DISCLAIMER: Fate/Stay Night belongs to the company Type-Moon. It was originally a Visual Novel developed by Kinoko Nasu. Sword Art Online belongs to Reki Kawahara. It was originally written as a Light Novel. Characters and Settings belong to their respective owners. I'm just borrowing them for noncommercial entertainment. Feel free to redistribute this story as long as you give due credit.

Author's Notes
The first draft (over 7000 words) I wrote of this crossover idea invoked quite a response. It was blasted on both The Fanfiction Forum (TFF) and Beast's Lair (BL) with comments like 'manifestly impossible' , 'stilted(?)' , 'Please don't.' , 'making simple things more complicated' , 'goes against what a VRMMORPG is like' and my personal favorite - 'No.'

At that point, if I wanted to continue writing I had two options - I could just blatantly ignore everyone's opinion and just resume my original idea OR I could scrap the whole thing and start from scratch. Since there appears to be someone already doing the former, I decided to take the latter option.

That's right. I decided to throw away the 7765 word draft I wrote and start again.

This time instead of writing by myself, I took into consideration the different opinions people were willing to share with me and changed my plot accordingly. daniel_gudman (TFF) was most invaluable in pointing out flaws in the original draft. In fact, it was his idea that I decided to use to explain the villain's agenda as well as some of the changes I wanted to try in the SAO universe.

I scrapped the first opening scene I wrote for this chapter and replaced it with an idea from nununu (BL). RoanDracniil (BL) helped me solve a problem addressing a character I did not want to name in this story. Not that I dislike the guy, but he does not have a major role in this story.

Of course, before I finally settled on the current story-idea, I engaged in a lot of discussion hammering out the nitty details. I want to thank daniel_gudman (TFF), Chaos (BL), Flere821 (BL), Bishamon (BL) and nununu (BL) for helping me filter out the diamonds from the sand while throwing the useless rocks to the dump.

This is not to mean that others who were involved in the discussion are unimportant. You are. I've read each and every one of your replies. The encouragements some of you sent me really made my day.

The response to the beta release of this chapter has been colossal! It was popular enough that I had to create a thread on spacebattles (SB) to discuss it, in addition to the TFF and BL threads. Here are the names of those who helped me fix the grammar/spelling/other mistakes that snuck in - daniel_gudman (TFF), LordsFire (SB), Francis Saber (FFN), PhantomPhysicst (?), Darth Artemis (SB) and LeopardBear (BL). I thank you very much for taking the time to help me out. If I've forgotten anyone, please PM me and I'll add your name to the list.

-chronodekar
(21/October/2012)

Reading Recommendation:

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Tohsaka Online

=a Fate/Stay Night and Sword Art Online crossover fanfiction=

(chapter - 01)

The announcement that trapped everyone


Bedroom, Tohsaka manor

"What are you doing this time idiot?" Rin Tohsaka asked her husband.

He looked up from under the table and faced her. Rin was standing in front of him, her black hair trailing loosely down her back over her white dressing gown, with her arms crossed over her chest. Not particularly happy at being interrupted, he made the mistake of answering her in an annoyed tone, "Isn't it obvious?"

She just leveled a flat stare at him before replying, "You just dragged the computer next to our bed and appear to be busy attaching an extremely strange helmet to it. What I want to know is why?"

She continued to watch as her red haired husband crawled out from under the computer table, then seat himself on the bed. He looked towards at her and said, "I'm trying something new today."

"Explain." Rin demanded.

He subconsciously raised his right hand and began to scratch the top of his head. "I'm not sure if you would be interested in hearing the details."

She pushed his hand away from his head and grabbed his hair with her own hand. She then forcefully turned his head so that she could look right at his face and into his eyes. "I'm interested now. Tell me."

With a bit of worry and a small stutter he replied, "It involves the computer and …"

Growing impatient after he trailed off into silence, Rin shouted at him, "Spit. It. Out."

"There's this new game that's going to be launched within the next 10 minutes and I really want to try it out." he finally answered.

She released his hair and looked at the ceiling as she recollected something, "Is this that Virtual Reality game you were talking about earlier? Hmm … what was it called again? Art something?"

"It's called Sword Art Online."

Rin fisted her open palm in realization, "Oh yeah! That name was also what caught your attention when you saw the newspaper advertisement two weeks ago, wasn't it?"

She nodded to herself, satisfied with the explanation. Her husband let out a long sigh. Rin turned to face him again and pointing towards the helmet asked, "So how does this work?"

He waved at the equipment with his left hand and answered, "It's very simple. Just connect the NerveGear helmet to a computer with an internet connection, plug in an external power source and just wear it over your head while you lie down in bed."

"What happens then?"

"I'm not sure exactly how the science works, but basically it sends signals directly to your brain so that you would feel as if you were in another world."

"What about when you move? It would be really awkward to wave your arms or feet while on the bed."

"The NerveGear helmet intercepts those signals and re-routes them into the game world instead. It's a pretty impressive system, come to think of it." answered her husband with amazement in his voice.

She looked at him in silence for some time before asking, "And why couldn't you just tell me all this when I asked you earlier? It would have saved the both of us time."

He scratched his cheek with his right hand and replied, "Well … I didn't expect you to accept it this easily. I mean you're usually not very good with computers …"

He didn't notice that her eyes had narrowed or that she was showing signs of being angry. Unwittingly he continued,

" … even though lately you've been doing our financial accounts on them, you still are a bit clumsy. So, I was really worried that you would freak out and …" he trailed off as he looked up to see that his wife had bared her teeth at him and was growling. Her black hair seemed to be rising off her shoulders and her eyes were glowing a dangerous fluorescent red. He gulped as he recalled that since their marriage began they had grown closer together, but his wife was still easily angered. The makeup sessions they did afterwards were probably the motivation for her increased aggressiveness.

With an angry voice she demanded, "Are you trying to tell me that I'm unable to understand how this stupid game works?!"

With an audible stutter he replied, "N-n-no! That's not i-it at all Rin!" spreading his palms out in front of his body while trying to pacify her.

Angrily, she grabbed him by the front of his shirt and threw him off the bed. She then picked up the NerveGear helmet from the table.

From the floor her red haired husband looked up with concern. "R-Rin? What are you doing?"

"I'm going to prove to you that I am most certainly capable of understanding computers by playing this game for a few hours!"

As she settled herself on the bed he came near and asked, "But what about dinner? You said that you wanted to cook tonight!"

She pointed to the bedroom door leading to the hallway and said, "I've changed my mind. You go make it instead! … Wait, how do you start this thing?"

Letting out a sigh he answered, "I've already configured it. You just need to lie down on the bed and say 'Link Start'. … But this is the day Sword Art Online launches and I wanted to be among the first to play it!"

Puffing her impressive chest in front of him she replied, "Well then, you can be proud of the fact that your wife will be playing it for you instead! Think of it as a punishment for not giving me a clear answer earlier."

He tried complaining, "But -"

"I've made up my mind. Am I understood?" The tone of her voice did not encourage a difference of opinion.

"Yes dear", he replied in a sullen voice with a bent head.

"Good. Now go and get dinner ready. I'll join you when I'm done." she ordered and watched him leave their bedroom.

After he left she put the NerveGear helmet over her head and said, "Link Start!". She grew impressed when all feeling of the room around her vanished as she entered the virtual world.


Starting City, Aincrad, Floor 01

Kirito blinked as he materialized in the middle of the plaza. Not wanting to waste time, he started running towards the west side of the city. He smiled as he ran past the familiar food stalls with the shopkeepers selling their wares. He waved towards a little girl who looked back at him from her window sill.

As he left the marketplace he heard a voice shout out from behind him, "Wait!"

Kirito stopped moving and turned around to see a thin man running up to him. The guy had messy purple hair that extended past his neck. He had a red bandana tied over his forehead and was wearing the cream colored variant of the starter clothes that were provided for new players.

The newcomer came and stood in front of Kirito. He bent his legs as he tried to catch his breath.

"Oh man, I've been calling you since the Plaza! Are your headphones broken or something?"

Kirito blinked in confusion on hearing the question. "Headphones?" he asked. "I don't think we can use those with the NerveGear helmet over our heads"

The purple haired man just looked back at him with a blank expression over his face. He then blinked and quickly shook his head side-to-side on realizing his mistake. "I'm sorry. Still not used to this game yet."

