Chapter 3

They were the first players to arrive at Horunka Village, a quaint old settlement nestled deep in a sea of trees. There were flimsy palisade fences instead of fortified stone walls and it was relatively small in size compared to its distant neighbour, the City of Beginnings. Both places were safe havens due to crime prevention code in effect, which would negate all forms of damage and make death virtually impossible. Such safe havens made for a suitable base camp to rest and resupply before challenging the dangerous depths of the vast wilderness.

The one who partially navigated this wilderness was Kirito, a beta tester. His past knowledge of the game allowed him to navigate this maze of a forest. He got them through the long hiking expedition completely unscathed, which was no small feat considering the fact that they were level one. Also, the holographic map found in the game menu did not pinpoint the locations of dangerous monsters, nor did it reveal any timesaving shortcuts. This information was learned through his past trial and error, a luxury that could no longer be afforded. Every mistake in the wilderness could now prove fatal.

She was worried for his sake, because this player was really her closest childhood friend. The reason she bought a Nerve Gear in the first place was to understand this person by observing the world from a different perspective, though it was beyond her expectations to meet him so soon, if at all. The boy's real name was Kazuto. She remembered him as a nice, quiet kid who was very skilled at anything he put his mind to. He was her true rival and the only person near her age that she really trusted. But one day, everything changed when he became cold and distant. He pushed her away when she tried to help. It was hurtful and she said many spiteful things without thinking.

Several years have passed since then and her heart was deeply filled with regret. She walked away, possibly at the moment when he needed her the most. Somehow in a twisted way, SAO provided her with a second chance to fix this problem. Right now, she really wanted to grab his arm, whirl him around and ask so many questions. Yet, she was slightly hesitant of touching upon the sensitive subject. She didn't want to risk the chance of being alone again, especially now of all times.

"Hungry?" Kirito suddenly asked while slightly turning his head to her. To think he would strike up a conversation after being silent all this time. "I could hear your stomach growling. We did miss lunch and dinner after all. In my excitement to play this game, I also skipped breakfast."

"Yeah. We should eat something then," she muttered in disappointment, since her chance to ask questions was lost for now. Still, it was very alarming to go the whole day without eating. "Wait a second. Virtual food is capable of stimulating the taste buds. However, it will not supply the nutrients that our real bodies need to survive. Aren't we going to die at this rate?"

"I don't think so. Based on Kayaba Akihiko's speech, our bodies on the other side are probably at a specialized medical institution. Most likely at this time, we are being forced fed by a tube and treated with intravenous therapy," he replied with a visible shudder. It definitely wasn't a pleasant thought. "There was an article about this in a popular gaming magazine, where doctors wanted to use virtual reality technology to help terminally ill patients. It never happened because the initial test subjects experienced the growing feeling of hunger for reasons that cannot be explained. We technically cannot die of starvation under such conditions. Eating is just a way to trick our minds into feeling full."

"Maybe we can hold off on the nice, hot meal for a little longer then," she said while feeling pale and queasy. If only virtual reality technology had fallen into the right hands, then they wouldn't be in this predicament in the first place. "All that aside, we came here to train efficiently right? Let's not waste any time."

"Hold on. Patience," he quickly replied with outstretched arms in an effort to slow her down. There was a pause, then a sigh. "Prolonged combat is very dangerous. I want to warn you one last time of the risks that are involved. Death is a possibility, even if I do everything in my power to protect you. Also, there are other ways to survive in Aincrad: fishing, cooking, blacksmithing, tailoring-"

"Nothing you say is going to change my mind," she teased him with a smile on her face. It was actually relieving and a bit cute to know that he was this concerned with her personal safety. "If you had your way, I would still be holed up at the starter city in fear. And you, protecting me? It's actually going to be the other way around. I promise."

"I see. Your persistent nature hasn't changed at all. I wonder where I would be now if you weren't here," Kirito said as his arms dropped down in defeat. He then gave a mischievous smile of his own. "You protecting me? Don't make me laugh. I doubt you know anything about role playing games. The official tutorial given by Kayaba Akihiko was pretty useless, so it is my job to provide you a proper education on the basics. Understood?"


