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Calrex

SP - F10 Boundary Borderline

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On most of the floors of Aincrad, there were ways for players to tell visually the time of day. On many, the sun and moon served as these tools, their passage across the sky being markers down to the hour. There were some that took this out of the equation, as their main theme was some form of bleak despair. Part of the makeup of such themes was the removal of the sun and moon, as clear skies can be symbols of hope, that no matter what happened on the floor, the next day would always come. However, those floors still took place somewhere that would be equivalent to "outside," with skies above.

However, there was one floor that stood out from these settings, and still remained as one of the first floors that instilled that feeling of despair into players, even back when people were scouting it. That was the tenth floor. Set in the theme of an underground cavern, the only sources of light being the torches and other illuminated implements that sparsely appeared on the rocky surfaces. The most populated, and illuminated area, of the floor was the main settlement of Yomi, the only known safe zone in the area. Even there, the feeling of safety only applied to the game mechanic, as the residents were not of the reassuring type of appearance. Undead and hollowed NPCs inhabited the village, their movements being dictated by their AI. Some were in the various sake establishments, while other walked/floated through the various unpaved streets.

It was through these streets that Calrex made his way, heading towards the opening leading out into the field zones of the floor. The dragon-armored guardians standing at each side of the gate paid him no attention. In fact, it wasn't really sure if the guards really had any triggers in their AI. To the bluenette's knowledge, he never saw them leave their post, or even move their heads to observe what was passing in front of them. However, such stray thoughts did not occupy his mind on this venture.

"It was supposedly in this direction right? Let's hope its not too far."

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--------------------

During his time between the floor raids, questing, and various other things to occupy his time, Calrex found his way back to the bar that he had spoken to Opal so many months ago, back when she was still alive. Just like that time, he was sitting alone, merely downing another drink. At this point he had lost track of the various concoctions, cocktails, and other things that he drank over the many months. It had become something of a hobby ever since Azrael had taught him her trick for drinking quickly. With a nod to the bartender the bluenette got to his feet, stepping out from the corner of the bar he was sitting at, preparing to make his way out for the night. It was still the time of night where people still filled the various seats, some as groups while others were alone.

However, as Calrex took a few steps towards the door, his eyes locked onto a person making their way in. Other than the person's health bar, he couldn't make out any distinguishing features out from beneath his helm. The rest of his body was covered in a brown tattered cloak, adding the mystery. However, what stood out even more to the bluenette was the fact that no one around him seemed to have taken notice, not even the bartender, who was looking in the exact same direction he was. For a person that stood out like a sore thumb amongst the other patrons, the result was closer to what was considered a "gray man."

Deciding to let the confusion slide Calrex continued towards the door, passing by the person as they walked past towards the booths in the back. As he did so, the figure slowed their pace before standing still, shoulder to shoulder with the Ultramarine Knight, uttering a sentence, "What good is a knight that can't protect anything?"

This sentence caused the bluenette to stop walking, bringing his hands into his jacket pockets as he continued looking towards the door, avoiding eye contact with the figure. From that one question/statement, he could discern and suspect two things: 1. The person standing next to him knew of his self title as the Ultramarine Knight. 2. This person questions something about how he carried himself. The bluenette had gotten glimpses of such animosity in the past, whether he had intended it or not. At the latest floor raid meeting, there was a pair of eyes that glanced at him, discontent with something about him. Of course, Calrex was fairly sure that some were not happy with the fact he possessed Achilles, one of the few unique skills discovered. Alongside Teayre's <<Battojutsu>>, Hikoru's <<Shadowed Path>>, and the previously known <<Dual Blades>>, <<Darkness Blade>>, and <<Berserker>> skills, some would say it was like a cheat code, in a game where such things were not fair.

With a small sigh the Ultramarine Knight closed his eyes for a moment before responding, "A not very good one of course. So what's up with the cryptic statement?"

Calrex could swear that he heard a small chuckle from the figure before it resumed moving further into the tavern, speaking softly once again as they did so, "Look to the Void on the tenth floor and maybe you'll see."

--------------------

That short exchange was what brought him to the tenth floor, and to the place that no one chose to explore, the Void. It was a location known to all of the information brokers in Aincrad, but was also the most unknown. From what reports of other players that have tried to scout it, there wasn't much to it. A massive bottomless pit that exists in the middle of the floor. Strangely, rather than it being an obvious deathtrap where one would fall forever until their avatar disintegrated, the people that ended up falling in were expelled outwards, followed by hearing whispers in the darkness bad enough that they avoided the tenth floor if they could. It was like they had been attacked by a ghost in a haunted house.

It was that abyss that Calrex stood at the precipice of now, his hands in his jacket pockets like he always did. With a small sigh he stared down at the abyss before glancing upwards, "Roc, think you can fly down and see anything?"

