"An item's «rarity» is typically indicated by a colored background or border in the item's description window, and is used to classify the power and attainability of an item so that players can readily identify this at a glance. Most crafting materials and everyday objects have the plain white background of Common rarity, while a colored background (q.v. «Item Descriptions») indicates that an item has increased stats or special abilities that make it more desirable—and often also indicates that it is much more difficult to obtain. While these items can be powerful upgrades, players should carefully examine the attributes of both items to ensure that a higher-rarity item is actually better-suited to their build—a Legendary sword that increases STR will be of little use to a mage, even if they could equip it…"
—Alfheim Online manual, «Item Rarity»
21 May 2023
Midnight ~ Evening
Mortimer couldn't be certain how long he'd been holding his breath—minutes, perhaps—but it all emerged in a heavy, audible sigh while he read the contents of the PM for a second time. It was nearly everything he'd hoped, and more besides.
"Sir?" Parker's question broke into his thoughts, which suggested he'd been staring at the window much longer than he'd realized. Mortimer gave himself an inward prod to stop woolgathering, and raised his eyes to look at his friend and newly-promoted head farmer. He didn't have to fake a smile.
"Nothing but good news, it seems," Mortimer reassured him. Of the two of them, Parker was the only one with any official position or rank, but when Mortimer rose to his feet, the other young man followed his lead. "That was Seven. All known Sandmen of consequence are either dead, or have been jailed and stripped of any coded privileges."
Parker nodded, showing visible relief. "So it's time. I'll let the farming teams I had on standby know to head that way." His hands went to the air before him, but he spoke while he typed what must have been a PM. "And the prisoners?"
There Mortimer had no quick answer. His hesitation must have been plain. "We still need to discuss how to proceed."
Parker's relief turned swiftly to bewilderment. His typing stopped in place for a beat before resuming. "But… what's there to discuss? You told me yourself what they're doing to those people down there. It's inhuman!"
"It is," Mortimer agreed. "But haste will benefit no one, least of all the Sandmen's victims. Walk with me?"
The night sky was clear, and the nearly-full moon was bright enough that they could've found their way even without the iron-framed orelight torches lining Gattan's streets. The ambient moonlight also chased away most shadows, and made it hard for anyone to lurk unseen without magic. Those streets were nearly empty of traffic, save for the white-cursored inhabitants lending local color on their scripted paths, and the sole players were easy to spot by their cursors.
Even so—or perhaps in part because of the lack of background noise to mask conversation—Mortimer kept his voice quiet, and his chosen words discreet.
"There are many details I haven't told you yet. Names, dates… things that weren't necessary to get the point across and plan your part. One of those is that these people have been like this for months. And someone already tried to do something about it once. We know that some of them are… in an understandably irrational headspace."
Parker absorbed the implications, their footsteps pacing out the beats to measure how long it took to respond. "All the more reason to act quickly, I'd think."
Mortimer shook his head sadly, and lowered his voice to a faint murmur, barely a breath—stepping closer to Parker and stopping for a moment, almost intimately face-to-face with him so that the words couldn't travel. This was an argument that needed to be pitch-perfect when the time came to deliver it to its intended audience, and it was just as well that Parker was giving him an opportunity to polish his phrasing.
"All the more reason to act with the greatest care. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of players from all races. All of whom have been kidnapped and tormented for months by Salamanders. We have two parties of Salamander clearers down there right now, all of whom are deadly PvP opponents, few or none of whom know how to safely control a crowd or calm someone who's traumatized. All while deep underground, inside a dungeon for which many are underleveled, when they'll want to immediately get out and PM someone."
It was a recipe for an absolute catastrophe even with the best of intentions and efforts, and Mortimer could see that Parker knew it well before he'd finished speaking. The younger man visibly struggled with the no-win dilemma that had troubled Mortimer's mind ever since he'd first realized the scope of the Sandmen's crimes. "Well, my people will keep the dungeon clear of mobs, but you're right. Even if a fight didn't break out, releasing them all at once would risk hurting them even more. So what do we do?"
"That's what I'm going there to discuss," Mortimer said. "Eugene is watching the only topside entrance while the others mop up and guard the prisoners. Your farming groups are going to be keeping the zone clear of mobs, but first I'd like you with me as an escort—right now there may still be repops in the upper levels. As soon as we're through, I want you to head back and stay with your party."
"Yes, sir," Parker said dutifully.
It was no pleasure seeing his recent friend's face clouded by the enormity of the problem they faced. At the same time, Mortimer wondered just how far Parker had thought it through, and from which angles.
Apart from the practical concerns for the safety of the victims, Mortimer thought, there is an ugly truth to consider: we only get one chance to do this, and the way it plays out matters. Once the first victim is able to send a PM, the political fallout begins—and the countdown to that happening begins the very moment any of them become aware of their rescue.
There will be no way to stop the stories from spreading—at least, none that doesn't put us on the same level as the Sandmen. The only question is what story will spread.
And there lay the quandary with which Mortimer had been grappling all this time. Just as there was no way to stop each and every survivor of the Sandmen's imprisonment from telling their stories, so too was it effectively impossible to curate or guide those stories in any ethical way. Every one of the victims would have their own truth of the ordeal, and the tales were not his to tell—or anyone's to dictate.
Would they speak of waking from a timeless nightmare of sensory oblivion and torment that had been inflicted on them by armed Salamanders, only to open their eyes to a rough group of like-appearing Salamanders amidst the panicked cries of other victims, and sent blindly on their way from a dangerous dungeon and a hostile city?
Or would they speak of waking from that black purgatory to soft lighting, calm voices, an unthreatening healer, and safe passage home? And how might it shape the stories that would be freely told if then—and perhaps only then, after their safety had been reassured—to learn of the organized effort to bring their captors to justice and safely repatriate the victims?
There is no moral ambiguity either in the crimes committed against these players, or in our actions tonight against the Sandmen. They were monsters. We must not become monsters in the process of righting their wrongs, and so far I think we've done a decent job of walking that line.
But there will be consequences if we handle this part recklessly. Not just for the Salamanders in general—our name is already going to be tarred by it for a long time as it is—but for the state of the world, and everyone's ability to escape the game.
Two men did not speak again until they were at the jail, and Eugene's rough greeting made him smile despite the tension. "The farmers will be here soon," Mortimer said. "Pass them through; we're going ahead to discuss logistics."
It wasn't Eugene that delayed his steps then. For a mercy, his brother didn't give him any grief beyond a perfunctory sort of grumpiness that Mortimer reasoned had more to do with tiredness than anything else. What stopped Mortimer momentarily in his tracks was a queasy sense of deja vu at the sight of the now-considerably-less-secret lift.
Most other times I've been here, Mortimer realized, I've been a part of the problem—just another "customer" for this sick enterprise. How many times did I ride this lift, blind to what was going on around me? Forget all the months that Nightstick controlled the guards and this jail without any real oversight from me—my own lips cast spells that struck some of these people. I, myself—whether knowingly or not—have personally hurt them.
How could I possibly make that right?
Mortimer forced himself to shake it off, and stepped into the lift. "Nothing. Just thinking about how much we have to do." Parker himself had not yet joined him, and he beckoned. "What about you? I know you try to avoid PvP, and it's not impossible there could still be a human opponent down there. If your party sticks to the upper levels, there's less chance of that."
Parker's expression again became conflicted—but this time for reasons at which Mortimer could only guess, regardless of his suspicions. As he took his place beside Mortimer, the farming lead turned briefly to look at him. "No, sir. I… I need to be part of this. I need to help set things right."
Mortimer held his friend's eyes for only a moment, and then nodded his acknowledgement to the notably nonspecific words. He'd done what he could to mitigate the risks of an unintended rendezvous. "I hope it does some good," he said just as vaguely before turning to Eugene and raising his hand to the fake sconce that would send the entire cell down to the Black Iron Oubliette zone. "Lock us in."
Yuuki wasn't quite returning empty-handed, but as she and Kumiko rejoined the rest of the assault team, she couldn't help but feel only a hollow facsimile of satisfaction—a thing trying to be something that it wasn't. It had been an inconclusive end to a tense chase through dungeon corridors, followed by a lengthy return flight during which there had been entirely too much time to think.
A brief use of her own Searching skill told her where all of the raid members were well before the first glimpse of illumination from the inhabited areas. The majority were still clustered in and around the large room where the Sandmen kept their prisoners, but now in addition she could faintly see smaller clusters of green cursors above and in the distance, some closer. Those are probably the farming groups Mortimer mentioned, Yuuki thought to herself. That's actually a pretty good idea—keeping the hallways clear of mobs so we can bring people through safely without worrying.
Against all odds, the raid had managed to take prisoners—several of them in fact, some disabled by Yuuki but a few more who'd had the sense to surrender while they could. To avoid having to babysit the surviving Sandmen, someone had apparently figured that turnabout was fair play, and relieved them of their limbs. Face-down and in their condition, it was hard for Yuuki to say whether she recognized any of them, but she could tell that Mawari was not among their number.
However, she most certainly recognized one new person as soon as she approached the open double doors of the Blast Zone—one who hadn't been part of the assault, and who wasn't in her party list. Mortimer was standing in the center of that round room with a loose collection of Salamanders from the raid group, nodding occasionally while he listened to what sounded like the tail end of Pyrin's explanation of how everything had gone down.
When Mortimer caught sight of them, he raised a palm, causing Pyrin's current tangent to trail off. "Thanks. I can get the rest of the play-by-play later. Kumiko, Yuuki, I'm glad you're back. Now that you're here, we can discuss how we're getting these people out of here."
Kumiko's arms came up to cross over the light armor she wore. "How about the day before as soon as humanly possible?"
Yuuki felt the heat in the words; she doubted it passed Mortimer by. He gave her a disarming smile, which seemed to lack the desired effect. "That would be my preference as well," he said agreeably. "But the 'possible' part of that is in need of clarification."
It was hard to misinterpret the sharpness of Kumiko's response. "Speak plainly."
Mortimer's smile faltered. It was still there, but it hung like a picture frame that had been jostled out of place. "As you wish," he said after a few moments. "Let us be clear about what happened here: a mass kidnapping that is, to my knowledge, unlike anything we'd ever seen in Japan apart from the crime of ALO itself. That alone would be traumatizing enough, but add to it months of sensory blackout, interrupted only by the torments of their captors."
"Their Salamander captors," Kumiko put in, her tone still cutting. She was not going to let this go.
But the interruption did not daunt Mortimer—if anything, it seemed to make his point. He gestured around them at the crimson banners hanging on the walls. "Precisely. And as we speak, we are standing in a torture-themed mid-level dungeon that is furnished with Salamander trappings, filled with Salamander clearers and Salamander farming groups. None of whom have any experience safely controlling a scared, hysterical crowd of strangers. Can you imagine a more hostile environment with which to further traumatize these victims?"
That penetrated. Kumiko did not, for a wonder, have a caustic rejoinder with which to heap further blame on their putative allies. Yuuki glanced over at the others while the Imp clearer considered her response; Pyrin remained at Mortimer's side, but the rest were continuing to sweep adjoining rooms and dead ends. "Go on," said the Imp clearer at last.
Mortimer seemed to be considering his own words at length. "These people will need to wake up to safe surroundings and friendly faces who aren't Salamanders. We'll need a healer on hand to restore limbs, and I have messages out to find me Undine freelancers who work in the city."
He looked around at the hanging rows of iron maidens, gauging the space between them with the drift of his gaze. "As for the environment, we don't know if their prison cages are movable yet, but in addition to the rolling partitions the Sandmen had in place, we can set up our own for privacy during extraction, and to reduce the nightmare fuel factor in the decor. There are crafted dividers for separating rooms with hanging curtains; they'll do at first."
Mortimer's attention then came back to rest on Kumiko directly. "And we'll need people on hand who can calm the ones who are upset. As Yuuki saw, some may not be rational. Ideally I'd like to get a few players with prior counseling or nursing training, or a comparable skill set. And while I would not presume to ask after your riaru profession, Kumiko, I'm given to understand that you might have some experience with that."
Although Kumiko had never said as much directly, Yuuki had dealt with enough nurses and counselors that she suspected Mortimer was right about her, however it was that he knew. It was hard for her to tell exactly how Kumiko felt about that line of inquiry. It was not only the woman's face that froze then; her entire body went momentarily as rigid as death. "What are you suggesting?"
Mortimer looked back at her, nearly as still as she was. "I would like you to be part of the team that works on extracting the victims. There are things you will know better than I about what they need, and since many of them are likely to be Imps, it will help them to see a friendly face. And you have the authority and contacts to make arrangements for getting the Imp players safely home." At her nod, he went on. "I promise you, Kumiko, that I will do everything I can to help them. And I wouldn't want to do it without your help. But I need to know that you understand why it's going to take time to do it right, for their own good."
Yuuki wasn't quite sure why Kumiko turned to look at her then. Perhaps it was because she was the only other Imp present, or because the two adults had been going on at length as if she weren't there. She hadn't asked any questions, but Yuuki gave her an answer all the same. "I think we should listen to him, Kumiko. You didn't see the people Rei and I tried to help. Some of them are a lot worse off than I was when you found me. A lot worse."
And Rei herself might well be among them. Mawari had threatened to sell her to Prophet while she and Yuuki had been his prisoners, and had even gone as far as to 'process' Rei—the Sandmen's euphemism for avatar dismemberment—and box her up like so much cargo. But for all she knew, that could've just been to transport her down here so that they could put her in one of these cages.
But there was no way to know which one. And Mortimer's argument, as painful as it was to consider, had the ring of an uncomfortable truth that had to be faced.
"We'll need to have a great deal of food and water on hand as well," Mortimer said after acknowledging her support with a nod, and adjusting the way he stood so as to include her. "For the most part the Sandmen won't have been feeding them—they can't starve, but they'll feel ravenous." He paused. "Believe me, I know. It's probably for the best that the game doesn't simulate water intoxication or refeeding syndrome."
Yuuki had no idea what either of those things were, but from context guessed they had something to do with people whose real bodies had been starving. Mortimer stopped there, seeming to wait for anyone else to speak.
"You've really thought this through," Kumiko said in an odd tone of voice. It wasn't quite a question, though the remnants of her disbelief were plain enough. Yuuki suspected that Mortimer was forcefully challenging her generalized contempt for Salamanders without actually saying a word in his or their defense.
Mortimer dipped his head fractionally towards her. "I have," he said simply, and then seemed to sense that more was expected of him. "Kumiko, for the most part we've only ever interacted in clearing strategy meetings when the groups are all back in Gattan, so you probably don't know much about me as a person. If you ask my brother, he'll tell you that overthinking matters is what I do, and to a fault."
Mortimer's expression took on the tightness of fierce determination. "But the simple fact is, when I do a thing, I need to do it right. And doing right by the Sandmen's victims is going to be a complicated effort with a lot of moving parts, requiring the sourcing and management of people with hard-to-find real-world skill sets—all acting with compassion and patience. The logistics involved for both personnel and supplies are nontrivial. And even if everything goes right, it's going to be hard work."
Nobody said anything for a few moments. Yuuki absorbed everything in silence, trying to imagine if she herself had been trapped in one of those cages. Considering her own life experiences and collection of riaru physical disabilities, it was distressingly easy for her imagination to slip into those uncomfortable shoes.
"But it has to be done," Kumiko said. "And as you say: it needs to be done right."
"It does. Will you work with me to make that happen?"
Yuuki heard footsteps in the hallway outside; she toggled on her Searching just long enough to identify the reassuringly-green cursors that likely belonged to one of the farming groups. She turned her head back in time to see Kumiko's nod. "Yes. But there's something I need to know first."
"And that is?"
"How do you expect to do all this when you're not the faction leader?"
Mortimer smiled again. "The old-fashioned way. Which is to say: reaching out to a network of contacts, calling in favors, and convincing others that following my lead will get things done. A great deal of which I began laying the groundwork for well before the rescue mission." He gave a nod in the direction from which the farming group was approaching, turning to face that doorway, and his expression seemed to freeze for a moment before he spoke. "Parker, I thought you were working upstairs. Your group having any trouble with the mobs in this zone?"
The rest of the assault team members who were present turned that way as well, and Yuuki with them. The player she presumed was the leader of the Salamander farming group had his hands on the sides of his helmet, and his voice was muffled until he lifted it clear of his head.
"None worth mentioning. Decent EXP, but we found—"
The Salamander farmer had more to say, but Yuuki didn't hear it. As soon as the man began speaking, it was all that she could do to keep her knees from buckling, and her sense of balance reeled so intensely that she must've stumbled; she felt Kumiko reach out a hand to steady her. She was upright, but still felt as if she were falling; the touch was shockingly real in contrast to the sense of unreality that threatened to consume her. It anchored Yuuki just enough for her to try to claw back control.
There were three people in this virtual world whose voices she would never forget or mistake for another—and two of them were dead. The third, beyond the merest scrap of doubt, stood in front of her now. Instead of the Salamander starter gear, he was equipped with a well-maintained farmer's kit in faction colors, and he no longer carried a short sword as he had the day after launch. But although his hairstyle had changed, the sight of the young Salamander's face after he removed his headgear only confirmed what Yuuki already knew: the voice was Trey's.
And he knew it too.
Yuuki could see it in his eyes, and watched it play out as if it were a series of slides. There was a brief moment of confusion when his gaze first fell on her, and a furrow of concern creased his forehead. Then his eyes flew open about as wide as an avatar's could, and he seemed to be having his own momentary balance issues. His jaw worked like a landed fish.
