Written by Nanospeed
Edited by ToumaFF

Chapter 2 – Little Red Riding Hood


I remember the day when I tried to quit my kendo lessons once and for all. My grandfather agreed on the condition that I would fight and score a single hit on him. However, I was restricted from wearing any protective gear and we were using harder wooden swords instead of the softer bamboo trainers. The task was impossible, because he was a master in The Way of the Sword, possessing family techniques passed down throughout the generations. Perhaps he was bitter because he couldn't teach my uninterested uncle or my deceased father. I ended up bloodied and bruised, yet I defiantly refused to yield and show any signs of weakness. Little Sugu had to run in and shelter my body with her own, crying that she would do my share of kendo practices in order to stop him from hitting me. I was utterly helpless though. The final impact had knocked every wisp of air from my lungs, and I lay there struggling to inhale, to exhale, to do anything.

That's how I feel now, trying to remember how to breathe, to move, to think. Coming to in an unfamiliar lodging inn, a place meant for a player to leave their character avatar for bonus resting «Exp» before a logout, which is an option no longer available anymore. A quick check of my main menu window confirms this, though what really sends me into a panic is my «Messenger and Chat» box, which is flooded with messages from a very worried Klein. I couldn't reply back to any, because I was apparently knocked out cold for almost seven days. I suppose that something serious happened to my real body on the other side; The severe flu or strong anesthetics could have shut me down. I guess it shouldn't come off as a big surprise, considering that Kayaba Akihiko set the flow of time to be accelerated seven times faster in this virtual world.

At least my overwhelming fatigue seems to be gone for good. I survey my surroundings to get my bearings straight. One oil lamp, one hard bed, one oak chair and this minimalist room is still quite cramped. The view beyond the window contains nothing but the dull, grey, stone city walls. Not exactly prime property, which is a smart choice on the tenant's part, since it means minimum lodging fees. Having no recollection of paying, I guess that someone willingly let me in as a guest into one of the most secure and private safe areas as designated by the game servers. No doubt that this someone was the very same player who rescued me off the cold streets.

As I ponder this mysterious player's whereabouts, the brass knob that I'm reaching for turns and the door opens from the other side. It's her. The girl with long chestnut brown hair, milky alabaster skin and emerald hazel eyes, which briefly sparks with the glint of mild surprise.

"You're awake," she says in a monotone, then pauses, "and well rested," she adds tiredly, almost seemingly jealous.

"Yes. Thank you," I reply hesitantly, unsure of what else to say. I realize with a pang of guilt that I was the one who unintentionally stole her single bed. "I'm deeply sorry for any trouble I caused."

"It is no problem at all. Anything in this virtual world is false and meaningless anyways. What truly matters is that you are alright." The girl turns and beckons me with one hand to follow. "Come on, you must be starving. Let's get you some breakfast."

At this point I realize that the amount of «Col» needed to accommodate yourself and guest for seven days and seven nights is staggeringly high even at very cheap lodging rates. Her starting funds, a set amount allotted to all new players, should almost be depleted by now, assuming that she hasn't ventured beyond the walls of the City of Beginnings to earn more. I shake my head. "No, I'm okay. In fact, let me pay back all the money I owe you now."

Her brow raises and she eyes me up and down, clearly not believing that I'm okay. She's right, my throat is parched and my stomach is rumbling. If it weren't for the extensive Soul Translator hardware, such minor details wouldn't have been so strikingly obvious. "I insist on the meal. You can pay me everything back later."

Not wanting to offend her, I decide to accept the offer. As we silently walk down the hall, I briefly wonder how this player retained her pretty avatar customizations. It then dawns on me that this is her natural appearance from real life and I force back an awkward blush. I deduce that she is about my age, perhaps a bit older judging by her mature composure. Her equipment consists of brown plain boots, a starter one-handed rapier, a white one-piece dress, and a scarlet red cloak with a riding hood that reminds me of a certain children's fairy tale fantasy. In reality, she can so easily fit in as one of the popular, athletic and scholarly kids at my school. Just what exactly is her motive for playing this game?

We reach the ground floor, which turns out to be a local tavern. Unfortunately, the piping hot dishes and bar ale is not a complimentary service. We sit at a table across from each other and only order «Black Bread» for 1 «Col» from the non-player controlled (NPC) bartender. The loaf is hard, tasteless and would greatly benefit from a fruit jam or milky cream spread, both of which I do not possess at this very moment. With each bite, the gnawing sensation of hunger fades away, though I know that not a single morsel is reaching my real body. I shudder to think that I'm really being force fed by a tube stuck down my throat with multiple needles stuck in my arms for intravenous therapy. Oh well, whatever keeps me alive I guess.

