"To a newly-elected player seeing it for the first time, the game menu of a «Faction Leader» can appear overwhelming in terms of the sheer number of options, tools and graphs available to them. Faction Leaders are granted a relatively small number of temporary and limited GM privileges which enable them to administer their faction in any way necessary, including setting laws and justice code policy for their territories. While initially straightforward and simplified, a player working in «Expert Mode» can—for example—fine-tune the relations of their faction as granularly as designating any known player of any other faction to be neutral, ally or enemy, regardless of the default relations between the two factions. This gives them the flexibility to respond to the evolving complexities of inter-faction politics and player actions."

—Alfheim Online manual, «Faction Leader Menu»

25 April 2023: Day 171

"Sallie griefer!"

The slur was accompanied by a rapid motion in Tetsuo's peripheral vision that got his attention just as the rock connected with his head, producing a purple flash of light that briefly dazzled him. By the time his vision cleared, the assailant had disappeared into the alleyway from which they'd ambushed him.

Being in Everdark always made Tetsuo nervous. This was why.

It wasn't that he particularly feared for his life. Although the Imp home city hadn't been Salamander territory since that first month, the degree to which the Imps had become dependent on their Salamander neighbors during that time had led to an official state of alliance between the two factions—an alliance which in practice functioned more as a relationship between vassal and patron. That alliance meant that Everdark was a Safe Zone for Tetsuo just as much as it was for the Imp who'd just harassed him. But it didn't make experiences like that any less unsettling.

There was no point to giving chase and trying to confront the culprit. The city was aptly named; there were no streetlights in Everdark, only a dim glow from the raw orelight embedded in the cavern ceiling a few dozen meters above. Tetsuo supposed that the Imp players who were intended to live here could see just fine; he had to strain his eyes to make out some of the signs, and the narrow alleys between the dark stone buildings could have held anything or anyone. And there were recurring rumors about Salamanders going mysteriously missing after visiting Everdark; Tetsuo suspected that if there was any truth to the rumors, the victims were being ambushed in the caves outside the Safe Zone.

It was no surprise that some Imps felt a need for vengeance after Kibaou's campaign of invasion, conquest and murder. The surprise, from where Tetsuo stood, was that the alliance had persisted at all. Officially, both factions had strict laws against inter-faction fighting and harassment. Unofficially, the power imbalance between the two meant that Salamanders could more or less freely bully Imps in Gattan, while Imps who bothered Salamanders were dealt with harshly in both home cities.

It wasn't right and it made Tetsuo deeply uncomfortable. But it was the world in which he lived.

Twice more he heard catcalls from the alleys; the second time drew the attention of a patrolling Imp watchman who raced off into the darkness, yelling. After that there were no more incidents, likely in part due to the increased density of patrols the closer he got to the entrance to the Grand Nexus where the Imp leadership lived and worked.

There were guards in front of the broad entrance to the network of tunnels and chambers of the Imp executive residence, but they uncrossed their halberds and stepped aside for Tetsuo as soon as they caught sight of the sigil on his armor that marked him as a member of a clearing group. It made Tetsuo feel a little guilty; he was no one of any real rank in the Salamander clearers and wasn't trying to use his status to his advantage—but he couldn't help their reaction, and it was nice to get a reaction that wasn't hostile after his trip through the city and the surrounding tunnels. He at least made a point of nodding to them as he passed.

The light level in the tunnels of the Grand Nexus was a bit better—not only because there was more light, but because the tunnels were more like hallways than the vast caverns in which the core of the city was built; there were no dark corners or huge rooms. Someone had thought to craft hooded lanterns to hang in the hallways, perhaps for the benefit of non-Imp visitors.

When he came to an intersection, he was greeted by a slender woman who seemed to be closer to Sasha's age than his own—although it was hard to tell, between her deep violet eyes and the way her curly black hair framed her face. She detached herself from the wall against which she'd been leaning and stepped into the middle of the hallway, blocking his way without being obvious about it. "Lost, or here for the tour?"

She was also fairly pretty. That didn't help; it introduced a significant delay into Tetsuo's reaction time, a time during which he couldn't do much except stutter. After a few moments of this he made a throat-clearing noise and tried to act like he knew what he was doing. "I'm here to see Lord Haydon. It's important."

