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Clashing Blades - Arc 1

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Arc 1 of Sword Art Online: Clashing Blades.


Prologue

Left side. He’s going to strike my left side. He’s trying to trick me into thinking it’ll be an overhead swing. I’m not falling for it. He raises his sword, and I can see the flinch he makes when he’s about to make the move. I’ll slide my blade under it, push it over my head. That’ll let me grab him with Gilgamesh and punch him into the ground. I can finish him off there.

I planned that all out before the level 42 Dark Knight I was facing had even finished his move. I see his blade suddenly switch direction, and come at my left side. I do just as planned, sliding my blade under his, redirecting it over my head, before rushing up and grabbing his helmet with Gilgamesh, not giving him an opportunity to react. I slammed him down into the ground, taking out a good chunk of his HP, as it was a good counter move, before raising Arondight overhead and slicing through his neck, finishing off the rest of his HP and causing him to shatter into multicolored shards that disappeared to reveal the battle results.

[Result]

[Exp: 50000]

[Col: 25000]

[Items: 3]

I slash my sword through the air and spin it in my hand before sheathing it onto my back.

“And that’s another boss down.” I say to myself.

I then felt my power increase again, and another screen came up.

[Level Up]

[Level 54]

“Alright.” I say, satisfied. I check my inventory to see what new items I picked up.

A really good HP Potion, a ring that increases agility which is useless for me at this point, and the rare boss drop ‘Dark Knight Slayer’.

“Huh, dropped your sword, huh?” I said. “Well should be good for selling.”

Like I needed it. Arondight was already more powerful than that thing anyway. It’s more powerful than anything I come across. I should know. I designed the thing along with my clawed gauntlet, Gilgamesh.

I look up to the sky and let out a deep sigh. I reflect on all that’s happened since the Game Master trapped all the players in here. Four months had passed since then, and I’ve only gotten to floor 10 of this damn game. Not that I couldn’t keep going, but I liked to hang back and level up on the lower floors. It was getting tougher though, finding enemies that’ll give me good amounts of exp, so soon I’d have to power level through the floors.

The highest floor anyone’s gotten to so far was floor 36, and those guys were the guys who had all the information so they could get through it faster than anyone. Everyone’s still getting used to being here, and once everyone else gets stronger, it’ll become easier to progress through the floors when a bunch of other people reach upwards in levels they’ll go by way quicker. I have work to do as well, but I prefer to work alone. I find it’s easier to work when nobody’s there to hold me back. Or to annoy me. I’ve been working alone for most of my time in SAO.

I look at the claws of the gauntlet on my left hand, seeing how the darkened metal blades shine in the sun. I retract the claws back to where they belong, fastened on the armguard, and revealing my fingers. I stare at my hand for a second before clenching it into a fist, remembering my goal.

Ever since this all started, there’s been only one thing on my mind. One motive for me to grow stronger, and advance through the floors, and then become stronger still.

Murder Kayaba Akihiko. The Game Master of Sword Art Online. Not only in game, but when I get out, I’m going to kill him in real life as well. He deserves nothing less than to die.

But, having murder constantly on my mind does make me hungry. Or maybe it’s because I just beat a high level boss? Eh, whatever. I was hungry either way, and I decided to head back to the third village of the floor, Talmia, to my favorite restaurant in the game.

I look back across the fields in the direction of town and take off sprinting.

Chapter 1

When I got back to Talmia I slowed down to a walk. This place was always busy. People talking about the what-not and conducting commerce. Things I never really got into. Besides the basics like food and stuff, the most I’ve ever bought were some potions and so I’m literally sitting on a whole fortune of blood money from my fallen enemies. Even then I usually get all the potions I need from them as well, so there you go.

I briskly walk through the crowds and make it to my favorite restaurant: a place called Adeline’s, run by the owner whom the restaurant is named after. Makes THE best ramen, hands down. I don’t know what she puts in it but I love it. And considering that I’ve wolfed down about 1000 bowls of the stuff since I found out about it, I can safely say it’s not poisoned and I am not slowly dying.

Well even if I were I’d be dying doing what I love.

I step into the restaurant and hear the bells chime above the door, where I am greeted by Adeline, who was standing at the front desk.

“Ah, Ishi!” She said with a warm smile. “Having the usual today?”

“Like I ever have anything else.” I say, taking a seat at an empty table next to a window.

“Alrighty, then. Coming right up!” She shuffles into the back room to make me my meal. She has to do it because she’s the only one who knows how to make it right. Others have tried. It takes a bit longer for her to make it because she has to do more to it than just make it appear out of thin air. She doesn’t have the recipe saved so she does each step individually. She’s quick, however, and she comes back with my steaming bowl of ramen and a coke, which wasn’t called coke, but it freaking is, I don’t care what you say, it’s the same damn thing.

“Enjoy!” She said as she set my meal down in front of me.

I nodded to her and immediately dug in, picking up my fork (because screw chopsticks, can’t use them to save my life) and stabbing into the noodles, because those little strings of pasta have had it too good for too long and somebody has to learn ‘em.

So while I’m merrily munching on my meal, I’m looking out the window and watching as the people of this little town went along their way, and basically just staring out into space, while I inhale my meal. Pretty soon I’m on my second bowl and then my third, because I can’t get a full stomach digitally, it’s just a momentary reprieve.

So I’m on my fifth bowl, which I can afford from all the monster murdering I’ve been preoccupied with as of late when somebody catches my attention.

“Hey! Over here!” I her a voice say.

I snap out of it and look over to see a young lady smiling at me. She had red hair and eyes to match, as well as an outfit that didn’t really give her off as a high level character. It was just a basic clothes set, didn’t look like it was meant for combat.

“Hiya!” She said.

“Do I know you?” I say plainly.

“Well, no.”

“Then why are you here?” I say, slurping down the rest of my fifth bowl then doing back in to drink the bowl dry.

“Well, um… the thing is, I was kind of hoping you could help me.”

I finish up and wipe my mouth off, sighing contently and thanking God that I couldn’t get fat, because I probably would be by now if this was real life.

“With what?”

“Well, the thing is…” She begins. “Well, I haven’t really worked much on leveling up, you see… I’m only a level 18.”

I take a long swig of my drink and set the glass down.

“What the hell have you been doing this entire time?”

“Well, I’ve been running a shop. I create runes.”

“Aren’t runes magic? I thought this game didn’t have magic.”

“Well this is different.” She explains. “See these runes aren’t necessarily magic. They give a skill that allows you to imbue a weapon with a certain element.”

“So, it’s not magic, then?” I ask.

“Technically no.”

“Well what would you need my help for?” I say, finishing up my drink and calling my ramen killing spree off for now.

“Well, I need help getting to the next town over and… well you seem like you know your way around.”

“Why would you need my help with that?” I ask.

“Well, you know…” She twiddles her thumbs a bit. “I’ve just heard that there are some PKers along the road and well… I’d rather not die just yet.”

“Seems like your own fault, not leveling up with the time you had.” I say, getting up off my seat and heading for the door.

“Please? Pleeeease?” She pleads, grabbing my arm to stop me.

If there’s one thing I hated, it was low levels begging for my help.

“Sorry, no.” I shrug her off, exiting the restaurant.

She follows.

“Pleeeeeeeease?” She whined. “I don’t have any one else to turn to!”

“Why not?” I say. “Don’t you have any friends?”

She suddenly hangs her head low, a remorseful look on her face.

“I used to…” She said in a sad tone.

Well damn, now I feel awful.

“Agh…” I rub the back of my neck. “Fine, I’ll help.”

“Really?” She said. “Oh, thank you! My name’s Asuka!” She held out a hand.

“Ishi.” I tell her, not taking that hand.

She dropped her arm and pouted. “You aren’t much for making friends are you?”

“I work alone for the most part. Don’t have anyone holding me back.”

“Well that’s a grim way to look at things.”

“Just don’t get used to my company, kid.” I say. “I’ll help you to the next town but after that you’re on your own.”

“Um. Okay.” She said.

“Come on.” I say, gesturing her to follow me, which she did.

---

We had made it out of town and it was the afternoon by the time we hit the main road that would lead us to Vespera.

Asuka followed me closely, making sure not to talk too much because I had to shut her up too many times. Talkative girl, she was. Too bad we had almost nothing in common from what I could tell.

“Hey, Ishi?” Asuka quips after a time. “You mind if I ask you something?”

“Maybe.” I say. “Probably.”

“What are you going to do once the game is finished?”

“Murder Kayaba Akihiko.” I say straightforwardly.

“What?” She says. “You’re going to kill him?”

“Wouldn’t you?” I ask. “Wouldn’t you want to kill him after trapping us here? For being responsible for the thousands of lives lost since this game’s release?”

“Well… I wouldn’t care if he was killed… but… I can’t see myself being the one to kill him.”

“Well you won’t have to be. I’m going to be the one to kill him.”

“Hm…”

We keep walking along the road as the sun began to set. The stars soon became visible in the sky and the moon began to shine its light down on the landscape.

“Oh my God.” Asuka whined. “How long is this road?!”

“We’re almost there.” I tell her.

“Well good. I’m tired and starving.”

I abruptly stop in my tracks, leading to Asuka taking a few steps in front of me before stopping herself.

“Hey, why’d we stop?” She asks.

“Someone’s here.” I say.

“How can you tell?”

“Shush up.” I say.

I look around. We were basically in a field right now, with one dirt pathway leading to the village we were heading to. We hadn’t seen a single other player on this path since we started on our way, of course I knew there were player killers here. I just couldn’t see them. They must be a type of rouge class, one that has that invisibility skill some PKers seem to love so much. Not that it’d make a difference. They need to uncloak in order to attack, and my reflexes were sharper than my sword.

Sure enough, behind me, three players were in the air and coming down on me from three different angles. Quickly I bring out my blade and extend the claws of my gauntlet into position and spin around, swinging my sword at blinding speed to clash into all three of their swords in one swipe, sending them backwards and making them jump back to get some distance.

“Ah!” Asuka jumped. “Where’d they come from?”

“Heh, you’re not half bad.” One of the PKers told me. “Your reflexes are pretty fast.”

“Why don’t you get out of here? Make it easy on yourselves.”

He stifles a laugh.

“You kidding? Our levels are in the 50s. We can take anybody on!”

“Care to prove that?” I say, getting ready for a quick fight.

“Heh.” The guy chuckles. “You know what? I think we should take our time with you! Come on!”

They all rush up, one at a time, but close together. Bad mistake on their part. I blink up to the leader faster than he could think and place a finger of Gilgamesh onto his chest. It was over.

“Chain Lightning.” I mutter, before a powerful surge of electricity arced between each one of them instantly, bringing down more than three quarters of their HP and sending them all to the ground in a fit of muscle spasms.

I sheath my weapons and head back to Asuka, who looked shocked at how easily I took down our aggressors.

“I hate player killers.” I say under my breath as I pass by Asuka. “C’mon, let’s go.”

“Ah!” She jogs up to my side. “How’d you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Move that fast! I mean, I didn’t even see you take a step!”

“It’s a skill unique to me.” I explain. “I’m the only one in this game who can use it. It’s called Zero Shift.”

“Zero Shift?”

“It allows me to move at near teleportation speed. It’s pretty useful.”

“I’d say.”

“Let’s keep moving.” I say. “I’d rather we not run into any more PKers along the way.”

---

It was around midnight when we got to the village, and the streets only had a few people walking about. The streets were lit by lanterns and the full moon above us as we entered the town.

“Here we are.” I say.

“Agh, that took forever…” Asuka complained. “But thanks a lot for the help, Ishi. I really appreciate it.”

“Sure.” I say, walking past her toward the nearest inn for the night.

“Hey, wait!” Asuka ran up ahead of me to stop me. “Is it okay if I friend you?”

“No.”

“Oh, come on! I’m not going to pester you all the time, I promise.”

“But you ARE going to pester me until I let you friend me.”

“Yep!” She nods with a gleeful smile.

“Alright, fine.” I sigh. “Not gonna get you off my back otherwise.”

So I let her friend me, which made like 4 people on my friends list. No I’m not an antisocial freak, I just don’t like people.

“Thanks again!” Asuka called to me as she waved and ran around a corner.

I let out a long and heavy sigh.

“What the hell did I just get in to?” I ask myself before heading to the nearest tavern.

There I rent a room for the night and head up, putting my weapons to the side of the bed and summarily crashing on said bed. I decided tomorrow I was going to head back to Talmia to do some more training around that area. I had to keep getting stronger if I wanted to finish this game.

Chapter 2

I slowly wake up, checking the time. 10:48.

I lazily roll out of bed, hitting the ground with a thud, before coming to my senses and standing upright, stretching myself out and yawning. When I open my eyes again I see a small notification to my left.

Messages.

42 of them.

I open up my inbox and see they’re all messages from Asuka. They were all ‘how do I’ questions.

“Dammit, Asuka!” I shout.

I just knew this would happen.

So I wipe my entire inbox clean without reading any of them and head downstairs to pay the innkeeper before heading outside and leaving Vespera for the fields around it, figuring I’d get some morning training in. I mean, might as well. I don’t do much else anyway.

---

When I reach the fields I see a bunch of monsters just about my level. Should give me good enough exp and such. At least for now. They were Minotaurs, which provided a decent challenge to match their rewards.

No problem.

I run toward the nearest one, and he quickly spots me. He snorts through his large nostrils and readies the large battle axe he wielded, ready to charge me. I don’t give him the opportunity. I jump up into the air, grabbing the small blades I have strapped around my white jacket, and throwing four of them in his direction, slamming into his head and instantly taking him down. I had caught the attention of a few others in the vicinity, and they were coming toward me.

