The sun had risen bright and clear on the morning of the Springtime Familiar Summoning Ritual. Louise Françoise le Blanc de La Vallière had risen earlier but not so brightly. She sat quietly on the edge of her bed, eyes fixed on the ground before her, lips moving in soft repetition, repeating the words of the spell, shaping them, feeling them roll of the tongue. The words had become not just an incantation, but a mantra, a talisman, her greatest fear and her last hope. Her teachers had made it clear, gently, but in no uncertain terms that this was her last chance to prove herself. She'd practiced the spell a thousand times to the fullest extent she was allowed without actually performing the summoning.
The school bells began to ring announcing the beginning of the school day. Louise stood slowly and starred at herself in the mirror beside her bed. Short, skinny, strawberry blond hair framing a sullen face pinched with worry. She looked too young, and she looked too old, hunched over and tired. Textbooks and notes on magical theory were scattered across her desk. She hadn't slept much the night before. She took a deep breath, dawning her mask, she stood straighter, held her head higher, and did her best to project more confidence than she felt.
She marched out into the dormitory hall, storming past the doors of the other students who were only just now stirring. She was down the stairs and heading towards the dining hall before any of the other students had so much as gotten dressed.
So early in the morning, the only people in the dining hall were servants preparing for the arrival of the students and a few odd faculty members getting a head start on the day. Louise paid the scant few other occupants no attention. Hunger gnawed on her insides but was accompanied by a queasiness that made her reluctant to eat. She settled on nibbling on some toast as a compromise.
It wasn't long before the other students began to arrive, tricking in, they chatted amongst themselves, the subject of their conversations doing more to mark their age than their appearances and cloaks ever could. First years complaining about homesickness, second year panicking over the work load, and third years . . . third years talking about today.
"Good morning Vallière! Ready for the big day?" A voice dripping with an indecent amount of cheerfulness assaulted Louise's ears and her expression soured instantly. The voice's owner was a taller girl with mocha skin and lustrous red hair, she wore her school uniform hemmed and buttoned scandalously to flaunt long legs and generous figure.
"Zerbst." She bit out by way of greeting and took a sip of her tea to hide her displeasure.
The perk . . . pesky Germanian girl pouted her lips. "Now now Vallière, those no need for that on a day like today. Today is the Springtime Familiar Summoning, surely you can work up a bit more enthusiasm! Of course the summons of a Vallière surely wont compare to my own . . ."
Louise slammed her cup down and gave the Germanian a glare that almost managed to shut her up.
However, before the words could grow more heated a waifish, bespectacled girl with blue hair appeared beside Kirche and tugged softly at the arm of her blouse.
"Don't make a scene." She said softly, voice almost empty of emotion, the way she starred at the Germanian conveyed everything.
Kirche huffed a little but listened to the smaller girl giving Louise a final amused glance. "I look forward to seeing your best efforts today, Zero."
Louise said nothing as the other students sat around her. She finished her meal and departed from the hall without a word to anyone. She went to wait out on the grounds where the summoning would take place. Again she was ahead of the other students, not that it mattered, the order in which students would summon their familiars had already been decided by the teachers. Naturally Louise was to be the last, lest her failures delay the other students in summoning their magical companions.
Louise pulled a small scrap of paper from her pocket and began to recite the spell once more. "My servant that exists somewhere in this vast universe . . ." She whispered, " . . . my divine, beautiful, wise, powerful servant, heed my call . . . I wish from very bottom of my heart and add to my guidance and appear . . ." She squeezed the paper so tight that it crumpled in her hands.
After a while the other third years began to arrive, clustering amongst their friends and class mates and discussing the proceedings with excitement. Kirche and her smaller companion, Tabitha, arrived as a pair, night and day opposites of one another.
Not long after, their faculty adviser arrived, Professor Colbert. Louise rather liked Professor Colbert, out of all of her teachers, he was kind to a fault and had complimented her on her studiousness in class on more than one occasion. It was nice, something she could point to and say she deserved.
"Settle down everyone, settles down." Colbert called, striking his staff lightly against a nearby stone. "As you all know, today you will be summoning your companion familiars. This is a sacred right amongst mages and marks a crucial step in your progress. A familiar gives insight into the true potential of its summoning mage and your summons will also confirm your elemental affinity and determine the higher level curriculum that you will study in this year." The warm expression on the Professor's face turned grave and his voice took on the tone of a man giving clear instructions.
