Chapter 18 – Laughter of the Coffin

April 21, 2024 – Aincrad 56th Floor

"There's no time…any minute now, he could be gone!"

This thought was desperately running through Taru's mind as he raced through the forest. Panting and panting, with tears flowing out of his eyes out of the anguish of uncertainty, he ran as fast as he could. This was one of the times he wished he ranked his AGI more as he tripped over a loose root falling to the floor.

"I-I can't stop now!" He hastily got back up not bothering to dust himself off as the rocky figure of cave passage formed down the path. Next to that cave was a small group of people seemingly sitting down for a picnic.

"Hey! It's Taru!" Keshiga called out raising his sandwich with a wave.

"Why is he running?" Moto asked.

Norie was waving also, but noticed something off, Taru usually never runs unless he's desperate, "Something happened" she said as she got up and raced towards Taru.

"Norie! Norie!" He cried with a catch in his throat before skidding onto his knees before her, "You-you- ha-have to- help!"

"Taru, Taru! Calm down, what's wrong?" Norie asked gripping his arms to try to get him up. "Tell me"

"It-it's Ruth! He's missing!" Taru desperately said before going into another outburst of tears.

Ruth was the cocky one of the «Errand Knights» He's the one that usually wants to solve things by using force and still holds a slight grudge against the «New Black Cats of the Full Moon». But ironically, he and Taru are really good friends.

With Taru sobbing uncontrollably, Norie couldn't help but hug him gently, "C'mon, calm down Taru, it'll be alright. Try to calm down and explain the rest to us"

Upon calming down a bit, Taru explained that Ruth had gone missing a day ago after he said he would go patrol the borders of their territory. After a few hours, he never returned, so the «Errand Knights» looked around the area to search for him. The searching went by, and some of the members assumed that he died, so Leah went to check the «Monument of Life» back on the 1st floor. The name Ruth wasn't crossed out. So he was still somewhere in «Aincrad», but the main question was on which floor was he on?

He said he would start around the «Errand Knights» and «Occult Frenzy» border, «Occult Frenzy» was a guild north of «New Black Cats of the Full Moon» territory and they were the guild that Ruth was most weary of. Maybe they could start there first.

"Could he have left anything behind?" Sachi asked squatting on the ground in search of anything small with her limited «Searching» skill.

"I'm not picking anything up" Irina replied scouting the area. Now Irina's «Searching» skill was vastly superior to anyone else's in the guild.

"I-I just can't bear the t-thought of what might happen to him" Taru started sobbing again.

"Don't worry Taru, we'll find him" Norie assured

"We're not getting anything." Keshiga added, "Is there any other way of trying to find him? Have you tried messaging him?"

"I've tried messaging him hundreds of times, but he won't respond." Taru said shaking his head while sniffling his nose, "I-I just don't know how else to search for him."

Thinking to herself, Norie looked around a bit while rummaging through her inventory. "I wonder…. Does the «Errand Knights» use «Location Crystals»?"

«Location Crystals» were a certain type of crystal that enables the owner to know that another registered user in your «Location Crystal» contact list is within your proximity. This will notify you by the crystal glowing brighter the closer you are to someone else.

"«Location Crystal»?" Taru asked not really knowing what she was talking about.

"Yes" Sachi replied taking hers out. It was a light green crystal shard that fit snugly in the palm of your hand. If you activated it, it would float a little bit and point in the direction that the nearest known «Location Crystal» holder was. Sachi made it mandatory for everyone to have one. It was just another precautionary measure to protect her guild mates. Besides, she instigated it ever since Moto got lost back in February on the 53rd Floor.

"Oh!" Taru's face lit up as he checked his inventory, "You mean this?" he asked taking out a crystal similar to it, but with a difference in shape.

"Ahh, mhm, that's it" Keshiga examined closely while comparing it with his own.

"Leah told us to hold onto it in case we ever get lost" Taru added as he held it up and turned to multiple directions. It didn't glow.

"There's a certain radius that it has to be in" Norie explained, "Maybe we should roam the floor"

ooo

First order of business was to eliminate the outskirts of the floor, which was going to take quite a bit of time. Not only were some parts deep into unfamiliar guild territory, but the floor was quite mountainous along the northern and western portion, so they just gave up and scourged the areas around town.

"I'm starting to think he's not on this floor" Ellen commented as Sachi, Keshiga, Norie, Taru, and she prowled down the streets of «Pani » to look for a place to rest and eat.

"Then where could he be?!" Taru asked teary eyed as he started sobbing again.

"Look, we know that he's not on this floor, and there's an unlikely chance that he's on the next floor, or any of the near floors" Norie said as she rubbed Taru's shoulder in complete empathy, she understood how it felt to be uncertain about a loved one's condition, "Did anyone have any grudges against him?"

Taru shook his head before wiping a few tears from his eyes, "Everyone i-in the guild was fr-friendly with him. But he did quarrel a lot with «Occult Frenzy»"

"Hmm, that does open the possibilities. There might be chance that «Occult Frenzy» did something to take him out" Sachi suggested

"Are they willing to turn into a «Red Player» just to take out one guy?" Keshiga asked, "They could just file a harassment warning on him and take it to «Black Iron Castle»"

"Who said they would do the dirty work themselves?" Norie countered, "It is a good possibility, but I'm not sure an entire guild would agree on something like this. Killing a player and all."

"That's true…" Sachi added, "Taru?"

Taru didn't respond, instead, his focus was on the faintly glowing «Location Crystal». With his eyes wide with uncontained excitement, he activated it and it pointed towards the center of town.

"Taru?" she asked again, but Taru responded by sprinting in the direction that the crystal directed.

"Ruth…Ruth… Ruth!" Taru muttered under his heavy breathing as he turned the corners, of the small streets of «Pani». The «Location Crystal» grew brighter and brighter as he approached the central square, and out of the darkness, he saw a figure wearing the same silver green armor as he.

"Ruth!" he screamed as loud as the voice system allowed before he started running towards the figure with open arms.

"Is that really him?!" Ellen exclaimed with surprise.

