AN; ... Nope, got nothing to say. Enjoy.

Chapter 16: The Trail Ahead

"Alright, ready you three?" Nodding in confirmation, they watched as Mugetsu combined the two hhalf's of the old «Mirage Sphere.» Multicolored lights flooded the private room they were in. The hollow graphical map and interface for Aincrad's first quarter appeared. Normally it would show only the map areas the player had already revealed on their personal mini-map. Before them lay the locations of various towns and dungeons no player had heard of, or chose to keep secret. Hidden passage and winding paths that cut off abruptly, all laid out before their very eyes.

Once the group suppressed their initial shock, they began to search for their target. Four pairs of eyes darted in every direction, looking for the slightest hint of something unusual, more so than what was already before them.

"Coming along was the right decision." Mugetsu spared a glance at Argo. "Just imagine how much I'll make from the secrets from the map alone. Everyone just assumed there was nothing left of value on the lower floors."

"Right, always thinking of how to make make some quick «Col» from information."

«Floor 7-Dark Elf Capital, 『Forgotten Sanctuary』»

"Hey Mu, you sure that we are going in the right direction?"

"For the hundredth time, yes! I even showed you the map to make sure."

For the past six hours, the company of four had been wandering around floors 24 and 7. They had been following the path revealed to them by the «Mirage Sphere» in their possession. Rather than a simple and direct route to the goal, it had them wander through the jungle and near the 24th floor's edge. There it opened a portal that led to a sealed off dungeon back on floor 7.

Look around, one could see an assortment of multicolored fluorescent crystals. The sound of running water echoed through the tunnels, and it seemed that they were headed to its location. Every so often they would encounter an open chamber with enemies. They consisted of tigers and dragons, smaller in size but larger in numbers than the original two. While slightly dangerous we they attacked in what appeared to be large and coordinated numbers, the four pressed on with no other dangers.

"Hey," called Hoven. "It's been on my mind for a while now but, do any of you notice that the walls start to glow whenever we kill something?"

"I thought that was ment to happen."

"Argo, if you know something it's best you tell us. Working together should be reason enough to tell."

"It's nothing to serious," she said, waving her hand dismissively in front of her face. "The was a small guild that ran into something similar a few weeks back. They reached the end of the dungeon only to find a large door blocking their path. There was no sign of a button or key to open it, so they decided to leave until they found a way to open it. On the way out something similar to what is happening here took place. It seemed that every enemy defeated slowly unlocked the door."

" So what was behind it?"

She slowly turned her head around and smiled at Kaine.

"They found a side boss that was guarding a chest full of rare and powerful items."

"Sadly, that was right after they terminated my contract."

"You were there, Mugetsu?" asked Hoven.

"Remember you talked about a group of people paying me to join me on a quest? That was it. Once it was clear that we were near the end, they decided to take it from me. I couldn't fight back because my hands were tied. If I attacked them directly, my cruiser would turn yellow. If I tried to run past them, they would set every monster in the vicinity on me. While I was busy, they would go straight for the end. With what Argo just said it sounds like I actually did all the work for them."

"So what made you let us follow?"

"Don't know," he said while scratching the back of his head. "Figured I owed you for warning me about my previous employers. That and I wanted to see this through, last player contract and all."

"By the way," said Argo, "you owe me for telling you what they found inside the dungeon."

"Wha, I thought you wouldn't charge us!"

"I never said that," she said, smiling. "Giving you information that can help us is one thing but, you asked me about what they got out of it. I told you that it was a bunch of rare items, something that won't help us right now. Now if you want to know the specific details on what each item was, then that's another thing I'm going to charge you for."

"What the heck kind of scam are you trying to pull!?"

"No scam, just business. Everyone has their own way of making a life in this game. While some trade in weapons and armor, I'm in the business of gathering and selling information at fair prices."

"I can see why some call you a «Rat»." Argo turned to Hoven, waiting to hear what he had to say. "Every time you talk, you make sure to leave out certain details. When the people you are talking to ask for any other bits of information, you charge them some more."

