November 6, 2022
"Would you please hurry up and pick one?"
The voice was a familiar one, but the pouting face that leaned over her shoulder was not. Ashe pretended not to notice that Renee didn't need to stand on her tiptoes to do so.
"Just go with the sword there. It's easy to use and we can get you a different thing later." Renee pointed a slender finger at the one-handed starting sword in the shop menu. She didn't bother trying to disguise her impatience as she started bobbing up and down.
Logged into the game, a cutlass already strapped neatly at her hip, Renee was ready and raring to go. The only thing keeping her from the fields beyond the starting town now was her indecisive friend, still mulling over weapon types.
There was no magic in this game – as Ashe had been sad to learn – but the variety of weapon skills she had to pick from was staggering. Her own knowledge of weapons started and ended at the simple one-handed sword so in light of all these new options she was having a hard time settling on just one to start.
Renee was gripping her arm now, her name half a threat to drag her into the fields unarmed if she didn't pick soon.
"Alright, alright. How about this one?" Two taps on the store menu later and the item dropped in her inventory. Renee stole a quick peek and Ashe watched her face twist.
"A halberd? Really? You're gonna die."
Well that settled it, then. Just to spite her, Ashe equipped the pole arm and, once the weight settled comfortably at her back, she turned back to her friend. "You'd enjoy that, wouldn't you?"
"Absolutely," Renee shot back. Then without wasting another moment she grabbed hold of Ashe's arm once again and started pulling her along. "Now come on!" she urged. "We've wasted so much time!"
"The game's been open half an hour!"
"Half an hour wasted!"
She let go once the both of them had settled into loping run, passing all manner of shops and fantastic avatars as they went. A few in particular caught her eye as they rounded a corner close to the edge of the city.
A group of players, all of them hollering, were gathered around another.
"Jump! Jump! Jump!"
Ashe slowed down to see what was going on. The boy in the middle climbed up onto the barrier separating the city from the expanse of clouds. The crafted face cracked a smile; he gave a quick bow, and then flipped backward off the barrier with a cry of 'Geronimo'. His friends gave another rousing shout and a second climbed up. Ashe walked up to get a better look this time.
"Hey, what's the hold-up?"
She turned to see Renee jogging back over then gestured toward the group of players. The second boy jumped then, tucked his legs into his chest and somersaulted through the air until he disappeared into the clouds. It looked like a lot of fun.
"Can we try this?"
She looked again to Renee. The black-haired girl clapped her on the shoulder, said, "I'm not waiting for you to respawn," and ran off again.
That answered that question.
Ashe would have liked a bit more time to meander around the starting city just to explore or mess around. Unlike her party member this was her first time seeing the Town of Beginnings, or anything within the newly released game, Sword Art Online. Her mind was still trying to grasp at the fact that this was all a virtual environment. But Renee's barely contained excitement at being back was contagious.
Ashe took off after her.
The city could wait for now.
"You're going to die," Renee said, and repeated herself each time Ashe failed to land a hit on the boar. The third time the boar ran her friend down she was practically singing.
Ashe shot her a look in the short space between the beast's attacks. The girl sat happily on the grass, chin in her hand and elbow on her knee, black hair tied back. She bore a slight resemblance to the girl Ashe knew from the real world but that was it. A few big changes and armful of small ones left her barely recognizable. To be fair, Ashe wasn't much better. She hadn't increased her height, unlike Renee. She felt she was tall enough as she was. But she'd 'touched up' some of her features, downplayed a few others and coloured her hair a vibrant red.
After all, why not?
"A little help, maybe?" Ashe asked, and gestured to the boar with a sweep of her arm.
She would have liked to say she knew what she was doing but she didn't. She'd had little luck in activating any sword skills and with her health already dipping into the yellow she was willing to put her dignity to the side.
Renee would never let her hear the end of it if she died already.
With a big smile on her face, Renee shrugged her shoulders and picked herself up off the ground. "I suppose I could show you."
She held a hand out to Ashe and hauled the other girl back to her feet.
"So here's what you gotta do," Renee began. Already Ashe was regretting her decision. Still, she bit her tongue and watched as Renee spread her feet and reeled back her arm. She held the position a moment and Ashe heard the high pitched whine before she saw the cutlass take on an orange glow.
