"Understand this: Alfheim Online is no longer merely a game. Players may no longer respawn in their home city when they die, and the only means of resurrecting a player's Remain Light are through rare items and high-level magic. If your HP drops to zero and your Remain Light disappears, the Nerve Gear will destroy your brain—ending your life forever, in this world as well as the real one."
—Akihiko Kayaba, Alfheim Online tutorial

Kirito studied the features he saw in the slender mirror with a growing sense of horror. He still had the ash-gray skin of a Spriggan, as well as the pointed ears sticking out and back from his head at a slight angle, but the youthful, androgynous face was very recognizably his real one. When his mirror—along with everyone else's—expired into a spray of blue polygons with a shattering sound, he looked up and around at the other players and suppressed an inappropriate urge to laugh nervously. It seemed like everyone had changed. It was like being at an otaku convention of one kind or another, surrounded by people of all shapes and sizes wearing fairy costumes. It looked absurd.

No one was laughing.

"Kirito…? Is that you?" Turning towards the sound of his name, Kirito saw the Salamander player he'd been partying with earlier. Klein didn't look significantly different than he had before—less handsome, a little scruffier, but that garish bandana would've tipped Kirito off if nothing else had.

Kirito nodded, visibly shaking off the sense of shock he felt. "Listen to me, Klein. I don't know what's going to happen now, but I know I don't want to be standing around here. I'm going to make for Spriggan territory—it's just through the pass to the east. There's a lot of tough monsters in the way, but I know some safer routes to get there. There's a really good leveling spot south of Penwether—"

Kirito didn't get to finish. Kayaba—having watched all of the players react to his "proof" that this was now their reality—had one more message to deliver. The growing sounds of discord and dismay in the crowd fell silent once again as the booming voice echoed across them.

『I will now teleport all of you back to your race's starting zones. Tomorrow morning the system will hold a vote for each race to select who will lead them for the next month. This vote will be held once every thirty days. Choose well: your survival depends on it. 』

『"This concludes the Alfheim Online tutorial. Good luck, players. 』

When the sparkling blue light of the teleport effect faded, Kirito found himself standing amidst a number of other Spriggans in what he recognized as the ancient beige stonework of Penwether—somewhere in the merchant district, if his guess was correct. He could hear the sounds of other teleports finishing, and although he could only see a handful of his faction in his immediate vicinity, he knew that there must be hundreds of others being randomly sprinkled around the town.

Tamping down the panic that threatened to claw its way back to the surface, Kirito thought hard. There was nothing he could do now for that poor newbie he'd spent the last few hours playing with. Very likely he'd been teleported back to Salamander territory, which was a long journey to the very south end of Alfheim through both Undine and Imp territories.

And then an uncomfortable thought seized him. Should he want to help that player anyway? ALO had been intended from the beginning as a PvP game. The fact that real death was now a consequence of your Remain Light disappearing didn't change the nature of the game—only the stakes. Kayaba's terms for clearing the game had explicitly pitted the races against one another with mutually exclusive goals, and from a purely pragmatic standpoint he'd be wise to consider any Salamander—any other race, really—as a potential threat.

Kirito bolted from where he was standing, breaking into a run before kicking off the ground and taking to the air. He knew exactly where he needed to go first, exactly what quest he needed to find—and he prayed it was still the same as it had been in the beta. Within an hour, he knew the area surrounding Penwether would be flooded with Spriggan players all competing for mobs and EXP. Some of those conflicts would be violent. The problem would only get worse from there once the neighboring races—Leprechauns to the northwest and Undines to the south—began hunting beyond their immediate territories, looking for unclaimed mobs.

It was frustrating, not being able to fly as quickly as he used to with his beta stats. Now and then Kirito could see distant specks in the sky that must be other players, their own speed as limited as his as they sped towards whatever destination they'd chosen. He was willing to bet that anyone taking to the sky like that with a specific location in mind was a beta tester like him, and hoped none of them were after the same quest.

The town of Lithjagg was several kilometers to the south, near where the vast expanse of ruins marking Spriggan territory began to give way to the low wetlands common to the Undine areas. Technically these were "neutral" territory—neutral in the sense that it was no-man's land. As with Arun, all players would be safe in a neutral town like Lithjagg, but in the open areas surrounding it any players could freely hunt any others. Kirito didn't think that most players would be able to overcome the emotional barriers to killing this quickly, but he didn't want to count on it—nor did he want to count on everyone else necessarily even believing Kayaba's story.

