DISCLAIMER: Fate/Stay Night belongs to the company Type-Moon. It was originally a Visual Novel developed by Kinoko Nasu. Sword Art Online belongs to Reki Kawahara. It was originally written as a Light Novel. Other characters and settings belong to their respective owners. This story however, belongs to me. Feel free to redistribute this document as long as you give due credit. Please note, it has been written for noncommercial entertainment.

Author's Note:
It is pleasantly surprising to see the response this story gathered. Wish my other fanfic would become as popular … (hint, hint).

A popular enquiry was about the protagonist of Fate/Stay Night, a.k.a. Rin's husband - will he be making additional appearances? A defining feature about his character is a certain reality-bending skill he posses. I cannot come to a satisfactory way (within Nasuverse conventions) to bring that into a virtual game world. Feel free to write up a story that shows me otherwise - I would really love to read it, if done well.

Speaking of the Nasuverse, according to source material Rin Tohsaka is horrible with modern-day electronics. If you consider Carnival Phantasm as canon, then the NerveGear helmet should have exploded the moment she touched it. Obviously, I'm hand-waving this aside. In the grand scheme of things, it should be an acceptable compromise.

I find myself needing a much larger cast than provided by either SAO or FSN. Instead of creating a bunch of hard-to-remember original characters, extras will be borrowed from other genres. This helps me to mentally visualize the scenes as I type them. You will NOT need to know their canon background to enjoy the story (they are attributed below for egotistical reasons).

Some would say that it would make TO (Tohsaka Online) a mega-crossover, but from my perspective this is a fanfic of Sword Art Online (Novel 1 and side-stories) set in the world of Fate/Stay Night. It is within your rights to disagree.

On the matter of names - only the SAO cast will be using aliases. Everyone else will be using their real names. I could use Kazuto instead of Kirito, but after watching the anime, Kirito is what sticks to my mind. Similar reasoning with Klein, Agil … etc.

I am indebted to LordsFire (SB) for story-telling guidance and grammar checks. He doesn't just point out a mistake but explains, in a meaningful way, why. People keep telling me that they find this story easy to read. Plot's mine, but storytelling his. Talk to him if you want to grow as an author.

PhantomPhysicst (SB) helped find and fix a few spelling mistakes that snuck into this chapter. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how, but the following people have helped shape my thoughts on this story during the beta release of this chapter - majorbau (SB), daniel_gudman (BL), nick012000 (BL) and Tertium (BL). You have my sincerest thanks.

-chronodekar
(12/November/2012)

Guest Appearances (and shout-outs)

Melchior from Chrono Trigger (SNES game)
Xelloss from Slayers (anime series)
Taeko Minazuki from Ai Yori Aoshi (anime)
Konata Izumi from Lucky Star (anime)
Keitaro Urashima from Love Hina (manga)
Ultros from Final Fantasy 6 (SNES game)
'Press Start Otaku!' by Lastofakind (fan fiction)
'Rejoice Sachi!' by Fimbu1vetr (fan fiction)

Alternate Universe Story so far:
Rin Tohsaka (magus) has found herself trapped (along with 10k players) in an online virtual reality game called Sword Art Online, where an in-game fatality translates into real world death. Everyone will be freed if the boss on top of castle Aincrad (who appears when all 100 floors are cleared) is defeated. Kayaba Akihiko (game creator) claims that it is an elaborate attempt to reveal the existence of magecraft to the general public the moment everyone is released.

Last chapter saw Rin exploring Starting City, the initial location where players materialize. Kirito (another player) decided to travel to the Town of Beginnings with Klein and his friends to level-up faster than anyone else.


Tohsaka Online
=a Fate/Stay Night and Sword Art Online crossover fanfiction=
(chapter - 02)

Opening tutorial comes to a conclusion


Open air restaurant, Starting City, Floor 01

Rin Tohsaka was enjoying her breakfast under a large umbrella; the café she decided to eat in had both indoor and outdoor tables. She was wearing a red blouse with a long black skirt, had her hair tied in her usual twintails style, and as she sipped the last of her tea, a male player approached her table.

"Good morning miss," he said politely. "May I speak with you for a moment?"

Rin looked up from her cup. The man was wearing a white T-shirt with a brown pair of pants, the triangle-like design over his leather chest armor indicating membership in a guild. She wondered if he was attempting to recruit her - It wasn't an uncommon occurrence. In the days following the death announcement, many players had come to the conclusion that there was strength in numbers, resulting in the formation of a large number of guilds.

The popular line of thinking was, the more members you had in your guild, the stronger it became; meaning it was more likely to survive dangerous fights. The unfortunate reality was that the players had a difficult time working with each other - guilds were getting disbanded almost as rapidly as they were being created.

"Certainly. I have some spare time," she replied curiously.

If her guess was right, then displaying eagerness would reduce her bargaining position. As she watched him close his eyes to take a deep breath, she recalled that there was another likely possibility.

"Will you please marry me?" he asked smoothly.

"I already have a devoted husband back in the real world." she replied curtly, getting up from the table. Rin walked away from the restaurant without looking back.

Her mouth bent into a frown as she stepped over the street. It wasn't the first time she had been proposed to since the game started, and it didn't look like it would be the last. There were all kinds of relationships that players could try out in SAO. Forming parties and guilds were among the more popular ones, but marriage between a male and female was permitted as well.

The first time it happened had been a shock for Rin. A random stranger just walked up to her on the street and proposed to her, as though he was engaging in a business transaction! Where was the romance in that? It was so different from the male behaviour she was used to before she married, that she spent a good ten minutes lecturing the moron on how to make a good impression.

The second time it happened, her mouth was dry and she had been unable to talk for long. So she took her shield in both hands and hit him over the head with it. Rin couldn't recall what she did to the third moron who thoughtlessly proposed to her, but by the fourth one she was getting exhausted from punishing them. She found that it was a lot easier to just say no and walk away.

Rin began to wonder if there were any benefits to marriage that she wasn't aware of; it didn't seem likely. The younger players probably saw it as a kind of status symbol, forgetting the commitment the instant they left the game. Granted she was unable leave, but it felt too similar to cheating for her taste - even if only in a video game.

As she looked about, Rin realized that she had walked round in a circle. She was right back on the street with the café where she had her breakfast. Frowning to herself, she stopped to consider her next move. Her eyes drifted towards an attractive girl who was eating at the exact spot she was in earlier. Rin watched with a feeling of déjà vu as the same idiot who proposed to her earlier, walk up to the girl.

To her astonishment, he suddenly turned and walked away without saying a word. Puzzled, Rin looked back to the girl in the café, admiring how effortlessly she was able to get rid of the potential suitor. Her eyes fell over the silver wedding ring on the girl's right hand.

She raised her own right hand, concentrating on her ringless finger. It easily explained why so many males kept proposing to her. Rin smiled as she turned a corner to head towards the nearest jewellery shop. She had no intention of get married to anyone in Aincrad - but there was nothing stopping her from pretending.


Jewellery store, Starting City, Floor 01

A bell rang above her head as Rin opened the door, walking into the jewellery shop. It was a small establishment, but well stocked with glass cases displaying the owner's wares. As a jewel collector herself, she found the exhibition lacking in style. Then again, she wasn't here for an expensive purchase. As far as she was concerned, even a fake ring would suffice as long as it gave off the impression that she was married.

"Excuse me?" she asked trying to grab the shopkeeper's attention.

The old man appeared to be well into his sixties, wearing a small pair of round black glasses, a light brown surcoat hanging over his white shirt. His white moustache twitched once as he turned to face his newest customer.

"Good morning madam," he greeted with a smile. "Welcome to my humble shop. What can old Melchior do for you today?"

"I'm looking for a wedding ring." answered Rin stepping up to the counter next to him.

"Not again …" complained the shopkeeper releasing a sigh.

He turned around and began searching through his glass cases. Rin raised her left eyebrow as she watched him pull out a few of them.

"What do you mean by that?" she asked with concern.

He placed the glass cases on the table next to her. She saw that they were filled with different kinds of wedding rings. Some were made of gold, others of silver and unless her eyes weren't deceiving her, the pair in the corner was made of ivory. All the ring-pairs had different inscriptions on them as well.

"Apologies for my lack of enthusiasm," he answered with a smaller smile. "But wedding rings are blessed and I am not allowed to accept anything in return."

"You mean I don't need to pay for my purchase?" asked Rin incredulously.

Melchior clapped his hands in front of his chest and grinned at her.

"Only for wedding rings," he answered, eyes twinkling. "Think of it as our way of celebrating the occasion."

Accepting his response, Rin looked down to the rings. Which one should she choose? The diamond-adorned pair looked far too fancy; the copper rings were boring; perhaps the one studded with green emeralds? In the end she decided on a simple gold ring - it had no special markings or stones embedded in it and worn on her right hand would be effective enough to drive away potential suitors.

"I will take this one," she decided, pointing to her chosen ring. "Can I put it on now?"

"No problem, my dear." nodded the old shopkeeper. "Here, I'll unlock that display for you."

Melchior waved his hand in front and opened the fluorescent Game Menu. He scrolled through the options, making a few selections. When Rin looked back down to the display case, the pair of gold rings had risen up and were waiting for her. She picked the one on the left and put it on her ring finger. Turning back to the shopkeeper she asked,

"May I examine the rest of your wares?"


10 minutes later

Melchior looked towards his shop entrance on hearing the bell above the door. Satisfied that the twin tailed girl would be alright by herself, he approached his next customer.

"Greetings good sir," he said with a smile. " And welcome to my humble shop. What can old Melchior do for you today?"

The tall man who just entered appeared to be in his late twenties. He was dark-skinned with matching brown eyes; bald, had a muscular build and grew a small brown goatee below his chin. His gaze settled on the shopkeeper on spotting him.

