The forest outside of «Horunka Village» was becoming a graveyard littered with the item drops of the unfortunate. There were three ways to die in the forest. The first was to die by one of the «Wandering Wolves» which I readily termed 'Death by Panic'. The difference in combat power between the boars on the starting plain and the «Wandering Wolves» was huge. Even with no armor you could take eight or nine hits from one of the boars without even beginning to worry about your health. One of the wolves on the other hand would drop a level one into the yellow with a single hit despite the leather armor everyone had started equipping.

In a normal game going below fifty percent health was no big deal. But SAO wasn't like that. When their lives were on the line most people started running when the cursor turned yellow. Against the «Wandering Wolves» that was a fatal mistake. There was absolutely no way for a low level character to outrun one. Trying to climb one of the trees in the forest to escape was even worse. Climbing anything in SAO was hard and slow. It most definitely wasn't something to attempt near a wolf with a ten foot vertical.

That wasn't to say that trying to farm the «Wandering Wolves» was foolish. They were actually the least dangerous thing in the forest because of one reason and one reason alone. They were fragile. A skilled level one duo familiar with the wolves attack pattern could farm them without taking damage. A level one solo player could farm one and live. The quickest method was to start the battle with a sword skill then just take the return hit from the wolf. Unless you had used your sword skills an unreasonable amount to reduce the after skill delay you wouldn't be able to dodge it anyway. That hit would take anywhere from half to two thirds of a level one players health, but it would also do something else very very important. For exactly one second after the «Wandering Wolf» landed a pounce any hit on it would critical. If you were already in position for «Vertical» then you could end the battle right there.

Not that you would stay level one for very long if you were farming «Wandering Wolves». It only took four wolves including the one that I killed with sempai to get me to level two.

I termed the second way to die in the forest 'Death by Misfortune'. It was probably the most common way for people who were actually competent and careful to die. The common «Wandering Wolves» had a rarer and much much more dangerous cousin, which I had overheard one of the small groups operating out of Horunka's only inn term «Howling Wolves». Why was simple. «Howling Wolves» looked exactly like their more common cousins. Up until you damaged one anyway. True to its name, as soon as you dealt any damage to one it would stand on its haunches and bellow its little heart out. If you were out of melee range then you had a chance of escaping the pack of eight to fifteen wolves that appeared out of the forest around. A vanishingly small one perhaps, but definitely a chance.

If you were in melee range then you were already dead. Because then not only did the howling wolf call out all his little forest friends. He also paralyzed you. Unless you were farming in a well coordinated and large group then your last living moments would be lying on the forest floor unable to move as wolves fed on you.

The last way to die in the forest could only be described as 'Death by Stupidity'. It consisted of going near the western edge of the forest where the trees started to get much wider even as the terrain turned into a baffling mix of sudden drops and box canyons. Because that's where the «Bone Armor Wolves» spawned. Not only did the oversized cousins of the other wolves in the forest hit almost four times as hard as the «Wandering Wolves», they were almost invincible.

The coat of thick hardened bone that covered them like some demented barding was distinctly not for show. Hits to the bone, which covered almost every place that was actually easy to hit did exactly one damage until the armor's durability was exhausted and it cracked. Which just wasn't practical when the wolf was tearing through you like a chainsaw.

Frankly the things were invincible monsters are far as I was concerned. But they also had a certain habit which made death by them much less likely than their utterly overwhelming power would indicate. They were extremely territorial. While this made them attack you the moment you accidentally stepped into ones range, it also meant that the «Bone Armor Wolves» were much less likely to simply leave their neck of the woods to chase you down and kill you. As long as you didn't piss it off too badly anyway.

I had always been an over achiever though, so naturally on my third day in SAO I attempted all three ways of dying at once. When I threw a rock to agro my very first mob of the day It stood on its haunches and let out a horrible sound that almost stopped my heart then and there. All around me the woods filled with red polygons as the game spawned a wolf pack. I ran flat out towards the only gap in the mob that I could see before they finished spawning.

