The Rising of the Sword Heroes
The soldiers guarding Melromarc's gate greeted the Sword Heroes warmly, one actually getting down on one knee and bowing to them. Unused to that sort of attention and praise, Kirito and Asuna thanked them and left quickly, trying to get lost in the crowd. Despite the rumors and stares the previous day, it was surprisingly easy to blend in as just a couple of adventurers.
"Hey, Old Man!" Kirito called, stepping into the blacksmith's shop. "We're back!"
"Ah, just in time, too," the shopkeeper responded, walking out of the back room. "I finished your orders less than ten minutes ago. Why don't you try them on?" Lifting the package in his hands, the man dropped a stack of folded clothes on the counter. Half of the stack was black while the other half was mostly white with some red accents.
Asuna sped forward first, grabbing one outfit and making her way to the changing room. She needed a clean set after the workout they'd been through in the fields. Sweating while fighting was a new and wholly unpleasant sensation.
"I know it's your job and everything," Kirito began, realizing he'd been left alone with the older man, "but thanks for doing all of this. You don't know what we've been through, but guys like you are hard to come by."
"Yeah, sure!" the blacksmith laughed. "If the legends are true, then you all are the only ones who can keep us safe. Of course I'm gonna help."
"We don't even know your name."
"Seems like most people just call me 'Old Man' nowadays, you and the Shield Hero included, but my name is Erhard."
"It's nice to meet you, Erhard," Kirito grinned reaching out to shake his hand. The man had a strong grip, but the blacksmith was surprised by the strength Kirito had. The rumors had said the Sword Hero had been split into two people, each being half-dead. This handshake was not that of a half-dead person.
"If I know women like I think I do, I'd say we have a little time before she's out. Why don't you tell me a little about yourself? What's your story?"
"I don't think you'd believe me."
"Kid, I know the Heroes are from other worlds. I might not understand everything, but I'll trust you."
"If you insist." Erhard reminded Kirito so much of Agil, it was hard not to trust him. "Well, Asuna and I were normal teens until about two years ago. At that point, a new game came out called Sword Art Online. Our world doesn't have magic, so we've made up for it with technology. SAO was the first of its kind, a game set in a totally virtual reality. That means the world only existed in our minds when we were connected to the helmets we had, but everyone using them could interact with each other."
"I don't get it," Erhard admitted. "Sounds like magic to me, but what do I know? Go on."
"Well, the world of SAO had some similarities to here, mostly in the sense that the virtual system acted the same as this world's Status Magic; menus, inventories, Skills, and all. Unfortunately, what was supposed to just be a game turned sour when its creator went mad and trapped everyone inside. He told us that if we died in the game, the helmets we were wearing would fry our brain, killing our real bodies." Erhard was speechless, so Kirito forged ahead. "We were stuck there for over two years, fighting to get out with nothing but swords, the system, and our wits."
"I'm guessing you and her met in there?"
"We had a rocky start," Kirito admitted. "I turned into an outcast about a month in while she worked her way up the ranks of a guild. We became known as Front-Liners, part of the group actively leveling and fighting on the edges of the game to reach the top. It was dangerous. We saw too many die."
"And this moron did it all alone," Asuna interjected, stepping out of the changing room. Her new clothes were similar to her old ones, but they were brighter colors and the armored parts shimmered with both magic and polish. "While I was in a guild, he was becoming the infamous Black Swordsman all by himself."
"I wasn't the only one with a nickname, Flash," Kirito shot back. "In the end, you had the highest speed stat of everyone."
"And you were the only one to wield two swords at once, Beater."
Their petty argument stalled as Erhard let out another hardy laugh, the couple blushing at having let him watch them squabble.
"You two are a breath of fresh air," he chuckled. "Nice monikers. I think they'll be popular with the rumor mills."
"Great," Kirito groaned. "Next thing we know, Motoyasu will be whining to us about him not having a cool nickname other than Spear Hero." Taking a set of his clothes, Kirito made his way to the changing rooms.
"He was telling you about SAO."
"Yeah," Erhard nodded. "It sounds like he loved it in there despite the risks."
"He lived for that game. He didn't make it or anything, but he helped test it. That's why a lot of people ostracized him, because he knew more than they did. I thought the the same for a long time." She paused.
"You're in love with him, aren't you?" Erhard teased.
"We're married," Asuna answered, shocking the blacksmith. Raising her hand, the wedding band glittered in the light.
"But you two are just kids."
