[-|Back in the Game |-]
Author’s Note: Continuation of last chapter.
[Chapter 6 -o0o- Start]
The wind danced across her back.
The grating of steel running against the hardened carapace of the Ascot Crabs, and the roar of the man hammering away at one behind her, were the only sounds that could be heard over her blood pounding in her ears.
Surrounded by a horde of ravenous crabs, tall enough to tower over her at over two meters long and wide, Asuna boldly swung her rapier without hesitation. In this place, in this moment, she was Asuna the Lighting Flash and the former Vice-Commander of the Knights of the Blood. She wasn’t a victim anymore—not of Kayaba or Sugou.
Not the mass-murderer who made them all play out his fantasy. He earned their trust and respect, only to plan on betraying them. He’d forget his very reason for it all at the very end, wasting so many lives for nothing.
Nor the bastard who took her hostage, molested her in body and mind, and ruined her father’s company. There had already been doubts about using the source code of SAO when it was the cause of the biggest kidnapping incident in history. But RECT assured them it was safe and her father put her trust in the man who he wanted to inherit the company. Another incident right under their noses had been too much in the face of that promise, and another man’s twisted ambitions cost so many people everything.
Her sharpened senses caught movement in the corner of her eyes, leaving her to reflexively jump to the side, performing an aerial over the gargantuan claw and landing in a crouch. Her blade swiftly followed, a merciless thrust into its maw and then through the carapace from below to deplete its health. She withdrew her blade and jumped back as it collapsed. Gold coins crowned the corpse, only to be knocked loose and into the sand as another crawled over its dead kin to strike at her.
Asuna slid back and exhaled, gauging the distance between herself and the closest enemy. Safe for the next two seconds, she turned her attention to the farmer-monk and saw that he was about to be struck from behind. She moved to intercept and braced her off-hand against her rapier, blocking the massive claw that tried to smash him down from behind as he turned in light of the shadow giving it away.
Her strength stat proved to be strong enough to let her do so without sliding backwards. She took a step forward and pushed it back instead, her rapier flaring briefly with a ghostly light that coated the blade. Asuna pierced into it from below and retracted the blade, leaving a marker from the Early Thrust technique. “Switch!”
Branch looked confused at the terminology, but he did see the opening she created. Lightning danced on his fist as he slammed it upwards in a fearsome uppercut that hit the marker and jumped the current into the crab’s body. It staggered from the weakness, a briefly stunning it as tongues of electricity rolled over its carapace, and then a burst of pale light ruptured from the marker as it did additional damage. The Ascot Crab was blown skywards, its corpse falling into the distant sand.
“Don’t let them surround you,” Asuna warned him as they stood back-to-back. She pulled another vial for him to drink out and handed it to him. “They’ll swarm you otherwise.”
“I can tell that already,” he countered, taking the vial. He bit the cork off and spat it to the side before chugging the potion, strength and clarity of mind returning to him. He tossed the vial aside. “You’re faster than me, focus on the house! If any of them get to it then this will all be for nothing!”
The warning made her turn her attention to a cluster of four that were closing in on the house, beyond the ones obstructing her path like a forest of clustered shells. Lightning crackled at her feet as she activated her Lightning Step movement skill and dashed with the wind on her back, navigating through them before sliding beneath the final four’s legs across the sand to get in front of them. She spun into a Whirlwind attack to send them all back a few feet and earned their Hate, swiftly following with killing thrusts.
“Yay, Mama!” she heard her daughter cheer. Asuna spared a mere glance in that direction to make sure her spell was still active, so that Yui and the girl that led her here both went un-attacked, and saw nothing but thin air. She could only imagine that her daughter was perched safely on the head of her horse mount while the girl she had guide them skittishly watched the battle unfolding.
The game system seemed to have registered Yui as a Pet Monster of the Pixie family. Asuna, despite not being a tamer, could see her level, stats, hp, and skills. Though her MP had dropped from both the minor healing ability and the illusion magic, she was unharmed and safe. Good.
