Well here we are with chapter 7. Sorry for the delay and I hope the chapter is worth it. No great excuse for it. I moved house a few weeks back which didn't overly help. But the main reason was writers block and lack of time to write (I have a full time job and 2 part time jobs as well as finishing my Accounting studies). I would have posted what I had months ago, but the bit I couldn't write had to be in the chapter, right near the beginning. Was the biggest damn pain ever. But I finally managed to do it, and spent the passed few days doing my 3 write system (I write it out in my notepad, then rewrite into my draft book, then type it) and having my beta go through it.
I hope the large chapter length makes up for it, as people really preferred the longer chapter length. If I had stuck to my original length goals this chapter and my last one would have been 5 chapters instead of two. But hey TWENTY ONE THOUSAND words is a pretty snazzy chapter right?

Also a shout out to my FF mate, Indogma. Betaing for his story definitely gave me the inspiration to start writing again.

So, if you have the time, check out his story, "The Warband of Wolves" or his original work on Fictionpress, "A Mere Cadet"

And finally thanks to askasknot for doing some artwork for me which I'll post a link to later when he has finished the latest piece.

I do not own Sword Art Online or Zero no Tsukaima.

Opening premise inspired by FiF and HalO (Look at prologue for full crediting). Catsy is to be credited for OC city names.

OC's are mine, other characters are canon interpretations.

Line break = POV change

XXXXX = Flashback

A thanks to AnimeVamp1997 my Beta Reader, for putting up with all my bitching about being unable to force out some words. (Who I also apologize to for uploading before you had time to edit it. I was just too excited to post it, and I couldn't wait any more than 4 days before I just had to before I imploded)

So apologies for any SPaG errors, they will be fixed post haste

Chapter 7


'Urgh, not more errands' Leafa groaned in her head as she watched the messenger running back into the crowd, leaving her standing there with a piece of folded paper in her hands. 'I should never have offered to help her. That woman is a slave driver to her very core.' With a lethargic groan, she dropped back into her seat, glancing at the drink that stood on the table beside her, no longer in the mood for an enjoyable drink, and upended it in the garden bed behind her. It didn't match her mood anymore. 'May as well see what she wants me to do this time.' Leafa unfolded the note, her face contorting as she read the contents, "That crow! It's times like this that I regret having chosen a Sylph. Sakuya is the worst."

Pushing herself to her feet, waist length blonde ponytail swinging as she did so, she trudged off in an exasperated fashion towards the Council hall for what felt like the thousandth time in the last few days. So used to visiting that building, Leafa didn't even need to think about which way she was heading. She must have approached it from every possible direction, on every viable path by now. Before long she found herself at the foot of the small flight of steps that led to the open double doors of the accursed building.

Gritting her teeth in apprehension, Leafa entered the building, the noise within sweeping and surging over her. 'How is it still so busy!'

"Ah Leafa, there you are."

"Yes Lady Sakuya. What am I to do for you this time?" Leafa responded irritably, eying the Sylph Faction Leader, who walked towards her, with as much irritation as was carried in her voice.

"So scary," Sakuya chuckled, at the green eyed Sylph girl. "What has you in such a foul mood?"

"As a matter of fact, that would be you," Leafa muttered, before her visage degraded quickly into one of exhaustion, and she let out a sigh. "I'm just tired I guess. Not much sleep."

"I guess we have been asking a lot of you lately," Sakuya conceded, rubbing the sleep, which was building up within herself, from her face and pushing the feeling from her mind for the time being. "But there is a lot that still needs to be done, and not many who are willing to do it." She smiled at the girl, "I'll let you have tomorrow off if you'd like."

Leafa groaned to herself, hating herself for what she was about to say, knowing she had to anyway. "Don't worry about it," she sighed in resignation. "I'll keep going until this dies down a bit more. But," she added, fixing Lady Sakuya with a half hearted glare, when the opportunity does come along, I will be taking a very long break, from which you will not retrieve me until I see fit."

"Sounds fair. When that happens I will most likely be joining you in your disappearance," Sakuya said wistfully, before reverting to her prior frame of mind, hiding away all signs of her tiredness, and projecting a sense of inner strength instead. "Now, onto business. I have an errand for you, nothing major this time. I just need you to head over to the Inn streets, apparently there has been a lot more fighting breaking out between people. Oh not with weapons," she added hastily, seeing the look on Leafa's face, "Just a few too many fist fights, and not enough people willing to keep the mayhem down."

"I guess I can do that," Leafa said, stretching her arms a little, "Though I'm not sure how much help I'd be. Drawing my weapon to break up a fight is likely to only escalate things, wouldn't it?"

"Don't you worry about that. I have a feeling that you just being there will raise some spirits and keep people's minds away from punching someone," the raven haired councillor replied confidently, an amused smirk tugging at her lips.

"O-okay," Leafa agreed warily, slightly unnerved by the smirk that the Faction Leader was struggling and failing to repress, her pointed gaze that didn't quite seem to meet her face didn't help matters, so she quickly turned to leave, 'A few hours should suffice I think.'

"Thank you." She heard Lady Sakuya calling after her as she disappeared into the crowds outside.

Raising her hand she waved over her shoulder so that she could be seen amongst the crowd before disappearing down a side lane that cut through the blocks of buildings towards her destination, rather than the more circular route that following the, larger, main road would have led her on. Humming a small tune to help pass the time, Leafa nimbly hopped over any obstacles in her path, ranging from empty crates, which had no prior purpose other than to add scenery to the world, to the rarely seen city fauna that hid around Arrun. After a few minutes of humming the same old tune she finally left the laneway as it exited onto an open area, a large block of land where there sat no buildings, and which opened out onto a number of other large roads and alleyways. This block was populated by a number of stalls, most of which stood as empty shells now that there were no NPC's to man them, though a few of which had been appropriated as outlets to distribute much needed food to the players.

Without a break in her stride, the green clad Sylph weaved her way through the myriad of Fae that milled about the market square, only coming to a stop when a face she recognised happened to catch her eye, a faint chilly feeling gripping her chest. The individual in question, as though sensing the gaze upon her turned and her eyes met Leafa's, a smile quickly growing. "Hello Leafa!" the chestnut haired girl shouted, waving towards her.

Gathering herself, Leafa jogged over to the girl. "Asuna," she said in greeting, raising her hand in a small wave, "How're you?"

The Alf girl smiled warmly at the Sylph, "I'm doing well. Thank you for looking out for Yui and me. I know Kirito asked you to, but I'm thankful anyway."

"It's only natural, he and I are siblings after all," Leafa replied, her mood sinking slightly, "What are you doing out and about in here anyway?"

"Oh, I came out to get some food to cook up for a little lunch," she laughed lightly, "Kirito seems to be rather attached to my sandwiches so I thought I might make some for him on his return. Oh! Yui," Asuna stumbled as the little girl appeared from the crowd of nearby players and latched onto her, the girl's sudden appearance distracting her for a moment, and missing the grimace that Leafa was passing off as a smile.

Seeing Yui, Leafa started in surprise, before her mind dredged up the appropriate reference material, and she smiled warmly at the child, her smooth, charcoal black hair rustling as Asuna stroked the girl's head fondly. Seeing the girl in her current appearance always slightly unnerved her, no matter how many times she saw her, but that feeling was nothing in comparison to the utter shock that she had felt the first time she had witnessed Yui shift her form from a tiny pixie that had, until 'the Pain, where she had revealed her true origin, been assumed was her identity as a mere Navigation Pixie, into a small child who appeared no older than ten years of age. But no matter how unsettled her appearance made Leafa feel, she couldn't help but adore the cheerful AI. "Hello Yui. How are you?"

"Auntie Leafa!" she cried happily, dashing over to the Sylph, arms outstretched in order to envelope her as much as her little arms could manage. "Mama is shopping to make some of her famous sandwiches. I came along as well to stretch out a bit," she shook her arms and legs out, reminiscent of a child doing the Hokey Pokey, which garnered more than a few odd looks from passing players, not just due to her antics but also her appearance. As with most games, it is generally rather impossible to select your appearance to be that of a child, the fact that Yui looked exclusively like a child, and a purely human one at that, garnered her more than a little curiousity from the players of Arrun. "When I'm in this form, I can interact better with Mama," she smiled up at the blonde girl, as she disengaged from the hug after Leafa had returned it in kind, skipping the few steps back to Asuna.

As the girl reunited her hand with the one hanging at Asuna's side, Leafa couldn't help but feel awed at how realistic the girl seemed, how human she felt, despite her nature as an AI system that, not to be rude to Yui, was rather limited in its nature. But Leafa supposed that it was that limitation that held a lot of the realism as well, being a behavioural and mental health program certainly provided some benefits. "I'm sure you can," she smiled at the little girl, "I'm sorry I haven't come around to visit you much recently, I've been kept pretty busy running errands and stuff for the Faction Leaders."

"When you get some time off, you should come visit us again, I'll make you something special as a treat for all your efforts," Asuna offered cheerily, a look of concern hovering behind the smile she wore, "every time we see you, you look pretty worn out."

"I'll think about it," Leafa replied, feeling a little torn, "Lady Sakuya did agree to give me a break after my current job," she sighed, "so we'll see after that." Giving herself a mental shake, she straightened herself out of the slouch she had been succumbing to, "Anyway, as I said, I'm on a job right now, so I should probably get going." Asuna titled her head in a silent question, "I have to sort out the growing mess over in the Inn district," Leafa supplied with a grimace.

"Oh, okay," Asuna said with a small nod of her head, "don't let us hold you up, and hopefully we'll see you soon?"

"Yeah. See you soon," Leafa assured her with a wave goodbye to Yui as she turned away from the pair and walked off towards her destination.

"Bye Auntie Leafa!" Yui waved energetically after the green clad girl as she was swallowed by the crowd of players beside them. As soon as Leafa disappeared from view, the smile on the girl's face faltered, and a look of confused curiousity replaced it as she looked blankly in the direction Leafa had gone.

"Yui? Is something wrong," Asuna's voice penetrated Yui's thoughts and the young girl looked up at her, a question hovering in her eyes, a question not long held back.

"Is Auntie Leafa okay?"

"Of course, Leafa is fine." Asuna reassured her, her hand resting gently on her head, "she might be a little tired though."

The answer didn't satisfy the girl, there was something about Leafa that wasn't being caused by her tiredness, or mental exhaustion, if there was she would have easily picked up on it and known exactly what it was. 'No,' she thought, 'something else is the matter.' Placing the issue to the side, Yui slapped a smile back across her face and looked up at her 'Mama'. "Everything is fine Mama," grabbing teenage Alf's hand she began walking towards a stall that had been abandoned by an NPC during 'the Pain' leaving his or her wares behind, ignored by the masses for lack of value, pulling Asuna along behind her. "Quick Mama, they left the spices behind." Yui smiled a bit to herself when she saw Asuna's eyes light up at the mention of such an important ingredient for cooking being left alone, freely offered for the taking.

It took a few minutes, but it felt like seconds, but in what felt like, but wasn't, no time at all Asuna had managed to pile everything in the spice stall, literally everything, into one of the nearby scenery crates and was now trying to lift it as evenly as possible to prevent the mountain of small pouches, filled with various spices and seasonings, from falling to the floor. Yui watched on, a little unnerved by Asuna's actions, and was debating with herself about whether pointing out the stall in the first place was a sound idea. As Asuna looked over at her, grinning at her success, Yui smiled back in response, deciding that the pros far outweighed the cons in the long run, after all, once Asuna figured out what all her new finds tasted like, she could provide a seriously tasty myriad of nourishment. Well worth this little scene of oddity.

The journey through the streets, around corners, and eventually up the steps to their home, was as nerve wracking for Asuna as it was amusing to Yui and the small crowd of spectators who had slowly gathered along the way, who had followed to see if Asuna would manage the reach her destination without dropping anything. A poor indication as to the availability of entertainment if ever there was one.

Entering the house cautiously, Asuna headed straight for the kitchen, while Yui closed the door behind them, giggling as the saw the spectators dispersing randomly, some of whom were swapping a few loose coins of Yurudo (Yuld), a pointless currency system since 'the Pain'. Upon transferring to wherever they were, the inventory system had entirely lost, and so unless the money had been in a physical form at the time of the transfer, then it was gone, as such nearly all the game's currency had been lost.