"We had to mature and fight to survive. I guess that hasn't changed." She shook her head, driving the dark thoughts to the back of her mind. "Anyway, why don't you tell me a little about this world?"
"I guess that's fair. We're a land of kingdoms, mostly. Melromarc is one of the stronger countries, though there are others. Our biggest rival is Silvelt, though a lot of people around here would call them our arch enemies."
"It's a country of demi-humans that practices human slavery."
"Slavery?" Asuna gasped. "What do you mean by demi-human?"
"You haven't seen them in the streets? Well, there are two kinds. Most of them are mostly human, just with some added features like animal ears or tails, and they are the true demi-humans. The other kind are called beastmen and they look like animals that walk and talk like people. Silvelt doesn't like us because we practice human supremacy, so most demi-humans are discriminated against and sold into slavery here."
"That's terrible! I mean, we didn't have any demi-humans back in our world, but slavery is wrong."
"Yeah. It's a shame, but it's too big a business to make the country just quit." He leaned in. "Still, if you get the chance to get a slave, take it. They'd be better off with you and the kid than they would be in whatever hellhole the slavers put them."
"Yeah, that makes sense. Doesn't mean I have to like it."
"Don't have to like what?" Kirito asked, returning. His outfit had changed a little, now not as intricate as his former with the exception of his jacket. Erhard had replicated that in detail, carving magical symbols into the seams, but had added fur to the collar and bottom hem. Asuna assumed the same magic could be said for her new clothing, but the symbols didn't appear nearly as much on the lighter color.
"I'll tell you later," Asuna stated. "We need to find an inn before it gets dark."
"Hey, before you go." The duo stopped, turning back to the owner. "I suggest checking in with the church. They've got an hourglass known as the Hourglass of the Dragon Age. It's supposed to help you all somehow."
"Thanks, Erhard," Kirito smiled, placing the rest of what they owed on the counter.. "We'll be back."
"So humans aren't alone in this world," Kirito summed up, probing at his food with a fork. Asuna sat across from him, slowly eating her own meal.
"Yeah. As far as I can tell, there are three sentient species, but demi-humans and beastmen are typically lumped into one. We also need to check out the church. I'm guessing their religion revolves around the Heroes somehow."
"If it does, that should make our job a little easier. People will be more willing to help and negotiate if they think we're some sort of divine beings."
"We're supposed to save them, so I guess." The two ate in silence, one musing on the discrimination of the world while the other lamented that the food wasn't nearly as good as his wife's cooking. That's not to say he was ok with the practice of slavery, but that was nothing the two of them could solve overnight if at all.
"We're going to need some form of income," Asuna commented, breaking Kirito out of his musing. "And we need to figure out the money system. I'm guessing they use a base system of Copper, Silver, and Gold, but I'm not sure how the three relate."
"I know one Silver is 100 Copper," the swordsman offered. "These meals were pretty cheap, I think. The owner said they were 15 Coppers each and gave me 70 in change." The door of the inn opened, the patrons turning to see who walked in as they do every time. Naofumi and Myne entered, the Shield Hero making eye contact with Kirito. Naofumi made to sit with them, but the redhead grabbed his arm and gently led him to another table where she ordered food and wine.
"You don't suppose there's a Forkblade, Spoonblade, and Knifeblade shape, do you?"
"Really?" Asuna sighed. That didn't stop her husband from tapping his fork against the gem of his sword. He didn't expect anything to happen, so he was surprised when the utensil was yanked from his grip and sucked into the weapon.
[Shape Acquired: Fork-Blade
Skill: Four Prong Stab]
The sword shifted, becoming a giant fork with a blue gem.
"Kirito..." Asuna sighed again, her head in her hands as her partner let his sword eat both his spoon and his knife before realizing he didn't have anything left to finish his food with. At least he has the decency to blush.
"Lady Asuna!" a voice outside the door called. "Sir Kazuto! The king is calling a meeting at the castle!"
"How'd they find us?" the sleepy swordsman whined, checking their room's small window. There was no light for the meager blinds to block. "It's too early for this."
"It's not like we're invisible," Asuna grumbled. "They probably knew where we were all day... I miss our small house."
"Lady Asuna! Sir Kazuto!"
"We'll be out in a minute!" Kirito yelled, flinging the covers off. Shaking the sleep away, he and Asuna began getting dressed. "I had the weirdest dream last night."
"I had a dream, too," his wife replied. "You first."
"I dreamt that we were here fighting something -I don't remember what- when a portal opened and Suguha jumped through. Then she started yelling at me."
