A piercing headache flew over me as I woke up with the overly fake, yet soothing feeling of grass whistling in my toes and bare feet.
I looked around – left, then right. The familiar sounds of a «Boar» in the distance, snorting with a content tone, seemed to pass by me as if telling me one thing – that this had happened before. Surely, it did, didn't it? I tried to remember the last thing that crossed through my mind. Yes, far into a cave – somewhere within the canyon, a certain girl was screaming, followed by a rather loud shattering BGM. What could it mean?
I quickly remembered my current level – it was still 12.
But, was it a mirage, after all? A hallucination? Or was it her work again? I couldn't tell anymore. I wonder when she'll show up (actually, only her voice would be transmitted), and listen to her semi-mindless chattering again? While I liked it over all, it quickly became almost annoying. Then again, I couldn't bring myself to hate that voice for some reason.
With a blank mind, I gestured my hand and revealed the menu, and tapped at the «Skills» Window. The familiarly cryptic skill passed through me yet again – yet it didn't have a single sign of showing up. The cryptic language stayed the same – which from the start itself, looked like a mix of Russian, Italian, and American accents and letters.
"I still wonder what happened during that day, huh…"
I couldn't bring myself to sleep anymore, but I remembered that face oh so well – Kayaba Akihiko.
『Chapter 2: The Three-Word Paradoxical Question』
"Y-You can't be serious…"
I muttered those words, but quickly bit them back. No, my character itself did not allow for that. I wasn't the same weak «Haru» I was in the Real World anymore, I was «Haru», the sole operator of «Silver Crow». One by one, each of the victims broke down, muttering a chant only a God would probably understand. Within seconds, everyone had quickly panicked, and scattered all throughout the entire «Starting City», which, by itself, was already amazing, as the «town» itself seems to have the size of Tokyo.
"Uuugh," the answer came from my lips: an inevitable truth – was this the job she was talking about?
My swift feet caught a hold of my fat, short body; however, being a known expert in fantasy VRMMOs, the momentum of my posture quickly changed, and, with a blast, I ran through the city, trying to reserve my energy as much as possible. Several «Skills» popped out of my screen, being unlocked, but only indifference was my response to them. Did she want me to clear this old game? It wouldn't be the first time someone asked me to clear a game – especially one that has gone through immense amounts of bugs.
In a few minutes, I had almost reached the outskirts of the town. Somehow, this old, retro game still had a rather advanced hunger and fatigue system, and somehow it's telling me to rest, but I've already dealt with such systems before. Usually, the easiest way to stave off that kind of limitation was to take short breaks, then, somehow, your fatigue somehow dissipates better than when you take longer breaks. It basically forces the system to give you better tolerance on fatigue and sleep. I wouldn't doubt if people here didn't knew about such a trick, however, since this was the first VRMMO in history.
I had ran far enough, seeing the rather open field before him. A wide grassland, with rolling hills filled with «Boars», with my nearly famished feet telling me to stop, I immediately opened the gesture part of my «Skills» menu and added the «Sprint» skill as my 2nd skill slot. With a wide booming sound, I dashed through the endless charade of «Boars», up until I could easily see a rather wide array of «wolves». Remembering my own «experience» in «Fantasy MMOs», I quickly formed the starting motion of a straight «Diagonal», and slashed the enemy at my path head-on, as I continued to dashing up until I had reached the wide forest.
"Gah," I blurted out to myself. "It would have been better if I had a guide or something… could I be lost, somehow?"
I was sure that there would usually be an event somewhere around these parts. It was one of the new «Taboos» in creating «MMOs»: to have a starting quest to earn a good sword. For some reason, I had come here just to do that. Yet, having no idea at all where to start, I immediately thought I saw my human lips drying up with out of words to express my anger at the one who sent me here without a single real explanation. I had to quickly assume that the original «job description» she gave me was false… I mean how can I save the world when I don't know how?
I looked to the left, and then to the right. Scattered all around this rather small, barren patch of land, several «Little Nepents» were buzzing around without a care.
"It looks like a spot that seems to be perfect for «farming»." I easily concluded, making a sure face. "Hmm, I wonder if «quest items» are only available when you accept them…?"
That part really wasn't on the Taboo at all. Sure, some MMOs would prefer to have «quest items» only available when you are actually taking them, but some take it to more realistic values and just made it so that the «quest item's spawning rate» would be lower when you took the quest than when you haven't. Some MMOs don't even do that sort of thing.
"Sigh," I muttered to myself. "I guess I'll have to find the «quest NPC» just to be sure…"
I strolled my way past the fields of «Little Nepents», then through the zigzagged forest path. I quickly took notice of the small birds flying around the different «Oak Trees» scattered in this relatively dense green luscious forest. What seemed to be «parrots» passed me overhead, making their rest on a rather vine-filled Man globe tree with a small, yet hallow hole. Behind this very tree, was a small, sparkling calm creek flowing right up to the «Starting City».
"Too bad this kind of scenery doesn't really exist in 2046 Japan…"
I muttered to myself as I passed along the creek, making my way to a fork, one leading to a small wooden hut, while the other leading rather a bit deeply into the forest, although, far beyond the distance, I could easily see the sight of a wooden wall, the sign of a town. Directly at the right, a climbing path separated me from the small, yet blinding light of freedom. Several «Boars», «Little Nepents», and some «a Lone Fox» overlap the path, but it didn't really matter, as they don't seem to attack when you don't attack them.
"Well, the quest for whatever it is should probably be at the wooden hut, or I could still go on through to the next town" I reasoned out, "But I guess it would be better to see the next town up from above…"
Usually, I would simply take the quest for what it's worth, but I have no idea of what the map itself is. Despite having a map that can be used for «searching friends», it didn't give enough details on stuff like «Elevation», «Mob Density», «Town Description», «Quest Checkpoints», and many other things usually reminiscent of a real «VRMMO» map. Making things short, it was just a map used for «searching».
With my own fatigue finally recovering, I ran yet again, this time as fast as I could, running towards the speck of clear light up beyond the green fields. Even in this «old virtual world», everything seems just as real as any other «VRMMO» in 2046. Isn't it weird per se? Even after 20 years, the quality of graphics in any VR game, save «Accel Assault» and «Brain Burst», have almost been the same from the so-called «very first full-pledged VRMMO» that is «Sword Art Online». Within minutes, the clear sky blue light just on the horizon finally completely covered my eyes. While the stone roof that covered what should have been the clear azure sky still stayed the same, nevertheless, the scenery of the small completely wooden town surrounded by comparatively small forest being swallowed by the rather large open fields filled with several «Wolves» was still as captivating as ever, especially when seen from a tall cliff such as this.
"Beautiful…" I muttered.
"Isn't it, so?"
A voice I had recognized came from behind.
"Hello, «Haru»," he greeted formally, but in a monotonous, gloomy voice. "I'm sure you already know me, but let me reintroduce myself. I'm Kayaba Akihiko."
The very fact that the GM was here made my eyes twitch. He wore a white lab coat covered behind a grey t-shirt, which covered his rather slim body. His pale face completely complements his simple boyish hairstyle. He was certainly a man capable of doing this – all of this.
"May I ask…?" he walked past besides me. "Where are you from? I have tried to check your «Software Serial» and it was certainly counterfeit."
"If you said I came from the future, would you believe me?" I replied with a question.
"It's certainly possible. There were supposed to be 10,000 players in SAO, yet the «Black Iron Castle» registered you as the 10,002th player. Three people have already died, so in order to hide those two's existence, I'm going to secretly override you and the other player's names into them." He placed his palm on his chin, and simply resolved to a sigh. "But, unfortunately, I have no way of assuring people won't know how this is weird in the future."
Was he expecting a thanks from me? I guess so, since, going by what he's saying, only 10,000 copies were sold on the first day, which means only if there are 2 other players joining SAO, then the most logical question would be who would have a copy of a software that only has 10,000 copies. The most obvious solution there would be that the GM (or Kayaba in this case) would be joining the game. Did I just screw a spoiler too early!?
"Well, you don't really have a choice, in the end," I shrugged. "You can say that I was forcefully sent here from 2046 by someone to do something. This 'something' I have no idea either. I don't even know this MMO even existed."
"Well, that's quite a shame," he frowned. "It seems that the government will choose to hide this MMO's existence, huh…"
"Surely," I nodded. "if I saw it from their point of view, that would most certainly be the most logical conclusion to avoid having to outright ban VR altogether…"
"I guess «the hero» really did use «The Seed»…"
«The Seed»? I think I heard it before. Back in the 2024, a revolutionary freeware for creating VR servers and clients were created in response to the scandal RECTO had aligned itself in «ALO». It was called «The Seed», and what was revolutionary about it was that it was the basis of all «VRMMOs» even up to 2046 – in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if «Brain Burst» was based upon it. From the technology that makes the «Neuro-Linker's Eye Auto-Correct» and «3DCCTV» work, almost every single «VR-related technology» had «The Seed» related to it. The reason for this was, in reality, really simple: it was free, intuitive, easy to develop in, and was extremely flexible. In 2033, «The Seed» was updated to version 2, again by an anonymous user, which allowed full compatibility with the «Neuro-Linker» and added functions to it, like «Full-Pledged Quest Generator» (inspired from «ALO»), «Random Coefficient», «AR Connectivity Function», «Advanced Object Properties» (it removed «Weight» with «Override Density», added «Override Atomic Composition», «Biological Composition», and «Material Composition»), «Weight Auto-Configuration», «Surface Tension», «Micro-organism Algorithm», «Fractal Water Algorithm», «Accelerated Senses», and many more.
