A/N It might be helpful to read what's translated so far on Rondo of the Transient Sword, as this was heavily influenced by it, but to the best of my judgment it's not necessary.
Many thanks to Inconspicuous Llama for the beta-edit.
Disclaimer: Sword Art Online is owned by Reki Kawahara. I own absolutely nothing in relation to this work, except for the plot of this particular story.
The Other Blacksmith
I blame Agil.
The whole problem started with Agil, reeked of Agil, wore an annoying T-shirt stamped with a block capital AGIL and ended at that little diner in Urbus where my Col was drained by that abominably expensive shortcake, again. That last one I still blamed Agil for, though he wasn't the one I had to give shortcake to. I made sure to rub that in his face – no way was I spending any of my hard-earned Col on that cheapskate swindler!
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The whole problem started with Agil – more accurately, in his shop on the fiftieth floor. I hung around there sometimes, if I finished my EXP quota for the day and the merchant had closed up shop. He called it a special business opportunity for his longtime and loyal customer. I didn't care what he called it, his sofa was comfy.
Occasionally, Lisbeth would drop by thinking I would forget to maintain my weapons (or at least that's what she claimed; everyone knew I went to her place every day). Usually she'd, er, end up guessing wrong, and instead start a conversation with Agil. His latest items, his customers, his haggling methods, stuff like that which gave me even more of a reason to doze off.
Lisbeth had been with us that day. But aside from that, I didn't think that it would be any different from the other nondescript days I visited. The two businesspeople were discussing current market prices. I was mostly dead to the world. Eyes closed, arms sprawled, sleep about to overtake me – until a strange phrase struck my consciousness and sparked the entire mess.
"…wasn't for that other blacksmith!"
Agil's voice was unusually annoyed. It gave me the feeling that if I stuck my nose into this, I would be regretting it even more than the one time he convinced me to wear the custom armour he had ordered. It didn't sound so bad at first – until the black, intentionally weak layer fell apart, revealing the much stronger but very flashy advertisement beneath. Ask yourself whether you want to spend an entire boss raid wearing a metallic pink breastplate etched with Agil's face, and you'll get close to how mortified I felt.
With that in mind, I turned over and tried to go back to sleep. Easier said than done.
"Do you think she's doing this on purpose?" Liz tensely asked.
"Hard to tell. I haven't resorted to asking Argo yet, so the only things I've heard were comments from her own fanclub."
"She is surprisingly reclusive. I guess stalkers would be the only ones determined enough to find her. Still, what kind of person would spend all their money like that?"
"Not anyone in their right mind."
"Well, that's obvious! The most I ever got for a Steel Sword was 80,000 Col."
Mentally, I imagined going to the C drive of my brain and clicking Items, then Equipment, then Swords, and then the Steel Sword folder. Like other plain-name items, it was one of those infinite-stocked base supplies from NPC vendors, and not a monster drop. If I remembered right, it was surprisingly good for an NPC sell, but only when compared to other NPC swords of the same tier. It was also one of the most unique swords in SAO, but only in that it was sold in NPC stores and could be produced by a blacksmith. It had a fixed recipe, actually, meaning the same combination of items would always produce the same item.
And Liz sold one for 80K. What a rip-off, I thought.
"But," the blacksmith continued, "I heard she once sold one for four million."
Needless to say, I flew out from the couch like I was burned and stared incredulously at a startled Liz. "F-four million Col!?"
"You were listening!?"
"Nevermind that, what's this about four million Col spent on a Steel Sword!?"
Agil and Liz explained. Apparently, there was a new girl blacksmith in town whose popularity had shot straight up, kinda like Asuna and Silica (though not on their levels), and got herself more than a few "dedicated and loyal" – more like "rabid and obsessive" – fans. One of her problems was that the swords she made were set at crazy prices, even though all of them were actually lower-leveled – stuff that would've been fine about forty floors below, but were practically useless for the current front lines on the 70th floor, and definitely fell short of quality expected from the price tag. Like the Steel Sword. Any way you look at it, it wasn't worth seven digits.
The other problem was that her fans still bought them.
"Why?" I said doubtfully.
"She's probably using her looks," Lisbeth huffed.
I stared for a moment. "Are you jealous?"
If it was true, and I had honestly expected it to be, I imagined Liz would've flown into one of her hour-long rants complete with rhetorical questions on whether I still had my marbles, plus several comments about where those Steel Swords could be shoved into, which, er, wouldn't include monsters.
Instead, I got a severe frown. "No! But what else can it be? I wouldn't know. I try to make an honest living!"
Right away I felt bad. "Sorry, Liz. I didn't mean anything by that."
Agil looked thoughtful. "Well, even in the real world people buy items for the connection to the maker rather than the item's value itself. Samples of hair from pop idols, for example. Or it could be that they honestly believe the price to mean it has something special. There was a case where someone tried to sell a penny on eBay, and the highest bid was over eighty US dollars before the merchandise was withdrawn. In fact, these dealings may even be explained away by the most common plot device found in light novels and manga; a misunderstanding." Agil scowled. "Regardless, this girl must stop."
"What's the problem with it?"
"To put it in the simplest terms, the customers of this girl are made up of an unfortunately high percentage of mid-levelers. When all that money pours from the mid-levelers to the blacksmith, that level bracket loses a significant sum that they can no longer spend on basic necessities, like food, weapons, and potions."
I frowned. "But even if they blow it all, it's not like they can't save up again by farming. And besides, where would any mid-leveler get four mil in the first place?"
Agil thought for a moment. "Borrowing is one solution. From their guilds, high-leveled friends, or even certain quests that give you money and ask you to buy an item for the NPC. As for the first question…well, pawning items is another way to get quick cash. How many mid-levelers can complete quests and kill monsters on the fiftieth floor with nothing but an ordinary Steel Sword and a single set of underwear?"
I grimaced. "Okay, good point. So this means…?"
"It means that the stream of new front-liners is drying up. In an extreme case, it's possible the flow of people from the mid-levels to the front will stop altogether. Well, it's also possible for the front-liners to clear the rest of the game with only the number they have now, but…" Agil made a face. "I think we can all agree that the more people there are, the better."
"Then why haven't you guys stopped her yet?"
"It's not that simple, Kirito," Lisbeth said glumly. "We probably can't get the customers to stop. When people buy for four million what they could get at any vendor for less than a hundredth of that, you can see pretty quickly that logic doesn't apply. The other solution would be to get the blacksmith herself to stop. But like I said, she's a recluse, and a celebrity. My only way to find her was through her fanboys, and I don't want to go through that again."
I blinked. "What happened?"
"Apparently they see me as her rival," Liz said curtly. "It gets worse. Some of my regulars were around. My part of the crowd formed into 'Team Lisbeth'. The result was not pretty."
I looked at Agil. "Don't you guys have a merchant's union or something?"
"Not yet, though I'm hoping a few competitors will back me up on this one. But she has a considerable sum of money now, while the rest of us were only trying to get by. We won't have enough control of the market to enforce an embargo. Our only solution is to find her and hope to negotiate, and for that we need –" Here Agil suddenly stopped, and turned to me. He ran a critical eye over my frame, his expression frozen in one of contemplation. "…a good tracker, and a good talker," he completed.
Remember my feeling of If I stuck my nose into this, I would be regretting it even more? Yeah, it's back. "Uh – well, if you think up of something, good luck with it. I just remembered I had something to do –"
"Kirito," Agil interrupted, a smile slowly creeping to his face. "How high is your 'Harem Aura' skill?"
"Harem Au –!? Actually, nevermind! I don't want to know!" I glanced at Liz; her expression was torn, half-excited, half-apprehensive. No help there.