The black haired girl lurched forward without warning, sword arm lashing out to cleave the boar in two. And she stood with a hand on her hip and a stupid smile on her face when the creature burst into blue polygons. She gestured with her hands then, as if to ask, 'you get it now?' When Ashe said nothing, Renee sighed and marched back over.
"You do it like this, see?" she said as she grabbed both of the redhead's hands and pulled them into the ready position just behind and to the side of the girl, her halberd behind her and waiting to be swung overhead. Renee kicked her friend's feet into place next. "Just like that."
"I don't get it."
"Just- just hold it like that a second, okay?" Renee held out her palms as she stepped off to the side. "All you have to do is get the starting motion down. You'll hear the skill charging if you do it right and then the game will take care of the rest."
That much was easy enough to understand. And she could in fact hear the same whirring noise Renee's sword had made a moment earlier.
"There you go!" Renee's cheering confirmed it. "Now go get him!"
A rock flew past her, trailing light behind it and struck another boar in the head. It whirled on the two girls, stamped the ground and drew its head in close, the telltale sign that it was about to charge. It barreled toward her and Ashe hesitated before whipping the pole arm down. She saw the blue light only for a moment, then the bronze of her weapon again, and the attack smacked down on the boar's shoulder.
It squealed, then kept going and took Ashe down in the process. The redhead fell back into the grass and watched her health bar go from green to yellow.
"You're holding it too long."
Ashe looked over to see Renee catch the boar's tusk on her sword and send it skidding over the field. She hopped back over and pulled Ashe back up.
"The skill will time out if you hold the position too long. You have to release it once it's charged."
Well that would have been nice to know. But that begged another question.
"How do I know when to do that?"
Hurriedly, before the boar prepped its next attack, Renee tried to find the words. It wouldn't be a big deal if they got hit and died. It'd be the trek back out here that would be the most troublesome.
"It's like… I don't know. You do the motion, pause so the game recognizes the skill, and then you do it. You don't stand and wait." Her flurry of hand motions didn't make her meaning any clearer. "Look, we got time – just try again. Here he comes."
Left with that, Ashe had little choice but to quickly adopt the stance Renee had shown her before. She heard the skill cue up as the boar charged. It charged, and in a much smoother motion Ashe lunged forward with her left foot. The blade fell dead center on the thing's flat snout and wiped out its remaining HP.
Ashe stayed like that a few seconds after the polygons dispersed. It was that easy? Slow clapping behind her snapped her out of it and she looked back at Renee.
The black haired girl gave her a thumb up and a quick, "Congrats."
She must have been smiling because Renee asked, "We having fun now?" There was only one answer to that.
"Can I kill another?"
Her friend smiled wide at that. "Give me just a second and I'll round them right up for us," she said, and suddenly Ashe wasn't so sure. Renee stooped down to pick up another rock, her cutlass still held tight in her dominant right hand, and hurried over to where a small group of boars had spawned a minute before. She spun a tight circle before they noticed her, smacking three with her sword, kicked a fourth and whipped the rock at one more that spawned as she bolted back.
"Run," was all she said as she beat a hasty retreat past Ashe, a stupid grin plastered on her face.
The redhead tore off after her friend, the group of boars hot on both their heels. Soon Renee peeled away from her, making a beeline to her right. One of the boars followed her and Ashe saw the flash of light out the corner of her eye as it exploded. That still left her with four more and no choice other than to keep running.
She didn't even see the two players ahead of her until she barreled into the one and they both went down in a heap.
"Oof… Well, take a look-see at what I've found, Rikki."
Ashe looked down then to see the boy below her. He was thin with long dark hair tied back in a ponytail in typical pretty boy fashion.
"How about you give me a hand here instead?"
The reply came back as Ashe apologized and picked herself up. She turned and got a look at the other one: tall with a head of shaggy brown hair.
Rikki fixed his grip on the starting long sword in his hand and glanced back at both of them over his shoulder. "Well, come on," he said, and gestured toward the pack of boars. The beasts had stopped their charge with the appearance of two more players, but a couple were already stamping the ground again to indicate they were about to take another go.
The other boy sighed and got to his feet. Swinging his sword arm lazily he stepped around Ashe. The first boar charged, then the next two. Both boys' swords took on a green glow, and it was that detail that clued Ashe in to do the same.
