-Shumir Bay-

"Erm... Are we sure this is the right place?" Silica cleared her throat nervously.

Kirito and his group had traveled for nearly a full day and finally arrived at the town Klein was suggesting they quest at. The seven friends stood before a large green mountain covered by tree roots big enough to build a small cabin in. It was as if the roots were encircling the erected land like a karaken would to a boat. It was strangely beautiful in a way Kirito didn't quite understand. The weather here was warmer, too.

From what the Black Swordsman could see from the outside, the gate to Shumir Bay led into a cave that was lit up by lanterns and patrolled by a set of marching guards.

"Quite the grand entrance." Kirito said sarcastically. He was expecting a more rich and extravagant city, not one so outlandish that it used literal mountains as a substitute for walls. That said though, it was very hot in this section of the map. Kirito thought the more north he and his friends went, the colder it would be. The teen supposes that's his human instinct. Often times he forgets he's in a game despite the fact that he keeps reminding himself that he is.

"Yeah uh... This place seems kind of sketchy." Agil remarked.

Klein took a few steps ahead of the group and did a one eighty. "Trust me, the people here are super friendly. You won't find a better place on floor one than Shumir Bay."

As if on queue, from behind the front gates, a small man wearing a hood and a bandanna running from what Kirito assumed to be guards since they were wearing shining armor and wielded gold encrusted swords. "Thief!" One of the guards yelled and pointed towards the small hooded man. He was so short that he managed to slip through the albeit wide gap within the metal gate.

"Go on, chase me, then, you dogs!" The thief made an immediate left turn as soon as he stepped foot outside the barrier, avoiding the grips of two gate watchers. Whoever this guy was, he was fast. There's no way he's anything below level five. He opened his inventory and selected an item, but he was too far away for Kirito or his friends to see what it was. Once he closed his interface, he began dropping what looked like large, spherical rocks onto the ground.

"What the hell are those?" Asuna took a step forward and squinted.

Lisbeth suddenly gasped. "Bombs!" She threw her arms around Asuna and tackled her to the ground. "Get down!"

Everyone collapsed onto their bellies and placed their hands over their heads. Sure enough, the sound of explosions filled the air, the shrapnel colliding with everything in a twenty feet radius. Kirito counted seven explosions until they finally ceased. After a while, he glanced up to see black, charred grass where the bombs went off. Thankfully, it didn't seem like anyone was hurt, including the guards. They must be a high level, which means they have a lot of health. Kirito wouldn't know until he get closer.

"Everyone good?" The Black Swordsman asked as he got to his feet. His friends gave him an unsettled nod.

"See?" Klein smiled. "The friendliest people in all of Aincrad!"

"Ugh! I can't believe we listened to you. This place already seems like a hell hole." Sinon scoffed and brushed the grass from her shoddy armor.

Klein held a hand to his heart in a comedic attempt to act offended. "Ouch."

"You!" One of the guards yelled and pointed at Kirito with a stern shake of his finger. "Did you know that man?"

"W-What? No, we just got here." The teen defended.

"You'd like access Shumir Bay, correct?

"Well... Yeah? We aren't here to stare at the front gate."

The guard waved the group of friends over and placed a hand on his hip. "I knew that midget was up to no good... Damn low-life bandits." He grumbled to to himself audibly enough for everyone to hear.

Asuna gasped and smiled, "Hey! That's what I call them, too! 'Low lifes'" She said, all too excited.

The guard snapped his gaze over to Asuna. "What?" He said with a husky voice.

Asuna's smile faded and her shoulders slumped. "N-Never mind, sir."

"Anyways." Through the guards helmet, Kirito could see him chewing his lip as he spoke, "That little bastard ran off with three thousand col. Took it from Miss. Pilley's bakery. How could someone be so low?"

"Must have been desperate." Sinon commented softly from behind everyone. "Desperation makes people do things they wouldn't usually do."

"Hmph. Tell that to Miss. Pilley." The guard chuckled. "Woman's been running her bakery for years without any incident. She hosts a monthly event in front of her shop in which she gives out free loafs of bread. Sweetheart is a saint. I'd do anything just to be able to return her money... Maybe even restore her faith in this city."

"Seems like you really take this job seriously." Lisbeth nodded approvingly at the guards attitude.

"Of course I do. Without laws, we have anarchy. Some people may not like that, but I'm sure once they get a taste of what chaos is really like, they'd plead for order to return."

"So uh..." Kirito rubbed the back of his neck. "About entering the city..."

"Off limits... for now at least." The guard said bluntly.

"Of limits?" The boy complained. "Then what was the point of calling us over."

"Hush. Let me explain."

Kirito groaned, but remained silent nevertheless.

The guard continued, "We're a small settlement, so we have a protocol whenever a crime like this occurs. The city will be on lock down for the next twenty four hours. No one can leave, no one can enter.. You're welcome to wait outside for a chance to come in at a later time, or..." He fell silent, his eyes darting to each and every one of the friends.