The blades I had thrown reappear in their sheaths around my jacket and I grab two of them, using Zero Shift to close the distance between me and one of my attackers, stabbing him with both blades through the stomach, not killing him, but causing an awful lot of damage. I let go of the daggers and slide back, spinning around and raising a foot, smashing his face with the heel of my shoe, sending him into the ground as his friends came in to back him up. I activate Gilgamesh, and appear in front of another Minotaur, delivering a crushing punch into his stomach that makes him cough up blood and fly a good distance away.

As yet another comes at me from behind, raising his axe up and bringing it down, I bring Gilgamesh up and grab his weapon, stopping it dead in mid attack. I draw out another small blade and pull on his axe, brining him in for me to stab him in the neck, before jumping up and clawing down with Gilgamesh, gashing into his face and down his chest, bringing is HP down to 0 and causing him to shatter. The one I had kicked earlier had recovered and was charging me, along with a friend, from both sides. They were charging me like a bull would, horns in front and trying to ram me. I draw two of my short blades and wait as they close in. At just the last moment, I jump up, letting them ram headfirst into each other, taking out a good chunk of both HP bars, before coming down and sending both my daggers into the backs of their necks, destroying the rest of their HP bars and giving me a good amount of exp for the double kill.

“Hey, Ishi!” I hear a familiar voice call out.

“Dammit…” I mutter as I turn to Asuka. “You know, you didn’t have to flood my inbox like that.”

“Sorry!” She says with a guilty smile. “I just don’t know much about this game.”

“Well make some new high level friends so you can bother them with that.” I tell her. “I’m busy.”

“I get the feeling you don’t really like me.” Asuka realized.

“You’re annoying.” I tell her bluntly.

“Oh, thanks.” She said aggressively.

“Hey, I’m honest.” I say. “I don’t sugarcoat things; I tell it like it is.”

“Well you don’t have to be so mean about it.”

“Hm…” I throw a rock at another Minotaur to get his attention. He charges up as I throw two blades into his legs to trip him, before Shifting up above him and stabbing downwards into his neck with Arondight, getting some more exp.

“So what do you want?” I ask her as I walk back over to her.

“I just thought we could hang out.” She said. “I mean, I’m not doing anything better.”

“Well I am.” I say, again being brutally honest.

“Is this how you treat all your friends?”

“Hey, the only reason why I friended you in the first place is because you wouldn’t have stopped bothering me if I hadn’t. And you’re bothering me anyway!”

“Well sorry!”

“You should be.” I gather up a bunch of pebbles and just start spinning around and throwing them randomly, hoping to attract the attention of as many of these guys as possible. And it worked!

6 of the Minutaurs around me come running up with their same slow and predictable attack patterns and I easily mop them up too, while Asuka just stands on the sidelines waiting for me to finish up my massacre.

“Just farming?” Asuka asks.

“Nothing else to do, really.” I say. “I’ve finished up most of the quests minus those ones that have me collecting or killing x number of y.”

“Hm…” She pauses and looks over my shoulder. “Hey, who’s that?”

“Huh?” I look over to where she’s looking and see someone there. He was staring at me a distance away. He had black hair, and was wearing all black with dark brown padded boots reaching up to his knees, and a white long sleeve haori with black trim.

“Hey!” I shout. “What’re you staring at me like that for?”

He doesn’t answer. He just keeps staring at me. I shrug.

“Weird.” I go back to my business, but am cut short when the guy suddenly appeared right in front of me, his hand on his sheathed katana he had belted to his side. I immediately bring up Arondight in defense as his blade slices through the air, clashing into my sword and throwing me back.

“Agh! What the hell?!” I yell, jumping back a distance.

The guy had his blade sheathed to his side, but he held onto the handle, ready to strike again. I realize then that I hadn’t even seen him draw his blade when he struck at me. It was too fast for me to see.

“Who are you?” I demand, getting ready to fight. “A player killer?”

“Perhaps.” He says in a plain demeanor. “I prefer to call myself a simple swordsman, though.”

“Swordsman?”

He rushes me again, almost too fast for me to catch, and I shift out of the way of another strike, appearing to his side and sending my blade down on him quickly. He draws his sword, again quicker than I can see, deflecting my blow and retaliating with his own. I block his blade with Gilgamesh before shifting behind him and preparing for another strike. He was one step ahead of me, and I had to back up quick as his blade cut into my chest.

I shift away from him, keeping a defensive stance. I didn’t take too much damage from that attack, since I backed off quick enough.

“Ishi!” Asuka said.

“Stay out of this, Asuka!” I command her. “This guy’s way above your level.”

She backs away from our fight, but keeps an eye on me.

Come to think of it, he was probably above my level as well, which wasn’t good for me. It’ll be tricky taking this guy down.

“You’re not bad.” The unknown swordsman told me. “My name is Yamato.”

“Yamato?”

“Legendary Player Killer.” He said.

Now that rang a bell. I’ve heard rumors about the Legendary Player Killer around multiple towns. They said he was unbeatable. I never believed he even existed.

“Why is someone like you here?” I ask.

“I’ve been looking for a good fight.” He told me. “You just looked interesting.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

He doesn’t answer, instead rushing up to me again. We clash blades twice before he spins around to deliver a kick which I sidestep, leaning into the momentum and spinning myself to strike with my own blade. He easily deflects the blow, and the three others I send his way before I rear up and come crashing down on him with Gilgamesh, which manages to break his guard just enough for me to swipe at his neck.

He catches my blade.

“What?!” I stammer, unable to believe that he had just caught my attack with his bare hand, not a single point of HP lost.

“You’re not good enough.” He said, looking up at me with his cold light blue eyes.

He turns his blade over and slashes into me again, not letting me move out of the way this time. That brings my bar down to red as I let go of Arondight and hit the ground, cripplingly injured.

“But maybe you have potential…” He mutters, throwing my sword back at me, sticking it into the ground next to me.

He begins to walk away.

“Hey!” I shout. “Where are you going?!”

“You’re in no condition to fight me anymore.” He said coldly. “Live to fight another day.”

With that he kept walking away. I hated it, but he was right. He took that much out of me with just one hit, and I’m pretty sure he was holding back to keep me alive. I scowled at him behind his back as he kept walking, soon leaving my line of sight beyond a hill.

“Ishi!” Asuka rushed up to my side. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah.” I say, staggering up to my feet. “I’ll be fine.”

We both look to where the swordsman had disappeared.

“Who was he?” Asuka asked.

“I don’t know.” I answer.

“Here, take this.” Asuka says, handing me an HP potion.

I take it and drink it down, returning me to half health, which was enough.

“Thanks.”

She nods. “We should probably head back to town.”

“Yeah, probably.” I lead the way as she follows me back to Vespera.

As we began the trek back I thought about what Yamato had said. Potential? What did he mean by that?

---

When we made it back to Vespera, we decided to head to a restaurant and grab a bite to eat. And by ‘we’ I mean ‘Asuka forced me to’. One of the many downsides of not being able to advocate for myself.

We both decided on a bowl of ramen. She decided on tonkotsu style ramen while I went with Shio ramen, because this wasn’t Adeline’s and I couldn’t get the kind of ramen I level up my nonexistent Ramen Slayer skill with every time I go there. It was still good I guess, just not as good as Adeline’s.

Asuka was merrily munching down her bowl while I took mine more slowly, still thinking about what Yamato had said. It was really getting to me.

“Hey.” Asuka waves her hand. “Something on your mind?”

“You could say that.” I say.

“What that guy told you?” She guessed.

“Yeah.” I sigh.

“Well, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.” She said, taking another bite. “I mean, I’m sure you’ll be able to get him next time.”

“No, he’s different.” I say. “He’s better than me… WAY better. He was just playing with me. He wasn’t even trying and I didn’t stand a chance…”

“Aw, don’t be like that.” Asuka said. “I know what’ll cheer you up!”

I look up as she reaches across the table.

“A nice big hug!”

I just stare at her as she wore a big smile with her arms outstretched.

“You know, you’re lucky enough I’m even having lunch with you, so don’t push it.” I say, taking another slow bite of my meal.

“Hmm.” She sat back down. “Who doesn’t like hugs?”

“You know, you’re awfully childish.” I tell her.

“I’m not childish! I’m just… very optimistic is all.” She smiles.

“Whatever you want to call it, it’s annoying.”

“So if you can’t be happy, nobody can, is that it?”

“Hmph…” I look out the window into the streets, where I saw more of the same. Players talking and conducting commerce. Like I was going to see anything new.

We continued our meal mostly in silence, as Asuka figured she wasn’t going to get much out of me, since I was still lost in thought.

---

After we had finished up our meal, I decided to head back to Talmia and leave Asuka to do whatever it is she does when I’m not around. It’s not my business.

It was late at night by the time I was halfway back, and my way was lit up by the moonlight radiating from that big white digital rock in the sky. I took it slow, in no rush to get there or anywhere for that matter. I felt the breeze roll across the plains, making the grass dance and picking up dirt from the path I was on. I stopped and looked up to the moon, its light easily lighting up the entire landscape. It was cold. Colder than usual. I didn’t like the cold, but at the same time it helped me think. It helped calm my nerves and let me see clearly. I was still thinking about what Yamato had told me, still trying to figure out the meaning of his words…

Potential… potential for what?

What did he expect me to become?

Chapter 3

3 Weeks Later

“Slow… sloppy… uncoordinated… nope… nope... nope. Nope, nope, nope, nope.”

It had been like this for the last 3 weeks. I had decided to help Asuka level up and train her in the ways of not just flailing around a sword randomly, no idea why. We were in the fields outside Talmia and I was watching her as she practiced her technique and listened to me ramble on about how she was doing it all wrong, which was actually kind of fun.

“Agh! Dammit!” Asuka shouted. “Will you quit yelling at me?!”

“I’ll stop when you get it right.”

“No you won’t.”

“You’re right.”

She sighs heavily. “So what am I supposed to be doing exactly?”

“I’ve explained it enough times.” I say nonchalantly, sitting down in the grass.

“Yeah, once!”

“Yeah, that’s enough.”

“Just tell me again!”

I sigh and shake my head. “You’re supposed to be using your sword to perform quick and precise strikes that FLOW into each other. FLOW. Get it?”

“No…” Asuka heaves, exhausted from all the training I’ve been putting her through.

“Well, watch then.” I say, standing up and drawing my own sword. I slice it through the air, demonstrating how it should be done.

“You see?” I say between strikes. “You need to learn how to make each move lead into the next. You need to plan at least two steps ahead at all times. You need to always know what move you’re going to make after the one you’re making, and then know the one after that.”

I show her how I constantly use momentum from each of my swings to add into the power of the next, and how it allows for quick strikes without as much energy as she would without chaining each move together.

“Get it now?” I ask, sheathing Arondight to my back.

“I… think?”

“Well get to it then.” I say, sitting back down on the grass and crossing my arms.

She brings her sword up again, letting out a long breath and cutting into the air, quickly and accurately, upwards and diagonally to the right, before redirecting the blade downward, curving it cleanly into the next swing, keeping the momentum in her strikes. She comes up diagonally left this time, before spinning and delivering one powerful downward swing.

“See how that last one didn’t need so much push to get that much power?” I say.

“Yeah…” Asuka says. “That was… easy…”

“Good.” I say. “Now do it again, but with more strikes.”

---

We go at this for a while; I teach her multiple techniques, some she gets more easily than others, while the others it takes her days to nail. But progress was steady and she was beginning to get more and more skilled, and she was starting to figure out things on her own, which meant less work for me.

Yay.

She was leveling up pretty quickly as well. In three weeks she went from level 18 to level 32. She had a new weapon as well. A nice straight double edged long sword like mine. Although not nearly as powerful, it still boasted some solid stats, and it was the kind of weapon she’d need for the kind of training I was putting her through.

She also took on a style change, wearing a white and red sleeveless top with a black skirt, red leggings and black shoes, as well as black gloves with runes on them, allowing her to imbue her weapon with fire, which I thought was pretty neat. But I wasn’t about to admit anything to her.

We had finished up a training session and were now on our way back to Talmia for some of Adeline’s ramen, which I had gotten Asuka hooked on.

“Damn, this is just so GOOD!” Asuka said with her mouth full, munching on Adeline’s special ramen.

“Why I always come here.” I said, taking a smaller bite of my own meal.

“Hey, I meant to ask you something…” Asuka said between bites. “You have a girlfriend?”

“What?” I ask. “No, hell no, why?”

“What’s the problem with a girlfriend?”

“Why would I want one?”

“I don’t know.” She twirled her chopsticks between her fingers, because she could actually use the infernal sticks. “So you’re not alone all the time?”

“I’m fine with being alone.” I told her. “Frankly I’d rather not even be with you.”

“Then why are you?”

I shrug. “Hell if I know.” I take a sip of my drink.

A time went on without either of us saying anything, before I spoke up.

“A had a girlfriend once, actually.” I say.

“Oh, really?” Asuka seemed a bit surprised.

“Yeah, but it didn’t really mean anything.” I said. “It was mainly just for fun I guess.”

“What? Like… sex fun?”

“Only once.” I say.

“Does the game let you do that?”

“Apparently, because we did.”

“Well that’s one way to be straightforward. Who was she?”

“Misaki.” I said. “I was her partner when we were in Pendragon Court together.”

“Pendragon Court?” Asuka asked. “That one clearer and PK eliminating guild?”

