"The «Options» menu is the starting point for players who wish to customize various aspects of Alfheim Online. The menu itself is further divided into sub-menus such as «Player Options», «Interface Options», and «Gameplay Options»—each of which contains a categorized list of flags and settings for how the player interacts with and perceives the game. Here players can personalize their HUD (c.f. «UI Elements: HUD»), change the way the cursors of other players appear (c.f. «Cursors»), define who can send them private messages or social invites (c.f. «Messaging»), toggle whether friends and party members can see their location (c.f. «Map Settings»), set their preferred punishment for harassment violations (c.f. «Anti-Harassment System»), as well as many other options that affect a player's gameplay experience in ways large and small..."
Alfheim Online manual, «Options Menu»

9 May 2023: Day 185 - Late Evening

Although she was outwardly calm by force of effort, Argo's state of mind could almost have been termed rapturous. And as Raptures went, the one going off in her brain could very well have lifted her to the sky if there hadn't been a roof over her head—as well as people watching who might've judged her in awkward ways for being that silly. As she sometimes did when extremely excited, she rocked back and forth slightly as she spoke and her tail quivered behind her.

It's all connected, her brain practically screamed in the background, over and over again in various ways as the bits and pieces continued to fall into place in their respective patterns. And then, because she'd come to a point in her explanation where it fit, she said as much out loud. "All of it, somehow. Hel is Loki's daughter in Norse mythology, and I got an eyewitness account of Loki trying to get GM powers to change something vague about 'mortality' for his 'daughter', who he said was getting fidgety waiting for it to happen. Meanwhile, Loki wants us all stuck in Alfheim to be his playthings, and he thinks Sasha's work on majutsugo would give the players too much of an advantage—so he gets Prophet to try to take her out and hooks him up with Hel, or vice-versa something-something. It all aligns."

"Which also explains why Prophet is so eager to see clearers distracted from their work," Asuna put in after the outburst rant ran out of steam, with Kirito nodding along.

"Right," Argo agreed, sitting up a little straighter. "Loki, Hel, or both of them have sold him some line to make him think he can stay in here forever as long as the game isn't cleared. Doesn't matter if it's true or not—it's enough to get him to kill for it."

"And that's all the more reason for us to get back to clearing as soon as possible," Asuna said. "The only way he can actually slow or stop the clearing efforts is if we let him—either by getting distracted hunting for him, or by letting ourselves get ambushed. If we just stick together and keep doing what we're supposed to be doing, he's going to have no choice but to come to us on our terms."

"She's right, Argo," Kirito added immediately. "This is all good information to bear in mind for later, but I don't know that there's much we can actually do about it right now. These are major quest NPCs from Norse legends—they're not just gods in lore, they're actual gods in terms of the role they're playing in a video game. The game isn't going to make us fight them head-on right now. They're tools to advance the plot and narrative that Kayaba wants, when he designed them to."

Both of Argo's ears had their full attention on Kirito now; she knew his understanding of game development and even Kayaba himself was far deeper than hers, and she'd been wanting to get his input. "You think the best thing we can do, with multiple independent NPC gods interfering with players the way they are, is nothing?"

"Not exactly nothing," Kirito allowed, voice slowing as he seemed to think through every sentence carefully before committing it. "For one thing, we don't know just how independent these NPCs really are. Being able to make flexible conversation is one thing—that's a function of the language system. Any NPC could probably do that, with enough resources allocated to them. But we don't know if they're actually fully autonomous."

"Explain."

"They could still be doing exactly what Kayaba scripted them to do, even triggered manually by him if he's out there watching and waiting for the right time. It would make a lot more sense for him to do that, than to simply give NPCs a free hand to use GM permissions whenever they want to mess with the players and game mechanics."

The memory of watching Skarrip heatedly argue with the Heimdall entity leapt immediately to Argo's mind, though of course she couldn't tell Kirito and Asuna that it had been Skarrip having that argument at the time. And they still didn't know—couldn't know—about Loki replacing Skarrip, to whatever extent that had actually happened. "I think they've got a fair bit of leash, but prolly not total autonomy. Remember what I said about overhearing Loki arguing with someone named Heimdall, trying to persuade him to do the thing?"

"Yes, and I remember who you said that was supposed to be: some kind of watchman of the gods, right?" At Argo's nod, Kirito went on. "Which just backs up what I was saying, as well as something that I've suspected all along: Kayaba still has a hand in his game. Everything you said about Heimdall makes me think back to all the articles I read about ALO's back end. There's supposed to be a master daemon process of some sort that runs all the others, and the public descriptions of what it was designed to do fit your description of Heimdall to a tee."

Kirito wasn't done; he tapped his finger firmly on the table in front of him suddenly as a thought seemed to occur to him. "That's where all the GM powers have to be concentrated—locked behind Kayaba's elevated permissions in this 'watchman' process, and handed out to these 'gods' on an as-needed basis if they meet whatever requirements he set up. It makes sense: he wouldn't have to spend all his time GMing things himself or administering these NPCs, approving every request to use their major powers."

"He could just get on with playing the game," Asuna said.

"I dunno about playing it," Argo said doubtfully. "He'd never have time to do that if he was really keeping an eye on everything. He could watch a lot of video feeds at once if he was somewhere private, mebbe. But he can't do that if he's in a party, and he can only actually be in one place at a time anyway."

"Isn't that probably why he has these god-NPCs, then?" Asuna replied. "If he's got them to go out and play these major roles, and this watchman to keep an eye on them, wouldn't that free him up to go be a player himself?"

In their brief initial meeting so many months ago, Asuna had not given Argo any particular impression of intelligence. She hadn't really seemed necessarily dumb, either—just a noob. But although Argo had been skeptical of Kirito's insistence on including Asuna, she had to admit that she'd underestimated the Undine girl—who was very much living up to both her own reputation of competence and Kirito's window-transparent interest in her. No, you never woulda fallen for some dumbass larper or filthy casual, would'ja Ki-bou?

Still, there was one detail that nagged at her during Kirito's otherwise-decent theorizing. "But if he's worried about an AI god using GM powers, I don't see why it matters which AI god is making the final call. Either way you're still giving too much power to a program, with no human oversight."

"Not necessarily," Kirito said. "The Heimdall process probably has a lot more resources assigned to it—put simply, it can crunch a lot more numbers a lot faster than even a god-tier NPC because it's allowed to use more memory and CPU time."

Asuna's face was blank. "That's putting it simply? I mean, I'm not dumb, I get the general idea, but…"

"Don't get hung up on the how and why," Kirito said a little too hastily. "What it means is that Kayaba can put more trust in the decisions of a top-level process like Heimdall because it's able to account for more variables and... for lack of a better word, think a lot harder than Loki or Hel are allowed to. That's why ordinary NPCs have simple scripts—they only seem to get more complex if the game thinks their role or the situation justifies it, because that requires allowing them to use up more resources. I've seen even ordinary throwaway NPCs adjust like this more and more."

Before Argo could speak, Kirito added, "And I'm sure there's still human oversight. Those requests have to be logged somehow, and I'd bet that Kayaba has a feed from that log he can see anytime—if he wanted to code it that way, he could've just had them show up as notifications in his HUD. I'm sure you've seen Alicia's faclead UI, Argo—you know what kind of crazy windows she can open to dig into obscure faction data. You think Kayaba has any less visibility?"

A few beats passed with only thoughtful nods exchanged among the three of them. What Argo was hearing didn't do much to reassure her, but having those insights was better than being ignorant of them. Kirito seemed to have a head of steam now, and he resumed speaking while she mulled over the implications. "All of this is telling me that we're right to get back to our clearing and leave Loki to do whatever he wants for now."

Whatever he wants? Argo substituted a neutral sound of query for the protest that first came to mind; Kirito went on. "Look, behind all of this, in one way or another, is Kayaba. Maybe he's not making their decisions for them, but there's just too much game structure built around these gods to think that he didn't intend them to exist. They're a part of the system, and a part of his plan in some way. And Kayaba's plan is ultimately for players to try to clear the game, or else why bother with all of this in the first place?"

Argo's tail thumped against the back of the chair as she rocked in place; she tried to make it still itself and had little success. "You think that Loki isn't actually going to try to stop us from doing that?"

"No, no, no," Kirito said, shaking his head quickly. "I think he'll do whatever he can—within his constraints—to stop us. I think he'll try, just like a mob or a boss will try to stop us from progressing. That's what Loki and Hel and their schemes are, from a game design standpoint—they're a barrier to progression, a challenge for players to overcome. Which means that there will be a rational, knowable solution to whatever their puzzle or challenge is."

"Right now that challenge seems to be trying to get us to destroy ourselves," Asuna commented, cutting into her long silence with words that betrayed a slight edge. "Maybe we should start by not giving him so much help with that."

"You're not wrong there," Argo said. "I think what this whole thing really comes down to is that Alfheim was just getting too damn peaceful and stable for Kayaba's liking, and he wanted to shake things up a bit. The Treaty was mostly keeping things under control, leaderships hadn't changed much in months, and we were starting to make some major breakthroughs in progression. It's his hand I'm seeing in all of this, directly or indirectly."

Argo hopped out of her chair for a moment and started pacing; she caught the gazes of her companions following her awkwardly as she did. "Think about it, he's been screwing with us for months—trying to stir up shit between the Sylphs and Sals, especially, since that's the low-hanging fruit, but one'll get you ten he's been up to a lot more than that." When she turned to look, the expressions on Kirito's and Asuna's faces were hard. "What, you think it's a coincidence all this came to a head around the same time as the mob respawn changes and the clearing of a major boss? 'Cause I sure don't."

