Thank you for deciding to read Fairy Dance of Death. It's no coincidence that I'm posting this on Nov 6th, 2012—exactly ten years to the day before the canonical launch of Sword Art Online. It seemed an auspicious day to begin a complete "reboot" of the SAO universe.
This is an AU fic starting from the premise that Kayaba was obsessed with fantasy and Norse Mythology rather than swords and melee, and developed ALO rather than SAO, trapping 20,000 players inside the Death Game of Alfheim Online. If you don't know what ALO is, you probably haven't seen past episode 14 of the anime or read the Fairy Dance volumes of SAO—and you probably should do that first in order to get the most out of this story and avoid spoilers, although the story of FDD will progress markedly differently than the SAO or ALO arcs.
Many of the differences between this universe and SAO canon will be shown as the story progresses, but in order to avoid confusion from mismatched expectations, there is one thing I wanted to make clear at the outset: while this fic is set in the world of ALO, it is not the game of ALO that we know from canon. It would be better to describe it—for the most part—as a blend of SAO and ALO's game mechanics, with the setting and races of ALO.
If you're very familiar with both games and see something that makes you think "that's not in SAO/ALO", just remind yourself that this is an AU fic and that the discrepancy is probably intentional—I take a lot of pride in the amount of excruciatingly detailed research and world-building I do for my writing, and I sincerely hope you will enjoy the result.
Please take the time to review this story and let me know what you think—I value all feedback!
Since the world of Alfheim is very large and complex, I felt it necessary to create a scale map to replace the somewhat cartoonish and incomplete one from the Light Novels. You might find it helpful as well, or simply interesting. Due to the way FFN filters anything that even looks like a URL, you'll need to assemble it yourself by removing the spaces and replacing the word "DOT" with periods.
ayashi DOT net/foo/sao/FDDAlfheim-1000 DOT png
Full-size version (big!):
ayashi DOT net/foo/sao/FDDAlfheim DOT png
ACT 1: Launch
"Alfheim Online may be a game, but you don't play it—you live it."
—Akihiko Kayaba, interview dated 10/24/22
November 6, 2022
With a smile, fourteen year old Kazuto Kirigaya reached across his desk to turn off the television. The sudden silence in the room seemed to echo with half-remembered bits of the newscast, which had been reporting on the launch of the world's first true Virtual Reality MMORPG: Alfheim Online. He'd only been half-listening to it anyway; most of his attention had been focused on his desktop computer as he skimmed social media sites and the Fulldive forums for last-minute information about the game. The only time the news had commanded his full attention was when there was an interview with Akihiko Kayaba—the genius behind the Nerve Gear VR technology and the developer of Alfheim Online.
But the clock said 12:58 PM Japan Standard Time, and that meant he had less than two minutes until he could actually be playing the game.
Kazuto gracefully shut down his computer and gave his room a last once-over, making sure snacks and drinks were by the side of his bed so that he wouldn't have to log out for long when he took breaks for sustenance and basic needs. After one last swig from his water bottle, he sat down on the edge of the bed and picked up the bulky Nerve Gear helmet that would be his brain's interface to the virtual world.
Had Kazuto spent much time thinking about girls rather than video games and advanced computer programming, he might've been embarrassed by the way he ran his hands across the surface of the Nerve Gear, caressing it almost like a lover. But in a way, it was fitting: during the two months he'd been part of the closed beta for ALO, he'd certainly spent far more time wearing that helmet than with his family. After all that time spent in Alfheim, the fairy world of magic and adventure almost felt more real to him than the world in which his body lived and breathed. When he was in that world, he was free—completely unbound from the limitations of the physical world. In Alfheim, all he needed were his wings and a good sword.
It was time. Kazuto slipped the Nerve Gear onto his head, settling back onto his bed and getting comfortable. There was a small digital heads-up display inside the helmet showing vital data like the device's battery life and network connection; it also had a clock. As he watched, the seconds ticked down to 1:00 PM one by one.
At 12:59:59, a final grin of anticipation touched Kazuto's face as he spoke the voice command that initiated the startup sequence, stripping him of any awareness of the outside world and replacing his senses with input from the game engine.
In Japan, one common method for creating pseudonyms was to combine syllables from their given and family names—a method of abbreviation popular for various other phrases as well. So when the system prompted Kazuto for his username, he gave it same name he used for his character: the first two mora of his family name followed by the last from his given name.
