I exhaled loudly as I flicked my wrist, drawing a clean diagonal line in front of myself with my sword before sheathing it on my back, having finished up slaying the last of the mobs I had tasked myself with exterminating that morning. Typically, I would only go on such a monster slaying rampage if I was really strapped for Col or needed materials for a complicated upgrade to my equipment, but lately the Stinging Scarabs that roamed the thirty-fifth floor of Aincrad had been threatening the lives of some of the middle level players as they struggled to catch up to the front lines. No fatalities, thankfully, but far too many close calls for anyone to be comfortable with. So, with the Assault Team on a short hiatus having just cleared the fifty-second floor, I had taken the short respite to come and do some selfless charity work that no one would expect from someone such as myself. Pity nobody was here to see my heroic deed, I could've used a few less poorly concealed looks and hushed whispers as I walked through town. Of course, not all were negative, but the majority were. I shrugged the thought off with indifference. Not that I cared what people thought of me, I was a solo player anyhow. With a tired sigh, I turned around and began to make my way back to the road that led back into town, silently debating on what I should do about dinner.
The town of Fallholt was by no means the finest city in Aincrad, it all but paled in comparison to the newly conquered fiftieth floor's Grandzham. Still, it had its own charm to it. The bustling settlement sat at the bottom of a mountain that stretched so tall it nearly brushed the clouds that hung daintily in the sky. Many of the buildings sat well clear of the foreboding forest that encircled the mountain's base, save for a few humble homes of woodsmen that could just be made out from the main road a few miles away. A lake of crystal clear water that sat within a short distance of the town shone brilliantly in the light of the late afternoon sun, throwing a warm glow over the city that took the tension off of your shoulders like a troublesome coat. I took in a deep breath as I passed through the main gates of the city and let it out in a satisfied sigh as I strode down the populated streets heading towards my favorite restaurant.
The Broken Flagon sat on a corner of an intersection of Fallholt's main street and what I and many of the players referred to as Breakneck Boulevard, due to the fact that it was one of the city's only streets that ran the entire length of the settlement, making it the perfect avenue for frantic messengers to sprint up and down between businesses. As I walked through the door, a small bell jangled from the door frame and the hum of conversation choked off into dead silence as all the patrons took the sight of me in. I eyed the crowd coolly as I made my way to the bar and sat without a word, turning my back to them. Silence continued to pervade the room until the Flagon's owner, a grizzled older man by the name of Shigeru, slammed a knife down into the bar top and cleared his throat, making everyone jump in their seats and snap back to where they were in their conversations prior to my entrance. Shigeru slowly shook his head as he picked up a glass and a rag and made his way over to me and leaned against the bar while shooting me a look out of the corner of his eye.
"Iya, Kirito. Couldn't you at least smile or wave when you come in? You make everyone antsy with that cold glare you give them," he remarked with a shade of irritation in his tone. I snickered as I rolled my shoulder around in its socket, trying to ease some of the tension in my muscles.
"A lot of good it'd do me. They'd probably claim I was just trying to fool them so I could gauge them for how much they're worth and start picking off the more valuable ones. Besides Shi-bo," I uttered slyly, letting him catch a glimpse of my infamous shit-eating grin "I got a reputation to uphold." Shigeru snorted in derision and turned his back to me to prepare my usual order.
"If my own kid ever called me that," he mumbled "I'd paint his back porch red." I sniggered as he turned and set a plate loaded with black bread buns and a tankard down in front of me.
"If you did that to me you'd lose one of your best customers, not to mention the guy who saved this place from being ransacked by a mob of bandits." Shigeru's eyes looked to the heavens in exasperation.
"That card's running thin, Kirito. Bad enough I feed you for free, but the lip the comes out of you almost makes me wish I'd torched the place myself." Abruptly, the bell over the door jangled happily, cutting off our banter. His eyes flicked over to the door and back in the fraction of a second and he quietly picked up his rag and mug before muttering to me under his breath "You've got company." Then he was off to serve other customers further down the bar. I didn't look back to see the company he was referring to because his tone hadn't suggested possible danger, so I continued devouring my meal as a figure plopped itself down next to me at the bar. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a small figure whose legs didn't quite reach the floor garbed in a beige and yellow hooded cloak. The hooded head adjusted just slightly enough for me to catch a glint of bright eyes, a mischievous smile, and a nose with whiskers painted on either side of its face.
"Kibou! What on earth are you doing here?" Argo the Rat cried, her voice full of mock surprise. I grunted as I swallowed my last bite of bread.
"Depends on who is asking." I replied flatly. Argo put a hand to her chest in a gesture of false hurt.
"Kibou, I'm shocked at you! So blunt to your good friend Argo who just wanted to check up on your well-being!" Flagging down Shigeru, she dropped her act. "Besides, if you actually did want to know who was asking, you know better than anyone you gotta pay up." I rolled my eyes and grunted again. I tried to talk as little as I could around Argo; with her being an information broker, you had to watch what you said, otherwise, anyone with a pocketful of Col would be able to find out all about you. Rumor had it that Argo even had information on some of the more prominent female players' bust sizes, for a ludicrous amount, naturally. But hey, that's just rumor, I wouldn't know anything about that whatsoever. Whilst I was ignoring her, Argo had snatched my drink and was busy sniffing the contents of the cup.
"Hey," I interjected, reaching for the cup, "Put that down." I was too late though, Argo had already taken a draft out of the tankard, smacking her lips as she swallowed. A shudder ran up her spine and she blanched.
"Blech! Bitter! What the hell is in that cup, man? That ain't no ale they usually sell around here." I grabbed the drink out of her hands and nursed it against my chest.
"The fact you know the ales they sell around here is concerning," I grumbled moodily "It's wind root and spitfire grass brewed in Moo-Moo milk." Argo eyed me askance from her spot at the bar as Shigeru brought her a pint of Fleurnian brew. I rolled my eyes again. "It's the closest thing they got to café-au-lait here, don't judge me, man." Argo's eyebrows shot up as she sipped on her drink. Ahhh shit.
"So The Black Swordsman likes frilly coffee drinks, huh? Very interesting information." It's a wonder I haven't strangled this girl yet, honestly.
"So why are you really here, Argo? Surely you didn't come all this way just to make fun of what I drink." Argo let out a satisfied sigh as she clanked her cup down noisily on the bar.
"Right you are, Mr. Surly Sword. My informants tell me that they saw a black figure taking out a bunch of Stinging Scarabs earlier today, any comment?" I snorted.
"Come on Argo, we both know I'm not actually dumb enough to comment on it. No matter what I say people will make me out to be the villain here." The girl stuck a finger into the air to halt any other comments I might have made.
"Not all of them think that you know," she said quietly "quite a few look up to you actually. You show them that it's possible to stand and fight against the odds, no matter how slim they may be in your favor. And that's important." I was taken aback by her genuine tone. Hard enough to find people that would sit in the same restaurant as me, but openly admitting that I was someone they looked up to was another matter entirely. "Anyway!" she exclaimed, shattering the moment of silence that had formed in the lull in conversation "There was another thing I thought you might be interested in, if you were willing to hear it." I drew in a breath to state I didn't have any extra money for that kind of deal, but her hand shot into my face before I could speak. "Don't worry Kibou, this one's on the house." My interest piqued. Argo rarely ever gave information away for free.
"Alright," I said leaning back in my seat and folding my arms across my chest. "Lay it on me."
She shrugged as she dug out a few coins from her pocket and placed them on the bar. "Not much to lay unfortunately," she said dismissively "Couple of the woodcrafters out by the forest said there's something out in the woods. Taller than some of the trees, they say. And not right. Not right at all." I blinked in disbelief.
"That's it?" Argo hopped off her stool by the bar and made for the door.
"That's it." She paused and looked back at me when she was halfway to the door. "Kirito," she uttered, her tone deadly serious "If you go after this thing, be careful, okay? I've got a bad feeling about this." I nodded gravely.
"'Course I will." She nodded back and vanished through the door into the night. I wasn't able to sit peacefully at the bar after she left. My mind was abuzz with possibilities of what lay just outside the bar.
Standing swiftly and turning on my heel, I exited the Flagon, throwing Shigeru a distracted wave over my shoulder, already deep in thought about Argo's message. I strolled through Fallholt's now quiet streets with my arms crossed over my chest and a thoughtful hand resting on my chin as I puzzled out the possibilities of what could be in the woods. Not many incredibly large creatures existed on this floor, the largest being some Dire Bears, but they only stood eleven feet tall on their hind legs.
I let out a sigh of exasperation as I made my way down the meandering dirt path that ran away from Fallholt's warm glow towards my residence. Typically, players rented out rooms in the safety of an inn for their lodgings, but I had discovered a long time ago that it was possible to stay in an NPC's home for far cheaper and with more amenities than most inns in exchange for completing some simple quests. About a half-mile outside of Fallholt was a woodcrafter's cabin that stood two stories high and was possible to stay in if you completed a quest to gather some rare wood for the NPC that gave you full access to the luxurious second floor.
My musings about sinking into a soft bed were cut short by a harsh cry resounding through the evening air. My instincts kicked in as my hand flew to my sword, the steel rasping against the scabbard as I drew my weapon, dropped into a defensive crouch and scanned my surroundings; ears trained for any other sounds that might be heard in the velvety darkness of the night. For a moment, only the wind whispering its way through the trees was the only audible sound, but as the wind died down, another cry could be heard in a thicket of trees a short distance off to my left. My pulse roared in my ears as I realized the cry was female. I've never been able to be anything less than chivalrous, so you can sue me for being a traditionalist but I'll be damned if I let any girl be hurt while I'm around. I bolted towards the trees as fast as I could go, the ground blurring beneath my feet as my face contorted into a silent snarl and I drew my arm back to unleash a deadly strike as I came through the last of the thicket into a clearing and stopped dead in my tracks, my jaw dropping in awe at the sight before me.
A single, cloaked fighter stood in the center of the clearing, shoulders rising and falling as they panted from their exertions. They stood surrounded by a circle of snarling Hell Hounds. Just as I was about to leap in and help out, the figure blurred and shot across the clearing like a bolt of lightning, striking the nearest Hell Hound with cruel precision, turning the monster into nothing other than a shower of blue shards. The remaining beasts howled in outrage and swarmed the figure. With fluid grace and razor sharp focus, the figure danced between attacks and plunged their thin rapier in flickering strikes into their foes, destroying them with fearful efficiency.
I sheathed my sword and leaned back against the trunk of a large oak tree. My assistance was obviously not needed in this fight, and I was fairly certain that if I tried to help in any way that this particular fighter would claim I was interfering and give me a savage scolding and possibly a good thump on the head if they were in a bad mood.
As the fighter was finishing off the last of the Hell Hounds, two of the monsters positioned themselves to the left and right of the fighter's field of vision, then crouched and leapt at the warrior's throat. The fighter stood stock still as the creatures sailed through the air, eyes glowing with hatred and fangs gleaming like steel knives in the light of the silver moon. Just before it seemed the fighter's throat would be torn out, they drew an X in front of them with their sword in a manner so fast the movement of the blade wasn't even visible; just a faint blurring and the hiss of sharpened steel splitting the air. The bodies of the Hell Hounds landed behind the fighter on either side of them and their heads soon followed; falling with soft thuds on the ground before shattering into crystalline shards. The figure's shoulders heaved as a dainty sigh issued from the hooded face and they sheathed their sword. The mystery fighter then tossed their hood back and long, lustrous chestnut hair tumbled down their back. Their small yet strong hands fiddled with the braid that encircled their head and ended in a small ponytail that cascaded down their spine the rest of their hair. Finally, the figure turned and looked up towards the sky, giving me a clear profile of their face. Amber eyes veritably glowed in the soft light of the moon. A small nose took in the scents of the forest and delicate, satin pink lips smiled up at the heavens enjoying the quiet moment that had formed after the chaos of the battle. I blinked from my position under the oak branches. I'd always thought she was beautiful, but there were some moments she was so simply radiant that it just wasn't fair. I realized with a blush that my staring was a little rude and definitely weird, so I cleared my throat and spoke.
"Nice work, Asuna." Asuna's peaceful manner vanished in an instant as she drew her rapier and turned toward the sound of my voice, poised to strike.
