Day of Beginnings (はじまりの日)
Well, the text’s the main focus this time, so black font.
The translation of chapter 3 of Sword Art Online volume 8: はじまりの日 (Day of Beginnings / First Day)
It’s recommended to read the first volume at least, before this.
On a side note, does anyone experienced want to work on the manga adaption of Sakura-sou no Pet na Kanojo as a redrawer/cleaner?
Aincrad First Floor
It was not a phrase with a precise definition. If it were to be considered as a «match involving bodily risks», that would include martial arts, rock climbing and such, even to the extent of motor sports. What separates those dangerous sports with death games is probably just a single condition.
That the penalty of death, is clearly stated in the rules.
Not as the result of an accidental incident. A coerced death, served as the consequence of the player’s mistakes and defeat, or punishment for the violation of rules and other reasons. In short, murder.
With this premise established, the VRMMORPG which became the world’s first, «Sword Art Online», had now unmistakably became a death game. The game’s developer, and as such, the ruler, Kayaba Akihiko, had personally made that clear declaration without the slightest hint of doubt, a mere twenty minutes ago.
That if the HP were to reach zero—that is, on «defeat», they would be killed. Or if the Nerve Gear were to be removed—that is, to «violate the rules», they would also be killed.
It didn’t feel real. Not that it should. Countless suspicions still swirled about my mind, even now.
—Is something like that possible? After all, it merely used «a game machine fit for households», the Nerve Gear; could it have the ability to destroy the cerebrum of human beings?
—In the first place, why do something like this? Holding players hostage in a virtual world, if a ransom was at stake, then it would still make sense. However, putting the lives of players at stake for the clearing of the game, that would serve absolutely no tangible benefit for Kayaba. On the contrary, it would make him lose all the reputation he had as a game designer and quantum physicist, degrading him into the worst criminal recorded in history.
I don’t get it. I can’t make any reasonable sense of it.
But at the same time, my instincts understand.
Kayaba’s proclamation was completely true. The nature of the stage where SAO takes place, the Floating Castle Aincrad, had changed from a parallel world overflowing with passion and excitement, into a cage of death trapping ten thousand people within. The words uttered by Kayaba at the end of his tutorial earlier—[This situation itself, was my final purpose]; that phrase was likely his absolute true intentions. That outrageous genius had, merely for the sake of realizing this death game, created SAO… and thus, the Nerve Gear.
Due to that belief, I—the level 1 swordsman, Kirito, am presently running with my life at stake.
All by myself, in the middle of the vast grasslands. Abandoning the first friend I made in this world.
All to keep my own self alive.
The Floating Castle Aincrad is formed by floors, reaching up to a hundred, narrowly piled up atop each other.
As the floors are wide in the lower portion while shrinking down as they approach the upper portion, the entire castle took the shape of a cone. The diameter of the thus widest first floor amounted to up to ten kilometers. The «main city area», in other words, the largest city of the first floor, «Starting City», reached out in a semi-circle with a diameter of one kilometer on the southern tip of the floor.
Tall castle walls had been built up along the edges of the city, reducing the chances of monsters invading to an absolute zero. Also, the insides of the city was guarded by the «Crime Protection Code», making it impossible for the HP, that became the actual amount of life they had remaining, of players to fall by even a single pixel. To put it in other words, if one were to stay within the Starting City, their safety would be ensured, eliminating the chance of death.
However, I decided to exit the city right about the instant Kayaba Akihito ended that initial tutorial.
There were several reasons. The lack of confidence in the «Code» continuing forever. The desire to avoid the discord and mistrust that would surely be born between players. And also, the tenacity to level up of an MMO gamer, ingrained in my very core.
This might be some sort of fate; I do have a considerable liking for death game themes in fiction, and had gone through many novels, comics, movies and such from all over. Of course, the games I had tend to cover a large variety of themes, but I believe it to be a common theory existing within them.
In regards to death games, it was always a trade-off between «safety» and «overcome». If the starting location is a safe area, there would be no danger to one’s life if one were to remain there. But if one were to shrink away from danger before even trying to brave through it, it would become impossible to overcome the situation.
Of course, there was no way I had any heroic aspirations of cutting down those hundred boss monsters with my own sword, so as to clear this game. However, within the ten thousand players imprisoned, those possessing that mentality was probably not limited to only a small amount—there should be a thousand such people at the very least. Sooner or later, they would get out from the city, hunt down the weak monsters around the area, and begin to earn experience points, whether as solo or group players. Increasing their levels, upgrading their equipment, getting stronger.
And with that, the second theory.
In a death game, what opposes players was not simply restricted to rules, traps, and monsters. They would acquire players, just like them, as enemies as well. I am unaware of any death games that did not turn out so.
In this SAO, outside of towns, in other words, when «outside the boundary», PK is possible. That said, although it is unlikely for them to go to the extent of murder—that would result in them becoming a true murderer, after all—resorting to threatening others with weapons to steal away items; I do not have the confidence to say that not a single such being would exist, unfortunately. Just by imagining the possibility of some certain person with stats overwhelming my own becoming my enemy results in tangible fear and terror, leaving a bitter taste in my mouth.
And based on those reasons—
The choice of staying in the Starting City, abandoning the strengthening of myself for safety, offered no advantage to me.
Thus, if I were to aim to level up, there was no time to stand around idly. The relatively safe grassy fields around the city would likely soon be filled with «those who decided to move forth», like me. The monsters POP of SAO was fixed to a certain amount within a certain time frame for each area. After the initial targets were hunted down, it would become a frenzy to search for the next POP, and from then, it would likely become unavoidable to steal them from others at times.
To avoid that, for the purpose of having an effective rate of leveling, it is necessary to aim for beyond «relatively safe»—the «slightly dangerous» area.
Of course, in a game where one had just started, not having any sense of direction, that would be a suicidal act. However, due to a certain reason, I am familiar with many things, if restricted to only the lower floors, the topography, even the monsters that appear, in this game, SAO, which had just started official service today.
Exiting from the northwest gate of the Starting City, cutting straight through the vast grasslands, after escaping from a path similar to a maze within the deep forest, there is a village named, «Horunka». It may be small, but it certainly had an inn, a weapon shop and a tool shop «within the boundary», making it sufficient to serve as a hunting base. In the surrounding forest, there is no POP of monsters with the dangerous paralysis, poison, or equipment destroying skills, so it would be unlikely to die by accident, even with solo play.
With the village of Horunka as my base, I will get my level from 1 to 5 throughout today. The current time was six o’clock, fifteen minutes in the afternoon. The surrounding grasslands were dyed golden in the setting sun from the outer circumference of Aincrad, and the forest seen across was sunk into a pale blue by the dusk. But luckily, even at night, strong monsters would not spawn around Horunka. If I continued hunting without stop until the next change of day, I would probably be able to gain enough stats and equipment to head for the next location before the village is filled with other players.
“…Selfishness is a good point too, huh… I’m the very image of a solo player, geez…”
As I ran with all my might, that was what I first whispered out as I went out of the city.
If I did not say that out in a joking tone, fear and that other bitterness—self-hatred, threatening to force itself out from my mouth, would have no chance of being erased.
If only that well-natured cutlass user was by my side. Aiding with his leveling up, in addition to ensuring his survival; that moral action would probably be able to overwrite some of these feelings of guilt.
But I have deserted my only friend in this world, the one named Cline, at the Starting City. To be accurate, when I invited him to head towards Horunka together, Cline mentioned that he could not leave behind the comrades who were in the same guild as him in a previous game.
Then let’s go with them too, that proposal might have been possible too. However, I did not propose it. Unlike the grasslands where only wild boars or caterpillars that could be easily defeated, even at level 1, appeared, the forest beyond had somewhat dangerous types of monsters spawning, such as poisonous bees and predatory plants. If the wrong response was made towards those special attacks, it would cause the HP to drop to zero in a flash… in other words, one might even end up dying.
The chances of Cline’s friends ending up dead, no, the gaze Cline would give me the moment that happens; that was what I was afraid of. I didn’t wish to have any unpleasant thoughts, I didn’t want to be hurt; with that belief and nothing else in my mind, I abandoned the one who called out to me, and invited me to play as a party for the first time in this world…
Emotions of disgust, unable to be covered up by even my self-torturing monologue, swelled up from the bottom of my mind, and I gritted my teeth, forcing my right hand onto the sword equipped onto my back.