"The crystal doesn't lie" Norie added as they followed him.

"Ruth! I was so worried about you!"

The figure turned around, and slowly, Taru's excitement turned into realization, and then anguish as the long dark flowing hair blew with the gesture of the figure.

"Taru?" Leah asked as she watched him run towards her with outstretched arms.

"Leah?!" Taru abruptly stopped completely startled as everyone became as surprised as he was.

"Bu-but why is t-the crystal g-glowing?!" Taru stammered pointing desperately at his glowing green crystal.

"Maybe because I gave one to each member of the guild?"

"Oh… false alarm then…." He said lowly before sulking.

"Look Taru….I've been doing some snooping around and I might have a possible lead on Ruth's whereabouts" Leah said turning slightly towards the fountain.

"Really?!" Everyone asked with subtle anticipation.

"Wha-what do you know Leah?!" Taru asked with his face lightening up a bit.

"There's a slight possibility that «Occult Frenzy» might be related to the case we have at hand." Leah said pushing her long black hair back causing it to sway gently."One of the members was acting very suspicious at the «Territory Council Meeting»"

"So Sachi's guess was partly right" Ellen said pointing a thumb towards Sachi.

Nodding in reply, "So what should we do? Should we confront them head on about this? Or do we snoop around like ninja's?" Keshiga asked while doing a few cliché karate chops in the air.

"That's a good question" Leah responded as she crossed her arms and leaned on one leg with her side turned towards the group.

"Going straight to them and using force might be too confrontational, and playing the sleuth around them might make us suspicious. I say we should sit down and ask them nicely. If they refuse to answer, then we'll know what's up" Norie suggested as she took her cap off and smoothed out her hair. "But I guess we can wait until tomorrow" she added noticing Ellen yawn loudly.

Aincrad 27th Floor, New Black Cats of the Full Moon Guild House

"Ugu, my legs are sore…" Keshiga commented while reclining wholly on the couch.

"That's why you fly!" Ellen hollered as she dropped from the air slamming into his stomach in a sitting position.

Watching Ellen's usual antics, Sachi sighed as she watched the sulking figure of Taru glare broodingly into the fireplace.

"Will he be okay?" Futaro asked directing his attention from his book.

"He'll be okay" Norie assured as Sakai brought a tray of tea.

"Drink some, it'll help you feel better" Sakai urged as she held a mug close to Taru with a warm smile.

"Ah…thank you" Taru replied rather dully as he held the cup with both hands. Occasionally, he would take a sip followed by an exasperated sigh.

After a little while more, Taru got up. Placing the mug gently on the coffee table, "I'm going to bed" he muttered as he headed towards Norie's room. Taru had placed a temporary leave with the «Errand Knights» until he found out what had happened with Ruth. So, Norie offered for him to stay with them until the mystery is solved.

"He's taking this pretty rough isn't he?" Keshiga asked as he watched the head low figure of Taru disappear into the dark hallway.

"I've seen him go through similar" Norie crossed her arms.

"Norie!" Taru's crying voice wailed through the alley. "Norie! It's Pom! He's missing!"

"Pom?" The 12 year old Norie asked as Taru as he cried uncontrollably in her arms. "You mean your pet dog?"

"Yes! He's missing… we have to find him!" Taru begged as he bowed on the ground folding his hands, "Norie… please!"

Kneeling down to touch his head, "You crying there isn't going to help us find him does it?" Norie smiled, "C'mon, we have to find your dog"

Maybe hours passed of them calling out the name Pom over and over, and as loud as their little 12 year old voice boxes could allow them to, but they found nothing. Thunder cracked and rain started to pour as the pair walked slowly down the street.

"We'll find him don't worry Taru" Norie muttered bringing Taru closer to her. Through the sound of heavy rain and roaring thunder, there was a low whimpering coming from the alley nearby followed by a ferocious snarling and barking.

Running as fast as he could, Taru turned the corner and couldn't breathe at the site. Maybe the site of a stray dog scared the wits out of anyone, but watching that same dog biting and ripping at something you loved not only scared the wits out of Taru, but it killed a part of him inside as he stood there paralyzed by his emotions. Lying on the floor was the bloodied figure of a smaller dog whimpering very quietly in the damp alley rain.

"Get away from him!" Norie yelled in anger as she picked up a nearby pipe and ran towards the stray. Striking it once, it yelped out of fear and ran away in the opposite direction. Taking steady and deep breaths, Norie knelt down gently and picked up the heavily wounded friend. She made her way slowly to the cringing figure of Taru as a trail of blood and rain water dripped behind her.

Taking his closest friend next to Norie in his hands, Taru let the stream of tears flow as he watched Pom moan silently. Pom whimpered one last time before licking a salty tear off Taru's cheek, and his body suddenly became cold in Taru's hands. Man's best friend, even to the end.

ooo

Sleeping on the couch wasn't as uncomfortable as Norie thought as she laid there with Ellen's head tucked behind her arm. Of course, she wasn't wearing her battle equipment at the moment and was wearing a comfortable looking purple sleeveless blouse, and pajama shorts. Norie stirred lightly, as she slowly got up. She felt a presence nearby, an eerie one by that matter. Draping the remainder blanket onto Ellen, Norie kissed her head before listening around. Very faint footsteps were heard outside, but Norie couldn't be sure since her «Hearing» wasn't as well trained as Sachi's. Other than that, she indeed made much use of her «6th Sense» and her gut told her there was someone around.

Opening the front door silently, Norie stepped quietly into the cool air of spring. Looking left, then right, she saw no one. Tiptoeing to her right, she stood close to the wall. The raw stone was cold on her bare feet, but she couldn't afford to make noise with shoes. Hanging around at the edge of the wall a bit, she looked around the corner and turned her «Night Vision» on. There was no one. Creeping her way down to the other side of the house, she did the same as the first. Only this time, she caught sight of a cliché cloaked figure leaning against the wall navigating the menu.

