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NIGHT

[F09-PP] <<Guardian of Fire>> Red Sun

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She'd merely have the strength enough to nod back and hum a reply. Her glance towards the man's canine companion was enough for her to ponder if she could use them as a comfortable pillow of sorts.

Better not anger the wolf. Either one would be bad to be on less agreeable terms with.

NIGHT pulled open her menus and summoned her sleeping bag. Even after a handful of rare, occasional uses it had still remained in the corner of her inventory. One quick packing of the player into its slit; soon, the woman was fast asleep.

Her dreams were not as subtle or fearful just as Koga's was. Rather, her waking was natural with the rising of the sun, an internal clock that set her day right after the routines of hunting from days past. And when her mind was set on the journey still ahead of them, it was easy to loosen her sentimentality on the illusions of the night.

A groan could've signaled her companion of the woman's rise. If not that, then a sharp chirp of a humble "Good morning," should've been more than enough.

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The night was quiet, and oddly peaceful given the innate nature of where they were. They certainly not safe, but it seemed the System had decided to allow them a night of rest. And so, Koga spent it staring up at the sky, attempting to trace imaginary constellations that never existed. They came in the forms of beasts he fought. People he knew. But not the people he'd lost. They were not stories he wanted to entertain now.

There were the ten Dragons.
There was the Minotaur.
There was the Troll, the Phoenix, the Byakko.

There was the Cook.
There was the Man Who Hoped He Was Remembered.
There was the Artisan, but not her.

Koga went on until he ran out of people and things to name the stars after. And then, he sat, and stared across the empty fields of fire. He did his best not to think. But his attempt was poor.

As the sun rose, Koga heard NIGHT slowly rouse herself from sleep, and the man looked back over his shoulder at her. "Morning," he replied with a nod before turning back to the wasteland. He'd move when she was ready to get going.

@NIGHT

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So they carried on, once NIGHT had managed to pack her things. The woman stretched backwards as she traveled, wincing at her own stiffness with her eyes set on the valley that was ahead of them. Had she ventured  with someone else, perhaps she would have been less interested in a conversation. Instead, when she found her voice, the player turned over to Koga, somewhat expectant. "Anything off during the watch?"

"It's hard to stay interested during them, isn't it? The rest of the world's asleep but you're forced to stay awake." A moment of pause, the woman clasping a hand over her mouth from a quick yawn. "Figured it might've been easier for you since you've been out on your own for a while -- I'm not sure how that vagabond's lifestyle must've been like."

Even before mentioning it, she'd expected his tales to be of nothing but grief an absence of time.

"You got any stories from staying hidden out in the wild?"

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As the party set out, Koga did his best to get himself out of his own headspace, back into the real world. Hopefully their conversation would help. "Not a thing," the man replied as the gravel crunched beneath his boots. "Just a whole lot volcanic hellscape. You know, the usual." Sarcasm usually did the trick.

"Eh, it wasn't all that bad. I've always been a bit of an insomniac," he told NIGHT. "Hard time falling asleep, waking up tired. But that could also just be the college stress and stuff ya know? Not that being stuck in a death-game has helped in the stress department much." Was that a bit too real? Too morbid?

Koga tried to think of any stories he'd had from his time out of existence. Unsurprisingly, he found that he wasn't able to think of a single one. "Not really, to be honest," he answered, "I really just hunted enough mobs to buy food when I got the craving for it and stuff. The rest of the time I just kinda...wandered? I guess. Stayed away from the upper floors. Just bounced between the First and Fifteenth. Can't remember a single about them though. You'd think I'd have memorized their layouts or something by now." Okami decided they were moving too slowly and bounded a bit ahead of the two players before stopping and waiting for them, only to do it again. "What about you? Any crazy stories?"

@NIGHT

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Hearing Koga speak frankly about life outside of Aincrad was surprising. "I hadn't expected you to still be holding onto the concerns of reality, to be honest." Not that NIGHT could say the same when her focuses had been on the death game. "But I get it. One source of struggle just transforms into another."

When was the last time she'd spoken with another about what they'd been doing before being sealed in the iron castle? Most players might've thought it as morbid or demotivating; to NIGHT, it only felt normal. Perhaps that was why her companion was willing to share his experiences too. "Can't say that school for me had been so much of sleepless nights all the time, though."

She'd nodded at his explanation. That he even breached past the tenth was a curiosity to the woman entirely. "Never really been out wandering for little reason," she divulged, thumbing a lock of her hair out of habit. "I'd rather be home if I could help it. If anything, quests have been writing whatever crazy narratives I might've been on."

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Koga let out a short chuckle, "I wouldn't call it holding onto what's out there," he explained, "unless you're a monk or something, there's always something to stress about. School, work, that one girl you like, etcetera etcetera. It just so happens that in here its dying and getting out." Although...did Koga really want to leave, anyways? He'd had this conversation with Tala before. At the end of it, she'd convinced him, at least a little but...now?