Heading into the kitchen, Yui found Asuna gingerly dabbing her little finger into some of the pouches before dabbing the spice or seasoning onto her tongue and scribbling down some notes, before seeing Yui coming up beside her and grinned sheepishly. "Sorry Yui. I got a little carried away," dusting her hands together to get rid of any excess flavouring off her fingers she instead picked up a knife, "hold on just a second while I make us a bit of lunch." With a flourish she opened up a cupboard filled with other cooking materials that she had managed to scavenge over the last week and began perusing through them thoughtfully.

"Yay!" In an instant Yui had disappeared from the kitchen and sped around the corner, her arms spread out like a child when imitating an aeroplane, one hand hooking onto the doorframe and using her momentum to swing herself around as she hurtled towards to table in eager anticipation of the foods arrival. Laughing at the little girl's antics, Asuna returned her attention to the pantry, tongue between her teeth as she thought about what she felt like making…and what was possible.

"Well that was certainly a disappointing get together," Kirche yawned loudly, stretching her arms into the air as she did so, her back cracking.

"Undeniably so," Henrietta agreed quietly, her lips pursed together as her eyes tracked the fading view of the Fae as they flew back towards their city at the base of the giant tree. "The way they comported themselves was most disappointing. It gave me the impression that they did not wish to reach a mutual agreement with us. Might I ask your opinion Headmaster Osmond?" she asked, turning to the old mage beside her, the man's fingers brushing through his faded white beard.

The elderly man glanced down at the sonsy girl beside him with a reassuring smile to soften the blow, "I quite agree Princess. There was no leeway in their requests of us, a true all or nothing approach. Not the most advisable of approaches I must say. But that may only be from looking at the surface Your Highness. Perhaps the meaning or reasoning behind their actions is deeper than it appears to us." His fingers reaching the tip of his beard he raised his hand to the base of his chin to begin the process of his long maintained habit anew. "Their ambassador, An Sieunee gave me the distinct impression of someone who lacked any real diplomatic experience. There was a definite sign of skill, she improved rapidly through our discussion, but that lends credence to my original impression of her."

"But she introduced herself as the 'Undine Faction Leader', surely an individual of such a clearly distinguished rank would have such necessary experience?"

"Just so, Your Highness." Osmond agreed readily, "Which is where a theory presented to me by Professor Colbert could potentially be applicable." The staff wielding academic inclined his head at the crediting. "He theorized that these Fairies might operate on a standard of racial hierarchy, organised on a basis of racial talent or political importance. It is entirely possible that the Undine represent the lower ranked race of that system."

"Why would they send one of their lesser to meet with us?" Louise snapped, visibly on edge after the meeting, prompting a couple glances of concern from her classmates and Henrietta herself.

"There are two possibilities if that is the case Miss Valliere," Colbert answered calmly, forcing the irate noble to quieten her voice if she was to be able to hear his response. "Firstly, it could be that they do not perceive us highly as a species or nation and as such their higher races determined us unworthy of their direct involvement,"

"And secondly?" prompted the Princess attentively.

"Secondly, that it was a directed insult at Tristain."

"They would DARE!" Louise almost shrieked in unbridled rage at the implication that her Princess would be snubbed by those Elven creatures.

"Those are merely the most likely conclusions based upon a single theory Miss Valliere, one that actually lost a lot of its merit at the meeting's onset if you remember," Colbert explained patiently to the irate student and the table at large, offering them the opportunity to give the answer.

Henrietta's brow furrowed as she thought back to the start of the meeting, many wasted hours earlier. "When she refused to take her seat," she began slowly, her voice rising in tempo as more of the pieces fell into alignment, "she said that in their culture they were all considered to be equal."

Professor Colbert beamed at her, like a teacher would at a prized pupil, "Precisely! But this just begs further investigation. Was she really who she claimed to be and not just a substitute sent to protect their real leadership? Was she even the one in charge during the meeting? Perhaps it was all a pretence to gauge our reactions in order to better decide how to proceed. Were the Fae that accompanied her merely her bodyguards as they said, perhaps one of them was really in charge? The armoured one, the 'Gnome' was introduced as their Captain, but I noticed that the others seemed to subconsciously defer to the dark on for guidance. Why was that?"

"But that would not explain why they would risk alienating us in that manner," Henrietta mused, "All they have succeeded in doing is making any future attempts at diplomacy more difficult for us both."

"Remember Princess, they are not human, and not necessarily bound by the same idea of logic that we are," Wardes supplied, "they are more akin to the Elves of the Sahara than to ourselves. I believe we should tread only with iron intent where they are concerned."

"Viscount Wardes makes a good point Your Highness," Agnes added quietly as she leaned down beside her royal charge. "However I still say we should learn more before making any rash decisions."

Henrietta inclined her head slightly at her guard in appreciation for her input, "Thank you both," the Princess responded demurely as she considered the advice being given to her by her guards and advisors. "Perhaps it would be best if we conclude our discussion and forestall any decision making until we have learned some more about our guests." Getting to her feet, she bowed very lightly at the others seated at the table, who all got to their feet as well to return her bow with a deeper one of their own. "I appreciate all of you providing your assistance throughout the negotiations. Miss von Zerbst, Miss Tabitha, I trust you will convey to your respective governments the nature of this meeting along with my offer that they are welcome to send an ambassador to sit in at the next meeting?"

"Of course," Kirche chirped back happily, a bit more lively than she had been in the immediate aftermath of the discussions, her chipper response in stark contrast to the silent nod that Tabitha offered in reply.

"It was a pleasure to meet you both. I enjoyed your company immensely." Addressing the tale as a whole again she continued as Kirche beamed in triumph, "My thanks to all of you again, but for now, headmaster Osmond, Professor Colbert, would you please join me?"

"It would be our pleasure, Your Highness," the pair chorused in unison, stepping out from behind their chairs to stride after the departing Princess as she entered the Central Tower through the doors, held open by a pair of soldiers, accompanied by Viscount Wardes and her ever present guard, Agnes.

Louise watched her childhood companion disappear from sight behind the large double doors of the tower as they swung closed behind her and her companions, her brow furrowed in concern. She jumped in surprise as the Guard Captain's voice rang out, shouting orders to the escort soldiers that had accompanied Henrietta on her way to the Academy.

"Right! We're gonna be stationed 'ere for the foreseeable future. So go about your assigned duties and we'll reconvene at the mess 'bout noon!"

A mass of sound erupted from the shifting of armour as the soldiers snapped off a synchronised salute before about facing to the left and marching off in the direction of where their tents sprawled out near the base of the Academy wall. But as each soldier crossed over an invisible, predetermined line, they would peel off from the head of the marching column and adopt a more casual and relaxed pace, conversing amicably amongst their comrades.

The small noble watched their departure with an air of vague interest, only meriting her attention in the first place due to the Captain's initial shout startling her. After a while Louise slumped back into the chair with a sigh, as the Academy's serving staff began to clear away the cups and pitchers of various drinks that littered the table, idly talking with each other in hushed tones so as not to offend or disturb the nobles who still remained seated.

One of the staff, a slender, blue eyed girl, whose raven shaded hair didn't even reach her shoulder, reached out to pick up the empty pot of tea that sat in from of the Valliere, when the pinkette addressed her, looking up at the buxom maid. "Fetch me a fresh pot of tea. I'd also like a clean cup while you're at it."

"Of course Miss," the maid responded, bowing dutifully to the girl before rushing off to the kitchens to procure the drink and cup, leaving Louise to glower at the red headed Germanian girl sliding into the seat opposite her, that had, until recently, been occupied by a winged, green clad Fae who had gone by the name of Alvin, if her memory served her correctly.

"What do you want Zerbst?" Louise asked in exasperation, her tone tinged with a hint of disdain.

The Germanian noble lounged back into her newly acquired chair, completely dismissing her rival's tone of voice and giving the girl a little smirk in reply. "Oh nothing much. Just a little curious about what you thought of the last few hours." Tabitha silently walked over to the pair, open book in hand, and slid into the empty seat beside Kirche, her eyes constantly focused on the pages before her, prompting Kirche to turn her attention to the Gallian as well. "What about you Tabitha? Surely even you saw something."

The slim figured ice mage glanced up for a brief moment before her eyes were inevitably pulled back to the pages in front of her. "Nothing was accomplished in terms of progress in relations. Their visit was merely a pretence for the Fae to assess us, perhaps to assist in their deliberations about how to deal with Tristain, and possibly to create a template on which to base Tristain's neighbours as well. The Princess must proceed warily from this point on if she does not wish to give an appearance of weakness."

Louise openly gaped in surprise at the blue haired girl, having never known her to say so much in a single go before, granted it was not much in comparison to normal people, but to hear her do so in such quantity was unheard of. Regaining her composure, and allowed a scathing look to fill her eyes as Kirche, who hadn't reacted to her friends sudden, comparative, affinity for speech, instead shook her head patiently. "No no no, Tabitha. Honestly, what am I to do with you. I meant, 'what did you think of them?' Personally I thought the two…Sylph's? were particularly noteworthy." Kirche hummed, slowly tracing her finger deliberately across her collarbone, her eyes fixed upon Louise's own. "Mmm, yes. They actually appeared to be quite similar in appearance now that I think about it. Maybe they are related…brothers perhaps…" A slow sultry smile spread across her lips, "If that is the case….I think I'll have them both…" her eyes boring into Louise's, smirking internally as the sheltered girl's look of disgust and shock was contrasted by the deep blush creeping up her cheeks, "…at the same time." She finished off slowly, emphasising each individual syllable in the sentence.

Louise couldn't resist any further, she blanched at Kirche's forthrightness, resulting in the girl's intense expression and aura of desire to shatter as she burst out laughing, causing Louise to blush an eve deeper shade of scarlet in embarrassment and shame as she realised she was being toyed with. "To be honest Zerbst, I wouldn't put such an act of depravity passed you. You act no better than a lowly bar wench at the best of time!" she bit back.

Wiping a small tear of laughter from the corner of her eye, Kirche watched the flustered girl rant on in amusement. "Oh Louise, sometimes you are just too easy. It's that prudishness that is part of the reason why you Valliere's can't hold onto your husbands and wives."

"We comport ourselves in a manner befitting a noble. You should be ashamed of your behaviour!" Louise snapped back haughtily, her arms folded across her chest in anger. "With people like you as nobles it is no wonder that Germania is considered a nation of barbarians."

"The ramblings of the jealous I assure you," Kirche replied casually, waving away the accusation unfazed. "But we are getting off topic," the busty girl leaned onto the table, grinning coyly, "Be honest, surely one of the Fae caught your eye at least. Tell me, which one of them piqued your noble interests."

"W-what are you saying Zerbst! How could I possibly be attracted to those creatures!" Louise hissed angrily, her face now glowing a dangerous shade of red as though trying to match the anger she felt at the implication of Kirche's words. 'How can she even consider the idea? They aren't even human!'

"Oh? Well that is a shame," Kirche pouted childishly. "What about you maid?" she asked the short haired maid who had just arrived beside Louise, gently placing a teacup in front of the girl and pouring tea into it from a scenic imprinted pot, before placing it on the table as well. When the girl looked up in surprise at being addressed by the foreign noble, the red head continued, "Did you find any of the Fae that were here visually…appealing?"

The maid's face began to tinge a little red as she stuttered out a response to the question, "I-I'm not…sure what….what do you mean Miss?"

"What's your name?" Kirche asked, giving the teen girl a comforting smile.

"Siesta, Miss," the maid responded, feeling a little more confused than before at the turn this unforseen interaction with the noble was taking.

"Right. Were you on hand during the meeting with our guests?" The maid nodded, her blue eyes lowered in respectful deference. "Good," the red head clapped her hands together, leaning further forward towards the maid, her voice hushed. "So Siesta, did you find any of the Fae attractive?"

