The Asylum's door creaked and rumbled under the strain of the incessant assault of Hollows, but it held, and thus Kirito caught his breath and watched his stamina regenerate.
"All right," he said. "We have to head up to the ramparts," he looked at the spiraling staircase, and at a crack at the bottom of the stairs. Kingseeker was a bastard, not just for the mobs, but also for the traps that riddled many of the dungeons he created for the adventurers.
At the same time, he always left a sign -sometimes really, really small and hidden- to show that at least, 'the trap would have been visible to a keen observer'. Someone with a high Search skill could see a faint glow, but everyone could see the tell-tale signs of the traps' mechanisms. They just had to know where to look.
The door to the left, for example, was devoid of traps. It also was closed, and since Kirito had just sacrificed the Master Key to keep the horde of mobs at bay, they could break it down with strength -probably Fierdin and Valor together had enough to satisfy the requirement- or head up the stairs.
If they broke the door however, they would be making enough noise to potentially aggro all the monsters within earshot.
"Now listen up," Kirito said. "The stairway has a trap. Judging by the cracks near the wall, it's a falling boulder. The door is locked, and we'd have to force our way through it. If we do that however, we're going to be aggroing pretty much all monsters on the floor."
Fierdin looked at the stairway, and hoisted his shield as if to say 'I can tank it'.
"Traps don't work that way in Souls Art Online," Kirito pointed out. "They are lethal to all but the most bulked up characters. They need to be properly avoided or disarmed. Kingseeker allows unparalleled free-thinking to solve his traps, so you can easily grab a large weight and throw it over the stairs to mimic walking on them, thus triggering the trap. However, we don't have a large weight." Kirito shook his head. "And if any of us die before the next bonfire, we will be forced to restart from the bonfire outside. We'd have to scale the walls next or walk around, making the trip even longer."
"W-What about deactivating the trap?" Silica asked. "I'm...I'm a Thief, shouldn't I be able to?"
Kirito gave her a half-hearted and dejected look. "Yes, but in order to do so, you must go past the trap itself and have a high enough Search skill to find the priming mechanism. If you do, you can see the glowing steps on the stairway that activate the trap. Avoid those, reach the upper floor and find where the boulder is. If you touch it and your Disable Trap skill is high enough, you could prevent it from springing. But disabling a trap requires a minimum of one to a maximum of five thieves depending on its complexity, and this map is a Raid..." Kirito grimaced.
"I can still try?" Silica hazarded, but Kirito wasn't really sure in letting the young girl go by itself. The trio of Hollows instead nodded, thumbs raised up. "Thanks guys," Silica added, and carefully began to walk forward, up the stairs.
A few steps later, and there was a resounding click, followed by a startled scream as Silica jumped off the stairway, holding on to the rails, as a large iron boulder went tumbling down to crash against the nearby wall, shattering it and opening up a path through a room.
As Silica dangled from the stairway, Heleor rushed up to grab the young girl by the wrist and pull her back to safety. Meanwhile, Fierdin had neared the hole in the wall, and Kirito soon joined him, crouching and with his eyes narrow as he looked at the open courtyard where small patrols of Hollow walked without purpose.
The courtyard was an inner garden of sorts, with many bushes dried up. Kirito's eyes snapped to a corner where, behind a few patrolling Hollows, a chest laid in plain view glowing to his eyes. Fierdin hadn't seen it, probably because he hadn't used his Search skill, or he hadn't honed it as well as Kirito had.
"Let's clean the courtyard," Kirito said, receiving a nod from Fierdin as Valor merely hoisted his shield and mace, ready to rumble. Grabbing a loose chunk of rock from the nearby brick wall, Kirito showed it to the rest of the players, before throwing it in a straight line against the head of a nearby Hollow.
The Hollow' head snapped at an unnatural angle towards them, his neck cracking and with a howl of hatred, eyes suddenly glowing red, it roared.
Kirito's eyes widened as the new type of Hollow turned the other Hollows' attention towards them. Expending a dagger, Kirito threw it straight against the 'Screamer'-Type Hollow, breaking his skull and sending the mob to fall backwards in a shower of pixels. "New Hollow type," Kirito said. "Haven't met it yet."
Fierdin pushed Kirito back and slammed his shield forward, shattering the face of a frothing Hollow into pulp as his sword shone briefly, the start of a counter-attack that ended with the blade deeply embedded into the stomach of the first among many charging Hollow.
Valor's mace fell down with strength, outright shattering a skull, before a hasty shield block made him stumble back, sparks sailing where the rusty sword hit his shield.
