Disclaimer: Sword Art Online belongs to Reki Kawahara. Exalted belongs to White Wolf (and Onyx Path Publishing). I own neither and receive nothing for creating this work of total fiction.

Authors Note: I'll be posting snippets on before I post the whole chapter here if anyone wants to have a look. This is the first proper fanfic I've written in years to be honest so feel free to let me know what I could improve on. Flamers will be ignored, have fun!

Kazuto Kirigaya looked up at the time on his monitor, he'd set it to GMC so that he would be ready for the game servers to open at the earliest moment. 12.25am. The server would open at 12.30am, less than 5 minutes from now. He finished the glass of water, placed it on the desk and leaned forward to look closer at the info page from MMO Today.

He was re-reading the article on Kayaba Akihiko, renowned programmer and creator of the world's first proper VRMMORPG, the other screen was running a video of yesterday when the game was released to buy worldwide, showing crowds of people in major cities lining up to buy the game overlaid with a voiceover of an interview from yesterday with Kayaba.

The boy looked out the window; it was cloudy and bleak outside, light shining down on his bed and illuminating the Nerve Gear humming on his pillow. His cousin, Suguha, had gone over to her friend Izumi's house earlier and his aunt was downstairs in the study. He looked at the time again, 12.29am. He closed both browsers and moved to the bed, putting the Nerve Gear on and lying down, waiting impatiently for the time to change. His stomach felt like butterflies and he smiled involuntarily. He'd been waiting for over a month since the Beta-Test ended for this moment and it was finally here.

The time changed, 12.30am. He closed his eyes and relaxed.

"Link Start!"

Flashes of light swam violently past and icons for the language tests, sense tests, his username and password flew through his vision until he came face to face with the stylized glowing, golden letters that read 'Exalted Online' before they broke apart into flashes of light and the option of using his saved character data from the beta appeared. He smiled, relieved he wouldn't need to waste time recreating his preferred character, even if he'd lost the Exaltation and stats he'd gained before. Kazuto selected the character and entered the game. His vision faded to black.

He blinked and looked up, seeing the shining blue sky and bustling city of Nexus around him. It was a swelteringly hot day in Creation's equivalent of June, the month of Ascending Fire but despite that, he smiled widely. He paused for a moment, taking in the smell of the Yellow river where it merged with the Grey. There was dust in the air, accompanied by sounds of talking, birdsong and other animals, horses hooves clomping down the street, shopkeepers hawking their goods. He even thought he saw the retinue of a lord walking down the street. Completing the picture, the Elemental Pole of Earth could be distantly seen rising above the horizon to the west.

"Well, no time to waste." He murmured before breaking out into a sprint to the nearest good quest he could remember in the area. He didn't want to leave the city and try to get involved in one of the small world events that, depending on how you acted gave a chance of Exalting. Until the world event when the Scarlet Empress disappeared and the Jade Prison broken by the Deathlords' behemoth, there would be only roughly 20 Solar Exaltations free and anyone who did Exalt so soon without the skills to keep themselves alive immediately afterwards would be killed by the Wyld Hunt and have to respawn without the Exaltation they'd had before.

Those world events were one of the easiest ways to Exalt in the game. However normal situations, events during quests and actions that resonated with a type of Exaltation were also possible methods of Exalting. He planned to boost the necessary skills and attributes high enough, get some money and equipment, hopefully a decent Artifact of some sort and build up a couple of backgrounds before purposefully putting himself in situations where he'd be more likely to Exalt. He'd have to move fast, though. Even if Kayaba had devised a way to speed up in-game time relative to the outside world, he still didn't want to have to wait a couple of months until the Prison was broken.

There was a nearby fetch and carry quest which would open up more quest lines in the area and make NPCs more likely to give him useful information if he asked or bought it. Kirito pumped his arms and sped up, dashing through the busy streets and dodging amongst a group of traders leading a caravan. This was why he'd returned to this wonderful place, a virtual reality where he felt more alive than in reality.

"Hey! Wait up!"

Kirito skidded to a halt and looked round. Another player, someone lucky enough to beat the random number generator for chance of starting as a Dragonblood, one of the Terrestrial Exalted. The man had pale skin for a Fire-Aspect but had the stereotypical red hair, even if it was crimson more than deep fiery red. He had a bit of stubble and a bandanna covering his forehead. The man chased after him and came to a stop in front of him, breathing deeply and leaning over with his hands on his knees before straightening.

"Nice to meet you, I'm Klein. Just a guess but are you a beta-tester and if so could you please, please help me out? All these menus and stuff are really confusing and my friends and I were having a party after getting the game yesterday so I haven't had a chance to do more than a quick flick through the game manual."

The man clapped his hands together in prayer and bowed.

Kirito blinked. He'd wanted to get on with the quests, but he could do that with Klein easily enough and teach him how the menus, Virtues, Abilities and Charms worked as they went. He didn't know many of the Dragonblooded Charms himself but there would be options to purchase them with a description of what they'd do if Klein hadn't even bought any yet after starting. He extended a hand to the Exalt.
"Alright, follow me. Nice to meet you too. My name is Kirito."

Klein shook his hand.

-Scene Change-

Kirito had taken Klein on a tour around Nexus to get him familiar with the city, while completing various types of quests to get him used to how they worked in a VRMMORPG before finally, a few hours later bringing him to the beginning of one of the early major quest chains in Nexus; a carry quest to bring someone's heirloom diamond necklace to a man named Blazing Ivory over by the Grey River, Kirito knew what the following quests would be, having already finished the chain on his journey through Nexus in the Beta.

"Klein!"

The man looked over at him with wide eyes, having been looking at his surroundings with an awed expression as they went.

"What?"

"We're going to be ambushed around the next couple of corners by some beggars paid by a man from the Guild, did you learn to use Sword Skills by yourself before I met you?"

The red-head looked confused and a bit nervous at the news on an impending assault.

"Nope. What are they?"

Kirito sighed.

"Come here and I'll show you." He took the Short Sword all players were issued upon creation out and leaned forward with the sword held to the back and side. "As part of the Abilities, the higher rank you have in it the more access to various Skills you have related to it, but they aren't Charms that are powered by your Essence Pool. For example with the Melee Ability, the Sword Skills are mainly designed to teach you how to fight with whatever weapons the player decides to use even if they don't have real life experience with it. Like a Kendo champion using swords in the game, the system works mostly on real life physics and works very well. So if you swing your sword like you would in reality, you'll get the same effect here, and if your have experience with something in reality, you're more likely to gain a skill increase a bit faster.

"But, the higher your skill level is with an Ability, the better the System Assist will help you with pre-programmed Skills for a longer time until you're managing it yourself without help. If you can do that, then you won't have to suffer the cooldown from the Skills that freeze your avatar."

Kirito's sword glowed purple and he suddenly shot forwards and slashed the blade across the front of his chest. A purple flash followed the motion and Kirito waited before turning to look at his companion. He was slightly embarrassed by Klein's opened mouth and look of hero-worship.

"Sugoi!"

The Terrestrial fell into a steady stance with an intense look on his face, although he looked sort of constipated in Kirito's opinion. He held his sword in front of him before glowing orange and jumping forward to crash down on the imaginary enemy like an avalanche.

He grinned at Kirito. "Those beggars won't stand a chance!"

