Hanzou leaped, twisting around his center of gravity as he swung his feet up over his head and around again to land in a crouch, instantly launching forward into a run.

Behind him, the high wall of mud wobbled in place, oscillating in a ribbon-like way that would have thrown him to the ground if he was standing still, tapering back to stillness once he was gone.

But he was not standing still. He was running forward, placing one foot in front of the other, racing ahead of the shaking wall.

There was a sharp angle ahead. His Circuit was already open, so he simply reached out with his prana and smoothly grabbed hold of the air around him, before sharply throwing it diagonally away from the edge, rebounding off his own impact to smoothly race sideways along the wall without having to sacrifice any speed.

The 7th Floor Boss Dungeon.

At the top of a dungeon built up like a step-pyramid from central America, a large square zone dominated by these three-meter-high walls of mud.

If you were to look at it from above, it was obviously a maze. That kind of birds-eye view was available to certain people, but none of those people were members of the guild [Fuumanin].

However, they possessed the speed and agility to cheat in a different manner.

Hanzou reached another sharp corner, and this time, rather than turn, he grabbed hold of the wind with his prana, and grabbed hold of his body with the wind, and jumped, somersaulting across a ten-meter gap to smoothly land on another wall, racing forward again without even pausing.

He could hear shouting in this direction.

He raced forwards, flipping off the top of the wall and landing silently.

In front of him, a guild of six guys in their early 20s were doing damage to one of the mud golems.

Yes, scattered throughout this maze, were additional monsters that were some kind of familiar. They were hulking brutes that would stand taller than the walls if they weren't hunched over like they were.

Even as Hanzou watched, one of those monsters slowly pulled an arm like a ballista back, and launched it to crush the party tank against the ground.

However, despite his heavy build, the tank nimbly stepped aside, only lightly parrying the spear-like strike with his broad two-handed sword.

"Isshin! Now!" That was what the party leader, who Hanzou knew to be named Klein, shouted as he stepped forward, raising his katana as he dropped into a solid stance. The raised katana smoothly ignited, fire racing up along its length, by the extremely orthodox [Heat Hawk] enchantment.

"Right!" The tall man with the pinched face nodded, breathing in and then pinching his fingers in front of his mouth, blowing out sharply.

A mass of air much greater than his lungs could possibly contain launched out of his mouth, a sudden gale from nowhere that blasted forward towards the monster.

And, when the air rushed across the burning sword, it blazed higher, nearly exploding as the rushing air forcibly fed more oxygen into the fire.

With perfect timing, Klein sharply swung his sword as he lunged forward, the blazing pyre dragged along to erupt against the body of the mud golem.

"Switching." Hanzou shouted, leaping forward. He had restrained himself when the sudden wind gushed forth, but he gave in to his instincts.

Reaching out, he grabbed the wind.

The secret of his jutsu was to firmly grab it without even once trying to hold it. More than anything else, it was like swimming. Trying to grasp water in your palm and lift it was futile. As a liquid, it would naturally flow through your fingers. So it was better, more productive, to push your fingers together like a paddle, dip it into the water, and pull with your whole hand. Like that, it was more like stirring through the water rather than trying to rigidly hold it.

Air was thinner, lighter, softer, less viscous, less dense; in every way, it was harder to grasp than water. However, with prana, it was definitely possible. And with the wind element, it was possible to grab each molecular grain and hold it like sand. Naturally, it would flow out of his hand just like sand or water, but if he didn't try to hold it, he could grab it. That was the secret.

Like that, was how Hanzou grabbed hold of the wind, launching himself through the howling gale. Like that, while the fireball was still expanding and dissipating, he launched forward.

He grabbed the wind, spreading out and carrying away the flames, and smashed it back together, crushing the lingering fire back against the add.

His spinning kick pierced the re-ignited blaze like a needle. Because he spun the winds like a hurricane with his leg as the eye, it was possible for him to suck the heat into the blow without it even touching him.

The add rocked back, that secondary explosion launching Hanzou away like a bullet even as the boss was kicked upwards like the pistol.

"Klein-dono." Hanzou smoothly landed in a crouch, addressing the party leader formally without looking as he kept his attention on the Boss Add. "This unworthy one wishes to know if you have anything to report."

