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Back in the Game: Chapter 8

[Chapter 8 -o0o- Start]

A tantalizing scent filled the night air. It melded with the smoke that drifted skyward from the clearing, an alluring aroma that teased the senses. Irresistible to all those caught within its expanding web as it wafted on the breeze that whistled through the clearing, those whose noses it graced could not look away from the origin.

Their eyes were locked into place. Their mouths watered uncontrollably. Gnawing hunger clawing at their stomachs as it glistened off the firelight and embers that rose through the grate.

It was the scent of cooked meat, and it was easily the most magical thing that Kirito had smelled in his life at that very moment. Just watching as the shimmering heat left the cubes of meat, neatly-cut between vegetables on skewers, glistening with juices that added to the glaze, left him unable to contain himself anymore. He had to have a taste!

So he cast his dark eyes around the camp to see if there was anyone watching. Most of the attention was on the Chef of the Crescent Moon Alliance, Girov, as he worked his magic on preparing another delicious-looking meal.  The guild was relatively small, with only around nineteen players active and only four of them Level 90. But the Chef had valued experience IRL and was using it to chop up bamboo shoots to go along with the meat to the amazement of his Guild Master, Monk, Summoner—Maryelle, Violet, and Meifa respectively—and the others.

Now was his chance. He reached out for a skewer like it was sacred gold that he was pillaging from a trap-laden temple on the South American server. It couldn’t hurt to just have one skewer to soothe the ache in his stomach, right?


He was merely inches away when something hard caught the back of his hand, forcing him to pull back. He sucked a sharp breath and nursed the spot with his other hand, giving Klein a side-glance in annoyance. “Did you have to use your sheathe?”

“Yes,” Klein said bluntly, tapping his sheathed sword on his shoulder. “Yes I did. You can’t eat before everyone else.”

“It’s not like we don’t have extras left over,” Kirito said as he tilted his head over to where the rest of the ingredients were. They had split into groups once the Crescent Moon Alliance had arrived with their members and they’d exchanged greetings. The mobs they’d harvested weren’t strong in particular and were rather large, so they’d hunted down more than enough for this little experiment, after ensuring that each group had at least one member who could harvest the meat through either the Chef or Forager sub-class.

“Extra or not, you should eat with the group rather than on your own,” Klein said. “You’re not running Solo anymore, and you don’t see any of the others lacking in self-control, now do you?”

Thwack! “Ow!”

They turned at the sound of someone else having their attempt rebuked and turned to see that Soujiro was cradling his hand as well. His second-in-command, Nazuna, was looking at him with a slight pout as he apologized. She then looked up to Klein and sent him a look that expressed the same frustration that he did before the pair guided the two dual-wielders over to where the rest of their collective groups were gathered until everything was done.

N’awww, you’re a little cutie, aren’t you?” Maryelle said as she stroked Pina’s head gently. The Waterfowl Dragon Pup preened under the attention, much to her delight as she looked over to Kirito. “Your guild is lucky to have such a cute Pet and Summoner.”

“Ah… we aren’t actually a guild,” Kirito said. “We’re just friends who happened to have logged in at the same time and we stuck together for our own safety once the chaos began.”

“Then you should consider starting one if all of you will be staying together,” Soujiro said. “Having a Guild Hall is one of the few ways to ensure that everyone will be able to rest without fear at night and at least in some comfort.”

“That would have actually made things easier last night,” Suguha said, rubbing her shoulder as she recalled sleeping against the wall of the ruined building only to wake up and find that Kirito had gone missing. “You should start a guild, Onii-chan.”

Kirito shook his head slowly at the suggestion, eyes never leaving the crackling flames of the Salamander that Silica had summoned as it sat beneath a grill perched on two stones. “If we’re going to start a guild, Klein would be better suited for that sort of thing, given he managed a front-line guild without any casualties.”

Being put on the spot, Klein blinked in surprise before clearing his throat. “Well, I don’t mind since it would basically mean handling room and board for Silica and your sister. But didn’t you shoot down the suggestion a bit quickly?”

“It’s not that I have anything against guilds. It’s just that…” The first guild I joined was wiped out and their leader committed suicide while blaming me. “I spent most of my time in SAO playing alone, so I don’t really know how a guild would function beyond a basic-level. I’d rather leave it in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing and who I can trust, and that’d be you in this case.”

“That’s high praise coming from you.” Klein seemed abashed at the praise honestly, rubbing the back of his head. “So, does that mean you’ll actually accept a guild invitation from me this time?”

Kirito gave him a side glance and smirked, but said nothing as Girov announced the food was done. They all grabbed one of the wooden skewers lined with meat, vegetables, and the assorted additional foods. A sauce of some kind was spread over it to add to the already scintillating scent. Then they took a bite and joyous cries filled the clearing as flavor filled their mouths.

Mmm…I-It’s so tasty!” Maryelle said, holding her cheek as she savored the rich flavor filling her mouth.

At the same time, soft, grateful cries joined the tears in Klein’s eyes as his wolf-ears rose the moment he bit into the mushroom and grilled meat kebob. “I never thought I’d be so happy to eat real food again.”

“Me too,” Silica said as she ate her own as well. Pina watched curiously with its bright red eyes as she ate with a zeal that was seemingly unmatched until she took off a cube of meat and held it out in her palm. “Here Pina, you try it too.”

The young dragon sniffed at it a bit before nipping it out of her hand and chewing it. A happy chirrup left its mouth and it leapt onto her lap to beg for more. She obliged it happily, which put a smile on Kirito’s face since he was worried that she had been taking it the hardest out of their little group of four.

He then turned to Girov, who was watching with a sense of pride as they ate. “Thanks for doing this.”

“Not a problem. There’s nothing better for a chef than knowing that his food is appreciated after all.”

“Believe me when I say it is greatly appreciated,” Nazuna told him. “Is it possible for us to bring some back for the others at our guild? It’ll make them feel better about everything so far.”

“You guys gathered plenty for me to work with, so there’ll be more than enough for everyone to take home some,” Girov assured them. “It’s lucky that we met you guys since my brother and I will be able put our skills to good work now.”

Maryelle nodded enthusiastically. “Shiroe-kun really made things easier for us all by having us meet up like this.”

“That’s Shiroe-senpai for you,” Soujirou agreed.

So they’ve all got a high opinion of him, Kirito thought to himself as he listened to them. He still wasn’t fully sure about the guy with glasses just yet. He wanted to chalk that up to him just being overly-cautious though after everything he’d gone through.

Either way, he’d still have to tell Asuna that it works and they’ve solved the food issues. That was a progress, but they still didn’t have a clear goal and that worried him. People need to have a goal to strive for so they could keep going.

If there was a way in, there was a way out, he reasoned silently. They just needed to get behind the mystery of it. But first everyone needed to adjust to the circumstances so they didn’t panic, and if Shiroe could do this much in an evening then maybe he was their best bet of doing so for now.

So he’d go along with the Enchanter’s suggestion and see how it unfolded.

 [LH -o0o- SAO]

With Galantine

Galantine sat on a piece of debris that was thick enough to serve as a seat, opposite of Miss Asuna and with Mina next to him. Similar to when he was at Branch’s home, the Paladin had removed his armor and remained dressed in his casual clothing.  There was a small fire between them, being used to cook the Crab Meat that they had gathered from assisting the farmers along the coast.

It was a temporary measure at the moment though. The Ascot Crabs would surface again over the course of the season and they would be in trouble again unless measures were taken. That was a problem that Miss Asuna was hoping to rectify, apparently.

That was why she invited them over to the building she was using at the moment, ruined like the rest but not to an extent that it was unusable. There she gave them the highlights of her past while she prepared the meat for them to eat—namely of how she had been a Clearer in Sword Art Online and the Vice-Leader of one of the most prominent guilds—and her plans for Nakasu.

It made sense. She was very forward because she was in a position where giving clear and confident commands would be a necessity on the battlefield, as well as managing others. Her disdain for those who refused to act if they could and relied on others came from the fact that she was the one putting her life on the line when others wouldn’t, fighting for their freedom while they stood aside despite being able to function.

“So, what do you think?” she asked at the very end.

“…I can see you viewpoint on things as they stand,” he said after he complied his thoughts. “Having access to actual food would be an immense boon, if only because it fulfills the basic human needs. It could be used as a powerful motivation tool, so may I ask why we should keep it a secret from others?”

“Because they haven’t earned it,” she said bluntly. “We and Branch were the only ones fighting while everyone else was huddled away, waiting for someone to come and rescue them despite being capable of acting. We did the work, so why should we share the fruits of our findings freely when we had to earn it?”

“Well, I can’t argue with that logic,” Mina said. “But what if we sell it to the pansies and make a nice and tidy profit? We’d be rich within a day.”

“Because money isn’t a priority right now,” Asuna said. “Everyone has it in spades and everything they’d need for daily living is relatively cheap compared to anything else, so they’ll just sit down and eat when our priority is getting people to do something. Even if we could help Branch and his family this time, things are liable to be a nightmare elsewhere.”

“That seems to be the case.” Certainly, from their talk they’ve established how things worked back when the Adventurers were autonomous from their point of view and NPC’s were from the players. Whatever happened has torn that system apart and it’ll take them some time before they can adapt from it, which will affect their community as well. The fact that the markets were empty was proof of that.

“I’m not waiting for someone to rescue us and let things get worse,” she continued, eyes narrowed with determination as she stared unwaveringly into his. “We have to save ourselves, and to do that we need to start acting and not letting people who are capable of doing something coast freely.”

“…May I be frank with you?” Galantine asked. When she nodded her head in consent, he continued. “You carry yourself as someone who is prideful and strict, fixed on a goal and doing what it will take to achieve it. However, I feel that you come off too strongly. At the rate you’re going, you’re likely to inspire animosity with others and that will discourage them, or make enemies.”

And you talk about my manners,” Mina muttered.

“Don’t be mean to her,” her daughter said, fluttering over to him. “Mama is trying her best for everyone’s sake!”

“It’s fine, Yui. I appreciate his honesty since he pulled his own weight,” Miss Asuna said to her kindly before turning back to him. “I have my own set of circumstances that have led to my current stance, and I know that it will offend some people. That’s why I want you both to assist me like you did with Branch and his family.”

