Back in the Game: Chapter 5
[-|Back in the Game |-]
Author’s Note: This Chapter is also known as ‘How Asuna Got Her Groove Back – Part 1’.
[Chapter 5 -o0o- Start]
[SAO -o0o- LH]
“Do you feel you can trust them?” Asuna asked Kirito over their mental link as she strolled through the open market with her daughter perched on her head, looking for new ingredients to experiment with. He had just informed her of his discussion with the Enchanter he had become acquainted with.
‘It’s… not that simple,’ Kirito stated. ‘He honestly sounds concerned, and he’s one of the few people who are doing something. On the other hand, he pretty quickly jumped on the idea of taking power into his own hands and wants to take a monopoly on this to build himself up a powerbase. An idea that I gave him, meaning if he does go too far….‘
“You’re worried about a repeat with Kibaou, right?” she guessed. He had been pretty quick to jump on the opening Diabel’s death left and coining the whole Beater-thing, using it as a banner to build himself a platform to stand on and gathering a greater deal of the players into trying to clear the game. “You said you told him how corrupt the Army became. Do you think he’ll end up like them?”
‘No one thinks of themselves as being corrupt or evil,’ Kirito said. ‘Kibaou didn’t when tried to arrange for Thinker’s death, and Kayaba didn’t when he started SAO in hopes of fulfilling his dream. This guy seems to be aware of how slippery a slope it is, but who can say he’ll notice when he’s gone over it?‘
“Personally, I think he’s onto something. People won’t move unless you push them along sometimes and give them direction. If he doesn’t do something then it’ll be like SAO all over again, with people sitting on their butts until the very end. ”
‘Maybe we should give it a chance since I don’t have an alternative idea yet. I just don’t want to be hasty in deciding and end up making another mistake that causes more problems. Not again.‘
“As long as you do what you can, that’s all that matters,” Asuna told him. “Anyway, two players contacted me before in hopes of exchanging information. I can use them to help with keeping up-to-date on information here and then feed that back to you, if you’ll do the same.”‘
‘Okay. I’ll tell him. Talk to you later?‘
“Tell me how it goes,” she answered. “Love you.”
“Bye Papa,” Yui added, joining in.
‘Love you both too.‘
When their line was severed, Asuna focused her attention to the Market and their lack of goods. Something was off and she couldn’t cook like this if she didn’t have ingredients to work with. Her eyes settled on two female NPCs talking to one another, a contrast from when they would simply stand in place and wait to be spoken to like in SAO. Maybe there was a quest or something going on?
Asuna approached them and said, “Excuse me.”
They both seemed somewhat surprised before the dark-haired girl spoke. “We’re closed at the moment. There’s nothing we can sell you.”
“I can see that. What I want to know is why? Normally this place is stocked every day, but now it seems like things are missing. ” Her answer, if anything, only seemed to further fluster them, leading to them to talk in hushed whispers while giving her glances. Odd… NPCs in SAO didn’t have this level of reaction.
“See, they aren’t acting normal,” the brunette of the duo squeaked out. “They don’t just stand there quiet-like anymore. I told you nothing has been right since a few days ago.”
“You know, I can hear you, right?” Asuna stated, placing her hands on her hips and narrowing her eyes in suspicion as she stepped closer. She didn’t take being ignored well. “What do you mean—”
“MARIN!” screamed a tiny voice that cracked from down the street. All four of them turned their heads towards the owner, a small girl with pigtails and a dress that was dirty and torn around the hem.
The brunette NPC ran from behind the stall and headed off the little girl who was crying her eyes out, chest rising and falling as she feverishly panted. She grabbed her as she stumbled forward into her apron-covered dress and kneeled down. “Olive, what are you doing here!?”
“Marin, help!” cried the little girl, Olive. “The farm and Daddy are in trouble!”