"Dynamm! Kunimittz! Now!" Klein shouted, before falling back with his katana still up in a guard position. With his eyes still on the enemy, he answered Hanzou's question. "No, we haven't found anything like the Boss." He tapped through his menu, and a trade window appeared in front of Hanzou. "Here's our map data."

Air gathered and the ground groaned under the magecraft of those other two. With a sudden snap, the energy built up in different directions between them snapped to equalization.

A blast of lightning engulfed the add, frying the mud golem as thunder clapped.

Hanzou bowed in place. "Then this lowly one shall depart." Smoothly, he jumped straight up from his curled-up position, grabbing himself with the wind he held and flinging his body towards the wall, landing smoothly and immediately launching forward in a sprint.

From: Sanada
To: White Leadership (mailing list)
Found the Boss. Grid position D-4]

Hanzou narrowed his eyes, and then jumped sideways, cartwheeling around to face the other way even as he crossed the distance to the maze-wall on the other side of the path. When he landed, he launched off, rushing back the direction he came, darting in a straight line, clearing gaps with a hurdler's leap and racing towards the grid coordinate.

From: Hanzou
To: Fuumanin (mailing list)
on my way]

He hit send, and bounded forward, rushing forward like a gale blowing over the tops of the walls.

From: Kotaru
To: Fuumanin (mailing list)
Isamu and I heading there]

Yes, the whole guild was on its way. Like that, they would get there and scout the battlefield so that Diabel-sama could be fully briefed to come up with a plan.

When he reached the designated coordinate, he jumped into the air, reaching for maximum altitude, buying time to inspect the situation.

Three mud golems. Two standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the path. On the far side of them, the [Divine Dragon Alliance] were engaging them, struggling to break through their wall-like guard.

Behind them, a single golem facing the opposite that was engaging Sanada before it, who was darting around with his spear, futilely striking at the golem.

And between them, between the walls of the maze and behind the bulwarks of the golems, was the Floor Boss.

It was his first time seeing the Floor Boss. Although three scouting sorties had been launched, none of them had been able to find the Boss. Furthermore, the maze reset into a new configuration between each Raid attempt, so even the map data had to be gathered anew each time. So on this fourth attempt, the entire Raid came out to fight.

With the appearance of an elegant man in a red suit, standing casually while swirling a glass of red wine in the right hand, with the four HP bars floating overhead, and the glowing letters that named it.

[Omi The Fool]

Hanzou reached the peak of his leap. If he was going to adjust his motion for a falling attack, it really had to be soon.

At the same time, two things happened.

Another PM appeared in his field of view.

From: Diabel
To: White Leadership (mailing list)
On our way. Don't be reckless.]

And the second thing that happened, was that one of the two adds that had been fighting the [DDA] burst into light as it was defeated.

Should he support them against their remaining add? Should he support Sanada against the other golem?

In the end, he simply didn't want to waste his sneak attack.

He adjusted his path, drifting over as his position changed. He reached below him, smoothing out the air so there would be not even an instant of warning before he struck, even as he pulled himself down faster, accelerating his fall with the wind.

He Reinforced his body to the limit. Not just running speed, but the strength and toughness that would allow him to sustain smashing against the ground.

And, like a falling comet, he came streaking down just half a meter behind the Boss who stood elegantly sipping Wine.

And his heel lashed out like a spinning ax at exactly the right moment, a spoke in a great wheel of wind that crushed the Boss down with perfect surprise.

The Boss collapsed, smashed into the ground with a great crash. Hanzou landed with his whole body and smoothly rolled around, jumping back to land in a crouch facing towards the Boss.

Like that. Just from that one falling surprise attack, even as Hanzou watched, the entire first HP bar drained down from yellow, then to red, and finally emptied out.

So, as a pet-using type, the Boss itself was weak?

Hanzou didn't need to see behind him to sense what was coming. An arm of mud, fired like a ballista, had to disturb the air it passed through. Hanzou threw himself to the side, diving into another roll and coming up on his feet, not pausing before he darted forward. The second golem was also approaching him, so he ran past it, darting up the side of the wall and leaping into the sky, spinning around. This time the Boss dodged his falling ax-kick. But that wasn't a problem; since Hanzou had expected that, he used his extended leg more like a wand than a sword, guiding the wind to slam into the Boss anyway.

