Rainbow Bridge

Honorific and personal pronoun explanations:
  • 貴様 (kisama) is considered to be one of the most insulting ways to say "you" in modern Japanese (it's like saying "you bastard").
  • 儂 (washi) is a personal pronoun used by elderly males to refer to themselves. Kraken's pattern of speech is somewhat archaic too.
  • 氏 (shi) is an honorific similar to -san, but more formal and not as common.
  • Attaching an honorific (especially "sama") when referring to oneself indicates arrogance. It is like saying "I the highness's"

Markup explanation:
  • Itallics mark text that was written in katakana English (I only highlighted the cases where the author uses both English and actual Japanese equivalents for the same thing, or when I needed to emphasise that an English word is used there).
  • Bold text indicates that the original text was marked with boutens (﹅ marks). This punctuation is used to add extra emphasis to Japanese text.
  • Full-width text indicates non-Japanese text that was written in the Latin/English alphabet, rather than katakana. Basically, what you see is exactly how it's written in the raw.
  • Courier font indicates that the original word was written in kana for emphasis (when such a word usually isn't written in kana)
  • Comic sans indicates emphasis added by myself when I needed to stress something to get the meaning across properly.
  • In some instances, the original text used furigana. In cases where the furigana wasn't exact match for the underlying text (usually when the author uses furigana to translate or describe foreign words in Japanese), I maintained the furigana format. Furigana text should be read as follows: #Japanese translation/description of what the term/name means#(What was actually said) (e.g. #shadow fairy race#(Spriggans) - "Spriggans" is what was actually said in text, while "shadow fairy race" is just a brief description of what Spriggans are to help differentiate between the different fairies.
  • In some instances, the author decided to use both English and Japanese equivalents for the exact same word one after the other; in such cases, I marked the English variant in itallics, while the Japanese variant will be emphasised with furigana like this: #Translation into English#(Japanese word) (e.g. #long hair#(chouhatsu) - "long hair" here is a translation of the Japanese word, while "chouhatsu" is a romanisation of the Japanese word in the original text to emphasise that this specific word is in Japanese).
  • Single quotation marks (') are quotes that weren't in the original text but were added for the convenience of English speakers to mark implied quotations. I used it mostly to separate Kirito's internal monologue from his narration, as well as mark sound effects and so on. Actual dialogue lines or quotations (with 「」 punctuation marks) within a narration line are indicated with the usual double (") quotation marks.






1


A castle shining in a madder-red colour, floated in the distance of the violet sky.

Two months have passed since the reborn Aincrad was implemented, yet when I look up from the surface of Alfheim's ocean, I still find myself captivated by a mysterious sensation. I just cannot believe that this small structure, and the floating castle that once existed in the skies of a different world, were really of the same size.

Of course, if I spread the wings on my back, take flight and ascend towards the New Aincrad in the faraway sky, before long, the castle will reveal all of its majesty that I will not be able to fully picture. After landing on the first floor from the aperture in the outer circumference, there will be a vast field with various mountains and lakes. I guess that walking from one side to the other will take as much time as it did in the old Aincrad.

While still trying to comprehend that, I continued with my own thoughts.

About being trapped inside that castle during those two years. About wandering through the roadless wastelands, fighting atrocious monsters, encountering lots of people, and then being separated from them. About my battle with Heathcliff on the 75th floor, where we were both defeated and the death game came to an end. I wondered if that was truly a reality.

Or.

About landing in Alfheim in search of the slumbering Asuna, and successfully releasing her from the cage of malice at the end of a short but hectic journey. And now, about how I’m spending the tranquil days together with former allies and new friends in both the real and virtual worlds. Again, I wondered if this is a reality.

While I was surrounded by such endless thoughts, I silently looked up at the floating castle illuminated by the evening sun, and——

Suddenly, a loud, horn-like koooo――――n sound broke out next to my feet. My avatar’s legs lost their ground, as the grayish-white texture of the ground shook violently. Reflexively, I raised my arms and grabbed Asuna’s hand with my right, and Klein’s with my left.

"Woah, wh-what the--?", Lisbeth screamed.

"I-it can’t be planning to drop us off here, can it―?", Klein shouted.

"If so, we could just fly, right?", Agil calmly retorted, and right afterwards.

The small hole in the ground in front of us spread out suddenly, and a large quantity of water was blown out of it with the force of a geyser.

"Kyuuuuuu!" "Hawawaaaaa!"

These screams were from the small dragon Pina who was just above the hole, and the #small fairy#(pixie) Yui who was riding Pina, respectively. Although the abrupt water current shot up to no less the five meters, at that moment Pina spread out its wings and restored her balance, lightly hovering over the top of the water fountain. Joyful laughter resounded, as if I had imagined Yui's scream two seconds ago.

While using my left hand to avoid the small drops of water that were falling down, I exchanged glances with Asuna, and we both gave a wide smile simultaneously.

"……Wow, it spouted like a tide, huh."

At that moment, Asuna nodded and answered,

"What can I say, it is a whale, you know."

That's true. The party comprised of 7 people, including me, Asuna, Leafa, Silica, Lisbeth, Agil and Klein, and also Yui and Pina, were travelling on the sea, on the back of a giant white whale ― one with such a huge size that even an Evil-God Class monster would flee.

Everyone uh-huhed to express their agreement to Asuna's remark and, as the whale’s spouting ended, Yui came down from the skies and said while flying to Asuna’s left shoulder,

"This does not mean that the whale-san in the real world actually sprays water from its blowhole. It is just that when they exhale close to the surface of the sea, ocean water is also carried along!(1)

"Whaaaat?!", the seven people exclaimed in unison.

Yui, who just showed her usual encyclopedic knowledge and strong memory, simply said 'ahem' and set her small hands upon her hips. While thinking that her posture was lovely, I once again looked up at the floating steel castle in the night sky.

As the reborn Aincrad revolves around the skies of Alfheim at a considerable speed, the outline of the castle I saw a while ago was getting smaller and smaller. I motionlessly fixed my eyes onto the location approximately one-fifth of the castle from the bottom—— the place where the profoundly memorable 22nd floor should be.

Although, for now, only the first ten floors have been opened, I'm sure that we will eventually climb up and reach the 20th floor and beyond. When I see the log house built in the depths of the snow-covered forest once again, will I truly be able to believe, I wondered. Believe that the former Aincrad disappeared to distant memory. And believe that the world where games are meant to be played has returned.



The white whale carried us from Thule Island in Alfheim’s southwest sea to a beach in Sylph territory. Then, with a voice that sounded like a giant tuba, it prompted us to get off. After watching us safely get off his back and land on the white, sandy beach with a gentle expression in the eyes, it turned around leisurely, and swam towards the bright red evening sun in the horizon, in the company of a school of dolphins.

"Whale-saan, thank yooou! Let us ride on your back again sometime, okaaaaay?!"

In response to Yui’s voice, the white whale spouted a very high column of water once again, and its large body sank into the ocean bit by bit. Before long, it could no longer be seen. Yui, who was sitting on Asuna’s shoulder, gently lowered her hands that she had been waving affectionately.

While smiling, I called out to that slightly lonely-looking face.

"I’m sure you’ll meet it again someday. The quest back then looked like it was hinting that it will somehow continue."

"Oh, ho-hold it right there, Kiri-no-ji!(2)"

The loud voice that interrupted me and spoiled the atmosphere of the farewell was of course Klein’s. While scratching his unshaven face, he continued with an expression that could not be understood.

"What the heck was the deal with that quest? Like the mermaid princess turning out to be an old man, the old man turning out to be a giant octopus, then the giant octopus turning out to be the lord of the abyss, and something about divine beings; I didn’t get any of that stuff."

"The first one about the mermaid princess was merely your aspiration."

Although I gave a tsukkomi(3) sort of retort by reflex, I too could not give an immediate reply to Klein’s doubts. Fleetingly looking around my allies, I saw that the former devil of clearing Asuna, the Norse mythology expert Leafa, the #muscle head#(tank) intellectual Agil, as well as Lisbeth and Silica, had all folded their arms and said 'hmmm'.

Today is ―― July 25, 2025, Friday.

In order to grant Yui’s wish of 'seeing a whale', we challenged the «Deep Sea Plunderers» quest that was rumoured to have a large, aquatic-type monster.

We were requested, by an old man, to search for an item in a dungeon―just a common errand-type quest ―― or so we thought. But the truth was that the old man was actually pulling our strings. Unwittingly, we ended up stealing a treasure that was sealed in an undersea temple. Well, this was still a common plot, but from here on, the super rapid development, or should I say, an overly rapid plot twist began. The old man had seven HP bars and transformed into a gigantic octopus-type monster, «Kraken the Abyss Lord», who beat us to a near death status with ease - just a single hit from a single tentacle. But, before we could even think that the quest was impossible, a gigantic middle-aged man, calling himself «Leviathan the Sea Lord», descended from above. Just as the two of them completed their hard to understand conversation, Kraken sunk into the depths of the sea Leviathan then recovered the pearl (which was actually a large egg) that we had taken out of the temple and, at that moment, a "quest cleared" fanfare played ―― It was such an incomprehensible quest, even after thinking about it again and again.

Still dumbfounded, we were initially discouraged by the thought that the rumoured aquatic-type monster was Kraken, but then the middle-aged man calling himself lord of the seas summoned a white whale, which took us to this beach. So, in any case, the initial objective of Yui getting to see a whale was accomplished. And we all lived happily ever after―― although that is true, I understand Klein's feelings of wanting to say "I didn’t get any of that stuff".

After humming for a while, I looked around faces of my comrades, and said,

"I wonder if anyone can accurately remember the talk between the octopus and the gramps?"

If this was in a conventional MMORPG, we could just scroll up the message window with a mouse wheel and browse through the conversation that took place during the quest; however in VRMMORPGs, there’s basically no such convenient function. Therefore, there’s a technique of using a crystal to record an event’s conversation if it sounds l important. However, this time, we didn’t have such a luxury at all.

In response to my query, the six of them simultaneously tilted their necks, and then shook their heads left and right.

"Heh, indeed a vanguard-only party with no mages at all."

Just as I finished my comment with a sigh mixed in, Liz raised her right hand overhead with the motion of a pitcher about to throw the ball, and consecutively thrusted her index finger towards me three times.

"You too! Can't talk down! Other people!"

"……Yeah, sorry."

