"The close affinity that the Leprechaun faction has with mechanical devices and metalcrafting permits them to invest those devices with arcane power, turning them into player-usable items known as «Mecharcane Constructs». The most basic of these Constructs are simple tools that can be found in nearly any city, such as orelight lamps—but advanced high-level recipes permit the creation of even more complex modular devices, some of which are capable of performing powered work. This is not a craft to be undertaken lightly—many recipes require both Alchemy and Enchanting skills in addition to the Metal Equipment Smithing skill which all Leprechauns possess, and consume a great deal of materials in their creation. However, as with most of Alfheim's systems, creative and technically-minded players who dedicate themselves to learning the purpose of each component have the freedom to connect them in potentially limitless combinations..."
Alfheim Online manual, «Mecharcane Constructs»

10 May 2023: Day 187 — Evening

Kirito's PM inbox was currently dominated by lists of names. Big lists, short lists, and even the overall list that was his inbox itself. Beyond PMs from Argo and Coper containing the majority of those lists or replies discussing them, he also had a substantial collection of individuals who'd either PMed him directly when he wasn't in the World Tree, or had their messages forwarded to him by Coper.

And there were so many of these messages; more than he could see at once, even at the window's maximum size. It was one of the first times Kirito could recall being glad that it was impossible to PM someone who was underground or in a dungeon; it was likely the only thing keeping the message notification from chiming to interrupt him at an inconvenient time—say, in the middle of a battle.

It was, in a word, overwhelming.

Not least because he wasn't yet sure what to do with most of them. The bulk of the Spriggan volunteers or job-seekers were not only underleveled for anything remotely resembling clearing work, they barely outleveled the newly-spawning mobs in the field zones surrounding Arun—if they even did at all. A good number of these players would need an escort or a good party to even get from Penwether to Arun alone, Kirito thought with a grimace. What am I going to tell them? Thanks for wanting to make the world a better place, but no thanks?

"There has to be something they can do to contribute," Kirito mused aloud, forehead creasing slightly beneath a loose drift of black hair.

"Use them to build the mid-level support infrastructure you're going to need," said Asuna, neatly summing up the solution as she returned to the table of his inn room bearing a tea tray. Kirito twitched slightly in surprise at the sound of her voice; he'd been so focused on his UI that he hadn't noticed her quiet entry. She set the tray on the table and politely began pouring a cup for Kirito while she spoke, a thin curtain of steam rising up between them. "You're still poking at the same problem as when I left, right? The way things are now, every prospective Spriggan clearer is on their own just as much as you are when it comes to mats, upgrades, and maintenance. Jahala is always on about the logistics of supplying and fielding a clearing group, and he's right. You need people on that, and they don't have to be high-level—just high enough to clear field mobs efficiently."

Kirito nodded, sipping at the hot tea even though he wasn't particularly thirsty. It was better than the usual inn fare; he wondered if the time it had taken her to return meant she'd actually made it herself using the «Cooking» skill. He wouldn't have put it past Asuna to march right into the inn's back areas and commandeer its kitchen if the NPCs there would've let her, and the idea made him smile.

An answering smile rose to Asuna's face as she seated herself. "Something funny?"

"Just thinking that you're right," Kirito said, setting down the cup. "Also thinking that between the culture in the beta and the example that Yoshihara set, Spriggans have been pushed towards a mercenary approach to getting by in the game. If nothing else, I'm pretty sure we could hire these people to farm for us." He grimaced for a moment. "Well, I say we, but unless Coper's holding out on me, the Spriggans don't have much in the way of a treasury—Yoshihara had no taxes of any kind set up, and Coper won't be changing that if he wants to keep his position. I'm going to be funding this out of pocket at first."

"We can work on that," Asuna said. She closed her eyes and raised her own cup to her lips with both hands, taking a sip of the hot liquid before continuing. "But it's not just farmers, Kirito. Talking with Diabel and some other players has gotten me thinking about the bigger picture a bit. The new mobs have made trade and travel dangerous again, and one thing Diabel's started doing is having our patrol groups clear the roads between Parasel and Arun."

Nodding along while Asuna spoke, something suddenly clicked in Kirito's head right as she finished. His menu was already set visible; he pulled up a note window with the list he'd begun making of players who weren't high enough level to be front-line clearers, but who were at least strong enough to potentially travel. "Here," he said, turning the window slightly so that Asuna could see better. "Tank, DPS, DPS, healer, mage, tank, mage…"

Kirito's index finger traced down the list in the note-taking window, the faint tactile resistance of the virtual pane sliding past his fingertip as the typing cursor and a block of highlighted text followed his touch; the highlight cleared when he tapped his finger at the end. "There are at least three full parties we could put together here, depending on how they get along—most in their twenties, a few up to low thirties. Could maybe even get four or more groups, if we can recruit some pickups to fill in the gaps."

Asuna was clearly thinking one step ahead of him. "Exactly. And it's work that needs doing." She then met Kirito's eyes again. "You have good relations with the Cait Sith clearers at least, especially after friending Thelvin today. For that matter, you've already got an in with Argo, and she can talk to Alicia about any official permissions or coordination you might need."

"Alicia's already on my friends list," Kirito said. Adding Thelvin had been Asuna's strong suggestion; it made good sense to start building connections with more clearing groups. "I've helped the Caits out before. So yeah, if it comes to it, I might have some pull with them."

Asuna blinked in apparent surprise, then smiled. "Even better." She drew open her own menu and scooted her chair closer to Kirito's seat at the tiny table, zooming her game map out until it showed most of Alfheim's central continent. A quick tap at a sidebar option let her draw a series of glowing paths with her fingertip. "Put together one group to start clearing back and forth between Arun and Freelia here, and another to help take some of the pressure off the Undine patrols doing the same in the east—I'll send messages to Diabel and Laffa about that. If you can spare a third, they can start clearing the northern routes. I'm sure the NCC won't complain."

"One group on a given route isn't going to be able to make much of an impact," Kirito pointed out. "It'll take at least half a day to clear one direction, and the rest of the day just to clear back. Some of the mobs will start repopping within minutes."

"It's better than nothing," Asuna replied. "Especially if you set up a consistent schedule, and get your groups to stick to it—make it known that a group will be clearing a route, say, every weekday starting at 8:00 AM. Anyone who wants safe passage can follow behind them."

"The LFG walls," Kirito said, snapping his fingers. "Anyone looking to travel is going to be there, seeing if there are any ads for parties heading their way."

Asuna gave him a radiant smile that made him feel a now-familiar lightness in his chest, a warmth coming to his face in response. "That's perfect. Just get your groups to advertise and hang out there prior to the time they're supposed to head out. Players will come to expect it if they're reliable, and word will get around."

Kirito gave the proposal some thought, his own feelings conflicted. It wasn't that it was a bad idea, really. If anything, it was the best either of them had yet come up with for how to deal with their surplus of under-leveled volunteers—something truly productive and helpful that they could be doing, something to take advantage of this window of opportunity before everyone just melted back into the shadows and went about their own business.

The problem was that it required organization and planning that Kirito didn't have the time or aptitude to provide. And he wasn't sure who could.

"I guess it's a start," Kirito said finally. "At least it gives me something to tell some of these people, and they'll farm a lot of useful stuff while they're clearing those routes. Maybe I can get Coper to take on getting the non-clearing volunteers organized. Give him something to do besides sit in Arun and relay PMs."

"I'll talk to Diabel too," Asuna said. "And I bet Laffa can offer some advice. He's done a great job with our own farming and patrol groups."

"That sounds worth a try," Kirito agreed. "There are a few tanks who aren't quite high enough level to be in front-line groups, but they'd make great anchor members to build patrol or farming groups around." He pulled a face then, suddenly reminded of the shortcoming that he still had to fill in his own group.

What they clearly needed most—especially after the punishing near-wipe they'd endured when facing their first Norn—was a real tank. Although both Kirito and Asuna could, with skilled parrying and evasion, suffice in a pinch as off-tanks—not an uncommon arrangement for clearing groups—when it came to facing off against a tough boss they were more suited for the DPS side of the equation. Their ability to hold aggro was directly tied to their ability to dish out damage and avoid a mob's worst attacks, while switching out at the right time for another forward to give them a chance to recover and keep the aggro balanced.

Which wasn't to say that Kirito considered himself any kind of glass cannon; like most clearers who wanted to stay alive, he had a respectable number of stat points in VIT, and both his clearing gear and his heavy investment in STR increased his HP further still. But unlike a real tank-spec player, neither he nor Asuna had much—if any—investment in the hate-generation skills necessary to properly anchor a mob, nor the equipment and build to absorb the punishment that would result. Even the enchanted light breastplate Kirito usually wore was equipped without an actual «Armor» skill of any kind, and more for its stats and other effects than its actual damage mitigation numbers. He also knew for sure, now—she'd told him, though he'd suspected long before then—that Asuna didn't have a skill allocated for hers, either.

It's too bad Kramer decided to quit the group over the cursor change, Kirito mused silently while he searched his notes for yet another list of names—this one much shorter than any of the others. But given what happened today, I'm even more convinced that it was the right decision.

If anything, Kirito thought the failure to rez Dynamm demonstrated that the change didn't go far enough. The Friendly Bias cursor setting wasn't going to help as long as there was a Salamander or an Imp in their party—and right now, they had both. It had been a good first step, and a useful gambit to push out someone who hadn't been a good fit anyway, but it wasn't a complete solution—especially since it still didn't completely solve the problem of neutral players being vulnerable to stray AOEs.

And that was something Kirito knew they were going to have to deal with before going back out again as a group. It was just one more thing piling up, one more obligation to be dealt with sooner rather than later.

So lost had Kirito become in his thoughts that he didn't realize Asuna had risen from her chair until he felt her hands settle gently on his shoulders. He froze for just a moment in surprise, then relaxed as her arms slipped comfortingly around his neck and shoulders in a somewhat awkwardly-positioned hug from behind.

"You don't have to bear all this alone, you know," he heard Asuna say, her voice close. "It's not all on you to fix. You have people who are willing and able to help break down your burdens into manageable tasks, if you'll let them. If you don't, you'll be letting your burdens break you."

She was right, and Kirito knew it. That didn't make it any easier to accept the help, let alone seek it out.

Kirito had always been a loner by nature, with few friends and a knack for getting things done on his own. His time in ALO—both in the beta and after launch—had only served to cement those qualities that were already present in him. In many ways they'd served him well, but now he was faced with a responsibility that was bigger than him—one which outstripped his ability to simply push through the challenges with cleverness, persistence, reflexes, and gaming experience.

Without thinking about it, Kirito's hand rose to cover Asuna's where it rested on his shoulder. He felt her arms tighten around him almost reflexively, and it took a moment for him to relax at the touch. The two of them hadn't really discussed it explicitly yet, and he couldn't quite put a finger on when it had happened—but at some point in the last few days, his relationship with Asuna had changed. The unspoken closeness they'd been sharing, the way they'd been traveling and facing mortal danger together, and these moments when they touched each other… all of it pointed towards a huge shift in the way Kirito and Asuna regarded each other.

Philia was right, Kirito thought. And then, having no idea quite how to handle the realization that he did in fact have a girlfriend, he tried to direct his thoughts back to a subject he felt far more confident dealing with.

"We need a real tank," Kirito said, leaning his head back against the soft resistance of Asuna's shoulder—at least, he thought that was her shoulder—for just a moment before her arms slipped away from him and she stood up straight. "I'm not sure what that debuff is that the Norns use, but it seems to make everything else do more damage—and I don't have the resists or the HP to tank it."

"I'm not so sure it's your resists that are the problem, Kirito." Had that been a quaver in her voice? Kirito couldn't be sure, but for a moment he could've sworn she'd almost stuttered. "That damage shield the Norn was using, it was Lightning-based, right? I had the debuff too, and I barely have any Lightning Resist—yet I was taking normal amounts of damage. And I have no idea what kind of damage it was that took down you and Burns at the end."

Kirito had been speaking partly out of frustration; whatever the mechanics of the Norn's debuff, it wasn't as simple as just stacking enough resists or EHP to soak the damage—there was something they were missing. "I know. But regardless, I need to find us a real tank, and I need to do it tonight if we want to make decent time in the morning."

Asuna stepped back around the chair to stand at Kirito's side, arms folded as she looked down to meet his eyes. "We," she said insistently. "We need to find a tank. And it might not be a bad idea to expand that 'we' to include the rest of your party. They're going to be a lot more likely to go along with a new member if they feel like they had some involvement in picking them out."

Kirito made an agreeable sound of acknowledgement, coming to his feet and swiping all of his windows closed. "Then we should go meet our first candidate soon." Which meant that it was time to head downstairs, rejoin their companions, and head out into the city again.

"We got a couple of applications from plate tanks," Kirito explained a few minutes later, walking down the street with Asuna at his side and the other three players in the party clustered loosely behind them in a reverse delta. "Problem is, they're low 30s at best."

"Too old," Xorren said immediately. "Can we not have my dad leading the charge?"

"Thirties as in their level, Xorren," Kirito said, wanting to laugh but also not wanting to encourage his teammate to make another dumb joke.

"They told you that?" Kirito couldn't see his face without turning, but Burns actually sounded surprised. "That's pretty personal info. Maybe don't go sharing it."

"I have access to the Spriggan roster," Kirito admitted after a moment. "But don't worry, I'm not putting any levels to anyone's names."

Asuna spoke up then. "The point is, they're not what we need for our first clearing group. We can help get some people caught up once we're established, but right now we need our best in the vanguard."