"Or what?" Asuna pried.

"You could go find out where that bandit went, and bring him back to us. After that, I'm sure we can work out a deal. As far as I know, he's a lone wolf, so you won't have to deal with any ulterior enemies."

Kirito turned and faced his group so he could try to get an idea of what they were thinking. Agil, Asuna, and Sinon nodded 'yes', while Silica, Lisbeth, and Klein shook their head 'no'.

An even split. Looks like he'd have to be the tie breaker. He kicked at the dirt beneath his feet and bit the inside of his cheek. "Alright." He finally said.

The guards posture perked up. "Great! If -"

"On one condition." The Black Swordsman interrupted. "Let four of us into the city, the other three will go find your bandit."

"W-What? Kirito, we're a team!" Silica tugged on her friends shirt sleeve. "I thought you said we should stick together no matter what."

Kirito smiled and gave her a reaffirming nod. "We are a team. Just because we split up sometimes doesn't mean we aren't sticking together anymore."

The young girl still didn't look too convinced, so Kirito continued on with his reasoning, "This guy has bombs and stuff, right?"

Silica nodded. "Mhm."

"Bombs go boom, right?"

"Mhm. They do have a tendency to do that."

"If a bomb explodes while we're all around, some of us'll get hurt."

"I know, but we can all try to be quiet and surprise him. That's how we'll win." Silica argued.

"Exactly, but there's too many of us. We don't know anything about this guy. He'll probably notice us if we bring seven people. Plus it's just easier to coordinate if less of us go."

Silica sighed. She knew he was right. She clasped her hands together and held them low. "So who's going and who's staying?"

"W-Wait a minute." The guard intervened. "I never agreed to this. Don't go makin' any plans until I say it's alright."

Kirito blinked at him in confusion. "Uh... Is the compromise alright, sir?"

"Yeah." The guard crossed his arms confidently as if he had a righteous authority over the matter.

Kirito recoiled his head back in frustration and sighed. "If you knew you were going to say yes, why would you-" he sighed and turn back to his friends, ignoring the sense of pride radiating from the guard. "Any volunteers for going out and searching for this bandit?"

Predictably, Asuna's hand was the first to launch into the air as if it was a contest to see who could do it first. "I'll go!" She declared proudly and took her place next to her boyfriend.

"Ah man!" Klein grimaced. "This is like picking during gym class. Don't pick me last, Kirito!"

"I'm not picking anyone. I'm asking for volunteers."

"ME!" The red head shouted, causing everyone else to suddenly cover their ears. "Ahaha!" Klein ran over and wrapped an arm around The Black Swordsman while simultaneously pointing at the four who didn't volunteer. "Better luck next time!"

The four just glared at him in contentment. "So uh... I guess I'll go sell some of this extra junk in my inventory." Agil shrugged. Lisbeth, Silica, and Sinon agreed. The guards closed the large wooden gate once the other friends were inside. They're safe. That's all that matters. Once Kirito, Asuna, and Klein were finished with their mission, they'd meet up once again. "Come on." Kirito told his two companions. "The bandit ran this way."

The three friends followed Kirito as they jogged along the mountain, passing many outcropping tree roots and fallen boulders. The entire place was fairy scenic. Kirito wondered what the inside looks like. He could ask Klein since he's been there before, but the current silence was peaceful. That's not say that Klein is annoying, it's just that sometimes silence is the best music, that's all.

The three eventually noticed a dip in the terrain. They were heading down a slope leading them east. According to the map, just a few hundred feet further is the ocean, which is also the floor's world barrier. Whatever enemies are up here are going to be at least level four or five. Klein, Asuna and Kirito were only level two. Kirito prayed that the enemies in these parts didn't travel in packs. The friends can win an uneven battle, but if it was a three on three, they'd be decimated faster than they could run away. They'll need to take this nice and slow.

The ground beneath the three eventually became sandy, indicating they were nearing the beach. Sure enough, just down the hill a little more was a single log cabin a few paces from the waterfront. "There." Kirito whispered.

"Man... He sure is rolling deep in money, ain't he?" Klein remarked sarcastically, referring to the small size of the lone cabin.

"No kidding. Maybe we should let him keep the money. Poor guy seems like he's struggling." Asuna joked.

Klein glanced over to her and whispered, "Not every can be second in command to the... Knights of the... Crimson Crusade-"

"Knights of the Blood Oath." Asuna corrected with a growl. She refocused and pursed her lips as she glanced around the area. "I'm not seeing any good way to approach this. There's no cover for us to use as we try to get closer. We can try to make a run for it and hide against the cabins wall, but we'll risk being seen."

Kirito sniffled and wiped his nose. The stench around here was that of rotting fish. This is why he never particularly enjoyed the ocean. Lakes and rivers are fine, but the ocean always had this underlying stench of death. "Hmm... Let's not forget that this may not even be where our target lives. What if this is the house of some innocent fisherman? We can't just kick down the door and start swinging. Let's do some reconnaissance first."