K-I-R-I-T-O, he typed on the holographic keyboard hanging in the air before him in ALO's chargen room, romanized rather than using kana. After entering his password, the game surprised him by prompting him whether or not he wanted to load his beta character data. Kirito had been under the impression that there was going to be a full wipe of the player base after the beta, and it was going to shock him if they actually let him carry over the levels and items he'd gained there.
After a moment of indecision, he accepted the prompt. Depending on how much carried over, it might be a little unfair—but given the nightmarish difficulty curve of the game, any advantage would be welcome. And if nothing else, it would save him the tedious process of selecting a race and customizing his character. Certain hair and skin tones were only available to certain races, but nearly any aspect of facial or body structure could be manipulated to the heart's content within the bounds of that racial archetype.
Early in the beta, Kirito had experimented with a few different races—the Salamander tribe was especially popular due to their prowess with weapons and mastery of fire magic, and he'd been frankly stunned at how many people enjoyed playing the diminutive feline humanoids called Cait Sith. But it hadn't taken him long to discover that he vastly preferred the unpopular Spriggan race for a variety of reasons—not least of which, he admitted to himself a little sheepishly, was that he thought their dark ash-gray skin and predominantly black clothing was really cool.
Sure enough, the game skipped past the giant roulette wheel of the race selection screen and the unthinkable complexity of the character customization. A player could always simply accept a randomly generated appearance, but Kirito couldn't stand that—he'd spent a long time crafting the appearance of his final character, modeling it after one of his favorite manga protagonists.
The chargen room faded to black, and black shifted to the not-quite-black that a person sees with their eyes closed as the murmur of a crowd rose from a distant, hollow sound into something more substantial that surrounded him on all sides.
Kirito opened his eyes, and for the first time in over a month looked upon the virtual game world of Alfheim, staring down at his hands and his avatar's dark-skinned Spriggan body as he stood in the center of a vast plaza. He didn't have a way to see his own face yet, but everything else was exactly as he remembered it, aside from the equipment he wore—which was all the basic default starting gear. He extended the first two fingers of his left hand and drew a vertical stroke in the air, and grunted in satisfaction as the system menu opened with a gentle chiming sound, hanging in the air at around chest height.
A look at his status screen confirmed his suspicions: he was back to a level 1 character, and while he still had the pair of starter spells given to all Spriggans and the first two skills he'd selected, both his spells and skills had been reset to one point out of the thousand it took to master them: complete beginner level. It was going to take months of grinding to get him back where he was before the wipe.
He sighed, but there was no real regret in it—he hadn't expected anything to carry over in the first place, and it had spared him the hour it'd take to try to recreate his character's appearance. That was an hour he could be spending getting a head start on everyone else.
Dismissing his menu with a wave of his hand, Kirito took his first good look around at his surroundings, and started in alarm. He'd expected to spawn in the Spriggan starting city of Penwether, where he'd be surrounded by others of his own faction, but he found himself in the middle of a vast plaza filled with thousands of players from each of the nine races, all of them mingling and marveling at their surroundings. Now and then a flash of colored light would appear in an empty spot somewhere in the plaza, pixels resolving into the spawning avatars of players as they logged in. Towering far above the spires of the city he could see the vast trunk of the world-tree Yggdrasil, in whose roots the city nestled. On an overcast day the branches of the tree would be lost to the clouds above; even on a day of clear blue skies like today the tree canopy was hazy with the kilometers of distance and cast a broad shadow across the land as the sun traveled.
"Welcome, traveler!" The voice came from somewhere behind and to his right; Kirito whirled, startled, and found himself facing an NPC with the glowing question mark of an available quest hanging over her cat-eared head. The amber-haired Cait Sith woman grinned toothily. "Bet you're confused, aren'tcha?"
"A little," Kirito admitted. "I thought I was going to spawn in Penwether like we did in the beta. But this looks like the neutral city of Arun, in the shadow of Yggdrasil itself—and we shouldn't be able to get there yet."
The NPC nodded as the game's natural language processing algorithms parsed his words and decided that he'd responded the right way to trigger the quest. A small icon popped up in his far left peripheral vision; when he tried to focus on it, the quest update window grew in his HUD and explained that this was a tutorial quest—one which Kirito knew hadn't been in the beta. That was a good sign; it suggested that he could expect a lot more new content that hadn't been there before.
"On any other day," the nameless Cait Sith NPC went on, "of course everyone'd begin their adventure in their race's starting city. Today, the High King Oberon has summoned all of you here under a flag of truce to meet your fellow faekin and hear what he has to say."
