"Looting items from defeated players in PvP works differently than from defeated mobs. Once a defeated player's Remain Light disappears, each victorious player who participated in the battle receives a share of the money carried by the defeated player. Each victor also has a chance of receiving one or more items at random from the defeated player's inventory, with the balance weighted towards the player who dealt the Last Attack. Certain items are excluded from this lottery and cannot be looted under any circumstances: items that cannot be used or equipped by any member of the victorious party/raid, items related to a quest in progress that a victor does not have, keys or key items (c.f. «Access Quests») used to access a container or entrance of any kind, Leprechaun Constructs, and various miscellaneous crafted items such as furniture or clothing..."
Alfheim Online manual, «PvP Looting»

9 May 2023: Day 185 - Morning

"I'm sorry," Asuna said earnestly to Lisbeth's back as soon as they landed, both of them trudging awkwardly on foot through the shin-deep snow. It was far from the first time that she'd attempted to mitigate the fallout from her earlier oversight, and judging by the lack of progress so far, she suspected it would not be the last.

The Leprechaun smith's footsteps crunched loudly in answer. In fairness, they were both struggling to keep their footing as they made their way down the unevenly-forested slope, which began to level out the closer they got to the lowland region of the Valley of Giants. No words were forthcoming, but she had no doubt Lisbeth had heard her; there was so little wind that the zone's reaction to their descent was eerily quiet.

Asuna sighed, watching the game simulate the fog of her breath in the frigid air when she exhaled. At first she had been confused; now she was just frustrated. "Liz, I wasn't trying to hide anything from you, honest. Can we talk about this?"

"What's there to talk about?" Lisbeth grumped, bringing out her nearly-depleted wings only long enough to lift her up and over the thick trunk of a fallen pine tree. "So we've got a friend in common. A good friend. You could've said something before."

"But I did," Asuna insisted, and then immediately recalled that she hadn't exactly mentioned Kirito by name at first—just alluded to him indirectly. "Sort of," she added a bit lamely. She began to gracefully vault herself over the same obstacle by planting her hands on it and using her agility to swing her legs up and around. It was a mistake that put an end to both her reply and any pretense of grace.

Unfortunately, it wasn't until she was already in mid-swing that she realized why Lisbeth had done what she'd done despite the depleted state of their wings. As soon as the bulk of Asuna's weight was on her hands and she had angular momentum, her palms skidded across the snow-covered surface and out from under her. Her head bounced uncomfortably off the side of the tree trunk and she found herself unexpectedly face-down in the snow, stunned. Literally stunned; for several seconds she was disoriented by a status effect from the blow to her head.

"Well that serves you right," proclaimed Lisbeth from somewhere just above Asuna. A booted toe nudged her shoulder. "Didn't I say to follow my lead while we're in the forest? I've done this trip a billion times. You okay?"

"I think I'm just going to lie here and make snow angels," Asuna groaned, rolling over onto her back. She flapped her arms uselessly at her sides.

"Well, you have fun with that," said the other girl with mock cheer, gloved fists planted on her hips. "With your gear, and you covered in snow the way you are, I give you at least a few minutes before your HP starts dropping noticeably." She freed up one hand and extended it down towards Asuna.

It was just as well. Both girls were wearing leggings as a concession to the cold, and Asuna's resist gear was better protection against the elements than what she usually wore, but when she'd fallen, some loose snow had gone down her neck—as well as other places it had no business being. She accepted the hand and let herself be hauled to her feet by the much-stronger smith, bringing out her wings briefly to right herself. "Thanks."

"Yeah. So what's this you were starting to say? I thought you said it was Agil who referred you, not Kirito. You didn't even mention him at all."

"It was both," Asuna protested before sighing again. "Look, it went like this: Kirito gave me your name because we were trying to track down someone who made a weapon, and we had to split up for reasons. But you weren't at your shop—"

"I was at the conference or doing work for Chellok most of the day," Lisbeth interjected. "You saw the sign."

Asuna shook her legs alternately to rid herself of the last of the snow that had ventured up her skirt and clung to her leggings. "Yes, I saw. Anyway, Kirito warned me you might be, and told me to go to Agil if I couldn't find you; I met someone who works at the Depot and was willing to take me there. While I was there, I asked Agil for a referral to a smith who could fix my gear before I set out, and your name was at the top of his list. I figured since you were recommended by two different people—one of whom I trust quite a lot, remember I mentioned that?—I should probably listen to them." She looked expectantly at Liz, hoping the explanation would settle the matter.

Lisbeth's cheek puckered as she seemed to chew on her lower lip for a few moments, giving Asuna a narrow-eyed look that came across as skeptical. What's with her sudden attitude? Asuna wondered, bewildered. We were getting along so well when we first met. It wasn't until I happened to mention Kirito's name that she… well, got kind of ticked at me. You'd think she'd be happy to find out we both knew him!

Whatever Lisbeth had to think over seemed to run its course. Some of the intense skepticism faded from her freckled face, and her posture relaxed somewhat. "Okay. Look, I'm—"

It wasn't the sound that drew Asuna's attention, though it was certainly strange—a bit like the static white noise of surf, or maybe the hiss of a bunch of rice spilling. Rather, it was the unnervingly-shaped shimmering effect that accompanied it, distorting the air several meters above and behind Lisbeth—a clear threat that instinctively filled her with a sense of revulsion and alarm just before a light red cursor began to fade in. "Pop!"

Asuna had to give Lisbeth credit for her immediate and appropriate reaction; she leapt away from the sound, bringing out her wings just long enough to propel her further and draw her legs up under her as she spun around. Another dog-sized pale spider seemed to form out of the ripples in the air, and it leapt straight at Asuna without hesitation—as if it wasn't just now spawning, but rather had already been there, and was making itself visible.

Asuna's wings were on her back again before she finished kicking off, carrying her up and backwards in a surge of speed that brought her near the lower edges of the tree canopy. Her rapier was still at her side, but she was better off ranging a spider mob anyway. She brought up both hands before her in the somatic opening of an aimed attack spell. "Setto—"

That sound came again from just behind and above her, almost right in her ear. There was no time to react before Asuna felt impact and a spreading numbness in her shoulder, accompanied by the appearance of a status effect in her HUD. Her every movement slowed, every act becoming an effort, and she could feel what had to be another spider clinging to her back, interfering with her wings and causing her to slowly lose altitude.

Lisbeth was occupied fending off two of the ambushing mobs that had dropped from the trees; one of them exploded into blue particles and a spray of snow as a three-hit mace technique knocked it up into the air and then slammed it back down into the ground. Asuna felt another spider bite dig into her; it wasn't doing a very significant amount of damage, but it would keep her debuffed with «Delay» and wear her down. She could cure the debuff, but it would just get reapplied, and if there were others—

Asuna's thoughts raced, and she tried to force herself to relax despite the incredibly creepy thing on her back. It's a weak mob that's not going to kill me outright, and it wouldn't make sense for it to have more than one kind of poison. It's biting about once every three seconds. Wait for it—

The searing numbness dug into her back again. The very moment she felt it, Asuna spoke as rapidly as she could. "Setto yojikke yavaz yasun!"

Asuna was already moving slowly backwards before she finished casting, and as soon as the «Delay» status was cured, that movement turned into a surge of speed. She slammed into the trunk of the tree behind her, knocking the spider loose and sending it tumbling away from her. Drawing her rapier as she planted her feet against the trunk, she shot after the falling mob, bright light building up in her blade.

The impact had to have already damaged the mob; its light red cursor disappeared and the single hit of her «Shooting Star» technique drove her straight through the burst of light that signaled its death. Asuna came to rest in a skidding crouch just in time to see Lisbeth uppercut the last leaping spider with her mace. The mob died in mid-air with a high-pitched shriek, and moments later a «Result» window appeared.

It was very little EXP, almost too little to even care about—but Asuna was more concerned with the ambush they had just survived. Eyes wide, she looked up and over towards Lisbeth, who was glaring at the trees warily. "What just happened?"

Lisbeth's expression was grim, and she did not put away her weapon. "I'd say we just found some «Arboreal Cloaking Spiders». They're this new mob our farmers discovered out here; from what I heard we lost some very good people to them."

"A warning would've been nice," Asuna said a bit crossly. "You need to tell me these things if we're partying together."

"Sorry. Bad luck—I was hoping we wouldn't run into the damn things if we kept moving; they aggro on noise and they follow you, but slowly. Speaking of which..." Lisbeth jerked her head southwards. "We need to go."

Asuna could very easily see how the mobs they'd just fought could be deadly to an unprepared group. But if sticking around in one spot the way they did had anything to do with the encounter, Liz was right— this wasn't the time to review the fight in detail. "I'm convinced; let's move on. How are your wings?"

Lisbeth wasted no time in trudging south through the snow. "From the way they felt when I dodged the first one, I'd say maybe a minute's level flight time, if that. Dunno, I've always been bad at estimating it."

That made sense despite her uncertainty; they'd only just landed to recharge. "Mine are in similar shape. But if these things track us like you say... " She thought it over for a moment while they walked. "I wonder if they use a variant of the actual «Tracking» skill. If they do, we can lose them by keeping to the air for long enough. With a minute's time, we can probably cover the better part of half a kilometer, maybe less. Treetop level has been pretty thin on mobs, and if there are any more spiders tracking us, that might give us breathing room."

Lisbeth grinned at her. "Not a bad idea, clearer girl. Let's do it."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Way to make an ass of yourself, Liz.

Lisbeth didn't spend too much time mentally beating herself up for the way she'd been acting, but it did force her to re-evaluate just what had happened. She and Asuna had really hit it off well, and they'd started talking about what they were going to do when they got to Arun. Asuna had mentioned that she was rejoining Kirito…

That, right there, had to have something to do with it. The way Asuna had phrased that—rejoining Kirito, as if traveling together was a usual thing for them—it made her feel edgy even just thinking about it now. Lisbeth had never really made any significant effort to analyze her feelings for Kirito too deeply, nor had she ever managed to work up the courage to say anything to him. A part of her, she supposed, had been hoping that if she stuck around long enough—and saw him regularly in order to maintain his equipment—eventually he would be the one to come around and make the first move.

But Kirito was so hopelessly dense that it never once occurred to Liz that she might have competition. And he'd never mentioned having a girlfriend. Or… well, that he even knew any other girls. Which might be overstating things a bit, she thought, but not by much.

"Sorry I flipped out at you back there," Lisbeth said as they cruised at treetop level, adjusting course to weave through the gaps in the clusters of red cursors they could see. "You do business long enough in this game and sometimes you start getting suspicious about people when something catches you off-guard or doesn't add up. I guess it just felt weird that you hadn't even mentioned Kirito until then, even though he was the one who sent you to me—one of the people," she quickly amended.

There were several encounters of «Agitated Frost Drake» mobs roosting in the treetops not far ahead; the two girls swung their legs under themselves and came to a stop, hovering several meters above the peak of a particularly majestic pine. Asuna scrutinized them with a focused expression for a few moments, then pointed. "There's a lot of those drakes spread around this area—they must spawn in this part of the zone. We could go up or around, but it's probably safer and faster to just clear our way through."

Lisbeth nodded. "Sounds good to me. With my Cold Resist, frost drakes are no biggie, even the Agitated variants." After taking a few seconds to count cursors and size them to estimate distance, she rotated in place to face the Undine clearer. "Problem is, our wings are pretty well drained. We'll have to land and charge anyway if we're gonna fight in the air."

Asuna pointed up and to the southeast. "There's a little skyland not far away. I only see one aggro mob between us and it."

It wouldn't work; Lisbeth shook her head immediately. "You might make it up there, but my level and AGI are a lot lower. Dunno if I've got the wing power left to gain that much altitude, especially after fighting. Here's another idea: do you have «Dispel»?"

From the smile that touched her face, Asuna seemed to be amused by the question. "Of course I do. Why?"

Lisbeth pointed at the larger tree jutting out from the forest canopy below them; some of the upper branches looked perfectly capable of supporting their weight. Assuming they were otherwise safe... something that Liz did not feel like assuming. "Can you cast the biggest, best AOE version you have, right there?"