Yes. This was how the Fuumanin fought. Draw the Aggro, and then dodge-tank.

And then, when the adds attempted to splat the tank, the rest of the Guild would sneak attack from behind.

A spear pierced the head of one golem, punching through the face as it came all the way through the from the entry wound on the back of the head. Water swirled around the shaft of the spear like the threads of a screw, carving away the mud from the inside.

Hanzou made eye contact, nodding towards Sanada, who was standing crouched on the back shoulder of the golem as he maintained his water spell.

The other golem was stumbling, struggling as it forced itself forward. It spun in place.

There was someone on it's back as well. Rather than crouched in place, it was more like that guy in armor was hanging off the two-handed sword he had thrust into the golem, and had barely scrabbled his feet up to get a tenuous foothold.

But his prana swirled, as he crushed the add down with the gravity magic that was the signature of the DDA.

Hanzou had merely flicked his eyes from one enemy to the other, but even as his attention went back to the Boss, he realized that figure in the red suit had thrown something like a golf-ball at him, glowing with the [Throwing Skill] as it was whipped towards him.

No, not a ball, it was a gem?

Hanzou frowned. It was heavy with prana, so he gave himself an extra margin as he stepped aside, dodging sideways.

But it wasn't enough margin.

Mid-air, the gem burst out, becoming a huge mass of mud, a wrecking-ball of earth bearing down on him that would crush him against the wall. No, even if he wasn't instantly killed from crushing, he would suffocate after getting buried alive by a literal ton of mud.

Hanzou jumped straight up, gathering the wind around himself like a blanket. He grimaced as the wall of mud slammed into him, but he welcomed the impact. Even cushioned by air, his HP still went down to the yellow just like that.

But as he bounded off, he guided the direction, leading his ricochet upwards. When the instant wall of mud slammed into the existing wall of earth with a rush like thunder as he air was displaced, he was above it.

Another gem came at him. Once again, he could sense the weight of prana in it even if its physical size was little more than a marble. But this time he was ready. Diving forward, he raced along the ground with a profile like a lizard, darting underneath the gem. It was a gamble, but when another instant mass of mud rushed over his head like the undercarriage of a train without touching him, he knew the gamble had paid off.

If the Boss had a throwing attack, then keep the fight at the closest possible range. That was the tactics he instantly decided on.

Hanzou came in, firing his hands in a quick jab-cross combo, before following up with a high kick.

But the Boss ducked and weaved, juking backwards and then sideways to dodge the punches, before the empty hand snapped up to block the kick. So the Boss only took trivial damage from it.

In weird synchronization, they both ducked, throwing themselves down as a huge arm of mud whipped over them from behind Hanzou.

The Boss hadn't spilled even a drop of wine from that damn glass.

Hanzou grit his teeth and attacked.


Kirito sidestepped sharply, twisting to his right side before flinging himself to the left as he cut down and across with his sword.

His blade hummed as it slashed through the air, the ether-type enhancement leaving a blurry after-image as he swung, digging sharply into the mud golem.

He stepped around behind it with his left foot, turning his back on the enemy and spinning around as he slipped behind it, scraping between its sides and the wall of the maze.

"Switch!" He shouted.

"On it!" He heard Asuna shout. The boom from her Linear Burst was muffled because he was standing behind the golem compared to them.

He could take the back attack, but he didn't. Instead, he pursed his lips, concentrating as he jogged around behind the golem, glancing back and forth between his footing and the Boss Add, his sword low and out from his side in a relaxed guard. His left hand was in a tight fist with his index finger rigidly extended. From the tip of that finger, a thin line of ether glowed, spooling out behind him as he moved.

He heard another boom as Asuna fired a second Linear Burst, and then she shouted "Switch!"

"Back to me!" He shouted, slashing out across the side of the boss as he ducked under the arm, and spinning slightly so he was shuffling backwards, finishing with a second hit that went straight up and into the armpit of the Add, before he twisted back to run towards the group.

"Watch out!" Asuna shouted from his flank.

