The Call of The World
by rkOujirou

Author's note: This is an alternate universe Ranma 1/2 story that takes place in The World R:2 sometime after the events of .hack/Roots, the original .hack/G.U. trilogy, and the Returner anime episode.

Disclaimer: Ranma 1/2 is not my idea, nor is .hack/G.U. and I don't own them or any of the characters.

Chapter 7: Exhibition

Ryoga Hibiki set his empty bowl down in the kitchen sink, the porcelain clanking against metal as he let go of it. Outside the nearby window from which sunlight shone into the house, he took in the sight of Mt. Fuji peeking out over the city's rooftops.

Being stuck in his family's home like this was constricting in a way he'd never before experienced, especially with his parents away again—likely lost somewhere, as was common. Still, he couldn't afford to step outside right now. If his sense of direction took him away from here for any significant amount of time, he may never be able to solve the crisis he presently faced. If that meant having to live off of nothing but takeout and whatever non-perishables he could find around the house for a while, then so be it.

Wandering into the living room, he took a seat before the family's M2D unit. His father would sometimes get excited and purchase new technology like this to try it out, only to leave home soon after and hardly use it at all in the end. Ryoga was thankful for having this thing, though; it might just prove critical to accomplishing what he needed to.

He reached out for the unit, but hesitated. Pulling back, his hands settled upon his knees. "Even if I go into the game, what do I do in there?"

Ryoga took some time to think over his next course of action. "I need to get Ranma's attention. I need to make him tell me what's going on here. How do I do that?" Considering the person, that much was obvious. "By defeating him, right? He wouldn't be able to ignore me if I could put him in his place like that. But…" He heaved a sigh. "It isn't as straightforward as it is in the real world."

Within The World, just outside Mac Anu's Dome, Akane leaned back against the wall of stone near the steps. She was fresh off of a successful run through another of the game's dungeons alongside Ranma and Ukyo. The real-life okonomiyaki chef needed to check on a delivery once they were finished, and Ranma had an urgent need to use the bathroom, hence why Akane was left awaiting their return. Normally she may have just logged out for the day, but there was still one more thing the three of them had planned.

"Yo, look who it is!"

Akane heard a voice that made her stomach churn. Sure enough, approaching her was the same, boorish duo who bothered her in Lumina Cloth not long ago. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me."

"Long time, no see," one of the male players greeted her. "All by yourself again? It must get lonely."

The other character placed his hand against the wall above Akane's head, leaning himself further into her personal space. "You know, we think we got off on the wrong foot before, and we could really use a healer right now. Since you're not busy, how 'bout helping us out a little, babe? We'll make it worth your time."

It took everything Akane had to keep her annoyance in check. Even then, she was losing the battle. "You guys-!"

Before Akane could say another word, the head of a lance smashed into the stone wall, whizzing past the faces of the two men. Startled, they both lost their balance and dropped to their backsides.

Akane, blinking, followed the shaft of the weapon back to its owner, where she found a cheery Ukyo looking her way. "Hey, Akane. Sorry for the wait. You ready?"

"Huh? Oh, uh, y-yeah…" Akane fumbled over her words.

"Great! Let's go, then." Ukyo, taking Akane by the hand, led her away.

While the girls took their leave, the other two remained on the ground. They exchanged weary looks with each other.

"Bro, I think we should give up on that one."

"You're tellin' me. I'm done."

Ukyo, meanwhile, escorted Akane to the bridge leading to the city's Central District. She peeked over at the other girl, who still seemed rather taken aback. "Sorry about all that. You looked like you could use some help."

"O-Oh, well, I guess I kind of did. I mean, I probably could have handled it, but…it's nice that I didn't have to. Thank you, Ukyo."

"Sure thing, sugar! Anything for my new Arena teammate."

Akane had to giggle at the mention of that. She could still remember reading the e-mail from Ranma earlier in the day, having to go over it several times just to make sure she was seeing what she thought she was seeing. "That really surprised me, but I'm glad. I didn't want to trouble you with Arena talk right after we met, especially when we were having such a good time yesterday."

"It's no trouble at all. I'm actually kind of excited about it." Ukyo smiled as she walked. "Besides, you guys are fun to hang around."

Among the many players traversing the lengthy bridge, one of them closed in on Ukyo and Akane in a hurry. They barely had the time to pick up on the presence before Ranma came sliding past them, making both of them jump. "There you are!"

