This article, SAOK: Roving Rovia, is the eighth chapter of Sword Art Online (Kenji).
It was December 24th, otherwise known as Christmas Eve, yet I wasn’t really feeling the festivities this year. Why, you ask? Well, how many people in a world of trillions could say that they were trapped in a virtual game that fried your brain with microwaves if your avatar died in-game? I knew the answer of course, considering I was one of those 10,000 unfortunate souls. Okay, I admit that I was feeling a little low today, so you would have to forgive me.
I guess what was really eating me was simple: I missed my family.
“You’re being very quiet.” Asuka noted. “It’s not like you.”
Her eyes were alight with concern and her brow was furrowed as her incisive gaze regarded me. The smile I gave her slipped from my face quickly, to be followed by a heavy sigh, and I shrugged my shoulders.
“I’m just not feeling-”
We didn’t have time to talk at length regarding my mood however because we soon found ourselves under attack by brigands! They were the typical early offerings common to the RPG genre: large burly axe-wielders and small lithe dagger-users, with an occasional brigand with higher stats and better equipment thrown into the mix. Our current party consisted of Shiro, Asuka and myself. The twins were still partied up with us, but they weren’t here; they had stayed behind in the Dark Elf camp, where they were apparently resolving fetch-quests that only appeared for players with crafting Skills slotted. As such, Shiro was our primary Tank; it was the sound of an axe slamming against the embossed bull of his shield that had alerted me to the attack.
My eyes shone green, indicating I had just activated my «Searching» Skill. I saw two targets clearly outlined in red despite the darkness of the dungeon.
“There’s another behind him!” I called to Shiro.
I cut in smoothly and buried the blade of my «Scimitar» into the axe-wielders gut. This knocked off a sizeable chunk of his HP gauge and, when the piercing damage that resulted from a weapon remaining embedded in his body was taken into account, his overall HP fell below the halfway point before I pulled it free. With my attack resolved Shiro readied his own attack. His shield glowed brightly as he backhanded the axe-wielder with his shield! «Shield Bash» didn’t outright deplete his HP but what it did do was launch the axe-wielder into his comrade courtesy of its «Knockback» trait. The two bandits tumbled to the floor, suffering the «Tumble» status for their trouble, and Asuka used the opportunity to swiftly land several standard blows with her claws, which had the effect of causing the «Bleeding» debuff. The two bandits were subsequently dispatched by me using my area-of-effect «Fell Crescent» Sword Skill.
“Sorry… I’m just not focusing today.” I admitted.
“We all have days like that.” Shiro answered. “Didn’t you say earlier that there’s a safe zone in this dungeon?”
“Yeah, there’s a branching path around the next corner. Left will take us deeper; right will take us to the safe zone.”
“Right it is then!”
The dungeon in question was located on the 3rd Floor. It was a forest cave -- in fact, most dungeons on the 3rd Floor were caves hidden away deep within the sea of trees that was the «Forest of Wavering Mists». It was just a matter of whether the dungeons themselves were public or instanced. This was one of the instanced dungeons, albeit on the smaller size. The walls were lined in solid rock, the passageways were thin and cramped, and there was very little light. Moss grew on the stone walls and various mushrooms grew at regular intervals. These Asuka picked and pocketed; for Elise, she said. Our guild storage was becoming a dumping ground of ores, various monster hides and parts, and material items like those mushrooms. The twins were going to have a field day.
Aside from a few small torches set up at seemingly random intervals the entire place was devoid of light. The night vision trait of my «Searching» Skill had been our guiding light so to speak, but I’d been more than a little distracted today.
For the last two days we had been running through the various quests attached to the «Elf War» campaign quest, and we were at present midway through the tenth and final segment of the campaign on the 3rd Floor. This consisted of us retrieving the stolen «Jade Key» from a group of brigands. We hadn’t encountered the true thieves yet -- the thieves we had encountered thus far were human brigands who happened to be here based on the opportunity of the moment, rather than any loyalty to the real threat in these caves. You see, the real culprits happened to be the Fallen Elves, but I hadn’t spoiled this for my companions. Best to let them experience as much of the quest lore as possible themselves. Who said you couldn’t enjoy the story just because Sword Art Online was suddenly a death game?
