Back in the Game: Chapter 3
[-|Back in the Game |-]
Author’s Note: The Broodspider of the Forest used Poison Sting. It’s Super Effective!
[Chapter 3 -o0o- Start]
Shiroe found himself wincing as the Field Boss lashed out while the Swashbuckler was in the middle of his out-of-game attack pattern, striking him full-on with one of its limbs wreathed in a maleficent shade of purple. The weight, combined with its size and the fact that he hadn’t been on the ground, was enough to penetrate his abdomen and leave him skewered upon the outstretched limb.
He had lost a significant chunk of his health but, considering his scream, it was safe to say the pain outweighed that. Made worse was the fact that monster raised him further into the air and was aiming a second leg for his head. Thankfully, Akatsuki leapt from atop the spider and grabbed him, pulling him off the limb-turned-pike in time.
Freed, the Swashbuckler planted his swords into the ground to support his weight as she released him, panting with heated breath. Sweat rolled down his face, stinging his eyes as he fought for breath, and there was a purple stain where the limb had run him through along with the icon for poison displayed near his health bar. The Gain Immunity spell only raised the resistance, but that strike had impaled his avatar and likely had a 100% chance of poisoning.
There was nothing he could do about the ailment until it wore off on its own. ‘Mister Kirito, you should retreat.‘
‘Not yet!‘ The Swashbuckler tightened his grip on his blades as the Field Boss came for him again. Naotsugu moved to intercept it in time, catching the poisonous fangs on his shield despite the fact that it began to ruin the color and smolder upon the metal. It would break soon enough.
Then it brought its front legs around from both sides, as though it was going to close in like a set of pincers with poisoned tips spearing for his unprotected head. He couldn’t retreat with the weight upon his shield, and from the glow forming on it the Shield Bash would likely be a second too slow to stop it.
Akatsuki took the pincer on the left, using her blade in a defensive posture to curve it around and stop it. The one on the right still went unimpeded and would likely have gone through their Tank’s head if not for the black and white blades of the Swashbuckler cleaving through the leg entirely with a critical hit. Naotsugu finished his Shield Bash, using his Avatar’s strength stat and the technique’s knockback to send it backwards three or so steps, allowing them to scatter again as the severed leg barely hindered it with the rest available.
As the battle continued, Shiroe noticed that despite still being in pain, the Swashbuckler’s efficiency with his swordsmanship hadn’t suffered, even if his movements had. That didn’t make any sense. Why was one aspect spared from the debilitating effects of his wound and the poison coursing through his system but not the other?
He used Astral Bind to tangle up the Broodspider of the Forest’s legs as he thought about it more. Shiroe was quite familiar with the benefits of a number of Sub-Classes and the lore behind them. There was one in particular that came into mind, the one that belonged to Soujirou from their time in the Debauchery Tea Party—which reminded him he should check on the other members to see if they were in the game once all of this was over.
Sword Saint was the Sub-Class and the lore expressed proficiency with swords through countless hours of practice and meditation, until they became one with the sword and able to wield it without a loss of skill under even the most dire of situations. In the game that meant the higher the level, the lower the loss of dexterity when using swords despite the condition of the avatar. It seemed that in this world that meant he could use his sword effectively while being injured and poisoned.
Regardless, it seemed they had exhausted all of the Field Boss’ attack patterns now. Having seen it all, Shiroe proceeded to guide them through the rest of the battle until its health dropped to zero. With a burst of prismatic bubbles that rose into the sky, gold coins appeared in a nice pile with some vials, bundles of silk, and what looked to be a pair of Cheliceral Fangs.
The Swashbuckler set it to divide amongst the gathered evenly and then turned to face the trio who had lent him a hand. “Thanks for the assist. I don’t think I could have dealt with it alone after all.”
“Are you okay?” Naotsugu asked as he pointed to the wound that was still stained by the poison.
The Swashbuckler brushed it off nonchalantly while sheathing his swords with a flourish, as though it was of no major consequence. “Not the first time I’ve been run-through.”