"Who's there?" she called out, her voice as every bit as sharp as her weapon while her eyes scanned the trees where I stood. I raised an eyebrow in confusion. We'd already locked eyes twice as she'd searched the tree line so I didn't understand why she hadn't said something to me, unless…. I glanced up at my health bar and slapped myself on the forehead. At the end of the bar where status effects were displayed sat a black box with an illustration made of white lines in the shape of a closed eye, indicating that I was Hidden. I sighed inwardly. My Hiding skill must have been activated because my black ensemble blended well with the shadows under the oak and turned me all but invisible when I remained still as I leaned against the trunk. Great. People caught Hiding were often branded as peeping toms, perverts, criminals and spies. Just what I needed. The very pretty and very dangerous girl I liked was about to find me standing around like a creep in the woods. I accepted my fate with another resigned sigh and put my hands up in a motion of surrender and stepped out into the clearing.
"Hey, sorry! It's me!" I announced as I slowly walked over to her. Asuna gave a start as I materialized in front of her, lowering her sword and taking a step back as she recognized me.
"Kirito-kun?! What are you doing here?" she spluttered. I gave her a sheepish grin as I rubbed the back of my neck nervously.
"Just happened to be in the neighborhood." I tried, doing my best not to sound too suspicious. Asuna sheathed her sword and gave me a flustered look.
"Why couldn't I see you? I was looking dead on at where you were standing and one second you weren't there and the next, you were." I did a silent fist pump in my mind. She doesn't know! I'm saved! I put on a surprised, innocent face.
"Dunno. That's pretty weird though." I lied, grateful for Asuna's relative inexperience with RPGs for a change. Asuna gave me a scrutinous once-over before speaking again.
"Were you here for the whole thing? You saw that fight?" she asked me quietly, a tone in her voice I couldn't quite read. I shrugged as I folded my arms across my chest and settled my weight on the back of my heels.
"I heard you shouting from the road and came running to help. I saw you fighting and realized that you didn't need it." I answered simply. Seeming satisfied with that answer, she nodded slowly to herself.
"Thank you for coming to help, then." she murmured, turning her face down to look at the ground, her voice soft. I felt a tinge of blush rise to my cheeks as the thought of being able to hear that voice in several rather intimate situations ran through my mind. I quickly dropped my gaze as well, silently wishing that the moon wasn't quite so bright.
Just as I was about to make my excuses to leave, blue flashes of light appeared in the trees around us, signaling monster respawns. A piercing howl rose into the air, causing both of our heads to snap up and lock gazes.
"Time to go." Asuna observed dryly. I grunted my assent.
Asuna and I quickly left the thicket and returned to the relative safety of the main road. When I asked her if she had anywhere to stay for the night, she informed me that she did not. I knew it was time to step up to the plate and be a gentleman.
"Y-y'know," I stammered out "You're welcome to spend the night with me." That had been a lot smoother in my mind. Asuna shot me a scandalized look. "I-in the same bed?! W-w-what would everyone think?! What would they say! Absolutely not!" she shrieked and turned her face away from me. I could've sworn she muttered something that sounded like "not even dinner first" under her breath but I was too busy trying to clarify my meaning to be sure.
"Woah, woah, no!" I cried out, waving my hands in a placating gesture. "I meant in the same room! I have a floor in an NPC's house not too far from here. There's plenty of space with a bed and separate couch. Plus," I added "It's near the forest, so not many people are around." Asuna's blush lessened a few shades as she pursed her lips and dropped her gaze to her boots, seeming to silently debate over something for a few moments before looking back up at me. and giving me a quick nod.
"Okay then." I heaved a sigh of relief and eased the tension that had coiled up in my gut like an ice cold snake. A misunderstanding like could've lead to some crazy situations. I hoped nothing like that would happen in the future. I closed my eyes and smiled light-heartedly.
"And don't worry! There's not even a bath in thi-" I cut my sentence off abruptly. Cringing, I opened one eye and peeked over at Asuna. For a brief moment, the slender swordswoman stood stock still, face shrouded by the hooded cloak she had drawn around herself again. Suddenly, one single, wicked, malevolent eye glinted in the moonlight from under the hood. A strangled cry left me as I realized what I'd done. Before I could even offer any words of apology, a swift and judicious slap was delivered to my jaw that sent me sprawling into the dirt.
"Need I remind you," she intoned haughtily "that that particular incident was to be forgotten and never spoken of again?"
"N-never mind..." I moaned weakly from where I lay, wishing that the sky would stop spinning.
"Hmph. Good. Now if you would get up and stop lazing around, I would like to get some rest tonight, so lead on. I heaved myself to my feet with another groan. This woman is going to be the death of me.
We soon arrived at my lodging a short time after that. I happily staggered through the fence that surrounded the property, grateful for the floating red markers on either side of the gate that marked the area as a safe zone. Asuna followed close behind, taking small, quiet steps. Once she passed through the gate, she lifted her head and blinked up at the house.
"Woah," she mumbled "better than I'd thought."
The two story log cabin was no grand affair, but it was still impressive. It stood imposingly in front of us, resolute against the darkness of the night. However, despite its intimidating size, a warm yellow glow issued from the small windows set in the walls of the house and a small chimney sat on the side of the structure, happily spewing out sweet-smelling smoke that wafted into the night air and gave the building the feeling of a home rather than just another part of the scenery. Asuna and I approached the door and upon grabbing the handle, I turned and gave her a flourishing bow.
"Welcome to my humble abode! So honored to have you join us tonight." I intoned dramatically, putting on my most dazzling smile. Asuna rolled her eyes at me and sighed.
"Just hurry up and open the door, moron." She shivered under her cloak. "It's cold out here." Taking pity on her, I killed the dramatics, opened the door, and stepped inside with Asuna following me close behind.
The first floor consisted of a small entryway, in which we stood, a comfy looking living room off to our left where the happy old man who was the NPC owner of the home sat contentedly smoking a pipe in an armchair, and lastly a small staircase that led up to the second floor off to our right. Paying no mind to the old man, I marched up the staircase and to the door to my room. As I unlocked the door and opened it, Asuna let out a small gasp. I allowed myself a smug grin as I stepped over the threshold. It was a pretty sweet setup, after all.
The room was built in the shape of a large square with high ceilings and polished, gleaming hardwood floors. On the far wall stood a grand cobblestone fireplace, fire already lit with logs crackling cheerfully, giving the room a relaxing warmth and a soothing scent. In the far right corner of the room was a large bed covered in down pillows and ultra-plush fur blankets that sat on a frame of waxed branches a comfortable distance from the fire so the bed was always warm, but not too hot. At the foot of the bed sat a large cedar chest for storing items. On the right wall was a door with a hammered brass crescent moon set on it. Immediately opposite of the fireplace sat a small couch and coffee table set with small cups for drinking. Along the left wall were two windows and a small round table and chairs made out of- you guessed it- wood. I strode into the room and tossed my coat over the backs of the dining chairs and proceeded to plop down on the couch and began removing the rest of my equipped items so I could relax in comfort. As I was going to pry my boots off and set them by the fire, I noticed Asuna still hesitating by the door.
"Make yourself at home," I invited flatly, turning my face away from her so I could hide my blushing cheeks. Asuna being in my bedroom made at least a handful of dreams that could never be spoken of flash into my mind, causing my pulse to spike dramatically. "Bathroom's off to the right. Sink and a toilet if you want to freshen up. You'll have the bed. I'm on the couch." I kept my back to her as I poured myself a cup of spïrinberry wine and took a long draught, bracing myself for the harsh scolding on my poor hospitality.
"Thank you." came the murmured reply. It took all of my control not to choke and sputter on my drink at the sound of the feather soft tone of her voice. I swallowed hard and struggled to make my voice work.
"Don't mention it." I answered gruffly. This "social" thing is too damn hard to be worth anything. With quiet footsteps, Asuna made her way over to the bathroom door and said,
"I'm going to change. You should too." I nodded and rose from the couch.
"Good idea." She nodded back and went into the bathroom without another word. As soon as the lock on the door shot home, I gave a loud groan, frustrated in several ways. Since the door was locked, no sound would travel through unless someone knocked on either side. I took advantage of the situation to release some of the nervous energy that had turned my stomach into knots. I romped through the room, pressing my palms to my temples, trying not to have a complete mental breakdown about the beautiful girl in the next room. The very beautiful, very powerful, very out-of-my-league vice commander of the strongest guild in all of Aincrad that I was hopelessly in love with. I stopped my pacing and hung my head, smiling ruefully. Fate was a twisted son of a bitch, for sure. Reminding myself that I was supposed to be changing, I quickly opened up my menu and selected my evening wear, my armor that I still wore and the various pieces scattered around the room flashing away to be replaced with soft black pajamas. Just as I finished closing my menu, a soft knock came from the bathroom door.
"Kirito?" Asuna's muffled voice came from behind the wood "Are you decent?"
"Yeah," I called out "All good." I turned to try and apologize for not being a better host when I heard the door open, but when I looked over at her, my jaw hit the floor and my soul all but left my body. Asuna stood in the doorway in nothing other than a silk rose pink nightgown. The garment had a low neckline that began just below her collarbones and ran down the length of her body, clinging close enough to compliment her lovely form, but not so close as to leave nothing to the imagination, and ended in ruffles just above her knees. I gave her a slow once-over with wide eyes. That's it. I can die now. I've already seen an angel. Everything else will just be a disappointment. While my internal monologue was functioning, my external facilities had short circuited. I stood in place, just gaping at her.
"S-stop staring…" she demanded meekly, averting her gaze as she blushed furiously, shielding herself with her arms, wrapping them around her body to try and preserve what modesty she could. My brain kicked itself into gear and seized control of my motor functions and snapped my gaze down to the wooden planks of the floor.
"Sorry!" I managed, mentally berating myself. Come on, man! Pull it together! Steeling my shaken nerves, I took a deep breath and crossed the room and sat back down in my place on the couch, finishing off my cup of wine before taking the bottle into my hand and refilling the cup. I then held the bottle over a second cup and sent a questioning look over to Asuna. She raised an eyebrow at me.
"What is that?" She asked.
"Spïrinberry wine." Her face opened up into genuine curiosity.
"I don't think I've ever heard of that." I shrugged as I went ahead and poured the second cup.
"You know the vending machines that are at all the train stations in Japan?" Asuna crossed the room and took a seat at the opposite end of the couch.
"Yeah," she answered slowly "Why?"
"Well," I elaborated "you know those fruit drinks in the silver cans?" Recognition fired in her eyes.
"Oh yeah! I love the cherry ones." I gave her a little grin.
"Well, this tastes a lot like the cherry one, but it's sort of got a twist two it."
"Twist?" She asked "What do you mean?" I gestured to the second cup on the table.
"Go on and see for yourself." I suggested, leaning lithely back against the couch. Asuna gingerly took the cup into her hand and took a sip. She made a pleased noise as she swallowed the drink, then paused as she took the cup away from her mouth, cocking her head to the side and puckering her lips thoughtfully.
"What is that?" she mused, taking another sip. "It's…. smooth." I shrugged as I drained my cup and refilled it again, offering the bottle out to Asuna. She accepted, holding out her cup as I topped it off.
"Couldn't tell you." I replied, settling back against the couch again. "But it's good, right?" Asuna hummed contentedly in consent.
"Yeah, it really is something." She glanced over at me as I emptied my cup one more time and took the bottle into my hand. "Hey," she said worriedly "Don't you think you should take it easy on that?" I chuckled as I tapped my finger on the bottle and brought up the item information and sent it to her. Asuna squinted a bit while reading the script. "No penalty to Intelligence or Perception?" she queried, eyebrows scrunched up in confusion.
"Non-alcoholic," I explained as I filled my glass again. "They only call it wine because it goes through the same process, only no alcohol is produced is made as a by-product of the fermentation." Asuna looked slightly impressed.
"Hmph. Neat." We sat in silence while the fire popped and sizzled in the fireplace. My leg bounced up and down restlessly as I tried to come up with some way to keep the conversation going. Luckily, Asuna managed to save me from the trouble of doing so.
"Ki-ri-to…" she drawled, slowly enunciating all of the syllables in my name "What are you doing this far down anyway?" My initial response was to lie and say that I was just searching for and selling crafting materials for profit, but I glanced over at her and saw genuine interest and emotion in her eyes and I knew I couldn't lie to her of all people.
"Clearing out the Scarabs." I told my drink. "Heard it was getting dangerous for the middle-levelers. I left enough for good hunting, but not enough to be a real threat to anyone anymore." I snuck another glance at Asuna to see a small smile flash across her lips as if I had given her the answer she wanted. My curiosity piqued and I shifted on the couch to face her. "What about you? It's a bit odd for the vice commander of the Knights of the Blood Oath to be here, especially considering the fact your guild just opened its new HQ in Grandzham." Asuna was silent for a moment and blinked at me, obviously caught off guard by the question.