In a clump of bushes slightly ahead, a single blue wild boar POP-ed. They were non-aggressive monsters, so I planned to ignore them all until I got through the grasslands, but out of impulse, I unsheathed the simple straight sword from my initial equipment, starting the motion for the single hit sword skill, «Slant».
Reacting to being targeted, the wild boar glared at me, and violently scratched the ground with its right foreleg. The motion for a charge attack. If I were to falter here, stopping my skill, I will end up receiving a large amount of damage instead. With mixed feelings of calmness and irritation towards myself, I stared at the monster, letting loose my skill while aiming at its weak point, the back of its head.
The sword blade faintly glowed light blue, and along with a sharp sound effect, my virtual body moved, half by its own accord. The system assist, unique to sword skills, was forcibly correcting the slashing motion. While taking care not to go against the movement, I intentionally accelerated my leg and right arm, increasing the power of the skill. Merely for the sake of mastering this skill, I once spent close to ten days using the skill for empty attacks on the practice dummies in the town.
The stats of a level 1 along with the specifications of the initial equipment was obviously extremely weak, but still, if a boosted «Slant» were to deal a critical hit at the weak point of the blue wild boar—its official name, «Frenzy Boar», the HP reduced in a single hit would be just a little more than what it has. The slash I that released head-on hit the mane area of the wild boar that came charging in, returning a strong recoil, and the beast with a total length of around a meter, twenty centimeters was sent flying towards the back violently.
Screaming as it bounced off the ground, it stopped in the air unnaturally. *Bashaa!* An intense sound effect, along with a light effect. Within the blue light, the wild boar turned into thousands of polygon fragments, before blowing up.
I did not even spare a look at the indication of the experience points added, or the dropped material items; on the contrary, without even stopping my feet, I walked right through the drifting light effect. I did not feel even a fraction more refreshed. Plunging the sword into the scabbard on my back with vigor, I faced the dark forest I was finally nearing, I continued running at the speed limit allowed by my agility stat.
Nevertheless, I had to take caution in the forest to avoid the reaction radius of the monsters about, but I still ran through the path as fast as I could and reached my destination, «Horunka Village», right before the setting sun went down.
I quickly surveyed the village of ten buildings, inclusive of both private houses and shops, from its entrance. The color cursors floating in my vision were all tagged as NPCs. It seems that I am the first to arrive, but thinking about it, that was only to be expected. After all, I did dash off at full speed with barely any conversation the moment Kayaba’s tutorial ended.
Firstly would be to head for the weapon shop facing the narrow plaza. Before the start of the tutorial—that is, at the time SAO was still a normal game, I hunted down several monsters along with Cline, so there were a number of raw material items saved up in my storage. I had no desire to increase my manufacturing-type skills, so I would just sell them off to the shopkeeper NPC. Using nearly all of my gold, which had just recently increased, I bought a brown leather half coat with decently high defense.
I touched the instant equip button displayed when I purchased it without any hint of hesitation. Above the white linen shirt and thick grey cloth vest that were my initial equipment, a leather piece of equipment that gave off a feeling of durability came to be while releasing light. I caught my breath for a bit, dwelling in the slightly increased sense of stability, then glanced at the large full-length mirror installed onto the weapon shop’s wall.
I unconsciously muttered so, and the elderly shopkeeper polishing a dagger’s scabbard at the counter raised his eyebrows, before returning to work straight away.
The avatar reflected in the mirror, aside from the height and gender, was one extremely far away from the «Kirito» that I went to great pains to create.
The body was thin and slender, without a trace of masculinity in the facial features. Long black forelocks hung down, the eyes too, were black, or darker than that. An appearance just like mine in reality, reproduced with an astonishing level of detail—
Just by imagining this avatar, like what the previous Kirito had on, equipping dazzling metal armor, a vehement reaction of denial surged through my entire body. Luckily, in SAO, even with lightweight leather equipment, speed-type single-handed sword users were able to gain sufficient defence. Of course, they were unable to become tanks, the ones able to pull monsters’ attention to their own selves, but there was no need for a tank-type build for a solo player.
From now on, I shall stick to leather equipment as far as the situation allows it. Not to mention those as plain-looking as possible.
Deciding thus in my mind, I left the weapon shop. The only thing that improved was the Leather Coat, with the Buckler set aside for now, and my weapon still remained as the initial sword. Rushing into the tool shop next door, I bought as many recovery and antidote potions as I could, turning the money in my possession to an absolute zero.
There was a reason behind why I did not get my weapon replaced. The one and only single-handed straight sword sold in the weapon shop of this village, «Bronze Sword», had more power than the initial equipment, «Small Sword», but its durability easily drops, and it was weak against the corrosion liquid fired by plant monsters too. If one were to go against them frequently, staying with the Small Sword was a better idea. But even saying so, it’s not like I could not stay with the weak initial sword forever. Leaving the tool shop, I flew into a private house deeper in the village with a dash.
Stirring a pot in the kitchen, an NPC that truly gave off the feel of a «village missus» turned and talked while looking at me.
“Good evening, journeying swordsman. You must be tired, I do wish to offer you some food, but I do not have any at the moment. All I can give, is a single cup of water or so.”
Without missing a beat, I answered with clear enunciation, for the system to be able to recognize it.
“That will be fine.”
Actually, just “That’s fine” or “Yes” would be enough, but these things were for setting the mood. However, if I were to say the even more polite phrase, “Don’t mind me”, nothing would happen.
The NPC poured water into an old-looking cup from a water jug, and set it down on the table before me with a clunk. Sitting on the chair, I drank that down in a gulp.
With a slight smile, the missus turned back towards the pot. Despite something simmering, «not giving any food» was meant to be a slight hint. Upon waiting further, the steady sound of a child’s coughing could soon be heard from the other side of the door to the next room. The missus’s shoulders appeared to have fallen with despair.
After having waited for another few seconds, a golden question mark finally lit up above the lady’s head. The sign of a quest’s activation. I called out without a moment’s delay.
“Is something troubling you?”
It was one of many possible phrases, of those used to accept quests from NPCs. Softly turning to face me, the «?» mark atop the missus’s head blinked constantly.
“Actually, journeying swordsman, my daughter…”
—And her daughter was stricken with a severe illness that was completely unfazed even when given medicine from the market (this was inside the pot) and there was no other way to cure her daughter aside from making her drink medicine gotten from the ovules of predatory plants inhabiting the forest further to the west with the problem being that plants of that particular type were of extreme danger and those that actually bloom were rarely seen on top of that resulting in her complete inability to obtain any hence if only a swordsman was able fetch it in her stead to whom she will gladly offer a long sword handed down in her family as an expression of gratitude.
Which was the general synopsis of the missus’s speech that she gave while gesturing, as I listened on patiently. The quest would not progress if not heard to the end, and I was unable to bring myself to harden my heart against the sporadic dry coughs of her daughter during her story.
The missus finally closed her mouth, and the tasks on the quest log display on the left of my vision were refreshed. I got up, and while crying out, “Please leave it to me!”—a line that there was no need for, but it’s to set the mood—I rushed out of the house.
Immediately following that, the time bell melody played throughout the town from the small watchtower in the middle of the plaza. Evening, seven o’clock.
Just how was the condition of the real world now? There was no doubt that a huge uproar had occurred. Beside me, lying down on my bed in my room with the Nerve Gear on my head, my mother or sister, or perhaps both of their figures were probably there.
I wonder just what are they feeling right now. Shock? Doubt? Fear? Or maybe grief…?
However, the fact that I am still living here, within Aincrad, is proof that my mother and sister have not forcibly torn off my Nerve Gear. In other words, they probably do believe in it. In Kayaba Akihito’s warning—and that I would return alive.
In order to live through this death game and return, there is no choice, but for someone to break through to the top floor of this Floating Castle Aincrad that roughly reaches up to a hundred levels, and defeat that monstrous last boss of a form that I can’t even begin to imagine about, to clear the game.
Of course, I don’t even have a single thought of achieving that deed myself. What I should be doing, no, the one and only thing I am capable of: to struggle for my life with all my might, that’s all there is.
