"«Reputation» is a type of currency used to represent a player's standing or favor with an organization or NPC entity in Alfheim. As with other currencies such as «Yuld», it is weightless while in a player's inventory, but if unbound can be manifested as a world item for purposes such as trade, convenience, or roleplay. While so manifested, the item acquires weight and other physical properties until returned to a container or inventory, typically taking the form of coin-sized marks or tokens. Unlike Yuld, however, reputation marks have no intrinsic value within Alfheim's economy—their sole value lies in what an NPC or other player will offer in exchange for them, whether that be items, services, knowledge, or unlocking further quest progression..."
Alfheim Online manual, «Reputation»

9 May 2023: Day 185 - Evening

Kirito jumped slightly in his seat when the front door to the Barkcrest Inn opened, spoon stopping halfway to his mouth and dribbling a bit onto the table. He'd been alone in the inn with a handful of NPCs ever since Coper left, and the bell above the door kept ringing jarringly as a mixed-race collection of players entered—five in all, led by an athletic Spriggan youth in light plate armor that had the gleam of fresh maintenance. The older boy—or young man; from the wispy scruff of a goatee it was hard to be sure—was cradling a long-bladed polearm loosely across his shoulder with the ease of long comfort, and before the rest had even finished filing through the doorway, he turned a lopsided smile towards the only other player in the inn's main room. "You must be Kirito."

Being at a disadvantage in that way did nothing to soothe Kirito's nerves, which had already been fraying since his encounter with Coper—something he'd been hoping a good meal and a few minutes off his feet would help ameliorate. Cautiously he set down the spoon and gave the other boy his full attention, assessing his visible gear. "I don't think we've met."

"Nah, but we have now. Name's Kramer. Been Coper's on-again off-again tank for a while." He tipped his head of buzz-cut black hair at the others behind him.

Kirito correctly interpreted the gesture before Kramer could explain. He pushed back his nearly-empty plate and bowl, straightening. "You're Coper's clearing group. Sorry, he didn't tell me you were coming."

"No worry, bro," Kramer said, pulling out a chair opposite Kirito. "Coper had to go to a thing, but he sent me a message about ten-fifteen minutes ago. Said to grab everyone who was partied up and see if you were still here."

Against all reason, Kirito suddenly found himself very frustrated at just how little time Coper was wasting in making his moves. To be sure, having a faction leader who seemed to be making a genuine effort at taking the role seriously was like a breath of fresh air after having wasted so many months stifling under Yoshihara's non-rule, and it arguably did bode well for the future in a way that he had to admit was motivational.

But Kirito would have appreciated just a bit more time to prepare before having to meet with Coper's friends—a collection of players whom his new leader was proposing that Kirito take over and turn into the Spriggan lead clearing group. Kirito's stomach had dictated a meal after the day's travel, and since Coper had left him alone in the inn's main room, it had been a perfect opportunity to catch up on PMs with Argo and Asuna. Among other things, Argo had already once offered to sell him expanded info on Coper's group, and he now had a very good reason to take her up on that offer the next time they spoke.

An uncomfortable stir from the other players seized Kirito's attention back to the moment, reminding him that he was probably being rude. There was a surplus of seats at the table; he waved his hand at the group in a clear invitation. "Nice to meet you," he said, though he wasn't yet sure if that was true. Kramer at least struck him as friendly enough so far, and he'd already been trying to remind himself to give Coper's team the benefit of the doubt.

But Argo had as much as said that most of them were mercenaries or former privateers, and he wasn't sure which was which—he could be dealing with actual killers here. Unfair though it was, the blend of races in the group did nothing to discourage that seeming: two Spriggans, two Salamanders, an Imp—

Kirito froze. He recognized a few of the others by sight from seeing them with Coper before, but when his eyes fell on the Imp in the party, the memory was an uncomfortable one. He'd seen the long-limbed, long-haired boy once as well, and the context was not one he'd be bringing up in the present company. "You're Burns."

"A pleasure," Burns said with what sounded like sincerity, leaning across the table and extending his hand in a very Western-style gesture. After a moment's hesitation, Kirito accepted it; Burns smiled while the two shook firmly. "I'm surprised you recognized me. I've heard a lot about you, but I'm pretty sure we've never met."

"Same," Kirito said neutrally, taking care to avoid any mention of the night he'd seen Burns with Coper. "You've got something of a reputation."

"As do you," Burns said, rubbing at his chin for a moment as he gave Kirito a piercing look of evaluation. "Plenty of clearers that don't know your name, but if nothing else they probably know the Black Swordsman by sight from seeing you skulk around the front lines solo—and that takes balls and skill in equal measure. Props, by the by." His smile twitched briefly. "Scuttlebutt has it you're damn good at PvP, but I never faced you during the beta, and I don't know of many who have since."

That's because a lot of them are dead. Kirito struggled to return the smile when he replied; as off-guard as this sudden visit had made him, he was doing his best not to let his tumultuous feelings show on his face. "I've fought other players after launch, and won. I'm still alive. I suppose that speaks for itself." An unspoken thought lay behind those confident, understated words: please don't make me explain further.

Thankfully, Burns seemed to understand just fine. "Too right, man," he answered, nodding. Then, his expression brightened, eyes sparkling with clear interest. "Wanna go?"

The seemingly non-sequitur question confused Kirito for just long enough to open his mouth. "Go where?"

Burns laughed a bit harder at the misunderstanding than was probably necessary, as did a few of the others; Kirito's ears burned a bit. "Go a round. Duel, I mean. I'd like to see how you fight if we're going to party together." The boy's sharp violet eyes studied his surroundings as if evaluating the inn's fitness for use as an arena. "Though maybe not right here. I like this place, and I don't wanna get kicked out."

Kirito gave the others a baffled look, turning to the tank of the group as the presumed leader. "Is this your idea of an interview for a new party leader? Or some kind of fight club?"

"What do you mean?" asked Kramer, who leaned back precariously in his chair with his polearm over his shoulder to prop him up. "It's a PvP game, bro. This is what we do for fun. Burns took out both me and Coper the last time we had a two-on-two."

"You should've swapped in some status gear for that duel, Kramer," Burns said nonchalantly. "But that was an epic fight all the same. If I hadn't stopped your charge with that Wall—" He looked over at Kirito, who realized he was currently staring with his lips slightly parted.

"You duel for fun?" Kirito repeated, aware that he was awkwardly and stupidly stumbling through the blatantly obvious in order to have anything at all to say.

"Well, yeah," Burns said. "Only to half-HP now, of course."

"Crits can OHK from above half," Kirito pointed out. "Dueling was great fun in the beta, Burns, but permadeath is real in this game. If you have something to settle, isn't First Strike safer?"

Kramer wore his scorn in the twist of his upper lip. "For the noob carebears dueling in their home plaza, sure."

"Base crit severity is 200% for techs and 150% for spells," Burns replied with assurance, seemingly paying no mind to Kramer's acerbic comment. "That sets an upper limit on potential spike damage. I've got house rules, so to speak: I don't duel with sev gear on, or use attacks that can crit for more than half if I know someone's rough HP range. Especially if we're not in a safe zone." He glanced over at one of the party members—a twenty-something Salamander wearing sanguine mage robes with golden-orange accents—and threw the man a knowing grin. "Worst-case scenario, that's what Mentat's there for, amirite? Maybe we learn something from it."

Mentat gave Burns a lazy shrug, shoving his long-sleeved arms casually into a pair of his blood-red robe's many pockets as he leaned against one of the inn's structural supports with a gnarled arcane staff resting on one shoulder. "You want to feed me skill points for casting a successful rez, you go right on ahead, my friend. I'm not the one eating the DP."

"That's Mentat's way of expressing enthusiastic approval of our dueling hobby," said the other Spriggan clearer present, a younger mage with a leather chestplate under his robes. He crowded up to the table between Kramer and Burns, but didn't sit; Kirito could clearly see both a wand and a short sword hanging at his sides. "Hi, I'm Xorren, resident Red Mage."

Kirito had no trouble understanding what Xorren likely meant by that; he relaxed a bit and tried on a grin. "Little bit of everything, huh?"

Xorren gave him a white-gloved thumbs-up; the gloves matched the snow-white trim on his voluminous black robes. "You name it, it's what I do," he said. "Light heals, buffs, debuffs, utility, melee and magic DPS—"

"I take exception to calling what you do 'DPS', Xorren," put in a Salamander youth who appeared somewhere around Kirito's age beneath the peaked hood of his own mage's robes. "Doesn't that involve consistently dealing damage?"

Xorren's thumbs-up rotated robotically into an entirely different gesture with an accompanying verbal sound effect. "Let me know when we've got a DPS parser in this game, Yar. Proof's in the Last Attack Bonus, and I get it almost as often as you do."

Yar did not seem to react charitably to this choice of response. "That's because you're a fucking ninja." He turned to Kirito. "Word to the wise, dude. Xorren's fun to have around, and good at keeping everyone buffed, but he ninjas the Last Attack a lot. Get used to it whenever he's in the party."

"Give it a rest, Yar," said Mentat, with the weary voice of someone shutting down a long-tired subject. "Even I DPS when the mob's about to go down. Otherwise healers and utility roles never get the LA."

Kirito was no social adept, but as a matter of pure survival and longtime MMO experience, he knew how to recognize the signs of fault lines in a party—personality or agenda conflicts that could pose a problem sooner or later. More than once he'd bailed from parties for exactly that reason, and he was already getting red flags from this group.

Granted, he'd only known them for a matter of minutes, and he was already predisposed to be suspicious of them, so Kirito was aware that his snap judgment might not have been entirely fair. For all he knew, this was just harmless competitive banter between teammates—and for some of them, that might even have been true.

But there was tension there, too. There were divides in this group, and while Coper might have been able to hold them together despite those differences, Kirito had neither Coper's personality nor his history of friendship with them. And that could be a serious problem if it came to a situation where they relied on each other for survival.

"So how long have you all been partying together?" Kirito asked carefully, feeling the awkwardness in the air but not really knowing how to address it other than by trying to ask what he hoped were the right questions. This whole «making friends and small talk» skill is not what I'm specced for, he grumbled internally while the other players glanced at each other.

"Bout two-three months for me," Kramer said, speaking first. "But I've got other friends I party with too. Couple of the guys have known Coper since the first month."

The first month. It might have just been Kirito's imagination, but that sounded like a carefully roundabout way of referring to a very dark time in the game—a time during which some of the players in front of him might well have been privateers working for the Salamanders to terrorize the neighboring factions with impunity.

The comments also seemed to confirm his impression that Coper had been the "glue" holding together this group. "I get the sense that not all of you are constant members."