"So… you're the one who developed that software, huh…"
He halfheartedly nodded.
"Well," his gaze met mine. "If I didn't do it, no one probably could."
"I don't know about that…" I honestly replied. "There were certainly others who contributed greatly to what VR will become in 2046. You probably won't know half of the people right now, though."
I paused, before I continued on.
"I know one thing that I shouldn't do," I calmly deduced. "That is… I shouldn't change what will happen in this world. I'm a «spectator» in this story, not a character."
"So that's how it is…" he turned a 180 degrees, and walked back towards the forest, "For a second, I thought you were going to kill me or something…"
Why would I think that? The very instant such a thing entered my mind, I quickly shook it off.
"Since you're just a spectator," Kayaba smiled. "I assume «Death» here won't mean anything to your «VR Console», which had probably been edited to avoid the player's inevitable scenario, so I edited your «Death Penalty» to «Reset Character» and «Respawn on the Portal Gate of Floor 1»… Feel free to enjoy the game, though, «Haru». However, you most certainly won't get the «Unique Skill» I planned for the «Hero»."
At that point, I already knew what that «Unique Skill» it could be, and where it would end up. That man, called «Kirito» - he must be the «Hero» Kayaba had assigned this role to, and thus, he must be the «Black Swordsman» that will end this «death game». It was the fate of this world. However, I wasn't here to change things. I was here to watch it unfold. It really does sound like a plan coming up from someone who watched too much shonen anime.
"Oh, I forgot something," Kayaba flicked a finger. "This was created by «Cardinal» after examining the connection between you and the server. It's most likely a «Unique Skill», probably the only one I have never designed."
"You should check your «Skill List» sometime."
His words lingered on, as the figure gradually disappeared and blended with the green forest. It was as if he designed himself to be a ghost. Anyway, it doesn't matter: at least I won't be truly getting the «Death Sentence» of this world. But, I still need to be on my toes. If anyone were to see me die, it would be a bit dangerous for my identity. Second, I can't completely trust that my own «Death Penalty» be that either, and even then, the «Death Penalty» is still just brutal, almost like a normal «Perma Death» rule I'm quite familiar with. In the end, I'll only have to rely on this rule when worst comes to worst. My equipment will still be a problem, in the end: «Death» to me means I have to repeat everything.
"In the end," I sighed. "I still have to avoid «Death» at all costs… but then…"
I opened the «Menu» and checked my «Skill List». Sure enough, beyond what small a list I have unlocked, one skill appeared right at the bottom, buried between the hundreds of locked skills. The skill itself was full of question marks, but, unlike the other «Skills» which used grey text to indicate «locked», this skill name was displayed in white text. There was a small red mark on the option, indicating something… that I didn't know. One good guess would be that it could be the mark of a «Unique Skill», or an «incomplete skill».
"Either I go downtown to buy some potions… or I could actually take the quest back at the forest. Such a difficult choice…"
Go downtown, of course.
Surprised by the gloomy, monotonous voice that suddenly pierced my ears, I instinctively turned around.
I'm one of her associates in the 9th dimension, Call me Yuki.
Correct, she quickly replied almost mechanically. I was sent by Ko-… Sapphire Controller to guide you while she's gone.
"That really sounded like a poor excuse."
She is currently talking to Black Lotus and her father right now, explaining the situation. As is, you must be briefed in order to accomplish your mission.
"What mission really is it?"
Judging from her actions, she seemed to have paused for a moment.
That's classified information, Yuki responded. I've been ordered not to brief you on that myself.
Either way, Yuki continued. You must make your way to «Horunka» and prepare «Health Potions». For now, you should focus on leveling up as fast as possible, in order to stand a chance.
"Your voice… so… cold," I moaned in resignation. "Are you always like that?"
I'm simply me; my temporal and spatial identification has not changed, my 3rd dimension designation has not changed, neither has my nth dimension raison d'etre. What do you mean?
It's amazing how she threw complicated words over like simple cards!
I climbed my way down the rough winding zigzag tread path, slashing away several «Bees» and «Boars» in the way with a «Horizontal» and a «Slash». It still felt a bit odd, but I can certainly feel how the speed of my slash had such an impact on the damage. Normally, just 1 or 2 hits will kill most of them. Considering «Bees» are «Level 2», by normal MMO standards, it should take at least 3 to 5 hits instead.
"It must be the «System Assist Boost»…"
The words slipped out of my mind. System Assist Boost, the term used in many MMOs when you stop being dependent on the system boosting your attack speed. It is when the speed and the image of your «virtual muscles» now determines, or rather boosts, your attack. «ALO», «REALO», «BB», «AA», among others use a similar system in the similar forms. In the end though, while for some people such a system is but fair, others, especially the «Neo-Modern Communists» that emerged in 2030 onwards, believed that such a system does not provide the fairness that was more prevalent in «Level System». But, what is the basis of success? What is the basis of a fail? What's the real basis of fair? I believe their lack of a concrete definition of the term would be the most basic reason I don't necessarily agree on their claims.
It took me a couple of minutes to get myself around 500 meters down the cliff and into the open luscious plains, this time surrounded by «Wolves». Based on both my previous experience in MMOs and the «Level 3» indicator, they must be geared for those honoring «permadeath» and managing in parties. How, perhaps? Based on the physique on these «Wolves», they are not geared for parties attacking it in a circle, or in a continual «Switch». Their «Bite» attacks may seem cruel, but in reality, even the formation of their cavities suggest that even a «Level 1» will only get killed after a serious bite to the chest. Otherwise, it'll probably take at least 7 hits. On solo, however, it may be a bit hard…
"I'm probably over-analyzing things again…"
Whatever your analysis was, will it work in the situation we're now in?
"You say that, Yuki," I replied. "… I wish you were a much better help, you know…"
Yuki talking or not, it's a bit hard to avoid encountering such ravaged wolves, especially on unsightly plains like this. In the end, though, I don't really have a choice. Encountering any more «Wolves» will potentially break the newbie «Copper Sword» I only have in my hand. There's also the rather rare «A-Rank» «Bee Pin» which can be used as a «Throwable Weapon», but I can't use it with such precision or damage if I don't have a «Weapon Throw» ability of some sort, which, for some reason, I haven't unlocked yet.
And thus, those minutes trying to avoid the eyes of the «Wolves» felt like hours as I cautiously traversed the open field, up until the distance between me and the inviting forest slimmed down to a couple of steps. Even then, I still kept a relatively safe eye-to-eye margin, up until I could touch the bark of the oak tree bordering the «Wandering Forest». A straight sigh of relief lifted my heart.
Yet, deep inside me, I had already known for myself how a gaping hole in my heart it would leave me with, which seemed to chase for something exhilarating. Back in 2046, where every single day was a tense acquisition and resolution from both sides of the «accelerated world». What really was the real agenda of the «research society» that had continued to battle all this time? The thought only came to me now.
Two days had passed, then three, then four.
Having acquired what seemed to be one of the powerful one-handed sword of its time, the «Anneal Sword», which I could easily describe as quite heavy for now, but quite appropriate for its size overall, I had found myself in the open fields, killing what I have called «predictor mobs»… or at least that's what people dubbed those mobs which are usually scheduled to be buffed into ridiculous amounts of EXP due to «Cardinal's EXP Algorithm», which had been "cracked" by several hackers in 2035. They were called «Large Gnomes», found in the far west, almost near the border of the 1st floor. No one had yet explored this much, due most likely to how «Kayaba» had basically traumatized 90% of its players. I could definitely hear the echoes of my endless «Horizontal» slashes against the rather beefy sizes of the mobs, merely chipping away 1/30 of its HP per slash. However, I had utilized the use of again the known «Horizontal Arc + Vertical Arc» glitch from 2034 to double my attacking speed.
"This feels so void." I muttered to myself, hoping Yuki or Safu could hear me. "I still couldn't believe I acted like this when I had played MMOs."
That is somewhat understandable.
I twitched at the squeak of the familiar voice.
Yep, her voice was as clear as it was days ago. I was just here to check for a bit. How are things going there?
"I still don't get why you'd bring me to this place." I moaned. "Are you serious on making me stay here… for what… 3 years?"
So how did you get that kind of calculation, Einstein?
It was quite simple, really. If people would dash on each floor around 10 days on average, it would be easy to say that they'll be done… in around 1000 days. That means approximately 3 years' worth, just for finishing a «death game» like this.