Their first stop was an equipment shop, built at the the end of the narrow plaza. The building resembled a modest cabin, where business was held downstairs and the living quarters was upstairs. As instructed, she sold all the raw materials found in her inventory, compliments of the defeated frenzy boars from earlier in the day. The extra funds were invested into a rather plain leather half coat, which she immediately wore over her dark green sleeveless shirt and short shorts. It offered decent defensive protection against physical damage and was cheaper and more flexible than the the dazzling set of full metal armour on display.

They then paid a visit to the general store next door. From the smoke rising from its chimney to the old fashioned clothes that the cashier behind the counter wore, such simple things were fascinating. It was so unlike the complexities of the modern city life that she was used to, where everybody bustled about at an ongoing fast pace. It was here in this laid back setting where they bought as many antidote and HP recovery potions as possible. These vials filled with the bizarre, colourful concoctions would allow them to train for longer periods of time.

The final destination wasn't a shop, but rather a private house near the centre of the village. This didn't stop Kirito from abruptly entering through the front door. She followed suit, ready to apologize to the occupants for the startling home invasion. Though the middle aged lady inside wasn't alarmed. Instead, the NPC who had a flashing gold question mark over its head finished stirring the contents of a boiling pot and turned to greet them warmly.

"Good evening, travellers," the lady said with a courteous bow. "You both must be tired. I do wish to offer some food, but I do not have any at the moment. All I can give, is a single cup of water or so."

"That will be fine," Kirito said without missing a beat, almost as if there was a script in front of him. His voice then fell to a whisper. "Listen carefully. This is the start of a quest. The right words would progress its storyline to completion, while the wrong words may result in an undesired outcome."

"Have a seat," the lady continued to speak while ushering them to the crude, wooden dinning table. There were two clay cups already waiting for them. "Please enjoy your visit."

"Thank you," he replied with a satisfied nod. As soon as the housekeeper was out of earshot, he spoke again at a barely audible volume. "You'll encounter many more quests in the future, so as practice, try to converse with this NPC and figure out what's wrong. Read the situation. Think before you speak."

"All right," she replied in a serious tone.

This was where her observational skills would be put to the test. Every so often, the sound of a child's dry cough could be heard from upstairs. Such noises caused the lady's shoulders to slump in despair. Most likely, this disheartened NPC was a mother with a very sick child. The lack of food and the simmering pot on the stove was a hint that something was missing.

"You looked troubled," she said to the distraught mother. Hopefully, the words she chose were correct. "Do you need something?"

"Actually," the lady's hesitant voice was trembling. She then broke down to tears. "My daughter has been struck by a severe illness. The medicine in the boiling pot isn't working, just like every other remedy from the market. The village elder said that the only cure is an extract from the ovules of a predatory plant in the forest, but it is impossible for someone like me to challenge those monsters and return alive. If worse comes to worst, I will try anyways."

"Everything's going to be okay," she said in an attempt to comfort the crying mother. For a brief moment, she was convinced that this compelling NPC was actually a real person. "Perhaps we can fetch this ovule in your stead."

"Really?" A spark of hope lit up in the mother's eyes. "Thank you. I will gladly offer a heirloom that has been handed down in my family as an expression of gratitude. Just please, come back safe and sound."

"Leave it to us," she accepted the request in a reassuring tone. She then finished her drink with a single gulp and stood up to leave. "We'll be back soon."


"Good job back there Sugu," Kirito said minutes later as they exited the village gates. "On a completely unrelated topic. What did you think of the water that the NPC served us?"

"Eh?" She blinked in confusion. That was a very random question. "Fine, I guess. Nothing weird at all. It quenched my thirst at the very least."

"I thought so too," he replied with a calculative expression. "Believe it or not, the Nerve Gear was once very weak at recreating liquids. In a nutshell, the near infinite amount of patterns that water polygons had to emulate was too much for the system. The feeling of water temperature, pressure and even transparency was all weird back in the beta test. Today I couldn't find a trace of artificiality at all. It was too perfect."

