[Choukansha Fair 2021 SAO] Bluish Memories

Warning: This story references events from the Mother's Rosario side story "Sisters' Prayer" (BD side story included in Volume 22). Read at your own discretion!

Usually, we make releases on Sunday (or later!) due to having hectic schedules. However, since I've got a Sunday shift in the Emergency Department tomorrow and am practically guaranteed to be exhausted by the time I get home in the late evening, I decided to make this week's release while I still have the energy for the job.

As per their annual tradition, this summer Dengeki Bunko hosted their gratitude event called the Dengeki Choukansha (super gratitude) Fair, during which people can receive various bonuses for buying select Dengeki Bunko LNs, marked with a special seal. The short for this year is called "Bluish Memories (ブルーイッシュ・メモリー)" and is set during the Mother's Rosario side arc and focuses on Asuna and Yuuki... and Yuuki's obsession with bugs... Since Takazuki graciously helped providing the raws for the story... and seeing as I've done the leaflet shorts for the previous years (excluding the 2017 leaflet that Defan somehow swiped from me and everything before 2016, since Tap was still around and handled those shorts himself back then), so it's kinda my thing at this point, I decided to translate this one as well.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the release. If you have any suggestions/requests for what to work on, feel free to leave a comment or contact us through Twitter/Discord/Email.

Any feedback is appreciated.

-Gsimenas

Credits

Raws: Takazuki
Translation: Gsimenas
Editing: Gsimenas, Cirtoyt

V24 summary update: chapters 7-8

I had an unexpectedly busy weekend, so I was unable to finish my weekly translation on time for a release. So, to make up for it, I'm releasing this week's release a bit early and will release last week's release at the end of this week... as long as I don't encounter unexpected interruptions again...

Anyway, chapter 7 features Kirito becoming a rot mage by eating one nasty rock. Chapter 8 features the KiriAsu scene where Kazuto gives his birthday present to Asuna.

You can read the summary here.

-Gsimenas

V24 summary update: chapter 6

Since I managed to find enough free time to catch up on my translation schedule, I managed to make a little UR update for this week. I was hoping to bundle chapter 6 and chapter 7, but that proved to be a bit too much for me this week, so we'll just have to settle for a more modest update.

Chapter 6 features Argo and Kirito reuniting with Alice and Kuro and starting their jouney back home, only to come across a certain game gimmick...

You can read the summary here.

-Gsimenas

[Dengeki Splash! AGGO short story] MZO

I didn't have enough free time this week to finish a UR summary update, while our manga department doesn't have anything ready for release. So, I decided to fill this week's slot with a minor AGGO short story I recently managed to uncover lying around deep in my drawers while trying to catalogue all SAO franchise side stories for the wiki.

This short story was released as part of Dengeki Splash! (電撃すぷらっしゅ!), an official Dengeki Bunko bootleg featuring Dengeki Bunko female characters in various swimsuits. The AGGO illustration of a swimsuit LLENN came with a short swimsuit-themed story of LLENN and Fukaziroh messing around. Fuka always makes a story fun and this is no exception.

Might release a UR summary update in the coming days... if I don't get swamped again...

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the release. If you have any suggestions/requests for what to work on, feel free to leave a comment or contact us through Twitter/Discord/Email.

-Gsimenas

Credits

Raws: Takazuki
Translation: Gsimenas
Editing: Gsimenas

[Comic Anthology] Offline Smith

Now for the second catch-up release: a Comic Anthology chapter.

This time we get a Lisbeth and Kirito story. Basically, a chapter about a macho Lisbeth Lisbeth working at her shop and Kirito coming in for some sword maintenance (no Ped, not THAT sword).

Not sure what we're going to release next week. I've been in post-vacation-overwork stupor over the weekend, so I have yet to make plans for the foreseeable future. Maybe a UR summary update? Maybe Canon? Heck, It'll probably come down to "whatever gets ready for release first"!

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the release. If you have any suggestions/requests for what to work on, feel free to leave a comment or contact us through Twitter/Discord/Email.

Any feedback is appreciated.

-Gsimenas

Credits

Mangaka: Musya Sabu
Raws: MttBlue2
Translation: Gsimenas
Editing: Gsimenas
Redrawing, typesetting: Celest
Cleaning: Mttblue2

V24 summary update: chapter 5

Hey everyone. The past two weeks, I've been on a hectic ride between being overworked to death, to recuperating with a trip abroad, to being overworked to death (again) as soon as I return (note to self: a 12 hour shift after a 8+12 hour shift is murder, even if you do get some time to sleep...), to recuperating again. As such, I couldn't find the time to do much of anything translation-wise. Not even for releasing stuff that I had stockpiled for a rainy day. So, I'll be making up for the missed release slots by making a double release today. The first release is a 12% update to the V24 summary.

Chapter 5 features Argo and Kirito going undercover to an ALO player get-together to get a feel for how the ALO players are doing... only to find themselves in a choky situation...

You can read the summary here.

-Gsimenas

[Progressive manga] Canon of the Golden Rule - Chapter 3

Since I've been so busy at work that I haven't really had time to work on any translations the past couple of weeks (or maybe even three in a row...), we decided to release a Canon chapter from our stockpile this week.

Chapter 3 of the manga covers Morte and Joe's ambush, up to the part where Morte kills Cylon. The manga does still take some creative liberties (I've made a detailed adaptation note list below, for those interested in a comparison), but nothing major.

I'm planning a V24 summary update for next week.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the release. If you have any suggestions/requests for what to work on, feel free to leave a comment or contact us through Twitter/Discord/Email.

-Gsimenas

Credits

Raws: Official SAOP Canon Twitter Account
Translation: Gsimenas
Editing: Gsimenas
Redrawing: Nguyên Milk
Typesetting: Nguyên Milk
Quality Assurance: Mttblue2

[ME:Remix] Material Edition 5 - Salvia and the MTB

Since we didn't have a manga release ready for this week, I decided turn to one of the aces up my sleeve (i.e. a story that I had translated a while ago to be released whenever we needed to fill a slot) - Salvia and the MTB from the Material Edition Remix! Now you may be asking... wasn't Salvia translated before? Well, yes, it was. In fact, ME5 was actually translated by US, the Dreadful Decoding team, way back in 2012 when the blog was still used by BeginnerXP and I had yet to get into the world of translations. So, why am I releasing the story for a second time, you ask? Well, you see, my dear Watson, Material Edition 5: Salvia was actually re-released in June 9, 2018 as part of Dengeki Bunko MAGAZINE Vol.62 under a new title: Salvia and the MTB. Nobody took it seriously back then, since it seemed like a simple old re-release when we were hoping for a new SAO side story. But it turns out that the ME wasn't re-released as-is (unlike the stories in volume 22 with most of the errors still in-place, glares...); Kawahara did make some changes to the text when he re-released it. Some of these changes were just stylistic ones that don't have an impact on the English translation, yes, but some of these changes included all-new paragraphs that tied the story into the main canon by referencing events from the Fairy Dance Arc. So, lacking stuff to work on, we decided to redo the translation of this story (I don't like re-using translations, so I retranslated the story from scratch without looking at BeginnerXP's original translation) from the Material Edition:Remix raws that we had, so that everyone could read the more up-to-date version of the story.

The story takes place shortly after the Fairy Dance arc and focuses on Kazuto and Suguha in the real world.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the release. If you have any suggestions/requests for what to work on, feel free to leave a comment or contact us through Twitter/Discord/Email.

Finally, a standard thank you to all of those who contributed to the SAO Scans project for helping us get the raws.

Any feedback is appreciated.

-Gsimenas

Credits

Raws: SAO Scans
Translation: Gsimenas
Editing: Gsimenas, Cirtoyt

V24 summary update: chapters 3-4

Due to our recent manga releases (and my vacation), I haven't made any summary updates in nearly a month, so it's about time to fix that with a double V24 chapter update.

Chapter 3 features Alice's and Kirito's travel to the ALO starting point and their various conversations along the way. Chapter 4 features the two reuniting with Argo, only to end up with an unexpected boss battle.

We're not yet sure what we'll be releasing next week. I guess it'll either be a Canon release, or a certain ace up my sleeve for when we don't have anything else to release.

You can read the summary here.

-Gsimenas

[Progressive manga] Canon of the Golden Rule - Chapter 2

Welp, I just got back from my one week vacation at the beach. There was so much going on that I didn't really have the time (or the mood/energy) to work on any translations or summaries, but I at least got some much-needed rest (and caught up a bit on my reading backlog) for once. I'm probably still going to need a couple of days to get back into the rhythm, but since this week we're getting a new Canon chapter, the godly art will get me back into shape in no time. On that note, luckily, we did have Canon manga chapter 2 practically ready for release before I even went on my vacation, so I have something to commemorate my return to the daily routine!

Chapter 2 covers Asuna and Kirito's investigation of Pithagrus's second home up to the part where they get some unexpected visitors. Unlike chapter 1, the manga no longer skips any scenes, though it does still take some creative liberties with the order of events (I've made a detailed adaptation note list below, for those interested in a comparison).

Next week, I'm planning to release a V24 summary update (chapters 3 and 4). The summary is already done beforehand, I just need to get around to proofreading it.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the release. If you have any suggestions/requests for what to work on, feel free to leave a comment or contact us through Twitter/Discord/Email.

P.S. Yay, no gigantic exposition dumps in this chapter! This chapter was much more pleasant to work on...

-Gsimenas

Credits

Raws: Official SAOP Canon Twitter Account
Translation: Gsimenas
Editing: Gsimenas
Redrawing: Nguyên Milk
Typesetting: Nguyên Milk
Quality Assurance: Mttblue2

[Comic Anthology] Silica and the Investigation of the Mysterious Item!

Since we released a Canon chapter last week and I'm personally in vacation mode starting today, we decided to make a Comic Anthology release this week. As last time, Celest has graciously agreed to fill in for Mtt with redrawing and typesetting for this chapter.

This time we get a Silica and Kirito story. Oh sorry, I meant Silica and Kiri-nyan story. Silica gets a random unidentified item as a drop item and randomly decides to use Kirito as a guinea pig. What could go wrong?

Since I'm on vacation for the next week, I hope Mtt will make the finishing touches on Canon c2 for our next release. Afterwards, I plan a V24 summary update. If things don't work out, we can just switch up the two releases. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the release. If you have any suggestions/requests for what to work on, feel free to leave a comment or contact us through Twitter/Discord/Email.

Any feedback is appreciated.

-Gsimenas

Credits

Mangaka: Gumichoko
Raws: MttBlue2
Translation: Gsimenas
Editing: Gsimenas
Redrawing, typesetting: Celest
Cleaning: Mttblue2

[Progressive manga] Canon of the Golden Rule - Chapter 1

Although far behind schedule due to RL circumstances, we're proud to debut our newest manga project: Progressive Canon of the Golden Rule. And our project debuts with a double length chapter that totals 50 pages of divine art (a rarity for Progressive manga adaptations these days)!

The first chapter covers the story up to Asuna and Kirito arriving to Pithagrus's second residence in Suribus. Though it does gloss over a lot of thing in the first chapters. I've made a detailed comparison with the novel below. Also, unlike the novel, the manga seems to be going for more of an Asuna perspective, as she's the one doing the narrations, but Kirito still gets some monologues of his own nonetheless.

Since Yen Press might license the project at any time, we'll refrain from hosting the manga pages themselves on the blog and instead only give links to the files.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the release. If you have any suggestions/requests for what to work on, feel free to leave a comment or contact us through Twitter/Discord/Email.

P.S. OMG, dem double pages...

-Gsimenas

Credits

Raws: Official SAOP Canon Twitter Account
Translation: Gsimenas
Editing: Gsimenas
Redrawing: Nguyên Milk
Typesetting: Nguyên Milk
Quality Assurance: Mttblue2

Sword Art Online Volume 24 summary (63%)

Since the increased frequency of Unital Ring volume releases made it hard for me to do in-depth summaries, I had decided to make some quick summaries of the overall plot while reading Volume 24. This allowed people to spoil themselves about the main plot points without having to wait several years for an official translation to find out what's going on in all those illustrations, while I wouldn't have to dedicate nearly a month of my free time off-the-bat to cover all the details. Now that I've finished up the in-depth summary of volume 23 and need some filler releases, seeing as I ran out of non-manga content to work on, while our manga department is experiencing difficulties, I decided to finally get around to doing an in-depth version of the volume 24 summary to include all the worldbuilding and funny moments, not just a quick overview of where the plot is headed. If your only knowledge of V24 comes from my short overview summaries (i.e., you didn't resort to reading machine translations), you'll find a lot to enjoy in this upgraded version!

I will be releasing the V24 summary in batches, since summarising the entire book in one go would still be overkill for me. I plan to release a summary of about 15% of the book's page count worth of content every two weeks or so. This means that aside from chapters/parts 9 and 10, which are both pretty big on their own, each update to the summary will cover 2 chapters/parts.

-Gsimenas

Table of contents:

Chapter 1

Tomo: "Ya should already know who this li'l ol' me is, maN. We finally got a chance to meet, huH, Chrysheight-san."
Tomo's statement caught both Kazuto and Seijirou by surprise. Chrysheight was Seijirou's in-game name in ALfheim Online, derived from an abbreviation of Chrysanthemum and a synonym for the word "hill", the two words (kanji) that made up Seijiou's family name. While Seijirou was a considerable help due to being capable of memorising especially long spells, barely anyone knew his name as he did not log in all that often. Seeing as Tomo supposedly doesn't play ALO, she shouldn't have had any contact with Chrysheight... and more importantly, she shouldn't have known that Chrysheight was Seijirou.

As Kazuto was plagued by one question after another,
Seijirou: "......Oh, I see, you're the one from back then......"
Kazuto (internally): Back when!
Meanwhile Seijirou and Tomo: (Too busy having a clash of auras to explain)
Kazuto (internally): Fine, be that way, I'll just eat some cake then...... (orders 1,900 yen cake and 1,200 yen coffee) Here (passes menu to Tomo), this sweet little onii-san is going to treat us to lunch, so order whatever you like."
Tomo: "Hey wait, weren't you going to be the one to treat me to lunch, hM?" (orders cake and hot royal milk tea for 3,500 yen nonetheless)

At this point, Kazuto began to feel guilty about bringing Tomo to the meeting uninvited, when
Seijirou: "......Well, I would have needed to establish contact with Argo-kun again at some point......"
Kazuto: "So, how are you two related?"
Tomo: "As client and investigator, maN."
Kazuto (internally): (Translateing the English words client and investigator to Japanese to himself)
Kazuto: "So, which one is which?"
Tomo: "Ain't it obvious, maN. This here Onii-san is my client, of coursE."
Kazuto (to Seijirou): ".......Hey, what on earth did you even commission her for?"
Seijirou: "That is, well, as a government employee I am bound by a thing called confidentiality, you see......"
Kazuto: "You're a pretend government employee though."
Seijirou: "Now that's being mean....... Though, well, it's not something that I need to keep a secret from you, Kirito-kun."

Seijirou then explained that he had commissioned Argo to investigate Kamura, the maker of the Augma, since he got word that it was up to something fishy in a certain VRMMO world. Kazuto expressed concern whether something as bad as the Ordinal Scale Incident was going on, but Seijirou swore that he wouldn't have commissioned Argo if it was actually that dangerous. He also mentioned that this all took place before the OS incident anyway. Seijirou found it fishy that they were running a game that not only didn't the company profit, but it was obviously generating more expenses than any income. Though, Argo's investigation didn't find anything that indicated a crime being underway. While Argo proved to be a capable worker, Seijirou didn't expect her to identify him IRL.
Kazuto: "Did you forget to pay her or something?"
Seijirou: "Heavens no, I paid up the requested sum, prim and proper. Though.......I have yet to get the bonus that she asked for."
Tomo: "That 'bonus' that ya mentioned was actually the main fee that I was expecting from ya, thougH. I got so fed up with waiting that I've even resorted to finding ya IRL to collect the fee in person, ya knoW."
Seijirou: "My apologies. Though, how did you piece together that I'm Chrysheight? I've only met with you once in ALO half a year ago, after all."
This implied that Chrysheight's meeting with Argo had taken place in late March, just before the Augma's release in April. Though Kazuto was clueless what VR game Kamura was managing on the sly before the grand-scale release of its AR device.
Tomo: "Not like I actually pieced together who you were down to your real name, maN. With a bit of digging in ALO, it didn't take me long to find out that you were Kirito's acquaintance, Chrysheight. And now today, Kii-bou mentioned that 'a shady pops called me out', which is why he needed to skip his afternoon classes, and it all clicked for me, ya seE."
Kazuto: "W........whoa, Argo, say what you like, but your sixth sense is way overpowered."
Seijirou: "Shady pops sure is a mean way to put it. I see myself as a prim-and-proper onii-san though."
Tomo: "(boasting to Kazuto) My sixth sense is the only reason li'l ol' me got through SAO alive, ya knoW? (declaring to Seijirou) Shady pops is the only possible way to describe the impression you give of, ya knoW?"