His blue peregrine falcon familiar appeared in an instant, accompanied by a bright flash of light. Immediately understanding his partner's request the bird of prey swooped down, descending into the depths. As he flew further and further down, the avian became a smaller and smaller blue dot in Calrex's view until being engulfed by the darkness below. Roc continued to descend, the faint light of the cavern above now being completely absent from his vision. Even with the sharp eyes the familiar possessed, it was difficult to make out the walls of the chasm, which in turn made it difficult to fly. However, what was consistent was the fact that nothing stood out. There were no lower cavern entrances, or hidden passageways. Not even a sign of virtual life.

Having flown as far down as the peregrine falcon considered safe Roc quickly stopped his descent, taking a few flaps to hover at his current altitude before beginning to make his way back up. The darkness continued to surround him as he made his way back up, being careful to keep his trajectory away from the walls of the abyss. After what felt like forever, Roc began to see the light of the opening above.

At the same time the avian could make out the blue jacket of Calrex at what appeared to be the edge of the descent, slowly growing closer. After a few more seconds, the bird suddenly shifted it path, hugging one of the walls of the chasm. This was to get out of the way, as the bluenette was now falling down towards the darkness below.

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"Tch...figures that when I lost Reveal someone would pull something like this..."

As he descended Calrex quickly thought back to what had just occurred. Right after he had sent down his familiar to try and scout the chasm, he remained at the edge looking down to see if he could discern anything from his point of view. Sure enough, his eyes were not strong enough to make out anything in the darkness below. Not even the surfaces that surrounded the drop were visible after the faint light from the current level he was standing reached their maximum effective distance. However, right as he took a step back, he swore he felt someone or something push him forward. Well, not so much push as it was preventing him from moving back. The sensation was similar to someone walking backwards into a wall. There wasn't any force in the opposite direction, but because it was nigh immovable, the momentum reflected and sent him back in the opposite direction. The act caused him to lose his footing, and as a result the bluenette plummeted into the Void.

Right as he fell past Roc the blue peregrine falcon entered into its hunting swoop to try and catch up. Since the large avian was smaller in size and his positioning cut through the resistant wind faster, the distance between the two was getting closer and closer. Inches away from touching Calrex's boot, suddenly the Ultramarine Knight's descent came to an abrupt halt, to the young man's own brief confusion. "I guess this must be the effect the other players had experienced."

Feeling his body suddenly jerk upwards as he was being expelled out, the bluenette's eyes moved back and forth on the way out. In the darkness, he could begin to hear whispers, albeit very faint ones that he couldn't make out any coherent words or even syllables from. They were the equivalent of insane mutterings that one might hear from choice individuals while walking the streets of various cities. Every now and then his mind would try to piece together small chunks into sentences, but Calrex couldn't tell if that was what was actually being said, or just his brain trying to make sense of the new audial input that was entering his avatar's ears.

Upon feeling his form connect with the surface just at the precipice once again Calrex stared at the ground below his hands and knees. He was alive, that was for sure, but the experience was still a strange one. It was an endless abyss, but for some reason the designers of SAO had decided for it to be the equivalent of a "no entry" zone, placing an invisible barrier that repelled players back out. To add to that, the cosmetic effect of hearing whispers was a strange choice. However, it was now a present things with the Ultramarine Knight.

Getting to his feet Calrex placed a hand to his head for a moment, confirming what was now affecting him. Glancing up at his health bar, he didn't see any effect markers next to the green elongated rectangle. "That could mean this is either a vanity effect, or one that could be permanent for this floor."

He could feel his simulated body slightly tense up in response to the new unease that was being set upon him from the soft mutterings in his mind, something that he appreciated since his usual calm demeanor would usually acclimate very quickly to new symptoms of unsettlement. It was like the usual unease present just because of the floor theme itself had been amplified more than double in intensity. While he was aware of the source, it still had the sense of dread like being a useless character in a horror movie, which for the most part was pretty much all of the main cast. Nonetheless, he took a few breaths before gently sliding his right hand over to the handle of the Grand Blade II before speaking out to the darkness, suspecting that whoever directed him here was potentially present in the shadows, "So this was what you wanted to show me? Nice parlor trick."

No response came, but a new sense of compelling direction came over him. Looking towards what appeared to be another tunnel leading further across the floor, the blunette could feel whatever had now entered his sense of hearing calling him in that direction. Tightening his jaw before letting his senses settle Calrex gave a calming exhale, looking over at Roc, "Guess we'll have to see how far down this rabbit hole leads..."

Continuing to keep a steady grip on his sword the Ultramarine Knight began heading in that very direction.