"You're not going out there are you?" She suddenly questions, while handing me a «Bottled Fountain Water» from her inventory.

I down the drink, wondering what she is getting at. After putting down the canteen, I find myself glimpsing into her eyes: cold, empty, and without purpose. "I- If you're referring to the wilderness outside the City of Beginnings, then yes. Yes I am."

She makes no effort to touch her bland meal, as if she cannot stomach it. "You're going to die then. Almost everyone who goes out there dies," she states in a sorrowful voice. It's as if it was an undeniable fact. The inevitable.

I shake my head in disbelief. "That's impossible. There surely must be some really strong, higher leveled players who have cleared the way to the second or third floor by now."

The girl sighs despondently and looks to floor for the slightest of moments. "I'm afraid not. Nobody has even found the first floor boss yet."

It takes awhile for her words to sink in. "No way. That's impossible," I mutter in disbelief and sink down into my seat. "Aren't there tons of players ready to take on the world of Aincrad? What have they all been doing in all this time?"

"There are two groups. Those who accepted this death game and those who did not. The latter simply wait, believing that help will eventually come from the experts and authorities in the real world. The former try to fight just enough monsters to scrape a living. Either way, very little progress has been made so far. The most insane and desperate of us travel to the southern edge of the city and leap into the oblivion below. After disappearing in a sea of clouds, their names are crossed out from the Monument of Life," she replies with a slightly quivering voice. However, her expression does not betray the horror of recalling those terrible memories.

This unfamiliar place sounds like a crematorium or a graveyard. It reminds me of visits to my parent's graves every year, even though I know so little about them. "Where exactly is this Monument of Life?"

"At the center of the city."

I nod in understanding. That location used to be the «Room of Resurrection» during the beta-test, where players revive after their character avatar died. When death wasn't permanent, we would all re-spawn with silly, embarrassed smiles on our faces and eager to run back into danger. I never really did feel the true weight of my own mortality, until now. "By any chance, could you please take me there?"

She brings a hand to her chin to think it over. "Alright. If that is what it takes to change your mind," she replies and then stores away her meal for later. She then drapes her hood over her head and moves to lead the way.

After leaving the stuffy inn, a fresh breeze of crisp air fills my lungs and I'm glad to finally be outside. It's a long walk and I take the time to observe the state of affairs within the city. At first glance, nothing seems to have changed and the NPC crowd bustles normally about. Bankers managing money, keeping the economy from stagnating. Merchant caravans arriving from other resource towns, delivering supplies and commodities for trade. Children of nobles heading to the academy, learning different styles of swordsmanship. Knights patrolling the roads, keeping the streets safe. To be honest, I truly believe that this dynamic world could grow and go on indefinitely if left alone.

It is then that I spot out the irregularities. A player can be easily distinguished from an NPC in plain sight if you focus your central vision directly on their character avatar, which causes a holographic green cursor to appear over their head. I notice that not every player are locked up in inns, as there seem to be a few amongst the crowd working hard in order to genuinely integrate into this newfound society. Unfortunately, countless others are dejectedly huddling together in the alleyways. They cannot afford virtual food without any money, leading to the false sense of hunger due to artificial signals from the Nerve Gear. Yet, it's impossible to really die of hunger if your real body is being force fed. The end result: eternal starvation. I can actually sympathize with those attempting suicide, hoping that they would wake up from this nightmare.

My thoughts shift as we pass the Central Square and into the Black Iron Palace. It's a fortress with its own set of battlements, siege equipment, prison, living quarters and meeting rooms. It's one of the first locations to be available for purchase as a guild's headquarters, not that anybody could afford it at this early stage of the game. Its innermost structure houses the Room of Res- no, the Monument of Life, a holy sanctuary of stain glass windows and white granite floors. Its reflective onyx walls are large enough to fit countless player in-game names. Almost as if accessing the system assist outside of combat, a foreign influence guides me to walk slowly towards my own written in small font: Kirito. I trace every letter with my fingers. It's my identity, my proof of existence, and a combination of my real last and first name: Kirigaya Kazuto.

My attention then turns to an adjacent stranger's name. A single line crosses through, striking it out. Cause of death: «Falling in Midair». I shudder, attempting to figure how one can die from a fall without hitting the ground. I try to imagine his or her last moments, knowing that any future he or she had is now gone forever. A part of me wants to remain safely hidden within the city. I would be lying if I force myself to think otherwise. However, there's no guarantee that «Safe Areas» will persist forever and there will surely be discord and mistrust growing between the paranoid players. As a competitive MMO gamer, I want to win, regardless of the higher stakes. I want to see my family again. I want to apologize for everything that I've put them through.