First of all, to become strong. At the very least, on this floor, regardless of the type and numbers of monsters coming at me… or perhaps to the extent where I am able to protect my own life even when a malicious player assaults me. I can think about anything beyond that when I reach there.
“…Sorry, mother. For making you worry… Sorry, Sugu. For having something like this happen through those VR games you hate…”
The words that unintentionally leaked out from my lips caused me slight surprise. The last time I called out my sister’s name in short-form was three years ago, or maybe even longer than that.
If—If I were to live on and return, I’ll face her directly and call her «Sugu» once more.
Deciding so meaninglessly, I passed through the village’s gate, striding towards the forest covered in the ominous night.
There is no sky within Aincrad; all that was in its place, was just the bottom of the next floor stretching out a hundred meters overhead, hence the only times when the Sun could be seen directly was restricted to the mornings and evenings. Of course, the Moon follows suit.
Even then, it’s not like daytime is dim with the night pitch black, space lighting is applied like other usual VR spaces, ensuring ample gamma exist. Even in the forest at night, while obviously not to the level of day, a pale blue light illuminates all the way to one’s feet, posing no inconvenience even while running.
That may be true, but the gloominess in one’s heart is another matter all together. Regardless of how much attention is paid to one’s surroundings, the anxiety that something could be right behind still floats up every so often. It was only at times like this that I start to miss the sense of security from playing as a party, but I was beyond the point of no return. Both in terms of distance, as well as what the system dictated.
The number of «skill slots» allocated to a level 1 player was a mere two.
To one of those sides, I filled it up with «one hand sword» straight after the start of the game at one o’clock in the afternoon today, with plans to think hard on what to put in for the other empty slot. However, after experiencing that nightmarish tutorial and leaving behind the Starting City, the chance to mess around with skills was robbed from me.
For solo players, there exist several indispensable skills. The ones most important among those are «Searching» and «Hiding». Each of those two are able to raise the rate of survival, but the former is also able to contribute to increasing the efficiency of hunting, while the latter has its efficiency falling faintly in this forest, due to a certain reason. As such, I chose the searching skill, deciding to add the hiding skill on my next slot increment.
That said, those skills, for that with an already high chance of safety, manpower—that is, by spreading out the searching range through sight while playing as a party, they are not stressed upon much. In other words, the moment I took up «searching», I have already lost all paths except to rush straight through that of a solo player. A time when this decision haunts me might come sooner or later, but at the very least, it wouldn’t right now…
Within my vision, as I walked while thinking of such things in a nook of my mind, a small color cursor was displayed. The reaction range was enlarged due to the searching skill, hence I was still unable to confirm it by sight. The cursor was of the red denoting a monster, but it had a slightly dark tint, perhaps closer to magenta, rather than red.
This reddish shade could be used to loosely determine the relative strength of the enemy. The cursors of the monsters that one cannot defeat regardless of how much one struggles, with an overwhelming gap in levels, is a dark crimson, more intense than blood. Most of those weak monsters, from which barely any experience points can be gained no matter how many one kills, are a light pink, close to white. Fair enemies of the same levels are shown as pure red.
Currently, the cursor appearing within my vision is a red, slightly more intense than average. The name of the monster is «Little Nepent». Despite having little attached to its name, it is a walking predatory plant with a stature of a meter and a half. It was level 3, hence the cursor seen by the level 1 me was painted in purple.
Although it was not an opponent that can be made light of, there was no need for fear either. That is due to the narrow yellow border surrounding the cursor. Showing that it is the target mob for a quest.
I stopped walking for a moment, and after confirming the lack of other mobs around, I turned to the Little Nepent once again and dashed straight on. Back attacks are rarely effective on monsters without eyes, such as this.
Separating from the small path, I turned about the grand, old tree, and its form entered my sight.
On its lower body that brings the Nepenthes species to mind, countless roots were wriggling about as it used them to move. Vines, with pointed leaves attached, twined about at its side and it had a «mouth» for consumption of prey near where its head should be, dribbling a vicious liquid as it snapped open and shut.
Having seen that much, I murmured softly. Occasionally, one with a large flower blooming atop its mouth would appear. The key item need for the quest received at Horunka Village, «Little Nepent’s Ovule», drops from none other than a Nepent with that flower attached. And the rate of one with the flower appearing is likely less than one percent.
However, even if they are normal Nepents, as long as one continues defeating them, the appearance rate of one with a flower will increase. As such, engaging it in battle is not a waste, but there is an important point that one cannot ignore.
That at a rate similar to one with a flower, a type of Nepent with a round fruit attached might appear. That one could be said to be a «trap»; if the fruit is attacked in the midst of battle, it will break off with a deafening sound, letting out fumes with an unpleasant smell. The fumes possess neither poison nor corrosive properties, but it has the extremely troublesome special trait of calling together its fellow Nepents from the surroundings. Not many would be called if the POP of the area was running low, but with the current circumstances, an obviously immeasurable amount should be gathered together.
I focused my eyes again, and upon confirming the lack of the fruit on the enemy, I pulled out the sword on my back once more. The Nepent noticed me at the same time, raising its two vines up high threateningly.
The attack patterns for this mob are to use the pointed edge of its ivy to slash and stab, like a dagger, and expelling corrosive fluids from its mouth. It had much more variety compared to the blue wild boar that merely charged recklessly, but as it does not use sword skills, it could be said to be easier than demi-human mobs such as Kobolds and Goblins.
And above all, its ability slants a fair bit towards the offensive side, with its defense weak. Even in «the previous Aincrad», I was fond of these sorts of monsters. After all, as long as you don’t receive any of the attacks, it is possible to take down several of them within a short time.
And with that howl, spilled out from its prey-trapping mechanism of a mouth, the Nepent thrust its right vine towards me. Reading its trajectory in an instant, I jumped towards the left to dodge it. Turning towards its side in the same motion, I drove my sword into the part joining the pitcher portion and its thick stalk—its weak point.
It was a fitting counter. The Nepent’s HP bar slumped down, with more than twenty percent decreased.
Letting out a voice of anger once again, the plant inflated its pitcher. The preparation motion for the firing of the corrosive fluids. The range was as long as five meters, it’s not possible to dodge it even when retreating straight behind.
Apart from the damaged HP and a drastic drop in equipment durability, thanks to the viscosity, the player’s movement will also be obstructed. However, the effect is limited to a narrow range of 30 degrees ahead. After determining the timing to do so until the very last moment, the instant the expansion of the pitcher portion of its body stopped, I jumped with all my might towards the right this time.
A pale green fluid shot out in a spray with a *Bushuu!*, forming a white vapor as it fell onto the ground. But having avoided getting even a single drop showered on me, I touched down onto the ground with my right foot and brandished my sword, dealing a hard blow at the same weak point once again. Along with a scream, the Nepent’s prey-trapping mechanism bent backwards as a yellow light effect circled around it. A stunned status. It might be strange for a plant to get stunned, but there was no way I could let this chance slip.
Once again, I strongly pulled my sword towards the right. With that movement done in an instant, the sword skill activated, engulfing the blade in a faint, pale blue light.
In this battle—or perhaps for the first time since the start of SAO’s official service, a yell welled out of me, and I violently kicked off the earth. The single-hit, horizontal offensive technique to the neck, «Horizontal». The only thing about it different from «Slant», is whether it’s slanted or horizontal, but this way made it easier to aim for the Little Nepent’s weak point.
Right before the plant mob, with close to fifty percent of its HP lost to the earlier two attacks, recovered from its stun, its exposed stalk was given a straight slash by the sword skill. Of course, I was boosting the force to its maximum with the movement from my kicking foot and right arm. The sword blade glowing with the light effect cut into the tough stalk, and facing what resistance was left for a moment—
“Sukaan!”, as that groan sounded out, the pitcher portion was sliced from the stalk, flying off into mid-air by itself. What remained of the gauge was dyed in deep red, vanishing from the right side. As it turned zero, the Little Nepent’s large form was frozen in blue. And then, it burst out.
With my sword still in the motion kept after the technique I swung out, I ceased movement. The indication of experience points, twice of the wild boar, being added floated into my vision. The battle took approximately forty seconds. If I were to continue this pace, I should be able to attain a pretty decent level of efficiency.
