Disclaimer: We do not own Sword Art Online.

...

Avatar name: RAYNOR

Email: SAOalt415

Password: IronCurtain12

The screen remained blank after the correct information had been input, the pulsing black screen and the low hum of the game's startup scene was causing him to involuntarily shudder at the prospect of finally being able to play Sword Art Online. He had been awaiting the game's release for months, trawling the web for information on it, looking for any in-game streams, but there had been nothing but a date and a time given out. A minute past midnight on the 6th of November, 2022, the game would go live and become available for limited purchase - of the ten thousand copies of the game available only a thousand had been released internationally. Just over a hundred to each continent to be given away as tournament prizes, not as a random prize to a lucky few, but as prizes to rightful victors, and he had been one of them. The NervGear's screen flashed back to life as the introduction to the game began to play.

A warrior on horseback overlooking an open field while a castle of machinery - not stone - floated high above in the sky, the words 'Sword Art Online' emblazoned across a blue sky's backdrop. The screen again faded to black as a loading bar made its way across the screen. As it reached its end, a small light flitted about the screen.

"Welcome to Sword Art Online, RAYNOR. As this is your first time entering the game you need to be initialised," said the floating light flashing a different colour to indicate when it was or wasn't speaking.

"First a biometric scan of your body is required so that you can be fully immersed within the game and play with greater ease. Please remain still while the NervGear calculates you," blinked the floating light.

A motor could be heard whirring next to his ear while the NervGear took the scan. The NervGear had been an innovation in gaming; no longer would controllers or sub-standard motion controls impair a gamer's experience. The helmet worked by using microwave transmitters to input a user's commands into their game by means of the biometric scan that was taken at the start of each new game session.

"Initialisation complete, RAYNOR, now select your avatar. Be warned this cannot be changed once saved," blinked the light for the last time as it shattered into pieces before him.

A dozen or more presets loaded up before him, but he knew straight away that he wanted to stand out in this online world, so he chose to have a custom avatar. Flicking through the options before him, he slowly created his online persona, going through menu upon menu until finally the summary screen was before him.

Gender: Male

Race: Caucasian

Height setting: Tall

Build: Athletic

Language setting: English

He slowly looked down through the list to make sure that nothing had been missed, and then selected 'Confirm' at the bottom of the screen. As one of the select few who had been able to purchase one of few copies outside of Japan, Raynor thought he would have difficulty understanding other players who spoke in Japanese. Thankfully the creator had put that into consideration when distributing a thousand copies of his game to every corner on the globe. While there would always be a slight delay, the NervGear that held his head in place would be able to transmit what he was saying and translate it for every playable character nearby to their local language and vice versa. It truly showed just how far technology had come.

Instead of the screen going dark again, the menu started to dissolve away as a beam of light approached him. In this moment he became Raynor. For the next few hours he would no longer be another pen-pusher but a hero in his own world. As the beam grew he could hear the wind rustle and feel the warmth of the sun on his skin. Opening his eyes Raynor found himself on his back looking up at a summer sky. Pulling himself up to a seated position, Raynor met the gaze of an aging farmer.

"Good day to you, traveller, and welcome to Aincrad," said the figure before him. 'Great. Dumb NPCs.'

"Morning," uttered Raynor as he rose to his feet, brushing off the dirt from his clothes.

"Now you don't look like much of a farmhand. No far too pale. A merchant maybe. No too big for a merchant. Ox breeder, yes the right size but I've never met one that comes armed like that," said the farmer, motioning towards the hammer across his back. One of the options that Raynor had chosen was to go for the hammer as opposed to the sword, for the sole reason that he knew nearly every other character on the server would carry a sword of some kind.

As the NPC continued his monologue, Raynor paid it no attention as he looked over his character's design. Despite giving very broad depictions during the opening screen, his character was quite defined in its own right, and as he flexed his right arm, he was pleased to see that the bicep muscle became more tensed as if he was out in the real world. White skin covered his body as if he had come from somewhere in Northern Europe and he couldn't help but wonder if his character would get some sort of a tan if he stayed in the sun for extended periods of time.