At that point, Kazuto's baked cheesecake with chestnut sauce and a cup of cappuccino, as well as Tomo's apple mille-feuille with a cup of tea arrived, so the conversation came to a halt in favour of eating the cakes. When the two of them got through about half of their cakes,
Tomo: "(pushing her place to Kazuto) Kii-bou, let's do swapsies, maN."
Kazuto: "......Well, I have no reason to refuse."
Despite a moment of hesitation, Kazuto gave Tomo his cheesecake. The hesitation came from the fact that Seijirou was smirking at them from the opposite side of the table for some reason.
Kazuto (internally): I'll have to make sure to emphasise that we're just comrades-in-arms.

After all three of them ate their desserts,
Seijirou: "Maaan, the sweets here are just all-round satisfying. I've even had dreams of them while in the Pacific Ocean. (Smiling) Though, strangely, I always found myself together with Kirito-kun in those dreams. Even though I've only been at this cafe with him twice in total."
Kazuto: "......How do do you expect me to react to that statement."
Seijirou: "That reaction is more than enough."

Seijirou: "Now then. I'd like to double check on something before we get to business...... May I take it that Argo-kun is joining the Kirito Corps hereafter?"
Kazuto: "H.......hey, I don't remember ever having established any corps!"
Seijirou: "In that case, I could call it "Kirito Team" or "Kirito and the Merry Men", whichever works for you, but anyway, this means that she'll be fighting alongside you if need be, right?"
Kazuto: "......I'd like to know that myself. (passes on the question to Tomo)"
Tomo: "Mmn, well, I do plan to link up with the Kii-bou Corps in Unital Ring for now, yeS. For any other VR worlds, I'll decide on a case-by-case basis......I guesS."
Kazuto: "Not sure what you're referring to any other worlds when they've all been merged with UniRin across the board, remember?"
Tomo (smiling): "There are VR worlds not connected to The Seed Nexus, ya knoW. Say, Chrysheight-san. Didn't you call Kii-bou here specifically to talk about one such world that's not connected to the Nexus?"
Kazuto: "Wha........really?"

Apparently, Kazuto had been assuming that Seijirou wanted to talk about the UR incident with him, only to then recall that he got the invite before Aincrad had even crashed down, which meant that Seijirou had some other topic in mind. Seijirou then explained that Tomo was correct with her assumption: there was no direct link between the issue that he wanted to discuss with Kazuto, and Unital Ring. What Seijirou wanted was to ask Kazuto to dive into Underworld once more. Kazuto himself wanted to go into Underworld again, so there was no problem with that, though he did find it strange that Seijirou called him out for a direct talk about it, rather than just going through Rinko. Seijirou addressed this concern by explaining that Rinko was against involving Kazuto in another incident again, so she demanded him to explain the situation thoroughly in person. This was enough to assuage the boy's concerns, as Rinko did in fact keep denying him access to Underworld for the past month, despite his repeated requests out of concern for his safety.

So, Kazuto then asked Seijirou to explain this situation of his.
Seijirou: "Some sort of person has infiltrated Underworld."
Kazuto (with wide-open eyes): ".............! (whispering) Infiltrated......what is that supposed to mean!? By whom!? Since when!?"

Before explaining further, Seijirou wanted to know how much knowledge Tomo had on Underworld, but the info broker's intelligence base was limited to what was covered by the mass media, so she only knew about Underworld being a thing inside the Ocean Turtle, which was now sealed off at Hachijou Island, though she wasn't even sure what this sealing entailed. Seijirou thus explained that the Defence Force's escort vessels and the Coast Guard's patrol boats were in the area 24/7 to ward off any intruders. Some mass-media had once tried breaking through, but had to turn back when they started shooting warning shots.

The infiltration didn't refer to someone physically sneaking into the Ocean Turtle in the real world, but rather to the fact that there were records of someone not affiliated with Rath having dived into Underworld the previous week. It was technically possible to log into Underworld with a simple AmuSphere, but since the Ocean Turtle's satellite connections has been shut off, it should have been impossible to dive into Underworld without the IP address for an Icelandic server that someone had sent to Alice, so Seijirou presumes that someone else has access to that same IP somehow. Kazuto presumed that Kayaba Akihiko was the one who set up the link to Underworld, which would imply that the intruder had to have received the IP address from Akihiko as well. At this point, Kazuto asked how Seijirou was able to detect the infiltration, seeing as they couldn't take up any real-time monitoring of Underworld from Roppongi. Seijirou confirmed that this was indeed the case, but they could at least access the gateway server logs from the Ocean Turtle via the Icelandic server, which revealed logs of an external connection from somewhere: the Japanese Node of The Seed Nexus. Meaning that the intruder had converted their own character from the Nexus into Underworld.

----------
Thirty minutes later, Seijirou paid the bill for the table with cash and disappeared into the hustle and bustle of Ginza, promising to contact them later that evening. Now alone with Tomo again, Kazuto asked her about the 'main fee' she had been promised. Apparently, she was looking for info on the identity of a specific SAO Survivor, since Seijirou did technically work at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, though she refused to give any specifics on who this Survivor was.

At that point, Kazuto noticed that half the sky was covered in dark grey clouds.
Tomo: "There was seventy percent chance of rain in the city centre from 18:00, ya knoW."
Kazuto (asking reflexively): "Wha, for real....... what about Kawagoe?"
Tomo (exasperated): "Ya could just look up stuff like that on yer own, maN....... or so I would like to saY, but this nice li'l ol' Onee-san will look it up for you, free of chargE. (looking at her phone) Too bad for yA, eighty percent chance of rain in Kawagoe City."
Kazuto: "......Thanks."

Kazuto did have an umbrella, but he's be stuck walking for two kilometres if it started raining, since he couldn't use his umbrella while riding his bicycle. And he was warned by his mother, Suguha, Asuna, AND Yui not to rush in the rain. He could get to Hon-Kawagoe Station by subway if he went there right away, but he still had another important task to take care of. Just as he was about to part ways with Tomo, he got the idea to ask her a question. Kazuto: "......Ehm, Argo-san, there's one more thing I'd like to ask you about......"
Tomo: "I'll really start charging you at this rate, ya knoW."
Kazuto: "I don't mind paying a fee for this."
Tomo: "......For whaT?"
Kazuto: "Umm...... just hypothetically speaking, what kind of present would you give Asuna if it were her birthday?"
Tomo (jaw-dropping): "............Ya know, Kii-bou, that's no hypothetical, is it noW. Aa-chan's birthday is tomorrow, ain't iT. So you still haven't got her a present yet, theN?"
Kazuto: "Oh...... so you knew that Asuna's birthday is on 30 September?"
Tomo: "I've been acquainted with Aa-chan for a long time myself now, ya knoW. Though it was our first face-to-face IRL today, thougH."
Kazuto: "Oh......yeah, you've got a point. (Internally: Leave it to Argo to extract Asuna's birthday date from her while I didn't even exchange my real name and age with her until the end of the game) Well then, not hypothetically speaking, what do you think Asuna would like......?"
Tomo: "Kii-bou, putting your utmost effort into figuring out what to give to a person is part of what makes it a present, ya knoW. For starters, you're supposed to be more aware of Aa-chan's tastes than li'l ol' me, don't you thinK?"
Kazuto: "I know that, Yui told me the same thing....... I do know that, but...... Lately, I sometimes get an idea, you see...... That the Asuna I know is solely the Asuna in the virtual world and that I don't really know anything about Asuna IRL. Actually...... it's not just Asuna. The same applies to Liz, Silica, Sinon, Agil, Klein...... even my sister Leafa; I've only communicated with them via the virtual world...... (hiding his embarrassment with a smile) Well, sorry for troubling you with this despite only just recently getting back in touch after two years. I'll figure out what to do about Asuna's present on my own. Sorry for keeping you up.......Are you going back to Kanagawa now?"
Tomo: "It shouldn't come as a surprise that it's unreasonable to expect me to go to school in Nishitokyo from the southwest of Kanagawa every day, ya knoW. I'm renting an apartment near the school, maN. (Cough) Though, well, I may not be one to talk about relationships, to be faiR...... but I'll give ya one piece of advice for that damn expensive cake, maN."
Kazuto: "......For free?"
Tomo: "For free. Listen herE, Kii-bou, you overthink things, ya knoW. Whether it's the real world or the virtual one, people are the same on the inside, nO? There's no meaning whatsoever in trying to force a distinction there, ya knoW."
Kazuto: "............"
Tomo: "What's with that face of yers noW."
Kazuto: "Oh, it's just...... I'm really getting the sense that you're older than me now......"
Tomo: "Why d'ya think I've been calling myself Onee-san all this time noW! (pokes Kazuto's shoulder) I'll give ya one more freebiE. Going out of yer way to buy some hefty brand products in Ginza isn't going to make Aa-chan happy, maN. Welp, see ya tonighT!"

Now that Kazuto's "buying some hefty brand products in Ginza" plan went down the drain, Kazuto heaved a sigh as he thought over Asuna in his mind. The time he met her in the 1st Floor Labyrinth, Asuna's time as the Vice Commander of the Knights of the Blood, leading the battles against Floor Bosses, Asuna dozing off on the rocking chair at their house on the 22nd Floor, and the time he saw Asuna at the Tokorozawa hospital bed waiting for him after she had removed her NerveGear. Then Asuna's duel with Yuuki, Asuna protecting the Human Guardian Army in Underworld, and and Asuna leaning on his shoulder at their secret spot at school. Thinking over how much she had supported him while he hadn't expressed his gratitude nearly enough for that, Kazuto headed off to the subway, vowing to express what he feels for her regardless of what he ends up buying for her.

Chapter 2

After finishing his shopping in Ikebukuro and arrived home just as the downpour started, where he found Suguha waiting for him in a tracksuit.
Suguha: "Welcome back! What took you so long, Onii-chan!"
Kazuto: "Well what can I do when my commute time is twice as....... wait......didn't we have this exact same conversation yesterday?"
Suguha: "We did."
Kazuto: "(wiping himself with a towel) So, I take it this means you're going to make me dive in pronto, right......?"
Suguha: "It doesn't take a genius to figure that out! We can't decide what to do with Kirito Town without you around, Onii-chan."
Kazuto: "......Wait, hold up, I don't remember ever giving the town such a name!"
Suguha: "That's what everyone is calling it already. C'mon, let's dash over to your....... wait, what did you buy there? Some expensive sweets?"
Kazuto: "Oh, this is, umm......"
Suguha: "O-oh, I see. Wait...... you only bought it NOW!? That's way too last moment, no matter how you slice it!!"
Kazuto: "That's just how much thought I put into it...... C'mon, let's get over there already. Dive from you own room this time."

After changing to some casual clothes, eating some onigiri and taking care of nature calls, Kazuto put on his AmuSphere and logged into Unital Ring, where he woke up in the living room of the loghouse. Relieved that the house was in one piece and he didn't need to rush into the school infirmary to Dive in with his Augma to prevent another raid, Kirito looked around the room and found no one there, despite it having been jam-packed with people when he had logged out at night. Unable to find even Leafa inside, who was supposed to log in at about the same time as him, he headed outside, but he couldn't find any person or pet there either. Harbouring a childish fear that opening his Friend List would reveal that all his friends were gone, Kirito refrained from opening his menu and instead headed to the southern gate, the one that had been defended by Asuna, Alice, and Silica the previous day. Taking advantage of raiders burning down the trees around the log house, the gang had built tons of houses in their place, creating a sixty-metre-wide town (Kirito was still adamant about getting it renamed though). The southern area was meant to be a commercial district, but it was more of a ghost town right now, since none of the stores were occupied. Kirito could not find anyone in this area, nor the 4 o'clock or 8 o'clock roads.

Just as he was about to shout out in an attempt to find anyone in town, Kirito heard some children voices in the area. Fearing that he had summoned ghost monsters, Kirito strained his ears, equipped his iron sword, and headed to the east side of town, where the faint children voices were coming from. The eastern area was the Pattel residential district. The part of the district closest to the centre of the town had and assembly hall, the central part of the district had a clearing that also housed crop fields, while the outer part of the district was filled with compact dwellings. The children voices were coming from the clearing. When Kirito walked over to the assembly hall along the unpaved 4 o'clock road, Kirito peeked over the corner only to find several Pattels having filled the northern half of the clearing with maize crops, while the southern half was occupied by the girls and Misha the giant bear. The girls were focused on the bear, or more specifically, the five Pattel children riding on the bear's back.

Kirito (whispering): "......Hey, where did those children come......"
Leafa (noticing him and turning around): "Oh, took you long to get here!"
Kirito: "Say, where did those little rats...... I mean, little Pattels, come from? Back when we left the wall dungeon at that Gjol Plains, the Pattel expedition only had adults, didn't they?"
Leafa, Silica, Asuna: (avert gaze awkwardly)
Alice (finding it hard to comprehend): "Apparently, they were all born overnight."
Kirito: "B......born!? (looks at the kids and doesn't get the impression that they're just newborn babies) ......Did the Pattel expedition include pregnant women......? Even so, don't you think this is too big of a growth spurt for half a day's worth of time?"
Yui: "Papa, I have been with the Pattels the entire day and I can say that all these children appeared at around nine AM all at once. The Pattels seemed to be expecting this to happen, as they had prepared enough beds for them beforehand. When they appeared, all five of them were about this big...... (indicates the size of a melon with her hands) They were tiny babies back then, but they had already grown to this size in the following nine hours. They can already speak too, even if it is only baby talk right now."
Kirito: "......Whaaa......"

Seeing as Kirito became concerned that the town would be overwhelmed with Pattels in a week, Yui assuaged his fears by hypothesising that Unital Ring NPC populations fluctuated depending on the size of their living area and how good their conditions were. Since the houses they had all built at night was enough to support more than twenty Pattels, Yui speculated that a suitable number of babies were born to fill the empty space.
Asuna: "I was surprised by the presence of children when I logged in too, even more so when Yui-chan explained that they were born just this morning, but no matter how high-spec the virtual world of Unital Ring is, it's not like it recreates the actual.... reproduction mechanism, huh."
Alice (with a straight face): "Meanwhile, Underworld had basically the exact same mechanism as the Real World does."
Asuna, Silica, and Leafa: (no comment)
Kirito: "W-well, Underworld is basically the exception of exceptions, after all......"
Kirito (internally): (Recalls that SAO was also an exception, since it had a moral code removal function, which allowed doing the deed itself, though it didn't result in babies......probably)
Kirito (internally): The Seed Package doesn't have such a function, so Unital Ring shouldn't have it either――wait, could it be?
Kirito: "While process itself may not have been recreated, if the NPCs can make babies and we take into account how elaborate the game is with its worldbuilding, then maybe players can also......"
Leafa: "Why would you ever think...... that they can!!"
(Leafa smacks Kirito's back)

Kirito: "W-what gives!"
Leafa: "You were taking this conversation into weird directions there, so what did you expect! If players could have a child amongst themselves, who would be controlling their avatar by that logic!?"
Kirito: "W-well, uh...... as with NPCs, an AI would......"
(A sharp pain with silver sparks pierces Kirito's head, causing him to be unable to stand firmly on his own feet)
Kirito: "Gh............ (staggers)"
Alice: (grabs Kirito's right arm for support)
Leafa (with wide-open eyes): "W-what happened, Onii-chan?"
Kirito: "Oh, nothing......I'm fine, I just got a bit of a headache back there."
Silica (worried): "Kirito-san, you did miss out on a lot of sleep, didn't you. How about you drop off early today?"
Pina: "Kyuru......"
Kirito: "Nah, I'm fine, I'm fine. It's all gone now."
Kirito (internally): The pain went away in an instant. What the heck was that (happens to meet Asuna's gaze)
Asuna: (has a somewhat vacant expression on her, seemingly looking towards Kirito, but her gaze passes through him, as if looking at something far in the distance)
Kirito (whispering): "......Asuna?"
Asuna (regaining focus after a short moment): "Oh....... sorry about that, I just dozed off for a moment there."
Kirito: "We've all been skimping down on our sleep hours, after all. Guess we should let those of us feeling wiped to drop off early today without pushing themselves too much."
Asuna: "Good point. It applies to you too, Kirito-kun."
Kirito: "Roger."
Despite this response, Kirito wasn't planning to go to sleep early, as the survival of their town and his companions was more important to him.

