Sword Art Online:Volume 1 Chapter 14
"Wha...? What is that!?"
"What do you mean? You know what this is. Now come on, get up!"
The things that Asuna had forced me into were my new clothes. Although it had the same design as the coat I used to wear, it was also blindingly white. There were two small crosses on each of my cuffs and a large one on my back; all three of them were dyed in bright red. It was, beyond any doubt, a KoB uniform.
"...I-I said I wanted something plain..."
"This is already pretty plain. Yeah, it suits you!!"
I sank into the rocking chair as all strength left my body. I was still living on the second floor of Agil's shop. The place had already become my disaster shelter, so the pitiable shopkeeper could only sleep on a simple bed on the first floor. The only reason he hadn't chased me out was because Asuna came every other day to help out with the shop. It was the best advertising opportunity he could get.
As I groaned in my chair, Asuna came and sat down on the armrest, which had become her designated spot. She rocked the chair with a smile, as if my current predicament was amusing to her, and then clapped her hands together as if she had thought of something.
"Ah, we better say our greetings properly. As a member of the guild, I hope we can get along well."
As she suddenly bowed, I straightened my back to reply.
"I-I hope we get along too... but then again, I'm just a normal member while you're the sub-leader, so..."
I swept my right forefinger down Asuna's spine.
"I won't be able to do things like this anymore—"
With this scream, my superior jumped up and struck her subordinate's head. Then she walked over to the opposite chair and sat down; her face pouting.
Under the lazy sunlight of late autumn, we went into a short and peaceful lull.
My loss in the duel against Heathcliff had passed two days ago. As I wasn't someone who would go back on his word, I joined the Knights of the Blood as I had agreed with Heathcliff. The guild gave me two days to prepare, so starting tomorrow I would be following their orders to explore the 75th floor labyrinth.
Joining a guild, huh—
Asuna glanced at me as she heard my quiet sigh.
"...You got mixed up in all this because of me."
"Nah, it's fine. It's a good opportunity for me. I was starting to feel the limits of solo playing anyway..."
"It's a relief to hear you say that... Hey, Kirito-kun..."
Asuna's hazelnut eyes looked directly at me.
"Can you tell me why you avoid guilds... avoid people...? I don't think it's merely because you're a beta tester or a unique skill user, because you are a very kind person."
I shifted my gaze downwards and slowly rocked my chair.
"...A long time ago... over a year actually, I once joined a guild...."
The words came out so easily that it surprised me. Maybe it was because Asuna's gaze felt like it would be able to melt the pain that spiked through me every time I thought about this.
"I was offered a spot after I met and helped them by chance in a labyrinth area... It was a small guild with only six members, including me, and it had an interesting name: «Black Cats of the Full Moon»."
Asuna smiled lightly.
"The leader was a good person. He was a two-handed stave user called Keita. He always thought of the guild members first in any situation, so everyone trusted him deeply. He told me that he was on the lookout for a forward, since most of the members used longer-ranged two-handed weapons...
To tell the truth, their levels were all much lower than mine. No, I should say that I had leveled too much.
If I had told him my level, Keita would have thought otherwise about inviting me. But I had been getting tired of going into the Labyrinths alone day after day, and the family-like atmosphere of the «Black Cats» had made me envious. It felt like they were real-life friends, as the conversations they had with each other lacked any of the awkwardness and distance that was usually evident in online conversations between players; that had deeply appealed to me as well.
Frankly, I had no right to desire for the care of others. I had lost that right when I decided to become a solo player and selfishly leveled only for myself. But I had quelled my inner voices and joined the guild, hiding both my level and my beta-tester past.
Keita asked me if I could train one of their spear users into a sword-and-shield user. Because then there would be three forwards, including myself, and the guild would make a balanced party.
The spear user who he had entrusted to me was a quiet girl with shoulder-length black hair named Sachi. When we were introduced, she said, with an embarrassed smile, that despite being a long-time gamer, she hadn't been able to make many friends due to her personality. Whenever there were no guild activities, I had hung out with her and taught her how to use her single-handed sword.
Sachi and I were similar in a lot of ways. We were both socially awkward, preferred to wall ourselves in, and yet feared loneliness.
Then one day, she suddenly told me that she was afraid of dying, that she was so scared of this game of death that she didn't want to go out and train.
In response to her divulgence, I could only say 'I won't let you die'. I couldn't say anything else to her since I was still trying to hide my level. After she heard my response, she cried for a bit before forcing out a smile.
On another day, some time later, the five of us, all of the guild excluding Keita, went into a labyrinth. Keita didn't come with us because he had gone to bargain for a house to use as our HQ with the money that we had managed to save up.
Although the labyrinth we went to had already been cleared, there were still unexplored areas within it. One of the members discovered a treasure chest when we were preparing to leave. I recommended leaving it alone, as we were close to the front lines so the monsters had high levels. Furthermore, I didn't trust the trap dismantling skills of the members. But since only Sachi and I opposed opening the treasure chest, we lost 3 to 2 on the vote.