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The passageway that the bluenette continued to travel down didn't seem particularly different from any of the other routes that were used to get around the tenth floor. After all, the entire area was one giant cave system, meaning that every room was going to be covered in a ceiling of solid rock. It would have been the equivalent of being in a dungeon that was nigh indefinite in size, and the rooms were pretty much randomly generated. One could go for hours upon hours getting lost in the floor if they had the right equipment and a teleportation crystal, or an indefinite amount of rope connected to the main settlement to trace one's way back. The only thing that could be made of note was the fact that the amount of ambient light that usually sparsely littered the area was being more and more spread out, the darkness around Calrex becoming more and more present with each step he took.

During this time he was still dealing with the whispers and voices that seemed to echo through his head. Oddly enough, to him it was like they were slowly growing louder to coincide with the ever encroaching darkness. What was once extremely soft mumblings that he could only hear when not moving had now grown to the volume of one being in traffic. It was like having over a hundred different conversations going on in his head at the same time. Words could be made out, but it was difficult to tell what sentence or exchange they were attached to. The only thing that the Ultramarine Knight could still isolate on its own was his thoughts. However, if things kept up he would likely not be able to distinguish those, and with every step it became more and more difficult. "Guess this is probably why those people that were expelled from the Void really did everything they could from returning to this floor. It's getting to the point where I can't even think. If that get cut out, the only thing left that's driving me would be emotional responses if anything."

Looking over at his familiar, Calrex could see the look of concern that the peregrine falcon had on its face, "Don't worry, I'm still me. These voices just are making it difficult to think, but it's not unusual for one to act merely on emotions. Heck, the term 'emo' is short for emotional, and that's pretty much puberty in a nutshell."

Stretching his arms above him for a moment the bluenette continued to press further onward, the darkness continuing to creep closer and closer. The voices growing louder and louder. At this point he was beginning to make out bits of conversation by focusing and trying to isolate the tone. Some of them still remained consistently incoherent, but others were more familiar. They were past interactions with other people, players he had come in contact with in the past, coupled which what appeared to be his own personal thoughts and feelings turned into words. However, most of these were not from a broad sample from his past, but targeted ones from awkward, tense, and even heated interactions he's had to both witness and partake in. "Likely...meant to...get a rise out of me. Gotta hand it to them..."

Continuing further down the passageway Calrex began to notice something odd about the direction he was progressing in. No matter how much distance he had traveled, there was no branching paths ahead of him. In the cavern system of the tenth floor, there would usually at least be multiple paths to get to somewhere, with connecting passageways all turning it into a network. But this tunnel appeared to not connect to any other route. It just continued further and further on into the darkness. At this point the only illumination the Ultramarine Knight could give was occasionally opening his menu, letting the screen cast a bit of light into the darkness. Now with no ambient sources around him, the darkness was ever present, and with it the voices seemed to change. His own thoughts personified in his mind slowly faded away, being replaced by more sinister-toned voices. Even those of the people he knew took on a more ghoulish vibe, as if they were hiding some malicious intent behind them.

"What good is a knight that can't protect anything?"

"The so-called Invincible Warrior is nothing more than a false title."

"You protect those that seek to destroy you."

"Your life is worth nothing to them."

"Achilles was wasted on you."

"How long will you let others suffer from your inaction?"

These things continued to echo into his mind, seemingly being deflected off of Calrex's hardened mind to such things. He had come to accept all of these, whether true or false in his own mind, as opinions that others could hold of him. After all, his goal was to protect everyone that he could. That was not the same thing as having everyone like him. The Ultramarine Knight had come to understand and even suspect that there were people out there who thought the exact opposite and everything inbetween: That they despised his very existence, or found him completely insignificant and a bore.

However, as the wave of insults, queries, and other things continued to flow into his mind, all of a sudden they slowly seemed to grow more and more silent. At the same time Calrex could make out what appeared to be an upcoming wall in his path, one that prevented him from moving any further. Reaching it he placed his hand against it, being unable to make out anything further than a few inches away from his hand. Turning around his eyes snapped look behind him, peering at the darkness. Against the matte black visual in front of him, his mind seemed to strain to make out what looked like the figure he had interacted with at the tavern, only something had changed. While the figure's helm remained, it was a twisted version of itself, seeming corroded from years of rust. A pair of dark red pinpoint-size dots made indicators for eyes, and while it retained the tattered cloak from before, the folds below gave the appearance that its body no longer was in existence. While not particular fearful on its own, just the look of it seemed to couple with the bluenette's experience at the Void, making all of the hairs of his virtual skin stand on end. This coincided with one final sentence uttered in his mind, loud enough to be coherent, but just a few decibels above a whisper. The voice guttural, seemingly seething with a mix of rage and carnal interest, like a predator upon having cornered its prey.

"I wonder what it will take to break you...

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"Just what in the hell is this? Some kind of visual illusion? It's got to be something like that...since..."