Kirito looked back amusedly. "One other thing, open your menu and set your Charms to use up your Periphery Pool. If you do need to use Charms in the fight, you might as well get used to your Anima Banner flaring up and learning to ignore it so you don't distract yourself.

"Now, lets go."

The duo walked around the corner to see an empty street, continuing along it into the next road where like Kirito predicted, Desperate Beggar mobs milled around. A man in finer clothing carrying a sword stood at the back, the name Guild Thug hovering over his head. He turned to look at them and shouted. "There they are, the info was right! You lot, if you want paying, get them already!"

Kirito charged to meet them, sword held up to his side. He disliked shorter swords, preferring heavy, large swords whose weight he could use to more effectively to bludgeon as well as help slash. Klein flashed past him, purple light gleaming. His sword smashed through a beggar and the mob shattered into spokes of light that faded away.

Kirito engaged three at once, spinning between them and gashing them, cutting their limbs and impairing their movements so they couldn't fight before killing them. He glanced over at Klein. He was barely blacking strikes from another three that had pushed his back against a wall and were overwhelming him.

"Klein! Yell 'Dragon Graced Weapon' while attacking, it's a Melee Charm for Dragonbloods."

The man nodded his head and raised his weapon, the short sword wasn't the most effective weapon for this but it would do.

"Dragon Graced Weapon!" The sword burst into fire and set the mobs alight as Klein slashed them. They broke from combat and began rolling across the dirty street trying desperately to put the flames out before breaking apart into light. Fire burst into life and began to start slowly swirling around Klein, warming the street up and casting faintly flickering shadows from the fighters on the walls.

The Guild Thug mob yelled in anger before charging Klein.

"Shout 'Elemental Bolt Attack' while raising your hand at him!" Klein vaguely heard Kirito's voice and complied even as his vision tunneled to focus on the man waving a sword and charging at him.

A blast of fire rocketed from his palm to burn the man, quickly shattering the mob and leaving Klein to stare owlishly at his own hand. Kirito finished up and span his sword around to place it in the sheath on his back.

"Well, there you go, looks like you've got the basics down. Come on, there isn't any more interruptions so let's finish the quest."

Klein ran over to catch up with him as Kirito left the street. The Anima Banner began slowly fading as NPCs began to appear, and soon the street was filled with the sounds of a bustling city again.

The pair continued to a small shop near the little market and went in. The sign 'Blazing Ivory's Curiosities' hung over the entrance and the shelves inside were filled with small knick knacks, what looked like reagents of varying descriptions, gems and jewellery, toys and other oddities.

A tall man with short black hair and grey eyes looked at them as they came in. The NPC's dialogue starting as it caught sight of them.

"Welcome! Would you be the ones that are supposed to bring Weeping Oak's necklace to me? He said the Guild were sniffing around for it and wanted to get rid of it before he suddenly disappeared."

Kirito answered. Opening his Inventory in his menu to get it and holding it out. "Yes, here it is." Ivory goggled for a moment before saying in an awed tone.

"My my, you hear about these but no mortals ever likely to so much as touch one. That's a Hearthstone. Your Terrestrial friend will get more use out of it that I and I'll be happy to give it you if you'll hear me and some friends out."

Kirito nodded "Yes, we'll come". He passed the stone to Klein.

"You'll need to succeed on an Investigation/Perception identification check later to discover its type and find where Manse is but you can still attune to it and get some Motes from its recharging ability."

"Thanks Kirito, but don't you want to keep it?"

"I would if I was alone but you'll get more use from it than me until I manage to Exalt. Now let's get going and follow Blazing Ivory. He's going to lead us to this group that's fighting the Guild. It's probably the best quest chain early on in Nexus."

Klein started to nod. Then stopped and smiled apologetically.

"Actually I ordered pizza to arrive at 5:30, afterwards I'll log back on, but I wanted to meet up with some friends of mine from another game, we all bought ExO together so we could restart our Guild from that other game. If you want to, you can join us!"

Kirito looked to the side, rubbing his head awkwardly. Klein took the hint and hurriedly waved his hands.

"It's okay if you don't want to, you know?"

Kirito smiled at the red-head. "Thanks."

"Hey! That's my line! But seriously, thanks for all the help so far. I'll show my friends how to do it and praise your name as my Sensei." He grinned and waved.

"By the way, before I go. D'you want to friend me?"

"Sure."

Klein opened his menu and sent the request. Kirito lifted his hand to accept it.

"Hey, that's weird." Kirito heard Klein mutter.

"Hmm? What is it?"

"There's no button to log out."

"What? It should be right there. At the bottom of the main menu." He opened his own menu and looked for it, only to find a grayed out section.

"See, it's not there."

"No, it's not."

Klein shrugged with a rueful smile.

"Well it's the first day out of the beta, there's bound to be some bugs. Hey, I bet the GMs are all freaking out about this, you know?"

"You will too, its 5:25."

"No! My pizza and ginger ale! My evening will be ruined!" His mournful expression made Kirito want to laugh, but tactfully, he kept it to himself.

"Just call a GM and they'll get it fixed."

"I tried, but nothing's happening. Is there any other way to log out?"

"No, that's the only way. Don't bother trying to take the Nerve Gear off your head." He pre-empted the Terrestrial. "The helmet intercepts all the signals from your brain and transfers them into movement for your avatar."

"Seriously? So there's no way to exit without the log-out button?"

"Not without someone in reality pulling the helmet off your head."

"But I live alone…" Klein's expression became even more serious. "What about you?"

"My mom will take it off when she calls me down for dinner, my sister is over at her friend's house." Kirito was startled as Klein's hands slapped on his shoulders and an imploring face looked at him.

"How old is your little sister?"

"She does sports and as far as I know, she hates games. She wouldn't have anything to do with someone like us."

"Doesn't matter-"

Kirito, fed up with Klein's intrusion of his personal space, kneed him in the balls and the taller man automatically fell in a heap even without the actual pain of the attack being felt.

The man realised this and stood up.

"This is weird though, you would have thought there would have been an announcement or something that they were going to shut the server down to log everyone off." However, even as he spoke, there was the sudden tolling of bells that could be heard in every direction and both players were engulfed in white light.

Kirito desperately looked around. Klein was standing as close as he was before, but they were surrounded by people talking to each other or looking around confusedly. There were more people than he'd ever seen in one place and he had a hunch all 1,000,000 players of ExO were gathered in the area. From the ruined architecture, how close they were to the blazing sun compared to when he and Klein were in Nexus and the fact he could see for thousands of miles to various horizons, he was going to guess they were in ruined Meru, destroyed and deadly capital of the Exalted in the First Age.

Kirito could see Terrestrials of all 5 Aspects, players of all nationalities, some with strange features gained from starting with a Godblooded character of some sort. There were even some with gemstones on their forehead and others who looked like Wyld mutants. All shared something in common, a feeling of bewilderment.

Suddenly, the sky over the Pole of Earth darkened and a blob of red appeared above the players, hovering over the precipice of the mountain. It quickly expanded and gained form in the shape of a giant cloaked figure with no face. The crowd was silenced by the foreboding feeling in the air.

"Welcome players! To my world. My name is Kayaba Akihiko. As of this moment, I am the sole person with control over this world. As I'm sure some of you are already aware, the logout button is missing from the main menu. However, this is not a defect of the game. It is in fact, a feature of Exalted: Online." The voice echoed across the mountain.