Their arms shot forward, only slightly out of sync and the first two boars went skidding backwards over the grass with glowing red damage lines carved into them. The third continued unperturbed and met with Ashe's overhead strike.
Her heavier weapon had a higher damage value than did their swords, but even with the assistance of a sword skill and a clean hit the boar still had half its health left.
Two more «Horizontals» flashed up ahead, followed closely by the death animations of the two creatures. One more swing of her halberd and the third followed.
The fourth boar burst into pixels a moment later and through the animation Ashe could see Renee sheathing her cutlass back at her hip. "Hey, you made it."
Forgetting the other people still present, the halberdier marched over and stretched her friend's cheeks between her fingers.
"You're such an asshole!"
Renee flailed her arms and struggled to form words with little luck. Ashe continued to pinch and pull until she heard a cough behind her.
The two boys were still standing there, Rikki drumming his fingers on the pommel of his sword and the other effeminate one whose name Ashe still didn't know eyeing them amusedly. Seeing her look at them Rikki tried to dispel the awkwardness.
"We're not interrupting anything, are we? I mean, we can go… off. Somewhere."
Seizing the chance, Renee broke away and dove for cover behind the boys. Poking her head out from between their arms she said, "No, no, stay. She'll kill me otherwise."
She said that like Ashe was actually capable of beating her. The other boy evidently took that as his cue to chime in. "I can't very well turn a blind eye to a girl in need," he said with a deliberate wave of his hand. His friend appeared less than agreeable to the idea.
"How do you know they're girls, and not some chubby middle-aged guys?"
Well, that was rude. Renee apparently agreed as her face twisted into a frown and her hand shot up like a rocket. "I am nineteen!"
"So you don't deny the guy part?"
The other boy got a good chuckle out of that. But despite Rikki's questioning he didn't seem too concerned about the girls' genders as he went on to say, "Just ignore him. Rikki can be a little… stubborn. I'm Cyril. And you two are…?" He looked between both girls.
"Ashe," the redhead said and raised her hand. "And that one," she pointed at Renee, still hiding behind the boys' backs, "is Renee."
Cyril nodded along thoughtfully for a moment. Then with a swing of his wrist he pulled up his menu, punched in something, and a translucent screen appeared in front of Ashe. Renee must have received it, too because she saw the other girl look down at something.
-Cyril would like to be friends-
She tapped the circle option to accept and looked back up to see the boy smiling back at her. He elbowed Rikki in the side a moment later and with an annoyed groan the other boy sent a request of his own. Just as before, she and Renee both accepted.
All that out of the way, Cyril turned back to Renee. "You handled yourself pretty well in that fight, by the way. Were you –"
"A beta tester?" Renee finished for him, and then nodded.
"Don't get your hopes up," Ashe said. "She spent most of her time screwing around."
"Were you one, too?" Cyril asked, and his face fell slightly when she responded in the negative. "Ah, well, one beta tester is still pretty good, yeah? Say, you two want to party up with us?"
The two girls exchanged quick looks. Renee shrugged her indifference to the idea and Ashe looked to Rikki. He stood with his arms crossed and his mouth settled into a hard line. Ashe wondered if he just looked mad like that all the time. Still, he didn't say anything against Cyril's idea and she took that as the go ahead. She said, "I don't see why not."
The words were barely out of her mouth and the long-haired boy was already sending the invite. Ashe accepted and an additional two names and health bars appeared below hers and Renee's.
"So do you know any quests we could take, or something?" Rikki asked.
Renee thought on that for a moment then said, "Yeah, a few. There's a bunch you can get in the starting city. And another handful in each of the neighbouring towns. I don't know if we'll be online long enough to help you finish more than a couple of them, though."
"But we will be back later tonight. With another person, too," Ashe said when she saw the boys' excitement deflate.
"Right, right, he's getting off late. What name is he using, do you remember?" Renee asked.
Ashe had to think on that a moment before she could recall. "Tokusa, I think he said?"
"Boyfriend?" Rikki asked. He spared a quick glance over at Cyril as he posed the question.
"Brother." The redhead corrected him. He gave a curt nod in response to that then looked again at Cyril as the boy stepped away from the little circle they'd formed.
He drew his sword and swung it through the air a couple of times before he turned back around to face them. "If that's the case then quests can wait. Anybody up for a bit of exploration?" Renee positively beamed at the idea and Ashe and Rikki tossed their hands up in favour.
