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Posting chapter 5. Please point out any typos or errors. Broken

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Posting chapter 5.
Please point out any typos or errors.
Broken ellipsis and inconsistent quote marks symbols are trivial and I'll fix them later, feel free to ignore broken commas and dots too, though pointing out any punctuation that seems extra rare is helpful.
Still posting 1 chapter a day, hmmm.
Also, if anyone has HQ illustrations from Yen Press please share them.
And yes, I'll share the full volume later.

Chapter 1: >>152935775 (colored illustrations inside)
Chapter 2: >>152976705
Chapter 3: >>153012570
Chapter 4: >>153060226
>>
Aaah, of course I forgot to include a title.
And this chapter is 35 pages so buckle up.
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SHE HAD LEFT ONLY A MINUTE AFTER HIM, BUT SHE didn't see her partner at all on the straight path to the main part of town. He must have started sprinting as soon as he’d left.

If it weren't for the fact that he would only pull farther ahead while she typed, she would send him an instant message. So the only option was to run. But no matter how many corners she turned, she never caught sight of Kirito’s back.

“...Geez, how hard is he running?” she grumbled as the back alley joined the main road and the number of people in the vicinity grew. She looked around and exhaled in relief when she spot-led a familiar-looking shape up ahead.

But she didn't want to yell out to him and draw attention in a crowded place, so she had no choice but to continue her pursuit. Kirito nimbly raced on, avoiding players and NPCs alike, cutting through the teleport square and into the north side of town. When he reached the plaza that contained the entrance to the catacombs, he ran straight into the ruins without stopping.

"Ah, hey, wait a minute!" she called out belatedly, but he didn't seem to hear. Less than a minute later, she reached the temple ruins and stopped at the descending staircase that yawned from the floor.

Briefly, a horrible feeling of anxiety crawled through her chest.
>>
But she didn't have the option of turning back now. She opened her menu, deciding to prioritize meeting up, and sent him a brief message reading, Wait in the b1 room so i can join you.

But the window immediately gave her a curt error message: This person is either in an inaccessible location or is not loGGeD in.

“Wha...?”

She gasped, looking up at her left corner, but Kirito's HP bar was still there, a consequence of being in the same party. So the ominous latter option in the error message was not the case. She sent the message again, just to make sure she hadn't misspelled his name, but the result was the same.

The first basement level of the catacombs was treated as inside the town, so she should be able to send him a message. If it hadn't worked, that meant that in the span of less than a minute, Kirito had reached the second level, which was classified as a dungeon.

It was hard to believe, but there was no other answer. She would have to give up and return to the inn.

…No.

She had told herself she didn't just want to be a person who was protected all the time. If she turned back now, she would never be an equal partner to him. It would be all right—she’d gained the knowledge and instincts to fend for herself over the last fifty days.

"...I’ll catch up to you soon," she swore under her breath, and stepped onto the staircase.

Even at this time of night, the large entry room serving as base camp for the towns relic hunters was dotted with players, but Kirito was, of course, not among them.

She opened her window and checked the map tab. They'd run all over doing quests earlier today, so they’d mapped out about 80 percent of the first level, but there was still some of it grayed out. In particular, they hadn't set foot through the south door of the room.

There were no markers for descending staircases in what she’d mapped out already, so if it was anywhere, it would be
>>
through that door. She closed her window, crossed the chamber, and pushed the mossy stone door.
Unlike with the doors to the north, east, and west, there was no hallway. It opened onto a small room with another descending staircase in the middle. The second level of the dungeon had to he down there. No wonder Kirito had been able to pass through the first level in less than a minute.
As Asuna approached, she noticed a small placard set to the side. It had a handwritten Japanese note reading, Not safe haven below, be warned. It was probably meant to ensure relic hunters didn’t find themselves in trouble.
For an item, a signboard had a pretty long life span, but even that was just twenty-four hours. Whoever had spent the money on this was probably refreshing it each day, but she was going to ignore that warning.

After a final check of her gear and confirmation that her potion's were easily accessible from her waistpouch, she carefully headed down the darkened stairs.

Fortunately, the staircase was short, and in just twenty steps she was down on the second basement level. The moment she stepped into the small room below, which was indistinguishable from the one above, a warning reading outside field appeared. Beyond this point, the Anti-Criminal Code would not protect her.

The bluish stone walls and cracked floor looked much the same as the first level. But the chill of the air on her skin and the toughness of the stone floor on the soles of her boots felt undeniably different from the floor above.
It wasn't her first experience going into a dungeon alone, of course. She'd spent up to three or four days in sub-dungeons and the labyrinth tower of the first floor alone, battling constantly. And she was much stronger now than she was then.
The recommended level for this dungeon was about 12, and Asuna was currently 17. As long as she could handle the astral types and remained no more than two staircases from the safety of the town, there was no reason at all to fear.
>>
Asuna brushed her bare legs to drive away the chill and began to walk.

The little room had only one exit, so she headed through it into a long hallway. The walls alternated between weak torches that looked ready to go out at any moment and small doors. It was nice to have any light at all, but the thought of checking at least a dozen doors one by one was tiresome.

But if Kirito was down here to search for Argo, he would be looking through all of them. She was only a few minutes behind him, so the possibility was high that she'd open a door and run smack into him.

Perhaps if she shouted at the top of her lungs he would hear, but it would also attract the attention of monsters. She decided to search the slow way, walking over to the closest door and listening through the rusted metal before pushing it open.

The room was darker than the hallway, lit by only a few candles set into nooks in the far wall. She didn't see any players or monsters in the narrow room, but there was a rectangular box placed near the back. It would be quite large for a treasure chest, but upon closer examination, she was still wrong. It was a coffin. But of course—this entire dungeon was a giant tomb.

Asuna simply closed the door, knowing that nothing good could come from approaching or opening that box. She exhaled, carefully walked to the next door, and opened it. Another tomb with a coffin inside of it and no people. She shut the door quickly.

The third and fourth were the same thing. She was beginning to get impatient and was ready to close the fifth door just as fast—when she suddenly froze.

Something was glowing along the back wall.