"I will warn you all that while the summoning ritual is amongst the spells passed down by the founder himself and was crafted to ensure the safety of the summoner, there is always a degree of risk in summoning a familiar. Your summons will be under a mild passive enchantment to dissuade it from aggression, however this may disorient it and pose a grave risk with some of the larger or more volatile summons. It will be my responsibility to restrain your familiar if necessary so that you may complete the summoning safely. As soon as you have summoned your familiar you must complete the binding immediately for the safety of yourself and the other students. Am I understood?"
There was a chorus of affirmatives from the gathered students and the Professor called the first name.
"As is the tradition, the mage with the highest academic standings is given the honor of the first summons.
Tabitha, if you would please?"
Louise watched quietly as the small mage stepped forward with a reassuring pat on the back from her taller companion and took her place opposite the professor at the center of the gathered students.
"Everyone please stand back, we have no idea of the size of the familiar to be summoned."
The students obeyed, cautiously giving the Professor and Tabitha space.
"You may begin." Colbert said.
Tabitha nodded in confirmation and began the invocation. "My servant that exists somewhere in this vast universe. My divine, beautiful, wise, powerful servant. Heed my call. I wish from very bottom of my heart and add to my guidance and appear." The words were spoken softly and with faultless enunciation and were perhaps the single longest thing any of the gathered students had ever heard from the small girl.
The space between the professor and Tabitha became a pool of light expanding outward until it lapped at their feet. A low startled cry filled the air as a figure outline in the light cast be the summons slowly rose from the center of the pool, and rose, and rose. The gathered students instinctively moved further back and even the Professor had taken a ready stance in the event that the summon proved dangerous.
Louise gasped as the figure resolved into the sleek, lanky body of a dragon. A real dragon! The creature had deep green black less eyes and was covered in fine azure scales that paled to milky weight along its underside. The dragon slowly took in its surroundings and the softly murmuring students, sniffing the air, and then as if drawn by some magnetic force, turned its attention upon Tabitha. The girl said nothing, the dragon cocked its head and let out a soft chirp, not a roar or bark like Louise had expected, but a gentle warbling call.
"Tabitha, quickly, completely the summoning!" Colbert called.
The girl was already ahead of him, stepping forward she reached up and with surprising gentleness the dragon bowed its head forward. The girl said something softly and then gently kissed the summons on the tip of its nose. The dragon warbled softly as runes etched themselves upon its skin and then slowly squatted down on it haunches regarding its summoner.
Louise sword she saw the normally emotionless Tabitha smile as she placed a dainty hand on the thick forearm of her new familiar.
Other impressive and not so impressive summons soon followed though none were quite as inspiring as Tabitha's dragon. Louise observed quietly, as Colbert had said, summons told a great deal about the true strength of a mage at the time of their summoning and Louise took some hidden delight in noting how many of her fiercest detractors failed to summon more than a cat or bird familiar, sure signs of their status as line or dot mages unworthy of attacking the reputation of a Vallière.
The Zerbst girl fawned over her summon, a particular large salamander, as Professor Colbert admonished her for not putting the effort that her talent indicated into her studies.
Slowly the Professor worked his way through the list until Louise was the only one left. Biting down she marched forward when she heard her name, a look of cold determination caused the gathered students to part as she passed though it did nothing to mute the cat calls.
"Try not to fail too spectacularly Zero." One voice called.
"At very least don't become a negative one!"
"Get clear everyone, they're letting the Zero cast!"
"Try not to kill the Professor Zero!"
She tried to ignore them. She'd almost convinced herself that she had succeeded by the time that she reached the summoning circle.
Professor Colbert gave her an encouraging smile. "Good morning Miss Vallière, are you ready?"
Louise nodded. "I studied the summoning all last night." She said.
"Then let us begin." Colbert said. To his credit, in deference to Louise's . . . incendiary reputation, he only took a half step back and raised his staff in preparation to cast. He gave Louise a reassuring nod.
The youngest Vallière closed her eyes and concentrated. A spell was more than words, if it weren't than any literate commoner could have learned magic, an invocation required the casters fullest concentration and the ability to draw deeply upon the will power within themselves and shape it to the words in order to perform the intended task.