Well, all in all, it certainly is a good prediction, I would have pictured her nodding, if I could actually see her. Well, you still have around 10 hours worth of gaming left, so it's all good. We'll be done by tomorrow.
Tomorrow meaning the next day in my own world, I would be done. It sounds like a really, really short time, doesn't it, when in fact, it would essentially mean I will really have to spend 3 years' worth of gaming on some obsolete game in that I have no idea what am I supposed to do. Wait… what really AM I supposed to do?
She's gone, yet again.
The last Vertical slash staggered the «Large Gnome». Stumbling onto the ground, it shattered into thousands of polygons. The pop-up of «Level Up» promptly appeared in front of me, indicating a clear Lv 7, right there. Considering how others have started quite late, it should be quite an accomplishment. However, this kind of victory would be far from over. Because I was battling rather large beasts, the «Durability Points» of my «Anneal Blade» was crumbling to a mere 10%. If I don't somehow farm some «Snarly» soon and start upgrading this weapon, it would be essentially bad.
Yet, as expected, my days continued to be as stale as ever, more or less having only myself to chat all through my farming hours, as late as the dead of night, as there is a rather substantial percentage it was allocated for farming for the endless «Snarly» within the path before a rather wide cliff, which always seemed to be taken by a couple of twins. With my sword good enough for up to Level 15 or so, I had quickly scouted all throughout the 1st floor, looking for similar designs as I had experienced with several other medieval MMOs. As expected, however, nothing could beat the EXP ratio the «Large Gnomes» had, considering the combos I put up just to beef up my EXP ratio per second.
Every day, I had to thank myself for being hopelessly addicted to these kinds of games - more often addicted enough to warrant a permadeath run. I won't be making any such regrets any time soon, that's for sure. In the end, I'm probably just a hopeless fanboy of these kinds of games. How could such a thing bite me in the end?
Without me noticing, it was in this lonely path that a month had passed by almost too quickly for my eyes to notice it myself. For simplicity's sake, I kept my level as secret as possible, and avoided «Boss Conferences». Like I had promised «Kayaba» (somehow), I would just be a spectator. But what made me put this "promise" to myself? I still have no idea.
As for «Sapphire Controller», who kept on avoiding me whenever I seem to ask about what I am supposed to do… it was as if she was intentionally avoiding me. Is she trying not to lie, somehow? Considering the lies she had fabricated in a day to make me play this game, I'm not so sure anymore. However, Yuki was kind enough to give me a watch list. It wasn't as interesting as I had originally thought, however, since the only list Yuki gave me was a list of «names» and their endgame appearances, which would be essentially useless in this current development.
In the end, one truth remained: nothing can be hidden forever.
It's already been a month; yet, I can easily feel like it's just been around 40 minutes since I got here in «Real Life Terms». Why? It's probably because I can now remember everything that happened so far. Even with the 1 month period, I could still remember the homework our teacher gave to me last morning (in RL), as well as the exact words «Sapphire Controller» and «Kuroyuukihime-sempai» were saying back then, as I gravitated towards the «Stopwatch» in a matter I could only call hypnotism. Yet, I seemed to have already forgotten how my DPS was 3 days ago compared to today's standards. Did the «effect of time travelling and projecting» had anything to do with it?
"Are you there, Safu-chan?"
As my hands lazily reached for the sky, I slowly strolled towards the main city.
Yep. The cheery voice responded. 'sup, Haruyuki-kun?
"I don't know what you're going about here." I sweat dropped, "I'm not even sure if I would be glad or be annoyed with it."
By instinct, I had kicked a nearby pebble at the road leading to «Urbus» and hit a «Boar» by accident. For some weird nostalgic reason, it activated a «skill» of some sort. That very instant, a «Pop-Up» displayed right at my monitor, indicating an unlocked skill: «Taekwondo». I guess, unlike the «Hidden Skills», or «Extra Skills», like the «Martial Arts» I recently acquired from the girl they call «Argo», they don't display a similar pop-up when you complete its requirements.
Oh look, a new skill. Her voice almost shrieked in glee. Isn't it great, Haru-chan?
I opened my way into the «Skills» Menu and browsed the endless list of skills. The name of «Taekwondo» appeared right before my eyes, with a normal white text indicated as unlocked.
"It isn't really a good skill, though," I sighed. "Unless you wanted me to throw away my sword into the air to make formidable melee attacks? In my own opinion, «Martial Arts» fares WAY better."
Again, the feeling of nostalgia hit me. I was here before. Wait, no, that isn't a lie. I was here countless of times, throughout these times I had to take a break from the jarring leveling up routine I had been used to. Plus, with the (so far) absence of any cases of PK before, it shouldn't be a big deal even if I would take a short break from all the monotonous leveling up, right?
But it wasn't like that at all. It was as if… everything's repeating. Is such a thing possible in this case? Well, I've been projected into an obsolete game which has been orchestrated by none other than the girl projecting her voice around 22 years into the past. What could go wrong by not asking?
"Eh?" I leaked out.
Is something wrong?
"N-No…" I shook my head. "N-Nothing…"
For some reason, I couldn't ask. The voice that tried to came out of me that tried to ask a question couldn't come, and was replaced by a reluctant "No."
Why would it? I really… have no idea. In the end, it could only feel like a deja vu, but does such a real concept exist in the first place? Even then, back at class, I could easily remember when our own teacher even had us made a full essay on that subject. Needless to say, I could only answer with a simple: "No, such a thing as deja vu shouldn't exist. It's something recollected as something else." It's not on this case though. It felt, utterly nostalgic, like how you suddenly played a Tekken Arcade Game from 20 years ago, or played Super Mario Brothers 1 on this day, which is, already amazing by itself, really.
As if I was talking to the wind, I instinctively leaked a voice.
"Well," I scratched my head, trying to think of the next words in my mouth. "Do you know the concept of «de ja vu»?"
Well that escalated quickly.
"Uh….uhhh…" A part of me kept wanting to change the conversation. "I mean, you know how «de ja vu» works right?"
I do, she said, this time, in a low tone. If you have something to do, do it before it happens again.
Ahh…. She quickly changed tone again. I mean, De va ju's been kinda like a really really old topic you know! It's been on most philosophical papers since the 1500s!
"Wow," I said by instinct, almost forgetting that she was only relaying that voice to me. "That's amazing."
Without me noticing, I had already reached «Urbus'» gates. It's a rather large "town", if you think about it, but it still wasn't as large as the previous floor. Either way, it was obvious enough from the design of the steel castle «Aincrad», which had the first 10 floors being rather large, and with the prediction of each consecutive floor being smaller and smaller until the 100th floor, which is, according to those in RL, simply a red castle. What a drag… 100 floors in a hardcore mode is pretty hard, although, with all honesty, betting with lives is just crazy.
We're arriving at town, words struck a suspicious chord within me. Has she been this of a Captain Obvious before?
"Yeah, yeah," I lazily replied.
Her voice continued to reek a suspicious aura, much like how However, as I stroll through the unusually busy streets of «Urbus», my gaze quickly swiveled to the strange volley of adjunctive voices.
"Don't … … Don't, don't joke with me!"
«Haru» quickly turned around, and returned to the wide open square. Haru's spine shivered for a short moment as he saw what seemed to be «Kirito» and the girl that was her partner during the «Floor 1 battle» and the same girl in the list «Sapphire Controller» gave to me, «Asuna». Their faces expressed a bit of sympathy, and extra pinches of confusion. Again that nostalgic feeling hit me. A strange itching feeling of «de ja vu». That must be it! As if I knew exactly what's supposed to happen next, «Sapphire Controller» quickly blabbered something…
Is it profitable to approach «Kirito» and «Asuna» right now? she said in a rather cold tone.
The feeling stopped.
"Yes," I quickly muttered. "After all, this is the second time I was given a choice."
Second? She paused for a moment.
"This shaking feeling; the feeling of somehow doing something that I would regret, something… that something," I slowly gave out my voice. "… is something I can never, ever forget, even if you do wipe my memories or reset my temporal state."
She instantly giggled.
I see, I could hear her frantic, yet arced smile. You passed the last test, I guess.
"L-Last Test?" I rushed to the nearest corner to vent out my frustrations in my face. "That's just overkill! I've been here a month just to pass some stupid test?!"
I'm deeply apologize for the intrusion, another cold voice spurted out of my mind. But the compatibility with the temporal detection and recovery program can only be tested on a real trial, so please forgive Ko-… «Sapphire Controller».
I'm definitely going to decrypt your true name one day, «Controller», but for now, «Ko» will suffice.
"Wait, wait," I asked. "Temporal detection?"
"I guess it's time to be briefed then,"
As if, mindful of my own thoughts, a «Player» slowly approached me. I quickly took notice of his outfit. His hair was a lazy re-interpretation of your average early 21st century Japanese. It was easy to tell, really, his rather lazily thought, almost wild hair, wasn't like all the others, but, as depicted by this primitive «Focusing Algorithm», it still was as smooth as an Elementary Grade Schooler. I stared up into his rather partially empty eyes that was looking at «everyday life». Staring back at me with those brown eyes, I still felt a calm expression, almost like he was looking at himself.
