[-|Back in the Game |-]
Author's Note: Keep in mind this is an A/U story from the very premise, so I'm tweaking some of the mechanics for the sake of the story and world-building. One of these is the summoning system and pet system.
[Chapter 4 -o0o- Start]
"Does it smell good to you, Yui?" Asuna asked her daughter as they sat over a small pot of gruel with bits of fruit cut up inside of it, among other things she picked up at the market. A day had passed since Yui had suggested she try her hand at cooking and it was safe to say she was making progress when Yui nodded her tiny head.
Before being sucked into the game, Asuna and Yui were located somewhere between Kitakyushu and Fukuoka in the real world, putting them on the southernmost landmass of the Yamato Server and Nakasu. They took refuge in a rundown building near the edge of the city, making it as close as home got in this game for them. It wasn't like the home they had in SAO, nowhere near that luxurious, but it could reasonably speaking pass for a living space.
Sure, there was giant hole in the roof. But she made good use of that by using it as a means of keeping smoke from filling up their home as she worked out the cooking system. That was fortunate since her first efforts were… lackluster.
She tried to use the system to make something edible like in SAO and the result wasn't to her liking. So she tried to follow one of the recipe cards that she had bought earlier in the game, before being sucked into it. That turned into something that was both inedible and outright sickening. It occurred to her then that she may have been trying to relate it to SAO too much, where she had maxed cooking out as a means of passing the time and to relieve the stress of her position in the Knights of the Blood.
She needed to start from the ground up, so she went for as basic as it came and boiled an egg. It was literally the first thing you learned how to make in the game during the sub-class quest. Back then it was as simple as selecting the egg as an ingredient and then the tool to cook it on, no utensil required. That tasted as bland as anything else she had tried, but she refused to give up in defeat at not being able to make an egg of all things.
Taking it slow and going through the steps that she did at home, Asuna manually heated the water, placed the egg inside with a spoon, and waited for as long as she would in the real world before she cracked it open. There were few words to describe how she felt the moment it came out as something she could actually stomach, but proud was one of them. She had taken the first step that she could in bettering things for herself and her daughter under her own power.
There was still so much to uncover—did the time boiling affect the flavor? Would all eggs taste the same? What about seasonings? Was it possible that certain foods could give her character a temporary buff?
It would keep her busy, but that was good. After all, there wasn't a lot to do other than practice using the combat system while things were still in a lull around Nakasu. Kirito's insight into that had been beneficial, though she did get a little peeved that he tried to hide the fact that he fought a Field Boss to learn it. But who was she to judge when she was keeping secrets of her own?
At least there were others to back him up, players fishing for information like those two she met. Other than them, she had seen scant few players in the Hub City who weren't still holed up in the shadows and waiting for someone to announce a way out of the game. Even she had to agree with their assessment that when the people realized no help was coming things would be horrific.
Asuna grabbed a wooden spoon and dipped it into the gruel. It came out steaming hot. She blew on it a few times to cool it before tasting it. "It maybe a little too sweet…" She held the spoon out with for Yui to try some of it. "What do you think?"
It was amusing to watch as her daughter mimicked her in blowing on it before taking a miniscule bite of some of it. Her cheeks swelled and her eyebrows shifted up and down as she seriously judged the flavor. It met whatever standards she had judging by how she held a thumb up in satisfaction a few seconds later.
"I see someone has a sweet-tooth." She used a finger to affectionately rub her head. "Still, better sweet than flavorless. And it looks like I still get experience for cooking this way too. Maybe by the time we make it to Akiba I can make a big dinner for us all."
"We should tell Papa too," Yui said after swallowing. "He's working hard and shouldn't have to eat bad food all the time either."
"We should, shouldn't we?" Asuna pulled the pot from the fire and doused the flames. It wouldn't do to leave the fire going when she wasn't using it and risk it going out of control. While the gruel cooled down before they made a meal out of it, Asuna opened her list and connected to Kirito. "Morning, Kirito."
[SAO -o0o- LH]
The monster roared, foul spittle spraying out of its gaping mouth that split into four parts as Silica looked on in equal parts disgust and embarrassment at the thrashing tendrils of the Triffid. If the former Black Swordsman had to guess, it reminded her of the time she had been nearly eaten in SAO by a similar monster when working to revive Pina with him. She took several steps backwards, no doubt not wanting a repeat of that given she was wearing robes instead of a combat skirt, and began her summoning while Pina floated in the air above her head.
