"A failed spell incurs no cooldown, but penalizes the caster with the loss of MP. The amount of MP lost varies depending on the circumstances: a fumbled partial incantation might only deduct a portion of the spell's MP cost, since the system cannot know the player's intent and can only tally the costs of the spellwords that were spoken correctly. But a fully-incanted spell against an invalid target will incur the loss of the spell's normal cost, and the spell will fail to manifest or affect said target. Players are cautioned that repeatedly fumbling incantations or attempting to cast a spell beyond one's skill level have a chance of triggering more serious consequences—both for the caster, and for those around them…"
Alfheim Online manual, «Spell Failures and Fumbles»

10 May 2023: Day 186 - Morning

For a few moments, as Kirito and the other three players from his new group rose rapidly past the orchard and hedge maze that bordered the steps ascending to the Warpgate, he felt a passing suspicion that Burns was leading him somewhere far off in order to force him to tire his wings.

It was not a trivial concern: having the high ground was useful in a fight, but taking the high ground rapidly expended wing energy, and Kirito was familiar with more than a few tactics for forcing opponents to fly or ascend when they didn't need to. Once drained, wings took a fair amount of time to recharge, and a player who couldn't use their wings on a moment's notice not only couldn't fly—they couldn't use a burst of flight-assisted speed as an evasive maneuver on the ground. Kirito had every expectation of needing tactics like those in order to avoid all the debuffs Burns was likely to start throwing at him the moment the duel timer counted to zero.

He knew he was predisposed to distrust Burns, and had any number of good, well-informed reasons for that distrust. Doing something outside of the duel to put him at a disadvantage, like making him use up wing energy on a long trip to some inconvenient location, wouldn't have struck Kirito as being out of character—even if that was a handicap that cut both ways. But it seemed like the four of them had only been in the air for seconds before reaching the apex of their flight arc. They descended towards the upper terraces of the Arboretum, an expansive open-air park near enough to the Warpgate that they could've very well walked; Kirito realized what their destination had to be at about the same time that the colored streaks trailing from the other three players cut off and put them into a glide.

The Grand Gazebo loomed large over the sparse treetops from Kirito's vantage point, the domed roof with its thick post-and-lintel timber supports rising nearly four stories above the raised tile platform it covered. A scattering of NPCs from various factions were present, some in the faint shade beneath the dome and others pathing their scripted ways along the irregular stone walkways that meandered through the open garden which filled the clearing around the gazebo itself. A quick toggle of Searching revealed no other players nearby—at least, none who weren't hiding their cursors in some way.

It certainly qualified as a public place, and it was well within Arun's safe zone—but it wasn't exactly Main Street, either. As a place to hold a duel, however, Kirito had to admit that it was inspired.

He knew that the game considered everything within a hundred meters of the point where a duel was initiated to be part of the playable area for the duel—and everything further to be "out of bounds". By long practice eyeballing distances in the game, he estimated that the entire garden area surrounding and including the Grand Gazebo was just shy of 200 meters in diameter on its short axis.

For much of his time in Alfheim, Kirito's eye had come to evaluate terrain from the perspective of a solo player seeking to evade or gain advantage over larger groups, or to see it in terms of how it might affect PvE battles and survivability. But for the first time in a long time, he found himself automatically appraising the site's suitability as an arena. Not just an arena in the general sense, but as an element of game and level design. He came in for a landing near the center of the central structure itself, an octagon of perhaps fifty meters with open sides that allowed free movement in and out of the covered rotunda. The roof, rafters, and man-thick pillars provided sources of potential hard cover against AOEs, while the scattered trees and hedges throughout the garden served as "soft" cover that wouldn't protect him—but might, in a pinch, be able to block LOS if needed.

"It's perfect," Kirito said quietly.

Soft as his words were, he hadn't realized that he'd spoken aloud; Kirito felt a light impact as Xorren slapped his back with one of his white-gloved hands. The other Spriggan stepped past his landing spot at the center of the towering gazebo, grinning and spreading his arms wide as he turned in a half-circle. "Isn't it the best? Burns knew this place from the beta, and it's one of my favorite spots for arranged duels now."

Burns seemed as if he'd been busy in his menu; he swept his hand to one side and looked up past a loose drift of long, straight black hair. "I just sent a quick hey to Kramer and Yar, letting them know where to find us, but they'll probably be a few minutes. Any last-minute stuff you need to sort out?"

"Let's go over ground rules," Kirito said while pacing the breadth of the structure and getting the lay of the land. "Gear limitations?"

"Well, I think I mentioned sev gear before?" Burns said immediately, with a faint rise to his tone that suggested a half-question; Kirito turned back towards him and nodded. "Yeah, that's probably the one constant rule we have for duels—don't buff your Critical Severity; it makes for more extreme damage spikes, and spike damage runs the risk of corpselighting someone unintentionally."

Corpselighting, Kirito thought. That's a cute new euphemism for killing. Though in an effort to be fair, he reminded himself that if the rez was timely, getting turned into a Remain Light wasn't murder—just the punishing death penalty to skills and experience. Bad enough at their levels, and to be avoided… but still within the bounds of sportsmanship if it wasn't intentional.

"Other than that..." Burns shrugged, then donned a grin that slowly spread across his broad cheeks while he spoke. "Free advice you probably don't need if you're half the player I think you are: got any gear that can buff your Status Resist, put it on now. You'll need it."

Kirito nodded, saying nothing. Burns was almost certainly aware that Spriggans had innate Status Resistance. And if he didn't already know, Kirito wasn't going to surrender an advantage by warning him that some of his debuffs might not stick for as long as he was expecting—or, if Kirito was lucky, at all. "Starting position? Buffs and pre-casting?"

Burns upturned his hands in yet another signal of indifference. "Start where you want, do what you want. If the game'll let you make a play, go for it. Just don't get DQ'd, because we'll laugh and make fun of you."

"A lot," added Xorren with a grin.

In other words, Kirito thought as he signaled his understanding with a single nod, anything goes as long as the game doesn't flag it as a violation. Which means you could start casting a few seconds before the start, and have your spell go off before the other person has a chance to retaliate. He resolved to be prepared for any ambush of the sort, although trying to pull off something like that would be tricky—get the timing wrong, and you'd be disqualified for attacking before the duel actually started. The thought brought an unpleasant memory back to Kirito, a reminder of Fausta's attempt to exploit duel mechanics in order to try to OHK him with a Dark Magic suicide-bombing.

He pushed the memory away; this wasn't the time for distractions. Burns seemed to be examining him closely, and from the shifting direction of his gaze Kirito surmised that the other boy was taking advantage of the spare moments by evaluating what he could tell about Kirito's gear. He quickly took inventory of the mage's equipment with his own gaze.

Nothing I recognize except his gloves; the star-shaped pattern on the back of the hands looks just like the Slitharch sigil. If I had to guess, he got those from a named drop a couple zones back. Slitharch gear leans towards AGI buffs and status procs—he might be faster than I expect, and his hits could inflict debuffs. The rest of it… I see a few Jotunn-themed adornments that suggest HP buffs, but most of his gear looks like rare drops, not crafted pieces—I can't tell anything from just looking at them.

When his eyes returned to the Imp's face, their gazes met; Burns gave him a slight smile, as if to say that he knew exactly what Kirito had been doing. For all Kirito knew, he approved.

"Let's do this," said Burns.

A thrill of excitement raced through Kirito. It didn't feel quite the same as it might have in the real world; he couldn't feel his heart pounding in his chest, even though he knew his real one probably was, and the rapidly-spreading chill that the system tried to simulate in response to his mental state and bio-signs was a best-effort facsimile of the way a real adrenaline rush made his extremities feel cold. But it was close enough, and it was the sort of reaction that fed back on itself. He shifted his weight from side to side, flexing his fingers, and met his opponent's enthusiasm head-on. "Let's."

Burns was well-practiced at the motions of initiating a duel; his hands moved in a way that was almost pre-programmed, gaze snapping up above Kirito's head to where his cursor would be. A moment later the invitation window popped up in Kirito's vision, prompting him to choose the win conditions. He tried not to register any surprise; if Burns had ulterior motives for the duel, he'd passed up a chance for advantage by not specifying the duel type. A gesture of good faith? Kirito wondered. Or something to put me off-guard? They'd agreed on a half-HP duel, but there wasn't anything stopping the recipient from picking something else if the initiator didn't specify the kind of duel they wanted.

Kirito had no intention of doing anything like that; he didn't hesitate before selecting «50% HP» as the win condition. The moment he did, the window disappeared, and a flat holographic banner appeared in the air at the midpoint between the two players declaring their names and the beginning of the countdown. They were standing near the center of the towering gazebo; as soon as Kirito accepted the duel, Burns startled him by bringing his wings to life just long enough to give himself a burst of acceleration backwards. His arc took him a good twenty meters back to just before the gazebo steps, and without thinking, Kirito mirrored the move, putting each other at the edge of typical spellcasting range almost as if they were taking starting positions in a formal match of some kind.

Remember, Kirito reminded himself fiercely, Burns knows this terrain better than you do. He knows his own range, he knows the sightlines and the sources of cover, and he's more practiced at PvP. You'll always be at a disadvantage in this fight, whether you know it or not. He could see Burns working at his menu, and thought he caught a flicker on the other boy's 3D model; some of his equipment had changed. Kirito did the same now that they were at a distance, reviewing his gear and deciding to swap in a few pieces of subtle jewelry that would sacrifice a small amount of STR in order to raise his base Status Resistance.

Twenty-five seconds. Kirito watched Burns carefully. He could faintly hear an incantation, and for a brief moment green energy surged along the length of the other boy's wand, sheeting over his body. A Wind Magic buff. Not Transparency; that'd be a visible change. Blur? No, I'd see that effect too.

There were only so many Wind effects that would be useful for a mage to cast at the start of a battle. It has to be Haste, Kirito concluded. Burns is reducing his cooldowns—smart. Only thing I have to reduce mine is my Momentum skill mod, but I actually need to be landing hits in order to proc that. I don't think Burns is going to give me many opportunities to strike; he'll stay as far from me as he can. If he's got Wind, there's still a good chance he'll use Transparency to hide his cursor, which will make my sword techniques harder to land.

It occurred to Kirito that he had no need to back off as far as Burns had, putting so much distance between the two of them—in fact, it was disadvantageous. Burns himself had said that he could start wherever he wanted and do whatever he wanted, and Kirito was much better served by getting as close to melee range as he could manage before the fight started. His wings were already manifested; Kirito gave his jump a flight assist and landed close to the center of the gazebo floor where they'd initiated the duel in the first place. He began slowly advancing on where Burns stood, closing the distance between them with each step. Let's see how you react to being pressured.

Ten seconds. Kirito had expected Burns to back off, circle around, or otherwise try to put some space between himself and the imminent mortal danger of being caught within Kirito's sword range. The Imp mage smiled as he watched Kirito close within about ten meters, then whipped his arms out to the sides and slightly downwards quickly enough to startle Kirito into stopping with his sword presented defensively. Violet eyes alight, he spoke an incantation in a rapid-fire near-whisper. "Yatto yojikke plemzure ralth tepnaga dweren."

Kirito realized almost immediately that the spell wasn't directed at him; Burns had his arms pointed straight out in nearly opposite directions, one of them past Kirito and the other behind himself. Dark power rippled down his arms and raised a veil of violet-black from the ground before him, the energy churning itself into an opaque wall that slanted diagonally across the arena and separated the two combatants. As the wall was still forming, Kirito heard a second incantation, nearly but not quite identical to the first; another Dark Hazard shot out in the other direction, converging roughly on a single point just in front of its caster.

Eight seconds. Alarm flared in Kirito's brain; he took to the air to get a clear picture of where his opponent was, backing himself up and away. The pair of Dark Hazard effects drew a massive slanted X across one side of the gazebo, each wall two meters thick and crossing each other almost exactly at the gazebo steps where Burns had stood. Kirito could not see the Imp at all, even when he toggled on Searching; he had to be hiding inside the Darkwall somewhere.