There was no way that he wanted to be this white for the entirety of the game.

With the NPC continuously droning on about rules and regulations, Raynor turned his attention to the details in the surrounding city that he had started in. Columns made of granite towered high above the rooftops, a symbol for something that Raynor couldn't quite put his finger on. On the lower levels he could see that many other characters were getting introduced to the game's mechanics but like him couldn't be arsed with listening to an NPC drag on and on about something they would likely pick up in their own time.

Raynor wasn't sure if that was a good or bad thing, but with a shrug of the shoulders he figured that time would tell, and as the NPC concluded his speech, Raynor raced forward with determined eyes, waiting to see what this world had in store for him.

...

Putting his full force behind it, Raynor swung his hammer at the cockroach's head once more as its health-bar finally reached zero and the beast exploded into shards. Raynor was starting to get used to using his weapon in the game, even against these creatures which were the size of an average house-dog. In essence, all he had to do was think that he wanted to swing at the creature and it happened. Everything in this game felt so real to him. The slight ache in his shoulder from felling number after number of enlarged roaches, the welt on his arm where one had flung itself at him and latched onto his shoulder before he could swat it away. Raynor even found himself gasping for breath a little, even though his online body didn't require air.

'Going to have to put some points into that Endurance stat,' thought Raynor, smiling to himself. With this being a tutorial quest, he had only managed to fill a measly half bar of experience from dealing with the roaches. As beneficial as it had been, Raynor couldn't quite stop thinking how far ahead all the other players who skipped the tutorial must be . He was broken out of his thoughts by being clamped on the shoulder by a firm hand.

"Ha, a fine job lad. I don't think those roaches will be back to bother us for quite some time," chuckled the farmer. In the middle of the City of Beginnings Raynor had managed to find a NPC who had been looking for somebody to help him clean out the insect infestation in his barn. While it wasn't the most exciting job imaginable it was as good a start as any. "Now for your reward. No, not gold. What little we have we would like to keep hold of but food is a plenty in our home, and well, take as much as you need," finished the farmer as the summary screen appeared in front of his face, showing Raynor's reward. Three pots of rabbit stew, an assortment of cooking ingredients, and some EXP. Pressing the tick at the bottom of the summary, Raynor was surprised by another screen popping up.

'Congratulations you have levelled up!' it said, showing an assortment of stats improving by a preset number. Flicking downwards in front of himself, Raynor checked his stats and then allocated that promised point into his endurance section. With little else to do in the tutorial area, Raynor made his way towards what looked like an average-sized town. Although his route was spotted with enemies, Raynor had no issue dispatching them. Why would he? If he was killed before he had even made it to the first town, then he was never going to get very far into the game. By the time he had made it into the town, he had already levelled again and had pocketed what must have been a pitiful amount of col, but to Raynor it was his fortune.

Perusing some of the stalls, Raynor thought it was best to spend a good chunk of his money on acquiring a new shield to go alongside his hammer. It wasn't anything special, but a wooden buckler would give him something to work with in regards to his off hand. He spent the remainder of his Col on health potions as the food from the simple quest was enough to sustain him for the mean time. Raynor had just finished his shopping when the large bell in the middle of the town started to chime and he was enveloped in light. Not knowing what was happening, Raynor shielded his eyes before realising that he had just been teleported and not been set upon by God.

Raynor had indeed been teleported to the centre of the town as had everyone else in the game, by the looks of it. Flashes of light from players being teleported lit up the square as others players muttered amongst themselves and looked on confused, wondering what it was that just happened. The light seemed to dim out but the bell still rang for another minute, and just as it stopped ringing a message appeared in the sky.

'Remain calm. Game master announcement,' said the message as it blinked in the evening sun's dying glow. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the sky turned a haunting scarlet as the clouds seemed to start bleeding. Dripping from the sky, the torrents of blood started to converge into a point in the sky as the game master made his dramatic entrance.

"Hello, I am Kyaba Akihiko."

For the next few minutes the avatar of the game's creator shocked everyone within his game: they were now all trapped. Death in the game meant death for real, and any interference from the outside world would fry your brain, but in a twisted sense, he had made the game fair. All that was required for the game to end was to complete all 100 floors and their bosses, and then freedom was yours.