"You did what?!" Cyril was struggling to get the question out without laughing. In the grass a few feet away, Renee was doing about as well.
Snickering and looking very pleased with herself she said, "I put a Vendor's Carpet around a corner with a couple stools on it and a buddy of mine chased people toward it. You wouldn't believe the number of players that went flying over it. It was beautiful!"
Just listening to them made Ashe shake her head. She'd heard that story before, about Renee's fun exploiting the game's mechanics. Anything placed on those carpets couldn't be moved by any player other than the owner, much to the dismay of any who came booking it around any corner the dark-haired girl had picked. Unfortunately, that wouldn't be happening again. Renee had been dismayed to tell her about the patch that had been made to prevent such antics.
Ashe glanced over at Rikki fighting a wolf a short ways away. They'd called it exploring but eventually their group had gone back to battling mobs. They were a great distance out from the starting city by now, although no closer to the neighbouring villages Renee had mentioned, and the bottom of the floor above them was tinted pink from the early evening sky.
She and Renee would have to log off soon.
"You look like you're having fun," she said as she approached the swordsman.
With a final swing Rikki finished the wolf off and glanced back at her. "Do I?" She nodded and he bared his teeth in a grin. "Guess I am, then." It had taken a bit of time and just as much prodding from Cyril to relax but the brown-haired boy had dropped his angry mask.
"Well, colour me surprised. You can smile," she teased.
"Rude," he shot back, although he didn't sound too annoyed by the comment. "My face works just fine."
Ashe shrugged and leaned on the shaft of her halberd. "Consider it payback for calling me old earlier."
Rikki gave her a look then raised his hands, palms out. "Fair enough." He looked past her then at Cyril and Renee still chatting away in the grass, then all around them. He put a finger to his lips then to tell her to be quiet and shuffled off to the nearest boar. Catching his meaning, Ashe stepped away from the other pair. Rikki prodded the beast with a quick jab and backpedaled away. It let out a loud squeal as it whirled on him. The cursor above its head went from neutral yellow to red in an instant. Rikki managed to halt the boar's charge and hold it with his sword. He stole a quick glance over his shoulder, and then sent the boar to run free… in a straight shot toward Cyril.
Both Cyril and Renee looked up when they heard Rikki shout at them and Ashe watched as the boar bowled over the grass and crashed straight into the long-haired boy. It picked him up with its flat snout and tusks and tossed the male up through the air before it exploded at the end of Renee's cutlass.
Cyril's health dropped to yellow as he fell back to the ground.
Rikki got to him first. Renee was too busy clutching her stomach and laughing to help him back to his feet.
"Feeling lucky yet?"
Swatting away the hand his friend offered, Cyril got back to his feet and brandished his sword. And with a sound that might have been the breath of a laugh he lunged forward.
In a flash of silver the two boys crossed blades. Cyril pushed the taller boy back and thrust his arm out. Rikki's sword was knocked away and Cyril's came back to catch him across the chest. It carved a red damage line along its path and sent Rikki stumbling back, muttering curses.
"They do know there's a dueling system, right?" Renee, having gotten herself back under control, strode up next to the redhead to watch the boys fight. Ashe shrugged her shoulders in response. Rikki found his sword again and the two boys took off across the field.
"How come Cyril's the only one with an orange cursor?" Ashe asked as she watched the boy in question take the brunt of one of Rikki's sword skills. She'd seen the Cyril's cursor bleed orange after his first lunge but Rikki's still remained green.
As usual, Renee flashed a smile that said she had all the answers. "Easy. Cyril attacked first, and since they're not fighting a registered duel the system is interpreting Rikki's actions as self-defense."
Ashe nodded along. That made enough sense, she supposed. She spared a quick glance at the clock displayed in the upper right corner of her vision and, spying the time, looked back to her friend. She didn't even have to say anything before Renee waved her off.
"I know, I know. We'll go once they're finished."
"Fair enough," Ashe replied. They didn't really know the boys but they'd been partied together for a little while now and it would be pretty rude to just up and leave without a word.
That time came quickly enough.
"You fight like my sister," Rikki's shout rang over the clash of swords.
With a hearty laugh Cyril retorted, "I've fought your sister; that's a compliment!"