However, at that moment, Yui flew up from Asuna’s shoulder, and landed on my head with a pose just like Leviathan's descent at the undersea temple.

"I guess it cannot be helped. Although it is kind of cheating, let me reproduce the conversation!"

All of us shouted "ooo" in an amazed voice, and, puffing her chest with an "ahem" sound, the pixie began the narrative while skillfully imitating the tone of the octopus and the middle-aged man.



Leviathan: "Long time no see, my old friend. I see that you still can't stop hatching your sinister plots."

Kraken: "I could say the same to #you#(kisama). How long will you be content with being an underling of the Aesir? You’re a disgrace to the name ‘Lord of the Sea’."

Leviathan: "I am satisfied with being a lord. And this is my domain. Knowing that, do you still wish to fight, Lord of the Abyss?"

Kraken: "I shall withdraw for now. But #I#(washi) am not giving up, my friend! One day, I shall claim the power of The Child for myself, and take those accursed gods by surprise! Until that day!……"

Leviathan: "That egg belongs to the one that will someday rule all the seas and skies. As I must find it a new Mimuro(4), I shall be taking it back."



"……That is all!"

After Yui's reproduction of the conversation ended, all seven people applauded. Even Pina, sitting on Silica’s head, flapped its wings lively.

"Thank you, Yui."

After thanking my daughter for the job well done, I started pondering about it once again and continued my speech,

"Hmm…… The proper nouns that concern me are «Aesir» and «The Child». I have a feeling that I've heard something like that somewhere, but……"

"Heere!"

The one who said this while raising her hand enthusiastically, was the #wind fairy#(Sylph) mage and swordswoman, Leafa. Possessing the most knowledge about myths and folklore among all of our party’s members, she stepped forward and explained with a clear enunciation,

"The Aesir are a family of gods that come from Norse mythology! You guys have heard of gods like the chief god Odin, the thunder god Thor, and the mischievous Loki among others, haven’t you?"

"I have I have I have"

Six people gave their acknowledgement one after another, and Leafa gave a big nod in return.

"Then, as for The Child……"

"Go on go on go on"

"I have no idea at all!"

Bam, all of us openly made a falling to our back motion, and started pondering again.

The next one to speak was the #cat fairy#(Cait Sith) #beast user#(Beast Tamer), Silica.

"Err, in short, the Kraken-ojii-chan detests the Aesir, but, since he hasn’t been able to win yet, he wants to obtain the «The Child’s power» to become stronger…… is that how it is?"

"If even that giant octopus’s ridiculous power was no match for the Aesir , I wonder what kind of power do they have……" said the #blacksmith fairy#(Leprechaun) Lisbeth, while tossing her metallic gloss pink hair.

"Well, they are gods after all", said the #water fairy#(Undine) Asuna, adding on to the conversation. Then, the one who interrupted with a self-important tone was the #fire fairy#(Salamander), Klein.

"That’s right, ya younglings might not know, but Odin is actually of the strongest class. The moment he’s summoned, bam! And the monster is sliced into two……"

"Oi oi, that’s not the plot within the myth.", the #ground fairy#(Gnome) Agil inserted a tsukkomi with a stunned expression, and everyone, including Yui, burst into laughter.

Understanding the parody(5) in Klein’s remarks, I formed a wry smile as well. While doing so, I thought about why I felt a faint sense of discomfort in this conversation.

The answer immediately came.

During the quest, Kraken and Leviathan appeared as NPCs until the very end ―――Even though they were essentially boss-class monsters. It can be expected that their conversation was nothing but a scenario written by the scenario writer-shi of «Ymir», the company that manages ALO.

And yet, all of us talked about Kraken and Leviathan as if they had their own individual consciousness.

Perhaps the reason for that is that their words sounded far too human. The remorseful and angry expression of Kraken, unwilling to accept his defeat and declaring "I will not give up!", inadvertently led us to think that "Hmm that octopus must have went through a lot…"

Or possibly, Kraken and Leviathan…… are not mere NPCs?

Asuna and I encountered and adventured with a female dark elf knight during the early stages of old Aincrad’s floor clearing. She was called Kizmel, but, despite being an NPC, she was not just a moving object that repeated standard phrases. Her ability to reply to our words… could even be regarded as volition.

ALO has a software architecture that is almost identical to the one in the old SAO. That means, even when looking at the ability of #Control System#(Cardinal), the existence of «Highly Intelligent NPCs» like Kizmel was already possible.

However, in that case……won’t Kraken become an existence that doesn’t just act according to the quest’s script, despite being a quest NPC? Meaning that obtaining something like the «The Child’s power», rising against the Aesir, such things are all that big octopus’s own will……?

"……………That can’t be the case, right?"

Realising that my thoughts were going too far into the field of absurdity, I halted such mutters and conjectures. At the exact instant, Klein, who had been facing Silica and the others, lecturing them on how powerful were the Odin and Bahamut(6) of the good old days, suddenly started shouting hysterically.

"Awwww, crap! I have a pizza delivery order at ten o’clock!"

"Oi oi, that's in three minutes. You know, it will take ten minutes to fly to Swilvane from here."

At Agil's calm points, Klein held his head with both of his arms and bent backwards as much as he could.

"#MY#(ORE-SAMA) SEAFOOD PIZZA AND DRAUGHT BEER――!"

With the nostalgia brought up by the line that I had also heard a long time ago(7), I went to the katana user and tapped him on the sleeves of his large Japanese-style armour.

"We’ll watch over you until your avatar disappears, so calm down. You must enjoy it to the max this time, yeah."

After I said that, Klein blinked for a moment and then expressed that he understood the meaning of my words with a light "hehe" laughter.

"Right. In that case, I’ll take you up on your kind offer and excuse myself for the day."

"I offer my best regards to all the shrimps, crabs, cuttlefish and octopuses on the pizza~"

While making a complicated-looking face to Liz’s words, Klein opened his main menu.

"Well then, great work, everyone!"

After tapping on the logout button, the salamander’s avatar automatically switched to a one knee kneeling position, closed its eyes and stopped moving.

In ALO, to prevent people from «Escaping» from player skirmishes, the player’s avatar will remain on site for a little while when logging out in the field. Naturally, it’s highly likely that monsters would target the player. The player would then find themselves in the form of a #left behind fire#(Remain Light) when they logged in later.

Therefore, when logging out outside the area, a player’s allies would normally protect their avatar until the timeout elapses and the player’s avatar disappears. Thankfully, it doesn't look like that this beach has many strong monsters spawning, thus I looked away from Klein’s body and proposed,

"If anyone else beside him wants to logout, go right ahead… I’ll watch over you till the end."

At my words, Asuna was the first to bring up her right hand apologetically .

"Err…… then I’ll be logging out too, if it’s okay……"

Although I haven’t met her yet, I have heard stories that Asuna’s mother was a very strict person, so I nodded quickly.

"It’s fine. Thanks for today."

"Yeah, thanks to everyone for today too, thank you for the great work(8)!"

As Asuna nimbly operated the menu to log out and her avatar switched to a standby position, Agil, who has to stock his shop for tomorrow, Liz, who has a TV show she wants to watch, and Silica, who has to complete today's homework, all requested to instantly log out and left the fairy homeworld together.

When Silica went into a standby posture, Pina, who was sitting on Silica’s head, began to look around restlessly, as if trying to protect her avatar. "How noble"… while thinking that, I stretched my limbs.

At that moment, my eyes met Leafa's, who had taken the exact same pose at the exact same time.

Somehow, we grinned together, and then I turned my eyes towards the west horizon.

Before I became aware of it, the sun had completely set, with only a deep vermillion left above the horizon. Yui, who was sitting on my head, used my shoulder as a springboard to plunge into my chest pocket, and made a lovely yawn.

"……Papa, the whale-san was really big, wasn't it?"

I gently brushed the head of the pixie who said this in a sleepy voice with my fingertips.

"Yeah. Let’s ride it again someday."

"Yeah……"

Yui nodded and closed her eyelids, then, immediately afterwards, she began sleeping, breathing softly.

Yui, an AI independent from ALO’s system, has no need to sleep like a human, but when she has a large quantity of information input and nothing urgent to process, she often conducts memory sorting in a sleeping state. In all likelihood, today’s adventure was being played back in Yui’s dream right about now.

After a while, at first Klein’s avatar, then Asuna’s, after that Agil’s, Liz’s, and Silica’s avatars, as well as Pina, all scattered into beads of light and disappeared.

I faced Leafa and, while casually extending my right hand, said,

"Well then, Sugu, shall we return to Swilvane in one flight?"

Upon that, my little sister pouted lightly.

"You know, Onii-chan, since we’re not in the water, we don’t have to fly while holding hands."

"Ah……I-I see… Sorry, didn't mean to……"

However, the blonde mage-and-swordswoman quickly snatched the hand that I withdrew.

"However, since I’m better than you in the sky, from here on, I'll be leading the way!"

"……I-I’m counting on you"

We spread our wings at the same time and took off from the sandy beach that was being dyed in purple.

Returning my glance to the northeast, the gigantic silhouette of the World Tree in the background of the sky, where stars had begun twinkling, came into my view. Before us, a cluster of green lights glittered like jewels. It was the dear Sylph territory capital, Swilvane.

After confirming that Yui was in her place in my pocket, Leafa and I nodded, and we took off riding on the sea breeze.


2


"…………Haruhohohee……"

I muttered this in an unintelligible voice, while chewing my chewy udon.(9)

At that moment, Suguha, sitting on the opposite side of the dining table, looked at me with upturned eyes.

"That’s bad manners, Onii-chan."

It’s true that holding chopsticks in my right hand and a tablet terminal in my left while eating a meal probably wasn’t appropriate. However, after swallowing the udon in my mouth with a gulp,

"It's obvious that there are no issues with me eating bukkake udon while using my tablet."

"……Then, what about karē udon?"

"No way."

"……How about kitsune udon?"

"That’s fine."

"……And what about nabeyaki udon?"

"No way."

"I don’t get your standards at all……"


Sighed Suguha, who then slurped a mouthful of the chilled bukkake udon (with hot spring eggs(10), steamed chicken, boiled shrimp, okra, thick wakame leaves, shiso and shredded nori as toppings).

We logged out from ALO about fifteen minutes ago. As usual, our mother has yet to return home, thus the two of us made a late dinner, but lately, I feel as if we’ve been favouring the ≪quick to make and simple to clean≫ route too much.

