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Back in the Game: Chapter 4


[-|Back in the Game |-]


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


[Chapter 4 -o0o- Start]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[SAO -o0o- LH]


With Kirito

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pina, heal it!” she ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His interest was immediately peaked.


[LH -o0o- SAO]


With Shiroe

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

Why?‘ he asked. ‘This could be big.

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

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

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

Go on,’ he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay. Anything else?

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

You mean like an information broker?

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

I’ll talk it over with her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s right, nya.

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

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

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

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

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


[Chapter 4 -o0o- End]


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

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


Back in the Game: Chapter 3

[-|Back in the Game |-]


Author’s Note: The Broodspider of the Forest used Poison Sting. It’s Super Effective!


[Chapter 3 -o0o- Start]

Shiroe found himself wincing as the Field Boss lashed out while the Swashbuckler was in the middle of his out-of-game attack pattern, striking him full-on with one of its limbs wreathed in a maleficent shade of purple. The weight, combined with its size and the fact that he hadn’t been on the ground, was enough to penetrate his abdomen and leave him skewered upon the outstretched limb.

He had lost a significant chunk of his health but, considering his scream, it was safe to say the pain outweighed that. Made worse was the fact that monster raised him further into the air and was aiming a second leg for his head. Thankfully, Akatsuki leapt from atop the spider and grabbed him, pulling him off the limb-turned-pike in time.

Freed, the Swashbuckler planted his swords into the ground to support his weight as she released him, panting with heated breath. Sweat rolled down his face, stinging his eyes as he fought for breath, and there was a purple stain where the limb had run him through along with the icon for poison displayed near his health bar. The Gain Immunity spell only raised the resistance, but that strike had impaled his avatar and likely had a 100% chance of poisoning.

There was nothing he could do about the ailment until it wore off on its own. ‘Mister Kirito, you should retreat.

Not yet!‘ The Swashbuckler tightened his grip on his blades as the Field Boss came for him again. Naotsugu moved to intercept it in time, catching the poisonous fangs on his shield despite the fact that it began to ruin the color and smolder upon the metal. It would break soon enough.

Then it brought its front legs around from both sides, as though it was going to close in like a set of pincers with poisoned tips spearing for his unprotected head. He couldn’t retreat with the weight upon his shield, and from the glow forming on it the Shield Bash would likely be a second too slow to stop it.

Akatsuki took the pincer on the left, using her blade in a defensive posture to curve it around and stop it. The one on the right still went unimpeded and would likely have gone through their Tank’s head if not for the black and white blades of the Swashbuckler cleaving through the leg entirely with a critical hit. Naotsugu finished his Shield Bash, using his Avatar’s strength stat and the technique’s knockback to send it backwards three or so steps, allowing them to scatter again as the severed leg barely hindered it with the rest available.

As the battle continued, Shiroe noticed that despite still being in pain, the Swashbuckler’s efficiency with his swordsmanship hadn’t suffered, even if his movements had. That didn’t make any sense. Why was one aspect spared from the debilitating effects of his wound and the poison coursing through his system but not the other?

He used Astral Bind to tangle up the Broodspider of the Forest’s legs as he thought about it more. Shiroe was quite familiar with the benefits of a number of Sub-Classes and the lore behind them. There was one in particular that came into mind, the one that belonged to Soujirou from their time in the Debauchery Tea Party—which reminded him he should check on the other members to see if they were in the game once all of this was over.

Sword Saint was the Sub-Class and the lore expressed proficiency with swords through countless hours of practice and meditation, until they became one with the sword and able to wield it without a loss of skill under even the most dire of situations. In the game that meant the higher the level, the lower the loss of dexterity when using swords despite the condition of the avatar. It seemed that in this world that meant he could use his sword effectively while being injured and poisoned.

Regardless, it seemed they had exhausted all of the Field Boss’ attack patterns now. Having seen it all, Shiroe proceeded to guide them through the rest of the battle until its health dropped to zero. With a burst of prismatic bubbles that rose into the sky, gold coins appeared in a nice pile with some vials, bundles of silk, and what looked to be a pair of Cheliceral Fangs.