Kirito's two friends agreed, so they crouched down behind a lone tree that sat on the borderline between the grasslands and the beach. It's a beautiful day. "Hey... after this mission. I may log off for a bit. Suguha might want to spar this afternoon."

Asuna and Klein both slowly looked over at Kirito, a strange look on their face. At first, the black swordsman was taken aback by their reaction. He wasn't sure why his friends were staring at him like that. Did he say something weird? Then it hit him. He were stuck in this game once again. He couldn't log off anymore. For some reason, his brain had totally forgotten about David Herara and Sapper Co..

Kirito felt a ping in his stomach, like the one you would feel when reminiscing about a childhood friend in which you lost. The feeling was not strong enough to make the Black Swordsman want to show any kind of negative emotion, but it was strong enough to make him zone out whilst staring at the grass beneath him. "This game... it's trying to take over my head." He whispered.

"Kirito?" Asuna sat down next to her boyfriend and wrapped her arm around his shoulder. "Are you feeling alright?"

Kirito couldn't tell the truth. He couldn't tell her how much he despised being here, or that he just wanted to go home. No, right now Kirito needed to be strong for her and his friends.

His lips curled into a fake, mechanical smile. "Yeah, I'm fine." He was lying to the limits, but she seemed to buy it.

Asuna smiled and wrapped an arm around Kirito, hugging his side. The three just sat there for a while. The breeze from the ocean was a nice way to break up the monotony of waiting in the heat. The moment was pure, peaceful, but also kind of tense. Klein kept his eyes on the cabin, waiting for any sign of movement. None would come any time soon, though. After about an hour, the friends rotated guard duties. Kirito volunteered to be the next look out while Klein took a rest. He and Asuna talked about the real world and how their jobs were going.

Kirito couldn't help but eavesdrop. Can it be considered eavesdropping if someone is just a few feet away? Regardless, Kirito overheard their whole conversation. Apparently Klein had been talking to a girl for quite sometime now, and was planning on marrying her. Kirito was half tempted to bud in and ask him about details such as how they met, and what she was like. However he decided not to, as the black swordsman figured it would be strange for him to suddenly hop into their discussion while he was suppose to be on lookout.

The sun was beginning to disappear under the horizon behind the ocean. Since we were facing east, the sky lit up with a crimson red color. "Guys." Kirito said after about an hour and a half. "We need to leave. Getting caught out here while it's night would not turn out well."

"Agreed." Asuna rose to her feet and brushed herself off, as did Klein.

"Yeah, maybe if we go -"

Klein was cut off by a loud 'hiss' that came from the direction of the log cabin. Suddenly, a large, bright red explosion detonated from the other side of the tree that the friends had been using as cover. The leaves burnt to a charred crisp and slowly fell to the ground. Kirito, Klein and Asuna were blasted down to their backs due to the shock wave.

"Ah! W-What the hell?!" Asuna cried out.

"Get up!" Kirito screamed and pulled both of his companions to their feet.

Before they could make a beeline back towards the front gates of Shumir Bay, another hissing noise came from behind them. This time, however, it was getting closer as if it was chasing them. Kirito looked up and saw a tiny spark burning its way down a thin cord of rope attached to a spherical rock similar to the one that the bandit used back at the gates. "It's him!" Kirito declared. The bomb flew over the friends heads and landed a few paces in front of them. They staggered to a halt and quickly ran in the opposite direction, only to be faced by him.

"Howdy, pigs." He said, hands caressing another bomb attached to his belt. From behind the terrified trio, the second bomb he threw detonated, illuminating the darkening area in an ominous, orange glow for a split second, revealing the bandits gray robes and metal chest plate. Luckily, there was a large enough distance between the friends and the bomb to where we felt none of its effects.

"W-Who the hell even are you?" Klein demanded, raising a fist in anger.

The bandit hooked a finger in his bandanna and slid it off his face, revealing a deep frown couple with a scar down his right eye. "Name's Jesse. It's a pleasure." His voice, contrary to his short stature, was very deep and gruff.

"You're the one who stole all that col from town, aren't you?" Kirito inquired, hand scratching at the hilt of his sword.

Jesse shrugged and dipped his lip. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"The col. Where is it? Give it back and we won't have any problems." Asuna took a step forward. Kirito grabbed her wrist and gave her a firm shake of his head. He didn't want her getting near this freak.

"W-Wait?" Jesse suddenly widened his eyes. "The way you talk... It's different... Y-You're not NPC's?"

"No." Kirito said sternly. "You're a player?"

"Yes. I'm a player." Jesse placed the bomb back in his inventory and rushed towards the black swordsman, gripping his shirt and pulling him close to his face. "P-Please. You have to help me. I've been stuck here for years."

