"…Faction Leaders function similarly to guild leaders, except for an entire race; in addition they have a variety of powers over the laws and foreign relations for a given race (q.v. «Leadership Powers», «Alliances», «War»). It is important to protect them: should a Leader ever be killed, his or her race's territory will become the territory of the attacker's race for a period of one week or until the next election cycle, whichever is longer…"
—Alfheim Online Manual, «Faction Leaders»

However quickly a player might fly, they were still outpaced by the speed of sound. The buzzing thrum of thousands of Salamander wings reached Klein and the others long before the army itself, and even though the approaching horde was large enough to have been seen practically as soon as they left Gattan, they were still much too far to make out individuals and left the Imps with a few minutes of warning. Klein and Kunimittz returned to the ground, landing near where they'd been when they took off.

"Everyone, calm down!" Freikel shouted, his deep voice echoing in the narrow valley that spread out from the cave entrance. "We don't have time for panic. Yashik, you're the fastest—get to Everdark right now and warn everyone what's coming. Sekitaro, send messages to the other beta testers on our team and tell them to start organizing defensive chokepoints at all the cave entrances. Neha—"

"Who put you in charge?" demanded one of the Imps who hadn't been named.

Before Freikel could answer, all of the Imps suddenly appeared to be distracted by something, their eyes going to their left. At the same time, Klein received an incoming system message, which expanded into a purple window in front of him when he focused on it.

『07/11/22 07:00 JST — Salamander Leadership voting closed. For the next 30 days your «Faction Leader» will be «Kibaou». Please congratulate him!』

When Klein looked back up at Freikel, he noticed a new icon appear beside the Imp's HP gauge: a gold star. Freikel leveled a withering gaze at the Imp who'd challenged him, who had the grace to look away. "You did," he said flatly. "You all did. Now move like you've got a purpose, people!"

"What can we do to help?" Klein asked before he could think it through.

Freikel paused for only a moment, black eyes darting between Klein and Kunimittz. "You two can get the hell out of here as fast as possible," he said. "Because in about two minutes I'm not going to be able to guarantee your safety—nobody's going to be able to tell you apart from the army that's about to land on us, and in the midst of battle no one's going to try."

Kunimittz looked tormented. He started to step forward and object. "Fry—"

"GO!" Freikel roared before turning and beginning to shout more orders to the disordered collection of Imp players still standing there.

Klein and Kunimittz rose steadily into the air as the sound of approaching doom grew until it was near-deafening. They left red and violet trails of light behind them, arcing up and over the ridge where Klein had spent the night hiding and veering to the northwest to try to swing around the Salamander forces. The players below shrank to ant-like specks scurrying around and preparing their defensive lines, and then disappeared altogether.

"Are we doing the right thing?" Kunimittz said loudly, trying to be heard over the rush of air and the noise from the assault force. He kept venturing looks back, as if he could still see Freikel and the others from that far away.

"We're doing the only thing we can," Klein answered just as loudly, not entirely sure that he was right. "We've got to go find Dynamm and the others."

"Uh, Klein, hate to be the harbinger of pants-wetting news, but we've got a problem."

One look to the southwest told Klein exactly what his friend meant. While the bulk of the Salamander forces were descending towards the mountains, he could see several crimson lines of light arcing away from the main force—and towards them. It was a sure bet that they could see the flight trails of Klein and Kunimittz just as easily.

If it had been a straight pursuit, they would've had the advantage—the Salamanders were likely far closer to the end of their flight time from having come this far, and Klein and Kunimittz could likely outdistance them. As it was, the three Salamanders altered course northwards to cut them off, and despite swinging to the northwest to try to go around them, Klein grimaced when he realized that they were going to have no choice but to deal with the problem.

When they were close enough to tell the individual players apart, Klein and Kunimittz pulled up short and turned their backs to each other, hovering in the air and facing outward as the three Salamanders surrounded them with weapons drawn. He tried rising in order to be able to fly above them, but they matched altitudes whenever he did.

One of the Salamanders approached and addressed Klein from just outside of melee range, pointing with his sword and glaring at him from under bushy reddish-brown eyebrows. "Suppose you explain what you're doing running away with an Imp, boy."

