Stepping farther into shadow, Kirito vanished.
Shaken, Asuna reached for the shadowed wall. And touched only air. A secret tunnel?
She ghost-stepped her way inside, doing her best not to leave any trail to the entrance. Kirito said their host liked her privacy, and Asuna meant to honor that. “The mobs we ran into were all small. And you kept changing direction.”
“I didn’t want to meet anything big,” Kirito nodded. “It’s not polite to keep a youkai lord waiting.”
You’ve known a youkai lord since level twelve? Asuna wondered. What kind of youkai lord keeps cockatrices… oh.
A thousand hues of green surrounded the tunnel exit, splashed with fruits and blooms in all the colors of the rainbow. The air shimmered with brilliant shades of a tropical rainforest, yet it was no warmer than it should be for Aincrad’s summer fading into fall.
“Stay still,” Kirito advised, materializing handfuls of Roasted Crickets from his inventory. “They know me by scent and sight. I don’t want to startle them.” He poured some of the crickets into her hand. “Here, chick chick chick!”
Silence. Even the insects stopped buzzing.
Chirring feathers swarmed them.
“Just remember, most of the rumors are wrong,” Kirito told her, letting stern, quail-sized hens land on his shoulders to sniff him over. “The Compendium had it right; it’s their venom that petrifies people. And only the adults can do that. If a chick bites you the site will go numb and gray, but only for a few hours. You can actually build up a tolerance.”
“Good to know,” Asuna managed, wide-eyed. The Compendium had said wild cockatrices were mostly green, the better to blend into the jungles of their native Xen’drik. But here she saw black, white, bronze, spotted and striped – all the metallic colors of the rainbow. The chicks were even more colors. And fluffy.
One pale-blue chick with a head-tuft of black like a punk rocker landed on her wrist, talons catching on cloth as it walked right into her hand. Wing-claws gripped a cricket a third its size, as the chick cheeped and gobbled.
Soft, and small, and… all they want is some food and petting….
Asuna’s breath hitched; she blinked as the world went blurry. Her throat felt tight, and she almost thought she was sniffling. Except field leaders of the KoB didn’t sniffle.
Kirito let her lean on him as she bawled.