“Did you run all the way from there to get here?” When she nodded her head, pigtails bobbing in the process, the older NPC girl raised the child’s dress to see that her feet were swollen and blistered. “We need to do something before they become infected. I think the pharmacist should be in his building.”
“But Daddy is fighting them all alone!” She tugged on the older girl’s dress. “He needs help!”
Asuna glanced down at the child’s face, flushed with desperation and framed by sweat and tears. Seeing them, she felt compelled to ask what was happening and crouched down so they were eye-level with one another. “Who is your father fighting?”
She sniffled. “The crabs! Big crabs that eat everything! They came out of the water everywhere and Daddy started fighting them so they wouldn’t get to the farm! He’s still fighting them!”
“Branch is strong, he’ll fine. Now come on, let’s get those feet seen to.” Marin, as the child called her, picked her up and turned towards the west where the building that the pharmacist NPC operated out of was.
Standing up, Asuna held her hand to her chin in thought. A part of her wanted to simply brush it off as a part of the game, believing it would simply be a quest from which the NPCs would just respawn. She had capitalized on that in SAO for the sake of defeating a boss on the 56th Floor, so it shouldn’t be so hard to just walk away from it….
“Mama,” Yui called softly, her eyes and tone carrying meaning within them as she watched the child crying her heart out while clinging to the older girl and calling for her father.”We can help them, can’t we?”
…It would be the same as dismissing Yui’s existence if she ignored the child’s cries, something that she wouldn’t do. Besides that, the child’s tears seemed so real, as did the desperation in her voice and the damage to her feet. Such vivid displays of emotion and injuries were too much for her to brush off as being computer-generated.
“Give me a second,” she said, patting her daughter on the head with a finger as she opened up her Friend’s List with the other hand. The mental connection was forged with a press of a button and she turned her attention to the other end. “Galantine, is there a quest or something that involves a bunch of crabs raiding a farm?”
There was silence on his end for a moment, as if puzzled by the sudden question being something so off-tangent. ‘… Now that I think about it, there is one that happens around this time of year—a seasonal event. There are farms along the coast with some flavor-text that states that coastal temperatures make it ideal for growing plants. Every year around this time young crabs would surge up the coastline in pockets as a sort of active event. Players could form pick-up groups and eliminate them to get rewards from the NPCs living there out of gratitude and drops.‘
“But that was before we got sucked in and everyone started going into hiding and waiting for help to come.” Asuna reached to her bag slung over her shoulder and started combing through the supplies there. “If there are no Adventurers to deal with them, what happens to the NPCs on the farms?”
‘Not really sure. When the game was… well, a normal game, there were always new players or people grinding off of them. I know chefs usually found it an easy way to get a bunch of ingredients and Crab Meat.‘
“That’s convenient.” Her fingers glided along the glass vials tucked neatly into the section of the bag designed to cordon it off, maps and other items filling up the other space, until she finally found what she was looking for. “How many are there to deal with? What are the average levels?”
‘Is that really important right now?‘
She pulled out the Horse Whistle. “Humor me.”
He sighed. ‘I can’t say how many offhand and remember the specifics, but they’ll likely be around Level 5 – 10 since they’re Rank 1 monsters.‘
“Okay, I’m going to go deal with this since no one else is. When I’m done, I’ll talk to you about an offer I got from my contact in Akiba.”
‘Couldn’t you tell me now?‘
“It’s a lot of information that isn’t going anywhere and I don’t like being distracted when I’m getting ready for combat. I’ll call you when I’m done.” Asuna disconnected the telepathy link before turning to the remaining merchant NPC with a stern expression on her face. “You know where this is happening, right?”
The black-haired girl with braids and round glasses half-jumped at the question. “Umm…yes, ma’am?”
“Great, then you’re coming too.” Asuna used the Horse Whistle.
[LH -o0o- SAO]
Galantine sighed again as the telepathy link was severed from the other end. From the sound of it, Miss Asuna seemed to have decided to involve herself in the game rather than prioritizing escape. That or there was something he was missing.