The Swashbuckler set it to divide amongst the gathered evenly and then turned to face the trio who had lent him a hand. “Thanks for the assist. I don’t think I could have dealt with it alone after all.”

“Are you okay?” Naotsugu asked as he pointed to the wound that was still stained by the poison.

The Swashbuckler brushed it off nonchalantly while sheathing his swords with a flourish, as though it was of no major consequence. “Not the first time I’ve been run-through.”

Too bad his expression as he finished was more in-tune with how he really felt, making it clear to them he was still in a great deal of pain. Shiroe offered him an elixir. “Here.”

He looked at it with a note of surprise before shrugging his shoulder and drinking it down. His health shot back up and the status condition was erased. He sighed before taking a closer look at them now that they weren’t in the middle of a fight.

“So what did you want to ask me badly enough to follow me this far out?” They all gave him a somewhat surprised look. The Swashbuckler rolled his eyes. “The chances of running into another group of players so quickly after the events that brought us here were next to none, let alone someone willing to throw themselves headfirst into a Field Boss fight where pain is a factor. Not to mention you appeared before the actual fighting started so there was no sound to draw you in, and you didn’t have the aliment-resistance spell in place before entering the clearing which would start the fight. Am I wrong?”

“… Kid’s good,” Naotsugu said, sounding mildly impressed. “Saw right through you, Mastermind.”

Shiroe shot him a minor look of annoyance as he adjusted his glasses, the glint of the morning light obstructing his eyes as he did so. “In truth, we’d hoped to ask you some questions. We didn’t mean any disrespect if it was construed that way.”

He shook his head. “No harm done. That’s how things work. It’s a trade-off. I’ll be happy to answer your questions, but for now let’s head back to the hub city. We don’t know how long it will take for the boss to respawn and I’d rather not do that again so soon.”

They all nodded and used the ‘Call to Home’ spell, vanishing in flashes of light.


[SAO -o0o- LH]


With Kirito

As they touched down right outside of Akiba, Kirito couldn’t help but mull over what this experience had taught him. More than half of what that boss could do wasn’t something that would have been possible when they were still playing from the other side of the screen. It was almost like a Floor Boss in SAO in how it acted. That could prove troublesome if a Field Boss of that caliber out up so much of a fight against four Level 90 players.

“To be formal, I’ll introduce myself properly,” Kirito said to the others, turning to face them once again. “My name is Kirito. I’m a Swashbuckler with the Sub-Class of Sword Saint. As you can probably guess, I’m also a SAO survivor—a former Clearer.”

The Enchanter nodded his head and did the same. “My name is Shiroe. I’m an Enchanter-Scribe.”

“My name is Akatsuki, a Level 90 Assassin-Tracker,” said the girl. She looked young, maybe around eight or nine, though she seemed to carry herself as though she was older. Her build made her seem more like a ninja as well. “I am My Lord’s shadow and protector.”

The Tank was last and the most eager. He pointed his thumb at himself and grinned. “And I’m Naotsugu, a Guardian-Border Patrol.”

“Nice to meet all of you,” Kirito said again. “Now, how can I help you?”

“Would you be willing to tell me, how do these circumstances compare to Sword Art Online?” the Enchanter asked. “I’m trying to gather as much information as I can. I know it can be a sensitive topic, but—”

Kirito shook his head. He would not lie, if asked. He’d learned from his mistakes. No matter how uncomfortable the truth or topic was, he’d be honest. “Right now getting as much information as possible is more important than my comfort. I’ll be as truthful as I can. Ask away.”

“Let’s start with why you’re out here alone?” Shiroe asked.

“Testing the combat system,” Kirito explained. “For a number of reasons, one of which being I needed to see how well I could function here compared to SAO. I messed up because the boss wasn’t staggered or stun-locked, but I’ll be able to make it work with some doing.”

Naotsugu raised his hand to ask the next question. “Weren’t you afraid, fighting like that? Even knowing you would come back to life if you were killed?”

“Mmmm.” He scratched his cheek in thought. “Not as much as I should have, I guess. I’ve been through this before as a Clearer and only a few months have passed since SAO was cleared, so the combat experience hasn’t faded away—deteriorated to an extent, maybe. The fact that I’ll respawn does nothing to deter me on that front.”

