"Is that it?" Kirito whispered, peeking around the trunk of a tree, awkwardly perched on the knotty roots extending out like a platform below him.
Something was glowing. He would probably be able to see it even if he hadn't improved his night vision with a spell.
"Yes." Keita whispered back. He was perched on the roots of the next tree over, craning his own neck around to peer out into the woods from behind the trunk of his own tree.
He wanted to follow it. The urgency of that desire didn't feel like his natural curiosity. Kirito circulated prana through his Circuits, and the unnatural need to pursue it was washed away in proportion.
Behind them, or rather, past them, the rest of the [Black Cats of the Full Moon] were chopping at trees just like the ones that Kirito and Keita were perched on. Sacchi, Tetsuo, and Sasamaru were all cheerfully whacking away, slowly reducing the durability and turning them from environmental objects to crafting mats.
"I think I've got it under control." Kirito said, as he turned his gaze back to Keita, who nodded in response.
"Right." Keita said, raising his hand to tap at the air in front of him.
A PM popped up in front of Kirito. All it said was two words, [Operation Start].
The compulsion was reduced, but it was still there. Kirito breathed in, closed his eyes, and breathed out as he focused on it. He allowed it to guide him without overwhelming him.
The plan was simple. They could break the spell at any time, but that would allow the mob to know they could. Unless they got lured somewhere too dangerous, Kirito wanted to flip the trap back on the enemy.
He stepped off the roots sliding into the murky knee-deep water that swirled around the roots of these dark trees.
It was nighttime. They were on the far eastern edge of the Fourth Floor. The Black Cats had found this swamp-like zone. For Keita, the most interesting part was the [Dark Mangrove] trees that produced a unique hardwood mat.
However, while they had greedily stayed later than usual to max out the [Materials] tab in their inventories, they had witnessed something strange.
These strangely glowing little orbs, that caused this compulsion effect.
Keita had played it safe. Rather than chase after it themselves, they had retreated, and when they came back, it was with the Front Liner on their Friend List.
That was why Kirito was here.
Kirito waded through the dark water, and a shiver of disgust went up his spine when his left foot sank into some silt-like mud, sucking against his leg when he stepped again. The murky water was covered in something like thin pond scum that swirled around his legs. He hoped there wasn't a [Leech]-type mob that would attach to him.
He could hear Keita squelching along on this flank. Kirito didn't look though because he was keeping his vision spread out in front of them, tracking the mob and looking for ambushes.
Well, even if his pants, boots, and socks were all soaked through, at least they wouldn't be completely ruined by this slimy mud. Still, if he was going to be mucking around in these kinds of places, he might be better off getting something like thigh-high rubberized boots for wading.
But even as he thought about all that, his eyes remained fixed on the electric-white orb that bobbed back and forth in front of him.
It laughed, quick and high-pitched like a little girl. Considering the setting, it was definitely creepy.
But even as it sent a shiver up his spine, at the same time, he couldn't help but feel intrigued, interested, maybe even enamored by it. That made a second, more intense shiver go up his spine, and Kirito swallowed against his suddenly dry throat.
The monster was pretty spooky, but it was a super-orthodox kind of spooky. It was the normal kind of scary that you would expect in a haunted house, so actually, there was an upper limit on how scary such a familiar thing could be. It lacked the bonus points to scariness from the [Fear of the Unknown].
However, as he eagerly followed along behind the bobbing light into a painfully obvious trap where a monster would leap out and go [Boo], the scariest, spookiness part was his own eagerness.
Because it meant the hardware of the [NerveGear] and the software of [Sword Art Online] were capable of manipulating his inner thoughts and emotional state.
The glowing orb giggled again, and Kirito shivered, because in the end, [Kirito] was just software running on a computer made of meat called a [Brain], and his program was being subtly altered.
Trudging through a swamp in the dark under a compulsion, Kirito was frankly relieved when a [Spiny Green Slime] popped out of the water in front of him. He was much better with these kinds of jumpy [Gotcha] scares than the creeping psychological horror stuff.
He dropped back into a fighting stance with his legs spread, at the same time his hand went up, grabbed the hilt of his sword, and swung it forward and down.
Behind him, Kirito heard Keita shout in surprise as he stumbled back with a splash, but Kirito didn't worry about that, instead focusing on the chitinous claw that was reaching out for his belly to slice open his guts.
