Chapter 16: A Most Relaxing Dungeon
Alternative Title: Is It Wrong to Flirt Inside of a Dungeon?
Waking up was always a strange feeling inside of the game. The basics were of course the same; feelings of grogginess as your senses came together, tiredness and irritation at bright lights, and the feeling of restfulness was somewhat the same. It was the small things that were different — things such as dry mouth, sore limbs, crusty eyes. Things that might have been better to have been skipped inside a virtual world, but only served to bring focus on the disconnect between Aincrad and reality.
Kirito, however, was running into several issues waking up in the past few weeks. Namely, the problem was manifested in the shape of a soft and warm weight pressing down onto his body from above. Soft, shapely, and fortunately familiar to him at this point. He didn't need to peer downwards and reveal the blankets to know who was sleeping comfortably on top of his chest.
He deftly manipulated the game menu, looking at the time briefly before going into his messages. It was almost muscle memory at this point, the way he went through the menus and messages from various individuals. Even though most of his work was delegated to trusted subordinates — something he was thankful for — that only meant that the work he had remaining were typically of importance.
He typed his responses accurately and awkwardly, trying not to disturb the girl atop of him with the movement of his arms. The blanket shifted, then stopped, almost as if trying to avoid his notice.
"I know you're awake, Argo." It didn't work on his senses.
The blankets shifted somewhat and a head of brown hair peaked out. He glanced downwards to meet her eyes, and raised an eyebrow in question.
"Morning, Ki-bou~" she greeted with a yawn, happily pressing her cheek against his chest.
"Morning." He made no attempt to acknowledge her precarious position atop of him, nor the fact that he could feel a lot of skin on skin contact.
Never let it be said that Argo was an unremarkable girl. In the mornings, without her famed makeup and with her hair freely flowing around her cherubic face, she could be mistaken for a completely different person. If an image crystal of her current face managed to make its rounds to the male population of the game, the reputation of Argo «The Rat» would be gone.
"Boo, you're no fun when you've adapted," Argo said with a pout. She giggled as Kirito poked her in the cheeks in reply.
Of course, Kirito had been quite flustered when she had crawled into his bed the first few times. However, he was quick to temper his reactions, especially when he knew that she would not be stopping. To her credit, she did not make any overt moves that any of them would deem 'questionable', merely enjoying the feeling of his embrace and warmth. All of the girls had their little moments together with Kirito, and Argo had apparently chosen the early mornings for herself.
"Scooch over," she told him with a smile, before rolling over him so that she was nestled by his left side.
"Yes, ma'am." Kirito tried to ignore her firm figure and the fact that she had laced her rather shapely legs over his even as she cuddled at his side.
Then, she opened up her own menu, and together the two of them tackled their respective early morning tasks. Argo moved through the menus at a similar pace to him, but her rate of messaging was at a different level. She had dozens of smaller windows opened, and was composing replies to three individuals at once, filling in the details as needed when she finished gathering all of the information needed.
Kirito watched on as he finished his last reply. He was always awed by Argo's talents, but her ability to multitask was definitely one of the most impressive. She was the reason why they could manage their guild at such a high level. Where other guilds had to rely on officers and vice-leaders, their guild only needed to rely on Argo. Of course, she delegated tasks where appropriate — especially important given their current size — but thanks to her level of organization, the guild was running as smoothly as could be.
Equipment requests, col distribution, training schedules, and recruitment were all handled without a single hiccup. They were processed, distributed, and then delegated by Argo at a speed that could hardly be attributed to a single person. It would appear that the guild hardly needed any officers at its current rate.
However, that was not entirely accurate. As, despite Argo's top-notch managerial skills, she was not the best when it came to dealing with the human element. Anyone who met her in person could attest to that. Her manner of speech came off as brusk, overly succinct, and even mocking to most. There were few who could win an argument against her without having their words turned against them. Suffice to say she was not the most likeable personality to most.
"See anything you like, Kiri-bou?" She asked with a smirk, not even turning her head to look at him.
"You think everyone is awake?" He asked instead, easily avoiding the bait.
Argo pouted cutely, but replied nonetheless, "it is a bit early for them — but maybe since we have that quest today."
Kirito glanced at the ingame clock at the edge of his vision where it showed a time shortly after seven. He and Argo were amongst the early risers of the group — though the twins had them both beat in that regard. He swore he had never woken up before the two of them, as they seemed to be up whenever he was, even if it was an ungodly hour. The rest of the girls in their group tended to enjoy sleeping in.
Waking up early had never been his strong suit, since he was the one who preferred gaming deep into the night and early mornings after all. But his habits had changed. Forcing himself into a schedule out of necessity had done that. In the early days of the game, sleeping had been the last thing on his mind.
Before he could say anything more, there was a gentle knock on the door; it was an unneeded action, as the door was wide apart due to Argo's entry, but the knocker had only done so out of politeness.
"Argo-sama, Kirito-sama, breakfast is ready," Lily said, her eyes gleaming with mischievousness as she took in the two of them. They were in a rather compromising situation after all.
"Ah... um, thank you, Lily."
"We'll be right down~"
Argo did not react with embarrassment at being discovered in the arms of her favourite boy, and instead, looked quite content to remain there. Lily nodded and smiled at them before leaving them alone.
Kirito sighed, looking down at the girl using him as a glorified pillow. "Are we getting up then?"
"Shhhh, you're my pillow right now," Argo informed him with a smirk, continuing her rapid-fire messaging. "More importantly, tell me what happened last night with Ay-chan?"
He groaned as she began to wheedle the truth out of him.
The air was filled with excitement, and the mood was serene as the members of Aincrad's most famed party crested the hill and began to make their way towards the enormous mountain ranges at the edges of the level. All members of the party were looking forward to the coming quest.
It had been awhile since they had taken up a quest together. It was not that the game lacked quests — it was just the quality that seemed subpar compared to the alternatives. Fetch quests upon fetch quests were the name of the game, and oftentimes the rewards were hardly worth it. That reality was due to their current levels — high above the norm for even the current frontlines — outpacing the item levels of any quest rewards.
There were exceptions to that fact of course.
"So how did you know that the mine was on top of the Red Mountain?" Kirito asked the humming girl beside him.
"Eh? It was obvious, Kiri-bou. The Ancient Mine was referenced only in the dwarven epic: 'Calamity and Death', and it mentioned that it was sealed by the Second King at the height of his campaign against the goblin invaders. The books on the Goblin Wars only referenced three mountains — the Eastern, Death, and Red mountains — that were involved in battles. Of the three, the Eastern Mountain did not have any mines due to the lack of good ore. Death Mountain has an active mine, and while there could certainly be a secret mine there, we can rule that out due to the fact that the Second King died in what was called the Final Battle atop that mountain — certainly not the height of his campaign." Argo was perfectly smug as she wrapped up her deductions. "Thus, we can assume that the Ancient Mine sits atop of the Red Mountain."
Five sets of astonished eyes focused on her as they all stopped to stare.
"Argo... when did you learn all of that?" Asuna asked in shock.
The sly girl smiled. "Last night I believe. What? The Dwarves have some great stories."
"No idea how you can read those tomes, Argo-chan," Lisbeth said with a yawn, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. "They're so dense."
"I've read worse," Argo replied, thinking of her favourite novels.
Sinon smiled and nodded in agreement. "I managed to read some as well... it was interesting — reminded me of a few fantasy novels I've read."
Kirito smirked. "Dwarven mountain..."
"Ancient mines," Argo added.
"Hopefully no balrogs," Sinon added with a slight shudder.
Argo and Kirito shared a look and nodded in unison. "No balrogs."
The other three girls in the party looked on in confusion. "What's a balrog?" Silica asked with a tilt of the head.
"None of you know about Lord of the Rings? The Hobbit?" Argo was shocked. "They're such classics!"
Kirito and Sinon nodded in agreement. "One of my favourites," Kirito added. He wasn't a huge reader nor a movie fanatic, but even he could agree that Tolkien's famed books were a timeless classic.
"I think I've heard of it." Asuna pouted slightly. "I don't think I would have read it back then though."
Lisbeth smirked at her. "Oh? What did you use to read, Asuna-chan?" she asked teasingly.