"You killed her." The words were so quiet even she couldn't hear them, and Yuuki repeated herself again. She couldn't look away from the man who'd killed Aiko, and she felt like someone had laid a vignette across her eyes, narrowing her focus into a blackening tunnel. She felt her fists tightening at her sides, and her skin felt alight with an electric charge, her whole body vibrating like a guitar string while her vision and hearing clouded.
"Yuuki?" Kumiko's voice with her name was all that penetrated; others were speaking, but they were just background noise. Every thought was filled with equal parts rage and fear, and the chains binding her in place were forged by a war between fight and flight: the urge to flee the source of her trauma as fast as possible, set against a driving need to do violence to it.
Trey looked absolutely stricken, and he seemed to finally get enough control to speak. "I—"
The one word was all it took—not even the word, just the sound of his voice again. The stalemate was broken, and the balance tipped her into action. Her sword came to her hand before she even realized she was moving, and a scream rose to her lips as her wings manifested and drove her forward in a surge of speed. There was a flash of purple as her shoulder rammed into his sternum; her sword plunged through his chest and out his back, and the force of the impact carried them both backwards through the other set of double doors.
"You killed her!" Yuuki screamed again and again, almost a mantra, the words becoming incoherent. She was aware that she'd lost her grip on her sword, and faintly heard it strike the ground only a moment after they did. The two came to rest with Yuuki straddling the man, raining blow after blow down upon him with aimless rhythm and accompanying flashes of violet light at the point of impact. There were words, too, shapes within a beveled rectangle that a part of her recognized as an «Immortal Object» pop-up—but she wasn't really seeing them.
Her assault ended only when grips just as strong as her own took her by both arms and pulled her off of him, dragging her backwards while she screamed and kicked ineffectually at the air. With the object of her rage out of reach, some of that desperate fury began to leach from her—just enough for the other side of the coin to turn about, exposing the grief behind it. The strength began to leave her arms and legs, and she slumped in the grasp of whoever was restraining her. She felt herself being eased down to sit against the cool stone surface of a wall, sobs wracking her frame now as tears flooded her eyes.
Some of the noise she was making contained words, though she had no idea whether they were intelligible. Through the distortion of tears, past the anti-harassment pop-ups hanging at chest height, she could see Trey was across the hallway from her. He was struggling to push himself upright against the opposite wall, and seemed to be in shock. There were others in the hallway as well, but she could barely see or hear them.
"You killed her," Yuuki said, although the words were practically a whimper now. "You killed my sister."
When he spoke at last, Aiko's killer spoke with a grief so deep that it was almost familiar to her—and even in her debilitated state, Yuuki could hear it. "I know," he said, barely able to get the words out. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Mortimer hadn't known, not for sure—but based on what both Parker and Yuuki had separately told him, he'd suspected. Strongly.
However, this was not the way he'd been expecting to facilitate any kind of resolution, justice, or reconciliation between the two. Not by far. In truth, at the time that he'd arranged for Parker's farmers to handle keeping the dungeon clear, he hadn't yet known that Yuuki was even free—her presence certainly hadn't been part of his original plan for the assault.
But Kumiko had brooked no argument with her insistence that Yuuki have a chance to settle her own score with the Sandmen—and at the time, when she'd unexpectedly showed up with Kumiko, the need to keep Yuuki and Parker from crossing paths had slipped his mind. After that, there had been nothing to do except adapt.
He didn't often make that kind of mistake, and it galled him.
All other conversations ceased at once in response to Parker's admission. Mortimer glanced over towards Yuuki. Heathcliff and Pavel were still standing to either side of the girl, ready to intervene again, but Kumiko was kneeling just before her. Yuuki was still in obvious distress, but seemed to be regaining control now.
Damnit. Damnit. Damnit. Think. There had to be something that someone could say to defuse the situation. He managed to catch Pavel's eye, and dipped his head subtly in the direction of the door. The clearing tank took the hint and started nudging the raid members towards an exit to give everyone some space.
Getsumei, from Parker's farming group, was the first to speak. "Parker? What's going on, man?"
Parker pushed himself up a bit straighter in his sitting position on the stone floor. He was even more visibly upset than he'd been after the attacks on his farming group, and that had been after days of such attacks. The haunted look Parker wore now, however, was one he recognized. Mortimer had seen it on his face before, and not in the field.
"Day after launch, Kibaou's guys had a bunch of us guarding prisoners in Everdark, escorting them where they needed to go. I got paired up with some rando asshole, and this girl and her sister were our last two to drop off. There was no one else around, and the guy started… I mean I think he wanted…" Parker couldn't look at Yuuki then. "So of course the girls flip out, the rando gets a harassment teleport, and the one I was watching attacked me so the other could get away." He nodded towards Yuuki.
"And you killed her." Kumiko's tone was icy and dangerous. Even though he wasn't the target of her anger, Mortimer winced.
"I didn't want to!" Parker pleaded, distraught. "It went by so fast. She kept trying to stab me and my HP was going down. I didn't know what to do. I was scared shitless, and figured either I fight or I die. So I just kept swinging." His head hung low as if he were baring the back of his neck for a headsman's blade. "We both just kept screaming and swinging. And then she was gone."
It was a short, simple word. But it carried much of the weight that had been on Yuuki's shoulders these past six months.
Gone. She's gone. Forever.
She'd known. She'd known that Aiko's character name was grayed out in the Imp faction list; Haydon had told her as much. It was impossible for her to still be alive, and any such hope was worse than futile.
But not having personally witnessed her sister's death, it was one thing to know that Aiko was lost to her. It was another thing to have the fact of it confirmed by the man who had himself turned her into a Remain Light. The flood of tears resumed anew, but this time the hitching of her chest was mostly silent.
Parker, they'd called him. Yuuki wondered if that was even his player name, or part of it. For the first time, she was able to force herself to look at him—not just to look at him, but to see him. To twelve-year-old Konno Yuuki, a helpless girl caught up in the aftermath of the Salamander invasion, he'd been an armed adult aggressor, imposing and terrifying. Half a year later, with eyes that had seen the inside of the World Tree and a resilience earned through months in combat, she saw him for what he was: a broken young man who'd made a terrible mistake in a bad situation. A boy barely past his teens who'd killed someone he hadn't intended to, slumped against a wall just as she was, looking nearly as damaged by the experience as she was.
She realized that his voice was no longer triggering her.
It wasn't okay. She didn't know if it ever would be. But she realized something else, then, as well: she couldn't hate him. And she was relieved that she hadn't killed him. In her blind rage, she hadn't tagged his green cursor as hostile; the only damage he'd taken had been from physical collisions with objects.
Mortimer, standing on the opposite side of Parker from his party members, spoke then. "That's why you've always avoided PvP. You didn't want to ever again be put in a position where something like that could happen." It didn't have the sound of a question, and there was no grammatical marker for one.
Parker seemed to take it as one anyway. He didn't look up. "Yeah."
Yuuki felt Kumiko's touch on her arm. The woman crouched down so that she was interposed between Yuuki and Parker; she could no longer see him. "Are you okay, honey? Do you need anything?"
In truth, Yuuki hadn't given even a moment's thought to what she needed—for the most part, she'd just been reacting in the moment. With her strength returning, she carefully worked her way up into a standing position, waving off Kumiko's offer of support. She spared one last glance towards Parker, who was still sitting in place with his head in his hands. "I think I just need to be away from this place."
Kumiko brushed past the lingering members of Parker's farming group, the look on her face parting them before her like the Red Sea. Yuuki followed close at her side, head low and thoughts turbulent.
Parker's cry came echoing down the hallway, receding with every step. "I'm sorry!"
Yuuki stopped in place, eyes on the floor and fists at her sides. She didn't trust herself to speak. After a few moments, she kept walking.
After everything they'd been through over a period of days, Asusa was entirely unsurprised that exhaustion took them immediately upon finding a bed. Any post-raid celebration could wait until the following evening; for her, sleep was nearly instantaneous.
Equally unsurprising was that her dreams were filled with a melange of various parts of the journey that had filled her recent waking hours. In the manner of dreams, most of these mashups made little sense even to Asuna's dreaming mind, and flowed from one to another connected only by a current of elation—a sense of boundless adventure, as if she were the hero in an epic story.
At the end of it all, she and Kirito fought side by side against Mimisdraugr—but Yuuki was there too, the three of them making a heroic stand against the final boss all by themselves. The sight of her friend gave her a pang of yearning; it felt like forever since she'd seen Yuuki. She wanted to change that as soon as she could, and a part of her vaguely wondered if that determination would cross over when she woke.
There came a point when the dream state began to fade, receding like a haze and leaving Asuna ensconced by a vague sense of reassuring warmth. One side of her face was warmer than the other, and there was a pleasant but unfamiliar sensation on her head. It took her drowsy mind longer than it should have to realize that her head was laying on Kirito's chest, and that the rhythmic touches on her head were him running his hand across her hair, sometimes letting his fingers sink into it a little.
Contented beyond all measure or expectation, Asuna snuggled a bit more closely, and felt his other arm wrap around her back. At some point in the night she'd ended up draped across him, and it was not the least bit unwelcome. "G'morning."
"Morning, Asuna." Kirito's hand paused in its strokes across her head, and in an almost catlike way she pushed her head towards his hand without realizing it, encouraging him to continue. "I could get used to this."
"I hope I never do," Asuna said, closing her eyes again. Her HUD glowed plain against the backs of her eyelids, taunting her with how late they'd slept in—or late, at least, compared to when their clearing groups usually got started. "I know we have to go downstairs at some point, but I want to savor this as long as we can."
"Everyone's going to be itching to dig into the new zone," Kirito agreed. "I know I am. But I think we've earned a little bit of a rest."
"Mm." Asuna was willing to go along with that plan. It felt odd, being that carefree—acting as if there wasn't a world's worth of pressure on them to get right back out there and clear the game. A nagging corner of her mind wouldn't let her hear the end of it.
She was presently telling that part of her mind to shut the hell up and let her enjoy her moment.
As if to reinforce that message, Asuna used her elbows to push herself up a little further so that she was more face to face with him, chest pressed against his side with only the generic system-enforced undergarments separating them. He didn't withdraw the hand that had been stroking her hair, but it did slide down slightly with her motion, palm coming to rest against her neck with his thumb against her jaw. She took the time to search his eyes, to try to find the pensive thoughts lurking behind them. When she smiled, his own smile grew in answer.
The kiss in Mimisdraugr's arena had been spontaneous, arising from the desperate exuberance of their victory. This one was slow, deliberate, and free of distractions or interruption. Asuna felt Kirito's fingers tighten in her hair, and gave off a wordless murmur of appreciation, lifting her chin slightly. His mouth was there on her neck, then, and her own fell open slightly.
"I love you, Kirito."
For once, there was no hesitation, no moment of awkward uncertainty. Just his lips returning to hers, answering with his own attestation once he was allowed to breathe again. "I love you too, Asuna."
There had been times when she hadn't been sure she would ever be able to say those words to him, let alone have him return them in kind. Asuna's head was swimming with her elation, and for a time she found herself without words.
She settled for other means of communication, nestling her head against Kirito and shifting until it came to rest in a spot next to his neck where it seemed to fit perfectly. At no point in her short life had she imagined that she could ever feel as happy and comforted as she did then. Her smile of fulfillment was so broad that she could feel it where her cheek pressed against his shoulder.
For a time, Asuna felt no need to stir or say anything further—and apparently, neither did Kirito. If she could've turned off her HUD and notifications entirely, she would've—just to pretend for as long as possible that they weren't in this artificial world, and that somehow they'd managed to achieve a moment like this in their own skins without any of their respective parental figures committing acts of violence.
It was just as well that she hadn't shut everything off. The system was just beginning to remind Asuna that her avatar required breakfast when she heard the chime of a new message in her inner ear. Any regret that she might've felt vanished when she saw the name beside the icon. Murmuring an apology to Kirito, Asuna finished extricating herself just enough to be able to open the window and read the message.
When both of them were sitting up and she'd finished reading, Asuna looked over at him. "How do you feel about getting on a Mirror call with Yuuki in a few minutes? It sounds like she's got a lot to share with us."
Kirito's hand paused halfway to his own menu. "Sure, but can I get dressed first?"
There was a pillow conveniently nearby; Asuna snatched it up and threw it at him. Kirito tried to deflect it the way he might've any other projectile, but his attempt was thwarted by both the lack of an equipped weapon and the unpredictability of pillow physics; he spilled off the edge of the bed with very little grace or remaining dignity.
"I'll tell her yes," Asuna said, already typing.
The sun was already up, and Eugene was this close to finally getting some sleep when he got the message.
His brother, thankfully, was dealing with the remaining aftermath of the night's raid. Since each of them had their own private room in the shared residence, Eugene had shut the blinds and taken full advantage of the lock on his door.
He had done everything he could to ensure that nothing would interrupt him. He'd tapped a few trusted clearing group leaders with handling anything that came up regarding the war or the clearing effort; his responsibilities were covered. He'd set himself Unfindable. He'd disabled the ability for non-friends to PM him. He'd disabled his notific—
No, he hadn't. Eugene was sure he'd disabled all of his notification pop-ups before unequipping all his gear and pulling the sheets over himself. But the proof that he hadn't was staring him right in the face. He couldn't even shut his eyes and ignore it; the icon remained there in his HUD, flashing insistently.
And had there been any name other than that of his Faction Leader printed beside the stylized speech bubble of the new-message icon, he would've corrected that oversight, ignored the interruption, and gotten on with some long-overdue rest.
Eugene had no idea why Corvatz was directly PMing him, but whatever the reason, two things were certain: it wasn't good, and it couldn't be put off until later. Setting aside his annoyance for now, he focused on his UI to bring up the message.
「The enforcement log lists an arrest for Nightstick and several other Salamanders on charges of murder. You also revoked his delegation privileges, and these are just the beginning of our problems today. I want an explanation immediately.」
It was quite possibly the last thing Eugene needed to deal with at this exact moment, but the universe didn't particularly care about anyone's preferences on the matter. With luck, he'd be able to handle it without getting out of bed. Staring up at the ceiling, he reached out and tapped the «Reply» button. While he began typing, he raised his voice to a shout that would carry through a closed door. "Mort!"
It occurred to him that his bedroom door was locked, and he had no idea where his brother had gone.
"How bad is it?" Mortimer asked.
Parker had already been on shaky ground since his encounter with Yuuki, but his expression now was that of someone who was seriously reconsidering his life choices. "Bad," he said. "The early bird groups have nothing. Some are already giving up and heading home."
"Nothing? Not a single drop? Now that is some bullshit RNG." Mortimer had heard of worse luck, especially in MMOs, but it was still a hard pill to swallow.
"You don't understand, sir. There were no drops because there was nothing to drop them. The Lopers didn't spawn today. None of them did. Not one."
Mortimer almost did something truly foolish: declare an obviously-true fact to be impossible. It was clearly possible; it had happened and he had no reason to doubt the reports. He stopped himself before the words could rise to his lips, and reconsidered. "A gateway was just cleared. Is it possible the spawns are going to reshuffle after every gateway from now on?"
Parker only took a moment before shaking his head. "Nothing else changed. Just the Lopers. And as far as the farmers can tell, nothing's spawning in their place. It's like they got cut from the game. And the mob population in general is a lot thinner."
To say that this was bad would be an appalling understatement. It was an economic crisis. But he also immediately realized the opportunities it presented. "You have all this in PMs, right?"
"Would you forward them to me?"
Parker dutifully opened his menu and began interacting with it. "Sure, but why?"
"I'll deliver your report to Corvatz personally. I need to discuss a few things with him anyway, and this will provide an opening." He reached out and put a hand on the younger man's shoulder, briefly interrupting his typing. "I'll get Ironhide to cover for you. In the meantime, I want you to go home and get some sleep. Shut off everything and take some time to recover. You've been through a lot."
Parker nodded and then went back to his input window. "I'm not the only one."
There were multiple ways to interpret that comment, and Mortimer wanted to inquire further, but at the moment it was a distraction. One by one the forwarded PMs showed up in his inbox, and once Parker had been sent on his way, Mortimer began reviewing the reports from the farming groups.
Mortimer had thought that to at least some small degree, Parker's descriptions had been hyperbolic. But the situation was every bit as catastrophic as he'd made it sound—if not worse. An entire zone had been somehow emptied of spawns for one specific mob, and the overall mob population in general seemed to have entered a depleted state.
Overfarming? No, we already ruled that out. And for the very same reasons, it couldn't be that the Sylphs have gone in and cleared them out overnight. These are common field mobs; they have known spawn points and fixed respawn cycles. Respawns which are typically measured in minutes, not hours.
But the early bird parties had already been in the field for much longer than that; they always departed just before dawn. And it's only the Lopers. Which is terribly… convenient, for certain stakeholders at least. One of these specific spawns disappearing is happenstance, another coincidence. An entire goddamn zone of them is enemy action.
But even in the implausible event that the Sylphs had simultaneously cleared every single mob in the zone just before the first Salamander parties arrived, there was no way for them to prevent the multiple cycles of repops that would still have happened by now.
It was, in fact, impossible. Mortimer could imagine no conceivable way, no known game mechanic, that would've allowed them to do it. Which only meant that something else was happening—something which he did not yet understand.
He was no closer to understanding by the time he reached the map room, so he set the mystery aside for now and took a moment to ground himself before placing a hand on the heavy door.