I can't see him, and he can freely take all the time he wants to target me. Worse, if I chase him into that hazard to get in melee range, it'll keep me Blinded as long as I'm touching it. Think!

Two seconds. Kirito had time enough to cast a single spell. The biggest risk to him in these opening moments was a homing attack with a disabling status effect; nearly anything Burns hit him with would be bad, and he had every expectation of it being Delay or Distress, or something similar. He just barely heard the beginning of an incantation—

"Futto zabukke—"

Wind, Fourth Magnitude. The recognition triggered a response before he consciously thought about it; Kirito began casting. "Matto zabukke—"

"—plorjabu vethleka—"

Homing attack, like I suspected. Kirito had been intending to summon a Decoy, but the incoming spell would already be targeted on his cursor at this point; he switched spells. "—tamzul buren!"

Just as the countdown timer reached zero, Kirito's maintained shield flared out from his outstretched free hand into a translucent disc of gray smoke, manifesting in time for the incoming projectile to burst against it. The two spells were equivalent in magnitude; Kirito lost a small amount of MP but suffered no other effect, and clenched his fist to release the defensive spell the moment he saw the impact.

The projectile had come from within one of the strips of the overlapping Dark Hazards, but Kirito did not make the mistake of assuming that Burns was still in the same location, especially not after a follow-up burst of violet shot out from a spot several meters in another direction. Kirito kept moving at high speed, circling the interior perimeter of the gazebo to make it harder for Burns to target him with non-homing attacks.

Want to hide your cursor? Two can play at that. As soon as the next projectile seared out towards him, Kirito wove his flight path behind one of the support pillars to break LOS, and spoke quickly while the AOE detonated harmlessly on the other side of his cover. "Matto zabukke vayezul dweren."

While the intensity of Transparency's visual effect was minimal at low magnitudes, the spell still had one important use in PvP: until the effect expired or Kirito attacked, Burns would find it impossible to see his cursor or—more importantly—use Focus to target it. That granted Kirito some momentary relief from homing attacks as he emerged from behind the pillar, but he didn't kid himself that he'd done anything but buy time to come up with an attack plan.

Burns wasn't giving him that time if he could help it. When a third Dark Hazard spell stretched out to create a churning, lopsided asterisk just moments before the first barrier vanished to again leave behind a giant X shape, Kirito quickly repositioned himself with a grimace. The Imp's strategy was clearly to hide within his own spell effects, making it impossible for Kirito to pop his cursor or even be certain of his real location, while allowing Burns to attack at leisure. And with enough cooldown reduction, he could probably sustain those barriers for some time as long as he had MP.

It wasn't even unfair or imbalanced; Kirito could think of any number of hard counters to this approach. All he needed was the ability to cast a Dispel effect, or carpet bomb the Dark Barrier with ranged AOEs and force his opponent to either eat the splash damage or flee his cover.

Neither of those options were feasible for Kirito. His Illusion was high enough to cast a number of AOE attacks, but the unique property of Illusion was that despite its capacity for high spike damage it was, in effect, "scratch" damage—a temporary effect that slowly faded until it was made "real" by striking the target with a different damage type. Even if he could tag Burns with the splash damage from Illusion AOEs, he couldn't wage a war of attrition; in order to lock in the damage dealt, he'd have to immediately use another element—which he didn't have—or hit Burns with a physical attack.

Burns certainly had multiple sources of AOE capability; Kirito grimaced as he took a small amount of splash damage from the edges of a Fire Magic spell that burst against the rafters. For a brief second, Kirito felt the telltale slow-time sluggishness of Delay status, but although it threw off the rhythm of his evasions, it was gone before Burns could take advantage of it. He couldn't recall any way for Fire to inflict Delay; it had to be a proc from something on the Imp's gear, a random chance for an added effect. He couldn't afford to take any attack for granted.

That's three elements he's used now, Kirito thought, twisting his body to evade another Fire-based projectile. Dark is racial; he'll have at least three more skills I don't know about. From the attacks so far, he seems lean heavily on Dark and Wind, and prefers a steady onslaught of low-cost, quick-recast projectiles to keep the pressure on me. That pressure forced Kirito to constantly maneuver while he tried to get a read on Burns's location; once he had to sharply evade away from the ground in order to avoid being Rooted, and the threat of an AOE root coming out of nowhere as well as the need to get a vantage point on the overlapping Darkwalls forced Kirito to stay in the air.

The way he must be burning through MP, he doesn't seem worried about running out—he's got to be recovering it somehow, and I doubt he's drinking potions or using up Mana Crystals for a duel. I'm betting he's taken cost-reduction skill mods, and probably has some MP recovery procs on all that expensive gear of his—

A thought occurred to Kirito then, an idea strong enough to carry through the distraction of fending off the barrage of ranged attacks. I need a way to track Burns within his Dark Hazards, but it blocks «Searching». «Detect Movement» probably would've been perfect, but Burns is the one with Wind Magic, not me. All Kirito had was a very extensive toolkit of Illusion spells, most of which were of very limited utility in PvP.

Including the one that he was considering using in a way that struck him as… not entirely intended.

Kirito reasoned that the base-magnitude version would do as a test. He took a moment to recall the words to a spell he usually only used when soloing, and uttered them as quietly as he could: "Makke hevakulth dweren."

At that magnitude the buff would only last for a few seconds, but it was enough to validate whether the «Detect Treasure» effect would work the way he expected in this context. The spell wouldn't pick up anything that Burns had currently equipped or stored in his inventory; it was designed to highlight loot hidden in containers or sitting out in the world waiting to be discovered. But consumables like potions and crystals needed to be ready at a moment's notice; no one could afford to be distracted in their inventory during a battle. And items in pouches or pockets, Kirito knew, counted as being "in the world"—if they had durability, they would decay just as if they'd been sitting on the ground.

Kirito was counting on that, and hoped he wasn't wrong.

As soon as the spell took effect, a few glimmering golden motes in varying shapes began to shine brightly at roughly waist level within the roiling blackness of the Dark Hazard; a dotted line of them traced upwards and diagonally for a short distance in the shape of a belt or strap. While Kirito watched, they jerked to a stop where the two Dark Hazard effects crossed, then abruptly changed direction and headed down one of the legs of the X just before the Detect Treasure effect faded from his vision. A moment later, a Fire projectile burned its way towards Kirito from the very same spot.

Got you. His hunch confirmed, Kirito quickly cast the next-magnitude version of the detection spell so that he wouldn't lose track of his opponent again, but took care not to stare directly at the spot where he could see the glow of the valuable consumables Burns carried on his person. I only get one shot at this before he realizes I can see him. Make it count.

Burns was dashing down the length of the Darkwall that he'd just recast, heading towards the center; he fired off an unguided Dark projectile from the intersection of the two walls before immediately changing directions and racing away within the confines of the older barrier. Kirito responded with his own attack almost immediately, an Illusion projectile that trailed black wisps as it rocketed out towards the point where the attack had come from. A explosion of coal-black smoke blossomed out from the place where the two walls overlapped, and Kirito swooped low to put that temporary cloud of obscurity between himself and Burns as he closed the distance.

He won't be able to see through that smoke cloud, and detonating an AOE right there will make him avoid that spot for a few moments—he's trapped in that leg of the wall unless he leaves it. Kirito cut his wings as he dropped through the smoke and landed right beside a particular point on the churning blackness of the Dark Hazard, sword already in position to execute «Hurricane Slash».

It wasn't one of the more powerful longsword techniques. It wasn't even a multi-hit combo, and it took nearly a full second to charge up. But Kirito had it fully charged by the time his feet touched the ground, and the diagonal upward slash released a torrent of brilliant green energy that had built up along the length of his sword, turning it into a short-range blast of elemental Wind.

Kirito wasn't expecting his blade to connect with anything, and it didn't. Hitting Burns with the melee attack wasn't the point. The Wind-based blast that was the technique's secondary effect had a range of 5 meters, and it was more than enough to penetrate the intangible Dark Hazard and squarely impact Burns. Kirito didn't wait to see the results; as soon as the brief freeze time ended he kicked off the ground and sent a surge of power to his wings, rocketing him up and over the Darkwall just in time to see the physics impulse from the Wind blast eject Burns from the other side of it at high speed.

The instinct of most players, when thrown any distance by an attack, would've been to use their wings to stop themselves before they hit something; Burns allowed himself to be catapulted back and away from Kirito, aiming his wand while still in mid-flight. "Futto famudrokke zhukaru jan!"

A crescent-shaped blade of green energy shot out from the wand; Kirito was already incanting his Defensive Shield spell in order to block it. As the shield was manifesting, he caught the last bit of a follow-up that Burns chain-cast as soon as the first spell left his wand. "—tovslagu vethleka ayelejan!"

Kirito kept the shield up, free hand outstretched in anticipation of the homing attack. No second projectile came shooting out towards him from Burns; instead he sensed danger and heard the sizzle of magic above him just before the spell impacted him in the shoulder. The icon for «Distress» status appeared in his HUD, sealing off his ability to use weapon techniques and for a short time—six seconds, Kirito read, sparing a moment to Focus the debuff icon—removing a considerable amount of the melee threat that he posed.

Well-played, Kirito thought as he closed the distance further between himself and Burns, meters disappearing in fractions of a second. You got me expecting another attack from the front, and instead used a Strikedown spell to hit me from another direction. And you saved that play until a clutch moment.

It had been an excellent gambit, and it had almost bought Burns the time to get back to the concealment of his Darkwalls, but Kirito had no intention of allowing that—or of giving Burns the time to stop and cast anything else, if he could help it. Every time the Imp tried to maneuver to get past him, Kirito used the opportunity to cut him off and close more of the gap between them. The seething black mass of the closest Darkwall began to dissipate and fade as its duration expired; Kirito had correctly judged which one would run out first and put himself between Burns and the more recent source of cover.

"You're using up lots of MP, Burns," Kirito called out as his opponent summoned an Offensive Shield effect to discourage Kirito from getting closer. "Even with recovery procs and cost reductions, you can't keep casting those walls forever."

"It's not the only tool in my kit," Burns said, folding his wings and dropping just long enough to evade a freehand crosscut that Kirito aimed at his neck. "Most real-world fights don't give me a chance to set up the battlefield for maximum cheese anyway. I just wanted to see how you'd handle it."

Kirito could feel the DOT from the Imp's Offensive Shield begin to eat away at his HP now that he was in close proximity, but his gauge wasn't dropping quickly enough for him to worry about it. He used his wings to thrust himself downwards as he redirected his blade into an overhand chop. "And?"

Burns killed his wings entirely and dropped to the ground, then rolled out of the way and re-manifested them in order to carry himself beneath and behind Kirito just before Phantasmal Dirge bit into the ground. Kirito spun in mid-air as he yanked his sword free and leapt to the side, bringing up the flat of his blade just in time to block a smoky ultraviolet projectile and mitigate most of its damage. When he rotated the blade edge-on to Burns, he saw the other boy grinning. "We'll chat when I'm done kicking your ass."

Kirito took a moment to glance at Burns's status ribbon. The Wind blast from Hurricane Slash had done the job of getting the fight out in the open, but had delivered surprisingly little actual damage. The other Darkwall began to dissipate as well, but rather than trying to recast it, Burns suddenly held his wand straight up in the air, arm stretched high above him, and chanted the words to a spell that Kirito had never heard before. "Yatto famudrokke, kredstabralth dweren."

Faced with a skilled opponent casting an unfamiliar spell of unknown power, Kirito knew to be wary. With no time to either summon his own shield or close the distance again and interrupt the spell, he braced for virtually any kind of attack that could hit him from any direction and raised his own free hand to begin casting.

No attack came. Instead, a column of crackling violet-black energy sheeted across Burns's entire body, culminating in a purple stroke of lightning that briefly connected him with the ceiling of the gazebo. Globes of black fire erupted from his hands, and Kirito had a Defensive Shield chanted up before he even realized he was doing it.