Asuna looked away, her cheeks slightly pink. "N-nothing. I mean, I had very little free time back then."
Argo giggled. "Right, private school girl and books. We all know what you read, Asuna-chi."
Kirito was slightly lost, but highly interested. "What kind of books, Asuna?"
"Don't you get involved in this, Kirito-kun!"
There was much teasing and laughter as they headed towards their destination. It was a scene that was certainly out of place for most parties. One had to be serious when it came to quests — for dungeons were often hateful, as the players would say. It was not as if the game was often unfair, it was quite the opposite. Quests and dungeons were typically close to the recommended level requirements indicated by the game's interface.
It was the exceptions that worried the players. Hidden rooms, sudden traps, and unique bosses. Questing in Sword Art Online could not be underestimated, for the 'fun' mechanics that offered variety and interesting twists now only resulted in risk and death. Many players could attest to the latter.
Questing and dungeoning would never stop however. The current game was a realization of the idea of risk vs reward. There would always be risk involved when clearing in the front lines. Unknown mobs, bosses, and mechanics would always pose a threat to those who encounter them for the first time. But they could not simply avoid anything that posed a risk — they had to do the opposite. The most valuable weapons and armours — their lifeline — were hidden behind risky ventures afterall. And as their level increases began to slow down, they had to make up the difference with their equipment.
For the «Royal Swords», their confidence was high for a very simple reason: they trusted each other completely.
The mountain had been a small shape on the horizon during the beginning of their trek, but it now sat imposingly before them, overtaking their vision entirely. Its reddish hue reflected the afternoon light, giving it an almost ethereal glow. It was mostly rock, with faint croppings of shrubs and other vegetation.
At first glance there was no path that could be seen, and most newcomers would think to try and climb the sheer rock walls of the mountain. Although falling damage in the game could be mostly mitigated by equipment and stats, the same could not be said when falling onto sharp edges. Luckily there was a little-known path off to the side.
It was a winding, willowy trail that criss-crossed up the mountain side. It was heavily inclined and looked to be treacherous at every corner. In reality it would be a dangerous trek for even the most experienced mountaineers.
Thankfully, this world was not the same reality.
"Slowly now," Kirito cautioned his girls as he began to lead the way. The trail was only wide enough for a single person at any point, thus the need for them to proceed in a single-file column.
The girls proceeded with careful steps, though the mood was still light. There was no real danger to them so long as they stayed on the trail. And, to prevent any of them from tumbling down the mountain should that unlikely scenario occur, a long rope had been passed down and wrapped around each of their waists. Kirito had offered the rope to calm the nerves of Silica and Lisbeth, who did not enjoy the heights that they would be traversing.
Overhead, hovering in the air happily, was Pina, the feathery dragon seemed to be enjoying itself as it made circles around them. The familiar also served as a scout for them, and would warn them of any incoming dangers that they could not see.
"I'm glad that we're in a game right now," Lisbeth commented with a loud sigh. "I would be dead weight before we even began."
Kirito smiled from his position at the head of the group. "Not an outdoors person, Lisbeth?"
"Not even remotely," she affirmed. "Just imagining all of the bugs give me the creeps..."
The other girls all shivered and nodded in agreement.
"I'm glad for that small comfort," Sinon murmured. She could already imagine the amount of bugs that would be occupying the place on a hot summer's day.
"The bugs don't bother me that much," Argo added with a shrug. "The heat though!"
Although the weather was hot enough to be slightly uncomfortable on the current floor, it was nowhere near to the sweltering heat of reality on a humid day.
"At least we're not all sweating, hmm?" Asuna said with a smile.
"Hurray for that!"
Kirito thought they were all exaggerated, but kept his thoughts to himself. It was rather amusing hearing them complain about the little things.
"Were you an outdoors person, Kirito-kun?" Silica asked from just behind him, her tone curious.
Their leader shook his head wryly. "Maybe when I was young... I used to play a lot outdoors. In the summers where we spent visiting our relatives in the countryside at least." He remembered those times fondly, with Suguha and his parents. His workaholic father and mother had at least reserved their vacation time back then. The thought filled him with melancholy.
"Hehe, little Kiri-bou~" Argo's eyes gleamed in the afternoon light. "I bet you were just the cutest little thing."
He felt himself shiver almost involuntarily, silently vowing to never allow the girls access to his childhood photos. "I have no idea what you mean, Argo."
He could feel the stares of all the girls pressing into his back, and could already guess what they were all imagining. He heard some whispering and giggling behind him, but he dared not turn his head back to look at them.
"I've only hiked up a mountain once," he said, once the giggling died down. "A long time ago... It was a mountain trail south of Mt. Fuji. I remember because we were all dying at the end of the hike. We took the scenic route because my dad thought it would be good to see the sights, but it turned out that the route was recommended for seasoned hikers. We had to stop a quarter of the way up the mountain, and barely got to see Mt. Fuji at all." He paused and smiled in remembrance. "It was fun even though we all complained..."
The girls were all silent as they took in his story, each of them being reminded of the life that was awaiting them on the other side.
"I would like to see Fuji-san someday," Silica said quietly. "Our family never had time for trips outside of the city."
Kirito reached behind him and gave her an affectionate pat on the head. "We should all go. There's a wonderful lake near the base with the best view. We could even camp there."
"That sounds amazing!" Silica was awed at the thought.
"Count me in," Lisbeth added happily. "I've only ever seen Fuji-san from afar."
"M-me too," Asuna added, with an almost wistful look. Her experience with family vacations had been lackluster to say the least — though she did have fond memories of the countryside visits. Imagining all of them on an adventure in reality gave her a sense of melancholy mixed with desire.
Sinon nodded in agreement, a far-away look present on her face. If her current relatives had ever proposed such a trip she would have been filled with dread, knowing how awful the experience would have been. But the idea of a trip with her newest family filled her with hope and purpose. New experiences were things that she tended to steadfastly ignore — but her ideals were slowly but surely changing with every day spent together.
Argo was uncharacteristically silent, a thoughtful expression for a small moment before a smile broke out. "That would be nice..."
Their journey continued in good order, with light conversation and playful bickering. Though the winding trail increased in difficulty as they continued their ascent, they did not run into any stumbles as they neared the top. Kirito always kept a watchful eye out from his position at the front, while Asuna brought up the rear.
Soon enough they had crested the mountain wall and they all sighed in relief as their feet managed to reach flat ground once more. The mountaintop was surprisingly temperate, no doubt aided by the vast array of vegetation spread around, covering the land in green. If it weren't for the red stone of the mountain's namesake, the top could have been mistaken for a forest.
"Any idea where the door is?" Kirito asked as they all took a small break at a clearing. He leaned casually against a tree as the party settled in.
Asuna — as per her nature — handed out some water and sandwiches to the group, much to their delight. It was not as if the climb had actually exerted them in any way, but they had long since acknowledged the psychological aspect of the game. Water and food after a long hike was welcome whether or not their avatars required it.
"We got the key," Argo replied, holding up an intricate gold-coloured key. "Just have to find the keyhole!"
Sinon scanned the treelines briefly before deciding that it wasn't going to help. She took a running start before jumping onto a nearby boulder and then onto the nearest tree. Her build had a lot of AGI — much like Kirito's own — and she had little trouble scaling up surfaces. Kirito could freely admit that Sinon was more nimble than he was, or maybe it was just the fact that she made it look more graceful.
The group shared bemused glances as they waited for their scout to return. It didn't take long, as the treetops rustled briefly before Sinon leapt down, landing without a stumble at the base of the tree.
"There's a cluster of large rock formations that way—" she pointed towards the east "—so it could be there. Otherwise it's just trees."
Kirito nodded, happily munching on his sandwich and swallowing before replying. "Sounds good to me."
They finished the rest of their lunch together, and then fell into formation once more. Kirito led the way, with weapons sheathed but ready at a moment's notice. Pina was still following them from above, and had not announced the presence of any mobs. The dragon's detection had not failed them thus far, but it was always a good idea to be ready for anything while adventuring.
It was uneventful, but pleasant, walking towards the rocky cluster that Sinon had found. The trees rustled loudly in the high winds of the mountaintop, the sound surprisingly calming. Splatters of sunlight filtered through the leaves of the trees, and the sound of songbirds accompanied the swaying branches.