Before Calrex's mind could begin to break what was happening in front of him, all of a sudden the whispers and mutterings returned, drowning out his own thoughts. Whatever was affect him, it had found a chink in the mental armor that the Ultramarine Knight had set for himself, one of the things that had allowed him to endure the many events that had occurred in the game ever since he had first been trapped there. Just like how one can desensitize themselves to a scary movie scene or situation by overanalyzing and breaking down what was happening, a similar method was what the bluenette had applied to many tense happenings. When conflict occurred, his mind would help cope by trying to understand the potential motives and emotions behind the various participants. If a person was killed right before his eyes, it would try to figure out what had happened and what the next steps would be. It had developed to the point that he could quickly process what was going on in front of him, devise a response, and take action to a point that it seemed like he didn't have to think about what to do.

Now, with the many voices in his mind hindering that ability, it was getting more and more difficult to calm his now quickening heartbeat. He could feel his skin rising up, as if he had come face to face with the embodiment of true terror. For all he knew, the apparition in front of him may just be a difference in the air around him, the dust from the cave rising up, with his eyes trying to make something out of it, overlaying the form that was in his vision. Tightening his grip on the Grand Blade II a quick breath escaped his lips before he drew the sword fully from its sheath, the blade lock disengaging with a click. Bringing his weapon arm across his body, the point of his blade remained trained on the creature, even though the straight sword was in a reverse grip, another thing that had just occurred out of personal instinct and reflex, rather than learned tactics. If Calrex had draw his sword into a hammer grip, he could have easily assumed a Sword Art stance for any of the assaults he had used in the past. It would have allows him to discern whether there was even a monster in front of him, since the assisted system would only trigger and start charging the attack if there was a valid target in front of him.

"D...darn it...focus..."

"Good...I sense the hesitation...the fear within you that you always keep buried..."

The voice seemed to emanate from the presence in front of him, but it echoed throughout his mind as Calrex could feel his jaw tighten. Closing his eyes for a moment he took himself away from what he was seeing in front of himself. Times like this were useful for making use of the training he had gone through with Baldur, learning his art of the sword. He had used it before when he was training in his mind to conquer Achilles, and it remained a powerful tool to bring himself back under control. Focusing on his breathing, he could feel the mental state of Fudoshin start to work its way through his body. The voices echoing through his mind, the feeling of anxiety and fear, the apparent peril before him, they all began to slowly fade into the fire inside of him, "If I can't focus, I can't act. Hesitation can be what separates those who live and those who die. The defining factor is taking action."

Slowly opening his eyes he could feel the moral weight in his sword arm, the Grand Blade II feeling like it had gained five pounds. However, as he flipped it into a normal grip, it felt effortless, moving through the air like it took no effort. "If this thing exists, it should trigger the Sword Art system if I target it with an attack..."

Sliding his right foot outward he assumed the stance to trigger <<Vertical>>, a basic One-Handed Straight Sword Art that consumed virtually no energy. He didn't need to hit hard, but instead confirm if the apparition in front of him was an actual monster or enemy. Moments passed as the bluenette waited for the light blue aura to surround his weapon, but no change took place. The metallic dark blue surface of the Grand Blade II remained uncovered, the darkness giving it a matte appearance. "That means this thing isn't a valid object."

Upon the realization he relaxed his stance, lowering his sword arm to the side, "If this thing isn't real, then there's nothing I need to be afraid of. If that's the case, then this dead end isn't going to help, so I'd better get heading back in the direction I came from."

Resheathing his weapon Calrex kept his eyes on the figure as he moved forward, passing by it as he spoke, "It's going to take more than that to break me."

Three steps after speaking suddenly he felt his nose make contact with another surface, as if he had walked into another wall, "The hell?"

Placing a hand in front of him into the darkness he felt the surface. It was yet another wall. Glancing back to see where he had just moved from, the apparition serving as a reference point, he could see he had supposedly moved in the exact opposite direction from the dead end, so there was no perceived way he could have walked into the side of the tunnel, "Roc, which way is the path back out? It's hard to see in here..."

"..."

"...Roc?"

No response came back from his familiar. No squawk or screech, or even the sound of wings moving through 3-D space. It was as if the blue peregrine falcon had dematerialized and remained that way. As he turned back around to face the "wall" his eyes locked onto the figure, now inches away from his avatar. Before he could even react it had moved its arms in a horizontal fashion, as if swinging a two-handed weapon, cutting across his frame.

That was when the bluenette felt the feeling of dread come over him once again as he looked down at the bright orange pixelated wound across his chest. It wasn't that it did any form of suspected damage to his character. This was something much worse.

Spoiler

 

In the real world, there is such a thing as the "Phantom Hand" or "Phantom Limb." Put in simple terms, it is the idea that a person that was missing a limb, or whatever reason it may be, may still have the sensation of feeling its presence, like it was being touched, to the point where they would sometimes catch themselves trying to move the absent appendage. A similar effect is witnessed in an experiment, where people would have their arm blocked from their vision by way of a divider or something to that equivalent, and instead have a fake arm placed in their view. Preceding the main part of the experiment, both hands are stimulated in the same way. If the pointer finger of the fake hand was being touched, the real hand would be in the exact same fashion at the exact same time. This would be to trick the person's brain into "adopting" the fake limb as their own. To close the experiment, a hammer would be used to strike the fake hand from out of sight. In some cases, the person would actually feel pain, causing them to jump back.

