CHAPTER 7 - To WAR

Morning came with the rising of the sun that circled Aincrad, the brightening of the different smaller suns that rested atop the rises in the land on the floor. I equipped my gear without saying anything, nodding to Banto and Sika, and hesitantly setting a hand on Ben's shoulder.

"I'll be back brother- you'll see. I've been through quite a bit already, can't be worse than the train."

Ben nodded. Turning to Caleb, who was getting ready as well.

"We'll be keeping an eye on you. Praying too, you know."

I hesitated.

"Thanks, Irongrip. It means a lot- it's really all we have in here."

He smiled, tapping his fist against mine before the three of us turned to leave and meet the others in the town square. Faces were grim all through Tolbana among the players. NPCs smiled and greeted us cheerily as we passed, and it clashed with the resolute faces of iron of the rest of the players as we gathered the raid party. Sika welcomed the three newcomers to our group, and Diaval handed out assignments. We were supposed to take center right- charging after some of the Kobold King's guards and getting them out of the way so that the main strike team could reach Ilfang and start to shave away at his health bars.

Sika broke that assignment down to everyone in the group, and I kept my usual place to her left, a hand on my sword as I examined everyone.

Sika caught me off guard, gesturing to me randomly.

"I introduce my second, Jean Na'Has. He'll be leading us today."

I blinked, pointing to myself involuntarily, before meeting her eyes. She seemed determined, but I couldn't tell what was going on behind the steely pools of her irises.

I stood up straighter, glancing at the other five members of our party.

"Alright, we're one of seven teams. Diaval wants us to be mobile. We will be guarding the situation constantly. On my command, we will be switching targets to whoever needs our help the most- the teams removing the Ruin Kobold Sentinels, or helping to barrage the gluttonous bastard that blocks our way to the second floor."

I smiled.

"You will need to be on your top game today, but, given your presence as one of the forty four people here in this raid party today, I assume that you have proven your salt up until now. Keep each other alive, watch each other's back."

I slammed a fist to my chest before snapping it into the air.

"To the second floor!"

Banto grinned and imitated the salute, and the other three members responded in kind, nodding with a slightly less grim determination. Our column of warriors marched through the forest of the mountains outside of Tolbana, making our way towards the imposing labyrinth before us. I won't bore you with the thirty minute march into the labyrinth, or the tedious task of clearing mobs on the way up to the room. I don't have much time- I need to get the important things across while I still can. We fought, and we made it to the large double doors. Diavol turned to us, and cheered us on one last time. I glanced at Sika, and at Banto, and nodded, drawing my longsword again from its sheath, setting myself at the point of our formation of six combatants.

The door ground open and our small army of forty-four dashed inside, blades at the ready. The two tank parties took position at the front, our mobile team taking up the opposite side of the room to Diaval's striker squad.

At first, everything was quiet, then the ground began to shake, as a mountain of a monster rushed forwards from the back of the room, a mountainous mound of fat and tooth and claws, leaping into the air before landing on the ground before us with a roar.

The door shut with an enormous crash, and the creature raised it's axe, four health bars materializing next to the creature's head. It bellowed, and three heavily armored kobolds, wielding maces, and brandishing shield, rushed towards the assault party.

Two kids rushed one of the kobolds, aided by the third assault party which attacked the other groups. The tank squads dashed forwards, yelling as they began to draw Ilfang's attention away from our blue haired leader, who was quickly leading his squadron to lay strikes into the monster's back while it was looking away.

I skidded to a stop, holding the longsword before me in a middle guard, eyes darting around the room. The two support squads were trying to help the pressured third assault squad, but overall things seemed pretty well handled for the moment.

"Damn. Diaval's fast." Banto whistled, and I nodded. Squadron F was hanging back as well, according to the plan.

I gritted my teeth. The kobolds went down right as Ilfang's first heald bar reached 0, and I signaled forwards with my longsword.

"Now!" We rushed forward, filling the gap as Diaval led his assault squadron back away from the fight to recover and use their crystals.

I leapt, bringing the longsword above my head and carving down with a scream, tearing into Ilfang's back with a sword skill. Sika lifted her sheild, barely managing to deflect a retaliatory strike from Ilfang with his axe. Banto rushed into help her as the other three rushed Ilfang's legs, hacking in with a series of admittedly well placed strikes.

I darted forward, circling around Ilfang to his sheild side, trying to stay out of view as I dropped the blade behind me into fool's guard, letting the position do it's work as the blade began to glow. I leapt as I released the strike, the skill practically dragging me up the monster's side nearly to it's shoulder before the blade tore free and I began to drop, crashing to my feet.