"Keep an eye out," Argo muttered as they reached the first rock.
It appeared to be a rocky outcrop, tinged red and almost glowing in the afternoon light. There were no signs of a door or anything out of the ordinary. It was simply a large rocky structure in the middle of the forest. They spread out as a group, each of them trying to uncover a hidden structure or meaning to the rock.
"Nothing?" Kirito asked of Argo as they reached the edge of the rock. He took a peek around the rock structure and spotted another similar structure in the distance.
"Nope." Argo crossed her arms and frowned. "What I would give for a riddle or something..."
"No," Kirito deadpanned. "Nobody enjoys riddles."
Argo opened her mouth, only to squeak as Kirito covered it. He raised an eyebrow and gave her a smirk. "Except you of course — Oi!"
He pulled his hand back and stared balefully at the snickering girl he had tried to muzzle. Trust Argo to immediately lick his hand... almost sensually.
"Be careful Ki-bou~ I bite." She winked at him.
Kirito gave her a look before turning to the others who had come up to them. Seeing their bemused looks, he sighed before pointing at the next structure. "Let's move on then."
At the next site, the situation was the same, with the enormous rocky formations revealing nothing that would indicate a door or a slot for the key. Some quests had components to them in which you had to unlock before proceeding. Most of them provided some rather obvious clues however. The remaining sites proved to be as boring as the other ones.
"No clues at all huh?" Kirito muttered.
"Nope, I guess this is a hidden quest for a reason." Argo thought hard for a moment. "If all the rock formations are the same, then maybe..."
"What is it?" Kirito asked, halting the group for a moment.
"Hmm... I need to draw this out." The information broker deftly manipulated the menus and opened up a drawing pad. With a single finger she began to trace the layouts of the formations that she had encountered thus far. It was rather remarkable considering that she was drawing a birds-eye view of the entire mountaintop from just memory.
"There's a few structures here... and there," Sinon added as she pointed to a few missed spots on the drawing.
"Thanks, Sinonon~" Argo quickly filled it in, trusting Sinon to have better eyes when it came to scouting an area.
The group stood around their rogue, looking at the detailed map in an attempt at finding something.
"Doesn't look like anything to me." Kirito frowned.
"I just see rocks," Lisbeth muttered.
Argo held up a hand, deep in thought. "Maybe..."
She selected a new colour from the pallette and began to trace a line connecting through the rocky formations. It was shaping up to be a symbol of some sort, but not any that a regular person would have recognized. Fortunately, Argo seemed to have found a match.
"This is the Dwarven rune meaning 'to seal'." She smirked and then pointed to a gap along the lines. "Except it is missing a dot here. Care to guess where our door is?"
Kirito shook his head in amazement. "Good job, Argo."
The rest of the girls shared his sentiment and they quickly moved towards the spot indicated on the makeshift map. They should have known that Argo would have memorized the Dwarven alphabet by now. It most likely would have taken a normal group hours or days of pouring over Dwarvish text to have made the connection, and that's if they managed to conclude that the rocky structures were in the shape of a rune.
The missing spot took shape in a small clearing where there were scant vegetation. Upon closer inspection the clearing was unnaturally circular, but it would have been easily missed if one was not paying attention. There were no obvious signs of a door, but they all had a good feeling given its unique shape.
"Here!" Silica shouted, crouching down and pointing to a spot on the ground.
Everyone crowded around her and found what appeared to be scratches in the stony floor. It was clearly another set of runes, and Argo quickly used her hands to smooth over the dirt to unveil the entirety of the message. "Great job Silica-chi~"
Kirito crouched down as well, looking for a sign of a keyhole or any other sort of trigger. "Any clues in that message? I'm not seeing a keyhole."
"The gate lies sealed by the flow of life," Argo answered happily. "Another riddle!"
He fought the urge to make a remark, and instead tried to think about the riddle. "I don't suppose you already know the answer to this one?" he asked hopefully.
"Nope," was the quick answer. Argo stuck out her tongue at him. "It's your turn now Ki-bou. I can't be doing all of the heavy lifting ya know?"
Kirito rolled his eyes. "Girls?"
Silica held her head in her hands. "Umm... I've never been good with riddles."
"I don't see any sort of seal," Lisbeth added, standing up and stretching before taking another look around. The clearing was free of anything out of the ordinary.
"Looks like we have to find a way to unseal the gate." Asuna smiled. "This is fun."
"You always did like puzzles," Kirito said with a grin. She was always a big participant during their game nights. He looked forward to the day where they could play the full selection of games; Sword Art Online had a rather dismal selection of board games.
"I think there is some sort of activation trigger," Sinon said, standing in a classic thinking pose with her hand under her chin. "The flow of life..."
"Life... HP?" Kirito asked quietly.
With a shrug, Argo took out a health potion and uncapped it. She winced as she began wastefully pouring it over the runes inscribed onto the floor, but consoled herself as she knew that it was a medium grade potion.
They all watched with their breathes held as the red liquid of life settled around the inscriptions and... did nothing. It was rapidly evaporating as they continued watching, and looking around the clearing revealed no change.
"It was a good guess," Asuna said. "Something that flows and brings life."
They mused over her words, all of them connecting with it but unable to form the connection immediately.
"Isn't that water?" Silica suddenly said.
Argo clapped her hands together. "Of course!"
Kirito chuckled. "That would make sense."
In SAO, you did not experience thirst in the same way as in reality. Here it was reduced to a nagging sensation rather than a crippling feeling after a few days without. It was easy to forget how essential it was to life.
It was Asuna who took out a water bottle and began pouring the liquid onto the floor, and this time the result was immediate. The water flowed in a pattern as it touched the stony clearing, revealing a path cut into the stone. Wherever the liquid touched, more of the path was revealed.
"We're going to need more water," Lisbeth pointed out as Asuna emptied the entire bottle. "Asuna?"
She smiled. "I have a few stacks in my inventory."
Their rapier-user materialized an entire stack onto the ground and they all began to pour water onto the ground. They had been lucky that Asuna always came prepared — perhaps overly so — as it meant that they did not have to make another trip up the mountain.
The water continued to flow, and the path that was unveiled showed them where to pour. With the six of them, they made short work of it, and as the last path was connected together, there was a flash of blue and a pinging sound indicating a UI message.
«Dungeon Entrance Found: The Ancient Mines»
They had to quickly move out of the way as the floor began to rumble and break apart. At first it was a small stone jutting through the middle of the clearing, then it began to rise, taking all of the space inside of the clearing. They waited patiently for the shifting and rising to stop, and was rewarded with the sight of an enormous stone structure, riddled with runic inscriptions. At the base, was a set of golden doors.
"Good call, Silica," Kirito complimented, ruffling her hair affectionately. The others did the same much to her consternation.
The double doors were not enormous as one might have suspected it to be, being of average size for an adult. As Argo approached the door, key in hand, they were surprised as the door began to open up and the key began to vanish. Ominously, they were rewarded with the sight of pure darkness. With the light granted by the outside, they could see a set of stairs leading downwards.
"Everyone ready?" Kirito asked. Seeing their nods, he added, "Good, I'll take point. Stay close with weapons at the ready. Remember to call out anything you see that sticks out."
By this point they were all veterans of dungeon crawling — perhaps the most experienced in the game. But Kirito never failed to remind them to remain cautious and to look out for each other. The girls nodded firmly, all traces of the casualness vanishing as they began to settle into their roles. It was no longer simply a gathering of friends on a quest. It was the strongest party in the game.
Of course, that didn't mean that they were completely serious as they descended into the darkness of the mine.
The girls shouted as a bright light blinded them, the source of which became obvious as their eyes adjusted to the sudden illumination. Although torches were a staple item available from most general stores, advanced players preferred «Light Orbs» that were available from the Elven levels. These useful items provided an extremely bright light akin to an LED light bulb and could hover above you for up to ten minutes. Though relatively expensive, the ability to free your hand was worth its weight in col.
"Sorry about that," Kirito said with a boyish grin, the look of pure unrepentance. He couldn't resist playfully blinding them all as he brought out the light.
