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This article, SAOK: Braving the Depths, is property of Kenji-Taichō. Permission is required to alter its content.

This article, SAOK: Braving the Depths, is the ninth chapter of Sword Art Online (Kenji). It was originally the final chapter in the aforementioned work to take place in 2022, with subsequent chapters occurring after the New Year festivities. The story ran more than expected however and it has since become the penultimate chapter.


Darkness.

That’s what we had been experiencing since sometime before 12:00 on December 30th. It was also why I was singing of all things.

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence.

Okay, I’ll admit that dungeons aren’t usually the best place for one to burst out into song. Especially when the person singing said song is named Kenji Hiroshi and sounds like a sailor whose deep in his cups. But there was something about this particular dungeon that stirred my poet’s soul.

We were walking through almost eclipsing darkness! If my virtual body felt pain in the same manner my body did in the real world, then I’m fairly sure my toes would be screaming at me from how often I had studded them on cratered stone. Our sole light was from two torches carried by Ryne and Jiro respectively, whilst our range was enhanced by the green-eyed glow-effect of my «Searching» Skill.

“Thank God he’s shut up.” Arashi whispered.

But not quietly enough. I launched into the next verse:

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath a halo of a streetlamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence.

“Does he always jump into random singing?” Ryne asked of Asuka.

“Sometimes, though usually only when I’m around.” She answered, with a large grin.

Arashi, meanwhile, had seized Kishi by the golden-coloured gorget of his «Cardiophylax» and was violently shaking him!

“If you sing one more syllable I’ll throttle you!!”

“You’re already… throttling me…!” Kishi gasped.

“Excuse me, Ryne.” Asuka said.

In seconds, she had stood up on her tiptoes to grab Arashi by the ear. With a single sharp tug she pulled him away from Kishi, who fell to the floor in a heap.

“Can we behave, please? You two are acting like children.”

“But he started it!” Arashi maintained.

Whilst proving her point, I wanted to say, but wisely I kept my mouth shut.

Of course, as this was going on we were all oblivious to the sounds of battle going on around us. As usual, Shiro was the responsible adult. Whilst we bickered in the background Shiro, together with his friend Jiro, had engaged one of the many shambling skeletons and flailing corpses. One of the larger corpses raked its decaying claws down the bull-embossed face of Shiro’s shield, but he held firm and lashed out with «Rage Spike». In this case it wasn’t used for damage; «Rage Spike» was low-damage with a high recovery speed. Jiro, of course, was used to working with Shiro. The second he saw his friend begin his recovery period Jiro weaved into the fray and activated «Stealth Position». This particular Skill belonged to the «Weak Point Sensing» Skill and increased personal attack and movement speed whilst sharply lowering the accumulation of aggro. Once this was accomplished he launched the two-strike «Twin Thrust» Sword Skill. The shambling corpse was hardier than the skeleton -- who dispersed into polygonal oblivion -- though its HP was irrelevant. The secondary effect of «Twin Thrust» Paralysed the target and thus the poor corpse was shambling around in a very different manner than before.

And Shiro was free to move.

“Good move, Jiro!” He congratulated.

With their quarry thus immobilized Shiro launched the three-hit «Sharp Nail» Sword Skill. The first slash was from bottom-right to top-left, the second was a horizontal stroke from left to right, with the third and final being a quick slash from top-right to bottom-left along a diagonal trajectory.

Their victory was signified by the shambling corpse bursting into polygons like the skeleton had before it.

“Hey, guys! We’re ready-”

The words died on Shiro’s lips. You see, when he turned around he saw a rather peculiar scene: Kishi and Arashi were standing with their heads bowed in what he could only describe as fear as Asuka wagged a finger at them in a manner very similar to a draconian school teacher who was disciplining unruly children.

“You know when I agreed to join this group at your suggestion?” Shiro asked of his friend.

“Yeah?”

“I think I may have had a screw loose.”

Our journey soon resumed and you’ll be thankful to know that there was no more singing from me or physical abuse from Arashi. In fact, we never opened our mouths once. Even when Asuka, Ryne, Shiro and Jiro conversed about the dungeon and its possible origins, Arashi and I kept our mouths firmly closed. My head would have been downcast to boot had my «Searching» Skill not been needed.