What would one suspect to happen to a person who's mind was trapped in a virtual avatar of themselves for years, where their mental signals to their limbs would respond in the exact same way? In SAO, pain was dampened to the point it was non-existent through a threshold limiter, something that was explained to players likely before they even put the NervGear on. However, rules and limitations were something known to the "conscious" part of the brain, the part that is also present in the "fight or flight instinct" and many other various things. When that part is inhibited by outside distractions, such as voices and visual stimuli, what part of the mind takes precedence over a person's actions?

 

"...pain?"

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"That can't be right..."

The burning sensation coming from the wound his avatar had taken felt almost searing, as if he had actually been deeply cut across his chest. It had never happened to him before at any point in the past, both in the game and out of. Yet, somehow his mind was associating the pain as exactly what it would feel like should it have happened. Calrex stumbled back, his eyes widening with surprise at what just happened. It was something no one would expect to happen in SAO, and to some level maybe it was what made people brave enough to actually adventure outside the gates of the Starting City. No one in real life has experienced being cut so deep, to his knowledge, at least any that he should expect to still be alive. The blow he had just received would have cut deep enough to scrape or even break bone, and it would have likely severed some of the connections to his lungs and heart. If it didn't kill him immediately, it would have likely made it very difficult for a person to function.

The apparition in front of him brought its semi-tangible arms back once again, as if preparing to swing. The bluenette could have sworn he saw the glint of a weapon's edge reflecting off of some light source, something that would have only been possible if there was light to reflect in the first place. In fact he could tell how he was able to observe the Grand Blade II's edge if he couldn't see even his hand in front of his face. Everything around him was pitch black, with only the bare bit of textural difference against the darkness allowing him to make out parts of the figure he was facing. Kicking diagonally at the ground in front of him he leapt back, bringing his sword in front of him to guard against whatever attack was coming from the telegraphed movement of the thing in front of him. His eyes tracked the movement to be coming from his right to left, a horizontal slice aimed at his lower abdomen. However, while he did somehow successfully deflect the blow, he felt his arms being carried in the opposite direction. He had prepared to block, pushing towards the incoming strike to counter, but the force felt like it came from the opposite side, throwing him off balance.

At the same time he felt a lesser version of the pain currently burning his chest now against the under side of his right arm, as if something had lightly grazed it like a small knife wound. Looking down the bluenette saw yet another bright orange slit, leaking crystals of the same color. He had just endured a lighter blow. Looking up at his health bar his face flashed confusion at the fact he had not lost a single digit of health, "That can't be right. The pain I'm feeling is there. How in the world is this happening within SAO's game logic?"

Looking forward Calrex shook his head, trying to snap back into combat focus. He knew he couldn't remain on the defensive. If he was going to act, he needed to fight back. If he remained safe, using quick jabs and the like with his sword, he would be able to conserve his stamina while preventing the apparition from attacking, "Sword Arts won't work, meaning that I'll need to resort to what I know from the real world..."

Twirling the Grand Blade II into position he began to push the offensive, starting with a few upwards circular strikes to try and knock whatever weapon or implement the figure was wielding out of guarding position. His ears could pick up the sound of metal on metal as his sword hand felt light resistance, as if he was hitting whatever he was striking at. Bringing his free hand to aid his last strike the bluenette gave a small grunt to exert more energy, hearing a loud clang as if the apparition's weapon was knocked far upwards. Quickly bringing his sword back with a fast bend of his elbow he felt his arm align into a stabbing trajectory before he thrust forward. From what he understood of the exchange that had just occurred, he had created an opening with his Upper Flower combination, followed by a free stab. However, his sword felt no resistance as it passed forward. With the darkness, he couldn't even discern if he made contact, as the upper half of his sword vanished into the darkness beneath what appeared to be the figure's head.

"You're not worthy of the title Invincible Warrior..."

A voice echoed through his mind, something that he didn't even realize until he took a few steps back to recover and think. With the exchange that had just happened, none of his skills had triggered. When he guarded, <<Parry>> didn't activate. When he was first hurt, <<Battle Healing>> didn't trigger. From what he could tell, none of the variety of skills he had activated. To add to that, Roc didn't appear to be anywhere, which meant his enhancements didn't seem to be working either. It was as if this current situation was a mix of SAO visual effects and real life limitations. "What is going on? Is this the result of entering the Void? I can't make sense of anything that's happening right now.."

Looking at the apparition once again Calrex shook his head to try and keep himself from losing his calm, "Just what is the point of all this? Why me?"

