Volume 23 Chapter 8

Blue-tinted moonlight poured down silently upon the plain, covered in pure white ice, and even though I knew it was only a virtual scene, I was quietly entranced. But the 《Dark Panther》 Kuro, who had just joined the party, bumped me hard on the waist with his head, snapping me back to reality.

“Gr......”

It made a sound as if saying we needed to hurry. I replied while scratching the back of its neck.

“Yeah, we’ve still got quite some distance to go before reaching the Basin village.”

The village wasn’t actually our final destination. Therefore, we had to gather information about the birdmen and then adjust our route accordingly. It’d be nice if we could rendezvous with Sinon before midnight tonight.

Thanks to the ice storm that made stray monsters disappear, I thought about making a run for it while we still could and prepared to call out the “let’s go” order. But soon, Lizbeth made an uneasy sound.

“Kirito, that’s it.”

“That? ......the Basin tribe?”

“Yeah, Silica, Yui, and I ate in a Basin tent... wasn’t the floor covered with fur?”

“So...?”

“There seemed to be a mix of black and blue in it...”

“............”

I shifted my gaze from Liz to Kuro’s back. Like its name suggested, its gorgeous black fur was embellished with beautiful lapis-lazuli-colored hairs. Yui, who was already on good terms with Kuro, stroked its back and explained seriously.

“Indeed, the corner of the tent was covered with a carpet having a color composition 97% identical to that of Kuro’s fur.”

Yui was the only one who couldn’t possibly remember wrong. We could be sure, the Basin people hunted《Dark Panthers》 on the Flatland.

Even then, in a typical game, NPCs would never attack players’ pets. But, there were no guarantees that Unital Ring universally followed the norm.

“Mm, then should Brother and Kuro wait near the village while we go to gather information?”

Thinking Leafa’s suggestion was reasonable, I originally wanted to say, “If you guys eat in the village, grab some food for us too, then.” But before that, Yui spoke up again.

“Papa, perhaps we don’t need to go to the village.”

“Uh, what?”

“The blizzard just now was quite large in scale. If Sinon also encountered a blizzard, then she could very well just be on the other side of the Giyol Flatlands.”

“...I see, that’s true... But how do we contact Sinon? She’s not added as a friend, nor is she a member of our party, so we can’t message her.”

Hearing my reply, Yui smiled slightly.

“Instead of trying within UR, what about contacting her in the real world?”

Following my beloved daughter’s advice, I logged out and immediately jumped up. The sudden change in setting from the silvery-white plains to my room made of inorganic matter made me feel slightly dizzy. Looking to my side, on the left side of my bed, covered in a blanket, Leafa had a defenseless sleeping face... of course, she wasn’t really sleeping. At this moment, Leafa was guarding my avatar in a distant virtual world. Although we made sure there were no enemies around, there was always the risk of dangerous monsters appearing, so there was no time to waste dazing.

I removed the AmuSphere I was wearing from my head and grabbed my phone from the nightstand. Manipulating the small device that was becoming obsolete due to Augma’s release, I called Sinon.

I was afraid she was in UR as well, but the AmuSphere had a call notification feature linked to the phone, and if she had it turned on—and if she wasn’t in combat or something like that—she should respond. I patiently continued ringing for 30 seconds.

“Keep it simple!”

A rushed voice came from the terminal. It was undoubtedly Sinon’s voice, so to fulfill her request, I cut right to the chase.

“Did you get caught in an icy blizzard?!”

“I almost froze to death 20 minutes ago.”

“Then you’re also in the Giyol Flatlands, right?”

“Yeah, going southeast from the northwest.”

“Got it, we’re moving northwest from the southeast! Do you have any landmarks?”

“I do; in the middle of the plain, there’s a huge natural wall spanning north to south. I entered the cavern that was open in the wall, and now I’m inside a bit further.”

“A hole in the wall... what about monsters?”

“There are some; though I logged out where it looked safe, I wouldn’t be surprised if something showed up next to me.”

Ten seconds ago, I thought exactly the same thing, but unlike my avatar, which was being protected by companions and pets, Sinon’s was alone. If her avatar was attacked while she was logged out, it’d die on the spot.

“Got it, we’ll also go in the wall from the eastern side, hang on a bit longer.”

“Understood, I’m counting on you then.”

That ended the call. I got a drink of water, laid back down on my bed, and put my AmuSphere back on.

Returning to the moonlit Flatlands, within the few minutes I was logged out, I noticed that the ice on the ground had started melting. Lizbeth and the others used both hands to collect the remaining ice and fill the canteen. No monsters seemed to be swarming around.

“I’m back!”

I stood up while shouting, and Kuro again rubbed his head against my hand. Although fierce in appearance, it was amiable once you got used to it. Also, since it was given all the bear jerky, everyone’s food had to be allocated quickly.

I conveyed Sinon’s words in their original form to Lizbeth and Leafa.

“A natural wall...”

Muttering, Leafa gazed northwest. I wanted to follow suit, but the horizon sunk deep into the darkness, and there was nothing to see. If there was some great misunderstanding... I felt a little uneasy, but I could only believe the message that Sinon had risked her life to convey.

“Come on, let’s go,” I said briefly.

The three girls nodded their heads at the same time, and Kuro growled.

While running through the plains, we encountered the now-familiar hyenas twice and a bull-like monster that resembled a bison once. Although the bull was a bit tricky, Kuro confused the monster with speedy maneuvers that players wouldn’t dare think of, and we used Sword Skills to attack and find a way to shave away its HP. Like that, Leafa and the others also leveled up one after the other.

We got a lot of raw meat from the bull. It helped that Kuro seemed to enjoy it after eating some. Therefore, we wouldn’t have to worry about hunger-induced problems for the time being.

There weren’t any other monsters to deal with after that. We had been on the move for about thirty minutes when Yui pointed ahead and cried out.

“See, it’s the wall!”

We stopped in our tracks, looked ahead, and indeed could now see a cliff rising vertically from the plain. The huge cliffs running north and south were reminiscent of Underworld’s 《Immortal Walls》.

“Is the cave where Sinon entered there?

Though I agreed with Lizbeth, on second thought, it wouldn’t be easy to find a small opening in a cliff face stretching dozens of kilometers to the north and south. Even if we did find one, we couldn’t guarantee that it was the only entrance.

While suppressing my anxiety, I thought about what was going on.

“...Papa, it’s sort of playing foul, but I can enhance the visual data to help find the cave.”

Announcing that, Yui closed her eyes.

