The Duel »
July 30th, 2027
Immediately after the three had breakfast, Hunter set off to find a succubus suitable for Nanaha’s upgrade. He knew where to find a few succubi, but considering this a fortunate or unfortunate circumstance would be up to reader discretion. He told Nanaha and Kairi to stay behind and relax in the hideout while he did all the heavy lifting. They objected, insisting they wanted to help in the creation of new equipment for the lady, but Hunter simply replied that they’d be plenty of help in the testing phase of the new equipment. He said that physically testing the new suit and its provided equipment would be the fun part, and the Entity hunting part would be difficult and a drag. It would be better if Hunter went alone, so the succubi only had one person to tempt rather than potentially sway both the Specter and the Phantom Thief.
And thus is how we ended up in a cave lit with torches burning with a pink light, the stench of perfume growing stronger and stronger with every step he took. He had already transformed into Level 0 for the sake of nullifying said stench. Currently, he was looking around and scanning the perfume in the air, which his HUD was displaying as a visible trail which would lead him to the center of the Succubi nest. Male skeletons littered the ground, prey sucked bone dry and tossed around the rock walls as decoration. They didn’t phase him a single bit as Hunter activated one of the Proto Knight Arms.
A flaming aura surrounded him as he loaded the rock of a cartridge into his belt, closed, then reopened the Driver. The flames condensed into a worn, slightly-melted knight’s armor with tattered cloth glowing as though raging flames had consumed the ends of the cloaks wrapped around his arms and neck. Over his mask rests a tattered crowned knight’s helm, contorted by fire and covered in ash and blood. The flames settled and formed a European longsword in both of Hunter’s hands as he approached the den of the succubi. Immediately, the demonesses turned their attention to him and began floating towards him, whispering sweet nothings to him as they approached. Their alluring figures and gentle voices began to numb his mind before he remembered Haruko, struggling to maintain his commitment to her through the sweet nothings the succubi whispered to him.
“Take me to your leader.” was all he could manage as he tried to drown out their whispers with music.
“Prove yourself worthy first…” One succubus set herself down in front of him, purposefully bending over to show off her generous cleavage and rounded rump.
“I don’t have time for this.” Hunter closed his eyes and took a deep breath before walking up to the landed demoness and holding both swords to her neck. “I don’t want to hurt you, I just want to see your queen. I’m not in the mood for messing around with anyone… Let me through, and I won’t cut your head off.”
“How disappointing…” The succubus between the blades sighed, motioning for the others to begin casting a spell. A portal of pink energy began generating an image within its circumference. “This is the queen’s throne. You only get 3 minutes, warrior. After that… I can’t say what’ll happen to you~”
An exasperated sigh left Hunter’s lips as he marched through the portal into the succubus queen’s court, heavy thuds coming from his boots as he approached the queen. The room was ornately decorated for a cave. Ivory lined the cave walls, with ebony furniture and velvet covers. In the center of the room was an ornate throne carved from mahogany and cherry woods, decorated with lavish silks and cushioned with soft, fluffed pillows. The queen sat in the throne, bored out of her mind and obviously upset with the intruder before her.
“Who are you to come to my domain and seek an audience with me with such unsensual aggressiveness?” The queen’s voice was calm, tinged with a slight hint of anger and curiosity.
“Here’s the gist of the situation. There’s a game-breaking player in this world seeking to kill us all. I need a sample of your power, or a sample of your guards’ power. Grant me this, and I’ll see to it you’re spared a horrible, agonizing death at the hands of an edgy young adult obsessed with torturing his opponents to death.” Hunter plainly stated, shrugging nonchalantly. “Oh, and don’t try to bargain for relief. I’ve already got one of those commitments that I still need to fulfill… The problem lies in whether she’ll let me fulfill the terms…”
“Why one of the higher powers? Why not the succubus that greeted you?”
“Too weak. Maximum level I’d get out of her would be 15. I need something that can reach Level 50.” The queen clicked her tongue in disgust, sighing at Hunter’s request. “You have something that can reach Level 75, easily. That might be a bit much, but perhaps your royal guard would suffice. Just a sample of power. Enough to fill this cartridge.”
“Is that all?” The queen rolled her eyes and motioned for one of the guard to take the cartridge and fill it with power.