"I might be able to help with that," Burns said. When Kirito and Asuna both stopped and turned to face him, the party arranged itself into a rough circle off to one side of the busy street while players and pathing NPCs alike flowed past them. "I've worked with various clearing groups before, and I still have friends and contacts. If a tank's what's holding us back, I can probably hook us up."

Kirito actually considered the offer for all of a few seconds before the likely catch occurred to him. "A Spriggan tank?"

Burns shook his head, the long ends of his glossy black hair following the motion. "Not too many of those I know of, period, aside from the one who just quit. But I've got a few Sal buddies who'd probably be willing to step up. Good people, Kirito. And reliable, solid tanks. Just say the word and I'll get some PMs out."

Why am I not surprised? Argo did say that someone in the Sals wanted to bring the Spriggans into their alliance—someone who isn't Corvatz—and that Burns was their catspaw who helped arrange Yoshihara's assassination. She was trying to be vague about it, but let's face it: we know it's someone with connections to their clearing groups who's making a power play to advance Salamander interests, but who doesn't want Corvatz getting the credit. That means they're also playing the political angle for someone who wants to lead but doesn't currently have the job.

I'm not dumb, Argo. I can put those pieces together and figure out who Burns is probably talking to. And if I can, so can someone else.

Kirito didn't need to consult with Asuna to know what she was going to say, but he looked at her anyway before answering, and suspected that what he saw on her face meant she had similar concerns. "I appreciate the offer, Burns, but I'd like at least half of what's supposed to be the lead Spriggan clearing group to be a little more… well…"

"Spriggan?" Xorren put in helpfully.

Kirito grinned, relieved at having someone else say it. "Something like that. Anyway, that's why we're headed over to this part of the market row. We've got a Spriggan evasion tank who said she had a bunch of gear maintenance to do, and gave me directions to her smith. Since she's probably going to be there for a while, we figured it'd be a good time to meet up."

"You know," Xorren put in, leaning close enough to Burns to prod him with an elbow. "It's probably a good thing Yar bailed. If he was here, he'd probably have something to say about how chicks can't tank."

"Fuck Yar," Burns said bluntly, momentarily taking Kirito aback. "Asuna tanked a Norn while everyone else's ass was on fire. If she can hold her ground, I'm pretty sure someone who's actually specced as a tank can do it."

"Well yeah, that's kinda what I was getting at. Great guy to duel with, solid DPS, but a bit of a salty prick. We've both heard him say shit like that before." Xorren glanced over at Kirito and Asuna, seeming to suddenly realize that the side conversation might be relevant to the rest of his party, and looked sheepish. Asuna, fortunately, seemed to be mollified enough by the compliment to overlook Xorren's other comments, and Kirito tried to steer the conversation back in a useful direction.

"Well anyway, that's the plan. We're going to meet up at the smith's shop, have a chat, and see if she's a good fit for the group."

The shop in question was located on one of the side streets relatively close to the warpgate—not all that far from Lisbeth's smithy, which made sense to Kirito; most player crafters who wanted clearer business would be setting up shop in the same general area, or as close to it as possible. Kartwright's Korner, he read off the sign out front above the usual hammer-and-anvil icon; beyond the English-language alliteration it had the enviable good fortune to be located on an actual street corner, and was easy to find. A trio of high-pitched bells jingled above their heads as Kirito entered with his party at his back.

Still something I'm having to get used to, Kirito thought. Every now and then I get this weird, nagging feeling like I'm being hunted, and I turn around and it's just because there are a bunch of players following me. Sometimes I'd swear I can almost feel all their gazes popping my cursor. How long has it been since I've actually been a part of a regular group? Or hung out with more than one or two people at a time when we weren't out partying?

He hadn't actually met their would-be tank in person before, but Kirito had no trouble spotting her. Although there were a couple of players in the main room of the smithy, only one of them was a Spriggan, and despite having no obvious headgear, the subtle shapes of medium armor were clearly visible beneath the thick-hemmed black longcoat in her faction's style. He took a gamble on the odds of there being another female Spriggan melee player who'd just happened to step in while his applicant stepped out, and addressed her. "Are you Nori?"

The tall, athletic-looking Spriggan girl—or young woman, it was hard to be sure—had already turned at the sound of the doorbell; she grinned immediately upon seeing the collection of players who'd entered and gave the group a quick wave. "Yupyup! You've gotta be the guy I'm waiting for, amirite?"

Kirito stepped forward, extending his hand as Nori did and briefly clasping forearms with her in greeting; her grip was strong and firm. "Kirito. Behind me are Asuna, Xorren, Burns, and Mentat."

Nori's keen gray eyes took in each player as Kirito gestured to them one by one. "I'm going to forget all your names immediately until I've heard them like fifty times," she said while looking everyone over. "Sorry, I'm bad at that. But you're a decent-looking group. Couple-three mages, even an Undine for the pro heals. Kinda light on melee though."

"I'm only healing as backup," Asuna clarified. "In this group, my main role is melee DPS."

Nori seemed to give Asuna an even sharper look of scrutiny then, eyes dropping towards the single breastplate that she, like Kirito, wore mainly for its stats and so that the system would consider the torso to be covered by some kind of armor. "You don't say? Well excuse my assumptions. I didn't see a weapon on you." Her infectious grin reappeared as she turned back to Kirito, swiping a thick lock of hair out of her face and off to the left with the back of her hand. "Any other surprises I ought to know about? 'Cause if you've got your Sal doing the healing, this is gonna be the best 'opposite day' ever."

Kirito's party members seemed to have no clear consensus on whether to snicker, cough meaningfully, or remain silent; he caught signs of all three reactions from behind him. Nori's jaw hung open for just a beat before she closed it. "Right. I'm just gonna shut up now and go check on my gear."

"You're fine," Mentat said, breaking his silence. "I'm used to it. But yes, I'm primary healer for this group."

"And the best damn healer I've ever partied with, too," Burns added with a belated nod to Asuna. "No offense to the lady who saved our asses today."

"None taken," Asuna allowed, a response that was probably well-earned after the day's events. They'd both fought at each other's sides; neither seemed to have any doubts about the other's abilities, which Kirito found interesting.

Burns waited a few beats after Asuna's comment, then directed his attention back to Nori, who kept glancing anxiously towards the back room of the smithy until he spoke. "What's your build?"

Nori's thick eyebrows raised halfway to her hairline. "How do you mean? I'm not telling you my stats."

"Nah," Burns said, unruffled. "I mean, what do you use? Kirito mentioned you were an evasion tank, but nothing else."

"Oh," said Nori, seeming to relax somewhat. She tapped a fingertip against the slight bulge of her chest; there was a thick sound of resistance from the breastplate she clearly wore underneath. "Staff and medium armor."

"A staff?" Xorren asked, sounding a little surprised. "Weird choice."

Burns nodded as if that meant something to him. "Two-handed STR/AGI weapon with high priority, emphasis on the AGI. Not ideal for tanking, but I've seen people make it work." He reached out and gave Xorren a light prod in the arm. "You're one to talk about weird builds, my dude."

A Leprechaun man in a blacksmith's apron whose obvious youth contrasted sharply with his avatar's short silver hair emerged from the back room, cradling an immense quarterstaff in his arms. He had a baby face and narrow, squinty eyes that widened slightly at the sight of so many players, and he hesitated at the entrance to the shop's back area. "I thought I heard the door," he said. "Nori, you didn't tell me you'd invited friends." He gave a quick bow in the direction of Kirito and his party. "I'm Kartwright, and welcome to my little corner of Arun. I'll be with you just as soon as I'm—"

Nori had already impressed Kirito as being a fairly energetic, sociable person, but as soon as she caught sight of the smith and what he was carrying, she rushed towards him so abruptly that it even seemed to catch him off-guard. "Ooooh, are you done? Gimmegimmegimme." She snatched up the staff almost as soon as Kartwright had begun to hold it out to her in both hands, and proceeded to make the kinds of noises that Kirito normally associated with girls in the presence of small, cute animals. "Oh, baby, did you miss me? I know you did. Who's a good legendary head-basher? You are!"

"Um," said Kirito while he tried to figure out what else he could possibly say to that. It was certainly a fine-looking piece of gear, with ornate filigreed carvings along the length of it and a silver-framed bulge of some dark stone or crystal at one end. He had no doubt that it had been a rare drop of some kind, but he was at a loss for how to respond to Nori's reaction.

After thanking Kartwright almost as profusely as she'd just gushed at the weapon itself, Nori turned back to Kirito, eyes alight while she rocked the staff lovingly in her arms before sliding it into a set of loops on her back. "It's all good, right? Don't make this weird; you can't tell me you never talk to your weapon."

"I've met a few players who do," Kirito said noncommittally, finding it hard not to smile.

Asuna made a sound of amusement from behind and to his left, drawing his attention. "A few? You need to spend more time with the Undine clearing groups, Kirito. Some of the guys might as well be married to their best gear, for how much they love it."

Kirito could understand the feeling; he got rather attached to a good sword himself—enough so that one of the first things he'd done after launch was rush a quest that he'd known to have an extremely good low-level longsword as its reward. He didn't love his weapons, though, not to the point where he started cuddling them and giving them baby talk... but he supposed that as quirks went, it was hardly a deal-breaker as long as Nori could do the job.

The speech he gave next wasn't precisely rehearsed, but he and Asuna had talked it over, and she'd managed to suggest a few pieces of wording that they both agreed would probably make the best impression. "Nice to finally meet you in person, Nori. I mentioned a few things in PM about what we're trying to do here, but here's what it comes down to: we don't just want to clear the game, we want to clear our name. We obey the Treaty, and we do our best to be friendly with everyone. All of that okay with you?"

Nori gave Kirito a double thumbs-up. "All good here. Life's too short to go making enemies if you don't have to."

Kirito wasn't exactly surprised by the question Burns asked next, but the timing of it caught him off-guard. "Do you duel?"

Nori's eyes shifted towards the Imp with a sly grin, almost as if she'd been expecting the question. "Oho? I've been known to once or twice. What about you guys?"

"Yeah, some of us more than others," Xorren said, exchanging a grin of his own with Burns. "He and I were probably gonna go a round after this. You up for it?"

Nori put two fingertips to her full lips. "Maaaaybe. But I'm not really interested in fighting mages."

Xorren spread his arms wide, shifting the panels of the vest and robes he wore so that she could more clearly see the short sword on one hip. "What about a Red Mage?"

Nori snorted. "A what? Nah, thanks for the offer, but I like to be right in the thick of things, facing off with someone who can keep up with me. You look slow and squishy." Her eyes went back to Kirito for a moment, seeming to look him up and down before her gaze shifted towards a point slightly behind him. "You, though."

It took Kirito a few seconds to realize that Nori wasn't actually talking to him, even though she was still looking in his general direction—or more precisely, past him. When he glanced back over his shoulder, he saw a look of confusion on Asuna's face as she turned from side to side, clearly not understanding. "What?"

"Yeah, you," Nori said, snapping her fingers a few times as she struggled to recall something. "Miss Melee DPS. Asa… Asu…"

"Asuna."

"Asuna," Nori said with a final, more decisive finger-snap. The Spriggan tank's grin widened. "I wanna see what you can do."

"Um, Nori," said Kartwright from behind Nori with an awkward hesitance. "Not trying to be rude, but I'd like it if you maybe didn't start a fight in my shop?"

Nori whirled on Kartwright and waved both hands quickly. "Oh, nonono! It's not what you think, Karto, we were just talking about a friendly duel is all. We'll do that out in the street or something." She looked back at Burns and Xorren, then finally to the person she'd challenged. "It is friendly, right? What do you say?"

When Kirito looked back at Asuna, she looked a little less stunned, but no less confused at the way that her participation had just been taken for granted. He himself was a little taken aback by it, especially since—so far as he knew, at least—Asuna had never actually fought against another player in circumstances that weren't life-or-death.

Nori couldn't know that, of course. Kirito felt a protective urge to step in and say something, to protest on Asuna's behalf. But their prospective tank had challenged her, not him. He knew—and reminded himself—that she was more than capable of standing up and answering for herself, something she'd conclusively demonstrated on more than one occasion. And while he couldn't be sure, it occurred to Kirito that Nori might well be interviewing them just as much as they were her.

His discretion was validated a few moments later, as Asuna seemed to recover from her initial surprise and composed herself. Kirito followed with his eyes while she took a few steps forward, and although he couldn't clearly see her expression now, he was certain he caught a hint of a smile on her lips in profile.

"You're on."

·:·:·:·:·:·

Although Asuna was outwardly silent while she walked with the rest of the group, her thoughts were loud and insistent, reprimanding her for her impulsive, prideful response. You could've just said no. Leave the dueling to the boys, since they seem to enjoy it so much.

But as Nori herself demonstrated, it clearly wasn't just a "boys" thing. The challenge had put Asuna on the spot, and she felt like the legitimacy of her role in the group was being put to the question. Burns and Xorren had already asked earlier if she was interested in dueling, and she'd demurred as politely as possible, but for some reason this challenge made her feel a lot more reluctant to back down.

Perhaps it was, at least in part, that when it all came down to it… they really needed a tank. There was no telling how Nori might have responded to a refusal, and Asuna didn't want to put Kirito in a position of having to search for another Spriggan to fill the spot when his options were already limited—or worse, having to take up Burns on his offer of recruiting a Salamander friend to tank for them.

Besides, Asuna told herself, you can't say that it doesn't sound even a little bit fun, can you? Be honest.

It was not long after the hour when most players would be having their evening meals, and the streets themselves were far too crowded to be able to appropriate a quiet intersection or city square for the duel she'd gotten herself into, but Nori seemed perfectly content to make a beeline for a small recreational area not far off the busy street where Kartwright's shop was located. The concentric, terraced streets twisted in places to avoid the massive, gnarled roots of the World Tree, and here one of those twists resulted in a grassy overlook just off the market street that was built atop the roof of a building from the next street below. The far edge of it jutted even further out over the lower street itself like a balcony; Asuna had seen overhangs like this all over the city, providing shade to the street below and making use of the space on the rooftops, but she'd never taken any special notice of them.