He then paused and took a deep breath before speaking, "My name is Klein. What's yours?"

"I'm Kirito."

With a smile Klein commented, "You must have been part of the Beta Testing group, weren't you?"

Surprised, Kirito replied while nodding his head, "Yes, that's right. But how did you know?"

Klein deducted, "You ran as soon as you entered the game. It was as if you knew your way around already. Only way that could be possible is if you've played the game before. Since this is the very day the game was released, the only chance you could have got for that opportunity was during the Beta Testing period a month back!"

Kirito widened his eyes in amazement and exclaimed, "Wow! That's some impressive deduction."

Holding himself up with pride Klein responded, "Thank you!"

"I'm guessing that you must be some kind of detective or something?"

Still smiling Klein shook his head as he explained, "Sorry, but that's not it. I've just played too many games before. You always see the beta players running as soon as they log in on the opening day."

Kirito smiled back saying, "It's still impressive that you've played so much. This game - Sword Art Online is the fourth MMO game I've played. And it's the first time I've ever been included as part of a Beta Testing group."

His companion then raised his right hand and began to scratch the side of his cheek. With a bit of hesitation he asked, "I just met you and this is crazy, but can you help me?"

Kirito stared at him in silence for some time. He then started chuckling. "Ha, ha, ha! It's been awhile since I've heard that."

Klein chucked a bit too and said, "I know. Still good, right?"

Getting his merriment under control Kirito raised one of his eyebrows and asked, "What do you need from me?"

Klein then clasped both his hands in front of his chest and asked in a pleading voice, "I just unwrapped the game 30 minutes ago and have no idea what to do! Can you please teach me the basics?"


Grass Field to the West of Starting City, Floor 01

"Why are we here?" asked a puzzled Klein as he looked around. He had followed Kirito and they were now standing in the middle of a grass field. There was nothing notable in the immediate vicinity but a little further to the north he saw the beginnings of a forest. Unlike in the city, it was quiet and he could hear a few insects chirping in the background.

"I like this place. It's quiet and the scenery's good." answered his more experienced friend. "Very unlikely that we would be disturbed here too."

"So … what now?" wondered Klein out loud.

Kirito looked up at the blue sky while he thought. There were a few clouds high up, but it didn't look as if it would rain. He turned back to his companion and asked, "Do you know how to work the inventory?"

Klein just shook his head. "Nope."

Kirito then brought his right hand in front of him and held it at shoulder level. "You bring your hand up like this and wave it downwards." he said while performing the action. A holographic menu popped up in front of him. At a glance, it looked like he had a hi-tech tablet floating in the air in front of his face, which heavily contrasted against his more rural surroundings.

Klein repeated the action. As he watched his own menu come up he said, "Yeah, doing that brings up my personal menu. Now what?"

With his finger Kirito scrolled through the different options and selected 'Character Status'. The display changed and a picture of his avatar popped up with a lot of information written next to it. "This is how you check out your own profile." he explained.

"Ohhh... ! This looks very useful!" commented Klein as he looked himself over.

"Now a little to the bottom, you can see a few options. Select 'Equipment' from there."

"Yeah, got it."

"You can tap the different stuff to equip or unequip yourself. For example …" as he trailed off Kirito clicked the options corresponding to his weapons and Klein watched as Kirito's armor and sword vanished.

"Hey! Why did you do that? You are as good as defenseless now!" said a worried Klein. Kirito was just wearing a plain full sleeved shirt that was blue in color and a brown pair of pants.

Kirito just smirked back and said, "Try removing just your armor too."

A bit hesitant over the change in Kirito's demeanor Klein followed the instructions and disarmed himself. As soon as his armor was off, the world went black.


Room of Resurrection, Starting City, Floor 01

Feeling a bit disoriented Klein opened his eyes to find himself lying down and staring at light coming down from the ceiling. He got up and saw that he was at the altar of a chapel.

"Where am I?" he asked no-one in particular while rubbing his head.

"This is the Room of Resurrection, my son." answered an old priest who was standing nearby. Klein jumped off the altar in surprise and fell on the floor.

"Ouch..." he whined as he got up. He was about the ask the priest another question when a white light glowed from the altar. A moment later, Kirito materialized on the spot.

Kirito looked around and asked, "Klein? Are you still here?"

Spotting his friend, he got off the altar and walked up to him. "There you are! How do you feel?" asked Kirito in a cheerful voice.

"My head has stopped spinning, but what just happened?"

With a smile Kirito answered with enthusiasm, "I killed you with a punch!"

Klein's eyes grew wide in shock. "Wh-What the HECK ?!"

Raising his finger to prove a point Kirito continued, "Since this is your first time playing Sword Art Online, I felt it best to demonstrate what happens to your avatar when you get killed. Better now than for you to waste time later while your team is fighting an important battle."

"Err..." replied Klein intelligently.

"It would be too bothersome walking all the way back here, so I stabbed myself to follow you here."

Klein just looked back at Kirito as if he had just heard something absolutely ridiculous.

After a few moments of awkward silence he commented, "You must be the weirdest guy I've ever met online."

Kirito blinked as he remembered something and said, "Also, you have my gratitude. Thanks to you, I've unlocked the 'Punch a person to death in an isolated area' achievement."

With a flat stare Klein continued, " … and one of the most greediest too."

Kirito started walking out of the chapel and shouted back to his companion, "Come on! There's still more stuff I need to show you."


West Field, Starting City, Floor 01

"Now watch me closely. I'm going to demonstrate how to use a Sword Skill." said Kirito as he stood on the grassy field.

The blue haired player raised his sword high above his head in his right hand. He bent his knees and assumed a basic fighting stance. He then pulled the sword a bit back and it began to glow with a faint white light.

"Reaver!" he shouted as he brought the sword down in an attack. As he got back to a more relaxed stance he heard his companion clapping.

"That was cool. How can I learn to do that?" asked Klein.

Kirito just looked back and raised one of his eyebrows. "It's a basic skill. Every player should have it. Just do exactly what I did and the System Assist will kick it and move you along."

Klein nodded and took a similar stance. He pulled his curved sword back and swung it forward shouting, "Ahhh!"

It didn't feel as impressive as Kirito's demonstration and he whined about it.

After thinking on the problem for a few moments Kirito asked, "Hey, did you equip the skill on your avatar?"

Klein just blinked back and asking in a confused tone, "What are you talking about?"

His blue haired companion just brought his right palm to his forehead to let out a large sigh. "Here, I'll show you. Just open up your character menu and do this …"

A few moments later Klein took the same offensive stance and pulled back his sword. This time it began to glow too. He brought it down with a powerful shout, "Reaver!"

As he got up from the end of the attack, Klein's face grew a smile and he said, "THAT was Awesome! This game is worth every coin I spent on it."

Kirito picked up a pebble from the ground and idly tossed it up vertically into the air. He caught it as it fell down and pulled his hand back. The pebble began to glow a soft blue and he threw it towards a wild boar grazing nearby. "Now let's try it out on the real thing."

The wild boar gave a startled shout as it's rear end was hit by the pebble. It's health bar reduced a bit and it turned around to the face the people who disturbed it. Angry snorting could be heard coming from its nostrils.

"Klein, get ready." shouted Kirito as he ran and stood back so that Klein was positioned between him and the wild boar.

His purple haired companion narrowed his eyes and faced the wild boar. The animal began it's charge towards him. Klein took the same fighting stance, but before he could activate the attack the wild boar struck him and he went flying to the side.

"Ouch!" he complained as he got up. His health bar had reduced by one fourth.

"What are you doing? This is a fight! Get ready 'cause it's headed straight for you." warned his blue haired companion.

This time Klein was ready. He took the stance and raised his curved sword behind him. When the wild boar was in range, he pulled his right hand back and felt the sword glow like before. He brought it down on the wild boar with a big, "Reaver!"

This time the animal's health bar reduced to just 10 percent. "It's almost over! Strike again before it recovers." suggested Kirito.

"Reaver!"

Klein watched as the wild board disintegrated into thousands of pixels and vanished from the spot. In it's place stood a floating white orb.