"So a bit of the game has changed then," she mused on the implications of his words. It made sense, a larger player base meant more upgrades. "Is our quest also different now?"

"No. Thankfully it's still the same," he replied while ducking to avoid a low tree branch. They were currently heading west in the forest. "The monsters that we have to hunt and the dialogue of the NPC hasn't changed one bit. If I remember correctly, the quest reward is a long sword of exceptional quality that should last us well into the third floor."

"So you want to replace our starter weapon, the one-handed small sword with this mysterious long sword," she concluded while remembering the fact that they didn't buy a new weapon back at the village. A certain shop keeper was greatly displeased, because Kirito was harshly criticizing the items on sale. "Is that why you held off on buying the bronze short swords back at the equipment shop?"

"That's part of the reason," he said without looking at her. Most of his focus seemed to be on their surroundings. They were close. "Our opponents have corrosive properties. Those bronze swords have low durability and will break easily against their attacks. I recommend sticking with the sturdier small sword for now, even if it does have less attack power. It would be pretty bad if a weapon breaks on you in the middle of battle."

"Broken weapons. Corrosive properties. Predatory plant," she listed the details aloud. In her mind, she visualized a gruesome battle involving acid spitting monsters. "What exactly are we fighting?"

"See for yourself," he answered as their steady advance came to a tactical halt. An outstretched arm was pointing to the 2 o'clock position. "Talk about perfect timing. There's one in the thicket over there, roughly fifty metres away. Fortunately, it hasn't detected our presence and it seems to be alone."

She focused her gaze on the predatory plant, shocked by its close proximity. The monster had two long tendrils that was covered with multiple sharp thorns. Its numerous roots were exposed to the open air, which allowed it to move around freely and silently. Its large pitcher-like mouth was lined with fangs that dripped with a viscous acid. It was a grotesque distortion of a Venus flytrap that was one and half metres tall in vertical height.

'Little Nepent – Level 3'

The name flashed on her visual interface in a malignant purple text. According to the instruction manual, the colour is an indicator of the differences in strength between a player and a monster. If the player was stronger, then the monsters name would be closer to a light rose colour. If the player was weaker, then the monsters name would be closer to a dark sanguine colour. If the player was neutral, the monsters name would be a plain red colour, similar to the time she fought the frenzy boar. In this case, she was weaker by two levels.

"We're still level one," Kirito whispered as he silently drew his sword. "That level three monster is something that gamers call a glass canon. It can deal high amounts of damage in exchange for low physical defence. Getting hit a few times would be disastrous for us, but at the same time it should only take us an average of four basic one-hit sword skills to take that thing down if we strike the stalk, its weak point."

"Four?" She repeated with incredulous muffled gasp. There was a lot of risk involved. "The resulting delay period from even a single sword skill would leave me vulnerable to a counterattack. Having my movements sealed after four swords skills may be too much for me alone."

"You're describing a very common problem for solo players," he explained with an insightful demeanour. "It's true that your body temporarily freezes up after a sword skill. However, a party member can choose to perform an action known as a type one switch. The system will negate the delay period and allow you to jump back. Your party member is free to perform a sword skill of their own. In most situations, switching could continue indefinitely. Let's try it out."

She nodded and they began to silently sprint towards their target. Unfortunately, all it took was the sound of a twig snapping underfoot to get its attention. The Little Nepent's grotesque head turned at a sickening angle and stared at them without any eyes. Even without vision, its mouth opened to spray acid out like a water gun with surprising accuracy.

"It can sense us from all directions. Don't try to attack from behind," Kirito said in between breaths. He then began to nimbly weave around instead of charging in a straight line. "Use the nearby environmental obstacles as cover against its ranged attacks. Be ready for its sweeping tendrils when you enter melee range. You can dodge this type of attack by jumping or ducking depending on the height of the swing."

"Understood," she replied while narrowly avoiding a pressurized spray of acid. Even with the noxious liquid melting the nearby rocks and trees, she was not afraid. It was just another opponent that needed to be eliminated.