Too bad his expression as he finished was more in-tune with how he really felt, making it clear to them he was still in a great deal of pain. Shiroe offered him an elixir. “Here.”
He looked at it with a note of surprise before shrugging his shoulder and drinking it down. His health shot back up and the status condition was erased. He sighed before taking a closer look at them now that they weren’t in the middle of a fight.
“So what did you want to ask me badly enough to follow me this far out?” They all gave him a somewhat surprised look. The Swashbuckler rolled his eyes. “The chances of running into another group of players so quickly after the events that brought us here were next to none, let alone someone willing to throw themselves headfirst into a Field Boss fight where pain is a factor. Not to mention you appeared before the actual fighting started so there was no sound to draw you in, and you didn’t have the aliment-resistance spell in place before entering the clearing which would start the fight. Am I wrong?”
“… Kid’s good,” Naotsugu said, sounding mildly impressed. “Saw right through you, Mastermind.”
Shiroe shot him a minor look of annoyance as he adjusted his glasses, the glint of the morning light obstructing his eyes as he did so. “In truth, we’d hoped to ask you some questions. We didn’t mean any disrespect if it was construed that way.”
He shook his head. “No harm done. That’s how things work. It’s a trade-off. I’ll be happy to answer your questions, but for now let’s head back to the hub city. We don’t know how long it will take for the boss to respawn and I’d rather not do that again so soon.”
They all nodded and used the ‘Call to Home’ spell, vanishing in flashes of light.
[SAO -o0o- LH]
As they touched down right outside of Akiba, Kirito couldn’t help but mull over what this experience had taught him. More than half of what that boss could do wasn’t something that would have been possible when they were still playing from the other side of the screen. It was almost like a Floor Boss in SAO in how it acted. That could prove troublesome if a Field Boss of that caliber out up so much of a fight against four Level 90 players.
“To be formal, I’ll introduce myself properly,” Kirito said to the others, turning to face them once again. “My name is Kirito. I’m a Swashbuckler with the Sub-Class of Sword Saint. As you can probably guess, I’m also a SAO survivor—a former Clearer.”
The Enchanter nodded his head and did the same. “My name is Shiroe. I’m an Enchanter-Scribe.”
“My name is Akatsuki, a Level 90 Assassin-Tracker,” said the girl. She looked young, maybe around eight or nine, though she seemed to carry herself as though she was older. Her build made her seem more like a ninja as well. “I am My Lord’s shadow and protector.”
The Tank was last and the most eager. He pointed his thumb at himself and grinned. “And I’m Naotsugu, a Guardian-Border Patrol.”
“Nice to meet all of you,” Kirito said again. “Now, how can I help you?”
“Would you be willing to tell me, how do these circumstances compare to Sword Art Online?” the Enchanter asked. “I’m trying to gather as much information as I can. I know it can be a sensitive topic, but—”
Kirito shook his head. He would not lie, if asked. He’d learned from his mistakes. No matter how uncomfortable the truth or topic was, he’d be honest. “Right now getting as much information as possible is more important than my comfort. I’ll be as truthful as I can. Ask away.”
“Let’s start with why you’re out here alone?” Shiroe asked.
“Testing the combat system,” Kirito explained. “For a number of reasons, one of which being I needed to see how well I could function here compared to SAO. I messed up because the boss wasn’t staggered or stun-locked, but I’ll be able to make it work with some doing.”
Naotsugu raised his hand to ask the next question. “Weren’t you afraid, fighting like that? Even knowing you would come back to life if you were killed?”
“Mmmm.” He scratched his cheek in thought. “Not as much as I should have, I guess. I’ve been through this before as a Clearer and only a few months have passed since SAO was cleared, so the combat experience hasn’t faded away—deteriorated to an extent, maybe. The fact that I’ll respawn does nothing to deter me on that front.”