“You mean to act as your right and left hands with this?”

She nodded. “You’ve proven yourselves to be more than just talk, and I respect that you came over to help. You’ve got a way with words as well that I just don’t have the patience for anymore with someone who doesn’t show me respect. I think that with you two we can make it so that everyone can carry themselves until we can find a way out.”

“I’m only good at smashing stuff,” Mina said. “But if Galantine here agrees and you keep floating food my way, I’ll be glad to throw my axe at whatever you need.”

Galantine gave it some more thought. He had nothing against the idea, and really they did need some unifying force. At least if Mina was working with her food wouldn’t be an issue, and keeping busy would deal with her rampant boredom. Besides, he genuinely did want to help and if she’s the spark to set the fire under Nakasu, he could keep the fires of her determination from being snuffed out or going wild and burning them all.

“Very well,” he said. “If you’ll take our council to heart, we’re gladly assist you.”

Miss Asuna smiled. “Glad to have you both onboard. So, any ideals on where to start while we’re all here?”

Galantine nodded. “The first measure I would suggest is that we attain a Guild Hall tomorrow, if not for just shelter and for the sake of our own protection, but to present a unified and professional front. You’ll be able to cook in private and maintain the secret easier as well.”

“Okay, we’ll handle that first thing in the morning,” she said. “We’ll need to use all the meat we’ve obtained before it goes bad too, and we can’t eat nearly everything alone before the Ascot Crabs returned. We’ll have those two stall-girls help us distribute the food, at a modest wage of course, and use it to recruit help for the next wave.”

Galantine rubbed his chin in thought. “A taste of real food will get them interested to do that much and we can offer it in exchange for services rendered—fighting monsters or gathering ingredients based on a quota. And if we offer more in exchange for filling out a flyer with their username, class, and sub-class, we can use that information to help find others willing to help in the long run, such as chefs.”

“Most people don’t take a sub-class like that though,” Mina chimed in. “Most choose sub-classes that are immediately useful for gameplay, not role-playing. Stuff like farmers, accountants, and the like are among the lowest for a reason.”

“That will make it difficult to find many who have classes needed for certain fields,” Galantine admitted. “We’ll need a way to rectify that as well.”

“That’s easy enough,” Asuna said. “We just find anyone who has the real-world skills and then have them switch their sub-class over to it. Or we can have others act as Apprentices to the natives who have the appropriate sub-class so they can learn. And if they don’t want to do that, we can have them keep the farms safe, help them with harvesting, and escort their shipments.”

Galantine shook his head. “That’ll be like a dictatorship if we force it, providing we’re in a position to do so. However, if we can find volunteers on a small scale, maybe a small guild’s worth of individuals to test it out, they can help get others interested. Regardless, it’ll only a temporary measure. The secret will come out eventually and the food will lose its worth, so those that aren’t interested will stop.”

“As long as we actually get them moving and learning, it’ll be fine for short-term,” Asuna said. “In the long-run though, I’m hoping that the connection we’ve made with the farmers can help with learning more about this world and creating a rapport with the natives. Things are going to be hectic for a while and I believe that we can learn a lot from each other.”

“I still kind of wanted to punch that farmer’s face in though,” Mina admitted.

“That’s not nice,” Yui said from her perch on her mother’s head.

Mina just shrugged. “It’s true though. They guy was an ass, and I can’t tell you how many times I see player’s taking a swing at him on the monitor only for it to go through him.”

Galantine crossed his arms in thought at that. “He never mentioned that, so perhaps whatever filter was in place stopped players from actually doing it on this side. That restriction no longer applies and even if they can be seen as our equals in intellect, our levels make a world of difference. We won’t be able to make peace with them if someone starts abusing that because they feel as if they’re gods among men.”

Asuna sighed at that. “Yeah, someone’s going to start taking advantage unless we have people willing to keep the peace. That’s why we need to get started on this as soon as possible and take the reins. We don’t need psychopaths like Laughing Coffin starting to show up again.”

 [SAO -o0o- LH]

In Minami

Had Girasol heard Asuna’s proclamation, she would have cursed her for jinxing them.

The building in front of her was on fire, burning brightly in the night like a beacon that drew in people like moths. It was done intentionally, carefully, ensuring that each and everyone one of them could see the symbol painted onto the ground in front of the building. It was a symbol she recognized very well, a coffin that had a face on it with broad lips upturned in a smile—a laughing coffin.

She sucked in a sharp breath at the thought of one of their number slipping in and already leaving a mark. People knew that emblem and would react poorly. They’d panic and the chaos would be just what the one responsible for it wanted. That was the last thing they needed.

“First thing first, I need to put out this fire.” Wiping the sweat off her brow from the heat, she tossed back the hood of her robes to reveal tan skin emblazoned with the tattoo from her chosen race—the Race of Ritual. The tome she carried floated in front of her, pages flipping until it came to a picture of one of the spirits under contract with her.

Call Servant…” She extended her hand towards it and a cerulean magic circle formed. The sensation of her MP dwindling tickled her mind and the warmth from the tattoos glowing still took some getting used to. “Undine!

Water pulled from the air condensed into a blob around the circle and then began to take the shape of a curvaceous woman as the spirit inhabited it. Flowing hair, water woven into strands, spilled down her backside as dark eyes took in their surroundings and the fins acting as her ears shifted. Fully-formed, the Undine circled around its Summoner, swimming through the air, before coming to a stop in front of her and waiting for a command with a placid expression.

“Douse that fire,” Girasol ordered. “Take as much time as you need, but make sure it doesn’t spread.”

A smile spread across the Undine’s face as it consented with a soft sound that played on its Summoner’s ears. Then it flowed upwards and around the building, calling forth water to enclose it and work from the outside inwards.

Girasol pulled her hood back on as stray drops splashed against her face and looked around in search of anyone suspicious among the gawkers. She suspected that the one responsible for the symbol of Laughing Coffin would be watching, observing the reaction to their handiwork. Let them see this then—let them see her putting out the fire and washing away the symbol of their madness.

She refused to let another murderous group gain ground here. Just because they couldn’t die, didn’t mean they couldn’t do worse things. She wouldn’t let them put fear into everyone just to make them happy.

Three other Undines soon joined hers, courtesy of a trio of Summoners some distance away from her. They were being led by a Fox Tail woman with long black hair who watched the fire burn with her fan covering her lower lips, and a purpled-haired Elf woman with a stern expression. She gave them a nod in thanks and was met with one in return by the elf.

Once the fire was out, the elf approached her to question what she knew. It was very little, but she would find out more. That was her specialty after all.

She wasn’t once known as Argo the Rat for nothing.

 [Chapter 8 -o0o- End]


Name: Level – Class (Species – Build) and Sub-Class

Maryelle: Lv. 90 Cleric (Elf – High Healer) with Woodcrafter sub-class.

Girasol (Argo): Lv. 55 Summoner (Race of Ritual – Eclectic Supporter) with Tracker sub-class.


Back in the Game: Chapter 7

[-|Back in the Game |-]

[Chapter 7 -o0o- Start]

Soujiro Seta, guild-master of the West Wind Brigade, strode through the dark woods with three of his companions at his side. The soft glow of Nazuna’s Bug’s Light spell, which drifted around his party like fireflies, shrouded them in an almost teal aura. It glinted off the polished steel of his samurai equipment as they proceeded to the designated meeting location.

They were supposed to meet with two groups of players that his senior in the DTP had recently met, to further experiment with the game system. The three would work together in order to test the possibility of there being a way to attain actual food with flavor, something that would ease the weary and worried members of his guild and bring them a measure of peace.

Still, Soujiro had trouble believing they were in the actual world of Elder Tales. That was something he’d dreamed of after he heard about Sword Art Online—at least before its launch. He had even been in line for the opportunity to play it then, but he didn’t get a copy of the game before all of them were sold out. Then came the news that 10,000 people had been trapped inside, and he could only think about what a waste it was that things ended up like that.

The news had almost been enough to deter him from participating in Alfheim, but he gave it a try. It was a great experience, especially the flying. But then came the news that the creator had done something similar to SAO, and the game was shutdown after rumors of someone having finally reached the Floating City—an unaffiliated Spriggan of all races.

It was a shame that the creators of both games were so willing to ruin what should be a grand experience for everyone for selfish reasons. Now that it was happening a third time, to a classic game at that, leaving him wondering if the creators once more decided to forsake their fanbase for the sake of some selfish goal.

His thoughts turned to the people they would be meeting. The Crescent Moon Alliance and his West Wind Brigade were to bring one Cooking or Harvest-capable member, the guild-master or their representative, and two others to help with the fighting. The third party at the gathering would consist of survivors of SAO, acting as consultants or such.

He had decided to bring Nazuna and Isami as the two to help with the gathering, since they were dependable, but cooking was a bit of an issue. Dolce was his first choice, being a good cook IRL. But he didn’t have the Chef subclass, so he decided to remain behind to console the members of the guild who were in the middle of a panic over the circumstances. Sandy came along instead since her Farmer subclass could be used to help with the gathering, and the Crescent Moon Alliance would bring a Chef.

As for the survivors, Shiroe stated that their leader would be fairly forward when it came to answering questions about the event and their experiences, unlike most that were traumatized from the experience. And, as terrible as it was, he had to admit that he was morbidly curious what it was like to live with a sword in hand the majority of the time. He hoped he could have a chance to speak with the man without offending him.

He was brought out of his musings when he felt a slight tap on his shoulder. He turned to see that Nazuna was looking off to the side, further into the distance. “What’s wrong?”

“I hear fighting coming from that direction.” Her fox ears twitched a few times. “At least two people.”

“Really?” Isami stepped towards that direction, her orange hair rustling as a gentle breeze flowed. She tried to peer into the darkness, but it was to no avail. “I thought they weren’t gathering yet.”

“I don’t think they’re hunting,” she said, her ears leaning forward. “It sounds like steel clashing, sword against sword.”

“Hmm…” He rubbed his chin in thought for a moment before snapping his fingers. “Let’s check it out!”