"Hey!" Asuna ripped the man off of her boyfriend and threw him to the ground. "You'd better start explaining yourself before you get all touchy with us, creep."

Jesse remained on the ground and held out a hand, a show of submission. "Y-You don't understand. It's that company? They invited you to come test out a 'new software', right?"

Kirito and his companions glanced at each other worriedly. "Yeah... Go on." Klein nodded.

"You can't trust them. The reason you're here is because they want to-" The short man suddenly paused. "Gah!" He fell back and began clawing at his throat as if he was trying to remove an invisible rope that was choking him. His face eventually went purple and his mouth began to foam.

Asuna took a step back and grabbed a hold of her boyfriends hand, unsure of what to do. "K-Kirito. What is this?!" She trembled. Jesse's health was going down exceptionally fast. What was more interesting, however, was his level. Thirty two. There's nothing on floor one that could even come close to doing this kind of damage to a level thirty two. His health reached zero in a matter of seconds. There was nothing that the friends could do besides watch with horrified eyes. Fearing the worst, Asuna, Klein and Kirito turned and began running back towards the town.

We only made it about twenty feet when Kirito thought of something. "W-Wait!" he let go of Asuna's hand and did a one eighty. The boy ran back towards Jesse's body. The crystal fragments from where he died still lingered around eerily. Kirito quickly opened Jesse's inventory and selected the 'loot all' button. There wasn't time to see what he had.

"Alright, let's go!" Kirito yelled when he made it back to Asuna and Klein.

The run back was one of the most nerve wracking things Kirito had ever experienced. Running through an area in which they were severely out-leveled at night certainly was not what any of them would compare to a stroll around the park. Not to mention the sounds... Ohhh the sounds. Let's just say the creatures in the north-east side of floor one were not too friendly to those who stumbled upon their territory. Nevertheless, the trio made it back to Shumir Bay in one piece. There were only two guards in front of the gates now, which was less than the original four the friends had seen on their initial arrival. Luckily, the guard in which Kirito had a deal with was present. He glanced over at the three players and was visibly revitalized. Guard duty was probably fairly boring. Kirito bet he'd love to see a little action.

"You've returned!" The guard in question said happily, waving the trio over.

They joined him near the gate, hands on their knees as they struggled to catch their breath. "Y-Yeah... We made it."

The guards stance quickly grew more weary, as if he was growing suspicious. "The midget is not with you? I suppose that means you didn't capture him."

"No, we didn't." Kirito stood up straight and opened his inventory. If he were to tell the guard what happened to Jesse, he surely wouldn't buy it. This guard was an NPC. As far as Kirito was aware, computer controlled AI aren't sentient, meaning that they had no knowledge of the real world or even the fact that they were in a game. Kirito needed to come up with a cover story. "I have proof that he's dead."

"Really, now?" The guard placed both hands on his hips and tilted his head curiously. "Show me."

Kirito dropped Jesse's bandanna and held it up for the guard to see. "He was in the middle of being attacked by a wild animal when we found him. He didn't survive."

"Hmmm." The guard bent at the waist and inspected the mask, a hand to where his chin would be had he not been wearing a helmet that covered his entire face. "Alright then. You're free to keep any gear you've found. However, I'm going to be needing the col back."

Klein scratched his head. "Tsk... Couldn't you let us keep just a small amount of the money? Without us, you wouldn't have have even gotten any of it back in the first place."

"I'm afraid it wasn't you who brought that thief to justice. You said it yourself - it was an animal attack."

The three friend slumped their shoulders in defeat. At least they got some unique items and amour, some of which they probably couldn't use due to their low level.

"Well..." Asuna spoke softly. She was getting tired. Her eyes were only half open and she swayed back and forth where she stood. "At least give us enough to buy a room for ourselves tonight... Enough for my friends and I."

"Hmm... I suppose that's fair enough." The guard handed over five hundred cor. "I'll just tell Miss Pilley that it was lost during the chase."

Asuna's face lit up, a twinkle of joy in her eyes. "T-Thank you, sir!"

That look on her face made this whole mission worth it to Kirito. It was certainly difficult to find reasons to be happy in this death game, but she was his reason. As she stood there among st the darkness, a torch from the gate lighting up her large, excited grin and beautiful hazel eyes and chestnut-brown hair, Kirito realized just how lucky he was.

The gates to Shumir Bay opened loudly, the gears and pulleys used to support it screeching as they worked. Once the trio entered, the air was significantly less thick than outside. It was easier to breath in. Kirito also noticed that the temperature was cooler on the interior, probably due to the fact that we were in the belly of a mountain range.

The cave the friends trekked through was littered with other knights similar to the ones outside, wooden watch towers, and even some small shanty towns where guards would presumably sleep whilst pulling long shifts. Thankfully, the path inside the cave was paved with gravel, making it easier to traverse. It was bright due to the many tiki torches that lined both sides of the walkway.

