[-|Back in the Game |-]
[Chapter 1 -o0o- Start]
Kirito leaned back against the wall of the ruined building they claimed for themselves, arms crossed and eyes closed. His mind raced as he tried to think on everything that unfolded over the course of the long night. It was morning now, and daylight slowly broke over the remains of a once great city ages ago.
As predicted, things got out of hands and weapons were drawn in the confusion. The Royal Guards, as it turned out, were still active and many players died once they descended from the skies like Grim Angels to bring order to the chaos. The word quickly got around that death wasn’t permanent, but the fear of pain kept everyone in line.
It became an equalizer that brought the rest of the city to a standstill for the time being. Not that it settled his mind. How many times could someone revive before something other than an EXP penalty was applied? Were there a set number of total lives?
If it were just Elder Tales like he had been playing, then it wouldn’t bother him so much. But being inside of the game with no way out left him wondering if whoever it was that was behind this thought to copy Kayaba’s mad ambitions and then take it a step further. Even if death was fundamentally different from the actual Death Game, this was too much like SAO to begin with—or rather, it embodied the ideal Kayaba had when he envisioned what SAO could be.
It was a world of clean air and overrunning nature, where heavy steel weighed lives that were determined by how much of their health bar remained. While it was no castle in the sky, it was still a world where heroes could be forged. There were monsters that prowled just outside the city, and quests that could mark your accomplishments that added to your fame. It was the sort of world that he imagined Kayaba would have wanted Aincrad to be earnest, lurking just beneath his floating castle in the sky.
Yet, there was no grand proclamation from the overlord of the world that somehow managed to pull them in. No reason given for why they were pulled from their homes and families and friends. There still wasn’t a clear explanation for how they managed to get into the game in the first place. There was no logical conclusion he could think of, and it rankled him.
“This food is crap.” Klein said, holding up what looked to be a sandwich. “Even the earlier meals in SAO weren’t this bad or bland.”
All things considered, Klein was handling the situation better than Kirito expected. His sister had only heard about what it was like to be trapped in the Death Game and she still nearly had a panic attack listening to the chaos unfold. Silica had mentally retreated into herself by the time she arrived, no doubt because she was once more separated from her family and friends on the other side.
Kirito blamed himself. He was the one who suggested they play the game, but he never imagined this could happen again. That made him responsible for their wellbeing, and that meant he had to find some way to get them back. But, to do that, he needed to know something important. “Klein.”
The Samurai looked up at him. “Hm?”
He nodded to the two girls sleeping against one another. “Can you look after these two?”
“Sure, but where are you going?” he asked.
Kirito stood straight and rolled his shoulders, the swords on his back shifting. “To find out if we can survive here.”
[LH -o0o- SAO]
Shiroe, a Half-Alv Enchanter-Scribe, was currently leaning against the stone rail at the top of what was presumably a parking deck at one point in time. His elbows rested against it, leaving his mouth covered by his clasped fingers as he looked out at the rising sun. The blue sky was amazing, and the white clouds lazily drifting above without planes or pollution was beautiful in its own way.
He was still having some trouble believing he was inside of Elder Tales. There was precedence for it, judging by what he read on the Sword Art Online Incident. It was a big thing a few years ago, the largest hostage situation in the world. There were hundreds of attempts to hack the game from the outside and free those trapped within, but it was to no avail.
In the end, it was the players themselves who managed to gain their freedom. While the full details were still unclear after a few months, if this was a similar situation then they had no choice but to find their own way out. But… was that really the case?
There were no established directions or goals to accomplish. They didn’t even know where to start. And, if they didn’t find one soon, people would lose hope and become desperate.
“This food tastes like dog crap,” came from behind him, where Naotsugu sat on top of the upper-half of his armor. His face lost all color as he bit down what looked to be a riceball. “As if being stuck here isn’t enough, I can’t even enjoy rice….”
Shiroe agreed there. They felt hunger and needed to eat, but so far every bit of food tasted about as well as ashes in their mouths. Taste and eating for pleasure were things needed to feel human, though most people only realized that now that they were devoid of it. That would be another thing that would contribute to their problems if they didn’t get some direction soon.
‘My Lord,’ Akatsuki spoke into his mind. She was a somewhat well-known player, though it was presumed she was a man until she approached him and Naotsugu for an appearance-changing potion in his possession. She swore fealty after that, and seemed insistent on following through with it. ‘There’s a player on the move, heading towards one of the hostile areas.‘
He frowned. Just about everyone had buckled down to wait to see how the situation would unfold because they were clueless and the fear of pain. For someone to brave the woodlands so soon meant that either they were reckless, or potentially knew something. Either way, it merited investigation.