"We're on it!" Silica cried back.

Kirito glanced over his shoulder. A large blue slime lurched forward with that slug-like motion, body-checking the golem with a simple slam attack as the Add lumbered towards him.

The raised arm slammed down, but it went completely off course. Kirito didn't even have to dodge as the earthen fist crashed into the ground behind him.

Silica yowled, sprinting with her head down to climb up the back of the slime like she was simply running up a hill, before tucking her self as she jumped, somersaulting around and landing, dagger-first, on the head.

Kirito reached the back row. "Here", he said, reaching up and extending his rigid fist to the Ilya.

The Guild Leader was standing upright in a casual stance, her two-handed sword still resting on her back. She didn't look like she intended to participate in the battle at all. She was standing with her right arm handing down and her left hand clasping her right elbow, leaning sideways slightly.

However, from the lowered right arm, the hand was clenched in a fist and the index finger was extended.

She nodded to Kirito, wordlessly reaching up with her right hand.

The glowing index finger of her right hand met the shimmering index finger of his left hand.

ET Phone Home, that's what Kirito thought as he watched that finger come up towards his.

But the loop was completed.

He felt like someone had pressed a drinking straw against the outside of his vein and sucked on it, a sensation like his Circuits were being drained without actually losing any prana, as Ilya took back the other end of her Ether-thread and seamlessly connected it to form a closed loop.

And, faster than it could decay away, she poured prana into it, so that it shined jaggedly, waves of light pulsing down the thread, looping behind the Add, and returning back to her raised hand.

The Mud Golems were essentially the same type as the Slimes were. Masses of formless, homogenous flesh without any veins, nerves, muscles, or organs. Rather than cutting or smashing them, it was easier to pull them apart or burn them up with magecraft.

So, that high-pitched whine as the thread tightened, was the most efficient approach.

The thread tightened as Ilya closed the loop. She was pulling it taught against the Add. No, it wasn't correct to say it was a thread anymore. It was a thick-gauge strand of razor-wire that was being pulled taut against the mud golem even as it circulated at high speed.

Like that, the HP bar of the golem began to slide empty in proportion to how much the improvised band saw was cutting it in half.

Finally, the last piece of red slipped out of the bar, and the Add shattered. Silica pitched forward, falling towards the ground as her footing disappeared. Her slime surged forward at the same time, and she bounced off the top surface like a trampoline, spinning twice to land on all fours next to Asuna.

"Hm." Kirito said. "That was pretty effective." His voice was a little uncertain, even to his own ears. He just sounded lukewarm rather than red hot.

"But the setup was too complicated." Ilya dismissively countered, tossing her head as she turned in place.

That was pretty much exactly what he had been thinking, so he just nodded with a half-hearted smile.

"Ah, this one dropped a gem too." Silica said, tapping the holographic menu in front of her. Apparently her dagger attack had beaten Ilya's razor-wire across the finish line called [Last Attack].

"What kind is it?" Asuna asked politely.

"It's a [Pink Sapphire] with [Medium Size] and [High Quality] as its parameters." Silica said, tilting her head to the side.

"These are some pretty pricey rewards just for the Adds." Kirito replied. It wasn't too unbalanced since the [Col] that was dropped was pretty low. The total monetary reward was probably still high, but it wasn't something that could really be considered unreasonable.

"Where's Shirou?" Asuna said, glancing around.

Kirito paused.

He knew Shirou was just around the corner. They had come to a T-junction in the maze. Not from the side-branch, but coming across the straight section, a path had branched out to their side. The Add that was standing in a guard-like position in front of them they'd seen from a long way off.

Frankly speaking, it wouldn't have surprised him at all that there had been a second one. The surprise had been that it had risen out of the ground, forming from the floor when they walked past. Well, even then, Kirito rated it four out of ten. It was a cheap trick that didn't really manage to be truly surprising so much as it was just annoying.

Shirou had said "I'll hold this one off, you deal with that one," and then stepped forward to tank the one that rose out of the ground.

If he was going to be honest with himself, Kirito would have expected Shirou to have already finished up and be waiting for them. That guy had the kind of strength that was usually reserved for badly-written cut-scenes.