"Now before I go, I have a gift for all my loyal players," said the spectre.

Looking through his inventory Raynor could find only one item: 'mirror'. Tapping on it, a mirror floated in front of Raynor's face and blinded him with a flash of light. Squinting through his still-aching eyes, Raynor was overcome by shock. He was looking back at himself, his actual face was staring back at him. Looking down his entire body had become his own, he had become a few inches shorter and his muscles weren't as defined, but it was nothing compared to the shock of some other players.

"100 floors, and good luck," said the spectre before exploding in a shower of pixels.

The gravity of the situation had only just sunk in for some players. Some had dropped to their knees in anguish. Others had begun begging to their respective gods for some sort of release. Only a few remained on their feet, a thousand yard stare locked in their eyes. Knowing that nothing good could come from sinking into despair, Raynor checked his inventory and made his way to the quickest exit from the town.

...

Razamataz made his way away from the mass hysteria that was abuzz in the streets. Did he have questions? Of course he did! But were they going to be answered? Highly unlikely. Nobody could have the answers at this stage, and it was fruitless believing that any answer he was given was going to be the correct one.

Raz ran his fingers through his hair as he made his way past the edge of the crowd, reminding himself that this was indeed his hair and not the hair of the avatar he had created. He had prefered the avatar, to be quite honest, having spent a good deal of time making sure that the character had all of the little knicks and quirks that he liked when creating one in these games. Now, though, he was stuck with the same hazel eyes and unruly brown hair that he saw from day to day in the real world. Even his freckles had seemed to be brought over, lining up across his arms like shaded places in a desert.

Instead of his avatar, he was now himself, just shy of six foot with a slender frame that wasn't properly looked after and skin which would burn if left out in the sun too long despite not being completely white. It was safe to say Razamataz had already died and left the virtual world.

Taylor now stood in Raz's place.

"What to do, what to do?" mused Taylor as he made his way through the streets which had been filled only minutes earlier. While he had wanted to spend hours in this game, lost in time and away from the thoughts of the outside world, this was just a little beyond ridiculous. If what the creator had said - Taylor having already forgotten the guy's name - then he was trapped in here until all one hundred levels were cleared. While he did consider himself somewhat good in the video game department, he was nowhere near good enough to complete a game solo, let alone without dying a single time.

That was the scary thing, death. Quite possibly it could all be one giant hoax, and when he died only then would he be freed from this virtual prison, but by no means was Taylor keen to find out. Grinding on lower enemies for now would probably be the best idea, making sure that there was no real threat to his life, but that was only a temporary solution. Three or four levels would have to be it before he started making his way up the ranks.

Having been able to read the manual on the bus home from work, Taylor knew that the higher levels wouldn't be available until at least one person had defeated the boss for the floor and gone through. With that in mind, he knew that he wasn't going to be the one to jump straight into the dragon's mouth and tackle a stage boss; he wasn't suicidal by any means.

Turning a corner he found himself no longer the sole person along the desolate streets. His pace didn't waver, however, until the person lifted a hand, signalling Taylor to come closer. With a sigh escaping his lips, Taylor changed his course to where the man stood knowing that being rude at this point in time probably wasn't the best idea.

"How's it going?" he said casually as if this was an everyday occurrence.

"How's it going?" repeated Raynor. "We just get told that we will potentially die in a virtual world, and you ask how's it going? Shouldn't you be panicking just that little bit more?"

"It seemed like a good enough question at the time," said Taylor with a shrug of the shoulders.

"I guess," said Raynor sheepishly. "Considering most people are still going on about how this was the end of the world, I have to say I'm not doing too badly. I've actually come to terms with it really quickly."

"I wouldn't say that I've come to terms with it as such, but I'm not really willing to put my life on the line to find out," said Taylor as he rubbed the back of his head, his hair shaking back and forth as he did so.

"True that," said Raynor with a light chuckle before extending his hand. "Raynor."

"Taylor," he said as he gripped the outstretched appendage. "So what's the plan?"

