Sword Art Online:Aria in the Starless Night
Aria in the Starless Night
Just once, I saw a real shooting star.
It was not during a vacation; it was from the window of my house. For people living in towns with crisp air and truly dark nights, shooting stars aren't uncommon. But unfortunately, Kawagoe City of Saitama prefecture, where I've lived for all fourteen years of my life, has neither of those qualities. On a clear night, even a second magnitude star can barely be seen with the naked eye.
But, late one midwinter night, when I happened to glance outside my window on a whim, I saw it. On that deep night without many stars, the city lights formed a pallid shroud covering the sky. And in an instant, it was cut by a quick flash of light. My soon-to-be 5th grade self thought childishly, "I must make some kind of wish...", which up to that point was fine, but the wish that appeared in my mind was, "I wish my next monster drop will be a rare item." It was the kind of wish no sensible person would make. I suppose it sprang from the fact that I was playing an MMORPG I liked at the time. The shooting star I glimpsed that day, I saw once again three (or was it four?) years later— glowing with the same color, moving with the same speed.
However, this time, I didn't see it with the naked eye, nor was I beneath a dark grey night sky.
I saw it through a Nerve Gear, the world's first full sensory type VR interface, at the bottom of a gloomy, virtual dungeon.
One could describe the fight as bloodcurdling.
The level 6 humanoid monster, «Ruin Kobold Trooper», was swinging a barbaric hand ax, and the person fighting the Kobold was barely able to dodge. I felt a chill run down my back as I watched the battle. But after the player dodged three consecutive strikes, the Kobold completely lost its balance and, instead of using this chance to escape, the person used a sword attack skill at full strength.
It was the first skill learned by rapier users: the single thrust attack «Linear». This sword skill is activated by using the main hand to hold a sword in front of the body, concentrating on the hand, and then thrusting the sword straight forward. It was a simple basic skill, but the speed was terrifying. Clearly, the speed hadn't been left to the system motion assist alone, but was boosted by the player's own movement commands.
During the beta test, I had seen with my own eyes numerous party members and enemy monsters use this very sword skill countless times. But this time, I could not see the rapier itself, only the trajectory drawn by the light of the sword skill's animation effect. That pure white flash, cutting through the darkness of the dim-lit dungeon. It brought to mind the shooting star from that day.
The rapier user continued to dodge the Kobold's three strike combo, following with a counterattack using «Linear». After using this attack-defend pattern three more times, the player finished off the armed beastman, one of this dungeon's stronger monsters, without a single wound. Despite this, the battle didn't seem to have been an easy one. Once the lethal sword skill had pierced the center of its chest, the monster had collapsed backwards and dispersed into particles. The rapier user wavered as if pushed by the insubstantial polygon shards, leaned back onto the corridor wall, slowly sliding against the wall down to a sitting position, and began breathing heavily.
The person didn't seem to notice me standing about 15 meters away at the corner of the intersection.
To wordlessly distance myself and find my own prey was my normal procedure. A month ago, that eventful day, I decided to selfishly live as a solo player. Ever since that day, I have never approached a lone person. The only exception was if I saw a player in battle who was clearly in danger; however, the rapier user's HP gauge was still near full. At the very least, the person wouldn't need the help of some busybody.
After about five seconds of deliberation, I left the shadows of the intersection and strode toward the still-sitting rapier user. Skinny figure, somewhat slender. The torso was equipped with a dark red leather tunic with a lightweight copper breastplate, while the lower body was dressed in neat leather pants, with boots up to the knees. A hooded cape cloaked the body from head to below the waist, so the face could not be seen. Other than the cape, the equipment seemed to be that of a fencer, very similar to my equipment as a swordsman. My beloved sword «Anneal Blade», the reward from a difficult quest, is very heavy. So, to keep my skills on point, I wear very little metal armor — just a small chest guard with a dark-grey leather coat over it.
At the sound of my approaching footsteps, the rapier user's shoulders trembled suddenly, then remained still. The fact that I wasn't a monster should have been revealed by a green-colored cursor in that person's view. He had his face buried deep behind raised knees, giving a strong 'Just pass by and move on' impression — I stopped about two meters from the rapier user and opened my mouth.
"...That was an extreme overkill."
The small shoulders covered by the thick cloth of the cape moved slightly again. The hood jerked, moved up about 5cm, and from the darkness within, two pupils sharply shot towards me. The only thing I could discern were the light brown irises. The shape of the face couldn't be seen at all.
For a few seconds, the rapier user continued to watch me with that same sharp gaze he used in the battle earlier, then his head tilted slightly to the right in an 'I don't get it' kind of gesture.
Seeing that, I thought, 'So, that's how it is'.
For what looked like solo play to me, there was one huge incongruity.
The «Linear» released by the rapier user was so perfect that I couldn't help but shiver. The conciseness of the pre-motion and post-motion, and the speed of the thrust, especially, prevented perception of the rapier itself. Never before have I beheld such a terrifying and beautiful sword skill.
So from the beginning, I thought that he must similarly be a beta tester. Before this world became a death game, extensive battle experience must have been accumulated to attain this speed.
However, seeing «Linear» a second time, I had doubts about my guess. The skill was perfect, but the pace of battle was risky. Certainly, «Minimal Side Step Defense» has a higher counterattack speed over parrying or blocking, and won't decrease weapon/armor durability. However in exchange, when the defense fails, the danger is the greatest. At worst, counter damage is applied and a stun could occur. In solo battles, a stun is fatal.
The perfect sword skill and the risky defense tactics were mismatched. For some reason I wanted to know why, no matter what. That's why I moved closer and inquired about the repeated use of the tactic being an overkill.
However, the opponent didn't seem to understand the well-known net game term. Meaning, the rapier user in front of me was not an original beta tester. Not only that, he might not even have been an MMO player before coming here.
I took a short breath, and explained anew.
"Overkill means... in comparison to the monster's remaining HP, the damage dealt was way too much. The Kobold earlier was almost dead after the second «Linear» ... no, it was practically dead already. Its HP gauge had only two or three dots remaining. Instead of finishing it with a sword skill, a light normal attack would have been more than enough."
In this world, how many days had it been since I had talked so much... how many weeks? Pondering that question, I stopped speaking.
After listening to my speech, the fruit of my hard work and poor speaking skills, the rapier user had no reaction for over ten seconds. Just when I thought I hadn't managed to get through, a small voice finally slipped through the lowered hood.
"...Overkill, is there any problem with it?"
At that moment, I belatedly realized this rapier user huddled in front of me, deep in this dungeon, was one of this world's extraordinarily rare «Female Players».
It had already been a month since the official launch of the world's first VRMMORPG, «Sword Art Online».
By this time, the average MMO would begin to see players approaching the level cap, and the world map should have been explored from end to end. However for SAO, the current top class group was barely Level 10 — I didn't know if this was the cap, but there was no way that it could have been. The floating castle Aincrad, where the game is staged, had only been conquered by a few percent total.
The reason was that the current SAO was a game that wasn't a game; in a sense, it had become a «Jail». Manual logout wasn't possible and death of the avatar amounted to death of the real player. With these conditions, not many people entered dungeons filled with dangerous monsters and traps.
Also, after the Gamemaster forced all avatars to be the same gender as their real-world players, females were very rare. Even after a month, I think almost all of them still stayed in the «Starting City». In the first sizable dungeon, «First Floor Maze», I have seen female players only two or three times, and they were all members of big parties.
That's why I would never have imagined the solo rapier user I met in an unexplored area of the dungeon would be a female player.
For a moment, I thought about mumbling an apology and leaving the area. I wouldn't say I was a guy who always talked to any female player he saw; I sincerely wouldn't like to be thought of that way.
On the other hand, if the opponent had said something like 'It's my choice' or 'Leave me alone,' I would have said 'I see' and left immediately. However, the rapier user's curt reply had been a question. So, again, I cautiously answered with sincerity.
"...Overkill has no penalty or demerit from the system, but... it's bad for efficiency. Sword skills require concentration; using them continuously is mentally exhausting. There's also the return path, so it's better to not fight in a way that makes you tired."
Again from deep inside the hood, a questioning voice emanated. Fatigue made it very faint and the intonation was also thin, but regardless, I thought her voice was beautiful. Of course, that's not something I'd say out loud!
So, I explained once more.
"Yes. It takes about an hour to get from here to the dungeon exit, and from there to the closest town is about 30 minutes, even when moving quickly. Exhaustion increases mistakes. You look like a soloer, and for a single person, any small mistake might cost your life."
While my mouth moved, I asked myself, 'Why am I speaking with all my might?' The opponent is female — but that couldn't be the reason, since I had given a long speech before knowing that.
If I were her, and an upper rank person had lectured me like this, I would have said, 'It's my choice, so leave me alone,' or something like that. So, with my personality and actions at odds, I was about to break a sweat when the rapier user finally replied.
"...Then, there's no problem. I'm... not returning."
"What? ...Not returning to town? But... replenishing potions, repairing equipment... and sleep..."
I asked dumbfoundedly. The rapier user's shoulders shook slightly.
"I don't need medicine when I'm not taking damage, and I bought five of the same sword. ...As for resting, I use the nearby safe area."
As the murmur faded, I was speechless for a while.
Safe areas were certain rooms in a dungeon that monsters would not enter. A safe area could be recognized by a special colored torch placed on the wall in each of its four corners. While hunting and mapping, it's a nice place; but, even so, it could only be used for maybe an hour of short rest. The floor was made of cold stone and of course there was no bed, and nearby monster footsteps or growls could be heard frequently. No matter how courageous a player was, deep sleep was absolutely impossible.
But, from what I just heard, this rapier user had been using a safe area in lieu of a town inn, in order to remain in the dungeon... is that, what does it mean?
"...How many hours has it been?"
I fearfully inquired.
The rapier user answered after a long breath.
"Three days... or four days... Is that all? The monsters around here will revive soon. I'll be going."
With her delicate left hand wrapped in a thick leather glove, she pushed off the wall and stood up unsteadily.
The slender sword which was still drawn drooped down heavily as if she were holding a two-handed sword one-handedly, and the rapier user walked away behind me.
The cape that now shuffled away was in tatters, revealing that much of its durability had been lost. No, for cloth equipment that had been used for a four-day hunting expedition, the mere fact that it had maintained its shape was a miracle. The earlier 'As long as I don't take damage' comment might not have been an exaggeration...
After realizing that, I spat out some unthinkable words to her slender back.
"...If you fight like that, you will die."
The rapier user stopped, leaned her shoulder on the right wall and turned around slowly. From deep within the hood, her red-rimmed hazel eyes gazed at me.
"...Everyone will die in the end anyway."
The hoarse, cracked sound made the cool dungeon air colder.
"In just one month, 2000 people have died, and still not even the first floor has been cleared. It isn't possible to clear this game. Where and how you die... sooner or later is the only difference..."
The longest, most inspiring speech that I had heard up to this point now faltered in the middle and tailed off.
In front of me, as I stepped forward in reaction, the rapier user was struck by an unseen paralyzing attack and slowly sank to the floor.
As she was falling to the dungeon floor, she felt a prosaic thought drift by. 'How is it possible to faint in a virtual space?'
Loss of consciousness meant the brain's normal blood flow was momentarily stopped. The reason for this could be a malfunction in the heart or blood vessels, anemia or low blood pressure, hyperventilation or many other reasons; but while in a VR world in FullDive, the physical body is resting on a bed or reclining chair. The physical body of the players imprisoned by this death game «SAO» would probably be currently placed in a hospital; their health would obviously be checked and they would be continuously monitored. If necessary, medicine would be used. It's hard to believe loss of consciousness would be due to the physical body.
These thoughts drifted up through her fading consciousness, and at the end she thought, 'Whatever happens is fine with me.'
Yes, whatever happens now is fine by me...
Because, she will die here. Fainting in a maze full of violent monsters, there is no way she would be unharmed. There was another player nearby, but she did not think he would endanger his life to help another who had fallen.
Anyway, how could he help? In this world, the maximum weight a single player can carry is strictly limited by the system. In the depths of a dungeon, everyone carries medicine and extra equipment to their weight limit, leaving space for monster drops such as gold and items. With all those combined, the act of carrying a whole person is absolutely impossible.
—Upon thinking to this point, she finally realized something.
She was hit by a strong sense of dizziness, and what she thought as she fell to the ground was, 'Finally, I can relax for a long time'. The hard stone floor of the dungeon was what should have been under her body, but somehow, the feeling against her back was curiously soft and fluffy. Her body felt warm, and a light breeze caressed her cheek...
She opened her eyes fast enough to make a sound.
She was no longer in a maze lined by thick walls. Around her were old trees with golden moss and thorny brushes with small flowers, a clearing in a forest. At the center of a round space of about 7 or 8 meters, there on a soft carpet of grass, she lost consciousness... no, was sleeping.
But— why? How was she -who had fallen in the depths of the dungeon, moved to this far away field?
The answer to that question was found when she turned her view 90 degrees to the right.
At the edge of the clearing, attached to the root of a majestic tree, was a grey shadow. A rather large one-handed sword was held in both arms, and its sheath lay under his head. Long black hair covered his face so that it couldn't be seen, but judging from his equipment and physique, there was no mistaking that he was the male player who had spoken with her before she fainted in the dungeon.
Maybe that man used some kind of method to move her out of the maze to this forest after she had fallen. She looked past the forest. On the left side, about 100 meters away, a huge tower reaching up to the sky —the first floor maze of Aincrad stood there menacingly.
She returned her view to her right again. Noticing movement, the man's dark-grey leather coat covered shoulders shook and he lifted his head slightly. Even in the bright midday forest, the man's two eyes were black, like a starless night.
The moment her eyes met his dark-colored eyes, she felt small fireworks exploding in her head.
While grinding her teeth, Asuna —Yuuki Asuna, forced out a low, hoarse voice.
After being imprisoned in this world, Asuna had asked herself hundreds and thousands of times...
Why, at that time, did she touch a new game machine that was not even hers? Why did she place it on her head, lie down on the mesh recliner, and issue the start command?
The dream VR interface that was the cursed killing machine «Nerve Gear» and its huge jail of the soul, the «Sword Art Online» game disc, wasn't purchased by Asuna, but by her older brother Koichiro. For her brother, however, playing MMORPGs was not something he would normally do. His life was centered around other matters and he hadn't played any 'games' since his youth. Born as the first son to the acting president of the huge electronics manufacturer «Recto», and as his father's successor, he received a great deal of training in the necessary things and was forced to prune away all the unnecessary things while growing up. Why her brother would be interested in Nerve Gear... no, in SAO, was something that she did not, even now, understand.
Ironically however, Koichiro would not be able to play the first game he bought in his life. On the first day of the game's official service, he was sent on a business trip overseas. On the day before his departure, at the dining table when their faces met, he complained about it jokingly, but she sensed that he genuinely had regrets.
Not as extreme as Koichiro, for Asuna who was a 3rd year middle school student, the only experience of game playing were free games on her cell phone once in a while. She knew about the existence of net games, but with high school entrance exams closing in, there was no interest or motivation to play these games —or there wasn't supposed to be.
So, why on that day one month ago, November 6, 2022, did she visit her brother's vacant room, take the fully set up Nerve Gear from the top of his desk, place it on her head, and say «Link Start»? She still didn't understand the reason she had done this, to this very day.
From just one action, everything changed on that day... no, it could be said to have ended.
In the beginning Asuna had locked herself within an inn room in the Starting City to wait for the incident to end, but after two weeks with no word from the real world, she gave up hope on being saved from outside. Also, at that time, over one thousand players had already died, and she found out that even the first maze had not been broken through. She realized that waiting inside for the game to clear was useless.
The only remaining choice was therefore «What kind of death»?
Staying in the only safe city for months, no, years like this could be one way. However, no one can be sure that the rule of «Monsters cannot enter cities» will continue forever.
Instead of huddling in a small dark room fearing for the future, it's better to go outside. Use all her ability to learn, train, and fight. If she ended up dying after using all her strength, at least she would be untroubled by matters of the past and the regrets of a lost future.
Run. Charge forward. Then disappear. Like a meteor burning up upon entering the atmosphere.
Holding onto that single thought, Asuna left the inn, and stepped out into the wilderness of the MMORPG world, of which she didn't know a single common expression. She chose her own weapon, and relying on the one skill she learned, reached the bottom of the maze that no one had been to before.
Then today, Friday, December 2, at four in the morning. From continuous reckless battle exhaustion probably, she had fainted due to neural dysfunction, and her path should have come to an end. In the Starting City's «Black Iron Palace», near the left side on the «Monument of Life», the name 'ASUNA', run through by a horizontal line, should have been neatly inscribed, and everything would have ended— should have been. And yet...
Asuna again squeezed out that word. About four meters away the dark haired, single-handed sword user lowered his night-colored eyes. By impression, he seemed to be a little older than she was, but that nonchalant gesture made her involuntarily furrow her brow.
However a few seconds later, the man's mouth formed a sarcastic smile that overwrote her previous impression.
"I didn't save you."
A low quiet murmur. It sounded youthful, but something in it camouflaged his age this time, too.
"...Then, why didn't you leave me there."
"What I saved, was the map data you had. Staying for four days on the front line, meant you should have mapped a lot of the unexplored dungeon. It's a bit too important to disappear along with you."
With this logic and pragmatism pushed onto her, she took a deep breath. 'The importance of life' and 'How everyone should team up and work together'; up to now, when people in the city had told her such things she had just pushed them away — with words only, of course — and she thought of doing that now, but couldn't come up with any reasonable responses.
"...Then, just take it."
With a low mutter, she opened a window. Navigating the recently, finally familiar tabs, she accessed her map data and copied it all to a sheep skin paper item. She formed the scroll into an object and tossed it near the man's feet.
"With this, you've achieved your objective, right? Then, I will be going."
Pushing on the grass with her hand, she stood up but wobbled slightly. Judging from the window's time display, she calculated that she had slept for seven hours since she fell, but she had not fully recovered from her exhaustion. However, she still had three prepared rapiers left. She had decided earlier on that she would not leave the tower until the last rapier had only half its durability.
She had many unanswered questions. That grey-coated one-hand sword user. Just how had he moved her from the depths of the labyrinth to the forest clearing? Even accepting that he had moved her, why not to a safe area in the dungeon, rather than going to the trouble of moving her outside?
Even so, she didn't think it was something that she needed to turn around and ask. To return to the intensely dark labyrinth, she stepped toward the left of the forest — but, just then—
She ignored it and took a few steps forward, but the speech that followed after made her involuntarily stop.
"You, too, are basically working hard to clear the game right? Not just to die in the maze. Then, wouldn't it be better if you show your face at the «Meeting»?"
After murmuring that with her back still turned, she heard the swordsman's altered tone, borne by the light forest breeze.
"This afternoon, in «Tolbana», the town closest to the maze, the first «First floor boss strategy conference» is supposed to be held."
Since the floating castle Aincrad was made with a lot of detail, of course the first floor was the widest. The first floor was almost completely circular, with a diameter of 10 kilometers —that is, an area of about 80 square kilometers. For reference, Kawagoe City, Saitama prefecture has an area of 110 square kilometers, and a population of over 300,000 people.
For its huge size, the first floor actually held a lot of geographic variety.
On the southern edge, with a diameter of one kilometer surrounded by its half circular walls, was the «Starting City». In the grasslands surrounding the city, mainly boar- and wolf-type animals were prevalent with worm-, beetle-, and wasp-type insect monsters also inhabiting the area.
Northwest of the grassland was a deep wide forest, and northeast was the lake region. After passing through either of the two there were mountains, valleys, and ruins that contained monsters waiting to ambush passing players, and on the far northern edge of the floor, was a 300-meter wide, 100-meter tall squat tower. Here, stood the first floor maze.
In many places on the first floor other than the Starting City, many small- and medium-sized towns and villages existed. The largest of them —even then, it's only about 200 meters from edge to edge— was the town situated in the valley closest to the maze: «Tolbana».