"D-Did I get it?" the purple haired player asked hesitantly.

"Yep." replied Kirito.

"YEESS!" shouted Klein as he jumped into the air raising his fist.

Pointing to the orb with his right hand Kirito asked, "Aren't you going to collect your reward?"

With excitement Klein asked, "How do I do that?"

"It's like using an item. You just tap it with your finger. The menu will popup and you can select from the options present." came the reply.

Klein nodded and walked up to the floating white orb. He tapped it with the pointer finger on his right hand and a menu came out. He transferred the reward items to his inventory and watched the white orb disappear.

"This is going to be a pain, collecting the rewards individually for each of my kills." he commented.

Kirito nodded back to him saying, "It's annoying in the beginning. But when you get to level 3 there is a Skill called 'Gather' that will help you collect rewards from an entire area with just a single menu."

With a concerned look on his face Klein observed, "It's going to get difficult playing this game on the higher levels. Even accounting for the Skill Slots that are locked out for me because of my low level, there aren't that many Skill Slots available to begin with."

"Hmmm …" replied his companion. Kirito then picked up another pebble and held it behind his head. It began to glow a soft blue like last time and he threw it towards another wild boar grazing nearby. The animal's health bar went down a bit and it turned to charge at it's assailant.

Kirito was ready however. He positioned his left leg in front and held his left hand in front in a defensive position. He brought the curved sword in his right hand behind him and began to spin it in a circular arc. It began to glow a faint blue color and when the boar was close enough he charged forward, bringing the sword in front of him shouting, "Linear!"

Klein watched dumbfounded as the animal disintegrated. He looked back at Kirito who was sheathing his weapon. Amazed he said, "In just one strike! How … ?"

With a smile the blue haired player walked back to his companion explaining, "You do not need to equip any of the Skills on your avatar to use them. If you know the stance and steps the attack uses, there is nothing stopping you from unleashing it without System Assist. As the name says - it's only to help you learn the attack. Using System Assist also results in a 50% damage and experience penalty. That's why you needed to attack that wild boar so many times to kill it."

The purple haired player grinned back saying , "Wow. The more I learn about this game the more I'm falling in love with it!"

Kirito nodded back, "I know what you mean."

Looking at his not-optimal health bar Klein asked, "Hey Kirito, do you know how to cast the Cure spell? I could use more HP."

Shaking his head the blue haired player replied, "You'll have to wait for a bit. They promised that the magic system will roll in a little later today."

Bringing his eyebrows closer together Klein asked, "What do you mean? I don't remember hearing anything like that."

"When the Beta was launched, a highlight of the game was the wide variety of Sword Skills that a player could pull off. It didn't even have a magic system back then."

In shock Klein protested, "WHAT!? Were they crazy or something? Whoever heard of an RPG without magic? Or at least advanced science?"

Nodding his head Kirito continued, "Thats what a lot of us in the Beta Testing group, including myself complained about. As fun as it was, it felt like something was lacking."

He paused to catch his breath before continuing, "Argus took the feedback seriously and Kayaba Akihiko himself, promised all of us in the Beta Testing group that the magic system would be rolled out on the official launch day."


Room of Resurrection, Starting City, Floor 01

Rin's head was spinning as she got up from the altar in the middle of the room. The Non Player Character (NPC) priest nearby greeted her by saying, "Welcome back to us child. I'm sure that you have grown wiser since your last visit which was 8 minutes and 36 seconds ago."

She noticed that she got a new message from Cardinal, the complex computer system that governed the virtual world. Curious, she pulled up her menu and opened it.

"Congratulations! You have unlocked the 'Die three times in the past twenty minutes' achievement!"

She quickly deleted the message and left the Room of Resurrection in a very bad mood. Unfortunately she was so upset that she didn't watch where she was going and bumped into someone's back throwing them both to the floor.

"Ooowwww!" complained a female voice from in front. Rin looked up and saw that she had bumped into another player. It was a female with long orange hair that spread out in all directions. She was sprawled out on the ground with her face rubbing the marble floor and her rear end sticking out in the air.

'How is it possible to fall down and end up in that position?' Rin thought to herself. When it looked like the auburn haired player in front wasn't getting up anytime soon she spoke out loud, "Are you alright?"

That seemed to get her attention and with some awkward movement she was able to stand up. Rin bowed down apologetically and said, "I'm sorry for pushing you down like that. I wasn't looking where I was going."

The girl nodded and began to brush off some of the dust from herself. She was light skinned, had a white bra with a matching pair of panties. "It's fine. I didn't lose any HP, so I'm good."

Looking at her with a weird face Rin couldn't help but comment, "That's a very … unique outfit you have on there."

Auburn-head replied with a small blush, "I'm sorry, but I'm really new to this game. My boyfriend convinced me to buy it and we agreed to meet up a little later. I thought that it would be a nice surprise for him if I spent some time exploring around first, but the character customization menu confused me and I ended up removing most of my clothes. Even worse was getting killed while I was like this …"

"You mean you actually made it outside the city?" questioned Rin with some surprise. "With an appearance like that, I'm more surprised that none of the male players tried to hit on you."

Nervously Auburn-head answered, "Actually, they did. And I've never made it outside the Starting City."

"What?"

"I was being chased by a few of the males. Well … more than just a few. They were all shouting things like 'party' and 'join me' that I got really scared. I tried to run away from them, but they chased me all over the residential district. There was a guard tower there which I thought I could hide in. No such luck. They still found me."

A bit worried about where this was going Rin asked, "What happened after that?"

"I didn't have much of a choice left. I climbed the tower. All the way to the top. The mob was still behind me and I noticed a wagon piled with hay on the ground. I thought I could jump into it and escape."

"And then?"

"Well I jumped, but the next thing I remember is waking up on the altar in the Room of Resurrection. Guess I must have missed."

Rin just stared at the girl with flat eyes. She didn't know what to make of her. It wouldn't be good to let her leave as she was, so she ordered, "Open up your menu."

Auburn-head was surprised at the request. She blinked her eyes and answered un-intelligently, "Wha-?"

Rin closed her eyes and shook her head. "I'm trying to help you out here. Now open up your character menu!"

Eyes widening in surprise auburn-head moved her hand in front of her and saw the translucent menu pop up in front of her. "Yes!" she said.

Rin spent the next five minutes explaining how to equip clothes and equipment on. She was mildly surprised that the idiot in front of her hadn't removed her underwear as well.

Auburn-head was soon dressed in a white half-sleeved shirt and a pair of black pants. "Oh, thank you so much! I'm not sure what I would have done without your help!" she said in gratitude.

Lifting her chin with pride Rin just retorted back, "I didn't do it for you. It would have been an embarrassment for all of us women if you went around like that. I just enforced common decorum. That's all."

The smiling auburn-head responded, "Still, I'm very grateful for your enforcement then."

"Thank you very much …" she trailed off as she realised that she didn't know her savior's name nor had she introduced herself. Raising her eyebrows in surprise auburn-head said, "Oh dear! How rude of me not to introduce myself. My name is Taeko."

Nodding her head the player in front replied, "You can call me Rin."

Smiling Taeko bowed and said, "Well then, Thank you Very Much Rin!"

With a light blush on her cheeks Rin waved her hand in front of herself and responded, "That's enough! You don't need to keep thanking me like that."

"Have you played this game before Rin?"

"No, it's the first time I'm playing it."

"Well then, shall we play together?" asked Taeko.

"Pardon?" replied a confused Rin.

"We are both new to this game. It might be more fun if we explored around together, don't you think?" explained the auburn haired girl.

Rin wrapped her hands below her chest as she gave the idea some thought. Finally she answered, "Why not? I could use a meat-shield anyway."

"Ehhhh?!"

Rin grabbed the other girl's hand and dragged her off saying, "Come on then. First thing we need to do is find better equipment. I'm tired of getting resurrected all the time."


Market district, Starting City, Floor 01

Taeko was looking around very nervously. There were plenty of shops and the street was full of people. She heard a rooster cocking somewhere in the background and the sound a blacksmith's forge. Hesitantly she asked the player leading her, "W-What should we do now?"

Rin looked back with a flat expression and said, "We're looking to buy some weapons and armor! What else?"

The auburn haired girl brought up her right hand to her chin and mumbled something.

