"Speech"

'Thought'

Weapon Skill


November 6th, Month of the Cypress

Launch

A wave of nausea passed over Ranma as feeling returned to his body. All over he felt pins and needles as though his body had gone to sleep quickly leaving him, and when he opened his eyes he found that he was no longer in his room. Tapping his foot, he could feel the unyielding hardness of the white stone floor beneath him. A warm breeze rustled his hair and he reached up to brush his bangs out of his eyes, grumbling over the limited acceptable hairstyles available. The style was close but it was tied back into a ponytail rather than a pigtail. Around the grand circular pavillion that stretched around him, blue human sized beams of light shimmered before extinguishing, showing the arrival of yet more players into the world.

Up above it was all blue sky and sunshine bright enough to make him squint. Whistling in appreciation of the realism so far, he rolled his shoulders, and brought his hands up in front of him to test out the movement. Immediately he noticed how sluggish it all was. The actual movement felt completely realistic but there seemed to be a long delay before his body would respond.

"Idiot! What took you so long?" Akane's voice berated him and tried to whack him over the head. Only for her fist to bounce harmlessly off a tiny shield that appeared above his hair.

"What's the rush, tomboy? If I gotta play this stupid game for Nabiki I might as well make a good character." He shrugged, having considered a lot of the options available before deciding on the skills he would use. Even if Nabiki just wanted to test out the NerveGear helmets she had bought along with three copies of Sword Art Online.

"We've been waiting here for ten minutes." Nabiki groaned, standing next to her sister. If it wasn't for her voice Ranma might not have recognized her immediately due to the middle sister taking a longer hairstyle done in a big ponytail. Otherwise she looked exactly like the actual Nabiki.

"Ah!" He took a step back when he finally noticed Akane's character. Both of the girls were wearing similar clothing in different colors. Like him they wore a long sleeve shirt covered by a simple piece of leather armor over their rib cage. Akane had also chosen pants while Nabiki had went with the skirt that ended midthigh.

"What?" The youngest Tendo asked defensively and looked down at herself. Her hairstyle was similar but with spiky bangs and overall her body matched up with what Ranma knew. Except for one thing.

"You made your boobs bigger!" Ranma gasped dramatically and began to laugh hysterically as she once again failed to be able to hit him.

"You stupid jerk!" Akane screamed in his face in impotent rage. "This is how I really look!"

"How much did you add?" Nabiki asked helpfully, looking closely at her sisters simulated bust. "One? Two cups?"

Akane blushed and crossed her arms over her chest. "What about you? What did you add to?" She narrowed his eyes at him, inspecting him for differences.

"Me? I'm amazing enough as is!" He gloated and laughed.

"That's it! You made your head normal sized!" Akane pointed out dramatically.

"Woah, you picked out a cool weapon!" A teenage boy complimented Akane. He was standing with three others all in the same starter outfits and carrying one or two handed swords.

"Thanks!" Akane beamed at the attention, pulling a meter long crude kanabo from its place on her back to hold in both hands.

"Everybody else just picked swords. We're all pretty lame." Another jokingly remarked.

Ranma frowned and felt his own weapon that looked like a thirty centimeter long dagger with no hilt. He had chosen a much more exotic weapon than Akane's baseball bat sized mace with spikes, but he didn't need to advertise that yet, and not to these three. Picking out just the right weapon to play with had been the reason why it had taken so long to get through the character creation.

"You girls want to be in a party with us? We can help you level. It's really dangerous outside of town." The one who had spoke first offered.

"I think I can handle myself." Akane smirked and rested her weapon over one shoulder. "But I need to show my sister and this idiot here how to play." She leaned in to stand close to Nabiki who wasn't paying attention and pointed at him.

"Can we at least be friends?" The shortest one asked, raising his right hand, and having a series of white buttons appear in the air just below his fingers.

"She's my fiance, take a hike." Ranma finally butted in, stepping between the trio, and Akane.

"A cute girl with a loser like you? You're just lucky we can't duel till level five."

"I better hurry up and level then." Ranma scoffed at the other boy being any threat to him and took Akane's hand to pull her in a random direction away from the other arriving players. Nabiki could do her own thing, like extorting others for money with bad information.

"A challenge." Akane forcibly broke from his grasp.

"Eh?"

"I bet I can level faster than you." The short haired girl smile confidently.

"A bet?" Nabiki's smirking face appeared between them. "Akane versus Ranma, who can get the most levels before dinnertime? And what will be the stakes?"

"You should be in on it too." Ranma pointed out. "It's just a game."

"Me?" Nabiki took a step back in confusion before recovering herself. "I suppose with my intelligence it would be no problem for me to beat you two at a game. I'm sure I could figure out all the best strategies before either of you got out of the city walls."

"I'm the one who checked all the beta info." Akane remarked haughtily. "You'll both lose to me."

"Losers scrub the dojo floor." He offered as a punishment.

"Both of you have to eat my cooking and admit to liking it." Akane countered.

"Woah! How about winner gets a week of game time, on me." Nabiki quickly offered her own proposal.

Ranma wasn't too sure how long this video game would keep his interest, but there was no way he was going to voluntarily eat Akane's cooking. "Game time." He agreed.

"Game time." Akane nodded before roughly poking him in the chest. "But you're still going to eat the next thing I make!" She added before running off into the crowd.

"Meet back here at five!" Nabiki shouted after her sister then grabbed onto his arm. "So where to first?"

"Huh?" He asked intelligently.

"Neither of us can be the loser, right? You help me and I'll think of someway to repay you on the side. Akane doesn't need to know."

"Repay me how?" He asked pointedly.

"Do I have to say right now?" Feigning insult at the suggestion his question held.

"Yes." Ranma nodded emphatically.

"I'll forgive two thousand yen of your debt." She offered.

"Four."

"Two and half."

"Three and a half."

"Fine." She grumbled irritably.

He smirked. "Alright, let's get started then." Ranma stopped to look around at the ever increasing sea of players arriving into the game before asking. "Uh— which way do we go?"


Four hours later

Nabiki's wakizashi glowed a pale cyan as she lashed out, slicing cleanly through the snout of a wolf as she sidestepped its lunge. The cut left a glowing red line across the lupines face with a grid pattern inside. It crashed to the ground and shattered into thousands of rainbow colored polygons.

"Easy." She announced and holstered her weapon. A status window appeared before her showing the experience, items, and money in the currency of Col that she had received. "More teeth, how exciting." Nabiki remarked dryly, hoping that something more interesting would come from killing the beasts on their way back to town.

Ranma was clapping, sitting on a large stone, and looking far too pleased with himself. "You sure showed that one!"

"I've showed about forty of them." She flipped some of her longer hair to the side. "Not my fault that they aren't smart enough to leave me alone."

"Think Akane did any better?" Ranma asked, looking off towards the circular city where they had started. The sky was slowly darkening and turning a beautiful shade of orange as the game world slowly went from day to night.

"She probably went out and died to the first thing she ran into." Nabiki joked. It was very unlikely though. Ranma had complained excessively about how encumbered he was by the combat system but had still easily plowed through everything they had come across without activating any of the sword skills that Nabiki was relying on.

"I do kind of like this place." He turned his head into the wind and closed his eyes. "Could do without being crippled by this stupid weapon system, but I can see why everybody wants to go off on a magical adventure."

"The great Saotome Ranma, on the same level as everyone else, how tragic!" She cried out sarcastically and clasped her hands in front of her chest.

"Still above yours." The boy stuck out his tongue at her. She had hung back and used Ranma to see how things worked, he had reached level four while she was only partially through level two.

"As long as we're above Akane, it doesn't matter." She didn't need to worry. In the end she would be higher level than both of them since she was the only one who had the game, they were just renting from her. And neither family or family-to-be would stop her from making money renting this out to anyone willing to pay. 'I can't believe they didn't put in copy protection for this game, you don't even need to register a serial number.'

"I'm tired of all this walking." She laced her fingers together and stretched her arms high above her head. "I'm going to log out and tell Akane she lost."

"Lazy." Ranma remarked slowly and his eyes glanced down and to the left to the clock that would be in his own field of view. "Plenty of time to get back."

"Quicker we get out the quicker you can slobber over Kasumi's food." She pointed out, already bringing up the main menu in front of her. Sliding her hand upwards on the menu, it scrolled up to the settings panel.

"Good point." He brought up his own menu, having figured out the action quickly.

"Where is it?" She blinked several times, seeing that there was no option to log out. Scrolling through all the other tabs her confusion grew at finding no way to log out.

"Where's it supposed to be?" Ranma asked in confusion.

"Right here." She moved to be right next to him so that the holographic menus were parallel. "See that empty spot?" On the bottom of the settings tab was an open spot with an icon that looked like a door.

"So then how do we get out?"

"How should I know?" Nabiki demanded angrily, rapidly jamming her finger into the help button with no response.

"Oh well, let's get back to the town while we wait." Ranma hopped off the stone and nearly fell on his face. "Damn game." He grumbled at the way it screwed with his coordination.

"This is serious, we need to find out what's wrong." She followed after him.

"So let's go ask a few people in town. You probably just don't know where it is."

"But I do! It's supposed to be right there!" She protested his statement that she was doing anything wrong.

The sound of bells ringing from all around them interrupted further protests. "What's that?" She looked around trying to pinpoint the sound that seemed to be coming from all around them. Her eyes unfocused as a bright white light consumed everything.

For a moment she thought that she was out of the game before realizing that she was back at the giant courtyard where everyone started the game. High above the center of the plaza, a clock tower with a bell at the top continued to toll as more and more players appeared around her in pillars of light. As the last flash of light seemed to vanish, the bell quit ringing with a sudden and artificial suddenness.

"Ranma— what's going on?" She asked, subconsciously moving a bit closer to the boy, having a hard time seeing anyone through the thick crowd of players.

"Maybe it has something to do with how we can't get out." He theorized, still not as concerned about that bug as she was. "Hey tomboy! You around!" Ranma called out.

"Ranma quit calling me that!" Akane answered from the right, pushing through the four players that were between them. "Honestly." She huffed, straightening out her clothing. "What's with getting brought back here? I was almost to level five."

"Oh that's too bad, I'm level five." Ranma lied.

"What?! That's impossible! How did you do it?" Akane grabbed him by his leather vest and shook him roughly.

"Not now, Akane." Nabiki tisked, the sky turning a shade of crimson bathing everyone in a red light.

Oozing through hexagonal tiles was a thick blood red flood that coalesced into a large mass that grew and contracted in weird contortions. The colors shift and suddenly floating high above the pavillion was a figure covered from head to toe in a deep burgundy robe lined by gold accents.

"Is it a game master?" Someone asked and immediately more players began to call out questions.

The giant looming figure spread his arms and spoke in a deep masculine voice. "Welcome to my world." He greeted politely. "My name is Kayaba Akihiko. As of this moment, I am the sole controller of this world."

Nabiki really didn't like the way that was phrased and could feel the apprehension coming from the other players.

"The one who made the game?" A girl to the side asked.

"Ah! Is that really him?" A boy asked excitedly.

Everyone quieted the moment the man started to speak again. "Many of you may have noticed that there is no logout button in the main menu." Before the giant, the game menu was summoned and he deftly moved the indicator to hover over where the logout option should be. "Do not be alarmed, this is not a defect in the game but a feature of Sword Art Online."

