"Wow! You've gotten to the point where you can swim 25 meters!" Keiko's praise excites Suguha as she stands up from her practice swim with a flotation board. So far, she's making great progress. Like I said earlier, even if she didn't nail the physical aspect of swimming, the mentality is there.
"Hey, you've got the breathing technique down, too!" Rika says.
Asuna nods. "You're a good athlete, Suguha, so no wonder."
"You might be good on your own on the quest."
Suguha nods then looks off to the side. "Thank you very much..."
"Huh? What's this? Are you feeling lonely without your big brother?"
I sigh. "Lisbeth…"
"It's not like that at all! I was just wondering why he's so late…"
"You and Kirito are really close. I'm an only child, so it makes me envious."
"Y-You think so?"
"Aye," I say. "I had a friend who I was very close to in my childhood. Never considered her like a sister, but I get the feeling Keiko feels."
"But… Before my brother got trapped inside SAO, we weren't really that close. I wanted to see what those VRMMOs he was so obsessed with were all about, and that's when I started playing ALO. And now I'm no slouch as a gamer myself?"
"It was you who guided Kirito to the World Tree, wasn't it, Suguha?"
"Yes. But when I first met him, I had no idea he was my brother. I just thought he was this rude guy. But from time to time, I could see that he was brooding over something. I didn't know why, but somehow I couldn't just leave him alone. But since it only took us three days to reach the World Tree, it really was like a forced march!"
"I wish he had told me about it," I say while I play with Rika's hair. "But I guess I do go overboard when it comes to creeps and assholes, and Sugou was pushing it. And I guess we don't need two angry boys searching for Asuna."
"Thanks, Jaymes, for standing up for me then," Asuna chuckles. "And thanks so much, Suguha."
"Oh, no, don't thank me. I had such a good time myself. That's right, we went through a lot, but I enjoyed my adventure with Kirito."
As we sit outside the pool, my ever inquisitive girlfriend pesters Suguha again. "So what was your impression of Kirito after going on that adventure with him? You didn't know he was your brother, right?"
"My first impression was just, 'He's so fast,' I guess. But more than that, his seriousness during each battle was nothing like anyone else's. The moment I realized that the source of his seriousness was his desire to protect someone. I thought to myself, 'This is someone I can believe in.'"
"He wasn't always like that," Asuna says. "That, he learned from Jaymes."
"Well, it was expressed differently. He used to believe that by being a solo player, he was going to be able to survive, but he never denied help. As I said earlier, Asuna was his partner for the first third of the game until she joined the Knights of the Blood Oath, and he helped me and Koharu multiple times on and off the front. But around a few months in, he joined a guild. It...changed him badly. For almost a year I didn't understand him. His relationship with Asuna soured and not even Koharu could break his cold demeanor. It wasn't until after Koharu died that I understood his pain...and that's when I knew how to help my friend."
Suguha looks to her knees. "He told me that, despite the differences in the worlds, the player and the character are one and the same. Is that really true?"
"Yes. The world of VR is just an expression of who we truly are in the real world. Who we are without society keeping our base urges in check. Some of us are better versions of who we present ourselves. Some are no different. And the rest...are scum. As much credit I'd like to take, I only showed him what it takes to protect others; Asuna was the catalyst for him as Lisbeth, Silica, and others were for me. I'm sure the opposite is the same. We had people to protect, whether they were by our side or elsewhere. That's why I know he would've fought harder for you back in ALO."
"That's why, no matter who his opponent was, my brother… Kirito would never run away. I believed there was no way he could ever lose."
"You know, being close as siblings is all well and good, but this older chick's a little worried about forbidden love."
Suguha's voice gets pretty high at Rika's absurd comment. "Wh-What are you talking about? Nevermind that, let's get back to practice! Practice!"
"All right, then shall we give it another go?"
Later, Tule Island in ALO
"Hey, dudes… I was never so glad about ALO time and real time not being in sync as I am today!"
"Yeah, since it's already nighttime in the real world."
"I'm telling you, it's gotta be like this at the beach! Blue skies!"