"Important, is it?" It was hard to tell where the woman was looking; the combined hue of the orelight and lanterns turned the violet of them almost black, obscuring pupils that were already contracted in the brighter light. It made her gaze very unnerving, and she probably knew it as she openly looked him over. "Lord Haydon is already occupied with important matters. I'm his assistant, Kumiko, and you can talk to me."

As uncomfortable as the automatic deference of so many Imps had been to him, the shift to Kumiko's standoffishness and resistance gave Tetsuo a brief case of mental whiplash that almost derailed him as successfully as her appearance had. "I, um... I don't think you can really help with this."

Kumiko sighed and gave him an impatient look. "See, no offense, kid, but you might want to think about where you are and what you're doing. You're walking into the residence of a faction leader—and not even your own—expecting him to drop everything for whatever personal errand you're on. It doesn't work that way."

"What makes you think this is personal?" Tetsuo asked, trying to regain some momentum.

"Because I know who the leaders of your clearing groups are, and they're meeting with the leaders of our clearing groups right now. And people on official business make appointments."

There wasn't really anything Tetsuo could say to refute that—she had him nailed. "It's really important."

Kumiko folded her arms tightly, unmoved. "People who can't get straight to the point annoy me, and you are beginning to annoy me something fierce. Tell me what you're here for and I'll be the judge of how important it is."

Tetsuo did. Kumiko listened, although he couldn't have said whether she was actually listening or if she was just waiting for him to shut up so that she could send him away; the woman was impossible to read. When he was done, she stayed in place for a few beats, almost-statue-like. Then she turned around and made a curt beckoning gesture, walking away without looking back to see if he was following.

It was progress, and more than he thought he'd be making a minute prior. Tetsuo's armor rattled as he jogged to catch up. "So was that a yes?"

"That was 'your request is interesting and we will see what Lord Haydon thinks of it'. I suggest you be polite and keep your weapons in your inventory. You may be a Salamander, but don't forget that faction leaders have the power to banish specific individuals from their territory, regardless of who they are. Behave, or you may find yourself without the protection of the city Safe Zone."

It was the closest anyone had come to threatening him in a long time, and it was coming from an Imp. Tetsuo couldn't decide whether to be impressed by the woman's courage or offended at the threat, but while he was trying to decide, the implications of having to walk all the way back out of the city without the protection of the area code pushed fear to the front of the line.

Tetsuo had expected some kind of throne room like the one that existed in the palace in Gattan, or at least something more befitting the grandeur he expected of a faction leader. Instead, Kumiko led him eventually into a small, cozy room lit only by orelight that was dominated by a low rectangular table. Scores of scrolls and maps were laid out, and several Imps were seated cross legged in front of the table.

A fourth knelt on the opposite side and tapped at one of the maps with the tip of a long dagger as he spoke, and he had the rapt attention of the others. He was a short, older man with a tied-back mane of gray hair much like Tetsuo's clearing group leader—although in the Imp's case the shade of gray was a little darker.

"I told you, that's why Eugene's asked for more of our people for this one, in addition to the groups already embedded with the Sal clearers. There's going to be a lot of adds, and we'll need at least one dedicated debuff group that can keep them locked down or disabled without killing them—every add you kill buffs the boss."

The three sitting across from the man who'd been speaking nodded thoughtfully. One of them, a broad-shouldered Imp with a spiky purple mohawk that made it difficult for Tetsuo not to stare at him, made a chopping noise at his throat and tilted his head in the direction of the doorway as Kumiko and Tetsuo entered. The older man looked up from the table and glanced at Kumiko with an unspoken question.

"Pardon the intrusion, milord," Kumiko said as she knelt and bowed. Tetsuo imitated her movements after a short delay. "This boy has an interesting question which I think you should hear."

"So he's not an emissary from the clearers?" said the man Tetsuo presumed to be Haydon. "I suppose Eugene would just send a message when he was ready to pull the trigger on this raid. Well, son?"

Tetsuo was growing tired of being talked down to because of his age, but reasoned this probably wasn't the best time to point that out. "I'm told that the leaders can see a list of all their faction members in their menu. Is that true?"

Haydon snorted loudly. "Be a bit hard to govern if we couldn't. Kumiko, I thought you said his question was interesting."