Among the four of us, Lizbeth, Leafa, and I “observed” the visual information provided by the AmuSphere with our own brains, so post-processing wasn’t possible. But Yui, as an AI, was free to adjust the brightness and contrast of her vision. Although I didn’t want to use her as a convenient tool, rendezvousing with Sinon was a must in any case. Plus, if we had gone to the Basin village as originally planned, we would’ve had to ask her to translate, so it didn’t make sense to stop her now.

“Sorry...” I muttered.

Yui looked up for an instant and smiled, but immediately continued her search. A few seconds later, pointing a bit ahead—

“Found it! There are stairs and a cave entrance in this direction!”

“Thank you, Yui-chan!”

Leafa hugged Yui tightly, and Liz also stroked her little head.

I couldn’t tell how deep the cliff was from my position, but it shouldn’t be on the scale of kilometers. Even if the interior was a maze, it shouldn’t be too big.

—Sinon, hold on a little longer!

As I thought that, we ran straight in the direction that Yui had pointed toward with her fingers.

The closer we got, the more the indistinct cliff’s presence on the horizon grew. When we finally reached its base, all four of us went speechless from its majesty. With a height of around 50 meters, there were lots of terrain in ALFheim that had higher drops, but its length seemed identical to the north and south. The cliff, stretching in a straight line from one end of our field of view to the other, might’ve been considered a lazy decision by the designers if it were any other game, but in Unital Ring, I could somehow really feel the wonders of nature.

The black rock’s surface was so hard and smooth that climbing it with bare hands was impossible no matter how you thought about it. We might be able to set up a ladder, but since there were absolutely no trees or grasses nearby to use as material, it would be too much back-breaking work. Sure enough, we could only rely on the steps that Yui found.

That staircase, which was made by cutting into the surface of the rock by about 30 centimeters, had no handrails. It was about 25 meters to the entrance of the cave, so we could die if we lost our footing. If I could, I wanted to install a guide rope on the wall, but after thinking that nearly an hour had passed since contacting Sinon, I couldn’t wait any longer.

“Kuro, can you go up these steps?”

After asking this, the panther let out a “ga-oo” in response, and without fear, jumped more than three meters ahead in one fell swoop. If something was there, it’d wave its long tail, so its owner wouldn’t be afraid.

“Okay... I’m gonna go.”

After that declaration, behind me, Lizbeth let out a “hurry up and go.”

We climbed the stairs without accident and entered the cavern, sighing in relief together, through what looked like the wall opening its mouth. Since the stairs were manmade, I thought the cave might also be like that, but it seemed to be natural. In other words, up to the cave entrance that opened halfway up the side of the cliff, someone must’ve built the stairs. It was certainly not players but rather NPCs, but we couldn’t be sure whether it was created by the Basin tribe or some other race.

Anyway, this was our first real dungeon exploration since the forced conversion yesterday. We didn’t think there were any players ahead of us, so the materials and treasure chests—if any—should all be unused. Thinking about it that way, we’d want to investigate every corner, but right now, meeting up with Sinon was the top priority.

Since it’d been a long run up here, we had about 60% SP, and under 50% TP left. There was still plenty of drinking water, but for food, we only had raw meat. Anyway, we first drank some water, I fed Kuro some water and raw meat, and we decided to eat after the rendezvous with Sinon.

“Then Kirito-kun, even though it’s a really non-standard party, how should we line up?”

When Leafa, who had filled the canteen, asked this, I thought carefully and replied.

“Kuro and I will be at the front, Liz and Yui will be in the middle, and at the back, we’ll have Leafa. Yui and I will hold the torches.”

Lizbeth showed an expression as if she wanted to say something. Since she was the only one with a shield, though I originally planned to let her fulfill the tank role at the front, I wanted to prioritize the protection of the Yui. She seemed to understand my intentions and nodded without retort.

“Do you understand, if you’re in danger, please switch immediately.”

“Mm, counting on you, then.”

Nodding to each other, we quickly lined up in a 2-1-2 formation.

Among VRMMO players, it wasn’t too late to enter a formation after beginning a battle, and many people found it unsightly to line up during the move in. However, I believed that ninety-nine out of a hundred battles were like this since, in Aincrad, one moment of slacking was directly linked to irreparable tragedy—especially in mazes prone to chaos—and now, even though I was freed from the death game, I didn’t stop believing in ranks.

“Let me know if you notice a monster.”

She mumbled that while scratching Kuro’s neck, and the panther let out a brief roar.

Although Sinon said on the phone that ‘there were monsters everywhere,’ that wasn’t an exaggeration. One by one, amphibious monsters appeared in the damp cave, holding us back. Fortunately, Kuro’s ability to locate enemies was good, and he made a sound to warn us before they appeared, so we were well-prepared to meet them. Yui also showed the results of her special training with Alice, fighting bravely with a short sword and proving through her strength that I had been needlessly, overly worried about her.

Cutting down giant salamanders and the like, we headed for the depths. It was a pity we didn’t come across any treasure chests, but we did find a lot of iron and copper ore. From the start, we’d been putting it all into our storage while proceeding; like that, we continued for 20 minutes.

It was time to worry about our SP, but I didn’t want to eat raw meat... while I walked with such thoughts in mind, Leafa, who was behind everyone, said.

“But yeah, it’s weird.”

“What’s weird?”

“It doesn’t matter if we regress a hundred levels when all that’s spawning are those amphibians, but there are so many salamanders, and the most important one is that...”

Ga—en.

This kind of dry voice came from nowhere, and Leafa immediately stopped talking.

Not once in this labyrinth, not in the Unital Ring world, had I heard a voice like this one. Kuro stretched its body and let out a growl. What that was just now, I’m afraid, was the sound of gunpowder exploding—that is, the sound of a gun.

“It’s Sinon!”

Shouting in a voice as I wanted to run out there, I looked back.

“Yui, can you tell the direction of the sound?”

“Currently performing echo analysis... it came from the path ahead to the right!”

Replying with a “thank you!” to Yui’s straightforward answer, I picked up my pace. Taking a right at the fork, I jogged along the sharply curving path downward.

Suddenly, my field of view expanded. In the upper part of the vast, dome-shaped space, its diameter approached almost fifty meters. Though far beyond the distance illuminated by the torch, I could see lichen-like organisms on the surface at the edge of the dome’s wall as they produced a faint white glow.

From where we were to the bottom of the dome, a very thin ramp ran along the wall. The wet rock at the bottom and the blue-black water each took up half of the space, and on the rock in the middle, there seemed to be a human outline.

She equipped Western-type defense gear and wore a white scarf. In both hands, she was holding what looked like a slender cylinder—she was holding a gun. In a place like this, it couldn’t be any other gunner. It was finally coming together.