A small, circular fountain with a winged Valkyrie statue half again as tall as a typical person dominated the park-like clearing, and the only people sitting on the carved wooden benches around the fountain popped the simple white cursors of NPCs when Asuna's gaze drifted past them. Nori took her staff from her back and waved it in their general direction. "Scram, bots."

Asuna doubted the NPCs understood either word, but they seemed to get the gist of it based on Nori's vaguely-threatening gestures with her weapon. The four of them quickly unseated themselves and headed back into the crowded street, a few giving backwards glances that Asuna thought almost looked concerned.

"Was that really necessary?" Kirito asked, almost sounding defensive on behalf of the NPCs. "We could've just asked them to move."

Nori gave Kirito an odd look. "Whattya mean, 'ask'? They're just mobs." She turned her staff over in her hands, then absently gave it a full-circle twirl in front of her and let it roll back across one shoulder and over to the other arm while she spoke. "This isn't a larping thing, is it? Because I'm not really into that."

Xorren snickered. "This from someone who talks to her staff?"

"It's fine," Asuna said, giving both Kirito and Xorren a look that might have been just as skeptical as Nori's. She then turned a bit of that skepticism on their immediate surroundings. "But is there really enough room here for a duel? This little rest area is lovely, but even if the others sit on the railings or watch from the air, there's won't be much room for either of us to maneuver."

"You'd be surprised," Nori said, taking a slow walk around the fountain. "Little nooks like this help keep my reflexes and situational awareness sharp. The way I tank, it's not just about avoiding an attack, y'know—it's about doing that without getting out of position or putting the squishies at risk." She reached out and tapped the Valkyrie statue with the head of her staff; it responded with the thick sound of stone on stone. "I like practicing in tight spaces with obstacles to avoid. Had my eye on this place for a while."

Asuna tried to think of what else she should ask, turning over in her mind everything that she could recall about Kirito's duel with Burns, as well as the others she'd witnessed in the past. "What are the win conditions?"

Nori came full-circle around the fountain and hopped up onto the edge as easily as a cat might, using the full length of the weapon to help balance herself as if walking on a tightrope. "How do you feel about First Strike?"

Asuna was fairly sure she recalled someone mentioning what that was before, but she turned to Kirito for more details, and he correctly read the look on her face. "First Strike basically means one clean hit wins," Kirito said, stepping forward while he spoke. "That's any unblocked attack with a weapon or projectile doing at least its minimum damage after resists."

"Right," Nori said with a quick tip of the head in Kirito's direction. "AOE splash damage doesn't count as a clean hit, and neither does damage from a block or parry—but any damage'll still do the job if you wear 'em down to half, or if their HP's lower than yours when the time limit runs out."

So it really comes down to avoiding that one good hit, and picking just the right moment to get yours in. One and done. Asuna signaled her own understanding with a curt nod. Speed and precision—I can do this.

As she and Nori faced each other next to the fountain, Asuna heard familiar wings behind her; a flash of black and silver out of the corner of her eye turned out to be Kirito taking a seat on a railing with his back to the rest of Arun as it stretched out and downwards to the west, so she assumed others must be taking similar positions to watch the duel that was about to unfold. She turned her head just fractionally enough to catch Kirito's eyes; he gave her a nod and smiled at her encouragingly.

You can do this, she told herself again, returning her gaze to the woman she was about to fight. Nori's hands were busy and her attention was on her menu, but when she looked up at Asuna, they both exchanged smiles of their own.

"Alright," said Nori, eyes going to just above Asuna's head as her hands worked in her menu. "Let's rock."

The chiming of game sounds came from the air above her as soon as she accepted the duel request; she assumed it had to be the banner and countdown timer that she'd seen in the other duels she'd watched, and didn't let herself get distracted. Nori seemed focused as well; the Spriggan woman took a step back and turned partially to the side, presenting her quarterstaff before her in a two-handed stance that slanted it up along a line pointing at Asuna's chest.

Asuna felt no need to fuss around with swapping equipment for what promised to be a quick stand-up fight with her weapon, and Nori seemed content to wait out the timer with no changes of her own. Since they had nothing else to do with the long countdown, Asuna ventured to ask a question that had been on her mind. "Why me?"

Nori didn't pretend not to understand the simple but vaguely-worded question. "I dunno. I'm used to having to prove myself before joining a group. It's usually cocky dudebros calling me out, trying to embarrass me or thinking I'm an easy win." She grinned suddenly. "Which I'm not. So I guess you could say I kinda wanted a change of pace."

Asuna wasn't precisely surprised at the answer. Near as she'd been able to tell from observation, somewhere around a third to a half the game's overall population was female, but the demographics were nowhere near as balanced in the clearing groups, or at the higher levels. "I've never dueled anyone before. So I suppose that'll be a change of pace for both of us."

"Don't worry," Nori assured Asuna, with a brassy self-confidence that didn't even come close to being reassuring. "I'll go easy on the noob."

"Noob?" Asuna echoed back, genuinely offended for a moment. "Noob? You do realize that I didn't just join Kirito's group as a pickup? I'm a top member of the Undine clearing groups, and I don't have anything to prove to—"

A loud buzzer sounded in the air. Asuna was fortunate that her attention was fully on Nori at the time; the moment the tone signaled the start of the match, Nori shifted her grip on the staff slightly into what must have been the pre-motion for a very fast technique. The Spriggan woman did a quick shuffle forward and turned the tip of the staff into a blur that struck at Asuna several times in different places, telescoping out from Nori's mid-staff grip like a pool cue; only the rapier's speed and high priority let Asuna deflect the first light strike, giving her an opening to hop-step back from the rest of the blows.

That left Nori stuck in the end frame of the technique for what seemed like nearly half a second; Asuna tried to capitalize on the opening, but that freeze time ended just as she finished her «Streak» technique's opening motions, and Nori was able to parry the diagonal slash by spinning the butt of the staff around and knocking the blade of the rapier wide. Nori spun the staff in her hands and tried to catch Asuna low from her open side as the head of the weapon came around, but Asuna had been expecting something like that, and she jumped over the swipe with a quick hop, bringing her rapier back up in an en garde position before she even landed. They tested each other several times after that, launching quick techniques that required a response but left the other player little or no opening to exploit.

Avoid big attacks, Asuna reminded herself as she was tempted to take advantage of one such opening with a multi-hit combo. They're going to commit you to a series of predictable movements, they'll take too long to charge, and you'll be vulnerable for longer. Her decision not to try using «Crucifixion» turned out to be sound a moment later when Nori—who'd appeared to be put off-balance by a successful parry—swung the full length of the staff from a fulcrum point near the end that brought the now-glowing stone head slamming back down to the ground right where Asuna would've been if she'd tried attacking. Instead, Asuna sidestepped the heavy attack and watched for the freeze time, ready to seize the advantage.

There was none; Asuna realized momentarily that Nori's attack had been a freehand response to having her weapon knocked back and away. It was just as well that Asuna hadn't tried exploiting an opening that hadn't been there to begin with, and she abruptly found herself fully occupied fending off a flurry of strikes that seemed to come from different directions each time her opponent spun the staff, or shifted her grip along its length. It wasn't any way that Nori herself was maneuvering, but because every bit of the staff—from one end to the other—seemed to be a potential striking surface.

In fact, if anything, Nori wasn't maneuvering—she'd all but planted herself in one place, and although she shifted a bit from side to side, and danced around within a constrained area as the System Assist carried her through her techniques, she never seemed to leave a spot about two meters from the side of the fountain.

This is how she tanks, Asuna realized suddenly. She even said so herself—she likes practicing in tight spaces with obstacles, and when she's tanking, she can't very well run around leaving the group exposed.

An idea began forming in Asuna's head. I can use this, she thought. If she's planted herself like this, I might be able to outmaneuver her.

And then she had no more time for thinking; Nori had begun pressing her attack hard, and Asuna found it challenging to simply keep deflecting the incoming attacks, let alone formulate any kind of strategy. A pinwheeling staff attack forced Asuna to deal with multiple quick strikes coming from either side, and although she was able to easily parry the first few hits with her rapier, the rest came quickly enough that Asuna disengaged by backflipping out of the way the moment there was a brief lull in the attacks, putting a few meters of distance between herself and Nori.

She had no sooner finished her acrobatic evasion than she found Nori charging at her to close the gap. The Spriggan woman's leading hand held her weapon loosely while her right hand slipped back to the butt of the staff and slid it forward in a deceptively long-range strike that Asuna only barely managed to parry with another «Streak». The thick tip of the staff deflected high and wide, and she felt a faint tug at her hair as it skimmed just past her right cheek in a flash of silver filigree and glowing stone.

Asuna had no idea how long the freeze time on that technique was, and she didn't feel like taking a chance. Rather than trying to lunge past two meters of fully-extended quarterstaff in order to gamble on getting a hit, she leapt to the side and grabbed the outstretched arm of the Valkyrie statue with her free hand, using her momentum to slingshot herself up and around the statue and putting it in between herself and the unpredictable reach of Nori's weapon. She flipped as she let go, landing in a crouch on the Valkyrie's shoulder with enough of a breather to cast a single spell. "Setto zabukke datranyul dweren!"

A transient sensation swept across her body like warm air as Spiritual Armor took effect. It wasn't absolute protection, but for the next minute and a half she'd take significantly less damage—and at the rate things were going, that could make a difference.

The fundamental problem for Asuna was that rapiers were light, and staves were heavy. Both were high-priority weapons, which meant that both combatants were on more or less equal ground when it came to parrying—but Asuna couldn't block the staff attacks outright without clash damage bleeding through, whereas Nori could block with nearly any part of the staff without much concern. Even if neither of them landed a clean hit, it wouldn't matter if Asuna had less HP remaining when the duel timer ran out, or dropped to 50% at any point. She could heal herself if she got a chance—but that, at least, almost felt like cheating to her for some reason; she briefly wished she'd thought to ask about it before they'd begun.

Asuna had been half-expecting Nori to protest the use of any magic at all, given her comments about fighting mages—but if anything, the Spriggan's gray eyes seemed to come alight as she grinned. "Alrighty then," she said, wings appearing on her back, and launched herself into motion with startling abruptness. "Ma min!"

Almost instinctively, Asuna manifested her own wings, which carried her backwards in a surge of sparkling blue energy that trailed before her eyes. Smoky magic streamed from the glowing stone in the tip of the staff as it described an arc that cut through the air Asuna had occupied moments before, and Nori turned the miss into a full-body spin that let her bring the staff around from the opposite side, just barely grazing Asuna's outstretched thigh and transmitting some of the Illusion damage from the spell. Asuna tucked her legs under her and dropped back to the ground, casting a Holy Bolt that Nori twisted herself around to evade; she enchanted her weapon with another spell and followed Asuna down with the staff raised so high that it almost disappeared behind her. Alarmed, Asuna rolled out of the way, and heard the thunderous crunch of the weapon's impact against the geometric stone tiles around the fountain.

How can she be this fast? Asuna wondered, coming back to her feet at the end of the breakfall roll and trying to find a way to recapture the initiative. She needs at least some STR for this staff and the medium armor she's wearing. She can't possibly be putting all her stat points into AGI, and I know she's not using any spells that would make her go faster. But her reaction time is insane—it's like watching Yuuki or Kirito fight!

But as she went on the attack, Asuna took notice of something she'd seen earlier: as soon as both of them were back on the ground, Nori had again staked out her own little zone, and seemed to be defending it for all it was worth. If Asuna tried backing off to spellcasting distance, Nori would close with her, or take advantage of the length of her weapon if Asuna was near enough. But as long as Asuna was the aggressor, Nori might as well have been nearly immovable, shuffle-stepping within a few-meter radius and turning only to face Asuna if she attacked from a different direction.

She's practically rooted in that spot there. This is my chance. Asuna dashed in and past Nori with her rapier held out, watching the dark-skinned young woman slowly step in a circle in order to track her movements. As soon as Nori lashed out with a swift freehand strike, Asuna evaded to one side of the attack and threw out her free hand, casting a spell she didn't use often and hoping she didn't fluff the incantation. "Zutto zabukke plorjabu tepnaga jan!"

Two seconds of Delay status, thought Asuna as she saw the surprise projectile zip out and strike the ground just in front of Nori, exploding into a five-meter AOE that splashed cool blue energy across both of them. She'll have good Status Resist, just like Kirito, but I don't even need half of that time to trigger «Linear». This is over.

Rapier already raised into the simple pre-motion for the basic starting technique, Asuna skidded to a stop, and an energetic rising tone sounded while the glow of her weapon gained intensity. As the technique went through its very short charge-up time, Asuna took in the look of shock on the Spriggan woman's face and confirmed the presence of the debuff icon on her status ribbon; Nori's staff moved in slow motion as she desperately tried to bring it to bear on an opponent that was already nearly behind her.

As she prepared to release her attack, a glimpse of purple drew Asuna's attention past Nori to where a familiar but very unexpected figure stood at the edge of the gathering crowd. Asuna's eyes widened in recognition.

Yuuki's eyes went equally wide in response as their gazes met, and she opened her mouth. Her shout of warning came too late as the head of Nori's staff arced around at full speed and took Asuna in the midriff during her moment of distraction, doubling her over and sending her tumbling across the grass as her rapier flew free of her hand.