The first time players arrived at this town lined with huge windmills was three weeks after the official service of SAO began.
At that point, the total number of deaths had actually reached 1800.
The mysterious female fencer and I set out; while maintaining a certain distance between ourselves, we left the forest and arrived at Tolbana's north gate.
Purple letters [INNER AREA] flowed into my view, showing I had entered a safe town area. At that moment, my shoulders relaxed, and I involuntarily sighed.
I was so exhausted from leaving early in the morning. Turning around, I imagined the rapier user behind me must feel worse, but the feet covered by knee-high boots did not seem to waver. Even with a few hours of sleep, one cannot completely recover from the exhaustion of three continuous days of hunting, so she must still be acting stubborn. When returning to town, the body and mind (for, in the virtual world, those two are essentially the same) should relax. I thought about voicing my thoughts, but the atmosphere seemed too solemn for idle talk.
In exchange, I turned toward the rapier user, and said, business-like.
"The meeting is supposed to take place in the town center, at 4pm in the afternoon."
The face hidden by the cloth hood, moved slightly up and down. However her feet did not stop, and the slender body passed by in front of me.
The breeze that blew in the valley town, caused her cape to flutter behind her. I opened my mouth slightly, but unable to find anything more to say, closed it again. Thinking about it, I, who had been solo playing hard for three weeks, was not qualified to seek interaction with others. Up until now, I had only been spending days protecting my own life...
"A strange girl."
Suddenly I heard that murmured behind me, and I turned away from the rear of the rapier user and looked around.
"...I thought she would soon die, but she did not. No matter how you look at it, she is a net game beginner, but her skill is fearsome. What kind of person is that?"
The high pitched voice continued, ending its sentences with a special nasal inflection. This person did not possess a large build and instead was one or a few heads shorter than me, but was still an incredible player. The armor, like mine, was full body cloth and leather. The weapon strapped on her left waist was a small claw, and on her right, were throwing nails. These were not weapons regularly used by those who reach the front lines, but this person's greatest weapon was something else.
"What do you know about that fencer?"
I involuntarily inquired, but knowing the opponent's reply, I wrinkled my face. The claw user did not betray my expectations, as she held up five fingers and said.
"I'll sell it cheap. 500 col."
Her grinning face has one big distinct feature. On both cheeks were three animal like whiskers drawn on with a make-up item. Matched with the curly auburn hair, her appearance reminded others of a certain rodent.
One time in the past, I asked why she used such markings. However, I only received a 'Don't ever ask the reason why a girl puts on makeup' reply, immediately followed by an angry outburst, 'I will tell you for 100,000 col!' So, I had to hurriedly backed down.
Someday, when I find a ultra rare item, I really will pay that 100,000 col —as this secret vow continued to stick in my mind, I sourly replied.
"I feel awkward about buying a girl's information, so I will refrain from doing it."
"Nihihi, you have a good heart."
The person who said this laughingly at the limit of shamelessness was perhaps Aincrad's first informant; the one known as «Argo the Rat».
'—If you chat with «Rat» for five minutes, you'll end up paying for 100 col worth of stories. Be careful.'
That was a warning by someone. However, the actual Argo replied that she had not once sold free information for money. When a story was determined to have value, it would always have a price, since it would be hard-to-find «merchandise». Thinking about it, if a false story was sold, then the reliability of the informant would drop. For a merchant, information gathering was a different breed of danger and trouble compared to gathering material items in dungeons and selling to NPCs in towns.
I considered asking a gender-based question, 'Why would a female player choose this kind of job' —but after seeing Argo's face, I had second thoughts about asking such a question. Even if I inquired, she would ask for another '100,000 col' for the answer, so instead I asked another question.
"So, today again, too? You aren't here for normal business talk, but as a negotiator for that mysterious person?"
Hearing this, Argo frowned and quickly glanced left and right of the street. She then pointed to a place behind me and we moved toward the nearby alleyway. The «Boss strategy conference» was still two hours away, so there were not many players here yet, but just in case, this was something she thought others should not overhear. The reason was that it was probably related to the mysterious person's reputation.
Argo stopped when we were deep in a small alley, leaned her back against a house —inhabited only by NPCs, of course— and nodded.
"Well, yea. It was raised to 29,800 col."
"The offer has come to 29.8k col now, huh."
I smiled wryly, then lowered my shoulders.
"...Sorry, but no matter how much col is offered, my answer remains the same. I don't want to sell it."
"I already told the client that the last time."
Argo's main business is as an informant, but by using her very high dexterity stats for movement, she also maintains a side business as a «Messenger». Normally it was just oral messages or delivering a short message on a scroll, but after about one week of negotiations with her client, it was complicated... or rather, it was an annoying client.
He —or she— wanted to buy my one-handed longsword «Anneal Blade +6 (3S3D)».
The weapon enhancement system in SAO was simple compared to those of recent MMORPGs. The enhancement statistics were Sharpness, Quickness, Accuracy, Heaviness, and Durability: the five bonuses that could be given to a weapon by having an NPC or a player smith work on it. The required stat-related material items and a certain percent chance of failure were similar to other MMORPGs.
No matter which stat was given by enhancement, the item's name in the equipment window would have a +1 or +2 appended. However, that number's «breakdown» could only be seen when the weapon was selected, while its properties window was opened. For player-to-player sales, saying an item had 'Accuracy +1, Heaviness +2' and other stats quickly became tedious. Instead, players used a shorter notation: for example, a +4 with a breakdown of Accuracy +1, Heaviness +2 and Durability +1, would be denoted by the phrase «1A2H1D». This style of notation had already become quite commonplace.
This means, my «Anneal Blade +6 (3S3D)» was enhanced by Sharpness +3 and Durability +3. Having an item of this quality on the first floor actually required a lot of patience and luck. Because of the situation within Aincrad, not many players train smithing skills which have no direct relation to the rate of survival. But, I am uneasy about the skill level of the NPC smith shops, even though the NPC smiths do look dwarvish.
Before I enhanced it, my weapon, the «Anneal Blade», was the reward from a very difficult quest. Considering its current specs, it could well be the most coveted item from the first floor— however, that being said, it's still only a «Beginner's equipment». I could only enhance it a few more times at most and, around the 3rd or 4th floor, I would have to switch to a new sword anyway, so I didn't need to keep upgrading this one.
For the above reasons, I wondered why Argo's client was willing to pay such a large amount of col —29.8k— for this sword. If this was a normal face-to-face transaction, I could ask for the reason directly, but that doesn't work when I don't even know the client's name.
"...The hush money the person paid was 1000 col, right?"
At my inquiry, Argo calmly nodded and said,
"That's right. Are you willing to raise?"
"Hmm... 1k huh... hm—m!"
Hush money was the amount of col Mr. X -who wanted to buy my sword- paid Argo to keep his name hidden from me. If I decided to pay the 1100 col, Argo would instant message her client to inform him that the hush amount had been raised to 1200 col, and ask if they would like to counter it. If YES was the reply, then this time I would be forced to choose whether to pay 1300 col or not. If I won this raise and counter battle, then I would learn the opponent's name, but I would probably lose money in this «Sword deal», as a result. No matter how you think about it, that would be idiotic to the extreme.
"...Good grief, you couldn't just sell information; since even when you're not selling something, it's a business... that is one impressive merchant's spirit..."
While I complained, Argo's whiskered cheeks relaxed into a snicker.
"That's the true joy of trade. When I sell someone information, at that instant the story that «Someone bought such and such information» is born."
"...Tell me when a female player wants my personal information: I'll buy her information."
Sighing as I said that, Argo once again gave a jolly laugh, then changed her expression.
"Then, I will tell the client the offer was rejected this time as well. Also, that this deal is impossible too. See you then, Ki-bou."
With a hand wave, she turned around and, with titular «Rat»-like dexterity, left the alley. While I watched the auburn hair disappear into the crowd, I idly thought, 'That person surely won't die'.
After being trapped in death game SAO for a month, I have learned a few things.
The difference between life and death of players was separated by some key factors. Some of the defining elements were to carry a massive amount of potions and to know when to stop dungeon crawling; however, the one key factor between life and death was the unconditional belief in having «their own truth». Put another way, it was their «ultimate weapon» for survival.
In Argo's case, it was probably «Information». Dangerous monster locations or, on the other hand, the most efficient hunting locations — this person knew them all. Her belief in knowledge created a sense of peace within her, and increased her ability to survive.
So then, for me, «Truth» was the sword on my back. To be precise, it was when my body and sword became one, in that moment of zen. I was not fully in that state all the time, but the single thought I want this world to be my own, and I will not die before then kept me alive till now. The reason Anneal Blade's enhancement was Sharpness +3 and Durability +3, ignoring Quickness and Accuracy, was that the former two were merely simple number spec ups, while the latter were system-assisted enhancements which would change the feel of a sword swing.
However, then that means...
That rapier user I met today at the front lines of the maze. What was her «Truth»? I did move her unconscious body outside the maze (I can't really say how I did it myself). But, on the other hand, even had I not been there, I believe the moment the next kobold appeared, she would have involuntarily stood up and used that high speed «Linear» like a shooting star to kill the enemy... I had to think that way.
What made her fight such a bloodcurdling battle, and how had she managed to survive until now? It was probably a «Strength» I didn't know about.
"...I should have paid Argo the 500 col..."
I murmured with a small shake of my head.
The white-painted outer walls of the windmills surrounding Tolbana town were tinged orange from the afternoon light. The time should be a bit after 3pm. To prepare for the approaching lengthy boss strategy conference, I should go fill my stomach somewhere.
The meeting starting at 4pm would be, without a doubt, wild.
The reason was, one type of player that usually remained hidden in the world of SAO, for the first time today, would show up in front of many normal players. That's right —«New Players» and «Experienced Beta Testers», a hard to fill void lay between them...
For «Argo the Rat», seller of anything that could be sold, there was only one type of information absent from her merchandise. The identities of the original beta testers. Argo and I were certain of each other's identity as a beta tester, but this was a topic never to be brought up in conversation, no matter how many lightyears we had to travel.
The reason was simple. When a beta tester's identity was discovered, his life could be at stake.
Not from the danger of being killed by monsters in some dungeon. But while walking around outside safe areas, New Players could «Execute» you. Because: they believed that responsibility for the death of 2000 people in the first month lay under the liability of the original beta testers.
And as for myself, I could not totally dodge this bullet.
Asuna's selection of food for the past three —or was it four— days consisted of the cheapest black bread from an NPC baker, and a bottle of water from one of the town's fountains.
She didn't enjoy eating too much even in the real world, and the food in this virtual world was so devoid that it was beyond description. No matter how much you ate, not a single morsel would reach your real body. She thought it would be better if the food system, of hunger and satiety, did not exist at all. But, when your stomach was empty for a while, this virtual feeling of hunger would not dissipate until you had eaten something.
During the time she was in the dungeon, she could use willpower to stop the empty feeling in her stomach, but after returning to town, she needed to eat. To compensate for her lack of willpower, she bought the cheapest thing on the menu: a dry and unrefined black bread. She endured the odd dissatisfaction from the mediocre taste by chewing on the bread little by little.
At the center of the town of Tolbana, Asuna sat on a simple wood bench beside the fountain and continued to silently chew the piece of bread in her mouth which was hidden beneath the cover of her hood. Despite being a relatively large piece of bread, it only cost 1 col. She had finally finished half of it when—
"That bread looks pretty delicious."
That familiar voice was coming from her right. She stopped her hand that was just about to tear off a piece of the bread, and threw a sharp glance.
The person who stood there was the man she had just left at the town entrance a few minutes ago. The black-haired and grey-coated one-handed sword user. He had earlier used some method to move her outside, when she had fainted inside the depths of a dungeon. This troublesome person was the one that interfered with her supposed 'to be cut' path.
The moment she realized that, her cheeks grew hot. After all she had said her ambition was to die, but here she was, eating food which was meant for continued living. A strong embarrassment assaulted her whole body, and she did not know what to do at that moment.
While she was frozen, holding the half-moon shaped black bread in her two hands, the man coughed, and said in a low whisper.
"May I sit next to you?"
Normally, she would have left the bench without a word, and moved away without turning back in this kind of situation. However, right now, she was assailed by a confusion she rarely experienced in this world, leaving her unable to react. Seeing Asuna's inaction as a sign of approval, the man sat down at the furthest distance possible on her right side, and began searching in his coat pocket. What he took out was a round, black-colored object —a black bread worth 1 col.
At that instant, Asuna forgot about her embarrassment and confusion momentarily, and in exchange looked at the man in amazement.
For someone with the ability to go that deep into the maze, and judging by the level of his full body armor and equipment, this swordsman should easily have enough money to choose from a course menu at a restaurant. In that case, he is either a super thrifty person, or—
"...Seriously, you think it is delicious, don't you?"
Without realizing it, she asked the question aloud in a small voice. Hearing this, the man raised his eyebrow outrageously, and nodded deeply.
"Of course. Since coming to this town, I eat it every day...well, I add a bit of a twist."
Puzzled, she shook her head under the hood. Instead of answering, the swordsman put his hand in the pocket opposite from the one earlier, and took out a small unglazed pot. He put it on the center of the bench, and said.
"Try using it on the bread."
The phrase 'use it on the bread' momentarily confused her, but she then realized it was a net game phrase, similar to «Use the key on the door» or «Use the bottle on the fountain». She hesitantly extended her right hand, and tapped the pot lid with her finger. From the pop-up menu which appeared she selected «Use», and then her fingertip started to glow with a faint purple light. This condition was called «Target selection mode», with which she then touched the half-eaten black bread in her left hand.
By doing so, with a small sound effect, one side of the bread was smeared white. No matter how you looked at it, there was a lot, or rather, it was generously applied—
"...Cream? Where would you get such a thing...?"
"This is the quest reward from «Revenge of the Cows» that I accepted one village back. Though, not many people do it, since it takes some time to clear."
After giving this serious answer, the swordsman mirrored the gesture to «Use the pot on the bread» as well. The pot suddenly shattered, its contents presumably used up, with a small sound and light effect. The swordsman opened his mouth wide, and bit into the bread that was now similarly piled mountain high with cream. Hearing the sound of chewing, Asuna's own stomach, which had been aching unpleasantly for some time, now felt healthily hungry.
She hesitantly bit into the cream-covered black bread still held in her left hand.
At that moment, the texture of the normally dry and rough bread changed substantially. The taste of a certain rustic cake spread throughout her mouth; the spread was sweet and creamy with a refreshingly sour yogurt taste. The inside of her cheeks were struck by jolts of electrifying fulfillment. Asuna dreamily stuffed her mouth with two, three bites.
When she came back to her senses, the bread that had been in her hands, was completely gone. When she looked beside her, she seemed to have finished two seconds or so before the swordsman. Again, a strong embarrassment rose within her. She wanted to escape from this place, but having been treated to food, it would have been very bad manners.
After taking several breaths to calm herself, Asuna said in a faint voice.
"...Thank you for the food."
The swordsman finished his own food, brushed the crumbs off his glove fingers, then continued.
"The cow quest I mentioned earlier. If you want to do it I can give you some tips. Completed deftly, you can finish it in two hours."
To be honest, her heart was moved. With that yogurt cream, even the 1 col black bread could become a magnificent feast. It was a false fulfillment from the taste recreation engine, but to taste it once more... no, to eat it every day if possible, thought Asuna.
Asuna lowered her eyes, and shook her head within the hood.
"...It's okay. I did not come this far to this town just to eat delicious things."
"Hum. Then, for what purpose?"
The swordsman's timbre, while it could not be said to be a beautiful voice, did not have a single part of it that was unpleasant to the ear: it reverberated with a youthful cadence. Maybe because of that, the emotions hidden deep inside her heart —emotions she never told anyone since coming to this world— slipped out without her consciously noticing it.
"I... want to prove that I exist. At first, I locked myself in a room of the city inn. But I decided, if I was going to slowly rot away, then I wanted to be myself up to the last moment. Even if I lose to a monster and die, this game... this world, I don't want to lose to. No matter what."
Asuna -Yuuki Asuna's 15 years of life, were a continuous battle. It began with a kindergarten entrance exam, followed by many further tests both small and large; Asuna overcame them all. It was set so that even one failure would make her a worthless person, so she continued to uphold that burden.
A new challenge came upon her after 15 years of fighting: «Sword Art Online». However, she probably could not win against this test. Fighting against the unknown, with different rules and cultures, this was a type of battle a single person's strength could not do anything about.
This was the required winning condition: 'Reach the top of the 100 floor floating castle, and kill the final enemy.' However, one month after the game started, about one-fifth of the players had fallen —furthermore, most of them were experienced veterans. The remaining fighting force was small, and the path ahead was long...
After all that, the flood of words from Asuna's heart waned and strengthened, as she spoke falteringly. As she finished her semi-coherent monologue somewhat brokenly, the black-haired swordsman continued to listen in silence —eventually Asuna's voice was cut by the evening breeze, and then he quietly whispered one small word.
After a few seconds, Asuna wondered, 'Why would he say that?'
She met this swordsman for the first time today- there should be no reason for him to apologize. She glanced under her hood at the person beside her; the grey coat man was sitting lightly on the bench, leaning forward and resting both elbows on his knees. His lips moved slightly, and she heard his voice again.
"Sorry... —The current situation right now... or, in other words, what pushed you this far, in a sense, it might be my..."
However, she could not hear what was ahead. Standing tall at the center of the town, upon a huge windmill, a wind-powered clock sounded high and loud.
It was 4pm in the afternoon. The time the «Meeting» started. Looking around, Asuna saw that players had gathered at a nearby fountain, unknown since when.
"...Let's go. It's the conference you invited me to."
Asuna remarked, standing up. The swordsman nodded and slowly stood up. What had he been going to say? —she probably wouldn't talk to him again anyway, so it didn't matter. But within that thought, there was a thorn-like prickle of emotion.
I want to know... I don't want to know... Which was the right answer, even Asuna herself did not understand.
That was the total number of players gathered at Tolbana's fountain clearing.
Compared to my predictions —that was, my expectations, all I could say was this was far too low. In SAO, the maximum size of a party was 6 people, and eight times that, for a total of 48 people to make up a raid group. In order to have zero deaths while killing a floor boss, it would be difficult without at least two raid groups to switch between while fighting, but these numbers couldn't even fill up one raid party.
I breathed in air to sigh, but I lost my chance to breathe out.
From behind me to my left, the rapier user in a hooded cape whispered. I involuntarily turned around and asked.
"Many...? This number of people?"
"Yes. That is... they gathered here for the first challenge against this floor's boss monster, right? Even though the chance of complete annihilation exists..."
I nodded, and then looked at the faces of the warriors gathered in threes or fives around the clearing again.
For about five or six people, I knew their name and level, and vice versa. This included «Argo the Rat», who was leaning against a high wall on the other side of the clearing. Additionally, around fifteen of these people I had seen previously near the front line towns and dungeons. As for the remaining 20 plus people, I saw most of them for the first time. Of course, the male-to-female ratio was very extreme. At a quick glance, in terms of female players, there were probably only those two; the rapier user and Argo...
Indeed, within the current Aincrad, no one had yet seen the first floor boss's challenge. Now on this floor, the chance of an HP gauge falling to zero —of risking death— would definitely be the highest in this large-scale battle ahead. As the rapier user said, everyone gathered at the plaza was prepared for their own death, and being here, they accepted they would become the stepping stones for future players... that was what it meant -however...
"...No, not really..."
I unconsciously whispered. The rapier user sent me a questioning look from under her hood. In response, I carefully chose my words.
"I cannot say this for everyone, but rather than «Showing a spirit of self-sacrifice», a lot of people may have come here due to «Uneasiness about being left behind», too. Which for me, is probably also the reason..."
"...Left behind? From what?"
"From the front line. Total annihilation is scary, but being overcome by an unknown boss is scary, too."
The cloth hood tilted slightly. Since she was a complete beginner to net games, she would be hard pressed to understand what I just said- was what I thought.