Then, beginning with a single spoken word, Burns began chain-casting faster than Kirito had ever seen anyone cast before.

Projectile after projectile shot forth from the twisted wand the other boy held out before him, each flick of the wrist and accompanying litany barraging Kirito with homing attacks that he didn't dare try to dodge or soak; his own MP rapidly dropped with every impact against his maintained shield. Some of the attacks struck down at him from above again, afflicting him with short-lived status effects as they bypassed his shield and eroded his HP.

It was hard to see anything through both the smoky disc of his own shield and the effects exploding against it, but when Kirito caught a glimpse of his opponent's status ribbon, he was startled to see the other boy's HP actually going down—rapidly. Every few spells, Burns would cast a heal of some sort in order to recover some of the loss, but whatever spell he'd used to supercharge his casting ability appeared to come at a cost—it was quickly draining his own HP, and it wouldn't be long before it reached the halfway point if he didn't keep healing himself.

There was no telling how long that spell effect would last, or whether Burns would be able to sustain it longer than Kirito could maintain his shield. Before, he could've played for time, trying to goad Burns into using up his MP and leaving himself defenseless—now the shoe was on the other foot.

Burns cast another Wind-based healing spell; Kirito took advantage of the brief lull in attacks and tensed up his entire body, wings vibrating as hard as possible within the limits of his control over them. Just as the next attack splashed across his barrier, he kicked off the ground and channeled all the power he could muster into a burst of acceleration that almost instantly shot him forward at full speed. He had just enough time to see Burns's eyes go wide before he collided with the other boy, Defensive Shield still held out and maintained in place with the last of his MP.

F=ma, Kirito thought triumphantly.

Alfheim Online was, ultimately, a simulation of reality that resulted from the interaction of complex systems and rulesets. Kirito knew many of them very well, some almost intimately from his hours of experimentation and study—and one of the most important lessons he'd learned was that when it came to physical damage in the game, a weapon's special properties and upgrades only enhanced, to one degree or another, the outcome of the extremely simple physics equations underlying the simulation. Any weapon's damage would vary depending on how hard and how accurate a blow the player struck, which was part of what made the System-Assisted weapon techniques so powerful.

And anything can be a weapon if you hit someone hard enough with it.

The total mass of Kirito's avatar had to be, in his estimation, somewhere in the vicinity of 70 kilos with all of the equipment included. At his maximum burst flight speed, Kirito reasoned that he was probably traveling at least 12 meters per second. He didn't have time to work out the math, but the end result was exactly what he expected: Burns went tumbling backwards from the impact, HP dropping, and Kirito's shield dissolved while trying to mitigate his own HP loss. Kirito didn't stop there; he let his momentum carry him forward and struck Burns in his empty-handed near arm using a quick, cheap single-strike sword technique with a fast recovery time. The blow severed the limb at the elbow and sent a burst of particles spraying away from the stump, interrupting the spell that the mage had begun casting.

It was a gamble that Burns would panic for a moment over having an arm cut off; Kirito was locked for half a second in the end frame for that technique, his body frozen in place—and now, for a few seconds at least, he was completely out of MP. To Kirito's chagrin, the other boy kept his cool; he still had his wand in his main hand, and at this range he couldn't possibly miss with whatever he was about to cast. Undeterred by the loss of one of his arms, Burns was already quickly chanting an incantation, victory in his eyes. "Fuppa yatto yojikke navgoji—"

A loud tone sounded in the air. The greenish-black projectile that Burns finished casting impacted harmlessly against Kirito's torso just as the freeze time for the technique ended, allowing him to launch himself backwards in a state of wary confusion. Burns seemed just as confused—but only for a moment, only until his eyes went upwards.

Kirito followed his gaze to the duel result banner, then back down at Burns. The other boy's status ribbon popped as soon as his cursor did, revealing his HP at exactly the halfway point—and clearly yellow.

Burns started laughing. Suddenly, loudly, but with unmistakably genuine amusement. "Oh, that's awesome."

"I won," Kirito said, almost tentatively. He was still trying to understand why he'd won; the last time he'd checked Burns had been just about to lock Kirito down with what had sounded awfully like a Paralysis spell. He gave his sword a perfunctory flourish before sheathing it on his back. The rest of the party had clearly arrived at some point during the duel; Xorren and Kramer jogged up to the two former combatants, both Spriggans with grins that matched the one Burns was wearing.

"Yeah," said Burns, still tamping down his chuckles so that he could hold a conversation. "That was great. I can't believe you got me to «Lifeburn» myself below fifty. I'm usually really good at managing that, but I didn't realize just how much damage you did when you body-slammed me with your shield. Burned myself right out of the match."

Burns glanced down at the stump of his left arm, laughed again, and slipped his wand into a sheath at his side. He held out his remaining fist; after a moment, Kirito gave it a bump with his own, then answered the same gesture from Kramer.

"Not bad for a carebear," said the Spriggan tank, causing Kirito's smile to falter. "Wouldn't mind taking you on myself sometime, straight melee."

Xorren laughed, but still gave Kramer a punch in his arm where armor didn't cover. "Cut the carebear crap, dude. Anyone who can tank Burns when he goes all-out gets respect."

Kirito now had the leisure of wondering where Asuna was hiding; he hadn't picked her up with his brief use of Searching during the duel, and he was expecting her to show herself any minute now that the duel was over. She had to be somewhere that she could keep visual tabs on what was going on in addition to watching the party list—but given that neither of them had known where they'd be going, she would've had to improvise and could be anywhere. He felt a hand on his shoulder; glancing and half-turning to his left, his eyes met Mentat's.

"Nicely done," said the Salamander healer. "Something to be said for getting your opponent to defeat himself." He stepped past Kirito and briefly touched Burns while casting a Water spell that restored the Imp's missing arm.

"It wasn't any kind of grand strategy," Kirito admitted, watching with fascination as the arm reformed in a blue-white shimmer once the lost HP had been restored. "When I realized that Lifeburn spell of his was trading HP for power somehow, I knew I had to stop Burns from healing himself."

"It sacrifices all my MP, and five percent of my max HP every second," Burns explained, flexing his left hand and all of its fingers while Mentat healed both combatants back to full. "But while it's running I don't use MP to cast spells, and all my cooldowns are halved."

No wonder he was able to start unloading on me like that. "That sounds almost broken. What's the catch?"

"Besides that it's slowly killing me?" To snickers from the rest of the group, Burns went on. "Eh, it makes a great oh-shit button, and I'm pretty good about knowing when to cancel it early, but I need a dedicated healer to make the most of it. I've got access to a few heals through Wind, but as you saw, they can't really keep up with the burn in a one-on-one if I'm taking damage, too."

Good to know if I ever have to face Burns for real, Kirito thought. I'm sure he's thinking the same thing about whatever he learned from our duel. A soft tone and a flash in his notifications caught his eye; he briefly diverted his attention just long enough to focus the message and confirm that it was what he expected. A moment later he got the pop-up he was anticipating, letting him know that Asuna had just dropped him from her party.

Kirito caught a glimpse of blue and white in his peripheral vision; he saw Asuna emerging from the edges of the hedge maze and making her way through the garden on foot. On cue, he opened his game menu and turned towards the others. "Anyone already partied up?" At the chorus of shaken heads, he Focused each player's cursor and sent invites with the ease of long practice, bringing his new group into a party of five.

"Incoming," said Kramer with a tip of his head to the side; Kirito followed his gaze to where Asuna was slowly strolling towards the group.

"Just a squid," Yar remarked. "Not bad-looking, though."

Kirito ground his teeth together at Yar's comments, but decided this was as good an opening as any to make his play. "Yar," he began, waiting until the Salamander boy turned at the sound of his name. "What color is her cursor?"

"Yellow," Yar replied immediately.

Kirito turned to Kramer. "What about to you?"

The Spriggan tank hadn't taken his eyes off Asuna. "Same. Why?"

In lieu of an answer, Kirito asked Mentat the same question. "Green," said the healer. Xorren had the same answer, while Burns, like Yar and Kramer, reported seeing Asuna's cursor as the yellow of a neutral race.

Kirito nodded. He'd expected as much. "Yar, Kramer, and Burns," he said, waiting for each boy to look at him. "I need you to change your cursor mode to Friendly Bias, please."

Yar frowned. "Why the hell would I want to do that?"

"Because that's the only way you join any Spriggan clearing group from now on," Kirito said, meeting Yar's suspicious look with a hard expression of his own. "We're going to be working with other clearing groups—as equals, and as friends. When we do, I need to know that they're not at risk of friendly fire." He nodded towards Asuna as she joined him at his side. "Asuna here is on my friend list, and I'm partied with you. The only reason any of you should've seen her as yellow is if you've set your cursor to Hostile Bias."

"News flash, group leader," Yar said, crossing his arms in defiance. "Some of us have enemies who legit want us dead. I'm not gimping my ability to see one of them coming just because they might be your friend."

Kirito didn't budge. If anything, he was doing his best to keep his anger in check, an anger that was pushing him to be even harsher than he already was. "This isn't a request, Yar," he said. "It's a requirement of partying together. I need to know that your nukes aren't going to hit anyone but the mobs we're fighting. If someone comes after you while you're in our party, I'll back you up—but I am not going to tolerate anyone putting innocent lives at risk."

Yar snorted in a clear expression of derision. "Innocent. Listen to this fucking clueless carebear. Can you guys believe this?" His hands moved jerkily in the air; despite being in a safe zone, Kirito tensed up until he saw what he'd expected: the notification of Yar leaving the group.

"That your final answer, Yar?" Kirito asked as the cluster of players all went uncomfortably still. He could sense Asuna seething beside him, and thanked his good fortune that she was keeping it to herself—for now. "Think about it carefully. You don't get a do-over on this."

The substance of Yar's response was delivered in the form of a raised finger. "Dunno what Coper was thinking making you his lead clearer, but it's him I trusted to have my back, not you. I'm not dying to some butthurt frog with a blood feud just because you want to be everyone's buddy."

Kirito looked at the other players in his party. His gaze wasn't unfriendly, but only because he was doing his best to keep his contempt for Yar off his face. "Anyone else who wants to walk because they can't play nice with others, don't let me stop you. Our job isn't just to clear the game—it's to show all the other factions that Spriggans are better than Yoshihara made us look. If you've got so many people wanting to kill you that you can't afford to take the chance of giving other players the benefit of the doubt, maybe you don't have what it takes to be a part of what we're trying to do here."

"Whatever," Yar said as he began to leave. "Anyone who doesn't want Kirito here getting you killed, meet me by the LFG wall in ten minutes and we'll find another party."

Kramer sighed and shouldered his polearm. "Hate to say it, Kirito, but the guy's got a point. I don't have a bunch of people gunning for me, but I'm not cool with having my group leader tell me what to do with my UI settings."

"It's not just a UI preference," Kirito said. "The cursor color you see determines who your spells and abilities can affect. Why take the chance of killing someone or making their party hostile with a stray AOE?"

The Spriggan tank's shrug was slight, but his weapon still bobbed on his shoulder with the motion. "I'm a tank, man. I don't think it's as big a thing as you're making it out to be, but like Yar said, whatever. Good luck with what you're trying to do. I think I'll find another group." Kramer reached out to give parting fist-bumps to Xorren and Burns before jogging off to catch up with Yar.

This party is shrinking pretty fast, Kirito noted with mixed feelings. And becoming a lot less Spriggan by the numbers. He turned his attention to the only remaining person in the group who'd mentioned seeing Asuna as yellow.

Burns met Kirito's gaze directly; a smile twitched at the corner of his mouth before he opened his game menu and dropped his eyes to it. "I think I'll stick around, actually," he said. "You're an interesting guy, Kirito, and that was a damn fun duel. I'm curious to see where you're going with this."