“Shouldn’t we—ah, wait Director!” Isami called as he abruptly took off, leaving her reaching out for his fleeting figure. She groaned and then looked to Sandy, who was silently observing things from beneath the rim of her hood.

Leaving behind the Bug’s Lights, he rushed towards the sound of battle with the enhanced capabilities of his body. He couldn’t fly like when he was in ALO, but he was fast enough that he could feel the wind rushing past his face as it had when he soared the skies on emerald-green wings.

The sound of steel clashing grew tumultuous, and a faint light grew brighter as he neared the source. Soujiro stopped his agile gait at the edge of a clearing, and found that it had been turned into a makeshift camp. There was a fire off to one side, where a small girl with a dragon on her head and a samurai were quietly observing what was happening in a section further out. He turned to follow their line-of-sight and found himself just as captivated as they were.

The tips of two blades crashed into one another and left a spray of sparks that briefly lingered in the air as their owners broke away from one another. They both leapt back, covering a few meters so that they stood on the fringes of the circle of light cast by a Magic Light spell. The living sphere of light shifted its gaze back and forth between them with unblinking eyes and an intrigued smile.

The black-haired Kannagi—evident by her clothing and katana-class weapon—was panting, her chest rising and falling. Sweat glistened off her forehead as she held a formal stance he witnessed in Kendo demonstrations he found online. Her blade was at the front, centered on her opponent and ready with both hands on the hilt.

The black-haired… Swashbuckler, Soujiro realized as he focused on him and his health bar appeared with the double-sword icon next to it, was panting as well. But he took deeper breaths at a slower rate, eyes never leaving his opponent. He only had one of his two swords drawn, which he held in a non-standard pose by holding it behind him with his right-hand, while his empty hand and left feet were forward.

Strictly speaking at a glance, she probably had an advantage against him with that unorthodox pose. His front was wide-open, and the time it would take for her to cross the distance and bring her sword down would be more than enough to do some serious damage. Yet, she wasn’t capitalizing on it for some reason.

Instead, she shifted her stance so that it was lower and angled her blade to pierce rather than slash as befitting the weapon. The grass beneath her sandals shifted as though a spring breeze rolled around it, and a pair of small, ethereal wings appeared on her ankles. Then the air shuddered and popped as she kicked off the ground, spearing towards him at a heightened speed courtesy of the Ritual of the Tensokuhou skill.

In an instant, he slid his rear-leg further out in the angled direction and pivoted on it. Not only would it bring his unguarded side to the rear and get him off-line, but he’d be able to bring the blade down in an arch that would cut her down while she was coming in. She’d be unable to bring her sword around to defend and stopping short would still put her in harm’s way.

Perhaps realizing this, she didn’t stop. Instead, she stomped her foot down and pushed off to get airborne and flip over his head. Her sword became a silver streak at the same time as she swung it for his unprotected head.

Black strands were severed as he ducked his head down in time to avoid getting it sliced open, spinning around on his pivoting foot and carrying the downward momentum of the sword around into an upwards diagonal like a pendulum. The heavier blade met hers as she brought it into a guard position, birthing sparks as the still-aerial young woman went flying further back.

She fell into a roll as she landed, but got back onto her feet after the first rotation. It was just in time to intercept his blade as he rushed in. Her non-dominant hand braced the back of the blade, near the top, in an irregular guarding position to hold it steady as they locked together again.

The Swashbuckler grinned and said something to her. It was too far for Soujiro to hear, but whatever it was put a spot of crimson on her cheeks. The faint scent of apricots thickened in the air as she vanished and then reappeared some distance away, leaving only apricot flower petals where she had been, pulling out a piece of paper that was shaped like a person with writing on it.

The moment she threw it into the air and called out a name, the paper burst into countless scraps that reformed into the shape of a featureless human. Ghostly features set in over it, cladding it cheap armor and giving it a worn katana. The ill-equipped samurai stood in front of her as though to protect her.

“Souji, you shouldn’t run off like that.” Soujiro turned to see that Nazuna was approaching him, the others a few feet away. Her eyes shifted to the battle. “Is that the Ochimusha?”

“Is that the name of that?” he asked.

She nodded after giving it hard look, and then scratched her head in thought for a moment. “It’s been years since I’ve done the quest, but if I remember right, it’s supposed to be a warrior that fled from battle dishonorably and was struck down for his cowardice by an angry farmer, who lost their own son honorably on the battlefield. The ghost wandered around looking for a master to serve in hopes of redemption, and by finding the makeshift grave-marker and praying in front of it with a slip of Talisman Paper, the name of spirit would be etched into it and you can call it forth to serve you.”

“That sounds like a Kannagi-exclusive quest,” Isami said as she looked over his shoulder at the fight as well.

“In game terms, it’s a Rank 2 shikigami that you can obtain once your level reaches the 20s. It’s basically a brief attack buff that lasts for about five minutes and does additional damage attributed to the player—overlaying them like a ghost. It’s nothing special really since, if you’re a Kannagi, then you’ve got your own buffs at that level and there are better ones later on. In general, shikigami were simply added to the game content for role-players.”

He turned back to look at the Ochimusha as it tried to cut down the Swashbuckler from the front, while the Kannagi came in to strike him down from his other side. “The fact that we’re in the game seems to have changed the mechanics to where it fights alongside of you instead.”

The black-clad swordsman focused on the girl, seeing her as the greater threat. Rightfully so considering the sharpness of her strike as she cut through the air with a horizontal slash towards his chest. He blocked with black sword in his hand, the ringing of their blades loud and clear, leaving his back to the shikigami.

The Ochimusha immediately stepped forward, swinging the sword down in an arch towards his unprotected neck from the rear. The slash would surely hurt, even if it didn’t take off his head… unless it was a lucky critical. Could they still function without a head?

The unasked question went unanswered as he brought his other hand to the hilt of his sheathed sword and pulled it from its scabbard. The ivory-toned steel intercepted the shikigami’s katana with ease, stopping it short of his neck. Then he spun, unleashing a Whirlwind that released a shockwave that blew both of his opponents back.

Obsidian steel and ivory blade in hand, lightning crackled at his feet as he kicked off the ground towards the shikigami and lunged. As he did so, he spun in mid-air to turn himself into living saw that carved through the shikigami. He slid to a stop some distance away courtesy of the momentum and looked to see that the paper composing it burst into flames, and the ethereal features dissipated.

But he’d lost track of the young woman in the process, sucking in a sharp breath as he noticed that she had taken the momentary distraction to vanish from his sight. He clenched his teeth and then jerked his head up to see that she was coming down, her sword once more attempting to impale his head from above. Too fast to dodge, he resorted to crossing his blades and attempting to parry it.

Steel grated against steel as her blade was barely driven off its mark, slitting the side of his neck and shoulder as she came crashing down upon him. The landing left them on the ground, her mounting his stomach, and her blade pinned into the ground next to his head. There was a confident grin on her face as she looked down into his eyes, her mouth moving.

“‘I win, Onii-chan,’ is what she’s saying,” Nazuna said.

The Swashbuckler smiled… and then he planted his feet on the ground, bending his knees, and grabbed her by the lapels. In a single motion, he pushed off the ground and thrust his lower-body and torso upwards. That pushed her forward while his arms jerked her to the side, putting her on the ground and him on top of her.

The Swashbuckler mouthed something, and Soujiro looked to his second-in-command.

“We didn’t say swords-only,” she parroted as the Kannagi struggled against his weight upon her, but stopped after a moment. She closed her eyes and sighed, her mouth moving and Nazuna providing the words. “Fine, I give up. You win this time.”

Their spar finished, Soujiro found himself clapping as he walked forward while the Swashbuckler helped her up. All eyes fell onto him but he pressed on. “That was an amazing match between you two. I’m impressed.”

“It was more of a test of how PvP would work if our levels were about the same using the Teaching Function,” the Swashbuckler said as he sheathed his blades with a flourish. “Judging from the Samurai-attire, you must be the West Wind Brigade?”

He nodded. “And you must be the SAO survivors that Shiroe-Senpai mentioned.”

“I actually only played ALO,” the Kannagi admitted as she dusted herself off. “Onii-chan played both.”

“Is that so?” If that was the case, maybe they’d met some time before the game closed. “What race?”

“Sugu was a Sylph for over a year,” he said. “I picked a Spriggan because I liked the color scheme and didn’t really pay attention to anything else. I was just in a hurry to get to the World Tree at the time. The game shutdown after that, so I didn’t have a chance to enjoy it longer.”

“A Spriggan…” A passing thought occurred and he grew excited. “Wait, were you the Spriggan that made it to the top?”

The Swashbuckler scratched this cheek. “Yeah, I suppose so.”

“What was the Floating City like?” he asked, a tremor of anticipation in his voice. Because of how quickly the game was shutdown, he was always left wondering what was up at the top of the World Tree. Was it everything they hoped to see in the end?

The swordsman winced. “How do I say this…?” He sucked in a sharp breath and scratched the back of his head. “You understand that they shut the game down because several of the players in SAO had been trapped inside of Alfheim due to Nobuyuki, right?”

Soujiro nodded. While the game had been shutdown, not much information had been released to the public beyond the government issuing their statement. “It was something involving unethical testing, right?”

He tilted his hand back and forth. “Close enough, I guess. The point is that I had it on good authority that they were being held there, so I spearheaded the effort to confirm it. Once I got to the top of the World Tree, I found that the entrance was sealed off entirely because that was where he was carrying out unethical experimentation on those hostages. Players were never meant to be able to access that floor, so there was no need to code in what they told the general public. If I hadn’t gotten my hands on administrative clearance through some… dubious means, then I wouldn’t have been able to proceed further.”

The realization made Soujiro’s shoulders sag. “That means it was all a lie.”

“Yeah, it was.” There was a note of distaste in his voice as he confirmed as much, bringing his hand to his chest as though he had been wounded. “He was worse than Kayaba in that aspect, though they both ended up destroying the foundation of what could have been something great for the sake of their egos. They betrayed everyone who believed in them.”

Then the Swashbuckler sighed, letting the tension flow out of his body as he put back on a smile. “Anyway, let’s get the introductions out of the way. I’m Kirito, a Level 90 Swashbuckler-Sword Saint.”