The safe-zone was exactly what it implied: a safe area in a dungeon where no monster could enter, where the anti-criminal code that was usually in effect in towns and villages reigned supreme. Nothing short of a duel PK could harm us here. It was illuminated by a large crystal formation set against the far wall that shed a welcome light.
My eyes lost their characteristic green glow and I slumped to the floor with my legs crossed beneath me.
“What’s bugging you?” Asuka asked, her warm eyes retaining their earlier concern, albeit intensified. “You’ve been staring into space all day. It’s only when we fight something that you come back to us.”
“We won’t go blabbing, you know. Promise.”
At that moment Shiro sounded to my ears very much like a parent trying to coax their child into telling them what was wrong with them. I couldn’t help but smile.
There was no harm in telling them. In fact, it might even make me feel better.
“... This’ll be the first Christmas I’ve been away from my nieces, that’s all.”
“I can sympathize.” Shiro answered, the emotion obvious in the big man’s voice. His lip actually trembled. “As you guys already know, I have two girls myself. I haven’t missed a birthday or Christmas since they were born. Before Kayaba, that is.”
“I’ve got two cats!” Asuka interjected.
There was no explanation for why we found that funny but all three of us were laughing.
I hadn’t spoken much about my personal life outside Sword Art Online. There was an air of taboo regarding the whole subject; the player-base kept certain things to themselves, such as their real names, professions, and their family situation. When the subject was broached people’s mouths tended to shut up as tightly as a clam with lockjaw! Some players even got angry when the subject was raised. Truth be told I didn’t see the harm in it. All my teammates knew I was a professional gamer, for example, but I suppose only Arashi -- and possibly Sojiro -- knew about my extended family. I had a sister called Kireina who had two young girls: Kiri and Kay, who happened to be twins. She had gone through something of a rough patch because her partner, whose nose and legs I personally broke, had fudged up their finances and put everything in my sister’s name. Gambling debts, mostly. Bad investments secondly. Of course, when things went tits up she was saddled with the debt. Kireina had to sell her home to wipe out his debts and had only avoided the street because my flat had two spare rooms. She had got her life back together rather quickly with a small flat of her own not far from me, thankfully, but I’d grown very close to my nieces during that uncertain time.
Kireina had spent Christmas at my house, or me at hers, ever since.
But we’d languished here on my account long enough. Shiro went off towards the mouth of the safe-zone and I returned to my feet, though Asuka did not move from my side. She took my hand in hers and squeezed before resting her head on my chest.
“Look, you’ve been a sounding board for me before, right? I’ll admit that this whole thing with Sword Art Online jarred me quite a bit: you helped me deal with it, Kishi. So if you ever need to talk, just say the word.”
And there was the silver lining of my entrapment: Asuka.
She then nudged me in the ribs.
“I didn’t know you were an uncle.”
The smile I gave her was genuine; probably my first genuine smile all day, because I recognized the teasing tone in that statement.
“I suppose that explains why you’re so good with Elise and Sheila, and why there’s a little grey through the black. Don’t worry! I think it makes you look distinguished. What age are they?”
“... Nine years old. The twins remind me of Kiri and Kay. When I saw Loki hurt them, something in me just snapped.” I had to wipe the tears from my eyes. “God, I miss them. More than I ever thought I would.”
“We’ll get you back there.” Shiro interjected.
“Count on it!” Asuka added, her hand on my arm supportively.
“You two ready to put those Skills of yours to the test though?” Shiro asked. “The path leading deeper is pretty dark; in fact, I’m fairly sure the only hole I know of that would be darker is the black one in Calcutta.”
“Lovely. Let me activate my-” I stopped mid-sentence. Yeah, it took me that long to realize what Asuka had said to me. “The hell you mean distinguished!? I’m only 26!”
We quickly returned to the task at hand with me guiding Shiro, who was on-point, with my «Searching» Skill. My vision was rendered in various shades and hues of green but this was an acceptable trade-off considering it provided me with functioning night-vision. Good thing it did too: Shiro hadn’t been joking when he said that the path leading deeper was dark. There wasn’t a single torch to be seen nor a crystal offering handy illumination, at least until I sparked the ignition of a torch of my own. Thankfully, my torch wasn’t considered a weapon, even if it did take up my off-hand weapon slot. That said, I manoeuvred to the «Quick Change» modification settings and configured it so that I could instantly switch to my spare «Pale Edge» in the event I was disarmed. Good to be thorough.