With the drawn sword in my right hand lowered, I looked around the surrounding. Close to the boundary of the searching range, several Little Nepent cursors rose up. Those yet unseen by players.
Before others catch up to these hunting grounds, I must gain as much as I possibly can. With such vigor that the POP of the area will reach the extent of exhaustion. That would be such a high level of egotism that it couldn’t be marveled at, even if I do say so myself, but it wasn’t time for the hypocrisy of a philanthropic solo player.
Having decided on my next prey emotionlessly, I started running into the deep forest once more.
Keeping it up for fifteen minutes, over ten Little Nepents were already slaughtered.
Unfortunately, one with a flower attached had not appeared. In these «real luck-dependant», as referred so in gamer lingo—in other words, reliant on the factor of luck the actual player has—quests, there have not been many incidents where I have been blessed with luck within them in my memories.
Even if it’s a source of irritation, players who can boast of their luck, obtaining super rare items with drop rates of 0.00 or so percent one after another, succeeding in their equipment refinement ten times in a row, and in addition, even getting along well with girls within games; these players certainly do exist. To go up against them, there was no method but to simply earnestly repeat those attempts over and over again. Of course, regarding those attempts, I meant the rare items, with absolutely no intention of spamming greetings whenever I meet with any girls.
In the first place, due to what Kayaba, who could be considered a god, had done, the avatars in-game were presently matched to their appearances in reality, and the population of female players in Aincrad must have taken a sharp dip. It was helpful that one would have no need to doubt if the other party was actually a male «inside», but it must have been quite an ordeal for those intending to take up the role-play of a girl, choosing a name and initial equipment fitting of that. I can do nothing but hope that Kayaba had prepared a name changing item, quest or something of that sort of aid for their sake…
Perhaps due to being ahead of schedule, but as I thought about such things in a portion of my head, defeating the eleventh plant monster, a light fanfare rang out within my hearing. At the same time, a golden light effect wrapped up my body. Along with what I had gained from hunting wild boars with Cline beside the city, before the start of the death game, I have finally exceeded the number of experience points needed to level up.
If I were to be playing in a party, calls of “congrats” would probably be springing up from all around in that instant. Instead, while listening to the rustling from the treetops of the old trees ringing out, I stored my sword back into the scabbard on my back. I drew back my index and middle fingers, swinging them downwards, pulling out the main menu window. Switching to the status tab, for the 3 precious status up points added, I allocated 1 into Strength, 2 in Agility. In SAO, where magic does not exist, these two were the only visible statuses, so there was no real need to hesitate. In exchange, a huge number, covering all sorts of battle-type and production-type skills were set up—or so it seems, hence it will likely be a large cause of worry when the number of skill slots eventually increase.
However, on this very day, to survive through this single hour, I have no choice, but to risk my life. Before thinking about the future, I must first ensure that I am adequate, level-wise, for a so-called, «safety margin».
Finishing the status up process, I closed the window, and behind me—
Suddenly, some sort of stiff clapping sound repeatedly rang out.
I wildly jumped back, placing my hands onto my sword’s handle. Getting absorbed in operating the window while in the field, letting down my vigilance towards my back was a mistake that even a beginner wouldn’t make.
Berating myself as I prepared for battle, what I saw was a being that should not have appeared within this forest, a humanoid monster—not; it was an actual human.
And it wasn’t a NPC. It was a player.
A man slightly taller than myself. Around the same age. His defensive equipment were the light leather armor and buckler sold at Horunka Village. Weapon was the same Small Sword from the initial equipment. That said, it wasn’t exactly drawn out. In a stance where his empty hands hit each other in front of his body, he left his mouth agape.
In other words, the clapping sound effect from earlier was the sound of applause from this man—or perhaps boy would be more fitting—towards my level up.
After I took a short breath as I lowered my hands, the boy showed an awkward smile, bowing his head down for a moment.
“…S-Sorry, for startling you like that. I should have called out from the start.”
“……No, me too… sorry for the overreaction.”
Mumbling a reply, I stuffed my hands that lost their purpose into the pockets of my half coat. The boy, whose features gave off a first impression of seriousness, widened his faltering smile, and made some sort of gesture, bringing the fingers on his right hand up to around his right eye. As he lowered his hand with embarrassment immediately after, I realized. He definitely wore glasses back in the real world.
“C-Congrats, on your level up. That was pretty quick.”
I reflexively lowered my head towards the boy’s words. It felt off, as if he had seen through my thoughts of “If I were to be playing in a party” from earlier. I shook my head from side to side in a fluster.
“It’s not that fast… —And if you are going to say that, you’re fast too. I thought it would be two or three hours more before anyone reaches this forest.”
“Ahaha, I thought I would be the first to arrive too. The path to get here is rather confusing, after all.”
The instant I heard those words, I finally noticed, though belatedly.
He is the same as me.
Not in terms of equipment and gender. Neither as the position of a prisoner in this death game of SAO players.
This boy knew, just like me. The location of Horunka Village. The reason why it was better not to buy a Bronze Sword. In addition, the area with the largest POP of Little Nepents. In other words—he was an «original β tester» . Just like how I was.
The world’s first VRMMO game, Sword Art Online, begun official service with ten thousand people gathered as players today, 6th November, 2022. However, three months before that, offered to a mere thousand people through a lottery, was the game’s play trial—that is to say, a β test was carried out.
In that test flooded by tens of thousands of applications, that was the only time I had an unbelievable stroke of real luck (though it could be considered as terribly bad luck by this point in time), getting selected. The test period lasted the whole of August. With the summer vacation allowing it, I continued to full dive from morning to night—though to be accurate, it was from the afternoon to early morning, bustling about Aincrad, which had not yet become a cage of death, in a daze, brandishing my sword, and died. Over and over again.
Through endless attempts, the trial and error method, I accumulated an extensive amount of knowledge and experience.
The small paths and ways of escape not shown on the map. The locations of towns and villages, the stock shops keep. The price and specifications of the equipment sold there. The activation requirements of quests and how to clear them. The spawn areas of monsters, their powers, and also, their weaknesses—
It was due to those bits and pieces of knowledge that I’ve gotten here alive—deep within a forest far from the Starting City. If I was a complete newbie that did not participate in the β test, I would likely not even think of leaving the city alone.
The same could be said of the boy standing several meters in front.
There was no doubt the one-handed swordsman with hair slightly longer than mine went through the experience of the β test just like me. Not just how he knows of the roads of this forest that resembles a maze, but even the stance he adopts as he stands too, shows a familiarization with the original VR engine used by SAO.
The guess that I developed to that extent within several seconds was easily supported by a single phrase from the boy.
“You’re doing it too, right? The «Secret Medicine of the Forest» quest.”
That was unmistakably the title of the quest I received at the private house in the village earlier. There was no more reason to deny if he had already read my intentions that far. Upon nodding, he grinned while shifting his hand to those unseen glasses once again.
“That’s an indispensable quest to one-handed sword users, after all. With that «Anneal Blade» reward, it can used all the way till the third floor’s labyrinth.”
“…The appearance isn’t much to talk about though, that weapon.”
As I added that bit in, the boy let out a bright “Ahahaha” laugh. After finally ending that laughter, he opened his mouth after a short pause. What came out were words slightly different from my expectations.
“This is a rare chance, so how about working together on the quest?”
“Eh… I do believe that was an individual-only quest though.”
I replied so spontaneously. There are quests that allow all members of a party to clear it by running through it as a party, and those that do not, and the type of this «Secret Medicine of the Forest» belonged to the latter. There was only one of the crucial key item, «Little Nepent’s Ovule», hence only one would drop, and even when challenging it as a party, the number of items that need to be collected would end up having to be equivalent to the number of people around in the end.
However, the boy gave a smile as though he had predicted my words.
“Well, that might be true, but the rate of a «one with a flower» will increase if the normal ones get hunted down as much as possible. Pushing that to the extremes as a pair is more effective.”
It certainly was just as he had said. I couldn’t aim for any monsters not by themselves as a solo, but with two, we could go up against two of them at the same time. Along with advantage of shortening the time spent choosing targets, the number that could be hunted down would increase accordingly—and with that, the chance of one with a flower should similarly increase.