The humble maid froze, her mind racing as she tried to figure out why she was being questioned in such a manner and on that particular topic. 'Why does she want to know that? She is a noble, why would she care? Wait. Is this that Zerbst noble…yes, that hair gives her away.' Siesta gasped in her head in shock, 'She's the one that sleeps around. Does she want to sleep with them as well? Is she tired of the students here already? But why ask me…unless…is she asking my opinion? Using me to decide which to sleep with first?' Siesta bowed to the noble, "Miss, I don't think that my opinion or advice should affect anything a noble, like yourself, should do.:

Kirche sighed, causing Siesta, unbeknownst to her, to flinch slightly as she realised that she had obviously given the wrong answer. "Siesta, I'm not asking for your advice. I'm just curious about what your personal opinion is."

"Kirche, just leave the maid alone. She clearly has a higher standard of morality than one as debased as yourse-"

"Wait, what did you say?" Kirche cut in eagerly, confusing the pinkette for a few moments before she realised that the Zerbst was interrupting her in order to question the maid. "Aw come on," Kirche crooned cheerfully, "I heard you say something. Go on spill it."

"The…the black haired one," Siesta murmured quietly, her face aflame in embarrassment of the coerced confession.

"Oho," the Germanian smiled deviously, lowering her gaze to Louise. "It seems our dear Siesta has a thing for the dangerous types, dark haired and mysterious. He was clearly a skilled fighter judging by his mannerisms and, if what he said at the start was true, very deadly in combat," Kirche rattled off, Siesta squirming uncomfortably. "Though unfortunately for the maid, he couldn't keep his eyes off you Louise. Now what could that mean…" she finished off, her tone losing a bit of its playfulness.

The small girl shivered involuntarily, a wave of fear sweeping up her spine as she envisioned the cold ashen eyes of the Spriggan, Kirito, as they bore into her during their second encounter in the Headmaster's office, right after his insinuation his belief in Louise knowing something in regards to their sudden appearance. The way they analysed her, there was no better term for it, as though she was merely a piece of the puzzle that he desperately desired to complete, necessary but ultimately disposable. The thought was chilling, who knew what he would be capable of doing to make sure the piece fit. "I…I…he…I could never…" Louise stammered, her voice quivering.

"I know Louise," Kirche cooed softly, her visage sympathetic, even, perhaps, sorrowful. "I know how he looked at you, and I feel like I am the one who did this to you, it was my mistake. I should never have entertained the thought that you were responsible for summoning them here." Getting to her feet, she walked around the table to crouch beside the pinkette, placing a hand on the girl's own reassuringly. "You know Louise. Our families have long been at odds with each other, enemies even, but I have never had any real animosity towards you or your family. I think the same goes for you as well Louise, I can't think of a single occurrence where you have ever attacked me on the basis of mere familial association. It is what makes you such a satisfying rival." Slowly she gently placed her other hand on Louise's shoulder, giving it a gentle, but steadying squeeze, "Honestly, I enjoy our verbal spars, and strangely enough I could even consider you a friend." Louise looked down to meet Kirche's honest eyes, shocked at her rival's confession. "All I'm saying is that, if you need help, I am here." She smiled back at the girl, 'Somebody will have to, and I think she'll need it.'

Louise stared, dumbfounded, at the Germanian noble, her mouth slowly drifting into a gape, "Kirche, wh-"

"Besides," Kirche cut in, popping to her feet. "Since you can't cast a spell to save your own life, somebody has to keep you safe!" she assed slyly, her tone playful once again.

"I don't need your help Zerbst!" Louise shouted after her as she strode away, the exaggerated sway of her hips drawing the attention of many of the male students now walking into the Ventri Courtyard, now that it wasn't cordoned off by armed soldiers. With a huff Louise settled herself in front of the table again, meaning to question Tabitha on the antics of the blue haired girl's friend, only to find the small girl absent from where she had been moments ago. After a moment's searching she noticed the girls was already halfway across the Ventri, her attention still latched onto the book in her hands. Sighing in exasperated frustration, Louise reached out for her cup of tea, and finally managing to get a sip, relishing in the comforting warmth that travelled through her, carried along by the hot, flavoured water. "Stupid Kirche, what did she think she was saying!"

"Is there anything else I can do for you Miss?" Siesta asked politely, trying to keep her eagerness to depart, out of her voice, slowly inching away.

"No. That will be all maid," Louise replied dismissively, as her attention was caught by a small commotion at the Academy gate. Narrowing her eyes, she was able to make out the centre of it, a tall and slender man with broad shoulders and chestnut brown hair which he had combed across his head, shouting at the guards stationed there, as he pushed passed them his styled moustache quivering. As he drew closer to where she sat on his direct route towards the central tower's main entrance, she called out to him. "Good day Count Mott. Here to deliver another message on behalf of the crown I take it?" she asked friendlily, the Count was a friend of the Valliere family after all, it was only polite that she should treat him as such, even when he was acting in a professional capacity.

"Good day!" he snapped back dismissively as he continued in his angry stride towards the tower, before glancing to his side as he walked passed her to identify who had addressed him. When his eyes settled on the young girl looking taken aback by his rough reply he paused in mid step, "Oh Miss Valliere, my most sincere apologies for being so short with you. I am in a rush and did not think. Though that is no excuse for my behaviour." Louise returned the Count's apology with a smile, accepting it readily, and took another sip of tea, expecting the nobleman to continue his rush, but instead looked back to him as he spoke again, his eyes though focused over her head. "You, maid," Siesta spun to face the nobleman, slightly disappointed that she had been unable to escape before getting called upon again. "Escort me to the Headmaster's office."

"Yes my Lord," the maid intoned dutifully, and gestured for the Count to follow after her as she took the lead.

The Count paused a moment, turning back to Louise, fingering at the curls of his thin moustache, "Perhaps I will have time for a pot of tea before I have to depart again Miss Valliere, if you would oblige me. If not, I'm sure we will meet during your term break. Your father has invited me to stay the weekend, during that time." Inclining his head he made to follow after the maid and strode away with a parting wave.

Louise smiled to herself and took another sip, she knew why he was being invited to stay at the family mansion. Her father and mother didn't know she knew, but she had overheard them talking and run straight to her sister, Cattleya, to fill her in about what she had discovered. Louise liked the Count, despite the rumours that people spread about him, and so did her family, though the first thing she would do after he had been wed to her sister was to inform him that the ruff he wore looked silly and had to go. Giggling to herself at the thought, the earlier fear she'd felt forgotten, she finished off her cup of tea and reach for the pot to refill it, before settling back into her chair, basking in the afternoon glow.

"Please, would you tell me honestly, what did you truly think about the Fae's visit?" Henrietta asked bluntly as soon as the door to Osmond's office closed behind them, turning to face the other occupants of the room, her face bearing a look of resignation.

"In all honesty princess, I think that farce was intended as an insult," Wardes admitted, his face scrunching up into a scowl. "I have been talking with Professor Colbert these last few days about his knowledge and impressions of the Fae, and quite frankly, there isn't any other conclusion I would reach with the knowledge on hand."

Henrietta set her gaze upon the balding Professor sharply, her eyebrows arching, "Your impressions and knowledge Professor? I must enquire why you did not see fit to discuss these more openly with myself beforehand." she said quietly, clearly a little put out by his decision to withhold information.

"My apologies Your Highness," the fire mage responded immediately, bowing deeply to the shorter girl, "I ask your forgiveness. I, and also Viscount Wardes, believed it would be better to not colour your image of the Fae to deeply prior to your first personal contact with them, especially since you were quite optimistic on the outcome. A shame that our visitors did not share in your enthusiasm."

Henrietta's visage softened as she clasped her hands daintily before her, "You are forgiven Professor. Of course, in the future, I would expect you to not withhold any information or any educated hypotheses you might have. Is that agreeable?" The Professor bowed again, readily accepting the generous conditions of Henrietta's forgiveness. "So then Professor," she continued, slowly sinking into one of the cushioned arm chairs that sat before Osmond's desk, "What is the impression of the Fae that you saw fit to keep hidden from me?"

Colbert winced at the blunt chastisement in her words, glancing towards the Headmaster only to see the old man hiding a smile of amusement behind his beard at his friend's predicament. "Warlike," he answered simply, tone regretful.

Henrietta's eyes narrowed at the accusation, "Our guests appeared rather civil during their visit Professor. What leads you to accuse them of that character trait in particular?"

"There are a few things that I base that impression on, I would like to reinforce that this is an impression only, but they would take some time to give all of them a fully detailed explanatio-" he died off when the Headmaster gave a small cough of warning, "Never mind, I'll summarise," he amended quickly. "Well for starters, in my original encounter with the Fae, not only were they capable of picking me out from the trees when I had hidden myself from them, but they were also able to make out my staff. From the distance and disrupting foliage, that should have been a nigh impossible feat."

"That doesn't mean anything Professor," Agnes scoffed at the man. "That is just as likely to merely be an indication of being skilled trackers or huntsmen. You are being overly suspicious, too long behind a desk with your face buried in books I think."

"That is hardly the case, Miss Agnes," Colbert said dryly, "It isn't well known, nor am I prone to mention it, but I used to be a Captain of a fire mage squad when I served in the military some years back. I can assure you, I am not some mere teacher, ignorant about the world beyond these walls. I would daresay that I have more applicable experience than you do yourself."

"It's okay Jean," Osmond added in an attempt to mollify the Professor, "just continue your explanation." As Colbert began to speak again, the Headmaster shot the musketeer a warning glare, telling her not to interrupt again to which Agnes responded with a scowl, but leaned back against the wall her arms folded across her chest.

"What I was going to say is that this does hint at a greater ability in the basic senses, it was the quick and accurate identification of my staff as a threat that caught my attention. But not only that, but when we first began exchanging information, Kirito, the one clad in black, told me of their city, Arrun. The city situated at the base of the tree, which they refer to as the 'World Tree' or 'Yggdrasil'. The tree appears to have some significant-," Osmond coughed again, interrupting Colbert's spiel before it could gain any momentum. Giving the elderly noble a sheepish glance, the teacher pulled himself back onto the topic at hand. "Well, he told me that the city was the only place where any and all the Fae races could freely meet and interact with one another, completely safe from harm."

"Another enemy perhaps?" Wardes ventured, providing the leading question to encourage him to further his explanation.

Colbert shook his head, "From what I have gathered, and this is based on actual knowledge I have garnered from the Fae, all of the Faerie races were in direct, open conflict with each other, a true free-for-all state of war. And I quote, 'It was always like that, you ran into another race and you'd generally end up trying to kill the other, unless of course there was an alliance, but they were rare. I think I can remember…two ever happening, but they never lasted overly long.' They admitted to it outright, the fact that alliances were so rare would also hint at a culture of violence."

"But, that has to be impossible!" Agnes burst out, unable to contain her scepticism any longer, "If they were in a state of war for so long, and on such a scale, then how could they possibly be able to cooperate at all?"

"I think the Viscount put it most aptly earlier, they aren't human," Henrietta mused pensively. "But even this seems a little far fetched Professor. Surely that accumulation of animosity would remain, regardless of the species…"

"Normally I would agree with Agnes and yourself, Your Highness," Colbert admitted, scratching at the corner of his mouth, "When they told me that, I was in the company of individuals from two separate races, and had seen a third accompanying them just prior, and there appeared to be no ill will between them. On the contrary, there was a sense of camaraderie. However there is also something that irks me." Lowering himself into a seat of his own he took a moment to choose his next words, "They seem to not only be adept at fighting, but eagre for opportunities to do so. When they say Miss Tabitha's familiar, a dragon mind you, they reacted quickly to prepare accordingly, which would be expected…but the air of anticipation and eagerness that emanated from them when they thought it was an enemy…that worries me." Frowning in frustration, his tone became one of confusion, "But at the same time they don't act like warriors. There is almost nothing in their mannerisms that, based on my experience, would indicate any of them as soldiers. They are relaxed, casual and, for the most part, quite openly friendly. Everything about them just makes so little logical sense!" Raising his head to look out the window towards the tree on the horizon, his eyes seemed to sparkle, "It both frustrates and excites me."