Let’s make at least three meals for tomorrow—— while secretly deciding this, I once again heard the voice from across the table.

"So, what was with that ‘I see’?"

It took me a second to realise that the question was about the ‘haruhoho’(11) I uttered a while ago.

"……I can’t believe you recognised that it was ‘I see’…… Eh, I mean, it was about the story regarding the Aesir."

"Oh, so you investigated that right away ."

"You can say that, though I’ve only read a rough outline."

I presented the tablet, where the corresponding article of an online encyclopedia was displayed, to Suguha, and considered whether I should break the remaining hot spring eggs open and mix them in with the udon, or simply eat them whole. However, before I could come up with a solution, Suguha laughed boldly and scornfully.

"……What is it?"

"It’s completely useless, Onii-chan. And here you said "I see" with just this. Only the highlights are written here."

"I-is that so?"

"Yeah. If you really want to know, it did not begin with the head god Odin’s father, the giant Borr, nor Borr’s father, the first god Búri…… Ehm, firstly, in Norse mythology, the beginning of the world started with a large rift, called Ginnungagap……"

"S-stop stop. Let’s save the beginning of the world till later, when we have time for you to tell me about it without haste. Hey, we’d better eat quickly or the udon will grow stale."

At my interruption, Suguha made a displeased face, but obediently put down the tablet and picked up her chopsticks again. Without hesitation, she opened the hot spring eggs and mixed the egg yolk that flowed out with the noodles. Notwithstanding the beautiful golden radiance, I followed suit and then slurped it down.

Although I thought that interrupting the earnest lecture was inexcusable, I currently did not need such detailed knowledge. Because, my current concern was not the realm of the Aesir that——possibly exists in ALO, but whether the ≪Deep Sea Plunderers≫ quest had a continuation.

Leviathan told us 『I am going to move it to a new Mimuro』as he took away the ≪The Child’s Egg≫, which we had unintendedly stolen from the undersea temple after being completely fooled by Kraken. However, we had a feeling that this wouldn’t end with ‘thus the issue was resolved and they all lived happily ever after’. What the heck is that Child or whatever——it’s not a human, as it was going to be born from an egg——but I have no idea. Kraken also seemed as if he hadn’t lost yet and, in the first place, that huge octopus’s thirst for revenge wasn’t satisfied.

This did have a few of my personal feelings mixed in, but wasn’t that actually the beginning of a #serial story#(campaign) quest, rather than being just a standalone quest?

In ordinary campaign quests, if one of the quests is cleared, the player can receive the following quest and the new destination will be specified via markers. However, there are rare cases in which the players themselves must guess which place they should go to and what they should do based on the information that they had received up to that point.

Assuming that this campaign is of that type, there should be hints to the location where the next quest could be accepted in the conversation between Kraken and Leviathan……but……

"……-chan, come on, Onii-chan, geez."

Suguha called me several times while I pondered, before I finally came to my senses and raised my head.

"Eh, wh-what is it?"

"I hope you haven’t forgotten that we’re doing a major cleanup of the dojo tomorrow morning. Don’t stay up late tonight; we have to go to bed soon."

Of course I had forgotten about it, but without saying a word, I nodded.

"I get it I ge~et it, I’ll go to sleep in one… make that two hours, I promise."

I avoided my little sister’s gaze of suspicion, and escaped to the kitchen with the now empty plate.


In my room, I rolled in bed and looked up at the alarm clock on my headboard while upside down

It was 23:30. At around this time in the old Aincrad, I would be in the midst of my ≪night phase≫, secluding myself in a high-efficiency hunting ground and continuing to swing my sword.

Of course, leveling is indispensable even in ALfheim (although ALO doesn’t have levels). There were times when I worked vigorously on hard farming in order to catch up with Asuna and the rest, especially since I had reset my stats inherited from SAO.

But of course, there was no chance of experiencing the trepidation from back then——that throbbing motivation to level up in order to live on.

Needless to say, that’s a fortunate thing. I did not, by any means, have any desire return to that world or anything.

However, somewhere in my heart, I may be continuing to hope. For something that is a game, but not a game…… for something in the miniature garden of the virtual world that could invoke a breathtaking ≪reality≫.

I felt a sign of that ≪something≫ the moment Leviathan’s trident came down in the nick of time, when we were about to be wiped out, after being driven to a near-death state by Kraken’s blow. Could it be that this seemingly predictable(12) event was actually an accidental development not written in any plot…………?

"……No, well, it would just be interesting if that were the case……"

I muttered that monologue to hide my embarrassment and, in order to prepare for tomorrow’s major clean up and go to bed early, I turned off the lights in my room.

After about ten seconds had passed, I fumblingly grasped the AmuSphere and mounted it on my head, and then recited the voice command in a whisper.

"Link Start."


3


By my standards, going to bed within the next two hours would be a reasonably early bedtime.

Making such an excuse, I landed in Alfheim, wrapped in a veil of darkness just like the real world.

Though, seeing as this hour of the day is peak time for nearly all net gamers, the main street of the Sylph capital Swilvane was bustling with plenty of fairies. While the majority of them were Sylphs, of course, a considerable number of players of other races could be seen, compared to earlier.

Gazing at the street from the window of the inn that I had used to log out earlier, I could see that the Cait Sith, currently in an alliance with the Sylphs, were indeed the most plentiful of the other races. Next in the rankings would be the #music fairy race#(Pookas) and #darkness fairy race#(Imps), whose territories were close by. Although the Salamanders' territory is geographically adjacent to the Sylphs', seeing as they were still formally in the middle of a war with the Sylphs, it came as no surprise that red-heads were nowhere to be found.

Although my race, the #shadow fairy race#(Spriggans), wasn't in any hostile relationship with the Sylphs, our territory is, after all, on the other side of the realm, separated by the World Tree. Actually, there's also the fact that Spriggans are an unpopular race, so it was impossible to spot a single Spriggan on the main street, just like with the Salamanders.

Having briefly considered how to proceed to my destination without standing out too much, I took out a hooded cloak from my storage and covered myself with it. After additionally reciting the chant for the illusion magic spell 《Moonshade Lurk(13)》, I tiptoed out of the inn.

The Moonshade Lurk spell makes it hard for other people to see the player, but only while the player is within a shadow cast by moonlight (in other words, it has zero effect in dungeons, as they aren't reached by moonlight in the first place). Although this hiding spell had questionable performance, it was the best my measly magic skill could offer. Luckily, the moon was shining brightly this night, while Swilvane had plenty of side streets, thus I advanced in a half-run, doing my best not to step out of the shadow.

Having arrived at the heart of the city after several minutes of travel, I stopped for a moment and looked onwards.

Extending right before my eyes was a #circular road#(rotary), no less than a hundred metres in diameter. In the middle of the rotary towered the most beautiful building in Swilvane── the Sylph Lord mansion. The three-storey building was surrounded by a deep moat, with only a northern and a southern bridges connecting it to the road. The rotary was entirely illuminated by the pale moonlight, leaving no shadows at all for me to hide in.

Standing next to their respective bridges were two extremely strong-looking guardians with their #axe-spears#(halberds) raised high. The only people who could pass through were players registered on the Lord mansion's name registry.

As I recall, Leafa should be registered as well, but even forming a party with her wouldn't allow an outsider to pass. Since I had wings, flying over the moat outside the guardian's view might seem like a good idea, but such a cheap trick was, of course, pointless, as there seemed to be a barrier that nullified any and all magical powers of outsiders, including the ability to fly, within the premises of the Lord's mansion.

I wasn't really planning on breaking in, so getting ahold of a member of the staff coming or going from the mansion to have them convey a message inside would just be common decency; however, I wanted to do my best to avoid this night's visit starting rumours in the future.

"…………!"

Just as I finished that thought, I crouched down, sensing the arrival of the moment that I had been waiting for.

The moon shining palely in a corner of the night sky was being concealed by a black shadow from the right side. It was an artificial lunar eclipse that took place in Alfheim every night. The floating castle Aincrad, orbiting at a high altitude, would overlap with the moon for a mere dozen of seconds. Moreover, the complete obstruction of the moonlight would only last a little under five seconds.

As the pale disk slowly proceeded with the eclipse, all light finally disappeared── that is, the entirety of Swilvane fell under Aincrad's shadow; at that very moment, I jumped out of the back alley.

There were few people on the streets in this area, lacking in stores, though that didn't mean there weren't any players whatsoever. Although nobody should be able to see me when I'm using 《Moonshade Lurk》, I traversed the rotary in a split second, praying that the sharp-eared Cait Sith wouldn't hear my footsteps. At the midpoint of the two bridges, I placed my right foot on the cast iron fence that separated the moat from the road and jumped with all my might.

As soon as a player went above the deep black surface of the water, they could no longer use their wings or magic. According to rumours, some kind of terrifying aquatic-type monster lurking within the nearly ten-metre-wide moat would apparently turn any players that fell into the water into Remain Lights, away from prying eyes at the bottom of the moat. Since the player's Remain Light would appear in front of the moat, my attempt at trespassing would be made clear as day if I were to end up like that.

Jumping ten metres without the help of flight was absolutely impossible even for an agile Spriggan. So, I drew out the sword hanging on my back mid-air and extended my hands to their utmost limit. The tip of the sword just barely managed to lodge itself into the stone blocks on the opposite bank.

If this were a mere rock lying in the outside fields, the sword forged by the master smith Lisbeth would have simply torn it to pieces; however, it was impossible to destroy structures inside a town. Taking advantage of this, I forced the tip of the sword into the block with all my might, causing my body to be flung forward by the recoil.

With the additional small jump, my left hand somehow managed to reach the opposite shore. Sheathing my sword into my scabbard, I nimbly crawled up. A slight metallic sound had rung out when I hit the stone with the tip of my sword, but the bridge guardians, luckily, hadn't moved.

Crouching down once again, I began running; the moment I dived into the shadow of a garden tree, the short lunar eclipse ended.

"…………Phew."

With a small sigh, I looked up at the Lord's mansion right in front of me. My destination was, if I recall correctly, the centre of the top floor. Although I didn't know whether the person I wanted to visit was there, all I could do was wait patiently if she were absent.

From this point on, I would no longer be able to rely on the blessing of the Moonshade Lurk spell. Praying that there wouldn't be any guardians within the building, I stashed the sword on my back into my item storage, before sneaking towards the wide-open front entrance.