"Will we get sent back when the event's over?" Kirito asked with some alarm. While there were a few low-level or relatively safe areas around Arun, the trip back to Penwether would be long and incredibly dangerous at level 1. And that was just the danger from mobs—there would also undoubtedly be players from opposing tribes out hunting as well, once this truce was lifted. He'd be frankly shocked if they intended to leave all of the players here.
The catgirl shrugged fluidly, tail twitching. "Got me, buddy—now you know as much as I do. But the High King won't be speaking for hours yet, so I'd say go spend some time making friends and making money. I hear there's been a problem with slimes down in the city sewers, so you might want to ask a guard about that."
On saying this, the quest marker over the NPC's head disappeared. Another update appeared in Kirito's peripheral vision, recapping what the NPC had said and giving him a reminder about the typical-sounding starter quest for killing the slimes. He ignored it for now; it was probably the sort of thing that would reward him a mere handful of Yuld—the game's currency—and a pittance of EXP.
He had some familiarity with the city of Arun already, so it didn't take him long to find an NPC equipment vendor that could outfit him with something better than the starting dagger and black cloak given to his race. For 20 coins he got a basic leather chest guard, and 50 more bought him a bronze one-handed long sword. Here in the shadow of the world-tree, the shop probably sold some incredibly high-end equipment worth thousands or even millions of Yuld—but at level 1, he couldn't even see them in the shop menu anyway.
That would do for the time being, but it nearly wiped out his starting money. He contemplated some food in case he ended up being out hunting for an extended period of time, but decided against it—he was just going to poke his head outside of the city Safe Zone and see if he could find some low-level mobs to grind, get back in the swing of things.
But first, to see if he still had what it took to fly. Until this point, the glistening black translucent wings that hung from his back during flight had been absent. Now they appeared at need as Kirito tried to remember what it had felt like to train himself to use Voluntary Flight, imagining that he could feel the wings growing from his back and getting them to respond to specific muscle movements. It took a few twitches and false starts, but it was like riding a bicycle: a little tough to get at first, but once you did, you never really forgot. In moments he heard the familiar deep thrumming sound of his wings beating, shining iridescently with the stored power of the sunlight that allowed him to fly.
Kirito crouched, tensed, and kicked off the ground.
It all came flooding back to him in a rush of exhilaration: the endless hours and days spent in this game, fighting and flying and fighting and flying and flying some more. He looped a few times, swooped past an NPC vendor while doing a barrel roll, and wove through the columns surrounding the plaza before shooting back out into the open air at the center.
"Hey there, flyboy!"
The flippant call caught Kirito off-guard, distracting him as he looked around for the voice. He swerved to narrowly avoid a pair of Undines in blue mage robes, and ended up bouncing off one of the large animal statues dotting the plaza. He landed in a tumbling, undignified heap, annoyed but grateful at least to be in a Safe Zone and not to have taken falling damage from the crash. As he sat up and rubbed his head, a lanky Salamander with a garish striped bandana wrapped around his shock of red hair jogged up to him and crouched nearby. "Hey, sorry about that. You okay?"
"I'm fine," Kirito grumbled, looking the Salamander up and down warily. The kinds of players who gravitated towards Salamanders tended to be aggressive, and more often than not they'd been a real threat. He was in no danger here in the city, but he felt the need for caution nonetheless.
Seeming to catch the look, the Salamander held up both hands, palms-out. "Don't worry, I'm not sizing you up for a PK or anything—I don't play like that. I was actually hoping you could help me out."
"Help you?" Kirito said in surprise. "No offense, but… you know this is a PvP game, right?"
"Well, sure, but there's nothing says we can't work together too—I read that there were lots of mixed-race parties and guilds in the beta. That's why I tried to get your attention, actually. I thought to myself: 'Klein, my boy, that guy there was a beta tester. That's the only way he could be flying around so naturally like that.' You were, weren't you?"
Kirito turned away, still watching the Salamander out of the corner of his eye. "Um, maybe. Why?"
Klein put his palms together before him and bowed deeply. "I'm begging you to take pity on a poor newbie and teach me how to play this game!"
Kirito's jaw dropped. It was true: there was no rule preventing players of different races from cooperating. Races could even be officially allied if their elected leaders were on friendly terms, and it wasn't particularly uncommon for different races to party together if they weren't at war. But although there were plenty of mobs and bosses for PvE play, ALO had been designed from the beginning with player-versus-player combat in mind, and the game mechanics and long-term quests of the game had made most of the factions neutral to each other at best.
Moreover, Salamander players had had something of a reputation in the beta. Because of their racial advantages with weapons handling and fire magic, they were very popular with aggressive players who enjoyed PvP combat—and more than a few griefers as well. But there was something completely earnest about Klein's entreaty that made it hard to suspect him of ulterior motives, and Kirito knew from experience what he must be going through as he acclimated to the virtual environment and game system.