“Yes ma’am.” He got out a cloth towel and waited for the guard to return with the filled cartridge. Sure enough, it was dripping in liquids best left unnamed. He dried it off with the towel before inserting it into the slot holder on the side of his belt. “That’ll be all. I’ll at least grant you a favor from me you can call in at any time so long as it isn’t sexual in any manner. Quote me on that if you need.”
“Very well. Begone, human. Your time is up.” She waved dismissively at him before getting up and walking behind her throne to her bedroom. Hunter didn’t bother to sneak a peek as he immediately left, teleporting back to his own cave to create the upgrade he promised Nanaha.
July 31st, 2027
Two days have passed. No sign of the traitors. Data had been copied and stolen. His original Dual-Visor was gone, but that was inconsequential. They had taken the key to completing what was so desperately needed to fulfill his goals.
Satoshi sighed as he sat in his office, formulating what he’d need to do next and what to use. Knowing that his rival could once again resist the effects of Pause spurred in him the desire to complete ERX as soon as possible. But considering the power level scaling required to make it work, it would be too late. Only one choice remained. Well… two choices remained. The logical thing to do would be to purge everyone’s consciousnesses now, and log out. But the more satisfying choice would be to wager everything on one final duel.
“Let’s go all-in, Specter. If you truly have what it takes to fight and kill me, I can at least die a satisfactory death. If you fail to defeat me, you and all these people will die.” Satoshi began initiating all the protocols needed for this final duel. “This is the endgame. The location of the duel must be perfect. There can be no interference from third parties, I will ensure that. It will be you versus me.”
As the protocols continued initializing, Satoshi mused to himself about this upcoming fight. A genius, a tactician, a god. Versus a genius, a warrior, a soulless husk. Two incredible intellects pitted against one another. A man of cold calculations, even in the face of a heated battle. Versus a man of improvisation, someone who could fluctuate and adapt. Two opposite, yet equal forces colliding. The immovable object pitted against the unstoppable force. “The stakes are set, Specter. All of these pitiful wastes of life, including yours, at the cost of my death. Or… a digital genocide in exchange for your failure. Let us see who is truly the better man…”
In the two days that passed, Hunter had finished making the Succubus Buster unit for Nanaha. The testing phase proceeded smoothly, and the combat data gathered between this and Kairi’s Level 99 form allowed him to incorporate parts of their abilities into the Dual-Visor Hunter had repurposed for himself. Nanaha had been given significantly reinforced armor and Void Manipulation, allowing her to fare better in hand-to-hand combat should she need it. Kairi’s Level 99, the Argent-Aurum Cross, combined both aspects of his Level 50 forms. Its speed and armor were transferred over, in addition to a boost in punching and kicking ability, as well as an ability that allows him to hide even from Satoshi’s ever-watchful eye. The imperceptibility Hunter copied to Izanagi Arms and enhanced, granting him a stealth ability that would come in handy. Kairi’s Argent-Aurum Cross proved to be a worthy combatant, but the thief himself remained adamant that he only use this power to defend Nanaha.
“I think I’m done fighting. Like you said, I’ll take this power and use it to keep Nanaha safe. For the sake of giving her the love she needs in reality, I will fight. But avoiding any unnecessary combat… it’ll raise my chances of living long enough to make that dream a reality.” Kairi explained as he stretched his arms.
“Smart. Guess I’d better end this shit soon…” Hunter looked at the date on his monitor. “The end of July… 2027. It’ll be almost a year since this began… The second game I’ve been trapped in. And hopefully the last.”
“Second?” Kairi tilted his head in curiosity before piecing it together. “Ah… that one.”
“That one, indeed. Hey, if you two are gonna be spending the rest of your days chilling out in some far-off corner of the world, do you really need all this high-tier equipment?” Hunter looked at their cartridges with a face of uncertainty. “You won’t need to fight if you’re farming for the rest of your in-game life.”
“Better safe than sorry, right? Look, I just need the means to protect her. And if I’m not there to do that, she needs to have the means to defend herself. I don’t want to risk Genm offing us with our guards down.” Kairi grabbed the two items from the table and pocketed them with a sigh. “In any case, why help us? We’ve been shooting at you for as long as you’ve known us.”