Five minutes later.

Having somehow managed to arrive at my destination, I checked on my surroundings once again in front of the elegant double doors on the third floor of the Lord's mansion.

There were no signs of people in the vast corridor. It seemed the majority of the players serving in the government were in the middle of a friendly chat in a hall on the second floor, so I was able to come up here without being noticed, though if the person I needed to meet with was on the second floor as well, my efforts would all go to waste. Praying that my good luck would hold out to the end, I took off my hood, before knocking on the door.

After a little while,

"Come in."

Came the reply in a familiar voice. Sighing in relief, I pulled the silver door handle, opening the door just enough to quickly slip through.

Once I closed the door with my hands behind my back, the female player operating her Lord-exclusive window at the large desk in front of me raised her head.

When the female Sylph Lord Sakuya, wearing an elegant kimono-style dress, recognised me, she first furrowed her fine brow, then tilted her head, before finally raising her right index finger.

"May I confirm something just to be sure?"

"Anything you wish."

"I assume that the Salamanders hiring you to take my head…… isn't the reason that brought you here, is that right, Kirito?"

"Eh…… is that possible system-wise? That is, a Spriggan like me can pass the Lord killing bonus to the Salamanders……is that how it works?"

"It is possible, if you are officially employed as a mercenary, that is. Although you wouldn't be able to walk even a hundred metres into the town without a Pass Medallion in that case, as the guardians within the city would react to you the same way as they would towards Salamanders."

"Really now…… oh no no, of course the answer is no."

Raising my hands to indicate that I bore no hostility towards her, I revealed my goal for coming here.

"Truth is, there's something I'd like you to tell me, Sakuya-san."

"…………You trespassed into the Lord's mansion for a flimsy reason like that?"

"Well, sorta…… After all, I'm not registered as your friend, Sakuya-san, so I can't send you messages…… besides, I didn't want this to be heard by others……"

When I explained my circumstances in a way that made me sound like a girl from a romantic comedy, the Esteemed Lord gave a slight shake of her head, before nodding.

"…………I see. However, bear in mind that I am still technically a Lord. There is a limit to what I can tell a member of another race in my position. Even if I do owe you for saving my life."

"Oh, that is completely fine with me. I did not come here to have you divulge some Sylph military secrets, after all. Besides, I am of course prepared to offer my own intel as compensation for your help."

"Hoh? I wonder, what would that be?"

"The method I used to infiltrate the Sylph Lord's mansion, as well as a countermeasure against it."

Just then, Sakuya blinked in surprise, 'Hahaha', before laughing out loud. I had no choice but to pray that her laughter had not reached the floors below.



Savouring the high-class-looking wine personally served by the Lord, I once again explained the reason for my unscheduled visit, starting from the beginning.

Having listened to it in silence, Sakuya gave a slow nod at the end of my story.

"Around ten days ago, I also did the 《Deep Sea Plunderers》quest myself."

"Wha, you, the Esteemed Lord, did it personally……you say?"

"Even I want to go through a dungeon from time to time. Besides, I have participated in Aincrad's floor boss raids several times now, as you should recall."

"I-Indeed."

"However…………"

Being a woman of action, the Esteemed Lord drank up her wine in one breath, before giving a slight tilt of her head.

"When I did the quest along with other members of our government, we did not encounter Kraken, nor Leviathan."

"Wha?"

"When we handed over the pearl, or egg, or whatever it was that we had found in the temple to the old man NPC without any concerns, he just expressed his gratitude and the quest was cleared without anything out of the ordinary happening. Then, the old man summoned a humongous giant squid, who then grabbed us with its tentacles and carried us to a beach…… though, honestly, it wasn't a very enjoyable experience."

"Gi……Giant squid, you say? Not what I would have expected, but I guess it might have been an interesting sight in a sense…… I mean, ehm, so are you saying that there is a divergence in the plot based on whether the player handed over the pearl?……"

"It appears so. Actually, most people would just hand it over, I believe."

I responded to Sakuya's wry smile with a wry smile of my own.

"Aaactually, I was just about to hand it over myself, you see…… but just as I was on the verge of doing so, it was snatched from my hands by Asuna……"

"Haha, you just can't underestimate her sixth sense, huh."

Having laughed for awhile while gazing at me as I nodded at her remark, Sakuya said the following while pouring herself a second glass of wine.

"We've come to an understanding regarding the quest route branching. So…… in short, what was it that you wanted to ask me?"

"Ehm…… in short, I was wondering whether you happened to have heard of anything called the 《New Mimuro》 , which was mentioned by Leviathan…… For example, have you come across any buildings at the bottom of some ocean that resemble the undersea temple, aside the aforementioned temple itself……?"

"Hmm…… no such place comes to mind right now, but……"

After a bit of thought, the Lord operated her exclusive menu, causing a map so large that it covered her entire large desk to appear. A complete map of Alfheim, several times more detailed than what us commoners had at our disposal.

"This is technically highly classified, but so be it. On this map, we have recorded all unique points: discovered quests, significant buildings and stone monuments, secret paths, and so forth. Now if I were to look up 《Mimuro》 on this……"

Once her white fingers quickly finished typing on the map, the results came up on the search window in an instant. The number of matches: zero.

"Then how about 《The Child》……not listed either, huh. 《Kraken》…… 《Leviathan》……neither of them are listed either."

"How about 《egg》?"

"Isn't that a little too vague…… see, over a hundred matches. There are heaps of quests related to doing something with some kind of egg, like searching for them, protecting them, destroying them, or cooking them."

"I-is that so…… Hmm……"

Staring at the two-dimensional map of the fairy homeworld, I played back the conversation between the Lord of the Sea and the Lord of the Abyss in my mind.

‘It's been a long time, my old friend…… How long [...] as a servant to the Aesir……One day, I shall claim The Child's power……the one that will someday rule all the seas and skies…………'

──All the seas and skies.

"U-uhm, Sakuya-san."

"What?"

"Are three dimensional coordinates of unique points recorded on that map of yours?"

"Of course."

"Then, for starters, could you tell me the point located at the lowest altitude? Oh, excluding Jotunheimr."

Nodding, Sakuya nimbly sorted the data.

"The lowest point is located at minus 98 metres. The quest name is……《Deep Sea Plunderers》."

The Lord's pupils glinted with a momentary flash of light. I nodded in return, before voicing my next request.

"Then, next up, the point located at the highest altitude. Excluding Aincrad."

"……That doesn't even need to be looked up."

"Huh……?"

"Because the answer is obvious. The enigma, located at the topmost location in Alfheim……"

Pointing at the large window behind her with her left thumb, the beautiful Lord gave a broad grin.

"Would be the summit of the World Tree."


4


Three months ago──in April(14) 2025.

A large-scale update was performed on the VRMMO-RPG 《ALfheim Online》 by Ymir, the new company managing the game.

The implementation of the floating castle Aincrad. The integration of former SAO accounts. And finally, the elimination of the flight time limit.

Having been incapable of reaching even the lowest branch of the World Tree by themselves till now, fairies could now fly even to Aincrad in the distant reaches of the sky. However, the first goal sought by these fairies with their newly-acquired ability of infinite flight wasn't the new floating castle, but rather the highest place in Alfheim──the topmost part of the World Tree.

In the end, however, they couldn't even get to see it, let alone reach it.

The reason for that was the fact that the apex of the World Tree was concealed by a cumulonimbus cloud, within which violent storms and lightning consistently disposed of any and all intruders. Climbing the tree yielded the same result; several seconds after anyone entered the clouds, one of two possible outcomes occurred: either the player was electrocuted to death, or hit by a squall and thrown back out into the empty sky.

Daredevil adventurers with the gall to challenge the #giant cumulonimbus cloud#(supercell) that players have dubbed as the《Lightning Dragon's Nest》, probably based on a certain masterpiece anime film(15), have long since dwindled away……

"……Say, Kirito-kun."

Said Asuna standing next to me as she looked straight up at the sky.

"Remind me again, how many times have you died by plunging into that cloud?"

"Ehm…… my death count hasn't reached the tens yet… probably……"

"Then remind me again, who was it that had to recover your Remain Light with magic every single time that happened?"

"That would be Asuna-san……"

"Then, who was it that had to accompany you on farming runs to recoup your losses from the death penalty?"

"That would be Asuna-san……"

"Oh good, so you do remember."

As the #water fairy race#(Undine) #recovery magician#(healer) gave a sweet smile, I responded with an awkward smile of my own.

"'C-course I do. The number of times I've thanked you, Asuna, exceeds the number of all the suction cups on Kraken's eight tentacles."

"……That's not a very pleasant metaphor, you know……"

Muttering this with a complicated expression, Asuna once again looked up at the sky.

26th of July, Saturday, two o'clock in the afternoon.

On a viewing platform at the southern edge of Yggdrasil City, a newly-established city in the sky at the center of the World Tree, there was no sign of any other player aside from us. Previously, many people wishing to challenge the cloud would start their journey from here, but nowadays, the supercell surrounding the top of the World Tree was considered an impassable zone, akin to the Guardian Knight dome that once existed at the base of this same tree.

The difficulty level of the dome in question was set unreasonably high by the former manager of ALO, Sugou Nobuyuki, in order to conceal a personal appropriation of server resources, as well as illegal experiments that were being conducted on the server. Though surely, that didn't mean Ymir, the new company managing the game, was imprisoning someone at the apex of the World Tree in the same manner.

The reason why we can't break through the cumulonimbus cloud has to be because we haven't fulfilled some kind of requirement for it yet…… putting it the other way around, wouldn't a path through the gale and raging storm of violent lightning open up if we were to just set off the right flag(16)?……

"Soooorry for the wait!"

Suddenly, a cheerful voice came from below; just a moment later, a green figure crossed our view, grazing the handrail of the viewing platform.

The figure somersaulting through the air before landing in front of me and Asuna belonged to a speed-a-holic Sylph swordswoman. It seemed she had blazed through the sky at full throttle to get to Yggdrasil City here from where she had logged out yesterday in Swilvane.

Glancing at her time display, Leafa said, "So, I couldn't make it in forty minutes, huh", with regret in her voice. Since the distance she covered had to be seventy kilometers or so, she would have had to keep up a speed of a hundred kilometres per hour to make it within that time.

"Wow, that's just like you, Leafa-chan. And yet it took me and Kirito-kun nearly an hour."