"All right," Kirito said finally, trying for a smile. "First thing you're going to want to do is learn how to fly."
Quickly setting aside her confusion at being dropped in Arun after listening to the NPC's speech, Argo wasted no time at all. Her inside information had been accurate up to this point; the game had allowed her to import her Cait Sith character data from the beta and skip the time she would've spent in chargen, and the rumors of a special world event appeared to be true. Her source hadn't said anything about everyone spawning in the city of Arun, but she wasn't about to argue—it would make it much easier to make contact with all of her previous contacts from the beta who'd been lucky enough to get one of the 20,000 copies of ALO from the first printing.
She had at least thirty names of people who'd emailed her before logging in to tell her the character name they'd planned on using, and most of them planned to roll characters of the same race as before. It wasn't worth fretting over the fact that the production version of ALO lacked an in-game web browser or any other way of contacting the outside world—that might bother some people who depended on being able to look up FAQs and guides while they were playing, but Argo had been blessed with an encyclopedic memory that let her recall just about any word or phrase that she'd seen or heard at least once. It wasn't eidetic memory—to her chagrin, she couldn't imprint images or memories or anything else the same way; it would've greatly expanded her ability to act as an information broker—but words stuck, and so did information if she read it or heard it aloud.
Sitting on a bench in one of Arun's major traffic areas and chewing on a broad peppermint-flavored leaf, her large mobile cat ears twitched to track passing conversations with half of her attention while she manipulated her game menu in front of her, rapidly tapping out messages to her contacts and adding them to her friends list when she got an affirmative response.
"Come on, Ki-bou," she muttered after sending a reply to one of her Imp contacts, her tail lashing in mild annoyance. "I know you're here. You could take five seconds to answer me."
Swiping her menu closed, she hopped off of the bench and jogged off towards the central plaza at the foot of the World Tree. She received several new-message notifications in the time it took her to reach her destination, but for the moment she ignored them, looking around for the player she needed to meet. So many players of the same races looked alike when they were all wearing starting equipment, but the sharp eyesight of the Cait Sith race let her pick out her quarry quickly enough—he was one of the very few dark-haired Sylphs she'd seen yet.
"What took you so long, Skarrip?" Argo planted her hands on her hips, trying to look severe. Between the inherent cuteness of the Cait Sith race and her own diminutive stature, it didn't quite have the desired effect. Skarrip favored her with a bemused smile and arched an eyebrow.
"You'll forgive me of course for having real-life obligations. I'm here now, though."
"Real life? What's this riaru you're talking about?" Despite her impatience, Argo had a hard time being too angry at Skarrip. He had always been one of her best inside sources in the beta, and was downright obsessive on the subject of ALO's aesthetics and game mechanics. When he shrugged at her rhetorical question, she made a small fu sound, a vocalized puff of air. "Well anyway, spill. What've you got on this world event?"
Skarrip shrugged again. "The High King Oberon—"
"You mean a GM playing him."
He continued as if she hadn't interrupted. "—Is supposed to appear at five-thirty for a special announcement. Everyone needs to be there for it."
Argo's tail lashed in a figure eight. "I got that much from the catgirl NPC. What've you got that's news?"
"If I could tell you anything else, my dear," Skarrip said with splayed hands, "I assure you I would 'spill'. Do bear in mind that my job has a confidentiality clause."
"That you regularly break on my behalf."
"A fact which you'd do well not to speak too loudly if you want me to remain in a position to help you."
Argo paced in a circle around her contact—it wasn't quite accurate to call him a friend—stopping as he said this and poking him a few times in the small of the back. Skarrip didn't turn except to cant his head in her direction whenever she came about, still wearing that infuriating smile. "You're hiiiiding something," she said, drawing out the verb slowly into a nasal sound.
"And so I am. Aren't we all?"
Returning to face him from the front, Argo crossed her arms in front of her chest and added foot-tapping to her repertoire of impatient gestures. "I don't have time for your games today," she said finally. "I have a network to rebuild. Let me know when you can tell me something useful, hm?"
Skarrip inclined his head, a few locks of dark violet-black hair drifting with the motion. "I shall do just that. Your abrasive personality quirks aside, it's nice to see you again, Argo."
"Meh," she said, hiding a brief smile. "I got stuff to do. Send me a message once in a while."