After about a three minute walk, the cave mouth opened up to a beautiful, lush bay - Shumir bay.

"What the..." Was all Kirito could muster. This city was unlike anything he had ever seen in Aincrad. It was built around a bay, and featured mostly wooden structures. These weren't like the shanty buildings inside the cave, though. No, these structures were made with expert design. Every building was beautifully sculpted, tied together by a large platform that was built on the water, giving the residences more space to move, or even potentially build on. Around the edge opposite of the water front were massive mountains that completely encased the community. It was as if the mountains were protecting the citizens from any outside threat.

The city seems very dense, and Kirito couldn't wait to explore it.

"This place is... crazy." Asuna said in awe.

"Yup!" Klein chuckled. "Feels good to be back. I bet we'll find Agil and the others at the Lucky Mackerel Inn on the north side of town."

"Lucky Mackerel Inn." Kirito echoed back. "Is it expensive?"

"Ah. Kirito, you poor, poor child. That's the beauty of Shumir Bay - Nothing's expensive." Klein tapped the Black Swordsman's forehead with the back of his index finger and began walking towards the town as if he owned the place.

"Oh jeez." Asuna sighed. "He's gonna be like this the entire time we're here, you know that right?"

"Yup." Kirito groaned and grabbed a hold of his girlfriends hand. The couple followed behind their red headed companion as he so arrogantly walked down the main street of Shumir. There weren't many people out given the late hour of day, but those who were out were greeted by Klein. He acted as though everyone he saw was a good friend of his, to which they gave an awkward wave, not sure of what to do.

"Uh, Klein?" Kirito asked.

"Yes, young Kirito?" He slowed down and allowed his two friends to catch up.

"I know that you used to come here a lot during the original SAO, but I don't think any of these NPC's recognize you, man. I mean, after all, the game was essentially reset. This is pretty much a fresh start for everyone, Including the NPC's. Which by the way, don't even know that they're in a game."

"What? No way. Look I'll prove it to you." Klein glanced around for someone to greet, his eyes eventually setting on a middle aged man who sat on his second floor balcony of what look like a residential home. "Timothy! It's me, Klein!" Klein waved wildly at the NPC.

The man, whose name was apparently 'Timothy', cocked his head to the side. "I don't know a Klein."

Asuna and Kirito stifled a giggle. Klein shook his head and placed his head on his hand. "Alright, Kirito, you're right. Is that what you wanted to hear?"

"Pretty much." The teen returned the favor and tapped Klein's forehead with his index finger. He trailed the couple now, disheartened that his old friends didn't recognize him.

"I don't want him to be sad." Asuna whispered into her boyfriends ear.

"Eh. I buy him a a rack of ribs at the inn. That'll make him happy."

Klein guided the pair to the inn. Kirito's suspicions about the city were confirmed as soon as they entered the northern section of the small down. The buildings were close together and mostly featured two stories and a balcony. Many of the buildings even had cobblestone bases, giving the place a homely feel.

The trio eventually came upon a cozy looking structure tucked away at the end of the street.

"Is this the inn?" Kirito asked.

"Mhm." Klein hummed and stepped ahead of us. "I would introduce you to the owner, but since none of them remember me I guess we'll just have to act like we're new in town."

"But we are new in town." Asuna chuckled.

"Not me!" Klein nearly yelled. "I was a staple in this community! Everyone knew my name! The innkeeper knew what kind of food I liked!"

Asuna and Kirito held back their guilty smiles as they entered through the wooden doors. Instantly, the smell of cooked meets and vegetables hit the pair as a warm breeze escaped through the entrance. "Hey!" Agil's distinct voice called out.

Kirito turned and saw him sitting alone on the chair in the middle of the room next to a nice, warm fire. There were others around too, talking and eating while adding to the ambiance typical of places such as these. Kirito, Asuna and Klein joined Agil around the fire.

Asuna let out a deep exhale as she fell onto the green cushioned couch. "Jeez. I'm beat."

Klein yawned in agreement, plopping down on the chair across from Agil.

Kirito took his place next to his girlfriend and opened up his inventory. Now's a good time to check what he got from Jesse's body. "Where's everyone else?" The Black Swordsman asked Agil while mindlessly checking the stats on all the new gear he had obtained.

"The girls got themselves a room upstairs. Place is pretty cheap." Agil leaned back and propped his feet up on the cobblestone that encircled the fire.

"Told you it was cheap." Klein leaned over and poked Kirito's arm with his eyes closed from exhaustion.

"Klein, I went ahead and bought us a room. You can go up there and lie down if you want." Agil offered.

The red head nodded and rose to his feet. He held out his hand, his eyes still closed. "Key?"

Agil chuckled and placed the key in his hand. "Go get some sleep, man. It's room number four."

Without a response, Klein stumbled off with an absent mind, leaving Agil, Asuna and Kirito to themselves.

"We got some stuff to talk about." Agil said sternly.