The wolves were hot on my heels a moment later, as I ran with my inventory open groping for the item I had bought for these specific circumstances. I found it just as the first of the wolves pounced taking a solid fifth of my health with it. More dangerous than the damage though, was the out of control stagger it sent me into. I probably would have died then and there if no for the bag of ground pepper I had just pulled from my inventory. My stumble sent it spraying out in the air behind me, burning the wolves eyes and buying me just enough time to reclaim my balance.

Unfortunately that was a long way from the 'Guaranteed Escape' that the jerk who had convinced me to buy it had advertised. At that point I might have panicked just a little bit when the next blow sent my health bar into the yellow, but I panicked a lot more when a much deeper growl came from the bushes in front of me. With a sudden sinking feeling I realized exactly where I had been running towards in my panic just as a «Bone Armor Wolf» leaped from the bushes in front of me.

What happened next could only be described as dumb luck, because my brain had obviously long since taken absence from the scene. I jumped forwards, barely dodging a thorough raking from the «Bone Armor Wolf's» ridiculously oversized front claws.

Then the magic started. Even as I hit the brush on the forest floor hard the «Bone Armor Wolf» landed where I had been standing a fraction of a second before with a small cloud of dust and a wave of AoE damage. Or at least I think that was the reason that every single wolf in the pack that had been chasing me suddenly shifted agro to the armored wolf.

Their largely ineffective attacks were more than enough to irritate the already mean tempered «Bone Armor Wolf» into returning the favor. The armored wolf almost contemptuously tore the closest wolf apart with a flash of claws before it turned its fangs on the next closest. If anything the reports had underestimated just how much damage the bone armor wolves did.

It wasn't entirely one sided though. Every time the armored wolf turned to crush one of the wolves the rest of the pack would rush into nip at its flanks. More than one of them was smart enough to try and nip at the armored wolf's softer chest. One even got underneath the armored wolf entirely before the armored wolf smashed it apart with a heavy swipe of its tail.

By the time the armored wolf tore apart its sixth victim I was on my feet and slowly backing away from the fight. The very last thing I wanted to do was absolutely anything that would turn either parties agro back towards me. I almost started to feel bad for the normal wolves when the tenth died with a pitiable whine. That pity vanished a heartbeat later when my senses returned enough to inform me that ten wolves dead only meant one more between me and the armored juggernaut which had devastated the wolf pack.

That last line of defense vanished in a stray spray of blue polygons half a second later and the armored wolf turned its contemptuous gaze on me before charging. I'm still not sure why I didn't start running again. Although I would later attribute my apparent bravery to catching a glimpse of that wolf's critically low health bar, when I was being completely honest with myself I couldn't help but admit that I probably just stood my ground because I was too stunned to move.

Regardless of my reasons I caught that wolf's pounce on the flat of my «Old War-sword». And managed to deflect its weight to the side rather than going down underneath it. Despite my impromptu defense the hit the wolf did land was more than enough to send my bar the rest of the way to the red. As the wolf fell I caught a flash of gray fur and in a bit of instinct I've never deliberately been able to replicate I snapped my sword forward into the initial position of my favorite sword skill. The «Horizontal» caught the wolf midair and tore a straight red line across its breast. The wolf hit the ground behind me and came apart in a bundle of polygons.

I sighed and my whole body shivered in satisfaction. Despite the nagging recrimination I felt running through my head about exactly how foolhardy fighting the armored wolf had been I couldn't help but feel satisfied. The satisfaction doubled when the game played a little clip of fanfare and the post combat window appeared in front of me to dutifully inform me that I had leveled up. Apparently since I had dealt damage to the pack of wolves with the pepper trick I was entitled to experience when they died.

It was more than enough to send me straight past level five and half way towards level six. The drops weren't shabby at all either. I got another four «Wolf Skins» which I could vendor for enough col to last me a week at the village inn. More impressive to me though was the set of «Bone Greaves» the armored wolf had been kind enough to leave behind.

I gulped a potion to help my natural regeneration along. I wasn't comfortable having my bar in the red in the forest. Especially the segment of the forest I was in. Then I equipped the greaves and admired my reflection in a convenient creek. When I hiked up my skirt I saw that wearing the greaves made my legs look even stranger. The greaves bulked up my lower legs to what I thought was skinny rather than the abnormal sticks they normally were, but they unfortunately capped out at my knees. Which left my legs looking more like a graphical error than part of the body.