"My name is Agil," he answered in a deep voice. "And I need a wedding ring."

Melchior's face fell as he blinked back.

"Why do so many people want to get married today?" he whined.

"Excuse me?" came the confused reply.

The shopkeeper shook his head, adjusting his glasses.

"My apologies sir," he continued. "It's just that I'm not allowed to charge for wedding rings. Feel free to select your choice from the counter over there."

Relieved that the ring wouldn't cost him, Agil thanked the shopkeeper and walked up to the indicated counter. The first thing that caught his eye was a gold ring that was sitting on the very top.

"I'll take this one," he decided. "Can I wear it now?"

"That's fine sir," replied the shopkeeper. "Just let me unlock the display …"

Melchior trailed off widening his eyes. He watched in horror as the tall man put the ring over his finger before he could stop him.

The ring began to glow as soon as Agil put it on. A few seconds later it began to vibrate, emitting a small humming sound. He tried to remove the ring with his free hand, but it didn't come off. At the other end of the shop, the ring on Rin's finger began to glow and vibrate as well.

With both fascination and worry, Agil watched as a red thread emerge from his ring and float into the air. Blinking his eyes to focus, he realized that it wasn't an ordinary thread, but a stream of red light that pulsed with his heartbeat as it continued to grow out of the ring. The tip of the light thread slowly turned in the air, as if it was looking for something. It stopped when it saw a similar thread floating out of the ring worn by the girl standing on the other side of the shop.

It suddenly shot towards her as a similar thread from her ring shot towards him. Agil watched helplessly as the two threads tied a knot with each other when they met in the air. Without warning, the knotted thread burst in a shower of white glitter, covering the two of them with sparkles.

A message window with the word 'Congratulations!' popped in the air in front of the two players. It vanished quickly and was replaced with their respective character menus. Agil held his breath as the listing of his marital status blinked from 'single' to 'married'.

He had to cover his ears with his hands as the twin tailed girl screamed in rage.


5 minutes later

Melchior wiped off sweat from his forehead as he locked the front entrance. It felt like 5 hours had just passed, but both his customers were calm again. Or at least, as reasonably calm as they could be, given the circumstances.

Agil watched dispassionately as the shopkeeper picked a chair from behind one of the counters, drag it in front of the other two people in the store and sit down with a tired expression. He frowned as the shopkeeper began his explanation.

"Simply put - the two of you are officially married. That's what happens when a male and female simultaneously wear a pair of blessed wedding rings."

The twin tailed girl was glaring at the shopkeeper while he spoke. If looks could kill, Melchior was sure that he would have died at least three times by now.

"What kind of a system is that?" argued Rin. "I'm surprised that there haven't been reports of players forcing others into marriage, if wearing a ring was all it took!"

"Not just any ring," corrected Melchior shaking his head. "It must be a pair of blessed wedding rings. And you can't use force. The rings are enchanted so that they impossible to use if either participant is unwilling or ignorant."

"Wouldn't that include the two of us?" pointed out Agil. "I didn't know that I would get married to a random stranger if I put on the ring."

The shopkeeper looked at the bald man with a sad face.

"The both of you came in here asking for wedding rings. I didn't even ask you to try them out. In fact, you both wore them of your own accord; which means you are both knowledgeable and willing participants."

"But I already have a wife in the real world!" argued Agil.

"Bonds from another plane of existence do not matter here," explained the shopkeeper. "Even if it was accidental, you must accept each other."

"Like hell I will!" growled Agil glaring at Melchior. "I have a very beautiful wife back home and I do not want to take care of, let alone accept someone else."

He took a small breath, turned his head towards the twin tailed girl and stated,

"No offence, but I've got someone else I love dearly."

"None taken," she replied.

Rin closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It wouldn't do her any good to get upset in this situation; she wasn't interested in him either. Letting the air out, still keeping her eyes closed she took another deep breath. She needed to stay calm and think of a solution to the problem. Slowly opening her eyes she studied the shopkeeper's face.

"What about a divorce?" she asked. "Surely, there must be some way we can annul this … accident."

"Hmmm …" Melchior trailed off in thought.

He started stroking his white moustache with his right hand. It was an unusual situation. Most couples who married in his shop, were more interested in snogging each other than thinking about getting divorced.

"You would probably need to see a priest to conduct the ceremony," he answered her. "The only temple that has the authority to do so is the one dedicated to Zelas. It's located a short walk north of this city."

Rin looked back at Melchior with disbelief. Raising her left eyebrow she commented,

"Wait … you have ceremonies for divorce, but none for marriage?"

The shopkeeper looked back as if she had just asked something incredibly stupid.

"Of course!" he exclaimed. "Who would want to attend a long, boring ceremony? Divorces are the things that should be less appealing."

Rin let out a sigh, rubbing her forehead in her right hand. The situation was becoming complicated and tiresome. If the ceremony was really as boring as Melchior made it out to be, was it still worth getting a divorce?

She blinked her eyes as she realized something. Why was she getting so upset to begin with? Her so-called 'husband' clearly wasn't interested in her and she was officially married as far as the other players could tell. An ideal situation - ignoring the fact that she really was married.

"Why don't we just leave things as they are?" she suggested to her 'husband,' "Since you are clearly not interested, we could just forget about this incident and go our separate ways. I don't mind how my marital status appears to other players."

Agil looked back at her as if she had just suggested something incredibly stupid. Again. Rin was starting to get annoyed with the experience.

"You mean you don't know what marriage means in this world?" he asked astounded. "It's a lot more involved that just a simple change on your character profile."

"Explain." Rin demanded; a feeling of uneasiness climbing up her back.

It was the shopkeeper who answered.

"Marriage is a beautiful event! In Aincrad, it means the complete bond between a male and female. Your health bars are no longer separate but fused into one. You inventories merge, with both having equal access to the shared space. Experience points get distributed in a -"

"Hold it!" demanded Rin raising her left palm. "What was that you said about my health bar?"

"Open your character menu." answered her 'husband'. "It will be easier if you see for yourself."

With a feeling of dread, Rin waved her right hand in front of her chest, activating the fluorescent Game Menu. She scrolled through the different options to select Character Status. Only, it wasn't just her personal status page anymore. There was a new addition to her name, the entry now reading 'Rin married to Agil'.

She assumed that it was the name of her 'husband' as she scanned the page.

The health bar was different now - it was nearly double its earlier size and there were two different sets of status information. One for her and the other for Agil. Eyes widening in shock, she dismissed the Game Menu.

"So if either of us falls in a random fight," she slowly began,

"The other will die too." finished Agil.

The two of them looked at each other.

" … "

After a few minutes of silence,

"We need to go to that temple immediately!" exclaimed Rin.

"I agree." nodded her 'husband'.


Path to Zelas Temple, Floor 01

"So why did you want a wedding ring?" asked Rin.

She was walking with Agil on a grass path north of Starting City. After getting directions from Melchior, the accidental couple equipped themselves and set off to Zelas Temple at a brisk pace.

"I was getting tired of weaker players proposing to me," he answered. "If they saw a ring on my finger, I figured that they would leave me alone."

Agil was wearing a white unbuttoned shirt, black pair of pants, had leather chest armor with an axe strapped to his back.

"They want the combined health bar?" guessed Rin.

"Exactly," he nodded.

"They see some guy holding an axe," he continued. "And immediately come to the conclusion that he must be super strong - with health to spare. I don't mind helping others out, but I do not like being used."

He pulled out his axe as a wild dog approached them. The animal was black with blue eyes and two sharp fangs poking out of its mouth.

The animal charged towards Agil, snarling its muzzle. The axeman was quick; as soon as the beast was in range he swung his weapon shouting,

"Reaver!"

The animal didn't stand a chance. There was a reason why inexperienced girls wanted to marry the axeman - his muscles weren't just for show. With a single strike the dog's health dropped down to zero. It disintegrated into pixels, leaving behind a glowing white orb. Raising her opinion of him, Rin continued to watch as Agil lifted his hand towards the orb. As he collected his reward, she noticed that her own experience points increasing as well - even when she didn't participate in the fight.

"What about me?" asked Rin. "For all you know, I could have staged all this as an elaborate trap to marry you."

"Unlikely," he answered shaking his head sideways. "You are just about as upset as I am over the situation. Besides, I had a look at your character profile. Our levels are nearly the same, so it doesn't make sense for you to trap me like this."

He looked towards the sky, recollecting about the incident at the jewellery store. He felt strongly that something which should have been present was missing at the time.

"Speaking of which - what about you?" he asked. "You were looking for wedding rings too, but I don't remember seeing anyone else with you in the shop."

Rin held her dagger behind her as a wild boar blocked their way. She bent her legs, holding her left hand in front defensively.

"Speed Thrust!"

She ran ahead of the monster, cutting into it from the side. Most of it's health was depleted, but some still remained in the red zone. Agil ran forward, finishing it off with a simple swing.

"Same reason as you," she answered. "I've had more than my fair share of marriage proposals since the game started."

Fastening the axe on his back, he looked towards his companion,

"I can see why - you are an attractive one."

"Flirting with a married woman?" smirked Rin in his direction. "Tisk, tisk. What would your wife say?"

"She would give me some kind of horrible punishment." replied Agil jovially. "If I was flirting. And is that true? Are you really married in the real world?"

Catching sight of a building ahead of them, she narrowed her eyes.

"For almost a year now." Rin answered. "I can see the temple. With luck, we can get divorced within the hour."


Zelas Temple, Floor 01

The temple was impressive to look at from the outside. The architecture reminded Rin of the old Roman senate buildings. When she stepped inside however, she felt really odd. Even the interior looked like the Roman senate. Instead of an altar, at the very center was a podium surrounded by marble pews. It looked more like a place where political discussions would take place as opposed to a place of worship. Wondering if they were in the right place, she was startled when someone suddenly popped out from behind a pillar.