"What was life like for you in the real world? If you don't mind me asking," the swordsman inquired. Such lines of questioning weren't generally seen as usual in most online games, but between two old friends? It seemed okay now. Besides, who knew if they'd see tomorrow?

Koga couldn't quite remember the times he wanted to be home, either in Aincrad, or in the real world. Out there, he wasn't really sure what place he could even call home. In Aincrad, there was always another adventure to go chasing after. But, even then, he supposed, it was a place of rest, comfort. "We lived out of an inn for a long time," Koga said, "and if we weren't in our room, or out on a quest, we were working at the shop...its so...jarring...walking in there everyday, and all of her stuff is gone." Koga seemed to stare blankly at the ground for a moment before apparently bringing himself back to reality, "But for you, quests are crazy stories in and of themselves. Don't tell me that everything went exactly according to plane, every single time?"

@NIGHT

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She'd bit her tongue at the accuracy of Koga's random list of worries; did her problems happen to be this vanilla? Especially that last part--

"It's as you said," she replied, with a wave of her hand. "School, work-- ...whatever. I used to study game design; we had a Diploma based around it, and was about to be graduating too. Just had to get through my internship first..."

"Then this happened..."

The player continued to walk along with a sour face. Even in recollection, she could barely recall her work engine's interface, much less any related applications that might've assisted her in the effort. Doubtless that the vast majority of Aincrad could say the same about their relative expertise, too; NIGHT huffed at the thought, the idea of having to re-invest herself from the beginning or way further back just to reintegrate herself back into society.

Yet it was an effort that still needed to be done.

When Koga spoke of his own experience, it was the least NIGHT could do to listen intently. There was no way she could connect fully to his grief -- but she nodded, at least, to the idea that his everyday routine had been shattered. That moment of silence afterwards had her searching for the right words to say, but there were none she could come up with. A salve to sorrow was something she wasn't familiar with.

But stories...

"Is that what you'd consider interesting?" The player tilted her head, thumb brushing her jawline. "When it comes to quests, there's always been a number of mishaps here and there. --Like, there's this quest on one of the upper floors which I'm pretty sure it's bugged. And with the decimation of the lake on the twenty-second floor, one of them might be nigh unworkable now."

"What else...?"

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"Hey, I studied game design too," Koga said, markedly cheerier than he had been before. "At my school it fell under Digital Culture, Media Processing, though. We never had a dedicated diploma for it which I was always pretty bummed out about." Funny how he was talking about it all as if it were still in the past, as if he'd never go back to the real world to finish his studies. But in a way, that was a different life. Different from his life here, and different from the life he'd live after.

"Woah, woah, woah. Back up a second. There's a bugged quest? And what's this about the lake on the twenty second floor?" See? This was interesting. "When did all this happen?"

Koga couldn't even imagine what the consequences of a bugged quest were. It likely ranged from the mildly inconvenient to leading to numerous player deaths...And a lake being decimated? Whatever that meant. That could not possibly bode well, one way or another.

@NIGHT

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"Eh? Um..."

NIGHT cupped her hand around her mouth, pensive just as they'd continue down their winding road. The heart of the valley struck to her as no danger -- how strange, but the player would take any chance of good luck they'd come across in stride.

"It was about July-- or was it around August? There was a star festival up on the twenty-second." Her grip tethered away from her face. "'Tanabata', I believe. The lake was decorated like the night sky for about a week or two. Then came the ending ceremony--"

"--I think it was a dragon that crashed through the lake bed?" Her brows were met in a furrow, still attempting to piece together the crisis. "Ripped apart the entire thing in one strike. Now there's just an empty hole where the Lake of Reflections used to be. Water still pours down it, but it ends up on the twenty-first instead."

The player hummed to herself. "I haven't gone back to check on it yet, though. But it became a battlefield over... something or another. The 'Sundered Spire', or something?" NIGHT clicked her tongue, rubbing her temples in great aggravation. "Like it concerns me-- I already have my own share of troubles to deal with without whatever happens in Aincrad."

"As for that bugged quest, it's just some green giant in the Underdark somewhere. What was it, the twenty-third? It barely attacks at all. Even then, I don't think it's liable to hurt."

She shook her head with a groan, before shooting a pained look at her companion. "Honestly, is any of this interesting to you? I know you'd been out of the loop lately, but I didn't think any of this would be out of someone's radar."

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So a...dragon...blew a hole into the bottom of the twenty second floor...Koga was suddenly very concerned about all the hatchlings he'd been killing lately. The man furrowed his brow as he thought about all that. And a battlefield? Koga remembered the Obsidian event, but another large scale battle? That seemed highly unusual. Without more details, he couldn't be sure of anything, but it certainly sounded like the System was more than willing to ante up every once in a while.