"No plan yet," said Raynor. "I guess once everybody's calmed down a bit I'll see what the general plan is with everyone. Someone has to take charge, but it sure as hell isn't going to be me, at least not yet. Considering most the people in here aren't like us we should probably team up at some point."

"People like us?"

"Well it's clear that you managed to get your hands on one of the few copies of the game outside of Asia like I did. Only makes sense that I find a partner with somebody who isn't going to treat me like a complete foreigner."

"Please, you wouldn't even be able to tell what country I'm from," said Taylor putting a hand on his hip as if asking Raynor to guess just where abouts he was from. For several seconds Raynor did try to figure out just where Taylor was from, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't put his finger on it. While the skin tone and the freckles could suggest that the man was English, the accent was nothing like he had heard through film or television. Before he could ponder on the question any longer Taylor spoke up.

"Have fun watching the people try and organise themselves. Tell me how it goes," said Taylor as he patted Raynor on the shoulder as he started walking once again.

"What, you not gonna come and watch?" asked Raynor at the retreating form of his newfound friend.

"I could say something, but my voice won't be heard," said Taylor over his shoulder. "Stay alive and we'll catch up at some stage for a drink."

"Stay alive?" repeated Raynor, chuckling slightly at how dark the phrase was, but at the same time knowing full well just how serious it was. As Taylor vanished from sight, Raynor decided that he had had enough time sitting on the outskirts and made his way inwards towards the centre of town once again to see if anything new had developed.

Either way he knew it was going to be interesting.

...

Kaka was by no means a happy person. He hadn't even really wanted to get the game that desperately, rather a copy fell into his hands as a gift from an affluent family friend, and despite the breathtaking virtual world that surrounded him, he couldn't look past what each participant had been told mere minutes before. They were all stuck in the game until the very end and there was no escape. It was sickening, almost unfathomable, to think that they were trapped in this strange reality like a mouse in a corner.

He had contemplated the idea of taking his own life, just to see if the guy had been bullshitting about it meaning certain death, but quickly chickened out of the idea. The risk was far too great, and Kaka had never been too eager to rush into these kinds of situations. He didn't like what he'd heard from the game's creator, but he couldn't deny that it sounded possible. Being trapped in this extremely life-like virtual world was probably a fate better than death, although it did mean leaving his life in the real world behind him until such a time where he managed to get out.

The friends that he'd had, the family he often argued with… they'd all have to be put on the back burner for the moment.

The blond-turned-black-haired adolescent sighed to himself as he looked around. A couple of his friends had been hoping to get the game but copies were so hard to come across - especially in foreign countries - that none had managed to get their hands on it. In short, he knew none of the nine thousand and something players that surrounded him. And for some reason, making friends too soon didn't sound like the greatest of ideas at the moment; he was the real foreigner here, and he did not know who he could trust.

He wanted to get out and survive. Make sure that he wasn't defenceless, that he wouldn't have to rely on anyone, and his best shot at that was to make a break for it towards the nearest town. From there he would work up his skills, the most important one at the moment being cooking. If he was going to die in the game it certainly wouldn't be from starvation. Kaka felt that once he had that covered, he'd be able to work up his combat skills. In all the prior RPGs that he'd played, Kaka had stuck to the mage classes, so the boy felt a little bummed out to find that no such class existed in Sword Art Online.

Glancing around, he noticed a big crowd making its way away from the center of the village. He hesitated for a second before sharply turning and heading in the opposite direction of the crowd; the last thing he needed was to be around people. Though strength in numbers was never a bad thing, Kaka couldn't help but shake the feeling that it wasn't safe to trust people in this virtual world. In the real world if you killed someone, you got locked up for a very long time… over here there was no real way of enforcing that, and he didn't want to stick around long enough to see other people come to the same realisation.

He opened his menu once more in disbelief, attempting to find the non-existent log out button as though it were hidden, but like the numerous efforts made in the past twenty minutes… it was to no avail. It was hard to encourage himself to keep moving towards the edge of the town because he quite honestly just felt like rolling over and dying.

This wasn't what he had signed up for.

...