At that point, Kirito asked about Kuro and Agah and learnt that Lisbeth and Sinon had borrowed them for transporting stones. Misha was supposed to help out too, but the little ratmen didn't have the word 'enough' in their vocabulary. This also proved that pets also listened to orders from their owner's friends to some extent. Kirito, Asuna, Leafa, and Alice decided to help out with the stone transportation, but the two girls and two pets had already returned before they could leave the town. Sinon seemed to be worried about the fact that the resource-rich region of the forest would prove useful to would-be invaders, as they'd have all the resources nearby to construct siege weapons, or at least some pillboxes, which would prove useful if any GGO convertees with guns were to find them. This wasn't a concern just yet due to all players lacking the weight capacity to wield any powerful weapons, but it would become a relevant issue at some point.

Acknowledging her concerns, Kirito noted down the issue of figuring out a way not to let their enemies make use of the resources of the forest against them, but the first and foremost issue right now was...
Kirito: "What are we going to do about the name of the town?"
Sinon: "Well, Kirito Town, duh?"
Kirito: "Whoa, whoa, motion denied! You'll only increase the odds of the town getting attacked if you name it like that!"
Lisbeth: "Oh, so you actually are self-aware of the fact that you have a target on your back then."
Kirito: (at a loss for words)
Leafa and Asuna: (giggle)
Alice (with a serious look on her): "What in the world have you been up to in ALO and other worlds?"

----------
Now having returned to the log house, the gang sat in a circle in the living room. Their furniture was mostly gone (though Kirito was looking for a tree big enough to make a table out of to make a replacement for the one Asuna treasured), but the stove came with the kitchen originally, so it didn't go away with the rest of the furniture, while Lisbeth had made some pots with her Blacksmith skill, allowing them to at least boil some water. While waiting for the Sinon expedition to get back the previous day, Asuna had apparently been picking up leaves in the forest and roasting them dry in the pots. Then she grounded them into powder, which unlocked the Pharmacist skill for her. Asuna was going for some tea production, but half of the leaves turned into dyes instead. At that point, Kirito finally noticed that Asuna was no longer sporting her blue hair from Alfheim that she still had before the Sinon expedition departed the previous day; instead her hair was of a light-chestnut colour right now, just as it had been in Aincrad.

Kirito: "......Did you dye your hair yourself?"
Asuna (exasperated): "Took you long to notice."

Asuna could also craft dyes for a deeper shade of brown, as well as reddish-brown and dark grey dyes. Kirito considered dying his own hair for a moment, but none of the options available sounded good for him. Meanwhile, Silica shared her opinion that gaudy and pitch black dyes were probably rare, so it would be a waste for Kirito to change his hair colour.
Asuna: "I've also managed to make several varieties; this one, in particular, has been received the best."
Alice: "Only compared to the others."
Silica: (nods)
Kirito: (takes a sip of the tea, which turns out to taste like barley tea with red shiso)
A buff icon appears under Kirito's HP bar
Kirito: "......It's basically just medicine!"
Alice and Silica: (nod)

As they continued enjoying the tea and thanking Asuna for brewing it, as it wasn't half bad, Klein logged in at 7 o'clock. Andrew was busy managing his cafe, she he would only be able to join them from 10 o'clock, so they began their meeting without him.
The first order of business was deciding the name of the town, but nobody had any bright ideas other than Kirito Town, so this topic got shelved for homework.
The second topic was recruiting more NPCs to live in the town. The prime candidates were the Basin tribe, followed by the Ornits. While the latter and their guns would be a welcome addition to their crew, they decided to settle for the Basins first, as getting to the Ornits required going through areas with dangerous monsters around. Lisbeth volunteered for the negotiations, while Yui and Asuna offered to tag along. Kirito would have joined them too, but he had a different mission to handle this night.
The third topic was Sinon's concerns about enemy forces making use of the abundant resources in the area against them, but they had no bright ideas on this topic either. Instead, they decided to focus on populating the town and getting a companion specialised in intel gathering.
Finally, they decided that the homeguard duty would fall on Silica&Misha, Sinon, Klein and Alice, while Kirito and Kuro stepped out to get Argo at the ALO player starting point, but just as he was about to leave town, Alice caught up with him and protested that she was going with him, as she wanted a change of pace every now and then. And she also had something to talk to him about too. Since Alice looked serious about it, Kirito decided to not to oppose her decision. Alice had already informed Sinon and Klein about her decision, though Klein had a smirk on him when she told him about it. Kirito made a mental note to send the guy a message so he didn't get the wrong idea about this.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 begins with a list of the gang's skills, chosen tree and levels as of 29 September, 7:00 PM.

Kirito - One Handed Sword (片手剣使い) / Blacksmith (鍛冶師) / Carpentry (大工) / Masonry (石工) / Woodworking (木工) / Tamer (調教師) - lvl 16 - Herculean Strength (剛力) tree
Sinon - Gunner (銃使い) / Thief (盗賊) / Masonry (石工) - lvl 16 - Agility (俊敏) tree
Alice - Bastard Sword (片手半剣使い) / Pottery (陶工) / Weaving (織工) / Tailor (裁縫師) - lvl 15 - Herculean Strength (剛力) tree
Leafa - Bastard Sword (片手半剣使い) / Woodworking (木工) / Pottery (陶工) - lvl 12 - Herculean Strength (剛力) tree
Lisbeth - Mace (メイス使い) / Blacksmith (鍛冶師) / Carpentry (大工) / Weaving (織工) - lvl 11 - Toughness (頑強) tree
Silica - Dagger (短剣使い) / Tamer (調教師)/ Weaving (織工) lvl 10 - Agility (俊敏) tree
Yui - Shortsword (小剣使い) / Fire Mage (火魔法使い) / Cook (料理人) / Weaving (織工) lvl 10 - Intelligence (才知) tree
Asuna - Rapier (細剣使い) / Pharmacist (薬師) / Cook (料理人) / Carpentry (大工) / Pottery (陶工) / Weaving (織工) / Tailor (裁縫師) / Tamer (調教師) - lvl 9 - Intelligence (才知) tree
Klein - Scimitar (曲刀使い, lit. "curved sword user") / Woodworking (木工) / Masonry (石工) - lvl 8 - Herculean Strength (剛力) tree
Agil - Axe (斧使い) / Woodworking (木工) / Masonry (石工) lvl 8 - Toughness (頑強) tree

Misha lvl 6
Agah lvl 5
Kuro lvl 5
Pina lvl 2

It wasn't surprising that Klein and Agil were underlevelled, seeing as they had just converted their accounts the day before. Asuna's low level wasn't much of a surprise either, since Asuna had been stuck on home-guard duty for the majority of her playtime. This meant that she also had the largest skill repertoire out of the entire gang, but she was lacking in HP. On the other end of the spectrum, Kirito and Sinon topping the list doesn't come as a surprise since both of them had killed a boss-level monster on their own. However, the outlier was Alice. Despite being stuck on home-guard duty for most of her time in UR just like Asuna, her level was just one short of Kirito and Sinon, despite her not having faced any boss class monsters of her own.

Kirito decided to ask the cat-eared knight about this discrepancy:
Kirito: "Say, Alice, when did you grind up so many levels?"
Alice (slightly peevishly): "Over the course of today and the day before, of course. I do not attend school, after all."
Alice was pouting because she had demanded permission to attend the Survivor school, but with nothing to show for it so far.

Since the forest was mostly filled with nimble monsters that made for poor targets for level-grinding, such as foxes and bats, Kirito pressed on questioning Alice about her grinding. Reminding Kirito of her distaste for hunting large numbers of beasts for experience points, Alice explained that she had found a good way to level up in the forest. There was a creature called a 《Yotsu-me-oo-uzumushi》 (ヨツメオオウズムシ, "four-eyed grand flatworm") lurking in really deep water right to the west of their town. Alice described it as a giant leech, fifteen cen wide and over twenty mer tall (Alice has learnt the names of the real world units of measure, but still subconsciously reverts to using UW units when alone with Kirito). These monsters were transparent gray in colour, making it hard to see them unless sunlight was shining directly upon the water. The main point about this monster was that its very centre had to be accurately slashed through in order to dispose of the monster; if anyone splits it in half, both halves take on a face of their own and regrow into separate monsters.

Alice: "Well, while the Four-Eyed Flatworms are creatures too, they are much easier to hunt than foxes and bunnies, emotionally speaking. What do you call this, human...... what was the word again?......"
Kirito: "Ego?"
Alice: "Yes, that is the one. Realworldians use a lot of strange Sacred Tongue...... I mean, English, terms, so I just can't seem to manage to memorise them."
Kuro (agreeing): "Gau (roar)."
Kirito (internally): Kuro's support for that claim surely can't be caused by the fact that I've been spamming commands like "Kuro, attaku!", right?

While Kirito expressed concern about Alice fighting monsters that multiply by herself, Alice instead emphasised that this is precisely what made them suitable for grinding. By making them multiply, she could continue killing monsters without any need to wait for them to respawn by natural means.

Kirito: "Wait...... so if the monsters are in really deep water, doesn't that mean that you had to fight them underwater? Alice, you can swim?"
Alice: "(pokes Kirito with her finger) Hey, you sure can't stop making denigrating remarks about me. I admit that most of the people in the Human Empire do not excel in swimming, but that does not apply to me."
Kirito: "Though, where exactly did you practice your skills then? Don't tell me you went out of your way to Ruhr River or Norkia Lake for swimming, did you?"
Alice (after a moment of nostalgia): "Of course I did not. Surely you have not forgotten that the 90th floor of the Central Cathedral has......(stops talking in an unnatural manner and makes an "oh shit, I screwed up" face)"
Kirito: "Whoa, are you saying you went for a swim at the Grand Bath!? And that's after you'd already become an Integrity Knight, isn't that right? Oh come on, you were acting so high-and-mighty with me and Eugeo, but when you're all alone, you go swimming in the ba.......(gets a stronger poke from Alice) youch!"

----------

Alice and Kirito continued their trek to the ALO player starting point (Stace Ruins) to the south along the river in silence now, beating active monsters like 《Murasaki-Hashiri-Gani》 (ムラサキハシリガニ, "Purple Running Crab") and 《Nokogiri-Hebitonbo》 (ノコギリヘビトンボ, "Saw Dobsonfly") that didn't have any special attacks, but had sufficiently high stats to cause problems for players whose level was in the single digits, which was not much of an issue for Kirito and Alice though. Kuro had also reached level 5 at some point.

Thirty minutes of running later, the two finally stepped out of the forest, a savanna awaiting them beyond it. The river continued further to the south, but the wet sand that had offered decent footing for running would now be replaced with a precipitous cliff. Disappointed, Kirito idly voiced a desire for a boat to just travel on the river itself.
Kirito: "......If only we had a boat......"
Alice: "Can't you just make one then?"
Kirito: "Wha, a boat?"
Alice: "A decent sailing vessel would of course be a tall order, but if you were to be satisfied with a simple dugout canoe......"
Kirito: "......Good point."

By browsing his Elementary Carpentry skill, Kirito managed to find a 【Large, Crude Dugout Canoe】 at pretty much the bottom of the list. This entry was marked with a double square, which implied that all they needed to do was to gather the ingredients and it would be crafted automatically, rather than having to manually carve out a canoe. There was also a small canoe option, but it was only big enough for two people, so Kuro would have no room on board. The ingredients list for the large canoe: 1 x《Large Sawed Log》(製材された太い丸太), 2 x 《Sawed Log》(製材された丸太), 10 x 《Thin Rope》(細縄), 20 x 《Iron Nail》(鉄の釘), and 2 bottles of 《Flaxseed Oil》(亜麻仁油). Kirito had enough of the last one, while logs and ropes were easy enough to acquire from their surroundings. However, the two of them were three nails short of the required amount; those nails required special crafting stations to produce, which they didn't have around on hand. Luckily, Alice had apparently earned herself a stool from the attackers the previous day, so she proposed taking it apart for materials. Since Kirito had a carpentry skill, Alice foisted the job on him in hopes of increasing the odds of salvaging usable nails out of it. Though Kirito was concerned about his luck due to fears that he had used up all of his lifelong luck in snagging Asuna and surviving SAO with her, but Kuro made its presence known to remind him that he did actually have enough luck to spare to succeed in taming a rare monster without a taming skill.

Upon tapping the stool, Kirito found out that it was a 【High-Quality Oak Stool】. For a moment, Kirito felt bad about destroying a "high-quality" item, but then he noticed that its Durability was nearly down to zero anyway, so he disassembled it... and got exactly 3 【High-Quality Iron Nails】. Out of excitement, Kirito forced a dumbfounded Alice to give him a double high-five, before realising what he had done and rushing out to the forest before she could get angry at him. There, Kirito found a big teak.

Kirito: "This might be a rare tree. We'd better memorise this place."
Alice: "Why not just add a marker on the map."
Kirito: "Whu? (finds out that he can leave a variety of different icons on the map by holding his finger on his position) Whoa... this sure is handy. You could have told me about this sooner."
Alice: "You're probably the only one who has not noticed this feature yet."
Kirito: "......Sorry."

Kirito: (about to draw his sword)
Alice: "I'll do it. This sword here is heavier, after all...... Light, please."
Kirito: "Whu? It takes some know-how to fell a tree with a sword, ya know."
Alice: "As I have mentioned before, I earned a living by felling trees far bigger than this one at Rulid Village."
Kirito: "......Oh, right."
Alice got started on cutting down the tree with 《Horizontal》, but a single use of the skill only cut through over twenty centimetres, so Kirito started working on the ropes in the meantime.

----------

Five minutes later, the two of them had gathered all the missing materials and crafted the canoe. Apparently, it was impossible to place it on dry land, so Kirito had to place it as close to the bank as possible. The canoe was 5 metres long and 90 centimetres wide. It came with two outriggers, long paddles, and an anchor. The three of them jumped aboard. It was now 8:00 PM. They had spent nearly thirty minutes crafting the boat, but Kirito hoped to save time in the long-run by avoiding battles against monsters along the way. Pulling up the anchor, they set off again.

----------

Kirito had flashbacks to his adventures with Asuna and their gondola on the 4th Floor of Aincrad as he began oaring their canoe, as the canoe was operated just like their old gondola: row forward to move ahead, place the oar upright to hit the break, row backwards for reverse, bend to the side for turns. After some rowing along the current, Kirito got a new window to pop up:【Boat-Handling skill acquired. Proficiency reached 1】. This skill increased boat turning speed and decreased the risk of capsizing. As Kirito found himself nostalgically thinking about the good old days with Asuna and The Tilnel, Alice asked him about Koujiro's errand, prompting him to explain that Koujiro was just passing on a message from Kikuoka Seijirou. Although Alice hadn't met Kikuoka in person, she apparently didn't have that good of an impression of the shady man. Meanwhile, Kirito thought that the guy did have some good things about him... such as buying cakes for him.

Kirito: "So wait, did you tag along with me to ask about that?"
Alice: "That was not all there was to it, but yes. So...... what did Kikuoka say?"
Kirito: "Who knows who has infiltrated Underworld, apparently."
Alice (eyes wide-open): "..............! Infiltrated......!? By whom!?"
Kirito: "Utterly unknown, with no way to find out from the Real World side."
Alice: "......Why didn't Dr. Koujiro tell me anything about this?"
Kirito: "Well, that's of course because you'd charge (速攻 = colloquial expression for "right away") right in on your own the moment you found out about that."
Alice: "I only recently discovered that this "charge" (速攻 = swift attack) expression of yours was not referring to "full-speed attacks (全速攻撃). (calmed down after making a quip about Kirito's slang) Indeed, I cannot deny your claim. Apparently, it seems that I am prone to letting my emotions getting the best of me; just a tad more than I had imagined to be the case."
Kirito (internally): Wait, so you never noticed till now!?

Kirito then informed Alice that Kikuoka had called him out to the cafe to ask him to Dive into Underworld and investigate the matter. Alice immediately declared that she would be going with him, though Kirito had already arranged for that in advance. He also asked Alice not to blame Koujiro for hiding the incident from her, as she was only prioritising their safety.
Alice: "......I know that. Rinko is one of the people I trust the most in the Real World, after all."
Kirito: "Wha...... am I included in that list?"
Alice (exasperated): "Your Trust meter just went down because you had to ask...... Wait, am I the only one you asked Kikuoka's permission for accompanying you?"
Kirito: "Well, no...... ehm, umm, I also asked about Asuna."
Alice: "Figured as much."