Asuna did not question that request; she took aim at the spot Liz had indicated, on the trunk right where the taller tree met the rest of the forest canopy. Lisbeth was impressed despite herself at how calmly and smoothly the other girl intoned the awkward incantation. "Zutto mezal, kewejilth shippura tepnaga yasun."

From a pinpoint of light in the place Asuna selected using Focus, a faint translucent sphere of blue energy rapidly blossomed outwards, growing until it reached the limit of the AOE's range and faded away.

Nothing else happened.

"Alright," Lisbeth said with some relief. "I don't think there are any spiders hanging out there. We can rest for a few if we keep an eye peeled. Don't suppose you got Wind too?"

Asuna, unfortunately, shook her head as she settled herself into a sitting position on one of the larger branches; this high up on the tree it barely held despite how slight of build she was. Leaning slightly against the trunk, she spoke once she was in a stable position and had dismissed her wings. "But some spells show up in more than one element, so tell me anyway?"

Lisbeth accomplished the same feat on the branch below and in front of her, metallic wings disappearing in a twinkle. "Detect Movement?"

Another head-shake deflated Lisbeth's hopes. "I think you're right; that's Wind-only—it's definitely not Water." The Undine smiled ruefully down at her. "Right now I sure wish I had one of those machines Agil's workshop partner was tinkering with yesterday."

Lisbeth was fairly sure that Agil had only one partner in his workshop, and the reminder was a sour one. "Grimlock?" At Asuna's nod of acknowledgement, she grimaced. "Ugh. What was he working on?"

"You mentioned the Detect Movement spell; he was working on some device that used it to light up if it detected movement nearby. I wonder if these mobs were the reason why." She paused, and then gave Lisbeth a puzzled look. "You don't like him? He seemed polite, if a bit stiff and traditional."

Lisbeth waved at the air with her free hand. "Yeah, yeah, everyone loves the guy, he's so smart and kind and everything blah blah—" She made a gagging sound. "In public. His wife's a friend and customer of mine, and the way she talks about him makes it sound like he's a total control freak at home; she has to have his permission for everything. He lets her go out. She has to be home by such-and-such time. For crying out loud, she's afraid to even tell him that she's outleveled the sword he made for her!" Aware that her voice was carrying, she fought to tamp down some of her agitation. The immediate area covered by Asuna's spell might have been clear, but it wouldn't do to aggro more spiders if there were any within earshot.

"Well that doesn't sound very good," Asuna replied empathetically, face crinkling in disapproval. "That poor woman. Kirito would never treat me like that."

The shock that ran through Lisbeth then very nearly caused her to lose her balance; she brought out her wings reflexively when she felt herself tipping back. "What do you mean?"

When Liz looked up at her, Asuna's smile was slightly distant as she gazed off at nothing in particular. "Well, you're friends with him—I'm sure you know what he's like. He'd never treat a girlfriend or wife like she was a thing—or treat anyone else like that, really. He values people's individuality and freedom, and though he tries to protect me, he knows I can take care of myself, too. He doesn't shrink away from making sacrifices, or putting his life on the line for someone he doesn't even know. He's…" She seemed to reach a point where she was struggling to find the right words before settling on something simple. "He's just a good-hearted person, and that's a big part of what drew me to him."

The rushing sound in Lisbeth's ears was, she presumed, the sound of her hopes fleeing with every word Asuna spoke. They're together. She hasn't said as much outright, but I can tell. Whatever chance I ever thought I once had… it's gone.

I waited too long.

"Liz?" Asuna's voice held concern; Lisbeth realized that she'd gone uncomfortably silent all of a sudden.

She tried to salvage the situation. "Sorry," Lisbeth said after taking a moment to make sure her voice was steady. "Just got me thinking about my friend. I should try sending her a message while we rest our wings, see how she's doing."

It was only half a lie, but it did the trick just as well as a full one. Although she couldn't see Asuna's face without craning her neck, the Undine girl sounded pleased by the explanation. "That's kind of you. You're a good friend to her, Liz. I should give Kirito an update too, see how his trip to Arun is going."

「Hey Griz,」Lisbeth typed as soon as she had the window open, leaning against the trunk to keep her balance while she freed both hands. 「Missed you again this morning. Chellok said you were on a job and wouldn't explain what, but I figured he would know, so I took off. I'm on my way to Arun now, and as luck would have it I met an Undine clearer who's helping me through the new mobs.」

Not all of that luck had been good. Lisbeth considered mentioning the unpleasant revelation that had followed, but decided that Griselda probably didn't really need to hear about her romantic problems, considering what the older woman herself had to deal with. 「You should come visit me there sometime, you know. I know I keep saying that, but seriously, it'd do you some good to get out of that frozen anthill they call a city. See someplace that isn't either dug out of the ground or covered in snow, ya know? We could go to the market there, maybe even score some some World Tree rare mats for upgrades if we're lucky.」

「Anyway, just wanted to send you a quick note since I hadn't heard from you. Hope everything's going great with your new guild. Take care!」

Satisfied, Lisbeth gave the Send button a solid tap.

«Blocked by Environment»

Liz blinked and stared at the error message. She knew what it meant, but that didn't mean it made sense to get it now—she was fairly sure Griselda had mentioned her farming territory being somewhere overland, last time she'd messaged. Maybe that's what Chellok meant by her being on a job. Well, poop. I hope she's okay—nothing I can do to get through if she's underground, and no telling when she'll come back.

The thought that followed was an unwelcome one, and Lisbeth almost avoided it, but in Alfheim it was a far too plausible possibility to dismiss: when, or if?

·:·:·:·:·:·

"If we ever get out of this dungeon," Schmitt complained while looking out over the edge of the precipice and into the near-total blackness beyond, "I never want to come back here again."

Yoruko was prepared to offer their tank half of her personal drops if he'd manage an entire outing without gratuitously complaining about something at least once. She liked Schmitt well enough most of the time, and he was a good tank, but she thought the ex-clearer had some serious unacknowledged PTSD issues, and he didn't really react gracefully to unexpected or inconvenient events. There was a reason why Griselda led the party—of their two forwards, she kept a much cooler head.

It was probably for the best that the more diplomatic Caynz spoke up first. "I seem to recall hearing you say that yesterday," he teased with a grin. "Yet here you are."

"Here I am," agreed Schmitt unhappily. "About to scale a sheer rock face in plate armor for the umpteenth time today. Nothing at all that sucks about that." He looked towards Griselda for support.

The Sylph woman, however, declined to feed the drama despite wearing light plate herself. "It's quite the workout, isn't it? My arms and legs were aching by the end of yesterday from all the climbing."

Penny spoke from her perch on Yoruko's shoulder. "This one runs much deeper than the others," advised the little Navi-Pixie. "It goes down further than you can see. But these vertical passages are designed to be used by players in order to get around the zone, and the roots growing from the rock will hold everyone's weight."

Caynz and Griselda came and stood at the edge by Schmitt, peering down into the darkness as if anyone's normal vision could penetrate it. In the Frozen Underways there were sometimes patches of dimly-colored light peeking through the glacial ice or the cavern walls—Yoruko thought she could see some from where she stood, though they were dim—but for the most part it seemed players were expected to bring their own light sources. In fact—

Griselda's thought must have come at about the same time as her own. "Yoruko, could we get some light down there? Penny's right; I can't see the bottom of this one, and Searching would only show me cursors."

"On it," she said, already lifting the simple flute from where it hung around her neck. Despite being one of the earliest utility songs she learned, «Firefly Festival» had never been more consistently useful to her than in the past few days. As soon as the initial low E flat trilled its way into the first bars of the song, the visual effects of Song Magic—colored note symbols in the air that Yoruko personally thought looked rather silly—brightened into hundreds of golden pinpoint light sources, a gathering which grew the longer she played. They floated lazily around Yoruko like leaves adrift in a gentle breeze, emitting a warm golden glow that brightened the immediate surroundings.

Griselda's smile was almost as bright as the firefly that drifted in front of her face. "I love these shiny little things. They remind me of summer."

The aimless drifting of the firefly-like motes stopped as soon as Yoruko lowered the flute from her lips; they hung in place expectantly, and when she raised her hand in the air, they followed. A sharp flick of her arm sent the armada of glowing insects fluttering down and away from the rock wall as if she'd flung them, the expanding cloud of magic fireflies spreading out and raising the overall light level for some distance.

"Well, that explains why we couldn't see a bottom or other side," said Schmitt, his bushy brown eyebrows furrowing.

"This isn't just a climb down to another branching tunnel or room like all the others," Griselda agreed, slowly turning her head to take in as much as possible of the cavern revealed by Yoruko's song. The fireflies only managed to illuminate an area about the size of a tennis court, and their light grew slowly dimmer the more they spread out—brightening again only when they came near orelight deposits. But even so, Yoruko could tell that what she could see was only a tiny part of a much larger whole. It was still easily the biggest open space they'd encountered yet in the Underways.

Yoruko said as much, prompting a nod from their party leader. "This shaft opens up on a huge new area," Griselda said, kneeling at the precipice and placing a gloved hand on the edge to steady her balance. Although a few fireflies had remained near Yoruko, driving away some of the surrounding darkness, the Sylph's eyes glowed bright green as she activated her Searching. "Quite a number of mobs, most aggro and around our levels, but none hanging out near the bottom where we'd climb down. Except—wait. Futto mezal kehevatoru—ack." A little bit of Griselda's MP disappeared from the blue bar in Yoruko's party list as her tongue tripped over the incantation. "Let's try that again. Futto mezal, kehevatrul dweren."

Schmitt groaned as soon as he heard the full incantation. "Not the spiders again, please?"

But Griselda shook her head immediately. "Not that I can see. The only things that are moving have cursors; I just wanted to be sure. Penny?"

"It should be safe to climb down right now," said the little Navi-Pixie. "Roamers are always a possibility, but I don't detect any mobs or traps in the immediate vicinity, nor are there any spawn points within fifty meters of the bottom. I believe this is one path for getting to the next level of the Underways."

Rising to her feet, Griselda blinked once in the deliberate way a player would to dismiss a buff or other Focus element in their UI; the pulsating glow in her eyes faded as both Searching and Detect Movement ended. "Then it seems we have a choice to make. We can mark this spot on our maps for later exploration, and continue mapping these upper levels. On the other hand… Chellok did say that he was especially interested in data from the lower levels, and that the deeper we go, the more the map data is worth."

"You're thinking we should see just how far we can get," Caynz suggested. His tone gave no hint of how he felt about it, but Yoruko was fairly sure he'd be up for it if the others were. She was just surprised that Griselda herself would suggest a course of action that took her away from her husband for so long.

If the prospect bothered Griselda, her concerns didn't reach her face or her voice. "I'm thinking we should consider how to best use our time," the Sylph woman clarified. "And more importantly, that after this climb we could all use a break from the physical exertion needed just to move around in these upper levels." Her smile twitched. "Once we get down there, mapping out a huge cavern without a lot of climbing up and down narrow tunnels and steep cliffs might almost qualify as relaxing."

The joke, thin on humor though it was, drew a chuckle from all of her weary party members. Griselda seemed to take this as consensus, and carefully sat herself down on the edge. "I'll go first. Caynz, Yoruko, can you give me tanking buffs while I'm climbing down, just in case?"

The dead-end tunnel was briefly filled with magic light and a chorus of incantations as Yoruko and Caynz each obliged Griselda's request. Then, while Caynz chanted up a second buff for Griselda, Yoruko lifted her flute again and called forth another cloud of luminous fireflies; she hadn't played for long, and the previous summons were starting to slowly fade and disappear one by one.

"You're doing it again," Caynz said at the conclusion of his incantation, while she was still playing. "Were, anyway; you stopped."

Yoruko lowered the instrument and gave her boyfriend a brief glance of confusion before directing the fireflies to surround Griselda and provide her with plenty of light. "Doing what?"

The larger Gnome boy furrowed his brow as he stopped to consider his words. "Doing the song differently, somehow. The arcane light given off by your flute was different—sometimes, right as you played a note, there would be a burst of those colored musical symbols, and those bursts were usually the same colors. That didn't happen when you played it a few minutes ago. Was your success a critical one?"