"Yo," he waved his arms as if to greet me.
"Did that girl sent you, or something?" I asked, simply out of curiosity.
"Yare yare," he sighed. "It's more of the lines of: I've been here for a month just to pick you up."
"Lemme guess…" I lightly laughed; without noticing it, we were already leaving «Urbus». "…to help me understand what the hell is going on?"
"Well, more or less," he simply replied.
The flash of the «Out of Safe Zone» was bleeping non-existent in my mind. Normally I'd be on alert at such times, since, after all, «Player Killers» are still possible, even in this wretched world, but, rather than that, something is telling me that what he was about to say will be more important than just simply being a spectator on it all. His face was as silent as a normal high school student, as normal as it should always be, as if everything to him was normal.
"You see," he started. "This dimension is in a terrible peril."
"I'm sure she wouldn't normally tell other people, but…" he turned right in one of the forks, into the cliff just around the horizon.
"… we monitor dimensions, dimensions unheard of with a different set of rules, dimensions you would simply normally see in anime or manga or even short stories that doesn't even make sense, and most of all, dimensions in our jurisdiction, far from Keystone Earth, were everything is believed to have come from."
Keystone Earth? Earth would be this one, but Keystone? Keystone… is a foundation, so if one says Keystone Earth, then wouldn't that mean, the Earth on which all dimensions are deep rooted on? But that would imply that this one isn't the real Earth, well, not that it matters, but such an implication would often leave a bitter taste…
"In 3 years, which, in our terms, is sooner than expected, a dimensional anomaly will push the parameters of the dimensional divergence to 50%, which will spiral out and destroy this entire dimension inside out. The resulting space-time quake will affect all dimensions and cause a snowball effect."
Dimensions. I've heard too many games about these dimensions. One game I've played involved the use of time traveling to fix lots of paradoxes, but it was full of inconsistency I couldn't even finish the last boss without downright quitting due to not understanding anything at all. I guess it's a side-effect of playing too many realistic games, «retro games» feel too unreal to be good. However, one of the more recent «VR Games», which had the concept of «multiple realities», had the concept of a parallel universe with a different set of rules. I shiver just thinking about how many of the usual physics didn't work in one of the «universes» I entered in, or how a group of idiots almost destroyed an entire universe by interacting with an eccentric «non-player character», who so happens to be that universe's focal point. I wonder if the same rule applies here…?
"I … don't understand anything, honestly," I sheepishly replied. "But, something tells me it's not any a good sign."
"In basic terms, it will introduce an anomaly that will cause everyone to be obliterated," he said, in clear, concise words. "Including everyone here, and you. Starting from Kuroyukihime."
"Kuro…" I stuttered. "…yukihime!?"
I heard a certain something, something I haven't heard in a long time. Something non-existent in this time and age. Something that wasn't supposed to exist in this «death game». Something I've only seen in the many retro games I've played as a child. My hands were shaking, not of fear, but of pure surprise. It was static. Who would have caused such a thing? Static isn't even supposed to exist since the advent of «VR Games». Much more, with me using a «Neuro Linker», that is much more impossible; static is depicted with the loss of a certain frequency, but no such thing should be present in this time and age.
"Crap," he blurted out. "Someone's resetting the timeline again."
Before I could realize, my entire body stopped. I was still conscious, but, it's as if the entire environment wants me to sleep somehow. Even the guy who was with me had been frozen, as if everything, except my own thoughts, stopped before my eyes.
Be careful, Haru-chan.
It was him, who, most likely used the same method «Sapphire Controller» was doing.
You might be able to move, maybe sometime, «Sapphire Controller» added. But not now, the culprit's at work. You'll be able to talk telepathically to us at this time.
I really don't get it. I relayed my thoughts. Why all the work? Why can't you yourselves interfere with it? Why me?
Don't even try to understand, he replied. But I could tell you something that's understandable.
I saw entire surroundings, slowly rewinding, almost like a video clip, slowly, but surely, accelerating. My feet started moving backwards, back at the exact path we were going, but my thoughts were still as active. It must be because, since I had realized that I was somehow repeating the timeline of the past, I would be conscious when it happens, which means that, if I'm going to finish the mission, I'd have more worries than simply watching and spectating…
In reality, we don't have the ability to fix dimensional divergences, «Sapphire Controller» explained. Or at least, a naturally-occurring one…
Dimensional diverges are the result of, usually, an intervention between the same people as us, people who travel through dimensions and worlds. These diverges, because they are artificial to that dimension, can simply be fixed by our direct intervention. Entities artificial to a dimension can be "removed" from that dimension without a worry of adding to its dimensional divergence, because they're artificial to that dimension.
Well, that felt awfully redundant.
Of course, naturally-occurring ones are different, «Sapphire Controller» continued. Dimensional divergences caused by the people inside it are normally impossible, but in your case, with your technology and physics, it's become entirely possible. In your case, someone is changing your present and future to achieve something, and that something will surely be disastrous.
You mean… I had stopped, right where I will start again, eyes closed, just about to wake up in supposed boredom.
Yes, the boy earlier replied. Someone in your dimension is the one causing all this. That's why I need someone like you, Haru. We cannot interfere with divergences like this. Thus, In order to fix the divergence and avert another disaster, we need someone experienced enough to make sure everything stays the same.
"I really don't get the point of it all, though."
I awoke right at the same tree, the same time, the same place. Everything seemed all to the same, except for my own thoughts, which seemed to have transcend time itself. My hands were still the same chubby hands, and my sword was the still same sword which most «One-Handed Sword» users have always relied on, but somehow, it feels more like an actual «RPG» now than it was a month ago.
What aren't you getting, anyway? «Sapphire Controller» asked, raising a tone. We even gave you the reason for your List.
I, in reflex, flashed a launched a «stone» into a nearby «Wild Boar», quickly depleting it of HP.
"Why would this man be resetting the timeline?"
For some reason words flowed through my voice…
But despite that, it was very simple really…
But by the time I had realized it, speckles of semi-transparent hexagonal sparks ravaged through my stomach, combined with the odd numbed sensation that would have left me twitching in pain.
He didn't just reset the timeline, he relived it.
The expanding feeling of numbness, spreading through my entire body like a sore thumb laughed at my shrinking «HP Bar»: it was an obvious sign of «Paralysis». But «Paralysis» was supposed to be impossible until «Level 20» on the skill tree of «One-Handed Daggers». It was, by this time, supposed to be impossible to induce such an overpowered status in this «death game». As my body continued to buzz in numbness, my head slammed the ground in a splendid sight, indeed. I had barely seen the «culprit», but, whoever he is, he knows «Sword Art Online». I saw his stature, a «brown cape», much like what «Asuna» used during the 1st Boss, with eyes that reflected a certain «mercy» I swore I saw before, and hair that looked much like the «night sky». Darn it, he saw through me… The pixels in my «HP Bar» continued to chipper away, as if taunting me, slowing down, but never stopping. My petty «HP Bar» had decreased to a mere 30. One could say that, based on his movements, he seemed to have ran away: he didn't want to kill me; that's for sure. Did he think that the «principles of the death game» apply to something like me?
Don't worry… «Sapphire Controller» changed tone again; this time I could clearly hear her seriousness. We're working on it.
Resetting timeline coordinates… a certain voice, too familiar to me in these recent times, notified. Reversing time polarity, reversing dimensional divergence – 0.003412%. Setting time discrepancy to 40,100,000 ticks.
Again, the sound of static overwhelmed my senses. 3 years? Please, with this kind of repetition, I might as well have spent 10 years repeating this «video game». 40 million ticks sounded rather ridiculously large, but it was just around 40 seconds of what seemed to be a reversal of time.
You should know what this time repetition only does, the guy from the last timeline said. It only makes you relive everything else, up until a certain timeframe, in which your last memories from before the repetition are side-stacked in. In simpler terms, you look like you're reversing time, but you're just actually reliving the entire thing.
The moment I regained my consciousness, my clicking sense of alertness caused my body to roll up by a few degrees to the left. I just as swiftly eyeballed around the area and assumed a defensive position, with hands in front of my chest, ready for a «Martial Arts» move I had "too recently discovered", even though I, personally, 2 timelines ago, don't remember such a thing. The empty sight only served as a clear sign though: no one was there.
"Hmm," I scratched my head. "Did he detect how you two made your… whatever it was you did?"
Not sure, «Sapphire Controller» replied. I'm sure you detect it too, right? Maybe the feeling's mutual. Either way…
Either way, nothing is going to end lightly. Based on that guy's movements, he seemed too reluctant on actually killing me. Is it because he too fears the rule of the «death game» we're in now, or is it because of mercy? My gut is telling me otherwise: he may have something else in planned.