"We-well," she huffed, "I was just coming to check up on some friends of mine, that's all." I considered pressuring her on the subject, but ultimately decided on respecting her privacy instead.
"That's nice of you to do. Shows you haven't let your position go to your head." I joked with her, favoring her with a small smile. My expression seemed to fluster Asuna even more, causing her to go as pink as her nightgown. I laughed to myself. I wonder what could make her so off-balance. She's the epitome of cool and collected in battle. Although, I continued to think as she fretted with a few flyaway strands of hair, it wouldn't be such a bad thing to see her like this every now and then.
"Anyway! What are you planning on doing tomorrow?" She blurted, obviously eager to change the subject. I immediately flashed to my conversation with Argo. It must've shown on my face, because Asuna sat up and regarded me with a glint in her eye. "You've found something haven't you?" I sighed and slouched back into the couch, swirling the last bit of wine that remained in my cup dejectedly.
"Just rumors," I stopped swirling my drink. "But definitely worth looking into." Asuna raised an eyebrow at me.
"How do you figure?"
"Argo," I answered. "She told me that there's something out in the woods. Something big." Asuna sat back in the couch and crossed her arms as she began analyzing the possibilities.
"It couldn't be a Field Boss." she puzzled. "We've already cleared this floor. Maybe an event mob?"
"I thought the same thing, but I've researched any holidays or special events that might be taking place and the only thing that came up was Halloween, but that's not for another three weeks." I explained, grateful for Asuna's help in trying to figure things out. "Plus nobody knows anything about it, so it's not an official event." Asuna took another sip of wine.
"So, not a Field Boss. Not an event mob. No information broker intel. That leaves two possibilities. It could really be nothing…"
"Or it could be a dangerous new mob that's spawned on the lower floors and could pose a threat to everyone." I finished grimly "My thoughts exactly." We locked eyes and exchanged grave looks.
"I think you're right that we have to check it out." she said finally. I blinked at her.
"Someone has to watch over your reckless behavior and I've already got past experience." she retorted, rolling her eyes.
"Tch. Fine by me." I scoffed, doing my best to keep my voice flat and irritated. The last time we had teamed up, we became friends. Maybe after we teamed up this time… I shoved the thought out of my mind. Definitely not the time to go down that road. I yawned and pinched the bridge of my nose. "It's late. We can start with searching the forest tomorrow for clues."
Asuna hummed her assent and stood, stretching lithely before crossing the room and climbing into bed and snuggling under the covers. I got up and went around the room, turning off the light fixtures that adorned the walls before crossing over to the fireplace and dampening the blaze to a small fire that glowed dully in the grate and just managed to keep away the autumnal chill that crept outside the windows of the cabin. I heaved another yawn and crashed onto the couch, drawing the blanket that had been tucked under one cushion around me, settling into a somewhat comfortable sleeping position and gratefully closed my eyes.
"Kirito?" I opened one eye as Asuna's voice reached me. I looked over to the bed to see she hadn't shifted positions at all.
"Goodnight." I closed my eye and smiled a little to myself.
I woke up to the sun shining directly in my face from the window, causing me to sneeze violently and fall off the couch onto the floor. I groaned loudly.
"Wow. Graceful." I rubbed at my eyes and glared reproachfully at the issuer of the snarky remark from my position on the floor. Asuna leaned against the bed, looking down at me with an amused smirk, dressed in a large maroon wool sweater, black skirt and thigh high stockings. I blinked up at her. She was too damned adorable.
"You can't fight monsters in that," I grumbled as I sat back up on the couch.
"Don't really have to," she replied coolly. "Most of the mobs on this floor won't attack players so in high in level above them due to the way the aggro engines are configured. Plus," she paused to throw me a small item that glinted in the sunlight as it flew through the air. I snatched it up as it came towards me. I opened my palm and found a rough-hewn white crystal in a cage crafted of black metal that chimed whenever it came in contact with its container. The whole apparatus suspended on a silver chain.
"Ah, a Blissful Bell." Bells were powerful items that players could equip that would repel monsters for a set amount of time that depended entirely on the quality of the materials used in crafting. Most players used the medium to lower quality Bells as a means of safe travel through the dungeons on the way home after a long day of fighting. However, some players liked to use the higher quality Bells if they were on retrieval or collection quests, but the better Bells naturally came at a higher price. I brought the Bell closer to eye as I scrutinized the item carefully. "What item class is this?" Asuna muttered something under her breath. I shifted my gaze to her. "What was that?"
"I said it's an S class." she answered. I choked and nearly dropped the item, bobbling it once or twice before securing it in my grip again.
"S class?!" I cried "How did you get these?"
"Guild benefits. As part of my payment for being vice commander, I have access to our best smiths for free. I always keep a few on hand if I need some time alone and go for a walk."
"Walk, huh?" I raised my eyebrows "What do you do on these walks?" Asuna gave me a look.
"Uh, walk." I rolled my eyes in exasperation.
"You don't say. Anything else asides from walking?"
"Well, typically," she replied "I go over all the things that are stressing me out one by one, then try to let them go. Sometimes I'll head over to the floors with gardens and actually stop to smell the roses. And when the sky is clear, in the evenings, I like to watch the sunset. Hey, why are you smiling?" I hurriedly wiped the fond smile off of my face.
"Ah, it's nothing." I rose to my feet and while stretching my arms over my head, loosed a great yawn. "Alright I'm gonna wash up then we can head out and get a jump on this case, okay?" Asuna smirked at me as I made my way to the bathroom.
"Whatever you say, Watson." I ignored her gibe with a disdainful sniff and entered the bathroom, listening to her laughter behind me.
Once I locked the door, I sighed and rubbed my hands wearily over my face before walking over to the sink and turning on the hot water to wash my face. She certainly has come a long way. I thought to myself as I scrubbed my face. She's no longer the desperate fighter I had to carry out of the first floor dungeon. She doesn't fight to die anymore. She fights to live. I turned the water off and dried my face with a towel hanging on a nearby rack, then opened my menu and, not wanting to alienate Asuna, equipped some casual wear, changing into a gray zippered jumper with black pants and boots. I looked myself in the mirror that hung above the basin to make sure that I was somewhat put together and took a deep breath in and out. I opened the door and returned to the main living space.
Asuna had not left her post at the foot of the bed and was staring at the embers of the fire apparently deep in thought. I cleared my throat and she blinked out of her reverie and looked over.
"Don't you have anything that wouldn't blend in at a funeral?" she criticized, her nose scrunching up as she squinted at me.
"Well someone didn't like my blue and yellow scarf, so I figured I might as well as avoid all color." I pouted, equipping a charcoal cloak to keep away the autumn's chill. Asuna snorted as she donned her scarlet shawl and made her way to the door.
"I did you a favor, dummy. Trust me. You'd have less friends than you do now if you kept that heinous thing on."
"That was rude."
"You are going to lecture me on manners?"
"This is why I play solo!"
Asuna and I stood at the entrance to the forest, looking up at the great trees with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. We locked eyes and gave each other sharp nods before entering the twilight that existed under the broad leaves that still managed to cling to the trees into the fall season. We entered Detective Mode as we scrutinized the forest floor, keen to find any clues for Argo's mystery monster. We found several tracks of mobs that were common for the floor, but nothing out of the usual.
"You really have no idea what it could be?" Asuna asked me as we stopped for a break by a small stream that ran through the woods. I brushed some stray leaves off of a large flat stone and plopped down on it, gesturing next to me for Asuna to sit as well. After a split second of hesitation, she gracefully lowered herself down next to me, tucking her legs under herself.
"Not a clue," I sighed "All Argo could tell me was that it was "something big"." I rested my head on a propped up fist dejectedly. "I've been trying to figure out what it could be all day."
"Hm." I looked over at Asuna and found myself dumbstruck again. Her eyes shone like newly minted pennies in the evening light that filtered through the autumn leaves, bathing the world in a ruddy orange glow, complimenting her chestnut hair and red outfit. She looked like a harvest goddess. I didn't realize she was even talking until the second or third time she had called my name. "Kirito-kun?"
"Uh?" I managed. Eloquent, I know.
"Are you going to answer my question?"
"Haha…. sorry!" I scratched the back of my head sheepishly "Spaced out there. What did you say?"
"Honestly, it's a wonder you're still alive."
"Anyway, I asked you what type of monster you think it might be." I immediately started running through the possibilities aloud.
"Well, we can rule out Water-types. Big monsters can only stay in areas suited for their type, so naturally, Water-types can really only reside in bodies of water."
"Right, and with the lake on the far side of Fallholt, there's no chance of amphibious monsters of considerable size lurking here."
"Exactly, and the most common types to wander forests are usually Plant-types, Beast-types, Bug-types, and in some areas, Astral-types." I saw a shudder run down Asuna's spine. "What's wrong?"
"It's just…" another shiver ran up and down her back "Ugh, Astral-types freak me out." That was an eyebrow raiser.
"You're afraid of ghosts?" my tone shaded with a hint of disbelief.
"Don't sound so surprised," she huffed, tossing her head to the side. "They're not normal monsters. They're just… scary, okay?" I was tempted to make a joke, but decided to spare her, deeming the action just a little too cruel. At least for the time being anyway.
"Bug-types," I said, changing the subject "speaking in a general sense, tend to be on the smaller side when it comes to size. There are certainly bigger sized Bug-types, like the Scythe Mantis, but they only stand around nine feet tall, certainly not as "big as trees" like Argo said. Odds are we aren't dealing with one of those. That leaves Beast, Plant, and Astral. Asuna grimaced at the last word. "Hopefully not that last one." I added with a hint of humor. She shot me a grateful look and glanced up at the descending sun.
"It's about dinner time." she commented, a small smile gracing her lips. My stomach rumbled in agreement.
"It's gonna be such a long walk back." I whined, hanging my head in sorrow at the thought of a long trek on an empty stomach. Beside me, I heard Asuna open up her menu and scroll through her items. I perked up a bit and turned to look at her wide-eyed. "Don't tell me…" She gave me a smug grin.
"Well the upside of being a morning person is that instead of wasting half the day sleeping on the couch-" she paused, sending me a pointed look. I shrugged. Guilty as charged. "Is that you have time to… prepare!" she finished, emphasizing the last word of the sentence by pressing a button on her menu, causing a small picnic basket to materialize in her lap. My heart leapt at the sight of two sandwiches neatly wrapped in pink wax paper when she opened the basket. "You have anything to drink?" It took me a moment to take my eyes off of the decadent feast before me and answer.
"Uh, yeah." I opened my menu and scrolled through my items. "Any preferences?"
"Something…. tart? Or bitter?" I used a sweet glaze on the Mad Porker meat, as well a sauce made of pink and orange inkberries and chopped-"
At that point, my stomach rebelled into full-out mutiny, growling loud enough to silence the birds in the nearby trees. I grabbed my gut and doubled over, trying to bring my treacherous innards under control before I died of embarrassment. Once I managed to silence myself, I gave a mortified look in Asuna's direction as I heard laughter. It started as a suppressed giggle that broke into a frame shaking laughter that made tremors run up and down her slender body and brought tears to the corners of her eyes. Eventually, the fits of giggles subsided and she looked at me apologetically.
"Sorry," laughter still lurking in her voice. "I forgot you didn't have breakfast." She reached into the basket and handed me one of the sandwiches. I graciously took it and unequipped my gloves before clapping my hands together in unison with Asuna to give thanks for our meal before diving in zealously.
I had to resist the urge to cry as my taste buds sang in harmony with the food. True to her word, Asuna had made the sandwiches sweeter than a children's lullaby, the inkberries stood out brightly against the subtle savory sweetness of the glazed meat to give the sandwich a delightful, delectable body that satisfied the stomach and tickled the tongue, but she was right. To create a perfect dining experience, something was needed to offset the sandwich's taste. Going out on a limb, I selected a drink from my inventory that was contained in a plain clay bottle as well as two cups.
"What's that?" Asuna asked as she eyed the pale brown liquid that I poured into both cups.
"Trust me." I told her with a smile as I handed her a cup. Once she had a grip on the cup, I tapped my rim to hers and tossed the drink back. The bitter brew drew a sharp contrast to the sandwich's tangy taste and replaced it with smooth, robust undertones of flavor that made you lean back and sigh contentedly.
"Café au lait!" I swung my gaze back to Asuna to find her sitting next to me with nothing short of delight on her face, looking into her cup with wonder. "Did you make this?" she demanded, turning to me eagerly. I blinked, caught off guard by her enthusiasm.
"Not personally, but I know the guy who does. He actually lives on this floor. Runs a tavern in Fallholt."