"...That is like, not wanting to fall below the tenth place rank in your school year, or wanting to keep a z-score  of 2. That kind of similar motivation?"
This time, it was my turn to be speechless. Thinking about it a bit, I nodded at this different point of view.
"Yeah... well, probably... Maybe it's like that..."
Seen from under the hood, her nicely shaped lips slightly twisted upward. Fu, fu —a faint sound could be heard. Laughing... was that what it was? From the ultra perfect «Linear» skill user who had called my actions an "Unnecessary effort" when I moved her out of the maze?
I unconsciously wanted to look directly into her hood, but fortunately the situation changed before that. With a *Pan, Pan* hand-clapping sound, an elegant voice bellowed throughout the plaza.
"O—K! Now then, it's five minutes late, but let's start! Everyone, a bit more to the front... there, come three steps closer!"
The owner of the truly majestic voice was a tall, one-handed sword user with shiny metallic armor covering each of his body parts. With a running start, he jumped onto the plaza fountain's edge. Jumping that high with his armor, he must have possessed very high Strength and Dexterity.
When they saw the back-turned swordsman, several people of the forty made a commotion. I understood what they were feeling. I, too, wondered: that man standing on the edge of the fountain, how was he so handsome, to a point which should not be possible in a VRMMO? In addition, his long hair flowing down in waves on either side of his face was dyed a brilliant blue. Since hair dying items were not sold in shops on the first floor, he must have hunted for a rare monster drop or bought it.
He went to all that trouble to customize hair style and color for this gathering, with only two female players —although one of them was in a hooded cape so no one could tell from the outside, while the other was «Rat»— I think he must have felt some hesitation, but the man completely deflected my suspicion with a refreshing smile and said.
"Today, thank you for heeding my summons! Some people here know me, but I will again introduce myself! I am «Diabel», and my class is «Knight»!"
With that, the people around the fountain burst out with whistles and applause, mixed with various calls like 'You meant «Hero» right!' flew through the air.
For SAO, the job class did not exist in the system. Each player was given a number of «Skill Slots», and could freely select from different skills and set them for training. For example, people with manufacturing or trade type skills in their main slot could be called a «Smith», «Seamstress», «Cook», or other such job titles —however, I have limited knowledge about the «Knight» and «Hero» classes, having not heard of them before.
"But, no matter what kind of class a person calls himself, it is his own freedom."
Saying this, the man named Diabel was wearing bronze armor on his chest, shoulders, arms and shins, with a large longsword on his waist to the left, and a kite shield on his back. You could say that was the armament befitting Knight.
That gallant appearance... while I stared at him from the back of the crowd, I searched through the index in my brain. His equipment and hair style were different, so it was hard to connect, but during this past month I remembered seeing him many times in the front line villages and towns. And then, what about before that —the «Other Aincrad», what about there? Although, I don't remember having heard his name before...
"Well then, as for the reason I gathered you top players who are active at the very front lines, I don't think I need to say it..."
As Diabel's speech continued, I stopped my thoughts and concentrated on him. The blue-haired knight raised his right hand, pointed to the huge tower vaguely seen rising above the town skyline -the first floor maze— and continued.
"...Today, my party found the stairs leading to the top-most floor of that tower. That is, tomorrow —or, at the latest, the day after tomorrow— we will reach it: the first floor's... boss room!"
The players made a large commotion. I was a little surprised, too. The first floor maze had 20 floors; I (and the rapier user beside me), went to the 18th floor today, to the area near the 19th floor stairs. I didn't know that the 19th floor was already mapped so thoroughly.
"One month. Coming this far took one month... Even so, we have to set an example. Kill the boss, and reach the 2nd floor! We have to show that this death game can be cleared to everyone waiting at the Starting City. That is the obligation of us top players here! Isn't that right, everyone!"
Again, cheers. This time, there were people clapping who were not Diabel's friends. Actually, what was being said was honorable and nothing was hidden. No, it would be strange to even wonder about anything hidden in those words. Right now, I should be like the once-scattered front lines players and buy the Knight's story, and applaud—
"Wait a minute, Knight-san."
At that moment, a low voice flowed out.
The cheering immediately stopped, and the front of the crowd split into two. At the center of the emptied space was a somewhat short and stockily built man. From my position, I could only make out a rather large one-handed sword on his back, and some kind of pointed, cactus-styled brown hair.
Taking one step forward, the cactus head growled in a deep, gravelly voice that was the opposite of Diabel's beautiful voice.
"Before that, there is one thing that must be cleared up; otherwise I cannot join you."
Diabel's eyes narrowed for an instant, but soon returned to full smiles and said while beckoning.
"Opinions are certainly very welcome. But, if you are going to speak, you should tell us your name."
Cactus head gave a huge snort, then stepped forward. When he reached the fountain, he turned around to face us.
"I am «Kibaou»."
The cactus head swordsman who introduced himself with a somewhat daring character name looked at all the players in the plaza with beady but sharp and bright eyes.
His sweeping look stopped for just an instant on my face —or I thought he did. I couldn't remember his name, nor where we could have met before. After taking plenty of time to look at everyone once, Kibaou eventually said in a threatening tone of voice.
"In this group, about 5 or 10 people need to apologize."
"Apologize? To whom?"
The knight that was still standing behind him on the fountain edge, Diabel, raised both hands in question. Without looking at him, Kibaou spat out in hatred.
"Ha, isn't it obvious. To the 2000 now dead people. Those guys had a monopoly on everything, and so 2000 people died in one month! Isn't that right?!"
At that moment, the low buzzing in the forty people audience was cut short; all went silent. What Kibaou insinuated, everyone finally understood. Myself included, of course.
In the oppressive silence, only the evening BGM from the NPC orchestra played quietly. No one spoke. If anything was said, then you might suddenly be labeled as one of «those guys» —that was the likely fear on everyone's mind. No, more than likely. At the very least, I was certainly caught by that fear...
"—Kibaou-san. Your «those guys» are... the original beta testers, right?"
Diabel with his arms crossed, showed the most stern look up till now as he asked for confirmation.
With the thick metal pieces of his scale mail clinking over the leather he wore, Kibaou took a glance at the knight behind him and continued.
"Those beta testers, on the day this shitty game started, dashed from the Starting City and disappeared. They left behind over 9000 people who didn't know left from right. They monopolized good hunting grounds and profitable quests, got stronger without a care for those behind. ...There should be some in this group, hiding their beta status, some sly people thinking of joining the boss fight. I want them to kneel down once, to the party members their lives depend on. That's what I want to say!"
Like his name, he cut off his condemnation with a snap of his teeth. Still, no one said anything. As a member of the original beta tester group, I ground my teeth, held my breath, and continued to keep silent.
It was not that I didn't want to shout a retort such as, 'The original beta testers, do you think that none of them died?'
About one week earlier, I bought some information -from Argo to be exact. I requested her to check on something: To find out the death toll for the original beta testers.
The SAO closed beta conducted over summer vacation accepted only 1000 people. Every participant was later given the privilege to buy the official release first, but since the launch date was near examination week, my guess was that not all 1000 testers moved to the official service. Probably about 700 or 800 people total did—that, was the number of original beta testers at the start of the game.
However, finding out «Who is an original beta tester» was not so simple. If a player's colored cursor had a [β] mark, then of course it would be easy —having said that, it could be called fortunate that such a mark did not exist. As for our avatar's appearance, the GM Kayaba Akihiko had reset everyone's appearance to be the same as in reality. The only factor we could go by was the name, but it's probable that many were changed from the beta to the official release. Incidentally, the reason Argo and I are certain of each other's identities as original beta testers is related to how we first met, but that's another story.
Anyway, for these reasons, Argo's research should have been very difficult. However, it only took 3 days for her to give me a number.
Around 300 people was Argo's estimate for the death toll of original beta testers.
If that number is accurate, that means, of the current death toll of 2000, 1700 were new players. Percentage-wise, the new player death rate was about 18%. On the other hand, the original tester death rate was close to 40%!
Prior knowledge and experience did not necessarily mean safety. Conversely, they could be a trap. I, who had accepted a difficult quest on the first day of this death game, almost died. Also, there are external factors. In this SAO official service, the geography, monsters, and items are mostly the same as in the beta test, but once in a while, there is a slight difference, like a small hidden deadly poisoned needle...
"May I speak?"
At that time, a rich and forceful baritone resounded in the evening plaza. I returned from my thoughts and raised my head. From the left side of the crowd, a silhouette moved forward.
Huge. His height probably was easily over 180cm. An avatar's size was said not to have any effect on his stats, but the two-handed battle-axe slung over his back certainly appeared lightweight to him.
His appearance, too, was impressive and did not lose to his weapon. A completely bald head, and chocolate-colored skin. However, the chiseled face fit so well you might think it was customized. Not Japanese... instead of saying that, maybe he wasn't even human.
The muscular giant moved forward to the fountain, lightly bowed to the other players, and then turned to the dramatically different statured Kibaou.
"My name is Agil. Kibaou-san, what you mean to say is that many beginners died because original beta testers did not take care of them, and you wish for them to accept that responsibility and apologize, isn't that correct?"
Kibaou, momentarily overwhelmed, took a step back, but soon returned forward. With his shiny, small eyes glaring at the axe user called Agil, he shouted.
"If they had not left us behind, 2000 people would not have died! However, they were not just any 2000 people, most of them were top ranks or veterans from other MMO's! If those shitty testers had properly shared information, items and money, then there would have been 10 times the people here... no, by now we would have broken through the 2nd or 3rd floor!!"
—300 of that 2000, are what you called 'shitty testers'!
I desperately kept myself from shouting that. I could not yet show a basis for the number 300, and it would be scary to be hanged; these trivial reasons held me back. On top of that, I also didn't think it would be smart to reveal my status as an original tester by objecting in this situation.
Right now, about four to five hundred remaining original testers were mixed haphazardly with new players. Level and equipment-wise, they could no longer be said to stand out. In this situation, if I revealed myself as an original tester, a dangerous witch hunt might arise, rather than improving player-to-player contact. At worst, the front line players, new beginners, and original testers would take sides and start a war. That had to be avoided at all costs. The reason being, in SAO, attacks on players were allowed in fields and dungeons, such as the «Outer Area»...
"That's what you say, Kibaou-san. I don't know about the money and items, but I believe you mentioned information?"
While I lowered my eyes miserably, Agil the axe warrior again responded in a rich baritone. From the huge pouch on his muscled, leather armor-covered waist, he took out a simple sheepskin-bound booklet. The cover had round ears and three whiskers stylized with a «Rat Mark».
"This guidebook, you got it too right. Freely distributed from the item shops in Horunka and Medai."
I involuntarily spluttered quietly. From the cover marking, this was Argo the Rat's merchandise, the «Strategy Guide by Area». It had detailed information on areas about monster appearance, drop items, and even quest-related explanations. On the bottom of the cover was written, [It's fine. This is Argo's strategy guide.] That slogan was no exaggeration. A bit embarrassing, but I bought the whole set to supplement my memory —then, if I remember correctly, each book should be 500 col, a pretty respectable price...
"...I got it too."
Beside me, the up-until-now silent rapier user whispered. I inquired with "For free?" and she nodded.
"There's a commission to the item shop owner, but since the price is 0 col, everyone got it. It soon came in handy."
"Wh...What's going on..."
That «Rat» —she was such a devilish merchant that she would sell her own stats if that would make money. But, freely distribute information? It wasn't possible! I shifted my gaze; the stone wall Argo was quietly sitting on a few minutes earlier was empty. The next time I met her, I wanted to ask for the reason why, but somehow I could already see her answer: "That information is 1000 col".
"—Got it. What about it?"
Kibaou's sharp voice interrupted my thought process. Agil put his strategy guide back in his pouch, and said with arms crossed.
"This guide, whenever I reach a new village or town, is always found in the item shop. It's the same for you right. The information comes too soon, don't you think?"
"So what if it's too soon!?"
"The ones who provided the information on monsters and map data in this, cannot be anyone other than the original beta testers."
All the players went abuzz. Kibaou closed his mouth sharply, and the knight Diabel behind him nodded in an 'I see' way.
Once all eyes were again directed on Agil, who spoke with his far-carrying baritone.
"You see, there is information. And even still, many players died. That reason is because they were veteran MMO players, I think. They found SAO similar to other titles, but missed a key difference. However, now is not the time to hunt down who is responsible for those casualties. Whether we become a casualty or not, and how that influences this meeting, is what I think."
The two-handed axe user Agil possessed a very imposing countenance, and his argument was also extremely straightforward, so that Kibaou could only stand in the shadows in silence. If anyone else other than Agil claimed the same thing, then Kibaou would probably counter with 'Saying that means you are an original beta tester', I think. But, as it was now, all he could do was glare at the giant with hatred.
Behind the two silently confronting each other, Diabel, still standing on the fountain's edge, his long hair dyed purple from the evening sun, waved as he nodded once more.
"Kibaou-san, I can understand your point. I, too, went into unknown territories, and finally arrived here after many near deaths. But, as this Agil-san said, isn't it now time to look forward? Even original beta testers... no, especially original testers, we need their fighting strength for this boss strategy. If we removed them, and that resulted in the attack failing, what would be the point?"
He truly was the knight he proclaimed himself to be! I reminisced. He too had given an inspiring speech; many in the audience deeply nodded. I felt the atmosphere change from 'condemning original testers', and I involuntarily breathed a sigh of relief, though I realized it was shameful of me, then listened to Diabel continue.
"Everyone, you each have your own preferences, but right now, I would like for you to cooperate to break through the first floor. If there are people who will not fight alongside original testers under any circumstance, then it is unfortunate, but you are free to leave. For a boss fight, teamwork is essential."
The knight's gaze swept across everyone, and finally stopped at Kibaou. The cactus head swordsman made a huge snort then spat out these words.
"...Fine, I will listen to you for now. But I want it to be clear, black and white, only up until the boss fight is finished."
With his scale mail clinking, Kibaou retreated from the front of the group. The axe user Agil, too, spread his arms, showing that he had nothing more to say and returned to his previous place.
In the end, that was the highlight of this first meeting. Because, even if we wanted to discuss the details of boss strategy, we had only just arrived at the top floor of the maze. In a situation where no one had seen the boss's face, a strategy could not be made...
—No, the truth was slightly different. Because I knew that Aincrad's first floor boss was a gigantic Kobold, its weapon was a huge Talwar, and once engaged, 12 heavily armored royal guards would spawn.
On one hand, if I revealed my original tester status and provided information on the boss, our chance of success might increase slightly. However, then they could ask 'Why did you remain silent until now', and there was a chance the 'hang the original testers' atmosphere would reappear.
Also, my knowledge was from the old Aincrad. When the official service began, there was a chance that the boss might be completely, or just in some small detail, changed. If we based our strategy on information from the beta, then when we actually fight the boss, if its appearance or attack pattern were different... or if something unexpected happened, then the raiders could be annihilated in the confusion. Ultimately, until the boss room door was opened and its inhabitant appeared, nothing could be assumed.
Half of my reasoning was to convince myself, as I continued to keep my mouth shut.
At the end of the meeting, the knight Diabel raised his straight forward voice, and let out a great yell towards the participants. I just raised my right hand for show. As for the rapier user beside me, she did not even move her hand from her cape, let alone give a shout. Even before the word "Dismissed" dissipated, she had already turned around. Before she left, only I heard her low whisper.
"Before the meeting, you said something... if we both live through the boss fight, tell me what you said."
To the back disappearing into the dim road, I silently answered.
—Sure, at that time, I will tell you. That for my own survival, I threw away everything else.
Although the meeting lacked any real discussion, it seemed to have boosted the players' morale, and the 20th floor of the first floor maze was mapped with unprecedented speed. The afternoon of the day after the meeting —Saturday, December 3rd— the first party (Diabel's party of six again), discovered huge double doors deep within the maze. The sound of their cheers reached me as I fought solo nearby.
Diabel's group boldly opened the boss room door, and saw the inhabitant's face. On the evening of that day, at another meeting in Tolbana's fountain plaza, the blue hair knight reported back.
The boss was a huge Kobold, 2 meters in height. Its name was «Illfang the Kobold Lord», and its weapon was of the scimitar category. Once engaged in combat, three metal-armored, halberd-wielding «Ruin Kobold Sentinels» would appear—
The information up until that point was exactly as it was in the beta. If I remember correctly, the «Sentinels» would reappear when the boss lost one of its four HP bars, totalling 12 «Sentinels» that had to be eliminated. But - as usual, I did not have the courage to say this at the meeting. In any case, the final fight would not occur any time soon, and with several scouting fights this will soon become known information — that's what I wanted to tell myself, but something that proved my worries worthless was discovered in the middle of the meeting.
At the open air NPC stall shop near the plaza, an item was for sale since who knew when. «The item» was composed of three pages bound by sheep skin; it was more a pamphlet than a book, titled 'Argo's Strategy Guide: First Floor Boss edition'. The price was 0 col from the start.
Of course, the meeting was paused for a while as everyone purchased (or more like took) a guide from the NPC, and began reading.
As usual, there was an impressive amount of information. From the recently known name of the boss to its estimated HP, to its main weapon the Talwar and its attack speed and damage, to the boss's sword skills, this information comprised three pages. The fourth page contained information on the «Sentinels»; there it was clearly written that they would POP four times, to 12 total.
Also on the cover of the guide, a line in a bright red font that had not been on any previous «Argo Strategy Guide» until now, said—
[This information is from the time of the SAO beta test. It is possible the current version may be different.]
Reading this, I reflexively raised my head, and looked around the plaza for Argo. However, I could not find the «Rat» in dull leather armor. I lowered my head again, and murmured.
This red warning line might have destroyed Argo's current status —«Just an informant selling information obtained from beta testers no one knew». Almost everyone reading this, would begin to wonder whether Argo herself was an original tester or not. Of course there was no proof, but later, if the feud between new players and original testers expanded to more than it was now, there was no doubt the danger of her being hanged would increase.
On the other hand, thanks to this strategy guide, some troublesome and dangerous scouting battles would surely be avoided. Like yesterday, the forty people who read the guide looked to the blue-haired knight standing on the fountain's edge as if to let their leader decide how they should react.
Diabel seemed to lower his head in deep thought for tens of seconds, and then eventually stood up straight and shouted.
"—Everyone, right now, let's be thankful for this information!"
The audience was immersed in a buzz. That speech, instead of choosing confrontation with the original testers, chose reconciliation. I thought Kibaou would again jump out growling, but the brown cactus head near the front of the crowd was standing still now.
"Aside from the source, thanks to this guide, we can skip two or three days of scouting battles. Indeed, I think this is very helpful. Because, the most deaths would likely result from scouting battles."
Here and there in the plaza, different colored heads nodded.
"...If this is true, the boss's numerical stats are not all that bad. If SAO was a normal MMO, then with everyone over an average of level three... no, level five, should be ample to kill it, I think. So, if we polish our tactics correctly, bring a lot of POTs to the fight, it's possible we can defeat it without any deaths. No, sorry, not even that. Absolutely, zero deaths. That, I promise you in the name of the knight!"
Loud clapping continued as 'Yo, knight-sama!' and other cheers filled the air. Diabel was someone with good leadership, even this soloist had to accept this. Guilds could not be made until the third floor, but at that time an impressive conquest guild would probably be made...
I was feeling various degrees of admiration, but as the knight continued speaking, I choked slightly.
"—Then, it's a bit fast, but I am thinking of starting the actual strategy meeting right now! Anyway, if we don't make a raid party, we cannot split up our duties. Everyone, first make a party with your friends or the people near you!"
...What did he say?
With a freeze which reminded me of elementary school gym classes, I hurriedly calculated in my head. In SAO, one party was 6 people, there are 44 people here so... 7 parties plus 2 people left over. If the aim was to be even, then four 6-person parties and four 5-person parties might be best? But in that case, without the leader's order it wouldn't be that easy...