Asuna wasn't stunned for long before her wings came to life almost without conscious thought, all four of them spread wide and vibrating furiously to halt her flight. At almost the same time, she heard a Spriggan's wings behind her; she didn't even have to look to know that Kirito had done his white-knight thing and tried to catch her. She appreciated the thought, but between her wings and her Acrobatics skill kicking in, she righted herself and skidded to a stop in a crouch just past and to one side of the fountain.

Asuna glanced back over her shoulder as soon as she stopped moving, and smiled as she saw her suspicions confirmed; Kirito was practically right behind her, arms frozen and held out as if he'd expected her to be flying into them. It was hard not to giggle at the half-startled, half-disappointed look on his face.

Then a familiar warm lump struck her hard enough to nearly knock her out of her balanced breakfall crouch, and equally familiar laughter rang in her ears as Yuuki bodily lifted Asuna off the ground and whirled her around.

"Oof," Asuna managed in the midst of the little girl's STR-infused bear-hug, wanting to laugh but finding it almost physically difficult at the moment. "I missed you, Yuuki," she said once the purple-clad arms loosened a bit.

"Sorry to ruin your duel, Asuna," Yuuki said unnecessarily, setting her down with a sheepish look. "I guess I missed you too."

As exciting as it had been, the last thing in the world Asuna cared about at the moment was the outcome of the duel. "It's okay, really—it doesn't matter." As soon as her own arms were freed, she reached up and habitually swatted away the anti-harassment warning pop-up, just as Nori came jogging up with a concerned look on her face, followed closely by the rest of the party.

"Hey, you okay there, Miss Melee DPS?" Almost as an afterthought, Nori looked up at the glowing mid-air scoreboard that declared her the winner. "Asuna? That was a hell of a hit you took."

Asuna waved it off, feeling a vague bit of fuzzy numbness in the stomach, but no lingering discomfort. "I'm just fine, thank you," she said, finding it impossible not to smile at the silly grin on her dearly-missed companion's face. "I let myself get distracted at the last moment."

"I'll say. I thought you had me there."

Asuna returned the Spriggan woman's smug look in equal measure. "I did have you."

Nori's lips formed a lopsided grin as she glanced over at Yuuki. "Yeah, you did."

Xorren nudged Burns. "Who's your adorable imouto?"

Burns regarded Yuuki with a comprehensive look from bandana to boots that had Asuna very nearly about to give him a piece of her mind for ogling a twelve-year-old girl, until he turned back to Xorren with a matter-of-fact response. "Dude? Little sister will kick your ass."

Xorren snickered, but seemed to give Yuuki a second glance, taking in her gear and the way she looked back at him with what might well have been a direct challenge. He opened his mouth for about a second and a half, then seemed to think better of whatever he was going to say—for which Asuna figured he was probably wiser than he seemed sometimes.

"This must be the new party you've been messaging me about," Yuuki said with a grin of her own.

Asuna introduced them all to Yuuki one by one, trying not to roll her eyes at Xorren's third or fourth invocation of "Red Mage" or the predictable offer of a duel from Burns, but laughing at the way Nori ended up regretting her attempt to squeeze Yuuki's hand in a contest of strength.

She'd expected Mentat to simply nod to Yuuki, or utter something reserved but polite; instead he ended up following his greeting with an unexpectedly awkward question. "Is your friend going to be joining the clearing group?"

Asuna caught sight of Kirito joining her at her side just as she turned to look at Yuuki. However, Yuuki spoke before anyone else could, catching her completely off-guard. "No, I'm not."

That brought total silence from all involved; into that silence Yuuki went on, looking at Asuna with a heartbreaking sadness touching her expression for a fleeting moment before her bangs fell forward with her bow. "I'm sorry, but there's still something I have to do," she said. "But I need to talk with you before I go, Asuna."

Confused and more than a little saddened herself, Asuna returned Yuuki's bow without thinking, and then turned to Kirito and tried to find the words to apologize for the way she was about to run off.

Kirito shook his head with an encouraging little smile. "Don't worry about it. Do what you need to do." He waved. "Hey, Yuuki."

Yuuki gave Kirito a look that was almost as sheepish as the one she'd worn after hugging Asuna. "Hey, Kirito. I'm going to borrow Asuna for a bit. I promise I'll give her back to the party."

Asuna just barely caught the bemused look on Kirito's face before Yuuki took her by the hand and led her off into the street, barely slowing long enough for Asuna to scoop up her rapier off the ground. At first she was tempted to ask where she was being led, but after a minute Yuuki let go of her hand and gave flight. Asuna brought out her own wings and matched courses with the purple flight trail ahead of her, following as it spiraled up and around one of the towers that rose above the two- and three-story buildings that were more typical of Arun's structures.

Six floors later, Yuuki touched down feather-light atop the minaret, boots settling into a nook near the edge so that she faced out across the city towards the sunset with her knees drawn up. Asuna landed with equal grace moments after, easing into a sitting position that was a little more ladylike but no less comfortable. She found herself wishing that Kirito was there to share the sight with them; she knew he missed having Yuuki around as well. And from what the girl had said, it sounded like she might not be back for long.

But for the time being, it was enough just to have her back at all.

"Ne, Asuna," Yuuki said. "There's something I've been meaning to talk to you about."

"Of course, Yuuki." The answer was automatic, but she was getting a little bit worried. Whatever was on Yuuki's mind, her friend was acting like she was afraid of what Asuna might think of her when it was done.

Yuuki went quiet for another minute, then, at the moment of sundown. She waited until the last of the corona's glow had dipped below the mountains, and only then—as the day began to darken into night—did she turn to Asuna with a sad, wistful smile. "I want to tell you about Aiko," she said. "She was my sister, and she was the most beautiful soul in the world…"

·:·:·:·:·:·

Such a little thing, Agil thought as he examined the tiny, ornate rectangular box that Grimlock passed to him. About the size of a soda can and bearing a polished white crystal at one end, it was smaller and more compact than the «Visual Sensor» modules they'd used previously during their testing. From what his Leprechaun crafting partner had said, that just meant it required more expensive mats to produce—the actual function ought to be identical.

Agil hoped so. Their experiments were getting increasingly costly, and cost came with a corresponding escalation in expectations from the Proxies—as well as from those whom they represented—who were counting on them to provide a useful deliverable for their clearers.

The moment that Agil's incantation for the «Enchant Item» spell was complete, the device in his hands began glowing with the same bright golden-amber light that had been flowing down his arms, "priming" it with the first stage of the enchantment. Working quickly, he handed the item to the tall Puca mage standing next to him. Sendak took the component in hand and held it by his slender fingertips, then wasted no time in casting his Wind spell; the freshly-primed item drew in the spell energy with an anticlimactic rush of air and glowing green energy that ended as soon as the imbuement completed.

Neither of them were strangers to enchanting items with spell effects; they'd worked together long enough to have the routine and the incantations down pat. But working with components for «Constructs» was—although conceptually the same process as creating enchanted weapons or armor—far less of a science as yet. Even though they'd tested this particular effect a few times now, they wouldn't truly know if they'd achieved success until a Leprechaun with the appropriate skills assembled the end product into a functional machine.

That was where Agil's partner came in.

"New one for you, Grimlock." The named Leprechaun crafter, sitting at his bench across the workshop, turned at the sound of his name; Agil lobbed the device towards him in a slow, gentle arc.

Grimlock made a sound of mild exasperation after catching the component with both hands and gingerly setting it aside. "Please stop doing that," he said. "You're going to break one, and then we shall all complain bitterly about the wasted mats."

"Nah," Agil said, grinning over at his partner. "You know well as I do that one knock on the floor ain't enough to break these things. I'm just trying to lighten things up a bit."

"They're quite light enough after these latest improvements, I'd say," said Grimlock, hefting the small object and giving Agil a pointed look just over the rims of his glasses. A slight smile took form then, and he turned the item over in his hands to examine it, then tapped it once to open its status window. "Satisfactory," he said. "I was hoping to see what a crit might do, but a success is a success."

"I can list on one hand the number of times I've critted on Enchant," Agil said with a good-natured smile of his own. "Unless you got a track record of winning lottery numbers, that falls into the category of don't count on it. Now come on, man, don't keep us in suspense."

"I'm getting to it, good sir," said Grimlock, already carefully positioning the module next to a partially-completed device the size of a desk phone, then sliding the connection into place with a metallic click. Last in place was a glowing power crystal that he plucked seemingly at random from a steel bin of like objects; a single twist into an empty socket locked the spiral-framed orelight in place with a similarly satisfying sound, and arcane energy immediately flowed from the crystal into the device it powered.

"All good, Grim?"

Grimlock inclined his head towards Agil in answer, and bowed slightly as he gestured towards the testing area, the symmetrical black curtains of his bangs covering his glasses as he did. "It is, as you say, good to go. Sendak?"

There were freshly-painted markings on the floor in the workshop that depicted bearings and distances as measured from a fixed point—a point centered on the device they were testing. The moment the Puca mage's long strides crossed one of the angular lines radiating out from that point, the indicator crystal on the top of the device began shining a bright red.

"Forty-five," Grimlock read out, hands working in the air before him as he presumably typed in a note-taking window that Agil couldn't see. After Sendak crossed another point on the floor, then paced back the way he came from a greater distance, the Leprechaun nodded again. "And again. So it works in a 45-degree cone. As I suspected, it is highly directional along the sensor crystal's facing."

"And relatively short-range compared to the spell it came from," Agil observed, pulling up his area map and highlighting several friends and guildmates who weren't set Unfindable. "There's someone about eighty meters in that direction, and it's not picking them up."

"Blocked LOS, perhaps?"

Sendak seemed to consider Grimlock's question thoughtfully for a few moments, rubbing at the peach fuzz on his chin. A mischievous smirk touched his face. "One way to find out, I suppose."

"Now, Sen—"

There had been a caution in Grimlock's tone, but it went unheeded. Sendak took a few steps straight back and away from the device, and threw out his arms to the sides. "Dotto zabukke plemalthe ralth tepnaga buren."

A wall of elemental stone rose from the floor before him with startling suddenness and a loud rumble, spanning the workshop from wall to wall; startled, Agil pushed himself off his work stool and backpedaled for a moment before regaining his composure. The conjured wall stopped growing everywhere it encountered a solid object, creating gaps beyond them like cast shadows.

The device's red light stayed on.

A few moments passed, just long enough to be sure. Then the wall collapsed in a voluminous puff of short-lived dust; Sendak stepped through the cloud, waving his hands unnecessarily to help it disperse back into nothingness. "Well?"

"It's range, not LOS," Agil said with a feigned cough that was a little too dramatic to be believable. "And you're an asshole."

Sendak grinned, making an equally put-on show of brushing off the lapels of his patchwork robe. "My work here is done. Need anything else?"

Agil gave the man a friendly clap on the arm. "Nah, I think we're good now. Got a few more tests to run through, including seeing how long the battery lasts on this fancy flashlight. Grim, what did you slot in there?"

"Standard Tier 2 white. Base draw from the functional components should give it up to an hour of runtime—less if the enchantment increases the sensor's power load. We won't know for certain without field tests."

Agil nodded; though his understanding of the mechanics of Constructs was secondhand at best, he'd been spending a fair amount of time learning about them while working with Grimlock, and the concepts were straightforward enough. He grinned over at his partner. "Then what say you and I take a little field trip, my man? Slap a carry handle on that gadget and come with me."

"So long as this 'field trip' involves no actual combat," Grimlock answered, rooting through a bin of spare parts until he found a plain metal handle and affixed it to one of the connectors on top of the device. He gave it a tentative heft with one hand, then transferred it to the other.

Agil scoffed good-naturedly. Grimlock was a nice guy, and a real sharp one too, but a little excitement would do him some good once in a while. "Where's your sense of adventure, man?"

"I'm afraid I may have left it in Domnann," Grimlock remarked, slipping off his own seat and walking over to Agil while panning the device around. "Perhaps I shall send for it someday."

"Maybe you can invent a Construct that'll help you find it," Agil joked, giving Grimlock a slap on the back that all but staggered him. His partner bore it in good humor, taking the lead so that the device wouldn't pick up Agil while they walked. "Or maybe ask your wife? She seems to have plenty of adventure in her."

Agil regretted the comment as soon as he made it; he could tell it had been a poor choice from the way Grimlock suddenly stiffened, almost tripping over his own feet. "Hey, nothing meant by it, man. I know you worry about her when she's out."

"It is quite distressing at times," Grimlock allowed, stopping in front of the lift and waiting for Agil to bring it down from the upper levels of the Depot. The red light on the detector device lit up when Grimlock turned towards him, reflecting off his round-rimmed glasses. "I'm sure you understand, in your own way."

Agil tried not to show his discomfort at the sudden pivot to the all-but-taboo subject of the outside world. "I half-envy you, to be honest," he said after a pause. "At least you get to be with her in here, even if she's taking risks. Kathy's stuck back in riaru, and I ain't seen her for going on six months now. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad she's safe… but it wears on a man, not seeing or hearing from his wife for that long, or even knowing how she's getting by."

That response might have in turn been more than Grimlock had been looking for; they rode the lift with the awkward silence of strangers on a train until it let them off on the main Warehouse level. At first he ignored the notification that chimed for his attention and nagged at his peripheral vision; he had his map window open and was estimating distances to each new signal that Grimlock's invention picked up. But eventually he made the mistake of glancing at the icon—or more precisely, at the name beside it.

Agil held up his forefinger, bringing Grimlock to a halt with a curious rise to his eyebrows. "Can you give me a sec? I've been waiting for this message." It was a little surprising that Argo had gotten back to him so quickly, but he wasn't about to complain, timing be damned. The information he'd sought from her would help set his mind at ease about something that had been bothering him ever since the visit from the Undine clearer. At a polite tilt of the head from Grimlock, Agil turned his attention back to his UI.