----------

As their conversation continued, they eventually reached the 15 km milestone, counting from their town. The ALO player starting point was about 30 km away by road, so Kirito assumed they'd be able to reach it in around half an hour. The river gradually became wider, but there were no changes to the cliffy scenery around them, so Kirito was starting to feel drowsy, though he kept himself in check to avoid causing an accident or running into some monsters. He had leveled up his Boat-Handing skill to level 5 by now. But just then, Alice drew Kirito's attention to some noise, while Kuro began growling. The noise consisted of a bass sound, like that of a giant beast cry... but it was monotonic and gradually getting louder.

Alice: "Kirito, stop the boat!"
Kirito (noticing the river disappearing ahead of them): "......W-WATERFALL――――!"

Despite Kirito's attempts to change course, he couldn't stop the boat so easily when it had been going full-speed ahead. In the span of moments, the waterfall sounds became deafening and the two suddenly felt as if they were floating in the air. Their boat was now soaring down the waterfall.
Kirito: "Owa――――!!"
Alice: "Kyaaaaa!!"
Kuro: "Ao~~~~n"


Chapter 4

Kirito (dripping wet): "Well, when you've got a river, it sure doesn't come as a surprise that it has some waterfalls along the way......"
Alice (feebly): "I wish you had realised that five minutes sooner."
Kirito: "Well, we were surrounded by cliffs on both banks, so even if we did realise that sooner, the only options we'd have had were to either plunge down the waterfall, or turn back upstream, though......"
Alice: "If we had actually paid attention, we might have found a way to climb out of there."
Kuro (agreeing): "Gau (roar) (shakes off the water from its fur, most of it landing right on Kirito)
Kirito: (went from dripping-wet to drenched)
Kirito: "......Though, good thing it didn't end in tragedy. Nobody drowned and our boat wasn't destroyed, even if it did capsize."
Alice: "Both of which are a miracle, considering that the waterfall was thirty-mer-high. Be sure to show your gratitude to Goddess Stacia properly."
Kirito: "Aye......"
Kirito (internally): (sees Asuna's Super Account 01 and the Goddess Stacia Alice believes in as one and the same)
Kirito (internally): (decides to thank Asuna ver. Goddess Stacia in his mind)

Having managed to survive the fall with their boat, the three of them reached the shore. Luckily, they weren't all that far away from where they were planning to land anyway. The Stace ruins were about 5 km to the south-west of their current position, so they could reach it in fifteen minutes if they were running, meaning they would reach the ruins at 8:45 PM. Kirito's original estimations had them arriving to town at 9-9:30 PM, so they did manage to save some time via their boat ride. Since the canoe could not be placed into their item storage, Kirito and Alice turned it back upright and anchored it in place. Kirito would have wanted to use it for their return trip as well, but there didn't seem to be a way to get it back upstream because of the waterfall. The two of them considered salvaging it for materials if they could not find any other way to reuse the canoe but decided to leave it as is for the time being to consider alternatives later on.

----------

The grassland they had arrived to was populated by bunnies, snails and other monsters that were clearly weaker than the ones they had encountered in their forest. So much so that they could take care of most of the monsters with a single Sword Skill, though they didn't get much of any experience out of it, nor any noteworthy drops in turn. Nonetheless, the entire party managed to level up: Kirito reached level 17, Alice level 16, and Kuro level 6. This gave Kirito and Alice an extra Ability Point, so he decided to make use of it. Currently, Kirito had Herculean Strength at Rank 8, and its derivative skill Bone-Breaking at Rank 1. Since leveling up the latter required 2 points per level, Kirito decided to max out Herculean Strength first, but then thought of asking Alice what Abilities she had picked up. Alice's Abilities were Herculean Strength at Rank 1, Bone-Breaking at Rank 1, Dogfight at Rank 1, and Iron-Breaking at Rank 2. After a moment of confusion regarding the fact that the last of these Abilities sounded unfamiliar, Kirito realised that it was a Tier 4 Ability, which earned his shock, as leveling the skill to Rank 2 required 4x2 Ability Points. Alice was apparently interested in this Ability because she believed that an Integrity Knight's blade should be able to crush any shield or armour in one swing, while this Ability specifically increased damage to an opponent's defensive gear. This prompted Kirito to reminisce about how heavy Alice's blows had been back at the Cloudtop Garden in Underworld, so much so that he had been driven to the wall in no time. Kirito personally believed that it was more efficient to start off by maxing out lower level skills first, but he decided not force his own opinion on Alice.

Kirito: "In that case, if we encounter any heavily-armed enemies, they're all yours."
Alice: "Meanwhile, the slime and worm types are all yours. Slimies and wrigglies are not my thing."
Kirito: "Okay, okay."
Kirito (internally): How many Four-Eyed Flatworms have you hunted down by now, though...
Kirito: (levels up his Herculean Strength)

Although the monsters in the area weren't a threat to them, Alice and Kirito were forced to take many detours for an unexpected reason: they started encountering groups of players in the middle of grinding for levels. Kirito feared that they would be perceived as PKers if the players saw them running towards them, so the two of them chose to avoid the players entirely instead. After crossing a small hill, they found an enormous fortress city, towering like a small mountain in the flat grasslands. With several layers of ramparts, the city's conical shape made it look like a reverse comma. It was 1 km in diameter and about 200 metres tall, more enormous than the Town of Beginnings from SAO in scale. On the other hand, the ramparts were crumbling all over and there was barely any light inside the town, making it look more like a dungeon than a town.

Their planned rendezvous point with Argo was at a large willow tree, growing 500 metres to the north of the ruins, at 9:00 PM... which was in five minutes, so they got going. Kirito was concerned that finding the willow tree would be difficult, but they easily found one by going south-to-southwest from the hill.

Kirito (internally): This spot totally looks like the place where spooks, I mean, astral-type monsters would pop up, but nobody in the right mind would use such a place for a rendezvous point, so I guess it should be safe.
Kirito: "Hey-yo, Argo, you there?"
Just then,
Alice: "Kirito!"
Kuro: "Grrr!"
Strange voice: "Byoooooo!"

With his hand reflexively placed on his sword handle, Kirito scanned the surroundings and found a half-crumbled stone headstone beside the large willow. This headstone was faintly glowing...... and suddenly, a dimly-white figure popped out from the ground. This figure was wearing a tattered, old-fashioned dress, had its face covered by long hair, and had arms that looked like long, withered branches. And the whole figure was transparent to boot.

Kirito: "......Hey, there actually are spooks around here!!"

Kirito and Alice drew their swords, while Kuro got ready to pounce. Meanwhile, the ghost set its sights on Kirito. Although neither side had actually started attacking, a red spindle cursor appeared over the ghost's head, with the name 【ヴェンジフルレイス】(Vengeful Wraith). This was one of the view monsters that were named in English (in katakana), rather than Japanese. This implied the possibility that this was a boss-class monster, as the only monster they had encountered with an English name so far was the Goliath Rana from the wall dungeon.

The wraith was the first to launch an attack against Kirito. The boy leapt backwards to avoid the attack, fearing that he may not be able to block ghost attacks with his sword. This suspicion was confirmed the next moment when the wraith's right hand slipped through Kirito's sword with a smoke effect. Bending backwards mid-air, Kirito was barely able to avoid having his throat sliced by the wraith's sharp claws. Upon landing, Kirito attempted to counterattack, but the sword again slipped through the ghost, dealing only a few pixels of damage to it.

Kirito: "Alice, physical attacks have basically zero effect on this guy!"
Alice: "Isn't that how ghosts generally work!"

Kirito recalled that he hadn't seen any ghosts in Underworld — minus that time he encountered a living spirit in Distant Journey ― so Kirito presumed Alice's common sense about ghosts was based on ALO. Since physicals attacks didn't work well on them, there were two ways to deal with astral types in ALO: fire/light offensive magic, or using support magic to enchant weapons. Neither of which was a feasible option at the moment. Kirito was confident that Excalibur could exorcise the wraith in one fell swoop, but he had left it back at their house... and he couldn't even wield it properly with his current stats. At that moment, Kirito wondered what happened to Argo, which gave the wraith an opening. It suddenly dove into the ground down to its waist, before charging at him. Kirito's worries about Argo and the unforeseen attack pattern caught Kirito off-guard, which allowed the wraith to hit his forearm for over 10% HP damage, despite his attempts to block the incoming attack. Additionally, the attack afflicted him with a chill debuff for continuous damage, along with an intense sensation of chilliness.

Alice and Kuro followed with their own attacks, the latter dealing slightly more damage with its fangs, which shaved off about 3% of the wraith's HP. The wraith responded in turn by clawing Kuro in the back, which dealt over 10% HP damage, as well as afflicting Kuro with a chill debuff. Kirito rushed to support the panther, dreading the possibility of losing his pet, despite only taming it the day before in the heat of the moment. As Kirito sank into a sea of thoughts, considering whether to flee from the battle, as well as why such a strong monster was lurking right next to the beginner area, he suddenly heard a voice from behind him.



"Kii-bou, fire works great against that dude, maN!"



Just then, something shiny came flying at him. A torch. Kirito barely managed to catch it with his left hand.
Kirito: "Alice, five seconds please!"
Alice: "I shall ensure you get ten!"

As Alice kept the wraith busy, Kirito took out the sole remaining bottle of flaxseed oil from his storage and poured the oil onto his sword. He then changed places with Alice, ignited his sword, and attacked the wraith with Sonic Leap as it began to retreat. In response, the wraith countered with a spell that shot out three needles. The wraith's needles hit Kirito, while the latter's attack split the wraith in half and decreased its HP bar right down to 25% in one fell swoop. Kirito wanted to follow-up with another attack to finish off the wraith, but the post-skill delay locked him in place. As he couldn't move, Argo rushed in, snatched the torch from him, and thrust it into the wraith. Although the wraith's two halves fused together, the engulfed flame not only didn't stop burning; it actually got stronger and burst out from the wraith's eyes, depleting its HP to zero.

As the wraith disappeared in a grandiose explosion, Kirito didn't even have the time to complain about this being further proof that this wraith was no ordinary small fry, nor wonder what a boss was doing so close to the beginner spawning point, since the wraith left behind a small blue light, which began floating away. Hurriedly, Kirito climbed up the willow tree and jumped off it, barely managing to touch the blue light mid-air, before landing on the ground with two somersaults.

As Kirito began calling out to the girl that had joined them mid-battle, Argo's petite figure was engulfed in a level-up effect, bumping her all the way to level 8 in an instant. As Kirito began praising Argo for the nice combo, he remembered that he hadn't finished complaining to her for designating such a dangerous point for a rendezvous, as well as for worrying him that she might have got herself killed by the wraith. Meanwhile, Alice had got the impression that Argo had set up a trap for them to kill them off. Before Argo could explain anything, Kirito took notice of the fact that Argo's avatar looked younger than her real world self, giving him a sense of nostalgia, seeing as this was the Argo he knew back from his SAO days.

Kirito: "Wait, didn't you tell me that you hadn't moved your SAO character data to ALO?"
Argo: "YEAH, I diD. I had used a character I made from scratch to meet with Chrysheight, ya seE. I could have come here with that account, buT...... if I'm gonna go adventuring with Kii-bou and Aa-chan again, I figured it had to be with this one, maN."
Kirito: "So, you're saying that you moved your SAO character to ALO just today and logged in with it......? Which fairy race did you pick? (stares at Argo's face, skin and other defining attributes for some clues)".
Argo (frowning): "Stop starin' at me like that, maN. I didn't even get to pick any race, ya knoW. I got hurled into this world just as I was attempting to get into ALO; by the time I opened my eyes, I was already like this, maN."
Kirito: "Ooh...... so you're saying you're human, I mean, a humankin from Aincrad then, Argo...... Thooough, wasn't ALO's Ymir supposed to be thrown into utter chaos? I'm surprised they processed your data conversion."
Argo: "That's the thing, seE, I just entered my SAO ID and pass into the request form on Ymir's site and got my new ID sent to me right after I pressed the send button, seE. Not the kind of speed manual manpower could pull off, I tell yA."
Kirito: "Ooh...... it used to be processed manually; when did it get automated...... (shrugs it off as an unimportant detail) So, I didn't get any answer to my first question."
Argo: "Ah, the reason why I chose this place for our rendezvous, huH. Li'l ol' me, of all people, failed to do her research properly, seE. There was a map of the area posted on a wiki one of the UniRin frontline teams had made; this willow tree was marked on it, seE. Along with a courteous caption about it: 『Monsters don't spawn in the area, so its safe』, seE."
Kirito: "Haa!? How is this considered safe...... a low-level player would have found themselves dead in one fell swoop if they got close to it."
Alice: (deep nod)
Kuro: "Gau (roar)"
Argo (looking at Kuro): "Cool panther ya got there, guyS. Whose pet is it?"
Kirito: "Mine. Wait, you're supposed to be a rat, but you can't stand dogs, yet cats aren't a problem for you?"
Argo: "Surprised you remember that, maN. For the recorD, dogs catch rats too. There's even a dog breed called Rat Terrier that's specialised for hunting rats, I'll have ya knoW."
Kirito: "Ooooh...... wait, we were talking about that wraith back there. So what, you're saying the walkthrough wiki had incorrect info on it?"
Argo: "Not exactlY. Take a look at this, maN."

Argo showed Kirito her quest window, which listed three quests: 【Bunny Charm: Recommended level 1】, 【Lost Belongings in the Sewer: Recommended level 3】, 【The Ancient Vengeful Spirit: Recommended level 20】.
Kirito: "Whoa, so this is it!? The wraith back there was a quest boss!?"
Argo: "Seems sO. It doesn't appear unless you've accepted this q'st and fulfil some conditions, seE."
Alice: "However, neither I nor Kirito have accepted any such quest."
Argo: "It's probably a tag-team effort, girL."
Kirito: "Ha......?"
Argo: "Li'l ol' me visited this place ten minutes before our appointed time. When I did, the headstone beside the willow started glowing, seE...... Back then, it was just glowing with no monsters popping out thougH, but I got a real bad feeling about it, seE. I was thinking about sending Kii-bou here a message to change our rendezvous point, but I couldn't just drop off right here, after alL, so I was about to head back to the ruinS. Just then, I heard a helluva noise behind me, so I turned back and came here, seE."
Kirito: "Uh-huh...... so you activated the headstone by having accepted the q'st, while we met the conditions for getting the wraith to spawn. What exactly was this condition then?"
Argo: "Having a materialised silver item on hand with yA, apparently."
Kirito: "Ha? Silver......? ......I have nothing on me that fits the bill."
Alice: "Oh...... that might have been me. (takes out a silver coin from her pouch)"
【100 El silver coin - Coin - Weight 0.1】
Kirito (returning the coin to Alice): "Where did you get this?"
Alice: "Before we left Kirito Town, Sinon entrusted this to me. She asked me to buy her as many musket bullets and explosives with the money if there were any NPC shops in Stace Ruins that had some in stock."
Kirito: "Oh, I see......"
Argo: "HMM, didn't seem like they were selling any bullets or gunpowder, girL. The majority of the Stace Ruins is utterly abandoned and even monsters pop up there, seE, but the very center of it does function as a town and there are several NPC shops there, yeS. Though, all they're selling are simple tools and grub, also some beginner gear and that's about it, as I recalL."
Kirito (totally asking out of concern about needing to fill up his SP bar): "Say what...... what kind of grub?"
Argo (exasperated): "Geez louise, I see you're still the same ol' glutton in the virtual world, maN.
Alice: "Reminds me of the time he took out some manju from his pocket......More importantly, Kirito, don't you think it is about time you introduced us?"
Kirito: "Huh?....... Oh, yeah, it's your first time meeting each other, huh."
Kirito (internally): How should I introduce them to each other.

Chapter 5

After reuniting with Argo, Kirito had been planning to head back to their forest straight away. But Argo requested going back to the Stace Ruins for a bit. she had two reasons for this: one was to see what had become of her quest. The other was to slip into a social get-together the teams working on progressing through the game were holding in the ruins at 10 PM.

En route to the gathering, Kirito questioned Argo if outsiders would even be allowed there. Argo in turn reassured him that they'd be fine, since there would be nearly a hundred other people there, though they would have to do something about their getup. Their armour didn't look like beginner stuff, or stuff brought over from ALO, after all. However, Kirito then realised another issue: no other players had any pets with them, while they were accompanied by a panther two metres in size, which didn't exactly help them remain discreet.