"Whoa! Where'd you come from?" Akane exclaimed.

"I didn't take that long! You coulda waited for me, y'know." Ranma's attention shifted to something further downward. "Why're you guys holding hands, anyway?"

Ukyo and Akane both looked down at their hands, still joined from the incident earlier. Their eyes met for just a moment, and Ukyo, her cheeks turning red, released her grip.

"M-My bad!" The Partizan quickly looked away from the others. She'd forgotten all about taking Akane by the hand before. That was awkward.

"It's, um…a long story," Akane explained, not particularly wanting to delve into it.

Ranma was somewhat interested, but he chose to let it go. "Well, whatever. So, you guys still want to come with me to the guild shop? You really don't have to."

"I do!" Akane insisted. "I want to meet these guildmates who helped you out. They seem nice."

Ukyo joined in, trying to shake off her prior embarrassment. "I'm curious, too. One of them knows Ranma in real life, right? Maybe they'll tell us some secret about him that he doesn't want anyone to know about!"

"That's why you want to do this?" Ranma grumbled.

As the trio neared the Central District's fountain, Silabus and Gaspard spotted them from Canard's stall and waved them over.

"Welcome!" Silabus greeted the group. "Is this your Arena team?"

"Yeah. This is Akane, and this is Ukyo." Ranma pointed to the girls in turn.

"Hi there!"

"Sorry to bother you like this."

"Oh, not at all!" Silabus brushed off the concern. "I'm Silabus, and this here is Gaspard."

The beast character waved to the girls excitedly. "Nice to meet you!"

Akane's eyes sparkled with interest. "So cute!" Bending down to Gaspard's level, she rubbed the top of his head. "You're so small and fuzzy."

Gaspard blushed, reveling in the attention. "Aww, shucks."

Watching his guildmate enjoy himself, Silabus cleared his throat. "I'm not sure how much Ranma has told the two of you, but we're members of Canard—a guild created to help newer players acclimate to The World."

"Canard?" Though her new teammate hadn't mentioned it before, Ukyo recognized the name. "That was…wait…ah, that one guy! The one who conquered all three Arena Palaces! Is this the same guild?"

Silabus had to chuckle at the Partizan's enthusiasm. "That would be Haseo, our guildmaster."

"Seriously?" Ukyo looked on, awestruck. "People talk about him on the BBS all the time. Is he here?"

"Unfortunately, he's taking a break from the game at the moment. I'm sure I could arrange a meeting whenever he comes back, though. How does that sound?"

"That would be great! I'd love to pick his brain. I wonder what kind of okonomiyaki he likes…"

The Canard member made a mental note to talk to Haseo about that when he had the chance. "In any case, I'm glad the two of you are helping Ranma out. I really wanted to, but the level difference between us wouldn't allow it."

"Oh, it's been fun for us, too." Akane wrapped up her petting of the smaller character. "By the way, do you guys know why Emperor Kuno attacked Ranma?"

"Nope! He wouldn't tell us either," Gaspard replied nonchalantly.

While the beast character turned his attention to some customers who'd shown up, Akane and Ukyo again directed suspicious looks at their teammate.

"I told you, I didn't do anything!" Ranma snapped at them.

Teasing aside, Silabus sensed a certain bond among the three players. "You certainly picked an interesting time to start out in the Arena, with the recent changes and all. Ranma, you remember the Awakening attacks, right?"

Awakening, a special attack used along with one's party members, was something Ranma only got a brief taste of while learning with his guildmates since they didn't participate in the battles much. He'd experienced it much more often, though, since teaming up with Akane and Ukyo. "Yeah, what about them?"

"Well, Awakening was disabled within the Arena not long ago," Silabus explained. "CC Corp is taking some time to re-evaluate its future role in that aspect of the game after players raised complaints. They believed Awakening was too overpowered for the Arena and that too many teams relied upon it excessively, thus limiting innovation and the rewards of actual skill."

The discussion reminded Ukyo of something. "Oh yeah, I remember reading about that on the BBS, too. I didn't get too deep into it, but I know the words 'braindead strategy' were being thrown around a lot."

Silabus nodded in affirmation. "It's not the most flattering term, but it's been a growing sentiment among players."

Appearing unfazed by the news, Ranma shrugged his shoulders. "You think that's a problem for me? C'mon, man, you know I'm a martial artist. I can come up with strategy just fine."