「The answer to your question depends on how you define "blacksmith". If you mean a player who uses one «Smithing» skill or another to create, upgrade, or service armor or weapons for players, then the answer is no, there's no blacksmith in Arun named Nezha.」

If that had been the end of Argo's message, everything would've been fine. Agil was less than happy to see that there was more. 「There is, however, a guy by that name who's gotta be doing a brisk little business in something. My next PM is gonna be some of the mats he's been buying and—where I could—the quantities he's been asking for. This is not a short list, and it took a fair bit of time today to run down. You owe me.」

It took a few minutes for Agil to receive Argo's next PM; he guessed she must have had to type it all up manually. By that point, he'd made his apologies to Grimlock and was already on his way up to Chellok's office, his long legs carrying him quickly up the stairs.

"Chief," he said as soon as he poked his head in the door. "Need to talk."

"Someone's always gotta talk about something," Chellok grumped, though Agil could tell from long association that there was no actual ire behind it. "What'cha got?"

Agil waited until he'd closed the door behind himself before going any further, and took a casual seat on the near corner of the L-shaped desk, leaning against the edge of the door to keep it shut. "I told you I was going to look into that report of Nezha doing smithing work, right?"

Chellok let out a frustrated sigh as he placed both palms on the chair's arm rests, leaning his head back with a look that suggested he wished Agil hadn't made the effort. "Aw, don't tell me you actually found something."

"Not sure yet," Agil admitted, drawing open his game menu and pulling up Argo's latest PM. "He doesn't have a smithy, but he's doing business of some kind in Arun."

"No law against that," Chellok pointed out. "We got no say over what he does there."

"No," Agil admitted, "there's not, and we don't. But it's still fishy, man. He's blacklisted from doing business with anyone in the NCC, and you told him yourself that if we ever caught him trying to work on player equipment again, anywhere, we'd go public with what he did."

"And?"

Agil set his menu visible and dragged out Argo's PM window, turning it towards Chellok, who leaned forward and squinted slightly while Agil spoke. "Look at what he's been buying up, Chief. Anything strike you as… I dunno, familiar at all?"

"Enchant mats," Chellok said after a few moments. "Some for what looks like Construct modules, too, but mostly enchantments." The other Gnome's eyes met Agil's over the edge of the holographic window. "Which isn't what he was doing before, so I'm back to my last question: what do you want me to do about this?"

"Maybe send someone to find out what he's doing," Agil said. "It still looks like he's back to working on player gear, and I doubt it's legit business."

"Why? Because the boy ran a scam once?" Chellok sank back into his chair with another sigh, one hand briefly coming to his face. "Look, if you've got any evidence that Nezha's up to something shady with Enchant mats, I'll gladly take it to Daizen—maybe the Proxies will stomp on him publicly this time."

"Then again, maybe they won't," Agil said. "We asked Thinker to Banish that little shit, and he wouldn't hear of it. I dunno what the boy said to his faclead, but kicking Nezha out of Nissengrof and putting him on the blacklist was the best we could get at the time. You think Yurielle's gonna contradict her leader—and let's be real, her boyfriend—even now?"

"Look, Agil," Chellok said with palms upturned, "this is not a political fight we can afford right now. We've already got grumbles from some of the Puca and Lepu feeling like junior partners in the NCC. We start throwing our weight around against some dumb kid of theirs who might not even be doing anything wrong, we're gonna have more than just grumbles. So what do you want me to do?"

"Maybe at least care a bit about protecting the rest of the player base," Agil remarked bluntly. "The boy's up to something. I told you I saw a weapon he'd crafted—it was recent work, not the halfassed fails he used to make. And now he's buying up a lot of mats for making enchantments and constructs. That doesn't make you suspicious, given what he did before?"

"Nah," said Chellok. "Honestly? Makes me think he's trying to find a way to get by."

"As an enchanter?"

Chellok shrugged in place. "Why not? Unless we get wind of him ripping people off again, I say we let him make what living he can." He poked a stubby finger towards Agil. "Now, I'm more interested in what you and your tinker friend have been up to. This detection gadget you've been promising sounds nice, but the R&D's costing us a lot of mats we can't afford to be burning right now. Got any progress to report?"

"Matter of fact, we were just testing the latest prototype," Agil said, shifting gears onto a more comfortable subject. "It's good stuff, Chief. This version's handheld, weighs about five kilos. Initial results look decent—45 degree forward cone of detection, unaffected by LOS, range of somewhere around forty-fifty meters."

He'd been expecting a more receptive reaction from Chellok than the grimace that he got. "Fifty meters is better than a kick in the teeth, but that still ain't so great," he said. "Edge of typical projectile range—by the time something's that close to a clearing group, it's gonna be too late. Won't do much for problems with invisible mobs if they can't detect them until they're already on top of the group."

"Not necessarily," Agil said. "In a dungeon you've got walls and rooms making the short range less of a downside, and ignoring LOS a huge win. And we still don't know if better mats or a more powerful charging crystal will make a difference to the range or cone." He tapped his first two fingers firmly against the cold metal desk. "Grim's on to something here, Chellok. We need more time and supplies to perfect it."

"Maybe," Chellok said. "But right now we got neither to give. What we do have is shortages on top of shortages. I'm not gonna tell you not to work on it, because it is promising—and if you can perfect the thing, and bring the cost down, I'll back you. But I got the Proxies breathing down my neck about the resources you're using up. According to them, Constructs are a fun gimmick for casuals, but the clearing groups don't think they're worth the weight or expense."

"And what do you think, Chief?"

"I think it don't matter one thin yen what I think," Chellok answered. "If Daizen and especially Godfree think Constructs are a waste of time and resources, then your Lepu partner needs to come up with something that'll wow them, not me—something useful right now, not maybe might-be-useful if we spend some more money." He glanced out of his tall office windows across the warehouse floor, eyes going to where Agil knew some of the mats under discussion were kept in bulk. "Until then, I've gotta ask you to stop pulling from NCC stores for your partner's Constructs. He can tinker all he wants, and he's welcome to keep sharing workshop space with you—but he's gotta fund his experiments himself."

"That's not gonna make Grimlock happy," Agil commented.

"Is it supposed to?" Chellok shrugged. "Sorry, son, but that's just the way the chips are falling right now. Tell him to look on the bright side—I'm real happy with the work his guild is doing for us. The map data his wife and guildies are bringing back means we might be able to open some new farming zones soon, and they're getting first pick. Be sure and tell him that."

Agil intended to do so, but somehow suspected it wasn't going to do much to take the sting out of de-funding Grimlock's experiments. He immediately regretted his haste in coming up to ask Chellok about Nezha—maybe, if they'd been able to get in another day or two of tests and refinement to the design, they could've produced something that was actually useful to the clearers. Easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, and all that. Oh, well.

He was halfway down the stairs, thinking about what he was going to say to Grimlock, when the idea occurred to him. Stopping for a moment to draw open his menu, Agil leaned against the thick steel frames of the warehouse superstructure and started a new PM. It was a long shot, but he knew the farmer would at least be in an overland zone and able to receive it—even if he might not be able to reply until it was safe.

「Hey Jargo, hit me up tonight at receiving and inventory. Got something I want you and your group to take with you when you go out tomorrow...」

·:·:·:·:·:·

"I give up," Sakuya said, allowing herself to sink into the high-backed chair of her office. "I need a drink."

"I could send someone to fetch refreshments for us, Lady Sakuya," Chimiro answered seriously. "But I suspect the alcohol would not produce the result you seek."

"I know," Sakuya acknowledged unhappily, plucking a glass from her desk and swirling its flavored bluish-green liquid with a disinterested hourglass-shaped motion of her hand. "Alfheim would be a much more bearable prison if the wine got you drunk."

Despite spending half the day with Chimiro, Sakuya felt barely any closer to understanding the economic side of running a faction than she had been the day before. The various data visualizations he produced with the Administration interface were very pretty, and on occasion she even had some grasp of what they meant—some of them resembled the financial charts that had passed over the desk of her real-world employer, charts that she'd needed at least a passing familiarity with in order to do her job.

But when it came to how they all fit together, she was as lost as ever. "Look," Sakuya said at last, slowly holding up a palm as Chimiro's explanation wound down. "It's not that I don't understand the basic premise, here. The game economy is part of a vast system—some of which is player-driven, and some which we have to assume is balanced by some kind of automated process behind the scenes." Heimdall. The name that Sigurd had given for the program that ran Alfheim sprang to mind as soon as she spoke, though she didn't dare reveal that detail to Chimiro. Why not, though? Like so much of what's transpired in the last week, the details are harmless enough—right up until the point where someone asks how I know these things.

"Substantially correct, if simplified," Chimiro said, reaching up to his visible interface and bringing one of its windows to the foreground. If her pensive thoughts reached her face in any way, he showed no sign of noticing. "This is only an aggregate of the vendor sales, but if you long-press on the header you can actually drill down—"

"Simplified is what I need right now, Chimiro," Sakuya said, regretting the need to cut him off. "No, please. I get that what players buy from and sell to NPC vendors has an effect on what those vendors offer for sale. I get that the things we can source from vendors and players act as a gate not only to player progression, but to our ability to complete city improvements and other faction projects. And most importantly, I get that the mob rebalancing has left us scrambling to fix the faction economy. I've got the big picture, at least."

"Then what, Lady Sakuya, can I help you understand?"

Sakuya sighed as she met the older man's earnest gaze. "Perhaps nothing, Chimiro. I do not think that I am ever going to be able to visualize how all of these things are connected, at least not enough to make informed decisions. It's just too complex a web of relationships. Helping resolve disputes of fairness, making strategic and tactical decisions, inventory and organization—those I'm good at. The legal system, policy administration, player roles and permissions, city improvements—I'm getting a handle on all that too now, thanks to your help. But when it comes to the effects on Sylvain's economy, and knowing to run project X if we want to encourage NPC production of Y…"

Chimiro's deeply-lined face crinkled with a smile. "I want our people to succeed, Lady Sakuya. I will continue to serve to the best of my ability, as I did Lord Skarrip."

"I don't know what I'd do without you, Chimiro. What did you—?" Sakuya stopped herself there, realizing that she'd nearly asked him about his riaru occupation. In her experience, that sort of question was rarely welcome—least of all to larpers. She forced a cough to cover the awkward hesitation and decided on a different question, slow steps bringing her near the large windows that encircled the office. "What did you do with all this when Skarrip was leader?"

"Most of the time, very little," Chimiro admitted. "If there was a project I felt had merit I would bring it to Lord Skarrip's attention, particularly if it would add some kind of new service or improvement to the city. But it was rarely necessary to push the economy in any particular direction in order to make everything work out. It is only these recent changes that made previously-available items unobtainable."

"You can't miss what you've never had," Sakuya observed, leaning her head against the cool glass and gazing out across the city lights. "But when you've had it and then it's gone… people are going to notice. And then start looking for someone to blame."

"You've done well so far with the petitioners," Chimiro advised. "The most important thing right now is to make sure your people feel like they're being heard. I will do my best to select economic projects that will encourage vendors to provision the healing items now in short supply, but you must understand, Lady Sakuya: those projects will go nowhere without the raw materials to supply them. Those we must source ourselves."

Sakuya closed her eyes, one palm resting against the window. "And not all of those mats are dropping in the Ancient Forest anymore. I can't believe we're having this much trouble finding goddamn skeletons to kill in our own territory. There are plenty of undead in the Halls, from what I'm hearing, but we won't be there too much longer." If we're lucky, she added silently; progression in the new zone had been slow and dangerous for the clearing groups, especially with the distraction of having their best people pulled back to fight the Salamanders at home.

"We need to trade, Lady Sakuya. If not with other factions directly, then we at least need to ensure that independent traders can travel freely to and from our territory."

"I know," Sakuya said, eyes coming open just in time to see a cluster of bright green flight trails rise from the edge of the city and head northwards. At this time of night? Not clearers—they're all in the World Tree. Farmers? Militia? Or just a private group heading out for their own reasons? I hope they stay safe. "I have half a mind to task the Militia with clearing a route to the Cait Sith border—there's an NPC wagon trail that goes most of the way, but it wasn't entirely safe before, and it certainly isn't now."

"You still have the option of ending the war by ceding territory to the Salamanders," Chimiro pointed out.

"No!" said Sakuya in a tone of voice that was just a hair short of aggressive. She moderated herself a bit with the next words. "I'm sorry, Chimiro, but that option is not on the table. We've discussed this—it would buy us temporary peace, with a predictable war a month from now when everyone votes for Sigurd to replace me. And if I reward the Salamanders with territory for killing our people, I'm not even sure I'd blame them."

"Lady Sakuya, I do believe that Sigurd frightens you."

Chimiro could not possibly know the secrets that Sigurd held over her now, but Sakuya turned sharply towards her advisor as if he'd made a threat. It was foolish and irrational, but she couldn't be sure that her panicked thoughts hadn't been plain to see. When she answered, she did so very carefully. "Sigurd was close to Skarrip—a man I killed. He hates me, and we both know he wouldn't hesitate to see me dragged through the streets while launching a war of extermination against the Salamanders. I would be a fool not to fear him." Sakuya turned her back on the older man again, gazing through her faint reflection at the world outside of her new glass bubble. She touched a finger to the window, as if to test its permanence. "If I could lead the clearing groups myself, I would, Chimiro. But I can't leave Sylvain anymore. I need Sigurd's skills where they are, and I need those who follow him to follow me."

"Do you?" Chimiro responded.

