"The only way to escape this world is to pass through the vortex that has opened high above Yggdrasil itself—and the only way to reach it is to clear the dungeon within the World Tree and defeat the boss that waits at the top. Whosoever delivers the Last Attack to this boss will win the favor of High King Oberon, who will grant that player's race and two of its allies the power of Unlimited Flight."

Akihiko Kayaba, Alfheim Online Tutorial

By the time Kirito was able to return to Lithjagg and turn in his quest, he was exhausted beyond belief. He'd spent half the evening his first night in the game and nearly the entire second day grinding the quest mobs for the rare drop that he needed, and was ready to lay a curse upon the family of whoever had designed the game's random number generator when he finally got his hands on the precious flower he needed.

A short night's sleep in Lithjagg relieved most of Kirito's exhaustion from the previous full day of questing, and by midmorning he finally arrived at the Spriggan home city of Penwether, a complex of ancient-looking stone structures that surrounded a towering pyramidal ziggurat which contained the vast majority of the city itself. He approached the main entrance fully expecting to have to wait a while before he was able to see Yoshihara, the elected leader of the Spriggan faction.

What he hadn't expected was to be told that she wasn't there.

"Sorry bud, she went out to the Scarhill ruins with her party." The bored-looking, overweight Spriggan guard sitting on one of the lower steps of the ziggurat didn't seem the least bit sorry, nor did he appear to have much interest in conversation. His replies were perfunctory and disinterested, as if he'd much rather be anywhere else doing anything else other than being stuck with the job of sitting there and answering for his leader's whereabouts.

"Out?" Kirito said incredulously. "She left the city?"

The other Spriggan eyed him askance and managed the impressive feat of sounding both bored and sarcastic at the same time. "No, she's astral-projecting herself out to the ruins so that she can grind EXP in two places at once. Next stupid question?"

Kirito palmed his face and peeked at the man through his fingers. "Fantastic. Does she have any idea what's going on in the game right now?"

The guard made an exasperated sound and finally turned his full attention on the player badgering him, crossing his arms. "What do I look like, her secretary? If you want to talk to her so bad, why don't you buzz off and go there yourself? I'm sure she'd love to play 20 questions with some random kid while she's trying to level up."

Turning away in disgust, Kirito stalked off and found a patch of grass to sit in while he thought, wishing that he knew anyone who was traveling with the Spriggan leader. He'd tried sending her a message, but by default players couldn't receive messages from someone who wasn't a friend or guildmate—you had to toggle off that privacy feature manually, and you had to know it was there in the first place. And even if he'd been allowed to send her a private message, it probably wouldn't have reached her or her party as long as they were in a dungeon anyway.

In the beta, Kirito had loved playing a Spriggan. Aside from the aesthetics of the race and the proximity of the useful Anneal Blade quest, Illusion was more useful to a creative-minded player than it was given credit for, and the small population and individualistic attitude that prevailed in the race's typical player base suited his solo nature. But there were times when being part of a very small, casual faction with no real direction or structure had its drawbacks.

This was one of them.

The Scarhill ruins, Kirito knew, wasn't especially far away—it was a popular low-level dungeon northwest of Penwether, buried in the forest like most of the other ruins that dotted the Spriggan lands. He could probably reach it in under an hour if he pushed himself and only stopped to rest his wings.

Briefly he considered firing a message back to Argo and telling her that he couldn't find Yoshihara, but the fact that his nominal leader had left the safety of her home city wasn't something he wanted to tell even a friend—not even Argo, who he trusted more than anyone else in this game.

Besides, Argo's reply was likely to be: well, go find her thenthat's what I'm paying you for.

He didn't think the Salamanders were likely to be launching any incursions this far north when they hadn't even—to his knowledge, anyway—hit the Undines yet. But it wasn't a chance he wanted to take, and he had agreed to deliver a message.

It was the last point that decided him. His working relationship with Argo was built on mutual trust and reliability, and he had a reputation to uphold. Or so he liked to think. Gathering himself, he stopped by an NPC smith to repair all of his gear to top condition, and set out for the ruins at his maximum cruising speed.