"How is not doing something a feature?" Akane irritably growled and turned to her. "Did you know about this?"

"Just found out a minute ago." Ranma answered, never looking away from the floating figure.

"There is no way to logout of Sword Art Online and attempting to remove or tamper with your NerveGear from the outside will result in the transmitter emitting a powerful microwave. Ending your life."

Players began to yell up obscenities and demands to be let out until dozens of panels spread out around the game master. Websites, news cameras, photographs, and public notices showed the outside world as panic spread among everyone connected to a player.

"While I have announced the results of these actions, there have been a few who did not heed my warnings. As a result, two hundred and thirteen players have already been lost." Akihiko continued sadly.

"Our parents don't listen— we're so dead." Nabiki gasped in horror.

"Any minute now." Akane added softly.

"With this extensive reporting, further deaths of this sort should be rare. I hope that you will relax and not be burdened with this worry. But you should be aware that as of now there is no longer any method to revive someone within the game. Should your HP drop to zero, your avatar will be lost forever, and your NerveGear will destroy your brain."

Nabiki stared upward in mute shock along with everyone in the plaza. 'This can't be real, it's just a game. It has to be.' She rationalized, trying to fill the deafening silence with her own thoughts as the thousands of people around her all waited with bated breath.

The game master waved his hand and all the windows vanished save his in game menu. "I have allowed you two means of escape." Hitting a button, a three dimensional map of all one hundred floors of Aincrad scrolled by. "The first is to complete the game by clearing the boss on every floor. Freeing all those left alive."

"None of the beta testers made it anywhere close to that." Akane gasped and took hold of Ranma's arm, the black haired boy stoically waiting without expression.

Akihiko dismissed the map and his menu. "There are currently ten thousand five hundred and thirty two players online. While only ten thousand copies of Sword Art Online were sold. Many of you are here due to alternative means and, while I applaud your desire to view my world, I feel I would be remiss if I didn't apply a penalty for forcing your way into Aincrad. Whoever slays one of these unlicensed users shall free only themselves. That is the only other way to escape."

'Oh dear.' Nabiki gulped as desperate pleas were shouted for ways to weed out players using a pirated copy. There were accusations mixed in, several players around her began to push their way through the crowd trying to get to one of the exits. Many others near them instantly following crying out that they had found one, and attempting attacks that failed in the safe zone.

"To find them you must know them." Akihiko answered cryptically and Nabiki felt a weight suddenly appear in her hand.

She felt a sudden buzzing and without wanting to she raised the object to see that it was a small circular mirror that reflected back her mostly premade avatar. 'A mirror?' All at once the plaza was engulfed in blueish-white light that vanished in an instant. Blinking away her blindness, Nabiki stared in shock as it was literally her face being reflected back, not the approximation she had started with.

"What the hell is this?!" She screamed, similar sentiments being roared in mass by the crowd as all the players now looked like their real world bodies.

Akahiko's artificially loud voice was easily heard as he continued. "Now that you are no longer hidden by an avatar's shroud, I feel that I can properly cheer for you to fight bravely and wish you the best of luck." Black smoke loudly billowed out from beneath the game master's robe, the shape beneath collapsing in abnormal ways as he lost consistency. The robe vanished into smoke that flowed like water rushing back up into the tiled sky.

The red tiles flicked and vanished in a staticky flash. Silence once again reigned, everyone around her staring up at the beautiful sunset that had returned to the sky. It held for nearly a minute before one of the mirrors fell to the stone and shattered. The screams were so loud that Nabiki had to cover her ears, the assembled mass of over ten thousand people all crying and shouting felt like being physically hit.

Nabiki felt the simulated g-forces as a strong arm wrapped around her waist and picked up up from the floor. Bouncing repeatedly off players, she looked to the side, and saw that Ranma was carrying her off while pulling Akane along her hand. Out of the crowd, he took them out and down a street with only a handful of others leaving with them.

"Ranma— what are you running for?" She asked meekly, still in shock over the announcement.

He took a turn around a corner into a small alley without anyone else around before stopping and putting her back down on the ground. "Sorry, didn't think that was the best place to be." He finally answered with an awkward and strained chuckle.

"You can't just run out of the game, idiot." Akane rolled her eyes and snorted in disgust. "What are we going to do?"

"Seems pretty easy so far. I'll just beat the game." He bluffed, crossing his arms and bowing his head to lean against the wall.

"It might not be true— maybe it's all a big joke." Nabiki suggested hopefully and without any conviction.

"I don't think we should ignore the giant." Ranma gravely answered her suggestion. "But if it's win or kill someone— I know what I'll be doing." Nabiki nodded her head absently along with Akane. A quick fix to this situation was initially tempting but she was a small time con-woman, not a murderer.

"Say Nabiki— Ranma— why are your eyes gold?" Akane asked in confusion, looking between her and Ranma.

Nabiki held up the mirror she still held in her hands and took a closer look, finding that her brown eyes were now obviously golden. Ranma grabbed it and twisted it so that he could verify that he also had lost the blue color to his eyes. She ignored that to inspect Akane, who had the same eye color that she had always had.

'I was supposed to have the real copy.' Nabiki decided now would be a good time to panic.


December 20th, Month of the Holly

44 Days since launch

2nd floor

Parrying the downward swing of a meter high kobold goat herder's staff, Ranma reversed his grip on his weapon, and plunged it through the creatures crude leather jerkin up to the hilt. The foul smelling humanoid, a mixture of rat and reptile froze as the killing blow was registered by the game before exploding in brightly colored polygons.

"You could have just left it to me." Akane roughly pushed past him to go for the herder's horse size goat that was about to attack in retaliation. One powerful horizontal swing from Akane's spiked club met the beasts head first charge, her weapon passing through it's form as it dissolved without losing momentum. "See?" She hefted the weapon to her shoulder and smirked proudly.

"Hogging all the experience, again?" He asked jokingly and checked the small clearing for any more monsters.

"Me? You're still somehow higher level." She asked incredulously, holstering her kanabo across her back. "You're still sore that I can be as strong as you in here." Akane snidely remarked and crossed her arms.

"Obviously not if you're still behind." Ranma loudly whistled back down the path up the flat top mountain to signal the others it was safe for at least an hour. He wasn't about to let Akane know that they were in fact the same level still, with her pulling slightly ahead. The thought of her being better than him at this was too bitter a pill to swallow. Thankfully they were all several levels above the monsters on this floor so they didn't have much to fear.

Following behind them was a group of eight other players heading to the second floors main town of Urbus physically in order to gain experience and search for crafting supplies. The entire floor was covered in flat topped mountains and endless network of paths snaked their way through the valleys. Occasionally they would zigzag up and over mountains, they had decided to make the trek up in order to get a better sense of where they were in the maze below.

"Did the goat drop any ingredients?" Ranma asked, cycling through the junk items that he had received from the four kobolds he had dispatched on the way up. Even being trapped in a virtual world, they still had to eat.

"I should be able to raise my cooking skill with this one." Akane giggled insanely as she summoned up a huge shank of meat.

Instead of asking why they would want to waste food, he wisely kept his mouth shut. Akane had quickly learned her lesson about trying to hit him as a way to retaliate. The system immediately had changed her player cursor to orange and she was attacked by some nearby guard NPCs. It was funny at the time, but it made her an obvious target, and she hadn't done it since.

It wasn't long before the rest of the party arrived and they formed a circle around a cooking fire to rest. Outside of the two Tendo sisters, he didn't really know any of them. There was a boy trying to cook while Akane remained unable to produce edible items even though cooking in the game was simplified to pushing buttons. Nabiki was still negotiating with another girl on the price of a wide brimmed hat that she had desperately wanted since forming the party.

There were only two others that seemed interesting. The first was a very tall black man named Agil with a completely bald head. His weapon was a double bladed, two handed battle ax and he had helped guard the rest of the group while Ranma and Akane had cleared the way. The black man was quite personable and obviously wanted to help out. Rumor had it that he had even been part of the first group to kill a floor boss.

And the other high level character was a quiet middle aged man with long slicked back grey hair gathered in a ponytail at his neck. He carried a small shield on his back and a one handed sword was attached to his hip. He called himself Heathcliff and Ranma suspected he had been of the vilified beta testers by how calmly he moved through the world. After this stop it was agreed for the four of them to switch roles so they could get experience as well.

"You are both very talented." Heathcliff complimented him and Akane. "I feel rude to ask, but why aren't you helping one of the clearing groups instead of ferrying players to the next floor? Your levels are high enough."

"What's the death count up to?" Ranma answered the man's question with his own.

"Over two thousand." Agil answered gravely, which sounded far more powerful with his deep voice.

"To get through two bosses. But it wasn't the clearing groups that were dying by the hundreds the first day." He paused, having rushed ahead with Akane by his side before learning of how bad it was for players just trying to leave the starting town. Being reminded of how many had already been lost seemed to sour the mood of their party.

"Back in the real world, we're martial artists." Akane took over for him. "And it's our duty to protect the weak."

"A noble cause, but there are only two ways to leave, and there will always be players needing protection so long as we are here." Heathcliff solemnly summarized their situation, crossing his arms to hold his chin in one hand. "Reaching the end is the only way to help everyone."

Ranma kept silent about the second way to leave but clenched his fists in anger and frustration. Thanks to Nabiki pirating their copies of the game, they were both targets for anyone desperate enough to become a murderer in order to get out. Those rushing to clear content would be dangerous enough to make serious attempts on their lives.

"We should push more." Akane hastily hit a quicktime window prompt for her cooking. "Somehow get the others to stay where it's safe."

"Like all those things I convinced you to stay out of?" Ranma teased trying to ignore the threat anyone with gold eyes was under as he lazily twirled his weapon in circles, his finger through a loop at the pommel.

"I'm the one who knows how to play the game." Akane snarled at him. "I can do just as much— no more than you. Duel me if you want to find out."

Giving one last spin, he caught the dagger like blade, and stared at Akane dubiously. This had been coming up more and more, Akane simply did not respect what he could do, and he was halfway tempted to take up her offer just to show her up.

"This again, Akane? Give it a rest." Nabiki snapped at her sister. "Have a duel when we get to town, your ego battle can wait." The four lower level players around the fire watched nervously as the short haired girl fumed before snorting, and going back to her cooking. Nabiki watched her sister briefly before turning back to the girl she had been badgering. "450 Col, final offer."

"Agreed, this area hasn't been fully explored yet, and we shouldn't let our guard down." Agil added to Nabiki's angry condemnation of Akane's demand for a duel, trying to further de-escalate the situation.

"Once we reach the teleport gate at Urbus—." Heathcliff drew their attention. "If you still wish to duel, maybe it would help to hold an event in the Town of Beginnings."

"Help what?" Akane asked, looking away long enough to miss an important prompt that would turn her attempt at cooking incredibly sour.

"Every one of us has seen someone die. Has seen the ways Aincrad can break you." The grey haired man paused briefly before continuing. "But how many examples of how it can make you strong are there?"

He smiled and turned to see that Akane also liked the idea of a public duel.