"Well, well, well," greeted the stranger as he walked up to them, "This is a pleasant surprise! I wasn't expecting visitors so soon."

He had purple hair that was cleanly cut above his eyebrows, though it extended past his ears down to his neck on the sides and back. He wore a yellow full-sleeve T-shirt, a black pair of pants, white gloves and a dark cape; the cape was attached at the center by some attractive red orbs. He even held a wooden staff that was decorated with a very shiny red jewel at its top.

"Nevertheless, welcome to Zelas Temple!" he continued. "I am Xelloss, her humble priest. What can I do for you?"

He spoke calmly, without a trace of malice; the tone of his voice however, hinted towards a hidden agenda. Even before she heard him, his very presence reminded Rin of another bothersome priest she was forced to deal with years ago.

"My name is Agil," said the axeman, introducing himself.

"And this is Rin," he waved his hand in her direction.

"We came here because we have a problem with our marriage," he finished looking back at the priest.

"Oh?" commented the priest raising his left eyebrow. "Whatever could be the problem? The two of you look fine to me. Are you not able to pleasure each other? I do believe I have an old copy of the Kama Sutra around here somewhere, or do you want a demonstration? It will cost -"

"NO!" shouted Rin glowing beet red. "We do not require any such assistance. Please do not make further suggestions."

The priest raised both his eyebrows in surprise. His guess was wrong? Then what could the couple want? Getting another idea, he waved his right hand in front raising his index finger in the air.

"I have it!" he exclaimed. "You are looking for a really private room. I think I know of a sound-proof one in the -"

"NO!" interrupted Rin again. "Thats not it either. Please just hear us out for a moment …"

Agil decided to spare Rin further embarrassment.

"We got married by accident and need an immediate divorce," he explained.

"A divorce you say …" trailed off Xelloss as he raised his right hand, stroking the underside of his chin. Turning away from the couple, he walked towards the podium at the center of the room mumbling to himself. Raising his staff high above his head, a red light emerged from the orb on top and shot towards the podium. As soon as it reached the center, the light split apart forming a small map.

Rin recognized some of the locations indicated. At the south was Starting City, the beach she had been to earlier was labelled, as well as some of the more important locations in the area. The temple they were currently in was marked with a big 'X'. A little farther to the right, at the end of River Chad was a location marked with an 'O'.

The priest turned back to the couple.

"Divorce is no simple affair, I'm afraid." he said sadly, shaking his head. "To undo the bonds of matrimony we will need a certain artifact."

"This is beginning to sound like a quest," commented Agil.

"Only with the ancient scriptures written in the Clare Bible can we tear the two of you apart," the priest continued, ignoring the interruption.

"And where might we be able to find this Clare Bible?" Rin asked, deciding to humor the priest.

Xelloss smiled at her and raised his staff. This time a holographic image of Aincrad appeared in front of him. The bottom floor was glowing green while the rest of the structure was red.

"The exact location has been lost over the years, but I have reason to believe it is somewhere on Floor-11."

"WHAT?!" exclaimed Rin and Agil simultaneously.

"But you need not worry," continued the priest. "There should exist, a few copies on the lower floors as well."

"Will a copy of this artifact be enough?" queried Rin suspiciously.

"For your purposes, it will do." nodded Xelloss.

"So, I'm guessing that this will lead us to one of the copies." deduced Agil pointing to the map the priest projected earlier.

The purple haired priest smiled back at the axeman with his eyes closed.

"Excellent! You catch on quickly," he replied. "Allow me to take you part-way there."

He walked up to the couple and waved his cloak over them. The next moment, no one remained in the temple.


Near River Chad, Floor 01

Rin stared at her surroundings in shock. One minute they were in Zelas Temple and the next minute, they were standing next to a river along the edge of a forest.

"D-did you just teleport us here?" she asked incredulously.

"Yes," the priest answered. "I'm afraid that this is as far as I can take you however. You will need to traverse the river on your own."

Agil looked at the river the priest pointed to. There were sharp rocks projecting out of the water at random intervals. The river seemed to curve off to the right, but from what he remembered of the map in the temple, there were many more curves ahead.

"You can't seriously expect us to swim all the way there, can you?!" exclaimed Agil looking at the priest in disbelief.

"Goodness, gracious!" commented Xelloss. "What an exhausting proposition. I don't think I've ever hear of anyone attempting to swim across river before …"

"Which means there must be a boat nearby," deduced Rin.

"Excellent reasoning Miss Rin!" agreed the priest. "If you walk up a little further, you should find someone willing to rent you a means of transportation."

"What I do not understand," she slowly said, "is why you are helping us. It's unusual for a quest giver to actually bring us out like this. Normally we would just be given directions or instructions."

"I am afraid …" trailed off the priest as he took a few steps backwards into the shadows of the nearby trees.

Xelloss raised his right index finger to his lips; keeping his left eye closed, he looked back at the couple with his right eye and slowly continued,

"That is a secret!"

Before vanishing from the scene.


Near River Chad, Floor 01

"That was one creepy priest," commented Agil, frowning.

He was walking with Rin alongside the river in the direction pointed out by Xelloss. They hoped it wouldn't be too long before they came across the boat rental service.

"Never thought I'd meet another one who gives me the chills …" mumbled Rin next to him.

"What did you say?" asked Agil. "I didn't catch that."

"Forget it," she replied, as the two of them kept walking.

The axeman couldn't help but find the scenery attractively picturesque. There was a forest to his left, a clear river flowing on his right and few clouds in the sky. Turning to add his companion to the scenery, he spotting a large bee about to strike her.

"Duck!" he shouted raising his right hand.

Rin immediately threw herself to the ground. From the dirt, she turned her head backwards and saw Agil holding his right hand straight out in a fist. His pinky finger was extended in the the direction of a large bee that would have hit her, if it weren't for her dodge.

"Fireball," chanted the axeman, casting a spell.

Her eyes widened in shock as a magic circle formed around her companion's finger. A small fireball shot out, incinerating the bee. She looked back to his face and caught his eyes.

"Y-you just cast a spell!" Rin exclaimed. "How is that even possible?"

Agil stretched out his hand towards her. After she grabbed on, he pulled her back up to her feet.

"It's the basic Fireball-1 spell," explained the axeman. "Surely you should be able to do it as well?"

"But magic isn't supported in this world!" she argued.

"Don't you remember the death announcement?" he asked. "We were all given a tutorial about the newly introduced magic system."

"What tutorial?" puzzled Rin. She didn't remember any such thing.

Agil sighed. He swiped his hand in front of his chest, opening up his Game Menu. From there he scrolled to Character Status, opening it up.

"It would take too long waiting for you to read the tutorial," he said. "So I'll give you a short introduction. Alright with you?"

"Go ahead," Rin encouraged him.

"This green bar here indicates our HP," he said pointing to fluorescent menu in front of him. "A little below, this blue bar represents our Od capacity."

"Od?" she asked, mildly surprised.

"Yep," he nodded. "Think of it as our personal magic capacity. Now a little to side here, is the list of spells we can cast using System Assist."

He swiped his finger to side revealing a new menu. Fireball-1, Cure-1 and Ice-1 were listed along with a number next to each of them.

"The numbers indicate the amount of Prana needed to cast the spell. That's part of what the magic circle does - it converts our Od into Prana."

"Hmm …" Rin trailed off, watching her companion navigate the menu.

"There's usually some magic in the environment around us - it's called Mana and can be used as an alternate source for Prana as well."

"So we can use either our personal Od or the environmental Mana to power a spell?"

"That's right," answered the axeman. "But you can't use only Mana for a spell. Every spell has a minimum Od requirement that must be met before it can be cast. For example, I can't cast Ice-1 right now, even with all the Mana surrounding us here."

She looked over his screen and saw a second, smaller number listed next to Ice-1. From his status screen, it was obvious that Agil didn't have enough Od to power the spell. Just casting Fireball-1 was enough to nearly deplete his reserves.

"What happens if you run out of Od?"

"That would mean trouble," answered Agil. "It isn't fatal, but enemy attacks become twice as damaging and you tire more quickly."

He swiped at his menu, opening up Rin's status page.

"It looks like you won't need to worry about it too much," he continued. "Judging by your profile here, you appear to be a natural mage. I'm surprised at how much Od you have - if you keep an eye on your regeneration rate, you could probably keep firing spells through an entire fight!"

Rin on the other hand, tuned him out. She furrowed her eyebrows, deep in thought. The magic system was not exactly how things worked in the real world, but it was surprisingly accurate. Was Kayaba Akihiko really serious about exposing magecraft to the public? There were still too many holes in his mad plan; she felt that pieces of the puzzle were missing.

"Are we only allowed to cast spells present in that list?" she asked her axe-wielding companion.

"No," he replied. "The tutorial mentioned that anyone could create new spells - assuming they figure it out. Don't ask me how - I can't cast anything without System Assist."

Curious about how accurate the magic system was, Rin raised her right hand and pointed the index finger at a tree across the river. Concentrating the Od within her,

"Gandr!"

A small black curse shot out from her finger. It zoomed towards the tree, exploding on contact. When the smoke cleared, only a charred trunk remained. Impressed, Agil let out a wolf whistle.

"That's amazing!" he praised his companion. "You must be one heck of a gaming otaku to figure it out so fast."

"Err … yes," agreed Rin hesitantly. It was a lot better than the excuse she had thought up.


Town of Beginnings, Floor 01

"Wake up sir, we're here!"

Kirito heard a voice calling him; his body was being shaken as well. The blurry outline of a person appeared in his field of vision as he slowly opened his eyes. Shaking his head side-to-side, he blinked a few times to focus, recognizing the NPC cart driver calling him. Sitting up straight, he raised his right hand into the air, releasing a big yawn.