At that point, Argo proposed having the panther stay at one of the empty dilapidated buildings. Since Kuro had no trouble doing its own things while Kirito was asleep and at school, there was no fear of Kuro running away due to being left to its own devices for half an hour, but he was nonetheless anxious about leaving it unattended in a foreign land with players all over the place. Just then, Alice volunteered to stay with the panther while Argo and Kirito went to the meeting; she didn't like being in large crowds anyway.

In return, Alice asked them to take care of Sinon's shopping order, giving them the leather bag with the coins she got from Sinon.
Kirito: "Sure, that much I can do......though I'm getting the feeling we won't find any bullets or gunpowder for sale here."
Alice: "If it happens, it happens. Be sure not to misuse the money on buying snacks from stalls."
Kirito: "I'm not a kid, you know."
Argo: "Nihihi."

At that point, Kirito stashed away his metal armour into his inventory. In its stead, he put on a large and crude mantle, making himself look like a prime example of a low level player right after the end of the grace period. Meanwhile, Alice had been wearing one all this time, thus removing her armour didn't really make her look any different.
Argo: "Hoh, li'l ol' me could use one of these hooded mantles myself now, and fasT. I just can't seem to relax when my mug is exposed for the whole world to see, ya seE."
Kirito (seeing that there's barely any greenery around): "Why didn't you ask sooner. We could have easily made the cloths for one if we were still somewhere with plenty of grass ripe for the picking."
Argo: "Whu, so these things are made out of grass, theN?"
Kirito: "Not like just any grass can be turned into cloths, though."
Alice: "Then give me yours, maN."
Kirito" D-don't wanna."
Alice: "As I recall, I had some cloths left over, so I can make a hooded mantle for you."
Argo: "Oh, would you be so kind, Alicchi?"
Kirito: "Hey, don't just come up with random nicknames."
Alice: "Huhu, I don't mind. It is nice to be called by a nickname."

Since the mantle was a very simplistic commodity, Alice was able to craft it with a click of a button, rather than manually sewing it. Argo promised to return the favour someday as she accepted her mantle and put it over the leather armour she brought over from ALO. At this point, Argo basically looked like herself from her SAO days, minus the three whiskers.
Kirito (staring at Argo's face): If only I had a permanent marker, I could grab hold of her and scrawl some whiskers on her.
Argo: "Kii-bou, it ain't exactly polite to be staring at a lady's face so much."
Kirito (panicking): "S-sorry."

Taking his eyes off Argo, Kirito observed the area and noticed a lack of players in their area, despite there being over five thousand ALO players at the very least, most of whom were supposed to be using these ruins as their base of operations. When Kirito voiced his concerns, Argo explained that the norther gate of the ruins wasn't all that popular. According to the wiki that Argo referenced, the northern part of the ruins had a complicated network of roads, making it difficult to reach the central area. Moreover, the northern fields had few monster spawns, which is why Argo chose it for their rendezvous point in the first place. When Kirito continued pressing the point that it was weird not to come across anyone at all, Argo chided him for thinking that all the players who were forced to convert were actually still playing. According to Argo's estimates, only one in three players converted to Unital Ring were actually active. The others, including the ALO Lords, were waiting for the situation to be resolved.

At that point, Kirito realised that Argo had a point. He monologued about how only optimists, egoists, and game addicts would follow the instructions of the mysterious announcement during a possibly criminal situation, considering the fact that everyone had to pay monthly fees for their games that were suddenly smashed into one. So, the meeting held in the ruins would specifically be a gathering of people taking things way too seriously. At this point, Kirito realised that he had stopped in place, while Asuna (sic!, Kawahara made an oopsie and mistyped Alice as Asuna here), Argo, and Kuro were waiting for him in silence. After passing through a half-collapsed gate, Argo started leading the way to a good abandoned house nearby.

----------

The houses in the ruins were all built on the medial side of the multiple ramparts. The buildings themselves were made of stone and used to be decent apartment houses reminiscent of an old European town, but most of them had crumbled away. Additionally, insect and small animal monsters have set up nests in some of these dilapidated houses. Although the house that Argo took the group to had a big hole in its roof, at least its main door and stairs were in tact; there was also a usable room on the second floor. That's where Kirito and Argo left Alice with Kuro as they set out for the central part of the ruins.

While Kirito easily found himself confused by all the twists and turns along the way, Argo was blessed with an uncanny ability to find her way around, allowing them to reach a waterway in six or seven hundred metres, which delineated the boundary between the functioning town area and the wild ruins. After crossing a now-crumbling bridge, they suddenly saw a change in scenery: torches at regular intervals, small street stalls on the side of the road, and increasing numbers of NPCs an players. While UR didn't show cursors just by focusing one's gaze on a target, it was easy to distinguish NPCs from players: the NPCs all had sickly-pale skin and were wearing ancient roman tunics. The street stalls only offered low-grade materials for sale; bullets and gunpowder were nowhere to be found.

When Kirito wondered about the NPCs and what human tribe they belonged to, as they seemed different from the Basins, Argo revealed that it was impossible to even communicate with any of them, aside from those running stores, as they spoke an incomprehensible language (implying that players needed to learn the respective language skill to communicate with these NPCs). Kirito proposed taking a gander at the wares of the weapon stores, but Argo disappointed him with the news that she had already confirmed that none of them had guns, bullets, or gunpowder.

As they continued walking, they reached the end of the small shopping district in fifty metres and saw an arch in the distance. Upon passing through it, they entered the central area of the ruins. The circular square was surrounded by large buildings, such as fortified mansions and a church, while the center of the square was taken up by a stone stadium that looked like the Roman Colosseum. Its countless arches were all half-crumbled, but there was a huge crowd inside. That was where the get-together was going to take place.

Argo warned Kirito that if anyone asked what team they belonged to, he should claim that they were from the "Announcer-chan's Fan Club", since they were the most lax of the groups and had sloppy management of their members, so no one would be able to tell they were lying. Kirito wondered if this "Announcer-chan" was referring to the voice that they heard when their grace period expired. Argo hadn't heard the voice herself, but Kirito was very much convinced that his guess was correct, since there hadn't been anything else that could count as a system announcement. Though Kirito was surprised that the fan club was started by veterans, even though it wasn't clear if the voice belonged to a human, god, or devil, nor whether it even had a human form

Going through the main gate, the two of them arrived at a 50 metre wide arena. True to Argo's info, there were nearly a hundred players assembled there. Most of them were limited to simple fabric armour, though a few were decked out in leather armour and chainmail that they had brought over from ALO, as none of the better gear looked locally-crafted. Since all of them were top players, this implied that no one but them had reached the iron age yet. There was a stone stage at the northern side of the arena, illuminated by loads of torches. Kirito and Argo took up positions at the walls on the opposite side of the arena to await the beginning of the meeting.The other players were too focused on exchanging info with other players to notice them.

Kirito: "......Argo, how's your SP and TP holding out?" Argo: "Mmn, I've got some water I filled up from that well over therE, but my grub stores might be getting a bit iffy, I guesS." Kirito: "Here. (takes out two pieces of bison jerky and offers one to Argo)" Argo: "Oh my, 'ppreciate it, maN. (Takes a piece of jerky but makes no attempt to actually put it into her mouth) Hmm... I ain't really used to getting any freebies, even if they come from Kii-bou," Kirito: "Well get used to it, we couldn't actually call ourselves companions if we kept tallies of all the small exchanges. You can easily die from hunger and thirst in this world, after all...... I think water and foodstuffs should be considered community property." Argo: "Companion, eH. UHIHI, now that sure feels kosobattai, maN." Kirito (internally): That weird adjective is probably a mish-mash of the words "kosobayui" (ticklish, embarassing, awkward) and "kusuguttai" (ticklish, embarassing). Argo: (finally bites into the jerky) After quickly finishing her jerky, Argo took out something that looked like a long and narrow fruit from her fabric bag and took a drink out of it. Apparently, there's a well to the south of the square and some trees with these fruit grow beside it. The NPC well manager gives each player one of these fruit to use as a canteen. The fruit can't hold much water, but getting any container for water isn't exactly an easy task either. Kirito took out his own bisque canteen, which could hold thrice as much water as Argo's fruit but was in turn heavier and more brittle, and drank some water himself. He hoped to make some canteens out of leather or other lighter materials one day to make them both easier to carry and sturdier, but they had more important priorities to deal with at the moment.

As Kirito thought over stuff like this, the clock struck 10 PM. The people ahead of them began making noise, thus Kirito turned to the stage, where he saw four players climbing onto the stage. Leading the procession was a tall man with studded armour and a one-handed sword. The second was a man in scalemail armour and armed with a scimitar. The third man only had fabric armour on him but was armed with a large two-handed sword on his back. The final, fourth player was wearing a white hood and sported a slender figure...... making them seem female. Kirito couldn't make out her face from fifty metres away though. Kirito wanted to come closer, but Argo disagreed with the idea, as she didn't want to stand out; just hearing the voices from a distance was enough for her.

"Hei gaizu, 'bout time we kicked this off!", so began the studded armour guy. "I'm Holger (ホルガー), the guy who got this get-together going, as well as the chair of the 《Survival For-Sure Squad》(絶対生き残り隊)! You have my meni meni sanksu for coming together here!". Kirito wasn't familiar with this guy, but he did remind him of someone. A moment later, Kirito realised that this guy was similar to Diavel: the Colosseum was similar to the arena in Tolbana, while Diavel had the same kind of well-resonating voice and cheery self-introduction. This similarity made Kirito think about Diavel and the Anneal Blade that the guy wanted to buy from him. Even now, Kirito at times wonders if Diavel wouldn't have been so obsessed with Illfang's Last Attack bonus if he had sold his Anneal Blade to Diavel.

Holger: "Now let's get to know the naisu gaiz who helped me bring the idea meet-up to life! First off, the leader of the 《Weed Eaters》(雑草を食らう者ども), Dickos (ディッコス)!". The scimitar man raised his hands into the air, drawing a round of applause.
Holger: "Next up, the leader of the 《Announcer-chan's Fan Club》, Twoblow (ツブロー)!", the guy with the two-handed sword drew slightly less applause, but he did prompt a lot of throaty cheers and jeers instead.
Holger: "Finally, the leader of the 《Virtual Research Society》, Mutasina!"
Everyone (internally): "Who's that supposed to be?"
Mutasina: (takes off her hood, revealing her long, black hair, pure white skin, and beautiful face)
The 90%-male-audience: (biggest round of applause, cheers and whistling rings out)
Mutasina: (waves her hand, all smiles, energising the audience even more)

Holger: "Today's gathering is brought to you by these guys! Unfortunately, I hear 《Fawkes》 got themselves wiped out last night, so they'll be absent!"
The audience: (goes into a commotion)
Kirito: (subconsciously looks at Argo for answers, as he's never heard of that name, but he only sees her giving an eyeroll)
Holger (answering the numerous demands for an explanation from the audience): "Well uh, I don't really know the deets myself. Seems 《Fawkes》 and several other people they got on board left the ruins last evening and then lost group battle somewhere up north."
Player A "By north, you mean the Basin Tribe?"
Player B: "Those dudes are batshit crazy, after all...... Even dudes who tried going after them during the grace period with all the gear and skills they brought over just got their asses whooped instead."
Player C: "Ain't no way that the Fawkes dudes weren't aware of all that. Why'd they ever go off on such a risky gamble now of all times..."
Kirito: (gets a nasty premonition about the whole thing)

Holger then continued by stating his opinion that it only proved that Unital Ring wasn't any conventional game and that Ymir hasn't posted any news of when they'd get ALO back together for three days now, so he proposed that the ALO players be the first to reach the place indicated by the aurora and bring the incident to an end themselves. Meanwhile, Kirito thought about cooperating with the other ALO players and making their home as the first stopping point towards the aurora, which would allow them to prevent further attacks, but he couldn't shake his nasty premonition, so he waited for Holger's next words. The man then stated that the goal of the get-together was to encourage friendship and intel exchange among the four teams gathered there, prompting some players to bring in carts of food and water.

Kirito: ".......Wonder where they got the spices?"
Argo: "Seems they're sellin' some at the stalls in the market, maN."
Kirito: (decides that it would be brazen of them to go for the freebie grub when they barged in on the meeting and that his curiosity about the serious ALO players was satisfied)
Argo: "Sure you don't need to get a munch, hmM? (smirk)"
Kirito (pouting): "I don't feel like providing fuel for your 《Kirito turns into a glutton when he's in a virtual world》 doctrine. Let's slip out while everyone's busy."

Argo proposed getting some food from the stalls on their way back then and Kirito agreed with the idea. But just when the two of them were about to head back to the entrance....... the stone paving beneath them started glowing bluish-purple. Argo: "Oah!?"
Kirito: "What the!?"
Their exclamations were drowned out by the clamour of the other players, seemingly unaware of what was going on. On closer look, Kirito noticed that it wasn't the stone paving itself that was glowing, but rather a complicated texture that appeared over the stone. Consisting of numerous rings, patterns, and intermingling symbols, this was....
Kirito: "A magic circle......?"

Following the lines of light, Kirito traced them back to the center of the arena. There, he saw a crest shining even brighter, likely indicating the centre of the magic circle. Meaning that the entire 50 metre diametre arena was engulfed by a magic circle of the same size. The spell was so vast that it would be called 《great magic》 or 《ultimate magic》 in ALO. Then all of a sudden, the crest began wriggling like a creature. This created an over ten metre tall pillar of light, which took on a strange silhouette. A long and narrow head with countless thorns sticking out of it. Long, wriggling and entwined hair. Six arms with double elbows. The top half of this body looked like an emaciated woman, while the lower half of the body was made up of tentacles. The monstrous figure that could only be described as an evil god raised its four arms up high, shouting out some words that didn't sound human. Bluish black balls of light were brought forth out of its palms.

As Kirito pondered about ways to stop the spell that was undoubtedly filled with malice,
Argo: "Kii-bou, we're makin' a run for it!"

As Argo was about to break into a run for the entrance, Kirito's guts told him that they wouldn't make it in time, so he grabbed the nape of her hooded mantle and pushed her behind him, as he drew his sword.
Kirito: "Hide!"
The very next moment, a large number of balls of light were fired out from the evil god's palms.

With a jarring sound, the balls traced complicated trajectories as they started hitting all players, both those standing still and those trying to get away. Implying that the balls had high-grade homing capabilities. While the balls didn't make players fall over, Kirito presumed that they would inflict either some sort of debuff or delayed damage. Not wanting to test out what the balls actually did with his own skin, Kirito focused on the two balls coming for them. Hoping that UR's magic followed the same logic as in ALO, Kirito decided to use his self-conceived 《Spell Blast》 "skill". Basically, while spells in ALO did not have any material substance, if an attack that included some attribute aside from physical managed to hit the very centre of the spell, it was possible to break the spell...sometimes. Kirito had no proof that elemental damage for Sword Skills from ALO was ported into Unital Ring, but he had no choice but to run with that assumption at this point. Unleashing 《Sonic Leap》, Kirito jumped towards one of the balls coming down at them. Upon slicing through its centre, he felt breaking something really small and hard inside it. At that point, the bluish-black ball scattered like a very viscous liquid. Meanwhile, the other ball changed its trajectory mid-air and hit Kirito in the nape. This caused Kirito to feel some strange feeling wrapping around his neck. As if a transparent demon was strangling his neck.

Gritting his teeth, Kirito turned around upon landing onto the ground.
Kirito: "Argo, you okay!?"
Argo (frozen still beside the wall, spending several moments staring at Kirito with wide-open eyes): "Li'l ol' me is just fine and dandy, yeS...... but Kii-bou, what did yoU......"
Kirito: "Talk later, we've gotta head somewhere where we can hightail it out of here if it comes down to it! It'd be bad news if he caster picked up on my Spell Blast just now!"
Argo: "............GotchA."

The two trotted over to the entrance, keeping the heads low. There, they looked over their surroundings. By then, the evil god had started melting away into the air at the centre of the arena, while the magic circle had begun shrinking until it disappeared. The other players were standing still, dumbstruck by what was going on. Eventually, someone made a comment.
Player: "Hey, what's with your neck......"
This started a cascade of players checking below each other's jawlines and touching their own napes. Kirito's eyes found themselves on a nearby man's neck, where he noticed some sort of black ring or something placed onto it――or more accurately, a ring-shaped pattern etched directly onto the skin. Kirito couldn't see his own neck, but one nod from Argo told him that the same thing was on his own neck too. However, Kirito didn't see any decrease to his HP, MP, TP, or SP, nor noticed anything else wrong with his avatar.