A tail came out of no where.

"Mierda."

Pain flashed through my chest as I rolled along the ground, standing up.

My eyes darted around the battleground. Squad F had replaced the other support squad in dealing with the Kobolds- but two of the monsters had teamed up and were pressuring a group of six fighters and two kids who fought like tempests, switching places as if they'd known each other for years already.

The tank squadrons were laying into Ilfang- but he was focusing too much on my assault squadron- we were drawing too much attention.

"SENTINELS!"

I bellowed out the command, and Sika and Banto responded immediately, launching themselves away from Ilfang, Sika barely dodging that bone axe that the red-skinned monster brandished.

The three newcomers were slower to respond, but began to fall back and help take pressure off of the group that was dealing with two of the monsters. I stood, watching Ilfang attentively. The African looking man dug into the beast with a brutal strike from a double-bladed axe, and Ilfang roared, turning to face them. Good. The tanks had it's attention.

"RETURN!" I bellowed, dashing forwards right as Banto dropped an axe through one of the sentinel's necks, sending the creature bursting into crystalline blue shards before he turned, blocking an errant strike from Ilfang before returning to the fray.

Sika dashed up next to me, black hair flying as she ran.

She lifted her sheild. We'd barely shaved off half of this thing's health bar.

"Tough beastie, ey?"

I raised an eyebrow as I grinned, glancing at her. She was smiling.

"Together?"

She nodded, and we rushed forwards, I lifted my longsword, bashing Ilfang's sheild aside as Sika leapt, driving a series of well placed thrusts into the monstrosity's side.

She dropped to the ground, and I dashed in front of her to cover, grinning as the tail whipped towards me again.

"Not this time hijo de puta." I spat, cutting upwards to meet the tail in front of me. The tail whipped through my sword- and while it didn't sever, like I wanted it to, my blade cut into it, the satisfying resistance bringing a savage grin to my face as the blade parted over my head.

I turned signaling the two smaller of the newcomers to flank the creature, and they did, weaving between the fighting figures of the two tank squadrons. Ilfang's axe caught one of them.

"Banto- Crystal!"

I pointed, and he nodded, rushing as the player stood, Banto rushed up, pulling a red crystal. I didn't hear the command, but the crystal shattered, and an aura of red light grew around the player, his bar rising back from the yellow into the low greens.

Leaping, diving, hacking, cut after cut we shave away at its health until it dropped, setting Ilfang down to two.

"ROTATE!"

My squadron pulled back away from the fight, Diaval patting my shoulder as he passed me, before raising his sheild and dashing in to take advantage of the moment.

THe second support squadron had dropped away from the Kobolds and was now helping Diaval's assault squadron. The sentinel Kobolds were rushing Kibau's assault group, and I was about to order our group back out to help him, when the pair of kids caught me by surprise, the dark haired boy leaping over Kibau's head to drive his sword through one of the kobold's faces.

"Well then." I deadpanned.

His red-headed companion darted under the creature's axe and rushed forward with a rapier, lashing it forwards.

I turned to Sika.

"You know those two?"

She shook her head. "Two solo players, for all I know."

"Hm. They're good." I turned to our party. "Take your crystals quickly- Diaval and his group were able to top off, but Ilfang gets more aggressive with each health bar- we're going back in as soon as we can."

Sika turned to me. "What? But Diaval said to stay back until the last health bar- to rush in to help finish it off in one last rush!"

I pursed my lips, watching the fight. The other support group broke away as only one sentinel remained. That was five of seven squadrons engaging Ilfang. It's third health bar continued to drop steadily under the barrage of attacks.

"Something doesn't feel right."

"What do you mean?"

I felt ice in my chest, and I lifted my sword.

"I don't know. Something's wrong- and I want us to be ready when it happens."

She hesitated a long while before nodding, turing and pulling out her second crystal and using it on Banto, as he'd already used his to help the newcomer earlier.

I watched the health-bar, watched those of the other players. We, we seemed to be doing pretty well.

Ilfang's third bar dropped into the red.

"FORWARD!" I called, and my squadron dashed back into the fray.

One of the newcomers leapt, stabbing Ilfang, falling to the ground right as one of the members of squadron F thrust forwards with a spear, dropping the last bit of the third bar.

Ilfang shuddered, tossing aside his axe and shield, a blade materialising on his back.

"TIme for the Talwar…" I muttered.