“Soujiro Seta,” the guild-master of the West Wind Brigade offered in turn, giving him a slight bow in respect. “I am a Level 90 Samurai-Sword Saint as well.”

“I go by the name Leafa,” said the Kannagi as she sheathed her own sword. “I’m a Level 25 Kannagi-Acrobat. I look forward to working with you.”

“And I’m Klein,” announced the red-clad Samurai as he came up to them from behind. He stood in front of Nazuna and offered her his hand. “I’m a Samurai-Rune Knight, only Level 37 at the moment.”

She shook it briefly. “Nazuna, a Level 90 Kannagi-Gambler.” She placed her hands on her hip as she looked down to the young summoner with fox-ears similar to her own, lingering a little further away from her. “And who do we have here?”

“Silica,” she said, keeping her eyes to the ground between giving brief glances towards the older woman’s breasts. “I’m a Level 24 Summoner, with a Beast-Tamer subclass. I’m just keeping the fire ready with my Salamander.”

Her pet dragon made a low chirruping noise perched on her head. It instantly charmed Isami, who crouched down and reached to pat it on the head. “Aren’t you a cutie? Do you have a name too?”

“This is Pina,” Silica said, a little more animated. “I just tamed her before the expansion pack came online because she reminded me of a dragon I had in Sword Art Online.”

“Well, I’m Isami, a Level 90 Samurai-Accountant.” She nodded to the girl behind her, who gave a slight wave. “This is Sandy, a Level 90 Cleric-Farmer. Though she doesn’t say much, she’ll be handling the harvesting.”

The Samurai-Rune Knight, Klein, chucked a bit. “Well, I’m feeling a little inadequate around so many high-level players, but I’ll do my part with hunting once the other group arrives.”

Nazuna tapped her cheek in thought as she looked him up and down. “Well, you seem dependable enough. And I don’t think level will be much of a factor for this.”

“Should we take a seat around the fire?” Soujiro asked Kirito. “We can talk while we wait for the Crescent Moon Alliance to arrive. I don’t think it will take long.”

Kirito nodded. “That would be best.”

[LH -o0o- SAO]

The straw broom dusting that hardwood floor stilled in Serara’s hand when a ping reached her ears and her status screen popped up. Her Housekeeper level had ascended to Level 44, despite being two levels lower yesterday. Had she really been doing so much cleaning for that to happen?

She didn’t know whether or not to be pleased with that as she went back to cleaning up the place, wondering why she went with such a role-playing class in the first place, rather than something in production. At least then she could have focused on crafting something while she waited in boredom for the team that was supposed to help her get back to her guild.

Then again, rather than being a skilled housekeeper, she could be considered a housewife instead, since she was doing it to make the man that called this place home happy as well. She could just imagine her kitty-husband coming home and praising her in a deep and smooth voice that made her shudder in glee. The thought excited her so much that she began sweeping frantically and wantonly, a smile on her face and a giggle on her lips.

“Keep it down with the daydreaming a bit, will you?” said the other house guest in the corner. She was sitting at a table, her gloved hands handling a sheet of folded paper that she tilted the end over a small bottle of some chemical solution. Light-blue, fine grains flowed from the end like tea from a spout into the bottle. “It’s distracting, and neither of us wants a repeat of the last time I got distracted, do we?”

Serara chuckled nervously at that, rubbing the back of her head. The last time she’d gotten distracted, they tipped a few bottles of stabilized potions over and they vaporized on contact with the air, leaving them stuck in the room and unable to speak from the Weak Silencing Gas. Even when it wore off, the effect would be reapplied from the gas being confined and not dissipating quickly. “Ah, sorry Lisbeth. I was… just thinking about something.”

“It’s not like I don’t get it, but you shouldn’t get your hopes up so much like that until you know more.” The Monk-Blacksmith named Lisbeth pulled her goggles from over her eyes and left them to rest on her bed of pink-hair. “Trust me when I say that I know what it’s like to fall for someone who saved you, only for it to end poorly and you end up crying under a bridge or something.”

Serara owed Lisbeth of sticking up for her when she had been cornered, despite being even lower leveled than her. Things would have gotten hairy if Nyanta hadn’t showed up when he did, but she was still grateful that another girl was looking out for her in this place. So she considered her words a bit with a small frown.

Lisbeth winced. “That isn’t to say you can’t hope or go for it. Just be prepared for the worst and hope for the best when you eventually do confess to him.”

C-Confess?” Her blush returned, even brighter than before. “What are you suggesting?”

A sly grin came across Lisbeth’s face upon seeing the girl’s reaction. “You’re looking pretty red there. If he walks in, I wonder what he’ll think.”

Desperate to change the subject, Serara pointed to the small batch of potions piled up on the table behind her. “Do you really need to make so many Status Effect gases?”

Lisbeth had a subclass cross-skill in Chemical Synthesis that a number of subclasses had, but it was mostly used by Alchemist, Poison-User, Pharmacist, Herbalist, and Salve-Maker subclasses, who used it to make items that fell into those categories. Blacksmiths could use it to enhance metals through alchemical solutions they made, though it was more practical to buy said solutions instead. She said that she dedicated mastery points towards a [Beginner] rank for some variety, mostly on a whim, and was now using it to create a simple alchemical potion that could be bought at an atelier—if they could leave the private property without being hunted, anyway.

Last Serara counted there were at least ten of them, but they couldn’t do any real damage—just inflict minor status effects that wouldn’t last more than five seconds, released thorough vaporization once they came in contact with the air once they stabilized… though the effect would be reapplied if the vapor cloud didn’t properly ventilate, as they learned.

“Even if help is on the way, I don’t think we’ll be getting out of this without a fight,” Lisbeth said as she pulled the goggles back over her eyes. “If that’s the case, I’m going to make them work for it. After all, I didn’t spend two years in a Death Game to get pushed around by some beef-headed jerk.”

That being said, Lisbeth got back to work and Serara went back to cleaning. While the latter did so, she had to wonder just who it was that saved the former, only to break her heart in the end? Who could have made someone willing to stand up to thugs larger than her bravely fall to tears beneath a bridge?

[Chapter 7 -o0o- End]

[Character -o0o- Status]

Name: Level – Class (Species – Build) and Subclass

Soujiro: Lv. 90 Samurai (Human – Iai Style Counter) with Sword Saint subclass

Nazuna: Lv. 90 Kannagi (Fox-Tail – Prayer Shrine Maiden) with Gambler subclass

Isami: Lv. 90 Samurai (Human – Standard Katana) with Accountant subclass

Sandy: Lv. 90 Cleric (Race of Ritual – High Healer) with Farmer subclass

Serara: Lv. 19 Druid (Human – Witch Doctor) with Housekeeper subclass

Lisbeth: Lv. 17 Monk (Human – Fortifying Smith) with Blacksmith subclass

[End -o0o- Notes]

End Notes: I needed someone on the production side of things to cover the changes there, so I decided to include Lisbeth. Also, the website I was using for information on LH stopped working, so now I have to rely on the wikia, which is under-developed compared to LH-Sub. So things will be a little slower.

Back in the Game: Chapter 6

[-|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]

With Galantine

“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]

With Asuna

“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]

[Non-Combatant’s Status]

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

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]

With Asuna

“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]

With Galantine

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]

With Branch

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.”

He blinked.

“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.

Back in the Game: Chapter 4

[-|Back in the Game |-]

Author’s Note: Keep in mind this is an A/U story from the very premise, so I’m tweaking some of the mechanics for the sake of the story and world-building. One of these is the summoning system and pet system.

[Chapter 4 -o0o- Start]

“Does it smell good to you, Yui?” Asuna asked her daughter as they sat over a small pot of gruel with bits of fruit cut up inside of it, among other things she picked up at the market. A day had passed since Yui had suggested she try her hand at cooking and it was safe to say she was making progress when Yui nodded her tiny head.

Before being sucked into the game, Asuna and Yui were located somewhere between Kitakyushu and Fukuoka in the real world, putting them on the southernmost landmass of the Yamato Server and Nakasu. They took refuge in a rundown building near the edge of the city, making it as close as home got in this game for them. It wasn’t like the home they had in SAO, nowhere near that luxurious, but it could reasonably speaking pass for a living space.

Sure, there was giant hole in the roof. But she made good use of that by using it as a means of keeping smoke from filling up their home as she worked out the cooking system. That was fortunate since her first efforts were… lackluster.

She tried to use the system to make something edible like in SAO and the result wasn’t to her liking. So she tried to follow one of the recipe cards that she had bought earlier in the game, before being sucked into it. That turned into something that was both inedible and outright sickening. It occurred to her then that she may have been trying to relate it to SAO too much, where she had maxed cooking out as a means of passing the time and to relieve the stress of her position in the Knights of the Blood.

She needed to start from the ground up, so she went for as basic as it came and boiled an egg. It was literally the first thing you learned how to make in the game during the sub-class quest. Back then it was as simple as selecting the egg as an ingredient and then the tool to cook it on, no utensil required. That tasted as bland as anything else she had tried, but she refused to give up in defeat at not being able to make an egg of all things.

Taking it slow and going through the steps that she did at home, Asuna manually heated the water, placed the egg inside with a spoon, and waited for as long as she would in the real world before she cracked it open. There were few words to describe how she felt the moment it came out as something she could actually stomach, but proud was one of them. She had taken the first step that she could in bettering things for herself and her daughter under her own power.

There was still so much to uncover—did the time boiling affect the flavor? Would all eggs taste the same? What about seasonings? Was it possible that certain foods could give her character a temporary buff?

It would keep her busy, but that was good. After all, there wasn’t a lot to do other than practice using the combat system while things were still in a lull around Nakasu. Kirito’s insight into that had been beneficial, though she did get a little peeved that he tried to hide the fact that he fought a Field Boss to learn it. But who was she to judge when she was keeping secrets of her own?

At least there were others to back him up, players fishing for information like those two she met. Other than them, she had seen scant few players in the Hub City who weren’t still holed up in the shadows and waiting for someone to announce a way out of the game. Even she had to agree with their assessment that when the people realized no help was coming things would be horrific.