But Kirito believed it. He'd voraciously devoured any materials written by Akihiko Kayaba, as well as the scant few interviews he'd granted the media. He had very nearly idolized the man. There was no question in his mind that everything Kayaba had said in that tutorial had been the truth: death in the game meant death for real.

As he skimmed the treetops at his maximum flying speed, occasionally rising or evading just enough to clear an unusually tall trunk, he heard a chime sound in his ear that very briefly muffled the sound of the wind rushing past him. When he saw the name glowing beside the mail notification, he pulled up and settled to a precarious perch at the top of a tree to rest his wings for a few moments, refocusing on the icon in his peripheral vision to open the message.

「This changes everything. We need to talk. -Argo」

Asuna aimlessly walked the streets of Parasel in a state of numb shock. She had done so ever since Kayaba's so-called "tutorial", ever since she was forcibly teleported back to the Undine starting city along with thousands of other players of her… race? Species? Faction? Tribe? That catlike girl, Argo, had used the word "race" before, but it was really just an arbitrary distinction between the fake bodies that all of the other players in this game wore—it was hard to take seriously.

In truth, she wasn't sure what she should think. At first the whole thing had seemed like some kind of story cooked up by the people running Alfheim Online, a fun trick to pull on the game's opening day. The blood-red sky, the ominous evil-looking guy in the robes, the fourth-wall-breaking threats about logging out and dying… scary stuff, but for all she knew maybe that was all roleplaying—part of the immersion. Should she be playing along? She'd opened her menu and looked for the logout button, and like so many others had found that it didn't work. Perhaps someone who had actually read the manual would know the real way you were supposed to get out of the game.

But when she'd looked around at the other players to see how the supposed veteran gamers were reacting, she had seen neither amusement nor enjoyment. In fact, she was one of the few people who hadn't looked to be either furious or terrified; that had scared her far more than the words of the massive robed figure. And when she'd looked into the mirror, seeing her real face there with slender elfin ears tapering back through her light blue hair, she'd let out an involuntary scream before dropping the mirror and clapping her hands over her mouth.

She didn't know what RPGs were supposed to be like. Maybe this was all still part of the opening day ceremonies, still some kind of intense, immersive joke that a longtime gamer would take in stride. But if it was… it had stopped being funny—or fun—a long time ago.

It was well past 10 in the evening now. She was long since late for dinner; her mother would be furious. At this rate she was going to be a wreck at school in the morning—assuming there was school in the morning. At one point she'd been consumed by a horrified thought—what would happen if her mother, in one of her fits of pique, decided to yank the Nerve Gear off her head. Would she truly die? Would she get a "game over" message? Would she even know if it happened, or would her awareness simply come to an end in blackness that she'd never even see coming? The thought had taken her to the edge of hysteria, and she'd had to force herself to think about something else in order to get control.

She was scared out of her mind, and she wanted to go home.

Perhaps that was why she was walking, despite having no destination or purpose to the journey through the dark streets of the Undine starting city. Maybe if she walked long enough, far enough, she'd find a way home—meet someone who would laugh and assure her that this was all part of the game, and show her the hidden command she was supposed to use to get out. She could leave and never, ever come back.

Nobody laughed. Nobody reassured her. And nobody—not one blue-haired person out of all the ones she passed—seemed to know any more than she did.

Asuna didn't know where she was now, but she wouldn't have known one part of Parasel from another if she'd been told anyway. All she knew was that she was exhausted—physically and emotionally—and that her feet were tired and sore. She stopped and leaned against the damp gray stone wall of the nearest building, the surface cool against her palm from all of the moisture in the air. And then her knees buckled as she began to cry, great wracking sobs that shook her body while she slid slowly down to a sitting position, leaning against the wall and hugging herself with a white-knuckled grip on her opposite shoulders. For a moment, a stray and absurd thought flitted through her head: gratitude that her wings seemed to disappear from her back when they weren't in use; she probably would've crushed them against the wall otherwise.

"Young miss, are you hurt?"

Trembling, Asuna slowly raised her eyes to the unfamiliar voice, peeking up at its owner through bangs that were plastered to her tear-streaked face. The voice belonged to a young adult man with electric-blue hair that was cut relatively short, save for a pair of long locks that trailed down from his own bangs and temples nearly to his shoulders. He was wearing a blue tunic that matched his hair covered by a simple bronze breastplate, and she could see the grip of a sword sticking up at an angle from one shoulder.