Lisbeth poked him in the back with the end of her mace. "That was incredibly rude, Kirito-kun!"
"Think of it as a learning experience," Kirito replied sagely. "You never know when something like that might be used as a distraction."
"That could only work in a dark environment, Kirito." Sinon deadpanned.
The girls all chided him with smiles, and they continued to bicker and make small talk as they descended deeper into the mine. Though they continued to talk, they all had their weapons at the ready and could scatter into formation at any moment.
There was a steep incline to the corridors that they walked through, and it was clear that they were rapidly descending into the mountain. The walls were smooth red stone, Dwarven made and seemingly untouched by the ravages of time. Though there were no indications of life — monsters or otherwise — it was clear that it had been in use at one point.
Torches aligned the walls, but they were not lit, as it had been hundreds of years since anyone had ventured through. But despite the age of the walls, they were pristine. No cracks or cobwebs could be seen in any corner, and it was eerily smooth despite the age of the place. It was as if every stone had been carved yesterday.
"I see an opening up ahead," Kirito called out as the vanguard. "Be ready."
The party moved as one behind their leader, watching for any signs of movement. Pina was still silently observing from its position atop of Silica's head, and that brought them cautious relief as they all exited the long corridor and into the new room.
Enormous. No, it was beyond that simple description. It was endlessly huge, a cavern that swallowed up your vision in its immensity. There were pillars evenly placed along the center, and its height was such that you could barely see the ceiling. At the edges of the cavern were buildings, of the same make and style of the City of Dwarves.
It was silent and dark.
Despite being a cavern of unparallelled size, it was unnaturally quiet. They could not feel the wind, nor hear it. Such a hollow would no doubt alter the currents and introduce its own unique weather system, but that was not the case here.
"I don't like this," Asuna muttered, her voice was quiet but it seemed to echo throughout.
Kirito's trained eyes swept through the cavern looking for a sign of some sort, but found none. The orb of light casting its glow around them provided them with ample luminance, but could not illuminate the entirety of the hollow cavern.
"This must have been the residential area of the city," Argo explained, gesturing to the buildings at the edges of their vision. "It was never completed so it did not have a name yet."
"I think we should skip the buildings." Sinon was unnerved by the sight of them. They were pristine and beautifully built, but the contrast of pure nothingness that surrounded them made her cautious.
"If we go down the center it should lead us into the mines."
The center meant in between the vast pillars that held up the cavern, and it was as good of a path as they were going to get. A few more «Light Orbs» were activated and sent to hover above the group as they traversed into the darkness. It gave them several meters of additional sight, a welcome addition given the depth of darkness that awaited them.
"This place is so creepy," Lisbeth muttered.
"Scared of the dark, Lis-chi?" Argo snickered.
"Actually yes," she answered without hesitation. "Usually we have some ambient light..."
Kirito nodded. "True darkness is pretty rare." He knew from experience that even the dingiest dungeons were typically lit with torches or other light sources.
"It feels like everything is... muted." Sinon gripped her spear tightly as they continued on. "The lack of sound, even our own footsteps..."
Her words only added to the spread of nervousness amongst the girls. At least some of them.
"Ma~ It's not so bad." Argo had her hands entwined leisurely behind her head, and was walking without a care in the world. "I like the theme of it all. Mysterious dungeon, dead mines—kind of like a movie you know?"
Kirito chuckled as the rest of the girls deadpanned. "I kind of see where you're coming from."
"Not you too, Kirito-kun," Asuna said with a sigh. "Come on, let's just get out of the open. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think I prefer the cramped hallways over this."
"Yea it feels too open. Almost as if we are being watched."
"Don't say that, Lis!"
Surprisingly, Silica was doing better than most of her older party members and was strolling beside Kirito without much concern. The little shield user decided to add to the discussion with her own opinion. "It does feel like there's something out there."
They had been walking for several minutes already, and could not see an end in sight. It was almost as if the pillars continued forever, or perhaps that they were walking in circles despite the fact that it was a straight path. They remained steadfast however, and continued their careful pace.
Kirito held up a hand, and the party responded. They halted and got into position behind him, covering their blind spots and spreading out so as to not get into each other's way. "I see movement."
Pina trilled loudly above them, making a circle before landing atop of Silica's head. The dragon's warning was all they needed to confirm their leader's words.
"How many?" Asuna whispered beside him.
"One second," Kirito said, before utilizing his maxed out «Scan» skill. There was a few seconds of channeling time before a pulse of blue was released from his person — only visible to himself. A screen materialized before him giving him a window into all of the possible units near the party. In the center of the screen were green dots that signified the girls and himself, and in front of them was a littering of grey dots that appeared to be growing in clusters.
Kirito relaxed ever so slightly, brandishing his swords with a practiced motion. "Several dozen enemies ahead — and growing — but they're low-levelled."
The girls nodded their heads in understanding. «Scan» was extremely helpful even if it could only provide them with information on units and not the environment. The grey colouring meant that the mobs ahead were well below them in levels. Red would mean monsters of comparable levels, and black meant it was above them.
"What are we dealing with?" Sinon asked from his left, her spear at the ready and her eyes narrowed. "We're likely to be surrounded in the open like this."
Argo hummed in agreement. "If the mob count is increasing... a summoner type?"
Kirito nodded, his eyes peering into the dark and could barely make out the dim outlines of the mobs. "Wait until we can see them. There are some problematic minion mobs on this floor, so we need to know for sure."
Summoners were rather crafty mobs in the best of cases, and in the worst case, could be utterly unfair. Minions were expendable mobs, but that didn't mean that they could not pack a punch. One particular field boss had been a Slime Summoner, which had led to many of them thinking that it was going to be a walk in the park. It was, at least until it started summoning «Explosion Slimes» en mass.
As the swarm of monsters got near enough to their light orbs, their skeletal figures were unveiled.
"Are you kidding me?"
"Uhg." Argo pouted. "What are we supposed to do with these?"
Kirito smiled, and relaxed further as the swarm of skeletal mobs began to surround them, their tattered rags and red eyes a telltale sign as to what they were. "Undead Goblins, huh?"
The undead types were considered fodder for the most part. Their defenses were non-existent, and their AI elementary at best. The only scary undead were those that had intelligence or those who had magic abilities. But there was another, more compelling, reason that most players ignored undead mobs unless they needed to.
"We're definitely not getting any good drops from the mobs in here..." Lisbeth said with a sigh, knowing that they would get nothing from defeating these skeletal mobs.
"I suppose the necromancers might be a worthy kill," Kirito said, looking past the swarming skeletal mobs and into the darkness. "They must be near the back."
Argo shrugged. "Not likely, if its a goblin-type necromancer, the loot table will be set accordingly."
"Right," Kirito nodded and immediately decided on their next course of action. In SAO, the cautious way was the safest way to play. But it was unneeded when he had a full grasp of the situation. He knew exactly what the enemy could do, and exactly what his party could do. Thus, the conclusion was obvious. "We're going straight past them and going for the summoners. I will take point, Sinon, Asuna with me. Argo, Lisbeth, Silica behind us. Don't worry about clearing stragglers unless they become an issue. Use your sword skills sparingly, and call if you need help."
His orders were precise and to the point, and the rest of the party answered in kind.
"Understood!" Five sets of voices called out, and Kirito could only smile inwardly as they got ready in an instant.
Then, he dashed forward, swords at the ready as he came upon the horde in a flash. He swung left, then right, a criss-crossed slash that cut through a pair of undead goblins with each swing. His mind barely registered their demise as they evaporated into light, only acknowledging that his targets were dead and to move onto the next one. He continued forward, his swords a whirlwind in his hands as he carved a path through the mass of undead, leaving destruction in his wake. But however fast his clearing speed was, it could not keep up with the mass of undead that filled in to take over for their defeated brethren.
Fortunately, he was not alone, as Asuna and Sinon quickly filled the gaps in his path, each of them dispatching the mobs as they tried to fill the void. Sinon was a blur with her spear, destroying goblins in a wide radius around her with expert precision. Asuna, true to her nickname, was a flash, and her rapier was almost invisible as she unleashed a flurry of thrusts on anything that moved.