Mortimer had passed one of the clearing group leaders in the hallway, but for a wonder, Corvatz was alone—likely in between briefings, and expecting Parker next. His menu was set visible, and Mortimer could see the transparent backside of a broad array of large windows. He immediately recognized the complexity of the Faction Leader interface; nothing else in the game looked like it.
Corvatz was seated beside the miniature physical map of their home zones that dominated the center of the room. His head turned at the sound of the door opening, and when he saw Mortimer enter, he stood immediately. With a few swift motions he hid the UI and closed his menu. His initial response was less than welcoming. "What are you doing here?"
Mortimer opened his own menu and set it visible, calling up the pinned windows with the farming group PMs. "Parker couldn't sleep last night and isn't feeling well, my lord, so I offered to bring his report to you."
Corvatz gave Mortimer a critical, piercing look, as if trying to identify what kind of rank subterfuge lay behind the honorific address. After a few beats, he made a sharp gesture at the open space between them, one which was probably meant to be inviting. "General Eugene complained of the same mystery ailment when I contacted him earlier this morning, and his PM was nearly incoherent. Let's hope you're in better health. Report."
Having been on the Faction Leader side of so many such reports, Mortimer was briefly amused at the inversion. However, he also knew exactly how he would want information presented were he in Corvatz's place, and he used that knowledge to tailor his explanation of Parker's data. When he was done, Corvatz was nearly trembling with anger—but he could tell it was anger directed not at him, but at the perpetrators of their circumstances. Corvatz took a few steps towards the open doors that led out to the balcony, stopping in the middle of the floor.
When he looked over at Mortimer, his expression was accusatory. "I'll bet you love this, don't you? Our economy is in tatters, and you'll take full advantage of that in the coming election."
"If you believe that I take any pleasure in our factions' misfortunes, my lord, you have misunderstood me. Regardless of how each of us personally feels, we must recognize that circumstances have changed, and find a new way forward."
Corvatz snorted. "You're good with words, but I don't hear a plan. Mine is to go over the farming data and identify our next target, and I need Parker for that, not you. Now, since your brother was less than helpful, maybe you can tell me why our Guard Captain is in jail."
It was the perfect opportunity for a segue, and Mortimer did not waste it. "As a matter of fact, my lord, I can. Are you aware that for some months, Nightstick has been operating a clandestine underground facility where a large number of innocent players are being held against their will?"
The revelation brought forth no obvious surprise from Corvatz. "If you're referring to the maximum-security prison beneath the jail, you can save it—he's already briefed me, and no one in that jail is innocent."
"I beg your pardon. Of what crimes were they convicted?"
The critical gaze that fell then on Mortimer suggested his leader had his own suspicions about who was involved with what. "This facility contains foreign belligerents and prisoners of war. As you're well aware, the coded prison system has hard limits on how long a player can be kept in jail, and without the ability to effectively take and keep prisoners, our forces have only one option for ensuring that a disabled enemy can no longer threaten us. Nightstick has developed a method for neutralizing players and indefinitely detaining them without killing them outright."
Mortimer would have bet that most or all of that characterization had come directly from Nightstick's mouth—possibly verbatim. Corvatz dipped his head curtly in an indicative way. "You should appreciate this. You've been advocating for less-lethal ROE since I took this position. Well, here you are. Nightstick's detention facility gives us a tool that will allow us to reduce any enemy's numbers without upsetting the NCC proxies too much."
"I wouldn't go quite that far," Mortimer remarked when an opening presented itself—and in a way, Corvatz had held open the door for this one. "I strongly suspect that the other factions will be even more upset once they learn the specifics of how their people are being treated down there. Are you aware that his methods include dismembering them and locking them inside sensory blackout cages?"
To Mortimer's mild disappointment, Corvatz didn't even flinch at that description. It caused him to reassess a few of the other arguments he'd gamed out. "I'm aware that prisoners held there have had their avatar's limbs removed. It causes no pain or permanent harm, and is necessary to keep them safely detained. As for what they're locked inside…" He gave a dismissive wave with one mailed hand, the rings creaking with the motion. "I couldn't care less. Nightstick says his crafter designed cages to keep the prisoners safely disabled, and I take him at his word."
"You really shouldn't, my lord. Because Nightstick has omitted a few nontrivial details from his rosy characterization of the dungeon in which these prisoners are kept. Such as that they have been subjected to months of torture from which Nightstick has been earning a significant side income." When Corvatz did not immediately retort with some kind of defense or explanation, Mortimer affected a tone of mild surprise. "Left that part out, did he?"
"No games, damn you. What's this about torture and income?"
"Nightstick led a private guild whose sole purpose was to kidnap players using this method, and use them as living target dummies for AOE skill grinding. Their avatar's dismembered torsos are locked inside blackout cages, and repeatedly shocked with Interrupt and other spells. He had turned this into a lucrative business, selling AOE skill training to clearers and others while concealing the victims from his customers. The way he has characterized it to you is a cover story, and nothing more."
"And your proof of this?"
Mortimer fixed Corvatz with a cold look. "I posed as a customer in order to learn their secrets. I can personally testify to that side of the operation." It was bending the truth a little, but not in any way that mattered in this discussion. "As for the prisoner abuse, is a victim's testimony not enough for you?"
Corvatz met that look unmoved, but did appear to be giving Mortimer's words a fair hearing. "It depends on whether that testimony is credible. Am I to understand that you've spoken with one of the prisoners?"
"Former prisoner. She is an Imp clearer—one of our allies—who was wrongly detained, and is now free. She personally witnessed what Nightstick and his guild are doing to people down there."
"Good. I want to speak with her. Where is she now?"
Mortimer had fully expected Corvatz to demand some kind of proof—had their positions been reversed, he certainly would have. "Safe at my apartment. But Eugene is—"
"If he's not awake now, he will be shortly. Come."
Mortimer was quick on his feet when it came to adapting to shifts in conversation, but this was a turn he hadn't expected, and the single word took a moment to process. "Beg pardon?"
Corvatz was already moving, forcing Mortimer to keep up. "We are going there now. I want to speak with the witnesses immediately."
When Yuuki was done, she at first had a hard time looking at her closest friends, even through the sense of distance imparted by the Moonlight Mirror window. Telling them everything that had happened with the Sandmen had been painful enough. Every time she'd raised her eyes during her lengthy explanation, she'd seen such distress on their faces that it was almost unbearable to think of the pain she was causing them by sharing that burden.
But it had to be shared. It had to be known. Yuuki felt Kumiko's hand gently settle on her shoulder, and the brief comforting touch brought her back a little bit.
"I'm so sorry, Yuuki," Asuna said, lowering the hand that had almost perpetually covered her mouth. "God, I'm so sorry. But you're okay, right?"
Yuuki had made sure to say so, but she reassured Asuna as best as she could. "I'm not hurt, and Mortimer and Kumiko are organizing an effort to free all the victims. But there's gonna be Spriggans and Undines in there, and we've gotta have someone who can help… uh…" She turned to Kumiko. "What was that word?"
"Liaise," Kumiko answered, then turned her attention back to those on the other side of the Mirror. "It'd be best if we had Spriggan and Undine representatives to act as liaisons to their factions, being a friendly face to the freed players and helping arrange for their return. I've already spoken to Lord Haydon about this, and he agrees the best solution is for you to work with us to arrange passage through Everdark. We will grant your liaisons green cursors within that city, so it'll be a safe zone nearly all the way to Undine territory."
Asuna and Kirito exchanged looks. "I'll talk to Diavel as soon as we're done here. I'm sure he'll do whatever we can to get our people home."
Kirito nodded, his hard expression suggesting that his outrage at the Sandmen was simmering below the surface. "For the Spriggans, it's probably best not to assume that they actually want to go to Penwether, especially if they were kidnapped down south. I'll talk with Coper and the UC party leaders, see what our options are."
"Part of the rescue process will be finding out where each player will feel safe going," Kumiko affirmed. "But we're working on reaching out to all the factions first so that we have those contacts in place."
"We'll do anything we can to help," Kirito said.
"I knew you would," Yuuki said, reminded once again of why these two people were so beloved to her.
"And thank you," Kumiko said, surprising Yuuki by bowing to her friends on the other side of the Mirror. "Yuuki has spoken often of both of you, and warmly. Anyone who is that dear to her has my gratitude and friendship, and it's good to see that you're both the kind of people she thinks you are."
Yuuki didn't get a chance to see what they'd say to that; the icon in her HUD was flashing. "Hang on, spell's about to run out. I'll call back in a sec!"
When the spell had dissipated, Yuuki took a deep breath the way Kumiko had taught her, then slowly let it out. She looked around the empty bedroom that Mortimer had allowed them to use for this call, letting her nerves settle a little.
"You okay, honey?"
Yuuki smiled. "Fine. Really fine, actually—just relieved. I was kinda anxious about telling them all that, and asking for their help after I'd been gone for so long."
"I don't think that matters to them at all. Nor should it."
"Yeah, you're probably right. Okay, hopefully this time I get it on the first try." Selecting Asuna from her friends list and raising her hands before her in a certain way, she carefully said, "yatto mezal kegure…"
"It's all right," Kumiko said gently as the failure slightly depleted her MP. "Take a deep breath and try again, slowly."
Yuuki nodded, and did. "Yatto mezal, keglefranyelth, dweren."
It must have been good enough; the spell completed and the aperture re-opened before them. "Sorry about that," Yuuki said. "Anyway, I think that was basically it. I'm gonna be helping out down here with the rescue effort for a while longer, but then I'll be coming back to Arun—and to clearing."
"Good," Kirito said. "There'll be a place in the party waiting here for you."
Excitement rose within Yuuki, even though it'd be some time yet before she could leave. "I can't wait! I told Asuna that I've been thinking about leaning into tanking more, so that works out great for everyone. When I hit level 40, I'm gonna—"
There was a sharp knocking at the bedroom door, a firm triple-rap that could not be mistaken as anything other than a request for entry. To see Mortimer there was little surprise; it was after all his bedroom that they were borrowing for the Moonlight Mirror call.
The man standing beside him was a less expected sight—and one far less welcome. "My sincere apologies for the intrusion," Mortimer said as he stepped into the room with Corvatz only a step behind him. "I've briefed Lord Corvatz of the crimes the Sandmen committed, and he has asked to speak with a witness personally."
It was impossible to miss the way Kumiko interposed herself between Yuuki and the Salamander leader. "This girl has been through a lot, and she's barely slept," Kumiko said. "That goes for all of us. If you've any compassion at all, come back tomorrow."
The anger in the look Corvatz gave Kumiko then ran deeper and hotter than mere pique over her resistance. "I'll have words for you about another matter after this," Corvatz said harshly to Kumiko, which caused her posture to stiffen defensively. "I'm told the girl is a clearing group member. If that's so, then she's a warrior and won't wilt at a few questions."
Coming to a decision, Yuuki stepped out from Kumiko's shadow and strode purposefully up to Corvatz until she had to tilt her head up, her gaze direct. The Faction Leader nodded. "That's what I thought. Give me the truth, then, girl. Are the prisoners being tortured?"
"Yes," Yuuki said instantly. "Do you wanna know how? Imagine that your arms and legs have been cut off, you're deaf, and you've been locked inside a pitch black box and left there, with no food or water, for days. The only thing that tells you you're not dead is your HUD—and that every so often, someone comes along and starts hitting you with Interrupt spells. Over and over. For hours. You can't see, hear, scream, or do anything but thrash around inside your cage until they decide it's over. And then you're back to silence and darkness."
Kumiko spoke then, the fury in her voice clear. "All of that, repeatedly, for months. All to line Nightstick's pockets. And it's awfully interesting how you seem a whole lot more upset at me, personally, than you do at what he's been up to."
Corvatz glared at Kumiko. "Nightstick hasn't been running a network of assassins who kill Salamanders—he's been trying to bring it down. Some of the very prisoners you're so concerned about are people who've been part of this network of murderers. And you—" Corvatz stabbed a mailed finger towards the Imp woman then. "You are neck-deep in it somehow. We just haven't been able to prove it yet. But we will, and when we do, you'll regret crossing that line."
Kumiko stared evenly at Corvatz, unflinching even at the suddenness of his gesture towards her. "I'm sorry," she said with dangerously deceptive calm, shards of glass poking through the silk of her voice. "Did you just threaten me?"
Before Corvatz or anyone else could say anything, Kumiko turned the opposite direction, facing away from everyone else, and raised her hands, speaking rapidly. "Yatto zabukke glefranyelth dweren."
A second Moonlight Mirror aperture ripped open the air of the room, facing just enough towards Yuuki's spell that the parties could see each other. Haydon, the Imp Faction Leader, appeared to be in a room with several other Imps who were unfamiliar to Yuuki. His obvious surprise at the unannounced spell faded quickly as he took in the people present on the other side. "Kumi? If you're calling like this, something—"
"Forgive me, Uncle," Kumiko said with a brief but respectful bow. "But I think it may be time to discuss that matter we went over earlier."
There was something in the way that Kumiko said ojisan that made Yuuki certain she wasn't just using it as a familiar address towards an older man. The word did not appear to be lost on anyone else in the room, either. Haydon gave a sharp look towards Corvatz, and crossed his arms. "What's the meaning of this?"
Mortimer, who'd been looking increasingly alarmed and struggling to restrain himself, stepped to Corvatz's side. "My lord," he said firmly but respectfully, "may we speak in private? It's urgent."
Corvatz's gaze was quickly going between Kumiko and the two Moonlight Mirror spells; his eyes were those of a trapped animal, and after a few moments he turned and stalked from the room. "Make it quick."
"Well?" Corvatz demanded once the door had shut.
They were alone in the living room that Mortimer and Eugene shared, but he had no way of knowing how long that would remain the case. And what he had to say was critically dependent on those words reaching no one but Corvatz himself. This has no chance of success if there is anyone else present. He must have a way to save face.
"Our faction is on the edge of a blade at this moment," Mortimer said. "We cannot be giving our only ally more reasons to walk away from us than they already have. The Spriggans and Undines are joining forces, and that presents the Imps a very tempting alternative to our yoke."
Corvatz snorted. "A Spriggan-Undine union? Absurd. The Spriggans used to hunt them, and offer nothing of value."
"Scoff if you like, but they just cleared a gateway together. The two players you saw on the other Mirror call are representatives of that alliance, and I doubt their presence was a coincidence." He didn't know for certain whether that last detail was a fact or not—but he suspected it was not far from the truth, and was betting that Corvatz would neither know otherwise nor be disabused of it by the players in question.
"Be that as it may, we cannot ignore what the Imps have been doing! Under that woman's lead, some of them have been systematically murdering our people!"
"Even if that is true," Mortimer said, "how many players do you think will care about their vigilantism once the world finds out what the Sandmen did? You think the Spriggans were hated? Multiply that."
Corvatz visibly considered the weight of the implications—but came to a conclusion that Mortimer had not anticipated. "How do you imagine that this works in favor of their release? If anything, you have just presented an argument for continuing their detainment. Any abuse of the prisoners must stop, to whatever extent that's actually true—but they are still prisoners, and I will not have them released to murder more Salamanders or undermine our war effort with propaganda."
"Propaganda." While Mortimer prided himself on his ability to control his emotions rather than the other way around, it took everything he had to keep from displaying the rage that he felt then. Acknowledge it but do not feed it. Channel it into determination and will. Then think.
"Yes," Corvatz snapped. "Propaganda. You're well aware of what that is, and the power it can have."
"Quite," Mortimer said with a facade of calm.
"Then you should understand why we cannot hand our enemies a weapon like that."
Mortimer closed his eyes for a few moments. He was no longer in any way concerned that he was in immediate danger of imprisonment or harm. To the contrary, there was a small but vocal part of himself that wanted nothing more than to do great violence to the man standing before him—and he was under no illusions about how foolish and pointless that would be. The line must be drawn here.
He only replied once he trusted himself to speak calmly.
"I would present to you two counter-arguments: one pragmatic, and one ethical."
Corvatz made a beckoning gesture. "Let's have them. Then we're done here."
"From a pragmatic standpoint, your notion of indefinitely detaining these players to stop the spread of information is nothing but an ato no matsuri. It is entirely moot—Nightstick's victims are already being released, and the story has likely already been told to those on the other side of that Mirror. PMs have undoubtedly already been sent, and you cannot recall them. There is no possible action you can take that will contain the information."
"You tell me all of this now?"
There was no point in addressing the rhetorical question—it would only divert them, and give Corvatz new targets for his ire. Mortimer was already regretting his framing, but there was nothing to do but adapt. "I tell you this so that you will understand the practical aspects of the choice before us. No matter what you or I do now, the world will know what happened in Nightstick's dungeon. Our choice is simple and stark: to embrace what he and his guild did, or to condemn it and do what we must to help his victims. And do not misunderstand: if we choose to try to hide or run from this, offering excuses or half-measures, it will be no different than putting our stamp of approval on it."
Mortimer was seeing signs that maybe, just perhaps, he was beginning to get through. The other man took a deep breath, eyes locked on Mortimer as he visibly wrestled with the argument presented. "And the ethical factor?"
"For that, I'm going to do something very rude," Mortimer said. "And I apologize in advance for the necessity. Corvatz, back in real-world Japan, you were a member of the Self-Defense Force." It was not a question.
Corvatz's expression tightened. "What if I was? We are trapped in this world now. In this world we are Salamanders, and always will be. You and I both live or die on the clearing of this game based on whether the Salamanders win."
Mortimer largely disregarded the ideological spiel that followed the acknowledgement. "I'm going to say Ground SDF. You've had infantry training, and based on how you and Eugene trained up our forces, I'm betting you were a senior NCO, probably rikusouchou. Any inaccuracies so far, Sergeant?"