“That’s the one.” I said.

“You were in there?”

“Yeah, but I quit.”

“Why?”

“Just wanted to do things my own way. There was a moral code there that I didn’t usually abide by.”

“Yeah that makes sense.” Asuka took down the last of her bowl of ramen. “So where is Misaki now?”

“Still with Pendragon Court, I’d assume.” I said. “We were drifting apart even before I left, and when I did our relationship just ended.”

“Oh… I see.”

It was at this time I had finished my meal. I stand up from our table and head to the door.

“I’m gonna head out.” I say.

“Head out? Where?” Asuka inquired.

“I dunno.” I shrug, exiting the building and taking to the streets.

Talmia was just about as busy as it always was. Nothing new was going on, and even if there was I really wouldn’t care all that much. It didn’t really matter either way to me.

But along the road there was one thing that caught my attention. I look in the direction of unknown sounds and face down an alleyway. There I see a little girl. Couldn’t be more than 10. She was dressed in what might as well be rags, with tangled up blonde hair. She was being pestered by a higher level. Looked to be in the 40s. Couldn’t have that. I walk down the alley toward the two.

“Please, just leave me alone…” The little girl was sat down against the wall, not putting up much resistance.

“Low levels like you shouldn’t even be allowed to live here.” The guy flaunted. “Only the strong survive! It’s my job to weed out the weaklings like you.”

“Real tough guy, aren’t you?” I say, catching his attention. “You get your kicks off assaulting little girls?”

“I’d get out of here if I were you.” He said, glaring at me. “You don’t want to fight me.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah! So beat it, or I’ll beat you!” He glances over at the little girl, her hands raised up in futile defense. “But first, I’m gonna beat her!”

“Try it.” My tone got more menacing, and I gave him a stare I knew shook him, even if he tried to make it seem like it didn’t.

He made the punch. Big mistake.

I Shift up to him, grabbing his punch with Gilgamesh before it connected, raising up his arm before pulling back hard and slamming him into the wall, before quickly grabbing his head and throwing him into the opposite wall with such force it took out half his HP bar.

“Agh! What the hell!” He shouted.

I put my hand up to Arondight. When he saw that he ran for it as fast as he could, running out of the alley and onto the streets. After a few seconds I went up to the little girl and put my hand on her shoulder.

“Are you alright?” I ask gently.

She was still scared, I could tell, but she nodded slowly.

“What’s your name?”

She hesitated at first, but spoke. “Cl-Claire.”

“Claire.” I repeat. “My name’s Ishi.”

“Ishi?”

I nod, with a smile.

“Th-thank you.” She said.

“You should probably stick to the main roads.” I suggest. “There aren’t so many of those guys as in the alleyways.”

She nodded and quickly ran off back into the streets, running in the opposite direction as her attacker had. I casually walk onto the main street where I see Asuka waiting, a smile on her face.

“Aw, so you have a heart all along.” She teased.

“Shut up.” I say, passing her by and continuing on my way. She followed.

“So you’re not just a sociopathic freak after all huh?”

“Shut up.” I repeat.

She only giggled, and stayed quiet for the rest of our walk.

---

It was late at night and I had decided to hang out in the plains around Talmia. I was lying down in the grass on the top of a hill next to the only tree in the fields. The moon was bright and cast a white light down on the grass, making it appear a soft blue hue. I was lost in thought again. I was still trying to figure out what Yamato had said, and what he expected of me. I didn’t understand it, even after the three weeks I’ve been thinking on it. I sigh and close my eyes, feeling the cool night breeze sweep over me. It felt nice, and it helped calm me down.

“Yeah, I like coming here too.” I heard a voice say.

I immediately recognized the voice.

I Shift up to my feet and turn around and see Yamato leaning against the tree, looking out over the plains.

“You should really keep at least part of your consciousness in the real world.” He said nonchalantly. “I could’ve easily killed you right there.”

“Why are you here?”

“Just checking to see if you’ve improved at all. Looks like you’ve leveled up a bit.”

True. I was a level 58 now. I wasn’t exactly power leveling though. If I had done that I’d be halfway through the 60s by now.

I glare at Yamato, but see that he doesn’t really want to fight. Which struck me as a bit odd if not awkward. I didn’t make any move to try to instigate a fight either, figuring I’d lose again. Come to think of it, now that I got a good look at him, I feel like… I knew him from somewhere. Recently.

“Hang on a second…” I say.

He looks up at me. “Hm?”

“You were at the Alpha Tests.” I realize.

“There ya go!” He says. “Yeah, I’m an Alpha Tester, just like you are. Was in the same room as you on the same day at the same time.”

“You didn’t talk at all.”

“Had nothing to talk about.” He said coolly. “You’d know about that.”

I turn around and sit on the grass, overlooking the fields with Yamato. It felt really weird.

“Tell me something.” I say. “What did you mean when you said I had potential?”

“You haven’t figured that out already?” He asked.

“No.”

“You’re slow.”

“Bite me.”

“Well it wouldn’t really mean much if I just gave you the answer.” He said. “To truly understand it you need to find that out for yourself.”

“Well you’re philosophical aren’t you?”

“Sure.” He says. “Anyway, I think I’ll head out now. Not really in the mood to fight you.”

“Hm…” I murmur.

“See you around.” He says, leaving just as quickly as he appeared.

A few minutes of silence pass by before I stand up.

“That was weird.” I say, looking back at the tree Yamato was leaning on. He was nowhere to be seen.

That just added more questions to it. I didn’t get why he would immediately attack me one time then just have a friendly conversation the next. It was obvious he still expected something out of me, but what that was I had no clue.

One thing I did know for sure is that the next time we drew swords I’d have to be at the top of my game to fight him. Whenever that will be.

Chapter 4

So I was helping Asuka out with a quest. How she convinced me to come along I don’t know. And actually it was less helping and more doing all the work for like no exp considering I was so much higher level than she was. It was a quest for a rare runic thing or something, I didn’t really pay attention. I guess somebody had to help the poor girl.

We were in a volcanic region of Aincrad, up on the 44th floor. The trail we were on was black, along with the volcanic mountains surrounding us, oozing red hot magma rivers. I’d complain but we couldn’t feel heat too hot to be uncomfortable in this game, so it was fine I guess.

“Thanks again for helping me with this, Ishi.” She said. “I’m not really that confident in my abilities to take this on by myself.”

“It’s fine.” I say, walking along the trail. “What are we looking for again?”

“Ugh!” She groaned. “This is like the tenth time I’ve told you!”

“I wasn’t paying attention the other nine times, sorry.” I said.

“It’s a rare runic material that’s only found in this region.” She said. “I can make some really powerful runes with it.”

“You gonna find enough for more than one?” I ask.

“Oh, no, not even for one.” She said. “But I can analyze the material and make some of my own. Chances are it’s comprised of common ingredients, but the mix needs to be exact, and the only way for me to find out what the mix is, is to find one.”

“Okay, I got it this time.” I say.

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Alright.”

We continued treading up the volcano path, jumping over the occasional lava river and inching our way around the occasional volcano cliff until we reached the tallest volcano in the range. We step up to the crest and I look down at the orange magma far below.

“Let me guess.” I say. “It’s inside the volcano.”

“How’d you know?” Asuka asked.

“It’s ALWAYS inside the volcano.” I answer. “So how are we gonna get down there?”

“I’m… not sure… actually.”

“Further, how are we supposed to find it once we’re down there?” I add. “It’s just lava down there.”

“Oh, hang on.” Asuka said. “See that?”

“See what?”

“Over there.” She points down into the basin. “Looks like there’s a platform way at the bottom. Might lead into a cave.”

“Okay, so again, how do we get down there?” I repeat. “I could probably manage but you’d have to stay…”

I look over to her. She has an innocent smile on her face.

“Oh, don’t give me that!”

“Please can you go down there for me?” She asks in the cutest voice she can manage.

“You gotta be kidding…”

“Pleeeeease.”

“God dammit…”

I jump off the edge of the crater and fall downwards toward the lava below. About halfway down I bring out Gilgamesh and slam the claws into the side wall, slowing my descent until I came to a stop, hanging a sort of safe distance above the molten rock.

“How you doing down there?” I hear Asuka shout.

“Kiss my ass, that’s how I’m doing!” I shout back.

“Okay, good!” She retorts.

“For fuck’s sake…” I mutter, looking down at the platform Asuka mentioned. It was to my right, almost at the opposite end of the crater. I kick to my right, releasing the wall just enough for me to begin wall running downwards and to the right toward the platform, digging into the wall with Gilgamesh to make sure I stayed on it. Once I’m right above it I let go and fall onto the hot rock. Good thing my shoes couldn’t burn up in this game.

“Why didn’t you just use Zero Shift to get down there?” Asuka asked from above.

“Where’s the fun in that?” I say. “And you were right, there is a cave here. I’m gonna see if your rock is in there.”

“It’s not just a rock!”

“Yeah it kind of is!”

“Just get the thing, will you?”

“Nag, nag.”

I heave a heavy sigh and make my way into the cave. It wasn’t dark thanks to the magma everywhere, and there was even a small stream of it along the side against the wall, which provided enough light further in as well. I walked through the tunnel until I came across a clearing. It was a large circular room, clearly made by someone, or something. The place was lit up along the walls with torches and more magma flows, and in the center of the room was a pedestal with the rock I was looking for.

“Oh, so at least there aren’t any traps.” I say sarcastically. “Guess I should’ve expected that.”

I step up to the pedestal. It was obsidian, cut cleanly into a square shape, with the pure white stone on top of it.

Yeah, totally rigged.

I thought about how I was going to get at it without setting off the totally not painfully obvious trap lying in wait for me. I inspected the thing top to bottom, touching it precariously but not lifting it off. I knelt down to it, slowly bringing my hands up, inching forward until an open hand was on either side, before slowly, ever so slowly, bringing my hands in, centimeter by centimeter. I clasp my hands around the stone and very, very carefully lift it off its pedestal. To my surprise, nothing went off. I quickly retract myself from the pedestal with the stone in hand. I look at the thing… didn’t see why this was so important. Just looked like a rock, really, but I guessed Asuka would know more about it than I would.

I shrug, putting the item in my inventory and turning to leave, stopping just at the entrance to the room. I sigh.

I raise my arms and let them fall back to my sides with a smack, before running back into the room toward the pedestal, bringing out Arondight and slicing clean through the thing.

Apparently the room didn’t like that, because when I did the entire thing started shaking like they always do. And of course I bolted. I just wanted to do that to piss of whatever was guarding the thing. And it worked! I shifted back to the platform in the crater and shifted up out of it, landing where Asuka was. Only thing was, I didn’t see her.

“Asuka?” I say. “Asuka! You here?”

No answer.

“Huh…”

I slide down the steep, winding path that led us up here, digging my hand into the ground to keep me at a constant speed down the slope before I hit the bottom of the incline, standing upright and looking around for Asuka.

“Asuka!” I shout.

Still no answer.

Where could she have gone, I wonder?

I trot up the next small hill and slide down the black and dusty rock, doing the same for the next few crests until I began to hear voices.

“Give us what you got and maybe we won’t hurt you.” I heard one voice say.

“Let me go, dammit!” I heard Asuka shout.

“Or what?” Another, deeper voice asked.

“Ngh! Dammit!”

I made my way up until I was at the top of the volcanic hill, looking down at the scene. I saw a group of higher levels with Asuka being held captive.

“I swear to God, I’ll-” Asuka was interrupted by the bigger of the group, who put his face dangerously close to hers.

“You’ll what, little girl?” He said mockingly. “You’re nothing to us. We could end your life…” He took out his blade; a giant cleaver of a sword. “At the drop of a hat…”

He put the blade up to her neck. She struggled in vain. The man just laghed.

“Face it, girly.” He said. “Nobody’s coming for you.”

“Want to bet?” I say, revealing my presence as I shifted up to the big guy, sliding Gilgamesh between his blade and Asuka’s neck and pushing back, leaving an opening for me to slice him in the side with Arondight, getting him to back off while I punched the guy holding Asuka in the face to let her go. She fell forward and I caught her with one arm, raising my blade in defense and ready for anyone to make a move.

“Well, now.” The big guy said. “That one actually stung a little.”

I noticed the brands on all of them. Whether on their clothing or their skin, I recognized that insignia instantly.

“Laughing Coffin.” I muttered.

“The PK guild?” Asuka said, staying close to me.

“That’s right, girly.” Mr. Big Guy said. “And trust me, boy.” He points his sword at me. “You’re gonna regret messing with us.”

“Oh I bet.” I say, letting Asuka go and bringing up Gilgamesh and Arondight, ready to fight. Asuka brought out her sword as well, pressing her back to mine, ready to fight.

“You sure you can handle these guys?” I ask her.

“You’re the one who taught me, aren’t you?” She responded.

I shrug. “Eh, point.”

“Let’s go, then.”

Asuka breaks off from me while I do the same, dashing into one of the players surrounding us and giving him a solid punch with Gilgamesh, sending him flying back, half his HP gone. I next grab the blade of another with my gauntlet and with Arondight redirect the sword of the one behind me, landing a good kick to his side before pulling on the other’s sword and slicing through his stomach, making sure to leave him alive in the process. I look over and see Asuka fighting just as I had taught her to; using her acrobatic skills as well as the moves I’ve taught her to dispatch her opponents. I look back just in time to catch another player coming after me, axe raised and ready to come down on me. I rush up with Zero Shift before punching him with my gauntlet arm, throwing a few knives his way for good measure. They all hit their mark, landing in his arms and legs, leaving him unable to fight. I spin to evade a strike from another enemy and slam a strong spinning heel kick into his face, immediately sending him into the air before I shifted up and slashed at him in the air, taking him down to almost no HP left.