For his part, Kirito just watched from the rear to ensure that one of the other mobs didn't try and stab her in the back. The group itself was in the Archive Tower Forest, furthering their test of the combat system. Kirito and Klein had used the Teacher System to synch their levels and stats to that of Silica and Suguha respectively when they came out to the area, the pair being already a significantly higher level and battle-hardened Clearers in contrast to the Mid-Liner and Casual ALO player.
They had already discussed how they were going to proceed today when they split into two groups, with Silica starting from her weakest summoning and build up to her strongest one to get a feel for the system. There were 10 Ranks when it came to monsters, and within each rank were monsters that those of the Summoner class could make a contract with using certain means—whether through defeating it in a certain manner, baiting it, or fulfilling another condition of some kind. Because she was over Level 20, Silica could access both Rank 1 and Rank 2 Monsters.
"Call Servant: Carbuncle!" She thrust the [Ewallen Scepter] out and a corona of prismatic light erupted from the tip. The [Topaz Ring] she had equipped coruscated as well and tinted the light with its color before the small creature was born from it. Sleek in form with a feline-like frame, its long ears flowed backwards and its big eyes were the color of the gemstone on its head.
Every Summoner started with the Carbuncle summoning. The versatility of having a healing skill, a phantasmal beam-attack, a barrier-erecting skill, and a Hate-management skill that allowed it to tank, made it great for beginners. Later summonings could eclipse it in every field, that was true, but their basic abilities could be modified by equipping gemstones accessories that the Carbuncle embodies.
Light radiated from the Carbuncle as it used its Taunt to draw the Triffid's ire. To compound the effect, it then used its Phantasmal Ray skill to unleash a yellowish beam of hard-light from its forehead at the Triffid. It did a pittance of damage, but the Triffid still lashed out at it with its sinuous tendrils as the Carbuncle used Phantasmal Barrier upon itself.
The Triffid used Bind, coiling the tendril around the small creature and lifting it into the air. It squeezed mercilessly in an attempt to crush it with damage over time, slowly chipping away at the durability of the barrier that wreathed the Carbuncle as cracks formed upon the crystal-like covering.
"Oh no! Pina, help it escape!" Silica ordered.
The Waterfowl Dragon Pup soared up and around the Triffid before opening its maw. It pulled moisture in from the air surrounding it until it was a rippling sphere of water the size of a baseball. Pina fired the Water Bomb and the sphere hit hard enough to dent the fibrous tendril of the flora monster before rupturing for minor splash damage around it.
The Triffid released the summoning and then turned its gaze upon the dragon pup. Its maw opened and it exhaled a greenish vapor that billowed out and around it in an Area-Of-Effect attack that connected. The young dragon dropped out of the sky as paralysis set in along with damage.
That was bad. Pina wasn't a summoning, but a pet due to her having the Animal Tamer sub-class making it easier to bond with and tame the monsters. A pet could be killed off for real when Elder Tales was a game, whereas a summoning could not. There was no reason to think that had changed now, and the last thing Silica needed was to lose one of the things supporting her at the moment.
Kirito was getting ready to move in when the Carbuncle registered the pet, which counted as a member of her party, had been hurt and used Phantasmal Healing. It spun in a tight circle and prismatic sparkles showered down over the dragon, briefly wreathing it and flickering out as its health rose upwards. Then it used Taunt to draw the enmity of the monster again.
As the Triffid lashed out at the two of them, it became evident neither could stack up to it as things stood. Its health dropped but theirs dropped faster. Silica ordered Pina back before it could die by accident and then dismissed her Topaz Carbuncle using Call Oblivion before calling forth a new summoning as the Triffid turned its aggression to her. "Call Servant: Blue Slime!"
The Summoner's call seeming conjured slime from thin air as it gathered into a bouncy blue mass of chilled slime, with a big smile and black eyes. The Blue Slime itself was the first summoning of the Synthetic-Type class that a Summoner could obtain as part of a quest. An Alchemist NPC who claimed to specialize in their creation was working his way up to creating some kind of ultimate slime for some reason or another, but lacked confidence because even the basic one went out of control. In exchange for getting rid of it, he would make one into a summoning for them as well—something about conforming and attuning the spirit used to give essence to the mass to be submissive to the Summoner's.
In the past version of the game they were like these living puddles that rolled over themselves and looked like they were constantly melting, but a patch used later allowed the Alchemist NPC to modify their skins. In her case, Silica got one that had round black eyes, a mouth, and every now and again it would say the word 'Puni'. It was supposedly an expy of another game's slime.
"Get it!" Silica ordered. The artificial monster rolled forward with a squishy sound and began charging power as it molded itself into a fist. The Triffid ignored it and turned its attention to Silica. It snaked a tendril to her, grasping her leg and hoisting her into the air above its mouth.
