Volume 23 Chapter 6

“... I’m not good at this...”

Lizbeth, murmuring while staring at the window and drinking water next to me, said in surprise, “In that case, just go with your gut. It didn’t take long for Leafa and me to finish speccing.”

“I’m not good at doing things based on gut feelings...”

I stared at my window while repeating myself.

Four icons were arranged in a cross pattern. From the top, going clockwise, the icons represented: 《Strength》, 《Toughness》, 《Intelligence》, and 《Agility》. Then, two lines extended from each icon, connecting to two other icons. 《Strength》—《Bone Breaking》 and 《Strength》—《Protection》. 《Toughness》—《Endurance》 and 《Toughness》—《Poison Resistance》. 《Intelligence》—《Focus》 and 《Intelligence》—《Erudition》. 《Agility》—《Skilled》 and 《Agility》—《Long Runner》.

Tapping an icon displayed its description. According to the description, 《Strength》 increased medium-to-large melee weapons’ damage, equipment weight capacity, and carrying capacity. Similarly, 《Toughness》 increased the maximum HP, TP, SP, and debuff resistance. 《Intelligence》 increased the maximum MP value and magic power. 《Agility》 increased long-range weapon damage, small point-blank-range weapon damage, and jumping distance.

That is to say, 《Strength》 was the Ability tree for attack, 《Toughness》 was for tanks, 《Intelligence》 was for magic, and 《Agility》 was for long-range weapons and short swords. Since I mainly equipped medium-size one-handed swords, I felt like it would be fine to just go for a high “Strength” Ability level and call it a day, but things weren’t that simple. To stay alive in a survival RPG, maintaining HP, SP, and TP at a healthy level should be of very high priority regardless of how it is done. I imagined scenarios in the future where I’d think while dying of hunger and thirst, “if only I had maxed out “Toughness...!” Such a predicament could happen once, twice, or maybe ten times.

I sighed and asked my companions.

“Um... what did you guys choose according to your gut feeling?”

Thus, Lizbeth replied, “I chose ‘Toughness,’” Leafa answered, “I went with ‘Strength’ ~,” and Yui, who was sitting next to me, said, “I picked ‘Intelligence’!” and answered with a smile.

After blinking, I confirmed with my lovely daughter, “‘Intelligence,’ huh... Are you planning on becoming a mage?”

“That’s right! I’m going to try my best to become a Berserk Healer like Mama!”

“Ah... is that so? You’re so reliable.”

In ALO, Asuna had been able to establish her Berserk Healer fighting style because she had terrifyingly good defense and evasion skills. But to avoid shattering the child’s dream and stifling her growth, I stroked Yui’s head. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but no matter what kind of Ability tree you choose, I will protect you.

To that end, should I build a tank character, too? While being once again held back by confusion, I looked up at the sky. When we departed from the cabin, colors from the glow of sunset still remained in the western sky, but they had long since disappeared, and in the hazy, starry sky, dark clouds moved in one after the other.

“Well, I at least need to understand the branch Abilities...”

Because I could only read the descriptions of Abilities that I could currently acquire, I said such words while staring dumbfounded at the Ability tree.

“Then, ask us?”

“Um... ah, right, right...”

Indeed, since those three already had their initial Abilities, they could read the descriptions of branch Abilities. After a cough, I looked at the three of them in order.

“So, could you please tell me?”

“It can’t be helped...”

After shrinking her shoulders for a bit, Liz swiftly opened her ring menu.

“Well, 《Toughness 》’s branch Ability 《Endurance》 reduces inflicted damage during defense, and 《Poison Resistance》, just as the name suggests, increases resistance to poison damage.”

“Uh-huh.”

Page 157 illustration.
Page 157 illustration.

Then, I peeked at Leafa’s window.

“《Strength 》’s branch Ability 《Bone Breaking》 provides a bonus to penetration damage against a defensive stance, and 《Protection》 provides a bonus to withstanding knock-backs when guarding.”

“Mm, mhm...?”

Then, Yui also explained, but without looking at any window, “《Intelligence 》’s branch Ability 《Focus》 increases MP recovery speed, and 《Erudition》 provides a bonus to improve the proficiency of all language Skills.”

