Sword Art Online:Volume 7 Chapter 5
"So, Yuuki, Jun and Thatch are the close-ranged, Taruken and Nori are mid-ranged and Shiune is support."
Asuna rested her chin on her hand, and looked around at the geared Sleeping Knights. They wore light, ordinary clothes when they introduced themselves yesterday, but now they've all changed into Ancient-level equipment.
Like yesterday, «Zekken» Yuuki had a black half-armor and a narrow longsword equipped. The Salamander Jun was outfitted with a copper-red full plate that did not match his short stature, and a great sword almost as tall as him hung on his back.
The large Gnome Thatch was similarly equipped with thick plate armor and carried a large, door-like shield. His weapon was a heavy-looking hammer with protrusions all around.
Taruken, the Leprechaun with glasses, wore a copper-yellow light armor on his rickety body, his weapon was a terrifyingly long lance. To his side stood the sister-like Spriggan Nora, equipped with comfortable, nonmetallic armor and a long iron rod that almost touched the ceiling.
The only one who looked like a caster, the Undine Shiune wore a cleric-styled, white and navy-blue robe, a hat which puffed out like a cake, and carried a thin silver staff in her right hand. Overall, it was a well-balanced party, but if something had to be said, it was slightly weaker in the support department.
"As such, it'll probably be better if I join the back row."
Asuna decided to change her weapon to a short staff which boosted magic. As she spoke, she took off her rapier along with the sword belt on her waist, while Yuuki shrunk back apologetically.
"Sorry, Asuna. You have to linger in the back even though you're such a good rapier user."
"No, I can't tank anyways. Comparatively, Jun and Thatch will need to get knocked around, so the two of you better be prepared."
She smiled mischievously, and looked towards the heavily armored two. The largely physically different Salamander and Gnome glanced at each other, and pounded their chests at the same time.
"Ye-yeah, leave it to us!"
Hearing Jun's high-spirited yet stammered words, all of them laughed out cheerfully.
January 8th, 2026. Wednesday.
It was the last day of Winter vacation. Asuna had agreed to go to the inn at the 27th floor's main block «Ronbaru» at 1 pm and meet the Sleeping Knights once again. Naturally, their goal was to challenge the boss in the deepest part of the dungeon together.
Asuna understood that they had greater expectations for her to provide a strategy which made good use of everyone's talents instead of just statistical fighting ability. Yuuki and the others were all probably equal or better than Asuna in pure strength. However, Asuna had knowledge and experience which they lacked.
Right now, she first had to confirm the details on everyone's builds and equipment, and decide on a basic formation.
Deciding to join the back row, Asuna opened her item window, unequipped her rapier, placed it inside and exchanged it with a staff. It had the appearance of a branch, and there were even leaves at the tip. Although it looks rather shabby from just a glance, in truth, it was a branch taken from the very top of the World Tree. In order to obtain it, one must escape the ferocious attacks of a giant guardian dragon.
Asuna says as she taps the floor with her wand.
"Let's go take a look at the Boss room!"
They exited Ronbaru's inn together and took off into the perpetual night.
As expected of the Sleeping Knights, all of them were capable of voluntary flight, and Asuna once again admired the smoothness of their actions. They didn't seem like people who've just transferred over to ALO at all. Rather than simply being accustomed to VRMMOs, she had to say that they were highly adept at its root, the Full Dive technology. It's true that there'd be a very small number of players who were like that, but despite her vast gaming experience, she only knew very few personally.
What kind of events caused the formation of the guild, to bring together 6 people like this. Thinking about it, today was January 8th, and people start going to school or work in general. Asuna's school had relaxed lesson plans so the third semester didn't start until tomorrow, but normally, it should be rather difficult to get all 6 members of the guild to meet up on a day like this.
Putting their outstanding strength into consideration, it'd be reasonable to come to the conclusion that they're an extremely obsessed group which spent everything they had on the game. However, Asuna felt that this wasn't the case. On the Sleeping Knights' faces, she didn't see the intense self-depreciation which those guilds couldn't erase. All of them enjoyed the game extremely naturally.
Asuna thought about the kind of people they were in real life which was something which she never cared about in the past. Yuuki, who was flying in front, cried out in her usual, spirited voice while Asuna was thinking.
"I can see it, the dungeon!"
Looking intently, opposite the unbroken rows of mountains, a large tower can be seen. The cylindrical tower extends upwards towards the bottom of the next floor. Many crystal hexagonal prisms about the size of small houses stretched out from the base of the tower, hazily illuminating the tower with a blue phosphorescence. At the bottom of the tower, the entrance to the dungeon opened suddenly, leading into the darkness.
They stopped and hovered for a moment, checking for the silhouettes of monsters or other parties around the entrance.
Of course, she has already informed Lisbeth and the others about today's «Sudden Boss Raid». They were all shocked when they heard about «Zekken»'s unexpected request, but they also volunteered to help immediately. Asuna was very glad, but their ultimate goal was to create a final memory together. Since that was the case, it was better not to stir things up too much. Her friends immediately understood her considerations and filled her inventory to the limit with potions they owned before watching her leave.