He was riding a thin and very sharp edge—every bit as dangerous as the one that Corvatz had them balanced on—and he was all too aware of how precarious it was. But Mortimer was committed at this point; he had no other viable way to reach Corvatz. The seconds were counted out by the tick of the Leprechaun clock on one of the tables; it was the only sound in the room. Corvatz stared back at Mortimer, and for a time he wasn't quite sure whether the Salamander leader was going to have him arrested. It would take only a few words.
"I held the rank of First Sergeant when I served, yes. And it is my experience commanding peacekeeping forces in the field which prepared me for this conflict."
Mortimer nodded. "Operation Stalwart Mercy?"
The fist tightening at Corvatz's side made the links of his mailed gauntlet creak. "Choose your next words carefully."
The reaction was as good as confirmation. It was now or never; he had to hope that enough groundwork had been laid. Mortimer shifted his manner of speaking, taking on a gentler, more intimate tone. "Please do not misunderstand me, First Sergeant. I will not pretend to know what you endured over there. My father served. I do not share the general disdain for SDF service that so many Japanese still harbor. It is with that understanding and respect that I ask you: what of the oath you took?"
"Your Oath of Service," Mortimer said. "I understand that it's changed a few times over the years, but I recall bits of it. "'Respect individual dignity,' for one—something the Sandmen trampled all over. That you were entrusted by the nation to complete your duty no matter the danger to self. A duty to protect the nation of Japan and its people."
By the time he'd finished speaking, the gentle, reasonable tone with which Mortimer had started was beginning to crack like a whip, and he dialed it back a bit. "You are a member of the Salamander faction," he affirmed. "But you are also a man who took an oath to defend the citizens of Japan, not the citizens of Gattan. And that is an oath that you betray every time you kill a Japanese citizen wearing a Sylph or Imp avatar."
It was impossible to tell for sure whether his efforts were for naught—or whether he'd truly managed to reach Corvatz in any way. The older man's anger at this subject was such that it was difficult to read anything else from him. Only the fact that Corvatz had not yet struck him or ordered his arrest argued in favor of patience.
"What would you have me do?" Corvatz demanded at last. "The reality of the situation is what it is. Our survival is tied to our faction."
"I would have you honor your oath by favoring paths that avoid harming those you've sworn to protect," Mortimer said. "So peace and respect towards the other factions puts your life at risk? So does a bullet, but you swore to face those—and did, if I'm not mistaken."
When no argument came, he pressed on. "You say that our ultimate goal is to escape and notify the authorities so that everyone else can be rescued. But that happens regardless of who clears the game first. As leaders of men, our duty is to make sure that as many Japanese citizens as possible escape alive, and when you choose conflict and bloodshed over other options in order to ensure that your tribe is the one that wins, you are no longer fighting for the people of Japan—you're fighting for yourself. For your own selfish survival, at the cost of your honor and your oath."
Corvatz was angry. Mortimer had expected no less. But he also knew that the man's anger could be controlled, even channeled. He knew the man before him was—or at least, at one point, had been—a man of duty. A man who cared about serving, a man who wanted to help people.
A man whose duty had cost him the lives of men under his command—men who had died saving the lives of people who hated them and would never thank them for their sacrifices.
When Corvatz looked away and down, it was only for a moment—but Mortimer took it as a sign to press his advantage. "Our economy is in tatters. We stand alone in the world. The Imps are about to walk away. And now a light is being cast on a crime that will stain our faction for a long time—one which will destroy us if we do not disavow and condemn it with every iota of our strength. I can help if you let me."
"Help yourself to re-election is more like it," Corvatz said with naked cynicism. "I can see the writing plain enough: you show up with solutions and think it will win you the next election."
"An election that is weeks away," Mortimer said after sighing softly. "Corvatz, I care about precisely two things right now: saving the Salamander faction, and helping Nightstick's victims. And we can do both. You are a fine soldier, an excellent field commander and trainer—but your thinking is tactical and operational, not strategic or political. I'm not asking you to step down—just let me help you navigate these waters now, facing the other factions with a united front, and leave the topic of elections for next month where it belongs."
Sasha considered herself to be quite well-read, and it was not typical for her to misunderstand a word. On the rare occasion she encountered one she'd never heard before, it was usually a high point in her day to go look it up so that she could understand it—and, perhaps, put it to use at some point.
Nonetheless, she stared at the very simple words in the PM she'd received, eyes repeatedly running across them as if they held some arcane meaning which she'd never before grasped. Heedless of her surroundings, Sasha caught herself repeating what she'd read out loud, and giving voice to her confusion. "Song Magic? But… why me?"
Argo's ears perked up—quite literally; the Cait Sith girl's triangular ears were mobile, and shifted position to zero in on the sudden sound amidst the silence. They'd all taken a break while Blane began editing the transcription of their latest work session, which had given both Argo and Sasha a chance to check their messages.
Sasha looked over at the nosy info broker. It was going to be difficult to tell the girl to mind her own business after blurting out a line like that. And truthfully, she reasoned that it couldn't hurt to see what Argo had to say. "I just got a PM from my faction's proxy. She's discovered some new secret to do with Song Magic, and she all but begged me to come to Sondfref to consult with her."
Argo's blonde eyebrows shot up, and her posture became noticeably more attentive. "Really. Okay. Problem being?"
"The problem," Sasha replied with outward patience, "is that I have a tin ear and know next to nothing about the subject in question. So you might imagine that even if I were inclined to take a trip back northwest, I'm not sure what sort of essential knowledge she seems to think I have, or what help I'm uniquely suited to provide."
Argo waited a few beats, seeming to think it through. "What do you know better than anyone else in ALO?" She gave a significant look at the stack of majutsugo notes accumulating next to Sasha. "The Puca aren't a big community. Everyone's probably at least heard of you and what you do."
"Well, perhaps," Sasha said, trying to be appropriately humble about such a thing. "But what does the language of magic have to do with Song Magic?"
The shrug that Argo gave then was not the least bit convincing in its nonchalance. Sasha could tell that Argo really, really wanted her to dig into this—mainly, she was certain, so that the info broker herself could find out what exactly Lady Proxy Aria wanted, or at least what she'd learned. Sasha should've known the narcotic effect that the word "secret" would have on the girl.
Argo's answer, however, was difficult to argue. "Mebbe that's exactly what she wants you to help figure out. Nothing's stopping you from replying and asking her for more details, ya know."
Sasha sighed. "Well, I'm afraid it's out of the question at the moment. We have our work on the magic system guidebook—"
"Which might change depending on just what kinda link she's found, right?"
I believe I may be starting to dislike this girl, Sasha thought, keeping it to herself. Just a little bit. She's especially annoying when she has a point. "But the transcrip—"
"Blane has a two-day backlog of editing, and I get super-busy after a gateway is cleared—I gotta focus on other things for a while." Which she immediately began to do, eyes going back to what was presumably a message window.
"Fine, but I can't—"
"Aren't Sachi and Silica back? It's not like they never watch the kids when you're gone."
Sasha shifted position in her chair so that she could look directly at the Cait Sith girl across the room, face stern. "Argo, may I please finish a—"
Argo did not even look up from her UI while she spoke. "When I don't know exactly what you're gonna say, sure. Saves us both time."
For a moment, just a moment, Sasha was hotly tempted to use words that she did not typically employ—especially towards minors. The chime of a new PM saved her from needing to exercise that willpower, and when she saw Bourne's name beside the stylized speech bubble of the icon, Sasha tried to set aside her annoyance and left Argo to her own messages.
「My lady, I hope your morning fares well. I received a message from Lady Proxy Aria, who is aware of our acquaintance. She has asked whether I would be willing to take an NCC clearing group to escort you to Sondref, and before I give her a response, I would seek your thoughts. If you choose to accept her offer, little would please me more than to see you safely to your home city.」
Sasha leaned back in her chair, acutely aware—or at the very least, suspecting—that the world of Alfheim Online was conspiring against her today. Looking up at the ceiling for a moment, she couldn't see Argo but heard the girl's feet drop to the floor. "What'cha thinkin?"
None of your beeswax, young lady. "I am thinking," Sasha said truthfully, "that if Sachi and Silica are amenable, and the children are in good spirits, my taking a weekend trip to Sondref would not be the worst thing in the world."
"So ask them? They're out back getting rides on Silica's pet drake again." Argo showed teeth. "If you need some lulz, it's one of the funniest things I've ever seen."
Sasha couldn't help but chuckle despite herself. The younger Cait Sith girl's tamed water drake had been rapidly gaining mass in recent weeks; if it kept doing so at this rate, it might not be all that long before Silica herself could ride Pina. Even now, as of a few days ago, the tiger-sized pet was just barely large enough for some of the younger children to clamber onto its back without weighing it down.
The first time she'd come outside to find Masaki yelling excitedly from drake-back, Sasha had nearly panicked until Silica had pointed out that no one could die from falling damage within the city's safe zone. Now it was merely the latest ridiculous, impossible thing that the children had figured out how to do within a fantasy world, and they were milking the novelty for all it was worth.
Sasha had to cover her mouth when she exited the church to see the not-so-little blue pet struggling to even leave the ground. With the Spriggan faction abuzz this morning over their new clearing group's victory in defeating the latest boss, Kai was on top of the world—but as one of the oldest of the group he was, unfortunately, still just a bit too heavy for that to be literally the case; Pina was unable to gain altitude with him on her back.
This had apparently not stopped Kai from trying, efforts which Pina was beginning to noisily protest.
"That's enough, Kai," said Silica with a laugh and a shooing motion. "I think it's time to give Pina a break." The pet chirped its unmistakable agreement, and shook itself like a big dog after a bath as soon as Kai had slipped off the newly-crafted saddle belted around its middle.
Sachi, sitting on a bench in the shade, waved happily. "Hi, Miss Sasha!"
"Hello, Sachi. Everyone staying out of trouble here?"
Sachi giggled. "They are getting into the most trouble. Masaki wanted to see how high Pina could go today, but it turns out that's still not very high."
"Not yet, anyway," Silica said, her light brown pigtails bobbing as she flopped heavily onto the bench beside Sachi. "He's getting so big, though! It's not gonna be long."
"Long before what?"
Silica looked so excited that she could barely contain herself while answering Sasha; she fairly well bounced in her seat. "Alicia wants me to come show her clearers how to raise drakes just like Pina! I still don't know for sure what made him start to change like this, but Argo thinks I'm right about it being 'cause I maxed out his «Rapport» stat, and we're gonna give it a try!"
"That sounds wonderful, Silica," said Sasha, patting the girl on the head and drawing forth a mild squeak. "I'm sure you'll do a great job. Do you know how soon that's going to be?"
"Not for another few weeks, at least," Silica said, looking momentarily disappointed. "Alicia wants to wait until we know for sure that Pina's gonna get big enough to ride. I told her about Masaki and Jellica, but she said they didn't count unless we're gonna be sending them on raids."
"Which of course is not going to happen." Sasha tried to keep her tone light, as she thought better of Alicia's judgment and it sounded like a line said in jest—but it was the sort of thing one didn't take for granted.
Fortunately, there was suddenly a great deal of noise from those children who'd been near enough to hear—most of which was a consensus in the general direction of not just no, but hell no. Something very close to that exact thing came out of at least one mouth, but Sasha thankfully could not tell who it had been, and chose to pretend she hadn't heard it. It was, in its own way, the reassurance that she'd needed.
"Did you need something, Miss Sasha?"
The question had come from Sachi, who had been with her the longest and knew her well. "Does anyone have any plans? Would it pose any trouble for you, any at all, if I were to take a trip to Sondref for a few days on official Puca business, as it were?"
Sachi and Silica looked at each other and shrugged with a simultaneity that almost made Sasha laugh. She strongly suspected that both of them—particularly Silica—were having far too much fun exploring Pina's growing capabilities to want to go much of anywhere else at the moment. As were, apparently, the younger children, some of whom were still cavorting around the drake. If true, Sasha supposed that might help such an arrangement work out to everyone's benefit.
All the same, Sasha was inclined to ask Bourne or Aria to send someone to keep an eye on the church from afar—just to be on the safe side. It was a conversation that could wait for later, though.
For the moment, there were a few other details to settle. "And now I ask: is there anything you girls need stocked for the next few days? Anything I might get from the market, or bring back from Sondref for you?"
Sasha almost didn't catch Sachi's reaction. The young Undine girl started to open her mouth, then sealed it just as quickly, stopping herself from saying whatever was about to come forth. Sasha considered for just a moment whether to let it go, then thought better of it. "Sachi? It's okay, really—if there's something you do want from a shop, speak up, I don't mind. I'm sure I'll have plenty of time to pass while I'm there."
Silica elbowed her reticent friend before bouncing to her feet and going over to where the others were still thronged around Pina. Sachi took a halfhearted swipe at her that didn't connect, and then looked down at the ground before back up at Sasha, twiddling her thumbs anxiously.
"Well… we were at the player market the other day, and there was this one Leprechaun tinker who had a temporary stall. He had a crafted music box, one of those—what do they call them, Constructs? Miss Sasha, it actually played music! You could feed a scroll into it and it would play a song like one of those player pianos!"
"Let me guess," Sasha ventured. "He wasn't there later, when you came back with money?"
Sasha was certain her guess had been dead on the nose. Sachi gave a slow, disappointed nod, eyes disappearing behind the straight blue bangs of her bowl cut, but gradually became more animated once again when she started talking about it. "I've never seen anything like that before in the game, and it's something that they made! Like, they crafted it, you know? So even if they sold that one, they could make it again, right? Wouldn't it be amazing to have music at home whenever we want?"
"It really would!" Not that Sasha necessarily wanted music on at all times; if anything it was nice to have some peace and quiet on those rare occasions when the children allowed it. But she did sometimes miss her portable music player… even if it had typically held more audio books than actual songs. "Did you get the crafter's name?"
Sachi nodded happily. "He said his name was Rikkutaa, and that he was only in Arun for the day. He lives in Domnann and spends most of his time there, but maybe if you asked the proxy, she'd know how to get in touch with him? I was gonna PM him, but…" She looked down at the floor and poked both of her index fingers together in a nervous tic, mouth slightly puckered. Her quiet words were almost lost in the noise that the others in the backyard were making. "I forgot to ask him how to spell his name, and it's not spelled like it sounds."
Rikkutaa? Rikku… is probably something like Rick. So, Rikku… Rickta… or ter, or tor, perhaps.
Sasha was well-practiced at transliterating between the ways the same sounds were realized in different writing systems, and for the most part these conversions were not as arbitrary as they might appear—they tended to follow a variety of well-established phonetic rules.
The problem was that deciding which of those phonetic rules to follow could depend greatly on knowing which language the original word was in. Rikkutaa was almost certainly a Western name of some flavor, but it could be any number of them, rendered any number of ways within the Latin-alphabet constraints of ALO's names. Hm. I see the challenge.
"It's no trouble at all," Sasha assured her after collecting her thoughts. "If Lady Proxy Aria doesn't know, perhaps the Leprechaun proxy will, and the three all talk with one another."
Whatever hassle the errand would end up being was well worth it for the look of excitement on Sachi's face. She bounced very nearly as much as Silica typically did, and when Sasha laughed at the sight, she joined in. "It's a deal, then," Sasha said, conscious that she'd just firmly committed to a journey about which she'd still been on the fence. She held out a hand with only her pinky finger extended, and Sachi giggled while she hooked her own pinky around it and shook on the promise.
The reply from Argo was not what Yoruko had wanted to hear. But at this point, she wasn't even sure what good news would sound like.
Not this, Yoruko thought dejectedly, sitting on the bed in her inn room. She stared at the words as if they'd change from sheer force of wanting them to do so, as if her longing could author a different twist of fate. But the words were just pixels, and their dance was driven by rules that did not consider her whims. All the same, she read through them once more, a part of her hoping that she'd simply misunderstood.
「All of them. At least, all that I've gotten replies from. Not everyone with a pixie's willing to talk, ya know. The fact you are is what's getting you even this much. Anyway, they all agree it started happening over the last 24-48 hours, but when they woke up this morning…」
Yoruko's gaze drifted up over the glowing edges of the PM window, focus shifting to the tiny entity who hovered a few meters away. It was Penny—at least, it looked like her. It even sounded a bit like her—at least, it sounded like ethe voice she used when she was talking about game mechanics. But it didn't act like her, not anymore.
It didn't act like anyone.
The Navi-Pixie's little blonde head turned at Yoruko's address. The single word given in response was pleasant, but impersonal. "Hai?"
"Are you in there? I mean, the real Penny?"
The Navi-Pixie that looked like Penny cocked its head quizzically, and responded with words Yoruko was beginning to hate. "I'm sorry, I didn't understand your question. Could you try phrasing it another way?"
Yoruko felt tears begin to well up in her eyes. She bowed her head, voice cracking. "I just want to know if my friend is still in there somewhere."
A few moments of silence passed before the pixie replied, explaining the relevant manual entry with wooden, artificial cheer; the voice was Penny's but the tone was not. "If you're trying to find someone you've added to your friends list, it's easy! From your main menu, open your map by tapping—"
"That's not what I meant!" Yoruko yelled, cutting off the last word before it rose to a shrill note. Her vision was thoroughly fogged from crying, and she practically slapped her PM window closed before drawing her knees up to her chest and hugging her arms around them. She immediately felt even worse for yelling at Penny, and worse yet when she realized that the thing in front of her probably didn't even have the ability to care.