It could be so hard, sometimes, to parse through the roundabout way Caynz talked when he was trying to stay in-character… but this time, Yoruko thought she knew what he meant, and she'd learned to trust how observant he could be. "Oh. Maybe? I try to ignore those silly lights—I know if I hit the note and timing right, just like you don't need to be told if you've nailed your lines or the motivations of a character you've been rehearsing for a long time."

Yoruko leaned over the edge of the cliff, watching as Griselda slowly worked her way down. Caynz's eyes went briefly upwards, and his own expression became more pensive. He drew open his game menu and navigated quickly through it with his fingers dancing in the empty air before him. "Aha! I thought that looked wrong."

The comment meant nothing to her. "Huh? Wrong what?"

"I gave Griselda a fourth-magnitude Stoneskin in case she fell or got attacked, which should last for four minutes. Yet the ward I cast has a remaining duration of just under five minutes."

"Maybe you critted?"

Caynz shook his head. "Most certainly not. A crit would amplify the strength of the ward, not its duration."

At a loss, Yoruko's attention went to the pixie on her shoulder. "Penny? Do you know what happened? Was there some kind of interaction between my song and his spell?"

She hadn't expected a useful answer, but Penny surprised her. "Of course, oneechan. Your performance created «Resonance» with his incantation. It's happened several times before."

Something in the way Penny said the words gave them the sound of an actual game concept beyond the plain meaning of the word. "What do you mean by Resonance?"

"The sounds of Song Magic resonate with the incantations for Elemental Magic," Penny explained, lifting off from Yoruko's shoulder and coming to a hover in front of her and Caynz. "The correct key, tempo, and even individual notes can result in this synergy."

"So my song and Caynz's spell really did affect each other? You said I'd done this before… but I didn't know and wasn't trying to. Was it just luck?"

Before Penny could respond, Schmitt cleared his throat. "Heads up, Griz is just about to the bottom. Might want to get ready to climb."

"We're ready," Caynz assured him, kneeling beside the edge. "I'm interested in Penny's answer, though."

"Wait a sec," Yoruko said, thinking rapidly. "You said that both the key and individual notes can resonate. Firefly Festival is in B flat Major, and there's a few repeating bars with a lot of A naturals. Did that make a difference?"

"Yes," Penny replied brightly, bobbing her little head. "The key of B flat Major and its relative minor resonate strongly with Earth Magic, as does any natural A regardless of key."

Yoruko was quite aware that she was gaping at the little Navi-Pixie, but for several moments she was too shocked to speak. Finally, she blurted out the first clear thought that emerged. "Why didn't you tell me this before?"

Penny tilted her head in what almost appeared to be confusion. "You didn't ask."

For the first time ever, Yoruko found herself wanting to grab Penny and shake all the knowledge out of her. "Tell me everything, please. Everything. This is stuff I should know!"

"Afraid we don't have the time for that right now," Caynz said, nudging Yoruko and pointing to where Schmitt was already gingerly lowering himself over the edge. "We can pick Penny's brain later."

"You have no idea, Caynz," Yoruko complained quietly while she waited for him to begin his own descent—she was the lightest of their group, and didn't really want to get caught underneath if one of the Gnomes fell. "Seriously, I'm telling you—this is big, okay? Every Puca knows that Song Magic sometimes interacts with spells, but outside of a couple songs everyone knows to pair with specific spells, it's always been unpredictable, sometimes even bad. Aria said that's why the NCC clearers don't use bards in raids."

"She's right about that," echoed Schmitt's voice from far below, making it clear that her voice had carried further than she thought in the silent caverns. "There are some Puca clearers, but they're straight-up mages—they're not allowed to use Song Magic against gateway bosses 'cause it can fuck up everyone else's spells."

It was Yoruko's turn now to begin the climb, and for all that she'd been annoyed by Schmitt's complaining, she wasn't really looking forward to it either. "Exactly," she said, stretching out a leg to search for a foothold. "So if there's actually a system behind it, and it's predictable and learnable for a musician…"

Caynz's loud yelp came from just below her, interrupting whatever he was about to say as he briefly lost his footing and had to hug the wall. "Oof. I was about to say, that changes everything, my lady. Well, not quite everything, but it would change a lot for the Puca and the NCC clearing groups. You should send word to Aria or Merifelle as soon as we get back."

Yoruko was still concerned; that could've been a nasty fall. "You okay?" When Caynz replied with a quick un, she continued. "Good. Well, anyway, I'm not so sure about going to them myself. It's like with the mapping: what if they ask how I know?"

"Just tell them you figured it out through trial and error. Who's going to prove you didn't?"

Yoruko didn't like that idea at all. She already felt guilty for how much she had to hide, and for letting Chellok think that it was their skill behind the detailed information they tagged in their map data. The notion of outright lying to their leaders, their clearing groups… it was unthinkable. She focused her attention on the task at hand, carefully working her way down the network of thick roots and frequently glancing down to make sure she wasn't about to step on her boyfriend's head.

"I can't do that, Caynz," she said at last. "I'm sorry, I want to help, but there's too much lying already."

"Better lying than dying," he quipped.

"Oh, come on."

"Well, then don't tell them everything," Caynz suggested, stopping for a moment and looking up at her. "Maybe don't even tell them yourself. It'd probably be enough just to put the bug in someone's ear about the fact that this one key and note resonate with Earth. Not only is that immediately useful to the NCC, given that most of our clearers are Gnomes… it's the key, if you'll pardon my phrasing, to figuring out the rest."

Yoruko couldn't help it; she giggled. "That's terrible. But I guess, yeah… maybe just getting our people pointed in the right direction would be enough. There are much better Puca musicians than me, after all; I think Aria even played with the Tokyo Met."

"Yo!" Schmitt's voice was much further away this time; Yoruko couldn't see past Caynz's bulk, but it sounded like he was already at or near the bottom. "Time for chat later, kids."

"Oh, he is one to talk," Yoruko grumped quietly as she resumed her climb. The remainder proceeded in relative silence, and as soon as she looked down and saw Caynz step away from the wall, she gave up and dropped the last five or six meters to the ground, landing in a crouch. Penny flew up and lit upon her shoulder again as soon as she was upright.

"I heard some talk about your music," Griselda said with open curiosity. "Schmitt said you might've figured out something important?"

"Penny told us," Yoruko clarified. "It has to do with which songs I play, and how they resonate, I guess it's called, with certain elements. Makes them better or worse."

"How interesting!" Griselda's enthusiastic reaction seemed genuine, not put-on, and it made Yoruko smile. "You'll have to tell me more the next time we break—I'd like to know if there's certain spells I should or shouldn't cast while you're playing."

"Sure, but I only know the resonance for Earth," Yoruko pointed out.

"Maybe we can fix that," Caynz said, turning to face her directly but looking at her shoulder. "Penny, can you tell us everything you know about how Wind Magic interacts with Song Magic?"

Penny's response was immediate, and delivered in her "NPC" voice. "Wind Magic has «Key Resonance» with A flat Major, D Major, and their relative minor keys. It also has «Tonal Resonance» with all natural G notes played. Additionally—"

"Forgive me for interrupting," Griselda said gently, "but we should probably not get too distracted for now. I'm very interested in knowing more about this, but we just entered an unknown new area, and I'd like us to focus on mapping its extent and finding a rest zone in case we end up spending the night here."

The beginning of Penny's explanation had tickled something in Yoruko's brain. There's something significant about A flat and D, she thought, mind racing. Something from music theory classes—argh, I should know this!

But as anxious as Yoruko was to hear more from Penny and sort out these mysteries, Griselda was right—spawns or no spawns, they were not in a safe location at the moment, and this wasn't the time or place to have this discussion. "Sorry," she said, symbolically gripping her flute. "I'm ready when you are."

As the others moved to follow Griselda, who from the glow in her eyes was already Searching again for the nearest mobs, Yoruko whispered quietly to the tiny companion on her shoulder. "Hey, Penny? Scoot a little closer to my ear, and finish what you were saying about Wind Magic."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Standing atop a gazebo-roofed tower near the peak of his castle home, rain pattering down upon the roof and draining off the edges in wind-driven sheets, Diabel brooded. He wondered, sometimes, whether or not Kayaba had ever brought on a consultant who understood anything about human psychology—or if the man himself had had interests in that direction.

Did he understand the psychological impact of designing the climate in the Undine lands so that it rains almost as often as not? Was it intentional that we have depression on our list of enemies fighting to keep us from clearing the game? Or was it simply a thematic choice—no deeper or more carefully-considered than thinking it appropriate for the race with an affinity to water?

Diabel wasn't sure, and sometimes it bothered him—because the problem bore directly on his ability to lead. Over the last few months he'd been noticing a trend of Undines moving out of their home city and relocating to Arun. It wasn't something that was easy to track; even as a Faction Leader he didn't have the ability to see his people on a map or anything like that.

But he could infer it from the information he did have. He had access to a list of who was renting rooms and properties in Parasel, as well as high-level data about the economic activity in the city, and in those numbers he could see unmistakable trends over time. Anecdotally, faces that he'd grown accustomed to seeing in the markets were nowhere to be seen, and he'd lost count of the number of times he'd asked after an acquaintance and been told of their relocation to another city.

It doesn't help that we're isolated here, Diabel thought. The Imps to the south, playing shadow partners to the Salamanders. Spriggans to the north, with trust a case-by-case gamble for unacceptable stakes. Endless ocean to the east, and the Valley to the west with steadily-escalating mob levels. More than any other faction, we're hemmed in here by boundaries that are less than comforting, by people who—if not enemies—are at the very least no friends of ours. Is it any wonder that so many have decided to move on to somewhere a bit less wet—and arguably safer?

The static background noise of the rainfall had masked the sound of footsteps; Diabel's first hints that he wasn't alone were the glow and crackle of a torch emerging from the stairs that led below. Startled, he glanced over his shoulder and then relaxed as he saw one of the city's NPCs ascending the narrow stone stairwell, light source held aloft with one hand and a bundle of unlit torches carried in a sack on her back. The high-held torch shadowed the nervous look that seemed to be her default appearance, and she glanced around before continuing.

Diabel smiled. This particular NPC was something of a fixture in the castle; it was far from the first time he had seen the young woman making silent rounds at odd hours to keep the fires lit. "Be at ease; I know you have work to do. Please don't let me stop you."

"As you wish, milord." Having given that emotionless stock response, the NPC woman moved to replace one of the nearly-depleted torches that lit the entrance to the tower below, and Diabel leaned against the parapet and regarded the gray vista once more.

"I envy you sometimes," Diabel said quietly, as if speaking to the wall. "Immortal, fully protected by the rules of this world, incapable of caring about anything beyond your scope. You have nothing to fear, no concerns or worries to plague you. You don't notice the bleakness of the weather here, and the changing mobs are as irrelevant to you as the price of a movie ticket."

His head bowed slightly, and he leaned out over the edge of the nearest arrow slit, feeling the rain on his hair as he did so. "You don't even have the self-awareness necessary to know how fortunate you are," he said, even more quietly and pointlessly. "Do you?"

"Begging milord's pardon," the NPC woman said, startling him even more than her initial appearance had, "but I didn't understand about half of what you said. That being so, I know just how fortunate I am to live here, in the safety of this city."

Diabel's chin had dropped, and he fought to regain a semblance of composure before addressing the unexpected response. "I… I'm sorry, miss," he said, "but I wasn't expecting an answer. What's your name?" He focused on the woman to pop her cursor again, confirming that he hadn't somehow mistaken a player for an NPC.

The woman's head fell, eyes down. "Darlenna," she said after a pause so slight that Diabel wondered if he'd imagined it. As soon as she identified herself, that name appeared above the white cursor she bore. "I'm sorry if I overstepped myself; I'll leave now."

"Wait," Diabel said quickly, snagging the woman's sleeve with a fingertip. "Please, just for a minute." When Darlenna entered what seemed to be an idle animation, looking at him wordlessly and expectantly, he relented slightly. "I'm the one who should apologize for interrupting your routine to deal with my brooding. I was just thinking that you're lucky to be who and what you are—you don't have to deal with the burdens we do."

"I'm sure you're right, milord," she said. "It's true I don't have much to concern me. I have a safe place to sleep, and food to eat when I need it. I can't go out and fight monsters the way so many others can, sure. But I have this." She hefted the sack of spare torches that she used to make her rounds. "A job and a purpose."