January 2nd, Month of Oak Moon

57 Days since launch

1st Floor

Akane checked the durability of her equipment one last time as she waited for the battle to begin. Heathcliff and a few of his friends had quickly spread word of high level players dueling in the populated cities. While the players struggling on the third floor paid little attention, too caught up in their own struggles. That left the lower levels still calling the Town of Beginnings home to fill the seats of the Azimuth arena, situated to the west side of the city.

Looking out through the double doors across a dirt theater, she could see Ranma standing on the far side of the rectangular stadium, inside the opposing tunnel. With how the shadows obscured him, she couldn't make out any details, but she did see that he was standing with a very tall man.

'Doesn't matter, probably just that black guy.' Her gear was as enchanted as highly as current trade skills allowed. She had gained nearly four levels since the trip to Urbus and with how Ranma seemed clueless about making himself legitimately better as a player, she was confident that she was better than him. In the real world, he may make a mockery of her skills but here she could prove herself. And finally be the best.

"If I wasn't making a ton of Col from the bets, I would be berating you both for being such arrogant children." Nabiki exclaimed in disgust.

"I'm helping out, this'll inspire people." She protested absently. "And I can finally put that arrogant jerk in his place." Akane chuckled sinisterly at the thought of retribution for every insult and humiliation at the cursed boys hands.

"Whatever, just get it out of your system so we never have to come back to this city again. I need to go make sure all the bets are in." Nabiki rolled her eyes and took the steps back up into the stands. Akane had been busy preparing that she didn't known any of the players Nabiki had recruited to help her create a betting pool but she wasn't surprised her sister was moving quickly in establishing a network of lackeys.

Standing alone and hearing the excited murmur of the crowd outside, Akane was starting to feel a little nervous. Having never competed in anything with this much attention or at this scale, she felt self conscious. 'Come on, Akane. Get a grip!' She berated herself and paced angrily from wall to wall trying to psych herself up.

The large bell at the center of the city rang hollowly to signify the top of the hour, and sounding almost as horrible as when they rang on the first day on Aincrad.

'This is it.' She nervously gulped and took several deep breaths. 'I can do this, in here I'm better than Ranma. I can finally win.' Squaring her shoulders, she stepped out of the tunnel into the midday sun.

Her feet felt like they were encased in lead with every step. Now that she could see the stands rising up on either side and the oppressive mass of players come to find some sort of distraction from the nightmare of Sword Art Online, she found herself in a weird dichotomy. Akane couldn't be more apprehensive about the outcome, if she lost it would crush her. But if she won, in front of all these people, the very idea filled her with enough eager energy that she practically skipped to a stop in front of Ranma.

Akane's mind screeched to a halt when she saw Ranma's face. "What— what are those?!" She nearly doubled over in laughter.

"It's for a quest." Ranma shrugged, clearly embarrassed by the three red whisker marks on each cheek. (1)

"What quest is that? Look like a dorky cat?" She chortled.

"Guess it's just something you don't know about." He smirked arrogantly and opened up his game menu. "Last chance to back out, it's supposed to be a game but I'd still feel bad hitting you." Ranma warned as pompous as ever.

"Don't worry about me." She summoned up her menu and initiated the duel before he could, selecting the first strike mode. The winner would be decided by the first clean hit or getting the other to half their hit points. "Finally you can take me seriously, catboy."

Ranma's response was to accept the duel without a word. The crowd erupted in cheers when the notification appeared above their heads showing the english word 'Duel' and announcing their names. A countdown timer dropped into view beneath the announcement, and immediately began to tick down from sixty seconds.

Akane took a step backwards and in one smooth motion drew her kanabo testsubo with one hand. Adding some flourish as she brought it in front of her to grip with both hands, she settled into a loose combat stance, ready to activate any of her weapon skills. Her new kanabo had a polished metal head that shined from the sun and the smooth wooden handle fit perfectly in her hands. She had even picked up from a group quest a plate chest guard that included a single pauldron on her left shoulder that would increase her defense dramatically.

Ranma in contrast had picked up a red shirt with front and back tails similar to what he wore in Nerima. Over top of it, his minimal leather chest guard had been replaced with a more substantial one that came down below a belt around his waist. He had replaced his long guard-less dagger with one that appeared to have red lines running down the blade. Holding it across his body in a reverse grip, Akane almost believed that he was taking her seriously.

The timer hit ten seconds and the crowds cheering grew so loud that when it hit zero, she couldn't hear herself scream out her attack as she exploded into action. Leaping, she raised her kanabo above her head, and brought the glowing blue weapon down. Ranma's eyes widened in alarm and sidestepped her attack.

She didn't notice how the crowd's roar vanished as her first attack missed. Ranma came in hard from the side, aiming for her ribs. Akane pulled back her mace and used the handle to redirect his attack and push him past her. Turning, she attempted to hack at the back of his knees but he avoided it but jumping forward out of her range.

"You're always running!" She shouted, activated her other skill for a charge. "Rushing Crash!"

Ranma didn't have time to turn and face her before she was on him. He tried to desperately parry but her horizontal slash easily knocked his weapon to the side, and sent him flying across the field. Her fiance slid to stop on his knees clutching his chest and right arm.

Akane stared at him in shock as cheers erupted in response to their brief exchange. 'I'm stronger than him.' She realized in glee. For the first time since meeting Ranma, she was able to see all his movements, and was the one controlling the tempo of the fight. If he hadn't been able to partially parry her attack, the duel would have been over with her as the winner. Not that it would take much more, the half circle bar hovering shoulder height around him indicating his health, showed he had barely over half left. Even if she got the lightest of glancing blows, victory was hers.

"What's the matter, scaredy cat?" She taunted, feeling light headed over her impending victory. Finally she had something she could hold endlessly over Ranma's head.

Ranma casually regained his feet to flick his ponytail back over his shoulder. "Nothin' is the matter. You just lack showmanship." He responded with tired sigh. Bouncing once, he started a slow jog towards her.

Feeling confident, she waited till the last moment to lazily slash across his body, knowing that he would avoid it somehow. The crowd gasped as Ranma vertically leapt over her weapon in a motion too fast to see. Akane realized her mistake too late, she couldn't complete her swing and reset her attack timer before he landed within arms reach. In shock, she felt the first cut on her shoulder the moment she could move freely. Desperately backing away, Ranma stayed right with her, his short blade lashing out repeatedly inside her guard to shave points off her health.

'He's actually hitting me!' She mentally exclaimed in alarm. Akane had felt the virtual pain before while questing and Ranma's individual attacks barely hurt. "I won't lose!" Pushing through the pain, she ignored defense to attack him. She was sure that in this close range he wouldn't be able to dodge and as her kanabo swung forward, but he somehow ducked underneath her blow, and deftly parried it over his head.

Akane's two handed weapons slower attack speed kept her from recovering and left her completely open for Ranma to score a clean hit on her. 'I lost.' She realized despondently looking down at Ranma's golden eyes as the smirking boy shoved his right hand forward. His dagger moved right for her face and she watched in horror as it was about to be shoved directly into her nose.

"Gotcha!" Ranma laughed and his dagger snapped open with a harsh metallic shing to reveal that it was in fact a folding fan with red ribbing.

"Ah!" She screamed in shock, flailing wildly as she stumbled backwards. "Wha— wha— what is that?!" Akane furiously demanded hearing laughter from the players in the stands.

"Isn't it obvious?" The boy with cat whiskers painted on his face gave off a loud haughty laugh and lightly fanned himself. "Surely you didn't think I would pick something so mundane as a dagger!"

Akane's left eye ticked angrily as her fiance continued to act like this whole thing was a joke by bowing and waving to the spectators. She didn't even activate a weapon skill, so furious that she attacked him with pure brute force. Her sideways swing was so fast that its wake kicked up a cloud of dust that covered almost half the arena, completely missing her target. Blinded by rage and dirt, she swung erratically, desperately trying to score any damage against him.

"Mourning Crescent!"Ranma announced a sword skill and Akane never saw the attack that rose up and across her body.

Her kanabo was jerked painfully from her hands to fly upwards high into the air. The cloud that had hidden them vanished in an instant from the wind created, leaving her with her arms partially upraised, and the razor sharp metal leaves of Ranma's tessen hovering a hairs breadth from her nose. Akane didn't even feel the slash that had traced from her right thigh to her neck. Two heavy thumps announced her bisected mace landing, it shimmered briefly before its durability reached zero and exploded into polygonal shards of light.

In the upper left corner of her vision, she saw her health bar drop to the halfway point before stopping. "I lost." She whimpered, a dialog window appearing above them showing the time of the fight and proudly declaring Ranma the winner.


February 5th, Month of White Fir

91 Days since launch

1st Floor, Town of Beginnings

Ranma considered the grand black stone hall containing the Monument of Life to be one of the most wretched places he had ever been. It was inside the Black Iron Palace, a massive complex just to the north of the city center. Constructed from materials that fit the name, it was a heavy oppressive place of reflective black stone and dark iron. The monument sat at the end of the first hall that you entered, the wide black marble block over two meters in height listing every character name currently trapped on Aincrad.

He stood in front of it with Nabiki and easily found where his fiance's name was etched in white lettering. The name underneath Akane's had been scratched through and a short description of how the unfortunate soul had died was carved to the right. Everyday they came to this place, having no other way to tell if Akane was alive or dead. Thankfully, Akane's remained in pristine condition, so they knew that she hadn't met her end yet.

"Let's go." Nabiki interrupted his thoughts, tugging on his sleeve. He nodded, eager to leave as well. Thankfully it was only oppressively quiet today. On other visits they had to contend with the anguished cries of players who had lost friends and loved ones.

Their footsteps echoed loudly, only a handful of others were briefly visiting the hall. The cool air that hung over everything inside the palace gave way to the warmer weather of the courtyard. It helped improve his mood to be out of the gloom but the bitter reality still remained.

Akane had left them, on the day that everyone else remembered fondly. She hadn't said a word, silently leaving their guild. Even going so far as to remove both of them from her friends list, blocking any attempts at communication. The two teens had missed the notifications, too caught up in a special city wide event that had been initiated by someone shortly after his duel with the youngest Tendo had finished, and the ensuing festival that had gathered much of the servers population for a brief respite from the game of death.

A very small yellow icon blinked in the upper right corner of his vision. Already suspecting what it was, he opened the notification, and a line of text appeared in front of him. "Alert, Johto has left the guild."

"He was hitting on me last night." Nabiki remarked sourly. Not paying any attention to the NPC vendors trying to sell their various items as they passed by.

"Didn't know him." Ranma shrugged, having barely been able to keep up with the initial influx of new guild members, and certainly having issues with the rapid dwindling of those same faces.

"Maybe you should have flirted with him a bit, guys like that. Sex appeal, use it if you got it." He suggested jokingly and laced his hands together behind his head. Without the curse he was saved from being the eye candy of their outfit. Not that he wasn't enjoying staying one gender but it was one more thing to remind him that this wasn't real, and outside his body was trapped helplessly somewhere.

"Keep talking and I swear I'll find a way to get someone to splash you on the outside." The middle Tendo sniffed and elbowed him in the side.

"Too late." He snickered, passing underneath a sign indicating the teleport gate was up ahead. "Just think, you could have tricked me into the game as a girl. What if I had been alone? Who knows what would have happened? I could have turned into some strange chick!" He exclaimed dramatically.