“Peh!” His Viking companion spat out to the side before tossing the glass mug onto the ground, breaking it. “I need a real drink and real food!”
“You’ll simply have to make do with what we have for the time being, Mina.” Not that she was wrong. The food and drink were seriously lacking in flavor.
“Varn,” she insisted, pouting in a manner that just seemed wrong considering how she had built her character. “I’m Varn here. You promised!”
“That was before we got stuck here.” Galantine rubbed the creases forming in his brow at that, blaming no one but himself. Mina had been pressured by her parents to do well in school to an enthusiastically unhealthy degree. As her tutor, he recommended that she used games as a form of escapism. They often partied up and she had been so excited to get online when the next patch update went live and… well, here they were.
He supposed he had no choice but to wait for Miss Asuna to finish whatever it was that she set out to do, but there was no telling how long that would take. Really, at this point he was grateful for whatever news he could get from her on what was happening elsewhere. His efforts at finding a way out of the game had been for naught given how few players would so much as attempt to speak with him. He could see others on the mini-map if they weren’t in a private area like their guild halls, but every person he had gone to was just as clueless or wary, content with sitting down and waiting for help to come.
“What did she say?” Mina asked him after a moment. Once Galantine gave her the gist of it, she hopped up onto her feet and then grabbed him by the shoulders. “Let’s go as well! Anything is better than sitting here waiting for something to happen.”
Galantine wasn’t sure she wanted to be disturbed, but Mina did have a point. It was boring doing nothing and he could use the practice, should the need to fight to clear the game become apparent. Besides, sooner she handled her business, the sooner they could advance onto more important topics.
“Fine,” he told her as he rose to his feet. “I suppose we can help out. If I remember right, we need to leave out the exit near the Market and go along the shore there by the beach.”
“Isn’t that the one with that Dwarf farmer who hated Adventurers?” she asked.
He nodded. It was a minor NPC that always claimed that any Adventurer could swing a sword but he’d like to see one raise a successful farm. There were always characters like that in this sort of game, jealous of the protagonist because they could do something the NPCs can’t. It was part of the power fantasy that came with being the hero, having people be jealous of their talent while most others were grateful.
The two set out towards the Market, whereupon they came across a small girl arguing with an older NPC girl in the middle of the road.
“I have to go back!” the child said hotly, struggling from the older girl’s grasp around her wrist. Her feet were bandaged from toe-to-ankle.
The older brunette held fast. “No way. It’s too dangerous to go alone, and you were told not to run while the salve was doing its work. Leave to that Adventurer with the rapier!”
The child pouted. “But Marin—”
“Excuse me,” Galantine said, drawing both of the attention to his well-polished armor that glinted in the sunlight. The old NPC used the distraction to lift the small child up and hold her in place. He blinked at the sight before continuing. “What were you saying about an Adventurer with a rapier? Did she have long-hair?”
The NPC nodded. “She asked us why the stalls didn’t have as much produce as before when Olive came looking for help. I took her to have her feet treated and when I came back the others told me she left with my stall-partner.”
Galantine’s eyes spanned the Market and took notice of how empty the stalls were now that she had mentioned it. That was strange. Normally stall there would have an infinite stock. “Why are the stalls so empty?”
“No one has seen Adventurers in the last few days except here,” she explained. “Normally, you lot would be roaming the countryside and killing anything thing that moved, so usually caravans and cargo could be moved without any worry over monsters getting to them. Since none of you are out and about, they have to get other help.”
He brought his hand to his chin in thought. With no one killing off the monsters to grind experience, normally safe travel ways would have become bogged down with them. They would have to arrange for mercenaries and the like to protect their cargo, and he imagined merchants wouldn’t be so eager to shell out so quickly for that when only a few days have passed.
“Mister Adventurers!” the child called to them from her position in the girl’s arms. “Please, help me get back home! Daddy’s still fighting!”