It wasn't reflecting the light of the candles. The dim white glow was the same as the kind emitted in the temple of Karluin the night before. She checked her HP bar and saw that the buff icon of the eye was lit. She still had some of the Blink & Brink tart effect active.
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That meant the source of the white light was a relic that hadn’t been picked up yet.

"..."

After a bout of hesitation, Asuna decided to step into the crypt. The relic-finding bonus lasted for sixty minutes, so it probably didn’t have much longer. It would be a waste to let it drift away without making use of it...

She snuck across the thirty feet of the crypt, toward the back wall. The glowing object was in a crack in the stone floor, and when lifted up, she found it to be an ancient silver pendant. Asuna wouldn't know its worth until it was appraised, so she put it in her pouch and turned to leave the room.

There was a heavy scraping noise.

Gruk, gruk, like a stone pestle, coining from the right. She glanced aside, overcome by an intense foreboding.

The instinctual guess of a stone pestle was actually not far off. ll was indeed the sound of heavy stone-on-stone scraping—in this case, the lid of a sarcophagus, as moved by its body.

"..."

Asuna clamped her lips shut to lock down the scream and pulled the Chivalric Rapier loose from her waist. Meanwhile, a glowing humanoid figure was emerging from the half-opened coffin with a wail like whistling wind.

It was very similar to the ghost of the vengeful girl from the "Thirty-Year Lament." The major difference was a pale red cursor hovering over the things head. The HP bar contained the name Mournful Wraith.

It was a monster. An angry spirit that could hurt her.

"Hyoooooh..."

The wraith wailed, spread its arms, and pounced at her. Even knowing in the rational part of her mind that it was just data on a computer, she wasn't able to completely overcome her fear. She scurried backward to the right corner of the crypt as she swung her sword at the thing.
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Her boots landed on a particularly large stone, which receded a bit with a tiny click.

Under normal circumstances, Asuna would notice the aberration and leap away, even without knowing what it was. But she was so focused on controlling her fear of the ghost that her reaction to the change was late.

Before she knew what was happening, the stone swung downward into a trapdoor. Asuna plunged through the narrow hole and fell without a sound.

Her first thought was the height.

In a way, the only thing scarier than a floor boss, universally capable of instantly killing even the hardiest warrior, was fall damage. It varied based on maximum HP, strength, agility, and the terrain of the landing ground, but even at level 17, if Asuna fell over thirty feet headfirst onto hard ground, she could easily die on impact.

The silver lining was that the hole was narrow, so her body wouldn’t rotate in midair. She just had to pray it wasn’t a long fall, and brace her feet.

The moment she left the hole, she saw a stone floor much like the one on the second level. It had been about a thirteen-foot fall. She let go of her rapier to brace herself, and when her shoes hit the floor, she bent her legs and rolled. She did two backward somersaults until her back hit a wall, stopping her cold.

The impact was intense, but her HP loss was just under 10 percent. She stayed frozen for several moments, making sure nothing else would happen.

The trapdoor had vanished from the ceiling above, and the wraiths wailing could not be heard. She slowly let out the air trapped in her chest and rearranged her thoughts.

Asuna thought she had conquered her fear of ghosts—or astral monsters, rather—but she'd totally lost her cool and failed to notice that she wandered into a trap because of it. It was pathetic, but the important thing was to react and recover rather than
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regret her mistake. She had to assess the situation and take the smartest possible action.

Her first priority was to return to the second level of the dungeon from the bottom floor. That meant step one was to examine her surroundings anew.

Asuna slowly got to her feet and looked around in search of the Chivalric Rapier she'd dropped during the fall.

The silver sword was resting about six feet away.

But there was also something else there.

A humanoid creature with bluish skin, just barely a foot and a half tall, with a rodent-like extended snout, and large yellow eyes glowing at her.

The little monster looked up at Asuna and skittered with mocking laughter. Then it picked up the rapier, which was longer than it was tall; tucked it under its arm; and darted off at unbelievable speed.

"Hey, wait!" she yelled, but that had never stopped a robber before. The little creature melted into the darkness, leaving behind only a cursor labeled Sly Shrewman.

If she let it pull away until the cursor disappeared, she instantly knew she would never find it again. Asuna tore after the thief.

As she ran, she noted that her surroundings were less of a man-made structure and more like a natural cave. The only light sources were glowing patches of moss on the rock walls, which made it hard to even see the floor ahead. She'd need to pull a torch out of her inventory and light it to avoid tripping, but that wasn't possible at a full sprint. She just kept running, praying that luck would keep her from slipping on the uneven, slippery ground.

Thanks to the Sprint skill that she'd replaced her Tailoring skill with a few days ago, she caught sight of a small silhouette in the darkness ahead after just thirty seconds or so. The Sly Shrewman turned back briefly, then skittered again, a bit more panicked this time.

“You’re not… getting away… from me!” she shouted just loud
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enough for the rodent thing to hear, and leaned forward as far as she could, stretching in an attempt to grab the thief's twitching tail. Her fingertips brushed the tip of the tail, glanced off it, then finally seized it tight on the third try—when her right foot plunged into a puddle.

The sole of the boot lost its grip and her body toppled forward. She was just barely able to avoid smashing her face into the ground, but she still landed hard on her butt in the water, sending up a large splash. The shrewman darted off.

The light pink cursor vanished silently from her view. All Asuna was left with was the unpleasant sensation of cold water seeping into her skirt.

It took a full fifteen seconds for her to get to her feet.

She made her way to the wall with heavy footsteps, the hem of her skirt and the ends of her hair dripping water. Once she found a dry stretch of ground, she sank down to her knees.

Her sword was gone... Her lifeline in this world, the Chivalric Rapier +5 that harbored the soul of her old Wind Fleuret.

The loss and fear of that shock bounced back and forth in her mind, impeding other thoughts. She needed to regain her wits and take the optimum actions now, but her head felt heavy and dull, robbing her of the ability to even identify what she ought to think.

Her right hand moved slowly in the darkness down her right side, but the only thing the fingers touched was cold rock, and not the partner who was always with her.