"So much wasted opportunity— all that Col." Nabiki gasped in horror. "Well at least you're good for attracting girls who attract the guys. Even if we only make up an eighth of players."

'Odd phrasing.' Ranma raised an eyebrow, curious if she had simply been including herself as one of the females in the game or something else.

"Let's just hurry and head back up." She stepped up onto the rectangular stone platform to stand in the center. "Things to do and Col to make."

"And later, swimming." He excitedly bounced in place next to Nabiki between the pillars at the four corners of the gate. No curse meant no time spent as a girl, which allowed him to enjoy cold water in his birth form for the first time in well over a year.

"Only you would think swimming with barracuda the size of killer whales was a good time."

"Those little guys? They're harmless, you should have seen that big rare that came wandering by."

"You maniac—." Nabiki face palmed at his casual disregard for his own safety. "Did it at least drop any good loot?"

"Oh, just this." He drawled while absently linking her the item.

"We're selling that."

"No, I'm not."

"Yes, I am."

"It's mine."

"And when are you ever going to use it?"

"That's not the point." Ranma pointed both hands to his chest. "I killed the monster, I got the drop; it's mine."

"Alright, you can keep it." Nabiki crossed her arms. "Teleport: Panareze."

'Damn straight I'm keeping it.'

"We'll wait and sell it later when players have more Col." She added as they were consumed by white light to take them up to the twenty fourth floor.


Floor 24, Panareze City

Before the light had cleared from her eyes, Nabiki was already stepping away from the teleport gate. Her face being met by the cool wet breeze off the lake forming the majority of this floor. The city was built on a man made island connected by floating bridges that spread out in all directions to the numerous small islands containing forests with tall trees.

"You can't just sell my things!" Ranma protested, following quickly after her.

"Somebody has to! Like you'd find someone to pay you anything close to its worth." She turned enough to playfully stick her tongue out at him, her boots making resounding clunks on the wood supporting her a dozen meters above the lake below.

Panareze may have been one floor behind the latest level but the majority of clearing players were using it as their base of operations. This was because the twenty fifth floor was proving to be a nightmarish maze with a city that had none of the needed resources to support the players clearing it. The normal floor monsters and the terrain itself was dangerous enough that nearly fifty players had lost their lives finding a path leading to the floor's dungeon.

"This is the reason I never put anything valuable in the guild bank. You'll sell it as soon as you can."

"Valuable does not mean useful! Col is something I can use." She explained, having spent a great deal of currency upgrading the gear for guildmates. After the incident, she made it her guild's priority to have every dedicated player properly set up for their level. She wasn't about to burn out the guild bank providing free gear for players who'd be leaving the next day. If it wasn't for Ranma and a couple others bringing in rare items, as well as a few of their more accomplished crafters, the guild would have been broke from the expenditure.

"Then sell some of your items." Ranma suggested with a grumpy frown, nodding to a group of four walking in the opposite direction.

"Morning." A short man greeted a split second before his companions adding their own.

She nodded to the group as well before continuing. "I'm waiting for the right time." Nabiki turned to take a set of steps further up into the layered city, making a direct route to their destination.

Rushing head first into the jaws of death by fighting a boss wasn't her game. Instead she had raised her sneak skill to be able to avoid fighting through every monster she came across when out gathering information to sell. At a reasonable price of course. There were always lower level players willing to pay for information on the best spots to quest and get useful items. If it wasn't for some beta tester simply giving out similar, if more generalized, field guides, Nabiki would have been one of the wealthiest players on the server. (2)

"Stingy!" Ranma cursed as he opened the door to their destination.

"It's called smart economic planning." She countered, following him into the shop empty save the owner.

"Ahoy! What brings you two my way?" The large black man, Agil, greeted with a friendly wave. "If you're going to try and swindle me again, Nabiki, you can just walk right back out my door." He jokingly told her.

"I know, I know. You're the only one allowed to cheat people under your roof." She smiled toothily and held up her hands in defeat.

"Ha! Maybe if I can hold you to that, one day I might be as feared as you." Agil laughed and slapped the counter he stood behind.

"You could never be so cold-hearted." Ranma disagreed, verbally poking at her. "I can't imagine you tricking someone to jump out of a plane without a parachute." He realized his faux pass as soon as his mouth closed. Speaking about events from the outside world was now considered exceptionally rude, especially among the players desperately attempting to clear the game.

"No, can't imagine I would." The man took it in stride and didn't dwell on Ranma's mix up. Nabiki made a mental note to chide him later on picking his words better.

"I'll get right down to business." She started before Ranma could stick his foot any further into his mouth. "We've had some difficulties with our guild lately."

"Sixteen killed— because you didn't supply them with blue crystals to teleport from danger." Agil distastefully summarized what had sparked so many to abandon her guild.

"That's not true!" Ranma protested loudly before looking away, unable to meet Agil's eyes. "We thought they knew to bring some." He admitted weakly.

She struggled to keep herself composed, quickly reaching up to wipe the wetness away from her eyes. Both she and Ranma had always taken others out together to clear areas and since they were so overleveled neither of them had ever had to worry about monsters becoming too dangerous to handle. Eighteen had set out but only two had been able to make it back out of the dungeon alive.

"Sorry— all I heard were the rumors." The big man's hostility quickly vanished.

"And it won't happen again." Nabiki promised, having been the one to suggest that the large group go clear a dungeon on the twelfth floor. "It can't." She was close enough to clumsily reach out and take Ranma's hand. Her sister's fiance gently squeezed it for support. "We have too many members and not enough leadership to keep watch."

Agil raised an eyebrow. "Are you asking what I think you're asking?"

"You're good at talking with people, a lot better than I usually am. I just end up starting fights whenever we meet to plan for a boss." Ranma laughed nervously and scratched at the back of his head with his free hand. "We could really use your help."

"Was I not good enough to ask before?" The tall man asked curiously.

"We don't seek out new members like the Liberation Corps does, you're the first one we've ever asked." Nabiki answered. "One of the few we trust."

"Hmm." Agil leaned back and scratched at his chin. "I've been trying to stay out of guild business. Too many egos."

"Unfortunately, I'm stuck with the biggest." She squeezed Ranma's hand even as made a show of recoiling from her as though slapped. "But we're here to help as many as we can get out as possible." Nabiki felt a bit odd proclaiming something so antithetical to how she had always acted but it reaffirmed her decision in the wake of getting so many people killed.

"You may just be trying to get rid of competition and to steal a little off the top but alright, I'll join your guild." Agil chuckled to himself while verbally accepting their offer.

'Excellent.' She thought to herself, casually opening the menu to send the official system invite. "It's not so much an acquisition as much as it's a merger." She joked, watching her guild's icon appear next to Agil's name as well as the notification of a new member. "We have a meeting tonight at seven, can you make it?"

"I'll be there." The bald man nodded.

"Thank you." Ranma said sincerely and bowed his head towards the much taller man.

"It's been five seconds, don't thank me yet. Heh, can't believe I just joined a pirate guild." Agil joked, his eyes shifting behind them in response to a bell attached to the door ringing.

"I hope I'm not interrupting anything?" Heathcliff asked upon entering, his calm and measured voice sounding slightly amused. With his wide shoulders and large pauldrons, the impressively built man had to turn sideways to fit through the door. His armor had continued to get more elaborate as they moved up the floors and he now looked like a knight from medieval Europe in red plate. On his back was a long kite shield while a sword hung loosely at his hip.

Following behind him was Asuna the Flash, a girl around Nabiki's own age and height. The girl, with long light brown hair, had made a name for herself helping kill the first floor's boss and continuing to be one of the leading clearers. Unlike Heathcliff, she wore wore light leather armor with a short red skirt and a thin rapier attached to her left hip. She regarded them as though they were lower than her, Nabiki couldn't miss how Asuna lingered on both of their golden eyes.

"Business to my shop is never an interruption." Agil answered, ever the salesman.

"Wonderful." The grey haired man smiled pleasantly. "I was hoping to talk to each of you so this saves time."

"What's up, Heathcliff-san?" Ranma asked, the raven haired teen had got along with the elder. The two seeming to share a common interest exploring the combat systems limitations.

"I've come to request your assistance. Earlier today, the path to the twenty fifth floor's boss was found."

"That's great." Nabiki said with genuine excitement, naively expecting that the boss was dead so she never had to return to that floor ever again.

"It's not great." Asuna replied harshly.

"We barely have enough for a full raid. That is, if— everyone was willing to fight the boss. Six have already headed down to lower levels to give up clearing." Heathcliff summarized gravely.

"I'm in." Ranma volunteered without hesitation.

"If I'm needed." Agil answered with reservation.

Nabiki then found all four pairs of eyes directed towards herself.

"Uh—." Nabiki gulped audibly. She was actually pretty good at dealing with normal monsters, being mostly desensitized to the danger that panicked other players, but she had made it a point to completely avoid any boss fight. Leveling already felt too much like real work, she didn't need to add any more danger to her life.

"She's in." Ranma spoke for her with a huge grin on his face and Nabiki froze up completely.

"A meeting will be held in the morning at nine. We'll discuss what the scouting party found at that time. Until the morrow." Heathcliff nodded cordially as he left the shop, his silver cape billowing behind him. Asuna followed shortly behind him with a curt nod.

"I'm what?!" She screeched at infuriating boy who dared to volunteer her for a dangerous mission. Her loud exclamation sending many of Agil's items crashing to the floor.


The next day

25th Floor, Boss Room Entrance

Nabiki slumped against the crumbling dirt wall outside the ornate black stone gates housing the boss of the dungeon. Even If she couldn't really get dirty and never needed a bath, she still felt miserably filthy after getting this far.

This dungeon maze, with just a single path through, lived up to all the rumors. Traps that could kill you in an instant, poisonous swamps designed to slowly kill adventurers and packs of roaming monsters that could shrug off even the strongest of attacks. More than once, she had thought to use her blue teleport crystal to immediately return home to safety. But for some strange reason she couldn't bring herself to abandon Ranma's side.

Now that she was at their destination, that urge was even stronger than ever. There were over forty players already gathered; the vast majority all clad in the dark grey plate and black cloaks of the Aincrad Liberation Squad. Following behind were the rest of the clearing guilds, a much larger force that was moving more carefully through the maze. The Liberation Squad had charged recklessly through the dungeon, intent on charging into the boss room before anyone else could arrive.

"Ranma, do we really need to be here?" She whispered to her guild's co—leader.

Heathcliff had made it seem like no one was left to defeat the boss but that clearly wasn't the case. Though he had understated how weak morale was at the moment. It seemed only Kibaou, the leader of the Liberation Squad, seemed capable of mustering any drive to continue. Nabiki had witnessed at least twelve players from the gigantic guild fall victim to the deadly traps and monsters just to get to this point, who knows how many more had been lost just to find the correct path through the maze.

"We'll see." Ranma answered as though he had as much reservation about this as her, his sharp eyes scanning over and analyzing the assembled players around him. She watched him casually twirling one of his fans in pent up energy, its brother tied loosely to his belt.

Kibaou was barking orders to his underlings, treating them without any care to what they had gone through to get to this point. "Hurry up and get yourselves together! We're going in as soon as we can!" He bellowed, moving animatedly through the assembled raid.