"I have an idea –"
"Kirito, I'm hurt. I haven't –"
"No! You can't make me!"
Agil thought for a moment. "Liz," he said, "you haven't heard of the Pink Swordsman incident, have you?"
Liz asked, "What?"
"You wouldn't dare!" I cried, horrified.
"Now that I think about it, Klein's guild Fuurinkazan hadn't made it to the front lines at that time…and since the Pink Swordsman had a matching helmet, Asuna still doesn't know …"
"What?" Liz asked again. Her last expression was replaced by curiosity.
"Don't tell them! Don't tell them!"
Agil grinned, and opened his inventory. "There's a saying among authors: show, don't tell."
Two recording crystals showed up in his hand. I knew what they would contain. One of them would be a recording of a pink suit of armour screaming unkind things about both the boss and Agil. He would also be dodging non-stop, forced to solo the floor boss while the other clearers were occupied laughing their heads off, and the pink breastplate would occasionally catch the light from torches, making the etched-on bald head of Agil flash mockingly like a light bulb. The other crystal must contain the very same man just after he sprinted all the way back to his inn, slammed the door shut and yanked off the helmet. That would be the moment Agil, who had had used an expensive teleport crystal, and had a recording crystal hidden in his hand, asked the pink suit of armour if he was all right, and the suit of armour would swear back, and then Agil would cheerily respond, "Good thing no one else was here to see you unmask yourself, right?"
"So, Kirito," present-Agil said, "we can do this my way, or we can do this…well, I suppose the hard way would still be my way, wouldn't it?"
I had no response. All I could do was curse him from the bottom of my heart, resign myself to my unfortunate fate, and pray to whatever god Aincrad had aside from Kayaba Akihiko for this to please be the last of my troubles that week.
It was surprisingly easy to find the troublesome blacksmith.
The fifty-fifth floor became a pretty bustling place after the method to get the Crystalite Ingots had become well-known. Now there were "miners" (though all they had to do was pick up dragon dung) and blacksmiths working there all the time, crammed together like the gears in a clock to crank out weapons of every shape and size. Even so, during my stakeout, I couldn't help but think that the number of people there was less than I usually saw.
It could be that everyone was out grinding. Or it could be Agil's words coming true; less people had money to spend, so they were forced down to the thirtieth floor to hunt monsters in their undergarments.
That imagery was vaguely disturbing.
Neither Agil nor Liz told me the other blacksmith's name. (And considering the Pink Swordsman was someone I'd rather forget, I really didn't want to see them for a while). Still, I had an idea of what to look for, so I started a regular sweep through the floor with Searching.
It was after a week that I hit on the mess of footprints all going the same direction – something that I'd bet belonged to an obsessive fanclub.
A few minutes later I was face-to-face with a very irritated girl.
The girl looked about the same age as me. She wore mostly dark leather. Her top was sleeveless, her gloves were fingerless, there was a dagger strapped below her shorts, and if I guessed right the cloth looping over her shoulder was wolfskin. Hiking sandals were strapped on to her bare feet – no socks? – and mounted on her other shoulder was the upper half of a skull mask. Add some camouflage paint, maybe, and a bow and a quiver; then she'd almost be a picture-perfect tribal huntress, a master of the woods.
This wouldn't have been so strange, if it wasn't for two things. One, this girl was supposed to be a blacksmith. Two, there were no archery weapons in SAO.
Despite the daggers, she also had a thick-shafted spear strapped on her back by the wolfskin, which I would guess to be her main weapon. I think it was specially customized; the shaft was thicker than the average hands could grip properly. But the odd thing was, her hands were even smaller than mine. I honestly had no idea what advantage her weapon was supposed to give.
She was pretty. The only thing that broke her huntress theme was her ice blue hair, but I couldn't deny it was cool. Her eyes were the kind I could spend an entire poem describing, if I was a poetic guy. Right now, she was scowling and had her arms crossed, but I can easily imagine how a smile would look on her face.
Though like I said, at the moment she was scowling – at me.
"Five million Col. No lower."
I found the right person, all right.
"Um, actually, I'm not here to buy your stuff."
The response was just as biting as her first words. "No refunds, no exchanges, and no reimbursements."
"I didn't buy anything from you either."
She frowned. "Then what do you want?" she demanded, but I noticed she seemed to relax a little.
In just those few words, I found myself feeling relieved. I wasn't dealing with a con artist. From her hostile behavior, it actually seemed like the opposite. She didn't want people to buy her stuff. Her actions reminded me of Argo the Rat, the information dealer – if there was anything she didn't want to sell, Argo's strategy was to raise the price each time she had a bid. This blue-haired girl looked to be the same, except she had already given up the bidding war and sold on the outrageous prices.
But that raised the question of why she refused to refund. Didn't that only invite people to harass her more? If I was ripped off with a Steel Sword, I would blame myself and take it as a lesson, but other people could get downright obnoxious trying to get their money back.
I gave her what I hoped was a disarming smile. "First, let me introduce myself. I'm Kirito. You might know me as the Black Swordsman. And you are…?"
The huntress stared at me for a moment. "Are you hitting on me?"
I blinked. "Aryuhidionmy? Wow, that's a weird username. You've been playing through SAO with – that's not your name, is it."
"Why would you want to know?"
"I was just trying to be polite!"
"Yeah. You're definitely hitting on me."
I sighed. "Let me try this again. I'm Kirito, the Black Swordsman. And you are…someone who does not need to reveal her name during or after our talk. Does that sound good?"
The blue-haired girl reluctantly nodded.
"Okay." The instructions Agil gave me were simple: find the blacksmith, and convince her to stop ripping off the poor mid-levelers. Or more likely in this case: find the poor blacksmith, and convince her to stop letting the mid-levelers rip themselves off. For that, I needed the whole story. "Now, if you don't mind answering – why are you selling your swords at such a high price?"
The girl blinked, but she answered. "Because some idiots keep wanting to buy off of me. I told them they're not for sale. They didn't listen. I gave them the price. They still didn't listen."
That's about what I expected. "But why do they want to buy from you?"
In the voice of one summing up the entire situation perfectly, the blacksmith deadpanned, "Because they're idiots."
I didn't argue with that. Partly because I didn't want to, and mostly because I couldn't. This was something that'll have to stop from the producer end. "Why didn't you just run, then? Actually, I'm kinda surprised you haven't fled from me the minute I caught up with you."
The huntress grimaced. "That's mostly my fault. Since I'm a blacksmith, I focused my skill points mostly in STR. I'm not high-leveled enough to outrun many people."
"Can you go away now?"
I smiled apologetically. "Sorry, you're stuck with me for a bit longer. Next question: why not just stop selling the swords? Tell your customers that no matter what –"
The girl's glare was enough to stop me cold. "You've never had stalkers, have you?"
"Er…" It would be creepy of me to say Yes I have, but not totally true to say No I haven't. I had a few people who were surprisingly interested in me…though that number was something I could count on one hand.
She went on. "It's like this. Take a few friends, and multiply that number by a hundred. And all these hundred times whatever faces are swarming around you, talking to you all at once, blocking every chance to escape, all saying 'Please give me a signature!' or 'Your sword, sell me your sword, please!' or just yelling or babbling or squealing and –" The girl grasped her head with both hands, and suddenly the huntress had a hunted expression on her face. "And all you can think is 'When will they go away?' and 'Why can't they leave me alone?' and nothing you can do can make them go away and you're forced to sell every weapon you have just to make them back off for mere hours before they then come back wanting for more and then one bright spark gets the idea of making an entire guild for the sole purpose of a fanclub and the design of the guild emblem is supposed to be my face –"
Virtual world or not, how pale her expression got probably wasn't healthy in the long run. I hurriedly cleared my throat. "Well, you can disappear to another floor. If you cycle through the floors enough, you can probably lose everyone from your, um, fanclub."