"The oncoming waves!"
"The dazzling sunlight…"
"And...GAH!" Klein, Kirito, and I almost fall out of our chairs as Agil interrupts our sight of the...beach. Not the group of girls, but the beach itself.
"Hey there! Thanks for waiting!.. Hey there, what's the matter, you three?"
"Dude," I point to Agil's only article of clothing, "what's with that? Put some pants on."
Agil steps to Klein's side while he looks at himself as if there's nothing wrong. "What do you mean?"
"You two handle that." I look towards the water, just in time to see Lisbeth get sprayed by Pina and drop in the water. Silica just killed my girlfriend...she'll respawn.
"Hey, Kirito, this better be legit. That a whale appears in this quest? Yui's really looking forward to it. Now if it turns out that it's not a whale, but a jellyfish or a sea butterfly, it's gonna be lame than hell!"
"Oh Klein, what little faith you have."
"If it's a giant sea butterfly, I wouldn't mind seeing it though. Agil, did you come up with any info?"
"Well, the thing is, since this quest is way out on the edge of the world map, not a lot of people even know about it. But the part about a gigantic aquatic monster appearing at the end of the quest seems to be true."
"Hey, that means we can pretty much get our hopes up, right? All right, let's go for it today!" Klein gets out his chair excitedly to call the eight girls (Asuna, Lisbeth, Silica, Leafa, Yui, Philia, Strea, and Rain)."People! It's time for us to get going!"
"I have my doubts," I say to Kirito and Agil since Klein's focused on the water. "It doesn't mean it's a whale and it doesn't mean it won't try to eat us."
"Yeah, you have a point." Kirito says as we stand up and equip our gear. "Good to see you're cautious about it. I'm counting on you out there to back me up."
I smile and fist bump Kirito. "No problem."
The girls and Agil come to us in their armor, while I spot a dejected Klein on the sand kneeling. "With your permission, I'd like to serve as your party leader," Kirito asks of us. "During the quest, if our objective, a giant whale, shows up, please follow my instructions!"
"Right!" We all say.
"Someday, I'll express my gratitude mentally. All right, everyone. Let's do this!"
As everyone else flies off, I stay on the beach momentarily to hoist Klein to his feet. "Get up, you sad man."
"According to these coordinates, it should be around here… You see anything?"
I shake my head. "No, I don't. Strea, is this the right place?"
She nods. "Yeah, these are the correct coordinates that the rumor speaks of."
"Hey, isn't that it over there?" We look to where Klein is pointing, a glowing, moving green spot. The three of us nod to each other, agreeing that it might be our best shot.
"All right," Asuna says as she starts up a spell, "I'm going to cast a Water Breathing spell, okay?" As she recites the spell, bubbles appear around each of us. Once that is done, we fly down towards the ocean and dive in. In case of trouble with my student, fall behind, just in time to see her struggle a bit.
"Leafa." I reach my hand out to her, tapping my forehead and moving my hand back and forth from my nose. She nods and grabs my hand, following the rest of our large party further under the sea.
As we approach where the light came from, we see the green glow on the ocean floor. It comes from an undersea structure, like a temple or something. Considering how ALO is myth-centered, I would say this might be the equivalent to Atlantis. "Wow! That's amazing!"
"Hey, there's someone there!" Following Lisbeth's pointing finger, I can see a person standing on the outermost platform in a robe.
"Hey, looks like a quest NPC."
"If we're talking about someone in trouble in the sea, you know it has to be a mermaid! My mermaid damsel, I'm coming to save you right now!"
As the man swims away, Philia sighs at Klein's idiocy. "No, not mermaids. Treasure! That's the only explanation!"
"Let's find out," I say as we all follow behind Klein, beaten by the Salamander samurai to the figure.
"Are you in some kind of trouble, my damsel-Gah!" As we swim to Klein's level, it turns out there's no mermaid, but an old man that goes by the name of Nerakk.
"Looks like it was a grandpa, not a damsel!"