That was it for my lot, and I look over to see Asuka finishing up with hers. She looked over to me and smiled. I was about to walk over to her when I heard a clapping.

“Bravo.” I heard a deep voice say.

I look over and see the big guy I had punched earlier walk up to me.

“You are both quite skilled, I’ll give you that.” He told us. “But trust me, your fight’s just getting started!”

He brings out a giant ass double handed claymore in one swift motion. He smiles evilly at both of us.

“You ready?” I ask Asuka.

“You bet.” She responds.

Just then, out of nowhere the volcano erupts in a huge pillar of molten rock, towering high above all of us, making a resounding boom that almost split my head in two. Before I can assess the situation however, I hear a loud roar from the magma pillar, and not long after emerged a large dragon made of black rock and flame, its eyes a burning red and its mouth billowing fire. The giant thing shot the magma over our heads and into the lands below us, before bending down to look at us all. It growled menacingly at us, extending its wings before rearing up and letting out a loud roar.

“Ho-lee shit…” I mutter.

“Oh my God…” Asuka gasps.

The big guy just stands there, seemingly unafraid of the giant monster in front of us.

“Hah!” He laughs. “You think you can stop me? Bring it-”

He didn’t get to finish the sentence before the dragon stomped on him. I could see the multicolored shards fly out from the shockwave of the things massive clawed foot hitting the ground.

“Woah!” I back up, as does Asuka.

The giant beast roared at us before jumping from its crater and crashing onto the ground behind us, forcing us back.

“Looks like we aren’t getting out of this one…” I say, readying myself.

“How are we gonna beat something like that?!” Asuka said. “It’s gotta be levels above us!”

“No idea.” I say. “Just make sure you don’t get hit.”

“Sound advice…”

The creature makes a swipe at us, which Asuka jumps over while I shift into it, coming in and slashing at its face. The dragon rears back and roars, but it didn’t look like I did much damage. It raises itself up high and opens its mouth, raining fire onto me. I quickly Shift out of the way and to its side before the flames touch me. I can see Asuka running around it, trying to flank it, but the dragon catches wise. It makes a swipe for Asuka with its tail, which she is quick to jump over, landing on its tail and stabbing it, holding onto the blade as she swung around on the tail. I used this distraction to land another clean cut onto the dragon’s face, which once again looked like it didn’t do much. In fact, I realized why. The dragon had black rocky armor on its head that protected it. The entire thing was covered in it. I’d have to find a way to break it off before we could really get at it.

“Asuka!” I shout at her, still being flailed around on the dragon’s tail.

“Bit… ngh! Busy here… agh!” She struggled to maintain her grip on her sword.

“We need to get its armor off before we can hurt it!” I say.

“Oh, good to know!” She said, launching herself off the dragon’s tail and landing on the back of its neck, stabbing into the rocky armor. The blade only got an inch through before it stopped dead.

“Ah! This is some tough armor!” She said, struggling to pull the blade out. She barely managed to before the dragon stood on its back legs and came crashing down again, making a shockwave that blew both of us back into the nearest wall.

I looked over to Asuka. I could see her HP was at half now, while mine was still well over 3/4ths.

“Asuka, take a breather.” I tell her. “I got this.”

“By yourself?!” She exclaimed. “Are you crazy?!”

“Hey, you know me.” I say, preparing myself.

The dragon then took flight, beginning to circle around me menacingly, eyeing me all the way. This went on for a few minutes, before finally the beast made a quick growl and swooped down to try to claw at me. I dodged its large claws and managed to grab onto the base of its wing as it soared up into the air again. It knew I was there, and immediately made an effort to shake me off. It flew up high into the air and performed aerial maneuvers, spinning and darting side to side to get me to lose my grip. But I was firmly put there, for I had the claws of Gilgamesh embedded into its rock armor. I wasn’t going anywhere.

I waited until it calmed down, spread its wings to glide. When this happened I quickly detached myself and sprang forward, digging Gilgamesh into the armor behind its lower neck. I hold on as it once again attempted to shake me off with its aerial displays. I waited and kept my claws dug into my opponent before it once again went into a glide, whereupon I make another dash forward, landing on the back of its neck, but just behind the head, around where Asuka had stabbed it. I take a look around to find exactly where she had made her mark, and once I had found it I raise Arondight and plunge it downwards, hitting the exact same spot, only going much deeper, piercing through the armor and stabbing into its neck. The creature roared in pain, and I saw a good chunk of its HP go out.

I stand up, keeping a hold of Arondight, before shoving the blade to the right, in turn causing the dragon to turn right. I do the same to the left. Same result. I was in control now. I push the blade forward hard and the dragon goes into a full dive, screaming toward the ground, taking me with it. I was going to slam this thing headfirst into the ground, hoping I wouldn’t end up the same way this thing was. The dragon, however, had different plans. It overrode my commands and pulled out of the dive just before it hit the ground. With that plan out the window I decide to do it the old fashioned way. I look around at our low altitude and notice we were coming up on a large and long rock face.

Perfect.

I thrust my blade deeper into the dragon, before stepping backward and making a run down its back mid-flight, cutting through its armor, making it screech in agony, until I got to its tail, where I stab through the less armored fiery flesh of the dragon. Now coming up on the rocky wall, I throw myself out to it, and when I’m within arm’s reach, I slam Gilgamesh’s claws into it, sending sparks flying and creating an extremely audible scraping sound, as well as making a long trail of five gashes on the rock. I keep this up, slowly but surely decreasing the dragon’s speed, until, once it was slowed enough, I detach myself and make one mighty leap off the wall, flying over the dragon and landing on its head, digging Gilgamesh into its forehead before delivering a stab to its left eye, making it roar loudly as it shakes its head. This causes it to accidentally slam into the wall and damage its wing, sending it to the ground, and me with it. At the last second, I let go with Gilgamesh and slide down onto its back, letting the dragon take all the force of impact onto its face.

By the time we stopped rolling and came to a sliding stop, I find myself dirty, but relatively undamaged. The dragon was not as lucky. More than three fourths of its HP was gone by now. It was time to finish it off. It thrashed around and flailed with the rest of its strength to try to shake me off its back, but I quickly run up it to its neck and finally to the top of its head where I jump up and with both hands stab downwards with Arondight, piercing through the severely damaged armor easily and impaling the thing right through the head. I watch as the rest of the HP bar disappeared, and the dragon exploded into multicolored shards.

I am left heaving with my hands on my knees.

“Someone better get me a drink!” I shout at no one in particular.

I look up and check the battle results. A metric shit-ton of exp and cash, as well as a unique weapon: Flamberge. A pretty damn powerful sword. Nothing I would use, but I’d give it to Asuka. She’s been needing a new weapon for a while now. There was a level 52 requirement, however, so she won’t be able to use it for a while.

Climbing out of the rubble from the battle, I make my way back to where I had left Asuka on my dragon joyride. She immediately sprang to her feet and ran up to me when she saw me coming up the hill.

“Ishi!” She shouted, stopping in front of me. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, nothing I couldn’t handle.” I told her. “I got you a souvenir.”

I initiate a trade with her, giving her the weapon the boss had dropped as well as the runic material she so desperately wanted.

“Woah…” She said, looking at its stats. “This thing is badass!”

“Though you’d like it.” I said. “You’ll have to level up fast to use it.”

“Oh, yeah!” She says, ending the trade with Flamberge and material in her inventory. “Thanks, Ishi.”

“Yeah.” I say. “Come on, I want to get the hell out of this place.”

“Yeah, I’m right there with ya.” She says, following me as started down the mountain.

I could go for some of Adeline’s ramen after all that crap.

Chapter 5

I wake up slowly. Just about as slow as I usually do, which usually involved moaning and going back to sleep a few times before actually waking up somewhere between 1 and 4 in the afternoon. Curiously though, I had awoken at the brisk time of 7 am, which struck me as odd considering my ludicrously off kilter sleeping habits, but whatever.

I slump out of bed and casually get dressed in my usual getup before heading out. I slide down the stairs and land firmly at the bottom.

“Oh, good morning, Ishi.” Adeline greeted.

“Hi.” I say.

With me not having a house of my own Adeline was generous enough to offer one of her empty rooms for me to stay in, considering the restaurant was also her house upstairs. No charge either. Bonus!

“What’re you off to kill today?” Adeline jokes, cleaning up some glasses and dishes to get ready to open shop in an hour.

“Don’t know yet.” I say. “I’ll tell you when I get back.”

I head out the door, the bells above it chiming to signal my exit and strode down the streets, thinking of something to do. About 15 minutes of me just walking around randomly pass by and I was at a complete loss. There was never anything to do, really. I just usually waited until something came up.

Lo and behold.

I received a message.

I assumed it was from Asuka.

I opened up my inbox and to my surprise this time it wasn’t.

It was from Knight. The leader of Pendragon Court himself.

“Knight?” I say to myself. “What does he want?”

I hadn’t really talked to Knight in almost half a year. Not because we were on bad terms or anything, but because we never really had anything to talk about. He had told me that he’d message me if he ever needed my help with something after I had left the Court, and knowing him it must be something big if he was going out of his way to ask for my assistance.

Ishi,

I need to speak with you about matters of great importance. Please meet with Misaki, Gawain and myself at our headquarters in Luciad.

-Knight

“Huh…” I say. “I wonder what could be so important?”

I close up my menus and teleport to the home of Pendragon Court. The city of Luciad, on the 29th floor of Aincrad.

I easily make my way through the busy streets of the large city by memory toward the center, where the headquarters of the Knights of the Round Table was stationed. I entered the building by holding up the key to the door, which a pendant of the insignia of Pendragon Court on it. I held on to it after I had left by Knight’s request. I headed for the main room of the building; the gathering hall, where our meetings would usually take place. Once I’m there I see Knight, Gawain and Misaki at the large table, talking amongst one another, before Misaki notices my entrance.

“Hello, Ishi.” Misaki said.

Knight looked up from the papers on the table he was examining.

“Lancelot.” He said. “Glad you could make it so quickly.”

Lancelot was the nickname he gave me. He’s the only one who actually calls me that instead of my actual name. It’s a name I had earned in my time in the guild, due to my skills with a blade.

“Had nothing better to do.” I said casually, sitting down at a chair and leaning back, kicking my feet up onto the table. “What’s going on?”

“The Guardians of Darkness.” He told me.

The Guardians of Darkness was another guild, and the main enemy of the Court. Their sole purpose was to take over Aincrad by taking the Game Master’s place. How they were to go about doing that, however, we never could figure out.

“What are they up to this time?” I ask, not the least bit concerned.

“We’ve been able to discover what it is they’re after.” Gawain clarified. “It’s a weapon that will allow them to easily defeat the Game Master and put themselves in his place.”

“Is any weapon that powerful?” I ask.

“We don’t know.” Knight said. “It’s called Skeith. Apparently it has the power to destroy anything in the game. How it can do this, however, we don’t know. Nor do we know where it is, or even what it is, really.”

“So what are we going to do about that?” I ask.

“I don’t know…” Knight says. “We’ve been trying to think of something. We definitely need to locate Skeith before they do. But I’m afraid we’ve more pressing matters to deal with. The Guardians of Darkness are about ready to stage an all out war with us. We presently do not have the numbers to fight them. We’ll need to recruit an army.”

“I’m not standing on a corner flicking cards, if that’s what you’re asking.” I told him.

“I know you wouldn’t even if I did ask.” Knight smiled. “No. I need you to do what you can to find out more about Skeith, and find where it’s located and take it before the Guardians of Darkness have a chance at it.”

“Why only me?”

“Because you’re the only one who can do it.”

“Fair enough.”

“Misaki, Gawain and I will be recruiting and training for battle just in the case it comes to that.” Knight said. “We also have Avro and Vincent doing the same.”

“What about Trinity?” I ask.

“She’s bringing us intel from the enemy.” He said. “She’ll be able to tell us what they’re planning and when they’ll strike. She’ll also be bringing us news on Skeith, so we’ll keep you updated.”

“So what should I do for now?”

“There’s one person we want you to look into.” Misaki contributed. “Soryu. Heard of her?”

“Can’t say I have.” I say.

“She’s a notorious player killer that usually hangs out around the 33rd floor. She’s connected to the Guardians of Darkness, but isn’t an official member. We have reason to believe that she knows a thing or two about Skeith. It’d be a good idea to track her down and get what she knows out of her.”

“Alright, I’ll get on that.” I say, getting out of my seat and turning to leave.

“One more thing, Lancelot.” Knight said.

I turn to face him.

“What is it?”

“There’s something different about you…” He told me. “I can’t tell what it is.”

“I’m the same as I’ve always been.” I say casually. “Nothing’s changed.”

Knight shrugs and goes back to the papers on the table and Gawain and Misaki do the same. I leave at that, exiting the building and immediately teleporting to the 33rd floor of Aincrad, at the town of Ravenwing.

Now, Ravenwing was a dark place, as the name may suggest. It was in the middle of a dense forest, so dense in fact that you could never see the sun through the tree canopy. It was always pretty dark around here, to the point where nobody could tell if it was day or night without looking at their clocks. Lanterns had to be put all about the town so people could see well enough. This was also one of the more dangerous places in Aincrad. It was a home for player killers, since they would be constantly attacked by NPC guards if they went to any other place due to their status. This place was one of many little hidey holes for the murderes of Aincrad, but was the most popular due to its relatively secluded and hidden location, off the map for most other players.