Holger?: "Why you...... what exactly are ya playing here!?"
Meanwhile, on the stage, Holger, Dickos, and Twoblow had drawn their weapons and were pointing them at Mutasina.
Holger: "Mutasina, ya said so yerself, dincha! 'Oh, I'll whip up a bigass buff to liven up the party', you claimed! Yet that was clearly a debuff, no matter how ya try to wiggle yer way out of it! For a joke, I ain't seein' anyone laughing at it!"
Mutasina (unfazed): "It is no joke, of course. It all went as I had foreseen."
Holger: "Foreseen...... say what!? So, the reason you gave your OK to taking part in this get-together was because you were planning to cast that spell on all of us here from the very start!?"
Mutasina: "Isn't that what I just said? What other reason could I possible have for taking part in such a meaningless gathering, after all?"
Angry player A: "Stop shitting with us! Get this shitspell off us, pronto!"
Angry player B: "You seriously thinkin' you can go around making enemies of a hundred players and win!?"
Holger (taking a step forward): "You heard them, get this debuff off us right this instant! If you don't, there's one other way to get rid of it."
Kirito (internally): No doubt he means killing the caster.

As Dickos and Twoblow pincered Mutasina from the sides and other players moved in on the arena, Kirito wondered whether the spell affected Mutasina's team as well, or whether she had them move out of the way beforehand. But at this point, Kirito was all but convinced that Mutasina would be killed off, leaving the whole thing a mystery. However, as the three team leaders were about to trigger Sword Skills against Mutasina, the girl lifted her long staff up high, all composed, before striking it into the ground with great force. A shrill sound rang out, when suddenly...... Kirito dropped to his knees, unable to breathe. He felt as if some sort of sticky object got stuck in his air way, clogging it up. Kirito placed his hands onto his neck, desperately trying to catch a breath, but he could neither breath in or out. Panicking, Kirito looked ahead, only to see that the team leaders and other players in the arena were all squirming on the ground just like him. He also noticed the rings on everyone's necks giving off a faint, bluish purple glow. Kirito assumed the same was happening to him, so he looked at his HP bar, where he found a debuff icon of two hands in a strangling position to the right of the bar had lit up.

Unaffected by this debuff herself, Argo rushed over to Kirito and slapped his back numerous times in an attempt to help him, but the lump Kirito felt in his throat would not go away. Ten, then twenty seconds passed...... and Kirito's panic only got worse. The sensation felt so realistic that Kirito began to think that his actual body in the real world was suffocating as well. While thinking over whether that was even possible, Kirito desperately attempted to access his menu to escape the anguish by logging out. But just when Kirito finally managed to call out the menu after several failed attempts, he heard another sound ring out and the sensation of a lump clogging up his airways disappeared. Greedily devouring the air around him, Kirito noticed that the debuff icon was gone and looked up to the stage again. The three team leaders were down on their hands and knees, while Mutasina was standing there all composed in the middle. The sight slightly reminded Kirito of Administrator. Despite strangling a hundred players and seeing them writhing in agony, she remained unfazed: neither worked up, nor hesitant, just standing there with a faint smile. Her nerves made her seem like no ordinary human.

Mutasina: "Now then, have you learnt your lesson? You have all been afflicted with a spell called the 《Choker of the Damned》(忌まわしき絞輪). You have already experienced what it does with your own skin...... if successfully cast, there is no limit to the distance from which it can be triggered and its duration is infinite."
Everyone: (going into a panicky commotion)
Mutasina: (lifts her long staff a bit)
Everyone: (quiets down)
Mutasina: "But rest at ease now. I did not cast this spell on all of you to torment you, by any means. I would like to clear the game just as much as you do......and to that end, I simply pursued the most optimal course of action."
Twoblow (asking resolutely while staggering up onto his feet): "......Most optimal? You call coercing your companions with this shitspell the most optimal choice? This venue has members from your own 《Virtual Research Society》 too, ya know?"
Mutasina: "Companions......? (chuckle) The reason why you all gathered here was because your interests just happened to coincide for the time being, no? I can firmly declare the following: even if you were to promise to cooperate with each other, once we get close to our goal, conflict will first arise between our teams, then within the ranks of our own teams. However, we can avoid this outcome, at least for as long as my spell is in effect...... See? Wouldn't you call this the most optimal, the most efficient means if we are to aim for clearing the game?"
Dickos: "......As if! We...... Me, Holger, and Twoblow, we all trust each other! Even if we'll end up with a race in the end, there's no way we'd resort to killing each other through treachery! We'll help each other out till the very last moment, then aim for the goal through a fair and square race, and then celebrate whoever wins...... isn't that how games, how VRMMOs are supposed to work!?"
Mutasina: "Pfffft....... pfffft."

Mutasina: "Pfft, pfffft...... oh sorry, you were just so funny. ――Trust? Celebrate? Do you seriously believe such things exist in this world......nay, the virtual world in general?" Mutasina's voice lighthearted voice turns chilly all of a sudden.
Mutasina: "――No way that could happen. (looking down on all the players) In the virtual world...... or at least VRMMOs based on The Seed, stuff like trust, love, aid and all that crap are just delusions. The only things that can be found here are hatred, betrayal, deceit, and despair. After all, the origin for all FullDive-type Virtual World is THE Sword Art Online, you see. The world of hell where a whole four thousand players left their resent behind as they died."
Kirito: (Resists the urge to lash out by clenching his teeth)
Kirito then monologues about how Sword Art Online was by no means solely filled with hatred and despair, despite all the casualties. As he wouldn't be able to be with his friends if that's all it boiled down to.
Mutasina (in a chilly voice): "The darkness spawned by SAO has disseminated into the vast The Seed Nexus and proliferated. And now, all the endless worlds have become one again. When the darkness is once again condensed within the world of Unital Ring and exceeds the boiling point, something new...... likely something thicker and darker will be spawned. I simply want to see what this something turns out to be."
As if remembering something at that point,
Mutasina: "......Of course, there are members of the Virtual Research Society here too. They have given their consent to being subjected to the 《Choker of the Damned》. I may be contradicting my own earlier words, but they and I have a bond of unshakable trust between us. That is why I firmly believe that you all will come to the fold as well."

Over ten seconds of heavy silence later,
Holger (flopping down onto the ground): "So...... what exactly is it that you want us to do then?"
Mutasina: "Haven't I just made myself clear? I want us to all to join forces on cordial terms and head for the game's goal...... the 《land indicated by the aurora》. (After a short laugh) Well, I guess we need a more concrete roadmap nevertheless. Rest at east, I have already decided on our initial goal."
Holger: "A goal......?"
Mutasina: "Holger-san, remember how you mentioned during your first greeting how Team 《Fawkes》 was wiped out last night? They were killed by neither boss monster, nor the Basins. They raided the base of another team in a large forest upstream of the 《Malbe River》 east of the ruins, and got beaten themselves."
Everyone: (commotion)

Kirito (internaly): So, Fawkes refers to Schulz's ban, who attacked out log house last night. And if she's bringing that up at this point, there's only one thing she could be after... Mutasina: "I will have you all first crush that team." Dickos: "......Why crush them? Can't you just cast your strangling spell on them to make them your lackeys too?" Mutasina (shrugging): "It is not so easy of a feat to successfully cast the 《Choker of the Damned》. The gesture for triggering it is long, while the magic circle sticks out like a sore thumb, you see. It is probably impossible to make it work unless you are dealing with someone who would fall for a silly old lie, like 'I'll cast a grand buff for entertaining the party'. Holger and co: (indignant) Mutasina: "There is no need for those sour looks. It wasn't that you yourselves were foolish; your future enemy is just that much fearsome. After all, settled in the forest up north...... at the Great Zeluterio Forest is the band led by the 《Black Swordsman》, Kirito."

Chapter 6

At 10:40 PM, Kirito and Argo left the get-together. While they initially had only planned to take a peek to get a feel for the situation, they ended up staying till the very end due to the turn of events, leaving Alice and Kuro waiting in the abandoned house the entire time. Yet Kirito wanted to at least take a gander at the shops before regrouping so that staying at the meeting and being debuffed wouldn't have been a huge waste. After asking some players for directions, the two arrived at a shop in the corner of the marketplace. He then took out all the hyena, bison, and bat hide, bones and so forth he had lying around in his inventory and offered them to the pale old store manager, only to be offered 3 El and 78 Dim for all his stuff. The low number surprised him, as the bison stuff came from some rather high-ranked monsters from the Gjol Plains, while the bat and axolotl stuff came from monsters that were nothing to sneeze at either.

The old man took offense at Kirito's reaction, claiming that he had added some bonuses to the total due to the rarity of some of the items, though he did imply that tanned leather would fetch a bigger price than rawhide. Kirito considered taking back his stuff and tanning the hide before selling it off, but he neither knew what materials he would need for the job, nor how to go through the process in the first place. There was also the issue if how he had no idea when he'd even visit the town again, so he continued groaning in hesitation.

Just then, another man in leather armour, looking through the wares in a corner of the store suddenly turned around.
Man: "Hey bro, 3 El 78 Dim is a helluva big deal. And here I am hesitating whether 10 mats for 1 Dim is worth buying."
As Kirito wondered whether the man was a player or NPC,
Man: "Hold up, where didja get all 'em high-grade pelts? If you've got some secret spot for the stuff, what do you say to 3 Dim sharing info on it with me?"
Kirito (shrugging): "Oh, well, it's not exactly nearby. It's further to the north than Aincrad's crash site, after all."
Man: "Uhe, you're tellin' me you went that far away for it! So, you mean to tell me you're one of 'em Esteemed Clearers despite lookin' so shabby?"
Kirito: "Cl......Clearers? Is that what they call them?"
Man: "We did go around using a variety of names for them, like dieharders, star corps, or top players; don't know when this name stuck though. Hey hold up, the Clearer lot had some gathering at the Colosseum, didn't they? Just when it seemed they were having a blast, it all went silent all of a sudden; did somethin' happen?"
Kirito (resisting the urge to touch his choker): "Oh, uh...... I only took a slight peek inside, so I wouldn't know. Thx for the tip."
After the conversation with the player, Kirito decided to take the NPC's offer for his materials. At that point, the stuff on the counter disappeared, with a message popping to inform him that he got 3 x 1-El-worth brass coins and 78 x 1-Dim-worth copper coins. After double checking that there were no bullets or explosives on sale at the store, Kirito left the store with Argo and started walking north.

Kirito: "Maaan...... Sinon's hundred El silver coins sure turned out to be a big booty. By gut feeling, it might go for around ten thousand Cor in SAO, no? Wonder where she got it from."
Kirito realises that Argo has been awfully silent ever since they left the arena.
Kirito (peering into Argo's hood): "Hey, Argo?"
Argo (feebly in a hoarse voice): "......Sorry, Kii-bou. Ya got hit with that shitass of a spelL... 'cause ya covered for li'l ol' me, maN......"
Kirito: "Oh, is that all that was bothering you? (wraps his right arm around Argo's nape) If you're going there, I've lost count of how many times 《Argo's Guide》 saved my ass. Compared to how much I owed you back in our SAO days, this much is nothing to worry about. As the saying goes, every night sees a dawn, so every curse has a way to lift it."
Argo: "Never heard that onE, though you do have a point: there must be some way to dispel any spell, eH."
Kirito: "Oh, and on the topic of that spell...... could I get you to keep quiet about it from Alice, Asuna, and the others? I'd like to only bring it up when our prospects of lifting it get brighter."
Argo: "Still the same old Kii-bou, I seE. (slips out from Kirito's arm) They won't hear it from li'l ol' me. Not sure how long I'll hold out if they dump money on the table thougH."

----------

After stocking up on food and water from the food stalls and a free-use well, Kirito and Argo returned to the building where they had left Alice. Having put on his armour again, Kirito knocked twice on the door, only to be met with a scolding from Alice (and a petting demand from Kuro).
Alice: "You're late!"
Kirito: "Sorry, sorry, we ran into an unexpected turn of events......"
Alice: "And you couldn't at least contact me to let me know approximately when you'd be back?"
Kirito: "Oh....... good point, I will ensure to do so next time...... Wait, we should probably let Silica and the others on homeguard duty know that we'll be late too......"
Alice: "I already contacted them that we would be back no sooner than midnight."
Kirito: "O-oh, thanks. Um, here have some, if you'd like (takes out some food from his inventory)"
Alice: "Kirito, don't tell me you......"
Kirito: "Oh, no, don't get the wrong idea. I didn't use up Sinon's money for this, I swear. I bought this with the money I earned from selling the mats I had on me. Here, you can have this back...... unfortunately, we couldn't find any bullets."
Alice (finally softening her glare): "I shall trust your word that everything is in order in the bag. ――In that case, I shall take you up on your offer."

As Alice bit into her quesadilla and found herself enjoying it, Kirito began monologuing about how Alice preferred common folk cuisine, despite being higher up in the social system than even an emperor due to being an Integrity Knight. Alice's android body didn't have a food consumption feature, so her experience with non-Underworld food was based on Asuna's ALO cooking. Asuna was even working on reproducing curry and ramen in ALO for Alice to try, but that idea was put on hold by the UR incident.

As set himself a hopeful goal of having Alice at the table with them in the real world one day, he took a shishkebab in hand, only to end up feeding it to a hungry Kuro. While feeding his pet, he wondered what would happen to all their new pets when Unital Ring's goal was reached. At that point, Argo called him out for not eating anything, so Kirito bit into a pita sandwich. He didn't have much of an appetite, but he did need to stock up on his TP and SP values before the journey back. While eating, Kirito pondered about how the food in UR surpassed their rendition in other games not only in looks, but in taste reproduction as well. He wondered who and for what reason would implement this into UR as he continued eating.

----------

After stepping out of town through the northern gate, Kirito asked Argo whether she was sure she didn't want to update progress on her ghost quest, but Argo responded that they had more pressing matters at hand, so she didn't mind leaving the quest as is. Alice was still unaware of what had happened at the coliseum, so Kirito filled her in on all of it, except for one slight detail, while on their way to the waterfall.

Alice: "What is with this Mutasina or whatnot woman! If I had been on site, she would have found herself slashed down with a single swipe of my blade!"
Kirito: "Whoa, she looked pretty high-level. I think she even surpassed us."
Alice: "It matters not!....... Though, I am surprised you two managed to come out safe when every other player was cursed."
Kirito (internally): Good thing my armour hides my neck well.
Kirito: "Well, I did spend ample time honing my spell-cutting skills in ALO, after all (meaningful glance towards Argo)."
At that point, Kirito diverted the topic back to the fact that an army of more than a hundred high-level players would be coming to raid their town and they had no hope of talking it out, so they had to prepare to intercept them. Mutasina planned the attack on the night the day after tomorrow (1 October). The two day break before the attack was meant to give her army enough time to procure at least fine quality leather armour.

Argo questioned if all of the hundred players would actually be participating, since the choker spell's effect could be avoided by logging out, but Kirito believed that this wasn't likely to happen, as all of the people at the coliseum were front liners, while staying logged off would mean dropping out of the frontline group. As he saw it, if the alternative was to throw in the towel entirely, they'll choose to tolerate Mutasina's hold on their napes if it meant a chance to complete the game.
Argo: "......You do have a point, maN. The SAO Clearer folks had tried to clear the game even when their actual lives were on the line, after alL......"
Kirito: "They sure were a bunch of nutjobs, sheesh."
Argo: "I'd like to hold a survey among the Clearers back in the day on whom they believed to be the biggest nutjob, maN."

As their conversation continued, the group eventually reached the Malbe River, where Kirito had anchored their canoe. Kirito was over 50% sure that it would be gone by now, but the canoe was still floating right where they had left it. The gang climbed aboard and set off on their way back. While it would have been nice to be able to use the canoe the entire way back, Kirito knew they would have to abandon it when they reached the waterfall.

As the group began hearing waterfall noises,
Kirito: "Well, guess this is the end for out boat ride......"
Alice (disappointed): "True. Let's reach shore and convert it back to materials."
Kirito: "Ai-ai, sah (Aye-aye, sir)"
Kirito (internally): Wait, or should it be Ai-ai, maamu (Aye-aye, ma'am), on second thought, does the expression even fly with her?
Argo: "Whoa hold up noW! Kii-bou, did you just forget something we had to do before destroying the boat, maN!?"
Kirito (blinking in surprise): "The heck do you mean by 'something we had to do'?"
Argo: "Whoa, whoa man, we've got a bigass waterfall on our hands, inside a game world, see! In which case, there's only one thing I could mean by that, you dig!"
Kirito: "......Oh. (wry smile) Hey now, Argo, this may be a game world, but it's still oriented towards realism. One wrong step and the entire boat is a goner."
Argo: "So just don't mess and up we're all good, maN. C'mon, full speed ahead!"
Kuro: "Gau (roar in agreement)!"
Kirito (internally): Well, we'll have to destroy the boat anyways...