Trotting away from Skarrip and the irritating enigmatic attitude he liked to put on, Argo drew open her menu and began replying to the messages that had accumulated while she was wasting time with him. Over the course of many conversations during the beta, she had narrowed him down to one of two or three people affiliated in some way with Argus. It was possible he was one of the company's social media organizers or bloggers, but based on his name and in-game racial preference she was leaning strongly towards the opinion that he was the lead artist for the Sylph race, Rintarou Sukagawa—someone who was known to be a player himself, but whose actual character was unknown.
Like her other Argus contacts, he frequently came up with some particularly juicy insider info, which made him useful—but just as often he had a habit of putting on airs and pretending that he was more important than he really was.
She could smell it a kilometer away when he was bullshitting, and today was one of those days—he didn't know anything of worth about the supposed opening day event, or else he would've sold the info to her.
"Excuse me," said a female voice as someone tugged on the hem of Argo's cloak. Startled, she hopped in place and whirled around, tail slashing the air. A slender Undine girl in the usual starting gear was standing there looking horribly embarrassed and hopelessly confused, shifting from one foot to the other as she stared around at everything as if it was the most bewildering thing she'd ever seen.
"I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm incredibly lost and you look like you know what you're doing." She tugged nervously at one of the locks of long blue hair that spilled over her shoulders.
"That's not all I know," Argo said smugly. "Argo's the name, and you've come to the right person if you're looking for info. What'cha need?"
"Well, it's just… this is my first time in the game—any game, really—and I've never done anything like this before. What do you do here?"
Argo boggled at the question, her petite jaw hanging open for a moment and revealing tiny, needle-like fangs before she shut it with a clapping sound. "You're kidding, right?"
"I wish I was," the girl said with building embarrassment, the pale skin of her cheeks darkening as she looked down at her feet. "This is my older brother's game, but he had to leave suddenly for a business trip yesterday. I was curious what all the fuss was about, and fairies sounded kind of neat—so I decided to try it out."
It was too much. Argo doubled over in high-pitched laughter, drawing stares from passers-by which only increased the Undine girl's discomfort. "Sorry, sorry, sorry. So lemme get this straight. You're borrowing your brother's Nerve Gear, you've never played a video game before, and you decided to login to ALO of all things?"
"I've played some games before," the girl said a little defensively, brows furrowing and eyes flashing in a way that hinted at a temper lurking somewhere under the surface.
"Like what?" Argo asked, finally recovering her composure.
"Well," she said, reaching reflexively to where her pocket might've been if she'd been in her own skin and clothes. "I've got a bunch of them on my smartphone. I really like the one where you have to knock down the dancing inugami with flying cats."
Argo lost it again.
"Piikei?" Asuna said finally, face contorting in even further confusion at the lengthy explanation. "I've never heard the word before. What does it mean?"
"P, K," Argo replied, sounding out the Latin letters slowly and separately, then repeating the English words they stood for. "As in Player Killing. It means attacking another player and reducing their hit points—their life—to zero. Did you even read the manual?"
Asuna shifted uncomfortably, feeling incredibly stupid. It was not a feeling she was accustomed to, and she didn't like it one bit. This world of magic and fairies was starting to rapidly lose its luster for her. "There's a manual?"
"Oh for—" Argo stopped abruptly, and sighed, looking up at the much taller girl through a messy veil of auburn bangs. "Okay, listen. I don't make a habit of giving out information for free, but you're a complete noob and I'd hate to see you get ganked on your first day. So here's how it works. When you created your character, you saw there are nine races, right?" Asuna nodded. "Each race is competing with the others to clear the huge dungeon in the trunk of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. The first race that makes it to the top gets an audience with King Oberon, who's supposed to allow them and two of their allies to… ascend, you could call it, into a higher form that has the power of unlimited flight."
"Unlimited flight?" Asuna had heard that players could fly in the game, but didn't really know anything about how it worked yet. Once again she kicked herself for not reading the manual—or for that matter, knowing that there was one in the first place.
"Yup," Argo said happily. "Flying is awesome and everyone loves it, but you can only fly for about ten minutes max before you have to rest your wings—and you can't fly underground or in dungeons. So getting to the top of the World Tree is kinda like the game's grand quest."
Asuna pursed her lips, thinking. "So what did you mean about… PKing?"
"Well," Argo said as if she was explaining gravity to a child, "only one race can win an audience with the High King, right? And they can choose two allied races to go with them. So…"
"So it means every race is competing with every other," Asuna interjected, pleased that she'd been able to figure it out before it was explained to her. "Wait, that means the game's all about fighting each other? Not against monsters?"
