This article, SAOK: Inbetweeners III, is part of Sword Art Online (Kenji). This particular chapter is the thirteenth released chronologically and is part of a series of inquel chapters set between Part I and Part II of the aforementioned work, being the third released. In terms of timeline placement it takes on December 27th 2022, which places it between SAOK: Roving Rovia and SAOK: Braving the Depths.
Fujimaru Nakamura serves as the POV character.
December 27th 2022, 4th Floor of Aincrad, approx. 11:14.
Fujimaru here, and I was staring at perhaps the most idyllic sight I had laid eyes on since being trapped in Sword Art Online.
The 4th Floor of Aincrad was probably the most spectacular and breathtaking floor seen by the players of Sword Art Online since the death game had begun, and I was certainly enjoying its aesthetic. Rovia, which was the main town of the 4th Floor, was originally a sand-swept and gravelly wasteland. The landscape was reddish-brown, set inside intersecting canyons joined by a complicated web of narrow pathways, that had proved to be quite impossible to scale. Or so I’ve been told. I wasn’t in the beta to say either way. Rovia, and the entire floor, had been a boring and uninspired dusty old wasteland.
Thankfully, and many players would likely agree with me, but the official release was very different. Rovia itself had been built atop a square-shaped lake! The stone-paved streets of the beta had been replaced by gorgeous waterways and movement from one place to another was regulated by gondolas, which were styled on the Venetian rowing boat and overall very canoe-like in appearance.
I owned one myself.
It might have made travel a tad more difficult but Sword Art Online was ultimately fair.
All the gondolas, except for those private examples owned and operated by the player-base, were controlled by the «Water Carriers Guild» and this organization played into the main quest-line of the floor, which had been dubbed the «Shipwright of Yore». I had completed some of it, otherwise I wouldn’t have had a gondola of my own, and really should be getting on with it, but I had other plans for today.
Plans that had been carefully prepared since around 05:30 this morning. But I could get to that later. Firstly I need to cast some light on my adventures up until now.
In comparison to the floors preceding it the 2nd Floor had been littered with boulders and scattered foliage, widely spaced trees, and large looming mountains overlooking its wide-open plains. It was akin to a savanna. After parting company with Sheila and Shiro I had devoted myself to grinding, as it had still been my intention to upgrade my «Scimitar» farther. Suffice to say I had been successful in that regard and got quite lucky too and still had some materials left over. My «Scimitar» had been upgraded to +6. I had followed the advice imparted to me by Sheila and her older brother Kishi and sunk a further point into durability, which had already extended its use on this floor. The other had gone to Sharpness, so my «Scimitar» was now +4 to Sharpness and +2 to Durability or, as the system designated it, 4S2D.
The 3rd Floor, meanwhile, had been a mist-wrapped forest of epic proportions that made for a navigational nightmare, because it couldn’t be navigated through with a player’s map. It was aptly called «The Forest of Wavering Mists». The twisting pathways, monsters disguised as trees, and inclusion of the Elf race as NPC’s offering their varied services as part of the «Elf War» campaign quest added to the lore and mysticism of Aincrad itself. My adventures on the 3rd Floor had been carried out in solitary style on the side of the Dark Elves, and I managed to save the Dark Elven NPC who had clashed with a «Forest Elven Hallowed Knight» in the forest. I didn’t know that this outcome was very rare -- it was usually the case that the NPC whom you helped in the quest died killing their opposition, and the quest carried on from there. With that said, I wasn’t aware of any other outcome, and had continued on in that regard. In my case I had a high-powered female scout joining my party whenever I did the Elf War. She mothered me more than was really necessary, despite me being a human, and she an Elf, but in battle she was an absolute beast.
Her name was «Imra».
But then our journey had come to a conclusion on the 3rd Floor and I came here to the 4th Floor.
All the excitement I felt under the boughs of the trees on the 3rd Floor or the exhilaration of running on the 2nd Floor, however, paled when faced with the beauty of Rovia. Nothing I had experienced -- in-game or in real life -- prepared me for what I felt when I first stepped foot on the 4th Floor. The place was absolutely breathtaking!
I had been here since December 22nd.
My headquarters were a small NPC home whose second floor was available to rent at only 100 cor per night, with a small dock nearby capable of accommodating a small gondola. Its specific location was actually south-west Rovia and it was quite close to the exit that would lead one to «Caldera Lake». Argo, who was Aincrad’s premier information broker and the fourth name on my friends list, had provided me with the location for a small fee, which was subsequently added to my tab. It would be a little after that, on the morning of December 23rd, that I told her about an «Extra Skill» I had discovered known in-game as «Dancing» available here on the 4th Floor off towards the town farthest west. That was when she told me my tab was now in credit and would be until she told me otherwise.