"It's a little quiet, isn't it?" Kirito said, giving voice to his uneasy thoughts.

"Let's check." Asuna suggested. She didn't sheathe her sword, but instead, kept it up in a guard position as she jogged back the way they came.

Kirito followed. Since Ilya was skipping behind them rather than leading the charge, he assumed she was confident that Shirou was fine.

When they rounded the corner, they came across a strange sight.

Shirou was standing with his feet apart in a deep stance like he was riding a horse. His eyes were closed and his breathing was deep and slow. His arms were raised in front of him, and his fingers were pressed together and straight out like he was going to chop a board, even with those relaxed arms.

The Mud Golem was struggling.

The right arm raised up and cocked back to punch, but a sword too large for a human to use was thrust into that forearm all the way to the hilt, the blade piercing the shoulder and pinning the arm in place. As long as the limb was skewered, it was incapable of completing the attack.

Likewise, there was another, equally huge sword pressed against the stomach of the Add, digging into the chest as the Add wrestled against the blade that was locking it in place.

Without moving his left arm, Shirou whipped his right arm around, swinging the hand all the way around over his head before chopping downwards.

Like that, the sword pinned against the Add's stomach whipped back and around, slashing deeply into the Add with a diagonal slice.

The Add's HP ticked down into the red.

"Shirou, hurry up." Ilya said in a whining voice. "Otherwise someone else will find the Boss."

Shirou responded without opening his eyes, turning to face them, or even moving his body one step. "Denied. A third sword would exceed the current limit."

"Hm." Asuna said. Despite being only a single short syllable, Kirito could tell it was an approving sound. Then she spoke. "I'll switch in then." She raised her sword, and prana gathered as she prepared to sprint forward in a straight line.

Kirito narrowed his eyes, quickly calculating. "Silica. You follow Asuna, and then I'll switch in third." Judging by the slightly sour look in Ilya's eyes, comparing the strength of the party, she also estimated that the third attack in the sequence would be the last one.

"Right!" Silica nodded enthusiastically, echoed with a burble by her big blue slime, before they moved forward to finish the golem.


His world was a kung-fu battle.

Hanzou threw himself sideways in a right roll even as the Boss ducked into a deep stance with his hands thrown open as the arm of a golem rushed over their heads like a landing jet.

Hanzou lashed out with a kick from a low handstand as he landed, but it was blocked as the Boss twisted its arm in to stop the attack, the wine in that glass wobbling from the absorbed impact, before it strongly stepped forward and used a strike like a hammer with the other closed hand.

But Hanzou twisted in place, slamming the instep of his other foot into the leading thigh and twisting, shooting his arms up to catch the hammerstrike on his crossed forearms.

He hit the ground with his shoulder and rolled back, spinning around and shooting past the Boss to strike at the kidney with a straight punch.

Sanada and the [DDA] were furiously pounding on the Adds like he expected.

Because he was engaging the Boss and still dealing damage to it, as he guessed, that was overwhelmingly the highest priority for Aggro. His objective had been to merely do enough damage to the Boss that he could keep the Adds focused on him. Dodge-tanking them would be even easier since they didn't use any attack that could splash the Boss. Like that, everyone else could pile on the Adds and there wouldn't be any trouble.

Hanzou whipped his head back, leaning so far that his neck was straight out parallel to the ground. The thrusting punch twisted down to slam a palm-thrust into his sternum, but he spun in mid-air, riding the air parted by the descending arm up and around the attack, turning it into a counter-kick straight into the head of the Boss. Since it was an awkward kick, it did little damage.

But he had miscalculated.

This Boss was strong!

Hanzou rolled his whole upper body, leaping forward and jumping clear over the shoulder of the Boss, spinning around to deliver a brutal spin-kick to his enemy's neck.

But an arm whipped up, fist clenched, and the bicep absorbed the blow. Hanzou grinned savagely as the Boss turned to glare at him in the gap next to that raised arm.

And then Hanzou reached out, dragging himself straight down with the air so that the huge arm of the golem wouldn't launch him out of the park like a home-run in one of his sister's college softball games.

The Boss lunged forward as he was off-guard.