"Not again!" she cried, holding down her red robes so they didn't fall over completely. "Kirito, help!"
"Don't you have a skill to switch places with your summoning?" he asked as the fist of coalesced and compressed slime punched the Triffid with Guardian Fist. "Try that."
Silica fumbled with her command options while upside down and managed to press Castling. She instantly vanished only to reappear where her slime had once been. Said Blue Slime was instead inside the Triffid's grasp, only its texture made it slip out from the tendril's grip and into the giant-flora monsters maw. Kirito could swear for a moment he could see a sweat-drop on the poor slime's face before it fell.
The Triffid noisy chewed upon the summoning like it was gummy snack, only to abruptly stop and start reeling as its health took a sharp drop. It looked like it trying to spit what was left of the goo out, but a poisoned icon appeared over it and its already low health completely vanished. It popped into colorful bubbles and a small amount of loot.
"Huh… it literally choked to death on your summoning," Kirito mused. "That's a new one for me."
Silica brought up her summoning slots as Pina landed on her head and noted that her slime couldn't be re-summoned as it had no health remaining. She then read the entry on the summoning's description. "Maybe it was too acidic to eat? It says that ancient alchemist used them to remove pests before an accident turned one feral and it got loose into the wild and started propagating."
"Good to know." Kirito pointed a sword to a group of three Brier Weasels that were lurking some distance away. They were around the mid-twenties in terms of levels. "Okay, now try and kite one of them into coming after your next summoning without getting the other two involved."
"Right…." Silica nodded and held her scepter out. "Call Servant: Earth Sprite!"
Once more the light came from her scepter, spearing forward as a luminous, chestnut-colored sphere. The earth upturned and flowed towards it like it had its own gravitation pull until soil, pebbles, and stones that were the size of a fist floated around it to form a loose shell of a body.
"Umm, what to use again…" She opened up her command options and took a look at the choices between Elemental Ray, Elemental Blast, and Elemental Bolt. She picked the first one, assuming it was similar to her Carbuncle's ray attack.
It proved to be a mistake as it the Spirit-Type summoning shone brighter for a moment, while draining some of Silica's MP, to the point it was swelling with light. Then it fired off a strong beam. The moment it hit the target, it expanded to encompass a wider area like a dome of earth-toned light to cause Area-Of-Effect damage.
"Oops," Silica whispered as all three of the Brier Weasels charged towards her summoning. The Earth Sprite continued to attack on its own accord with its Elemental Bolt variation, Earth Arrow. It took the soil around it, compressed it into an arrowhead, and fired it at the Brier Weasel it had targeted first. The impact staggered it slightly, making it fall behind the others as they moved in range for their own attack.
The one on the rear's magical vine glowed and it thrust it into the ground. Seconds later it erupted from ground beneath the summoning like a pike and impaled the Earth Sprite before sinking back into the ground and shrinking. The attack stunned it long enough for the other two to fire reddish laser beams from their tails that slammed against the summoning's earthen shell and scattered bits and pieces.
The Earth Sprite reformed the shell of its body and continued its attack, though with significantly less health. It barely tanked another salvo of shots before it lost all its health and dissipated. The Brier Weasels then turned their Hate to the nearest target—Silica, who was ready for it this time.
"Call Servant: Salamander!" she cast. The Salamander, a clawed and fanged lizard on fire, was born from a sphere of fire and plopped down in front of her. She immediately directed it to use Elemental Ray in order to shift the Hate off of her through damage. Its flame swelled before it spat out a searing beam of fire that struck home and then expanded into a column of flames that engulfed the three of them.
With their Hate focused on the summoning now, sending reddish bolts from the magical ivy wrapped around their tails, Silica retreated to the rear. The Salamander was a Rank 2 Spirit-Type monster in contrast to the Elemental Sprite series of monsters, so it had better stats. But three laser attacks still took off a good chunk of its health since Salamanders didn't have much endurance to begin with.
"Pina, heal it!" she ordered.
Pina flapped its wings behind the Salamander and contributed by healing with its Healing Mist skill. The description of the skill stated that it imbued the moisture around a set area with magic that recovered HP on contact for a limited duration—a location-based Heal-Over-Time skill. The moisture around the Salamander shone with a pale-blue glow and steadily healed its wounds while it continued using the Fire Arrow skill and Pina used Water Bomb to add to their collective damage.
It still wouldn't be enough. Pina's skill wouldn't be able to heal Salamander fast enough if it kept taking too many hits. And neither was doing much damage on their own, at least not enough to put all three of them down. They'd maybe take out one before Salamander was defeated.
"Make it rain," Kirito offered as a hint upon seeing her frustrated face. "Did you forget the reason people usually wanted a tamed Waterfowl Dragon Pup rather than a hatched one?"