"There's no need to rush. We should to wait for the others." Heathcliff spoke quietly in challenge to the man.

Kibaou sneered openly at the suggestion. "You're not needed here, old man. And I certainly don't need any of your damn pirates!" He pointed a finger over towards where she and Ranma were sitting. Most of his guild were ignoring the man but more than a few looked over towards them and their golden eyes. A good portion of those were very likely considering their odds in trying to kill them, all desperate to get out of this death game at this point.

"With hair that dumb I gotta give you credit for being brave enough to leave your house." Ranma jokingly replied. "And if you weren't in such a blind stupid rush, nobody would have died getting to this point." He added cuttingly, making Kibaou recoil at the accusation and earning dark looks from his members of his own guild.

The leader of the Aincrad Liberation Squad had orange hair sticking out all directions in triangular spikes, giving the appearance of a cactus. He had a hard, cruel look to his face and spent his time loudly bossing anyone and everyone around. More of a thug than a leader, Nabiki held the same low opinion of the man that Ranma did.

"How dare you talk to me like that!" Kibaou yelled, stomping towards them. "And how dare you make light of our sacrifices!"

"Our? I didn't see you leading the way." Nabiki snorted as she stood up while Ranma remained leaning casually against the wall. "In fact I don't remember seeing you even lose a single hit point."

"Pirate bitch." He spat and made a big show of drawing his right hand across his body to backhand her.

She had heard worse insults hurled at her and wasn't concerned about an unarmed physical attack that would barely be able to shave ten points off her life bar. If he was stupid enough to attack first, he would turn orange and either she or Ranma would freely be able to put him in his place without the same status penalty. Then again, it could start an outright riot, ruining any chance of killing the boss.

Out of the corner of her eye she noticed that the rest of her party, consisting of Heathcliff, Agil, and even Asuna, had moved in close with their hands poised over their weapons. It felt good to have people willing to take her side without blackmailing them into it.

"Are we here to fight each other or get this floor cleared?" She asked loudly enough that everyone in the area would hear. "Seems like this is a lot of wasted energy to me, on a whole lot of nothing."

Kibaou was smart enough to notice that the situation wasn't going his way, so he literally spat on the ground at her feet before storming off towards the doorway. "We'll kill this boss! We don't need anyone else's help, least of all pirates! Get up you lazy bastards! We're going now!"

"Now?" Asuna asked incredulously. The majority of the raid had yet to fully recover their health and were tired from the climb up the dungeon.

"You can't go now; it's suicide!" Agil protested, placing himself between the door and the raid group that was already hesitant to move.

"Out of the way." Kibaou snapped, sidestepping the large man to push the tall obsidian gates open. They swung open with surprising ease, with only the dark black void of an inactive boss room waiting behind. "Forward!"

"What should we do?" Nabiki asked quietly, watching as the underpowered raid filed reluctantly inside.

"Let's wait and see what tactics the boss will use. If they get in trouble, they'll be able to retreat." Heathcliff suggested. Nabiki conceded the wisdom of not rushing to their deaths for people that lacked anything firing between their ears.

Further discussion was silenced when the lights in the boss room suddenly lit up. Braziers high up on the wall bathed everything in light from the blue flames burning within. At the far side of the square platform, a huge two headed giant crouched hunched over; one head regarding the players maliciously while the other looking down at a massive battle ax held in one hand. As the braziers finished coming to life, the freakishly muscular boss lumbered up to a standing position, both heads turning to focus directly on the gathered raid.

Surprisingly, only two bars of health appeared around the boss's shoulders while a status window flashed up just above its four meter tall bulk to announce the name: "The Brute Chief".

"Everyone, charge! It can't target if there is more than one attacking!" Kibaou shouted, holding his long sword above his head.

"Can't target?" Ranma asked suspiciously. Such a limitation would make the encounter trivially easy.

With little coordination between them, the group of forty-two charged the boss in a chaotic mob.

The mess of battle cries and initiated weapon skills were immediately overwhelmed by the deep, resounding roar that Nabiki felt physically push her back from the door. The boss monster followed up its opening roar by slamming it's massive ax down to the floor, sending a shockwave out that knocked the entire raid off their feet.

Nabiki recoiled in surprise, unconsciously hiding behind Ranma when two smaller, single headed giants spawned before her eyes. Each was mostly nude save for a mix of mismatched piecemeal armor; each showing a staggering three health bars. They blocked off the exit and ignored the five of them standing just outside the doorway, instead they charged forward at the raid.

"Watch out! Behind you!" Agil shouted too late.

The monsters crashed into the mass of players, huge double handed weapons cleaving through their ranks. Panicked screams erupted and were immediately silenced as flashes of light could be seen as several players were immediately killed.

"Let's go." Ranma was already gone before Nabiki registered his words, his inhumanly high speed carrying him across the distance in a blur.

"Huh? Wait, Ranma!" She called after him before finding herself the only one left outside of the boss room, the other members to their party having already followed him. "Damn it!" She cursed loudly.


Stabbing his fan into the back of one of the giants as he vaulted over its back, Ranma twisted himself around as he arced over the monster and carved down its front. The ugly brute roared in anger, at the bright red damage lines bisecting its body and the loss of a chunk of its health meter, immediately trying to to target him as soon as he landed. Ranma was able to get two more swift strikes in before having to jump backwards to avoid the giant's furious downwards counter slam. Yelping in surprise, he bounced back further as the arena shook from the impact of the monster's crude stone two-handed mace.

"Hurry and get up!" Ranma shouted, nearly tripping over several Liberation Squad members still trying to recover from the initial attack.

The boss room trembled again as Agil struck the other add monster with a powerful Whirlwind from his two-handed great ax, throwing the giant tumbling end over end.

Ranma was distracted long enough by watching the result of such a strong attack, that he nearly had his chest caved in by the giant he had originally attacked. Sliding into the space between them, Heathcliff intercepted the blow with his kite shield, easily absorbing the blow with barely a hint of damage. Ducking around the much bigger man, Ranma performed a Mourning Crescent that finished taking away the first HP bar.

"Switch with me!" Asuna rushed past him to follow up his attack while he was briefly stunned from using a sword skill. The girl's rapier cut through the air with incredible speed, delivering a series of slashes ending in a thrust directly to the giant's heart, scoring a critical hit. A full bar of health vanished but the monster instantly recovered from the blow that had staggered it.

"Its changing attacks!" One of the Liberation Squad members cried out in alarm.

Holding out its heavy two-handed mace in front of it, the giant began to rapidly spin uncontrollably. With frightening speed it then shot off away towards the largest group of ALF troops, catching the players waiting to attack the other monster unaware. One player vanished immediately in a shower of polygonal shards while the others were thrown to the ground screaming in pain.

Rebounding impossibly off some invisible barrier, the giant came back for a second pass. Two Liberation Squad members stepped in to defend their guildmates, forming a wall with their long shields that the giant slammed into. Blows battered the duo's defense as the giant continued to spin in place, slowly driving them back.

Ranma turned to quickly check what was going on with the other monster. It was being battered by the majority of the Liberation Crops raid group with it's second health bar about to run out. "Hurry up and kill it so we can get out of here!" He shouted over the sounds of battle.

"No!" Kibaou called out, continuing to attack the giant as it's second HP bar finally depleted. "We can win!"

"Asshole." Ranma cursed. The main group was too injured to deal with monsters this strong.

"Watch out!" Someone screamed when the giant broke free of the group about to kill it, crashing through everyone in it's path towards the two holding back the spinning giant. Swinging it's huge two handed ax to the side, it caught a player startled by the surprise charge in the face, cleaving through his head to kill him. Neither of the two defending noticed as the giant descended on them, cleaving through both of them in one attack.

'Ten already dead.' He realized. They hadn't even put a scratch on the boss that was perfectly content to just watch and wait.

"Asuna, Ranma, Agil; with me!" Heathcliff commanded, charging towards the spinning giant as it shot towards the largest group of the players.

The grey haired man caught the giant's whirlwind and slid back a meter before turning his shield to the side and accepting the mace head on. The monster jerked to a stop instantly the moment it was no longer hitting with glancing blows, stunned by it's weapon skill being interrupted.

"Execution!" Agil announced, coming up behind Heathcliff with a swing of his ax that took the giant's head off with a critical hit.

Ranma shot past the pair, with Asuna in tow, towards the remaining giant as it struggled to choose a new target. Sidestepping an upwards diagonal slash, he leapt upwards to do two quick jabs to its chest. He had yet to touch the ground again before it was ready to bring the two-handed ax down on his head. Asuna switched in to perform a four hit combo in the fraction of a second between the monster's attacks, completely stunning it.

"I guess I should help out." Nabiki stealthily appeared behind the monster. Her blade lashed out with three hits that formed a glowing blue triangle in the air. The giant lurched forward and froze a second before it exploded in brightly colored polygons.

"Wow, Nabiki-san. I didn't notice you entering the room." Asuna complimented the middle Tendo sister's stealth.

"She shouldn't even be here." Ranma glared at Nabiki. "It's way too dangerous, get out before anymore of those things spawn."

"I'm not the only one! You idiots are going to get yourselves killed in here!" She yelled at him.

"Not as quick as you will!" He yelled back at her.

"It's coming, the boss is up!" Some guy from the ALS yelled right before Ranma felt the powerful knockback from the boss slamming its weapon down onto the platform again.

The next thing he knew, he was laying in a tangled heap with Nabiki, head ringing like a bomb had gone off next to it. Struggling to get untangled, he fought against the status effect that restricted his movement. When it finally released him, screams filled his ears as the boss' giant great-ax was brought down, killing three players in one blow. Scrambling on all fours, he was up and rushing towards the boss before anyone else was on their feet.

"Over here, you ugly two-faced bastard!" Ranma shouted as loud as he could. One of its heads turned to look at lock onto him and the giant body slowly followed. "That's it, come get me!" He shouted and bounced around, waving his arms over his head. 'Good thing it's slow; I could dodge this guy all day.'

Just before the Brute Chief got within attack range, it raised its gargantuan ax over its head and brought it down to slam against the floor once more. Ranma was knocked flat on his back again, the closer proximity dealing a much stronger status debuff causing his vision to blur and head swim. Muffled shouted was the next thing he knew; with someone quickly pulling him to his feet.

"It has to be tanked." Agil's voice explained as his vision slowly cleared.

"Good to know." Ranma stood his head beginning to clear and swayed briefly.

Heathcliff stood in front of the boss, expertly blocking every blow from the bosses immense ax. The Chief was slow and easy to predict but every hit sent out a shockwave that knocked back anyone around it. ALS members swarmed like yapping dogs around the giant, attacking without any coordination and getting in each others way.

"Here, you took a good hit." Nabiki handed him a crystal vial with a red liquid inside.

'I did.' He realized in shock, his health had dropped below forty percent. The ten seconds it took for the sweet liquid to do its work felt like an eternity. "I'm good now." He drew out his war fan, preparing to help finish this boss.

As the bosses health was reduced to a single HP bar, the two-headed giant rocked back on it's heels and let out a deep roar, mirroring the beginning of the encounter. As it trailed off, the monster fell into a deep crouch while two more adds appeared at the bosses side.

"Regroup!" Kibaou tried to shout over the clamor of weapons and players shouting.

