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Sword Art Online Progressive Volume 2 (ソードアート・オンライン プログレッシブ ００２, Sōdo Āto Onrain Puroguresshibu 002?) is the second volume of the "Progressive" spin-off light novel series by Kawahara Reki that expands upon the Aincrad Arc of the main series. This volume covers the events that took place while clearing the 3rd Floor of Aincrad. It was released on December 10, 2013.
Concerto of Black and White
As Kirito and Asuna climbed the stairs to the 3rd Floor, the former declared that their next destination was, in a sense, the true starting point of Sword Art Online (SAO), as it marked the first appearance of human mobs that were indistinguishable from players, aside from their color cursors, and, like Non-Player Characters (NPCs), could talk and utilize expert sword skills. While they discussed Kayaba Akihiko's comparison of the eponymous sword skills clashing against each other to a concerto of life and death, Asuna commented how the basic traditional definition of a concerto did not match with Akihiko's analogy. Lost in thought over what battles in SAO actually corresponded to a concerto's concept of a one-on-many or few-on-many action, Kirito collided with the doors to the new floor and fell through the doorway.
After entering the 3rd Floor, Asuna enchantedly marveled at their surroundings, vast forest of gigantic trees, while Kirito messaged Argo about the clearing of the 2nd Floor and the opening of the 3rd Floor within the hour. He then asked Asuna if she would mind following him on a detour from the path to the main city to take care of an errand. Knowing that what he wanted to accomplish would best be handled first, she agreed to hold off on repairing and restocking for supplies for the time being, and the two set off for the next village.
After five minutes of walking, Kirito, sensing a change in the air, warned Asuna of the design and denizens of their current location: the Forest of Wavering Mists. Asuna in turn alerted Kirito of a Treant Sapling approaching them from behind.
After dispatching the monster, which brought them some distance into the forest, they returned to the path and Kirito revealed the task he had wanted to do was a quest initiation and inquired Asuna about her hearing. Kirito explained that they were listening for the clashing of blades, which they heard coming from southwest of their position and set out for
Kirito and Asuna came upon a clearing where two NPCs, a light-colored man and a dark-colored woman, were locked in combat with each other. Drawing attention to the NPCs' pointed ears and the quest markers above their heads, Kirito explained that both elves, a Forest Elf and a Dark Elf respectively, were questgivers for a campaign quest lasting until the 9th Floor, adding that they were only allowed to choose one questline; starting over or switching sides was not permitted. Asuna decided that they should follow the same route Kirito took in the beta test, and correctly deduced he chose the Dark Elf woman. Kirito warned that, as both NPCs were elite mobs, it would be impossible for both players to prevail against either of them. He explained that once half of their hit points (HP) were depleted, the other elf would unleash a special attack to win the fight, omitting that the Dark Elf, Kizmel, would sacrifice herself in the process.
Kirito and Asuna jumped into the clearing and pointed their blades at the Forest Elf. Twenty minutes later, Kirito and the Forest Elven Hallowed Knight expressed their shock as the latter collapsed to the ground in defeat, the players' HP still barely above half; something Kirito had thought impossible based on his experience in the beta test.
The Forest Elf's body disappeared, leaving behind a bag containing the Jade Key quest item, which was retrieved by a relieved Kizmel. Thanking the players for their help, she invited them to accompany her to the Dark Elf Base to the south, where the Dark Elf Commander would reward them for their assistance and allow them to initiate the next quest, an invitation Asuna accepted. Accepting the affirmative reply, Kizmel joined the party and began leading the humans to their destination. Wondering how an NPC could possess such a natural conversation ability, Kirito checked Kizmel's name and color cursor to confirm she was not actually a player.
Kizmel directed Kirito and Asuna through the misty forest, bringing them within sight of the base's black flags. When Asuna commented on the quickness of their journey, Kizmel proudly stated they would not have found it so easily without her aid, as a Forest Sinking charm had been cast on the camp. Asuna wondered about the presence of charms in a world without magic, prompting Kirito to explain that magic was deliberately excluded from SAO to enforce mandatory melee combat for the players, which was interrupted by Kizmel's clarification that charms were but a shadow of the magic possessed by her people.
The group approached the base passing by two Dark Elf soldiers guarding the entrance. They entered a broad space filled with tents and other Dark Elves and headed toward the largest tent, while Kirito explained to Asuna that their current location was an instance, a temporary area created for each party participating in the quest so as to reduce complications and interruptions between them, confirming that they had temporarily vanished from the 3rd Floor map to move to the camp.
At the Dark Elf commander's tent, Kirito and Asuna were given rewards and new equipment for the safe return of Kizmel and the Jade Key. They both chose stat-boosting rings, then the commander initiated the second quest of the campaign and the group left the tent. After exchanging names, Kizmel offered to either teleport the pair close to the main town with a charm or to lend them the use of a tent for the night. Sensing Kirito's desire to take advantage of free food and lodgings while the questline was still active, Asuna accepted the offer, and Kizmel offered the use of her tent as they had no spares.
Asuna set the boundary between her and Kirito's living spaces in the tent before they both removed their armor and weapons, and Kirito explained the basic story of the Elf War quest series. Asuna grew concerned about having to fight or compete with other players working with the Forest Elves, but Kirito assured her that the questline had been designed so that different parties could have their own independent storylines so that they could be at different points in the story and have different endings.
At 6:00 P.M., a horn blew to signify the hour as Kizmel entered the tent. She apologized for the simplicity of the camp but offered the services of the dining and bathing tents, as well her own assistance. Asuna immediately left the tent to take advantage of the latter service, while Kirito pondered on whether to focus on sleep or food. He was pulled out of the tent by Asuna and, as he followed the fencer, he suddenly remembered about the high level of the Dark Elf blacksmith and reminded her to upgrade her Wind Fleuret to the maximum. Recalling how she had nearly lost her weapon through the blacksmithing scam on the 2nd Floor, Asuna remembered that Kirito had told her that she could melt down an old sword as material for a new one and decided to have her Wind Fleuret reborn as a new blade. Accepting her decision, Kirito began heading for the blacksmith's tent, but Asuna prioritized having a bath first.
The two arrived at the bathing tent, wherein only a single bath was contained. Apprehensive at the possibility of male Dark Elves coming inside while she was bathing in a place outside the Area without her equipment on, Asuna suggested having one of them standing guard outside while the other took their bath. Remembering how he had accidentally allowed Argo to enter the bathroom while Asuna was still bathing back on the 1st Floor, Kirito volunteered to take guard first and have his bath after hers, then sat next to a support pillar and did his best to ignore Asuna's sounds of contentment.
After Asuna and Kirito finished their turns bathing, they had a satisfactory dinner in the dining tent before returning to Kizmel's tent. Upon finding the Dark Elf already sleeping peacefully, the players took their places on the furs and fell asleep as well. Seven hours later, Kirito suddenly awoke at 2:00 A.M.; unable to return to sleep and seeing Kizmel had disappeared, he exited the tent to find no one but the sentries moving in the camp. After some thought, he decided to look behind the commander's tent to find Kizmel dispiritedly standing in front of three gravestones, dressed in only thin underclothes. Sensing the human approaching her, Kizmel advised him to rest himself fully, but accepted his thanks for allowing them the use of her quarters. When Kirito examined the leftmost grave she was surveying and the name thereon, Kizmel explained it belonged to her sister Tilnel, who had perished the previous month after the Dark Elf advance forces had descended to the 2nd Floor. Wondering how much the Dark Elves knew about Aincrad, Kirito elected to wait until Asuna was present and instead asked about Tilnel. Kizmel revealed her sister was a herbalist who was only skilled in carrying a dagger and had been at the rear vanguard when Forest Elven Falconers launched an ambush from behind them.
While Kirito silently grimaced on the deadly effectiveness of the Falconers, Kizmel recommended him to sit, then drunk from a wineskin of moontear herb wine before offering some to Kirito. After he had his sample, Kizmel poured the rest onto Tilnel's grave marker, explaining it had been her sister's favorite beverage and admitting she had snuck it out of the castle in hopes of sharing it with her, though she never had the opportunity. Crouching, Kizmel confessed her willingness to die when she had accepted the Jade Key retrieval mission and attributed Kirito and Asuna's intervention to the act of the gods she had lost faith in. Rebuking himself for not understanding Kizmel's situation before accepting the Elf War campaign and for not giving his all to protect himself and everyone, Kirito declared that he and Asuna had arrived and helped her of their own volition, and that they would accompany her to the end, to which Kizmel pledged to defend them for as long as they were together.
When Kirito and Kizmel returned to the tent about an hour later, they found Asuna already dressed and prepared for departure, who questioned Kirito on his whereabouts upon seeing him without his equipment and Kizmel in only her undergarments. Skeptically regarding his claim that he had been ready beforehand, she accompanied them as they left the base camp at 3:00 A.M. for the next quest, stopping to wonder at palely blue moonlit beauty of their surroundings, which even Kirito could not help but marvel at. Pausing to wait for Asuna, Kizmel softly remarked of the reminder of Tilnel's similar love for the night forest, before quietly urging them to continue their journey.
The second part of the Elf War questline consisted of locating the randomly generated nest of poisonous spider monsters that had been disrupting the elven patrol. While walking through the forest, Kirito, concerned with the constant threat of poison during their mission, verified with Asuna the number of antidote potions they possessed. Remembering that potions could not be used on other people, Kirito confirmed with Kizmel her own supply thereof, who proudly revealed such items would be redundant on her due to the abilities of her ring, which she had received along with her sword and knighthood from the Lyusulan Queen and would permit the usage of a purifying charm on herself every ten minutes. As Kirito contemplated in amazement the existence of an accessory with unlimited poison cure usage, albeit conditionally, sensing his desire, Kizmel awkwardly informed him the ring would not work on humans. Kirito denied ever wanting her ring as Asuna teased him on requesting equipment from the opposite sex, prompting him to accuse her of doing the same. As the players stopped to glare at each other, Kizmel uneasily warned them of two monsters approaching them, moving to intercept the one coming from the right while leaving them to deal with the one advancing from the front.