"I'll have to ask him for the recipe," she murmured into her cup as she took another sip. I snorted as I took another bite of my sandwich.
"Good luck. Shigeru is a tight lipped old bastard. He won't even be swayed by money, believe me, I've tried."
"That's because you lack tact," I grunted in response. "My point exactly."
We soon finished our meal as the last vestiges of light disappeared from the sky, leaving us in a gray twilight. Rising from our seats, Asuna and I decided to call the search off for the day as the Bells we wore had just enough durability left to get us most of the way back to the house without any trouble and we'd be able to cut back on the odds of any would-be bandits that operated under the lawlessness of the night.
"Still disappointed that we didn't find anything on the monster?" Asuna asked as we wandered our way back through the forest. I heaved a sigh as I stepped over a fallen tree.
"I guess. I mean, the forest is huge and we've only searched the eastern side of it, but a clue, even a small one, would have been nice."
"Well, the guild isn't due to take on the next dungeon for a while, so we still have a little bit of time." she tried, her tone encouraging.
"You have a little bit more time." I corrected her. "I've told you I'm solo." I heard a sound of annoyance behind me.
"We both know you're just as much a part of the front lines as any of the guilds are." I grunted, not wanting to articulate the fact she was right, but not completely ignore her either.
"We didn't even find out what type it is," I said, changing the subject. "That's the worst part."
"We could at least go to a broker if we had an idea what type it was. They could point us to an expert with just a shade of info like that. But instead, we end up with- wah!" My sentence was cut off as I stepped through a patch of brush and my foot found empty space instead of solid ground and I tumbled forward into the space on the other side of the shrub and down a slope.
"Kirito-kun!" Asuna cried from the other side of the brush "Are you okay?" I sat up from where I'd fallen and patted myself down to make sure everything was still where it belonged.
"Yeah! I'm okay, just watch your step, alright?" A gap appeared in the foliage and Asuna carefully made her way through the undergrowth, wary of the ditch that I'd managed to throw myself into. The depression in question was itself not very impressive. Roughly triangular in shape, the base was about five feet wide and the sides were about seven feet long. The bottom of the hole was about two feet from the surface of the ground that Asuna stood on. I squatted down and inspected the earth.
"It's all smooth." I announced.
"Well what does that mean?"
"It means it was all gouged out at once, like a giant shovel or scoop. The real question is why someone would be out here shoveling dirt in the monster infested forest?"
"Maybe treasure hunters?" Asuna suggested "There's plenty of rumors of giant stashes of Col hidden throughout the floors."
"Yeah, but why the weird hole shape? You'd think you would try and cover as much ground as possible if you were looking for treasure, right? And why a triangle? And only a couple of feet down? It doesn't make any sense for treasure hunters."
"Maybe an herbalist? Could've been harvesting fungus or grass?"
"Possibly a failed trap set by bandits?"
"Could've been trying to dig a pit to trap travelers so they could ransom their items in exchange for a way out. Probably run off by the authorities mid-dig," Asuna's scabbard rapped on the top of my skull. I looked up her, aggravated. "Ow!" Gesturing with her scabbard, she pointed past me.
"Look." I rose and scanned the area she was indicating. My eyes widened. Numerous other depressions riddled the earth in the clearing; however, they were in no random order. The hole I had three other counterparts that all rested above circular holes that were centered around a large, blob shaped depression.
"Oh my God." I murmured breathlessly. "It's a paw print."
"It's massive." Asuna whispered next to me.
Suddenly, the Bells we wore around our necks gave out one last crystalline chime before disintegrating into nothing. Standing in the near darkness in a clearing with a colossal paw print made me very aware of my lack of armor and sword and panic seized me. Grabbing Asuna by the hand, I broke out into a flat sprint for the road.
"Come on! We aren't going to get caught by this thing unprepared!" I shouted over my shoulder. We broke through the trees to the road and continued running in the direction of the house. I glanced back and saw Asuna's worried face looking at me in concern as she trailed behind me. In the shadows of the retreating forest, I saw the flash of a brilliant red evil-looking eye in the darkness under the trees. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end as I realized just how close it had been to us. It was stalking us. If it weren't for the Bells... I blinked and the eye was gone, replaced by the inky blackness of shadow. The danger may have passed, but it didn't stop me from hauling ass until we were safely back within the gates of the house.
"I think it's safe to say that we are dealing with a Beast-type. Probably a wolf if I had to guess just based off of the shape," I told Asuna once we had caught our breath and settled down for the night. Asuna snickered from her seat on the bed as she ran a brush through her hair.
"Really? And here I was thinking it was a Bug-type that'd left that paw print there."
"Ha ha. Jokes aside, this is an important clue. Now we can find an expert on Beast-types who might be able to give us an idea on where to start."
"Do you know an expert on Beast-types?"
"No, but I know an expert on experts." Asuna paused her brushing to eye me as I plopped down on the couch with a sigh.
"What expert?" I shrugged.
"Who else? The Rat." She grimaced slightly at my reply. "Something wrong?"
"It's just I'm not a fan of some of the information she provides." My eyebrows scrunched together.
"How do you mean?"
"Some things are just too personal to be casually sold in my opinion." she muttered, her cheeks tinged pink. Internally, I screamed. The measurements are real! Externally, I shrugged.
"I can agree with that. Luckily, we're only concerned with our current issue, so we'll set up an appointment to meet with her tomorrow." Asuna stowed her hairbrush in her inventory and arched her back while stretching her arms above her head, heaving an impressive yawn.
"Alright, sounds good to me." I hummed in response as I went to extinguish the wall sconces.
The wind whirled outside the windows of the cabin, tossing dry leaves into the air and causing them to tumble along the air currents. Asuna had already tunneled beneath the blankets and was contentedly squirming around to find the most comfortable spot on the bed. As I continued my way around the room, the whisper of rain hitting the ground could be heard from outside, drawing out a smooth staccato rhythm as the drops collided with the window pane. Suddenly, a low rumble was audible in the room, causing the house to vibrate ever so slightly. Asuna stopped her wriggling.
"What was that?" I paused my circuit to cock an ear to the air and listened carefully.
"Thunderstorm. Pretty late in the season for one, too. Means it should be a real howler."
"Ah." I finished turning off all of the lights and trudged over to the couch, leaving the fire the way it was to combat the extra chill the rain would bring.
I settled down and wrapped the blanket around myself, sinking wearily into the cushions, eager to sleep after another long day. The storm outside formed a soothing enough lullaby for me, the rain tapping at the panes as a metronome and the thunder being the big bass drum. However, something was off. I furrowed my brow and focused, listening. After the last clap of thunder, something that sounded like a whimper was just barely audible. I opened my eyes and rolled over on the couch to look at the bed.
"Are you scared of thunderstorms?" The bundle of blankets scoffed at me.
"Of course not!" Another peal of thunder tore through the night and caused another whimper to rise from underneath the sheets. "So what if I am?" came the sullen reply. I sat up on the couch.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" I asked softly. Asuna remained silent for several moments as the rain continued to fall down outside. Then, another roll of thunder went through the night and she reached her decision. Her head surfaced from the sea of sheets and she regarded me with gleaming amber eyes and her cheeks pink with blush.
"Could you come here?" she murmured, voice just barely audible over the rain and fire. Swallowing despite my mouth being heinously dry, I rose from the couch and padded over to the foot of the bed.
"Yeah?" I whispered, my voice hoarse. Asuna broke eye contact and scooted herself closer to the side of the bed that was against the wall, keeping her eyes locked on the comforter.
"I meant…. here," she uttered weakly, nodding at the space she'd just made. Made for me, I realized. I didn't think my mouth could get any drier, but it felt like I'd just won a sand eating contest. "Don't get the wrong idea," she told me "Try anything funny and I'll make sure you won't wake up." Then, in a quieter voice, "Not that I think you would. Just being clear."
"Course," I managed to choke out. Stepping up to the side of the bed, I clambered onto the mattress and slid under the blankets with as much grace as someone in my situation could manage and tried not to have a heart attack. I clung to the edge of the bed like a lifeline, an ocean of linens between us. I'll never be able to sleep like this, I thought to myself. I snuck a glance over at Asuna and could practically see the tension radiating off of her as well. Neither of us will. Steeling my nerves, I took a deep breath and rolled onto my back and stared up at the ceiling. "Thunder, huh?" The wind howled outside in the silence that pervaded the room after my question. Just as I began to think I was being ignored, the reply came.
"Never would have guessed." Another pause.
"What do you mean?"
"I've seen you face down hordes of mobs and bosses without flinching. I can understand the thing with Astral types too, lots of people freak out when they come up out of the ground moaning and screaming like banshees. Sure as hell spooked me when I did that kill quest through the old mansion on nineteen." An involuntary shudder came from the other side of the bed.
"I hated that place."
"Yeah. But thunder? Why thunder?" Asuna was silent for another moment before answering.
"When I was a little girl," she said "I was home by myself one night. My parents had left for a business trip and my brother was at a friend's house. It wasn't unusual for me to be myself, but on that night, a typhoon passed over our house. I laid in my bed, terrified by the crashing thunder and screaming winds. The power had gone out and when the lightning flashed it threw warped shadows onto the walls that looked like monsters." I felt my heart surge protectively for her, wishing I could've done something to help.
"I'm sorry you had to go through that," I murmured.
"It wasn't all bad though."
"Just when I thought I couldn't take it anymore, I heard a meow at my window." I didn't hide my actions as I turned my head to look at her, eyebrow raised.
"A meow?" Asuna barely took her head off the pillow as she talked to me over her shoulder.
"A cat, dummy," smirk audible in her tone.
"Obviously," I shot back, rolling my eyes. "I'm just wondering how a cat made the situation better."
"Well, I heard it over the noise outside and it made me open my eyes and look out the window. A black cat sat on the windowsill, pawing at the glass and meowing. So, I got up and opened the window, and it shot into my room and shook itself dry all over me." She giggled, the sound making my heart melt. "At first I was upset that I got wet, but I was more glad than anything because I wasn't alone anymore. It jumped up on my bed, and curled up next to my pillow and started purring like crazy, When I got back in bed, I noticed it had a name tag. It said his name was Noir."
"Black," I translated "Very imaginative."
"I know, but he kept me company well enough. I fell asleep in no time and when I woke up, he was gone. I thought I wouldn't ever see him again, but every time I thought I couldn't take the thunder anymore, he would be there." I lay there for a moment, unsure of how to proceed. "What about you?" I blinked and turned on my side to look at Asuna again and my pulse spiked when I found her looking back at me.
"What are you afraid of?" My mind immediately played back broken pieces of memories I had tried to repress unsuccessfully: a trapped treasure chest, hellish red light, swarming enemies, bodies shattering into glass, and worst of all, a pair of soft blue eyes that seemed to be forgiving me even as they vanished from existence. A bitter taste filled my mouth.
"Being useless," I spat. Asuna regarded me with concerned eyes.
"Why?" she asked, her voice tender. I rolled back onto my back to avoid looking at her.
"We should try and get some sleep," I said bluntly. Quiet reigned sovereign once again, only broken by the pop of the fire and the hiss of rain.
"I don't think you're useless." The mumbled words cut into the growing storm that was gathering in my mind like a ray of sunlight. I released a breath I hadn't realized I was holding in a shaky sigh. It meant a lot coming from her.
Abruptly, the window across the room flashed with brilliant white light and one of the loudest claps of thunder that night resounded on the other side of the narrow walls, roaring in rage and shaking the house down to the foundation. The violent outburst surprised me well enough, but what really threw me into shock was the feeling of Asuna's hand in mine. I bit down on my tongue to keep myself from yelping and counted to ten to let my heartbeat slow down just enough that it wouldn't explode and managed to twist my neck to look at her, my face feeling hotter than an oven. She looked back at me, face equally red as mine.
"Don't get the wrong idea," she repeated "It's just scary out there." My brain had pretty much checked out at that point, but I heard myself murmur a reply back.
"Yeah, it is. But don't worry, we're going to make it through this just fine." Asuna favored me with a warm smile and a slight nod before closing her eyes and snuggling into the sheets with a contented sigh. I lay awake for a while, staring up at the ceiling, wondering how the hell I went from lone beater to trusted companion. I glanced down at my hand, which still lay on the bed clumsily intertwined with Asuna's, her slender dainty fingers looking like an angel's compared to the unwieldy hands of a warrior that I possessed. Yet, despite such a stark contrast, they seemed to work in harmony. I shook my head and closed my eyes, willing myself to fall asleep before my wishful thinking kept me up all night.