"Not exactly," said Xorren. "Me, I met Coper all the way back on launch day, but I didn't do a lot of partying with him until after Mortimer took over. By then he'd met Yar and Mentat, and the four of us teamed up with the Sal clearing groups for the first gateway boss—what was that, like early December? Something like that." He shrugged as he concluded. "Anyway, I'm off soloing for map data a lot, but this is my group when I clear."

Xorren wasn't the only group member who seemed to be chatty. Kramer spoke again as soon as his teammate stopped talking long enough for someone else to get a word in. "We've all got at least a few friends, so the last couple party spots just get filled in depending on whoever's LFG," their tank said, gesturing to the side. "Burns here is an old buddy of Mentat's who duels with us whenever we meet up; we've partied a few times. I've been tanking for Coper a lot lately, so he asked if I wanted in on this new clearing group thing." He shrugged. "There're others who aren't here now, but I guess you could say we're the current 'core' group."

As the timeline of events that formed this group started adding up, something belatedly clicked in Kirito's head, something Xorren had said: after Mortimer took over. The words rung uncomfortably in his memory, making it difficult to concentrate on anything else once he'd focused in on them. To Kirito, the meaning buried beneath them could not have been clearer, and it cemented his certainty that he was going to have to talk to Argo at length—probably with money as much as with words—before going any further down this road, or any other, with this group.

"Look," Kirito began, pushing back his chair and starting to rise; the others who had seated themselves did the same almost immediately. "I'm really sorry to do this, but this is bad timing—I already had plans to meet with some friends soon, and I was going to get going as soon as I finished eating."

"Let's be fair, guys," Mentat pointed out reasonably to the others, tapping the butt of his staff against the inn's thick wooden floor for attention. Once the rest of the mage's group had turned to him, he went on. "It's not like Kirito here was expecting a bunch of strangers to just show up like this and crash his dinner. Let's give him some peace." He tipped his head. "Nice to meet you, though. Looking forward to seeing what you've got."

Burns half-turned in his seat just long enough to nod at the Salamander healer behind him. "Say no more, man," he added, gaze quickly going back to Kirito. "We can all catch up tomorrow morning. Maybe start the day with a nice fight to get to know each other and warm us up for clearing."

The last thing that Kirito wanted to do, based on his experiences thus far, was go into the World Tree with an untested group—especially this group. Although the duel offer Burns kept extending seemed to be meant in good fun, and tugged powerfully at Kirito's competitive nature and nostalgia for the lower-stakes PvP he'd enjoyed so much in beta, something just felt off. Kirito's instincts had kept him alive this long; he wasn't keen on taking unnecessary chances without good reason.

For the moment, however, he tabled his reservations, trying very hard to keep his true feelings from coming to the fore. These players had done nothing to him, so far, other than interrupt a meal with a seemingly well-intentioned gesture of friendship. "Sorry to be a pain," Kirito said, genuinely meaning it. "I'll send everyone messages first thing in the morning."

One by one the members of Kirito's new clearing group said their goodbyes, leaving him once again alone in the company of NPCs. It was company that he sometimes found a lot easier to deal with, more predictable to manage, than the company of his fellow players. Fleetingly, as he seated himself again and poked at his food, he almost wished that Asuna had been there with him—she was an experienced member of a structured clearing group herself, and she was definitely more outgoing than he was. What was more, he thought she had pretty good judgment most of the time, and it would've helped to know if she saw the same things he did.

But then Kirito realized that he'd be potentially throwing her into a social situation with privateers who might well have preyed on her people—for all he knew, with someone who had actually, personally, attacked her or someone she knew. And that just brought him back to his inescapable need to know who he was dealing with before he went any further.

In the morning, Kirito repeated to himself. I don't have to worry about it until tomorrow morning. By then, hopefully I'll have more information about what kind of people these friends of Coper's really are. Not to mention a better idea of whether or not I can even risk trusting them enough to party with them.

It wasn't just his own safety that worried Kirito now, though. The line of thought had reminded him that he had to also concern himself with what was good for the Spriggans, as a whole—and for the fragile chance he now had to rebuild their reputation and end their ostracization with a credible, honorable, and Treaty-abiding clearing group. Isn't that what Asuna's been telling me to do? Change the politics? Well, the politics have changed. And now I've been given a chance to show that we're not all like Yoshihara—worse, that we're not all sociopaths and PKs like everyone seems to assume we are.

But what if some of them are?

That was the worry that plagued him now—not just for his own sake, but for what was possibly his one and only chance to fix Spriggan relations. What if some of Coper's group really were privateers? I know Coper was, and it sure sounds like at least a few of the others were. Where do I draw the line and say, no, you can't be part of this clearing group because you'll make us look bad? How much do I really need to know about someone before I can say that? And what about the Salamanders of this group, Yar and Mentat? Or for that matter, Burns? At what point does this stop being a Spriggan clearing group— what's supposed to be our lead group at that—and become just another pickup group of clearers?

As much as he wished otherwise, Kirito wasn't prepared to answer those critical questions—he just didn't have enough information to make any kind of clear judgment about people who were already starting out with a deficit of trust from where he was sitting. But the stakes were too high to simply walk away. That was the easy path, the safe path; it was what his instincts were screaming at him to do before this farce went any further and got him—or someone else—killed.

But it wasn't the right thing to do, and Kirito knew it. He couldn't let himself run from this, no matter how fiercely he wanted to.

Apparently he'd been idle long enough to attract the attention of the NPC waitstaff; a homely Sylph woman in an apron and dress bowed as she appeared at his side. "Would you like to order anything else, okyaku-sama?

Kirito's plate was mostly empty and he'd lost what remained of his appetite. Briefly he was tempted to just ignore the NPC, but that felt rude, somehow—even despite knowing that she was nothing more than a scripted entity with dialogue trees. Recalling his experience with the elderly NPC in Penwether, however, he decided to indulge his curiosity after glancing around to ensure the room was clear of players. "No, thank you. I have a question, though. What can you tell me about the people who were just here? Especially Burns."

The humble smile on the NPC woman's face remained fixed; after a moment she tilted her head slightly. "I'm sorry, but I'm not sure what you're trying to ask. Would you care to try our special? It's the sauteed—"

That wasn't working; on reflection, Kirito thought he might've worded the question poorly. "Let me try again," he said quickly. "The people who were just here at my table, have they been here before?" Struck by inspiration, he lowered his voice. He doubted the ploy he was about to try would do anything but grievously offend someone in real-life Japan, but it might well just in the kind of fantasy world that Alfheim was meant to be. "If you can tell me anything about them, I'll leave you a really good tip."

The NPC's expression seemed to freeze again; there was a noticeable pause before the Sylph woman adopted a furtive look, glancing over her shoulder and making as if to show him the menu. "I wouldn't say they're regulars, but I've seen them in here before a few times. Usually with others."

"Others?" Kirito repeated, excited and intrigued. He decided to go for as much as he could get while he had the chance. "Do you remember anything else about them, like their races?"

"Well, let's see," the NPC woman said, tapping a fingertip at her lip in what Kirito thought was a pretty good choice of emote for her dialogue. "I remember a couple of Spriggans and a Salamander. Maybe a another Salamander? I don't know; I try to avoid them." She stopped and looked around once more, and then returned her empty gaze to Kirito. "That's about all I can remember," said the Sylph waitress. "Would you like to look at the menu some more?"

It was the second time he'd managed to get somewhat useful, if generic, information about a player from an NPC by asking them the right question. Kirito was amazed. As much as he felt like he belonged in this world, and enjoyed immersing himself in its good parts, he'd never really taken the time to try talking to NPCs—not in a real conversation as if they were a person, anyway; he was no larper. In the beta, only important quest NPCs had that kind of capability, and even they tended to get derailed and revert to stock responses if you wandered off of topics unrelated to their quest. He recalled a popular pinned thread on the FullDive forums aimed at crowdsourcing all the most effective ways to phrase questions to NPCs in order to avoid confusing them… and to have the best chance at unlocking quests and progression.

Apparently, Kirito thought, the mob spawns aren't the only part of the game that's evolving over time. I'll have to keep this in mind. "No thanks," he said, aware that the virtual woman was still waiting on an answer. Having received a valid response, she bowed again and took her leave.

As fascinated as he was by these changes, it was a topic for another day—or at least, for later. Kirito glanced at his HUD; there was about half an hour before Asuna and Lisbeth were expected to arrive at the latter's shop. Time enough to hit the market and pick up what he still needed, but not if he goofed around or got lost in thought.

The NPC waitress was nowhere in sight when he looked around again; Kirito wondered where she'd gone off to. For that matter, he didn't see anyone other than the bartender and a few generic-looking NPCs—the kind that seemed to exist to add flavor in any inhabited area. Time to go, he reminded himself, coming to his feet.

But instead of dashing right out the front door, Kirito stopped for a moment after rising, torn by a sudden thought. He glanced back at the closed door behind the bar that led to the inn's kitchen, then down at the table with his incomplete meal.

From his inventory Kirito manifested ten coins in a 100-Yuld denomination, placing them on the table and covering them with his napkin. Only then did he turn and jog to the inn's exit, hurrying onward to the main marketplace for player crafters.

·:·:·:·:·:·

As usual, it was Lisbeth's wings that began to run low first. For their final rest stop, she and Asuna selected a nearby skyland that looked thin on mobs, both of them coming in for a landing near the sloped northeastern edge and trotting to a stop.

"Watch your step," Asuna said, indicating the mossy stone along the edge with a tip of her head. Lisbeth nodded and gave the slippery surface a wide berth, looking around once it was safe to take her eyes off her footing. They both began trudging southwards up the sparsely-grassed slope, searching for a decent place to sit down.

"What about that?" Lisbeth asked, calling out a sizable egg-shaped boulder that appeared to have rolled from somewhere further up the hill and come to a stop pinned between two trees—or at least, had been placed to give that impression. The boulder was worn flat on the top, and it looked like they could each lean against a tree trunk while they rested their wings and their feet.

Once they got there, it turned out to have the bonus of being a much better vantage point than where they'd first landed. The two tree trunks formed a crooked frame for the two girls' view of Alfheim's largest city, which by this point was close enough that Lisbeth even thought she might be able to identify their destination. Her eyes tracked down the length of Yggdrasil's trunk, following along its roots until they met the city streets. "It's right there," she said out of the blue, pointing off into the distance to where she could just barely see the side road holding the shop where she made her home. "My smithy, that is."

Asuna squinted off into the distance. "You can see it from here?"

The surprise in Asuna's voice was understandable. They were a bit closer than she liked to the edge of the boulder, but Liz stood up anyway and squeezed one eye shut while she pointed. As far away as they still were from the city, she was fairly sure it was only their altitude that made it possible to recognize the location, but she was certain of it—enough of the evening sun still peeked through the cloudy sky and brought light to Yggdrasil's west side. "Yup. Right there. I'm sure of it."