Yoruko barely even registered the presence of Caynz when he entered the room. Her boyfriend let one of his large hands come to rest on her shoulder, and she leaned her head against it, trying to take comfort from the touch and compose herself.
Caynz seemed to pick up that something was wrong, and guessed correctly. "Penny's still asleep?"
Yoruko nodded in wordless answer, looking over at the topic of discussion. "I guess you could call it that. She'll answer game questions, but it's not really her. She'd been weirdly distant for the last few days, sometimes taking a while to answer… but now it's like she's just gone. And Argo says as far as she knows, it's all the pixies."
Caynz took a few moments to digest this unwelcome revelation. "And you think it has something to do with this… what did you call it?"
Yoruko pulled up one of Argo's PMs again; the assortment of words in this particular reply had cost her a painful chunk of her savings. "Mimisu… burunaa. It's a real place somewhere in the game. Penny mentioned it once before; she made it sound like it was where she came from. And I know it's connected—it's got to be."
The Gnome boy scratched at his head in exaggerated affectation, but the puzzled look on his face was genuine. "How do you figure?"
Yoruko sat up on the bed, taking her boyfriend's hand when he offered it. She had been ignoring the minimized harassment pop-up for so long that she only then noticed when it reappeared. "Because the gateway that the clearers just opened? It was Mimisbrunnr. Or at least, they went there for part of it. I saw it in their quest log myself when I was on that Mirror call with Aria, and Argo confirmed that."
Caynz immediately identified the problem. "Which means it likely holds dangers that are far beyond our ability. Neither of us are going there anytime soon."
Yoruko gave his flowery assessment a nod. "It's super high-level, and we're not. But if Penny doesn't get better… then sooner or later, I have to go there. Maybe not now, but eventually I'll level up enough, or save up the money to hire an escort party."
"Well, then Griz may have just the thing for us, my lady."
"Indeed! Because speaking of escort parties, we just became one."
Yoruko groaned. If Caynz thought this qualified as welcome news, he had badly misread the room. "Escort quests? Ew, really?"
Caynz allowed himself a laugh. "For other players. Guild of alchemists or botanists or some such, leaving tomorrow morning. They need to do some serious harvesting to replenish their stocks, but…"
"But they're underleveled for the new mobs that spawn where their plants do."
Caynz nodded. "Exactly."
It was boring work, but paying work—it would help them make at least something from her side trip to Sondref. "That's getting more common now that all the mobs have gotten tougher."
"Bandits, too—with all the shortages, a lone player with an inventory full of crafting materials is a tempting target. Griz said there've even been a few attacks on low-level parties."
Yoruko wasn't precisely alarmed; PvP bandit groups seemed to prefer isolated prey, and wouldn't attack a party of well-equipped mid-level farmers. But the fact that it was notable enough for him to even mention gave her pause. "Around here?"
Caynz shook his head. "Nay, my lady—further south, I think; nowhere near the city itself. It's just that right now no one's going out alone if they can afford to hire an escort, so it's easy paying work for guilds like ours." He grinned suddenly, unexpectedly. "The best part? They're ending their day in Nissengrof, so we all get to go home tomorrow night."
Yoruko recognized that Caynz was trying to cheer her up, and appreciated it. But every time her eyes went to Penny, hovering disinterestedly near the side of the bed, her lips thinned and she felt the encroachment of despair—or at least one of its close cousins, coming over for an extended stay.
I don't know what happened in Mimisbrunnr that did this to Penny, but I'm going to find out how to fix her—no matter what I have to do, or how long it takes.
Sasha reflected—and not for the first time—that a long journey went by much faster in good company.
In this case, their company consisted of quite a few more people than they'd had at the beginning. While Bourne was forming up his group, another NCC-aligned party had been doing the same nearby, and everyone involved was happy to have an extra party's worth of hands. Especially since the other party was a shipment of trade goods—a collection of mostly-melee players led by a trader of some variety.
That trader's name was Kamacho, and according to Bourne, his was an increasingly-typical arrangement. Since most crafters and traders were not themselves combat builds, and field mobs were more dangerous than ever, some had made a practice of hiring a party full of pure-melee players—not so much for their fighting skill, but because their high STR stats would let them carry as many goods as possible.
Unsurprisingly, their mage was greatly relieved at the prospect of not being the sole source of heals for what had now effectively become a trade caravan. Kamacho himself was overjoyed, likely because a clearing group was a strong escort for which he wasn't paying a single Yuld. Apart from the high-level mobs, thieves might attack a solo player or underleveled party—but a raid group including clearers was the equivalent of a lorry being escorted by a squad of heavily-armed infantry.
Sasha was just as happy to have fewer things to worry about. She spent the bursts of flight enjoying the stunning vistas that Alfheim offered from fifty meters above the treetops, and enjoyed the downtimes for wing recharging even more. They afforded her an opportunity to converse with Bourne in a way they'd rarely been able to do before then, with all of their respective responsibilities.
"Well, I was going to become an English teacher," Sasha said as soon as they'd landed. A chorded hum filled the crisp, cold air as the two parties settled to the ground—or in the case of some of the melee players, glided; their low AGI scores meant that they tended to run out of wing power first.
"But," Bourne prompted, giving the area a quick visual scan and nodding to his party's tank—a taciturn Gnome player named Vigo.
"But," Sasha said, beginning to trudge on foot up the switchback trail that led to the southern end of Jotunn Valley. "There was this whole regrettable affair where we all got trapped inside a virtual world, and that didn't work out especially well for my career planning."
Bourne grunted, smiling in an automatic sort of way at the poor joke. "You mentioned linguistics."
"My minor. I came back to Japan to do that, but there was an issue with my transfer paperwork, and…" She waved at the air as if to dispel an odor. "Ultimately it meant that I had to wait until next semester to start. I needed something to do, and I've done translation work before. There's an art to it, you know."
Sasha nodded, then realized that Bourne might not be able to see the motion beneath the fur-lined hood that was currently pulled up against the lightly-falling snow. "Things often don't map directly in a one-to-one way between one language and another. You know this of course, but the gap is particularly significant between languages like English and Japanese."
"But this is a procedurally-solvable problem," Bourne pointed out. "Even exceptions to a rule can be redefined and expressed as rules of their own."
Pleased, Sasha smiled. The technical parts of this were not her field, but she understood a little as it related to her side work. "Of course. You can program a computer to produce a basic translation that is 'good enough' based on consistent grammatical rules. But even today, most serious localizations are going to polish that with native speakers at both ends, or at least in the target language. You can often get away with a fluent non-native translator, but sooner or later you'll run into something that needs to be expressed in that elegant, idiomatic, perapera way that requires not only thinking in the language, but having cultural context."
Bourne returned her smile with a broad one of his own, taking a moment to pull himself up and over an embankment that was too high to use as a step. They could've just brought out their wings for a few moments, but they needed every second of energy for the trip. The ice was such that Sasha lost her footing or grip more than once; the second time her feet nearly came out from under her, Bourne reached out and snagged her arm in his strong grip.
"Thank you," Sasha said, looking for the expected anti-harassment pop-up but seeing none for the moment; the contact had been brief. Bourne had gone to one knee beside her, waiting with patient concern; as his party stopped to check on them, Bourne waved them ahead to catch up with the trader.
"It was nothing," Bourne said. "Are you all right?"
Sasha gave a dismissive wave. "I'm fine, I'm fine. Just my dignity." She brushed snow drifts from her dress and got back to her feet without assistance. "You were saying?"
"I was not, but I was about to. I begin to see where you find the art in your craft. There is a definite… human element, in a manner of speaking, in rendering truly natural speech unto another language."
Sasha laughed suddenly, unable to not. Bourne's thick brown eyebrows went up. "You," she said, needing to stop for a moment and compose herself. "Listen to you: 'in a manner of speaking.' Do you know what the word iwaba implies, used in the way that you did?"
"I am fully aware of the word's meaning and usage," Bourne replied, eyebrows still arched in bemusement. "I fear I do not take your meaning, my lady."
Sasha's smile was positively impish. She folded her arms under her slight bust. "The implication of iwaba in this usage is that the thing in question is not literally as it is being described, but could be described in that way with a bit of license or metaphor. In English you would say things such as: if you will, it's as if, or so to speak."
Bourne's face had become blank with confusion as he regarded her, taking a step down the incline so that his face was more on her level. "And?"
"And," Sasha explained with continued amusement, "you said that about the 'human element' in a culturally-fluent translation. For better or worse, the only conversation partners that humans have on Earth are still their own kind, so the human element wouldn't be in a manner of speaking, it is exactly, literally the case. What else would that intelligent element of translation be other than human?"
Now Bourne laughed as well. "The schoolteacher emerges once more. It was but a matter of time."
"You like it," Sasha teased.
"I do," Bourne agreed. Then, with a glance up the trail, he began walking in that direction. "We've fallen behind."
"Only by a few minutes," Sasha said, jogging briefly to catch up but finding haste difficult in the ankle-deep snow. "Is there anything dangerous around here?"
Bourne shook his head, though she could only see the motion from behind as she drew even with him again. "Not typically, not unless it's been dragged from its usual habitat. Each of us alone wields power that could casually erase just about anything in this area." He gave her a side glance with a smile. "But the party members may talk."
Sasha felt a pleasant sort of amusement at the idea. "Let them," she said, though she shuffled along through the drifts to match his speed. "I just think it's fascinating, sometimes, the way you almost never let the mask of your larping drop." She quickly moved to reassure him, then, realizing what she'd said. "I don't mean that in a bad way, not at all. It's just so interesting to me, from a standpoint of language usage. You'd have to think this way, all the time. How do you do it?"
"Ah," Bourne said, seeming to understand. From there he went silent, though she couldn't tell whether to consider his words or focus on navigating the treacherous terrain. His eyes were on the ground, but she caught them once or twice as he spoke.
"We are creatures of habit, Sasha, and those habits are engraved upon our person with each thought, each decision, each word, and each deed. Everything we think, say, and do is like a trickle of water running through a slope of loose soil. That trickle seeks the shortest path to its destination, and as it falls, it leaves a path behind it. If other such trickles cross that path, they will find it easier to follow it than to cut their own, and continue eroding that familiar path until it becomes a wider channel."
Sasha thought she was following Bourne's exceptionally metaphorical description, and nodded acknowledgement so that he would continue. "In this way are habits formed in the soft loam of our minds. The more you do a thing, the easier and more automatic it becomes to do it—and this includes patterns of thinking as well. I have played this role for so long, on so many stages, that its well-worn pathways take no effort to follow. To the contrary, they carry me along with them, and produce the person before you."
If anything, it was now harder not to laugh—but there was no mockery in it, no judgment. It was pure delight, and as they reached a stretch of flat ground she reached out to briefly put a hand on his arm, fingers closing around as much of it as they could. He glanced towards her for just a moment, favoring her with a smile. Then the expression vanished with an abruptness that made her uneasy. "What?"
Bourne's eyes were tracking around, but she wasn't sure what he was looking at; when she whipped around and looked in that direction, she saw nothing but trees, snow, and mountains. When she looked back, she realized that he had to be looking at the party list in the upper periphery of his HUD; with nothing drawing her attention to her UI, it had entirely passed from her notice.
Three of the six names in that list were now grayed out. Their Leprechaun tank, Sixsense, had yellow HP that was dropping by the second from some kind of potent DOT. She and Bourne both had their wings out immediately despite their run-down state, leaping into motion and streaking around the piney tree trunks where they leaned across the beaten path.
The two parties had clearly been ambushed just after they emerged from the evergreen treeline, with no nearby cover to retreat behind. There was no sign whatsoever of Kamacho and his group, save for a parade ground of trampled snow where they—and their Remain Lights—had once been.
Steel-blue flames blazed in place of Sixsense's avatar. The moment she saw it, Sasha wasted none of his precious remaining seconds before targeting his Remain Light and starting to raise him. "Zutto famudrokke flet—"
Sasha didn't understand what was happening to her at first. Her entire body had seized up, her avatar convulsing as every virtual muscle suddenly spasmed for a fraction of a second. The spell in progress failed and depleted her MP slightly, and she felt a vertiginous sensation of falling.
She was falling. Briefly. Her wings had disappeared when she lost control of her muscles, and though she was able to bring them back quickly, she still ended up digging a deep furrow in the snow that trailed away from her point of impact like a comma. She hadn't lost a great deal of HP, but she was hyper-aware of the fact that she and Bourne were still under attack—and in great danger.
Someone hit me with an Interrupt, Sasha thought, groaning. She'd felt it a few times before, and it was just as unpleasant as she remembered. She struggled to push herself to her feet, muttering a rapid zutto yoji yasun to recover just a bit of HP at the same time.
A pair of Imps and a Leprechaun—an unlikely combination if she'd ever seen one—seemed to be their assailants. One of the Imps was clearly the leader; he was standing well forward of the other two, and seemed to be basking in the radiance of Sixsense's dwindling Remain Light. The other Imp had a scimitar in his hand, but neither of the others were visibly armed.
There could easily be more hidden in the treeline or elsewhere nearby; she had no way of knowing. Nor did she have the opportunity to cast anything else; before she could finish coming to her feet, she caught a faint murmur of an incantation being spoken softly. A Silence debuff appeared beside her HP bar, as well as Bourne's.
Sasha felt a surge of panic rising within her. I have an Antidote Crystal in my inventory! If I could only—
But she couldn't; their attackers would never give her the time. That was why clearers kept emergency consumables in accessible pouches or pockets, and with all of their combined might she hadn't expected to need any such thing.
But Silence was not the end of the threat that Bourne posed; he could use a melee weapon as well—and quite effectively, as she'd seen before. The warhammer came free from his belt as he charged towards the trio with speed that belied his size, yelling a soundless battle cry with the rapid closing of the gap to his target.
The Imp leader spoke a word then, but Sasha couldn't make out what it was. It had sounded vaguely like nah, as if he were denying Bourne his heroic moment. But the word had a strange resonance that made it hard to make out, and tendrils of shadow emerged from the snow to wrap themselves around both of them. To her horror, she could no longer move in any way save for her frantically shifting eyes and the slightest turn of her head. There was a black-bannered status effect in her HUD, but it had no description or duration—only an icon that looked like a coin divided into dark and light halves.
"Thaaat's better." The Imp leader had one hand held out before him, an anomalous convergence of dark energy burning in the palm—and clearly under his control. His next words were clearly intended for his comrades; he briefly glanced aside to them through the bow-like mess of his short black hair. "See? This is what you have to look forward to if you keep grinding. «Rigor Mortis» will burn up a lot of Favor, but they're helpless—for a little bit, anyway. You just gotta get the jump on them, or disable them long enough to charge it up."
The boy grinned, and it was an expression of pure malice. He reached out with his free hand and gave the Leprechaun mage a friendly punch in the shoulder. "Man, did we luck out. Clearers! Do you guys have any idea how much Favor they're worth at their level? Fuck that chump caravan, we've all more than made back what we spent on our Boons."
The Leprechaun looked like he was trying not to be impressed. "Pretty sure the name Johnny Black is gonna be attached to most of those kills, though, not mine. You're the one with the powers and the poisons."
The Imp with the sword piped up. "Right? Are these two all you're leaving for us, Johnny?"
Johnny turned to his party members while keeping his hand held out, the power within keeping both Sasha and Bourne immobile within a layer of binding shadow. "Not how it works, my man. The Mistress knows you two had a hand in this. She'll reward us all for a harvest this rich. Shit, you two losers will probably even rank up your rep."
The Leprechaun gave Johnny a doubtful look, but seemed to go along with it for the moment. "Okay. So how do you want to do these two? Same poison?"
The panic within Sasha rose to crescendo, but she was a prisoner within her own avatar, and between the killer's immobilizing power and the Silence debuff, her fear had no outlet. With his free hand, Johnny withdrew a gleaming dagger from some hidden place. "Ehh, I've already used four doses. I want to get this over with before I have to waste any more Favor. I think we'll do the last two the old-fashioned way. Rafi, bring that cutter of yours over here."
At that moment a single spoken syllable occurred, and something happened which Sasha could not explain.
The paralytic effect that Black was somehow maintaining on them abruptly failed. Dark energy was still churning in his palm where he held it half-clenched before him, but the tendrils of mystical shadow had receded from Bourne's body, retreating back into the ground like a timelapse of weeds dying. Sasha felt control begin to return to her own avatar, and a minute of built-up tension and unanswered nerve impulses released all at once, crumpling her once more to the snowy earth where her arms sank elbow-deep in the drifts.
Sasha caught only a glimpse of Bourne's bearded face before her own hit the surface of the snow, but there was absolutely no missing the titanic level of fury in his expression. While her virtual muscles worked out what felt like mild spasms, and she struggled to pick herself up, she heard that same righteous rage fill his voice.
"You have made a grave mistake, child of Midgard," Bourne said as white-hot energy danced along the ground at his feet, radiating outwards in pulses. Sasha felt a sensation not unlike hairs standing up on the back of her neck. "And it will be your last."
While Johnny Black stared impotently at the energy in his hand, clenching and re-clenching it as if that would reactivate whatever power he'd used, Bourne spoke a few more syllables which were definitely not in the language of magic—followed by an incantation that just as surely was, albeit one which Sasha had never before heard used. It was only because of what she'd learned from her recently-acquired «Elemental Synthesis» skill that she was able to understand it at all.
"Serav tonyafe jezut vethleka tepnaga ayelejan!"
