A/N:

Wanted to give a quick shout-out to Quality over Quantity for his help with the upcoming chapters. He, along with Falchion1984 with previous chapters, have been incredibly helpful as beta readers and just people to bounce ideas off of. QoQ had a significant hand in some of the details in the Alicization arc.

Anyway, time to get in the thick of things. We've got a whole new world to explore!


Rulid was quaint.

Idyllic, really. Asuna couldn't help but admire just how peaceful it was here, which was further compounded by the fact that there were no monsters of any kind anywhere nearby. It was strange. A floor with no monsters. Speaking with the residents revealed that the closest thing to danger any of them had were in some of the nearby mountain caves, where occasionally goblins would wander out from a place on the other side of the mountain range. Someplace called "The Dark Territory." They were also keenly insistent that no one should step foot into that area, citing some ancient law called the "Taboo Index."

And that was another thing! The NPCs were just so lifelike! She'd long gotten used to the typical way that NPCs behaved, with their stilted dialogue and limited flexibility when it came to available verbal responses. That wasn't the case at all with these NPCs. The only time they ever hit any sort of snag was when there was a term they weren't familiar with, and once it was explained to them they understood.

Some of them even started to incorporate it, which was bizarre. Overhearing one of the younger guardsmen boast about how far they could "yeet" their throwing axe was jarring.

"I haven't seen NPCs this lifelike since…" Kirito pondered as they walked hand-in-hand through the town square.

Asuna felt their collective mood drop for a moment. That thought didn't need completing.

"Sorry." Kirito apologized.

She squeezed his hand and offered a pained smile. It wasn't as if he meant to dig up old, painful memories. "It's fine. I think she would have been excited to meet others like her. To know she wasn't alone."

"Yeah." He agreed, giving a faint smile. "Yeah, she would have."

"This is all just so… different, isn't it?" She asked, watching a trio of children running around in the plaza playing. "So real."

"Yeah." Kirito agreed. "It's hard to believe Kayaba made this."

They continued walking for some time, taking in the sights of this new, strange village. Some of the villagers – she'd since stopped seeing them as NPCs, given their likeness to Kizmel – gave them curt, but not unfriendly, nods of greeting as they passed. The trio of children from before came barreling down a narrow alley nearby before the lead girl abruptly slammed into Asuna's side, obviously oblivious to where she'd been running.

"Ouch!" The girl cried out. Asuna's motherly instincts – she blamed Yui entirely for this – flared and she immediately knelt down in concern. The girl was shaken a little, but uninjured so far as she could tell.

"Are you okay, sweetie?" Asuna asked, giving as gentle a smile as possible. "That was quite the tumble there."

"O-oh! Yes, Mrs. Outsider-lady!" The girl quickly chirped as she shot to her feet. "I'm so sorry for running into you!"

Asuna frowned for a moment at the title, but shoved that to the side for now.

"It's no trouble! But you might want to watch where you're going from now on." She glanced over to the two boys who were looking on curiously before leaning in conspiratorially. "Otherwise those boys might catch you next time!"

The girl giggled, and the sound warmed Asuna's heart. "I'm Esme!"

Asuna stood to her full height. "Nice to meet you, Esme! I'm Asuna."

"Are you a swordswoman, Mrs. Asuna?"

"I suppose I am! Why do you ask?"

Esme gasped in what was either surprise or delight. "Have you fought any monsters before?"

Kirito peeked over her shoulder before Asuna could answer. "Oh she's fought them and more. She's the strongest swordswoman I know."

Esme gasped so loudly it was almost a squeal. "You're amazing, Mrs. Asuna!"

"Yes she is! That's why I married her." Kirito heartily agreed, and Asuna fought off a blush. Even after all this time, he knew just how to push the right buttons.

"Are you a swordsman too, mister?" Esme asked, and it was at this point that the boys surreptitiously approached, clearly eager to listen in but unwilling to draw attention to themselves.

"Kirito's the strongest swordsman." Asuna declared proudly, eliciting a blush from her husband. Two could play at that game. "He's so strong he can use two swords at once."

"Wow!" The three exclaimed, the boys breaking their silence. Esme gaped in awe. "That's amazing! I've never heard of anyone using two swords at once, not even an Integrity Knight!"

The way she said that piqued Asuna's curiosity. That was more than just an occupation, she surmised. There was a respect, a reverence, even a slight amount of fear when Esme uttered that phrase. "We're not from around here. What's an Integrity Knight, Esme?"

"You don't know what an Integrity Knight is?" Esme asked, bewildered. "Everyone knows! How can you not know?!"

"They're Lost Children of Vecta, Esme." An elderly gentleman interjected, hobbling over slowly with his cane. "Please forgive them, outsiders. Children can be so curious sometimes. Sometimes to the point of being accidentally rude."

"Our daughter was the same way." Asuna said. "Trust me; it's no trouble."

The elder cocked an eyebrow in surprise. "You're quite young to have children."

"Adopted." Kirito clarified.

"Ah." The elder smiled. "Forgive me; clearly you two are more mature than I first thought. In any case, I would be happy to tell you about Rulid and of our customs, if you so wish. Chronicler is my calling, after all."