The sword in his hand had a dull glow like a watery sheen catching light, catching the spines on that crab-like claw coming towards him in a grinding parry, the sword twisting in the same motion into a counter-attack as he took a shuffling step around. The sword rolled up, sawing against the claw, and he smoothly stabbed the slime.
The Slime screamed, and its HP bar dipped perilously.
Kirito twisted his sword, wrenched it back out, and swung it around to slash at the Slime one more time. Because of his poor footing, it was more awkward than usual.
But it was enough. The Slime vanished into pixels and died.
Kirito nodded in satisfaction. He quickly checked the surroundings. The glowing thing was darting around Keita, who was swinging at it with his weapon, as much to keep it away as to actually hit it.
Kirito glanced around, paying special attention to the water, looking to see if another enemy would pop out anytime soon.
[Kill seven slimes of each of the seven colors].
That had been the first [Quest], or rather, the first [Ritual] that had been offered to him by that Ellis Bell NPC. After piling up those kills like an offering, in exchange, what Kirito received was something like an [Anti-Slime] property he could add to his attacks or use as a metamagic feat. Eventually the bonus would wear out and he would lose it unless he performed the ritual again; the more he used it, the faster it would wear out. At least, that was what [Bell-sensei] had said.
On the other hand, if he incorporated the effect into the enchantment of a Mystic Code, he could give his sword a permanent bonus against Slimes. Well, he didn't know if item enchantment would cap out at +10 though, and he didn't want to use up a +1 on his favorite sword for something he wouldn't need on the Front Line.
Kirito ducked, stumbling aside as the glowing orb from before darted towards him, swooping down towards his face. The spherical symmetry of that glowing ball was disrupted by something that looked distressingly like a knife sticking out of the side.
"Sorry Kirito!" Keita shouted. "But look out, it's intangible: I couldn't hit it with my staff!"
Making angry sounds, the orb shook in place like it was cursing Kirito, and then darted away, already far out of his sword's reach.
"Oh no you don't." Kirito muttered to himself.
He still had a sword gripped in his right hand, so he raised his left hand. It was clenched in a fist, but with the pointer finger and the thumb extended straight outwards, a hand shaped like a gun.
He sighted down his arm, and then fired.
Pulses of compressed ether like a blaster shot out from his extended finger.
Getting Ilya to teach him her [Prana Cannon] spell, which by the way was seriously what she called it, had been annoying, but not as annoying as finding out that just one shot would be enough to completely exhaust his Circuit capacity. It wasn't anything complicated, just a mass of ether compressed into an artillery shell and launched by imagination; the hardest part was the high-density compression of so much ether. It didn't really match Kirito at all.
So, with maximum fuel efficiency being the design parameter, he'd rebuild it as a light-weight blast and fooled the System into letting him use his [Throwing Dart] skill with it.
It took three shots, but his [Magic Missile] shot down the glowing orb-monster. He nodded with grim self-satisfaction as the monster shattered into pixels.
"Kirito!" Keita called out, sloshing over to the other boy. "Good job!"
"Thanks." Kirito said, slightly distracted. The [Congratulations!] text had popped up, which included things like the XP and Col earned, as well as the name of the monsters he'd just fought.
[Will-o'-the-Wisp]. That was the name of that glowing orb mob he'd just taken out. In terms of stats it hadn't seemed like that much, or rather, it had been easier to kill than he would have guessed from the XP reward.
"Hey, you said it had an intangibility effect, right?" Kirito said, turning to Keita.
The other boy blinked, before smiling with a little embarrassment. "Yes, when I tried to strike it, my weapon just passed right through it without doing anything. It felt like it was just toying with me until you drew the aggro for killing that slime."
"Hmm." Kirito mused, frowning slightly. "Well, for now let's go back to the others."
"Right!" Keita said, as they started marching through the murky water, struggling against the mud.
Kirito glanced around, scanning the area, and then sucked air across his teeth as he saw something.
"Sacchi!" He shouted, pointing again. "Behind you!"
"Eh?" He couldn't hear the girl murmur at that distance, but the expression on her face was obvious confusion, even as she turned and looked over her shoulder.
Her short and sharp scream was something he could clearly hear, though, as she tripped backwards, stumbling in place and nearly dropping off the elevated tree-roots and stumbling into the muddy water.
A [Will-o'-the-Wisp] looped down through where she had been, narrowly missing her with its knife-like projection.
"Sacchi!" Ducker shouted, as he darted forward, leaping nimbly from tree to tree towards her.