Despite my meandering high speed thoughts, the result made it useless. Because, in under one minute after Diabel's directive, seven 6-person parties were quickly formed. They understood the knight wanted to make 6 person parties. The no-matter-how-you-look-he-is-a lone wolf Kibaou, and the lofty-looking giant Agil too soon found 5 friends. Maybe the only person who didn't say 'Let's fight together' was me—
No, that wasn't right.
When I glanced around, I discovered the hooded cape rapier user standing around by herself, and I quickly approached her.
"...You got left out, too?"
To my quiet inquiry, a hot, angry glare came from her hood, and at the same time a suppressed voice replied.
"...Not left out. The people around me seemed to be friends, so I refrained."
That was what left out meant—
I wanted to correct her, but was wise with prudence, and instead just nodded seriously and said.
"Then, how about forming a party with me? A raid is up to eight parties; if we don't do that then we cannot join."
It seemed going about it in a systematic way was correct, as the rapier user seemed to hesitate only for a moment, before she scoffed and said.
"Since you invited me, I will have to accept."
Here, she gave me a 'you asked first so you invite' juvenile expression, which I had graduated from the previous month. So, I nodded and touched her color cursor in my view to send the party invitation. The rapier user pushed OK with a curt gesture, and then in the left side of my view, a second small HP gauge appeared.
Under it displayed a short combination of letters, which I gazed at.
[ASUNA]. That, was the name of the mysterious fencer who possessed the godly fast «Linear».
The knight Diabel's leadership, not just with speech, was also pretty good in the finer details, as well.
He checked over the seven 6-person parties, and with the smallest number of switches, formed seven specialized parties. Two heavy armor Tank parties. Three high movement, high attack Assault parties. Two long weapons Support parties.
The two Tank parties would maintain and exchange the burden of being targeted by the boss. Two Assault parties would concentrate on the boss, while the third one would kill the sentinels first. The support parties, mostly using long weapons, would primarily use the Delay skill, to interrupt either the boss's or guards' attacks when possible.
Although simple, this plan didn't have many holes, and I thought it was a sound strategy. While I was lost in admiration, the knight came at last to the good-for-nothing two-person party (-of course, that's me and the rapier user). After thinking for a while, he said pleasantly.
"You two, make sure none of the Kobold Guards remain, and please support Group E."
In other words, 'Don't interfere with the boss fight and stay quietly at the back' was what I felt his words meant. Sensing the rapier user «Asuna» beside me preparing to protest, I stopped her with one hand and replied.
"Understood. That's an important role, leave it to us."
"Yes, I am counting on you."
With a white flash of his front teeth, the knight returned to the fountain. At that moment, close to my left ear, I heard a sharp voice.
"...What important duty. It would end up without a single attack on the boss."
"We can't do anything about it, we only have two people. There's not enough time for Switch and Pot rotation."
Hearing that questioning whisper, I once again thought. This rapier user, really left the Starting City as a beginner completely ignorant, and came all the way here by herself. With five non-enhanced rapiers bought from shop, and probably relying on just one sword skill «Linear»—
"...Later, I'll explain in detail. If we talk here it will never end."
'Never mind', I estimated this or something similar to be her over-50% chance response—
The rapier user remained silent for a few seconds, then lightly nodded.
The second boss strategy meeting was over after a short discussion between the group leaders. Each group was assigned a letter from A through G, and how the boss's col and item drops would be shared was established. The giant axe user Agil was Tank Group B leader, and Kibaou who had a burning enmity for original beta testers was Assault Group E leader. Since Group E was to kill the Kobold Guards, the rapier user and I, the remaining pair, would be assisting Kibaou. To tell the truth, that is one opponent I wouldn't want to be too close to, but he apparently didn't know that I was an original tester. On a side note, the «Rat» was not in the raid. Of course, I didn't mean to criticize her. With that «Strategy Guide», her duty was well fulfilled.
For distribution of drops, 'Col will be automatically divided evenly between the 44 raid members while each item will belong to the person who receives it' was the kind of simple rule to be employed. In recent MMO's, normally a system exists where a person who wants an item will perform a dice roll for it, but somehow, SAO used the previous era's method, as in dropping the item to a random player's storage, without anyone else knowing, either. Thus, if a «Boss-dropped item must be dice rolled» kind of rule were set, then the person with the actual item must announce it. Many times in the beta test I have experienced this, and it is a big test of willpower. In reality, after a boss fight no one will say anything (in other words, someone kept the drop), so there were many rather awkward raid disbands.
Diabel, probably to prevent this kind of development, used the «Drop to person» rule. What a perceptive knight.
At 5:30pm in the afternoon, similar messages to yesterday completed the meeting 'Let's work hard!' and 'Yea—!', then the groups split into threes and fives, disappearing inside bars and restaurants. While moving my tense shoulders, I wonder if this stiffness was an illusion, or if my real body were actually tense, it would not matter—
"...So, the explanation, where shall we do it?"
...'What did you say', I was confused for a moment, then I hurriedly faced the rapier user.
"Ah, ah... Anywhere is fine. How about that bar?"
"...No. I don't want to be seen."
That speech almost pierced me, but then I supplemented it with not «together with any male player» instead of not «together with me» and revived my spirits, I somehow managed to calmly nod.
"Then, how about an NPC house... but, someone might enter. An inn room can be locked, but that's no good either right."
A dagger-like cutting voice, this time I sustained a light piercing damage. Since this is a virtual world, I could somehow manage to talk to female players, but until one month ago, I was a 2nd year middle school student whose interpersonal skill was so low that I even had difficulty talking with my sister. Anyways, of all the solo players, how did only I end up in this kind of situation. That was because nothing could be done without joining the boss fighting group, thinking about it, all other seven parties are male groups, if I had joined those then it would be over without so much bother...
While I was thinking about these things, the rapier user sighed and continued.
"...Anyway, most of the private rooms at inns in this world cannot even be called a room. A space less than six tatami mats with only a bed and table, that costs 100 col a night. Eating doesn't really matter, but I want sleep to be heartfelt, and to sleep in a slightly better room."
I unconsciously leaned forward.
"If you search for it, you can find better housing right? Though it will cost a bit more..."
"You say 'search,' but there are only three inns in this town. The rooms are all similar."
Hearing that reply, I finally understood.
"Ah... I see. You only checked places with [INN] signboards?"
"Yes, since... INN means inn."
"True, at lower floors in this world, it means the cheapest place where you can sleep. But besides inns, there are plenty of other rooms that you can rent with col."
At that point, the rapier user's lips became round.
"Wh... You should have said that earlier..."
After finally getting this kind of response, I grinned and started bragging about my current rental room.
"In this town I rented a farmer's 2nd floor for 120 col a night; it has two rooms with a large bed and nice views. You get all the milk you can drink, and on top of that there is also a bathroom attached..."
I had gotten carried away talking, but suddenly...
The rapier user's right hand that moved with godly speed while performing the «Linear» that I saw in the dungeon, grabbed my grey coat's collar with force just shy of triggering the Violence Prevention Code. Then a low husky voice barked out forcefully.
"...What did you say?"
The following words had all once been said by herself: Regarding all the events of this world, there is only one that is true, and that is "sleep".
And this is what Asuna thought.
Everything else was virtual – walking, running, talking, eating, and fighting, it would not be a lie to say that all these actions were nothing but numbers spewed out from Sword Art Online's algorithms. No matter what the virtual body did, the body in the real world that was lying down somewhere would not move an inch. The only exception was, when the virtual body laid down on a bed and entered the world of dreams -the real body's brain probably did the same. So when sleeping at inns in urban areas, it was necessary to let the self fall into a state of sleep -although this could sometimes prove a difficult task.
In areas with monsters or within the dungeon areas, the mind and body would be caught in the heat of battle, so there would be no time at all to sit back and reflect. But the moment she returned to the settlements and laid down on the bed of an inn's rented single room, everything that had happened during the past month would replay itself in her mind. Why? ...she painfully asked herself... at that time, why was it that she was not satisfied after touching the Nerve Gear? Why did she have to take the GEAR helmet, place it over her head and say "Link Start"—
Taking this kind of regret with her into sleep was no doubt a recipe for nightmares. At a time when her classmates would half-joke about the importance of the winter of third year in junior high, she who had been ever running forward was suddenly stopped in her tracks by a game. In the next several years, her relatives would pity this girl that had retreated from the race of life. And —staring at her sleeping body in some hospital, with expressions that she could not see, were her parents.
With a trembling body, she suddenly sat up, looking at the time displayed in the lower left corner of her vision. Even though a long time had passed, the actual amount of time she had slept was less than three hours. After that, though she had kept her eyes shut, she simply could not fall asleep. Then again, if she hadn't slept so little every night, there would have been no way for her to fiercely fight for three days continuously in the dungeons.
Because of all this, Asuna had always wanted to spend the money she saved up on a high-class bedroom with a comfortable bed. The rooms in the inns were all narrow and dark, with beds made out of unknown materials that were too hard to sleep on. If they were even plain old cotton then surely three hours could be achieved or perhaps four hours if highly supple high-tech urethane foam made in Italy was present. Another thing was that there should be enough space for a bathroom or at the very least for a shower to be included. Even though bathing is nothing more than a virtual experience and the body in the real world would have been kept cleansed by the hospitals, this was a matter of taste. Having nearly died from losing consciousness while fighting solo on the lowest floor, even if it would only be virtual, she really wanted to dip her feet into some warm water...
—It was because of these desires gaining intensity, that Asuna said the following words to the black haired one-handed sword user.
"...............What did you say?"
Asuna asked with a hoarse voice, while unconsciously grabbing the other party's collar. What she heard just now couldn't just be an auditory hallucination, right? The swordsman really said...
"Th—There's milk for drinking......?"
"Fr—From the bed, you can see the beautiful landscape......?"
"After that still!"
"Th—There's a bathroom......?"
—Seems like it wasn't just an auditory hallucination after all. Asuna let go of his collar, hurriedly asking:
"You said that your room, to stay one night is 120 col?"
"Yes...Yes, I did say that."
"That room, how many of those are still available? What's the location? I want to rent one, too; please show me the way to it."
The swordsman finally realized the situation. He coughed once, put on a solemn face, and said:
"Just now, didn't I just say that I rented the second floor of a farmer's house?"
"......You did say that."
"I meant that I rented out the entire second floor. There is no unused room. Incidentally, there are no rooms for rent on the first floor."
In that moment, her knees became weak and she was just barely able to stand.
"...............that, that room........."
Though she only said that, the other party was probably aware of what was omitted. His black eyes flitted about, and with an apologetic expression he said:
"About that, actually, I am already very satisfied with my week living in that room, so I would not mind giving it to you....In fact, I have already paid the rental system for the maximum number of days...ten days' worth of rent. So, there's no way to cancel it."
Asuna struggled to stay upright, seemingly conflicted about what to do.
In addition to the inns, there are other places to rent a room, and even luxurious rooms too. That is what the swordsman had just told her. If it's like that, then as long as she put in the effort to search, maybe there were still available rooms in Tolbana village that she could find. But within this single village, dozens of top players had already gathered here to party up for clearing the floor. The good rooms were probably all taken, and that was precisely why this black hair swordsman had paid rent for the maximum number of days.
If that were the case, then what if she just went to the previous village? But, after sunset there would be aggressive and strong monsters roaming about, and tomorrow morning she had to meet with the clearing group on time at the fountain square. Even though she had little interest in this boss clearing group, it was simply not in her character to disregard her duty and arrive late —for so trivial a reason, no less.
So then, there was only one option left.
For a few seconds, Asuna felt her heart tangling itself up. If this were the real world, even if the sky and earth turned upside down she would not do such a thing. But, this was merely a virtual world made of numbers and data, and her body was also no different. Besides, the person in front of her eyes could not be considered a complete stranger anymore. They had eaten bread together, and have formed a party together for the boss fight, and, that's right, this man had also promised to instruct her about that quest. If she wanted to listen to him, then that should be a proper excuse... she definitely could. Probably.
She looked at the swordsman who had remained anxiously attentive, then suddenly lowered her head —using a voice that could only be heard by his ears, and said:
".........let me go to where you live. And your bathroom, let me borrow it."
The farmer's house that the black hair swordsman had rented was near a small pasture in the eastern part of Tolbana. It was larger than she had expected. If she included the section for the ox-carts in her calculations, the place would be about as large as Asuna's house in the real world.
Hidden beside the residence was a beautiful stream, and it would flow through the waterwheel making *pitter-patter* sounds. Arriving at the porch of the main two-story building, where the NPC farm family was living on the first floor, at the hallway Asuna was greeted by the smiling face of the mistress. The old woman who was sleeping as she sat on a rocking chair near the fireplace then suddenly raised her head. A gold «!» symbol ―― A quest starting mark indication ―― floated overhead, but she ignored it for now.
Asuna followed the swordsman up to the second floor, where there was but one door at the end of the short corridor. The swordsman touched the door and, automatically, there was a sound of a lock opening. Had it been Asuna who touched it, this door would definitely not have unlocked. It was impossible to unlock rooms rented out to players even if someone had the «Lock Picking» skill.
"......W..Well, please come in."
The swordsman pushed open the door, and made an awkward welcoming gesture.
Expressing her gratitude in a low voice, Asuna then entered the room ―― and at that moment, she cried out unintentionally.
"W..What is this? So large............ T..This and my room is only twenty col difference!? I..Isn't it too cheap............?"
"Being able to find a room like this quickly is an important skill not included in the system. ......Well, for my situation......"
Asuna glanced at the swordsman who awkwardly cut off his words before slightly shaking his head. She then looked inside the room again and let out a big sigh.
The room was at least twenty-tatami. The door to the bedroom could be seen on the east wall, and that room was certainly about the same size. Then the western wall had the door with a [Bathroom] plate on it. Asuna could feel a magnetism from those exotic font characters. Taking advantage of the relaxed atmosphere, the swordsman quickly unequipped his sword, gloves, and boots, and submerged his body into the soft looking sofa.
After watching Asuna, who was lost in thought for a while, the swordsman cleared this throat and said,
"Erm, well, you probably can tell just by looking, the bathroom is there...... F..Feel free to use it."
Asuna couldn't believe that she would suddenly rush into the bathroom right after entering someone else's room, but now was not the time to be reserved either. "Well, then...", she muttered while she moved to the door, and the swordsman's voice followed,
"Oh yes, I need to tell you just in case, it won't be the same as bathing in the real world. Nerve Gear is inadequate at recreating a liquid environment...... So, don't set your expectations too high."
"......Just hot water is sufficient, I don't expect any more than that."
Responding with all sincerity, Asuna opened the bathroom door.
......In addition to the hot water, another feature of the bathroom was the lack of any lock.
As she stared at the closed door, the thought in the back of her mind was that in spite of this, she wasn't too concerned. She couldn't find any kind of notch or button in the vicinity of the door knob, and even after tapping with her fingertips just in case, the menu to operate the room could not be called. This must be because this room was not rented by Asuna.
That said, the presence or absence of one key was merely a trifle in this situation... After all, she had stormed into the room belonging to a man she just met yesterday because he had said he'd lend a bath to her. The dark haired one-handed swordsman —— come to think of it, she still didn't know his name, and his age and character were also unknown —— shouldn't be the type to suddenly break into the bathroom ...probably. Well, even if he rushed in, as this was within the «City boundary», the «Crime Prevention Code» would activate, so he wouldn't be able to do anything anyway.
Concluding these thoughts, Asuna turned away from the door, facing south.
She involuntarily let out a soft moan.
This room was also spacious. In the dressing area a thick carpet was laid, with the northern half of the room having solid wooden shelves built into the wall, and the southern half being tiled in a polished stone. The majority of the tiled area was occupied by a large white bathtub in the shape of a ship.
High on the western brick wall was a hot water spout in the shape of a gargoyles's head, and from its mouth cascaded large quantities of clear liquid into the bathtub. The bathtub filled to the brim with water steaming pure white that flowed over the edges and raced across the tiled floor to a drain in the corner.
——based on common sense, this bathroom's architecture should be modelled after that of a manor house in Medieval Europe, factoring in such large scale hot water supply facilities But Asuna didn't have the heart to complain about incomplete research in the virtual world. She brought up the Main Menu window and moved to the display on right side of the screen's «Equipment Figure» and pressed the button to unequip all her armor and weapons.
The hooded cloak which had suffered much up until now, the bronze armor covering her chest, both her gauntlets and long boots, and the rapier hanging at her waist, all disappeared. Long, straight chestnut hair flowed behind her. The only clothes that remained were a short-sleeve cotton tunic and some tight leather pants. The unequip button now displayed «Remove all clothing», and she pressed it again. The tunic and pants disappeared, leaving only two simple pieces of cotton underwear.
Asuna glanced at the door again, then pressed the button that had become «Remove all underwear». With these three operations, the virtual body became completely naked. A virtual sense of cold brushed across her skin. In the oddly named Aincrad, the seasonal changes were synchronized with reality, and because the real world was currently in early December, it was fairly cold indoors.
Hurriedly rushing across the bathroom, she reached the ceramic bathtub, and submerged her left leg into the hot water, causing complicated sensory signals to be generated in her brain. Withstanding the urge to splash her whole body with water, she first put her head under the shower of water from the mouth of the gargoyles's head, and as the sensation of warmth enveloped her body, the difference in temperature from the surrounding air faded away――
She now allowed herself to fall backwards until she became fully submerged.
Asuna couldn't help but let out another low moan.
Indeed, just as the black haired swordsman had said, the sensation of bathing in the real world could not be reproduced. The feeling of hot water on the skin, the pressure of the water against the body, and the light reflecting off the water's surface were all subtly different and left a feeling of incongruity.
To an extent, it was the same with eating, but she no longer cared since the differences were trivial and she was satisfied by the «sensation of bathing». Just close your eyes and stretch your arms out -this is a bath! Moreover, the luxurious hot water continued to flow into the nearly two meter long deluxe edition bathtub she was in.
With her eyes closed, and fully immersed in the water up to her mouth, her whole body was extraordinarily relaxed and she started to think.
————Right now, it's fine even if I die. I have nothing more to regret.
A thought had been nagging her since she had left the Starting City two weeks ago. Clearing this death game was an impossible task; thus, all of the ten thousand people imprisoned would eventually die. It was just a matter of sooner or later, so everything in this false virtual world was meaningless. Better yet, rather than continually progressing forward, it would be better to just cease and die.
Looking back on the «strategy meeting» that was held yesterday and today, Asuna was fairly indifferent. She didn't care who the beta testers (which she still didn't know the meaning of) were or how the items were to be distributed. Tomorrow was Sunday, the day they were going to challenge the greatest obstacle on Aincrad's first floor which had so far swallowed two thousand people. Relying on a mere forty experienced people to clear the first challenge should not be possible, so there was a high chance of total annihilation, and even if it did not go that far, defeat was inevitable.
Asuna's daily behavior over time had deviated greatly from her norm until she had desperately wanted a bath, culminating in a «I want to do it once before I die» feeling. Now that it had come true, she felt that should she disappear from this world in the boss battle tomorrow, she would have no more regrets.........
————That cream covered black bread.
————Before I die, I want to eat it once again.
This desire welling up from within her chest confused Asuna again. She opened her eyes, and stirred her body in the heated water.
The taste was indeed pretty good. But it had an outright virtual feel to it. The appearance was of polygons. The taste signals were also preset. For that matter, this bath was the same. What appeared to be hot water, was no more than a boundary made of mathematical formula which set its transmittance and reflectance. The surrounding temperature enveloping the body was also merely electronic signals emitted from the Nerve Gear.
One month ago when she lived in the real world, did she have such a strong appetite? Did her past self also have such a strong urge to bathe?
Uninterested in eating, yet continuing to mechanically bring the courses of a meal composed of organic ingredients to her mouth in front of her parents, or in comparison, the virtual cream covered bread that made her salivate. Which one should be considered more «Real»............?
Struck with wonder that she now considered this a very important matter, Asuna inhaled softly...
I didn't know trying hard not to look at the bathroom door required such a high Will saving throw.