"Boy?" Klein snarled, his cutlass in his hand. "Listen buddy, I don't know what kind of horseshit Kibaou's filled your head with, but you need to stop and think about what you're doing. This is my friend. We're all people, not fairies."

"Sounds like he's one of Mortimer's people, Corvatz," said the Salamander off to Klein's right. "The commander said to take prisoners if we can."

The voice of the third spoke from behind Klein, nervousness in his tone. "Um, guys, seriously, isn't this getting out of hand?"

"Shut up, Malten," Corvatz snapped before quickly returning his attention to Klein. "Look, we need every Salamander we can get, so if you move aside and let us deal with this Imp, we'll permit you to go back to Gattan unharmed."

"Mighty big of you," Klein said sarcastically. "I think I'll pass. We're leaving. Make your play or get out of the way."

Corvatz's eyes narrowed dangerously and he raised his sword as if preparing to give a signal. "So be it. Salamanders—"

"Hijan!" Klein uttered quickly, snapping his hand out and blasting Corvatz at point blank range. The damage was attenuated by the natural fire resistance of Salamanders, but it was still a solid hit that knocked the target back. As the burst of flame dispersed, Klein was already lunging forward, one hand on the flight controller while the other lashed out with his cutlass and slashed an angry red line across the metal chestplate of his opponent. In his peripheral vision, Klein saw a bolt of violet-black energy crackle across the air and impact the Salamander who'd been closing in from his right, temporarily blinding the man as he howled and clawed at his face.

"Let's go!" Kunimittz shouted, rocketing past the blinded Salamander and swinging the end of his mace hard into the player's chest, knocking off a chunk of his HP and sending him tumbling backwards through the sky with a trail of red particles.

Parrying an enraged swing of Corvatz's sword, Klein forced him back by sending another blast of fire for him to dodge, and shot off to the west right on the heels of his friend. Chancing a look back, he could see the Salamander that Corvatz had called Malten still hovering there with wide eyes and a stunned look on his face. Klein sketched out a quick salute to him and increased his speed as much as possible.

"We're in deep shit, aren't we?" Kunimittz called back as a pair of fire bolts shot past them.

"Not as bad as you think!" Klein shouted. "Now that we've got a head start, I don't think they can catch us. They've been flying for a while, and we'd just taken off—their wings ought to run out before ours do."

Klein thought back to the Spriggan player who'd helped him out in the first hours of the game—while it was still a game. They'd only known each other for a few hours, but the things Kirito had taught him had probably just saved his life. Klein resolved to return the favor someday—however he could.

A wave of heat traveled up his body as another fire bolt narrowly missed him by mere centimeters, searing the air as it passed. He could hear indistinct shouting in the distance, and when he looked back he saw Corvatz already turning and descending quickly towards one of the sculpted mesas that jutted out of the desert floor. The other Salamander that had still been with him didn't seem to notice that his superior had peeled off, and fired off another bolt that Klein—seeing it coming—was able to dodge.

Then the player's wings began to quickly flicker and lose their luminescence, their beat slowing until they stilled against his back. Too panicked to recover and glide, the man screamed as he plummeted towards the ground in a wild, tumbling spin.

Torn, Klein clenched his free hand and swore. "I know I'm gonna regret this… Kunimittz! Keep going!" So saying, Klein performed a tight loop and shot towards the ground at top speed, wings emitting a throaty buzz. The other Salamander, gravity-powered, was quickly approaching terminal velocity—but the maximum flight speed of even a level 3 character like Klein was faster still. The question was whether he could get to him in time.

The ground was approaching fast. Klein reached the Salamander when they were a mere hundred meters from the sand dunes, but when he tried to grab him he didn't have the strength to arrest the other player's fall. Grateful yet again for Kirito's flying lessons, Klein put every ounce of effort into stopping the other player's uncontrolled tumble and shouted to be heard. "Stop freaking out and pull back on the controller! You can glide to the ground!"

Klein wasn't immediately sure he'd gotten through—the way they were both plummeting, it was hard to read the other's face, and to just barely avoid crashing himself Klein had to sharply pull up and hover. But before the other Salamander could make a sandy crater in the desert floor, Klein saw his darkened wings spread, turning the helpless fall into the beginning of a lateral glide. The Salamander struck the ground at an angle, bouncing head over heels across the dunes and kicking up sprays of sand like a stone skipping across a pond. When he came to a rest, his hit points were close to the red zone… but he was alive.