“Si......”

Before fully calling out her name, I shut up.

Behind the gunner, there were several silhouettes of other men. No, they stood upright, but they weren’t human. The pointed nose and the big round ears above the face... their heads looked like those of mice. In both hands, they held weapons like pitchforks. Wagging their thin tails, they slowly approached the sniper. They numbered two...no, three.

“Sinon, behind you!”

While shouting, I ran down the ramp on the dome wall. Behind, Kuro and Lizbeth followed suit.

The gunner—Sinon suddenly looked up toward us, then looked behind her. Her distance to the ratmen was less than five meters now. Even if she shot one down, she’d be stabbed by the other two’s forks.

“Yaa!”

I jumped from the middle of the ramp, aiming for and landing in the shallow pit of water. As gorgeous splashes of water flew, I lost a little HP but didn’t care. Toward the ratman closest to Sinon, I firstly had to throw the torch in my left hand—.

“Kirito, no! They’re not the enemy!”

Hearing such a shout, I reflexively regained my grip on the torch and gave panicked instructions to the panther who had flown towards the other rat people.

“Kuro, stop!”

As the panther hit its emergency brakes, the three ratmen let out a shrill cry, “ℵℵℵℵ!” and jumped to the edge of the wall. Near where they landed, there was a different entrance from the path that we had passed through.

Glancing to the side, I locked eyes with the gunslinger who was preparing to fight on the rock. With the short pale blue hair reminiscent of cats’ eyes, she was undoubtedly Sinon. However, the rifle she held in her hands had a very antique design and bore no resemblance to her partner 《PGM Ultima Ratio Hecate II》. As with my 《Black Welt》 and 《Excalibur》, even if she couldn’t equip the Hecate because of the equipment weight capacity, where exactly did that rifle come from... after much deliberation, I finally realized that it didn’t matter.

“Sinon, if the ratmen aren’t the enemy, then who are they fighting!?”

As I asked this, Lizbeth, Yui, and Leafa also reached the bottom of the dome. Seeing that those three had jumped out of the water, Sinon’s expression relaxed for a moment. But, her expression immediately tightened, and she shouted.

“Everybody, get out of the water! Try to stand on a rock that’s higher up!”

Due to her unquestionable tone, I cast my questions to the back of my mind and turned to climb up the rock at my hands. But in an instant, the sound of rushing water was heard.

Just below the surface of the water, something was approaching at an alarming rate. Even after dodging it, an attack soon struck my right foot. It was bitten... no, my foot seemed to be wrapped and caught up in something.

Suddenly, my right foot was pulled by an unexpectedly strong force, and I fell into the water. The torch was blown away and disappeared with a “shh” sound. With the sword in my right hand, I tried to cut the rope or whatever that was wrapped around my ankle, but I couldn’t reach it. I’d get dragged deep into the water if I let it continue like this.

“Ga-oo!”

Kuro roared, sticking his head into the water and taking whatever was dragging me out of the water in its mouth. It wasn’t a rope. It was shiny, pink and tentacle-like or something.

“Bro!”

Leafa swung her long sword and unleashed a 《Vorpal Strike》. Shi-ba! The water’s surface was split into two. Although she was my sister, after all, that strike was utter perfection. The blade, glowing green, struck the tentacle that Kuro was holding in its mouth so well that it cut off—no, it didn’t.

With the steel longsword forged by Lizbeth, the pink tentacle was nicely sliced into by a few centimeters, but it stopped there. The appendage, taut as a rubber band, let out a bi-ning sound and snapped back into place.

“Gah!” “Gawusi!”

Leafa and Kuro were sent flying at the same time, splashing into the water. But their attack was not in vain as the tentacle released my right foot and once again disappeared into the depths.

Helping up Leafa, I resolved to make it up the nearby rocks this time. Yui and Lizbeth also separately took refuge on different rocks. Kuro, who’d gotten back up, moved to my side in an instant with such speed it was like flying.

“Sinon, what was that......!?”

At my further questioning, the sniper remained in her position, holding the old rifle, and replied.

“It’ll come back out of the water soon! It’s going to jump around, so don’t lose sight of it!”

Before that sentence ends.

Basha! A gorgeous sound of splashing water resounded, and a black shadow flew quite far out of the water. It was huge, two meters in length... it’d be about twice as long if it stretched out its unusually long and strong hind leg. The front legs, on the other hand, were weak, while the head and the body were connected all on one figure.

The colossal creature, jumping from one puddle to another, back and forth, then plastered itself to the walls of the dome and came to rest. I shouted in unison with Lizbeth, Yui, and Leafa.

“It’s a frog!”

Apart from its size, it was just a frog with terrible skin. It had large, bulging eyes and a lozenge-shaped body. Fingers extended from its folded-up limbs, with their fingertips swelling like a suction cup.

It was here that I finally figured out what Leafa was trying to say before I heard the shots. There were obviously a lot of salamanders and taro, but no frogs.

“That’s great. There’s a frog.”

Mumbling while looking up at the representative of the amphibians that was plastered to the wall, Leafa responded with a bitter voice.

“It’s not exactly the time to want this... especially one that big...”

“I’m sure it must be the boss of this cave......”

Such a statement was definitely not nonsense. Because of the tentacle attack on my right foot, a cursor appeared on the giant frog’s head. Its name was 《Goliathrana》. The names of the monsters we had encountered so far, including Kuro, were all in Japanese, but this frog’s was in English. Was there any particular significance to this? Speaking of which, was it really English?

“...Goliath means ’giant,’ right? Then, what’s ‘rana’?”

At my ranting, Yui immediately replied with a “generally thought to be a red toad.” Indeed, the giant frog’s body was dark red, and its two eyes glowed like flames.

《Goliathrana》 snapped its protruding eyes open for an instant and began to climb slowly over the wall. The protruding parts of its body the size of a cow had an interestingly weightlessness to them as it moved slowly.

“Sinon, if you’re going to shoot, shouldn’t that be now?”

Looking at the sniper who kept the rifle at her waist still, I knew it was extra but asked anyway. Sinon looked up at the frog and answered fierily.

“I shot at it many times already, but the skin on its back is too hard; this gun can’t shoot through it.”

The 《Three-Eyed Gun》 was indeed an antique gun used in ancient times. Because there wasn’t any rifling on the barrel, it couldn’t be called a rifle. Once again, I became curious about exactly where Sinon had gotten something like that, but there was no extra time to ask questions unrelated to the boss fight.

