Leander, having some free time to kill before meeting his mother for dinner, was taking a leisurely stroll through a park when his wrist unit buzzed in a distinctive pattern that told him that Kevin had sent him a message.

Curiosity piqued – Kevin rarely contacted him when he was on vacation, and the developer had staunchly refused to help Lacey stalk him – he opened the message:

Kevin Ong: Hey, I customized your account to have an alt so you can play off-duty

It will automatically cap your level at whatever Fey's is, and roll you back to whatever stats and abilities you had back then

Experience you gain on your alt will apply to your work avatar, but not the other way around

Leander was delighted at the surprise present (enough so that it did not occur to him the level of snooping required for Kevin to realize he might need such an alternate avatar).

Leander: Thank you! I am very grateful.

Kevin Ong: Don't mention it. It was the least I could do after Lacey went all crazy on you this week

Try not to give away any company secrets

Leander: Will do. Thanks again!

Nearly beaming in good humour, Leander finished his walk, not noticing the stares he attracted. (Handsome bastard.)

*/*/*

Fey blinked in surprise at seeing a wingless Leandriel when she logged into Fantasia. She had snuck on half an hour earlier than her usual meet-up time with the party, so she was alone with the angel-reverted-to-celestial. "Wha…?"

"This is an alt," Leandriel explained. "It's been customized to cap its level to yours."

The mention of the level cap reminded Fey of something, but she could not quite pinpoint what. Dismissing the thought, she focused on the important part, the ability to go on adventures with Leandriel on more equal footing.

Closing the distance, she hugged his arm. "So how does it feel to be among us mortals again?" she asked teasingly.

"Very good," Leandriel murmured, voice going low and intimate.

Fey found her gaze drifting sideways and her body freezing in place as he lowered his face towards hers.

She startled when he touched his forehead to her own instead of going for the kiss she had been expecting.

"Am I making you uncomfortable?" Leandriel asked gently.

"Uhm…?" Fey said incoherently, trying to put her tumultuous emotions into words. "Not – not in the way you mean. Like the way a roller coaster is uncomfortable. Which is a bad comparison, because I hate roller coasters. But that's not the point. The point is," she finally took a breath, "I signed up for this ride."

"I do not want to push you into anything you are not ready for."

"I've never done anything new in my entire life without feeling I wasn't ready for it," Fey said wryly. "It's kind of part of being me. I've always done it anyway, and it's always turned out fine."

Leandriel paused to consider her words. "Okay." Pulling her close, he wrapped his arms around her and tucked her head under his chin, a warm embrace that Fey could relax completely into.

Just as she let go of her last bit of tension, he said, "I'll try again later."

She inhaled as her heart rate picked up again. "You're kind of devilish, you know that?"

She could hear the smile in his voice. "You bring it out of me."

After Sirena, Blade, and Mimi logged on, the party went to find Caleb Smith and his assistant Beth in order to register as a guild.

When they started the walk between Caleb's workshop and the guild registration building, Blade was in his usual position near the back of the group. Somehow, by the time they reached the main doors, Fey and Sirena had looped back around so that he was in front.

The counter inside the building was manned (dwarfed?) by a dwarf. Seeing Blade at the head of the small procession, he said, "Welcome! Are you here to register a new guild?"

"Uh, yeah." To his party-mates, he hissed, "Why are you guys all hiding in the back?"

"Because you're the leader," Fey whispered back.

"What? Why am I the leader?"

Seeing that there was going to be some kind of argument, the dwarf hastily excused himself to 'go prepare the paperwork' despite the fact that registration was done through virtual documentation.

"You're always the leader," Fey pointed out. This was technically true when it came to their adventuring party.

"Yes, but I'm not the leader leader."

"You won't be the leader leader of the guild, either," said Fey. Beside her, Mimi nodded in agreement.

"Nobody becomes a guild leader as a joke," Blade argued.

"Well, somebody's about to," said Sirena, eyes sparkling with mischief.

"Come on…" Blade looked around for allies in his argument. Fey looked like she was ready to fight him if he suggested she take on the role of guild head. Mimi was less militant in her body language, but somehow more solidly opposed to the suggestion of an official leadership role. Sirena looked like she would not mind becoming the leader, but was going to push Blade into the position because it was funnier that way.

Leandriel, Caleb, and Beth were all radiating very strong auras of 'not getting involved'.

Sighing, Blade gave in to the inevitable. "Fine. But I'm not doing any paperwork."

"Don't worry," Sirena said cheerfully, "you won't be in charge of anything." She rang the bell to call the clerk back, who was happy to help initiate the registration process.

(Here, Blade promptly begins to do paperwork.)

Calling up the registration screen, Blade was stymied by the first entry field. "What's our guild name?"

Everyone glanced at each other blankly. Blade decided to skip that line and fill out what he could while they thought.

"Well, it has to have the word 'Blade' in there," Fey said definitively.