“So, if there’s no death, do you think more people will fight?” Shiroe asked. “I mean, if we had to actually clear a raid dungeon in order to fulfill some sort of condition? From what I’ve gathered, that was the case, wasn’t it?”

Kirito shook his head. “During SAO, the majority of the players retired to safe floors and left the clearing of the game to Clearers or Front-Liners. That’s because the majority were terrified of dying, terrified of facing monsters, and left it to others to shoulder the responsibility. In this case, pain is the deterrent rather than death.”

He looked down to his leg and stomach, where he had gotten bitten and pierced respectively. “I can still remember that kind of pain even after being healed, so imagine being eaten alive and feeling the fangs tear into you until you died and then came back. Knowing that it would happen again if you ventured out, how many times could you go through it before you lost the will to fight entirely? We’ll be lucky if more than a tenth of the players go out of designated Safe Zones until they’ve come to terms with it.”

“Hmm, that could be a problem if those same conditions come up then….” Shiroe looked to the sky for a brief moment in thought. “They’ll likely try to wait it out then, thinking it’s still a game.”

“Which leads up to another problem,” Kirito said. “I can’t say it’s exactly like SAO, but the fact is that it’s close enough. No one, especially not the few SAO veterans likely to have been playing when we got sucked in, will believe that outside help will arrive. Not after we had to get out ourselves after two years. The fact that there has been no announcement on the clearing conditions and no clearing goal for people to strive for will eventually take its toll because they don’t see any way for them to get back to their old lives. Strictly speaking, the ones that don’t adapt will either go mad, take it out on others, or… just give up entirely.”

There had been a number of players who did the same in SAO, believing that the one-hundred floors couldn’t be conquered. Those that hoped with all their hearts that being trapped was a lie or had reached the limits of their despair often flung themselves over the edge of the floor to their deaths like Keita. The retired players that never ventured out beyond earning enough for the cheapest living conditions and food, eventually falling prey to either the corrupt members of The Army or going insane.

Naotsugu frowned. “Yeah. I know someone who went through that. It’s rough on them.”

“It gets worse when you think about it,” Kirito added. “Think about the four types of players who participate in this sort of game.”

Naotsugu scratched his head at that while Akatsuki looked towards Shiroe, who frowned. “Bartle’s Taxonomy, you mean?”

Kirito nodded. It was an old method used to determine the types of people who played MMOs and why they did it. It was broken into four groups: Diamonds, Spades, Hearts, and Clubs.

Diamonds were Achievers—people who played the game in order to accomplish something. They wanted beat the game, max their levels, collect the prizes, just things that warranted them going above and beyond the limit. Anything that acknowledged what they had done. The DDD and Silver Sword guilds were fine examples of those types of players.

Spades were Explorers—people who would be willing to traverse the game in order to find new content, finding joy in the vast world. Whether it was discovering how the system worked or treading ground no one else had, they leveled up so that they could go unhindered rather than beating the game. The Debauchery Tea Party was essentially composed of those types of players under Kanami.

Hearts were Socializers—people who used the game as a medium to connect with others. Being a worldwide MMO, Elder Tales easily connected people who were all over the world through the use of different servers and the Fairy Rings. Casual players were likely to fall into this role, using it as a way to remain close to someone distant—like Asuna did with Kirito.

Clubs were the Killers—people who played the game to lord over others, gaining satisfaction by asserting dominance. While trolls and PK’ers were the more common variety, you also had leaders who held power through force, traders who exploited a monopoly, or a guild that locked down and hogged a farming area for their own sake.

Shiroe’s eyes narrowed a bit when it clicked. “You’re afraid those that fall into the Killers-group would take advantage of it.”

Kirito was tight-lipped as he nodded. His thought turned to Coper, and how he had tried to get him killed. He imagined that same scenario playing out here, and how his death would have been far more gruesome as he was devoured in his ambition to gain a good weapon early on. Would that same scene play out here, by chance?

“It took around a year for psychos like those in Laughing Coffin to sprout up in full, but even before then there were others. How long do you think it will take here, when something similar has happened in the past? Especially when you consider how the still-living members got away with murder when the game ended?”