Asuna grabbed a wooden spoon and dipped it into the gruel. It came out steaming hot. She blew on it a few times to cool it before tasting it. “It maybe a little too sweet…” She held the spoon out with for Yui to try some of it. “What do you think?”

It was amusing to watch as her daughter mimicked her in blowing on it before taking a miniscule bite of some of it. Her cheeks swelled and her eyebrows shifted up and down as she seriously judged the flavor. It met whatever standards she had judging by how she held a thumb up in satisfaction a few seconds later.

“I see someone has a sweet-tooth.” She used a finger to affectionately rub her head. “Still, better sweet than flavorless. And it looks like I still get experience for cooking this way too. Maybe by the time we make it to Akiba I can make a big dinner for us all.”

“We should tell Papa too,” Yui said after swallowing. “He’s working hard and shouldn’t have to eat bad food all the time either.”

“We should, shouldn’t we?” Asuna pulled the pot from the fire and doused the flames. It wouldn’t do to leave the fire going when she wasn’t using it and risk it going out of control. While the gruel cooled down before they made a meal out of it, Asuna opened her list and connected to Kirito. “Morning, Kirito.”

[SAO -o0o- LH]

With Kirito

The monster roared, foul spittle spraying out of its gaping mouth that split into four parts as Silica looked on in equal parts disgust and embarrassment at the thrashing tendrils of the Triffid. If the former Black Swordsman had to guess, it reminded her of the time she had been nearly eaten in SAO by a similar monster when working to revive Pina with him. She took several steps backwards, no doubt not wanting a repeat of that given she was wearing robes instead of a combat skirt, and began her summoning while Pina floated in the air above her head.

For his part, Kirito just watched from the rear to ensure that one of the other mobs didn’t try and stab her in the back. The group itself was in the Archive Tower Forest, furthering their test of the combat system. Kirito and Klein had used the Teacher System to synch their levels and stats to that of Silica and Suguha respectively when they came out to the area, the pair being already a significantly higher level and battle-hardened Clearers in contrast to the Mid-Liner and Casual ALO player.

They had already discussed how they were going to proceed today when they split into two groups, with Silica starting from her weakest summoning and build up to her strongest one to get a feel for the system. There were 10 Ranks when it came to monsters, and within each rank were monsters that those of the Summoner class could make a contract with using certain means—whether through defeating it in a certain manner, baiting it, or fulfilling another condition of some kind. Because she was over Level 20, Silica could access both Rank 1 and Rank 2 Monsters.

Call Servant: Carbuncle!” She thrust the [Ewallen Scepter] out and a corona of prismatic light erupted from the tip. The [Topaz Ring] she had equipped coruscated as well and tinted the light with its color before the small creature was born from it. Sleek in form with a feline-like frame, its long ears flowed backwards and its big eyes were the color of the gemstone on its head.

Every Summoner started with the Carbuncle summoning. The versatility of having a healing skill, a phantasmal beam-attack, a barrier-erecting skill, and a Hate-management skill that allowed it to tank, made it great for beginners. Later summonings could eclipse it in every field, that was true, but their basic abilities could be modified by equipping gemstones accessories that the Carbuncle embodies.

Light radiated from the Carbuncle as it used its Taunt to draw the Triffid’s ire. To compound the effect, it then used its Phantasmal Ray skill to unleash a yellowish beam of hard-light from its forehead at the Triffid. It did a pittance of damage, but the Triffid still lashed out at it with its sinuous tendrils as the Carbuncle used Phantasmal Barrier upon itself.

The Triffid used Bind, coiling the tendril around the small creature and lifting it into the air. It squeezed mercilessly in an attempt to crush it with damage over time, slowly chipping away at the durability of the barrier that wreathed the Carbuncle as cracks formed upon the crystal-like covering.

“Oh no! Pina, help it escape!” Silica ordered.

The Waterfowl Dragon Pup soared up and around the Triffid before opening its maw. It pulled moisture in from the air surrounding it until it was a rippling sphere of water the size of a baseball. Pina fired the Water Bomb and the sphere hit hard enough to dent the fibrous tendril of the flora monster before rupturing for minor splash damage around it.

The Triffid released the summoning and then turned its gaze upon the dragon pup. Its maw opened and it exhaled a greenish vapor that billowed out and around it in an Area-Of-Effect attack that connected. The young dragon dropped out of the sky as paralysis set in along with damage.

That was bad. Pina wasn’t a summoning, but a pet due to her having the Animal Tamer sub-class making it easier to bond with and tame the monsters. A pet could be killed off for real when Elder Tales was a game, whereas a summoning could not. There was no reason to think that had changed now, and the last thing Silica needed was to lose one of the things supporting her at the moment.

Kirito was getting ready to move in when the Carbuncle registered the pet, which counted as a member of her party, had been hurt and used Phantasmal Healing. It spun in a tight circle and prismatic sparkles showered down over the dragon, briefly wreathing it and flickering out as its health rose upwards. Then it used Taunt to draw the enmity of the monster again.

As the Triffid lashed out at the two of them, it became evident neither could stack up to it as things stood. Its health dropped but theirs dropped faster. Silica ordered Pina back before it could die by accident and then dismissed her Topaz Carbuncle using Call Oblivion before calling forth a new summoning as the Triffid turned its aggression to her. “Call Servant: Blue Slime!

The Summoner’s call seeming conjured slime from thin air as it gathered into a bouncy blue mass of chilled slime, with a big smile and black eyes. The Blue Slime itself was the first summoning of the Synthetic-Type class that a Summoner could obtain as part of a quest. An Alchemist NPC who claimed to specialize in their creation was working his way up to creating some kind of ultimate slime for some reason or another, but lacked confidence because even the basic one went out of control. In exchange for getting rid of it, he would make one into a summoning for them as well—something about conforming and attuning the spirit used to give essence to the mass to be submissive to the Summoner’s.

In the past version of the game they were like these living puddles that rolled over themselves and looked like they were constantly melting, but a patch used later allowed the Alchemist NPC to modify their skins. In her case, Silica got one that had round black eyes, a mouth, and every now and again it would say the word ‘Puni’. It was supposedly an expy of another game’s slime.

“Get it!” Silica ordered. The artificial monster rolled forward with a squishy sound and began charging power as it molded itself into a fist. The Triffid ignored it and turned its attention to Silica. It snaked a tendril to her, grasping her leg and hoisting her into the air above its mouth.

“Not again!” she cried, holding down her red robes so they didn’t fall over completely. “Kirito, help!”

“Don’t you have a skill to switch places with your summoning?” he asked as the fist of coalesced and compressed slime punched the Triffid with Guardian Fist. “Try that.”

Silica fumbled with her command options while upside down and managed to press Castling. She instantly vanished only to reappear where her slime had once been. Said Blue Slime was instead inside the Triffid’s grasp, only its texture made it slip out from the tendril’s grip and into the giant-flora monsters maw. Kirito could swear for a moment he could see a sweat-drop on the poor slime’s face before it fell.

The Triffid noisy chewed upon the summoning like it was gummy snack, only to abruptly stop and start reeling as its health took a sharp drop. It looked like it trying to spit what was left of the goo out, but a poisoned icon appeared over it and its already low health completely vanished. It popped into colorful bubbles and a small amount of loot.

“Huh… it literally choked to death on your summoning,” Kirito mused. “That’s a new one for me.”

Silica brought up her summoning slots as Pina landed on her head and noted that her slime couldn’t be re-summoned as it had no health remaining. She then read the entry on the summoning’s description. “Maybe it was too acidic to eat? It says that ancient alchemist used them to remove pests before an accident turned one feral and it got loose into the wild and started propagating.”

“Good to know.” Kirito pointed a sword to a group of three Brier Weasels that were lurking some distance away. They were around the mid-twenties in terms of levels. “Okay, now try and kite one of them into coming after your next summoning without getting the other two involved.”

“Right….” Silica nodded and held her scepter out. “Call Servant: Earth Sprite!

Once more the light came from her scepter, spearing forward as a luminous, chestnut-colored sphere. The earth upturned and flowed towards it like it had its own gravitation pull until soil, pebbles, and stones that were the size of a fist floated around it to form a loose shell of a body.

“Umm, what to use again…” She opened up her command options and took a look at the choices between Elemental Ray, Elemental Blast, and Elemental Bolt. She picked the first one, assuming it was similar to her Carbuncle’s ray attack.

It proved to be a mistake as it the Spirit-Type summoning shone brighter for a moment, while draining some of Silica’s MP, to the point it was swelling with light. Then it fired off a strong beam. The moment it hit the target, it expanded to encompass a wider area like a dome of earth-toned light to cause Area-Of-Effect damage.

Oops,” Silica whispered as all three of the Brier Weasels charged towards her summoning. The Earth Sprite continued to attack on its own accord with its Elemental Bolt variation, Earth Arrow. It took the soil around it, compressed it into an arrowhead, and fired it at the Brier Weasel it had targeted first. The impact staggered it slightly, making it fall behind the others as they moved in range for their own attack.

The one on the rear’s magical vine glowed and it thrust it into the ground. Seconds later it erupted from ground beneath the summoning like a pike and impaled the Earth Sprite before sinking back into the ground and shrinking. The attack stunned it long enough for the other two to fire reddish laser beams from their tails that slammed against the summoning’s earthen shell and scattered bits and pieces.

The Earth Sprite reformed the shell of its body and continued its attack, though with significantly less health. It barely tanked another salvo of shots before it lost all its health and dissipated. The Brier Weasels then turned their Hate to the nearest target—Silica, who was ready for it this time.

Call Servant: Salamander!” she cast. The Salamander, a clawed and fanged lizard on fire, was born from a sphere of fire and plopped down in front of her. She immediately directed it to use Elemental Ray in order to shift the Hate off of her through damage. Its flame swelled before it spat out a searing beam of fire that struck home and then expanded into a column of flames that engulfed the three of them.

With their Hate focused on the summoning now, sending reddish bolts from the magical ivy wrapped around their tails, Silica retreated to the rear. The Salamander was a Rank 2 Spirit-Type monster in contrast to the Elemental Sprite series of monsters, so it had better stats. But three laser attacks still took off a good chunk of its health since Salamanders didn’t have much endurance to begin with.

