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Arc 3 of Sword Art Online: Clashing Blades.

Chapter 13

2 Weeks Later

I sit up in bed, trying to catch my breath. I had that dream again… the one where Yamato kills me. This was the second time I had the dream, only this time, it played out a bit differently. It still ended up with me dying, but I lasted longer, even if it was marginal.

I look out the window and notice its morning, so I might as well get dressed and all that.

I caught breakfast and headed out to Luciad to see if the guild had anything for me. It had been 2 weeks since that whole business with The Chronicler, and since then there hasn’t been much to work with on Skeith. I was beginning to think that it wasn’t worth it to go after the damn thing, but then I’d always remember that the Guardians of Darkness and Yamato were after it as well, so I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.

I got to Pendragon HQ early, so the only ones in the building were Trinity, Kana, and Diana, the latter two of which were training with each other in the courtyard, Diana training Kana against ranged foes while Kana trained Diana against close range fighters. The two definitely trained well together, as well as complementing each other when they fight together. Trinity was there as a spectator, watching the two as they trained, and I joined her, sitting next to her on the bench.

“Up early, huh?” She remarks. “That’s not like you.”

“Eh.” I say, watching as Kana and Diana went at it on each other. “Any news on Skeith?”

“Not that I know of.” Trinity says. “But maybe when the others get here they might have something for you.

“Well it’s been 2 weeks, they’d better.” I say. “We’re losing time.”

“Ishi, you shouldn’t worry yourself so much over it.” She put her hand on mine and looked at me. “You need to relax a bit.”

“Can’t.” I say. “You know what’s at stake here. I wish I could take a break but the Guardians of Darkness and Yamato aren’t going to, so I can’t afford that.”

“Ishi.” She takes my hand and holds it in both her own, looking me dead in the eye.

There was a brief moment of silence, broken up by Kana and Diana, who had strolled over to us.

“Hey, Ishi.” Kana said. “What’s up?”

“Oh, same old.” I say. “You just training?”

“Yeah.” Diana responds. “In fact, we’d like to fight you again.”

“Again?” I ask.

“Yeah!” Kana said excitedly. “We’ve improved a lot! I bet you we can take you on with what we’ve learned.”

“Well I wouldn’t bet on it.” I say. “Then again, overconfidence has led to the death of many a player… alright, let’s see what you’ve got, then.”

I stand up off the bench, my hand slipping from Trinity’s as I make my way to the training ground with Kana and Diana. We face each other a distance away.

“I’m not going to go as easy on you as before.” I tell them.

“Wouldn’t want you to.” Kana returns, readying herself, as her sister notches an arrow onto her bow.

I bring out my sword and gauntlet, taking a stance and initiating the duel.

Kana came at me first, swinging around to approach me from the side, while Diana strung her bow to length, pointing it dead at me. Kana attacked from my left side, and I spin to dodge it, whilst simultaneously avoiding being hit by Diana’s arrow. Kana came at me again, quicker than before, actually putting me on defensive as Diana put another few arrows downrange, forcing me to sidestep as quick as I could to get out of Kana’s onslaught. I use the opportunity to make a quick slash at Kana, but she’s quick enough to jump out of the way.

They were definitely better than they were the first time that was for sure.

Diana began running to circle around me, sending arrows my way as she went, trying to hit me from multiple directions. She was able to fire her bow fast and accurately, and I have to keep her in my mind as I focus on Kana, who was coming at me with her two knives fast and hard. She jumped up in the air in preparation for a downwards stab, but I quickly toss two of my own knives her way, forcing her to deflect the blades with hers and throwing her off her attack, at which point I jump up to her level and grab her by her shirt with Gilgamesh, spinning around with her in the air and throwing her back a good distance. She lands on her hands and pushes herself back up to her feet, but she’s far enough away now so I can focus on Diana.

I make my way to her, evading arrows as I went, and Diana quickly changes to close range, taking out her knife in her other hand but keeping her bow out as I slash at her. She blocks the first two and jumps over the next, landing on my shoulders and kicking off, notching three arrows in the air and sending them my way. I move back and let them pass by me before spinning and slicing my sword skyward, forcing her to block the attack but putting her off balance, landing on her back on the ground.

Before I’m able to go over and slice her out of the duel, however, Kana pounces me from behind, locking my sword in place by crossing her two knives over it, allowing Diana to quickly draw her bow and fire. I think fast and use Kana as a human shield because I’m a total bastard like that, grabbing her and spinning her into the line of fire, causing Diana to put her own sister out of the duel, and in the realization of her mistake drops her guard and allows me to go in and cut her down, ending the duel with me as the winner.

“You are such a dick, Ishi…” Kana said, scratching the back of her head.

“I know.” I say, holding a hand out to help Diana back onto her feet. “Getting better though. You’re a lot more coordinated and skilled than the first time.”

“Well I guess that’s a good thing.” Diana said as Trinity walked up to me.

“Ishi, can I talk to you?” She asked. “In private?”

“Why for?” I ask.

“Come on.” She said, grabbing my jacket and pulling me aside. “You girls are good on your own for now, right?”

“Oh, yeah.” Kana said.

“Yes, ma’am.” Diana replied.

“Okay, then.” Trinity said, dragging me along for the ride as we went back into the building. Once alone, Trinity turned to me.

“Ishi, I’m worried about you.” She came flat out.

“Huh?” I ask. “What for?”

“With Skeith being as dangerous as it is, I just think… I think it’s foolhardy to go in and try to tackle it on your own.”

“I know, but…” Then I think about it. “I’m not alone.”

“Huh?”

“I have Asuka.”

And the sheer fact that I had said that made me realize that I had fully accepted Asuka as my partner. It felt weird, what with me usually going solo about everything, but… I guess it was nice to know I had someone backing me up.

“Have you?” Trinity asked. “Well, that’s good. She’s a good girl.”

“Tough as hell, too.” I say.

“Well she gets that from you.” She smiled at me. “Pretty soon Kana and Diana are going to be diving into stupid situations without thinking.”

“You calling me stupid or something?” I question.

“Oh, no, no, not at all.” Trinity says. “Just… a bit reckless at times.”

“Well I haven’t died yet, have I?”

“You’ve come close.”

“Only a few times!”

“Hey, remember that one time where we got ambushed by those assassins during a field mission and you got hit hard?” Trinity recalled.

“And Knight told me to hang back and I didn’t listen?” I say.

“Yeah.” Trinity laughed. “Went right back in to back Misaki up.”

“Well I didn’t want her getting hurt.” I tell her. “I mean I almost died, but I didn’t.”

“But I don’t know…” Trinity took on a more serious tone. “This mission you’ve set for yourself… you may be in a bit over your head, don’t you think?”

“When aren’t I?”

“Ishi, I’m serious!” She grabs my arm. “You could really die from this!”

A brief silence followed when I looked her in the eyes, and she looked into mine. I could see how worried she was about me, but still.

“I know.” I tell her. “But I need to do this.”

“Why you?” She asks. “Why can’t Knight or Gawain go? Why couldn’t I go, even?”

I couldn’t answer that… I really didn’t know. Instead I pull myself from her arm and walk back towards toe door to the courtyard before stopping and coming up with an answer.

“I don’t want anyone else dying before me.” I say, walking out back into the courtyard to continue training with Kana and Diana.

---

So I trained Kana and Diana for a few more hours until Knigh, Gawan, and Misaki showed up, after which I went back inside to discuss Skeith with them.

“Hey, guys.” I say, stepping up to the table.

“Morning, Ishi.” Misaki said.

“Lancelot.” Knight greeted.

Gawain just nodded in my direction, which is way more than the scoff and look in the other direction that other people get, so hell, I’ll take it.

“Any news on Skeith?” I ask them all.

“Still nothing…” Knight said. “We haven’t been able to pick up on any leads of late.”

“It’s been two weeks, we’re losing ground.” I say.

“Ishi, I know, and we’re doing all we can.” Knight told me. “It hasn’t been easy.”

“Well what about recruitment then?” I change the subject. “How is that going?”

“Well enough.” Knight replied. “Actually, we could use your help with that. You know Iskandar, right?”

“Yeah, he’s an Alpha Tester like I am.” I say. “Why?”

“He has an army of over 2000 members.” Knight says. “If we can talk to him and convince him to join us, we’d have more than enough manpower to fight the Guardians of Darkness.”

“Right.” Gawain says. “The Army of the King.”

“Exactly.” Knight responds. “And Ishi, since you know him personally, I was hoping you could come with us to meet him. We’ve had arrangements made and we can go to his base of operations later today.”

“Ah.” I say. “Well… I guess that’d be okay. But I don’t really know if he’d be willing to-”

---

“OF COURSE!” Iskandar said with a booming voice.

“Oh, well there ya go.” I say.

Iskandar puts his big muscly arm around my shoulders and threatens to crush my shoulders inwards with how damn strong they were.

“I’d be honored to fight by your side!” He says with a roar. “Ishi!” He let go of me, making me spin a bit and try to reassess that I didn’t have any broken bones, before he put both his hands on my shoulders, lifting me off the ground by them. “How have you been, my friend!”