"…So you haven't witnessed them actually fight?" Henrietta confirmed curiously. The Professor shook his head slowly, "Even though I have complete faith in your experience, I think this may be a bit much to base purely on your intuition."

"That may be so Princess," Osmond added, "However I have witnessed a small display of their combat capabilities. During their first visit to the Academy, one of my students, a one Guiche de Gramont, sought to ambush them on arrival. Their guard was down, in my opinion due to the assurances Jean gave them, so he was able to catch them by surprise, but he was incapacitated moments later when one of the Fae acted in response. The Fae defeated him, without the use of a weapon and without causing any lasting harm, in a single blow-"

"Lasting physical harm," Longueville muttered softly from her desk, her distaste clearly vocalised.

"Regrettably so." Osmond agreed sombrely, his head drooping in sadness.

After a brief silence of shared commiseration, Henrietta looked up at the elderly Headmaster, "Do you agree with the Viscount's original conclusion Headmaster Osmond? Your sage council would be most appreciated in this delicate situation."

"I wouldn't go so far as to label it a direct insult," he sighed in resignation, his shoulders slumping even further than his reminder of Guiche, "But I would agree that, whatever their actions meant, it was an intentional move." Grimacing at his own words, Old Osmond slowly shook his head, "I just can't see how a race that clearly has a higher degree of diplomatic understanding, if our theories are even remotely accurate, could not know the results that would stem from their actions…"

"I see," murmured the Princess sadly, gazing at her hands clasped in her lap with distant eyes, lost in thought. "Well, at least we now have a vague indication as to their current needs. Their demands for food, information and land gave us that much."

"It took nerve to try and lay claim to the land they have appeared on and its immediate surroundings as their own. We couldn't allow that even if we had wanted to, I could name very few lords that would not react violently at the theft of their lands," Wardes almost laugh at the audacity of it, "Especially since they refused to offer any form of compensation."

"They do seem to seek things from us without offering anything, except a promise to not interfere or interact with us," Colbert agreed, "Isolationists perhaps, or maybe they are just that confident in their superiority."

"So we need a way to increase our diplomatic standing in their regard?" Henrietta offered the room at large curiously, before her eyes darkened somewhat, almost imperceptibly. "Or do you mean to obtain something they want enough to act as a bargaining chip that would force them to the table."

Humming thoughtfully, absentmindedly grooming his goatee, Wardes scrutinized the purple haired girl seated before him. "Perhaps we could do neither," he began thoughtfully. "What if we voluntarily give them the isolation they desire…" Seeing that he had piqued the young girl's interest he pressed on, "We could organise patrol units, manned checkpoints and also notify nearby garrisons in an effort to effectively blockade the Fae cities across Tristain. They seek our supplies for nothing, so we should make it abundantly clear to them that they need us, but we don't need them. If they are at all reasonable, they will see sense, and return to us with a more open mind."

"I'm not entirely, or even mostly, confident about following that course of action, Princess," Colbert added dubiously, glancing at the young, grey haired noble before continuing. "If my theory is accurate, the Fae may decide to resort to the warlike behaviour I believe they have, it could prove to be a disastrous event that we would be unable to distance ourselves from."

"I understand your concern Professor, as I have the same concerns as well," Henrietta replied, her tone growing stronger and more confident as she committed herself to a decision. "However, I am inclined to agree with Lord Wardes' suggested course of action. The Fae must be made aware that in order to receive, they must also be willing to give. Tristain is not a charity, it is a nation, and not one that will bow to intimidation." Getting to her feet, hands curled into fists of determination, she began moving towards the door, "I will pass my recommendations on to my mother, the Queen. She shall decide whether to follow along with it or not." Pausing in front of the balding Professor she added, "I will also let her know of your misgivings."

"Thank you, Your Highness."

"Oh, and Professor Colbert," Henrietta added suddenly, as though in after thought, "As it stands, you are our country's closest thing to an expert on the Fae. I would like to request that you set aside your duties here at the Academy in favour of expanding your knowledge on this topic. It is crucial that we learn everything we are able."

"Yes, of course Your Highn-" he stopped abruptly, the loud echoes of hurried footsteps reverberating into the office. Turning to the door, he watched in mild surprise as it swung open violently to reveal a tall nobleman with short brown hair and a styled moustache striding in through the doorway, his wooden sceptre clenched in his fist.

"Ahh, good day Count Mott," Osmond greeted the nobleman cheerfully, in lieu of his style of entry, his fingers once more playing with the tip of his beard. "What brings the Royal Messenger here today?"

"Thankfully nothing that would involve me having to listen to you worm your way out of complying with yet another request from the palace, I assure you!" the Count spat back, in blatant distaste.

"Honestly, I had begun to wonder why you have not been coming to visit the Academy recently," the old man chirped back with a smile, completely unperturbed by the Count's tone. "Did the palace finally grow weary of trying to force their ridiculous rules and restrictions on this institution?"

"Actually no," the Count responded dryly. "I am just sick of having to deal with you, so now I just don't bother to deliver the messages unless it is from royalty or it is actually something worth the effort."

"Well I do appreciate the thought, my dear Count. But then why have you made the journey this time?"

"You know damn well old man." Dismissing the Headmaster, he in turn shifted his attention to the startled teenage girl in front of him. "Princess," he said shortly, his disapproval clear.

"Before you speak Count Mott," she interrupted him quickly, raising a delicate hand to forestall any further attempt at speech, "I am deeply sorry that you were not informed of the Fae's impending visit earlier. For that I must take full responsibility. I was careless in carrying out my duties to a standard expected of me, so full of anticipation and worry that I was at the prospect." Raising her eyes to meet his own she pressed on, "I am willing to offer you any compensation for the slight that I have given you due to my inexperience."

"Uh, yes, well…that would be most appropriate," Count Mott stammered, the wind having been ripped from his sails by the girl's readily given admission of fault and offer of compensation, before his eyes briefly flickered over to Osmond. "Princess, if I may," he began, addressing the royal as she made to leave, accompanied by both her bodyguard Agnes, and the Viscount Wardes.

"Yes Count Mott?" she answered, turning back to the man.

"I would like to request that I be allowed to make a request of the Headmaster in favour of seeking any compensation from yourself. The request is minor, and I would greatly like to impose on you further."

"That is most kind of you," Henrietta smiled. "I see no harm in it, if the Headmaster is not opposed to the idea of course. Though it is up to him whether to accept your request, though if he is unable to do so, I beg you seek me out at the Palace. It would not do for me to have offended a nobled as important as yourself without making amends."

"Of course." Count Mott bowed deeply, hand across his heart.

With a grateful smile, Henrietta left the men behind, her escorts in tow, the doors closing gently behind them. As the door clicked shut Osmond rounded on the Count, "So how can I help you My Lord?" he asked with a sigh of resignation. "We both know I won't force you to impose on the girl, so let's get it over with. What does the illustrious 'Torrent' need from humble Old Osmond?"

"I was being entirely honest Osmond," the Count replied reassuringly, a small grin forming, "My request is only in relation to a simple staffing matter."

"Well, that was a tad more disappointing than I expected," Jude chuckled ruefully, as the Fae delegation passed over the outer wall of the settlement they had just been visiting. "It was cool and all, don't get me wrong, but it was a little underwhelming, we didn't really get anything done, did we…"

"You can say that again," sighed his green haired twin, casting a shirt glance back at the table in the middle of the courtyard, its occupants watching them intently as they flew away. "This whole endeavour was a bit of a time waster, if you ask me." He ruffled his hair with a grunt, "It was like they didn't want to come to an agreement on anything. Everything that we requested, they either rejected outright or tried to beat us down to something that was a pittance of the original request."

"Maybe they weren't taking us seriously? Being the new kids on the block and all," Sidia grumbled, his baritone voice carrying easily on the wind without the need to raise his voice, also telling the twins that their conversation probably wasn't as isolated as they may have thought.

That misconception was proven as a certainty when both the twins looked forward in surprise, their movements completely in sync with each other, and grimacing. But where Jude looked back to his brother, smirking sheepishly, Alvin instead turned to look at An Sieunee, flying a little further ahead of them, in concern, the Undine's posture noticeably more rigid that it had been since they left. "It could just be that they were using the meeting as an excuse to scope us out…" Jude added, "…or what Sidia said, and they just weren't taking us seriously."

"If your little demo during our last visit wasn't enough to set them on the back foot, then maybe they're stronger than we think," Alvin added thoughtfully. "I mean, they wouldn't have had the confidence to stonewall us like that if they weren't confident that they would be the ones to come out ahead in any confrontation."

"You're wrong, all of you. This was all my fault!" An Sieunee ground out in anger at her perceived failure, her jaw clenched so tightly that her teeth squeaked against each other when she spoke.

"Don't say that," Sidia called up to her. "There is no reason to shoulder the blame on yourself. They obviously had no intention to deal with us in good faith from the start."

"He's right you know," Alvin agreed as he pulled up alongside the Undine Faction Leader, and reached out to grasp her shoulder in a comforting manner. "Besides, you're our resident diplo expert. If you weren't able to salvage that situation, then what chance would any of have had in your stead?"

As Alvin's fingers brushed against her shoulder, the Undine slapped his proffered hand away angrily, ignoring the flicker in the Sylph's comforting smile as he withdrew his hand in surprise. "You don't get it! I messed up. I got picked for this because I can speak eloquently, and in the game I threw a lot of my points into charisma and speechcraft related skills, so people mostly assumed that I must have a knack for, and an interest in diplomacy. But the longer I sat in that meeting, the more I realised how much I had even deluded myself into thinking that I had any aptitude for this shit! Alvin opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off before he had even managed to form the semblance of a word, "Though the biggest mistake I made, was asking for what we needed."

"That doesn't even make a lick of sense," Jude scoffed openly with a snort, "How could that make any difference at all? If we didn't ask for what we needed, then what would have been the point."

"Tell me, what is the base form of diplomacy?" An Sieunee began glumly. "Negotiation. When I first presented our terms I left now room for negotiation. What I asked for was our minimum necessity, and they obviously didn't see it as that. They saw an opening bid and proceeded to do what any negotiator would do, whittle away their level of commitment. I didn't realise my mistake until it was far too late to fix, and from their view point, it must have appeared like we were there to issue our demands of them rather than negotiate a deal."

"Don't worry about it too much," Alvin smiled at the girl, his eyes fixed on her, seeking to meet her own. "You've learned what you did wrong this time, so now next time you will be better prepared."

"It's too late for that. That's what I am angriest at myself about," she replied tightly, her face downcast. "If we now try and begin our negotiations with even greater terms than what we gave today, it will only place us in an even more unfavourable light. They will likely see it as an attempt to strong-arm them into accepting whatever terms we put in front of them." Casting her gaze back at the spires of the settlement, shrinking down into the horizon behind them, she let loose a huff of air from her nose, clearly frustrated. "I don't mean to foreshadow, but this has likely made our situation a hell of a lot more precarious."

"Well, in the fashion of any good student when presented with an assignment, we'll deal with that later," Jude said cheerfully, pulling up on his brother's other side, his attention focused ahead of them. "It's not like getting all mopey about it is gonna help, just chuck it on the back burner for now, until you actually know what the resulting issue is."

"Uh, I dunno if the whole, 'out of sight, out of mind' policy is the best one to adopt in our current situation," the Gnome countered gruffly.

"Sidia, what use is moping gonna do? It's time to move on and confront the next issue when it rears its head. At least that way, the next one can be addressed with a fresh mind, for instance, I'm feeling a bit peckish," Jude cut back in response, grinning at the group before dropping back from Alvin and An Sieunee to draw level with the tank player. "Besides," he muttered, his voice low enough not to carry beyond the two, "at least now she isn't depressed. Have a little compassion man." Sidia had the good graces to look away, feeling a little ashamed of himself, and missing the tiny twitch of the Sylph's lips. 'And thank you Alvin for putting me on the trail in the first place.'

"Hey Klein," Kirito piped up suddenly, a thought popping into his mind from nowhere. "Remember back in Arrun, when you said you had organised a bunch of the old SAO survivors to join ALO to help you to find Asuna…"

"Yeah?" the Salamander answered slowly, as he dredged up the associated memory.