"Your calling?" Asuna repeated.

"Hmm." The elder hummed curiously. "Perhaps there is more I would need to teach you. The offer stands, if you would like to hear."

"That would be great." Asuna smiled before looking over her shoulder at Kirito. "We should find Lokuss. He'd love this."

"Did someone say lore?!" And there he was, popping out from around the corner with an absolutely manic look on his face. "I'm in!"

The elder laughed heartily. "It's so rare to see someone so young eager to learn! Our youngsters could learn a thing or two from you, you know. My name is Deckard, and I would be overjoyed to tell you of the history of our world."


Deckard's home was surprisingly spacious, not to mention littered with books and tomes. Kirito was never one for recreational reading, but even he had the itch to crack open one of the books and skim through its pages.

"Please." Deckard gestured to a couch and a few comfortable-looking chairs. They were weathered but not unkempt, Kirito observed. "Stay awhile, and listen."

Kirito and Asuna naturally took the couch, while Lokuss took one of the nearby chairs. Yuuki and Sachi, who had been aimlessly wandering and exploring before bumping into them, took the remaining seats. Deckard took the seat nearest his fireplace before taking a deep breath.

"This is gonna be good." Lokuss whispered, and Kirito had to fight back a grin. Lore junkie, indeed.

And thus Deckard began.

He told them of how the world came to be, how three goddesses created the world as they knew it. Solus, the goddess of the sun of the very same name. Terraria, the goddess of the earth. And last, but certainly not least, Stacia, the goddess of life and creation. He told of how after the world was created, it was ultimately split by Stacia and the god of darkness, Vecta. Stacia and her sister goddesses would oversee the Human Empire while Vecta would rule the Dark Territory, the two lands destined to forever be in conflict. The last goddess, Lunaria, was the goddess of the moon and didn't appear to take a side in the feud of the gods.

Deckard went on to explain how the gods delivered the ancestors to this world from a faraway land, promising peace and prosperity. It was paradise, and it was not long before towns, villages, and cities sprang into existence as the vaunted ancestors and their descendants flourished in this new world, sheltered and free from the dangers of their own homeland.

In reverence to the goddesses and their bountiful mercy and generosity, the Axiom Church was founded and an age of peace and prosperity came into being. Under the watchful gaze of the Pontifex, mankind flourished, and still did to this day.

Fairly standard lore, as far as Kirito was concerned, but then Deckard continued.

"It is said that once every thousand years, when the light of Solus fades, there will be a war. The Great War." Deckard explained ominously. The fireplace decided to flicker gently, which only added to the foreboding ambience. "When that happens, the great gates and barriers that protect the lands of Stacia will crumble, and the ravenous hordes of the Dark Territory will invade."

Now that sounded like something important. Something important enough that might qualify as end conditions for Kayaba's challenge.

"It is said that the Great War approaches once again, very soon." Deckard said, drumming his fingers on the armrest with what amounted to impatience. "The Axiom Church has never confirmed as such, but there is rumor that the Pontifex is amassing her Integrity Knights in preparation for the coming war. The nobles and swordsmen of the lands are readying for war as well; they send their most promising youth to the Sword Mastery Academy."

"What's the Dark Territory like?" Lokuss asked. "Sorry to interrupt and derail your story, but I couldn't help but notice you didn't say much about it."

Deckard frowned. "Though the nearby caves lead to the Dark Territory, it is explicitly forbidden to set foot on that tainted earth. It is prohibited by the Taboo Index; breaking even a single rule will only lead to ruin. Those that break a rule are taken and never seen again."

Well that was ominous.

"Where was I? Ah, yes… the Dark Territory. It is said to be a bleak and barren land, devoid of life and light. Little survives there, and what does fights and squabbles amongst itself."

"I see…" Lokuss mused, still writing copious notes in his notepad. "Please, continue."

"What can you tell us about these Integrity Knights, sir?" Sachi asked.

Deckard smiled gently, pride clear in his features. "The Integrity Knights are the Pontifex's chosen, summoned from the heavens themselves as our champions and protectors. When the Great War comes, they will be the ones who guard the realms of men from Vecta's dark hordes."

"You mentioned a "calling" earlier." Kirito began. "Is Integrity Knight a kind of calling?"

"Oh heavens no. A calling is our occupation: our purpose in life. It is something we do until it is complete, and only afterwards can one choose a calling of their own. That seldom ever happens, though, just by nature of some occupations. Integrity Knight is not…" Deckard explained before pausing in consideration. "...Err, perhaps it is, now that I think about it. If it is, it is certainly not a calling fit for mortals such as we. I suppose you could say there is no greater calling."

Kirito fought back the urge to groan and thanked his lucky stars that Leonn wasn't within earshot. His mind wandered back to the Dark Territory. He needed more information; if they were ultimately going to fight these evil creatures – and he had a sneaking suspicion they would – then more information was going to be key.

"What kind of monsters live in the Dark Territory?" Kirito asked. "If they're going to attack one day, we'd like to know what to expect."