I was not most other players.

I had found this place while exploring the dark forest for why not reasons. The people here tend to keep to themselves but I’ve had more than a few brawls here, all of which end up with me winning and gaining a reputation around here as a guy you don’t want to mess with, even if I refused to kill other players. That refusal was part of the reason I get jumped around here in the first place, but I digress.

I figured this was the best place to start, because of the player killers and all. A bunch will probably know of Soryu’s whereabouts. I step into the tavern there and immediately all eyes were on me. Then all eyes immediately left me because they all knew who I was. I step up to the bar and take a seat at the bar stool.

“Ah, if it ain’t the merciful knight ‘imself.” I hear a familiar voice say, as the owner of said voice approached me.

“Scott.” I say. “How goes it?”

“Ah, it’s goin’ fine enough, lad.” Scott said in his thick Scottish accent, which is why people around here called him Scott. Nobody knew his real name anyway, and he had his display name changed to Scott since so many people called him that. He’s even renowned as “The Scottsman” around Aincrad, especially to his enemies.

He was one of the few people around here who weren’t total dicks.

“So, what brings ye ‘round these parts?” He said as he cleaned off a class with a washcloth.

“I’m looking for a player killer named Soryu.” I say.

“Sor-yu!” Scott said. “Now there’s a character if I’ve ever seen one. Sharp in wit and blade she is. Why’d you be lookin’ for one of her class, if I may inquire?”

“I don’t think that’s any of your business.” I say, trying to be as polite as possible about it.

Scott just laughs.

“Ay, there ya go again, Ishi. Always secrets with ye, always. On me ‘art I can’t figure a thing ‘boutcha. Mysterious as they come.”

“I just think my business is my business and nobody else needs to involve themselves.”

“Fair enough.” Scott says. Yeh I’ve seen the woman ‘round here. She oftentimes comes in for a quick drink or to beat the livin’ hell outta some guy who looks at ‘er funny.” He lets out a hearty chuckle. “Or both. She has her own table right there in the back.” He points towards an empty table near a corner of the room. “Reserved for her use only. Anyone who’d sit at that there table is the bravest man I’ve ever seen. He’d also be the deadest man I’ve ever seen if she’d caught the stupid bastard.”

“You know where I could find her?” I ask.

“Hmm…” Scott scratches his beard. “I hear tell she can be seen ‘round Blackwood Forest, along the trail there. She likes to ambush unsuspecting boys an’ girls and slice their goddamn throats out, she does. Great judge o’ character I’d say.” He chuckles again. “Wait. Yer not thinkin’ o’ fightin’ her are ya?”

“Maybe.” I say.

“Ohoh, there’s a brave lad!” He slaps his hand on the table. “Always a fighter ye are. Saw that the instant I laid eyes on yeh, that’s for true. Also saw that when ya slammed that one poor bastard’s head through a table then threw ‘im out the window.”

“Well he started it.” I say in defense.

“Hah, you threw the first punch, if I’m rememberin’ right.”

“Well he shouldn’t have snuck up on me.”

“Not a people person are yeh?”

“No, not really.”

“Coulda figured that, I guess.” Scott laughed. “Well fer whatever reason yah might have, yeh ought to be careful goin’ about Soryu. I know ‘ow well you are with a blade, but I also know ‘ow well she is with them knives and that sword she got on ‘er. You won’t see ‘er comin’ ‘till she’s already on yah.”

“Thanks for the advice.” I say, getting up out of the barstool and leaving the tavern.

Blackwood Forest wasn’t too far from Ravenwing, so I took the trail that would lead me straight to it, and the trail Soryu supposedly liked to ambush unsuspecting players to “slice there goddamn throats out”, as she does.

---

Before long, I find myself at the entrance to Blackwood Forest. If you couldn’t figure, it was called Blackwood Forest because all the trees were black. Their leaves were a dark green that might as well be black if you’re looking from the outside, but inside you can tell the difference because the only two colors you’ll be seeing are black and dark green. And the grey of the ground if you’re one of those people who just stare at the ground as they walk.

I begin my walk through the beautiful and lush scenery – there’s the sarcasm, you see – and walk carefully I did, as I wanted to make as little sound as possible. So lightly did I walk, that I could hear the light breeze through the trees and the sound of my own breath. It didn’t take long for me to hear something else, though. I heard a rustling that nobody else would’ve caught, but my senses were sharper than that. I keep walking, pretending I didn’t hear it. A few minutes pass before I hear it again.

This time I stop.

I listen.

I cancel out everything except for the soft rustling of the trees in the breeze. I listen intently on the softly flowing sound, hearing out for the slightest break in that sound. It was right above me.

I quickly activate Gilgamesh and block the blade that was coming down on me, swiftly bringing out my own blade and swiping at my opponent, who jumps back to avoid the attack. I immediately take up a combat stance.

“Well, well.” She says. “You’re sharp. Never had that happen before.”

“Soryu, I take it.” I say.

“Nobody but.” She bows to me, not breaking the piercing gaze of her purple eyes for an instant. “Mind introducing yourself?”

I hesitate to answer, but do so after a few seconds.

“Ishi.” I say.

“Ishi…” She says, closing her eyes. “Ishi… Ishi… Ishi… I like that name.”

“Cut it out.” I say.

“The fact that you were able to avoid me killing you suggests that you knew I was here, and that you were looking for me.”

Damn, she’s good.

“So tell me, Ishi. What business do you have with me?”

“You know a few things about Skeith, don’t you?” I ask.

“Skeith?” She repeats the name. “Perhaps. Memory’s a little fuzzy though… I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

I Shift up to her and grab her face with my gauntlet, slamming her down into the ground.

“That bring back anything?” I say.

“Agh… Not quite sure… Maybe you need to do a little more…”

I bring her up and throw her toward the nearest tree. She flips and plants her feet on the tree before kicking off it, bringing out her sword and coming at me with an overhead slash. I block the blow with my sword, but she manages to place a hard kick to my side, breaking my guard and allowing her to get in one quick strike before I bring up my defense again, defending against her blade with Gilgamesh before smacking her sword out of the way and delivering my own slash. It deals a bit of damage but not enough to wound her in any real way. She jumps back and examines me.

“Ahh… Such strength… Such skill… Such spirit… I can see why he is so taken to you.”

“What?”

“You have the eyes, you know.” Soryu says, walking casually back and forth. “But… You haven’t quite grasped it yet. You…” She looks at me. “Lack something.”

“What’re you talking about?” I demand.

“Oh, I have a feeling you’ll find out for yourself soon enough.” She taunts. “You want to know about Skeith, huh? Tell me, Blade Master. For what purpose do you need Skeith.”

“I need only to find it.” I tell her. “Tell me what you know.”

“Hmm… Well that won’t do.” She says, bringing up her sword. “You’ll have to get the information you want out of me the way you know best.”

“Fine by me.” I say, taking my stance again.

She’s the first to move, running at me and preparing an overhead strike which I’m quick to evade. I place a kick in her side, but she uses the momentum to spin around and make a slash for my right side. I bring up my sword and parry the move. She makes a few more quick strikes which I parry and avoid before making an attack of my own which she jumps back to evade. I take the break in her guard to Shift up and land a solid punch with Gilgamesh right into her stomach. She flies back, yelping, but flips around and lands on her feet. I Shift up again, not giving her time to recover, and back fist her right in the face, sending her to the ground and taking a good amount of her HP out to add to the first blow. On the ground, she tried to get back up as quick as she could, but I put my hand around her neck and point my blade at her face.

“You lose.” I say.

“Hah… seems so.” She laughs. “Fine. I’ll tell you what I know. As you may have heard, Skeith is a powerful weapon with the ability to completely destroy anything in this game. What most people don’t know, however, is that it is actually a piece of corrupted coding that found its way into Aincrad. It’s a data cluster that has the ability to corrupt other game data. Players, NPCs, environments. You name it, Skeith can destroy it.”

“Where can I find it?” I ask.

“Ah… I’m not so sure… but I believe you could-”

She was interrupted when a blade came down and stabbed her through the skull, immediately killing her and causing her body to explode into those multicolored fragments.

I jump back and bring up my blade, ready for a fight.

“Now, now, Soryu.” He says. “You knew better than to reveal our little secret.”

“Yamato.” I say menacingly.

“Nice to see you again, Ishi.” Yamato says. “Looking for Skeith, huh? Sorry, but your odds of finding it are pretty slim, let alone actually containing it.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Nah, nah, it doesn’t work that way.” Yamato chided. “I can’t just give you all the answers, that wouldn’t be fun. What’s the point of just having everything handed to you, you wouldn’t learn anything.”

I run up quickly and slice at him. He deftly parries my attack with his own sword before delivering a strong kick to the face that sends me back.

“Someone’s on edge.” He says nonchalantly.

“Enough of your bullshit.” I point my sword at him. “Tell me what you know.”

“I’m inclined not to tell you.” He says.

“That so?” I run at him, making a quick slash that he parries again, delivering his own quick slash that I jump away from, before he comes up and brings his blade into an uppercut. I sidestep the blow and bring up my blade to defend a side strike, locking blades there.

“Tell me something, Ishi.” Yamato said, pushing his blade into me, forcing me to brace my footing. “Have you learned anything yet? Has anything I’ve told you sunk in?”

“What’re you on about?” I ask.

“Alright, tell me something else then.” He slides his blade under mine and butts the handle of his sword on my face, before rearing up and coming down again. I barely manage to block the blow. “You go around the lands, wandering aimlessly and fighting wherever you go.” He places a few more quick strikes which I defend against. “Yet throughout all that you feel no purpose. Nothing to answer for.” He kicks me back and forces my back against a tree. He comes at me hard, his blade clashing against my own, braced up in defense. The tree behind me fell, cut clean in half despite me blocking his blade.

“And you’re different?” I ask, pushing back his sword. “You’re the one who goes around randomly killing people.”

“I fight because I have purpose.” He said, forced back into defense as I move in to attack. I make a few quick slashes before bringing Gilgamesh down on him, forcing him to block the powerful blow. “What do you fight for, Ishi?”

“What do I fight for?” I repeat the question.

I hesitate, and that was all he needed to spin his blade around my gauntlet, putting me off balance and into a kick to the back, sending me down to the ground. I Shift up to recover and put a distance between me and him.

“You don’t even know, do you?” Yamato asked.

“I only fight because I’m forced to!” I say.

“Is that so?” Yamato laughed. “You feel this world has forced you to take up arms? What’s stopping you from just laying low and starting a normal life here? A lot of people do that.”

I stay silent, unable to answer the question.

“Ah, but you’re different, aren’t you?” Yamato rests his blade on his shoulder as he paces the ground. “You feel the need to fight. Your blade yearns for it, as do you. You haven’t killed a single other player in your time here, which I guess is something admirable for sure, but foolish at once.”

“What?” I say.

“A sword is meant for killing, Ishi.” He continues. “It’s meant to end conflict, not to prolong a battle.”

“You’re wrong.” I say. “My blade isn’t used as a tool of death. Not like yours.”

Yamato shakes his head and sighs.

“Still so naïve…” He sheaths is sword. “I guess it can’t be helped. You’ll figure it out soon enough.”

With that, he turned to leave.

“Hey!” I run begin to run after him, but he suddenly unsheathes his blade at blinding speed and cuts into the air, a blade forming in the space just in front of me, I Shift out of the way as the blade cuts through multiple trees and topples them over. I’m left standing there as the swordsman walks into the darkness, and out of sight.

I scowl behind his back, before turning in the opposite direction and leaving the area, heading back to Luciad to inform the Court of my findings.

Chapter 6

“Interesting.” Knight said, pacing back and forth in front of the round table, after I had told him about my mission. “I didn’t realize Yamato was involved as well.”

“I take it you’ve heard of him?” I ask.

“Yes.” Knight stopped and put his hands on the table. “I’ve heard of him. He’s going to be trouble…”

“You aren’t thinking of getting information out of him, are you?” I say.

“It seems like a proper course of action.” Knight said casually. “Do you see any reason why we shouldn’t?”

“Getting killed comes to mind.” I tell him. “He’s good. Really good. I doubt we’d last against him.”

“How would you know?”

“I fought him. Twice.”

“Have you?” He puts a hand to his chin. “Is he really that skilled?” “Yes.” I say. “He’s just leaving me alive, to be honest. I don’t match to his skills. I really should be dead.”

“So then why did he leave you alive?” Knight asked.

I thought about what he said. About the “potential” I had. I stayed silent for a few seconds.

“I don’t know.” I said.

“Well we’ll need to get information out of him some way or another.” Misaki said. “Unless Trinity can give us something we can use.” Misaki looked past my shoulder and smirked. “Speak of the devil.”

I look back and see Trinity enter the room. She shook her head to get some of her blonde hair out of her face to reveal her striking violet eyes, which immediately fell on me.

“Oh, hello, Ishi.” She said. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“Yeah.” I say.

“That’s it?” She asks, walking toward the table. “No ‘how have you been’ or ‘anything new’ or anything?”

“You know me. I’m not much of a conversationalist.”

She chuckles lightly. “Yes, we all know that by now.”

“Trinity.” Knight addressed her. “Have anything to report?”

“As a matter of fact, I have.” She said. “It seems that the last person to use Skeith was the player killer Yamato, but he was the second person to use it.”

“Well that confirms what Ishi said about Yamato.” Gawain said. “Do you know what he used it for?”