"What? Why? No," Blade protested.

"Because you're the leader. Also, it's funny."

" 'Blades of' something," Sirena mused. "What do we stand for?"

"Randomness? Shenanigans? Being weird?" Fey suggested. (The word she's looking for is 'chaos'.)

"Silly… Free-spirited… 'Blades of Freedom'!" Sirena announced. She and Fey burst out laughing at how over-the-top the name was.

"Perfect," Fey declared, still laughing.

Even Mimi showed slight signs of amusement, the corners of her lips twitching as she nodded her agreement.

"No. I am not putting that down," Blade said, trying to sound as firm as possible.

"Do you have a better suggestion?" Fey asked.

"I don't know, something more normal. Like, 'Guardian' or something?"

"That's actually not a bad suggestion," said Fey (with a somewhat insulting amount of surprise). The word encompassed Leandriel's guardian class, Fey's Guardian's Blessing, and several of Blade's defensive skills.

"Guardians of what? 'Guardians of Freedom' sounds even more stupid than 'Blades of Freedom'," said Sirena.

"Guardian Blade!" Fey exclaimed. "It's generic and nonsensical and has the word 'Blade' in it."

"Yesss," Sirena said with relish.

"Can we please not name the guild after me?" Blade asked plaintively.

"Who said the guild's named after you?" Fey asked.

"You did."

"True. But nobody else has to know."

"Exactly," Sirena chimed in. "You just have a very generic name."

"But I'll know," said Blade.

"C'mon," Fey wheedled. "It's a pretty decent-sounding name, and it's less clearly named after you than 'Blades of Freedom'."

Blade looked around at the expectant gazes of his party-mates and felt his resistance collapse. "I am definitely going to regret this," he muttered while inputting the name.

Sirena kissed him on the cheek, which slightly mollified his disgruntled mood. "You're the best."

"Stop manipulating me," he said with the hint of a smile on his otherwise stern expression.

"You'd miss it if I did," she said with an impish smile.

Blade cleared his throat (keeping it family-friendly here) and changed the subject. "Where's our guild base?"

"Do you mind if we use your workshop for now?" Fey asked Caleb. "I have a more permanent location in mind, but it's not ready yet." She was thinking of her yet-immature mana tree and the rudimentary tree fort she had built beside it.

The smith shrugged, which Blade took as a yes, entering the workshop as the primary location for guild members to teleport back and forth from.

Virtual paperwork done, everyone electronically signed the guild charter to formally register as founding members. They handed over 100,000g as a registration fee and Guardian Blade was officially formed. (Man, that guild name really is something.)

Caleb immediately left to return to his workshop.

"Oh, I'd better go with him," said Beth. "I look forward to working with you all!" She hurried after the demon with a wave to the rest of the guild.

Blade and company exited the registration building to make room for other players. As soon as they were in an out-of-the-way spot outside, Sirena urged Blade to pull up the guild screen.

|Guardian Blade|

|Level 1, EXP: 0/14,000|

|Members: 7/5 (140% experience required to level up)|

|Guild base: [Caleb's workshop] (1 two-way teleportation daily)|

|Guild perks able to be activated simultaneously: 1|

|Guild perk options (basic): experience bonus, gold bonus, base attribute bonus|

|Special guild perk options unlocked at level 5|

|Synergy bonus: +1% to guild perk for every guild member in the same party when adventuring (multiplicative)|

|Leader: Blade|

|Members: Fey, Sirena, Mimi, Leandriel, Caleb, Beth|

The first thing they did was make Blade assign everyone guild officer status with maximum permissions so that everyone could freely change the guild settings. (This renewed Blade's dissatisfaction at having to be the guild leader.) Mimi then selected the experience bonus as the active guild perk. She personally would have preferred to increase base attributes, but chose the experience bonus out of deference to their non-combatant members.

"We're over the maximum guild membership?" Fey asked. "What does that mean?"

"In order to prevent the formation of huge guilds solely for the purpose of speeding up guild levelling, going over the member maximum increases the experience required to reach the next guild level," Leandriel explained. "The limit does go up by five per level, so once we reach level 2, the penalty will disappear."

"So how do we earn guild experience?"

"Almost any activity will earn some experience. Killing monsters at or above your level, levelling up your overall level or skill levels, earning fame, participating in guild-versus-guild events – there have not been any held yet, but that should be coming soon. I foresee that we shall reach level 2 as soon as a few of us level up; the amount of experience gained is based on the difference between the guild level and our levels."

"So, we should just keep doing what we were doing, now with nifty guild perks," Sirena summarized.

"We already gathered all the materials on Caleb's list, right?" Fey asked. "What should we do now?"

"I'm sure there's more stuff that Caleb wants. Ask him for a complete list."

|Fey: Hey Caleb, do you have a complete list of materials you want to work with?|

The list that the smith sent in reply was so long that it did not fit on a full-size virtual screen and had to be split into five pages.