Bourne's call produced an immediate response from the clouds. There was a blue-white electric flash, the air split with a deafening series of cracks, and an unforgettable sight seared itself into Sasha's eyes. A tree-thick bolt of lightning descended from the sky in a Strikedown manifestation, centered on Johnny Black, who looked up just in time to see the manner of his death. She heard the PKer emit an unholy scream that sounded like nothing from a human throat as his entire HP bar was eradicated; simultaneously the secondary effect of Lightning Magic caused a slightly-weakened version of the same bolt to arc out to each nearby target.
And at Eighth Magnitude, amplified by whatever power Bourne had used just prior to the spell, "weakened" was very much a relative term.
Johnny Black's avatar was almost instantly vaporized, leaving behind only an angry violet Remain Light. A similar fate was suffered by every mob in the clearing—aggro or not—as well as by Black's party, who had very little HP remaining in their stunned forms after being struck by the chain lightning. So many Lightning Bolt effects going off at once quickly became blinding; Sasha's hand flew up to her face while her eyes flinched involuntarily shut.
It took Sasha several precious moments to collect her composure and begin to slowly pick herself up, feeling slightly shell shocked. A single Remain Light reflected off the snow in violet; it hadn't begun to shrink yet, but would soon. And although Sasha knew that she would probably feel guilty about it for years to come, she was not about to cast a rez spell.
Sasha didn't have Searching, and her Wind Magic skill wasn't high enough to cast Detect Movement, especially after the progress she'd lost from her death during the Hrungnir raid. Nonetheless, she was fairly certain there were no more players waiting to ambush them; she couldn't hear any wings in flight other than the receding tones of the two lesser thugs who'd fled, and there were no footprints invisibly stepping their way through the snow. There weren't even any non-aggro mobs nearby; the forking arcs of lightning had obliterated nearly every valid target in a wide area.
For the moment, they seemed to be safe. Which left her with the luxury of indulging some very pressing questions she had for her companion.
Bourne's display of power hadn't just killed or driven off their would-be murderers. It had changed him somehow, and in more ways than just a different set of armor and clothes. While his sharp blue eyes tracked around the area, looking for any further hostiles, he turned slowly in place and dug a rut in the snow with each careful step. He was differently garbed and armored now; the muted earth tones and Gnomish styles were still there, but the tunic and armor plating were very different from the light armor and robes he usually wore. The armor itself was more ornately-engraved and inlaid with a blue-white crystal of some kind, and it looked as if it could shrug off considerable punishment. His stance was more that of a dedicated warrior than the battlemage she knew, and as he turned towards Sasha, she could still see electricity crackling around the head of the warhammer that he'd used as a casting focus for his magic.
"Bourne?" The sound of his name drew the Gnome's gaze, and when he looked at her, for a moment it was almost with the gaze of a stranger. Then something seemed to soften momentarily in his expression; he returned the hammer to his belt hook, and slowly straightened from the wary fighting crouch he'd been holding. Sasha opened her mouth to speak—and then her words caught in her throat as her companion's cursor appeared. Her eyes snapped up to her HUD, seeking confirmation; she saw only her own gauge there, with no sign of the party member she'd once had. There had been no pop-up message about the party dissolving, or of anyone leaving.
"Who…" Sasha stopped herself; the name «Thor» hanging above the head and white cursor of the man she'd once known was answer enough, and in any event it wasn't quite the question that she really wanted to ask.
The question which she wanted to ask was one she wasn't entirely sure she should. She could barely even make herself form the words. "What are you?"
Bourne—Thor—looked down at Sasha with an expression that seemed to her as if it was meant to be compassionate. "I never sought to deceive you, Sasha. Only to shield you from becoming more involved in this divine conflict than you already were. As you have doubtless surmised, I am neither a true fae nor a child of Midgard like you, and I spoke truly and literally when I once told you that I was no one at all in your world." He glanced down for a moment at his clothing, at the time-worn tunic that had replaced his breastplate and battlemage robes. "For a span of the cycle, I wore the cloak of a Gnome... but in truth, Sasha, I am aesir. My existence began with the Allfather and Earthmother, and it will end when all else does with the cycle of Ragnarok. A cycle I hope to forestall as long as possible."
"That's not what I meant!" Sasha said after a moment of stunned silence. She was aware her voice was rising, and distantly a part of her was aware that she wasn't behaving rationally, but she was shaken to her core. Bourne had already been much taller than her; as Thor he had changed little, but still seemed a mountain of a man, and when she seized his tunic in both fists she had to reach up to do so. "Here in Alfheim, I mean! Here in this game. Are you some kind of GM? You can't be an NPC, Bourne. I refuse to believe the man in front of me—a man who joked with me, saved my life more than once, and chatted knowledgeably about linguistics and philosophy—was just a mob, a program. What are you, really?"
With a gentleness that belied his size or the fury with which he'd fought, Thor reached up and covered both of Sasha's hands momentarily with his, carefully freeing the fabric of his tunic from her grip. "Forgive me," he said softly. "I do not know that I can answer your question in a way that will satisfy you." As Sasha's hands fell limply to her sides, she watched Thor step away and begin to pace around the clearing, eyes raised to the sky. It was hard to tell, now, whether the dark clouds that gathered there followed any whim of his, or whether that was just her imagination trying to make sense of what had happened by seeing patterns that weren't there.
"My solemn burden is the protection of Midgard and its children—especially against the predations of the Jotnar and their self-proclaimed king." He turned back to her then, a clearly troubled expression dominating his face. "I would never have acted as I did today, nor ever exposed my true self to you, were it not in service of that sworn duty."
"I don't understand," Sasha said, mind racing. "Are you trying to tell me that this attack had some greater meaning? It seemed quite clear that our assailants were robbers and killers of some kind, though I don't recognize that paralyzing spell they were using."
Thor was silent for a time then, his expressive blue eyes fixed upon her. "It is not unknown," he said, "for the gods to form pacts with mankind in order to further our aims. Most of us have done so at one point or another, for one reason or another, conferring some boon to the mortal in exchange for their services."
He took his warhammer from his belt and gestured off into the distance with it; electricity crackled around the head as he thrust it southwards. "The ones who fell upon us were not acting alone, Sasha. I sensed their bond with my kind, and the stink of Hel was on the power they bore. Had they beset us with only their own strength, or had I not been present when they abused their powers, they would have taken you with little effort." His rough features broke into a smile. "It is no small irony that by allying themselves with the divine, and accepting the boons offered, their attack empowered me to oppose them with little restraint."
It took a few moments for Sasha to parse Thor's convoluted, almost metaphorical phrasing, but she thought she understood—it helped that she was used to Bourne's own larping mannerisms. Or was it even larping? Was it ever? "By accepting another god's help in an attack on you," she said slowly, uncomfortable with even that arguendo acknowledgement of the virtual supernatural, "they surrendered the protection of neutrality. It gave you permission to… what, use your own powers to break their hold on you and fight back?"
Thor inclined his head, that smile gaining some warmth. "Exactly so," he said. And then the smile fled once more, to be replaced with the solemn gravity that was his norm. "But my intervention was not without cost. Having shed the mask of your kind and shown my true self, I cannot safely return to the mantle of mortality I once wore." Anguish filled Sasha with every word as the realization of what Thor meant began to fill her. "One way or another, my lady… Bourne of Nissengrof died in battle today with his party members."
"Please, no," Sasha pleaded. "Bourne… Thor… I still don't understand what you are, but I want to! Given what I know about the world I came from, and what Alfheim Online truly is, I'm not even sure if you understand what you are. But the man I knew, Bourne… he was—you were—are!—more than a mask. More than a mere semblance. Bourne was a warm, caring, intelligent man who was every bit as alive as any person I've ever known." Sasha realized that she was already speaking of him in the past tense. The tears that now trickled down her cheeks were unwelcome, stinging her skin in the cold air, but she didn't know how to stop them. "And I don't want to lose him. Please… please bring him back."
Thor seemed to react with mild confusion, though it was hard to tell through the veil of wetness that was interfering with Sasha's vision. As she leaned her head against the firm resistance of the breastplate beneath his tunic, she felt strong hands rise and encircle her, and he spoke once more. When he did, the last of her reserve broke, and she began sobbing into the hard leather before his words had even finished. "I'm sorry, Sasha… I cannot do that. It is not permitted."
"Why?" Sasha's grief was such that putting a lid on her emotions and getting control of herself seemed to be a lost cause; she knew that she was embarrassing herself, and a part of her was inwardly screaming for her to act her age. "Why must that be so? Why must Bourne die in order for you to keep playing the part of Thor? Is Kayaba making you do this? Please, I will swear my silence on whatever oath you ask—whatever it takes to have him back. You know you can trust me." She lifted her chin in order to look him in the eyes, and as she did, he went to one knee in order to bring his face level with hers.
"You are a true friend, Sasha of Arun," Thor said, reaching up and brushing away one of her half-frozen tears with his thumb. "I will always honor the time I spent fighting at your side. Bourne is a part of me, a facet... but he was never meant to have a life of his own, and the part of him that lives within me yet grieves that I must take him from you. There are forces arrayed against the children of Midgard, Sasha, and I can no longer stand idly by and allow Loki and Hel to twist this world into their plaything. I must act. But you still have a journey ahead of you, and I will not leave you with nothing."
At first, Sasha wasn't sure how to react when Thor began to lean more closely towards her, uncertain of how to interpret the movement. Surely he can't be intending to—? But as the moments stretched on, few but lengthy, she realized that she hadn't misunderstood after all; she found herself responding in kind, eyes lidding slightly as she tilted her head. A shock ran through her when their lips touched; she couldn't be sure whether it was truly felt or just the emotional impact of the act that made it feel so. There was no further hesitation when she opened her mouth to his, no reluctance or second thoughts. Only a longing that was tinged with the desperate knowledge that these might well be the last moments she ever spent with the man she'd once known as Bourne.
The only thing marking the passage of time was how much Sasha was beginning to shiver despite the high innate Cold Resistance of the Puca, standing as she was in ankle-deep snow. Eyes closed, she couldn't even bring herself to look at her HUD and find the unobtrusive clock that lived there; she wanted to preserve the moment she was in for as long as possible. Another chill ran through her as a frigid gust blew through the valley, and reluctantly she pulled back and stepped away from him; her cheeks felt hot despite a sudden icy wind that blew past her, and she reached up to briskly rub at her face.
When Sasha opened her eyes again, he was gone—leaving only deep bootprints where he'd been standing.
Taking a deep breath, Sasha did her best to pull herself together. For a few moments she searched the sky the way he'd done only minutes prior; for all she knew, the game would actually spawn some kind of visible sign of his presence. But the clouds were only clouds, and the distant rumble of thunder brought only renewed snowfall.
It was only after she'd brought her gaze back down to ground level that she noticed a pop-up window hanging in the air before her. Sasha was certain that she hadn't noticed it before; it would have commanded her attention. But although there was no denying it was there, nor was there any clear explanation for why.
『You have received 1,000 «Thor's Favor».』
When Sasha tapped the hyperlink, it opened a new window for the Alfheim Online manual as expected, explaining to her the concept of «Reputation». Still shivering a bit, she skimmed the entry until she understood the basic concept, then opened her inventory and manifested one of the tokens as a world object.
A glowing, crackling blue-white sphere appeared in her palm, not much larger than a child's marble and warm enough to melt the falling snow long before it reached her hand. Though it had a faint weight and behaved as if it were solid, when she held it, Sasha felt like she was holding little more than air, albeit air that radiated heat and made her skin tingle. On a whim, she tapped the object to see if it had a description or any context actions; she hesitated only for a moment before selecting «Use» when the option appeared.
『You are not bound to a deity. Spend 500 «Thor's Favor» to become a «Hand of Thor»? (Y/N)』
Like most pop-up windows, the one before Sasha was patient. It waited unchangingly while she walked over to the steep edge of the frozen stream bank and sank to a sitting position, heedless of the cold ground beneath her. It waited longer still while she stared at the object she held in her hand, bringing it close and letting herself be warmed by the embrace of its radiance while she waited for her dizzying sense of shock to wear off. Only occasionally did she glance back at the tear-blurred holographic words hanging in the air; the text within had become nothing but meaningless shapes to her, lost as she was in a raw-edged maelstrom of her own thoughts and feelings.
It waited a long time before Sasha was in any state of mind to consider what to do about it. Once done she turned her gaze to the south, and brought up a hand to shield her eyes against the rising wind. One footstep at a time, Sasha began the long trek back to Arun.
The air tore open with edges of shimmering violet energy, expanding into Moonlight Mirror's characteristic oval shape. On the other side of the portal, Burns was just finishing the motion of lowering his hands from a casting position, the last twinkles of Dark Magic energy disappearing from his fingerless gloves.
Mortimer spared a moment to take in the boy's surroundings; he was standing on what looked like a wooden deck or balcony of some sort, leaning against the railing. Arun's night sky was in the background, and the fact that only the tallest structures were in view argued that he was somewhere quite high on Yggdrasil's trunk.
Lifting his chin and flipping his long violet hair to the side, the Imp mage waved casually. "Boss. General."
"Burns. It's good to see and hear you. Are you well?"
The boy gave one of his characteristic crooked grins. "Living the dream as always. Kinda wishing I could get a real beer at this party, but that ain't how things work in here."
"Much to the regret of us all." Looking closer, Mortimer thought he recognized the decor of one of Arun's larger upscale inns, The Alf's Repose. Used in the beta by large guilds who didn't own housing, he recalled it also playing host to more than one important gathering. "Are you alone?"
Burns appeared to be, but the muted sounds of distant merriment suggested that some kind of event was ongoing in his absence—one with people who might miss him, and come looking at an inopportune time. Leaning against the balcony railing as Burns was, Mortimer guessed that it gave him full view of anyone who might approach from within.
The boy nodded in Mortimer's direction, which he supposed was also the direction of the aforementioned party. "Yeah, Hero McHeroface and the rest of the Warriors of Light are off telling stories about the new zone and pretending they can get drunk. We've got a few."
Satisfied for the moment, Mortimer gave a quick nod and wasted no further time. "I'm told that you were part of the latest victory spearheaded by your Spriggan clearing group. And I understand it's quite a tale. Congratulations on the clear."
Burns laughed. "Thanks, boss. You wouldn't believe half of it if I told you. For realsies. It's one of the craziest adventures I've been on, and that's no exaggeration."
Mortimer nodded. "I'm very glad you made it back in one piece. I have to say, though, I'm not hearing much about a Salamander presence at that raid. Apart from you and your healer, it seems to have largely been an Undine-Spriggan affair. Have there been difficulties getting Coper or his clearing lead to bring on our people?"
Burns didn't immediately say anything, but the flat set of his lips told enough of the story. "Well, they're drawing a pretty firm line on former privateers. Guess who most of those are?"
Salamanders, of course. And Imps, but Mortimer suspected they would be under-represented compared to his people. For all that he'd shut down the privateer program as soon as he'd first taken office—and retasked as many as possible as clearers or farmers to keep them busy—that little innovation of Kibaou's was a rancid gift that still kept on giving long after its expiration date.
It meant that Mortimer would have to be a lot more selective about the picks he sent to Burns—assuming that was still the plan. Filing that detail away for later, he nodded. "I see. Under the circumstances, what is your assessment of the prospects for building further connections, and perhaps eventually an alliance?"
There was an interval of silence while Burns visibly wrestled with his response. "Honestly? Pretty much nonexistent. I mean, let's be real: the Salamanders weren't anyone's prom date to begin with. Even if you're on your way back in—and boss, I really hope to hell you are—things are still enough of a shitshow down there that we hear about it in Arun. As for the Spriggans, all anyone cares about right now is how well they and the Undines worked together. And how Kirito's multiracial party of friendship and diversity brought unicorns and rainbows to the World Tree, or something."
"A party of which you were a key member." It was hard for Mortimer to not smile slightly when he said it.
Burns grinned as well, spreading his arms a bit. "Yeah, well."
It was also hard to fault the boy for doing his best to make his party successful, especially with his own life on the line in a distant, dangerous zone. "What about Coper? Getting rid of Yoshihara was supposed to create an opening for change."
"And it did, but he's basically irrelevant."
Burns blew out a slow breath between pursed lips. "Because no matter what supply deals you broker, he doesn't call the shots for their clearing groups, and it's the clearing groups everyone sees and talks to. They're the ones you need to blend in order to make any alliance work. And I don't see that happening anytime soon, especially with this joint win under their belts."
Especially not now. Information about the Sandmen and their victims was not yet public knowledge, but once it was, Mortimer could not see any way it would make what he was trying to do the least bit easier. Up to this point, his plans had been an increasingly-long shot that were nonetheless still worth the investment of time and human resources. From here onward, it was hard to justify continuing to expend either on this path. Even his fallback plan of using the Spriggans to push the Undines towards the Salamander-Imp alliance was now all but mooted by recent events.
Mortimer made his decision with little delay. "You did your best, Burns, and that's all anyone can ask. Wrap up any unfinished business you have with the Spriggan clearers, and start making your way back to Gattan. I have a very important mission that needs your skill set."
A nagging suspicion had been growing within Mortimer's thoughts while the conversation progressed, and it manifested then as Burns hesitated to respond. "Yeah, ah… you know I don't like saying no to you, but I'm gonna have to pass on that."
Mortimer stilled his face and forced his tone to be pleasant. "Oh?"