“Honestly, I don’t know. I think SAO fried my brain without me knowing. I can’t seem to think straight unless I’m sitting at my desk tapping away at a keyboard or adding lines to a sketch. I can’t sleep normally, either. It’s just nightmare, nightmare, nightmare. I can’t stop thinking about the past. I can’t stop thinking about all the instances where I feel like I’ve let friends down. I can’t stop reminiscing about all the stupid decisions I’ve made. All I can see when I close my eyes are the vivid memories burned into my mind of the first girlfriend I had, and how I was too dense to understand how she really felt about me. Or the memories seared into my head about my second girlfriend, the one who died right in front of me because of my own inaction. Or the stupidity of that third bitch, who never truly, deeply loved me.”
“Sorry, bad habit. The point is, I don’t want anyone else to experience those things. If I can help you and her live happily ever after once this ends, I’ll be able to feel some kind of happiness.” Hunter sighed, rubbing his eyes.
“What about that shadow sniper girl? I never caught her name, but you two seem to pair quite nicely.”
“I mean…” Hunter’s gaze drifted to the side as he envisioned a life with Haruko. Going on dates to restaurants. Watching movies in the living room. Wedding day. The eventual child he wanted to have… “It seems to be working out so far, but time will tell. Maybe I’m just getting my hopes up so I can combat my massive depression. Maybe she really is the one for me. It’s 50/50 at this point.”
“Right, well…” Kairi stood up and stretched yet again. “If you could tell me where she and I are supposed to go and settle down, that’d be great.”
“Yeah, yeah. Let me send you the coordinates.” Hunter got up and stretched as well before heading to the kitchen to grab a drink. “Tell her to pack up if she hasn’t already. I’ll have a contact waiting for you two when you get there. The password is ‘Futaba is best girl.’”
“Don’t worry about it. Just tell them the password, they’ll take you to your remote farm where you two can wait for that sweet, sweet logout message.” Hunter opened a book to a bookmarked page, reading it over to make sure everything was right. After confirming it, he began typing a direct message to Kairi, who was making his way to the guest room. His knock on the cavern wall erased the digital facade to reveal Nanaha packing some clothes into a large duffel bag.
“Good to go, Nanaha?”
“Yeah. I’m ready.” She smiled at Kairi as she hosted the bag over her shoulder. “How’s our equipment looking?”
“Mighty fine.” He held up Picaro Trickster in one hand and the Succubus Buster in the other, tossing the latter to her. “Don’t know its Level, but it’s at least a 45 from what I heard.”
“A whole 15 levels?” She caught the cartridge with both hands, looking it over. It was a gleaming silver cartridge with gilded designs and a pink sticker in bubbly text displaying the name “Succubus Buster” with hearts all around. “At least he’s got some flair to his stuff. Ku-... Genm’s stuff was all plain and boring.”
“Man’s got a sense of style to his stuff, gotta admit that much.” He looked over Picaro Trickster again, admiring the duality of its color scheme. Gold and silver, split down the center with black and accented with red and black striping. White stars outlined in black and red imprinted all over the item, with its dial split between “Golden Wraith” and “Silver Phantom” via a black, red, and white line. “Better than what it was before…”
“I’m guessing we’re ready to leave?” As Nanaha spoke, a notification popped up in Kairi’s messaging center from Hunter.
“Perfect timing. He just sent the details. We’ve got transport and a quaint little farm to live on.” He opened the message to read everything fully, moving the holograms to the side as he and Nanaha exited the guest room.
“Hey, uh… Hunter, was it? Nanaha’s tone suddenly turned meek as she locked arms with Kairi. “Thank you… For all of this. I’m really impressed that you’d give up so much of your time to help out people who’ve done nothing but hurt you and your friends for all of the time we’ve known each other. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you so much.”
“It’s all good.” He smiled dryly at the two, the bags under his eyes extremely noticeable. A yawn lasting a good 10 seconds escaped his mouth before he waved them away. “Your boy’s got everything you two will need until the game ends. Trust me when I say this: I will kick Satoshi’s ass within the next two weeks. If I don’t, consider us all dead.”
“That’s a joke, right?” Kairi nervously narrowed his eyes at Hunter, who simply rubbed his eyes and went on as if Kairi hadn’t said anything. “Hunter? You’re kidding about that, right?”
“Don’t you have a farm to tend to?” He replied as he started stretching his arms and legs for a workout.
“Dude, just tell answer the question.”
“You’ll know when you see the logout message.” Hunter got up and pointed a finger gun at the two of them, holding his other hand up in a two-fingered salute. “Arrivederci.”