With tendrils of lightning still crackling at her feet, she threw herself against those that loitered at the fringes of the mass and deviated from the obvious target Branch made himself to be. But there were so many of them that it seemed like it would never end. Though her body was strong, she could feel the mental fatigue starting to set in until her judgment slipped, just enough so that one of them managed to get a lucky hit in.
She cursed silently as she hit the ground. Asuna’s HP was about 3503 and her MP was about 3021, around average for her level, while the monsters were below her level and stats. The hit barely hurt, taking a tick down from her health, but it hit her unarmored head and she felt her brain pounding at the inside of her skull.
Blinking away the stars, she rolled as she saw the shadow of a descending claw and got onto her feet with her blade at the ready. A breeze passed her as something grey and heavy sawed through the air and past her, a spinning blur that cleaved through the Ascot Crab and then buried itself into the ground. It was an axe.
“Haha! Got it!” shouted Varn as he approached on stout, short legs with the Paladin charging in front of him. Some distance behind them were two other horses, the other girl from the stalls on one and the child with bandaged feet on the other.
“You’re late,” Asuna told the pair as they came to a stop near her.
“You didn’t actually tell us where to meet you,” Galantine stated, eyes fixed on the scene as Varn jumped past the corpse and pulled his axe free of the ground. “So how do we approach this?”
She pointed her rapier towards the monk slamming a hammer-fist into one of the crabs and sending lightning surging through it. “The objectives are to protect farm and to keep him alive. You have better Hate-management skills, so lure in as many as you can and let your partner handle them. The farmer and I will handle the stragglers and outliers.”
“Very well,” he said as he pulled his shield off his back and got to it.
With the other two helping, numbers became less of an issue and she jumped back into the fight.
[LH -o0o- SAO]
“I believe that’s the last of them,” Galantine said as he put away his shield post-victory, leaving behind over thirty more Ascot Crab corpses, upon which sat small piles of coins like a crown. He was joined by Miss Asuna, Mina, and the others NPCs. Though he questioned if that terminology could still apply given the sapience they’ve displayed so far.
Miss Asuna stood atop a small pile of the dead, looking over the battlefield with her sword still in her hand. It was a sight to see her fight, every movement with purpose and grace, not an ounce of fear to be found in how she reacted. It was majestic in a sense. Once she was satisfied that all of their foes were vanquished, she nodded to herself and sheathed the blade while the tiny pixie flew to her excitedly.
“That’ll teach them,” the farmer said, dusting his hands. “Come onto my beach and threaten my home…”
“Daddy!” He turned around when he heard the small girl calling for him and crouched down as the pig-tailed girl threw herself into his arms. “Daddy, are you okay?”
“Olive, what were you thinking running off like that?” He lifted her up and caught sight of her feet as the two young women from Nakasu that came with them dismounted the horses. “You could’ve been hurt. Your mother’s going to throw a fit when she sees your feet.”
“I was worried about you,” she said, sniffling. “There were so many! I had to get help, so I went to where Marin was since there were supposed to be a lot of Adventurers there.”
“It was lucky that I was out at the time,” Miss Asuna said as she approached. “Most of the others are still cowering, so they wouldn’t be much help.”
“If they can’t do that then what’s the point in even being around,” the farmer said, looking at the three Adventurers in question. “You should have been here sooner. She wouldn’t have been hurt if you were out here like always.”
Miss Asuna’s eyes narrowed. She marched right up to his face, hands on her hips, and looked him in the eyes. “I don’t know what your problem is, but a little gratitude wouldn’t hurt. We risked a lot coming here because you needed help.”
“What risk?” There was venom in his voice. “You’re immortal. You’re not risking anything when you fight. That’s why you Adventurers are hired to fight in the first place. It’s why you exist.”
“Uh, Branch,” called the girl they had escorted named Marin. She was looking warily at how Mina’s fingers danced across the top of her axe. “You might want to ease up on that. The Adventurers have been different lately.”
Galantine knew what Mina was feeling right now. The man, Branch, was sounding far too much like her parents when they were chiding her for poor performance in her grades. They would always tell her that she existed to do well and meet their standards, her own desires be damned. The only difference between them and him was that here she was used to venting out her frustrations.