Tetsuo spoke quickly before the Imp leader could decide to dismiss him. "If I give you a name, can you tell me whether or not they were ever an Imp?"

"I can," Haydon confirmed after a few beats of silence, rotating his sitting position on the floor until he faced Tetsuo. "But I'd need a pretty good reason to give you information like that. Who is this person to you?"

"It's not a vendetta or anything," Tetsuo said. "He's a friend from my school computer club. He said he was going to be playing an Imp, but he never showed up after we all logged in and we haven't been able to find him."

Haydon and Kumiko looked at each other. The Imp leader turned to the three sitting across the table from him and made a flicking gesture with his fingers. "Go on, get back to the other group leaders and start rounding up volunteers for the groups Eugene needs. Make sure everyone's keyed for access. We were done here anyway." When the others had disappeared down the hallway, Haydon stood up and met Kumiko's eyes again; they both nodded.

"I suppose there's no harm you can do just knowing that someone is an Imp. What's the name?"

"Ducker," Tetsuo said, spelling out the English letters and then giving Haydon several possible alternate spellings. "He plays rogue types. Probably uses a dagger or a short sword. Kind of a prankster and a joker."

"Lovely," Haydon grumped as he made a gesture in the air, fingers dancing as if tracing shapes or letters in front of him. His eyes scanned back and forth. "Well, the list of players that start with the letter 'D' is pretty short. Are you sure that was the name?"

"Positive," Tetsuo said. "It's his nickname and he uses it in every game we play."

Haydon shrugged and made a very wide, expansive arm movement that Tetsuo guessed meant he was closing his menus. "Sorry, kid. Your friend's not an Imp."

Tetsuo didn't want to ask the next question, but it had to be done. He took a deep, halting breath before trying to get it out. "Is it... is it possible that he was..."

"Killed when your people invaded us?" Kumiko said frostily.

Tetsuo couldn't meet her eyes or Haydon's. "Or in some other way. Ducker was always kind of... hyper and reckless."

"Nope," Haydon said, drawing Tetsuo's attention back to him. "Even if he was dead, he'd still show up in the faction list—grayed out, just like someone in your friends list who dies." Tetsuo wondered briefly how Haydon knew the last bit, and decided he didn't want to ask or even know.

"So Ducker made a character in some other faction," Tetsuo said. It wasn't precisely bad news, but it didn't get him any closer to finding his friend either.

Haydon shrugged. "Or he chose another name. Or maybe he got lucky and didn't log in."

Fat chance of that, Tetsuo thought. He bowed in place once more. "Thanks. It's not what I was hoping to hear, but it's better than finding out he's..."

"Yeah," said Haydon, waving at the air. "Anything else you need? Long-lost girlfriend you want me to track down?"

Tetsuo didn't miss the dismissal behind Haydon's dry sarcasm. "I'm good," he said as he got back to his feet. "Thanks again, and sorry to bother you."

The experience left a bad taste in Tetsuo's mouth, and not just because it left him right back at square one as far as finding Ducker was concerned. It hadn't been the first time he'd visited Everdark, and it wasn't as if the complicated state of relations between the Imps and his own faction were a secret—or even surprising in any way.

But he'd never been treated with the kind of contempt and dismissal that Haydon and his assistant had shown for him—not to his face, anyway. To his face, Imps were always polite and respectful, even the ones in the clearing groups. The only open hostility came from anonymous harassers as he was passing through the city, and it was easy to dismiss them as criminals and cowards. This had been different, and it ate away at him on his way out of the city, occupying so much of his attention that he almost didn't notice the alert notifying him of a new message from his group leader.

「Wrap up your business and meet us outside Everdark. The Undines are preparing to hit the boss and we need to beat them there. Make sure you have all of the supplies and quest items you need. We depart for Arun at 1:00 PM.」

Power, Tetsuo realized as he checked the time and broke into a run, eyes straining to make out the contours of the dimly lit tunnels. It's not about what's right, it all comes down to who has the power. The power imbalance between our factions means that we get to do what we want and the Imps have to suck it up—as crappy as that is, that's what the truth boils down to. But Haydon and Kumiko have enough power, personally, that they don't have to care about someone like me even though I'm a Salamander.

The light was dim enough, and his own thoughts immersive enough, that he didn't notice the other player until he'd run headlong into him, sending both people sprawling to the ground with yells of indignation.