“Hmmm…” Shiroe brought his hand up to his chin and spoke his thoughts aloud. “The Royal Guard will attack any Adventurer inside of the city who strikes someone else, but what about outside of it? What’s stopping someone from robbing others of their goods under the threat of pain? Or torturing them?”

“Exactly,” Kirito said. There were limited and rate items, competition over them was likely to erupt too. And, if the PvP was anything like Kirito remembered, then you could loot corpses before they dissipated and were respawned in the Cathedral. How long before pain no longer became a deterrent but a tool?

“They can’t really do that, can they?” Naotsugu asked.

Shiroe nodded his head. “There’s no law against it because that sort of thing was an out-of-context problem. Unlike Sword Art Online, which had things like a harassment feature, this game was never meant to be played this way. You’re not limited to what you can do behind a keyboard, that fight showed us that much.”

Kirito joined in. “You saw me. I was capable of moving however I pleased and swinging my sword however I wanted. Something like that not being planned for means that it can be abused. Once people get past the initial shock and figure it out, they’ll start jumping into different groups and guilds like gangs, fighting and taking advantage of each other it. I’ve seen it before.”

“Troubling,” Akatsuki said.

“People will do whatever they want unless there’s some way to enforce a set of laws and standards or at least the capability to dole out some measure of proportional punishment,” Shiroe said. “Beyond the Royal Guards, we don’t have that luxury anymore.”

“In SAO, The Army handled most of that—monitoring the jail and such,” Kirito said. “But, under a single person, they became rotten and corrupt. The leader then arranged for his competition to be left for dead in a dungeon and his men were so far gone that they were shaking down a woman who ran the only orphanage in the game and children. It was fortunate that Thinker managed to get out of the trap alive, but what was stopping it from happening again here?”

There were no checks and balances then.” Shiroe mused softly. “It’s safe to say the very same thing could happen to multiple guilds as well. The larger guilds won’t have any trouble pushing around the smaller ones. Some of them I know have reasonable leaders, but others I can’t be so sure about.”

“Then we knock them around,” Naotsugu stated. “If they’re going to get their rocks off on hurting people because they’re bigger, we hit them harder.”

“No, it won’t be that simple,” Shiroe countered. “We can handle ourselves because we know what we’re doing. Same goes for other veterans. Our stats make things like gender, age, and size non-issue in terms of fighting ability.”

Naotsugu looked down to Akatsuki at that. “Hmm… I guess you got a point. Even a squirt like her could handle—AHHH!”

Akatsuki promptly kicked him before she turned to Shiroe. “My Lord, may I hurt him for insinuating disrespectful things about me?”

“You already did!” Naotsugu pointed out, holding his shin where she had kicked. He was wearing leg guards and it still looked like it hurt. “Ow, geez it was just a joke!”

A sweat-drop appeared on Shiroe’s brow before he turned back to Kirito. “As I was saying, we’ll be fine but what about players who are younger and inexperienced?”

Kirito scowled. “I came into the game with my younger sister and a few others, two of whom aren’t even Level 30. They barely know the basics. If someone stronger wanted to take advantage of them, it would be no trouble at all. I can guarantee you that someone will see all these helpless players and then take advantage of them, trying to make their lives better at the expense of others who will want safety or security, all because they have no clue what’s going on and no goal to aim for.”

“So, in other words, the newbs will need someone to look out for them,” Naotsugu said, still kneeling and holding his shin.

“Not just look out for them,” Kirito told him, thinking back to Sachi and the others. If he had been honest with them, taught them how to spot obvious traps, or trained them, rather than pretending to be their level, would they still be alive? “If we just look over their shoulders and protect them alone, they won’t get stronger or know how to survive in the event something happens. They have to at least be taught, but that requires more than just one person telling them what to do.”

Akatsuki looked pensive herself. “There are a lot more problems than I had considered. It looks quite dire.”

Shiroe dipped his head once in her direction. “Correct Mis—”

“Just. Akatsuki,” she said in a clipped tone, a pout on her face.

“Er, right, Akatsuki.” Shiroe cleared his throat. “And these are just the ones that come to the forefront, not even long term.”