Deckard sighed. "I suppose that makes some sense. The first creature, and one of the most abundant in the hordes of Vecta, are…"


"Goblins."

Sinon quirked an eyebrow. That was all this floor had to offer in terms of enemies? Goblins? She wasn't complaining, obviously – easier foes were never a bad thing – but she expected more from something Kayaba called a final challenge.

She exchanged bemused glances with Leonn, Kuroi, and Liena before looking at the guardsman. "Goblins?"

"Aye, goblins." He confirmed. "Every so often they send a scouting party to kill, steal, or just generally harass us."

"...They're goblins."

"Hey now." Leonn wagged his finger at her. "Don't underestimate gobbos. There's a whole anime dedicated to driving that point home. They're weak but crafty and deadly in numbers."

"Anime?" The guardsman asked, the word clearly foreign on his tongue. Sinon blinked. Since when did NPCs catch onto modern terminology like this?

"Uhh…" Leonn stammered, looking just as floored as she felt. "Sorry, it's just slang for literature."

"Odd slang."

"Anyway, goblins." Sinon interjected, bringing the conversation back on topic. "You think they're coming again?"

He nodded. "It's a possibility. Some of the children – despite us warning them not to – decided to play in the nearby caves the other day and had to flee when they spotted a lone goblin wandering about. Fortunately, the beast never saw them, but where there is one goblin, there will undoubtedly be more. We will have to send some guardsmen soon to scout out and deal with the problem. Be wary should you decide to wander around the mountains, strangers."

"Want us to take care of it for you?" Leonn asked. Sure sounded like a quest, so she couldn't blame him for jumping in like that.

"Oh, I wouldn't dare impose such a paltry task on skilled swordsmen like yourselves!"

Liena raised a hand to stop him. "It's no trouble. Think of it as us keeping our skill sharp."

"Well, if you insist…" The guard looked somewhat uneasy, but ultimately mustered the nerve to point them in the right direction. "Follow that stream up until you reach a small waterfall. The cave there leads into the End Mountains. It's impossible to miss."

"We should let the others know where we're going." Sinon advised, earning a round of nods and agreements from all involved. Kuroi took it upon herself to alert the others; given she was the quickest, it certainly made sense.

"Everybody have everything?" Leonn asked as the ranking officer present. "Potions, arrows, crystals?"

Though she was positive she was already well-stocked, Sinon went to open her inventory to double check. Better safe than sorry.

"Umm…" Liena began, uncertainty etched on her face. "I can't open my menu."

Sinon went to open hers, only to find the exact same issue. "Same."

"Menu?" The guardsman asked as he reapproached the group. "Do you mean your Stacia Window?"

"Our what now?" Leonn asked.

"Your Stacia Window." The guard repeated before bringing his index finger up and tracing an "S" in the air. A trail of light followed his finger, and once the "S" was complete, a window popped into existence in front of him. It looked drastically different compared to their normal menus, but to see an NPC manipulate what was clearly system-level interfacing was peculiar. After a moment, he gestured for them to do the same.

Sinon repeated the motion and watched as a similar window blinked into existence in front of her. It was strangely similar, yet entirely foreign at the same time. For one, the color scheme was completely overhauled; where once simplistic whites and blacks rested now were replaced with cool purples, blues, and subtle white accents. Much easier on the eyes now, actually.

The default menu displayed four main pieces of information now: player name and avatar, something called "Object Control Authority", "Durability", and "System Control Authority." Durability was something she was already familiar with, but the other two were decidedly new.

"What are these control authorities?" Liena asked, her eyes glancing up at the guard before darting back to her screen in contemplation.

"Lost Children of Vecta, indeed." The guard muttered before giving an explanation. "Object Control Authority is the level of authority you have over objects; like swords, for example. You cannot wield or use an item that is above your level of authority. System Control Authority is similar but instead limits what Sacred Arts you are able to use."

"Sacred Arts?" Sinon inquired. That sounded awfully close to magic. Just where the hell were they?

"You would have to ask Sister Azalia about that. I'm afraid my own authority over the Sacred Arts is practically zero, else I would show you."

"Definitely not what we're used to. Thank you for explaining it to us." Leonn nodded at the man, who merely remarked that he was happy to be of help.

Sinon re-examined her new interface. This… was going to take some getting used to. The other buttons she was used to were now available as tabs on the side of the main window, but not having them immediately front and center was jarring. Clearly on this new floor, the control authorities and durability were going to be the main attributes to pay attention to. She noted that while her Object Control Authority was well over 100, her System Control Authority was a measly 2. Very strange, indeed.

A faint *poof* heralded the return of Kuroi, who walked out from a nearby alley to rejoin them. Entirely unnecessary, but Sinon could appreciate the theatrics of the ninja act the other girl was so keen to use. She was hardly in any position to criticize anyone trying to put on a front; she may have started to accept and get over her trauma around firearms – in no small part thanks to Yui and her therapy sessions – but she still very much tried to act the part of Sinon, Aincrad's badass archer.

Shino the soft-spoken schoolgirl was all but a memory at this point.