"You cannot log out of ExO yourselves. Neither can someone on the outside shut down or remove the Nerve Gear. Should this be attempted, the transmitter inside the Nerve Gear will emit a powerful microwave destroying your brain, and ending your life."

The creator of the game paused to let this sink in.

"Unfortunately, some families of players have ignored the warning given to the media by myself and removed the Nerve Gear of the players. As a result, over 984 players are now gone forever, from both Creation and the real world.

"As you can see, news organisations worldwide are reporting this, including the deaths. Thus you can assume the danger of someone removing your Nerve Gear is now minimal. I hope you relax and attempt to clear the game. But I want you to remember this clearly, there is no method to revive someone in the game, this is part of the world of Exalted. If your HP drops to zero, your avatar will be lost, and at the same time, the Nerve Gear will destroy your brain." Players all across the top the mountain were freaking out, crying, screaming or yelling at Kayaba Akihiko.

"There is a means to escape, but unfortunately telling you would spoil the game, therefore, I leave the challenge of discovering that method to you, players.

"Finally, there is a present from me in your item storage. Please see it for yourselves.

Kirito looked around at the other players and opened the inventory to find an item marked 'Mirror'. It dropped into his hands and he saw his reflection in the mirror before spinning round as people were covered with light before changing in appearance. Bright light obscured his vision before he looked at his reflection and gaped. His face from real life was being reflected back at him.

"Are you alright Kirito? Wait, who're you?" Klein's voice came from a main much scruffier man with a more natural shade of red hair. Kirito glanced around. People seemed more shocked than angry so far, although it was strange to see men in pink clothing that'd apparently just changed genders. Wait, that meant…

"Your Klein!?" "Your Kirito!" was said simultaneously.

The conversation was interrupted as the Game Master spoke again.

"Right now you're probably wondering "why?" why Kayaba Akihiko, renowned developer of the Nerve Gear, time-compression software and Exalted: Online, would do all this?"

"Suffice to say, my goal has already achieved. I created Exalted: Online for one reason. And with this, it is completed."

"Thus ends, the tutorial for the official Exalted: Online launch. Good luck, players. For in this savage world, you will need it. But I wonder. What legends will they tell of your deeds?"

The figure began to phase out of existence. Turning translucent and breaking apart. Even as he did, white light began flashing around the players and they began disappearing once more.

Kirito and Klein found themselves in Blazing Ivory's shop again. Kirito staggered to the chair by the wall and fell into it. Klein falling on his ass on the ground. They stared at each other. Kirito ended the silence.

"We need to finish this quest chain as fast as possible, the only way were going to survive in this world is being strong enough to take whatever challenges it will throw at us."

Klein's face seemed solemn.

"I know Kirito, but my buddies… They're scattered around the Scavenger Lands, we said we'd all choose to start around that area and then meet up after getting used to the game. But if people die when they're killed by this game then I need to find them and teach them this stuff you taught me as soon as possible. I'll be able to find them after friend requesting them, but I need to go now. Will you be alright on your own?"

Kirito nodded. "Go on, I'll be fine, I'm going to be here for the next couple of months if you want to meet up after you've found your friends."

Klein agreed with a wide grin. "Sure thing Kirito, I'll see you around then!" The man started toward the door. "You know, Kirito? That cute young face suits you a lot better." He teased.

Kirito looked back. "And that unkempt face of yours fits you ten times better!" Klein laughed and strode out the door confidently. Waving back as he did.

'I'm going to survive in this world.' Kirito thought fiercely and went to talk to Blazing Ivory about the next quest. It was time to meet the 'resistance'.

-Scene Change-

It was the early evening as Kirito was led by Blazing Ivory into the current meeting point of the 'Resistance'. In Kirito's view there were more like a bunch of people with grievances against the Guild trying to get their own back by forcing it out of the city it was headquartered in.

Kirito would have preferred not to waste time walking and just run the distance but if you turned up to the Resistance HQ without Ivory then there was nobody there. He knew because he'd tried; it had been extremely frustrating. Equally unfortunately the HQ was on the other side of the city from Ivory's shop, in the Bastion District where the rich, extremely rich, well-connected and powerful lived. He and Ivory got dirty looks from the NPCs walking the streets and he had to admit neither of them fit in very well.

Thankfully they reached it without incident. He wondered if the reason no-one was attacking him like in the beta was because Klein had the reward and was already gone from the city to search for his friends. He was still marvelling at the complexity of the Cardinal System when they reached the large house and entered after Ivory did a ridiculous secret knock and password.

A manservant waved them through to the cleared dining room where Ivory's fellow conspirators were sitting.

"Kirito, these are Wandering Path-a tall Southerner with huge biceps and no eyebrows-, Falling Ash- A woman wearing a veil-, Cyneed- another woman with sharp eyes, brown hair styled in ringlets and pale skin-, Halithur- a man who looked like a Viking might if he'd shaved and gone to Africa as part of a path to Enlightenment-, Telan'dal- who looked like he wasn't entirely human and had supernatural blood of some sort- and Cynis Denek'- an ex-Dynast of House Cynis who'd left the Blessed Isle and a life of partying as a matter of principle.

Ivory indicated the NPCs as he spoke and they greeted Kirito in turn. The quests the group gave were focused around disrupting the Guild's activities, freeing slaves in the city and hiding them with the group for 24 hours until they're free in Nexus as well as pilfering supplies, weapons and Artifacts found and sold by Scavenger Lords. Hunting the Fey down in the Firewander section and interrupting deals to sell slaves to be dream-eaten by the Fey.

Eventually it would lead up to destroying groups of Enforcers and Guild Members, working his way up the totem pole until it was time to deal with the Underleader. He was the man in charge of selling people and objects through Shadowlands into the Underworld directly. With him gone, the Guild Leader would relocate and the Guild's entire operations would be disrupted in the Scavenger Lands without a central base to rely on in the area.

It was Wandering Path's quest he would do first, a raid on a Guild operation in the Sentinel's Hill area.

-Scene change-

Kirito followed Path down the narrow street; Sentinel's Hill was a bustling residential district with lots of housing and apartments for the city's inhabitants. If you had the money and could persuade the owner then like every other place like this in the game you could buy it and begin living in it or renovating it to sell at a higher price or keep. In the beta Kirito had preferred to just rent a room in an inn close to where he was questing or training. Although the beta had been going for a month, thanks to Kayaba's time-compression software, in game time had lasted for 5 years, until just after the Jade Prison was broken. He'd heard that while most people had logged out when tired to eat and sleep like normal, a few had slept and ate in game, living longer in the game before coming out to real life for a bit, it had really screwed them up and Kirito hadn't wanted to do it after hearing about it. He supposed if everyone inside ExO ever got out it would be really hard adjusting to a world that didn't run on physics that said you could jump far in the air or smash stone with your bare hands even at a low level of power.

Path lead him towards a building up against the southern wall of the district. The plain unassuming house was a front for holding slaves while arranging buyers elsewhere in the city. They stopped across the street from the house, the curtains of all the windows were pulled and Kirito knew that the mobs never checked outside, he would have the advantage of total surprise.

"Ready?" Path's deep voice rumbled like a volcano.

"Yes" he nodded.

"Go on three, I'll bash the door down, you charge past and I'll follow you in, got that?"

"Whenever you're ready."

"Go!"