Yes... if Kirito were here, he would tell her exactly what she needed to do. He would track down the shrewman through some means Asuna couldn't begin to guess and get her sword back.

“Kirito...”

He did not answer her plea. She looked up at the cave ceiling, lit faintly by the glowing mosses. Somewhere in that direction on the second floor of the dungeon was Kirito. He might be only a few dozen feet away from her at this very moment.
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Asuna sucked in a deep breath, preparing to shout out the name of her partner with all her strength.

But when she pulled her lips back to form the “Ki,,” they were trembling.

She wanted to call him. She wanted to scream his name over and over, sobbing like a pleading child. She wanted to cling to the possibility that he would appear out of nowhere and solve her problem like magic.

But she was in the bottom floor of the catacombs beneath Karluin on the fifth floor of Aincrad. As of December 29, it was literally the front line of player progress. The monsters here would he more powerful than any seen thus far, and yelling to draw attention to herself without a weapon in hand was nothing short of suicidal.

She pulled her hand up and clamped it over her mouth. The urge to scream and cry was overwhelming, but she held it in, letting only silent tears leave her.

She was scared. She was alone. She wanted to go back to town right away.

Asuna had never felt fear like this when she had been alone in the first-floor labyrinth tower. She worked her gear down to the breaking point, and if she happened to die, then that was that.

Since then, her gear and stats had grown much more powerful. So was her inability to even stand on her own feet now a sign that her heart had grown weaker? Had meeting Kirito and fighting alongside him caused her to lose that solitary strength?

No.

That wasn’t true. The only reason that the old her didn’t feel fear was because she had given up. The reason she was so afraid now was because she had found a reason to survive and keep living.

In fact, Asuna had found a new goal for herself just today: to be as strong as Kirito so she could ask him to be official friends with her. She couldn't give up on that now. She would make use of the
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knowledge he'd so liberally given her and return alive. There was no other choice.

As soon as she swore that oath to herself, she heard her partner's voice echo in her ears.

Kirito had told her about a similar situation once—just after she'd lost her Wind Fleuret to that upgrading scam, and he'd recovered it by using the materialize all items button. She could still clearly recall his words.

—So he finds a spot he thinks is safe, then does the "materialize all items" trick, dumping all his stuff onto the floor at his feet. The problem is, there are looting mobs in that dungeon! All these little gremlins come pouring out of the woodwork to grab everything off the floor, stuff it into their sacks, and scamper off. It takes him five whole hours to hunt down each and every one of those gremlins to get his stuff back... I tell you, it brought a tear to my eye...

The "little gremlins" in Kirito's tale had to refer to the shrewman. He'd acted like it was a story relayed to him by another player, but she figured it had to be firsthand experience. Looting mobs had the Robbing skill, which immediately overwrote the owner of an item, so even the materialize all button wouldn’t bring it back, he'd claimed. Trying that again now would be no use. If she wanted her Chivalric Rapier back, she needed to defeat that shrewman.

“...Fine. I’ll do it,” she mumbled into her palm, then let go and rubbed her eyes with the back of her other hand.

The red in the Sly Shrewman's cursor was quite faint, which meant that its combat ability was much weaker than level-17 Asuna. If she hit it with a single sword skill, that might be enough to wipe it out entirely.

But she needed a weapon for that.

Asuna opened her window and switched to her inventory. She touched the sort button, praying to herself, and organized it to only show her rapier category.

With a little sound effect, it narrowed down and displayed just a single name.
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Iron Rapier. The very last one of the pile that she’d bought in bulk from the first-floor NPC and used up without bothering to have them repaired. She'd been meaning to get rid of it for ages, but never did.

She touched the item and selected materialize, and a crude wooden sheath appeared above the window.

She picked it up and stood, put her right hand to the hilt, and slowly drew the blade out.

It was essentially the very bottom tier of that weapon category, the blade dull, and the knuckle guard essentially just a sheet of curved metal. But in this situation, it was Asuna's very last lifeline.

"I'm sorry I wasn't taking good care of you. Please... help me," she whispered to the sword, put it back into the sheath, and hung it from her left hip. Next, she replaced her normal hooded cape with a silver one she was saving. After that, she equipped her rewards from Yofel Castle the day before.

On her ears were the Earrings of Ripples, fashioned in the shape of little shells, with a boost to hearing. And on her legs were mid-length boots with over-the-knee socks called Prancing Knots. They gave her a slight jumping bonus and diminished the sound of her footsteps.

Outfitted in the best gear she had on hand, Asuna looked in the direction of the shrewman's escape.

She wanted to go off searching for it, but obviously, moving meant increasing the risk of encountering other monsters. It was already nearly a miracle that she'd chased so far after the thief without running into any other foes along the way.

On the other hand, it was not going to show up again if she waited in place. Still, there had to be a way to take advantage of a looting mob's habits to lure it out.

Asuna pulled up the map tab and closely checked her surroundings. She was in the southern part of the third level of the dungeon, with essentially a straight corridor mapped out from the spot where she'd fallen through the trapdoor. The passage
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widened where she’d slipped and fallen and seemed to fork just ahead. She had no idea which of the hallway's two branches the monster had taken.

Asuna closed her window and reached into her waistpouch to pull out the silver pendant that was the original cause of her fall. She didn't know what benefits it held, but it was going to serve as a lure now.

"When the rat thing picked up my rapier, it was barely six feet away...”

She dropped the pendant into the hateful puddle. As the silver light wavered beneath the shallow water, she took one step away, then two, measuring out the six feet that was the shortest distance necessary to pull off a sword skill. She drew the Iron Rapier and waited for the moment the sneak thief appeared again.

However...

“…It's not coming...”

A minute had passed, but the shrewman did not show itself. Either she was too close, or the lure wasn’t valuable enough. But from what Kirito said about the “materialize all items” trick in the beta, the shrewmen had appeared from all directions and scooped up every item at his feet. So distance and value didn't factor into it.

What was different about him then and her now?

She thought it over, then looked down at the rapier in her hand. After Kirito had pressed the button in his inventory, he wouldn’t have had a weapon. So maybe it came down to whether you were waiting for battle or not...

