Kirito went down in a pile of clawed fluff, trying not to giggle in exhausted relief. Good thing I’m not allergic to feathers.
“Don’t let them get pushy.” Stheno helped him rescue the basket, chuckling under her breath. Scattered her share of the grain, and cooed to a chick or two; then led them all farther down the path to where air turned cooler and moist, water trickling down a fern-wreathed cliff of granite to fill a small pool before running away in a clear stream. And sprouting in the midst of that pool….
Kirito almost froze on the spot, staring at the gigantic <<Jade Vine>> that lifted toward the sun. He’d seen one or two of the living-stone plants in other volcanic landscapes, but those had been small, fragile bits of jade, vines thinner than a straw and barely reaching his knee. This was as tall and sturdy as a wisteria in full glory, every tendril supporting chains of rubies like bunches of ripe raspberries.
No. Not rubies. <<Youkai Bloodstones.>>
The critical spell component that a youkai lord could use to transform a human player into… something else. He’d seen one at the end of a few quests, always politely walking away. Once he’d seen half a dozen, glimmering in a bakeneko youkai’s keeping and guarded like the priceless treasures they were. In Aincrad’s lore, a Bloodstone was the blood and memories of a youkai hero, frozen in stone so the clan could call upon lost knowledge in their hour of need. Or – rarely – so the clan could gift a deserving human with that trace of other, and adopt them into their new family.
He’d seen one Bloodstone at a time. At most, seven.
Stheno had thousands.
Argo couldn’t have paid him to get any closer.
“Now.” The medusa seated herself on a boulder carved into a friendly nook, with a lichen-gray and green cushion to make it more comfortable. “Tell me what you know of this foul wizard, Akihiko Kayaba. Few youkai have seen any of the Dark Pack and lived to tell of it. Tell me of his spell, and all that has passed since it brought you here.”
“Everything?” Kirito said faintly. “That could take a while.”
“To defeat the Ebon Wolf?” Stheno leveled a stern look at him. “I have all the time you need.”
Clear all 100 levels, Kayaba had said, defeat the Lord of the Black Iron Castle, and you will be returned to your proper realm.
It was worth a try.
“Four months ago,” Kirito began, “we were invited to a grand tournament. A place where we could… play… at being brave warriors and mages….”