The imposing man charged across the street, large Sledge in hand. He raced up to the door and holding the hammer in both arms, swung himself around for momentum before slamming it into the door to smash it off its hinges and go flying into the man standing a bit in front of it.

Kirito dashed around him and into the house. The was a table with 5 Enforcers sitting around it playing cards and drinking alcohol, they weren't armed and wouldn't be until they got a hold on the situation and smashed the bottles for use as improvised weapons. There were three others actually armed one of them now lying under the door and the other two talking at the back of the room; they had Reinforced Buff Jackets and Straight Swords. Kirito hoped one of them dropped; he preferred a larger sword to the blade he currently had equipped.

He charged them, slanting to hit the one on the left and slicing him apart while the other mob tried to slash him. Kirito danced back before darting forward to push the mob's blade down and cut it across the face. It flinched and he strode forwards to stab up through the armpit. It shattered. Path and followed him through and already laid one of the mobs at the table out with a massive blow to the head. The table hard been overturned and bottles smashed.

Three were attacking him, one trying to circle round to attack from behind while the others held his attention. The fourth charged Kirito, self-preservation instincts missing in such as simple program. He jumped to meet it, slashing from left to right to open some space before jumping into it and cutting an arm off before slicing the torso apart. As chunks of light flashed, Kirito ran to help Path. The NPC had crushed another but was blocked by the fact that whenever he tried to fight one the other would immediately take advantage to try and slash him. The young man cut off a leg for one of them before stabbing it as it fell. Path whirled the sledge and bashed the last mobs head into the wall before it disappeared. Kirito accepted the Jade script and Exp blankly, already focused on the door downstairs to finish the Quest.

The two walked to the door, using the key left in it to unlock it before opening it and going downstairs. Men, Women and children lay in groups or on their own, shackled to each other and wearing rough clothing. Kirito knew they were only NPC's but still felt a surge of anger at the thought of people doing this to others.

They looked up at their entrance, looking confused at the sight of new faces who weren't their guards. A couple called up in wonder.

"My name is Wandering Path, an enemy of the Guild, if you wish for shelter from that group of monsters; please follow me and my companion here." He smashed the chain link on the wall and began helping them run it through the place where it linked through the s hackles on their legs.

Kirito looked at the small girl with black hair looking up at him, she reminded him of a younger Suguha.

"Don't worry" he patted her head. "Everything's okay, you'll be safe from now on."

-Scene Change-

Kirito worked on the quest chains that lead to the 'final battle' for the next couple of months. By this point, he was a full resident of Nexus, having a room in an inn within the Firewander district close to the Wyld Zone so if he couldn't sleep he could always burn some energy fighting mobs until he needed sleep.

He'd worked with the other leaders of the resistance and helped it grow as former slaves and enemies of the Guild joined it thanks to him completing quests or when NPCs heard about the work the resistance was doing to oust the Guild from the richest city in Creation. Destroying drugs and narcotics, hunting bandits outside the city that worked for or got information from the Guild, diverting caravans controlled by the organisation elsewhere and selling or giving the goods away to those who needed it.

From previous experience, it would be a month before he could perform the quest leading to the battle with the Underleader, a man named Obsidian Heart. However, now he'd finally reached the point where he would fight the head of the Guild's slavery operations in Nexus and the Scavenger Lands as a whole, Virtuous River Serpent.

Cynis Denek would be his quest giver and ally this time. Kirito was slightly thankful for that. The Ex-Dynast NPC was the best fighter in the resistance and better than him in pure skill for now. He also had articulated plate and despite carrying a great sword was faster with it than Kirito was with his broadsword he'd acquired. Kirito shivered as he remembered the beta. As a Solar he'd had Essence, and therefore the ability to attune to Artifacts, dual-wielding twin Orichalcum Daiklaves like they were weightless looked extremely cool in his professional opinion. Not to mention the looks on other players faces in duels when he brought them out.

He thought that if it would take about another month to finish up in Nexus then he would be prepared enough to survive the immediate months after finding a world event to Exalt at. That was arguably one of the largest advantages of being a beta-tester, days to even years of experience in this game, knowledge of how history and important world events would go for the next couple of years and things like how to more easily attract an Exaltation of various kinds. In the beta, an info-broker named Argo had begun spreading a book containing useful game mechanics, the best quests depending on the area you collected the book from, where exceptionally powerful enemies were located to beware of going into their territories, (such as Shadowlands belonging to Deathlords) and theories on how different Celestial Exaltations were attracted.

It was known that actions that resonated with various types of Exaltation were more likely to attract them, and depending on how a player reacted during specific small world events such as saving a village from something (what he would be attempting after leaving Nexus) the player could Exalt as a Caste of a type of Exalted. For instance leading the village to victory against the enemy were more likely to make them a Dawn caste or Chosen of Mars depending on how strategically a player worked. However if the player say, ambushed the enemy force the night before and killed the leader and destroyed various special assets then they were more likely to become a Night caste.

New players were on even worse ground now, with everyone scattered across Creation rather than in a smaller place, it was harder for distribution of Argo's guides and other helpful tips to circulate. The permadeath of the Nerve Gear also made it harder for players to move around safely in a world as hazardous to their health as Creation. The guide would eventually spread but it would take time and there would be a lot of casualties Kirito thought bleakly. He guessed Argo would be more likely to stay on the Blessed Isle where it was both safest and well-connected. News would spread to satrapies when players went across the Inland Sea and then further as players passed it along to each another while travelling.

Nexus was possibly the best connected place in Creation other than the Imperial City and other major cities on the Blessed Isle so news tended to reach it quickly, you could get that news asking NPCs that had arrived in the city what they'd heard on their travels across the game world.

Kirito finally reached the warehouse where Cynis Denek was waiting for him in the Nighthammer Docks, nearby the large warehouse used to coordinate the Guild's slave operations. The docks were crowded with people even at this late hour as the Daystar began to set. Labourers moving from ships to storage areas carrying barrels of fish, other foods, clothing or bolts of cloth, planks of wood and blocks of stone to be taken to other merchants to be sold elsewhere or shaped and used. The smell of the Grey River merging into the Yanaze River filled his nose sharply and the stench of all the junk the denizens of Nexus dumped into it made his eyes water.

As he passed the huge barges and moored ships he saw the quest giver leaning against a wall, black plate armor protecting all the vital organs and huge sword sheathed across his back loosely enough to be easily drawn. He had brown hair that tumbled to his shoulders and dark eyes that flickered over everything in sight to watch for potential ambushes.

"Are you ready to fight the Serpent?" The opening dialogue came.

Kirito replied affirmatively and was beckoned after the NPC. They moved quietly down the alleys between warehouses and across the open spaces where small markets were set up for fresh fish in the mornings. Soon they reached their destination. A large hall with open doors guarded by two men in plate and chain armor, holding spears and swords at their belts.

"Ready?" Denek asked.

"Let's go." Kirito steeled himself for a fight, the false sensation of adrenaline pumping through his avatar and increasing his reaction time. Even so, he barely caught it as Denek casually strolled up to one of the guards, pulled his sword from its sheath and beheaded the right guard in a single move. The mob shattered while the other gaped before jumping back to push Denek away with his spear and yelling "Enemies! At arms! Enemies of the Guild are here!"

"Kirito! Go inside and hold them off while I finish this one off, we need to finish them fast or the Serpent will flee given enough of a chance. Move!"