“Pina, heal it!” she ordered.

Pina flapped its wings behind the Salamander and contributed by healing with its Healing Mist skill. The description of the skill stated that it imbued the moisture around a set area with magic that recovered HP on contact for a limited duration—a location-based Heal-Over-Time skill. The moisture around the Salamander shone with a pale-blue glow and steadily healed its wounds while it continued using the Fire Arrow skill and Pina used Water Bomb to add to their collective damage.

It still wouldn’t be enough. Pina’s skill wouldn’t be able to heal Salamander fast enough if it kept taking too many hits. And neither was doing much damage on their own, at least not enough to put all three of them down. They’d maybe take out one before Salamander was defeated.

“Make it rain,” Kirito offered as a hint upon seeing her frustrated face. “Did you forget the reason people usually wanted a tamed Waterfowl Dragon Pup rather than a hatched one?”

It clicked and she gave the order. “Pina, use Storm Call!”

Of the four skills a Waterfowl Dragon Pup was capable of using—Healing Mist, Water Bomb, Bite, and Storm Call—the last was an exclusive skill found only with tamed version of the pets. The flavor-text stated that the technique was taught by the mother dragon to the younger ones and called forth rain. In gameplay-terms, it was an environmental buff skill that boosted Healing Mist and Water Bomb—increasing the recovery rate and area of effect for the former while the damage increased for the latter along with an increased rate of fire.

Pina raised its head to the sky and let loose a cry. The sky responded as storm clouds formed overhead and a drizzle began. The effect of Healing Mist strengthened as more of the water glimmered around them. The Water Bomb that followed grabbed hold of the rain itself and pulled it in until the sphere of water that formed was larger than Pina itself and fired. The sphere popped on release and blanketed them all.

“Good! Now use Elemental Ray again, Salamander!”

It seemed like Silica was getting the hang of it when Kirito felt the ping of a mental connection and heard Asuna’s voice. ‘Morning, Kirito.

Morning, Papa!‘ Yui chimed in. ‘Did we wake you?

“I was already up with the others,” he said. “What about you two?”

We’re making breakfast!‘ Yui chimed in. ‘Mama made this fruit gruel from a recipe she had and it’s good!

His interest was immediately peaked.

[LH -o0o- SAO]

With Shiroe

“Food with actual flavor, huh?” Shiroe mused as he listened telepathically, hands still on the reins of his griffin as he soared through the sky with Akatsuki on his back. The Swashbuckler he had briefly partied with apparently had a friend in Nakasu who managed to get flavor in their food and he felt it imperative to share the information. “Not that I doubt your friend’s word, but you should keep silent on this for the time being.”

Why?‘ he asked. ‘This could be big.

“For one, we need to test it more before spreading the word,” he said. “Plus, you said you’ve seen how easily people can be corrupted. Anything that can be used as leverage will be done so. For example, I’ve learned from one of my contacts how the smaller guilds are starting to be absorbed into larger ones for protection against the potential threat of being attacked by Killers.”

‘Already?’ He sounded genuinely surprised at that. ‘I was expecting that to happen, but only on the third day inside of the game?

“It’s a bit preemptive, but human behavior dictates that they group up before they start doing anything else. In the case of cooking, you have to consider the resources available—there are only so many people with the Sub-Class and so many ingredients considering we aren’t aware of the respawn times or if they even do. If this gets out, there will be fights over the resources available and people will get hurt. Rushing things can make them become explosive in a hurry. But, if we manage it properly, we can use this to everyone’s advantage.”

Go on,’ he said.

“We need structure if we’re going to survive in the long-run, laws and rules of engagement, things like that,” Shiroe said. “I’m working on a couple of ideas, and one of them is the use of food as an incentive while this technique is relatively unknown and people are still in a state of shock. We can use it gain enough capital and power to enforce that structure.”

What’s stopping you from becoming just as bad?‘ he asked. ‘You sound like you’re planning on taking advantage of the situation.

“I understand your concerns,” Shiroe said, hearing the suspicion being silently leveled. “No one person should have too much power, but what about a council of the major guilds in Akiba? We let the smaller guilds finish being subsumed until they’ve reached a point of stabilization and then approach them. Doing so, we would be able to do a better job of keeping checks and balances. However, we’d still need them to cooperate so that they have equal shares of power, and that’s easier said than done. When we start this, everyone is going to try to get as much out of the formation as they can unless a third-party can negotiate from a position of power.”

And you’ll do that by taking a monopoly on this while things are still unstable and then use it to amass enough power and fortune to get things off the ground… Let’s say I agree with this. How long would it take?

“…A month at the latest,” he said after some thought. “I can’t stop you from spreading this information before then if you really want to, but I’m asking you to at least give me that much time. In the event that you do deem that I have become corrupt and I’m taking advantage to oppress others, then release it.”

‘…Fine, I’ll keep quiet for now.‘ He still sounded somewhat reluctant. ‘I’ll ask Asuna to as well, but I doubt it’ll take long for someone else to figure out. At least once they’ve gotten something to do, anyway. There’s no telling how long things will remain quiet as they are.

“Actually, I’ve been giving it some thought as well,” Shiroe said. “The biggest issue here isn’t going to be just the Killers attacking other players. Often those in that category target Achievers because there’s more satisfaction in the kill, taking joy in cutting them off from achieving their goal and denying them their long-sought victory. For someone who is an Explorer, I doubt it’d be much of an inconvenience if it wasn’t for the pain, but if they target whoever it is trying to clear the game—”

It’ll limit the number of people who deal with the clear-conditions when or if they arise,’ the Swashbuckler reasoned. ‘It’ll be Laughing Coffin all over again.

“We need something to make less people take up PK’ing in order to try and fill the void rather than just lounging around. For starters, we can experiment more when it comes to cooking or the combat skills so that when we do set things into motion we can instruct them or give them a foundation. If you don’t mind, can you procure things that could be used as ingredients and gain a better understanding with that along with respawn rates?”

I don’t mind,‘ he said. ‘Truthfully, we’re already experimenting more with the combat system and some of the monsters are around a good level to practice with Klein and the others. But none of us are Chefs, so we can’t use the tools of that class.

“There are two friends of mine who are part of a guild,” Shiroe said, thinking of Soujiro and Nazuna. He had gotten in touch with them shortly after Maryelle had dragged them into her guild hall and asked for their help. “I’m willing to bet they have at least one person with a Chef Sub-Class and would be willing to keep a secret. There’s also the Crescent Moon Alliance. I’ll contact them as soon as I have a moment and see if we can work something out.”

Okay. Anything else?

“Just one last thing,” he said. “If this is going to work, we need information from the other hub cities as well. Whatever we’re going through, they’ll be in the same boat. Would your friend be willing to keep you informed and you pass that information along to me? At least until this plan I’m drawing up comes to fruition?”

You mean like an information broker?

“I’m willing to pay a fee if necessary,” he said, adjusting the griffin so that it drifted lower to the ground as they neared the time-limit of its use.

I’ll talk it over with her.

The connection between them was cut, leaving Shiroe to his own thoughts until the time was up for the Griffins and they had to land. As the others set up camp for a quick rest, he looked through his Friend’s List and searched for the one Chef that he personally knew. He wanted to test this cooking thing as soon as possible. Not to mention where he lived would place him in the Susukino area, so he could help find who they were looking for and give him an update on the situation there ahead of time.

Shiroe pressed the button and felt his mind connect with Nyanta. “Hey Chief. You there?”

Shiroe-chi?‘ He sounded amused. ‘Well scratch behind my ears and call me a happy tomcat, I was wondered what could make Lunch better than the company I was keeping, and hearing from an old friend did the trick, nya.

“Glad to hear from you too. Sorry for the late contact, but I’ve been busy in Akiba until now. Right now Naotsugu and I are heading to Susukino with another player to retrieve a Druid from the Crescent Moon Alliance that got stuck there. If it isn’t too much trouble, would you mind helping us out?”

Serara wouldn’t happen to be her name, would it?

“Er… Yes, actually,” Shiroe said. “You know her?”

She’s and a young Monk are the two stray kittens who just so happened to have fallen into my care after ending up in a bad spot, nya.

“What a coincidence,” Shiroe said. “That’s save time at least. We’re a few days out, but we’ll be there soon… Then another thing I have to ask. You have a pretty high level in the Chef Sub-Class, don’t you?”

That’s right, nya.

“Would you mind helping out with testing the cooking system?” Shiroe asked. “We’re working on a theory that if you cook food by hand it’ll have some flavor to it, but none of us have the skills for it.”

Nyanta chuckled. ‘Today’s really your lucky day, nya, I can confirm that much. I found the food here to be too bland for my delicate feline palate and keeping my guests calm, so I put my culinary skills to the test yesterday after I picked up the two of them. As we speak, the three of us are partaking in a particularly delicious fish fillet at this very moment.

That was good news then, but it still needed more testing to account for other factors.

“Glad to see someone else is on the ball despite these troubled times,” Shiroe said. Then again, people often resorted to hobbies to derive comfort from them during troubled times. He enjoyed cooking so he cooked, while Shiroe couldn’t stand sitting around so now he was traveling across the country. “Okay then. Can you make it three-for-three and tell me about the situation in Susukino and what you know?”

As he listened to the other veteran of the DTP, Shiroe found himself frowning. It seemed like things there were going in a direction that he feared for Akiba in a hurry. He’d have to confirm it for himself once they got there, but it sounded like things were getting to a worst-case scenario.

[Chapter 4 -o0o- End]

End Note: Technically, Nyanta discovered cooking first as per canon on their side of things. Unlike canon, Shiroe actually sends a message to the one guy he knows is living where they’re heading to help with his search beforehand and learns ahead of time, just not before Kirito since he remains in contact with Asuna constantly.

The reason a lot of the viewpoint characters are being more proactive—moving the plot along somewhat quicker and making other changes in a ripple effect sort of way—is because SAO set a bad precedence. For the players who don’t believe that help will come, they’re going ahead and planning things for the long run—this includes the less than 250 SAO players in the Elder Tales world at present, as well as friends and family members of those who had lost someone in the Death Game.