“No idea.” Trinity said. “I don’t think anyone knows. But the first person to use it apparently attempted complete dominion over Aincrad. Nobody knew his name and nobody knew what happened to him. He disappeared earlier this year.”

“Is that all you could gather?” Knight asked.

“Yes, sir.” She confirmed.

“Alright, good. We’ll investigate on that. In the meantime, we’ll be needing to recruit more members for when we go head to head with the Guardians of Darkness. I already have Avro, Vincent, Gareth, and Agravaine out looking for recruits right now. I’d like you to try to find some as well.”

“Don’t you think I should be gathering more intelligence?” Trinity questioned.

“It’d be safer now if you didn’t.” Knight said. “We’ve already put you at enough risk. I want you to lay low for a little while. We have enough information to work with for now. With the Guardians of Darkness rallying up their numbers it’d be foolish to send you out there again.”

“I understand.” Trinity said. “I’ll get to work with recruiting. Good to see you,

Ishi.”

I wave her off as she leaves the room.

“How many times have you sent her to gather intel, anyway?” I ask.

“Too many times to play it safe.” Gawain said. “She’s almost been compromised more than a few times.”

“Well it’s a good thing she’s so good at what she does.” I remark.

“Ishi, you say you’ve come face-to-face with Yamato before.” Knight said. “Do you think you will sometime again?”

“Oh, no doubt.” I say. “Not really looking forward to it. Why?”

“We need you to see how much you can get out of him.”

“Sssshit.”

“Judging by what you’ve told about him, he’s not out to kill you.” He clarified. “You have the best chance at getting information out of him.”

“Yeah…”

“We need you to figure out as much about Skeith as you can from him. He used it last; we may be able to get a better figure of what we’re dealing with.”

I sigh. “Fine. Is that it?”

“For now, yes.” Knight said. “I’ll call you back if we need anything else.”

“Alright.”

With that I turn and leave the building, stepping back out onto the streets of Luciad. I’m almost immediately bumped into by a big guy sporting the Laughing Coffin attire being followed by more members of the gang.

“Hey, watch it.” I say assertively.

“Piss off, shitstain.” He retorts, shoving past another person, who tripped and fell to the ground. The guy’s cohorts laughed as they passed. I look back at them.

“Dicks.” I mutter, turning to walk, but bumping into someone else. I back up a bit and see a girl there, dressed up in Laughing Coffin robes. She looked up at me with her gray eyes, before looking back down.

“Sorry.” She said quietly.

“SELENE!” The big guy in the group called. “LET’S GO!”

She squeaked a little bit before rushing past me and catching up to her group. I shrugged off the matter and walked in the other direction.

“Ishi!” I hear Asuka call from the crowd ahead of me.

I can see her jumping up to peek over the crowd, a hand raised high and waving.

“Ishi! Over here!”

Every time she jumped she was a little closer as I just stood there, smirking at the whole scene. It was kind of funny to watch her work her way through the crowd. Eventually she got to me, though, and she gleamed up at me.

“I found you!” She said.

“Great.” I said. “Now you hide and I’ll try to find you when I get around to it.”

“Oh, har har.” She feigned laughter. “C’mere.” She said, grabbing my left sleeve. “I got something to show you!”

She dragged me through the crowd and toward a less clustered part of town. We slipped into a secluded alleyway and out of sight.

“Agh, okay, okay!” I yank my sleeve from her grasp. “What is it?”

“Here!” She said, holding out a rock to me.

“Eh?” I pick it up. It was round and smooth as glass. It bore a shining white insignia on it. “What’s this thing?”

“You remember that rune you helped me get?” She asked.

“You mean when I did all the work?” I say. “How could I forget?”

“I made this out of it!” She smiled. “I thought you could use it!”

“I’m not much on runes, Asuka.” I tell her. “What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Well it should allow you to manipulate a field around you to a certain degree.” She explained. “You could theoretically make a firewall around you, or negate gravity around you or something.”

“What do you mean theoretically?” I ask.

“Well you’d need training.” She said. “I can help you with that, if you like.”

“Neh, I’m good.” I say, putting the thing in my pocket. “I’ll figure it out on my own.”

“Suit yourself.” She shrugged. “Why were you here anyway?”

“Had to meet up with the guild.” I said.

“Didn’t you leave the guild?”

“I owed the leader a favor.” I said, leaving the alleyway, with her following.

“Okay, then.” Asuka kept pace with me as I pulled up my map and tapped on the first floor, then Talmia.

“Grabbing something to eat.” I said. “Want something?”

“Sure!” She said cheerily, bringing up her map as well and leaving for Talmia just as I do.

---

So we ate a nice lunch then went back out to train some more. This time we were doing sparring matches against each other. Needless to say, Asuka was a bit nervous, but I encouraged her to give it her best shot and to not hold back. So she didn’t.

And then I decked her like 10 times.

“Agh!” She yelped as I slammed her into the ground unarmed. “Dammit… you’re too good at this!”

“Well I’ve had a lot of practice.” I say, helping her back up to her feet.

“Yeah…” She said, rubbing the back of her head.

“Alright, let’s try something else, then.” I say, bringing out my sword.

“Wait, wait, what’re you doing?” Asuka stammered, backing up a bit.

“Think fast.” I say, swiping my sword at her. She ducks under the blade just barely, a bit of her hair getting sheared off before she jumped back.

“Hey!” She shouted. “I wasn’t ready!”

I rush up to her again and make another strike, which this time she blocks with her own sword.

“Agh, will you stop it?” She asks.

“You think the enemy’s gonna stop?” I say, curving my blade inwards to slide it off her own and bring it around for another quick slash which she again block. I make a few quick slices at her which she either blocks or dodges before she makes a swipe at me. A rather quick one actually; quicker than she’s ever done. With my speed I manage to deflect the blow with Gilgamesh before kicking her legs from under her and sending her back to the ground.

“Ach!” Asuka shouted as her back hit the grass. “Why!”

“That was a fast one.” I remark. “Not fast enough for me, but maybe enough to catch someone else off guard.”

“Oh, yippee.” She said sarcastically, taking my hand as I pulled her back up.

“It’s getting late.” I say, looking up at the sky. “We should probably head back.”

“Yeah…” Asuka wiped some dirt off her cheek.

Before we started on our way back to Talmia for dinner, Asuka spoke up.

“Hey, Ishi?” She said. “I was wondering. Where do you live in real life?”

I look back at her. “Why?”

She shrugs. “Just curious.”

“Nagoya.” I say. “You?”

“Tokyo.” She says.

“Fancy living, huh?”

“Yeah, my dad’s actually the chief of police there, and my mom’s a nurse for Aiiku Hospital. How about your parents?”

I looked out to the sun setting on the horizon. The soft breeze combed through my hair and I sighed.

“They’re dead.” I say.

“Ah…” She says quietly. “When?”

“Well, my mom died giving birth to me and my dad died from alcohol poisoning when I was 5. Lived with my grandparents after that.”

“Oh… I’m sorry.” She says. “What about your grandparents?”

“Died four years ago. I got my wealthy aunt and uncle supporting me from Tokyo; sending me money and the like.”

“You had it rough, huh?” Asuka said.

“Well I got a nice income out of it.” I said nonchalantly. “Well, and I got trapped in this game, but hey, what can you do?”

“Heh, yeah.” Asuka chuckled. “Maybe after all this is done and over with we can meet up sometime, yeah?”

“Meh.” I shrug. “Maybe, I don’t know. Anyway, we should be heading back.”

“Ah. Right.” Asuka caught up to me as I began walking back to Talmia.

---

I look down and see my reflection. I was standing in a shallow pool of water, just deep enough to reach up past the soles of my shoes. I look around and I see nothing but white. White and the endless water, fading into the white obscurity. I suddenly see him standing there, sword unsheathed. I bring out my weapons as well. We both run at each other, the water splashing under our steps. We clash blades, the impact being reflected in the water below us, both in image and by the ripple sent out from the strike. We split apart and clash again, striking each other’s blades, as our reflections did battle just as we did.

I dodge left. I dodge right. I swing my sword at his then parry another blow from the side. We strike and lock blades again. We stay held there, trying to push each other back. Suddenly, he curves his blade and slides it under mine, pushing me back and leaving me off balance. I see him spin and watch as his blade comes at me in slow motion, with me being powerless to stop it. His sword cut into my chest, killing me instantly.

---

I woke up with a start, sitting up in bed. Sweat was rolling down my body, and my breathing was quick and heavy. I sigh and try to regain my thoughts. It was just a dream, I knew that. It was just a dream. But that dream was far too real. I tried to shake it off and lie back down on the bed, calming myself down. I go back to sleep with one thought on my mind.

Yamato was going to kill me.

Chapter 7

15 Days Later

I cut through again. Then again. And again after that. My blade split the very air in two as I strike each target. I was facing high leveled enemy NPCs this time. Higher leveled then I normally would; level 71s. I was level 64 at this point. Ever since I had that dream I had been training non-stop; constantly taking on monsters over my level to increase my level up rate. Right now I was in the aptly named Death Region of Aincrad, on the 57th floor. I was fighting in the courtyard of a black stone castle in a dead black forest. The sky here was always gray, and the sun never shined here. This place was notorious for player deaths, which was why I was training here.

The 3 Death Knights I was facing came at me in all directions. I was faster, still. I cut through multiple times into one, taking his HP down a good deal, before jumping up to avoid a stab from behind from another, coming down on his back with Gilgamesh, clawing into him and gashing him from behind, dealing quite a bit of damage. Another one swung its blade at me. I bend back as the blade sweeps just past my nose. I stand upright before spinning and delivering a low sweep kick to his legs, tripping him and allowing me to place a solid kick onto his chest armor, putting him a distance back and allowing me to evade a few more swipes from his friends, and block two blades at once with my sword. I Shift back and then forward again, bringing my blade forward and impaling one right through the chest. I twist around as another blade came at me, defending against the blade with the body of his ally, before kicking the Knight off my blade and slicing it quickly, destroying the rest of its HP, before I rush up and punch the other right in the face, sending it flying and exploding into its rainbow polygons.

The one I had kicked earlier came at me again. I grabbed its blade with Gilgamesh before raising my own blade, watching it clash against the metal of his shield. We pushed against each other, trying to force each other back. I suddenly and unexpectedly twist around, making his blade slip out of my hand and past my shoulder, twisting around quickly and cutting his blade arm clean off. As his sword flew through the air, I landed a good punch with Gilgamesh, setting him away from me, before catching his blade as it came down, turning, and throwing the sword at him, embedding itself in his helmet. I was left as the victor. Still… something didn’t feel right. I swung my blade with as much speed, precision, and skill as I always do, and my strikes with Gilgamesh were always spot on and powerful. But still, after all that… I felt… off.

Something was missing.

I had spent the last two weeks training this hard, determined to not be outdone by Yamato. However, in those two weeks I began to feel strange, like my fighting style was off somehow. That shouldn’t be possible, considering if it was off, I’d know what was wrong. Perhaps I just needed to train more… become stronger, still…

“Ishi!” I hear a voice call.

I look over, and see her smiling at me.

“There you are.” Misaki said as she made her way to me. “I’ve been looking around for you.”

“Well, here I am.” I say, sheathing my weapons and meeting her halfway. “What do you need?”

“Well, we haven’t really talked in a long time, so I just wanted to check in.” She said. “How are things? You training?”

“Uh, yeah.” I say.

“Against enemies like these, that’s not like you.” Misaki noted. “You don’t train this hard. You could die from taking on enemies this high level, you know.”

“I can take care of myself, Misaki.” I tell her. “I appreciate your concern, though.”

“You want to take a break?” She asked. “I think you’ve been out here doing this enough for now.”

---

We traveled to an area near Luciad. It was a vibrant meadow with some trees scattered around. It wasn’t unlike the plains around Talmia, except those plains only has like two trees. Misaki and I sit leaning against one of the trees and I take a deep sigh, recovering from my non-stop combat training.

“What were you doing in the Death Region of all places?” Misaki asked. “Doesn’t seem like the kind of place you’d hang out at.”

“Just training.” I say plainly.

“You’re usually pretty laid back about training.” Misaki told me. “What would get you to train so hard?”

I hesitate to tell her about my troubles with Yamato, but I knew I could trust her. She’s been with me for a long while now. I guess I could stand to tell.

“I’m worried.” I say.

“About what?”

“Yamato.” I sigh. “He’s going to kill me unless I can get stronger. And I realized as I’ve been training for these past few weeks, my technique is lacking something. I don’t know what it is. Something is missing.”

“Maybe you’re just off your game from stressing out about it?” Misaki suggested.

“No, if something was off I’d know it, and I’d be able to identify and fix it…” I think on it. “It’s something I’ve never had before… something I need to beat Yamato.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Well, whatever that is, I’m sure you’ll find it sometime soon.” Misaki reassured. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”

“Hm…” I look up at the clear blue sky, a far cry from the dark and cloudy skies of the place I was just at.

“Hey, Ishi.” Misaki said. “You mind if I ask you something?”

“No.” I say. “Go ahead.”

“Well…” She thought of where to begin. “When you first joined Pendragon Court, you seemed a bit… distant towards everyone at first. But I noticed when you were paired with me as partners you were more open to me immediately. I mean, even Knight and Gawain and Trinity had a tough time earning your trust, but for some reason you trusted me right away. Why is that?”

I think on it. “Well…” I start. “I saw something in you.”

“Hm? What was that?”

“Hell if I know.” I say. “I thought it was something I wanted. Something that let me know you were safe to trust.”