Kirito didn't bother to waste his breath and charged through the doors, sword in his right hand and arms pumping to increase his momentum. There was 9 enemies in the room, fortunately they were mostly unarmed clerks who'd been sat at desks and working on business rather than actual competent warriors. Of those, three had begun running towards him while the rest huddled to the walls. They weren't as heavily equipped as those outside and Kirito knew after the last couple of months training he'd make short work of them.

One with a spear charged him and he leapt to the side and shoved it away before getting in close and punching him in the face. The man cried out and fell back, hand to his broken nose. The others moved more cautiously, Kirito didn't have time for this. He used sonic leap to close the distance and break his defence before chaining the skill with Uppercut to slice the man in half. Despite knowing it was a mob and not a person; his gorge began to slightly rise. He pushed it down with an effort of will and focused on his other opponent. Thankfully it hadn't taken advantage of his frozen self during the cooldown and he circled to the side before dashing in. The swordsman quickly slashed at him and he felt it cut his cheek open as he danced back. The pain barrier blocked all but a faint itch so he ignored it and slashed back, smashing the durability of his opponent's armor down and following up with a horizontal that nearly cut his neck.

Denek had apparently finished the guard outside off and charged inside with a war cry, terrifying the clerks and making Kirito's enemy glance involuntarily towards him.

'Chance!'

He took advantage of the opening to knock the man's sword from his hand and pin him to the floor. The man broke apart as Denek finished off the spear bearer.

The clerks fled the building as the Ex- Cynis Dynast spat derisively after them and ran up the stairs opposite the entry. Kirito followed him as he heard a bell began to ring frantically.

"I think they know were here." Denek said dryly. The A.I wasn't the slightest out of breath having recovered quicker than Kirito had.

It took them three more small battles up the staircases and then chasing the head of the Guild's Slavery operations across a walkway into another building before they could pin him down. Unfortunately it was that point that Kirito's luck ran out.

"Immaculates damn this bastard!" Denek cursed as he dodged frantically. Virtuous River Serpent had led them into a patrol from one of the Guild's affiliated mercenary companies. There were 10 of them and the two of them had killed three. At that point River Serpent had shown something different to the beta. Instead of taking a sword out and joining in the battle, he'd drawn twin flame pieces and begun taking pot-shots at them in the melee, he'd killed one of his own men but it was exhausting watching out for his awful shooting skills as well as the mercs they were fighting.

"I don't suppose you have any ideas on how to make this easier?" Kirito yelled back.

"Smoke bomb! We'll thin them out and one of us breaks out to take out that trigger happy moron!"

"Got it!"

A couple of the mercs actually reacted to that and Kirito found himself impressed yet again by the complexity of the programs. It didn't help them as blackness burst into existence and blinded everyone. Kirito had quickly memorised the locations of his enemies and struck behind him, stabbing the man in the chest before spinning round and jumping slightly to strike his next enemy harder. It pierced where a lung would be on a human body and destroyed the mob. The smoke lifted as Kirito turned to his last foe. He noticed something and cursed. Denek had taken one of his three down but been shot in the shoulder by Serpent's blind firing and could now only defend with is large weapon as one arm hung uselessly.

Kirito cried out in anger at the sight and attacked even faster than before. The man may be an NPC but he was an ally and Kirito hated seeing friends hurt. The remaining mob fell to the floor as Kirto overwhelmed him. There was the sound of a band and a slight flash as suddenly his instincts screamed and he dodged to the side as firedust blasted past him, temporarily blinding him and making ice run down his spine at how close to death he'd been.

"Ch. I missed." Serpent complained.

Fire raced through his nerves and Kirito jumped into his ally's fight, stabbing one in the back and cutting another's arm off. That would take the pressure off Denek and he would be able to kill the disarmed one himself while Kirito pulverised the mob that nearly killed him.

The mob's face turned decidedly fearful as the player's attention turned to him at last. Kirito stalked forwards towards him in a way that anyone who watched nature documentaries would have recognised as the decidedly predatory manner commonly used by big cats. His broadsword swung and cut the slaver's head off. Kirito suddenly felt the weight of what he'd been doing hit him and he nearly collapsed as adrenaline faded and tiredness hit him like a champion boxer. Denek walked up to him, sword sheathed and one arm carrying the other.

"We must leave; reinforcements and curious onlookers will soon arrive." He leaned down and pulled Kirito to his feet. The 15 year old stumbled and nearly fell but managed to stay straight and follow his companion out.

It took them nearly an hour to reach the resistance HQ and Denek had bandaged himself quite handily. They'd mostly walked in silence except for something Kirito had been waiting for since he began this quest chain. If he killed Serpent without Denek's help in this quest then he would offer to help train the player's Melee ability as a mentor until the final battle with the Guild's Underleader. An Ability was maxed out at 500, the base human peak without an Excellency's System Over-Assist to boost it further unless a player reached Essence 6, where all stats would unlock to 600. Unfortunately that wouldn't happen without a special Charm, some sort of highly-ranked Artifact or the player living for a century and becoming an Elder Exalt. Supernatural beings of all types of course had Charms that could temporarily boost stats but they weren't permanent. Thankfully other Artifacts would provide a stat boost of increasing size depending on how rare and higher-ranked they were.

However, even if he'd trained hard to boost his different stats after buying them with experience it would still take ages to increase them. Thankfully if he acquired a mentor for whatever reason then they could train him in a much shorter period than normal. So for the next month, when he wasn't doing quests he would be sparring with Denek in the basement of headquarters (and from experience in the beta, getting his ass kicked all over the place.)

Kirito sighed. He could hardly wait, he thought sarcastically.

-Scene Change-

It was dark, cold winds and mist floated from the Grey River into the city, covering Nexus in a thick blanket. Kirito was particularly thankful for this considering what he was doing. He was in the last quest of the 'War against the Guild' chain and currently sneaking into the fortress of a building that the Guild used for its Nexus HQ. There were a lot of guards so it was very good some of the earlier quests had involved raising the level of his Stealth Ability for one reason or another. The boy jumped up the wall, grabbing the ledge, scrabbling up and over and dropping down the other side. This section was currently clear for the next 25 seconds before the patrol came round. He sprinted across the yard to the entrance and peered inside.

It was empty. Good, if it was the same as the beta then Obsidian Heart would be in the central hall, he would monologue like all good villains for a bit and then summon a squad of highly skilled goons, then join the fight himself. Last time, it had taken him two tries to beat the squad, this time he was much better at fighting and more experienced. This time, he wouldn't die.

He walked along the hallways until he reached the centre of the building. As he expected, Obsidian Heart stood alone with his back to Kirito. The NPC was tall, with short dark hair and golden hoop and bangle earrings. He turned to look at the player. Kirito wondered if the programmers had patterned his appearance off Jidanbou from Bleach, as he certainly looked like him.

"So you're Ki-ri-to..." He drew the syllables out like he was savouring a fine meal.

"Yes, I am." Kirito spoke the words needed to continue the dialogue and get the fight started.

"You know, you and you're little band of 'resistance' friends have cost the Guild a fair bit of profit with your stunts. I hope you're pleased with yourselves. Because I, however, despise those who cause me to waste both precious time and money. I will be sure to extract every last bit of pain from you as fair return. And thankfully, you'll soon be gone and we'll crush the rest of your group with you. My lords and ladies, please squash this impertinent fellow like the bug he is."