Kirito, wearing a profound expression since the beginning of the incident, seemed to be deep in thought for an instant, but still encouraged her with a smile and helped persuade Yui not to follow her. In a certain sense, Asuna aiding another guild could be considered an act of betrayal, but her friends still cheered her on. In her heart, Asuna once again thanked those friends of hers, and slowly descended towards the dungeon.
Upon landing upon the slate-gray ground, Asuna copied the six of them and looked up at the giant tower. Tens of times would not even be enough to cover the number of times she had seen this tower stretching towards the upper floors in this manner if counting from the era of the former SAO, but its undeniably majestic figure never failed to overwhelm in a way different from when gazing upon it from the sky.
"... Then, like we've discussed, let's try our best to avoid fights with normal mobs and advance."
As Asuna spoke, the faces of Yuuki and the others tensed as they nodded silently. They stretched their hands towards their waist or behind their back, and unsheathed their weapons with a clink.
The Undine Shiune, who was skilled in magic, lifted her silver staff and cast several buffs successively. The bodies of the seven of them were enveloped in light, and several status icons lit up to the right below their HP bars. After that, the Spriggan Nora cast a spell, providing all of them with night vision. Asuna had also learned a couple of buffs, but Shiune's skill level was higher, so she left it to her.
After their preparations were completed, they once again glanced at each other and nodded. They entered the dungeon, starting with Yuuki in the van.
Shortly after going through the entrance, the natural cave gave way to a slate tiled, man-made tunnel. The surrounding temperature also dropped noticeably, the cold, humid air brushing against Asuna's skin. They'd toiled over this back in SAO as well, but the interiors of the dungeons were unreasonably large and the monsters' levels can't be compared to those in the fields. In addition, like the dungeons on the surface of Alfheim, you can't fly inside. Even though they've already bought the map data from an information center, it'd still take them at least three hours until they reach the boss room.
―This was what she expected, however.
When in just a little over an hour, the giant door appeared before her eyes at the end of a corridor, Asuna was once again left speechless at their strength. Each of them had a good level of combat ability, but what was even more remarkable was their cooperation. Without even a single word, with just a single raised hand or a single movement from Yuuki's small body, they'd stop when they should stop, and charge when they should charge. Basically, Asuna only had to follow along at the back of the party. They only had three encounters with mobs, and under Asuna's direction, they easily lost them by killing the leader in an instant and throwing the rest of the mob into confusion.
Dumbstruck, Asuna whispered to Shiune as they headed through the corridor towards the Boss room.
"Am I... really necessary? It feels like there's almost nothing left for me to help you with."
Shiune widened her eyes and shook her head hard.
"No, that isn't the case. Due to Asuna-san's directions, we didn't step into a trap even once and had fairly few battles. We fought the enemies we've encountered directly the previous two times, and we ended up expending quite a lot by the time we got to the Boss room."
"... That's great... ―Hey, Yuuki, stop."
Hearing Asuna's slightly raised voice, the three vanguards stopped walking immediately.
They were over halfway across the corridor leading to the Boss room, and the details of the terrifying decorations on the stone door can already be seen. On the two sides of the corridor stood pillars at regular intervals, but no monsters could be seen in their shadows.
Facing Yuuki and Jun who turned around in surprise, Asuna brought her index finger to her lips as she stared at the space opposite to the final pillar to the left.
The only source of illumination in the corridor came from the blue flames in the braziers at the top of the pillars. Even with Nora's night vision magic, it was still difficult to notice slight movements in the wavering shadows on the stone walls. However, intuitively, Asuna felt that something in her range of sight was wrong.
Asuna signalled them to move back and raised the staff in her right hand. She quickly formed a rather long spell, her left hand held up to chest-level with her palm faced upwards.
As Asuna finished chanting, five transparent-blue fish with wing-like fins appeared in the palm of her hand. She raised them to her face, and gently blew them in her target direction.
Immediately, the fish sprung forth one by one, swimming through the air in a straight line. This was a summon used against concealment spells, 『Searcher』. The five fish fanned out radially, and among them, two entered the flickering air Asuna was locked on to.
Blue lights scattered with a pop. The searchers perished, and inside the flickering air appeared a green membrane which swiftly melted and disappeared.
Yuuki cried out in shock. Three players suddenly appeared opposite of the pillar, where there was nothing just a while ago.
Asuna quickly took another look. Two Imps, one Sylph, all of them lightly armed and equipped with daggers. Despite that, the grade of their weapons were rather high. She wasn't familiar with them, but she recognized the guild emblem displayed beside the pointer. A horse next to a shield. This was the emblem of the large, well-known guild that continuously cleared the dungeons past the 23rd floor.
In dungeons, it's inappropriate to hide when there were obviously no monsters around. Common sense dictates that this was meant for PKing. Asuna raised her staff once again in order to guard against ranged attacks, and to her side, Yuuki and the party members also readied their weapons.
However, contrary to their expectations, one of the three hurriedly raised a hand and yelled out.
"Stop, stop! We don't want to fight!"
Asuna feeling that his anxiety wasn't an act, lowered her guard and shouted back.