“Escort missions are the worst,” Varn mumbled.
“Hush, Varn.” The self-stylized Paladin took a moment to think on it. If Miss Asuna had been questioning them then this was the quest she had likely taken. Though he hadn’t participated in the event in the last few years, it had never been an escort mission before… then again, they were all heading in the same direction and there couldn’t be any harm in it, right?
“Very well, we’ll escort you to the farm,” he settled on. “The long-haired Adventurer that left out was an acquaintance of ours, so we should have the same destination.”
The child’s eyes brightened. “Thank you! Thank you!”
[LH -o0o- SAO]
Branch hated Adventurers. He never hid that fact. At the same time, he never denied that they had a purpose.
Some things were just beyond the ability of mortals to handle and he had been raised to believe as much growing up. The golden rule had always been that if you needed something delivered or killed for sure, hire an Adventurer to do it—no sense in risking your own life in doing so if you only had one life to live.
But he always felt that the price of that usefulness had been the pride of those who weren’t immortal. In leaving their protection in the hands of the Adventurers, the People of the Land became reliant upon the immortals that only seemed to exist to take coin and carry out a task with the efficiency and rigidity of a golem.
Despite knowing that, Branch had dreamed of adventure when he was younger. He dreamed of using his fist to overcome the challenges in front of him and becoming a legend in his own right as he explored the world. To that end, he trained and trained until he was capable of being a mercenary, working towards earning enough to finance his traveling expenses.
That ended when he faced a group of monsters that were clearly above his level and watched his group be slaughtered. It was only by chance that an Adventurer had come by and saved him, but he almost wished that they hadn’t. After all, how could he take pride in his own fist when he had to be saved?
Alcohol became his best friend and he drank and drank at the closest Inn while reconsidering his life. It was there he met his future wife, a farmer’s daughter. He may or may not have been a little drunk when he let it slip that he was reconsidering the direction his life was going, but she had told him that her father could use another set of hands.
Branch seriously considered it. He thought he could at least take pride in the fact that the Adventurers could never truly create or be one with the land as they could. So his last act as a mercenary was to escort her home, where upon he then took on the sub-class of a Farmer.
One thing led to another. Some death threats were made by her father, may his soul rest in peace, and they got married shortly afterwards. Despite that, he never looked back. After all, he could take pride in the fact that he could raise a family.
That was a right exclusive to the People of the Land.
But he still hated the immortals that could freely travel the world whereas he was limited to where his Level and fists could take him, which wasn’t very far. Why did they have so much freedom? Why couldn’t he have been born lucky enough to be an Adventurer?
As his [Farmer’s Spade] shattered, Branch spat on the patch of land where sand and grass met while astride the corpse of an Ascot Crab. The farming tool wasn’t meant to be used like a Monk’s Spade. It was a joke weapon for all intents and purposes, but it was all he had at the time to deal with these pests.
He’d started hating Ascot Crabs the moment they started popping out of the ocean and scuttling their way towards his farm an hour ago. They made for a decent stew sure enough, but they were always pests that would normally be stomped on by Adventurers before they became this much of a nuisance. Now though? Now he was all that stood between the farm uphill that passed from his father-in-law to his wife and himself at present and the sandy shoreline ahead of him, pocked with seaweed, shells, and smooth stones, being besieged by a horde of the large brightly-colored crustaceans rising from the depths like bubbles.
He tossed the broken tool away and then began layering on the few skills he knew. He started with Hard Body to raise his defense and then used Rafting Taunt to boost the range of the Hate he could earn while the buff was active by carrying his voice further. He followed it with Beat Up by bragging over the corpse of their fallen as his fighting spirit manifested in the form of flames that seemingly danced around him. He earned a significant amount of their ire with and several surged towards him in a funnel.
Rather wait for them, he jumped off the corpse and delivered a Wyvern Kick that sent him sailing across the distance to nail one of the oversized crustaceans in the center of the horde. He then followed up with a Lightning Straight-enhanced blow from his stout fists to leave it open for another strike.