She swallowed once to try to regain her unsteady voice, and said, "I-I don't… I don't think so… I mean… nuh-no one hit me… I j-just… I'm just…"

The stranger crouched beside her and put a hand gently on her shoulder; she flinched away. Withdrawing the touch with a grimace, he ventured, "You're scared like the rest of us."

"Is this r-real?" Asuna asked suddenly, in a seeming non sequitur. Never before had the answer to a question been so important to her.

The man's eyes dropped to the ground. "I don't know. I think so. Otherwise don't you think someone would've logged us out by now?"

A low moan escaped Asuna's throat, and she turned away from the stranger, leaning her head against the cold stone. "Please leave me alone."

Asuna heard him sigh, heard the tinkling of metal buckles and the soft sounds of fabric rustling as the man stood. "Very well. I'm sorry to bother you." He started to walk away, then stopped, half-turning and looking over his shoulder at her. "If you're tired or cold, miss, there's an inn just a few doors down from here." When she didn't answer, he added, "I'm staying there myself, in room 2C. If you need somewhere to stay tonight, I'll pay for a room of your own."

She looked back up at the kind stranger, a little bit of strength returning to her. Swiping a hand across her face, she sniffled once and asked the man's name.

He folded an arm across his chest and bowed to her. "You may call me Diabel. I like to think of myself as a paladin—of a sort."

A weak smile touched Asuna's lips as she gave her own name, gone just as quickly. Diabel answered it with a firmer smile of his own, and said, "You should get some rest, mi—Asuna. Who knows? Perhaps if we go to sleep, we'll wake in our own bodies." Then he raised his gaze to the moon hanging in the sky just above the level of the rooftops, his smile fading to an expression that was very troubled indeed. "And if not, then we all have a critical choice to make in the morning."

The central courtyard of the city of Gattan was filled to capacity and then some, the sandstone and packed-mud walls lit by hundreds of torches and abuzz with the conversations of thousands of players. The crowd was a sea of flame-colored hair and similarly-hued clothing, and here and there a burst of actual flame was seen as someone cast a spell—whether for practice, demonstration, or to settle an argument. Klein saw plenty of the latter; it was a good thing the city was a Safe Zone.

There was a stage at one end of the courtyard, a dais of stone that rose about a meter and a half from the ground, paved with a tessellating pattern of octagonal and square bricks. Several Salamander players stood upon it, arguing with each other; occasionally someone was shoved off the platform or someone new would climb up to join the loud debate.

Klein stood about thirty meters from the stage, not paying much attention even when players took the floor and addressed the crowd, speechifying and making their opinions of the situation known. From what he could see, not many other people cared about what they had to say either.

In Klein's eloquent estimation, the situation was way fucked up.

Periodically even the minimal attention he was paying to the pontification of the other Salamanders would be diverted to his HUD as he got a message from one of his friends. So far all but one of his real-life buddies had contacted him back to let him know they were okay, and to confirm that they, too had been teleported to their race's home city. Based on the limited information he'd gotten from each of them, he was starting to get a rough idea of where everyone was located in relation to everyone else—and a very good idea of just how hard it was going to be to get back together.

He was on the verge of blowing off this pointless gathering and heading towards Imp territory to pick up the first friend when a loud voice boomed out from the stage, projecting to be heard above the din. "Alright, enough of this crap, listen up!"

Klein, along with a significant number of other players, turned his eyes to the stage. The new speaker was a stocky Salamander with orange hair styled into short cactus-like spikes, a long sword in a dark gray scabbard slung over his shoulder. He stood at the very edge of the platform, fists on his hips, and tried to look severe.

Jerking a thumb towards himself in a very Western-style gesture, the man spoke with an Osakan accent that sounded like he was playing it to the hilt for effect. "The name's Kibaou, and you need to hear what I've got to say. Is there anyone here who's dumb enough to think that Kayaba was feeding us a line of bullshit when he said that this was a Death Game?"

There was a general murmur of discontent and negation, and a small handful of heckles from people who apparently really were that dumb. Kibaou seemed to ignore the latter. "You heard what the man said. Only one race can reach the top to get unlimited flight, and with the height and time limits on our wings, unlimited flight's the only way we're gonna reach that." He pointed off in the far distance, where a swirling purple vortex of light could be seen hanging in the sky above the World Tree even from this far south.