Kirito groaned in displeasure. He just wanted to relax for the rest of the night. "Can this wait until morning?"

"No, it can't. This version of SAO is... different."

Asuna squinted and leaned forward. "What? What do you mean 'different'?"

"Well." Agil sat at the edge of his chair and faced the couple, clasping his hands together. "You remember that guy Love, right?"

Asuna and Kirito nodded simultaneously. "Mhm."

"Well he made it to the dungeon."

Kirito nearly choked on the air. "W-What? Already?"

Agil shrugged. "Hey man, he's a solo player, just like you were before you met Asuna."

The teenage boy sighed. "True... Back during the beta test, I think I made it to the dungeon within the first few days, too."

"Exactly." Agil scratched his head nervously. "But uh... There's something wrong with the dungeon... at least on this floor."

"Elaborate."

"Love said that when he entered the dungeon, the layout was all different then it was during the original SAO. Apparently the enemies were different, too."

"W-Well what does that mean for us?" Asuna asked.

"Dunno. But if what he says is true, then we could be looking at a totally different boss battle for floor one. If that's the case, then every floors dungeon could be altered, meaning we'd have to completely redo our strategy for every floor."

Asuna and Kirito sat there blankly. "Please tell me you're kidding." The boy requested quickly. Please don't be true. Please say its a practical joke. If it is true, then everyone be here for ages once again. The player base got lucky during the original SAO. Kayaba was easy to figure out. This time, though, Kayaba was gone, meaning there's no early exit.

"It is true, my man." Agil confirmed.

Kirito leaned his head back starred at the ceiling. It took two years to beat the original SAO, and that was with the early exit. This time, without Kayaba's reveal, it would take even longer. "Alright." The Black Swordsman said and sat up straight, trying to convey a sense of confidence to his friends. "We need to start gathering all the information we can about the game. We need to know if anything else has changed. Tell Love to stop blocking my messages so we can start taking things a little more serious."

Agil nodded and promptly sent a message to Love.

"Kirito." Asuna whispered.

"What's up?" He gave her a reassuring smile. Everything's gonna be fine.

"Are we gonna tell him about Jesse guy?"

Her boyfriend took a deep breath. Agil should probably be the first to know. He's certainly the most mature out of all the others in the group. "I... I don't think now is the time. We aren't even sure about what we saw yet, you know?"

Asuna licked the inside of her lip in thought before eventually saying, "Alright."

"Love said he'll message you." Agil yawned and stretched. "Talk to him. For now, though, I'm off to bed. I'll see y'all in the morning." He took his leave and went upstairs.

Kirito turned to his girlfriend and shrugged. "Shall we?"

She smiled in response. "Please. I'm freaking tired as hell."

"Me too, babe."

She suddenly gasped. "W-What did you just call me?" Her face went bright red as she covered her mouth.

"What? You don't like 'babe'?"

"I... I do... It's just that you caught me off guard." She bowed her head, trying to hide her crimson face. Kirito grabbed her hand and helped her to her feet.

The desk was occupied by a younger looking woman in her thirties. She wore a blue dress and gray apron. She had an aura around her that reeked of hard work and toughness. "You lookin' for a room?"

"Mhm. One with a balcony would be nice." Asuna said with her trademark 'nice girl' voice. She pulled out a handful of col and placed it delicately on the table.

"You'll get whatever we have available - you don't get to choose." The lady tossed Kirito a key and shooed the young couple away. "Room five. Don't trash the place, ya hear?"

"H-Hey! Don't talk to us like that! You don't even know us!" Asuna yelled, her free hand waving about wildly. Kirito quickly dragged her up the steps before she could create a big scene. She was still ranting about the lady even when her boyfriend closed the door behind them once they entered their room. "That little... I swear I'm gonna... I'm gonna-"

"It's alright Asuna. The people here aren't very nice. It's not your fault." Kirito patted her on the head and kicked off his boots. It felt great to feel the woolen rug beneath his feet. their room was basic, but efficient. A double bed was pressed against the right wall, and the bathroom was connected to the wall opposite. There was a dresser to the couples immediate right... That was pretty much it. No gimmicks, no special features, nothing. Just a bed, a bathroom, and a dresser. "I suppose there's a reason it's so cheap."

Asuna, still calming down from her spat with the lady at the desk, plopped herself down on the bed and took off her heavy armor, leaving her in a long white T-shirt and black pants. "No kidding."

It was weird to see her dressed in clothing other than the most expensive options. During the original SAO, she lived in an expensive part of Aincrad, and wore the most expensive cloths. "I'm gonna buy you some more comfortable cloths next time I have the chance."

She let out a breathy giggled a laid on her side, facing Kirito. "You don't have to. As long as we're together, I'm happy, you know that."

"I know." The boy shrugged. "But if we're gonna be staying in Aincrad for a while again, then I'm gonna make sure we're living the high life."