I woke up the following morning to the pinging sound of my HUD alerting me that it was nine o' clock. Without opening my eyes, I used my right hand to swipe away the notification and grunted in annoyance and went to roll out of bed when I realized I was pinned down by something. Slowly, I opened my eyes and looked down at my body. Asuna lay curled up on me, her cheek resting on the left side of my chest and her left hand resting gently on my sternum. My left hand and her right lay between our bodies, still clasped together. Our legs were intertwined in a wonderful mess under the blankets and as I lay there soaking everything in, she stirred in her sleep, shifting her position slightly, causing her silky skin to ghost over my own, making me tremble. I reveled in the surreal situation that I was in. I was in heaven in that moment. My mind also reminded me that were she to wake up, I would most likely not walk again. So, despite every urge in my body telling me to remain exactly where I was, I slowly separated our hands and hands and tried to slide out of bed.
"Kirito." I froze. Well, I lived a pretty good life. Heart hammering in my ears, I turned to face my certain death. "Don't go to work yet." I blinked. Not the punishing violence and harsh words I was expecting. Steeling myself in the event of an attack, I looked Asuna in the face. Her eyes remained closed and slow, even breaths escaped her mouth and nose. She was asleep.
No way in hell am I this lucky. She's dreaming. About us! I thought to myself, somehow alarmed and relieved at the same time. Thinking quickly, I ad-libbed a reply.
"Sorry, but I'm already late." Asuna made a whining sound.
"S'not fair. They keep you all day during the week and then they call you in on a Saturday morning away from me." I clapped a hand over my mouth to silence the choking sounds that suddenly came forth.
"Well," I answered after recovering "You know my boss."
"Tch. He can get bent." I couldn't stop the snort of laughter from escaping me, but luckily it wasn't loud enough to rouse her.
"I'll work extra hard so I can come back early, okay?" Asuna removed her head from my chest and rolled over to face the wall, leaving me free and clear to leave.
"You better." came the sleepy answer. I quickly slid out of bed and stole into the bathroom, taking care to ensure the door was locked before I turned and collapsed onto the sink basin.
Okay. Think. Breathe. That was crazy. I'm crazy. What the hell. What does it mean? I took a deep breath to steady my nerves. She was dreaming about me. More importantly, she was dreaming about me and her. Could it be? As soon as the spark of hope flared up, I immediately went and doused it. I can't be getting attached again. It'll end up just like last time. Odds are she was just saying my name because we've just been around each other for the past couple of days. Yeah, that's all.
I shook my head and turned the sink on, scrubbing my face with cold water. Once I'd finished washing my face, I opened up my menu and equipped my usual armor, drawing comfort from the sensation of the familiar weight of my sword on my back. Rolling my shoulders to settle my jacket, I opened the door and strode back into the main living space and nearly walked straight into Asuna, who stood just in front of the door, already dressed in her typical Knights regalia, hand raised to knock. She blinked at me in surprise as we stood there.
"Oh. You are here."
"Yeah, woke up early to get ready." A fond expression settled on her face.
"Who are you? No way the slacker I know would get up early for anything." I rolled my eyes and stepped past her before she could see the blush on my face.
"Come on you, we have a meeting to make."
We arrived at the gates of Fallholt a little bit after ten. The streets were crowded with many mid-level adventurers who were taking the day off from delving into dungeons and were indulging themselves by shopping for wares at the market or soaking themselves in bathhouses or by simply socializing with their friends. Despite the packed streets, Asuna and I had no issues maneuvering through the crowds. My general presence tended to make most people uneasy, but when I was on a mission, most people high tailed it out of the way. What can I say? I've got one hell of a case of resting bitch face.
We were crossing Breakneck Boulevard when a blur shot toward us like a bullet. Without missing a beat, I hauled the would-be wrecking ball up by the scruff of his neck and glared at him coolly. He looked to be around ten years old. The poor kid didn't even realize he wasn't moving forward for a few seconds, continuing to pump his legs under him like a manic machine, eyes screwed shut as he panted, out of breath. The realization he was no longer on solid ground must have dawned on him, because he stopped his running and slowly raised his head to look at me with fearful eyes. He took in my black coat and longsword and a small gasp escaped his mouth and he flinched as if expecting a blow. My glare melted away and I set the messenger, for he was a messenger as evidenced by the scroll clutched in his quivering fist, back down onto the street and released him. The boy opened his eyes again, disbelief clear on his face as he looked up at me.
"Watch where you're going, okay?" I ruffled the kid's hair. The boy, apparently at a loss for words, nodded furiously. I heard Asuna shift beside me as she crouched over and rested her hands on her knees.
"Try to be careful, okay? Not everyone is as nice as my friend here." I was fairly certain the kid's mind was telling him that he was dreaming now, as he just vacantly stared at her like she was some kind of angel, and to be fair, I could agree with him.
Asuna opened her menu and materialized a small silver tubular whistle, which she pressed into the free hand of the young boy. "If you ever get into some real trouble, blow on this whistle, okay?"
The boy nearly gave himself whiplash nodding again. Asuna gave him a warm smile and a pat on the head.
"Good. Now, get going." The messenger bowed to us and then shot off down the road again, a blur amongst the bodies the barricaded the boulevard. I looked over at Asuna as we resumed our journey.
"What was that you gave him?"
"Assist Whistle. Works kind of like a teleport crystal, only in reverse. When you blow on it, one of the Knights' Sentinels will be summoned to your location." I raised my eyebrows.
"That's pretty amazing. You sure it's okay to give something like that to a kid?" Asuna was silent for a few moments as we continued our walk before replying.
"In this world, you have to fight survive, and most people do. But what about the people who can't fight? The young? The old? The afraid? Do we just leave them to be bullied by those who can hold a weapon? We as front-line fighters don't need to be concerned with clearing the game. We need to think about the people we are trying to save too." I stared at her for a second, scrutinizing her expression.
"That's pretty sentimental of you." She shrugged.
"Some of us are."
We arrived at the Flagon a little past eleven o'clock, thanks to our hold up with the messenger. I strode through the door and was greeted by my usual silence. Ignoring the gazes of the patrons, I scanned the bar for Argo, but found no trace of the whiskered informant.
"Great," I grumbled to Asuna over my shoulder "Late as usual."
"It'll be fine. We can just wait at the bar until she gets here." Sighing through my nose, I moved across the room and plopped down on my usual stool. I kept my eyes glued to the grain of the bar top as Asuna entered, drawing gasps and murmurs as she gracefully glided across the space and gingerly seated herself next to me, pitching the murmuring into a greater fervor.
Shigeru stood at the far end of the bar, keeping an eye on the place. We made eye contact and he gave me a slow nod, taking the knife he happened to be sharpening with a whetstone and drew it across the rock in such a way that as the metal left the stone, it produced a loud, long zzzzing! that grated on the ears. The intense chatter lessened noticeably, returning to what I guess was a normal level of noise for a bar, although the poorly concealed looks and not-so-quiet whispers weren't lost on me. Dragging a hand over my face and pinching the bridge of my nose to try and alleviate the headache that was doing its best to make itself known, I waved at Shigeru and stuck two fingers in the air. Before I could even put my hand back down, two mugs and plates heaped with bread slid down the bar and came to a neat stop in front of us. Asuna's face looked very impressed with the whole situation.
"Are you going to pay him back for this later?" Asuna asked as she nibbled delicately on one of the buns from her plate.
"Shigeru owes me a big favor so he pays me back in free fare," I answered before taking a big swig from my mug, grunting appreciatively as the drink quenched my thirst. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a burly man rise up from a table of rough-looking fighters and set his shoulders, locking his gaze on Asuna and me. "Shit, not now."
Asuna looked over at me with a raised eyebrow. "What's the matter?"
Before I could reply, the man stood towering over the two of us. His beady eyes gave me a disapproving once over before settling on Asuna, who had turned to face him when his shadow had come over her space at the bar. "You're Asuna of the Blood Knights," the hulking brute rumbled.
"I am," she answered evenly. "How may I help you?"
"Well," the man went on "I think the real question is if I can help you." He stuck out a meaty hand. "The name is Ryuga. I'm the leader of the Black Snakes." Ryuga jerked a thumb in the direction of the shady looking group that watched their leader with impish smiles. "We would be honored if you joined us for drinks." I clenched my jaw and deliberately chugged my drink, doing my best to avoid confrontation.
"That's very kind of you, but I will have to decline your generous offer this time," she replied. Ryuga's face screwed up as he leaned down closer to Asuna.
"What's that? Got something better to do than spend some time with some nice guys who'd just like a drink with you?" I slammed my tankard down on the bar, signaling Shigeru to give me another. The noise and motion must've reminded Ryuga's primitive mind of my existence as his gaze settled on me. "I saw you come in here with this trash. This beater. What, he got something on you? Blackmail?" I balled my free hand into a fist but continued to say nothing, instead choosing to regard him evenly over the rim of my mug as I took another drink.
"That trash you are referring to is my friend and I would rather you leave him alone." Ryuga ignored her and proceeded to get in my face, noses inches away from mine.
"Well, beater? Anything to say for yourself?" I looked into his eyes, unflinching, despite his appalling breath and ape-like countenance. When I didn't reply, he spat in my face. My arm twitched, nearly acting on reflex to clock the ass in his smug face, but by some miracle I resisted the urge. Ryuga snorted and turned his attention back to Asuna. "See? He knows he's filth. Won't even stand up for himself. You should come with me."
"For the last time, no." Asuna's voice held no more patience and was as frigid as ice.
"Not a question, I'm afraid." Ryuga's hand grabbed Asuna by the wrist and pulled her off the stool. I stood so quickly my stool crashed onto the floor and broke into pieces. I faced Ryuga and squared my shoulders.
"What are you going to do, beater?" he mocked "Stand there and drink?" I drew back my fist and prepared to activate my Martial Arts skill, intent on blowing the son of a bitch through the far wall of the bar. It wouldn't kill him, the town being a safe zone and all, but the look on his face after being blasted like that would sure be rewarding. Just as the savage light was beginning to form around my fist, a gentle hand on my forearm stopped me. I looked down and saw Asuna looking at me with a fire in her eyes.
"Sorry, but could I take this one?" she asked me, a wicked little smile on her lips. I nodded and lowered my hand, drawing jeers from the Black Snakes.
"You see?" Ryuga called out to the rest of the bar, who had grown quiet to watch the chain of events unfolding before them. "Can't even bring himself to do anything!"
"You're right," I said, stepping back to allow room for Asuna to move. "I'm not going to do anything, but you're about to wish I had." Ryuga has a second to look confused before Asuna reversed his grip and broke his hand. The behemoth bellowed and doubled over, cradling his injury. Asuna took the momentum from her reversal and added it to the downright lethal roundhouse kick she delivered to Ryuga's jaw. The leader of the Black Snakes was unconscious before he broke through the large plate glass window by the door and landed in a heap in the street. The rest of the Black Snakes jumped up with angry cries and charged us. I stepped forward and met the mob, finding my back against Asuna's.
In a few short moments, the rest of the Snakes followed their leader out the window. The bar broke into raucous cheering, raising toasts and shouldering each other good-naturedly. Out of the throng came a few bards, who set up in a corner and began playing some jaunty music, eager to capitalize on the mass's good mood. Asuna and I still stood in an empty circle in front of the bar., catching our breath. I turned to her and gave her a rueful smile.
"How come it's always easy to find trouble when you're around?"
"I was just about to ask you the same question," she said, pushing my shoulder playfully. I laughed and did my best to try and not let it show that little touch made me go all warm inside. Asuna turned to Shigeru and bowed deeply at the waist.
"Sorry for damaging your lovely establishment, Shigeru-sama." Shigeru, who had been standing grumpily behind the bar with his arms crossed and undoubtedly eager to chew us out, seemed mollified by Asuna's genuine apology.
"Ahhh think nothing of it. Those thugs were bad for business, so you really did me a favor, and I needed to replace that window anyway." I blinked in disbelief. I opened my mouth to crack a joke when Shigeru snapped his attention over to me and his gaze immediately froze over again. "Your friend is waiting for you over there," he jerked a thumb over his shoulder to point at a yellow hooded figure sitting in the back corner away from everyone. "I suggest you make your way over there before I change my mind." My jaw clicked shut and I quickly bowed to the man and steered Asuna over to the secluded table and sat down.
"Now that," Argo said as I drew out the chair for Asuna "was a treat to see. You two go well together." Asuna made a strange noise and when I glanced over at her to raise a questioning eyebrow, she waved a dismissive hand but continued to fidget in her chair. Shaking my head, I returned my attention Argo.