Kibaou paced back and forth along the edge of the stage, scowling as he continued punctuating his words by gesturing sharply at the phenomenon that had appeared shortly after Kayaba had finished speaking. "That is the way out. And we need to get there first. And you know what that means." He stopped and bellowed out, "it means we, as Salamanders, need to stick together! It means that anyone else trying to get there—any other race trying to get there—is a threat to us!"

Klein felt increasingly cold as he listened to Kibaou speak, and especially chilled by how receptive the crowd seemed to be, murmurs of approval and even outright cheers far drowning out the objections and cries of dissent. It wasn't that the man was necessarily incorrect about the stakes—it was his attitude, the absolutist posture of us-versus-them. Every bit of it rubbed Klein the wrong way, made him think of the friends who were scattered across this game world waiting for him.

Kibaou pounded his fist into his palm, riling up the crowd. "We need to band together and start leveling up, patrolling our territory and protecting our hunting grounds. We need to fight our way back to Arun so we can start clearing the World Tree. And we need to strike first against anyone who gets between us and our freedom! Who's with me?"

The answer, to Klein's dismay, was: far, far too many. Anger growing, he pushed his way to the front and shook his fist in the air. "Who the hell do you think you are?" Klein yelled loudly, trying to be heard above the growing noise from the crowd. "Some of us have friends who logged in with us! The rest of them are trapped in here just like we are! What do you expect us to do, kill them?"

Kibaou scowled darkly down at this interruption that was too loud—and close—to be ignored. "It's us or them, dumbass. Only one race can win the prize that means freedom—them and two of their allies. That's gonna be us. You want to save your friends, you tell them to side with the Salamanders." A ragged cheer rippled through the crowd, and more than one player gave Klein looks just as dark and unfriendly as Kibaou's. Another chill ran through him as it began to dawn on him just what a dangerous position he was in. He turned and began pushing his way through the crowd, followed briefly by Kibaou's taunts.

As he made his way towards one of the side streets leading out of Gattan, a hand touched his arm. "Hey."

Klein jerked away from the touch, turning to level a glare at the speaker and ready to fight. The man he faced was massive—and given what had happened with the mirrors, Klein knew that had to be what he really looked like, save that the player himself probably didn't have an anime-like sweep of deep wine-red hair or thick eyebrows of the same color. At his side was another Salamander player almost as large; there was a definite family resemblance between them.

The man held out both hands, palms splayed, and spoke in a deep, gravelly voice. "Easy. I just wanted you to know that I appreciated what you just said. We might be in competition with the other player races to clear Yggdrasil, but that doesn't mean it has to come to open war. We're all still human beings."

Klein relaxed a little—just a little. After a moment, he nodded slowly. "Yeah, tell that to cactus-head up there. Seems like he's got a lot of fans."

The larger man grimaced; the other man beside him folded his arms and spoke next. "What Eugene's trying to say is, we should think about sticking together—or at least keeping in touch. We don't like the direction this is going, but right now we seem to be in the minority."

"What's your name?" Eugene asked.

When Klein hesitated, the other man said, "I'm Mortimer. This is my younger brother—my real brother, I mean."

"Klein. And don't get me wrong, man, I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks Kibaou's playing with fire—"

"So to speak," Eugene put in with a smirk. Mortimer rolled his eyes and took a swipe at his brother, which he absorbed without flinching.

Klein waved a hand. "Whatever. Like I said, I'm glad we agree on this, but I've got friends who are depending on me—my real friends, from the real world. I gotta go find them."

Mortimer nodded slowly. "I understand. Just please consider this: if everyone who opposes this kind of warmongering leaves the Salamanders, who is left to stand in his way?"

It was an uncomfortable question, and it produced an uncomfortable silence from the three of them. Mortimer nodded again after a few seconds. "That's what I thought. We can't ask you to abandon your friends, and your loyalty does you credit. Just think about what we said." He lifted his left hand and manipulated his menu, sending a friend request to Klein.

Klein held the taller man's gaze for a few beats—or what would have been a few beats if his avatar had a heart to keep time. Finally, he reached up and pressed the Accept button.

"If we're gonna be voting on a leader tomorrow," Klein said as he made to leave, "you've got my support. Maybe you should get up there and make your own speech."