As we laugh at Yui's comment, Kirito walks past him towards the old man. "What's wrong, old gentleman?" Suddenly a prompt shows up in front of Kirito. Curious, I land beside him to read it.
"'The Plunderers of the Deep Sea'."
Philia laughs. "Treasure, told ya!"
Kirito accepts the quest, prompting the old man to start with his speech. "Ah, fairies from the surface! Will you be so kind as to help this decrepit old man? Actually, I've been robbed of a souvenir for an old friend of mine by some thieves who use this temple as their base. I wonder if you'd be kind enough to take it back from them in my place."
Kirito nods. "Just leave it to us."
"Ah. I am grateful. I am grateful. The souvenir is a pearl about this size." Nerakk gestures its size, which is probably as big as a basketball, probably a little more.
"That's huge" I hear Lisbeth say, almost losing her breath.
"Don't even think about lifting it and selling it off," Silica scolds.
"I-I would do such a thing. Not this time!"
"Philia," I hear Rain complain. Our resident treasure hunter looks pale in surprise in the arms of the pop idol. "You're too heavy…"
I lean into Kirito. "Those two stay away from the pearl, and let's add Agil to that list just because."
He chuckles. "Right."
"I'm counting on you, my fairies. If you succeed in retrieving my pearl, I'll be sure to reward you handsomely!"
With the quest officially beginning, Kirito turns to the rest of the group behind us. "Um, this looks like a search-type quest, but there are sure to be monsters inside that temple. Vanguard, your sword strokes will be slower in an underwater battle, so watch out. Rearguard, remember that you can't use lightning-type spells. All right, let's go!"
As the ground advances (and I point silent warnings at the two girls who might screw us up) I walk in line with Asuna and Leafa, the latter bearing contemplation on her face. "Something wrong, Leafa?"
"The quest-giver. His name is familiar, but I don't know why. You're knowledgeable in Norse mythology, does that name mean anything to you?"
"I'm not as knowledgeable as you may think, but no, Nerakk doesn't." Dropping my hand from my face, I look to Leafa with a serious face. "Keep that thought. As I have learned, if someone has a bad feeling, it will present itself eventually..."
"Hey, Kirito," Klein says as the three of us lead the group of twelve further in the dungeon. "Underwater battles aren't Leafa's thing, are they? Shouldn't you be looking out for her more?"
"I know, but… It's not just when we pair up. When we team up in a party, I don't know what it is, but I can't figure out how to deal with her."
I raise an eyebrow while slowing my walking speed. "What does that mean?"
Klein agrees. "Oh, come on, you can just be yourself. You're her big bro, so you gotta take care of your kid sister!"
"Yeah, but when I first met here, I didn't even know-" Kirito is suddenly cut off as he and Klein drop down into a swirling whirlpool. Seeing no cause for alarm as they make it back up, I laugh while Agil simply watches the pair in disappointment.
"What kind of fool falls right into a visible pit? Seriously."
As I help Kirito up, he glares at me. "You were walking right beside me! Why didn't you say anything, jackass?"
"Why didn't you see anything, dumbass?"
Lisbeth sighs heavily from the middle. "To think that they are former top players from the Assault Team...and I'm dating one of them."
"Don't worry!" Silica assures. "To me, it doesn't matter what you've become-Ow!"
Philia runs her forehead. "Maybe I should lead, what if that trap was dangerous?"
"As if you wouldn't have fallen in," Rain comments snidely.
Strea suddenly points forward. "Jaymes!"
"Daddy," Yui shouts from her mother's shoulder, "behind you!" At our respective MHCP's warning, Kirito and I turn to see a blue light from within the pit. It gives way to a burst of water and a creature coming out of it.
"Is that it? The whale?"
"No… That's no whate, no matter how you look at it! Prepare for battle!"
"Be careful, we don't have much room and we're at an environmental disadvantage." I draw my sword and place it on top of my shield as the monster named Armachthys swims in place in front of us. Kirito and I make the first charge, but with our slow speed and impaired maneuverability, Armachthys headbutts Kirito out the way. I try myself, hitting nothing but the bony plate on its head with no damage to show for my efforts. "Damn!"