The rest of the party followed closely behind, with Argo leading Silica and Lisbeth. Their only claw user had been assigned the role of clean up; she quickly took out any stragglers that remained behind. Their two slowest members were not slacking either, as they filled their support roles by helping with the stragglers and keeping their eyes out on any potential problems given their better positioning.
Only minutes into battle, and they had cleared their way well into the midst of the horde and were now surrounded on all sides. Kirito was almost on autopilot as he cleared swaths of undead goblins in front of him. He had only been scratched once by a spear, but the damage was not even felt due to the difference in their levels and equipment. The only danger to them would be being swarmed and attacked on all sides at once, and they were too well trained for that to happen.
"Argo! Do you see it?" Kirito shouted, his voice cutting through the sounds of battle.
Argo grunted as she dodged an axe from a goblin, kicking the mob away with a flourish and ending its life with an expertly thrown needle. "Nope!" She took a moment to scan their surroundings while Lisbeth and Silica took over for her.
"Wait, I see it!" Asuna called out, grabbing their attention. "To the right, by the pillar!"
They all turned towards the pillar in question and saw the cloaked figure immediately. Gleaming red eyes peaked under rags of grey. Skeletal hands held a wooden staff glistening with chaotic energy; it was obvious that the entity was the necromancer that they were looking for. Even as they spoke, a dozen more undead goblins rose from the floor at a gesture from the being's undead hands.
"We'll have to clear a path-unless, Sinon!"
Kirito did not have to say anything else as Sinon caught on to his command. "On it!"
The lithe white-haired girl did not hesitate as she jumped high into the air, using her considerable stats combined with her light-weight gear to great effect. At the apex of her jump she turned her body around, and with one smooth action, activated «Weapon Throw». A red glow surrounded her spear and soon it turned into a red blur as her spear hurled through the air like an arrow, closing the distance towards her target in an instant.
There was a guttural roar that came from the necromancer as it was pierced by the golden spear. It did not perish however, and continued to wail as it was stuck to the pillar courtesy of the weapon going through its chest and into the stone of the pillar.
"Damn," Sinon muttered, taking out a couple of undead goblins nearing her with throwing knives. Her legendary spear would materialize back to her hands in a few moments, but it was likely that the necromancer would fully heal by that time. "I missed the head."
"No, you did enough, Sinon-chan," Lisbeth said as she moved closer to cover for her weaponless party member.
Sinon did not need to ask for clarification as she saw a sight that awed her. Kirito imitated her previous jump, their stats and build being similar enough to do so, but he did not plan on using a ranged attack. A split second after he jumped, another figure followed, almost leaping into his arms given the distance. There was a small, intimate moment, where Asuna stared deeply into the eyes of Kirito as they met in the air, but then time resumed and Kirito deftly took her hands into his own and spun them around.
Asuna was launched forward and did not stumble in the slightest as she prepared a sword skill in midair, her rapier glowing in blue light. The highly accelerated thrust was aimed true and the necromancer goblin did not even have time to register its own destruction before it exploded into a million pieces. And, for a moment, there was no movement from anyone in the cavern, before all of the undead goblins nearest to them began to fall, as if their strings had been cut from above.
"Wow! That was amazing!"
They all ran up to Asuna with smiles and praise. Their chestnut-haired beauty took it in stride with a slight blush on her face.
"Good job, Asuna," Kirito said with a wide grin, receiving a bigger blush in return. "And great throw, Sinon. It stopped his annoying healing abilities long enough to let us finish him off."
"It was a good thing we ended that quick, they were coming back like crazy," Lisbeth said with relief.
"Yep, seemed like the summon speed increased as we got closer to the necromancer," Argo added with a shrug. "It also appeared to revive the recently slain faster than it could summon. The ideal strategy seems to be corralling the mobs away from the necromancer while someone takes him out."
"Good thing we don't have to do that." Kirito looked around at the darkness encroaching upon them. He doubted any of them would have fun trying to wrangle away undead mobs in the dark. "Anyway, let's continue and—"
There was movement in the edges of their vision, and they all turned to see several flashes of light indicating summoning. One by one the undead goblin mobs that they had cleared away were being revived once more.
"Oh you gotta be kidding me." Kirito palmed his face, "Alright if it's just another necromancer then..."
"Kirito-kun, look over there," Asuna said, pointing a finger at the edge of the pillars.
"Kiri-bou... is that..." Argo couldn't believe her eyes either.
"There's three of them!" Silica shouted and they all turned to one another.
This time, the cloaked figures were immediately noticed and their skeletal hands continued to move, with each movement bringing along the sound and sight of summoning. The hoard that had been defeated was now coming back with numbers to spare.
Kirito looked at them all with a serious expression on his face. He was not scared, not really, they all had their crystals ready in their quick-access pouches, and it wasn't as if the undead goblins could harm them. It was just the fact that they would have to spend an incredibly tedious amount of time dealing with three times the undead horde that they had already vanquished.
"Run for it?" He suggested with chagrin. They stared back, then nodded.
"This had better be worth it," Lisbeth muttered as they settled down near the doors to what had to be the boss room.
Several hours into their dungeon crawling, and they had all encountered enough undead goblins to last a lifetime. After the attempted ambush by the horde of undead in the pillar room, things had quieted down for the most part. It was a series of winding stairs that led down into the depths of the abandoned mine with each level being uniquely designed. Each level had undead goblins of some sort: warriors, mages, and necromancers abound.
It had not been fun.
"I thought it was pretty fun," Argo said with a grin, casually stretching as they all sat down against the wall.
"You just liked the riddles." Kirito patted her head as she leaned against his left shoulder.
Argo shrugged, not denying it. Indeed, every five floors had unique riddles that had to be solved before the door to the next level would appear. Fortunately, Argo had made short work of the puzzles, all of them being related to ancient dwarvish folktales.
"Well, I did like the cart ride down, that was so fun!" Argo added with a sparkle in her eye.
Silica groaned. "That was not fun at all."
"But we all got to squeeze next to Kiri-bou." Argo winked at the rest of the girls. "I'm pretty sure none of you were complaining."
Kirito made a point of not commenting as they all blushed and tried not to look his way. One of the levels had forced them to use an old abandoned mine cart to traverse down. It had been made for dwarves, not humans, and the size was clearly evident of that fact. To say it was a tight fit was an understatement, not that the party of six minded. Somehow Kirito had ended up at the bottom of a mass of soft, warm, and supple bodies that all seemed to want to grip onto him.
It was rather nice, he thought to himself. If he was being honest, he could hardly remember the ride itself, as his mind was more preoccupied with the sensations that were pressing all around him.
Asuna was rather nonplussed about the comment, though she did have a tinge of pink on her pristine face as she leaned against Kirito's right. Navigating her equipment screen, she chose a couple of items to materialize before handing them out to her party. It was an assortment of snacks and drinks that she had prepared earlier in the day; onigiri, sandwiches, and bottled tea.
"Thanks, Asuna," Kirito said with a smile, happily taking the onigiri and tea, wasting no time before he bit into it. "Ish... zish... salmon?" he asked in between bites.
"Don't speak while chewing, Kirito-kun!" Asuna chided with one stern finger in the air, waiting for Kirito to swallow before answering, "And yes, it is. I finally got the ratio down."
He chuckled before taking another bite. Asuna was always a perfectionist when it came to her cooking. It was not acceptable to be 'good enough' compared to the real thing; it had to be equivalent or better. More often than not, Asuna's creations exceeded the original. He often wondered how her cooking would taste back in the other world.
"What are you doing, Argo?" he asked as he noticed the mousy girl tinkering with her menu, seemingly materializing something in front of her.
"Starting a fire, Kiri-bou," she answered matter-of-factly. There was now a small stack of wooden logs in front of her. She carefully placed them away from them, getting on her hands and knees as she set the logs against one another.
"A bonfire?" Sinon crouched down near it and smiled. "Isn't it kind of odd to have one in the middle of a dungeon?"
"Mah~ That's the perfect time to have one. It's like the resting point before a giant boss fight. This is where we save our progress and sort out our equipment."
They all laughed at her eagerness.
"True enough, this would be a prime save point." Kirito smiled, remembering all of the games that he had been enamoured with prior to Sword Art Online. He didn't need to remind any of them, however, that there were no such things as save points in their current situation.