Just as I was about to nod in acceptance, I harshly stiffened my avatar up.
That was because I thought about the right I had to form a party now, after having abandoned that cheerful single-edged sword user, Cline… the first friend I made, just a short hour or so ago.
However, the boy took my hesitation the wrong way, and shook his head in a fluster.
“No, it’s fine, you don’t have to feel any obligation to form a party. You are the first one who got here, so of course, I’ll concede the first key item to you. If we continue hunting at that boosted rate, the second will definitely drop soon, so if you can stick with me till then…”
“Ah… aah, that’s right… then, excuse me, but…”
With that incoherent reply, I nodded. If we were to fight as a party, all drops from monsters would go into not our individual storage spaces, but a temporary one instead, so technically, it would be possible for him to make off with the key item for the quest. That was likely what was thought as the source of my misgivings. Although that did not even cross my mind yet in actual fact, there was no worth in correcting that now.
Towards my assent, the boy laughed once again, before he stepped up and offered his right hand.
“That’s good to hear; well then, I’ll be in your care for the time being. I am «Coper».”
If he was originally a β tester like me, it wouldn’t be odd if I knew him previously, but I had no recollection of that name.
Of course, there was the chance that he might be using a different name from during the β period, and in the first place, his name wasn’t displayed on his color cursor, so it couldn’t even be confirmed that that was his «real name». Similarly, I could use a false name as well. However, I am horrible with character naming, so for me, having used a simple abbreviation of my real name in the various net games I’ve played thus far, there was no way I could do something like making up a false name in an instant.
“…Do treat me well. I am «Kirito».”
Upon giving my name, the boy—Coper lightly tilted his head to the side.
“…Kirito… eh, just where did I…”
Somehow, it seems that the other party knew me indirectly from the β period. Reflexively thinking that it might have a negative effect, I immediately spoke out.
“That’s probably someone else. Come on, let’s get hunting. We have to get two «ovules» before the other players get here.”
“Y…Yea, that’s right. Let’s go for it.”
Nodding to each other, we targeted a couple of Little Nepents grouped together nearby and dashed towards them.
As expected of an original β tester, Coper’s sense for battle was nothing to scoff at.
He knew quite a bit about the distance to keep away while using a one-handed sword, the behavior monsters exhibit, and the usage of sword skills. In my opinion, he was focusing slightly too much on defense, but that was only understandable in this situation. We naturally settled into a routine with good synergy, with Coper first luring the target, and me striking its weak point with all my might, reducing our prey into polygon fragments one after another as a pair.
The hunting went smoothly, but there was still one large irregularity that came to mind.
Even until now, we did not exchange a single comment about the situation that SAO was currently in. Was Kayaba’s proclamation the truth? If we die here, will we really die? Just how will this world turn out from now on…? All of those questions must have occurred to Coper as well, but there was no talk of anything beyond items and quests between us, from the start to the very end. And despite that, our conversation truly flowed naturally.
In other words—it must have been because both of us were heavy MMOs addicts. Even if the world were to change into a death game, even if the log out button were to disappear, as long as we are in the game, it’s the time for quests and experience earning. We are likely beyond help now, but thinking back on it, Coper too, went to the extent of applying for the β test as well, so there was no question that his very core was that of a net gamer. To put it simply, beyond the fear of death, we merely prioritized our urge to strengthen our characters…
No, that’s not it.
Surely, both Coper and I are still unable to look reality in the eye yet.
Leveling up efficiency; exhausting the POP rate; even if we go through these near-sighted calculations, our thoughts on the foundation are still in suspension. Averting our sight away from the reality of the Nerve Gear discharging high intensity electromagnetic waves, frying our brains upon our HP reaching zero, and as an avenue of escapism, simply aiming for what is «ahead» without prior consideration. Comparatively, the players who remained in the Starting City could even be said to be significantly more calm in their understanding of the situation.
However, if that was so—
The fact that I was going up against dreadful monsters like this right now, fighting on my absolute own free will, would mean that I certainly was unable to comprehend the current reality. Unaffected by the anxiety of dying for real being the entire basis for why I am still able to dodge these pointed vines and dangerous corrosive fluids capable of killing me off, with the slightest of movements.
The instant I realized that, a premonition came to me.
Aah… that in the nearby future, I’ll definitely die.
«An actual death», in other words, the first rule of a death game; to not understand that rule, was to not look out for the line that one must not cross. It was no different from walking at the edge of a cliff in the midst of darkness, entrusting all to fate. Thinking back on it, exiting the city on my own, stepping into this forest area with poor vision, was already a deed at the extremes of foolhardiness…
*Gulp!* An intense chill ran down my spine, going all the way to the tips of my hands and feet, putting a stop to my avatar’s movement.
At that exact moment, I aimed at the Little Nepent—just how many I had already downed escapes me—and swung my sword towards its weak point; if I had been frozen stiff for even half a second more, I would have definitely eaten a painful counter in return.
Coming back to my senses, the re-activated sword skill, «Horizontal», sliced off the plant’s stalk in my precarious situation. A shattering sound rang out, and formless glass-like flakes passed through me, scattering into the air.
At my back, battling another Nepent, was Coper, who fortunately seemed to have not noticed my abnormal behavior. Slower by five seconds and annihilating the enemy without any usage of skills, he turned around with a sigh.
“……It’s still not out…”
His voice was tainted with traces of fatigue as expected. Over an hour had passed since he started fighting as a team with me. Although close to over a hundred and fifty Nepents must have been taken down by the two of us already, the POP of the «one with a flower» has yet to happen.
To shake off the chills that have yet to cease reverberating throughout my frame, I gave my shoulders a firm jerk.
“It might be possible that the chance of it appearing was changed since β times… It’s not like it’s the first time I heard of a MMO that lowered the rate of rare drops with the start of official service…”
“…That’s true… —So, what now? We did manage to level up considerably, and the durability of our weapons dropped by quite a bit, so returning to town for the time being might…”
When Coper reached that point in his speech, a faint red light came to life under a tree, a mere ten meters or so away from us.
Rough and unevenly-shaped polygon blocks were rendered, connecting to each other, forming a fuzzy image. It was a sight I was used to—the POP of a monster.
As Coper mentioned earlier, we have gained quite a lot of experience points with the «excess farming» we’ve done until now, with both of us reaching level 3. The level suitable to clear the first floor was around 10, from my memories of the β period, so although it was still too early to proceed onwards, there was already no need to scramble for every single Little Nepent around. The color of the enemies’ color cursors was also changing from magenta to red.
The two of us stood still on the grassy patch, and continued absentmindedly gazing at the spawning. Within several seconds, the Nepent, number one hundred and several tens, received a distinct appearance of its own, setting out on its path with its vines coiling about. A lustrous green stalk, the proof that it’s alive; an unique speckled pattern adorning its prey-trapping mechanism; and above that—glistening a toxic red even beneath this dismal lightning, an enormous flower that resembles a tulip.
We remained watching that creature for several more seconds in a daze, before silently turning to each other.
A muted war cry. Swinging our individual swords forth, with a vigor much like that of a cat assailing a mouse, we charged towards the «flower attached one» that had finally appeared and—
Right before that, I did an emergency brake with both feet while restraining Coper who was beside me with my left hand.
Why!? And as he turned towards me with that written on his face, I first flicked out the index finger on my left hand to grab his attention, then pointed it at what laid beyond the «flower attached one» far away.
It was hard to see, obstructed by many trees, but the shadow of another Nepent was visible in that direction. Spotting it was thanks to the searching skill with my slightly improved proficiency at it. Perhaps due to not taking up the searching skill yet, but Coper had to strain his eyes through the darkness of the forest, taking several seconds before finally appearing to have confirmed it by sight.
If the Nepent beyond the one with a flower was a normal one, there would be no reason to hesitate in attacking. But of all the absurd timings it could have appear at, a big lump just had to be right above that second prey-trapping mechanism, gently swaying around.