Hanzou twisted back, hand flicking out as he jumped in a spiral away from the Boss.

From that flicked hand, his pellet hit the ground between the feet of the Boss, bursting in a plume of instant concealment as it exploded into thick white smoke.

The Boss lunged forward, bursting out of the smoke like the bullet belatedly emerging from the barrel of the musket. No, that gem in that hand, heavy with prana, that's what you'd call the bullet.

But half an instant later, two more figures emerged from the smoke, as well. In that one second that the smoke pellet had allowed them, they struck.

Isamu lunged forward hugging the ground, his wakizashi held in a reverse-grip in his right hand and braced on his left palm, sliding thickly through the Boss at the base of the kidney, up and through, bursting out in the middle of the liver below the ribcage.

Kotaru lunged forward high, his wakizashi slicing deeply across the throat of the Boss as he placed his foot on the hip.

As Kotaru smoothly whipped around, jumping forward off his planted foot to saw at the neck with his sword, even then Isamu slammed his shoulder into the back of the Boss and wrenched his sword out with a twist.

Both leaped away. Unfortunately, rather than losing control and accidentally burying himself in his own ton of mud with a misfire, the Boss successfully canceled the heavy spell that had built up.

That last HP bar crept out, crossing Yellow entirely and finally slowing to a stop as it brushed into Red.

The Boss stood up straight. Even with that red line garishly shining from the injury all around the neck, even like that, the head of the Boss rolled and sound effects like cracking joints were clearly audible.

With a casual motion, the Boss threw the wineglass aside, and it shattered against the ground, lingering as broken glass for a moment before those shards to evaporated into pixels.

Both hands came up in a strong guard as those legs sunk into a powerful fighting stance.

Hanzou felt his face growing tight as the skin of his cheeks pulled back off his lips in a feral smile.

"Leader." Sanada said, half a question, even while darting around and throwing a feint with his spear as he carefully moved around to pincer the Boss between himself and Hanzou.

Hanzou stole a glance at where the [DDA] was still dealing with the Add. It was also in it's last HP bar.

He wanted to charge screaming forward. He wanted to synchronize the air all around him with the heavy throbbing of his lungs. He wanted to lunge forward and attack. He wanted to pound the Boss with his legs until there wasn't anything left to stomp flat.

He calmed his breath. That kind of crazed battle was inappropriate. A ninja was someone that hid themselves and waited. A ninja was someone that hardened their heart against fear and anger and simply attacked at the most appropriate time.

And more than anything else. A ninja was loyal.

"Everyone." Hanzou announced to his guild, silently circling the Boss. "Let's win without any casualties."

He calmed his pounding blood. He stilled his mind and hardened his heart.

On some unseen signal, the Boss lunged forward on the attack.

And the Fuumanin countered.


The Boss had been defeated. The giant [Congratulations!] and the expected update announcements had occurred.

However, that wasn't what they were looking at.

By default, the icon of a player that floated over their head was a bright green rhombus. It placidly bobbed several centimeters right over the crown of the head, illuminated by some kind of inner light, glowing a uniform emerald green.

However, if the Player committed a system-designated [Crime], then their icon would change from that bright green color to a baleful orange.

The icon of a monster, of enemy characters, was red. Until the sixth floor it was a different shade for every Player, indicating the difference in levels by the depth of hue, so that easy monsters were pink and deadly-difficult monsters were a dark scarlet. However, after the Sixth Floor, that indicator was taken away and all monsters had indicators the same bright red.

By the way, [Red Players] didn't actually have red icons. It was a colloquial term that referred to Players that killed other players, which was the role of red-icon monsters. In theory, a player who had the green icon of an innocent person could actually be a Red Player; if they lured others into MPKs, if they arranged for other players to be killed by monsters, without technically committing a crime.

In short, since the game had started, Kirito had gotten used to seeing those glowing rhombuses floating over the heads of every living creature. Without any exceptions, they were always Red for Mobs, and Green for Players, with some rare players having Orange.

However, right now, there were two exceptions standing in front of him.

A shape that shined rich navy blue. The edges were outlined with a bright golden color. That two-tone color that shined over their heads, like panes of blue glass in a shimmering golden frame.