"Lord Kirito and Lady Asuna have been notified." Kuroi explained before nodding at Leonn. "They are with your beloved; apparently she has found something interesting with her smithing ability in this place."

"She did mention something about that earlier…" Leonn mumbled. "I'll ask her about it later. We ready to rumble?"

"Be safe, outsiders." The guard said as they departed. "Oh, and don't cross into the Dark Territory! Laying even a finger on that cursed land is forbidden!"

The trek to the nearby mountains was, in a word, peaceful. It was strange to walk through fields upon fields of land without encountering even a single monster or NPC. Sinon imagined this was what it would be like to walk through farmland in the real world; she'd never been, but she'd heard stories, and they all sounded tranquil and isolating. To walk through a landscape, knowing that there were no other souls for miles, would be – and was, she now realized – a humbling experience.

They followed the stream, the fields giving way to sparse forest before ultimately emptying out into rocky cliff sides. Nestled in the vertical rock face – End Mountains, indeed – with a trickling stream emerging from its mouth, was a cave. Likely the cave the guard spoke of.

"This is probably it." Leonn stated, completely unaware of the annoying obviousness of the statement. "Is that… ice?"

Sinon watched the stream carefully, noting the presence of small chunks of ice that were flowing out from inside the cave. Strange; it didn't feel cold outside. She was no scientist, but any ice that came from the tops of the mountains would have likely melted by the time it reached here.

"Looks like it." Sinon agreed. "We're not going to get answers out here. Ready?"

A round of affirmations, and Sinon nocked an anticipatory arrow. Like a well-oiled machine, they fell into the best exploring formation, given their party composition. Leonn took point while Liena took the rearguard position. Sinon was safely in the middle, ready to fire on anything that attacked either of her more melee-oriented friends. Kuroi had vanished and was scouting ahead.

"Can't see a damn thing." Leonn grumbled. "Anybody got a torch?"

"One moment." Liena said, and the trio stopped. A moment later, and the swordswoman was holding a basic torch in her off hand. "Alright, let's go."

The deeper they went into the cave, the colder it got. Sinon silently cursed her lack of foresight; her shorts were not doing her any favors at the moment, and she left her winter apparel back at Nelluon Arael. She subconsciously hung back a few steps to get closer to Liena's torch, the faint warmth of the fire taking the edge off of the biting cold that permeated the cave.

*poof!*

"Whatcha got, Kuroi?" Leonn asked as their forward scout popped into existence.

"A band of goblins lay ahead, just over two dozen strong." Kuroi explained. "They have a child captive."

Sinon's brow furrowed. This quickly went from a simple scouting patrol to a rescue mission. Even though they didn't receive any sort of quest prompt, she doubted letting the child get captured or killed would bode well for them at all. The others tightened the grip on their own weapons while Kuroi led them forward. A minute later, the sounds of grunting and cackling filled the tunnel, which ultimately opened up into a large crystalline cavern filled with ice crystals and, shockingly, the skeleton of what Sinon assumed to be a massive dragon.

"Take cover." Kuroi advised in a hushed whisper, and the quartet hid behind some of the larger ice crystals. Once they were settled, she pointed forward at a small cart. "Look there."

Bound in ropes and clearly unconscious, a young brunette girl in what seemed to be religious attire laid helpless on the cart. The goblins didn't seem to have inflicted any injuries on her, but the way they were cackling did little to ease Sinon's worries. The deep frown on Leonn's face only compounded those worries, actually.

The goblins themselves were sparsely equipped, wearing what amounted to loincloths and harnesses, though the larger one – a hobgoblin, perhaps? – was wearing some armor plates and a white pelt across its shoulders. Clearly the leader, and wouldn't go down without a fight.

"Plan?" Liena whispered.

"Kuroi, if we distract them, can you get the girl?" Leonn asked.

"Consider it done." The kunoichi replied, slinking off towards the shadows. "I will move when you engage."

"Sinon, you – "

"Cover fire, I know." She cut him off. "Liena, make sure this idiot doesn't get himself surrounded please."

"It was one time, Sinon."

"That we know of." Sinon scoffed before re-nocking her arrow. "Who knows how often you get into trouble whenever Liz or I aren't looking?"

Leonn grumbled, but didn't object. That was an answer enough in and of itself. "Sinon, we'll move in on your mark."

She nodded, lining her shot up on a straggler. If she played this smart, she could kill or even cripple one of the outliers without the others even noticing. She took a practiced deep breath, letting the action calm her nerves and virtual muscles. She slowly adjusted her aim before letting the breath go, letting the arrow loose when the last of her breath left her body. Swiftly and silently, the arrow flew through the air before hitting its target, a lone goblin who was slightly obscured from its allies by the stalagmites nearby.

*SPLURT!*

Contrary to popular belief, humanoid skulls are not like water balloons waiting to pop. No, they are like pumpkins: thick shells covering disgusting, slimy innards that are altogether revolting to witness outside of their protective cases. They do not explode like bombs or burst like pimples; they mangle, crumple, puncture, and ooze to hideous effect.