"Simple...curiosity. We want to see what you become when you are broken, when your moral standpoint no longer holds true. What will you do when everything you stand for betrays you..."

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As the apparition before him spoke Calrex was immediately reminded of the night he had spoken with Opal, months before her death while taking on Laughing Coffin. He had passed by the Monument of Life some time after, seeing that the woman's name was slashed through, being marked as killed by the very Martial Arts fighter he had faced with twice in the past. However, it was that specific evening, when he and Opal discussed their ideals and moral stances, that this figure brought to his mind.

It was still difficult to make out his own thoughts from the voices that continued to echo and reverberate in his head. There were times that the bluenette swore that the statements that weren't his own were starting to be said in his own voice. Nonetheless, he did his best to focus on that memory, the event that currently was keeping his focus bound to the present and what was happening in front of him. He raised his free hand to the side of his head, fumbling for a moment due to the darkness messing with his peripheral senses.

The night after the floor raid meeting hosted by Teayre and the Spectrum Coalition, he and Opal had met up at a tavern on the eleventh floor. Previously he had sent her a message after her attempts at spreading aggression at the meeting, but preceding even that was his curiosity and concern for what had happened to the woman after he training with the man she called Master Myoga. The evening was a series of back and forths, with him discerning what drove her actions, eventually being told that she intended to eliminate SAO of the "scourge" that was orange players before destroying Laughing Coffin, followed by herself. She had intended to purge the game community of what ailed it, by embodying the world's evils before martyring herself. It was a tragic path Calrex would not wish on anyone. However, at the same time, he could also sense his own ideals being put to the test. There was a moment where the woman suggested that he join her in the cause, to put his power as the known highest level players in Aincrad to use, to in essence play God.

"Tch, like I said back then, the best I can be is an arbiter."

He still made note of the moments where he felt his own emotions slip a bit through, where he gave calm threats and other words to try and "flex his muscles." In some ways it did work, but in others it did expose the chinks in his armor. He knew he was still human, and that he would still come to the aid of those he considered friends, no matter what they had been through. But, that also drew his morals into question as a result, because to some it was the equivalent of protecting murderers.

"What makes you think that those you protect are not killers to the core?"

Looking forward at the figure Calrex blinked a couple of moments. Every second it was becoming more and more difficult to discern the shapes that made up the apparition from the pitch black behind it, so much that the bluenette began to question everything that was happening. He could still feel the searing pain in his chest and hand as he checked to see if the visual wounds were still there. Orange crystals still lifted away from the large cut in his avatar, but just as when the wound was inflicted, his health had not dropped to reflect it. "If anything...I should probably try to get moving...I'm accomplishing...the deaths of others as a result...nothing by staying here." Giving a slow swing in front of him with the Grand Blade II the bluenette tried to discern if he was nearby any walls in particular. He carried the motion, going to about 270 degrees in rotation when he felt resistance, as well as the sound of metal on stone. He hoped he had connected with the tunnel wall.

Not moving the sword from the spot, continuing to place pressure in the direction, the Ultramarine Knight placed his hand against the surface, feeling the roughness of the cavern rock against his avatar's hand. Continuing to keep contact with the surface he turned away from what was left that he could make out of the figure, giving a small glance before facing forward, "I've had about enough of this exchange. I've gotta get back."

"I swear that thing was smiling...

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The Ultramarine Knight only walked a few steps in the ink-black darkness before he felt a strange sensation in the back of his mind. It was almost as if the view he was seeing in front of him was suddenly not his own, but as if he was watching through the eyes of someone else. After a couple of instants he felt even more familiar, as if he was watching a movie reel of some fantasy, an amalgamation that was mixed with past experiences. It was exactly like as if he was having a dream, albeit one that was closer to a nightmare than anything. As more moments passed he felt the presence of his eyelids, slowly opening them as the dream vision he was having faded to become the backs of his eyelids. The depressing scene of the tenth floor greeted his vision as his simulated sense of touch felt the side of his face making contact with the rocky surface below. The tilted view greeting him was directed directly at the chasm he had fallen into, the Void.

"The heck was that...some kind of vision or induced dream?"

Turning so that he could sit up Calrex moved some of his bangs out of his face as he continued to look at the scene in front of him, "If that was what that figure wanted me to experience, I think I'm missing the point of this venture."

Getting to his feet he could feel that his avatar was for the most part back to normal, at least by comparison to the vision he had. There were no sensations of pain, especially to the extent that he had experienced moments ago. However, just as the rumors were, it definitely seemed like he could hear whispers in the back of his mind from time to time, "Geeze, that's going to be an annoyance whenever I visit this floor. Alright, I'd best get heading back to..."

As he turned to head back towards Yomi, suddenly a out of place scent crossed his sense of smell. It was the smell of tea, and a rather strong one, at least from the aroma. Of course, he was not a connoisseur, so he couldn't make out what exact type of tea, but it most certainly was not simply boiled water in a cup, "But who would be making tea out here..."