As my body sank deep into the sofa, I exerted all my mental energy trying to stay focussed on «Argo's Strategy Guide: First Floor Boss Edition» which I had obtained today. However, despite studying a few times what should have been easily legible words written in a simple font, the content still failed to reach my brain.
――Well, at least, this proves we are not in the real world.
If, for example, this was in my home in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture and by some chance there were a female classmate in the bathroom of my house, -even should my mother and sister be away- What would I do? Of course... -that was decided. I would step quietly from the front door, past the car to my beloved MTB which I would then ride full speed towards the Arakawa prefectural road No. 51.
Fortunately, the second floor of this farmhouse is situated in the outskirts of Tolbana on the first floor of the floating castle Aincrad, and I am the one-handed swordsman Kirito rather than a high schooler net game maniac. As an avatar in a virtual world, nothing would happen even if I saw the female fencer Asuna walk out of the bathroom. No, this might be an elaborate trap. If I went into the bathroom, she might check out my room, and then everything in my chests would disappear. However, the built in chest in the room only held low level monster drops, and I have no reason to go to the bathroom. I'll wait for her to come out, then say "Let's work hard tomorrow" and send her back. That's all.
Shaking my head, I returned my attention to the guidebook on the low table, but at that moment...
From the door ―― not the bathroom, but the one leading to the hallway outside ―― came a tap, tap-tap-tap noise.
The sound of knocking. But the one who knocked would not be the landlady. This rhythm was a signal that had been agreed upon between me and a certain someone.
Surprised, I trembled while getting up, and worriedly turned around to face the thick oak door ―― standing on the other side of which, should be Argo the Rat.
A quick escape out of the south window to the front yard, jump astride the donkey tied to the stable, and head full speed straight down the path through the forest in order to reach the labyrinth zone...
Unfortunately, this option that momentarily flitted through my mind was not something I could carry out. For one thing, in SAO, of the various ranch hand skills, using «mount» to ride is an extremely difficult skill to use. I hear that it apparently takes a lot of riding practice to become progressively skilled. At the moment though, filling a skill slot with such a hobby is not a luxury I can afford.
Getting off the sofa, I quickly stood up. I took a glance at the bathroom to check the situation. Currently, on the other side of the door, the rapier user Asuna-san must be praising the bath. If Argo found out, she would grab her notebook and add to it «Kirito is the type of man who would pull a woman he met for the first time into his room». If this information were distributed, my reputation as a solo player would be completely ruined.
Fortunately ―― It could be said that all doors in this world are perfectly soundproof. As far as I know, the only three sounds that could be transmitted past the door were ① A loud call «shout», ② knocking, ③ the sound of combat. The sounds of normal speech or the splashing of the bath couldn't be heard even if you pressed your ear against the door.
Therefore, even if I let her in, she shouldn't notice that the bathroom is occupied by Asuna. Once Argo comes in, if the rapier user walks out ―― I will definitely jump out of the window, and leave on a donkey.
Wanting this encounter to be over quickly, I walked to the hallway door and with grim determination opened it. On seeing the face of the person opposite, I exclaimed,
"How rare, for you to visit my room."
The phrase I had earlier prepared in my mind issued from my mouth. The face of the information seller «Argo the Rat» with her trademark whiskers twitched in a suspicious manner, but she immediately shrugged and replied,
"Yes. The client wants to hear your reply today."
Just like that, Argo walked into the room nonchalantly and sat down on the sofa I had just left. I seriously resisted looking at the bathroom and walked to the cabinet in a corner of the room, picked up the jar of fresh milk and poured out two cups, and brought them toward the sofa suite, placing them on the low table. The «Rat» raised an eyebrow, then laughed.
"Ki-bou sure is considerate. By any chance, did you put some sleeping drugs in it?"
"......That kind of thing would break the principles of most players, right? Besides, I couldn't do anything while you are asleep within the town boundary anyway."
At this, Argo clapped her hands. "That's true," she said, nodding. Lifting the glass, she drained its contents in one gulp.
"Thanks for the snack. This unlimited drink sure has a good taste. Why don't you bottle it up to sell to other players?"
"Unfortunately, after removing it from the farmhouse it will only last five minutes, then the remaining liquid becomes a gunky mess instead of disappearing..."
"Ho, I didn't know that. Looks like there's nothing scarier than free things."
......As she spoke, my heart cried, "'Hurry up and get to the point' If she discovers this room's secret, what's to be done!" I put on an innocent expression, picked up «Argo's Strategy Guide: First Floor Boss edition», and lightly tapped it.
"Speaking of free things... I've always bought this item for five hundred col. Yet at yesterday's meeting, I heard from the axe user Agil that these books are distributed for free."
Hearing my slightly resentful tone, the rat laughed with a "nishishi".
"This, the one I sold to Ki-bou and all the other front runners is the published first edition. The second edition is distributed for free. But don't worry, only the published version has Argo-sama's autograph."
"............I see, then in the future I won't buy it."
―This means that the free edition is Argo's way of taking responsibility as a beta tester. I want to hear more about this, but the word beta will never escape our lips as it is taboo between us. No. Since I didn't contribute earlier as a tester, I have no right to raise the subject.
The atmosphere became heavy. Argo swung her golden brown curly hair and changed the subject.
"Well, I guess it's time to get to the main topic"
Silently screaming 'Go ahead-go ahead-go ahead!', I nodded gently.
"Maa, This time the client is feeling lucky and thoughtful. The subject is Ki-bou's sword......If you want to sell it today, the client will buy it for thirty-nine thousand and eight hundred col."
Three nine eight? I nearly yelled out. After taking a breath and considering a few seconds, I opened my mouth.
"....I don't mean to insult you..... but, isn't that a scam or something? By no means is the sword worth forty thousand col. After all, the market price of an original «Anneal Blade» should be around fifteen thousand col, right? Add another twenty thousand col to that, and you can basically buy the materials and safely enhance it to +6. Although it might take some time, thirty five thousand can be used to make a sword comparable to mine."
"I, too, have already told the client that thrice."
Shrugging and spreading her arms, Argo had a rare "I don't get it" expression on her face.
As I crossed my arms and leaned back against the sofa, the whole ordeal with the bathroom and all, momentarily left my mind. In this matter, I'm absolutely against diminishing my assets. But, to let this mystery go felt more distasteful. Having decided, I faced Aincrad's best information provider.
"......Argo, I want to know the name of your client for one thousand five hundred col. Has the price increased, or do you need to check with the client?"
The rat nodded, opened her window, and typed rapidly before sending the instant message.
After a minute, a side of her eyebrows twitched reflexively as she read the reply, then she shrugged.
"So, you are willing to pay then?"
I no longer cared; opening my window in that state of mind, one thousand five hundred col materialized. I placed the six coins that represented it in front of Argo.
Pinching them casually with her fingertips, the rat playfully deposited the coins one by one into her own inventory. "Indeed," she said, nodding.
"......Ki-bou, you already know his name. It's the guy that stood forward during the chaos at yesterday's meeting"
"..................Could it be.................. Kibaou? "
Hearing my whisper, the rat nodded.
――Kibaou. The person who started hostilities against beta testers in that meeting. That guy, wants to buy my sword for forty thousand col?
Indeed, that guy had a weapon similar to mine on his back, also using the «One-Handed Longsword». Yesterday should have been the first time we met. Argo, however, said the deal was first offered a week ago......
Discovering his identity with fifteen hundred col merely made me more confused. Argo, on the sofa, faced the brooding me and prompted,
"......Seems that this time, the sword deal is off?"
Of course, regardless of the price, I didn't want to sell my beloved sword in the first place. I half nodded, and the rat quietly stood up.
"Well then, excuse me for bothering you. I hope that strategy guide will be of use to you."
"Before I leave, I'd like to borrow the next room. I want to equip my night clothes."
―If I recall, during yesterday's meeting I had the feeling that while Kibaou was out in front of everyone, his gaze had lingered on me for a moment. And that gaze wasn't because he suspected I was a beta tester, but to look at my sword......maybe? No, maybe both......
―Wait a minute―― What did Argo just say?
Thinking about Kibaou had completely occupied eighty percent of my mind; I looked up blankly.
In the corner of my eyes, I saw Argo turning the doorknob. And the door was neither the one leading to the corridor outside, nor my bedroom door to the east ―hanging from that door was a plate depicting the bathroom.
Stunned, I watched from the corners of my eyes, as the rat's petite figure slipped into the bathroom and disappeared.
Three seconds later――
A surprised voice,
An ear-splitting scream shook the entire room. Subsequently, flying out from that room, was not the player named Argo.
I have no memory of what happened after that.
Fourth December, Sunday, 10 a.m.
This Death Game started at one o'clock in the afternoon on a Sunday, on the sixth of November. In three hours, it will have been exactly four weeks since it began.
The first time I discovered the Logout button missing, I thought it was a fault of the system, and thought that if I waited long enough, I would be able to log out. Then, the faceless GM Kayaba Akihiko revealed the conditions in order to log out, which were to clear all hundred floors of Aincrad. I had expected that we would be imprisoned for roughly a hundred days, based on the calculation that we could clear an average of a floor per day.
But—— It has been four weeks since then, and we haven't even reached the second floor.
I could only laugh at myself for being too naive. Based on today's assault against the boss, we could estimate the time until our release. Forty-four players were now gathered at the Fountain Square in Tolbana. It could be considered to be the strongest fighting force we could have hoped for at this point. If by some chance, this raid party is wiped out; no, even with its partial destruction, rumor would quickly spread to the Starting City. The resignation that «SAO is impossible to clear» would spread throughout the first floor. Reorganizing a second force would take an impossibly long time —— or, it may prove impossible to face the boss a second time. Even if we wanted to increase our level in order to challenge the boss again, we had already reached the limit of efficiency to gain experience from the monsters of the the first floor.
Everything depended on whether the Boss Monster «Illfang the Kobold Lord»'s strength had changed from the Beta Test version. The Kobold King in my memories could easily be defeated by this number of people, with their current skill, level and equipment, and with zero deaths. That is of course if, in this scenario involving our lives for real, we can calmly maintain our cooperation until the end...
While my brain overheated from these thoughts, my attention was suddenly drawn to the player beside me as she took a short breath and gave a bitter smile.
The rapier user «Asuna» with her profile hidden by her hood, looked exactly like the first time I met her in the labyrinth area yesterday morning. Her appearance combined the fragility of a shooting star with the sharpness of live steel, and compared to her, I looked extremely dishevelled.
As I continued to study her, she suddenly turned and glared at me.
"............What are you looking at?"
This faint, but forceful whisper, caused me to shake my head. The reason for her bad mood since early this morning was, according to her, due to drinking from a pail of spoiled milk which I had offered to her -but I couldn't recall this myself.
I blurted out. Asuna gave me a look as sharp as the tip of her rapier before turning her back to me. Thinking on today's strategy meeting, I was sure everything would work out even with a party of two because as well as myself, she would be a great addition to the team, and while I was thinking on such things——
A gruff voice emanated from behind, so I turned around to face it.
Standing there, was a player with pointed, short brown hair styled somewhat like a cactus. I couldn't help but flinch. Today, despite being the day many players gathered, his was the one face I had least expected to see —— It was the one and only Kibaou.
Stunned, I looked up at Kibaou as he glared fiercely at me and brazenly said in a low voice,
"Listen here, today you should stay in the back. You guys are only here as support."
I may not be a smooth person, but knew that I should not react to him here. Just yesterday, I had rejected his forty thousand col offer, a lot of money. In addition, he had attempted to hide his name, so this situation was quite awkward to anyone with common sense. If the situation were reversed, I wouldn't want to approach him within a twenty meter radius.
Even so, Kibaou's attitude was so unpleasant that it withered my intention to say "of course". Those loathsome, distorted cheeks protruded forward as he spat and then said-
"Listen up! You guys should only take on the small fry kobold mobs that slip past my party as your enemy."
Kibaou spat out some more of his virtual spit onto the ground for emphasis, before turning around and leaving. I watched his back as he returned to the other members of the Group E party. As I continued to be astounded, I was suddenly startled by a voice emanating from right beside me.
"......What. Was that."
Of course, the «you guys» mentioned also included Asuna. To me, her look was about 30 percent more terrifying than the leer from just now.
"W-well ...... Maybe he doesn't want Solo players to be so cocky......"
I spoke without thinking too deeply, but suddenly a thought came, and I said to myself.
——Alternatively, as original beta testers you shouldn't get carried away...
If that was true, then based on his attitude, Kibaou had already determined that I was a beta tester. But —— what was his basis for this accusation? Even Argo the Rat would not sell any information on whether another player was an original tester. And up until now, I had never ever mentioned the word Beta to anyone.
Once again tormented by an unpleasant feeling similar to yesterday's, I kept my eyes on Kibaou's back.
Then, I realized something, which made me blurt out a sound.
Yesterday, that man offered me the large amount of money, forty thousand col, to buy my Anneal Blade +6. This is the only certain fact. Of course, it would be intended for use in the boss battle today. Aside from the matter of how he would suddenly be able to wave around such a heavy sword that had been enhanced by three extra points in «Durability», which increased the weight of the sword, he obviously wanted to get a powerful weapon on the battlefield in order to improve his influence and leadership abilities. This motive was unsurprising.
If that was the case, then by now, he should have spent his forty thousand col on upgrading his equipment.
Nevertheless, the scale mail Kibaou was wearing and the one-handed sword on his back were the same ones that he had equipped yesterday. Although not of poor quality, with forty thousand col, it should have been possible to upgrade the equipment to be more powerful, since there was enough time. In fact, the rapier at the waist of Asuna standing beside me, was upgraded from her store-bought «Iron rapier» to a «Wind fleuret +4» which had been obtained as a drop last night after following my advice. After all, today we may all die, so what's the point of keeping forty thousand col............
――However, at this point, my train of thoughts stalled.
Before I had realized it, the blue haired knight Diabel stood in front of the edge of the fountain, raising the familiar beautiful voice of his and said,
"Everyone, although it may be sudden ―― Thank you all, I am really grateful that all forty-four party members have gathered, without a single person missing."
After talking, a loud cheer of *OH* shook up the entire square. It was followed by a cascade of applause. I ceased my conjecture and raised my hands to clap.
After smiling at everyone, the knight pumped his right fist, and continued shouting loudly,
"Now, I want to mention I was actually thinking of aborting this mission if a single person didn't show up! But...... worry of this kind is an insult to everyone. I'm very happy that...... the best raid party...... well, even if the number of people isn't enough!"
A few people laughed and whistled, and some people pumped their right hands mimicking him.
I didn't want to find fault with Diabel's leadership. But, from my point of view, there was too much excitement. Excessive tension could lead to an insidious poison of fear, but over-excitement could also have adverse effects, like being careless. During the beta testing period, being defeated for being over-enthusiastic was like a joke, but here, failure could lead to the death of a player. In this situation, it would be a good thing for the players to be less excessively excited.
While I thought about these things, I looked at the other groups from behind. Group B's leader Agil, the two-handed axe wielder, and several other people all had stern expressions with their arms folded in front of them. At critical moments, they would be reliable. Kibaou of group E had his back to me, so I couldn't read his expression.
As everyone screamed and yelled, Diabel raised both hands to suppress the cheering.
"Everyone...... What I want to say now is this!"
His right hand moved to his left hip, and he drew his silvery sword with a ringing peal――
A loud cry rang out. It reminded me of four weeks ago, in the central square of the Starting City, when ten thousand players screamed.
The large group of people walked from the town of Tolbana to the labyrinth tower, and this scene seemed to trigger something in Asuna's memories. After a few minutes of thinking, she finally recalled it.
It was the school trip that she had been on in January of this year. The destination was Queensland, Australia. The students were traveling from a mid winter Tokyo to the Gold Coast at the height of summer. Their excitement was through the roof, and the revelry surrounded her wherever she went.
The similarities between these two situations was so great, that there was little difference between the atmosphere of walking under the foliage with these forty or so people, and when she had walked alongside her classmates at that time with the endless chatting and frequent outbursts of laughter. The only difference was, monsters would occasionally attack them from the forest. However, all the monsters that came close were instantly slain by the skills that everyone was bragging about.
Bringing up the rear was Asuna, who walked alongside the swordsman and, forgetting all about last night's incident, began to talk.
"Hey... You... before you came to this, errr...... MMO game? That's what they're called, right? Did you play any others"
"Emm...... ah, yes. And, yes I did."
The swordsman answered shyly, as his black hair swayed up and down.
"In other games, are there normally moments with this kind of feeling? How should I put it...... like going on a field trip......"
"......Ha ha, a field trip would be nice"
Giving a short laugh, the swordsman then shrugged.
"Unfortunately, the other games that I played didn't have this kind of mood. After all, those are games that don't use the FullDive technology, so it's necessary to use the mouse and keyboard to control the avatar's movements. Therefore, there's not much time to dedicate to the chat window."
"...Ah, I see......"
"Well, there are other games that include voice chat, but I haven't managed to play them yet."
Using a two dimensional monitor and a silent interface, it would be hard to actually immerse yourself within a game character and imagine yourself as a member of a group, Asuna thought, then said softly...
"......Now it's the real deal, I wonder what they are feeling?"
"Eh? Re-real deal?"
The swordsman gave her a questioning look, so Asuna tried to describe the image in her mind.
"So...... in a fantasy world of this kind... adventuring as part of a group of swordsmen and magicians, on our way to fight a terrible boss monster. During the journey, what do you speak about?...... or would you walk along silently? That kind of subject."
The swordsman remained oddly silent, and when she glanced at his expression, Asuna felt conscious that she had asked a childish question. Just as she reflexively turned away, and was about to say "I guess it doesn't matter,"
"Walking on the road leading either to death or glory, huh."
The quiet words reached her right ear.
"If we were to compare ourselves to people living a normal life... I think maybe it's like going together to a restaurant for dinner. I would join in if there is conversation, but otherwise I would stay quiet. And these boss challenges as well, I think they will eventually become like that. If possible, I would like to challenge a boss every day."
"...... hu hu, hu"
The swordsman's straightforward words were amusing to Asuna, who gave off a small laugh. She explained immediately, almost as an excuse.
"I'm sorry for laughing, but...... this is really strange. This world is the ultimate form of non-daily life, but you want this activity to be our daily routine."
"Ha ha...... I guess that's true."
The swordsman laughed in the same way, then quietly replied,
"However, it took four weeks to reach this point. Even if we beat the boss today, we still have another ninety-nine floors to go. I'm...... prepared to go for two, no, three years like this. If it goes on like this, even this non-daily event would become everyday."
Those words would have caused great shock and despair to the old Asuna. But now, she realized that it was just like dry wind blowing out of her bosom.
"......How strong. If it were me, I couldn't think like that. Thinking about living in this world for years...... dying in today's battle would be less scary to me."
The swordsman glanced at her for a moment after listening to her, then put his hands in his grey jacket pocket, and said in a subdued voice,
"If we can reach the higher floors, maybe there is an even better bath there."
She involuntarily responded, before realizing what she had just said. Feeling ashamed, she said in a low voice,
".....Remember this. Or you'll really end up drinking a barrel of spoiled milk."
"Then, the least we can do is to come back alive today."
After making that remark, the swordsman grinned and laughed.
11.00 a.m, we moved to the labyrinth.
12.30 p.m, we walked to the top floor.
So far, there were no deaths. I secretly patted myself on the chest. After all, a near forty-eight person «Full Raid» party marched, and for the majority of those here, this was their first time. In this world, «First» was an action that held the risk of accident and was dangerous, without exception.
In fact, there were three situations which were very frightening. The people wielding long weapons such as the «Spear» and «Halberd», mostly in the Groups F and G, were ambushed by the melee-type Kobolds along the road. In SAO, melee weapons will not harm players if they are swung by accident (of course, this is not equal to a criminal act), and sword skills that come into contact with an obstacle are cut short. Ranged weapons were already at high risk from this, and the melee ambush made the situation even worse.