It was an alarm trap, one of the worst types of traps. As soon as we opened the chest, an ear-splitting alarm sounded, and monsters began to pour in from every entrance to the room. We immediately attempted to escape by teleporting.
But the trap was twofold. The room was an Anti-Crystal Area— our crystals didn't work.
There were simply too many monsters to hold back. The other members fell into complete confusion and ran around aimlessly. I tried to cut a path open by using the high class sword skills that I had been hiding up until now, but the panicked members didn't make it out in time. One by one, their HP fell to zero, and they screamed before bursting into tiny fragments. I thought that I could at least save Sachi and swung my sword endlessly.
But it was too late. I saw Sachi reaching out towards me with her hand while a monster cut her down mercilessly. Her eyes were still trusting even as she shattered like a glass statue and disappeared. She had trusted and relied on me until the very end; but because my words were weak and shallow, they had become nothing more than an empty promise, a lie.
Keita had been waiting for us in the inn that had served as our temporary base with the new HQ keys in his hands. After returning to the inn by myself, I explained to Keita what had happened. He had listened wordlessly until I finished, then asked me:
'How did you survive?'
Then I revealed my real level and that I had been a beta tester.
Keita had glared at me as if I was something disgusting, then said one thing.
'—A beater like you didn't have any right to join us.'
Those words had stabbed through me as if they were a steel sword."
"...What happened... to that person...?"
"He committed suicide."
Asuna's body shuddered on the chair.
"He jumped off the edge of the floor. Most probably cursing me... to the very end..."
I felt my throat contract. As I recounted these memories that I had sealed deep inside my heart, the painful emotions of back then returned with perfect clarity. I gritted my teeth. Although I wanted to reach out to Asuna for comfort, a voice in my mind whispered, "You have no right to do so", which left me with only the option of tightly clenching my fists.
"I had killed them. If I didn't hide the fact that I was a beta tester, I would have been able to persuade them to leave the chest alone. It was me... I'm the one who had killed Keita... and Sachi..."
With my eyes wide open, I forced these words out of my gritted teeth.
Asuna suddenly stood up, took two steps towards me, and caressed my face with both her hands. She pulled her beautiful face closer to mine with a warm smile.
"I won't die."
She said it in a whisper, yet the voice was very clear. I felt the strength leave my tensed body.
"Because, I'm... I'm somebody who'll protect you."
After saying this, Asuna brought my head to her chest and embraced it. I felt a soft and warm darkness cover me.
As I closed my eyes, my mind reached over the dark veil of my memories and saw the faces of the Black Cat members; they were all sitting at the Inn's counter, bathed in an orange glow.
I cannot be forgiven. I can never pay the price for my wrongdoings.
Yet despite this, the faces that remained in my memories seemed to be smiling.
On the next day, I put on my blindingly white coat and left with Asuna for Grandum on the 55th floor.
Starting today, I would begin my work as a Knights of the Blood guild member. However, in contrast to the usual five-person party, Asuna took advantage of her power and allowed us to form a two-person party; so in reality, it was no different from yesterday.
But the orders that awaited us at the guild HQ were totally unexpected.
"Yes. We will make a party of four and go through the Labyrinth Area in the 55th floor until we reach the living area of the 56th floor."
The man who said this was one of the four other men who were present at the table when I had talked with Heathcliff. He was a huge man with thick blond curls and looked like an axe wielder.
"Wait, Godfree! Kirito-kun is going to..."
As Asuna started arguing, Godfree raised one eyebrow and responded in a confident, if not presumptuous, voice.
"Even the sub-leader must adhere to the rules. I don't mind the party he joins for exploration. But as the commander of the vanguard, I must test his capabilities. Even if he is a unique skill user, we don't actually know if he'll be of any use to us."
"W-With Kirito-kun's strength, there's no way he'll be an inconvenience..."
I calmed the agitated Asuna down before speaking:
"If you want to see, then I'll show you. But I don't want to waste time in such a low-level labyrinth. Would rushing through it in one run be alright with you?"
Godfree closed his mouth with an expression of displeasure. Then he left after saying:
"Assemble at the west city gate in thirty minutes."
"What kind of attitude is that!?"
Asuna kicked the steel pillar with her boots in indignation.
"I'm sorry, Kirito-kun. Maybe it would have been better if we had run away..."
"If we did that, all the members of the guild would collectively curse me to death."
I smiled and hit Asuna's head playfully.
"Uuuu, I thought that we would be together today... Should I go along with you...?"
"I'll be back soon. Just wait here."
"Yeah... Be careful..."
Asuna nodded reluctantly. After waving my hand towards her, I walked out of the HQ.
But when I arrived at the appointed location —the west gate of Grandum— I saw something even more shocking.
Next to Godfree stood the person who I least wanted to see in this world — Kuradeel.
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