“Ah…” I start. “Fine, I guess?”

He let me drop right onto my back to the ground with a resounding laugh.

Couldn’t say he didn’t have charisma, because he could motivate fucking Gawain to take up breakdancing if he wanted.

“Also, we were hoping you could help us with another matter.” Knight said. “We’re looking for Skeith.”

At that, Iskandar’s demeanor immediately went serious. Much more serious than I’ve ever seen the guy.

“Ah. Skeith… I see.” He says. “We should talk about this elsewhere. Follow me.”

So all of us, Knight, Gawan, Trinity, Misaki, Avro, and myself, follow Iskandar into his fortress, through a bunch of hallways and staircases and other generic castle stuff before we are led into his main chambers, a large room which housed a large table littered with papers and weapons and junk. There were several bookcases lining the walls, filled with many flavors of texts, as well as a fireplace that burned with warm and flickering flames.

Iskandar sat down on the chair at the table and put his elbows on the table, lacing his fingers in front of his face.

“So it’s Skeith you’re after, is it?” He said.

“Yes.” Knight responded. “The Guardians of Darkness are after it as well. We aim to claim it before they can.”

“I see, I see…” He says in a calm tone. “Have you seen what Skeith can do?”

“No firsthand, no.” Knight said. “But-”

“He has.” Iskandar finished for him, looking at me. “I can see it in your eyes, Blade Master. You’ve felt that pain and seen the chaos it leaves behind.”

“You’ve seen it too, then?” I ask.

“I have.” He replied. “And I wish not to see it ever again. I almost died just being near it. The thing wiped out the entire force of 20 other players that was accompanying me at the time. I was the only one who survived.”

“When was this?” Knight asked.

“About 2 months ago.” Iskandar answered. “We were on a scouting expedition when it appeared. I felt this unimaginable pain… it wracked through my whole body. My comrades behind me screamed and collapsed onto the ground, feeling the same pain as I. They died shortly after. It was only with willpower I didn’t know I possessed that I was able to move and escape. It’s something evil.”

“We’re aware.” Knight said. “But it’s been controlled before, and we need to secure it so the Guardians of Darkness won’t. We haven’t been able to pick up on any leads of late.”

“And you’re hoping I have information on it?”

“Yes.”

We stand in silence for a period, the crackling of the fireplace the only thing to be heard, before Iskandar speaks up.

“I do have information on it.” Iskandar says slowly. “But I don’t think I can let you persue this in good conscious. Ishi can understand why.”

“The point stands that we don’t have a choice, Iskandar.” Gawain said. “It’s either we get it first or we all die.”

Iskandar thinks over this, scratching his red beard and looking into the fireplace on the other side of the room past us.

“I understand.” He says. “I will offer what I know. Skeith is the result of a glitch in the coding of the game, and is therefore able to perform game breaking acts that could put all of Aincrad in chaos, and can even crash the game, killing everyone in it. Its sole power is that of pure corruption. It corrupts all game data near it, and in the case of players disables the pain inhibitors in the NerveGear and inflicts excruciating pain upon whoever is in the vicinity for as long as they stay near it. It also leaves player bodies physical and bloodied more often than not. Ishi had no doubt witnessed that firsthand.”

I nod, remembering the total bloodbath I saw, as well as the pain of being near Skeith itself. I saw Skeith in my mind again, and I shake my head to get rid of it.

“Wait, a glitch in the game?” Misaki asked. “How did the Game Master overlook something as big as that?”

“It was allowed into the game by someone in the beta tests, I’d wager.” He said. “I didn’t see it in the alpha tests, and neither did Ishi, I’m sure, so it was created between the alpha tests and the beta tests, and during testing, someone must have found it, but they didn’t report it.”

“Strange…” Knight remarks.

“But containing it is possible.” Iskandar continued. “There’s been word about another weapon, just as powerful as Skeith, with equal but opposite abilities.”

“There’s another one?” Trinity asks.

“Apparently.” Iskandar replies. “It’s been reported to hold just as much power as Skeith. But its abilities are not known at the moment… the only thing we know about its abilities is that they oppose Skeith’s, possibly giving it the ability to cancel out Skeith’s corruption and allowing for its capture.”

“Well where is it?” I ask, eager to get on with it.

“Sadly, there is even less information on it than Skeith. It has never been sighted, and nobody knows if it’s been used. I don’t even know for sure it really exists, to be honest.”

“Well that doesn’t help much.” Knight says. “Is there anything else you can offer? Have you sent any of your men to investigate it?”

“Send any of my- after what happened?” Iskandar said. “Never. I wouldn’t risk a single one of my men for that.”

We stood silent for a few minutes, until he spoke again.

“But I have found something interesting about it.” Iskandar said, making everyone look up at him simultaneously in interest. “Skeith never appears in places where players are, so it won’t be in any towns. Further it won’t drift toward any towns once in a floor either. Also it won’t appear in any places any NPCs are, so it can’t be found in dungeons or any other place that has NPC enemies littered about.”

“It only goes through areas completely devoid of life…” I mutter.

“Exactly.” Iskandar confirms. “I don’t know the reason for this, it doesn’t make any sense to me, but it narrows down the search field a bit. Unfortunately, though, there’s no real way to be able to track it or tell which floor it’s on currently. You can spend years going around randomly and still never find it.”

“Well we also need to know what do to when we find it.” Gawain noted. “Is there any way we can contain it?”

Iskandar thinks on it, before answering.

“I have no clue. Just getting anywhere near the damn thing is a death sentence, I wouldn’t have any idea how to actually capture it. I wouldn’t even want to, really.”

“Yamato would know.” I say, turning everyone’s attention to me.

“Yamato?” Iskandar said. “The Wandering Swordsman?”

“Yeah.” I say. “He knows more about Skeith than anyone. He knew the first person to use it. He was a friend of his.”

“I see…” Iskandar once again scratched his beard in thought. “Well then, best to hunt down Yamato and find out what he knows, then. I wish I could help, but I’ve got my business to take care of. Preparing the troops and all.”

“I can’t take on Yamato on my own.” I say.

“I’ll go with.” Misaki said, stepping beside me.

“You know what we’re going up against?” I ask her.

“Of course.” She said with a smile. “Besides, it’s been too long since I’ve worked with you.”

“Hah, I guess so.” I smile back.

“Well then, you’d best get going.” Iskandar said. “Time’s a wasting. Knight, I’ll need to discuss a few more things with you.”

“Right.” Knight nods. “Ishi, Misaki. You should go quickly. Hunt down Yamato.”

“Right.” We say simultaneously, leaving the fortress and teleporting back to Luciad.

Chapter 14

So with Misaki at my side, my hunt for Yamato began. I figured it wouldn't be too hard, since the guy usually comes to me whenever I don't want him to, but judging by how he hasn't shown up in a whie led me to believe he's been laying low a bit, so we'd actually have to find him ourselves.

And that was going to be difficult, I already knew.

“Have you heard of the Royal Knights, by any chance?” Misaki asked as we walked through Twilight Fields, the last place I saw Yamato, hoping to see any trace of the guy, as unlikely as it was.

“Yeah, actually.” I say. “That one small clearer guild.”

“Apparently they’ve worked up a bit of a reputation.” Misaki added. “I had wondered if they would assist us in defeating the Guardians of Darkness.”

“Well we got Iskandar on our side now, so there’s no point.” I say. “Besides, I’ve heard they’re fighting their own war.”

“Who’s the leader of that guild, do you know?” Misaki asked.

“Some guy. Goes by the name of Galant.” I tell her. “Pretty good fighter from what I’ve heard, but I’ve never met the guy.”

“Huh.”

We come across where the bloody bodies were before. By now they were in the ground, but you could still see black marks here and there on the grass, as well as the occasional hand sticking out of the ground.

“Egh.” Misaki said, looking down at one of the hands. “Skeith did this?”

“I don’t think we’ll be finding any trace of him here.” I say to Misaki as she stood back up and walked over to me.

“Well it was worth a try at least.” She says.

“Can we go now?” I ask. “I don’t like being here…”

“I can understand…” She said.

“How are we going to find him, I wonder…” I say, looking around.

“Well we could ask around the area.” Misaki suggested.

“I doubt that’d work.” I say. “He’s a player killer. He can’t hang around towns.”

“Oh, right…” Misaki said, out of ideas.

I think on it a bit more. If I were Yamato, where would I be right about now.

The answer comes to me easier than I expected.

“I know where he is.” I say.

---

The plains outside Talmia were calm and peaceful as Misaki and I walked up to the hill where Yamato was sitting. His eyes were closed, and it barely looked like he was breathing. He heard us coming from a mile away, I knew.

“So you decide to come looking for me for once.” He remarks, standing up slowly and facing us. “You want to know how to contain Skeith.”

“You’re ahead of everything, aren’t you?” I say.

“Why are you still so insistent on going after it?” He asks. “After you’ve seen what it does. After you felt what it does.”

“I already told you.” I say. “I can’t let anyone else get their hands on it.”