"Alfheim Online is and always has been a PvP game," Kirito said, leaning back until his shoulders touched the arched wood of the chair. "Kayaba wants us to compete. As much as I hate how he's doing it, it makes a kind of sense that he'd respond to a lengthy period of relative peace by trying to instigate conflict between players—even offer incentives for it."

"What about the other clearing groups, though?" When Argo and Kirito both turned to Asuna's voice, she elaborated. "We need to tell them something. At the very least I'm going to need to brief Jahala and Diabel on the existence of two major quest NPCs and their capabilities. And I have to warn them about what Prophet wants to do, even if only so that we know to be on our guard. We owe it to the other clearers to warn them, too."

At Argo's raised eyebrow, Asuna looked up at her with a stubborn expression. "I hope you're not thinking of trying to sell that information to them, Argo. What was it you both just got done saying about how Kayaba's basically trying to divide us? The right way to respond to that is for us all to pull together as much as possible and share what we know."

Argo sighed. She'd been intending on distributing a certain very basic amount of information to all the clearing group leaders for exactly the reasons argued, but surely there was room for offering an additional premium level of detail. "Nah, don't worry, I'm gonna make sure they all know the essentials, and it's not like I can stop you from telling your group whatever you know. And like I said up front, there's things I've held back to protect some of my sources anyway."

A subject change seemed in order, and fortunately Argo had one already in the forefront of her mind. There was more than one reason she'd needed to meet with Kirito face-to-face, and she was now fairly certain she'd gotten everything she would from him about Prophet and Hel—for now, at least. She sunk back into her chair and faced both ears towards Kirito. "And speaking of sources, I got some fresh rumors coming my way about what you've been up to in the last 24 hours, Ki-bou."

Kirito stiffened almost immediately in his seat. "Of course you know. I was going to bring that up."

Asuna, however, reacted with confusion, turning to him. "Know what? Bring up what?"

Face reddening slightly, Kirito launched into an impressive display of stammering that contrasted awkwardly with the confident, forceful argument he'd been making just a minute prior. "I—I meant to tell you too, there just hadn't been time, and I was going to talk to both of you here…" He glared at Argo as if he was her fault for raising the matter before he was ready.

Argo shrugged, easing back in her seat and slipping a piece of candy into her mouth. She actually knew almost nothing about this little detail other than the fact of it… and given who had been involved in Coper's ascension to the leadership, and how, it was something she really needed to get straight from Kirito himself. "Alright, this oughta be good. Spill it your way, then."

Kirito sighed heavily, fanning a hand gently in Asuna's direction in appeasement and speaking directly to her. "I guess by this point I really shouldn't be surprised that Argo's heard at least something. I'd been meaning to bring this up once we were all done with everything else, because it sort of affects everyone in a way, and I could really use advice from both of you."

That seemed to have been the right thing to say; Asuna's expression softened a bit and she cocked her head curiously. "What's going on, Kirito?"

His face was almost frozen in stone as he replied. "Coper is trying to put together a proper Spriggan clearing group—one that'll make other factions want to work together with us. He says they'll be required to uphold the Treaty… and because of that, he asked me to be his lead clearer."

Well, well. That sure answers a few things. Like why the hell you'd come within bowshot of even thinking about working for someone like Coper. Argo's thoughts raced into high gear. But it raises a whole pile more questions in the process.

Asuna seemed too stunned to react, and Argo could take some pretty good guesses as to why. Bet that's not the best news you've heard all day, she thought. Can't imagine you'd be too keen on your boyfriend working for some of the same people who used to hunt yours, no matter how good his reasons.

A similar thought seemed to be on Kirito's mind, he held Asuna's gaze as he continued. "I agreed because I think this is the best chance I'm ever going to get to be able to make things better for the Spriggans—for all of us. You've been telling me for months to change Spriggan politics, and now I've been offered a chance to do exactly that."

When Asuna didn't respond immediately, Kirito went on; Argo's ears twitched forward as she leaned in. "That doesn't mean I'm blind to what kind of people I might be working with. Coper's given me his old group to build from, along with a list of potential recruits. I've met his group, and… I don't really know who I can trust, but I'm pretty sure there's some I shouldn't. I'm not going out in a party with them until I know more about them—and what they might've done."

When Kirito's eyes turned to Argo, she was ready. "Thought you might be asking, Ki-bou. I gave you the nutshell before—they're all mercs, former privateers, that sort of crowd—but for what you're doing, you need to know which are which, and more about them. So why don'cha start by telling me who, exactly, you've been saddled with… and I'll give you whatever I got on them."

"What's your price?" Kirito asked straight away. "Remember, you offered to sell me info on them before."

"I did," Argo admitted. "And I do have a price. But it's one that you're gonna be happy to pay."

"You seem pretty sure about that."

Argo snorted. "That's 'cause I'm pretty sure you don't want the Spriggans joining forces with the Sals and Imps… and that's what's eventually gonna happen unless we work together to stop it."

·:·:·:·:·:·

As much as Asuna wished she didn't believe what she was hearing, it didn't surprise her one bit. Kirito, however, was gaping. "The Salamanders had Yoshihara killed? You're saying Corvatz is responsible?"

"No, and that's important to understand. Someone in the Salamanders did. Someone who wants to work with them, but not yet."

Confusion reigned in Asuna's mind. "That doesn't make much sense, Argo."

Argo sighed, tail thumping repeatedly against the back of her chair. "Look, again, there's things I can't tell you—names of sources and stuff. What I can tell you is that a Sal helped Coper pull off his coup. They want the Sals to pull the Spriggans into their little empire, but they don't want Corvatz getting the credit for it—they don't like the way he's running things any more than we do. So that means—"

Kirito interrupted her. "That means whatever alliance they want to happen has to wait until someone other than Corvatz gets elected."

Argo nodded, fangs peeking over the edge of a slight smile. "And until then, Coper's on his own. Which means you got some time."

"And now," Kirito said, "a position that might let me use that time to stop him from teaming up with the Sals... somehow." An uncomfortable cloud fell over his face, and he looked down at the table. Asuna could well imagine the additional weight that had just settled on his shoulders; she felt a twinge of resentment towards Argo for helping put it there.

Let's be fair though, Asuna reminded herself quickly. You were going to put some of that weight there, too, after Diabel

The recollection of exactly what Diabel had asked of her stopped Asuna dead in her tracks. She had to have made some kind of noise; both of the others turned to her as her lips parted slightly.

"Asuna?" Kirito asked, concern in his voice.

Asuna giggled softly. She knew as she did that it was a completely inappropriate moment to do so, and that she was going to have to explain herself... but she just couldn't help it. She covered her mouth with one hand, trying not to find the ridiculous irony of the situation as funny as it was.

And it really was far funnier to her than it ought to have been.

"I think you broke her," Argo said unhelpfully. "Can you undo that?"

"No," Asuna said, waving her free hand vigorously as she began to lift the other from her face to reveal a thin smile. "No, no, please, I'm so sorry… it's just…"

Thankfully, both Kirito and Argo gave her a moment to gather herself without making it worse with their wits. Asuna used that moment well, straightening her back and composing her face. "I'm sorry," she said again, this time speaking directly to Kirito. "We were in such a hurry that I didn't get the chance to tell you this, either. While I was on my way here from Nissengrof, Diabel sent me a message and asked me to talk to you, Kirito, by name. He knows we've been traveling together, and he wanted me to ask you to put him in contact with the new Spriggan leader in the hopes of mending fences." Asuna's smile returned in full now, and cocked to one side. "Don't you think it's even a little bit funny how that worked out?"

She could tell that a part of Kirito was still trying really hard to be weighed down by all the responsibility that had suddenly fallen upon him. He was fighting the smile, but she could tell it was there—and eventually it began to win. "It is a little bit," he admitted, to her relief.

Argo snorted. "Hilarious like a tanuki train wreck," she said. "But okay, okay, this actually kinda works. How serious is Diabel about this fence-mending thing? What's he trying to do, specifically?"

"Well," Asuna began a bit more sharply than she intended, "for a start I think he'd probably like to have people try not attacking each other. Our patrols won't be trying to drive off Spriggans anymore, and he'd like to lift the ban completely… but first he wants to know more about what to expect from Coper, and he can't simply message him directly."

"In other words," Argo said, "he wants Undines to be friendly with the Spriggans, but needs assurances your people are gonna be safe, so he asked you to help because he knows you're traveling with a well-known Spriggan he trusts."

"That more or less sums it up," Asuna agreed.

"And that's where things get complicated," Kirito said. "Even if he didn't have his own plans with the Salamanders, Coper's the leader of a divided faction. The way he figures it, the only people he can tell what to do are the ones who agree to follow his rules. And he's not even really wrong about that."

"I've seen a copy of his little speech," Argo put in. "Nice way of splitting the baby—clearers and other people who work for him obey the Treaty, everyone else is on their own. I'll tell you right now it's probably not gonna fly with most of the leaders."

"Maybe not," Kirito said. "But it's what we have to work with, and Diabel asking Asuna to reach out can only help with that." He gave her a smile, causing her heart to beat a little faster and her avatar's face to grow warm. It was just as well that he turned his attention back to Argo right away; she was sure she was blushing for no good reason. "Anyway, I need a clearing group in the first place before it even matters. And speaking of which, you were about to give me details about Coper's people before we got distracted. Let's start with the Spriggans in his party. What can you tell me about Kramer?"

Asuna's spirits had been lifted somewhat by the brief intermission of humor and good news, but the reminder of what kind of people Kirito was going to be working with had the opposite effect. Her lips returned to a thin line as she listened to Argo.