【T/N: Sinon’s 《三眼銃》 (Three-Eyed Gun) is a smoothbore hand cannon (its three gun barrels don’t have any helical groovings, or rifling, machined into its internal surface, or bore; therefore, smoothbore) from China’s Ming dynasty. Kawahara will refer to it as a “musket” (the smoothbore predecessor of modern rifles) from now on.】

“... Can’t you shoot with the Hecate if you let a few people carry it?”

A new proposal was made, but it was immediately rejected.

“No, there’s no place for getting into a good angle to shoot from when it’s on the ceiling, and it’s too fast for me to aim if it comes down.”

“I see......”

I was also concerned about who the ratmen were, but since they weren’t an enemy, I’d investigate later. For now, we had to think of a way to deal with 《Goliathrana》.

“Kirito, most of the frog monsters in Aincrad had weaknesses in their bellies.”

“That’s true. Let’s find a way to get it to show its stomach and attack there.”

“How?” Leafa asked.

“About that...” Just as I muttered, the giant frog on the 30-meter-high wall reached the top of the dome, completely inverted, with its red eyes flicking about.

“It’s coming!”

Almost simultaneously with Sinon’s cries, the frog kicked at the rocks with its strong feet and fell towards me at a speed beyond belief.

“Woah!”

An instinctive backflip somehow let me avoid a direct hit, but as the rocks in front of me were shattered into oblivion, flying debris pounded my entire body. Although my HP only went down about 3%, it wouldn’t have been so minor without my metal armor, would it? No, without a restorative potion in our current situation, even little bits of damage could add up to become fatal.

After confirming that Yui’s HP hadn’t decreased, I realized we had forgotten something important. Then, opening the ring menu while backing up, I tapped the 《Invite》 button under the 《Communication》 tab before sliding it over to Sinon. She immediately accepted, and a new, smaller HP bar appeared in the upper-left corner of my field of view.

《Goliathrana》, which had just launched a meteoric dive attack, crouched down for about 3 seconds before immediately returning to action. It jumped into the nearby water and disappeared.

“Get on the rocks!”

At Sinon’s instruction, we again lunged for the nearby rocks. Seeing through my peripheral vision as Kuro caught the same rock and climbed up, I confirmed with Sinon.

“Its attack strategy is to dive into the water for a tentacle attack and climb to the ceiling for a swooping attack?”

“For now. Also, it’s not a tentacle, it’s a tongue.”

“Ah... so that’s what it is.”

That is to say, 《Goliathrana》 wrapped its tongue around my right foot not because it merely wanted to drown me, but rather because it wanted to eat me. Even if I hadn’t died in Unital Ring yet, I desperately refused to go down like that.

We stayed on the rocks for a moment, and soon the frog jumped out of the water and started climbing the wall again. Even though staying on the rocks wasn’t an offensive move, as long as we could dodge the swooping attack, we wouldn’t take too much damage... no, that’s not right. Because each dive destroyed a field of rocks, we’d eventually lose the safe zones and become susceptible to its tongue attacks.

“Liz, Leafa, if you dodge the next attack, use a Sword Skill before it makes a move. Try to aim for the underside of its body to flip it over.”

“Mm.” “Got it.”

After hearing their responses, I gave further instructions.

“Sinon, Yui, if the frog’s belly gets exposed, follow up with an attack. Kuro, protect Yui.”

“Okay.” “Understood! “Gao~”

Putting Sinon and Yui aside, though I didn’t know to which extent my instructions had reached the panther, I could only trust it now.

《Goliathrana》 whizzed up the rocks using its limbs with huge-suction-cup fingers. It would take another 10 seconds to reach the top. With the existing material we had, could we set some kind of trap where the frog would land? Maybe we could make something out of logs... if only there was such an item in the crafting menu for the Carpentry skill...

“Kirito!”

Hearing Sinon’s cry, I immediately opened my eyes. 《Goliathrana》 hadn’t reached the top of the dome yet, but both of its feet had bulged up.

“Guooh...”

As I desperately jumped backward, the frog kicked off the wall almost simultaneously. The huge body that rushed into the quarry with the force of a cannonball shattered rocks before my eyes, sending fist-like stones pounding into my right shoulder, abdomen, and left leg. They sunk into my iron armor as I watched my HP decrease.

—You...!

To recover, I entered the 《Rage Spike》 activation stance in the air. Because it required the body to lean forward until almost touching the floor, inputting the movement during a jump was a considerably advanced technique.

While I landed in a shallow puddle, my sword let out a blue effect light. The moment the skill unleashed, I kicked off the ground to boost its power. As it created a ripple of air to my left and right, I burst toward the vulnerable 《Goliathrana》’s throat.

Almost at the same time, Leafa came from the right, and Lizbeth came from the left. Both of them unleashed their sword skills according to the battle plan. If attacked like this repeatedly, then the giant frog would topple over.

That was for sure...

A second later, I wasn’t so sure.

Suddenly, the mountainous 《Goliathrana》’s massive body fell limp as if it had lost its bones. The flat body stuck to the ground, putting its neck and stomach out of sight. But the Sword Skills couldn’t be stopped. My sword struck the frog’s nose while Leafa’s longsword and Lizbeth’s hammer struck its left and right shoulder, respectively, sinking deeply into its dark red skin.

It felt like we had cut into a rubber block. Although the tip of my sword gradually sank in, there was no feeling of having sliced anything. Instead, a repulsive force rose sharply, quickly surpassing the momentum behind the Sword Skill’s advance.

Lizbeth, Leafa, and I, while letting out three different exclamations, were powerfully deflected away. We couldn’t defend as it got back up and opened its mouth wide. The poisonous peach-colored tongue, after being retracted, once again shot out like a gun—right at this moment.

Da—nn! Such a booming sound hammered my ears. It was from Sinon firing the musket. The bullet pierced through the frog’s tongue and burst out with a deep red damage effect. Although its HP reduced by less than 10%, the frog tilted its head with a croak and revealed a soft throat.

“Yaa—!” “Ga-oh!”

Yui unleashed the Sword Skill 《Vertical》, and Kuro also bared his huge fangs, stabbing the frog in the throat. Both sword and teeth sliced the frog’s throat from the left and right. Its HP was reduced by another 10%.

Yui and Kuro attacked at the same time, and although the amount of damage was kept pretty low, the effect that their combined attacks had was miraculous. With that, the frog fell into the water on its back.

If we don’t push through here...! Despite thinking this way, Liz, Leafa, and I hadn’t been able to recover from the knock-back effect. The frog’s short front legs and strong hind legs were moving, and it was about to get up. Sinon was also still loading her musket and could not fire a second round yet.