Taylor swung his glaive horizontally, slicing through the swine he was attacking. Even though out in the real world it would have had enough force to kill this kind of animal in an instant, barely a third of the creature's health was depleted from the blow. Was it frustrating? Yes, but at the same time Taylor knew that it was just the way of a standard role playing game. He needed to level some more - having already leveled twice through the earlier jobs and other slain beasts - and put the skill points he'd earned into Strength and Agility, at least for the first few floors until he needed to focus on Endurance. The way he saw it at the moment, since these smaller enemies did less damage, it was better to simply avoid said damage than take it head on, hence Agility was better than Endurance. Plus Agility would also allow him more attack speed, which in turn would increase the damage output of a longer ranged weapon such as the one he wielded.

As he struck the swine again, Taylor allowed a smile to cross his lips as he recalled what kind of weapon he had been tempted to get. While many would go for the same old sword and shield, he had wanted to go with something different, something that, every time he partied with someone and they saw his weapon, they couldn't help but think 'whoa.' Hence the glaive had been the weapon of choice. Then of course, he had realised that he had no real idea how to wield it, hence why the opening hours of the game had been spent doing simple quests for small amounts of experience while swinging his weapon around like a mad man. By the time his features had changed from his prior avatar, Taylor had gotten a general idea of how to use the weapon, although by no means was he a master.

Still, considering how long it took for somebody to complete the game, he could have become a pro by then.

His musings managed to get the better of him as Taylor attempted a vertical slash upon the boar, but since he was lost in his thoughts he mistimed his attack horribly and was rammed in the chest. Even though he felt the impact and was driven back slightly, there was no 'pain' involved. This, of course, didn't mean that his rage didn't increase as he let go of the glaive with one of his hands before punching the swine on top of the head, a squeal of pain escaping its mouth as it ran in a circle.

"Screw it. Let's try one of these techniques," said Taylor. One of the first missions he had been given, the reward hadn't been experience or Col, but rather a skill that he hadn't yet tried out. Seeing as there was no time like the present, Taylor shifted his stance holding his glaive in his right hand with his arm facing backwards so that the curved edge of the weapon was perpendicular with his body.

His eyes focusing, Taylor let out a roar as he twisted his arm viciously and the blade practically sawed through the head of the pig, causing it to disperse into pixels with its health finally depleted. A sheet appeared where the pig once was, depicting that Taylor had secured himself twenty four experience and thirty Col. While any experience was welcome, he had no real idea just what thirty Col could get him if anything at all. Perhaps it would pay for a night in a tavern or something; that'd be nice.

Since he was going to be here for the foreseeable future, however, Taylor knew that he needed to save his money wisely. Thankfully, he knew that the simple way to do this was to not buy every item that could up his stats ever so slightly, as he knew that whatever he could purchase would likely be dropped by some creature further ahead. Armour was another thing he could go without for a while, and if he came across an artisan of some kind, he would spend some time training up his forging skills so that he could create his own armour as opposed to purchasing it. The bonus to that was he could probably sell some unneeded armour once a proper commodity had been created.

Looking over at the town, he couldn't help but wonder what was going on with communications. While he knew that whatever was decided there would define the world that he would live in, there was no way he wanted to be a part of the discussions. Having gone through university, Taylor had listened to enough people lecture about this, that, and the other. Frankly, so long as it worked, he was fine with it.

Shaking his head, he focused once more on what he would need his money for as he spotted another pig and got to work on the swine. Since there was no magic in the game, he didn't have to worry about things such as mana potions which were practically essential in every other RPG. Skill books, though, would be a necessity, but in a market scenario he would have to be careful about what he purchased as undoubtedly someone would try and rip him off if he didn't know what he was getting into.

Finally there was housing. In most games, the houses were only for those who had nothing better to spend their money on. While many RPG's that he knew of would give you a house as a reward for a mission of some kind, the money necessary to make it something worthwhile to live in was usually too much. Since he was going to be here for the long run, however, it only made sense that he get some proper accommodation as opposed to ensuring he had enough Col in order to pay an innkeeper every night.