Klein warily approached, ready to apply a burst of speed and flee if he had to. The other Salamander groaned as he slowly picked himself up, rivulets of sand pouring out of the gaps in his armor and from his hair. His eyes darted up and to the left where his HP gauge would be and widened; he looked up at Klein with an unreadable expression. "Thanks," he said. "I mean it. You saved my life."

"We're all in this together," Klein said. "No matter what that bastard Kibaou says, never forget that."

The Salamander nodded, shaking more sand out of his armor and rubbing his head. "Sorry about earlier. You better get going, though. Corvatz might come back once his wings recharge."

With a wave, Klein shot back into the air and headed towards Kunimittz—who, having ignored Klein's words, was hovering and watching from a short distance away. He drew close and hovered beside his friend.

"It's all good now, man. You ready to keep going?"

When Kunimittz didn't answer right away, Klein snapped his fingers in front of his friend's face. Blinking, Kunimittz shook his head quickly and waved his hand the way he would to dismiss a UI window.

"Hey, you all right, bro? You look spooked. Did something happen?"

Kunimittz swallowed hard and turned away. When he spoke, his voice was hollow with grief. "Yeah. That would be the understatement of the day."

"They what?"

The outraged shout echoed in the common room of the inn, silencing conversations and drawing stares—more stares, that is, than a bedraggled Imp had already drawn from the room full of Undines. The player's black-on-black eyes had a haunted, shell-shocked quality to them, and his gaze dropped to the mug of untouched tea he was holding in both hands as he answered.

"They invaded and conquered us. It was an early morning surprise attack, just after the closing of the leadership vote, and they… well, nobody was expecting anything like that. Not right on the day after… you know."

"I don't understand," Diabel said over his own tea with a troubled frown. "How did they manage to do that? You should've all been safe within the borders of Everdark. They'd wouldn't even be able to hurt anyone there unless— " His eyes suddenly widened as he inhaled sharply.

The Imp looked up from hooded eyes and nodded. "They killed him. He must've taken at least ten of them with him, but there were too many. It was the last thing I saw before I fled into the tunnels."

"Zerg rush," said another Undine at the table. When everyone else looked confused at the unfamiliar English words, he waved a hand in vigorous dismissal. "Another game. Not important."

"I get the idea, Jentou," said a third with a knowing grimace. "They swarmed him."

Jentou nodded in confirmation. "And then their whole city, yeah. That's basically what it sounds like." He turned back to the Imp. "I hate to ask this, Geddes, but… do you know how many they killed?"

Geddes shuddered and set down his cup. "I don't know. It wasn't like it was an outright massacre—they only killed those who kept fighting them. But we all got a system message when Freikel's Remain Light disappeared, warning us that Everdark was now Salamander territory. After that, it was… well, it was like there wasn't much point. Most that I saw either ran for their lives, or threw down their weapons and surrendered. Those who didn't do either…" It didn't need to be said. Everyone at the table got the point.

Finishing his drink, Diabel drummed his fingers lightly on the table, gaze slightly unfocused as he thought. Finally, he raised his eyes again to the Imp sitting across from him. "On behalf of the Undines, Geddes, we appreciate you bringing us this tragic news. You and any other Imp players who've fled the Salamander aggression will have amnesty here in Parasel, no questions asked. I'll make an announcement to that effect."

The Imp's eyes swam with the beginnings of tears, turning them into glistening black marbles. "Thank you," he whispered. "Today has been…"

"Today was a tragedy and a crime against humanity," Diabel said severely, his eyes hard. "One that this Salamander would-be tyrant will come to regret."

"What will you do, Leader?" Jentou asked. "You know we're behind you. When the rest of the Undines hear what's happened, everyone will be."

Diabel's fingertips rapped the table again. "For now, giving shelter to any Imp refugees will have to do. Jahala, I need you to start asking around and gathering a list of beta testers. We'll need a core cadre of experienced players to organize and lead border patrols. We need to know if the Salamanders plan to move on us, too—and we need to put a stop to it if they do."