Looking around he recognized the horse-driven cart Klein rented. Speaking of whom, the redhead was still sleeping next to him. Deciding to release his friend from the chains of slumber, Kirito shook his friend's shoulder.

"Where are we?" asked his companion, sitting up.

"We're in the Town of Beginnings."

"How did I fall asleep?" wondered Klein, groggily scratching his bandana. "Did the others introduce themselves without me?"

"I'm supposed to be asking you that question," came the irritated answer.

"Eh?"

"Did you really select the leisure travel option when you paid our fare?"

"Of course," nodded Klein. "Didn't I, ?" The latter part was addressed to the NPC cart driver who was standing nearby.

"Actually sir, you chose snooze travel option," came the reply.

"What is that supposed mean?" queried Klein, adjusting his bandana.

"It means that we slept through the entire trip!" answered Kirito glaring at him.

"Whoops..." he trailed off, glancing to the side.

Kirito bent his head towards the ground and let out a sigh, shaking his head. Lifting his chin; he looked around, spotting an Inn.

"Forget it," said the black haired youth, pointing towards the Inn, "I'll go order some food for everyone. Can you wake the others up and meet me in there?"

"See you there."


Random Inn, Town of Beginnings, Floor 01

"So where is this new friend of yours, Klein?" asked Taeko.

When she entered the Inn with her boyfriend, the owner directed them to a large table laden with food. Everyone was seated, waiting for his mysterious friend to show up.

"Yes," commented a brown haired girl sitting in the corner across her. "It would be rude to start eating without him."

"This is a rare event," said a black haired male next to the brown haired girl. "You're actually holding yourself from eating the food in front of you."

"I'm not a barbarian you know," admonished his female companion. "It's not nice of you to -"

"Sorry for the delay," apologized Kirito as he climbed down the stairs nearby. "But I really wanted to rent the top room for myself and was just pointing it out to the receptionist."

"You had me a bit worried - disappearing like that," said Klein. "Still, have a seat and we can begin the introductions."

Kirito sat on the corner chair offered to him. His bandana wearing friend was to his left and a lady with short brown hair and brown eyes sat across him. For some reason she seemed vaguely familiar.

Klein stood up and waved his right hand towards Kirito.

"Everyone," he began. "I want to introduce Kirito. He explained the game to me when I first logged in and was part of the Beta Testing group."

Kirito smiled and waved his right hand towards everyone at the table as Klein sat down.

"Kirito?" asked a blue haired girl from the opposite corner. "As in the only beta player who single-handedly defeated a mid-boss on floor-02 and reached the highest level, floor-16 during the beta period? That Kirito?"

"Y-yes," he slowly replied. "But how do you know all that? Were you part of the Beta Testing group too?"

"Wow Klein," the girl said, addressing the bandana clad player, "Your luck is as incredible as ever! We've got a legend right next to us here."

The black haired boy sitting next to her caught Kirito's eye and answered,

"That's really impressive. And yes, we were part of the Beta Testing group too."

"Eh?!" exclaimed Klein. "You never told me any of that. I thought we would all be new to this game."

The black haired boy shrugged at Klein.

"It's not like we really played the game," he said. "The two of us never left Starting City during the beta period."

"You know," interrupted Kirito. "I still don't know who you two are - even if you were part of the Beta group."

"Woops!" exclaimed the boy. "My name is Keitaro and I'm a second year university student."

"He's not just any student you know," commented the blue haired girl next to him. "Keitaro here attends classes at Tokyo University!"

"Wow!" said Kirito looking up at Keitaro in admiration.

"And I'm Konata," continued the girl. "Second year as well."

Keitaro levelled his eyes and peeked at his companion from the side.

"Any special reason you forgot to mention that we're classmates?" he commented.

"Looks like everyone's my senior here," said Kirito. "I'm just a first year at Saitama College."

"Don't feel too bad Kirito," said the purple haired girl sitting left of Klein. "Age doesn't matter with us. If it did, we would have split up a long time ago."

Adjusting the thick framed glasses over her eyes; she smiled at him.

"My name is Taeko," she continued. "And I work as a maid. Thank you for looking after my Klein earlier. I know he can be a handful sometimes."

"Guess that just leaves me," said the short haired girl across Kirito. She puffed her chest and brought up her right hand up, poking herself with her thumb.

"You can call me Taiga," she proudly introduced herself. "And I work as a high school English teacher."

Kirito's eyes widened as he recognized the name. He realized why she looked so familiar.

"As in Taiga Fujimura?" he excitedly asked. "Three time winner of the junior women's kendo championship a few years ago? The Tiger of Fuyuki? That Taiga?"

"You've heard of me?" she asked, pleasantly surprised.

"Heard of you?!" replied Kirito bemused. "My sister practically worships you. She's got posters of you in her bedroom."

"Sounds like you might practise a bit of kendo yourself," Taiga observed.

Embarrassed about the conversation returning to him, Kirito decided to change topic.

"I've been wondering for awhile now," he began. "And it's probably none of my business, but why are the two of you dressed like that?"

The question was addressed to Konata and Keitaro. Keitaro had a pair of daggers at his sides, a green hood folded behind his neck and a pair of glasses. What was unusual was rest of his outfit - it obviously belonged to a female thief and didn't look at all attractive on him.

Konata was a similar story. She was dressed like a male warrior with leather armor, but her look was a bit more tolerable - only because the clothes were too big for her and sagged to the side.

"We usually use opposite-gender avatars when we play games," explained Konata. "When the announcement forced everyone to reveal themselves, we got stuck like this."

"But that shouldn't be possible," countered Kirito. "The Cardinal System prevents players from playing as the wrong gender."

"We were Beta players too, remember?" pointed out Keitaro. "That rule was only enforced with the game release. We just imported the avatars we used earlier, from the time when they didn't enforce the gender check."

"About that," began Kirito. "If you were in the Beta, why didn't you leave Starting City? Seems rather odd to me."

"Oh that …" trailed off Konata waving her hand at him. She sat up straight and locked her hand with Keitaro's elbow.

"It's because we were busy getting married." she concluded.

Klein blinked at the blue haired girl.

"Eh..?" he wondered aloud. "That doesn't make sense."

"Oh come on Klein," admonished Konata. "You know that in just about every other game, when the other players start flirting with Keitaro and me, we end up marrying just to shut them up?"

"Yes."

"Well this time instead of waiting for them to start pestering us, we decided to hold a grand wedding ceremony from the get-go instead!"

"Wait," interrupted Kirito. "Are you the couple who sent those wedding invitations to every other Beta player and organized that huge ceremony in the Temple?"

"That's us." answered Keitaro smiling.

"Oh, lets do that too Klein. It will be fun to hold a wedding ceremony!" Taeko suggested to her boyfriend.

"Don't bother," said Kirito looking at Taeko. "Theirs is the first and last wedding ceremony that will ever be held in Aincrad."

"What do you mean?" asked Taiga curiously.

Kirito let out a long sigh, closing his eyes as he recollected.

"It was a huge ceremony - every Beta player must have attended it. And long - I mean really long. It was excruciatingly painful, as we were unable to leave until it got over."

"What did the two of you do?" asked Taiga looking at the couple.

"Blocked the exits, hired a few choirs, three complete orchestras … that kind of thing." replied Konata.

Kirito sent a flat look at the couple.

"Everyone complained that they never wanted to attend a wedding ceremony in Aincrad ever again and the developers abolished them altogether. Now if anyone wants to get married, all you need to do is put on a pair of blessed wedding rings; which you can freely get from any jewellery store."

"That hardly seems romantic," whined Taeko.

"The story isn't over," continued Kirito. "The developers were unhappy that all the effort they put into making a wedding ceremony got wasted. To salvage the situation the divorce procedure was changed into a divorce ceremony."

"That just sound silly," commented Taiga.

"Nobody liked the idea of attending another ceremony. So as a compromise the developers turned divorces into limited-quantity quests."

"I'm confused," confessed Taeko.

"Simply put - it's easy to get married in Aincrad, but very difficult to get a divorce," clarified Kirito.

Klein coughed loudly into his hand grabbing everyone's attention.

"As interesting as all this is, I believe we've gone off-track," he said. "We need to become stronger by leveling ourselves. Isn't that right, everyone?"

Everyone voiced their agreement.

"Good. Now Kirito tells me that this is a good town for experience. Any suggestions on how to proceed?"

The question was directed towards the most experienced player in their group; who coincidentally, was deep in thought, rubbing his chin with his right hand.

"Many of the townspeople here are quest givers," he explained. "And it shouldn't be difficult for two players working as a team to complete them. We should split ourselves into parties and scatter across the town."

"Sounds good to me." agreed Klein. "I guess Keitaro and Konata want to pair up?"

"We're married," answered Konata. "It's too risky for either of us to adventure without the other."

"And this time," said Taeko with determination in her eyes. "I'm coming with you Klein."

Taiga just smiling at Kirito, who nodded back.


Near River Chad, Floor 01

Rin was peacefully walking alongside Agil next to the riverside when suddenly, something jumped from behind the trees to block their path. Most of the monsters they had faced so far were shaped like animals with a few insect-inspired variations.

But the creature who just appeared in front of them, was the first gelatinous monster they had ever encountered. Purple with horrible red eyes, it made sloshing sounds as it moved and possessed dangerous canine fangs; not one, two, or four, but at least ten disgustingly yellow teeth poked out from under its upper lip. Almost as tall as Rin, it used eight tentacles to move about.

They were facing some kind of sharp-toothed octopus.

"I think 'ladies first' would be the appropriate thing to say," began Agil, "but that would mean I intend to follow you - which I don't."