Diabel's smile warmed slightly. "Of course you do, Darlenna. Please forgive me if you felt I was questioning your worth. Without you, this castle would be a much darker place."

He'd meant the comment in a quite literal way, but the NPC woman smiled as if he'd complimented her. "Thank you, milord," she said with a bow, eyes downcast. "If you've things on your mind, I'll always have time to hear them."

Diabel could not recall any NPC—even a quest NPC—conversing in such a natural way during the beta. He wondered if the system was in some way learning over time as it received more player input and observed more interactions of actual human beings. Still feeling as if he'd discovered a rare species of animal, he shook his head, almost reluctant to end the conversation for all its novelty. Just as he was about to speak, he heard booted footsteps on the stairs. "Nothing for now, Darlenna, but thank you. I'll leave you to finish your work."

The woman bowed and turned just as an Undine man's head appeared in the stairwell, halfway up. "Sir? Not intruding, am I? I just finished up with the farmers."

Diabel shook his head and beckoned with one hand, watching the NPC woman excuse herself and brush past the other man. "Not at all, Laffa. Nothing amiss, I trust?"

Laffa hopped over the last step and onto the smooth stone tile of the battlement floor, brushing his hood back off of his curly indigo hair and glancing over one shoulder at the woman's retreating back. "I suppose that depends on how you rate 'amiss' under the circumstances," the slender young Undine replied easily, joining Diabel at his side. The two men rested their elbows on the chest-height parapets and gazed out across the mist-shrouded city while they spoke. "Circumstances being that you wanted me to check around and see if these new mobs really are popping everywhere."

Diabel nodded. "And?"

"And it seems Asuna was right. The reports we've been getting over the last few days aren't just isolated incidents—the spawns have changed everywhere in our territory, from the skylands down to the ocean floor, and based on repops it looks like it's for good. It's probably a global change, and we'd all best get used to the new meta."

Diabel's expression was grim, but he was not the least bit surprised. Asuna might still be a young girl, but she was also an experienced clearer—one of his best. He'd just needed confirmation, and between Argo's sources and the firsthand experience of Laffa's groups, he had more than enough. "We lost several more yesterday."

"Yeah," Laffa said after sighing. "One of my farmers was among them. I found out what happened this morning—he took his group across to the mainland, and went down buying them time to get away from a tough mob."

The hollow feeling inside Diabel never quite went away when getting news like this, but it didn't hurt quite as much as it once did. "What was his name?"

"Raythe. Good plate tank, level 14. A little overconfident, but that's not uncommon for teen boys playing melee roles."

A teenager. That particular detail, on the other hand, never lost its sting, despite the overwhelming majority of the game's players who seemed to populate that age bracket. "How old?"

"Don't know. Sixteen, maybe seventeen? He never said." Laffa shrugged. "He was a good kid. He'll be missed."

Someone else I failed. Diabel refused to give voice to that thought, however, fingers pressing tightly against the damp stone. "Tell me, Laffa," he began slowly, "how often do your patrol groups run into stray Spriggans in our territory?"

Laffa seemed taken aback, his gaunt features looking a bit confused. "Not very often these days," he admitted. "Last week one of my groups got into a furball with a random Sprig group that was trying to farm the north end of Stormsurge, but we chased them out. Other than that it's usually just one-offs who seem to be trying to cut through the Valley one way or the other, and we get those probably once every few days—they're easy to spot if you watch for yellow cursors that aren't tethered to an area, especially the ones that flee as soon as they notice one of our groups within Searching range. Why?"

"I'm trying to get a sense of what the true threat level is," Diabel replied. "It's been brought to my attention that we might not be making the best use of our time and resources. For months the majority of our patrol groups have been allocated to northern border duty. What are we accomplishing there?"

"Keeping the those ash-skinned assholes where they belong," Laffa said vehemently. "That's why no one PKs in our territory."

Diabel grunted acknowledgement, if not agreement. "Do you not see the irony here?"

"Sir?"

"You just said yourself that you don't really have any problems with Spriggans other than players trying to cut through the Valley of Rainbows and a group of farmers you drove out of the northern Stormsurge Coast—the latter being an area that is arguably as close to Penwether as it is to Parasel."

Laffa nodded. "That's so. I credit the diligence of our patrol groups over the last few months for that success. They work hard to keep Undine lands safe for everyone, and the message must be getting out."

Safe for everyone except Spriggans. It was almost as if Diabel could hear Asuna's voice there with him. "Do you not see how we are the ones sustaining this conflict? Even now that the Spriggans finally have a new leader?"

The shock on Laffa's face was plain. "They do? How do you kn—"

Diabel smiled. "Credit me with sources of my own, Laffa. Yoshihara is dead, and the new Spriggan leader has moved to Arun. The number of Spriggans on this side of the world will dwindle further."

As Laffa digested this news, Diabel went on, turning away from the wet, gray skies and faced the man he addressed. "I am contemplating a major change to the responsibilities and deployment of our patrol groups. I already have Jahala's input from the clearing group perspective, and now I would be grateful for yours from the homefront. The mob rebalancing that has occurred since the 25th boss was defeated… it's beginning to Balkanize the cities of Alfheim even more than usual, and I can only see that worsening for the time being."

Laffa's expression moved right back towards confusion. "'Balkanize,' sir?"

"Historical term. It means we're fragmenting into isolated, unfriendly pockets of humanity even moreso than before. Our people are afraid to travel, Laffa—as are everyone else's—and that problem is only growing across the world. Even the NCC is struggling with the isolation of its member states, and the majority of its people are now as cut off from traveling to or from Arun as ours are."

Laffa glanced out towards the west; the rain made it impossible to see clearly much more than a kilometer. "What would you have me do, sir? It's bad enough we have to let Imps and Sals through even though they're at war again. We have to maintain a strong border presence to deter Spriggan incursions."

"Do we?" Before Laffa could mount a predictable response to that rhetorical question, Diabel held up a hand. "Please, let me finish. I want you to try to set aside emotion and look at this from a rational risk-management perspective. The fact is that the new mob spawns have killed more Undines in 48 hours than any Spriggan has in months. We are fighting yesterday's war, Laffa, and I believe we are doing so to our detriment. You are out there every day, and I am not, so tell me truly: how many of these patrol engagements are initiated by Spriggan perpetrators, rather than by your groups seeking to enforce my policies?"

When enough seconds had stretched on with no answer other than Laffa's tight-lipped grimace, Diabel nodded. "That's about what I thought. I understand that today's routes and assignments are already set, but starting tomorrow, I would like you to assign half of your groups to not only patrol, but clear the major traffic lanes between here and the far side of the Valley."

"Clear? But we're not..."

"Clearers? No, not in the way we typically think of them. But think: your patrol groups are tasked with defending the Undines against threats in our territory. The greatest threat to our people does not come from Spriggan solo players or farmers, or even hypothetical PK attempts from the Imps and Sals despite their state of war with the Sylphs—it comes from the higher-level mobs that now plague Alfheim's overworld zones. That is our clear and present danger right now, and I want you to meet that threat head-on by aggressively patrolling the route between Parasel and Arun, and eradicating any mobs you encounter."

Laffa received these new instructions unhappily, his struggle clearly visible on his face. "But what of the Spriggans, sir?"

"Leave them be," Diabel said firmly. "Keep a few groups on observation-only border patrol, same as with the Imps, and have at least one floater in each overland zone to be able to respond to farmers in trouble. But I want everyone else stomping the path between here and the World Tree clean of mobs, even if you have to relocate some groups to the Arun side of that route. Your mission now is to clear a highway, and keep it clear—not needlessly harass anyone, of any faction, who just happens to be passing through or engaging in purely PvE behavior."

At Laffa's reluctant nod, Diabel sighed and reached out to touch the man's arm. "Listen to me, please. I know that will be a difficult shift in thinking for many, but it is necessary. If we want this world to be a safer place, we need to act in a way that is likely to make it safer, not more dangerous. Creating fights that need not happen serves no one except the man who trapped us all here."

"I understand, sir," Laffa said, still sounding a bit doubtful. "I don't disagree about dealing with the new mobs, I just don't want this to turn into another well-intentioned disaster like letting the Imps in. I had friends killed by Imp, Sal, and Spriggan privateers."

The reminder cut Diabel deeper than Laffa probably knew. "I'm not talking about allying with the Spriggans as a whole," he said. "But let's be honest: violently driving them from our territory has created far more tears than it has averted. The other factions have found their own ways of handling that problem without resorting to an all-or-nothing ban, and we have bigger problems demanding our attention and energies—wouldn't you say?"

Laffa nodded, this time radiating far less skepticism. Diabel smiled, satisfied at what amounted to progress at least. "Good. Please draft a patrol route schedule that reflects this change in priorities. I would like to have that on my desk before the end of the day, ready to begin implementation tomorrow."

"Yes, sir. Will there be anything else?"

There was, but given the resistance Laffa had evidenced towards the mere idea of allowing Spriggans to roam unchallenged, he wondered if this was really the best time to raise it. "Not for the moment. I look forward to seeing your draft."

This change in policy is one I'll need to announce sooner rather than later, Diabel thought. Especially if I want to start changing attitudes, and avoid having people take matters into their own hands. But as for actually allowing individual Spriggans to get «Ally» status the way Yuuki has, that's a question I'm going to have to give a lot more consideration. And much will hinge on just how serious the new Spriggan leader is about changing the way of things.

Thoughtful still, Diabel drew open his menu and navigated to his friends list. Selecting Asuna's name, he chose «Show on Map» from the context menu and waited a few moments while his view changed, shifting to an unfamiliar region of Alfheim for which he had no map data. Zooming out a bit, he saw that she was somewhere in the Valley of Giants; periodically her icon edged slightly southwards.

He needed the right person for this. Diabel hesitated a few moments longer, then began a new PM.「Asuna,」he wrote, 「I couldn't help noticing that you're currently enroute to Arun. I have an important task that I believe will help make Alfheim a safer place for everyone, and you are the person I trust the most to handle it with discretion and empathy.」

Diabel closed his eyes for a time, counting the drops of the fading rainstorm as they drummed an intermittent and dwindling beat on the roof of the tower. Once he had settled the last of his concerns and committed himself to his course of action, his poised fingers went into motion again.

「Tell me... are you still traveling with Kirito?」

·:·:·:·:·:·

If Alfheim Online had been run by a human GM rather than a sophisticated set of computer programs, Argo would have strongly suspected said GM of deliberately trolling them for dramatic effect. They were literally within sight of the city gates of Arun when Thelvin's wings started to flicker, and since he was the party member most encumbered by excess weight, they knew by now to take that as a sign for a rest break—even if they'd pushed on, the rest of them would be running out soon enough anyway.

"Thirty seconds," Terquen complained, gesturing broadly in the general direction of the city. "Thirty seconds of flying and we could've been in the safe zone."

"More like at least twice that," Argo called back to the young Undine man, gauging the remaining distance with a practiced eye from her perch atop a stone overhang which arched most of the way across the well-trodden foot path below. "The entrance is still about a kilometer or so away, it's just big."

"I still think we could've made it. Hell, we could walk from here!"

Argo's tail automatically straightened out to counterbalance her as she hopped down the rock spur; she only brought out her wings to glide down once she was close to the ground. "So walk. We can't go faster than our slowest members—Whiskers and Thelvin are low-level and carrying a bunch of heavy shit, respectively. You wanna keep going, go for it."

"We've made it this far, Terquen," said Thelvin, stepping over a deep fissure in the hillside to approach the spot where the two stood. "A few more minutes won't hurt." He glanced over at one of the nearby non-aggro mobs; from Argo's perspective its cursor was a shade of cornsilk yellow so light that it might as well have been white. "That being said, we've clearly crossed into the newbie zone. There shouldn't be any more PvE threats, and little or no PvP happens this close to Arun. At this point anyone who wants to push on individually should be safe to do so."

"Sounds good to me," said the Undine warrior, re-equipping his scimitar with a few quick motions at his menu. He seemed to be moving to go, but hesitated for a few beats. "Don't get me wrong, I'm really grateful for the help. I'm just really ready for this whole adventure to be over and done with, and it's hard to want to wait around any longer when my wings still have charge and I can see Brightlane Quarter from where I'm standing."