Kirito had to fight to keep the grimace from showing on his face. He'd been half-hoping that mandating Friendly Bias—a harmless change for anyone who didn't have a long list of enemies—would drive out Yar and Burns, but he would've preferred that Kramer stick around. Instead he now found himself with a party member he still didn't quite trust, but didn't have any reason to eject without risking looking unreasonable to the others—and he had the vague feeling that he was already on thin ice with them.

"You sure about this, Burns?" Again, Kirito tried not to be blatantly unfriendly, but it was a struggle to keep an even tone. "I'm not trying to go on some kind of power trip here, but it's a fact that Coper asked me to lead the clearing groups, and he did that because he thought I'd help smooth things over between our clearing groups and the other factions. You want to be part of that, you're welcome, but that's going to mean changing some of how we do things."

"It's going to mean finding a new tank, too," Burns said with a glance in the direction that Yar and Kramer had gone. "Look, Kirito, Yar's not wrong; he's got to look out for his own skin. But he was kind of being a dick about it, so that's on him. I'm no stranger to people setting ground rules for a party, and I don't mind tweaking my cursor mode if I've got a group backing me up." He gave Asuna a long look, eyes going to just above her head. "Green to me now."

"Don't worry about tanking," Kirito said. "I've got a replacement in mind from the list of volunteers Coper sent me, and for today, Asuna and I can handle it."

A long silence spread after this comment, with more eyes training themselves on Asuna as the implications of what he'd said sunk in. "She's joining the party?" asked Mentat.

"She's my second in command," Kirito said, dropping this news in tones that welcomed no debate on the matter. He drew open his game menu and glanced to the side just long enough to catch a glimpse of Asuna's cursor and send her a party invite. "She my friend, she's a top clearer, and I trust her with my life. That's not a problem, is it?"

Mentat shook his head. "Not at all. I'll be the last guy to bitch about having a second healer, but it seems redundant unless we're raiding."

"The way I see it," Asuna said, taking a step forward as she spoke and looking over the rest of the group, "this gives us versatility. I've reviewed all of the information Coper sent over on your group. I have experience healing in both a raid and a clearing group, but I can do just as well at melee DPS. So here's how we arrange this."

Asuna gestured between herself and Kirito. "Until we get a regular tank, Kirito and I will take the forward positions. We've partied together and know how to balance each other's aggro. Mentat and Burns, you'll stay in your previous dedicated roles. Xorren, I want you to default to magic DPS, ready to go melee if we need more physical damage." The named players nodded; Asuna went on. "On the other hand, if we encounter mobs that resist physical, I can take over healing while Mentat adds armor-defeating magic DPS, and in a worst-case scenario we have two strong healers to get people back on their feet."

"We have the beginnings of a solid group here," Kirito said. "We can make a difference, and show the rest of the world that Spriggans aren't outcasts who can't be trusted to work with anyone else. But first we have to show that we can work together. Are you with us?"

A visual chorus of glances went back and forth between the three other players, and Kirito was intrigued to note that he could almost see the subtext passing between them based on what he knew of those players. It was fascinating to watch. One by one they seemed to arrived at a consensus, and it was actually Burns who delivered the answer with a two-fingered salute that almost but not quite touched his forehead.

"You're the boss, boss."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Klein was trying his hardest to be patient. He really was. But patience in the face of inaction, though an easy thing to recommend to others, had never come easily to him—especially when people were depending on the outcome in some way.

In this case it was actually Dale who was the subject of all player attention in the Cedar Ridge Inn's common room, and Klein's longtime friend seemed no more comfortable than Klein was with having more than half a dozen eyes trained on him. The Gnome healer had a flower in one hand, and a blue glowing thingamabobber—that was, Klein determined, its proper name—in the other. Dale's lips were moving slowly but silently while he read through a spell in his game menu that—judging from his first few attempts—was probably supposed to sound like a German car commercial, and kept coming out imperfectly unintelligible even by that standard.

Klein's eyes made a circuit of the few people lingering in their corner of the public room. Thelvin was leaning against a wooden load-bearing post as motionlessly as if he was trying to become one with it, still enough that his full plate armor made no sound; if he was growing impatient, it didn't show on his face or in his body language. Drem's leather boots were propped up on the table of the booth where he was sitting, and his gaze was averted so pointedly that he might as well have been staring; his striped tail occasionally thumped against the cushion of the seat beside him. Teel, standing a meter away from Drem, was staring—but under the circumstances that was entirely understandable, as was the nervous hand-wringing the archer probably didn't even realize she was doing.

The Caits in the room were being incredibly polite, but after nearly a full minute with nothing but the soundless shapes of almost-words on Dale's lips, Klein's reserve finally broke. "Any time, man."

"Shut up, I'm trying to concentrate."

"I get ya, but the World Tree won't clear itself and that's where we gotta go. Like, an hour ago. Need any help?"

Dale's dark brown eyes met Klein's gaze; the frustration in them was about two hairs short of unfriendly. He sighed and set his menu visible, flipping the spell list to face his party leader. "Sure, man, you can cast this spell for me. How the hell do you pronounce that third word?"

Klein leaned in and squinted at the small print. "Jyejebu… jeburu… jebureru… fuck if I know."

"'Fuck if I know'. Thanks, I'll try that. Meanwhile, this is how it's supposed to come out sounding." Dale spun the list back to face himself and pressed the «Pronunciation» button; since the menu was currently set visible, it played the sound for everyone in the room using a natural-sounding male voice. "Dotto yojikke jevrelth shaja min."

Dale's own attempts had been noticeably—and at least once, spectacularly—short of matching the middle word in that computer-generated demonstration. Klein gave Thelvin a look of entreaty. "I'm really sorry about this, Thel, but… any chance you could lend us a mage to help Dale out with this spell?"

Thelvin sighed lightly, stirring from his lean and shifting his weight more fully upright. "The reason I asked you in the first place is because we don't have anyone near Arun right now with Earth high enough for this. I would've tried hiring Sasha again, but she wasn't at the church this morning."

"We can't keep depending on outside help, Thel," Drem said. "Getting Earth mages trained up needs to be more of a priority for us now that we know the requirements for pet-rez. Some of our healers have it, but that's just for basic tank buffs like «Bracing» and «Stoneskin». Until now they didn't have any reason to grind it the way they do Water and Holy." His eyes briefly shifted to include Dale. "Or have a racial advantage that lets them level it up faster," he added.

"It's not my race or skill level," Dale said with a touch of defensiveness. "It's my tongue. This freaking word here—look, these letters show up in a couple of my other spells—"

"Not to mention the start of Thelvin's name."

"Nobody pronounces that correctly anyway," remarked Thelvin. "I just liked the way it looked in print."

"That's different, though," Dale said. "It's not as bad when it's something you've said a lot, or when it's at the start of a word—instead of in the middle where you have to go from saying one thing to saying another exactly right while you're chewing on a ball gag."

Dale's colorful choice of metaphors did not result in a visual gift that Klein appreciated receiving. "Er."

"Point is, I've had to spend hours practicing all those words so that I can say them without screwing it up, and I still practice them every day by casting them in combat. It's one thing to say them exactly right, but I've never used this spell before. It's gonna take me some repetition to get it even once, just like with the others."

"It's okay," Teel said, breaking her long silence and putting an end to the back-and-forth. "I really appreciate you trying, Dale. «Mochi's Heart» should last at least another day, so I'll stay here as long as it takes to get it right."

Klein threw up both hands in surrender and turned back to Dale. "Well bro, you've only made the room explode once. At least we're in a safe zone." He glanced reflexively over at the NPC innkeeper, who had previously admonished them about behaving in a way that was courteous to other patrons in the immediate wake of said explosion. The innkeeper otherwise seemed to pay no mind to the group of players; for all intents and purposes they seemed to cease to exist as far as he was concerned unless something triggered him to pay attention. If anything, Klein was surprised the NPC wasn't pitching a fit about Drem's big boots on one of his tables. Maybe that's not rude in NPC-land.

Dale's mouth moved a bit more in a deliberate, almost exaggerated way, and then he straightened his posture and took a deep breath, holding out both hands with an item in each. "Dotto yoji—"

"Whoa, warning please!"

"Son of a—" Dale pressed his lips together tightly and puffed out his cheeks, nearly clenching his fists; Klein saw a small amount of MP disappear from the bar in his party list. "Klein. Dude. Not another word. I need to concentrate."

Klein's hands went up again, and he backed slowly away.

"Dotto yojikke, jevrelusu—"

It took several more tries after that; thankfully there were no further catastrophic failures, and only a few minutes were spent waiting for Dale's MP to recover. It was impossible to miss when he got the spell right—there was a blaze of golden illumination that made Klein wince, and the items in Dale's hands began to levitate of their own accord, which caused him to take a worried step back with his arms spread wide.

"Not me! If it explodes, I'm not doing this!"

"You already did it," Thelvin said calmly, gesturing to everyone with both hands in a bid for calm. "It's working. Teel?"

"Come back to me, baby," Teel said, taking a few tentative steps towards the painfully brilliant warm light that blazed out from where the Heart and the Flower had joined. The light that faded could have easily been replaced by the light in her eyes as she saw her pet Gazer form in the air before her, solidifying until it spread its bat-like wings from around the single eye that dominated its teardrop-shaped body.

"All good?" Klein asked.

With a laugh almost as musical as the jingle of the adornments on her braids, Teel vigorously rubbed Mochi's sides while the creature made high-pitched sounds that Klein could only assume were as friendly as Teel's own affectionate coos. "Yes, you're just fine now aren't you, you ugly little flying rice ball? Guess who's not standing watch next time?"

The Cait Sith archer didn't actually seem to be talking to him specifically, but Klein took the response as an answer of sorts. A flash and a subtle chiming sound drew his gaze to his notification bar; he stepped back in and slapped a hand on the back of Dale's robes. "Knew you could do it, man. Why don't you catch up with the guys? I need a minute before we head out."

"Something on your mind?" Thelvin asked, giving a glance at the retreating backs of the other players as Drem exited the room right behind Teel.

Klein shook his head vigorously. "Alicia wants to talk to me before we head in. Go on, I'll catch up."

A brief smile touched Thelvin's expression. "To you. Not to her raid leader. I see how it is."

Mild heat spread to Klein's cheeks. "Dude, please don't. I get enough of this from my buddies."

Thelvin chuckled softly, giving Klein's shoulder armor a light swat with the back of his hand. "Just amused. Drem fully briefed me on the new zone last night, so there shouldn't be any surprises—nothing I need from Lady Alicia today except to know that she supports what we're doing. Meet us at the warpgate when you're ready."

At least this time she messaged me before calling, Klein thought once the room was empty of players. He didn't really care about the NPCs that were still in the inn, and in fact more or less dismissed them entirely when he didn't need something from one of them. Privacy was nice, but it only really counted if the prying eyes belonged to people.

It was just as well that they'd arranged the call in advance; the only warning Klein had before the spell activated was the way the light level around him seemed to dim slightly before a dark hole ripped open in the air, flattening itself into a shimmering oval trimmed with purple fire. The iridescent surface faded, sank in, and gained depth before resolving into an image of Klein's favorite person in Alfheim, lounging on her belly in the middle of a pile of pillows.

"Morning, babe. Ready for another exciting day of adventure?"

Klein's first answer to this long-running joke was a snort. "Oh yeah, it's gonna be a blast. Three guesses where I'd rather be."

Little sharp fangs peeked around Alicia's lips as she pursed them and tapped at her cheek with one fingertip. "Oooh, do I really get three? Because for the first, I'm going to go with: at a bar in Ginza getting plastered with your friends. Do I win anything?"

For a jest, Alicia's guess came uncomfortably close to the truth. And here I was trying to be legit sweet. Leave it to my girlfriend to ruin it with a way-too-real joke. "You win, uh…" Klein racked his brain. Seconds flew by while Alicia propped her chin up on both hands, blonde eyebrows raised expectantly. He stalled for time. "You win… um..."