"We should be safe in Parasel though, right?" asked Jahala as he took notes in a window hanging in front of him. "I mean, worst case scenario they could surround the city and keep us from venturing out to quest and level up… but they couldn't maintain that kind of siege indefinitely, and they can't enter the city without being at our mercy because of the Safe Zone."

Diabel nodded. "We'll be safe here." Then he grimaced. "Provided they don't kill me, too."

"Then with all due respect, Leader," Jentou said firmly, "you're not allowed to leave Parasel."

Diabel gave Jentou a rueful look. "I know. Believe me, I'm not happy about it—I'd much rather be out there leading the clearing groups. But we can't let things get to that point—we can't let them bottle us in here. If that happens, we'll all start falling behind in levels and skills, and we won't be able to stand against them when it counts. We need to protect our territory, and we need people to keep going out and getting stronger."

Jahala's hands tightened into fists where they rested on the table. "If they come with the kind of numbers they sent against the Imps, we won't be able to stand against them."

"No, we won't," Diabel agreed, expression resolute. He rose from his chair in one smooth motion, a decision forming in his mind as he glanced at each player in turn. "Not alone."

It took several minutes looking through menus and help files before Diabel found the functions he needed to set Parasel as a Safe Zone for Imp players, and when that was done he discovered that he didn't need to make any kind of announcement to advertise it—from what Jahala and Jentou immediately told him, the system seemed to broadcast rule changes to all the other members of his faction. Still, he knew there would be mass confusion and unanswered questions if he didn't say something, so he crafted a brief announcement mass-mail that called upon all available Undines to gather outside the gates of the spindle-like castle that rose from the island in the center of Parasel.

With most players still reluctant to venture outside of the Safe Zone less than 24 hours after Kayaba trapped them in the game, the vast majority of the Undine population was in a position to heed the call. A massive crowd in blue and sea-green colors grew quickly in the appointed spot—as their leader, Diabel had access to the faction stats and knew that there were exactly 2,471 living Undine players; from the look of it as he flew overhead, nearly all of them were there. He landed atop the gatehouse of the castle in a crouch and stood on the edge of the roof, raising to his lips an object that resembled a conch shell and using it to amplify his voice.

"Undine players, hear me! I know many of you are confused by the system message you received about Imps being granted the protection of our city's Safe Zone, and you're probably wondering why I've summoned you all here. I don't wish to waste your time, so I will speak plainly: the Salamanders have launched a surprise attack and slain the leader of the Imps, invading and subjugating their home city. From the reports we've received, many players were killed in this act of aggression—many human lives extinguished forever."

The outcry that this produced was easily the equal of the din that had greeted Kayaba's original announcement. Diabel waited until there was a suitable lull before tapping the narrow end of the conch and speaking again.

"Kayaba may have placed us in competition with each other to escape this world, but we must not allow him to rob us of our humanity in the process! I have opened our city to any Imp players seeking refuge from Salamander aggression, and I ask you all to open your hearts to them as well—many of them will have lost friends or family this day. In the meantime we must do all we can to prepare ourselves so that we can stand against any further acts of war.

"Among those of you like myself who were beta testers, I know that some are reluctant to reveal this fact to others. Now is not the time for isolationism or selfish ambition. I ask you all to come forward and contribute your knowledge and skills to the defense of our city. You may come to me privately if you wish—but I need to know who you are so that we can best utilize our most precious asset: people."

Diabel knew that from where he stood high above the crowd, no one could see his face clearly. Nevertheless he steeled himself against whatever fears and grief he felt, doing his best to don a mask of strength and resilience. To quell some of the unrest he could hear rising from the crowd, he swept his arm out in a grand gesture and went on. "Understand this! So long as you remain within the Safe Zone of Parasel, the Salamanders can do you no harm. So long as they cannot take the life of your leader, they cannot do to us what they did to the Imps. This will leave many of you reluctant to venture outside, even at the cost of limiting your ability to quest and level up. I will not judge you for that—for the safety of all of you, I myself cannot leave.

"But by the same token, your best defense against the Salamander threat is to make yourselves strong! My second in command, Jahala, will be organizing parties to patrol our borders and guide refugees towards the safety of Parasel. Those of you who join these patrol parties will have the opportunity to earn EXP fighting against the mobs—that is, computer-controlled monsters—which populate the wetlands surrounding our city. Even if you don't join these border patrols, I encourage all of you to travel in full parties for safety, and earn as much EXP as you can. The stronger we get, the more quickly and safely we can fight our way back to Arun and begin clearing Yggdrasil.