The initial charge didn't catch the raid as off guard this time but there was still one burst of light as someone met their end. Agil immediately returned to the fray, defenses being hastily raised to deal with the high incoming damage.

"Nabiki, are you seriously not going to leave?" He asked in concern, having only suggested she come as a joke and certainly not to get her involved in anything like this.

"Not without you— I guess." She admitted in a weird tone of voice.

"Fine. Stick to the boss and see if you can hurt it. Just make sure you keep your eye out for that whirling thing." He worriedly ordered, glancing at the entrance where the rest of the clearing guilds had finally caught up but were locked out. Only a certain amount of players could enter the room per encounter to stop rotating out for fresh players. "Be careful." He added.

"You're telling me that?" She asked incredulously.

"We'll argue about this later." Ranma curtly remarked and closed the distance to where an add wielding an ax was quickly being killed, purposely leaving the other in case it would switch to the whirlwind attack once again. Falling into a chain of attacks with Agil and Asuna, the giants health dropped so rapidly the other raid members stood back, forgetting to move to the next monster.

Coming to a brief stop after his last attack, he was already trying to find where the other monster was, ignoring the mesmerized players. 'No skill and they don't know how to work together. The only thing they can do here is die.'

"The boss is up!" Nabiki's panicked voice cut through the sounds of weapons, armor, and shouting.

"It can't attack if there's more than one." He whispered in realization, they should have taken out the two adds at the same time. Nabiki was putting distance between herself and the boss before it had even decided on a target. One of the ALS members stepped up to be in range of the boss, Kibaou quickly ordered the rest of his guild to ignore the smaller monster to swarm the giant and finish it off quickly.

"The add!" Heathcliff yelled as the smaller monster suddenly gave up breaking itself against the man's shield, turning to head for a random player. The guild looked tired as they desperately tried to finish the fight that they were slow to react, stumbling away in a panic, three more players being killed before it could be brought back under control.

Ranma's party was regrouping around Heathcliff, who was preparing to relieve the ALF tank struggling against the bosses heavy blows. Every one of the ALS members was struggling to stay alive, some so low on health that minor glancing blows would kill them. While his party was all close to full health. Which made Ranma respect Heathcliff even more, as the man had yet to drop below eighty percent health, even though he was tanking every hit he could.

Not even twenty ALF members were still alive; an exhausted eleven were slowly finishing the smaller giant off while the remaining eight stayed back to recover. Everyone should have left long ago but after losing so many, Ranma would no longer accept defeat either.

A scream from the ALF tank keeping the boss under control was all the warning they got before he was thrown aside, his body breaking into polygons at the apex of his flight.

"Let's go." Asuna commanded, the girl slightly out of breath.

Heathcliff, Asuna's guild leader, accepted the order without complaint, rushing forward with a shield charge skill to catch the boss before it could perform any area of effect attacks. The giant's downward knockback smash was intercepted by Heathcliff's kite shield held high over his head. A heavy shockwave violently shook the room, nearly sending the braziers of blue flame hanging around the outside tumbling to the floor.

Ranma was the next to reach the boss, letting loose with half a dozen strikes to the giant's stomach. Agil stepped in afterwards to hack at the monster's knees like a lumberjack while Asuna appeared behind its neck in a burst of speed to trail jabs and slashes as she fell to the floor.

Crouched near the giant's feet, Ranma leapt up the boss's great height, his blade raking up the monster's chest. Reversing his grip as he landed between between the two necks, he completed his combo, leaving a bright blue trail of light cutting through the giant's twin heads.


February 7th, Month of White Fir

93 Days since launch

Floor 24, Panareze City

Still wearing her pajamas, Nabiki stepped out onto the balcony overhanging the lake below. Fully awake thanks to the in-game alarm clock, she sipped on some strange brew of tea and leaned on the railing to take in the grand sunrise that was visible through the space between the castle's floors. The bottom of the next floor was always hanging above as an artificial ceiling. It was high enough that some clouds would occasionally obscure it. The outer edges of each floor were left open to a beautifully simulated sky rotating around the giant floating castle of Aincrad.

'Another wonderful, fake day.' She toasted the false sun shining over the various islands and all encompassing lake. The home she rented with Ranma wasn't the largest or the nicest but, like all the others, it was perched on the edge of the city platform giving them a grand view. She was able to get one that was two stories, with an extra room in case Akane ever decided to be reasonable and return to them.

Nabiki didn't need to look up, her high perception skill allowing her to notice Ranma above her. The other occupant to the home was perched on the ledge of the roof, silently looking out at the water. "Morning." She greeted somberly.

"Already?" He asked in mild confusion.

"Have you been up there all night?" Nabiki went back to her tea while waiting for him to respond.

"Not all night." Ranma slipped silently from the roof to land on the balcony.

"The next clearing guild meeting will be at noon." She said rhetorically, information that he would already know. "Go get some sleep before then."

"I'll be able to sleep later. Right now— could I go over what I want to say with you?" He asked timidly, obviously embarrassed to ask for her help.

"Well, considering how it's going to affect my guild, I would hope so." She answered teasingly, putting her tea down on the railing so she could plant both hands on her hips.

"No charge?" Ranma asked with a shy hopeful grin, rubbing at the back of his neck.

"I'm sure I'll come up with something." She answered slyly, just to keep appearances.


26th Floor

Like other floor openings before it, the clearing guilds spent little time exploring the new city except to open the teleport gate, and locate the town hall. Ranma was in no mood for it either, heading directly to the meeting point to sit down with Nabiki immediately taking the spot to his right, and Agil at his left. Available spots were quickly vanishing as chosen representatives from all the clearing guilds filed into the building.

The buildings in this new city appeared deceptively large and spacious but, inside, they were anything but. Even the largest building in the city, the town hall, failed to have enough seats for all the guild representatives in always preferred it that way when attending these things; when anyone and everyone could show up, it often devolved into a shouting match between two hundred egos and nothing was accomplished.

Even when it seemed like all the representatives had arrived, no one looked eager to speak up first and break the somber mood.

Ranma had only been witness to the boss fight, so he hadn't known that another twelve Aincrad Liberation Squad members had died just on the march to the boss , on top of the twenty killed in the battle itself, made it the single most deadly day for the clearers since the first boss fell.

Kibaou, the fool who had caused the massacre, was to the first one bold enough to leave his seat and address the group. "So— uh, I just wanted to say—." He started before Ranma rudely cut him off.

"Nobody cares!" Standing up as he yelled out, Ranma breathed heavily through his nose as he jumped over another teen boy sitting in front of him, landing next to the ALS leader. "After what you did, do you really think any of us care what you have to say?" Getting right up in Kibaou's face, the slightly shorter man instinctively backed away from the sudden verbal attack.

He heard quiet murmurs of agreement and louder ones telling the cactus haired man to get out.

Kibaou looked to the group, with his eyes darting fearfully about, before he tried to find his spine. "I got the job done; that's what happened! Over the dead bodies of my men, you stole our glory!"

"Your raid was already on it's last leg when you decided that you had to be first!" Agil called out against Kibaou. "If it wasn't for us, you would have been dead to the last man."

It was the first time he had seen the large man actually get angry and Ranma was happy to have him on his side. Being one of the largest and most distinctive characters in the game, Agil's voice alone was more imposing that most of the teens trying to play soldier, like Kibaou.

"You stole every last hit bonus; every bit of experience! No surprise, from a bunch of pirates!" Even though he was trying to sound bold, Kibaou looked desperately around at the other guild representatives; for anyone to agree with him. Unfortunately for the orange haired man, the rest of the clearing forces had arrived at the boss room just in time to see him doggedly refusing to retreat his men to safety.

"These pirates are the only reason you're alive." Nabiki stood up on top of her seat to gain prominence, responding evenly to his accusation that they had only helped out to steal those bonuses. Being one of only four women in the room, her voice cut through the cacophony of whispers and demands as much as Agil's did. Turning to address the crowd, she asked up, "After what he did, are any of you insane enough to be in a party with him?"

At Nabiki's question, the crowded room quickly fell silent as everyone in attendance seriously considered the implication. It was one thing to talk about losing the support of the Aincrad Liberation Squad; openly calling their leader out to be ostracized was another. They were the largest guild by hundreds of members and held an incredibly amount of power.

"To hell with you all!" Kibaou declared hatefully, his mouth turned back into a sneer; preempting anyone from calling for his departure. Loudly stomping his plate boots against the wooden floor during his exit, most guilds didn't even look at him as he left but Ranma watched him the entire way.

Unfortunately, while no one much liked Kibaou, he was the most vocal voice pushing everyone to continue clearing the levels and was considered an unofficial leader for the clearing guilds. Ranma became acutely aware of how eyes were starting to fall upon him as he stood out in the only open space in the room.

Gulping, Ranma realized that they were waiting and many likely hoping that he would be the one to replace Kibaou to take up the cause.

Armor sliding and clanking against itself drew eyes to Heathcliff as the powerfully built man rose to step forward with Asuna at his side. The man's armor was different today, a bright crimson with white or silver accents. Asuna as well had replaced hers with a set that was white with red accents, a skirt wrapping around the back of her legs down to her knees.

"Friends— we all suffered a great setback yesterday but I believe we are stronger now that our nose has been bloodied." The grey haired man grandly addressed the hall before turning to look directly at him with his brass colored eyes. "Ranma, will you help me lead the way to freedom? A combination of your guild and mine, The Knights of the Blood Oath, would be a powerful force; one that an unorganized mess like the ALS could never hope to match."

Ranma was frozen in shock at the sudden request, while whispers broke out instantly and loud questions about this newly created guild. Heathcliff, being as well known as he was, had always remained unaffiliated with any single group. He didn't miss that the recently somber and confrontational mood of the room had shifted to one that was more hopeful. A combination of his guild and the players Heathcliff worked with, would be far stronger than the ALS could have ever been.

So, it hurt that he had to dash it to pieces. "Can't." Ranma admitted quietly.

"What?" Heathcliff asked in annoyed surprise, clearly having expected him to jump at the chance.

"Nabiki and I have decided that the Emperor's Children will— not be taking part in any clearing until we are sure that— incidents like yesterday won't happen again." He nearly messed up the prepared line, feeling many of the players start to look at him with the same distaste as Kibaou had received.

"You're going to turn your back on us?" Asuna asked in disbelief. The other teen had always been exceptionally hard and driven to clear but had actually warmed up to Ranma and Nabiki after they had help make the difference yesterday.

"We will—." His voice failed him briefly, having to swallow his pride and turn away from a fight. "We will provide all the help we can, our crafters will provide discounts to any one of you on equipment, potions, and crystals." Ranma struggled to recall the rest, wanting to leave and crawl into an impossibly deep hole rather than be the focus of everyone's attention.

"That's regrettable." Heathcliff's voice was filled with disappointment and Ranma found that he didn't like the feeling of letting these players down, to leave them to the dangers of the front line.

"It is." Nabiki took the steps to reach the floor and came up to stand next to him, reaching out to take one of his hands in support. "We can't expect anyone from the outside to come and help us and our greatest asset— that we have to protect the most— is each other. Neither of us wants to stop climbing— to put off our lives anymore than they have been. We just feel that a slower pace, with more preparation, is the way we should proceed."