“Well I’m sorry to say that Skeith is beyond your reach.” He says, turning his back on me. “Unless… Ishi.” He turns to face me. “Let’s duel. Just you and I.”

“Why for?” I ask.

“We haven’t fought in a while, have we?” Yamato noted. “We should see how much you’ve improved. I may even tell you how to not only capture Skeith but how to find it as well.”

“Ishi…” Misaki stepped up to me.

“Relax, Misaki.” I assure her. “I got this.”

I follow Yamato down the hill to flat ground, where we stand a distance away from each other. We don’t initiate an actual duel, which was fine by me. Misaki stood on the hill, overlooking us.

I drew my weapons, while Yamato placed his hand on his sword, ready to draw.

We stay there, eyes fixed on each other, as the wind rolled by us. For minutes we stand perfectly still, waiting, listening. Then the wind died down, and there was pure silence. A brief silence, but it felt like it went on for minutes. A single leaf fell from the tree atop the hill, and floated in front of us. I felt my blade move with me as the leaf was sliced in two, Yamato and I moving at the exact same time, clashing blades to break the silence. The abrupt strike of metal on metal gave off sparks and sent birds flying, and the sound almost made a resounding bang throughout the fields.

We stayed locked, still looking into each other’s eyes, before breaking off and striking again, locking blades there. I felt… different… fighting Yamato now. I didn’t feel nervous like I would have. I feel my blade move like it knew where I was going to go, giving me insight like I never had before. I could see Yamato’s movements before he made them. We slashed at each other multiple times within just a few seconds, sending sparks off into the air, and sending sounds of metal on metal cascading throughout the fields.

I back up and slash downwards, quick and hard. He blocks the blow and locks my blade at the hilt of his, redirecting my blade downwards and sliding his off mine, giving him an opening. I don’t let him have it, and I quickly brace Gilgamesh up to block his katana, before sidestepping slightly and slashing at him, barely giving him any time to react and dodge the move, before raising his sword and coming downwards. I block again with my gauntlet, before we break off and gain distance. This act played out in just 4 seconds, and I was bewildered at how fast I was moving. I knew I was fast… but this fast…

I could see Yamato smiling, as he sheathed his katana and drew it faster than I could see, forming a spectral blade in front of me that I move out of the way of in the nick of time. He sends another at me, then another. I Shift in between them, circling around Yamato as he sent his attacks my way. His unique skill was powerful, and I didn’t want to get hit. I throw four knives his way, forcing him to fully draw his sword and knock them out of the air, but I’m there in an instant, bringing my blade back below him. A look of surprise takes his face as I slash upwards, throwing my weight into it, and I manage to cut into his cheek as he barely moved out of the way.

We stand at distance, and Yamato takes a stance as blood drips from the scratch on his cheek.

Blood? Why was he bleeding?

The wince he had made suggested he felt pain as well…

I couldn’t wonder on it long, though, because in another instant, Yamato was in front of me, katana in his scabbard, ready to draw. He does, cutting the air in half in a circle around him as I put up my blade to defend, successfully parrying 4 quick slashes before I got in my own 5. We go at this high speed battle for what seemed like hours, nicking each other here and there, before we strike blades again. We stay like that, eyes locked just like our blades, before we shear off each other and spin to gain distance. We don’t go at it again, instead, Yamato sheaths his sword.

“Well, well.” He says. “Looks like you’re finally starting to show that potential.”

He wipes the blood off his face from the scratch I had given him.

“There’s that potential again…” I say, checking my blade for any blood marks on it. “So how exactly do you bleed and feel pain?”

“Well I haven’t used Skeith, but I’ve been near it enough to have that effect on me.” He says straightforward. “Disabled the pain inhibitors in my NerveGear permanently.”

“Okay…” I say. “So how to I find and capture Skeith.”

“Oh that’s easy.” Yamato told me. “Just follow your will and honor.”

“Follow my will and honor?” I repeat slowly, as if I had missed a word or something in there. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well you’ll have to figure that out for yourself, now won’t you?” Yamato smiled, turning to walk away.

“Hey!” I shout. “Will you quit talking in riddles and just give me the answer, already?”

He turns back to me, a cold look in his eyes.

“I can’t put it any simpler than I have.” He said. “There’s nothing else to it. All you need to do is listen.”

He walks away, and I let him. I look down at my blade, my reflection clear in the shining flawless white metal. My will and my honor… what does that mean?

“Ishi.” Misaki says, walking up to me. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” I say. “Just don’t feel like we’re any closer to Skeith…”

I look down at my sword again. Listen… listen for what? What was I supposed to hear? I didn’t undertand… my will and my honor…

“Ishi?” Misaki said, breaking me out of my trance.

“Ah, right…” I say, sheathing my sword. “Listen, Misaki. I… I’m going off to train. Is that okay?”

“Oh. Um… sure.” She said. “I’ll see you later, then, yeah?”

I nod, and she teleports herself, probably back to Luciad, while I take a deep breath, and let it out, slowly and drawn out. I decided to head to the Death Region again, see what I could get out of the enemies there.

---

5 Days Later

I impale a Death Knight in the stomach, and punch it back, killing it before jumping to avoid a slash from his friend and cutting into him from above, landing behind him and sweep kicking his feet from under him, allowing me to stab downwards and kill him. I then Shift up to the next one and slash into it a few times faster than it could react before jumping up and delivering a powerful downwards slash that put him out. That had to be the 5000th or so Death Knight I had killed in 5 days. I was camping out in the Death Region only going back to civilization for a sparse meal.

“Dammit!” I shout, pushing my sword into the ground and leaving it sticking upright as I sit down next to it. I had been training my ass off for all this time and I still couldn’t find what I had felt fighting Yamato. I had been out here for 5 days straight with no results. I couldn’t figure what Yamato meant by following my blade, nor how it was I felt Arondight move with me as I was fighting the guy. I was the one who usually guided it through the motions of combat, but when I had fought him… it moved with me. Everything felt more natural and flowing… it was faster and more intense but at the same time calm and soothing… I had tried countless times with these Death Knights and I couldn’t recreate the same effect.

“Ishi.” Misaki said, coming up to me. “Are you alright?”

“Why are you here?” I ask her.

“I’m worried about you.” She says. “We all are. You’re not yourself.”

I don’t answer here, staying sat down before Misaki sits down behind me, wrapping her arms around my neck and pressing herself to my back. She stayed there with me for what felt like much longer than it actually was. I had almost forgotten how sweet and soft her touch was… how it always seemed to calm me down. She knew this.

“Come on.” She whispered into my ear, letting me go and helping me onto my feet. “We should go.”

I don’t look at her. I just nod and pick up my sword sheathing it on my back and letting her take me away from the place. I felt heavy; weak. I didn’t know why… my will and my honor… it felt like two things I didn’t have.

---

Misaki walked me all the way back to Adeline’s arriving late at night, and walked me up the stairs to my room. The air was clear and the moon was full, so the soft white light shined through the windows, lighting the room in an ambient glow. Misaki had taken off my jacket for me and hung it up on the coat rack, and had taken off her removable armor pieces over her clothes, setting them down neatly next to the closet.

“Ishi.” Misaki said, sitting down next to me on the bed. “What’s wrong?”

I don’t answer, or look at her, practically ignoring her existence for a time, before she puts an arm around me.

“Ishi, please.” She says softly.

“I…” I hesitantly start. “I just… I feel heavy… like there’s this weight on me that I can’t shove off…”

I stop there, but continue shortly after.

“There’s something missing. I feel like I’m blind. For the first time I know there’s something else there but… I can’t see it. I know… but I don’t see… and it makes me feel so weak…”

“Do you know what it is?” She asks.

I shake my head.

“No…” I tell her. “Not at all. Yamato knows. He won’t tell me. I don’t know if I can figure it out on my own.”

“It’s more than that.” She told me. “You’re worried about all this. About us. About Yamato and the Guardians of Darkness and Skeith. You feel the weight of the world on your shoulders…”

She holds my chin up to look me in the eyes.

“We’re here for you, Ishi.” She says. “I know you’re used to being alone but… you aren’t. You’re not on your own, Ishi… you don’t have to do everything alone…”

I stay there, looking at her, her radiant green eyes sparkling in the moonlight, and a look of caring and compassion on her face. It took her wiping my face to realize tears were rolling down my face. I can’t hold it in after that, and I just break out, closing my eyes tight and grasping her shoulders as she brings me in for a hug, pressing me up to her chest and letting me cry it out with her.

The first time I had cried in as long as I can remember… she was there for me, though. Like she always was…

Chapter 15

I wake up slowly, huddled next to Misaki, who was still soundly asleep in my bed.

No we didn’t do it, is the answer to your question.

I stay next to her for a few minutes, just watching her sleep. She had an arm around me and was cuddled up to my chest for warmth, breathing softly. I carefully raise her arm off me and roll out of bed, putting the covers back on her and quietly getting my shoes and shirt and jacket on. I had slept in my pants while Misaki slept in the underwear and shirt she wore under her outfit.