‘Can you trail him without being seen or hurting yourself, Miss Akatsuki? ‘ he asked. ‘I’ll follow shortly.‘
‘Yes, My Lord,‘ she replied, before tacking on, ‘and it’s just Akatsuki.‘
He straightened up and turned to his friend. “There’s a player heading out into one of the nearby zones. I’m going to investigate with Akatsuki.”
“I’ll go with you,” he said, tossing aside the remnants of his food. “Safety in numbers and all that… plus it’s better than sitting here with no clue what’s going on and eating crap.”
[SAO -o0o- LH]
Having left the others behind, Kirito made it to one of the nearby zones around the outskirts of the Player Town. It was an area where enemies ranked between Level 20 to 30 on average, far below his own. As a Level 90 character, he could at least sustain a reasonable amount of damage before being threatened and could get back to safety if necessary. It would serve its purpose well.
Like he told Klein, he had to know whether or not it was possible to survive here. In context, he meant whether or not he could survive here as he had in SAO—whether or not he could fight as he had done for those two years.
He had been a Soloer in SAO, one of the very few of them in the end. Those who did were often easy prey for enemies in one form or another, with no one to watch their backs if they blundered, so the numbers tapered off the further into the game. It taught you to be cautious, but more than a fair bit of the reason it was possible was because Sword Art Online had been unbalanced in a sense.
It was the first VRMMORPG on the market, a game where you were meant to conquer the one-hundred floors. There were no other games like it on the Full Dive at the time, so the appeal to it wasn’t the balance. It was the feeling of being a hero often told of in folktales and fiction. You, a single person with steel in hand, could carve out a legacy for yourself.
That was what Kayaba pitched, and people like Kirito had bought it—hook, line, and sinker. They got to be something more. They got to be something greater than themselves. The game sacrificed balance to tell a story of Kayaba’s own design, and that was part of what made it possible to pull the solo act for as he did.
Kayaba wanted someone to rise up and challenge him. He wanted heroes forged through blood and trials. And, by chance, it had been Kirito who met those requirements and fulfilled his wishes.
Kirito didn’t think he could be a Soloer in this world. Elder Tales was different on a mechanical level, even if the circumstances at the moment were similar on a surface level. Elder Tales had twenty years of refining put into it and was known as one of the best MMOs to date, while Theldesia was, on a significant scale, vaster than what Aincrad had been.
That was why he came here. To find out if the Black Swordsman could become someone who could clear the game again, so that the others could get back home to where they were meant to be without the risk of death. To find out if he could be a hero who didn’t break a promise to protect someone who was terrified of fighting, only to watch her die after he told her it would be all right.
So he wouldn’t be able to only offer flowers and tears of regret in front of her grave.
The clicking of mandibles caught his ears and broke him from his thoughts of Sachi’s fate. His eyes skimmed the woodlands for the source, and they fell on a nearby flower the size of a bush that rustled and then moved. The soft dirt beneath it was upturned and gave way to what looked to be a brownish-red spider that trembled, shaking loose dirt free as it stalked towards him.
It was a Florarachnid, an insectoid-class monster somewhere in the mid-20s level. And it wasn’t alone as more uprooted themselves, numbering six in total coming for him. On the bestiary it registered that they were territorial predators and would brazenly attack anything that came into their aggro-range—even an Adventurer over sixty levels above them.
The hiss of his sword leaving his sheath, a sound he hadn’t heard for months now, resonated in his ears as he pulled out the [Lunar Fang] and held it in front of him. The pristine white blade caught the morning sun as it was swung across the body of the first mob of the group, cleaving it in two cleanly.
The monster’s remains literally popped into gold coins, prismatic bubbles, and a bottle of something he presumed to be used as a crafting component. As interesting as that was, it took a backseat to the fact that he still had five others trying to rush him. He knew there was a skill for that called Whirlwind and he brought up the menu hoping to use the technique to blow them all away.
That was when he came across the first major problem. He had to touch it and work with it, devoting his attention to it. That was something that not only took time, which was a very bad thing since they were getting ready to jump at him in two seconds by his count, but was outright impossible for anyone who used two weapons at once without sheathing one.
He dismissed the menu and then darted backwards at an angle to avoid getting swarmed and funnel how they came after him. Realistically speaking, he could probably kill them all if he ran in swords swinging. That was fine for now.
But what about stronger enemies, or those around the level cap? Not having access to their skills without the menu really was going to be a serious problem. It would definitely kill the pace of the eventual Front-Liners of this game.