Sakuya had begun running her finger down the broad pane of glass, and the question stopped her in mid-motion, forcing her again to think deliberately about how she wanted to answer. In the real world her fingertip would have left a faint streak on the glass where oils from her skin were transferred to the cold surface; here there was no such effect. Alfheim's simulation was detailed, but little absent details like that were sometimes jarring when they finally drew notice. She forced herself to turn away from the irrelevancy and face her advisor. "For the moment? I'm afraid so. Long term, we shall see." She paused, and her next words were carefully calibrated. "Chimiro, I'm sure it has not escaped your notice that Sigurd can be… difficult to work with. You seem as if you have more to say."

"Perhaps," Chimiro said with customary polite understatement. "Shall I be frank, my lady?"

Sakuya extended an upturned palm.

"I have quite obviously not been privy to your interactions with Sigurd in the field. But I have been present for many clearing group meetings, and I have observed your verbal sparring many times in the past. There was tension, but rarely any kind of outright disrespect of the kind you've received in recent weeks. Colloquially speaking, it is clear to me that whatever game plays out in the words exchanged between the two of you has changed—has, in point of fact, escalated to a degree that is unsustainable. And if that much is apparent to me—"

"We can be sure that it is so to everyone else around us."

"Including, and especially, the other clearers."

Sakuya paused to digest the implications. She knew the Sylph clearers well, and many of the Militia—which overlapped with the clearers, but were not the same thing—almost as well. She thought she had a fairly good read on who her reliable supporters might be... and judging by the unspoken reactions in recent meetings, Sigurd's recent escalation of open hostility towards her was not going over well with them.

But Sigurd had his own supporters as well. And Sakuya did not fool herself into thinking she knew who they all were—or what they would do if forced to take sides.

"Go on."

Chimiro's head bobbed once. "Sigurd's openly-disrespectful behavior is an issue that must be addressed. Not only privately with Sigurd himself, but also with the clearing groups. His insubordination will be damaging not only to you, but to the morale of those groups." The portly older man made an expansive motion with his hands that collapsed the windows of the faclead interface he'd had open for instruction, clearing the air in a way both figurative and literal. "But the open and obvious way he seeks to undermine you is a sword bearing two equally dangerous edges, and one faces back upon him. The more aggressively he attacks you, the more petty and unprofessional he will appear in the eyes of anyone who does not already agree with him."

"You're suggesting," Sakuya said with measured care, "that I give Sigurd enough rope to hang himself."

Chimiro lowered his head. "Sigurd will seek out that rope whether you provide it to him or not. It is in his nature to be disagreeable when disagreeing. With utmost respect, Lady Sakuya, what I am suggesting is that you would do well to avoid responding in kind as he does. While you were subordinates competing for Skarrip's trust, your bickering was at best an uncomfortable sideshow. You are now the leader of the Sylphs. What do you suppose the clearing group leaders see when you and Sigurd fight?"

Disarray. Distrust. A pair of adults—their leaders, even!—who ought to know better, behaving like children in the midst of a life-threatening crisis. And all the while, those who will suffer most from it can only watch in horror.

Sakuya felt an involuntary grimace twist her face as she reflected upon her own behavior; the comparisons that came to mind were disturbing to contemplate. How often had she flinched from the nasty arguments between the parents of a close childhood friend? And if that unwanted and inescapable drama had been bad for Sakuya, it had been ever so much worse for poor Miyaka.

She could see much the same dynamic playing out between herself and Sigurd—except that their subordinates were not eight-year-old children who had little choice but to wait out the conflict in uncomfortable, desperate silence. They were—at least, many of them were—adults capable of making their own choices. Choices about where to direct their efforts. Choices about whether or not to continue putting their lives on the line for leaders they couldn't respect.

Choices about whom to support—and whom, perhaps, to oppose.

Sakuya was aware that she had not actually answered Chimiro's question, though it had arguably been rhetorical, and had in fact already done the work of getting her to think. She gave him a slow nod and an ambiguous noise of aizuchi to convey that she'd been listening. "The more I hear from you, Chimiro, the more I'm convinced that Skarrip could never have held on as long as he did without you." She leaned back against the broad pane of curved glass; it did not radiate the chill outside, but was still cold to the touch, and her lips parted slightly with a silent breath of surprise. She quickly straightened herself and took several quick steps towards the center of the room where Chimiro stood, menus still open and visible. "Which, I suppose, brings us full-circle to my failure to get my head fully around our logistics challenges. Put it to me simply: what do we most need right now, and why do we not have it?"

Chimiro hesitated before speaking; by now she recognized that the answer she was about to receive would not necessarily be complete or as asked. "I do not know that I can summarize what you're asking for in a way that does not omit essential—"

"Mats, Chimiro. Give me the names of mats we need in bulk, why we need them, and why we don't have them."

"I would say that the most essential are Dire Wolf Incisors, Treant Heartwood, and Corrupted Pixie Blood. I am not an expert on crafting of any sort, but the first two—"

"Upgrades for our clearers, thank you—I recognize those, at least."

"Quite correct, although I could not tell you who uses what, and they are used for projects as well."

Sakuya's fingertip traced a slow, vertical trail through the air as she scanned the ordered list hanging before her. "You would know the faction projects better than I, but in terms of upgrades… Incisors are for the longsword users, and mages need Heartwood. I don't know what the Pixie Blood is for, though."

"My understanding is that it is refined into Enchanted Blood, which is used extensively to both drive NPC production of Healing Potions and supply our own crafters for such. There are a number of provisioning projects which require Enchanted Blood in great quantities."

Sakuya winced. Having to delay equipment upgrades for their clearing groups was bad enough, but potions were an essential life-or-death dependency for anyone. The basic first-tier potions sold by virtually any alchemist or item shop just didn't cut it after around level 10, and if Sylvain's NPCs stopped producing the higher-quality versions, the city's players would have to craft or import them from elsewhere—if they even could, at any price. "We can only hope the Salamanders are equally challenged by the repop changes."

"My lady, it seems self-evident to me that they are. Else why take the chances that they are taking, farming in our territory?"

Sakuya's finger hesitated in mid-air just before one of the lines of text in Chimiro's list. Her mind was suddenly ablur with thoughts that would not go away, all of them competing for primacy. Green eyes darted between columns of data, trying to corral those thoughts into a semblance of order before she spoke. "I need… I need a knowledgeable crafter in here," she said slowly. Then she spun to look at Chimiro, who jumped slightly at the sudden movement, all of his UI windows leaping away from her fingertips as he reacted. "No, not just any crafter—get me our Crafting Lead. Head Crafter. Whatever the hell we call him."

"Rolf, my lady. His title, as such, is—"

"I don't care; just get him in this office ASAP. And Granholm, I need Granholm in here now to speak for the farmers."

A seed had begun to sprout in Sakuya's mind, and while Chimiro hurried to send messages to the appropriate people, she did her best to nurture it. She drew open her game map and refocused it until the whole of Sylph territory spread out before her in the air, only listening with half an ear while she reviewed what she knew of the land she was supposed to be defending. Shaped somewhat like an overflowing ice cream cone with the top tilted to the northeast, the majority of the "ice cream" part of the cone was dominated by the massive, sprawling zone of the Ancient Fores, which was the only part of their territory that shared a border with the Salamanders. To the southwest the thinner Fae Underwood formed a buffer between the deep forest and the newbie zones of Sylvain Environs, with the Sylvan Peninsula stretching out into the ocean from there, but those were all well beyond where the Salamanders were now.

In terms of actual number of zones, we have the fewest of any race except perhaps the Imps. But those zones are massive, and there is incredible variety within them—a wide spread of level ranges, spawns, and environments. We may be able to use that to our advantage. Manually-colored or annotated regions overlaid the map when she touched the «Custom Data» checkbox, but the notes shared from her clearing group didn't have what she needed to know—most of what she'd collected over the months had to do with the areas within the World Tree, and the usual routes for getting there quickly.

Rolf was the first to arrive; according to Chimiro he had already been in the administrative building when summoned. The blond boy had the kind of plain, round face that disappeared into crowds; the only thing Sakuya found particularly remarkable about him was how young he seemed to be for a position that demanded so much organization. His ordinary Japanese features radiated nervousness at having been summoned so abruptly by his faction leader, and he shifted from one foot to the other before sketching a bow when her attention fell on him.

Sakuya held up a hand to forestall any further ceremony or fuss. "Thank you for coming on short notice, Rolf. You're not in trouble, I just need information and I'm hoping you can help me without spending a lot of time checking records or going back and forth in PMs."

That approach seemed to dispel the boy's unease, he grinned awkwardly and straightened his posture a little. "That's a relief," he said quickly. "I thought maybe I'd screwed up inventory again. How can I help you?"

Again? Sakuya chose not to pursue that revealing comment; Chimiro probably knew more than she did anyway, and the boy was clearly doing a good enough job to thus far not need replacement. "Rolf, it's my understanding that we don't have very many players in our clearing groups or registered as Militia who use two-handed swords or polearms. Would that be an accurate statement?"

Rolf nodded quickly, giving Chimiro a quick glance to the side. "Yeah, pretty much. I'd have to check the books to get you numbers, but I can only think of what, about a dozen people offhand? Mostly Militia volunteers. Only a couple players in the core clearing groups with two-handers, and you probably know who they are. Even fewer with polearms."

"Thank you. What mats do those weapons require for upgrades?"

Rolf's fuzzy blond eyebrows rose expressively. "You needed me for that?"

Sakuya sighed. "Please pretend that your faction leader is stupid, Rolf, and answer the question. I wouldn't have asked it if I knew."

Rolf blushed furiously and stammered his way through replying. "I-I, I'm sorry Sakuya, I mean Lady Sakuya, it's—do I have to call you that? Skarrip always wanted to be called a Lord, and whatever, right, but—"

Sakuya was already holding out a hand to settle the boy's nerves before he got halfway through his first sentence; she immediately felt bad for the tone she'd taken with him. "No, I apologize—please just continue. Two-handed swords and polearms," she offered as a reminder to get him back on track.

"R-right," Rolf replied, smiling nervously as he looked between the two adults in the room. "Well, base upgrades for the Two-Handed Straight Sword weapon class need Drake Scales. For polearms it's Loper Spadetails."

Neither of which, Sakuya, knew, could be found in any great quantities anywhere in Sylph territory. "Do we maintain any significant inventory for these mats?"

Rolf scoffed so quickly that it was clear he didn't even have to think about the answer. "Why would we? We'd have to import most of it, and we mostly just keep a small stock on hand for the core clearers." At Sakuya's look of impatience, he hastened to clarify. "So no, not really. Funny you should ask, though—farmers have been sending me a lot more Drake Scales the last few days, and I've been meaning to ask Granholm what the deal is."

"Ask me about what deal?" The new voice belonged to the coordinator for their farming groups, a thirty-something man in medium brigandine armor whose entry into Sakuya's office had come at the tail end of Rolf's response. The riveted steel plates covering the heavy leather tunic gleamed as if new; Granholm had clearly either just put on his gear, or—more likely, given the time of day—had it serviced. The man turned emerald eyes first towards Chimiro, then Sakuya. "I was about to debrief a farming group from the conflict area, but Chimiro's message sounded urgent. What's up?"

"In a moment," Sakuya said. "What's this about the conflict area?"

"Nothing specific, just trying to get feedback from anyone who's been engaged by the Sals today," Granholm said. "I'm trying to decide if and where to shift our assignments around, but I need to know more about what's happening on the ground, where it's safe and where it isn't."

That didn't sound good to Sakuya, though she wasn't sure how deeply she wanted to pry at the moment. She'd called Rolf and Granholm here for a specific reason, but given how interconnected all of these subjects were, the risk of getting sidetracked was acceptable. "Is there anything I can do to help you get the information you need?"

Granholm's grunt was accompanied by a sharp nod. "As a matter of fact, yeah, you can tell the clearers to fucking communicate." He immediately looked embarrassed, as if he'd just realized that he was not only talking to his faction leader, but to someone who had herself been a clearer until very recently. "Apologies, uh, your ladyship. It's just that it's tough to know where I should send my farmers if I don't know where they're gonna be protected. Most of the Militia are just volunteers, so I don't count on 'em being around and it's a bonus if they are. I expect better from you and Sigurd."

"As well you should," Sakuya said, mentally tallying yet another subject to raise with one of her least favorite people in the world. "I'm sorry that we've let you down, Granholm. I know your people are at great risk right now, and you deserve to know that you're being supported. Would it help if I have Sigurd designate a consistent point of contact for you?"

Whatever burden was weighing on the farming coordinator seemed to lift momentarily; his shoulders lost a bit of their slump and a smile touched his face. "I'd really appreciate that, miss ladyship. But that wasn't why you asked for me, was it?" He glanced in the direction of Rolf, curiosity plain.

Sakuya made a beckoning gesture with both hands, drawing everyone closer to the wide open area in front of her desk. "It was not. I'd like to see your map, with the farming data overlays."

Granholm obliged, drawing open his map and setting it visible, then maximizing its size as much as possible before turning the window slightly; he was clearly well-practiced at sharing or presenting map data to others. "Keep in mind that I'm still updating the POIs," he warned. "We don't have enough info from the farming groups yet, at least not enough to get a total picture of what consistently pops where."

"But you have some," Sakuya said as she walked up close to Granholm's map window, reaching out and miming a tap at the unresisting air. "The shin character here beside some of these notes, is that to label new data?"

"You got it," Granholm said, trying not to fidget too much so that his window would stay in place; he seemed to be having trouble juggling the need to stay still with the desire to turn and look at what Sakuya was doing. Peering at the spot she'd pointed out, he added, "And we're lucky we got that much before the Sals pushed us out."