The blue-haired girl, still looking spooked, immediately shook her head. "I need to be on this floor. The Crystalite Ingot quest is too contested, and I need it to make my weapons. Besides, disappearing won't stop them. I made too many enemies who have the Rat as a contact. They'd throw my new address into the Weekly Argo before I finished packing up. Just because I didn't refund them…"
That was something else I`ve been wondering about. "Why didn't you? Give refunds, I mean."
The blacksmith suddenly squinted at me. "Why are you being so nosy?"
"H-huh?" I was taken aback by the sudden turnaround. "Oh, well, I'm, er, the, uh, the representative of the Merchants' Union. They really don't like the business you're doing here, so I was asked –" Blackmailed, more like – "to investigate, and hopefully, solve this problem without any fuss."
"I've never heard of a Merchants' Union."
"It hasn't been formed yet."
"So you're asking on behalf of a nonexistent Merchants' Union why I'm refusing to refund for inadequate weaponry at exorbitant prices to those who frankly should know better?"
"Well…yeah. But hey, at least I got to talk with a cute girl when it could've been a lot worse."
"Then go to your imaginary Union and tell –" Sinon started sarcastically, but then paused. "What did you call me?"
"I'll tell you if you tell me why you didn't just refund."
The girl still looked on the verge of accusing me of flirting with her again, so I gently but firmly reminded, "The money…? Why didn't you just give it back?"
The blacksmith looked confused, opened her mouth, apparently thought better of it, then turned her gaze away, almost sheepishly. "I…can't," she admitted.
I frowned. "'Can't'? But if you still have some of the money you can at least give a partial refund –"
That's when the reason she suddenly seemed so defensive hit me with the force of the first floor's boss.
"You – you already got rid of it all!?"
"What?" the blacksmith cried, and then did something she hadn't done before: she blushed. "N-no, I didn't! How dare you!"
And now I was even surer that that's exactly what she did. "How the heck did you spend four million Col so quickly!? Wait, wasn't that only one of your sales? How much money did you actually have!?"
"That's – I – um –"
"Four million buys houses on the seventies! What did you have to do to use up all that Col!? Buy out entire floors? Bankrupt the NPC shops? Hoard all the food in Aincrad?"
The girl's face coloured, and then – SLAP!
"Okay, I deserved that one," I admitted, rubbing my cheek, "but that still doesn't explain where all the money went! Is that how you did your business? Buy cheap, sell not-so-cheap, rinse and then repeat?"
The blacksmith's face was a mix between embarrassment and fury. She snapped, "If you say that again I will skewer your face. I try to make an honest living!"
That still didn't explain where all that money went. And I wasn't sure if I could believe her now, considering. Then I realized that the conversation brought me to the most important question. "Wait, why didn't you just open a real business and sell your stuff at their usual prices? Isn't that the simplest and most obvious thing to do?"
"That's –" The huntress grit her teeth, and suddenly I was sure I came to the heart of the matter. "That's because all of my weapons are only for myself. The whole point of being on this floor was so I could mass-produce the weapons I need!"
"Yes! That's why it's infuriating when I'm forced to sell out my inventory! I go through all the trouble of stockpiling weapons, but I'm forced to start refill my quota whenever those – stalkers – manage to surround me!"
"Wait a minute," I interrupted. "Stockpile? How many weapons are you trying to get?"
The girl shot me a questioning glare, but she told me, "Enough to last me through a dungeon by myself, even if all of them break."
All of a sudden I had a bad feeling of déjà vu. Those words reminded me of my friend Asuna – back when the game had been stuck on floor one, and she had bought five of the same rapier to seclude herself in a dungeon. She had been grinding on monsters at an insane pace, wanting to make a difference, because she believed everyone in this death game was doomed with the only difference being whether they died sooner or later. Did this blue-haired girl think the same, even with almost three-quarters of the game cleared?
"That's…" My brows furrowed. "That's not a good way to play, you know."
The girl stiffened. "What?"
"That's not a good way to play. We've been in Aincrad for over a year now, so I would've thought that you would understand… Or at least, that someone – a friend, a party member, a guildmate – would be kind enough to teach you. You don't need to rush ahead. Your life means something. Kayaba said this on the first day, didn't he? This isn't a game you play. You live it. We're all alive in here."
I scratched my head sheepishly. "Sorry, I thought that sounded way better in my head. But what I want to say is, you don't have to keep going like this. I can show you a better way. I promise."
The girl was still for a moment, and I thought she seemed so melancholy. She said, "I…I'm not sure I get…why you told me that. Maybe I'm more readable than I thought. But…I think I get the gist of it."
"Yeah?" I said with a small smile.
And then her eyes narrowed. "Yeah," she said, drawing out her main menu. "And if you're going to insult my fighting style, at least have the brains to do it behind my back."
A window popped up in front of me. [Sinon] requests a duel.
"Uh, wait. That's not what I meant."
"You practically said I'm weaker than you. That is what you meant."
I thought of joking with her about how she tried to hide her name only to just offer it to me, but knew it wouldn't make things any better. "But you're getting the wrong –"
"Hey, a duel!" a passerby shouted.
Even worse: "Sinon-chan!" someone squealed.
I mentally cursed.
In less than ten seconds Sinon and I were surrounded by people cheering, "Duel! Duel!" or "Sinon-chaaaan! Beat that bully up!" What were we, a sideshow!?
Too reluctant to decline in front of this many people – Agil did not need any more teasing material – I accepted, and selected "First Strike". A big 60 popped up in midair between me and Sinon, and started counting down.
"Just, please promise me one thing," I sighed. "If I win, promise me you'll tone your outrageous prices down to a reasonable level."
Sinon stared at me furiously. "Fine," she said, but then gave a leering grin. "But only if you promise that if I win, you'll be my slave for the rest of the game."
"S-s-slave?! Wait, isn't that a bit extreme!?"
"Don't worry, Black Swordsman, I won't be a cruel master. But to signify my ownership, I'm not letting you off without forcing you to wear a cute collar."
The crowd gave a loud cheer, and I got the feeling everyone suddenly wanted that outcome. There were even a few cries of "Sinon-chan! Make me your slave too!"
I glanced at the timer. Forty seconds left. It was plenty of time to cancel and try another tactic, and hopefully save my dignity in the process…
Then I decided to be rational, and got my thoughts in order. There's Agil. The whole point of this was to neutralize his recording crystals, and besides, I was not going to let him be the one telling me I ran away from a girl. Aside from that, it wasn't like I would lose. I was five levels higher than the average front-liner, while this girl was from the middle floors. There's the battle experience, too – I was pretty sure that, as a blacksmith, she didn't get as much time to train compared to other players.
For some reason, I was not reassured by these facts.
I slipped out my sword, Elucidator, and held it with my usual stance. Against my expectations, Sinon didn't unhook her spear. Instead, she opened her inventory and materialized a sword – the "Steel Sword" that she was so infamous for selling.
I almost gasped when she took out a second Steel Sword. For a wild moment, I thought she, too, had Dual Blades. But this thought disappeared a moment later when she assumed her stance. It was nothing like what I used, and wasn't in a position to activate any Dual Blades Sword Skills. When I thought about it again, I remembered that she had both her spear and a dagger out, on top of her two swords. I didn't know which of the four weapons she had equipped. She had a strategy, but at the time, I didn't know what.
Even more curiously, she didn't close her inventory. Instead, she left it floating in front of and a little underneath her.