Button pressing worked fine when you were on the other side of a screen, with a behind-the-back camera view. But SAO had quickly showed why that didn’t work and why Kayaba at least had the common decency to allow for Sword Skills. If whoever sucked them into the game copied his methods somehow, then that had to be the key.
There had to be some kind of trigger for the game’s equivalent of those skills. Maybe he had to assume a position, make a motion, or issue a vocal command? If there was ever a time to find out, it was now. He would just try all three at once.
Kirito thought about how it looked on the screen. The avatar would spin, sweeping his weapon fast enough to create a gale that cast the enemy back as the blade cleaved through flesh. He assumed the position, took a deep breath as he faced the spider-like monsters, and followed through the motions. “WHIRLWIND!”
His body moved on its own quickly enough, as though it had been seized by the technique itself. The Whirlwind was unleashed, wrapping his weapon with wind as he spun and then billowing out around him in a wave. It pushed them back and did more damage than his base strike had, killing four out of five within the technique’s range.
But he couldn’t move in the aftermath, his body frozen against his will. It was similar to SAO then, with Sword Skills doing greater damage than rudimentary strikes at the cost of the cool-down leaving him vulnerable. That proved to be something he hoped to avoid in the future as the remaining Florarachnid lunged for him and sank its fangs into his legs before it could wear off.
A pained groan left his mouth as he stabbed the blade down, into the abdomen that made up the bulk of its body, to kill it. It hurt, as he suspected. There was no getting around that. But things got worse when an icon appeared beneath his health bar to show he had been poisoned.
There was a painful feeling lingering in his body even now, like lava pumping along with his blood. It felt like he was melting on the inside, liquefying so that the spiders could suck away the slurry inside the remaining flesh once he was dead. If this was how the DOT poison felt on the other side of the screen, then he would start investing in some Anti-Toxin potions and maybe a talisman of some kind.
The good news was that the poison’s duration would fade in ten seconds and he wouldn’t lose more than a thousand in health. The bad news was that he would have to tolerate dissolving on the inside for those ten seconds without the benefit of adrenaline. He didn’t want to think about what would have happened if he had been bitten when there was more than one of them and they managed to swarm him as a result.
He gritted his teeth and waited for the duration to expire. The melting feeling stopped immediately, and the passive regeneration now that he was out of combat kicked in. It was gradual, but as his health rose the pain started to numb. At full health it was like he never was hurt. He would chalk that up to a basic test of how the health system functioned.
Either way, with all the nearby ones dead, he took a moment to look through his skill tree in the menu. He would activate all the skills he had, one at a time, and take into account how his body responded to each one. Then he would venture further inside to test if he had what it took to face off against a real challenge.
[LH -o0o- SAO]
‘From the look of it, he’s experimenting with using the skills in combat now,‘ Akatsuki reported dutifully. She was ahead of them, keeping an eye on the player they were tracking now.
Shiroe took in the information and compartmentalized it as he and Naotsugu traversed the path that had been taken, markers left behind by Akatsuki leading them towards him. It brought him to a conclusion easy enough. ‘I think he may be a SAO survivor, possibly one of those they classified as a Clearer.‘
Naotsugu looked towards him. Since all three were connected as they traveled as a party, they could hear one another broadcasting messages in what was once the Party Chat. ‘What makes you think that? ‘
‘It sounds like he’s testing the system of the game and comparing it to those of the Death Game,‘ Shiroe explained. ‘Using the system and mastering it are two different things entirely, but firsthand experience combined with over two years of combat would naturally engrave a certain fighting style into his instincts.‘
Naotsugu snapped his fingers. ‘I get it. It’s like the difference between a veteran soldier being called back for war compared to a newly enlisted recruit—he’s not sure if the rules of engagement are the same, but he’s already been accustomed to the heat of battle.‘
‘That seems to be the case,‘ Akatsuki added in. ‘His speed seemed to have increased as well, presumably the Lightning Step movement skill. He’s heading towards the Dark Woods portion of the zone. I can keep up, but it will mean pulling further away from you, My Lord. Should I keep up my pursuit? ‘
‘Please do, Miss Akatsuki. Just continue to leave markers behind and we’ll follow them, but stay hidden. Once we have an understanding of who we’re dealing with, then we can decide our next course of action. But I want to do this peacefully if possible.‘
‘Just. Akatsuki.‘ With that said, she went silent on her end of their connection. That left Shiroe and Naotsugu to their own conversation.
“So, what are we going to do when we run into him?” Naotsugu asked aloud. “I mean, it’ll come across looking weird if we just tracked him from Akiba. With everyone on edge, he might attack us.”