"You still got that flint and charcoal, Kiri-bou?" Argo knew that he always carried a pair due to his obsession with hunting.
"Yep." Kirito slowly got up from where he was all but cuddling with Asuna and brought out the firestarter kit.
"Excellent!" Argo clapped excitedly as the bonfire was lit, a roaring blaze that was bigger than it should've been given the small amount of firewood that she had stacked. "Let's go get some stuff to sit on — I spotted some rocks near where we entered."
"Argo you're too much..." Lisbeth muttered, but still got up nevertheless. She brushed away imaginary dirt while sending the mousy girl a look. "Do we really have time to have a campfire?"
The aforementioned girl stretched lazily, before giving them a smirk. "Did I mention I have giant marshmallows?"
"We're on it."
Suddenly Asuna, Lisbeth, and Silica were all up and walking after Argo as she led them back where they came from. Sinon and Kirito watched them with amusement.
"Not much of a roasted marshmallow fan, Sinon?"
"I don't believe I've ever said that," she replied blithely, choosing to close the distance before sliding down the wall to sit beside him. "You'd have to be weird to not enjoy marshmallows... though I've never had any roasted on a campfire."
Kirito hummed in agreement. "It is rather amazing."
"I always knew you had a hidden sweet tooth," she said accusingly, a smile hidden from her expression.
"Hey, I don't have a hidden sweet tooth — I definitely enjoy my share of dessert."
"Hmm... you always seem to restrain yourself when it comes to sweets. Are you trying to compensate for something, Kirito-kun?" Her violet eyes glimmered in the flickering light of the fire. "It's not girly to love sweets you know."
He frowned at her. "I have restraint."
She giggled. "You think I don't know what you get up to when you think all of us are asleep? Fridges in the game might be glorified chests but it's pretty easy to track who takes what."
Kirito looked away, suddenly finding the ceilings of the hall far more interesting than the pretty girl beside him. "I don't know what you mean. It could have been any of you girls given your chocolate intake."
"That's pretty rude of you to say, besides I'm pretty sure only you and Lisbeth liked that chocolate espresso cake." Sinon smirked. "It was gone the next morning, are you saying Lisbeth ate the other half while we were all asleep?"
He nodded sagely. "She has a problem."
"Right, I'll let her know you are worried about her," Sinon stated matter-of-factly.
He was silent for a moment before turning back to her with his hands raised in mock surrender. "Okay fine you win. It was me. Coffee cakes are my weakness."
The swordsman had said it with such seriousness that Sinon could only laugh in response; loudly and unrestrained as she clutched at her sides. The sight was rare — for those outside of their group had only seen Sinon as a quiet, almost muted individual bereft of emotion. Yet here she was, laughing without a care in the world. Kirito could only smile, remembering how morose the girl had been only a few months ago.
Her laughter fading, the two of them stared silently into the roaring fire, enjoying each other's silence. Sinon has always been quieter than most, even after she had warmed up to him. But it was no longer a silence that was uncomfortable.
"You're warm, Kirito," Sinon murmured aloud. Their shoulders were touching as she turned her head to glance at him. He had rather delicate locks, she thought, as she took in his puzzled expression.
"You are all very warm," she continued. "I... haven't felt this way in a long time."
"It is scary, you know? How much I've come to rely on you — and the others. How I can still look forward to every day in this world." Her voice was strangely melancholic.
"It is," he agreed quietly. "We all rely on each other." That he knew without a doubt.
"And that is what scares me so... it shouldn't work, Kirito-kun, at least, not as well as it is. We're all just a bunch of teenagers surviving in a death game."
Kirito shook his head. "Maybe in the beginning. We are survivors of course, but I like to think we've moved on from that." He reached out and gently took her left hand with his right, giving it a squeeze. "We're living. We are alive."
Sinon trembled slightly, but took strength from his touch. It was a vulnerable side of her that she never showed anyone — except for the boy next to her. It was the sight of a girl plagued by trauma. Of a girl so beaten down by the world that it was a wonder that she was still functioning.
The famed spear user was always calm and collective in every situation, but that was an image for the public. She had learned long ago that weakness would be exploited, and that there was no help except from anyone except yourself.
Yet the boy with clear onyx eyes proved that wrong. He had become a part of her strength.
She squeezed his hand back, then nodded firmly. "Agreed."
Kirito had always known that Sinon was vulnerable. Anyone with her type of history and experience should have been worse off. But she had a sort of strength that frequently astounded him.
She was beyond solid in battle, never wavering nor panicking — a fact that even most veterans of the game could not boast. From afar, Sinon was infallible and strong.
But Kirito noticed the little things that she hid from the public. The tremors before a battle, the eyes of pure fear before a boss, briefly before it was pushed away and her resolve steeling. After battles, it was the subtle shaking and unsettledness of one that did not deal well with adrenaline. Sinon had fear aplenty... but she also had courage few could match.
He admired her greatly.
"Whatever happens, Sinon, I will always have your back," he promised in a whisper.
Sinon had never believed in promises, for they were often empty and pointless. Her father had promised to take her fishing right before he died. Her mother had promised to love her forever and ever, before her hands had killed a man in self defense. Her grandmother had promised that her mother would get better. Her two precious comrades had promised that they would all make it out of the game alive shortly before their deaths.
No, she had enough of promises... yet as she looked into his eyes, she felt herself once more, back to a time where she could believe. Where reality had not come crashing down on her. Where she had hope.
"Thank you," she whispered, and smiled radiantly.
After a long and exciting roasted marshmallow break — in which very little eating compared to throwing got done — the last boss was finally on the party's menu. Countless floors, traps, puzzles, and riddles had led them down further and further into the abyss of the abandoned mines.
And at the end of their journey, a most grotesque boss awaited them. Yet it did not phase them in the slightest.
"Left! He's in his summoning phase." Kirito's shout and warning carried far in the giant cavern, and the group of six quickly cleared the area, moving towards the right.
There was a guttural roar, somehow muddied and deep, coming from the enormous abomination within the chamber. The boss was truly a sight to behold. A greenish-grey blob from afar, but as you got closer, you noticed that it was not a singular thing. It's entire body was an amalgamation of parts: human, goblin, or otherwise. It had a sort of head — if you could call something with three misshapen eyes and half of a mouth a head.
«The Corpse King»
It was a considerable foe, stacked to the brim with special abilities and debilitating afflictions. Poison, paralytics, and burns. It could heal by consuming nearby corpses, summon minions straight out of its body, and as each hp bar was depleted, it triggered a mass summoning phase. It was clearly a boss designed to put a halt to any overeager party. But this was no ordinary party.
"I think that one eye is looking at you funny," Argo said cheekily, lazily stretching even as they awaited the completion of the phase.
Kirito smirked. "I think that one tentacle is looking at you funny."
"Ooh, you'd like that wouldn't you. How do we know it's not looking at you?"
"I'm not its type."
Argo giggled. "That's rude, Kiri-bou, you can't just assume its preferences."
Asuna sighed, though her lips quirked ever-so-slightly. "Can we move away from this topic... immediately?"
"Thirty seconds," Sinon called out.
The party remained at the ready, even as they conversed.
"I don't like this topic," Silica said with a pout. She regretted opening her mouth when everyone turned to give her a pitiable look. "It was just that one time!"
Lilibet laughed, leaning lazily against her mace. "I almost forgot about that, Silica-chan."
Kirito smiled even as he gestured for them to fall in around him. "Same as before, kill the summons first while Silica grabs its attention, call out anything you see."
The reason why the party of six were relaxed to the point where they could joke and laugh during a raid could be clearly seen with their next actions. There were many rumours surrounding the Swords and their prowess. Each individual within that party was considered exceptional — the best of the best even — but it was not enough to be the best solo player in Sword Art Online. Not when it came to raids.
There was a common thought that you could simply put the best players and equipment together into one party and succeed. That was not the case, as demonstrated by several other parties and guilds. Teamwork mattered far more than individual skill when it came to boss battles. It was life and death, to put it simply. In a battle where a single mistake could get you or your comrades killed, tensions were high and mistakes were critical.