It only took a few seconds to get in close. The monster hissed in frustration and gave up on its ranged attack. It then swung its thorn spiked tendrils with a massive amount of tension force behind it, making it snap around like a whip. However, the futile retaliation was expected due to Kirito's warning and she effortlessly dodged with a simple leap into the air. She then emphasized her initial movements to activate the system assist program and words in blue text flashed on her visual interface.

'Sword Skill: Diagonal'

She swung down her glowing blue sword. The external influence that guided her movements felt less foreign this time around. It was a clean hit, which caused the monster to cry out in pain. The HP bar above its head decreased by one-fourth, changing from a perfect blue colour to a healthy green. It was not enough to drop the predatory plant who could now freely retaliate. Ironically, she was the one rooted in place due to the sword skill's delay period.

"Switch!" Kirito called out from behind. Somehow his voice caused the restrictive pins and needles sensation in her body to disappear.

With the burden gone, she jumped away from the monsters follow-up swing. It was then that Kirito swept in with a sword skill of his own, cleaving into its fragile stalk. The HP bar above its head decreased by another one-fourth, changing from a healthy green colour to a sickly yellow. The boy froze in place for a fraction of a second. It was her turn to act.

"Switch!" She said the voice command and they both swapped spots once more.

With one fluid motion, her sword deflected the tendrils away. She should have dodged as instructed, because some of the thorny spikes broke off. Even the grazing hits were enough to cause an enormous amount of damage. It was very painful, but her more injured opponent seemed to be having a harder time. Its movements were slowing down, buying enough time for Kirito to recover. He circled around from another angle. Even though the monster sensed him, escaping was impossible. They then unleashed a simultaneous two-pronged offensive.

'Sword Skill: Horizontal'

The Little Nepent gave one last cry of anguish as the last half of its HP bar dropped to zero in an instant. It didn't even have enough time to hit the ground. The sound of glass breaking was heard as its body exploded into countless shards of colourless polygons. A holographic window materialized in its place like a floating gravestone, displaying the dropped money and experience points. This one didn't have any items though.

"Disappointing," she muttered with a HP recovery potion on hand from her inventory. The bitter tasting medicine slowly caused her wounds to close, like it was never there. "Where is the ovule?"

"You won't find one anytime soon. Unless you're incredibly lucky," he replied with a shrug. "You may have noticed that this predatory plant has a sprout on its head. The one that carries the ovule has a flower instead, but there is only a 1% chance of it spawning nearby. Be careful though, some have a round fruit hanging from its head. Its a trap. Simply touching it would cause it to release a pheromone that would attract every Little Nepent in the area. It's unlikely that we can deal with such numbers unless even if we level up a bit."

"Level up?" She returned a blank expression. A little clarification was needed. "What? Don't give me that look. You know that I am a total beginner to this stuff. Is that another gamer term?"

"Yes. Where to begin?" He drew a deep breath after an exasperated sigh. "Okay. Open your character tab icon in the game menu. See this number here?" His finger traced to the top of her holographic screen. "You're level one. The next level is achieved after gathering enough experience points from defeating a lot of monsters. As a reward, the system will award you some stat points. It is your job to invest these points into different attributes, which would improve your character avatar in various ways. There is a long list of attributes from dexterity to luck, but I cannot give an accurate analysis on them all. I can only give you information on three of the attributes that I tried before."

"The first attribute is known as strength. As you may have noticed by now, the HP bar of your opponents decreases every time you score a successful hit. Placing your points in strength is one of the ways to increase the base damage that you dish out. Your increased physical power would also allow you to do everything from carrying more objects to pushing obstacles with greater force. Despite the name, this attribute has nothing to do with your muscles."

"The second attribute is known as agility. Allocating stat points here would improve your movement speed. In an offensive sense, your damage potential increases because you can strike more frequently. In a defensive sense, it helps with dodging attacks to escaping unfavourable situations. Timing is important though. Just because your body is faster doesn't mean your mind is also. To be consistent and efficient, you will have to hone your mental reflexes."