Asuna seemed less so, perhaps because she had never been there and couldn't simply sight along Lisbeth's arm to know what she was pointing at. "We're at least a good couple kilometers away," she said after giving up again. "I can't even see windows from here; I'm not sure how you can pick out this shop of yours."

Lisbeth was just as happy to sit back down for the moment. Flying was all well and good, but it was a long way to the ground from where they were. "Well for one thing, it's real close to the warpgate, and that's easy to spot. But even from here I can see how that street twists as it goes around one of the roots. Anyway, it's not far now—maybe five-six minutes at top speed? Assuming nothing aggros us."

Asuna nodded in answer, the wind playing with her long blue hair and streaming it out in front of her face. She turned to look at Lisbeth, giving her a smile. "Well, thank you for letting us use the place to rendezvous," she said. "Kirito said he was planning on stopping off there anyway if you were back in town; he's been gathering mats for an upgrade. If we have time, I'll want to prep my gear for clearing too—that is, if you don't mind."

"I know," Lisbeth said. "It's no problem." It wasn't an entirely truthful answer—she did know to expect Kirito, but she was still coming to terms with the reality that there was clearly something going on between him and Asuna. She still felt uncomfortable when she thought about the two of them together, and she wasn't sure how she'd react if either of them engaged in any displays of affection in front of her.

But Kirito was her friend, and she wasn't about to refuse him when he needed her help. Asuna had been a good traveling companion once they'd both gotten past the initial misunderstanding, and from a practical, professional perspective, Lisbeth wasn't going to turn away another clearer's business either. There really hadn't been any plausible reason for her to say no, other than feelings that she had been doing her best to bottle up.

There was, however, something that she did have to get off her chest.

"Ne, Asuna," Lisbeth began.

Asuna turned in response to her name. "Hm?"

"You care about Kirito."

The other girl smiled. "Of course I do."

"And you're one of the Undine clearers."

"I am."

"So you probably know Diabel, right?"

From the light crease in her brow, Asuna seemed a little puzzled at the path the discussion was taking. "Well… I do, but not so much because I'm a clearer. We met early in the game, and I guess he trusts me. Why?"

"Why?" Lisbeth echoed, crossing her arms in front of her. "That's what I was going to ask. Why don't you tell him to stop being such a jerk to Spriggans? Kirito deserves better than that!"

Asuna's mouth made a little O shape. At first, Lisbeth thought she might've gone a bit too far with her blunt question. But after a few moments, the Undine girl actually smiled, if a bit sadly. "You think I haven't? That's a conversation I've had with my leader more than once." She let her legs dangle a bit from the solid rock at the edge of the skyland and kicked them alternately—something Lisbeth simply could not bring herself to do. "Diabel isn't like you seem to think he is—he's a good man. I think he and Kirito are actually more similar than not."

That struck Liz as something of a stretch. She was aware that she was making a embarrassingly childish pouty face, but at the moment she couldn't really help it. "If that's so, then why are things still the way they are? He's the leader—can't he do something?"

The very last thing Lisbeth had expected Asuna to do was laugh. Yet that was exactly what she did: for a moment she looked as if she was trying to control her expression, and then Asuna seemed to just give up and giggle. "I'm sorry," she said, hand upheld before Liz could finish opening her mouth. "It's just that… remember I had to answer some messages when we stopped for lunch? One of the PMs I got was from Diabel, asking me to ask Kirito for help getting in touch with the new Spriggan faction leader." Her smile faltered for a moment before recovering. "So it's funny you should ask."

Lisbeth was stunned. "For real?" At Asuna's nod, she couldn't help but grin. "New faction leader, huh? Well, that's great news for everyone. Guess they finally got sick of Yoshi-whatevers. And Diabel's really gonna try and make friends?"

"Something like that," Asuna said vaguely, briefly bringing out her wings and wiggling them as she looked over her shoulder. "He's ending the ban on Spriggans in Undine territory, and our patrol groups are going to start clearing the mobs between Parasel and Arun so that people can travel. More than that, I can't really say."

Clearing the trade routes was an excellent idea; Lisbeth recalled from the proxy meeting that the NCC was planning a similar effort for the path between Nissengrof and Arun. "That's good. We're doing something like that for our territory too, come to think of it. Maybe someone can talk to the Caits and the Sals, get them to clear those their sides. Or… aren't there underground zones linking the corners of the map, too?"

"Two that I know of," Asuna said. "Lugru goes between Yggdrasil Basin and the Sylphs. I've never been to Sekhal, but that's in Spriggan territory."

"Well, someone needs to do the same thing down south and in those passages. Almost no trade caravans have been coming in; everything we've got is from our own zones." The wind picked up for a moment, and Lisbeth scooted back from the edge a bit further. "And even there, it's been rough for the farming groups. We've lost some good people, and I bet we're not the only ones. At least in the NCC, we've got the cooperation of three factions and all their territory. There are some shortages, but we'll be fine. What about your people? Or the Caits? Or the Sylphs, now that the Sals and Imps went aggro on them again?"

"I'm not sure where you're going."

Lisbeth wasn't exactly sure, either, but talking was helping pass the time while her wings recharged. She leaned back against the thick tree trunk and stretched, fingers laced high above her head. "I guess I'm just thinking about the business side of this death game. Clearers depend on crafters for maintenance and gear progression, because they can't afford to waste so many skill slots on crafting, right? And the crafters depend on farmers and traders for mats, because most of them aren't specced or leveled to go out and get their own. But now..." She paused there, certain she was blabbing.

When Liz didn't say anything further after a moment, Asuna nodded. "The mobs are harder everywhere, and different mobs are popping, so groups that used to be able to safely clear, can't. Isn't that obvious, though?"

"Yeah, but it's more than just that," Lisbeth said suddenly, pounding a fist into her palm as she formed the thought. "Farmers need to know where to hunt for the mats they need, but all that's changed now—because different mobs drop different mats. That hits traders too, because they also need to know what's needed where, and where they can get it. And even if they know that, they depend on escort groups to get them, and their stuff, from A to B."

Asuna lips parted and her eyes widened slightly. "Of course. And both they and those escort groups are now underleveled. For now, anyway."

"Right. Which means independent traders aren't getting through, so every faction's gonna have shortages of some things and surplus of others. And that's gonna mess with a whole bunch of complicated stuff I don't really know well, except that it's tied into the game economy—NPC stocks, that sort of thing." She shrugged, gazing off in the direction of home again. "It's a big ol' mess, and there's not much we can do about it for now. But it's gonna be a bigger problem if the leaders don't get their acts together."

Lisbeth felt a light touch on her hair, then another. A tiny dark spot appeared on Asuna's sleeve, and the other girl gave a subdued laugh. "I guess I brought a little rain with me from Parasel. How are your wings?"

"Probably good enough," Lisbeth answered, bringing them out and testing them just as Asuna did her own. "It's only a few kilometers anyway, right? We can coast some of the way, and there shouldn't be any tough mobs to slow us down."

But when they came gliding in to land in front of Lisbeth's shop, they found Kirito already there waiting for them—or to be more precise, huddling under her awning to avoid the misty drizzle that the wind had begun to carry eastward beneath Yggdrasil's sprawling canopy. He resisted any attempts to question him until Lisbeth had unlocked the door and ushered them all inside.

Kirito drew back the damp hood of his overcoat and shook his head to dry his bangs. "Thanks. I ended up waiting there for a while. You mind if I turn on the heat?"

"I'll get the forge going as soon as I unload," Lisbeth said, indicating her workroom with one thumb and heading towards the storage chest she had hidden behind the front counter. "It'll be plenty warm in here in a few minutes."

"Why were you waiting so long, Kirito?" Asuna asked, giving him a befuddled look. "I told you we'd be about another hour if nothing aggroed us. I thought you had to go shopping for the last of the mats you needed?"

"I did." Kirito gave his head another sharp shake, then swept his hand across his brow. "Couldn't get any."

Lisbeth paused in the middle of dragging stacks of items directly from her inventory to the chest, glancing down just long enough to make sure the item transferred. "What rares are you short?"

Kirito and Asuna both turned to the sound of her voice, glancing across the counter. "None," he said. "I need Blue Slime Essences."

Lisbeth made a raspberry-like sound and waved one hand dismissively. "Do you even vendor, Kirito? Since when is the market ever out of any kind of Sli—" And then the obvious struck her right between the eyes. "Oh, crap."

"Yeah," Kirito said with a grim set of his lips. "The third player I talked to said the supply dried up, and the few sellers who had any were charging ridiculous prices for them—more than I was willing to pay for what I needed. If I had to guess, I'd say that Slimes haven't been popping in the Upper Sewers for at least a few days now."

"And someone figured that out and emptied the player market." Lisbeth's voice matched Kirito's expression, although a part of her was impressed—that had been a shrewd move. "I'm pretty sure I've got some in the back, but I need to check how many. Blues are less common, and these might be the only ones I have until someone finds where they're spawning now."

"You don't have to do that," Kirito protested.

"Shut up," Lisbeth said with a smile, closing the chest in front of her and stepping into the back room. The forge was dormant, but after adding a half-stack of low-tier fuel and using the context menu that appeared when she tapped the cold stone, the room quickly began to fill with a ruddy light and heat. That welcome warmth began to spread throughout the shop as she went delving into her stocks. It's not just Longsword-type weapons, she thought while she scanned the container inventory lists, recipes coming to mind automatically as she saw the names of items. All sorts of upgrades need at least a stack of them in one color or another.

Unfortunately, she did not end up having enough of the mats Kirito needed to make a difference. As soon as she saw the quantity of «Blue Slime Essence» mats in the container's menu, the memory of the otherwise forgettable job where she'd last used them immediately came back. She could tell that Kirito was disappointed when she informed him of the shortage, and there was an edge to her own feelings as well—had she failed to grasp some potential opportunity to sway Kirito's favor back in her direction?

Kirito, however, did not seem upset; he'd already resigned himself to waiting. "Thank you for looking, though," Asuna added right on the heels of his thanks.

Lisbeth put on a smile and waved it off, pushing away the stray filament of self-doubt. "My fault for not keeping closer track of my own inventory, or seeing this coming. I don't usually keep large quantities of stuff in stock if it's easy to get when I need it." She hurried to change the subject. "Still want me to top off your gear before you head back into the World Tree?"

"Please," Asuna said as Kirito nodded, both of them bringing out their main weapons and handing them over—along with the rarer mats needed to buff their condition well above their usual maximum. Those mats, at least, the two clearers apparently kept a stock of on hand, and when the work was done, both blades gleamed.