“So they’re defective now?”
And that did it. Fuel to the fire, Mina reached for her axe. Galantine grabbed her hand before she drew it.
“No,” he said firmly.
“Oh come on!” She brushed his hand away. “He’s always boasting he’s better than us every time before we ended up inside. Now he’s whining because we weren’t here. For all his talk, without us he’d be dead and his farm food for the crabs. I’m not going to take this from an NPC!”
“Maybe so, but—” A loud slap overtook Galantine’s voice. He looked towards the source of the sound and found that Miss Asuna had, much to the surprise of the others, slapped the dwarf hard enough that he was knocked onto the ground. Her strength stats were clearly higher than his, classes and body size be damned. “Was that necessary?”
“I have my pride,” she told him as she looked down at the farmer. “I will not stand here and be insulted by having someone claim that I exist to be used—like I’m some tool that exists for someone else’s benefit again!”
Branch rose to his feet and spat to the side. His fist curled up, and he looked as though he was getting ready to attack her. That was when the little girl, Olive, and the dark-haired pixie got between them.
“Daddy, stop being mean!” his daughter said.
The pixie gave Miss Asuna a sad look. “Mama, this isn’t like before.”
She tensed up at that, her fist clenching for a moment. Then she turned away and brought her hands to her eyes. “I know, Yui… I just… ”
While the pixie then flew over to comfort her, the deeper meaning of their conversation eluding the Paladin, Branch took a step forward while her back was turned. His daughter moved to intercept him again. “Olive, move.”
She shook her head and continued. “You’re always telling me to be nice to other people and to treat them how you want to be treated. You’re not being nice to them, even when they were nice enough to come help us without asking for anything. That’s not right.”
“They’re not people,” he said. “They just golems that look like them, that do whatever they’re paid for.”
“That’s enough, Branch,” said a new voice, a woman’s. Approaching them was a rather beautiful, yet modest looking woman wearing an apron. She looked to be human, with hair like Olive’s. “This side of you is unflattering.”
His anger deflated as he turned to face her. “Honey—”
“I had to sit there and watch as you nearly died until she showed up,” she said, cutting him off. “And then you nearly refused help simply because of what she was. Then, when it’s all said and done, you decide to take out your frustrations on them instead of being grateful.”
Finally, a voice of reason, Galantine thought to himself. He sighed and addressed her. “I think we all need to just talk to one another. This seems to be based on a miscommunication between us, and they’re hitting emotional triggers.”
She looked him up and down before nodding towards their home. “Come on then. I think we could all use some tea to calm our nerves. Branch, bring Olive so she doesn’t have to keep standing with her feet like that.”
“… Yes dear.”
[SAO -o0o- LH]
“I see,” Asuna said softly from a chair sitting in front of a table in the farmer’s home, listening to what was commonly told to the people who lived in this land. The Adventurers came into being to fight against the monsters in an ancient war. Since then they’ve basically served that purpose, barely sapient golems that would do what they were paid for without much concern.
The warm tea in front of her was half-drunken, even if it lacked any flavor. It still helped, given how embarrassed she was. She had lost control of her temper at the implication beforehand due to what happened before.
When Sugou had decided to twist her emotions and mind to serve him, he told her that she belonged to him. His intentions were to turn her into a prize, something that existed to be his in body and soul. He didn’t care what she had accomplished in SAO. He didn’t care who she was before, who she had became on the Front-Lines.
He just wanted her to hang on his every word, to sing like a caged bird on command. And by the time Kirito had arrived, the bastard had nearly made it so that she wanted to, just because it would make him happy. He had nearly broken her entirely.
“I get where you’re coming from,” she continued. “Just about all the NPCs in SAO were the same, no different than a machine. They’d respawn if killed, so there would be no meaning to their deaths. No risks. But, to be honest, we pretty much saw you all in the same light—just as you saw us as machines that did whatever we paid to do, we saw you as little more than a means to provide us with money and items.”