“Hmm~~~”

Language Skills are probably Skills for talking to NPCs, but with Yui around, they weren’t necessary at the moment. Because I didn’t want to be a mage, the 《Intelligence》 tree could be excluded from my list of candidate Abilities. But, despite knowing the branch Abilities for 《Power》 and 《Toughness》, picking between the two was still very frustrating.

“Mm, I can’t help but feel that 《Protection》 and 《Endurance》 are very similar in function. Why is it that knock-back effect reduction and damage reduction when guarding are in different trees...?”

“Most likely, 《Protection》 is not for shields as much as it’s for defending using weapons? If you don’t collapse from knock-back when guarding, you can counterattack more quickly.”

In response to Leafa’s conjecture, I nodded, thinking, “Ah, is that so.”

“The 《Strength》 tree isn’t all attack, huh, though I don’t know when I might fall from knock-back... Then I might as well go with that...”

“Why not choose two Ability trees?”

When Lizbeth asked me this, I once again pondered and muttered, “Well, I can’t say I haven’t considered that before, but in our party’s case, if we all agree to specialize and max out one Ability tree, we’ll be stronger.”

“Then, Kirito should just go all-in and specialize in ATK. That’s most like you.”

At Liz’s remark, Leafa grinned and nodded. Whether in SAO or ALO, I was a pure ATK build... But all three of them had the same opinion, and even if Asuna, Silica, and Alice were here, they probably wouldn’t disagree.

“...Got it, but I’m leaving support to you then.”

“Yeah, yeah, I got your back.”

Hearing Liz’s answer, I selected the 《Strength》 icon again and tapped the 《Acquire》 button at the bottom of the description window. After pressing 《OK》 in the dialog box that confirmed that 1 Ability point would be used, the window made a refreshing sound, and the previously black-and-white 《Strength》 icon was colored in red.

Having acquired the first Ability in that tree, I could then acquire 《Bone Breaking》 and 《Protection》, but those consumed 2 Ability points. Since each Ability has ten levels, I could either first increase 《Strength》 to level 10, or I could first obtain 《Bone Breaking》. I had 11 Ability points left, but I’d still feel unsure even if I used up all of them.

After some hesitation, I decided to get 《Bone Breaking》 first. Then, however, another two branch Abilities appeared.

On one side was 《Dogfight》, which provided damage bonus to consecutive attacks starting with the second attack. On the other side was 《Far Attack》, which provided a bonus to the distance of area attacks. As expected, I needed 3 Ability points to acquire them. That is to say if I wanted to upgrade 《Strength》, 《Bone Breaking》, and 《Far Attack》 all to level 10, I’d need 60 Ability points. On top of that, the Ability tree continued to extend into more branch Abilities.

“What a convoluted system...”

I couldn’t help but mumble as I raised my 《Strength》 to Lv5. Just like that, 7 points were consumed, leaving me with 5 points. Upon returning to my status window, the 《Strength》 effect immediately appeared, and the utilization percentage of my equipment weight capacity and my carrying weight capacity was significantly reduced. As this game required us to carry a lot of water, food, and materials, I was thankful for the bonus even if the upgrade was very basic.

“...Okay, I’ve acquired my Abilities.”

After declaring that and closing my window, Liz asked casually.

“How many Ability points do you have left?”

“5 points?”

“See, he has at least 5 points left! I won the bet!”

“...Huh?”

In front of a dumbfounded me, Liz extended her right hand toward Leafa, who swiftly acquired the Abilities on her tree. They seemed to have bet on how many points I’d save for later.

“Bro! There’s nothing you can do by saving so many points... just use them all like a man!”

After I was unjustly blamed by my sister, Yui caressed my head like she was trying to comfort me.

Having finished eating and taking a break, we descended from a large rock’s safe zone to the ground and began walking southwest again. The starlight was just enough to let us see what was at our feet without needing a torch.