Only thing I disliked about Argo? She insisted on calling me by some ridiculous nickname! She called me «Cliff» because apparently I reminded her of a picture she saw of the White Cliffs of Dover. Yeah, another person chiding me about my hair. Just what I needed.
Back to the quest though. That particular area, you see, hadn’t been extensively mapped by the front-runners. It seemed that their modus operandi was to take on the quests and dungeons only relevant to clearing the floor. Argo herself had likely been running the quests that would hopefully give some information about the Floor Boss. The quest was hidden, as most Extra Skill quests were, and required you to explore a small forested area south of the easternmost settlement. Near the forest was a standing lake in the centre of which was a wooden pier, where several fishermen NPC’s plied their trades. I had «Fishing» slotted myself and had spent a relaxing afternoon whiling the hours away. Randomly, and at times I had yet to properly identify, a girl waded out onto the lake’s edge and started to dance, and it was my luck that the day I arrived was the day she chose to appear. Though I suspected that only someone like me, who had «Fishing» slotted, could actually get the girl to appear. The NPC chatter indicated that she was shy; the fishers were her only friends, and the only people she felt comfortable enough around to dance in front of. Shortly after she appeared she was attacked randomly by monsters and if you managed to protect her throughout the duration of the dance, all the while receiving the buffs provided by her technique, then you acquired the «Dancing» Skill. It was one of the Skills I had unlocked myself but hadn’t yet slotted.
It was a very cliched quest but weren’t they all? Sword Art Online was a mishmash of mythologies and legends all crammed together, after all, and everyone liked the cliches. They resonated with people.
Maybe once I hit level 20 I’d become a dancer myself?
That said, I could ruminate on my build another time. I did have a plan for today but had to admit to being somewhat hesitant about it. I brought up my menu and flicked through to the messenger, went into the friends tab, and hovered over a name: «Sheila». Then I hesitated, like a beer caught in the headlights. What if she said no? I’d look like a right lemon then. No, no. This was the time to be Raixas, not Fujimaru. I needed to be confident, assertive, and direct. Like I was when I was literally seconds away from challenging Loki to a Total Loss duel that would have seen one of us dead.
I touched the name and a text window opened.
«Good morning! I was wondering if you were free today? I’m on the 4th Floor, by the teleport plaza if you are. Got something I’d like to show you.»
Only fifteen or so minutes had passed since I fired off my message when I saw Sheila walking up the road and waving towards me. I also noticed a tall man with a long red-coloured braid dangling lazily over his right shoulder walking with her. Wrapped around his head was a black and gold bandanna with a tribal design, whilst his gear was skeletal but lightweight. Oddest «Heavy Metal Armour» set I’d ever seen to be honest but I knew its effectiveness. Sheila had forged it. On his hip was an «Anneal Blade» and on his back was a circular shield with a large bull-head embossed on its surface.
“Morning Sheila!” I greeted with a wave. “Morning, Shiro.”
“Good morning!” Sheila answered, with her usual energy.
Today she wore an eye-catching scarlet T-shirt with a padded leather portion around her chest, a pair of three-quarter length black trousers, and stout leather boots with dirty soles and toes. Her blacksmith hammer, as usual, was attached to a dainty scale-linked belt at her waist, which was new. The only change in my own gear since meeting with her last was a red shoulder cloak tied around the shoulder and bicep of my left-arm, and the fact my «Scimitar» had been upgraded to +6 (4S2D).
“You- It’s- You look good,” I stammered, awkwardly.
She blushed a shade brighter than Shiro’s hair.
“Thanks. Elise made me these.”
Shiro had been hanging back a bit but soon made his presence known.
“I should have guessed this was the reason she was suddenly so damned excited. You should have seen her! Grabbed me by the arm, told me she needed an escort back to town, and practically hauled me back here.”
He didn’t look at all put out however.
“I did not!!” Sheila exclaimed, puffing out her cheeks. She then turned to me: “He’s lying!”
I raised my hands, hoping that this conveyed innocence, or rather my belief in her stance, and tried my very best to look supportive. That seemed like the most appropriate thing to do, but considering I didn’t have the first notion what I was expected to do in this situation, I thought my reaction was rather good. Remember I was only 13 and something of a social recluse? I barely talked to anyone! So, yeah. No idea what I was expected to do here.