Currently, my 《Skill Connect》 was almost always a product of chance, and perfect reproduction was probably impossible. If we missed the opportunity to follow up with an attack here, our victory would become out of reach. I gritted my teeth while trying desperately to pull through. I stretched my left hand forward, flicking the air with my fingers, but my avatar still relentlessly ended up falling on its back.

“Zz!”

Just then, a shrill shout rang out.

It was neither the frog’s cry nor the voice of anybody in our party. Although I was anxious about whether or not new monsters were coming out in droves, it wasn’t amphibians that jumped out from behind. Instead, they were small, lean bodies wrapped in rough clothes and holding rusty spiral forks in both hands; they were the three ratmen whom I had completely forgotten about.

They ran to the overturned 《Goliathrana》 and plunged their forks deep into its half-white belly.

“Ga!”

The frog, producing an angry roar, violently shrank its entire body and rolled into a straight line, rising back up in a spring-like motion. The ratmen let out a “ℵℵ!” and then fled back to the perimeter of the dome.

Even if they couldn’t officially join our boss fight, as long as they could make back-to-back hits, their efforts were much appreciated. The frog’s HP bar had been reduced by 40%, turning from its initial white color into yellow.

Getting back up, 《Goliathrana》, jumped out of the water with a splash, stuck against the wall, and started climbing again. Liz and I fell on our butts, but Leafa hurriedly got to her feet and readied herself to attack the frog.

It seemed that 《Goliathrana》 was the “very-difficult-to-target-its-weak-point—but-once-successfully-hit—its-HP-gets-slashed-dramatically” type of monster. We’d need to hit its belly twice more, or with any luck, just one more time to win. For this to happen, we had to first attack its mouth.

“Sinon, aim for its mouth!”

Under my direction, Sinon, having completed loading the musket, responded with an “Understood.” I continued to Lizbeth.

“Liz, even if it’s attacking really powerfully, hit it directly in the head! You’ll be knocked back, but that will trigger a tongue attack... I think!”

“You think~?”

Although Lizbeth sent me a scowl, it was but for a moment. She renewed her grip on her mace and shouted.

“Fine, I’ll try!”

In these kinds of battles of nerves, Lizbeth’s sort of presence as a confidence-booster was hard to come by. While thinking that such a skill might be the only one I couldn’t imitate, I gave my third instruction.

“Leafa, Yui, and Kuro, if the frog falls over, attack it with the most powerful Sword Skills! Be careful not to get kicked by its hind legs!”

“Leave it to me!” “Right!” “Ga-oh!”

The two girls and the panther all gave clear-cut responses. I looked toward the corner of the wall and gave my final instructions.

“As for you guys, please attack the same way as before!”

That was for the three ratmen. There was no response, but I believed my instructions had been adequately conveyed and returned my sight to the upper part of the dome. 《Goliathrana》 had already climbed up about 70% of the wall. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the diving attack any time now.

I resolved to dodge it properly this time and keep my eyes on the frog. Its limbs stopped moving, and its bulging eyes glowed red.

But in the next moment, an unanticipated phenomenon occurred.

Five or six vine-like protrusions swelled up on 《Goliathrana》’s back, from which a roaring fire erupted. The fire quickly grew smaller but didn’t go out; instead, it continued to waver. Unexpectedly, the frog opened its mouth toward the bottom of the dome.

The distance between us was over 25 meters. The frog’s tongue couldn’t reach that far... Just then, in front of its open mouth, a glowing red circle appeared, upon which a certain intricate pattern was drawn.

“A magic circle...?”

Leafa’s nervous voice interrupted my muttering at once.

“Everybody, get out of the way!”

Before I could even finish shouting, a huge fireball shot out of the frog’s mouth. I instinctively jumped to the right, picked Yui up, and jumped into the water nearby.

With a rumble, my view was dyed red. Due to my back being burned by the heatwave, my HP was gradually decreasing.

After the blast was over, while hugging Yui, I stood up.

“Is everyone okay?!”

Sinon, Lizbeth, and Leafa simultaneously voiced in the affirmative, and Kuro roared loudly. The fireball released by the frog struck the center of the base of the dome, vaporizing a puddle there, but none of us were directly hit. The rats who had retreated to the wall were also safe, but all three had fallen to the ground.

When I looked up, 《Goliathrana》 was pressed against the rock, its throat swelling at times and sinking at other times, and seemed not to be coming down for the moment.

“...Frogs on fire, it’s like ‘throwing salt on slugs’...”

As soon as I started complaining, Lizbeth said, “Your idioms are too random...... eh, is that right?” Although she had her reservations regarding her assessment of my language proficiency, the battle’s situation was quite difficult. The only long-range attack power on our side was Sinon’s single-shot musket, but if it could consistently hit the exploding fireball just now from the ceiling, we would be able to keep on decreasing its HP.

We didn’t necessarily have to defeat the frog, though, as long as it was possible to escape with Sinon to the eastern side of the Giyol Flatlands. However, the entrance to the cave we walked through was quite high up in the dome, and to get there, we had to go up the ramp in the wall. The frog was unlikely to let us just walk right past it.

The ramp......

“...Everyone, I’ll run up the ramp on the wall and use a leaping Sword Skill to knock the frog down; follow up with attacks in the same order as before!”

As soon as I voiced thoughts that had surfaced in my mind, the others all revealed an uneasy expression.

“In that case, you’ll fall, too. If you fall from that height, you might die...”

I flatly dismissed Leafa’s concerns.

“It’s okay, as long as I fall into deep water, I won’t get hurt. This is our only option for now.”

“............”

Leafa didn’t rebut after that, but the doubtfulness emanating from her green pupils hadn’t disappeared. In fact, I wasn’t sure I could land in the water where it was deep enough, either.

When I was about to put down Yui, whom I was holding in my right hand, to execute this battle plan of chance—

“Dad, I’ll do it!”

Because Yui suddenly said so, I stared with wide eyes.

“No, no, but......”

“Papa has the highest attack in the party, so he shouldn’t be making the initial attack, he should be following up with a powerful strike.”

“But Yui, your 《Vorpal Strike》 hasn’t......”

“Once I get a running start from the cave, I’ll be able to reach it even with 《Vertical》!”

“But......”

She stared me square in the face and said:

“Papa, I don’t want to only be protected by you.”

“............”

Yui’s expression was dead serious, and I suddenly felt that she looked a lot like Asuna. I didn’t understand it myself, but it was probably a bit like me, too.

“...I see, then we’re counting on you.”