Long gone were the forested areas, and in their place was dry grassland as far as the eye could see. Because it was nighttime, the monsters that appeared were mainly nocturnal beasts like hyenas and bats. Although they weren’t exactly light work, we didn’t have much trouble with them, either. Of course, that was thanks to the iron weapons and armor Liz made for us; if we were still wearing straw clothes and wielding stone knives, we wouldn’t have left the forest.

For drinking water, we filled Asuna’s plain canteen in the river. For food, we only brought a little bear meat for emergencies; we needed to find most of our food on the way. We roasted the hyena meat but hadn’t eaten it yet, and sometimes we’d find walnut-like fruits growing on plump trees. Although it was difficult to cut open, it still tasted pretty good by Unital Ring’s current standards. Two hours passed since we left, and our TP and SP were at 80% now.

“Liz, how much farther until we get to the Bashin village?”

When I called out my map window and asked Lizbeth who was walking in front, the blacksmith replied dismissively.

“We’ve only covered one-third of the way. There are two huge trees ahead, I think that’s probably the midpoint?”

“You say ‘really big,’ so is it the biggest tree you’ve seen in the Unital Ring world?”

Regarding Leafa’s question, Lizbeth smiled bitterly and shook her head, replying, “It should be. It was midnight when we passed it yesterday, so I couldn’t gauge accurately, but it was probably about a hundred meters tall...?”

“Speaking of which... the Bashin people stop and pray when they pass the hill from where they can see the big tree.”

Adding this sentence was the one holding my hand and walking alongside me, Yui. Lizbeth also said, “Ah, well done!” and nodded.

“...Praying to a big tree, huh...”

While muttering that, I felt something from the depths of my memory stabbing deep into my heart, but I didn’t even know what I was associating that with. I wanted to ask Yui to check VRMMO-related databases but then reconsidered. Yui was now no longer a navigation pixie, but a player like me with the same type of account, and she seemed very happy about that. In the case, whenever possible, I wouldn’t take advantage of the convenient AI.

At the same time, Yui also wanted to ask when they prayed together, but then, a cold, humid wind blew from the north, and I reflexively shrunk my neck.

“The geography obviously suggests a tropical wind pattern, but it’s actually freezing at night... Isn’t it cold, Yui?”

“Yes, I’m fine, though, thanks to the armor Liz made for me.”

It’s as she said; Yui, who only had a white dress since we met up yesterday, was now equipped with similarly-designed thin breastplates, gauntlets, leg armor, and boots. Because only the dress was under her armor, I couldn’t see anything warming about her outfit. However, since Lizbeth’s forging and smelting Skill proficiency was 100—lower than before, but still very high—maybe it had an additional cold protection effect.

So Lizbeth, by using the leather armor and the one-handed long sword she got from the Bashin tribe and remelting her copper tube castings, made only a small round shield for herself. On the other hand, Leafa, like me, got a quarter-set of metal armor and a one-or-two-handed sword, so compared to when she only had a small stone knife, she had become a completely different, heavily-equipped warrior. But Leafa, who walked in front of me, felt shivers throughout her entire body the moment the northern wind hit and let out an “ooh!”

Leafa turned around and, shaking her golden ponytail, walked back spiritedly.

“Hey, Kirito, can’t we use the hyena’s fur to make a cloak or something?”

“Don’t even mention it, I don’t have tailoring Skills.”

“Then let’s run! That’d also shorten the time we need!”

“Well... that’s because you always run in club activities, but I go home, and I’m already...”

“That doesn’t matter in the virtual world!”

Only after Leafa pointed it out did I realize that this was the case, but I pretended to cough dryly to muddle my way out.

“Yes, but our TP and SP will drop faster if we run... and you can’t see the ground that clearly, so it’s hazardous...”

“Papa, we’ve got a torch if needed, though!”

Suddenly piping up, Yui opened her storage and took out something like a stick. Looking closely, it seemed that the tip of a branch was tightly intertwined with dry grass. The light used in the log cabin was just dead branches, but this had evolved a stage further than that.

“Did you make that?”

“Yes, but it was Liz who thought of it.”

“Ah, as expected of a craftsman.”

“It won’t mean much, even if you praise me.”

Looking at Lizbeth as I walked, my gaze paused there for a moment before moving on.