"My little sister. Well, she's actually my cousin, but I was raised by my aunt and uncle."
"Huh. I dreamt that we were traveling in a wagon pulled by this massive bird, but it wasn't just us. Naofumi was there with someone else I can't recall, but I know Yui was there with us, too."
"Yeah, she was sitting between us, talking about something."
"Huh, strange." Strapping his sword to his side, Kirito turned to find Asuna ready as well. Nodding, they opened the door to find a young knight. "Alright, take us to your leader."
The knight saluted, leading the pair down the stairs of the inn and out to a carriage pulled by to birds.
"What are those?" Asuna asked. They weren't quite like the one from her dream, but they were similar.
"Those are philolials, ma'am," the knight answered. "They are a smarter species of monster we have tamed to pull carriages and carts. If you wanted, you could buy one easily."
"No, thank you." Her question answered, the swordswoman and her spouse climbed into the carriage. Once they were seated, the knight took the reins and started the philolials toward the castle.
Kirito and Asuna stepped into the throne room, eying everything as their battle instincts had them wont to do. King Auldcray sat on his throne, a frown on his face. Motoyasu and Itsuki were also there with their companions, but the presence of Naofumi's companion Myne was a surprise. The doors closed behind the couple, the Shield Hero unaccounted for.
"Now that the other Heroes are here, please give us the details, Myne," the king ordered. "This is a serious accusation."
The redhead sniffled, clutching the Spear Hero's arm. "L-Last night," she whimpered, "I shared a g-glass of wine with the Shield Hero before turning in for the n-night. I was getting r-ready for b-bed when he barged in some time later. He was drunk, I could s-smell it in his breath. He pinned me down and started tearing at my c-clothes. 'The night is still young,' he said." Tears began rolling over Myne's cheeks, soaking into the carpet one by one. The Spear Hero held her gently, whispering kind words. "I managed to escape and get to Lord Motoyasu before anything more could happen. The Shield Hero didn't follow. I assume he was too scared of Lord Motoyasu's power."
"Guards!" the king yelled. "Retrieve the criminal Shield Hero at once!"
"Sir!" The regiment moved out, Kirito's brow furrowing.
"Something doesn't feel right," he commented.
"Look at Motoyasu's outfit," Asuna offered. Following his wife's suggestion, Kirito nearly gasped. "You see it too, right? That's the outfit Naofumi had on when we saw him yesterday."
"We were in that inn, too," Kirito muttered. "You'd think that much commotion would've woken us up." He blinked. "Hey, Motoyasu."
"Can't you see I'm comforting a lady, Kazuto?" the Spear Hero sniped.
"I've got a question for you. What time did all this happen, and why didn't you confront Naofumi then?"
"It was about one in the morning. I was ready to storm over, but Myne begged me not to. She was afraid such a battle could wake up the other patrons and destroy the inn. What a darling angel, caring for others even while so distraught. I expected him to come to me, but he didn't."
"Why were you just getting to bed at one AM, Myne?"
"She doesn't have to answer to you," Motoyasu interrupted. "Can't you see she's terrified? I knew there was something off about that lousy Shield Hero. If only I'd acted on it sooner."
"There was nothing off about Naofumi and you know it," Asuna argued. "You were the one insulting him."
"Enough!" Auldcray roared from the throne. "The facts are obvious and the punishment shall be given when the accused arrives."
"You're not going to give him the chance to explain himself?" Kirito demanded. "That's unfair!"
"He'd just say she's lying," Itsuki stepped in. "There's too much evidence against him."
"There's no evidence!"
"Silence!" The king's order was punctuated by the arrival of the knights, the squadron throwing Naofumi to the floor and surrounding him with their lances. "I knew from the moment I laid eyes on you that you would be trouble and it was only a matter of time before you showed your true colors!"
"What?" Naofumi gasped.
"You act confused, but you have performed the greatest sin in all of Melromarc! If you weren't a Hero, I'd have you executed immediately!"
"In Melromarc," one of the king's attendants offered, "even attempted sexual assault is punishable by death!"
"There must be some sort of mistake! I'm the victim here! All my stuff was stolen! If you'd just ask my companion-!" Naofumi seemed confused and disoriented, his wide eyes circling the front before landing on his only party member. "Myne, you're alright! Thank God, I was worried about you! We've been robbed! Someone snuck in last night and stole our-!" He seemed to pick up on the redhead's body language. "Myne, what happened?"