I got fully dressed and outfitted, looking over to Misaki, still sound asleep. I walk over to her and rub the back of my hand against her cheek softly, smiling before stepping back and leaving the room, making sure to be as quiet as I could with the door. It was still early morning and I glided down the stairs, landing softly on my feet, looking out the window. It was foggy, and the sun hadn’t completely come out yet, so the sky was a light morning gray color.

“Ishi.” I hear Adeline call my name as she came out of the kitchen, fully dressed for work. “How did you sleep?”

“Fine.” I tell her. My guess was that she didn’t know about Misaki in my room. Good thing too, because I would never hear the end of that.

“Care for some breakfast this morning?” She asked, gathering some plates and carrying them to the back.

“Sure, why not?” I say, sitting down at my usual table while she brought me my usual scrambled eggs and bacon with milk.

“So you were gone for 5 days.” She said. “What happened?”

“Ah, just out training.” I said. “Hard. Sorry if I worried you.”

“Well I know you well enough to know you’re okay wherever you are.” Adeline said. “Just as long as you aren’t too reckless, that is.”

“Hm.” I take a sip of my milk. After I had finished my meal I asked for seconds. I was eating slower than usual, so by the time I was almost done with my second helping the sun was starting to show over the horizon, and the morning gray was replaced by radiant orange and red, while the fog began to clear up.

I hear the bells over the door chime, and in comes Asuka, looking around quickly and noticing me.

“Ishi!” She said, stepping over to me and giving me a tight hug.

“Agh!” I say, almost choking on the eggs I had in my mouth.

“Where’ve you been for so long?” She asked. “I was starting to get worried! You didn’t answer any of my messages!”

“Relax, Asuka.” I say. “I’m fine.”

“Well you should at least answer your messages.” She said.

“Neh, I’m lazy.” I say, taking another sip of milk and looking out the window.

“What’s going on?” I hear Mizaki say sleepily as I slam my head into the table.

Everyone was silent and Adeline and Asuka had their eyes on her. Misaki, still in her shirt and underwear, suddenly realized what she did and blushed a little.

“Oh…” She said, giving a little wave. “Hi.”

“Misaki?” Asuka said.

“Ishi.” Adeline said slowly. “Was she… in your room?”

“Look, it’s not what you think, okay?” I say. “Misaki was just…”

“I just spent the night is all.” She said for me. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to cause any trouble…”

“Ishi, you’re cleaning those sheets.” Adeline said.

“I told you it’s not like that!” I shout at her.

“Something you aren’t telling me, Ishi?” Asuka smiled teasingly. “I thought you said you two weren’t together anymore.”

“Dammit!” I say, slamming my head into the table again.

“Look, Ishi… just had a hard time last night.” Misaki vouched for me. “I decided to stay the night with him to make him feel better.”

“Oh, okay, as long as that’s the case.” Adeline said in a playfully sarcastic manner.

“Well, alrighty then!” Asuka said in the same tone, nudging me a bit teasingly. “Hey, Adeline, can I get some breakfast too?”

“Sure!” Adeline said. “Would Ishi’s little lover here like some breakfast too?”

“OH MY GOD!” I shout.

“Um… no thank you.” Misaki said. “Actually, I kind of need to get going.”

She quickly shuffled up to her room to get redressed back into her usual outfit.

“You two do make a good couple.” Asuka said.

“Oh, will you shut up?” I snap at her.

She hums a little to herself merrily before Adeline brought Asuka’s own breakfast to the table. When she begins to dig in, I see Misaki at the heighs of the stairs, fully outfitted in her knightly garb once again.

“Knight’s probably wondering where I am right about now.” She said, a little bit flustered. “I’ll see you later Ishi. Nice to meet you, Adeline.”

And like that she was gone. God damn…

But I certainly saw Misaki in a different way now. Before, even when we were together before it felt strange to me… like I was out of place or something… it was one of the reasons why I decided to call it off, but now… I don’t know, it felt different. It felt right.

Maybe we ought to get back together again…

“Hey.” Asuka said, waving a hand in front of me, snapping me out of it.

“Agh… what?” I ask.

“Thinking about Misaki?” She smiled.

“No, god damn!” I shout. “Cut it… well actually, yeah, but shut up!”

“Hey, I’m not judging.” She said, hands up in defense.

“You’re never going to let me hear the end of this, are you?” I ask her.

“Oh, hell no.” She smiles widely, poking me on the nose.

“Gah…” I look back out the window, as people began to come out and the sun began to shine brighter.

Soon enough, I’m done with my meal and I head out, deciding to go after Misaki and heading to Pendragon HQ.

---

Once I’m there, I head for the meeting hall, where I see Knight, Gawain, Misaki, Trinity, Avgravaine, Kana, and Diana. All eyes were on me as I walked in.

“Ah, Ishi.” Knight said.

“Hey.” I greeted, sitting down at the far end of the table.

“Alright, I’ll cut to the chase.” He said. “Misaki told me about some… recent events, and we think you should stay off of looking for Skeith for now.”

“Wait, what?” I ask. “Why?”

“You haven’t been yourself as of late.” He explained. “You’re… different. You may not have noticed but we have. Especially Misaki.”

“Well that doesn’t change the fact that we need to find Skeith!” I protest, standing up out of my chair.

“Yes, and we will, but right now it’s in your best interest to focus on something else for a change.” He said.

“Knight, I don’t have time for that!” I argue. “There’s-”

“This isn’t up for discussion, Lancelot.” He said in a stern tone. “I’m ordering you to belay your search for Skeith.”

I stay silent, and sit back down on my chair, crossing my arms and looking the other way, huffing in annoyance.

“Besides,” Knight continues. “I have something else I need you to do. I need you to meet up with Guren and convince him to team up with us again for the war.”

“What, there’s a war now?” I ask.

“With the way things are going it looks likely it will escalate to that.” Gawain told me. “The Guardians of Darkness are stepping up their game, and things are accelerating quickly.”

“That’s right.” Knight said.

“Well where is he, then?” I ask.

“Floor 51.” Knight answered. “The tavern at Arashi. You know where that town is, right?”

“Shouldn’t be too hard to find.”

“Good. Off you go, then.”

I nod, and get up off the chair and head out, to floor 51.

---

When I landed on floor 51 it took me no time to find the town of Arashi, and from there I got to the tavern and walked briskly in. Unlike Ravenwing, no eyes were on me as I walked in, and it didn’t take long for me to spot out the former Pendragon Court member, sitting at a round table at the corner of the room by himself. The guy waved me over.

“Ishi!” Guren said as I sat down across the table from him. “Long time no see! How’s it been?”

“Eh.” I say.

“Eh?” He repeats, giving me his usual confident grin. “C’mon, give me something interesting!”

“I didn’t come here to catch up, unfortunately.” I told him sternly. “Knight asked me to ask you to join us for the war upcoming.”

“Yeah, I heard.” Guren leaned back on his chair and kicked his feet up onto the table, crossing his arms and closing his eyes. “Things have been going pretty fast for you guys lately, huh?”

“Yeah.” I say. “So are you in?”

“Maybe.” He says, opening one eye and giving me a smirk. “But first I need to get something done. And I need your help.”

“Okay, what’s that, then?”

“There’s this one dungeon around here that’s been giving me quite a bit of trouble.” Guren states. “There’s something in there I need to get for Hephaestus to fortify my weapon with.”

“Hephaestus?” I ask. “You mean that one blacksmith?”

“Best in all of Aincrad.” He said.

“Maybe I could convince him to come along as well…” I suggest. “I mean, we could use someone who can smith like that.”

“I don’t know.” Guren said, sitting back down normally and crossing his arms on the table. “He doesn’t seem like the type who’d leave his place of residence ever. He lives and works in the Vulcan Range on the 14th floor.”

“Why there?” I inquire.

“Well the place is special in that there are these constant lava flows running down it, as well as a natural spring, right in the same place. Someone skilled enough can harness both the lava and the water, and for Hephaestus, he has a little cave right in the mountain that makes the perfect forge. No other place like it, which is why he’d probably be reluctant in leaving.”

“Not to safe being right on a volcano, is it?”

“Well it’s an inactive volcano. Won’t erupt like ever. Not like the Atlas Range on the 44th floor.”

“Yeah…” I remember back to that one giant fire dragon I had to kill at that place.

“So what do you say?” He asked. “You in?”

“Eh, might as well.” I say.

“Awesome!” He gets out of his chair. “Let’s get going, then!”

---

It didn’t take long for us to get to the entrance to the dungeon Guren was talking about. The place was in the middle of the forest outside Arashi, consisting of a hole in the ground and stairs leading down it. I only saw darkness down there.

“Lovely.” I say.

“C’mon.” Guren leaps right down the stairs and I follow shortly after. The darkness didn’t prevail for long, yielding to the lights of bright white lines of light along the walls. We were in a long hallway that once traversed led to a large circular room, five doors, forming a perfect pentagon around the room, including the one we just came in from. The room was lit up by the same strange glowing lines of light circling the room, giving off a white glow that more than lit up the room in its entirety, but didn’t blind us. The center of the room was occupied by a box like structure, on either edge stood a torch about a foot away, a colored fire for each. Red, blue, green, and violet.