Thelvin clapped a hand against one of the lightweight metal pauldrons covering Terquen's shoulder. "Go get your bath and hot meal. Your magic made a huge difference in getting us all through this. Message me if you ever need help with a tough fight."

Once a grateful Terquen had become a faint dot at the head of a fading blue light trail, Argo skeptically raised an eyebrow towards Thelvin. "You really mean that, about offering him help? Or were you just being polite?"

Thelvin looked surprised at the question, and responded in a tone as quiet as hers. "Of course I meant it, or I wouldn't have said it. I don't mind taking a few hours out of my day sometime to help clear some trivial content. Terquen might not have been a healer by choice, but he did the job and kept us alive. That's all a party can ask."

"I dunno," Argo said, "I coulda asked for him to mebbe whine about it a bit less. But whatever, it's done. What about—?" She glanced over to where the others were sitting on the grassy slope, indicating Whiskers and Veldt with a tip of the head.

Thelvin shrugged, settling himself carefully to a sitting position on a tree trunk that had grown bent from its base almost horizontally out over the rough-edged precipice. It creaked convincingly under his weight, but held. "We're still a party until we cross into the safe zone, but we're close enough now that any one of us could easily solo the rest of the way. We'll be inside the city less than fifteen minutes from now, one way or the other. If they want to head on, that's their choice, but they both seem happy for the break."

That suited Argo just fine—a break would give her the chance to catch up on her PMs. She had a pile of tips and reports to sort through, the volume of which always increased when something interesting was happening in the world—and there had been a bit too much "interesting" in recent days. In particular, Kirito had sent her a message much earlier in the day and she'd been meaning to get back to him.

「I'll be in Arun within the hour,」 Argo typed rapidly. 「Dunno why you can't just explain the whole thing in PMs like usual, but fine, we'll do it your way. Meet me at...」 She stopped there for a moment, running her brain through a list of locations that were discreet without being unduly inconvenient. 「Meet me at Three Silver Flagons, 7pm. From the warpgate, follow Barkside Loop south around the trunk towards Little Orchard, left at the five-way, end of the block and fly up to the arboreal shops. Flagons is the sixth building up, with the table and chairs on the balcony. I'll be inside.」

That would do for privacy purposes. There were dozens of such inns dotting the outside of the World Tree's bark, or even carved out of it in places. Despite the fact that any player could fly, any establishments that could only be accessed by air were still far less popular than those groundside, and tended to be less crowded. She'd used Flagons before and had only once seen other players there.

Noise on the foot trail below drew Argo's gaze from her PM window. As soon as she looked up, she quickly sent the message she'd been in the middle of writing and spoke quietly. "Thelvin."

"I see them."

Argo's keen eyes counted twelve Salamanders coming around the bend in the road, and she would've bet a shiny mithril coin that they were clearers. Two obvious tanks, four less-armored melee types mostly armed with polearms, an archer, and five mages—two of those would be the healers. She was looking at a pair of DPS groups, probably ranged and melee. The polearms were shouldered and all other weapons were sheathed, but Argo knew how quickly they could be ready to fight—the mages even moreso.

"They're on their way to the World Tree," Thelvin said, echoing her thoughts. "Their groups are structured and geared for PvE raiding, not PvP."

Argo nodded. "Doesn't make it any more comfortable watching them come our way. What'cha wanna do?"

"Nothing," Thelvin said, though he did not take his eyes off the Salamanders. "They know we're here. Even if they didn't have someone Searching, they know now—this tree hangs right over the trail, and we're in plain sight." Now he did divert his eyes towards Argo, looking at her meaningfully. "Yet their weapons aren't readied."

"That can change real fast if someone startles them."

"Which is why all of us are going to remain where we are and make no sudden moves. If anyone hides, they're likely to think we're trying to ambush them." He glanced over towards the others where they were sitting on the grass—had been sitting; Whiskers was still there, but Veldt was nowhere in sight. "Crap."

Argo reflected that this might well have been the first time she'd heard Thelvin swear in a very long time; she couldn't recall another occasion where kuso had come out of his mouth. "Veldt ghosted. Alright, we work with what we've got." Raising her voice slightly: "Whiskers, c'mon over and park your ass at the foot of this tree. Keep your bow on your back and your hands in sight."

The small Salamander raid group drew to a halt about twenty meters before passing under the overhang, stilled by an upheld hand from one of their tanks. He was short for a tank, and wide in a way that suggested excesses in the real world, but that meant nothing in terms of stats or abilities in the game world—if anything, a smaller avatar could be an advantage by making a player more difficult to hit. Argo knew not to underestimate him, especially with a raid group at his back.

The Salamander tank raised his visor and approached warily, eyes tracking left and right. "Any particular reason you cats have for camping this spot?"

Argo's tail drummed an annoyed beat against the tree trunk on which she sat, but she kept her silence. Thelvin carefully shifted his weight to more squarely face the Salamander and spoke up. "We're not camping, friend. Just resting our wings after a long journey before continuing on into the city, same as you. You're about a klick out."

"I know where we are. What I don't know is where the rest of your party is, or why they're concealing themselves."

"You're mistaken," Thelvin replied. "We don't have a full party. We're just traveling and making do. We certainly offer no threat to you, so I suggest we bid each other safe journey and leave it at that."

The Salamander tank did not seem reassured. A lightly-armored woman with a pair of short spears on her back stepped forward and leaned over to whisper in the tank's ear, drawing a nod. "Look at this from where I'm standing, 'friend'. Our people just came within a hair's breadth of fighting yours at the gateway boss. Now I come across a very well-equipped Cait Sith tank with an archer and a scout who just happen to be camped on one of our main routes, with one more hiding in the trees behind you. You smell like bandits. Give me a reason why I shouldn't treat you as a potential threat."

"Because we offer none to you. No steel is bared. We are few and you are many. My companions are not the equal of clearers, either in levels or in gear, the latter of which I'm sure you can see for yourself." Thelvin spread his hands. "There are four reasons. Will that satisfy you?"

"Not quite," said the man, pointing up and to the side at a spot somewhere behind the three Cait Sith. "You're three physical toons with no mage or healer, and I don't buy that you came all this way without either. My scout says you still have someone Hiding, and you've carefully talked around them, never mentioning your exact numbers. Bring out the sneak so we know you don't have someone waiting to disable us with magic as we pass."

"We came with two mages," Thelvin replied. "The Undine dropped party and went ahead when we stopped to rest, and our other companion likely hid out of prudent caution when he saw a Salamander raid group approaching. Veldt, please show yourself so that we can put this behind us."

There was little they could do to make Veldt stop concealing himself if he didn't want to, and Argo knew it. Nonetheless, the Spriggan mage emerged from behind a tree trunk with obvious reluctance, cursor popping as soon as he dropped his Hiding skill. There was an uneasy stir in the Salamander ranks when he stepped forward into view, frowning and crouching low to the ground at the edge of the hillside to reduce his profile.

"A Spriggan?" The Salamander tank's words were almost a growl. "I knew you were up to something. There's no reason to bring along a Spriggan mage and keep them hidden unless you're planning on ambushing someone. Now why are you really here?"

Argo was already eyeing the area for potential sources of cover; she was pretty sure she could break their LOS before they hit her with any kind of homing attack. Thelvin remained outwardly calm, but she knew he had to be weighing his options as well, considering his exposed position. "What's your name?" he asked in lieu of answering the loaded question.

The Salamander paused for a beat. "Give me yours, and I'll give you mine."

Thelvin shrugged. "As you wish. I'm Thelvin. I lead the Cait Sith clearing groups, and I was present at the Hrungnir raid you mentioned earlier. Were you there?"

"No, but I was," came a response from someone new, a man in mage robes who stepped out of the group and jogged up to his leader. "He's legit, Solaris—I recognize him now. Your group just got promoted and wouldn't know, but he was there leading the Cait Sith. He didn't threaten or attack us."

Solaris gave the three Cait Sith an uneasy look, a look which then lingered uncomfortably on Veldt. "But they've got a Spriggan along, Rudi. The rest of his group sure as hell aren't clearers. How can you be so sure it's not just someone name-dropping this Thelvin guy?"

Rudi pointed directly at the Cait Sith tank. "Because I remember everyone I've rezzed."

Solaris stared back at the mage. "You what."

"Rezzed him." Rudi stared right back unflinchingly.

The Salamander tank seemed to be struggling to find words, with his jaw movements getting ahead of his thoughts. "But… why?"

"Because I'm not a complete asshole, Sol. You ever been a Remain Light?"

Solaris scoffed. "My healer keeps me in the green."

"Good for you," the Salamander mage said frostily. "I have, and I'll tell you straight: when you're sitting there with your life counting down, unable to move or even scream, you are not going to give a flying fuck whether you're rezzed by a Salamander or a Spriggan. And no healer deserving of the name should ever care what color someone's Remain Light is."

"But they're—"

"Human," Rudi interjected. "If that's a problem for you, then you'd better 'fess up now so I can let Eugene know to find us a better group to partner with—one led by someone who isn't going to get people killed by making bad decisions. You're creating an unnecessary conflict here, and I am not going to back you up if you go KOS on these people for no good reason."

Rudi could have very easily pitched his voice so that only Solaris could hear him; he didn't, and his words rang out clearly. There was no walking back a dressing-down like that, and everyone present had to know what it meant. Solaris glanced over at Rudi's tank, who simply raised a thick red pair of eyebrows in return, as if to say: you're on your own.

Solaris turned back towards Thelvin, shielding his eyes from the afternoon sun as it peeked through the trees. "There seems to have been a misunderstanding here."

"So it seems," Thelvin said agreeably. Glancing over at the Salamander healer, he gave as complete a bow as he could from his precarious sitting position. "I didn't get a chance to thank you at the raid for saving my life, Rudi… so please accept my gratitude." Straightening again, his eyes went back to Solaris. "Solaris, we've all been on the ground long enough to charge our wings about halfway—more than enough, at any rate, to get to Arun. Since the possibility of ambush concerns you, we four will take to the air and fly towards the city, remaining in plain sight. Your groups can follow or go around as you please. No surprises, everyone can see each other, and we all get to the safe zone in a matter of minutes and go our separate ways."

A succession of glances passed back and forth between the Salamanders present, with Solaris still looking apprehensive.

"Oh screw this," said the other Salamander tank with a roll of the eyes.

Rudi glanced back that way. "Bartlebee? Don't tell me you're with Sol on this."

Bartlebee shook his head, dropping a hand onto Rudi's shoulder and patting it. "Nah, just sick of standing around watching everyone use their thumbs as rectal thermometers." He looked directly at Solaris. "Now quit being such a pussy. We're not at war with the Caits, and even if we were, a lowbie archer and a middie Spriggan aren't gonna alpha us when we're sitting here with two full clearing groups. Our wings'll be charged by now, so I'm moving my people out. You can do what you want."

Solaris did not take being dogpiled with good grace, turning away from the other Salamander tank. "Fine, I get the point! Let's go."

There was a chorus of acknowledgements and sounds of agreement from the four Salamander mages behind them, and Argo had to fight not to grin too widely when she saw Bartlebee give Thelvin a two-fingered salute of acknowledgement, which the Cait Sith answered with a nod. Solaris threw one last worried look up at Thelvin and the rest of the party before bringing out his wings, not taking his eyes off of them until the Salamander groups had put some distance and trees between themselves and the Cait Sith.

Argo was inclined to agree with Bartlebee's assessment of his colleague. "Salamanders must be scraping up all the second-stringers they can get to fill in for their losses."

Thelvin nodded, still watching until the last of the Salamanders had disappeared. Once they did, he turned towards Veldt.

The Spriggan spoke before Thelvin could, running his fingertips nervously through his short black hair. "Sorry if that was awkward. But Sals like that one guy are exactly the reason I hid; they've gone KOS on me before. Didn't expect them to have someone with a high enough Searching to pop my cursor."

"It's over and behind us," Thelvin said. "What's before us is our destination. Now that the Salamanders have moved on, I suggest we do the same."

It was advice that Argo was only too happy to take, and as soon as they took to the air and cleared the treetops, the sense of distance vanished with altitude. Only the rapidly-fading red wingtrails of the Salamander groups hinted at where they'd gone, and Thelvin led his own group in a gently-arcing flight up that avoided any possibility of encountering them again.