"What's that? I didn't hear you. Speak louder." Admonished her companion.

Taeko looked back at her with puppy-dog eyes and pulled Rin up closer to herself. She whispered into her ear, "I don't have any money with me."

With an incredulous expression Rin asked, "Are you sure you checked your inventory?"

Taeko nodded.

"Well … that's alright for today. I'll lend you some of my money. Just pay me back later, OK?" suggested Rin.

Not wanting to trouble her new found friend Taeko tugged on Rin's hand and pointed towards a flower shop.

"Why do you want to go there? We're not here to buy flowers."

Taeko shook her head and explained, "I don't want to trouble you for money. I was hoping we could do a small quest for that shop instead. With the money we earn, I'll be able to afford my own equipment."

Her companion looked back at her skeptically and said, "Isn't that contradictory? You need the money to go on a quest, but you need a quest to earn money. Try making sense for a change!"

Taeko let out a sigh and explained, "That's why I suggested the flower shop. See the big question mark floating above the store? It means that the shopkeeper has a quest he/she needs fulfilled. Since it's a flower shop, they would only ask us to go around collecting flowers. It's easy and I won't need to fight. Just a bit of simple exploration should be enough."

Rin decided to ignore her advice and just grabbed Taeko's arm. She then pulled her meat shield into a nearby weapons & armor shop.


North beach, Starting City, Floor 01

Taeko was staring at her reflection in the water. They bought a leather vest to cover her top and a pair of brown shoes with +1 Agility for her feet. She actually felt a bit faster moving around in them. She held a simple curved sword in her right hand and a round shield over her left arm.

"Did you find it yet?" asked Rin from a little distance away.

"No, the water looks empty to me." Taeko replied.

"Keep searching!"

Taeko felt that it was a boring task. After buying the armor she guessed that Rin would take her to one of the fields outside the city. She had heard that the wild boar in that area were considered a basic enemy and that most players would kill them as their first victory. She was surprised when Rin took her to the beach north of the city instead.

Her companion explained that the wild boar would obviously be too difficult for them to kill and that it would be best to go after some of the turtles that were found in this area. "Turtles are slow creatures and it will be easy to evade their attacks. It's a foolproof way of earning experience points for beginners like us!" was how Rin explained it.

The problem was that they had spent the past few minutes looking around the beach and not a single turtle had shown up. Taeko was just about to move off and search another location when she spotted something swim up to the shore.

"Rin!" she yelled pointing to the creature. "I think I've found one!"

She heard the water splashing as her companion ran up to her. She watched as Rin went beside the turtle. It was a HUGE monster that was about a meter in height. It's head was stretched out of it's shell and it was looking around the beach. It moved by slowly shaking it's flippers from side to side. Once her companion got in position, Taeko watched as Rin spun round and kicked the turtle so hard that it went flying out of the water and landed in a flower bed growing nearby.

CRASH!

"Taeko get it now while it's out of the water!" commanded Rin.

The auburn haired girl nodded and ran towards the beast. She raised her sword to attack it and the weapon began to glow a faint white light.

"Reaver!"

Taeko watched as the flipper she struck cut off from the beast and disintegrate into pixels. The turtle had only 3 limbs and 75% of its health left.

The turtle then lunged towards her, but she raised her shield in time and it bounced off. The shield didn't mitigate all the damage, but she was able to hold her ground and keep the monster occupied.

Rin stepped up behind the turtle and,

"Reaver!"

This time about half the monster's health reduced. "Good shot Rin!" praised Taeko. With a smile Rin replied, "Thanks, but it isn't over yet!"

The turtle had turned to face Rin this time and it opened it's mouth to spit something. Rin raised her shield and blocked the goo it spat out. She blinked in surprise as she watched her shield dissolve into nothing. Realizing what was going on she shouted as she stepped out of it's range, "Watch out! This thing has an acid attack!"

Taeko went up behind the monster and attempted another strike,

"Reaver!"

But she missed. She had tried attacking the same flipper which she cut off earlier and as it wasn't there anymore the turtle wasn't bothered by the assault. It was happy to find an opponent so close and turned its head towards her.

She blocked it's acid spit with her shield. However, her face fell as she watched the shield disappear. She was stunned on the spot and was spacing out when the turtle prepared it's next attack.

"Look out!" shouted Rin. It shook her out of her stupor and she was horrified to see that the monster was about to spit its next acid attack. There was no way she would be able to dodge it!

"Speed Thrust!"

Taeko wasn't sure how, but Rin lunged out with her dagger and using the attack managed to intercept the spit before it reached its target. As Rin stood between the turtle and Taeko, she quickly turned and tackled her companion out of the monster's range.

"What are you doing, spacing out like that?!" Rin said admonishing her companion.

"I - I'm sorry."

"Nevermind. We have bigger problems. It's going to be difficult to get near that turtle without any shields. … Hmmm … it's a long shot, but can I have your blade?" Rin asked.

"What about yours?" wondered Taeko.

"How do you think I just saved you from that earlier acid attack?"

"Oh … here's my blade" said Taeko as she gave Rin her blade. "But what are you going to do with it?"

Rin smiled as she accepted the weapon. She stood up and took a position similar to what a pitcher would take in the center of the baseball field. The main difference was that she was holding Taeko's blade in her right hand instead. In a quick and fluid motion she threw the blade towards the turtle.

Taeko watched in amazement as the blade flew with a small blueish light trailing behind it. The turtle was hit on the head and the blade disintegrated. She watched enthusiastically as its health reduced into the yellow zone, then the red zone … until it stopped.

Both of them looked on with disbelief as the turtle shrunk itself back into its shell. The most stunning part was that it had just the tiniest strand of HP remaining.

Twitching her eyes Rin grumbled, "You have got to be kidding me."

Taeko stepped a bit back as the air around Rin seemed to darken with her anger. A black flame seemed to envelope her companion and Taeko grew a bit worried.

Rin began to complain in a very upset tone,

"All that fighting …" She took a step towards the turtle.

"Losing our weapons and shields …" Taeko thought that Rin's footprints left a black impression on the sand as she walked towards the turtle.

"And instead of dieing, you hide in your STUPID shell ?!" Rin was right next to the turtle and her hair seemed to be blowing upwards by an invisible air current.

Taeko watched in fear as Rin just picked up the huge turtle with her bare hands and threw it towards another flower bed growing beside some rocks nearby. The fauna was decimated, but the shell was still in one piece.

She then looked up and saw that the shock of the destruction had loosened some of the heavier rocks on top. She watched as they fell down and smash the turtle's shell, finally destroying the monster.

Rin sat down on the sand in relief as the two of them watched a translucent window popup in front of them showing how much experience and money the kill earned.

"That's it? After all that fighting, the reward we get is so little?" complained Rin as she observed the numbers come up.

An NPC fisherman walked up to Taeko and asked her, "Hello lass! What are you doing 'ere?"

Taeko turned and said, "Hello Mr. Fisherman. We just killed a monster turtle."

The fisherman raised one of his eyebrows and asked, "Eh? Issat right? Then where's your mace? Or 'ammer?"

Curious about the question, Rin asked, "What do you mean?"

Turning towards her he answered, "Everyone 'ound here knows that you need a mace or 'ammer to get rid of those monsters. Try attacking them with just about anything else and you will almost always end up losing your stuff."

He then turned and walked away while waving a goodbye at them with his left hand.

Taeko just looked back at Rin and watched her quietly for a few minutes. Suddenly Rin stood up, came to her and picked her off the sand as well. She then began to pull Taeko away from the beach.

"Wh-where are we going Rin?" asked Taeko with surprise.

Without turning to face her, though Taeko suspected that her companion had a small blush on her cheeks, Rin replied, "To earn money of course! We've lost our weapons and armor, so we need funds."

"But how can we do that?" Taeko asked again.

With a neutral voice Rin answered, "Back to the flower shop."


Market district, Starting City, Floor 01

"This looks simple enough. And it isn't even dangerous!" commented Taeko as she left the flower shop with Rin. Her companion was holding a parchment that the shopkeeper had given them. It was a map that listed the locations where a special Blue Flower grew. The shopkeeper had assured them that the locations were perfectly safe and that the only reason he didn't go to pick the flowers himself was because he needed to stay behind and attend customers in his shop.