“However, we’d better prepare to run. Last night, people from the Bashin tribe told us. This... the Giyol Flatlands, is it? Sometimes there are ice storms, and if you don’t wrap yourself in fur or take shelter in a nearby cave, you’ll die.”

“What!? Why didn’t you say that earlier?”

“Because didn’t I already say that a few years ago.”

【T/N: Here, Liz is referring to when she and Kirito went to get the Crystallite Ingot in SAO.】

“If it’s like that, in the game world, the occurrence rate should be about once every few days...”

When I spoke to this point, next to me, Yui suddenly said.

“Sorry Papa, I also heard about this, but I didn’t classify it as important information.”

“No... no, it didn’t turn out so bad. In general, snowstorms don’t blow on savannas.”

“Wait! Isn’t your train of thought way different from mine?”

At this time, Lizbeth puffed her cheeks.

The wind suddenly struck again from the north, and all four of us bent down our upper bodies at the same time. It felt much colder than before, and there was also a trace of moisture. Looking up at the sky, we saw pitch-dark fractus clouds violently rolling in toward the south from the north.

“... I’m getting a pretty bad hunch...”

Replying to Leafa with an “agreed,” I looked down at Yui.

“Yui, let’s light a torch.”

“Understood.”

She nodded seriously and turned the tip of the branch that was wrapped in dried grass toward me. I removed a piece of flint from the tool bag around my waist and scraped hard against it. In the real world, if you didn’t use steel to scrape against the flint, there wouldn’t be any sparks, but in this world, even stones could be used. Even if I didn’t choose the 《Intelligence》 Ability tree, I’ll definitely learn fire magic one day... thinking that while scraping as hard as I could, the torch was lit successfully on the seventh strike, and the dry grass started to burn.

Putting the flint back in the bag, I took the torch that Yui handed over and raised it high. Because of the strong winds, the flame swayed violently, but it did not seem to blow out easily.

I surveyed the surroundings quickly, looking for where there might be any caves, but unfortunately, the torchlight was not enough to see very far. Nonetheless, I could make out slender outlines like rocky hills to the east and gentle ridge-like lines to the west. Which way should we go?

Although we couldn’t be sure it would actually hail, it’d be too late to start looking for shelter after the storm hit. If there was a cave, whether it was in a hill or rocky mountain, no matter what kind of cave, it might not be deep enough... right when I hesitatingly surveyed my right side.

Suddenly, Yui shouted sharply.

“Papa, something’s coming from the North!”

“Mm...”

As I hurriedly turned the torch into the wind, a large shadow silently entered the light.

The shadow that stopped just 5 meters before us lowered its body and growled “Grr...”, but wasn’t a hyena like the other monsters we’d already fought countless times. The body wrapped in black fur was very slim, but it was still much larger than a hyena, with forelegs that looked very strong. It wasn’t from the dog family but rather from the cat family... based on its round ears, it was probably some sort of panther.

“Ooooh!!”

The black panther let out an extremely fierce roar, with its gray-green eyes fixated on the four of us. Now of all times! Even if we wanted to escape, it’d be unlikely that our opponent, driven by hostility, would give us that chance. With no other choice, I moved the torch to my left hand, gripped my sword hilt with my right hand, and shouted.

“Let’s fight!”

Drawing my sword at the same time as Leafa and taking a step forward, I whispered to Lizbeth, “I’m leaving Yui in your care.”

“Leave her to me,” she answered reliably.

Seeing my sword and Leafa’s sword, the black panther exposed its sharp fangs. They weren’t quite the level of a saber-toothed tiger’s, but they were three times longer than any leopard’s teeth in reality. The fur was a deeper and richer black than the darkness of the night, with a blue sheen from the neck to the back.

The black panther lowered its body even further and entered a ready-to-pounce stance. It was aiming for me. To meet its attack with a Sword Skill, I positioned my sword on my right shoulder.

Suddenly, a deafening roar rumbled. It wasn’t the black panther. It was the wind─

The winds from before were all light breezes, but now a violent gust of wind was coming, and I continued to fall back. The stubborn torch flame was also finally blown out, and our vision immediately sank into darkness. I could feel hard pellets on my face and hands. It was ice... no, hail, and it was raining down very heavily.