Both girls looked back up to see that Rikki and Cyril had involved a few of the nearby mobs in their unofficial duel, perhaps not intentionally. Three wolves circled the pair, and each boy's eyes darted back and forth between the beasts and each other. Two jumped at Rikki, who whirled around to knock them away. Seeing his chance Cyril went to drive his sword through the other boy's chest. The third wolf pounced then, and came down on the long-haired boy's back.
"Ah, shit! Shit!"
Even from where they stood, Ashe and Renee could hear his panicked cursing. One of Rikki's wolves burst into polygons as Cyril went down. The taller boy laughed at the sight of his friend's health dipping into the red and turned to deal with the other wolf. He killed it quickly enough, but took his sweet time as he sauntered toward Cyril still struggling underneath the beast.
The wolf bit him one more time and the last of his health bled out. Cyril's body exploded and his name disappeared from their party. Rikki chose then to do away with the beast and after the polygons dispersed he threw his arms up in victory.
Both girls slow-clapped for him then Renee tossed a small red vial his way. "Congrats. Now drink up or you'll get dead before you can fetch him from town."
Rikki caught the item in his left hand and tapped it to bring up a description. "Regenerative potion?" He looked back to them and Ashe pointed up. He caught her meaning a moment later and with an embarrassed 'thanks' downed the whole thing. Ashe watched as the red line representing Rikki's health started to climb back up in little increments.
"We're going to head off for a while now, okay?" Renee said before thrusting a thumb in the direction of the starting city. "The re-spawn point is in town if you want to go pick him back up. He should pop up there in a couple minutes."
Rikki nodded as he made his way back over to them. "Right, okay. So I'll see you guys again later tonight, then."
"That's right," Ashe said as she turned to Renee. "You ready to go?"
"Yeah, just… give me a second."
Ashe wasn't surprised to hear all of her friend's enthusiasm gone away as the girl pulled up her menu. She'd been so happy to be back that the idea of returning to the real world so soon after had to be more than a minor annoyance.
Renee furrowed her brows then, and without looking up from her menu asked, "Is it missing on your menu, too?" Unsure of what she meant, Ashe came around behind her to see. Renee set her menu to visible and pointed it out for her. "It was there when we got on, I know it."
"What are you guys talking about?" Rikki, still standing there with them looked just as confused.
"Nothing. Her log out button is just missing," Ashe told him, then turned back to Renee. "There's nothing written but it probably still works. Try hitting it."
Renee tapped at the empty button on her menu once, then again a couple seconds later when no prompt appeared.
"Whatever. It's probably just you." Ashe pulled up her own menu and scrolled down to find the button. "Or maybe not," she said as she spotted the same empty space where the option should have been.
"Mine's the same."
Ashe looked up to see Rikki staring at his own menu. That made all three of them short one logout button. That couldn't be a coincidence. Ashe didn't need to be an expert on video games to know that that was a really bad thing to have go wrong on launch day.
"Is there any other way to log out?"
Renee shrugged her shoulders as she looked at the boy. "Not that I know of." She didn't appear all that concerned about the issue anymore as she closed her menu. "It'll be fine, though. Something like this, the GMs will fix it soon enough." She sounded sure of herself as she stepped away from them, sword arm swinging back and forth beside her.
"I'm going to go grab Cyril. You said the re-spawn thing was in town, right?" Rikki asked as he turned to start heading back.
"Yeah, it's right inside the big castle near the teleport plaza. You can't miss it."
"Big castle. Got it. I'll catch you two later," Rikki nodded and then started running. The two girls stood and watched him for a bit, and before long the brown-haired swordsman looked small.
Placing a hand on her hip, Ashe let out a sigh. "So, what now?" She had expected to have logged out by now, but if they were going to be stuck here until the GMs fixed the bug then she might as well try to fill the time. Renee opened her mouth to answer and shut it again when they both heard a sound like an alarm blaring in their ears.
Ashe cringed at the noise and looked to Renee for that answer to this too. And then both girls were enveloped in pillars of bright blue light. Before Ashe could get another word out the field and her friend faded away. It lasted only a moment, and then the light faded and her surroundings returned. But what she saw was not the grassy fields stretching out in all directions.
Cobblestones clicked under her boots and trees and medieval stone buildings lined the wide streets. She hadn't done anything in the way of exploring when she'd first logged in but she recognized the location as the central plaza in the Town of Beginnings..