I threw the rock at the «Wild Boar», as if signifying my thoughts. My feet started rushing towards «Urbus» yet again; I need to save that «girl» … or else I … might not even have a life to live.
"To stop this man…" I scratched my head. Walking down the rather busy streets of «Urbus», I turned a notch to the same man that kept on blabbering. I feel poor for him, but for everyone's sake… I probably shouldn't interfere. Still, the concept of dimensions and dimensional divergences continues to escape me. I mean, how can time travel create divergences? What is difference of a divergent world from an original one? They probably won't answer such questions this early though, so I shouldn't ask…
I escaped through one of the eastern exits in «Urbus», past beyond the fork into the cliff I was going with that man I was from. Despite the grey ceiling that continue to deter this otherwise spectacular canyon-like scenery, everything was clearly in check: the mountains just on the horizon, the cliff's height, which was enough to scare almost anyone, and «Wind Wasps», «Wolves», «Bees», and «Cows» scattered around that makes up for such a picture-perfect RPG game. Too bad it was a «death game». In «Brain Burst», at the very least, you could lose your dignity, your normal life, and, at worst, your entire time and self, but, these stakes are nothing compared to that of a life. I can't comprehend it. Even if I would be, I still wouldn't. Unlike all the other people here, I have never been tricked into a game where you bet your life for real, just to experience a true «VRMMO» for the first time. Unlike anyone here, I have never actually experience «VRMMO» where your first experience may be your last. Moreover, I wasn't born in 2009; how could I possibly know what these people really feel? Fear? Despair? More or less, yes, but it must be more than that. That man, «Kirito»: when I saw him, I saw something else in him, something I've never seen within anyone in my entire life… That something must have come from this place, from this very experience, which I am now experiencing… but alas, I don't belong here, nor will I ever truly be. That's why I need to do what I need to do.
Somehow I need to get that girl…what's her name again?
It didn't even took as long as I hoped it would be. Turning my eyes back to «Urbus», my eyes spotted a beige-haired girl, wearing the usual «Newbie» equipment. Equipped with what seemed to be a «Mace», which I spotted in her left hand, I had deduced that she was a Level 5 «One-Handed Mace» User. How do I know? I recognized that «Mace» from somewhere, it was the «Mace» given at the town just west of the «Starting City», which can only be defeated at «Level 5». I couldn't recognize her armor's durability, either, but I'm guessing that it's at least 50% to being broken. The scratches were clear proof of that. However, what I most worry about was her eyes – it was an abyss, deep and empty.
"In this «Floor», there isn't much a difference between in difficulty as the ones on the first floor, but, even then, you should always keep that «Level Gap» between the NPCs, or else, you're pretty much a bait trap for «Death». You might as well die if you're unconscious, being controlled by someone else." I never thought I'd say those words to myself, cursing myself as I ran towards the girl. She didn't even gave a single response. I don't even want to know how she got there, but one thing's for sure: my gut is telling me that something bad's going to happen if she continued.
I tried to lift her up. Apparently, being such a «primitive game», the «Center of Gravity» hasn't been coded into this «VRMMO» yet, so that's good. With all the «STR» I had saved for, I hugged her and lifted her feet off the ground, hoping that the «Sexual Harassment Warning» won't appear for the few seconds I had to stop her. Ugh, if this weren't a «death game», I would have had the «STR» right now to completely lift her up sooner.
Nothing came out of her lips. Her cold state would have left anyone completely helpless to know, but I do. This was obviously the work of «VR Hypnotics», a practice used during the days of «The Seed ver. 1» of 2031, a thing that basically forced 50% of many VR Companies to procure strict monitoring procedures for quite a while, including the legendary «ALO». It wasn't even something normally possible through simple means: «VR Hypnotics» required so much psychological evaluation in that most of its use was limited on VIP targets, who had been spied on (in VR, of course) for at least 3 months. The knowledge is then used, amongst odd sensory perception signals, which, by the way, required knowledge of how «The Seed» often transmits its perceptive vision to its users, to stimulate the brain into a state of perpetual flux, i.e. a mindless state. In this case though, something wasn't right: it hasn't even been a month since that the start of «SAO». So, for such tactics to be so thorough, how much do you have to know that person? However, one thing I'm very sure, ever since I've learned of the true nature of «being stripped off Brain Burst permanently», that most of its use required «VR Hypnotics». One of such tactic already in place in «Brain Burst», was something I know very well: «Zero Fill», which, in simple terms, simply expands your negative thoughts and lack of willpower into a state of mindlessness, but even that required the program to actually know what is your negative thoughts, which can scare me sometimes you know…
Anyway, I have to snap her out of it somehow. I really wish I know this person well, but I just met this girl, with the knowledge I have, I won't be able to snap her back into existence so easily. If only slapping worked, but that's only really applicable in real life, not in a «VR Environment».
There's no other choice. Hoping that the game's «primitive enough for equipment not to wear down under environmental measures», I started dragging her hands into «Urbus». As I expected, «Environmental Values» aren't actually that «primitive»: I definitely saw the very tiny hexagonal sparks from her feet. Her boots' «durability» was decreasing, although it was on a scale lower than I thought, so it's still all good.
"Still," I sighed. "This is going to take long…"
Be on your guard though, the guy said. You're not even sure that person trying to ruin everything has given up.
"I know…" I responded. "It feels as though everything's easy… too easy."
Really, I said too soon.
Really… I said too soon.
"Ugh," a certain man I knew too well mumbled around, cautiously whipping away «Wind Wasps» just at the fork. That «fork» in the road was a rather famous spot these 3 days. Apparently, there has been an unusual influx of «Wind Wasps» at that area. For this area to have such "fancy mobs" in place, without the risk of luring in a «Jagged Worm», which was on the west side of «Urbus», whether it was an event or anything of the sort that caused such a seemingly convenient spot to appear, it really does sound fishy: I don't remember that fact during the last timeline.
"Stop complaining and continue slashing," her party member looked at her with such intent eyes. "Remember, I'm at 24 now!"
Suddenly turning his eyes to another «Wind Wasp» that just popped out and pointed its rather dangerously paralytic stinger, Kirito shifted his feet by a few degrees. As if I was him, I could imagine the feeling of a magnificent miss, causing that particular mob to have that second «cool down», perfect for a great killer move. Just as I anticipated with glee, he raised his sword and formed a V, right at its left wing. A Direct Hit!
Why? Unlike me, who simply stared at the rather unusually magnificent scene (because I was here for a month already), «Sapphire Controller» silently gasped. They're…
Checking the dimensional divergence, the familiar cold voice of Yuki resounded through my ears. 0.003412…003%. This person is amazing to have manipulated that divergence so precisely.
"Is even a 0.000000003% divergence that bad?!" I stared back at Kirito, who seemed awfully busy slashing away at the «Wind Wasps».
Unfortunately, in this case, it is. «Sapphire Controller» mentioned. In this case, we can't drag «Lizbeth» back into «Urbus» without catching the attention of the two, which will accelerate the divergence to approximately 21%. While not enough to end SAO's dimension, it's enough to destroy your future. We can't afford to lose either.
I couldn't respond at all. I didn't understand a thing, except for that one thing: I'm in danger if I don't get this girl into whatever safety it means in this past world. But, why the small change: what DID change? So far, other than the popularity of this area, even my past memories don't serve a clue…
"…not unless…" I muttered to myself, looking back at «Lizbeth»'s cold eyes, I bit my tongue. It was planned all along…
"Sorry, «Sapphire Controller», but I have to do this."
Without a single ounce of doubt, I let go of the girl burdening my short hands.
What are yo-
"I'm sorry, but this is the only way," Haruyuki muttered. "Just trust me on this one."
Yes, I have to trust myself as well. I know «Kuroyuukihime-sempai» would. Turning from the two, «Lizbeth» ran right into the large canyon down at the south. It would be annoying just to get back from the canyon back to town, with me taking the southeastern way up, but I've no choice: If I'm to leave this world, I have to know who this "hacker" is, and, whoever he is, he has a lot of VRMMO knowledge – dangerous VRMMO knowledge. There are too many outs, and too many risks involved. However, I need to end this, and end this fast.
"This is the only way to go…"
I muttered, stomping my light feet right into a cliff, where the brainwashed Lizbeth jumped into.
Obviously, no sane human would do such a thing, not in this death game. But, for me to even know the calculations for fall damage on the back of my head, it's a bit ridiculous, to be honest. Considering that this is where The Seed came from, it was already obvious that all of its formulas, all of the base logic, and even «Cardinal»…
My feet buzzed at contact with the hard ground. 20 damage was considerably low compared to some other more hardcore «VRMMOs».
"I don't like this…"
Me either. Sapphire Controller replied. Just the aura of that cave is surprisingly scary, even for an MMO.
"No, it's not that." I replied with a stern face. "It's the environment. There is also very few information about this area, apart from some rather unreliable beta test info. It's an area with low ambience and lots of Level 4 monsters, and flying monsters that creep out of nowhere and chip away on your «HP» … or «PKers» that will definitely have a clear advantage. It's definitely the perfect place to die in this «death game»."