If that were to be a flower as well, I would have no choice but to retract the proclamation of my «low real luck». That said, what was dangling on the end of the slender stalk of the second one, was a spherical ball with a diameter of around twenty centimeters—a «seed». If even a trifling graze was inflicted onto that, swelling out as though it could burst open any moment, it would immediately rupture and cause foul fumes to spread out. Those fumes would draw in swarms of rampaging Nepents, doubtlessly plunging us into peril from which we could not hope to escape, even with higher levels.
Just what should we do.
I was lost. There was the possibility of defeating the «one with a seed» without hurting the seed with my combat capabilities. However, that was not definite. If there was even the slightest chance of death, it would be best to be patient and wait until the ones with the flower and seed are separated, far away from each other.
However, there was a single rumor I heard during the β period that added to my dilemma. Regarding the Little Nepent «with the flower», a precious, rare monster that drops the key item for a quest, if left alone without hunting it down, it would change into the extremely dangerous trap monster, the «one with a seed»… or at least, I believe I heard so, in those days.
It was not impossible; or rather, it certainly was a plausible tale. Even while looking on from these bushes, the petals of the flower on the Nepent, moving about around ten meters ahead, could be seen falling as they fluttered, a perfectly round seed growing out, resulting in a group of two Nepents with seeds when counted with the other one there—or so it might turn out.
“…Just what should we do…”
I murmured thus without thinking. The fact that I faltered here was proof that I had yet to draw the line between danger and safety. In this state of hesitation, falling back seems to be the rational choice, but I have to question my rationality at this current moment.
While I was frozen, as though afflicted by a stun-causing attack, Coper’s low whisper reached my ears.
“—Let’s go. I’ll draw the «one with the seed»’s attention, please finish off the «one with the flower» quick.”
And without waiting for a reply, those boots from the initial equipment stepped forth.
I replied, following behind Coper.
I had yet to resolve my hesitation. I had only put it off. But with this situation advancing, I could do nothing but to shift my focus onto this sword and avatar. If I was unable to handle even that, I would really die.
The one with the flower was the first to notice Coper’s approach, twirling its body around. “Shaaaaa!”, the borders of the prey-trapping mechanism, appearing much like the lips of a human being, bellowed out while quivering.
Veering to the right, aiming at the one with the seed further within, Coper still held the attention of the one with the flower. Having gotten closer, I took advantage of the opportunity, brandishing the sword in my right hand, with all doubts thrown to the wind.
Even if it was a rare monster with an appearance rate of lower than one percent, the Nepent with a flower had stats barely any different from the normal ones. Its defense and attack were slightly higher, but that deviation meant nothing to me, having gotten to level 3 after over an hour of hunting.
Even with all these doubts lingering in my mind, the accumulated experience of battles from the β period made my avatar move instinctively, evading attacks from the Nepent’s vines by parrying and stepping aside, piling up counterattacks one after another. Its HP gauge turned yellow in ten seconds, and I started up a sword skill to finish it off after a single jump backwards.
With the increase in my one-handed straight sword proficiency with the numerous battles, it felt like the activation speed and range of skills have also increased. When the Nepent attempted to spew out its corrosive fluids, before managing to inflate its prey-trapping mechanism even halfway, its fleshy stalk was sliced apart by the blue arc of the single-hit «Horizontal» letting out a creaking sound.
The shriek that echoed out too, was slightly different from the norm. The decapitated pitcher portion spun as it dropped to the ground, scattering away as polygons—but before that, the flower at the top of its head fell down delicately.
A fist-sized ball, shining faintly, tumbled out from its insides. The thing rolled all the way to my feet, and just as it touched the tips of my boots, the Nepent’s trunk and prey-trapping mechanism blasted apart, one after another.
I bent my body over, picking up the gleaming sphere—the «Little Nepent’s Ovule» with my left hand. In order to obtain this key item, over a hundred and fifty monsters must have been defeated, not to mention getting stuck in that state of indecision over one thing or another.
As that came to my mind, I got the desire to idly sit down in some meadow, but it was still far too early to release this tension. I had to back up Coper, who was taking the responsibility for drawing the attention of the dangerous «one with a seed» a short distance away.
“Sorry for the wait!”
Shouting out as I lifted my head, I dropped the ovule in my left hand into the belt pouch on my waist. It would honestly give me more relief if I opened up the window and stored it in my storage space, but it was not the time to leisurely operate it like so. I restored my grip onto my sword, and ran several steps—
For some reason, my feet appeared to have stopped all by themselves.
I didn’t understand it too. Just right ahead, the partner that I unexpectedly gained, Coper, was skillfully handling the Nepent’s assaults with his sword and buckler. Perhaps because he specialized in defense from the start, but it seemed that he had enough control to face this way, even in the midst of battle. Giving off an aura of seriousness, with slightly narrowed eyes, he stared into me—with those eyes.
Something in his gaze caused my feet to halt.
What was it? Why was Coper looking on me with those eyes? As if they were filled with distrust, or possibly pity.
Strongly fending off the Nepent’s vine attack with the buckler, as Coper broke off the bout, he delivered a short line while looking at me, who was standing stock still.
And he returned his sight to the monster, forcefully raising the sword in his right hand above his head. The blade glistened light blue. A sword skill was activated. That motion—was that of the single-hit vertical slash, «Vertical».
“No… that’s bad, isn’t it…”
Even with the confusion caused by the earlier statement, I murmured so with my mind numb.
The upper portion of the stalk, a weak point of the Little Nepent, was obstructed by its sturdy prey-trapping mechanism, and as such, vertical attacks are ineffective. Additionally, there was a clear reason why Coper should not be using a vertical slash now. He should also be well aware of that.
However, the sword skill was already beyond the point of no return. The avatar, half taken over by the system assist, kicked the ground savagely, and the glowing blade was driven into the Nepent’s prey-trapping mechanism—or at least, what was above it, striking that wobbling, round «seed».
That explosive sound shook the forest at a monstrous volume.
This was the second time I heard this sound. The first was of course, during the β test period. At that time, the members of my ad hoc party carelessly poked it with a spear, and due to the swarm of Little Nepents attracted by the odor, the four of us at level 2 to 3 died before we could even try to escape.
Coper’s «Vertical» that smashed the seed continued, slicing apart the Nepent’s prey-trapping mechanism as well, cutting through its HP gauge. The monster soon blew apart, but the vague green fumes left behind in the air and that queer stench that reached my nose did not fade away.
Facing Coper, who had avoided the fumes and jumped aside with vigor, I spat words out in a daze.
It wasn’t an accident. That attack was intentional. Coper slashed that «seed» of his own free will, bursting it open.
The original β tester who fought alongside me for this one hour repeated himself without looking at me.
From the direction of that avatar, I saw a great number of color cursors appear.
From the right too. From the left too. And also, from the back too. They were the Little Nepents drawn by the fumes. There was no mistake that every one of the individual beings POP-ed in this area were gathering, without a single one lacking. There were twenty in total… no, there were easily over thirty. It’s impossible; the instant I decided that, my feet began to try and escape by their own accord, but that too, was impossible. Even if I were to break through the blockade, the highest movement speed of Nepents was far higher than one would be led to believe from their outer appearance, and I would befall the attention of other monsters before I got away. Retreat was no longer possible—
In other words, this was suicide?
Was I dragged along, only to die here? Was Coper crushed under the pressure from the fear of «death in reality», wishing to retire from this death game?
Frozen stiff as I stood there, I wondered vacantly.
However, that guess was an error.
Not bothering to even look at me any further, Coper, with his sword already returned to its scabbard on the left side of his waist, started to run towards a thicket nearby having turning to that direction. There was no hesitation in his movements. He had not given up on living through this yet. However.
I squeezed the words that almost couldn’t escape out from my throat.
The swarm of Little Nepents was flooding in from all directions. Slipping through any gaps, or cutting a path through with a sword would be difficult, and even if that actually worked, the enemies would impede any attempts to continue. No, in the first place, if Coper intends to escape now of all times, just why did he slice that seed with «Vertical»? Perhaps he planned to die, but lost his nerve upon seeing the huge mass of monsters, and thought of struggling to the bitter end?