It clicked and she gave the order. "Pina, use Storm Call!"
Of the four skills a Waterfowl Dragon Pup was capable of using—Healing Mist, Water Bomb, Bite, and Storm Call—the last was an exclusive skill found only with tamed version of the pets. The flavor-text stated that the technique was taught by the mother dragon to the younger ones and called forth rain. In gameplay-terms, it was an environmental buff skill that boosted Healing Mist and Water Bomb—increasing the recovery rate and area of effect for the former while the damage increased for the latter along with an increased rate of fire.
Pina raised its head to the sky and let loose a cry. The sky responded as storm clouds formed overhead and a drizzle began. The effect of Healing Mist strengthened as more of the water glimmered around them. The Water Bomb that followed grabbed hold of the rain itself and pulled it in until the sphere of water that formed was larger than Pina itself and fired. The sphere popped on release and blanketed them all.
"Good! Now use Elemental Ray again, Salamander!"
It seemed like Silica was getting the hang of it when Kirito felt the ping of a mental connection and heard Asuna's voice. 'Morning, Kirito.'
'Morning, Papa!' Yui chimed in. 'Did we wake you?'
"I was already up with the others," he said. "What about you two?"
'We're making breakfast!' Yui chimed in. 'Mama made this fruit gruel from a recipe she had and it's good!'
His interest was immediately peaked.
[LH -o0o- SAO]
"Food with actual flavor, huh?" Shiroe mused as he listened telepathically, hands still on the reins of his griffin as he soared through the sky with Akatsuki on his back. The Swashbuckler he had briefly partied with apparently had a friend in Nakasu who managed to get flavor in their food and he felt it imperative to share the information. "Not that I doubt your friend's word, but you should keep silent on this for the time being."
'Why?' he asked. 'This could be big.'
"For one, we need to test it more before spreading the word," he said. "Plus, you said you've seen how easily people can be corrupted. Anything that can be used as leverage will be done so. For example, I've learned from one of my contacts how the smaller guilds are starting to be absorbed into larger ones for protection against the potential threat of being attacked by Killers."
'Already?' He sounded genuinely surprised at that. 'I was expecting that to happen, but only on the third day inside of the game?'
"It's a bit preemptive, but human behavior dictates that they group up before they start doing anything else. In the case of cooking, you have to consider the resources available—there are only so many people with the Sub-Class and so many ingredients considering we aren't aware of the respawn times or if they even do. If this gets out, there will be fights over the resources available and people will get hurt. Rushing things can make them become explosive in a hurry. But, if we manage it properly, we can use this to everyone's advantage."
'Go on,' he said.
"We need structure if we're going to survive in the long-run, laws and rules of engagement, things like that," Shiroe said. "I'm working on a couple of ideas, and one of them is the use of food as an incentive while this technique is relatively unknown and people are still in a state of shock. We can use it gain enough capital and power to enforce that structure."
'What's stopping you from becoming just as bad?' he asked. 'You sound like you're planning on taking advantage of the situation.'
"I understand your concerns," Shiroe said, hearing the suspicion being silently leveled. "No one person should have too much power, but what about a council of the major guilds in Akiba? We let the smaller guilds finish being subsumed until they've reached a point of stabilization and then approach them. Doing so, we would be able to do a better job of keeping checks and balances. However, we'd still need them to cooperate so that they have equal shares of power, and that's easier said than done. When we start this, everyone is going to try to get as much out of the formation as they can unless a third-party can negotiate from a position of power."
'And you'll do that by taking a monopoly on this while things are still unstable and then use it to amass enough power and fortune to get things off the ground… Let's say I agree with this. How long would it take?'
"…A month at the latest," he said after some thought. "I can't stop you from spreading this information before then if you really want to, but I'm asking you to at least give me that much time. In the event that you do deem that I have become corrupt and I'm taking advantage to oppress others, then release it."
'…Fine, I'll keep quiet for now.' He still sounded somewhat reluctant. 'I'll ask Asuna to as well, but I doubt it'll take long for someone else to figure out. At least once they've gotten something to do, anyway. There's no telling how long things will remain quiet as they are.'
"Actually, I've been giving it some thought as well," Shiroe said. "The biggest issue here isn't going to be just the Killers attacking other players. Often those in that category target Achievers because there's more satisfaction in the kill, taking joy in cutting them off from achieving their goal and denying them their long-sought victory. For someone who is an Explorer, I doubt it'd be much of an inconvenience if it wasn't for the pain, but if they target whoever it is trying to clear the game—"
'It'll limit the number of people who deal with the clear-conditions when or if they arise,' the Swashbuckler reasoned. 'It'll be Laughing Coffin all over again.'