"You shut your mouth, you waste of space," Motoyasu growled. "You know exactly what happened."
"Why are you wearing my clothes?" Naofumi's voice flipped from worry to anger. "Give those back!"
"These?" Motoyasu questioned. "Myne gave them to me last night when we met in the pub at the inn."
"Myne," the king sighed. "If you can, please repeat your testimony."
"Last night, when I was getting ready for bed, the Shield Hero burst into my room. He was clearly drunk and started clawing at my clothes, tearing them. He said 'the night is still young' and tried to force himself on me. I managed to get away to Lord Motoyasu who saved me."
"Huh?" Naofumi coughed.
"What scum," Itsuki commented. "I knew you were here for some other reason."
"He was summoned here with the rest of us!" Asuna put in.
"This trash isn't one of us," Motoyasu snarled. "He's no true Hero."
Naofumi's eyes widened, a look of realization coming to him before he slumped over the lances blocking his path.
"So that's how it is," he muttered to himself. "I get it now. She never called me anything other than Shield Hero, not by my name, but she's so familiar with Motoyasu."
"What are you babbling about, you false Hero?"
"DON'T PLAY DUMB WITH ME, YOU ASSHOLE!" Naofumi screamed, the guards blocking his path. "YOU PLAYED ME, TRICKED ME SO YOU COULD STEAL EVERYTHING!"
"Motoyasu was given enough to pay for his and his companions equipment," Itsuki pointed out. "He wouldn't have needed to steal anything from you."
"But... but Myne."
"You stay away from her," the Spear Hero growled, holding Myne close. "Like we'd believe anything you'd say, you damn rapist!"
"I'm on Naofumi's side," Kirito stated, the entire crowd of onlookers gasping. "We don't have enough evidence to support either side of this case. In fact, there are a lot of holes in her story."
"But we do have evidence," Auldcray announced, waving his arm. "Bring out what you found in the Shield Hero's room!" A guard stepped forward, holding out a skimpy piece of purple lingerie. Myne flinched at the sight, burying her face into Motoyasu's chest.
"We found this on the Shield Hero's bed," the soldier stated.
"What the fuck?!" Naofumi cursed. "That wasn't there when I woke up!"
"That wasn't mentioned at all!" Kirito yelled, Asuna staring at the piece with wide eyes.
"You animal!" Motoyasu shouted, pointing his spear at the accused. "This world isn't some consequence-free game for you to play in! Know your place, bastard!"
The Shield Hero gasped, falling to his knees.
"Shut up, Motoyasu," Asuna ordered, stomping over the the Spear Hero and shoving a finger into his chest. "We have no real proof Naofumi did this, and we both know he's not that kind of person."
"Ms. Asuna, you can't really believe-!"
"...Fine," Naofumi grunted, cutting off the blond. "You know what? Fine! If you all hate me so much, then why don't you just send me back to my home and summon a new damn Shield Hero?!"
"Regrettably, we can't do that," Auldcray sighed, resting a hand against his face. "Replacements of the Four Cardinal Heroes can only be summoned once every one of the previous incarnations have met their ends, and the summoning can only be done once. At least, that's what my researchers have told me."
"What?" Kirito blinked. "You mean we're stuck here until we die?!"
"That can't be right!" Itsuki cried.
"There is a way for the Heroes to return to their home worlds, but that can only happen after all of the Waves have been defeated."
"So what?" the Shield Hero snarled. "You can't kill me or send me back. What are you gonna do? Throw me in jail between each Wave?"
"As much as I would like to, I cannot. You need to become more powerful to combat the Waves. Even with four other Heroes, they only cover three of the Legendary Weapons. Your assistance is needed."
"You mean we have to fight alongside this criminal?" Itsuki gasped.
"Heh," Naofumi chuckled, something cracking inside him. "Heheh. Hahahaha! You need me to save your stupid world! You hear that, Motoyasu? Itsuki? You fucking need me! You need a Shield Hero and I'm the one you got! Hahahaha!"
"Why you-!" one of the guards growled.
"What's that?" Naofumi cackled. "You look like you want to hit me. Go on! Do it! Just don't underestimate the Hero of the Shield!" A green aura flared around Naofumi, blowing the guards away from the now-panting Hero. "I don't need you. I don't need any of you! I'll fight the Waves my way until I can go home and forget about this shitty world!"