I thought through those things in a nook of my mind; over half of it already numb, as I followed behind Coper who dove into a small thicket. With the dense growth of leaves obstructing, his avatar went out of sight, but his color cursor was still displayed as—…
It wasn’t. He shouldn’t have gotten twenty meters away yet, but Coper’s color cursor had vanished from my vision. He might had used a «teleport crystal» to perform an emergency retreat; was what I thought for a moment, but that should not be it. That item was terribly valuable, and there was no way he managed to buy it at the beginning like this, not to mention that the 1st floor had neither shops that sold it, nor monsters that dropped it.
In that case, there was only one answer. The special effects of the «Hiding» skill. Erasing the sight of the color cursor from players, and not drawing the attention of monsters. Coper did not leave the second skill slot empty; he had already taken up the hiding skill. That might have been why when we first met, I did not notice him approaching me from behind…
As I felt the ground quake beneath the groups of monsters gushing forth, I came to that conclusion, and finally—though it was much too slow, I realized.
Coper was not fleeing from a suicide attempt after getting a taste of fear.
He was trying to kill me.
Going to the extent of breaking the «seed», gathering together the Nepents from all around. Followed by concealing nothing but his own body with the hiding skill, all by himself. Rallying over thirty monsters’ undivided attention onto me, who was incapable of hiding. A truly orthodox modus operandi, of how «MPK» works.
Upon understanding that, his motive was clear as day. To steal the quest key item, «Little Nepent’s Ovule», that I picked up just a moment ago. If I were to die, the item would drop right there from within my equipment, or the pouch it was in. After the mass of Nepents have dispersed, Coper could pick up the «ovule», return to the village and clear the quest.
“……So that’s it……”
As I set my sight upon the horde of abnormalities, close enough for me to not have to rely on the color cursors any longer, I whispered.
—Coper. He was not escaping from the reality of the situation. It was the opposite. He had already acknowledged the reality of this so-called death game, advancing onto the stage as a proper player. His decision, was to swindle, outwit and rob other players, for the sake of his own life.
Surprisingly, I felt no enmity rise up within me.
Even though I fell right into the trap, and was about to be murdered, curiously enough, my mind was composed. Part of that might have been due to my recognition of that single «hole» existing in Coper’s plan.
“…Coper. You didn’t know about it, did you.”
I have no idea if he could hear me, but I articulated so, in the direction of the thicket a slight distance away.
“This must have been the first time you took up the «hiding» skill. It may be a useful skill, but it’s not quite bulletproof. Against monsters that rely on senses aside from sight, it’s not very effective. For example, something like a Little Nepent.”
Rampaging as they assembled, a cluster of the predatory plants storming in like an avalanche, were clearly heading towards the thicket Coper was hidden in. He must have noticed how he constantly drew attention despite hiding by now. That was the exact reason why I took up searching over hiding.
Feeling calmer than ever, I turned towards the rear, and laid my eyes onto the ranks of Nepents rushing in from there. The enemies from behind will be assailing Coper, so it’s fine to leave them alone. Before the situation concludes behind, if I were to annihilate those in front, there might just be a chance to return alive. Of course, the odds of that were one to ten thousand though.
Despite death approaching close enough to graze me, I am still unable to face it as reality, and took up my Small Sword as I always did. Its durability was debilitated from the hundred and tens of battle it went through till now, with chips and scratches everywhere on its blade. If I were to wield it roughly, it might even break apart during this battle.
Reducing the number of slashes to the minimum. Hitting exactly below the enemies’ prey-trapping mechanism, their weak point, with a «Horizontal» at full boosted power as I kicked off and swung my arm, I slaughtered each in one blow. If I wasn’t capable of doing that at the very least, it was certain that the worst manner of death would greet me when I lose my armaments.
I heard the sounds of the monsters’ howls and attacks from behind, as well as Coper, who seemed to be shouting something.
But I turned back no more, and focused all my senses on the foes I was up against.
The few minutes since then—or perhaps the few tens of minutes since then, I had no proper recollections of any details from then, even after the passing of much time.
I lost most of my logical thinking. All I was aware of, was the enemies before me, that plain sword, and the flesh guiding it—or to be accurate, it was only the motion commands issued by my brain.
Predicting the types and trajectories of the attacks coming from the monstrosities by their motions, avoiding those with minimum movement, countering by sinking a sword skill in. What I have done in the battles up till now, but with the inefficiencies in the motions ironed out, the precision raised.
In SAO, «unmissable magic attacks» do not exist. As a result, theoretically, if a player’s senses of judgment and reaction were ridiculously high, it would be possible to dodge any and every attack without pause. That said, I don’t have that much skill as a player, and there’s way too many enemies, so some sort of flawless execution would not happen. Vines stretched out from all four directions, grazing me, and drops of the corrosive fluids hurled at me made holes in my leather coat one after another. My HP gauge was whittled as time passed, my virtual, actual «death» took another step closer.
However, I narrowly avoided any direct hits, and continued to swing my sword.
If I were to suffer from even a half second delay due to a direct hit, it would lead to a stream of consecutive blows that will not cease until my death. Just which will happen first: damage shaving my HP down to zero, or getting my movement sealed and dying in an instant?
During the β test period, no, before even that, within the numerous MMO games I played, I have fallen into such desperate situations countless times. At times like those, after making a slight attempt at escaping my doom, I would think about how annoying it was to recover from the death penalty, or maybe how it would be nice if my weapon didn’t drop at least, as I sat back and waited for my HP to fall to zero.
If I wished for a «sense of reality» in this world, I would just have to do that now. At the very least, I would be able to find whether Kayaba’s declaration was the truth, or a malicious prank.
It felt like a small voice whispered that within my mind. But I ignored it, and continued decapitating the heads of the endlessly appearing Nepents with naught but «Slants» and «Horizontals».
Because I didn’t want to die? Well, that’s for sure.
But, there was one another thing, some other motive spurring me on to fight. At this current moment, forcibly warping the shape of my mouth—something was changing its form into one that could even be considered to resemble a smile.
This is it, was what I thought.
This is SAO. Despite having dived in for over two hundred hours in the β test, I was completely unable to perceive the true essence of this game named SAO. I haven’t been fighting for an actual cause.
The sword was not simply an item classified as a weapon, and the body was not simply an object capable of motion. When synchronized with one’s consciousness to the upmost limits, in that moment it all came together, there was a new phase that I could reach. I was only able to catch a glimpse of the entrance to that world still. I want to know what lies ahead. I want to keep moving ahead.
I howled, and kicked off the ground.
A «Horizontal», leaving behind even its own light effect, swung out and caused the prey-trapping mechanism of two Nepents, lined up in a file, to soar ever higher.
Immediately after, from a location slightly away at my back, a remarkably sharp sound rang out fleetingly with a *Kashaaan!*.
It was distinctively different from the sound of a monster blowing up into scattered fragments. A effect that heralded a player’s death.
Coper, who was surrounded by over ten of them, had finally expended all of his energy.
I started to turn around by reflex, but resisting that, I slaughtered the last two around me, one after another.
Then I finally turned behind.
The Nepents who killed off their first target directed their bloodlust towards me. Their numbers accounted to seven. That would make it over five of them that Coper managed to drive off in that situation. The reason why he did not scream aloud in his final moments was most likely not due to lacking the composure to do so, but for the pride he held as an original β tester.
Mouthing the standard line in response to those «logging out» of net games, I brandished my now corroded sword right before me. It could have even been possible to escape from this situation right now, but that thought didn’t even occur to me.
Of the seven Nepents who caught sight of their new prey and were rushing in, a deep red «flower» just had to be blooming right at the top of the prey-trapping mechanism belonging to the one leading.
If only he didn’t try to kill me through MPK, and just worked hard at it for a little longer, Coper would have gotten his very own «ovule» as well. But, there was no purpose in saying that now. These were the consequences of those actions. That’s all.
My HP gauge was lower than forty percent, and about to change to the critical red area after a little more, but I entertained thoughts of death no more. I sensed the two on the right side within those seven initiating the motion for their corrosive fluid spray, dashed there with all my might, and used a single shot to take care of the enemies who were stuck charging up.
I brought down the remaining five in the next twenty-five seconds, and the battle was over.
On the spot where Coper was obliterated, his Small Sword and Buckler laid fallen. Both were worn out, much like my sword.