Who’d'veWho'd’ve thought that both a black panther and the hailstorm would come together! Though I felt this way, there was no opportunity to speak my mind. The black panther, which was lying on the ground, leaped to its feet. I reflexively unleashed the Sword Skill 《Vertical》, but I stopped the skill right before taking my first step and looked back.

With an amazing leaping force, the panther had flown over the four of our heads and landed behind us. It no longer wanted to aim for us, so it ran south.

“Hey... Hey, could it have wanted to escape this blizzard...”

I had also considered precisely what Liz just said. If my speculation was correct, and the icy blizzard was something even monsters needed to avoid, then the black panther probably had refuge in the direction it just ran toward.

“... We’ll chase it!”

Shouting that, I sheathed my sword, grabbed Yui’s hand, and started running. Lizbeth and Leafa followed close behind. The black panther’s silhouette was gradually fading into the darkness, and it would no longer be visible at all if we lagged any further behind, even by just a few meters.

Because the torch had been extinguished, there was no way to check what was at our feet. If any of one of us four tripped over a step or some stones, the chase would be over. Praying and running desperately at the same time, I wanted to pick Yui up, but since she was also a player, our pace would likely not be much faster.

As we chased the lithely galloping black panther, a mountain appeared ahead. The panther jumped toward the foot of the mountain and disappeared as if it was sucked in. A little later, we finally arrived as well. There, at the base of the mountain, was a pitch-black, one-meter-tall opening.

The moment I stopped, the hail that was falling from behind hit my armor with a clatter. Currently, the hailstones were less than a centimeter in diameter, but it couldn’t possibly stay that way for long. The temperature had also dropped dramatically, and every exhaled breath was dyed white.

I could already see our HP bars slowly decreasing. No thinking was necessary to understand what the flashing debuff icon depicting crystals to the right of the status panel meant.

“Papa, let’s go in!”

In response to Yui’s nervous tone, I nodded. The cave was very deep, so I could only pray that the black panther had gone far inside.

I didn’t let go of Yui’s hand, but as a precaution, I unsheathed my sword before approaching the entrance. All I could see inside was pitch-black. Even if a torch was lit, in this strong wind, it would go out after a mere second. Sucking in my abdomen and curling down, I proceeded.

The cave went slightly downhill and had a very high ceiling. Although the path on the ground was narrow, the main cave seemed to extend below the ground. I breathed a slight sigh of relief and moved forward cautiously.

After going down about ten meters, the ground no longer tilted downhill, and I stopped. Straightening up my curled body, even with it pointed straight up, the sword in my right hand didn’t touch anything. We seemed to have reached a considerably large space. There was no sign of the panther at all.

After confirming from my HP bar that the reduction had stopped and the cold air debuff icon had disappeared, I exhaled with a huff and looked behind me. The cave was completely dark, and my view distance was virtually zero.

“Is everyone here?”

I whispered in a low voice and got answers like “Yes, Papa,” “Here,” and “Yeah.” In short, to relight the torch in my left hand, I wanted to put my sword back. But, at that moment.

“Ah, that...”

Leafa produced a hoarse-sounding voice, and I quickly turned around.

I still couldn’t see anything. As I desperately stared without shifting my vision, 《You have acquired the Night Vision skill. Proficiency raised to 1》. Then, I could very faintly see in the darkness. Immediately afterward, I also noticed that.

Two blue lights were floating deep in the cave. As I stared, wondering what this was, the light disappeared for an instant and reappeared a moment later. It was like a blink... No, it wasn’t like one, it really was a blink. Those were the eyes of the black panther that had first entered the cave.

As if sensing that we noticed it,

“Grr...”

A low roar sounded. The lying, blue-eyed panther seemed to stand up. During second encounters, the opponent would take advantage of abilities several times better than you, so if a fight was conducted like this, there was no chance of winning.

“Yui, light the torch.”

Speaking in a subdued voice and holding the torch in my left hand, I extended my left arm backward.

“Right.”

Yui answered, and she took the torch. Although I wanted to continue to pass the flint, before I could do that, I heard a strange sound.