Lizbeth continued on inside the large crevice leading into the depths of the cave. The name «Sergius Cave» popped up in my screen, which I promptly ignored. The darkness enveloped my eyes, briefly activating my «Night Vision» passive skill, which, I had, unfortunately, hadn't leveled up to a respectable degree. Oh well, I guess it would be a good way to level it up right now. The darkness, now enveloping me fully, continued to seep its creepy aura onto me as I walk through these muddy waters. While I don't have much of a skill on these parts, I do have «Night Vision» on, just enough to see the hundreds, no, thousands of stalagmites sticking out of the ceiling. Just around those parts, I could see Level 4 «Bats», hanging around, waiting for its next victim. I felt the shivers off my spine simply staring at them, after all, they're a bit 1 or 2 levels over the usual «Level Safety Gap».
"Have you seen her?"
No, nothing. «Sapphire Controller» responded. You DO know I'm looking through YOUR eyes, right?
I really was genuinely surprised. I mean, if she could have led me here, then at least she could have had installed a listener of some sorts to my compatibility console.
My eyes spiraled around, looking for some entry further into the cave. I could definitely hear with my own 2 ears, a couple of footsteps, echoing towards the right, further underground. However, I'll need to take some precaution: the sensual algorithms of «The Seed» is quite advanced, even until 2040+, so I wouldn't be surprised at all if I were to accidentally take a wrong way.
Here, «Sapphire Controller» said. Right at the left side. I see a slight glimmer of light reflecting from your «Night Vision» skill.
If it were converted into English it would be a good pun right about now, and besides, «Night Vision» doesn't really emit light, so how does that work? Either way, I turn my head to the right fork, and dashed towards this glimmer of light. A few bats slipped by, chipping my «HP» by around 4% with their «Winged Slash», but it was somehow negligible, for now, that is. What was important, however, was the bright light just shining right in front of me, of what seemed to be a certain exit. But what would an exit like this be doing around 500 meters underground?
The bright light automatically turned off my «Night Vision». I could only stand in awe. Where… am I?
"This place is…" I quickly turned over into a certain someone's impeccable Guide. "…not here. Is this not part of the «Beta Test»?"
I scouted around, beyond the hundreds… no… millions of glimmering gems, scattered around the endless grassy pasture. The bats that were supposed to be above were, instead, replaced by hundreds of glowing bright orange-red stalagmites, which seemed to give this place the true idea of a paradise at every corner. A small stream, with a crystal clear and crisp water, flowed right through this beautifully crafted large patch, into a small crevice, possibly leading into one of the waterfalls I saw right before I entered this dense cave. The monsters, scattered all over the area, especially within is patches of sunflower, were called «Large Butterflisps» - a strange large hybrid of a butterfly and a wasp with antennae like a butterfly's, a slender body much like a caterpillar's with hairy spikes, and a bottom body like a wasp's, which for some reason, glittered with green starry aura. As I scooped around, looking for «Lizbeth», I noted the sound of crackling grass whispering and echoing through the cave.
What's… she doing? «Sapphire Controller's» eyes were the same as mine; they were looking at the far back of the prairie of butterflips.
"I'm not sure," I responded. "But I don't like it either…"
I dashed towards strange light emanating from «Lizbeth's Hands». I can't seem to decipher on what exactly could be it. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't anything from this game. I remember that local «VR console items» can be loaded into a game powered by «The Seed» ver. 1, which, is then, used by the game itself and automatically gets interfaced as an object from that server. Back in 2026, the first recorded use of this technology, obviously on the age-old «ALO», was on a separate top-bottom AI called «Yui»; I wonder who made it? In this case however, she seems to be holding a light teal gem of some sort, shaped like a square-pyramid, with a silver lining right at the center and green dots at the very center.
That's… «Sapphire Controller» stuttered. This early… how?!
That item… «Sapphire Controller» quickly explained. … is a «Crystal». Specifically, it's an «EXP Crystal». I did my research on some of «SAO» mechanics, after all. «Crystals» are rather rare items only normally naturally obtained on Dungeons Level 5 or higher, and, more often times, within Floor 5 «NPC Shops» and above, which, you can say, is the only source of "magic" in «SAO». This one is particularly dangerous, often only used by «Tanks» or «Solo Players» for a good purpose: activating such a crystal increases your EXP rate by 50% and increases spawn rate and attraction, in addition to the «Switch» system and «EXP Sharing» system presented by parties and guilds. But for anyone to obtain that item so early… it's out of the question.
"No, I doubt it is totally impossible to do such a thing."
I remember again that 0.0 something 3% fork. For something to change, there could be another thing that can change for «Cardinal», the central system in «The Seed» to be tricked. That's when it occurred to me: it's entirely possible that «Cardinal» decided to reward players risking low EXP and hidden spot areas – areas with very few grinding players by giving those players items with a less than 1% drop rate – like these crystals. It has happened before in so many «VRMMOs» utilizing «The Seed», and hasn't really changed, even until ver. 2. In fact, I've heard areas within «Brain Burst», to be precise, within the «Unlimited Neutral Zone», with monsters with very low «Burst Points» which drop the most ridiculous of accessories. One such accessory was Kuroyuukihime-sempai's «Mystical Reins».
"This man thought of everything, and everything well…" I continued, finally getting in close enough to her. With her rather shuddered state, it should be easy for me to get him on her «Party», using the hand-wave exploit often used in «The Seed» ver. 1. However, the «EXP» Buff is still a problem. Unlike many «MMORPGs», «SAO» and «ALO»'s «debuffs» and «buffs» are essentially the same thing: both cannot be cancelled by the player who obtained them, and, sometimes, both effects have their own double-edged effect. The only real difference between a «buff» and «debuff» is simply for their initial effect, whether if it's good enough or bad enough. For someone who don't know a thing or two about such things, like pretty much almost every new player in this primitive game, that calls for something.
"Darn," I cursed myself. "It would have been better if I had prior knowledge of this world and its players you know."
I don't think it wouldn't matter anyway if I told you those prior. Sapphire's cold response served to aggravate me even more. But enough of that, we need to save this girl.
«Lizbeth's HP» appeared in the upper left corner of my sight.
Let's do this… Sapphire Controller's voice indicated a smile.
"I've been through tougher situations…"
Within moments, the hundreds of «Butterflips» scattered all around the prairie had locked targets onto the girl named «Lizbeth». A preliminary basis on her equipment proved that she uses only light metal armor and a «One-Handed Mace», as compared to me who uses leather armor and «One-Handed Sword». I've already calculated on the attack pattern of the «Butterflip»: based on its attack target, which is currently poor «Lizbeth», who's still in a daze, it's going to swing around left and right, twirl 180 degrees, and make a dash attack right around the chest area or the shoulders. I've seen it with those «Wind Wasps», however, this is a bit different, with its more advanced flight pattern. Basically, there's nothing else to blame but «Cardinal»: a place like this would be an excellent (and dangerous) «EXP and Item Farm», however, as most people currently in «SAO» are relying on «Beta Test» info., stuff and caves like this can easily appear out of nowhere as «Cardinal's» compensation. Either way, I'm in for quite a pinch.
The first «Butterflisp» made its move, and tried to dash into the frozen «Lizbeth» with a winged attack, coming in just 45 degrees from my left. However, I, too, had predicted the first move and swung my «Anneal Blade» head horizontal, slashing its weak point: its middle body. Even though its Level showed to be «Level 4», it had quite a small amount of «HP» compared to the «Bats» just outside this large patch of grass. I quickly followed with a V formation, twisting my ankle a good 15 degrees to the right and hitting two «Butterflips» which quickly followed. I cursed the ground, and followed the assault with an upward vertical, hitting yet another «Butterflisp», who tried to attack me. Just as planned. It would have been easier if my partner used some «Buff Spells» to me, but this isn't «ALO» or «REALO», but, «Magic» is non-existent in «SAO», so there's nothing else to do but to rely on strategies. 5 «Butterflips», as if oriented by the situation, then diverted their gazes to me, and went all-out with a «Poison Strike», a pose-attack pattern similar to many «Wasp» monsters. However, I, too, had predicted that, and twisted my arm for a reverse «Horizontal» slash.
You're pretty good at this. Her comment made me smile. How experienced ARE you in VRMMOs?
"Well I'm not to bluff but…" I stopped my sentence mid-way. "Why do you NOT know that, or is your homework not enough?"
Well when I think about it… she said in an even lower tone. I just skimmed through my supposed homework for this world. So much for coming out of temporary retirement…
I sighed at the pitiful girl looking through my eyes through 20 years from my current timeline. Calling myself a real expert wouldn't be the accurate action to take. But rather, I have at least 10 years worth of experience on «VRMMORPGs»: from «ALO» to many other «VRMMOs». I've seen through most of their lifetimes, seeing worlds come and go and slowly die until no one is left. I've studied «The Seed» and all of its processes, on how some of its processes and debugging and balancing system works. In fact, the only reason I've relegated the more recent work (before discovering «Brain Burst» that is) to the school's local «VR Space» is simply because of the school's prohibitions on local «VRMMO»… although to think I could access «Brain Burst» inside the school network, it still strikes me as weird indeed, that is, if you don't consider its supposed secrecy.