“Look, I know I said I wouldn’t spoil things, so I’ll keep things brief.” I said. “The enemies ahead employ Paralysis effects of Level 1. Be careful you don’t get nicked.”
“Roger,” Shiro answered.
“Oh, yay. More paralysis.” Asuka huffed.
Our encounters were becoming more frequent as we descended deeper. Our opponents finally revealed themselves for what they were: Fallen Elves, with Paralysis inflicting weaponry. Not that this bothered us much. Asuka blended into the shadows with the «Hiding» buff granted by her «Exiles Threads» and «Exiles Cloak» and this allowed her to launch debilitating surprise attacks. It didn’t matter if it was two, three, or even four opponents; Asuka «Sprinted» amongst them, attacking all-the-while with basic attacks from her claws, before retreating just as quickly. The moment she was clear Shiro attracted their attention with «Howl» and interposed himself between us and our opposition. I singled out one of the Fallen, who happened to be a curved-sword user like myself, and exchanged a few attacks with him. In the midst of our battle he leapt back and then quickly barrelled forward with «Reaver». I caught the horizontal stroke on the flat edge of my «Scimitar» and managed to divert his blade into the floor before jabbing at him with the torch in my off-hand. Mid-attack however I deftly dropped the torch and flicked the icon for «Quick Change» using only the index finger of my right-hand. Instantly my «Pale Edge» materialized in my off-hand and seconds later the Fallen Elf found himself with a blade lodged firmly in his shoulder! I could have relinquished my grip on the second sword to allow for a Sword Skill from my «Scimitar» but his HP was low enough that a «Martial Arts» Sword Skill would do the trick.
He burst into polygons and I took the opportunity to survey the flow of battle.
Shiro and Asuka were finishing up the other three. I weighed in on the battle the moment my delay was resolved and in quick order we were alone in the darkness once more. With that accomplished I took the opportunity to stow my «Pale Edge» once more in my inventory.
“So, the Fallen.” Shiro observed. “Not like I didn’t see that one coming.”
His tone was dripping with sarcasm.
“Have we much farther to go?” Asuka asked.
“Nope! Since we’re at the end and you’ve seen the Fallen for yourselves, there’s no harm in telling you. The Fallen have contracted various human rogues and mercenaries to steal the «Jade Key». One of their commanders is down here. Very nice loot.”
Asuka’s eyes practically sparkled.
“You’re obsessed with treasure, aren’t you?” Shiro asked her.
“I am not!!”
“Says Mrs. «Thieves Tools».” I pointed out.
This, of course, got me a thump in the ribs.
Asuka and Shiro were Level 14. I was Level 15. Airi’s Skills included «Trap Dismantling» and «Picking». These two Skills together produced a «Composite Effect» that Asuka had dubbed «Thieves Tools». Sword Art Online was a game supposedly with hundreds of Skills; some were hidden, some had conditions set on their availability. Others still weren’t documented by the system and could only be discovered by players who had slotted several complementary Skills. This was the «Composite Effect». Airi’s «Thieves Tools» gave greater trap detection and lock picking abilities superior to, and buffed by, the two Skills comprising it. It made chest scrounging all the more profitable.
“Hey, we’re here.”
We hadn’t tripped the commander’s aggro yet, so we stopped and crouched down in the darkness. His room at the bottom of the dungeon was well illuminated by several torches. There was a makeshift desk towards the back of the room and a small seating area to our left. Weapon racks lined the far wall and I spied at least three rows of three-tier bunk beds to our right. Judging by what we saw there were only two guards in addition to the commander himself, but given the amount of bunk beds here there could very easily be upwards of another seven roaming the dungeon whom we had luckily missed.
I didn’t trust that the two we seen though were all that was lurking about and my glowing green eyes were once again called upon.
“There’s two under the «Hiding» status. There are two small cuts in the rock on the left and right sides, off from the central table towards the back. Near the weapon racks.”