She put the Iron Rapier back in its sheath at her left side.

Within a few seconds, her boosted hearing detected little scurrying footsteps on the approach.

There it is!

All her nerves on edge, she readied to draw the sword at any moment. Perhaps the one that appeared wouldn’t be the one holding her Chivalric Rapier, but she'd just have to depend on her good luck for that.

But once the footsteps got to what felt like thirty feet away, they
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stopped moving. It was as if the creature sensed Asuna's bloodthirsty gaze.

Actually... couldn’t that be the truth, in fact? There was no way to physically sense a gaze on one's skin in the real world, but this place was different. The system knew what Asuna was looking at—it was the apparatus sending the image to her brain to begin with. So it was perfectly capable of telling the shrewman that she was looking at it.

Okay, fine. In that case...

She steeled herself and slowly turned around on the spot. Now she was relying solely on her hearing. She placed her hands in front of her ears to catch as much sound as possible, training her every nerve on the creature's steps.

Plep. Plep, plep.

As soon as her eyes moved away, the owner of the footsteps moved again. It approached arrhythmically, stopped, approached again—and then she heard it splash lightly into the water.

"...!!"

Asuna spun around and drew her rapier.

Six feet away, the Sly Shrewman had picked up the pendant from the water and was about to flee.

The rapier skill Asuna knew with the longest reach was Shooting Star, but the motion to initiate it was complex, and the move took too much time to engage. Here, she would use a basic skill, one with short range but the quickest possible burst...

With a motion she'd performed so many times it was like second nature, Asuna pulled her rapier back. Silver light shone at the tip, enveloping the entire blade. As the system assistance took over, she pushed it forward by launching herself extra hard off the ground.

Sha-keeen! The one-part lower thrust skill Oblique tore through the darkness of the cave. As the rest of the world moved in slow motion, she saw the glowing white point of the rapier approach the back of the fleeing shrewman, make contact, and just slightly pierce the skin.
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That was all it took for the HP on its cursor to vanish. With a pathetic little crash and a brief squeak, the little humanoid silhouette burst into countless shards.

Just as she landed and stood up again, a little message popped into view listing her experience points, col, and looted items. The XP and money were no big deal—the items were the point. Shrew Tail, Balloon Mushroom, and the Unknown Necklace she dropped. That was it.

“...Hahh …”

There was no stopping that sigh of lament, but she couldn’t give up now. It wasn't clear how many Sly Shrewmen inhabited an area at the same time, but if she kept hunting them using the same method, she would have to get her rapier back eventually.

Asuna stretched, then retrieved the pendant from her inventory again, dropped it into the puddle, put away her sword, and turned around.

Over the next fifteen minutes, Asuna lured in three more shrewmen and dispatched each of them with a single blow. But the only items they dropped were tails and mushrooms, with no sign of the Chivalric Rapier. The third even had a Wad of Paper, just to add insult to injury.

"Hrrgh..." she snarled, grinding her teeth, as she materialized the paper. She was going to hurl it overhand like a baseball, when— Her arm stopped.

“Rrrr...rgh?”

Asuna stopped and held the paper up to her face. It seemed like something was written on it. She carefully unwadded the parchment, making sure not to tear it.

The standard seven-by-eleven-inch piece of paper did indeed have a line of text written on it. But the cave was too dark to make it out. Even bringing it dose to the glowing moss wasn’t enough, so she was about to ball it up again out of frustration when she remembered that Kirito would never give up on the trail like that. She put her fist to her mouth, trying to calm her
>>
rising irritation. Eventually, her mood returned to normal, and she exhaled a long breath.

Suddenly, to her surprise, a warm light appeared near her hand.

She flipped it over and saw that the stone inset atop the ring on her right hand was emitting a faint but steady light. She heard Kirito's voice in her ears: Why don't you equip that? It'll be handy.

It was the Candlepower effect of the ring. Breathing on it made it shine a little bit. He was right: It was handy.

She said a silent thanks to her absent partner for ceding that ring to her, then held it closer to the parchment in her other hand. This time the line of writing was clear to see:

29, 22:00, B3F (181. 203).

"...What is this?" she wondered. If it was the start of a quest, the quest log would have chirped with an update the moment she’d read it, but there was no such indicator. So it was a ball of paper a player wrote on and threw away, which a shrewman had picked up and treasured?

22:00 looked like a time, ten o’clock at night. Which meant 29 was the date, and B3F referred to the third basement floor of the catacombs. But the numbers in the parentheses were still a mystery. While she puzzled it over, the light on the ring faded away, so she breathed on it and held the gem back up to the paper. At that point, she realized it wasn't a period separating the two mystery numbers, but a comma.

A little light flickered on in her head, and Asuna muttered, "Are these... coordinates?”

She opened her window and brought up the map of the third underground level of the dungeon. When she tapped the cursor that represented her position on the mostly unfilled map, it popped up her name and the numbers of her coordinates. It said, (181, 235).

The coordinates in SAO were by meter, with the zero point at the upper left corner, meaning that Asuna was currently 181 meters to the right (east) of the upper left (northwest) corner
>>
of the dungeon and 235 meters down (south). Based on the map size, it looked like the dungeon was about 300 meters to a side, so her current location was somewhere near the middle of the level, though in the lower right quadrant. The x-value of the coordinates on the paper was exactly the same, so she'd get to the spot by traveling just about thirty meters north from where she currently was.

That all added up in her mind, but it did not answer what this was referring to—and why a looting mob would be carrying it.

She breathed on the ring to recharge the light and held it up to the note. Upon examining the handwritten numbers again, she made a new discovery. In the 203 of the y-coordinate, the 2 looked rather roughly written. It might have been a correction from a mistake, but it also looked a little like a 3. There was a bit of a trick in SAO to writing on parchment with a quill, so it was common for clumsy or unpracticed players to make mistakes.

"...So it was a player who wrote this, then made a mistake and tried to rewrite it, but failed, balled up the paper, and threw it away… and then a shrewman came along and picked it up?”