She grinned. "I win. I'll take that. You know, you're really cute when you're trying so hard to pop off with a funny line but can't think of anything." Then the playful grin faded a bit. "Listen, I don't have much time, conditions are super crappy right now for «Moonlight Mirror». But I know the new zone's been tough on everyone, and I wanted to give you a quick call so you know I'm thinking of you. And to tell you… well, be careful."

The warmth that had previously rushed to Klein's face spread out a bit, filling him with a pleasant floaty feeling while making him feel vaguely embarrassed. He looked around; there were still no players in the rustic inn's main room to see him acting that way. "Thanks, Alicia. You know me—I'm always careful."

"Except when you're not," Alicia said quickly, and with a quirk to her smile. "Fortunately, Thelvin's got enough careful to go around, so maybe you can borrow some of his."

Klein's thick red eyebrows rose with skepticism. "Oh, right. That'd be the same Thelvin 'careful' that ended up with him needing a rez last time? I'll be sure to ask him to share."

Alicia grimaced briefly in an automatic sort of way. "Okay, forget I said anything. Speaking of rezzing though, you get Teel taken care of?"

"Yeah, that hideous thing she calls a pet is back up and… well… doing whatever it does, I guess. She seemed happy."

Alicia made a disapproving noise. "Way to be all judgey. Just because you don't have a floating eyeball thing of your own…"

"Oh yeah, that's high on my list of 'shit I need in my life' right now." Klein's face twisted as if he'd eaten something that didn't quite taste the way it ought to. "You know what I need in my life? A vacation. Somewhere with you. Maybe in a hot spring again." A pause, and then: "Preferably with no recording crystals anywhere nearby."

Alicia, for once, was the one to blush slightly. "I made Verity destroy that thing! Anyway, you just had a vacation. Like, days ago. So there's that."

Klein sighed. His eyes went briefly up to his clock; he wasn't sure exactly how much duration Alicia had, but he didn't want to keep Thelvin or his friends waiting for too long. "I know, I know. It just sucks that the place I have to go to do my job is so far away from you. It gets hard sometimes."

"I'll bet it does."

Klein opened his mouth slightly to follow the flow of conversation onward, then stopped when he saw the mischievous look in Alicia's eyes. "I…"

"Yes? Would you like to rethink your phrasing?"

"I, um…"

Still lying on her belly with her chin in her hands, Alicia fluttered her eyelashes with theatrical innocence, tail waving languidly in the air above and behind her. A few more moments passed with no coherent response from Klein. "I can do this all day, you know. It's kind of funny watching you discombobulate at the slightest hint of sexytime."

Klein's eyes were drawn to the shrinking edges of the portal that was their link to each other. "Oh damn, what a shame that your spell's running out of duration. I can barely hear you, you're kshhhht breaking up a bit, pshhhht too much static…"

Alicia laughed and bounced up to her hands and knees, shimmying her way closer to her side of the arcane mirror. Her voice, almost a whisper, still carried clearly through as she pressed her face almost up against the threshold. "The spell doesn't work like that, babe." She kissed at the air, then grinned. "Message me when you get out tonight. Give Thel and everyone else my best."

Even though he knew there were only NPCs in a position to see him, Klein still looked around the room self-consciously before turning back to the dwindling mirror and awkwardly answering Alicia's air kiss. It was not a gesture that left him feeling exceptionally manly. "Will do," he said. "Take care, and stuff."

"And stuff?" Those two words, followed by Alicia's uncontrolled laughter, were the last things Klein heard before the portal shrank to a point and closed with a sound like rushing air.

"And stuff," Klein said aloud, though there was still no one to hear other than NPCs. His gaze tracked around the inn's main room, taking in the waitress and the barkeep. He felt an odd sense of reassurance at the inhumanity of their uncaring, scripted animations. "You know," he explained to the air unnecessarily. "Stuff. Stuff that's important. Stuff that I'd say if I knew the right words."

The front door to the inn cracked open, admitting the sounds of the morning crowd outside. Harry One's sharp-featured face peeked in through the opening, eyes shaded by both his metal helm and the backlighting from the outdoor illumination. "Hey, Leader. Thel's getting itchy."

"Ugh," Klein said, abruptly ceasing his monologuing and hoping Harry hadn't overheard any of it. "Not too bad I hope?"

Harry stepped the rest of the way in, but kept the door held open. "Well, I mean, it's Thelvin. He's not going to be a dick about it, but I can tell he wants to get moving. Guess what? So do we."

"And so do I," Klein said, making for the door. "So let's go turn in our marks and get on with the next zone."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Yuuki opened her eyes, and found that she couldn't move.

It took a moment for the panic of immobilization to penetrate. Her mind felt fuzzy, as if her thoughts had to clear their way through a fog bank and wait their turn to be acknowledged, and her vision blurred in odd ways. There was no Paralysis status in her HUD, no status effects of any kind that she could see, but she felt constrained all around—as if something encased her avatar entirely, leaving only the eyes exposed. She couldn't even feel her hair on her face, and couldn't see it when she tried to look around.

Yuuki's gaze wouldn't focus properly, and it was tough to tell exactly where she was. Somewhere dark, to be sure; she could see the glimmer of torches in the edges of her sight, hear the crackle as they burned, and smell the oil in which they'd been dipped. But even those impressions came and went, as did the faint whimpers and cries she thought she could hear in the distance. Or perhaps they were closer than she thought; it was impossible to tell with the way the sounds echoed.

She tried to squirm, tried to test the limits of her bonds, but her body wouldn't respond. Her imprisonment was total; she had only the feeling of being bound and the numbers in her HUD to tell her that she wasn't a Remain Light. Panic welled up in her again as she heard voices draw near, and every time her gaze darted around she thought she caught a glimpse of someone that she knew—somehow—she didn't want to see.

Self-discipline had kept her quiet until then, but after struggling for some time like that and being unable to so much as wiggle a toe, she cried out. "Is anyone there? Can you hear me?"

"Oh, I can hear you all right," said a voice she never thought she'd hear again. Gitou stepped into her view, and no matter how much Yuuki wanted to recoil into herself at the sight of him, she still couldn't move at all. "But no one else can. No one else ever will again."

Yuuki's panicked thoughts fell over each other trying to get out, ending in a jumble of incoherent babble that was the only protest she managed to voice. You're dead, she thought, over and over again, the words echoing in her head. You're dead, I saw you die.

I let it happen.

"That's right, sweetie," said Gitou, leaning in close to her until his face filled her vision no matter how much she wanted to look away. "You tried to have me killed. Got someone to do it for you, since you were too much of a coward to chop my head off yourself when you had a chance."

"No!" Yuuki yelled back, trying to twist free and still finding herself unable to even make the effort. She felt as if she was trying, but nothing moved in response to her will; she didn't even have the weak twinge of stamina that she would've in her real body. "You're not real, you're dead, I know it! I saw your Remain Light disappear!"

Gitou simply laughed, the sound echoing off of the unseen walls in a way that only amplified the claustrophobic feeling of entrapment. "Yeah, well guess what? You fucked it up. Got that whore Fianna killed instead. And now you're mine."

"Ours," said Trey, the other Salamander from her tormented past coming into view and standing at Gitou's side. "And so is she."

Yuuki's eyes moved just enough to see the immobile figure behind them as the shadows parted enough to reveal the form of another person she had never thought to see again, and one whose face would forever be inscribed in her memory. Another scream rose up within her at what she saw.

Looking at Aiko had always been, in many ways, like looking into a mirror. And it was terrifying to see that reflection of herself lying immobile on a stone slab.

A frenzy overtook Yuuki then, a mix of anguish and righteous rage filling her at the sight of her long-dead sister, imprisoned as she was. Layer after layer of belted straps flew out from behind the slab to which Aiko was affixed, snaking around her until everything except her terrified face was covered with the rough-worked leather belts. Yuuki found that she could move then, but only enough to thrash and claw at the air, forever held out of reach of either Gitou and Trey or her sister. You were always the strong one! Yuuki thought in the midst of her despair. What do I do now?

"Run!" Aiko screamed suddenly. "Run and don't look back!"

"I can't!" came Yuuki's full-throated reply as she struggled to free herself from restraints she couldn't even see or touch. "I'm stronger now! I can stop them!"

"Not strong enough," said Fianna, drawing Yuuki's panicked gaze to the side just long enough to catch a glimpse of steel-blue braids beneath another form mummified within countless leather straps. "You can't fight this. You're too young."

"Too young," agreed Rei, the older Imp girl's voice coming from yet another corner of the room.

"There are ways to capture and hold someone if you really need to," Gitou boasted, again stepping into her view and filling her vision with his loathsome face. "Sometimes people need to be dealt with."

"He didn't just know how to kidnap people, he made a job out of keeping them that way," Rei said from within her own cocoon. "He could've had other victims out there…"

Yuuki heard the words, but her eyes wouldn't leave Aiko now, and laughter rung in her ears from Gitou and Trey almost as loudly as her sister's shrieking insistence that she run and save herself. The laughter built like a crescendo, the cries from the other fellow prisoners rising with it, and before she knew it Yuuki found herself joining them in their horrific lament.

She awoke screaming.

It had been several days, but she still wasn't used to Asuna not being there when she woke up. There was no comforting sisterly warmth next to her, only the mild chill of the empty inn room. She couldn't feel her heart beating—a player's avatar had no heart to beat—but the same sense of anxiety and trembling excitement from the lingering dream filled her as if it had been pounding against the inside of her chest the entire time. For all she knew, her real heart in her real body was pounding; weak as it was, she wondered if she might end up having another heart attack. She was certain that was what had happened to her in the Sewers; it wouldn't have been the first time in her short life.

It's in God's hands, Yuuki reminded herself. There's nothing you can do if it happens, and you won't know until it's too late. Just keep living the life He's given you.

It was far from the first time she'd given herself a reminder like that; for someone with her chronic health problems, it was an important part of being able to get on with the business of living. But not for the first time, it brought with it a nagging counter-argument that would not go away. Is it good enough to just survive? Is it enough to keep living, if that's all you're doing with it? What am I supposed to be doing with this life?

From very early in the death game until this moment, she'd had easy, ready answers for that annoying nag of self-doubt—answers that she'd rarely been able to muster before Alfheim Online. She was Asuna's clearing partner, chosen sisters in all but blood. She was a member of the Undine clearers. She was fighting the good fight, trying to help make sure the people she cared about—and as many others as possible—could survive to escape the game.

But was she doing enough? Was she even doing the right things? Haydon and Kumiko hadn't been sure. Rei had had other ideas. Even among the Undine clearers, she only really had a place because she was paired up with Asuna.

And the dream would not leave her. Her mind kept circling around to it, like a train always being rerouted back to the same run-down station in a bad neighborhood.

Even now, staring at the plain oaken walls and sparse furnishings of the inn room she'd rented for the night, Yuuki could still hear echoes of the horrible things she'd seen and heard. It was a bad dream, Yuuki told herself. One of the worst I think I've ever had, but still just a dream. All the things they were saying were just jumbled-up memories. Don't let it mess you up.

It was easy to say; harder to do. Yuuki pushed away the bedcovers and sat up, stretching with her arms high above her head before bouncing to her feet and heading over to the window. She'd slept in her field gear, which left uncomfortable spots here and there where the buckles had pressed. The late morning sun was shining through the treetops and momentarily dazzled her when she pushed open the shutters, but the warmth felt good on her face, and she slid herself into a sitting position on the broad lintel, letting the sunlight recharge her wings while it filled her with something approaching calm.

The vision of Aiko, imprisoned and screaming, just would not go away. It crawled back into her mind whenever a stray thought took her anywhere near recent events or the people connected with them, a flash of awfulness that she hoped would fade quickly in the way that dreams always seemed to do. If it had been just the nonsensical product of her subconscious, she thought that would've been easier to deal with. She'd banished horrible thoughts like that before by distracting herself with other things, and perhaps that was what she ought to be trying to do here.

But every distraction led her back to the same place: the nagging, guilt-ridden feeling that she was running away from something she didn't want to face.