Said Asuna with an expression of surprise, prompting my simple-mannered sister to puff her chest out with an 'ahem'.

"There is a knack to it. As the direction of the wind changes with altitude and time, you have to subtly adjust your course in order to ride on favourable winds as much as possible."

"So you've memorised all the wind directions. How amazing…… meanwhile, Kirito-kun plunged into a group of Silas Medusas as he was kinda dozing off while flying"

Just then, giving me an intent stare all of a sudden, Leafa said.

"It seems this guy did something in Swilvane when he logged back into the game by himself in the middle of the night yesterday. It also looks like his sudden interest in taking on the 《Lightning Dragon's Nest》 once again out of the blue came from him procuring some new intel, but he will not tell me any details about that."

As even Asuna's expression became sceptical at that moment, I had no choice but to evade the question with a forced cough.

The reason why my midnight Dive was known to Suguha was because of my constant, long yawns during our general cleaning of the kendo hall this morning. Of course, I haven't said a thing about my adventure last night ── trespassing into the lord's mansion, though I've got a feeling that she'll find out about that sooner or later.

However, braving that great danger did pay off. If I hadn't met with Sakuya and had her show me the highly-classified world map, there's no way I would've noticed the possibility of the 《New Mimuro》being located at the apex of the World Tree.

And so, now that I'd noticed the connection, I couldn't possibly just stand here doing nothing. Once the general cleaning was done, I called out to the usual party members── though, it's still the middle of the day, thus Agil and Klein were, unfortunately, unable to participate── and we met up on this viewing platform.

'Can't Liz and Silica hurry up and get over here', with this thought in mind, I was pointlessly gazing at the flowing clouds when the goddess of salvation suddenly sprung out from my breast pocket.

After stretching her small arms and giving a lovely yawn, she flew up with a bell-like sound. Upon landing on Asuna's left shoulder, she greeted us with a smile.

"Good morning, Papa, Mama, and Leafa-san! I overslept a bit."

Although she was my daughter, I do have to say that her bashful 'tee-hee' was truly adorable. Even the two women who had been in probing mode softened their expressions.

This lead to a reminiscent talk about yesterday's whale adventure until Lisbeth and Silica eventually arrived from the south-west as well. Now that all of our members were gathered, we moved on to the strategy meeting.

"……Though, there ain't much to the plan…… I'm just going to charge into the 《Lightning Dragon's Lair》, so recover my Remain Light with magic if I die, please; that's about all there is to it……"

The Remain Light left behind after a player's death can usually only be moved by their party members if they're grabbed directly by hand, but it was possible to retrieve it from long range with the use of some high-ranking magic or rare items. If they were to try to recover my Remain Light from the 《Lightning Dragon's Nest》 directly, there was a rather high chance that our number of casualties would increase, thus it was essential to have it pulled out from outside the cloud with magic.

Of course, after a certain amount of time had passed, a player would automatically be revived at their save point, but the death penalty would be drastically more severe compared to being revived by someone on the spot. Although I do have the resolve to die once or twice, I had no reason not to minimise losses.

──Having heard this attack plan of mine, the women exchanged glances among themselves, before Lisbeth opened her mouth first.

"Ehm, I'd like to see if got the basic things straight…… so the reason why you want to go to the apex of the World Tree is because you think that that huge pearl, I mean, 《The Child's Egg》 could be there, right?"

"Yeah."

Once I nodded, it was Silica's turn to ask a question, her triangular ears slightly moving as she did.

"Though, Kirito-san, if you do find the egg, what are you planning to do with it? You're not actually thinking about stealing it again, right?"

"Y-yeah."

Nodding again, I supplemented my response with an explanation.

"I was wondering whether the egg…… or more accurately, the 《Deep Sea Plunderers》quest we did yesterday, has a continuation that we can take on. I just can't bring myself to believe that it was a mere self-contained quest……"

Just then, Asuna's water-coloured hair swayed as she gave a pensive look.

"That could be the case…… though, don't questlines usually have some geographical link between each part? The direct distance between the undersea temple from yesterday and the apex of the World Tree is over a hundred kilometres. Even if the words 『All the seas and skies』 were some kind of hint, aren't you making too big of a leap in logic?"

It just goes to show why she used to be called the 《Demon of Clearing》 in the old Aincrad; that was indeed quite the logical argument.

Among all the unique points in Alfheim, the deepest location is the undersea temple from yesterday, while the highest location is the 《Lightning Dragon's Nest》──is a counterargument that I would like to share, but due to it being based on confidential data from the Sylph administration, I'm not supposed to actually know that.

Just when I began to hesitate over whether I should confess about sneaking into the Lord's mansion last night──

"…………Say……"

The one who timidly spoke up was Leafa, sitting on the railing of the viewing platform.

Observing all four of our reactions, she began her speech with another interjection.

"Say, yesterday I had a dream. A dream about a rainbow bridge descending from waaay up in the sky. When I hurriedly climbed up the bridge, I was able to see an awfully large and very beautiful gate up ahead……but, before I could reach it, I woke up."

With a bit of an embarrassed smile, she turned her eyes to the blue sky.

"I am quite certain that the reason why I had such a dream was because we had talked about the Aesir at the beach in Sylph territory yesterday…… In the myth, the Aesir lived in a realm called 《Asgard》……"

"Is that a 《realm》 in the same sense as Alfheim and Jotunheim?"

When I cut in to ask this, Leafa nodded while looking at me.

"Yeah. In Norse mythology, the world is divided into nine realms; there were more realms that we have mentions, like 《Vanaheim》, the realm where the Vanir lived, and 《Niflheim》, the realm of ice…… And also, there was a rainbow bridge that spanned from Asgard waaay up in the sky to the ground. That bridge was named 《Bifrost》."

The Sylph magical swordswoman once again looked up to the sky, her golden ponytail swaying.

"……Ever since the first time I saw the 《Lightning Dragon's Nest》, I have always imagined. That perhaps inside that cloud lies a rainbow bridge, connecting to Asgard……"

"Wow……so romantic!"

Shouted Silica with sparkling eyes while Pina sat on her head.

"If that's the case, I definitely want to see……no, cross it myself as well!"

Liz, Asuna, and even Yui nodded with a smile.

On the other hand, I delved into deep thought.

Judging from Kraken and Leviathan's conversation, there's a high chance that Aesir NPCs can be found somewhere in the world of ALO. In that case, their realm of Asgard existing……was a possibility, but knowing how MMO games work, it's very hard to imagine a new, large-scale map being implemented without any sort of announcement.

In fact, when the underground world of Jotunheim was opened up, they had apparently provided extensive coverage of it on the official site, as well as various news sites, and even had a commemorative event for it on top of that. For starters, considering that they had to have devoted not so small a budget and not so little time to create a new map, what was the point of creating an unbreachable storm to hide the gate leading to it, thus preventing anyone from using it?

──No.

There was no point in making pessimistic conjectures here and now. Whether there's a rainbow bridge, The Child's Egg, or both on the other side of the cumulonimbus cloud……all would be made clear by passing through the cloud.

"Well then, I'm going to go see it with my own eyes and…"

"Which means, I'm going there too!"

Leafa instantly raised her left hand, interrupting my words. Then, even Yui, not to mention Asuna and the others, thrust their hands upwards just like her.

"If that's how it's gonna be, how's about we all go together!"

"Let's go!"

As the girls got fired up, I called out hastily.

"H-hold it, hold it. If we get wiped out, who's gonna retrieve the Remain Lights?"

"Even I want to be the forward of the team, instead of being the backup, every once in awhile."

When Asuna said this in a slightly pouting tone, being a guy who benefited from her combat support so many times, I had no words with which to respond to her.

Immediately returning to her smile, Asuna cheerfully said.

"If we end up being wiped out, we can all just go farming together after we get back to town. With party members such as these, I believe we'll recoup from the death penalty in no time."

──Indeed, calling them out here, only to plunge into danger by myself while asking them to wait on the sidelines was awfully self-righteous of me. One thing more important than solving the mystery of this quest── was for us to enjoy the adventure together.

"……You're right. Well then, shall we all go together!"

As I nodded, the four of us, as well as Yui and Pina, shouted out energetically at the same time.

"Yeeeaaah——"



After checking on our equipment, we took off from the viewing platform.

Breaking through the gaps between the large leaves and branches, intertwining as if they were a maze, we headed towards the sky. We entered a V-shaped formation, with me in the lead, and ascended in a straight line.

The weather in the Alne plateau was good today; there was not a single scud(17) cloud in the sky around us. However, following several minutes of flight along the slope of the World Tree, we began to see a whitish haze lingering in our way. Straining my ears, I heard the low rumbling of distant thunder.

"We're going to reach it in just a few!"

Shouting to my comrades, I reduced my speed. Once we came out of the layer of thin mist that served as a warning zone, a giant, pure white mass──the 《Lightning Dragon's Nest》 filled up my view. The sharply extending tip of the World Tree was concealed by the likely-over-five-hundred-meter-wide-and-tall cumulonimbus cloud, preventing us from getting any glimpse of it.

Spreading out my wings to apply a brake to my speed, I hovered mid-air.

A supercell in the real world is apparently ten kilometres-wide and 2-3 times that in height; looking up at the virtual cumulonimbus cloud at such close range and feeling that this one was no less imposing, I trembled with excitement despite having gone into it umpteen times before, when───

Having stopped right next to me, Silica said in a merry tone.

"Wow, amaaazing! It kind of looks like whipped cream and seems tasty!"

That impression earned a followup from Lisbeth.

"Yooou're right, I want to put it on some pancakes with syrup splashed on top and just eat it all."

Next up, having stopped to my right, Asuna laughed as she said,

"Ahaha, well then, shall we go eat some when this is over? Apparently, a store that makes really tasty pancakes opened up in Ygg City.

"Is that true!? I just love pancakes!! I'm going to eat ten of them!"

Leafa ended the conversation with these words.

Should I expect great things from their lack of fighting spirit, or feel uneasy about it? Hold on, what happened to going farming to recoup from the death penalty?

Wait wait, that's only relevant if we get wiped out. We are definitely going to break through the cloud, find the continuation of the quest, as well as the rainbow bridge, and have a toast with pancakes.

Getting fired up again,

"Well then, I'll eat a hundred!"

I made such a proclamation, before conveying a sort-of-a-plan to my reliable comrades again.