I realized the center structure was in fact an elevator, but when I took a step towards it, the torches suddenly went out, accompanied by a strange ghost like figure of the same color over each. They all held similar appearances; spectral bodies and armor plating, as well as large swords to finish off the looks. They each split up and headed through the door adjacent to the torches. After that, the elevator went down, and the box disappeared underground. A cover slid in place to conceal the hole it went down.

“Great.” I say. “So looks like we have to hunt down those things to get down there.”

“Yeah, I figured that much.” Guren told me. “Unfortunately I hadn’t been able to hunt down a single one of them.”

“Well let’s get going after them, then.” I say. “C’mon.”

Guren nods and follows me to a door on the right. I open it and discovered another long hallway, this time lit up by red light, the same color as the ghost that went down it and the same color of the torch the ghost came from. Once I walk down that hallway, I enter another door and I’m placed in a room so large it shouldn’t be able to even fit underground. Three levels and four doors for each. In the center of the room I see a coffin, laid down on its own pedestal. It was made of stone, and had red lights engraved into it. The lid bore a carving of the ghost that we saw.

“Well geez.” Guren says. “What do we have to do here?”

I walk up to the coffin and run a hand over it.

“The ghost.” I say. “This coffin has a carving of it on it.”

Guren steps over and looks at it.

“Yeah… so the ghost is in there?” Guren guessed.

“That, or its body.” I attempt to pry it open, resorting to Gilgamesh to work the claws under the lid, but it was sealed shut, and no amount of force would get it open. “Dammit…”

“Won’t open?”

“No… looks like there’s a lock on it here.” I point at the lock on the side. “We’ll have to find the key.”

“We have to find a key for all four?” Guren asks? “That’s gonna take forever! Look how many rooms there are!”

“Quit your whining.” I say. “You want what’s at the end of all this or not?”

“Well yeah, but I’d prefer to not have to do so much work to get it.”

“Nothing worth doing is ever easy.” I tell him. “C’mon, let’s get started.”

Chapter 16

Guren and I decided to split up to make things go quicker. I took the door to our left, while he took the one to the right. We were to each take half of the room, although with the 11 doors we would both take the 11th on together. I step through my assigned door to have it lock behind me, and I find another circular room. I see a single figure in the room, nothing more. It looked like a Death Knight, but its armor was a bit lighter and was layered with multiple panels. It wielded a single blade instead of a sword and shield.

At my presence, its eyes suddenly glowed red beneath its full helmet, and it moved like a statue awoken from slumber to face me, taking a battle stance.

“Just kill you, then?” I ask, drawing my weapons. “Should be easy enough.”

The thing moved quicker than I expected it to, bearing down on me with power, forcing me to brace Gilgamesh up to block the overhead strike. I throw his blade aside and make my own strike, which glances off his armor, allowing him to get another strike in, which I dodge with a well timed duck before Shifting back and gaining distance. Its armor was tough, so I’d have to find a way to get it off.

The knight came at me again, making a few quick swipes that were slower than me, before I punch into him hard with Gilgamesh during a momentary lapse in its attack. It was pushed back, but unfazed, as it kept up its attack. Through dodging and blocking its attacks, I thought of a way to get through its tough armor. I couldn’t directly punch through it… there had to be some way to get past the defense. I then noticed its neck wasn’t protected.

Bingo.

I choose my target, and throw a solid punch into the knight’s chest, distancing him a bit before I rush up and spin, lunging forward and impaling its neck, taking out more than half its HP, before I withdraw and spin, making a perfect horizontal strike through its neck that finished off the rest, shattering the monster.

“Easy.” I say, as the door I came in from unlocked.

I figured we’d have to clear all these rooms before we could get the key. I knew enough to know that they weren’t all going to be as easy as this one.

I step out of the room and I see Guren stepping out of his as well.

“Oh, hey.” He said. “You fought some spider monster too?”

“No, I fought a knight guy.” I say.

“Well looks like we’ll have to kill everything in all these rooms then.”

“Looks like.”

“You take the next level, I’ll take the last one here.”

I nod and run to the stairs, climbing the curved steps and landing on the next level, entering the door nearest me.

---

So the next 10 or so doors were more of the same monster killing with some variations here and there, but once Guren and I had defeated the big skeleton dude in the final room of the place and we descended back to the ground floor, we discovered that a small pedestal had appeared in front of the coffin. Set upon it was a golden key with a red gem on the head. I pick it up and inspect it lightly.

“I guess this is the key, then.” I say, walking to the coffin.

“Hope so.” Guren said, rolling his shoulder. “Some of those fights were a bit difficult…”

I place the key in the lock and turn it, the tumblers inside making sharp clattering that didn’t sound right for such a small lock, before suddenly the lid flew off and a creature that looked like the red ghost jumped out, forcing Guren and I to jump back as it slammed into the ground. The thing was clad in heavy chrome armor and wielded a giant axe. The flesh in between the armor plating looked more like the ghost we saw earlier, giving off a red aura that made the thing look more like a red spectral being possessing a physical suit of armor. Underneath the thing’s helmet was black, save for the demonic red and glowing eyes that peered out of it.

“Alright, first one.” Guren says, taking his spear in hand and twirling it a bit before taking a battle stance. I draw my weapons and take my own position as our opponent quickly jumped into action, swinging its axe in a wide horizontal arc that forces both of us to jump over. I flank around its right, while Guren goes for the left. The thing makes another wide spinning arc that we both evade as we get on either side of it. I lunge inwards and slice into it twice, but the things armor was too tough for me to make a dent with my blade. I instead tried Gilgamesh, punching hard into the metal. Absolutely nothing. I decide to back off before the thing makes a move on me, signaling Guren to give it a go. With his longer range weapon he takes a stab at the beast, dodging a few swings before making wide arc strikes, making multiple successive jabs before finishing off with a quick and powerful horizontal slash, before he’s forced to back up as well. None of our attacks did anything. It was also worth noting that the space in between the armor wasn’t physical either. Our weapons would just pass right through.

“Ishi!” Guren shouted. “How do we kill this thing?”

I run around, evading a few hard swings of the thing’s weapon.

“Working on it!” I say, narrowly avoiding its axe again.

“What about its head?” Guren suggested, evading his own share of attacks from the monster. “It doesn’t look like it’s made of that ghost stuff!”

“Ghost stuff.” I repeat. “Yeah, that’s some serious ghost stuff.”

“Well how would you put it, then?!”

“Who cares? Just go for the head, dammit!”

Guren moves in, jumping up as I distracted our target and slicing at its helmet. His spear glanced off the helmet armor, but the thing staggered back slightly. The head was definitely physical. That was our target.

“The head’s the weakpoint!” Guren told me. “We need to find a way to get that helmet off!”

“Got it!” I say, Shifting inwards and jumping up, trying to grab at the helmet with Gilgamesh. It catches wise, however, and moves away from me, forcing me to kick off its shoulder plate and away from it. It catches me in the air with a free hand and threw me into the far wall. I land on the wall feet first, making a small crater in the stone before kicking off it, intercepting a hard swing aimed at Guren and slamming Gilgamesh out, clashing with the axe, throwing us both back. I recover first, using the opportunity to rush up and plant myself on its shoulders, grabbing its helmet and tearing it off. The head underneath was of pure black flesh, with the same hellish glowing red eyes, and no other features to be seen. The thing tried to grab at me again, but I jump off and land behind it.

The thing wheels around to try to get at me again, but is stopped by Guren when he throws his spear right into the back of the things head, knocking it right off the body and sending it sailing toward me. I let the spear pass but catch the end of it, before kicking the head off the spear and rushing up, slicing it clean in two, causing it to burst into red flame which circles in the air a couple times before sailing through the door we came in from.

I toss Guren his weapon back, and he catches it, sheathing it to his back.

“And that’s that.” I say.

We both head out the door and back into the main room, where we see the torch directly in front of us was now lit with a red flame, casting an ambient crimson light to this part of the room.

“So we have to do all that for three more rooms, then?” Guren asks.

“Yeah…” I say. “Let’s get going.”

---

4 Hours Later

By the time we finally finished the last room, four hours had passed, but finally when we headed out into the main room all the torches were lit and the elevator emerged from the ground, waiting for us to step on.

“About damn time.” Guren said.

I follow him onto the elevator, and once we were on board it began to slowly descend back into the ground. We hit the floor a few seconds later. We were placed in a lower level that was just under the main room. The place was barely lit, but it was still enough to see with. We spotted a dark hallway and made our way through, coming up to a large black door with red inscriptions adorned on it, written in some unintelligible language.

“Suppose what you’re looking for is in there?” I ask.

“I hope so.” Guren says, pushing open the door with surprising ease.

We’re placed in a large and dark circular room, in the middle of which stood a large black object. I shortly after made out that it was in fact a giant sword shaped like a butcher knife, pitch black with red runic designs along either side of the thing. It blade was planted in the ground.

“That’s it!” Guren said, trotting up to the sword.