The Cait Sith girl, however, chewed at her lip with one fang out for a moment before answering, looking as if she hadn't expected the name. "Why him? He's kinda… well, he's nobody, to be honest. He's grouped with Coper, but isn't a regular part of the legacy group, so to speak. All I really have on him other than that are some ads he's posted on the LFG walls. The usual stuff—tank clearer for hire. Lots of competition for those spots, but he's obviously doing well enough to keep up."

Nothing really sounded amiss there—Asuna had never needed to advertise for a party herself, but doing so was a completely ordinary thing for most players who weren't part of a regular group or circle of friends. "He wasn't a privateer, was he?"

Argo shrugged. "Can't swear to you that he wasn't, but it's pretty unlikely."

"Why?" Kirito asked, mirroring the word that immediately shot through Asuna's mind.

"Because the Sals never paid him. His name isn't similar to any others I know, and it doesn't come up anywhere in their records from that time."

Asuna was sure that her voice was filled with the skepticism she felt. "Records which for some reason you have?"

"In a manner of speaking," Argo said with frustrating vagueness. "I don't have hardcopies, but I've seen some of them, and I know who has them now." Asuna started to open her mouth, and Argo waved it off. "It's not important. Point is, I'm pretty sure I'd know if he'd been officially employed by them, and he wasn't. That doesn't mean that he never partied up with anyone who was."

"Then maybe I'm asking you the wrong question, Argo," Kirito said with unusual directness. "Who, in his circle of friends, was?"

Argo hesitated for a moment, and in that brief pause Asuna became certain they weren't going to get the whole truth out of the info broker. The question Kirito was asking was incredibly broad, but it was absolutely fair—and it cut to the heart of what they needed to know. She thought she could almost see the other girl deciding what to tell them and what to hold back, or even what to charge for it. "Argo," Asuna said, investing the name with a hint of warning.

Surprisingly, that prod got results. "Look, Coper has a pretty wide circle of friends, but if you weed out everyone he just happened to duel or be seen with, what you end up with is about half a dozen names."

Kirito nodded. "There were five party members I met—they're the group that I'm 'inheriting' from Coper. Their names were Kramer, Xorren, Burns, Yar, and Mentat." He carefully spelled out the Latin-alphabet letters in the names; the spellings of some sounded odd to Asuna. "Were any of them privateers?"

Argo paused for a moment again; this time Asuna wasn't sure what to make of it. "Other than Coper himself? Yar and Mentat."

Kirito frowned. "The two Salamanders?"

Asuna's reaction was a bit less restrained. "Why am I not surprised?"

"Because you don't really like Salamanders in general," Argo replied, giving Asuna's rhetorical sarcasm a straight answer. "Understandable, but people oughta be aware of their own biases."

"Excuse me?"

To Asuna's chagrin, Argo moved right on from that comment, seeming either heedless or unaware of the surprise engendered by its raw bluntness. "In this case, it's kinda justified though. Yar's a known quantity—and not in a good way. More than a few Sylphs who want him dead. If you're looking for places to trim the rancid fat from Coper's group, he's where I'd start."

"What about Mentat?" Kirito pressed. "He actually seemed kind of decent. I didn't meet him for long, but I was thinking of him as someone I might want to keep."

Asuna was having none of it. "Kirito! You heard what she said. He was a privateer. Isn't that enough to send him packing?"

"No," said Kirito, stunning her with not only the word but how quickly it came. But then he backed down a bit from that absolute. "Well, maybe. But maybe not, too. Argo, what exactly does it mean that his name comes up? Can you tell me anything else about him?"

"It means that the Sals paid him coin for services rendered, on the books. It doesn't say what those services were exactly, but he's named in a doc used to keep track of privateer hires. Farming and clearing groups were tracked separately." Argo sighed. "Look, when the Sals took Everdark they conscripted anyone who had useful real-world skills. Some of those folks were put to work at menial jobs like record-keeping, and a few of them were super-OCD about it."

"So you've got some insight," Kirito summed up, "but it's not necessarily the whole picture."

"Pin pon, Ki-bou. That's why there's some weirdly good records to work with for some things, and nothing for others." Another pause, this one clearly calculated. "I said I'd give you whatever I had. I didn't promise you'd like it."

"Those aren't your only sources, though. I know you and your contacts get a lot of info from LFGs."

"Which only helps for someone who actually needs to go Looking For a Group. If you already got a regular party, a big friends list, or usually run solo, you're not gonna be doing that very often."

"Mentat's also a healer," Kirito said with a glance at Asuna. "They don't usually have trouble finding parties."

Asuna was torn. It wasn't just the uncertainty of not knowing for sure. After all, Kirito didn't have to party with anyone he decided not to—and he had to know that, no matter what promises he'd made. Argo's information didn't have to be sufficient for a murder conviction… just enough to decide whether or not someone could be trusted to watch his back and not cause problems. That trust was the key element—something that both Diabel and Jahala had impressed upon her early on, the former with welcome advice and the latter by example.

That example hasn't always been a good one, Asuna admitted to herself. Jahala has never treated me or Yuuki with anything other than respect and camaraderie; it was a different story when Kirito joined the party and Kuradeel kept needling him. But bad examples can teach good lessons, too—the lack of trust between Kirito and the others was a huge weakness in our clearing group that day, and it could've gotten someone killed.

It hadn't all been Kuradeel's fault, though he'd started it, nor entirely Jahala's in failing to shut it down—Asuna had seen Kirito get really passive-aggressive in situations where he felt obligated to go along with something he didn't like, and some of the needling had gone both ways. It was something he'd really have to keep in check if he was going to try to lead his own clearing group, and Asuna wondered if he was even aware of the tendency.

There's a lot I'm worried he doesn't know about what he's gotten himself into. Kirito's just not a people person, and now he's volunteered himself for a job where you pretty much have to be. He'll do his best at it, like he does with everything else—but what happens if his "best" isn't enough?

Abruptly Asuna realized she'd let her thoughts get away from her; she'd missed Kirito's next question and the beginning of Argo's reply. "—a bit of a character, from what I hear. Likes to larp but nothing serious; word is he's dependable when it counts. Interesting thing about Xorren is that I'm pretty sure he's an avid hot-swapper. On paper he literally calls himself—and I'm not even kidding about this—"

"Let me guess," Kirito. "Red Mage."

Argo snorted. "He told ya, huh? Yeah, that's a thing. Anyway, what I'm saying is he openly lists the utility skills he knows on his LFGs, and to run them all it'd take at least twice as many slots as he oughta have at his level."

Now that's interesting, Asuna thought to herself. She and Yuuki had both tried keeping a few utility skills on the side before, like «Detect Traps»—swapping them in place of an active utility skill that leveled quickly, and leveling up the new skill to a multiple of 100 so that it wouldn't decay any further while unequipped for a long time. But it was a practice that Jahala quietly discouraged, primarily because as skills rose higher they leveled much more slowly, and it became increasingly impractical to risk losing even a single point in a skill while it was swapped out, and low-level skills became less useful against leveled content in the World Tree.

Still, some roles don't need as many skill slots as others in order to be effective. Tanks need every slot they can get, but if he's melee DPS, he probably has at least one to spare. And if he's a mage, I guess it depends on how many elements he prefers to use.

Kirito seemed to be thinking along the same lines, he nodded as if he saw no issue at all. Then, to Asuna's surprise, he grinned. "Xorren actually reminds me a bit of myself in the early beta. I was never much for crafting or gathering, but anything for survivability or dungeon hacking? I probably equipped it at least once. At least, until I figured out that was hurting my build."

Argo laughed and bared fangs. "I was just thinking that, Ki-bou. Remember when you decided to try out «Lockpicking» by breaking into that NPC's home?"

"That was bogus," Kirito asserted with startling suddenness. "I figured it was going to be the usual kind of minigame—turn the pick until you find the sweet spot, pop the lock. I've been doing those for years in games; I could do it blindfolded."

"Well it was the dumbest thing I've ever seen you do," Argo said through aborted snickers. "The NPC guards were right there."

"It shouldn't have mattered! I was Hiding, and that lock should've been open in seconds."

"Shoulda, shoulda. Look on the bright side: you got to submit a bug report about getting teleported to jail with an active DOT on you in a safe zone."

Kirito looked over at Asuna, who was having a very difficult time keeping from laughing herself despite the gravity of what they'd just been discussing. Composing herself, she glanced down at her hands and cleared her throat. "But Xorren wasn't a privateer, right?"

Argo shook her head, getting right back to business. "Nah. Don't think so, anyway. He goes way back with Coper and Mentat, though, so keep that in mind."

Asuna's eyes brow creased in disappointment at that particular detail. "I haven't forgotten for a moment," Kirito said. "But in case you didn't know, they supposedly didn't start working together until the Sal raid on the first gateway boss. I'm not ready to write someone off just because they know or partied with Coper—if I was, this whole discussion would be pointless."

"Fair enough," Argo said. "No, far as I know, Xorren never signed up as a privateer. He's actually pretty off-the-grid for the most part other than group seeking, which usually means someone who solos a lot."

"Then that just leaves one name," Kirito said. "Burns."

Argo's lips thinned slightly. "Burns is… complicated."

"That sounds like you have a lot to say about him," Kirito observed, sounding curiously prepared for the answer.

"I do," Argo admitted. "But I'm trying to decide how much of it you need to know."

"How about I save you the trouble?" Kirito said, leaning forward.

The Cait Sith's girl's blink of surprise was slow and profound, all the more striking for the careful neutrality of the rest of her expression. "Go on."

"Of all the people Coper took with him to confront Yoshihara, the only one who didn't fit was Burns—the rest were all Spriggans, and fellow candidates at that. I know his rep as an assassin, but when I told Coper as much, he said Burns only came along to lock Yoshihara down with debuffs."

"So?"

