Author's Note, 2/22/14:

I'm not going to tell you not to read this story. But I'm going to start with a caveat.

I went through a ten-year hiatus from fandom, and SAO was what dragged me back in. This story was the first fanfic I'd written in over a decade. And it was only after writing this that I went back and wrote Kadyn and Camilla's origin story, The Unraveling, and its sequel, The Red Valkyrie.

It shows. There are continuity issues between this story and the other two, as well as quite a number of errors in terms of SAO's game mechanics.

I don't want to pull this offline, and I intend to rewrite it at some point, but I also don't want people reading this story first and either getting confused or getting put off of reading anything else I wrote. Hence this warning: if this is the first of my Kadyn & Camilla fics you've found, read The Unraveling first. Then The Red Valkyrie. Then, with the understanding that it's flawed, read this one if you still want more.

January 12, 2024
Floor 41: Gravesoil Moors
Underdark Catacombs, Level 43

"This is far too easy!"

You know how you cringe when you're watching a movie and a character tempts fate with some cliché bit of dialogue? Like, "what could possibly go wrong?" Or "I'm sure glad that's all over with!" This is usually about two seconds before the sky opens up and a bolt of lightning strikes, or a truck comes roaring out of nowhere and splatters the hapless protagonist who was dumb enough to double-dare Murphy's Law to prove them wrong.

Believe it or not, people actually say those things. So when Camilla grinned at me through the rapidly evaporating cloud of polygons that used to be an Underdark Lurkwing and marveled at the easy time we were having cleaning up after the front-line raid groups, I wanted to throw something at her. And if we were in a Safe Area where her HP wouldn't drop rather than forty-plus levels deep in a lethal dungeon, I probably would've. Instead I just rolled my eyes and blew one of my auburn bangs out of my face with a puff of simulated breath before responding.

"Let's not get overconfident, love. We're deeper in the Underdark Catacombs than we've ever been, and we never would've gotten even this far if the front-liners hadn't already cleared a path."

My wife-my real wife from the real world, as well as my partner in-game-gave me a sheepish smile and shrugged. "Give me a break, Kadyn, we'll be fine if we keep moving. We're going to be rich once we vendor all the stuff the clearers left behind, and the repops in this area are slow enough that we can handle the few mobs that spawn."

The hell of it was, she was right. Not for the first time I thanked whatever stars made me lucky enough to fall in love with someone who not only shared my passion for gaming, but was good at it. When we first found ourselves trapped in this Death Game, she was the one who came up with the plan to clean up the leavings of higher-level players until we were strong enough to survive on our own. While I was freaking out about the ramifications of being stuck here, she was the one who kept a cool head-and kept us alive.

"Look, Seiji," she'd said, getting my attention with my real name rather than addressing me with the character name I always used. We were so used to gaming together that we usually referred to each other with our online nicknames even in the privacy of our home, and hearing my legal name from her lips focused me, calming the hysteria that threatened to bubble up again. "Look at me. Look at me! You and I have been clearing games together for what, twelve years now? This is just another MMO. We can do this. Just treat it like hardcore mode, where your character is deleted after one death. No unnecessary risks. We play it safe and grind until we can survive."

I trusted her strength and good sense. So I set aside the growing unease that itched at the back of my neck, gave her my best smile, and twirled one of my daggers in hand before tapping open a status screen to check its durability.

Flashy displays like that never failed to get her giggling. In battle, Camilla is all business-no wasted movement, no flourishes, just a blur of shield and sword and forest green armor. I'm the kind of geek who indulges in that sort of display-the pose I struck after backstabbing a mob earlier set her to laughing so hard that I thought she was going to aggro every living thing on the floor. This time she just shook her head and gave my shoulder a push to propel me onward. "Come on, Sir Flaunts-a-lot, let's move on before the whole room pops on top of us."

"Hey, you're the knight in this party," I complained to the sound of her derisive raspberry.