Argo could not recall the last time she'd been so relieved to see a Safe Zone notification pop up in her HUD.

Thelvin chose an arbitrary point to come in for a landing, jogging to a stop in the midst of the clearest spot they could see in the NPC-crowded streets. The four players shared an awkward, anticlimactic moment once their final footsteps came to rest, and Argo wasted no time in pulling up her incoming message queue. While she scanned the latest updates from her sources, Thelvin busied himself in his own menu and dissolved the party, producing a pop-up that momentarily annoyed Argo by interrupting what she was doing.

"And so this journey comes to an end," Thelvin said unnecessarily. "Whiskers, Veldt, thank you both for all of your efforts. Argo, I presume we're parting ways here?"

"Yup," Argo replied, flicking her messages closed. "You gotta get to your group, and I gotta catch up on current events. Mebbe figure out who fed half of Alfheim a nutritional supplement of concentrated stupid."

Veldt, standing off to the side, bowed to the members of his erstwhile group. "I'm sure we all have business to sort out now that we're here," he said. "I think I'm going to start with a real meal, though. Thank you, all of you, for your help." His gaze lingered on Argo's for an extra beat, and the slightness of his nod was matched by the one she gave in return before he turned and took his leave.

"I honestly don't know what to do," Whiskers admitted when eyes turned to her, slender fingers twisting uneasily at one of her quiver's belt straps. "Coming here wasn't what I had in mind when I first left Freelia—I don't even know anyone in Arun, let alone what the zones around here are like. And I can't make that trip again."

"There's a big community of larpers here," Argo said helpfully. "Buncha different social groups, ranging from crafters and casuals, to grinders who like a bit of RP in their farming. Bet if you asked around you'd find some." She thought for a moment, an idea occurring to her. "There's also a lady who runs an orphanage outta this church not far from here; there's kids there up through the low teens."

"I don't know where any of that is."

Of course you don't. "Send me a PM and I'll give you some names and directions."

Thelvin's eyebrows went up, but he said nothing. Argo pretended not to notice. After a moment, the nervous, dour look on the other girl's face brightened a bit. "All right. There was a really pretty place I found here on the first day, flowering trees and stuff—"

"The Arboretum. Straight up this road towards the World Tree, up to the next terrace. Once you top the stairs you oughta be able to see it on a hill; you can fly from there if your wings are good for it."

It took only moments for Whiskers to disappear into the crowd, and when she was gone, Argo caught Thelvin looking at her curiously again. "What?"

"Nothing," Thelvin said neutrally, a dormant smile rising to his lips for as long as it took her to notice it. "But my task was to escort you safely to Sylvain and back, and although the back part is something of a technicality… you're safe in Arun, and I have a party waiting for me."

"Yeah," Argo agreed, already feeling an overwhelming need to move on. "We both got people to meet and stuff to do. Thanks for getting me here. I doubt I coulda done it myself, what with the changing mobs. Prolly woulda had to hire someone."

Thelvin gave a deep, respectful bow to Argo. "You only need ask. For now, though, I should get back to my clearing group. Good luck with… the thing that Sakuya mentioned."

The Cait Sith tank began to turn; on impulse Argo suddenly reached out and grabbed his arm. "Listen, you're going back into the World Tree, so there's a few things I wanna say. First off, I got multiple sources in the NCC saying that some of the new mob types can go inviz and ambush—spiders in the woods so far, but there might be others. Like, real inviz, not Wind Magic's shitty fake-inviz."

Thelvin's dark eyebrows went up again. "That's a troublesome change, if true. No cursor, like Transparency?"

"No cursor when invizzed, but they make noise and show up on some Detect spells, and you can Dispel their cloak if you know they're there. News is only a day or two old, so that's all I got so far."

Thelvin nodded, seeming a bit nonplussed. "Thank you, Argo. Anything else you think I ought to know?"

"Yeah, bit of intel from a clearer. There's some new rare mob a few clearing groups have run into in the new zone, called a «Norn». It's got a debuff aura that's causing some players to take a ton more damage than others, and no one really knows the mechanic behind it yet. Stay sharp, and let me know if you figure out what the deal is."

"Always," Thelvin answered. He gave her that look of scrutiny again; it was beginning to make her somewhat uncomfortable. "You've changed more than a little, you know."

Argo had no idea what to make of that. "Guess we all have," she said noncommittally. "See ya round."

Thelvin raised a gauntleted hand as he turned, bringing out his triangular amber wings and rising above the crowd to cruise in the general direction of the World Tree. For the first time in several days, Argo found herself free of the need to concern herself with the complications of companions or keeping to anyone else's timetable, and it was a far more welcome feeling than she'd expected.

Even more welcome was being surrounded by people again, by the organic flow of traffic and conversations in Alfheim's busy capital city. It wasn't that she missed having company or friends, or even that she felt any great need for group social interaction, it was that she no longer felt cut off from one of the single most valuable things in her life: the gathering of information. Absently waving off the NPC vendor's stock dialogue, she purchased a rolled sheaf of dark green leaves and stuck one in her mouth, chewing happily with her eyes half-closed while she walked and listened.

"...Have to raise upgrade prices now with the way the supply of Wolf Fangs dried up…"

"...not even half the usual player traffic, but it's getting better now that clearers are coming back through…"

"...told you he was going to screw you, his avatar can't hide the way he automatically smiles when he's lying…"

Someone had once asked Argo how she managed to track multiple conversations at once, and the main reason she'd placed such a high price on that answer was because she wasn't completely sure how to explain it. Her memory for words played a part, in that her brain tended to retain things she'd overheard even when she wasn't actively paying attention. But when pressed for how she managed to sort out overlapping conversations taking place at the same time, the best analogy she'd been able to come up with was listening to music.

People do it all the time with songs. You hear the keyboards, you hear the guitars, you hear the drums, but even though you're hearing them all at once and they overlap a lot, you can still pick them out and individually identify them, even name the notes and chords if you got an ear for it. Lead guitar splits off and does this one thing while the bass keeps going with another, but each has its own voice—its own separate track.

To Argo, it was much the same with conversations. How could someone not tell the difference between the conversations of, say, the two young girls who'd just passed her and the NCC weaponsmiths across the street? They were coming from two different directions, the speakers were different genders and ages, the cadence and substance of the conversations completely distinct. She could clearly hear both of them; how hard was it to keep them separated and follow them both?

For most people, the answer was, apparently: nearly impossible. Argo didn't get it, but the upshot of being able to do something a "normal" person couldn't was that "normal" people generally didn't expect to be overheard.

And they really liked to talk.

"...getting hard to find Enchant mats in the last few days, the market's cleaned out…"

"...like it? It dropped from a named banshee in Bitter Hollow last night, and I'd outleveled my old wand…"

In Argo's observation, the natural instinct of most people was to share information, and they were terrible at keeping secrets. The average person liked to feel smart, important, generous, or some combination of the above—and giving someone else information they didn't know gave the speaker that emotional payoff.

The blacksmiths sharing information on market conditions were raising their status with each other by demonstrating that they were in possession of useful information—information which was now Argo's. The girl with the older voice was reminding the younger that the information she'd previously offered could have saved her trouble if she'd listened—and if Argo had heard the name, she might be able to save someone else the same trouble. The one player didn't have to tell the other where a rare item dropped, but by doing so he got to feel both helpful and well-informed—and now Argo knew, if asked, where to tell someone to farm a rare wand in the 20-25 level range.

This urge to inform others and feel important was what drove the vast majority of Argo's secondhand tips and sources, and it was a big part of the reason why she got so much useful data simply from listening to passing conversations. She was possessed of enough self-awareness to also know that the very same motivations played no small part in why she herself did what she did.

Other than that she could, that was.

"...must be why Eugene's keeping everyone with PvP experience close to home…"

"...think a smith named Lyman might have the Shark Skin you need, his shop's next to Various Sundries…"

But meddling just because she could wasn't enough anymore, if indeed it ever had been—and that was a sobering realization that drove her footsteps in ever-expanding circles through the streets of Arun, looking deep within herself for answers that were not forthcoming from her sources of information without. Never before had such a great volume of valuable information been delivered into her hands, begging her to act to fix what was wrong… and the irony was that never before had those hands been so tied by worries arising from the simple follow-up question of: what if I do?

Because no matter which way she looked, or which options she entertained for either action or inaction, the answer to that question always ended up including the words: people die.

"...think Skarrip found a way out of the game, there has to be a backdoor somewhere in…"

"...four more killed in the last few weeks, it's making me not want to go back to Everdark…"

One of Argo's ears tracked towards the last trio of players; it sounded like they were talking about the uptick in murders around the Salamander-Imp zones. Strictly speaking, such murders weren't really all that unusual—between the Salamanders, Imps, and Sylphs, there was more than enough bad blood to make solo travel inadvisable if you were one of the southern factions, and with the renewed state of war between those three, an increase in violent death was almost a foregone conclusion.

Except that the increase predated the resumption of hostilities. It was enough of an outlier that Argo already had some of her southern contacts paying especially close attention to any details that might be relevant. But the comment by the nearby Salamander had apparently been a passing one; his group had already shifted to another topic as they walked.

Nothing new there, Argo thought, taking a turn to the north while the Salamanders continued on their way. She picked out one of the many benches scattered along the cobblestone streets like Morse dashes, seating herself while she opened her menu to send a reminder PM to one of her Salamander contacts.

"...daft if you actually think we're ever getting out of here at this rate. I plan on settling in to make the best of whatever time I have left before my body…"

"...manual sucks, it's like reading a dictionary. Maybe noobs and casuals wouldn't die so much if there was a real beginner's guide…"

A tumbler in Argo's head fell into place. She wasn't sure exactly what it signified yet, but it drew her out of her thoughts and gave them voice. "Hey," she called out, sending her in-progress message and raising a hand to wave at the tall Undine player who'd just spoken. "What's that you were saying about the game manual?"

The Undine man looked understandably taken aback at having a stranger barge into his conversation, coming to an awkward stop and giving Argo an unreadably neutral look. "What, that it sucks? Because it does."

"Yeah, in what way? Like how, specifically, does it suck?"

The other Undine man nudged his companion. "You know this chick, Blane?"

Blane shook his head of short-cropped blue hair. "Never seen her before in my life. But to answer her question: unless there's something specific you're looking for and you already know what it's called, the manual might as well be in English. As a dry technical reference, it's great. As a tutorial for anyone who doesn't already know the material, it's professionally incompetent."

Argo's ears twitched. "Professionally?"

"I'm a tech writer," Blane explained, long-sleeved arms crossing before him. "Was, anyway. Kayaba's a software developer, and the manual's written like every other I've seen come from a dev: they think it's a spec and they have to cram in every detail. They don't understand end users, and overload newbies with more information than they really need."

Blane's companion looked vaguely embarrassed. "Can you not get him started? It's bad enough I have to listen to this about once a week."

Argo ignored the other man, bemused by Blane's take on Kayaba's writing skill. "You think you could do a better job?"

Blane snorted. "Sweetie, I've worked on two different AAA games in my career; my resume is rock-solid. Not that it matters—there's no work to be had in this death game, and even if we get out of here with our brains intact, I'm done with the gaming industry. Who are you, anyway, and what's it to you?"

"For starters, the name's Argo, not Sweetie." At the looks of recognition the two Undines exchanged, she barreled onward. "And if you know that name, you know I'm serious about making sure people get the information they need. So now that I've got your attention, I'll ask you again: you think you could do a better job of writing a survival guide for newbies than Kayaba did?"

Blane's shrug conveyed an indifference that did not match the expression on his face. "If I had to, sure. It's a moot point, though, because I don't think Kayaba's hiring, and there's no such guide in the game anyway."

The corner of Argo's mouth quirked upwards. "Yeah, well mebbe there oughta be."

·:·:·:·:·:·

"Let's get this out of the way," Philia said bluntly, leaning forward in what she probably thought was a menacing way. "I'm going to kill you for what you did."

Coper blinked slowly a few times in response, reaching up and rubbing at his shoulder for a few moments as if it pained him. "Well, thanks for the warning, I think." He glanced back at the tavern menu, then met her eyes. "You hungry? Something to drink while we sort this out?"