It was naturally at this somewhat shameful moment that a commentator decided to appear from nowhere. A voice cheerily shouted out from right behind me, "I saw what you did with those wolves. You're quite the hunter." The voice startled me so badly I shrieked and took a face first tumble into the water.

My wits caught up a second later and I stood up in the shallow creek with my clothes soaked and a grumpy frown on my face. The «Wandering Trapper» NPC who had startled me took it all in stride though. He definitely did not have a small smirk on his face, because that would just be giving the AI way way too much credit. Once I walked back onto the bank of the small creek the trapper continued. "I need a bit of help from someone like you."

I considered turning down the obvious quest offer just to spite the NPC, but I was pretty sure that the unfeeling bit of computer code would get the better end of that deal so I instead I mumbled out, "How can I help?" It didn't come out nearly as condescending as I had hoped though.

"Well you see I'm not the first trapper in my family. My father was a trapper too. And when I was a kid he used to tell me stories about a black boar that he used to see wandering the plains. He had this whole epic confrontation with the thing and in the end it got away, but no before my pop took its eye."

I wasn't sure how to respond to that, but luckily the npc shrugged anyway and continued his tale, "I always thought they were just that. You know, stories you tell a kid." He paused to take a breath before continuing in a softer voice, "But yesterday my father passed away and on his death bed he bequeathed to me the secret of how to trap that black boar."

"I'm sorry for your loss."

"Thank you ma'am. I want to take a crack at that boar my father used to tell me about, but I'm not half the hunter he was, so I thought I could use some company. You interested?"

"Yes, I'll help." The words came out of my mouth before I really thought the situation through, and the chime of my quest menu updating came just in time for me to wonder what exactly I had gotten myself into.

As if to mock me the trapper npc was immediately overenthusiastic. He grabbed my hands and shook them vigorously before dragging me along deeper into the woods. He spoke as we walked, "I know these parts pretty well. You don't need to worry about anything dangerous finding us when you're with me, but I wouldn't walk this way by yourself. Some nasty things live around here, and they can be real mean to those they find."

I couldn't help but think 'yeah no kidding'. We were in the heart of armored wolf territory where even towards the end of the beta test people had trouble soloing. But the normal occupants of the area were thankfully no where to be seen.

The sky was darkening when the trees started to thin out into the plains of starting city. Even at this late hour a few players were out farming, but they didn't seem to notice me and the NPC as we ghosted by them. The npc finally came to a halt in an isolated bowl filled with a huge half uprooted tree that was leaning heavily against one side of the bowl. The whole thing smelled of damp earth and decay. The npc patted the side of the tree and a bit of loose wood fell off, "This is the place my pop described. Lets see if we can bait anything out." The npc produced a big black cube of what I sincerely hoped was bait and motioned for me to stay before he gently walked into the bowl to place it.

We didn't have to wait long. As the last bit of sun faded from view a single huge red eye poked out from what I now realized was a burrow built into the exposed roots of the tree. The normally soothing background music that I had set to play softly suddenly shifted into something much more jarring with drums and heavy handed guitar rifts. I idly noticed it was the «Boss Theme» as my mind informed me of exactly how screwed I was. The boar was gigantic, easily three times the size of the normal «Frenzy Boars» and had a pair of tusks that looked large enough to run clean through me.

The damn npc was of course still as cheerful as ever. He smirked horribly for a moment before pulling a knife from his pocket. By the time I realized what he was about to do the knife was already speeding towards the boss monster «One-Eye». The bosses head snapped up as the knife impacted his side and a burst of steam suddenly shot from its nostrils as its single eye locked onto us. It churned the ground and made it up the side of the bowl we were standing above before I could even get my weapon clear of its scabbard.

It was a good thing that the boar went after the npc first. It was even better that he had produced an oversized spear from somewhere and managed to not only survive the charge, but hit the boar back hard. He gave me a shout that still somehow sounded cheerful, "I'll stop the front, you get it from the flanks!" Another charge from the boar brought the npc into the yellow, but his counterstrike went critical and took out one of the boars six health bars entirely.