Not that Shiro chimed in to help me. By the time Sheila spun around to admonish him further he was gone. I’d seen him wink at me before discreetly making his exit and could only manage a smile.
“So where are we going?” She asked me, Shiro forgotten about.
“I wanted you to be the first to see it!”
I took her hand in mine and started leading her off towards the west-side of Rovia. Looking back I was very direct all of a sudden, and whenever I remembered the scene I blushed as bright as a tomato! Never would I have attempted anything like this in the real world, but as I had said before Sword Art Online had an emboldening effect on my personality. She didn’t seem to mind, thankfully, because she was grinning wide and giggling.
We needed to take two gondolas before I showed her a stairwell that could be used to reach the opposite side without the need for a boat. I’d already proven I could carry her with my stats and I once again offered her a piggyback ride. Heedless of the danger I burst into a sprint, took the steps two at a time, and finally launched myself off them! We sailed through the air for a few seconds before landing lightly on the opposing side, with me in a crouch. From there I led her to my gondola. It was the smallest model available, held two travellers, and if the driver was counted, which I supposed you kind of needed to do, then it boasted a total passenger quota of 3. On the side in flowing black lettering was the name «Highwind». The hull was a mixture of various shades of blue, the iron prow-head was as black as night, and the seats inside had fluffy red cushions usually used in player homes for added comfort.
And nestled beneath the seats was a picnic basket.
“This is awesome!”
“Wanna take her out for a spin?” I asked.
There was something inherently powerful about the freedom a vehicle offered. I remember the first time my grandfather allowed me to sit behind the wheel of his car, for it had only been three months ago. It was late at night, and we were some of the last shoppers going to their cars in the car park. The place was practically deserted, and he let me take the car around the parking lot a few times. If I had ever felt freedom running then what I felt driving was indescribable! I took the oar in-hand, cementing myself as the gondolier, and led us out of Rovia. «Caldera Lake» was the central lake on the 4th Floor of Aincrad and a good bit away from the main town of Rovia. It had originally served as the domain of the Field Boss but the front-runners had dispatched it on the 24th. In fact, if I remember the message Argo sent me, then the front-runners were tackling the Floor Boss today. By this evening I could be stepping foot on the 5th Floor for the first time.
We set out for «Caldera Lake» with me steering and Sheila dipping her fingers into the water.
Up until now we had sailed the waterways in silence enjoying the peaceful atmosphere and gorgeous scenery. This was Sword Art Online however and you could rarely go long without a monster appearing to threaten you, but whenever that happened I dispatched them ruthlessly. Given that I was currently level 17 I was more than capable on that front, but I was careful regardless. Sheila wasn’t a combatant. It also helped that I had found a «Cloak of Hiding» on the 3rd Floor that obscured the wearer. I had given this to Sheila to wear the moment we set out and thus, whenever we were targeted, the sole target of attack would be me. The cloak blended in against the background and effectively functioned as a high-leveled «Hiding» Skill.
“Can I ask you something?” Sheila suddenly asked me.
“What’s your name? And not your online one. Your real one.”
It was generally accepted amongst the player base that the discussion of the real world was somehow a taboo subject. Some people got incredibly angry or uncomfortable whenever the subject was raised, but honestly I never really seen the point of that, and whenever someone had asked me anything about myself and I didn’t consider it a weird question, I answered them. Most had been about my hair so far with “is it natural” being firmly at the top of the list. Thusly when Sheila asked me my name I didn’t hesitate to tell her.
“Fujimaru Nakamura. And yours?”
It was only fair.
“It’s nice to meet you officially!”
We looked at each other for a moment and when I smiled that was somehow the spark that lit the powder keg. We couldn’t contain our laughter any more and I honestly couldn’t tell you why we found the whole situation funny to begin with! All I know is that we were laughing.
“Where are we going anyway?”
“My reasons are three-fold. I did want to show you the «Highwind» and give her its maiden voyage outside town. That said, there’s this little speck of land on the east side of «Caldera Lake» with a single tree and a small beach.”
I couldn’t read her expression at all.
“A-anyway, this piece of land has a few mining nodes, and the tree can be harvested; both can be got only once a day!” I couldn’t tell you why I was stammering either. “I f-figured you’d find the materials useful.”
Her expression lightened. “And what was the third reason?”
“... Picnic.” I whispered, blushing fiercely.
She tilted her head, clearly not hearing what I had said, and my cheeks reddened even further.