"That'd be great," Philia shot back. "I'd love something nice and messy to throw at that smug face of yours."

Peeking past the hand that he'd brought up to cover his face in embarrassment, Kirito caught a glimpse of Coper's gaze shifting over to regard him. "First the Undine clearer, now Yoshihara's body double. You got weird taste in girls, dude."

Taste had nothing to do with it, but that was not a point likely to push the conversation in a useful direction. "That wasn't how I wanted this to start," he said with a meaningful glance aside at Philia. "But let's be fair: you did kill her friend in cold blood. She's got a right to be upset."

"Upset—?!"

Coper sharply held up a hand, palm-out, cutting off the beginning of Philia's outburst. "Please. I understand why you're pissed at me, and you've got a right to be, but things aren't as simple as they look. Hear me out?"

Philia's answering glare was icy as she folded her arms under her slight bust. "Yeah, sure. Why don't you go ahead and mansplain to me why you had to murder my best friend. I'm all fucking ears."

Anger danced in Coper's eyes. The new Spriggan faction leader took a deep breath and grimaced before answering. "Look, let's not pretend that your friend was some kind of innocent schoolgirl. Yoshihara was a complete bitch to everyone who crossed her path—as were you when you were pretending to be her, case you've forgotten—and the way she ran this faction was going to leave us all trapped in here until our real bodies rot. Once I figured out she was going out in disguise, I got some of the other leadership candidates together and proposed a plan: we catch Yoshihara outside the city and force her to abdicate."

"Abdication doesn't require murder," Kirito pointed out.

"No," Coper said glumly. "It doesn't. The idea was that we surround her group and force her to resign. Nobody dies, and we get a new election the next day—one in which she can't run."

"Well then you're an idiot," Philia said. "She'd never give in to that kind of threat. What happened when she refused?"

"Plan B," Coper replied. "Which was: we gank the group, leave it up to luck which one of us gets the LA on Yoshihara, and AOE rez once the deed is done."

"The ganking part happened," Kirito said, an edge creeping into his own voice. "Seems like you forgot the part where you rez the people you killed."

Coper was already shaking his head before Kirito finished speaking. "That's not how it went down, Kirito. The moment I got the gold star on my ribbon, Krensh stabbed me in the back—literally. You know what that asshole's like; he used to hunt Undines for the fun of it."

Fists balled at Kirito's sides. That was a detail that he'd kept from Asuna to avoid upsetting her when Krensh's name came up before. "Yeah, I know. Remind me again why you thought it was a good idea to bring him?"

"Because I wanted to try to get as many of the candidates on board as I could, okay?" Coper threw up his hands in an exasperated gesture. "If I'd brought my usual group, there's no telling who might've gotten the LA if it came to that, and not all of them are even Spriggans—one of them getting it was a chance I couldn't take. And even if it was me, all the candidates would hate me and think I 'stole' their fair chance or something stupid like that. I figured at least this way I give everyone who wants to replace her an equal shot at it, whether in an open election or the luck of the last attack. I guess Krensh was planning all along on waiting until we were worn down and then ganking whoever won."

Coper withdrew a few coins from a pouch and put them on the table in front of him to illustrate positions. "This is me; I just got the LA. Krensh put his sword in me, which cost me a lot of HP and sucked like you wouldn't believe—"

A sympathetic twinge reminded Kirito of his second encounter with Rosalia's group. "Oh, yes I would."

"—But didn't OHK because my armor's Stoneskin proc was still up. I love that thing. Anyway, Arajin hit me with a heal, but Krensh took his head clean off in one hit from that two-hander of his. Standard PvP tactic in any game: take out the healer." The boy sighed, looking as if he was either sincerely bothered by the outcome, or putting on a good show of it. "Only two of us survived that fustercluck, and neither of us could rez. There wasn't a thing I could do to make that play out any differently. I'm sorry."

"The hell you are." Philia's eyes snapped to the side, demanding an answer from Kirito. "Are you buying this story?"

Kirito was conflicted. He wasn't sure what kind of PvP experience Philia had in ALO, but the scenario Coper described struck him as all too plausible. Arajin was a battlemage with a focus on healing, and Krensh was… Krensh. Kirito had absolutely no difficulty seeing the battle play out exactly as described.

Of course, there were a few details Coper wasn't sharing.

"So where does Burns come in?" Kirito asked of Coper, delaying the need to answer Philia's loaded question. "He's not a Spriggan."

Coper's eyes widened, and his brows went up in surprise. "How did you know I brought Burns along for this?"

"Never mind my sources," Kirito said, deliberately omitting any mention of having personally overheard their preparations. "Burns is an assassin by rep, and we both know it. You don't hire his magic for your group unless you're planning on killing someone."

"Or locking them down," Coper said testily, straightening his posture and lifting his chin defiantly as he swept the coins off the table and into his open hand. "You know of Burns, Kirito, but you've never worked with him and you don't really know him like I do. You know why everyone thinks he's an assassin? Because he loves PvP. He's not interested in killing, it's about the thrill and challenge of testing his skills against other players. And if you knew anything about his strengths, you'd know he's not a nuker—his stock in trade is debuffs and crowd control."

"So?" Philia demanded. "You still—"

"Do I have to spell it out word by word?" Coper finally said, pushing himself angrily to his feet. His voice rose and fell as he punctuated his words with gestures. "The whole point of bringing Burns was to use his skills to disable Yoshihara's group so that we didn't have to kill them. That's what he does best. I wasn't worried about him getting the LA because he wasn't DPSing." He slowly lowered himself back down into the low-backed chair and scooted it in. "Don't be such a fucking carebear; not everyone who loves PvP is out to kill for lulz."

Philia barked a loud, contemptuous laugh. "Carebear?" A crude snort came right on the coda of the well-worn pejorative. "Boya, I was ganking Fed and Alliance carebears in SFO when I was still in high school. I bet I've been playing PvP games longer than you've been potty-trained."

"And here we go with the ageist insults," Coper said with a roll of the eyes. "And from a girl who's maybe what, four years older than me, if that?" He turned to Kirito, patience clearly wearing thin. "Look man, I got nothing against you—in fact, I need you. I don't even have anything against what's-her-face here; I totally get why she hates me—I killed her friend, she's gonna be salty about that. But I'm not going to sit here and let Mimic Girl work out her grief by using me as a verbal punching bag."

"How about an actual pun—"

Kirito's patience was running low as well; his voice rose a bit as he looked at Philia. "You're not helping!"

A few beats of uncomfortable silence followed Kirito's own outburst. Philia's eyes burned as she glared at him, but there was hurt and surprise in them as well. "You taking his side now? I thought you were here to get the truth out of this kid?"

"The truth is what I'm interested in here," Kirito answered. "But I don't think repeatedly trying to provoke Coper into acting against you by insulting and raging at him is helping do that."

Watching Philia get control of herself was fascinating. The anger never left her eyes, but the tight set of her jaw slowly relaxed, and she seemed to be forcing herself to breathe. Just when Coper opened his mouth and seemed to be about to speak, she turned back to him, eyes going to his hands. "Where's the ring?"

Ring? Kirito had no idea what to make of the sudden shift in topic. Coper seemed just as taken aback, and was clearly getting annoyed. "The hell are you talking about now?"

"Yoshihara's ring. You know the one I'm talking about. It had to drop when her Remain Light disappeared. Where is it?"

"Up Kayaba's ass? I don't know, you tell me."

"I know she was wearing it," Philia said, putting her fists on the table before her. "You got her gear when you killed her. I want her ring."

Coper glared right back at her. "You've never actually killed anyone in the game yourself, have you?"

"I have. What does it matter?"

"Must've been luck, because if you did, you should damn well know how it works. It's totally random who gets what from the kill. If Yoshihara was wearing a ring, and if it even dropped at all, it could've dropped for anyone in the party." His index finger snapped out towards Kirito. "Don't believe me, ask him. Or hell, ask Argo. Maybe even try looking it up yourself."

When Philia glanced in Kirito's direction, he gave her a very slight nod. He had never received a full set of equipment from any of his PvP kills—even solo kills like the first time against Rosalia's thugs, where he'd had no party members to share in the loot.

"What ring is this?" Kirito asked into the space that followed.

"Solitary Vigil," Philia answered. "We got it as a named drop a while back. It makes it so you can only have one spell effect active on you at a time—whatever the last one was—but it makes that effect permanent as long as you wear the ring and nothing else gets cast on you." She glanced over at Kirito. "That's how the one of us going out was able to stay disguised for the whole day. Phantasmal Mimicry doesn't last forever."

Kirito had wondered, but it hadn't seemed a critical detail at the time. He made an appreciative sound. "That sounds pretty OP."

"Not as much as you might think," Philia said. "If you want to keep the last effect, no running HOTs, no other buffs of any kind, and you can't let a mob poison you or hit you with a DOT or debuff, or else that becomes permanent until you take off the ring or cast something else."

"One Paralysis or Delay and you're dead," Kirito said. It was a high-risk, high-reward item.

Coper's face lit up with understanding. "She was completely unbuffed? That explains a lot."

Philia wasn't looking at either of them; she seemed to take a sudden interest in staring at the orelight lamp hanging above the table. "Doesn't matter anyway. If you don't have it, then it's gone now."

"Look," Coper said. "We're going in circles now. Fact is, you hate me and there's nothing I can ever say that will convince you that I'm telling the truth. It sucks that your friend's dead, but if I had to do it again, I would. Because now you, me, Kirito here, and every one of us in black actually have a snowball's chance in hell of getting out of this crapsack fantasy world someday. That's more than we had yesterday."

Philia didn't respond immediately. Slowly and carefully she came to her feet, looking down at Coper. Her voice was calm, but the words were still sharp enough to cut. "Maybe so. But you still did it by killing my best friend, and this isn't over." As her footsteps took her past Kirito's chair, he felt a hand briefly come to rest on the back of his shoulder. "Thanks for trying to help," she said a bit more gently. "You're a good kid, but I doubt we'll meet again."

"Philia?" His words met her back as she walked towards the door; when she heard, she lifted a hand in farewell without turning or breaking stride.

When the door shut behind her, leaving Kirito and Coper alone in a room full of NPCs, the Spriggan faction leader turned back to him with a roll of the eyes. "What a bitch."

"Save it, Coper," Kirito said dismissively; under the circumstances he was uninterested in listening to the other boy trash-talk Philia. "You've got no high ground to stand on considering what you did to her. Now what's this about you 'needing' me?"

"I figured it'd be obvious," Coper said, seeming a little surprised. He looked down and picked absently at a seam in the table as he talked. "Part of what I've been doing since last night is reviewing the Spriggan roster, trying to get a feel for what I got to work with. I got a few dozen bites on my mass-mail from known clearers or people who wanna be, which isn't even half the bare minimum for a proper raid of our own. There's my group of course, but there's just one problem." He paused there for effect, looking back up at Kirito. "It was one thing to get my group to sneak me to Arun in the middle of the night once, but I'm not Yoshihara—there's no way I'm dumb enough to lead them out to clear the World Tree."

An uneasy feeling began to eke its way into Kirito's gut. "You want me to take over leading your clearing group."

"Not just my group," Coper said. "I want you to be my lead clearer."

Kirito stared at Coper for several long seconds, stunned. "You're kidding me."

"Hear me out, man. You're one of the top Spriggans by level. You were a tester, and of the ones I know, there's no one here who knows the system like you do." Coper had drawn open his menu as he spoke, and from the angle of his gaze he had to be looking through it at Kirito. "And on top of that, you have good relations with all the factions. You've got a courier permit for Sylvain, you're in good standing with the NCC, Diabel doesn't hate you the way he does the rest of us, and you were an advocate for the Treaty. You have the credibility to negotiate with the other clearing groups for work."

Kirito was impressed; Coper had clearly done his homework—that, or someone had done it for him. It was difficult to not feel just a little bit flattered at being singled out the way he was here, but Kirito had to remind himself of who and what he was dealing with. "Let's say all that is true," he began. "You aren't exactly a poster child for inter-factional relations. Why would I put my credibility on the line for an ex-privateer who just murdered the last faction leader?"