In such a situation, the knight Diabel showed his ability to command precisely. As a leader of the forces, he made bold decisions, like staying to fight while ordering others to retreat, using heavy a amount of sword skills to knock back monsters, and switching between long and melee weapon-equipped members. These decisions could only be made if he was familiar with being a leader.
Because of these things, before departing as a solo player I had said "It's not too exciting" and was concerned about looking too arrogant. Diabel had his own philosophy about leadership, trusting him fully is every raid member's duty was the reason everyone reached this point.
――After recognizing this, two huge doors stood in front of our eyes, and those in the rear had to stand on tiptoe to look up at them.
On the surface of the grey stone, was a relief of a terrifying beast-headed monster. Speaking of Kobolds, in most other MMO games these mobs were usually the weakest of the weak, but in SAO this «Demi-Human» class of humanoid beings were formidable foes. They had the ability to wield weapons such as swords and axes, and could even use sword skills. Compared to normal attacks, these had much higher speed, power, and even had hit correction properties. If a player was caught in a vulnerable position, even its elementary skill could cause a critical hit, and reduce the HP gauge drastically. The rapier user Asuna beside me, reached the deepest part of the labyrinth using only «Linear», which proved the strength and terror of sword skills...
"......Can you listen for a while?"
I moved closer to Asuna, and whispered.
"Today, our opponents are the «Ruin Kobold Sentinels», and even though they aren't the boss, they're still strong enemies that spawn around it. Yesterday, I mentioned that a large portion of their head and body is covered and protected by metal armor. Your «Linear» won't be enough."
After listening, her gaze sharp under the hood, the fencer nodded.
"I understand. Just aim for the throat, right."
"Exactly. Just like they did after using «Pole Axe»'s sword skills, we'll have to immediately switch positions after I attack them to leave them open."
Nod, Asuna nodded before facing the gigantic doors, and I continued to look at her for a few more seconds.
Where and how you die, early or late is the only difference.
When we first met, she had told me that. I obviously couldn't let those words come true. Asuna's «Linear» demonstrated talent that she herself was unaware of. Of all the shooting stars, hers was one that didn't burn up in the atmosphere, withstanding the flames until it hit the ground.
If she could survive today's battle, Asuna would most definitely be known as one of the swiftest and most beautiful swordsmen in Aincrad. She would surely be a radiant shooting star, lustrously guiding those players held by fear and despair. I'm very convinced of this point. This responsibility, is a role an original beta tester like myself could never play due to the involved stigma.
Once I confirmed my determination and swallowed, I faced the large door. In front of us, Diabel had finished preparing the lineup of the seven parties.
Not even the knight dared to shout "Let's win!" in this place. This was because humanoid monsters would react to loud noises here.
Instead, Diabel lifted his silver long-sword up high, and gave a large nod. The forty-three raid members also raised their weapons and nodded in reply.
His long green hair fluttered as he turned around; the knight placed his left hand in the center of the large doors――
With a short cry, he pushed the doors open with all his might.
Was it this wide?
Looking at the first floor boss room for the first time in around four months, this was the initial impression that I had.
The room was vast. The rectangular room had a width from the left to the right wall of about twenty meters, and there was a distance of about one hundred meters from the entrance to the back. The size of the floor was roughly the same as the other 20 floors, and this room was the last one to be mapped. Therefore, its area could be estimated from the blank area on the map. However, seeing it with our eyes made it feel a lot larger than it actually was.
This room was spacious in order to contain the gigantic monsters here.
In Aincrad's boss room, the doors would not close even during battle against the boss. Therefore, even if the events took a turn for the worse and we were in danger of being annihilated, we had the option to retreat. However, if we turned and fled and the enemy's long ranged sword skill hit us, it might slow us down, «delay», or prevent us from moving, «stun». So, we would have to retreat while facing the boss. In that situation, the hundred meters needed to escape would feel infinitely long and could lead to a critical situation. Instantaneous teleportation was possible using a «Teleport Crystal»; however, it was expensive and obtainable only from the higher floors, which would make retreating from bosses on higher floors easier, but because it was so expensive, the player could be left with a near-empty wallet after such a retreat.
While I was contemplating such thoughts, the boss room sank into almost complete darkness. On the walls to the left and right of the room, *ping* *ping*, from the front of the room towards the back, «torches» were lit one by one. The crude torches noisily blazing to life.
As the sources of light were generated, the internal brightness «Gamma» also increased. The stone floor and walls were filled with cracks. Adorning the area, large and small skulls were scattered around. In the deepest part of the room stood a huge throne, upon which a rough silhouette of something large was seated.
The knight, Diabel, raised his long sword, and swung it down in front of him...
At his signal, the forty-four members of the boss monster hunting forces raised a battle cry as they rushed into the room like an avalanche.
The front row charged in first, led by Group A's leader equipped with an iron heater shield, and with his «Hammer» lifted up high. They were followed by Group B diagonally to their left, led by the Axe warrior Agil, and to their right, Diabel and his five friends made up Group C. Group D was led by a tall man wielding a Two-handed Long Sword, then behind these three groups were Group E, led by Kibaou, with the «Polearm» equipped Group F and Group G, running alongside them.
And still further behind them, were two extra people——
When the distance between Group A and the throne was about 20 meters, the gigantic silhouette which had not initially moved suddenly jumped fiercely into the air, somersaulting once before landing on the ground, causing the earth to rumble. After that, it opened its wolf-like jaws, and howled.
The demi-human King, «Illfang the Kobold Lord», looked exactly as I remembered. Its muscular body was over two meters tall, and covered in blue-gray fur. Its bloodthirsty eyes flashed a golden red. Its right hand wielded an axe made of bone, while its left had a Leather Buckler equipped. Behind its waist, a meter and a half long «Talwar» protruded.
The Kobold Lord raised the Bone Axe in its right hand up high, and forcefully struck at Group A's leader. The heater shield received the blow, causing a dazzling light effect and a loud sound to reverberate throughout the hall.
As if that sound were a cue, from various alcoves high up on the side walls, three heavily armed monsters jumped down. These were the guards, «Ruin Kobold Sentinel». Group E led by Kibaou, and the support Group G, quickly moved towards the three, locking onto their target. Asuna and I glanced at each other and dashed to the nearest Sentinel.
Thus, on the fourth of December at 2.40p.m, the first boss battle finally began.
«Illfang»'s HP gauge had four bars. During the first three bars, it would hold its Bone Axe in its right hand and its Leather Buckler in its left, but on the fourth, it would discard them and remove the Talwar from its waist. Its attack patterns would completely alter -as Argo's strategy guide had described. Then, after changing its weapons from the Bone Axe to the Talwar, our sword skills and tactics would have to change accordingly, just as we had discussed in the meeting yesterday.
While I fought against the «Sentinel» that had slipped past Group E and Group G, I looked out of the corner of my eyes at the front line, there was no sign of the line or tactics collapsing. The «Tank» forces and the «Attacker» forces calmly switched places for 'pot' rotation. The left edge of my sight displayed a small window of the raid party's average HP gauge, and it remained stable above 80 percent for all the parties.
As asked ―― I'll leave it up to them, and thus the battle continued.
It's not like that when playing solo, but now I prayed with all my strength for their success.
Able to rescue her from the labyrinth tower when she had been unconscious (through some unknown means), she thought the black-haired swordsman should be a considerably capable person.
However, after seeing his way of fighting, Asuna could tell that her assessment fell short.
No, the word strong did not adequately describe the feeling that pervaded while he was in battle. His power and speed seemed as if they transcended existing scales and took him into «Another dimension».
To Asuna, a beginner who had never played a net game or been in a FullDive environment before, she had difficulty putting her feelings into words. If she had to express them, it was a feeling that everything was optimized. His actions had no excess movements, hence he had a fast technique, and with his heavy sword he dealt deadly damage. The heavily armed Kobold's long axe attack was repelled upwards into the sky by his upward slash. "Switch," he called out as he retreated casually. In his place, Asuna quickly jumped in front of the Kobold, and while the Kobold was bent over from the recoil, she easily used «Linear» on its unprotected neck.
Asuna recalled the words that he had spoken the first time they met. 『Overkill has no demerit or penalty from the system, but it's bad for efficiency』, and she had answered with 『Is there any problem with it?』. At this moment, there would be a huge problem with it. If you could remove excess movement, the action became easier and you could thus widen the field of view. The «Sentinel» was much stronger in comparison with the «Trooper» she had fought back then, yet Asuna could see each move it made very clearly.
The Kobold's HP gauge had been reduced to a sliver from the attack on the vital part of the throat when Asuna launched «Linear». If it were the old Asuna, she would have waited to counterattack with another «Linear», but that was pointless «Overkill». Once the delay from the sword skill ended, Asuna once again jabbed the throat with minimal movement, and the Kobold's HP gauge emptied as its body burst into blue fragments and disintegrated.
Behind her, the black haired swordsman said softly. Even though she didn't know what it stood for, she replied with "You too!"
At that time, the first bar of the boss's HP gauge had disappeared. Diabel in the front row shouted "We're on the second bar!", as a few more «Sentinels» jumped from the holes in the wall.
Forgetting that they were the extra forces, Asuna and her nearby partner dashed towards the monsters. The sword in her right hand, despite only being used from yesterday, had already been assimilated and felt familiar in her palms. She felt that the response from the sword was clear when she fired off her techniques. From the leather wrapped hilt within her hand to the tip of her sharp, glittering blade, the sword felt like a part of her arm.
―― If this is the feeling of «to fight» then up until yesterday everything else felt like a false imitation.
――I’m sure, there will still be many battles «Ahead» of us. Dashing with this swordsman side-by-side on the long journey to our destination. And in this virtual illusion, although each action is artificial... but... but I’m sure, this feeling is real. With him looking forward, I also want to see that.
The monster's axe swung down, and the swordsman countered with a high blow. At the next instant, Asuna shouted "Switch" and jumped toward the enemy with her beloved sword.
The battle between the Kobold king with its guards and the forty-four players moved faster than I had expected.
Diabel and the rest of Group C had reduced the first HP gauge, Group D had removed the second layer, and now Group F and G had reduced its third layer by half. Until this point, Group A and B, the «Tank» teams, had their HP in the yellow «Half» region, but never entered the dangerous red region. There were also a few guards, which were left to Group E and the two of us to handle, we had performed so well that sometime in the midst of battle, Group G moved to support the main battlefield.
What was truly impressive was the intense fighting from the rapier user Asuna, and the «Linear» that had amazed me when we first met, with the stronger and sharper rapier, accurately pierced the Kobold guards' throats, their weak point. The time from the first motion of the skill until the damage occurred was just half that of the System Assist's on its own. Even I, who had been practicing deliberately boosting the sword skill since the beta testing period, was not confident that I could achieve those speeds.
She was just a beginner with only one skill. With increased knowledge and honed senses, just imagining what she would become made my spine tingle.
If this truly occurs, I'd like to see the progression by her side―― Was the thought that came to my mind, but I forced it back into my chest. One month ago I had selfishly decided to become a solo player, so I have no right to be together with other players. My first friend in this world was Klein, who should still be around the city we started in, carefully and safely levelling his friends......
As I looked on while recalling those unpleasant memories, Asuna had already struck down her second prey. Because the «Ruin Kobold Sentinel» only spawned here, it was considered a rare monster. Although it did not give as much experience and col as the boss, it still dropped an item. Only money was automatically distributed evenly in a raid, while the experience was split between those who defeated it, which were Asuna and me. The item drop had a higher probability of going to Asuna because her attack was the fatal strike.
So, this was the reason Group E's leader Kibaou, whose party was fighting similar Sentinels, gave that warning earlier. However, Asuna and I working together defeated our target much faster than the full six-member party of Group E. This way, even he couldn't complain――
While I was considering this, from the back came Kibaou's voice.
"I know what you're up to. Feels gooood."
"............What did you say?"
Not knowing what he meant, I turned around to ask that. As it was just before the spawning of the third wave of three Sentinels, and just after the other two had been defeated, this was an opportunity to talk. The cactus headed one-handed sword user frowned at me, raised his voice and spat,
"Don't pretend. I already know your motivations for slipping into this boss raid."
"My...... motivations? Aside from beating the boss, is there anything else?"
"What, I can be direct, right? I know exactly what you're aiming for!"
This conversation, seemed to be a lot of guesswork on his part. I was so frustrated I ground my teeth, before Kibaou finally said what he wanted to say...
"I've heard about you. In the past, you did a dishonourable act such as LA the boss. "
――――LA. It meant the final hit «Last Attack».
It was true that, in past battles against bosses, I had a good grasp of the boss's HP gauge in order to determine the best time to use my strongest sword skills. However, that was not in this world, but in another floating castle that existed for merely a single month ―― in the «Sword Art Online closed beta test».
Kibaou not only knew I was a beta tester, but knew my behaviour from back then. Wait a minute. This man just said "I heard it". In other words, it was based on rumour. But, who did he hear it from............
At that time, a second insight ran electrifyingly through my body.
Last week, Kibaou used the information provider Argo the Rat to attempt to buy my «Anneal Blade +6». Yesterday, he attempted to use forty thousand col to buy it. Even though I rejected his offer, he did not spend that money.
No. It was not that he did not spend it. In fact, he didn't have that kind of money in the first place.
It was not just Argo, Kibaou was also a mediator. The person who had forty thousand col was not him. If another person was put between that person and Argo, no matter how much I paid, I could not have found out who the original buyer was.
That mastermind, gave Kibaou the information on the original beta tester and stirred up trouble. If it is like this, that guy's aim was not to get the «Anneal Blade +6» for battle. No, improving his battle strength may still be a part of it, but he might have a larger goal in mind. To weaken me. With my attack weakened, it would interfere with my techniques, preventing me from getting the LA bonus on the boss ――
"............Kibaou. That guy who talked to you, how did he manage to gain information on me being a beta tester?"
"Straight to the point. He used ridiculously large amounts of money and bought the information from «the Rat». I joined the team to keep the hyena in check."
――――Liar. Argo, even if she would sell information on herself, would never sell information on other beta testers.
As I clenched my teeth, the front row gave a loud cheer. The boss's long HP gauge had finally reached the fourth and final layer.
My attention was drawn to the front lines. It looks like the third HP gauge was removed by the poleaxe weapons of Group F and G before they retreated. Instead of waiting for their full recovery, Group C rushed in to press the attack. The party leader was the commander of the raid itself, the blue haired knight Diabel. Even in the dim light of the dungeon, his blue hair glittered brilliantly.
«Illfang the Kobold Lord» gave out a loud roar. At the same time, the final wave of three «Ruin Kobold Sentinel» jumped out of their holes in the walls.
"…….More small fry Kob, this time I won't let even one go. I won't let you LA them."
His voice dripping with hatred, Kibaou returned to the midst of Group E.
While still not recovered from the unexpected shock and confusion, I reluctantly turned away and went to regroup with Asuna who was not far away.
"............What did you talk about?"
As she asked quietly, I just shook my head.
"No...... ―― first, let's defeat our opponents."
After our brief exchange, I picked up my sword and charged at a Sentinel.
At that moment――
Suddenly, I felt «something», so I quickly gazed at the main battlefield.
The Kobold king, with the bone axe in its right hand and the leather shield in its left, threw both down onto the ground simultaneously, gave another roar, brought its hand to the back of its waist, grasped the rag bound handle and pulled out the «Talwar».
During the beta testing period, I've seen this technique alteration many times. From here on, it would only use the sword skills from the curved blade category, going into a berserk rampage, becoming terribly wild, but dealing with it is now easier than before. It used a long-ranged longitudinal cut. As long as you grasped the timing of the skill when it was launched, even if you're near the boss you could avoid the edge of the weapon.
Under Diabel's command, the six people that formed Group C surrounded the boss. This was a formation that was not used while the boss still wielded the bone axe. Really, I didn't expect that reading the book beforehand allowed them to come up with such a precise and amazing formation. This was really a good decision. As long as the six could avoid the wild swings of the Talwar until the final blow............
From the back of my throat, that noise was subconsciously made.
The player X asking Kibaou to buy my sword for the large sum of forty thousand col, was to interfere with me performing LA on the Kobold king. I made this guess a while ago. Even though my sword had not been taken, the purpose of X has been achieved. As the raid's extra force, I could only deal with the Sentinels, so I couldn't even approach within ten meters of the boss.
However, if it is like this.
The identity of X, at this moment, is a player who is attempting to LA the boss ―― that should be correct right? After all, paying forty thousand gold is too large a sum of money just to hinder me, and being able to LA the boss should be more than enough to cover that expense.
In other words...... the player X manipulating Kibaou, is a person who was with me in the beta test, his name is..............
Asuna sharply said, instantly rousing me out of my thoughts. The Sentinel swung its halberd, and I subconsciously used the diagonally cutting sword skill «Slant», repelling his weapon with all my strength.
I shouted, then jumped backward, as Asuna went in front of the guard. I once again glanced at the battlefield twenty meters to my left.
After the motion during which the boss was almost invincible, the battle resumed. The first locked target was the blue haired knight, who had calmly avoided that first strike.
With his back facing me, I wondered to myself.
――Is it you?
――Diabel the knight, you are...... Is everything part of your plan..................?
Of course he didn't answer. Illfang roared and howled, then it slowly moved the blade in its right hand up high.............
Once again, my mind felt that «something» sensation.
Uncomfortable. Something is different. The boss monster and the Kobold king that I knew were not the same. It was not its color, nor its size. It was more than the looks and the sound. The source of discomfort, rather than its body...... it was the weapon in its right hand.
From where I was, only the silhouette of the sword was visible...... that blade, isn't it too thin? The gently curved blade was certainly similar to the one I was familiar with during the beta test period, but its width........ as well as its gleam, was different. It was not the rough texture of cast iron. It was forged, and its edges had the tint of steel. I have seen a weapon similar to that before......... it was used by a mob on the tenth floor of the old floating castle. Dressed in red armour, it was a very formidable foe during the beta testing period. The weapon could not be used by players, only by those in the monster category.................
My throat spasmed and made some noise. I forcefully sucked air into my lungs, and bellowed loudly.
"Thi...... this won't do, fall back!! Retreat quickly――――!!"
Unfortunately, my voice was drowned out by the sound effects of Illfang's sword skill.
The Kobold king's huge body shook the floor, as it jumped up high. It turned its body in mid-air, while accumulating power to its weapon. As it fell down, it used the accumulated power, releasing a crimson beam of light.
Plane of attack――horizontal. Angle of attack――three hundred and sixty degrees.
Sword skill for katanas, the heavy ranged attack "whirling wheel" «Tsumujiguruma».
Six vivid red light effects appeared, looking like pillars of blood.
The HP gauge that was displayed to the left in our field of vision showing Group C's average HP immediately dropped below fifty percent and into the yellow zone. Although you could expand the gauge with your fingertips in order to see the six individual HP gauges of each player, at the moment there was no point in doing it. Everyone in Group C obviously received equal amounts of damage.
It was a ranged attack with tremendous power and enough to take out more than half of the full HP, but that was not all. Yellow lights rotated around the heads of the six people that had collapsed on the floor, indicating that they were unable to move for a period time ―― this was the stun effect.
Of the large variety of bad status in SAO, being stunned wasn’t as scary as paralysis or blindness, as the effect lasted at most ten seconds. However, once the effect started, there was no way to recover from it. Therefore, if the front members were stunned, their friends must save them by diving in front without waiting for the switch, and must become the target to draw enemy fire ―― however.
Not a single person moved to help. Despite carefully planning for the fight during the meeting, followed by the march forward in a mood under the impression of an easy victory, the person everyone relied on, their leader Diabel, had been struck down in a single blow. For these reasons, aside from Group C, everyone was bound to the spot rigidly. After the strained silence, the Kobold Lord recovered from the long delay caused by using its skill.
As everyone recovered, I gave out a loud shout.
At the same time, in the front lines, the two handed axe user Agil and several of his subordinates moved in to support the others.
Unfortunately, it was too late.