After I said so, her small frame landed on the ground while Sinon called out from slightly farther away.

“It’s moving!”

Looking up at the dome roof, 《Goliathrana》 was slowly moving so it’d be level with the ground. A second fireball attack was probably coming soon. It was possible for Yui, who’d be climbing the ramp, to become its target.

Lizbeth’s voice blew away my doubts.

“Let Yui do it!”

After making this assertion, she hit her round shield with a metal bar. A ripple-like effect vaguely appeared, presumably being the effect of a provocation skill she had unknowingly acquired.

The moving 《Goliathrana》’s body stopped and began changing direction.

“I’m going!”

Shouting, Yui held her sword in one hand. Jumping over rocks and puddles at a pace that surprised me, she reached the ramp on the wall and ran up without hesitation.

The frog fiercely lifted its upper body and opened its mouth wide. It was clearly aimed at Lizbeth.

“Everybody, get out of the way!”

While following Lizbeth’s instructions and backing away, I shouted.

“Liz, you have to dodge it too!”

“Please trust the shield that I made!”

Could it be...... Right at that moment, a magic circle appeared in 《Goliathrana》’s mouth, giving off a dazzling light.

Goa (ゴアッ)! The air trembled like that, and a burning fireball flew out. But Lizbeth didn’t move. She raised her round shield high with her left hand and put the mace in her right hand behind it.

That shield was made from the 《High-Grade Steel Ingots》 we got from melting down 《Black Welt》, and with Lizbeth’s forging Skill proficiency as a blacksmith, it should have a reasonably high defensive power. Even so, I didn’t think it could be used to defend against the fireballs of a 《Goliathrana》-like field boss without sustaining damage.

My right foot was twitching, wanting to kick off the ground. But I grabbed my knee with my right hand and pressed it down desperately. If I rushed out now and got caught in the blast, I probably wouldn’t be able to get back up in time for the follow-up attack. For now, I could only believe in Liz and Yui’s determination and endure the wait.

The fireball, about fifty centimeters in diameter, directly struck the round shield and caused it to shine with a blinding brilliance as it bent. Red flames and black smoke exploded, and Liz’s figure disappeared in a flash. The shockwave of the explosion reached me as I put my hands up to block my face.

In the upper left of my field of view, Lizbeth’s HP bar was decreasing. Seventy percent, sixty percent, in such a short time, it was already down by half... then, at forty percent, it stopped.

“Liz!”

After I raised my head and shouted, Lizbeth, who was crouching at the epicenter of the explosion, raised her right hand and gave a thumbs up. Whereas she could have dodged by sprinting away, she stubbornly chose to defend, perhaps to prevent the fireball from flying toward Yui.

Yui, on the other hand, had almost finished climbing the spiraling ramp on the outer wall of the dome. It would also be hard for me to sprint without fear on such a narrow passage without handrails. But her ability to run up it at the rate she was going was not because she was an AI; rather, it was because time had fostered a genuine heart, with real courage, within her.

Yui reached the top of the ramp and jumped into a hole in the wall to gain distance in preparation for the running start.

“Guh......”

Emitting a low growl, 《Goliathrana》 spun its body around, trying to make its way toward the cave. Crap...... if Yui was intercepted by its tongue, she’d be beaten down in the air.

“This way!”

It was Sinon who shouted. Aiming the already loaded musket at the frog affixed to the ceiling, she immediately pulled the trigger. The flint sparked, pausing for a beat before letting out a roar.

The fired bullet struck 《Goliathrana》 in the right eye.

“Gaa......”

The frog, wailing, changed direction again.

Immediately afterward, a pure-white figure flew out of the cave.

As her long, dark hair fluttered, she rested a short sword on her right shoulder. Even though the sword’s blade glowed with a blue effect light, it was slightly flickering. Unleashing a Sword Skill mid-air from such an unstable posture should’ve been considerably difficult for the unpracticed Yui; however, she ultimately managed to sustain it at the critical moment.

“Huh-ya!”

Page 218 illustration.
Page 218 illustration.

 

Her brave cry reached the ground. Kicking off the air with her right foot, Yui launched 《Vertical》. The system assist accelerated her small body, and her short sword traced a vivid trajectory through the darkness. The tip of the sword was sucked in by the side of the frog’s belly, and while it couldn’t slice through the frog’s skin, the suction cups at the end of its limbs were peeled away from the rock due to the impact. The frog’s skin had a rubber-like repulsive force, so Yui was sent flying away like a huge speeding bullet.

It’d be fine if Yui fell in the water, but if she landed on a rock, she’d die. If I went to save her, I wouldn’t be able to launch the following attack...

The loudest noise I’d heard since the battle began hit my ears; it was something I wasn’t used to hearing—no, it seemed strange, there was a certain familiarity to the sound.

“Leave Yui to me!”

—I don’t know who shouted that to me!

Screaming that repeatedly in my heart, I entered the activation stance of the most powerful Sword Skill I could currently use, the three-hit skill 《Sharp Nail》. Next to me, Leafa prepared a corresponding Skill while Lizbeth recovered from the explosion and swung her mace. Sinon switched the musket out with a mini laser gun. Kuro also bared his sharp fangs.

The fallen 《Goliathrana》, its back slamming against a stone pillar, bounced back up. The moment it fell to the ground again, I cried out.

“—Now!”

Leafa, Lizbeth, Kuro, and I pummeled the defenseless frog’s belly from all sides with swords, maces, and fangs. Its HP gauge quickly dropped to less than 20%. When the four of us fell back, the ratmen rushed in with a shout and stabbed their forks in.

There was still 10% left.

Preparing for a final attack, I fought against the 《Post-Motion》 rigidity that was induced upon our avatars after launching a Sword Skill. However, at that moment, the frog tipped over and suddenly opened its mouth.

“Kukuku———o!”

Its roar of rage summoned a huge magic circle. Crap, there wasn’t any way to dodge a fireball from such a close distance......

“I won’t let you!”

Sinon resolutely voiced that out and flew in front of the frog. Stabbing the laser gun in her right hand into the magic circle, she pulled the trigger.

Shhhhh! Accompanied by the sound of firing, yellow-green energy bullets struck 《Goliathrana》’s mouth one after the other. As the energy bar dwindled little by little, the magic circle surrounding Sinon’s arm shone with extra intensity. The frog’s mouth flickered with flames, which swirled into a whirlwind; it wasn’t a fireball but a tornado of fire......

It’s HP became zero.

“Ggg!”

There was a short pause, then as a sound effect rang, the crimson magic circle turned to black smoke and disappeared. It was a similar phenomenon to the one in ALO that could be seen after a failed magic chanting.