Heleor thrust his sword forward between the cracks in Fierdin and Valor's shield wall, but Silica's scream made him turn and balk. Kirito's eyes snapped to the stairway, where Hollow were starting to shamble down.
"Kingseeker," Kirito hissed. "I hate you so much."
Spinning his blades, Kirito's attack passed inches above Silica's head, as the girl had brought both hands to cover her head and had knelt down at the sight of the Hollows. Thankfully, the Hollows fell to Kirito's flurry of attacks swiftly, the impossibility of flanking making the stairs the ideal spot to halt their advance.
Keeping an eye on his stamina gauge, Kirito snarled and thrust forward, sword attack after sword attack. The blades dug in burned chests and creaky bones, as dark blood spewed out of the wounds drenching the blades and splattering on the stairways in rivulets.
As a soft beep warned Kirito of his lowering stamina, he gasped at a Hollow a few steps above, jumping down on him, rusty sword in hand.
A warning in orange, and a hand pulled him back as Heleor slammed a Soul Arrow straight against the Hollow's chest, pulverizing him. Kirito gasped for air as Heleor hoisted his staff in his right hand and gave him a thumb-up gesture.
"Thanks," Kirito gasped, the stamina returning steadily. Heleor shrugged, as if to say 'any day, bro'.
A Hollow jumped down after the first one, but this time Kirito had enough stamina to switch with Heleor and parry the incoming attack, before countering with a devastating kill-move.
Heleor turned towards the bottom of the stairs and rushed down suddenly, making Kirito frown, but then spin to block the incoming attack of yet one more Hollow.
"Do you never end?!" Kirito hissed between clenched teeth. As if to spite him, two more Hollows came down past the first one. "I was joking!"
Apparently, Kingseeker was not.
As the last of the Hollows fell, Kirito took deep shuddering breathes and wobbled back down to where the rest of the party was supposed to be. Only, they weren't. They were in the courtyard, eyeing the chest with a puzzled expression.
Kirito edged inside the courtyard carefully, two other open arches probably guiding deeper into the Asylum complex. "Why haven't you opened the chest yet?" he asked, only for the trio of Hollows to point at Silica, who was shaking her head in turn.
"I can't! I did nothing to warrant it," Silica said. "Really. You were all better than me. I can't take it."
"Why? What was inside?" Kirito asked.
"Oh-I haven't opened it yet," Silica said. "I can't possibly accept what's inside-"
"Well, how about just opening it for the time being? Objects can be traded," Kirito pointed out. "Look," he opened his Party-Menu and turned the 'Loot obtained' to 'Crystal-Clear View' setting. He neared the chest and carefully pried it open, as the objects passed through his scrutiny one after the other. "Here's the chest's contents. If you look in the lower left side of the screen, you'll see what was in the chest. If you notice, the 'Crystal-Clear' option means that everything I grab, be it a 'World Item'," to enforce the point he grabbed a dried leaf, earning the ping 'Kirito has obtained a Dried Leaf' to appear in the Events menu, "Or an item appears in the Events."
The trio nodded, and then gestured at the objects acquired that Kirito had meanwhile brought to the forefront of his menu.
Kirito brought out the shining orb of souls. "This is worth five hundred souls. There are five of us. I can break this up now, but if any of us dies then the loose souls are lost, on the other hand we can keep this aside and open it back in Firelink Shrine, so even if we die, we don't lose the souls."
Nods happened, and Kirito moved on to the next object. "This is a White Chalk. If you write down the nickname of a player you have on your friend's list, you can summon him to your side to help in an ensuing battle."
The next item was half a dozen of green blossoms, which were quickly split among the party of Stamina-dependent users. A couple of Firebombs, a few throwing daggers, but all things said, nothing more.
Kirito sighed as he watched the meager contents of the chest. Sure, for a five-men party the contents were something pretty even, but considering this was meant to be an Eighty-people Raid zone, with multiple combats happening around the Asylum at the same place...no, Kirito couldn't accept such meager loot as something 'standard'. It had to be a joke.
Kirito kept his inner turmoil for himself as they went back and up the spiraling stairway. They'd have time to clear the rest of the Dungeon at a later date. As it was, all that he wanted was to bring everyone out of there, no matter the 'shortcuts' he'd have to employ. Hell, if all else failed, he'd just scale the ramparts down. It would be a bitch on the equipment's durability, but Kingseeker actually allowed that line of thought.
He punished it at a later date, with the next group trying to 'cheese' its way through, but he allowed it for the first one, as if to reward their creativity.
The spiraling staircase ended up bringing the group up to the upper floor, which resembled a hospital corridor with many doors locked, and Hollow hands moving slowly through the small bars nestled at head level. This looked like the level design of a horror game.