After a bit, the figure closed the menu and started walking in the opposite direction away from Norie. Making sure the coast was clear, Norie trailed after him in quiet pursuit. Keeping him about 10 meters away, Norie hid behind anything she could, lamp posts, trees, brushes, all the like. Back in her old noob helping days, leveling up hiding was quite essential when keeping an eye on them. Apparently, her hiding wasn't enough as the figure burst out running.

"Oh no you don't!" Norie muttered sprinting after him. This guy sure invested into AGI because Norie had a hard time keeping up. Norie herself didn't focus on AGI since she didn't really need to react quickly because of her «Parry» level. Huffing and puffing, the mysterious prowler sharply turned a corner into the plaza of town. Following up a couple of seconds later, Norie saw no trace of him.

"Where did he go?" Norie asked aloud as she scoffed under her breath.

"Hahaha! You're guild is going up the wrong alley, I would stay out of this if I were you" A voice said with a chilling coarseness.

"Show yourself!" Norie demanded before a black square piece of paper drifted through the air in front of her. Taking it in her hands, she stared ominously. There was only an insignia strewn on it, a coffin with a strange slightly smiling face on it accompanied with a skeletal arm.

"It seems I know who's getting their hands dirty now…" Norie muttered.

ooo

The sound of the front door opening quietly followed by careful footsteps woke Ellen up. She noticed that Norie's warm body wasn't next to her as she got up to see who came in.

"Norie? Where were you?" Ellen asked with a yawn as she rubbed her tired eyes.

"Uh… I was out for a walk" Norie replied with a lie as she sat down on the couch. Stroking Ellen's hair gently, "Let's go back to sleep"

April 22, 2023 – Aincrad 57th Floor, «Martin»

"They left this?" Sachi asked as she pointed to the mysterious piece of paper that Norie had presented to them as they made their way through the streets of the 57th Floor of Aincrad. It was around 5:00 P.M. ALT, and they were on their way to grab some dinner before paying the «Occult Frenzy» guild a visit.

"Yes, I'm lead to believe that this guild is related to the incident that we have on hand" Norie replied examining the emblem again. "He warned me that we should stay out of the affair with the «Errand Knights»"

"So whoever this is doesn't want us to get involved" Taru noted in a slightly gloomy voice.

"It's strange though, it feels as if I've seen this before" Norie patted the back of her hand against the paper before folding it and putting it in her pocket.

"Maybe you'll remember if you think hard enough!" Ellen mumbled with a mouth full of cookies.

Norie sighed, and shrugged by raising her hands. "Who knows, serious topics aside, where do you guys want to get some dinner?" she asked, but was followed soon by a loud scream coming from in front of the church.

"What was that?" Keshiga asked as they rushed towards the source. Merging with the small crowd that gathered, they stared in disbelief.

"What the…." Sachi mumbled with her eyes wide open as they witnessed the horrifying sight. A player was hanging on a noose atop the bell tower with a spear impaled in his chest.

"I-is that what I think it is?!" Taru clasped his hand over his mouth. He suddenly felt nauseous.

" Wh-what's going on?!" Norie asked in desperation before someone yelled out

"Hurry and pull it out!"

Looking towards the familiar voice, Sachi saw Kirito and Asuna racing forth to try to get him down.

"Hang on!" he called out.

"Gaaaahh ahhhh!" The player cried out as he kicked his feet a bit before hanging free. Shortly after, his avatar burst. The noose hit the wall with a light thud as the red thorn patterned spear fell to the floor. There were gasps and the scream of a girl among the group as Sachi, Keshiga and Norie stared with blank minds.

"A duel is the only way to kill a player in a safe zone" Kirito through to himself looking around, "That means…"

"Everyone! Look for the «Duel Winner» notification!"

Then the white and red figure of Asuna appeared from atop the balcony, "There's no one inside" she called from above.

Looking through the crowd, Kirito scanned as fast as his brain could process in search for that notification. He even saw Sachi's face in the crowd, but was too preoccupied to say hello.

ooo

"N-Norie, how is this possible?!" Sachi asked trembling. If word about PKing in safe areas got out, no one was safe.

"The only possible way he could have died was through a duel, but you heard Kirito. There were no «Duel Winner» notifications. " Norie said rubbing her chin.

There was a low murmur of mildly shaken players as they waited anxiously for a logical explanation.

"Excuse me" Kirito said after Asuna and he made their way out to address the crowd. "Did anyone see the whole thing? If you did, please speak up"

Again, the low murmur of the players filled the courtyard with rumors and gossip.

"By the time I got here…." Someone spoke as a girl came forth.

"Sorry, I know you've just had a frightening experience, what's your name?" Asuna asked as the girl approached them.

"My name is Yoruko…"

"Was that first scream yours?" Kirito asked.

"Y-yes. I just came here to eat dinner with the man who was killed. His name was Kains. We used to be in the same guild. But we got separated in the plaza. I looked around and I saw him hanging from the Church window…" Yoruko explained as she started to break down into tears.

"Did you see anyone else?" Asuna asked.

"It was just for a second, but I thought I saw someone behind Kains."

"Did that person look familiar"

"No…"

"I hate to ask this but… do you know why anyone would've wanted to kill Kains?" Kirito asked lastly.

Yoruko shook her head.

ooo

"If we learn where that spear came from, it might lead us to the perpetrator." Asuna said.

"Then we'll need someone with an appraisal skill. You don't have one obviously"

"Of course not, nor do you" Asuna shot back, "Also must you address me so curtly?"

"Haha, sorry…" Kirito replied as he suggested some names that he could call her.

"Just call me Asuna" she replied as she gave him a disapproving look.

"R-roger. Anyway, do you have any friends with an appraisal skill?"

"Doesn't your weapon merchant friend have it?" Norie asked from behind the pair. "This is her busiest time after all, so it might take a while."

"Norie…" Asuna asked as Norie, Sachi, Keshiga and Taru approached them.

"How's the investigation going?" Sachi asked as Kirito smiled when he saw her.

Waving and patting Sachi on the head, "Well, we have the murder weapon, and that might lead us to our suspect. I have an appraiser, so we'll see him about that next" Kirito explained. "Speaking of which, you guys witnessed the incident right?"