“And there are no solutions to any of them yet,” Kirito finished, a sad smile forming on his face. “If it’s a matter that can be handled with a sword, I can deal with it. But I was a Soloer for most of SAO. I’m not someone who can solve these problems. The best I can do for now is keeping the people closest to me safe. I dragged them into this, so it’s the least I can do.”

Speaking of those people, Klein appeared in the same flash of light they had. He must’ve used the same spell from inside the city after spotting Kirito on his map. The samurai boldly walked up to the younger swordsman and bopped him on the head with the bottom of his fist. “Idiot!”

“What was that for?” Kirito demanded.

“For running off to fight a Field Boss on your own!” he claimed. “Your cousin was worried sick!”

Kirito’s eyes furrowed in mild anger at that. “You told her?”

“I could have told Asuna too,” Klein coolly pointed out. He made the same gesture from SAO to bring up the menu, a sort of mental shorthand from habit no doubt. “In fact—”

Kirito held both hands up in surrender. “Okay, okay. Let’s not go that far.”

“Then go see your sister and Silica,” Klein ordered. “Pronto.”

Kirito sighed before turning back to the trio. “Sorry, but I have to deal with this. I really shouldn’t have left them alone in the first place to run off.”

“Perfectly understandable,” Shiroe said. “Besides, you’ve given me a lot more information than I expected. I’ll be thinking on it for a while.”

Kirito opened his menu and removed himself from the party before he sent them all a request to be added to their list of contacts. They all accepted, albeit it with some hesitation from Shiroe. Kirito then gave Klein a pat on the back that sent him a staggering forward a step.

“If you want even more information about the managing of minor guilds and such, he’ll likely be the one you want to ask,” he told them. “Klein ran one. Anything else, you’re on my contact list now so we can message that way. I’ll keep you updated if I learn anything new. It was pleasure working with you.”

With that said, he ran off towards where he had left the girls. When he arrived, Silica seemed downtrodden, almost lifeless as she sat there while her dragon gently poked and prodded her for a response. He felt even worse now and understood why Klein came to him.

“Onii-chan, you’re back,” Suguha said. “I was so worried about you when he told me you were fighting a Field Boss. I was going to try and send a message, but he said it might distract you in the field.”

“I’m fine, Sugu.” He came to a stop in front of Silica and crouched down. “Silica, what’s wrong?”

I want to go home,” she said. Her voice was so soft that it barely reached his ears. “I thought after what happened before, it was finally over. And yet, I’m stuck in another strange place all over again. We’re going to have to fight and get hurt to get out again, I just know it.

This is my fault, Kirito told himself. He invited her into the game because she wanted to stay connected to him. This was the end result.

He licked his lips nervously and took a deep breath. “I won’t force either of you to fight if you’re scared. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. The last time I did that, it cost someone their life. I won’t make that mistake ever again.”

Once more his thoughts went back to Sachi, and how her death stemmed from what happened with Illfang’s defeat. Kayaba had trapped them, two-thousand people had died, and the other players needed someone to victimize, making it easy for an idiot like Kibaou to lay the blame of the beta-testers taking advantage of the other players.

Given he became corrupt by the end and that beta-testers hadn’t gone past the first few floors, it was stupid and should have stopped being relevant by then. Yet the label and the stigma it carried remained throughout the two years. Looking back, his first mistake was not trying to calm the crowd down and explaining things.

Instead, he tried to take all the blame on his shoulders with that act. He tried to be something he wasn’t, and all it did was make it seem like he was the worst of a bad bunch. He was The Beater, a mantle he had to hide from others, and because he hid it the Moonlit Black Cats were ultimately wiped out.

Had he never met them, would they have gone to explore that dungeon? Would Sachi have just stayed behind and been okay? It didn’t matter in the end. There were no ‘ifs’ when it came to the past. They were all dead because of him.

“I won’t lie to you,” he confessed. “I don’t know how to fix this. I can’t promise that I’ll get us home. The best I can do is promise to try and fight on your behalf if it comes down to it. But you can’t give up and remain like this, lifeless and hollow inside. You have to keep going, so that when the time comes and a way home does open up, you’ll be able to reach it with your own two feet.”