"The third attribute is known as vitality. Its primary purpose is to noticeably boost your survivability in battle by increasing the maximum value of your HP bar. Granted, you do automatically gain a bit of HP every time you level up, but it isn't that noticeable. Players who invest a high amount of stat points here are known as tanks because of their superior ability to soak up damage with a lower risk dying. Vitality also has a secondary purpose, which is to improve your stamina. You can run, sprint and swim for longer periods of time. On a side note, tanks who usually wear heavy armour can't make very good use of this better stamina."

"There is another way to permanently improve your character known as extra skills, not to be confused with sword skills. Such skills could be related to your weapon such as the one-handed sword mastery or the two-handed spear mastery. There are non-combat related skills such as cooking or fishing. Other skills have passive benefits such as the sprint ability or the battle healing ability. Some skills have active benefits such as the hiding skill or the searching skill."

"The searching skill. So that's how you spotted the Little Nepent before in the thick vegetation," she mused as her finger cycled through the holographic game menu. There were many beginner skills to choose from. "So we gain proficiency points every single time we use a skill. I recall the game manual stating that there was a master rank if you get accumulate enough points. So what about the hiding mastery? Isn't that an invaluable ability in this stupid death game?"

"Normally at most locations, yes. At the moment here, no. Hiding allows you to cloak yourself within dark places if you remain relatively still. Such optical camouflage is useless against the eyeless Little Nepents who uses other means to sense its prey. The searching skill is like binoculars with a thermal vision feature. It allows me to find the monsters before they find me. Just so you know, all players start off with two skill slots. I would get the hiding skill when my third skill slot becomes available."

"So that's how it is," a stranger's voice echoed from the treeline. "Guess I have to rethink my strategy."

The intruder's entrance cut their conversation short, as having their backs exposed could lead to deadly consequences. She whirled around with her sword at the ready. Her gaze momentarily shifted to Kirito before falling upon the humanoid shadow in the distance, since this situation was strikingly familiar. This newcomer was definitely a player and a suspicious one at that. Why was he eavesdropping on their discussion?

"Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. I did not mean to startle you," the player slowly approached them with both empty hands held high up. It was a boy with glasses, slightly taller than Kirito. "The name's Coper. I mean you no harm. I was very surprised to find players here so soon."

"Kirito," her friend introduced himself cautiously. Coper's last sentence suggested that he was the same, an original beta tester. "You're doing it too right? The 'Secret Medicine of the Forest' quest?"

"Ah. You got me," Coper exclaimed with a cheery expression. "The quest reward is an extreme bonus that contributes to the success of one-handed sword users like us. To think that there are three of us gathered here. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Let's team up!"

"Not so fast," Kirito answered before the stranger could open his game menu to join the party. "You should know that this is an individual quest. Each player needs one ovule to obtain the reward. No offence, but having a third party member would require a third ovule and we honestly do not have the time. I want to return to the village before it gets very late. Furthermore, you are a stranger. I don't want to risk the chance of you looting our drops and running off."

"No offence taken. I totally understand what you're saying," Coper politely replied. His grin was unsettling, especially considering everything that has happened so far. "We are all victims here. It's practically a crime to take advantage of others now. Tell you what. Allow me to hunt with you guys. Three people would certainly clear out this area out faster. I would only take the third ovule that drops, if it drops, so no worries. What do you say?"

She shot Kirito a hesitant, unsure glance. He nodded and sent a private message through his holographic console, which stated that he trusted her decision. On one hand, they could respectfully decline and play it safe. You would never know what a stranger would do in the wilderness where nobody is watching. On the other hand, they could give this player the benefit of the doubt. A 1% ovule drop rate was indeed really low and having a third player may improve their chances. This Coper person shouldn't be capable of trying anything funny with the two of them outnumbering him. "Fine. Let's try it out."

"Awesome," Coper exclaimed enthusiastically with a fist pump. "I'm in your care. Please treat me well."

Things were indeed better with a third party member. They were taking monsters out one by one so fast, that it didn't even matter that the money and experience points were thinly divided out. Coper had relatively good defence and was equipped with a wooden buckler, which he used to block against every single incoming attack. By drawing the monsters attention away, the rest of them could focus more on attacking without any repercussions. In some cases, switching wasn't even necessary.