"He's right, Mort," said Eugene. "I think it's time you took your own advice and made your opposition public. Right now that bastard's got everyone fired up, and if morning comes and they don't have another option to think about, they're gonna vote for the biggest mouth."

"You going to go up there with me?" Mortimer said with a wry smile.

Eugene shrugged. "Don't see why not, bro. We're in this together." He glanced at Klein. "Keep in touch. We'll let you know how things go."

Turning without answering, Klein resumed heading towards the gates of Gattan, quickening his pace. He was halfway to the front gates when he remembered something, and held up his left hand to summon the flight controller. With a harsh buzzing sound, he rose into the air and left a faint trail of red light in his wake.

Something ugly was happening, and he didn't want to be there when the shit hit the fan.

"War," Argo said simply.

The other Cait Sith sitting around the low wooden table froze, each in their own manner. Sudden and absolute silence descended, the overlapping conversations ceasing at once as a half-dozen sets of mobile triangular ears flicked towards the unpalatable word that Argo had dropped on the table like a litter box offering.

"And we should believe that because…?" The speaker was a male Cait Sith with silver and black tabby streaks in his ponytailed hair.

"Do you even know who she is, Raikouji?" another put in, sitting up from her leisurely sprawl across the sea of pillows in the common room. She displayed sharp, prominent fangs as she spoke, glaring across the table at him.

"The Rat," he answered acerbically, putting bite into the nickname. "We were all in the beta, Alicia; I'm not dense."

"Coulda fooled me," Argo remarked as she picked at her teeth with one of the steel combat claws she wore. "I thought it was ostriches that put their heads in the sand, but I guess it happens to cats too. Who'da thunk?"

Raikouji shot to his feet with a snarl, forming fists and hair standing slightly on end. "This isn't a roleplaying game anymore, Argo! We're prisoners, not fucking cats!"

Argo looked pointedly at Raikouji's tail as it lashed the air, then up at him with raised eyebrows and a smile of feigned innocence. "Yah, it's not a game anymore, Raiko-pin. So why don'cha pull your head out and start acting like it? You think I said war 'cause I like the way the word sounds? I'm telling you, I got no less than three people inside the Salamanders telling me—separately—that they got an influential faction talking about going to war."

"Against the Imps," said another of the Cait Sith beta testers present, a young woman in mage robes with long braided silver hair who was sitting in seiza beside Raikouji. She gave him a significant glance and waved him back down until he was seated again.

"At first," Argo said, nodding. "You think it stops there?"

A grain of sand could've dropped on the table and made a racket.

"She's right," Alicia said finally. "Look, we all know what kinds of players like to play Salamanders. And if the racial distribution is roughly the same as it was in the beta, it means they probably have half again as many players as we do—and easily twice as many as the Imps. They'll roll over them like they were nothing."

"Good!" Raikouji blurted out to a room of shocked looks. "That takes them to Undine territory, not ours. Let them weaken themselves! They still have to go through the Sylphs in order to get to our territory. Let me know when that happens."

"They could cut through Butterflies Valley once they reach Arun," Alicia pointed out. "Or simply blockade it, and cut off our own access to the World Tree. They'd have the manpower to spare for that."

Raikouji fixed her with his gaze, yellow-green eyes filled with impatience. "So what do you propose? And please, keep in mind that this is all moot if none of us get elected tomorrow."

Alicia shrugged and leaned back onto the stack of multicolored pillows, lacing her fingers behind her head. "How about not blowing off a potential threat, for starters?"

"I'm not 'blowing off' anything, Miss Rue. I'm telling you that A, what the Salamanders do on the other side of the damn continent is Not Our Problem, and B, that there isn't a lot we can do anyway unless they actually do threaten us directly. Hell, if they take out the Imps and Undines, that's two less factions that can clear the game before we do."

"'Fewer'," said one of the Cait Sith who hadn't yet spoken, a man in light plate armor with a full-length tunic that matched his short brown hair who sat cross-legged next to Alicia.

Raikouji turned to him, momentarily derailed. "What?"

"You said 'less'. The correct word would be 'fewer'."

There was a chorus of groans around the table, and Alicia picked up one of the larger pillows next to her and whacked the player who'd made the grammar nitpick, unbalancing and keeling him over backwards with a yelp. Ears flattened against her head, she practically spat out her reply. "Less, fewer, who cares? Is anyone else here not okay with giving zero shits about the idea of the Salamanders 'taking out' several thousand players? Which, I'd like to remind you, is another word for mass murder under the circumstances?"