“Which is why you became attached to me in the first place?”

“Well, yeah…” I say, scratching my cheek with a finger. “I thought you were the one for me, to be honest.”

“I thought the same.” Misaki said. “That didn’t pan out quite like we had thought, huh?”

“Nope.” I said. “But at least we figured that out before we got too serious about it.”

“We had sex, Ishi.” Misaki laughed.

“Hey, you’re the one who wanted it.” I point at her. “I wasn’t even thinking about that.”

“I guess you’re right.” She chuckles. “Still though, it’s not the same in game as it is in real life, huh?”

“I wouldn’t know, I’ve never done it in real life.” I tell her. “But I’d imagine it is.”

Misaki took my hand in hers and interlaced her fingers with mine. She looked straight into my eyes intently.

“You’re changing.” She said.

“How can you tell?” I inquire.

“I just can.” She says. “I don’t know how you’re changing… but you definitely are…”

“Weird.” I say, turning and looking out across the meadow.

“Well anyway.” Misaki said, standing up. “I’d best get back to Knight. He’s probably wondering where I am right about now. I’ll see you later, Ishi.”

“Yeah.” I say.

She brings out her menus in preparation for fast travel, but stops. “Oh, actually, you should come with.” She says. “We have two new members, recruited by Trinity. They use knives so she was hoping you could help put them through initiation, seeing as you have a few knives on you as well.”

I look to the belts over my jacket with the four knives fastened on them, two for both belts.

“Yeah, okay.” I say.

I join her as she travels to Luciad, and we both walk to Pendragon Court HQ. There, we get to the courtyard, where our training takes place, and I see Trinity, along with two other girls, which I saw were the new recruits. Trinity was in the middle training them, but since she didn’t have knives of her own, she couldn’t properly train them. It looked like one of the trainees used twin knives, while the other used one knife, complemented by a bow on her back.

Trinity is the first to notice me.

“Ah, Ishi.” She said, as the two recruits stop their exercises and look in our direction.

“Hey, Trinity.” I say.

“Thanks for bringing him in, Misaki.” Trinity said. “I’ve been having some trouble with these two. We don’t seem to have anyone who’s quite as good with knives as Ishi.”

“Mhm.” Misaki nods. “Anyway, I have some business I need to discuss with Knight. You have fun.” Before she left, she grabs my shirt. “Don’t hurt them too badly, please.”

I give her a “who, me?” face, and she rolls her eyes and smiles before leaving us.

“Kana, Diana.” Trinity addresses the two newbies. “This is Ishi. A former member of ours. One of the best we’ve seen, if not the best.”

The two bow to me, saying “hello” simultaneously.

I nod.

“Ishi, this is Kana and Diana. Sisters.” Trinity said. “Now a word of warning, girls.” Trinity addresses the two recruits. “Ishi trains… hard. So, yeah… there’s your warning. So have fun!” She turns to me. “You mind if I just sit right over here?”

“Oh, yeah, go ahead.” I say, before turning to my two newest students. “Alright, let’s see what you got.”

I initiate a duel with both of them, two on one, and set it to First Strike Mode. Once that was done, I prepare to take my weapons out, but stop, figuring I wouldn’t need them.

“Alright.” I say. “Let’s go.”

Kana and Diana both run at me with their knives equipped. Kana makes two quick strikes with her blades which I effortlessly weave around, before placing my foot on her head and lightly shove her back onto the ground. Diana was next. She swiped at me, but I again dodge before grabbing her arm on the next strike and pushing her back.

“You aren’t going to get very far by just randomly swiping at me.” I tell them, as Diana helps her sister up onto her feet.

Kana’s the first to come at me again, while Diana follows behind her. They take me from two directions. I’m quick enough to evade the attack from the two at once and wave in between their subsequent strikes before backing up as they came at me still. Walking pace, they forced me back with their flurry of attacks.

And by forcing me back, I of course mean I was letting them do that.

I find the opening I was looking for and dive between the two, hooking my legs with theirs and planting my hands on the ground, twisting quickly to trip both of them and put be back up on my feet.

By now the two’s HP was well on its way to being whittled down to half just from me putting them onto the ground. It wasn’t doing much, but it wasn’t like they were going to hit me any time soon.

“You need to focus and plan ahead.” I scold the two. “Predict your movements and the movements of your opponent at once.”

“How are we supposed to do that?” Kana asked.

“Technique is all well and good.” I say. “But instinct is really what fighting is all about. If you don’t have that, you’re going to be killed off pretty quickly.”

“What’re you talking about?” Diana said.

“When you fight without thinking about fighting.” I explain. “When it all just comes naturally. That’s when you’ve developed a deadly fighting instinct.”


This time I make a move, Shifting up to the two and grabbing two knives from my belt, backhanding both and slicing between the two simultaneously, cutting them both in the sides as in a cross armed strike. This eliminated both from the duel.

Kana and Diana both grabbed for their sides, where I had struck them.


“How’d you do that?” Diana wondered.

“Again.” I say, initiating another duel.

---

This routine goes on for hours, and by now the sun was setting. I had won every duel I had initiated thus far. I saw how the two were slowly progressing, but it wasn’t good enough. Not nearly good enough.

The two were a distance away from me, planning their next move. I stand there casually and unarmed, waiting for them to make their move. They eventually do, bringing out their knives and rushing me. I Shift up to them, placing my hands on their chests and lightly pushing them, making them trip and fall to the ground.

I sigh and put a hand to my face.

“Come on, I’m unarmed, even.” I say, walking away.

“Can we stop now?” Diana asked.

“What, you want to give up?” I ask.

“We don’t have a chance in beating you anyway.” Kana added.

I stare at them both for a few seconds, being reminded of Yamato.

“Then fight harder!” I shout at them. “If there’s someone who’s stronger than you in your way, then the only option you have is to become stronger than them! You aren’t going to get anywhere by giving up!”

The sisters look at each other and take in my words. They nod to each other.

“Use your bow, Diana.” Kana said.

“Huh?” She responded. “But aren’t we training with knives?”

“Just do it.” She said, bringing out her two knives.

“Uh, alright.” Diana grabbed the bow from her back and notched an arrow, drawing the string slightly but keeping the bow lowered.

“You ready?” Kana asked her sister.

Diana nods in response.

Kana comes after me as Diana pulls back the string on her bow all the way and points it at me, launching an arrow which I dodge. Kana is there in an instant, swiping at me with her two knives before attempting a middle kick which I grab. I have to let go, though, as I dodge another arrow that sailed past my head. Diana then came running after me, launching arrows as she went, with some damn good accuracy, I might add. I’m forced into dodging both hers and Kana’s attacks as I’m put on the defensive for once. It doesn’t stay that way for long as I jump up and kick off Kana’s shoulders, flipping in the air and throwing two knives at Diana, who is able to dodge both with a well timed roll which she uses to notch three arrows at once, before recovering and launching all three at me as Kana attempted to keep me from moving out of the way. I manage to spin to evade a swipe from Kana before sidestepping the line of three arrows and a few more single arrows.

Diana then reaches us, as Kana moves back to evade my overhead kick and backs up to Diana, crouching as Diana jumps onto her sister’s back as she stands up quickly, giving her a boost in the air which she uses to bring out her knife and come down on me. I manage to block the blow by raising my arm and stopping her arm, but I notice Kana coming in below me simultaneously, knives ready to stab into me. I wouldn’t be able to get out of that easily, but still, I know exactly what to do.

I kick one of Kana’s arms to throw her off, before bringing out my own blade an sweeping a leg under Diana, tripping her as I cut into her at the same time,

eliminating her from the duel, as I rush up to Kana as she tries to recover and slice her leg from under her, sending her to the ground and allowing me to put my blade up to her neck.

“Not bad.” I tell the two as the duel ended and I sheath my weapon. “You’re definitely improving, that’s for sure.”


“Ah, really?” Kana said as she got back to her feet.

“That kind of maneuver would’ve taken me out if my reflexes weren’t as sharp as they were.” I say. “So, yeah, really.”

“Well that was fun to watch.” Trinity said, walking over to me. “Good job, Ishi. I’d say your little training session just proved they have what it takes.”

“Well they still need some work.” I tell her.

“Didn’t we all?” She smiles. “Anyway, girls. Ishi says you’re alright, so welcome to Pendragon Court.”

“Alright!” Kana cheers as she high-fives her sister.

“You’ll still need a bit of training, mind you.” Trinity says. “But still, well done.” Trinity turns to me. “Well, that’s about all we have for today, so you can head out if you want.”

“Yeah, alright.” I say. “I’ll see you later, then.”

She nods and goes to take care of the girls as I leave the courtyard and then the building, heading back to the Death Region to continue my own training overnight.

Chapter 8

“Gah!” I gasp, snapping out of my sleep.

I had that same dream again. The one where Yamato kills me. I was lying in my bed, sweating and breathing heavy. There was a dim light coming into my room, so it was early morning. I look over and see Adeline sitting next to me, her hand on my arm. She had a worried look on her face.

“Are you alright?” She asked. “You were shouting out in your sleep.”

“I… I was?” I ask.

“Yes.” She said. “You were thrashing around too. What did you dream about?”

“I… I can’t remember.” I lie. She didn’t need to know. I didn’t want her to worry about me, either.

“Well, alright…” She let go of my arm and stood up. “Well, if you want I can cook you some breakfast before you head out.” She smiled.

“Ah, yeah, sure.” I say, sitting up on the bed and yawning.

“I’ll see you downstairs.” Adeline said, leaving the room and shutting the door behind her.

I sigh and hang my head low, still reeling from the realism of that dream.

“Dammit…” I say, shaking my head to get out of my thoughts, before standing up and getting dressed, leaving my room and heading downstairs for some of Adeline’s breakfast.

Scrambled eggs and bacon. Nothing too fancy, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t good.

I sit at my regular window table and Adeline hands me a plate with my meal on it as well as a glass of milk before heading into the back room.

The restaurant was empty, as it was before opening time. I took a few bites of my meal before Adeline joined me with a plate of pancakes with a side of eggs, as well as some tea.

“So, what was your dream about?” Adeline asked.

“I don’t remember.” I say. “I told you that, remember?”

“Ishi, I know you well enough to know when you’re lying.” She smiles coyly. “So what’s up?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” I say plainly. “Just let it go.”

She shrugs and takes a bite of pancake, looking out the window like I was. The streets weren’t crowded, with only a few people passing by every minute or so. The sun hadn’t risen yet so the light was gray and dim, and a fog shrouded the distance.

“So, you have a girlfriend yet?” Adeline asked abruptly.

I cough on the milk I was chugging down, splattering some of it onto the table.

“No!” I shout when I catch my breath.

“That blush says otherwise.” Adeline smiled.

I try to look down at my cheeks, realizing I couldn’t, before looking away.

“It’s not like that.” I say sternly.

“I don’t know, Asuka seems interested if you ask me.” She teased.

“It’s nothing like that!” I say. “I’m training her, that’s all!”

“Hey, Ishi!” Asuka said when she walked through the door.

I slam my face into the table.

“Ah… did I miss something?” She asks.

“Oh, no, we’re fine.” Adeline said.

“Ah- um… fuckin… wh-what’s up?” I stutter.

“Training day, remember?” Asuka said.

“Oh… it’s Wednesday already?” I ask, picking up my composure. “You’re a bit early, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, well I got up early.” Asuka said. “Having breakfast?”

“Yeah.” I say, taking another few bites of scrambled eggs.

“Adeline, you mind if you cook me up something too?” Asuka asks.

“Oh, not at all.” She says, getting out of her seat and heading for the kitchen. “Go ahead and sit down, I won’t be long.”

So she goes and sits down next to me. Fuck my life.

“You’re blushing.” Asuka noted. “Something wrong?”

I look at her before quickly looking away and back out the window.

“No, I’m fine.” I say.

“Well, okay…”

“Here you are.” Adeline said while handing Asuka a plate of waffles and bacon with a cup of milk before sitting back down and resuming her breakfast.

“So what’s been going on with you, Asuka?” Adeline asked, looking up at her from her plate.

“Oh, nothing much.” Asuka said. “I’ve been getting a lot more business with my runes thanks to Ishi finding that rare material for me.”

“Ah, I see.”

“Unfortunately I haven’t had much time to run the shop with all the training and leveling I’ve been doing as of late… had to get a friend to run the place for me.”

“Where is your shop anyway?” I ask. “I don’t think I’ve ever been there.”

“You haven’t.” Asuka said. “We can visit before we go out training if you want.”

“No, that’s fine.” I say, taking a sip of my milk and taking a bite of bacon.

“So how’s business with you, Adeline?” Asuka asks.

“Oh, it’s going well.” She answers. “Same as always. Of course Ishi here wouldn’t let me go out of business with how much he comes around for ramen.”

“Damn right I wouldn’t.” I say.

“But even without him I’d be doing well enough.” She continued.

“Well that’s good.” Asuka said. “My shop isn’t quite as well known as your place here, but who knows? Maybe I’ll get there sometime.”

It was at this point that I finished up my breakfast and jumped onto my feet on the seat, jumping over Asuka and landing cleanly before heading for the door.

“Hurry it up.” I say, waiting there.

Asuka quickly wolfed down the last of her meal before thanking Adeline and joining me out the door.

---

We headed to the courtyard at Pendragon HQ to do our training. It was still early morning by the time we got there so we were alone when we drew swords. The orange sun peeking over the horizon gleamed against my blade as well as the claws of my gauntlet, while it made the red blade of Asuka’s Flamberge seem like it was ablaze.