After massive spasms across its body, it slowly went listless...... And finally, it stopped moving.

In SAO and ALO, dead monsters would turn into blue particles, explode, and disperse. But in this world, the corpses remained intact, so we couldn’t let our guard down immediately. To make sure the frog was completely dead, I took a step forward, prepared with my sword.

It was then that a strange phenomenon occurred.

From near the heart in the fallen, motionless frog’s massive body, for some reason, a red light floated up and rose gently in the darkness. So far, including the equally strong 《Spiny Cave Bear》, we’d defeated many monsters, but we had seen nothing like it.

“Kirito, that......!”

As if propelled by Sinon’s voice, I ran two steps, jumped, and reached out toward the red light. However, when my fingertips touched the red light, it disappeared like I popped a soap bubble. After landing back on the ground and looking in my left hand, there was nothing on my palm.

Suddenly, every party member was surrounded by a blue ring of light. For a moment, I anxiously wondered if it was some kind of trap, but then realized that it was the level-up effect. That seemed to mean the frog was dead. When the message that my level had risen to 16 popped up in front of my eyes, I hurriedly dismissed it and looked up.

Wearing a conspicuous white dress in the darkness, Yui was hanging just below the entrance to the cave. I couldn’t tell who the upside-down person grabbing her small, weak left hand was. The player had a rope tied around his right foot connecting to another player at one of the entrances.

Hanging in the air, Yui and the unidentified intruder swayed slowly from side to side. There was the vaguely audible sound of a sewing machine—the sound of the rope breaking apart constantly as it failed to support the weight of the both of them.

The large man standing at the entrance of the hole began to pull the rope up little by little. In a panic, I sprinted directly toward Yui and shouted upward.

“Hey, don’t push it!”

The man pulling on the rope let out a rough voice.

“The rope isn’t long enough to reach the ground, and even if this keeps up, the rope’s endurance will last only 20 seconds!”

The other man—the one who had grabbed Yui’s hand—reacted.

“This isn’t going to work! Find a way to raise the height!”

—How to put it... It was as if I’d heard both of those voices before?

I put this sense of familiarity aside and hit the emergency brakes with both feet. Even if two people waited directly below, they wouldn’t be able to catch both Yui and the other man. Since that was the case, we’d have to prepare cushions, but just the hyenas’ fur from our item storages wouldn’t be enough padding to effectively reduce the damage caused by a fall from that height.

There was only one object here that could be used as padding. With one look backward, I ran back at full speed and called out to Lizbeth and the others.

“Everyone, help me move this!”

I shouted so, grabbing 《Goliathrana》’s right foot, which was lying on the ground. It seemed that everyone realized my intentions at once, so Sinon ran up to me, Lizbeth and Leafa rushed to my side, and the four of us began to pull the enormous body.

Kuro snarled too, biting the frog’s flank and pulling it. The three ratmen also threw their pitchforks down helped us push. Once our strengths were combined, the frog’s body started sliding at an unexpectedly rapid speed. Pulling full-force while taking a look backward, I saw that Yui had dropped about halfway from the ten-meter height they were at, and the rope was obviously tearing apart.

Just a little bit further until we were just below the two... that’s it! Poof! We heard that merciless sound.

“Kirito, I’m sorry! You think of something!”

The large man who had been trying to pull the rope up shouted. I didn’t have time to feel incredulous about how he called me by my name.

“Whoaaaaa!”

The other man, letting out a bit of a pitiful wail, fell through the air. But in the descent, he pulled Yui into a hug and held her above himself. It was admittedly very gentlemanly. In that case, we had to respond, as well.

“Ooooooh!”

Squeezing out the last of my strength, I shouted. The message 《Strength skill proficiency has increased to 4》 appeared before my eyes as the body of the frog floated in mid-air. It then landed in the puddle and came to a halt.

A second later, the man and Yui fell and landed on 《Goliathrana》’s belly. Its belly bounced like a rubber band, seemingly maintaining its characteristics even though it had been turned into a corpse. The two of them bounced over a meter into the air before falling again and coming to rest.

“Papa!”

Yui, who hadn’t made a single sound while hanging in the air nor during the free fall, flew over with her arms outstretched. I caught her small body while adjusting myself to keep my metal armor from pressing into her, holding her tightly.

“You’re making a great effort. That aerial activation of 《Vertical》 was absolutely amazing.”

In a murmur, Yui’s voice wavered for the first time since the battle with 《Goliathrana》 began.

“...Yes, I tried my best!”

For Yui, who had never fought before, the horror and stress she felt during this boss battle in the field were probably beyond my imagination. That was definitely not her AI’s learning-based mimicry and simulation of emotional expression. The current Yui had transcended the boundaries of a top-down AI and had gained real emotions... I believed. If that wasn’t the case, why was it possible for her to engage in self-sacrificing combat?

While being touched by such feelings, I repeatedly stroked Yui’s hair.

“Ahh, that was a really close call......”

【T/N: In the dialogue, Kawahara originally wrote 「九十九死に一生だぜぇ」, which seems to be a spin on the Chinese proverb “九死一生” (literally, “nine deaths one life”) that refers to “a narrow escape from death”. However, instead of 九 (nine), he wrote 九十九 (ninety-nine) perhaps to describe a 1/100 chance of survival rather than the idiom’s 1/10 chance.】

The man, who spoke such a strange idiom while lying on the frog’s belly like the character for “big” (大), stood up.

He pushed his somewhat short tea-colored hair up with a red-bean-colored bandana. Under that was a slightly longer face with some stubble whiskers on a rough chin. His defense equipment was made of leather, and there was a curved blade on his left waist.

From the time I first heard his voice, I had been thinking “could it be” and “no way, right” over and over in my mind, but the truth seemed to be “could it be”.

“...Klein, what are you doing in a place like this?”

After I asked that, the Clearer I’d been in contact with since the SAO era, who used curved katanas, extended his hands and started a conversation.

“Oh dear, oh dear, that’s a good one! I thought you guys were having a hard time, so that’s why I came to help you!”

“Alright, thank you very much.”

Lizbeth interjected.

“Do you know why we’re here? No one contacted you IRL, right?”

“I’ll explain that.”

Such a voice came down from above, and we raised our heads together.

Sticking against the edge of the wall of the dome, cautiously yet seriously descending was a male player whose sturdy avatar and hard skin was quite frightening. He was also from the old SAO era: the skillful ax user and merchant, Agil. But instead of the iconic, large two-handed ax on his back, its replacements were somewhat smaller—though much bigger than my sword, to put it mildly—with two blades and an ax equipped on the left knee and waist, respectively. His defense was made of the same leather armor as Klein’s.