"Sorta," Argo said. "It's a PvP game—err, player versus player—but there are plenty of monsters to fight. In fact, that's the main way you earn EXP and level up."
Argo sighed again, palm sliding across her face. At that moment she seemed to react to something Asuna couldn't see, her eyes drifting off to her left, and she muttered under her breath. "Well it's about time, Ki-bou." Looking up at Asuna again, the catlike girl said, "tell you what. You know how to open your menu, right? Go into Options. Look for Help. And RTFM."
Asuna started to open her mouth to ask what RTFM was, but Argo interrupted irritably with the English words: "Read The… Friendly Manual." Then, back to Japanese: "Gotta go. Good luck!"
As the catgirl who'd identified herself as Argo ran off, Asuna realized she'd been terribly rude and had neither introduced herself nor thanked the girl for her help. With a sigh of her own, she gazed up at the impossibly massive tree that towered above the city, her eyes traveling up and up until they strained to make out the twisted, gnarled forms of the lowest branches, which were nearly lost in the haze of distance and the sparse clouds that drifted across the sky. Faintly, far above even those branches, she could see what looked like a collection of structures—what might've been a city, or a castle, or something. At that distance, it was hard to tell.
It was a lot to take in all at once for someone who'd never played an MMO before, let alone the world's first VRMMORPG. She knew she'd be wise to take Argo's advice and study the manual as if she were cramming for her entrance exams, if she wanted to get anywhere in this game.
The thought struck her as funny. An hour ago, she hadn't had the slightest idea what to expect, other than that it was some kind of "virtual reality" game and that it was a world of fairies and magic—and a bunch of other stuff her brother had rambled about without explaining the acronyms or strange terms. She'd just logged in to try it out and see what he was so obsessed about, and here she was thinking about cramming to learn how to play as if she had any intention of doing so.
She giggled furiously, and didn't care now who gave her odd looks. Now that some of her desperate confusion was gone, she could go back to the sense of wonder she'd felt when she first logged in, marveling at the sights, sounds, smells—and the fact that there were sights, sounds and smells at all in this virtual world. It was nothing short of a technological miracle that her body—her avatar, she'd heard it called—could actually sense these things as if it was her real body, in the flesh.
It was magnificent. At that point, she was just as happy to leave silly obsessions like fighting other players and adventuring to the top of the World Tree to the gamer geeks who actually enjoyed that sort of thing. She could be content just walking around in this world and being immersed in and amazed at it.
Asuna laughed beautifully as she spun in place, dancing in a little circle with her arms held up as if they could touch the sky. In that moment, she was happier than she could remember being in a long time.
Kirito had made it look easy, but he'd had the advantage of hundreds of hours spent in Full Dive during the beta test. Klein, on the other hand, had to begin with the much less intuitive "joystick" method, which involved a virtual controller gripped in the left hand that allowed fine control over the player's flight. Many players never got the knack of using their back muscles to control their wings, but it was an essential technique to master if you wanted to fight in the air effectively.
As he finished sending a message and swiped his menu closed, Kirito arrived at the conclusion that Klein wasn't going to be mastering Voluntary Flight anytime soon. After about an hour of practice, the new player could maneuver reasonably well using the joystick method, but had barely been able to get so much as a twitch from his wings without it. At that point, Kirito flagged down an NPC guard and initiated the slime-killing quest in order to give the two of them some combat practice, a task which sent them down into the dank, labyrinthine sewers beneath the city.
"It's like this," Kirito explained as the End Frame of a slime's death animation played, the mob disappearing in a puff of brackish smoke and rewarding him with a tiny amount of Yuld and EXP. "You progress in two different ways in ALO: leveling up your character by earning EXP, and increasing your skills by using them. Leveling up gives you a small boost to your flight time and maximum HP and MP, and gives you access to new spells, skills and gear. Each time you level up you also get five stat points which can be distributed how you like between STR, AGI, INT, or VIT. Strength increases your weight limit and physical damage. Agility increases your speed, evasion and accuracy. Intelligence increases your magic damage and your maximum MP, while Vitality increases your damage resistance and maximum HP. With me so far?"
"I got that much," Klein said, eyeing another slime that was roaming close to where they were. "And it's like some of those old first-person RPGs, where you have to use your skills and spells in order to get better at them and unlock new ones."
Kirito nodded, smiling. "You got it. Now you try this next one. This time, don't just run in swinging. Open up your spells menu and tap the Fire Bolt spell; it should be the one starting spell that all Salamanders get."
Klein manipulated his menu interface in the air in front of him. It was invisible to Kirito, as were the menus of any other players. "Okay?"