"Heh... Alright." She reached up and grabbed her boyfriends sleeve, pulling him down onto the bed next to her. "Can we sleep now?"

"You go ahead. Love's suppose to message me." Kirito wrapped an arm around her and pulled her in close.

"Ugh... That guy?"

Kirito nodded, though he know she couldn't see his since her head was pressed against his shoulder. "He's the highest level in the game right now, therefore the most powerful."

"What level is he?"

The Black Swordsman opened the player list and sorted it by level. Sure enough, Love was still on top. "Level ten."

"Jeez." Asuna shook her head. "He must've been killing mobs all day, everyday since we got here."

"Yeah, but at this point he's probably earning exp really slowly since he's killing things with a significantly lower level then him."

"True." Asuna yawned and began dozing off.

Kirito navigated through his interface to the messages tab. He had one unopened message from Love.


Love: HEY

Kirito: Seriously? Again with the caps lock?

Love: Hey.

Kirito: That's better.

Love: Why do you try to parent me at every corner?

Kirito: If you didn't act like a child I wouldn't have to be.

Love: Says the level four. You say I act like a child yet I'M the one who's actually out here trying to level up and defeat the first boss. I don't see you doing anything.

Kirito: I told you before, we're a big group, so we gain exp slower than solo players. I'm sure if I was by myself I'd be level ten too, if not higher..

Love: Yeah right, you were popular back in the original SAO, but now I'm starting to get a feeling that you were only popular because you were a beta tester. Now that everyone is on an equal playing field, you're being left behind.

Kirito: What do you have against beta testers?

Love: I uh... I fell for a scam from a beta tester and accidentally gave him all of my gold once.

Kirito: You sound really bitter.

Love: Bitter? More like pissed, and you aren't helping. The power you used to have during the original SAO is gone, and now look at you. The player info tab tells me that you're in Shumir Bay. That place is nasty, man. I figured someone as high and mighty as yourself would be somewhere a bit more classy.

Kirito: Shumir bay is nice. Have you ever even been here?

Love: Plenty of times. I used to fight the guards there all the time and throw them into the bay for fun when I was a higher level than them.

Kirito: What is it with you and fighting, anyways?"

Love: People don't get stronger unless they fight, Kazuto. Conflict makes things better - at least in the long run. When have you ever seen someone learn a lesson through care and compassion? Never. People need to fight. It's in our nature.

Kirito: So you see yourself as a public servant or something? Someone that helps people become stronger through fighting them?

Love: Uh... Yeah I guess that's one way to put it. Also I just like fighting - especially when my opponent is supposedly better than me.

Kirito: Fair enough. Perhaps you'd like to help my friends and I out, then? We're low levels, but once we start ranking up, I promise I'll fight you, one verses one. Pride on the line.

Love: What do you even need help with? This game isn't that hard.

Kirito: I know that, but if we really are trapped in this game, I wanna get out as soon as possible. In order to do that, we need to rank up quickly. If you help us grind some exp by killing mobs or helping us with quests, we can start tearing through floors faster than we did during the original SAO. We also need all the information we can get about the dungeon, and right now you're the only one who can enter it and not die immediately. You think you can do us that favor?

Love took about a minute to respond.

Love: I'm not gonna help you.

Kirito: What? Why?

Love: Let me finish.

Kirito: ...

Love: I'm not gonna help you, BUT, I'll spend all day tomorrow grinding for gear and weapons in the dungeon. You can have whatever I find.

Kirito: Sounds fair-

Love: -ON ONE CONDITION.

Kirito: Oh boy...

Love: YOU HAVE TO FACE ME IN A DUEL.

Kirito: I'm level four, meaning you're six levels over me. Of course you're gonna win.

Love: You don't have to win. All I want is a duel. You can have a teammate if it's that important to you. A one versus two . That should even things out, right?

I sighed and ran my fingers through my hair. This guy is a madman.

Kirito: Why do you want to fight me so badly?

Love: Because you're the Black Swordsman. During the original SAO, I heard some legendary stuff about you. I wanna fight you and take your reputation. Now, I wish you were a higher level so I could gain a bit more glory, buuuuutttttt whatever.

Kirito: You act like I flaunt my pride around on a parade balloon. I've never said anything rude or aggressive to you, Love.

Love: I KNOW. But I'm not gonna give you the chance to start.

Kirito: Why would think I'd have any interest in being rude to you?

Love: Everyone's like that, don't act innocent.

Kirito: I can't tell if you're angry or not. When you type in such a passive aggressive way, I imagine you're pissed.

Love: I'm smiling right now. I like this conversation. Can we speed it along though? There are players in this game that actually have some sort of goal in mind.

Hmph... Two can play at this.

Kirito: You know what? Deal. I'll duel you.

Love: HAHAHAHA! FINALLY!

Kirito: Don't sound too excited yet, Love.