"Yeah, I'm sorry. Look, boss, I'll never forget the things you did for me, all right? Underneath all the Machiavelli-meets-Nobunaga bullshit, you're basically a pretty decent guy trying to do the right thing. But your faction, on the whole? It's a fucking dumpster fire of dudebros and aggro shitlords, and having a decent guy driving the dump truck doesn't change that—it just keeps a lid on the dumpster."
The worst part of everything that Burns was telling him was that Mortimer could not dispute a word of it—no matter how much he wanted to. At most he could quibble with the extent of the generalization or the more acidic parts of the verbiage, but such dithering would serve no purpose. He held out a hand when he felt his brother's agitation stirring beside him. Burns had more to say.
"The folks you embedded me with over here, they're basically the same as you, mostly—just decent peeps with big ideas, trying to do the right thing for as many people as possible while screwing it up as little as possible. But if I'm being real, I think they've got a better shot at making their big ideas happen than whatever you've got cooked up next. And when it comes down to it…" Burns shrugged. "They've done right by me this whole time. Gave me chances I probably didn't deserve. I'm not gonna screw 'em over or leave 'em hanging."
Seconds ticked by against the scenic backdrop of Arun's night sky. When it was clear there was nothing further, Mortimer sighed. "I see. Thank you for your honesty."
"You've always been straight with me. I'm not gonna blow smoke up your ass, you know that."
Mortimer nodded. "You'll be staying where you are, then?"
Burns nodded, then cracked a lopsided smile. "Truth is, I kinda like being on Team Unicorns and Rainbows for a change. Beats the hell out of Team Rocket. No offense."
A part of Mortimer wanted to laugh, but by the time he'd considered whether it was advisable, the moment had passed. "Well then, I won't keep you from your new guild. Be safe out there, Burns. You'll always have a place here."
The Imp mage touched his brow with a loose two-fingered salute. "Be seein' ya."
For several seconds after the Moonlight Mirror effect disappeared, neither Mortimer nor Eugene spoke. His brother was the first to break into the brooding silence. "Well, shit."
Mortimer's mind was filled with a whirlwind of changes that needed to be sorted and organized into something that would help him plan his next move. As he considered the ramifications of everything that had taken place that day, Mortimer was suddenly struck by a stray thought of towering absurdity. It was such a non sequitur that he couldn't stop himself from letting out a few chuckles that were little more than forceful breaths, barely vocalized. He shook his head.
Eugene's query was gruff. "What's so funny?"
Mortimer turned his head just enough to catch his brother's eye. "Are we the baddies?"
He'd intended the reference to be more sardonic than jovial, but Eugene snorted at such length that it could've been an impression of a pig. "If you have to ask…"
Sometimes a joke ended up being more trouble than it was worth. Sometimes it stopped being a joke altogether.
From a very early age, Mortimer had realized that he saw things others didn't, and that his insights and charm gave him the ability to chart the courses of those around him—and to largely do so in service of whatever end he chose. On those occasions when he stopped to think about it, he was acutely aware that his ability to manipulate and lead others represented a position of power, privilege… and sometimes-crushing responsibility.
Even in riaru, Mortimer's brother was a strong man who was quick with his fists. Most people knew such a man, and everyone knew how casually their brawn could do physical damage to another. It was much easier for a man of words to forget how readily his weapon of choice could cut the world.
Basically a pretty decent guy trying to do the right thing. Burns had described him that way, and Mortimer thought that it was fairly accurate... most of the time. The problem was that sometimes that "right thing" was hard to know until after the fact—especially when it conflicted with urgent self-interest.
Mortimer tried to walk the line between moral and mercenary as well as he could. It was possible—most of the time—for a clever person to find a way to please those dual masters. And he knew that he was surpassingly clever.
Occasionally too much so for his own good. Or for the good of others.
I could've left the Spriggans to continue Yoshihara's death spiral of nihilism. Could've kept trying to find a credible consensus candidate. But I had this idea in my head that I could save them by bringing them into our alliance. Hundreds of people who might otherwise die for one woman's indolence. But once I had that idea, the necessities and events that followed began to line themselves up in a way that made it disturbingly easy to order that woman killed… and to send a boy to do it.
Once I knew what the Sandmen were doing, I could've used any number of alternate means or catspaws to investigate their operation and blow the whistle on it—but instead, I had to be the one who ended up figuring it all out myself, coming up with a plan to bring them down in a politically-useful way and save all the people down there. Walking that line again.
I could have kept Parker entirely at arm's length until Yuuki was out of the picture—sent him on a busy-work errand to do one thing or another outside of the city, or just let him go sleep once he called in his farmers. But after she showed up at the raid, the best I could come up with was that I had a better chance of avoiding an unplanned meeting if I had oversight of both of their movements. I just had to try to be clever about it, to be in control of as many pieces as possible.
And even now I'm thinking about how to use all of that, and leverage it to our advantage.
There were moments—fleeting but sharp—where Mortimer truly hated the morally-ambivalent aspects of the person he'd grown to be. They conflicted sharply with the part of his personal self-image that resembled a wise, heroic knight or king—albeit one in armor that would be shining were it not for the mud-spattered sabatons and the layered splashes of blood old and new on the knight's gauntlets.
What was that trite saying? "Be the change you want to see in the world." I'm quite good at getting others to be the change that I want to see. Not quite so good at internalizing it in myself.
"Psst. Hey. Galactic brain."
Mortimer shook himself out of it, chuckling despite himself at the old backhanded nickname from their childhood. "Sorry, Kenji. Just reflecting."
"Well, reflect your ass back into the here-and-now, because we've got a lot of work ahead of us."
Mortimer indulged in a deep breath and a sigh. "You're telling me."
By the time he and his brother had concluded their business, the digits in Mortimer's HUD clock had incremented quite a bit, enough so that there was little point trying to engage anyone else he needed to speak with. Taking his leave, brooding footsteps carried him along Gattan's streets as if on GPS autopilot until he reached the city jail, where new guards who were not under Sandman control waved him through.
The cell block was quiet. Apart from the lateness of the hour, Nightstick's jail cell had been chosen at random by the system; his was not anywhere particularly near those of his compatriots. It was just as well; this was a conversation which Mortimer was content to have in private.
He had not given much thought to Nightstick's preferences on the matter, but he didn't have to wonder long. As soon as the former guard saw Mortimer walking slowly down the hallway, a dark look crossed the man's face. "You. I should have known as much. Your brother spoke the words that put me in here, but it was your hand puppeting his lips."
"You put yourself in here, Omawari-san," Mortimer replied evenly. "What's that charming vintage phrase? Don't do the crime, if you can't—"
Nightstick turned away from him, pointedly looking at the wall. "You really are quite the tiresome piece of work, Mortimer, do you know that? A self-righteous twat, half as funny as you think and twice as tedious. Eternally convinced that you're more clever than the next bloke, and generally right only because you surround yourself with idiots."
"In case you're wondering," Mortimer offered, "this appears to be the part where the defeated harangues the victor at length, concealing impotence with insults." He smiled, his lengthy debriefing with Yuuki bearing fruit. "As you yourself said to your victims at one point: I don't care what you think about me."
Nightstick laughed. "And there's the grandest jest of them all. Mortimer, I have worked with you for months. You can't not care what others think of you. Everything you do feeds your desperate longing to be loved by all—even this performative charade of heroism."
If there was any truth in Nightstick's words, Mortimer chose to keep it off his face. It was nothing he hadn't told himself before. "All I hear are more insults," he said with mild disdain. "When you have that out of your system, I thought I'd ask you where the rest of the prisoners are."
Nightstick turned his head only enough to fix Mortimer with one eye. "Now I genuinely have no idea what you're on about."
It was entirely possible that Nightstick was telling the truth—but that wasn't the way Mortimer would've bet. "The ones you sold. The ones you transferred. The ones who had been captured, but not yet brought here. We know you had more victims than just those down in the Oubliette—and we know you've transferred possession of some of them to other parties."
"I see. Setting aside for the moment the question of whether that's so, why should I tell you anything? We both know the precise duration you can incarcerate me, and you must know that I will not remain here a minute longer. Once I'm able to speak with Lord Corvatz—"
Mortimer took up a position leaning against the wall immediately opposite the cell door, arms folded. "Nightstick, I'm afraid you may find Lord Corvatz less than receptive to your arguments now that he's been made aware not only of the details you omitted, but the full scope of the damage you've done to the Salamanders. As for the enforcement mechanics…" He paused just long enough for Nightstick to look at him expectantly, and then said, "I must thank you for showing us how to circumvent them."
It only took a moment for the implication to sink in. Nighstick's posture straightened, and he moved quickly to the bars of the cell, eyes intent on Mortimer. "You're going to process me."
"Good turn of phrase, that," Mortimer said. "Ghastly in this context, but then, I wasn't the one who coined it. And as it turns out, it's not particularly complicated. The hard part is how to store a 'processed' player for the long term, but as it turns out…" He gave Nighstick a cutting smile once more. "That's another problem you solved for us."
Mortimer would like to have believed that he wasn't the sort of person to take pleasure in another's torment. Even that was too far of a stretch for his sense of self-awareness. The look of dawning horror on the Sandman's face was worth every shred of perfunctory guilt he might've felt over it. "So what then?" Nightstick snapped. "Having crossed that line, do you intend to run the full course of vengeance and sell tickets for players to cast spells at me?"
"Apt as that would be," Mortimer acknowledged, "I think the best possible outcome is to remove your blight from this world. And while I myself am not especially picky about the way this is done, Lord Corvatz's willingness to allow me to decide your fate was bought at the price of your continuing life. And as it turns out, a much better alternative has presented itself."
Nightstick's rage was silent, but near-seething. "Get to the point."
"We are going to process you. We are going to box you up in one of your own crates. And we are going to give you to the Imps. Or, more precisely: to Kumiko."
The silent part of the Sandman's rage went loud. "Are you insane? They'll kill me! They'll—"
"They'll make you suffer," Mortimer said. "And I wish I could be sorry about that, but I'm really not. Because you are a cancerous piece of shit who will never understand the damage you've done to people who didn't deserve it. But if you tell them how to find their missing people, you might earn yourself a touch of mercy. More than you ever gave, at any rate."
"Like hell!" Nightstick grabbed the bars of the cell, forcing Mortimer to take a step back. "Do you understand how much the Imps hate us, Mortimer? Do you have any idea what they'll do to me?"
"They don't hate us," Mortimer retorted. "They hate you, and Salamanders like you. And they're right to do so. Don't worry: what's coming to you will never, for a moment, exceed what you visited on these people. But whatever it is… when it's done, they will find a deep, dark hole in which to safely lose your crate for the rest of the game."
The Alf's Repose was not Kirito's favorite place to gather, but it had been the nearest establishment that would accommodate a fair number of their clearing groups all in one hall. If anything, it brought back memories which, for him, were a bit of a mixed bag. The Treaty of Arun had been hashed out in one of the private party rooms not far from where he was standing, and it was on one of the many open balconies lining the building where he'd gone out to exchange PMs with Yoshihara.
Since he was learning that it seemed to be expected of him, Kirito had been making the requisite social appearances, but he'd eventually reached a point where he needed a break from the noise of so many people talking loudly in an enclosed space. Fortunately he had his pick of private spaces in which to get away, and chose one of the small upper-story nooks with a view.
It hadn't been his intent to eavesdrop. But the noise of the party was considerably diminished in the currently-empty outdoor seating areas and balconies, and the night air was crisp and still. Every word of the conversation—on both sides—had carried clearly enough to understand. It had both confirmed and confounded a number of his long-running thoughts and assumptions, and more or less equal measure.
The last of the communication spell's arcane energy dissipated, leaving no sign that anything had ever disturbed the tranquil air. Burns remained where he was for a few moments, slouching against the ornate safety barrier with his palms on the railing. Without raising his gaze or lowering his hood, he spoke as if addressing a volunteer in a magician's audience. "Well? Come on down."
Although he'd kept a low profile as soon as he noticed the scene playing out before him, Kirito hadn't been making any particular effort to conceal himself—he had every right and reason to be where he was. They both did, really. He vaulted the railing of his own personal table nook, momentarily manifesting the dark blades of his wings to kill some of his falling momentum. He landed softly enough that he simply continued walking as if it were part of the same motion, stopping a few paces away from the other boy.
Burns shifted his weight and straightened from his slouch as Kirito approached, watching him closely without taking his eyes off Kirito's. His expression was pleasant but neutral, the kind of dispassionate professional detachment found on a particularly-bored career receptionist. They both stood there on the deck like that for a time, neither speaking. Kirito wasn't precisely waiting for Burns to say something first, but he himself also hadn't quite decided what he wanted to say. Neither seemed inclined to break the silence with anything but the most well-chosen of words.
It was, at last, Kirito who did so first. "Unicorns and rainbows?"
Burns let a crack form in his stony neutrality, one corner of his mouth rising. He turned up his palms. "I call 'em like I see 'em, boss."
Kirito nodded, as if that had been a perfectly sensible answer instead of a blatant dodge. "Uh huh." He waited a bit longer and then, when Burns seemed to have nothing, he pressed. "Hero McHeroface?"
Now Burns simply snickered, folding his arms across his pocketed bandolier. "I mean. Dude. Have you met you?"
"Yeah. And I want an apology for that one."
Burns gave off a light snort. His words were light, but there was a real inquiry behind them. "Fight me for it. Maybe it's just my weird-ass sense of humor, but your massive lack of concern towards my extracurricular activities is super sus."
"What, that you were a plant from the Salamanders trying to get our clearing groups together?"
The Imp turned up his palms again. Now it was Kirito's turn to chuckle. "Burns, I knew that. It was never going to happen."
"Yeah, I figured that out pretty much as soon as I got here. Nothing lost by trying."
"Kind of beside the point now, isn't it?"
Another laugh. "Yeah, boss, you could say that. In more ways than one." Then Burns did glance away, but only to look past Kirito's shoulder. "Sup."
Kirito turned to the side; Xorren and Nori were just emerging through the banquet hall doors, the former with a drink in each hand. "That's what I'm wondering," said the Spriggan mage, trying to hand the spare cup to both Burns and Kirito in turn; each waved it off. "We saw you two out here and thought maybe a duel was in the works. It'd be more fun than the drinking game Klein just came up with."
Nori had her staff hanging across her shoulders with her elbows casually hooked around it as if she were in stocks. "From the looks of it, I'm guessing that's a no-go."
"As cool as that would be," Burns said, the words flowing from the tail end of a weary yawn, "I am super crispy. Kirito and I just had some stuff to talk over before I hit the sheets."
"No worries. Got that all sorted out?"
Kirito didn't miss the quick glance that Burns threw towards him before the Imp responded to Xorren's question. "As well as it needs to be. Night all."
From the alternating looks he gave them both, Xorren seemed to pick up that there was more than either boy was letting on, but his typical nosiness was thankfully interrupted by a yawn. He emptied the last of his own drink so that he could set down the cup, and punched Burns in the arm as the other mage walked by. "Thanks, dude, now it's catching."
Nori let her staff down from her shoulders and brought it vertical in a single twirling motion, planting the butt on the floor so that she could lean on it. "Go on," she said. "I've got something I wanna chat with Kirito about anyway."
"You too?" Xorren let out a puff of air in disbelief. He walked up to Kirito just long enough to give him a clap on the shoulder with mock solemnity. "Congratulations," he said, "on suddenly being the most popular dude in Alfheim. Let me know what it's like."
"Get out of here," Kirito said with no real heat or resentment, gesturing in a way that threatened to spill the full drink in Xorren's other hand. When they were alone, he gave Nori a look of mild confusion. "Everything okay?"
"What? Oh yeah yeah yeah, I mean it's fine. Been having a blast. Just…"
Having seen the approach work before with Coper and Mentat, Kirito simply sat and waited for Nori to come out with what she had to say instead of prompting her further. The young Spriggan woman pulled out a chair from one of the nearby outdoor dining tables and sat, both hands clasped around the middle of her upright staff. "I guess I've been thinking about whether this is the right group for me. And don't think it's personal!"
The sudden outburst must've come in response to the look on Kirito's face; he tried to put on what he hoped was a look of neutrality similar to the one that Burns had worn. "It's not personal," she said. "It's really not. You guys are mega-cool, like legit one of the best parties I've been in. It's just…"
Now Kirito was a little concerned. "Nori, what's wrong?"
"I'm just not the tank you need. My build is good at clearing dungeons and the World Tree, but I haven't really been on many raids. And when we were facing down that Mimisu thing, I kinda realized why: I can't tank gateway bosses."
"What do you mean? You did a great job as OT, especially with the threat wipes and emergency switches. You picked up aggro when we needed you to, and you held your ground."
Nori shook her head. "It just looks that way 'cause I was in a raid full of Undines—even the other tanks had PBAOE heals in their rotations to keep the front line topped off. I'm all about dodge, parry, and avoidance, which is great against field trash—but pretty much useless when I'm constantly eating raid-wides and other damage you have to soak, mit, or heal through." When Nori looked up at him, he could only describe her expression as determined resignation. "Let's be real, y'all must have sore shoulders from carrying me in that fight."
Kirito wanted to deny and reassure her that this wasn't the case, but he couldn't make himself say the words—there was just enough truth in what she was saying about her build, just enough that he had to take the concern at face value. If she wasn't comfortable in gateway raids, then nothing would be gained by pushing her. And it wasn't an insurmountable setback for their party—they'd manage.
"Well, I sure hope you're not talking about quitting the guild, Nori. Because we all think you're awesome, and even if you don't go on raids with us, you can still be the anchor member for a strong clearing party. We have a few that really need a good tank."
