[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?”
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]
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]
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.