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]

With Kirito

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]

With Shiroe

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.

Back in the Game: Chapter 2

[-|Back in the Game|-]

Author’s Note: You can thank Souls Art Online for the inspiration for what happens in the end.

[Chapter 2 -o0o- Start]

Klein found himself fixated on the [Ansyn Blade], having drawn it from its sheath entirely to stare at the reflection of his own eyes. He knew it was improper etiquette for a Samurai. After all, in the days when the warrior-class still held meaning, the only time a blade was fully unsheathed was to kill an enemy or to clean it.

The SAO veteran had been changed during his time in the Death Game compared to how he had been before. It taught him responsibility that he hadn’t known prior to the game, having to weigh the lives of those around him with every decision. It taught him that a leader had to remain calm and in control, so that those he led wouldn’t panic as they looked to him to lead them.

He had honed his swordsmanship in the game in order to keep them all alive as they took to the frontline, and he had succeeded against all odds. However, the lessons he learned there still remained with him after the Death Game had ended. It was one of the few things he was grateful for from that experience. Now, finding themselves in what appeared to be a similar situation as SAO, it was the only the experience he had and friends he had made that served as the reason he was able to remain as calm as he was.

That being said, he couldn’t help but sigh. This happened when he had an interview only a few days from now for a new job. He had lost the old one courtesy of being trapped in the game.

Things had gotten… complicated on game release. They ended up waking up in the hospital, but they awoke to a world that seemed almost foreign to them after two years. Not to mention just about every adult had lost their jobs, and a few had lost their homes. Hell, he had lost both his job and apartment since he couldn’t technically pay rent in a coma.

The landlords couldn’t be blamed, nor could their bosses. What happened may have been an out-of-context problem, but the world kept spinning while they were in Aincrad and they had to accept that fact. Not that a lot of them were happy about it. His friends were just getting back on their feet and managed to get work, though most of them had to move to get it.

Thankfully, the bill for the hospital stay and basic physical therapy had been covered by the Government, so he didn’t have the astronomical debt that two years of constant care must’ve entailed, and his belongings had been sent to his parents’ home. He wasn’t proud to have to go back to living with them after moving out into his own place, but at least he had that safety net. That was more than most adults did.

A chirruping sound drew his gaze from the blade to the dragon pup. It was nudging Silica, who was lying down on the floor with her back to the wall and her head perched on Suguha’s shoulders, trying to rouse her awake. It succeeded as her eyes slowly fluttered open.

Klein sheathed the sword. The blade beneath the hand-guard sank into the scabbard and was sealed with a soft click. “Sleep well?”

“I was hoping it was all a dream, but….” She looked down at the dragon tiredly, bringing her hand up to its head and gently caressing its plumage. “I’m sorry. You’re hungry, aren’t you?”

As she materialized some meat for the dragon to munch on happily, Klein idly wondered if being an NPC native to this world made it so the food didn’t taste horrible to it. How he envied that little monster, gorging himself on delicious meat that would taste like ashes in his mouth.

Truly, the orchestrator of this mess was a devil to deny them the pleasure of eating.

Mm…hmm…” The thought passed as Kirito’s cousin-sister stirred awake as well. She rubbed her eyes as she rose to her feet, looking around blankly. A frown formed on her face. “Where’s Onii-chan?”

“He went out for a bit,” Klein said. “How are you feeling?”

“I… I don’t know.” She looked down to Silica, who refused to look up from her pet dragon. It was the sole good thing she could derive from their situation. “Has anyone learned anything about how to get out?”

“There hasn’t been any grand announcement or anything, if that’s what you mean. I’ve been here the whole time, but maybe Kirito learned something new…” Klein opened his menu and pressed the button for Kirito. ‘Kirito, you there?

A little busy,’ Kirito responded, his thoughts hurried and ragged. It made Klein frown, even more so after his next outburst. ‘Ow! Damn, I wish I wore heavy armor!

What exactly are you doing?

Fighting a Boss.’ The sheer casual way he said it left Klein unable to stop himself from bringing a hand up to massage the creases forming in his brow. He’d expected him to go fight a few mobs or something, but a boss?

That was absurd. ‘And you went alone?

Not alone, exactly,’ Kirito replied.


[SAO -o0o- LH]


With Kirito

Kirito had to admit the Enchanter lived up to his word when he said that he had experience in managing. They were doing well for the most part, with the group having only sustained a little damage. True, part of it was because the four of them were stupidly OP compared to this zone—all of them were three times the level of the Field Boss, decently equipped, and had an assortment of skills they could call upon.

But when you took into consideration that they lacked a dedicated healer and didn’t have the usual party arrangement to clear this sort of challenge, it spoke volumes about his ability to coordinate. The Field Boss was usually fought via AOE spells and attacks from a distance, having Sorcerers spam spells and Summoners buffet the minion-ranked adds with Elemental Shots before the sheer numbers could overwhelm the party. All of them were melee characters besides the Enchanter, and his class was considered underwhelming damage-wise compared to the other mage classes.

The fourth wave is descending,’ the Enchanter warned. ‘Total count is sixty of the same minion-ranked mobs as before, but an additional four of a stronger variety that will descend roughly three-seconds after the normal swarm. I’ll reapply the Gain Immunity spell on Naotsugu first and then follow with a Nightmare Sphere to slow down the majority of them when they’re lured in as before. Miss Akatsuki, Mister Kirito, you should be able to take care of the four higher-level adds left behind within five seconds of each other, and then start on horde from both sides in a pincer attack.

Yes, My Lord!’ the Assassin replied dutifully, brandishing her blade in a reverse grip and lowering her stance. Kirito had to admit she was fast and ninja-like, despite being so tiny and young. He wondered if she was closer to Silica’s age or younger, so she had an easier time slipping into the role of her character.

Then he shifted his attention to the Guardian as he took a deep breath and raised his sword-bearing arm. His armor suddenly shone with a blinding green light while his eyes were like burning gold. Kirito gritted his teeth and braced himself.

ANCHOR HOWLLLLLLL!!!” A tangible wave of force and flaring viridian light billowed out from his stalwart figure along with his voice, washing over the area surrounding them with an almost irresistible pull. Kirito felt it passing through him, shaking his teeth and bones, but he wasn’t the target and wasn’t as heavily affected. The same couldn’t be said for the minion-ranked adds, which began to target him instead.

It was followed by a sphere of purple that expanded and encompassed the horde of adds centering around their tank, leaving them sluggish. It made them more manageable for the Guardian, who unleashed a Cross Slash and began to whittle them down. From the last few waves they learned his armor soaked the damage and prevented the fangs sinking into his skin, but his health still decreased a sliver. Kirito presumed this meant the health system still registered the damage on-contact, if not the pain.

When the larger spawns dropped down, Kirito rushed forward as the Assassin pulled ahead of him on the right. The new adds were twice the size of a horse, but their levels were still lower. They wouldn’t be able to hold up against his blades, and he knew it.

The white blade was swung down, smashing through the exoskeleton of the arachnid and into the innards. Before he realized it, he twisted the blade, adding to the damage as it widened the wound, and then pulled it back out at an angle, as though carving the letter ‘V’ into its body. It seemed even months after his escape he still knew the motions of the Snake Biter Sword Skill from SAO.

Running through the spray of coins and vials of poison, he brought the dark blade around in an arch and tore through the second’s head. He twisted his body, coat billowing as his feet left the ground, and brought the ivory-white blade with him to cut it down the center. Landing fluidly in a crouch, both targets slain, he then looked to his swords to find they were smoldering where visceral fluid lingered.

Be cautious,’ the Assassin warned, even as she spun on her heel and ran towards where the Guardian was being slowly swarmed. ‘The larger ones seem to have poison that eats away at weapon durability.

Got it!’ He flicked his blades to get off as much of the fluid as he could before going back to assist with the small fry.


[SAO -o0o- LH]


With Asuna

Light glinted off the rapier that felt wrong in Asuna’s hands as she thrust it forward for the thirtieth-time. She and her daughter were in what amounted to an empty park, rife with trees and butterflies but devoid of other life. The city was slowly stirring, but not many people were out. They were waiting for answers; much like the rest were in other places she was sure.

“Mama, what’s wrong?” Yui asked, nestled on top of a low-hanging branch of the tree Asuna practiced under.

“It’s nothing, Yui,” she said, the lie stinging her mouth as it flowed into the ears of her adoptive daughter. It was a lie born of pride that she tried to soothe immediately with a half-truth. “I’m just a bit uneasy with everything so far. I need to get back in practice with using a sword.”

She wasn’t relying on outside help to save her this time. SAO and ALO had both left her unwilling to rely on those outside the situation to resolve it. No, whatever this game or world they found themselves in was, she was certain it was something that would have to be resolved by them. And that meant she had to re familiarize herself with how to move, how to fight, how to think like the Clearer she had once been.

Not like a victim. Not like someone who could only beg for him to stop as he—

“Someone’s coming!” Yui said, snapping her out of her thoughts long enough to realize her hand was trembling. “There’s two guys coming. One of them looks like a knight, but the other is dressed weird.”

Asuna kept her blade drawn, but pointed low to not offend anyone without leaving herself defenseless, while Yui lowered herself with her wings until she landed in her mother’s hair. Of the two who approached, one dressed like a white knight with a blade and shield on his back, and the other was dressed like the modern-romanticized Viking, complete with the horned helmet, axe, and red beard. It qualified as weird for the server, she supposed.

“Well, haven’t we found a fine thing this morning?” The Viking chuckled, rubbing his beard as he looked her up and down. “And what’s a lass like you doing out so early?”

Her sword arm twitched and rose a few inches, the blade’s point angled so that a thrust would connect with him. “If hitting on me is the only reason you’re here, I’d advise you to move on.”

“Touchy.” The Viking tilted his head in amusement, a glint in his eyes. “But you should be more careful with that blade, lass. I’m Level 90. You aren’t dressed in what looks to be gear for someone higher than half that, at best.”

She shrugged her shoulders and held the sword up, pointed straight towards his face. “A sword in your eye will hurt all the same, I bet.”