Ashe looked around her for her friend. She was hoping that this was all just part of some official announcement, maybe apologizing for the logout glitch, but she figured Renee would have a better idea than her. But one by one more people began to appear in the plaza around her and soon her vision was filled with unfamiliar faces. She caught no sight of her friend and heard no reply when she called out again. It wasn't helping that the people around her were screaming for the GMs to come out.
"What's going on?"
"Can we log out now?"
"Hurry it up!"
So it hadn't just been Ashe and her party who couldn't log out.
Feeling a tap on her shoulder Ashe turned around. A taller man in his late twenties was looking at her, silver hair held up by a black bandana and an iron dagger on his hip.
"Sorry, but you wouldn't happen to know what this is all about, would you?" he asked. Unfortunately, Ashe likely didn't know any more than he did. She shook her head and his face fell slightly. "Right, I suppose not." He chewed on his lip a moment then extended his hand to her. "I'm H-… Rapha. I'm Rapha."
His handshake was about as steady as his voice but he seemed like a nice guy, albeit timid. She didn't have time to form any further opinion on him before their short conversation was ended by one player shouting over the din.
"Hey… look up!"
Both she and the male craned their heads up and were met with an odd sight. The bottom of the second floor high over their heads was covered by brightly coloured red hexagons. Ashe could see something written inside them.
"Warning," Rapha muttered beside her. "System announcement?"
The plaza around them went quiet again, the players' shouts turned to hushed whispers as everyone strained their ears to listen. Rapha beside her sucked in his breath and the red sky above them began to sag. It gathered together in the middle, like a slow dripping faucet, and then began to take on a new shape. The red drop changed, transforming into the shape of a giant person clad in a heavy, hooded robe of the same colour. Gloved hands extended out from dangling sleeves, no arms connecting the two. Ashe couldn't explain why, but that and the figure's lack of a face filled her with apprehension.
"Is that a GM?"
"Why doesn't he have a face?"
Judging by the multitude of nervous comments by the other players around her, she wasn't the only one experiencing the feeling.
The robed figure spread its arms out to its sides and a man's voice silenced the players once again.
"Welcome to my world, dear players. My name is Akihiko Kayaba. As of this moment I am the only human being alive with control over this world."
Ashe recognized that name. She remembered Renee, talking about the game following its first announcement, and gushing over it during the beta test. The girl had mentioned that name any number of times. Executive director of SAO and designer of the Nervegear were two of Renee's most oft used mentions. Even as Ashe tried to wrap her head around that, the voice continued.
"You have likely noticed by now that the log-out button has disappeared from the main menu. This is not a bug. I repeat, this is not a bug – it is a feature of Sword Art Online. From this point onward, you will be unable to freely log out of the game until the summit of this castle is conquered."
Castle? Renee had spoken of a castle earlier, hadn't she? Right here in town? The figure continued before Ashe could finish that thought.
"Furthermore, the NerveGear cannot be removed or shut down via external means. If forceful means of exit are attempted…" He paused, and a heavy silence filled the square. "…the high-powered microwaves emitted by the NerveGear will scramble your brain and shut down your vital processes."
Ashe looked beside her to see Rapha fallen back on his rear, eyes wide from shock. "H-hey, you okay?" she asked. Her own legs were shaking as she tried to absorb the reality she'd just been presented with. She had to kneel down beside the man to make them stop.
And still the figure continued.
"…The brain frying sequence will commence upon any of the following circumstances: ten minutes of no external power; two hours of network disconnection; removal, dismantling, or destruction of the NerveGear. The authorities and media in the outside world have already announced the details of these conditions to the general public. At present, the friends and family of several players have already ignored these warnings and attempted to forcefully remove their NerveGears, the result being…"
The figure paused for breath. Ashe held hers.
"…that sadly, two hundred and thirteen players have already been permanently retired from both Aincrad and the real world."
Somebody started screaming. Rapha beside her buried his head behind his knees and under his hands. Ashe couldn't move. She didn't trust her legs to hold her up anymore. This couldn't actually be happening.
"There is no need to worry about your physical bodies back in the real world." The voice kept going, and Ashe covered her ears. It wasn't real. This wasn't real.
"You may rest assured… and focus on conquering the game. However, please proceed with caution. As of this moment, Sword Art Online is no longer a game to you. It is another reality. The standard means of resurrection will no longer function as they did previously. When your hit points dwindle to zero, your avatar will be permanently deleted… and the NerveGear will destroy your brain."