As the creature, revealed to be a Thicket Spider, drew closer, Kirito warned Asuna of its attack patterns, though she took offense at his choice of words for his description of its anatomy. After both players each landed a blow on their opponent, Kirito became distracted wondering if the fencer was arachnophobic, allowing the Thicket Spider to leap at him. Desperately trying to avoid being afflicted with a Tumble status and subsequently left open to attack, Kirito fell backwards and flipped the monster upside down with a Martial Arts skill, then finished it with a sword skill. After Kirito and Asuna congratulated each other on their victory with a high five, Kizmel, who had already defeated her opponent, joined the latter in reprimanding the former for his lapse in concentration. When Kirito revealed the reason for his distractedness, Asuna exasperatedly declared she could not afford to be afraid of monsters' appearances. Kizmel was sadly amused at her attitude, as it reminded her of her sister's refusal to be intimidated of corporal monsters. Asuna, who had been secretly informed of Tilnel's story by Kirito earlier, respectfully remained silent alongside her partner.
Seeing Kirito and Asuna's expressions, Kizmel regained her composure and apologized, then inquired on the gesture they had performed. Asuna explained the meaning and promptly demonstrated it with the Dark Elven Royal Guard, who did not find the sensation unpleasant, despite the elves' general aversion to body contact. When Kirito repeated the feat with her, he suddenly remembered his encounter with Klein outside the Town of Beginnings on the first day of the game, and how he abandoned him after Akihiko's revelation and tutorial on the new rules of the game. Returning to his senses, he found the girls looking anxiously at him and reassured them he was alright. Kizmel turned their attention back to their task and directed them to move northwest where the spiders had appeared, which should lead them to the nest. As they resumed their journey, Asuna worriedly asked Kirito about Kizmel's mention of corporal monsters, perturbed at the thought of the possible existence of ghostly creatures in SAO. Kirito disclosed that he had never seen such beings in the beta test and his lack of knowledge on physical combat with immaterial enemies, which did not seem to reassure Asuna.
After a few more battles with the spiders, the trio found the spiders' nest, set within a cave in the side of a small hill. Asuna expressed annoyance at having to fight the small spiders moving around the entrance, to which Kirito explained they were only critters. When Asuna confused the term for a noise-making creature, Kirito clarified that it referred to non-interactable background animals meant only for show. Asuna complained on having to rely on Kirito for description of game terms and requested him to create a slang glossary for her. Kizmel amusedly remarked on the lack of unification in the human tongue and accredited it to the existence of nine human nations before the Great Separation. Kirito recalled when every player began suffering sudden disconnections for an hour a month prior, presumably due to the transfer of their bodies to hospitals, but sensed Kizmel was referring to another phenomenon, one related to the creation of Aincrad. Before he could ask the Dark Elf any questions on the subject, she declared they needed to investigate the cave to discover more concrete evidence on the spiders.
As the group proceeded through the first floor of the dungeon, Kirito and Asuna felt uneasy due to the limitations on their combat while wielding torches to illuminate the darkness, but Kizmel's elven night vision allowed them enough time to prepare themselves when enemies approached. After they had almost mapped the entire level, taking contents from chests along the way, Kirito was discussing the details of quests on the 3rd Floor when he suddenly realized that players working on the guild formation quest would be visiting their location around the same time as them. At that moment, they heard another party drawing near from behind them. Wishing to avoid encountering them, Kizmel directed her companions to extinguish their torches and pressed them against the wall, using the concealment abilities of her cloak to hide them from sight. Several seconds later, they heard one player, revealed to be Kibaou, loudly complain in shock about the empty chests. Not long after, he and the rest of the party, following another player wearing a chain coif and wielding a one-handed ax and shield, passed by Kizmel and the others' hiding spot.
When Kibaou's party had moved out of earshot, Kirito and Asuna expressed their relief and nervousness at managing to avert contact with them. Kizmel inquired on their relationship with the other players, Kirito briefly explained the tensions between the humans, to which Kizmel likened their relationship to that among the elven knight brigades. After Asuna declared she would join Kizmel's faction, the Pagoda Knights, if given the opportunity, Kizmel revealed that no human had ever been knight by the Dark Elven queen before, though their accomplishments could grant her an audience. As Asuna welcomed the news, Kirito decided to refrain from informing her of how the Lyusulan castle had remained closed even after the completion of the Elf War campaign while he handed her torch to her and reignited his. When he checked the map to see they only needed to explore two more rooms, one of which contained the stairs to the second floor which had been undoubtedly taken by Kibaou's group, Kizmel commented on how it had been a while since she had last seen the usage of the Mystic Scribing charm, which permitted humans to store knowledge and physical items in a small space.
Against the back wall in one of the remaining rooms, Kirito and the others found a silver and white leaf brooch matching the fastener on Kizmel's cape. The Dark Elven Royal Guard identified the decoration as the insignia of the Pagoda Knights, belonging to a scout that had apparently died while searching the cave, and directed Kirito to bring the item on their return to the Dark Elf Base for their report. Just as the quest log updated and the group moved to leave, they heard Kibaou's panicked party rushing back to the cave entrance, chased by what seemed to be the queen spider boss of the dungeon. Kirito turned to confer with his female companions on their next course of action, but was stunned when they immediately left the group decision in his hands. He calculated that Kibaou's party would be too terrified to coherently defeat the boss and that they could potentially be trapped between it and the respawned spiders at the entrance. Reluctant to let any of the Aincrad Liberation Squad members see Kizmel, Kirito instructed the girls to lure the spider into one of the larger rooms as it and the other players passed by, which they agreed.
Returning to an intersection in the corridor, Kirito waited in the darkness as Kibaou's group raced past him, then struck the queen spider when she came into view. With the monster's attention successfully redirected to them, the trio ran to where they had found the scout's memento. After Nephila Regina followed them into the room, Kirito shouted warnings to Asuna and Kizmel on the boss' attack patterns and when to unleash sword skills on the beast, defeating it in only three minutes of fighting. Checking the time and the duration of the battle through the menu, Kirito alerted his partners to remain silent before quietly confirming that Kibaou and his subordinates were not returning to see what had happened to their pursuer. Kirito suggested to wait until the other party had resumed their progress on the guild quest before leaving the dungeon. Asuna wondered how long it would take for Nephila Regina to respawn, to which Kizmel replied it would be at least another three hours before a new ruler over the cave would be born. When Asuna complained at how their actions would have inadvertently assisted Kibaou's party, the Dark Elven knight reassured them their deeds would be rewarded. Noticing the boss had dropped a Queen Spider's Poison Fang and storing it in his inventory, Kirito checked to see that ten minutes had passed and advised the girls to resume their journey to the base camp.
Managing to avoid any further contact with Kibaou's group and evading battle with monsters wherever possible, the companions returned to the Dark Elf Base just before dawn. After a brief moment of relief at making it to a safe area, Kizmel left Kirito and Asuna to make their report to the commander, as she did not wish to intrude due to the scout's blood relation to him, and departed the party to rest in her tent. Asuna was disquieted at their guide's absence but Kirito comforted her that the Dark Elf would be available to join them again if they called upon her for services. When the duo delivered the emblem to the commander, Kirito produced the Queen Spider's Fang, completing the requirements for the second chapter of the Elf War questline. After taking the rewards for their actions, including an inventory expanding magic belt pouch, they initiated the next quest and exited the commander's tent. Kirito proposed asking Kizmel to enter the party again, but Asuna decided to leave their partner alone for a while. Kirito accepted her decision and began to head to the dining tent, but the fencer reminded him of their plan to have the blacksmith forge her a new weapon once they had obtained enough of the right materials.
As the pair marched to the blacksmith's tent, Kirito reminisced on the nature and methods of equipment acquisition in SAO, with none of the categories proving better or worse than the others at the moment. Noticing the contrast in their states of fatigue, the tired swordsman unconsciously tried to convince his teammate that the weapon creation process would end well. Overhearing his remark, Asuna vexedly denied her worry on anything at all and expressed her hope that they would not have to perform more hunting for more materials. However, she then admitted she could not keep relying on him on how to beat certain monsters or what substances to create a weapon, how one day she would need learn such knowledge on her own. When Kirito recalled how she knew what items came from which monsters during their reunion in Urbus a week prior, Asuna confessed she had only memorized the relevant details from Argo's strategy guide; she was ignorant of any fact not written in a textbook, much like how she was before she entered the game. Kirito compared her situation to his own, as he would be just as lost once his knowledge of the beta ran out, but Asuna declared intellectual knowledge was drastically different from practical knowledge gained from experience, and that her lack of experience with creating weapons was the reason for her nervousness. Kirito gently urged her to continue acquiring experience regardless of the source, so she could survive and keep moving forward. As the fencer quietly received the advice and released some of her tension, Kirito added it was impossible to fail at crafting weapons unlike with upgrading, to which Asuna lightly punched him for failing to inform her of that earlier.
Arriving at the crafting section of the base camp, Kirito momentarily admired the wares but was discouraged at their prices before restraining himself as he and Asuna approached the blacksmith's area, where he became intimidated by the proprietor's aura. Confirming with Kirito once again that there no chance of failure for forging new weapons, Asuna requested the elven blacksmith to create a new weapon for her. As the special shop menu appeared before her, she remembered her earlier decision on her current sword and withdrew her Wind Fleuret from its sheath on her waist. Taking a brief moment to whisper something to the blade that had served her well since the 1st Floor Boss fight, she gave it to the blunt blacksmith and asked him to convert it into ingots. Inspecting the rapier, the blacksmith gently placed it into his forge, where it transformed into a silver Argentium ingot.