Her partner wasn't around to answer that question for her, but she was pretty sure she was right.

The next question was what these coordinates meant.

If the writer tried to correct the mistake, was unhappy with the result, and used a new parchment anyway, then it wasn't meant for them. And given that it mentioned a time, it was highly likely that the note was indicating a time and place for a meeting.

But there were still doubts.

Why the need to write on a parchment in the first place? That was what instant messages were for. Every mistake could be corrected with the backspace key, and the send button would deliver it instantly. So why not use that—was it a love letter? No. Not in a crude, unsentimental way like this.

She glanced at the time indicator in her window. It was 21:45 on the twenty-ninth.
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"...Fifteen minutes to move just thirty meters," she justified to herself, putting the parchment into her inventory.

Asuna headed north down the hallway with her map open, deciding the thief-elimination plan would take a temporary break.

She crossed about twenty-five meters without encountering any new monsters and began to hear the faint sound of running water. She squinted and saw there was a little room ahead. A rounded stalagmite rose up from the floor like a bench, and water spouted from the east wall, forming a small spring. She felt a sudden thirst and an urge to rush over and scoop up the water to quench it, but she held this in and stood her ground.

Her current coordinates were 181, 230. The little room was undoubtedly the location of the mystery-note-writer's meeting. She looked around and found a little hollow in a nearby wall that could serve as a hiding spot and squeezed into it.

...If a romantic-looking couple ends up coming along, this totally makes me a creepy voyeur, she realized, and briefly wondered what in the world she was doing—but there was no turning back now. She put her Iron Rapier into its sheath and stuck tight to the wall. If she had Kizmel’s invisibility cloak with its 95 percent hiding rate or had at least built up her Hiding skill... But there was no use worrying about it now. Ten minutes passed, leaving just live until the meeting time of ten o'clock.

She closed her window and lowered the hood of her silk cape, listening intently.

A minute later, she heard footsteps approaching. It wasn’t the slapping feet of the Sly Shrewman, but the crisp ring of hard-soled hoots hitting cavern stone. It most certainly belonged to a player.

As expected, the steps stopped within the little water cavern. Asuna waited a few moments, then poked her head out of the hollow, glancing at the room fifteen feet away.
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The visitor carried no light, so the only illumination was from the glowing moss, but the room had more of it than the halls so she could at least make out a figure.

All she could tell was that it was short and thin. A hooded cape covered the figure from head to toe, hiding everything else. There was no shape of a protruding weapon, either, so the person was unarmed or had a small weapon, such as a dagger. Asuna focused hard to bring up a color cursor, but all she saw was that it was green and the HP bar was nearly full.

Given that the person had reached the third level of the dungeon alone, it was probably someone from the frontline group, but she couldn't identify their name without a better look. If it was someone she knew, she could ask for assistance in getting out—at least, that was what she'd hoped, until the sound of more footsteps hit her ears.

A few seconds later, another player entered the room from the north side. This one was also in a hooded cape, but seemed to have a one-handed sword on the left hip.

The first player made a hand gesture like Fleming's left-hand rule, with thumb, index, and middle fingers extended, which the other player returned. The fact that they were communicating with hand signs while wearing full cloaks was quite suspicious. At the very least, it was not lovers on a date, and she had no desire to call out and reveal her presence to them.

Asuna realized her heart had begun beating wildly, and she put her right hand to her chest. She swallowed hard, feeling the sudden onset of nervous energy coursing through her. The sound of her throat was loud in her ears, and she tensed, worried that it might be overheard.

Naturally, the cloaked figures fifteen feet away did not hear the beating of her heart nor the swallowing in her throat. They sat on the stalagmite bench against the wall, facing each other. The latter to arrive spoke first.
>>
“Heya, heya, you’re here early today. Waiting long?”

The total lack of care in the voice and its words nearly caused Asuna to slump to her knees. She clung to the wall, listening hard.

“Not that long, but it was a pain in the ass to get here,” said the first player. The high-pitched voice seemed familiar, but it was muffled enough by the hood that she couldn’t be sure. The only thing she could tell was that both seemed to be male.

“Speaking of pain in the ass, writing down that memo by hand is a royal one. I hate using that damn pen. Can't we just use regular messages?"

"You know we can't. That'll leave the message in your history, y’know.”

Despite the light tone, the contents of the conversation were incredibly suspicious. But that answered the question of why the meeting point wasn’t just decided with an instant message, at least.

“I’m lettin’ things calm down and taking a break from both guilds. If they find out I've been sending messages around, all this trouble'll be for nothin'."

“Fine, fine, I get it.”

Based on the way they were talking, the first person seemed to be in a position of higher authority, given that the second spoke with a kind of informal politeness—but for some reason, Asuna got the opposite impression about them. The second player lowered his volume and muttered, “Just in case... you didn’t get trailed, did you?"

“That’s why we came all the way underground like this, right? Hiding won't work against the astral types on the second level, so anyone following me would get exposed.”

"Yeah, good point. Well, let's get down to business... How did the matter go?” the second person asked, opening his window. He started typing on a holo-keyboard, taking notes.

"It went pretty well. Our main force is gonna break out early before the organized countdown event two days from now, and try to just sweep through the labyrinth on its own."
>>
Countdown? Asuna wondered to herself as she listened. Then it occurred to her that in two days it would be December 31—New Year's Eve. A countdown event was certainly possible.

The problem was what they said next. Sweeping through the labyrinth meant beating the floor boss, and there were only two guilds in Aincrad capable of such a feat: either Lind's DKB or Kibaou's ALS. Which meant the high-voiced first player was a member of one of the two.

But a guild's activities and plans were absolutely top secret. If he was coming down here in secret to reveal those to this outsider, that would make him...

“…A spy?” she mouthed silently, then bit her lip.

The first possibility that came to mind was that the first player, the short one who was a DKB/ALS member, was revealing his guild's information to the player with the longsword, who was a member of the other guild. But based on the way he was speaking, it didn't seem like the second one was a member of either group.