In a way, the diversion was convenient; Kirito needed to head towards Leprechaun territory anyway in order to have a chance at finding a player weaponsmith of any skill this early in the game, and Scarhill would be more or less on the way. When he had to land in a winding glen in order to make his first rest stop, he found a mossy log that jutted out over the trickling river and sat down, drawing the Anneal Blade from his back and lovingly running a palm down the length of the glossy black blade.

It had been his favorite sword in the beta—even after he'd outleveled it and needed to upgrade to something more powerful, he still kept it in his inventory for when he had to go hunting lower-level mobs for crafting or upgrade materials, cherishing its balance, appearance and upgradeability. The one he now held across his lap had yet to be upgraded at all, and he didn't trust the low skill levels of the NPC smiths to try to sharpen it for him—for that, he would seek out a dedicated player smith and spend some time gathering the materials that would maximize his chances of a successful upgrade.

It was well after noon by the time he reached Scarhill, and the midday sun had finally burned through the haze of fog that tended to accumulate at ground level in the forest. True to its name, the ruins were an ugly wound of orange stone cutting into the side of a gentle slope in the forest, a place where the land grew rough and uneven as it prepared to yield to the colder regions leading to Leprechaun territory. Although the color of the stonework framing the entrance to the underground passages stood in stark contrast to the verdant forest around it, the structure was so overgrown with moss and vines that it was easy to miss if a player didn't know exactly what they were looking for. Hovering far above, he surveyed the entrance to the dungeon from a safe distance.

If Kirito had been a few levels lower or any less skilled, the pair of tall golem-like mobs guarding the entrance would've posed an insurmountable threat—they were intended to be taken on by a party with a minimum average level of 4. Even at his level, it was still a risk, but the EXP from defeating them would be worth it—and the alternative was to use an Illusion spell to disguise himself as a monster and hope they didn't aggro him as he passed.

The problem was that even armed with his beloved Anneal Blade he doubted he could take them both at the same time.

Considering and rejecting several strategies, Kirito suddenly swooped lower, narrowing his eyes and taking a closer look. What he saw made him breathe a sigh of relief. When he focused on them one by one, each of their HP gauges appeared individually rather than both gauges appearing at once when he looked at either mob. As in the beta, they were individuals—not a linked encounter. Had they been an encounter, there would've been no way of pulling them individually; aggroing one would bring them both running no matter how he did it.

A plan began forming in his mind. Opening his menu, he navigated until he reached the detailed info window for one of his spells, nodding in satisfaction as he confirmed its maximum casting range. Armed with this knowledge, he landed safely outside of the aggro range of the golems and looked around until he found a rock about the size of a plum.

Holding his left hand palm-up, he brought the hand up to his mouth and whispered a series of arcane syllables. As each fell from his lips, they turned into visible ripples above his palm which resembled the way intense heat would distort the air. When the incantation was complete, he held his palm out and focused on a spot about twenty meters to the left of the entrance, then clenched his fist. The magical energy disappeared as if crushed in his grip, and at the point on the ground where he'd focused there appeared a motionless replica of Kirito himself.

The red cursor of the left-hand golem flashed once, and it immediately turned and charged at his decoy. As soon as it was in motion, Kirito held the rock up in a throwing position. It began to glow as he assumed the correct posture for his Thrown Weapon skill, and a moment later it shot across the distance separating him from the second golem, striking it. Just as the first golem reached his decoy and struck at it, causing it to disappear in a puff of black smoke, the second golem charged at him, safely pulled out of the other's aggro range.

It would still have been a difficult fight, but Kirito was prepared. The golem's attacks were slow and relatively easy to dodge as long as he was only fighting them one-on-one, and Kirito used his high AGI and knowledge of the mob's attack animations to predict where it was going to strike and evade into a position for a counterattack. It took a little over a minute of this dodge-and-strike pattern to whittle down its health, until finally it gave a great shudder and crumbled into an inert pile of stone which burst into a spray of blue polygons moments later.