Alice (anxious): "Whu..... what are you planning to do?"
Kirito: "Hush, hush now."
Alice: "But, Kirito, the waterfall"
Kirito: "Hush, hush, hush now."
Alice: "There is a waterfall ahead of us!"
Kirito: "Hush, hush, hush, hush now."
By then, the canoe arrived at the waterfall's basin. Kirito looked around the waterfall under the moonlight and noticed a tree sticking out of the waterfall slightly to the right of its centre. Kirito decided to aim for that spot.
Kirito: "Alighty, let's go! Hang on tight now! (switching to full speed)"
Alice: "Kirito! Knock it off with your foolishness; miracles don't happen twice!"
Kirito (getting carried away without any basis for his confidence): "Oh no, miracles do happen! I will make one happen!"

At that moment, the boat plunged through the waterfall.
Kuro: "Gaoon!"
Argo: "Yahoo!"
Alice: "Kyaaaaah!"
Kirito: "Fnuoooooh!
Kirito (internally): I should have quit while I was ahead!

The waterfall poured water onto the canoe itself, threatening to sink it. Despite his regrets, Kirito tried to oar on, but the boat just wouldn't move. Just as he had made his peace with the fact that they would sink, he suddenly felt that it had become easier to oar and then noticed that Alice had turned around and was now gripping his oar. With both of their strength, they managed to get the canoe moving forward with a boost of momentum, breaking through the waterfall. In an instant, the waterfall roaring and the pressure from the water raining down on them went away. Dumbfounded, Kirito hit the breaks in a fluster.

Kirito: "......Girls, you okay?"
Argo replies
Alice: "Haaah...... ――We, we are in fact okay, so I shall overlook it this time, but I am absolutely NOT signing up for any third act of recklessness, you hear me."
After lighting up a torch from his inventory, Kirito discovered that they were inside a natural cave. There were stalactites hanging down from the ceiling, as well as strange-shaped stalagmites on either side. Behind him, he saw a small entrance before the waterfall. So small that one metre off in either direction and their both would have crashed onto rocks. At that point, Kirito noticed reddish black rocks sticking out of the wall, which made him forget about how unpleasant it was to be soaking wet.

Kirito: "Look......iron! There's iron ore! Owah, there's more over there...... and there's some over there too!"
Argo: "Whoa, Kii-bou, calm down for a sec maN. Right now, figuring out what to do next is more important than ore, seE......."
Kirito: "Ore is more important than what comes next!"

Kirito oared the canoe to shore and asked Alice to hang onto the oar for him as he jumped out of the boat. Taking out a 《High-Quality Iron Pickaxe》 that Lisbeth had crafted for him, Kirito started mining the ore. Unlike the real world, players had to strike the ore itself, rather than the surrounding rock, to get ore in Unital Ring. Based on Kirito's estimations, it would have taken him thirty strikes or more with his old stone axe to mine the ore, while the iron pickaxe managed to create cracks in eight swings.

Kirito only needed two or three more swings to get his prize, but just then, he heard a warning,
Argo: "Kii-bou, look up!"
At that point, Kirito noticed two stalagmites swaying above him and jumped out of the way in the nick of time to not get hit by them.

Argo tried to warn him that it was risky to mine there without a helmet, but Kirito wasn't so easily convinced. He didn't have a helmet, seeing as he had basically never worn won even way back in SAO due to how they limited sight and hearing, but he figured he'd be okay if he paid more attention to his surroundings.

Three swings later, he broke the ore into four pieces that then fell down from the wall. He quickly scooped them up and threw them into his inventory. Kirito was concerned about the fact that they had very limited deposits of iron back in their forest (basically only in Misha's cave), so he wanted to stock up as much iron as he could in this cave for their town. As such, they continued to stop the boat whenever they some some deposits. Kirito also managed to get a small amount of copper and silver ore, as well as some unappraised crystals that he didn't know what to use for but still harvested.

Since the natural cave was classified as a dungeon, they did encounter some monsters along the way. The most pesky ones were some large bats that attacked in groups of three or four and first targeted their torches, which put the gang at risk of hitting each other in the dark. However, Kuro lived up to his name as a darkpanther by striking down the speedy bats even in pitch darkness.

Less than thirty minutes later, Kirito had managed to stuff his own, as well as Alice's and Argo's inventories with resources, making him feel a great sense of accomplishment... as well as a concern that he had just noticed. Kirito feared that this cave was too close to the ruins, so it was only a matter of time till Mutasina's gang came across it. With this much ore around, it would be possible to create iron gear for even a hundred players. Since they were only barely able to beat a group of twenty people, only half of whom had iron weapons, Kirito feared that they wouldn't hold out if the cave fell into Mutasina's hands. The situation reminded Alice of the battle at the Great Eastern Gate.

As Kirito monologued about the Underworld and Alice, Argo came up with an idea: why not bury the cave if they can't allow the enemy to get their hands on the ore? When Kirito brought up a concern that it wasn't feasible to bury an entire cave, Argo elaborated that it would suffice to seal off the entrance. Burying an entrance sounded a much more feasible idea to Kirito, but Alice realised that Argo really had in mind: they didn't need to break the entrance, just craft something to block it off.

However, Kirito remained sceptical. After all, if players could just make walls and stairs in dungeons, they could come up with shortcuts or harass other players. But Argo insisted on trying, so Kirito gave it a shot by trying to build a stone wall...
Kirito: "......Seems I can actually build it......"
Argo: "SeE? I figured it was bound to work, considering UniRin's design philosophY."
Kirito (chagrined that he didn't come up with idea himself): "And what is this 'design philosophy' of yours for UniRin, exactly?"
Argo: "In a word, 《abundance》, I'd saY. An abundantly large world map, abundantly high-resolution graphics, abundant Skills and Abilities...... which is to say that this game is testing our common sense as gamers, seE. Meaning that those only consider what they can accomplish inside the box die off first, while those with a creative mind that transcends common sense get to survive."

At a loss for words, Kirito thought back on the battle against the wraith. While he had come up with the idea of pouring flax-seed oil on his sword to create an improvised flame sword, this idea was still in-line for gamer common sense. Meanwhile, Argo had stuffed the torch itself into the wraith, causing it to explode; this was a prime example of an idea that transcended gaming logic. Kirito also recalled how he had fearlessly tried out hundred of wild ideas back in SAO; while ninety-nine of them ended in failure, the one idea that did work out would end up saving his skin at some point. At this point, Kirito realised he had at some point lost his drive for experimentation while playing ALO as an 《ordinary game》.

Now that they had proved Argo's hypothesis, Kirito decided to head back to the entrance to seal it off. He was curious about what lay ahead in the cave, but his anxiety about Mutasina won over and he stuck to returning to the entrance, while the girls explored up ahead. Alice proposed all of them heading back as a group then, but Kirito argued that it would be faster to run along the shore than make a round trip by boat.

Argo: "In that case, take this dude with you, maN (slapping Kuro's neck)."
Kirito: "Huh...... you sure you two will be okay on your own?"
Alice (pouting like a child): "See, you are looking down on me again. I am almost caught up to you in levels, remember? Besides, Argo's quite skilled herself, so you are better off worrying about yourself."
Argo: "Yep, yep. Though, we won't be going overboard on our end, seE, so feel free to take Kuro-kou with ya, maN. Hang on...... (returning her gaze to Kuro) wouldn't you be able to ride this dude?"
Kirito: "Whu? On Kuro's back?"
Argo: "Give it a try, maN."

Despite Kirito's concerns that it would make the panther mad, Kuro himself didn't even wait for an order and bent down beside Kirito. After double checking with the panther verbally, Kirito climbed on top and, upon being urged by Argo, ordered Kuro to run. At that moment, Kuro broke into a run at breakneck speed.

As Kuro dodged obstacles with ease, not slowing down one bit, Kirito started feeling one with the panther, when he was greeted by a pop-up: 【Rider Skill Acquired. Proficiency raised to 1】. This was the final nail in the coffin that Kuro counted as a mount, which also implied that Misha was also a mount, considering that it gave rides to Pattel kids. Kirito wasn't sure if it applied to Agah too, but he decided to have Asuna ride it when they got back to town.

Compared to their thirty minute journey forward — including mining and combat time though ― Kuro managed to trek back to the entrance in just seven or eight minutes. Having disembarked his panther mount and giving it some bison jerky, Kirito walked over to the entrance while finishing off the leftovers of his shishkebab. There, he remeasured the entrance to be around 2.5 metres in both height and width, which was larger than it seemed from his canoe. Kirito decided to test the possibility of building a wall to block off the entrance, so he took out some of the ore and crystals in his inventory to make room for building materials. He then took up his pickaxe and started mining next to one of the depleted ore deposits (ore deposits to respawn over time, but UR respawn times are on the longer side). A single swing with his pickaxe yielded him some 【Limesmoothite】(smooth limestone). After filling up his storage with it, he gathered some clay from the river and attempted to craft a 《Crude Stone Wall》. However, he was not allowed to place it over the centre of the entrance.

Kirito then tried to move the wall building marker to the side and noticed that the wall became buildable when over half of it was on shore, so he placed one there. He then repeated the mining process and tried to place another wall right next to it, but he wasn't able to. For a moment, Kirito was about to give up on the idea of sealing off the dungeon entrance, but then he remembered Argo's words and decided to look at the issue from an architect's point of view, rather than a gamer's. He came up with the hypothesis that he couldn't place his wall in the middle of the river because it would interrupt the flow of water. So, he selected the option to craft a 【Crude Wooden Pillar】 using one of the leftover logs in his storage. He moved the marked into the water and noticed that once the marker was at the very bottom, the system considered it a valid placement.

As Kuro looked, wagging its tail, Kirito repeated the process by crafting three more pillars in-line with the wall he had previously built. Then he tried brought out a marker for building another stone wall, discovering that when he moved the marker on top of the logs and next the existing wall, the system considered it to be a valid placement. When Kirito placed the wall, he succeeded in blocking off eighty percent of the entrance. He then repeated the process to place several more walls, until he could no longer see the entrance at all.

Although the walls and pillars Kirito had crafted didn't have much durability, they did serve well enough as a disguise, seeing as the walls were made of the same material as the natural walls of the cave, making it hard for anyone to see that there's an entrance in the first place. Kirito hoped that this would be enough to keep Mutasina away from the iron stores at least for the time being. Having finished his job, Kirito sent over a message to Alice that he was done and received a reply that the girls had found the boss room on their end.

Chapter 7

Alice (feebly): "......As our first order of business when we get back to town, let's make a bathhouse."
Kirito (internally): Usually, I'd say that you could just go for a dip in the river; we can make baths later, but on this specific occasion, I have to agree.

The chapter begins in the aftermath of the boss battle. The boss for the waterfall cave dungeon was a gigantic slug/snail, officially named 【Stinking Snail】(スティンキングスネイル) in English. Kirito monologues about how a helpful Argo-oneesan explained that the English word "stinking" means "giving off a foul odor" or "unpleasant". As the name implies, the three-metre-long giant slug/snail barfs out an indescribably foul-stenched mucus from its mouth, which does more damage to a player's mental fortitude than their HP. Of course, the foul stench wasn't all that the mucus had going for it; it came with three debuffs: 《Continuous MP Reduction》, 《Sight Impairment》, and 《Longer Cooldown Time》. If that weren't enough, the battlefield for the boss battle was a dome-shaped subterranean lake, where the slug/snail could crawl along the ceiling at quite the speed. This forced the trio to chase after the monster with their boat and make use of leap Sword Skills to attack it. In the end, since the boss's physical attacks were on the low side, the gang gave up on the idea of avoiding the mucus midway through the battle and brute-forced their way to victory via Sword Skill spam. By the time they defeated it, however, their entire bodies were so slimy and sticky that they weren't in the mood to be happy about their level ups and instead jumped right into the lake to wash off the mucus, though Kirito could still feel a faint lingering stench coming from them.

After the boss was defeated, what seemed like a dead-end wall in the boss room opened up upon the boss's defeat, opening up a new waterway for them. The gang steered their boat inside, the wall closing down behind them.
Kirito (making a remark without putting much thought into it): "If we were in Aincrad, we'd come to find a set of stairs to the next floor right about now......"
Alice: "Come to think of it...... I wonder what state the crashed Aincrad is in right now?"
Kirito: "Huh? Well, uh...... same as when it crashed down?"
Kirito didn't personally see the grand spectacle of Aincrad's crash, but according to Liz's and Silica's testimonies, it caused an explosion on the level of the Tunguska Event... though Kirito internally made a quip about how the girls hadn't actually seen the Tunguska Explosion personally. Either way, Yui at the time still had access to map data; according to her, Floors 1-25 were utterly decimated in the crash.
Alice: "Well yes, but I am referring to whether or not it is possible to enter inside it."
Kirito: "Ohhh...... Hmmh, good question...... I am getting the feeling that we might find a way inside if we get close to it...... You wanna go?"
Alice: "Well, yes. There is something that has been bugging me about it all this time."
Kirito: "What?"
Alice: "The players that died in Aincrad's crash were all respawned in the Stith Ruins, right? However, what of the residents of the towns and villages up to the 25th Floor?"
This got Kirito thinking about the fate of the NPCs of Aincrad. ALO NPCs were ordinarily all immortal, so they shouldn't have taken damage or died, but they didn't get teleported to the Stith Ruins. What's more, Unital Ring NPCs no longer enjoyed the luxury of invincibility. Kirito asked Argo for info on Aincrad's NPCs, but even she hadn't looked into the matter. Hearing her reply, Alice gave a frown, as emotionally she still regarded NPCs as people, even if she knew what NPCs actually were.

After Kirito proposed checking on Aincrad at some point,
Kirito: "Oh....... come to think of it, that slug back there dropped a magicrystallite.
Argo (suddenly turning around): "Did it really, Kii-bou. That dude never used any spells, remembeR."
Kirito: "Don'cha think the notion that only enemies that use magic drop magicrystallites is a case of gamer common sense that you derided earlier?"
Argo: "MguH...... So, what kind of magicrystallite did ya geT?"
Kirito: "Let's see...... (looks up the crystal) ............The《Magicrystallite of Rot (fu)》, it says."
Alice: "Fu? What's a 'fu'?"
Kirito: "The fu that comes from the kanji in 腐る (to rot)."
Alice: "............So, you are saying that this is a magicrystallite of putrefaction magic......?"
Kirito: "Yep.......I guess. Alice, wanna eat it?"
Alice: "I do not."
Kirito: "What about you, Argo?"
Argo: "Don't need it, maN."
Kirito (internally): Oh for the love of... wait, putting it in my mouth is definitely going to result in something bad, so I'm just gonna put it away into my storage.

However, just moments before Kirito could stash his crystal away,
Argo: "Come to think of iT... Kii-bou, didn'cha get a magicrystallite from the willow spook, as I recall?"
Kirito: "Huh? (remembers the blue light he touched after defeating the Vengeful Wraith) O....... oh, you're right. (looks up the crystal in his inventory) O...... oooh, looks like we hit the jackpot here! It's a 《Magicrystallite of Ice》."
Argo: "Ooh, nice onE. Well then, get right down to getting that skill."
Kirito: "Huh...... you sure I can have it?"
Argo and Alice: (nod)
Kirito (about to materialise the crystallite): ".....Nah, you know what, I'll pass."
Alice (tilting her head): "Why?"
Kirito: "Well see, my Ability tree is 《Herculean Strength》, see. I was just thinking that magic skills should be taken up by someone who's specs in the 《Intelligence》 tree."
Kirito (internally): There is some truth to that, but I also think that, emotionally speaking, ice magic doesn't work for me. Ice magic――I mean, the freezing element arts was the signature move of my bosom friend, who's no longer here. While I could only make five elements of it even at the best of times, he could pull off seven or eight.
Alice (seemingly realising what Kirito was getting at): "I see. Well then, it would be best to keep the Magicrystallite of Ice stored away until you find someone who would be suited to using it."