But who else could possibly want to go to such lengths for internal information on one of the two big guilds? The only third party she could imagine was Agil and his Bro Squad, but none of them used a single-handed sword, and they had no reason to engage in spying. Agil had shifted to merchant business on the fourth floor when the fifth was already open. It was hard to imagine that he was plotting to sneak past both the DKB and ALS to get to the sixth.

The only other group was the Legend Braves, who had made great strides on the second floor until their scam was exposed and they broke off from the main force. But since they'd had to make amends by handing over all their high-level gear, they probably wouldn’t go through such elaborate pains to do this. In fact, it wasn’t even they who thought up the trick of the scam, but a mysterious stranger in a bar wearing a black poncho...

"———!!"

Asuna had to clench her jaw shut to avoid gasping aloud in shock.
>>
Kirito’s words from the day before echoed in her mind:

There could be three, four... or an entire gang of PKers out there in Aincrad somewhere...

Could this be it? Was the swordsman, who was using the high-voiced, cloaked player as a spy to gain guild secrets, part of that PK gang Kirito was worried about...?

In that case, Asuna was in much greater danger at the moment than she'd ever contemplated.

She had been nervous earlier, but that was just because she was eavesdropping on a private conversation, and she would feel bad about being exposed. If she lied or apologized about it, she might even get them to help her escape the dungeon.

But if they were PKers—murderers—and their important, secret contact deep in a dungeon was witnessed by someone else, how would they solve the situation? Threats? Bribery? Or...

Her entire body went as cold as ice, freezing her solid. Meanwhile, the lackadaisical second player continued, "Hmm, that sounds nice. Things got a lil' toooo soft between Kiba and Lin on the last two floors. We gotta stir things up and get 'em to clash again to keep it from being too boring.”

“Don’t act like it's that simple. It’s a hell of a job to manipulate a guild meeting into going any particular direction.” "Yeah, I know. But the boss is training us up on that point with that super-coooool conversational technique, you know?”

“True, true. I think I’m finally getting the hang of the exact point where I'm not bein' obnoxious by talking too much."

“Ah-ha-ha-ha, I've given up on that.”

"Yeah, because the way you talk transcends obnoxious."

The first player chuckled and nimbly sat cross-legged atop the stalagmite, rocking back and forth.

“Still, I just can’t tell what the boss is thinking. [ know what he wants to do, but its just so twisted... I think he could get around to it in a much more direct way."
>>
"Ha-ha, we're just sowing the seeds now. Get too hasty, and the fun of our little festival will be over in moments.”

“Yeah, I know, I know. Enjoy the process, right?”

“Exactly.”

The two chuckled again, and Asuna felt a cold sweat run down her back.

Boss. That was the word the two were using to refer to some kind of leader. Perhaps he was the man in the black poncho, the very one who led the Braves astray.

Kirito's fears were confirmed. At the moment, there was a PK gang of at least three members... and not the kind that just attacked people directly, but one plotting to confuse, agitate, and guide other players and guilds into committing provocation PKs.

But why?

That massive question came to Asuna's mind again.

What did they have to gain by pitting the DKB and ALS against each other, sowing chaos among the best players in the game? What profit could they derive that was greater or more important than escaping this game of death?

If she had her Chivalric Rapier in hand, she would leap from her hiding spot and point it at them to demand answers. She would ask them what they were thinking.

That momentary impulse shitted her avatar's center of balance forward.

The imbalance caused her right foot to step forward an inch or two. It was enough to rebalance herself, but the edge of her boot kicked a tiny pebble that happened to be resting on the spot.

Tak. takak.

The stone skittered forward, the sound echoing off the cave walls. The chuckles from the room, just fifteen feet away, stopped abruptly. Asuna straightened up, pressing her back hard against the wall.

“...Did you hear something?” the swordsman whispered.

The first player replied, “Hmm... maybe it’s a mob?”

“It wasn't the sound of a monster popping... What’s the hallway like down that way?”

"It's a straight shot for about sixty meters, then a dead end. If anyone snuck in there, we’d see the cursor—it’s a dead giveaway.”
>>
"Hmm... but in these natural dungeons, even straight passages have little dips and bends. That would suck if someone heard our little secret convo."

Oh no, they're coming to check. Even in this darkness, they'll get close enough to see me. I can't win a fight with this starter rapier.

She had to think. If her brain was sharp enough to imagine the worst-case scenario, she could come up with a plan to get out of this.

A number of thoughts burned through her brain in the span of a second, like sparks, eventually forming an idea.

Her right hand shot into her pouch, pulling out the piece of parchment with the failed instructions on it. She wadded it up and tossed it softly at her feet. It made no sound—it was just a rolled-up piece of paper lying on the ground.

She then turned around and urged, Hurry, hurry, come quick!

“…I guess I’ll go check it out,” came the swordsman’s voice. She heard him stand. Footsteps approached over the damp cave floor. One, two, three steps. Then...

“Whoa! What the hell?” the first player shouted, at the same time as the screech of a rodent. A Sly Shrewman had reacted to Asuna's toss of the sheet of paper, running through the little room from the other hallway.

“Get the hell outta here!” he yelled, and the swordsman laughed.

"C'mon, keep that door on the other end closed, please."

There was the sound of a sheath ringing, then a sword skill. Blue light briefly shone on the passage, and the shrewman screamed.

“Stupid ratman,, startling me like that. Musta been the sound o it scurrying around."

The sword returned to its sheath, and Asuna let out a long, silent breath. She crouched and picked up the paper at her feet. Meanwhile, the two players continued talking.

“Goddamn annoying little looters… Did they show up in the beta,too?”
>>
"It was terrible if you ever dropped your weapon. The best part was that every once in a while, you'd lift someone else's nice gear from one... and what do you know! No sooner are the words out my mouth!”

Asuna felt a nasty sensation flooding over her tongue as the swordsman gloated. She heard the sound of an item being materialized, and the smaller player exclaimed in surprise.