"Er –" I voiced out my doubts. "Are you sure about this? If you like, I can let you borrow one of my backup swords –"
"No," Sinon said flatly. "I probably don't have the stats to use them, anyway."
It's true that since this was a "First Strike" match, any clean hit, no matter how weak, would end the duel. But in SAO, levels were everything, not skills. Without a way to dish out high damage, if she couldn't hit me directly, it would take forever for her to whittle my HP down to the yellow zone. On the other hand, it might only take one or two grazes from me, even if she blocked successfully – and that was assuming her sword, and her replacement swords, didn't simply break from sheer power difference.
In a way, this explained why she wanted me as a "slave". Since I was higher-leveled than her, she could use me as a bodyguard when she started grinding, or even "leech" off of me – being in the same party, and getting shared EXP, while leaving all the fighting to me. But that brought another question – why, then, did she become a blacksmith in the first place?
I glanced at the timer again. Ten seconds left. Too many questions, not enough answers, but as long as I won it wouldn't be my business anymore…
"Hey," Sinon said suddenly. "Before this, I dueled only one guy."
"Do you know what he nicknamed me?"
I shook my head, still not seeing where she was going with this.
"'Gun Blade'," she said. Then she smirked. "I think he played too much Final Fantasy."
The countdown struck zero.
I dashed forward like lightning. Sinon immediately started an unfamiliar skill. Her sword glowed –
Then I realized I did recognize –
I hurled myself aside just before a sword zipped through the space my head had occupied.
Blade Throwing was the only ranged skill in the game that allowed a player to hurl items of the Thrown Weapon variety. Swords were not of the Thrown Weapon variety. It was a fact that people had thoroughly tested but completely failed to throw swords during the beta testing. Heck, I feel like I threw more than everyone else combined! But at the end of the day, the work was done, the tears were shed, and enough swords to arm a Roman empire had been tallied. The conclusion recorded on Argo the Rat's Book of Obvious Facts that Warrant an I Told You So: swords weren't considered Thrown Weapons.
As I finished thinking that, I hit the ground, rolled to my feet, and then looked up just in time to see Sinon draw another sword from her inventory. "Good," she said lightly. "It would've been boring if you lost that easily."
I managed a graceful sputter of, "But – the sword – what –?" Then cleared my throat, and managed a coherent cry: "Did you just bend the laws of reality!? You can't do that, you're not Jack Rakan!"
Then I was forced to shut up as the barrage began. The huntress threw another sword, this time aimed at my chest, that I sidestepped before charging in – but whatever fantasy I had of using a pause that wasn't even there was crushed when the sword in her left hand was thrown immediately after, this time at my head again. I hurriedly ducked – ah, right, Blade Throwing had minimal delay – and it was only after a slight struggle to regain momentum that I was able to rush forward.
And then I was finally forced to withdraw when the third sword she had drawn as she threw her second weapon very nearly speared my foot to the ground. It would've, if I hadn't seen it coming and did a funny hop that completely threw my balance off.
Sinon pressed the advantage. She relentlessly threw the rest of her round at me, and I was forced to backpedal before I was turned into a pincushion, and every step of the way back I only had one line of thought – didn't she say that she focused her skill points on STR!? How did she get such pinpoint aim!? When she finally paused, it was only to change pages on her inventory, and by then she had pushed me more than fifteen metres away – way too far.
What was irritating was that Sinon's skill behaved exactly like Blade Throwing. Same glow, for one thing, but there was also that flexible starting position that wasn't seen in any other sword skills. With either hand, you can throw from nearby the head, or throw swinging the arm sideways, or throw holding the weapon underneath.
Still, what was it? An Extra Skill? A Secret Skill? A Unique Skill? It had to be one of these three; there was no way that the regular Blade Throwing let you throw swords!
Blade Throwing's pitifully short list of sub-skills included stuff like the skill that actually let you use the skill, which was unlocked from the start, the skill for passively increasing the damage, which was also unlocked from the start, and the skill for passively increasing the weight limit, which was not unlocked from the start. If I remembered right, it popped up when Blade Throwing mastery was around 400. And since the weightier picks started showing up on floor forty, no one thought that was too strange. It was hard to argue with higher damage and better accuracy.
But the betas' tests failed. Swords weren't Thrown Weapons. The weight limit shouldn't affect swords at all.
…Or so I would think, had I not seen with my own eyes the terror of a sword tip nearly being driven into my eye. So if I assumed first that Swords were Thrown Weapons, then The weight restriction (that had not been unlocked during beta) affected the ability to throw swords and thus The betas' tests meant bull.
"You've gotta be kidding me…"
Though, there was still one more problem. Even I once fancied creating a build that could throw daggers everywhere like a ninja, and I might have if it wasn't for the most obvious thing: weapons in SAO were unstackable. Although a lot of MMORPGs had items where one inventory space could be filled with ten, a hundred, or a thousand of the same item and still only count as "one slot", SAO wasn't one of them. Weapons filled one space each and contributed to an inventory weight limit to boot. And with the fact that weapons were expensive, most people limited themselves to a single, very durable, weapon with only one or two backups. If anyone tried to throw all their swords, most would be out of ammo faster than he could say –
– And suddenly Sinon's reason for mass-producing weapons made a lot more sense, and I felt a flood of embarrassment at the pep talk I tried to give her.
"…I want to go home."
At this distance, I couldn't close in before the huntress started flinging swords at me again, but I tried anyway. Like I thought, Sinon was already hurling her weapons before I took three steps. This time, I managed to dodge until her seventh projectile; that was when I stepped a little too far, losing my footing. The next sword she threw skimmed my neck as I just barely adjusted my posture; the sword after that forced me to ground myself before I stepped into the line of fire.
The tenth sword was halfway to me by the time I could react. With no other choice, I swallowed – and then bent backwards as sharply as I could, and even then the flying blade nearly sliced my nose off. Instead it clocked a random girl's face, and I swore I heard the sound of a bone cracking before she shrieked, even though that was supposed to be impossible to occur in SAO.
I back flipped, and the crowd wisely drew back. "Are you sure that Final Fantasy guy of yours didn't mean 'The Girl with the Machine Gun'?" I called out, and hoped my ribbing hid my slight panic from nearly being de-nosed.
Sinon just changed pages again and pulled out two more Steel Swords.
Vaguely, I wondered if I could use Arms Blast – an "Outside System Skill" that I was developing, focusing on aiming at the opponent's weapon with a Sword Skill to break it – to disable her swords. Unfortunately, there were two problems. One, the freeze time of a Sword Skill meant suicide. The most I would be able to do confidently was just block her swords. Two, and more importantly, I simply wasn't confident that I had the reaction time to gauge where her swords would land. Now was not exactly the best time to test it.
I decided to save the blocking idea for when I was desperate. I had a better plan, anyway.
Inventory, like most other functions of the user interface, had some customization options. By default, the number of viewable items in the inventory list was limited to six, but players had the option of changing that range. Sinon seemed to have set herself to ten; that was how many swords that I counted in each round.
In other words, Sinon could only throw batches of ten swords before she had to switch a page. This meant that, if I managed to avoid all ten thrown weapons, she had no swords to throw for the second it took to switch pages – a second that I could use to close the gap between us fully. And if she hadn't trained her 1-H Sword Mastery as much as Blade Throwing – I win.
With that plan in mind, I stepped forward. Sinon immediately fired a sword that I weaved around, and her second blade bit the dirt that I jumped over.
Her third blade nearly nicked my cheek, but I pushed on, dodging clear of the fourth blade aimed at my stomach, while the fifth sword I could just duck under – ACK!