Speaking of which, how am I doing? I've defeated what seemed to be 15 out of, how many, 100 of these things? Good thing «RePOPs» for some secretive sites like these go for hours, and, even then, there is often a limit on how many of these «Butterflips» would have to «RePOP» per minute. Currently, with the pacing I have, I've been killing at least 1 or 2 «Butterflips» per second, due to its low «HP». Moreover, my «EXP Bar» going quite considerably well. I might as well be at «Level 14» by the time this massacre is over. Really, that «EXP Crystal» should have been given to me, so that I both get the «Hate debuff» and «EXP buff». Either way, the «EXP Buff» is probably going to last for 10 minutes… with her being at this «Party», she should most likely level up a lot faster than me.
5 minutes into the massacre…
Wow, you're going at it. Sapphire's squeaky voice would normally be annoying, but I guess I got used to it.
"Thanks for the encouragement, now get yourself a new pair of eyes next time."
I conveniently slashed away at what seemed to be the 40th «Large Butterflisp». By now, the fatigue should be starting to set in. My hands quivered as it readied the next «Horizontal Arc», simply out of pure mental fatigue. It happened before within the «Unlimited Neutral Zone» though, back during the training with «Sky Raker»: is it because I'm actually still in the «Unlimited Neutral Zone» with «Brain Burst» acting as a console for «SAO»?
A «Butterflisp», as if seeing my "hesitation", managed to scrap off one of my short thighs, leaving an orange-like scar. My «HP» went to from 100% to a mere 66%. It confirmed my suspicion: the suspect's plan. I kicked the ground of annoyance; so much for a quick exit, but, then again, I should have expected much. The plan was quite simple, honestly: lure «Lizbeth» into an «EXP Farm», with monsters known to be «Glass Cannons», and, with the «EXP buff», lure normally non-aggressive «Large Butterflips» into her and kill her, painless, and without much effort. This is too much; this is «Player Killing». Why would he go so far? I can't even comprehend such a person anymore. However, I can't judge that person either, just as I did on «Noumi», at least, not yet.
"…am I?" the voice continued, right at my back.
I couldn't say anything.
"Y-Y-You…!" her face flustered. "W-Where… w-w-what are …?"
"T-There's no time for that!" I shouted. "Can't you see we're in a pinch here?"
She quickly glanced around, scratched her head, and, with her mouth agape, stuttered as she attempted to speak. Her expression definitely screamed confusion, probably over everything. Most likely, she doesn't even realize the severity of her situation right now, or that she was supposed to die back there. Oh well…
"Are we… going to die?!"
"No, we're not!" I quickly responded. "Now, PLEASE, help me? Can't you see that I was defending you all this time while you were unconscious?"
"Ugh," she palmed her head. "I can't seem to remember anything on how did I got here. I'll just assume that you mutilated me."
I twitched. This girl is a demon, a demon I say!
"Please, don't be like that." I said those words as hexagonal shards of the nearest «Large Butterflisp» flew through my head. "Besides, you should probably notice your Level's quite on a spin right now."
"Oh, you're right." She just had to check her status window to be sure. "So, the I-can't-remember-but-for-some-reason-fellow Party member, wanna take them all at once? You know, I can be quite good at «One-Handed Maces» if I want to. Don't judge me even though I'm just a Level 10…!"
"Hai, hai," I shrugged. "Now, «Switch»!"
Wait... she was actually a Level 10? Brushing my thoughts aside, I switched right to the back, twirled a full 180 degrees and hitting a «Large Butterflip's» right wing. My hands again felt this tingling sensation of fatigue. I swiftly brushed it off, following with a straight «Horizontal Arc», cutting away at two «Large Butterflips».
Congratulations, You Leveled Up!
The refreshing sound of the «Level Up» sound effect soothed my nerves. Even during my old «VRMMOs», a sound effect like this always bring a smile to me. It often means new abilities, new skills, new «Skill Points», and, definitely, a step closer to the «Level Cap», whatever «SAO's» is. Taking advantage of «Lizbeth» covering for me, I quickly opened the «Skill Window» and skimmed through the unlocked skills (including the skill that guy gave to me that isn't even accessible yet) and quickly stopped at the new skill, «Battle Healing»: a skill unlockable at «Level 15», if you have at least 15 STR, with some cool Passive Skills to boot.
"Okay," I turned my eyes into Lizbeth, whose HP Bar neared a 50%. "«Switch»!"
I rammed onto the enemy, with a sword in front, piercing through the «Butterflisp's» upper body. It was a cheap «Rage Spike», but, as it was on a «Switch», it was quite effective. I vehemently then proceeded to follow up with another «Uppercut» and a «Horizontal Arc», which briefly took short work of 7 «Large Butterflisps», which struck all at once due to «Lizbeth switching out».
28 more to go, and 4 minutes left.
"Geez," Lizbeth sighed. "When will this all be over?!"
"Sooner than you think, I bet," I smiled as I saw the «HP Bar» in the corner of my vision, which rose by around 4%.
"Well, be quick," Lizbeth stepped back, and viewed her «Status Window». "I don't wanna be killed trying to distribute my «Status Points» and possibly adding some new «Skills» though."
I turned around, quickly forming a «Vertical» and striking another «Large Butterflisp» which tried to strike «Lizbeth» through the left side. I was definitely not trying to kill her unintentionally by striking her with a one-handed sword that, with all my STR, could possibly kill her if ever I got a «Critical Hit» event.
"Now… err… whoever your name is," Lizbeth signaled. "Time to «Switch»!"
She sidestepped right in front of me as I twirled to the back. Holding her one-handed «Turiel Mace» to the side, which looked more like an arrow-shaped, spiked club, she twisted her arm clockwise. Aiming for the body of a «Large Butterflisp», she swung her mace with all her might, throwing the poor thing sideways right into a nearby crevice where it exploded into a hundred hexagonal flakes. It was «Raging Earth», which was the mace's standard vertical attack, for that matter, however, it had a rather high cooldown and high freeze time, only beaten by the «Two-Handed Mace»'s «Falling Rock».
"I'm not done just yet…!" she grinned.
Spinning a 180 degrees, the momentum from her «mace» whirled right back to a starting position, where another «skill» kicked in, aiming for a second and third «Butterflisp». On impact though, the blunt attack sent a small shockwave that also kayoed 3 more «Butterflisps», all of which sent them flying, dissipating mid-air, for that matter. It was a nifty player skill, called «Momentum Connect», which most players using «maces» and «axe» players quickly notice as they use their skills. The concept was just as simple as with its premise: by forwarding weight used within a mace, whose heavy weight was concentrated on the end, you can chain a combo right next to it by redirecting the initial momentum created from your first attack. Its use quickly spread following after just a short month into «SAO», courtesy of the «Argo's Strategy Guide». The second skill she used was, obviously, the more advanced «Shock Whirl», which can easily be simplified into a vertical blunt attack with shockwaves.
"«Switch»!" she back stepped. Given the signal, I swiftly dashed right in front of the last 22 «Large Butterflisps». This time, I pushed forward, and then swung my sword sideways, forming a «Horizontal» right against 2 more «Butterflisps». However, I knew that I can still do with another skill. As if the skill instantly acted on itself, clicking right when my last skill ended, I twisted my arm and jumped, forming a twirled «Sonic Leap»-like skill, as it aimed upwards into the sky. Oddly enough, I've never done it in «SAO» before. It might as well be a new skill.
5 more «Large Butterflisps» were left. Although 1 was starting to form yet again, it didn't matter anymore; 60 seconds were left with the «EXP Buff». Soon enough, they should stop aiming at us once the buff's over with.
Quickly noticing the humungous freeze time that last skill gave upon me, I had to leave the last 6 to her. Well it doesn't matter as much anyway, and I'm quite sure she can handle it. However, what DID piqued my interest was with the last skill I used. I definitely know for a fact that it was a relegated «Sonic Strike» which was combined with a «Shock Whirl» for a shoryuken-like effect. Much like how a child felt with his new toy, I checked my «Status Window» for a «Skill» that would explain the behavior.
«Combo Connect», eh?
I ignored the girl talking telepathically to me and looked at the stats, and for a really good reason too. For now, at least, it doesn't seem to consume any «Skill Slot», which is quite convenient, in my honest opinion. The tip screamed the answer to my movement though.
"Copies another move, and automatically combines it with your own move set that coincides with your last move."