The response from the Imp was immediate and caustic. "Watch where the fuck you're going, monkey!"

Tetsuo's jaw fell open as he and the Imp both unsteadily got to their feet. It wasn't the first time an Imp had called him Saru; like Sallie it was a corruption of the Japanese pronunciation of Salamander, albeit a particularly nasty one given the meaning of the word in everyday Japanese. But as with the frosty treatment from Haydon and Kumiko, it was the first time anyone had ever said it to his face. If any Imp dared call a Salamander that in or around Gattan... Tetsuo hadn't seen it happen, but he could imagine what the reaction of Corvatz or one of the other hard-line clearers would be.

"What's wrong, monkey, Cait Sith got your tongue? Apologize!" The Imp was taller than Tetsuo and more solidly built, and while that didn't necessarily directly relate to power, there was ample strength behind the shove that drove Tetsuo back against the wall of the corridor.

Tetsuo would've been inclined to apologize—it had been his fault for running without paying attention—if not for the way the Imp was escalating the situation and insulting him. He shoved right back, and had the pleasure of seeing the Imp's eyes widen a little at the force produced by his own STR stat. Tetsuo had never been a particularly athletic boy in real life, so it was nice to have the strength to stand up for himself in a world where the only things that mattered were his character's—no, his—stats.

"It was an accident," he said, hand dropping to the grip of his weapon out of wariness. "I wasn't trying to start a fight or anything."

"That's too bad," came another voice from behind him. "Because you've got one now." The words were accompanied by a sharp blow to the back of the head which sent him back to the ground, and Tetsuo was horrified to see some of his HP drop. He hadn't realized that he'd left the city limits of Everdark... and that put the situation in a very different light. A very deadly one.

A hand grabbed the collar of his armor at the back of the neck, lifting him up and then smashing his face down into the dirt. He squirmed and kicked out blindly, satisfied by the yelp and the solid feeling of connecting with one of his attackers, and used the opening to scramble to his feet and break into a run.

It was a short-lived victory. He was running as fast as his feet would carry him, and even with the superhuman speed of his fae avatar he was still shocked to hear the sound of Imp wings behind him, gaining on him. He dove to the ground and rolled just as one of them swooped past him and took a swing with his sword. He heard chanting, something complex and unfamiliar, and as soon as his roll came to a resting point he felt the cold impact of spell energy wash over him. All of his joints seemed to relax, a sense of profound weakness filling him, and while he crumpled to the ground he noticed the Paralysis status effect icon in his HUD. He could barely move his fingers, let alone defend himself.

"That's right, monkey, forgot who can fly in here and who can't? Not so big without your army behind you, are you?" The two Imps stood over him, weapons drawn, and terror warred with anger for control of him.

"You made one mistake too many, monkey," said the one he'd run into as he raised his sword. "You shouldn't have come here alone."

"He didn't."

The two Imps whirled at the sound of the third voice—but not in time. There was a brilliant blue glow and a sound like a traffic accident, and one of the attackers went flying back against the wall, very nearly embedding himself in it from the force of the blow. His face wore a look of stunned disbelief as he slid down the wall, jaw hanging slack. The one with the sword staggered back and tried to initiate a weapon technique, but before he could get into the opening stance the other Salamander drove him back with a viciously quick series of single strikes until the Imp's sword went spinning away from a hand that was missing several fingers.

Tetsuo didn't think he'd ever been happier to see his group leader than he was at that moment—or happier to see a status effect wear off. While strength slowly began to return to Tetsuo's avatar, the older man drove the edge of his shield up under the disarmed Imp's chin and pinned him against the wall, leaning in. "All I would have to do is push," he said calmly, as if discussing objectives in a minor side quest. "You're fortunate that I have no desire to create drama between your faction leader and my own. Assault a member of my group again and I will show no further restraint."

Getting back to his feet, Tetsuo readjusted some of his armor and dusted himself off. "You're not going to—?"

He shook his head, pulled the shield back just a little and allowed the Imp to drop to the floor. The beaten man clutched his throat with his maimed hand and coughed as he tried to stand, glaring at the two Salamanders.