A heavy-claw hit him in the back as he killed the primary one, staggering him forward a step as his buffed body weathered the blow. He turned around and punched it with another Lightning Straight, letting the stun take effect long enough for him to evade as another tried to do the same. Rinse and repeat, using the corpses that were left behind as a shield when he could and moving between them, that was all he could do to defend his home with his own two fists until the sheer numbers overwhelmed him.
A particularly vicious back-hand sent him flying backwards into an ugly tumble. He felt bruised and battered, blood dribbling from his chin and other parts of his flesh where the rough carapace of the crabs’ exoskeleton had rubbed it. It hurt just to stand, but he refused to die like this—on his belly. Sadly, the best he could do was get onto his knees when three of the Ascot Crabs got within striking range.
“Come on then!” he taunted a final time. “Give it your best shot!”
The one in the center raised its claw to do just that. He closed his eyes as sweat dripped down while the claw descended. The sound of it scraping against metal and a grunt of effort reached his ears, just as a soothing sensation washed over him and knitted his skin. He forced his eyes open to a dark-haired female pixie as she fluttered in front of him.
“Hi!” she said. “I think that I helped a little, but my healing isn’t really that good.”
“Yui, get back to the horse and the girl,” said another woman, using a rapier to hold up the claw. An Adventurer. “I’ve got it from here.”
“Okay! Good luck, Mama!”
The pixie fluttered away, leaving the two of them. The Adventurer performed a Whirlwind to scatter them some distance before she pulled a phial and held it out. “Drink this and then get back.”
His lips curled at the offer. He was being saved again! “I won’t run away and leave this to some Adventurer!” he said with a snarl in his voice. “I’ll fight until my last breath!”
She raised her rapier and used it to block an attack aiming for them before slashing with the blade and severing one of the arms with a lucky critical. “If you want to fight, I won’t stop you. I can even respect that you’re putting your life on the line!”
She thrust it forward and pierced the assailing Ascot Crab, depleting the remainder of its health. It collapsed, coins crowning it. “But at least drink the damn Elixir! I didn’t come all this way just to tell your daughter you died on your hands and knees while your farm got leveled because you were being stubborn!”
Branch still hated Adventurers. That hadn’t changed in the least bit. But she was right. He couldn’t defend his home if he was dead. He grabbed the Elixir and chugged it down, strength returning to his body and mind as he stood up again with his fists ready.
“Let’s do this!” He entered Tiger Stance, wreathing his feet in a red glow and allowing his spirit to manifest into a tiger and take on its ferocity. “Don’t let a single one reach the farm!”
Asuna nodded. “Just keep up.”
Then they went back into the fray.
[Chapter 5 -o0o- End]
Name: Level – Class (Species – Build) and Sub-Class
Galantine: Lv. 90 Guardian (Human – Paladin Build) with Holy Warrior sub-class
Varn: Lv. 90 Swashbuckler (Dwarf – Viking) with Berserker sub-class
Branch: Lv 15 Monk (Dwarf – Farmhand Fighter) with Farmer sub-class
Notes: This fic is working on the assumption that, rather that the People of the Land gaining memories and food with flavor and such once the Catastrophe happened, they were simply catered to other Landers and weren’t suitable for Adventurers due to the constraints of the way they interacted with one another (a video game). The People of the Land were simply in a state of eternal stagnation (or at least an incredibility slow rate of advancement) until the Adventurers came along and brought along innovation and creativity.
Likewise, Branch is basically to a Rudy who had dreamed of obtaining the same freedom and power as an Adventurer but had the dream crushed early on and became resentful of them because of it. He’ll serve as a perspective character in how the changes in Nakasu will affect the Landers in the Nine-Tailed Dominion.
Incidentally, the actual Rudy has already left the Nine-Tailed Dominion at this point and is on his way to Akiba.