“So, if there’s no death, do you think more people will fight?” Shiroe asked. “I mean, if we had to actually clear a raid dungeon in order to fulfill some sort of condition? From what I’ve gathered, that was the case, wasn’t it?”
Kirito shook his head. “During SAO, the majority of the players retired to safe floors and left the clearing of the game to Clearers or Front-Liners. That’s because the majority were terrified of dying, terrified of facing monsters, and left it to others to shoulder the responsibility. In this case, pain is the deterrent rather than death.”
He looked down to his leg and stomach, where he had gotten bitten and pierced respectively. “I can still remember that kind of pain even after being healed, so imagine being eaten alive and feeling the fangs tear into you until you died and then came back. Knowing that it would happen again if you ventured out, how many times could you go through it before you lost the will to fight entirely? We’ll be lucky if more than a tenth of the players go out of designated Safe Zones until they’ve come to terms with it.”
“Hmm, that could be a problem if those same conditions come up then….” Shiroe looked to the sky for a brief moment in thought. “They’ll likely try to wait it out then, thinking it’s still a game.”
“Which leads up to another problem,” Kirito said. “I can’t say it’s exactly like SAO, but the fact is that it’s close enough. No one, especially not the few SAO veterans likely to have been playing when we got sucked in, will believe that outside help will arrive. Not after we had to get out ourselves after two years. The fact that there has been no announcement on the clearing conditions and no clearing goal for people to strive for will eventually take its toll because they don’t see any way for them to get back to their old lives. Strictly speaking, the ones that don’t adapt will either go mad, take it out on others, or… just give up entirely.”
There had been a number of players who did the same in SAO, believing that the one-hundred floors couldn’t be conquered. Those that hoped with all their hearts that being trapped was a lie or had reached the limits of their despair often flung themselves over the edge of the floor to their deaths like Keita. The retired players that never ventured out beyond earning enough for the cheapest living conditions and food, eventually falling prey to either the corrupt members of The Army or going insane.
Naotsugu frowned. “Yeah. I know someone who went through that. It’s rough on them.”
“It gets worse when you think about it,” Kirito added. “Think about the four types of players who participate in this sort of game.”
Naotsugu scratched his head at that while Akatsuki looked towards Shiroe, who frowned. “Bartle’s Taxonomy, you mean?”
Kirito nodded. It was an old method used to determine the types of people who played MMOs and why they did it. It was broken into four groups: Diamonds, Spades, Hearts, and Clubs.
Diamonds were Achievers—people who played the game in order to accomplish something. They wanted beat the game, max their levels, collect the prizes, just things that warranted them going above and beyond the limit. Anything that acknowledged what they had done. The DDD and Silver Sword guilds were fine examples of those types of players.
Spades were Explorers—people who would be willing to traverse the game in order to find new content, finding joy in the vast world. Whether it was discovering how the system worked or treading ground no one else had, they leveled up so that they could go unhindered rather than beating the game. The Debauchery Tea Party was essentially composed of those types of players under Kanami.
Hearts were Socializers—people who used the game as a medium to connect with others. Being a worldwide MMO, Elder Tales easily connected people who were all over the world through the use of different servers and the Fairy Rings. Casual players were likely to fall into this role, using it as a way to remain close to someone distant—like Asuna did with Kirito.
Clubs were the Killers—people who played the game to lord over others, gaining satisfaction by asserting dominance. While trolls and PK’ers were the more common variety, you also had leaders who held power through force, traders who exploited a monopoly, or a guild that locked down and hogged a farming area for their own sake.
Shiroe’s eyes narrowed a bit when it clicked. “You’re afraid those that fall into the Killers-group would take advantage of it.”
Kirito was tight-lipped as he nodded. His thought turned to Coper, and how he had tried to get him killed. He imagined that same scenario playing out here, and how his death would have been far more gruesome as he was devoured in his ambition to gain a good weapon early on. Would that same scene play out here, by chance?
“It took around a year for psychos like those in Laughing Coffin to sprout up in full, but even before then there were others. How long do you think it will take here, when something similar has happened in the past? Especially when you consider how the still-living members got away with murder when the game ended?”