Parties often disbanded after a single point of failure, the members no longer being able to trust each other. And it was that trust that was essential — required to be exact — to succeed in this world. You had to be able to trust each individual party member with your life. There could be no hesitation in the heat of battle. A person calling for a "switch" cannot be answered with silence, and the opposite was true: calling out for action had to be answered immediately.
Lisbeth took Silica's place immediately, activating a strong ground pound sword skill, shocking the boss for a few critical seconds and allowing their tank player to adjust her positioning away from the mob of summons.
Asuna and Argo answered her call, sweeping in to clear the area of the summons, giving their two-handed wielder room to recover and ready another skill for the boss. Mace skills had great crowd-control ability in general, but it was their effect on bosses that was highly coveted. With expert precision, Lisbeth aimed high and true, her mace coming down right onto the glowing red eye that had been preparing a spell.
The boss was interrupted and dazed; it was completely open without any fear of reprisal. Kirito and Sinon immediately reacted, dashing towards the mountainous abomination with haste. The dual-swords user and the spear user attacked at the same time, unleashing their strongest sword skills in a flash of vibrant lights, damaging the boss enormously.
The cooldown period — in which the player could not move at all — as the cost of their attack went away quickly and without a response from the boss. Their timing had been perfect, leaving just enough time to leap away as the abomination recovered and began to attack once more.
Silica jumped back in to take the brunt of the boss' attacks. Her shield — glittering emerald and round — took the spray of green poison without pause, and the smallest member of their party did not hesitate as she slashed with her short sword, aiming for the stubby parts of the thing's legs.
It roared, stumbled, and fell. Immediately, a greyish green aura began to emit from the enormous abomination, and the fallen corpses of its summons began to rise once more.
"One more phase to go, head right!"
Kirito led his party away from the mass of moving bodies, carefully positioning them in a spot that would allow them to enter the fray more easily after the summoning period was over. The short time period between phases could have easily contributed to panic and chaos in any party that struggled or were unprepared.
They were prepared.
Or that is to say, they were always prepared.
Kirito was confident in his party — his closest friends — who had stuck by him against all odds. But he was not overly so. To be overconfident and reckless in this world was a quick way to die. There were more than enough stories about parties suffering fatalities from complacency. Bosses did not follow the same set of phases every time, they were subject to RNG just as any other element in the game.
That was why Kirito was always observing and adapting. Each encounter was carefully approached in a manner that allowed them to disengage and readjust as needed. Any difficulties or points of contention were quickly identified and addressed as needed. He would not shy away from disengaging from the encounter if they could not handle it systematically. Teleport crystals were ready at a moment's notice on each of their quick-access pouches.
In each new encounter, their roles could not remain static. Silica could not always be the frontline tank. Argo, Asuna, and Sinon could not always attack in the same manner. Lisbeth's role was critical depending on the encounter. He could not always lead the charge. His role required patience above all.
Through countless encounters and experiences battling, surviving, and persevering, they had all learned what they needed to succeed. They had complete trust in his decisions, and in each other. It was that trust that allowed Kirito to lead them without missteps.
Like water, liquid and flowing, the «Royal Swords» adapted to the situation as needed.
"I'm kind of hungry," Kirito admitted.
"You are such a glutton, Kirito-kun," Asuna said with an affectionate smile. "Were the sandwiches and marshmallows not enough?"
"To be fair, we kind of threw most of them at each other," Argo said with a shrug. "Me at Ki-bou to be honest." She stuck out her tongue at him at his mock-glare.
"How can you think about food after looking at that..." Lisbeth shuddered at the pulsing mass of dead flesh and other body parts in the center of the chamber.
Kirito shrugged. "I've seen worse. Remember the bug level?"
Four sets of eyes turned to stare at him balefully, while Sinon raised an eyebrow. "Is there a story here?"
"We do not talk about the bug level!"
He laughed and raised his hands in surrender. "Alright alright, twenty seconds out. Same as before, minions first, then the boss."
They immediately got into position, traces of humour lingering on their faces even as they wielded their weapons. Seriousness was a necessity in the face of death. The vast majority of parties would scold you or even kick you out for joking around during a boss encounter. But humour served an important, almost critical, role in Aincrad.
Their current reality told them that every battle was a fight to the death. Each pixel of HP lost was akin to losing your life's blood. Fear, depression, agony, and horror. There were plenty of negative emotions to go around.
For the Swords, however, humour was just one of many ways in which they kept their hopes — and their sanity — up. They would not have it any other way.
The trek down the mountain was surprisingly less arduous than the way in which they came up. The dungeon exit was somewhere around the middle of the tremendous structure, unveiling a secret trail that nobody could have discovered on their own. Even if one had discovered the trail, they would have been greeted with the solid stone of the mountainside rather than the stone doors that slowly sank back into its hidden position.
Kirito barely remembered the journey down, more preoccupied with holding in his yawns as the glow of the waning afternoon sun slowly descended down their backs. The raid had been a total success — not that any of them expected anything else — and the rewards had been worth it. Mostly.
Lisbeth grumbled something ineligible behind him, and he couldn't help but smile. "Liz…"
"Are you still angry Lis-chi?" Argo yawned loudly before elbowing their blacksmith on the side.
"Of course I am!" The pinkette shouted, her hands clenching at her hair. "How dare they tease us like that, and after all of our hard work!"
"Ehh, you didn't really expect them to give us an entire rooms full of mithril bars?" Argo said offhandedly.
Indeed, at the end of the long boss fight, and after the extremely disappointing drops that they had been rewarded with, they were all ready to head home with their hands empty. Until they reached the treasure room, in which lay a trove that they could hardly comprehend. Gold stacked to the ceiling in coins, bars, weapons, armour — even cutlery. Gems of all types and colours; diamonds, ruby, sapphire, and even mythic class starlight gems.
It was enough to crash the entire games economy multiple times over.
Which was of course, the reason why they couldn't take any of it. The reason, if you paid attention to the lore behind the quest, was that all of the treasure in that room was cursed and would bring terrible bad luck to all those who partook of its spoils. It was a last-ditch attempt by the dwarves who had been overrun by their ancient enemies.
"Ah… I wanted that sword," Kirito added with a far-away look, remembering the glimmering longsword made of some sort of twilight crystal. He had been tempted to touch it if the girls hadn't pried him away from the room after learning of the curse.
Lisbeth rolled her eyes. "Boys and their swords." She crossed her arms in annoyance. "If we had gotten the gems and bars from that room I could've made something better."
"But it was shiny…." Kirito could tell from a glance that it was a sword that had few equals, and that it was perhaps better than his limited-edition Elucidator. "What if that was Excalibur?"
Sinon smiled from the front of their group. "I think that's the wrong mythos, Kirito-kun. No Lady of the Lake here."
He shrugged, or tried his best at shrugging given the fact that there was the weight of a person on his back. The package — commonly known as Silica — shifted slightly as she slept comfortably on his back as he did his best to support her. Her head was resting peacefully on the crook of his neck, and she mumbled slightly in her sleep.
It was an adorable sight — and many pictures were taken despite his protests. Not that any of them could fault their youngest member from sleeping, as they all felt the exhaustion seep in from a long day's adventure. A few particularly envious looks however, were sent in his direction.
"Well it's not like we walked out empty," Asuna added, "I think we came out quite ahead, right Argo-chan?"
"Right, Ai-chan! You know if we sold our rewards we could get…" Her brows furrowed ever so slightly as she did quick mental calculations. "Well, honestly there's not really a market for mithril bars, but we could probably make enough to buy another house."
Kirito grinned. "Ah, but what if we had the skill of the best blacksmith in the game to turn those bars into equipment?"
Argo smirked. "Now we're talking. I've always wanted a castle ya know?"
Lisbeth pouted. "Only one mithril bar apiece though… weapons need at least two."
Their reward, after painfully exiting the treasure room, had been the dormant furnace room. There, another mountain of a different sort of treasure awaited them. Mithril. Stacked to the ceiling in its unrefined state, and a cartful of bars, worth several times their weight in gold, was kept near the back. Unfortunately however, the item limit seemed to be set at one. Much to their consternation.
The reason was simple: the rarity of the item and its special class meant that you could only have one in your inventory at a time. Players only ever had contact with mithril ores — which were a S-rank drop on their own — so it made sense that the bars would be on another tier of rarity. More probable however, was the simple fact that the developers did not want the economy to break.