"We found something." Argo sat forward in her seat.
"I knew it. So what was it?"
"We couldn't find out exactly what it is, but we do know two things: one, it is huge. Massive. Two, it's a Beast-type." Argo placed a hand on her chin and leaned back in her chair and placed her feet on the table.
"Beast-types," she sighed. "Always troublesome." She was quiet for several moments before speaking again. "At the south end of the forest, in the shade of the Great Oak, lives a hunter who goes by Leif. He knows everything to know about Beast-types." I nodded my thanks and went to stand. "Hold it there, Kibou." I rolled my eyes and lowered myself back into my seat.
"Leif isn't all there. Being cooped up in those woods all the time has done some weird stuff to his mind."
"Okay, lots of people are weird in here in case you haven't noticed, Argo."
"No shit, Sherlock. But this guy is officially nuts. He's attacked other players before."
"Well then how are we supposed to talk to him?"
"He has a code phrase. When you approach his cabin, about a quarter mile from the front door, you will hear him tell you to freeze and identify yourself."
"Couldn't I just tell him I'm with the Knights?" Asuna asked.
Argo shook her head solemnly. "He doesn't like guilds. Couple of them tried recruiting him by force. Didn't end well."
"So what do we say when he tells us to identify ourselves?" I cut in, eager to get moving towards the end of the mystery. Argo looked me dead in the eye.
"You have to sing 'I'm a Little Teapot'." My jaw dropped in disbelief.
"You're not serious."
"Deadly." Argo countered.
"No way in hell am I doing that."
"Look, Kirito, this dude is insane. The game's broken his mind. Unless you want to fight a crazed hunter in his element, I would suggest you take my advice, which, may I remind you, is free in this one-time deal." I grunted in disgust and crossed my arms, slouching back in my chair. Asuna rolled her eyes and leaned forward to touch Argo's hand.
"Thank you, Argo. It means a lot-" She paused, shooting me the stinkeye- "Even if all of us don't voice it." Argo, stood, inclining her head to Asuna.
"My pleasure, Vice Commander. The two of you stay safe now. It'd be a shame if I lost two of my best customers in one day." With that, the Rat turned on her heel and disappeared through the door to the world outside.
Asuna and I sat at the table for a few minutes in silence before she turned to look at me.
"What are you thinking?" I drummed my fingers on the rough wood of the tabletop.
"If this guy has an agenda against guilds, seeing the vice commander of the biggest guild in Aincrad coming down the lane to his house might not exactly make his day."
"Well you aren't going alone, dummy." I sighed and shifted my weight in my chair.
"Look" I said, but she cut me off with a raised finger.
"'Look' nothing. Like I said before, someone has to watch you. I can't do that just sitting up in the cabin. Plus, I've gone through all of this with you this far. Backing out now would just make this whole ordeal a pointless waste of time."
"I hate it when you're right." I grumbled, rising from my seat. Asuna stood with me and together we exited the Flagon into the afternoon sun.
"So what's the plan?" she asked as we made our way to the southern gate.
"The plan is you put a cloak over your armor before we get there so you aren't attacked by a psycho hunter and I do my best to try and get any info I can out of him on a giant Beast-type running amok in the woods."
We arrived at the road that lead to Leif's cabin just as the sun was beginning to touch the horizon. We stood a half-mile away from the building, eyeing it suspiciously. Asuna glanced up at me from beneath her hood, eyes unsure.
"And you are positive you are ready for this?" I rolled my shoulders and cracked my neck.
"Not much choice in the matter. This guy is the only lead we have on this monster. Let's do this."
Together we began our march towards the house. While we walked, I activated my Detective skill and scanned the land before me to try and gain an edge on the mysterious hunter, but to no avail. Just at the quarter mile mark stood the Great Oak, a massive tree that towered over the surrounding arbors in nothing short of regal splendor. Broad orange leaves and acorns the size of my fist lay scattered on the ground, making for an uncomfortable walk as the seeds bit in the arches of our feet through the soles of our boots. Right as we came even with the massive tree, a voice sounded out.
"That's far enough." it told us. The voice was calm, cool, and uncaring. "Freeze where you are and keep your hands where I can see them." We followed the demands without argument. "Good. Now, identify yourselves."
"Y'know, my Detection skill is pretty high. I'm surprised I couldn't spot you on the way here," I commented, keeping my voice conversational.
"What can I say, I like my privacy. Now, cut the bullshit before I put an arrow in you."
"Come on man, for shame. There's a lady present." I quipped, doing my best to keep the voice talking. There was a momentary pause before the reply came.
"On second thought, I'll put two arrows in you: one for you, and one for your smart mouth." The voice sounded like it would hold no further conversation. "Now, last chance. Identify yourselves or die where you stand." Who said I can't read people?
"Alright, alright, no need to be hasty." I planted my feet shoulder width apart and took a deep breath. Clearing my throat, I began to sing. "I'm a little teapot short and stout, here is my handle here is my spout," I made my body like a teapot, leaning forward to pour tea from my spout "When I get all steamed up, hear me shout! Tip me over and pour me out!" I froze in the pouring position and awaited a response. A long moment passed. A really long moment. Finally, I heard a wheezing sound and saw a dark shape drop out of one of the branches of the Great Oak and hit the ground with a heavy thud which was followed by roaring laughter. Heat rushed to my face as I righted myself and stormed over to the shape rolling on the ground.
The shape turned out to be a man that looked to be around his mid-twenties with a craggy blond beard and ragged hair. He was wrapped in a brown cloak and clutched a bow in one hand. I planted a swift kick into his hip.
"The hell was that about?!" I demanded, crossing my arms.
"I was-about-to ask you-the same thing!" the hunter managed to wheeze through fits of giggles.
"That was the code! Argo told me to sing that so you would know who I was!"
"Holy crap, man! She got you! She got you so good!" The man roared in laughter and rolled on the ground, slapping at his knees. I drew my leg back to unleash another kick, but froze when I heard a soft snort from behind me. I spun on my heel and leveled my gaze at Asuna, who avoided my eyes with the brim of her hood.
"And don't you start!" I told her, seething "When I get my hands on that rat, I swear…"
"Phew! Needed a good laugh today." I turned back to the hunter who lay spread-eagle on the ground. Bunching himself up, he leapt to his feet and dusted himself off before extending his hand in greeting. "I think we got off on the wrong foot here. I'm Leif." I looked haughtily at the hand and made a point not to take it.
"I know. That's why I'm here." Leif let the hand drop to his side while Asuna walked up to join our meeting.
"Well, if Argo sent you, then I'll be happy to help however I can."
Asuna inclined her head in appreciation. "Thank you, Leif. We're very grateful for your help."
"Ah it's no trouble, Miss….?" Asuna tossed her hood back and flashed him a smile.
"Asuna. Pleased to meet you." Leif's eyebrows shot up in surprise.
"Woah! You're the Lightning Flash! That must mean that you-" he pointed at me "Kirito, right? The Black Swordsman?" I nodded begrudgingly.
"Yeah, that's me." Leif broke into a huge grin.
"Honored to meet to the two of you! I'm a huge fan." Asuna and I exchanged questioning looks,
"If you know who I am…" Asuna started
"Then why are you a fan? You know that she's with the Knights." I finished "Argo said you didn't like guilds."
"Argo also told you that 'I'm a Little Teapot' was the code phrase." Leif snorted "I don't like guilds based on crime or selfishly keep information that could save lives." I shrugged.
"Well, now that we're all acquainted let's go into my cabin and see what I can do for you both."
Asuna and I sat on a low couch across from Leif who was sprawled lazily in an armchair. Despite his relaxed posture, his eyes betrayed his excitement, eagerly flitting between the two of us.
"Argo tells us you know a lot of information on Beast-types." Asuna said, leaning forward in her seat.
"True." Leif answered. "What of it?"
"Wolves." I said "What do you know about wolves?"
He sighed through his nose. "You're going to have to be more specific. Do you want the list of different types of wolf mobs? What crafting materials you get from drops? Spawn locations?" I stopped him with a dismissive wave.
"Nothing like that. I'm looking for stuff off the books. There's something out there. It's massive, it's smart, and incredibly dangerous." I looked him in the eye and squinted hard. "Seen anything like that around here?" Leif paled visibly.
"What?" Asuna asked "What is it?"
"Alpha." he muttered.
Leif shook his head and straightened himself in his chair, resting his elbows on his knees.
"Let me explain. Roughly a week ago I was hunting for some dinner. I had just gotten in position to take down this gorgeous stag. Then everything froze. Wind stopped blowing, birds stopped singing. Freaky stuff. Then out of nowhere, this giant, gaping maw snapped up my stag like an appetizer. Its teeth were the size of full grown men. It stood as tall as the trees around it. Pure white, like a ghost. It was primal. Nothing could fight it. It was the Alpha." Leif sucked in a shaky breath. "I high-tailed it out of there as quick as I could."
I rocked back in my seat. "So it's true. It's really out there."
Asuna's brow scrunched together that made her nose wrinkle up in an impossibly adorable fashion. "We have to keep this contained. If mid-level players found out that such a huge threat was lurking in the woods just outside one of their safe zones, it would be pandemonium."
"Has anyone else seen or heard about the Alpha?" I asked Leif. His face screwed up and he shook his head slowly.
"Not many people come out this way. Most stop by the Great Oak for a quest or two, but rarely anyone comes past my cabin."
"Is there anyone that you've seen within the past couple of weeks?" Asuna asked. "Any unusual or suspicious activity?" Leif stroked his beard and looked pensive for a few moments before answering.
"Now that you mention it, I did notice a couple of Fangs skulking around the base of the mountain the other day."
Asuna looked over at me and raised a questioning eyebrow.
"The Fangs," I explained "are a guild that specialize in beast-taming. They prefer wolves and other predators, but will take whoever they can get. Guild's run by a man who goes by Lupa. Shady guy, to say the least. The guild isn't criminal officially, but they're suspected of doing some pretty questionable stuff throughout Aincrad."
"Why haven't the Knights looked into them, then?" Asuna muttered to herself. I answered her question for her.
"No one considers them to be a real threat. Most of their players are below the mid-range player average, and none possess any remarkable skills. They have a couple hundred members, but nothing that could present a real threat if they decided to go bad." I turned back to Leif, who had been waiting for us patiently.
"Could you see what they were doing at all? Or manage to overhear anything they were saying?"
Leif nodded. "I was a good distance away, but I was able to make out something about a ritual. Supposed to go down when "the night is as day", whatever that means." I slouched back in my chair at the news.
"Well, great. Now we have another clue to figure out." Asuna suddenly perked up.
"No we don't!" she beamed, triumph radiating off of her. "I know when that is!" Leif and I both snapped to attention.
"Well don't just leave us in the dark," I told her "what does it mean?
"We have initiation ceremonies for when we bring in new guild members. Robes, chants, fog, the real deal. When we bring new recruits in, we always do it on the full moon, because one of the lines of the script we recite goes something like "Those among us who wish to join the Order of the Blood Knights, must stand and accept that our one unwavering goal, is to free and protect the innocent souls trapped on this plane. They must agree to serve-"
"Fast forward, please?" I cut in. She shot me a dirty look, but complied.
"As I was saying, it goes on to say that they must "stand vigilant even in chaos when the midday sky falls dark, and the night is as day, as it is tonight"."
"So, a ritual on the full moon then." I glowered. "Sounds like a recipe for disaster if I've ever heard one. At least we have a time frame to prepare. I can work on scouting out-" It was Leif's turn to interrupt this time.
"Only problem is that the full moon is tonight." Asuna and I both swore under our breath and stood.
"Where did you see the Fangs?"
"Northwest of here, but-" We bolted for the door.
"Thank you!" Asuna cried over her shoulder. Together we dashed like madmen into the forest.
The sun had begun to sink behind the mountain as we exited the cabin; twilight descending across the thirty-fifth floor.
"Where do we go?" Asuna asked as we danced over exposed roots and glided over the ground. I ducked a low branch before answering.
"They have to some sort of hideout in the forest. My best guess is some kind of cave in the mountain, so we head for the base and circle it until we find it."
"And then what?"
"We stop them!" Asuna skidded to a halt and yanked me by my forearm, bringing us to a full stop. I turned to look at her, slightly aggravated for the delay. "What?"
"You can't just go in there! This is something we've never fought or even seen before. For all we know, we could be going up against something as strong as a Floor Boss! You can't fight this alone. We need to call the Assault Team." I tugged at my arm, but her grip was iron.
"I've done it before, and I can do it again." I retorted.
