“A cutscene,” Kirito got out. “That….” Made sense. In an awful, twisted way. “Why do you think…?”
“He told us Aincrad was there to be conquered,” Agil replied. “And then he set you up to be his big hero.”
Kirito shivered. “I’m not.”
“Doesn’t matter what you think. Doesn’t matter what any of us think,” Agil said bluntly. “You were the Hero, he was the Final Boss. And the hero can’t die before the quest is over. He wasn’t going to let that happen.” Agil glanced between them. “You want my guess? He was setting you up on the fly, but damn, can he GM a plot fast. I bet if you hadn’t beaten him, Kayaba would have zapped your avatars back together and taken you with him to the top level. After he told the rest of us if we kept fighting, we’d get you back. Alive.”
“Put it another way,” Argo stated, “fits in right with what I thought. You’d be hostages.” The sheet cast her whiskers in shadow, but didn’t hide the anger in dark eyes. “You spoiled his game of play the noble paladin, so you’d be a whole new game. He could leave a trail of breadcrumbs for twenty-five levels, laughing up his sleeve while we tore the dungeons apart searching. And you two? Locked in a golden cage, if he was smart. Or maybe he’d dump you in some Forest of Wandering, with the areas set so you could only meet at dusk and dawn. The whole star-crossed fairytale lovers plotline. He could have all kinds of fun with that.”
It fit so horribly well. Kayaba had lived to bring Aincrad into existence. And what he’d said after the duel, when the three of them had been watching the logout lights as the castle shut down….
Asuna leaned into his shoulder. Kirito smiled back, gathering his courage. I don’t want to think about it. But we’ll have to. Soon.
“Crazy bastard,” Klein said with feeling. “So why the hell did you do it? We could have pulled back. Would’ve been smart to-”
Kirito swallowed. “What if there was a level cap?”