Before either of them could say another word, a teleportation field surrounded the rogue rogues, whisking them away to the edge of a forest where a man leaned against a car wearing a Hatena Military Police uniform and sunglasses. Brown hair peaked out from underneath his standard-issue hat. He gave the AWOL couple a toothy smile before asking: “Password?”
“Uh…” Kairi brought the message back to his forefront, looking through it for the phrase. “‘Futaba is best girl.’”
“Which one?” The officer replied, crossing his arms and standing up straight.
“Oh shit…” Kairi’s eyes widened in concern, only to see the officer break out into a laughing fit.
“Nah, I’m just messing with you two. Hop in, the farm’s not too far.” He motioned for the two to board the car as he hopped in the driver seat and started the engine. The car’s trunk popped open, allowing Kairi to load their luggage in while Nanaha entered the vehicle. With the slam of the trunk and car door, the car peeled out and drove off as the sun reached its noon peak…
At last, the Dual-Visor had been completely modified. No longer a double-barreled laser weapon on one side and an energy sword on the other, this Dual-Visor was something else. No, a new name must be given to this new Driver, befitting its purpose. This… Final Driver was complete. A black pad resembling its former self, it now featured dark silver plating extending from the octagonal screen in the center. A dark red A button where the laser barrels formerly reside contrasted against the dark grey B button that had replaced the energy sword end. The Kanji “最後” were sprayed across the surface in red spray paint. A dark silver button next to the angled Cartridge slot shined bright as Hunter picked up the device and rotated it to check its base-plate. The strap would deploy once he slammed the buckle to his waist, securing it for transformation. This Driver was to be used as an absolute last resort. The powers, abilities, and data inside this belt would, without a doubt, cause the game to break with how much was crammed in it. Zero Specter Origins’ data was already masking the device’s presence from anyone but Hunter, and it would remain that way until the Final Driver would be employed.
As Hunter walked the streets of Shakariki City to his office, he heard a familiar sound approaching from the road. A Ducati Monster S4 roared in the distance, though its volume increased slowly but surely. Smirking, he whipped out the Mach Corvus and ran forward, diving towards the street as he clicked the cartridge to summon his own Honda CBR1000RR. A helmet materialized over his head as the bike’s data finished rendering, solidifying as the wheels hit the ground. Its engine roared to life as Hunter revved the absolute hell out of the throttle, spewing flames from the exhaust as the bike launched forward. He shifted the gears and brought the bike up to 100 or so miles per hour as Hideo caught up to him. The two of them briefly glanced at one another, smirking under their helmets as they raced to the office. To Hideo, this was a regular commute back home. To Hunter, it was like he was heading home after spending months away on vacation, if a vacation counted as sitting in a cave for weeks and weeks while figuring out what to do to end this nightmare.
The girls lounged about the office in very casual outfits. Haruko wore a pair of dark grey running shorts and a pale violet tank-top with a crescent moon image on it. Kyoka fiddled with the tied elastic cord keeping her loose-fitting shorts before adjusting her cyan tank-top. Two motorcycle engines could be heard racing down the street, immediately followed by the two women looking at each other with a face knowing who those bikes belonged to and why they were so loud.
“Prince Charming’s finally home, Haruko~” Kyoka teased her compatriot as she hopped off the couch, heading for the door. “Hope he didn’t cheat on you while he was gone!”
“Kyoka! There’s no way he’d do that to me!” Haruko chastised her ally as she stood up from Hunter’s chair and jogged to the shop’s entrance.
“Who knows? It’s been quite some time since he came back here…” Kyoka continued her jesting before the sounds of the motorcycles became high-pitched revving that faded to nothing. “100 yen that Hideo’s closer to the door.”
“200 on Hunter.” Haruko took the bet and shook her hand before they opened the doors to reveal… Hideo to the right of the door and Hunter on the left. Technically speaking, they were both the same distance from the door, so…
“Sorry to disappoint, but we set the bikes to go on without us for a bit.” Hideo gave the ladies a wide smile as Hunter stood up and entered his office.
“Call it a tie.” He tossed his helmet on the couch and stretched, taking a deep breath. “Back home…”
“Welcome back.” Haruko hugged him from behind, burying the smile plastered on her face into the fabric of his coat.
“So, Hunter. How’d it go dealing with succubus sniper? Did she tempt you into a night of passion with that seductive body of hers, only for you to wake up the next morning filled with regret~? Or did something raunchier occur?! Spill! I need details, lover boy!” Kyoka wiggled and danced around Hunter until Hideo grabbed her by the waist and hoisted her away.