Still soaking in the comforting feeling of the sunlight on her skin, Yuuki opened her game menu and navigated to view her friends. It was a very short list: Asuna and Kirito, of course, as well as Diabel and a handful of Undine clearers from her usual group. She touched Asuna's name, selected an option, and checked her location; Asuna showed up as being in the World Tree, but since they weren't in the same zone as each other, that's all she could tell. No reason to rush the rest of the way to Arun. She's out clearing, and won't be back until much later. No point in trying to send a message right now, either.

Yuuki went back to the list of friends. No matter how much she wished it were otherwise, Aiko wasn't there; they'd never been apart on the first day of the game, and everything had happened before they ever got around to exploring much of the game's systems. But if Aiko had lived a bit longer, if they'd had the time, she knew her sister would still be there, right where Asuna's was in the Latin-alphabetical list. Even if it only ended up as a greyed out name.

Aiko is dead, Yuuki told herself, the words no longer quite as painful a reminder as they once were. She'd had to tell the story so many times in recent days, had revisited those traumatic minutes in so many ways that she'd almost become desensitized enough to be able to think about them clearly. Let her go. You've tried PMing her, and it doesn't work. You would've found each other long before now if she was alive. Maybe you should've asked Haydon while you were there, but there didn't seem to be a point—in your heart, you know she's dead, and believing otherwise is just wishful thinking.

The dream nagged at her again, and this time Yuuki took notice. God had never spoken to her before—not with words, at least, not the way He did in movies or Scripture. But her mother had always told her that God spoke in other ways, that sometimes you just had to stop and listen to realize that's what was happening. Yuuki always tried to do what she felt was right, and she'd always imagined that her conscience was God's voice, in a way. Is that what's happening now? Is that awful dream some kind of message from God, and that's why I can't get it out of my head?

Yuuki stopped there and made herself think. Gitou was dead. She knew that, for a fact; she'd been in the room when his Remain Light disappeared. Fianna was dead too, as was Aiko. Yet all of them had been present in her dream, talking to her, and the whole thing seemed to revolve around being imprisoned somehow. Why was that so bothersome to her that she just couldn't let it go?

He didn't just know how to kidnap people, he made a job out of keeping them that way. Rei had said those words to her the night before, and they'd showed up in the dream again. The older girl had also told her she was going to ask her friends, to try to find out more info about Gitou's guild and what they were doing. They could have other victims. No, there's no 'could' about it—they do have other victims. They have to.

If he's made a job out of this, if his guild is actually kidnapping people for money, that has to mean they've done it more than once. It means there's at least a few people, if not many more, that they've figured out how to capture and imprison. People who've been 'dealt with' by locking them away somehow… and somewhere.

It wasn't just a hypothetical question anymore. The more she thought about the mere fact that Gitou's guild existed, and his claims about what they'd been doing—and doing well enough for Gitou to want to hire Yuuki and Rei to work for them—the more horrified she was at the implications. The terror she'd felt in her dream, that she'd seen and heard from the others imprisoned in that dream—it was only a fraction of what someone might be going through for real, kept in that position for months without end.

Sure, they'd be alive. Plenty of others weren't so fortunate. But was it enough to simply survive? What kind of life would they have, locked away inside themselves like that—unable to go anywhere, do anything for themselves, or even reach out to anyone else without assistance?

No life worth living, was Yuuki's immediate answer to herself. She knew that on a deep, personal level, because that had been her life before the FullDive virtual environment—and the medical experiments based on its early prototypes—had given her the freedom to truly feel alive, rather than just continuing to live. A life trapped in a body that didn't want to cooperate with being alive was no life at all.

Alfheim Online had been a promise of the kind of true freedom she never would've known in her own body, wracked as it was with illness and seemingly always on the verge of failing. Kayaba's promises had been fulfilled beyond her wildest dreams… albeit with a terrible, unspoken price for everyone who took part in it. Yet even that price, that risk of losing a life she'd long ago accepted as nothing more than borrowed time, was one that she was happy to pay in exchange for the freedom she'd been granted.

She couldn't stand the idea of someone else being locked away in their own body the way she had been. And the more Yuuki thought about it, the more certain she was that that was what had to be happening. You can't stop someone from using their game menu, not without cutting off their hands. There'd be no way to keep someone from contacting a friend unless you did that, or unless they were all tied up the way that Rei wanted to do to Gitou.

Yuuki was still facing the morning sun; she turned her eyes southwards for a time. I can't just go straight back there; Rei said we need to keep our heads down for a few days. But I can't just let this go without trying to do something about it, either—it's not right. I'll continue on to Arun for now, and meet up with Asuna tonight while I'm there. She turned back to the north, following the path of her thoughts. I have to be smart about this—get my gear repaired, see if Argo knows anything, see my friends. I miss them, and they miss me. Give things time to cool down around Gattan and Everdark, give Rei some time to talk to her network.

The question, then, was what to do in the meantime. I could still ask Asuna for help—maybe even Kirito, though from Asuna's last message they're probably going to be busy trying to help the Spriggans build up their clearing groups. I know they'd make room for me in a moment if I asked… but maybe it's better that I don't. Kirito needs to focus on what he's doing, and he needs to earn the trust of his new group. If I tell him my suspicions about what's going on with Gitou's guild, he's going to insist on doing something about it. I know Asuna would, too—and they need to go back to clearing now, not be distracted by this.

Yuuki still had a choice of what to do from there—by going back to Arun and taking some time to prepare, she wasn't bound to a single course of action. She could still decide to ask for help from her dearest friends if she really needed to.

It wasn't an amazing plan. But for the moment, it would have to do.

Yuuki had nothing in the rented inn room to gather and no bill to pay; when she felt that her wings were sufficiently recharged from spending the night indoors, she let herself slip off the edge of the window sill. The hooked-blade shapes of her translucent wings blazed with power, raising her into the air and arcing northwards at the head of a thin streak of purple.

·:·:·:·:·:·

For all of her entirely justified skepticism towards these new party members, Asuna had to admit that their first outing together was going surprisingly well.

Perhaps part of that success came from the fact that she and Kirito, as forwards, were able to set the pace and call the shots. The two of them made an excellent team; they knew each other's capabilities pretty well, and after traveling solo together for so many days, they were so in tune with each other's attack rhythms that there were times she found herself switching in at the same moment that Kirito called for it. With a decent healer backing them up, the two of them probably could have carried even a mediocre group.

And this was not, despite her misgivings, a mediocre group.

Asuna knew that, for all of her inexperience with games prior to Alfheim, she had by this point become a skilled and knowledgeable clearer who knew her way around a raid group—enough so that both Diabel and Argo had, each in their own ways, encouraged her to provide that expertise to Kirito in an attempt to get the Spriggan clearing groups off the ground. She thought herself a good judge of a player's abilities, and had spent most of the game working hand in hand with the very competent members of the Undine clearing groups.

She had never, in all her time raiding, seen anyone who was as good at crowd control as Burns. The boy seemed to have an almost preternatural sense of when adds were incoming, and consistently locked them down and kept them under control before they even reached the group. He knew the attack patterns of the mobs they were facing here in the «Halls of Judgment», and was able to apply exactly the right debuffs at the right time to neutralize their most dangerous attacks. And on top of it he had an easygoing attitude that caused her to question the intensity of her dislike for him—a dislike that was, admittedly, predicated on what Argo had told them about his supposed involvement with Yoshihara's assassination and connections to the Salamander clearers.

That raised what was for her a somewhat uncomfortable, awkward question: could Argo be wrong?

The question was uncomfortable, but in a way also silly. Of course Argo could be wrong about Burns. She could have received bad information, or even have an agenda of her own that she was trying to push. Asuna trusted the info broker up to a point, but it was difficult to put complete, unconditional trust in someone who bought and sold secrets and regarded everyone as a customer. Kirito considered her a friend, which also disposed Asuna to do the same, but Kirito was also—to put it mildly—far from the world's foremost expert on the female mind.

What it came down to, for Asuna, was this: it was possible that Argo was wrong about Burns, and equally possible that Kirito himself was wrong about Argo.

And so far, Burns had given her no reason of her own to doubt him.

Neither, for that matter, had Mentat or Xorren. Although something within Asuna still cringed defensively whenever she saw a flash of red hair and crimson robes in her peripheral vision, Mentat's heals were on point, and not once so far had she felt the slightest worry that she might drop below half-HP, let alone find herself suffering the death penalty from needing to be rezzed. The man was quiet, reserved, and even laconic to a degree, and only when a mob was nearly dead and Kirito called for all DPS in did he expend his MP on anything other than keeping the party topped off and the two forwards buffed.

He was, in short, one of the oddest Salamanders she'd ever met. Though Asuna had to concede even inwardly that most Salamanders she'd met had not been under the best of circumstances.

Xorren himself was reliable enough with his own share of the buffing… but he confused Asuna quite a bit. Even though she knew enough about his abilities and style to assign him a default role, that role in and of itself was a bit fluid. She wasn't really sure exactly what kind of character he seemed to prefer—melee, magic, utility—only that he seemed to shift from style to style as needed and had a keen eye for when it was necessary to do so. Kirito and Argo had joked about him being a Red Mage, which she supposed made sense to them, but the one time she'd asked Kirito to elaborate he'd tried to describe some kind of "fantasy job" of his; with a few exceptions the words had been Japanese, but the explanation itself had bordered on gibberish.

All in all, the situation left Asuna with mixed feelings. She'd volunteered to work with these people, to do everything she could to help Kirito build up a Spriggan clearing group to the point where they could work with the Undine clearers, and so far the group had exceeded all of her expectations—or, more to the point, had confounded those expectations, none of which had been particularly high in the first place. She'd staked out Kirito's duel with Burns fully expecting to need to rez someone at some point, and had prepared herself for the possibility that she and Kirito would have to eject members and carry the group themselves—or worse, fight one or more of them.

Instead, what she'd found was a small group of irreverent but highly competent and skilled players who would've been an asset to just about any clearing group. As the day went by, it became increasingly difficult to sustain animosity or distrust towards people who were doing a very good job of watching her back and keeping her alive.

Kirito held up a hand as they approached a closed metal door at the end of a long hallway; the gesture brought Asuna out of her musings and sharpened her attention. "Cursors," he said, eyes suddenly alight with his Searching skill. "Five red in the next room near floor level, big cluster of yellow and green further away."

"Betting those are Graveworms other side of that door," said Xorren, his yellow eyes shifting into the same green as Kirito's for a few moments. The glow faded, to be replaced by the glow of good humor as he smirked. "That, or we've got a small party of Sprig exiles crawling around on their bellies in the middle of the World Tree for reasons."

"Hey, you never know," Burns remarked. "I've done weirder things to throw off pursuit and make myself look like an isolated mob."

Kirito gave a light snort of amusement; when Asuna looked back at the others, they were all grinning. "How many in the far cluster?" asked Burns.

"Twelve," Kirito answered.

"Raid group," Burns said immediately, caution in his voice. "One hundred percent guarantee you that's two full parties of players right there. We should give them some space."

"Friendly players," Kirito said almost as quickly, as if reminding others who might have forgotten. "I see one of them as green. They're not in our party, so that means they have to be either a Spriggan, or friends with one of us."

Kirito doesn't have all that many people friended, Asuna thought. I doubt many of us in this group do—the list of possibilities must be pretty short, and I bet everyone's thinking about them.

Both Burns and Mentat seemed to relax slightly, nodding as Kirito glanced at each of them. "Not going to be a problem, is there?"

"None from me," Mentat said, their healer almost sounding a little put off by being asked.

Burns shrugged. "None that I'll start, boss. If your friends are cool, I'm cool."

That, Asuna thought to herself, is an equivocal answer at best. But it was hard for her to see a way for him to answer any other way, either. Burns couldn't really know who that green contact was, what Kirito's friends were like, or—perhaps more importantly—how they were going to react to him. Kirito gave him a look of scrutiny, and then nodded. "All right. Let's go clear this trash and meet some friends. Watch your AOEs." His eyes met Asuna's then, and the two of them smiled at each other in a way that sent warmth through her.