He had just finished clearing the second mob the same way when he heard a slow clap behind him, from the direction of the entrance. Still in the state of intense focus he went into while fighting, he spun with his weapon ready, relaxing only when he saw that the source of the noise was a full group of Spriggan players who'd just emerged from the ruins.

"Now that was well-done, kid. Solo, no less." The speaker—and, he assumed, the person who'd given him the half-hearted applause—was a tall spearwoman with a cocky posture and expression, wearing a few pieces of leather armor. Her medium-length ash-gray hair was held back by a black hairband, and she gave him a searching look as she stepped forward, followed closely by the rest of her party.

Flourishing and sheathing his sword, Kirito saw that she was the only woman in her party and put two and two together. "Yoshihara?" he asked.

The woman stiffened and sharpened her gaze. "Who wants to know?"

Kirito didn't flinch away from that intense look. "Someone with a message. Someone who doesn't have time to play guessing games. Are you?"

He could see her party members adjusting the way they stood and loosening their weapons in their sheaths, and widened his own stance slightly as a precaution. The woman held out a palm that stilled her group. "I'm Yoshihara, yes. Who told you where to find me, and what do you want?"

"A fat guard with an attitude problem, to answer the first question. As to the second, I have urgent news about what's happening far to the south."

Yoshihara rolled her eyes. "Geniha talks too much. I'm going to kick his ass when I get back. All right, speak your piece."

Relaxing a little, Kirito folded his arms across his chest. "The Salamanders launched a surprise attack against Everdark yesterday morning, killing the Imp leader and taking over their city. There's a good chance they could continue their war march up the eastern coast. Someone hired me to warn you about that, and to bring you a message from the Undine leader: an offer of an alliance against the Salamander threat."

"Right," Yoshihara said sardonically. "Because what I want to do in the first few days of this Death Game is get you, me and everyone else in my faction killed by taking sides in someone else's war."

"It'll be our war if the Salamanders crush the Undines next."

Kirito could see several members of her party giving each other uneasy looks. Yoshihara herself looked unmoved. "Look, thanks for the offer, kid, but whatever testosterone-laden dick-waving contest is going on down south, I'd rather wait and see how it shakes out. Go back to the Undine leader and tell them…" She hesitated, mulling over her words, then grinned. "Tell them the Spriggans wish them the best of luck, and maybe we'll see them at the World Tree."

"Oh man, you have no idea how happy I am to see you guys!"

Running across the small Sylvan glade in the Ancient Forest where they'd agreed to meet, Klein gave his old friend a hug—a manly hug, complete with vigorous back-slapping—and stepped back. "Not half as glad as I am to find you alive, Dynamm." He whistled. "Damn, it's uncanny just how much this character looks like you."

Dynamm reached up and stroked his wispy mustache. "You think? The game wouldn't let me pick pure black as a hair color, but this dark brown is a fair stand-in."

"It's not the hair," Klein said, grinning. "It's more like… well, the Salamander and Imp characters me and Kunimittz rolled have some pretty obviously nonhuman features. Between his eyes and my eyebrows…"

"Unibrow, you mean."

Klein whacked Dynamm lightly on the side of the head. "It's not a unibrow! They're just bushy. Anyway, you Sylphs look a lot more… well, normal. Human-like."

"Except for these," Dynamm said as he reached up and tapped one of his angled, pointed ears.

Klein waved at the air. "Details."

Dynamm laughed. "So what about the others?"

Sighing, Klein found a tree stump to sit down on in the clearing and looked up at his friend. "I still haven't heard from Issin. Dale's up with the Gnomes, and Harry One's just east of there with the Leprechauns. Both of them are sitting tight until we get there, and from what they said it's pretty peaceful up on that end of things so far. But that's all the way on the north end of the continent—it's a hell of a road trip from here."

"Issin was rolling a Cait Sith, wasn't he?"

Klein nodded at Dynamm's question. "Which makes it weird that I haven't heard from him—far as I know, nothing bad's going on up there either—but I can't send him a PM. Every time I try, the system gives me this funky message saying that the recipient doesn't accept blah-de-blah."