“Easy, sweetie.” Hideo sat down on the couch, placing the minx on his lap and holding her down. “You’ve got me, don’t you?”
“But I wanna know what Hunter’s been up to!” She pouted and leaned into his embrace.
“...I’ve been gone for how long now?” Hunter looked to Haruko, who loosened her grip so she could rest her chin on his shoulder and answer.
“You’ve been gone since the start of July. That’s… four weeks, more or less. Things change when you’re gone that long, you know…” She slid her arms down, resting her clasped hands right at Hunter’s waist. “I’ve missed you…”
“I know…” Hunter turned around to face Haruko and return her embrace, kissing her forehead. “Work’s a pain, but hey. Anything to get out of here and have this with our real bodies, right?”
“Mhm…” Haruko nuzzled her head into the crook of his left pectoral.
“In any case!” Kyoka sprung to her feet and ran up to Hunter. “What did you do in your little bat-cave?”
“Helped our defectors find a place to settle down until this whole thing blows over. Gave them a little going-away present to make sure they stay safe. How was the drive, Hideo?” Hunter broke the hug to give Kyoka a pat on the head before plopping himself on the couch next to the man in question.
“They were quiet, which was nice. Played a little Aya Uchida to set a gentle, romantic mood. The glances in the rear-view mirror I got of them were mostly cuddling and lovey-dovey stuff. I’m grateful they didn’t start doing it in the backseat.” Hideo stretched out as Kyoka returned to his side, curling up against his shoulder while Haruko sat by Hunter’s side, leaning against his shoulder and intertwining their fingers.
“Good to hear. Any last words from them?”
“The usual stuff you’d expect. Thank yous and wishes of good luck in the upcoming fight. All that jazz. However, that password…”
“What’s wrong with Futaba?”
“Nothing. But c’mon, Tomoe is so much cuter!” Hideo threw his arms up in exasperation. “And the time-loop thing with Laplace’s whatever is so much cooler than being split between two bodies!”
“But would you rather have two of the same, super-attractive girl? Or a super-attractive girl who just loops everything over and over until she gets her desired result? For all we know, she could repeat her first time until she has the best possible outcome.”
“That means I get to enjoy that loop too!”
“But! If you have two copies of the same super hot, super smart girl, you can always have a three-way.”
“You’re just like her because she’s a nerd.”
“And you like the country bumpkin with a peachy derriere?”
“We’re right here, you two…” The girls stared at their respective significant others as an invisible, menacing aura manifested around both women.
“It’s a friendly debate between two characters in a book. It has nothing to do with our love for you.” Hunter pulled Haruko in for a side-hug, slipping his fingers into the gaps between hers.
“He’s right about many things, including that.” Hideo pulled Kyoka into his lap again, wrapping his arms around her waist as he nestled his head in the crook of her neck. “But he’s wrong about Aobuta’s best girl. And I will fight you on that, Hunter.”
“Save it for when we’re back to reality.” Hunter rested his head on Haruko’s.
“Speaking of…” Haruko adjusted her gaze to face Hunter. “What’s the plan for that? How are we gonna beat him to a pulp for good?”
“Currently, there’s two weeks until the one-year anniversary of SAO’s rebirth. I’m sure he’s already preparing for the final showdown. He knows what’s at stake, and so do we. All of our lives for his. Or all our deaths for my failure. He’ll definitely have some kind of plan to make sure it’s just me and him. He doesn’t have any more people supporting him. With that in mind… I’ve been playing around with the idea that maybe, just maybe… I should show up to fight him alone. An honorable duel to the death without anyone to interfere. I don’t need to think about anyone or anything else. I just need to kill Satoshi. That’s all that matters… I don’t want you all in the area in case he pulls out some ridiculous area-of-effect attack that destroys all of your avatars. I can’t risk putting you all in harm’s way.”
“Hunter, we’ve already told you we’ll be fine. Trust us!”
“I know… But I’m telling you this because I trust you all. I’m grateful for all the time we spent together, even if it had to be in a digital hell. I swear to all of you… I’m going to win this fight. So we can finally escape. So we can go back to our real bodies. So we can keep what we’ve made here. I swear, on my life, to save everyone still living in this game. I swear to save you all… so I can continue making precious memories with you three. I swear… everything’s going to work out. I swear…”