Thanking the elven blacksmith for his work as he handed the new ingot to her, Asuna assessed the item for a few seconds before depositing it in her inventory and resuming her order. After selecting a number of materials for creating her new rapier, with the Argentium ingot as the core, she thanked the blacksmith again for his services and provided the items to him. As the elf tossed the sacks containing the base materials and optional additives into the forge, Kirito silently recalled how he omitted to Asuna that the name, appearance, and properties of a crafted weapon were randomly generated, and hoped that the blacksmith's skill, the maximum amount of materials, and Asuna's emotion would ensure the new sword would not be weaker than its predecessor. While the blacksmith threw the ingot inside the forge after the materials had melted together, Asuna entreated her partner to hold her fingers for a buff, which Kirito complied. When the ingot had been sufficiently heated, the elf moved it to the anvil and began rhythmically striking it. As the number of strikes needed to finish creating a weapon was directly related to the strength of the final product, Kirito relaxed when the number exceeded twenty, roughly the quality for a Wind Fleuret and other weapons of its level, but tensed again when the strikes continued past twenty-five. Finally, on the fortieth strike, the ingot turned into a beautiful silver rapier; examining the sword, the blacksmith commented on the quality of his work before selecting a sheath for the blade and returning it to the fencer.
Graciously thanking the elven blacksmith for his work, Asuna moved to attach her new weapon to her belt but was pulled by Kirito away from the tent, where he requested to see its properties. When she reluctantly acquiesced, the swordsman was shocked to learn that the sword, which was named a Chivalric Rapier, had fifteen upgrade attempts, making its strength equal to a weapon on the 5th or 6th Floors. As their current circumstances meant a weapon's power directly correlated with the user's chances of victory and survival, he could sense the blade would alter Asuna's fate in SAO. Returning the Chivalric Rapier to its owner, he commented on its ultra-rare quality and congratulated her on receiving a new main weapon, adding he could feel the essence of her Wind Fleuret within. Asuna recounted to Kirito of her earlier attitude towards weapons during her first days in the field, treating them as disposable tools and discarding them after they had lost their use, much like she had regarded her life with so little care, pushing herself as far and fast as she could until she died. Though she still had little hope of beating the game, she felt like she began changing when she met Kirito and began strengthening her Wind Fleuret after receiving it, aiming to take each day as it came and surviving them. To that end, she needed to perform maintenance on herself, to take care of her equipment and study more on the oncoming obstacles.
Kirito remembered he had become a beater to distance himself from the mainstream clearers due to a part of him secretly fearing to consider the difficulty of clearing SAO, despairing at the near impossibility of it happening, and that he was only continuing to fight to make himself stronger. Despite that, even when he had left the Town of Beginnings on the first day of the game only to gain a head start on his survival, he had managed to meet and form relationships with other people; for their sakes, he had a responsibility to continue fighting. After he thanked her for helping him realize that fact, they promised to confide in each other in burdensome circumstances. Then Kirito brought her attention to the overwhelming power of Asuna's Chivalric Rapier, which could easily surpass his Anneal Blade with some enhancements, and wondered how she managed to get such a powerful weapon. Asuna theorized the elven blacksmith was the reason, but Kirito informed her the difficulties of the enemies on the 3rd Floor had not been changed from the beta, and that there would little significant difference between the Dark Elf Base and the main town. Asuna argued that regardless of the source or the game balance, earning an overpowered weapon would be beneficial for everyone trying to escape the game. However, Kirito worried the possible irregularity of the sword would cause any overseeing management to nerf it, and that not all other players who would witness the blade in action would be stunned in only admiration.
Asuna proposed testing the elven blacksmith to see if he would repeat the phenomenon with the same conditions, which would mean for Kirito to convert his empowered, well-used Anneal Blade into an ingot and craft a weapon with it as the core, along with other high-quality materials. Though he recognized his sword was not as powerful or rare as others, he still felt a sense of attachment to it due to the feeling of accomplishment he had when he received the blade so soon after the start of the game and replaced his first weapon for it, and had desired to utilize it for as long as he could. However, he understood its usefulness was coming to an end and that efficiency and common sense had higher priority over personal attachment in their current situation, new gear constantly being replaced in an MMORPG. Preparing to bid farewell to his Anneal Blade, he was about to comply with Asuna's suggestion when she decided to cancel the plan, believing the result would be dependent on the owner's willingness to sacrifice their weapon into a new one. Additionally, to truly test the process would require repeating it a hundred times to find the best rate, which would have the results all over the place, and she felt hesitant at forcing the blacksmith to create a hundred swords that would likely not be used, which she classified as a slight to his profession.
Agreeing to Asuna's change of heart, Kirito reminded her they still needed to upgrade their weapons. When Asuna questioned how they were going to find the materials to boost the chances of successfully enhancing their swords, Kirito materialized from his inventory a black leather bag containing about seventeen black metal planks from the 2nd Floor. He revealed they were the Last Attack bonus from Nato the Colonel Taurus; one plank would boost to the maximum the success rate of any weapon with less than ten successful enhancements, and allowing the player to choose whichever stat they wanted. Asuna quickly reproved him for failing to inform her of his discovery. Using the planks, they made seven successful upgrade attempts on their weapons, enhancing Kirito's Anneal Blade's sharpness and durability to the maximum and strengthening Asuna's Chivalric Rapier by five points. After thanking her partner for his assistance in the upgrading and promising to reward him with the next rare drop she received, Asuna brought their attention back to the matter of the blacksmith's skill. While they pondered on how to determine whether or not the NPC's proficiency was a product of a bug in the system, Kirito realized they could ask Kizmel for information.
When the pair arrived at Kizmel's tent, Kirito requested permission to enter. Upon coming inside, Kirito was briefly distracted by the Dark Elf's attire before regaining his composure and asking for information. Assenting to his inquiry, Kizmel invited the humans to sit while she prepared breakfast. As Kirito watched their host concoct their meal, Asuna warned him not to stare too long at her or he would trigger the harassment code. Kirito recalled the mechanics behind that particular aspect of the game system and the experiments some of the clearers conducted to ascertain it as a possible means of teleportation out of danger, to no avail. At Kirito's inadvertent failure to comply with her warning, Asuna began counting five seconds, prompting Kirito to panickedly look around the tent, before punching him in the side, which Kizmel misinterpreted as friendly interaction.
As the three ate their food, Asuna identified the dish as oatmeal, much to Kirito and Kizmel's impressment. After Kizmel finished her portion, she reminded the players of the reason behind their visit. At Kirito's question, she disclosed that the blacksmith was talented but fickle, occasionally crafting masterpieces but refusing misguided orders. Kirito was glad to learn Asuna's weapon was not a result of an error, but still felt concerned over the blacksmith's attitude towards such orders, as he had an obligation to inform the other clearers of what they knew about the Elf War campaign. Occupied in his thoughts, he failed to notice he had finished his meal, and he and his companion thanked the Dark Elven Royal Guard for her hospitality. When Kizmel inquired on their next course of action, Kirito revealed he and Asuna needed to return to the human town.
Declining Kizmel's offer to teleport them close to the main town with her elven charm, Kirito and Asuna left the Dark Elf Base and began heading towards the staircase pavilion connecting the 2nd and 3rd Floors. Discomforted with the absence of their elite escort, they agreed they could not rely on her support forever and were discussing how far they had deviated from the known progression of the Elf War questline in the beta when they encountered a Roaring Wolf. After Kirito warned Asuna of the monster's special ability and instructed her of the strategy to beat it, they engaged the creature in combat, but Asuna underestimated her sword's damage-dealing potential and reduced the wolf's HP to below half, prompting it to summon more of its kind with a howl. After managing to dispatch in ten minutes the resulting wolfpack that appeared, the relieved players continued their journey just before they heard the irregular metal clanging of sword combat. Concerned at the possibility that it signified players fighting against other players, Kirito decided to investigate the sound, just to be safe.
Following the noise for several minutes, Kirito and Asuna quietly came to the source: Lind and four other members of the Dragon Knights Brigade (DKB) unleashing sword skills alongside a Forest Elven Hallowed Knight. Discerning that the other players had initiated the Jade Key quest on the side of the Forest Elves, Kirito and Asuna troubledly pondered their options when they realized the Dragon Knights would have to be fighting another Kizmel. Kirito considered informing Lind of what they knew of averting the selected elf's defeat and overcoming the auto-defeat event's outcome, but knew the latter would suspiciously regard any information from a proclaimed beater, and also that it would mean assisting in killing another Kizmel. When Asuna left the decision in his hands, after recalling the inherent contradictions of MMORPG quests, Kirito reminded himself their primary goal was to escape SAO, and reluctantly decided to not interfere with the battle.
Just as Kirito and Asuna were about to leave, however, the elves moved their positions enough to let the pair see, to their shock, that the Dark Elf was male. After knocking the Forest Elf to the ground, the Dark Elf turned his attention to the other players and attacked them. Though Lind ordered his members to defend, they were unable to withstand the onslaught and subsequently knocked away close to Kirito and Asun'a positions, their HP dropping below half. As Kirito restrained Asuna from entering the fight, the Dark Elf warned Lind's party of the consequences of their interference and prepared to let loose the final blow, prompting the Forest Elf to return to the fight and parry the attack, briefly locking the battle in a stalemate. While beginning to waver in his defense, the Forest Elf unleashed a special ability that reduced his and his opponent's health to nothing, and both collapsed in their standstill. Remembering how the scene occurred each time he had initiated the quest, the dialogue and actions exactly the same, Kirito found himself hyperventilating.