Norie nodded in reply.

"Do you guys have any leads on anything?"

"Sorry" Sachi shook her head.

"We were going to dinner when we heard the scream." Ellen added, "Then we made our way as fast as we could to the courtyard."

"I'm beginning to wonder how he managed to get PK'd without a duel winner screen…" Asuna remarked.

"PK?!" Norie thought to herself as she hastily reached into the pockets of her shorts and pulled out a neatly folded black piece of paper with that ominous emblem on it. The word PK reminded her of it "Asuna, can you make up what this is?" she requested.

Asuna gasped as she widened her eyes. "W-where did you get this..?"

"A strange person was snooping around the house, and after he disappeared, he left this behind."

"This is the «Laughing Coffins» insignia…" Kirito said, "What's going on with you guys? It's dangerous to be associated with that guild. Especially now that rumors about PKing in safe areas is going around. "

"We're dealing with a missing person's investigation. Taru's friend is missing, and we believe that it was a result of the territory disputes around these floors. " Sachi explained.

"Missing person… Murder case in the safe area…." Kirito thought aloud, "There's a possibility that these two incidents are related"

"Related? How?" Keshiga abruptly asked

"I don't know yet, but I'm sure it has something to do with our suspects"

ooo

Not letting the safe area incident get in the way of their investigation, Sachi and the group headed towards the «Occult Frenzy» Guild HQ. Using the information that Argo (The Rat) enclosed in a small document, she gave them the name of the guild leader and the location of the guild HQ. All for a fee of course.

The HQ was smaller than they thought; it was only about the same size as the «New Black Cats of the Full Moon» guild HQ. Then again, they had no clue as to how large the guild actually was, and maybe they overestimated it.

Knocking on the door about four times, Sachi waited for someone to respond and open the door.

"Maybe they aren't home…" Keshiga said before turning around. Just then, the knob turned, and the door opened.

"Can I help you?" A male voice asked as before them, stood the figure of a rather mid height young man with black hair that hung freely over his head. He wore glasses that gave him a rather serious tone. In combination, he looked like the typical bookworm character from an anime. He was dressed in blue pajamas and looked as if he were going to bed.

"Ah, sorry for bothering you this late but…" Norie started, "Is the guild leader of «Occult Frenzy» in at the moment?"

"Ah, I am he" He replied moving a bit before motioning for them to come in, "What is the purpose of your visit?"

"Sorry for not introducing ourselves first, we are with the «New Black Cats of the Full Moon» and «Errand Knights». We would like to talk to you about a missing persons case" Norie said.

Widening his eyes a bit, he nodded as they entered the HQ. "Please, have a seat while I make some tea"

Taking a seat around the centered coffee table, Sachi noticed that there were numerous books strewn about on it. There was also a bunch of papers and notes that contained diagrams and designs for various homes and buildings.

"I'm sorry for the mess, but ever since this game started, I've been jotting down ideas for building designs." The man said as he pushed aside some books and papers and laid a tray of tea on it. "Silly me, I forgot to introduce myself, I assume you already know my name from the information brokers, but I'll tell you anyway. My name is Gandor, and yes, I am the leader of «Occult Frenzy»"

After letting everyone settle in, Gandor asked, "Now what did you want to talk to me about?"

"About that…" Sachi began to say, "A member of the «Errand Knights» has recently gone missing, and we have no idea where he might be. We were wondering if «Occult Frenzy» had anything to do with this."

Crossing his legs, Gandor thought for a moment, "What is the name of the missing member?"

"Ruth" Taru responded

"Ruth…." Gandor repeated, "I'm not sure if he is the one, but about three days ago, a member by the name of Vlad was on border patrol for the day. He was supposed to go with another member, but that other member was running late, so he insisted that he go first. By the time the other member arrived at the starting destination, Vlad was nowhere to be seen. Instead, she only saw the figure of a person running through the forest as fast as he could. The armor was unmistakingly that of the «Errand Knights»." He explained as he pushed his glasses up his nose, "The part that frightened her most was… his cursor was red…"

"T-that couldn't….that couldn't have been… Ruth…" Taru said gravely.

"That's what I thought initially. But I was sure that a player wasn't insane enough to kill a fellow player. So I investigated a bit and went to the «Monument of Life». To my horror, Vlad's name was crossed out. His cause of death…" Gandor paused as he took his glasses of to rub his eyes, "Player Killed by Ruth"

The situation was quite grave as Taru stared at Gandor with desperate eyes, "Y-you a-aren't serious are you…?" he asked

"I'm afraid not" Gandor said sliding a photo towards them, it was a screenshot of the actual stone tablet that held the names of the 10,000 players in SAO. He pointed to the name "Vlad", which was crossed out. It was undeniable proof that Ruth had player killed him.

"It was him then…" Keshiga said as Taru wailed in tears crying on Norie's lap.

"Do you have any idea as to his whereabouts then?" Norie asked.

Gandor shook his head. "I'm sorry, even though it pains a guild leader to lose a member. Seeking revenge is the wrong way to go. I do not believe that «Occult Frenzy» has anything to do with his disappearance. At least, to the most of my knowledge"

Sachi nodded in understanding as she gulped her tea.

"I'm sorry for your loss. I wish I could be of some more help." Gandor apologized with sincerity.

"No.. we should thank you." Norie said gripping Ellen's hand as she got up and motioned for them to go.

"Thank you for the tea" Keshiga bowed.

Gandor nodded and waved before pushing his glasses up his nose, "Good luck with your search"

ooo

"Well, that was a bust" Keshiga said patting the gloomy Taru on the back in comfort, "Don't worry bud, we'll find him"

"I h-hope so…" Taru replied as the band of friends made their way down the street.

"Excuse me… but are you with the «Errand Knights»?" A female voice asked from behind them.

Turning to look, a rather short girl with burgundy hair dressed in a very elegant frilly Gothic Lolita dress that hung over her knees approached them with seemingly unmoving lips.

"Yes" Sachi nodded, "And you are?"