He barked out loud laughing. “I like her. A spine of steel, this one.”

The white knight held his hand out at his side, in front of his comrade, before he gave a slight bow of his head towards Asuna. “Forgive Varn, please. It’s…his way of coping. We’re just a little confused at the moment, and his reaction to our circumstances is to immerse himself in his online identity… badly, at that.”

“…Keep him on a leash,” she warned, after a pause. “I’m really not in the mood, and my patience is limited. The last thing I need to deal with is someone who finds this situation ideal for acting like that.”

Hypocritical, a darker part of her mind whispered. Isn’t that what you’re trying to do? Slipping into the confident person you were in SAO. And yet you broke so easily, your heart—

“Mama?” Yui called.

Asuna’s eyes snapped forward, having apparently drifted to the ground without her realizing it, to see her daughter was floating in front of her with eyes downturned in worry. She could spy the knight looking at her carefully as well, especially how her hand was noticeably tensed on the grip of her sword. She took a deep breath. “I’m okay.”

The Viking looked at her funny. “Why did that fairy call y—”

“Enough, Varn!” the Knight hissed after seeing her eyes narrowing. A sigh slipped out of his mouth and he extended a hand for her to shake. “Let’s try this again, my name is Galatine. I wanted to talk to you about the situation we’ve found ourselves in, if possible. ”

She looked at it for almost a solid minute. Then she switched her sword to the other hand and cautiously shook his. “Asuna. I’m Asuna, and this is my daughter, Yui.”

“Interesting,” he mused, looking at the pair. “Judging from your equipment, I’d say you were a Swashbuckler, but a sub-class of Beast Tamer?”

She gave a short shake of her head. “It’s complicated, but no. I’m a Swashbuckler with a Chef sub-class. Yui is… she was watching me play the game, but ended up in this state when we were pulled into it. She didn’t have an avatar to inhabit.”

“Given the strangeness of how we all ended up in what appears to be the world of Elder Tales, I can understand how something like that would happen. It makes me grateful my little niece wasn’t awake when I was playing. She loved standing by my chair and telling me where to go, pointing at the screen.”

“I don’t know anything about how we got in here, if that’s what you want to ask.” Asuna shifted her legs and crossed her arms. “Neither do the people on my Friend’s List in Akiba, so I won’t be of any help to you. We’re all in the dark.”

“I see…” He looked crestfallen somewhat. Asuna assumed he was one of the ones holding out hope that someone knew something. “If you learn anything new, would you please inform me? The sooner we have a solid grasp of what’s going on, the sooner we can get home… hopefully.”

He sent her a friend request. She stared at it for some time, mulling over the decision. She had a grasp of what it did, and she wasn’t really sure she would like having a stranger being able to monitor her through his map while they were in the same area. On the other hand, he seemed genuine about his concern.

Then again, she had been lied to before. She trusted her Commander in the Knights of the Blood. She respected him, and it turned out the one who trapped them all in his wish-fulfillment fantasy was that very same man. Maybe she was jaded after all she went through, but she didn’t want to be that type of person. She didn’t want to be someone who let her fear of what happened in the past drive who she became.

Asuna accepted with a press of the button, but stared into his eyes doing so. “Information only, no social calls.”

“Understood,” he replied.

“Share it with me too,” said the Viking.

Her response was blunt and to the point. “Not on your life. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to be alone.”

She twisted on her heels and walked away, sheathing her sword but keeping her hand on the hilt so that she could draw it in a flash. The few times she glanced over her shoulder they were talking to one another, with Galatine looking upset and the Viking looking chastised like a child being told off. There didn’t seem to be a mirror device like what Kayaba had used, so chances were that he was younger than his avatar looked.

“Should we tell Papa about those two?” Yui asked, floating down and resting on her shoulder.

Asuna shook her head. “No, your father doesn’t need to know. I can take care of myself.”

“Okay….” Yui looked up for a moment and then rested her hands against her stomach. “I’m hungry.”

Asuna resisted the urge to wince as her stomach silently agreed. “Mmm… I am too, but the taste engine leaves a lot to be desired.”

“Maybe if you try cooking it?” Yui mused. “You did something similar in SAO, right?”

Asuna crossed her arms in thought. She had picked up the Chef sub-class, but she wasn’t sure the effect it would have here. On top of that, she didn’t know too many recipes. Most of the time she spent since getting out of ALO had been in rehabilitation and speaking with Kirito, trying desperately to grab hold of the good parts of her life in the last few years and become independent again.

“I guess we can give it a shot,” she finally said. “But it took me a long time to get things working in SAO. I can’t promise anything right away.”



 [LH -o0o- SAO]

With Shiroe

The silvery, argent mist of the Astral Chaff spell seemed to wrap Shiroe like a flowing curtain, preventing him from being targeted as the Boss above warbled at the last of its spawn being killed. It was a precaution he had to take given that the number of adds had exceeded his original expectation, bleeding out past their expected range, but the cost was acceptable.

Regardless, with all the minion-ranked enemies dealt with, the Field Boss for this zone shifted phases. It descended with a thunderous crash, kicking up loose dirt and grass. Its mandibles clicked and vibrated, spewing droplets of deep purple venom that made the grass it came in contact with smolder as it died.

Naotsugu, the boss seems to produce acidic venom from its mouth.” Shiroe warned, casting another Keen Edge of the two attackers of their group. ‘Try to avoid letting it snap down on your shield or armor, block at an angle if you have to.

Got it.’ The Guardian advanced towards the target while the other two circled around with their blades at the ready, right and left. The Boss seemed unperturbed by his presence at a glance, instead warily eyeing the Swashbuckler. Then it moved.

You didn’t really know how fast a giant spider was until it decided to pounce. It was in the air, higher than they could jump unenhanced, positioning its massive bulk as it descended to land on the Swashbuckler. Whether on instinct or a knee-jerk reaction, he rolled out of the way of the attack in time to avoid being crushed.

Miss Akatsuki used the lag after it crashed down to swipe at it with blade, leaving a tinted fluid seeping from a weeping line that was little more than a paper-cut. Mister Kirito, having recovered from the attack before, leapt forward and spun with both blades to cleave a parallel set of diagonal lines in its abdomen. It had roughly the same level of effect.

Naotsugu moved to draw its aggro with an Anchor Howl while it whirred around with an inhuman quickness and lashed out with its two legs at the Swashbuckler. “Anchor—”

The spider sought him out before he could let loose the cry. It fired a thick stream of webbing from its rear at him, and the spout nailed him dead on, clinging to him like a great weight as it bowled him over and anchored him to the ground. He was trapped, and it was coming around to sink its acidic fangs into his stalwart armor.

The Swashbuckler was on the job, rushing in front of him and planting his feet as he raised his swords in a cross to block the damage. The swords ended up between its mandibles, letting the venom dribble down on the white and black steel. It trickled further onto the grass, right next to the sticky spider silk holding the Guardian tight.

Shiroe took a gamble and saw that he had a status effect that indicated he was bound, so he cast Dispel Magic and hoped it would do the trick. The colorless wave passed over Naotsugu and the bindings that pinned him place dried and shriveled, falling to pieces and removing the movement debuff that kept him in place. It gave him time to get back onto his feet and counter-attack.

His shield glowed with a luminous green hue and he pushed, letting the Shield Bash activate and socking it in the face. It freed the swords from its mouth, even if it didn’t stagger the thing back far. Akatsuki followed up by jumping on its back and slashing at it from a blind-spot.

The Boss clearly came prepared for a counter to that. It dislodged her by curling its legs and then rolling around. She was thrown off as it continued to roll about in a circle around the attackers.

It’s lost about a fifth of its health,’ Shiroe broadcasted as it rose back to its feet at a distance. ‘If I remember correctly, it should start spraying webbing in a wide-pattern once it hits a quarter and further it would produce more adds. The game classified the webbing as an Area-Of-Effect binding spell, so try not to get caught when that happens since I can only dispel in a limited range.

Can you bolster my speed?’ Mister Kirito asked. ‘Not just movement, but everything so I can blitz it. You have a spell for that, right?

Shiroe nodded. It was a toss-up between using Haste or Infinity Force. Given they weren’t aware of the effects the latter would have once it burned out, he decided on the former and then pointed his staff at the Swashbuckler. “Haste!”

The head of the shaft shone with argent light before the spell streaked out as a shimmering-gold bolt and struck him. What looked to be a clock appeared at his feet, the hands of it speeding up as they moved clockwise. They circled faster and faster, encasing him with a sort of distortion around his body, and then the Swashbuckler exploded forward while screaming.


[SAO -o0o- LH]


With Kirito

Kirito felt the world around him slow down in turn. His heart was racing, his head throbbing from the speeding thoughts, and he felt the wind howling past his ears as he ran towards the boss. A fleeting thought had occurred after he had performed the Snake Biter. Could he meld the techniques of old into something new?

This was the chance to find out. This fast, he was sure he could do it. He could overwhelm the boss with a brutal blitz and continuous combination—Starburst Stream.

His body remembered what he needed to do. He had went along with the motions for months on end during SAO, going along with the System Assist to familiarize himself it—becoming one with his sword, as the saying would go. It had been engraved into his muscle memory, and he knew the steps by heart.

Driven by that thought, the Keen Edge allowed for a tail of light to follow the strikes. The right sword was swung from left to right and the left came in for an upwards slice. It was when he was in the middle of his spin that the Boss lashed out, un-staggered. A sickening violet fluid seeped from the point of its leg and it shot the limb forward like a spear right when he jumped to bring down both his swords again.

And thus, Kirito learned the true meaning of pain as it speared through his abdomen and impaled him upon the limb, a scream of pure, unadulterated agony involuntarily clawing out of his throat as the poison ate him alive from the inside….

[Chapter 2 -o0o- End]


Notes: Because I don’t feel like dealing with accusations later on about rape being used as a backstory mechanic, I’ll come right out and say it now. The fairy moron turned his mental manipulation on Asuna after she got caught snooping around and tried twisting her emotions towards loving him. It was partially successful and, as you can imagine, this was not pleasant and had consequences that will be explored in the story.

Back in the Game: Chapter 1

[-|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.