“What, the sword?” I ask.

“No, the stuff the sword is made of.” He clarified. “Hellkarium!”

“Hellkarium?”

“Strongest and most durable material in the game. Applied right and it can make an indestructible weapon.” Guren explained. “The metal is so rare, and here’s a giant sword made entirely of the stuff!”

“Yeah, that’s a really big sword.” I say. “I’d hate to see what can use that.”

“Well we can’t just take the sword with us I guess… I was kind of hoping that there’d be a more manageable piece to take along…” Guren turns to me. “Any ideas?”

“No.”

“Agh…”

I close my eyes and put my hand to my face, thinking of what we could do.

“Well we can’t just break a piece off…” Guren said. “The stuff is so tough nothing can even scratch it.”

I take my hand off my face and open my eyes to look back at Guren, who was thinking to himself. I notice the sword that was firmly planted in the ground had floated up, slowly rising up above. I look at it as it flies up.

“Huh.” I say nonchalantly. “Check that out.”

Guren looks back and sees the blade floating in the air.

“Well, then.” He says in wonderment.

Then our disposition towards the situation changed drastically when the blade abruptly turned to face us.

“Oh, shit!” I say as we both move in either direction to avoid the blade swinging down and slamming hard into the ground.

I draw my weapons, as does Guren, and we keep our eyes on the blade as it lifted itself back up and made a swing at me. I Shift out of the way as the blade cut the air and sailed back up, stopping there.

“The sword is trying to kill us!” Guren shouted.

“No, something’s wielding it!” I say.

“Really? I don’t see anything!”

“The way it swings. That kind of arc. There’s definitely an arm behind it!”

The thing makes another swing, this time at Guren, who manages to duck under it and jump back to distance himself.

“Well how are we going to fight what we can’t see?!” Guren asked as the thing made a swipe at me, missing and slamming into the wall, carving a deep gash in the stone.

“I’ll get back to you on that!” I say, running around circling the blade. I could see how the blade moved; it was definitely being wielded by something. The problem was that something was invisible. Guren and I danced around it for a few minutes, dodging its attacks and making it slam into the ground and wall a few more times, before I notice something. In the darkness it was barely visible, but suspended in the air was a small black object, no bigger than a quarter, hanging high above us.

“Guren!” I shout. “Give me your weapon!”

He tosses me his spear and I catch it with my free hand, spinning with momentum and casting it out, throwing it hard toward the object, nailing it dead on even through the darkness. The sword stopped swinging, and in a flash the owner of the blade was revealed. A ghostly blue figure in a dark cloak, skeleton like hands holding the dark blade. The thing seemed stunned a bit by being revealed so suddenly, but quickly picked the spear from itself and cast it aside, leaving Guren to run up and snatch it.

Now fully exposed, it was our turn.

“Guren!” I say. “Let’s do this.”

“Right behind, you!” Guren says, flanking around it as I did the same.

I let loose on the creature, jumping around and using my superior speed to my advantage, not giving the beast an opportunity to get at me. I Shift around the place, slicing into the monster and chipping away at its HP. Guren did the same, staying lower than I and hacking away with his bladed spear. Eventually, I manage to get a hold of its arm, and I clung on, before swing on it and flipping up, spinning around and delivering a clean vertical slice downwards, severing its arm, making it drop its blade and sending it clattering loudly onto the ground. Guren then went inwards and sliced its leg off, making it fall to the ground. I jump off and land on my feet as the beast fell onto its back. Guren quickly jumped up to it and drove his spear into the monsters head, finishing off the rest of its HP.

“Hey!” Guren said, checking the battle results. “Hellkarium shard!”

“Shard?” I ask.

“Yeah! I just got a good piece of Hellkarium I can take out of here!”

“Oh, good.” I say. “So all this wasn’t for nothing, then.”

“Now I need only to take this to Hephaestus and my Arbalest should have a nice upgrade.” Guren smiled, looking at his weapon.

“Alright, well after that let’s get going to Luciad.” I say.

“Yeah, sure.”

---

“Guren.” Hephaestus greeted as we stepped into his lair in the Vulcan Range on the 14th floor. “I see you brought a friend.”

“Yeah, he helped me get what I needed.” Guren said, holding up the Hellkarium shard and handing it to the blacksmith.

Hephaestus was dressed in a gray workman’s outfit, padded leather and heavy gloves and boots. He definitely looked like a blacksmith, that was for sure. He had a shadow of a beard and mustache and had shaggy black hair and calm yellow eyes that sparked with the fires he worked with.

“Ah, yes.” He said, inspecting it thoroughly. “This should do nicely… give me your weapon.”

Guren does so, and the blacksmith immediately got to work.

“How long is this going to take?” I ask. “We got places we need to be.”

“So impatient…” Hephaestus says, heating up the Hellkarium and Guren’s weapon. “These things take time. You cannot rush it.”

Three fucking hours.

“There we are.” Hephaestus said, cooling the metal of the spear, pulling it out of the water to reveal a brand new black finish on the blade. “This should do nicely.”

Guren stepped up and tested the weapon out.

“Wow…” He said. “It feels… more balanced…”

“Would you like your blade to be refined, as well?” Hephaestus turned to me.

“Oh, no.” I say. “I don’t have another three hours to spare. Also my sword’s indestructible anyway.”

“Indestructible?” He questioned. “May I see it?”

I roll my eyes, but take out my blade anyway, handing it to him and letting him inspect it all over.

“Ah…” He said. “Arondight. A truly beautiful blade. Strong, yet flexible and swift. Created to be that way by you yourself.”

“How do you know all that?” I ask.

“Weapons are living things, Ishi.” He said, suddenly knowing my name as well. “They think, they feel. They speak to those who are willing to listen. Your blade is very unique, Blade Master… I don’t think you know exactly what you wield.”

“It’s a sword.” I say plainly.

“Your sword has a story to tell.” The blacksmith told me. “It has a desire of its very own… and it is in conflict with your own.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“You cannot hear your blade… you don’t deserve the title you hold.”

“And just who the hell do you think you are?” I begin to get a bit annoyed.

“Ah, I think the more important question is who you are.” Hephaestus said, handing my blade back to me. “Or rather, who you will become…”

I snatch my blade from his hands and sheath it, wanting nothing more to do with the old mountain hermit.

“Come on, Guren.” I say, turning my back and walking away.

Guren follows me as we teleport to Luciad.

---

We both walk into the doors of Pendragon HQ and see Knight and Gawain once again discussing things and waiting for our arrival.

“Ah, Guren.” Knight says upon seeing us walk in. “Welcome back, glad you could make it.”

“Yeah.” Guren nods.

“You sure took your time, Ishi.” Knight noted. “What happened?”

“Eh, nothing worth mentioning.” I say. “Anything else I need to do?”

“Well it’s getting late, but we’d like you to go and pick up Bedivere as well.” Gawain stated. “She should be a bit more simple to pick up, considering she’s always at her clinic in Camlann.”

“Isn’t that on the 49th floor?” I ask.

“Yes.” Knight said. “She’ll be easy to find, but knowing her it might be a bit more difficult to convince her to leave her clinic…”

“I’ll get it done, don’t worry.” I say. “I’ll be right back.”

---

So I arrived at Bedivere’s clinic after just 4 minutes, considering literally everyone here knows her and where her clinic is. I step in and the bells above the door chime cheerily. I see Bedivere at the front desk.

“Ah…” She says, peering at me and trying to remember who I was. “Ishi!” She says in delight after she remembered, brushing her light blue hair out of her deep blue eyes.

“Hey.” I say. “Long time no see.”

She nodded happily with a little blush on her cheeks, like she always had.

“What brings you here?” She asks.

“Well, Knight wanted me to collect you.” I say. “He wants you to rejoin Pendragon Court for the inevitable war against the Guardians of Darkness.”

“Oh…” She looked down and twiddled her thumbs nervously. “Oh, I… I don’t think I can… I have these patients, you see… I need to run this clinic. Besides, Ishi, you know me. I’m not much of a fighter…”

Bedivere was the quiet and shy type, but cared for everyone in equal measure, which is why she decided to open up a clinic to complement her great medicinal abilities. I could see why Knight would want her for the war. Her talents would be able to keep people alive.

“Bedivere, we’ll need you with us.” I say. “You wouldn’t even have to fight. You could stay on the backlines and help wounded.”

“But… I still… I can’t…” She shied away a bit. “I don’t want to be involved with any fighting…”

“What’s going on?” I hear a voice ask.

I turn and see a girl peek her head from another room.

In fact, it was someone I recognized. She recognized me.

“Ishi.” She said.

“Vimana.” I say. “What’re you doing here?”

“Oh, you know… just working here.” She said.

Vimana was an Alpha Tester, like me, and by the looks of it was under Bedivere’s guidance in medicinal practices, helping out around the clinic.

“What’s going on with you?” Vimana asks, closing the door behind her.

“Well there’s this big battle coming up and I was hoping Bedivere could come with me for it.” I explain.

“Oh, right, she was with Pendragon Court for a time, wasn’t she?” Vimana asked. “Right, Bedivere?”

“Oh, yes.” She said. “But that was a long time ago… I don’t think I’d be able to rejoin.”

“Well it’d only be temporary.” I say.

“Even so…”

“I say go for it.” Vimana says, surprising Bedivere. “Hell, I’ll even come along with you two.”

“Wh-what?” Bedivere squeaked. “But we need to run the clinic!”

“Bedivere, nobody around here needs any more treatment.” Vimana said. “Hell you fixed everyone up so well already. There’s no harm in closing shop for the time being. I’m sure everyone will understand.”

“I… I really don’t know…” Bedivere said.

She looked at me, sensing that I wasn’t going to go back empty handed. She sighed and surrendered.

“Alright…” She said. “But only because you might get hurt!”

I nod. “Of course.”

“Alright!” Vimana cheered. “I’ll come along for the ride, too! It’s been getting boring around here.”

“Boring?” Bedivere turned to her.

Vimana simply shrugged.

“Alright, well we better get going, then.” I say.

After Bedivere took the time to close shop and say her goodbyes to some people before I snatched her away before she had to say goodbye to everyone in the damn city, we all headed to Luciad to report back to Knight.

All in all, this trip took about an hour. Better than the 10 hours it took for Guren.

“Bedivere.” Knight said, breaking a discussion with Guren he was having.

“Hello, Knight…” She returned. She seemed nervous, but that was normal for her, really.

“Who’s this?” Knight asked, looking at Vimana.

“Vimana.” I say. “She’s an Alpha Tester. She was working at Bedivere’s clinic and wanted to tag along.”

“Ah.” He said. “Well, nice to meet you, Vimana.”

She bowed to him.

“Nice to meet you as well.” She said.

“Well, that’s about all we have for you, Ishi.” Knight told me. “Unless you want to hang around and discuss plans with us.”

That’s the joke, you see. I would rather hack my arm off with a crowbar than discuss plans.

“No, thanks.” I said. “Is Misaki around here?”

“Yes, she’s training with Kana, Diana, and Asuka.” He said, nodding toward the courtyard door.

“Okay, thanks.” I leave and head to the courtyard, seeing Asuka and Misaki battling each other as Kana and Diana watched on the benches. I sit by Kana and startle her a bit.

“Ah, Ishi.” She said. “You scared me.”

“Who’s winning?” I ask.

“They’re pretty even right now.” Diana told me. “My money’s on Misaki.”

“I’m for Asuka.” Kana said.

I looked at their duel. Asuka was definitely holding her own, even against the superior experience and skill of the veteran knight she was facing. I guess that’s a testament to how well I trained her, but I’m not one to brag about anything.

The two went at each other with pleasure, both loving the heat of the fight. Their moves were swift and hard, with Misaki being a bit faster than Asuka, but Asuka making up for it by having a little bit more power behind hers. The two cancelled each other out and it made for a pretty nice spectacle.

I watched the two go at it some more before the two locked blades and stared each other down, a smile plastered on both their faces, clearly enjoying the even duel. But Misaki suddenly decided enough was enough and let Asuka have it, spinning and letting Asuka pass before slicing her in the back, putting her out of their duel.

Kana sighed and handed her sister a small bag of Col, which Diana smugly snatched from her in an ‘I told you so’ manner.

“Agh!” Asuka yelped, ready to counterattack before realizing the duel had ended. “Dammit…”

“Well, Asuka.” Misaki said, inspecting her blade. “You definitely know how to hold your own. Looks like Ishi trained you well.”

“Like hell.” Asuka retorted. “I was just this good to begin with.”

“Hah. Sure, sure.” Misaki laughed. “Ah, Ishi.”

“Oh, hi!” Asuka waved to me.

“Hey.” I wave back.

“Actually, I’m glad you’re back, Ishi.” Misaki said, sheathing her sword to her side. “I was hoping to talk to you. Do you mind?”

“Uh, no. I guess not.” I say. “What about?”

“Come on.” She said, taking my arm and dragging me off, leaving the two sisters and Asuka to themselves to chat it up.

Misaki led me to a private place so we could talk alone.

“Are you feeling alright?” Misaki asked.

“Yeah, why?” I ask.

“You’re not still stressing out over everything, are you?”

“I think I got all that out for now.” I tell her. “Don’t worry. Honestly, I’m fine, really.”

“Well, alright…” She said. “I just want to make sure, you know?”

“Yeah… I know. Thank you.”

“Hey, you know I’m always looking out for you.” She smiled. “Who else it going to keep you from getting into trouble?”

“Oh, come on.” I say. “I’m not that bad…”

“Yes you are!” She laughed, swiping my nose lightly with her finger. “I know you!”

“Well it’s not my fault!” I protest. “It’s my crap luck!”

Misaki cups my cheeks in her hands and looks deep into my eyes, silencing me as I look into hers. She gets closer to me, and right before our lips touch, she backs off with a teasing smile, and leaves me hanging.

I shake my head and sigh with a smile.

“Ah, geez…”

Chapter 17

5 Days Later

Misaki and I had decided to take an early morning walk together on the Sakura Trail. It was a beautiful morning, the sun just beginning to show up, and the cool temperature of the air mixed with the warmth of the sunlight on us made for a calming sensation. The pink and white pedals of the trees around us floated softly downwards like they always did, silently riding the soft breeze.

“Are you still worried about Skeith?” Misaki asks, looking up at me.

“Well of course.” I say. “It’s kind of a big deal. I’d really rather be back to getting at it, to be honest.”

“Well Knight still thinks you should stay off that for now.” Misaki added.

“Yeah, well I don’t really like that.” I tell her. “The Guardians of Darkness aren’t taking a break. Neither is Yamato. I shouldn’t be waiting up on this.”

“It’s for your own good, Ishi.” Misaki placed her hand on my shoulder. “Once you’re all cooled off you can get back to it.”

“It’s been too long, still.” I protest. “A week. You’d think that’d be enough waiting.”

“Well I don’t have a say in it, that’s Knight’s call.” Misaki shrugged, looking up at the sakura trees overhead, taking a deep breath of the sweet air. “It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?”

I look up at the leaves falling down with her as we walked together, taking a long breath of the same air.

“Yeah.” I say.

We continue walking, but we’re suddenly interrupted when I catch a black figure sweeping in towards Misaki, the shimmer in my peripheral vision signaled a blade was drawn. I react just in time, bringing out my blade and swiping in front of Misaki, my sword sparking off the other blade and sending me back into Misaki, who catches me and swings me around for me to land on my feet while she brings out her own sword, Eternia. We both face our aggressor. He was wearing a black hooded cloak with white hem and trim. He had white hair and piercing silver eyes. In his right hand he held a black bladed scythe, back handed.

He didn’t say a word as he went for Misaki again, I block the first few blows but he sweeps his scythe around my waist and pulls me back behind him, getting me out of his way but leaving me unharmed as he struck at Misaki. Misaki skillfully parried the attack and delivered a few graceful slashes of her own, metal clashing off metal, before he reared his scythe back for another go. I grab the handle of his scythe from behind with Gilgamesh as he attempted to swing down, stopping him and allowing me to place a solid kick right in his side, distancing him from us. I Shift up to him and attack, slicing at him quickly before he comes down with an overhead swing, which I brace my blade up to defend against.

“You…” He says quietly. “You are not my target.”

“Target?” I ask, before he jumps up and flies right over me, spinning his scythe to gain momentum and performing a wide arc towards her, forcing her to back up.

Misaki is forced on the defensive, evading and blocking her opponent’s attacks, before jumping up over a horizontal swing and reaching her hand out in the air, which was my cue to Shift up to her and spin around, using the momentum to propel myself downward at speed, slashing down on him fast and hard, forcing him down to his knees with the force of the blow. Misaki takes the opportunity to slice into his back while I kept his blade at bay, making him drop his guard slightly and allowing me to duck under the handle of his scythe and deliver a powerful uppercut with Gilgamesh that sent him into the air, letting Misaki jump up to meet him and give him a few quick strikes before kicking him into the dirt, landing on a dime.

Our opponent recovers in short order, a sudden ghostly white aura surrounding his blade. He spins the scythe quickly, making a disc of light before charging at blinding speed, too fast for Misaki to react to. I was faster, but barely, Shifting in front of her and bracing my blade up. I could see in slow motion as his scythe grinded along my sword, making sparks and just barely slipped past Misaki before he sailed past us and sliding to a stop behind us.

“Dammit…” He cursed under his breath, his scythe no longer braced up for combat.

“Why are you after me?” Misaki asked.

“You’re a player killer.” He said. “My duty is to eliminate all player killers.”

True, I already knew Misaki was a player killer. Everyone in the guild save for Avro, Agravaine, Kana, Diana and myself has killed a player at least once. It wasn’t something they were proud of, but sometimes an enemy just won’t back down… I was dealt a hand like that before, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Misaki did it for me.

“Even if it was for self defense?” Misaki asked.

“Self defense or not, you’ve still murdered people.” He said, readying himself for battle again.

“And you haven’t?” I ask. “I can tell you’ve blood on your hands as well.”

“I don’t have to explain myself to you.” He says coldly, running at Misaki again. I stand in the way and he unexpectedly stops.

“Stand aside.” He said. “My fight is not with you.”

“You want her, you go through me.” I say, pointing my sword at him.

We stare each other down, completely silent as the wind rolled by, carrying more pink and white flower pedals across us.

“I see.” He says after a few minutes, standing down and sheathing his scythe to his back. “The only way for me to rid the world of her is to kill you… you don’t deserve to die. I can’t kill you.”

“And just who are you, anyway?” I ask.

“Grimm.” He responds. “The Reaper.”

“Grimm the Reaper…” I repeat the name. “I know you.”

“No surprise.” Grimm says. “I’ve worked up a bit of a reputation. As have you, Blade Master.”

“I’ve noticed.” I sheath my weapons as Misaki does the same behind me, stepping up to my side.

“You say you want to kill me because I’m a player killer.” Misaki says. “How does that make sense?”

“My motives are none of your concern.” Grimm says. “You’ve just come up on the list is all. It’s nothing personal.”

“Do you want to kill Yamato as well?” I ask.

Grimm stays silent there, not answering for a good half a minute.

“I’ve tried.” He says. “More than once. He puts me down every time, but never finishes the job… I don’t understand why.” He looks up to me. “Of course, he’s done the same with you, hasn’t he?”

I take on a more serious look as I recognize the similarity of our situations. Yamato wasn’t killing Grimm either, even though he easily could… could he see something in Grimm as well? What is he planning?

“Anyway, I think I should take my leave now.” Grimm says, turning to leave us.

“Hey!” I say. “You think you can just walk away?”

“You won’t kill me.” He turns back. “And neither will she.”

He keeps walking, and I hated the fact that he was right. I didn’t want to just let him go, but I didn’t want to kill anyone either.

“Well that’s not good.” Misaki said. “Someone’s after my ass now. I’ve been hanging around you too long.”

“Oh, come on.” I say as she giggles.

“So what do you suppose that was all about?” She asks, looking in the direction Grimm left.

“Beats the hell out of me.” I say. “But you should probably be careful. He was pretty skilled.”

“I can handle myself, Ishi.” Misaki tells me sternly.

“I know that.” I tell her. “But still.”

“I understand.” She says with a smile. “Thank you for your concern.”

“We should probably report to Knight about this.” I suggest. “Grimm being involved with Yamato. Might be a lead on Skeith.”

“No!” She slaps me in the face lightly. “Bad Ishi! Bad!”

“Come on, Misaki.” I complain. “This is the first possible lead we’ve had in a week. Either way it’s important Knight knows.”

“Well, yeah… I guess so.” Misaki agrees reluctantly. “Guess we should see him then…”

I nod and we both head out, teleporting to Luciad.

---

“Grimm, huh?” Knight says, after we explained the encounter. “Yes… The Reaper, Death, Executioner… those names all revolve around him. He may be just as much trouble as Yamato…”

“Maybe.” I say.

“Do you think he may be after Skeith as well?” Gawain questioned.

“It doesn’t seem likely.” I told him. “Seemed like he’s only interested in killing player killers, ironic as it is. Misaki seems to be his target right now.”

“That’s troubling…” Knight said. “If Misaki is being targeted we’ll need her to have extra protection.”

“I can handle myself in a fight, Knight.” Misaki protested.

“I know, but Grimm is different.” Knight said. “He has the ability to kill in one hit, no matter what. Doesn’t matter where it hits or how deep it cuts, one strike from that scythe with that ability and it’s over.”

“How is that possible?” I ask.

“I don’t know… but that’s what’s being said, and it’s being said a lot, so there must be truth to it.”

“Well that’s… bad.” I say.

“Ishi.” Knight addresses me. “You should stay with Misaki.”

“Wasn’t planning on leaving.” I state firmly.

He nods.

“Misaki, stay with Ishi. I know you can handle yourself but it wouldn’t hurt to have some backup for the time being.”

“Alright, then… if you insist.” She said in a tone that didn’t sound as reluctant as she wanted it to.

“In the meantime, Ishi. I can tell you’re getting a bit antsy with not being able to go after Skeith.”

“Oh, you noticed?” I ask sarcastically.

“We may have someone with information on Skeith.” Knight told me. “If you think you’re ready to go at it again.”

“About time.” I say, jumping at the opportunity. “Who is it?”

“His name is Hao. He’s contacted us and told us that he has information on Skeith, as well as the Guardians of Darkness. No idea how, he wouldn’t tell us who he was exactly, but if you think it’s worth looking into then by all means.”

“We’ll get on it.” I say. “Where is he?”

“He said he can usually be found around the 29th floor, in Fort Maria. I’d look around the tavern there, that might be where he is.”

“Alright.” I say, turning to Misaki. “Ready to go?”

“As long as you don’t do anything stupid.” She says.

“No promises.” I smile, before we move out to Fort Maria.

---

When we got to the town of Fort Maria, Misaki and I headed to the tavern there, and once inside, looked around the place for anyone who may be our guy. Unfortunately we had no real way of identifying the guy since we didn’t know what he looked like. He made himself easy for us to spot, however, by sitting at a table in the far corner of the place and waving at us. We walk over and sit at his table. The guy had black hair and yellow eyes, like I did. He wore a long black overcoat with gold details and matching pants and boots, as well as a red undershirt and red fingerless gloves.

“Glad you could make it.” He said. “Care for a drink?”

“No thanks.” I say. “Hao, I take it?”

“That’s right.” Hao said. “And you must be Ishi and Misaki. Pleasure to meet you two.”

“So you have information on Skeith?” I cut straight to the chase.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.” Hao said, taking a sip of the drink he had. “You already know a few things about Skeith, I’m willing to bet. How it’s a glitch in the coding of the game that breaks the rules for whoever wields it.”

“Yeah, we got that much.” I said.

“Well you may not know who this Majora character is.” He told me.

“No, we do not.” I say. “His name is mentioned with Skeith a lot, though.”

“As it should. He was the first to use Skeith.”

“What?” Misaki asked. “The first?”

“That’s right.” Hao informed. “He was a beta tester for SAO and he let Skeith into the game. That’s how the glitch was overlooked, and how he was able to obtain it so easily.”

“So what happened to him?” I ask.

“Over just a few months he went insane. Tried to completely destroy Aincrad and everyone in it. The power of Skeith eventually overtook him and corrupted him beyond all hope, and he became nigh invincible. He became God of this world. In the end he was stopped and killed, and Skeith was released back into Aincrad.”

“Who was he killed by?” I asked. “Who could kill someone with that kind of power?”

“Yamato.” Hao said with a straight face.

I thought this over. Yamato killed Majora… so that meant that Majora was the friend he mentioned before, the one he said Skeith had killed… I understood now.

“Yes, Majora was killed by Yamato, and after that, Yamato released Skeith back into Aincrad.”

“Wait a minute…” I say, interrupting him. “If Yamato had Skeith then why would he bother releasing it just to go after it again?”

“That, I don’t know.” Hao said.

“Well how do you know what you do know?” Misaki questioned a little suspiciously.

“I have my ways.” He said. “How Majora contained Skeith, I don’t know either, nor how he found it. I suspect that the methods through which these are achieved vary from person to person.”

“Well then there’s no point in trying to find that out from anyone else then…” I say.

“Unfortunately, yes. The way to Skeith must be learned for oneself.”

“So are you after Skeith, then?” I ask.

“Oh, no.” Hao assured me. “I’m not really interested in that. It’s not my problem. I just have information that I thought could be useful to the right people.”

“So why us?”

“You’re the good guys, right?”

“I guess…”

“Well there you go.” Hao stood up from his chair, chugging down the last of his drink and setting it down on the table. “I’ll call you if I have anything else that might be of use.”

With that, he left the tavern, leaving Misaki and I together.

“I don’t like him.” Misaki told me once he had left.

“Me neither.” I concur. “It’s suspicious how much he knew…”

“You believe what he says?” She asks.

“It makes sense.” I tell her. “With everything we know so far. Besides, we have nothing else to go on right now.”

“I guess you’re right…”

“Come on, let’s get back to Knight.” I say, standing up and heading out with her back to Luciad.

---

Once we got to Pendragon HQ, we explained to Knight what Hao had told us. Iskandar was also there to hear what we had to say, as he was conversing with Knight when we walked in.

“Interesting…” Knight said after we had finished the story.

“Indeed.” Iskandar said. “Seems like all this goes much deeper than we thought.”

“Ishi, you should keep on this.” Knight said. “Follow whatever leads you can. We’re getting close to cracking this, I know it.”

“Right.” I nod, turning to Misaki. “Will you help me out?”

“Well it looks like I don’t have much of a choice.” She says with a shrug. “I need to make sure you don’t die or anything.”

“You’re the one who’s being targeted.” I point out.

“Not my fault.” She retorts.

“Well we’ll just have to watch both our backs, then.” I say.

She smiles at me.

“Alright, then.”

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