Rin just hummed to herself as the two of them walked through the marketplace. After a few minutes she felt someone tugging her arm. She looked to the side and saw that her companion wanted to speak with her.

"What is it?" she asked plainly.

Taeko hesitated for a moment before answering, "Well, its just that … back on the beach when we were fighting the turtle …" she trailed off quietly.

"I remember. Anything in particular about that fight you want to discuss?"

"It's just that … after my shield was destroyed, you jumped in and attacked the turtle." Taeko said in a soft voice.

Rin just nodded and said, "Yes, you were totally useless back then! Spacing out like that is really a very bad idea, especially in the middle of a fight."

Biting her lower lip Taeko looked back at Rin with determination in her eyes and continued, "I know I was useless, but if you hadn't jumped in I would have died. So .. so what I want to say is this - Thank you for saving me."

Rin blushed a bit on hearing that. She quickly turned away from Taeko and replied, "Moron! It was more about being practical. I needed your blade to damage that monster and it would be very inconvenient for me to wait while you resurrected yourself."

Taeko watched with a smile as Rin began to walk away at a faster pace. She thought to herself, 'She's a good person.'


North beach, Starting City, Floor 01

Rin and Taeko just looked on with disbelief at the scene in front of them. They followed the map and it indicated that there was supposed to be a flower bed at the spot there were currently at. Unfortunately, all they could see were the remains of one.

"What happened here?" asked Rin aloud.

"It looks like someone smashed it." answered Taeko.

"I can see that, but why? Is this some quest event or something?" pondered Rin.

With a frown Taeko replied, "Doubtful. I don't see any question marks or exclamation marks floating around here, so it can't be that. Still …"

Suddenly her eyes widened as she realized something, "Hey, isn't this where you kicked that turtle to when we first encountered it?"

A huge sweat drop appeared on Rin's head as she replied, "Oh yeah … I wanted to forget about that. When do you think the flower bed will respawn?"

Glancing towards the sky Taeko answered, "Probably a day or two. We'd better check out the next spot instead."

Nodding her head Rin replied, "That sounds good. Hmm... looks like the next spot is near here. Just behind those rocks there." She pointed towards a few gray rocks on the shoreline.

A few minutes of walking later the two of them were standing in front of another broken flower bed.

"Oh yeah!" commented Taeko. "Isn't this where we finally killed that turtle monster under a pile of rocks?"

Rin's eyes were twitching as she complained, "WHY is this happening to me?!"

Her companion patted her shoulder and said, "There, there. We still have other places to check out on that map, don't we? Let me have a look." She snatched the map off Rin's hand and studied it for awhile.

"Hmm... looks like the closest flower bed is to the south of the city."

"And that's on the other side of where we are now! For what did we come all the way out here for?" complained Rin as she let Taeko lead the two of them back towards the city.


Flower shop, Market district, Floor 01

"Here's your reward! Thanks a lot ladies." said the shopkeeper as he handed them a big bag full of coins. Rin and Taeko opened their inventory menus and shuffled the money around. They thanked the shopkeeper and exited the shop.

Rin let out a long sigh and said, "Finally! It's over. That was way more troublesome than I ever expected."

With a smile Taeko replied, "Still, I had a lot of fun travelling with you."

"Yeah, it wasn't perfect, but it was fun."

"What do you want to do now?" asked Taeko.

After checking the time on her character menu Rin replied, "I've got about 5 more minutes before I need to log off. Think I'll buy some equipment and re-equip myself before that."

With a sad face Taeko whined, "You need to log off so soon? It's hardly been that long. I was hoping we could spend more time together. And I could even introduce you to my boyfriend."

Shaking her head Rin replied, "Perhaps another time. My husband is cooking dinner and he gets really annoyed if I make him wait for no good reason."

"You're married? WOW! We've been going steady for about 2 years now, but I'm not sure if my boyfriend will propose anytime soon." whined Taeko.

Quirking her eyebrows Rin replied, "Don't worry. I doubt if you're missing anything. My husband is an idiot."

Bringing up a hand to cover her mouth Taeko started giggling and said, "They are all like that, aren't they?"

Rin smiled back and waved her hand. "Good bye then! I'll see you again some other time."

"Good bye!" replied Taeko as she watched Rin disappear into the crowd. She then turned around and began to walk in a different direction. Looking at the sky she commented to herself, "I think I need to return to the main plaza. That's where Klein said we'd meet."


West Field, Starting City, Floor 01

"Oh man, I'm beat!" exclaimed Klein as he dropped down on the grass. He had spent a good portion of his time training with Kirito. They mostly killed wild boar, but it was not easy for Klein to get used to the combat system. Not that it was difficult either but it was one of those things that just got better with practise.

Kirito was standing and panting next to him with his hands on his knees. "I know what you mean. It get really exhilarating when more players participate in the fight."

They had started facing off against just a single wild boar but now Kirito was certain that Klein could easily handle two of the animals at once without his HP dropping to the yellow zone. Kirito himself was able to stand up to five of the beasts and still have about three-fourth of his HP on him.

" -pant- … -pant- … How … How did you get this good? It just doesn't seem fair." complained Klein.

With a smile Kirito answered, "One of the perks of being a part of the Beta Testing group. As a reward for all the feedback we gave them, they let us import the avatars we used when the game launched. They did take away all our money though, so that's why I still need to pit myself against these enemies with you."

Klein took a moment to catch his breath and when he was sufficiently relaxed he asked, "Why don't you just run ahead and fight the more advanced enemies instead? They should give you more loot too, right?"

Kirito sat down opposite to his companion. "Ahhh! It feels nice to be on the grass like this."

He turned to watch the setting sun and continued, "I'm only a few levels above you. My armor and weapon are exactly the same as yours too. It would be suicidal for me to go running ahead blindly. There is a good chance they might have changed a few things in the final game. I'm in no hurry, so I want to take my time exploring the world again."

Klein said, "Yeah, I know what you mean. The graphics are just fantastic aren't they? It looks so real and pretty! Right out of a fantasy movie or something. Though if I squint my eyes, I think I can see a few pixels."

The both of them spent a few minutes in silence watching the scenery. A few birds flew in the sky and noises of animals in the forest could be heard. After a few moments Kirito got up and said, "Well, it's time I went back to Starting City."

Puzzled Klein asked as he got up himself, "What do you mean?"

"It's almost time for me to Log Off. I need to help my sister with dinner."

"So why don't you just Log Off from here? Why go all the way to Starting City?" queried Klein as he walked behind Kirito.

"It's how the system was designed to prevent malpractice. You can only Log Off in certain Safe Zones like the Starting City or in a town or village. That way the problem of people disappearing in a fight doesn't happen."

"But what if someone forcefully or even accidentally disconnects from the system?"

"In those cases, your avatar will try to run towards the nearest Safe Zone and automatically log out. The problem with that, is they become very vulnerable to monster attacks and thieves."

Klein exclaimed in surprise, "Wait, theft is permitted in this game?"

Kirito nodded while answering, "It was implemented mid-way through the beta and I've seen the option come up when I was in town earlier."

"Option?"

Kirito stopped walking and faced a direction away from Klein. Out loud he said, "Perhaps a demonstration would work better. Stay behind me and crouch. Keep out of my line of sight."

Klein took a crouching position behind Kirito and said, "OK. Now what?"

"Try to be as silent as you can and come closer to me. When you are near enough, try using me as you would an item in this world."

"You mean to try tapping you?"

"Yes, that's right."

Kirito stood very still and kept looking away from the road. He had his hands folded in front of his chest and appeared to be in deep thought. Klein slowly crept up behind him. First the left foot forward, then the right foot. It took him a whole minute to get within arms reach of Kirito and he wasn't sure if he was really quiet either. The dirt on the ground seemed to make a huge 'CRUNCH' sound with each step he took.

Klein then raised his right hand and tapped Kirito's rear. A translucent menu popped up in front with said, "Pickpocket Success Rate: 03.52%". A question appeared below which asked if he wanted to continue or not. Klein shrugged his shoulders and pressed 'Yes'.

Before he could even blink, the menu turned a warning red color and he saw the words, 'FAILED' show up before Kirito turned around.