"My name is Catherine; I am a member of «Occult Frenzy». I was the one who was supposed to go on border patrol with Vlad that day. I know it's not in my place to say, but, it concerns the disappearance of your friend." Catherine began saying turning to her sides checking her back.

Everyone turned their attention to what the girl had to say.

"He could be anywhere, but another member of the guild named Bordac has been acting strange lately. He was the closest to Vlad, and ever since his death, Bordac hasn't been himself. He's been so reclusive; it's as if he's hiding something. He's been gone missing a couple hours out of the day too, but he never tells us where he goes. And when we ask him, he just casts us away like we were trash. I'm worried, not only as a friend, but as the sub guild leader." She explained as she constantly looked around in an extremely paranoid manner. "Please, find out what he's doing. I don't want him to get into trouble"

"We'll try our best" Norie assured giving a nod of approval.

"Be weary of him, he's fast, and elusive. He knows I'm suspicious of him" Catherine said.

"I think it would be best for you to stay in safe zones until we get to the bottom of this." Keshiga added.

"Do you know where he might be?" Sachi asked.

Catherine nodded, "Yes, last night I managed to catch him reading his messages. "

April 18, 2024

"Perhaps he was just going through post death trauma" I thought to myself as I gulped my tea in front of the fireplace. It was quiet as usual except for the subtle sounds of the low crackle of the fire, Gandor turning the pages of his books, the lead of his pencil scraping against paper.

Yawning like a cat, "I'm going to bed" I said as I got up.

"Good night" Gandor replied in his usual cool self

Walking down the hallway of the second floor of the guild living quarters, I noticed Bordac's door was open. "He's home…" I thought to myself as a crept up slowly and silently to the door. My «Hiding» is the best out of the guild, so it was unlikely that he heard me. Peeking through the crack of his door, I saw him, sitting silently on his bed navigating through his menu. Specifically, his messages. My «Scanning» was suburb also, so I took advantage of this opportunity to see what was going on with Bordac.

The first message said,

Meet me on the 57th Floor, in the alley next to the in on the east side of town on the 23rdtat 4:00 A.M. ALT; we'll discuss the payment there.

PoH

At first, I didn't really understand. Who would he be meeting? Does this have anything to do with his untimely disappearances? Is he partaking in malicious activity? All these questions span in my head over and over until Bordac turned with a sign of paranoia in his eyes. Luckily, I noticed in time and managed to spin to the side quickly. Holding my breath with my heart skipping a beat, a rushed hastily down the hall and towards my room.

Opening the door sounded so loud in the dark of the night, and through my desperate ears rang the echo of the clicking of the knob. Releasing the pent up air in my chest, I heaved outward and gulped in some fresh air. Panting and panting, I dropped to my bed in wonder. So many things were spinning through my head that it made me dizzy, what situation could Bordac have gotten himself into? All of us mourned the death of Vlad, but this kind of behavior was beyond normal.

Perhaps… I should….approach him… in the… morning…. I said drowsily to myself before my eyes closed themselves.

ooo

"PoH…." Norie said with a slight grave look on her face as she wiped a bead of sweat rolling down the side of her head.

"Norie?" Ellen asked taking notice.

"Who's PoH?" Keshiga leaned forward towards her with complete ignorance to the escalated level of seriousness that enshrouded with incident.

Norie trembled a bit as she took her cap off. "H-he…" she stammered. Norie usually never stammers when she says something, "PoH is th-the leader o-of the «Laughing Coffin»"

Those last few words pierced the wills of everyone that heard them as Sachi gasped with fear. The dreaded red player killing guild, the «Laughing Coffin». Affiliating yourself with that guild meant you ran the risk of not only paying the price of their player killing services, but being back stabbed by them. In turn, you could lose everything, even your life.

Clasping her hands over her mouth, Catherina gagged as she dropped to her knees. "D-does that mean…?"

"We don't know yet…" Sachi said as she tried to help Catherine up, "We'll get to the bottom of this Catherine, just try to stay around people when you sleep to avoid sleep PK's, okay?"

Catherine nodded weakly as Sachi escorted her back to her guild.

"The «Laughing Coffin»…" Taru said in a despairing tone, "You don't suppose… that he's employing the «Laughing Coffin» do you Norie?!"

"I'm not sure I understand…." Norie raised an eyebrow to try to piece together what was happening.

"It's simple!" Keshiga filled her in, "You see, Bordac is a close friend of Vlad just like Taru is a close friend of Ruth. Thus, once Bordac got word that Vlad was killed by Ruth, he was so overcome by anger that he resolute to kill Ruth. But it would be plain obvious to everyone if he killed Ruth with his own hands. So to keep attention away from himself, he would employ the service of the «Laughing Coffin» instead to do the dirty work for him." He explained

"Ah! So the meeting tomorrow is for the payment, so they kept Ruth alive until they could get the transaction underway." Norie patted Keshiga on the head as a sign of his good intuition.

As Sachi returned with the group, Norie summed up the clues that they had uncovered today. The only thing they still don't know is the whereabouts of Ruth. They know the reasons as to why he disappeared, the perpetrator behind all these events, and a definite time and place to intervene.

"We still have no clue where he is though" Taru disappointingly said as sighed and started to tear up again.

"Our perp might know the answer" Norie replied as she wrapped an arm around him like usual, "We'll find him Taru, this time, we won't be too late." It's a shame that not all promises can be kept.

April 23, 2024

Hiding behind a barrel, Sachi stood lookout near the designated location garbed with a brown cloak and covered by the cast shadow of the night. She also had a description of their suspect. Bordac had short orange hair with a neatly trimmed goatee. There was also something that stood out about him; he was a left handed sword use, so his sheath would be along the right portion of his body. Then again, all these descriptions were pointless since no one was out at this time of day.

The silence of the evening filled the narrow street with a mellow vibe. Sachi could only imagine at this time of day, people would be rummaging through shops, eating some lunch, or going on dates. It wasn't unusual for couples to arise in SAO. Take Sachi and Keshiga for example; though they haven't been formally "dating" for the past year, many people who knew them would consider the pair a couple. Come to think of it, Sachi's chain of thoughts actually led her to a scene of them kissing.