"I'm going," I affirm to myself with renewed resolve.

"I see," the girl says bitterly. She then steps between me and the exit and draws the starter one-handed rapier at her waist. A metallic ring echoes throughout the halls from the friction between blade and sheath. "I cannot bear to watch another person die, but I cannot force you to stay against your own will. So we will have to compromise. As payment for sheltering you these past few days, I ask only one thing. Duel me."

I recoil a step back in surprise, wondering if I misheard her words. "What? Why would you want to-"

"I've witnessed frustrated players duel to let off some steam, but this is different. Let's make a deal. If you win, then you can go. If not, then you will have to listen to me," she declares out loud, causing all the other visiting players paying their respects to glare at us.

"Wait! You heard what Kayaba Akihiko said in the official tutorial. Pain absorbers are off! Every strike will be excruciating," I exclaim, trying to convince her that this is very bad idea. You will feel every bruise, every cut, every stab, every broken bone. The only saving grace is that our real bodies are in a location where medical treatment is instantly accessible, eliminating the risk of permanent neuronal damage or superficial disfigurement.

"If you are worrying about the pain, then you should forget about fighting against a horde of monsters," she speaks back calmly. "It is better this way."

I get that she does not want other people to die if she could help it. But from what I've seen, I feel that she is one step away from recklessly throwing away her own life, harbouring the belief that everything will turn out for the worse in the end. This is a duel that I refuse to back down from. "I will not let this death game change who I am. We definitely have the potential to become stronger than all of this!"

The girl gasps and then frowns, seemingly in conflict with herself, while a few hushed whispers emanates from our curious audience. Our gazes meet and for the first time, I see her smile. "Alright. Prove it to me then."

«Asuna has challenged you to a duel. Do you accept?»

We never took the time for introductions, but now I know that her name is Asuna. I consent and set the mode to «First Strike», which means that one of us has to land one clean decisive hit for victory. This mode isn't as dangerous as «Total Loss», «Half Loss» or «Time-Limit mode», which requires the duelist to actually reduce the opponent's HP bar to 'zero', 'half' or 'less than your own' respectively. As I draw my starter one-handed straight sword from the sheath on my back, a holographic 60-second digital timer appears that pings as every second ticks away. Once it expires, this one-versus-one match will officially begin.

«60... 59... 58... »

Assuming that my opponent is level 1, she wouldn't have acquired any stat points to improve her combat performance. There are five stat attributes: Strength (STR), Agility (AGI), Intelligence (INT), Dexterity (DEX), and Vitality (VIT). STR increases your normal attack damage and sword skill power, AGI increases your movement speed and normal attack speed, INT increases your sword skill cooldown reduction and magical resistance, DEX increases your physical defense and recovery rate from abnormal status effects, VIT increases your maximum HP and stamina reserves. With all of these at base value, this should be a fair fight.

«29... 28... 27... »

Her weapon points towards me. However, I can spot many openings in her form. There's a possibility that she's a total beginner, but it would be unwise to underestimate her. I take an offensive stance that I acquired from many months of playing the SAO beta-test: placing my left foot forward, lowering my waist and pointing my blade downwards. By shifting my center of gravity, I can rapidly dash towards my opponent and quickly end this. If I can help it, I would prefer to win without hurting her. I can try to disarm her or break her less durable, flimsy rapier. Anything to prevent her from setting the pace of this fight.

«3... 2... 1... DUEL START!»

The start buzzer blares off and I begin to make my move. However, I watch in shock as Asuna beats me to the punch and closes the distance to me first. Her rapier flashes with a blinding white light traveling directly to my heart. It's the one-hit strike, «Sword Skill: Linear», being executed flawlessly. Time seems to slow down and I can hear my heart beating loudly as the attack gets closer and closer. At the last moment, I activate the «Sword Skill: Diagonal» to desperately parry it away. There's a loud metallic clang as metal meets metal and her deflected rapier narrowly misses my head and cuts away small strands of my virtual hair.

"That was just a warning shot," she whispers with a cool demeanour. Her eyes are still focusing on my upper body as if it were one giant target. "Hm. Your reaction time is quite impressive."

"And your movement speed is just way too fast," I reply half jokingly, though I'm already breathing excitedly with all the adrenaline coursing through my veins. Just how is this possible? How is she so fast without any extra AGI points?