Dynamm scratched at the scruff on his chin. "Well, the Cait Sith are just north of here, and our relations with them are—not really friendly, but not hostile, either. Once we get through Sylph territory, we can look for him there." Frowning, he glanced eastward at the dense treeline. "So what's this I hear about some heavy shit happening with the Salamanders, dude?"

Klein groaned. "My man, you do not even want to know. Some warmongering asshole took advantage of all the chaos and anger after we were all ported back to our home city, and got everyone worked up into a frenzy. They came down on the Imps like a ton of bricks, killed their leader, and took over. We just barely got out in time."

Dynamm looked pale. "Did they seriously just wipe them out? Like, kill all those people?"

Kunimittz shook his head. "Nah, I've gotten a few messages from some friends I made before this all went down—they're okay. From what they're telling me, the Sallies—that's what they call the Salamanders, though not to their faces—basically told everyone who surrendered or was captured that they work for them, now. And that if they fight loyally for the Sallies, they'll be one of the allied races that get to come along when they clear the World Tree and get out of here."

"Or they can rot in a cell until they change their minds," Klein added grimly.

Dynamm let out a low, slow whistle, running his hand over the forest-green bandana that covered his head like a skullcap. "Talk about your offers you can't refuse."

"Shh!" Kunimittz suddenly made a sharp shushing sound, waving for attention. "You guys hear that?"

Klein hadn't heard anything, but a few moments later it became a moot point. The foliage at the edge of the treeline parted as a half-dozen Sylphs emerged, weapons drawn—two of them with bows that already had arrows nocked, one a mage who had his hands held out meaningfully, obviously prepared to cast. Jumping to his feet, Klein swore under his breath, his hand moving away from the hilt of his sheathed cutlass and slowly raising into the air.

One of the Sylphs stepped cautiously forward, taking one hand off of her very long katana and signaling the others to hold their positions. Klein swallowed hard and began to sweat a little. If she hadn't been holding a weapon on him and leading a party of people who looked ready to cut him down where he stood, he would've been reduced to a stuttering puddle by how stunningly beautiful the tall, elegant-looking Sylph was—he could almost imagine how she must look in real life, without the wide-set elfin ears and dark green hair, and caught himself wondering if her hair was really that long.

From the expression on her face, though, she was in no mood to be flirted with. Her eyes flicked swiftly between the three of them, lingering on Kunimittz and finally Klein. "You're not a Salamander raiding party," she said slowly. "And you're too loud to be spies." She glanced at Dynamm, suspicion and anger in her eyes. "And I have no idea what you are doing here with them. So why don't you explain yourself."

Klein coughed, trying to compose himself. "Well, it's like this—"

"I wasn't talking to you," the woman remarked evenly, still looking at Dynamm.

Dynamm looked more embarrassed than afraid. "These are my friends from the outside. We were supposed to all meet up and party together, but we got separated when that insane GM warped everyone back to their starting cities." He pointed at Klein. "He was our guild leader in the last game we played."

The woman's katana lowered fractionally. She turned her gaze on Klein. "Now you can talk. Where do you stand on the war?"

"The war?" Klein repeated blankly. "Have they attacked you guys, too?"

She looked at Klein as if he was an idiot child. "We've been repelling raiding parties from your people since yesterday afternoon. Mostly Salamanders, sometimes with Imps mixed into the party." She glanced significantly at Kunimittz. "We set up rotating border patrols as soon as we got word of what happened to the Imps, so they haven't been able to come in force—just in parties small enough to slip through the picket."

"That's not us," Klein said immediately.

"I can tell," the Sylph woman said as she slowly sheathed her katana in a long purple scabbard, slinging it behind her. "You're much too noisy and ignorant. But we also can't have you running freely around our territory."

Bristling, Klein started to argue the slight, then decided that under the circumstances he'd rather be thought ignorant than dangerous. "We've got no intention of staying," he said. "There's another friend we need to search for, a Cait Sith. All we want to do is pass through to their lands."

Scrutinizing Klein and his companions for a few more moments, she finally waved at the rest of her party; they lowered their weapons and returned arrows to quivers. "I wish I could allow you to do that," she said. "But as I said, I can't permit you to roam Sylph territory freely. And the next patrol you encounter may not ask questions before attacking." She gestured at one of her group, beckoning him forward. "Kestral , I want you flying point on our way back. If you see any other patrols, be ready to explain the situation before they run into us."