"W-what am I thinking?!" Sachi asked herself as she blushed slightly and shook her head out of embarrassment. Amidst her mini-episode, Norie's voice filled her ears.

"Sachi, you get any sign of our suspect yet?" Norie asked from the third floor of the inn. She was peering out the window of the targeted alley, and she had a perfect view of the area. Ellen was also staking out above Norie on the rooftop. Keshiga was in the opposite end of the alley from Sachi, and Hana, Taru and Irina were on hold nearby in case things got out of hand.

"Everything's clear here" Keshiga said trying his best to stay still in his seat. He was sitting at an outdoor patio in front of a coffee shop nearby with a steaming cup of coffee stimulating his unrest. It was a good thing NPC's would respond anytime if a person entered their shops.

"Nothing here" Sachi replied with a whisper, as all of them were connected by a single chat session. Just then, there were three blue lights that appeared in the middle of the alley. Three blue lights that accompanied three red cursors. Ducking down, Norie cautiously peeked her head out trying her best to conceal herself. Scanning her targets, she saw that ominous logo on their arms.

"The «Laughing Coffin»…" she whispered as goosebumps ran down her spine. "I have sights on three targets, it's the «Laughing Coffin»"

"Got it" Sachi replied as she looked to both sides. At the corner of her eye to the right, she caught sight of her target. Wearing a cloak with the hood pulled up, Bordac walked cautiously down the street approaching Sachi from her right. It was difficult to make out his hair, and his goatee was partially covered, but what gave him away was the way his sheath was orientated. His was sheathed on his right just like Norie, but he also wore a ring on the index finger of his sword hand, his left. It shone bright in the moonlight, giving away the obvious. It was a grave mistake that would lead to his downfall.

As Bordac hit Sachi, she held her breath, and stayed as still and quiet as a mouse. Peeking out from behind her hiding spot, she saw Bordac turn to his right into the curved alley. Waiting until he was out of sight, Sachi followed slowly.

"Target spotted" Sachi whispered as she cupper her hand around her ear to activate the chat lobby feature.

"I have him in my sights" Norie replied from atop, still staying low.

"You're late" One of the red cursor players said. His face was partially covered by his hood, so one could not get a good look of his eyes.

"Sorry, I was making sure that no one saw me. Especially that pesky Sub Leader of mine." Bordac replied with a sinister grin.

After hearing this, the hairs on Norie's neck as she whispered into her chat, "Irina! Are you there?"

"Loud and clear" Irina replied.

"Listen, I need you to go to the «Occult Frenzy» guild house now! When you get there, ask them if Catherine is okay. Once you get word, relay it back to me immediately."

"Got it" Irina replied followed by the whizzing sound of a «Teleportation Crystal» being used. Shortly following this, a notification screen appeared that said "Player «Irina» is out of range. Chat disconnected"

Focusing her attention back below, Norie kept watch as she got her «Jailer Crystal» ready. «Jailer Crystals» were special crystals specifically designed to capture player(s) and automatically send them to «Black Iron Castle» to await prosecution and send a message containing the accusation to the judge (A player). There also has to be proof that accompanies the message that could be in the form of screenshots and etc.

Not forgetting about that, Norie opened her menu and pressed the screenshot feature. Focusing her sight on the gathering, she pressed the "Take Screenshot" button a few times and the same number of images appeared.

"Now, about the payment" The first player said raising his arm in demand.

"I got it covered" Bordac said getting a large bag of Col out and lumping it onto the man's hand. "Two million Col. It's my life savings, but it's worth it. Vlad's death will be avenged"

"Hahahaha!" The one on the man's left started laughing hysterically, "Revenge? It's a sham! Why kill to get back at someone when you can kill for fun?! Eh PoH? Eh?" he asked nudging the middle man with his elbow.

"Try to act professional for once XaXa will ya?" The one to PoH's right said smacking him on the back of his head.

"Ow! Now what was that for?!" XaXa whined raising a fist up.

"Shut up you two, we're in the middle of a deal. Now, I trust that you know the guilt that comes with knowing that you ended the life of a player?" PoH warned as he concealed the sack of money in his cloak.

Bordac nodded, "I would be more worried about guilt if I were you. You're doing the actual killing"

"I may be doing the actual killing, but you are the one who holds the gun in his hand. I am simply the gun. And you do understand that whatever happens to you as a result of these events, we are not responsible for your safety." PoH warned additionally.

"Don't worry about it! I made sure that Catherine didn't follow me" Bordac replied with cockiness.

Just then, a message popped up for Norie. It was from Irina, and it read: Catherine is fine, but she's been inflicted with heavy sleep. Someone might've laced her meal with a sleeping concoction because she was knocked out cold during a training session.

Sighing out of relief, "Thank goodness" she whispered.

"Then the deal is done. We will take care of him within due time." PoH said.

"Ohhh! Can I take him out! He's been squirming there for days now and jabbing my knife into him will feel soooo good!" XaXa asked getting extremely jittery.

"No XaXa" PoH replied, "We have other targets to take care of first off. Specifically, three of them. I'll let Tsurugi take care of him."

"That lucky bastard! Getting a target all to himself like that" XaXa complained as the three of them took «Teleportation Crystals» out.

"I'm sorry that we can't take him out sooner, but we are quite busy at the moment, and clients that came to us first get their deals done first. " PoH said raising his «Teleportation Crystal» up. "And by the way, you were followed." He said lastly before a blue light engulfed all three of them.

"Followed?!" Bordac asked aloud with extreme shock as he looked all around. Hastily pulling a «Teleportation Crystal» out, his trembling hands kept shaking that it took him longer to get one out.

"Now!" Norie said into their voice chat lobby as she gripped Ellen and jumped out the window with a «Jailer Crystal» gripped firmly in hand.

"What the?!" Bordac asked as he looked up, then to the sides of the alley where he saw Sachi and Keshiga rushing towards him and Norie falling from above. Raising his crystal up, he muttered a few words.