"Who else do you actually manage to convince to log into another VR game again? I never would have thought of you as somebody who could pull that off," Kirito asked bluntly.

Grimacing at the friendly jab, Klein repressed a sarcastic laugh, and failed. "Oh ha ha Kirito. How very amusing," he said dryly. Pausing for a moment, the scruffy redhead scratched absently behind his ear before responding, "Funnily enough, pretty much the whole gang agreed to come help out without me needing to work my charms." Kirito coughed loudly. "Though I know a couple of my guys from Fuurinkazen were adamant that they were going to buy an AmuSphere first, can't really blame them considering. There can't have been many of the survivors who would ever touch a VR game again after experiencing SAO, let alone put their NerveGear on again. I'm pretty sure Argo was swapping out as well, if memory serves."

"And everyone else just joined as well?" Kirito gasped in disbelief. "How come you haven't joined up with any of the others yet? Wasn't there a plan of some sort?"

"There was a plan Kirito, but we had a rather unforeseeable wrench thrown into the mix," Klein chuckled, his arms thrown out in a sweeping gesture towards their current surroundings. "Understandable that it threw us out a little I think. Originally we'd planned on meeting up in Arrun and work out the rest from there, and as for who joined before this all happened…well I don't know. There was no set log in time or anything, just get to Arrun as soon as possible. For all I know, I could be the only one who logged in early enough to get caught up in this mess. On the good side, I know that Keiko wasn't on, since her father apparently took a hammer to her NerveGear as soon as it had come off, and she definitely wouldn't have been able to convince her parents to get her an AmuSphere that soon after. Rika was gonna log in after work, so she probably didn't get home in time."

"That's good," Kirito said, relieved at the thought that at least the Dragon Tamer and Blacksmith were safe at home with their families, and not caught up in another situation that could very likely end up in their deaths. "I'd prefer it that there are less of us here. We all deserved a break from this one, though it seems you and I…" he pointed at Klein and himself, "we're just very unlucky."

Klein let out a loud bark of laughter, momentarily startling their companions. "You can say that again Kirito, though I think that saying 'we're cursed by the whims of the fates' suits us better." His hand forming a loose fist he gave the Spriggan a playful punch in the arm, "But we'll get through it again, just like we did last time, and this time we're sticking together."

"Deal." Kirito agreed with a nod, grinning back at the man who responded with a comically sceptical look, so he dutifully added with a very unsubtle roll of his eyes and a hand placed over his heart, "I promise. I will not disappear and go solo this time. Happy?"

"It'll do for now," Klein in mock seriousness, toying with the knot in his headband that had started to loosen slightly due to the constant pulling of the wind. "I'll keep you updated on how sufficient it stays."

"You know, I feel sorry for your boss from work," Kirito suddenly laughed, the oddity of the statement not lost on Klein who raised an eyebrow at the black haired youth.

"Where did that come from?"

"Think about it though, he keeps your job position open for two years so that you'd have something to return to, if and when, you woke up. And you were back what…a few weeks before you disappeared again?"

"Oh shit you're right. I never thought about that," the Salamander exclaimed before breaking into a chuckling fit, "I have a sneaking suspicion that he isn't going to hold onto it for me a second time. I'm like the new textbook definition of an unreliable employee. Though, I can count myself lucky by comparison," Kirito cocked his head to the side, confused. "You on the other hand, I don't envy. I'd rather have to look for a new job when we get home than have to catch up on the schooling you're gonna miss this time in addition to the two years you're already behind."

The Spriggan blanched as the revelation slapped him in the face harder than an angry girlfriend, prompting Klein to almost drop from the sky in laughter. "Well at least between this and the SAO incident I have pretty much skipped the 'joys' of puberty," he jabbed back weakly, before composing himself and looking away from the laughing form of the Salamander below him, struggling to stay airborne as he desperately sucked in air between bouts of laughter. Focusing his attention instead on the World Tree ahead of them, and the sight of Arrun's walls growing larger as they approached. "I'll deal with my schooling hurdle when we get home," he finished calmly, his eyes hardening faintly.

"Nearly there," Sidia called out as the group reached close enough to the city that they were able to pick out individual faces of the people lounging about or sunning themselves on the top of the walls. "An Sieunee and I are going to go fill in the rest of the Council, so the rest of you lot are free to do whatever you please. Come along, toddle off, it's up to you. Either way, your assistance today was appreciated and won't be forgotten."

"Well, since you have no qualms about it, I think Alvin and I are gonna choose to toddle off," the blonde Sylph answered, throwing his twin a quick and silent question, to which he received a nod of agreement in response. "We'll see you fags later on," and with a parting wave, he and his brother peeled away from the group and headed on to a steeper decline and soon vanished below the canopy of the forest that surrounded the city.

"Idiots!" Sidia muttered as the twins disappeared from view. "Not a speck of common sense between them, going in there without a healer, well it's on their heads."

Looking back at where the duo had flown, Klein grumbled illegibly to himself for a moment before turning to Kirito, "I'll go after them and make sure they don't do anything too stupid and get in over their heads." Klein then made to head after them, Kirito turning to follow him when the Salamander spun around and held up his hands to stop him, "I've got this Kirito. I wouldn't want to delay you in getting back to Asuna after all," he smirked knowingly.

Kirito shuddered. "Who's to say I wasn't diving into potential danger to avoid that particular death sentence?"

"Go on Kirito," Klein said, struggling not to laugh openly at the boy's predicament, "In my experience with women, the longer you put it off, the worse it'll get…especially if she finds out that you tried to avoid it." Before Kirito could hit him with a comeback, he put on a burst of speed and the Salamander shot down into the forest in the hop of finding the Sylph twins before they moved to far away from the area of last sighting.

"Yay me," the youth grumbled self mockingly as he sped after Sidia and An Sieunee.

"You can do this. Just slow your breathing and calm yourself. Nothing bad is going to happen, everything is going to be okay. Just life your arm and push, it's just that easy. Calm and centred. In…and out…okay. Now let's do it, lift that arm and-" The door swung open to reveal a chestnut brown hair girl in her mid teens, standing there her arms crossed and the hint of a glare in her eyes. Kirito gulped, audibly.

"So, are you going to come in, or would you prefer to stand out there muttering to yourself?" she asked brusquely, the fingers of her hand drumming repetitively against her upper arm in a clear display of impatience.

"Uh, hey Asuna…" Kirito managed to stutter out in surprise, with more than a hint of apprehension as Asuna's eyebrows arched dangerously. Head lowered deep into his shoulders, Kirito slunk passed the oppressive presence in the doorway, a pair of hazel eyes tracking his theatrical movements like a cat would watch a bird or mouse. A couple steps after he had crossed over the threshold, the door swung shut behind him with a snap, startling Kirito enough to make him jump a little. Taking a moment to compose himself, the Spriggan weighed his options before turning his gaze, ever so slowly, to stare into the depths of Asuna's eyes, his own open wide in innocence. 'Perfect, this always works for that cat in boots.'

It took only a moment, as she tried to resist, but Asuna's angry façade collapsed in on itself as her smile broke free and she wrapped her arms around Kirito's neck and pulled his lips to hers, his own arms loosely holding her waist, pulling her against him.

"How was it then?" Asuna asked as she pulled herself back from the slender boys embrace, her cheeks tinged a faint red.

"To put it lightly, the meeting wasn't exactly a success," he muttered darkly, his mood ruined. "An Sieunee even believes we may actually be worse off for having had it in the first place. Not really the most endearing review."

"Oh," Asuna mumbled. "Surely it couldn't have been as bad as that," she added brightly, "Once everyone has a chance to sleep on it, they won't be so glum about it." Though when the concern didn't leave Kirito's face, she tried to move the topic along in order to alleviate his worries. "How about the flight over, see anything interesting?"

'Red, lots of it' Kirito froze for the briefest of moments, '…so very warm' almost imperceptibly. Enough to avoid Asuna's attention, but not enough to avoid the pair of bright black eyes scrutinizing him from the end of the hall. "Not really, it was pretty uneventful all told. I did hear something though," he added in after thought, as he thought back to the high-pitched screech that has echoed throughout the forest that they had been ambushed in, specifically the moment when the robed fire mage had been impaled on Klein's katana. "I'd like to know what kind of monster made that sound."

"That's all?" Asuna asked, a little disappointed at the lack of interesting snippets from the excursion. "Sounds like it was all rather boring."

"Yeah," Kirito sighed to himself, "I'm almost jealous of you for getting to stay behind."

As soon as the words had left his lips, he knew it was far from the smartest thing he could have said. 'Open mouth, insert foot,' he chastised himself, and then with inhuman speed he blurted out the next thing that came to mind, anything that could quickly move the conversation along before Asuna was able to process the social landmine he had inadvertently taken a flying leap to land on. "I'm starving," he rubbed his abdomen absently to reinforce the statement's validity, "any chance of a snack hiding nearby?"

Asuna pursed her lips, not at all fooled by the clumsy change in topic, but deciding to play along…for the time being. "Go sit yourself down," she smiled at him, as she walked passed him on her way to the house's makeshift kitchen, "I'll get you something to eat."

At the mention of her intent to get him something, Kirito could feel his mouth already beginning to water up in eagre anticipation of her cooking. With an immediate increase in his pace, he shot passed Asuna as she walked ahead of him down the hallway, and rocketed into a chair at the table, which tilted dangerously as it bled away the Spriggan's momentum. "So Yui," he began, addressing the long haired child seated on his lap, whom he had snatched up in his rapid approach to the table, "Did you and Asuna have fun while I was gone?"

Completely dazed, the girl tried to regain her bearing, looking up at Kirito in astonishment before looking back to where she had been standing at the end of the hallway only a moment ago. She stared at the sot for another moment, her eyebrows raised, before doing another double take, still shocked at her displacement. Giving her head a little shake, she looked back up at her adoptive father, her black eyes shining. "Yes Papa," she chirped happily, "We went shopping and ran into Auntie Leafa."

"You caught up with Suguha?" the Spriggan asked, impressed. He hadn't seen much of his cousin over the last few days, since after she had volunteered to help the Fae Faction Leaders in their efforts to create some semblance of organised order, they had kept her on her feet almost incessantly. "Usually when she's managed to scrounge herself some time off she just heads to the nearest bed. How is she?"

"We ran into her Papa, not caught up. She was working at the time," the girl responded, idly pulling at the hem of her one-piece dress. "I am concerned about her. I think she is overworking herself too much. I believe that if she continues to push herself like this, it may result in causing too great a strain on her brain. There are already signs that her level of stress is nearing a point where the amount of cortisol produced will hardwire pathways between her hippocampus and amygdala in such a way that it could create a vicious cycle that would result in her brain being predisposed to living in a constant state of fight or flight."

It took a few seconds of silence before Kirito was able to form a response. It was so difficult, looking at the small, innocent, fragile figure on his knees, swinging her legs contentedly, to remember that she was once the mental health and counselling AI program from Kayaba's death-trap, Aincrad. To him she would always be the lost and confused little girl that he and Asuna had found wandering the forests of the twenty-second floor before collapsing into his arms. "I'll make sure to pass the message on to her when I next see her," he finally managed to promise, resolving to go cousin hunting at the next available opportunity, to impress upon Suguha that she needed to take a serious break, immediately.

The gentle sound of approaching footsteps plucked at Kirito's attention, signifying Asuna's imminent approach, closely followed by the clacking of a plate being placed on the table before him. Eagerly, he turned his attention to the food awaiting him, and paused. "Uh, Asuna," he began cautiously, pulling his eyes up from the two thin slices of unnaturally dark uncooked meat that lay there, to look up at her questioningly.

"I only said I would get something for you to eat," she said slyly, her tone bordering on sickly sweet, a satisfied grin staring him in the face. "I'm sure you will be able to manage."

Sighing in defeat, Kirito picked up the foreign piece of meat gingerly between finger and thumb, lamenting the lost opportunity to sample his girlfri-…wife…girlfriend's cooking. 'I really should have seen this coming. Oh well…' "So I assume this is your way of telling me that you want to come with me next time?"