“To be honest, while I have a few questions in mind, I’d be happy just getting some answers in general.” Shiroe admitted. “We don’t know anything, and while it’s likely he doesn’t know anything about the current situation either, we can compare the present situation to the events of the SAO Incident.”
“…I had a teenage cousin who got caught up in that,” Naotsugu said, after a pause. “He made it out of it okay, and I took time off work to visit him with the family. He told me that he hid in the Town of Beginnings the entire time he was logged in because he was afraid of monsters and everything.”
“Understandable,” Shiroe said. “The game didn’t turn out like anyone expected, and people rarely handle change well.”
“I’ll admit that I thought it was a bit of a waste, being in a game and all without exploring the world like we did before when Kanami was around,” he admitted, though he didn’t sound too proud of it. “I mean, could you have imagined what would have happened if she was in the country when Sword Art Online came out?”
He was referring to the leader of the Debauchery Tea Party, and the one who held them together. It was basically a pick-up group that turned into something more, a guild without being a guild, dedicated to exploring every inch of the world of Elder Tales for the sake of doing so. They had split apart before even the Beta of Sword Art Online came out, but they were well-known amongst the veteran players of Elder Tales.
If she had been in the country, Shiroe could imagine she would have definitely been one of the trapped players. But that knowledge didn’t bring him any comfort considering the horrific body-count. Not to mention she would have been separated from her daughter, something that he wouldn’t wish on any parent.
“But now I can see why he didn’t want to leave the town,” Naotsugu continued. “We’re walking through the wilds, never knowing when something is going to crawl out and attack us. At least we know we’ll respawn, but for them it was a different story entirely.”
Shiroe nodded. “I kept up with the news to an extent, but after the first month the number of deaths tapered down and it slowly sank into just another old news topic. It was like the country was trying to sweep it under the table. That made it worse when the players were freed and some of the news broke—even with some attempts at censorship, the stories that managed to get out didn’t really do much to help.”
“How far will you press him for answers you aren’t sure will do us any good?” Naotsugu asked. The tone of his voice made it clear it would be a serious matter. “If he’s an SAO survivor, you’ll be asking him about something a lot of people still want to forget. My cousin was safe for the most part, but it was still traumatic enough that he doesn’t so much as look at a videogame. And a co-worker was telling me about how someone was killed over some in-game issue that spilled out after the fact just a week ago.”
“I heard about that myself.” Information on what happened in SAO was somewhat conflicting and unreliable. While everyone in general agreed it was a nightmare, you have some people who embellished parts of it and their roles. The incident Naotsugu mentioned was someone pretending to be a Clearer, which an actual one saw as an insult that he couldn’t forgive.
The resulting fight led to one man’s death, and the report that followed had the assailant claim that he saw friends die trying to help beat the game. He claimed that hearing someone who didn’t stand on the frontline, a player who lurked on the first floor out of fear, taking credit from the dead had been too much for him to listen to and he snapped. The jury was debating on it.
Shiroe’s eyes were hidden by his lenses as they came to a stop beneath a break in the canopy. “… Right now, we’re grasping at straws. I don’t want to force answers out of him, especially not for a sensitive topic. But we need a source of authentic information, even if it appears irrelevant, and he’s the only one acting in a manner outside of the rest who are hiding away.”
Shiroe adjusted his glasses by the bridge between the lenses. “I’ll try not to be too forward about it, but I’m acting as best I can in the circumstances. I don’t care if he’ll end up hating me for it, but just having some way to differentiate things beyond speculation could set a lot of minds at ease. For that, I’m willing to ask uncomfortable questions.”
Naotsugu placed his hand on his forehead and sighed. “See, this is the sort of thing that got you that reputation of yours, you know?”
Shiroe didn’t deny that. Instead, he silently pressed onwards, his friend following a step behind. The silence was palpable, only to be broken when Akatsuki spoke through their mental connection again.
‘My Lord,‘ she said. ‘He’s approaching the area where the Raid Boss dwells. I think he intends to face it by himself.‘
‘This could work to our advantage,‘ Shiroe stated. Negotiations were easier when done under a banner of goodwill, and a position of power. The goodwill would come from assisting him in either escaping or combat, while the power would come from demonstrating their combined talents. ‘I’ll cast a movement spell and speed up our approach. Keep me informed.‘
‘As you command,‘ she answered. ‘I’ll await you there.‘
Shiroe then turned to Naotsugu. “You can walk away if you want. I won’t blame you.”