An image of the fields flashed her mind then, of Cyril pinned beneath a wolf. Cyril had died. But he couldn't be dead. That just wasn't possible.
"There is only one condition through which you can be freed from this game. Simply reach the hundredth floor at the pinnacle of Aincrad and defeat the final boss who awaits you there. In that instant, all surviving players will be able to safely log out once again."
In the perfect silence that followed that statement Ashe looked back up. Past the robed figure and bleeding sky she could still make out the bottom of the second floor. It was only one of the ninety-nine floors still stacked over the heads of every player here. How were they supposed to get all the way up there? In the two month beta period no one had seen anything past the sixth floor.
"Finally," the robed figure continued still, "let me prove to you that this world is now your one and only reality. I've prepared a gift for all of you. You may find it in your item storage."
She heard the familiar ringing as Rapha, somewhat recovered, pulled open his menu. Following his lead Ashe opened her own and looked in her inventory. Listed right at the top was an item she didn't remember.
With the tap of a button and a sparkling sound effect the little item materialized in her hand. She wasn't sure what she expected to happen, but when she looked into it, all she saw reflected was the face of her avatar. She glanced over at Rapha and saw him staring blankly into his own mirror.
Suddenly, he vanished behind a veil of bright white light. The same happened to multiple other players nearby, and then to Ashe as well. It only lasted a handful of seconds, and then her sight returned. But she didn't see Rapha's silver hair anywhere. Had he gotten up and moved?
The halberdier looked back to her left and found an unfamiliar woman's face.
The woman nodded slowly and Ashe had to give herself a moment to wrap her head around it. The silver-haired knife-fighter had been replaced with a tired looking woman. Mid-length black hair parted in the middle hung free over her shoulders to frame her sharp features. She looked like she might have been in her mid-twenties but the dark bags under her eyes made Ashe wonder.
Ashe looked back into her own mirror again a moment later and found nothing of the redheaded warrior she'd crafted mere hours earlier. Her clothes were still the same but the face staring back at her was her own real life face. She had to touch it to be sure, but from the oval shape to the sharp bridge of the nose and the brown hair falling loosely past her shoulder there was no mistaking it.
"This concludes the tutorial phase of Sword Art Online. I wish you the best of luck, dear players."
His final words still hanging in the air over their heads, the robed figure began to ascend. The top of the hood melted into the system warnings above him and the rest of his 'body' followed. The wall of hexagons disappeared immediately after.
Silence filled the plaza. And as Ashe looked up at the bottom of the second floor a gentle tune from an NPC band, wholly wrong for the situation, was carried in.
Rapha hauled the girl to her feet as the first few groups of players began to scream. Then everyone was screaming. Ten thousand voices ripped at her ears and she held tightly to Rapha's arm to keep herself from joining them.
She wasn't sure how long they stood there, the two of them, neither speaking a word, but when she came back, the crowd of players had thinned and there was a new hand on her other arm.
Hunched forward, one hand on her knee and breathing heavily, Renee stood there. Dirty blonde hair fell haphazardly over an elfin face as she straightened back up. Her familiar face was less familiar now without her half-rim glasses and her brown eyes had lost their usual levity but it was still her.
"Listen, we gotta go. I already found Rikki, but we need to go now."
Any number of questions buzzed around in Ashe's head and died on her tongue as she heard Rikki shouting over the din of the players still in the plaza. Renee tugged at her arm more fiercely to get the girl to start moving. Rapha disentangled herself from Ashe's other arm and stepped back.
The brunette looked back at the woman and the knife-fighter gave her a flimsy smile. "I'll be okay. You go."
There was no chance for a reply as Renee dragged her away, pulling her through the remaining droves of people. A boy, maybe a couple inches taller than her came bolting over. With a long face, nose smattered with freckles, and a head of short blue-black hair, Ashe didn't recognize him as Rikki until he grabbed Renee by the shoulders.
"The revive point; where is it?!"
Letting go of Ashe's arm, Renee patted the boy's hands before brushing them off. "Calm down, buddy. I'll take you there, okay?"
Then they were moving again with Renee at the front to guide them. Ashe had expected it to be further away, but it was a straight shot from the north end of the plaza. Rikki spotted the large castle at the same moment and took off running before she or Renee could say a thing.