I quickly slash down, hoping she will bring back her rapier to hastily block and lose a bit of durability, but she nimbly side steps out of the way. We then lock our weapons together and I use my free hand to try and break her grip, but she reads this and blocks it with her own free hand. She leaps back to create some breathing room for herself and then launches a flurry of piercing normal attacks, using the extension of her arm and the long reach of the rapier's tip for some added range. I can only fall back against this barrage, suspecting that the duels she witnessed are actually duels she participated in. I can't hold back now. Landing a decisive blow is my only chance at winning.

I narrow my eyes on her rapier, knowing that she has to retract her attacking arm back in order to ready another thrust forwards. The window of opportunity is very small considering her high speeds, but I keep watching, intent on achieving perfect timing on my counter attack. As she pulls her rapier back for the seventh-time, I draw a deep breath and launch myself towards her with a single leap. I aim for her upper body and start the initial movements for the «Sword Skill: Vertical». The system assist takes over and builds up energy in my arm and my short sword begins to glow with that familiar blue ethereal sheen. I then swing, my blade whistling as it cuts through the air. This time, Asuna is the one struggling to cancel out my attack with her «Linear».

After a few more blows, our swords lock again. I give her a mischievous grin. "By the way, I haven't introduced myself. My name is Kirito, pleased to meet you. My hobbies are gaming and napping."

My opponent can't help but elicit a small giggle. "I'm Asuna. My recent pastime is watching your sleeping face."

"W- What?" I stammer out, feeling my cheeks turn red at the absurd, embarrassing thought.

"Just kidding," she replies teasingly. Well, at least this is a big improvement from her empty persona at the beginning of the day. She's pretty cute when she smiles.

Forcing the unnecessary thoughts out, I lean my weight forward to push her away and free my blade. I then slash horizontally as quick as I can, but the attack passes harmlessly overhead as she ducks and compactly twirls a full 360 degrees to add momentum to her upcoming thrust. I parry the blow and chain my movements into a string of improvised combinations, but she dodges each in a series of fluid steps. We keep dancing around each other, exchanging positions and running around to find angles that will yield any openings. It's an intense, hard, non-stop stalemate. Minutes pass and I can already feel the sweat soaking my clothing. My arms and legs are screaming with burning fatigue. My stamina reserves are almost out and I know that I have to make a winning play now.

Her rapier cuts through my left arm, my short sword grazes her left leg, both are light enough to not be a decisive hit. We both wince and stumble, knowing that it's now or never. I grit my teeth to fight off the sharp pain and decide to go all in. I swing at her vulnerable side with all of my might and watch as she does the same. I- I can't do it. My blade stops an inch short of her neck. I close my eyes waiting for her strike to land and the promised agony that will follow, but I shockingly feel nothing. I curiously open one eye and see that she too had halted her blade before it could cut through my own neck. It's strange, staring into her eyes, almost peering into her soul. I can tell that she's carrying burdens, worries and expectations. I wonder what she sees when she looks into my own eyes.

"You're alone," she mutters sadly. Her breathing is ragged and heavy. "Hey- You're a good person. Aren't you?"

"Why?" I ask in a dry, raspy voice. Due to the safety restrictions of «First Strike Mode», a player cannot die or be decapitated even with a clean blow to the neck. There was absolutely nothing to worry about. "You could've won."

"The same goes for you too," she replies back in her monotone, which somehow carries more emotion than ever before. "The reason I stopped is because I think you're right. I can be who I choose to be in this death game."

I sigh in relief. "Draw?" I offer.

"Draw," she contently answers back.

«DUEL DRAW!»

I relax and lower my short sword when the holographic display confirms neither my victory or loss. Suddenly, the audience around us begins to clap and cheer. I look around in awe, realizing that I completely forgot about their presence. Some faces display satisfaction from witnessing an entertaining fight. Other faces display relief from the fact that nobody got seriously hurt. You would think that a fight in a place meant to respect the dead would offend at least one player, but there are no looks of disapproval or anger amongst those leaving. Who knows? Maybe my original message meant for Asuna sank into their hearts as well.

"Ow. It hurts," Asuna moans as she inspects the small wound to her right leg. It is not a censored virtual gash, but actual torn flesh with blood dripping out.

"Here. Use this." I pull out a glass vial containing a red concoction from my inventory and casually toss it to her. It's a health potion that will mend any open wounds and slowly restore HP.

"Thanks," she replies softly before uncorking the vial and taking a sip. She then grimaces in disgust. "Ugh. Tastes like medicine."