Scanning the landscape his eyes feel on an out of place sight. It was a small table, designed for easy carry and sitting on the ground, due to its short legs. On two sides of the table were small flat pillow, made for making sitting more comfortable. Sitting on one of those pillows, was the same hooded figure from the bar the previous night.

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Upon noticing that Calrex was looking towards their location, the hooded figure seemingly stopped what he was doing, pulling back the cloth on his arm to expose the limb beneath, making a gesture for the bluenette to sit. It didn't seem like the person was wearing heavy armor beneath, as it would have likely let out sounds of metal plating sliding various ways in response to the figure's movements, "Seems like you've been through a lot. Please, have a seat."

The Ultramarine Knight continued to walk forward cautiously, his right hand reaching back slightly as he walked to keep it close to the Grand Blade III's sheath, ready to draw it should an ambush happen. "Sure...although I do wonder why you happen to have a table setting out here on such a floor."

"Well, of course you know that carrying ridiculously sized items is rather easy in this world. It's not like you need to physically carry a table around in order to have it with you."

"Alright...fair enough."

As he reached the opposite side of the table the bluenette saw that there was a pillow on the ground, likely as cushioning rather than having to sit on the earthen floor beneath. Crossing his legs Calrex looked across as the figure pulled back the hood to reveal the face of the person underneath. It was a young man, not likely much older than him, with features so sharp it seemed he could cut through paper with his chin. His eyes were upwards turned, small and long, with light green irises that seemed to glint in certain lights when not shadowed by his eyelids. His hair was lime green, as long as the bluenette's but with the bangs falling in slightly different groupings. "I apologize by my abrupt conversation with you last night, but call it a miscommunicated form of curiosity."

The look of caution did not leave Calrex's face as he leaned forward, resting the halfway point of his forearms against the edge of the table, "Fair enough, I'll let that slide for now. Please excuse me cautious demeanor, but I can guess you understand why."

"I can take a good guess. You fell into the Void, correct?"

As he spoke, the man swiped against the air, seemingly summoning his user menu to produce what appeared to be a tea making set. First a artistically crafted large iron pot for boiling water, which he set to one side before producing two teacups with brushed patterns around the side. Next came a tea whisk and scooping stick, along with a small container of what Calrex could suspect to be either tea leaves or powder. The bluenette's gaze trailed over to the side, where he saw a smaller container with what seemed to be cold or lukewarm water, along with a bamboo ladle, whose handle was long and thin, looking to be extremely fragile.

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"I'm sure you recognize what this particular set of tools is based off of in the real world."

As the man spoke he continued with his procedure. Reaching into the hooded cloak that he wore, the person pulled out what appeared to be a ornate hand cloth, one that he folded into a triangle before pinching the two thinner ends between his fingers. Calrex felt like he wanted to raise an eyebrow in curiosity, not so much as to what the man was doing, but more the reasoning behind it. There was more than enough information on the World Wide Web for the bluenette to figure out what he was doing.

"Of course, this is supposed to be like a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. I'm going to guess the smaller container contains..."

BAP!

Before he could finish his sentence, Calrex was cut off by the loud cracking sound of the man sitting across from him quickly tugging the ends of the hand cloth apart, producing the snap. Immediately after he turned it 90 degrees to the side, folding the cloth into thirds lengthwise before doing the same with the perpendicular sides, the cloth now small enough to fit into his hand. Reaching down to grab the scooping stick the man calmly began to wipe down the end.

"Of course, you are absolutely correct on that."

"You seem to have gone through a lot of trouble, at least if you have taken the time to procure all these items, along with practicing to the point that this is second nature."

"Oh, well you flatter me a bit too much. You see I'm not really one for practice, but I am about consistency. If I am going to do something, it is important to do so correctly. After all, sometimes we only get one shot."

"Just who the heck is this guy? It seems odd that he's decided to go on this topic after understanding what just happened to me. Maybe some form of small banter?"

"You seem to be rather concerned about the direction of this conversation, and please understand that I do intend to speak more on the topic of our meeting, but for now I wish to focus on properly brewing this tea for us to consume. So if I may request, let us engage in some casual conversation before moving on to more serious matters."

As if the man had read his mind, he had responded without even looking up from what he was doing. After cleaning the stick, he repeated the same action of snapping the cloth before folding it up once again. Reaching over he wiped the cover of the tea container before setting it back down. Finishing this part of the ceremony he tucked the cloth back into his cloak, now reaching over to gently take off the top of the hot water vessel.

"...very well, let's have some of this for now. Maybe it will help calm my nerves."