"And that's what I was talking about." the victim explained. Klein noticed a yellow menu appear in front of Kirito.

"What's that new menu in front of you?" he asked pointing towards the new menu floating in front of his companion.

With a smirk Kirito replied, "When you fail a pickpocket attempt, your victim gets the opportunity to report your misdeed. It leaves behind a permanent mark on your avatar that you cannot get rid of and you get labelled as a Yellow player for a few days."

"EEhhh ?!" exclaimed Klein on hearing that he might be branded as a thief.

"Don't worry. I don't plan to report you." said Kirito as he cancelled the yellow menu. Klein let out the small breath that he was holding. Kirito continued, "… for this attempt."

Klein just frowned back at him. He then shook his head and said, "Man, this game sure is complicated."

"But it's a lot more fun to play now than in the beta." replied his companion. Kirito continued, "Take the pick-pocketing system for example - in the beta regardless of whether you were successful at stealing or not, anyone could peek at another's inventory before deciding if they wanted to risk stealing anything."

Klein blinked in confusion and asked, "What difference does that make?"

"For one thing, it's an invasion of personal space that you cannot report and for another, if a weak player found out that you had a valuable item or lots of money, he/she could have reported it to a much more talented thief and they would have split the stolen goods."

"Sounds like it would be really profitable to be a thief." commented Klein.

"It's very risky too. The more infamous you become, the more likely it becomes that the NPC Guards will try to arrest you on sight. You will be forced to spend time in jail as a punishment if you get caught."

"So thieves just have to sit in jail? That doesn't sound so bad …" trailed off Klein as he thought about the idea.

"You lose your levels the more time you spend in jail." pointed out his companion.

"Ouch! That doesn't seem like any fun. Is there any way to avoid the jail sentence?"

"If you have enough money, you could pay your way out. Or someone else could pay for your release. I've heard that it is possible to actually break out of the jail, but no one in the beta managed it."

Klein shook his head in worry and said, "This is getting depressing. Can you tell me about some other change that happened because of the beta?"

The two of them continued walking as Kirito thought about the question. His eyes widened as he remembered something and fisted his open palm saying, "The Skill Menu!"

Klein just looked back at him skeptically and asked, "What about the Skill Menu? It looks pretty vanilla to me. Just a normal menu that you can slide around to select options and stuff."

Kirito shook his head and explained, "It's like that because of the beta. Let me ask you something first, what do you use the Skill Menu for?"

Klein looked at him oddly and answered, "The usual thing. When I level up, I want to allocate my experience points to whatever Skills or Attributes I want improved. It's the same with just about any RPG."

"Exactly. And that's how many of us prefer it as well. But during the beta, they had this really cool looking interface. Instead of navigating a menu, you looked up at the night sky and manipulated the stars and constellations."

"That … sounds confusing."

Kirito shook his head and tried to clarify, "Each player had their own personal night sky. All the Skills were represented as dim stars. When you leveled up, you just selected the star with the Skill you wanted to improve and it would light up. If you focused on a single discipline, you could literally light up your own constellation. It was very pretty!"

"If it looked that hot, why did they remove it?"

"Because it was too cumbersome to use. Frankly, it was a real pain to search the night sky looking for the star you wanted to light up. There are so many skills that it was easy for players to unintentionally goof themselves up."

"Ouch! That must have been rough."

"And the worst part was that you could only access it at night. Which means even if you manage to level up two or four times during the day, you wouldn't be able to improve your character until nightfall."

Klein frowned and shook his head, "I'm glad they got rid of that system then."

"Well … it's not exactly completely removed." commented Kirito.

"What do you mean?"

Krito turned his head to his companion to explain, "It was really too attractive to just throw away. So now when it becomes night time, you can try searching the sky for constellations. They don't always appear but if you do find one, you might be able to gain a free Skill for yourself."

Klein then raised his hand in a stop sign towards Kirito and said, "Enough. As wonderful as the game is, I think I want to discover the rest of it on my own. This explanation while useful to know, is beginning to sound like an info-dump. Let's chat about something else."

Kirito chuckled and nodded his head. The two of them resumed their walk towards Starting City discussing more mundane things.


Starting City, Floor 01

As soon as the two of them entered the city Kirito turned to face his companion and said, "Looks like it's time for me to head back now."

Klein nodded and replied, "Yeah, take care now. Let's play again sometime!"

Opening up his menu Kirito agreed, "Sure!"

Klen watched as Kirito manipulated his personal menu. It looked like the options were so extensive that it confused even the beta testers. A few minutes later, it began to appear that something was wrong and Kirito's face had morphed into a frown. He was getting tense as well.

"Is something wrong, Kirito?"

"Yes, I can't find the Logout option." he replied as he opened up two more screens in front of him.

Scratching his head with his left hand, Klein opened up his own menu with his right hand and looked around. It was just as Kirito said, the Logout option wasn't there on the main menu. He didn't see it written anywhere. He opened up one of the basic options and scrolled through it.

"What about this button?" he suggested. "It looks like a Logout picture or icon to me, but there's no text written next to it."

"Try pushing it." replied Kirito.

Klein tapped the option with his right pointer finger. The translucent rectangle glowed to show that it was activated but nothing happened.

"It doesn't seem to be doing anything."

"Exactly! Back when I was a part of the Beta Testing Group, that was how we logged out. At first, I thought that they moved the option to another menu, but I can't find it anywhere."

Klein looked up from his menu towards Kirito and did a double take. His companion had at least ten translucent windows open in front of him and was manipulating them effortlessly with both his hands. His eyes jumped from one screen to the next and back again. Klein had never seen anything like it and just stared at him in wonder.

"How are you able to keep track of what you are doing with so many windows open?"

"I'm trying to overload the system and forcefully eject myself out of the game. Back when we were doing the beta, someone got accidentally kicked out because of it."

"Oh …" trailed off Klein.

A few minutes later Kirito closed all his windows and let out a frustrated sigh. "It looks like a bug. Dammit!" he said as he shook himself with tension.

"Why don't you try sending a PM (Personal Message) to the admins?" suggested his companion.

"Good idea!" answered Kirito. Klein watched as the player in front reopen his options menu and typed in a message. Kirito pressed a button near the top of the screen to both send the message and dismiss the translucent window.

Kirito turned towards the purple haired player next to him and said, "Looks like I'm stuck here for a while. What should -"

But he was interrupted as the both of them got caught up in a blue sphere of light that seemed to spring up around them.

"What's going on?" asked Klein in a worried voice.

"Looks like a forced teleport. The admins must want to gather all the players somewhere." answered his companion. The two of them vanished as the spheres shrunk around and enveloped them.


Central plaza, Starting City, Floor 01

Kirito took stock of his surroundings as soon as he materialized. Klein phased in next to him. They were in the large plaza right in the middle of the Starting City. All around them were hundreds of players. People were still being teleported to the area and it was beginning to get crowded.

"Why were we brought here?" asked Klein as he looked around.

"Probably for an important system announcement. They did the same thing a few times back in the beta period too." answered Kirito feeling vaguely uncomfortable.

"Oh? What kind of messages did they announce?"

"Remember the pickpocket and theft system I showed you earlier? They announced it something like this. Everyone was teleported here and the admin's avatar would float above us announcing the news. Tutorial crystals were automatically placed in our inventories to learn the mechanics after it was over."

Pressing his lips in deep thought Klein asked, "But what could they want to announce now? It's still the opening day, isn't it?"

Kirito gave him a light punch on his shoulder. "Remember what I said earlier? About the magic system? I'm going to guess that it will be announced now. And hopefully they will issue some clarification about the Logout issue as well. I had to endure an annoying headache for over an hour when my mother forcefully pulled the NerveGear helmet off my head during the beta."

Klein nodded back saying, "That doesn't sound nice. Hopefully they'll fix the issue soon."

The two heard the crowd talking around them making a lot of noise. There were a lot of people in the plaza and it looked like quite a few of them were unhappy about the Logout problem.

"Hey, what's that?" someone asked pointing to the sky. Everyone looked up.