After giving one last message to the DKB, the Forest Elf expired, leaving behind the leather pouch holding the Jade Key. As Lind, Hafner, Shivata, and Naga discussed with each other the difficulty and intensity of the event, Kirito silently observed the fifth member, who was carrying an Anneal Blade and dressed in a low-hanging chain coif on his head, and who Kirito did not recognize but nevertheless felt familiar. At a gesture from Lind, the other players huddled for a meeting, and quietly discussed their next destination and establishing their guild before the upcoming strategy meeting in the main town in the evening. Making a mental note to buy information on the unidentified member from Argo, Kirito watched as Lind's party ended the conversation and headed north to the Forest Elf Base. Releasing his grip on his partner's cloak, Kirito remarked on the strangeness of what they had just witnessed, confirming that the combatant in the Jade Key quest were always a male Forest Elf and a female Dark Elf, down to the exact matching appearances. Though she prompted her companion in resuming their journey as the mists returned, Asuna hesitated for a few moments staring at the clearing where the fight had transpired before joining Kirito.
As they reached the staircase pavilion, Asuna wondered if the flow of time was different in the Dark Elf Base, hoping that her time in SAO would be much shorter than how much of her time she had lost in the real world, though she quickly recanted her statement, not wanting to rely on a false hope. Remembering her earlier words on surviving each day, Kirito declared stacking each and every day as they went to be a perfect assessment, as his study habits and memory retention was extremely informal. The fencer thanked him for helping her in so many ways with his extensive memory of the beta, but retracted her complement when Kirito realized he was unable to recall the name of the main town.
Five minutes of following the forest path later, Kirito and Asuna arrived at the main town, which they learned was named Zumfut. As they entered through the gate and tunnel leading to the city, Asuna marveled at the size of the gigantic baobab trees from which the buildings were constructed, which reached twenty stories. Learning from the bulletin board next to the southeastern baobab that the strategy meeting was scheduled for 5:00 P.M., Kirito suggesting renting a room before deciding what else to do until then. When they accessed the first floor, Asuna again remarked in wonder at the seamless construction of all the objects therein from the tree. Kirito briefly explained the history of the town and the related backstory of the guild creation quest, sensing that his teammate had no interest in guilds. Affirming the impression, Asuna announced her dislike of guilds' automatic deduction of money from its members or methods of forcing participation through other heavy-handed systems.
While Kirito remembered his words to Asuna on joining a guild after the 1st Floor Boss fight and his analysis of her potential that could be unlocked, he informed her he did not join a guild either out of a matter of efficiency, due to SAO's greater efficiency of gaining experience alone or with a partner than in a large party in the early stages, which was rare for an MMORPG. Changing the subject, Asuna inquired on the cost of the lodgings, which were only dependent on the size of the room and the presence or absence of windows, then immediately began racing up the staircase to the top floor, much to Kirito's surprise. As equipment weight and agility points governed movement speed, Asuna reached the top of stairs before Kirito, which she declared gave her the right to choose a room. The exhausted swordsman quietly watched as the fencer spoke to the clerk to select a room and the duration of the stay, then followed her as she paid the fee and headed to their newly purchased temporary lodgings. Evaluating the design of the room, Asuna gushed over the view they had of the Forest of Wavering Mists and the castle beyond it, until she slowly realized Kirito was with her. Freezing for a few seconds, she looked around the room and grabbed a nearby fruit, then threw it at Kirito while demanding an explanation for his presence.
Suffering no damage from the thrown fruit while in the Area, Kirito began eating the halves it had split into while Asuna calmed down, and they apologized for their actions. After Kirito elaborated on the mechanics of renting a room and the costs thereof, Asuna checked they were only planning to use the room to rest until the strategy meeting before returning to the Dark Elf Camp, then established the boundaries between her and Kirito's resting spaces. Removing her outer equipment and sitting on the bed, she announced she would be taking a short nap and invited Kirito to do the same, who followed suit. Before they could fall asleep, though, Asuna remembered Kirito's earlier words on gaining experience faster with few people than with many, and asked whether working alone or with a partner would give better experience points. Mulling over the subject, Kirito clarified it would be hard to conserve all strength within a full party and declared fighting solo or with one companion would be essentially the same, with a two-player team allowing a doubly faster hunting speed and better rate of experience, though it would be difficult to accomplish, as the players' sword skills needed to switch directly into each other. Understanding then the point of Asuna's query, he added safety held more precedence than efficiency and advised working with another player over fighting alone, even if it would require plenty of time to learn smooth teamwork.
Asuna interrupted Kirito's speech to request him to be open on whether she was being more of a hindrance than a support. She reminded him of her decision to leave the Town of Beginnings to continue being herself, conjectured how she might have slowly forgotten that reason, and voiced her lack of desire to slow his progress or enhance the hardness of what he needed to do. Kirito reminisced of his avoidance of his thoughts on his imprisonment in SAO and his focus on improving his own strength, wondering on the full reason behind his decision to work with Asuna. He finally stated that with her skill and superior weaponry, he had no place to claim her abilities as not good enough, and would be grateful if she decided to maintain her partnership with him. Acknowledging his response, the fencer resolved to stay with him for a little longer, before repeating her announcement of sleeping until noon and bidding him good night. As the swordsman began drifting into slumber as well, he momentarily considered what had occurred in the last twenty-four hours and deciding the knowledge that someone was supporting him was not detrimental, unaware that he would be faced with the prospect of the dissolution of their party merely hours later.
About an hour and half later, Kirito and Asuna woke refreshed from their nap and restocked on their supplies before leaving Zumfut. For the next five hours, they worked on completing the quests they had started in town, as well as accumulating money, experience points, and practical knowledge in battle from farming monsters. By sunset, they had each finished seven hunting and gathering quests, resulting in Kirito gaining one level and Asuna earning two. After briefly celebrating their accomplishment, they headed to the Zumfut assembly grounds a few minutes before 5:00 P.M. for the strategy meeting. Between the baobab trees, they conversed with a short while with Agil before joining the audience of the other attendants as Lind and Kibaou appeared on the stage. After momentarily introducing themselves, the two leaders officially announced the formal establishment of the Dragon Knights Brigade and Aincrad Liberation Squad (ALS) guilds. While Kirito marveled at how the clearers had managed to complete the lengthy guild questline so soon after the opening of the 3rd Floor, the guild masters unveiled the official names of the guilds and their current member lists, and casted for new recruits.
After the announcement, Lind stipulated those wishing to enter the Dragon Knights had to be at least level ten. Managing to restrain his annoyance at Kibaou's immediate pronouncement of a one level lower requirement for the Liberation Squad, he added everyone present at the meeting should fulfill the requirements, with the exception of certain people which he had discussed with Kibaou. Though briefly confused at the declaration, Kirito relaxed in understanding as Lind identified him as the subject in question, but then became startled when the guild leader included Asuna. After a brief pause, Lind revealed that aside from the level requisite, there was another condition before either of the pair could join either of the guilds: one would have to join the DKB, while the other had to join the ALS. As Kirito repeated the demand in incomprehension, Lind explained that, as was demonstrated in the 2nd Floor Boss fight, both players were the strongest among the clearers, so having the two of them enter the same guild together would upset the currently equal balance between the two major guilds. Apologizing for the unreasonableness of their request, Lind proclaimed that with the division of the top players into two groups, both guilds needed to remain on good terms with each other while they worked on defeating the game.
Kirito puzzledly wondered at the point of Lind and KIbaou asking such a question in public when the three of them were aware of the likeliness of the answer. Hesitantly rose from his seat, he announced his lack of intentions of joining any of the guilds, adding that the guild leaders should have expected his response. When Lind questioned him on the reasoning for his decision, Kirito simply stated it was not his style to fight in a guild. Through Lind's questions, the beater realized the Dragon Knights Brigade leader was taking a roundabout method to prevent him from creating a third guild out of spite from exclusion. This cautious, convoluted strategy of stopping the start of another guild before it could begin reminded Kirito of the machinations of Lind's predecessor, Diavel. He remembered how the other beta tester had attempted to acquire the Last Attack bonus on Illfang the Kobold Lord from the 1st Floor Boss raid to better strengthen his leadership, and how Diavel had tried to prevent him from obtaining it through Argo and Kibaou. However, Kirito doubted Lind was ever aware of the late knight's tactics, and believed Lind was only utilizing them partially out of happenstance and partially out of emulation of Diavel's techniques.
Looking at Lind's face, Kirito realized it was the first time they were truly staring at each other face to face. He remembered the first time they met, immediately after the 1st Floor boss raid, Lind demanded why the beater had allowed Diavel to die; after that, Lind had styled his appearance after Diavel's and taken command of the proto-Dragon Knights. Kirito mulled over the late player's personality and motivations before deciding that pretending he knew them would be disgraceful to Diavel's memory, and that no one could truly replace him or fully understand the truths he had not revealed to them. After Kirito confirmed once more he had no desire of involvement with any guild but was still willing to participate in the boss raids, Lind accepted his answer and turned his attention to Agil's group, who seemingly were planning to form a guild of their own. In the end, both the DKB and the Aincrad Liberation Squad had an equal number of eighteen members each, and the competition for new recruits between them would favorably increase the manpower of the clearers.
Kirito relaxed after the ordeal was over but then realized that neither he nor Lind had consulted Asuna on her opinion over the matter. Turning to look at her, he became alarmed at the tranquil fury in her glaring eyes. As Lind finished his part of the speech and handed the floor to Kibaou, Kirito struggled to determine the reason for his teammate's quiet rage. He doubted Kibaou was the cause, since the ALS leader had done nothing apparent to provoke her, and he was certain she would have interrupted the earlier interrogation and made her anger clear if Kirito was the one who had offended her. Therefore, based on how her gaze was fixed on the stage, he sensed she had been incensed by something in Lind's words.