Food, rent, bloody hell it was as if Taylor was still stuck out in the real world. Driving his frustrations into the boar's side, the beast moaned before its health bar became depleted and it vanished from sight, once more a page stating what Taylor had earned popped up, although this time there was an added item on the bottom. "Hello, what do we have here?" he mused as he opened up his inventory to have a look at what he had earned. "Boar meat, why am I not surprised?"

A sigh escaped his lips as he closed his inventory before looking around for the next target. Judging by the sun's position in the sky, there was still a few more hours before day would give birth to night, meaning that there was still plenty of time to slaughter the relatively helpless wildlife. Hopefully when he got back to town, not everybody would be in the mass state of panic that he thought they would be.

It was probably wishful thinking.

No matter where Kaka seemed to go, there seemed to be some form of party leaving at the same time. It was probably for the best, he supposed, since a small group was more manageable, and he stood a much better chance surrounded by those of his own kind than the wild creatures that undoubtedly lay beyond the town's borders.

In the end, after rejecting several different ones and being too hesitant to approach others, he settled for a group of about fifteen people. They were pretty ordinary, most of them looked like they were in their early twenties - a few years or so older than himself - but there was an almost preteen boy tagging along. It was a shame that the kid probably wouldn't live to see the whole fiasco through.

"So what's the plan?" asked a short woman with red hair. She didn't seem battle-ready, but then again neither did anyone in their little make-do party. Kaka just hoped that they didn't run into too many wild monsters. "I don't know about you lot but I want to make it to the end of tonight with my head still attached to my body."

"A friend of mine was in the beta," said a Japanese man who looked to be in his thirties. He had a good physique and was probably the most muscular of their group, so Kaka knew who he'd be walking beside. "There's a town called Horunka a little while away from here, and he managed to make it there all by himself during the beta days."

"We probably stand a good chance as a group then," said a tall, noticeably caucasian male. He sounded as though he had a British accent but Kaka wasn't quite sure. "Well, we better head out before we lose anymore sunlight."

Kaka couldn't help but agree, the prospect of wandering through the wilderness between towns during the night sounding rather unappealing. "So let's go then."

The group set off, mumbling amongst each other as they left the safe haven that was the Beginning Town. Kaka was surprised at how well the NervGear managed to translate the various different dialects people spoke, of which Japanese was probably the most dominant. Instead of keeping up with the rest of the group, Kaka lagged slightly behind and opted to admire the extreme realism of the game as he watched dust particles fly around his boots because he was dragging his feet. At least this way, if they were to run into any conflict, Kaka would probably the best most well protected.

It wasn't even three minutes later that the group ran into their first hostile encounter: a herd of wild boars, snarling ferociously, were approaching the group. Kaka could smell the panic in the air, and struggled to steady his thoughts as the inexperienced group attempted to handle the situation. The buff Japanese man quickly drew a sword, but he didn't seem to know what he was doing with it as he attempted to fend off the wild boar that continued to approach.

Kaka summoned a sword of his own, clutching it tightly in his hand and prepared to step in, but was quickly distracted by the low growling of a boar kicking the dirt behind him. The boy paled as the creature charged, managing to sidestep half of it before bringing his sword down on the pig. Nothing happened. His health bar had dropped ever so slightly due to the contact that the boar had made with him, but he had not dealt any damage to the creature.

He jumped backwards in shock. He was sure that he had seen someone activate some kind of glowing power in their sword just by swinging it down. In hindsight, it probably hadn't been the greatest of ideas to skip the tutorial.

"Activate a sword skill, you dumbasses!" yelled a voice from the pack, instructing the other clueless fourteen members, but by that stage it was too late.

Five health bars faded to yellow. Three to red. A group of wild boars, of levels that either equalled or exceeded their own, had appeared and were making short work of the group. Kaka's heart began to beat a little faster… This couldn't be the end!

He frantically searched for the voice from before as yet another pack attacked him. This time his health bar dropped past the green section and into the low yellows, the pain feeling far too real for comfort. Ignoring it, he continued his search, letting out a breath that he had been holding as he witnessed one of the sword skills in action. The red-haired girl from before swung her sword down on a pig as the metal momentarily basked itself in an ethereal red colour, making solid contact with it and causing its health to drop to the yellow section.