"We need something to make less people take up PK'ing in order to try and fill the void rather than just lounging around. For starters, we can experiment more when it comes to cooking or the combat skills so that when we do set things into motion we can instruct them or give them a foundation. If you don't mind, can you procure things that could be used as ingredients and gain a better understanding with that along with respawn rates?"
'I don't mind,' he said. 'Truthfully, we're already experimenting more with the combat system and some of the monsters are around a good level to practice with Klein and the others. But none of us are Chefs, so we can't use the tools of that class.'
"There are two friends of mine who are part of a guild," Shiroe said, thinking of Soujiro and Nazuna. He had gotten in touch with them shortly after Maryelle had dragged them into her guild hall and asked for their help. "I'm willing to bet they have at least one person with a Chef Sub-Class and would be willing to keep a secret. There's also the Crescent Moon Alliance. I'll contact them as soon as I have a moment and see if we can work something out."
'Okay. Anything else?'
"Just one last thing," he said. "If this is going to work, we need information from the other hub cities as well. Whatever we're going through, they'll be in the same boat. Would your friend be willing to keep you informed and you pass that information along to me? At least until this plan I'm drawing up comes to fruition?"
'You mean like an information broker?'
"I'm willing to pay a fee if necessary," he said, adjusting the griffin so that it drifted lower to the ground as they neared the time-limit of its use.
'I'll talk it over with her.'
The connection between them was cut, leaving Shiroe to his own thoughts until the time was up for the Griffins and they had to land. As the others set up camp for a quick rest, he looked through his Friend's List and searched for the one Chef that he personally knew. He wanted to test this cooking thing as soon as possible. Not to mention where he lived would place him in the Susukino area, so he could help find who they were looking for and give him an update on the situation there ahead of time.
Shiroe pressed the button and felt his mind connect with Nyanta. "Hey Chief. You there?"
'Shiroe-chi?' He sounded amused. 'Well scratch behind my ears and call me a happy tomcat, I was wondered what could make Lunch better than the company I was keeping, and hearing from an old friend did the trick, nya.'
"Glad to hear from you too. Sorry for the late contact, but I've been busy in Akiba until now. Right now Naotsugu and I are heading to Susukino with another player to retrieve a Druid from the Crescent Moon Alliance that got stuck there. If it isn't too much trouble, would you mind helping us out?"
"Serara wouldn't happen to be her name, would it?"
"Er… Yes, actually," Shiroe said. "You know her?"
'She's and a young Monk are the two stray kittens who just so happened to have fallen into my care after ending up in a bad spot, nya."
"What a coincidence," Shiroe said. "That's save time at least. We're a few days out, but we'll be there soon… Then another thing I have to ask. You have a pretty high level in the Chef Sub-Class, don't you?"
'That's right, nya.'
"Would you mind helping out with testing the cooking system?" Shiroe asked. "We're working on a theory that if you cook food by hand it'll have some flavor to it, but none of us have the skills for it."
Nyanta chuckled. 'Today's really your lucky day, nya, I can confirm that much. I found the food here to be too bland for my delicate feline palate and keeping my guests calm, so I put my culinary skills to the test yesterday after I picked up the two of them. As we speak, the three of us are partaking in a particularly delicious fish fillet at this very moment.'
That was good news then, but it still needed more testing to account for other factors.
"Glad to see someone else is on the ball despite these troubled times," Shiroe said. Then again, people often resorted to hobbies to derive comfort from them during troubled times. He enjoyed cooking so he cooked, while Shiroe couldn't stand sitting around so now he was traveling across the country. "Okay then. Can you make it three-for-three and tell me about the situation in Susukino and what you know?"
As he listened to the other veteran of the DTP, Shiroe found himself frowning. It seemed like things there were going in a direction that he feared for Akiba in a hurry. He'd have to confirm it for himself once they got there, but it sounded like things were getting to a worst-case scenario.
[Chapter 4 -o0o- End]
End Note: Technically, Nyanta discovered cooking first as per canon on their side of things. Unlike canon, Shiroe actually sends a message to the one guy he knows is living where they're heading to help with his search beforehand and learns ahead of time, just not before Kirito since he remains in contact with Asuna constantly.
The reason a lot of the viewpoint characters are being more proactive—moving the plot along somewhat quicker and making other changes in a ripple effect sort of way—is because SAO set a bad precedence. For the players who don't believe that help will come, they're going ahead and planning things for the long run—this includes the less than 250 SAO players in the Elder Tales world at present, as well as friends and family members of those who had lost someone in the Death Game.