Chapter I Darien sucked in a breath as he lifted his arms in a stretch. Only partly succeeding due to the relatively small confines of the plane’s seat, it could be worse, he told himself; at least I’m in first class and not in the coach section. The cabin was dark, save for a few lights scattered around, people who couldn’t sleep, weren’t tired, or reading he guessed. To his right his parents were sleeping soundly, to his left, a window. That didn’t give him much to go on as far as time goes, nothing but rolling black clouds. He could safely assume it was late evening or around midnight. Squirming, he managed to get his phone out of his pocket. The time zone had changed… again. Checking a geography app showed they were flying over Africa, though they still had a layover station in China or Korea or something before they reached Japan. When he thought about the move, it gave him mixed feelings. On one hand, he’d be in video games and VRMMO central. The creators of the Amusphere and Nervegear were from there. Ever since he had tried Virtual Reality, he was hooked. Even over something as a language program. It had been an exhilarating experience for him. On the other hand, he had left the few friends he had in the States. And if experience is half the teacher people say it is. Then they wouldn’t keep in contact like they had promised. Sure, they’d try for a couple of weeks, but after that… It’d slow down and then stop altogether. The face he was making must have made one of the flight attendants concerned because she came over with her cart. “Is there anything you need?” She asked politely, keeping her tone hushed. Darien held up a hand and shook his head, which she replied with an encouraging smile. He returned it amiably, in an attempt to get his mind off everything he reached under his seat and scrounged around for his laptop. It was a little difficult to do without moving around too much and waking his parents. His ‘clothes’ didn’t help much either, the black satin cloth coiling around his arms, confining his movements. The suit had been fine during the services when he was standing. Though it was becoming clear that these aren’t things you wear for a long time. He was starting to regret saying he was fine when his mother asked if he wanted to change at the first layover station. Too late now, he’d have to wait until the next stop. As he opened his computer a familiar blue light enveloped him. While he was in America he had been saving up his allowance and he knew the perfect thing to spend it on. He used Google to try and find places that sold Amuspheres near his new Japanese address. Entering a few different key words and phrases he found a shop nearby and their hours. Then he pulled out the pocket book he had in his shirt pocket and started writing down directions. It was Fall break in Japan, so he knew how he’d be spending his time in the days before high school. He figured he had enough money to be the gear, one game, and enough left over to do minor character changes. Finally able to play a game of this generation made him giddy. For the longest time his dad had only let him play games on the older consoles that he had maintained through the years. So he would learn to appreciate the new games when he got to play them. Maybe there was some truth to his words. Maybe diving would help with jet lag, you never know. The game he had most wanted to play was Sword Art Online. Swords or magic was more his style, not shooters. The less modernized the better. Though only ten thousand copies were sold the first day and he didn’t have a Nervegear. Then it became the SAO incident, thousands dying in that death game. He still got shivers when he remembered the news coverage, watching emergency personal carry limp bodies with the devices on their heads to the hospital. Darien still didn’t know if, given the chance, whether or not he would have gotten a copy knowing what would happen. The new Amusphere, though had apparently made it impossible for such a thing to happen again. And while skimming through some of the reviews he found what sounded like a good game. ALFhiem Online, it even had SAOs sword skills and floating castle in the newest patch. The section about skill based gameplay sold him on the idea. There are apparently no ‘levels’ in the game per say. You just had to keep using the same skills and your ability to use those skills would increase. It also encourages PvP, something he enjoyed in the few PC games he got to play. Then he wiki’d the game, it had exchanged hands or a leader stepped down or something. He learned the game's races, what kind of skills it had and started thinking of the character he’d make. He didn’t get very far however as the pilot's voice came over the intercom, announcing their decent into China. Putting his laptop back in the bag he shook his parents awake, his plans put on hold for the time being. They landed in some city he didn’t hear the name of and grabbed the