I waited for that pause where the boar was off balance and my chance of critical was greatest before sending a «Vertical» of my own onto the beasts back. The boars bar barely dropped. Two thoughts ran through my head. First, I really really hoped that the miniscule amount of damage I dealt to the boar wasn't my critical. Second, I grimly realized that this quest was meant for a group of players at a much higher level than mine. I who hadn't even completed the required a hundred kills with any of the basic sword skills and thus didn't have access to any second tier sword skills couldn't hope to do enough damage to win this fight.

So I didn't try. SAO was a game that at its core rewarded ingenuity. Which meant there probably was a way to win the ridiculously mismatched battle in spite of everything. I just had to find it before the trapper took another two hits and died. At current rate the battle was going that was only a few more seconds so the first thing I decided to do was try everything to increase the amount of time I had. I turned the the npc and shouted, "Plant the butt of your spear in the ground; use the range of your weapon to keep it away!"

It helped. The boars charge attack didn't do damage if it was blocked by a grounded spear, and the damage the npc dealt actually increased a bit. But if the way the spear was starting to bend perilously and the small popping noises I heard were any indication then the spears durability would be used up soon and we would be back in the same situation only the npc would be unarmed.

I scrambled past where the trapper was holding the boar off for as long as his spear would last and pulled myself up onto the trunk of the decaying tree. I took a swing at the trunk and was rewarded with a small shower of wood. As thought he understood my plan the npc instantly shifted his spear and let the boar get past him. The move cost him another fifth of his health, leaving him just above critical, but when he reset the spear to catch the boar it was was in the perfect position.

I smiled grimly and swung as hard as I could at the trunk underneath my feet. Then I swung again. I kept swinging even as I threw up a small storm of wood chips and dust that stung my throat and eyes. Then I hit the heart wood of the tree with a clang that almost took the sword from my hands and my pace fell to nothing. I spared a glance at the trapper whose face was for the first time showing actual panic while he tried to hold the boar in place with his oversized spear.

I don't know why, but that npc's face moved me. For a few seconds I forgot that I was just trying to complete a quest; I wanted to save that man's life, so I raised my sword and brought it down in a «Vertical» as hard as I could on the heart wood.

My sword rang like silver, but the heart wood didn't even have a mark. So a reared back again and focused everything I had on putting more force behind my sword skill and released another «Vertical». It was like holding a rod of blue fire. Every single bit of force I could muster was behind that blow, and it tore my sword apart in an screech of metal driven far past its limits. But the heart wood still sat there unblemished.

Dully abandoned the plan, and walked up the trunk of the tree. My mind whirled. I knew falling dealt damage and slowly worked through a vague plan to repeatably knock the boar off the trunk of the tree once it finished off the npc and came to kill me. It wasn't a very good plan, but it was all I had left.

I reached the very tip of the trunk where It hung almost two dozen feet in the air above the starting plain and settled into a stance. But my plane was not to be. I heard something like glass breaking and my eyes snapped to where I had been cutting on the tree. Where cracks were now spreading in the heart wood like it was some kind of mineral.

I jumped and the tree came down with me, crushing «The One-Eye» beneath a weight even its prodigious strength couldn't escape. To my surprise when the dust cleared the mammoth wasn't dead. Its last health bar flashed critical red, but it struggled still trying to free itself. Its nose shot billows of steam as its one free leg cut a line in the dirt uselessly. I joined the trapper besides when it at least seemed to accept that it couldn't free itself. The old boar went still before huffing a final time and its single eye still glared at the trapper with an awful malevolence.

The trapper put his spear through its remaining eye and the boar slowly came apart into red polygons. The music faded into familiar fanfare as the system duly informed me I had earned another level. I sagged against the downed tree trunk when it wasn't accompanied by a quest completion screen. I almost cried wondering what else this preposterous quest required for completion.

The trapper sat down against the trunk besides me and stared at the dark sky with a happy smile for a few moments before speaking, "I'm going to make camp here, do you want to join me? Staying the night here will be safer than trying to make your way back to «Horunka Village» after dark." He flashed me a cheesy smile and added, "I'll even cook!"

I couldn't help but smile back, "I would love too, thank you." Those words were enough to send the trapper npc into a flurry of activity as I watched. As though by magic over the next half hour the battle site turned into a homely little camp with a pair of sleeping bags and a roaring fire. Which proved to be for more than comfort when the trapper created a rotating spit and set a hunk of meat apparently taken from «The One-Eye» roasting.