"Questionable chauvinistic traits," commented Rin. "Perhaps we could jump into the forest, and walk around it instead?"

Before he could respond, the sharp-toothed octopus lifted a tentacle to send a friendly wave in their direction.

"Hello there," greeted the creature. "Do either of you know where the boat rental service is around here?"

"Eh?" came the synchronized reply.

"I just checked in the forest," it pointed a tentacle in the direction it came from, "but couldn't find it."

"So it must be along the river, right?" it asked, pointing the same tentacle ahead of them.

The couple were too flabbergasted to respond. Remembering something he had forgotten, the purple octopus whacked itself with another tentacle, making a very gross sloshing sound.

"Where are my manners?" said the monster, chastising itself. "I'm Ultros!"

Denying them the chance to reply, Ultros just turned around and begin searching the riverside.

"There it is!" it exclaimed, using a tentacle to point towards a wooden structure located some distance ahead. "Now to destroy those boats …"

To Rin's amazement, the purple creature folded into itself like a flower in mid-bloom and leapt towards the aforementioned structure - which it then proceeded to tear down in a very noisy fashion.

"We have to stop that squid," exclaimed Agil as he began running towards the mayhem, "before it destroys everything!"

"Right behind you," replied Rin as she followed behind him.


Boat Rental Agency, River Chad, Floor 01

Ultros didn't have any real reason to destroy the boat rental agency. It was through pure coincidence, that he had even heard about its existence. Being the kind of octopus that he was, Ultros decided that in the name of public safety, he had to inspect the rental agency and check to see if had been built to withstand random meteor strikes.

So far, the results of his building inspection were abysmal. Most of the boats didn't even last against one of his tentacles; notable exception being the wooden shack which required five hits before falling to rubble. Feeling the need for some variety, Ultros raised two of his tentacles in the air, ready to strike down another boat when the aforementioned limbs unexpectedly caught fire.

"Ouch!" he cried as he quickly pushed the burning tentacles into his mouth. Looking around he spotted the couple he met earlier. The man was running up to him with anger on the face and axe raised above the head in both hands. The girl was a little behind, pointing her right index finger at him. Did she just cast a spell?

"Hey that's dangerous," said the octopus, dodging the axeman's opening strike with a quick leap to the side.

"What about you?" retorted Agil, pulling his axe out of the wooden floor. "Needlessly destroying things!"

"Needlessly?" questioned the surprised octopus. "I'll have you know that I'm conducting a very important inspection right now."

"Inspection?" skeptically asked Rin as she walked closer, "For what?"

"Against …" trailed off Ultros, forgetting about the meteor strike as he wilted under her angry stare.

"Against termites!" he finished proudly, puffing himself.

Responding maturely to the answer, Agil chopped off one of his tentacles.

"OWWW!" screamed the octopus, jumping away from the axeman.

Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, Ultros concentrated. Rin hoped that it would explode, watching as the sharp-toothed octopus began shaking violently. Her prayers were partly answered as something did explode; in a matter of seconds, the octopus grew a new tentacle perfectly replacing the one it lost, spraying little droplets of slime all over the place, in the process.

Not enthusiastic about touching the airborne slime, Rin jumped to the right, dodging the spray. Without waiting a single moment, Ultros leapt behind her, and raised three tentacles into the air.

"I've got you now," he shouted with glee, baring his yellow teeth.

"Think again," came the reply as she fired four small Gandr spells towards his face.

The slime over his body nullified all the spells, but the impact was enough to stun the octopus for a few seconds. Rin grabbed the opportunity and ran away from Ultros, moving outside her opponent's melee attack range.

Ultros wasn't going to let her escape easily. Running with her back in his direction, Rin didn't see him recover, or see the next tentacle he pointed to her. Black ink shot out of it, hitting her in the center of her back.

"Ahhh!" she screamed as the force of the shot hurled her off the docks, and into the navigation wheel of a sinking sailboat.

"That will teach you to mess with me, ULTROS!" boasted the octopus watching her ink-covered back, as she lost consciousness.

Alarmed at witnessing Rin get knocked out, Agil dropped his axe and started running towards the sailboat she was in; planning to carry her to out to safety. Dodging another tentacle strike from the octopus, he was almost at the sailboat when his opponent decided to change fighting tactics.

"You're not going to escape that easily," warned Ultros, extending all his eight tentacles outwards from his center.

He leapt towards the axeman, slowly spinning anti-clockwise. Agil didn't like his options. The two of them were heavily wounded, thanks to the attack Rin had taken. In addition, if he also took a hit from any of the spinning tentacles, death would be unavoidable.

With combat-sparked inspiration, Agil stretched his hands out in front of himself as Ultros charged. The moment he got close enough, the axeman quickly grabbed one of the spinning tentacles in both hands; using the momentum of his opponent's attack, he spun in place, reversing the attack.

"Let me go!" screamed the octopus, growing dizzy as Agil continued spinning him around; his blood rushing to his head and making him sick.

"Gladly," answered Agil as he threw purple monster high in the air, watching it sail far into the forest. He slowly released the breath he was holding, realizing that Ultros wouldn't be able to return any time soon.

"I can't believe you did that," commented Rin as she walked up to her companion, dragging the axe he had dropped behind her.

"Wait, how are you conscious?" protested Agil, accepting the axe she handed him, "I saw him knock you out!"

"It takes a lot more than that to keep me down," she proudly answered. "I woke just in time to see you spin and throw that thing. What on earth, possessed you to even try something so reckless?!"

"I'm not really sure myself," he replied, shaking his head as Rin cast a few healing spells over herself. Agil watched their combined health bar fill up. After she finished, the pair began searching through the wreckage for a boat which was still river-worthy.


Town of Beginnings, Floor 01

"You must be really good at this game," commented Taiga, as she walked beside her companion. She was wearing a white kendogi over her chest with a dark blue hakama tied over her legs.

"I'm very passionate about it," answered Kirito as he led them to a cottage on the edge of town, which had an exclamation mark floating above.

"What was the most successful tactic you used during the Beta?" asked Taiga.

"Try, try, try again till you succeed," he replied with a weak smile. "Obviously, it won't work anymore as a fatality is permanent now."

Knocking twice on the front door, he entered the cottage with Taiga behind him. A young girl was lying on a bed nearby. She looked frail, was sweating and had dark shadows under her eyes. A middle-aged woman; obviously her mother, sat on a stool next to the bed. She turned her head towards the pair as they walked in.

"Kind strangers, will you please help me out?" she pleaded. "My daughter is sick and only medicine made from a herb growing in the forest nearby can save her. I'm too worried to leave my little girl alone and can't collect it by myself."

"No problem," said Kirito, "we should be able to handle that."

"Of course!" agreed his companion, "we'll gladly keep your daughter company while you go gather the herb."

Silence reigned in the cottage for a few moments, making Taiga feel very uncomfortable.

"What my friend means," corrected Kirito, "is that we'll gladly let you keep your daughter's company while we gather the herb. Do you know exactly where we can find it?"

Collecting a map from the mother, he walked out of the cottage dragging a confused Taiga behind him.


River Chad, Floor 01

"Duck!" warned Rin.

She watched as her companion threw himself flat on the wooden floor. A monster-fish flew over the spot where his head was a moment earlier. The two of them were sailing through River Chad aboard the only boat they could get their hands on.

To call it a boat was stretching definitions. 'Raft' would be a more appropriate description. After spending an hour digging through the damaged remains of the Boat Rental Agency, they came to the unfortunate conclusion that there weren't any boats they could use.

That wasn't to say that no boats survived, to the contrary at least 3 large sailboats did make it through the destruction, but they were so big that without a supporting crew, the pair didn't dare to use them.

Which left only one other choice - to build their own. 14 thick wooden planks were used as the base. From the destroyed boats, they found a small mast which they affixed vertically in the center of their 'vessel', supporting a sail. The final piece was a rudder, which they salvaged from another sailboat.

Agil stood at the back next to the rudder, while Rin was near the center, in front of the sail. As they drifted along the river, she would shout out instructions and he adjusted the rudder accordingly.

The river was fast, non-linear, with random rocks sticking out of the water surface; which would cause a disaster if they crashed into them. With many twists and turns, it was very difficult navigating the river, that Rin often had to consult a map to ensure that they were heading in the right direction.

The fish didn't help either. The first time one appeared, Rin almost lost a finger. After the incident, she would mercilessly fire Gandr spells at the monster-fish, disintegrating them instantly. It didn't stop the other monster-fish from trying to kill them, but gave her a good avenue for stress relief.

Looking up, she saw that the river would soon branch off in three different directions. Consulting her map, she decided that they they needed to take the rightmost branch. A task made all the more difficult thanks to the presence of a large rock which blocked half the path.

"Get ready," she warned her companion. "I'm going to try casting a more powerful spell. We need to the take the right side."

Rin raised her right index finger, pointing it at the troublesome rock. Narrowing her eyes on the rock, she concentrated. A magic circle appeared around her finger tip. Black sparks began to leak out of the finger and a second circle emerged in front of the first. It slowly spun anti-clockwise, the runes on its edge becoming a blur as it gained momentum.

"Gandr!"

Instead of a straight line, the black curse shot out in a helical spiral as it whirled towards the rock, shattering it on contact and throwing small debris everywhere.

"Nice work," complemented Agil as they passed over the remains of the rock.


Western Forest, Town of Beginnings, Floor 01

Kirito had hoped that they would face a simple opponent before the more troublesome ones started appearing. It would have given him the opportunity to study Taiga's fighting style; while he knew that she was an excellent kendoist, he wasn't sure how that translated in Sword Art Online.

To his disappointment, they were first approached by a pack of monsters; which consisted of a large black wolf, followed by two smaller purple dogs. Frowning at the enemy, he considered his options.