spare clothes bag he had and asked his mom to hold his laptop. She was pretty he guessed, as far as moms went. Dark brown hair and sky blue eyes. Though as her son, he knew how tough she was. A regional Taekwondo champion in the States and a self-defense instructor, she also wrote novels in her spare time. She was trying to look calm, probably for his sake, but he could see the weariness in her eyes. She was suspicious and alert for any signs of a threat. She probably put too much stock in those stories about muggers and thieves in airports. Not that he could blame her, that’s part of the reason why she held the computer instead of his dad. His dad was twisting and turning, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. He was tall and probably thankful for the chance to stretch his legs. The man’s messy dark hair swayed as he moved, as he finished this exercise, he straightened and readjusted the glasses on his nose. His stance shifted into a relaxed posture, as if he was completely at home. Though his dark green eyes were as piercing as ever, as they were probably his most noticeable feature. His dad's career of choice was computer and electrical engineering, which was why they were going to Japan in the first place, someone had given him an offer he ‘simply couldn’t refuse’ according to him. Once Darien completed his own stretch, he turned to his parents. “I’m going to go change before we board again.” His mother turned her gaze toward him and gave a knowing smirk. He waved her off before she could start. “Yeah, yeah mom, you were right. Now gloat silently.” He said with a smile. His dad shook his head in mock disapproval and waved him off, fighting a grin of his own. It shouldn’t take him too long to go into the bathroom and change before they had to get back on the plane. Going into the stall, he quickly tore off the expensive clothing he wore and tossed it into the bag before changing into a normal pair of jeans and a red shirt. As he left, Darien kept a tight grip on his bag and walked purposefully toward the door. Paranoid or not, it was better to be safe than sorry when it came to places like this. If he remembered things right, they would be at this station for about an hour. In theory that would give him enough time to think about and plan out his character, skills he would focus on and weapon types he would use. He always preferred the roguish type of play style so hopefully he’d be able to find something like that. The more he could plan out how he would make his character, the more time he’d have to play once they landed in Japan. Making his way back to his parents they got some food from the café in the station. So he did what every gamer has done before him, he multitasked, eating and reading up on ALFhiem at the same time. He made a few notes on his computer, picking the few things that interested him. For starters, he wanted to be a Cait Sith, second he wanted to use one-handed straight swords, daggers and throwing knives. Dark and fire magic also caught his eye, so he jotted that down as well, then for some added flavor and something to do besides fight, he added armor crafting. Darien loved customization and making his avatar have his own unique look was something he enjoyed. “Some kind of game?” His mom asked, looking over at his computer to see what he was reading. He nodded, taking a bite of his burger. “Yeah, called ALFhiem online, it looks really good.” “Says there, it’s about fairies.” She pointed out. “Yeah, and?” Darien asked, “Still fantasy. And I love fantasy settings.” “I’ve heard about that game,” His dad commented. “It has a mostly female player base from what I’ve read.” “Ooh.” His mom said in understanding. “I see.” She gave him a wry look. “What?” He asked, his tone slightly annoyed. “Darien you aren’t going on this game just for the ladies, are you?” “What?” He said again, though this time less dignified and more out of shock. He felt a rush of head in his chest. “No! It has skill based combat and magic and a whole slew of customization. I’m not going there just for girls!” “My, my Darien, you’re getting quite defensive there, did we strike at your hidden motive?” His dad asked with a smile. “I’m ignoring you two now.” He said as they both started laughing, figuring they teased him enough; they left him alone to continue his vitally important research. Darien found out what starting weapons there were to choose from and how the skill progression system worked in more detail. Though there was only so much he could learn from a wiki and he didn’t want to spoil any of the quests either. It might even be a good idea to look into finding people that knew what they were doing and give him some pointers. Or at least some basic knowledge on how some mechanics worked that the NPCs wouldn’t be able to tell him, with that in mind, he decided to look up some forums to see if there were any key players he might be able to find. Someone known for their skills in a fight