“I’d say this place was built by the Dwarves.” Jiro opined.

“Aren’t they usually little bearded people in games like these?” Asuka asked.

“Usually.” Ryne agreed. “And greedy to boot. I really like them.”

“No surprises there.” Shiro agreed.

“Hey, can you blame a girl for knowing what she likes?”

Why Jiro suddenly looked like he wanted to be about 4ft (ca. 122 cm) tall with a large scraggly beard was open to interpretation. I knew my interpretation was that he had taken a real shine to Ryne, and I couldn’t exactly blame the guy. She was absolutely stunning and, looks aside, was cheerful and fun-loving. Not to mention smart. That aside, her current load-out of equipment left very little to the imagination. You see, her gear was called «Felines Hiss» and was probably the most risqué piece of equipment I had ever seen, even when it possessed some of the best bonuses I had seen at this point in the game. Ryne, as I had already made quite clear, had a body any model would be proud of. And her current gear emphasized all of her natural curves by being very skin-tight. In fact, it was so revealing that unless she was alone with us like she was now, Ryne refused point-blank to wear it at all. Suffice to say she had been the subject of some male ogling and said ogling only stopped when Arashi’s cursor changed from green to orange, and we had to help him resolve a «Karma Recovery» quest because he kind of lost his temper a little and attacked two players.

“I see heartbreak in his future.” Arashi whispered to me.

“You think?”

“Yup. Jiro’s not good with women.”

“You could help him?” I asked. “You know, like you do with me. I don’t call you my Wingman for nothing, you know.”

He smiled at that.

“Yeah, true. But you’ve got natural charisma. Jiro hasn’t.”

CLICK. CLICK.

We stopped moving at the same time and shared a concerned look. There was nothing in front of us save our companions and there was nothing behind us save darkness. The ground beneath our feet was stone, albeit cracked and broken, so that left only one place.

I cast my green-hued eyes to the ceiling.

“Get ready to Howl.” I suggested.

He nodded once before...

“RAAAAAGGH!”

Shiro turned, completely shocked, but quickly saw why Arashi had done what he did, and thus his complaint went unvoiced. Usually roaring like that in a dungeon when you weren’t in battle would draw a pile of dungeon mobs towards you, but at the moment instead of everyone being attacked only Arashi and I were attacked -- and me by courtesy of the fact I was standing directly next to Arashi, who as you already knew was our Tank.

What was attacking us?

Dirt-covered skeletons.

Only in an RPG would a statement like that make any kind of sense. But given that this was a VRMMO the reality was quite striking, to say the least. Imagine a thin dirty skeleton armed with a sword and shield, or in a rare case a spear, running at you. Yeah, not exactly a normal scenario, is it? We weren’t surprised though. Seven skeletons fell on Arashi and me from the ceiling above but not one of them managed to actually put a dent in our HP bars. I leapt up a little and struck out with the area-of-effect «Fell Crescent» Sword Skill, which momentarily surprised our quarry, who no doubt had been expecting to take us by surprise. I landed lightly and ducked just as my «Post Motion» seized me. Arashi, meanwhile, fired off «Cyclone»! His spinning attack passed just over my ducked head and bisected all seven skeletons, each in turn bursting into polygons.

As soon as we had both recovered we bumped fists.

“Good to see you guys aren’t sulking too much.” Asuka jibed. “Thanks for watching our backs.”

“You are very welcome!” Arashi bit back, all smugness. “What, no kiss on the cheek this time?”

We all had a good laugh -- even Arashi -- when she kissed me on the cheek and stuck her tongue out at Arashi.

Before we get back to dungeon delving I suppose I should tell you where we are and why the place is filled with the walking dead? Like so many locations on Aincrad’s 5th Floor, this dungeon was a crumbling ruin known in-game as the «Dead Woods Mausoleum»; essentially a tomb, with lots and lots of creepy crawlies whom Asuka did not like one bit, who had been loud about said discomfort. Like its name suggested it was sequestered away within the «Dead Woods», which was a region on the 5th Floor consisting of blackened dead trees that sat roughly between the town of «Mananarena» and the labyrinth tower. Unlike so many areas of the game, however, this dungeon had not been in the beta. It was unlocked through a four-leg quest series involving the investigation of suspect antiques coming onto the Mananarena markets and had come very much as a surprise when we discovered its existence.