"Where are we going?" Klein asked.

The Sylph party leader fixed him with her emerald green eyes. "I'm taking you to Sylvain, our home city. Our leader will be in a position to grant you safe passage, if he believes your story. For your own safety you'll be traveling as our prisoners, but if you agree to behave and do as you're told, we'll forego any kind of bindings."

"Can't you just escort us to Cait Sith territory?"

"That's not my call to make," she replied simply, as if that settled the matter. "Will you come peacefully?"

Klein turned up both palms in a gesture of futility. "I don't see what other choice we have."

The woman finally smiled, albeit thinly. "Perhaps you're not as dumb as you seem. Come."

Not for the first time, Klein thought it was just as well that the person who'd insulted him was a beautiful woman who was in a position to slice him into very small pieces if she wanted to—otherwise he might've been tempted to protest.

If there was anything funnier than a flying cat, Argo mused, she had yet to come across it. The very first time she'd ever seen another Cait Sith materialize yellow dragonfly-like wings from their back and start flitting around like a fairy wearing nekomimi, she'd laughed so hard she nearly hurt herself—and that was a feat, considering that actual damage in the game world didn't cause pain as such.

While she normally preferred to stick to the ground when she was trying to remain discreet or stealthy, when covering long distances there was no substitute for flight. And as she soared as fast as she could high above the surface of the ocean, she had to admit—it was a lot of fun once you got used to doing it without that obnoxious controller taking up a free hand.

The island on which the city of Freelia was built was roughly similar in shape and topography to Shoudoshima, albeit larger, spanning about eighty kilometers along the east-west axis with a harbor on the south side nestled between a pair of finger-like peninsulas. The similarity was such that she sometimes wondered if it had been intentional; sadly, Argo had yet to find a vendor anywhere in the city that sold olives. The channel separating it from the mainland was just narrow enough on the north side to be crossed in one flight, and before she descended in a glide to the opposite shore she could see far enough across the vast grassy plains to just barely catch sight of the Puca home city on the northern horizon.

The nearness was deceptive; it was probably nearly 100 kilometers away and would take her most of the day if she went by air after factoring in breaks to fully rest her wings. Spending part of the time on foot, it would be getting on towards dinner before she reached her destination, but she'd be far less likely to be spotted by hostile players and would have more chances to earn EXP along the way from solo mobs.

All of these estimates, of course, were assuming that nothing delayed her along the way. And as a flashing message icon in her HUD reminded her, that was a losing assumption—it wasn't exactly safe to fly blind while trying to respond to PMs.

「Spriggan leader's not taking sides, and she's an idiot. She said to tell the Undine leader "good luck and see you at the World Tree". I need to head to Lepu territory to get my sword upgraded. -K」

Argo blew out an exasperated breath and swore. People were so short-sighted and stupid. Her mind raced as she chewed on the message she wanted to send, then hit Reply and attached a quantity of Yuld to the message.

「I don't have time to play telephone back-and-forth with the Undines right now, Ki-bou. I need a big favor from you. Go to Parasel and tell their leader—use these exact words—'the Spriggans are sympathetic to your cause, but are reluctant to take sides and widen the conflict. Send word if the Salamanders invade.' Here's the money I promised—more if you do this for me.」

There was a lengthy silence from Kirito's end—long enough for her to deal with a weak insect mob that swooped down from above and tried to attack her. As she depleted the last of the beetle's HP with a combo from the combat claws strapped to her forearms, she got the new message notification and opened it without even looking to see what kind of EXP and money she'd gotten from the fight.

「This is way out of my way, and you're asking me to lie about what Yoshihara said. I don't like it. Why me?」

Argo sighed. Kirito could be so infuriatingly single-minded and straitlaced sometimes, and she really needed to get going. Her fingers flew over the virtual keyboard that hung in the air in front of her just above waist-height.