A very sharp “ding... ding” sound. I didn’t think it was from the black panther. Quickly turning my head back while staying alert to my front, I saw tiny particles reflecting flashes of white light and flying in from the cave entrance’s direction.

As the loose particles came into contact with Lizbeth, who was at the very back, she sneezed. That was followed by Leafa, then Yui, who started, “Ah...” Finally, my body also shivered violently. The cold air debuff icon lit up once again, my HP began decreasing before my eyes. In this place, there was no way to block or cut off the cold air from entering through the mouth of the cave. Listening carefully, you could almost hear the wailing of the freezing cold wind. It wasn’t difficult to imagine what it must’ve looked like outside.

“Bro, we have to go in a little bit more!” I heard Leafa shivering.

“I know, but what about the panther?” It roared again. The black panther that was deeper in the cave, although not attacking, still continued to growl. It wasn’t hard to imagine that if we got even a little closer, it would pounce on us.

My HP had been reduced by more than 10%. At this rate, it would hit zero in less than three minutes. Despite knowing it was unfavorable, was there no choice but to fight the black panther... biting my lip, I realized that there was something I needed to try before that.

I gently returned my sword into its sheath, reached into the travel supplies bag, and took out something thin. It was the bear jerky that Asuna made for me. Although it was a valuable food meant for emergencies, I would never have the chance to eat it again if I froze to death or if I was killed in battle here.

“Look, it’s delicious, it looks like a feast...”

As I said this to those shining blue eyes, I gently tossed the jerky. The panther’s gaze focused on it as it fell to the ground with a faint sound. Its eyes flashed again.

The blue eyes moved silently, approaching the sun-dried meat and smelling its fragrance. Several tense seconds passed, and then there was the sound of chewing. The black panther had eaten the chewy jerky. Glowing icons appeared in the dark, and just like a car’s speedometer, about 30% of it was red starting from the lower-left corner while the leading edge moved up and down a little. This was the display that Asuna had seen while taming.

I took another piece of jerky, my last one, from my bag, and then threw it over. The black panther bit right into it, and the meter rose by about 10%.

“Give me everyone’s meat.”

I put my right hand behind me, and Yui immediately placed a piece of meat onto my hand. I probably needed to time it so that right when the panther finished chewing, I’d give it the third piece of meat. The meter rose again and finally reached 50%. The first piece of meat accounted for 30%. If every piece of meat could increase it by 10% from there, Yui was supposed to have another piece, while Liz and Leafa still had two pieces each; just barely enough.

Believing in that calculation, I threw the jerky to the black panther. While the taming meter kept rising, as if they were inversely proportional, our HP kept falling. But at Level 13, I had more HP than Yui and the others, who were all Level 4 or 5. The HP bar for those three, displayed in the upper-left of my field of vision, had already dropped by 50%.

Hurry up, hurry up... Although I was very anxious, the key to this game probably lay in the timing of feeding it. After it finished a piece of food, you had to give the next piece while the meter was going up... if the timing was too slow or too fast, the taming would fail.

With the second piece of jerky I’d obtain from Liz, plus the dried meat I’d get from Leafa, if I fed it both, I estimated that the meter would rise to 80%. When Asuna tamed her lizard, she filled the meter using just three pieces of bear meat, so the meter’s upper limit for this panther was considerably larger. I was using not raw meat but rather sun-dried jerky, after all, but it could also just be that this was a high-level monster.

“Leafa.”

“Here you go.”

After throwing the ninth piece of meat, the panther devoured it in large bites, and the meter rose to 90%.

“Leafa.”

“I’m already out.”

“......What?”

I turned around and asked my sister, whose silhouette I could just barely see in the dark.

“How? Asuna gave everyone three pieces each...”

“I ate two pieces earlier.”

“Hah!?”

“I couldn’t help it, I was hungry!”

“Ok......”

Stunned into silence, I thought, I couldn’t tame it without meat. I guessed that the hyenas’ meat should probably serve just fine as well, but now it was too late. Then again, the panther might never eat such stinky meat anyway.