"Speaking from my experience of dying ten times here, it's impossible to dodge the lightning. We'd best just think of a faster way to cross it than bother changing our course randomly every time, which only results in losing time. Seeing as we won't have a clear view inside the cloud, let's form a 《star》 to fly straight through it."

"Roger!"

Once Asuna and the others nodded, Yui plunged into my breast pocket, while Pina adhered to Silica's back like a booster.

The five of us formed a small circle; I joined hands with Asuna and Silica in front of me, rather than with Leafa and Lisbeth on either side of me; the others then followed suit, our ten hands crossing to form a star. It was a group flight technique called the 《#star-shaped binding#(Star Bind)》; its use was limited to five people, but it allowed for binding to one another far more firmly than in a horizontal or circular bind, as well improving our speed and stability while going straight.

The problem with it was that at least two people would end up flying upside down when flying sideways like this; as this required practice, Leafa and I were the ones to take up this position. Maintaining the formation, we began advancing slowly; upon reaching the altitude of the cumulonimbus cloud, Asuna chanted a spell that increased our resistance to lightning just in case──or perhaps for mere peace of mind.

"Alright……I'm starting the countdown. Five, four, three, two, one……"

At the last word, all of us exclaimed,

"""""Go!!"""""

As our five pairs of wings surged with the radiance of five different colours, we accelerated as if having been fired out of a cannon.

After a three hundred meter approach, we reached our maximum speed and plunged into the supercell. Initially dyed in pure white, our view suddenly became dark. The atmosphere became denser and damper, reducing our flight speed.

"……Here it comes!"

At practically the same moment as I shouted this and clenched my teeth.

'Gagaaaaan!', with such a tremendously loud roar, a very large bolt of purple lightning pierced the air a mere three metres away. I could hear faint voices escaping the mouths of Liz and Silica, who had never entered the 《Lightning Dragon's Nest》 before, but they did not slow down. Tightly grasping each other's hands, we pushed our way through the area as dark as the darkest night in a straight line.

The next attack to come at us was a squall that struck us from the side. I would have probably been violently shaken up by the wind and lost track of my direction if I were alone, but we were able to hold out due to the combined weight and thrust of five people.

Another dazzling flash of lightning at point-blank range. And again. And yet again.

The trajectory of the lightning appeared to be random, but that was probably not the case. After all, every single one of the likely thousands of people who attempted to pass through the cloud were struck down without exception. Anyone who entered this cumulonimbus cloud would inevitably be struck by lightning directly and die within one to ten seconds. Both evasion and defense were impossible.

But──if my guess were correct.

If the 《New Mimuro》 that Leviathan had mentioned exists on the other side of this cloud.

We can break through this storm. Although I have no grounds for that assumption, I do believe it to be the case. I'm certain that we'll be able to experience 《something》 that transcends even the system-regulated death zone……《something》 that brings forth a genuine story in an artificial virtual world……

'Gagagaaaaan!!'

The purple lightning assailed us for the umpteenth time from the front, twisting like a dragon as it grazed us, before fading to the rear. As our view continued to be dyed white while all sounds faded away, we continued flying at such high speed that we even left our fear behind.

Have the ten seconds yet to pass? Or have they already passed? How far does this lightning cloud continue……?

At that moment, soaring to my right, Leafa shouted loud enough to surpass the thunder.

"One heck of a gust is coming from right below us! Let's ride it instead of avoiding it!"

Below──that is to say, behind me from my perspective as I was flying upside down. Just as I realised this, a fierce squall struck. Gripping each other's hands forming a Star Bind tightly, we endured the violent jolt.

"…………Here!"

The moment Leafa said this, I shook my wings with all I had.

Due to the sudden turn, our horizontal flight turned to ascension. Although the vibration abated, in exchange our flight speed accelerated to a never before experienced level. From the direction of our goal, numerous lightning dragons descended upon us. We'd surely be struck by them if we slowed down in panic now.

"G……ooooooooo!"

I cried out, straining my voice.

In a Star Bind, our arms intersected firmly with the arms of those two people whose hands we were grasping directly of course, but this also applied to the other two whom we weren't grasping directly. I felt the courage of my comrades through our touching skin.

Having turned into a comet, leaving behind a trail of five colours, we pushed our way through. Four bolts of lightning pierced the sky in all directions, once again dyeing our view in bluish-white. This time, the visual effect didn't seem to be disappearing. On the contrary, our surroundings rapidly became whiter and brighter───.

The next moment, even the sounds disappeared.

The roars of the storm, the flashes of the lightning dragons… all of it faded away. In this unbelievable silence, I fully opened my nearly-closed eyes.

The first thing I saw was a white, towering wall. Reflected on this amorphous screen were our still-rising figures.

I turned my eyes towards Asuna and Silica, whom I had linked hands with, in front of me and saw that both of them had wide-open eyes. I was curious about what they were looking at, but I couldn't turn my eyes behind me while in the Star Bind.

"……I think it's okay to dissolve our formation now."

Whispered Asuna, thus I gently released their hands while continuing to slow down. The moment the star broke up, I turned around just as Leafa and Liz did the same.

There, I saw a huge, pure white, spherical space.

Its diameter was three hundred meters or so. Its center was pierced vertically by a green pillar. The bottom of the pillar disappeared into the white wall, while I could see its sharp tip close to the ceiling.

There was no doubt about it. That pillar was──

"The apex…… of the World Tree……"

Leafa muttered in a hoarse voice.

Meaning, we broke through. The 《Lightning Dragon's Nest》 that had driven away any and all players. We were currently inside the gigantic cumulonimbus cloud that enveloped the tip of the World Tree.

"No way……"

These words slipped out from Asuna, who was covering her mouth, her eyes still wide-open. We exchanged glances with each other; seeing smiles slowly forming on our faces, we took in a deep breath in order to shout "We did it!" simultaneously.

However.

Just a moment before we could do so, a small fairy flew out of my breast pocket, before shouting in a tense voice.

"Papa, something is coming!"

"…………!"

All of us quickly went on guard. I drew out my sword from behind, my eyes flicking in all directions.

The cloud dome was almost entirely engulfed in silence. Not even a sign of the thunder that should have been roaring inside the cloud behind me reached my ears. The only thing that I heard was the quiet sound of the leaves of the World Tree, swaying in the gentle breeze inside the dome……

──No.

'Katsun', 'katsun', a sound suddenly drew near us out of nowhere. It wasn't a metallic sound, but rather a sound that felt at once both hard and soft, like someone hitting a thick plate of glass with a wooden pole.

"Ah……over there!"

Lisbeth pointed her finger obliquely skyward.

Although the sun couldn't be seen, the top of the dome was filled with a white radiance, forcing me to squint my eyes. Inside the light, a small silhouette was approaching us. It wasn't a monster. Wearing a loose #long clothing#(toga) was a fairy just like us…… no wait, a human……?

Descending through the air despite not having any wings on his back, with heavy footsteps, as if he were walking down an invisible staircase in the air, was a tall and slender young man. His bluish-silver hair stood up behind him and there was a thin circlet on his forehead.
Although he didn't seem to have a sword or staff on him, we were assailed by so much pressure that we forgot to breathe and slowly backed away.

Facing us, the young man descended to the exact same altitude we were at without the slightest change to his pace, stopping mid-air just a mere five metres away from us. On his bright, beautiful face, his golden-brown eyes cast a sharp light.

The same moment as the young man spoke up, a cursor appeared over his head.

"Sheathe thy swords, fairies."

It was a beautiful voice, reminiscent of honed steel. The name displayed was ──【Hraesvelg the Sky Lord(18)

"#The lord of the sky#(Sora no Ou)……Hraesvelg……"

Murmured Leafa at my right.

I felt like I had heard that name somewhere before, but before I could dig through my memories, I jabbed my dumbfounded sister in her left side with my elbow.

"Ugu……t-the heck are you doin'!"

"Your sword, put away your sword!"

Ordering her in a whisper, I myself returned the sword in my right hand into the scabbard on my back with god-like speed. Leafa, Asuna, and the others, also got out of their battle-ready state.

Setting aside who he actually was, this Hraesvelg-san was undoubtedly in the same league as Leviathan.

Meaning that he should have such high stats under his sleeve that he could blow us away with a single swing of his finger if we engaged him in battle.

Having put away my sword, I once again gazed above the young man's head. However, only the cursor with his name noted down could be seen; the golden【!】mark──the symbol designating a quest initiation NPC was nowhere to be found.

So this wasn't the place for taking up the second chapter of the campaign questline? However, why did Hraesvelg show up in that case?

As I continued to be tormented by this question, the young man calling himself the lord of the sky, being probably over a hundred and ninety centimetres tall, looked down at me and gave a slight nod with a ‘hmm'.

"I see. I was wondering how some small fairies could have passed through my barrier of storms, but thou appear to have the divine protection of the lord of the sea."

"Eh……by lord of the sea, you don't happen to mean Leviathan……would you?"

Perhaps due to me tacking on a polite copula(19) at the very end of my sentence as an almost-late afterthought, the lord of the sky nodded at my impolite question without a change to his expression.

However, while that huge gramps did send us to the continent by whale, I don't recall him having cast some sort of spell. When did we get some sort of divine protection…… or perhaps, that itself is proof of the quest continuing?

"However, oh fairies."

Suddenly, Hraesvelg's voice became slightly stricter.

"No matter how you received the favour of the lord of the sea, I shall not allow you to approach the 《Sky Mimuro》. Or perhaps you are thieves allied with the lord of the abyss?"

"That is not the case!" "That's preposterous!" "No way!" "Doncha joke around like that!" "That is not the case, you know!" "Kyuruu!".

The six kinds of denials that were uttered simultaneously seemed to have, luckily, been recognised by the lord of the sky, as he once again nodded with a 'hmm'.

"That so. In that case, you best take your leave right away."

"………………"

This time, everyone sunk into silence simultaneously.

Just now, Hraesvelg did indeed mention the name 《Sky Mimuro》. That, undoubtedly, was the 《New Mimuro》 that Leviathan had mentioned.

Meaning, 《The Child's Egg》 that Kraken was after was currently being held somewhere in this dome. When I again gazed at the trunk of the World Tree with that in mind, I saw some structure that looked like a gate in its lower part. Most likely, the inside of the large trunk was a dungeon on the same level as the undersea temple.