He had fought on this Floating Castle Aincrad for several hours, and thus, died. To be exact, his HP went to zero, and his virtual body was scattered. However, there was no means to check if that unknown somebody, in a street of the real Japan, lying down in a house somewhere, who manipulated that avatar had really died. All I could do, was bid farewell to this swordsman named Coper.
After thinking briefly, I picked up the sword, and thrust it deep into the roots of the biggest tree around. Next, I placed the «ovule», that dropped from the second one with a flower, onto that root.
“Here’s yours, Coper.”
I murmured, and stood up. Items left on the ground will have their endurance gradually dropping, eventually vanishing, but it should be able to serve as a gravestone marker for several hours.
With my back turned towards it, to return to the village, I began walking on the path heading east.
Even though I witnessed the death of my partner, who fooled, faced death, and was fooled, while barely living through by the skin of my teeth, the «sense of reality of this death game» that I held was as flimsy as always. But at the very least, the urge to get stronger had increased compared to before. Not for the sake of staying alive, but to understand the limits of sword techniques in SAO, though that may be a desire unspeakable to others.
Perhaps due to the POP drying up from our duo’s over hunting as expected, without running into any encounters with monsters, I arrived back at Horunka.
The time was—nine o’clock at night. From the end of Kayaba’s tutorial, three hours have already passed.
As expected, I could see several players in the village’s plaza. They were probably original β testers as well. At this rate, only those who had experienced the β will proceed onwards, and a gap might eventually form between them and a great many of those without that experience… but that was not something that I had the rights to be worried over.
I had no desire to converse with others right now, so before the other players noticed me, I went through the alleyways, and headed for the inner portion of the village. Fortunately, the NPCs’ behavior patterns seemed to have yet to progress into their late night versions, so the window of the house I headed for was still lit with an orange glow.
Striking the knocker for courtesy’s sake, and then opening the door, the missus turned around, with something simmering on the stove as always. Floating above her head was the golden «!» that denoted a quest in progress.
Stepping up to her, from inside the pouch on my waist, I took out a sphere faintly shining light green—the «Little Nepent’s Ovule» and handed it over.
The missus’s face lit up, looking as though she was twenty years younger in an instant, and accepted the ovule. As she babbled on with words of gratitude, the quest log at the left of my vision updated.
Gently putting the ovule into the pot, the missus, who changed into a young wife, walked over to a large chest placed at the south of the room, and opened its lid. From inside, she quietly took out a long sword in a red scabbard, and though it may seem decrepit, it gave off a presence entirely different from that of the initial equipment. Returning to my front, she held out the sword with both hands, along with words of gratitude once again.
I murmured that single word, and accepted it. My right hand could feel its evident weight. The sensation it gave off felt like one point five times that of the Small Sword. The sword that really served me well even during the β—this «Anneal Sword»; I would require some practice to get used to it once again.
The quest completion message floated in the middle of my vision, the bonus experience points added, and my level went to four.
The old me would have burst out of the village, full of spirit, swinging my new sword at the «Large Nepent» enemies that appear deep in the forest to the west.
But I totally didn’t feel up to that at the moment, and after storing the new sword in my storage space, I sat down on a chair close by with a thud.
The quest was already completed, so the young wife won’t even offer a glass of water. With her back turned to me, she was stirring the simmering pot on the stove once more.
As surges of fatigue finally washed over me, I absentmindedly continued to watch over the NPC’s behavior. I wonder just how long did I stay that way. Within my vision, the young wife took out a wooden cup from the shelves, and filled it with the pot’s contents using a ladle.
Holding the steaming cup with both hands earnestly, with significantly more care than the sword earlier, she walked towards the door in the interior.
I stood up without any real reason, and followed behind the wife. The NPC that opened the door stepped towards a dimly lit room. If I’m not wrong, during the β period, when I tried to open this door by myself, it should have been locked away by the system. Despite lingering hesitations, I too, stepped over the edge.
Over there was a small bedroom. It was furnished with a dresser by the wall and a bed by the window, along with a single small chair.
And, on the bed lied a girl, who looked to be seven, or eight years of age.
The paleness on her face was apparent even under the moonlight. Her neck was thin too, with the shoulders peeking out from the sheets bony.
Upon noticing her mother, the girl lifted her eyelids slightly, and next—she looked at me. Eeh, as I stood stock still with that thought, those lips, lacking in color, formed into a faint smile.
The mother reached out with her right hand, propping up the girl’s back. That instant, the girl’s body bent over, gripped by a coughing fit. Those light brown braids shook weakly over the back covered in a white negligee.
I checked the color cursor displayed near the girl once more. The NPC tag was unmistakably attached to it. Her name was «Agatha». That would be pronounced as Ah-ga-tha, I guess.
While stroking the girl—Agatha’s back gently with her right hand, the mother sat down on the chair by the side, and spoke.
“Agatha. Here, the traveling swordsman got some medicine for you from the forest. If you drink this, you’ll get better for sure.”
And, she made the girl take a hold of the cup that her left hand held.
Agatha nodded with a cute voice, and holding on to the cup with her small hands, she gulped it down.
A brilliant golden light poured out with a *Paa* sound effect, color instantly returned to her face, and the girl jumped out from her bed and started running around—nothing of that sort happened. However, as Agatha lowered the cup, it might be just me, but I thought a slight tinge of red returned to her cheeks.
Returning the now empty cup to her mother, Agatha looked at the frozen me once again, and grinned.
Her lips moved, her somewhat stuttering words flowed out like demure jewels.
“Thank you, onii-chan.”
Without being able to give a proper answer, my two eyes opened wide as that sound leaked out.
In the past——
In the far off past, it felt like something like this happened.
My sister… Suguha caught a cold, and stayed in bed. My father was appointed overseas as always, and my mother was unable to cancel a trip that she had to make to the company, hence I was in charge of nursing her for a mere two hours. That was, elementary school… just which grade was it in? Honestly, I did think of it as a little bothersome, but I didn’t leave her alone to go play, and wiped down Suguha’s sweat, changing the cooling patch on her forehead.
When I did that, that girl suddenly said that she wanted to drink some ginger tea.
I reluctantly called up my mother, and asked for its recipe. It just needed ginger extract and honey to be dissolved in hot water, a procedure more simple than even cookery in Aincrad if done carelessly, but to me who had never even dabbled in cooking, it was of extremely high difficulty. After carrying the ginger tea, made while getting my own fingers grated away with the grater, to Suguha’s bedside, that girl who’s usually full of spiteful language, looked up to me with a meek face——
All of a sudden, those sounds leaked out from my throat without my doing.
I want to meet up with them.
I want to meet up with Suguha, with my mother, with my dad.
The overtly intense urge pierced through my avatar, causing me to stumble, and my two hands landed onto Agatha’s bed. I lowered my knees onto the bedding like that, gripping onto the white sheets tight, and those coarse sounds slipped out from me yet again.
I want to meet up with them. But that was not something that could be allowed. After all, the multiple electric fields let out by the Nerve Gear severed my consciousness from the real world completely, imprisoning me within this world.
While holding down the sobs that my mouth was bent on gushing out, I felt like I have finally understood just what was the «truth» of this world.
It was not just about dying or living. There was no way I could have truly experienced anything like «death» in the first place. After all, even in the real world—one like this one, a «world where dying really means death», I have never felt the presence of death close by.
Rather, it was the fact that this is a «parallel world». That I can’t meet with people I want to. That is, the one and only truth. That which is «real» in this world.
Hiding my face deep within the sheets, I clenched my teeth as my entire body continued to tremble. There were no tears. No, they might be flowing down the cheeks of my real body made from flesh and blood, lying on my bed in the real world. Possibly, even in front of Suguha, watching over me from the side.
“……What’s the matter, onii-chan?”
Hearing that voice, a soft palm nervously touched my head.
That hand soon started stroking my hair awkwardly. Over and over again.
Until I cried myself out, that small hand never stopped moving.
- β stands for Beta. Beta Testers are those who test a program or game for bugs. Beta Testers are always people who up till that point were not involved with the development of the program or game. This is because there are some bugs that people who are familiar with the program might have overlooked. Beta Testers can find those bugs because of their fresh experience with the program or game.
- Monster Player Kill. As the term suggests, using neutral monsters to kill players.
- Translation – Tap
- Editing – Zero2001, Pryun
- Formatting – Zero2001