"Well, that's exactly what it is," I shake my head, hoping my tone doesn't sound sarcastic. I'm sometimes told that I come off as a bit straightforward and rude without even realizing it. "Don't worry. The brand of elixirs on the higher floors will taste better, almost like a variety of fruit juices. Eventually there will be magic healing crystals that don't require drinking altogether."

"Hmm. You are really that confident that we'll make it to the next floor," Asuna hums in amusement. "Well it is settled then. You are taking me along for the journey."

"What do you mean?" I ask, since her words strangely sounded like an order.

"You remember our wager right?" She answers while sheathing her rapier away. "You now have to do everything I say."

"But I didn't lose?" I exclaim in confusion.

"That's not what we agreed on," she says and grabs me by the collar, her face just a few inches from mine. "I said if you win, then you can go. If not, then you will have to listen to me. Consider your debt paid."

"I- I, that is-" I stutter in exasperation and sweat drop. She's totally right. "You do know that you're putting your life in my hands. Do you trust me?"

She tilts her head, as if I just asked a question with an answer as plain as day. Her expression is free of any conflict and doubt. "Yes, I do. We're partners from now on. Please take care of me, Kirito-kun."

ooo

It's time to finally take action. In order to become more powerful in combat, a player must continuously raise their level and upgrade their equipment. Thus, our first primary objective is to acquire new weapons. Asuna needs a «Wind Fleuret», found in the «Delivery of the Bread Basket» quest. I need an «Anneal Blade», found in the «Secret Medicine of the Forest» quest. Both involve hunting down D-class and even C-class monsters that spawn at very low encounter rates. Certain internet forums like MMO Today speculate rates as low as 0.5% or 1 in every 200, which is 10 times less than the rates during the beta-test. However, it's well worth the investment in time and effort. These two weapons surpass the quality of bronze and iron tier weapons forged by the NPC blacksmiths. With proper maintenance and upgrades from a player blacksmith, both can last well into the third floor.

We head to a nearby general store. It's here that I sell all the «Ivory Tusks», «Boar Meat» and «Swine Leather» that dropped from the frenzy boars a week ago. I then use the money to buy as many health potions and antidote potions as possible. Also, I notice for this week only, an event NPC is handing out one random article of clothing and one dye ampoule filled with any colour of your choice. This is probably where Klein got his maroon red bandana and Asuna got her scarlet red cloak. I manage to obtain a lunar cotton long-sleeve shirt that actually offers respectable bonuses in physical defense and magical resistance, going beyond the current standards for regular cloth armour. Naturally, I dye it pure black to match with my black pants. What can I say? I have a strong affinity for black clothing.

Without wasting anymore time, we leave the City of Beginnings and travel towards Horunka Village. The trip through the green meadows is a leisurely stroll, but the hike in the dark forest is a brutal challenge. It's necessary to take the correct combination of hidden trails that detours around large mobs of dangerous monsters. These trails unfortunately are narrow, slippery, dense with foliage and goes up and down steep hills. In order not to be caught off guard by a random stray, I keep my «Searching» skill active at all times. «Searching» essentially heightens my visual senses, allowing me to detect living beings cloaked in camouflage or darkness. It's also useful for finding interesting drops that one would normally miss. The more I practice, the more proficient I become in this skill. For now, I only have 1 out of 1000 points before I achieve master rank.

"You are a beta-tester right?" Asuna suddenly asks in a low audible volume. Even while fatigued, she's still functionally alert and cautious.

"Yes," I answer, seeing no reason to lie.

"You should be careful then," she warns, her expression darkening. It's as if being a beta-tester is the equivalent of being a notorious criminal shown on primetime television.

"What do mean?"

"While you were unconscious, a few charismatic leaders rose up. They did good things, from finding shelter for underage players to equally dividing up the monsters around the city so that that as many players as possible can earn enough to eat. Still, the need for resources was high and as a response, they rallied volunteers for expedition parties to go deeper into the wilderness. The expedition encountered a solo player who claimed to be a beta-tester. He then requested their help, because the item he was looking for was taking forever to drop. They agreed on the condition the beta-tester would help them with their tasks afterwards. That item did drop, but the beta-tester repaid their work with betrayal. He triggered some sort of trap that caused every monster in a five kilometer radius to swarm them."

"No," I mutter and pale, knowing the destructive nature of this trap. There's a monster in these parts known as the level 3, E-class Little Nepent. Sometimes a D-class deviant appears with a large fruit on its plant-like stalk. A player intentionally striking this fruit will trigger the release of a foul smoke, a pheromone, which attracts every other monster in the area.