“... I prepared a picnic basket…”
What I didn’t tell her was that her sister, Elise, was in on this particular jaunt from its inception. Picnic baskets like the one I had at the moment couldn’t be bought in the shops on any Floor we had unlocked. The first thing I had done this morning was message Elise and ask her for a favour. After I explained my intent she was only too happy to help, provided I give her a ride on my gondola soon. You see, my basket wasn’t exactly what you’d call a normal basket. It wasn’t made from wicker but rather fabric, and required the «Sewing» Skill to create. Food items generally degraded quickly but the picnic basket created by Elise for me was very similar to a Vendor’s Carpet, in that it could store and protect other items. When a food item was placed inside it’s durability was enhanced significantly, and all the food items inside had been made for me by Elise.
She smiled, turned away, and dipped her fingers into the water again. Only this time was different.
The silence was beginning to stretch and I didn’t know what to do or say to change the atmosphere. Maybe this hadn’t been a good idea after all? I hadn’t really been paying attention, but I was paying heed for monsters, and during my routine scan I saw that her message tab was open and that her menu was set to visible. Did she even realize? I saw the name of the person she was messaging -- «Shirozuki» -- but not the contents of the message.
My own display blinked with a notification at roughly the same time and I discreetly opened the delivered message, which had come from Shiro as well.
«Relax, and just be yourself. It might help you to know that she likes Bon Jovi’s music.»
My eyes lit up! So did my grandmother, so I actually knew quite a few of his songs by proxy.
Music, my grandmother said, could bridge many divides. Whatever awkwardness that existed vanished as we initially talked about Bon Jovi. This led to other genres of music, what we liked and didn’t like, and we talked for almost two hours about our favourite music. The picnic basket was raided during this time and even when I started the process of mining the ore and harvesting the lumber, we never stopped talking. By the time we returned to Rovia I barely remembered their having been an awkward moment at all. When we reached the teleport plaza she told me she had to go because she may have left her guild mates hanging earlier.
Somehow that made me happy.
Shiro, who was accompanied by a man whose face was tattooed and looked like a punk rocker, met Sheila at the teleport plaza about ten minutes after we arrived and Sheila fired off an instant message. She waved farewell to me as she walked away with the punkish man, which left me alone with Shiro.
“Thanks,” I said, craning my neck to look the man in the eyes.
“I take it the picnic went well then?”
A panicked look streaked across my face! Did Elise-
“Relax! Look, Elise didn’t blab about you to everyone who would listen, if that’s what you’re worried about. What she did do was come to me and say that she needed help to sort out some things for her sister, because she didn’t have the materials. That it was important. I spent almost two hours this morning farming the materials that went into that picnic.”
My panic -- why was I even panicked!? -- vanished.
It was then that he ruffled my hair and, for the first time in my life, I didn’t mind that someone did that. That was when I realized that I trusted Shiro. He knelt down in front of me, put his right hand on my shoulder, and tilted my head up to look at him with his left. It was an action I had seen my grandfather do on any number of occasions when he was attempting to drive an important point home to me during a conversation. The system apparently agreed with my mindset because no purple barriers appeared when his hand touched my shoulder, and no pop-up menu suggesting I whisk him away to prison appeared either.
In my mind it was what a father would do.
“If you ever need anything -- anything -- message me. I’ve got two kids of my own, and I appear to have adopted two more. I might as well make it three.”
Usually I wasn’t the kind of person who hugged others, or showed his emotions in that kind of way. I had made it quite clear that I was something of a social recluse in the real world, and to be honest I wasn’t sure why Sheila -- Akiye -- was even giving me the time of day. If today was anything to go on then it was clear that I was awkward and, when I got nervous, I tended to stutter and stammer. So much for confident Raixas. Despite my usual stance though I threw my arms around Shiro and hugged him tightly as if he were my grandfather.
“I’ll see you later, kiddo.”
“Shiro, wait!” He stopped and turned to look at me. “A-are you guys doing a-anything for New Years?”
“If Ryne has her way? Then yeah, but you’re welcome to join us. I’ll message you the details.”
My mind was made up. There were a few guilds already in Aincrad but I had only had significant dealings with the Dragon Knights Brigade, the Aincrad Liberation Squad, and Brightscale. That said, my interactions with the ALS amounted to them scouting me for recruitment, which I turned down, whereas my interactions with the DKB involved me joining one of their 5-man parties in a popular hunting area with high respawn rates on the 2nd Floor. Both had been one-offs. There were definite limits to what a solo player could achieve. It was actually a miracle I hadn’t died already.
Brightscale seemed the logical conclusion. I’d have to speak to Kishi soon.