from in front of him.

『07/05/23 09:17 JST — «Yoshihara» has been defeated in combat, and «Coper» is now your «Faction Leader» until the next scheduled vote. Please congratulate him!』

Kirito was barely aware of anything else—he just couldn't stop staring at the nonsensical words in the system notification window. When he finally looked back up at Yoshihara, she was still there in front of him, very much alive and well; when he focused on her cursor, the status ribbon that appeared still had a gold star beside it. She had one hand in the air positioned as if to scroll through a list in her game menu; the other covered her mouth as she looked on in obvious horror.

"What?" Kirito repeated, more confused than ever. He read the message again to make sure it wasn't some very clever spoof, although he couldn't think of how anyone might've accomplished such a thing.

By the time he looked back at Yoshihara again, some of the shock had faded from her face. Her hand was still held out as if stopped in mid-motion of operating her game menu, trembling as she met Kirito's eyes for the first time.

"Yoshihara," Kirito said, "what's going on here?"

Yoshihara's eyes went up to the top of her vision, and she blinked once; as soon as she did, her features instantly began to melt slightly, to become fluid and malleable in a very uncanny but familiar way. The details on her armor changed; straps sank into the metal in some places, appearing where they hadn't been in others. She seemed to gradually lose a few centimeters of height while this was happening, although Kirito couldn't be certain whether he was imagining it. Her hair and face were the last to settle into a stable appearance, and when they did, Kirito halted the steady, cautious steps backward he'd been taking.

"Well," said a Spriggan with wavy black hair which brushed against the high blue-hemmed collar of her vest, her voice pained as she looked between Kirito and something in her HUD. "This isn't at all awkward or anything."

All at once the pieces began to fall into place for Kirito, the sheer volume of realizations stunning him far more thoroughly than any status effect. When the woman in front of him dropped her disguise, the visual effect had been identical to when one of Prophet's people had "cloned" Asuna's appearance with a spell. It was impossible to mistake it for anything else, especially now that he'd seen it happen more than once. Even Yoshihara's already-faint Osaka regional accent seemed to have softened to the point where he might not have noticed it if he hadn't been expecting to hear it, as if the person in front of him had been exaggerating it in order to sound more like her. "You're not really Yoshihara," he said, aware that the comment was stupidly obvious. "So who are you?"

"Give me a minute," the other Spriggan said, eyes on her interface.

"We don't—"

"A minute!" she said, voice rising sharply until she seemed to realize what she sounded like, looking startled at her own volume. "Just a minute, please," she said more quietly, voice still sounding tightly controlled. "I need to know for sure."

"Know what?" Kirito asked.

She simply shook her head without looking up, so Kirito resigned himself to the waiting game, giving his HUD a quick glance now and then to check the time. The young woman in front of him must've been doing the same; a little over a minute after the notification—almost to the second—she squeezed her eyes shut and bowed her head, a tear trickling down her ash-skinned cheek. "Sahara," she whispered. "Misono. Tokihiko."

They sounded like names; Kirito didn't recognize any of them, but they obviously meant something to her. After enough of a pause that he was getting ready to prod her again for a reply, the woman took a deep breath and seemed to pull herself together, meeting Kirito's gaze with much more strength in her own. "I guess there's no point in dragging out this charade any longer," she said. "You can call me Philia. Yoshihara... is one of my friends from outside."

Philia stopped there, eyes dropping again slightly to her game menu. She gave a weak slash at the air with one hand to close a window, and her voice broke again, this time with what Kirito clearly recognized as grief. "Was."


Author's Note 9/25/15:

Things are heating up again a bit, aren't they? We are getting into another part of the story that I have really been looking forward to writing—in fact, some of the segments from upcoming chapters are already written and just need to be integrated in once the story gets to that point, chronologically speaking. That last sequence with Kirito and Philia, for example, has gone through many revisions over time but the core of it has been sitting in its own scrap file, written, for more than a year.

I'm trying not to go more than two months without an update, and even that is longer than I'd like. But ultimately, as longtime readers know... the chapter's ready when it's ready, and it will be—sooner or later. Knowing that new readers are picking up, enjoying and commenting on the fic all the time helps push me towards "sooner".

By the by, the TV Tropes page for this fic has been languishing for a while, and I always feel weird adding tropes to my own work—I'm more interested in what other people see in the story and its characters. Any tropers feeling motivated to contribute there are encouraged to do so.

Thank you again to new and constant readers alike. As always let me know what you think!