With a panicked quickness about him, Kaka immediately swung his sword down on an unsuspecting boar and prayed to whatever onlooking deity listening that his attack would work. 'Sword skill, activate!'

Kaka wasn't sure if it was the command that activated the sword skill or sheer willpower, but he didn't have time to dwell on it as another boar rammed itself into him, leaving what was almost certainly going to be a sore bruise in the morning on his left bicep - provided that bruises and cuts actually manifested in this game and pain simply wasn't an illusion created by his mind.

As he drove his sword through the head of the beast, Kaka heard the scream of one of his comrades before the unmistakable sound of exploding shards of pixels, his eyes going white as he realised one of his companions had just been killed. This was quickly followed by another yell of pain before another life burst out of existence. Kaka looked from side to side at the health bars of all his companions to see that very few had any more than half their health remaining. Grinding his teeth, he shouted the only logical thing he could think of.

"RETREAT!"

Beaten and bruised, Raynor returned to the exit of the town of Beginnings. When he had set out for the next town, fifteen other people had had the same idea. Now, as he limped his way back into the town of Beginnings, only six including himself had managed to get away while the other nine had fallen prey to the creatures outside the safety of the walls. Raynor didn't know if it was carelessness or futility that caused them to fling themselves at the creatures. All he knew was that, when each of them dissolved into pixels, it wasn't a simple act of losing and re-spawning. Death now meant death, and if the next chapter in his life meant fighting for it, he was going to make sure he had one last good drink.

Stumbling through the tavern's door, Raynor slumped onto a stool as the innkeeper rose to take his order. Before Raynor could speak, a younger man just as bruised as he was ordered for them. "Two beers and a frigging ice block if you've got it," said the stranger, accepting the transaction and placing the ice on top of his head. "So I see another idiot before me. Name's Kaka." He offered his hand to Raynor, which he shook. "Aye, fifteen morons took a blind charge out of here, not a clue how to play or how to stay alive, but I saw you holding your own and saving a few people's lives. That's something they're probably not even going to thank you for, so I'll do it for them," said Kaka in gratitude for others and for his own skin. "But who exactly am I thanking?"

"Name's Raynor, and if your buddies are the ones I'm thinking of, they dragged that damn imp off me, so I say we're even," said Raynor, taking a swig of his drink. "Ha, it's a small pity, ain't it? Can drink beer but not get drunk. Not only does he trap us all in a death game, the bastard makes us do it sober," chuckled Raynor to himself.

"I think that's only in the restrictions of the town," said a new voice as they took the other side of Raynor. Looking up, the hammer-wielding man was happy to see a familiar face, and one that had managed to stay by his word. "I see you managed to stay alive."

"Barely," chuckled Raynor as he patted Taylor on the back before turning his attention to the barkeep. "Another beer for this one."

"Actually, I'll take a wine," said Taylor, changing the order given.

"Wine, you a pussy or something?"

"No, I just know how to make it is all," said Taylor as his glass was poured to the brim.

"Wait, so what you were saying about the restrictions of the town?" asked Kaka, getting interested by the conversation.

"New friend?" Taylor asked of Raynor.

"Kaka, Taylor. Taylor, Kaka," introduced Raynor. "Bastard here managed to help me slay an imp or three on our escape back from attempting to reach the next town."

"Harsh," said Taylor. "Might just want to do some easy quests and level up for a while before doing anything more stupid."

"That what you been doing the entire time?" asked Raynor.

"Yeah, can manage to one-hit pigs now, so it's as good a start as any. Got pretty boring after the first hour, but I knew that I just had to keep grinding away," said Taylor before sipping at his wine. "They crafted some cheap shit into the game."

"If you want better booze get your friend to pay better coin," said the barkeep as she walked past them.

"Meh, I'll make some for us later, anyways," said Taylor before lifting his glass. "To the fucking virtual world."

"To the fucking virtual world," repeated Raynor and Kaka before all three of them downed their drinks. Needless to say it was going to be a long night.

...

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