"Ha!" Sasamaru lunged forward. Rather than trying to get around it, he had smoothly slid through the murk, and thrust forward and up with his spear, which was blazing with fire elemental magic.
The mob reacted like it took damage, but as Kirito grit his teeth and marched through the mud, he couldn't see the HP bar decrease visibly.
Still, it was a Soloer's rule to never lose track of their surroundings. He swept his gaze around, and pointed. "Three!" He shouted, pointing at another enemy.
"Tetsuo! Carry the cabinet towards it!" Keita shouted.
"Right!" Tetsuo shouted back. He shuffled backwards, lowering his mace to hook it off his belt loop, and then started backing towards where the [Mules] had been tethered around a particularly large tree, slightly behind the rest of the party.
Ducker shouted, running up the side of the tree to get elevation, and then tried to slice the mob with his knife. He didn't do any damage, but at least dodging his attack had put it in range of Sasamaru's spear.
Kirito grit his teeth. He couldn't really wade towards them any faster than he already was without seriously risking his balance. Falling over and getting stuck in the mud would be a major setback.
He wasn't confident that he would be able to shoot it down at this range with his [Magic Missile].
Sasamaru, Ducker, and Sacchi, none of them had anything that could seriously damage the mob.
Well, there was an obvious solution to that, though.
Kirito slashed at the air, summoning the menu in front of him, and confidently stabbed through it with his finger, quickly navigating to the right option and then clicking select.
Sacchi's gaze snapped to him in surprise, so Kirito just nodded his head enthusiastically, and then she reached up and hesitantly pressed a button on the menu.
[Inheritance of Magecraft Lineage]. That was what the banner that appeared between them, floating in the air halfway from him to her, read.
Kirito stopped in place, slowly raising his hand, and sighted down his arm at the flying monster.
He carefully gathered prana. As it rotated through his circuits, he condensed it, imagining it gathering and compressing on his finger tip. He compressed the ether as tightly as he could, crushing it down into a zero-dimensional space. The ether was gathered in a formally defined point on his fingertip. Once he judged it was enough, he imagined the line drawing from his fingertip out to the enemy, a one-dimensional space. And he imagined the condensed prana launching away as the [Zero] switched into the [One].
The dense bullet of prana fired outward, streaking away towards the [Will-o'-the-Wisp].
And missed. It darted around his shot.
No matter. Sacchi was raising her hands. They were clasped together, but the pointer of her right finger was extended, as she slowly raised them.
Kirito struggled forward a few more steps, and raised his hand again. He cast the [Magic Missile] as slowly as he could again, gathering and condensing the prana, then imagining the line from fingertip to target.
It shot out. This time it clipped the monster, so it actually took a little damage.
Ducker cheered, and then did another useless jumping attack. This time the monster completely ignored him, though.
The other one was bothering Tetsuo, who was stubbornly wading towards the mules. He had his arm up, and whatever the knife-like attack the mobs used was, it was stopped by the shield. [Physical Interference] or something like that?
Sacchi raised her finger, frowning in fierce concentration, and then flinched.
Kirito's eyes darted towards the HUD where the party status was listed. Sacchi had lost some HP to the [Spell Failure].
Looking at the HUD, he could see that even if had lost at little HP from attacks that had got past his guard, Tetsuo was doing okay, for now, so it would be better to focus on the other one.
Kirito raised his hand again, and fired another shot. This one was also a complete miss. He grunted in annoyance.
But Sacchi raised her hands again, and a blast of prana the size of a basketball launched out, slamming into the [Will-o'-the-Wisp] and obliterating it.
Kirito slowed down, slightly surprised. Even if the density had been mediocre at best, that had been a really big mass of prana. He'd known that Sacchi had the [Biggest Reserves] out of the Black Cats, but that was more than he expected.
They could turn their attention to the other one, though.
Ah, even as he said that, Tetsuo clambered onto the big tree by the Mules, wincing as the mob scored a hit across his back. The monster swooped away with a triumphant bobbing motion, and made that horror-like little-girl giggle again.
But then he lunged forward, grabbing that freaky upright cabinet off the Mule.
Even from here, Kirito could hear it rumble ominously.
"Got it!" Tetsuo shouted, as he slung it over his shoulder, holding it awkwardly from behind.
"Ready!" Keita shouted back.
The third [Will-o'-the-Wisp] swooped down, still giggling.
The doors of that upright cabinet swung open, and masses of thick dark strings with serrated edges reached out like fishing lines or like tentacles, wrapping around the monster and pulling it in.