"There is one other thing you can do for yourself and the rest of the Undine faction," Diabel said, holding out a hand and uttering a few quiet syllables that produced a pulsating blue glow in his palm. "As most of you know, one of the advantages of the Undine race is in healing magic—only we can access the very highest-level spells of that type. All of you will have received a modest single-target heal as one of your starting abilities. No matter what kind of character you play, I urge you to train even that basic heal spell as much as you can. Eventually the most skilled of you will gain access to resurrection spells which will allow you to revive someone before their Remain Light disappears. I cannot overstate just how critical this is—it is literally a matter of life and death now."

There was one last point to make, and it was not a trivial one—though he feared it was likely to be controversial. Bringing the conch up one last time, Diabel took a deep breath. "The Salamanders have the advantage of numbers, and we will need allies in order to resist them. In aid of this, I will be sending envoys to the leaders of the other player races, warning them of the Salamander threat and seeking friendship wherever we can find it. If you see a party of Spriggans or Leprechauns—or anyone else—try offering your services to them as a healer in their party. We will gain far more by building bridges and alliances with the other races than by narrow-minded protectionism. And when we reach the World Tree, we will do so in a position of strength—and find a way to win freedom for everyone in this game!"

Even had Diabel anything further to say, it would've been drowned out by the spontaneous cheers that erupted like a tidal wave breaking across the assembled mass of Undine players. Although it was his wings which carried him into the air then on a thin pillar of blue light, he felt as if he could've been lifted by the force of that sound alone.

Kirito grimaced as he read the message, grinding his teeth without being aware he was doing it. His fist tightened around the snugly wrapped hilt of his sword, and when he realized he was still holding it he gave the blade a habitual flourish and sheathed it on his back. His gaze drifted to the south as if he could see through the dense mountain range that bordered the Undine lands not far from where he stood, as if he could peer through the many kilometers of distance and solid rock and see the Salamander army on the other side.

If this was true—and Argo had never before given him bad information—it confirmed his worst fears. Thus far he'd been able to avoid unnecessary conflicts with other players, and considering the lethal stakes he was more than happy to continue doing precisely that. At level 6 he reasoned he was probably well ahead of the curve—but magic had an uncomfortable tendency to act as a force multiplier, and a full party of Salamanders bent on PKing anyone they met would still have a pretty good chance of being the end of him, regardless of how much stronger he was on a one-to-one basis.

Still, the thought of launching a day-one blitzkrieg against the Imps… if this had been the beta, or if Kayaba hadn't trapped them all here in a life-or-death struggle to survive, he would've been struck with profound admiration at the lantern-sized Gnomish steel balls that the Salamander leader had to be carrying around under his hakama. As it was, he only felt a sense of deep revulsion at the thought of how many players had to have died in that assault. A duel or killing in self-defense would be one thing, though thankfully he hadn't yet had to put that to the test—Kirito had every confidence that he'd prevail in any fair fight.

But what Argo had described was simply murder.

Kirito thought long and hard about his options. The pay was fair, and he knew Argo was good for it—that was never in doubt. It was certainly more than the Yuld he was earning from the quest mobs he'd been fighting, and he could always grind along the way.

Looking around in all directions across the sprawling wetlands, Kirito made certain that there was no one within sight—on the ground or in the air—and sat down to rest his feet and wings while he responded.

「Understood. I'm close to finishing an important quest, but as soon as I'm done I'll head back north and bring word to our leader—her name's Yoshihara. I don't know her but that's what the system message said this morning. -K」

The response was swift. 「Anneal Blade, right? Don't take too long—you know I'll make it worth your time. And be careful, Ki-bou. These guys aren't screwing around, and I don't wanna lose you. -Argo」

There were any number of ways a person could've taken her parting comment, but the platonic nature of his longstanding friendship with Argo meant that only one of those had the slightest chance of crossing his mind. He grinned slightly as he tapped out his reply on the holographic keyboard hanging in the air in front of him.