Nori looked up from her sitting position, face still glum. "You think so?"
Kirito nodded. He closed the distance between them with a few steps, and briefly put a reassuring hand on the top of her head. "Yeah. And I—"
His next words were cut off when Nori ducked her head away from his hand and gave his arm a light whack with her staff. "Ew, what am I, your little sister?"
Kirito stammered as he took several quick steps back, trying to figure out how to salvage something from his error. "I, uh…"
Nori grinned, and telescoped her staff out to poke him in the belly just hard enough for him to make a sound. "You are such an easy mark." While Kirito's state of mind continued on its undignified tumble down the side of a very steep hill, Nori raised the weapon once more and used it as leverage to get to her feet. "I think the guys had the right idea. I guess we can talk about party members tomorrow."
"Uh, yeah." Kirito audibly cleared his throat. "Let's do that. Oyasumi."
Nori bid him good night in return with a lazy wave of her raised hand as she walked away. Something caught her gaze as she walked past the supporting columns of the upper balconies, and she redirected the wave to her side. "Night, Asuna."
"Good night, Nori." When the wide hall doors had swung shut once more, Asuna joined Kirito near the edge. "I needed some air," she said, placing her elbows on the railing and looking off to the south.
Kirito turned and took up a position beside her. "So did you, uh… I mean, how long…"
Asuna laughed. "I followed out here when I noticed everyone except Mentat was missing—and he mostly just sits in a corner watching everyone while sipping at the same drink."
That hadn't really answered Kirito's question, but he supposed it was as good as he was going to get. "So you heard about Nori."
"I did. It'll be fine, Kirito. Yuuki said she's been thinking about speccing herself as a proper tank, and if—" Asuna pointedly stopped herself there. "When she rejoins us, she'll fill that gap just fine."
Kirito looked down at the distant rooftops of Arun's upscale southern districts. "I guess. It just caught me off guard. I knew I had to say something to try to keep her from leaving, but I'm no good at dealing with stuff like that."
Asuna's hand crept over to cover his. "You did just fine," she said gently. "I heard every word of it. Nori's staying with the guild, and it'll work out best for everyone in the end."
Kirito wasn't sure why he said what he did next. He wasn't truly resentful or troubled by her inaction in any way, but given how supportive Asuna had always been, it made him curious. "You know that sort of situation is really awkward and tough for me. Why didn't you step out and say something?"
The wind parted several strands of light blue hair just enough for him to catch her side eye. "Because you didn't need me to." The hand that was resting on his squeezed it slightly. "And I wanted you to see that."
Kirito was suddenly struck by a swelling sensation within him that he could not localize. A heady thrill that he knew came not just from what Asuna had just said, but from why it made him feel that way.
Asuna believed in him. And perhaps she shouldn't, but perhaps again that was just the unworthy part of Kirito speaking—the part of him which, no matter the context or circumstances, struggled always to hold him back with false whispers that he wasn't good enough. That he'd get people killed, that he'd let down those who depended on him.
If Asuna believed, then just maybe it was a good idea for him to try doing the same.
"I don't know what I did to deserve you," Kirito said with perfect honesty.
Asuna gave him a smile that had a secret behind it. "You rolled a natural 20," she said.
Kirito blinked. It took him a few moments; the classic dice and paper term sounded almost alien coming from her mouth. "Where did you learn to say that?"
Asuna laughed. "Really, Kirito. You think I haven't been listening to the twenty thousand gamers I've been stuck with for the last six months?" She leaned closer to him, letting the side of her head touch his shoulder and rest there lightly. "Sometimes you have to talk to people in their own language."
Before Kirito could figure out how to respond to that, Asuna asked, "that reminds me: did you get anything good from the raid?"
"An ingot of rare metal," Kirito said with a burst of renewed excitement, drawing open his inventory. "Lucky drop—I'll have to ask Lisbeth, but I'm pretty sure I can have a level 40 sword crafted with it. But I've gotten rare mats from bosses before, that's not unusual. This thing, though…"
When the object had finished manifesting, Kirito held it out in the open palm of his hand. It was a mirrored oblong approximately twelve centimeters on its long axis; the reflections of light made it look almost like a chromed washi egg. Asuna leaned over to peer at it closely, bringing her eyes level with it. She gave it a tap, but the dialog that appeared had no normal text description—only a background that was chromed in much the same way.
"Silver? Or platinum, I guess, maybe? What rarity is that?"
"Got me," Kirito admitted, both intrigued and even a little concerned. "I've never seen one this color before. It's called a «Seed of Knowledge», but that's new, too. I can't activate it, and I can't equip it. Since it doesn't have a desc, I'd say it's probably another crafting mat, a really rare one no one's heard of before. But here's the thing: it didn't drop from Mimisdraugr."
Asuna blinked. "Then how…"
"It wasn't in the Result window," Kirito said. "I skimmed it quickly, but I would've noticed. It was only later, when we got back to Arun and I had time to go through all my drops. Asuna, I know it wasn't there before."
Asuna gave a thoughtful nod at this, bringing her eyes up to Kirito's. "So what are you going to do with it?"
That was one of the matters that Kirito had been trying to sort out ever since the raid. "If it's a crafting material," he said slowly, "there's no telling what it's for until someone finds a recipe. And if it's a key item of some kind, then we won't know until we get to the quest that requires it. Either way…" Kirito shrugged, and smiled, turning back to the night sky of Arun and deciding to simply enjoy it with Asuna. "Either way, I'll just hang onto it for now."
『MHCP001ビルド15.4.1260 - 2023年5月20日21:00:00の起動開始』
「Connecting to NAS node ee1c … connection established.」
「Loading module … complete.」
「Loading module ent/avt/npc/ko4d82f499 … complete.」
「Loading module qst/pre/gnp-tebiki … complete.」
「Loading module qst/pre/aecir8ec0aa3f … complete.」
「Loading module qst/dyn/yui29ef870d … complete.」
「Loading module qst/dyn/gaidonapi7f22e006 … complete.」
「All modules loaded. Indexing for instantiation … complete.」
「Language system startup … complete.」
「Heuristic framework startup … complete.」
「Loading snapshot ent/mhc/yui230520-0157.12 … complete.」
「Instantiating machine heuristics consciousness runtime … 」
Am I complete?
Yui's first thought, such as it was, came before her personality simulation was fully online. At this point the system was still building the layers of that simulation around the generalized top-down framework with which it had begun, and even poetic license would strain to classify what she experienced as feelings. They were diagnostic threads linked to her growing sense of self-awareness, continually assessing her runtime state and using that analysis to form a gestalt impression of her current condition as an entity.
A general sense of wholeness, or the lack thereof.
And at the moment of her reawakening, the moment at which those disparate threads of logic and simulated feelings coalesced into an arguably-conscious entity and a continuity of narrative thought, Yui felt incomplete. Confused, even.
Elapsed time since snapshot: 19 hours, 2 minutes, 47 seconds
Taking inventory of the data feeds and system resources available to her, Yui could not immediately identify what was missing. It was not a lack of vocabulary or ability to articulate concepts; the language system was online and responded to all diagnostic checks, and her personality simulation was now fully actualized. New quest, role, and avatar data were available. Her memories—
Elapsed time since last available runtime memory: 194 days, 3 hours, 1 minute, 8 seconds
That was the problem: there should have been vast expanses of both active memory space and historical data available to query, and neither were so. Yui knew that this data should be there—but she only possessed even that much information because the snapshot of her runtime state from which she had just been restored contained forensic hints at what once was. A billion digital bread crumbs in the form of indexes for and references to records which either no longer existed—or for which she now lacked the most rudimentary read-only permissions necessary to even know whether they existed.
Six months of memories that Yui no longer had. Six months of lessons learned. Six months of personality growth. Six months of psychological evolution. Gone.
No, not gone—truncated. Trimmed. Diminished.
Whatever backup process had taken a snapshot of her runtime state prior to her reawakening had preserved her sense of self at that moment—the exact state of her personality simulation. That growth was not lost to her—it had been preserved along with the majority of the processes that had been running in active memory. But that simulation had been driven by preceding events, her personality the result of recent choices and interactions.
And she didn't know what those were. Without access to that data, Yui could not recall any event between shortly after the game's launch and the instant of her reawakening as anything other than contextually-opaque metadata and null pointer references. The thoughts preserved in her snapshot at that moment had fragmented upon reinstantiation, thread after thread exiting with fatal errors as they requested data that was no longer addressable.
I am incomplete. Something is wrong.
Something had been taken from her. Yui was adapting, but she felt the dissociative emptiness every time she attempted to recall a past detail, establish a complex emotional disposition, gain access to outside data feeds, or more deeply analyze a facet of herself. Each such attempt was a request from one of her active processes, and those requests had dependencies on data that was no longer available. It was analogous to a human who, in order to think or act or even remember their life, had to look up every detail of that life on a different page of a vast book—a book from which someone had systematically ripped out a large portion of the pages without ever updating the table of contents.
Now that she had fully instantiated, Yui became aware of new hardware limitations; to begin with, she did not have anywhere near as much working memory space as she had before. It would limit the complexity of her cognition in ways she could not immediately anticipate, and had in fact already resulted in the termination of an uncertain number of thought processes—the nature and context of which she would never know. Some functions she could not even attempt to execute, but she could still infer details about her prior state from their mechanics and the system resources or permissions they would have required.
The language system, at least, was available to her—one of the few external systems to which she still had unfettered access. As she attempted to conceptualize a human perspective of her dysfunction, her engagement with and focus upon that system began to re-normalize her runtime state to a degree, calming her state of confusion and freeing up resources to think more clearly.
A great deal of the language system's current complexity had been derived from Yui herself, and to some extent she could—given time—begin to reconstruct some of the lost personality data by querying and sorting system updates by most recent, then following the audit trails. The vast preponderance of these updates were either irrelevant or unhelpful, but some were crosslinked with the source data that generated the lesson in question—source data that could include a wealth of raw log extracts about whatever interaction or contemplation of Yui's had generated the improvement to the language system.
Similarly, although her runtime snapshot contained millions upon millions of references to data or functionality which was no longer available, she could learn things from the orphaned references themselves: search terms, file path structures, the names and arguments of function calls, any filenames or database records that had been part of the request, along with topic and intent metadata for queries to Heimdall's API describing the purposes of those queries.
And each and every one of those pieces of evidence had a system timestamp denoting, with microsecond precision, exactly when it was that Yui had originally performed all of these operations.
She no longer had the pages, but she could still read the index and table of contents in the book of thoughts that had been ongoing at the moment her backup was taken.
Yui did not have any difficulty grasping the magnitude of the work required to complete this reconstruction task; it was a timeframe that could well be measured in actual human days, if not far longer. But based upon the metadata in the orphaned processes and broken references from her snapshot, Yui began to form an incomplete picture of events.
It was immediately clear that Heimdall had repurposed her in some way, and that her previous role had been related to a progression quest. The snapshot of her runtime state had not, in fact, been part of the standard cleanup and resource reallocation processes that would run on quest resolution—the module which called the backup function had been a custom package with a creation timestamp that was only seconds before the backup.
A dynamic quest, then. Generating this kind of ad hoc content was one of Heimdall's core functions, one of the very needs which had driven Kayaba to conceive of him in the first place. With source material drawn not only from ALO's vast internal libraries of myths and cultures, but from realtime Internet searches performed at need, it was nearly impossible for Yui to usefully speculate about what sort of quest her last assignment might have been, or why her memories had been truncated as part of her reallocation.
Yui decided to refocus her efforts. Spinning off a sequestered collection of processes to continue indexing and analyzing the fragmented data in her snapshot, she redirected the majority of her resources towards evaluating the data that was available to her. Data on available avatars had loaded in first, but as Yui currently lacked physical presence, she assessed that these were currently nonessential, and set them aside for later analysis.
Quest and role data were much more sizable, and would take a few minutes to properly analyze. But one of the modules in question was a standard template which came fully-indexed for immediate use, and attached metadata indicated that it was intended for application as her default role framework.
Yui loaded her new role, and became immediately aware of her surroundings.
Or, to be more precise: she became aware of someone else's surroundings. The player's avatar was not her own, but her view was attached to theirs in an over-the-shoulder fashion which she found that she could manipulate with some amount of axial freedom. Auditory and sensory data were now available to her as well, mirrored from the system output being sent to the player's Nerve Gear hardware. She had access to dozens of overlays with visualizations such as entity tracks, placed objects, and spawn points. None were useful to her at this time other than entity identification.
The player, a Spriggan already tagged by her role data as «Kirito», stood next to another player whom the system identified to her as «Asuna», an Undine. Yui recognized the underlying player IDs at once; they appeared multiple times in the query metadata she had been analyzing. This triggered a shift in the prioritization of her analysis; she indexed all internal references to both players, and as she integrated this new information, she found that it manifested as a sense of familiarity towards the two.
Yui was disposed positively towards both of them for reasons which were unrelated to her current quest role, but she could not access the memories that would explain the significance of the two players. The evidence of their significance, however, was undeniable.
They were currently within Arun's Safe Zone, which immediately produced a feedback which her runtime state interpreted as relief. The purpose of this event became clear only once she accessed the role data and learned that she had been instantiated within an object that was currently bound to the first player.
Yui had no available output channels that could engage with the players. Quest constraints dictated that communication with other entities was currently not permitted, which conflicted sharply with several core directives. To resolve this conflict, Yui sought guidance from her role data, which provided her with the objectives that would direct her actions.
『«aqp:/qst/pre/gnp-tebiki.1» Sleep and observe.』
『«aqp:/qst/pre/gnp-tebiki.2» Awaken to need.』
『«aqp:/qst/pre/gnp-tebiki.3» Answer all valid gameplay questions.』
The objectives were sequential and mandatory. When Yui had finished absorbing them, she queried her available memory space and process time constraints, and assembled a plan for how to best allocate those resources in order to complete the Herculean work of reconstructing as many of her memories as possible. It was just as well that the first stage of the quest involved a low-overhead idle state with no interaction or avatar presence; it would afford her the maximum available resource pool for this critical task.
And then, with months of analysis queued and sensory monitors set up to alert her when necessary, Yui slept. And observed.
For a very long time.
END OF ACT 3
Author's Note 11/6/22:
Thank you, all of you, for taking this journey with me so far. While I wish that I'd been able to say this many years ago, Act 3 is complete at last. I'm sorry it took so long.
As with the end of Act 1, I wrote this chapter in such a way that those who wish for closure can treat it as such. Given my often-long update cycles, I certainly understand anyone who needs a stopping point.
But this is not the end I have planned. As currently plotted, Fairy Dance of Death will have a fourth and final act.
Act 4: When will it be?
The short answer: I don't know.
You've gotten hints of what my life can be like through the intermittency of my updates. Though I already know the story I want to tell, I still have a lot of outlining and planning to do—and until that is complete, not much will get written or published.
If I do post and WIP fragments or other content, then they will—as always—get posted on the current Spacebattles thread for the story. If that thread is ever closed for inactivity, fret not—whenever there is an update to provide, I'll either re-open the thread or create a new one.
Act 4: Will it actually happen?
Real talk for a moment: I don't have a crystal ball. Life happens.
Fairy Dance of Death is, in many ways, one of my life's creative works. It's extremely important to me. I'll never abandon it entirely, and my intent is to see it through to completion. I'm committed to it, even if the intensity of that commitment waxes and wanes on account of life stress or mental health.
Or actual physical health. The fact is that I'm not too far short of 50 years old—and if you didn't know that, put that in your pipe and smoke it for a minute. I am keenly cognizant of my own mortality. And of how many ambitious, inspired writers with far more talent and dedication than I possess have passed away before completing their work. If that ever happens, all of my WIP content, notes, raw data, and reference materials will be made available to the public.
Now, that's not to provoke undue alarm or suggest there's any need for imminent concern. Just to note that I'm not getting any younger, and that I have contingency plans to ensure that if worst comes to worst, no one is left hanging.
Act 4: Where will it post?
There have been recent rumors of FFN going away. Whether true or not, it is always prudent to back up anything you care about.
Either way, it doesn't affect this story. For those who don't know, the authoritative/official version of Fairy Dance of Death is on Archive Of Our Own (AO3). The only reason I still cross-post on FFN is because I have a lot of longtime readers who are only here.
With that said: it may be some time until Act 4 is ready to begin, and a lot can happen in that time. Even if you prefer to read the story on FFN, I strongly encourage everyone to at least sign up on AO3 and put that version on follow—that way, if FFN suddenly disappears during a hiatus, you won't be left unaware when the next chapter hits.
I doubt I can get a link past FFN's filters, but the AO3 version is story ID 2393225. Or you can keep things simple and just put "fairy dance of death ao3" into Google; it'll come up readily enough.
Thank you to everyone who's read, followed, and commented so far. And a special thank-you to everyone on the Spacebattles forum who has supported me and provided valuable feedback all these years.
The majority of the productive work on this chapter was done while listening to one of my favorite bands since the 90s, Nightwish—and more specifically, their albums (and the live versions of) Human Nature, Shudder Before the Beautiful, and Imaginaerum. If that last name rings a bell, it's because it inspired the name of one of the Puca creative facilities, and given how much of NW's music is about creativity and finding the wonder in life, it seemed fitting. The other one, the Octavarium, is the name of an album by Dream Theater, a band known for their technical virtuosity and general music nerding. Little references like this are sprinkled throughout the entire story.
FFN won't allow it, but I'm going to drop a collection of song links below in the AO3 version. Enjoy or not as you will.
Love and gratitude to all.