High above the city a few clouds floated in the air. It was a nice blue sky but everyone knew that it also represented the bottom section of the floor above them. The virtual world they were in was called Aincrad. It was a huge castle that had 100 floors. There was only one staircase connecting each floor to the one above it and every floor had a boss at the staircase. To clear a floor involved two steps. The first step was to defeat the boss at the staircase. Once that was taken care of, the teleportation crystal in the center of the next floor would open up. Someone would need to activate it and the floor would then be cleared. Clearing a floor meant that anyone could freely navigate between the floors via the teleportation gates. Currently, only the starting floor was considered as cleared.

A few red specks began to appear in the sky. They soon multiplied and covered the entire sky. Some large yellow messages could be seen that read, 'WARNING' and 'SYSTEM ANNOUNCEMENT'.

"Kirito? Is this how announcements were done in the beta?"

Kirito felt his body go stiff with worry as he replied, "No, it's the first time I'm seeing anything like this."

A wind began to blow around the area and Kirito saw it condense on a point high above the center of the plaza. A whirlwind seemed to form there and it became darker as it gathered strength. It suddenly morphed into the structure of a person wearing a black cloak with a white hood over the face.

In spite of how worried he was Kirito couldn't help but comment, "It looks they finally took heed of all the complaints we sent them during the beta."

Feeling a bit curious Klein turned towards Kirito and asked, "What are you talking about?"

Pointing to the huge figure floating above them he replied, "That's the cloak the admin used to wear when he gave out the announcements."

"So, you've seen this before …" trailed off Klein as he turned his head to look at his companion.

Looking at Klein straight in his eyes Kirito said, "Back then, the admin was in the cloak."

Klein blinked and looked back up. There was no one in the cloak and he could see darkness through it. He tried to image how the view might have been with the admin there.

He immediately shut his eyes and looked back at Kirito with fright, "Please tell me that he at least wore something else too!"

"Red polka dotted underwear and a mismatched pair of socks."

"Ugh! I can understand how that might have felt. What happened after you sent all the complaints?"

"A popular request was to replace the male admin avatar with that of a female avatar."

With a naughty smirk Klein replied, "Ohh... I can understand why that request was made."

"Unfortunately, they replaced the avatar with a female version." said Kirito in a sad voice.

Raising one of his eyebrows Klein asked, "You sound disappointed. What did they do? Censor the image?"

With regret on his face Kirito answered, "I wish they did."

"Huh?" asked Klein not understanding the problem. "Did the female players complain it was too sexist or something?"

Kirito looked at his companion straight in his eyes. He wore no emotion on his face as he said, "It was an over 100 year old female avatar."

Klein's eyes bulged out in shock and he covered his mouth with both his hands as the mental image struck him. "Oh. My. God."

Nodding his head sadly Kirito continued, "Be thankful you didn't see it today. I can never unsee that image in my entire life."

Shedding a few manly tears Klein bent his head and held Kirito's shoulder with his right hand. "I'm so sorry Kirito. I never realized that the beta players had to endure so much."

Pressing his lips Kirito nodded and said, "Lets be glad that it's just an empty cloak up there today."

The two of them turned back to the ominous figure in the sky.

The sleeves of the dark robe stretched out and they saw a pair of pure white gloves appear. There was nothing in the gloves either but they seemed to be attached to the the coak. The cloak held them out in a welcoming gesture and with a dark hollow voice said,

"Players, I welcome you all to my world."

A lot of whispers sprouted up among the people gathered in the plaza, "My world?" "Is he talking to us?" "Isn't this our world?"

"My name is Kayaba Akihiko. Right now, I am the only person who can control this world."

After saying this, the cloak brought it's sleeves back down to its sides. Kirito felt his back grow stiff. Klein noticed it and asked, "What's wrong?"

He answered, "It's Akihiko-san. He's the designer of the NerveGear system and the one responsible for making Argus one of the lead gaming companies in the world today."

"Some of you must have noticed by now that the Logout button has disappeared from the main menu. This is not bug, but rather a feature unique to Sword Art Online."

Kirito felt the hairs on the back of his neck shoot up as he felt worry grow inside him.

"Until you defeat the boss of this castle who gets unlocked when all 100 floors have been cleared, you cannot Logout of your own free will."

Kirito felt his mind race. It didn't make sense. What was Kayaba Akihiko talking about? They were just playing a game afterall. His next statement unfortunately, made things very clear.

"The disruption or dismantling of NerveGear from outside is strictly forbidden. If anything of the such is attempted, the actuators on your NerveGear helmet will emit a strong electromagnetic pulse, destroying your brain and stopping all of your basic functions."

"H-He can't do that, can he?" asked Klein in a worried tone. "The NerveGear helmet was approved by the national regulators for safety. There's no way they would allow a product with that kind of risk to be sold on the market, right?"

In a soft voice Kirito answered, "Unfortunately, I think he can. He designed the system after all. As for the regulators, they only ban the sale of products that have a high probability of accidentally killing a person. In spite of all the stabbings over the past few decades, they still allow the sale of kitchen knives, don't they? If Akihiko-san deliberately wanted to fry our brains for forcefully taking the NerveGear helmet off, I think he could very well do it."

"But that's crazy! What if our family or friends on the outside just unplug the device? Without electrical power, we can still escape!" argued Klein.

Kirito shook his head. "Don't you remember? About 30% of the NerveGear helmet's weight comes from it's internal battery. They advertised that it was a new kind of model that would not need to be replaced for over 8 years."

"To be a bit specific - disconnection from an external electrical supply for more than 10 minutes, being cut off from the Cardinal System for more than an hour or any attempt to unlock, dismantle or destroy any of the NerveGear helmets will result in the activation of the brain destruction sequence."

The cloak raised its right sleeve and held it's pure white glove out as if it was holding something on its palm. Around the white glove different screens starting popping up showing the front webpages of well-known news agencies.

"On that note, there have been some cases where friends or relatives from the outside have chosen to ignore the warnings. The result is that regretfully, 213 players have left this game and the real world … forever."

A few screams were heard from the plaza. Most of the players just stood in shock unable to comprehend what they were being told.

Klein just stepped back a step. His legs were shaking as he realized that 213 people had just died. He looked back at his companion and asked morbidly, "Please tell me that this is some kind of sick joke Kirito. Tell me that he did something similar to this in the beta too!?"

"Players there is no need to worry about the bodies you left on the other side. As of this moment, all major television and radio stations as well as every major internet news outlet are repeatedly reporting the situation - including the fact that there have been deaths. The danger of having your NerveGear helmets being taken off has all but disappeared! In a few moments, all of your real bodies will be transported to hospitals and be given the best of treatment. So you can relax … and concentrate on beating the game."

Voices of complaint began to rise from the crowd gathered. They shouted, "What are you saying?" "This isn't a fun anymore!"

The cloak then raised its sleeves and gestured with its hands for silence. When the crowd had quieted down it lowered its sleeves and continued,

"But I ask all of you to understand that Sword Art Online is no longer just a game. The information I am about to share with all you players will be a secret between ourselves which no one in the real world will know, until the game is cleared."

There was confusion among the crowd and they didn't understand what the cloak was trying to say.

"It was promised that we would implement a magic system on the opening day. I am happy to inform you all that this was the whole purpose behind the creation of Sword Art Online - the magic system will be modelled as accurately as we can match how it works in the real world!"

Kirito was flabbergasted. What was Kayaba Akihiko trying to tell them?

"Magic exists in the real world. It is kept hidden by a few global organizations who seem to think that it must be hidden from the general populace. It is my hope that with the experiences you gain in this world you will be able to practise magic in the real world as well!"

Kirito grew very scared. Akihiko had gone mad! Magic in the real world? That was impossible! He shook himself with fear, concerned that the madman would kill them all the next minute.

"I have come to possess a certain artifact that I understand was used long ago to train magi. It will now be merged into the Cardinal System. BEHOLD!"

As the cloak shouted out, Kirito felt something inside him. He brought his hands to his chest and bent forward. Looking around it seemed that everyone else felt the same thing. It was not uncomfortable, but it was nauseating. It was as if his body was being ripped to shreds from the inside, but also like he was growing stronger. His legs felt as if they would give way any moment, but then they suddenly felt as if he could compete in a marathon.

Kirito closed his eyes as he felt pain erupt behind his eyes. Simultaneously it felt like his brain was working overtime. He felt his body develop a fever and it went back to normal. When he opened his eyes he got the next shock of his life.