“I wonder why they added this place?” Ryne said aloud.

“Probably as a grinding spot.” Jiro provided. “The place is instanced.”

“And what does that mean exactly?” Asuka asked.

“It means that there will likely be nice loot.” Shiro added, smiling. “Given your inclination towards treasure, Asuka, you should be more happy.”

“Oh, haha.”

Like Arashi and I, Ryne had been a beta tester. Though this wasn’t a known fact outside our group, with perhaps the sole exceptions being Argo -- because she seemed to know everything -- and that young white-haired kid who was Sheila and Elise’s friend. Her knowing smile showed she agreed with Shiro’s views on the matter. And truth be told our experiences thus far had proven this to be true. You see, we were currently on the third floor of this particular dungeon. Floor number one had been a fairly straightforward hallway with various adjoining rooms filled to bursting with corpses and skeletons; like those we had already dispatched, they had posed very little challenge or threat, as our levels were quite high and the quality of our gear was well above the norm for this particular Floor. Floor number two and three however proved to be quite labyrinthine in nature; in fact, I was fairly sure there was actually a degree of hallway shifting going on around here.

Not that I could prove that, mind you.

The chests we looted along the way amounted to large quantities of ore from two chests on the first floor, one from the second, and one from the third. Saying as how I was currently looking to replace my «Scimitar» +8, which currently rested in Sheila’s inventory for that exact reason, that ore was a blessing. In addition, we had snagged 30,000 cor from a hidden chest on the first floor that went straight into our guild coffers, a «Worn Sword» and «Threadbare Cloth» from the second floor, and a vial of unknown content from the third. We’d need Elise’s «Appraisal» Skill to identify what they were under the grime and dirt of years of neglect, but I had a feeling they’d be good items.

Call me an optimist!

Thankfully, our journey through this particular dungeon looked to be coming to a close, because the fourth floor was an expansive circular room with only a single sarcophagus that sat on a raised stone dais that looked to be crumbling, though it was in better condition than the rest of the tomb. Like so many we had seen on our journey here the sarcophagus was open. Considering they had lined the very walls and ceiling of every floor preceding this one, having one seemingly set in reverence down here sent a not so pleasant chill up my spine.

“Arashi, this is the Boss room.” I noted.

“Aye, it practically screams ‘dungeon bottom’. How’s your weapon holding up?”

“Not good, to be honest. But we’ve got more important things to worry about right now. Firstly, where’s the Boss?”

Heh, I just had to open my big mouth.

“... Arashi…!”

“... Yeah, I know…!”

I couldn’t describe it as anything other than an odd sensation that made goosebumps rise on my arms. I wasn’t very familiar with killing intent in the real world but Sword Art Online interpreted this almost as an aura, and as a player killer in my beta days I was familiar enough with killing intent in the virtual world to know when I was feeling it. It wasn’t usually identifiable but players could learn to identify this “aura”, which could only be easily described as an «Outside System Skill».

I looked towards Shiro and felt my blood run cold.

“MOVE!!!”

My shout had the desired effect: Shiro pivoted on the balls of his feet and with remarkable reflexes I was fairly sure would be impossible in the real world, he managed to pull Jiro clear of a massive blade that passed mere millimetres from his skull! Instead of leaving things at that however Shiro launched the Sword Skill «Shield Bash». A sickening echo, indicative of clashing Sword Skills, filled the circular room! But the Boss was neither stunned nor slowed; if anything, it moved with greater Agility, as if it were riding the momentum caused by Shiro’s attack in order to propel its bony legs forward. Despite wielding a large two-handed sword in only one-hand our foe moved behind Asuka and Ryne almost instantly and prepared a Sword Skill unknown to me.

“Oh no, you don’t!” My voice sounded fierce even to my own ears.

The act of protecting the girls with «Shunt» snapped the blade of my «Pale Edge» +4 cleanly in two as the Boss’s massive sword collided with my own curved sword. Ah, crap! I knew I should have invested some points into Durability! Too late now though. The force sent me trailing backwards with a glowing red damage effect standing out across my armoured pectorals but instead of being immediately attacked by the second strike of its Sword Skill, however, the attack was cancelled out by the parrying strike of Arashi!