“Ohh, ,no way! That rapier looks mega-rare!”
When the full import of this conversation finally permeated her brain a few seconds later, Asuna felt all the blood in her body run cold.
No, it can't be, she pleaded, but there was no other realistic possibility. The very shrewman that Asuna had called over to save her from her predicament was the one who had looted her Chivalric Rapier to begin with. The two men had killed it and gotten her weapon.
Now that she had accepted that ugly truth, she tried to remember what would happen to the item's ownership and equippable rights now. She heard Kirito's voice again, repeating his lesson during the second-floor upgrade scam uproar.
If someone picks up your weapon or you hand it to them, the weapon cell in your menu goes blank. Including situations like the one where you gave the blacksmith your Wind Fleuret. But here's the thing. The equipment cell might be empty, as though you're not equipping any thing... but that Anneal Blade's equipper info hasn't been deleted. And the equipment rights are protected much more tightly than simple ownership rights. For example, if I take an unequipped weapon out of storage and give it to you, my ownership of that item disappears in just three hundred seconds—that’s five minutes. As soon as it goes into someone else's inventory, it is owned by that player. But the length of ownership for an equipped item is far longer. It won't be overwritten until either 3,600 seconds have passed, or the original owner equips a different weapon in that slot.
"The original owner equips a different weapon in that slot."
>>
That phrase pounded Asuna's brain like a hammer. After her Chivalric Rapier was looted, she replaced it with an Iron Rapier from her inventory. At that instant, she had overwritten her equipment rights to the Chivalric Rapier.

Actually, the chances were high that the shrewman had the Robbing skill, which eliminated her ownership rights the moment it was looted. And the cloaked swordsman had beaten the shrewman, so the rights to the Chivalric Rapier were dearly his now that it had dropped.

Devastated, Asuna slumped against the wall. Meanwhile, the first cloaked player was screeching with excitement.

"Hey, let me see that... Whoa, its heavy! Let's look at the specs... Shwaa, you gotta be kidding! Check out the attack value! It might as well be a double-handed weapon!”

“Sounds cool.”

“Seriously? That’s all you have to say? If you’re not interested, then give it to me!”

“Uhh, but you’re, like, ,a dagger user. Do you even have enough strength?”

"If I had a weapon like this, I'd switch to being a fencer! It's called… a Cilvaric Rapier. Damn, that's cool!”

“Look closer—it says ‘Chivalric.’”

“Who cares what the name is?! Whoa, and it’s already boosted to plus five!”

Asuna fought desperately against the urge to slump down and cover her ears.

She’d carelessly fallen into a trap, dropped her sword—the most valuable item she owned一let it be looted by a monster, lost sight of it, then got beaten to the punch by another player. She had no right to that weapon, and she knew it.

But she couldn’t give up on it now. She just couldn’t.

If these PK gang members used it, that Chivalric Rapier might lake a players life... a person's life. She couldn't possibly stand that.
>>
She would emerge from her hiding spot and beg them to sell it back to her. Even if it meant revealing that she’d been eavesdropping on their secrets and they turned their weapons on her—this was to protect others from what they might do with the Chivalric Rapier.

Asuna took a deep breath, summoning every last ounce of courage. She peeked out a bit from the hollow, looking closely at the players turned away from her, one holding her beloved weapon. She willed strength into her legs, trembling with nerves and fear, preparing to step out into the hallway.

At that moment, the darkness of the hallway on the north side of the little spring room wavered like a watery surface, producing another figure clad in black.

“Mwuh?” spluttered the rapier-holding smaller player as the swordsman tensed. But Asuna barely even noticed what the two cloaked players were doing.

The new member on the scene wore a long black leather coat. A beautifully designed longsword hung across his back. Beneath his long black bangs burned eyes darker than darkness. The sight was so vivid on her virtual retinas that she couldn't even blink.

“...Well, well, well...” said the second cloaked player, still as lackadaisical as before but in a much colder tone. "I always seem to run into you in the funniest places.”

The first cloaked player's shoulders tensed as he prepared to shout something, but the second one struck him in the chest with the back of his hand to shut him up. He stepped forward to hide his partner's identity and growled at the newcomer, "Mind if I ask one question...? How long have you been there?"

“I just got here. Heard you two talking,” said the black-clad swordsman at last, his familiar voice almost causing Asuna to wilt to the ground with relief. But this was not the time to lose her composure. If needed, she might be leaping out of her hiding spot to come to her partners aid.
>>
“Well, wouldn’tcha know it. I thought we were keeping it nice and quiet from the main hallway, but I guess we got carried away once I acquired this nice rare loot, ha-ha-ha.”

“About that weapon… You said it was a Chivalric Rapier plus five, right? You’re sure about that?”

"Wow, you seem to have latched onto that detail for just hearin' it said once. What about it, pal?” asked the second cloaked player, spreading his hands theatrically in challenge.

The other swordsman in black answered coldly, "My partner was using that rapier."

The first player abruptly budged, and again the second one silenced him with the back of his hand. He really did not want his partner to say anything.

Once he was convinced that the other player would reluctantly remain silent, the second made a theatrical gesture of confusion.

"Ohh, is that so? Well, I just looted this off of a looter mob. So do I have this situation right? You want me to return your friend’s weapon?”

"No, I'm not going to get on your case about that. It's just... I have no way of judging if your words are the truth or not."

The black-haired swordsman stepped forward slightly, his voice quiet but chilling. "After all, you could have gotten that sword by duel PK-ing my partner. Right, Morte?"

Called out by name, the second cloaked player raised his left hand and slowly pulled the hood back. What emerged was a metal coif, its hem ragged. He shook it, clinking the threaded chains, and laughed in a different tone of voice than what he’d been using previously.

“Ahaaa… All right, I see your tactic here. You mean the way I did to you on the third floor… Kirito?”

Asuna could sense that once the two men called each other by name, the cave grew very, very tense. Neither had drawn his weapon, but she could practically see the sparks between them.

Morte.
>>
The man wearing the coif was the very same duel PKer who had challenged Kirito to a half-finish-mode duel on the third floor and then, just before taking him to the halfway point that would end the duel attempted a huge critical hit to kill him.

The swordsmen—one in a black coat, the other wearing a black cloak—stared each other down in silence. Even the raucous, chatty dagger user was bowled back, intimidated into holding his tongue by the scene.