"Better than when it was forged," Lisbeth quipped as she returned Kirito's weapon to him with both hands.

"Thanks, Liz," Kirito said, giving her a bow before returning the sword to its sheath.

At least he managed to remember not to twirl it indoors this time, she thought with amusement. "No prob. Want me to do the rest of your gear, too?"

The two of them looked at each other before back at Lisbeth, which gave her a pang of discomfort. "We're actually running low on time," Kirito said. "Maybe later, or tomorrow?"

"Sure, doesn't have to be right now." Liz hesitated, not sure if she wanted to ask the next question. "I guess you two are headed out to clear?"

"Not exactly yet," Kirito said, suddenly looking a little uncomfortable himself. "Not tonight. We have to meet with Argo soon."

The Rat? He's meeting with the info broker in person? With an Undine clearer? Kirito was definitely up to something; she was sure of it.

"My clearing group is back in Arun for the night anyway," Asuna added before Lisbeth could poke him for more information. "We'll be starting out again in the morning, I think. But speaking of that meeting, we should probably be on our way if we want to find this place in time." She bowed as well. "Thank you for all your help, Liz. Your company made the long trip go by a lot more quickly, and now I know who to come to when I need work done in Arun."

Lisbeth abruptly felt a little guilty for the thoughts she'd been having. In the short time since they'd met, Asuna had never treated her as anything other than a good friend who could be trusted to watch her back. She returned both of their bows, her smile matching Asuna's. "You're always welcome here, just like Kirito. Now go on," she said, straightening and making a shooing motion. "You've got somewhere to be, right?"

Asuna giggled; Kirito grinned, clearly relieved at not having to answer questions about whatever the hell he'd gotten himself into. "Yep," he said. "I'm just not looking forward to going back out in the rain. I got enough of that on the east coast."

"It's not that bad," Asuna said, poking Kirito in the arm. "This isn't even really rain."

"It's water falling from the sky," Kirito said, rubbing the poked spot as if it offended him. "Pretty sure it qualifies by definition."

Asuna made a quiet noise of exasperation, and took Kirito's wrist in her hand, tugging as she turned towards the door. "Come on," she said. "We still have to find this Silver Flagons place."

When the wind pulled the door shut behind them, Kirito was still wearing a surprised look while allowing himself to be gently towed along. Liz kept waving for a moment or two afterwards, and then let her hand fall to her side, expression relaxing as she looked down at the floor.

It had been a very long day—one of the longest since the early parts of the game when she'd been grinding her Smithing day and night to get ahead. Which wasn't to say that it had been a bad day, at least not entirely. But it had been exhausting: physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Lisbeth hadn't really had a moment to herself since she and Asuna had set out that morning; travelling in a party was like that. Usually that wasn't a problem for her. But today, at least, there had been more than a few times when she'd wished for a few minutes alone, away from her travelling companion—and in this game world, she couldn't even beg the excuse of a bathroom break.

"Tadaima," she said softly aloud, answered only by the muted, irregular dripping of water outside. She was home, now, and she had the place all to herself. Things were back to normal.

Only then, sitting on the wooden stool behind the counter of her empty store, did Liz allow herself to cry.

·:·:·:·:·:·

As one, Kirito and Asuna touched down on the fenced balcony outside the Three Silver Flagons inn just as the sun was beginning to reassert itself through the clouds above the Valley of Butterflies. He was surprised they'd made it a few minutes early; without Argo's directions, Kirito thought he might've had actual trouble finding the inn. Unlike many others of its kind, it didn't have any clear signage with its name—instead, the only external sign was a stylized painting on the front door that was clearly intended to represent an image of the inn's namesake, but which could've just as easily stood for Three Gray Teapots as far as Kirito was concerned.

Being early for their meeting with Argo, Kirito stopped there at the balcony on a whim instead of going directly inside, drawing a sound of query from Asuna. Rather than answering right away, he took a moment to lean against the railing, closing his eyes and letting the simulated feel of the direct sunlight warm and rejuvenate him. The late spring rain had been brief, but chilly, and he hadn't had a whole lot of downtime in the last few days.

When he opened his eyes again, he caught sight of Asuna out of the corner of his gaze. She seemed to have been watching him, head slightly tilted and a smile on her face. Suddenly self-conscious for no reason he could pinpoint, Kirito straightened and made a show of adjusting the collar of his coat, which only made things worse by drawing a soft laugh from her.

"It's okay," Asuna said. "The sun does feel nice."

Relaxing again, Kirito nodded. A little emboldened, he tried to explain the analogy that was going through his head. "I guess I just needed to charge my «courage meter» before going inside and having this big talk with Argo." He grinned. "All recharged and ready to go."

Asuna laughed, but this time it didn't make him feel self-conscious. Just as he was reaching out to open the inn's front door, she stepped forward and took his hand in hers, closing her fingers softly around his. While he was still stopped in place, trying figure out what she expected him to do or how to respond, Asuna closed her eyes and lifted her chin slightly. She pointedly drew in a deep breath as she held his hand in hers, stayed like that for a few beats, and then let it out, letting go of his hand a moment later.

"Recharged," Asuna said with a smile. "Ready to go."

It was not the first time that Asuna had done something impulsive like that, and Kirito was aware that it probably had more significance than he yet understood. But he was already having to work himself up to this conversation with Argo; now was not the time to think too deeply about what had just happened. He settled on a smile, touched the door handle, and went inside.

Per Argo's latest PM, they found her waiting for them at one of the upstairs tables, lounging in a corner with a view of the city. She'd appropriated a trio of chairs and had her feet up on one of them; her hands were poised in an obvious typing posture. As soon as she caught sight of Kirito's head coming up from the spiral staircase, she tapped out a few more things and then made a flicking motion with one hand. "Right on time, Ki-bou." Her eyes went to Asuna next, and she grinned. "And the noob from launch day," she said.

"We talked about this," Kirito said quickly, sensing danger. "Asuna has been with me through this whole thing, and I told you I was bringing her."

But Argo wasn't finished. Looking Asuna up and down, the corners of her grin softened a bit. "Hell of a long way you've come since then. Grats."

Asuna, to Kirito's surprise, bowed in response to Argo's words. "I actually never got a chance to thank you. I learned a lot of what I did because I took your advice and read the manual."

"I know." Argo looked at Kirito. "I like her. She can stay."

Asuna's expression was controlled, but Kirito could tell she was trying not to laugh, and he himself barely managed to suppress a snort. The Cait Sith girl tossed a brief look past them at the NPC waitress who was hovering at a respectful distance. "Hungry? The chicken meatballs here are good. Just ignore what they call the sauce."

A meal wasn't the worst idea, given that he hadn't even finished his, but Kirito wasn't sure if he could really eat at the moment. His stomach kept wanting to do an acrobatics routine without the appropriate skill equipped, and reminding himself that the sensation of nausea was fake only went so far. In truth, it was hard to really argue that the sensation was fake in the first place—he felt nauseated, and if his brain believed that he was, and he felt as if he was, then he was, whether it was his real body sending those signals or not.

Thinking about being nauseated wasn't helping him not be, either. Kirito collected himself quickly, and manage to smile when he answered. "I'll pass. Asuna?"

"I'm fine, thanks," Asuna said, finally managing to stifle her internal struggle and compose herself as well.

"No, no," Argo said, sitting up a little straighter and letting one foot drop to the floor. Her tail uncurled itself from around her and began drifting aimlessly. "I mean it, really. We're prolly gonna be here a while once I start telling you my story, so at least have a snack. I rented the whole upstairs for the night."

"I kind of just want to get this over with, Argo," Kirito said, immediately realizing that it came out more harshly than he intended.

Argo, however, seemed unperturbed by the bluntness. "Fair. Alright, have a seat." When Kirito and Asuna had both pulled chairs up to the small corner table Argo was occupying, the Cait Sith info broker scooted herself closer and put her palms flat on the table, gaze uncomfortably direct. "So when were you planning on asking me for help with Prophet?"

It was just as well that Kirito had demurred on Argo's invitation to order something; if he'd been eating or drinking just then, he probably would've choked on it. He didn't dare risk a side glance at Asuna. Instead he met Argo's gaze, well aware that neither of them needed to blink. "I've been a bit busy," he began to say.

"Bullshit," Argo said candidly before he could go any further. "That's a bullshit excuse and we both know it. You've been PMing me multiple times daily the entire time you've been chasing him, from the time you left the Sewers until forty-seven minutes ago. You just never asked or even mentioned this multi-day pursuit, even though you had every opportunity and knew I could've helped—and would've, especially after what he's done. Why?"

In a rare moment of insight, Kirito realized then that Argo wasn't just upset that he hadn't asked for her help—she was hurt. Not being quite sure how to fix what he didn't even understand, he tried the one thing Argo seemed to respect: direct honesty. "Because every way I thought of that you could help had risks that I couldn't accept. If I had you tell your network what Prophet did, or put out a bounty of some kind on him, it would just drive him and his gang further into hiding. And once that information's out there, there's no taking it back, or predicting what might happen if someone does something stupid. That's even more true now that we know what he wants, and who he's working for."

Argo sat up a little straighter, both ears tilted forward. "Really. And you didn't think I could tell you anything about this guy instead? You must have a lot on him already."

She was clearly fishing, but Kirito knew how Argo's game was played by now, and he was glad that Asuna seemed to be waiting to see how he handled the info broker rather than blurting out information or gut reactions. He'd tell her what she wanted—but he wanted something, too. "You've told me yourself, Argo: the fact that someone even asks a question is salable information. If I'd asked you for info on him, at best that would've just invited awkward questions—and answering them would lead back to the first problem."

"And now?"

Kirito sighed his resignation. "I think we're past that now. You obviously already know who Prophet is and what he did—and why I was asking for information about places with recent PK attacks. I'm not sure why I thought you wouldn't. The fact that all of Alfheim doesn't already know means you're sitting on that information instead of broadcasting it to your network, which at least for now is reassuring. But Asuna and I learned a few things about him and his agenda over the last few days, and we need to talk about that."

"And since you've hinted at it twice but only vaguely," Argo said, beginning to unwrap a small hard candy of some sort while she talked, "I'm guessing you want to trade this info instead of just give it to me."

"Well, what can you tell us about Prophet, anyway?" Asuna said, breaking her silence and momentarily startling Kirito with the unexpected question.

Sudden though it was, the question did have the result Kirito was aiming to achieve: it put Argo back in the position of answering, rather than questioning. The info broker's eyes flickered briefly over to his companion, then began alternating between the two as she seemed to include Asuna in the conversation more fully. "I'll start with basic background," Argo said finally. "Won't surprise you that he was one of Kibaou's privateers; he's connected to both Undine and Sylph attacks. Supposedly he joined ALO with friends from the outside, but even as a privateer he worked alone or in small groups, so there's not much on him or who he knows. Rumor is he's half-Japanese, but there's nothing to support it."