We stood a distance away, First Strike duel initiated. We both move simultaneously, circling around each other at a run before spiraling into each other and striking blades, making sparks fly. I twist around and deliver another quick swipe, but Asuka’s smart, and she ducks under it, taking advantage of her momentum to swing upwards while my guard is down. I manage to sidestep the swipe and I slip over onto my hands, spinning around with my feet out as I deliver a series of spinning kicks before pushing myself back up with my hands and locking blades with her.

We both stared each other down as we pushed against each other, before Asuka brings her other hand onto her blade and pushes down, allowing me to use the force of the push to twist around and let her slide by before swiping at her with Gilgamesh. She barely manages to dodge before spinning quickly, releasing a few flames to distract me and quickly set some distance between me and her.

“Those runes are helpful, aren’t they?” I ask.

“You know it!” She winks at me before running toward me again, her blade charged up with fire.

Her speed and power increased as she quickly assaulted me with a flurry of attacks, all of which I was able to evade of block, before I slam outward with Gilgamesh to meet her blade, clashing into it with such force it knocked us both back a bit. I recover first and swing at her with my blade. She tilts herself back and lets the blade fly just past her face before delivering a backflip kick to distance herself again.

This time I close the distance, sprinting at her quickly and slashing upwards with my blade, catching her off guard and putting her off balance enough for me to deliver a solid punch to her gut with Gilgamesh, sending her to the ground. The duel then ended with me as the victor.

“Agh!” Asuka shook her head. “How are you that fast even without Zero Shift?”

“Well I was pretty athletic to begin with.” I tell her.

“What, you worked out or something?” She asked as I helped her to her feet. “Hit the gyms?”

“What? Hell no.” I say. “Free running.”

“You do free running?” Asuka questions.

“Oh, yeah.” I answer. “Lots of it. I climb up buildings, run along rooftops, sometimes evade the cops, it’s all fun.”

“Wait, you’ve had to run from the cops? Why? What’d you do?”

“Nothing. I just hate people. Anyway, back to business.” I initiate another duel and we ready ourselves.

“So you climb up high buildings?” Asuka continued the conversation.

“Oh yeah, they’re the best kind.” I tell her as she runs at me and we lock blades. “Best views of the city from there.”

“I’m guessing that’s why the cops don’t really like you.” She laughs.

“Maybe.” I curve my blade off hers and spin around, delivering a few quick strikes while deflecting a few of hers before locking blades again. “But I haven’t been caught once.”

“That so?” She asks, jumping upwards and landing behind me, delivering a quick slice that I duck under before sweeping my leg and kicking her feet from under her. She recovers by planting her hands on the ground and flipping back onto her feet, making a fast swipe at me that clips my side before she spins around quickly, her blade extended and flames whipping through the air. I deflect five successive blows before grabbing her blade with Gilgamesh and tossing her aside, making her slide onto the ground, but she quickly pounces back up.

“I bet you wouldn’t find too many climbable buildings in Tokyo.” She says.

“Well I don’t plan on going to Tokyo.” I say, smiling at the fight. “I like Nagoya just fine.”

“I see.” Asuka comes at me again, and we clash blades a few more times before I flip back and distance myself.

“Doesn’t Nagoya have its fair share of high rises?” Asuka asks.

“I don’t live where the high rises are.” I say. “And what do you like so much about Tokyo? I’d hate a loud and noisy place like that.”

“Well I’ve always live in Tokyo. Guess I’m just…” She swings her blade into the air sends some flames my way. “…used to it!”

I Shift out of the way of the flames and smirk.

“I don’t think I’d ever be able to get used to a place like that.” I tell her.

“You would if you lived there for 17 years.”

“Maybe.”

We go at it again, our duel becoming more and more heated as time went on. Asuka was definitely much more skilled than when we had began that was for sure, and she was beginning to develop her own fighting instinct.

Mine was way better, but still…

I block an attack to my left by holding my arm over my head and angling my sword down to meet her blade, before bringing my arm back over my head, taking both our blades with it and leaving her right completely exposed. I use that to deliver a strong kick to her side, ending the duel and making her stumble back before catching her balance.

“Aw!” She whined. “I had you that time!”

“Not quite.” I smirk. “You’re getting better, though, I’ll tell you that.”

“I’m glad.” She smiles at me.

“SNEAK ATTACK!” I hear behind me.

I brace my blade behind my back to block the attack.

“You know, it’s not much of a sneak attack if you announce the attack, Avro.” I turn to look at the other knight, standing there, pushing against me.

“Eh, whatever.” The fiery knight said, before I launched him upwards with a well placed high kick to the chin. He backflips to land on his feet and initiated a duel with me. I accepted and pointed my blade to him.

“What’re you doing up so early, anyway?” Avro asked, smiling.

“Someone wasn’t going to let me stay in.” I look back at Asuka, who shrugs.

“Friend of yours?” She asks.

“Oh, yeah.” I say. “This is Avro.” I have to block another few attacks while my back is turned before pushing Avro down to the ground. “He’s in Pendragon Court, too. I initiated and trained him while I was in the guild.”

“Oh. I see.” Askua laughs. “Bit impulsive, isn’t he?”

“I’m not impulsive!” Avro protests, delivering a few more quick attacks which I evade before sending my own flurry of attacks, which he blocks before we lock blades. “I’m experimental!”

I push Avro back before rushing up and clawing upwards with Gilgamesh, barely grazing his hair before he backs up.

“Who’s she anyway?” Avro asked. “Your girlfriend?”

God dammit.

“No, it’s nothing like that, dammit!” I say, running up and performing a jumping overhead swipe which Avro defends against by bracing his blade above him.

“Oh, defensive!” He snickered. “Something you aren’t telli- AGH!” I quickly bring my blade inwards, slamming the pommel right into his gut before giving him a quick downwards diagonal slice that put him out of the duel.

“I told you, it’s nothing like that. I’m training her.”

“Why’s that?” Avro asked, sheathing his sword.

“Can’t get rid of her.”

“Hey!” Asuka shouted behind me.

I raise my hands.

“Ah, Ishi.” Knight says as he walks into the courtyard, Gawain by his side. “Training with Asuka?”

“Ah, yeah.” I answer.

By now everyone in the guild knew who Asuka was, save for Avro, who I had just now informed. They liked her enough to let us use the courtyard here for our training sessions.

“Hey, Knight. Hey, Gawain.” Asuka greets.

Knight nods her way, and Gawain doesn’t move an inch. He always was the silent type with people he doesn’t really hang around with all that much. Hell, the only reason why he talks to us is because we were in a guild together, so he couldn’t get away from us. Forced, but hey, he’s good with us now, so it’s fine. We had previously warned Asuka about his nature, so she doesn’t take it personally.

“Ishi, I need to speak with you.” Knight addresses, walking up to me.

“About what?” I ask.

“The Guardians of Darkness.” He clarifies. “They’ve made a move on Skeith. We think

they’ve found it.”

“Found it?” I say. “How?”

“No idea.” He says. “But we have the location where they last were from Trinity. Twilight Fields. I need you to go over there and check it out.”

“Right now?”

“Right now.”

“First thing in the morning?”

“Ishi!”

“Alright, alright.” I wave him off, turning around to Asuka. “Why don’t you train a

bit with Avro, Asuka.” I suggest. “You’d probably get a few tricks out of him.”

“C’mon, Ishi.” Avro complains. “I can’t fight a girl! It wouldn’t be a fair fight!”

That triggered Asuka to promptly smack him upside the head so hard it grounded him.

“Don’t worry, Ishi.” Asuka said. “I’ll keep up my training while you go do what you do.”


I nod and head out, going to the outskirts of Luciad before heading to floor 37. Twilight Fields.

---

I arrived at my destination in short order. Twilight Fields was actually a valley, situated between two cliffs. The reason why it was called a field was because of how wide an area there was between the two cliffs. You’d find all the normal life you’d find in a normal field around here. It was also called Twilight Fields because of the way the cliffs were placed east and west, and they were so tall that it looked like twilight most of the time while the sun would rise above the east cliff at around 10 or so in the morning.

Nice place, I think.

I look around, not seeing anyone in sight, before making a brisk jog through the fields. It takes me 10 minutes to pick up on something. I sniff the air. It smelled weird. Something I hadn’t smelled before… or had I… no I definitely have. I couldn’t make it out though. I pick up the pace a bit until I come across a dead body. The body of a player. Covered in blood. I kneel down and investigate the body. There were gashed across his body, like he had been cut apart or something.

Then it hit me.

“Why the hell is there a physical body here?” I say.

It also then occurred to me that the smell I was smelling was blood.

And there was a lot more of it.

I look down at the grass and notice red spots all over it. One leading off into a trail. I follow the dark line for about a minute before I come across something that took me by surprise.

At least a dozen players. All from the Guardians of Darkness. All dead and strewn about on the ground. Blood everywhere.

“What the fuck?” I say to myself, moving around the bloodied corpses.

I wondered again why the bodies hadn’t disappeared, and why there was blood everywhere. That shouldn’t happen in this game. I’m pretty sure the game doesn’t even render blood. I look around at the whole mess. The players looked sickly… like they had been torn apart from the inside out before dying. Their eyes were wide open, as were their mouths.

“What the hell did this?” I ask myself.

“Skeith did this, Ishi.” I hear a voice say.

I wheel around, and there was none other than Yamato, walking the blood path I had just came from.

“Fancy seeing you here.” He remarks.

“Why are you here?” I demand. “Want to recapture Skeith?”

“Huh? Recapture?” He asks. “Oh, no. I never had the thing.”

“What?” I question. “What’re you talking about? You were the last to use it, were you not?”

“I was not.” He said, kneeling down to inspect one of the bodied. “The last person to use Skeith was a friend of mine… he…” He hesitated, then switched to a different subject. “Ishi, you can’t go after Skeith.”

“What? Why not?” I say.

“Look at what it’s done.” He says, standing up. “I don’t think you understand just what you’re dealing with here. These people obviously didn’t.”

“It doesn’t matter.” I tell him. “I need to get to Skeith before the Guardians of Darkness do.”

“Ishi, it killed my best friend.” He said, almost in a remorseful way. “It’s something you don’t want to mess with.”

“Why should I care about your dead friend?” I say.

Seems I struck a nerve, because in an instant, he drew his sword and lunged at me. I barely brace Gilgamesh up in time to stop his blade. When I looked into his eyes, I saw pained fury. Something I didn’t expect from him.

I draw my blade and swipe at him, and he backs up enough to sheath his blade before slashing it through the air at blinding speed, projecting a blade in front of me that I’m forced to Shift away from. He does it again, and I evade, then again. This time I rush up to him and make a quick slash of my own, having it bounce off his blade before I’m hit in the side by the scabbard of his sword as he turned around and drew again. I quickly catch it and we clash blades.

“I need to make sure nobody gets their hands on it, Ishi!” He shouts. “It’s too dangerous! It’s something that shouldn’t exist!”

“How would you know?” I say, pushing against his blade as he did the same with mine. “How do you know what it’s capable of?”

“I’ve seen it firsthand! Are all these bodies not proof enough?!”

Suddenly, we’re both shaken with a splitting headache. We both grasp our heads and I kneel to the ground as Yamato staggers back, trying to catch his balance. The pain subsides, but I’m still disoriented. I pant as I try to reassess myself.

“What…” I stammer. “How… you aren’t supposed to feel pain in this game…”

“Skeith is still here…” Yamato says, regaining himself before me.

It hit me then… just what the hell was Skeith exactly? Why can I feel pain when it’s around? Why are all these bodies still here and all bloodied?

I had a bad feeling about all this. If what Yamato is saying is true, which I’m inclined to believe is the case, then we may be in way over our heads with this… but something of that power can’t fall into the wrong hands. I still need to go after it.

“It doesn’t matter…” I say, standing up. “If the Guardians of Darkness get their hands on it, who know what they’ll do with it? I need to get it first, and like hell I’m letting you get it.”

“Ishi, it’ll kill you.” He says.

“Why do you care?” I respond. “Why, huh? Why are you keeping me alive? Why not just kill me? You’re more than capable of doing so!”

“My reasons are my own.” He says.

“You’re pathetic.” I scoff, walking past him forward through the corpses. “You better make up your mind quick, Yamato.” I say. “If you don’t kill me soon, I’ll kill you.”

With that, I head forward. Yamato doesn’t say another word. He just leaves me to it.

About a minute of walking and I’m struck by another splitting headache, this time it sends me to the ground. The pain quickly spreads throughout my entire body, and I scream as I lie paralyzed by pain. I could barely think straight. I was frightened. I had no idea what was happening. Suddenly, the pain subsided again, and I’m left on the ground, trying to recover. I slowly stagger up, coughing into my hand. I look down at it and see blood on it.

When I look back up, I see something… it looked like some sort of cluster of data. It was at a distance so I couldn’t see well, and it blended in with the background as well, but still, I saw it there. I was fixed on it, mesmerized by it… then my heart was stricken with the most terrifying feeling I had ever experienced. Fear gripped me as I looked at it. When I looked at myself, I saw bits of digital sparks flying off my body. More pain followed shortly after. Before it got too unbearable, I broke out into a run. I ran away as fast as I could from it, whatever it was. I ran across the fields until I left the area, and I continued running after that. I ran until I was sure it was gone, and after that I fell onto my hands and knees, staring at the ground, wide- eyed.

I had never been more terrified in my life.

Yamato was right… Skeith is something that shouldn’t exist.

God damn whatever twisted person created that monster…

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