“Kishi, we’ve got a Revenant!” He bellowed. “On your feet! It won’t hit you again so don’t worry about healing!”

My head snapped up, eyes wide. There was no sign of my usual playfulness or jovial attitude in my green eyes: all that was reflected there was seriousness and resolve.

The Boss sported 3 HP bars, red armour that glistened beneath decades of dust, and a cursor so dark red it may as well have been black. It was identified in-game as an «Armoured Revenant». Usually this would be a cause for concern. As I had said numerous times before though Arashi and I were beta testers. We knew how to fight this thing.

Arashi fell into his role of Raid Leader without missing a beat.

“Shiro, he’ll constantly summon fodder!” Arashi said loudly enough to be heard. “Skeletons and corpses. You and Jiro are to keep them off us. Asuka, focus on normal attacks against everything; only attack the Boss when your DoT is ticking on everything else. Ryne, you’re to focus on the Boss. The only other weapon Kishi has is his shitty «Bronze Sabre» so he’ll be doing crap damage outside «Martial Arts».”

“Let’s give it hell!” I added, with a wild grin.

“Just try to keep up, Kenji!” Arashi quipped.

“Your on, Kusaka!”

We hadn’t even realized we called each other by our real names.

It became less about fighting a Boss monster and more about besting one’s rival. You see, Arashi had been completely spot on. My «Bronze Sabre» +1 (1S) wasn’t the only weapon available to me: I had my «Martial Arts» which, of course, were boosted by my «Martial Arts Leg Guards». Midway through the battle Ryne and Asuka stopped fighting to watch; Arashi and I, working in perfect synergy, parried every blow and countered every time! When Arashi landed a blow that knocked off a considerable portion of its HP I attacked from the back with a swift stream of standard attacks before settling on the DoT providing «Leaver» Sword Skill. Every attack that followed used either my hands or my feet. I wasn’t even close to Arashi in damage totals, but I was doing enough damage to keep me just below him on the aggro table.

Ryne looked slightly miffed at that, but I was a Strength-focused build whilst she was an Agility build, so this shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

“You never cease to amaze.” Arashi admitted.

“What can I say? You bring out the best in me!” I answered.

And damn it was this right!

It was like watching Naruto Uzamaki and Sasuke Uchiha get serious and kick Momoshiki’s ass up and down the pavement! My opinion might be biased somewhat, I admit, but our teamwork was flawless. Arashi covered my back and I struck out immediately; in the one time when Arashi mistimed his parry and was about to receive a crippling attack, I aimed my «Water Moon» at our opponents massive sword, which successfully served as a parry. I was sent skidding backwards of course, and suffered damage as well for my trouble, but the reprieve allowed Arashi to launch a monstrous counter!

So much for it not touching me again though.

“Cheers!” I heard him shout.

“So much for not healing.” I jibed. “That said, I think it’s time to end this. You ready?”

“Always!”

I didn’t have the DPS at present to knock the remainder of its HP down in one blow. But Arashi did. So for once I led the line and lot him take up the rear. «Reaver» propelled me forward like a bullet from a gun and the moment my attack connected, I shouted the words “SWITCH!”, and Arashi never missed a beat. «Bloody Reave» was one of the more destructive early two-handed sword acquisitions and involved four individual attacks; the first was an overhead, the second followed an upward slash along the firsts' trajectory, and the third involved a backwards step followed by a forward stab right into the gut. The final was a vicious horizontal stroke that literally dragged the blade through the opponent’s guts!

Yet the Boss stubbornly refused to die and began winding up another Sword Skill.

“AND IT’S MINE!!”

This was, of course, an attempt at the «Last Attack» bonus, my «Post Motion» having resolved itself towards the end of Arashi’s Sword Skill. Arashi’s strike had dropped the «Armoured Revenant» to the last sliver of its sole remaining HP bar and I took the opportunity to launch my last Sword Skill. «Neck Ripper» was exactly what it said -- a single blow aimed at the neck. What set it apart from other Sword Skills was a percentage chance to do substantially more damage than was normal, which translated to a critical attack that was twice as effective as a normal critical hit. Thankfully this trait kicked in and the Boss dispersed into polygons, despite my «Bronze Sabre» being anything but powerful.