"He has an accent," Kirito said. "It's faint, and I don't know what it is, but it still comes out sometimes."

"That's a nice detail," Argo said with a smile. "Noted."

"And you're right that he came in with friends. But most of them are dead now, and weren't involved in what he did."

Argo's brown eyebrows went up. "You," she said slowly, "are surprisingly well-informed about this guy's personal details. So which friend did you talk to?"

Kirito mentally stumbled there. "Huh?"

"You talked to one of his friends," Argo said. "Can you tell me anything about them?"

"Why do you say that?" Asuna asked, puzzled at whatever mental leap Argo was making.

Argo sighed. "Can we not play this game? Look, you know details about Prophet's friends that only he or someone who knows him would know. He prolly didn't tell you. That tells me you found one of his friends and talked to them, mebbe while you were in Penwether arguing with Yoshihara—" Her expression stiffened momentarily, and she went silent, the only sign of her thoughts being the rapid movements of her eyes. Their lack of focus or fixation was unnerving.

Kirito suspected that Argo had managed to put some pieces together, but she didn't seem willing to share just yet. After a few beats, she looked back at Kirito and spoke again. "Look, I got reasons of my own for wanting to track down anyone connected to Prophet. This is bigger than some seal-clubbing murderer who needs to be shut down."

"Yes, it is," Kirito said, carefully avoiding having to answer questions about Philia or how she fit into the picture. "Bigger than you think. Prophet isn't just out to kill for jollies, Argo. He's trying to stop the game from being cleared so that he can live forever in Alfheim."

"Yeah," Argo said. "Sounds familiar. Now explain to me why I shouldn't make sure every clearing group, if not everyone in the world, knows to either watch their backs or stomp this guy out of existence?"

"Because finding him and taking him down isn't that simple," said Asuna, echoing some of the same concerns she'd written in her PMs to Kirito—and, uncomfortably, some of Prophet's own smug predictions. "Alfheim is a whole world of its own, and Prophet could be anywhere in that world."

"Diverting clearers to hunt for Prophet stops us from clearing," Kirito added. "That's what he wants—to distract the clearers from what we're supposed to be doing, to get us to run around Alfheim getting no EXP or progress while we chase down every rumor that he showed up somewhere."

"We can work around that," Argo said. "Form hunting groups from backup clearers, mercenaries, whatever—we don't have to take the clearers away from clearing to take him down."

"Yes, we do," Kirito said reluctantly, playing one of his new cards. "Because Prophet is level 39, and an expert at close-range PvP. Anyone who isn't a clearer with PvP experience will get slaughtered, and just feed him more «Favor»."

Argo's recognition of the term's significance was immediate and visible. "Favor? What favor?"

Now it was Kirito's turn to go thoughtfully silent. He'd intended going in that he was going to tell Argo about his encounter with Prophet's so-called "Mistress"—if nothing else, to get whatever help the info broker could offer on the subject from her expansive knowledge of quest content. It was a big part of what he and Asuna were here to do, after all. But now, coming to the moment, he found himself struggling with the possibility of unintended consequences. Argo was a good friend, and he knew she truly meant well, but this was a literally game-changing revelation that could impact everyone in Alfheim.

"Hel," Kirito said at last.

He'd expected the word to be a bombshell, a jaw-dropping eureka! moment that would rock Argo back on her heels. Her actual reaction of confusion was almost a disappointment. "Heru? That could mean like half a dozen things by itself, Ki-bou. I need a less ambig—"

"The Norse goddess Hel," Kirito said. "Goddess of death and the underworld. She is an NPC in this game, and she is giving out some kind of Deity Quest that rewards players with a thing called «Favor» if they kill other players in her name, or along those lines anyway. Probably some kind of rep mark, since Prophet can apparently spend it on powers. That isn't his real character name, either; he actually thinks of himself as Hel's prophet. And she's still recruiting."

Now Kirito was rewarded with the stunned wordlessness he'd been expecting. No one even fidgeted; the only sounds came from the inn room downstairs as the NPC staff went about their idle activities and pre-programmed paths. The relative silence was broken suddenly by a loud crunching sound when Argo pulverized the candy she'd been sucking on. "You met her. It."

There didn't seem to be any point in being coy about that fact. "Yes. And she was a lot more complex than most NPCs—definitely a major quest NPC, conversational, with all the resources of the NLP system in play. She even tried to recruit me, which obviously failed." The corner of his mouth took on a sharp twist for just a moment. "But Prophet thinks that she'll reward him with some kind of immortality. And while that's nonsense, the fact that he believes it—and has Hel's backing—makes him incredibly dangerous."

This new knowledge seemed to change something profoundly in Argo, or at least in her demeanor. She stopped slouching in her chair, swallowed the last of what she'd been chewing, and pinned both Kirito and Asuna with piercing gazes that alternated sharply. "Here's the deal, you two. I'm gonna tell you about some really dangerous things now. Some of them are the kind that could get people killed. Some are the kind that will get people killed if they're not handled right. And some already have gotten people killed." When Kirito glanced over at Asuna, her face was ashen, and she looked as queasy as he had felt. Argo's eyes then fell on her again as well. "And you need to understand there's some things I still can't tell you anyway."

"That's fine," said Asuna, a hint of warning in her quick response.

"Argo," Kirito said pointedly.

"Sorry. I'm not trying to bust your ass here, Ki-bou—or yours," she said, glancing again at Asuna. "But you need to understand what we're dealing with, and you're already in it deeper than you know."

Kirito spoke up again. "Any fees involved I should know about?"

Argo's smile ticked upwards on one side. "Not tonight. Not for this."

More than anything else, more than any of the cautionary language in Argo's far-too-dramatic warnings, that one response made Kirito wonder just how radioactive this secret was that she was sitting on. At least we're about to find out, he thought as he and Asuna gave Argo their full attention. Whatever it is, it can't be any crazier than an NPC goddess giving out quests that reward players for murder.

Within minutes, Kirito realized just how incredibly foolish an assumption that had been.

·:·:·:·:·:·

"Stop me if you've heard this one, guys," Issin said as they finished burning down the pair of wights that had pathed into them while they waited. Once the area was confirmed clear of mobs, the Cait Sith hoarsened his voice to something that was obviously intended to sound like Klein. "'Hey, how about we shortcut through this unexplored area so we can get back faster? We know there's a locked door on the other side near the warpgate, and I bet it opens on this side.'" He spun an arrow through his fingers, glancing around at the group with his tail undulating in a slow pattern behind him. "Anyone? This sound familiar?"

"Ringing some bells here," Kunimittz said, just then drifting in for a landing after scouting ahead. He dismissed his wings and sighed. "So I checked out that door. It's locked from this side, too. No sign of a switch or lever or anything else up there. Just a dark side hallway that heads off into an unmapped area, and I didn't touch that."

Klein glanced at Harry One. The Leprechaun held up both hands, palms-out. "Look, if you want me to climb up there, or have Kunimittz try carrying me, I'm game, but I doubt the Can Opener can hack a door in a World Tree dungeon. It's mostly useful for chests and stuff like that."

"Worth a shot, right?" Klein jabbed his thumb over his shoulder, in the direction they'd come. "It's that or we backtrack the long way around the Halls, probably miss the rendezvous with the Caits, and end up having dinner in the World Tree."

That drew a groan from everyone. Travel rations were something used to silence the distraction of being hungry while out clearing; they were far from satisfying as a meal. When Harry hesitated, Klein cleared his throat. "Dude, just try it. I'd rather not swap out a skill for Lockpicking and try leveling it up here and now." He rummaged through his pack and brought out a thick coil of rope, which he tossed to Kunimittz. "Should be something you can secure this to. They wouldn't put a door up there if the only way to get to it was to fly."

"You say that," Kunimittz said, threading his arm through the rope until it was on his shoulder.

Klein wasn't really 100% sure of it himself, but it stood to reason—this was a video game; it wasn't as if the rock just formed that way. Or eroded, or whatever it was that rocks did; geology wasn't his thing. In any event, a minute later down came one end of the rope, and up went Harry.

The Can Opener had a proper name, which Klein could never remember. But ever since Harry One had found a rare recipe for the tiny lockpicking Construct and demonstrated it for the group, everyone had unanimously decided that it was called the Can Opener, and that had been that. About the size of a shoebox, its modules adorned with ridiculously ornate engravings and filigrees, the thing wasn't useful for much. But it was very good at what it did do, and it wasn't as if Harry was carrying around a lot of weight anyway. Klein supposed a few extra kilos on a DPS spec wasn't a bad trade for something that occasionally unlocked rare loot they wouldn't have gotten otherwise.

"Any luck?" Klein called up shortly after Harry had made his way up the rope.

Kunimittz came flying back down not long afterwards. "No dice. We get to go around."

There was another chorus of discontent from Klein's group. He stilled it by making a "time out" symbol with his hands. "It sucks, but let's grump about it later—we need to hoof it and cover as much ground as we can before we hit repops. Kunimittz, can you go grab Harry and the rope?"

"I'm pretty sure I couldn't maintain altitude carrying him even if I dumped everything."

"You don't have to," Klein said. "Just don't fall like a rock as you're gliding down." He clapped his hands. "Let's go, man. We gotta move."

To Klein's relief—and, he was certain, everyone else's—the numerous Umbral Caretakers they passed still didn't aggro them, and they managed to skip some of the tougher trash they'd cleared not too long prior. What was nothing short of a blessing was that the named Barrow Slime blocking their progress hadn't respawned—it had occupied the entire corridor and had been literally impossible to bypass. It was some time before Dynamm, eyes glowing, gave a short, sharp whistle that brought their breakneck run to a halt before a right angle in the mausoleum's passages. "Movement ahead and to the right, multiple shapes. I think we've got Graveworms."

"Expected that sooner or later," Klein said. "Thanks for the warning. Issin?"

The Cait Sith's eyes suddenly shone with a different shade of green than their Sylph companion's. "Five cursors in the open. Conning a little below my level. Probably a linked encounter." He suddenly tapped a finger at the air, poking at his now-visible map. "I think it's the urn room coming up."

"Alright, you know what to do," Klein announced, glancing over at their mages. "Kunimittz, Dynamm, time for some AOE goodness—I know you guys wanted an excuse to unload on this room earlier. Just be ready to switch to single-target if we get Caretaker adds."