"So why? That requires Coper to put an unbelievable amount of trust in an Imp. Why would Coper take that risk for someone who isn't part of his faction—for that matter, isn't even a regular part of his group, someone he only knows through another party member? It didn't really make sense to me until you told me that a Salamander set up the hit on Yoshihara. Burns used to be a clearer, didn't he?"

Argo was saying nothing whatsoever in response to Kirito's words, which strongly suggested to Asuna that he was on to something. "We both know Coper is lying about what happened when Yoshihara was killed. I think whoever this Salamander is, the one who wanted her dead—probably someone connected with the Sal clearing groups, if I had to guess—Burns is their catspaw."

"All right, all right," Argo said, holding up a hand. "I was just gonna tell you to cut Burns loose and leave it at that. Because you're right—he's smack in the middle of everything that's going on with Coper and their mutual Salamander friend—and he doesn't need a weapon to be dangerous. He's obsessed with PvP, does it for money and fun, and those are both about as goddamn confirmed as you're gonna get on anything in this world." She blew out a breath between pursed lips. "Whatever Coper's scheming, Burns is key to it, and I wouldn't trust him any further than I could throw the World Tree."

Kirito nodded slowly, expression quickly fading towards grim. "I see."

"But he wasn't a privateer either?" Asuna asked. She was beginning to feel like a broken record, but… at the same time, that was a question that carried a deep and painful weight for her. She and Yuuki had nearly been killed more than once by raiding parties during their early soloing, and the names of those Undines lost to privateering were recounted often by those who sought never to forget their fallen friends.

"Not as far as I know. Again, take that for what it's worth. He's in this up to his hood."

"All right." Kirito's responses were getting noticeably more terse; Asuna could tell that he was trying to juggle conversation and pensive thoughts at the same time. He repeated himself, this time taking a deep breath. "I'm going to need some time to think about what to do. Now, there are a bunch of names I want to run by you—basically, I'll forward you the PMs Coper sent me with Spriggans who volunteered to either join the new clearing group or help out somehow."

"Can't give that one to you for free either," Argo cautioned. "It might take me a while to run down whatever there is to find on them."

"I'm sure," Kirito said. "That's fine, but I need as much as you can give me, as soon as you can get it. There's a lot I don't know about running a clearing group, let alone a raid—and the more experienced people I have to work with, or alternatives to Coper's hand-picked people, the better."

"In that case, lemme get back to you—chances are I'll need to reach out and get primary sources on some of these players, especially if they're randoms who just tossed their names in a hat. This time tomorrow I should—"

"Sooner," Kirito said firmly. "One way or another, I need to be back to clearing tomorrow. If I don't get that info by midmorning, I won't get it until later when I'm out of the World Tree."

Argo made a flatulent noise with her lips. "Ki-bou, you want intel that's three things: quick, thorough, and for a big list of people. Pick any two of those things, and I'll say yes."

"But—"

"I'm awesome, not superhuman," Argo said with finality. "Hashtag-deal-with-it."

Kirito blinked. "Did you just verbally hashtag me?"

Asuna managed to suppress all but the lightest snicker. Argo's expression, on the other hand, might well have been handcrafted by ALO's level designers and set as an Immortal Object, save for a quick twitch of her large triangular ears.

Jokes notwithstanding, it was clear enough to Asuna that they weren't going to get anything else out of Argo immediately, and Kirito seemed to realize the same thing; he didn't push any further. The info broker stood unceremoniously and beat her fingers at the air as if quickly navigating a menu, and Kirito took the hint and did the same. "I'm forwarding you those PMs now. Soon as you have anything—"

"I'll let you know," Argo finished. She gave Asuna a quick glance aside, then addressed Kirito again. "In the meantime, you oughta mebbe make use of the resources you have. You've got more of 'em than you think."

When Argo was gone, Kirito turned to Asuna with a look of mild befuddlement. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Although there had been no collusion between herself and the Cait Sith info broker, Argo had—knowingly or not—given Asuna the perfect opening. She smiled, and scooted her chair closer to Kirito's. "I think I have an idea," she ventured. "Let's talk."

·:·:·:·:·:·

It was time for Yuuki to hide.

Just before shutting the closet door, Rei stopped and peeked at her around the edge of it. "Look, Fianna says Gitou isn't one for wasting much time, but it still might take me a minute or two to talk him into disabling his Ethics Code."

"Wait," Yuuki said urgently, sticking her foot in the door. "I still don't understand why that's necessary."

Rei gave the intruding foot an annoyed glance before replying. "Well, he'll be expecting it for one, and he'll probably get suspicious real fast if mine's not already off. But more importantly, it puts him in a vulnerable position where I can tie him up without risking a harassment violation. Now, I can't really tell you not to listen, because you need to be ready for my signal… but, well…"

It was hard to be certain with the young woman's head of hair backlit into a pink halo by one of the room's wall sconces, but Yuuki thought Rei's expression turned momentarily uncomfortable; she tilted her head curiously and opened her mouth to inquire what the other girl was thinking.

Rei, however, sighed and seemed to find her words first. "Just try not to listen too hard, if you know what I mean. I'll disable him as quickly as I can."

It seemed to Yuuki that there was going to be no mistaking an ambush for small talk. "He's probably going to make a lot of noise about that anyway. Do you need me out there before then?"

"Give me a sec to cover him up first," Rei said quickly. "How long Paralysis lasts will depend on his Poison Resist, but I'll hit him with Silence too, at least long enough to get him secured. I suppose casting'll stand out, so yeah, let's call that our signal."

Cover him up? It didn't take Yuuki more than a moment to realize what Rei meant by that, and she wasn't having any of it. "Wait, you didn't say anything about him being naked. I'm not okay with this, even if you're just doing it to make it so you can tie him up."

"Yuuki, it's too dangerous to leave him—"

"We're clearers, Rei—at least, I am, and you can easily keep up with me. Whatever we're here to do, we can do it just as well by holding him at swordpoint."

Rei looked increasingly exasperated with Yuuki's last-minute misgivings, but put up only a token resistance after a nervous glance at the door of the room. "Fine, forget it, we don't have time to argue about this. Let's just bait the hook. You'd better hope he plays this smart, because I won't hesitate to put him down if he doesn't."

Once the door was closed, the darkness that surrounded Yuuki was not absolute for someone with an Imp's eyesight—but in that enclosed space, it made little difference. It's a good thing I'm not scared of small spaces, Yuuki thought to herself as she leaned against the back wall, trying to get comfortable. A dim light seeped in through the chest-height panel of slats in the door and cast alternating bars of shadow upon her shinguards, but the louvers were fixed in place and angled in such a way that Yuuki couldn't see anything in the room through them from above. Even when she knelt and peered up through the half-centimeter gap between the wooden slats, all she saw were the tapestries that partially covered the sandstone ceiling and lent a visual warmth to the room.

She could hear Rei's footsteps receding in the direction of the room's oversized bed for a few moments, then stop. In their stead came the faint sounds of light movement; Yuuki's eyes went to her HUD and counted around ten seconds of this before she heard the metallic creak of springs, then the rustling fabric of the bedsheets.

There followed a time of silence that was long enough for Yuuki to give up on watching the clock; more than a minute had passed before her thoughts turned uncomfortably inward. Gitou is going to be here soon. What's my plan?

It was no idle question. Any minute now, Gitou would walk through that door and expect Rei to start doing... adult things with him. It wasn't going to go the way he thought it was—but Yuuki wasn't so sure she herself knew what to expect either, despite the plan's simplicity.

So Rei disables him. Then what? Do we just let him go when we're done? If we do, what about the other people here? He's going to know that someone betrayed him. How does that work out for them?

When she thought it through that far, the answer was obvious. What the women in this building were doing with the Ethics Code clearly wasn't any kind of intended profession in the game, like being a mage or blacksmith—there were no game mechanics to support it, and the transaction was entirely built upon a foundation of mutual trust. Fianna had betrayed that trust by bringing Rei and Yuuki here… and no matter what they did now, Gitou was going to know that she had.

Yuuki bowed her head for just a moment. Please, God, a little help here. Help me see what I need to do so that things turn out okay. The other people who live here don't deserve to get hurt.

Help me work this out so that nobody has to die tonight.

But if God had guidance for her, He wasn't sharing it in any obvious way, and despite thrashing the thoughts around in her head in search of a solution, Yuuki still didn't know what to do. Anxious from the uncertainty, she thought about voicing her concerns aloud again before Gitou arrived. She got as far as parting her lips, then stopped herself from making any sound by clapping a hand over her mouth. Dummy! He could walk through that door at any second, for all we know.

In the real world they might've been able to hear his footsteps coming, or even his voice—but only very loud sounds would pass through a sealed door in the game world. If either she or Rei were speaking when that door opened, it could blow everything. Yuuki kept her silence and tried to be patient—tried to work on calming her nerves.

Without eyes on her clock it was hard to tell exactly how long, but to Yuuki it felt like only a few heartbeats before her discretion was vindicated by a sharp double-rap at the door. The sound sent ice down her back, breaking up her thoughts with a rush of equal parts fear and excitement. This is it, she thought.

A moment later that door squeaked open, immediately admitting the sounds of outside conversation: "...thing I've always liked about you girls; you take care of people who take care of you. I get that. Loyalty is everything, whether it's business or personal—someone does right by me, I give it right back, know what I'm saying?"

Up until that moment, Yuuki had still harbored a seed of doubt that anyone could've really found Gitou as quickly as Rei's sources had. It had just seemed a bit too easy, and while she certainly didn't think that Kumiko or Rei were lying or trying to trick her… nothing said that they couldn't have simply been wrong.