"It's not taking damage to the head. Jaymes and I will make it target us, so attack him from the sides!" As he says that, Bonehead (as I will call him) presses against my shield. Thankfully, my experience as a disgruntled tank allows me to maintain his aggro while Klein and Agil strike the fleshy sides of Armachthys.
The girls head towards us just as Kirito comes to help me hold the fish's attention, but he stops his sister. "Leafa, I want you and Asuna to cover it with magic spells!" She nods and casts a spell, surrounding us in a green aura.
"Thank you, Leafa," Lisbeth says as she leads the attack for the remaining eight players. All goes well until I hear a yell from am attacking Leafa, just for Armachthys to swim off and start an underwater waterspout. It prevents us from attacking, but more worrisome, it catches Leafa and causes her to drop in the pit, barely grabbing the edge.
"Leafa!" Silica cries out. "Kirito! Leafa's…"
From under my shield, I look at Kirito, knowing exactly what's going through his head. "You're going to do something crazy?"
"Yeah. Boost me up." Kirito swims back and launches himself forward, using my shield to give him some speed. While the others call out in concern, I watch in anticipation as Kirito disappears in the funnel. Seconds later, that vanishes, along with the monster that created it.
"Sugu!" Kirito manages to catch his sister before she drops into the whirlpool pit. Klein and I grab hold of him before Kirito slips, and Agil has to hoist us all up. Relieved and victorious, we catch our breaths.
"Kazuto," Leafa says as she turns to him, "You saved me again."
We continued on, fighting more monsters and, at my request, letting Philia to circumvent more traps. Time passed, and we finally made it to our destination. Let me just say, the pearl is bigger than stated. It rested within a nest of sorts, so Kirito went to grab it at my suggestion in case certain treasure hunters, blacksmiths, or item collectors try to keep it for themselves. With everything in order, we backtrack towards the old man.
Klein groans as he sits on a step outside the temple, joined by Agil. "I don't want to see another shrimp or crab for a good, long time."
"Or a squid, or an octopus, either."
"In the end," Klein continues, "It never did show up, huh? The whale."
Silica laughs from behind the men. "But Yui sure looked like she was enjoying herself."
As Kirito goes to turn in the pearl, Lisbeth, Strea, and I stand with the rest of the girls. Strea hugs her stomach as if she's in pain. "Seafood is indefinitely ruined for me."
Rain nods ruefully. "I had it for dinner."
I turn to Lisbeth, chuckling. "Hope you're not denying seafood either, my family loves it."
She sighs. "Well, no, but it would be nice to have other things… Hey, Jaymes, those thieves who stole that pearl off that old man never did show up either, did they?"
I fold my arms. "No, they didn't. Glad to know I'm not the only one who noticed. Plus it was in a nest, wasn't it… How's that bad feeling, Leafa?"
"Now that you mention it…"
"Kirito, just a second!" Asuna sprints forward to stop her boyfriend. Thankfully she gets there in time, preventing Nerakk from being handed the pearl. She takes it from Nerakk and holds it up. With the light that surrounds the temple, Asuna inspects the pearl. "It's not a pearl! It's an egg!"
"A-An egg? Could it be that… 'The Plunderers of the Deep Sea', did that actually mean us?"
I look to Philia, the girl looking demoralized by the pearl's true identity. "You didn't see this coming, treasure hunter?"
"Well, it's not even treasure, so don't look at me!"
"All right, hand it over to me." Nerakk approaches Asuna for the egg, but Kirito steps between them. Denied once more, Nerakk drops his arms. "If you refuse to hand it over, then I have no choice, do i?" His eyes glow red, his body morphing from a human to a gigantic mollusc. Seven health bars appear, but what's more noticeable is the name change.
Kraken, the Abyss Lord.
"Kraken!" Leafa shouts. "Demon of the sea from Norse mythology!"
I reach for my sword and lead the rest of the group to join Kirito and Asuna. "Correct. Should've seen this coming."