"Stay in the center and keep quiet," Kirito whispered. Ahead of them, he could see a normal pair of stairs going up, maybe towards the ramparts for a change.
Fierdin took point, sword and shield equipped, with Valor close behind. Silica was in the middle as always, and as Kirito closed the line, Heleor was in front of the boy. Hands shot out from the bars, and Fierdin didn't even bat an eyelid. It was as if he had expected something like that.
Silica was the one who jumped, but Heleor's hands closed quickly around her mouth to prevent her from screaming and then 'hush' her with a hand gesture. Silica's eyes watered, but she nodded and kept her gaze down from that moment onward. More hands shot out from the tiny cracks in the bars, and as a few Hollow began to pound against the doors, Fierdin increased his gait.
The door was already within arm's reach, when the first of the doors slammed open behind them, soon followed with echoing triumph by all the others in rhythmic succession.
"Up," Kirito said as he turned, his swords already unsheathed. The Hollows charged once more, and as the party quickly scampered into the stairwell, Heleor closed the door behind them. Kirito gave one quick look at what was on the floor below, and groaned.
"Upstairs!" Kirito barked. "Now!"
The Balders knight group, which actually made the dungeon worthy of being called an Eighty-people raid, locked eyes up with Kirito's party and brought their rapiers up. As everyone rushed up the stairs as one, the stamina gauge depleted faster for Fierdin and Valor, who once more remained stuck behind. This time however, Kirito had no intention of leaving them to their fates -mostly because he'd have to backtrack to get them once more.
"Open fire with everything you have!" Kirito snapped, hurling a Firebomb from his hand to the floor below, striking a Balder knight in the chest and igniting his skin and mantle, as those close by took minor damage from the attack.
Heleor threw his Firebombs like a madman possessed, and as Fierdin and Valor stopped running to recover their breath, Silica whimpered in front of a wooden door, which was apparently locked.
"Break it down!" Kirito barked as an order. Valor nodded, squared his jaw, and with the pose of a rugby player, whose sole purpose was of snapping in half a rival rugby player, he charged for the door with a bellowing -yet silent for Kirito- roar.
The door cracked and splintered under the strain of a heavily armored Cleric, but as Valor 'bounced off' it was Fierdin who delivered one devastating shoulder-tackle and cracked the door open.
"We have to run!" Kirito ordered to Heleor, who nodded and set off in a rush.
Kirito was hot on the Sorcerer's heels anyway, and as he stopped just long enough to 'pull' Silica along, they ended up on the ramparts outside the Asylum, the Balders' knights still rushing their way upstairs.
"Damn it!" Kirito swore, a horde of Undead Warriors barring their path to the upper tower. They stood on the ramparts, between a rock and a hard place, and there was no other way through. Well, except for a long fall against the hard ground of the Asylum.
The first of the Balder Knights emerged from the doorway, his mantle lightly charred, glowing eyes showcasing how 'pissed off' he could be. He was the first of many, and as he rushed ahead, sword poised to strike and steps clanking against the ground, his brothers soon followed.
"Sorry," Kirito said. "We shouldn't have taken the stairs."
Fierdin patted Kirito's shoulder, as if to say 'it happens, bro' and then shrugged lightly, making 'crack' sounds with his neck as he rolled it around his shoulders a bit. He made small jumps, and hoisted his shield up to cover most of his body, crouching and getting ready for the total party wipe of the century.
Valor spun his mace in hand and made a 'laugh' animation.
Heleor spun his staff, and opened fire as if there was no tomorrow. The Soul Arrows departed in the air, and as he closed his fist they struck across the upcoming Balder Knights, taking large chunks of health away from a few of them and killing a couple. He then swapped the staff with his sword, and cheered.
"I-I should do my part too!" Silica exclaimed, daggers in hand as the full-brunt of the Balder knights struck against the shield-wall. Fierdin's armored steps dug on the ground, sparks flying as the Hollowed Knight held his ground, while Valor instead pushed back, his mouth morphed in a permanent 'O' form, probably a roar -or a string of curses.
Kirito jumped to the side, striking and cutting wildly as a Balder knight intercepted one of his blows and came for a counter with his rapier, only for an arrow to strike him in the neck.
A second arrow soon joined the first, and as Kirito took a quick breath, he parried an attack aimed at him, and returned it in kind against a new enemy.
Silica screamed as she pulled both daggers down on the back of a Balder Knight, repeating the motion each time it squirmed. Heleor jumped back, barely avoiding a stab to the heart from a rapier, wielded by a Balder Knight who was probably seeking revenge for his fallen comrades. Valor came crushing down on it with a mace attack, but as he left his back exposed, a Balder Knight took that as the cue to initiate a Backstab.