Then the doors of the cabinet slammed shut, sealing the monster inside with those distressing dark wires.
Kirito could barely make out the sound that Keita's strange furniture was making. Something like rumbling, or perhaps grinding.
Then the second [Congratulations!] text box popped up.
Ducker cheered again, slapping Sasamaru on the shoulder, but Kirito scanned the area again. Keita was doing the same, although he nodded curtly when his eyes met Kirito's.
The party gathered together, and Kirito grimaced down at the thick muck that was caked on his legs. The sensation was distressingly realistic and nasty.
"[Will-o'-the-Wisp], huh." Keita said with a contemplative voice, once he had also climbed up onto the roots of the tree they were meeting on.
"They weren't so tough!" Ducker bragged.
Tetsuo grunted, shaking his head slightly in disagreement.
"Assuming you could even hurt it in the first place, that is." Sasamaru dryly replied, contradicting Ducker.
"That's right." Keita said, with a heavy sigh. "If Kirito hadn't been here..." He let it trail off, with an expression of sincere thanks on his face. But there was also something painful there, that Kirito didn't understand.
"It wasn't anything major." Kirito awkwardly brushed off his words after turning his eyes away from Keita's.
Well, doing that made his gaze fall on Sacchi. That reminded him.
"Ah," He said. "I wasn't sure it would work, but you did a very good job, Sacchi."
Sacchi blushed, looking down. "It wasn't anything special."
Was she even worse with praise than Kirito was?
"That's right!" Ducker said, his irrepressible good cheer coming forward again. "That was amazing!"
"It was pretty cool." Sasamaru chipped in. "Good job, Sacchi."
Tetsuo nodded, giving her a thumbs up.
Sacchi murmured something, her eyes darting up to Kirito, and then darting down as her expression went even redder than before.
Keita swallowed. "Actually, can I have a moment of your time, Kirito?" He asked, jerking his head to the side.
Kirito had no idea what that was about. "Sure." He said.
Wait, he did have an idea.
After all, he had just given them a Front Liner spell. Even if the [Magic Missile] wasn't anything special, they didn't have any idea what kind of price Kirito would demand for it. It wasn't like he wanted to give it away for free since he was proud of it, but it wouldn't be fair if the price was anything particularly burdensome.
Keita cleared his throat. "First, I want to say thank you for coming out and supporting us. I know a Front Liner's time is valuable, so I know what your help is worth."
Keita didn't even have to say it, the way that sentence was set up shouted the 'BUT' in capslock for him.
"And I truly appreciate the spell." Keita said, circling in uncomfortably. "And I'm not trying to second-guess your judgment. It's just... wasn't [Inheritance] too much?"
That was honestly and sincerely the first reaction that passed through Kirito's mind. He didn't even know which anime it was from, probably some harem romcom he'd never seen since it was a girl with elaborate hair in a school uniform, but it was the image he had saved on his computer's hard-drive to express the emotion of nonplussed confusion, the fish-like eyes and furrowed eyebrows and slightly open-lipped frown of someone who didn't know what was going on and instinctively knew they wouldn't like it if they did.
"Huh?" Kirito decided to be a little more non-committal when he actually spoke.
"I mean, I'm happy, but isn't it a big deal?" Keita pressed.
"No?" Kirito replied.
Keita frowned, his expression more uncertain than worried, now. "Well, [Inheritance] is something you only share with your Guild, right? It's a serious commitment, even more than sharing a [Spell Scroll] with someone. Something that intimate..." And Keita cut off whatever he was going to say after that.
What are you talking about, Kirito almost said, but didn't.
Because he realized that this was a cultural difference.
[Inheritance]. An in-game tool for connecting your nervous system to someone else's so you could directly learn their skills and especially their spells from the "inside", by following along and mimicking their movements.
"Is that how it is?" Kirito asked, eyebrows furrowing. "It's not such a big deal on the Front Line."
There wasn't any sort of rule, written or unwritten, about only using [Inheritance] within your Guild. Or rather, the distinction was between [Guild-exclusive Spells] and [Open Spells]. It was faster and more efficient to use the Inheritance System to teach someone, so it was common practice on the Front to spread a spell around with it. For example, Kirito had learned [Cure] directly from Bones using Inheritance, just like all the Front Liners that wanted to know it.
But the Front Line was a smaller and more rarefied group. Kirito was a little surprised to realize that, thinking about it, he knew every single Front Liner by sight, and could identify the name, guild, and play-style for most of them.