Picking off the Little Nepents was far too easy, because everyone opted to invest an extra skill slot into the searching skill. Coper even insisted on deleting his hiding skill and all the proficiency points in it, just to help out. He seemed like a nice person. He handed out compliments when things went well and offered to share his HP recovery potions when things went bad.

Attitude wasn't enough to achieve to their ultimate goal. Over an hour of combat had passed since they formed a team of three. They also invested some time allocating stat points to their character attributes, since all of them managed to reach level four. Close to two hundred and twenty five of the predatory plants were slain, but all of them were sprouts. The one with a blooming flower had yet to be seen.

"The flower is still not out," Coper bitterly chuckled to himself. They were all resting because there were no monsters in sight. "It really can't be helped. It's not a far cry to believe that the drop rates have been adjusted to make the ovule even rarer. Realistically, it can take hours or days or weeks before one even drops. My weapon is already broken and my shield is about to give too. Let's head back, resupply and call it a day."

"Wait. Not yet," she spoke up with a trace of fatigue in her voice. It was annoying that this person was trying to make them all give up. "Head back by yourself if you really want to, otherwise conserve what you do have left. I suggest we wait for the next wave of monsters and make one more pass around the forest. Do not engage the ones with the sprouts."

"Ah. Roger that," Coper reluctantly nodded. There was a strange glint in his eye, but she couldn't read what it meant. "I guess it would not hurt for me to stay a little longer."

With that out of the way, the party silently proceeded back to their vantage point. It was then that they heard the distinct sound of monsters spawning throughout the vicinity. She activated her searching skill, which displayed the environment in red and monsters in white. There was nothing out of the ordinary, just monsters sparsely scattered here and there.

They couldn't engage the Little Nepents one by one anymore, since Coper's resources were limited. Hence, she decided to perform another sweep over the area. Once again, there was nothing abnormal. She was proven wrong when one last creature spawned in the nearby clearing. The unknown radiated the unique heat signature of a common predatory plant, but its shape was somewhat different. It didn't have a sprout. The strange arrangement on its head was actually a large blooming flower.

"Look over there," she breathed a sigh of relief. They were making progress. "One with a flower. Due north. One hundred metres."

"Hold your position," Kirito whispered warily. He then pressed the command in his game menu to disable the searching skill and the glow in his eyes faded away. "It has a friend accompanying it, one with a fruit. If we trigger the trap, then our chances of survival are drastically lowered. Our team is no match for a flood of Little Nepents. We must be either extremely lucky or extremely unlucky to run into a flower and fruit deviant at the same time. Depends if your an optimist or pessimist."

"Then let's stick to the regular routine," Coper exclaimed excitedly, obviously an optimist. "I still have my shield, so I can distract and lure away the one with the fruit. As promised, you guys should take your time and finish the flowered one fast. Claim the ovule." He readied himself to make a mad dash towards the enemy. "Engaging."

They all took off towards their intended targets. The Flowered Little Nepent gave a triumphant hiss and began to rapidly spray its acid. Its aim was more accurate. The deviants stat attributes were probably also modified to be a greater challenge than its sprouted cousins. It didn't really matter now, since she already closed the distance and her character avatar was stronger as well.

'Sword Skill: Horizontal'

She landed a clean strike on the Little Nepents weak point, which actually severed it in half. Her increased proficiency in the one-handed sword mastery significantly shortened the sword skills delay period and she was ready to strike again. It wasn't necessary, because the monster's HP bar dropped to zero. The flower detached from its shattered body and gracefully fell to the ground like an almost weightless feather. The stigma then yielded a spherical object the size of a tennis ball. It was the ovule.

"Well done," Kirito approved of her accomplishment. "Looks like my assistance wasn't necessary at all. You catch on pretty quick."

"I have a good teacher," she replied with a wink. The ovule in her hand gleamed with a warm healing light. "Well, we have the prize now. We shouldn't keep Coper waiting."