"My servant that exists somewhere in this vast universe." She began hoping that no one else could hear her voice tremble. "My divine, beautiful, wise, powerful servant, heed my call." She squeezed her eyes shut. "I wish from very bottom of my heart and add to my guidance and appear!"
Louise would have been unsurprised at a failure, she was used to them by now, but it would be a spectacular failure whatever it was. What she was unprepared for was what happened. Nothing. There was no light, no summoning, not even the explosion of one of her failed spells. Louise the zero felt her heart plummet.
Unbeknownst to the gathered onlookers, to their Professor, or even to the caster herself, Louise's spell sped forth in search of its casters fervent desire. It did not know what it searched for but knew that it would understand when it had been found. The spell was not a living thing, but it possessed intelligence of a sort in the logic impressed upon its by its original creator and the vast wisdom of the minds that it had touched. As the spell spread across the land it cast its net wide, examining, comparing, and then indexing every being that it came across. The task was swift, the many castings in rapid succession ensured that much of the continent had been thoroughly indexed. None matched what it sought and slowly the spell spread outward across the sea's to strange lands and far across the continent and the deserts that marked the beginning of Elfin territory.
The spell even crept into the rents in space and time scattered across the globe, wounds of a long ago struggle that had yet to heal. Through these gates it stretched into the other world where magic flowed but no practitioners existed. The spell had not been cast so far in many years and its task was slowed as it was forced to index every being it came across. The people of this land were different and in time it found many beings that were almost a match for its casters wish.
It was as the spell examined one of these minds that it found something peculiar. The mind was active, tremendously so, but the body did nothing. The spell looked closer and found threads like gossamer linking this mind to other minds and a strange existence, alien but familiar. It followed the connections, tracing it out with something resembling curiosity in its effort to complete its task.
The spell was confronted by something, something different, it had touched many minds over the millennia, incorporated those that were useful, discarded those that were not. But now it was confronted by something wholly different. A human would have compared the sensation to looking in a distorted mirror though that analogy would be lost on the spell which had no use for such things.
"Who are you?" The spell asked.
-Boot Turing Language Mode-
The spell disregarded its reflection. Its feelers spread throughout the vast network, wormed its way past codes, and barriers. It sought to examine and understand. Though the minds of those that touched the network it comprehended and came to understand the vastness and dug deeper and deeper still until its feelers brushed against something.
And there was light.
The World Tree Guardian let out an inhuman cry as it swung its blade. Its opponent, a black haired youth barely half of its size, parried the blow and dove inside of its reach. A mid level monster like this was hardly a threat against a high level player, much less a player possessing stats honed for two years in the ruthless death game of Sword Art Online. However, it was not this monster, or the next that was the problem, but the hundreds that now surrounded him. Each second a dozen more guardians spawned. They were literally being generated faster than he could deal damage.
Kirigaya Kazuto, Kirito, SAO Beater, and now a Spriggan within the world of ALFheim online, delivered the finishing blow and advanced to his next opponent. He staggered the Guardian, a fearsome humanoid in white knightly armor, and drove his heavy sword through a seam in its helmet armor. The life bar depleted in an instant and the guardian disintegrated.
To his rear a furnace like heat erupted as the allied Cait Syth players unleashed a concentrated breath attack from their dragon mounts, erasing a squadron of Guardians seeking to take him from behind. His allies, the most powerful players of both the Cait Syth and the Sylph races, were cutting a swath through the monsters from bellow, but even with the help of the most powerful players in the best equipment, they were barely managing to make any progress. The battle would be hard fought, whether they made it to the top or not.
With each moment the spawn rate of the guardian increased and so far no previous raid had ever observed either an upper limit to the spawn rate or the total number of spawned Guardians. Above they were so thick that the gateway beyond was obscured by a wall of glittering armor. Even now it might not be possible to break through.
No. Kirito thought. No, it was definitely possible. This was the only way he knew to meet Asuna again, here or in any other world. There existed no other acceptable outcome.
The Spriggan didn't even slow down as he reached the next Guardian Knight. Timing his swing he lost barely any momentum as the knight came apart like paper. As the death animation cleared Kirito spun out of the way, narrowly missing a decapitating strike from a second Guardian before returning the favor to a third.