The demi human roared, and the katana―― no, the nodachi in both its hands was lifted off the cut floor and raised up high. Sword skill Floating Boat «Ukifune». It was aimed for the Knight that had fallen right in front of it, Diabel. As if pulled by a red arc of light, the knight in silver armor was sent flying high up into the air. The damage wasn't much. However, the Kobold Lord's movement didn't stop there.
Using its large wolf-like mouth, it grinned and laughed ferociously.
The nodachi was once again wrapped in a red light effect. «Ukifune» was merely the start of the combo. If you were hit by this while in the air, it was useless to struggle, you could only defend by curling up. However, it was impossible for a person who was dealing with this situation for the first time.
While in the sky, Diabel brandished his sword, trying to pull off a sword skill to counterattack. However, because he was unstable, the system could not determine the starting motion for the skill. The nodachi directly hit the front of the knight who waved his sword uselessly.
At a speed which could not be seen the combination attack continued with a further strike followed by a thrust. A three hit strike, this skill's name is Scarlet Fan, «Hiōgi».
The knight's body was covered in three continuous damage effect, the bright colours and intense sounds showed that all the attacks were critical hits. His virtual body «Avatar» was blasted twenty meters away, over the heads of the raid members, and ended up near the Sentinel which was my opponent. He fell almost as if piercing the ground. His HP gauge, which was already red, began to reduce further.
I gasped out a strange sound from the back of my throat as, from the front, the Sentinel's Long Axe approached, so I put as much force as I could into the «Slant». The Axe's handle was smashed in the middle, and as it stood stunned for a short duration Asuna's rapier found its throat and pierced it.
Not waiting for the monster's shattering effect to happen, I turned towards the body of the fallen Diabel. Seeing the fallen knight at a meter, such a close range for the first time, I felt sparks race through my mind.
――I recognize this player.
His face and name were completely different from what I remembered, but we had previously met face to face in the other Aincrad, and maybe I had even talked to him. As expected, Diabel was an original beta tester like me. And like me, he had fought hard to hide his identity until today. No, as I had made close friends while hiding my past, my worry was probably several times his.
However, precisely because he had a tester's knowledge of the first floor, he was harmed by it when it came to the later stages.
Although I do not remember him, he remembered I was called Kirito, and although my appearance during the beta testing is not the same, he remembered that the name of the player who was good at placing the LA on the boss during the beta testing period, so he tried to confirm my identity earlier on. Subsequently, he believed that I would probably try to do the same thing here. The Floor Boss drops high performance items including «Unique» one-of-a-kind items, and in a death game like SAO, combat ability is synonymous with vitality. Diabel, in order to survive in this world ――instead of being a solo player, chose to be a Knight leading a crowd―― had tried to get the rare drops from Illfang by any means.
At the moment I thought that, I considered Diabel on the floor. His eyes, as blue as his hair, twitched, but he immediately emitted a pure light. From his trembling lips, in a voice soft enough for only me to hear, he said.
"......Please, Kirito-san. The boss, defea―"
Before his sentence ended――
The commander of the Aincrad Boss Raid Forces, the Knight Diabel, turned into blue shards of glass which shattered and scattered.
Uwaaaaa, this kind of cry ―― this scream filled the Boss room.
Nearly all the raid members clutched and hung on to their weapons, with their wide eyes open. But no one moved. The leader being first to fall, to die, was an unpleasant situation no one had prepared for, so no one knew the next course of action.
Of course, this was also true for me.
In my mind, two options alternately blinked. To flee, or to fight.
In normal circumstances, «Boss uses weapons and skills different to information previously given» and «Loss of leader», suffering from two disasters, everyone should immediately retreat out of the boss's room. However, if our backs were exposed to Illfang while we retreated, he could easily use his long ranged Katana Skill. The ten people furthest to the back, in the worst case, would end up stunned and deprived of all HP by a sequence of attacks like Diabel. That is to say, even as we retreat we must defend our bodies, but our opponent was difficult as he had unknown skills. Compared to the time taken to dash out of the room, the same degree of HP decrease leading to deaths could be expected.
Above it all, with too many deaths ―― including the leader ―― and with the boss strategy that was issued failing, it would be difficult to assemble another force to raid the boss again. In other words, all attempts to clear the death game SAO would lead to failure. The eight thousand survivors, would not be warriors of the virtual world, but prisoners trapped in the first floor until there is an some kind of «end»......
Then, two sounds at the same time echoed out, stirring me from my hesitation.
One of which was, right at the front lines, the sound of Illfang, who had come out of its delay, raging. The squealing sound of metal. the mass damage effects dimly and violently shook.
The other was the voice of Kibaou who was kneeling by my side.
"............Why...... Why...... Diabel-han, the leader, why was he first......"
――Because he wanted to perform LA on the boss.
Telling him like this would be easy. However, I didn't say anything.
Now that I think about it, in the first meeting, Kibaou had eaten the bait Diabel acted out. Suspecting that there were beta testers in their midst and making remarks about not wanting to work with them unless they apologized. Not only did Diabel not prevent him from speaking, he allowed the topic to be brought up for discussion.
That scene, was not Diabel's «Compensation» to Kibaou. Instead it was a method of communication, as the representative dealing with the sword transaction, they met up in a public place, giving Kibaou the opportunity to test public opinion against Beta testers. Agil's logical argument ended the wrath in the middle, but if the boss raid battle did not end as planned, Kibaou can bring out the same topic again. In other words, Kibaou did not suspect that Diabel was a Beta tester, but was a representative of the novice players opposing the testers. He was looking forward to people trusting him. Facing this kind of person, how do I at this time give him anything further against it.
Instead―― I grabbed Kibaou's drooping left shoulder and forced it up.
"Is this the time to be discouraged?!"
With a low cry, Kibaou's small eyes were instantly filled with a familiar hostility.
"......What...... What did you say?"
"You're the Group E leader, if you are a coward, your companions will die! Listen here, additional Sentinels may still spawn...... no, they will definitely spawn. Handling them is your responsibility!"
"......then, what do you want to do. Are you planning on escaping alone?"
"How is that possible. Of course I......"
With the Anneal Blade in my right hand making a sound, I said,
"――Will get the LA on the boss!"
Being trapped in this world for one month, I had taken many actions to keep myself alive. I hadn't dispensed the knowledge I obtained during the beta test period to anyone, in order to do quests and use the hunting grounds that were more efficient while single-mindedly strengthening myself.
If I were to follow a solo player's normal code of conduct, then in this situation, with many raid members standing between the Boss monster and myself, I should run towards the exit. Not turning back even as the raging Kobold king kills my comrades, instead actively using them as shields, in order to ensure my own safety.
However, at this time, no such thoughts came to my mind, as a fiery feeling flowed throughout my veins, Both my legs had made their choice between life and death. This may have been because of the words the knight Diabel said to me.
The Boss ―― Defeat it. Those were the words he had said. Not escape. He had tried to significantly boost his probability of acquiring rare items, by attempting the LA, and as a result he had sacrificed his life. But at the end, his command ability was definitely outstanding. In his last moments, Diabel had decided not to ask us to «Withdraw» but instead to do «Bloody Battle». So, as a member of the raid party, I will comply with his wish...... no, his dying wish.
However, there was still one hesitation that remained.
Before the battle began, I had secretly decided. Instead of protecting myself, I would protect the rapier user «Asuna»'s life with everything I had. She had a radiant talent which I did not possess. For this bud to perish before it blooms, is an absolutely unacceptable situation for anyone fanscinated by VRMMO games.
Whilst on the verge of running, I looked at Asuna who stood to my left, and was about to tell her, "Stay in the back and when the front collapses you should withdraw immediately" However, as if she could read my mind, before I had a chance to speak she declared categorically,
"I'm going too. We're partners after all."
I did not have a good reason to deny her, and there was no time for debate. After hesitating for a moment, I nodded.
"......Understood. I'll be relying on you!"
The two of us turned in the same direction at the same time, and ran towards the back of the hall. Along the way we heard uninterrupted roars and screams. Although it seemed that there were no more deaths following Diabel's, the average HP of the vanguard was less than half, as having lost its leader, Group C would definitely be down by twenty percent. Some players in despair, had ran trying to escape the situation, and at this rate the formation would fall apart in a few seconds.
The first thing was to calm them from their panicked state. However, in this situation, the noise would drown out any instructions given. I needed short yet strong words, and being inexperienced in leading I had no idea what words should be used ――......
It was at this time that Asuna, running by my side, forcefully grasped her hood and cape that were likely to interfere, and flung it from her body.
The light from the countless torches along the side walls, seemed to combine together and shone brightly. The glossy chestnut long hair, now radiated a deep golden shine, scattering the gloomy ambience of the boss's room.
Asuna's long and wildly fluttering hair, gave her the appearance of a shooting star blazing through the current darkness. Even the panicking players became silent with the luminence in their eyes. Not letting this miraculous moment of silence go to waste, I called out with the loudest throat ripping voice I could muster,
"Everyone, back ten steps towards the exit! As long as the boss is not surrounded, it will not use its ranged attacks."
By the time the echo of my voice disappeared, time seemed to flow again. *Za!!* As this sound was made, Asuna and I were level then passed the front line players who were now moving backwards together. As it followed us, the Kobold king turned to face us, as we raced side by side toward it.
"Asuna, we’ll use the same tactics that we used against the Sentinels!...... Here we go!!"
The moment her name was called, the rapier user glanced at me, then faced the front again almost immediately.
In front of us, the Kobold king released his left hand from the Nodachi that both hands previously held, and lowering his stance. That gesture, definitely was ――
I held my breath, and started to use my own sword skill. My right hand holding my sword moved to my left hip in preparation, while leaning forward as if about to fall. At this angle, my stance is insufficient for the system to recognize it. This was due to the low position close to the floor, then I used my right foot to take off at full power. My body became wrapped in a thin blue light, as I ran through the ten meters separating the boss from me. Basic sword rush technique, «Rage Spike».
At the same time, the boss was poised with his Nodachi shining with a green glow, and slashed at a speed which could not be seen. Straight long ranged move, Whirlwind «Tsujikaze». Because it was an Iai type move, it would be impossible to keep up with it after seeing it launched.
With a roar, the trajectory of my sword moving from the left, intersected with the swing from Illfang's Nodachi. A loud metallic sound rang out with a gale of sparks resulting, as the boss and I were knocked apart more than two meters from the recoil of each other's sword.
With the opportunity that was produced―― Asuna seized it with a remarkable speed equal to mine.
With a short and sharp zeal was unleashed the «Linear», stabbing deep into the Kobold king's right flank. The fourth HP gauge, marginally, but definitely was reduced in width as a result.
I was aware of the powerful challenge that had come from his right hand, and I was engulfed in elation and anxiety in equal measure.
The Illfang from the beta period was equipped with the «Talwar» sword skills, which I could not fully parry using my own sword skills. However, perhaps the Katana-type sword skills were lighter than the Talwar's, my HP gauge did not decrease because of the clash. Instead this was offset by the outrageous speed of the techniques. Continuing this with no missed counters, I wondered if it was possible.
Another one. Troopers required three, whereas Sentinels required four strikes of «Linear» from Asuna, but as expected of a boss, its HP was at an amount that couldn't be compared with that of these small fry. For her to fully deplete the fourth gauge, I have no clue how many strikes would be required. A big advantage of fighting the boss as a team was due to its massive bulk, allowing multiple players to hit it at the same time, if it were possible I would have preferred other players as attackers by her side. But all the other groups from A to G had drawn back as their HP were greatly reduced. I couldn't ask them for help until they had used their recovery potions.
"―― Asuna and I, could only do what we could do. Originally I was thinking of doing it on my own, but it became two people, this was a situation that I am grateful for."
"......The next one, is coming!"
I cried after recovering from my technique's delay, then concentrated on the long and large blade brandished by the boss.
In August this year, one thousand testers were recruited for the «Sword Art Online Closed Beta Test». Although I reached the tenth floor, I didn't meet the floor's boss.
The district labyrinth, named «Thousand Snake Castle», was guarded by Samurai type monsters, and was the spawning area of the «Orochi Elite Guard», which I had been unable to break through. Since the mercurial katana skills they used were not available to players, I had to receive every hit to feel and determine the trajectory motion and the skill name appended to the hit, then desperately use that as a reference. Finally, once all their used skills’ «Pre-motion» were registered in my mind...... it was already the thirty-first of August.
Orochi and Illfang, although their shapes and sizes were very different, were both Humanoid type monsters, and used similar techniques so far. Therefore, I used my memories of those skills, including Iai, that I stored four months ago to counter its attacks.
Of course, I was walking on a tightrope. The boss's slash had very high base damage, and the basic skills «Slant» and «Horizontal» left only to the Assist could not repel it. In order to launch the technique successfully, the body had to be intentionally moved in order to boost the speed and power of the skill.
However, with this amplified outside the system skill, the attack would be more powerful yet risky. Even a small variation or mistake would hinder the system assist, in the worst case having the sword skill abort in the middle of it.
I, with a total of two months playing SAO, if you included the beta period, had the most experience among them, and had trained this technique which requires great concentration in that long period of time.
And, every fifteenth or sixteenth time, it was disrupted.
Cursing, I attempted to cancel the «Vertical» slash upward I had almost initiated. I had read the opening moves of Illfang's blade, as it drew half a circle while Illfang turned beneath it. It was the motion for the technique that launched strikes up and down in random order Phantom Moon «Gengetsu». Desperately I pulled back with the Anneal Blade in my right hand, when an unpleasant shock overcame my whole body, and I was unable to move.
As Asuna by my side gave out a small scream, the nodachi from below jumped up, catching the front of my body.
I felt as cold as ice, a sharp shock. My body was paralyzed, and my HP gauge was reduced by thirty percent.
As I was thrown across the room, I barely managed to stay on my knees, and Asuna rushed towards the Kobold king. I screamed "Don't!" «Phantom Moon» had a very short delay. Its blade was raised, and glowed red. Not good, this was the three hit skill that killed Diabel, Scarlet Fan «Hiōgi» ......
It let out a huge roar, and its blade was on the verge of hitting Asuna.
The blade glanced by her head, when a huge weapon glowing green launched its skill. The Two-Handed Axe Sword Skill «Whirlwind»――
The Nodachi had discharged first, but it was the two handed axe that spun like a whirlwind which intercepted it. The boss room trembled at the impact that was born, Illfang was knocked back quite a distance. The attacker must have had both legs wrapped in leather sandals, as he only slid back a meter or so.
Entering the fray, was the brown skinned giant and Group B leader, Agil. As I knelt on the floor exploring my coat pockets he looked over his shoulders at me, grinning.
"You can drink your pot until it’s finished, we'll support you. Damage dealers are the bulwark, this will not change."
"............Sorry, I leave it to you."
I gave a short answer, as my chest was heaving while I forced down the recovery potion.
Agil was not the only person who came to the front. His friends, and a few people from Groups A and D who had finished recovering as their wounds were light joined him.
With a look at Asuna I conveyed "I'm fine", and shouted at the swordsmen from behind.
"If the boss is surrounded it will attack back with an omni-directional attack! I will be calling out the trajectory of the attacks, so the guys in front, deal with them! You don't have to use sword skills to cancel the attack, you can avoid a large amount of damage just by blocking it with a weapon and a shield properly!"
A savage bellow from the men reverberated, and It may have been my imagination but it blended with the roar that the Kobold king gave in irritation.
Retreating to stand beside the wall, and while waiting for the recovery potions to slowly take effect, I updated myself on the condition at the back of the battle.
The boss's weapon had changed, and sure enough, along with it, the number of spawns «Pop» of the Ruin Kobold Sentinels had also increased. Kibaou's Group E, as well as the lightly injured Group G equipped with pole-arms, took on all four of the heavily armored guards at the same time. Although they had not taken much damage so far, as long as Illfang remained alive, those four Sentinels would probably jump out of the alcoves on a regular basis. The parties resisting them would eventually reach their limits with just two of them.
In addition to that, between the front and the rear groups, Group C who were the first to get heavily damaged, were trying to recover their HP like me. However, potions in this game were really frustrating items, having only a slow, continuous healing, «Heal Over Time» effect...... in other words, drinking the bottle would not instantly recover the gauge, but instead it gradually increased in small increments, and also after drinking the potion there was a cooldown period indicated by a «Cooling» icon displayed at the bottom of the vision which rendered drinking the next bottle useless until it disappeared. On top of that, the first floor NPC shops only sold these low end products, of which only sorrowful tales could be told of their flavour.
Putting the taste aside, because of the set cooldown period, healing from heavy injuries took up a lot of time. Therefore, once someone received damage worthy of a potion, they would normally switch with their partner to take it. Falling to the rear (that is, for Pot rotation) was the general theory, but as the number of those who received unexpectedly heavy wounds multiplied, it became easy for the rotation to break down. On higher floors, the dreamlike item which could instantly recover the gauge, «Healing Crystal», could be obtained, so such recovery is possible if one is not bothered with the cost, but it would be asking too much to have one on hand now.
Therefore, how long Agil and the six people under him who were currently replacing me were able to maintain their HP gauges against the boss's fierce attacks would decide the flow of the battle. For that reason, I would have to predict Illfang's skills the moment its preparatory motions started.
In my kneeling posture, I kept my eyes carefully peeled while focusing my senses to capture every movement the Kobold Boss made, and after determining the sword skill used I shouted things like "Horizontal slash, right" and "Downward slash, left".
Agil's team of six were not pressured into desperately countering from following my instructions, instead they used their shields and large weapons to guard themselves. Despite the fact they were players with «Tank builds», having both high defence and high amounts of HP, receiving zero damage from the sword skills the boss launched was impossible. A loud sound effect would occur, and each time, their gauges would gradually reduce.
In between the group, was a single fencer who lightly danced. Asuna. Never far from the front of the boss, as long as Illfang was in a recovery period, «Delay», even for a moment, the chance to pierce its body with «Linear» was never wasted. Of course, after repeated strikes the «Hate» value would become focused on Asuna, however the six men who were tanking used appropriate skills such as «Howl» to regain the target's hate to themselves.
Even though it was a dangerous encounter, with the balance of the battle in danger of collapsing if even one of the elements failed, the situation still lasted for close to five minutes.
Soon, the boss's HP finally went below thirty percent, and the final gauge became suffused red.
At that moment, perhaps letting down his guard for a moment, one of the players acting as a tank tripped over. Stumbling, the player came to a halt directly behind Illfang.
"......Get out of there quickly!"
I called out reflexively, but it was a moment too late. As the boss felt that it was «In a surrounded state», it gave out an exceptionally ferocious roar.
With a jerk, the large body sank into a crouch. Then its entire bulk was flung high up into a vertical jump. While on its course, its body along with the Nodachi, contorted and revolved during the jump. It was the omnidirectional attack Whirling Wheel «Tsumujiguruma»――......
As I gave off a short howl, and forgetting that my own HP had not fully recovered, I jumped from along the wall.
Positioning my sword on my right shoulder, my left foot kicked off from the floor at full force. The acceleration that shouldn't had been possible with my actual Agility assaulted my spine, while my body flew up diagonally into the sky like a shot from a gun. The single handed sword rush technique «Sonic Leap». Its range was shorter than «Rage Spike», but its trajectory could be aimed towards the sky.
The sword in my right hand was engulfed in a bright yellow-green light. In its path was Illfang's katana, which had reached the apex of its jump, while producing a deep crimson glow.
I shouted, as I stretched my right arm to its limit, and swung my sword.
The point of my beloved Anneal Blade +6 drew a long crescent as it raced through the air, hitting the left section of Illfang’s waist, as it was on the verge of using «Tsumujiguruma».
*Zashuu!* A loud slashing sound rang out. The intense light effects showing that it was a critical hit flashed before my eyes. In the next moment, the Kobold king's mass was sent angling sidewards, crashing into the ground before the tornado of its special attack could even form.
It yelled, as it tried to stand up as both its feet and arms quivered. It was a bad status that affected humanoid type monsters, the «Tumble» state ――.