Pina stirred and prodded her again at that, as if compounding his point. She picked her Waterfowl Dragon Pup up and held it tight to her chest. It cooed at her warmth.

Okay,” she said softly. “I’ll try not to.”

“The same goes for you, Sugu,” he said. “If you don’t want to fight, I won’t make you. But you need to find some reason to keep going on here. Just until we can make it back.”

She seemed uncertain herself, but nodded. “Right…”


[LH -o0o- SAO]


With Shiroe

After the Samurai left, the trio wandered about the near-abandoned streets of Akiba with no destination in particular in mind. Shiroe himself was deep in thought, merely trailing behind the others while moving on auto-pilot.

When things do go bad, they’ll go bad in a hurry, Shiroe noted to himself. How long will it be before then? Maybe two or so weeks? Even if he said that no one would believe in the government to get them out, they’ll hold onto whatever they can out of desperation. So once those faint glimmers of hope at a rescue die down….

“My Lord,” Akatsuki called, snapping him out of it. “You looked troubled.”

He gave her a half-hearted smile. “While it was fortunate Mister Kirito and Mister Klein were so forthcoming, it’s given me a lot to think about.”

“It does paint an ugly picture,” Naotsugu said as he walked ahead, hands on the back of his head. “Makes you wonder who’d want to put a bunch of people into a game again after that happened?”

“That’s working on the assumption we’re still in a game,” Shiroe said. “For all we know, we could have been pulled into another world entirely.”

Natosugu craned his head around at that. “What makes you think that?”

“Just a thought that came to mind,” he said. “No conclusive evidence, but I’m considering all the possibilities at this point. Besides—”

“Shiroeeee!” said a bell-like voice in the somber quiet surrounding them. They turned towards the source of the voice, a slender and well-endowed elf heading towards them. “I finally found you!”

“Maryelle?” Shiroe blinked, somewhat dumbfounded. “What are you doing out here?”

“I was looking for you,” she said, placing a hand on her chest as she huffed. “Someone said they saw you leaving town and so I thought that meant you had found something out.”

“Have you been searching for me all this time?” he asked.

“That’s right!” She glomped him enthusiastically as he stood there. “I couldn’t find you and I was worried I didn’t know what to do!”

“Hello, Pretty Lady.” Naotsugu stepped forward and put on a smile. “I don’t think we’ve had the pleasure of meeting, have we?”

She looked him up and down, resting her hand against her cheek. “You’re quite buff, aren’t you?”

“Uh, as riveting as this is, what’s so important you spent all this time searching for me?” Shiroe asked. “And you could have just called me, you know?”

“Well there’s no point in dwelling on that now.” She tugged the Enchanter along with her. “Come on, we can talk at my Guild Hall. Henrietta wants to see you too.”

The other two watched as she dragged him along before shooting one another a glance. Akatsuki then darted ahead to remain next to her lord’s side as Maryelle led them to her Guild. Naotsugu shrugged his shoulders, placed his hands back behind his head, and went after them at a leisurely pace.


[Chapter 3 -o0o- End]


Notes: The main advantage that the SAO Clearers and ALO Veterans is that they know how to fight within the confines of the game world and can adapt to the sudden shift in ability. To quote Shiroe from the English Dub of Episode 2:

Using the system and mastering it are two different things entirely.

Likewise, they are less fearful of fighting monsters because they are used to it. However, this distinction is only relevant for the first few months or so as the others players become more accustomed to combat and danger. The addition of pain will also play a factor, as mentioned above.


Back in the Game: Chapter 2

[-|Back in the Game|-]


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


[Chapter 2 -o0o- Start]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What exactly are you doing?

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

That was absurd. ‘And you went alone?

Not alone, exactly,’ Kirito replied.


 

[SAO -o0o- LH]


 

With Kirito

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

[SAO -o0o- LH]


 

With Asuna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mama?” Yui called.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Understood,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”


 

 [LH -o0o- SAO]


With Shiroe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

[SAO -o0o- LH]


 

With Kirito

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

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

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

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

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

[Chapter 2 -o0o- End]

 


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