"I can probably take that big one by myself," said Taiga, interrupting his thoughts. "But those other two would have an easy shot at me if I rushed ahead."

"That's an interesting coincidence," replied Kirito. "It was the black one who worried me."

"If I lead the big one away," she suggested, "can you take care of the rest?"

"Sounds good," he replied, holding his sword out in front.

Bending down, Taiga picked up a pebble. Running to the left, she tossed the stone at the black wolf, hitting him right between his eyes.

"Come on and get me!" challenged Taiga, sticking her tongue out at the beast. It growled in response and charged towards her.

The two purple dogs were about to follow their leader when,

"Linear!"

Kirito ran beside them, leaving a red cut on both their sides. Deciding to address the immediate threat, they turned round to attack him.

Running towards an opponent was a kendo tactic she was familiar with. Smiling, Taiga raised the katana she wielded and ran towards the wolf. It glared back, bering its sharp fangs at her. If this had been a kendo competition; she would have struck her opponent's shoulder, ending the match. But it wasn't a kendo competition, her opponent wouldn't stop with a single hit; the animal would undoubtedly continue attacking till she was no more.

Thus Taiga was fully aware that she couldn't treat the fight like a regulated match. At the last minute she shifted her body weight to the left side, running past the wolf - slicing his side with her katana.

The animal howled in pain as it ran past her. Much quicker than she anticipated, it turned around and charged at her, much like a bull in a bullfight. She turned to respond, but wasn't fast enough. The black animal rammed into her right side, knocking her to the ground.

Sitting up, she noticed that her health had dropped to about 90% because of the attack. It would have been worse, had she let the wolf ram into her back. Not one to ignore the enemy, she looked back to see the wolf high in the air with his jaw aimed at her neck.

There wasn't time to move out of the way, and for most people it would have been the end; as kendo practise didn't train for such occasions. Taiga was different however - her relatives had strong connections to the underground and she knew a thing or two about thinking on her feet.

She bent forward, katana in both hands and held it vertically. She instinctively thrust it forward as the black animal landed, piercing its heart. It burst into non-existence with pixels showering around her. Relieved at her victory, she turned to see how her companion was doing.

Kirito frowned as he saw that the first engagement resulted in lowering his health to 80%. The dogs weren't in front of him either. One was to his left and the other on his right. Pincered, he didn't really have too many options. But he did know one thing - standing and waiting for the enemy attack would be fatal.

Deciding quickly, he turned left and ran towards the purple dog, sword held at his right side. The animal was down to 40% of it's health and a single strike would be more than enough to finish it. He grinned as the dog charged towards him - with them running towards each other, the animal's own momentum would add damage to his sword thrust, ensuring it's defeat.

When he was close enough, Kirito thrust the sword with his right hand aiming for the spot between the dog's eyes. His target unfortunately, decided to jump at the last moment, resulting in Kirito thrusting the sword, along with half his hand into the dog's snarling mouth.

The strike reduced the animal's health to zero, but he was more worried about the dog behind him. It would take a few seconds for the dog in front to disintegrate, during which his right hand was stuck halfway into it's mouth.

Kirito frowned as he heard the second dog leap into the air behind him. He couldn't see his opponent, but there were only one direction from which that attack could be made into his blind spot. Left hand bent over his left shoulder and pointing the index finger where he guessed the dog to be, Kirito launched four Fireballs. The pixel shower that followed told him the result.

"You certainly are something," commented Taiga as she walked up to him.

Standing up, he turned his head towards her.

"And you definitely know how to take care of yourself," he replied complimenting her. "Shall we wrap this up quickly?"


River Chad, Floor 1

"Are we there yet?" complained Agil from the rudder.

Rin blinked, turned and stared at him for a few minutes.

"What are you, a three-year old?" she asked shaking her head. "We'll be there soon enough."

"Eh … ?" trailed off Agil, puzzled about how he upset her.

As they passed under an overhanging tree, an old acquaintance dropped in.

"Hello!" sneered Ultros, "Bet you two are glad to see me, right? Because I haven't forgotten what happened the last time."

And without further banter, he swung a tentacle at Rin. She ducked and ran behind the sail. Agil released his hold on the rudder and ran to support her. However, the waters were fast, resulting in their boat spinning round. He quickly grabbed the rudder, reorienting the boat as Ultros moved around the sail.

"You got lucky last time," he spoke. "But I have the advantage this round."

He swung another tentacle at Rin, who ducked out of range. Instead he hit the main mast, breaking off the sail.

"Rin!" ordered Agil, "Don't let go of the mast."

Only a stump of the mast remained on their boat, but she quickly grabbed hold of it. Releasing the rudder, Agil pulled out his axe. Taking advantage of the momentum on their spinning boat, he hit the octopus on its side, pushing it to the edge. Quickly grabbing the rudder, he re-stabilised the boat.

"Hey, watch it!" screamed the sharp-toothed octopus. "It's dangerous doing that."

It was a long shot, but witnessing their uninvited guest as he looked at the water with worry, gave Rin an idea. Still holding the mast-stump in her left hand, she pointed her right index finger at the purple monster.

"Ice!" "Ice!" "Ice!"

The first ice blast caught Ultros on his right side, pushing him back. He managed to swat away the second blast with a tentacle, but the third hit him right on his center, ejecting him from the boat.

"Ahhh!" he screamed, splashing in the river, "I hate the water!"

Rin took pity, by firing two Gandr spells at his panicking face. She and Agil sighed out in relief as they watched him sink.


Western Forest, Town of Beginnings, Floor 01

Kirito frowned as he peeked from behind a tree. In the clearing ahead, was the herb they were looking for; exactly where the sick girl's mother told them it would be. The problem was that it was surrounded by a glowing red forcefield.

"Kirito?" asked Taiga, standing behind him, "Why is the herb glowing like that?"

"It's not the herb that's glowing," he corrected. "But a forcefield around it that's creating the glow."

"More importantly," he continued, "The forcefield is an unbreakable object."

"What does that mean?" she wondered.

Feeling vulnerable at their current location, he pointed at a dense thicket nearby. Silently, the two of them moved inside, out from sight from any predators.

"Unbreakable objects are exactly what they mean," he explained. "They cannot be broken or destroyed."

"But if that's the case," she objected, "how will we complete this quest?"

"We need to defeat the boss nearby."

"Boss?" she wondered. "Don't those only appear near the floor exit?"

"That's true," admitted Kirito. "Perhaps it's better to think of this as an optional one, or possibly even a mid-boss?"

"There is such a thing as a mid-boss?"

"Think about it," he said. "Strictly speaking, we don't need to do this quest. We're only here to level up. Which means we don't have to defeat this boss either."

"Ah! I see now," answered Taiga. "That's why you call them optional bosses."

"But," she continued. "I don't see any enemies around here. Should we do something to make the boss come here?"

"See the clearing around the herb?" he asked, pointing towards the area. "I'm guessing that the boss will make an appearance when we enter there."

Taiga opened her Game Menu, checking her status. Satisfied, she turned to Kirito who was doing the same.

"I'm ready, what about you?"

"Ready," he answered. "Let's do this."


Abandoned Temple, Floor 01

"Finally, we made it!" exclaimed Rin as she got off the boat.

She looked at her surroundings. There was a lot of green foliage in the area, with a few coconut trees growing near the riverbed, and right in front of her, was an old broken down Aztec temple.

"So this is where the Clare Bible is supposed to be?" asked Agil, coming up behind her.

She turned her head back, nodded towards him then looked forward again. There were steps leading to the top of the temple, with vines growing all over the place; the building also had holes in random locations. Squinting her eyes, it looked like there was something glowing at the top, but she couldn't be sure.

"I think I see something at the top," she commented. "But I can't tell what it is."

Agil picked a stone from the ground and threw it over the steps. The pair watched as the stone bounced a few times before coming to a stop.

"Doesn't look like it's booby-trapped," concluded the axeman. "Let's hurry to the top and get out of here before something else shows up."

"Yes," nodded Rin, as she began climbing the steps behind him. "I don't think I can stand another encounter with that octopus today."


Steps, Abandoned Temple, Floor 01

"When will these things end?" complained Rin as she continued climbing.

"Keep at it," encouraged Agil. "It doesn't look too far away now."


10 minutes later

"Does that crack look familiar to you?" asked Agil pointing to one of the steps.

"You must be imagining things," answered Rin. "It would have to be a tremendous coincidence for this crack to look identical to the one we saw 200 steps ago."

"You've been counting the steps?"

"An attempt at defeating boredom," she replied. "Doesn't seem to be working."


15 minutes later

"Are you sure that crack doesn't look familiar?"

"Listen muscle-head," came the annoyed reply. "I'm hot, tired and not in a mood to confirm to you that we've been seeing the exact same crack over 6 times now."

"So, it reappeared at least 6 times?" asked the axeman.

"It's a different crack," she answered. "Now stop looking at steps and concentrate on whatever is glowing on the top of this stupid temple!"


10 minutes later

"I have a feeling," began Agil, "that something very wrong is going on here."

"You think?" came the sarcastic reply.

The two of them had spent the last 30 minutes climbing the temple steps. But no matter how far they climbed, it didn't look like they were making any significant progress. They were high above the ground, but it didn't feel like the top was getting any closer.

"Ahh!" screamed Rin. "You stupid temple!"

Raising her right hand, she pointed it towards the top of the temple and launched a small Fireball. The two of them watched it fly towards their destination, disappearing from sight.

"Stress relief?" asked the concerned axeman.

"Stress relief," she nodded.

They continued climbing for few more minutes before Rin heard something approaching from behind. Curious, she looked back to see a Fireball being shot at them.

"Duck!" she shouted, throwing herself to the ground.