“Uncle, Agil.”

After a light fist bump with the man who’d reached the ground and exchanging the same greeting with Klein, I asked again.

“Then... how did you get here? Both of you, like the other ALO players, started out in the ruins to the south, right?”

“Yeah. What’s more, Klein and I left too late. When we finally dived in this evening, the grace period had long passed, and the nearby hunting grounds were all farmed empty... I tried every means to meet up with Klein and set your log cabin as the target destination......”

“Ay, you guys also don’t know where the cabin is, do you?”

“Asuna brought us a hand-drawn map.”

“Ah, is that so? .......”

She was the Deputy Commander of the original KoB, after all... and she was so diligent... in that case.

“Anyway, Kirito forgot about us, didn’t he.”

Klein, who was sitting on the frog’s belly, made that unpleasant remark. Although that was exactly the truth, I couldn’t nod to that.

“No... no, nothing like that. You see, both Klein and Agil usually have jobs... they would’ve been contacted once the situation stabilized...”

Just then, Agil said, hugging his arm with his other arm.

“The cafe is closed today, though.”

Klein continued.

“I was off this afternoon, too.”

“Dicey Café doesn’t have regular breaks, but you couldn’t possibly explain not knowing about Klein being off!”

Since he put it that way.

Sinon, who was reloading, coughed lightly.

“Could you guys hurry it up? I have all sorts of things to do, too.”

“Ah, I’m sorry.”

Agil excused himself, then returned to the original topic.

“So, adjusting to equip only the minimum gear, we left the stone ruins for the forest. Right then, we were suddenly attacked by a trio of PKers. There was a stone weapon here, an iron weapon there, and the level of our defenses was also different, so it was really dangerous.”

“But we made a good team, working together against the attacking PKers to......”

Agil covered Klein’s commandingly good playbook lines with a sound as if he was pounding a table.

“Hey, weren’t you hiding in the back?”

“It can’t be helped; the skill I inherited was......”

But, at that point, Klein unnaturally stopped talking. It was probably because his highest proficiency skill that he inherited couldn’t be applied to the katana... as I thought about such things, I shifted my gaze to Agil.

“So, how did you deal with those PKers?”

“Ahh... they seemed like a temporary three-person party. They didn’t even have the most basic of teamwork down, so we could come up with a plan. Since the grace period was over, knowing that, we stabbed them to death with range-type Sword Skills...”

Agil gave a bitter look. It seemed that had the PKer trio wanted to escape instead of attacking them en route, the compassionate-good-guy Agil would’ve left the PKers alone. The approaching Leafa struck his thick arm.

“That’s your weakness, Agil-san. Even PKers should be aware that they may encounter crushing defeat. We were also attacked by a PK group yesterday, but Kirito-kun unceremoniously wiped them out!”

“Uh... hey, I didn’t wipe them out all by myself.”

After my hurried explanation, I got a provocative “so what?” in response. With a faint smile, Agil patted the shiny black leather armor.

“After defeating those PKers, they dropped this leather armor, iron ax, and curved blade, so I gratefully picked it up and used it. Relying on the map, we eventually reached the hut, but Asuna was really worried about you guys, so she asked us to come help.”

“Is that so......”

After thanking our companions in my heart, I tilted my head slightly.

“But wait, I don’t think Asuna and the others knew where we were going, though? How did Agil and Klein make their way to this cave......?”

As I asked another question, Agil again smiled slightly, turned to Klein, and bit his jaw. That person, who used the curved katanas rather than straight swords, began scratching his head even harder and then started speaking like a ventriloquist.

“Well, that’s the skill I inherited......”

“Huh? Your inherited skill is for swords, right? How does that have anything to do with this?”

I also considered the exact same doubts that Lizbeth asked about, and I’m pretty sure both Leafa and Sinon also thought about it. An indescribable expression surfaced on Klein’s face as everyone’s eyes focused together on him.

“Is it not a skill for swords?”

“Huh?”

“I inherited 《Pursuit》.”

“Hah!?”

Everyone shouted in unison.

ALO’s 《Pursuit》 skill was a convenient skill that allowed the player to recognize monsters’ footprints and find materials or items easily, but since it required crazy willpower to train, there were very few players who deliberately practiced it. However, Klein raised his proficiency in the 《Pursuit》 skill to the maximum of 1000, so his inherited skill wasn’t for a sword, but rather the maxed out 《Pursuit》......

“Why did you want to master this skill...?”

At first muttering that dumbfoundedly, Lizbeth then cried out as if she was onto something.

“Oh, it couldn’t have been for chasing a cute girl, could it!”

“Kinda, a little! It was so I could complete the tracking quest that Skuld gave me...”

“............Eh?”

Again, except for Agil, every party member made such a sound.

Skuld was the name of an NPC we encountered in the underground labyrinth in ALFheim. She was a cold beauty reminiscent of the Norse war goddess Valkyrie, so to speak, and Klein had received some recollections from her during our parting. That must’ve been the quest’s starting item, so he honed his 《Pursuit》 skill to the highest proficiency level to complete the quest... in other words.

“...So, did you complete the quest?”

In response to my question, Klein shook his head sadly.

“It was almost over... but then, it turned out this way... is Skuld-san okay......”

What would it have been like if he had completed that tracking quest... such questioning would’ve put us out of breath, so I reigned in the conversation.

“In other words, Klein used his inherited 《Pursuit》 skill to catch up with us? But the proficiency level dropped to 100, right? I can’t believe you made it this far with that.”

“Ah, yes... with a proficiency of 100, I can’t recognize a specific player’s footprints, but there was only one type of footprint left on the Flatlands. I believed those must’ve been from Kirito and the others, so I followed them here.”

“I see......”

Feeling rewarded at last, I once again bowed my head in gratitude to Agil and Klein.

“You really saved us. If Agil and Klein hadn’t caught her, Yui would’ve died with the frog.”

“Thank you, Agil-san, Klein-san!”

Yui also gave a bow, and the two men both revealed shy smiles.

“It would’ve been even better if we made it in time for the battle.”

Agil said so.

“No, I wouldn’t have been good against that floppy mole.”

Klein accepted it with a joking look on his face, pointing to the cushion-substitute where he sat cross-legged.

“That’s the corpse of a frog.”

“Eh? ......Ahhhhh!!”

Seeing Klein let out a cry while sitting cross-legged but still deftly jumping up and down, even Sinon let out a laugh.

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