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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 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.