The graphics in Sword Art Online were among the best in the world. Everyone praised it for being so detailed. But now, it looked real. So Very REAL. Kirito took a breath and was surprised that he could actually smell the crowd. He blinked his eyes and looked around again. Everyone was so different. He couldn't even recognize anyone. He looked back at his hands and was stunned.

On his thumb, was a small cut. He had accidently cut himself that morning before diving into the game. How was it possible for that small detail to be registered here? He raised his hand to his forehead and felt his face. He blinked a few times. It didn't feel like his avatar anymore. It felt like his actual face.

"Kirito? What happened to you?" asked a voice nearby.

Kirito turned towards the source of the question. He was wearing a familiar bandana and armor made of metal plates. But he no longer had long purple hair. Instead the person had spiky red hair. The face was also different. Instead of what he was used to seeing, what stared back at him was a man who had sunken eyes that shined back at him. The man had a hooked nose and a slight beard appeared on his cheeks and chin.

"Klein, is that you?"

The person with the bandana nodded back and said, "It's me … but what just happened? Everything looks so real now. And your face, no your entire body looks different. Same clothes, but … what's going on here?"

"The NerveGear helmet is more than a mere gaming device. It contains certain runes etched onto the inner layers of its circuit boards - undetectable by anyone who doesn't know where to look. Thanks to the improved Cardinal System those runes have been activated. It is no longer just your brain that is fooled into believing you are in another world, but rather a significant part of your very soul has been pulled in here. In other words, finding yourself in a position with 0 HP will be fatal. We are no longer in a game, but a second reality itself!"

Everyone just looked back at the cloak in silence. It slowly continued,

"Thus there is no meaning in keeping your imaginary avatars anymore. You will continue with your actual appearances from now on. A tutorial crystal with a brief explanation of the magic system has been added to your inventories."

The sky was slowly beginning to return to it's former blue color. The ominous cloak was also beginning to disappear. Just before vanishing completely it said,

"Players - I wish you luck!"

The plaza exploded in confusion.


Central plaza north exit, Starting City, Floor 01

Kirito had grabbed Klein's hand a few moments after the cloak vanished and dragged him out of the central plaza. The two of them ran through a few streets and finally paused in an empty alleyway.

"Where are you taking me, Kirito?" asked Klein as he bent down to catch his breath.

In response, Kirito opened his menu and selected the Map option. A translucent image of the local area floated before the two players. Kirito pointed to a spot near the bottom of the map.

"We are here, in Starting City." he said.

He pointed towards a location a little above and explained, "This is the nearest village. There is a forest between the city and it."

Then he pointed towards the lower middle part of the map. "Here is the Town of Beginnings. We need to reach it as soon as possible before most of the other players start leaving this city." He drew a path from their current position on the map to their destination.

Klein held up his hand and asked, "Wait, wait. Why are we even leaving this city to begin with?"

Looking back at Klein's face Kirito said in a serious tone, "I'm not sure I want to believe all that was said in the plaza, but I've read a lot about Kayaba Akihiko. He's a genius physicist and a well-known gamer. If what was said back there was true, then the only way to survive in this world is to get stronger. The area around Starting City will soon be hunted clean. If we get to the Town of Beginnings before anyone else, we stand a much better chance of levelling up and making it out of this mess."

Klein looked to the side and spoke with a bit of hesitation, "Look Kirito, I know that you were a part of the Beta Testing group and probably know more about this game than me but …"

Kirito just looked back and asked, "But … what?"

After a sigh Klein continued, "I used to be a guild master in another game and made arrangements to meet some of my friends in this game."

He then opened up his main menu and showed Kirito his contacts list. "It looks like some of them logged in and are somewhere in this world. Probably back in the plaza. I can't abandon any of them."

Kirito brought his eyebrows closer and thought about the situation. He pulled up his personal statistics window and checked himself out. He had about 250 Health Points (HP). He knew how good Klein was at fighting. If it were just him, the two of them could have made it through on foot easily enough. But if more people were to join in, the risk would increase …

"Nevermind Kirito." Klein said with a smile and raised his hand to wave good bye. "You've taught me enough to get on by. Don't hold yourself back because of me. I cannot ask for more. Go on ahead."

Kirito looked back at his companion startled. "Klein …" he trailed off.

"I know how difficult it is to manage a team. We'll catch up with you later." said Klein as he turned and started walking back to the plaza.

Kirito watched as his former fighting companion took two steps away from him. He blinked when he realized something and shouted, "Klein, wait!"

Klein turned his head around and asked, "Huh, what is it?"

"How many?"

"What?"

"How many friends are you waiting for?" repeated Kirito.

Klein turned around fully and slowly answered, "Well … there's my girlfriend and three others. Total four people. Why did you ask?"

Kirito opened up his main menu and selected the virtual calculator. It hovered in its translucent window in front of him and he replied, "Including you and me that means six people, right?"

"Yes." answered Klein as he watched Kirito tap out a few calculations.

"With the kills we did earlier and the starting money your friends should have, we can rent a horse driven wagon for ourselves. It will be a lot faster than walking and we can talk as we ride. What do you think?" suggested the black haired player.

Klein blinked back at the shorter player in front of him. He smiled and replied, "Sure! That sounds like a great idea."

Kirito nodded and said, "Wonderful! Then gather your friends and meet me near the stables at the north exit of the city. I'll handle the travelling arrangements."

He then turned around and began running away from Klein. The latter shouted behind him, "How much more money will you need for the wagon?"

"About 1400 col!" came the answer as Kirito ran behind a turn. Klein smiled and ran back towards the plaza to gather his friends.


Residential district, Starting City, Floor 01

Rin narrowed her eyes as they adjusted to the sunlight streaming in through the window. Grumbling about how unfair it was for the sun to disturb her sleep even in a game she slowly picked herself up from the bed. She stood up and waved her right hand to open her main menu. Next she opened the character menu and selected something appropriate to wear for the day.

It had been a few days since the announcement. At first she couldn't believe the situation - someone was actually going to try and expose the existence of magecraft to the world? Was this Kayaba Akihiko person really that insane? There was no way any of the major thaumaturgical groups would permit that to happen.

At first she tried to meditate and free herself. All attempts ended in failure. No matter what technique she used, it seemed that the effects were limited to the virtual environment she was stuck in. Her immediate worry was to avoid getting killed. Considering that she was still alive, it must mean what Akihiko said was true - they truly were cut off from the real world and no one, except the players knew of his mad plan to expose the existence of magecraft.

She was confident in her conclusions because if it was even hinted as joke about a random plot to expose magecraft, none of the major thaumaturgical groups would wait for confirmation before destroying everything and anyone involved. It wasn't the best position to be in, but at least she was still alive.

Rin selected a white full sleeve blouse and a black knee length skirt to wear for the day. She tied her hair in her usual twintails style and left the room. She descended down the Inn she was staying in and entered the street.

She decided to spend some time observing how everyone responded to the situation. There were still a few players in denial while others seemed to be banding into groups to rush to the top. As noble a cause as that was, Rin felt that it was foolhardy to just blindly rush without even considering the consequences.

Speaking of consequences, she confirmed that death was real. A few hours after the announcement, some random player stood up on a podium and announced that he didn't believe that the threat of death was real. To prove it, he walked towards the edge of city and jumped down into the sky. The 'world' they were in was situated on a floating island. There were clouds all around, but no-one knew what would happen if you jumped off. Until that one idiot volunteered himself.

About two minutes after he jumped, those who were nearby heard a terrifying scream. Rin later went to the Room of Resurrection to confirm his demise. The altar was no longer there and what replaced it was a very huge black stone tablet called the Monument of Life. All the players names were written on the tablet and whenever someone died their names would get struck out. Rin had asked the old NPC priest about recent deaths and he confirmed to her that someone had indeed died due to suicide by jumping off the world.

As she walked by a few houses, Rin began to consider what might have happened if she had not put on the NerveGear helmet a few days ago. Would her husband have been the one to get stuck in this virtual world instead? She shook her head as she dismissed the thought. There was nothing to be gained by hypothesizing about the past.

'I am Rin Tohsaka and even if I am here against my will, I will see it through to the end!' she promised herself.


To Be Continued …

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