Meanwhile, Kibaou declared a goal of clearing the 3rd Floor within a week, which would require the clearers to reach the Labyrinth in four days and beat the Floor Boss in another two. Therefore, he proclaimed they needed to enlist more players, as they could not continue their current pace with only about forty people. Ignoring the Aincrad Liberation Squad leader, Kirito focused on preventing Asuna from unleashing her wrath on Lind, as her confrontation would infuriate the other members and forfeit her eligibility to enter the guilds. Before he could actually say a single word to her, however, the hooded fencer interrupted and pronounced her partner unable to stop her; though she had tolerated Lind's earlier speeches, she felt he had crossed the line and needed to speak her mind to him. When Kirito clarified she was referring to the leader's policy of forcing the two to join separate guilds, Asuna declared she chose what people she did or did not associate with and what guilds she did or did not enter. Even though she could endure Lind's officious attitudes and words, she could sense his sincere belief that he had a self-sacrificing duty to guide others with hard orders and instruct them what to do, ultimately for their benefit.
Stunned at the intensity and choice of her words, Kirito registered that the validity of Asuna's claims would mean Lind's endeavors to prevent Kirito from making his own guild was not to solidify his leadership, but to reform him into a respected member of the frontline players. Though it would be an infringement of the limits of Lind's responsibility, Kirito felt Asuna was overthinking the issue, and became startled when his companion added she was very familiar with Lind's type of attitude in the real world ever since her childhood. Kirito remembered her stated motivation for leaving the Town of Beginnings and fighting was to be herself; though he still did not fully comprehend the meaning behind it, he understood Lind's orders would be an obstacle to that goal, which she regarded as more important than being in an aspiring guild.
While Kibaou encouraged the clearers to reach the next town by the following day, and to read the most important pieces of information from Argo's strategy guide, Kirito racked his mind on how to prevent Asuna from releasing her displeasure on Lind after the end of Kibaou's speech. He knew the fencer possessed leadership qualities he himself did not have, and did not wish for that potential to be destroyed through her antagonization of the other players at the start of the game. Suddenly, he realized her clash with the leader of the top players was an inevitable result of her collaboration with him. Her Chivalric Rapier was proof that she and Kirito were using the latter's knowledge of the beta to gain a lead over the other frontline players. This recognition made him hesitate in doubt, as well as fill him with anger and disappointment at his blindness to that fact.
Back on the stage, Kibaou announced that whoever found the boss room would become the raid leader. Seeing that there were no further questions, he closed the meeting with a cheer, reaffirming their intention to defeat the Floor Boss within the week. When the other clearers rose to their feet to join him in the proclamation, Kirito grabbed Asuna's wrist as she readied herself to leap forward. Facing him, she declared she did not care if the guilds hated her for her actions; she would rather return to the Town of Beginnings than endure their attitudes. Kirito braced himself to inform her they should dissolve their partnership; even though she would hate him for employing a heavy-handed action so similar to Lind's, he refused to let her become an enemy of the main player base, as solo players were absolutely limited by the lack of any assistance. Though players in a group could help each other against the number of debuffs in a game, solo players could not expect such aid; and in Sword Art Online, a single mistake could be fatal. Kirito had survived so far due to his memory from the beta test, but it would last only to the 10th Floor before he would start fighting against unfamiliar foes in unfamiliar places; indeed, what he remembered of the bosses had been proven insufficient. The longer Asuna worked with him instead of another party or guild, the more she risked falling into his danger or worse. However, Kirito found himself unable to tell her to swallow her ire at the leaders and eventually enter a guild.
As the other clearers began separating to chat with each other in small groups, Kirito and Asuna gazed at each other in silent tension, unnoticed by everyone, before the former finally managed to ask the latter what she would do in the event of his death that day. She simply stated she would still continue as far as she could, then returned the question at him. While the swordsman pondered over how he might think and feel after resuming being a solo player, he realized the reason he was drawing away from the mainstream players into a dangerous environment was that he simply did not wish for her to die. When he first saw her and her Sword Skills in the 1st Floor Labyrinth, breaking his personal rules to speak to her, he wanted to see more of her potential and the possibilities of where it could go, the same reason he was trying to keep her from accosting Lind. However, he was unable to express that honest sentiment either.
Just as Kirito was about to resign telling her what he wanted to say, he heard a faint voice in his ear reminiscent of Kizmel's, encouraging him to speak his mind while he could. That quiet prompting spurred him to finally covey his desire to Asuna to not see her die, and to restrain her anger at Lind and his guild, as they might save their lives someday. After a few brief moments of consideration, Asuna simply agreed to repress her grievances with the Dragon Knights Brigade. As Kirito relaxed and plainly nodded at managing to persuade his companion to suppress her pique at the insult to her strongest beliefs, he heard the Dark Elven knight's voice softly congratulating him for his actions. Suddenly realizing something, he reached up with his hand and felt something in the supposedly empty space close to his ear.
After saying their farewells to Agil's group, Kirito and Asuna left Zumfut for a few hundred yards before the former led the latter off the path and called toward the forest for Kizmel. Several seconds after Asuna began wildly looking around, the Dark Elven Royal Guard revealed her presence behind them with a laugh, commenting on how Kirito had noticed her. The duo watched their guide in silence before Asuna asked her how long she had been trailing them and if she had followed them into their room at the inn. As Kirito wondered how the Dark Elf would have reacted to the sight of Lind's team initiating the Jade Key quest on the side of the Forest Elves, Kizmel explained she had only used the teleporting charm to arrive within range of Zumfut in the late afternoon and located them in the meeting place at the town center. The swordsman puzzled over how an NPC could leave their designated areas of activity to chase after human players without being registered with a party, and how Kizmel managed to infiltrate a human town without being detected, as well as her capability to defend herself against the NPC guards.
When Kirito finally inquired on why she had come all the way from the Dark Elf Base, Kizmel shyly but seriously explained she had been charged by her commander to serve and protect them, so she simply departed to check their conditions when they did not return to the camp after they had left. At Kirito's concern of the expiration of her deception charm while in the middle of town, she proudly disclosed that her Mistmoon Cloak was most effective at dawn and twilight, and its Hiding effect could withstand some physical contact. Managing to deflect Asuna's dismayed questions on what part of Kizmel's body he had touched, Kirito watched the darkening sky, considering his original plan to have dinner in Zumfut after the meeting, before deciding he could not force the Dark Elf to hide while in town or to wait outside and proposed to Asuna to return to the base camp. The fencer acquiesced as their escort had come all the way to see them, pausing before adding that they might stay at the Dark Elf Base until the boss raid, since she was satisfied with the time they had spent in their hotel room and had no desire to be around the guilds for the moment. Understanding her feelings, Kirito repeated their request to Kizmel to stay with her in her tent for the next week, who accepted in simple delight and resolved to live together with them until their goals were fulfilled, with some embarrassed agreement from Asuna.
As the teleportation charm from the Dark Elf Camp to near Zumfut only worked one way, the trio had to retrace their way back through the mists. Due to the girls effortlessly dispatching any monsters they met before he could help, Kirito began contemplating over what had occurred. As he genuinely did not want Asuna to die, and told her that to keep her from aggravating Lind, he resolved to take responsibility for his statement, to dedicate himself to empowering her and teaching more about the game, and to snap himself out of his passive attitude over his resignation to the role of beater. At the same time, he wondered about Kizmel's actions and identity, since she was clearly not an ordinary NPC constrained by normal NPC algorithms. He theorized that she was either granted a high-functioning A.I. or was actually a human person role-playing as a Dark Elf character. He hoped it was not the latter possibility, as it would mean she was an accomplice of Akihiko potentially leading them into a trap, and he did not believe her sadness at Tilnel's grave was just an act.
Noticing he had been quiet for some time, Kizmel and Asuna questioned Kirito on what was troubling his mind. Struggling to think of a good excuse, Kirito awkwardly remarked on their strength and handiness, and accidentally openly wondered over which of the two he would like to marry. As he realized his mistake and tried to backtrack, Asuna criticized him in disbelief for his line of thought while Kizmel impassively replied it would require the Lyusulan Queen's permission. Kirito distracted himself with thinking of the other types of games he could have played in the real world until Asuna declared they had arrived within visible distance of the base. Regaining his internal composure, he decided that regardless of Kizmel's nature, he and Asuna were fine with helping her and being helped by her in return, and wanted to be around her for as long as possible. As they entered the camp, he reminded himself of the numerous tasks they needed to do while in the Dark Elf Base until the 3rd Floor Boss raid, and determined to start on them as soon as possible.
Over the next three days, Kirito and Asuna remained at the Dark Elf Camp while completing quests, gathering upgrade materials, and leveling their skills, with assistance from Kizmel, who actually earned a level in the process. After a collection quest in the Elf War campaign to honor the memory of the fallen scout from the previous mission, the trio managed to find another scout and successfully return him to the base camp, whereupon the scout was revealed to be a Forest Elf under a disguise charm. After the imposter failed to steal the Jade Key and fled the Dark Elf Base, the humans temporarily formed a party with Kizmel and Dark Elven Wolfhandlers to track the false scout to a large Forest Elf Camp. Then Kirito and Asuna paused the quest series to participate in the scheduled Field Boss battle, with the former managing to seize the Last Attack bonus again.
When the duo returned to the Dark Elf Camp later that day on December 18, Asuna took a bath while Kirito explained the backstory of Aincrad he had learned from Kizmel earlier that day. Long ago, the world was divided into various groups and kingdoms, including the Forest Elves of Kales'Oh, the Dark Elves of Lyusula, the human Alliance of the Nine, and the underground realm of the dwarves; despite the skirmishes that occasionally arose among these peoples, the land was peaceful. One day, however, for some reason, a hundred regions all over the world were cut from the earth into circles and summoned to the sky, where they were stacked in a conical formation to form a gigantic floating fortress, never to return to the earth. As time passed, the magic that allowed the ancient civilizations to prosper were lost, along with the human kingdoms, and the floors that constituted the castle lost contact with each other, with many of their towns and villages reverting to their own self-maintenance. The only peoples to keep their realms intact were the elves, who kept stories of this cataclysmic event, known as the Great Separation.