"We won't reach him in time!" Norie thought to herself as she fell midair from the third story of the inn. At the rate she's falling, he would already be gone. Unsure of what to do, she reached back with Ellen in hand and threw her trusty sword forward.

"H-hey! Norie!" Ellen whined as her physical body disappeared into her sword "home".

It seemed close, but Norie was a fraction of a second late as a blue light engulfed Bordac and he disappeared.

"Damn!" Norie swore as her feet hit the floor with a loud thud.

"Norie!" Keshiga called out as he and Sachi caught up.

"We're too late…" Sachi said, "Now how are we supposed to catch him?"

Smashing her fist against the cold brick wall of the alley, Norie swore again. "I don't know….He was our only lead… and I lost him!" she yelled out in frustration, "Now Taru's...Taru's going to experience the same thing over again…and it's all my fault"

"Norie… don't blame yourself" A voice said from an unknown source as Taru's rather soft spoken appearance approached them. "You've always been there for me… an-and… I can never pay you back for all the times you've helped me. But I-I just wanted to say how grateful I am for you" he continued, dropping to his knees as he started to weep. Gripping Norie's hand with both his own, "Thank you" he managed to say with all the catches in his throat.

"Taru…." Norie said softly as she wrapped her arms around him. "I'm sorry. I tried my best"

"I know" Taru replied with a bit more crying. After a couple of minutes, he managed to dry up and stand. Sighing deeply, "I need some time alone." He said turning around.

"Taru, where are you going?" Ellen asked tugging on his cloak with complete innocence.

Turning around and placing his hand on Ellen's head, "I'm going to «Black Iron Castle»"

"Why?" Sachi asked as she tilted her head

Norie gasped with realization, "To check to see if Ruth is dead or not!"

"How would that help us now?" Keshiga wondered.

"Hello? Don't you understand? I know where Bordac is!" Norie shouted out as she burst out running.

"W-wait! Norie!" Sachi called out as they followed in pursuit.

"W-what do you mean you know where Bordac is?" Taru asked trying his best to keep up.

"It's simple! He wants to make sure he's got his money's worth!" Norie said as they approached the «Transfer Gate». As they approached said gate, Norie called out, "Teleport! «Starting City»!" and they were engulfed in a blue light.

Aincrad 1st Floor – «Starting City»

The ever so familiar medieval scenes of the town where all this began streamed through the sights of the group as Norie led the way through to «Black Iron Castle».

"Get's his money's worth? What does that mean?" Keshiga asked while almost tripping on a small plateau of stone floor.

"She means that he wants to make sure that the «Laughing Coffin» keeps their end of the deal!" Sachi filled him in on what Norie had revealed.

"That's right! And where do you go if you want to see if a player is dead or not?" Norie asked rhetorically, "«Monument of Life!»" Ellen replied enthusiastically as she glided right next to Norie. She led the way straight across the central plaza and towards a small room that resembled that of a mausoleum of some sort.

"Now if my assumption is spot on, our culprit should be…" Norie said as she slid straight into the open entrance of the building. Skidding a bit she yelled out, "Here!" and the room echoed loudly with her voice. There was a huge stone slab with blurs of carvings and crossed out words in the room.

Someone yelped once they heard Norie's voice.

"I knew it!" Norie pointed at Bordac as she approached him with Ellen drawn.

"H-how did you find out?!" Bordac asked as he backed up in fear reaching into the sleeve of his cloak.

"Oh no you don't!" Norie replied throwing Ellen at his arm, causing a shockwave that knocked him back. In safe areas, the «AREA» took place where players could not hurt other players HP unless through a duel. But you could still swing weapons at them, in return, which causes a shockwave that pushes them back very uncomfortably.

A loud clank was heard as a blue «Corridor Crystal» hit the floor. Desperately reaching for it, Bordac felt another shockwave hit him as he saw Sachi slash at him once with her fabled «Fragarach».

"Leave the act, we all know what you've been up to and we have the evidence to prove it" Keshiga said.

"Now tell us, where is Ruth?" Norie asked as she calmly picked up Ellen.

"I-I don't know what you're talking about!" Bordac replied before he felt another powerful shockwave knock his air out.

"Tell us! You haven o where else to run!" Norie demanded as she pulled out the screenshots and showed them to him. "We have you cornered.

"Haha….hahahaha!" Bordac laughed out loud, "You can't possibly prove anything with these! It's too dark to tell if that's me! Besides! You can't even see my face!"

Norie bit her tongue at his backlash. It was true, this was quite useless evidence.

"You're wrong…" Sachi said still holding her sword pointed at him, "There's clear proof that it's you." She picked up the paper screenshot and pointed at a silvery object on his left hand."The ring"

Bordac's eyes became wide as he instantly held his left hand up to see. Gasping in fear, he hastily tried to unequip it.

"It's too late" Keshiga stepped in, "I already got a screenshot of it" he grinned as he pulled out another picture. It was Bordac, with his left hand raised clear and in the open for everyone to see. The ring that he wore was clearly visible.

Bordac sat there with a gaping mouth and a hint of despair in his eyes as he hung his head low. "I guess it's over…."

"It is. Now tell us where Ruth is" Norie stood in front of him.

Looking up with a maniacal grin on his face, Bordac spoke, "He's where all this started….But! You're too late! " He started laughing and laughing manically case he rolled on the floor, "Finally! Revenge will be mine!"

Norie scowled in disgust as she held her «Jailer Crystal» out and activated it. Within the blink of an eye, Bordac was engulfed in an orange light and disappeared.

"The place where all this started…." Norie asked herself before Taru exclaimed,

"He's still alive!" Pointing frantically to the name Ruth on the «Monument of Life», Taru couldn't help but smile with gladness.

"Alive?! Then we're not too late!" Keshiga replied about to make a run for it before he realized, "Wait… where is he exactly?"

"The place where this whole incident started, the 56th floor!" Sachi said.

Aincrad 56th Floor

This was possibly the fastest that Norie has run in her entire career of SAO. Then again, it's quite hard to tell the difference between how one perceives how fast one is running, and how fast on is actually running. All that didn't matter though, as for the time being, Norie's only focus was to find Ruth.