"With their numbers, the players should have still won that battle, but fear overpowered reason. These volunteers are just students and workers, not soldiers ready to take on things with corrosive acid and sharp teeth. It was an utter disaster. Any sort of resistance that could be formulated through teamwork was instantly lost the moment they decided it was every man for himself. Only three survivors made it back to the City of Beginnings to tell their story. Since then, the number of players willing to venture out drastically decreased and the bulk of the blame fell upon the beta-testers."

"So that's how it is," I sigh dejectedly. I didn't even do anything and I already have a lot of enemies. "Ah well. Thanks for the heads-up."

"No problem."

We cross the wooden palisades of Horunka Village into its «Safe Area» and attract the glances of a few curious strangers. Shrugging it off, I lead the way into a private log cabin to find a «Village Missus» NPC with a holographic gold exclamation mark floating over head. All quests are like interactive plays and movies, where players have to listen to all the NPC's scripted dialogue and make decisions that will impact the storyline. For example, in this «Delivery of the Bread Basket» quest, slaying the mini-boss leads to the good ending and a high «Exp» payout. Slaying the mini-boss with the help of an NPC woodcutter leads to the good ending and a low «Exp» payout. Failure to discover the mini-boss and subsequently not slaying it, which happens when you do not deliver the bread basket, leads to the bad ending with no «Exp» payout.

To get the «Wind Fleuret», we need to achieve the secret ending, which I knew nothing about until a certain information broker told me about it months ago. The mini-boss is called the «Wolf King», who plans to devour the «Village Grandmother» NPC in a cottage to the west. The player has 30 minutes to deliver the bread basket there, subsequently being present to prevent the bad ending. Cryptically enough, the player can head in the opposite direction towards the east and slay mobs of the level 3, E-class «Wolf». In order to defend its kin, the «Wolf King» may randomly spawn at the rate of a C-class monster. If it's beaten here, the rare rapier will drop. If not, the player has to return to the village and restart this repeatable quest all over again. Whether this was intended or not, nobody truly knows except members of the now nonexistent GM game content development team.

Our hunting party of two departs from the village in record time. While slowly advancing east, I use «Searching» to mark down every Little Nepent spawn point, Wolf spawn point and safe area along the forest river bank on paper. This tedious procedure is commonly known as mapping, which is useful not only for efficient leveling, but also for drawing up multiple return paths in case a hasty retreat is necessary. It's also useful for formulating tactical strategies. First, wolves come in groups of five and will work together to coordinate attacks from your blind spots. Second, the pack leader has a tendency to attack first and go for the throat. Third, these beasts have rabies and their fangs will inflict a «Poisoned» status that causes a movement speed debuff and constant HP loss. Fourth, the last one standing will howl, which specifically calls over the nearest pack. Unless you're in a safe area, there will be no time to make use of a slow acting health or antidote potion.

This is far enough. I turn to Asuna, wondering how her Player versus Player (PvP) skills will carry over to Player versus Environment (PvE). "You ready for this?"

"Of course," she answers before brandishing her blade. "Let's see if your plans really work."

There's no turning back now. The first pack of wolves are instinctually aware of our presence and snap their heads toward our direction. They're similar to large dogs, but with even bigger paws, longer legs, straighter tails, and narrower chests. As we dare to draw closer, the monsters snarl, growl and flash their fangs to intimidate us for infringing on their territory and for a brief moment, I falter with fear. This must be how the members of the expedition parties felt before they fell apart. These monsters are supposed to be mere data brought to life by artificial intelligence, yet they somehow radiate an aura of murderous killing intent. I shake the feeling off and stand my ground as the wolves run around to encircle us, cutting off any means of escape. I nod at Asuna and we assume a solid back-to-back formation. Plan A: Defensive Turtling. This should cover our blind spots and bait the wolves into attacking head on.

As expected, the pack leader proudly leaps at me intent on clamping its infected fangs around my arm. I punish it by bringing my short sword down on its large head with a strong «Vertical» and its HP bar falls into the yellow zone below 50%. The wolf whimpers and falls back, allowing another to take its place. This one rabidly nips at my legs in an attempt to herd me away from Asuna, but I keep it at bay with successive normal attacks. It eventually gives up and instead commits to a heavy pounce from my two o'clock, while the maimed leader does the same from my ten o'clock. In response to the two-pronged attack, I activate a «Horizontal» to swing my blade in a wide arc and catch them both. The pack leader's HP bar falls into the red zone below 10% and its partner HP falls into the yellow zone, yet they both only seem to be angrier. I almost forgot how high the learning curve is when making the transition from frenzy boars to wolves.