After Kirito finished recounting the tale, he and Asuna discussed the conspicuous lack of a pantheon of gods that normally accompanied the background of fantasy stories and games, as well as what gods they could be patronizing with their actions in SAO, Kirito with his perchance for winning Last Attack bonuses and Asuna with her desire for baths. Then they conversed how they and the DKB were the only ones pursuing the Elf War campaign, due to the others being intimidated by its sheer length. While theorizing how one could start the questline after reaching the 9th Floor and thus have an easier time progressing through it, Kirito suddenly realized the fact they accepted a quest series spanning several floors meant they expected to survive that far, a prospect they had difficulty comprehending at the moment. Reading his thoughts, Asuna revealed that despite her anxiety over how far they still needed to go, she had begun looking forward to the sights and sounds to experience on the higher floors. Kirito agreed with her statement and remarked on the possibilities of baths awaiting her, to which Asuna hit him from within the tent.
As Asuna dressed and left the tent, Kirito, distracted by the lack of water in her clothing just after bathing, accidentally wondered if she ever felt changing outfits after a bath. Though she took offense at his question, Asuna admitted she had plenty of extra outfits filling up most of her storage space, but they were not for her personal enjoyment. Revealing she had crafted those clothes herself, she explained she had received lots of cotton and wool items while farming monsters on the 2nd Floor, and so had decided to level her Tailoring skill on a whim. Kirito realized that with the limited number of skill slots available to a player and importance thereof for character build, it would be disadvantageous for a frontline player like her to choose a noncombat skill. Understanding his confusion, the fencer added she had removed Tailoring from her slot and converted most of clothes back into fabrics, though there was another reason she had taken the skill, one she would not tell him at the moment.
Kirito declined Asuna's offer to stand guard for him, saying he would only require three minutes, and sent her ahead to the dining tent. Undressing within the bathing tent and entering the bath, the swordsman pondered over his reluctance for baths in the virtual world, as well as the differences between them and in the real world. Just as he was about to finish, Kizmel entered the tent, and after a brief moment of surprise requested to join him. While announcing his immediate departure and hurriedly remembering the anti-harassment code that had been implemented in SAO, Kirito left the bath the moment the Dark Elf looked away and requipped his underwear, but was distracted by the sight of Kizmel undressing at the washing station and slipped on the deck. Regaining his momentum, Kirito resumed his frantic move towards the exit as the Dark Elven knight applied soap over her body, but was stopped when she asked him to scrub her back for her.
Though Kirito had no desire to test the limits of the anti-harassment code, he was persuaded to acquiesce when Kizmel admitted no one had washed her back ever since Tilnel's death. While scrubbing his companion's back with a provided brush, he wondered over the genuineness of his and the Dark Elf's memories. His line of thought was interrupted when Kizmel suddenly confessed to having several unusual dreams recently, wherein both of them were fighting the Forest Elf again. Surprised by the idea of an NPC having dreams, Kirito listened as the Dark Elven Royal Guard elaborated the differences between the dreams and what had actually happened: Kirito was dressed differently and working with a group of unfamiliar men, when he had not fought alongside anyone but Asuna in a long while. Furthermore, their group was unable to prevail against the Forest Elf, beginning to fall one after the other. To save them, Kizmel would sacrifice herself to unleash the power of the Holy Tree and defeat their opponent. Falling to the ground, she would see Kirito watching her with a sad expression. Kizmel added that every time she had the dream, Kirito's companions and equipment were always different, but his face was always the same at the end.
Stunned by this revelation, Kirito wondered if Kizmel was describing memories of her experiences from the SAO beta test. At that moment, before he could ask her that question, he was interrupted by an impatient Asuna standing outside the tent reproving him for his tardiness to the dining tent. Belatedly remembering his promise to only require a few minutes, Kirito was frozen by the embarrassing and compromising situation he found himself in. Just before the angry fencer could enter the bathing tent, the frantic swordsman managed to convince her to return to the dining tent and wait for him. As Asuna pityingly agreed to his demand and left to order their food, the Dark Elf teased a relieved Kirito on humans bathing together. When he inquired on the elves' perspective on the matter, she revealed her people could not expect luxuries like gender segregated bathing quarters on the battlefield. As Kirito asked to listen more on the dreams at a later date, desiring to know the phenomenon behind them, Kizmel assented while wondering to herself on their meaning.
After the bath and a meal, the trio spent the next four hours completing the quests the players had retrieved in Zumfut before returning to the Dark Elf Base for the night. Two hours later at 11:45 P.M., Kirito awoke as his alarm went off, and quietly surveyed the girls sleeping next to him. Mulling over what Kizmel had told him earlier, Kirito decided her dreams of the beta test definitively concluded she was a true NPC, as a human role-player from the development team would not recognize his current appearance from his beta test avatar. He could not help but wonder how the Dark Elf had acquired her memories of the times he had accepted the Elf War campaign during the beta test, and if it had any relation to her exceptional A.I. Remembering how he had challenged the Secret Medicine of the Forest quest on the 1st Floor, he suppressed the accompanying emotions over his memories of the NPCs involved in the quest, then silently departed from the camp. Making his way to the 2nd Floor staircase pavilion, he found Argo waiting for him, who lightly chided him for his slight lateness.
After accepting payment for her services, Argo revealed to Kirito the information he had requested from her. Since the opening of the 3rd Floor, only one player had joined the Dragon Knights Brigade: a man named Morte, wielding a one-handed sword and always wearing a metal coif. As Kirito mused on how the description matched the player he had seen with Lind in the Jade Key quest clearing, he suddenly realized the Dragon Knights still had the same numbers of members at the strategy meeting as they did during the 2nd Floor Boss battle, and the information broker confirmed Morte had not been present at the former, though she had not yet determined why.
While Kirito upbraided himself for his inability to remember people, Argo disclosed Morte had directly petitioned Lind for entrance into the guild, and was subsequently introduced to the other main DKB members the day after the 3rd Floor was opened. However, she had not actually seen Morte or anyone matching his description in person, despite observing the pub the Dragon Knights Brigade was using as a base. Speculating Lind was using Morte as a secret weapon against the ALS, she promised to watch him if he appeared at the 3rd Floor Boss fight. Before she took her leave, the Rat inquired Kirito on where he and Asuna had been lodging ever since they reached the 3rd Floor. When he immediately refused to divulge that information, she noted with interest that he had not instantly denied he had not been staying with the fencer, though she assured him she would not be selling that bit of knowledge.
After leaving Argo and the staircase pavilion, Kirito began heading for the Forest Elf Camp he and Asuna had found earlier. The next sequence of the Elf War questline entailed stealing a set of order from the Forest Elves commanding them to steal the Jade Key. In the beta, Kirito's party had led a midnight assault on the camp and slaughtered all the Forest Elves within to complete, but now the solo player felt resistance to repeating that tactic with Asuna and Kizmel, thus he elected to stealthily enter into the camp by himself and take the orders in secret. Since the girls would have objected to his plan, he had decided to leave them behind at the Dark Elf Base so he could finish the mission on his own. While wondering why he was no longer prioritizing efficiency and escape from the game over his emotions, the beater managed to dodge any night mobs and arrive at the Forest Elf Camp just before 1:00 A.M. As it was impossible to infiltrate the camp through the entrance or over the fence surrounding the area without being detected, he opted to follow the river to a set of cliffs to the rear of the camp, where he could climb the wall and sneak into the captain's tent where the orders were located.
However, while Kirito began creeping toward the canyon where the cliffs were found, he suddenly stopped as he felt someone watching him. Concentrating his gaze on a spot on the far bank of the river, he saw a player in scale mail armor and a chain mail coif emerge from within the shadows. Recognizing the player as Morte, the solo player wondered about the mysterious player's reason for hiding. As Kirito's Searching skill would have detected the other player if the latter had only started hiding a few seconds earlier, that mean Morte had been waiting the entire time at the foot of the hill wherein the Forest Elf Camp was positioned, expecting the arrival of those working on the Elf War quest series on the side of the Dark Elves: namely, Kirito and Asuna.
Cheerfully applauding Kirito for finding him and complementing on his skills, Morte confirmed his name and membership in the Dragon Knights, as well as his awareness of Kirito's name and anticipation of the solo player's appearance. He also revealed he had chosen to wait by the river on his own initiative and was also a former beta tester. Growing tired of Morte's carefree but unsettling dialogue, Kirito turned to leave but paused when Morte hastily requested the solo player to forgo the quest for the night. Confused at the demand, Kirito questioned how the quest would affect the DKB, as the guild was working with the Forest Elves, and became alerted when Morte implied he would stop him through force if need be. Then Kirito grew uneasy when Morte subtly suggested to create a racket if Kirito continued with his infiltration, awakening the Forest Elves to the beater's presence and potentially killing him. Morte denied any attempt to kill Kirito through a monster trap and repeated his request for Kirito to delay the quest for a day, declining to explain why. When Kirito challenged to refuse, More proposed to settle the matter the same way guild members would settle disputes in the beta, through a duel.
Stunned that his opponent was being serious about his proposition, Kirito reminded Morte that in their current circumstances, a duel would result in one of them dead, to which the other beater offered to set the conditions of the duel to half-finish mode. When Kirito suspiciously pressed Morte for a guarantee that he would not break his word and summon the Forest Elves to their location after losing, the other player declared performing an action like that immediately after his defeat would render him just as vulnerable to being overwhelmed by mobs. Recognizing the statement as a weak assurance, Kirito briefly considered accepting Morte's demand and delaying the quest, as he had no pressing need to complete the infiltration quest that night. However, he felt disturbed at how Morte had waited at their location for hours on end just for the slim possibility of preventing him from finishing a single quest in a lengthy campaign. Therefore, he accepted the challenge, with the additional caveat that if he won, Morte would explain the reason behind his actions.