"Where all this began…" Norie thought to herself. Where this whole incident began was indeed, the border between the «Errand Knights» and «Occult Frenzy» territory. The place of possibly two murders, the second one Norie wanted to ever so desperately prevent for Taru's sake.

"I'm not going to let the same thing happen to him, not again!" She desperately thought as her feet felt like they were gliding in the air.

The «Weather Generator» in «Aincrad» seemed to be in a foul mood at the moment, as it started raining. It didn't quite make sense since rain shouldn't be possible because the sky was covered by the base of the next floor. But nonetheless, it was raining.

Making a sharp turn leaving everyone behind, Norie cut through the thick layers of trees and brushes as she crossed through «Errand Knight» territory.

"Almost there… Almost there!" Norie whispered with droplets of rain slightly obscuring her vision. But eventually, she saw a silhouette, the silhouette of a person lying on the ground. It was hard to make out, but it was barely visible.

"Its him!" Norie called out as she tried to run even faster. Scraping her knees against the worn trunks of the trees around, Norie cupped her arm around Ruth to support him up to a sitting position.

"Ruth!" Taru cried as he dropped his mace and instantly made his way towards his dear friend. "Ruth… speak to me… are you oaky?!"

"Taru…." Ruth said raspily as he weakly opened his eyes. Ruth's HP bar had only a fraction of it left, deep in the red.

"Ruth! Don't worry old buddy, w-we'll get you to safety…" Taru started to say before he realized something horrifying. Ruth's cursor was red. "R-Ruth…" Taru hesitated with a «Healing Crystal» in hand as the rain kept pouring down.

"T-Taru!?" Sachi urged with desperation.

Taru was about to activate the crystal before Ruth suddenly gasped in pain. His body was shaking on its own before a piercing sound was heard. He released one breath, and his HP bar dropped blank.

"Ruth? Ruth?!" Taru was trembling as he shook the limp body of Ruth.

"Taruuuuu…" Ruth whispered before his avatar burst.

ooo

"I hope Taru's okay" Ellen said as she rested her chin on Norie's head.

"I hope so too. For now, he needs some time alone" Norie replied holding Ellen's legs to support her on Norie's shoulders.

"Should we get some lunch" Sachi suggested as her stomach growled.

"I'm starving!" Keshiga chuckled while rubbing his stomach.

"You're starving? Look at me!" Ellen said

I guess everyone could have a small breather of calmness and serenity after a terrible event like that. But I guess everyone has a point where they can be calm.

Perhaps it was coincidence that they walked down that street on that same day, because the falling figure of Yoruko came crashing down onto the floor before them. Without any time to react, her avatar burst into fragments as they stared, unsure of what just happened.

Shortly after Ruth's death, Taru broke down completely and it took him a few hours to calm down. In the meanwhile, Sachi contacted the «Errand Knights» and «Occult Frenzy» about the outcome of the whole incident. «Occult Frenzy» offered a compensation for Bordac's actions, but Taru politely refused.

As for the cause of death? A single dagger that was thrown and lodged into his back. The owner? Unknown. The maker? Monster Drop. But for some strange reason, Irina found that dagger quite familiar, as if she's seen it before. She asked Sachi if she could keep it. Sachi didn't object, but she felt as if she would regret it later.

The smooth cold metal was the only thing Irina felt in her fingers as she examined the dagger. The low roar of thunder and rain was heard on the 27th Floor of Aincrad.

"This dagger…" Irina started to think as the memory of Aika flashed in her mind. Shaking her head lightly, she looked up out of her window as she sat at her desk. The rain was pouring lightly as the occasional flash of lightning kept Irina awake.

"Aika…" Irina muttered after a few moments before she got up and turned around. Just then, a strong gust of wind blew the window open. Closing it promptly and locking it again, she wondered why it opened. Irina doesn't usually leave the window unlocked as she doesn't use her room often. Sighing lightly, she turned around, only to meet the gaze of a gravely familiar face.

Yelping silently, she glared into the cloaked strangers eyes. Those brown eyes… filled with such stress and insanity, stared back at Irina with a menacing aura as she almost choked on her own fear.

"Hello…. My love…." The stranger said as he raised his hand up to attempt to caress her on the cheek.

Irina angrily slapped his hand away with hers as she frowned, "Tsurugi… what do you want?"

"So shy, yet so feisty. That's why I fell in love with you. Oh, I was just in the neighborhood and decided to visit" Tsurugi replied with an evil grin on his face as he held a hand out, "Actually, the real business I have here is that you have something that belongs to me."

"The dagger!" Irina thought as she gravely stared at the dagger in her hand. That's why it was so familiar; it was the same dagger that killed Aika, that killed Ruth. On the verge of tears, she placed the dagger weakly into Tsurugi's palm as she stepped back away from him.

"That's a good girl…" Tsurugi replied as he held his hand forth again close to her lips before the bright thunder flashed again. Within that fraction of a second, the window opened itself again, and Tsurugi was gone.

Irina dropped to her knees sobbing pitifully into her knees. "He's gone, he's gone… he won't bother men anymore…" she rocked back in forth.

Little did Irina know just how involved she and the «New Black Cats of the Full Moon» would be in matters relating to the «Laughing Coffin»

A/N: Whew, broodingly long chapter to write, and with the creative juices kind of gnawing themselves down, it's been harder for me to retain ideas that I've come up with. It's been a bit stressful trying to execute my chapter ideas. I mean, I have the basic story of each chapter down until the end, but as to how those stories are going to written, I come up with that on the spot as I write.

I apologize if this chapter contains a few rushes, or some illogical thinking, or maybe some poor dialogue or flow of events, but point be said, I honestly just wanted to publish. Not sure if the reader will like it or not, but I certainly did

Otherwise, I'm happy with this chapter. I kind of wanted a mystery chapter and a little bit more Taru, that kind of tied in with the inner area incident in Vol 8, so this is what I came up with. I know many of you guys wanted a bit more Sachi and Kirito interaction, so next chapter will be a big "surprise" for all of you!