"Now that it is no longer an issue of self-defense, it would be a violation of treaty. Moreover, it would reflect poorly on us as clearers at a time when we must have unity with the Imps for facing the upcoming boss." The other Salamander clearer's sword lashed out, point stopping bare centimeters from the Imp's face. "But do not push your luck. Begone."

The Imps complied with alacrity, one supporting the other as they fled down the dim hallway as quickly as they could. Tetsuo shook his head to clear the last of the lingering after-effects from the debuff. "Thanks, Heathcliff. That fight was actually my fault, I was running to catch up with you and wasn't looking where I was going."

Heathcliff nodded, sheathing his sword and slinging his shield onto his back. "I take care of my group members," he said. "We need to get moving if we're going to catch up with the others."

Despite the admonition, Tetsuo couldn't help but ask one more question. "What if there was no treaty? What if we didn't have to worry about making the Imp leadership happy? Would you still have let them go?"

As they jogged towards the first sign of sunlight at the end of the corridor, the silver-haired Salamander clearing group leader gave Tetsuo an odd, penetrating look. It was a look he'd seen before, and as much as Tetsuo trusted Heathcliff from all the battles they'd fought together, it was a look that never failed to unnerve him. It was as if the man was looking through him rather than at him.

"Have you ever taken a life in this world, Tetsuo?"

He shook his head. "I've never had to. I wasn't part of Kibaou's invasion force. I've fought other players, we all have, but even before the treaty someone always retreated before it came to a killing blow." He hesitated, and then said, "have you?"

Heathcliff nodded thoughtfully, returning his attention to where he was going. There was a span of time where the only sound was the rhythmic drum of their boots on the ground, and Tetsuo had already decided that was the only answer he was going to get when his group leader spoke again.

"More than you will ever know," Heathcliff said finally after they broke out into the open, his gaze refocusing on Tetsuo in that unnerving way. "But not without first giving them a chance to live."

Author Note: Thank you to everyone who has left a review or message regarding this experiment with a new format, and all readers constant and new. I'm reading every comment and I really appreciate the feedback, it's been very useful and given me quite a few things to consider going forward.

So here, in my opinion, is the real test: what do people think about this style of chapter when it's from the viewpoint of a character who is canonically a minor side character? Up until now there has never been a chapter that did not at least have one Kirito viewpoint. His and Tetsuo's paths will indeed cross in the future, but not right now. And for that matter, there's the divergent development of the Black Cats in general.

And what are your thoughts on the reveal at the end?

A few responses to general themes or interesting points...

Throwing Kirito in a group being overdone: I don't really get this one. In canon Asuna and Kirito spent a bit of time after the first floor traveling together before parting ways. They paired up to investigate the murder in the area, she aggressively pursued getting him into a party with her later in the series, and he ends up forced to join her guild. Obviously things are going to progress differently in this story, but let's not get the idea that Kirito and Asuna partying up is any kind of wild deviation from their character.

'Random' drops, the bane of all RPG players: as a longtime raider and grinder, don't I know it.

Can you please tell me why you don't want any romance? I don't recall ever saying that. This isn't a "romance" fic but that doesn't mean there won't be any.

Epigraphs: I like them too. Obviously I had one ready for this chapter. We'll see if I can maintain that. New authors are advised to avoid epigraphs, especially real quotations, at the beginning of each chapter—it sets the expectation that that will continue, and many authors find that they can't continue or that it's a source of frustration to keep coming up with them. I chose to use them knowing that, on the theory that if there's one thing I rarely have a problem doing it's pulling worldbuilding out of my ass. :)

Update rate, longer chapters, and having to wait to read about Kirito again: Here's my thinking on this. In the old format, you already had to wait for three other viewpoints to be written before you can get back to reading about Kirito, because at least three others have to be complete before any of them can be published. This new way, any given viewpoint can be published as soon as it's done. If you like having longer chapters to read, you could always save up a few updates and read them in one sitting. At any rate, we'll see how this goes for a few more chapters—the effective length of one of the old chapters—and then I'll reevaluate.

Delay of chapter 20:
Check my profile-I tend to update it periodically. The short version is that I'm moving into a new apartment this month AND looking for work; pretty much everything went to hell this year and particularly in the last few months. Expect multiple updates in November for the first anniversary of the fic.

Holy crap-has it really been a year? Only 9 years until we get our own Nerve Gears! :D