'An unexplored dungeon! I wanna go inside! To be specific, I wanna go inside to go on a chest opening spree on all the untouched treasure chests!'

This concern of mine wasn't shared by my sister, apparently.

Suddenly, having quietly come to the front, Leafa shouted to the lord of the sky.

"Umm! Umm… before we go back, please tell us just this one thing!"

"What would that be, oh fairy maiden?"

"Is the bridge……is Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connects to Asgard, not located here!?"

That very moment, the golden-brown eyes of the lord of the sky glistened with a sharp light, reminiscent of some bird of prey.

"Why do you want to know that? Are you trying to imply that you want to cross the bridge and have an audience with those Aesir scum?"

Despite having my breath taken away, I again realised something.

The conversational capabilities of the sky lord Hraesvelg were far beyond those of a simple chat bot.

Just as I thought, he… Kraken and Leviathan, too, were probably AI with pseudo-consciousnesses. Beings that were similar to Kizmel, the dark elf I had once encountered in the floating castle, or Yui, who had concealed herself up to her eyes inside my breast pocket.

So, were they developed and introduced to ALO by Ymir, the company managing the game? Or……was this the work of the true god that controlled this world……?

Having fallen into momentary silence for reasons different from my own, Leafa slowly shook her head.

"No, it is not because I wish to meet the Gods. I just…… wish to know. Whether this is the end of the World Tree……or, does it still continue beyond this point."

Such an abstract answer, I wonder how it was interpreted──.

The lord of the sky unexpectedly gave a faint smile, as he said.

"That is quite the grand desire for a fairy as small as thyself, maiden. Even I, the lord of the sky, have never seen the end of the nine realms, after all."

"……I see……"

"Though, I shall tell you just this one thing. The rainbow bridge Bifrost does indeed begin from Asgard, but its end is not in thy realm.

"Wha……?!"

At this, not only Leafa, but the remaining four of us as well opened our eyes wide. Although he's referring to a different realm, the only other realm currently implemented is Jotunheim, the underground world. He can't possibly be implying that it just skips over Alfheim and connects the sky to the depths of the ground directly.

However, the lord of the sky apparently wasn't going to give us any more hints; he took a step backwards, still having a wide, enigmatic smile on him.

"Well then, you'd best return to thy town."

"Err……d-do we really have to go through that storm again……?"

Spoke Silica feebly. Just then, the lord of the sky once again gave a stern expression,

"Did you really try to pass my barrier with such a lack of resolve?"

'Indeed we did', with this thought in mind, all of us ducked our heads, though luckily, his lightning of anger did not befall on us.

"……Out of consideration for your friendship with the lord of the sea, I shall escort you outside just this once. Hear me, oh fairies. Never again come hither without bearing a righteous cause."

"Yes, sir!"

When we all gave such an obedient answer in one voice, the lord of the sky gave a faint, wry smile──or so was the impression I got.

However, the next moment, he regained that same rigid expression, as his right hand came out of the sleeves of his toga and rose high upwards.

Oh, could he by chance be summoning us a taxi home, just like Leviathan had? If so, will we get a huge bird, or dragon, or maybe even a flying saucer this time──

My hope-filled guesses were quickly betrayed.

"Farewell, oh small ones."

When his voice, brimming with dignity, announced this, the lord of the sky Hraesvelg gently waved his right arm.

The transparent wings of a bird of prey could be seen in that direction──or so I thought, but the very next moment, a violent tornado surged up and engulfed us.

"Uwa, wa, waa~~~~!"

Such screams were, luckily, not limited to me. As the four women also let out high-pitched screams of their own, we were blown up, turning round and round. Instinctively, I spread my wings and tried to slip out of the tornado, but I just couldn't squeeze any propulsion out of them.

The lord of the sky suddenly faded away; in his stead, the ceiling part of the dome drew near. 'Ain't we heading for that one big ass storm, spanning all over the place no matter where I look'… the moment such a thought crossed my mind, a small hole opened up in the ceiling. I couldn't tell from just a glance whether beyond it was a safe passage, or an instant death zone of purple lightning.

When it seemed like Silica was about to be sucked into the hole, Liz grabbed her left hand. Then, Leafa grabbed Liz's hand, while Asuna grabbed Leafa's,

"Kirito-kun……!"

And with my right hand, I grabbed the left hand Asuna had extended towards me.

Unfortunately, the chain ended with this. Since there was no sixth member I could grab.

However, not knowing when to give up, I swung my left hand and touched something.

I grasped it reflexively. As I continued to be swung around by the squall, I shifted my eyes towards the object and noticed that it was a thin, vertical branch. At its tip were two lovely leaves── it was the actual tip of the World Tree.

"N-nnnnn……!"

I gripped the branch tightly with all that I had, resisting the tornado created by the lord of the sky. Right above me, Asuna, shouted.

"Umm, Kirito-kun……!"

"It's alright……! I'm definitely… not letting go… of this hand……!"

"That's not what I mean…… you're just kinda asking for divine punishment or something right about now……

"Huh……?"

When I looked up, beyond Asuna, showing a complicated expression, Leafa also shouted.

"She's right, Onii-chan, you're probably not supposed to grasp that branch!"

"Let go of it, Kirito, you're going to get on the lord's nerves!", said Liz.

"If it snaps, it will be your fault, Kirito-saaan!", said Silica.

"Kyu~~~~!", said Pina.


"B-but……I'm just trying to save every……"

I tried to object with a pitiful voice, when it happened.

Far below the thin branch that I was gripping. From a corner of the World Tree's trunk, a figure flew out with great force.

It wasn't the sky lord Hraesvelg. It was far bigger than a human, had two wings, a long neck, and a long tail; it was a monster of the strongest class that I hadn't managed to catch sight of in all of Alfheim──a dragon.

When the dragon with countless scales glistening like sapphires turned around, it looked up straight towards us, unleashing multiple thunder-like roars. Violet sparks coiled around the sharp fangs that it had bared.

"Se-see, it's angry, Kirito-kun!"

At Asuna's voice that came from above, I could only nod.

"A-a-alright already, I'm letting go on three! One… two…thr……"

'Pokiiiiin!'

With such a truly crisp sound, the branch that I had been gripping completely snapped.

Unleashing a literal thunderous voice, the thunder dragon soared up, flames of anger burning in its blue eyes. However, luckily──if I should call it that, having lost our lifeline, we were sucked into the hole in the ceiling with extreme force.

Still linked together in a line, we plunged into the dark and small tube-shaped space at ultra high speed. I wasn't even sure whether we were going up or down anymore. Each time we turned right then turned left, I felt like my soul would pop out of my avatar at any moment.

"Kyaaaaa!"

While I couldn't tell whom that scream belong to,

"Yahoooooo!"

That shout of joy had undoubtedly come from Leafa.

After being at the mercy of the unexpected thrill ride for thirty seconds or even more, the path ahead finally became brighter. However, our speed still showed no signs of slowing down as we plunged into the white light.

'Supopopopoon', having been thrown out, we found ourselves in the middle of the infinitely continuing cobalt blue.

No matter where I looked: sky, sky, sky. After spreading my hands and wings, stabilising my posture, I looked right below us and saw the pure white cumulonimbus cloud floating a considerable distance away from us. Further below, I saw the foliage of the World Tree veiled in light blue.

"Kirito-kun!"

Since I heard a voice calling me from the front, I resolved myself for additional scolding to come, before I looked up, finding Asuna's sparkling smile there.

Responding with a smile of my own, I grasped the left hand extended to me with my right hand. With Leafa gripping Asuna's right arm, as well as Liz and Silica also being connected, the five of us floated in a line. Lastly, having slipped out of my breast pocket, Yui sat down on Asuna's left shoulder.

A super-high air current blew close to my ears. The downpour of sunlight made everyone's hair and equipment glitter.

For a short while, no one said a thing.

I'm pretty sure that everyone was reminiscing about the strange experience we had endured in the 《Lightning Dragon's Nest》.

In the end, we were unable to get a quest that would follow the 《Deep Sea Plunderers》 storyline. However, at parting, the lord of the sky did say something.

'Never again come hither without bearing a righteous cause.'

That implied that we could revisit whenever we are entrusted with a righteous cause to be there……I think. Perhaps, we didn't have enough quest flags covered. The continuation of the story was waiting for us somewhere in this world. In that case, we'll surely be able to find it one day.

That wasn't limited to just the quest. Even 《Bifrost the Rainbow Bridge》 that Suguha thought she had seen apparently existed somewhere, even if not here, according to the words of the lord of the sky.

I turned my eyes to my right and called out to the Sylph swordswoman, whose ponytail was gently fluttering.

"Leafa, it's a shame that we didn't find the rainbow bridge. Though, I'm sure that someday……"

"Ah……about that."

After blinking, as if she had been aroused from a deep thought, Leafa looked at me as she said.

"Hraesvelg-san did mentions this, didn't he. That the rainbow bridge began from Asgard, but its destination wasn't Alfheim. After hearing that, I remembered. If I recall correctly, in the myth, Bifrost had connected Asgard and Midgard."

"Mid……gard?"

At the mention of a name that we had never heard before, the four of us aside from Leafa inclined our heads in sync.

Leafa smiled and answered in a single phrase.

"The realm of humans."

"……Humans……"

Having parroted her words in a mutter, I was about to say, ‘Isn't that referring to the map we are currently in?', when I realised something. Alfheim was, of course, not the realm of humans. Because both the players and the NPCs, without a single exception, were pointy-eared fairies with translucent wing.

However, in that case, there was no place that could be called the realm of humans in ALO──equals, there is no way the rainbow bridge would appear anywhere either, right? I exchanged glances with Asuna, Liz and Silica, who had apparently arrived at the same conclusion. However, standing in the centre of the group, Leafa did not stop smiling.

"Ah……I see now!"

Shouted Yui, sitting on Asuna's shoulder.

"What did you realise, Yui-chan?"

"Where the realm of humans could be!"

Having risen from Asuna's shoulder to a place where she could face all of us, the pixie puffed her chest out with an 'ahem' and pointed to a corner of the sky.

All of us looked at that direction in sync.

Only the dark blue sky stretching out as far as the eye could see. The lack of a rainbow bridge was a given, but even flying-type monsters couldn't be found at this altitude.

Wait, that's not quite right. Far away in the sky, at around the same altitude, there was a small, floating figure. Its sides were a slightly curved #circular truncated cone-shaped#(frustum).

The reborn Aincrad.