She turned her attention to the boy with glasses who was warding off the Fruited Little Nepent. Without warning, he used his wooden buckler to aggressively bash the predatory plant's trap. The pheromone filled sac bursted easily like a balloon, which rapidly dispersed the foul fumes. She winced in disgust due to the pungent smell. What was he thinking? Coper's suicidal actions just condemned them all to a grisly fate!

She continued to stare at the unfolding scene in shock, unsure of what to do. Coper looked back with an apologetic expression of pity. All that optimism and cheerfulness he possessed was gone, or it never existed to begin with. He then bolted away out of sight with the intent to escape the incoming carnage. His name then disappeared off the party list on her visual interface, which was proof that this was no accident.

"We have to get away from the epicentre," Kirito shouted as he grabbed her hand. Based on his serious reaction, they were really in trouble. "All the monsters within a five kilometre radius will swarm this spot. We have to shake off as many Little Nepents as possible. Break away to the east towards the safe haven of Horunka Village. Run!"

Her legs began to move, though she gave no reply. In hindsight, she should have declined Coper's self-invitation into the party. His betrayal was a likely possibility that crossed her mind, but she refused to believe that it would actually happen. She denied this death game, while Coper embraced it. He was a player who would selfishly do anything for survival. It was now obvious that Coper wanted the ovule for himself. He was willing to kill them by using the monsters to his advantage.

That meant that he would have to come back later to loot the item off her dead body. His plan was flawed because first, she refused to die. Second, Coper no longer had the hiding skill, though the monsters would detect him no matter what. Third, he couldn't outrun the predatory plants because the monsters were actually capable of travelling at astonishing speeds. Fourth, he was all alone and weaponless, which meant he had little means of overcoming the multiple monsters headed his way. Despite all this, Coper was a beta tester. He wasn't stupid. There had to be something up his sleeve.

She was jolted out of her thoughts due to a sharp, hot sensation on her back. A stray shot from one of the chasing Little Nepents found its mark. The corrosive acid was burning through the worn out leather half coat. Despite being purchased just a few hours ago, the material simply took too much punishment, which caused it to break into countless shards of colourless polygons. She was left more vulnerable than before.

Her heart sank as she tried to count how many predatory plants were closing in from every direction. There were even Little Nepents who were latched onto the tree branches above. It was a sizeable force that could not be taken all at once. It already took a lot of effort to effectively evade all the noxious acid flying around.

"No," Kirito cursed in anger. He was using the searching skill to slip through the gaps to this point, but now they were surrounded. "We were so close too. Stay close to me. I'll break you a way through. Use that opportunity to run. You have to make it back home."

"I'm not leaving-"

Her words were cut off under the whistling of a corrosive projectile flying towards their position. With speedy reflexes, she kicked up a small rock to intercept the shot. The rock broke as it absorbed the attack and her raised arm was pelted with the pieces. There was no time to catch a breather. It was do or die.

Without acknowledging her response, Kirito dashed towards a cluster of monsters barring their path. He kept his body low so that most of incoming caustic spittle flew harmlessly overhead. Even in the face of overwhelming adversity, he was still keen on breaking a way through for her. There was a flash of blue light as his body unleashed a flurry of attacks that she did not recognize. He kept slashing and pushing the limits of the system assist. Soon enough he was frozen in place.

"Sugu!" He yelled out her name. A path was open, though monsters from the sides closed in to avenge their fallen comrades. "Escape now! Run!"

"No," she replied with her weapon drawn. Leaving Kirito here alone was basically his death sentence. "Switch!"

'Sword Skill: Diagonal'

She took his place at the very last moment. Her glowing blue edge hummed as it met the heavy spiked tendrils of another four Little Nepents. She was desperate by swinging with all her might, but her basic one-hit sword skill lacked the power of the combo that Kirito unleashed a moment ago. Her interception failed and she was knocked far back by the enemy.