Kirito's eyes shot open, that last bit was new, which meant something was different.

5 men and women walked into the room from the side door. Kirito's heart leapt and then fell. Dragonbloods. A perfect Sworn Brotherhood of Air, Fire, Water, Earth and Wood. He was going to die here. The Fire Aspect walked slowly towards him. His hand went to the scabbard on his band and drew a 4 and a half foot long Red Jade Daiklave. The massive blade hung lightly in his grip. Kirito's sword was held tightly in both hands, he was better with one hand, using the other to help balance his body while swinging. However, against a Daiklave using Terrestrial Exalt he'd need to fight defensively if he'd have any hope of escaping this.

The boy barely reacted in time to deflect the huge sword. "Oh ho, you have some skill then mortal, a pity you offended our host or I would have quite happily taken you into our household."

Kirito jumped back desperately to try and open some space, the Terrestrial followed slowly. His sword swung in lazy arcs before rushing forward to slice the player. Kirito parried it and pushed it to the side, rushing in to stab the Dragonblood. There was a blur as the man disengaged before jumping over Kirito and using his superior reach to nearly behead him with a backswing. The 15 year old ducked, threw himself out of range and rolled back onto his feet. There was a light of pleasure in the man's eyes and a fierce smile on his face.

"Dragon Graced Weapon." The huge sword burst into fire at the same time as the Terrestrial's Anima Banner. "Bellows Pumping Stride." The man walked forwards confidently and Kirito backed away quickly. The stone floor was burning where then man's feet stepped and the swirling fire around him had become slightly larger. Even if Kirito managed to damage the Terrestrial, he'd still take damage in return from the Anima Banner. As well as probably gain a light-for the moment- Burned status effect.

The Daiklave was raised to point at him. "I'm sorry mortal, but you will end here. I will tell of your skill in facing a child of the Immaculate Dragons. Farewell."

"Elemental Bolt Attack!" The wall exploded inwards to the sound of a chorus of voices. The combined blast of 5 elements smashed the masonry across the room and distracted all the occupants. A red-haired and shaggy man with a bandana wrapped around his forehead stepped into the room.

"Yo Kirito! We heard you needed a hand!"

Kirito stared dumbly. "Klein?!"

"Kirito, meet Fuurinkazan and some of our new friends we met". Seven men and two younger girls strode through the hole in the fortress wall. "One of em might be familiar."

"Onii-san!" A very familiar voice cried out. A black haired girl stood out, sword in hand and wearing a green and yellow buff jacket.

"Sugu!?" Kirito cried in shocked surprise. What on earth was his sister doing trapped in this dangerous world.

The thought was left on hold as Klein jumped between the Fire Aspect and Kirito.

"Kirito, no time! Handle your family stuff when you're not fighting! "Bellows Pumping Stride! Ringing Anvil Onslaught! Ha!" He dashed at the NPC Fire Aspect, sword upraised.

"Strength of Stone Technique! Guys, buffs up. Get them!" The large Earth Aspect in the middle of Fuurinkazan's formation yelled. The players charged the Sworn Brotherhood, activating Charms and charging sword skills for release.

Kirito pulled his attention away from the battle to focus on Obsidian Heart; the NPC didn't look pleased at the change in situation. He pulled himself to his feet and began to edge around the battle to reach the Guild's Underleader.

"Smoldering Karma Strike!" Suguha cried as the enemy Air Aspect fought back. This was the hardest fight she'd had yet. The enemy moved faster and hit harder than anything she'd fought yet. Thankfully she had 2 friends she'd made backing her up. A Water Aspect named Sinon who she'd met with Izumi before they ran into Klein and his friends as well as Agil, a massive african Earth Aspect who used a huge Grand Grimcleaver after the group fought a field mini-boss to the south west of Nexus on their journey.

Fuurinkazan already knew what to do. Facing a Sworn Brotherhood was one of the scenarios they had an established set of tactics for, even if they hadn't yet needed to put them into practice. Klein had worked out the team tactics that worked so well for Terrestrials against various common enemies they'd come up against so far. They didn't usually need more than 2 of the group to beat something unless it was a roving Field Boss or similar but they'd still practiced using Charms like a combined Elemental Bolt Attack or group buffing Charms like the one Dale had just set up. With the help of the other three Terrestrials travelling with the group tying one of the mobs up they were in an even better situation. On the other hand, the NPC Terrestrials were currently better than them so the numbers advantage didn't count as much as it could have. But if they were all careful then they'd be fine.

Klein had focused on keeping the Fire Aspect out of everyone's way while the trio tried to kill the Air Aspect. That left the other three to fight the final 5 members of Fuurinkazan. Dale charged forward, a greatsword held in both hands ready to smash through any resistance."Armor–Hardening Concentration!" He bellowed. Chunks of earth appeared in a slow flurry around him as the Anima Banner was released. He smashed into the NPC Water Aspect and tried to crush him into the wall. The Air Aspect held up a set of Reaper Daiklaves up to block the strike but the momentum still pushed him back. Kunimittz and Dynamm ganged up on the Earth Aspect, alternating strikes to try and keep the NPC off-balance. Issin and Harry One had the job of killing the Wood Aspect; Harry One charged in to keep the mobs attention while Issin pulled out the bow on his back to aim at the mob. "Swallows Defend the Nest!" The rate of fire abruptly sped up and the NPC was hard pressed to try and keep an eye on the arrows while dodging the basic sword skills that the member of Fuurinkazan was chaining together.

Sinon was also keeping some distance and peppering the Air Aspect with arrows. She was the best archer in the group and had honed her Ability with hours of practice while the group stopped to make camp. "Dragon-Graced Arrow" she whispered, mind drifting into the cold place it always did when she was fighting. The Air Aspect abruptly began coughing and choking up water as the arrow struck him, leaving him open to a powerful Whirlwind skill from the man's Grand Grimcleaver that cut the mob in half. The trio paid it no more mind and joined the rest of the players.

Kirito on the other hand had finally managed to get round the battle and confront Obsidian Heart. The NPC looked over at him and growled in frustration. Kirito had to hand it to Argus and the Cardinal System, if it weren't for the HUD, then it would be impossible to tell the virtual world from the real one. He lifted the sword in his hand to point it at the mob. Even if he felt tired from fighting that Fire Aspect he could still kill this enemy with enough effort. The NPC pulled a beautiful sword from his side; presumably being part of the Guild meant you could easily afford something like that.

Kirito shifted into his stance, balancing his body in preparation to leap forward quickly. He struck quickly, not giving the NPC time to finish getting ready. The sword stabbed forward only to be deflected with expert skill. Just as he remembered, Heart was extremely well trained but still no match for his new bodyguards or Kirito himself after a month's practice against Denek. In the beta Kirito hadn't taken advantage of the free practice time as much, exploring the city for fun instead. Now that this was a death game, he currently didn't have a choice about wasting opportunities like that if he wanted to survive here. The mob swung his sword in a wide arc. He was taller than Kirito and had the larger reach that came with it, just the same as most enemies the boy had fought in the last months. Kirito kept his distance until he had an opening and made fast attacks that took advantage of his speed and reflexes to minimise that problem. Normally once he got in close he could keep up a constant series of strikes that soon overwhelmed his enemy if they weren't easily killed.