The goblin's head was no different, and it slumped forward, gray matter – ironically named, given its crimson hue at the moment – bulging out of the two holes Sinon's arrow created on either side of its skull. With its body no longer receiving reliable input, the goblin fell to the floor in a pile of lifeless meat and poor decisions.

Sinon froze.

Leonn gagged.

Liena screamed.

"Holy shit!" Leonn shouted, having regained his senses. "What the ever-loving fuck, Kayaba?!"

"Curse later!" Liena snapped, unsheathing her sword and pointing it forward. "Incoming!"

Indeed, the small horde of goblins was already on the move, drawn forward by Liena's startled scream. Their manic little faces promised pain and torture, and while Sinon was still reeling from the rather graphic murder of a goblin, she was also unwilling to let shock paralyze her.

"Little ium brats!" The larger goblin bellowed as he stomped forward. "You think to ambush the Great Ugachi? I am the Lizard Killer! You will regret challenging me! Kill the male! Spare the females… can find buyers for 'em real easy-like…"

She nocked another arrow before changing her mind and nocking an additional two. Leonn and Liena ran in, weapons at the ready and began to carve their way through the swathe of goblins, grotesque splurts of red blood already decorating much of their bodies and their nearby surroundings. The little green monsters seemed to be caught off guard by the ferocity by which her friends were fighting, and to be frank… she was too. Survival instincts must have kicked in with those two, the will to fight and live outweighing the shock of real wounds and injuries.

She tried to ignore the three goblins that were bleeding on the floor, having been caught on the receiving end of her ((Split Shot)) attack. Really, she did. They were probably alive. She didn't aim for anywhere vital, right? She closed her eyes and shook her head, desperately trying to banish the specter of the man she killed as a child. It was too similar, and too bloody. Those eyes… the way they froze and went lifeless as that warm red liquid slithered down…

"Sinon, watch out!"

Literal years of honed instinct were what saved her life right then, her legs unfurling like coiled springs and launching her backward just in time to avoid a sloppy downswing of a rusty sword. She immediately nocked another arrow and planted it in the offending goblin's throat.

She could freak out later. Freaking out meant you were alive to do so.

"Pesky little meatbags!" Ugachi cursed, every swing of his large blade thwarted by a carefully timed parry by Leonn. "Since when are you this strong?!"

Liena, in the meantime, dashed to and fro, expertly diverting sword swings and countering with precise slashes of her own. Klein's training matched her well; his style focused on speed and precision rather than overwhelming an opponent with blows like Kirito or Yuuki sometimes did. Liena took that training, combined it with her disciplined approach to swordplay and applied it to the chaos of real combat.

She was far from perfect, though, both in her attention and her style.

"GRAH!"

Sinon's eyes widened as a nasty gash split open across Leonn's back, a lone goblin sneaking past Liena's defense and scoring a slash on her friend's exposed flank. Already it was actively bleeding; fortunately, before another attack could find its mark Liena cut the goblin down.

Sinon's eyes narrowed and she let arrow after arrow fly. Her hesitation had no place here. Just like the Laughing Coffin raid, she could not afford to stall. With pain and now threat of injury real on this new floor, she steeled her resolve and let loose a volley of agony for their foes. The cries of anguish as goblin after goblin fell to the floor was of some comfort, at least.

Another cry of pain, but this time from Ugachi. He roared and bellowed, all the while his left arm hung limply at his side. Leonn had apparently scored a direct hit to the goblin's shoulder and absolutely pulverized it. The shoulder itself was caved in, and pieces of bone poked out uncomfortably from the surrounding tissue. She winced at the sight.

Leonn, on the other hand, knelt in pain, a rather deep cut bleeding fresh from his own shoulder. Liena stood over him, sword poised and ready to defend.

"You rotten little ium brat!" Ugachi cried out. He staggered forward, the pain seemingly almost too much for him. "You cripple my arm and shame me?! YOU WILL PAY IN BLOOD!"

Ugachi advanced, and Liena ran forward to meet him. She was doing remarkably well holding him off, despite the size difference, but it was clear she was tiring. She had her own scrapes and bruises; that much was obvious. Sinon took down two smaller goblins that threatened to flank her and interrupt the impromptu duel.

"I rip you in half. Eat your guts." Ugachi groaned, each sentence punctuated by another swing. "Teach you lesson in shame!"

Sinon took down the remaining two goblins with precise shots to the legs, dropping them and taking them out of the fight. Taking a moment to fetch another arrow from her quiver, she watched as Ugachi kicked Liena in the stomach, sending her sprawling backward and crashing into Leonn. The two tumbled over one another.

Ugachi was about to swing down with his sword and finish them off when a blur of purple crashed onto his back, staggering him. Kuroi had arrived, and was furiously stabbing the back of Ugachi's neck and shoulder blades.

"Sinon, quickly!" Kuroi shouted. "You must finish this!"

"I-I can't!" Sinon refused, bow and arrow in hand but unwilling to consciously kill again.