“Lies,” Branch said, sitting on the other end of the table with his arms crossed. It made sense he didn’t want to believe it. To think that your entire life was something other than what you could control, constrained to act in a certain way by a force you couldn’t see.
“She’s telling the truth, I’m afraid,” Galantine stated from his seat next to Asuna. He had put away his armor, leaving him in a plain tunic and pants. “It would not be too far a stretch to believe that you were basically just automations that served a purpose that you couldn’t deviate from. In all honesty, the fact that you have names and personalities instead of merely being vendors or farmers is surprising.”
“That’s a rather mortifying thought,” Branch’s wife, Tine, said.
“Well consider how we feel hearing what he said to us?” Asuna said, keeping her voice level. “He basically called us machines that only work when paid, as if we didn’t have feelings or emotions. Despite the fact that this conversation has nothing to do with money, and that I came here because I had heard he was fighting from a child, who ran herself ragged in search for help.”
He at least had the decency to look pensive at that, now that the adrenaline wasn’t coursing through his brain.
“We’ve always had emotions and feelings, just like you have,” Galantine continued. “It’s difficult to put into words that you’d understand, but before a few days ago it was like we were operating these bodies from far away. Sort of like a Summoner would operate a Golem or something like that. There was a different set of rules, limitations on what we could do, and how we could act and respond. Likewise, it would appear that it limited how we saw you as well.”
“If that’s the case, I can see this being a problem,” Tine said. “This sort of thing has never happened as far as I know. So what changed?”
“We aren’t sure of the cause of this change was,” Asuna said. “We were taken from our homes without warning, and we have no idea on how to reverse it either. So for all intents and purposes, this is our reality at the moment, separated from our other friends and family, and in my case this isn’t the first time it’s happened.”
She eyed the farmer intently. “We may be undying to you, but we feel pain and emotions and have thoughts of our own. We have families that we have no idea if we’ll ever see again. Is it wrong that we’d ask to be treated as equals when we’re standing right in front of you?”
“…I’m sorry,” he said gruffly, a notable and elongated pause in his voice. “A man who can’t admit his mistakes has no right to criticize others. I… should have realized something had changed sooner.”
“I accept your apology and offer one of my own,” Asuna said. “I projected a trauma onto you and should have been more patient. It should have been handled with diplomacy and talking, like now. But I spent years working on my swordsmanship, in a life-or-death scenario, before I got here. It’s something I take pride in. So when someone tramples on that pride—”
“You want to trample them right back,” Branch finished as he looked down at his fist. “I understand.”
The moment of understanding came to an end with the growling of Varn’s stomach, which loudly grabbed their attention. He shrugged at their glances. “I haven’t eaten all day and I’ve worked up an appetite. Can you blame me?”
Tine offered them sandwiches. Asuna took a bite and found it tasted bland as always. She broke off a portion and held it to her daughter to see if it was the case with her. Yui’s tiny body shivered.
Tine noticed. “Is it not to your liking?”
“We don’t mean any offense,” Galantine quickly said, acting as a diplomat again. “It seems that since we aren’t natives to this world, we can’t taste food normally. Everything lacks flavor, despite its look.”
“That’s not actually true,” Asuna said. “I made contact with someone who may or may not be doing something that will interest the both of you, but the short story is that I found a way to add flavor to food for Adventurers. If I remember right, you can cook Crab Meat under Level 10 in the Chef subclass, which I have. If we can get them from these corpses, I can probably make something.”
“How do we do that?” Varn asked as he stood straight, interest peaked drastically. “At this point, I’ll eat anything that has an ounce of flavor in it.”
She shrugged. “I’ve been working with bought ingredients so far, but my husb—friend in Akiba said that the monsters he killed simply burst into bubbles afterwards and dropped vials of poisons and coins.”
Galantine brought his hand to his chin. “Poison, you say?” If he recalled the closest nest of monsters that had poison as a drop and likely used it was the forest where that hive of plant spiders things were. “Perhaps it has to do with the type of monsters?”
“That’s right.” Branch announced as he stood up. “Monsters with meat and such stick around for a short time if they’re left whole when they die. Folks take what they can by Harvesting.”