Agil did the same, allowing the Fireball to pass harmlessly over their heads.

"Is someone attacking us?" he asked, looking behind them.

"I don't see anyone …" trailed off his companion.

A few minutes later, another Fireball came at them from below. This time instead of dodging, Agil harmlessly swatted it out with the flat end of his axe. Turning to face the girl next to him, he found her deep in thought.

"Rin?" he asked. "Is something the matter?"

"I'm not sure," she answered. "But that Fireball you just dissipated? It's my spell. I recognize the magical signature."

"Are you sure?" he asked in surprise. "Couldn't someone have duplicated or tried casting it in a similar manner?"

"I will not say that it's impossible," she replied. "But I don't use System Assist for my spells and for someone to take the trouble to copy it so perfectly … what purpose would it serve?"

"I don't know," replied the axeman with a shrug.

"For the time being," she continued. "Unless we see evidence that says otherwise, it will be prudent to assume that it was the same Fireball I cast."

"Evidence that says otherwise?!" exclaimed Agil pointing towards the top of the temple. "You launched your spell up, in this direction."

"But that other one came from down there," he said pointing to the steps they climbed. "What other evidence do you need?"

Closing her eyes, Rin stood in silence, deep in thought. Her companion had a point. The direction clearly indicated that someone else must have launched the spell, but her instincts said otherwise; which should be physically impossible. She felt like she was staring at a puzzle, with the solution almost within her grasp. A few minutes later and opening her eyes, she faced the axeman.

"I have an idea," she said. "But it's risky and could backfire."

"I'll try anything at this point," he replied. "What do you have in mind?"

"To climb back down."

"What?!" he exclaimed. "But we spent so much effort climbing all the way up here!"

She pointed towards the top.

"And yet it doesn't seem like we are getting any closer, are we?"

She took a deep breath and looked back the way the came.

"I hate to admit it," she confessed. "But you may have been right about that crack."

"You lost me," he admitted. "I have no idea what you are trying to say anymore. But the bottom line is that we should go back down, right?"

"Not exactly," she clarified. "We should climb down with the intent of going up."

"Eh?"

Looking at his face, it was obvious that he didn't of understanding her. Not in a mood to lecture when she was standing halfway to top of an old temple, she grabbed his hand and pulled him down the steps.


Top of Abandoned Temple, Floor 01

"And here we are!" announced Rin, as she proudly stood in front of the altar, at top of the temple.

"How did we get here?" asked her companion, looking confused.

"It involves a bit of theoretical physics, some quantum mathematics, understanding of the ninth dimension of space - "

"Please stop," he interrupted, raising his right hand. "I don't mean to be rude, but I have no idea what any of that means. For now, I'll just be grateful that you were with me."

"Ignoramus," she audibly mumbled, with a noticeable frown.

Privately, she was grinning. It had been a random guess on her part that backtracking would work; she was relieved when she found out that she wouldn't need to confess her bluff.

"So which of these is the Clare Bible?" he asked, pointing to the two glowing books on the altar.

"We open and find out," she replied, reaching out to one of the books.

As soon as her hand touched the cover of the book, white sparks shot out, forcing her to withdraw. The two players watched as a white orb, similar to an experience orb, came out from the center of the altar and float in the air above.

The pair glanced at each other before turning to study the orb. Rin stretched her hand towards it and a holographic message appeared before them,

"Congratulations! By making it this far you have earned a copy of the Clare Bible and access to the Teleportation-Backtrack spell. Best of luck to your journey ahead!"

"So …," slowly began Agil, "does this mean we've finally found it?"

The relief was evident in his voice. Rin allowed his optimism to infect her as well.

"Yes," she replied, picking up the book titled 'Clare Bible - copy'.

The moment she touched the other book, it disintegrated in a shower of pixels with her Spell Menu popping in front of her. It glowed with a new entry titled 'Teleportation-Backtrack'.

"Damn," complained Agil, "another spell I can't use. And this one has an even larger prana requirement than any of the others!"

"But I can," countered Rin, as she read how the spell worked. "It's a limited Teleportation spell."

"I could guess that from the name," he replied sarcastically. "What's so special about it? You're limited to teleporting behind your back?"

"Not exactly," she replied with a smirk. "There are limits, but with this I can instantly teleport to any location I've been in previously - reason why it's called the Backtrack spell."

"So we can reach the bottom of this temple without using those stairs?" asked Agil looking worriedly at the aforementioned steps.

"Even better," Rin replied, grabbing his hand. "I'll take us straight back to the entrance of Zelas Temple."


Clearing, Western Forest, Town of Beginnings, Floor 01

As soon as Kirito stepped into the clearing, he felt it. Judging from the way his companion tensed, he guessed that she did as well. The anticipation, the invisible weight in the air, the silence of the noise - as kendo veterans both of them knew what it meant. The prelude to a battle.

They didn't have to wait long; a large bear jumped into the center of the clearing, in front of the shielded herb. Standing on its hind legs, it was twice as tall as Kirito, with dark brown fur, cold black eyes and glowing maroon claws sticking out of it's front paws. To make matters worse, the beast was wearing iron chest armor and had two bars of HP.

"Looks like we have our work cut out for us," he commented.

"There's a saying in my family," said his companion. "The bigger they are, the harder they fall."

Taiga, katana in her right hand, charged towards the beast. As soon as she was in striking distance, the bear slashed forward, attempting to throw her to the side. Instead of dodging the attack, she jumped. Kirito had never seen a move like it before. He didn't think it was a legal kendo move, but that didn't matter. Her legs spun over her head at the apex of her arc and she brought them down on the bear's head. It howled in pain as it lost a large chunk of HP, but she wasn't done.

Without losing momentum, she brought her katana down on the beast's left shoulder and ran down its back, leaving behind a shallow cut. Jumping off, she spun round and held her position defensively.

"Its armor won't come off?!" she exclaimed.

It was then that Kirito realized her true plan. Considering the difference in size, the bear was forced to bend forward, lowering its height while it attacked her. She used that opportunity to attempt knocking the beast out by smashing its head - a move normally made impossible due to their relative heights. And if that didn't work, the follow up slash would cut the strings holding the armor up; forcing it to fall, leaving her opponent in a much more vulnerable position.

"Unfortunately, the only thing we can do in this world is either to smash the armor or pierce through it. I've heard that expert assassins have a Skill to subtly remove their opponents armor, but no one in the Beta ever managed that far."

"Damn …"

"Now," smiled Kirito, "it's my turn."

He crouched, taking an offensive position with the sword on his right side. There was considerable distance between the bear and himself, but it didn't matter. As the bear gathered itself from Taiga's attack, he started running towards the beast.

"Speed Thrust!"

The next moment, a blur passed beside the bear, leaving a small cut on it's right arm; Kirito materializing on the other side of the animal. Quickly turning back towards his opponent, he charged again,

"Speed Thrust!"

Taiga watching as her ally left a cut on the bear's left arm this time.

"Speed Thrust!" "Speed Thrust!" "Speed Thrust!" "Speed Thrust!"

Under normal circumstances, the move he used was meant to ram straight into his opponent. It always carried the risk of breaking the users weapon, if the opponent's armor was strong enough to withstand the attack; but Kirito wasn't attacking the bear's chest. Instead, he just grazed the animal on it's armorless arm, dealing negligible damage.

By repeatedly attacking however, the 'negligible damage' added up. Since the attack technically missed piercing the opponent, Kirito wouldn't be suffering from exhaustion and would be able to relaunch the next strike without giving the bear any time to recover.

Taiga watched as the bear, who started the fight with two full health bars was now down to less than one full bar. She wasn't sure how much damage she dealt to the animal, but it was obvious that Kirito was doing a much better job of chipping away its health.

He suddenly stopped attacking and appeared beside her, sweating and panting hard.

"I pant," he said. "need a pant quick pant breather."

She corrected her earlier assessment. Even if the individual strikes didn't tire him out, similar to how the bear lost it's HP, Kirito still lost stamina. Unlike the bear however, he could recover by standing still for a few minutes.

Taiga noted that the bear had less than half a health bar remaining. She felt a little sad, attempting the final strike after the damage Kirito dealt, but since they weren't competing, she rationalized that it wasn't a problem.

Running a small distance from Kirito, Taiga took a deep breath and roared at the bear. Angrily, the animal growled back. Without warning, she charged forward, head first, katana trailing behind in her right hand.

The bear dropped to the floor on its front paws, and ran towards her. The two accelerated, quickly closing the gap between themselves. The animal opened its mouth wide, intending to bite off the prey's head.

It was exactly the response she was hoping for - Taiga didn't roar for no reason after all, it was bait for the animal to try and bite her. Eyes glowing a feral red, with dangerous grin on her face; she charged in towards her opponent, bringing her katana forward, acting as a makeshift lance. She saw fear in the beast's eyes as it realized that a blade was about to ram into its open, defenseless mouth.

By then, it was too late. Taiga had thrust the sharp end of her katana through the bear's orifice and out of the back of its head. It disintegrated in a beautiful pixel shower, distributing experience points to all members of the party who killed it.

Walking up to her, Kirito smiled as he realized that she was the one panting at the end of the fight - the exact opposite of what had happened the first time.

"Impressive kill strike," he commented.

"Just took a leaf out of your book," she answered, smiling at him.

"After delivering this," he said plucking the herb from the ground, force-field no longer protecting it, "let's return to the Inn to meet back up with everyone."


Zelas Temple, Floor 01

Two fluorescent circles appeared on the ground, in front of the temple. They rose into the air, leaving behind a faint blue blur; when it vanished, Rin and Agil stood in its place.

"Wow," he said taking stock of his surroundings, "We really are back at the temple."

"Yes," she replied. "Now let's find that priest to annul our marriage."