Another arrow saved Valor's life, hitting the Balder's knight in the head, while one more struck at the creature's heart.
As the horde didn't abate in its intensity however, Kirito began to see the lack of stamina quickly taking the advent -Green Blossoms or not, it couldn't keep helping them when the enemy simply didn't seem to have an end in sight.
Kirito jumped back, avoiding a stab and ending dangerously close to the edge of the ramparts. His feet ended up slipping, and as he tumbled with his back down between the ramparts' edge, he avoided a metallic skewer -the Balder's rapier- from punching a hole in his skull.
Kirito growled with effort as he gripped the Balder's armor and then pushed it past him, past the ramparts, and to go crashing down against the cold hard ground. Gasping for air, the boy stood back up with both of his swords raised. It was a futile fight against destiny, and even if there was an unseen helper with the aim of a sniper, it still didn't change the fact they were screwed.
He could leave.
Leaving would mean safeguarding his humanity.
It would mean the defeat of the group, but he would survive, and he could come back with a larger group to save them at a later date.
As Silica screamed from pain, a Balder successful in hitting her in a shoulder with his rapier, making the young twelve years old fall on the ground clutching her wound, Kirito rushed forward with a roar.
A Balder knight pierced his right leg, while Valor's chest turned into a pincushion for half a dozen of rapier blades. The man still held himself up, the Heal spell cast just at the right time to take the brunt of the attack, and keeping the Heal up. How many uses did the man still have with the Catalyst firmly clutched in his right hand?
It didn't matter. True to his name, Valor punched the living shit out of the Hollow in front of him, shattering the helm and the teeth as the bathing light of the miracle closed his wounds.
Fierdin had forsworn his shield in favor of hacking off at Valor's attackers with both hands on his sword, stabbing and slicing and backstabbing where he could.
Valor collapsed in the end, turning into pixels as a dozen of rapiers pierced him from side to side.
Fierdin soon followed, wildly swinging at the upcoming horde, taking two out as he fell struck by a devastating counter and a backstab, both executed flawlessly at the same time.
Kirito took a deep breath and stood in front of Silica's crouched form.
"Hey," Kirito said. "Can you run?"
Heleor was quickly swarmed and killed, his last act the grasping of a Balder Knight and the falling together with it in the courtyard inside.
The Balder knights were now but a dozen from the original twenty-something, but as Kirito and Silica were all that remained -plus the unseen sniper- they began to circle them, calmly holding their rapier up.
"It will be quick," Kirito acquiesced. "It probably won't hurt much."
"I want to log out," Silica whimpered. "I want to log out...Mister Kirito, please...I want to log out."
Kirito took a deep breath, and swallowed his saliva. It was just a simulation, part of the Nervegear's ability to interact with the brain, but the drumming of his heartbeat and the swallowing his spit made it all the more realistic, and nerve-wracking.
A few more arrows pelted the Balder Knights, but did little. There were still too many.
"I'll open you a path," Kirito acquiesced. "When I do, run for the tower," he added.
"Do as I say, Silica," Kirito hissed, quietly palming two throwing daggers, one per hand. "Ready?"
Silica mumbled a throat noise, and Kirito spun quick as lightning. The two daggers struck the head of the Balders Knights, and as Kirito pushed with his shoulder against those two, Silica darted in the opening and rushed ahead.
As wounds after wounds depleted Kirito's life, he still rushed ahead towards the pack of Undead Warriors, to aggro them in Silica's place and allow her to proceed further, towards the door of the tower that was now opening to reveal another female Hollow -Asuna, probably- who was clutching a bow and opening fire with it. The Balder Knight that had been aiming to backstab Kirito fell down as one of his legs gave way.
A second arrow and a third devastated the Undead Warriors, and as Silica managed to roll past their Horde, Kirito swallowed, his work there done.
But maybe, just maybe, he could save himself too.
So Kirito jumped.
He jumped, and dug both swords on an Undead Warrior each, pulling them behind him to halt the advance of the Balder Knights.
Then, Kirito rolled forward, and as he rolled once more past the Horde and into the base of the tower, he gazed at the door being closed and a large wardrobe dropped in front of it, soon followed by loose bricks and large barrels.
The Hollow Player then turned towards Kirito, and opened her mouth to speak. Only, of course, she was a Hollow and thus couldn't speak.
Kirito didn't say anything at first.
He just laughed.
He laughed, and looked at his health bar, and he laughed a bit more.
Only a tiny sliver of health remained.