The Harvest skill was a subclass cross-skill that several role-playing subclasses possessed, like Border Patrol, Tracker, Hunter, and Forager to state a few of them. They were registered in the Automatic Acquisition List branch of skills, meaning they were gained with levels in the subclass, much like several of their class skills.
In addition, there were modifiers to increase the proficiency through paying with mastery points. The ranks went from [Comprehension] to [Beginner] to [Intermediate] to [Hidden] and lastly [Secret]. The Beginner’s rank was easily achievable with a minimal amount of mastery points, but the others required scrolls written by experienced NPCs or Adventurers and even more mastery points.
“If that’s the case, we won’t be able to obtain the meat unless we find someone who has the necessary skill level to harvest from a Rank 1 monster before they disappear,” Galantine said. “I think that a Beginner rank would be enough for something as simple as the meat, but if the shell could be used then that would be something like an Intermediate rank.”
“That’s unfair!” Varn whined. “I want meat that I can actually taste for once!”
“I can handle the harvesting,” Tine offered. “As a Housewife of a Farmer, I’m well-versed in a number of things and assist my husband on the farm. It’s the least I can do for you saving my husband, and to apologize for our preconceptions.”
“Me too!” said Olive.
“No, you’re not,” Marin said as she finished re-bandaging the girl’s tiny feet. Her stall-partner, Seira, remained outside to collect the coins that had been left behind for everyone. “You need to stay off your feet for now.”
Olive pouted. “But I want to help too….”
“You’ve done enough,” Asuna assured her. “It was brave of you to make it all that way on your own rather than remain a victim of circumstances, even with monsters there. That’s something that can’t be said for a lot of my people right now. They can’t die, but they’re too scared to even fight monsters like your father did or brave the danger of this world.”
“Pansies,” Varn helpfully added. Regardless, the little girl seemed to beam at the praise, and her father seemed to have a sort of pride in that as well.
Asuna turned back to Tine. “That’d be great if you could. Half of it should be yours since you’re both helping. I’ll help if I can, since I want to see how it’s done, so we can use the extra meat and knowledge in my plans for Nakasu.”
“You have a plan in mind?” Galantine asked.
She nodded. “To be honest, I don’t think help is coming. Even if it does, I’m not going to sit around and let this be a repeat of SAO, where only a handful of us do the heavy-lifting while others loiter in hopes of help coming like helpless victims. Everyone is going to help in one way or another, but to do that we need incentive to start things off, and to learn how things work in the world—and who better to learn from than the natives?”
“There are two other farms in the area,” Branch told her. “We’re on good terms with one another, and there’s a lot of meat laying about here. We’ll never harvest it all alone before it goes bad, but maybe they’d be willing to help for a cut of the meat and the knowledge there are still some people going around to help in these troubling times of change.”
“That’d be great, if possible,” Asuna said. “Can you set it up?”
“I can,” Marin volunteered. “Seira and I know all the farmhands, since we get produce from the local farms, so they’ll listen to me. If we can arrange for something to get food delivered, that’d be good too.”
“We’ll take my horse.” Asuna stood up. “Yui, can you stay here with Olive and keep an eye on things while we handle the grown-up business.”
Her daughter nodded. “Okay, Mama.”
“I’d better go as well,” Galantine said. “Varn, stay here and make sure nothing threatens them.”
“As long as I get something good in my belly soon,” Varn said as he adjusted his belt.
Asuna turned to the brunette and nodded for them to go. They had a lot of work ahead of them and they needed to be quick if they were going to get it all done. They were new to this world, one that was already inhabited, so they needed to forge connections with the natives if they were going to do more than survive.
This was the first step.
[Chapter 6 -o0o- End]
Name: Level – Class (Species – Build) and Sub-Class
Olive: Lv. 4 Farmer (Human) with Apprentice sub-class
Tine: Lv. 15 Farmer (Human) with Housewife sub-class
Marin: Lv. 10 Merchant (Human) with Stall-Owner sub-class
Seira: Lv. 10 Merchant (Human) with Stall-Owner sub-class