Asuna was still partnered with Kirito. So he would see, next to his own HP bar, that Asuna still had about 90 percent of her health left. His challenge that she “might have been duel PKed for her sword” was just a bluff, yet the sheer pressure exuding from his entire body made him seem deadly serious. Meanwhile, Morte wielded his own atmosphere of sheer murder, not backing down a single step.

She was certain that if either of them drew his blade, a battle would result. And not a duel—whoever landed the first hit would become an orange player, unable to enter town until his cursor returned to green status. But both of them had to know that. Each understood the other as a foe whose defeat was worth that heavy cost.

However.

By the act of Akihiko Kayaba, creator of Sword Art Online, the game world was no longer normal. It was a cold and cruel game of death, in which the loss of all HP meant the loss of the actual players life. PK-ing was no longer just PK-ing, it was true murder.

She couldn’t let Kirito’s hands be stained with blood over something that began with her own mistake. She had to resolve this situation before they turned to battle.

There was probably only one thing she could do: retrieve her Chivalric Rapier from the first cloaked player through means other than battle. At the very least, that would remove Kirito’s need to attack Morte, and given that they knew the rapier's incredible power, they would hesitate to begin a two-on-two fight.
>>
The first player had his back to her, unaware of her presence. If this was the real world, she could just sneak up and snatch the rapier right out of his hands, but it wasn't clear if stealing an item that forcefully would work in this world. Plus, just wresting it out of his fingers wouldn't overwrite Morte's system-ordained ownership.

Yes... the floating castle Aincrad was ruled by the absolute laws of the game system, laws that didn't exist in the real world. The most important tool for survival was to understand the system and make it work for you.

What could she do to completely and entirely recover her Chivalric Rapier?

She needed to physically possess the item, then later reset the ownership rights. There was no other way. But she would need to have the item for three hundred seconds for that to work. It was a very long period of time, and it would not be a simple matter to just snatch it out of the first players hands.

Meanwhile, Asuna's right eye and ear took note of two phenomena simultaneously.

Her eye saw the first player's left hand searching for a weapon on his left hip.

Her ear heard the slight swish of a monster popping into being on the south side of the hallway—the direction of the spot where she first fell.

Those two things combined in a chemical reaction, guiding her to a single strategy. It wasn't a sure thing, and it would be dangerous, but she couldn't think of a better idea on the spot.

Kirito and Morte were staring at each other silently, gauging how the other might react, but the impatient first player would be the first to explode. Then, the battle could not be stopped. If she was going to act, she needed to act now.

Asuna sucked a cold breath into her lungs and tensed.

The first player flipped aside his cloak with his left hand, exposing a dagger.

At that precise moment, Asuna dropped the ball of paper from her hand again. Instantly, little footsteps began approaching from the south.
>>
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In order to free up his right hand, the first player tried to move the rapier to his left. Just as the sheath was about to move from hand to hand, Asuna leaped out of her hiding spot, drew her Iron Rapier, and expended all the air charged up in her lungs into a deafening scream.

[insert illustration]

"Aaaaaaaaaaah!!!!”

The scream was so loud, it brought down a patter of sand from the walls. The unnamed cloaked player and Morte both jumped.

The Chivalric Rapier slipped out of the cloaked man's hands and fell to the ground.

In less than a second, it was not Asuna, Morte, or the cloaked player who darted forth to snatch up the weapon—but the freshly arrived Sly Shrewman. As the rodent tried to turn around and slip away, Asuna hit it with an Oblique, her fastest sword skill.

The monsters body burst into blue shards, and the rapier it was carrying disappeared. She jumped as far back as she could and opened her equipment screen. In the main weapon cell, she replaced the Iron Rapier with the weapon that had just dropped. The rapier in her right hand vanished into light, and a reassuring weight appeared on her left waist.

Just over three seconds had passed from the moment she leaped out from her hiding spot.

By the time she landed, Asuna had already drawn the Chivalric Rapier +5. It was much heavier than the Iron Rapier, but the hilt formed around her hand like it was absorbing it. Now that her weapon was once again physically and systematically in her possession, she held it out before her.

The situation was still a dangerous one, but for just a moment, Asuna caught sight of her partner's face between the two cloaked men. Even Kirito was briefly startled, but he recovered at once, grinning and nodding.

The first to speak was the original cloaked player, who still didn't understand what had just happened.

"Wh...what the...? Where did... that come from...?!"
>>
It was a high-pitched falsetto screech. Morte extended his left hand to cover up the mouth of the other player, which was poking out a bit from the hood, as he turned around.

Asuna made sure to stare with all her might at the face of the PKer as she caught sight of it for the first time. She couldn't see much past the hanging chains of his coif in the dim light of the moss, but she could make out some general features. He had a pointed chin and thin lips pulled to one side in a snarl. She burned the image, like that of a joker in a pack of cards, into her retinas.

His lips glistened, curving wetly into a sneer that hid cold steel.

“Ah-ha-ha-haaa, scared by a lil' boo. First Blackie, now you—y'all like to jump out of nowhere. And how long were you hiding over there...?”

She wanted to shout that she'd overheard the entire thing but decided better of it when she saw Kirito shaking his head at her over Morte's shoulder.

"What's wrong, cat got your tongue? You scared a good three seconds off my life with that stunt. I think you owe me one," Morte said, as sarcastic as ever. The other player yanked his hand out of Morte's way.

He moved it to the dagger at his waist, tracing the gleaming hilt, and screeched in a voice like rusted metal, "Listen, I'm really pissed off right now. Is this really the time to stand around and chitchat? We gotta react under the assumption that they heard everything.”

Morte shrugged his shoulders in exasperation. “Impatience will get you nowhere, y'know? Besides, you saw that rapier's stats, didn’t you? Assuming I take on Blackie over here, do you really think you can handle that on your own?”

“Don’t insult me. I can tackle a PvP amateur girl like her," the first player spat.

Asuna realized her breathing had picked up—but only until she heard the next line.

"Besides, I can’t go home after having my badass rapier stolen on a lucky ruse.”
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