Love: We'll fight in two days. I need time to farm gear from the dungeon. Meet at the front gates of the starter town. By that time, you should at least be level six, right?

Kirito: For sure. Maybe even higher.

Love: Don't get cocky yet, Kirito

Kirito: I'm not cocky, I'm capable.

Love: You're smiling right now, aren't you?

Kirito: Maybe...

Love: AHHHH! I can't wait!

Kirito: It's not gonna be easy, I'll find a way to take you out, Love.

Love: Good for you. You'll need all the help you can get.

Kirito: Sure thing. I guess I'll see you in two days, then?

Love: Sure thang.


Before Kirito could send another witty remark, he got a notification saying 'User is blocking your messages'.

The Black Swordsman chuckled and shook his head. "Jeez."

"There's no way he's like that in real life, right?" Asuna suddenly said.

Kirito flinched in shock. He had no idea she was watching me this whole time. "You're awake?"

"Yeah. I've been awake this whole time."

The boy glanced down and pressed his lips against her head. "You scared me." he said, voice muffled.

Asuna giggled and propped herself up on her arms. "Sorry." She crawled on top of her boyfriend and straddled his hips with her legs.

"Asuna... Right now?" Kirito asked with a smirk.

She lowered herself onto his chest and nestled her head against his shoulder. "I can't get comfortable."

"I don't think this is going to be much better." He placed one hand on her hip and the other behind her head. She tensed up from her boyfriends touch and slowly drooped down to where she was laying on his side once again.

"I'm sensitive there." She said with a pout, pointing to her hip. "Why do seem to forget everything except for the things that push my buttons?"

"It's a gift." Kirito shrugged and placed both hands behind his head. As much as he loved Asuna, and as much as he wanted to spoil her at every turn, There was still a part of the boy that loved teasing her. The way she would pout and scold me reminded him of when they first met. Back before... Well... everything, really.

Kirito doesn't have many memories of SAO that don't involve Asuna. Sure, an occasional event or two would stick out if he really thought about it, but nearly one hundred percent of the time, Asuna was always there. Even still, Kirito felt no less attached to her now than he did all those years ago.

As the two lied in bed, a slight smiled formed on her face. Kirito couldn't help but feel a tightness in his chest, the same feeling one would get before a presentation. He felt nervous, but why? Neither of them were in any danger, nor would anything happened to them tonight, so why did he feel so anxious?

She laid her head back down on her boyfriends chest and recovered herself with the blanket. "Hmmm... I love you, Kazuto." She said softly.

The tightness in his chest intensified. What was this? "I love you, too, Asuna."

Kirito slept easily that night once the feeling in his chest went away. The teen still had no idea what it was. Maybe it was the childish skittishness he sometimes felt when around her, or maybe... it was guilt. Guilt that he had gotten her into this situation. If he hadn't convinced her to come with him to that damn facility in Tokyo, they would be home - their real home, not some dingy room in a virtual world. Regardless, this 'game' was now a matter of life and death.

Kirito has two days to prepare for his duel with Love and the Black Swordsman intends to beat the madman at his own occupation. Maybe then Love will finally decide to start taking things seriously. Until that happens, though, Kirito won't hold his own breath.

There was still a few things that bothered Kirito, though. Exactly who was that man 'Jesse' that he met on the beach today, and what happened that caused him to die so abruptly? He said he had been stuck in the game for years. Perhaps it was a player that join at the same time as us, and just lost his mind? If that's the case, then how did he get all the way to level thirty two?

Hm... Kirito supposed he shouldn't think about this stuff while he's still tired.

Surely tomorrow'll be more relaxed...

Hopefully.

*End*


Collecting Player Data...

Complete!

*Love - Level 10 - Primary weapon: ? (Skill level with weapon: 39/100) - Signature attribute: ?

*Kirito - Level 4 - Primary weapon: One handed sword. (Skill level with weapon: 7/100) - No signature attribute yet.

*Asuna - Level 4 - Primary weapon, One handed sword. (Skill level with weapon: 6/100) - No signature attribute yet.

*Lisbeth - Level 4 - Primary weapon, One handed mace. (Skill level with weapon: 6/100) - No signature attribute yet.

*Klein, Level 3, Primary weapon, One handed sword. (Skill level with weapon: 5/100) - No signature attribute yet.

*Agil - Level 3 - Primary weapon, Two handed axe. (Skill level with weapon: 4/100) - No signature attribute yet.

*Silica - Level 3 - Primary weapon, Short bow. (Skill level with weapon: 4/100) - No signature attribute yet.

*Sinon - Level 2 - Primary weapon, Recurve bow. (Skill level with weapon: 3/100) - No signature attribute yet.


A/N: Another chapter down. I do have plans to make this a fully fledged story, so stick around for more. Thanks for the reviews and followers, it means a lot to me and the future of this story.

Leave any questions, corrections, or whatever in the reviews.

'Tis all for now.

Bye bye.