«Congratulations. You have reached level 2!»

It takes awhile, but our party dispatches the last wolf. A desperate howl and the shattering sound of polygons is drowned out by a majestic fanfare of woodwind, brass and string instruments along with an angelic choir. That's right, I was almost about to level up before this death game began. I open my main menu window and select the first option, a character icon, to find that the system awarded me with 3 new stat points. I invest 1 point into STR and 2 points into AGI. This distribution simply fits my fluid, agile play style. There's an infinite amount of ways to build your character avatar. For example, pure STR for a glass cannon, STR/DEX for a bruiser, VIT/DEX for a physical tank, VIT/INT for a magical tank, pure AGI for an assassin playstyle, etc. The concept is sort of like how sprinters and marathon runners focus on improving different aspects of their bodies to perform better in their drastically different races.

"We actually did it," Asuna breathes in amazement. She then peeks over my shoulder to observe what I'm doing. "A level up? Hmm- Teach me about this later okay?"

"Sure. At the next safe area," I reply enthusiastically. It's good that she's eager to learn. "By the way, how much of the instruction manual did you read?"

There's a short moment of silence. "None. The only experience I really have with electronics is my cell phone for texting and my computer for e-mails. I thought I would pick up all the important details in the official tutorial. And as we all know, that did not really work out."

As a competitive gamer, a small part of me dies a little from hearing this. Her technology deficiency may be on par with Sugu. "And you managed to duel me and fight these wolves so skillfully. That's amazing!"

Her expression brightens. "Moving on, we should get ready. As you said, another pack will be here soon. The score is currently three to two."

Wait. We're keeping count of a score? "Not fair! I took down the pack leader. That should count for at least two points."

"Too bad."

We fight more wolves- hundreds over the course of five torturous hours. That's ten return trips to the village to restart the «Delivery of the Bread Basket» quest. That's ten times the poor «Village Grandmother» NPC was gobbled up by the «Wolf King». It will now spawn at level 4, since Asuna and I both managed to reach level 3. It's programmed to be always stronger than its opponent by a small margin, up to a limit of level 10, meaning it will always be a challenge to players of this floor. On the bright side, the wolves dropped a lot of «Col», «Wolf Fangs», and «Wolf Pelts», allowing us to buy more potions and repair our starter short sword and rapier. Both lost a lot of durability and were dangerously close to the end of its lifespan. Having a weapon break on you in the middle of battle pretty much equates to death.

Dusk is fast approaching, but I do not want to call it a day just yet. The last place I want to be right now is another lodging inn. Before I can utter out another complaint of frustration, a deafening roar thunders from an unmarked spawn point, causing hundreds of birds to flee to the skies. It's the polar reverse of a howl, which drives every monster away and de-buffs players outside this quest, ensuring that there will be minimal interference in this upcoming showdown. Finally, the king has made its appearance, ready to be dethroned; A werewolf with fur so black, light appears to distort around it. Even if referred to as a mini-boss, there's nothing miniature about this 6 foot tall beast standing on all fours. A burning aura of hatred like an unquenchable flame rises from its hunched back as not one, but two whole HP bars appear over its head next to its name written in a malignant purple.

The Wolf King glares at me and bares his malicious white canines to intimidate me before slinking into the tree line. It's hard to see him in the darkness with all that black fur, another reason why I love that colour so much. I activate my «Searching» skill to nullify his stealth advantage and notice the gap between us has been considerably reduced. His claws begins to gather a gale of wind, which cuts cleanly through the nearby leaves. This is bad. That's a sword skill! Fearing the worst, my reflexes kick in and I raise my blade not a moment too soon. The slicing blow connects to my guard and the feedback surging through my arms is enough to knock me off my feet. It's not a direct hit, but my HP bar in my peripheral vision still drops from 75% to 70%. I recover from the «Tumble» and refocus on my opponent who is roaring once again in triumph.

The Wolf King supposedly does not use sword skills if you fight it at the westward cottage. It was wrong of me to assume that the situation would be exactly same here at the eastern riverbank. He leaps away from Asuna's retaliation and begins once again to weave around the nearby trees and boulders. I ready myself in a defensive stance, intent on doing what I did before in the duel at the Monument of Life. Fight fire with fire or in this case, cancel out sword skill with sword skill. I unleash a «Diagonal» and its trajectory intersects with my opponent's vengeful claw strike. There's a brief moment to register his displeased feral snarl before an incredible pressure from the inelastic collision sends us both flying back. He's now vulnerable. "Now Asuna! Switch!"