"That's fine, I can think of several upgrades we could all use aside from weapons," Kirito said. "Our gear progression has been painfully slow recently."
"Mm, and it's not like we need the money," Argo added, "even with our members keeping an eye out at the market, we can rarely find any upgrades. So turning the bars into equipment is probably the best way to use them."
It was hard for players who were at the top in terms of levels, experience, and equipment to find upgrades in any way. Most of the time, gear that would be better for them came from floor bosses or extremely rare drops. Crafting was the best option for them if they could gather S-rank material, of which mithril certainly was.
"Plus we can also just sell the quest information we have."
Lisbeth was a bit mollified at that. "How much could we sell that for anyway?"
Argo pressed her index finger to her cheek thoughtfully. "Hard to say, definitely more than what we paid for our initial information anyway."
"There's only two more blacksmiths in the city that could perhaps trigger the quest," Kirito added. "Although we don't know for sure if the same NPCs we used can trigger the quest again."
"I doubt It—that would be too generous." Argo already had several chat windows open and was typing away at considerable speed. "I'll make some arrangements, send out some feelers…"
Kirito smiled wryly at her initiative. "Try and restrict it to the top guilds, Argo. Although we did it with considerable ease, not many guilds will have you to solve the dwarven riddles for them, nor the cohesion of our own party."
"The quest is restricted to one party right?" Asuna asked thoughtfully. "That definitely makes completion rather hard for most."
"Not us though," Lisbeth added with a grin.
"Not us." Kirito agreed, sharing a smile with the pinkette.
"I'll get the twins on it, we'll keep the list of potential people small and work from there." Argo finished her rapid typing and sent in her messages before yawning loudly. "So tired…"
With the evening glow of the waning sunlight behind them, the party of six were feeling the fatigue that accompanied a long day's adventuring. Silica mumbled softly in her sleep, having already surrendered to the sweet temptations of sleep. The others tried to hide their yawns as they trudged along the path back to town, and towards the teleport gate.
"Mmm… I wish I could just use a teleport crystal right now," Asuna mumbled tiredly.
Argo sent her a sharp look. "That is precious col, Ai-chan!"
The still-awake members of the party shared some quiet laughter at her shrewdness. Their information dealer could be incredibly frugal at times, and yet excessive when it came to other things.
"Our budget could take the hit," Kirito added with a grin.
"Only if we took it out of your salary, Kiri-bou." Argo snickered.
Their leader furrowed his brows. "Wait, my salary?"
"Of course, we can't have our CEO penniless after all."
"First of all, I'm not penniless. Second of all, why do I have to be the CEO in this imaginary enterprise of ours?" Kirito could hardly see himself leading some big corporate operation. He thought that Argo or Asuna could do a much better job at that.
Argo waved away his concerns. "Because you're the leader," she said matter-of-factly. "Don't worry, you won't have to do much aside from looking pretty to the shareholders and the public."
"What is my role in this then?" Asuna asked curiously.
"COO. Chief Operations Officer," Argo answered with the same seriousness. "You'll be second in command and leading the charge in terms of executing our goals."
Sinon yawned and blinked away the sleep in her eyes as she caught wind of the interesting conversation. "What does this mystery corporation do anyway?"
"Everything, Sinon-chi, we'll be a mega conglomerate with hands in every cookie jar in Japan." Her eyes gleamed at the thought.
"Incidentally, you'll be our Chief Information Officer. Lis-chi can be our Chief Marketing Officer. Silica-chi our Chief Administrative Officer."
"Hmm, not too shabby," Lisbeth said, agreeing with her apparent role. "What's your role then?"
Argo smiled. "I'll be the Chief Financial Officer. CFO — it's a very lofty title. But that'll only be on the surface, I'll find some lackeys to do the grunt work while I work from the shadows. You know, acquisitions, blackmailing — I mean, strong-arming — competition, risk assessments, political maneuvering…"
They all stared at her with some trepidation, not even doubting her potential for one second. If Argo ever got into a business — any business — and took it half as seriously as she took care of The Swords, then her would-be competitors would be running for the hills.
"Okay fine, but you're still not convincing me about how I need to be the CEO. Asuna, you can take that position instead." Kirito raised his idea with mock-seriousness.
"Eh? No way! You have to be the leader, Kirito-kun!"
"Listen, Kiri-bou, the conglomerate won't work without you at the front! Here's five reasons why—"
And thus, their playful banter filled the comfortable silence for the rest of the way home.
The twins had already alluded to some issue at the house through the message system. That was why the group had hurried along the boardwalk towards their lake house despite their tiredness. Though they had said it wasn't urgent, none of them wanted to leave a pressing issue alone for too long.
Kirito knew from experience that the twins tried their hardest to take on as many tasks as they could in order to spare them from having to deal with any trivial matters. Any matter in which they deemed important was simply that; something that only the leadership could deal with.
The tired girls fell in line with him as they neared the doors to the house. To nobody's surprise, the double doors swung open and two maids dressed exquisitely in black and white greeted them with a short bow. The motion, practiced and in perfect sync, brought a smile to his face.
"Yo," he greeted.
"Kirito-sama, we have some guests waiting in the meeting room." Rosy, the blue-haired twin informed him promptly.
"Yuna-dono and… a guest," Lily added quietly. The black-haired beauty had a small frown as she gestured towards the house. "The matter appears to be serious, but they've refused to speak more unless you were here, Kirito-sama."
The boy in question sighed before gave them both a small smile, and couldn't help but pat them both on the head at the same time. It was rather funny how much the twins enjoyed it, leaning into his touch, almost preening.
"Good work you two, I'll go ahead and meet up with Yuna then." He fought the urge to yawn as he glanced at the rest of his girls. "You guys can settle in, it might be better if I go alone."
The girls nodded for the most part and moved past him into the foyer and up the stairs to their respective rooms. All save one.
Asuna frowned as she stepped beside him. "Have you known Yuna-chan to ever be… serious?"
He shook his head. "No, not really. Not in this manner at least."
The bright, upbeat girl, who was quickly becoming an idol inside of the game was rarely seen without a smile. Of course, she could be serious when needed and performed exceptionally well in her capacity as a squad leader. She was never one for meetings and serious discussions however.
"Then I should come with you," she said, concern evident on her face.
"Of course," he agreed.
Together the two of them made for the meeting room, near the rightmost corner of their lake house. Like the rest of the house, it had large floor-to-ceiling windows allowing copious amounts of light — and even though the skies were a dark orange, it still painted the wooden walls in a warm glow.
The room was smaller than most in the large house, but it had enough space for a round glass table and several chairs. In the centre of the room was a sofa for additional seating, and surrounding the walls were bookcases filled with books. Altogether it was a comfortable place to be in for any sort of discussion.
Two individuals were already in the room, one seated at the glass table, cup of tea forgotten as he stared out the window. The other figure was pacing around the room, seemingly restless as she seemed to be in deep thought.
Kirito shared a glance with Asuna before lightly knocking on the open door, announcing their presence to the two within.
"Leader-sama!" Yuna shouted, and closed the distance immediately. "Asuna-sama!"
Gone was the usual cheer in her voice, and replacing it was a tone of complete desperation.
"I don't know what to do… Eiji—Nautilus… is in serious trouble!"
Thank you so much for the continued support. It's been crazy to still see all the people still reading this story and following along. I can recognize some names that have been there since the beginning — but old and new, thank you all!
I hope everyone has been keeping sane and safe during this insane year. Who knew 2020 would end up like this?
I wanted to get this chapter out earlier but also wanted to stock up on some chapters so that I didn't have a long period between chapters again... but that didnt end up as planned (I blame covid!). Anyway, good progress has been made on the next chapter and should be out soon (I promise!). I'm actually more excited to write about the epilogue of this story than the remaining arc, as I felt that Kirito could have done way more after SAO — also how on earth was he allowed to remain semi-anonymous after an event like SAO? It's fun thinking of the impact that a more proactive Kirito can have on the world after the death game.
Let me know your thoughts! I may be starting a discord server soon for writing fanfiction/light novels so look out for that if you're interested.
Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas :)