It was four thirty PM the following day, Sunday, June 22nd.
Asuna was on the top floor—the boss chamber—of the eighth-floor labyrinth tower in New Aincrad, the giant floating castle that hovered over Alfheim.
There was only one thing to be done in a place like this: fight against the boss monster.
“Kyurrrrrr!” A high-pitched warning chirped from Pina, a tiny dragon covered with light-blue down. Its master, the cait sith Silica, shouted, “Asuna! We’ve got more minion summons!”
“Got it! Everyone, group up!” Asuna called out, holding her staff aloft. Then she began to chant spell words.
“Ek kalla hreinn brunnr, andask brandr og eitrid!” (Come forth, sacred spring, and stop the breath of flame and poison.)
With the end of the last syllable, she stamped the bottom of the staff against the black marble floor. Ripples of faint blue light extended from the spot, and a great volume of water sprang up behind them until it formed a surface nearly thirty feet across.
“Appreciate it, Asuna!”
“Thank you very much!”
Lisbeth the mace-wielding leprechaun charged onto the water, followed by Silica with Pina resting on her head. Elsewhere, the ax-warrior gnome Agil and the katana-bearing salamander Klein followed—other friends from the SAO days. A moment later, Kirito the spriggan, clad in black, and his real-life sister, Leafa the magic fighter sylph, returned from the front line.
This seven-man team was the upper limit for a single party, but they weren’t the only ones fighting in the boss chamber. They were in a raid with four other parties, which put the total number of players in the circular chamber at thirty-five. The only reason it didn’t feel cramped was because the chamber itself was much larger than it had been back in Aincrad.
Kirito jumped onto the water’s surface, which had a healing effect and increased resistance to poison and fire, and heaved a sigh of relief. On his shoulder, Yui the tiny pixie waved at Asuna.
“Mama, you’re really getting good at those spell incantations!”
“Ah-ha-ha…Thanks, Yui!” she replied, just before a number of pillars of fire erupted through the water. They quickly formed spinning maelstroms, and humanoid figures that turned into little fire elementals, each about three feet tall, emerged from the middle.
Individually, they weren’t so tough, but in great numbers, it was a different story. Over thirty fire elementals had just appeared in the spacious chamber. On top of that, they were just adds—additional minions that fought alongside the primary threat: the boss monster of the eighth floor.
The boss’s name was Wadjet the Flaming Serpent.
From the research they’d done after the first attempt at the fight, they’d learned that Wadjet was the name of a fire-snake god in Egyptian mythology. It looked the part, too; the creature resembled a four-armed goddess and had a massive cobra for a head. Its black body was wreathed in flames, causing a fire-based damage-over-time (DOT) effect if you were within range.
At the moment, two other parties were dealing with the boss itself. It was imperative that the rest took care of the helpers while those fourteen players still had enough HP left.
Asuna held her staff against the ground and swiftly scanned the area around her.
Wadjet and the two parties were locked in fierce battle on the far side of the huge chamber. Of the other two parties, one was led by a salamander woman, and they had retreated to another water field that a fellow undine mage had created. The other party did not have any members capable of using the Purified Surface spell. Asuna raised her free hand and called out to them.
“Kite as many of the minions as you can and get into the water over here!”
Their sylph leader acknowledged her advice with a wave.
In the meantime, the sylph’s six companions were busy turning the advancing fire elementals into ash. They were secondary to the actual boss, of course, but on their own, they were tough foes that neutralized half of all physical damage. Thankfully, entering the magical water field instantly weakened them significantly, so even a party with little magic ability could fight them off if they got inside.
Once they’d beaten all the nearby fire elementals, the other party jumped into the water, bringing a train of enemies with them. The thirty-foot-diameter circle was cramped with fourteen players inside, but Kirito and Klein jumped back out, taking half the extra fire elementals with them and making it possible to fight across the entire surface.
The sight of all that flashing metal made Asuna want to switch out her staff for a rapier, but she had to keep the staff pressed to the ground to maintain the circle of magic. Asuna chose to be a healing-focused mage in ALO because she thought it would be fun to try a support role, but also because, by the time she had returned to playing, the party was already well supplied with physical attackers.
Leafa could sense Asuna’s frustration, and she came closer to say, “I’m sorry you always have to hang back and play support, Asuna.”
“Oh, it’s not like I’m doing it against my will. It’s fun to say the spell words.”
“Yes, of course! Big Br—Kirito still feels shy about that part. You should explain it to him sometime.” Leafa grinned briefly before she lifted her free hand. “Thú fylla heilagr austr, brott svalr bani!” (I heal thee with holy water, staving off cold death.)
She enunciated the healing magic spell loudly and smoothly. Once she was done, blue droplets showered the area from her left hand, helping recover the damage that the water field’s healing-over-time (HOT) effect could not cover.
Eventually, all the fire elementals were defeated, so Asuna lifted the staff off the ground. The water vanished with a splashing spray, and one of the many Buff icons underneath her HP bar vanished.
To their right, one of the other parties fighting fire elementals had finished up as well. Once Klein saw that all the fire elementals were gone, he shouted over to the fourteen players fighting the boss, “Okay, we took care of the adds! We can switch in at any moment!”
A large imp who seemed to be the leader over there shouted back, “Got it! Take over at the next break!”
The snakelike boss raised its flared cobra head high. The dark goddess had a wide sword in one of its four hands, which it raised high.
Purple lightning bolts shot through the space around the boss, and more of the giant, semitranslucent blades appeared. The bunched-up players in front of the boss scattered; those with shields held them up, and those with two-handed weapons prepared to block the attack.
“Shugyaaaa!!” screeched the boss, Wadjet the Flaming Serpent, and it swung down its weapons. Eight phantasmic swords smashed down upon the players.
Four of the players successfully blocked the blows, while the other four found themselves knocked backward by the impact against their shields and weapons. But the effect of using such a powerful attack tamped down the flames surrounding Wadjet. Without missing their opportunity, the mages in the back unleashed the movement-binding spells they had queued up.
Nearly all bosses had high resistance to Debuffs, but if you timed it right, you could usually stop them for about ten seconds. Debuffs generated spiderwebs, silver chains, and sticky swamps, depending on the spell. When the boss was stuck, the imp team leader waved an arm.
With a guttural roar, the human players burst into motion. The four who’d been knocked back by the swords regained their footing and hurried after their companions, wailing, “Don’t leave me behind!”
“Okay, we’re up!”
Klein leaped first with his katana at the ready, followed by Kirito and Agil.
As she ran with the team, Asuna thought, Everyone’s having so much fun.
It held true with the four other parties, too, not just Kirito and Lisbeth and her friends.
The majority of the twenty-eight players from the other parties were total strangers. They found the group looking for raid partners in the teleport square of Frieven, the main town of the eighth floor. After a brief round of introductions, they headed off to the labyrinth tower and rushed right into the boss chamber. In Aincrad, you could never act that fast.
In the old days, you had to do reconnaissance runs over and over before the real fight, hold strategy meetings, weigh all the risks, and go into battle with as much power as possible. In SAO, you couldn’t afford a single casualty in battle. That was unthinkable in ALO, but even still, Asuna couldn’t help wondering, Are we really just going to jump right into it? before the battle. The eighth floor of New Aincrad was the current front line, and that meant Wadjet the Flaming Serpent had not yet been defeated. If they were going to fight an unbeaten opponent, shouldn’t they at least discuss strategy and formations first?
But now, nearly thirty minutes after the battle had started, she was starting to understand.
The important thing was not actually beating the boss itself but enjoying the process of the struggle.
If they did beat the boss, it shouldn’t be because of the unilateral leadership of a powerful in-group, like the Knights of the Blood, of which Asuna had been the vice commander. The entire group of players had to act as one, thinking and fighting and rejoicing together…or perhaps lamenting. That was the true fun of online RPGs, and as long as you got a good helping of that, you were having fun, even if you lost.
The imp in the back line of the two retreating parties lifted his arm as Asuna passed, calling out, “We’ll be regrouped and ready in three minutes! Give us that much time!”
She slapped his palm as she went and replied, “We got this! Handle the adds when they appear!”
As the group thudded off, armor clanking, she heard retreating voices saying, “Why are you chatting her up in the middle of the fight?!”
“No, you dummy, it’s not like that!”
Nearby, Lisbeth couldn’t help but giggle. “Some things never change, Asuna.”
“Wh-what do you mean?”
“I remember in Aincrad when we used to walk around together, every now and then, some guy would—”
“Th-that’s not important right now, is it?! Look, the boss is about to attack!” she said in a mild panic. Wadjet broke through its binds and began moving again.
Compared to the Deviant Gods that lived in Jotunheim, the subterranean land of ice below Alfheim, the boss monsters of New Aincrad were smaller but much more powerful. As evidence of that, over a month had passed since the first ten floors of the floating castle were implemented, but they’d beaten only the first seven floors so far. Full forty-nine-man raid parties (seven parties of seven) had attempted Wadjet many times in the past week, and every last one of them had ended in defeat.
With that in mind, the human-faced, snake-bodied monster whose curved neck reached almost to the ceiling was a nerve-racking sight, but she could put on a smile and suck it up. The important thing wasn’t winning but having fun. To do her best fighting without worrying about losing…
“Jruuah!!” shrieked Wadjet, swinging a bishop’s staff with its lower left hand.
In synchronization with that motion, the pillars lining the edge of the chamber rotated, revealing large mirrors that had been hidden on their back sides. Instantly, the two parties that had just retreated from the boss broke apart into smaller groups without waiting for orders and took places by the mirrors, which numbered eight in all.
The tip of Wadjet’s staff had a crystal in it that emitted a light beam with lethal power. That was frightening enough, but to make matters worse, the mirrors on the edge of the battlefield would deflect the beam in complex ways that made it impossible to guess the trajectory it’d take.
When the boss fight was first available, the players tried destroying the mirrors when they appeared. It was possible if you struck them enough times with your weapons, but it took way too many hits, and by the time they got rid of all eight, the light beam would have eliminated several combatants already.
But now that a week had passed, they were working on a more effective tactic. The players next to the mirrors held the surface and pushed to rotate them, then promptly leaped away. Within moments, the staff in Wadjet’s hand fired a dark-green beam.
It struck the mirror on the west side of the room and would normally have bounced toward a different mirror, killing any player caught in its path. But because the player had turned the angle of the mirror, it bounced back straight—directly at Wadjet. Damaged by its own light attack, Wadjet screamed and lost much of one of its seven HP bars. That only put it at halfway on its second bar, but there had been no player deaths so far. For an impromptu group that was two parties short of a full raid, they were doing quite well.
Klein, who was acting as party leader this time, seemed to agree. He whipped his katana around and called out, “We’re doing well! We can do this! Everyone, charge!!”
Agil, with his two-handed ax, and Kirito, with his longsword, bolted forward, followed by Leafa and Lisbeth. They surrounded the boss’s long torso with the two other attacking parties and began to slice, pummel, and thrust into it.
This time, Asuna did not hang back. But rather than whacking at it with her staff, she used magic attacks. With her skill at high-speed recitation, she put together spells and waved her staff at Wadjet’s upper half. Sharp spears of ice rained down and stuck between its black scales. The self-inflicted light-beam damage had caused its flame to temporarily disappear, so a full complement of ice magic took advantage of its weak element and, combined with all the physical attacks, gouged large chunks out of the HP gauge.
Wadjet flailed with the damage, and its long body began to coil like a spring. With a better vantage point thanks to her extra distance, Asuna recognized what was happening and called out, “Tail attack! Everyone, ready to jump!”
Immediately, the attackers wailing on the boss jumped away and prepared themselves. Wadjet was more of an elemental-damage boss, but its physical attacks were also powerful, and the three-part rotation with its long tail just off the ground meant that if you didn’t dodge the first one, you’d fall over and get hit with the second and third.
Asuna bent her knees in preparation for the jump along with her comrades. With its tail fully wrapped around itself, the goddess’s eyes shone deep red. And…jump!
But then, at that very moment—
Asuna felt her mind being pulled upward, just before her avatar could jump. It was the dissociative sensation again.
Not now! she thought, waiting for her senses to recover. It lasted for only a moment, but in this situation, it felt like an eternity. The power coiled in every inch of the boss’s body unleashed, and its tail came whipping around. It was no good…She wouldn’t make it.
Just before the massive whip swept her legs out from under her, the conversation she’d had before the fight returned to her mind.
An hour before their meeting time with Leafa, Klein, and the rest, Asuna and Kirito had logged in to the same room in the inn as the day before, summoned Yui, and explained the situation to her.
Yui had switched from her more recent navigation pixie look to her original appearance. She sat between the two of them on the sofa and listened intently to what Asuna said. When the story was over, she murmured, “Your mind…dissociates…”
The little girl’s eyes were wide. Asuna said, “That’s right. It’s hard to describe in words…but I think there’s undoubtedly something wrong with my connection to my avatar.”
“I had no idea you were having this problem…I’m sorry, Mama. If only I’d realized earlier…”
“No, Yui. It’s not your fault.” She cupped the little girl’s cheeks in her hands. “I’m sorry. For not telling you about it earlier. At first, I thought I just wasn’t used to my new avatar. But after talking with Kirito yesterday, I’m starting to think there’s a different cause…”
On the other side of Yui, Kirito said, “What do you think, Yui? Anything that seems to be a likely cause…?”
“Well, let’s see…”
The AI’s long eyelashes pointed downward as she adopted a thinking expression, her face still cradled in Asuna’s hands. After just three seconds, her face rose, but it was still clouded.
“Based on what you told me, I’m afraid I cannot specify a cause for your reaction…And with my current privileges, I’m not able to do a direct examination of the packets being traded between your AmuSphere and the ALO server. Although, if it happens when I am nearby, I might be able to glean some kind of data…”
“No…I understand. I’m sorry, Yui, I didn’t mean to ask the impossible of you,” Asuna said, attempting to apologize. But Yui grabbed her hands and squeezed. She pulled the hands off her cheeks and brought them down between the two.
“But I can make some conjectures.”
“Huh…? You can?”
“Yes. First of all, I hypothesize that the cause of your phenomenon does not exist with your AmuSphere or with you. Which means the first possibility is a server problem, but as of this moment, the Cardinal System does not detect errors, and no errors on the human side are reported, either,” the little girl said crisply, still holding Asuna’s hands. This put a strange feeling in Asuna’s chest.
Yesterday, she and Kirito were worried that this might put a terrible strain on Yui’s psyche. But that concern was apparently unnecessary. Yui admitted that she did not have the ability to solve the problem right away, and she was still trying her hardest to help. She was growing, day by day.
“But I can surmise that something on the ALO server, something within Alfheim, is creating some kind of abnormal interference with you, Mama. I just can’t determine at the moment whether that is a player or an object, or if it is intentional or incidental.”
“Abnormal…interference…,” Asuna repeated.
If it was a human being causing Asuna’s dissociative episodes, it couldn’t be just any player. There was no magic spell or item that caused such a thing, so it would inevitably have to be something with a higher authority level…a hacker or a GM, perhaps.
That line of thought caused Asuna to envision a face she never wanted to think about again. The man who had kept her locked in a birdcage for over two months. Oberon, king of the fairies—Nobuyuki Sugou.
But he was locked up in Tokyo Detention House, and it would be impossible for him to interfere with the ALO server. Kirito’s face went hard, too, as he momentarily considered that idea, but then he shook his head. When he looked at Yui again, he was back to his usual self.
“Hey, Yui. You said that what was interfering with Asuna could possibly be an object…What do you mean by that? Is it possible that some specific item or part of the landscape can surpass the boundaries of the game system and have a direct effect on the player…?”
The young girl tilted her head, appearing to ponder how to explain. Slowly, she said, “As I’m sure you both know, I was originally developed as a test version of a mental health counseling program meant to assist SAO players. That would indicate that the NerveGear can read not only the wearer’s senses and kinetic movement but also their emotions. The old Cardinal System monitored and collected data on the mental state of all its players…”
None of this was new to Asuna. When she first met Yui, the program was like a toddler barely capable of speech, because her core program was broken, staggered by the weight of so much negative emotion that she could not ease.
Yui looked at each of them in turn and continued, her voice professional.
“But compared to the signals for senses and movement, the ability to analyze emotional signals was slower to develop. All that could be identified was that which appeared most often in the aggregate data: anger, sadness, fear, despair. At the time, neither Cardinal nor I, its subordinate program, could analyze anything else. So when Cardinal received an input of a particularly extreme and anomalous emotional pattern, it would save that as raw data, including everything else present. That means the ID of the player who emitted the emotional pattern, of course, but also the time, place, and even items possessed.”
Asuna sucked in a sharp breath and looked at Kirito.
This was news to them. It was difficult to grasp Yui’s explanation, but it probably came down to this: When it found an interest in a player, the Cardinal System, which managed the SAO server, would store not compressed information that had been pattern-analyzed but the raw emotional data itself. But in a sense, that might as well be copying the player’s soul—or at least, the uppermost layer of it.
Asuna was wondering if current full-dive technology was actually capable of such a thing when she suddenly remembered: She and Kirito might have witnessed this firsthand.
“…Oh yeah…Kirito, do you remember? Ages ago, when you and I were investigating a murder inside the safe haven of town…”
Kirito nodded immediately; he must have been thinking of the same thing. “Yeah. After we solved the case on that hilltop on the nineteenth floor, we saw Griselda, the murder victim, standing next to the grave. Maybe that wasn’t just a vision…but the heart of Griselda, stored in that grave—or in the ring buried under the soil there…”
There was no way to determine the truth of that now. Yui did not have any comments to add. When she didn’t say anything, Kirito lightly placed his hand on the small of her back. Quietly and gently, he said, “What you’re telling us is that inside SAO, when players exuded powerful emotions, those emotions tended to get stored and attached to places or objects associated with them. Is that right?”
The pixie nodded.
“Then like you said, could the object or objects that are causing this dissociative phenomenon be those?” he continued. “Like…a player’s feelings are residing inside an item and interfering with Asuna…?”
Again, Yui did not react. But her silence, Asuna could feel, was less about choosing the right words and more about wondering if it was right to speak her conjecture aloud at all.
“At the present moment…I cannot bring myself to answer in the affirmative…,” Yui said, her voice frail. Then she looked up and, much more firmly, said, “But through talking and adventuring with you two, and Lisbeth and Silica, and Leafa, and Klein, and Agil, and all the others, I think I’ve learned. I’ve learned that the human heart and the full-dive system possess far greater possibilities than I understand. So I cannot say that the answer to your question is no. As I first told you, I believe this supposition is a possibility—that is all.”
So the cause of the mysterious phenomenon was a player—or some part of a player’s mentality that resided in an item or an area of land…
That was the possibility that Yui had raised just before they fought the boss. Then it was time to meet up with the group, so they couldn’t discuss it in any further detail, but on the way to New Aincrad, Asuna mulled over Yui’s statements, and she came to an interpretation she could be okay with.
Perhaps someone was calling to her. Someone playing ALO right now—or someone who had once played SAO—was calling Asuna. And because of that, her consciousness was being pulled away from her avatar. If true, then he or she was probably not doing it maliciously. The phenomenon just couldn’t choose the time or place, and as a result, it interfered with her gameplay. Just like at this moment.
Right as the phantom floating sensation arrived, it brought change to everything else around her.
The black marble boss chamber grew faint and distant, and a completely different room appeared much closer to her, hazy and uncertain.
There were walls of light-brown blocks placed in random arrangements, and the floor was the same color. Monsters completely swarmed the space—ore elementals (blackened rock carved into humanoid shapes) and dark dwarves, squat and menacing, with sharp pickaxes for weapons. The flickering sight was definitely familiar to her somehow, but she could not remember the time or place. The feeling was exactly the same as what she’d felt when looking out the window last night.
So did this memory belong to someone who was calling her…?
The sight of the room and its monsters lasted for only a moment. When it vanished, her mind returned to her avatar. Her eyes opened wide, just in time to see the powerful tail of Wadjet the Flaming Serpent whipping across the floor toward her.
All her teammates in striking range jumped straight upward in unison. Only Asuna failed to match the right timing—just barely, but it was costly all the same. She wasn’t going to make it—
The impact came not from the front but from the side. Suddenly, her body was being lifted upward, and only the toe of her boot grazed Wadjet’s tail. Forgetting to even check her HP bar, Asuna just stared into the face of the spriggan holding her.
She was going to ask “How did you know the timing of my slipping?” but Kirito cut her off. “Yui sensed it before it happened.”
The pixie sitting on Kirito’s shoulder added gravely, “Eight seconds ago, I picked up a signal being sent to you. It will take a bit more time to analyze it.”
“…So it’s true. Someone is doing this to me…”
Stunned, Asuna only realized after several seconds that she’d been airborne the entire time. The gray wings extending from Kirito’s back exuded a faint glow.
All nine fairy races of Alfheim, even the less air-centric ones like leprechauns and gnomes, had the power of flight. In the game’s May update, the limitation on flight time from the RCT Progress days was gone, so you could fly as much as you wanted. But there were exceptions: the underground realm of Jotunheim and the various dungeons of the game. The labyrinth towers of New Aincrad were included in that designation, of course.
But even then, there was a counter to that rule. Only the spriggans, who excelled at treasure hunting, had a special high-level ability to fly for a brief time underground. It didn’t last long, though you could extend it with extra proficiency, so you could use it only in emergencies. To Kirito, this situation counted as one.
“Th-thank you, Kirito…”
She wanted to apologize, but he just shook his head.
On the ground, the tail attack continued through its second and third swings. Nearly twenty players evaded it with perfectly timed jumps. Once Wadjet’s wide-area attack was over, Kirito landed with his partner in his arms. The skill had worn off, and his gray wings vanished without a sound. The cooldown timer for that one was around five or six hundred seconds, so he wouldn’t be able to fly again for a good long while. If she experienced the dissociative phenomenon again, he wouldn’t be able to save her.
Yui hopped off Kirito’s shoulder and onto Asuna’s, leaned toward her ear, and whispered, “Mama, I’ve memorized the broad pattern of the signal, so I will be able to warn you earlier.”
“Thanks, Yui. Please do,” she replied under her breath, then turned to her teammates and called out, “Sorry, I just tripped! I’ll make sure to avoid it next time!”
Lisbeth waved back and said, “It’s cool!” Meanwhile, Kirito rushed off toward the boss, which had paused after its big attack.
“Ryaaaa!” bellowed Klein and the others, while Kirito rushed behind them without a word. That struck Asuna as odd.
During this entire battle, Kirito had been quieter than usual. In fact, he was acting reticent even before the fight, when he allowed Klein to be party leader. She was going to ask Yui about that but changed her mind before the words left her mouth. Focusing on the fight was more important.
The assault from the team that had just evaded the tail attack unharmed managed to knock the second of Wadjet’s seven HP bars into the red zone. The snake-bodied goddess issued a snarl of rage, then lifted a bronze torch with its bottom right hand.
“More minions coming!!” Klein called out.
Even before he did, Asuna stepped back and started chanting the spell words for Purified Surface again. The two parties in the back would not be enough to take care of the fire elementals that would appear throughout the chamber. The salamander’s team and the sylph’s team should stay to deal with the boss while Asuna’s party pulled away to help with the adds.
Klein reached the same conclusion, and when he turned to give Asuna the order, he grinned upon seeing that she was already casting the spell.
“Okay, let’s pull back and knock out these elemen—Hey! Kiri!”
Drawn by the consternation in his voice, Asuna followed Klein’s gaze to where Kirito was mingling with the other two attacking squads. After a few moments, he seemed to recognize Klein’s voice and came to a stop.
When he lifted his free hand in apology and returned to the group, Asuna paid close attention to his face as she continued her spell. Normally, he would never make this kind of mistake in the midst of a boss battle.
Was he so concerned with Asuna’s out-of-body experiences that he was losing his focus on the fight…?
She finished her quick chanting of the spell, held the staff high over her head, and slammed it into the ground. The chill of the holy water flooding up from the floor seeped through her boots. Unable to resist, she decided to speak to Yui again; there was nothing else for her to do while she was maintaining the spell effect.
“Um, Yui, does Kirito seem…?”
The pixie was practically waiting for her to bring it up. “Yes, Papa is not acting like himself.”
“Right…I wonder what’s up with him…”
“I don’t know, either…”
In a sense, Yui had much more accumulated information about Kirito than Asuna did, so if she said so, he really was acting different from usual today. And she couldn’t believe that it was unrelated to her recent issue.
When this battle is over, I need to have a proper talk with him. About the strange sights I saw last night and just now. About everything.
With that determination planted in her mind, Asuna gripped the staff and focused on the battle around her.
About thirty minutes later, Kirito and Klein, the last two left struggling on their own, finally teleported back to the save point on the bottom floor of the labyrinth tower. As soon as their avatars materialized, the samurai clutched his fists and wailed.
“Kaaaaah! Dammit! We had barely more than a single bar left to goooo!”
Agil, who had died and returned to the save point along with Asuna, just smirked and noted, “That last bar would have been the worst. They say Wadjet’s like the other bosses; once you get to the last bar, there are all new mechanics.”
“Yeah, I know, but once you’re down that far, it always feels like you can just power your way through, ya know?”
“No! That’s not how it works! It’s not how it worked for you, at least!”
This little comedy routine elicited laughter not just among the friends but among the other four parties in the raid.
After that one time, there had been no more dissociative episodes, and Asuna fought to the best of her ability, but the group ultimately failed to defeat the eighth-floor boss. Their faces were bright, however. The sylph party leader who had invited them to the group walked over, steel greaves clanking, and spoke to Klein with a smile.
“I’ve gotta say, I thought we were onto something. We probably would have done it with a full raid.”
“Yeah, I agree! We had some good teamwork going. If only the fire-elemental placement hadn’t ended up all lopsided…”
“Well, if it weren’t for your group, the lasers would have wiped us out. You guys were amazing,” said the sylph, extending his right hand. Klein chuckled and grabbed it.
After their handshake was over, the raid leader thought for a moment and looked toward Agil and Lisbeth. “Say, if you’re up for it, why don’t we go back to town and give it another shot? Maybe we can find another two parties to fill us out.”
“Yeah, I’m down! What do you say, Boss?” Klein asked Agil, who replied “Why not?” in English. The four girls in the group gave them positive answers, too.
The samurai in red grinned and started to speak for the group but paused first, one eyebrow raised. The one player who would normally be the most enthusiastic about this had remained silent. Klein looked over at Kirito, who was standing a little ways away, and said, “Hey, are you in or not, Kiri?”
The spriggan’s head shot upward. He had been listening after all. He put on a smile that seemed awkward to Asuna’s practiced eye and said, “Uh, y-yeah, of course…”
But his gaze wavered in empty space. His lips pursed tight and eventually opened again.
“……Actually…I’ve got something to do after this. I hate to let you down, but I’ve got to drop out here.”
“Uh…sure. No problem, but…”
Klein was poised to say something else, but he stopped himself and rubbed his whiskered chin. Then he grinned and nodded. “Okay, we’ll handle it from here! I’ll send you a pic when we get to the ninth floor!”
Nearby, Agil offered a line that seemed oddly familiar: “I’ll give you a write-up on Wadjet’s loot, in under eight hundred characters.”
“Looking forward to it,” Kirito said with a wry smile. He bowed to the sylph leader, then turned away. For a brief moment, he met Asuna’s eyes but merely blinked in apology and started hurrying off toward the exit of the tower to the south.
Asuna could feel Yui tensing on her right shoulder. She extended her foot to walk after him on autopilot but stopped herself there. She was the only magic user in the party. She couldn’t just leave them now…
“Go on, Asuna,” said a voice. She turned in surprise and saw Leafa behind her, smiling. She lifted a hand and pushed Asuna on the back. “I’ll find two others to invite. We’ll be fine. Take care of my brother.”
She looked to her sides and saw Lisbeth, Silica, Agil, and Klein all smiling and nodding for her to go. So she took a deep breath, summoned her courage, and bowed in apology. When she rose again, she said to the other raid members, “I’m sorry! I’ve got to leave now, too!”
The others they’d been playing with called out things like “Thanks!” and “Let’s play again sometime!” and “Good luck with whatever you’re doing!” Asuna bowed once more to their kindness, then spun around to leave.
Kirito was already nowhere to be seen in the hallway of several dozen yards leading out of the tower. But Yui was on top of it.
“Papa’s flying toward the southern rim of New Aincrad!”
“Thanks, Yui,” she whispered back, putting her staff away into her inventory. Then she sprinted for the exit of the labyrinth tower.