And so it went for the next few hours as we scouted our way through the Catacombs, following the trail of unwanted loot and occasionally even the sounds of battle as the raid group ahead of us cut a path through the thick population of high-level mobs. Our strategy was simple, and it had served us well for the last year: follow a high-level group or raid, pick up their leavings, and clean up the small number of mobs that respawn in their wake for XP. We're not too proud to be vultures-I mean, when it comes right down to it, the items left on the ground would just decay and disappear over time anyway; better that someone get some use or money out of them. You'd be amazed at the kind of stuff high-level players will just drop on the floor to save inventory space-their trash is our treasure. It's where I got my favorite dagger, and Camilla her new breastplate; it keeps us well-funded from all the vendor trash we sell.

It's hard to say when we actually strayed off the path. The mob density in a given area isn't always consistent, and we'd gotten a bit complacent whenever we came upon an empty or almost-empty room, assuming it meant that someone had been here ahead of us. But we knew with certainty that we'd taken a wrong turn when I used my Search skill on the next room, and found it to be a dead end full of monsters-far too many for us to handle. No one had been in that room before us recently-we were lost.

"No way," I said quietly but urgently, backing away from the door as soon as I activated my Search skill. "I wouldn't even open it-we don't know what their aggro radius is or what senses they have."

Camilla planted her sword tip-down in a way no real sword should ever be abused, and leaned on it for a few moments, her long flame-red hair falling across her cheeks as she dipped her head towards me. "That's great, K, but what now?"

Several lines creased my forehead as my brow furrowed in thought. "Well, I think it's pretty obvious the raid didn't come through here. That chamber is a dead end, and there's at least ten monsters in there, probably a linked mob. We pull one, we pull them all. And when was the last time you saw the glitter of loot left on the ground?"

"Too long," she admitted.

"Too long," I agreed. "So we're off the path. And I think I have an idea where we took a wrong turn. Remember that huge puzzle room with the three levers and the pit and dart traps?"

"Would that be the dart trap that you didn't find, and that I had to dodge like hell?" Her voice was sugar and affection honed to a razor-sharp edge.

It was my turn to grin sheepishly. "Have I mentioned that you're beautiful when you dance?"

"I'll show you dan-"

"Pop!" I shouted suddenly, as a fountain of blue light behind Camilla signaled a respawning mob. Glowing red eyes shone out from a snarling mess of matted fur, and a staccato rumble like the ire of an asthmatic lion echoed off the walls.

Whirling, Camilla instinctively brought up her glimmering green kite shield with a practiced sweep of the arm, knocking away the dripping claws of the Underdark Growler that had just appeared. "Switch!" she called out, signaling me to exploit the opening she'd created.

Dagger unsheathed, my right arm was already glowing with the beginning of an Art, one of the quickest I could bring out: Leaping Stab. I felt the familiar rightness of the motion input done correctly, felt the system assist take over and my body automatically go through the movements of a technique that at this point I could almost do on my own without the assist. The blow sank into the flank of the Growler, a bright flash indicating a critical hit that chipped away about a quarter of its HP bar. Aside from being fast to execute, Leaping Stab had a very quick recovery time and I was already jumping back as the Growler's claws whistled through the space I'd just occupied.

The downside of a crit like that is that it draws aggro like nobody's business. Intellectually I knew these mobs were just code on a server somewhere, but I could swear that I really pissed off this Growler. As it crouched, preparing to leap at me, Camilla's longsword bit deeply into its back and diverted its attention. We quickly fell into roles that were familiar to us long before we'd ever heard of SAO: she as the "tank", the armored anchor of our duo who focused on "turning" the mob and keeping its attention so that we could surround it on opposite sides; me as the "DPS" character focused on dealing burst damage and exploiting weaknesses and openings. Despite the surprise attack from the unexpected respawn, we made quick work of the Growler, and grinned at each other through the translucent UI windows announcing our spoils.

"Thanks," she said, with no need to explain.

I shook my head, and offered her the crook of an elbow. "Would the lady care for an escort to the nearest Safe Zone?"

"The lady would like to remind the gentleman that she is his escort."

Miming a mortal wound, I gestured towards the door through which we entered. "Let's go. We know someone cleared this room and not the next, but I have no idea how many of those things are placed here. If we backtrack quickly we can get back on the path and scavenge some more stuff before the bulk of the mobs respawn."

It was a great plan. But what was it some famous general said? That no plan survives first contact with the enemy? Something like that.

In this case, the enemy was our own greed.