Then Asuna felt a different kind of warmth and faint tingle rush across her body as her party buffed her; one by one the icons for Stoneskin, Haste, Bracing, and Reactive Heals appeared on her status bar, with a similar collection popping up beside Kirito's and showing on his visible ribbon. As soon as the first of the buffs began landing, she and Kirito rushed through the now-open doorway with weapons drawn, charging down a short stone stairway into a large open area filled with packed dirt and broken gray stone sarcophagi.

Another party had been clearly through this room relatively recently; the signs of combat and the scorches of magic impacts on the environment were not only obvious to the naked eye, but showed little sign of having begun to fade or reset. Asuna wasn't sure exactly how long it took for a zone to return to its default state, but she suspected not much more than half an hour had passed, if that. It also struck her as somewhat unusual to find only a single encounter in such a large room, but she pushed the thought out of her mind as Kirito engaged the Graveworms with a long-charge, long-cooldown AOE technique that brought his sword around in a sweeping, almost over-extended slash that hit the whole clustered encounter of mobs at once.

With aggro squarely on him, Kirito immediately jumped back and called for a switch. Asuna was already on her way in, unleashing the broad cone AOE of her «Wild Impaler» technique in order to get the attention of the nearest mobs. She heard chanting; black tendrils erupted from the floor between her and the Graveworms, and the mobs found themselves Rooted as soon as they slithered towards her.

The moment the Root status took effect, she heard Xorren's voice from behind her; a smoky projectile shot between herself and Kirito and exploded right in the midst of the Graveworms. Their HP bars all dropped by nearly a third, but began to slowly creep back up until Kirito waded in with a series of sweeping strikes that managed to tag each mob at least once, locking in the fading Illusion damage and turning it permanent.

A mob exploded into particles at the touch of Asuna's one precisely-targeted single strike technique; the next followed almost immediately as Kirito spun on his heel and cut down a Graveworm that broke its Root and lunged towards the back ranks. The three remaining seemed to hesitate for a moment as Kirito switched out, and Asuna was already in mid-motion of leaping forward to intercept a third when she heard the always-unnerving sound of mobs spawning behind her.

"Adds!" Burns said sharply, the word flowing almost immediately into an incantation. "Yatto tsutakke navamdu tepnaga jan!"

Asuna didn't have the liberty of turning to look, but she knew, in that moment, exactly why it had been bothering her to find only a single encounter in this large, recently-cleared room. Repops. There had to have been multiple Graveworm encounters in this room, and only one had repopped—until just now.

She had no choice but to trust her party members and let them handle it; she risked a glance over her shoulder and only barely caught a glimpse of the new Graveworms that Burns had just Rooted, then had to return her attention to the fight in front of her as one of the mobs remaining in their first encounter burrowed into the ground and reappeared right in front of her. It hadn't even finished the animation of rising from the ground before Asuna's attack struck it right in the mouth, eliminating the last of its HP. The next fell to the black blur of Kirito's sword, and Asuna chanted up a Defensive Shield just in time to block the acid spit from the final mob, with Kirito taking advantage of its preoccupation to get the Last Attack.

"First group clear!" Kirito called out.

"Adds locked and disabled," Burns said from the back ranks, while both Kirito and Asuna dashed past their squishier party members in order to deal with the new encounter. "Six seconds on Root."

"We can handle these," Kirito said, a heavy diagonal slash trailing elemental flames as he engaged the nearest Graveworm from the second group. "Burns, keep an eye out for any more repops!"

If Asuna hadn't already been wary and alert for more adds, she might not have noticed the strange but disturbingly familiar ripple in the air a few meters behind the Graveworms. As dark as these barrows were, it almost escaped her notice—and she might have mistaken it for one of the many spell effects filling the air had she not seen the same thing very recently, and under circumstances that had burned the image into her mind.

It was just like when the spiders had uncloaked themselves back in Snjarholt—except that the shape was roughly humanoid, rather than that of a dog-sized arachnid.

"Someone's invizzed over there!" Asuna called out in the moment she had while her technique was charging up.

She'd barely begun speaking before Burns had another Root deployed to that part of the room, Dark Magic blackening the floor near his target just before stretching out to grasp at the legs of their new assailants. Humanoid they might have been, but they were not players; their forms were twisted and stooped beneath dirty, ragged robes, with eyeless faces and the loose skin of advanced age. Cursors that had been yellow for a brief moment after appearing shifted immediately to red as the pair of mobs were Rooted, and as Asuna's gaze lingered on them, the tag of «Umbral Caretaker» appeared above each of their heads.

Asuna had heard a bit about these mobs, but the sense of recognition from most of her party was far more immediate and personal. "Oh shit, Caretakers!" Xorren blurted out.

"They're locked down!" Burns called out immediately after casting what Asuna recognized as a Silence spell. "Try to avoid hitting them!"

From what Asuna had been told by everyone who'd encountered them, that was sound advice. Near as she could tell at a quick glance, neither Caretaker had suffered any damage so far; she quickly returned her attention to the Graveworms that Kirito was making short work of cutting down. "Asuna, switch!"

The corrosive spittle from the remaining two Graveworms converged on the spot that Kirito had just occupied a moment after he leapt back; Asuna danced in past the hissing puddle on the ground and neutralized the weakest Graveworm with a quick freehand strike that pinpointed the weak spot on its upraised belly, then took advantage of the short freeze time to unload a far more hard-hitting technique against the Graveworm that was still at half HP. Both mobs exploded obligingly with the sound of tinkling glass, leaving only the two visibly upset Caretakers still bound by the long-duration Root Burns had hit them with. "Worm adds clear!"

"Clear!" Kirito said loudly, before eyeing the two Caretakers. "Mostly. Burns, Xorren, you've dealt with these before. What's your play?"

"Burn them down fast and GTFO," said the Imp mage. His violet eyes went briefly upwards. "Eight seconds on Root. We start damaging them, it's gonna summon a Norn. We don't wanna to be here when it shows up."

Kirito was already turning towards the nearest Caretaker. "Asuna—"

"I'm with you."

Kirito's target was still Rooted; he began charging up what she thought she recognized as a very powerful multi-hit technique. "Everyone, as soon as this hits I want you all to—"

The voice from behind them was sudden, unexpected, and alarming. Its almost-sibilant, raspy tones were spoken by no player, by no human mouth of any kind; the words were in no language that Asuna recognized, nor any spell that she knew. But by the reactions of nearly her entire party, those words meant that all of them were in danger.

"Noruna domuru, uthan."

A status effect appeared in Asuna's HUD with an icon she didn't recognize; by a healer's long habit she focused on it to pop its description. She actually had to stop for a critical moment and double-take; «Judgment of the Norns» apparently had no duration and was simply… there.

"You can't cure it, don't waste MP!" Mentat said loudly towards Asuna, saving her the trouble of trying. She was only a few paces behind Kirito as he broke away from the group and rushed towards the «Norn Custodian», a Dark Magic projectile from Burns streaking just past his shoulder and Rooting the mob. The Norn had some kind of Offensive Shield that crackled with energy she didn't recognize; the moment Kirito came within its range, his HP started dropping alarmingly fast, and some of that energy actually arced out from Kirito to strike Asuna just as she switched in.

Whatever element was behind the mob's shield DOT, It didn't seem to do quite as much damage to her, but Asuna couldn't really spare any time or attention to reason out which of her resists was responsible—there'd be time to debrief and figure out the mechanics later. The Norn began to cast another spell, but Asuna had already prepared «Stinging Barb», and the extremely fast one-hit technique inflicted an «Interrupt» on the Norn that cut off its incantation and caused it to turn its attention to her. The technique had no freeze time in its End Frame, but a startlingly quick slash from the Norn's weathered metal gauntlet still struck a glancing blow. It did minimal damage through her Stoneskin and Spiritual Armor buffs, but forced her to jump backwards to evade a follow-up.

Kirito, freshly healed by Mentat, was already switching back in, but was just a moment too late to prevent the Norn from trying to cast its spell again. A wave of dark silver-gray energy blasted out from the Norn and washed over Asuna; her MP began to drain away rapidly for a few seconds before Mentat's cure landed and got rid of the debuff. As he'd said, however, Judgment of the Norns didn't respond to the same cure, nor was it clear to her what the effect was even doing. Argo said a lot of clearers think it increases the damage you take if you've hurt Caretakers, but this is the first time Kirito and I have even seen them!

From far behind Asuna, she heard Burns call another debuff on their targets. "New Root, thirty seconds! Melee out!"

Both Kirito and Asuna had been briefed by Argo on the new zone, but Burns clearly knew this mob better than either of them; they wasted no time in leaping and somersaulting backwards as soon as the Root landed and fixed the Norn in place. No sooner than they'd done so did the Norn chant out another spell that hit her and Kirito with Silence. Almost at the same time, the air began to fill with chanting as Mentat cast a Dispel on the mob that shattered its Offensive Shield, then another chain of incantations cured their status effects, healed them, and refreshed some of their short-duration buffs; all the while Xorren and Burns barraged the Norn with ranged magic attacks.

Asuna spared a moment to review the party's status while the mob was incapacitated and she was being healed. Everyone's health was still in good shape, but both Kirito and Mentat were low on MP. Mentat's usage made sense; he was working overtime to keep the party topped off and deal with all the debuffs that the Norn churned out. But he'd cured the MP drain almost immediately, and Kirito had barely cast anything at all; she saw him chugging an MP potion and wondered why it was even necessary at this point in the fight.

Asuna knew the Root wouldn't survive the onslaught of all-out magic DPS, and sure enough, the thick ropes of Dark Magic that kept the Norn pinned in place dissolved once enough damage was dealt to the Rooted mob to trigger its break chance. Kirito, already healed to full and on his way back in, charged and executed a dashing move that sideswiped the Norn with a glancing slash as he passed it. The Norn, whirling on ethereal legs of translucent mist, obligingly turned to face the opponent that had maneuvered behind it, exposing its back to the rest of the party; by the time it had done so, Kirito was already past his freeze time and was able to successfully parry the backhand that it dealt to him.

Now that the mob was turned, the party was safe from its frontal attacks, and it gave them a buffer to bring their ranged DPS in closer. But no matter how artfully Kirito evaded the Norn's physical strikes, a single hit from a PBAOE spell centered on the mob cut deeply into his HP pool, and neither Mentat's direct or reactive healing spells were keeping up with the thing's damage output. Asuna had to switch in more and more often, and each time she did, Kirito came back into the fray with his HP just a bit lower than before.

"Serav kewemzul dweren." Another short incantation brought the Norn's damage shield back up again, and brought Kirito back out of the fray for healing with a frustrated look on his face. Why isn't this shield hitting me the way it is him? Asuna wondered. It definitely acts like Lightning damage with the way it's arcing between us, but I don't have any buffs or gear on that would be helping mitigate that—it's been a pretty rare damage type so far, only a couple of mobs use it.

Asuna could clearly see her own HP ticking down as the proximity effect sparked and sizzled around her, so she certainly wasn't immune somehow—but the damage wasn't nearly as severe as what Kirito was taking every time he got close to the mob, and she could see the same HOT icon on both her status bar and his countering the Damage Over Time effect. Kirito still needed time to get his HP back up, but Asuna could tell she was building a considerable amount of aggro; she called for a switch as soon as the next of Mentat's big heals landed on Kirito, and he dashed past her in a flurry of black just as the mob began to drift backwards, chanting an unfamiliar spell. "Yavuk tomezal kezure mejuru tepnaga kwedan."

A noxious greenish-black cloud blasted out point-blank from the Norn, briefly obscuring Asuna's view of it and Kirito. She could still see her HUD, and what she saw there filled her with a sudden spike of fear: Kirito's HP had immediately dropped below the halfway mark from the initial hit, and was dropping horrifyingly fast by the second. Asuna's voice was almost a scream as she dashed into the dissipating cloud, a sickly green version of the Damage Over Time effect icon appearing in her HUD. "Kirito, get out of there!"