Asuna acknowledges my signal and charges in with her astounding speed. She then blindsides the Wolf King by unleashing that perfect «Linear» into his bulky gut, which sends him careening into the deep river with a large splash. Success. Plan B: Switching, which only works if you outnumber your opponent. This tactical strategy involves two or more players rotating in and out of combat, instead of double teaming side-by-side and possibly getting in each other's way. The player in the front can inflict damage or tank the opponent's attacks or inflict status effects, such as a «Stun». The player in the back has breathing room to recover with a health potion or in this case, exploit any openings made by the front player.

The Wolf King effortlessly fights the rapid current and emerges seemingly unscathed. I notice in despair that his first HP bar has dropped only by a small visible sliver. As expected of a mini-boss, even at just level 4, he can take more than twenty times the damage of a regular level 3 wolf. There's no time for a drawn out battle. There's roughly ten minutes left before this quest reaches its bad ending for the eleventh time. I really don't want to know what will happen after that. If he flees, then we lose the rare rapier. If he stays, then his roar will heavily debuff us. Either way, we have to finish this now!

I regroup with Asuna and we run in side by side. Both of us understand that we have to take the offensive. "Asuna! Can you cancel out his sword skill this time? I want to try something out!"

"Okay."

My partner charges in and thrusts her sword forward in a flash of white light. The Wolf King responds with its vengeful claw strike and his drenched fur sprays fine droplets of water in all directions as both attacks come to a violent halt. Seizing this chance, I switch in and unleash a «Vertical» upon the mini-boss's head, which multiplies my base damage than if I had struck the body or the limbs. As I recover from my post cooldown motion, my opponent gets up and attempts to hobble away. But, I'm not done yet. I dash several metres with my new basic one-handed sword rush technique, «Rage Spike» and stab my opponent square in the eyes. It's a critical hit, where damage drastically increases if you hit a weak point, such as the thin plant stalk of a Little Nepent or the throat of a Wolf. I would have dealt more critical hit damage if I went for a vital organ such as the heart, but I don't have enough STR to cut that deep.

This time, the Wolf King loses a huge chunk of health and stumbles back, clutching his eyes in anguish. Before he can even regain his balance, Asuna unleashes another sword skill. We attack like this over and over again until the first HP bar drains to empty and the second HP bar turns from green to yellow. However, like its brethren, this mini-boss becomes faster and stronger with rage. It's becoming harder to maintain this relentless assault as its HP bar falls into the red zone. Asuna and I are only teaming up for the first time and we aren't in full synchronization. The mistakes from our teamwork is small, though it all adds up and our own HP bars fall into the yellow. Two minutes left? One minute left? I can hardly think from the pain searing from the lacerations on my arms and legs. For some odd reason, I can hear my grandfather's disappointed voice asking, "Are you going to give up?"

All I can do is muster a defiant roar as equally ferocious as my opponent's and my short sword finds its mark across the monster's throat. There's a sickening gurgling sound, which is quickly silenced by the thrust of a rapier. Finally, its massive form goes slack and the wind wrapping around his claws disperses. The expression on its face is filled with regret for not avenging his kin. He then slowly falls to the muddy ground with a thud and explodes into thousands of polygons, each fragment shimmering with light like the waters of the river. The terse existence known as the Wolf King is gone from the world of Aincrad and the next Wolf King that will spawn for another party will have no memory of the events that have transpired today. Even though I eliminated something that was seeking my life, I can't help but feel sorry for him. It feels like I just lost a piece of my innocence.

«Col: +1000 - Exp: +1200 (x1.2 Party Bonus) - Drops: Wind Fleuret, Black Breeze Boots»

"I guess I win," Asuna whispers in satisfaction and sadness, staring at the place the mini-boss once lay.

I realize that she's talking about the score to which I can only shake my head. I then attempt to mimic her words from earlier. "Too bad. This one only counts for 1 point."

"Eh? I guess I did say something like that," she mumbles almost incoherently before her trembling legs finally gives out. It seems that overwhelming fatigue is finally getting the best of her.

"H- Hey!" I exert myself to catch her before she hits the ground and check to make sure she's alright. A few health potions later and I find myself carrying a sleepy Asuna back to the village via the quickest return point. Déjà vu. I'm pretty sure the reverse has happened earlier this week. Well, at least now we only need 1 night of normal sleep, instead of 7 whole days of an abnormal comatose. Really, this person. She has the enormous potential to become something amazing. Deep inside, I really want to see what kind of flower she will bloom into in this virtual world.

Overall. It's been an interesting day.