"Not quite…" Asuna responded, a cunning look in her eyes, and Kirito's spirits plummeted. "Someone needs to look after Yui after all. You two have had soo little time together, just the two of you, since this latest incident." She could almost see the target of her wrath banging his head on the table in his mind, playing over and over again behind his ashen eyes. "I would gladly shoulder your duties next time you are called up, so as to allow you that bonding time," she finished, drilling the final nail even deeper into the coffin.

Had the situation been any different, that may very well have been the image playing on loop in his mind, but the situation wasn't differed. Death was still on the line, it always had been, even back in SAO, that much hadn't changed. However the current situation was far worse than just a death game. Here pain could be felt, permanent damage done, and as such, Kirito was not thinking about banging his head on the table. His body was tense, fists clenched tightly on the rim of the tabletop fingers digging into the wood, eyes cold and sharp. 'Fuck.'

"So to summarise…we got absolutely nothing to show for our efforts," Michael stated flatly, leaning back into his chair in exasperation, his leather under armour shifting oddly as it caught against the cushioning. "Have I got that right?"

"In terms of the meeting itself, yes." An Sieunee replied defensively at the accusatory tone of voice that the Gnome Faction Leader had adopted. "But as Sidia pointed out before he left, we were able to at least confirm our comparative positions in terms of strength." Looking at the other Faction Leaders seated at the table, her brow creased in anger, they had done little but blame her for the result since they had been informed, confident that they could have done a better job of it. "Surely that knowledge has a value of its own that would help in salvaging the situation?"

"Not particularly," mused the burly Salamander representative, his own brow furrowed as well, though in thought. "These Tristainese… Tristainians… whatever they are called, they don't have that empirical evidence to work from. As it appears to stand, their only direct experience of our martial ability comes from a minor display against, who we now know, was a student, an altercation that wasn't exactly witnessed by many people. Then they also have an implied idea of strength from Kirito's excuse as to his reportedly bedraggled appearance. All together, not really enough to sway any political thinking I'm afraid."

"I'm inclined to agree with Mortimer, we don't really have a leg to stand on at the moment," piped up the Puca councillor from where he sat on the floor in a, traditionally eastern, meditation pose, his golden haired head just reaching over the table top, supported on his wispy frame. "Though judging from what we were told of the ambush, it sounds mostly like it was the majority of our players who were the ones being overwhelmed but it, and that it was only the actions of a few, blood drunk, individuals who brought themselves to slaughter. The real question should be whether we allow people like that to stay among us."

"Now you listen here Frevin," the Undine snapped, her tone laced with poison. "It was thanks to 'those' people that I, or any of the original escort group, were able to make it back to Arrun alive, and I will brook no course of action that would see them condemned for saving our lives." The Puca merely shrugged in response, dismissing her entirely, prompting An Sieunee to bristle in rage.

"My brother, General Eugene, also spoke well of Kirito, one of the ones you would condemn, regardless of the circumstances under which they met, and I for one trust his judgment of character," Mortimer weighed in, his eyes set on Alicia Rue and Lady Sakuya meaningfully, "He appears to have acted more out of a compulsion to protect rather that to kill, wouldn't you say?"

"Indeed," Sakuya smiled casually. "So can we therefore agree to leave those players responsible unidentified and alone," the majority of the Faction Leaders inclined their heads in agreement. "We need to instead focus on what we should do next, any ideas?" a pensive silence fell across the Council Chambers, as all the Fae representatives wracked their brains for anything suitable enough to present to the others.

"I take it that this is our last order of business today?" Looking up, Sakuya was drawn to look at the Spriggan Faction Leader who had spoken, Subtilizer. The man was of a slender build, almost whip like, that was ensconced inside a deep black cloak, his iron greys eyes catching the light, the only thing visible from within the depths of the hood raised over his head. Fixing her slightly slit dark green eyes on his lumps of iron, the Sylph nodded in assent. "Well, I'm not at all bothered with whatever you all decide on doing, I've got other things I'd rather be doing."

The rest of the Council could only watch, dumbfounded by his blatant disregard for their communal predicament, as the Spriggan rose to his feet, skilfully twirling his primary weapon, a single nine inch bladed knife, through his fingers, and all but skipped out the door.

"I've had many dealings with him before, and he always did come across as a rather odd one," the Leprechaun councillor said thoughtfully as the doors swung shut in the Spriggan's wake, "But I have to say, it is his apathy towards this situation that has me wondering whether he is all there." He tapped his temple meaningfully.

"Ahem," Michael coughed into his closed hand, grabbing at the rooms attention. "Back to the topic at hand, our real problem is that we have nothing to offer them in trade, right? Well I believe that we need to place this issue, of how to move forward in the wake of the meeting, on the lay by for now, until we actually have something to bring to the table."

"I do agree that without anything to offer, everything we try and do will just end up with us all swimming in circles. But guess what, we still don't actually have anything, unless something has miraculously popped up in the last few minutes that happens to fit the bill," snorted the Puca, plucking at the strings of his lute and tuning them to perfection.

"So what do you suggest we do then," An Sieunee questioned, turning her icy glare on the man. "Or do you expect us to just sit around with our thumbs planted firmly up our arses while we wait for something to drop into our lap?"

"Sounds pretty uncomfortable."

"We don't know how the Tristain people will respond to the failure of initial diplomacy. I think that we need to take steps to protect ourselves, just in case," Mortimer rumbled, drowning out An Sieunee as she moved to respond to Frevin's comment. "It is the best thing available to us at this stage. Obviously we should do this by requesting people to volunteer."

"I'm not sure how successful that will be Mortimer," Sakuya countered, also raising her voice to drown out the chain of expletives the Undine was hissing at the Puca. Resting her head onto the fingers she had meshed under her chin she pushed on, "Most of Arrun still does not believe that this is anything outside the game. They believe that they need only wait and bide their time until somebody back home finds a way to bring us back."

"Then we use that to our advantage. Encourage them to believe this is like the SAO incident. People had years to figure out a way to help those people trapped within, and it proved so utterly fruitless that government departments actually stopped trying, contenting themselves to sitting back and monitoring them," pushed the Salamander.

"so lie to them…"Alicia Rue purred from her chair, where she fiddled with her tail, still marvelling at the feeling of it being touched. "Make them believe that the nation of Tristain is our version of the one hundred floors of Aincrad?" She narrowed her yellow, cat slit eyes on the man, scrutinising him as he nodded steadily in reply, his face unflinching. "I guess that makes sense," she conceded.

"I can see the logic in that, but that is only likely to backfire on us later," Michael retorted, glaring between the Salamander and Cait Sith. "I personally am a believer that this is all real, or at least close enough to being real to render the difference irrelevant. With the level of potential harm achievable in this world, I feel that my point of view will rapidly become the prevalent one, and if we actively seek to push people to believing this is merely like SAO, okay merely was the wrong word, but like SAO when we have already been pushing the 'real world' theory, people will only get angry when they learn otherwise."

"I agree with you," An Sieunee added, "from what I witnessed, it was all too real for most of the people with me to cope. Lying to them, warping their expectations would only put more people into danger that they aren't mentally prepared for. We should still try to impress upon people the idea that this is their new reality, but leave the deniers be for now. They are likely to learn it on their own soon enough. There is only so much we can do to convince people."

Nodding in agreement Mortimer continued on the Undine's train of thought, "Perhaps if we made hunting a mandatory activity? We need the food, and we've already lost most of our initial volunteers due to weakened nerves and growing anxiety issues. It would also certainly help us identify people suited to the work and who could potentially assist us in other matters should the situation arise…as a last resort of course."

"If we are to survive here, then that does sound like a reasonable course to take," mused the Leprechaun thoughtfully. "If we manage to accumulate a surplus of supplies we could even use it to attempt to initiate trade is we're lucky enough." Smiling to himself, Sadore continued keenly, "I say we vote on this action right away and sort out the smaller details later. The sooner we start on this the better." Raising his right hand into the air he wait patiently for the other to follow suit, with Mortimer and An Sieunee raising their arms first. Quickly followed by Michael and Alicia Rue's, with Lady Sakuya and the Puca, Frevin Howden, agreeing a few seconds after them.

"Finally," the Gnome breathed in relief, "We're finally making some progress with this." Bringing his hands together in a loud clap, he proceeded to rub them together in anticipation. "Let's pick something else to sort out. Quick! While we're on a roll."

"No thanks," An Sieunee laughed lightly, amused by his behaviour. "Unlike the rest of you, I've had a rather adventurous day, what with the meeting before this one and the ambush that preceded it. I'm going to go have an excessively long nap to recover." Getting up, the undine made her way to the door, the hem of her aqua blue battledress brushing lightly across the stone floor.

"Before you do leave," Frevin called out, opening his eyes for the first time in that meeting, revealing his bronze coloured irises, which fixed themselves upon her. "That ambush, I realise now that we neglected to ask Sidia whether he or any of the other escorts saw anything that might have identified who they were. Did you see anything?"

"We've been here a week," Mortimer chortled at the question, "Unless they were wearing name badges that told us who they were and where they came from, we'd be very unlikely to have a chance at figuring that out."

"Very true," the Undine smiled, "though to answer in another capacity, I do not believe they were sent on behalf of Tristain. Their Princess and the people seated with her appeared to be genuinely shocked at the news. One of the Lords in attendance was also quite apologetic that it had happened on his watch. Now if you'll excuse me, I wasn't kidding when I said I was tired."

When the doors had begun to swing closed behind the blue haired councillor, Sakuya stood up and addressed those who remained. "Well since two of us are no longer here, and one has still yet to reach Arrun, I think we will call it a day now that a third of us are absent. Same time tomorrow?"

"I cannot allow this insult to go unanswered! That old fool oversteps his bounds."

"It will do you no good to complain now my dear Count. Princess Henrietta has long since departed for the Academy, we can only hope that the child does not falter in her duties. Besides, the Queen gave Arch Bishop Mazarin her blessing for the decision."

"The Queen gave her blessing? Bah!" She has been nothing but a shell since the passing of the King. A mere puppet awaiting the next Puppeteer to pick up the strings."

"The Count Andelot makes a fair point Lord de Grandpre. The Queen is a mere shell under the sway of the Arch Bishops tune."

Lord Richemont?!" Count Andelot uttered in shock as the doors to the room closed behind the man, sealing him within, with its two other occupants, "Why are you here?"

"Pure coincidence I assure you," the raven headed lord replied calmly, a finger stroking his neatly trimmed beard, "but a most fortuitous one at that."

De Grandpre got to his feet, turning to face Richemont, his piercing green eyes fixed on the noble and, without hesitation, drew his wand from the strap holding it to his arm, hidden from view, his mane of blonde hair rippling in the breeze that sprung up from nothing as he prepared to unleash a spell. "I am sorry, but we know of what we sounded, and the last thing we need is a rat."

Ignoring the wand aimed at his head , Richemont strode casually towards the men, his mouth tilted in the barest hints of a smile. "You misunderstand me. This was fortuitous for all of us, for now each of us have met more of our fellows that are burdened with similar concerns."

"What do you mean?" Count Andelot asked curiously, leaning forward from the depths of his armchair, his hand brushing his short hair back into place as it was shaken loose by the wind emanating from, the still wary, de Grandpre's half complete spell.

Taking a vacant seat opposite the Count, close to the fire that warmed the otherwise cold stone chamber, and continued, "Arch Bishop Mazarin, the current regent. His position of strength has recently begun to smell of Romalian influence to me, and now he stands, untouchable apart from direct intervention from the current royalty, the same royalty that entrusted the position to him in the first place."

"Which of course won't happen," Lord de Grandpre added, slowly lowering his wand.

"Precisely. The Queen is a husk. The Princess is but a child, not yet fit to rule. The path is open for Mazarin to assume the throne as a King, not a Regent. One supported by Romalian influence I would expect."

"Over my dead body!" growled de Grandpre, eyes flashing.

"I'm sure the same sentiment is felt throughout the nobility," Richemont answered coolly, "Which is why it is clear that we must intervene."

"But to overthrow the Regent appointed by royalty would be classified as treason of the highest order. We would be rebelling against the royal family itself," stuttered Count Andelot, shocked at the Lord's audacity to suggest the course of action.