“Hmmm…” Shiroe brought his hand up to his chin and spoke his thoughts aloud. “The Royal Guard will attack any Adventurer inside of the city who strikes someone else, but what about outside of it? What’s stopping someone from robbing others of their goods under the threat of pain? Or torturing them?”
“Exactly,” Kirito said. There were limited and rate items, competition over them was likely to erupt too. And, if the PvP was anything like Kirito remembered, then you could loot corpses before they dissipated and were respawned in the Cathedral. How long before pain no longer became a deterrent but a tool?
“They can’t really do that, can they?” Naotsugu asked.
Shiroe nodded his head. “There’s no law against it because that sort of thing was an out-of-context problem. Unlike Sword Art Online, which had things like a harassment feature, this game was never meant to be played this way. You’re not limited to what you can do behind a keyboard, that fight showed us that much.”
Kirito joined in. “You saw me. I was capable of moving however I pleased and swinging my sword however I wanted. Something like that not being planned for means that it can be abused. Once people get past the initial shock and figure it out, they’ll start jumping into different groups and guilds like gangs, fighting and taking advantage of each other it. I’ve seen it before.”
“Troubling,” Akatsuki said.
“People will do whatever they want unless there’s some way to enforce a set of laws and standards or at least the capability to dole out some measure of proportional punishment,” Shiroe said. “Beyond the Royal Guards, we don’t have that luxury anymore.”
“In SAO, The Army handled most of that—monitoring the jail and such,” Kirito said. “But, under a single person, they became rotten and corrupt. The leader then arranged for his competition to be left for dead in a dungeon and his men were so far gone that they were shaking down a woman who ran the only orphanage in the game and children. It was fortunate that Thinker managed to get out of the trap alive, but what was stopping it from happening again here?”
“There were no checks and balances then.” Shiroe mused softly. “It’s safe to say the very same thing could happen to multiple guilds as well. The larger guilds won’t have any trouble pushing around the smaller ones. Some of them I know have reasonable leaders, but others I can’t be so sure about.”
“Then we knock them around,” Naotsugu stated. “If they’re going to get their rocks off on hurting people because they’re bigger, we hit them harder.”
“No, it won’t be that simple,” Shiroe countered. “We can handle ourselves because we know what we’re doing. Same goes for other veterans. Our stats make things like gender, age, and size non-issue in terms of fighting ability.”
Naotsugu looked down to Akatsuki at that. “Hmm… I guess you got a point. Even a squirt like her could handle—AHHH!”
Akatsuki promptly kicked him before she turned to Shiroe. “My Lord, may I hurt him for insinuating disrespectful things about me?”
“You already did!” Naotsugu pointed out, holding his shin where she had kicked. He was wearing leg guards and it still looked like it hurt. “Ow, geez it was just a joke!”
A sweat-drop appeared on Shiroe’s brow before he turned back to Kirito. “As I was saying, we’ll be fine but what about players who are younger and inexperienced?”
Kirito scowled. “I came into the game with my younger sister and a few others, two of whom aren’t even Level 30. They barely know the basics. If someone stronger wanted to take advantage of them, it would be no trouble at all. I can guarantee you that someone will see all these helpless players and then take advantage of them, trying to make their lives better at the expense of others who will want safety or security, all because they have no clue what’s going on and no goal to aim for.”
“So, in other words, the newbs will need someone to look out for them,” Naotsugu said, still kneeling and holding his shin.
“Not just look out for them,” Kirito told him, thinking back to Sachi and the others. If he had been honest with them, taught them how to spot obvious traps, or trained them, rather than pretending to be their level, would they still be alive? “If we just look over their shoulders and protect them alone, they won’t get stronger or know how to survive in the event something happens. They have to at least be taught, but that requires more than just one person telling them what to do.”
Akatsuki looked pensive herself. “There are a lot more problems than I had considered. It looks quite dire.”