「Don't worry. If I get ganked, I won't be around to collect the fee and you can afford to buy another Spriggan contact. -K」

Argo's reply was creatively profane, and made him laugh out loud as he got back to his feet and stretched his sore muscles.

Shading his eyes with the bridge of his hand, Kirito took one wary look back in the direction of Imp territory before breaking into a run. He needed to find more of the right type of mobs to wrap up this quest quickly—the reward for completing it was an absolutely essential piece of equipment, especially if he was going to have to potentially defend himself against Salamanders.

His boots left muddy footprints in the stagnant, shallow water of the lowland marshes as he kicked off and took to the air, the deep thrum of his wings cutting a swift path across the Undine sky.

Slashing at the air as if she could cut the message window to pieces with her claws, Argo was so incensed that she had to repeat the gesture twice in order to get her menu to close. Ears flat and tail twitching without conscious thought as the system interpreted her emotional state, she filled the room with another colorful and lengthy diatribe about Kirito's ancestry, hobbies, sense of self-preservation, wits or lack thereof, likely perversions of choice and preferred computer operating system.

"So does that mean he'll do it?" Alicia asked once Argo seemed to have gotten it out of her system. "You were a bit vague on that point."

Argo bared her teeth. "Yeah, he'll do it—the stupid, careless, free-wheeling ox-brained son of a—"

"I get the picture," Alicia said with an amused twitch of her ears—before her good humor collapsed and she let out a sigh. "At least that's one thing that's gone right today."

"Screw Raikouji—"

Alicia made an appalled face. "Rather not."

"—it's not your fault the rest of our faction is filled with idiots who can't see the big picture here. If we're all still alive this time next month, you'll get another chance." Argo paced around the small room as if she was trying to walk a groove into the floor, tail still slashing animatedly with her level of agitation. "I need to head north. I don't have any ears in the Puca, and it's bugging me not knowing what's going on up there."

It was a striking admission from Argo, and Alicia doubted that it was one she would've given if she was any less upset. Whatever this Spriggan contact of hers had said, it had really gotten under her skin. "Good luck," she said. "When you see the Puca, say hi to all four of them for me."

Argo snorted. Alicia's joke was an exaggeration, but there was a grain of truth in it. Only the Spriggans were less popular—or less populous. Out of the two thousand players in the closed beta, barely 150 of them had been the musicially-inclined race of fae. Barding magic required a certain amount of actual musical or singing ability on the part of the player, or at least the aptitude to use one of the simplified instruments that resembled a controller from a play-along music video game.

Alicia stood by the window of the inn room, her hands clasped behind the small of her back. She canted her head in Argo's direction as the younger girl manipulated her equipment menu and donned her traveling cloak. "You realize that Rai's going to be super-pissed if he finds out you're reaching out to the other races behind his back. He wants us all to sit tight, work on leveling up, and protect the city of Freelia and its environs."

Argo's brown eyes glittered with reflected candlelight as she drew her hood up over her head and fixed Alicia with an uncomfortable stare. "Raiko-pin can pound sand. He doesn't own me." The door shut behind her with a slam, leaving Alicia alone and momentarily speechless.

Freelia was in most areas a colorful, vibrant city—the Cait Sith, as a whole, were a popular race and tended to attract fun-loving players with a good sense of humor. You had to be able to laugh at yourself at least a little bit in order to play an anthropomorphic feline and put up with the inevitable teasing from players who liked to grab your tail.

But like most of the cities, it had been designed to also include a few artificially run-down "slums" with appropriately-themed NPCs and quests. It was into these alleys and side streets that Argo quietly disappeared, her Hiding skill melting her into the shadows as she trained it up.

Now and then she would turn her keen eyesight on a particularly dim or shabby stretch of street, night vision enhancing the low light and bringing some of the darker corners into relief. In one of these byways she crouched and made a sound with her tongue against the roof of her mouth, hand slipping into her cloak and emerging with a small object grasped in her slender fingers. She set it on the ground and went motionless, making the tchtch sound again and waiting patiently.

Before long, movement stirred in the dark, soft and barely audible noises scuttling against the packed dirt street. A sleek gray form a little smaller than her forearm with a tiny yellow cursor was momentarily visible in a patch of moonlight, although her night vision let her track its progress until it paused before her offering, whiskers twitching suspiciously and beady black eyes taking in its surroundings before venturing to nibble at the small chunk of cheese.