"Would you rather allow the Bishop to take control of Tristain? Yes it will be seen as treason, but is it not a more favourable outcome than to see our country shackled by the Papacy if we let events run their course…" Richemont snapped firmly, 'Now, this is the moment to come on strong. I started as the outsider, but this is my opportunity to push myself to the fore.' "Surely a new king, chosen from among the nobility of Tristain is preferable to a foreigner?"

De Grandpre suppressed a snort of derisive laughter, "and I suppose you wish to have our support for that honourable duty? You are not even of the true nobility."

"Not at all." Richemont cut in, smiling deeply, "I would not be as bold as to think myself worthy of the role." He shook his head to himself, "No. Not at all. A far better candidate would be the Count de Gramont."

"de Gramont? He would never side against the royal family. The man and his family are loyal to a fault." Count Andelot countered, dismissing the idea with a wave of his ring covered hand.

"That is what would make him the ideal candidate," Richemont reasoned, his smile oddly still in place, "if he could be made to see reason, that this is for the good of the country, he may yet agree. If we succeed, he would be able to care for the Princess should he wish to maintain his sense of loyalty, maybe even marry her to one of his sons, the transition would be seamless. Not to mention, his loyalty is well known. If other can see that the Count has done this for the best interests of the country, the majority will support him."

"I think you underestimate the depths of his loyalty Richemont."

"Then he need only be convinced that this is in the best interest of the Princess as well. She is, after all, only a young girl. Ruling would be hard on an innocent child such as her. He would be saving her from a lifetime of struggle."

"Lord Richemont," Lord de Grandpre began cautiously, "You seem to have put a great deal of thought into this and, quite honestly, I find it unnerving."

"That may be so," Richemont replied vaguely, getting to his feet and started walking to the door. "But one should be prepared for any eventuality, and to return your frankness, this was bound to happen after the King passes away." As he opened the door to the room, he turned back to the nobles by the fire, "I'm sure we all have work to do, how we proceed should be clear gentlemen." As he left, the door closing behind him, he called out over his shoulder, "I'll be in touch."

Silence fell over the room as the door snapped shut, the sound of the fire licking at the logs that sustained it and the fading footfalls of the Lord Richemont, ruining the perfect silence that would have reigned, in the wake of the man's departure. "The man is an ass."

"That may be so," Count Andelot chuckled, grooming his moustache thoughtfully, "but he did provide some very valid points."

"That doesn't mean I want to cause a potential civil war!" de Grandpre snapped back angrily, "and we both know it could very likely end up that way."

"Well, I might start reaching out to the nobles who border my land, see where they stand. Richemont's idea is strong enough to persuade me to start looking into it myself." Count Andelot sighed, clasping his friends shoulder, "If you decide to support this, you know my arms will remain open to welcome you."

Smiling grimly back at his friend, de Grandpre ran his fingers through his hair in a move indicative of mental fatigue, "yes. I need to do a little soul searching before I commit to anything. But for now old friend, I think we should raise our glasses to easier times."

Marquis d'Aiguillon was normally a rather quiet and composed man, always looking his best. Faintly orange hair neatly combed, cut short to his head, his face clean shaven and clothing regularly pressed, the very definition of immaculate presentation, even going so far as to regularly trim his nostril hairs. But today he was not in his usual state of mind, and his appearance suffered for it. Stress had been his foremost feeling for the past week, his land was suffering and there was nothing he had at his personal disposal to prevent it.

"Marquis, please cease your pacing. It is getting most tedious."

As the man in question spun around, eyes glaring at the speaker, who instantly regretted the words, he had uttered, but there was nothing that could stop d'Aiguillon now. "I have every right to do so Count de Chalet!" he responded hotly. "These 'Elven', have set up shop on my very doorstep. Barely three leagues from the city they decided was a good location to erect a settlement." Brushing the hair from his face he continued, his voice losing it's fiery disposition, dropped into a tone of defeat. "Every attempt to make contact or force them to leave has failed. They have some magic that protects them."

"What kind of magic?" Count Chalet asked curiously, his interest piqued. "What did it look like?"

"I know you consider yourself an amateur scholar, but it is unlike anything we know of. We see nothing. But we hear it. We hear it very well, and when we do, our strength abandons us, without warning."

"Sound? What kind? I can't think of any magic known that functions solely on sound."

"Music." Seeing the Count's confused look he elaborated, "It's music. Before we lose our strength we hear music and song. If it did not leave me feeling so tired and weak, I would call it pleasant."


"You may call it so, but for me and my lands, it is little more than a disaster. Production has ground to a halt. The lumberyards are closed because workers are too scared to leave the safety of the city walls without adequate protection. But since they have seen that the City Watch and the garrison can't even get close to them, let alone protect them, not even a platoon to escort them can convince them to work anymore."

"Is that why you came to the Capital? Fear?"

"Be silent Chalet!" d'Aiguillon responded, the heat returning to his voice. Standing straight again, the slump leaving his shoulders he looked at the double doors that led to the audience chamber, "I am here to request the army to assist in removing the Elven from my land. I have never heard of them moving so openly before, or is such numbers. Our united might is our only chance."

"Well you'll have to get in line Marquis," Count Chalet said calmly, also glancing towards the doors, "You are not the first to come seeking aid for the same problem."

"You also, Count Chalet?" d'Aiguillon gasped in shock, "Founder save us."

"No, not me. Though I would prefer that than the reality."

"Which noble has suffered the same? Are his lands more vital than my own?" d'Aiguillon rasped.

"Nobles," Count Chalet responded grimly, placing great emphasis on the plurality of the word. "There have been three others that have come thus far to seek aid for the same problem." Ignoring the Marquis' bug eyed expression of shock and fear, he continued, "though you are the first to have encountered a magic so foreign to which we know."

"If you are not here to ask for assistance…then why are you here?" Marquis d'Aiguillon asked, his voice trembling slightly at the prospect of a full scale Elven invasion.

"I am here to learn as I always have. And I have learned a lot these passed few days. Enough to make me question whether these Elves you speak of are even Elves to begin with.

"I have seen them with my own eyes. They are Elves!"

"But they do not act at all like any Elf we know of. We have fought them many times in the past, but crusade after crusade has failed. But never have the Elves attacked beyond the Sahara. We have been devastated by their superior magic, but according to the records have we ever encountered them using a magic like you have described? Also, every noble that has requested help has given a slightly different appearance of the 'Elves' encountered, and all our history has never spoken of this level of diversity. Lord de La Tremoille even spoke of them having distinctly feline features, tails and ears to be precise."

"Preposterous, he must be seeing things. Why would an elf look like a beast."

"My point exactly Marquis. I think this is something quite different. The only question is, how do we act."

"My Lord! I bring urgent news!"

With a sigh, the aged man placed his quill down on the desk before him, aligning it perfectly parallel with the paper he had been writing on, and looked up at the soldier who had just burst into his office. Brushing his fingers through his miraculously still brown hair, and grooming his moustache, he looked up at the man, taking note of the half cloak clasped to the soldiers shoulders, before speaking. "What can I do for you Captain?"

"I apologise for my abrupt entrance Marshal, but a man has just arrived from Des Oniers, claiming to be one of the Town Watch. He told us that the village has been raided and burned to the ground."

"What! Was he able to identify the attackers? Which nation do they hail from?" De Poitiers roared in outrage, slamming his fists onto the desk in anger, jolting the quill from its placement. 'Who would attack us now? It isn't likely to be Germania, not in the middle of our negotiations. Albion? No, we would have had reports of their ships going that deep into our territory. That leaves…'

"It wasn't any of our neighbours," the Captain answered, interrupting Marshal De Poitiers' train of thought, causing the man's attention to snap back onto the soldier before him, fixing him with his lime green eyed stare. "The Watchman claims it was a large band of giant ogres. It's highly unlikely, but his description sounded very similar to that of the ogre's that live in the mountains of eastern Gallia."

"Ogres don't work in groups. They are isolationist beast by nature, only meeting to mate." De Poitiers replied stiffly, "he must have meant Orcs. His fear must have exaggerated his memories."

"Of course Marshal," the Captain agreed, "I was just relaying his testimony without any changes."

Getting to his feet, the Marshal turned to the window behind him, his hand pressed against the glass. "How long since the raid?"

"Unfortunately the man succumbed to his wounds before he could say," the Captain replied sombrely, reflecting on the Watchman's dedication to duty that saw him able to deliver as much to them as he had. "But it could have only been in the last week. We recently had a patrol pass through there."

"I see." De Poitiers mused, resting against the window, "In that case, assemble a full company of men. The Orcs could not have gone far, they have a habit of lingering. You will hunt them down and cleanse them from Tristain lands."

"Yes Lord Marshal!" the Captain replied smartly, snapping off a crisp salute before turning sharply and leaving the office.

"I'm getting weary of all this excitement," De Poitiers muttered to himself, grimly amused, "Remember when things made sense…"

Walking. That was about all there was to do in Everdark these days. Gone were the days when players ventured regularly, and on a whim, into the maze of tunnels that threaded their way throughout the mountain that encased the Imp Faction Capital City. Ever since 'The Pain' had swept across the city's population, since it had been discovered that, once again, thousands of people had been stuck within a game, held against their will, unable to escape, unable to return home to their family and friends, without any known way to escape. Ever since that moment, the city exits had been under a nearly constant blockade, preventing anyone from leaving, despite what they might want.

Unable to leave, unable to do anything, the city of Everdark ground to a jarring halt, the population sinking into depression as their situation enveloped them further, moment by moment, without an outlet, the atmosphere infected them all.

Gazing out of the window of the room in which he lay, Kunimittz watched again as the armoured shape of a dragon swept passed. The dull blue scales of the creatures hide helping it blend into the perpetual night so well that, if it had not been wearing the armoured harness on its torso, it would have been nigh impossible for any, but an Imp, to see. The large leathery wings, largely reminiscent of the wings of a bat and even the wings of an Imp, swung downwards, pushing against the resistance it found in order to keep itself aloft, revealing for but a few moments, before the wings rose again to obscure the view, the sight of a fully armoured rider upon its back, their golden brown tail swaying in the wind.

Looking back at the memory, Kunimittz smiled the smallest and faintest of smiles. The bittersweet memory that denoted the last time something had really happened within the city, or anywhere for all he knew, the first and last hint of hint at something even vaguely normal. The excitement at finding that they were not alone, replaced soon after by the despair that even the newcomer and those who sent him, had no hint or clue as to how to return home. They were well and truly trapped in the dark, in every sense of the word.

Silently, Kunimittz pushed himself upright, hands patting absently at the ground beside him in search of the iron armour he had started with when he had logged into Alfheim Online. Gingerly sliding his arms through the chest straps on his armour, he began fumbling the latches into place, foregoing the pauldrons in order to avoid the attempt at tying the knots to hold them in place with only one hand. Satisfied he got to his feet, grumbling to himself as he felt the chest plate shift awkwardly and he realised he must have done something wrong when strapping it on. Equipping armour had gotten a whole lot more difficult recently, not to mention, incredibly tedious.

'I can't believe this happened to me again,' Kunimittz thought in frustration for what must have been the thousandth time, once more reciting the rant that was verging on becoming a mantra to be repeated at every instance of something going wrong, or even just when nothing happened for an extended period of time. 'You'd think that, after the SAO incident, people would have checked more thoroughly for the things that'd allow this nonsense to happen. I bought a damn AmuSphere just to make sure, to avoid any potential for this. What did they slip into this one? Another microwave emitter just poised to scramble my brain when I mess up? Just perfect! And a copycat Kayaba Akihiko, even better, just brilliant. What, is it some sort of industry standard, a requirement to work in VR gaming? Hello sir, I see you have all the necessary qualifications, but do you happen to have a history of mental instability? No? well that's too bad, a real shame. Oh, but you do have designs to be a god of your own world with a rampant dose of a superiority complex? Perfect! Welcome aboard, we just love people who want to fuck with people's lives!'