"Actually," interrupted their default navigator, "you missed the part where no piece of information is too small for her to sell at a high price. She will keep baiting her clients with useless trivia, until they realize they are completely broke." 'Learned that the hard way.'

After the discussion on the young business woman's profitable dealing, they continued exploring the vast cave network they were in. Apart from the occasionally above average enemy, the journey was mostly uneventful. As they delved deeper, the walls became more elaborate. There were traces of Greek, Chinese, Japanese,classical European, Egyptian, and many other countries none of them could recognize. Nearly every place was covered with carvings, murals, and tapestries with the same crystals they have seen up to now.

Rather than tell a story, each depicted the exact same scene. Seven figures standing before a man shrouded in darkness and a woman emitting a golden light. Behind them was what could clearly be identified as Aincrad. Despite the countless depictions, none showed a clear image of any of their faces or any clue as to their name or significance.

"Is anyone else thinking that we should try to figure out if what is on these pictures is important?"

"Don't worry, Kaine," said Mugetsu. "I already took a picture of each kind of image. We can take care of finding out what they mean later. Let's focus on one quest at a time for now. Wouldn't you agree, Argo?"

"Oh~, so you plan on letting me join you on one of your "epic adventures?" Do you need me to spread stories of your heroic actions or is my company that welcome?"

"You know what, forget it. Hoven, Kaine! I was serious about this being my last player contract, and you two seem like people I can trust. So what would you two say to working together from now on?"

Both players were taken aback from the offer. On one hand he was easily among the top five players, on the other hand they had seen that trouble follows him like a plague. Still, if they did work together there should be no problems when trouble starts.

"Count us in," declared Kaine.

"No arguments here," said Hoven.

"Aww~ did I upset you?" The orange haired leader just ignored the info-broker's attempt at getting a reaction. "You know people will talk regardless of what I do. Maybe I could place you in a better light, if I'm an eye witness to your little outings."

"... Fine," Mugetsu relented but, there was still one thing he could do. " Actually, you just said "people will talk regardless of what I do," right? So your silence or praise, which ever, really does nothing for me."

"Ooh~? It seems my talent is starting to rub of on you." A quick look with narrow eyes stopped her. " So, what do you want?"

"Nothing too much, just part of our old deal and a few... expansions. You will still be in charge of looking for buyers. No point in keeping items with no use to us."

"Ok, easy enough. And the new part?"

"Information about the material market, free of charge at the beginning of each week."

"Is that all? You seem like there's something else you want to ask."

"A home." All three stopped for a moment to look straight at him. "I want you to go house hunting for me. Something secluded and not too fancy."

"You planning on hiding or something?"

"No," he responded with a sigh. "Just looking for a place where I can relax and enjoy myself from time to time. All this time, the only thing I have thought about was clearing the game. I know other have do the same but, many tend to get driven to obsession and die. They get carried away and commit mistakes that could have easily been avoided." Raising his head, Mugetsu signaled to the giant double doors. They sat atop the set of stairs they had arrived at. "Do all of you remember what I said my reason to live is?"

"Your family and friends, right? You said you wanted to see them again." Mugetsu gave Kaine a melancholic smile.

"That's right," he said. Slowly, he reached for the hilt of his sword. The others quickly mirrored his action and drew their respective weapon. "That's why I won't let my self be killed by some stupid mistake." The moment he said that, the entire hall they just entered lit up with veins of blue and green energy coursing through the walls.

Before them were four crystal pillars at the edge of a circle. The energy veins rapped around them and onto a small prism Henley in place at their center. The moment the circuit was completed, a bright beam shot to the ground.

" Well," said Argo, "looks like we found what all those crystals were for. They didn't open the door but, they do seem to be power something up."

"Probably the final boss of this quest," said Hoven. "Wonder if it will be anything like the last two."

"Well," responded the defacto leader, "we're about to find out."

AN; Hopefully, I can get this quest done in the next two chapters. After that comes the desert journey, where things should really start picking up. Honestly, I have already put more work and effort into that than the current part. In any case, can any of you guess what I will be making them fight? What is the guardians' legacy, and how will it affect the future of this story? Leave your thoughts in the reviews or just PM me.