As with many of the trash mobs in this area of the World Tree, the fight was relatively trivial with their levels and the new gear from the last raid, even considering the dozens of storage urns creating obstacles to movement in the cramped burial chamber. Kunimittz and Dynamm took great glee in unloading big area nukes on the «Greater Graveworms» once they were locked down, which had the spectacular— and probably intentional—effect of destroying all the urns in a frenetic spray of dust and pottery shards.

The abrupt barrage was intense; it even almost managed to pull aggro from Harry before Klein switched back in with a long-cooldown taunt technique. They burned through the mobs so quickly that the last Graveworm died while that ability was still on cooldown. "Clear," he said, vigorously waving his free hand at the dusty air and practically coughing the end of the word. "Of mobs, anyway. And urns. Need to point that out."

The first word was echoed by a few others, but it was Issin with his Searching whose agreement let them relax. Klein brought up his sword and triggered a Wind-based katana technique that created a short-lived whirlwind around him, dispersing the dust.

That move drew a laugh from Harry and Dale, but Dynamm looked around at his share of the handiwork with obvious disappointment hanging on his face. "Not a single drop from breaking all that pottery. Way to live up to the legacy of a lifetime's worth of RPGs, Kayaba."

Kunimittz agreed disgustedly. "Fail."

Klein snickered and glanced at his Result window. "You do this in every game with destructible scenery. Anyway, I like these Graveworms. No skills, not too tough, but the EXP's not bad, considering. They just seem to come in large groups."

"But they drop garbage," Dynamm said, tapping at what was presumably his own Result window. "I have like a stack of these «Graveworm Digestive Sac» things now." He made a face. "Gross. I hope I don't have to manifest them from my inventory to turn them in."

"At least the mats don't weigh a lot, "Harry One said, hand poised as if reviewing his own inventory. "Are they even used for anything other than this quest? They don't vendor for much from what I remember, and no one I know is buying them."

"Dunno," Klein said. "Probably for Alchemy or something funky like that." Something occurred to him. "Kunimittz, didn't you say you were going to try out Alchemy?"

"Yeah," said the Imp mage. "But it's not leveled up or anything, so I couldn't tell you."

"Caretakers," Harry said, sudden urgency in his voice.

All eyes followed his, gazes snapping onto the pair of roamers in tattered robes as they shambled their way in through the arched doorways—one of them from the direction the group had just come. "Where the hell did they come from?" Dynamm demanded of the walls. "We didn't pass any recently."

"Who cares?" Klein said. "Just leave them alone."

They might have been non-aggro mobs, but as far as Klein was concerned, the «Umbral Caretakers» were still creepy as hell. What's more, he hated the way the hunched creatures with their gnarled, eyeless faces and loose, splotchy skin didn't act like most humanoid mobs. They didn't follow some of the rules that made mobs predictable, like having a specific area where they spawned and hung out—Klein actually couldn't remember ever seeing one spawn. They just seemed to wander around the entire zone... and sometimes they wandered into AOE range at inconvenient times.

Then you had to deal with a Norn. At least those field bosses had been a lot easier than the other clearers had made them out to be—the things were an HP sponge that spewed debuffs, but they didn't hit very hard if you had a healer who was on the ball.

Which didn't mean anyone present wanted to end up fighting one—there were chances that just weren't worth taking. So they all froze in place and simply watched the Caretakers, waiting to see what would happen.

"Guys," Klein said after a few moments, as the Caretakers continued to draw closer with slithering footsteps. "Let's back up a bit."

No one needed any encouragement. Still the Caretakers meandered their way uncomfortably closer to the group; it wasn't as if the chamber they were in was particularly large. The two mobs stopped roughly in the middle of the room, looking blindly around and sniffing the air.

"This is new," Harry said neutrally.

"I don't like new," Dale said, considerably less neutrally. He pulled off his headwrap just long enough to rub his forehead before replacing it. "New gets you killed. Boring and predictable is better."

"Zip it, everyone," Klein said. His friends all fell silent at once; it was a trick he sometimes wished he could pull off when they weren't clearing. "I'd rather not risk having mommy show up."

The two Caretakers faced each other, hunched backs bowed and hooded foreheads close to one another. A colorless lambent glow began illuminating the floor immediately around the mobs, and each glow gradually coalesced into some kind of magic circle—two of them, one beneath the feet of each Caretaker.

"Okay," Klein said, becoming more anxious by the moment, "I don't feel like waiting to see what they're casting or what it does to us." He glanced back at the group and started to raise his hand. "Kunimittz—"

"It's stopping," Harry One said quickly.

And when Klein looked back, so it was—as unexpectedly as the ritual had begun, it was finished. Klein looked up at his HUD; based on his cooldowns it had been less than two minutes since the fight ended. "The Caretakers couldn't have been doing their thing for more than what, thirty seconds, tops? What happened?"

"I don't know," Harry admitted, still watching the mobs as they dispersed through different exits, as peacefully as they'd come. "I didn't see anything special when you looked away. They just… well, stopped."

Klein frowned. This zone got stranger every day, and not in an especially enjoyable way. "Issin, you've got that aura perk unlocked for your Searching, right?"

"Yeah, but I'm still getting used to it." Issin blinked, and his eyes glowed again—this time with an iridescent sheen. "Nothing looks off, though. Anyone who's buffed is glowing the right colors. Nothing else in the room is except our enchanted gear, including where the Caretakers were. And I don't see their cursors."

"Good enough for me," Klein said. The Caretakers suddenly disappearing without a trace was not a new behavior, and it meant they could probably relax. "Speaking of buffs, let's get those back up. Then I say we continue on our way, and leave the weird-ass Caretakers to their own weird-ass ways."

Issin traced a finger through the air. "After the next corridor we've got that big wooden drawbridge coming up. If we don't want to clear our way up to the overlook where the switch is, someone's gotta fly."

"Woot," said Kunimittz. "Sounds like I'm up. Matto mezal kevayezul dweren."

When the Transparency effect had finished spreading across Kunimittz's entire avatar, Issin gave an exaggerated shudder that rippled all the way down from his feline ears. "I'll never get used to the way that spell eats away your texture, man. It looks like you just got hit with a phaser set to vaporize."

"Bzzz," came Kunimittz's voice from a faint, translucent silhouette that Klein could barely see in the dim light. "Anyway, I'm wasting duration."

"Go," Klein said, waving at the grave-lined passage before them since he couldn't quite tell where Kunimittz was. "Issin, you too. I remember there being a spike trap after we crossed the bridge, and the release is on this side of it now."

"Joy is me," the Cait Sith said with a toothy grin, shouldering his bow and activating his Hiding skill. "Wish me luck."

Luck was something that seemed to be with them for the remainder of their return trip; for the most part they were past any kind of puzzles or other environmental hindrances and back into the better-mapped sections of the zone. The respawns were on the thin side, and—to everyone's relief—the Umbral Caretakers didn't do anything else weird or unexpected when Klein and his group encountered others. At most, if the party couldn't avoid passing closely enough to alert them, they simply shuffled away until they disappeared around one corner or another—and as far as he could tell, that was the last that they would see of that particular Caretaker.

This, at least, was predictable, boring, and above all safe behavior. Klein was all for environmental flavor, as long as it didn't come with a gameplay downside. If the Caretakers—most of them, anyway—were scripted to avoid players even when you walked right up to them, he was ever-so-happy to play along.

When they finally encountered the Cait Sith group, the five of them had cleared space in a long, corridor-like room with high stone ceilings that vaulted to a blunt point. A series of thick pillars ran down the center of the room for support, and the other clearing group appeared to be catching their breath on top of a mound of rubble in a corner where the ceiling had collapsed.

Their off-tank, a lithe orange-haired Cait Sith named Drem, waved at Klein's group as soon as they came into sight. "Figured that was you coming," he said.

Klein grinned. "Friendly Bias setting?"

Drem nodded with an answering grin, hopping down from the boulder he'd appropriated. "Yup. All of us. Having any non-Caits we have friended show as green cursors instead of yellow is handy. So what happened?"

"Sorry we're late," Klein said, clasping Drem's forearm when it was offered. "My fault. I tried to take us on a shortcut back through an unmapped area, and it didn't work out."

"It's all good," Drem said, one of his triangular ears twitching. "Map data is map data. When you didn't show up at the warpgate after a while, we decided to go look for you. Figured we'd camp this room, since you'd have to come through here."

Klein looked around at what he could see; the line of pillars in the center of the room blocked his view of most of it. Drem had brought his tanking pet; he caught sight of the «Forest Loper» shuffling its way around the perimeter of the room. He recalled that their archer had brought her tamed Gazer, but he didn't see it anywhere. "Guess you've got all the pets on sentry duty. Aren't you worried about Caretakers?"

Teel shook her head, jewelry at the end of each blonde braid tinkling. "I have Mochi set to «Passive» mode. Drem's the same with Popeye. They'll fight back if Graveworms pop, but ignore non-aggro mobs like the Caretakers."

"We've done this before," said a white-haired clearer in mage robes who was lounging against a canted block of stone, tail curled around himself. He grinned, too. "It's a Cait Sith thing. No rest area? Just make our own, and have a pet stand watch."

"Galleon's right. Caretakers just run away if anything gets too close, anyway," Drem said. "So how'd it go? Any progress on the next zone quest?"

Klein nodded, watching as the rest of his group took advantage of the breather by getting off their feet. "We finished «Legacy of Interment» yesterday, so today we turned in to «Undertaker Gheln» and picked up «Disturbing Rumors»."

"Same one we were on," Drem said. "How—hang on." He paused for a second, distracted, and sat down cross-legged on the ground with his eyes closed. Teel did the same thing shortly thereafter, and within moments both reopened their eyes and acted as if nothing unusual had happened.

"Sorry about that," Drem said. "Popeye got in a fight and I needed to make sure it was just Graveworm trash. Carry on."

Klein at least knew enough about Cait Sith by now to know that they'd just used some skill that let them see through the eyes of their pets. "You were the one talking, man."

"Oh, right," Drem said with a laugh, hopping back up from the ground and stretching. "Was gonna ask, how many Sacs you got?"

Kunimittz snickered. "You wanna maybe think about rephrasing that one."

Drem looked at the Imp for a moment, confused, and then joined the juvenile snickers that were spreading across both groups. "The Graveworm drops," he clarified. "Ass."

Snickering turned to laughter. Klein pulled open his menu, checking his inventory. "Almost a full stack," he said.

"Oh, that's more than enough," Teel said from her own perch, looking up from counting her remaining arrows. "You only need what, a couple hundred «Undertaker's Marks» to unlock the next step, Drem?" Their acting tank nodded, and the Cait Sith archer went on. "You'll get one for each Graveworm drop you show to Gheln. Just turn them all in—since marks count as currency, you won't be carrying around the extra weight anymore. Gets 'em out of your inventory quick."

"Thanks for the tip," Klein said, although he had a high enough STR that this wasn't a concern for him.