For what seems to be an «Extra Skill», I can't be sure if this is active or passive. However, it just means that I can connect various skills, combining their freeze times at the very end. It's quite different from the player-skill, «Momentum Connect», on the premise of «System Assist». Even if there was no «System Assist», it should have been still possible to utilize this «skill» as a player one, but it would require a good timing of your skills and the system correctly identifying the right skill at the right time, which I doubt is possible with one «One-Handed Sword». «Momentum Connect» required the momentum of the axe or mace in order to offset freeze times and create another skill, and it didn't need a correct timing for the skill, just to connect the momentum of your mace to a certain pose that happens to clicks with your move set. You'd also need a set amount of AGI too, else the skill won't connect. This isn't the case with this «Extra Skill», though. It seems that what the system will do is to adapt another move to a move set I already have, then tries to link it to my last skill, thus making a legitimate combo.
"1…" I counted with my fingers. "3-combo move? Not bad."
I also took notice of my «Inventory». I quickly scrolled down, beyond the rather endless array of items and drops from various mobs. Near to the last «Large Butterflisp» I defeated, I was sure that I got a peculiar item worth seeing, somewhere. I think it was called something like…
"«Teal Tears»…" Lizbeth read her «Loot Pop-Up».
"Eh?" I sneered. "It seems I got 3. Looks like a moderately rare drop, though."
It was the first I've heard in «SAO» about «Teal Tears». From the looks of it, «Teal Tears» couldn't be a quest item, especially when most quest items can only be acquired once. It can't simply be another POT, as there is no "liquid" of any sort to drink from. There are 3 conclusion to draw then. One probability is it could be a type of «Crystal», but from the looks of it, I've absolutely no idea what it does. There isn't an option for use either– normally there's a button on the front which indicate some kind of use – so if it has to be a «Crystal», it's effect is either «Passive» or «Automatic». Another probability is that it could be a new type of «Crafting Item». I call it a new type since the «beta test» didn't have one, so it could be for some «new function», like «Player-Custom Swords» or the like. I call «Player-Custom Swords», simply because it's one of the special features of «The Seed» that every other developer couldn't particularly replicate, which is one of the main reasons of its popularity, even until my present time, so it might as well make perfect sense for such a thing as a «Crafting Item».
"Anyway," she let out a sigh of relief, as her «EXP Buff» disappeared. "How did I get here anyway?"
"Well, you see…"
I couldn't bring myself to explain everything. Rather than fearing that he'll strike again, which he probably will, somehow, somewhere, I fear that revealing anything to these people whom my suspect targeted would be achieving his overall plan. Consequently, I don't think his true aim was to kill Lizbeth. If ever, I'd say the fact that he isn't here says something about his character. Could he be somehow conscious that he's trying to kill her so he didn't do it himself? Surely, with all his precision in time-travelling he could have done just that, as that would be a surefire way.
Then there's the probability that he targeted me, knowing that Lizbeth might be saved. That would then require a great amount of trust from a girl he never really met before. While I don't think that's an impossible svcenario, I still think it must have been an improbable scenario, after all, its primary requirement is that he trusts me somehow that I can clear them all just enough for Lizbeth to escape.
"I see…" Lizbeth nodded. "I was somehow hypnotized using some kind of «Potion»?"
"Well, nothing you can do about it right?" I'm hoping that she doesn't notice that I'm hoping that she'll simply shrug the problem off.
"It's a mystery indeed, "Lizbeth scratched her head. "Hypnotism? I guess since the conditions IRL is almost the same as with SAO, for that matter, it's not like it can be prevented."
"Of course!" I vehemently nodded.
"But then again," Lizbeth asked. "Is it a bad idea to simply report the incident to say… someone like «Argo the Rat»?"
"Well, you're right, but what can we tell her?" I returned the question. "For one, I only saw you on a hypnotized form; you don't remember her either; and, lastly, we don't know how it occurred, exactly."
I lied. I totally lied. I knew exactly how he did it, down to the last «Seed-compatible procedure». But information about things that shouldn't be, simply shouldn't be given. If ever I learned something from the 1 or so month that I've lived through this world, through this time, that pre-obtained knowledge is more evil than knowledge of past secrets. There's nothing wrong in keeping a secret, in fact. We're born in this world, and die, all within secrets we may never know. However, knowing the secrets of the future events give one the ability to change the future, affecting not just the world but fate itself. You can say that that «naïve person» gains a responsibility equivalent to that of «God», wouldn't it? If «Kuroyuukihime-sempai» were to ask me to go back to the past now and give her knowledge of the future she wasn't meant to know, would I tell her? The answer came out of my lips.
"I guess you're right."
Her feet started strolling, right through the vast greenish patch of land. As if drawn, my own stature accompanied this peculiar girl. A bright smile covered her face, hiding away any trace of sadness. I've never really saw anything like it, not in «Sword Art Online». Is it really possible to be happy in this «cage»? Or is it just a useless façade?
"I have faith in us, you know." Lizbeth puffed her chest. "After all, even if it was a month per floor, that's still 100 months to finish this, all of this."
"That would be 8 years to finish the game," I cheered. "And even then, I doubt that the other floors will be that difficult once you people adapt. In fact, I'd think that everyone in the frontlines has pretty much adapted the entire routine, making 7 – 10 days per floor quite a probable feat, in fact, I doubt you won't be able to finish this «death game» in 2 or so years."
It was the truth, after all.
"Thanks," she grinned, just as we exited through a second exit, right through a ladder. I quickly presumed that it was a well, and a recently dried one, at that, especially noted for its recent addition of a «Rope Ladder».
"Did you, or we, for that matter, came through here?" she queried.
"I… don't think so," I scratched my head.
"Ah, well, this is rather convenient, don't you think?"
I first climbed the precarious ladder, for obvious reasons I don't think I should even tell myself.
"Convenient how, exactly?"
She made a 'hmm' sound, right before preparing a lengthy explanation. It seems that she actually recognizes the pattern from the well: it was a well from the western plains of «Urbus», right in the middle of its infamous «Trembling Ox» spawn, around 3 km from the town proper. She knew that area, since the house there is quite famous for its «Ox Milk», which she said was quite delicious and increases «Luck» and «Defense».
"You know," I interposed her words. "I don't think it's a good idea to tell anyone about this area either. After all…
"The area here is an extremely good «EXP Farm». I think that it would be profitable for longer the fewer players take notice of it."
It was the truth, but I couldn't bring myself to say why. After all, if I were to completely explain the phenomenon: I've already determined that «Cardinal», the AI System governing «The Seed», would not take notice of this place as long as there are a few players exploiting it. In addition, with Lizbeth and I obtaining this item, there's no telling if this is supposed to be really rare or anything of the sort. I'd rather take the safe option. After all, knowledge is power.
"I think I know what you mean," she lowered her tone. "It's this system, is it?"
I nodded, "In fact, there's a good chance that if we get 10 more players farming here this spot will be gone before you know it. I have all my intentions to level up before the frontlines, after all."
Her left hand grabbed mine, and her other the well's outer wall. Like a mermaid jumping out of the water, she jumped right out of the well, right in front of the old, shady hut. I guess she was telling the truth of the matter, all right. I guess it makes things a bit easier for me.
"I don't have any interest in joining the «frontlines», you see."
"Eh," I blinked. "Why?"
"Well," she glanced around, just before strolling towards «Urbus'» city proper. "Seeing all those deaths around me, seeing everything and all, I don't think I can handle me facing «death». I'm still afraid, you know. I'm afraid of «dying». We all «die» sooner or later, I know, but I don't think I can handle «dying» in this pitiful «death game»."
I didn't know back then, of her real feelings that definitely overwrote mine. I didn't know of this world; I felt as detached as a link that was just stuck like glue over a link of iron chains. I couldn't understand it at all; I couldn't understand how a «game» such as this can definitely kill someone without the slightest hint of conscience or mercy. I wasn't desperate enough.
"Well," I stammered. "I guess, we could re-introduce each other?"
I could definitely feel her dumbfounded face. However, she replaced it with a smile.
"I guess so," she said. "My name's «Lizbeth», future «Master Blacksmith». Nice to meet you."
"«Haru», Frontliner" I returned the favor. "Nice to meet you."
[ «Lizbeth» has invited you to be your friend? Do you wish to accept? ]
The pop-up appeared soundlessly in my screen. There was the only obvious answer.
[ Accept ]
[End of Chapter 2]
I know myself.
I don't wanna accept it.
… will surely break me down.
I know it.
I will never accept that fact.
Will I really be a «spectator»?
Or will I bear the responsibility of «fate»?
I wanted to finish my PMMM fic before this one, but nooo, I had to be stuck at the very last part. Also, college theses and ridiculously ambitious projects are a necessary evil.
I can't believe it took me so long to finish it. Well, I do blame myself for not being decisive on the the short details in Sword Art Online, but it doesn't matter now, anyway. Anyway, enjoy this complete chapter. Next chapter, we'll tackle the Accelerated World. Is Sapphire Controller really an enemy in disguise, or is there someone else at work?
Some Fic Related Notes:
Some of the details in this chapter MAY be changed as SAO: Progressive brings out its Vol. 2.