"Ah……s-so that's it……!"

I shouted, opening my eyes wide.

A countless number of NPCs lived in Aincrad as well. They had neither wings nor pointy ears. The same applied to the players that had once fought in that world.

"……Aincrad is #the realm of humans#(Midgard) in this world……?"

Murmured Asuna.

"I presume so!"

As Yui declared this conclusively, Leafa also gave a deep nod.

"That's what I think too. Of course, there's no rainbow bridge in Aincrad yet, though……I'm sure that one day, perhaps when we clear up to Floor 100, Bifrost will appear from the sky……"

"She is right, I am sure that's how it is!"

Shouted Silica, while Asuna and Lisbeth nodded energetically as well.

In my mind, I couldn't help but think "Floor 100, are you serious!", and yet, I pointed the item I was holding in my left hand straight at Aincrad as I said.

"All right, let's be the first to reach Floor 100!"

'Yeah!'

Was a shout that I didn't actually get from the others.

'Huh', I turned to look to the right, where I saw that the four girls, as well as even Yui and Pina, were giving me complicated looks in return.

"……D-did I say something wrong……?"

"……You didn't, but……Kirito-kun, you took that with you……"

After Asuna pointed that out, I looked at the item I had been pointing towards Aincrad.

A long and narrow wooden stick, probably about one and a half metre-long. It had a fine, white bark, forming a dainty helix near its tip, further down which glistened two large leaves.

The highest branch…of the World Tree.

"Ah…………I-I ended up taking it with me……"

Panicking, I looked down at the cumulonimbus cloud below me, but there was no sign of a mad lord of the sky or dragon coming after me at the present moment.

"……Ehm… what should I do with this."

"Don't look at me. You're the one responsible, so do what ya gotta do! I'm not gonna get myself dragged into your divine punishment!"

Told off by Lisbeth, I began considering various ways how I could do what I had to do, though I couldn't help getting the feeling that regardless of what I picked, be it throwing the stick away, burning it, or eating it cooked, I'd still end up with divine punishment.

"Then……how about I force Agil to buy it and have him take over the divine punishment……"

"……So you're going to sell it to him instead of giving it away……"

"Well look at it, it's a branch from the apex of the World Tree! You can't just get your hands on one that ea-……"

Answering by momentum, I nonchalantly tapped on the area around the centre of the staff with my index finger.

Just then, a property window opened up with a light sound. Its name is just going to be 【Branch of Tree】 or something anyway──or so I thought, but…

"Huh……the name here is kinda long. Ehm, 《Crest of Yggdrasil》……? Its category is……a Two-Handed Staff……!?"

When I suddenly raised my head, I saw that Asuna and the others all had wide-open eyes. Raising the tree-branch-turned-#long cane#(staff), I elaborated in a high-pitched voice.

"It seems… this…is a weapon……what's more, the specs are simply awesomesauce……it's probably #weapon of legend#(legendary)-class……"

"I-I've never seen such a staff before either. So, that means that there's only one of it in the world……I wonder, if we were to put it up for auction, j-just how much could we get out of it……"

When I exchanged glances with Lisbeth, whose business senses were suddenly tingling──

'Ahem', I heard a cough. Next to Liz, Silica said in a chiding tone as her triangular ears moved slightly.

"Kirito-san? Seeing as there probably will not be any divine punishment if it is classified as a weapon, wouldn't you agree that it is obvious what you are supposed to do with it?"

"Kyuuuu!"

Pina also bobbed its head atop her head.

"O-o-of course I know that."

Nodding, I let go of Asuna's left hand, which I had been gripping the entire time.

I slid a bit forward, turning around when I was next to Yui. I gazed straight at Asuna, standing in front of me with a blank expression.

Perhaps having guessed my intentions, Leafa, Liz, and Silica also moved to my left and right.

Correcting my posture, I presented the #branch of the apex of the World Tree#(Crest of Yggdrasil) held reverently in my hands to Asuna, who had yet to catch on to what was going on.

"This is for you, Asuna. I'm sure that it'll help you out."

"Wha……f-for me, are you sure……?"

When I nodded with an 'Of course', she timidly held out her hands and accepted the staff.

Though still just a wooden branch outwardly, yet giving off an impression of elegance for that very reason, the staff quite suited the Undine healer.

After winking to Leafa and the others to my left and right, I synchronised our timing and said in a loud voice.

"Asuna, thanks for always supporting us!"

"""Thanks!!""

Hearing this chorus──

Asuna gave a radiant smile as she embraced the World Tree staff to her chest.



5


Slowly descending towards Yggdrasil City, I looked up to the white cloud that covered the apex of the World Tree once more.

Neither the quest continuation that I had sought, nor the rainbow bridge that Suguha had pursued could be found there. Though, perhaps, the two of them could be one and the same.

Based on what we've learnt from Kraken and Leviathan's conversation, the quest will one day evolve into a grand story that will also drag the yet-unseen Aesir into it. If that's the case, I'm sure that there will come a day when we'll be able to cross the bridge of seven colours and head to Asgard beyond the sky—— of course, we're probably talking about a very distant future here.

The rainbow bridge Bifrost descending from the sky once the reborn Aincrad has been cleared up to Floor 100.

This vision of mine has caused a faint, yet certain feeling of anticipation to dwell in my chest.

Adventures… have no end. There's always 《something beyond》. Even if I one day become an adult and drift away from ALO, I'm sure I'd be able to find a rainbow bridge in the sky.

"Hey, Kirito-kun!"

Shouted Asuna in a lively voice while flying next to me.

"Remember that dungeon that we haven't been able to clear because my healing couldn't keep up? Let's all try going there tonight! With this staff, I believe we'll be able to clear it this time!"

Just then, before I could give a response, Lisbeth, flying ahead of us, turned around.

"Before we do that, pancakes in Ygg City, remember! Kirito, good luck with that hundred of them!"

"Ugh……C-could we make that fifty?……"

At my response, Silica and the others laughed in unison.

Having suddenly turned around and now flying upside-down, Leafa responded with an impish smile.

"If you insist. In that case, as compensation for letting you off easy, confess to what you did in Swilvane last night!"

"Ugh……"

Should I take up the hundred pancake challenge, prepared for the fact that I'll be unable to eat dinner? Or should I just give in and confess about my misdeed of trespassing into the Lord’s mansion?

Right at the end of the adventure that had spanned the past two days, as I moaned while contemplating which of the two rather pitiable options forced on me I should choose, Yui proposed a wonderful solution from atop my shoulder.

"No worries, Papa! If you cook a hundred pancakes worth of batter in the same pan, you will only need to eat one big one!"

"……I see. That’s a great idea."

With my fingertip, I lightly stroked the hair of my beloved daughter, who seemed to have reached the 《fad for big things》 phase.

While thinking that I should show her a real whale someday, I put the wings on my back to work at their full power, aiming for the tree city that I could now faintly see in my view.

(The End)






Notes

1. ^ Actually, the air inside the whale is typically quite warm from the whale’s body heat. When it’s exhaled, it meets the much cooler temperature of the air outside and immediately condenses, making it look like a spout of water. http://gizmodo.com/whales-don-t-spray-water-out-of-their-blowholes-1445483468
2. ^ Klein nicknames Kirito as キリの字.
3. ^ A "Tsukkomi" is the straight man in a Japanese comedy duo. Means something like "butt in" and "expose other people's error" then "bring a conversation back from nonsense" as a verb. In Manzai(Japanese stand-up comedy), Boke is the crazy joker(like Klein) who makes nonsensical remarks, and the Tsukkomi(in this case Kirito) hits him with a paper fan while telling him the truth/clarifying up the nonsense.
4. ^ The word Mimuro (御室) means "home of a nobleman". However, it's treated as some proper noun in this story. For reference, Daisuki subs for the Extra Edition translated the word as "resting place", while Crunchyroll translated the word as "home".
5. ^ Klein's remark is a reference to final fantasy. Odin (オーディン, Ōdin) is a recurring Summon Monster in the series. Most commonly, Odin will appear and slice through enemies with his sword, cleaving them in two and inflicting Instant Death. http://finalfantasy.wikia.com/wiki/Odin
6. ^ A mythical fish from Arabic mythology http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bahamut, but probably referencing the summon Bahamut from the Final Fantasy series. http://finalfantasy.wikia.com/wiki/Bahamut
7. ^ See volume/episode 1
8. ^ The first instance of thanking is “今日はありがとう” (lit. thanks for today), while the second instance is お疲れ様でした, which is a set expression for thanking someone for their work.
9. ^ Udon is a type of thick wheat noodle of Japanese cuisine. The following few lines mentions several types of udon. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Udon for more information about the different types of udon.
10. ^ Eggs slow-boiled so that the yolk is hard but the white is still soft. Traditionally, such an egg was cooked in a hot spring, hence the name.
11. ^ Haruhoho is a slur of “naruhodo” (なるほど), which means “I see”, “that’s right”, “indeed” etc., while the “hee” part is probably a slur of “nee” or some other ending particle.
12. ^ In the original text, the expression 予定調和 (yotei chouwa, lit. pre-established harmony) was used. It can refer to philosophical theory by Leibniz, but in Japanese society, it can also be used to refer to something (e.g. the plot of a movie/book/etc.) being predictable.
13. ^ The author appears to have misspelled the proper Japanese version of the spell name "月影潜み" (getsuei hisomi, "moonshade lurking") as "月影潜り" (getsuei moguri, "moonshade diving"), seeing as the Engrish version of the spell's name he wrote in furigana (ムーンシエイド・ラーク, mūnsheido rāku) doesn't quite match up with the "diving" meaning of what he wrote in kanji.
14. ^ Previous publications claim that the update took place in May.
15. ^ Seems to be a reference to Laputa: Castle in the Sky.
16. ^ In games, a flag (フラグ) refers to a condition (e.g., an action, a choice etc.) that causes a variable to change, prompting some kind of event to take place, or changing how some character or thing acts (e.g., unlocking new dialogue options, causing a character to move, unlocking an area etc.).
17. ^ Scud clouds, a type of fractus cloud, are low, detached, irregular clouds found beneath nimbostratus or cumulonimbus clouds. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scud_(cloud)
18. ^ The word "Lord" was misspelled as "Load" in the original text.
19. ^ After the word "Leviathan", Kirito made a short pause, after which he added ですか (desu ka), a polite way to phrase a question.

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