"Release him," the king ordered, the flinch suggesting the words left a bad taste in his mouth. "Usually the punishment for even attempting to sexually assault a woman in this country is death, but we cannot imprison you if we wish to have a chance against the Waves. But, the country and her people will know what you've done. You will be an outcast, as you should be. You should never expect to live a decent life in this country."
"Whatever," the accused Hero spat, turning away. "I don't give a shit anymore." He fiddled with his shield, making the guards uneasy, before throwing a dozen silver coins at Myne and Motoyasu's feet. "Take it. That's what you wanted, isn't it? That's the last of everything I had."
No one tried to stop him as he stormed out of the throne room.
"Kirito?" Asuna asked quietly. "He's innocent, isn't he? His eyes..."
"Yeah," the Black Swordsman responded. "I recognized them. They were just like mine after the first Floor Boss. The eyes of someone who couldn't take the stress."
"The stories don't line up either," Asuna mused, side-eyeing Motoyasu and Myne. "The Spear Hero said he met Myne in the pub, but Myne said she went to bed before Naofumi."
"Not like the king cares," Kirito growled. "He seemed to know about that outfit they pulled from nowhere, but that never came up. Something doesn't smell right."
"We need to go after him."
"No? Why not? He needs somebody!"
"He needs to find somebody who can help. We can't partner with him, our weapons won't allow it, and if we help him too much, we risk ostracizing ourselves. Then we wouldn't be able to help anyone. It sucks, but Naofumi has to find people who will join him on his own."
Asuna growled, conceding the point but not happy about it.
"What are we doing at the church?" Kirito asked, staring up at the cathedral with a little awe. It was a grand structure plated in shiny metals, reflecting the morning light.
"Look at the symbol over the door." Asuna pointed to a crest of gold. Kirito squinted, picking out a spear, a bow, and a sword. "You see it too?"
"The shield's missing," he muttered. "I've got a bad feeling about this." Glancing at his wife, Kirito stepped forward to open the door.
"Welcome, Heroes, to the Church of the Th- ahem, Four Heroes!" the bishop at the front of the sanctuary greeted as the Sword Heroes stepped through the doors. "How may we assist you today?"
"First, we would like to see this hourglass we've heard about," the swordswoman stated. "Then we'd like to hear about your beliefs."
"Of course," the bishop said, sweat visibly pooling on his brow. "This way." The man turned, leading them deeper into the church. They followed a series of hallways that the Heroes had trouble keeping straight. Finally, they came to a massive hourglass with five sections, the outer two the largest and the middle one the smallest. The ends were made of gold, as was the Asian dragon that slithered its way around the timepiece.
"Amazing," Asuna gasped. "It's beautiful."
"While we are proud of it, we cannot claim its creation," the clergyman stated. "The Hourglass of the Dragon Era was created by our forebears to help the Heroes know when the next Wave would arrive. If you step up to the hourglass and raise your weapon, you'll see."
Ever the brave one, Kirito stepped forward, pointing his sword at the timer. The hourglass glowed, a stream of blue light reaching from it to his weapon. A clock appeared along the top of his vision and began counting down.
"This is how long we have until the Wave starts, isn't it?" the swordsman asked as Asuna went through the process.
"It is. Only the Heroes can view the countdown, but our mathematicians have predicted we have about a month until the next Wave."
"Good math," Kirito admitted. "Now, why don't you tell us about your beliefs?"
The bishop shifted uncomfortably.
"I cannot believe this place!" Asuna growled, storming from the church. The foot traffic outside the church picked up on her bad mood, moving away from and around her. "They hate the Shield Hero, so why summon one? Not only that, but the guy lied to us expecting us to forget!"
"There's corruption in everything," Kirito mused. "But do you remember what the king said? The Heroes have to be summoned together, but I agree. Why hate him?"
"I'm sure there's more to this, but I don't know where to look for it." She turned, hands on her hips. "I say we track down Naofumi and tell him what we've learned."
"And what will that do?" Kirito queried. "Make him hate this country more than he already does and has all rights to? No, he needs to find someone to have his back before he learns about this. He needs to find something in this world worth fighting for, and it won't mean anything to him if we try to give it. Trust me, I know. Give it until the Wave, but we will tell him eventually."
"Then what should we do? Go leveling and play damage control in the background?"
"Yeah." The two stayed there in the street, silently going over their options
"Naofumi recommended Erhard to us," Asuna finally said. "Let's at least make sure he's got someone here he can buy from."
"Good idea. It can't do any more harm."
End of Chapter 2
One more chapter of this plot bunny.