"I return your attention to Exhibit B," said Raikouji as he met her stare across the table. "Namely, the fact that we are not exactly in a position to do anything about it even if we wanted to."

"We could warn them," suggested the grammar-correcting Cait Sith as he sat up and threw the pillow back at Alicia, who caught it and hugged it to her chest.

"I know, Fenja, I've already warned my Imp contact," said Argo with a dismissive wave. "Not that it does much good until tomorrow when they have a leader to warn."

"And the Sylphs?" asked Alicia, chin pressed against the top of the pillow she was hugging. "They're our neighbors, after all. Don't you have any contacts there?"

"Maybe," Argo said evasively.

Fenja frowned. "I thought we agreed we were putting all our cards on the table tonight."

Argo let out a long sigh. "Yeah. And I've already warned them. Again, not that it does much good until the elections tomorrow morning." Raikouji spread his hands, as if to say that there was nothing more to be done for it.

Alicia just shook her head. "Okay, look. We're all tired, and we're getting on each other's last nerves. Other than me and Rai, anyone else put their names up for the vote?" When no one else raised their hands, she nodded. "Okay. Well, I guess that gives us a pretty clear choice, doesn't it?"

"You're assuming no one else outside this room submitted their bio," Fenja pointed out. "There had to be what, at least a thousand of us out there when we were ported back from Arun?"

"More than that," Argo said. "But you gotta know the option's there in the first place. It's buried in the Community menu." She smirked. "Nobody reads the manual."

"But we can't be the only Cait Sith beta testers who made it in," Fenja replied reasonably. "Just the ones who know each other. There'll be others."

Alicia shrugged as she stretched languorously. "What does it matter? One way or another, we'll know in the morning."

The sun was just beginning to rise over the mountain range that formed a natural barrier across Imp territory when Klein received the message from his friend telling him to come out of hiding. Chagrined at the necessity of even having to hide in the first place, he crawled out of the shallow cave atop the rock outcropping and spread the tall, dry grass that shielded it from view. Below he could see one of the main entrances to the vast expanse of underground caverns that encompassed Imp territory, with a small number of players of that race either standing around talking or on their way back into the caves.

Klein could see Kunimittz down there at the center of a knot of players, talking with them animatedly. It was striking how well the wedge-shaped poof of deep violet hair fit his real-life appearance, even though the racial hair colors hadn't been changed to match their real ones. Klein was just about to send him a message asking when it was actually going to be safe when he saw his friend—still talking to the other players—point directly up at where Klein was hiding, then make a beckoning motion.

Swallowing nervously, Klein stood and summoned his flight controller, dropping off the edge and floating slowly down to the ground near the group of players. Several nearby Imps started with alarm, a few even reaching for their weapons—until Kunimittz ran forward and gave Klein a huge bear hug, laughing and slapping him on the back. "Oh, man, am I glad to see you! Have you heard from the others?"

"Everyone except Issin," Klein replied, looking over at the group of players Kunimittz had been talking with. Some of the looks he was getting were not exactly friendly. Some were overtly hostile. "Are you sure this is okay?"

Kunimittz laughed. "Well, I wouldn't come wandering into the Everdark by yourself, buddy, but no one's gonna attack you while I'm here with you." He looked around meaningfully and spoke up. "This is the friend I was telling you about, hear? We've known each other for years on the outside; he's okay."

The announcement seemed to thaw a bit of the hostility emanating from the other Imps; a few even smiled at him. There were still a handful of dark looks thrown his way, but Kunimittz met them with an even stare until they turned away.

"It's like that here too, is it?" Klein asked, rubbing the back of his head in a nervous gesture. He felt like the proverbial mouse at the cat convention.

"What, the Salamanders are being dicks? Color me shocked."

Klein laughed, as did a few of the nearby Imps. "Like you wouldn't believe. Sounds like you've been talking to some veteran players."

Kunimittz nodded. "Yeah, there's a handful of beta testers who stepped up and were helping some of us grind last night." He gestured towards one of the Imps who'd laughed, a tall man in light plate with long jet-black hair and a broadsword. "Seems like we're a relatively small group over here—Freikel says just under a thousand players—so a lot of us have been getting to know each other. You already vote?"

"Sure did," Klein replied with a grimace, thinking of the building conflict he'd left behind between Mortimer and Kibaou the night before. "You?"