Heart was having the same problem, he'd swung a bit too hard after getting frustrated fighting the agile style the boy used and overextended himself. The black- haired teenager rushed in and battered the mob with fast and powerful attacks until the sword flew from his grip. Kirito twirled his arm and smoothly beheaded him in a single motion. It had taken a lot of practicing with a heavy sword to manage that consistently and he still needed more time to improve it. He turned to look at the melee behind him. Fuurinkazan had killed two of the Sworn Brotherhood and were currently ganged up on the final two. He hung back, knowing that at this stage he'd only get in the way. Klein, the large Earth Aspect, Fuurinkazan's other Fire Aspect and his sister were battling the Fire Aspect. Dodging his attacks and with the exception of Klein trying to stay out of the way of the burning Anima Banner. The rest except the two archers were fighting the Water Aspect that had been nearly crushed into the wall earlier. Both mobs seemed to be the strongest enemies and were just barely managing to hold everyone off despite being drastically outnumbered.

"Effortlessly Rising Flame!" The Fire Aspect shouted and jumped high over the player's heads to bounce off the wall. "Earth Protection Form!" He cried as he fell back into the melee, Daiklave raised to smash apart the players defence. He shoved Sugu and the Fire Aspect away and smashed the Earth Aspect to the ground only to be pushed back as Klein yelled furiously. Kirito's friend swung his sword expertly, pushing the mob back. Klein was the only one who could currently damage the Fire Aspect Kirito knew. The Earth version of Protection Form boosted a Terrestrial's defence against metal and White Jade weapons he'd heard from Argo's info in the beta. Klein had a Red Jade Daiklave that looked similar to the NPC's weapon. Suddenly his eyes widened. Suguha had stood up again, unarmed but in a stance.

"Disarming Strike Prana!" The NPC's weapon went tumbling from his hands to the floor and Sugu kicked it away as Klein sliced with his Daiklave. "Ringing Anvil Onslaught!" The sword stabbed into the mob in a flurry of blows and the Fire Aspect froze with a shocked look before shattering apart.

Kirito's heart started to beat again.

The rest of Fuurinkazan had finished off the Water Aspect while Kirito's attention was absorbed by his cousin's fight. He charged into the group who were gathering together and celebrating. Suguha had a moment to spot her brother rushing towards her before he grabbed her in a tight hug. Crushing her against him tightly.

"Don't scare me like that again please." He muttered as his cousin froze in shock at the uncharacteristic action.

"Onii-san." She murmured and hugged him back, resting her head on his shoulder like they had when they were younger. The two held each other for a moment before breaking apart.

"Sugu, what on earth are you doing here?" Kirito asked desperately. Bad enough that a million people were stuck in this death-game, his cousin too?

"Ah, ummm. Well. I said I was going over to my friend Izumi's house? Well, I don't know if you know but she's part of the Kendo club and got interested in this game because of the sword fighting when her dad showed it to her. She managed to get her hands on two copies of it and invited me to play it with her. I was interested because of her and you so I was going to surprise you in the game." She finished in an embarrassed tone. Kirito wasn't quite sure how to take this. On one hand his cousin/sister was trapped in a death game with him because she'd wanted to surprise him. On the other she was here and he could feel himself relaxing slightly just being around her despite the distance he'd put between them over the last few years.

He hugged her again tightly. "Thank you Sugu. It's a nice thought even if it was spoiled by what's happened."

Klein had kept his distance so as to not spoil the family reunion between the two but they had to get going before more regular mobs began spawning now the quest event was over.

"Yo Kirito, good to see you." He said with a smile, putting his hand on the younger boy's shoulder. "Don't really want to break up your family reunion but we need to go, now that your safe and we've met up again, let alone having finished our hardest battle so far. It's time to celebrate. Kunimittz and Dynamm are going to go book rooms at an inn and we're all gonna party. D'you need to hand that quest in now or later?"

Kirito blinked. "Umm, I can hand it in tomorrow but now that I'm finished I want to get out of Nexus and go find this small village I know about."

Klein looked quizzically at him. "You don't slow down do you? Nevermind, you're having a night to relax after this. Come on, you're coming with us. Your sister's friend is waiting outside for us anyway.

"Izumi-san?" Kirito questioned.

Suguha spoke up then. "Yes Onii-san. Me and Izumi met Sinon-san first before we all ran into Klein-san and his friends on his travels to find them and we tagged along for safety. Then we met Agil-san as well."

Kirito smiled. "Apparently I've got a lot to catch up on. Anyway, Klein-san. Thank you for keeping my sister safe." He bowed his head.

"It's fine, Lyfa-san can take care of herself, she's really good with that sword anyway, reminded me a lot of you when we first met. Now come on!"

He started off back to his friends. Kirito and Suguha shared a look, and then followed.

-Scene Change-

The two members of Fuurinkazan had bought rooms at an Inn in the main district of Nexus, it was here the group gathered to celebrate their survival and relax after a hard battle. Kirito was introduced to everyone by Lyfa and Klein, learned the axe-wielder's name was Agil, the blue-haired archer was Sinon and the members of Klein's guild were Dynamm, Harry One, Dale, Issin and Kunimittz. Lyfa had brought her friend Izumi, who'd taken the name Mikoto for her avatar.

Mikoto was shorter than Lyfa, with brown hair that fell to her shoulders and dark eyes. Her calm demeanour contrasted with Kirito's social butterfly of a sister, however when Lyfa had met her with the group the first thing she did was ludly demand to know if everyone was alright and how it went. Mikoto herself went to Kendo because Lyfa did it and not because she shared her aggressive personality and interest in swordplay. Now that there was a chance of death in the game, Mikoto's desire to fight had entirely left her.

The Inn itself was called The Shattered Stump and was brightly lit with a cheery atmosphere and a high noise level from people chatting happily. Dale, Issin and Harry One were drunk and loudly, as well as extremely out of key, singing what Kirito thought could possibly be a drinking song when it didn't sound like a cat being strangled. Or possibly tortured. Despite that, the music had a relaxing effect and Kirito felt the tension leave him as he slumped into the bench.

"So Kirito, what do you plan to do now? We're going to relax for a week after doing all that travelling, sell the loot we've collected along the way. Find out more about whats going on in the Scavenger Lands and then head to Great Forks with Agil. It was hard getting used to camping outside every night. Learning to set watches an stuff." The redhead was leaning back in his seat and spreading himself over as much surface area as he could in the comfy chair.

Kirito scratched his chin, he already knew what he intended to do. Head for the village of Kaelthan and wait around until the Exaltation event was triggered by spending enough time there, complete it and head south-east, exploring and completing quests until he reached the abandoned Solar Manse he'd found in the Beta that was nearly impossible to discover unless you already knew it was there. He'd have to attune to it and then he was off to Denandsor. After that, he wasn't sure. Of course, he wasn't going to say it out loud where everyone could hear it. NPCs would react to news like that and rumors would spread until other players found out or a group of Dragonblooded NPCs or a Scavenger Lord went for it.

"I'll head east to Kaelthan and complete quests there, afterwards though, I'm not sure."

Klein didn't look like he'd noticed anything. Sugu on the other hand... Kirito flinched slightly as he saw Lyfa's sceptical expression. Yep, she knew him too well. Her eyes conveyed to him that he'd better explain himself later when they were in private. He wondered how women managed that sort of thing. Possibly it was some sort of special technique women taught each other away from men. His aunt knew how to do it after all.