The weapon flew in suddenly faster, and I wouldn't have been able to dodge it if I hadn't thrown myself to the ground. Stunned from the impact, a kind of incredulous mantra echoed in my head:
She predicted my move!
That hadn't been a Steel Sword. That had been a dagger – Iceborn Fang, I recognized, probably another of the Crystalite Ingot's fixed recipes. She must have noticed me adapting, and she upped the ante – by switching to a page with different weapons.
Did the weight actually determine how fast a projectile could be thrown? I did think that the swords were strangely slow compared to my throwing picks, and I couldn't think of any other way that the dagger had flown so much faster than the Steel Swords. Which meant I was flat on the ground, in no position to move quickly, and Sinon had five more daggers that she could throw even faster than the swords she had hurled before.
Not good. I had only one way to escape at this point – one that relied uncomfortably heavily on the concept of Wing it.
Accidentally letting out a roar of effort, which hopefully sounded determined and not panicked, I straightened, tucked my arms in, prayed for my beloved Elucidator to not accidentally impale me, and rolled.
In the flashes of vision sandwiched between the ground and the sky, I managed to catch sight of Sinon's daggers hitting the ground one, two, three, four, five times to my left (or right? No – it should be left, I rolled to the right), with enough force for the game engine to justify a plume of dirt exploding out from each impact. I scrambled up, not hurt anywhere aside from my dignity. I could just see it now, the headlines for tomorrow's Weekly Argo: Black Swordsman Sighted on Lower Floors! Being Taught to Roll by his New Owner!
Sinon yelled, "Stay still and let me kill you properly!"
Then she immediately attacked me, and I had no time to chide her that if this was a real battle, there was no way a target would stay still and let itself be attacked.
If this was a real battle…and suddenly I understood Sinon's choice of weapon. Swords had much higher base damage than picks – even the highest level picks currently available had less oomph than Steel Swords. They were tiny, after all. And daggers had the added advantage of being able to inflict status ailments – even if she didn't have paralysis, normal poison bottles weren't hard to come by. Adding to that was the fact that if she managed to get a blade impaled on me, and if there wasn't a duel system to register the clean hit and end the battle, the continuous damage would have countered my Battle Healing slightly. Not enough to overcome, but enough to lessen my advantage. Picks are easy to yank out, but if I stopped for even a moment necessary to pull out a sword, at her rate two more swords would have found their mark, and if I tried to pull out those, with the total damage over time effects stacked –
Terrifying. It was obvious now I've severely underestimated her. Despite being lower-leveled, with that potential rate of DPS, even dungeon bosses might be struggling to survive.
But I also think I understood Sinon better. Because this method, this fighting style – it wasn't something that she could've known about. No one did. She was just the person lucky enough to have a high-leveled Blade Throwing and use it so often she stumbled onto it. As for why she used it so much, and why she didn't just use or train her 1-H or 2-H Sword Mastery… It could be because she just wanted a name for herself. But I didn't think so, when I remembered how she challenged me when I accidentally insulted her fighting style.
It was pride. Her pride. She was proud of her Blade Throwing skill, even if it hadn't been an overpowered fighting method. She had the pride and spirit of a true gamer – no, a true "Gunner".
A gunner, I reminded myself, who's about to turn me into a porcupine if I kept distracting myself.
I strafed to the side, and Sinon's blades flew into the audience, driving them out further. When we first started, we were packed in a ring about fifteen metres in diameter, but by now that ring grew to over fifty metres. I was adapting quickly to the differing speeds of her two weapons, and I could tell Sinon realized it too. On the other hand, she must be having it rough. I knew first-hand the mental fortitude needed to continuously use Weapon Skills. Actually, it was kinda impressive that even though she wasn't a front-liner, she had the skill to activate Blade Throwing this many times in succession without misfiring once. But already, she had given up trying to predict my next step, instead focusing on keeping me moving so that I couldn't rush in at her. Not without changing direction, anyway, and that was just as good as an opening for her to get a sword in my gut.
It wouldn't last forever. As soon as she paused for too long I would rush in too close for her Blade Throwing to be used effectively, and that would be game, set, and match.
Sinon hurled her tenth blade. Now!
I shot forward. Sinon's eyes widened, but there was no way she could switch a page, pull out a dagger and fire it before I was close enough to use a sword skill –
Instead, she grabbed her entire menu screen and swung wildly – and suddenly the field was littered with blades.
I yelped and skidded to a halt. I knew there was that "Completely All Items Objectize" option in the main menu, but I never learned that this was another way to dump inventory onto the ground! And, oh, what a stupid thing to realize now – I never thought to learn whether stepping on weapons would decrease my HP bar, let alone count as a "clean hit"! Even worse, if the daggers really were poisoned – well, stepping on too many even with my level meant I was a goner in ten seconds flat. I could no longer rush blindly – I had to be careful of every step.
Still, I couldn't help but admire the brilliance of it. Just by placing weapons onto the ground, she had prevented me from taking immediate advantage of her weakness – close combat. She was clever, there was no denying that.
Then I looked up and realized that was hardly her only reason for dumping her inventory.
Because now that her entire arsenal was on the field, to throw a weapon at me she could just pick it off the ground.
Despite the clunky spear on her back, she dove for a weapon, then rolled to her feet and threw the dagger at me in the same motion – Acrobatics. I reflexively sidestepped, and then yelled and hopped over the Steel Sword I nearly stepped on. I jumped out of the way as another sword zipped past, and as yet another sword flew at my head I ducked underneath it, dropping to my knees and grabbing one of Sinon's daggers. Now, I had about half a tatami – a square metre– of unobstructed ground, but that wasn't the only reason I borrowed her weapon.
I brought it up, near my head – and just as I hoped, the dagger started to glow. I activated Blade Throwing, and hurled the Iceborn Fang right back at Sinon.
It missed. It fell about a metre short, actually.
I stared, aghast. "What the heck was that?"
Sinon didn't even bother to dignify my throw with a flinch, and instead threw another two daggers that I only barely dodged by contorting my body, as if I was playing a solo game of Twister, which my head felt like it was doing. My Blade Throwing skill was close to full mastery and my STR stat was ridiculously high – I should be near, if not at, Sinon's level of accuracy!
But two dodges later, just after I avoided suffering a particularly bad haircut, an answer slotted into my brain – the weight. Because swords were heavier than picks, my initial throw must have lost a lot of power. All this time, I had been predicting where Sinon was aiming at by her eyes, and had only viewed her weapons from the corners of my sight. I hadn't been watching how she threw her weapons – and I no longer dared, or else I really ran the risk of losing – but she must have been correcting for the power loss by angling her throw upwards.
She was even better a marksman than I gave her credit for.
It wouldn't stop me from trying, though, and as Sinon spent the group of weapons closest to her I reached down and snatched up another Iceborn Fang, bringing it up with the determination to hit her this time.
Except, she wasn't there. I blinked. "Where did she –"
I raised Elucidator just as an aerial Sword Skill slammed down to it – ugh, I forgot about her Acrobatics skill! I roared, gripped my sword with both hands, and lashed out, managing to throw her off, but then she activated Blade Throwing in mid-air and hurled it down, forcing me back. As she landed I brought up the Iceborn Fang I had liberated to throw – then realized it wasn't there, having dropped it to push Sinon back. Even worse – the spot where she landed was right next to another pile of weapons. How much of this did she plan out!?
And all this, even though she had a heavy-looking spear on her back. If she unhooked and then dropped it, and it sent up dust clouds higher than she was…well, I'm not Gaara, I don't think I'd survive without surrendering.