"If that's the case, then so can I."

"Yeah, same."

Ranma's eyes widened as he looked to his teammates. "Wait, you're both martial artists?"

"Yup," Ukyo confirmed.

"Didn't I tell you?" Akane asked him.

"No, you didn't!" Ranma replied.

Now that Akane thought about it, she may have skipped on that small detail until now. "Oh. Well, now you know."

Ranma's history as a martial artist was well-known to Silabus, of course, so the fact that he'd seemingly found two other martial artists to team up with struck him as quite the coincidence. "So, are all of you going to watch the exhibition match?"

"Nah, just me." Ranma raised his hand.

"Sorry about that," Ukyo apologized. "It sounds interesting, but I have to open the restaurant for dinner."

The disappointment was evident on Akane's face as well. "I already said I'd help my sister with something tonight, otherwise I would. This whole thing came up kind of last minute."

"Very understandable. We were only told about it yesterday, after all," Silabus assured them. "Now, Ranma, Alkaid is one of the best Arena fighters around, so pay close attention and try to learn all you can from the match."

In all the time since he first ran into her, Ranma was never aware of how well-known Alkaid was within The World until tonight's exhibition was brought to his attention. She did mention to him that she was going after another Palace's Emperor, so he supposed it made sense that she was one of the best. It probably explained Kuno's deep interest in her as well. He was still surprised to learn that Silabus and Gaspard knew her personally, although, from what they said, she was a closer acquaintance of the guild's leader, Haseo. It made him wonder what this Haseo guy was like.

"Got it." Ranma smacked his fist into his other palm. "Then, tomorrow, we finally start ranking up."

Not only Ranma, but the demeanors of Ukyo and Akane as well betrayed their eagerness to get started in the Arena.

"Oh, that reminds me," Silabus spoke, "I meant to tell you about it soon, but now would be a good time to learn about equipment modifications."

The Grappler raised his brows. "About what now?"

Ukyo and Akane exchanged puzzled looks.

"You didn't know about them?"

"I just assumed you knew. You're even more of a newbie than I thought."

While Ranma muttered something unpleasant under his breath, Silabus continued on. "Weapons, armor, and accessories all have slots in them where you can add a modification item. Some of them have basic effects like raising your defense or lowering your SP consumption, but others can protect you from status effects or add them to your attacks, as well as many other things."

"So that's what that was for! I found a…umm…" Ranma quickly brought up his inventory. "Fire Mouse Skin! Yeah! I found that and a couple other things along the way, but I never knew how they were used."

"Mhmm, that's one of them, although that one won't be especially useful in the Arena."

"Huh? Why's that?"

"Players don't have elemental weaknesses like monsters do, and a Fire Mouse Skin adds fire damage to your weapon. It's better than nothing, but even with the limited variety you'll find at your level, there are others much more suited for Arena combat."

"Yeah, like mine." Ukyo held up her lance. "I've got one in here that increases my critical hit chance."

"And one of mine reduces SP consumption for healing spells," Akane added. "There's lots of helpful things they can do."

Intrigued by this new information, Ranma sat himself down at the edge of the fountain. "All right, there's still some time before the match. Tell me everything you guys know!"

At the Arche Koeln Waterfall, the calming sounds of water crashing down enveloped an otherwise quiet area. There, amidst it all, was Shino.

The silver-haired Cleric stood at the edge of what remained of a collapsed bridge, staring off into the distance. When she heard footsteps drawing nearer, it became apparent that it wasn't the sound of Ovan which she was used to. Intrigued, she peeked behind her.

Closer to the platform, hunched over with his hands on his knees, was Ryoga.

A soft smile spread across Shino's lips. "You came."

Ryoga panted from exhaustion as if he'd just run a marathon. "It took me a while…to find the Chaos Gate, but…I finally made it!"

Shino tilted her head. "Isn't the Chaos Gate the first thing you see when you log in?"

Grimacing, Ryoga dropped to a knee. "Don't ask. Please." Once he'd recovered from his shame somewhat, he brought his gaze back to her. "You…really were here. How long have you been waiting?"

The girl faced away from him, looking back out towards the water. "Does it really matter?"

Ryoga didn't know what to make of that answer. "Why are you all by yourself out here?"

"Because…" Shino clasped her hands behind her back. "Besides Ovan, everyone I knew is gone."