As for the weird bugged troll...well that seemed inconsequential at best.

"I don't think you understand, NIGHT," Koga began to say, "I didn't speak to anyone except Okami for months." The wolf, still ahead of them, stopped and looked back at the two players having heard his name. "And that boy isn't exactly much of a talker. And even if I was in town, it wasn't for long. This is all news to me."

@NIGHT

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Seriously?

All NIGHT could do was grumble and brush back a bit of her hair with her fingers. Flittering ghosts be damned. "As you say, then."

What else could she come up with to fill the void? The woman hummed for a moment, trying to pick out the highlights of the past few months.

--Ice skating was one of them.

"So, like," she continued in a sudden balk, a slight tinge of red upon her ears. "There's this guild recently-- Firm Anima? They've gotten pretty big lately. Sounds to me like they've got master craftsmen on their side, I believe. I think they're basically forging an army out there. They've got divisions and the like; I've met the one in charge of their combat, if that's what they even call it. I've even seen their guild leader at the boss raid's meeting."

Another pause.

"--That being said, I was wondering if you were going to stick it out as a solo player." She'd been among their ranks for a while; had it not been for social contracts, perhaps she might still be one, too.

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NIGHT grumbled her frustration, earning herself a wry smile from Koga before he set his eyes back on the road. Koga didn't look back over at her until she spoke again. Had her ears gone red or was he hallucinating?

Koga had heard tell of Firm Anima. Not much, but he knew they had a large contingent of skilled craftsmen, but he didn't know much else about them. The fact that they sounded somewhat militarized was news to him. If they had the right kind of players in their ranks, then there was a pretty good chance they were strong allies on the Frontlines. But then NIGHT hesitated.

"I was wondering if you were going to stick it out as a solo player?"

Koga didn't respond at first. He walked silently, looking at his feet as he felt a growing tightness in his chest. Not fear, but something near it. "I...Do you think that's a good idea?" he asked with a soft voice. "For me to join a guild, I mean."

@NIGHT

Edited by Koga

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If he'd been uncomfortable, NIGHT hadn't noticed it, too busy fidgeting with her hair being tucked behind her ears and verifying her fears.

(They were warm. Shoot. Why was she so bad at hiding these things?)

"You know the old adage by now," she continued, eyes resting on no solid point on the horizon. How far they'd still have to travel, the player was still just as uncertain of knowing. A wave of her hand in a lackadaisical manner, as she brought her sights up to meet her taller friend's. "'Safety in numbers' and all that. If it's not for the guild benefits, then it has to be for the gathering of players that'll stick by you and help you out. --Vice versa, of course."

Did it sound like she was pitching for her companion to join some random guild she only knew in passing (and was very certain could own its very own island city if Cardinal gave it the chance)? Perhaps. But as she awaited Koga's response, she knew that for what reputation Firm Anima held for itself stood true because of the inner machinations of its operations. That, and their leaders were absolutely serious about their regiment and the game's completion. Nothing could be further from the truth after watching their heads enter action and walk out as a group alive.

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Koga almost winced at NIGHT's explanation. Yeah, that stuff usually was true when people didn't have a habit of dropping dead around you. "I don't know NIGHT," Koga replied, "I've never been in a guild before, and I'm not good at working with more than a couple people. Plus, in case you hadn't noticed, I have a bad habit of disappearing into the ether." Admittedly, Koga was going to do his best to avoid that from ever happening again, but he had no guarantees.

But then there was a whole other topic that needed to be addressed. "Hey, why are you bringing all this up anyways?" He didn't recall the name of NIGHT's guild, but he highly doubted they'd be looking for a lower level player to join them, especially if they were on the frontlines. "You're not trying to...recruit me? Are you?" Oh god, how does one shoot down a friend's invite to a guild?

@NIGHT

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Ah-- was she so easily read by others? Perhaps Koga was more frank than most, or perhaps more observant. NIGHT tried to hide the briefest of smiles, before shaking her head. A long shot from where she was standing, if her friend seemed to be insisting to be alone.

"But I did have a theory," the player admitted, only a tad bit sheepish in her confession. "If you happen to surround yourself with players racing towards higher levels, you might be motivated to do the same, y'know? It's better than just idling around and waiting for the motivation to pick up the slack."

"-- Not that I'm speaking from experience about this."

It was true, however, that other players seemed to hold a drive that NIGHT didn't possess most of the time. That rush of desire to seek greater heights, get better numbers; the extrinsic motivation of more, more completely missed her mark a majority of her stay in Aincrad. "Of course, I'm sure you'll run into some of them given the chance." The woman shut her eyes, head raised towards the sky once more. "I don't need to tell you to look out for yourself while I'm at it, do I?"