"We're sorry— and wish you all the luck in the world." Ranma bowed his head towards the assembled group respectfully before as they had scripted, before they calmly made their way from the room. He didn't care to listen to the ensuing chaos but Heathcliff's voice rose only once and then it quieted. 'That guy will be able to do it, but I just can't be the leader they're looking for.'

"You two really know how to make a scene." Agil commented after catching up to them.

"Kicking someone when they're down will do that." Ranma answered, having serious second thoughts to the direction he had decided to take. In the heat of battle, he had completely set aside his feelings on witnessing each of the ALS deaths. As his adrenaline had left him, he could do nothing but replay the shattering of their digital avatars and their screams of terror through his mind, over and over.

"Well, then— where do we head from here?" The large dark skinned man asked.

'That's a good question.' He admitted to himself. As the reality of this false world slowly settled in, he found himself making a lot of uncomfortably big decisions.


March 2nd, Month of the Yew

485 Days since launch

48th Floor, Lindas City

Letting the door swing closed behind her, Nabiki stepped into the blacksmith's shop with a pleasant smile gracing her lips. The city had a quaint Bavarian village feel to it; spacious, with an abundance of canals being endlessly churned by water wheels that every home seemed to posses. It had immediately become the home for any crafting profession that needed large machinery to produce items and being that her guild had a significant number of crafters, Nabiki found herself here often.

"Welcome to Lisbeth's Smith Shop. How may I help you?" An NPC girl standing behind the main counter stated upon her entrance, running through it's programmed greeting .

"Is the owner in?" Nabiki asked, idly inspecting the weapons inside a glass case.

"I will see if she is accepting patrons." The NPC girl bowed respectfully before dutifully marching her way into the back.

'Hmm, that one looks nice.' She thought, looking at an elegantly crafted wakizashi laying next to a deep red scabbard. 'I'll have to ask for its stats.'

"Is there something I can help you with?" A different voice cut into her musings. Stepping through the curtain to the back room was a girl with short pink hair, bangs pinned to one side of her pink eyes, and wearing a red maid themed dress.

'Pretty.' Nabiki quickly sized up the owner of the shop. Physically a couple years younger than her but a players age on Aincrad no longer meant much after being trapped here for over a year.

The girl gasped and quickly rushed out from behind the counter to bow to her. "Welcome to my shop, Nabiki-san. My name is Lisbeth and I'm at your service."

"Thank you for such an enthusiastic greeting." She answered the girls flustered reception in amusement, nodding her head to the girl.

"Wha— what can I do for you?"

"I was just in the neighborhood." She answered absently, her eyes returning once again to the wakizashi that could make a perfect replacement for her current one. "And I saw that your shop had recently opened, so I thought I would come out and see the competition for my smiths."

"Hopefully I'm up to the task." Lisbeth summoned up a menu over the case and a moment later the weapon Nabiki had had her eyes on appeared in the blacksmith's hands. "Do you mind if I inspect your blade?"

"Not at all." Nabiki enjoyed talking to this girl much more than the flustered one who had first appeared. Handing over her wakizashi, Lisbeth allowed her to inspect the one from the case. 'Not the best stats for me but it would be a slight upgrade. Although it wouldn't be worth the cost without more done to it.' She quickly dismissed the idea of purchasing the skillfully crafted blade.

"This is from a boss." Lisbeth whispered, with a hint of reverence in her voice, while inspecting the pearly white blade.

"The twenty fifth, actually." She volunteered, having gained it from a last attack bonus against one of the add monsters. It had taken a month to raise her stats enough to be able to equip the item drop and she had since reinforced it in order to keep the item relevant, up until now.

"Unacceptable!" The pink haired girl announced and quickly switched weapons with her once again before pausing. "Um— were you looking to buy something? Even with metal prices being so high, I'm sure I could craft you a superior blade for the best possible price."

"Truth be told, I was looking to order a gift."

Lisbeth narrowed her eyes suspiciously and absently put the wakizashi back in the display case. "Why not ask one of your own blacksmiths?"

"Secrecy. There are only four in my guild capable of producing what I'm interested in. While I trust that they would be discreet, I'm sure rumors would spread and ruin the surprise."

"I may be able to accommodate you." The blacksmith summoned up a list of items she could craft. "If you tell me what you want, I can tell you the cost."

"You've spent a lot of time acquiring recipes." She noted, impressed with the selection as she casually scrolled through the list. "As expected of someone who does business with Asuna." Nabiki slyly remarked.

"I— I didn't know you two knew each other." Lisbeth took the reveal of her dealings well, her voice only cracking at the start.

"We occasionally quest together." Nabiki hadn't dealt with a crafter outside of her guild in some time, so it was refreshing to have a new face to deal with. Of course, the girl would have to know that she could drive her out of business and back out on the street again if Nabiki felt that she was being cheated. 'It was just that one time and he deserved it.'

"I've known her for some time." Her hand came to a halt on a set that would be perfect. "Do you have the material for this?"

Lisbeth quickly checked the recipe from her side, where it would show the required ingredients. "Not all— and it will take four weeks to craft the silver borous ore into usable ingots.

"And to get the rest?" Nabiki asked, not happy about the long wait. These were uncommon items, though, and she didn't want to risk requesting the materials from her own guild.

"I can't make them. I'll need to contact someone with the sewing skill." The blacksmith admitted. "No matter what, this will be an expensive order. Some of these mats, I have only two or three of; they are incredibly rare."

"That's alright. If you get started on the ore, I'll get you the rest." Nabiki knew that to keep it out of guild, she would need to go to Ashley, another crafter located in this city and see if she would be willing to do the work.

"Ah! Don't you want to know how much it'll cost?" Lisbeth asked in concern.

"I've been saving." She waved off the younger girl's question. "And I know you wouldn't gouge me on the price—." Nabiki left the implication hanging, giving the girl a polite bow of her head before leaving to go speak with Ashley for the rest of the ingredients.


May 2nd, Month of the Olive

543 Days since launch

Floor 57, Marten City

"Someday, I would like to visit Italy." Nabiki commented, the fingers of her left hand laced together with Ranma's. "Or is it more like France?" She asked, strolling along the lamp lit street with the raven haired boy. Publicly she kept to the taboo of never speaking about the real world but when alone with him, she would sometimes break it.

"It's both, I think." He looked around in thought at the buildings and road bathed in a soft gold light from the tiny flames burning inside glass lamps. "Maybe Spanish?"

'If we get out, I'll be sure to make us enough money to go and see.' She promised. The floors of Aincrad were so varied in location that it was like she was traveling the world and she wondered if it would be as amazing to see what had inspired the sights in person.

"What's with the new armor?" Ranma asked foxily, having noticed hours ago that she had picked up a new set.

"You don't like?" She asked in mock hurt. It was a blue sleeveless dress that reached just above her knee with a second longer skirt that only covered the back of her left leg. A white dou style chest protector with golden accents covered her upper body. Her gloves were fingerless white silk with little articulated metal bands that ran from her knuckles to her elbow. Nabiki's boots matched her gloves, with a small heel and reached up to her knees.

"I just wanted to know the reason." A small amount red colored his cheeks as he admitted to checking her out. "Or why you haven't let me check our inventory all day." He suddenly pulled her close against him.

"Why do you think?" She asked sarcastically, turning herself to the side enough to open her menu. "You have no patience, I swear."

"Just with you." He teased, his free hand wrapping around to rest at the topmost curvature of her hip.

"In that case, let me give it to you, now." She slid through her inventory before settling on her recently purchased item, and summoned it into her hands. Gift wrapping in Aincrad was quite simple but it did nothing to hide the contents from him if he bothered to inspect it.

"In public?" Ranma asked in mock shock, letting her go to take the package, and to go through the few options to remove the wrapping paper.

"I should slap you." Nabiki watched as the gift wrap vanished and Ranma caught the new war fans that dropped into his hands.

"Wow, these are great." He hadn't even checked the stats before equipping them. The golden light from the street lamps was reflected perfectly off the silver polished to a mirrored finish.

"I got them but you're responsible for any upgrades."

She knew that his old set were at their limit. Several clearing guilds were openly pestering him to return to the front lines and to bring the dozen guildmates who he had personally trained along. It had been their goal to help develop players capable of dealing with the horrors of the front lines. And now they were at the point where none of them could progress any further without joining the others at the cutting edge of content.

"Happy birthday." She clasped her hands in front of her, feeling immensely happy at his reaction to her gift.

"Thanks, Nabiki." Ranma smiled brightly, stepping away into the mostly empty street to experimentally swing his new blades, and feeling how the new stats affected his abilities.

"Quit bouncing around like an idiot, you've got an image to maintain." She grabbed him to pull him down the street. "And I'm getting hungry."

"Food, right!" He exclaimed with bubbly excitement, wrapping an arm around her waist again. "I didn't even know you knew when my birthday was." The raven haired boy brought up.

"I always remember important days to make Col on." She answered, remembering how she had manipulated her sister and the other two fiances for her own ends in Nerima. While she still understood the reasons she had selfishly done those things, she couldn't fathom why she would. "And you won't need to surprise me with anything. You'll be getting a detailed list of everything I want." She explained and he froze in place, clearly imagining some great task he'd have to undertake to make the Col necessary.

"A list, huh?" He leaned over and kissed her softly on the cheek.

For a moment she let herself wish that the simple but fulfilling life she had built was reality. "So you can't get killed before then." She had never thought she would be so concerned for anyone, let alone someone like him. 'You can't leave me alone, not after we just got married.'


May 31st, Month of the Olive

572 Days since launch

Floor 59, Danac Village

Enjoying the wonderful summer weather that this floor currently offered, Ranma only half listened to Nabiki and Agil discussing how the dark skinned man could make the most of his recently looted items. Another floor had just been cleared and Agil had taken part in the activities. No one had been lost in the boss fight or the long march through the dungeon to get to the end, so there would likely be a big get together tonight to celebrate.

Even so, it wouldn't be as big as the last one nor the one from six months ago. While many players were still fervent to reach and clear the hundredth floor, the majority of the population only wanted to hear about the new city that had just opened up to them.

'Hasn't even been two years.' Running his fingers through the long blades of grass surrounding him, he could understand why they had forgotten about the real world because he was starting to forget as well. Even the constant physical restrictions that he had to fight tooth and nail against no longer seemed as harsh. Had he ever been able to do half the physical feats he remembered?

"Hey, Ranma, this would be perfect for you." Nabiki put a hand on his shoulder and showed him the dialog box for a new piece of chest armor.

"How much?" He casually asked Agil, who had won the item by defeating the floor boss. It would be another nice upgrade, to match the new tessen set that Nabiki had recently given him.

A familiar girl's voice chose that moment to chime in, before the bald man could answer Ranma's question. "For something you didn't earn? I hope that XP leech breaks your wallet."

Ranma slowly turned around to see a small group of players leaning on the simple wood fence that followed along the road leading out of town. He didn't immediately remember the vaguely familiar voice; however, he instantly recognized the short haired girl he had once been engaged to.

Akane, like everyone else, hadn't physically aged a day since entering the game. Her entire demeanor though, that had shifted to one of extreme confidence; from the way she stood, with both hands planted firmly on a fence post, to her proud smirk. Like the two boys and one girl orbiting around her, she wore dark blue heavy plate armor over a black foundation layer. Strapped to her back was a massive spiked kanabo that was so long it nearly dragged on the ground.