Asuna almost collided with Kirito, so quickly did he circle past the Norn and retreat towards the back ranks for healing, but a quick hop on one foot allowed her to pirouette around him and engage the mob before it turned back towards the party. Trying to buy them time, she stepped into the pre-motion for her «Quadruple Pain» technique, and after a fractional pause that cost her a clawed slash across her left arm, she released the devastating four-hit combo against the the breastplate of the Norn's armored robes.

Her luck held; the technique had a small chance to inflict a short Paralysis status, and the Norn failed to resist it. "DPS in!" she shouted.

No attack spells lanced out from the party in response to her call. Only a few moments had passed since the last time she'd looked, but when Asuna's eyes went to her party list, the HP bars by both Kirito's and Burns's names were gone, and everyone else's was dropping. Asuna felt like someone had just driven her sword through her chest; she choked for a moment out of pure shock, then gave an anguished outcry as she looked past the Norn and saw the black smoke and churning violet flames of their Remain Lights. On the status ribbons for the rest of the party, she could see the same point-blank DOT that had afflicted both her and Kirito steadily burning through everyone else's HP pools now as well. Mentat, his HP nearly to the red, was chain-casting in a clear attempt to heal everyone who was still standing so that they stayed that way, and he glanced in her direction with desperate entreaty on his face.

Asuna was already bringing her hands into the position for one of her Raise Fallen spells and preparing to drop her weapon, but those moments of distraction almost cost her her life. She'd barely noticed the Norn casting a Delay debuff on her until the moment it landed, and it took her a painfully long second to slowly reach her free hand into a pocket and touch one of her consumable Crystals. "Cure!"

A torchlight shadow warned her; Asuna ducked and dropped into a sitting spin to avoid a streak of metal claws, slashed at the Norn's limb on the way around, then felt the System Assist portion of her «Acrobatics» skill engage as she kicked off the ground and flipped in place over a low follow-up. "Mentat!" Asuna shouted as she parried a double slash from the Norn's long-clawed gauntlets and followed it up with an Interrupt to keep the thing from completing whatever spell it began trying to cast. "Rez?"

Mentat stopped casting only long enough to shout back. "Trying not to die! I need you healing!"

But there was nothing Asuna could do with the Norn in between her and the party—if she didn't hold her ground, it would quickly turn its attention to the rest of the group and finish what it had started. Xorren's low HP left him in no condition to be trying to switch in for Asuna, and no one else could. One of the Umbral Caretakers had wandered over to Kirito's Remain Light and was holding out its gnarled hands for no clear reason that she could tell; the other Caretaker was nowhere in sight, and Asuna hoped it was dead—the last thing they needed right now was another add to deal with.

Asuna gritted her teeth as the Norn recast its damage shield and slashed with both gauntlets, sparks careening off her rapier as she blocked the heavy attack, knees starting to buckle. Her eyes went past the Norn's misty form just long enough to fix a distance to Kirito's Remain Light, then withdrew her sword and tucked her shoulder into a combat roll just before the mob's claws clashed against the ground. It's never going to let me cast this spell unless I get past it!

It was in that moment of her greatest despair that the double doors at the far side of the burial chamber flew open with a bang. Two full parties of players poured in through the breach, accompanied by several pets. Their charge was led by a massive Cait Sith tank and a Salamander with a katana—the first of them she thought she recognized; the second she knew she did, especially once she saw the mixed-race group of players backing him up.

A friend of Kirito's, came the thought flashing through Asuna's mind as she briefly laid eyes on him before leaping out of the way of another of the Norn's physical attacks. Klein, I think it was?

Whoever these new parties were, they wasted absolutely no time stepping in despite most of them starting the battle with HP bars already depleted to varying degrees. Klein, his own HP only barely above the halfway point before a heal landed on him, had a gleaming katana raised high above his head and glowing crimson with the opening of a weapon technique as he rushed directly at the Norn. "Thelvin, help me pin this thing! You, go help your friends!"

Asuna triggered her «Linear» technique without targeting the mob's cursor; she streaked past its side and out of the way just as Klein's initial blow crushed into the Norn's shoulder. The Cait Sith tank came in right on his heels, the blue glow of his shield charge streaking behind him as the System Assist shot him forward several meters and collided solidly with his target, rocking it backwards. Not questioning her good fortune, Asuna took advantage of the distraction and dropped her rapier on the floor, holding out both hands before her as her footsteps carried her towards the party.

Never before in her life, not even in the Sewers fighting Prophet, had it been so important to her to cast a spell correctly. In the moment that she reached the exact midpoint between where Burns and Kirito had fallen, her focus narrowed to nothing more than the posture of her hands and the movements of her lips—ignoring her HUD, the pitched battle still in progress, and even the nearby Caretaker that had seemed to ignore her just as completely. "Zutto mezal kefletaz tepnaga yasun!"

A lambent blue light blazed out around her, the sixteen-meter AOE encompassing the Remain Lights for both Kirito and Burns. Both of them began to re-form immediately, and Asuna immediately followed up with the most potent AOE healing spell she was capable of casting quickly—the first Focus version of which she had, fortunately, just unlocked earlier that day. "Zutto famudrog shippura tepnaga yasun!"

It wasn't enough to bring them back to full, but it was enough to get them out of immediate danger. The nearby Caretaker stared almost stupidly at Kirito for what seemed like a full second before he swept his blade from its sheath; his longsword split the mob from one shoulder to the opposite hip and cut deeply into the bare packed dirt. The cloud of glittering polygons from its death briefly clouded Asuna's line of sight to Kirito just as a wheezy shriek from the Norn preceded its own end.

"Rez!" came a cry from the direction of Klein's group. Three Remain Lights were on the ground; two amber and one green.

The Gnome mage from Klein's group was already fishing frantically through his pockets. "Nyakago is down and I used up my only MP Crystal on the last Norn we fought!" he called out. "Anyone got?"

Asuna herself was virtually drained of MP, but she knew she had at least one MP Crystal. Almost everyone, including an Imp and several of the Caits, had their hands shoved into pouches, pockets and bags; before anyone could deliver, Mentat took a few steps forward and snapped his arcane staff into a level position. "Zutto famudrokke fletaz shippura tepnaga yasun!"

Her hand already touching an MP Crystal of her own, Asuna's jaw dropped. She couldn't cast that spell, though she recognized it and knew there were more than a few Undines who could. Her own Water Magic skill wasn't too far off, but it was still a bit surprising to hear it cast by a Salamander. The Remain Lights of the two Cait Sith players immediately began to re-shape themselves into players, but Asuna had to look twice to realize that the Sylph's hadn't. There were a few stunned moments of silence and shock from the other players Klein had brought with him; the look on Mentat's face was no less shocked than theirs. "I'm out of—"

"Save it!" shouted the Cait Sith healer who'd just been rezzed as he threw out his hands, nearly touching the Sylph's Remain Light. "Zutto mezal kefletaz shaja yasun!"

As soon as the fallen Sylph player finished re-forming, nearly everyone was talking at once. Not all were arguing, but the outcry from those who were trying to urge calm did no less to add to the noise level. For a moment Asuna wondered if they were going to attract roamers; adds of any kind were the last thing they could afford at the moment. Or repops for that matter—

Enough was enough.

A burst of light and stunning sound rang out and briefly illuminated Asuna's immediate surroundings as she picked up her rapier where she'd dropped it and quickly triggered her «Flashbang» technique. No one was anywhere near being in range of the point-blank Holy damage, but it was one of her few taunts and it surprisingly did just as well at drawing the attention of every player in the room and interrupting the drama in progress.

Face clouded with anger, Asuna flicked her rapier out to her side and returned every challenging gaze as she advanced forward. "What just happened?"

"Ask your pet monkey," snapped one of the Cait Sith players suddenly, a scowling young blonde woman with a bow on her back and a Gazer floating at her side.

"Teel!" came an immediate rebuke from the orange-haired melee player standing next to Thelvin, his jaw still hanging open after speaking.

Teel's hand was already clapped onto her mouth, her wide eyes going to Klein. "Oh my god, I am so, so sorry."

"There's a fair question buried in the pointless insult," said Thelvin with a look towards Teel that was just as hard as the one he then turned towards Mentat. "Why didn't you AOE rez?"

"He did," said Asuna at the exact same time as the other three healers in the room expressed the same thing. They were all still looking at each other in confusion when Thelvin followed up with the more important question. "Then why didn't it work on Dynamm?"

Kirito had joined Asuna at her side at some point during the proceedings; she didn't realize it until his voice surprised her from just behind and to her left. "Mentat," he said. "I thought you had Friendly Bias set."

"I do."

Now that Dynamm had been rezzed, he had a cursor to Focus; to Asuna it was the expected yellow of a neutral race. Everyone in a clearing group knew to avoid AOE attacks when there were mixed-faction groups around who weren't in a raid with you. But with Friendly Bias on, a rez should've—

Mentat's eyes were already on Dynamm, and an almost physical pain passed across his face; his weight leaned for a moment on the twisted wood of his casting staff before he straightened. "Oh, shit."

What looked like a mixture of confusion and realization passed across the three parties like a ripple. Kirito took a step forward; Asuna could see the knowledge of what had happened on his face as plain as day. "You're at war."

"Not me," said Mentat, returning Kirito's gaze with an unreadable conflict wracking his face. "My faction." He turned towards the only other fellow Salamander in the room. "You understand, don't you? I tried. I cast the most powerful Focus AOE rez I could. The game wouldn't let me rez him."

"I don't think I quite understand yet," Asuna said, sheathing her rapier and stepping forward. She looked towards Kirito, who'd been the one to originally explain a setting she'd never bothered to change from its default. "Shouldn't this Friendly Bias setting make everyone who isn't Allied show as Neutral? That's how it's always been for me unless I was being attacked."

"Only if they're not Hostile to you, your guild…" Klein glanced around at his friends, then exchanged a look of sympathy with Mentat. "Or your faction. Thanks for trying, man."

"I'm so sorry," said Teel again, coming to join the circle of conversation that seemed to be forming. "I thought—"

"I'm used to it," Mentat said bluntly. "Nothing I can do." Face grim, he looked back at Klein. "You seem to have found a way around it."

"We all use Guild cursor settings," Klein said. "Since Fuurinkazan isn't at war with anyone, everyone who doesn't attack us shows as Neutral or Allied."

Thelvin held up both hands in the air for a moment. "I hate to break this up, but we shouldn't use this room as a rest stop. It's not safe, and we're all still a bit worn down."

"He's right," Kirito said decisively. "We need to get moving. But there's something you all need to know first. Something I just found out the hard way."

"Don't die?" quipped Burns, who'd just nearly done that very thing. He struck Asuna as being unusually composed, even chipper, for having just lost so much progress to the death penalty when he was rezzed—let alone having had a near-death experience in the first place.

Kirito looked at him. "You didn't notice it happening to you? Those seconds were counting down a lot quicker than they should've."

"They do that, boss. I was a Remain Light, too."

"Yeah," Kirito said evenly. "But I guess you didn't have a Caretaker eating yours."


Author's Note 8/30/17: I hope you enjoy this fairly sizable update. There's a lot going on here, and all of this action is building up to some pretty game-changing developments in the coming chapters. I was listening to a lot of Avantasia and other symphonic metal while writing the combat scenes, but feel free to insert the badass soundtrack of your choice. It's hard to go wrong if you want to stick with Kajiura Yuki and put on something like "We Have to Defeat It" or "False King".

I'm trying to get back to a more regular writing and publishing routine. A chapter a month is just not something I can really sustain anymore while working a day job, but every other month or thereabouts might be doable. We'll play it by ear. I should have health insurance again soon, which will do a lot of good for my arm and my overall level of spoons.

By the way, I know I'm a little behind on updating AO3; I'll try to work on that.

My best to all.