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Koga let out a sigh of relief as NIGHT shook her head 'no'. Crisis averted. "Yeah...I see what you're getting at," Koga replied. "And I make no promises, NIGHT," he added with a half-joking grin. No more promises. "You better keep an eye out for yourself too, though. You're not allowed to kick the bucket before me, capiche?"

Surround yourself with player racing towards higher levels, huh? Yeah, there was some merit to that, but a primal part of Koga recoiled at the thought. The part that wanted to protect itself. Every single person Koga met would become either a threat or a vulnerability, and the worst part was that he would never know which one they were until it was too late.

"Hey, I've got a question for you," Koga said abruptly. "Who do you think we would've been if we never got stuck in Aincrad?" Koga knew they'd both been looking to get into the video game industry, but who could they have really been, had they not had that chance stolen from them? Three years was a long time after all, and there could be a thousand different ways their lives could have played out.

@NIGHT

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"You better keep an eye out for yourself too, though. You're not allowed to kick the bucket before me, capiche?"

"If the monsters in here could even make me." That self-assured smirk formed on NIGHT's visage could've been enough to spark stars into existence. Koga's lack of promises did unnerve her somewhat, but she believed in the other player enough to come asking for help had he needed it, especially from her. 

He'd already done so once.

She'd shot him a glance to hear his question out before humming in thought. NIGHT hadn't given the future much consideration in the past; that decision to discard it aside to focus on the present had been but for the better, if only to assuage her of contemplating how much she had to lose for every passing second out in this digital landscape.

So the words she spoke tasted of bitterness. "Graduation," she mentioned, "then university, most likely. I hadn't thought too far ahead aside from that for myself. You on the other hand would've been done with school by now." Her turned gaze towards Koga was but an invitation for him to speak instead. "Only you can answer that, I think. Well?"

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Koga laughed, ever so slightly. Yeah, NIGHT really did seem invincible at times. But no one really ever was, and while the man was certain she knew that, he couldn't help but worry. Maybe one day she'd bite off more that she could chew, get in over her head, and then there was no way back.

Koga pushed the thought from his mind. NIGHT may not be invincible, but she wasn't stupid either. She'd be fine.

Flipping the question back onto him. For some reason, Koga figured he should've seen that coming. Koga had to pause to think for a moment. "I don't know really," he finally said. "To be honest, I don't think graduation and all that would've really mattered all that much to me. I'd probably just gone straight on to work, without a second thought." A ghost of a smile appeared on his lips as he thought some more, "If we're gonna really go wild with all this, maybe I'd have been hired by some big studio and gotten noticed or something, worked closely with someone important something like that." Yeah, that sounded nice. "Realistically though, I don't think I'd have missed anything. Probably be at another dead-end desk job. I guess when I put it like that, Aincrad doesn't sound so bad."

@NIGHT

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She'd nearly punched his arm at the mention of a 'big studio and gotten noticed' -- instead, the woman refrained, keeping her snicker without offense instead. "I'd tell you to be realistic," NIGHT added with a grin. "But life's not so concrete right now for either of us, is it? Mister 'Big Studio' though--" a suspicious smile shot back Koga's way, "-- exactly what names are in your vicinity for that opportunity to have happened?"

"I'd probably have joined you in the workforce if I had my way about things." A hand found respite in the crook of her neck, and she rubbed at her choker's silk with a thumb, spirits fading from her image. "But there's little work to be had over here that isn't handled by interns looking forward to graduation. Plus, we're big on degrees here, even if we don't necessarily need it to validate our skills. It's the culture, really..."

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Koga gave a wry smile and put his eyes back on the road as NIGHT snickered. Yeah. Big dreams, he knew, but hey. Even he was allowed to have a little hope every once in a while.

"None, actually," Koga began to explain, "There's a couple start ups around me, but anything of note would mean I'd have to move." Koga shrugged, "to be honest, it's always been a bit of a pipe dream. I know the chances of breaking into the industry have always been slim. I always figured I wouldn't find work where I wanted, so I'd take a job as a programmer somewhere, and just work on projects in my spare time, build a portfolio and all that, ya know? Doubt it'd go anywhere though." Yeah, reality kinda sucked didn't it? From the sound of it, it was the same way with NIGHT. Koga couldn't help but cringe a little. "I'm not gonna lie, that sounds kinda awful. Degrees are still big where I'm from, but they're starting to be seen as less important at least. As long as I can show I know what I'm doing."

Koga hoped and prayed he'd be able to find a way in, just a foot in the door, but if he was being honest, the chances he'd make it were slim. His skills were too scattered, nothing was focused enough. Jacks of all trades were hardly ever practical.

"Say, NIGHT, have you ever thought about...not...finishing the game?"

@NIGHT

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