He was coming to a slow stop halfway across the cavernous room just inside the large double doors when the two girls caught up. Ashe looked up and around as she stepped inside. Despite the number of windows, the room was dim and the ceiling soared into shadows overhead.
"Where is it?"
The boy's head swiveled back and forth, frantically searching the space for the revive point. But all any of them found was the large stone tablet resting by the far wall.
"It was right there," Renee said as she threw her arm out toward the monument.
"This isn't a joke, Renee! Where is it?!"
"Really? And here I thought we were all bloody laughing! I said it was here and it was. It's not my fault that it isn't anymore."
Rikki looked like he was about to collapse by that point. "This can't… This can't be happening. Cyril is…"
Renee walked up to him then, hands up and palms out. "Woah, woah… let's not get ahead of ourselves here. There's nothing to prove that any of what he said is true."
"Then where's Cyril, huh?"
While they argued, Ashe walked up to the monument. As she got closer she could begin to pick out names written into the surface, all of them listed alphabetically. She found her own listed halfway down the first column. There was one directly below it, grayed out with a line struck through it. Curious, she tapped it and was presented with a date and time. Another line just beneath the first two listed the cause of death as disconnection.
So that was it?
Ashe felt a lump form in her throat as she made the realization. She scanned the adjacent columns to find the C's and stopped when she came to Cyril's name, grayed out and crossed off.
"What's it say…?"
Rikki came up behind her and leaned over her shoulder, straining to read the text that came up when she tapped on his friend's name. His face fell and he retreated. His face fell and he retreated. He opened his mouth to speak. Nothing came out and he fell back against and slid down the nearest wall.
Feeling drained, Ashe found where Renee had balled herself up and sat down beside her.
"I'm sorry…" The muffled apology came from behind the blonde's knees.
"Don't you start on me now," Ashe said. "This isn't your fault."
The other girl lifted her head, then, just to hug her legs closer to her chest. She wouldn't even look Ashe's way. "Except the part where I made you buy the game, you mean."
"My money. My NerveGear. My choice. Now stop it."
Too much had already happened in the last hour for Ashe to be able to deal with this. Rikki had quieted down by now, but none of them were really calm. She just wanted to sit, to not talk, and try and absorb all of what was going on. They were trapped inside a game where player death held the same consequence as real life death. That thought drew her eyes to her health bar, nestled comfortably in the green. The little numbers listed beside it were now the physical representation of her life. If it reached zero, she'd be gone. Her mind raced back to the fields, to Cyril pinned beneath a wolf and the three of them laughing around him.
She laid her forehead on her knee then to push the thought away.
"Ashe…" Renee called her name, and continued once the brunette was looking at her. "Whatever it takes, I will get you home."
That brought a small smile to her face. It was little better than the fragile one Rapha had given her back in the square as she'd been left behind, but it was something and that was comforting.
"Yeah," Ashe said. Then, "So, smart one, what now?"
Renee was the only one here with any prior experience with the game. As one of the lucky thousand people to be accepted into SAO's two month beta testing period, she had more knowledge about this game than most, even if she had just screwed around most of the time.
"I mentioned it before but there's another town nearby: Horunka. There's a quest available there where the reward is a nice one-handed sword. If you want to switch weapons, now would be the time."
It was a tempting thought. Supposedly a one-handed sword was easier to use than the halberd Ashe had chosen earlier. Still, she'd gotten used to the pole arm after the last few hours in the fields. It'd be weird to switch now.
"No, I'm good. You?"
"Same," Renee said as she got to her feet. She checked the curved sword at her hip and then extended a hand down to Ashe. "You ready to go? The sooner we leave the better."
"What about him?"
Renee helped Ashe up before she looked over at Rikki, still sat with his head in his hands. She shrugged. "If he wants to come, fine. I won't force him. I'm going to check a name on there real quick and then we'll go, okay?" She gestured toward the monument and Ashe made her way over to the male.
He didn't look up or even acknowledge her until she crouched down in front of him.
"… What do you want?" he asked from behind his hands.
Ashe could see his eyes peeking out between his fingers. She took a moment to pick her words carefully. "Renee and I are going to head over to the next town. We're thinking we'll try to get some experience before everyone floods out of here."
His curt reply gave her pause but she persisted. She held out her hand to him.
"Come with us."