Moving to a clearing along the river, Morte sent a duel request to Kirito. Wondering why his opponent would wear headgear that offered relatively little protection and would impair his vision, the beater accepted the request and drew his Anneal Blade into a neutral battle stance. As the countdown timer began ticking while Morte remained motionless, Kirito realized the other former beta tester must have had more experience than him in dueling since the official release of SAO. Managing to control his rising panic, Kirito decided to use Sonic Leap as soon as the match began. While five seconds remained on the countdown, Morte finally drew his own Anneal Blade and began initiation for Sonic Leap as well. When the timer reached one second, he released the sword skill and charged towards Kirito. Comprehending that his opponent had perfectly timed his attack to make the first strike without triggering the criminal code, Kirito barely managed to block the blow in time.
After the sword skill ended, Kirito and Morte exchanged several attacks. His panic fading with the progression of the duel, Kirito managed to inflict the first damaging strike against his opponent and forced him into the river, where Morte kicked up a blinding sheet of water. Seeing that the other beater was no longer holding his weapon and had opened his menu, Kirito charged towards him, only to find that Morte had used the Quick Change mod to switch his Anneal Blade for a sturdy round shield, which blocked his blow. Kirito then attempted to dodge Morte's next attack, but was caught by surprise from both a Harsh Hatchet ax Morte had also equipped and a different trajectory of the strike than he had expected. Stunned and left open by the new weapon, Kirito was unable to defend himself against Morte's next sword skill, which knocked him back and reduced his health to just above half.
Casually complementing Kirito for enduring the attack, Morte refused to get himself within range of Kirito's planned counterstrike and calmly allowed his opponent to return to his feet. Kirito considered how Morte had outclassed him in every respect in dueling, perhaps even designing his character build for that purpose. At that moment, he realized the other beater might have intentionally reduced his HP to almost half. As duels did not end until attacks or sword skills had finished dealing damage to a player's health, it was possible for a player to kill their opponent and win the duel without becoming an orange player. Therefore, Kirito comprehended with a chill that Morte was deliberately aiming to legally kill him.
Remembering how he had been caught in Coper's monster trap on the first day of SAO and the other beta tester's bitter attempt to strengthen himself, Kirito wondered why Morte would knowingly delay the clearing of the game and their eventual escape. He contemplated surrendering the duel and pondered on how the would-be player killer had selected a weapon unfamiliar to the former but so effective in player versus player (PvP) battles. Then he recognized from Morte's skillful handling of the Harsh Hatchet that he had seen him before with Kibaou's party in the Queen Spider's Cave, just hours before he noticed him again with Lind's party starting the Jade Key quest, with different weapons equipped during each encounter. Wondering why Morte would secretly assist with both the Dragon Knights Brigade and the Aincrad Liberation Squad, Kirito decided to continue the duel despite the possibility of his death, as he felt he could not afford to not learn Morte's motivations and their potentially terrible ramifications.
After Morte cheerfully applauded his resolve, Kirito charged towards Morte's shield hand, anticipating that the axman would attempt a parrying shield bash to stagger and open him to a lethal attack. Taking advantage of how the shield partially obscured Morte's vision and the briefly relaxed grip on the former's defense, Kirito distracted him with a upper feint before disarming him of his shield with a Martial Art skill. Unleashing a barrage of moderate hits on his now exposed opponent, Kirito managed to avoid Morte's surprise attack, then struck him with a sword skill that blew him back and damaged his health to almost half, but his hyperconcentration on his counterattack left him unable to deal a finishing blow.
Restraining his anger over losing his advantage, Morte complemented Kirito for his tactics and skills and inquired where the latter had acquired the Martial Arts skill. He fell silent, however, when Kirito in turn asked him with whom he had practiced dueling, as the former could have only gathered so much knowledge on PvP combat by working with a partner of a similar temperament. Refusing to divulge his sources, Morte announced the finale of their duel and prepared to initiate an apparently long-ranged sword skill. At that moment, though, Morte turned as if alerted by a sudden noise, then declared he had run out of time, despite half a minute remaining on the duel counter. Retrieving his Anneal Blade and shield from where they had fallen, he informed Kirito that as the duel was a draw, the latter was free to continue the infiltration quest, though he cryptically warned him it might not be easy. The axman's departure was masked by the appearance of the system window announcing the results of the duel; by the time it disappeared, Morte had vanished.
Using a potion to recover his health, Kirito surveyed his surrounding but found nothing out the ordinary. Wondering why Morte had left prematurely and his reason for interfering with Kirito's progress, the beater determined to better himself in dueling, then resumed the infiltration quest. As he approached the cliffs below the Forest Elf Camp, however, he was surprised by a sudden shout some distance away. Carefully peering from his position, Kirito was stunned to see two groups of players arguing with each other at the entrance of the hill path to the camp.
Pondering who the players were and what they were arguing over, Kirito grew concerned as the quarrel became more heated, so he quietly sneaked into the forest and circled around the hill to approach the groups from a different direction. Hiding behind a tree, he saw that Lind and six members of the Dragons Knights were contending with Kibaou and a dozen other members of the Liberation Squad over who was allowed to complete their quest first. Learning that the ALS had started the Elf War campaign on the Dark Elves' side, Kirito was confused, as the guild had expressed disinterest in the questline when he had inquired them over it during the Field Boss battle. Then he remembered how Morte had switched his weapons to appear in both guilds, and decided it was possible the other beater had assisted the Aincrad Liberation Squad in completing half of the quest series in half a day.
Wondering why Kibaou would abandon his attitude on not seeking help from former beta testers, Kirito watched as Lind lost his temper and declared the DKB had the right to go first to deliver supplies from the Forest Elf Base to the camp, as they had arrived a few seconds earlier than the ALS. In response, Kibaou angrily accused Lind of hiding the fact that the Elf War campaign was critical in defeating the 3rd Floor Boss. Kirito was stunned by the assertion, as he had remembered no such information from the beta. While Kibaou furiously reminded Lind of how the 2nd Floor raid party had nearly been obliterated by the surprise appearance of Asterius the Taurus King, Kirito racked his memories but could not confirm the ALS leader's allegation, and no one could have possibly finished the questline since the opening of the 3rd Floor to confirm any changes from the beta. Meanwhile, ignoring the DKB leader's protest that his guild was only working on the quest series for the rewards and experience, Kibaou moved to complete his guild's quest of stealing the commander's orders. At that moment, he was stopped by Lind, who warned him that the camp would be randomly relocated to another area once either of the two quests was finished.
Seeing the growing tension between the guilds, Kirito became alarmed, as there was no one among the Aincrad Liberation Squad who could prevent the situation from escalating into dangerous levels, unlike Shivata on the Dragon Knights Brigade's side. If both groups were to enter the Forest Elf Camp at the same time in their current emotional states, the solo player feared that the Dragon Knights might join the Forest Elf NPCs in attacking the Liberation Squad; if any of the players were to die from that, it would potentially mean the permanent division of the clearers. While desperately trying to think of a possible solution, he suddenly remembered what Lind had said about the quest location disappearing after the conclusion of a quest.
Within the next five minutes, while Lind and Kibaou continued their dispute, Kirito hurriedly retraced his path through the forest to the river spot directly below the Forest Elf Camp. Climbing the cliffs into the camp, the solo player carefully sneaked past the guards into the captain's tent, where he seized the sheets before backtracking his route. Just as the DKB and ALS leaders began advancing up the hill to the camp, each struggling to hinder the other along the way, Kirito descended the cliffs and completed the quest, upon which the camp vanished amid green light, much to the guild members' shock.
Since Kirito still needed to resolve the conflict between the guilds, he reascended the cliff and crossed the hill to where the stunned players were, then announced that as he had just finished the quest, they would have to find the camp elsewhere. After a few moments of silent anger, Kibaou, realizing why the beater had been absent for the past few days, accused him of also withholding the Elf War campaign's importance to defeating the 3rd Floor Boss, cursing Kirito and Lind for abandoning all the other players and supposedly claiming a right to inherit Diavel's leadership. Restraining his own displeasure at the new turn in events and Kibaou's rant, Lind repeated his stance that none of the Dragon Knights Brigade were aware of the questline having any bearing on fighting the Floor Boss, thus he asked the Aincrad Liberation Squad leader where he had received the information. Ignoring Lind's question, Kibaou accused Lind of monopolizing information, restarting the argument.
Frustratedly watching the other players contend with each other, Kirito interrupted and declared his lack of specific interest in the campaign's rewards. When Kibaou questioned the honesty of his claim, the solo player announced he would be halting his progress in the questline and begin clearing the Labyrinth, accomplishing tasks as he saw fit as a clearer, though Kirito secretly felt reluctant at abandoning Kizmel in the middle of the Elf War quest series. At that moment, a member of the Liberation Squad began accusing the beater of trying to distract them from the campaign, before being silenced by Kibaou. Lind then skeptically questioned Kirito's claim, as the former beta tester lacked the ability to conquer the dungeon by himself and would know the benefits of completing an extended questline. The Dragon Knights leader then inquired on Asuna's location, speculating that the fencer could be working to finish the quest while her partner was occupying their attention.
Unable to deny Lind's theory, Kirito remained quiet as the guilds resumed throwing accusations at him, becoming reminded of the situation's similarities to the public condemnation of Nezha the blacksmith after the 2nd Floor Boss battle. Remembering how the potential near-execution of the chackram user had happened due to the mysterious man in the black poncho teaching the Legend Braves the upgrade scam, the solo player wondered if he and Morte were the same person, and why he would want to divide the clearers and delay their escape from SAO.