Hearing the latter statement seemed to give the man a small laugh as he continued, setting the lid of the hot water pot to the side, now reaching for the bamboo lade, "I appreciate the entertainment, but I already know enough about you, Calrex, to know that even what just happened wouldn't have phased you very much. If it's one things you're generally known for, it's your composure. Not one to snap, or go one some rage-fueled rampage. Unlike, well, your in-game wife I believe right?"

With a small sigh Calrex brought his arms together, crossing them on the table as he leaned in a little, "If I may make a request as well, let's avoid bringing specific individuals into our conversation. I would like to keep this on the topic we are going to discuss, rather than poking at the people we know."

"Very well, if I make a request, it is only fair I should honor one as well. We shall keep things cordial while we enjoy the tea I can brewing. I hope that it doesn't become too bitter for you."

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The hot water scooped in the ladle gently fell into the cup as the man slowly twisted his wrist, letting it fall in such a way that the water drops hitting the ceramic interior seemed to resound through the cavern. It was both calming, and to some level slightly unsettling to hear, especially for the bluenette sitting across from him. After pouring one ladle's worth of water, the man began to wash the tea whisk, twisting and spinning it within the hot water in the cup.

"I appreciate the discretion. I guess if anything that is something harder to come by these days."

A small smile came across the man's face, as if acknowledging Calrex's observation, "I can agree with you on that."

Continuing wit the ceremony he lifted the tea whisk out of the hot water, letting it rest on the end of the handle before reaching with both hands to gently lift the water-filled cup to him, "At the same time, I'm not at all surprised. A game like this with such a new technology is certainly going to bring people from all walks of life, both the good and the bad. There are some that simply wish to play a game, while there are others that...let's say have a rather overabundant neuroticism about them. Some call them elitists, or being full of themselves, but in some ways games in general just bring out the toxic side of such individuals. If only it were something that could be..."

Taking the bowl in his right hand the man moved it over a nearby empty bowl, tilting it so that the water quickly fell out of it, at the same time as the last bit of his response, "...washed out, made clean again."

The timing seemed to be a bit too on point to have been coincidence, as Calrex took notice of it. His hands came up, interlocking his fingers while resting his chin against it, "You certainly respond in a much lighter manner than others I've heard about. Many would be the type to simply eliminate them and be done with it, since this is of course a death game, and not a simple MMORPG anymore."

Reaching over to grab another placed white folded towelette the man proceeded to slowly wipe the slightly dampened cup, "I'm sure many do. Like I said before, this game attracted many people from many ages and walks of life. Some may not have reached the level of maturity necessary to see past such rather child-minded solutions. After all the world isn't black and white..."

"...it's a bunch of shades of gray..."

"Oh, you've heard the phrase."

"It certainly makes things easier, and other things much more difficult when it comes to devising an action or solution."

"Of course, all the more reason to be careful what you say, and what you do. Everything you put out is eventually going to have some kind of impact on the world that will come back to you."

"This guy...he's certainly got a lot of things I've thought of before..."

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"Apologies for the delay on your tea, but of course you seem familiar with this type of ceremony."

"No, not at all. Please, I appreciate a well-brewed cup of tea over a fast one. After all, tea and coffee both take time to steep and infuse the water with their nutrients and flavor."

As the two continued their conversation, the man continued with the preparation, now having finished prepping a second cup as well. Next he reached over and calmly opened the small container, exposing the contents inside. Like Calrex had initially suspected, it was matcha powder, finely ground green tea leaves that had been dried for a long period of time. The whole leaves could be used for brewing as well, but the powder gave a different flavor and faster brewing time, to his knowledge.

"You know, I believe I have yet to catch your name."

"Hm...I don't believe that is necessary in this case. It is true that I know much about you, as your reputation certainly precedes you, but that does not mean I will use such things like a ransom over your head. Going from your composure, I'm sure you are the type of man that tries to live without regret, so if any checkered parts of your past are brought to light, you tend to face such things head on rather than dodge or dismiss them."

"You wouldn't be wrong. I think I've lived through far too much to be afraid of such a thing. Whatever actions I may have done in the past, I aim to accept each one and the consequences that comes with such decisions."

"I try to carry myself in a similar fashion. There is a thought that I usually keep in my mind, that in a boiled down aspect, everyone in this world has the freedom to do whatever they want, as long as they are willing to accept the consequences of their actions. A person not willing to accept such things must be careful what they do and say, because they wish to retain some form of control over the repercussions of their actions."

Using the thin bamboo scoop the man gently scooped two scoops into both cups, spreading the powder evenly across the bottom of each before tapping the scoop against the side to knock off any stuck on pieces. Now with the powder in the cups he retrieved the ladle, now reaching over towards the hot water pot.

"Strange, this man seems to have a lot of things in common, at least in our outlook and perspective on society and reality. But something definitely feels off about this situation, not just because we're having traditionally prepared tea in the middle of the tenth floor...come to think of it where are the monsters. I thought that some would spawn around here at some point."

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