「 The Undines need to think they're not alone in this, but we can't promise an alliance we can't deliver. They need to hear this, and they need to hear it from a Spriggan. Help them if you can.」She thought about it for a moment, then added: 「This is an important job, Ki-bou. Don't let me down.」

Without waiting for a reply, Argo quickly scrolled through her game menu and began searching her expansive contact list until she found the name she wanted. Tapping the icon, she opened a new message.

「Heads up,」she wrote.「You said you'd pay for any good intel. I just got word that the Undines and Spriggans are talking about an alliance to push back the Salamanders. If your guy moves on them, it's gonna get ugly and could bring in others. -Argo」

Under normal circumstances Argo wouldn't have delivered the info to a buyer until she was paid, but in this case the payment wasn't the point—merely a tasty bonus. And strictly speaking, nothing she'd said was really a lie. She hit Send and cautiously scanned the area for hostiles as she waited, seeing nothing in her immediate vicinity but non-aggro animal mobs.

A few minutes passed with no response. Argo started walking north, and was considering pulling one of the nearby herbivores when she got a notification. Quickly, almost eagerly, she opened the message—and what she saw there made her smile broadly, as much from the contents as from the money that was electronically added to her purse when she opened it.

「Finally, something worth paying for. I'll pass it on to Kibaou. No names as per our agreement. Send word the moment you hear anything else useful. -Corvatz」

Asuna was fairly certain she was lost.

It shouldn't have been possible to get lost. All she'd needed to do was stay within sight of Parasel and stick to the easy mobs in the low wetlands that stretched out from the sea shore on the outskirts of the city. But the terrain was wet and icky and clutched at her boots when she walked, and after about an hour of trudging through the wetlands on foot she'd thought that perhaps this was as good a time as any to learn how to fly.

So she'd opened up the now-familiar help menu and searched until she found the entries on flying, and giggled when she held up her left hand and saw what looked like a floating joystick appear in her grip. Slowly and tentatively at first she'd followed the instructions—manipulating the controller to rise a few meters into the air, then letting go of it to hover in place and free up her hand. She could feel the strangest feeling between her shoulder blades as the wings moved, and once she felt like she'd gotten the hang of going up and down she decided to try going somewhere.

The exhilaration that had filled her then was unlike any other in the fifteen years she'd been alive. She'd laughed joyfully as she soared through the air, swooping and diving and practicing until a tingling sense of weariness on her back warned her that her wings were about to give out. So as she'd read in the manual, she'd glided to the ground to give them time to recharge.

And then abruptly realized she had no idea where she was.

Asuna kicked herself for not trying harder to find a party to go out with. But she didn't know anyone in the game other than Diabel, who was very busy now, and she knew he wasn't allowed to leave the city anyway. Besides, she hadn't been intending to go far.

Sighing, she looked around and tried to get a sense of her surroundings. In contrast to the flatness of the terrain in the area around Parasel, the place where she'd glided to the ground was punctuated by rolling hills that rose out of the swampy ground almost like islands, tall grass and cattails obscuring her view. She could see the red and yellow cursors of mobs here and there, none of which seemed close enough to bother her, and wondered for a moment what the difference between the red and the yellow was. She supposed the red probably meant "more dangerous" in some way, especially since one of the red cursors was hovering over the scaly back of an alligator that floated half-submerged in the water.

Since she was here, she reasoned that she might as well resume "leveling up", as they called it. She'd already received one such message after a battle, and it had startled her until she saw the English word "Congratulation!" at the top of the window followed by a handful of smaller messages about her HP and MP increasing.

Drawing her rapier, she allowed herself a momentary smile at how far she'd come in such a short time. The night before, she'd been petrified at the mere thought of setting foot outside of the city. And the first time she'd engaged a mob in combat, the dog-sized beaver had almost scared her into immobility before she remembered how to use the one rapier technique she'd found in her Skills menu. Now here she was lost in an unfamiliar landscape, and she was actually able to think about fighting some of the monsters around her without trembling in fear.

Perhaps even with a little bit of anticipation.