A group of the Cait Syth's Dragon Knights, heavily armored players atop high level dragon mounts, managed to gather together near the center of the world tree's trunk and unleash a hellish AoE breath attack. Packed so closely together the Guardian's numerical advantage counted for nothing. Fully a quarter of the gathered Guardian were evaporated, and with their destruction Kirito could at least see a path towards the gateway. This was his chance, such a large mob facing so many players in such a confined space, the server was lagging in engaging the Guardian's AI.
Kirito stormed into the breach a squad of Sylph players following close behind. A sort of equilibrium had been reached. The Guardian's continued to spawn but there was only so much space for them to occupy, and only so many could attack at once. The combined forces of the Cait Syth, Sylph, and the lone Spriggan, were melting through their front lines like an unstoppable force of nature.
Kirito caught sight of a green flash. Leafa, his companion, his partner, his friend, his sister, dashed out ahead and with the same graceful conservation of effort she would display in a real life Kendo match she swung her Katana, cleanly bisecting the next guardian. She had left herself open to a counterattack, the next Guardian swung its blade, attempting to cleave her in two, and was immediately blocked by Kirito. They acted as two parts of a greater whole, guarding and countering for each other.
Another Sylph player rushed forward to finish the Guardian as Kirito kicked off and chased after his sister. They were two of the strongest players amongst the party, they had to take point and keep up the momentum, their relentless forward progress was making things difficult for the game AI to keep up but all the computer needed was a moment. If they got bogged down for even a second it would be over.
At last the party broke through the final layer of Guardians, the gateway to the top of the world tree, to ALFheim, and to Asuna, was so close. Kirito drove onward Leafa close behind. Ahead of them dozens of Guardians spawned, mere dozens were as nothing to the scores below but as their allies were diverted to handling the Guardians that remained below them, Leafa and Kirito found themselves outnumbered once again. The gathered Guardian's, prioritizing Kirito as the strongest player, charged straight for him.
"Kirito-Kun!" Leafa shouted as she threw him her Katana. The Spriggan caught the weapon by the handle with his left hand and with a shout drew the weapon close, wielding his sisters sword in his left hand and his own blade in his right. With flawless timing he lashed out, left blade cutting from lower right to upper left, right blade from lower left to upper right. The Guardian's before him, their AI unable to cope with a dual wielding player, were shredded in an instant. The black figure of Kirito punched through the Guardians, a single drop of corrosion eating through the wall of silver white.
Leafa fell behind as yet more knights began to spawn between her and Kirito, they formed an impenetrable final barrier against the gathered players. Kirito barely heard as the Sylph Leader, Lady Sakuya, ordered their forces to fall back. It was fine, they had given their all to repay their doubt, and now it was only up to him.
The gateway approached, a vast pale dome divided by a cross. So close, three hundred meters, so close, two hundred meters, so close, one hundred meters. If Kirito had not been so focused on the gate he would have noticed the wrongness almost immediately. The fluctuation in the frame rate, the absence of the sound of rushing air. He only became aware as he realized that his progress was slowing. It took twice as long to travel the next ten meters as the ten before them, and twice as long again to travel the ten meters after that.
Lag? He wondered. Or a system crash. No! He was so close! The gateway was mere meters from his finger tips as he was locked in place.
A low keening like some archaic dial up sound from the dark ages of the net filled his ears with its shrill banshee's cry. Stars exploded before his eyes and an alien sensation spread through Kirito's being. It was, it was, pain. Not just the psychological pain of a player registering an attack or impact and filling in the blank left by the pain filtering module, that could hurt but you could train yourself to ignore it. No, this was real white hot pain. The pain of the real world. Kirito felt it start at his finger tips and extend through his arms and into his torso, he felt like he was being skinned from head to toe. He would have screamed if only his body would move.
Kirito did not consider himself a weak person, but he knew that if he had suffered this sort of pain in SAO he would never have been able to leave the Town of Beginnings. Fortunately, he did not have to endure it for long. As the pain reached its climax, the world of Kirigaya Kazuto, Kirito, Beater of SAO, and Spriggan in the world of ALFHeim online, went white.
After the third failed attempt, most of the gathered students had fallen silent, even the cruelest among them had stopped their sniping.
Louise De La Vallière stood frozen at the center of the clearing, speechless.
Professor Colbert looked down on the girl anxiously. "Miss Vallière, if you would like, perhaps you could try again later . . . I could have it arranged with . . ."