But the voice. It was his voice she was hearing now, exchanging a few last words with a nervous-sounding Fianna from the direction of the doorway. Yuuki felt imbalanced, dizzy; her brain was sounding alarms telling her that she was falling backwards, despite the feeling of her shoulders resting firmly against the back of the closet. It was too much.

"You little bitch!"

Her eyes flew open; she was in darkness, not Everdark. As vivid as they'd seemed, those words hadn't been spoken just now, and the memory was not a recent one; she recognized the signs. Even if she hadn't had a panic attack before then, the time she'd spent talking with Kumiko had given her plenty of ideas for how to see one coming, identify the triggers, and try to ride it out when something set them off. Don't hide from it! Yuuki told herself fervently amidst the maelstrom of her panicked thoughts and resurgent memories, echoing Kumiko's advice. It will bury you if you let it. Admit that you're scared and freaking out—it's normal to be scared, and the more you fight or run from it, the more trying to fight will freak you out even more.

Yuuki focused on her breathing instead of the memories, forcing her avatar to go through the voluntary animations of drawing air into her chest, concentrating on the task of holding it and then letting it smoothly out. Though Gitou's voice was conversational, every word he spoke felt like a dagger in her brain, delivering emotional poison in a spike of fear that shot down the back of her skull until the sound ceased. She refused to cry out or curl up into a twitching ball, refused to let the memories control her. It was still better than it had been when it first started hitting her, and better still than it had been the last time, when Kumiko had saved her from an unexpected public meltdown.

I need to focus on what I'm here to do, Yuuki thought fiercely. Listen to what he's saying. It's scaring you because it reminds you of when you were too weak to stop him from doing whatever he wanted. But that's not true now: you're stronger than him. Way, way stronger if all he's been doing is sitting in his home city running a jail—like you'd have any trouble stopping him now!

And stopping him is what you're here to do. But to do that, you have to know when it's time to come out. And that means that you have to listen to him now, even if it's scary.

The door to the outer room shut and locked with a pair of clicks, and Yuuki realized she'd had her eyes squeezed tightly shut again as well. She forced herself to open them, then let her trembling hands fall slowly to her sides in a relaxed way instead of clenching them to try to make them stop shaking. A man's footsteps fell heavy but muffled as they crossed what she guessed to be the plush rug that had lain in front of the bed. "Well, aren't you a cute little thing," said Gitou's voice after a beat, sounding satisfied about the observation. "Fianna says your name's Mei?"

"That's right," said Rei, who sounded to Yuuki as if she was pitching her voice a little higher and softer than usual. "Meiku, actually, but I go by Mei."

"Pretty name for a pretty girl," Gitou answered. "Fianna definitely wasn't lying. And she says I'm your first client?" The excitement and anticipation in his voice turned Yuuki's stomach and threatened her ability to cope, but she kept forcing herself to go through the motions of breathing, continuously reminding herself that she and Rei were the ones in control of this situation, not him. This wasn't the past; she had the upper hand this time. And it was getting easier to deal with by the moment, as no immediate danger presented itself. This will pass, she told herself, putting her attention back on Gitou and making herself listen to what he was saying. Focus on what you have to do. Wait for the signal.

"—Fianna said, but I wanted to make sure. I'm sure she told you I can easily afford what you're asking for this… privilege."

"I'm impressed," Rei said smoothly. It was beyond Yuuki how the woman managed to stay so cool and keep acting the part. "I guess you must be a clearer or a treasure hunter or something?"

It had been a pretty good leading question; Gitou chuckled and took the bait. "No, but I'm a lot more important than you think, Mei. Treat me well, and I'll take care of you just like I take care of Fianna. Maybe I'll even hire you both for an evening—that could be fun." There was a momentary pause. "What do you think of that, sweetie?"

"I think," said Rei in what Yuuki thought sounded like a very deliberate, controlled way, "that for tonight I want you to myself. You don't have anywhere to be anytime soon, do you?"

Gitou's belly laugh was sudden and loud, and it startled Yuuki enough to send another smaller surge of anxiety rising. She tried to let it flow over her instead of struggling against the current, leaning back against the wall of the closet and letting her chest rise and fall with breaths that were unnecessary, but helping more than she'd thought they would. "Hot damn, you're eager. I like that. Don't worry, I've got plenty of time if you do."

"Good," Rei said. "Then might I suggest we dim the lights and get a little more comfortable?"

"You really don't waste any time," Gitou said, pausing suddenly. "Are you sure this is your first time, sweets?"

"First time in the game," Rei said; Yuuki thought even she sounded a little uncomfortable for a moment. "But not my first time, if you know what I mean." Another beat, then: "Fianna taught me how things work in here, though."

There was an edge to Gitou's voice then that Yuuki found exceptionally unpleasant for no reason she could identify. "Oh, she did, did she? Well, well… you're going to have to tell me all about that."

"I will," Rei insisted. "But for now…"

"For now," Gitou said, interrupting her, "let's have some fun."

Come on, Rei, Yuuki urged silently, still trying to find islands of relative peace as her turbulent thoughts sorted themselves out and insisted on bringing old memories to the fore. What are you waiting for? Get the drop on him, do your thing and

"Agh—what the fuck—?!"

Rei's voice cut through Gitou's sudden exclamation of outrage. "Yatto yojikke nushlavu jan!"

The obstruction gave way to Yuuki's shoulder as soon as she turned the latch, flinging the closet door open hard enough to loudly impact the wall. For a moment she was almost afraid to look up, but when she did, Gitou—mercifully—was lying prone on the bed, fully clothed. The icons for «Paralysis» and «Silence» hovered next to his head on his status ribbon, and his expression was apoplectic. That wordless rage turned to wide-eyed shock a few moments after he saw Yuuki.

Rei, on the other hand, was completely unclothed to a degree that she had never once seen anyone in the game achieve, even when bathing in private; Yuuki immediately dropped her eyes back to the ground out of embarrassment. A discarded dagger lay on the rug at the Imp woman's feet, and she was working both hands in the air as she re-equipped her armor and weapons, each appearing on her in quick succession. While she did, Yuuki kept her longsword trained on him in a threatening way, hardening her expression into cold neutrality as best she could.

"Okay, creeper, listen up," Rei said as she leaned over the bedside and pressed the blunt point of a tonfa against his throat, undisguised loathing replacing the sultry tones she'd used only a minute before. "Here's how this is going to work. That Silence will wear off soon, but the Paralysis poison won't, and you've got two high-level players willing and able to one-shot you. You're going to shut the fuck up while this nice girl here asks you some questions. When she's done talking, you're going to tell her what she wants to hear." She used the tip of her weapon to raise Gitou's chin, returning his silent glower with a smile. "And if you're very polite and we like the answers we get, maybe you don't become a statistic in Corvatz's boss menu."

Without another word, Rei took two steps back and bowed to Yuuki, indicating Gitou as if he was a gift at a surprise birthday party. "He's all yours." Then Rei really seemed to look at Yuuki's face, and worry briefly creased hers. "You okay?" she mouthed.

"No," Yuuki said out loud. "But I will be." He can't move, she reminded herself, although there and then it felt like a hope as much as a reminder. He's got a Paralysis icon on his ribbon, probably from a status tip on that dagger Rei had hidden. He can't hurt you. He can't do anything right now.

Emboldened by those thoughts and trying to ignore the receding waves of anxiety, Yuuki stepped past Rei. She took up station at the bedside, Penitent Wrath held at ready. Taking the time to really look at Gitou, she was surprised to find fear on the older man's face. The Silence icon began to flash, and Yuuki let herself draw strength from the knowledge that he was afraid. It occurred to her that her hands were no longer shaking; she wasn't sure when that had happened.

When Yuuki spoke to him for the first time in six months, the first words out of her mouth were not a question. "You recognize me."

Gitou answered as if she'd asked one anyway. "I run the jail in Gattan," he said, a little too sharply. "Do you know how many Imps I recognize?"

Yuuki felt a stirring of anger, and tried not to let it get away from her. "You're lying. We met once before, a long time ago. It wasn't from the jail in Gattan, and we both know it. It was the jail in Everdark—the one I sent you to. You tried to kill me."

She could see Gitou tensing up; it made her grateful for both the poison and the weapons drawn on him. But after a few moments, to her amazement, he actually smiled. Just a little, and it was closer to a grin or a smirk, but she still couldn't believe what she was seeing. "Times change. I should thank you, actually."

Rei seemed about as stunned at this response as Yuuki felt. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" the woman demanded. "And wipe that smile off your face, douchebag."

The smile faded, but only from his mouth; there was still amusement in the crinkle of his eyes. "When you sent me to that jail, I missed out on the rest of the action at Everdark, but I ended up with a lot of time to think. And I decided that no one, and I mean no one, was ever going to take me out of the game like that again."

"Getting to sit out the game for a day doesn't even come close to being what you deserve for what you tried to do to her," Rei spat, becoming visibly angry. "But go on, keep digging your grave by explaining how that makes you the victim here. She wouldn't have been able to do that to you unless you'd crossed the line first."

"You weren't there," Gitou replied to Rei without looking at her, and far more calmly than she had. "You don't have the first idea what I really wanted or did." His attention returned to Yuuki. "So yeah, after that I studied the game docs. Talked to the guys who helped Kibaou lock people up—that was before anyone understood how the prison really worked, you get me? They had to get real creative. Met with some crafters and other smart people, too. Put it all together and you know what I learned, sweetie?"

"That you're an asshole pedophile?" Rei said.