"You must!" Kuroi argued before she was thrown off and into a pillar. She scrambled to her feet and readied her blade against a rapidly advancing Ugachi. "You are not a murderer! A true warrior fights not because she hates what is in front of her, but because she loves what is behind her!"

And that was it, wasn't it? Every time she knowingly drew blood, it was in the defense of another. She didn't kill out of malice or spite, she killed because there was no other option… because those she loved were in peril. Bow and arrow… handgun… the medium was irrelevant. It was the intent that mattered, the will to protect life, ironically by ending it. In hindsight, Yui had tried to get her to realize that, but the message wasn't sticking.

Not until now.

*THWIP!*

Ugachi tripped and crashed to the floor, a single arrow lodged through his temple. It was a quick and merciful end to an otherwise murderous existence, as far as she could tell.

But these were NPCs, right? Why did Kayaba have to go and make them so damned lifelike? It felt exactly like the few times she'd been forced to kill already, and she did not appreciate the facsimile one bit. Still, what was done was done.

Content, but not entirely comfortable with her decision, she stowed her bow and ran over to Leonn and Liena, who were both bleeding profusely. Kuroi was at her side, and together the two retrieved healing crystals from their inventories and held them forth. With a simultaneous cry of "HEAL!" the two watched as the grievous wounds knit themselves back together. Leonn, who sported the worst injuries of the two, hissed in pain as his injuries unnaturally closed shut.

"I hate this floor." Leonn chuckled sardonically.

"Agreed." Sinon nodded, noting that many of the other goblins were either crawling away or bleeding to death nearby. "Kuroi, how's the girl?"

"Alive. Shaken, but alive."

"Good." Sinon sighed. They all stood up, some with the assistance of others. "Let's get back to Rulid. The others need to know."

"About what?" Liena asked.

"Everything."


((Divine Forging)).

For the longest time, Liz questioned why such a skill existed. Yes, it granted her crafted weapons a boost to their overall stats, but it was hardly worth the creation of a separate Unique Skill. The boost was relatively moderate, all things considered. It was equivalent to the stat boost provided by Alice's ((Kaishingeki)), which was notable but not all that impressive.

This floor changed that perception.

She stared at her newest creation, ((Blue Rose Sword)). Defeating that reaper boss and setting foot on this strange floor seemed to finally unlock her last sub-skill, which allowed her to forge weapons called Divine Objects by using soulbound items. The title might seem a little lofty and arrogant at first, but that belief was quickly dispelled once one took a look at the weapon itself.

The ((Blue Rose Sword)) was a thing of beauty, both inside and out. It was an elegant weapon, its blade pure white like ice and its hilt adorned with a rose that looked as if it were hewn from a glacier. Its stats were double that which was available on the 90th floor; such a dramatic increase was unheard of. Any improved weaponry, crafted or otherwise, usually resulted in an increase of two to three percent. If she had to give an analogy, Liz would describe this as jumping up 10 floors at once and finding the best weapon there.

"Gotta say, Liz…" Eugeo smiled as he swung his new sword around, testing its balance and feel. "You've really outdone yourself this time."

"I'll say!" She beamed, hefting her blacksmith hammer over her shoulder with pride. "This is my best work yet, and there's more where that came from! All those pesky soulbound items have a use now!"

"What do you need to make another one?" Alice asked as she and a few other KoB knights watched with awe. "Beside the soulbound item, that is."

"Honestly? Most of the materials are easy to get; it's the soulbound items that are the tricky part." Liz answered, pulling up the description of her skill. "...And about a day. Apparently I can't craft another Divine Object for another 24 hours."

"That's one hell of a limitation." Eugeo frowned. "Worth it, though. Kirito's got one of those too. How come you didn't start with him?"

Liz shrugged. "He was too busy having story time with one of the elders of the village… and Lokuss. Apparently this floor's got a lot of lore to it."

"Is that so?" Eugeo asked rhetorically. He swung his sword a few more times, having drawn quite an audience at this point. "I kinda wanna test this out."

"Are there any monsters nearby?" Liz asked.

"Some of your friends went to dispatch some goblins in the End Mountains, but it is getting rather late and they have likely already finished the deed." One of the NPCs nearby commented. "Perhaps a training dummy would suffice?"

"Are you mad?!" The blacksmith NPC she borrowed the forge from scoffed. "You would waste such a masterpiece as this on a mere training dummy? No, this sword deserves a target far grander than a mere doll."

A child nearby pointed her finger towards the outskirts of town. "How about a tree?"

Liz's eyes – and those of everyone around – found themselves on that massive cedar tree that dominated the forest outside of town. Surely that wouldn't work, right? That thing had to be an immortal object! Unless… unless her new weapons could damage immortal objects? There's no way Kayaba would allow something like that; even he wouldn't be safe from such a weapon.

"That's a great idea!" Another NPC citizen shouted. "Surely such a weapon can fell the Gigas Cedar!"

"The Gigas Cedar?" Alice parroted.

"That accursed tree has plagued our forests and farmlands for generations." An elderly woman explained. "It steals nutrients and resources from the surrounding area. Cutting it down would be a great service to our town, sir knight."