We retraced our steps with a sense of growing urgency, working our way back to the puzzle room Camilla had teased me about. Pinching the air before me and tracing an invisible line as we walked, I brought up a map and status menu, tracing a path to our destination and glancing at the time. If we could finish up in the next hour or so, we'd make it back in time for the NPC feast event scheduled for tonight-and neither of us were going to pass up free food!

"Almost there," I said, collapsing the menus and glancing at my wife.

We weren't the only ones.

It was sheer luck that I chose to activate my Search skill when I did. I blinked as I noticed the red shapes dimly visible through the walls ahead, and reached out to grab the collar of Camilla's armor, causing her to stagger to a stop.

"The hell, K-"

"Shh!" I hissed sharply.

What was indistinct before was becoming clearer as I focused. The puzzle room was no longer empty-far from it. Beyond the walls I could see the amorphous red shapes of at least half a dozen monsters of a type I couldn't identify. At that point it dawned on me that this puzzle room, large as it was, must've been the lair of some kind of sub-boss on this level. The raid group had cleared it, and it hadn't respawned, but its adds-that is, the lesser creatures accompanying it-had.

"Repops. Six, maybe eight creatures," I explained quietly. "They're big, humanoid in shape, but I can't tell what they are from this side of the door. Two by the levers in the center of the room, two by the original entryway, and at least two roamers pathing around the perimeter of the room." I squinted, as if that was going to help me pierce the veil of distance and stone. For all I knew, maybe it would.

"Can we take them?" That was of course the most important question. Her voice was quiet, nearly a whisper, and I responded in kind as I slumped heavily against the wall.

"Don't think so, but if we're careful we can get around them. Not much choice, really."

"What about our crystals?"

I shook my head. "Not unless we have to. They're the only ones we have, and replacing them would wipe out at least half our take from this run. The info we bought from Argo said there was a portal back to the top level at the bottom of this dungeon, and if we catch up with the raid group we can use it."

Chewing at her upper lip thoughtfully, Camilla finally nodded. "All right. How do you want to play this?"

I waved a hand and pulled up the area map, tagging several points on the map with a fingertip as we sat shoulder to shoulder on the cold floor. "When the next roamer passes by, I'm going to open the door. Hug the wall to your left and move quickly and quietly to the north doorway here. It's about twenty meters in, and it's separated from the rest of the room by this pit. The only source of light I recall was from the torches by the levers in the center of the room-the edges of the room should be dark enough for us to make it without drawing drawing aggro."

I watched Camilla's face as she stared at the map, eyes flicking around it. We'd played together long enough for me to know that she was committing the layout of the room to memory, and that once she did she wouldn't need the map. "All right. You take the lead on this one; I'll follow right behind you. If anything goes wrong..."

"If one of the roamers so much as looks at us funny," I said firmly, "use your teleport crystal. We can't take that whole room."

Our eyes met as I dismissed the map window, agreement passing unspoken between us as our fingers laced together. Suddenly, Camilla reached up and seized my face in her hands, pulling me in for the kind of kiss that promised one hell of a reward later for getting through this. As we broke apart, foreheads touching, she spoke quietly. "I love you, Kadyn. Ready when you are."

As the red glow of the roaming mob on the other side of the wall moved past our position, I eased the door open with my fingertips and waited for my eyes to adjust, watching the cursors of the nearest mobs to see if they turned red to indicate they'd gone hostile on us and evaluating what we faced.

The roamer that had just passed us was just as deep in shadow as we would be at the edge of the room, but the two in the center of the room were clearly illuminated. My breath caught as I focused on them: a pair of large, bestial humanoid shapes, easily a good nine feet tall and covered with the same kind of nasty matted fur we saw on the Growlers. Gnarled taurean horns jutted from either side of their heads, an occasional rheumatic snort echoing through the room as they went through their idle animations. I eyed the poleaxes carried by each monster. They were pitted with rust and corrosion, but I had no doubts about their lethality.

Underdark Gorehoof Ravagers. Camilla jokingly calls Gorehooves zombie minotaurs, but there was nothing funny about them. We'd fought them before, one at a time-and it was a close thing even at that. Now that we were in the room, I could tell that there were seven of them in total: the ones I'd been sure about before, and one more roamer that had been on the far side of the room.

