“Once upon a time, there was a bored, evil red dragon….”
Asuna listened. And swallowed. And finally hugged herself, chilled to the bone.
Kirito never mentioned any names. No Kayaba, no Klein; no players or level bosses by name. But the Flame-Haired Samurai and the Sky-Blue Rapier and the Merchant with an Axe….
And, of course, the Scruffy Swordsman. Who didn’t seem to think he was a hero at all.
“So the stolen heroes reached the stairway to the Shakudo Castle,” Kirito said quietly. “But there they had a choice to make. Ninety-nine mazes they’d traced. Ninety-nine monsters, each more horrid than the last. This would be the hundredth. And what do we know about a hundred, in magic? Especially with dragons.”
“It’s ten times ten,” Yui nodded. “The only thing stronger is thirteen times thirteen. That’s when older dragons pay attention to young dragons, because they might be old enough to have good ideas.”
“Ten times ten, and a spell is woven to an end,” Kirito agreed. “So the heroes had to choose. If no one defeated the red dragon, all of them would be trapped forever, withering away in magical chains. But if they ventured onto the hundredth floor, if they pitted their spell-wrought strength against the spell’s master… then for them, the curse would be complete. They would have saved the others.” Black eyes were shadowed. “But they could never go home.”
Asuna couldn’t move, even when Yui sniffled. She almost couldn’t breathe.
That can’t be true. This is a computer simulation. It’s a game.
But there were so many odd bits popping up in Argo’s Guides and the various player newsletters. Background information on eldritch machines, and the rules of curses, and anonymous stories of what it would have been like to be a youkai-turned-human on Opening Day. And on top of everything else, there was Argo’s standing reward for information on things that just didn’t fit.
What if it’s not a game?
“I’d like to think the faerie lords snared by the red dragon’s charm had more honor than that.” Stheno hugged Yui to her, stroking small snakes. “If their assistance was required to cast the curse, then they would still hold some power within it to break the chains. Even those heroes they would wish to keep with them, out of friendship… no lord should hold a hero as a prisoner.”