Activating her race's Beast Taming skill, Argo reached out and stroked the rat's smooth fur, placing her palm on the ground and letting the creature clamber up onto her shoulder as its cursor turned green.

"You're a pretty one, aren'cha?" she whispered. "We're gonna be good friends, you and I."

The rat sat up on its hind legs and sniffed the air, then pushed at the hem of her hood until its nose poked around the front where it could see her face. She reached up with a fingertip and touched the rat on its forehead, activating one of Beast Taming's optional child skills. Her eyes flashed briefly with an amber light that was mirrored in her new pet's tiny black orbs, and the same light sheeted across the rat's body for a moment.

"But first," she told her pet quietly, taking to her feet again, "I've got a little task for you."

A squeaking sound was the only reply—but words weren't necessary through the bond that she now shared with the simple creature. Argo smiled a secret smile of anticipation in the shadow of her hood.

"Eyes and ears, my little friend," she said as she began heading in the direction of the castle that she could see towering above the sprawling city of Freelia. "Eyes and ears."

Asuna sat with her legs dangling over the edge of a small stone foot bridge, one of hundreds that spanned the Venitian-style canals and channels that criss-crossed the city of Parasel. There was a damp chill in the night air, but it didn't seem to touch her—according to the help files, the Undine race was resistant to cold and could breathe underwater for a time, though she hadn't put the latter ability to the test and wasn't sure she wanted to try. She'd bought a loaf of bread intending to pick off pieces and feed it to the fish she could see just below the water's surface, but was annoyed to find that it didn't work that way—she could take bites out of the bread and even cut it with her starting dagger, but as soon as she threw a piece at the water it burst into a tiny spray of blue polygons, its durability exhausted.

So the hard bread had become her late night snack, and as she worried at it with her teeth she kept ruminating over the speech that her faction leader had given earlier in the evening. The shock and fear she'd felt at the news had quickly turned to outrage, and that in turn had been replaced by determination as she'd found herself swept up in the rollercoaster of emotion that Diabel had inspired in the crowd. She hadn't earned so much as a single experience point yet, but after a few minutes of practice she'd been pleased to find that casting the basic healing spell she started with wasn't so difficult as she'd feared. It was only four syllables if you counted the moraic N at the end, and the cadence wasn't hard to get.

"Zuyasun," she whispered softly for practice, feeling the now-familiar warmth as the light of the basic healing spell flared in her hand, depleting a small amount of the blue bar she could see just below her HP gauge. She wasn't hurt and there were no other nearby targets, so it faded quickly without effect—but she'd made it happen. She could use magic. If the circumstances hadn't been what they were, she might've been giddy with joy over the discovery.

What Diabel said had stayed with her. Here, perhaps, was something that she could do—something that might save someone's life. It was a thought she'd seized upon like a castaway grasping for driftwood, the idea that she might be able to do some good in this digital purgatory without having to fight another person.

"You've gotten good at that," observed a familiar voice from the opposite end of the bridge. A twitch of surprise shot through Asuna before reason asserted itself and reminded her that no harm could come to her within the city limits. Diabel stood a few meters away, limned in light as he leaned against a lamp post. "Have you been out questing?"

Asuna shook her head. "Goodness, no. I'm still scared to leave the city." She looked down at the dagger she'd been using to slice the bread.

Diabel followed her eyes, misunderstanding the look. "Still just the starting weapon? Nobody's leveled up their Smithing yet, but there are NPC shops where you can buy something better fairly cheap."

"It's not that," she said, sheathing the dagger and putting the remainder of the bread back in her inventory. She'd been delighted when she figured out that she didn't have to carry it around in her hands. "I just don't want to fight anyone. I don't think I could."

Diabel made a thoughtful noise, coming over and sitting on the edge of the bridge a few paces away from her. "You don't have to. But you should at least learn to defend yourself. Do you plan on using your healing magic?"

Asuna nodded. "I think so. I'd like to, at least. It's something I could do to help people without fighting."