"About that," began the axeman as he climbed the stairs, "I know we agreed to go our separate ways after this was over, but …"

"Go on?" she said, encouraging him, as she followed behind.

"Would you consider forming a party with me?"

"Odd thing to ask," she commented. "to someone you are about to divorce."

"A union neither of us wanted," he pointed out. "Should I take that as a no?"

Rin shook her head.

"As long as you are clear that I am already married," she answered. "I see no reason why not."

He audibly snorted.

"Right back at you," he teased, opening the temple door.

It opened to reveal a disturbing sight.

A young girl with blue hair, was kneeling near the podium at the center, crying. As worrisome as that was, even more disturbing was the condition of her legs. They seemed to be made of sand, which was leaking away. On second glance, it was obvious that her body was slowly turning into sand. The status markings floating above her head, marked her as a human player.

Xelloss looked up to the pair as they entered. Holding his staff in his left hand, he used his right hand to wave at the couple, before walking up to them.

"Greetings Miss Rin and Mister Agil," he said, smiling through his closed eyes, "Can I assume that your return means that you recovered the book?"

"Yes," answered Rin. "But what's happening to the girl crying over there?"

The priest opening his eyes, turned to look at said girl with a sad expression.

"I am afraid," he explained. "That she has caught a curse which causes her entire body to turn to sand. The final stage just began 10 minutes ago - the pain is what's causing the water-works."

"Isn't there any way to save her?" asked Agil, worry evident in his voice.

"There is an artifact available that can cure her condition … but it's located on the third floor."

"How much time does she have left?" enquired Rin.

"Another hour at most," answered the priest.

Rin sadly looked back at the girl. Considering that the first floor hadn't been cleared in all this time, it was very unlikely that anyone would be able to make it to the third floor and back within an hour just to save her. Rin didn't want to let her die, but she knew that she was powerless to help.

"This artifact," began Agil. "By any chance is there a copy of it we can use, hopefully located somewhere on this floor? What is it called anyway?"

Xelloss seemed to become nervous at the question, opting to look to the side instead, before answering the axeman.

"Technically," he replied, "there is a copy on the current floor which can be used, but …"

"But what?" asked Agil, confused over the priest's hesitation.

"I'm not sure if I should mention it's name to either of you," concluded Xelloss.

In a spark of realization, Rin widened her eyes.

"By any chance," she slowly said, "are you referring to our copy of the Clare Bible?"

Xelloss silently nodded.

"Rin - let's give it to her," suggested Agil.

"Looks like we'll be stuck with each other for a little longer …" she trailed off.

Withdrawing the artifact from their inventory, she wordlessly gave the book to the priest, tilting her head towards the crying girl.

Accepting the book from her hands, he turned towards the podium; raising his staff in one hand and book in the other.

"Rejoice Sachi!" he exclaimed, startling everyone present.

"The good people behind me have sympathized to your cause," he continued. "You will no longer need to worry about being swept up and thrown into the rubbish bin. I have here with me a genuine copy of the Clare Bible. We will commence your healing immediately."

He threw the Clare Bible into the air, raising his staff; a blue beam of light emerged from it, hitting the book. It burst open, sending pages flying around all over the room. They eventually settled on the walls, some pages on top of each other. An even darker shade of blue light shot out from the pages, concentrating at the center of the podium where Sachi was suffering.

A bird's eye view of the scene would resemble the spokes of a bicycle, even though the lights concentrated around the crying girl, there was a small space near the podium where the blue lights did not enter.

Instead, the central space began to glow green, creating a whirlwind which collected all the dirt present within the temple. Rin & Agil held on tightly to the pews to prevent themselves from being sucked in.

What happened next was a phenomena that Rin had never witnessed before. The light within the temple seemed to shift, moving into the whirlwind as well. She couldn't see anything at all; even blinking her eyes, there was nothingness. It was pitch black.

And just as abrubtly, everything was back to normal again. It happened so suddenly that Rin was concerned if she had been forcefully teleported. A quick stock of her surroundings, however indicated that it was not the case.

At the very center of the temple, standing next to the podium on her restored human feet was the girl. It looked like the procedure had been a success. She wobbled a bit, unsure of herself and had to hold onto the podium with her left hand to stand upright.

The temple doors slammed open, revealing a male player. He was dressed in black robes with his hood open, hanging behind his neck. Rin's eyes widened as she recognized him.

"Sachi!" the newcomer called out. "Did you make it here alright? Are you cured?"

"I'm over here!" replied the girl, wobbling near the podium. With her free hand she pointed to the pair standing behind the priest.

"Those two saved my life …" she trailed off, before collapsing onto the floor. The newcomer quickly ran to hold her.

"I wouldn't worry any further, if I were you," commented Xelloss. "She's out of danger and just exhausted from the experience. A good rest should bring her back to her usual, bothersome self."

"Buuuut," stretched out the priest, quirking an eyebrow. "I'm not sure who you are. Miss Sachi obviously considers you an ally, but I fail to see the connection."

"Forgive me," explained the newcomer, picking up the unconscious girl in a bridal carry. "She is my blood cousin and we're members of the same party."

"I am very grateful for your help," he continued, addressing the couple. "You have my sincerest gratitude." bowing as deeply as he could, while still holding Sachi in his arms.

"My, my," commented Rin. "I never expected to meet you again, much less in a place like this."

"R-Rin?" stammered the black robed player as he stood straight, recognizing her voice.

"It's been a long time," she smiled. "Issei."

He stared at her in shock, disbelief evident on his face. Shaking his head in an attempt to regain his composure; he took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

"Much as I hate to admit it," he finally said, opening his eyes, "I owe you a debt. Is there any way it can be settled immediately?"

"For now," she answered, looking towards the girl in his arms. "I think you have other priorities."

"Thank you," he replied walking towards the exit. "We will meet again."

They stood quietly as the door closed behind him.

"Someone you used to know?" asked Agil, breaking the silence.

"We've worked together before," she answered, recalling the time when she served Issei as Vice President in Junior High for four years.

"I take it, that you aren't on friendly terms with each other?"

"More like we have difficulty getting along," she corrected, "My husband likes him."

"A more pressing matter on the other hand …" she trailed off, turning towards the priest.


A few days later, Starting City, Floor 01

Rin found herself enjoying breakfast in front of a familiar café; unlike before, she wasn't alone this morning.

"Any idea on what to do next?" asked Agil, munching a croissant.

"Our first priority is to get to the third floor," she replied. "After which, we'll need to start looking for clues about where exactly the Clare Bible copy is located."

"Yes," he agreed. "Pity that priest didn't know anything else about it."

"What is the current level of progress with gaining access to the second floor?"

"You mean you didn't get the message?"

"What message?" she asked, concerned about missing important information.

The axeman opened his Game Menu and dragged out a letter that had been sent to all the players.

"This one," he answered, offering her the letter. "Basically it says that the boss room was found two days ago and that some beta player is organizing the attack."

"Oh yes," replied Rin, recognizing the letter. "I remember this message. He suggested charging into the boss room with teams spaced 10 minutes apart, right? A suicide attempt, if you ask me."

"Can't argue with that," agreed Agil. "Last I heard, they lost 23 players so far."

"How are people still listening to the fool when so many casualties are involved?"

"I've hear that he's very charismatic," replied Agil. "Also the boss doesn't regenerate health, so their idea is to slowly chip away at him."

Rin shook her head in disappointment.

"So what happens when the boss is defeated?" she asked. "Does everyone instantly get teleported to the next floor or something?"

"We don't get teleported," answered Agil. "As to what happens … it will depend on what the the story arc will be."

"Story arc?" she puzzled.

"It was something they introduced as a result of the beta tests," he explained. "After playing for hours, the most common complaint was about the lack of a plot."

"I can understand that," she nodded. "It would quickly become boring if this game was only about climbing a castle. In fact, I have been wondering about it for some time now."

"This first floor, exists as a kind of tutorial floor," he continued. "It's the reason why there hasn't been any game-related story event so far."

"Are you telling me that the real plot starts from the second floor?"

"More like the next set of plots," he clarified. "According to the User Manual, instead of a single story, there are different story arcs in Aincrad. Each arc tells a story across multiple floors."

"What kind of stories can we look forward to?"

"The User Manual says that inspiration was taken from old myths and legends."

The pair resumed their breakfast in silence. Agil looked at the street. There were a few vendors selling fruit nearby, a sign pointed to a tavern in the next corner and lots of people - players and NPCs alike walked around, minding their own business. Seeing a couple walking arm-in-arm reminded him of his wife.

"I wonder what she's doing right now …" he trailed off, with a dreamy look in his eyes.

"Who are you talking about?" asked Rin curiously.

"My wife back in the real world," he replied. "Don't you worry about your husband too?"

She nodded, closing her eyes. Under normal circumstances, she would have expected her red haired husband to come rushing in to save her - even at the cost of his own life. But the current situation was more complicated. It was almost a certainty that if he tried anything, she would be killed - forcing him to play the role of a bystander.

A loud bell interrupted Rin from her musings.

"What was that?" she asked.

Agil activated his Game Menu in response, scrolling through the different options.

"I think it means that the first boss was just defeated," he guessed. "Which also means that we should get a message about the upcoming story arc … Ah, here it is!"

He opened a new message which confirmed his conjecture. Reading further, he started chuckling.

"What's so amusing?" asked Rin curiously.

"The back-story for the upcoming story arc is just typical," he answered. "It's about an old Sumerian tyrant - guy doesn't care for his people, they need help … etcetera,etcetera."

"Here's his picture," said the axeman, showing her the message.

Rin's eyes widened in shock - the yellow hair, golden earrings, red eyes,arrogant face - there was no way she could ever forget him.

"Epic of Gilgamesh," continued Agil, reading the text below the picture.


To Be Continued …

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