"Then, please sheath your sword!"
The three glanced at each other, and immediately returned their various daggers back to their sheaths. Asuna turned slightly towards Shiune and whispered.
"If they intend to pull out their weapons again, immediately cast «Aqua Bind»."
"I understand. Uwa, this is my first time PVPing in ALO. I'm really nervous."
Rather than nervous, Shiune and the others' eyes shined with excitement. With a faint, bittersweet smile, Asuna turned towards the trio, slowly walked a few steps closer and said.
"If you're not PKing.... For what purpose did you hide?"
After glancing at each other once again, the Imp which appeared to be the leader replied.
"We're waiting to meet up. It'd be troublesome if we got attacked by mobs before our companions arrives, so we hid."
Although it sounded reasonable, she couldn't shake off the feeling that something was odd. Concealment spells consumed mana at a significant rate while in use, so expensive potions must be used every few seconds. Moreover, if they managed to get to the deepest part of the dungeon, they shouldn't have any need to avoid battles with monsters.
However, she couldn't find a larger flaw in their words. Even though they could kill them and remove any potential problems, getting into a dispute with a large guild would lead to various problems in the future.
Asuna swallowed her doubt, and nodded slightly.
"Understood. ―We're here to challenge the Boss. If your side isn't ready yet, can we go and challenge it first?"
"Ah, of course."
She originally thought that they'd try to dissuade them from challenging the Boss, but unexpectedly, the thin Imp answered immediately. He waved towards his two companions and the three of them retreated back beside the door.
"We'll wait here for our companions. Well, good luck, and farewell."
The Imp smiled and signaled towards his Sylph companion. The Sylph nodded once, raised his hands and began to cast a spell in a practiced manner.
Immediately, a green vortex whirled up at the caster's feet, enveloping the three of them. When the green swirl faded out and swayingly vanished soon afterwards, nobody could be seen there anymore.
Asuna looked once again in the direction of the hidden players, but promptly shrugged and turned around to face Yuuki. Despite the tense conversation just now, the girl with the alias Zekken did not look at all afraid, her large, purple eyes sparkling as she looked towards Asuna with her head tilted.
"... Anyways, as planned, let's go and take a look inside.."
With that said, Yuuki smiled happily and nodded.
"Yes, we're finally going! Let's do our best, Asuna!"
"Don't say things like 'taking a look inside', let's charge in and blast him away."
In reply to what Jun said somewhat imposingly, Asuna can only smile and say.
"Yes, of course that's the ideal result, but you don't need to use expensive items to recover. It's fine as long as you try your best within my and Shiune's healing range, understand?"
Asuna jabbed Jun's forehead as he jokingly replied, and turned around to look at the other five people in turn as she continued to speak.
"Even if you die, don't immediately respawn in town. Stay and take a good look at the Boss' attack patterns. If we get wiped, we'll return to Ronbaru's save point together. ―And our formation: Jun and Thatch will focus on tanking in the very front, occasionally using provoke to generate hate. Taruken and Nori will attack from the two sides. Yuuki will attack freely and flank the Boss if possible. Finally, Shiune and I will provide support from the back."
As their representative, Thatch responded with a deep voice.
After Shiune swiftly renewed all their buffs, the two vanguards moved forward. Thatch raised the tower shield in his left hand, shouldered the hammer in his right, stood side by side with Jun in front of the giant door and turned around and glanced at Asuna.
Asuna nodded in reply, and Jun who was similarly shouldering his greatsword held his empty left hand against the door, hunched his shoulder and pushed.
The two black, polished stone doors creaked in resistance for an instant, and a thundering rumble rang through the entire corridor as it slowly opened up towards the two sides. Inside was a complete darkness―
Just when she thought that, right next to the door, two braziers kindled with pale white flames followed soon after by two more to the left and right. With a slight delay, innumerable flames lit up tracing a circle. This light show is universal to all floors, starting from when the first brazier is lit and going until the Boss appears can be considered preparation time for the raiders.
The Boss room was completely circular. Its floor was paved with polished black stones and it was fairly open. On the innermost wall was the door which concealed the stairs that lead to the next floor.
The instant Asuna shouted, Jun and Thatch charged into the room. The remaining five also followed and took action immediately.
Right when everyone arrived at their designated positions and readied their weapons ― large, coarse polygons surged out from the center of the room. The black cube-like polygons clashed and combined to form a giant humanoid silhouette, uneven shapes formed at the edges as the amount of information increased continuously.
Finally, innumerable fragments scattered in the air and the Boss materialized.
A black giant over four meters in height. On its muscle-filled body grew two heads and four arms, and in each of its hands was a savage-looking blunt weapon.
The giant stepped forward, and the room immediately shook as though there was an earthquake. Compared to its lower body, its upper body was irregularly large; yet even though its entire body was inclined forward, its head was still considerably far above Asuna and the others.
It looked at the intruders disdainfully out of the corners of its four glowing-red eyes and let out a brutal roar. The upper arms held two battering rams like hammers high, and the two lower arms swung a thick chain strong enough to anchor a cruiser at the floor―
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