That was what the icon floating over the heads of Shirou and Ilya looked like.

Their names were different, too.

Kirito snorted, sharply biting off a guffaw.

"Eh?" Ilya said, cocking her head with a quizzical expression. "Ah!" She said, looking startled. "My name changed!"

Yes, and so had Shirou's.

[The Sixth Ranger] sighed, folding his arms over his chest with a slightly sour expression on his face.

"Eh he he." [The White Witch] chuckled with a sharp smile and red eyes that had fluttered narrow, completely failing to hide her evil expression behind the raised hand. "So I guess it's become completely official, hasn't it, Shirou?"

"But what is it?" Asuna said, with a confused expression on her own face.

"Um." Silica hesitantly volunteered her opinion as she raised a hand. "I think, if you look in the Floor Patch Announcement, that there might be an explanation."

"That's right." Kirito nodded, turning his attention back to the forgotten holographic panel in front of himself. "Let's see..."

The typical notes about drop and spawn rates and other finicky adjustments.

Something about [Bounded Fields] he would definitely have to look into. The fluff was even more opaque than usual.

Minor bug fixes.

A system for designing and implementing buildings and structures... wait, the custom house ruleset was being added? Kirito quietly sucked in a breath with excitement. It had been possible to purchase existing buildings for a while now, but designing your dream home and then turning it into reality (well, for a certain parameter of reality) in exchange for [Col]? That was an exciting and completely unexpected feature.

But Kirito breathed out slowly, forcing himself to move on. It wasn't what he was looking for right now.

And there, the most likely suspect.

[In recognition of their unique achievements, certain Players are being rewarded with [Titles] that have each of the following benefits:
1) Passive 5% bonus to XP for magecraft development.
2) Grants a passive 5% bonus to XP for spell acquisition to all [Lineage] members.
3) Proportionate [Fame Bonus] from NPCs (various effects).
4) Excluded from automatic game-balancing by [Cardinal].
5) [Territory Deeds] automatically acquired randomly on new floors. ]

"Congratulations." Asuna was the one that spoke first. Kirito blinked, looking up. He had unconsciously put his hand to his chin as he was frowning at that announcement in confusion and suspicion, so he shook his head a little bit to clear his thoughts before looking at her.

"Yes!" Silica said, nodding enthusiastically.

A spiral staircase was growing, flowing upwards as the walls of the maze slowly shrank, the material of the fight zone being cannibalized to feed the effect. That was the path to the next floor.

"Let's check it out." Kirito finally said, gesturing towards the staircase.

"Okay." Asuna nodded in agreement, sliding her sword into the sheathe on her hip with a nod, stepping to the front of the group to march towards the staircase.

It was surprisingly awkward.

Compared to the normal celebrations after winning the Boss Fight, where everyone was smiling and cheering at each other, this time was different.

Because there were whispers.

People were staring. At the new colors floating over two of his party member's heads.

People were staring at those strange things, and whispering to each other.

But it wasn't the case that they were looking shocked, angry, or scared.

No, although they were jealous faces, they were the kind of jealousy were people said, "ah, I want to be like that too," and most of the expressions were approving, proud, respectful, or adoring or any mix of those things as they gazed on at the two people with the gold-rimmed blue icons moving among them.

Kirito glanced to the side, and caught happened to catch Kibaou's eye as the guy was staring at them, arms crossed and muttering to his party-members with that habitual frown on his face. But even so, in the instant Kirito's gaze happened to cross Kibaou's, the other guy's head jerked downward in a nod, an acknowledgment like something out of a habit.

Kirito froze, surprised that even that guy could be like that, but before he could even feel awkward about it, that guy's gaze had simply moved on without lingering.

Kirito had no idea what to think about that.

Ilya was obviously preening. She was strutting forward with her chin up and her chest out, her hands on her hips and her arms confidently out. She looked like a chicken on a nature show.

Kirito swallowed his laugh and glanced away. Asuna was simply looking forward as she walked, and Shirou was once again completely unperturbed. It was strange that someone that worried about others so much acted like in the end they didn't concern him at all.

Of all of them, Silica was the one that looked the most like he felt.