Ignoring her again, Gitou glanced between the brandished weapons that were still menacing him, and when the flashing Paralysis icon finally vanished from his ribbon, he flexed his fingers and leaned forward just a little with an ironic twist to his mouth. Yuuki's weapon swung towards him again; his eyes trained upon the sharp tip before returning to meet her even sharper gaze. "The same thing it looks you two did, with this neat little trap of yours: namely, that the system's not perfect. There are ways to capture and hold someone if you really need to, and it turns out that's a real useful skill in this game." His grin broadened. "So in a way, everything I have now? Is all thanks to you and your quick little fingers. You look like you've turned out pretty amazing, yourself—I'd say it worked out well for both of us."

The butt of one of Rei's tonfas struck Gitou in the side of the head. It hadn't been a particularly strong blow, but the amount of HP that it took away from the lower-level player was alarming—and he wasn't the only one to react to it that way. "Rei!" exclaimed Yuuki suddenly. "You said—"

"I know what I said," Rei snapped, burning with a harshness of expression and tone that stung. "You've still got right of first refusal on this monkey's fate. You ask me, he doesn't sound all that sorry, and his attitude's making me stabby. You want to get this over with?"

"Wait!" Yuuki said quickly, turning back to Gitou and trying to get ahold of herself. Although her growing anger had been surprisingly effective so far at suppressing the surges of panic every time the situation threatened to trigger unwanted memories, it wasn't helping her to keep the situation from escalating—let alone find a way to forgive Gitou and move on.

Of course, Gitou wasn't exactly helping her there either; Yuuki wondered if his smug defiance meant that he'd already assumed they were planning on killing him no matter what he did, or if that was just the kind of person he was. She forced herself to breathe again, and lowered her weapon as she stepped closer, voice calmer than she felt. Perhaps talking to him reasonably instead of threatening him would get better results. "You tried to kill me, Gitou. Worse, but let's start with that. You tried to kidnap me, then you tried to kill me—and my sister died."

"Did she?" Gitou's shoulders twitched in a slight, half-hearted way. "Sorry to hear it," he said with very little apparent sincerity. "She was still alive when you sent me to jail, though. I didn't touch her."

"I know," Yuuki said, her free hand tightening briefly into a fist and the other gripping her sword with renewed strength. "I didn't say you did. But my sister, Aiko, is still dead. She was the only family I had left in the world, she was stronger and better than me in every way…" The memories, for a moment, almost became too much; she could hear her voice cracking near the end there, could feel unwelcome tears beginning to well in her eyes despite all her efforts at suppressing them. "Aiko was one of the most caring, beautiful souls God ever gave to this world, and she's gone because of what you did, Gitou."

"Look, kid," Gitou said quickly. "That sucks about your sister, but like I said, it wasn't me who killed her. Maybe it was that dumbass I was with, or one of the others in the party—I really don't know; I haven't seen most of those assholes since then. And I haven't killed anyone, ever—that's a fact."

"Maybe not," Yuuki said, forcing strength into her voice and swiping a hand across her face to clear it of tears. "But you started this whole thing when you tried to kill me. Don't you feel responsible for what happened at all?"

"You won that one, you're alive, and until tonight I hadn't seen you since—so no, not really," Gitou said with blunt honesty. "What, do you keep a grudge against everyone you fight? Am I supposed to be sorry for trying to capture or kill you back then? That was war, and things in Everdark got pretty crazy. Really is a shame about your sister, but I honestly couldn't tell you what happened to her or why, because I wasn't there." He gave another partial shrug. "Don't know what more you want from me, but you pulled off a hell of an ambush here—my boss and I could put a couple of solid operators like you to good use. You just need some polish."

Rei stared at Gitou. Yuuki was not gaping openly the way her companion was, but she was no less incredulous, and it took a moment for her to respond. "Are you seriously trying to hire us?"

"Why not?" Gitou said. "I got no axe to grind with you two. I told you before: I've got a useful skill, and a benefactor who recognizes that. And my skill's not the only kind he needs. Sometimes people need to be dealt with, but non-lethally—and unless my guess is off, you both set this up because you think that, too."

"You're half-right," Rei said coldly.

Gitou went on as if she hadn't spoken. "This was personal, I get that—I respect it, even. But now I'm talking about a big opportunity for both of you. I can guarantee you good pay for serious work. You girls aren't guilded, but you're both obviously grown-up enough to execute this op all by yourselves, so what do you say about going pro? Join us."

The mention of a guild drew Yuuki's attention to Gitou's status ribbon. In all the commotion she hadn't taken any special notice of the detail before, but he did have a guild symbol: a stylized white hourglass against a midnight-blue background. And he had mentioned a benefactor, a "boss"—someone who was presumably funding whatever it was that he did. He didn't seem the least concerned about his helpless predicament anymore, either.

Join us.

Panic suddenly flared again in Yuuki—but this time, it was backed by reason. "We have to go," she said urgently, giving the room a rapid glance around as if she might get some kind of early warning to validate her suspicions.

"What?" Rei said, eyes wide with alarm. "What happened?"

"We have to go now!" Yuuki said even more stridently. She glanced at the locked door and then at the heavy drapes covering the window on the opposite wall, considering avenues of escape.

As if in answer, a staccato hammering sound came from outside, in the direction of the building's front door. Muted but unmistakable, the noise drew the sudden gaze of every person in the room towards the curtained window, and the smile returned to Gitou's face. "That'd be the party of guildies that escorted me here from Gattan this time—those new mobs are almost as much of a bitch as you are, Rei. I'd be thinking real hard about taking that offer right about now."

Rei seemed to understand what was happening without the need for Gitou's byplay; she looked at Yuuki. "The hallway. Go to the roof, now."

Yuuki threw one last desperate look at Gitou, feeling the last illusion of control slip away from her. She whirled towards Rei. "But I—"

"It's Balthazar, open this door!" demanded a male voice from somewhere in the street outside, loudly enough to propagate indoors. The shout was accompanied by a continued loud pounding, as if on a door or wall.

"In here!" Gitou suddenly shouted, a full-throated yell that echoed off the walls and startled Yuuki into a defensive posture.

That instinct saved her—he had to have used some kind of quick-ready ability to bring his sword to his hand, and the shrill whine of a fast shortsword technique carried over his yell while a bright red flash streaked towards her. The blow keened off the edge of her own sword just as she brought it up in a snap reaction; despite the increased priority and effect from his skill usage, Penitent Wrath had the greater weight and she took minimal blocking damage.

"Yakke juminu min!" Rei spoke the incantation in rapid-fire syllables; the last one had barely left her lips when a quick strike from one of her tonfas hit Gitou in the shoulder. The dark spellfire of Blindness status erupted in his eyes, and as one hand flew up to his face in reflex, the other girl leapt up and over his wild, unaimed swing.

There was a brief, horrifying moment while violet energy built up and surged noisily around Rei's tonfas, and then she—and they—descended like an angel of death. The System Assist brought down both weapons in an overhead strike that took Gitou between the eyes. His status ribbon had already been yellow; the blow delivered such overkill damage that his HP bar instantly disappeared, combusting him into a red-orange ball of flame that remained hovering in the air.

This wasn't what I wanted! Yuuki thought. She wanted to cry out, but found herself unable to voice even that dishonest, childish protest in the face of how little time they likely had. She'd known. On some level, some part of her had always known it would come to this. And still, desperate for closure, she'd kept telling herself that she would figure out a plan. That God would give her the answers she needed. That she'd come up with something when the moment came.

That it would all work out… somehow.

Lies, Yuuki thought. Or if not lies, at least self-deception, which really wasn't any better. Lying isn't free. Someone always pays a price for sin, and now that's exactly what's happened.

Several long seconds passed while Yuuki stared with shame and horror at the churning red Remain Light, knowing full well that she could do nothing about it. "Good riddance," Rei said with one last look at what was left of Gitou. "Come on, we've gotta get out of here right now." When Yuuki didn't respond after a few more beats, she put her fingers to her lips and whistled; the sound was painfully loud in the enclosed room.

"Sorry!" Yuuki said, shaking her head vigorously. Snap out of it! Deal with this later!

Balthazar's voice now came from the hallway just outside the door, even more loudly. "They were in this room just a minute ago!" shouted the man. "His HP's gone, get it open! Now!"

Rei leapt across the bed and grabbed at the heavy black curtains covering the window, tearing them aside and clawing at the latch. "Come on!"

The door to the hallway swung open with a bang; Fianna spilled forward into the room and fell to her knees. A pair of well-armored Salamanders stumbled over her as they forced their way past, as if they'd been pushing the entire time. One stopped himself with the butt of his halberd, and his eyes went wide below his raised visor as he saw the Salamander Remain Light above the bed, growing smaller by the second. He pointed at Rei and Yuuki as the former threw the window wide open. "They turned on PvP in this room! Get them!"

The other Salamander had a longsword, and he was already rushing at Yuuki without needing to be told. His opening slash was freehand, not a sword technique; Yuuki let his blade glance off of Penitent Wrath at an angle while she sidestepped the blow, then shoulder-checked the larger man hard enough to send him sprawling towards the closet from his own momentum.

As her attacker scrambled to get back on his feet, Balthazar turned the spiked tip of his polearm towards Fianna. "Can you rez?" he demanded.

Fianna shook her head quickly, braids flying. "No, but I—"

"Lying whore! You set this up!" As he spoke, the man plunged the end of the halberd deep into her chest with a savage thrust, jamming her up against the wall and pinning her to it with her feet dangling. Her dying scream faded into echoes as an orb of blue flames erupted around the end of his weapon.

Then Yuuki could spare no further attention for the injustice of Fianna's fate. As crimson energy began to race along the sword wielded by the Salamander she'd deflected, she recognized the opening stance of «Howling Octave», a brutal combo that she had no way of dodging in this enclosed space. She adjusted her own stance to compensate. If she could soak the blocking damage from the first barrage of thrusts, she could take advantage of the pause and parry the next—

In all the commotion she hadn't heard Rei's voice, but the violet-black projectile that streaked past Yuuki's shoulder had to have come from her. It impacted the ground just in front of the Salamander swordsman and blossomed instantly into a blast of light and noise; Yuuki felt it wash over her without effect.

