This article, SAOK: Pushing the Frontier, is the second chapter of Sword Art Online (Kenji). Kishi and Asuka are the primary characters.
It was the early evening of December 4th.
For the first time since this game of death started I was actually enjoying myself. Illfang the Kobold Lord was dead: he'd been laid low by a raid group on December 4th with the final attack going to some dark-haired boy who'd since received the title of "Beater".
I was slightly miffed that I hadn't been part of the battle but there was no point dwelling on it.
The username of the kid who dealt the LA was «Kirito» and I knew this particular nugget of information because I'd bought it from fellow beta tester and unofficial information broker Argo. I was in two minds about messaging him but eventually fired him off a quick instant message: «You don't know me. Just wanna say thanks from one beta tester to another. What you did was pretty ballsy». No point signing it. My name would be attached to the message. I didn't hang around for a reply and promptly put it from my head. There were things I had to do before people started tackling the 2nd Floor in earnest.
The geography of the 2nd Floor sported large canyons with steep walls that cast long shadows. I was racing through some canyons with the sole purpose of acquiring the «Martial Arts» Extra Skill before anyone from the raid group got wind of it. I supposed this made me one of those "Beaters" too. Wasn't what I was doing right now the very definition of hoarding information to increase my own chances of survival? I chuckled at the thought. As I ran my shadow-aided «Hiding» skill more-or-less ensured I wasn't accosted by monsters and I soon reached my destination after running close to full-pelt. The familiar yellow exclamation mark floated above my target's head and I promptly accepted the quest and the master drew whiskers on my face.
This was the real reason I had come alone. I had spent almost four days during the beta with those Godforsaken whiskers on my face before I shattered that stone. Thankfully the quest was unchanged from the beta -- this time I did it before the sun was fully set courtesy of a ramming Trembling Ox, and before any other player got there to boot. I considered that remarkable. Argo's whiskers where a dead-ringer for the ones drawn on your face during this quest so I naturally assumed she at least knew about the quest. If she knew then it was only a matter of time before that information was disseminated.
And I was right. As I melted into the shadows with my «Hiding» skill I noticed Argo herself leading someone towards the secret entrance.
"Whew, just about beat the train this time. Hope you know what you're getting yourself in for."
Before I resolved to head back and rejoin Arashi and Asuka I spent nearly two hours honing my new skill against the quick-spawning Windwasps near the town of Urbus. RNG must have been smiling on me because my «Martial Arts» hit 52 just before I hit the two-hour mark though the concentration required to continually hit their weak point with my clenched fist and forgo the actual usage of my trusty curved sword took a mental toll. But my mission was successful, I told myself again. Hitting 50 proficiency allowed me to pick up the «Relax Equipment Conditions» mod that would allow me to use the Sword Skills for «Martial Arts» even when I was equipped with my Scimitar +4.
I shot Asuka an instant message and she met me at Urbus' gate just within the safe zone of town. The town was built into a large crater roughly three-hundred meters in diameter with a dusty feel. It certainly rang true to the whole "town in a wasteland" vibe. As soon as Asuka came into my view I waved to her.
"Hey, Kishi! You have fun getting stung?"
She stood with her head tilted to the side. She was obviously inspecting my equipment, and I think I detected concern in that look. My suspicions where confirmed when I sent a party invite to her and she let out a cute squeak sound when she saw my HP. I had dropped below the yellow zone into the red!
My intended what the hell came out as garbled gibberish as she practically force-fed me a healing pot! She was so forceful I half expected the anti-criminal code to kick in. But thankfully no purple barriers sprang up and no pop-up menus offering to whisk her away to the prison on the 1st Floor appeared on my readout. I made an exaggerated hacking sound to simulate choking but all it did was make her look even more concerned.
"Why didn't you heal yourself!?"
"... Ran out."
"Why didn't you come back!?"
"...... Hadn't finished."
Her right eye was twitching and her gathering anger was soon loosed right at me! I half expected it in all honesty, and could have avoided it in truth, but the point of her heel impacted the top of my foot and I leapt about in exaggerated agony, howling all the while. If I where a Tank like Kusaka I'd likely have triggered his «Howl» skill!
"Look, I'm sorry. How about something tasty to make up for it? I know a nice restaurant nearby."
Her brown eyes went distinctly cake-shaped as she told me to lead on; her anger, apparently, dissolved at the mention of something tasty. I'd need to remember to keep a surplus of tasty treats on-hand for the future if she was going to stay around. The restaurant in question was located off the main street and required some serious searching to locate; at least usually, at any rate. Someone like me who'd been here in the beta led us there immediately. There wasn't a single player to be seen with the ambiance and music being provided solely by the resident NPC's.
"Ohhh, everything looks so tasty!"
"This place is Indian-themed if I remember right. I suggest the Ras malai. It's kinda like a cheesecake without a crust."
I covered the cost -- 900 col! -- and allowed the aftereffect to be a surprise and ordered myself some spiced kebabs. I saw a new icon appear beside Asuka's name before she did. The icon appeared to be a small person with bleeding lacerations and a large + sign next to his wounds. Again she tilted her head -- it didn't help her see it, because the buff moved as her head did, so it was probably just a common reaction of hers.
"What's this thingy beside my name?"
"That's a DoT buff." I even put on my stuffy-teacher-voice which, of course, earned me another stomp. I continued as if nothing had happened. "For you it will increase the likelihood that your claws will trigger their special affect. For me it does absolutely nothing. The cake's expensive but the upside is that it lasts an entire day. I think it was designed specifically with those claws in mind 'cause I never found anything with a bleeding DoT like that until the 4th Floor."
"I feel so special."
The sarcasm was laid on thick and I couldn't help but grin in response.
"In the beta I experimented with a few builds and those claws you have, coupled with this buff, was an early favourite of mine for surprise PK's and duelling."
Maybe it was mentioning the beta? Or maybe it was me talking so casually about duelling? But then she already knew I was a beta tester -- I had never hidden that fact, even before Kirito made a clear distinction with his whole "Beater" speech. She'd even taken advantage of my knowledge. Then again it was probably the admission that I was a player-killer in the beta. The moment the word "PK" had left my lips I saw her tense up. Sometimes I forgot that duelling in SAO right now was essentially a death match and PKing was essentially murder.
"Sorry. Didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."
"... It's fine, no need to apologise. But I was wondering..."
She was making little circles in the cheesecake with her fork and obviously looked hesitant. Arashi and I had only been partying up with her for a short time but we'd already told her that if she needed help with anything in particular she was just to ask us. It seemed she wasn't completely at home with the idea just yet. Or was it something else? Rather than force the issue I started chewing into the meaty kebabs I had ordered for myself.
"... Could you help me enhance my claws?" Why she was getting so fidgety about material farming was beyond me so I had to ask. "I'm allergic to bee stings in the real world, all right!? Now are you going to help me get my materials or not!?"
I wanted to point out that her virtual body wasn't but my foot would never forgive me so I ended up saying nothing. If I had a «Self Preservation» skill it would likely have seen a proficiency increase just now.
Once I fixed up my battered gear and restocked my healing potions I joined her. At this rate they could exchange my old Reaper title with Wasp Bane.