"I guess I can give it a shot." Eugeo meekly accepted.

Liz soon found herself swept up by the crowd as they collectively marched towards the Gigas Cedar. Not that she would have resisted, really, but she would have preferred at least having the option to say no. Regardless, it didn't take long for what had to have been half the village and more than a handful of players to find themselves at the foot of the Gigas Cedar.

Massive wasn't quite the right word.

The Gigas Cedar was gargantuan. No, that still wasn't right. The tree was titanic, an arboreal monolith whose apex seemed to scrape against the clouds. Its branches swept so wide and its leaves were so dense that little grew under its canopy. Only the smallest patches of grass eked out an existence under its oppressive shade. She imagined that the decrepit old tree back in Nelluon Arael might have looked as massively majestic as this tree back in its heyday.

It did look as if someone made some progress on cutting down the cedar, though. A deep groove ran along its side, though its depth paled in comparison to the overall girth of the tree. It looked as if someone had been chopping away for days trying to fell the behemoth.

Didn't they say something about it being a drain for generations, though?

"Parun, what's its Life at now?" One of the citizens asked.

A rather gruff voice answered, and Liz mentally attributed its owner the stereotypical visage of a burly lumberjack. "232312 out of 320826."

"That's only 72 percent!" Kirito's voice shouted in disbelief. Huh, so he'd gotten caught up in this business, too. "How long have you been trying to cut this thing down?"

"Hundreds of years, sonny." Paul the big, burly lumberjack answered. "Been chopping away at this thing ever since my great-great-great-great…"

"We get it." Klein snapped. Apparently the whole guild was here. Well, nearly. Leonn, Sinon, Liena, and Kuroi were nowhere to be seen. "It's been a long time."

Hundreds of years worth of work, and they only had this tree down to 72%.

…And they wanted Eugeo to cut this thing down with a sword?

"Give it a few test swings first, Eugeo." Kirito advised. "We don't want to break Liz's hard work by smacking it against a tree too hard."

Liz's eyes narrowed and she felt a primal growl bubble up in her chest. "Eugeo…"

"I get it, I get it!" Eugeo chuckled before taking a stance. Good; they should fear the wrath of their blacksmith. Those nearest to him stepped back to give him space to work. "Alright, here goes!"

The ((Blue Rose Sword)) took on the signature glow of a sword skill – much to Liz's chagrin – before Eugeo let loose a bellow eerily similar to Kirito's. She recognized the skill as a ((Horizontal)), which was arguably one of the safer skills to use, so at least he was being careful about it. The frosted blade made contact with the gnarled bark of the Gigas Cedar, and immediately she noticed something off about the way the sword sounded.

Most swords, when they made contact with objects or surfaces, had a distinct sound. It was often the sound of scraping metal. Hardly pleasant to the ears, obviously, but it wasn't grating either. To the practiced ears of a blacksmith like Liz, it was a sound she'd know anywhere. But here, that was not the case.

Eugeo's sword sounded like ice.

Freezing, crackling, bone-chilling, scraping ice.

His swing came with a blinding flash of light as the Divine Object made contact with the monolithic cedar, and everyone shielded their eyes. When it was safe to do so, Liz warily looked back towards Eugeo…

…who'd carved a veritable trench in the side of the tree. Seriously, she could probably crawl into the space he left behind and have room to spare. Her eyes bugged out. That had to have shorn off at least a fifth of the tree's width! What was that, something like 20%?

"Impossible!"

"Such power!"

"Truly a weapon of the gods!"

"Damn, Geo-bou!" Argo's snide voice called out over the din of awed villagers. "Imagine if you let loose on it!"

"I can do that."

Eugeo assumed another stance, and his new sword began to glow cyan. Liz's eyes went wide, and she was about to shout a warning when Kirito beat her to the punch.

"Back! You don't want to be standing here when it comes down!"

As the mob of players and villagers ran back towards the safety of town, Liz couldn't help the gleeful smile that threatened to split her face wide open. To think that something she made could have such godlike power. She grinned, feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Best blacksmith in the game…mission accomplished!

The crowd came to a stop just outside the town gates, and everyone looked back in anticipation for what was to come. There was a sharp flash of light that filtered through the treeline, and a pervasive hush swept over the crowd. For several agonizingly long seconds, nothing happened. A few of the villagers looked to and fro, craning their necks in a futile effort to peer through the forest for some sort of confirmation.

Then she saw the Gigas Cedar tilt and felt the earth move.

To call it a rumble would be inaccurate. It shifted. She saw the tree slide to the side, and the motion led to what Liz could only describe as a sharp shockwave ripple out through the ground. It didn't persist; it was immense and sudden but it did not last long at all.

On the other hand, the tree falling to the ground did seem to last forever.

Liz could only watch, wide-eyed as what amounted to a wooden skyscraper listed to the side and fell. Fortunately, it fell to the side and away from their direction, but there had to have been a solid ten seconds of straight-up free fall as the tree descended to the earth. The resulting boom of its landing was deafening and gratifying, and the wall of pine-smelling wind that buffeted them was enough to send several of their number to the ground.