That said, I took a quick moment to silently thank my former partner. I had to admit to some attachment; the blade had been my sole weapon when this death game began, you see, and here it was saving me again. This wasn’t the first time it had carried me to victory. Though the MVP here was Arashi and his «Xiphias» sword. The thing was so overpowered for this point in the game that even monsters with cursors leaning towards the darker shade of the colour spectrum were trivialized when faced with its sheer capacity to inflict damage.

“Why am I not surprised?” Arashi quipped, somewhat annoyed. “I even did almost all the work.”

“I only got it because of the opening you made, buddy.”

This seemingly placated him, thankfully.

“We aren’t done though.” Arashi noted. “Ready to mop up the rubbish?”

“Always.”

The rubbish, in this case, was the endless supply of fodder summoned by the boss. They weren’t designed to be threatening on their own but in Sword Art Online, where panic could quickly become a deciding factor in even the simplest of engagements, an endless stream of summoned skeletons could spell the end for an average party. Hell, it could even spell the end of a veteran raid party if they were caught unawares. Thankfully, Shiro and Jiro had justified Arashi’s trust in them. Combined with Asuka’s DoT’s whatever skeletons they fought died quickly. Arashi and I barely had to lift a sword when it came to mopping up.

“What did you get anyway?” Asuka asked me.

I’d almost forgotten!

“Let’s see… just what I needed!”

The LA Bonus provided a pair of gloves called «Gloves of the Deviant» which was one of the equipment slots I had hoped to upgrade in the coming future. Whilst their protective bonuses where low they offered a bonus of +5 to Agility and a Vitality bonus of +2. Altogether, very nice. Visually they appeared to be made from darkened rawhide without fingers.

“Okay, I think I’ve had enough of tombs.” Shiro exclaimed. “Can we please head back? This is one quest chain I’ll be happy to see the back of.”

“Agreed,” Jiro added. “Though we’ll need to warn Argo about this place so it’ll get into her New Year strategy guide. The traps scattered throughout this place could kill the unwary.”

“I’ll do that!” Asuka volunteered. “I noted down the types of traps as I found them.”

Ah, her notebook. Somehow I’d forgotten about that too.

Zeroing in on what Asuka said though, the traps in this place had been a surprise. Not in that they were present in the game; let’s face it, we’re stuck in an RPG. Traps are a staple of the genre. I just wasn’t expecting them this early into the game. Even on the 9th Floor I hadn’t seen much in the way of traps at all, though I had to admit that most of my time was spent killing players here on the 5th Floor back during the beta. Most of the player population wouldn’t even be in a position to notice traps of the quality we had seen in this dungeon. It was only thanks to Asuka, whose Skills provided a potent «Composite» effect she affectionately called her «Thieves Tools», that we were aware of the traps at all. My «Searching» Skill had failed to detect them and considering that it was sitting at a Proficiency level just under 200 meant these traps were very well hidden.

Most of the player population had slotted combat skills. In fact, the only player who hadn’t that I was aware of was that little white-haired kid who had taken a shine to Sheila. What the hell was his name again? You’d think I’d know: the twins talked about him often enough.

I pushed it from my mind, and we completed the return trip to the surface much quicker than the descent had been courtesy of a secret path back to the first floor. We couldn’t describe what it felt like to back outside again after having spent almost all day journeying to the light of two torches.

“Are we heading straight back to collect the twins?” Asuka asked.

“Yeah, I’m curious how they got on with their relic hunt.” I answered. “Though after that I think I’m going to call it a night. That dungeon run was stressful.”

Before immediately hitting my bed on our return to Mananarena though I hung around to see what our loot turned out to be. The «Worn Sword» was revealed as an orange-hued one-handed sword called the «Beast Slayer» whose stats without enhancement surpassed those of an «Anneal Blade» enhanced to its maximum, with the added bonus of inflicting critical damage against «Beasts». Thusly this went to Shiro. The «Threadbare Cloth» turned out to be another «Vendor’s Carpet» and this one went to Ryne. All things considered I was actually shocked she didn’t have one already. The third and final item of note was that vial. Elise revealed this to be a «Poison Vial» -- an item whose effect was applied to a weapon for a set duration in order to enhance said weapon with a poisonous DoT.

“Okay, thanks all. But I’m going to sleep.”

And that’s exactly what I did...

End.
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