"We're meeting up with Thelvin tonight," said Drem. "So tomorrow we'll raid up and head out at full strength, hit Gheln to turn in for rep marks, and then make quick work of rushing you to the NPC where you exchange those for the key you need."

"What does the key do?"

Drem gestured lazily in the general presumed direction of the zone entrance. "There's this one locked door back in the first puzzle room. Nothing special, it just leads to a new area branching off the main barrow."

Klein suddenly had a very uncomfortable feeling about this. "Can you show me on the map?"

Drem did. Klein palmed his face.

Dynamm gave him a narrow-eyed look, likely suspecting what Klein had already figured out. "What?"

"That's the door we were trying to unlock. We were able to get up to the ledge where it leads, but couldn't get through the door."

There was a long, pregnant pause as Drem and Klein looked at each other.

"In other words," Issin said, trying very hard not to laugh, "Klein took us exactly where we needed to go… just not the way we were intended to get there."

"Hey, don't feel like you've wasted your time too much," Drem said, bringing his hand to his own forehead and shaking his head slowly. "You just told us that the quest we spent most of the day doing was optional for anyone who clears the long way around."

"Thelvin's going to laugh his ass off," Klein said.

"Nah," replied Drem. "More like, Thelvin's going to chuckle in a subdued way and turn it into a learning experience." Everyone in the Cait Sith group grinned at that one, even the quiet teen boy with the spear.

Then, in an instant, Teel's expression of mirth turned to anguished dismay. "What! No!"

All eyes turned to the amber-haired archer with confusion. Jaw trembling, she seemed to need a moment to get control. "Something just killed Mochi," she said quickly, voice cracking at the end.

"I'm pulling Popeye back," Drem said instantly, eyes alert. "Sasamaru!"

"Just one cursor other than Popeye," said the spear boy with the chin-length brown hair and matching ears. "Yellow, coming this way."

"Solo clearer who thought the pet was a mob?" wondered Dale, as the Cait Sith's Loper pet bounded around a pillar on all fours and stopped obediently in front of Drem, blade-tipped tail slowly undulating in an idle animation.

"Talk to me, guys," Klein said to his own group, drawing his own weapon again and slowly turning in place. "Those damn pillars are blocking LOS."

"I see the same thing," Issin said, bow in hand and arrow nocked. "Yellow cursor, just the one. About fifty meters and closing."

"Nothing else moving," Dynamm added after casting his own spell.

"Prep buffs," Klein said to him, and then nodded at Dale. "Ward me."

Beyond the nearest pillar, still at least a good thirty meters away, torchlight cast the shadow of a floating figure in motion. The «Norn Custodian» drifted into view moments after its shadow did, and came to a stop as it turned its head towards both groups. Its legs ended in mist below the knees, and although clad in ethereal-looking metal armor under a flowing translucent robe, it made no sound whatsoever as it moved. The only noise was from the sparks of energy that occasionally twinkled in the air around it, which hinted at the boundaries of its close-range damage shield.

Drem hissed quietly. "Nobody move. It is not aggro to us right now." Obedience to this advice was total across the two groups.

Now that it was facing them directly, Klein could see the pale skin and shadowed eyes of the woman beneath the Norn's hood. Slowly, expressionlessly, the Norn raised one of its robed sleeves. A long-clawed gauntlet emerged from it, fingers dangling as if tired.

"Don't do it, lady," Klein warned, tensing, although he doubted the thing was scripted to listen. "Stay yellow."

The Norn turned the hand over before it, palm up as if feeling the weight of a small stone there. "Noruna domuru, uthan."

As soon as the mob's cursor turned red, everyone knew a fight was inevitable. Klein didn't take the time to read the icon for the «Judgment of the Norns» debuff—whatever the hell it actually did; no one had figured that out yet—but he knew it was there, and he was already dashing towards the Norn. "Incoming!"

No sooner than it had finished, the Norn looked directly at Klein and spoke again. "Yabrath tokachi—"

The rest of the words were lost in the noise as several of the clearing group mages started casting their own spells, but Klein saw a new debuff icon appear as his MP—and everyone else's—started to steadily trickle downwards. "There goes its first MP drain!" he yelled, raising his katana into the charge position for his first taunt as he skidded to a halt several meters from the mob. Just as the crimson light finished building up along the length of his blade, black tendrils lashed out from the floor and afflicted the mob with Root status.

"You know the patterns!" Drem called out to his own group from just behind Klein. "AOE Silence is coming next; Andry, get that drain dispelled!"

With the mob rooted in place for a short time, the tanks could focus on building hate without having to worry about the squishies in the back ranks quite as much. Every time the Norn lashed out at Klein with its clawed gauntlets, he parried as best as he could with his katana—it wasn't an ideal weapon for this kind of opponent, but it at least reduced the bleedthrough from blocking, and his buffs kept the loss from the mob's melee-range damage shield to a level where Dale's HOTs could comfortably keep up.

Drem, on the other hand, was completely in his element—as an avoidance-type tank, he wasn't nearly as well-armored as Thelvin or even Klein, but his style meant he could still get right up in the mob's face and go claw-to-claw with it, evading the counterattacks as he switched out instead of blocking or parrying them. Every now and then the Norn would try to knock everyone away with a huge Wind blast centered on itself, but the Bracing buff on both of the tanks kept their feet planted in the face of the PBAOE, and the Melee DPS team members returned to the fight as soon as they were healed.

Klein knew from experience that a Norn could be a challenging fight for a lone party—especially with only a single healer to keep on top of all the debuffs. But despite the rumors of huge spike damage from the Sylph and Sal clearers, the fight before them went as smoothly as any other. For the combined power of a pair of clearing groups who knew the Norn's patterns, victory was simply a matter of keeping the status effects cured or dispelled and burning down both of its HP bars as quickly as possible. Even the potent Haste buff the Norn gained after the first bar broke wasn't enough to turn the battle against the small raid group of eleven, and by the time the creature disappeared in a satisfying blossom of twinkling blue motes, everyone was still above half-HP.

It was an anticlimactic outcome, but not an unwelcome one under the circumstances. Once the word "clear" had relayed itself through both groups, Klein gave another look around and sheathed his sword. "What the hell, man."

"Got me," Drem said. "Teel? What happened?"

"I don't know," said the Cait Sith archer, emotion clouding her words. "Mochi wasn't in combat, and he wouldn't have attacked a Caretaker or even the Norn—they'd have yellow cursors."

"I'm sorry," Drem said, putting a hand on her arm. "Maybe we can still get a Pneuma Flower."

Teel reached up and patted his hand for a moment, and then turned away, biting her lip. "Maybe. I'll be fine. Let's just go get his Heart and head back to the warpgate."

Klein didn't really understand what Teel was going through, at least not personally. A pet was just a mob to him. But he knew a lot of the Caits got attached to theirs, so he kept his mouth shut on the topic. "Hey Drem," he said after taking a look around at his own group. "Why don't I have my guys take point? It's not much further anyway, and it'll give your people a breather."

Drem glanced over at Teel's retreating back, and then nodded once his eyes returned to Klein. "Thanks. I want to do some thinking anyway—see if I can figure out what just happened so I have something to tell Thelvin later." He slapped Klein's armored back as he passed.

"We got it," Klein assured him. "Issin—"

"Yup," Issin said with a nod, once again concealing his cursor. "Going."

It wasn't just the meal—Klein had really been looking forward to getting out of the World Tree so that he could finally PM Alicia. There was no way he was going to admit that in front of the other guys, though, especially after the way they'd had been cracking wise for the last few days. He was never going to hear the end of the whole "mount" thing; his friends would take an inside joke or running gag and beat it to death for months.

At least in here Kunimittz can't spam me with dank memes and weaponized GIFs, Klein thought.

Even that half-rueful levity vanished as he and his group passed by Teel on their way out of the room. She was sitting on a patch of ground in somber silence with some some small glowing object held in her hands, and her companions were obviously giving her space. The weight of Klein's gaze seemed to fall on the Cait Sith woman; she looked up and gave him a fragile and momentary smile before quickly sending the glowing blue thing to her inventory and rejoining the other Caits.

All of the mount-related jokes aside, there were times when Klein really did have the urge to see what it would be like to have a pet he could ride. He knew there were Cait Sith who had pets that were large enough and trained for it, and he'd even overheard Alicia talking about putting together some kind of mounted clearing group. And he was sure that if he asked her, she'd be happy to find someone to train up a rideable pet for him—although then he really wouldn't ever hear the end of it from the guys.

But then he looked back at Teel. The woman was obviously putting on a brave face and keeping her eyes on her surroundings, which was good—but even to him, it was obvious that she was still rocked by the loss of her pet. Was that something he really wanted to deal with? Hell, what happened if he got attached to the thing, and then they beat the game? It wasn't as it'd be a person, like his riaru friends—it sure wasn't coming with him as anything other than a memory.

Unlike a lot of Alicia's people, he didn't really see the point in larping, especially with NPCs or mobs.

To Klein, it just felt like a pointless investment of time and energy that was better spent on real people, and real friendships. He glanced around at the party members with him as the thought passed, and memories leapt immediately to mind, unbidden by anything other than the sight of these longtime companions. The fact that their fae avatars were blended with their real-life features didn't even strike him as all that odd, anymore—if anything, it just made it easier to connect their faces with who they were in the real world, now that he was used to the differences.

A change in Klein's peripheral vision drew his attention to his party list; Issin's HP and MP were nearly full, but the Cait Sith scout had lost a small amount of both. Neither were continuing to go down, which meant that he was neither taking damage nor actively using skills, so Klein reasoned that it probably wasn't a crisis—yet.

All the same, it wasn't worth taking unnecessary chances out in the contested zones of the World Tree—especially with no way to directly communicate with each other remotely. "Heads up," he said aloud, raising one hand.

"I saw," Kunimittz said almost immediately, stepping forward. "Want me to stealth up and go find him?"

Klein shook his head, glancing over one pauldron at the Cait Sith clearing group to see how far back they were. "I'm not feeling too good about splitting us up any more, but we should still double-time it and check on him." He cupped a hand and called over his shoulder. "Drem! Scout's got something."

Harry One was already slipping his shield back down onto his arm. "Lead the way, man."

As always, his friends were on the ball. He knew they took their roles as seriously as he did, and at this point he barely had to direct them for routine stuff like this. No scripted pet could do that. No matter how long you had one, or how much rep you grinded with it, it was still just a program—it wouldn't understand the reasons behind your habits, and it couldn't anticipate your orders out of long familiarity. It couldn't tell you jokes, break the monotony of grinding with conversation, or give you shit about your girlfriend.