Shiroe dipped his head once in her direction. “Correct Mis—”
“Just. Akatsuki,” she said in a clipped tone, a pout on her face.
“Er, right, Akatsuki.” Shiroe cleared his throat. “And these are just the ones that come to the forefront, not even long term.”
“And there are no solutions to any of them yet,” Kirito finished, a sad smile forming on his face. “If it’s a matter that can be handled with a sword, I can deal with it. But I was a Soloer for most of SAO. I’m not someone who can solve these problems. The best I can do for now is keeping the people closest to me safe. I dragged them into this, so it’s the least I can do.”
Speaking of those people, Klein appeared in the same flash of light they had. He must’ve used the same spell from inside the city after spotting Kirito on his map. The samurai boldly walked up to the younger swordsman and bopped him on the head with the bottom of his fist. “Idiot!”
“What was that for?” Kirito demanded.
“For running off to fight a Field Boss on your own!” he claimed. “Your cousin was worried sick!”
Kirito’s eyes furrowed in mild anger at that. “You told her?”
“I could have told Asuna too,” Klein coolly pointed out. He made the same gesture from SAO to bring up the menu, a sort of mental shorthand from habit no doubt. “In fact—”
Kirito held both hands up in surrender. “Okay, okay. Let’s not go that far.”
“Then go see your sister and Silica,” Klein ordered. “Pronto.”
Kirito sighed before turning back to the trio. “Sorry, but I have to deal with this. I really shouldn’t have left them alone in the first place to run off.”
“Perfectly understandable,” Shiroe said. “Besides, you’ve given me a lot more information than I expected. I’ll be thinking on it for a while.”
Kirito opened his menu and removed himself from the party before he sent them all a request to be added to their list of contacts. They all accepted, albeit it with some hesitation from Shiroe. Kirito then gave Klein a pat on the back that sent him a staggering forward a step.
“If you want even more information about the managing of minor guilds and such, he’ll likely be the one you want to ask,” he told them. “Klein ran one. Anything else, you’re on my contact list now so we can message that way. I’ll keep you updated if I learn anything new. It was pleasure working with you.”
With that said, he ran off towards where he had left the girls. When he arrived, Silica seemed downtrodden, almost lifeless as she sat there while her dragon gently poked and prodded her for a response. He felt even worse now and understood why Klein came to him.
“Onii-chan, you’re back,” Suguha said. “I was so worried about you when he told me you were fighting a Field Boss. I was going to try and send a message, but he said it might distract you in the field.”
“I’m fine, Sugu.” He came to a stop in front of Silica and crouched down. “Silica, what’s wrong?”
“I want to go home,” she said. Her voice was so soft that it barely reached his ears. “I thought after what happened before, it was finally over. And yet, I’m stuck in another strange place all over again. We’re going to have to fight and get hurt to get out again, I just know it.”
This is my fault, Kirito told himself. He invited her into the game because she wanted to stay connected to him. This was the end result.
He licked his lips nervously and took a deep breath. “I won’t force either of you to fight if you’re scared. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. The last time I did that, it cost someone their life. I won’t make that mistake ever again.”
Once more his thoughts went back to Sachi, and how her death stemmed from what happened with Illfang’s defeat. Kayaba had trapped them, two-thousand people had died, and the other players needed someone to victimize, making it easy for an idiot like Kibaou to lay the blame of the beta-testers taking advantage of the other players.
Given he became corrupt by the end and that beta-testers hadn’t gone past the first few floors, it was stupid and should have stopped being relevant by then. Yet the label and the stigma it carried remained throughout the two years. Looking back, his first mistake was not trying to calm the crowd down and explaining things.
Instead, he tried to take all the blame on his shoulders with that act. He tried to be something he wasn’t, and all it did was make it seem like he was the worst of a bad bunch. He was The Beater, a mantle he had to hide from others, and because he hid it the Moonlit Black Cats were ultimately wiped out.