Ilfang pulled some strange black blade off of it's back.

"Mierda!"

Ilfang swept the blade in a wide arc around him, blowing all of us back with the force of the sword skill. Sika yelped, and my vision began to blur as pain flared in a line across my chest and upper arms. I shuddered as I tried to stand. Group C seemed to be down- they were barely moving, and the two tank groups were still trying to regroup.

Diaval began calling orders, and Ilfan'gs angry, coppery eyes locked onto him.

Ilfang leapt off of the wall without warning, crashing to the ground, launching a barrage of brutal strikes against the blue haired leader of our group. Diaval's eyes went wide, and I watched in horror as the black blade passed through Diaval's chest, sending him flying backwards towards the door. The dark-haired boy from before raced towards him. I didn't have time to worry. Ilfang was on the move- getting progressively closer to Diaval's assault squadron.

"MOVE MOVE MOVE!" I roared, racing ahead. Three more sentinels materialized in the room, and it seemed that it was up to us to deal with them. All of the other squadrons were busy trying to deal with Ilfang's unexpected prowess. One of the Kobolds rushed Sika and a newcomer, and I darted in to help, hacking upwards to block a parry that was aimed right at the new comer's head. The kobold leapt back, and I started circling around to try and corral it back towards my party. Banto and the other two newcomers rushed off towards a second sentinel which was rushing towards squadron C- whose members were still prone on the floor, barely moving.

The sentinel rushed me, and I snapped afoot up into its exposed chest, sending up tumbling back where Sika was able to carve across it with a sword skill.

It whirled, facing her and the spear-wielding newcomer, and I took advantage of the moment, rushing forwards, letting years of previously pointless training take over. I whipped my blade back and forth in a series of brutal strikes, my blade carving up and down the kobold's back, before I rushed forwards, driving my longsword through its back. Sika didn't wait for any other commands, rushing forwards with her sword, and spearing the creature through the Jaw.

It erupted in shards of blue, and we rushed after Banto and our allies, the newcomer hurling his spear with a skill I'd never seen before, a bright lance of blue light that drove right through the kobold's eye, distracting it enough that Banto and the other newcomers could finish it off. THe spear clattered to the ground, and our friend scooped it up with a smooth effortless motion.

The squad closed in around me, everyone gathering close.

"What do we do?" one newcomer asked, watching the chaos.

There was a burst of blue shards in the back of the room. Diaval was gone- the dark haired boy had rushed forwards, and seemed to be engaging Ilfang nearly single handedly. The dark sword crashed into his chest, and the boy fell back, starting to stumble under a barrage of combo swords skills from the boss.

The boy fell to the ground. Kibau hacked into the last Kobold.

"Help that boy!" I called. "Hold, front, draw attention, Sika, take Banto and you, spearman, flank Ilfang and help squads F and G! ON!"

We rushed forwards. THe axe-wielding african man was leading his squadron back into the fray as well, joined by the other Tank squadron.

The rest was a blur of blades and motion. My vision clouded over as rage began to fill me, rage and a strange pressing thrill of battle. My blade never stopped moving. It seemed to appear before my face to block a savage blow from the enraged boss, and and at some point, I caught sight of the dark haired boy, deflecting a strike so that the red-headed girl could rush in and deliver a positive whirlwind of rapier sword skills to the red-skinned boss.

Then there was a blade in front of my face.

Pain seared through every fiber of my body, and I am pretty certain that I dropped my sword in shock, crumpling to my knees as I screamed silently. Fire burned in all of my joints, a searing white hot pain that would not be ignored, could not be ignored. I fell onto my back, shuddering, gasping for air, before I felt a hand on my shoulder.

"Jean! Jean!"

I couldn't speak, couldn't talk through the amber haze of knives that pierced my mind.

I remembered Ben's gift. I still had a crystal left- didn't I?

I forced myself up. My health was in the low red, and Sika rushed, standing suddenly to raise her shield, catching another strike that would have ended me. Her health dropped all the way to the yellow, and I forced my body to move, swiping as quickly as I could and selecting inventory. One of the newcomers was beside me in a flash, and I felt the weight of the crystal drop into my hand.

"Heal." I gasped, and felt strength suddenly surge into my body. THe pain was still there, but my health bar shot back into the green. I stood, leaping to my feet and darting out from between my allies with a roar as I lifted my longsword into high guard, activating a sword skill of three strikes, fueling the pain into those retaliatory blows.