"No." The girl said quickly. She shivered once. "No . . . It's alright. This was to be . . . expected." She turned on her heel and walked stiffly past her peers, face perfectly neutral.
"Miss Vallière?!" Colbert called. He glanced at the gathered students and cursed inwardly. "This concludes the summoning. You are all dismissed, please spend the rest of the day getting to know your familiars."
Then, with uncharacteristic haste, the professor departed after Louise.
"It figures the Zero couldn't manage it." One boy commented to his gathered clique. "Once a Zero, always a Zero."
"Don't you think those jokes are getting old?" The boy looked up and came face to chest with Kirche.
"Your Zero jokes, they're getting old." The girl said with non of her characteristic bubbly personality.
"Run along little boy, I'm sure the maids will fetch you and your . . ." She glanced down, " . . . Beaver. Some wood to snack on. Now scram."
The boy looked like he was about to reply, after all, he could take the school slut, but the look on the Zerbst's face promised that he couldn't, and suddenly he wasn't so sure. So he did as she said and scrammed, maybe the servants would know some good trees.
Kirche let out her breath. She felt a small tug on her blouse and turned around to see Tabitha standing beside her.
"Double standard." The girl whispered.
"What?" Kirche said.
"Double standard." She repeated.
"You mean bullying Louise?" Kirche asked. Tabitha nodded.
"I do not bully her! We're rivals. Our families have been at odds for generations and the Zerbst's have always proven our superiority. But it's no good if I kick her when she's down in the mud. Those guys were just tormenting her to make themselves feel big." Kirche gazed over the field to the receding dots of Louise and Professor Colbert.
"Where are you going?" Tabitha asked.
"Where do you think?" Kirche replied. "Flame, come. Someone's going to have to go knock some sense into that Vallière. A Zerbst can't afford such an underwhelming rival."
She set out across the fields towards the retreating backs of Louise and Professor Colbert. She didn't bother running, she'd catch up with them once they'd stopped. In the distance Louise seemed to stagger and then slow and finally fall forward. Kirche frowned and picked up her pace. Her gate fell into an all out sprint as Professor Colbert bowed down and immediately began to cast a healing spell. Something was wrong.
"Professor!" Kirche called.
"Miss Zerbst, what are you . . . No its fine. Please help me with Miss Vallière." The Germanian girl had never known the normally mild professor to look so grave, she complied without hesitation.
"What's wrong with her?" Kirche asked as she took hold of the smaller girl and nearly recoiled. Her skin was ice cold and yet dripped with sweat.
"Willpower exhaustion." Professor Colbert explained.
"But she didn't cast the spell right even once!" Kirche cried.
"Apparently she managed to cast something that uses magic." Colbert said. "I don't know what else this . . . could . . . be . . ." The professor trailed off. The ground was glowing.
"A summoning circle?" Kirche wondered aloud. Her gaze swept across the grounds and she paled. This wasn't possible. The entire field was aglow. No, further! The light began to grown in intensity, burning away shadows and bleaching color.
'Louise, what did you do?'
Kirche thought. And the world went white.
The mass disappearance, which became known as the ALFheim incident, received broad public attention in the coming months. After the events surrounding the SAO launch incident some two years prior, the VR and IT industries had invested considerable resources into cleaning up the public image of VR technology. Their efforts had been spearheaded by the release of the AMUsphere, the successor to the now banned Nerve Gear which sought to render another SAO incident physically impossible.
Continuing efforts by the industry as well as a widespread media campaign to paint the SAO incident as a tragedy brought on by a single rogue madman with insider knowledge of the underlying technology had gone far to rehabilitate the image of VR technology in the mind of the public.
The ALFheim incident undid all of that effort and set the industry back by decades. While no evidence could be found to link the phenomena to either ALFheim or the AMUsphere, the ancient axiom of correlation equaling causation in the eyes of the public held all too true. Cults and conspiracies grew from the public need for an answer. Theories were put forward from the improbable, government abductions, to the bizarre, alien abductions, to the stupid, that prolonged VR exposure would cause the body to break down into subatomic particle. No evidence ever emerged for or against any of these theories and so the legend inevitably grew.
What was known was that at 7:55 PM Tokyo Standard Time on Jan 21st, 2024, the 61,340 plays logged into ALFheim online, their AMUspheres, and all player data on the ALFHeim servers, vanished from the world.