Had he never met them, would they have gone to explore that dungeon? Would Sachi have just stayed behind and been okay? It didn’t matter in the end. There were no ‘ifs’ when it came to the past. They were all dead because of him.
“I won’t lie to you,” he confessed. “I don’t know how to fix this. I can’t promise that I’ll get us home. The best I can do is promise to try and fight on your behalf if it comes down to it. But you can’t give up and remain like this, lifeless and hollow inside. You have to keep going, so that when the time comes and a way home does open up, you’ll be able to reach it with your own two feet.”
Pina stirred and prodded her again at that, as if compounding his point. She picked her Waterfowl Dragon Pup up and held it tight to her chest. It cooed at her warmth.
“Okay,” she said softly. “I’ll try not to.”
“The same goes for you, Sugu,” he said. “If you don’t want to fight, I won’t make you. But you need to find some reason to keep going on here. Just until we can make it back.”
She seemed uncertain herself, but nodded. “Right…”
[LH -o0o- SAO]
After the Samurai left, the trio wandered about the near-abandoned streets of Akiba with no destination in particular in mind. Shiroe himself was deep in thought, merely trailing behind the others while moving on auto-pilot.
When things do go bad, they’ll go bad in a hurry, Shiroe noted to himself. How long will it be before then? Maybe two or so weeks? Even if he said that no one would believe in the government to get them out, they’ll hold onto whatever they can out of desperation. So once those faint glimmers of hope at a rescue die down….
“My Lord,” Akatsuki called, snapping him out of it. “You looked troubled.”
He gave her a half-hearted smile. “While it was fortunate Mister Kirito and Mister Klein were so forthcoming, it’s given me a lot to think about.”
“It does paint an ugly picture,” Naotsugu said as he walked ahead, hands on the back of his head. “Makes you wonder who’d want to put a bunch of people into a game again after that happened?”
“That’s working on the assumption we’re still in a game,” Shiroe said. “For all we know, we could have been pulled into another world entirely.”
Natosugu craned his head around at that. “What makes you think that?”
“Just a thought that came to mind,” he said. “No conclusive evidence, but I’m considering all the possibilities at this point. Besides—”
“Shiroeeee!” said a bell-like voice in the somber quiet surrounding them. They turned towards the source of the voice, a slender and well-endowed elf heading towards them. “I finally found you!”
“Maryelle?” Shiroe blinked, somewhat dumbfounded. “What are you doing out here?”
“I was looking for you,” she said, placing a hand on her chest as she huffed. “Someone said they saw you leaving town and so I thought that meant you had found something out.”
“Have you been searching for me all this time?” he asked.
“That’s right!” She glomped him enthusiastically as he stood there. “I couldn’t find you and I was worried I didn’t know what to do!”
“Hello, Pretty Lady.” Naotsugu stepped forward and put on a smile. “I don’t think we’ve had the pleasure of meeting, have we?”
She looked him up and down, resting her hand against her cheek. “You’re quite buff, aren’t you?”
“Uh, as riveting as this is, what’s so important you spent all this time searching for me?” Shiroe asked. “And you could have just called me, you know?”
“Well there’s no point in dwelling on that now.” She tugged the Enchanter along with her. “Come on, we can talk at my Guild Hall. Henrietta wants to see you too.”
The other two watched as she dragged him along before shooting one another a glance. Akatsuki then darted ahead to remain next to her lord’s side as Maryelle led them to her Guild. Naotsugu shrugged his shoulders, placed his hands back behind his head, and went after them at a leisurely pace.
[Chapter 3 -o0o- End]
Notes: The main advantage that the SAO Clearers and ALO Veterans is that they know how to fight within the confines of the game world and can adapt to the sudden shift in ability. To quote Shiroe from the English Dub of Episode 2:
‘Using the system and mastering it are two different things entirely.‘
Likewise, they are less fearful of fighting monsters because they are used to it. However, this distinction is only relevant for the first few months or so as the others players become more accustomed to combat and danger. The addition of pain will also play a factor, as mentioned above.