But compared to that, the Mid Liners were an order of magnitude more massive, and less united to boot. Everyone on the Front Line was united by their shared sense of mission. But the fraternal sense that [We're clearing the game together] probably didn't exist for the people who were just playing the game as something to do, like the [Black Cats].
Kirito licked his lips. "It's not that big a deal. On the Front Line." He said.
Keita opened his mouth, and then slowly closed it. "I see." His own response was carefully neutral.
Kirito shook his head, and then looked up. "So, is it really such a big deal? For you."
Keita slowly shook his head. "I guess not."
Kirito thought about clapping the other guy on the shoulder but decided that gesture was too close. "Well, in that case we'll head back."
"Right." Keita said.
When they got back, Kirito was immediately ambushed.
"Hey hey!" Ducker appeared in front of Kirito clapping his hands. "Can you teach me that super-cool spell, too?"
Kirito shared a wry glance with Keita, and then glanced back.
Ducker's eyes were shining. Tetsuo and Sasamaru also had intensely interested expressions on their faces.
"Alright, I'll teach all of you the [Magic Missile]." He said.
"Yeah!" Ducker punched the air, cheering, before the smile fell off his face and he started to frown. "Ah, but about the price, how much will you charge?"
At that, Sacchi's head also went up, a concerned look on her face.
"About that." Kirito spoke in a dry tone. At least he already had an answer for this one. "I'll teach all of you, but in exchange, I want Keita to make me a [Chair +1] as my compensation."
"Huh?" Keita asked, confused as everyone's attention was directed to him. He blinked slowly as he thought about it. "A... what sort of benefits would a 'chair plus one' have, anyway?" By the end of it, he sounded contemplative rather than confused.
"I dunno, but I'm interested in the result." Kirito said in response.
"Great!" Ducker pumped his fist. "With this, the [Black Cats] are going to become the disciples of a Front Liner!"
The rest of the guild had painful expressions on their faces, like they were embarrassed that Ducker had come out and said it so plainly.
"It's not that big a deal. I'm just helping you out as fellow [Ether Users], that's all." Kirito demurred. The idea of having [Disciples] made gooseflesh break out on his skin. Not only was he innately allergic to such a heavy relationship with other gamers, but the only role-model he had in this game for [Master And Disciple] was Ilya and that Hexi kid, and while acting like Ilya sounded amusing, he shied away from that even further.
"We should give him a headband." Tetsuo spoke slowly, and his words came out like they weren't a big deal.
The Guild acted otherwise, though.
"No!" Sacchi shouted, almost hissing. She blushed again when she realized she's spoken so vehemently.
Sasamaru flinched, and Ducker groaned elaborately.
Keita just sighed like he was getting bullied. "You guys are never going to let me live that down, are you?"
Kirito thought about that, and then turned to Tetsuo. "Please tell me more about [headbands]." He said it with exactly the inflection B-grade voice actors used for the stilted conversation of dialogue wheels.
Tetsuo smiled uncertainly. "When we were just getting started, Keita thought we should have a standard Guild insignia. But since we couldn't afford matching clothing and our equipment is all different..." He trailed off.
"Cat-ear headbands." Sasamaru finished.
"Sacchi was adorable, though!" Ducker added it like he was coming to the girl's defense, but based on her reaction, she didn't seem to think so at all.
"I actually already have one." Kirito admitted. "In black, even."
Ilya had gotten one for Silica for some asinine reason, and had insisted enough that eventually Kirito had stepped in to deflect her attention.
The first one he had been given was totally white, too. Judging from Ilya's expression, she had done that solely to contradict his identity as [The Black Swordsman]. So he'd chucked it at her. Her completely lost expression when he did that was hilarious.
After that Asuna had told them to stop squabbling like children, and Ilya declared she wouldn't rest until the other girl was reborn as the cat-eared Meido, [Asunyan].
Kirito sighed wistfully. Someday...
"I'm sensing a story, there." Sasamaru said carefully.
"Ah, one of my frequent party-members has the rare element [Beast], so an obnoxious somebody kept giving them beast-themed accessories. It snowballed from there." Kirito lightly glossed over it while protecting the identities of the innocent, also while casually slamming a certain somebody.
He clapped his hands. "Anyway, do you want to go first, Ducker?" Kirito addressed the thief-type.
"Yeah!" The other boy cheered, as he settled in to learn the spell.