"And nearly died doing it! You're being too reckless. Not only is the Alpha in there, but the entire Fangs guild is going to be in there to try some crazed ritual to bring it under control. It'd be a hundred to one if you're lucky, and one of those hundred could easily be one royally pissed off super wolf."
"We don't have time to wait for the Assault Team!" I came back, hot. "If that thing goes berserk, or worse, if they actually manage to get it under control, people are going to die!"
"You don't think I know that?" she whispered, deadly quiet. "I don't want you to be one of them."
I blinked furiously, trying to swallow my heart that had decided to ride a sudden wave of emotion up into my throat. As I was about to ask if she meant what I could only pray she was, I suddenly became aware of a sea of pinprick lights approaching us from behind Asuna. Acting on instinct, I threw my arm around her waist and spun us around until her back was to a tree and pushed her up against it, staying inches away from her. I looked down and my breath caught in my throat again.
Her face was very close to mine. Very close. Close enough for our noses to touch when she looked back up at me. Close enough for me to smell her intoxicating honeysuckle and vanilla perfume. Close enough to feel her warm breath mixing with mine as we panted in short gasps. Close enough to see her silken lips one simple moves from being locked with mine.
"Don't move," I whispered to her. Her eyes held too much for me to read.
"Why?" she whispered back, her breath hitching as she shifted slightly closer.
"The Fangs. They're coming this way. They're sure to spot you in your Knights armor in their torchlight, but if you stay between me and this tree, there's a chance they'll pass us by." Something flashed deep in her eyes that almost looked like hunger, which both excited and scared the living shit out of me.
"How will they not see you?" I closed my eyes, not wanting to explain. "Kirito?"
"I can become Hidden," I murmured, opening my eyes to look at her again. "In theory, if they can't see me, they can't see you behind me."
"And if you're wrong?"
Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the first torchbearers of the Fangs marching by, and we fell silent. Dozens of heavily equipped warriors filed by us, chanting ominously as they shook rattles and chimes made of animal bones. At the center of the procession, I spotted a man wearing a helmet made out of a Hell Hound skull. Lupa. He was fairly average in height, just a few inches under six feet. He bore a dark olive complexion that glowed in the light of the fires around him. Ragged glossy black hair protruded from beneath his helmet. His face was painted for war, red lines tapered off into wicked points that framed his eyes and jaw. For a fraction of a second, his gaze flickered over where Asuna and I were hiding and I felt Asuna tense under me. I could understand why. Lupa's eyes were bright yellow like a wolf's. I felt the hairs rise up on the back of my neck as a chill ran down my spine. Freaky. My eyes moved up to my HUD and I heaved a mental sigh of relief. The familiar black icon sat in my status effects bar. Lupa's gaze seemed to linger on us for what seemed like an eternity, but eventually moved on without incident and the guild continued their march deeper into the forest, their chanting and rattling echoing off of the trees and into the rapidly approaching night.
We both sighed in relief and sagged against each other, giving our nerves a few seconds to recover. Asuna had buried her face in the crook of my neck. She spoke, her lips moving over my skin, making me tremble.
"That was too close." I laughed without humor.
"Your Hiding skill is high enough to become Hidden?" I closed my eyes and took a breath.
"Yeah. Really boosted it tailing some bandits a while back."
"Makes sense. Especially for someone playing solo. You don't have a guild to have your back." I opened my eyes and looked down at the top of her head.
"You really think so?"
"Yeah." It suddenly came to my attention that we were still far too close. I abruptly untangled myself from her, stepping back to a respectable distance.
"Sorry for sweeping you up like that. We didn't have much time." She muttered something about an idiot and kicked the dirt. "What was that?"
"It's fine." she said, refusing to my eyes as she continued toeing at the earth. I cleared my throat and turned to face the direction the Fangs had gone.
"If we tail them, they should lead us right to the Alpha." I heard Asuna draw in a long, measured breath and exhale slowly.
"Okay. Let's end this."
We stalked through the dark, following the procession through the forest as they continued their eerie march. The moon had crept into the night sky, crawling towards its zenith as disaster inevitably approached.
Suddenly, all the chanting and rattling from the Fangs came to an abrupt halt; silence reigned in the forest.
"What happened?" Asuna breathed next to me "Why'd they stop?" I squinted into the darkness and even with my Detective skill enabled, could still see nothing.
"Wish I knew," I breathed back "No real choice but to move forward I suppose." So we pressed on, continuing in the direction we had last heard the Fangs. As we crept forward, the trees around us thinned out and the mountain loomed, casting its shadow over us like a unforgiving, uncaring giant. Once we had cleared the trees, a cave came into view. And not just an overhang that happened to mar the craggy slopes. A massive, gaping hole in the side of the mountain stood in front of us, its cavernous mouth seeming eager to devour anyone who entered.
Asuna muttered an oath. "How did we not find this on our way through clearing this floor?" Just as I opened my mouth to answer, a loud, rhythmic boom began to issue forth from the cave. I exchanged looks with her.
"That cannot be good," I said. Asuna didn't bother with a biting retort, but drew her rapier instead. I followed suit and together we entered the belly of the mountain to face the evils within.
The cave seemed to go on forever, the darkness only broken by clusters of glowing red crystals that sprouted from the walls and the floor seemingly at random. The booming never stopped, remaining a disconcerting constant. It was creepily similar to a heartbeat. Asuna and I exchanged tense glances as the volume increased. Finally, the end of the tunnel came into view- a large dimly lit hole in the shape of a rough semicircle. Crouching down to avoid detection, we exited the tunnel and ducked behind a nearby rock. Together, we peeked over our cover and got a view of the spectacle taking place.
The Alpha stood in the center of the space, held in place by ropes as thick as a man, each held by a score of Fangs, who appeared to strain mightily with keeping the beast contained. Drummers sat in a circle all around the edges of the chamber. They seemed to all be playing different songs that moved in an alien harmony with each other, but every so often, they would all strike their instruments in perfect synchronization, sending a teeth-rattling wave of sound reverberating through the air. Lupa stood in front of the Alpha, hands outstretched and chanting in a language I didn't recognize.
"He's using the standard beast-taming chant? Nothing out of the ordinary, no special verses? Is he insane?" Asuna whispered next to me. I clenched my jaw as I scanned the room, only seeing the odds were being stacked higher and higher against us.
"He's got the drummers around the room keeping the beat for him so he can keep his rhythm perfect," I explained "With most tamings, you're allowed a small margin of error with a chant, just in case something goes wrong that you can't control, but if something goes wrong here, all hell is going to break loose."
"Well what's the plan? We're running out of time here."
Almost as if on cue, the cavern suddenly became filled with a silvery light. Our eyes flitted upwards, squinting at the unexpected illumination. The cavern tapered upwards to a perfect circle cut into a crystal that had been invisible in the dim torch light, which now shone like the sun, casting a bright white beam onto the far wall of the cave that slowly began crawling towards Lupa and the Alpha.
"The moon!" I hissed. "We can't let him get in the moonlight! Lupa's trying to focus the power of the moon so he can make the ritual strong enough to tame the Alpha!" I went to stand up from our hiding place when Asuna yanked me back down by the back of my coat.
"Would you stop doing that?!" she seethed "You run out there now and you're going to end up with at least twenty new chest piercings!" I ground my teeth in frustration. She was right, of course. It didn't help change the fact I wanted to go out there and put that monster down.
"Well, how do you suggest we do this?" I asked, ever aware of the beam of light inching its way across the floor. We both peered over the top of the rock.
"Look there," Asuna said, nodding towards one of the drummers. "That one's in charge of keeping everyone in time." I squinted and found that she was right. The drummer she had singled out was working on producing an even, mechanical beat like a metronome.
"If we throw him off, the ritual's a bust." I murmured. I turned to look at Asuna. "How good is your Ranged Attack skill?" She grimaced.
"Not very high. I've been focusing on my One Handed to unlock some new rapier movements."
"Alright," I sucked in a nervous breath. "Guess it's on me."
Reaching inside of my coat, I drew a Throwing Spike and steeled my nerves. My target was all the way across the chamber, roughly a hundred yards away. I hadn't mastered my Ranged Attack, but I wasn't a novice either. One way or another, this was going to be one hell of a shot to pull off. On top of that, I'd have to time it so I would effectively throw off all of the drummers and ruin the ritual. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, doing my best to slow my breathing and clear my mind. I carefully attuned myself to the tattoo of the beat on the drums. I took in a final breath and stood, the shouts of guards around the chamber dull in my ears as drew back my arm and my eyes snapped open, instantly focusing on the lead drummer. I threw for everything I was worth.
I had been aiming to pin the hand of the drummer to the wall behind him, but I only managed to bury the spike into the cavern wall next to his head. Luckily, it was enough to make him flinch ever so slightly, and caused him hesitate on his next strike of the drum. The effect was almost instantaneous. The rest of the drummers faltered for a fraction of a second, causing Lupa to drag awkwardly on one syllable of his chant. Then chaos rained down.
The Alpha roared bloody murder, breaking its restraints with terrifying strength and sending Fangs flying into the cavern walls, some shattering into oblivion on impact. Lupa turned to look at us with nothing short of wanton rage in his eyes and howled at his men to kill us while he tried to subdue the Alpha.
"And if any of you manage to let them escape," he thundered "I'll feed you to the Great One myself!" Dozens of Fangs turned toward us with grim determination and feral hunger in their expressions. We were prey to be destroyed. Lupa turned and signaled to a Fang on a ledge of the cavern. Archers seemed to appear from every nook and cranny in the forsaken cave and took aim at the Alpha. "Fire!" Lupa barked. A cloud of arrows rained down on the Alpha, and many struck their mark, taking the beast in its eyes and mouth, while others bounced harmlessly off of its iron-like fur. The Alpha roared again, a mountain of health bars appearing above its head. My stomach dropped into a pit of despair as I counted nine bars.
"Impossible," Asuna choked. "Nothing has been this strong before! The engines-" she got cut off as a Fang took a wild swing at her head with a club. She quickly stepped inside his next swing and placed three rapier strikes into his knee, immobilizing the man as he collapsed screaming in agony. "The engines shouldn't allow something this strong so far down!"
We danced around each other, parrying blows from frenzied Fangs and doing our best to wound and not kill, but we were terribly outnumbered and could only continue our non-lethal resistance for so long before we would be overcome. Asuna and I seemed to reach this conclusion at the same time as we met each other's eyes for a moment that seemed to span minutes.
We've got to stop this before it goes too far her eyes told me. I nodded as I solemnly returned her gaze.
This won't be easy, you know. A fierce, gleeful light seemed to radiate deep within her.
That's what makes it fun. Shall we?
After performing a devastating riposte that left three Fangs groaning on the floor, Asuna gathered her legs under her and gracefully leapt over the remaining thugs with grace and ease, even adding a front flip on her way over.
"Show off," I grumbled as I blocked a haphazard slash at my head. I planted a solid kick into my enemy's ribs and sent him tumbling backward into his comrades before turning on my heel and lowering my shoulder to charge into the fray after her.
When we finally cleared the sea of Fangs and came to the center of the cavern, we stopped in our tracks. The Alpha stood surrounded by Lupa and several of his lieutenants. They took turns flanking the Alpha, attacking its back once it turned to focus on another one of their members, and it seemed to be working. They had already managed to chip away an entire health bar, but something was wrong. The Alpha seemed too relaxed. Lupa caught sight of us out of the corner of his eye.
"Idiots!" he screamed at the Fangs "Forget them! Our priority is subduing the Alpha!"
As he returned his attention to the fight, things turned catastrophic. Lupa's lieutenant went in to bring his axe down on the Alpha's hind leg when it swung its tail with impossible speed, striking the Fang square in the chest, knocking him into his comrades behind him. As the Fangs on either side of him turned their gazes to see if he was alright, the Alpha turned around in flash and brought down its massive paw in a devastating swing that massacred Lupa's lieutenants. Fear rolled through the ranks as men started to scream and crowd towards the exits, their nerve all but gone.
"Cowards!" Lupa shrieked, striking fleeing Fangs that passed him. "Let me remind you what true power is!" He turned and drew a sword made out of a strange bone that seemed to glow with a sickly purple aurora. I heard Asuna gasp next to me.
"Predator's Paragon," I finished for her. "That's it alright. A physical embodiment of the power of the hunt. In solo battles, it gives its user a powerful attack bonus, and that effect doubles if the target is wounded. That would explain a lot of the rumors around the Fangs."
Lupa gave a battle cry and charged the Alpha head on, landing a blow on its muzzle that smacked the behemoth's head to the side with a meaty crack! And for a moment, it seemed that Lupa might really just beat the Alpha into submission.