I focused, ready to move, but Sinon didn't press immediately. Instead, she hesitated, and gave me a look of…if I didn't know better, I'd say it was a look of reluctant admiration.
"You're not bad," she said. "I never thought anyone could keep dodging this long."
I blinked, but let a smile show on my face. "Thanks. You're pretty good yourseaaaaargh!"
Fifteen swords, one after another, flew towards me as I jumped, weaved, ducked, and spun away from the offending blades in a frenzy. "D-Don't attack me when I'm complimenting you!" I managed to shout, and then had to whip my head away before a dagger could jam my gullet.
"Don't be stupid enough to let my compliment get to your head," Sinon nonchalantly replied, and then got right back into attacking.
I resisted being pushed back, but I wasn't able to move forward either. Until she ran out of weapons, at least, but with a field littered with blades, all she had to do was move to another spot. I wasn't sure how many weapons she had on the ground – I didn't know her STR and Extended Weight Limit skill level, not to mention if her equipment had inventory limit boosts, so it could number anywhere up to two hundred.
But the worst thing, I decided, wasn't that. The worst thing wasn't the intense pace either, though if I had been any weaker, that alone would have overwhelmed me. The worst thing wasn't the DPS, though like I already realized, it had terrifying potential. The worst thing wasn't even the mental strength she had, to be able to keep throwing weapon after weapon so long. I could only guess how much strain she was under, but it was definitely more than me, and I was the one who spent hours on the front lines, constantly fighting with my life on the line.
No, the worst thing was the sheer accuracy she had. She was a gunner – but if I had to pick whether she was a "Spitfire" or a "Sniper", I would go with sniper. I realized anew that since the start of this fight, she had been aiming for only three targets – my feet, my heart, and my forehead. The feet were probably meant to bind me, but the other two were critical hit areas. In other words – if Sinon had been in the same tier as me, I'd have been honestly worried that one little slip-up would mean a blow strong enough to wipe out half my HP, and that'd be dangerous even in a duel if I only had a little over half HP left.
As it was, I was still worried I'd die – of embarrassment, if Sinon really did win and tried to force a collar on me.
Not many options left. There was Dual Blades, but I didn't think it would give me much of an edge in this case. I could wait for her to tire – but I wasn't sure if I'd give before she does. I could pick up her own weapons and use Blade Throwing myself – though I wasn't sure anymore if I had the time, or if I could correct my accuracy to her level. I could back off, maybe find cover – duels had no set boundaries, aside from entering a building – but Sinon would just use that time to rest. It wasn't my style anyway (assuming no lives were in danger).
I think I think I was desperate enough for the blocking card now.
I focused more on Sinon's weapons than I had dared to before. I saw its motions – pulled off the ground, held by head, glowing, thrown – and I was right, they were angled upwards! – streaking towards my head, fast. I shifted slightly, brought the base of Elucidator, the thickest part, up and into the trajectory –
Screeching clang! Shower of sparks. The Iceborn Fang bounced off sharply.
I could deflect them. I thought my reaction time might not be fast enough, but they were. I gave a cheeky grin at Sinon, who frowned, before I started forward, slowly and surely. The sniper threw two, three Steel Swords in a row, and my heart sped up – but I kept calm, moved quickly, and three more swords were knocked out of the air.
Sinon was panicking now, I was sure. She immediately backed up to the biggest weapon cluster on the field, and I followed, deflecting the stream of blades she tossed my way, and making doubly sure I wasn't going to accidentally step on a weapon and lose just when I gained an advantage. For once, I regretted not buying a shield of any kind. It would be so much easier to block the weapons to begin with, if I had a huge kite shield like Heathcliff.
Come to think of it, that was a pretty big weakness. Just about anyone with a shield would be able to bypass the swords that gave me so much trouble –
That was when Sinon changed tactics. She tossed several blades – up.
For a moment, I was surprised and just watched Iceborn Fangs arc up, then nearly got speared by Sinon for my troubles. Two, four, five, seven blades – I managed to deflect them all, just barely managing to pull my concentration back together. I stepped forward, but hesitated. Sinon had paused, even though there was one more sword in her hand.
"Was that it?" I teased lightly, but then had the foresight to glance up –
Oh gods –
I jumped back before the dagger could impale my head, and almost by instinct, instantly stabbed Elucidator on the ground in front of my leg, blocking the sword Sinon had thrown by centimeters.
And then I understood a whole new level of this scarily well-made plan. If anyone had been using a shield, they'd have been able to advance confidently, all right – until Sinon started attacking from two directions. And if they raised their shields to deflect the swords from the sky, there'd be no way they'd see the sword skimming the ground, aimed at their unprotected legs. Instant KO.
On top of that, for Falling Item Damage, swords were considered a "sharp" object whether it hit me by blade or pommel. I think it's 'cause that lessens computing load. Cripes, of all the details Kayaba Akihiko could've let be, why did it have to be the one that could've killed me?
I hastily moved back to the offensive, but Sinon had changed tactics. Now I had to keep an eye out for both the blades she sent at me and the daggers she sent skyward. If I reverted back to just dodging, it'd probably negate her attacks from above – but then she'd just go back to attacking me directly. But if I kept on blocking, I would get no closer than if I was just dodging – the swords on the ground hampered my movements, and my attention was too occupied, split between Sinon's Blade Throwing attack and the raining daggers. I wondered if I had the time to clear away the weapons around my feet – but at this rate of blocking and sidestepping? No chance.
We were locked into a stalemate. Now, it was a question of whose skill was just slightly better than the other's.
Somewhere in the back of my head, I wryly thought we probably looked like a circus act. Didn't most of them have some sword juggling shows? And Sinon's aerial Sword Skill trick from earlier could've counted as the acrobatics part. Then which part would I play? Sword dance? I was concentrating so much on moving my sword, I could feel sweat collecting. I hastily wiped away –
Then I remembered SAO didn't have a subroutine for generating sweat. That had just been a ghost sensation. And with a growing sense of horror, I realized – I let my guard down first.
Sinon didn't let the chance pass.
Suddenly there was metal everywhere, air, sky, ground. I yelled out – dodged aside – swung wildly, caught one by sheer luck – stumbled over a sword – dagger skimmed arm – brushed my neck – raised Elucidator – missed – just barely twisted in time – ducked – jumped back – landed bad – sword between feet – narrowly sidestepped – incoming – tried to block – clang!
Calmer now – deflected a sword with control – moved for the one I couldn't – nearly speared on the foot, again – jerked head sideways – block – dodge – block – block – block again –
One last dagger, too close, too fast, too – too low –
I let out a strangled yell and leapt slightly, straight up. The dagger passed through the gap between my legs at a scary height, just barely skimming through without touching anything, and sailed on behind me. If it had been any higher…
The males in the audience let out an "Ohhhhh!" and winced in collective sympathy.
I landed and drew a shuddering breath at the same time – then had to block the two daggers that nearly struck home.
"Oh, gimme a break!" I snapped, voice strained and a little higher than it was meant to be. "I just survived a sex-change surgery here, the least you could do is let me cry tears of joy!"
Sinon's ironic response was, "Stop taking it so seriously, we're just in a game!"
Unfortunately, she gave me no time to recover from my near-castration – she had darted to another spot filled with blades and started hurling them, obviously frustrated from not finishing me off already. We were right back in our stalemate – I could block all her swords, or suddenly switch to dodging, but had no way to go any closer than five metres. I needed something new. Something game-changing. I was right in the middle of figuring out if I could get all her swords on one side and her on the other, when –
An Iceborn Fang hit Elucidator, and with the sound of breaking glass, the dagger shattered.
It took me a second to realize what had happened.