"Akane." He breathed, feeling Nabiki grip his arm tightly, a confusing mess of feelings welling up in his chest.

"You know them, Oni-hime?" The boy nearest to Akane asked in a very familiar and dismissive tone.

"Who doesn't know the cowardly pirates that fled from the front lines?" A man in his twenties asked with a smirk.

"Agil, why didn't you mention that Akane was cohorting with such riff raff?" Nabiki turned and asked the dark skinned man in shock.

"Leave me out of this." Agil held up his hands and laughed nervously. He was the one who had spent the most time around the frontlines. "You just asked me how she was."

"It's not a problem." Ranma regarded the small party accompanying Akane with open disdain.

He had heard the rumors circulating that detailed Akane showing up at the front lines and becoming something of a celebrity. Being female set her apart from over ninety percent of the clearing players; that she was an incredibly skilled fighter rivalling all the elites only increased her popularity. What really drew Ranma's ire was that Akane had purposely avoided any contact with him or Nabiki, going so far as to leave the frontline if either of them would show up.

"An apology would be a good place to start." Nabiki crossed her arms irritably.

"You have some nerve asking me for an apology." Akane scoffed and her party laughed to themselves like they were in on a joke.

"Why are you here?" He asked softly, having spent the better part of a year searching for her. Now that he could see she was alive and well, Ranma wanted nothing to do with Akane after the pain she had caused.

"You're holding a tournament on the fifth; we want in." Akane declared, jumping over the short fence to stalk towards them, her party falling in step around her.

"Buy in is fifty thousand Col each, but seeing as you asked so nicely; that'll be a hundred each." Nabiki answered coldly.

"You can forget it!" He snapped, stepping between the two sisters. "Your Col is no good here."

Akane froze mid step, her eyes narrowing into dangerous little slits at being rebuked. "Are you afraid to face me— Ranma-kun?" She asked slowly.

"If you wanted a rematch, you should have just asked— but the answer is no." Ranma didn't know what kind of game his former fiance was playing but he really wanted no part of it. Nabiki leaned in close to his side and put a comforting hand between his shoulder blades.

Across from them, Akane face became extremely strained, and flushed a dark shade of red. "I knew you were a coward, but— mercenaries like you refusing money?" She snarled, hands clenching repeatedly. At her side, Akane's party members stood uncomfortably waiting for some order from their leader.

"No, it's okay." Nabiki openly disagreed with his dismissal of Akane's party. "One hundred thousand each— just so everyone can see how pathetically childish you've always been, when you lose— again."

'Damn it, Nabiki! Let me make a decision for once!' Ranma fumed over his wife completely ignoring what he had said. "Fine. You heard her."

"Pay 'em." Akane spat, roughly shoving a party member forward. "I have better things to do."

Ranma's resolve nearly crumbled as he once again watched Akane walk out of his life. As quickly as the urge to stop her came, it was gone. "You sure about letting her into the tournament?" He whispered to Nabiki, squeezing her free hand as she accepted the trade for the entrance fee.

"You're not the only one who wants to rain on her parade." Nabiki smirked as her eyes glinted cruelly at the nervous boy in front of her.

'If that's how the brackets work out.' He just nodded. Making a mental note to talk with Dolmez when he created the tournament structure; to be sure Nabiki didn't fix it so that she had an easy path to her sister. They had to be fair but, more importantly, he wanted to be the one who faced off against Akane.


June 5th, Month of the Fig

577 Days since Launch

61st Floor, Selmburg Duel Arena

Ranma surveyed the floating billboard displaying the tournament bracket for his level range. There were two large domed rotundas for the arena; the one he was in now was designated only for competitors while the other would be for spectators. The other room would mirror this one, with notification windows detailing all the participants and which group they fell into. Dolmez, their guild officer in charge of running the tournament, had just posted the brackets and only a handful of competitors had yet to arrive.

Even though he was no longer active on the frontlines, due to his heavy training schedule, he and four of his students were in the most elite class. Only twenty players occupied his bracket: three from Knights of the Blood Oath, two from Fuurinkazan, Akane with one of her guildmates and the rest made up of players he didn't recognize.

Each bracket was broken up into five level increments to keep the duels as fair as possible. The majority of the players sat somewhere in the middle of the pack, so many that his bracket wouldn't see any action until two days from now.

"These brackets are so much bigger than usual." He idly commented to Nabiki, ignoring the excited conversations happening around him. Usually, these tournaments only brought in half this number of players.

"Oh? That should make you feel better when you're making love to the couch until the hundredth floor is cleared." Nabiki informed him in an overly saccharine tone.

"I had nothing to do with it!" He protested vehemently, waving his hands defensively. Dolmez had been discreet with Ranma's request; setting up the bracket so that he would meet Akane before Nabiki could. (3)

"Oh, really? That's how you're going to play this?" She asked, like he was the biggest idiot in the world.

"No— but hey look, it's Heathcliff-san!" He quickly left his wife's side to go visit the only other unique skill user in Aincrad. The KOB guild leader was standing with his three subordinates, creating an imposing group of white and red armor. "Right on time to see the brackets." He called out jovially.

"Good morning, Ranma-san." Heathcliff greeted with a nod of acknowledgement. "Congratulations on the impressive turnout."

"Thanks." He answered proudly before being forcibly yanked down to Nabiki's eye level by his ear. "Ouch! Ouch! Nabiki, don't do that!" He whined, even though he didn't feel any real pain. "Be more gentle!"

"That ship has sailed, you'll be lucky to have ears when I'm done with you." Nabiki hissed before turning a bright smile towards the KOB members. "Hi! Thanks for coming." She greeted sweetly.

"What's he done now?" Asuna asked dourly, giving him a dark glare.

"Something he'll regret." Nabiki answered tiredly. "Hey, Asuna, you don't happen to have your claws in that black swordsman yet, right? I think I want to trade in my model Ranma for a younger option."

The light brown haired girl's face was instantly covered in a blush as she stuttered denials. "Me and Kirito? Don't be ridiculous!"

"Oh, good! He seems pretty cute and the whole dark loner thing has a certain marketable mystique." Nabiki giggled to herself in a highly suggestive tone. Asuna sputtered impotently, trying to come up with something to dissuade Nabiki of her false intentions towards the black swordsman.

'Nothing I say is going to help.' Ranma groaned and covered his face with his hands.


June 8th, Month of the Fig

580 Days since Launch

61st Floor, Selmburg Duel Arena

Ranma's boots crunched on the gravel floor of the arena as he made his way out of the gateway. Selmburg's arena was a long oval shape that hung out over the watery floor. A half circle amphitheater rose up on the city side, providing seating for five hundred spectators. Judging by the deafening cheer that rose up at his arrival, it was a full house.

Almost lazily, he raised his right hand to wave at the crowd. Hiding the nervousness that bubbled up in his stomach seeing Akane approaching him. Wearing the same bulky plate armor in blue, she was in stark contrast to his much lighter red themed layered leather armor. With the nearly unlimited options available he had kept his sense of style from home, keeping to reds and blacks. His armor was always minimal and with the samurai aesthetic.

'Does she even remember home?' He wondered, seeing nothing of the Akane he remembered.

"For some reason I was expecting you to find a way out of this." Akane looked up and scanned the stands. She unslung her long weapon from her back to plant the business end of the mace in the dirt before her. "Stupid of me, I know. You'd never pass up the opportunity to show off." She shrugged as though it was an inconsequential detail.

"Nabiki isn't happy with me setting this up." He glanced at his wife watching from one of the closest seats. If she could, she would be chewing her fingernails off in worry.

"She'll get over it, not like she's ever had feelings to hurt." Akane blurted out callously.

His eyes narrowed into dangerous slits.

"It's so cute how you two carry on like a real couple. I've heard a lot of rumors about how you two act. But you've always been such an easy mark, she always had you wrapped around her little finger." Akane continued snidely, her voice full of contempt. "And once again you actually think she cares about you. You sucker."

"You certainly never did." He felt better after saying it but couldn't stop himself from continuing. "You left us both without a word. Threw a childish tantrum because you couldn't get your way. So what if I didn't just let you win? As if you should feel proud of an accomplishment you didn't earn."

Akane grew angrier with every word until she was visibly shaking.

Ranma's anger evaporated at the realization of how much he had obsessed over her choice to leave. "Every day we checked the Monument of Life because it was the only way for us to know you were alive. For an entire year! How often did you think about finding us? At least letting us know you were okay?"

His tirade ended as the duel confirmation screen popped up in front of him. He had been so caught up in getting out his frustration that he hadn't noticed Akane initiating the prompt. Absently he nearly hit accept without looking at the conditions. She had set the duel mode to total loss, where the winner would only be decided by reducing one of their HP's to zero. If he accepted this, one of them would not be walking out of this arena.

He should have immediately moved to decline the duel but instead he hesitated. "Is this really what you want?" Ranma asked slowly, refusing to meet his former fiancees eyes.

"You've always treated me like a joke. Never taking me seriously! Not that day we met and not when you humiliated me in front of the world!" Akane's hands gripped her kanabo tightly enough to create an audible creak of the leather grip. "Today— you will take me seriously— or I'll kill you." She stated resolutely, barely able to hide the edge of desperation in her voice.

"I never could make you happy, Akane." He sighed, having difficulty remembering why he had ever tried, and calmly let his finger fall on to the prompt.


Author Notes

1 - Quest to unlock the Martial Arts extra skill. The NPC who gives it draws whiskers on a players face until they complete the quest.

2 - That player would be Argo.

3 - The thing to take away from this, is that Nabiki was the lesser evil to upset than Ranma.

Rushing Crash - Requires blunt two hand weapon. high speed charge ending in a horizontal attack

Mourning Crescent - Requires a single or dual set of war fans. Upwards diagonal slash that produces a strong gust of wind

Whirlwind - Requires two handed ax. Powerful swing from bottom-right to top left and causes an impact great enough to knock back a boss and create an impact that will shake the area


Boss Information

The Brute Chief

Boss has two HP bars and is able to attack when there are less than two adds on the field. At the beginning of the fight it will do a knockback before summon two heavy adds with three HP bars apiece. Adds will randomly dump their threat table.

Once one of these adds is defeated the boss will become active, attacking until it's first HP bar is depleted at which point it will summon two more adds. When only a single add remains or the boss reaches half of it's last HP bar, it will return to an active state until defeated.

The information the ALS had was correct but referred to the Boss adds, not players.


Ranma

Weapon - two tessen folding fans

Guild - Emperor's Children, Sub-Leader

Started with one then later gained duel wield for daggers and kept a second in plain sight as a fan hanging from his belt. Only used the first as a dagger since he didn't need the defensive capability and grew secretive enough by the time he received the skill that he waited to reveal it.

Unique skill - Hard Counter, upon parrying an attack, Ranma's next attack is a guaranteed critical hit, ignoring all types of damage mitigation


Months

January - Oak Moon

February - White Fir

March - Yew

April - Sakura

May - Olive

June - Fig

July - Palm

August - Birch

September - Weeping Cherry

October - Ash Tree

November - Cypress

December - Holly