You could play with it, but it wasn't a person. The more he thought about it, the less appealing the whole idea of pet gameplay began to sound.

"Let's go get our friend, guys," Klein said, drawing his new katana and leading the way.

·:·:·:·:·:·

Yuuki still didn't have a clear picture in her head of just how this adults-only business worked—and in truth, she'd been deliberately trying not to think too hard about it. But given that she and Asuna had never heard a clearer mention any such thing, or anything even close to it, she reasoned that there had to be a certain amount of secrecy involved—or at the very least that it was something that grown-ups tried to keep from kids, even in this world.

"Not far from the truth in either case," said Rei once Yuuki gave voice to her thoughts, wind buffeting her short hair around her face. "I was being a bit judgey when I called it a 'brothel'—truth is, it's just some players who found a way to make money doing something they like. Services at «The Escort Quest» are… exclusive, I guess, priced way out of the average player's reach. No advertising, just word of mouth from one rich client to the next—and I'm guessing most of 'em probably prefer not to share more than they have to."

Something didn't quite add up to Yuuki. "How can Gitou afford this? He didn't seem like the brightest guy."

"Well, from my intel, he's got a gig as PC overseer for the faction jail in Gattan; that was part of the reason his name came up so quick."

That made even less sense to Yuuki, at least from what little she knew of how things worked. "How is that even a job? The game runs the jails, doesn't it?"

She glanced over at Rei just in time to catch the other girl's nod. "Mostly, yeah. But even using the coded legal system, keeping someone prisoner long-term is actually a lot harder than you'd think. And Fianna says he's got a lot of coin to throw around—far more than you'd think for a pointless administrative job like that; it's not like a lot of people get sent to jail, or that there'd be much for him to do even then."

New information kept coming faster than Yuuki could ask to clarify what she didn't understand, and it was starting to make her anxious—especially since Rei herself sounded a bit unsure of the whole story. "Fianna? One of your friends?"

"No, just my contact at Quest. According to her, Gitou comes in alone about once every week or two and—mob."

Both girls drew up sharply from their cautious flight; by this point they had fought enough battles together that clearing low-level trash like the «Parched Gazer Sentinel» ahead of them was an almost automatic process. Rei's tonfas were already in her hands, and Yuuki's body twisted slightly as she surged towards the mob, longsword coming clear of the sheath at her side. No warning was necessary before she flew forward and drew aggro, but she gave one anyway, her voice conversational. "Incoming."

"So as I was saying," Rei continued while she joined in, delivering a flurry of blows amidst the angry orange tracers of her weapon tech, "Gitou comes in about once every other Tuesday to see one girl or another, sometimes but rarely two weeks in a row. Switch."

As Rei surged backwards to avoid a retaliatory lash from the Gazer's tail, Yuuki filled the void with her own weapon, diverting the tail with a single-strike parry and following up with a glowing red slash across the mob's flank. Chaining that blow into a combo attack, she drove the creature backwards through the air. "I don't get it. If he brings in that much money, why would they—it sounds like there's more than one girl, right?"

"Yeah?"

Yuuki's final sword blow inflicted a brief «Stun» status on the mob; she waited to speak until she was frozen in place by the end frame of her «Pain Driver» technique. "So why would they betray him by tipping you off?"

Rei smiled thinly, looping under the stunned Gazer to approach it from below. "Because not everything's about money. Yakke juminu min." A moment later, a weapon technique rapidly battered the mob's underbelly, and black fire briefly appeared in its eyes. "Yours."

It wasn't the first time Rei had followed up with that combo attack, and as usual it was devastatingly effective—the few seconds of Blindness status were more than enough for Yuuki to unload a hard-hitting finishing move with a long charge-up, which sufficed to deplete the last of the mob's HP and turn it into an expanding cloud of glittering particles.

Stowing her weapons and flicking away the underwhelming post-battle Result window, Rei turned towards Yuuki. "Bit of a long story involving personal drama. Short version is, Fianna's had a change of heart and doesn't want Gitou around anymore. When I told her what he tried to do to you, she… well, half this plan was her idea. The others don't know."

Yuuki didn't much like the sound of that—she'd been under the impression that the people at this so-called "brothel" were allies in this plan, but working with only one person under the noses of the others seemed like it was asking for trouble. She followed as Rei resumed her flight. "What if they find out?"

"They won't," Rei said confidently, once more raising her voice so that the wind wouldn't carry it away. "But worst-case scenario, we just walk. These aren't combat players, Yuuki. They can't hurt us, and they can't keep us there—or catch up to us if we fly away. Just stick to the plan and we'll be golden."

Said plan began with not attracting attention to themselves; Rei and Yuuki both cut their flight about half a kilometer out from the town, descending the rest of the way in a silent, unpowered glide that left no flight trails behind them in the reddening sky. From the air, the building looked no different than any other of its kind in Salamander territory: a single-story structure of pale sandstone, squat and squarish below an unadorned flat roof with waist-height crenellated walls, from which jutted a partial story with a door to a stairwell leading inside and down. Like many NPC residential buildings, it had a small rooftop garden that looked well-tended, but from things that Kirito had said before, Yuuki knew very well that could simply have been part of the level design for this area.

Besides, Yuuki thought, looking like any other building is probably the point.

Their touchdown on the rooftop garden was feather-light, and in response to a PM that Rei had sent to her contact during the descent, an Undine woman of indeterminate age was waiting for them with her hands clasped before her. While Rei and Yuuki dismissed their wings, the woman Yuuki presumed to be Fianna pushed back the hood of her cloak and bowed, revealing rows of elaborate blue braids which ran along the length of her head. They dangled heavily from where they were gathered in the back, the braided ponytail catching the light like chains on a flail made of ice.

"You did well on the timing," Fianna said in a soft, quiet voice that a light breeze threatened to steal. "Tennyo and Yasumi just left for dinner, so we've got the building to ourselves for at least twenty more minutes."

"Plenty of time to get into position and set up the room," Rei said cheerfully. "Thanks for going out on a limb for me like this. Gitou's still showing up tonight, right?"

A slightly uncomfortable look passed across the woman's sharply-defined features. "He didn't pay a visit last week, so as far as I know, yes. Is it really true that he tried to…" She trailed off, as if unwilling to voice the rest of her thoughts.

Rei gestured to Yuuki wordlessly.

Fianna looked as if she was going to be ill, her already-pale features blanching. "You mean this is Yuuki? And she's how old?"

"Not old enough. Sorry, I know the guy was your first client, but that's just the kind of shit he is. You already had your doubts."

"I know, but I didn't think…" She frowned. "Rei, she shouldn't be here. She shouldn't even know about this place. We've been very careful in limiting our clientele."

"But she is and she does, and it's her was wronged. It's only fair she be here if she can."

"How much have you told her?"

Rei gave an indifferent shrug. "What she needs to know in order to get this done."

Fianna gave a heavy sigh, looking at Yuuki with clear sadness and pity. "Yuuki has yet to say anything for herself. Before I let you in, I'd like to hear from the young lady in her own words."

Yuuki lifted her head to look Fianna in the eyes, since that seemed to be expected. "I don't want to be here any more than you probably want me here," she said with perfect honesty. The words that followed were… not quite dishonest, but certainly more aspirational than heartfelt. She tried to put confidence into her voice, tried to sound like an adult. "But it's something I have to do. I need to face Gitou. I need to make him see the pain he's caused. And I need to be there for it, no matter what happens."

She'd intended the words to settle Fianna's misgivings, but if anything the woman seemed even more bothered than before. Something seemed to occur to her; her head whipped around as she suddenly fixed Rei with a very sharp gaze. "Don't you dare tell me you're planning on using this little girl as bait, Rei. If that's why you brought her, you can turn right around, because we are done here."

Rei faced the confrontation head-on, refusing to be bowed despite the significant difference in their respective heights. "Chill, Fianna. I'm the bait, just like we originally planned. Yuuki's going to be hiding in the closet until I get him to turn off his Ethics Code. You just take him aside, let him think I'm a new girl he's getting to break in, then find somewhere else to be so no one gets suspicious. It'll be over in a matter of minutes, and when it is, I'll send you a PM letting you know it's safe."

A worried corner of Yuuki's mind nagged at her about the direction this conversation was taking; in contrast to her confident words before, she was becoming less and less comfortable the more she heard about this plan of Rei's. At least Rei has a plan, though—a plan that sounds like it's going forward whether I'm here or not. Time is running out until whatever happens, happens, and I still don't know what to do about Gitou. Please, God, there has to be some sort of justice we can have here, some way to make him take responsibility for what he did. Once Rei has him disabled, I'll tell him who I am, remind him of what happened, and see how he reacts. That's a start… right?

It was a start, but not a solution, and Yuuki's head was starting to ache from the internal conflict. She busied herself looking over the rooftop garden while the two women negotiated, trying to divert her thoughts from the uncomfortable dead-ends she kept running into. The plot had looked well-tended from the air; up close it appeared almost artificially so. Each row of plants was perfectly aligned, and although she didn't really know anything about gardening, everything looked like it bore some kind of edible fruit or vegetable in similar patterns. "Is this your garden, Fianna?"

Fianna tabled whatever she'd been about to say to Rei, eyes briefly darting over to Yuuki, then the garden itself. "No, that's Yasumi's; she has Cooking. But she didn't plant it either—the whole thing was already there when we moved in, and whatever we harvest seems to just respawn on a regular cycle."

"We done out here?" Rei interjected, fidgeting and looking around as if worried someone might see them on the roof. "We're losing time before your friends come back."

Answering only with a wordless sigh, Fianna gave Yuuki one more skeptical glance, and then beckoned them both inside.


Author's Note 11/7/16: I'm late. Sorry about that.

Usually I post a new chapter on the fic's anniversary, which coincides with the in-universe release date of the game. That was yesterday, Sunday 6 November. I wish I could say there was a good reason, but the fact is, I just wasn't happy with the what felt to me like a weak ending for the chapter, and it's weak in large part because writing this particular part of Yuuki's plot is not very pleasant—it's incredibly uncomfortable for me, moreso even than Prophet's segments. The above would've been find for the end of a mid-chapter segment or segue. I ended up needing to split Yuuki's (very long) scene and move the one that followed to the next chapter.

Spent far too long last night thrashing over with it, and ultimately decided that I'd rather not make anyone wait any longer—it's good enough and I'm being picky. Fortunately I am much happier with the remainder of the chapter, which contains some scenes I've been looking forward to quite a bit, particularly Kirito's first meeting with Coper's group.

I have about eight thousand words on the next chapter, and although I'm going to be extremely busy this month, I'm going to try to get out another chapter before the end of the year, if not November. No promises, but we'll see what I can make happen.

Gratitude and best wishes to all of you. As always, let me know what you think.