Leandriel shook his head and immediately began greying out the items that would likely get them killed trying to obtain at their current levels, currently in their mid 50s. This left a more manageable one-page list.

"You're really handy to have around," Fey remarked.

Leandriel grinned. "Thank you. I try."

"What area should we train in?" Blade asked. "We can always teleport back here to drop things off for Caleb."

"I kind of need to go back to the Elvenwood so I can finish my tree fort," said Fey. "We can make it the base once it's done."

"Oh my god, you're still not done with that?" Sirena complained. "Okay, I'm coming with you and we are finishing this today."

Fey shot her friend a peeved look. "I've been working on this for weeks, and I'm only a quarter of the way bonded."

"You, my dear, have pathetically small mana stores. I should also like to remind you that you are using a singing ability and I am a bard."

Fey did not really believe that Sirena could boost her Tree-singing to the point that she could complete her bond with her mana tree in a single day, but she was willing to be proven wrong. "Let's go, then."

A teleport and trek through the forest later, they were standing in front of Fey's mana tree sapling.

"Take off any metal you're wearing," said Sirena.

Fey assumed this had something to do with magic, so she Ex-quipped out of most of her armour without complaining.

"Start singing."

Fey picked a random song and started Tree-singing, feeling rather self-conscious at the size of her audience. (Leandriel, Blade, and Mimi had tagged along to observe.)

Four beats in, Fey's voice began to harmonize with itself as Sirena began mimicking her telepathically, causing a significant upswing in the rate of bonding. The harmony split until Fey sounded like her own four-part choir.

Along with the increased progress came an increased drain on Fey's mana reserves, drawing her almost to zero before the song had even finished. At this point, Sirena pushed her staff into Fey's hands without letting go and Fey experienced the strange sensation of mana flowing into her body through her hands. It felt somewhat like a backwards tingle. (Whatever that means.)

Sirena was using an aspect of the Mana Flow Control ability, which allowed the user to sense and direct their mana with higher precision. This was generally used to boost the power and efficiency of spells – for instance, shaping an area-of-effect spell to concentrate only on opponents to decrease the mana cost – but could also be used to share mana with others. Whereas Fey's base attributes were concentrated around strength, dexterity, and agility, Sirena's were spent on intelligence, willpower, and the mage-only attribute of concentration. The mermaid's mana reserves and mana regeneration were over four times Fey's, and she sent all her magical power rushing through the conduit of her staff and into Fey.

The mana tree stretched towards the sky, starting to take on magical aspects as it matured. Glowing mana blossoms opened among the leaves, and long tendrils began to trail towards the ground.

Before they had finished, even Sirena's mana reserves were falling low. It was at this point that Amethyst stepped up (hopped up) to help. Instead of secreting basic mana potion, the slime wisely chose to secrete tonics that boosted Sirena's mana regeneration.

|The mana tree has fully matured|

|Fey has formed a soul-bond to the mana tree|

|Guardian's Blessing has reached level 11!|

|Guardian's Blessing has reached level 12!|

|Fey's fame has increased to 1806 (+500)!|

|Proximity bonuses: +1000% health and mana regeneration when touching the mana tree|
|+500% health and mana regeneration when within 10m of the mana tree|

|+200% health and mana regeneration when within 5km of the mana tree|

|+100% health and mana regeneration when within 20km of the mana tree|

|The mana tree can share its health and mana reserves with its bonded partner (Warning: while this is occurring, the tree will not grow|

|Mana tree, level 1|

|HP: 500/500, MP: 500/500|

"Holy crap," said Fey, looking at her new bonuses, which seemed to be an extreme version of Guardian's Blessing, plus an extra store of health and mana in case she was ever close to dying.

"Told you I could do it," Sirena said smugly (conveniently forgetting she would have failed without Amethyst's help).

"No, look." Fey made her status screen visible to others.

"Holy crap," Blade agreed.

"Holy crap," Sirena repeated. "I want in on this. Any way to share the bonus?"

"Well, I was going to set the tree fort as the guild base," Fey said, gesturing to the mundane tree she had altered, "but maybe if I set the mana tree itself, something will happen?" She looked questioningly at Leandriel.

Leandriel shook his head. "I honestly have no idea what will happen. I do not think this has been done before."

"Do it," Sirena urged. "It can't hurt the tree."

|Guild base: [Fey's mana tree]|

|Special bonus: unlimited teleports within 20km of Fey's mana tree|

|Special guild perk unlocked: health and mana regeneration (cannot be activated until guild level 5)|

"This is so cool!" Sirena exclaimed. "Magical tree fort power!"

(Clearly, the author is attempting to make up for the lack of action in the recent chapters with a ton of upgrades all at once.)

"We really should have done this earlier," said Fey.

"Could've, would've, should've," Sirena said dismissively. "Let's get to levelling the guild!"

No one had any argument with that, so they set off to fight monsters.