Looking forward, the meter floating in front of the black panther was already 90% full. If I just left it like this, the meter would start to decline, and our previous efforts would be in vain.

Yui’s voice came into my frozen ears.

“Papa... I’m almost out of HP...”

“Yui.”

I took the torch in my left hand, pulled my beloved daughter to my side, and held her tightly with my arm. I could tell how cold she must’ve been, as her tiny body shook against the armor. Checking her HP bar, I saw she had about 10% left. We couldn’t freeze to death here.

I made that resolution and slowly moved forward while hugging Yui. As we proceeded deeper into the cave, the cold gradually eased, and the meter fluctuated while reducing. The black leopard growled again and began crying out.

I don’t have any more food to give you. But, feeding wasn’t necessarily the only way to fill the taming meter.

“Don’t be afraid...... I’m not your enemy......”

While whispering, we moved closer. The panther growled louder and louder, but it didn’t seem to plan on running away nor attacking.

Two meters were remaining... one meter... fifty centimeters, and then finally I could see and confirm the panther’s figure. It lowered its head and looked as if it was going to pounce on us any second. The meter had dropped to 80%.

I made up my mind, mentally prepared to be shredded to pieces, and extended my right hand. As soon as I touched its sturdy neck, the panther shuddered.

 

Page 176 illustration.
Page 176 illustration.

“That’s it; don’t be afraid......”

I used my fingertips to gently stroke its gorgeous fur. “Grr... rrrr.......” It wouldn’t stop growling. Even though I was adding to the taming meter, it continued to decrease slowly. However, if I showed any fear here, it’d probably attack immediately. Hugging Yui in my left arm, I concentrated on moving my right hand. The panther’s muscles stiffened and loosened.

“Grr...rrrr......”

As the growling quieted, the panther lowered its head. Was this the precursor to an attack, or was it...

“Rr...... grr......”

It kept echoing, and I suddenly realized that its growling had changed unknowingly. Rolling back and forth...... It seemed like the cat was making rough, low sounds in its throat.

At the same time as when its strong muscles completely relaxed, the panther’s taming gauge also stopped reducing and began to climb up again. The black panther laid on the ground, letting me stroke it. The meter reached 80%, then soon passed 90% full.

“Okay, okay... good boy...”

As I murmured, I extended my left hand backward. Leafa, who had already seen a successful taming once before, immediately gave me a rope made of flax grass.

The instant its meter reached 100%, I wound one end of the rope around the black panther’s neck and made a loop. Barely tying it together with my fingers, the panther’s huge body emitted a flash of light, and a green prismatic cursor appeared over its head. Under the ring-shaped HP bar, its name was written in katakana. —《Cerule Dark Leopard》. Then, at the center of my field of vision, 《You have acquired the Taming skill. Proficiency raised to 1》.

—This leopard was unusually black... was it a melanistic jaguar?

I had no luxury of time to pursue this doubt. Toward Leafa and Lizbeth, I said, “stick to the panther!”

I pressed Yui against the panther’s neck, hugging them tightly. Leafa and Lizbeth were also covered with its soft belly fur.

The panther’s body temperature was very high, and as its heat was slowly transferred to my body that was about to freeze, I faintly exhaled. The HP reduction finally stopped, and the cold air debuff icon disappeared. Ice particles were still being blown in from the entrance, but they didn’t reach our depth in the cave.

Finally, I asked if they were all good.

"...Cerule Dark Leopard? Cerule?"

Leafa stroked the leopard’s blue-colored back and answered.

“Isn’t that about the hair on its back being the color of lapis lazuli?”

“Ah...... A lapis-colored back...”

As I muttered, Lizbeth asked me, “so, what about its name?”

“Hmm? Hmm... let’s just call it ‘Kuro.’”

【T/N: “Kuro” is literally “Black,” so, in English, a similar name might be “Blacky" or “Blackie.” 】

After I considered for two seconds before replying this way, Leafa and Liz cried in unison: “Terrible!” But then Yui said to me, “I think being simple is fine,” so I asked the name’s new owner.

“What do you think about being called ‘Kuro’?”

“Ooo~”

Like that, the panther gave a brief cry in response to its name being called.

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