"Many thanks, my fairies. You did well to extract the egg of the royal child from that temple guarded by a barrier keeping me out! Now then, give it to me!"
"We'll do no such thing!" says Asuna. "We're going back to the temple to return the egg!"
"You foolish winged parasites! In that case, you shall find a watery grave!" It starts the battle with a tentacle, nearly slamming it on us before Klein and Agil get under it, buffed with magic by Leafa and Silica.
"Aye!" We attack the tentacle with sword parts, leaving a giant X-shaped wound on it. It doesn't last long, to our surprise, as the wound is healed completely. Stunned, we're targeted by smaller, faster tentacles.
"Kirito! Jaymes!" Lisbeth launches herself to grab us out the way, but the three of us and the two other guys still take a big hit. Holding Lisbeth in my arms, I glare from my nearly emptied health bar towards the Kraken.
"Strea." She knows my tone well enough to know I'm more worried about what's in front of us. Kneeling over me, she looks at the beast.
"It has stats that surpasses any boss on New Aincrad. And the New Aincrad bosses are harder than the old one…" I look to Strea, then back to the boss. That's...impossible to beat with just the twelve of us. As I grit my teeth, the Kraken roars, exposing its large, toothy channel of a mouth, ready for the kill.
Before it can consume us, a large trident impedes its path. Like, literally, a barrier is formed between us and the Kraken by the trident. The Kraken is stupefied by this himself. "This spear!"
Looking from where the spear originated, we see a giant being in blue armor and cape float down towards us. He's old, but his eight bars of health says he can still throw down if needed. His name is something to fear: Leviathan, the Sea Lord. He ignores us for the Kraken. "Long time no see, my old friend. I can see that you still can't stop hatching your foolish plots!"
"What about you? How long do you plan to put up with those minions of the Earth Gods? You are a disgrace as the King of the Sea!"
"I happen to be content to be King. And this is my backyard. Knowing that, do you really wish to fight, King of the Abyss?"
"...I shall withdraw for now. But, listen, my friend… I'm not giving up. One day, I'll claim the power of The Child for myself and take those detestable gods by surprise!"
As the Kraken drops into the abyss, Leviathan kneels down, not that it helps, he still towers over us. "That is the egg of one who will someday roll all of the seas and skies. As I must transfer it to a new resting place, I'll be taking it back now." The egg disappears from Asuna's arms, claimed by the Sea Lord. As we who were wiped out earlier get up, Kirito receives the "Mission Cleared" notification.
"Oh, so now we cleared the mission?" Klein looks at the notification in confusion. "I have no idea what's going on here."
"I didn't understand a word of that conversation he had with that octopus," Lisbeth says. "Did you?"
I shrug. "A little. It's a basic mythology power struggle. Seems the Kraken wants to rule the seas and fight the gods for some reason. Revenge, most likely."
"For now," Leviathan says, "that's fine. Now then, I shall send you back to your own country, my fairies."
"Send us? But how?" Leviathan doesn't say a word, but the ginormous shadow that creeps over us answers that.
"This whale is really, really gigantic!"
"Woohoo!" As the two AIs enjoy their first whale, the rest of us stand on the back, staring into the sunset. From below, I catch sight of New Aincrad. I wonder, if the mythos of SAO are true, is that what it looks like from the surface.
"Hmm." Lisbeth leans into me, wrapping her arms around my waist. I return the gesture with my right arm around her. "I can't wait for tomorrow."
"You sure? I haven't told anyone you'd be there, you can drop out if you like."
"No," she says softly. "I'm nervous but I'm coming. I want to show that I'm going to be by your side in the real world as I was in SAO."
"Okay," As I tighten my hold on Lisbeth, I look to Kirito, who stares at the hovering steel castle. I wonder what he's thinking about it, if it correlates with my own. Maybe he's thinking of the past as ys who went to the pool side earlier in the day.
Whatever his thoughts are, I pay attention to my own, laughing internally as I come up with the perfect way to forever ruin this moment. "Hey guys, I just want to say, I had a whale of a time today!"
I'll never know who pushed me into the water.