Of course – I knew since the beginning that my swords severely outclassed Sinon's. But Sword Skills gave the advantage to a weapon if it was facing one without Sword Skills – that's why the Steel Swords and the Iceborn Fangs had not broken apart immediately. Even so, against something that was completely out of their league, their durability could only hold out for so long.
In other words – Sinon was running out of ammo.
"Yes!" I shouted, and then hastily blocked the missiles that a newly-enraged Sinon sent my way. Two Steel Swords clattered aside, then one Iceborn Fang, then – crack! – another dagger shattered.
The next minute was a flurry of noises as the sniper sent every blade she could get her hands on my way, my grin becoming bigger and bigger all the while. One in four – no, one in three – blades broke as they crashed into Elucidator, most of them Iceborn Fangs. Made sense; daggers generally had less durability than swords. But the battlefield was visibly clearing of swords and daggers, slowly but surely, and there came a point when Sinon scrambled back – but had no more swords on her half of the field.
That was when I made another mistake. I didn't rush in and take advantage of her pause – but then again, it might not have made a difference. Anyway, I didn't rush in; I stood there, smug and triumphant, and looking for all the world like a cliché example of a villain who was just tempting fate to hand his butt right back to him. "Well…I guess we can say I win this one?"
Sinon looked uncertain, fingering that dagger strapped on her leg; I thought she would try using Acrobatics to vault over or attack me again, but she didn't seem to think it was a good idea.
And then, surprisingly, she spoke back.
"You're good," she admitted grudgingly. "If we fought outside the town, I really would have lost."
I had no time to think over her words before she whipped out the spear on her back. That's when I decided to move in and rushed forward – but then she did the last thing I expected.
She popped the spearhead off and threw it at me.
I was so startled that the projectile nearly buried itself into my shoulder. As it happened, I managed another few centimeters to the right, dodging completely. My mind was still trying to work out what happened.
Spearheads aren't supposed to be detachable. Spears could be made, and are supposed to be crafted from a spearhead and shaft made separately – but once fused, they aren't supposed to break off without actually destroying the weapon. So then what was it that flew at me –?
This was when I noticed that the "spearhead" wasn't a spearhead at all, but instead a dagger. Not Iceborn Fang, but definitely a dagger.
Which meant…the "shaft" wasn't a shaft?
Bewildered, I had a few second to ponder what that meant as Sinon laid the thick "shaft" on the ground and kicked it, rolling it open and creating the most bizarre image I had yet to see in the game.
The first thing to pop up did so with a sudden clatter – a pile of weapons, something that shouldn't have fit inside an ordinary thin mat. Next, a ching rang out as a small rectangular object blew open its door, like an oven. Then a very surreal sign burst into existence: "Sinon's Completely Ordinary Steel Swords: 1 for 5,000,000 Col, Take It or Get the Hell Outta My Face!"
It was a shop, I realized, and had to hold back a laugh. It was a player shop with its own inventory that doubled as a blacksmith's workshop. Then I saw Sinon clicking something on the Vendor's Carpet's status window, and the pile of weapons grew smaller.
Suddenly I didn't feel like laughing anymore.
The blacksmith didn't bother to keep her inventory open this time – she just clicked another button, dumping everything she had just transferred into her inventory onto the ground in front of her, and was attacking furiously before I halved the distance between us. Internally groaning, I reverted back to my tired routine of blocking, then had to give ground as the proximity of Sinon's flurry started to overwhelm me, the blows seemingly harder than usual.
She's desperate, I thought. I pushed her too much.
All I had to do was weather it out. That way, it just depended on who'd tire out first, or if Sinon would run out of weapons first. But they weren't as fair odds as they looked. For one thing, I wasn't sure if she would tire out first. I had already slipped up once. For another, I had no idea if she had yet another trick up her sleeve – nor could I know just how tenacious she could get in her desperation.
This was something I had to settle on my terms, and quickly.
Steel Swords and Iceborn Fangs clattered aside left and right, deflected by the flat of Elucidator. The sniper's shooting pattern was just as thorough as before, forcing me to concentrate and shift quickly. No openings that I could use – yet. My only choice was to endure until –
I jumped back as two more daggers fell from above, nearly stabbing into my head, and then hastily stopped before I stepped into the ever-growing concentration of swords behind me. I never took my eyes off my opponent, not once. I would only have one chance, when –
Dodged aside, then raised my sword to block Sinon's stream of flying blades. If it was even possible, Sinon was getting even more ferocious. It shouldn't be long before –
I peeked at the mound of weapons in front of her – a mound that was growing smaller. I had just enough time to think, almost at that point where –
Sinon's immediate supply of weapons ran out.
She made the fatal mistake of scrabbling at the ground for a second before realizing that her pile was gone, and hastily opened the status window of her Vendor's Carpet to resupply.
At the same time –
I roared. Dragging out every bit of skill I had left in me, I charged forward, prepared my sword, and started up a Sword Skill – Vorpal Strike, a skill that could shoot me forward at the blink of an eye.
Sinon looked up, her face betraying a slight sign of panic. At my current speed, I could impale her – I would impale her – before she completed the transfer. Time seemed to slow as I saw those chocolate brown eyes I had watched for the entire battle dart back and forth, obviously calculating the odds, before staring right back at me defiantly.
Her hands drew the dagger strapped onto her leg.
I pushed, using all my experience to move myself faster, farther. As her dagger drew level to her head, I was almost there, sword a mere instant away from piercing her stomach, and the few hints of real fear appeared in her face, because at this rate she was going to lose –
She did the obvious thing. She stepped back, and her dagger glowed.
Vorpal Strike homed in on Sinon.
Blade Throwing was activated first.
A flash of light, a violent explosion, and then the dagger that struck me on the heart caused my momentum to do a complete reversal. I was sent flying backwards, bouncing off the ground twice, before scraping across the ground for so long I would've shaved away my palms if it happened in the real world. When I finally stopped rolling, I had to moan, completely disoriented, before I could struggle up to my knees and check on the point of impact.
Then I checked my HP. Still full.
I glanced over at Sinon's HP bar just as she bewilderedly did the same. Also full.
The buzzer sounded, announcing the end of the fight. The sound drew our attention to the screen.
"YES!" I crowed, and flopped back down, laughing with glee – until Sinon appeared over me, grabbed the collar of my clothes, and easily lifted me up by the neck. "Gack!"
"What was that!?" she demanded, her eyes raging and her face – scared? "How did that happen? How – how did you win!?"
"C-calm down! Please!" I spluttered out, my feet scrambling to support my body before I died of a Choking status. "Look, I'm really sorry I used that trick, but I was backed in a corner just like you were – oh…"
The reason I trailed off was because, looking around, a lot of people in the audience – Sinon's "fanclub", I think – was giving us dark looks and muttering to themselves. If I was hearing things right somebody had the bright idea of "liberating" Sinon from the "tyranny" of the Black Swordsman by rushing at him all at once before he could "force Sinon-chan to wear a collar" – which was not my idea! Though I couldn't tell who was in the worse position – me, if the audience all attacked me at once, or Sinon, if her fanclub really managed to kidnap – ahem, liberate – her.
And by the looks of it, Sinon had heard and even she was nervous. Her glances kept darting between to me and back to the crowd, and I was sure she was debating whether to interrogate me further or flee.
Well, there was no helping it.
I clapped my hands together and gave an advance apology. "Sorry 'bout this!"
"Eh?" Sinon said, and then gave a cute scream as I swept her off her feet, hands under her shoulders and knees, and fled.