"Well, yes and no," Diabel said. "It's true that you could level up your Water Magic skill and improve that spell without ever drawing your weapon. But you'd still be at level 1, and it would forever limit the power you could achieve and the spells you'd have access to. You wouldn't be able to get new skill slots for Holy Magic, which is required in combination with Water to use the strongest recovery spells—including resurrection. And even if you could, you wouldn't have the MP to cast them. Moreover… out in the field is where healing is most critical. If someone can get back to the city alive, even with only one hit point left, they're safe and can heal themselves."

Asuna hadn't considered that. There was so much she had to learn if she was going to be stuck in this world. "I can't do it," she said quietly. "Please don't make me."

"Nobody will make you do anything," Diabel assured her. "But the mobs in the wetlands immediately surrounding the city are all very low level, and none of them have dangerous attacks. You could earn some EXP and practice your skills in relative safety without ever raising your hand to another person. And with that basic heal you've gotten so good at casting, you shouldn't have anything to worry about."

The idea outright terrified her. Even the lowest-level… mob, she supposed they were called… could kill her if she was careless. If she stayed in the city, she was safe. They all were. She didn't understand why anyone would want to go out there and take the risk.

But there was truth in Diabel's advice. He'd been in the beta—whatever that was; it seemed to signify that he'd played the game before—and he'd been elected the Undine leader. He obviously knew far more than she did, and if he said that her "level" limited the spells she could use, he was probably right. As well, what he'd said about healing being needed outside the city rather than within the Safe Zone made all too much sense. If she wanted to save lives, eventually she'd have to be where they needed saving.

"I need to think about this," she said after a long silence.

Diabel nodded as he rose to his feet. "Of course." He started back across the bridge, and then stopped halfway there. "I think there's more strength in you than you realize, Asuna." And so saying, his wings materialized on his back and carried him off in the direction of the castle where he now resided.

When morning came, it brought with it a clarity of intent that she hadn't felt since she first logged into Alfheim. It took her a bit of asking around, but before long she found herself walking into a rustic shop with a sword and shield painted on the sign that hung above the door. A bell tinkled above her head when the door opened and closed, making her smile in momentary nostalgia, and as she looked around at the bewildering array of arms and armor on display, she saw that she was the only person in the store other than the obese, smiling shopkeeper.

"Excuse me, sir," she said as she approached the counter. "I need a better weapon than this." She tapped the dagger belted at her side. After a moment, she added, "and maybe some kind of armor to protect myself."

"You've come to the right place!" the shopkeeper said jovially, smiling at her in an automatic sort of way. "What can I get you?"

"I'm not really sure," Asuna admitted, panning her gaze around the room again as she thought about it. "What do you recommend?"

The smile remained fixed on the man's face. "It's difficult to say," he replied in an odd tone of voice.

Asuna looked at him in confusion. "Well, I certainly couldn't say—I don't know anything about weapons. I don't want to fight other players, just… mobs."

Still the same smile, as if it was painted on his face. The shopkeeper scratched his head and gave her a confused look that was easily a match for her own.

This was getting her nowhere—the man was completely unhelpful, and possibly touched in the head. Asuna was starting to get annoyed. "Look, I'm just asking for a little advice. If you can't help me, you can't help me, but just say so."

After a few beats, the shopkeeper said, "Can I help you?"

Asuna nearly blew her top at this, but just when she was opening her mouth to give the idiot shopkeeper a piece of her mind, something clicked for her and she felt extremely silly. Of course he couldn't give her advice—he wasn't a real person. When she looked at him closely, she realized that she couldn't see the green cursor or HP bar that appeared above any other player when she focused on them—the cursor was white and there was no thin ribbon of green in a quarter-circle around his head.

Blushing furiously and grateful that no one else had been there to see her make a fool of herself, she thought it over. It needed to be something she could use with one hand, leaving the other hand free to cast spells—at least, she assumed so. Something lightweight—she wasn't very strong, didn't want to be slowed down by a lot of weight, and she knew she'd never be able to lift some of the bigger weapons or swing around something heavy like a mace. She didn't want something so small that she'd have to be up close and personal with a monster like she would with the dagger, but she didn't know how to shoot a bow.

Her eyes traveled the length of the shop several times before alighting on something she'd missed the first time, hanging high on the wall behind the counter. It was perfect: one-handed, light, quick, and with enough reach to keep from having to get right up in an opponent's face.

"Excuse me," she said, pointing tentatively at the back wall. "How much is that rapier?"