"Come on!" Rei yelled from the window.

Gitou's Remain Light was gone, and Fianna's was a foregone conclusion—neither of them could rez. Yuuki wasn't afraid to give her life for a good reason, but she knew there was nothing at all that she could accomplish by throwing it away there and then. The AOE had momentarily blinded both Salamanders; she took advantage of the opening that provided and brought out her wings.

But Rei dismissed hers as soon as they were through the window, dropping back to the ground and racing towards the nearest intersection on foot. "No flying yet!" she said sharply before jinking around the corner and weaving past an NPC-driven wagon. Yuuki was right on her heels, albeit losing ground slowly; they took a few more evasive maneuvers like that before Rei's wings materialized on her back again and shot her forward. They skimmed the ground at street level, weaving past NPCs and staying low well after they left the town's Safe Zone.

It wasn't until they'd put some distance between themselves and the town that they stopped, and by that point it was necessary to deal with a collection of trash mobs they'd been training behind them. This fight was nothing like the efficient, relaxed work of dealing with solo mobs and small linked encounters earlier that day—this was an all-out burn against more than half a dozen mobs of different types, with more adding themselves to the battle as they caught up with the two players before reaching their tether limit.

If the mobs had been level-appropriate, their deaths would have been a certainty. Even with the mobs outleveled considerably it was still too many, and without Yuuki's pinch-tanking or Rei's skill with Dark Magic debuffs, she was sure that either alone would've been overrun. It left her with no time to think, no time to do anything except move from one target to the next until several seconds had passed with no sign of any more adds. "Is that all of them?"

When she turned, Rei's eyes were glowing green. "Don't see any more cursors. No players, either, and I doubt those two meatheads have Hiding or Transparency." When she dropped Searching a few moments later, her eyes were still wary. "I'm not sticking around, though. We both need to get out of Sal territory and lie low. For now that includes Everdark, too."

"What?" Yuuki said, surprised. "Why? I thought Kumiko—"

"Kumi is Hayden's second," Rei said. "If she's not already out clearing, she's exactly who the monkeys will go to first when they come asking questions about us. She'll ask them for names and descriptions. They won't have names, and they only saw us briefly, so she'll have no trouble blowing them off."

"They're not going to believe her," Yuuki pointed out.

Rei shrugged, activating her Searching again and glancing back in the direction of the town. "Doesn't matter what they believe," she said. "They have no proof and no names. All we have to do is disappear for a while. Things will chill when the Sals get bored, and I'll send you a message if I get a lead on any of your other targets."

Targets. The choice of terminology was not lost on Yuuki. "I'm not so sure I want the help," she said slowly. "Did you ever have any intention of letting Gitou live?"

"What the hell are you talking about? We were gonna run, and he jumped us!" Rei's fingers tangled in her dark pink hair out of frustration; she looked like she wanted to start pulling at it. "Look, was there a million-to-one chance that this monkey wouldn't turn out to be a complete piece of shit who had it coming? Sure. But that wasn't the way to bet, and even if it was, he forced our hand when his friends showed up. You shouldn't have turned your back on him."

Tears sprang to Yuuki's eyes again in response to the surge of guilt. "I'm sorry," Rei said. "But that's just how it played out. Sure, we could've probably subdued him non-lethally—cut off his arms and legs, something like that. Once he pulled a weapon, though, he signed his death warrant. And the guy deserved to die anyway."

"Who are you to decide that he deserved to die?" Yuuki demanded, finally finding a voice for the deep misgivings within her. "For that matter, who am I or anyone else?"

"Are you kidding me?" Rei looked, and sounded, genuinely shocked with disbelief. "Were you listening to this guy when he was talking in there? You sent him to jail for trying to kidnap you, and the creep reacts by trying to learn how to do the same thing to someone else—just without the risk of consequences. And from what he said, he succeeded! Do you understand how fucked-up that is, Yuuki? He could've had other victims out there—victims who didn't get away like you did."

The idea hadn't occurred to Yuuki, and now she almost wished Rei hadn't spoken. "No…"

"Yes!" Rei insisted. "He was talking like he didn't just know how to kidnap people in the game, he made a job out of keeping them that way. And now he can't do that to anyone else… ever again. Don't you dare shed a tear for that bastard, Yuuki. We just did the world a huge favor."

"You don't understand," Yuuki said, tears flying as she shook her head hard from side to side. "If that's true, you might've just killed the only person who knew where he's keeping those people prisoner... or how to set them free. Killing him might've been one of the worst things you could've done."

She knew she'd hit the nail on the head when Rei stopped and said nothing further, mouth hanging slightly open. It took the older girl some time to figure out a response, and Yuuki took no pleasure or comfort in the procession of aborted words that rose soundlessly to Rei's lips but went no further. "I… I can… make some inquiries. Look up players who went missing, but aren't verifiably dead. He wasn't acting alone, Yuuki—I doubt this was some private project he had going on the side. Maybe I can check out this guild of his. Like I said, I'll PM you if me or my people come up with anything else that can help."

"I don't know," Yuuki said, eyes still downcast in shame. "I need some time to think. No matter how we try to justify it, we just did a terrible thing."

"Sorry," Rei said, reaching out to gently touch Yuuki's shoulder. "I thought you'd be happy. Maybe bringing you along was a mistake."

Yuuki looked down at the ground. "Maybe. Even if I thought killing Gitou was a good thing for the world… it wasn't worth the price Fianna paid for it. I'm ready to die if I need to. She wasn't."

Looking even more ill at ease than before, Rei's eyes went to the hard-packed desert floor. After a long pause, she spoke. "I'm sorry about what happened to her," Rei said quietly, though it was hardly necessary to lower her voice. "I didn't expect Gitou to come there with friends, of all places, and once they showed up… there wasn't anything we could've done for her."

The apology felt sincere, but there was a glaring hole in it that even Yuuki could see. "Then maybe we should've thought about that before using her to murder someone in her home."

"Using her?" Incredulity rose with Rei's voice again. "Have you forgotten that the honeypot trap was her idea? That she wanted to set it up so that this monkey wouldn't come around any more, one way or another? Fianna didn't deserve what happened, Yuuki, but she was using us just as much as we were using her."

Rei glanced back towards the town, attention drawn there. Yuuki turned as well when she saw the troubled look on the other Imp's face, following her gaze to the five neon-red tracers that began to slowly spiral out from the town's safe zone like the rough edges of flower petals. They were bright against the evening sky, and hard to mistake for anything else. "Flight trails. Looks like an expanding search pattern—probably the rest of his party finally showing up to help look for us, seeing if we went to ground nearby."

"Which we did." The words felt numb in Yuuki's mouth; a kind of shock seemed to be settling on her in the wake of the evening's violence. "If we stay here, there's a good chance they'll find us. But if we take off, they'll see our flight trails."

"Another reason for us to part ways for now," Rei said. "You're heading for Arun anyway, so if I head south, they'll have to split their party to chase both of us—and I don't think they'll do that."

"Why not?"

"They just had a party member die because they split up, and now they're under-strength," Rei replied, fingers moving swiftly through her game menu as she switched gear. "They have no idea what our actual numbers or abilities are; for all they know we could have a large guild waiting to ambush them. I think they'll be reluctant to weaken themselves even more."

That made sense to Yuuki; she nodded and gave her own gear a quick once-over. "Okay. How do you want to do this?"

"I'll take off first," Rei said. "That has the best chance of getting most or all of them to chase my trail. Soon as they give chase, make your own break whenever you're ready."

Despite her mixed feelings about Rei and her way of doing things, Yuuki still considered her a friend—and the idea of leaving her to the Salamanders didn't sit well at all. "What about you?"

"I can conceal my cursor, and you can't. I won't have any trouble losing them with this much lead." Rei made a face when she glanced toward their pursuers again. "But we need to move."

"Yeah, we do." Yuuki met the other woman's eyes a few moments later, trying to find the right words for what she wanted to say. "I want… I mean, despite how things turned out… I appreciate you trying to help me, Rei. I won't say no if you or Kumiko find out something you think I should know, but I need you to understand: I don't want to get anyone else killed. No matter who they are or how much you think they deserve it. If you bring me a plan, you'd better bring me one that has another way out."

Rei nodded after a few moments of thoughtful silence. The faintest smile that Yuuki could imagine came to the woman's face. "Okay. I'll let you know what I find." She opened her arms in what seemed like a clear invitation to hug; Yuuki hesitated for a beat and then reciprocated, closing her eyes as Rei's arms wrapped around her. It was a momentary comfort that she hadn't really had since parting ways with Kirito and Asuna, and Yuuki felt mildly conflicted about it. Friend or not, she still wasn't sure that Rei was even a good person—not after what had happened at The Escort Quest—but she quickly reminded herself that that wasn't really her judgment to make, either. Only God knew what was truly in someone else's heart, and that was a reminder she felt she needed more now than ever.

They had lingered long enough to produce the expected anti-harassment pop-up; both Imps swiped their hands automatically at the air as they each took a step back. "Safe journey, Yuuki. Time for me to go be bait again." Rei tensed for a moment as her wings appeared on her bank, and then launched herself southwards into the air at a shallow angle.

Yuuki watched the light show just long enough to confirm that all five crimson flight trails veered off in pursuit of Rei's bright purple tracer, then began the long trip back to Arun.