I swallowed hard and kept moving, Camilla following on my heels. I winced every time her armor made noise, convinced that the tiniest metallic squeaks or scrapes were as loud as a shout... but nothing aggroed us.

Then everything went to hell in a flash of blue.

Both of us recognized the respawn effect as it flared up from the floor, and froze in place. It was massive, twice the size of the Ravagers and located right in the center of the room between the two stationary mobs. An ice-cold bolt of fear stabbed through me as I realized what was happening. "Move!" I hissed as quietly as I could, watching in horror as the blue light resolved into a Gorehoof sub-boss I'd never seen before: Vilehorn the Vigilant.

"Named," Camilla whispered as she hurried, hunched over. Most mobs in the game, such as the Growlers and Lurkwings, were of a generic type. If you fought one, you knew what to expect from any others of that specific type in that area. They typically had a set aggro radius beyond which they wouldn't notice you, and a standard loot table and set of attacks.

Named mobs were something else entirely. If a mob had a name-especially if it started with the definite article "The"-you could expect it to be significantly more powerful than its base type, with unique drops and a commensurately higher reward to balance the risk.

They were also typically much more alert than their generic brethren. Vilehorn the Vigilant turned as it finished spawning, burning eyes searching for the presence it detected. As it fixed its gaze on our position, it raised its poleaxe and drove the blunt end into the floor, the stone ringing like a bell and causing every other Gorehoof in the room to stop and turn towards us as well. Eight targeting cursors turned crimson at once.

The gig was up. "Crystals!" Camilla barked out, no longer concerned with drawing attention that was already ours. Before the word had finished echoing off the walls, both of us were opening our system menus and frantically navigating to our shared inventory. A blue teleport crystal appeared in each of our hands as Vilehorn and his adds rushed towards us, the dank stone of the Catacombs thundering beneath their hooves.

"Teleport! Gilthac!"

We shouted the first word in unison. But before Camilla could finish saying the name of our hometown, the roamer that had been closest to us slammed into her like a freight train and sent the teleport crystal flying out of her hands. I could only claw at the air helplessly as a pillar of azure light surrounded me, my sight fading to a deep blue before the discontinuity of teleportation hit.

The last thing I heard was a shattering noise. It sounded like the end of the world.

Footnotes and glossary of terms:

Because this series is set in a VRMMORPG, there are many terms that may be unfamiliar to readers who have never played a multiplayer online roleplaying game. I have done my best to explain them contextually where they first appear, but in order to avoid cumbersome exposition I'll be defining any such terms here when I think there is some possibility of confusion.

Adds: additional enemies. Usually refers to escorts for a more powerful "boss" type monster. Also used to refer to any nearby enemies which unexpectedly "add" themselves to a fight already in progress.

Aggro: used as a noun, it refers to the level of "hate" that a computer-controlled enemy has towards a particular player, affecting who that enemy targets or prioritizes. Used as a verb, it can refer either to the act of triggering combat with a previously unengaged enemy, or to the enemy's act of becoming hostile.

Boss: an unusually powerful enemy that cannot typically be defeated by a single character or even a single party.

Crit: short for critical hit, an exceptionally powerful hit that does more damage than usual. Crits are usually a matter of chance, although some weapons and skills have a higher crit chance than others.

Loot: items dropped by defeated enemies.

Mob: an enemy or potential enemy that is computer-controlled. Can sometimes refer to two or more individuals who act together as a unit, which are usually called an encounter or a linked mob.

Named: a unique mob with a name of its own—e.g. "Illfang the Kobold Lord" rather than "a Kobold". Named are usually more difficult than generic mobs and give better rewards.

Pop/Spawn: refers to a new mob which is suddenly generated by the game in a specific location.

Raid: an assault group made up of a large number of players divided into two or more parties for the purpose of taking on enemies, like bosses, which are too powerful for them to take on individually.

Repop/Respawn: refers to the spawning of a mob which previously existed in a given location but which was killed or removed. Most generic mobs have a respawn cycle that will regenerate them after a set period of time passes.

Roamer: a mob which is not fixed in a specific spot, but which roams around an area—usually within a set radius or along a set path.

Vendor: used as a noun, refers to an NPC that buys, sells or trades items with players. Used as a verb, refers to the act of selling off unwanted items (vendor trash) to a vendor to make money.