“As if.” Naotsugu grabbed his shield off his back. “I followed you this far out and you’re all squishy and everything. You need someone to act as a Tank, and that’s me.”
“…Thank you,” Shiroe told him, after a pause. The sincerity in his voice was clear enough to dispel any doubts he didn’t appreciate it.
[SAO -o0o- LH]
Kirito was staring up at a giant spider nestled in a web that hung above, lining the canopy. Layers of webbing overlapped, cocoons of withered husks loitering within them. They created a mesh so dense that it blotted out the sun and weighed down on the branches more than the Raid Boss of the zone.
The Broodspider of the Forest was a Raid x 1-ranked monster for players in their 30s to take on, with the more difficult part of the battle being dealing with the adds or minion-ranked monsters it spawned. It, like many of its kind that had been slain before by his blade until now, was some unholy hybrid of a plant and arachnid. It chittered at him while looking down from above with eyes of burning gold in the darkness of the canopy.
Kirito couldn’t help but cringe as, to his disgust, it excremented a long, wide, thick batch of silk from its spinneret that swelled to nearly half of its size. His expression shifted to being somewhat concerned when it then split apart into what looked to be a few dozen smaller spiders of its ilk. They were weak at a glance, being minion-rank and thus only 1/3 as powerful as the others he’d faced to this point, and would die in one hit without a skill.
But there were so many of them, descending towards the ground on strands that came out of their spinnerets. All of them were likely to be poisonous as well. That wasn’t going to be fun.
He debated running inside of his head. He really did. But he still needed to see if it was enough, if the skills he honed in the Death Game would be enough to conquer a foe such as the boss. He wouldn’t run away, even if he had to do it alone.
That was when another player came up next to him. He was clad in heavy armor, wielding a shield and sword. Kirito reasoned he had to be a Guardian from it. However, why he was there eluded Kirito personally.
“Hey, you weren’t planning on dealing with all of them alone, were you?” the Guardian asked, from out of nowhere. It was a fair question.
“Kinda,” Kirito told him, drawing his second sword. It wasn’t night, but the darkness from the webbing blocking the sun would still give [Black Raver] the damage bonus. “I can’t leave until I know something, and there’s only one way to find out.”
“Know what?” asked the Guardian. It was another fair question.
“If I have the strength to triumph over a boss of this level with the skills I have,” he told him. “So that those who don’t want to fight won’t have to in order to survive, and so that I can clear whatever stands in their way to getting back home. The first step is knowing my limitations in this game, and bosses exist to test the skills of players.”
“As good a reason as any, I guess.” The guy flashed him a smile and then set his eyes on all the enemies lowering themselves and the boss. “You wouldn’t mind if we helped you out, would you?”
“We?” Kirito received a party invite from a Shiroe not a second after he asked. It listed him as an Enchanter, so Kirito presumed he was lurking around the perimeter of the battlefield to remain safe from harm. He accepted and was connected to the man telepathically, just as a girl who appeared to be a ninja landed on the opposite side of the Guardian.
‘Good Morning,‘ the Enchanter said through their mental connection. ‘My name is Shiroe, and I’ll be providing support from the rear line. My associate is Miss Akatsuki, an Assassin who will be assisting in attacking, and Naotsugu, a Guardian who will act as a Tank. I’ll also be managing the coordination of our teamwork, if there are no complaints? ‘
‘No,‘ Kirito replied. He wasn’t expecting help when he came here, but a pick-up group consisting of a Swashbuckler, a Guardian, an Assassin, and an Enchanter would prove interesting at the very least. ‘I’ll need to concentrate on fighting, so I’ll leave support and managing up to you for now.‘
‘Very well,‘ replied the Enchanter as the first wave of spiders touched down and began their march towards them. ‘Then let us begin.‘
[Chapter 1 -o0o- End]
Name: Level – Class (Species – Build) and Sub-Class
Shiroe: Lv. 90 Enchanter (Half-Alv – Crowd Controller) with Scribe sub-class
Akatsuki: Lv. 90 Assassin (Human – Shadow Blade) with Tracker sub-class
Naotsugu: Lv. 90 Guardian (Human – Fortress) with Border Patrol sub-class
Notes: The fallout from SAO had more than government and global issues, but on a personal level as well. Kirito personally gave the other members of the Black Cats of the Full Moon’s families his condolences—and, in Sachi’s case, he also left flowers on her family grave because he really does blame himself for promising to protect her and failing.
Likewise, just because they managed to end back up in the real world didn’t mean that any issues that cropped up in the game didn’t spill out of it, like what happened with Grimlock and Griselda. That’s one of the more hotly debated issues at present in the public.