"Now," said Kirito, "you should have an option in the menu for pronounce. The system will read you the incantation for the spell—you need to listen carefully and say it exactly the same way. It can be faster or slower, so that you can time it to go off when you want to, but the rhythm and pronunciation have to be just right. Try it slowly the first time: focus on your target, aim your left hand, and recite the words."
"I feel so goofy doing this," Klein said with a grin as he raised his arm. "Hijan!"
It took a couple tries, but on the third hijan, an anemic bolt of flame leapt from Klein's fingertips and shot towards the slime, drawing a skreeee sound from the target as it struck.
"Great!" Kirito shouted. "Now you've got its attention, and you started the fight by doing some free damage to it. When it gets close, unleash one of your sword skills."
"How do I do that?" Klein asked as he waved his cutlass threateningly at the approaching mob. It was a glob of sewage about the size of a small dog, and would have been less intimidating if it didn't smell so convincingly awful. The slime hissed as it bounced towards Klein and struck him with a tendril of goo.
"Not like that," Kirito replied with amusement as he slouched against the wall, watching Klein run in circles slashing wildly at the mob. "The system's waiting for you to move your sword just right so that it detects the starting position for an art. When it does—"
"Some help, please!"
"Giving it to you if you'll listen," Kirito said, grinning. "When you get the right position, your sword will start to glow and you'll feel a kind of tension build up. When you're ready—release it."
Klein's HP was dropping slowly from the weak attacks of the slime, but he hadn't been doing much damage in return either. He kicked the slime away to get a little breathing room, and settled the sword with the back of the blade on his shoulder in a particular way. When he did, the blade began to emit a pale orange light, and as the slime propelled itself towards Klein for another attack, the Salamander suddenly shot forward in a streak of light and left a glowing red trail of damage on the enemy. A few moments later, the mob exploded into its death animation.
"See?" Kirito said, strolling up to Klein and punching him lightly in the arm. "Nothing to it. You'll be farming bosses in no time."
Klein pumped his fist in victory, grinning. "Are all the spells that easy?"
"Not a chance," Kirito said. "Generally speaking, the more powerful and higher level the spell, the longer and more difficult the incantation. Some of the higher-level spellwords are really hard for Japanese people to pronounce without a lot of practice."
It took a few hours to finish killing enough slimes to complete the tutorial quest, but by that point Klein had found his rhythm and the two of them spent some additional time hunting the slightly higher-level rats for extra EXP. Their first level-up had come fairly quickly, but it was getting close to dinner time before the pair saw level 3. By mutual agreement they headed back up to the surface to turn in the quest and vendor off all their trash drops.
With their inventories emptied and some money to their names, it was time to tend to their empty stomachs. As they sat on a rooftop eating the basic bread loaves they'd bought, Kirito had to explain to Klein that the hunger he felt was the game's simulation of their character's state—a state that had nothing to do with whether or not his body in the real world felt hungry or not.
"It's really easy to spend too long in Full Dive, eating regularly and having a great adventure, and then come out hours later and immediately realize that your real body is starving or dehydrated."
Klein whistled. "Good thing I came prepared, then. I've got a pizza ordered for 5:30, and that's not too far off!"
Kirito laughed. "That's hardcore. What, are you planning on missing Oberon's big speech?"
"Oh, that's right! Well, I'm sure the Fairy King won't mind if I slip in a little late with pizza and ginger ale on my breath."
As the two players shared more lighthearted joking, unwinding from the last few hours of flight practice and grinding, Kirito gazed up at the distant lower branches of Yggdrasil, pondering what wonders still awaited him that high above. During the beta they'd barely scratched the surface of the massive dungeon within the trunk of the world-tree, let alone reached the top where it was said that Oberon awaited to reward the first race of fae to seek an audience in his presence.
It was a prospect as exhilarating as it was daunting.
"Hey, Kirito," Klein said after a long pause. "What are you planning on doing after this? I mean, after the main event, whatever it is."
"Hm? Well, we'll probably get sent back to our starting cities after this, so I guess I'll start questing and grinding in the ruins around Penwether. I know a lot of good spots there."
"Yeah, I bet you know all sorts of stuff. Can't believe how lucky you were, getting into the beta."
Kirito shrugged, a little embarrassed. "Well, in a way we're all lucky—with only twenty thousand copies in the first printing, anyone who's here in this world right now is lucky. I'm just glad I got to come back. It's not like outside, where so much of what you can or can't do is dictated by where you were born or who your family was. In this world… the only limit is your skill as a player."