Strapping his spear to the strap across his back, Kunimittz headed towards the windowsill, sliding his fingers into the crack beneath the window and, with a deep breath, slowly slid the window open, 'At least SAO has some rather convenient features, but this new guy? Nah, he wanted to be a complete twat meister and make it as real as possible, really hammered at that realism button. AGH…god Dammit!' Kunimittz rubbed angrily at his head, the spot that had cracked into the lower frame of the window already starting to form a small and tender lump.

Hanging his legs over the edge of the windowsill, he looked down at the paved stone floor two stories below him. With a glance back into the room behind him, the sleeping figures of his roommates still littering the room, he edged forward a little further, 'I wish I'd never agreed to join this VR game.' With a push, his back muscles straining futilely, he dropped to the ground below. The journey was short, sharp, and ended with a jolt that sent a fizzy sensation shooting up his legs which travelled along his body to end in his fingers, and despite the effort he had put into trying to make his wings work, they remained inert, 'Useless things.' Shaking his legs out in an attempt to rid himself of the faint tingling sensation that remained in them, he headed off down the street. 'Hey Kunimittz. I need a favour. Nah nothing will go wrong, you're just being paranoid. You'll be fine…Yeah Right!'

The mantra coming to its final conclusion, the purple haired Imp took in a deep steadying breath and let it out in a single explosive sigh, an action that appeared to expel the pent up anger, frustration and just about every other emotion related to the rant with it, for the time being at least. Feeling a little refreshed, Kunimittz brushed the stray strands of his medium cut hair from his eyes as he cast them about in search of anyone in view. Satisfied that there was nobody nearby, the slender Fae curved his path sharply and cut into a side alley, his pale skin and dark clothing melding him neatly into the shadows that dominated the pathway and the grey walls that lined it.

There was something calming about the deserted back alleys throughout the city. They were empty for the most part, completely devoid of people, and for that Kunimittz was grateful. Sitting himself down on the floor, as a point where he would be hidden from the view of any passer-by on the main roads at either end of the alley, he leaned back against the wall, his eyes fixed on a spot on the wall opposite him. A spot he had become intimately familiar with over the past week. People would look at him and think that his actions were depressive in nature, normally people would be right. Avoiding people to stare blankly at a wall would be the hallmark symptom of a chronically depressed person, but here and now, it was a far better alternative to being anywhere near people in Kunimittz's eyes.

The city as a whole was depressed, and Kunimittz sought solitude in his alley to avoid it. The dead, despondent eyes of the people shuffling their way about the streets, the light in their eyes extinguished by the smothering sense of hopelessness and fear that had infested the populace of Everdark. Of course there had been exceptions, there always were. People who tried to maintain a positive outlook, who tried to do something productive, to find a way out of the game…but their number dwindled rapidly, afterall, how long could someone maintain that optimism when they were restricted in their movements to such a degree, unable to leave the city in search of answers, locked in and surrounded by such rampant depression. It would be almost inhuman not to succumb to it eventually. And so he sought his refuge in isolation and solitude. How better to avoid that overwhelming sense of hopelessness than to avoid those people who propagate it through merely their presence.

Shifting himself against the wall, trying to find that perfect 'comfort spot', the Imp tried to settle his thoughts onto a more positive train in order to offset the depressive mentality, that assaulted him where he sat, from taking root. What he was doing was downright depressing, no matter how it was looked at, it was just a less bad option than being among people. The lesser of two evils per-se.

Casting his mind back in search of memories and thoughts, Kunimittz found himself back in SAO with his guild, his friends. He started a little in surprise that his mind had sought refuge in those memories in its search for positive ones, but a small smile, a genuine smile of pleasant reminiscence drew itself across his face as he settled into the memory that was conjured for him.


"Kunimittz? Hey, Kunimittz! Dammit, pay attention!"

Eyes snapping away from their distant gaze at nothing focused on the speaker before him, a figure fully decked out in iron grey plate armour, that came to a stop beside him, the ends of his deep brown hair peaking out from beneath his helmet, settling haphazardly across his brow. "Sorry Harry. Was a little out of it." Kunimittz grinned sheepishly as he reined in his wandering thoughts, "What were you saying?"

"Was wondering if you wanted to get a head start on the others. They are all probably at the Guild House unable to pull themselves out of bed. That, and staring at the Floor Transport Gate promises to be a very dull and tiring endeavour," Harry said with an open mouthed yawn to emphasize his point, stretching his arms above his head as much as his armour would physically allow.

"Nah they aren't. I messaged them earlier." Kunimittz shook his head, his dark blue hair swaying as he did so. "They are down on the twenty fourth floor to speak to Argo, remember?"

"Oh yeah, Forgot he was planning on doing that today. This information on finding Nicholas the Renegade had better be worth the cost, that was like…a full months of farming to get that money."

"Of course it will be, Argo doesn't muck around like that. And besides, you know the rumours as well as I do, Nicholas is meant to drop an item that can revive a player who dies! If that's true, any cost is worth it." Kunimittz said eagerly, his eyes glinting in excitement, "With that item in our possession we would have the safest of safety nets should something go wrong."

"Yeah," Harry sighed, a look of worry creasing his brow, "But everyone else knows the rumours as well, and nearly everyone will be hunting for that item. Not to mention we definitely won't be the only ones who go to The Rat in search of information with money in hand." Hands lowering themselves to his side he continued, his eyes flicking to the side, away from the gate as it flashed brightly, revealing a small group of players walking out from within, casually walking down the dais before disappearing into the crowds, their animated chatter fading into the cacophony of ambient noise of the city centre. "Chances are we are already too late anyway."

"Not at all, Christmas isn't until tomorrow, it'll be like a race!" Kunimittz responded eagerly, the glinting in his eyes developing into a fully fledged sparkle as he pumped himself up for the competition to come, his feet fidgeting restlessly. He paused in the beginnings of his 'almost bouncing' when Harry shot him with a sceptical glance. The grin on his face only grew in response, "Don't be such a stick in the mud Harry. Think about it, we've been on a pretty good roll recently. We have been living on the front lines and not one of us has died, it's even been over a dozen floors since we lost anyone in a boss fight. And at the rate the front lines are advancing and completing floors, we'll be done by Foundation Day. You just wait and see my friend."

"I'm glad you're so optimistic Kunimittz. I just don't think we'll be done quite that soon." Harry sighed, his lips twisting wryly at his chipper companion, before a true smile began to peak through, "Personally I think that, realistically speaking, we'll be out of here on Vernal Equinox Day. It would be so perfectly poetic…"

"Hmmm," the spear wielder murmured thoughtfully, as he scratched at the corner of his mouth, "A day that celebrates the admiration of nature and the love of all living things…Yeah!" he finished off with a cheer, "That'd be almost perfect! Culture day would fit a little better with the theme you are going for, but who wants to wait until November?! I'll take March any day of the week." Taking a couple steps closer to his armoured companion, Kunimittz slapped a hand down onto his plated shoulder, grinning infectiously, "Well Harry, I guess I have no choice but to accept you earlier proposal. If we wanna make that target in three months time, we're really gonna have to pull out all the stops to get stronger faster."

"Yes!" Harry grinned back, thoroughly enraptured by the building momentum, "Alright then Kunimittz, let's go fa-"


With a snap, Kunimittz bolted upright, looking around frantically through his half closed eyes, heavy lidded from sleep, reaching behind him to grasp the haft of his spear in a subconscious movement. Seeing nobody nearby the Imp let out a sigh of relief, before clenching his hands into fists and knuckling either side of his head in frustration, mentally berating himself for falling asleep outside of a protected area, like the inn room he was sharing, or a house of his own with locks and walls. Falling asleep in an exposed area was risky enough back in SAO, it happened often enough that it became common knowledge that doing so invited the chance of death. After someone had figured out they could physically move a sleeping players arm in order to force him to accept a 'Duel to the Death' challenge, the general safety of just being within a city's walls all but vanished. But here, in this new Alfheim, it was even worse, as there wasn't even that little hindrance to stop the players that had snapped or just wanted to drift down that path of immorality.

Pushing himself sluggishly to his feet, Kunimittz froze, his pupils dilating, and left hand twitching slightly, as his eyes settled on another Imp turning the corner at the end of the alleyway and walking towards him. Disregarding Kunimittz's sudden wariness, despite the startled Fae subtly shifting his feet, indicating his preparation and intent to either defend himself or flee should the situation call for it.

Avoiding people may help in maintaining a clearer head, but it did leave a person open for the less savoury individuals to prey upon now that they were no longer held in check by the shackles of a society that bound them.

Eyes steeling over, Kunimittz shifted his grip on the spear at his back into one that he was more comfortable with as the new arrival came to a stop only a few metres away from the spear wielder. The new arrival looked down at the half crouched form of Kunimittz, the muscles on the left side of his face tightening, pulling at his lips in a half hearted half smile. The smile didn't reach any other part of the newcomer's face, which remained blank, almost forlorn as far as Kunimittz could tell, "Sup."

"What do you want!" Kunimittz growled at the newcomer, taking a cautious step away from him as he slid the spear free from the strap on his back, gripping it with his free hand as well before pointing it steadily before him. "I don't have anything to give you, so this is just a waste of your time." Shifting his feet again, Kunimittz glanced around to make sure his avenue of escape remained free. 'If he comes at me I need to make a run for the main road, with all that space I'll be able to move my spear freely, and I should have no trouble outmanoeuvring him with my larger strike zone. Keep him at bay, but don't let him gain any distance, I can't use magic, it'd be a death sentence if he had the time to use his. Keep him in the mid range Kunimittz, control his pace.'

"I'm not here to fight you," droned the dead eyed Imp, the tone of his voice matching the emotion in his face, "I wish only to pass on an offer of opportunity."

Kunimittz blinked momentarily in confusion before his visage hardened again, "Who are you? And how do you know me?"

"I do not know you. I did not know you would be here," droned the monotonous voice of the Imp as he looked blankly at Kunimittz. "You just happened to be here, and from what I have seen from you in this brief exchange, you appear to fit the criteria of my friend." Sliding a hand absently across his face he continued, "As for who I am, my name is Filip, with an F, and I am no one in particular really. Now you know my name, what is yours?"

"Kunimittz," replied the spear wielder warily as Filip nodded in acceptance of the offered name." Who is your friend, and why would he want to offer me this opportunity you mentioned?"

"My friend is called Goburi. He wants, as I believe you do as well, to get out of Everdark." The faintest shadow of the blank half smile, that Filip had worn at his greetings, tugged at him as Kunimittz visibly started at hearing the intent behind the offered opportunity, before he was able to compose himself. "He is currently searching for other with the same goal, and the will to do something to accomplish it. Are you one of those people?"

"…Where can I meet him?"

Reaching into his pocket, Filip pulled out a small piece of paper, the rustling sound that emanated from his pocket as hi did so indicating the collection of identical paper scraps within. Holding it out, he gestured for Kunimittz to take it, but when Kunimittz made no move to approach him, Filip let out a small sigh. "I told you. I'm not here to fight you," the bland voice echoed faintly down the alley, "and even if I was, you wouldn't stand a chance." Kunimittz tensed, readying his spear again to point it at Filip's chest. "I can tell just by looking at your gear. It is all base level equipment, and since even doing the tutorial quests would have given you better gear as rewards, I can confidently say you are a beginner." Kunimittz's left hand twitched, "I can therefore safely say that I am at least a dozen levels higher than you. I would overwhelm you. Those are just the facts."

Kunimittz grit his teeth in frustration at the blunt, and probably fairly accurate, assessment of how a conflict between them would play out, but approached Filip with his right arm rising to take the offered piece of paper, his other hand cracking slightly due to the force with which he was clenching it. The dead eyed Imp didn't even flinch when the paper was snatched from his hand, merely dropping his own raised arm to his side. "Why are you doing this for your friend? You don't appear to match his criteria."

The Imp paused as he turned away from Kunimittz and shrugged, "The same reason you want to get out of Everdark. Because I don't know what else to do." Finishing his turn, Filip strode out of the alleyway and disappeared from view as he turned down the main road at the end, leaving Kunimittz staring at the piece of paper in his hand.

Opening it, he read the directions inside it and decided the first thing he needed to do was find a city map of some kind.


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