Pushing her way through the reedy grass, she got up onto the relatively dry ground of the hillside and picked a target—a large green frog the size of a post box which gazed at her indifferently as she approached. The yellow cursor over its head was slightly darker than the others, almost a light orange, but it seemed to take no special notice of her even though she had a weapon in her hand. Licking her lips and steeling herself, she held the rapier in the now-familiar posture that began the skill, and then launched herself forward in a streak of green light.

The frog gave out an extremely offended croak as she struck it, turning its cursor red, and she saw its HP meter go down a little bit. That made her frown—the mobs she'd fought before had lost nearly half their life when she hit them with that attack, something her Skills menu called «Linear». Since she had to wait a little bit before she'd be able to repeat that technique, she jabbed at the frog once more and then jumped back in disgust as a glistening tongue shot out of its mouth, narrowly missing her.

Another «Linear» took the frog's HP gauge down a little further; another strike like that would have it at the halfway point that would turn the green ribbon yellow. This time when it used its tongue attack she was ready; instead of jumping backwards she sidestepped and swung the rapier in a slashing motion that scratched a glaring red line of damage across the slimy tongue. She suppressed a brief surge of nausea and dodged again as the frog leapt into the air and slammed into the ground where she'd just been standing. She felt a wave of slight numbness briefly run through her feet as shockwaves rippled out from the point of impact, and a small amount of her HP gauge ticked away.

Sweating from exertion and nervousness, she struck with her rapier technique once more while the frog was recovering from its attack, and smiled as she saw its HP gauge turn yellow. This mob seemed to be a lot tougher than the others she'd fought so far, but if she kept this up she could handle it.

As soon as she landed her attack, the frog jumped again, this time ramming her in the midriff with its snout and sending her flying backwards to land on her butt. Her eyes widened when she saw how much of her HP that had taken away, and she was so rattled she actually had to repeat the incantation for her heal spell twice before it was successful, recovering most of her HP but depleting a third of her MP bar.

A little panicked, Asuna picked herself up and dove out of the way just in time to avoid another ground-pounding slam attack from the frog, landing face-first in a deep puddle of muddy water that soaked her through. Scrambling to her feet, she parried another tongue attack and held her rapier out before her, green light surging up the length of it as she launched and struck with another «Linear» attack.

The rapier shattered into polygons.

Stunned, Asuna stared at the spray of blue particles as they drifted through her fingertips and dissolved into the air. She had no idea what had just happened, but it didn't take her more than a moment to realize just how much trouble she was in. She cried out as she barely evaded another strike from the frog's tongue and struggled to run, staggering through the mud and knee-deep water that grasped at her boots and conspired to restrain her.

A blow struck her squarely in the back, a powerful sense of numbness spreading out from there as she went sprawling back into the mud with a scream that ended in a mouthful of disgusting water. Turning over, her legs bicycled as she tried desperately to push herself back away from the mob, wide eyes going to what was left of her HP gauge. She tried to cast her healing spell, but kept failing as she spat to rid her mouth of muddy water.

As the frog leapt into the air, she knew what came next would be the final blow, and she closed her eyes with a choked sob and threw up her arms futilely as she waited for death.

A pressure wave washed over her, and a mortal shriek split the air accompanying a shattering sound of the death that she was certain was her own. But when she dared to open an eye and look up, instead of the amphibian mob she saw a cloud of glimmering blue polygons falling around her like cool rain. Standing over her was a slender youth in a black hooded overcoat, equally dark unruly hair settling around his face as if he'd just come to rest from a swift motion. He held at ready an elegant long sword that matched his attire, the silvered edge of the obsidian blade reflecting the attenuated sunlight that filtered through the light fog.

The boy's black eyes scanned the area intently as he slowly stepped in a half-circle before relaxing his stance. The sword slashed out and down in a movement that startled Asuna before she recognized it from samurai movies as something you did to flick blood from a blade, and in one smooth motion he sheathed it on his back and turned to look down at her.

Asuna tried to find her voice, but between her shock at still being alive combined with the lingering rush from combat and her near-death experience, she couldn't make the words come out.

Then, as the adrenaline rush left her body empty of anything except shock, it ceased to matter. Her eyes rolled back into her head as darkness swallowed her.

Edit: minor typo fix.