Now, more than ever, those words resonated deep within Ryoga's heart. Maybe he was right about her after all, he thought. He opted not to question her any further.

"So?" Shino spoke again.

Rising from his knee, Ryoga walked up beside the Cleric and sat cross-legged upon the stone path at her feet. "I have to make Ranma talk. If I can fight against him and win, I think that's my best chance. But I can't do that if I'm not on his level." He clenched his fists in his lap and lowered his head. "I'll accept the offer you guys made, so please, teach me what I need to know!"

Though Ryoga couldn't see her, he heard the light sounds of Shino's PC body shifting. The first thing he noticed when he turned to look was that the tips of her feet were facing his way. He ran his eyes up past her shoulders where he was met with a warm expression.

"I understand." Shino bent down, extending a hand towards him. "Welcome to the Twilight Brigade."

It wasn't as if Ranma expected himself to be the only one there when he entered the Arena, but the sheer number of players crowding into the place was beyond what he imagined. With the front rows already packed, he headed for the uppermost part of the stands where there was more room.

This wasn't his first time in the city of Lumina Cloth, but it was his first time watching a match like this inside the Arena. A large moon and a star-filled sky looked down upon the circular battleground, which sat high above the city lights below. Several sizeable screens were set up around it to give the spectators close-up views of the action.

Even in the higher-up section where Ranma settled, the seats were really filling out. If Alkaid was as good as Silabus said, it stood to reason that people would want to come watch her.

"Hey, check it out! It's Taihaku!"

"Whoa, you're right! He must be here to scout Alkaid."

Hearing the chatter a couple of rows ahead of him, Ranma looked back to see what the players were talking about. On the concourse above the seats, a mustached man with a scar on his face stared down at the battleground, his hands resting upon the railing.

Ranma wasn't familiar with the player, but he had to admit, the guy really stood out. Taihaku, huh?

Some were still finding their seats when the announcer's voice boomed throughout the Arena.

"All right! Is everyone ready? We've got a very special exhibition match coming up next that's sure to be a treat!"

As the crowd cheered in anticipation, the first of the competing teams appeared upon one of a pair of raised platforms on opposite sides of the battleground. The red-haired girl at the team's forefront was no stranger to Ranma. Alkaid looked to be all business, flanked by a pair of short-haired Twin Blades named Mika and Luca.

"Introducing first, it's the former Demon Palace Emperors, AKATSUKI! The Twin Blade trio, led by the determined Alkaid, has high aspirations! Will they be brought back down to earth today by their opponents, the team known as Bad Intentions?"

Over on the other platform was a team of three beast characters. A Lord Partizan, the bulkiest of the group, had a Steam Gunner and a Shadow Warlock at his side.

"They've been rapidly rising up the ranks, and what a feather in their cap it would be to take down these one-time Emperors!"

The two teams were warped down onto the battleground proper.

While AKATSUKI went over some last-minute details, the Partizan heading up the other team smirked at their leader from afar. "Alkaid, huh? Your reputation precedes you, but you're just another stepping stone on our way to the top."

Everyone took up fighting stances, waiting for the imminent start of the match. One of the screens bordering the Arena was focused on Alkaid. The intense focus on the girl's face wasn't lost on Ranma as he watched from above.

Finally, the match began. Right from the start, Alkaid charged forth, her teammates stacked up directly behind her. She raised her blades to defend as the enemy Steam Gunner opened fire on her from a distance.

The opposing Partizan stood his ground at the head of his squad, ready to take on the incoming trio. "Come on!"

As Alkaid came into range, the beast character thrust his lance at her chest, but she was no longer there. The agile Twin Blade ducked down, sliding between the Partizan's legs. Behind her, Mika and Luca split around the enemy leader's lance. He wasn't slow by any means, but the girls were simply too fast to counter. They slashed their weapons into his PC body, knocking him to the ground.

Alkaid never stopped. As soon as she was clear of the Partizan, she sprung to her feet and made a beeline for the Steam Gunner, continuing to deflect his shots as best she could. She closed the distance in no time, and her opponent, without the range to fire his bullets, used the blade portion of his bayonet to fend the girl off. Sparks flew as the weapons repeatedly collided. One of Alkaid's well-aimed swings got through, then another. A third was enough to send the Gunner flying, blowing him back into the barrier bordering the battleground.