"Whoa." Argo so eloquently spoke. "Liz…"

"Hmm?"

"Yer weapons are basically nukes. Glorious, positively medieval nukes."

"Why, thank you!"

"When we get back to the upper floors, I'm gonna see if I can find any other soulbound item users. We get more of those and Kayaba won't stand a chance." Argo grinned.

"Hell yeah!" Klein exclaimed as Eugeo emerged from the treeline.

The town stoked itself into a fury of cheers and whoops as they swarmed around the triumphant swordsman turned lumberjack. Liz was content to stand to the side and bask in the knowledge that she helped. She smirked as she overheard more than a few of the NPCs start to call Eugeo "Cedarsbane," which somehow sounded awesome and lame at the same time. He was hoisted on the villagers' shoulders back through the town gates, and she made to follow them.

A tap on the shoulder stopped her for a moment, and she looked back at a distraught Asuna, who merely pointed somewhere to the side.

"What's up, Asuna? Geez, what's got you so…"

Cresting a nearby hill were the four missing members of the Renegades, each of them covered in blood. It had been so long since Liz saw actual blood that, for a moment, she wondered why they'd decided to try and dye their armor. No, that was blood. Fortunately, the brunette unconscious in Leonn's arms did not appear to be the one bleeding. She paled when she saw the rips, tears, and gashes in her friends' equipment. That blood was at least partially theirs.

She – and the rest of the Expeditionary Force, as they came to call themselves now – would later learn that not only was pain real on this floor, but so was bodily injury. She gave her boyfriend a verbal lashing when she discovered that he'd almost lost an arm in their battle with the goblins. Was this the point of Kayaba's Legacy? To bring virtual reality closer and closer to actual reality?

Liz suddenly found herself wanting to return home as soon as possible.


The Pontifex considered herself many things.

She was graceful, elegant, and beautiful beyond comparison. No, she was not vain or arrogant; that was just the way things were. She was patient; an immortal being such as she would have to be, or risk falling to madness over the course of her everlasting life. She was powerful, having the ability to take ordinary people and raise them to heights impossible to achieve on their own.

One thing she did not consider herself to be was ignorant, which was what made Rulid village such a delightful surprise.

Naturally, when she began to hear tales of outsiders visiting an insignificant town on the outskirts of her domain, she was, at first, unconcerned. Lost Children of Vecta were hardly a worry, nor were they worthy of her attention. They would either integrate into society or fall to its wayside. Insignificant no matter how you sliced it.

When she heard that one of their number, a blacksmith swordswoman – and just what kind of calling was that? – forged a weapon that sounded eerily similar to her own creations, her curiosity was piqued. Suddenly, these outsiders were far more interesting than she once thought! Combine that little nugget of information with tales of a group of four thwarting a goblin scouting force with no casualties, and she was very interested.

"Chudelkin." She spoke, her melodic voice ringing faintly through her bedchamber with unquestionable authority.

In an instant, the little clown-faced gremlin was at her side, knelt in subservience. "You summoned me, your Eminence?"

"Send a formal invitation to these outsiders in Rulid." She explained, using her well-practiced airs of aloofness and nobility. While she was curious, it would not do for her to seem desperate. "Bring them here to Centoria. I wish to know more of them. Clearly these are no ordinary Lost Children of Vecta."

"It will be done, your Eminence!" Chudelkin almost cackled. She sighed, doing her best to hide her disgust for the man. Were he not so capable and loyal, she would have disposed of him already.

"If they do not answer my summons simply because I sent it, include more conventional approaches. Perhaps the academies or the appeal of money and power may bring them here if nothing else."

"But that would be sacrilege, your Eminence!" Chudelkin gasped. "They should accept an invitation from you because you sent it, and for no other reason!"

She slowly shook her head, and immediately his whimpering was brought to an end. "They are Lost Children; my word may not hold much significance to them. Now, I will hear no more of this. Send the summons and leave my sight."

"Yes, your Eminence!" Chudelkin bowed deeply before bounding out of the room.

She sighed again and leaned back in her lavish bed. She was many things: graceful, elegant, beautiful, powerful, and now curious. Her expression sharpened and her eyes narrowed; she was also unwilling to let a rogue variable threaten the power that, until recently, only she possessed. She would bring this blacksmith under her control, or she would snuff it out and remove it from the board entirely.

Such was the responsibility of an Administrator.


A/N:

Time to address some rather minor differences between this version of the Underworld and its canonical counterpart. They're nothing major, but some necessary changes needed to be made to allow it to mesh well with existing Aincrad mechanics.

For example, inventories are still a thing. Canonically, the Underworld doesn't have any such storage mechanic, and everything needs to be carried with you on your person if you need to take it anywhere. That's not going to be a thing here, simply because the very act of crossing over into the Underworld would empty your inventory if this were the case. I'm not about to do that because that's a headache and a half.

The same applies to nearly every other menu and combat mechanic from base SAO. They've just been repurposed or carried over. Again, minor details that will have very little bearing on the story moving forward.

Anyhoo, that's all for now!

'Til next time!