It took a considerable amount of her stamina to land on both feet. She staggered back as a sharp pain shot through her stomach. The responsible object was a red thorn the size of a small kitchen knife, which was buried deep. Fake virtual blood slowly poured out of her wound, but the agonizing feeling of being stabbed was real. Her HP bar was now in the sickly yellow zone and she was all out of HP recovery potions. Funny how she persistently claimed that she wouldn't die, yet here she was just a step away from death.

"Sugu!" Kirito screamed in panic. He was currently occupied with another cluster of enemies. There was no end to these things. "Hold on. I'm coming. I will save you! Sugu!"

Dummy, it's supposed to be the other way around. That's right. She promised to protect him. The vow wasn't sealed today, but rather a very long time ago. She still had to ask him about that fateful day. She couldn't fall here now.

Time seemed to slow down as she drew her next breath. Her mind blocked out the pain and shifted her body into a relaxing stance. Her small sword was raised above her head with both hands and it gleamed with an ethereal sheen of the risen crescent moon. The glow of the system assist was non-existent this time as she needed more than just simple strikes. Aincrad was a world parallel to her own and there was no reason she could not use her wealth of real life swordsmanship skills.

She sensed the Little Nepent dropping from the trees above, the seven incoming corrosive projectiles and the whiplash of two spiked tendrils. She ducked under the melee swings and returned multiple slashes to its stalk. Her attacks lacked the empowerment of the system assist, but it felt graceful and natural. The first enemy was finished in a fraction of a second, giving her enough time to sidestep out of the other falling Little Nepent's way.

It hit the ground, sending a spray of earth into the air. The debris and the predatory plant's body took the ranged attacks for her. This was within her calculations and with a few extra strikes, the second opponent shattered out of existence. She then sprinted towards the enemies far way, vaguely aware that her blood was still slowly flowing and that her HP bar was still slowly decreasing.

The Little Nepents hissed in frustration as their ranged attacks missed. It must have been something in their artificial intelligence that caused them to uniformly behave in such a way. They then leisurely switched to their tendrils, an action that proved to be too slow. She already dived into the centre and delivered a hurricane of accurate strikes to the multiple enemies. The sound of shattering glass could be heard again and again as enemies fell.

"Third monster down, fourth, fifth," she mumbled to herself with laboured breathing. Time was still passing very slowly. "-thirty three, thirty four, thirty five-"

Just a little more and Kirito would be safe.

''Error Code 0011337 – Please contact a GM for assistance or shut down your Nerve Gear immediately.'

No. Not again. Not now. Her mind rejected the notion of the inevitable, but it was no use. An excruciating sensation exploded in her left emerald green eye, its intensity putting her stabbing wound to shame. So there was a relapse after all. What it was, she couldn't tell. She fell to her knees and a scream pierced the air. Her shaking hand unwilling released the blade. Her last chance was gone.

She hated this. It did not matter if Kayaba Akihiko, the creator of SAO, was lying about this being a death game or not. There really wasn't any difference between the virtual world and the real world when it came to death. It was simply a discrepancy in the mechanism of injury, where one can die from traps to monsters in the former and accidents to sickness in the latter. She had no reason to fear death now, since the possibility was always present. So what was bothering her? What emotion was gnawing at her heart?

Kirito was still calling for her in the distance and was out of reach for any intervention. Her HP bar was red and a stray Little Nepent was raising its spiked tendril to deliver a final blow. For some reason, she felt incredibly tired. The world around her seemingly faded away to darkness. As her thoughts faded too, she realized the answer to her question.

It was loneliness.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Author's Notes: This story is based on the light novel, Sword Art Online.

Disclaimer: I do not own any of these characters.

Coper is from the light novel chapter, First Day. He probably wasn't included in the anime because the character, Diabel served the same plot purpose. Their deaths shock Kirito into accepting the reality of SAO. It's a repetition of archetypes that the animators did without due to lack of time. Even Argo the Rat who I mentioned last chapter receives minimal episode exposure.

I spent too much time on this chapter. I really wanted to nail down the combat scenes. A huge influence to my story is your reviews. I read your comments despite my busy work schedule. It gives me the motivation to continue writing. Please feel free to share this story around.

Hope you enjoyed chapter three of this fan fiction.

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