"I can see what you mean. So hey, I wanted to ask you something. I logged in with a bunch of my real-life friends, former guildmates from other games. Each of us was going to pick a different race, but I don't think anyone was planning on rolling a Spriggan."
"They're not very popular," Kirito admitted. "Illusion magic isn't generally all that useful in combat, and most people prefer the races with an elemental affinity." He reached over and poked at Klein. "Salamanders are pretty popular."
"Maybe so, but you're doing just fine. I haven't run into the other guys yet, but when I do, I'd like to introduce you—we should all go out partying together, I think you'd like them."
Kirito shifted uncomfortably. Klein seemed like a nice guy, and it had been fun pairing up with him for the last few hours. But at his heart, Kirito preferred to adventure solo—it was another reason he liked playing a Spriggan; the race had a reputation for being loners who hired out as freelance mercenaries.
Again displaying the ability to be observant when he wanted to, Klein waved his hands. "But I mean, it's okay if you don't want to, Kirito. I know most people like to PvP in this game, and you've got no reason to trust a group of strangers. You taught me a lot today, and I'll pass that on to my buddies. If you ever want to party up again, I'd love to! If not, that's cool."
Kirito nodded quietly, suddenly at a loss for anything he really wanted to say. He glanced at his HUD, saw the time there, and managed to produce a smile. "You'd better get going," he said. "Your pizza's going to be there in a minute."
Klein shot bolt upright. "Oh, hell! How could I forget! This world's just too immersive. Thanks, man, I owe you again."
The soft sounds of Klein's menu opening played in sequence, and then a bewildered outburst from the Salamander yanked Kirito's attention away from the slowly setting sun on the horizon. "What the fresh hell?"
Klein swept his menu closed and then opened it again. "I can't find the logout button. I could've sworn it was supposed to be right here?"
Kirito rolled his eyes. "It's in the system menu, right at the bottom."
"That's where I am!" Klein said, stabbing at the air with his finger impatiently.
Sighing, Kirito opened his own menu and casually sent it spinning to the bottom. And then he blinked, not sure if he was seeing correctly. The logout button was there, all right—but it was a blank button, bearing an icon but no label. When he pressed it, it displayed the same kind of curt animation that he'd get from trying to select a grayed-out, disabled option. "That's... really odd."
"I guess we should expect some bugs on launch," Klein said, sounding as if he was trying to sound blasé and worldly about it.
"Tell you what," Kirito said as he rose to his feet and stretched, wiggling his wings. "Let's see if we can find a GM who can log you…"
Kirito trailed off as a rising wall of noise made it difficult for him to hear his own voice and leaves stirred around his feet, scuttling across the rooftop like an army of insects. What had begun as a light breeze built into a gale-force wind whipping around them, stealing their words from the very air. Klein was shouting something, but Kirito couldn't catch it. The wind built to a crescendo, and the light of a teleportation effect flared around the both of them.
When the teleport light faded, Kirito was standing in the middle of the gigantic plaza where he'd first spawned, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of players. As he watched, players continued teleporting in by the dozens, all of them looking just as confused and startled as he felt. Aside from the expensive and rare Escape Crystals and some kinds of rumored high-level magic, there was no instantaneous fast travel in Alfheim—between their wings and the ability to ride tamed mounts, players had to get anywhere they wanted to go on their own. Kirito had only been teleported a few times when he got stuck in bugged world geometry, and never forcibly—a GM would warn a player before doing that.
The setting sun seemed to freeze in place on the western horizon, framed between two of the mountains that straddled Butterflies Valley leading to the Sylvan lands. The hue of both the sun and sky shifted rapidly to a deep orange-red, throwing a crimson cast across everything and making the deep blue hair of some Undines appear almost black. The air, thick with the fears of the assembled players, was filled with sparkling motes of light, like the after-effect of a spell or the dwindling luminescence of a dead player's Remain Light. Gradually those motes drifted towards the trunk of the world-tree, beginning to coalesce into a vaguely humanoid form over a hundred meters tall.
Rather than the High King Oberon, however, the figure that appeared wore the hooded robes of a GameMaster—one of the administrative helpers in the game who would help run quests and deal with bugs. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say that the robes of a GM appeared—but no one seemed to be wearing them. Although they seemed to be draped around a gigantic human form, it was a form that was unseen and without substance: the depths of the hood were nothing but the blackest night, and the gloves that emerged from the voluminous sleeves were not attached to arms. Kirito watched with a sense of growing apprehension as the massive figure raised those hands high, spread its arms dramatically, and began delivering the most important tutorial of his life.