That was, of course, until the Alpha whipped its jaw around and bit Lupa clean in half at the waist. Asuna retched next to me and turned away from the sight. Lupa's truncated legs collapsed at the knee and twitched feebly before shattering into blue shards. Pandemonium ensued as the remaining Fangs lost all courage and ran for the exit, screaming and trampling over each other in order to escape that God-forsaken mountain. Sensing their fear, the Alpha turned its wicked gaze towards the crowded exit with primal hunger and began to pounce.
Time seemed to slow down for me and sound washed away, turning into barely audible echoes that seemed as if they were coming from the bottom of a well. The only sound that remained constant was my pulse roaring in my ears and my breathing. I felt as if I were watching my actions through another person's eyes. I saw myself raise my sword and run straight t the Alpha, just like Lupa did.
This is suicide, my brain told me matter-of-factly. You saw what happened to Lupa when he did this. Now you're going to do the exact same thing? I leapt into the air and activated my V-Slash directly into the Alpha's face.
Shut up, I told my brain Lupa and I are nothing alike. He was fighting for power. To control. To intimidate. I was vaguely aware of Asuna screaming my name as she charged in after me, her rapier awash with a green light as she activated her best sword skills to aid me.
Interesting, my brain replied, infuriatingly calm. So that makes you better than him? As I fell through the air, the Alpha snapped its jaws at me, trying to gobble me up just like it did Lupa. I brought my sword up and smacked at its huge teeth, using the force of the impact to propel myself upwards again and landed on top of the Alpha's neck. Asuna flitted between its legs, giving it hell with her rapier.
Of course not, I argued with myself. I'm guilty of my own crimes. I'm no better than anyone else. I swung wildly at the neck of the beast, combining powerful looping strikes into combos that would have destroyed most mobs several times over, but the Alpha's impregnable fur took the blows like they were nothing. The Alpha, apparently aware that I could do no damage, turned its attention to Asuna. The animal raised onto its hind legs, forcing me to grab a handful of fur to avoid taking a tumble off of its back. Then, it brought all of its weight down to bear on its front two paws. The earth beneath it rippled outwards with a tremendous force, throwing everyone off of their feet and shaking the entire cavern like a powerful earthquake.
What do you fight for that is so different from Lupa, then? My mind implored What do you want to save? My eyes fell on Asuna, whose leg was pinned under a rock that had shaken free of the cave ceiling. Our gazes locked and I could see the fear in her eyes.
Like we don't already know. I replied.
At least you finally admitted it, my brain smirked Now. Get moving.
I leapt off of the Alpha's back and crashed down in front of Asuna, rolling to dissipate the force of the impact. Together, we heaved the rock off of her leg and I helped her to her feet.
"You okay?" I asked. She winced as she tested her leg.
"No good," she panted "I'm out of Healing Crystals, too. I'm gonna need a few moments to use a potion." I scooped her up into a bridal style carry and bounded over the treacherous terrain to the cavern entrance which had been left abandoned by the Fangs who'd cleared out as quickly as they possibly could have after their leader fell.
"Take the time you need," I told her. "I'll hold it off until you're ready" She gripped my wrist before I could go to stand back up.
"I know I can't tell you to not to this," she said "But I am going to tell you to not do anything too stupid, and-" she hesitated.
"What? What is it?" she shook her head.
"Just make it back, okay?"
I gave her a lopsided grin. "Promise."
I stood and dashed back to stand in front of the Alpha. The wolf crouched low in a predatory stance, ready to shift its weight at a moment's notice. We faced off, each of us waiting for the other to make a move. Then, the Alpha charged me. It closed the distance in a single stride. I planted my feet beneath me and prepared to unleash a potent counterattack when it all went wrong.
You see, the thing with wolves is that while it is true that they are predators, and deadly in packs, they're smart too. They'll rarely go into a battle where the opponent or prey has an even chance of defending itself. They prefer to go to for weaker targets; prey that might be sick or wounded.
And that is exactly what the Alpha did. It charged at me, making it look like it was going in for the kill, then- just before it reached me- it turned on a dime and made straight for Asuna, who was just getting back on her feet. I saw the Alpha open its gaping maw and swoop its head down to tear her apart. I didn't even think when I moved. I crossed the space between us in the space of a heartbeat and stood between them. I had just enough time to shoulder Asuna down to the ground before the Alpha sunk its teeth into my chest.
I saw her expression of shock and surprise crumble into nothing short of sheer anguish as she comprehended what had happened. Tears welled in her eyes and cascaded down her face as I heard her voice break as she screamed my name, and even though I was standing right in front of her, she sounded tinny and far away. She looked so sad, but all I could do was smile gently at her, even as the Alpha tossed me into the air to swallow me whole when I came down.
Shame I couldn't really do more, I thought as I sailed up through the air. At least Asuna's alright. I went to close my eyes and accept my fate with what dignity I could salvage when I noticed the cavern ceiling had cracks that spider-webbed from the central point around the crystal. Instantly, an idea popped into my head. Using what little strength I had left, I waited until I was at the top of my arc, and heaved my sword at the crystal.
The blade struck true and hit the crystal with a chime like the world's largest tuning fork. The fragile cave ceiling gave way and the crystal, roughly the size of a semi, flew past me and came down onto the head of the Alpha with the force of an asteroid. The great wolf crumpled under the impact and collapsed on the ground, kicking weakly before remaining still. I chuckled as I hurtled toward the ground, the cave collapsing all around me.
"That'll teach you, you son of a bitch." Suddenly, I was moving sideways. I looked down at my waist to see a white-clad arm snaked around it. I looked up and saw Asuna's tear-stained face grimy from dust, teeth gritted with determination. She had caught me in mid-air and was carrying me to safety. She moved faster than I had ever seen her more before as she tore through the tunnel that we'd come through, the tunnel rumbling and falling to pieces mere feet behind her as she ran. We finally cleared the tunnel entrance and a cloud of dust debris followed us, the mountain screaming at us for destroying its secrets. Asuna kept running until we reached a clearing and collapsed into the soft green grass.
I sat up and scooted over to a fallen tree, sighing as I let my weight rest on it. I looked down at my body and grimaced. Gaping red swatches riddled my torso, rendering my armor nearly useless. Scarlet pixels arose from my wounds, fluttering away on a breeze before winking out of existence. This isn't good. I'm lucky to be alive in the first place, but I'm Bleeding. I looked up at my health bar and saw a single red drop of blood in my status effects bar that reaffirmed my fears. Potions can't help here. We're both out of crystals. I watched my health bar slowly drain away, changing from yellow to orange. I have to wait the effect out, and I might not have enough health to-
"Why?" I blinked and looked back down at Asuna who was doing her best to talk through hiccupping sobs. "Why did you jump in front of me?" I pinched my face into a frown.
"Why? You'd do the same for me. Why wouldn't I?" I replied. Asuna came over and knelt beside me.
"You knew you could've died. That it'd be over and you'd never get to see your family again. But you did it anyway." I laughed and winced at the effort, looking up at her.
"Damn, I almost sound heroic when you put it like that." She choked out a laugh and then wrapped me in a hug. If I had any insides left, I'm sure they would have melted.
"I'm not gonna let anything like this happen to you again, okay?" I returned her embrace as best I could with my wounds, but I couldn't feel happy about it.
"Might want to hold off on saying that just yet." I murmured morosely. I felt her freeze against me.
"I'm dying, Asuna." she quickly separated from me and scanned me over, seeming to take in the red pixels escaping my chest for the first time.
"No," she whispered hoarsely "No, Kirito, you can't die. We need you. I need you. You can't die." I gingerly took her hand and wiped away at the tears on her face.
"Hey, it'll be okay. You've got the whole guild, Klein, Agil, and Lisbeth. You're plenty strong enough to beat the game. No one's going to miss a beater like me."
Asuna shook her head vigorously. "That's not true. Not true at all. I'd-" she went to touch my wounds but hesitated, then balled her hand into a fist and punched the earth next to her- "Damn it all!" she cried. "It's just not fair! I never- we never-" she broke down, placing her head in her hands and lamenting. My vision blurred as tears welled in my own eyes as I saw my bar dip into the red.
"I love you."
Asuna's cries cut off abruptly. "What did you say?" she sniffled. I winced as I adjusted to sit higher up against the log.
"I love you," I blurted out "That's why I jumped. I can't die without telling you because I've loved you for so damn long and I just can't hold it in anymore and-" She cut me off by jumping on me and kissing me square in the mouth.
Her lips were as soft as I'd always dreamed they were. Her body was warm against mine in the cool autumn morning. Kisses piled on kisses in a wonderful mess. Her tongue found its way into my mouth and I reveled in the taste of her. I returned her gesture with passion and we melted into each other. I nibbled at her bottom lip and the little moan of pleasure it drew from her was enough to make me think I'd already died and gone to heaven. Eventually, we pulled apart, panting heavily.
"I love you too," she whispered. "So much. I just couldn't tell you. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." I wrapped my arms around her and squeezed her tight.
"There's nothing to apologize for," I whispered back. "It's okay now."
She shook her head and wiped her eyes on my jacket.
"Don't go," she begged, her voice hoarse. "I can't do this without you."
"Not my choice I'm afraid." I held her head as she cried softly on my shoulder and watched my life literally disappear before my eyes with morbid fascination.
"I love you," she whispered "Please. Please don't go."
"I love you too," I murmured back "I'm sorry."
I closed my eyes.
Nothing happened. I opened one eye. I was still in the clearing, Asuna and I were still holding each other tight. I looked up at my health bar. No more Bleeding, and five health left. I sighed in relief and went limp against the log. Asuna looked up at me with concern.
"Five health left. I'm not bleeding anymore." It was Asuna's turn to sigh.
"I'm not sure whether I should cry tears of joy or kick your ass for scaring me like that."
"Personally, I'd prefer the first one. I barely survived my last asskicking." Asuna shot me a look. "What, too soon?"
I woke up in my cabin a little past ten in the morning. I looked next to me and found the bed empty. I exhaled loudly and rubbed at my face before rolling out of bed and heading to the bathroom to wash my face. As I turned the tap on, I thought back over the past few days' events.
Once we were sure that I wasn't going to die anytime soon, we teleported back to Fallholt and got some medical attention. After we recovered and gotten a good night's sleep, Asuna and I had rounded up the remnants of the Fangs guild and arrested those guilty of various crimes throughout Aincrad, and tried to point those who were innocent to guilds who could steer them in the right direction. We'd spent the rest of the day calming various fears and disproving rumors that'd managed to form and spread like wildfire. By the time we were done, we were both falling over from exhaustion and decided to crash the night at my cabin one last time.
"I'm going to have to report to HQ and notify the commander about this whole thing," Asuna complained from the bed of the cabin. "On the bright side, at least I can make a case for some more protection to be sent for players on lower floors."
"You're a regular saint," I joked with her as I sorted out my inventory. I was rewarded with a giggle that warmed me down to the core.
"You could come with me you know," she went on. "See what the guild is like, meet some of the members." I rolled my eyes as I kept scrolling through my menu.
"You already know what my answer will be." Asuna made a noncommittal noise and rose from the bed, padding over to my chair by the table, draped her arms around my neck, and rested her head on my shoulder.
"It never hurts to ask. Now," she planted a kiss on my cheek. "Are you coming to bed?"
I smiled as I recalled the closeness we'd shared over the past couple of days. I'd never been so glad to be not-dead before in my life. I took my shirt off and turned on the hot water to ease some of the tenseness out of my back. I'd just started washing up when I realized I'd left some fancy soap I'd gotten in town the day before on the nightstand. I opened the bathroom door and crossed the room when I heard the door to the stairwell open.
"Oh." I whirled around and found Asuna standing in the doorway, giving me an appraising look. She looked up and met my eyes, then averted her gaze and blushed.
"I was just washing up!" I tried to explain. Asuna's gaze drifted to my torso again.
"I said that's what it looks like!" she announced louder. "The commander was understanding of the situation and gave me a week's leave, effective immediately."
I crossed my arms over myself. "Generous of him."
"It sure was. I came back as quick as I could to tell you the good news."
"Well, I appreciate it. I'll, uh, excuse myself then." I took a step towards the bathroom, but stopped when she asked me a question.
"Do you have somewhere to be any time soon?" I paused.
"Uh, not particularly, no. Why?" Asuna slowly turned and locked the door behind her, the bolt shooting home with a dull thud that sounded almost identical to the sound of her armor hitting the wooden floor.
"Neither do I."