I barely managed to land successfully, and turning to face Illfang, exhausted from the effort, I forced out the air in my lungs to shout.
"Everyone ――! «Full Attack»!! Surround it!!"
Agil's six men cried out releasing the anger that had accumulated while they had only been able to concentrate on guarding all this while. Surrounding the fallen Kobold king, they activated all their vertical slashing sword skills simultaneously. Axes, maces and hammers wrapped in lights of various colours, roared as they rained down on its body. Bright lights and loud sound effects exploded, and Illfang's HP gauge which was shown at the top of the field of vision was shaved down bit by bit.
This was a gamble. If the Kobold king's HP was reduced to nothing before it got up, it would be our victory. If it gets out of the «Tumble» status first, we would be met with «Tsumujiguruma» again, and this time everyone would be cut down. My «Sonic Leap» was in the middle of the «Cooling» period, so I was unable to deal attacks while in the air.
Agil's group who had recovered from the delay of their techniques, began the preliminary motions for their next skills. The Kobold king stopped struggling at the same time, and its body started to rise.
"............We’re not going to make it?!!"
I forced my voice down as I shouted, then raised my voice to Asuna who had moved beside me while I was not paying attention.
"Asuna, one final «Linear», let's go for it!!"
As her answer was so upbeat, I could not help but smile.
The weapons of the six people thrummed once again, swallowing the boss's giant body in a swirl of light effects.
However, before the lights had even faded, the boss roared as it stood up. Its HP gauge was left with merely three percent, as it shone a bright red.
Agil was still stuck in delay, unable to move. In contrast, Illfang who was attacked while in the «Tumble» state was neither stunned nor knocked back, smoothly entered its vertical jump motion.
As soon as I screamed, I kicked from the ground at the same time as Asuna.
Through the gaps in Agil's party, Asuna first sent a «Linear» at the boss's left flank.
Slightly behind, my sword coated in a blue light, made a cut from the Kobold king's right shoulder to its stomach.
The HP gauge...... was left with just a sliver.
It felt like the demi-human gave a smirk. In return, I gave a fierce smile as well, as I rapidly readjusted my wrist.
With my whole body and soul I swung my sword. The blade, which was nicked in several places after the fierce battle, drew a "V" shaped trajectory along with the earlier slash, exiting from Illfang's left shoulder. One-handed-sword double-consecutive-strike skill «Vertical Arc»――
The Kobold king's gigantic frame, suddenly losing its strength, staggered backwards.
Its wolflike face looked towards the ceiling, as it gave a howl. Over its body, various cracks noisily appeared, resounding with a snap and crackle.
Both its hands went slack, and its nodachi fell onto the floor. After that, the body of Aincrad's first floor's boss, «Illfang the Kobold Lord» shattered into millions of fragments, and scattered grandly in all directions. As I bent backwards under the intangible pressure, the purple system message [You got the last attack!!] flashed soundlessly into my vision.
As the boss dispersed, the remaining Sentinels at the back also seemed to have scattered into nothingness.
The hue of the shining torches on the walls changed from a gloomy orange into a bright yellow. The dimness in the boss's room was immediately lifted, and from goodness knows where a cool wind swept across the room, taking away the heat of the battle.
There was barely anyone who broke the silence. Groups G and E remained at the back, Groups A, C, D and F who were on their knees, awaited recovery, and Agil alongside his Group B, the «Final Wall», sat on the floor, looking around dazedly. It was almost as if we were concerned the terrifying demi-human king would revive.
I too, with my right hand holding the sword ready in a slashing position, remained stationary.
Is this really the end? Would any «Minor differences from Beta» occur here as well......?
Then, at that time. A small white hand gently touched my right shoulder, causing me to slowly lower my sword. Standing before me, was the rapier user Asuna. Her chestnut long hair waving in the breeze, as she stared at me.
With the removal of her hooded cape revealing her face, she was so beautiful that I had wanted to doubt it was really the player's true appearance the first time I had seen her. I continued to stare into the eyes of her pretty face blankly. Asuna ―― probably just for now ―― silently accepted the stare without a trace of annoyance, then she eventually whispered.
"Thanks for your hard work!"
At those words, I was finally convinced. It was over...... The biggest obstacle which had kept eight thousand players confined to the first floor, has finally been removed.
And, as if the system had been awaiting that recognition of mine, now a new message appeared in my view. The experience gained. The distribution of col. And finally ―― the items obtained.
As everyone around me also saw the same message I did, their expressions finally brightened. A moment after that,*Waa!!* and a cheer erupted.
Some people threw both hands up into the air. Some embraced their comrades. Some danced nonsensically. In this storm of uproar, a large figure slowly got off the floor and strode over. It was the two-handed-axe user, Agil.
"......Those were wonderful commands. And more than that those sword skills were spectacular. Congratulations, this victory is rightfully yours."
Even with the English word in the middle, the giant pronounced the sentence perfectly, and as his mouth closed, he had a large grin. He stretched out his large right hand clenched into a fist.
I wondered how to respond, but sadly no clever response came to my mind, and I could only say "No......", as I also formed my right hand into a fist, raising it.
At that moment.
Suddenly, that loud shout howled out behind me. I half-turned, in response to that wailing, and the cheering from the entire room calmed in an instant.
Looking away from Asuna and Agil, I had turned to see a man in light armor, a scimitar user, whose name I could not recall. However, as soon as his mouth parted and further disjointed words flowed from his lips, I understood.
"―――― Why, did you leave Diabel-san to die!!"
This man, was a member of Group C..... in other words he had been one of the deceased knight Diabel's comrades from the start. As I looked past him, to the remaining four members behind him, they stood looking dishevelled. Some of them were crying.
Looking at the scimitar user again, I muttered. I didn't understand the meaning behind those words.
"Let him die......?"
"That's right!! Because...... Because you knew the skills the boss used, didn't you!! If you had given us that information from the start, Diabel wouldn't have died!!"
His cries came as if vomiting blood, and the remaining raid members began to rumble. "Now that you mention it......" "Why......? It wasn't even written in the strategy guide......" giving rise to speculation, which gradually spread.
Giving answers to those questions, I would had expected Kibaou ――
But he wasn’t. He was standing motionlessly further away, with his mouth knotted as he tried to resist. However, another team member of Group E under his leadership walked closer towards me, pointing with the index finger on his right hand at me, and said.
"I...... I know!! This guy: he's a beta tester!! That’s why, the boss's attack patterns, good hunting spots and quests, he knows all of them!! He hid them despite knowing about them!!"
Even upon hearing those words, the scimitar user and the other members from Group C did not show any surprise. I thought they might have heard it from Diabel, but ―― as a beta tester himself, and hiding that fact from his comrades, it was unlikely that Diabel would have brought up the topic of beta testers on his own ―― when I discerned those katana skills that should never have been seen by anyone before, they must have known then.
Instead, the scimitar user's eyes seemed to seethe in hatred, as he again tried to shout out something.
It was interrupted by the mace user who had served as a tank with Agil until the end. He raised his hand dutifully, and said in a calm tone.
"Even so, the guide that was handed out yesterday, it was written that it was information on the boss's attack pattern only from the beta period, right? If he was really a beta tester, wouldn't his knowledge be the same as in the guide?"
"Tha, That is......"
Replacing the Group E member who became silent, the scimitar user spoke in a voice venomous with animosity.
"That strategy guide was a lie. Argo's information shop was selling lies. That person was a beta tester after all, there's no way she would have given us the truth for free."
――This is bad. This is becoming very bad.
I quietly held my breath. I could endure any amount of condemnation on myself. However, a situation where hostility flares up towards the other testers, starting with Argo, was one that I want to avoid by all means. But ―― But, what should I do......
Then while looking down, I studied the black floor. Still visible was the system message that was being vividly displayed. The acquired experience, col, and items......
An idea occurred to me. Subsequently, a large conflict racked my body. If I follow this option, I don't know what kind of future I will behold. As I had once feared, there was even the risk of being killed in a sneak attack. But ―― at the very least, the animosity currently directed against Argo and the other beta testers might just be averted......
Behind me, in silence, Agil and Asuna who had endured patiently up to this moment, opened their mouths at the same time.
"Hey, you guys......" "You......"
However, I delicately moved my hands to subtly quieten them.
Taking a step forward, with the intention of affecting an impudent expression, I coolly looked into the face of the scimitar user. Shrugging my shoulders, I told him in a voice as emotionless as I could muster.
"An original beta tester, right? ...... Don't lump me together with those amateurs."
"Wha...... What was that......?"
"Listen here and remember well. SAO's CBT «Closed Beta Test» had an outrageously low acceptance for the lottery draw. Out of the one thousand people, how many real MMO gamers do you think got selected? Most of them were just «Newbie» players who didn't even know methods of leveling properly. You guys here are much better than that lot."
At the end of my contemptuous words, the forty two players simultaneously fell silent. A chill, like the atmosphere before fighting the boss returned, caressing them across the skin like an invisible blade.
"――But, I'm not like those guys."
Deliberately sneering, I opened my mouth and broke the silence.
"During the beta testing, I reached floors no one else could reach. And there I learned of the Katana Skills the boss used, as I fought and killed mobs that used katanas on way higher floors. I know a lot more too, there's no way even someone like Argo could match me."
"............What’s that, that’s......"
The person who had first pointed me out as a beta tester, the guy from Group E, then said in a hoarse voice.
"That's...... no longer on the level of a beta tester.... that's totally cheating, you’re just a cheater!"
From all around us, yeah, cheater, cheating beta tester, a multitude voices sprang up. The words were soon muddled together, and in the end a strange sounding word, «Beater», reached my ears.
"......«Beater», that has a good ring to it."
Laughing and grinning, I looked around at everybody in that area, and told them in a clear voice.
"Exactly, I am a «Beater». From now on, please do not lump me together with those former testers."
――――That should do it.
From here on, of the four or five hundred current players that seem to be beta testers, they will now be divided into two further categories. The majority «Testers who are merely amateurs» and, the remaining few «Information controlling dirty Beaters».
In the future, the hostilities from the newer players, should all be directed towards the Beaters. So if a beta tester were to be discovered, then players would not immediately hate them.
In return, I alone have lost the possibility to fight on the front lines or in any guilds or parties...... However, it's not like much has changed. I am currently a «Solo», and I will remain a solo. Forever alone. That much is certain.
The scimitar user became pale-faced and fell silent, along with the Group C members, then the Group E member removed his gaze from me. I opened my menu window and ran my finger along the equipment figure.
The dark gray leather coat that I had worn until now, was replaced by the unique object dropped by the boss just a moment ago, the «Coat of Midnight». My body was enveloped with a pale aura, and the tired gray fabric changed to a shiny jet black leather. The length increased by quite a bit, as the hem dropped to the level of my knees.
With a flourish of the long black coat, I turned around ―― and stood facing the small door at the back of the boss’s room.
"I'm going on to «Activate» the second floor's transfer gate as you have to do. From the exit here it will be a short walk to the district town, if you want to come along, you should be prepared to be killed by any mob that comes along."
Agil and Asuna, kept staring at me, as I started to walk.
Both of them, had eyes that showed they understood everything. That was a relief. I faced the two of them and gave a small smile, then stepped forward with large strides, and pushed open the door to the second floor, situated behind the main throne.
After climbing the narrow spiral staircase for a while, a door once again appeared.
As I gently opened it, a spectacularly scenic view sprung into sight. The door exited into the middle of some steep cliffs. A narrow platform extended to the left which led to a flight of stairs descending down the cliff wall, from here I swept my eyes over the panoramic view of the second floor.
Unlike the complex and varying terrain of the first floor, the second floor was lined from one end to the other with flat-topped mountains. The mountain tops were covered in lush green grass, where gigantic ox-type monsters sauntered around.
The second floor's district town, «Urbus», looked as if it was a city entirely excavated from the flat-topped mountain at the bottom of my view. From here I will descend the flight of stairs, and as I had earlier described, it would only require walking a short kilometer across the field, to reach the «Teleport Gate» in the central square of Urbus which would be activated upon touch, linking it to the «Starting City» on the first floor.
If, by any chance, I died along the way ―― or perhaps, if I sat here idly, two hours after the boss is defeated, the teleport gate would open automatically by itself. But today, the fact that the first Raid unit was going to challenge the boss must have already been conveyed to the Starting City, many players would now be waiting at the teleport gate, waiting for the moment the blue warp gate would appear. I really should hurry to Urbus for their sake, but...... for just a little while more, I should have the right to immerse myself in this breath-taking view.
I took a few steps forward, then I sat down on the edge of the terrace extending from the rocks.
Extending from beyond the rocky mountains, from the expanse of Aincrad's periphery, a small sliver of the blue sky could be seen.
I wonder just how many minutes passed that way. Before long, I heard the quiet fall of footsteps climbing up the spiral staircase behind me. Unable to turn around, I heard the footsteps stop after the individual causing them came out of the main door, then with a faint sigh, the person walked closer, and sat down beside me.
"......And I told you not to follow too."
I muttered, then the intruder replied in a petulant voice.
"You didn't say so. All that you said was you must be prepared to die if you wish to come."
"......Is that so, sorry."
Shortening my neck, I saw the rapier user Asuna sat next to me, and from this angle I got a glimpse of the beautiful face of hers. For a moment, her light brown eyes caught mine, but I returned my gaze to the view immediately below us, mingling a sigh with the “beautiful” that I intoned.
The silence continued like that for a minute, before she suddenly spoke up.
"Agil-san and Kibaou have something to say to you."
"Eh...... What is it?"
"Agil-san's words were 'Let's go for the second floor's boss raid together', while Kibaou......"
Asuna gave a small cough, and with a serious face, attempted to reproduce the Kansai dialect with a poor imitation.
"......'You may have helped me today, but I still don't recognize you. I will aim to clear this game my own way.' was what he said."
"......Is that so."
Mulling over those words in my mind a few times ―― Asuna gave a small cough, while I continued to look the other way.
"Also.... this is, my own message to you."
"You, during the combat called out my name, didn't you."
It was near the end, I recalled after thinking for a moment. Certainly somewhere in the heat of battle I might have called out her name without honorifics.
"So-Sorry, I forgot the honorifics...... or was it, that I pronounced it wrong?"
This time, Asuna gave a puzzled look.
"Pronounced......? ―― What I meant was, I never gave my name to you, and you never told me yours, right? So how did you know my name?"
I involuntarily cried out. How did I find out ―― because we were still in a party, so in the upper left corner of my field of vision, where two HP gauges were displayed, underneath one, with five letters, [ASUNA], was clearly written............
"Ah... co- could it be...... this is the first time you've formed a party with someone......?"
My mouth involuntarily gaped open, as I lifted my right hand, pointing to the left edge of Asuna's field of vision.
"Around here, you can see an additional HP gauge other than your own, right? Underneath it, isn't something written there?"
Murmuring, Asuna tried to turn her face, looking to the left, and reflexively I placed my fingertips against her cheek.
"When your face moves the gauge would also move. With your head held steady, use your eyes to look to the left."
"Like...... Like this?"
Asuna's hazel eyes moved about uncertainly, then saw a string of words that I could not see. Out of her glossy lips, came three quiet sounds.
"Ki......ri.......to. Kirito? Is that your name?"
"Really...... This whole time, it was written there......"
Asuna whispered, then unexpectedly her whole body quivered. Subsequently, I realized my palm was still held against her cheek. This was―― just like some kind of «Pre-motion».
I let go with my hand in a hurry, and likely from the momentum a **Gyun** sound was released as I turned away. A few seconds later, I heard a *Giggle*―― or at least, I feel like I did. Eh, could she be laughing? That transcendent «Linear» user, Kobold «Overkill» performer Asuna-san? Inwardly tormented with a strong desire to see her face, I desperately tried hard to resist.
Regrettably, the laughter soon stopped, replaced by a quiet voice.
"......To tell you the truth, Kirito, I followed you here to thank you."
"......For the cream on the bread, or the bath?"
I asked without thinking, then she replied "That's not it," as her daunting voice returned, but instantly "......Although, that may be a part of it, too." followed.
"Well...... there’s all sorts. Thanks for the many things. I...... In this world, for the first time I found an aim, something that I want to chase after."
"Heeh...... What is it?"
As I glanced at her, Asuna flashed a brief smile,
"It's a secret."
Was all she said. Then with that she stood up, and stepped back.
"......I will, do my best. Do my best to become stronger. To achieve my aims."
With my back turned to her, I nodded gently.
"Aah...... You will be strong. Not only in your sword techniques, but you will gain a larger and more valuable fortitude. So, if one day someone you trust invites you to a guild, don't refuse. After all, there's an absolute limit for solo players......"
For the next few moments, I could only hear Asuna's breathing.
Eventually, the following words came, that were a little unexpected.
"......The next time we meet, tell me just how you carried me out of that labyrinth region."
That was a piece of cake, I thought of following up with, but I swallowed those words. Instead, I answered with a simple "I understand.".
"......Then, see you again, Kirito."
*Squeak* The door opened. Then footsteps. And with a *Bam* The door closed.
I waited for the information describing the scent of Asuna to be dispersed from the virtual air, before standing up. That girl and I are walking in different directions ―― Then I began to descend the wide staircase down the cliff step by step.
When I tried counting the number of stone steps of the constantly winding staircase, it turned out there were forty eight steps. Upon giving a little thought to whether there was any meaning to that number, I realized. It was eight by six ―― in other words the number of people in a Full Raid. Assuming a situation where the first floor's boss was challenged with that force, and none of them died, then upon these stairs, from landing to landing, would be just enough space for each player.
But surely, the designers of this area, would not have imagined that the group of players walking down these steps would be a group of one.
Descending this path seemed to imply what my future would be like. There was no one before or after me. I do not need anyone, being apart, wherever I went, it would be alone............
Reaching the landing at the bottom of the stairs, in the right corner of my field of vision, was a small flashing icon of a letter.
It was a Friend Message, which could be sent and received even when not on the same floor. And I have only registered two players as friends. My first friend Klein and ―― the information dealer, Argo the Rat.
Who is it, I wondered as I opened the message, and found it was the latter.
[Looks like I gave you a really hard time, Ki-bou]
Looking at these first few words, "Info sure travels fast!" I ended up blurting out. I continued reading, and scrolled through, but there was only one following sentence.
[To apologize, I will sell you one piece of information on anything at all for free.]
I couldn't help but grin, as I activated my holographic keyboard and resumed walking once again, quickly typing out a reply.
[Then tell me the reason for your whiskers in person.]
Pressing the send button, I laughed once more, and over the ground of the second floor that I had arrived at, I started walking towards the main city «Urbus».
- See: Z-score for more details. A z-score of 2 means you're in the top 2.3% of your year.
- Kibaou, one translation of this name can be 'Fang King'
- Game term, short for healing and various other potions
- A tatami is Japanese floor mat made from the straw, in this case it was used to describe the size of the room big enough to fit 20 of them (approximately 330 square feet).
- A Will saving throw is a Dungeons and Dragons Tabletop RPG term, for example if someone cast a death spell on you, and your dice roll is sufficient, you won't die.
- Mountain bike
- Computer display brightness: Gamma correction
- A Heater Shield is a form of European medieval shield, developed from the early medieval Kite Shield.
- A «Talwar» is a sword or saber with a curved blade. The word talwar literally means sword or dagger in the majority of the languages of the South Asian Subcontinent, where the «Talwar» is from.
- GJ means Good Job
- In this sentence Kirito is saying that, "for the bud (which refers to Asuna) to perish (ie: be killed) before it blooms (before Asuna grows to reach her full potential), would be an extremely unacceptable situation for any person (Kirito included) who is fascinated by VRMMOs (ie: takes VRMMOs seriously)."
- Iaido is Japanese martial art associated with the smooth, controlled movements of drawing the sword from its scabbard, striking or cutting an opponent, removing blood from the blade, and then replacing the sword in the scabbard.
- By body had to be intentionally moved, it means that the user him/her-self had to move his/her body without the use of the system assist.
- Meaning that the chance of failure was 1 in 15 or 16.
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