"Yup. For Freikel, in fact—he's a great guy. Yo, Fry! Come on over here and meet my friend."

The named player broke away from his group and approached, giving Klein a slightly wary look as if sizing him up. "Fry, this is Klein, one of my best friends on the outside. Klein, Freikel. He was in the beta, and he's been a huge help to a lot of people."

"Good to meet you," Klein said as he bowed.

Freikel eyed Klein with a look that was still a little cautious, then relaxed and tried on a smile, bowing in return—albeit a touch less deeply. "A pleasure," he growled out—at least, his voice sounded like a growl; Klein had to assume he always sounded like that, because he was still smiling. "Call me Fry. Your friend Kunimittz here is a quick learner." Then his gaze sharpened again. "Are you here to take him away?"

Klein and Kunimittz looked at each other, then back at Freikel. "I mentioned last night that there are six of us," Kunimittz said. "We all made different characters, and we'd been planning to meet up and party together. At least, before… that stuff happened and we all got separated."

Freikel looked like he'd bitten into a lemon. "I'll be honest," he said bluntly. "I'm not happy about that. There are few enough of us as is."

"Fry, I told you that I'd been planning to leave when I found my friends."

"And you also know the situation we're in," Freikel said, frowning. "Look, no offense intended, Klein—I've got no grief with you. But you know what's at stake here now. For all of us. You're talking about taking a player away from an already small population—and at that, someone I'd very much like to have in my party. And that's on top of the fact that a lot of Imp players tend to be soloers."

Klein folded his arms across his breastplate, nodding. "I can't really blame you. But to be just as honest—you can't make him stay, either." He looked over at Kunimittz. "It's your call, man. If you gotta stay here, you gotta stay. I'll smooth things over with the others. It's just… I thought we were gonna all stick together."

Kunimittz looked genuinely torn. He glanced between Freikel and his old friend, an increasingly conflicted expression dominating his face. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, and when they opened, he turned to Freikel and bowed. "I'm sorry, Fry. I need to stick with my friends. You've still got my vote, and you'll be a great leader—and once we've regrouped with everyone else, I promise I'll talk to the others about coming back and helping the Imps with clearing."

Freikel took a deep breath, and sighed, letting it out slowly. "All right. I suppose I can't really force you to stay, anyway." He gave Kunimittz a lopsided smile. "I'll hold you to that promise, though."

"Count on it," Kunimittz replied with a grin.

Klein cleared his throat. "Hey Fry, listen, you've been real decent about this, and I appreciate it. So I want to give you fair warning about something."

Freikel raised his eyebrows. "Warning?"

"Yeah. I left Salamander territory late last night, so I don't know how it went… but when I was on my way out, there was a major jackass named Kibaou trying to stir up shit and get everyone psyched up for war with the other races. Another guy, name of Mortimer, was going to publicly oppose him—but like I said, I left before that went down."

"And you couldn't have mentioned this earlier?" Freikel's expression was as tight as his tone.

Klein spread his hands. "I've been here for what, five minutes? I'm telling you this out of respect and courtesy. I want no part in that fight—we're headed west to Sylph territory to pick up Dynamm."

"Back across Salamander lands," Freikel mused. "Be careful. If what you say is true… they may not look too kindly on you traveling with one of ours."

"We'll watch our backs," Kunimittz said. Turning to Klein, he held up his left hand and summoned the flight controller. "Ready to go?"

Klein held out a hand to Freikel, who shook it after a moment. When they parted, he brought out his own controller. "Ready as I'll ever be."

At first, the sound blended into that of the insects hiding in the tall grasses that sprouted from the mountainside like hair. But as Klein and Kunimittz began to rise into the air, the sound grew until it turned heads all across the clearing in front of the cave where they were gathered, a buzzing drone almost like that of a flight of propeller-driven aircraft.

No, Klein thought suddenly. Like wings.

Freikel's sword was in his hand before Klein even realized he'd reached for it, the blade pointing up at the sky. "Is this what you were talking about, Klein?"

As Klein looked up, following an invisible line drawn from the tip of Freikel's broadsword to the west, he saw an angry-looking cloud on the horizon that was painted with the colors of the setting sun—except that the sun was currently rising to the east. It was too far to make out individual parts of the cloud, but with a sickening feeling Klein knew what he'd see if he was close enough.

The Salamander army had come. And they weren't waiting for the leadership vote to happen.