"From Sigurd's reports, they've been up and down the east bank of the Willowbend, but their efforts seem to be converging on the north end where it wends westward towards Lugru and up into the foothills."

Granholm gave Sakuya a significant look; she was fairly sure he wanted to make another comment about Sigurd keeping him in the loop, but was held in check by her promise to do something about it. "Right. For now I'm having our farming groups avoid anything on the Sal side of the Willowbend, but we at least know some of what started popping there after the mob reset."

"From what I'm seeing here, it's a mix of Forest and River Drakes, plus Gazer and Spider variants."

"And a few other things like Hill Giants and a whole mess of Lopers coming down from the mountains, but yeah, that's about it for mobs worth farming. As you can see, it's like that on both banks of the Willowbend, from the east coast all the way up to where the river comes down from the mountains."

Sakuya's eyes darted quickly between different annotations, scanning thoroughly across the area they were contesting with the Salamanders. We've got some curved sword users, but spiders are everywhere; they don't matter. "What are Gazers good for?"

"Mages sometimes need the eyes for rare wand upgrades," Rolf answered. "Truesight pots too, if you're an alchemist. But that's all the important recipes I know of, and we don't really have trouble keeping that stuff stocked, even now."

"What's the point of all this?" Granholm asked. He then seemed to think better of the question or its tone, rubbing at the light green scruff on his jawline and looking a little sheepish. "I mean, don't get me wrong, it's nice to have someone up high actually paying attention to what's going on out there on the ground. But I might be able to help more if I knew what you wanted."

Sakuya carefully considered her words before responding. Granholm and Rolf were loyal Sylphs, she knew that much—but she wasn't sure how talkative they were, and the plan that was forming in her head would depend greatly on the element of surprise. "Pick your favorite logistics quote from all of history," she said. "The Salamanders are here because they want something we have that they don't. If we know what it is they want, we can make informed choices about how to deny it to them."

The non-interactive portions of ALO's UI were intangible, but the entirety of a map window was intended to be interactive and had collision—for the owner of the window. If it had been Sakuya's own map, she could've tapped her finger against it; since it was someone else's, her fingertip found only air as it traced a line along the river where it bent its way northwards from the southeastern coastline of the Ancient Forest zone. "I asked about polearms and two-handed weapons before because those are what Salamander clearers primarily use," she said. "I've dealt with them enough to be sure of that. Like us, their early-game equipment choices were probably driven by what was most readily available in their own territory."

"Makes sense to me," Rolf said, nodding along. Then something seemed to occur to him, his eyes widened a little. "The Drake Scales."

Granholm's map wobbled as he tried to turn himself to face it, then settled for turning the map halfway back towards him so that he could point. "But they can get those anywhere along the Willowbend now," he said with a frown. "Why keep moving north? All the low-altitude skylands near the hills are ideal for ambushes. It'd be better for them to find the most defensible area they could and stick with it."

"Because what they really need are upgrade mats for their polearms," Sakuya said with growing certainty. "That's what most of their melee DPS groups are going to use. Sals are big on formation fighting and hard-hitting two-handed weapons; it plays to their strengths." Her finger stabbed towards the map, plunging through the immaterial light just past her first knuckle. "We've always had a few Forest and River Drakes here and there, but I've never seen a Loper of any kind in the Ancient Forest. Now you've got a note here that says they've started spawning in numbers where the Willowbend comes down from the foothills. Is that accurate?"

Granholm nodded, frowning. "As far as I know. I don't have anyone assigned there today, though—it's not worth the risk of running into Sals on that side of the river; we don't give a shit about Lopers."

Resolve straightened Sakuya's posture and filled her with confidence in her decision. "We do now." Her eyes fell on Chimiro. "Get Sigurd in here."

·:·:·:·:·:·

As he lay awake in his inn room, unable to sleep, Kirito reflected that his reputation for being late to bed and early to rise was well-deserved—but that the answer he gave, if asked, was not always the whole story.

Not that many people had asked; he could probably count them on one hand, and Argo had paid for the information. But the last time Asuna had remarked upon the way he usually seemed to be up before her, he'd simply pointed out that grinding well into the evening and getting an early start the next day were how he, as a solo player, kept his edge over the majority of the clearers. Parties were virtually always capable of clearing mobs faster and more efficiently; putting in extra time and work was the only way to keep up—let alone stay ahead of the pack.

She'd accepted the answer at face value. It had even been true. But it wasn't the complete truth.

A single candle burned at the bedside, but despite wanting to sleep, Kirito preferred having the light on at the moment. In a dark room, the ceiling became a black canvas against which his imagination and memories painted vivid images. Tonight, as was so often the case, they painted pictures of his victims and their faces at the moments of their deaths.

Some of them hadn't seen it coming; those kills were both better and worse because he felt especially guilty about taking someone unawares, but was at least spared the look of realization in their eyes at the knowledge of their imminent death. Zanzer, came the name now seared into his memory; the Salamander couldn't have been much older than Kirito himself, if that, and the multi-hit combo Kirito had used had dealt critical damage against the lower-level player, killing him outright before he even knew he was being attacked.

Others were harder. Kin'oh, the mage in Rosalia's group, had worn real terror on his face, screaming as Kirito's sword had torn through his avatar, and—in the very last moment before that human being had become a Remain Light—Kirito was sure there had been accusation, a dying man's blame for his fate.

It wasn't fair; both of these people had been preying on other players. A part of Kirito knew—as he'd told Mukensha—that by engaging in banditry, they were taking their lives in their own hands, gambling those lives on being able to do unto others before the same was done unto them.

That was justice. They deserved what they got. Words like these were easy to say in rational, even karmic terms. They were much harder to use as a shield against a guilty conscience.

Kirito rolled onto his side beneath the bedsheets, staring into the candle's weak flame as if drawn to it, moth-like. The rest of his party had long since gone to their own rooms—all except Asuna, who hadn't yet returned from her outing with Yuuki. He wasn't worried about her; he could still see her HP bar in the upper left of his HUD, and the one time he'd checked his map to search for them, he'd been able to see both her and Yuuki in the same location. But thinking about what they were up to, what they might be talking about, was a useful distraction from the things that were keeping him from his rest. The room was a little chilly when his bare arm slipped from the sheets, but it only took a brief touch at the candle's pop-up interface to turn it off, plunging the room into darkness.

I've missed Yuuki, Kirito thought. It would've been nice to spend more time with her, but from the sounds of things, she won't be sticking around for long. She must've found something important, working with the Imps—something important enough to take her away from clearing. The thought almost prompted a physical shrug to himself, but the motion didn't really work the way he was lying on his side, and he rolled onto his back and tried closing his eyes. If it's about Prophet… I can't tell her not to try, but I wish she'd let it go for now. I don't want her to get left behind in the clearing progression… or worse, hurt somehow.

The distraction of thinking about Yuuki and Asuna was no longer taking his mind in directions that helped him sleep; all roads seemed to lead, in some way or another, to violence or death. Kirito squeezed his eyes more tightly shut, but the act was pointless; doing so wouldn't shut off the HUD in his peripheral vision, and it certainly did nothing for his overactive imagination. Still, even needless worrying about his friends was far less anxiety-inducing than dwelling on the murders he'd committed, and eventually his thoughts began drifting to the point where he felt himself dozing off.

At first Kirito thought the sound was the beginning of a dream, but after this long in the game, his senses were far too attuned to the artificial perfection of ALO's sound effects. Drowsiness sharpened to a single scintillating point of lucid awareness, and all hope of sleep vanished. That was the door handle. Someone's trying to pick the lock.

Lying on his back with everything unequipped, Kirito knew he probably had seconds, if that. He briefly considered opening his menu just long enough to select a weapon, but discarded the thought immediately. I'm in a safe zone. Whoever's trying to break in here, they expect me to either be asleep or away. If I come at them, armed, I can't actually do anything except embarrass them, and they'll probably flee and disappear into the night. But if I lure them in…

Kirito couldn't pass up the chance to possibly trap one of Prophet's cronies and get some answers. He remained where he was with his eyes closed, body still as death, and listened intently.

The door opened with a slow creak; through his eyelids Kirito could sense the room brightening from the orelight in the hallway, and then returning to darkness a moment later when the intruder shut the door behind them carefully enough that it barely made any sound. The footsteps that followed were so soft that it was blatantly obvious their owner was either sneaking or using some kind of sound-muffling spell or ability, but Kirito could still just barely sense their slow progress across the room. Just a little closer, he thought. Once I've locked that door, you and I are going to have a nice little chat.

He was expecting the intruder to come within reach; if this was one of Prophet's people, there was a good chance they were planning on trying the sleep-PK exploit he'd heard about. He wasn't worried; that would only work if he really was asleep—and only if they could both correctly guess where the pop-up for a duel request would appear in front of his chest, and manipulate one of his hands to accept it without being able to see it. If they tried that, Kirito was just going to wait for the anti-harassment pop-up from the unwanted contact—one he'd never see unless he was awake for it—then make his play.

He was not expecting the quiet, very familiar voice that spoke next. "Kirito? Are you asleep?"

Asuna's voice was so soft that he was certain she was trying not to wake him if he wasn't already. It didn't help. He sat upright so quickly that he must've startled her just as much as she had him; he heard Asuna squeak slightly, followed by a thump that must have been her falling backwards. Eyes still adjusted to the dim light of the inn room, he could just barely make out her outline barely a meter away from the bedside as she returned to a sitting position.

"I'm sorry, Kirito," Asuna said, her silhouette dipping in a seated bow from seiza. "I didn't mean to wake you up."

"I couldn't sleep anyway," Kirito replied, though that wasn't entirely the case. At the moment, he didn't really care about the lost sleep. "But I… I… how did you open the door? I thought you were someone with a really high «Lockpicking» skill trying to break in." He tried not to imagine how this scene might've played out if he'd tried to ambush his supposed night stalker; that could have been incredibly embarrassing.

"You keyed me earlier when we were talking strategy, remember?"

Kirito did remember then; the recollection struck him almost immediately when she began speaking. "Sorry, you're right. I guess I…" He searched for the right words, thoroughly confused, and then decided to simply own up to that fact. "I guess I was just confused. I wasn't expecting anyone this late at night."

"I know," Asuna said. "I'm sorry for intruding, I'll leave if—"

"No, please," Kirito said, sitting up a little straighter, and then drawing the sheet up to his chest against the chill. It was just as well that the room was so dark; despite having nothing equipped, there really wasn't anything for him to get self-conscious about. And with a distant part of his mind, Kirito wondered just how much even that mattered, now. "You wouldn't have come to see me this late if it wasn't important. What's going on? Is Yuuki okay?"

There was a wiggle of movement in silhouette and a slight sound; Kirito realized after a delay that she must have been shaking her head. "No, she's fine, Kirito. It's not like that. We spent a long time talking, and she told me about… some things that happened, early in the game. It's her story to tell you if she wants to, but after we talked she said she wanted some time alone… and I started thinking again."

"About what?"

Asuna was quiet then, almost long enough for Kirito to consider prodding her, but he gave her as much time as she needed. When she spoke next—he couldn't be certain it wasn't just his imagination, but it was dark and hearing was currently his keenest sense—he thought her voice might've shaken just a little. "I thought I'd lost you earlier today, Kirito. When I saw your Remain Light sitting there, burning away… I felt something break inside me. I wasn't just afraid you were going to die… I was afraid that was going to happen, and I would've never told you how I really feel about you."

He couldn't clearly see Asuna's face in the blackness of the room, but Kirito could well imagine what he might see if he could. What's more, her words resonated deeply inside him; at the time, when he'd been watching the seconds of his life drain down faster than they'd had any right to do, he'd been consumed with thoughts of the people he'd leave behind, people who would be grief-stricken with the loss. His family of course, especially his younger sister, Suguha. The friendships he'd formed during his time in ALO for sure—most of them far deeper and more meaningful than any he'd ever had in the real world.

And foremost in his mind, burning brightly with her strength of spirit and the warmth of close companionship: a certain Undine clearer who was dearer to him than he'd allowed himself to ever acknowledge, even in the silence of his own thoughts. He still wasn't sure he was ready, even now, to admit to himself just how much she'd come to mean to him. But he supposed a close brush with death had a way of clarifying a person's priorities, bringing out what was truly important.

If Kirito lacked the social skills necessary even to maintain friendships with his own gender, that unfamiliarity and discomfort had always gone at least double for girls. The reactions had become so ingrained into him that at this point it was almost reflex, and if that meant that he sometimes pretended to be more oblivious than he actually was, he knew—in a moment of introspection that cut straight through the fog of denial—that this bull-headed habit was more about self-preservation than anything else. If he didn't acknowledge these things, didn't take the risk of dealing with them openly, that meant fewer chances to tread on dangerous ground and say the wrong thing.

Kirito knew that for some time now, he'd been walking a very fine line with his feelings towards Asuna—and in some ways, had been almost hiding from them, or rather, from what they implied. There was no doubt at all that she was precious to him. What he'd felt in the Sewers when he'd watched her and XaXa falling towards the water had been echoed, magnified, when Black had cut her wings and sent her plummeting to the ground. He'd been certain, especially the second time, that she was going to die. And the thought of helplessly watching her Remain Light disappear the way he had so many others… he flinched, even now, just thinking of it.

"You don't have to say anything," Kirito said suddenly, trying to ease her conflict a bit and make it easier on her—but also buying himself a little bit of time to think. He tried to dredge up memories of the few dating sims he'd played, tried to recall the kinds of things the smooth protagonists said when they were trying to console an upset girl, or—more to the point—deal with a confession. "It's okay—I know. Maybe you haven't told me in words, but your actions have said a lot more."