I fell to the ground, and I caught the sight of the dark haired boy, charging right towards the Kobold King. His blade began to glow, and he leapt, his body curving up the monster's rotund belly, the blade shearing all the way through Ilfang's hideous, hyena like face.

Ilfang's head blasted backwards, and he teetered in the air for a moment, before erupting in shards of blue pixels.

Cheers echoed around the room. The african american man stepped up to the dark haired boy, to congratulate him, it seemed.

The pain flared, dropping me to my knees, before it faded completely, the pressure in my chest easing up.

Sika stepped up to me, setting a hand hesitantly on my shoulder as she crouched next to me. Her eyebrows raised questioningly, and I smiled apologetically as I forced myself to stand.

"I'm alright."

Kibau shoved his way between the fighters in the room, pointing a finger at the dark haired boy.

"You! You had a crystal ready, you could have saved him! Diaval died because of you!"

The boy said nothing.

"You're one of those beta testers- you didn't want Diaval getting in your way did you? Wanted everything for yourself!"

The room grew quiet, cheers replaced with whispers.

"Do you think it might be true?" one of the newcomers whispered. Sika tensed, gritting her teeth.

"You should give over everything! Surrender all of your rewards you beta-tester scum!"

A cold laugh began to echo through the room, making my blood seem to run cold.

"Beta-Tester? As if you could confuse me with those morons."

"What? What do you mean?"

"They have knowledge, sure, but they can't do the things that I can, don't have the skills I possess- the ways to...get around the game."

"You! You're even worse than a beta tester! You're a cheater! A BEATER!"

The dark haired boy smiled, and it took every ounce of my reserve not to raise my longsword in front of me in caution. There was an aura of death around this boy- a menace of someone who had complete and total confidence in his ability, and no qualms about using all of that skill.

"I like that name, Beater… don't confuse those beta testers with the rest of us, us Beaters. We're the ones who took your easy quests, advanced the fastest. Most beta testers are still in Horunka, hiding, giving the rest of you what little knowledge they have."

He turned to leave, walking towards the massive stone doors at the end of the room that led to the second floor.

THe redheaded girl ran up to him, and they started talking. I wasn't focused on them though- I turned to Sika, who was staring at Kibau. Her right hand was on my shoulder still- but her shield arm was ready to engage.

I rose to my feet, turning to our party as they gathered.

I forced myself to smile, intentionally talking loud enough to drown out Kibau's rantings.

"Well fought today. I look forward to fighting with the three of you in the future."

THey smiled. "You as well. When you make a guild Na'Has, let us know."

I slapped a fist to my chest before giving them a slight bow, and they smiled, returning it awkwardly.

"I don't know what the rest of you are going to do," I stated, "But I think that now that we're mildly rich, we should go up to that floor above us, step out into whatever city they have planned for us, and get some food that doesn't taste like sawdust and sweat."

Banto smiled, turning towards the massive stone doors.

He clapped me on the shoulder, the newcomers following him enthusiastically.

Sika didn't follow, instead taking my arm by the elbow.

"And what are you going to do now?"

I glanced back towards the entrance to the labyrinth.

I smiled. "I need to bring my brothers up to meet us." I glanced towards the stone door. "We have a world to wander, after all."

She nodded, letting go and turning to follow Banto. Most of the raid party was either leaving through the entrance door back towards floor one or were making their way out the stone doors as well, and there were few of us left in the room.

She opened her mouth to say something, before shaking her head, waving her hand at me dismissively.

"I'll meet you and your brothers in the town square, Na'Has."

I smiled, nodding.

"Be there in a few."

She nodded, before running off to catch up to Banto.

I glanced at my wrists, rubbing them despite myself at the memory of that pain. I wasn't sure if I could take another hit like that- not and keep going.

I took a breath, and made my way down the labyrinth. I didn't really need my sword too much on the way back. The other members of the advance party that were headed back- to grab something, or to grab friends, much like I was, and had cleared out almost everything in front of me.

I stepped into the central square of tolbana to two crushing embraces that made it difficult for me to breathe as my brothers met me. They laughed, and I smiled, and we practically raced around each other as they asked for details. I grinned, pulling out a blue teleportation crystal.

"Come, there are five others who could probably tell that story better than me!"

They smiled, pulling out crystals of their own, their two companions smiling as they did the same.

"Second Floor, Urbus!"

As we appeared onto a raised platform in the crater of a mountain, I couldn't help but grin as I looked out over adobe walls and short buildings.

I couldn't help, at that time, but be hopeful after our success.

.