As they mounted the winding staircase like a screw of mud sticking out of the top of the pyramid-dungeon, she was the one that was shyly pressing herself against the slime, like a shy toddler hiding in the coat of the family dog. It was loyally surging forward beside her, exactly like that exact same dog, except if it was a hairless perfectly homogenous invertebrate instead of a dog.

Of course, since compared to the birds and lizards that other people had made in familiars by this point, her huge monster was a little unusual.

"It's a little weird, huh." Kirito whispered to her, as they fell back slightly from the rest of the group.

Silica glanced up, and then nodded at him. "Yes." She glanced around. "I mean, I knew that Ilya and Shirou were important members of the Front Line, but... I hadn't realized that they were treated like celebrities, you know?" She glanced down, flushing. "I mean, even more than that, I respected and looked up to the [Sixth Ranger], but seeing him get acknowledged by the game itself is a little strange."

Kirito nodded slowly. Yes. It was strange. And even more than that, had been something else.

4) Excluded from automatic game-balancing by [Cardinal]

After a storm, God parted the clouds and put a rainbow in the sky, as the colorful symbol of his promise to Noah that he would never use the nerf bat on OP players again.

That kind of vaguely sacrilegious, vaguely ridiculous scenario was the first thing Kirito imagined. Well, when you compared the kind of power that Kayaba had over them, the God of the Old Testament had a distressing number of parallels.

"I know what you mean." Kirito finally said. As a rule, only terrible game masters got swept up in the hype around which players were "cool" instead of remaining aloof and impartial. So even if he was proud of his friend's accomplishments, the medal being hung around his neck was a little suspicious.

But in the end, what could they do?

[In recognition of their unique achievements...]

The best thing to do right now was just hope this was the logical end-limit of Kayaba's wish for players to use the spell development system. It came at it from the side, but if it just meant that Kayaba was granting an official pardon to players who got imbalanced using magecraft, than it was fine.

Assuming it wasn't a lie.

Kirito sighed, hanging his head.

Even if he'd known that [Kayaba the Person] was a liar and a murderer, until now, he'd somehow never doubted the honesty of [Kayaba the Game Developer].

"Well," Kirito continued, "I guess all we can do is be happy for our friends, right?"

Silica nodded with a doubtful look, and replied in a doubtful voice. "Right." But rather than challenging or contradicting him with her doubt, it was more like she was agreeing there was no other path.

Ah, that was true, she was an experienced gamer too, wasn't she? Similar kinds of thoughts were probably going through her head.

And then they stepped out onto the Eighth Floor.

A warm breeze like early summer blew across them, carrying a grass scent with a hint of sweetness but somehow no pollen at all, with a delicate but lifting birdsong riding on top of the wind.

Grass rustled softly and tree leaves gently made a shushing sound, and the sky was warm and clear.

They were at the base of a gentle hill. A building like a town hall stood at the top, and there were other hills around them.

"This is nice." Kirito finally said.

"Yeah." Silica agreed with a happy sigh.

"Ah!" Ilya made a surprised sound, stopping in place as she stared at something in front of her.

Asuna made a curious sound, and Ilya tabbed over into her menu and changed the visibility to all, as Kirito and Silica caught up with the group to see what it was about.

In front of her normal menu, Ilya had the kind of pop-up received after completing a quest.

[Title Bonus!
Property Deed]

And below that, still in the pop-up, was an integrated minimap showing a parcel of land outlined and highlighted.

Ilya quickly tabbed over to her item inventory, and confirmed that the [Deed] existed there, too. It had popped right at the bottom as it was added to her stuff.

After a stray thought that Ilya needed to clean out her vendor trash more often, Kirito regretfully consigned himself to choosing Paragon instead of Renegade and said something else. "That was here on the Eighth Floor, wasn't it?"

"Yes." Ilya said, with a surprisingly blank look her face.

"And [Bounded Fields] just got added, huh." Shirou said. His voice was heavy. It was carrying a lot of meaning, but unfortunately, it was all in a box that Kirito couldn't unpack and understand.

Shirou sighed, and then squared his shoulders. "Hm." He made a non-committal sound, and started moving forward.

Kirito shared a quick glance with Asuna over Silica's head.

Well, Kirito thought, that was interesting.