Silence greeted that statement. For a time Kirito tried to keep himself from panicking at the thought that he'd somehow misjudged the situation. After all, he could barely even see Asuna at the moment; he couldn't tell what her expressions were, and couldn't even attempt to read her body language. For all he knew, she could've been talking about something completely different—

Don't be an idiot, Kirito told himself. Be as oblivious as you want to everyone else if that's what helps you not freak out every time a girl talks to you, but at least don't lie to yourself. You know what she's talking about. You know how she feels, and you know how you feel. This isn't some high school romance manga where everyone always has to misunderstand everyone else just to keep the story going.

So why, Kirito thought with considerable frustration, is it so hard to just come out and pick the right dialogue option?

In the dead silence of the darkened inn room, the slightest sound drew Kirito sharply out of his thoughts; he could hear Asuna shifting position, and faintly see the motions of her hands before her, as if she was doing something with her menu; a small, tinny sound effect played. The dim slivers of light around the door frame occluded almost completely as she drew closer, then sat down on the edge of the bed.

"Asuna—"

Before Kirito realized what was happening, Asuna had slipped her arms around him and pulled him closely to her.

"I-I-I—" The words just wouldn't come out; Kirito was not even remotely putting on or exaggerating his flustered reaction just then. "W-what are you doing?"

Kirito felt those soft, warm arms tighten, her hands pressed against the bare skin of his back while she leaned her head against his shoulder. Without even thinking about what he was doing, his own arms came up in response, and panic nearly set in when he realized that she'd traded her clearing robes for what felt suspiciously like a nightgown. It was now the only thing separating them, and it was entirely too thin.

"Letting my actions speak for me," she said quietly, breath warm against his neck. "I-I'm sorry, Kirito, I know I shouldn't be this forward… but I… I want us to stay together, at least just for tonight. I'm afraid of what I'm going to see in my dreams. I need to know you're not going to disappear, that you'll be there when I wake up."

"I'll be here," Kirito assured her, though his voice had the dazed timbre of bewilderment. Reaching up to dismiss the anti-harassment pop-up that had finally showed itself, he worked up the nerve to then run the palm of his hand across her hair. His finger caught awkwardly in one of her braids, but a careful twist of his hand slipped it free with only a happy sound from Asuna. By some unspoken mutual consent, they both carefully reclined until Kirito's head came to rest on his pillow, with Asuna snuggled up to him under one arm while her own head lay on his chest.

Once he got past the shock bordering on incipient panic that had been threatening him, and allowed himself to relax, Kirito was astonished at just how comfortable a feeling it actually was to have Asuna next to him. Her warm presence and the gentle weight of her head on his chest were more reassuring than he ever would've imagined, and although the soft pressure of her breasts against his side was impossible to ignore despite the barrier of her nightclothes, it wasn't the all-consuming focus that it might've been on any other day. He was more hyper-aware of the places where her bare skin actually touched his; her left arm for sure where it lay across his chest and curled around to his side, but most keenly it was the feeling of her cheek and the curve of her jaw against him. It was difficult not to notice how that was affecting him.

"I wish I could hear your heartbeat," Asuna whispered, the puff of breath from her words warming his skin further. "Or feel your chest rising as you breathe."

Since she'd reacted well to it before, Kirito reached up with his right hand and dared to stroke her hair a bit more, which only caused her to try to nestle more securely into the crook of his other arm. "Just look in your party list," he suggested helpfully, reverting to the familiar ground of what he knew in lieu of further exploring this frighteningly new, unmapped territory of intimacy. "Our avatars don't have a breathing reflex or hearts to beat, but even with your eyes closed, you can always see my HP."

He'd been trying to be reassuring, but ever so briefly, Kirito was struck again by the feeling that he'd managed to say something wrong—something that completely ruined things. Asuna went still next to him, and for just a few beats he could swear that she'd tensed up, or was starting to cry. But then the twitch that he'd mistaken for a silent sob turned into what was very clearly, to the contrary, a slight giggle.

"Nerd," Asuna said in an even quieter whisper.

Having no idea how to respond to that, or even be quite sure how she meant it, Kirito made a best effort. "Well… yeah?"

Another giggle followed, this one softer than the first; Kirito had to assume that his response had been a safe one, especially when there was no further reply except for a slight tightening of the arm that lay across his chest.

"Thank you, Kirito," Asuna said finally. "It's embarrassing to say, but I know I'll be able to sleep better tonight, here with you like this."

"I feel the same way," Kirito admitted, not realizing until the moment he said it just how very true it was. "Like I said, I haven't been able to sleep at all yet."

Kirito felt Asuna's head raise just a little bit; when he did the same and opened his eyes, he could just barely make out faint reflected light in hers. "Something troubling you, too?" she asked.

Even in the dark, it was hard to meet Asuna's gaze now; Kirito let his head drop back to the pillow and bit at his lip before answering. "Same as always," he said. "Except now with the added weight of responsibility. I think about the people I've killed with my own hands. I think about their faces when they died. And now I wonder how anyone could ever take me seriously as some kind of civilized voice for the Spriggans, when I've done just as much killing as anyone else."

He felt Asuna's grip on him become almost painful for a moment, on the high edge of the actual discomfort that ALO's simulation allowed. "No," she said, voice muffling as she pressed her face into his chest. "Not as much as anyone else, and only when you had to."

"But—"

"Listen to me, Kirito," Asuna insisted, raising her head once more. "You're a good person. You make mistakes, but that's part of being human. The important thing is that you try to do the right thing, and you try to save people's lives if you can. If there's anything that anyone needs to know about you, it's that." The arm that had been curled around his torso drifted upwards until Asuna's hand came to rest on his cheek. "I know what it's like to be responsible for taking someone's life. I could never judge you for that. No one else in the clearing groups should either, if they knew what happened."

Kirito almost missed the last sentence; his brain had suddenly kicked into high gear, and the sudden flush of excitement he felt briefly drove everything else out of his mind. He needed to figure out what he'd just figured out; it was right there at the edge of his thoughts. "What did you say?"

Asuna stammered slightly, seeming taken aback by his reaction and sudden question. "I-I… Kirito, I'm sorry, I hope I didn't upset you, I was just trying to—"

"You didn't upset me," Kirito said, the feeling of epiphany very nearly strong enough to outweigh the still-surreal fact that there was a warm, soft girl cuddled up next to him. "But I need you to repeat exactly what you just said to me. It's important." He wasn't quite sure how it was important, but it was.

"I…" Asuna faltered briefly before regaining some of her poise. "I was just saying that I won't judge you for having to kill another player, Kirito. Even if it was technically falling damage that killed XaXa, I still feel responsible."

Her words stuck in Kirito's head, banging around like a pachinko ball thrown into a steel drum until he followed them through, trying to tease out what his mind was trying to tell him. It has to be something that's been really bothering me, something I haven't been able to figure out. Something Asuna said helped me make some kind of connection, if I could just put it together—

"Kirito?"

I won't judge you…

"I'm sorry," Kirito said, frustrated with himself. "I feel like I'm on the verge of figuring out something important. It's like it's right there on the tip of my tongue, but…" While he spoke, Asuna let her palm slip away from his face, bringing it to rest on his chest now. In answer, he wrapped both his arms around her, and when she began to absently stroke his skin with her fingertips, it made it almost impossible for him to hold any other thoughts in his head.

Kirito went silent for a few moments after trailing off, but no more words were forthcoming. Whatever the idea had been, it was gone for now. He shook his head slightly, not wanting to move in any way that might disturb Asuna or risk interrupting the moment any worse than he already had. "Don't worry about it."

"Maybe sleeping on it will help," Asuna suggested, a notion with which Kirito was in no way prepared to argue, given the circumstances and company. I feel like my world's been turned upside down. Being trapped in a death game, having wings and long pointed ears, being able to fly and use magic—those things have been completely normal to me for half a year now; at this point it would almost be weirder to go back to riaru.

Not only having a girlfriend who's amazing and beautiful, but having her crawl into my bed in the middle of the night? That I'm still having difficulty believing is actually real. A part of me is almost afraid to go to sleep; maybe when I wake up tomorrow, I'll be back in the world where I'm a hopeless hikikomori with as much chance of being loved by Asuna as I would've had beating Sugu at kendo.

But it was tough to maintain any illusions of disbelief after she once again laid her head down on his chest, making a noise of contentment. His attention was acutely drawn to the all-too-real awareness of how her long hair had fanned out on his chest and stomach; every time she moved her head it dragged across him in a very gentle but distracting way that almost tickled. Securely ensconced in both Asuna's arms and the light blanket, sleep took Kirito more quickly than it had in a very long time.

His dreams, unsurprisingly, were filled with her.

It was a kind of dream that Kirito had often thought of as a recursive loop—a programming term referring to a kind of software glitch that caused a single piece of code to keep referring back to itself, often causing the program to freeze entirely. The same themes and scenes kept replaying in his mind, but each one varied slightly in the way it played out. In many of these loops, Asuna had come to his inn room just as she had that night, but he kept saying the wrong thing over and over in different ways, causing her to argue with him or storm out of the room. In one such replay it hadn't been Asuna at all; another of Prophet's followers had tried mimicking her appearance again in order to trick him. Yet another dream sequence had a result that was far more graphically intimate than anything Kirito had dared entertain even in his imagination; he felt an intangible pang of disappointment when that ended far too soon, once again bringing him back to the moment where she'd entered his room.

"You're a good person," the Asuna in his dreams told him once more. "You make mistakes, but that's part of being human."

When she reached up to touch his face, he took her hand in his; that was what he'd done differently the last time through the looping dream, and the gesture of affection had seemed to push the scene in a direction he'd very much like to experience again. All a dream, he reminded himself distantly, thoughts adrift. I know that. But if it's a dream, I can take risks.

"I know what it's like to be responsible for taking someone's life," said the dream-Asuna next. "I could never judge you for that." As soon as she spoke, Kirito felt a sudden chill next to him, and opened his eyes.

In Asuna's place, gazing down at him, he saw the spectral face of a Norn.

Alarmed, Kirito rolled off the opposite side of the bed, reaching for a weapon but finding none equipped. As he came to a defensive crouch on the floor and tried to open his menu, he looked up just in time to see the Norn raise its gauntlet and speak with Asuna's voice. "Noruna domuru, uthan."

Kirito awoke to the simulated feeling of an adrenaline rush, an icy sensation sheeting down the length of his body and a profound, jittery anxiety filling his mind. The shock of the sudden turn his dream had taken was extremely unsettling; the only thing keeping him from lurching upright in bed was a warm, soft weight on one side of him, and even then, Asuna initially flinched away when he cried out. "Asuna—!"

With the dim beginnings of morning sunlight filtering through the curtains, Kirito was sure he must have slept through most of the night even though his alarm hadn't gone off yet. Either Asuna had already been awake or she was a quick riser; she seemed to be suffering none of the transient grogginess and disorientation he felt as he fought for calm. "Shhh-sh-sh-sh-sh," she said soothingly as they both settled back down, pulling him close to her. "You were having a bad dream."

"I was dreaming about—" Kirito stopped there, not sure he wanted to admit that his brain had been playing reruns of the previous night's relationship upgrade, let alone how many weird directions those dreams had gone.

Fortunately, Asuna seemed willing to give him time, and out of long habit he was quick to recover his wits. At some point before he'd awakened, another anti-harassment pop-up seemed to have occurred and eventually minimized itself; he could see it lurking in his notification column, and focused his attention on it just long enough to make it go away. That last distraction eliminated, he laid his head back on the pillow, stared at the ceiling, and tried to recall where his thoughts had been going at the moment that the Norn had finally killed him in the dream.

I won't judge you…

Asuna's words had kept ringing in his head ever since she'd spoken them, and now Kirito realized the connection he'd unconsciously made the night before. The Norn debuff can't just be about who's killed Caretakers, he thought suddenly. Burns and I both took extra damage, and I'd never even seen a Caretaker before. Same for the veteran clearers from the Sylphs and the Sal/Imp alliance when they first hit the zone, according to Argo. But the Undines, Caits and NCC didn't have any trouble, and most of them have one important thing in common…

Kirito freed up a hand just long enough to palm his forehead with an abrupt slap. The pattern was right there in front of me all along.

"Kirito? What's wrong?"

"I know why I almost died yesterday," Kirito said as he turned to look at Asuna, his voice filled with the steel of certainty. "I know what the Judgment of the Norns does."


Author's Note 11/4/17: Five years, five hundred thousand words. Somehow that happened.

As longtime readers will know, I have a tradition of marking the anniversary of this story with a new chapter. After all, November 6th isn't just the story's anniversary, it's the in-universe launch date of the death game in both canon and this AU. The date has meaning to me, and I feel like it's a good thing for readers to know that there will always be a new chapter on that date.

Last year I missed the date by a day due to a need for last-minute polish; this year I'm doing it a few days early, mainly so that everyone on a weekday schedule gets the weekend to read. I'm excited to get it out there; this is a big chapter, both in terms of word count, and in terms of the events that are happening. I've long said that FDD isn't a "pairing" or "romance" fic, and it's not. But I've always felt a strong affinity for Kirito and Asuna as a couple, and it's very satisfying to me to finally progress their relationship a bit in the story.

The last few years have been rough for me both financially and emotionally, and that means they've been rough for my creative output. I tend to hide from the world when things are bad, and they've been pretty bad, so I apologize for my lack of responsiveness. But things are starting to look up now. I finally ended a toxic relationship that had gone on for far too long and worn me down to almost nothing, and once my ex moves out I'll have the home to myself again. I got hired on full-time, which means medical benefits that I need. It's likely to be a long struggle to get my life back to where I want it to be, but it'll happen.

Love and gratitude to everyone who's stuck with me all this time, and to all the new readers joining as well.