It smelled wonderful. I didn't have an silverware or plates in my inventory – a fault I would be sure to resolve when I made it back to civilization – and if the trapper had any he wasn't sharing. So dinner consisted of cutting a hunk of the roasting meat off of the spit and holding it while biting off pieces. It was messy and easily the most delicious meal that I had had since being trapped in SAO.

The meat was really juicy and had a strong gamey flavor that reminded me of the hunting trips my father used to drag my sister Santa and I on before they were killed. I'm not sure what my face looked like when I was eating the meat, but it was enough for the npc to glance at me and ask, "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, its just this meat is really good."

SAO?SAO?

I woke up the next morning to the chime of a quest completion window appearing. The npc trapper had vanished some time in the night leaving me alone in the ruins of our camp. I groggily rolled out of the blankets that the trapper had given me and pressed the accept button. The menu turned into a wall of text:

Normal End, Complete! : You have helped the «Wandering Trapper» complete his ambition of slaying the boss foe« One-Eye».

Rewards:

8000 Col

B-Rank Item: Wood-Craft Medallion – This bracelet drastically increases the «Hiding» skill.

Unique Item: Frenzy Boar Crystal – For use with the «God's Knight» unique skill.

Secret End – Family Business, Complete! : By allowing the «Wandering Trapper» to strike the final blow by putting out «The One-Eye's» remaining eye you have allowed him to fulfill his father's dream. He was so impressed that he offered to make camp with you and cooked the meat of «The One-Eye» for you to enjoy.

Rewards:

Permanent Stat Bonus – Strength +2

My eye's locked on the dropped crystal and ignored everything else. It was my first clue to how my unique skill actually worked. Normally by hitting the detail menu you could learn how a skill worked. This was a basic game play feature that almost everyone knew. It was also completely wrong for my unique skill. Instead of details I got a ten minute track of sempai laughing that replaced the background music wherever I was.

I hit accept to get rid of the rewards menu and opened my skills menu quickly. Sure enough my «God's Knight» had reached level two. Which meant that it either leveled by defeating boss monsters or by obtaining crystals. Or both.

The details option on the crystal was actually a lot more helpful. It stated that the item could be used to summon or unsummon an allied «Frenzy Boar» which would level alongside me. That was enough to set of all sorts of schemes in my head, but I forced them to the back of my brain until I could get to somewhere safer.

Before leaving the camp I collected the blankets the trapper had left behind and any fragments of my sword that I could find. I even took a couple arm length and razor sharp shards of heart wood from the tree I had destroyed to kill «The One-Eye». Mainly because they were the best impromptu weapons around, but the fact that my «Appraisal» skill wasn't high enough to detect what exactly they were also intrigued me.

By the time I finished packing for what I had already resolved to be a desperate run across the plain towards «Starting City» I honestly felt like a bit of a compulsive hoarder. Though it really wasn't that terrible compared to the 'everything and the kitchen sink' philosophy I tended to embrace while playing rpgs.

So when the first bit of sun touched the plains I was already running.

A/N:

I really wanted to end this with eating the boar and just disregard all of the rest, but I really needed to introduce the whole 'crystal to summon monster' thing being related to Lightning's unique skill and it would have been even worse randomly sticking it at the start of the next chapter. For those of you who have played ffxiii2 where this is going should already be familiar.

The theme of this chapter was 'solo play' which is why Lightning was the only real character in it. Next chapter you can expect other characters to come back into the plot. Though it might not be the characters you expect.

I'm not actually trying to make a game so level ups occur more when I think they should and less when exp would dictate them occurring. That being said the one-eye was supposed to be fought by a group of eight or so at around level eight. So it probably would earn a level up even if I was keeping track of exp.

I decided to stick a stats table in this time but let my preface it by against stating that I'm just using it as a guide.

Lvl: 6

HP: 1250

Stats: Agi 6

Str 14

Equip: Sharp Stick of ? wood.

Well-Maintained Leather Vest

Bone Greaves

Skills: One Handed Weapon Fighting 31/1000

Appraisal 15/1000

Unique: God's Knight 2/1000