"Because we both want the same thing," Coper replied. "We both want to help fight our way out of this game, and we both know we can't do that by being the butt-monkeys of Alfheim—only idiots like Yoshihara think being hated is some kind of badge of honor. We both want to show the other factions that the Spriggans have something to offer as allies. And we both know that all the other factions are watching us really close right now, to see what we're gonna do now that Yoshihara's gone—watching to see whether the problem was with her, or with all of us. That's an opportunity we only get once."

"And you think having me as your lead clearer will send the right message to them."

"Yeah, but it's not just about politics. When we send our groups out into the World Tree, we're gonna run into clearers from other factions—factions we're not working for or allies with. In the past, that's been dangerous for us, and we both know it. I've got other people I can ask, but conflicts with other players are a lot less likely to escalate with you leading a group—and if they do, I know you're capable of defending yourself and those around you."

Never before could Kirito recall being given so many very good reasons for doing something that was practically the polar opposite of what he wanted to do. Everything that Coper was saying was reasonable, and in some cases even admirable. If it were anyone else, under any other circumstances… he negated that line of thought quickly. Even if it were anyone else, he still wouldn't be especially comfortable with the idea of leading not just one group, but a combined force of clearing groups. The fact that it was Coper, with all of his past and current baggage, only made things worse. There was still something about his story that stunk up the whole room; Kirito was sure that there were details Coper was hiding about what happened during Yoshihara's assassination.

"What're you planning on doing about the Treaty?" Kirito asked cautiously, the sincerity of Coper's commitment to it still very doubtful.

"Our clearers and anyone else who's officially involved with our clearing groups will have to obey it. I'm not budging on that. But let's face it, Kirito, there's a whole pile of Spriggans who just want to be left alone. We both know that there's pretty much jack that I can do to enforce the Treaty unless there's a believable threat of consequences backing it up—and there's not."

Kirito almost mentioned Exile and Banishment before thinking better of pointing out the obvious; Coper's words that followed were almost an echo of what passed through his own thoughts. "Kicking them out of a city I don't plan on returning to won't do shit, either. So I can either leave them to do their thing on their side of the world, and have a chance at making a difference here in Arun where it actually matters… or I can make a stupid stand on principle, be a one-term wonder, and we go back to where we were under Yoshihara. Hope you've been speccing for VIT and stealth."

"I get the point," Kirito grumbled. "I don't have to like it."

"No, and neither do I, but that ain't here or there, is it?" Coper beckoned to the NPC waitress as she pathed nearby. "Gimme a lemonade."

The position in which Kirito found himself was not a comfortable one. He was no leader of any kind. He'd never really invested much time in socializing or making friends back in the real world, and if anything his preference for solitude had only intensified after the beta—certainly after launch. He didn't mind partying up when it was useful to do so, and he was experienced enough at being part of a raid. But leading one?

Kirito thought of the raid leaders he knew. There was Jahala, Diabel's right-hand man. Eugene for the Salamanders and Imps. The Sylphs and Caits had Sigurd and Thelvin, respectively, and the NCC had a jovial Gnome named Godfrey leading the clearers in their alliance.

Each of them had one critical trait in common: they were all grown men, not boys. Strong-willed adult men capable of inspiring those they led, or at least getting them to follow. Most of them were tanks, which was useful in a raid—tanks often led parties anyway, and you wanted your raid leader to be tough, durable, and close to the action.

Coper was right about one thing before, Kirito thought. When it all comes down to it, we're still kids. In this world that doesn't matter quite so much in a fight; we're as capable as anyone else of equivalent level and stats. The adult players have to accept the fact that we're here and make use of our skills, because they don't really have a lot of choice—there aren't enough of them to clear the game on their own, and we're just as good as they are.

But that doesn't mean they'll listen to us.

"How old are the players we're talking about here?" Kirito asked, uncomfortably aware that by seeking answers like this, he was signaling that he was considering Coper's request.

Coper seemed to realize it, too. He smiled. "I'm planning on setting you up with my old group to start with. They're anywhere from our age to around their mid-20s—we're not talking about forum dads here. Besides, most of us have rolled together for a long time; they don't care about your age as long as you get shit done. Obviously you can shuffle people around as needed; the clearing groups are yours to manage. But I recommend at least starting with people who've worked together before when you can."

It was sound advice to be sure; a party with players who knew each other's styles, strengths and weaknesses was stronger and more survivable than any pickup group. Anyone stepping in as a leader for a pre-existing group would have their work cut out for them, and if the group already worked well together, it was one less obstacle to overcome.

But that pre-existing familiarity was also sometimes, as Kirito had found in other circumstances, an obstacle of its own. Coper's group would be used to Coper's way of doing things—they could, for the most part, be expected to share his values and attitudes. And while he and the other boy probably had more in common than not, the differences they did have were stark—their respective attitudes towards the value of human life came to mind as immediately relevant.

Kirito struggled over the choice before him, so conflicted that he was certain it showed on his face. Young though he was, he knew that there were times in a person's life when they were given an opportunity to make things better in some way—to effect some positive change on the world, in ways big or small. His mother—his aunt, really, but that scarcely mattered now—she'd told him more than once to watch for those moments, and seize them when they appear, because there was no guarantee they'd ever come again.

He knew, without even needing it pointed out to him, that this was such a moment.

"I have conditions," Kirito began, placing his palms on the table and locking gazes with Coper.

The other boy's eyes betrayed wariness. "Go on."

"First of all: our clearers will, without exception, adhere to the Treaty. Anyone who doesn't is out, and if you don't back me up on that, then so am I."

After a beat, Coper nodded. "All right."

Kirito wasn't finished. "Second condition: you delegate to me the faclead permissions I need in order to do my job. At a minimum that means full roster access, law enforcement powers, and the ability to promote and re-permission any ranks below mine."

Coper looked as if he'd bitten into something extremely foul; he squirmed a bit in his seat. "Why do you need enforcement perms?"

Fortunately, these were details Kirito remembered extremely well; he'd studied the relevant parts of the manual in detail prior to his jail confrontation with Prophet, so as to know just what measures were within Yoshihara's ability. "I don't want anyone moonlighting as bandits, privateers, assassins, or mercs. If I'm going to be leading our clearers in the field, I need the ability to deal with anyone who goes rogue—I need to be able to set and enforce codes of conduct using faction law."

"No," said Coper with a firm shake of the head. "You can do that without the coded legal system. And it won't do you any good anyway—you can't imprison anyone outside of Penwether, I'm not levying a drop tax, and Exile or Banishment mean nothing to a clearer who doesn't set foot in the home city anyway."

It had been worth a shot, but this was the one point on which Kirito was willing to give. "Fine, I'll leave that to you for now—but like I said, if you don't back me up, I walk. The other two aren't negotiable, though—if you don't understand why your lead clearer needs roster access or the ability to manage ranks and permissions, I've been giving you too much credit."

"Yeah, yeah, I get it," Coper said, waving a hand at the air. He glanced over as the NPC waitstaff brought his drink, and sighed after taking a long draw from the pale yellow liquid. "Sorry, I really do get it. Just not too keen on spreading around powers that can violate the privacy of other Spriggans, or make the don't-tread-on-me crowd think I'm going Kibaou on them."

"If you can't even trust me not to abuse these powers," Kirito said, "you're gonna have a tough time finding someone you can."

"I know. Like you said earlier, knowing doesn't mean I have to like it." Coper raised his free hand before him and drew open his menu. He hesitated, outstretched finger wavering between different points in the air. "Where is—"

"Roster, long press on my name, Manage Roles from the context menu. There might already be a preset for a Raid Leader rank, but if there's not, make one."

"Nope, no preset—guess Yoshihara never felt the need to set one up." It took him a minute to fumble his way through the unfamiliar new parts of the Faction Leader UI, but eventually a notification icon appeared in Kirito's HUD, informing him of the role change and new permissions.

It struck Kirito, then, that there was no going back now. He'd hadn't explicitly agreed to take on the job Coper was offering him… but he hadn't said no either, and Coper had accepted the conditions he set. The job was his now—as was the responsibility that came with that job.

The prospect was almost terrifying enough to make Kirito's hands shake. Only keeping them firmly pressed against the table saved him from that embarrassing tell.

"I'll forward you some PMs I got from applicants," Coper said eyes going upwards to his HUD. He tipped back the remainder of his lemonade, and rose to his feet. "I gotta go meet with an NCC supplier who might be willing to do business with us—we don't have farming infrastructure like the bigger factions, so we're gonna have to pay for our own gear progression." He paused, again meeting Kirito's eyes. "Thanks, man. I really mean it. I know you and I have had our differences, but we both want the Spriggans to climb outta the hole that Yoshihara dug for us, and you're willing to do what's necessary to make it happen. That counts for something in my book."

Kirito nodded, head still whirling from the dizzying weight of what had transpired so quickly. "Let's hope it counts for enough. A lot of that will depend on what kind of people you're giving me to work with."

Coper smiled back at him. "I've got faith in them, Kirito—and in you. I know you won't let me down."

No, he thought as the door shut behind Coper, leaving Kirito alone in a room full of NPCs. The question is whether I can avoid letting down everyone else. It was not a weight that he felt in any way ready to bear, and a part of him was already regretting the choice.

He wondered if Coper would come to regret it as well. Kirito had been absolutely truthful when he explained the reasons for his requests, but they hadn't been all of the reasons going through his mind. Now that Coper was gone, Kirito opened his game menu and quickly selected the new «Administration» option at the top. The only option available to him was «Roster», which he tapped with one trembling forefinger.

The window that expanded in front of him was huge; it was easily as large as the maximum possible size he could make his map window, and grew to fill the middle third of his field of view. Kirito almost jerked his head back in surprise. Trying to recall the steps he'd read in the manual and using his general familiarity with ALO's UI conventions, he sorted the list by level descending, then scanned it for the entry he wanted. It didn't take long to find.

『PoH :: M :: Clvl 39』

A hot, radiant joy filled Kirito then, so intensely that he felt like it would sear straight through the skin of his avatar and fill the room. He leaned back in his chair, light-headed, and stared at the roster. There were gray names in the list, and PoH's was not among them; he was alive. He was a real player, not a mob or NPC, and not some sick creation of Kayaba's. A person, a human being just like anyone else: powerful, to be sure, and quite insane—but mortal.

If what PoH wanted was to stop the game from being cleared, then it stood to reason that the best way to thwart him was to do exactly that: focus all their efforts on clearing the game. Doing so should eventually force him out of hiding in order to take on the clearing groups directly, and that was a losing battle for him and his group—especially now that Kirito was going to have his own clearing groups backing him up.

"Run and hide as long as you want," Kirito said to himself quietly, flicking the Spriggan roster closed and rising from his chair. "Sooner or later, you're going to have to come crawling out of your hole if you want to stop us from beating the game."

And when you do, I'll be there waiting.


Author's Note 8/1/16:

Good grief, almost seven months since the last chapter—longer still if you only read on AO3 and missed the last chapter, which I forgot to post there when I first released it. I'm not dead and neither is the fic, but this time has been something of a hiatus for me for a variety of reasons: job, health, and life in general. It gets frustrating feeling like I need to offer an explanation and apology every time I post in the last year or so, and I'm sure it's no less frustrating for readers who've been dying to know what happens. I'm really busy right now looking for a job, but I'll try to do better.

There are a lot of important things happening in this chapter, though not all of them may be immediately obvious. At last we're finally getting to see some of the actual mechanics of a Puca's Song Magic, and Kirito's unlikely and reluctant alliance with Coper, although well-intentioned, is going to push the boundaries of what he's capable of doing—or willing to do.

So what've Sasha and Klein been up to all this time? Well, for one thing, it's easy to overlook the fact that the chapters in this act so far span only a few days. But we'll be checking in on both of them very soon. They were both originally supposed to make an earlier appearance in this arc, but it took longer than expected—in terms of word count—for everyone to converge on Arun, and their plots are dependent on that.

Thank you for reading, and as always, let me know what you think in the reviews!

Edit: Sometimes I really hate this site. Apparently the string filtering is so extreme, it's gratuitously stripping out basic musical notation symbols, so in the FFN version I've had to replace the correct symbols with the word "flat" in order to not have my story butchered. Read it on AO3 if you prefer it the correct way.