·:·:·:·:·:·

Kirito knew, from long hours of study and self-discipline, that sometimes there were unpleasant things in need of doing—and that putting them off didn't make them any easier. But knowing that was so didn't make it any easier to get on with doing them, either. He had been trying, for the better part of half an hour, to work himself up to meeting with Coper's group—with his new clearing group.

It had to be done; they were expecting him to show up any minute. The morning sun had already made its first appearance of the day, peeking around the rough edges of Yggdrasil's twisted trunk as it rose above the eastern mountain ranges and cast long shadows across the city in the bright interlude before the canopy interceded to provide Arun with its long midday shade.

The warpgate itself was too close to the trunk to get any direct sunlight, but Kirito still found himself dancing between sunbeams while he took every other step on the way up the hill. This was a busy time of morning, when clearers began to gather in small groups and full parties near the warpgate, occasionally hurrying or delaying so as to avoid crossing paths with others who might not be entirely friendly. He saw more than a few familiar faces, albeit faces known to him only from afar; as he reached the landing near the warpgate itself, he even thought he caught a quick glimpse of Klein with a cluster of Cait Sith before a blinding blue light sent them away.

The people he sought, however, were in one of the park-like side areas that branched off from the paved dais of the warpgate; the sight of a Spriggan, Imp, and Salamander all in one spot was unusual enough to draw Kirito's eye. Xorren was the first to spot him; the Spriggan utility mage grinned widely and hopped in place as he tried to be seen past the much-taller Mentat, waving vigorously in a way that drew the attention of the other two players with him.

"Dude, there he is. Hey, Kirito! Was wondering if you were gonna show up."

Kirito was finding it difficult not to like Xorren's goofy enthusiasm; an unforced smile rose to his face. "There a reason I shouldn't have?"

Burns turned away from Xorren and faced Kirito, wearing a twin to the other's grin. "You mean aside from expecting me to own you?"

Xorren wasn't having any of it; he stepped up to the Imp's side. "Who says you get to fight him first?"

Burns extended a palm and a fist in a clear invitation to janken for it. Xorren responded in kind almost immediately.

Kirito had known the question was coming as soon as he'd agreed to meet up with Coper's group the next morning. He'd been expecting the challenge—a follow-up to the duel proposal Burns had extended the day before. It was even fair to say that he had a plan for dealing with it, a plan he had still been refining even as he made his way up the steps towards the warpgate at the base of Yggdrasil. His equipment was in top shape, fresh from Lisbeth's overnight care and sitting at 150% durability. He even had backup plans in place. He was, as far as he could be sure of such things, in the right frame of mind to meet this challenge in good spirits.

Yet still, these other players found new ways to surprise him and put him off-guard. Kirito's mouth moved as he made sounds that came somewhat close to signaling his actual level of confusion before finally finding words. "You're kidding, right?"

Xorren jerked his thumb towards Kirito without averting his eyes from Burns. "He thinks we kid."

"He does. It's really cute."

While the two other mages fought an epic hand-gesture battle for the right to face Kirito in combat, Mentat sat down on a nearby bench and carefully leaned his staff against his shoulder, never taking his hands off it. "You're both showing off." He then gave Kirito a sympathetic look. "They're showing off," the Salamander mage repeated. "They amp things up anytime there's new meat to break in. Usually dueling's a pretty casual thing with us."

"It's tough for me to be casual about something that has a nonzero chance of leading to someone's death," Kirito said honestly, topping the steps and folding his arms across the gray leather chest guard he usually wore into the World Tree.

Mentat pushed back his hood to reveal short reddish-brown hair a touch darker than the typical Salamander color range, and met Kirito's serious gaze directly. "I hear you. If the only time you ever fight is when it's life or death, that'll leave a mark. This is different, though."

Burns interrupted this solemnity with a brief shout of triumph. "Ha! Got you." Turning back to Kirito and shaking out both hands as if they'd been heavily used all day for typing, his tone turned towards the conciliatory. "Try to look at it from our perspective," he added. "it's just like any other risky hobby—you know, skydiving, racing, martial arts sparring, whatever. We accept the risks, try to minimize them where we can, then put it out of our minds and have fun. You still game?"

Kirito nodded, putting on a confident smile again. "I'm game. But I've got a few conditions."

Burns turned up his palms. "Everyone does. Let's hear 'em."

"Wherever we end up doing this, it needs to be a public place."

Burns shrugged. "All the same to me."

That was one less thing to argue over. Kirito wasn't quite sure whether to be reassured or not that Burns had agreed so easily. "And I'd prefer at least a little bit of useful cover, not an open courtyard or something like that—you're a status mage and I'm primarily melee."

"That's fine, but there's cover, and there's cover," Burns said. "No corridors; it's just as unfair if I have no choice but to move into CQC range to even get LOS on you." He grinned suddenly. "Fortunately, I think I know a place here in Arun that'll suit. That all you wanted?"

Kirito's gaze shifted to the Salamander who was still lounging casually on the slatted-wood bench. "Well, considering the stakes, I'd like to make sure that Mentat's going to be on hand with rez spells."

Mentat's rust-colored eyebrows rose a centimeter. "Spells, plural?"

"Spells," Kirito repeated. "I'm sure you've got more than one if you're a dedicated healer. I need you able to rez both of us without waiting for cooldown if things really go bad and we're too far apart for an AOE."

"Oh," said Mentat, seeming momentarily puzzled about the reason for Kirito's concern. "Is that all? Unless I've already used one in the last few minutes, that's… not really an issue. But sure."

Kirito was uncertain just how hard he wanted to press for details; they were already treading close to the very personal topic of a player's stat allocations and levels. He decided to take the assurance at face value. "All right."

"You really haven't dueled since the beta, have you?"

Kirito had been ready for this, too; he faced the question unflinchingly. "We've been over this, Burns. Everyone took their own path from launch to get where we are now. Mine hasn't left a lot of room for PvP to be anything other than a fight for survival."

"But it wasn't always that for you, right? I know you used to. I know you remember what it's like. Nothing forces you to improve and be at the top of your game like another person who's also at the top of their game."

The memories that came back to Kirito filling him with a strong yearning, one he hadn't really felt in a long time. The Alfheim Online closed beta had been one of the greatest experiences of Kirito's short life, and one of the things that had made it so was the camaraderie within the PvP community—a community that revolved around that core drive to improve one's own skills by pitting them against other human opponents, challenging oneself in a way that an NPC never could. Duels had been a common occurrence even in the cities, a regular spectacle that bystanders enjoyed as much as the participants.

Kirito had been no exception, but he had never, strictly speaking, become a regular part of that subculture—he spent most of his time exploring and soloing, mastering the game in his own way on his own terms. And until recently, he hadn't really given the absence of those duels any real thought; Alfheim was simply a different place now than it was then.

"Yeah," Kirito acknowledged. "I used to." And if he was being honest with himself, he would again—if circumstances were different.

Kirito had already been 99% sure that he was going to go through with this duel, but the remaining percentage and change filled itself in as that passing thought really sank in. Because the circumstances were different now. This wasn't a fight for survival, or even a random scrap. This was as close to what he'd had in the beta as he was ever going to find in Alfheim—players who seemed to be dedicated to keeping the real-world, sportsmanlike side of PvP alive even in the face of that struggle for survival.

There was nothing left to argue. Burns had agreed to his requirements without batting an eye. Kirito had taken precautions to protect himself anyway if something went wrong. And this was something that he had to do anyway if he was going to lead these players.

So why not enjoy it?

He could tell that Burns was getting ready to prod him again. Before the Imp could say anything more, Kirito put on the most enthusiastic grin he could muster. "Let's do this, Burns. You said you've got a spot in mind, so lead the way."

Three flight trails arced into the air above Arun without a further word from their owners, leaving a path for Kirito to follow. Kirito gave them a moment's head start, then took to the air. Only then did his eyes snap onto an icon in his HUD that he'd allowed to minimize—a reminder of an unsent PM reply. At the lingering of his gaze, the icon expanded into a proper message window; he took a moment to confirm that what he'd begun typing to Asuna was still in the body of the message.

「We're on the move. Follow my marker and stay out of sight.」

Kirito focused on the «Send» icon, and blinked once. Insurance policy in place, he put on a burst of speed and prepared himself mentally for the duel to come.


Author's Note 6/17/17:

Does it really need saying at this point?

I feel like it does. So with that in mind: I'm sorry for the wait. This has been a pretty bad year for me. My creativity has been lurking somewhere deep in a singularity, with only intermittent gasps of Hawking radiation as a stray idea or bit of free time gets sucked in and eventually finds its way out into Google Docs.

Hobbies and obsessions can be transient things. I know that for many people, SAO is just one more anime in a growing list—something that they watch, perhaps even really get into for a time, but from which they eventually move on after a few months or years as new things enter their lives and command their attention. This is especially true for the younger end of the fandom; months and years have a much greater weight to someone whose perspective is limited by their own short years, and their interests can shift quickly.

All of which is to say that I don't blame anyone who has moved on during my long hiatuses. Fandoms come and go, and I don't kid myself that what I've created here is anything other than a niche sub-fandom for a show that aired nearly five years ago. If you stopped in for a time, liked what you read, but have since found other interests or decided that the wait between chapters is too long to keep following—I understand, I thank you for your readership, and I wish you all the best.

But for those who remain, who still get excited whenever you see a notification for this story, and who keep faith that it will be updated despite the sometimes-lengthy waits and the silence of depression that overtakes me during rough times in my life—I'm truly grateful. You help keep me going.

Chunks of chapter 43 are already written, and life is stabilizing a bit now from the crisis mode that dominated most of this year, so hopefully the wait will not be anywhere near as long as the last. But as Argo says: hope is not a plan. My plan is to keep writing. Life will do what it does, and is what it is.

Love and gratitude to all.