Startled shouts rushed past my ears as I burst through the crowd, making a beeline for the alleys. I could hear a few cries trying to rally people, so I took no chances – I jumped, springing from wall to wall like a manga character, handling footholds with high STR and sheer level, Sinon in my arms screaming louder and holding on tighter every time I leapt, until with a final backflip I managed to clear the edge of a building and landed hard on the ceiling.
"Safe," I sighed, and then set Sinon down on her trembling feet. "You all right?"
The answer was a sharp slap, a grab to the collar, and suddenly I was choking again.
"What. Was. That. For."
"Gah – I – I thought you didn't want to deal with them!" "Them", of course, referring to the "fanclub".
"And you couldn't have thought to let me pack up my Vendor's Carpet first!?"
Oh. Well. Hm. "Uh…I…guess you want me to go fetch –?"
"No, nevermind." Sinon shook her head fervently, and then that flash of real fear was back on her face. "Tell me how you won that match first. Your skill, I can't prepare for, but you somehow managed to win even though I thought I scored a hit on you. I – I thought I calculated everything, accounted for everything, but obviously I missed something! I can't stand it – if anyone saw what you saw –"
I blinked, and Sinon added, "Tell me. Please."
It took me a moment before I suddenly got why Sinon was so rattled. Her style had been pretty heavily planned out, like that method of attacking both from the front and from the air – I'm not sure I want to know how many practice hours she logged to boost the accuracy of that up – yet I just came and took it all in stride. I had even sneakily carried off a win with an unknown method, just when Sinon finally scored a hit. If that had been a skirmish outside city limits, a loss wasn't a loss; it was death.
That's probably what she thought, but she was wrong about one thing.
I laughed weakly. "Ah, you don't have to worry! Really, I only won because of this technicality that I usually wouldn't be able to –"
"Technicality?" Sinon's eyes were pleading.
"You can't die this way," I assured her. "I can guarantee that."
"Just, please, explain!"
The blacksmith looked bewildered, obviously not understanding.
"It's because it's a player shop," I explained. "Duels don't have defined boundaries, so the only way to cause an out-of-bounds forfeiture is if you go inside a building, a dungeon, or teleport to another floor. But because a Vendor's Carpet is a shop, when I forced you to back up and step into it, it was considered 'entering a building' – which caused an automatic forfeiture." I smiled. "I thought I was done for when the dagger hit me, though – but then again, I guess I should've realized only the Crime Prevention Code makes a knockback effect like that. If the dagger really did get me, I'd have plowed straight forward."
As I was talking, Sinon's face grew less and less scared and more and more…red. "You're telling me," she slowly said, seemingly torn between amazement and embarrassment and maybe anger, "that if I hadn't taken the Vendor's Carpet out, I never would have caused my own loss?"
"Well, to be fair, if it wasn't for that, you really would have run out of weapons to throw."
"Then why did you, at the end…? It wasn't part of your trick? A direct part, I mean?"
"That moment. Just when I stepped back. Just before I managed to throw my dagger." Sinon looked at me straight in the eye. "You slowed down. Why?"
"Oh, that." She got me there. I gave a sheepish grin. "I, um…if it's at all possible…I kinda…don't like cutting a girl?"
The blacksmith stared at me incredulously, and then slumped down, almost visibly deflating.
"Uh…Sinon?" No answer. "I guess this might be a bad time to remind you but…can you keep your promise? About bringing your prices down to a reasonable level? Or, well, just not selling would be as good…"
Sinon mumbled something I didn't hear.
"'Don't like cutting a girl'," she repeated, voice suddenly cold and emotionless. "So you're telling me it's not enough that you made a mockery of my fighting style, forced me to waste weeks' worth of blacksmithing work and still beat me …you also had to make me lose in the most embarrassing way possible, and on top of that, only because you followed some sexist, bigoted sense of drivel that vaguely resembles A PERVERSION OF SOME MORAL CODE!?"
I cautiously took my hands off my ears. "Y…yes?"
And suddenly Sinon's grip on me tightened. "Take. Responsibility."
"TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THIS!" she exploded. "YOU WENT AND HUMILIATED ME TO THE ENTIRE STREET, SO DON'T YOU DARE BACK OUT NOW! HOW ARE YOU GOING TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY!?"
So there I was, with a pretty girl in front of me, yelling for the whole floor to hear for me to "Take Responsibility" – it was all too easy to know what kind of misunderstanding would arise. My only comfort was that no one can see us on the rooftop, but that would change soon when curious onlookers with high enough stats climbed up. By this point I was considering making a run for it, and probably would have if Sinon's hands weren't clutched onto my shirt and cloak. And unfortunately for me, trying to escape meant unequipping both at the same time, which was probably equivalent to flipping the middle finger at Lady Luck.
In other words, unless something good came soon, I might be screwed.
I took a deep breath – and suddenly got an idea that somehow managed to be both the height of my idea-making career and the worst solution I could've come up with.
Sinon paused. "What?"
"Shortcake. On floor two. There's a small restaurant that sells shortcake, and it's to die for." I smiled. "That okay for an apology?"
Sinon did nothing for a few seconds, and then all of a sudden her face reddened. I braced myself, thinking I made her angry again, but then she muttered, "Okay."
If I had bothered to go back to floor two before that duel with Sinon, I would've realized another reason for why Sinon's face went red. See, the store wasn't so little-known anymore; more than a year had passed since Asuna and I had first dined there, and now the number of people who didn't know what one could order there was in the double digits. At the same time, it was slightly lesser-known that the café now specialized in serving newly-formed lovebirds. That made it pretty awkward once Sinon and I did arrive in front of the diner.
But that was another story.
"Great!" I said with a grin, at that point completely ignorant. "But you have to keep your promise to me, okay? Please, stop charging so much on those swords. And," I added, sending her a friend invite, "if you need help convincing someone you're not selling anything, you can just PM me for help."
Sinon blinked again, and – uh-oh – her face grew even redder. Did I step over a line?
"That's fine," she said quietly, accepting the invite, and I mentally sighed in relief.
"Then that's settled," I said. "I've some catching up to do on the front lines, but I should be free this Saturday. I'll call you then? Catch you later!"
I had just turned and started walking away, intending to jump from roof to roof, when suddenly Sinon called out, "Wait!"
I stopped and turned back, curious. Two seconds later, I regretted not fleeing instantly.
"What about the weapons you destroyed?" Sinon called out, sounding cross now. "The shortcake's okay as an apology, but it doesn't give me any monetary compensation!"
"Uh – I – well –" I looked back and forth between the blacksmith and the rooftop, trying to judge if Sinon could track me.
On seeing this, the girl rolled her eyes. "Oh calm down, I'm not going to ask you to pay up front," she said, and I sighed. "I'm asking for something else. I guess you could call it a favour."
"Ah…I see? And this favour would be…?"
Sinon smiled sweetly. "From now on, make me your private blacksmith, okay?"
And suddenly I froze. My breath stopped, and for a game that wasn't supposed to have a sweat subroutine, my hands suddenly felt too slick.
It should've been a good thing. Sinon's comment was much better than what she could have demanded, yet infinitely worse. Someone else had requested the exact same thing of me before, in the context of…in the context of…
Heat rose to my cheeks, and I futilely hoped the blacksmith hadn't seen it.
"Got it, Kirito?" Sinon said, grinning and turning to leave. "Any job you have, relay it to me! That way I might get to see you sooner. And we're going on this Saturday, right? Okay!"
And then she said something so startling, so completely terrifying, that all her tricks in our duel combined might as well have been a bad April Fool's joke.
"It's a date!"
"Harem Aura" is a joke skill thought up by WhizkidHV of the SAO Fandom Nexus Forum. You can see it in action in Chapter Two of his fanfic Different Paths. No, seriously.