Argo: "In that case, try learning rot magic, maN."
Kirito: "Whuu...... no wanna, it'd be one thing if this were a darkness element......"
Argo: "Are ya really in a position to be picky? It'd give ya a way to make use of that MP you have lying around and doing nothin', nO?"
Kirito (internally): WELL THEN WHY DON'T YOU TAKE IT! Ugh, I'm level 18 (one level up after the slug battle) and Argo's level 11 after getting three more levels from our cave adventures, so I'd have more MP... and magic skill proficiency is built up through repeated use, so the more MP you have, the more you can use the spell...
Kirito: "......Fine (materialising the crystallite)"

The magicrystallite of rot was of the same size as the fire crystallite Kirito had given to Yui, but while the fire stone was a beautiful ruby red, the rot stone was a muddy gray, as if someone had boiled some ditch water. Kirito hesitates to eat the stone when he thinks about how Yui spawned fire from her mouth the moment she ate hers.
Argo: "C'mon, get a move on, paL."
Kirito (internally): She's definitely enjoying herself with this!
Kirito puts the stone into his mouth and gives it a lick.
Kirito (internally): Nothing yet.
Kirito hesitantly chows down on it
Kirito (covering his mouth with both hands as he throws up at full throttle): "........................UOEEEEEEEGH!!"
Kirito (internally): Feels like some mucus with the foulest stench I've ever come across, even in the real world, is spreading all over my mouth. If I were to compare it to something....... on second thought, I really will vomit vomit if I imagine anything specific.
Kirito: "U.... Uoter, uoter......"
Argo: (gives the man a canteen of well water)
Kirito: (gulps the water down like crazy until he finishes off the entire canteen)
【Rot Magic Skill acquired. Proficiency raised to 1.】
Kirito (internally): Just seeing the word "rot" makes my stomach groan.
Kirito then looked up his skill window and found that he had only one spell available.
Kirito: "Let's see, let's see...... 《Rot Bullet: Shoots out a mass of something rotten》, it says. The heck is 'something' supposed to be...... what's with this naming anyway......"
Argo (barely holding back a burst of laughter): "Let's give it a try right off the bat, maN."
Kirito: "If I see you laughing, I'll make sure the second shot hits you, got it."

Kirito then looked up the gesture for triggering the spell: first imagine as if you were holding a ball in your hands and bring your fingertips so your left and right hand fingers touched each other from the sides, then pull both hands apart about twenty centimetres. This created a greenish gray, mandarin-sized sphere that looked like a ball of wriggling mucus and created a light purple targeting circle in his view.
Kirito (internally, while playing around with the targeting circle until it overlaps with Argo): Hmm, seems like they can't see it. Uh, I've got this little innocent temptation to just fire it on her, but I'm nearly eighteen now!
Kirito then switched his target to a stalactite and clenched his fist to fire out the ball of goo. The ball hit the stalactite and scattered, nothing else happening.
Argo: ".......Well, doesn't seem like we can expect much in the way of physical power out of it, huH."
Alice: "It could at least be useful as be a nuisance to someone, no?"

----------

Kirito spent the next fifteen minutes shooting his goo balls left and right to level up his skill while they continued moving along the waterway. With his MP, Kirito could make three consecutive shots of his spell. At that point, he noticed some faint moonlight reflecting from the water in the distance, while the waterway started contracting and becoming curvy. Suddenly, the walls on their sides disappeared without warning and the gang found themselves in a large river. After seeing that the hole they came out of was so small that nobody would even be able to tell it apart from a regular old hollow in the cliff, Kirito looked at his map now that he was out of the dungeon and could access the world map, finding that they were right in the middle ground between the waterfall and the southern edge of their forest. Taking in a deep breath, Kirito could still feel a lingering sense of choking at his throat and presumed that the sensation would only go away when they undid the curse on him. Looking at the time, he noticed that it was just past midnight, meaning that they had spent an hour in the cave. He estimated that they could reach their home base in about thirty minutes or so. Before setting off, Kirito opened up his message tab and sent Asuna a message: 【We're all safe; plan to be back before 1 o'clock】. After a moment of thought, he also tacked on 【Happy birthday】.

Chapter 8

30 September, 07:15 AM. Kazuto was taking the express train to school, trying to get a wink of sleep after a long night (he had logged out at 4 o'clock) and bemoaning that UR wasn't started in Summer, when he could have powered through 20 hours of consecutive playtime and reach the goalpoint in three days... possibly. But despite his wishes, he found himself pulling the breaks on that idea at the last moment. One reason for this was that he was holding a precious bag that he dared not drop, while another was the sound of Mutasina's staff hitting the ground still reverberating in his ears. The choker was never activated over the night, but Kirito rejected the optimistic idea that Mutasina was bluffing about being able to reach anyone afflicted with the curse even at the edge of the world.

By the time Kirito's expedition party returned to town, Asuna's party had brought back 10 Basins to join them. Lisbeth, Yui, and Asuna's adventure was glossed over: they encountered some huge Amblypygi (tailless whip scorpions) field boss, fell into an antlion nest, and reached the Basin village in two hours. By that point, Lisbeth was now lvl 12, Yui lvl 11, and Asuna was lvl 10. At the village, they offered the villagers some bison jerky and immediately began their negotiations while the Basins were happy with the gift. Izelma challenged them to a duel to prove they had the power to protect their town and people. Izelma had expected the mace-wielding Lisbeth to be her opponent, but Asuna volunteered for the fight instead. Seeing as Asuna was wielding a thin rapier, Izelma only considered her to be the opening act... but Asuna dodged Izelma's first attack and immediately disarmed her with a 《Parallel Sting》. So, Izelma named the next leader of the Basins and set out to recruit people to join her on the trip to Kirito Town. Since Izelma was going herself, nine other Basins volunteered as well. The party reached Kirito Town by 23:00, so nearly two hours faster than Kirito's party returned. The new residents were assigned the western area of the town and the gang then got engrossed in making furniture for their new neighbours while waiting for Kirito's team to get back. Contrary to Kirito's fears that the NPCs would see their pets as prey, the Basins apparently respected tamers more than hunters, so, as the one with the biggest pet, Silica the Beartamer became the top dog of the town in their eyes.

Klein and Agil were greatly surprised that their new companion was THE Argo who wrote 《Argo's Strategy Guide》, but they didn't have time for nostalgia. Kirito told the whole gang about Mutasina, but they still lacked manpower to fight a hundred strong army. They discussed their plans, but didn't manage to come up with anything practical, so coming up with a plan was left for homework. Meanwhile, Leafa proposed naming the town Ruis na Rig (Rasu-na-rio) after some Celtic king's castle that was surrounded by a circular wall, making it seem like a forest town. During the entire meeting, Kirito kept getting meaningful glances from Argo urging him to tell everyone about his choker, but Kirito didn't manage to bring himself to tell them, out of fear that all it would do is make everyone worried or angry, prompting them to prioritise finding a way to break the curse, rather than defending their town. Kirito himself didn't see any way to break the curse other than snapping Mutasina's staff, so he didn't want anyone waste time on a wild goose chase. At the end of the meeting, Argo derided him as a stubborn fool but respected his decision and promised to what she could to help.

Kirito's decision was influenced by the fact that even Yui frowned when he told her about the spell, as it was both too massive in scale and had overpowered effects. Even if Mutasina imported her Darkness Magic skill from ALO, it should have been reduced to level 100 at most by now, which would only allow the mage to cast spells as powerful as a Sharp Nail 3-hit Sword Skill, yet the 《Choker of the Damned》 even surpassed 《Nova Ascension》, the top-ranked One-Handed Sword technique――actually, it was more overwhelming than even the top Dual Blades Sword Skill, 《The Eclipse》. Since this implied that Mutasina had used a level 1000 class spell, Kirito concluded that it would take a skill or item in the same ballpark to break the curse. By this point in the narration, Kazuto had to get ready to change trains at the next station. ----------

After their morning lessons, Kazuto arrived at his and Asuna's secret spot, finding Asuna standing beneath a silk tree and a sandalwood tree with her back facing him. With the sunlight adorning her long hair. Asuna was standing under some trees with her back to the entrance. As the sunlight adorned her long hair, Kazuto found himself staring at her for a while, thinking how she looked out of this world and that she would disappear if he approached her. At that moment, Asuna finally noticed his presence,
Asuna: "Geez, Kirito-kun, why do I always find you staring at me from behind in silence?"
Kazuto: "Whaa, I wouldn't say always......"
Asuna: "You've been like this since the beginning, after all."
Kazuto: "W-what do you mean 'the beginning'......?"
Asuna: "You were secretly staring at me from the shadows in the Labyrinth on the 1st Floor of Aincrad when I was fighting against those kobolds, remember?"
Kazuto (internally): I didn't expect you to drag up stuff from four years ago.
Kazuto: "Well, you were in the middle of a fight and I didn't mean to get in the way...... I did call out to you prim and proper when you were done fighting, didn't I?"
Asuna: "The first thing you uttered was, 'That just now was too much overkill', though. Honestly, my first impression of you was something in-between 《weirdo》 and 《dodgy guy》."
Kazuto: "Whoa, talk about going low...... I here I was just serious about my concerns for your well-being......"
Asuna: (bursts into a quiet laughter)
Kazuto: The real reason why I didn't call out to you until after the fight was because I was too captivated by the beauty of your skill with the sword, piercing through that darkness like a shooting star, to strike a conversation.
At that point, Asuna gave him a big hug all of a sudden. Asuna: "Truth is, I was actually a bit glad that you called out to me. It made me think that even in this world, there were still players around who cared about others." Kazuto: (finding himself at a loss of words, so he wants to return the hug instead, but has his hands full, so he has to make do with touching Asuna's head with his own) Several seconds later, Asuna urged Kazuto to get started on their lunch before bringing up the birthday stuff, so he took out the baguettes he had bought for them from the cafeteria. Asuna and Kazuto had different baguettes (Asuna had Nicoise, while Kazuto had Gorgonzola and dried tomatoes), so Asuna proposed splitting them so they could try both. While the boy was busy concerned with how they were going to slice the baguettes, Asuna took out a multi-tool with a knife from her skirt pocket and gave it to him for the job.

Asuna: "Here you are, use this and good luck!"
Kazuto: "............W-well, sure...... (taking the knife) ......Do you always carry this around?"
Asuna: "Yep."
Kazuto: "Why are you...... you'll find yourself in a world of trouble if some police officer took you in for questioning."
Asuna: "High school girls won't find themselves questioned by the police or anything."
Kazuto (internally): Are you suuure~~
Asuna: "I've made up my mind. That I'm going to make sure that I can protect you, Kirito-kun, next time, for sure."
Kazuto: "Whu............? (takes several seconds to realise that she's referring to the Johnny Black incident) ......You don't need to worry, both XaXa and Johnny Black have been arrested, so there's no one left to go after me anymore."
Kazuto (internally): Even if it is to protect me, I don't really want to see you walking around with a knife.
Asuna: "Possibly, but I want to ensure I don't have any regrets anymore."
Accepting her decision, Kazuto began slicing the baguettes. Though he was still plagued by concerns about Asuna getting arrested if she were to use the knife for unjustifiable self-defence, nor did he want to consider Asuna carrying a knife to be their best option.

Asuna: "......Sorry for making you worried."
Kazuto: "Ah...... nah, I'm the one making you worried. I did die right in front of you, after all...... I should have been more prepared myself."
Asuna: "Oh, no, even I understand in my head that I'm overthinking things. I do think that it's crazy to be walking around with something like this on hand. But... ever since back in our SAO days, you've always been one to draw all manner of people to you, Kirito-kun...... both good people, and not-so-good......"
Kazuto (internally): I'd like to reject that notion, but I can't. (Reminiscing about Morte, Mocri, Schulz, and Mutasina all being focused on him) I've always been one not to stand out at all in middle school; when exactly did I get my position inverted. Welp, it's too late to change my name now.
Kazuto: "......I'll do more to take care of myself. I'll try asking Kikuoka-san if there's some way to ensure my safety.
Asuna: "I personally place that man in the middle ground between "good people" and "not-so-good people" though."
Kazuto: "Oh, well, you've got a point."

----------

After lunch,
Kazuto (pouring all his feelings into it): "......Happy birthday, Asuna."
Asuna (gazing at him in silence for a few moments): "Thanks, Kirito-kun."
Both of them found themselves moving their faces closer to each other symmetrically, exchanging a short kiss.
Asuna (her faced placed on Kazuto's shoulder): "......Truth is...truth is, during my birthday last year, I was a bit discontent. That for a week, I'd find myself a whole two years apart from you, Kirito-kun."
Kazuto: "Wha...... you were brooding over something as silly as that?"
Asuna: "It's a big issue to me...... But in Underworld, you've surpassed me in mental age, didn't you, Kirito-kun?"
Kazuto (remembering that he is mentally nearly twenty years old, making him older than Asuna): "Right...... guess this means that today you've caught up to me by a year."
Asuna: "Be sure to do so. Though, well, I will still congratulate you on your eighteenth birthday next week, Kirito-kun."
Kazuto: "Be sure to do so."
Both: (burst into a laugh)

Using that moment, Kazuto retrieved his bag and held it out to Asuna, supporting it from the bottom.
Kazuto: "Ehm...... this present is for you."
Kazuto (internally): Though it's nothing all that expensive.
Asuna (taking the gift with a gleaming smile): "Thanks, Kirito-kun. May I open it?"
Kazuto: "Y......yeah, be my guest."
When Asuna's done unwrapping the gift, she finds a twenty-centimetre-long sapling planted in a white flowerpot.
Asuna: "So you got me a sugar maple sapling!"
Kazuto: "Y-yeah....... So you can tell from just one look at it, I see."
Asuna: "Of course I can, it's a tree from our memories, after all...... I'm really happy with it, thanks, Kirito-kun."

With that whisper, Asuna once again went for a hug. This time, Kazuto responded by wrapping his own arms around her. Although Asuna called it a tree from their memories, they hadn't actually seen the tree itself per se. Their memories of it came in the form of a rocking chair they had had in their original forest home in Old Aincrad, as it was made out of maple wood by a woodcrafter named Mahokl (see Sugary Days). The rocking chair served as a symbol of their newlywed life in the game. Asuna would always have Kirito sit first so she could get on his lap like a cat. After asking for Tomo's advice the previous day, Kazuto decided to go for something that represented their past and future as a birthday present for Asuna.

Kazuto planned to have the two of them tend to the tree together, though he expected Asuna to bring it home and take care of it herself at first. But then, Asuna proposed planting the sapling in their secret spot instead so they could both tend to it together. Kazuto was concerned that they still didn't know who was taking care of the greenspot and for the time being Asuna decided to take the sapling home. Kazuto reminded her that they were planning to officially skip afternoon classes for a supposed "future job workplace inspection"... at Rath's Roppongi office. Since Asuna decided to take the sapling with her, Kazuto proposed calling a taxi to the office and went back to class to get his stuff, since he wasn't as considerate as Asuna to bring his stuff with him right away.

Personal Highlights


Chapter 1:
💠Kazuto being sore about finding himself the third wheel in the conversation and prompting Tomo to order expensive food on Seijirou's tab in retribution.
💠Argo's sixth sense OP.
💠Seijirou finding universal recognition as "shady pops"
💠Kazuto finding himself in jeopardy after casually agreeing to switch dessert with Tomo.
💠Kazuto being flustered at his name being used to refer to their whole gang.
💠Argo the Weatherapp
💠Argo being close enough with Asuna to find out her birthday before Kirito did.
💠Kazuto being lectured about hoping planning to buy hefty brand stuff for Asuna's birthday.

Chapter 2:
💠Kirito's name once again being plastered over everything without him being aware of it.
💠Baby ratmen overnight.
💠Kirito and Asuna acting strange after Kirito mentioned AI babies. Totally not suspicious...
💠Kirito wanting to change his town's name because he's actually self-aware that he has a target on his back.
💠Kirito needing a day to notice that Asuna dyed her hair.

Chapter 3:
💠Alice the wormhunter.
💠Alice the Grand Bath Swimmer.
💠Alice belatedly realising how impuslive she is.

Chapter 4:
💠Kirito praying to Goddess Asuna Stacia
💠Kirito jinxing himself with spooks.
💠Kirito getting overprotective of Kuro over the span of a day.
💠Argo swiping boss kills under Kirito's nose.
💠Argo the Rat turning out to be a cat person.
💠Tag-team effort in accidentally spawning a boss near a beginner town.

Chapter 5:
💠Kirito getting treated as a hopeless VR glutton... and getting self-conscious about it later on.
💠Kawahara mistyping Alice into Asuna.
💠Argo getting awkward at being treated as a companion, instead of her usual transactional relationships.
💠Great, a bigger Ingurisshu fanatic than Kirito...
💠Kirito getting chokered. Let the wild fanart begin...
💠Mutasina rocking the Quin-chan vibes.
💠Pavlov training on players.

Chapter 6:
💠Alice suffering being the only one sane in a group of reckless idiots.
💠Kirito the Darkpanther Rider.