"Well you sure know what you're doing, not sure why I expected anything different. Good luck Kirito. Anyways, Kampai!"

The Fire Aspect gleefully raised his cup of Sake. One of the options in the menu setting was whether players wanted some effects like drunkenness to act on them if, say, alcohol was consumed. Kirito disliked being drunk, the loss of inhibitions and control over himself wasn't something he enjoyed. Hangovers were even worse. Thankfully it was impossible for his body to get addicted to it ingame and his real body couldn't suffer withdrawal symptoms or anything. Possibly there could be a purely psychological addiction to the sensation he mused. He didn't know enough about psychology to be able to guess. Either way, he raised his cup and enjoyed the taste.

Agil was talking to Kunimittz, something about marketing or working in business in real life. Sinon and Mikoto were speaking quietly and privately in the corner.

"Strange girl that one." Klein said, having noticed where Kirito was looking.

"She says she wants to learn to use fire-pieces, maybe the Rightous Devil Style, but every time she gets near one or even sees one and she freezes up and freaks out. Something happened to her IRL. Anyway, it's why she's using a bow, I think she's trying to work her way up to it or something."

Kirito frowned. Poor girl, he hoped someone from her family wasn't dead or something. Judging by her expression though, he doubted she was the type of person who wanted people to pity her.

"Still, Sinon-san's got the best aim I've ever seen, either ingame or real life" he said.

"That she does, practiced for hours whenever we made camp. She raised her Archery Ability from 50 to somewhere near 250 in the months she spent with us."

Thats about as good as I raised my Melee Ability, I had a trainer who could increase my learning speed while she just trained longer thought Kirito, slightly startled at the bluenette's sheer dedication.

"What about Agil? How come he joined you?"

"That guy... He and his wife both got a copy of the game, thankfully they agreed beforehand to meet in Great Forks as a plan of action, so even with the craziness of the 'Opening Ceremony' he's got hope." The Terrestrial gestured derisively at the mention of the time in Meru. "He met us soth-west of Nexus and he's going there with us when we leave Nexus to try and find her, I hope she's okay, sounds like a fine lady from what he told us."

Kirito felt even worse now, it seemed like everyone was getting pressured in one way or another by this damn death game. At least Klein knew all his friends were okay. And he'd helped kept Sugu and Izumi safe.

"Klein..."

"Hmm?" The man looked up from the table.

"Thanks. Again, for keeping Lyfa and Mikoto safe." The boy said warmly.

"Onii-san..." Lyfa said, blushing slightly. She'd been drinking next to Kirito and listening to them talk.

Klein looked a bit uncomfortable too and tried to wave the compliment off.

"It's fine Kirito-kun, it's what anyone would have done."

"No, not everyone would. And even so, arigato gozaimasu. It's a brother's duty to look after their little sister, so thanks for helping her when I couldn't."

"Kirito-kun, you're overdoing it." Lyfa said in a partially embarrassed and mostly dry tone. Her head was supported by a hand, the other was idly tracing scars and ridges in the table's surface.

"Alright, enough with the seriousness! Kampai!" He exclaimed, knocking the rice-wine back and swaying slightly with a happy smile. Kirito and Lyfa drank too, celebrating their continued good health with the leader of Fuurinkazan.

-Scene Change-

Later, after Klein went to laugh at his friends, who'd grown progressively drunker and more off-key until they collapsed in a heap on the floor, Dale cuddling the others (Kirito bet they'd wake with hangovers the size of the Pole of Earth); the brother and sister finalised their plans for the morning. Sugu had worn down her brother's protestations about her safety and denied his wish for her to stay in Nexus with Izumi and Sinon, (who she'd made friends with over the last few months together) instead of accompanying him on his dangerous quest to Exalt even if having back-up meant he was more likely to survive. Suguha wondered if her brother's solitary nature carried over to his habits in games. If so, he'd just have to deal with having company.
Left unspoken was the hope that time together would mean the breakdown of the barriers that had slowly lifted between them over the years.

"Onii-san, Sinon wants to come with us."

"Why?" He asked curiously.

"She wants to fight, and increase her Archery Ability further. In her words, she'll be able to do that faster with us than just training on her own here in Nexus. I think she feels alive when she's fighting, Izumi worries about her."

"What about Izumi? Does she want to stay in a city where it's safer?"

"No, she'd rather be with familiar faces, we'll just do what we did with Fuurinkazan; Her hanging back when we get into combat."

"Okay. Did you make her keep training to defend herself though?"

"Of course I did, stupid onii-san." She said scornfully. To be fair, Kirito thought. It was a stupid question, even if it was a necessary one.

There was silence. Most NPCs and the couple of players not in their group had headed up to their room to sleep so it was quieter.

"Kazuto?" Suguha said timidly.

"Yeah Sugu?"

"Do you think Mom'll be okay?" She asked desperately.

Kirito thought about his aunt, Kirigaya Midori, it had been 4 months here but who knew how long outside. Still at least some time had passed so she was probably beginning to get used to it by now. Hopefully. She was a strong woman, caring for him when his parents, her sister and brother-in-law died. And she knew they were both still alive and would help each other.

"I don't know, but I think so. Mom's tough. Either way, she can't help us, we'll have to beat this game ourselves. We are not going to die here, we will definitely see her again." He managed to convince his sister, he wasn't quite so sure that he'd convinced himself.

-Scene Change-

It was early in the morning when Kirito, Lyfa, Mikoto and Sinon gathered at the eastern gate. Klein had managed to drag himself from bed and join Agil in saying goodbye to them. He looked extremely groggy and was wearing a large hat to shade himself from the bright dawn of the Daystar. He was also complaining about the hangover and its accompanying headache as they walked and twitched at every other loud noise. Kirito didn't have much sympathy for him, it was his own fault and he knew what would happen. He did have some though, Klein just looked too pathetic not to be pitied.
Agil on the other hand looked fine, enjoying the fresh morning air. People had hurriedly moved out of the way of the huge Earth Aspect with a gigantic axe slung loosely over one shoulder.
The travellers themselves were well-rested and ready to leave. It was about three days journey to Kaelthan and three more days waiting there until the Fair Folk attack was triggered on the fourth day. Hopefully Kirito would have Exalted by the end of the week. Or he would possibly be dead.

"Well" Kirito said, breaking the comfortable silence. "It was nice to meet you Agil-san, good luck in Great Forks."

"Thank you Kirito-san, good luck yourself." His deep voice rumbled like the sound of his Anima Banner.

"Klein, take care of yourself. See you around and thanks for the rescue."

"Anytime Kirito, except when I have a headache or need to lie down." The words were spoken weakly and Kirito was about to ask if it was serious when Agil pre-empted him.

"Come on sleeping beauty, time for you to go back to bed." Agil coaxed Klein, putting a supporting arm around the redhead who was leaning alarmingly towards the right.

"Goodbye Lyfa-san, Mikoto-san, Sinon-san. Safe journeys to you all." The two Terrestrials walked (or in Klein's case stumbled) back into the city.

"Goodbye Agil-san! Klein-san!" The girls nearly chorused and Mikoto giggled quietly.

"Ready to go onii-san?" Suguha's voice came.

Taking one last look at the city that had been his home for the last four months, Kirito answered.

"Yeah, lets go."