When Joe, the ALS member who had alleged Kirito of bluffing, demanded the beater to present his comrade to them, Asuna suddenly revealed herself from the same tree Kirito had been hiding behind earlier. Moving through the crowd to Kirito's side, the fencer declared her support of the swordsman's plan, reminding everyone of the rule that whoever discovered the boss room first would become the raid leader. Awed by the overwhelming aura of Asuna's Chivalric Rapier, the guild members were silent for several seconds before Joe recommenced his barrage of accusations of the pair attempting to deceive them. Irritably repeating his order to be quiet, Kibaou voiced his confusion at the duo's claim, arguing that they could still complete the Elf War campaign to substantiate whether it was critical for beating the Floor Boss. Concurring with the Aincrad Liberation Sqaud leader's concern, Kirito suggested that one of the guilds abandon the quest to prevent further conflicts between them.
However, neither Lind or Kibaou were inclined to accept the proposition, as both guilds had made too much progress on the questline. Sharing his doubts on Kirito and Asuna's capabilities to actually reach the boss chamber, the DKB leader proposed the pair to enter a guild, reminding them of the condition that neither could join the same guild. At that moment, the fencer asserted they were not alone, whereupon Kizmel revealed her presence beside Kirito and Asuna, proclaiming her support of their efforts in the Labyrinth. As the Dark Elves were hostile to the Dragon Knights Brigade, the guild members were intimidated by the extremely dark color of Kizmel's cursor, thus a frightened Lind warned Kibaou of her high level. When the Liberation Squad leader complained about the beater and his partner obtaining such a powerful ally, the Dark Elven Royal Guard whispered to Kirito her difficulty in understanding Kibaou's Kansai dialect.
While Lind and Kibaou moved to discuss with their guildmates, Kirito, realizing they had been keeping Kizmel ignorant of the truth of her reality, quietly revealed to her that neither he or Asuna were from Aincrad and were trying to return to their home. The Dark Elf responded that she was aware of their origins, ascribing their arrival to the work of humanity's last great charm that allowed summoning warriors from another land to unite the Floors. Explaining her people already had teleportation charms to travel between the Floors, she repeated her offer to assist them in the Labyrinth, on the condition that they told her of their world and the lives they lived there. The swordsman agreed and added they would teach her the gaming terms of their language if she did follow them into the Labyrinth.
Finishing their conversation, Lind announced that both guilds would be abandoning the Elf War questline. However, as they still needed to verify whether the campaign held any relevant information on the 3rd Floor Boss, he requested Kirito's party to continue it. Kibaou revealed that in the meantime, they would start mapping the Labyrinth, as he would not forgive himself if a player died because they had failed to do so. Approving of their decision, the beater promised to finish the quest series and report their findings the evening before the boss raid.
Recalling Kirito's earlier declaration to do whatever he deemed necessary as a clearer, Lind was reminded of Diavel's own words back in Tolbanna. Remembering how the late knight had proclaimed that it was their responsibility as the best players to defeat the boss and show all the other players that the game could be beaten, the DKB leader shared his belief that it was his obligation to carry Diavel's will and lead the guild he would have created to be the best. Using the opportunity, Lind asked Kirito for the deceased player's last words, as the solo player was the one who had heard them. Unsure of what Lind was hoping to hear, Kirito recollected his memories of that event and revealed Diavel had requested him to defeat the boss. After a few seconds of emotional silence, the guild leader quietly resolved to follow those words for all the following floors, as was the purpose behind the creation of the Dragon Knights. Saluting with the other members of his guild, Lind regained his usual lofty composure and reiterated their plans to assault the Labyrinth in the morning, scheduling the next strategy meeting at 5:00 P.M. on December 20, before leaving with the rest of the DKB to the east.
Watching the other guild's departure, Kibaou criticized Lind for his aloof and condescending attitude, then ordered the ALS to not let the Dragon Knights Brigade have a lead on finding the boss chamber. As the Aincrad Liberation Squad headed for their base in the west, the guild leader paused before hesitantly addressing Kirito. Although he refused to thank the beater due to stealing their quest, he reluctantly admitted it might not be all that inimical to have someone like him among the clearers. Acknowledging Kirito's request to not address him formally next time, Kibaou followed the rest of his team. After all the other players had vanished from the area, Asuna and Kizmel reproached Kirito for his recklessness, then left with him to deliver the stolen orders to the Dark Elf commander.
After transporting the orders and a brief breather quest hunting a Forest Elf reconnaissance butterfly, Kirito, Asuna, and Kizmel were commanded to secretly convey the Jade Key to their outpost on the 4th Floor via the Spirit Tree at the western edge of the Forest of Wavering Mists. En route to their destination, the convoy was ambushed by a mysterious group dressed in black, the only surviving member of whom managed to steal the key. With Kizmel's aid, they tracked the thief with a small bottle of glowing liquid to the cave he was hiding in. Returning to the Dark Elf Base to report to the commander, as well as for food and rest, the trio began the tenth and last chapter of the Elf War campaign on the 3rd Floor by exploring the dungeon wherein the key had been taken. Due to the location's size, the party was only able to defeat the whip spider boss of the dungeon's first level before having to return to the camp for the night, during which the Dark Elven Royal Guard took a bath with Asuna.
The next day, after repairing their weapons and resupplying, the three resumed their progress and located the thief's refuge at the dungeon's bottom, which was guarded by a race of demonic and decaying beings, whom Kizmel nervously identified as Fallen Elves. Fighting their way through the cave, they reached and managed to vanquish the Fallen Elf Commander boss guarding the Jade Key, upon which they retrieved the item and succeeded in transporting it safely to the Western Spirit Tree. As they approached their destination, Kizmel declared that in light of the Fallen Elves' cooperation with the Forest Elves, she had to personally deliver the key to the next floor. Asuna offered to accompany her, but the Dark Elf confirmed Kirito's suspicion that only her people were allowed to travel through the Spirit Tree. Suddenly hugging the fencer, Kizmel confessed her wish to die after Tilnel's death, attributing Kirito and Asuna's appearance during her battle with the Forest Elven Hallowed Knight to her sister's guidance. Hugging the swordsman as well, she promised to elaborate on her dreams to him on their next meeting. Saluting her companions farewell, the Dark Elf bid them good luck with their conquest of the Labyrinth, then passed the Spirit Tree's sentries and disappeared into the tree.
When Kirito and Asuna returned to the Dark Elf Base, they were unable to find any connection between the boss and the rewards offered for their completion of the Elf War campaign on the 3rd Floor. After the pair selected their prizes, the commander briefly described to them the history of the Fallen Elves and requested for the continuation of their help. Just as the players were taking their leave, the commander inquired of their intent to clear the Labyrinth, then cautioned them of the boss' poison attack, enjoining them to acquire antidote potions while they could still acquire them. Thanking the commander for the advice, Kirito and Asuna discussed how the new information complicated their plan to expose Morte's machinations. As the hint on the boss's attacks now prevented them from forcing Kibaou to reveal the source of his information on the questline, they decided to simply observe the moonlighting player's reaction when they repeated the recommendation to the guilds.
At the strategy meeting that night in Zumfut, Lind assumed the duties of raid leader and master of ceremonies for the assembly, due to the Dragon Knights Brigade reaching the boss chamber before the Aincrad Liberation Squad; however, Morte was nowhere to be found. After the clearers discussed the schedule and strategy of the next morning's battle, Kirito outlined the details of the Elf War campaign, adding the reward items' lack of relation to the Floor Boss and the commander's warning on the boss' poison attacks, with the clarification that the boss did not possess such an ability in the beta. When the players finished debating the importance of the information, Lind ordered the raid members to overstock on potions from every item shop on all the available floors. Slating the raid group to begin moving at nine o'clock the next morning from Zumfut to the Labyrinth through Dessel, he declared they would celebrate their victory on the next floor and ended with a bracing call. Considering the roles they were playing or trying to play, as well as his own role in the grand scheme of things, Kirito joined the others in their cheer. The next day on December 21, at 1:12 P.M., after fifty-three minutes of fighting, the 3rd Floor's main boss Nerius the Evil Treant was defeated, despite its liberal usage of a wide-area poison skill, with Asuna's Chivalric Rapier dealing the most damage out of the raid party and Morte not present at the battle.
As the Dragon Knight and the Liberation Squad began drawing lots to determine who would obtain what reward from the boss raid, Kirito and Asuna were sent ahead to open the 4th Floor and notify Argo of their achievement. While they climbed the stairs, the latter complained over the former receiving the Last Attack bonus, despite both of their weapons simultaneously dealing the final strike on Nerius and her Chivalric Rapier having a higher damage output than his Anneal Blade. Attempting to distract her by changing the subject, the swordsman reminded the fencer of the conversation they had on the previous floor staircase, on the comparison of combat in SAO to a concerto. When the beater remarked how the comparison could mean that although the players were always alone whether playing solo or in a party, they could expect help from those around them, Asuna declared in that scenario, Kizmel would have to be the most important contributor in the events they had been in on the 3rd Floor. As they came within view of the door to the 4th Floor, Kirito announced his belief in his partner's hope that they would see the Dark Elf knight again.
- Dark Elven Royal Guard, Dark Elven Wolf Handler, Forest Elven Hallowed Knight, and Forest Elven Falconer were Dark Elf Sentry, Dark Elf Wolf Handler, Forest Elf Officer, and Forest Elf Falconer in web version respectively.
- The page for the start of Concerto of Black and White is dated November 2022, despite the story actually taking place in December 2022.
- Progressive Volume 02 is Kawahara Reki's thirtieth published book.
- Sword Art Online Progressive Volume 02 Afterword