or their skills in a craft, there was the salamander military commander and a few more but none of them really stuck out to him. Maybe he’d have better luck asking around in the game, though he doubted anyone would give away their combat secrets. So he might be better off trying to become an apprentice to a blacksmith or something. So he would be focusing on; One-Handed Sword, Light Metal Equipment, Parry, Blade Throwing, Martial Arts, Dark Magic, Fire Magic, Sprint, Hiding, Acrobatics, Searching, Metal Refining, Slash Weapon Forging, Light Metal Armor Forging, and Battle Healing. Now how good that carried over from paper to the game was a tough call, but it was something he definitely wanted to try. He wanted to stick with his rogue idea, he might remove a couple here or there in place of another thing, but he couldn’t fully plan things out until he got in the game. He needed to know how much light metal gave him compared to just wearing normal clothes and that would make the difference between learning Light Metal Armor Forging and Sewing. If he could find someone he could count on to make his weapons for him, which would free up more space as well. It looked daunting all written out though… Darien took a deep breath and erased all he had written about skill focuses. Let’s just see what happens, he told himself, no sense in doing all that yet. I do that and I’ll lose focus, besides, it’s just a game, it’s supposed to be fun, not to min max everything. Part of the problem of getting someone else to make my gear is I have to pay them. But on the other hand, I don’t have to do it. It was a hard choice, so instead he just struggled to put it out of his mind. Good thing too, because after finishing his meal, they had to get back on the plane. It wouldn’t be too long before he would get a taste of the game, and then the choice would be much simpler. Hell, maybe he’d make new friends in the game. Darien went to sleep as soon as they got on the plane, now able to sleep in relative comfort. At least it would catch him up on the couple hours of sleep, he lost and he would be refreshed when he dove into the game. The cab ride to their new home was nothing special, the moving guys his dad had scheduled to come in should be setting everything up that they had brought from America and the house was already furnished, so they wouldn’t have to worry about that. Overall his dad had gotten a pretty sweet deal from the company that wanted to hire him. The sun was out by the time they reached the house, but it was still fairly early in the morning. “I’m going to go to the game store, just put my stuff in whatever room you want to be mine.” He said, his mother rolled her eyes but nodded. “Just be careful Darien.” He nodded and walked down the street. It took him roughly an hour to find the store and fight through traffic. For the most part Darien avoided talking to people, he already stood out a bit for being American and he didn’t want undue attention. Truth be told, he wasn’t an overly talkative or social person to begin with. Except maybe in small groups, but Japan is just a sea of people. What he did find interesting though, was when there was a rumbling roar in the streets and he saw someone on a real combustion engine motorbike. The rider was thin and looked male, but more than that he couldn’t say because of the helmet and clothes. His trip to the store was thankfully simple; taking those Japanese VR classes had really helped. Darien could barely resist running all the way home. The excitement was building in his chest as the bag with his purchase crinkled in his hand. His hand clutched the bag like an iron vice, keeping it closed. If anyone even thought about taking this from him, he would make them regret that decision very thoroughly. By the time he got back his mom had left to go to the store, probably to get things for dinner. His dad had already gone in his new study room to get everything set up to work from home so now was the perfect time. He found the room that had his stuff in it, dashed inside and locked the door. He inserted the game, plugged in the power, and connected it to the wifi. First, he had to calibrate it, which didn’t take too long after following some simple instructions. Then he had to make an account for ALFhiem. He went with the usual username and password he used for most games like this and accepted the terms of service without even looking at it. Lying on the bed, he settled in for his first VRMMO experience. “Link start!” The world around him vanished as his senses were transmitted to the game world. Darien was now in a room where he saw all the different races in the game. He followed through with picking the Cait Sith, and then came the one thing he had completely forgotten about. “Crap! I need a name!” After several failed inputs due to it being taken, finally, out of frustration, he put in his real name. It was accepted, “Oh, you have got to be-“ Welcome to ALFhiem Online!