All the while, Mika and Luca focused their attention on the Shadow Warlock. He didn't have the time to cast a spell against such swift opponents, forcing him to defend with his grimoire. Melee combat was far from the specialty of his class, however, and the Warlock was easily overpowered and knocked aside.

By the time the Lord Partizan got back up, he was the only member of his team standing. All three of his enemies had their sights set on him once again. Snarling, he reared back with his lance, his eyes locked onto Alkaid. "You little…! Take this! Scarlet Thrus-!"

"Chaotic Strike!"

Alkaid swooped in with an uppercut-like blow that knocked the Partizan up into the air, countering his attempted attack. Soaring up above him, she landed five alternating strikes on the player followed by a sixth that sent him crashing to the floor.

The Partizan bounced off the ground from the impact, and Mika and Luca were ready when he did.

"Gale Blade!"

The Twin Blade duo slashed him three times apiece in unison, the third of which slammed him down onto his back once more.

It was an organized assault that the bulky character couldn't weather. His HP was at zero. With the leader of Bad Intentions out of commission, the match was officially over.

"Unbelievable! What ferocity! Ladies and gentlemen, just like that, AKATSUKI are your winners!"

While most of the crowd roared with applause, Ranma remained silent, trying to analyze everything that just happened. Alkaid's team opened with a feint that threw their opponents off, and then they swarmed them like a bunch of hornets. They isolated and countered the leader, using their numbers advantage to take him out before his team even knew what hit them. It all happened so fast—a masterful display of strategy and teamwork.

Ranma's grin stretched from ear to ear as he sensed the importance of what he'd just witnessed. "Thanks a bunch! You really got my blood pumping now!"

In the midst of her team's celebration, Alkaid turned a sharp eye on the crowd, pointing one of her blades towards the upper reaches of the stands.

"Oh? What's this, folks?"

The screens around the Arena focused in on the area where Alkaid pointed, displaying an image of a mustached man looking down from above.

"It''s the Sage Palace Emperor, Taihaku! Is this a declaration from AKATSUKI? Do they plan to claim the throne from the legend himself?"

Ranma whirled around as the player's identity was revealed to him. "Sage Palace...? He's..."

There was a stern look about Taihaku, practically daring Alkaid and her teammates to come after him. Without a word, he turned and left the Arena.

Now Ranma understood why those players from earlier were making a big deal about the guy. "I get it. So that's who she's chasing after, huh?"

Once the announcer wrapped things up, Ranma joined the rest of the crowd in filing out of the Arena. He was glad he came to see the match; it left him with an idea of how to approach the combat here, not to mention some other interesting information. Heading for Lumina Cloth's Chaos Gate, he figured he would log off and get some other things done before bed since no one else was online to do anything with. He would need to be well-rested for when his team began their Arena journey tomorrow anyway.

"Alkaid is a magnificent woman, is she not?"

Ranma's feet stopped in their tracks. That voice…he knew that voice, and it incited an anger in him that few things did. He'd had his eyes lowered as he pondered to himself while walking, but now that he raised them, he saw standing before him the Emperor of the Demon Palace, Tatewaki Kuno.

The Emperor brushed his hair back, a condescending look fixated on the pigtailed character. "Truly I, Tatewaki Kuno, am the only man worthy of her. Wouldn't you agree, Ranma?"

"Kuno…" Ranma scowled at the pompous player.

Around the two of them, all those who followed the Arena closely and recognized Kuno watched the exchange with interest, their murmurs becoming background noise for the stare down.

"I am rather surprised you have the gall to show yourself in The World after I humiliated you as I did," Kuno said. "Do you not know the meaning of shame?"

Ranma's nose crinkled with irritation. "You expect me to just run and hide after what you did?" He stepped forward, closing the distance between them until he was right up in the other player's face. "I don't forget stuff like that, and I sure as heck don't let it go."

Kuno burst out into an arrogant laughter. "And what does a weakling such as yourself think you can do about it?"

"Weakling, huh?" Ranma snorted at the remark. "You just sit right there on your little throne looking all smug. I'll be there to knock you off of it real soon."

With a piercing glare, Ranma walked past Kuno on his way to the Chaos Gate.

It sounded more like a threat than a mere challenge, and left alone with those words, the look in Emperor Kuno's eyes changed. Now, there was an intensity in them that breached the line of sanity. "A foolish boast, Ranma. As if I would allow you to take my rightful place."

End of Chapter 7