Shiro followed my pointing finger and nodded. He couldn’t see them himself as he lacked the «Searching» Skill, so instead I tagged them on my displays mini-map and set it to party-wide view. Asuka and he nodded to confirm that the red dots appeared.
“Anything else?” He asked.
“Yeah, two things. Firstly, how many bunks do you count?”
Asuka scanned the area quickly and provided the answer: 9.
“I count three visible elves and two hidden, so we’re four elves short.”
“Reinforcements?” Shiro asked.
“We can’t discount it.”
“What was the second thing?” Asuka asked.
“This is different from the beta. See the sword at the commander’s waist?”
It was Asuka who noticed it first.
“The oily residue, right?” She asked.
“Yup. He wielded a basic one-handed sword back in the beta. That weapon he has now is a curved-sword; I know because I owned one.”
The weapon in question was wickedly sharp and was of the same curved category of weapons that I preferred to wield. The hilt was notched to prevent slipping, the guard was a delicate circle, and the blade was thin. Saying it hadn’t been in the beta wasn’t strictly accurate however; the weapon existed -- I had wielded one for a time -- it just didn’t belong to the «Fallen Elf Commander» belonging to the 3rd Floor «Elf War» quests. If I remembered my time in the beta correctly then that sword was called «Shmargor’s Crescent». It sported the same Paralysis Level 2 that Jiro’s «Crimson Tide» had and additionally increased one’s Agility by 4 and one’s Strength by 2.
Overall, it was a very nice sword. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many PK’s I had committed with it in the beta.
But we had strategizing to do now that all the facts had been presented.
“I’ll grab the attention of the three who are visible. I’ll keep their attention on me while you two deal with the two hidden. Sound like a plan?”
It was a sound strategy especially when you considered that Shiro was the only one amongst our guild who could potentially resist the effect of the commander’s sword. He also had a few slowing attacks and movement restriction effects to slow a group down.
“Agreed.” I answered.
“On three?” Asuka provided.
We took a collective inhale of air.
On three Shiro walked from concealment. His loud «Howl» echoed off the walls and pulled everything’s hate! Five red cursors approached him, though Shiro would see only three, and Asuka and I took the opportunity to blend into the shadows; my «Hiding» Skill and her «Hiding» buff essentially serving the exact same function. The commander vaulted over the table, drew his sword with a wicked hiss, and fell on Shiro with a fury more akin to a rabid beast than a humanoid warrior! He was shouting something about foolish human warriors, but Shiro’s legs held firm under the assault and his shield remained steady. Shiro managed to keep three of the five in front of him without letting them slip around to his back or sides, which I had to admit was impressive. Before he could be overwhelmed by the two hidden elves Asuka and I sprang our own surprise attack! My usual habit of chaining Sword Skills killed my target outright. Asuka pulled hate on her target and allowed the DoT ticks to do the majority of her damage and instead dragged him over to me. My delay resolved in a timely fashion and I caught the attack aimed at her using «Shunt» and followed up with «Water Moon» before my delay could kick in. Stunned and reeling from my combination the elf went down quickly to Asuka’s five-hit «Flurry of Blows»!
“Nicely done, Asuka.”
“Thanks! What about Shiro?”
Shiro was doing just fine. His HP was sitting around 90%. Considering he was facing a dungeon boss and two of his guards, I think he was golden. Rather than remain on the defensive however he struck out with «Serration Wave». This was an area attack capable of hitting numerous targets and, given the circumstances, it was probably the best option available to him. Whilst a Sword Skill this particular one was similar to a standard attack -- it did next to no damage, but it did impede an opponent’s movement. Given that Shiro was trying to keep three opponents in front of him so that they couldn’t outflank him, it was a brilliant tactical move. By the time their movement returned to normal Asuka and I were crashing into the guard’s rear line! I held back on launching any Sword Skills however and waited on Asuka drawing the second guard closer to me. Once she did, I told her to get clear as I fired off my «Fell Crescent».
I killed one guard outright and knocked a significant portion off the other’s HP gauge.
“Leave that one to Shiro!” I called.
Asuka had been about to finish off the guard but instead raked her claws against the commander’s back as an alternative. It took two further swipes to inflict the usual «Bleeding» status inherent to her weapons but once she accomplished her common tactic she fell back to a safer distance. As this occurred Shiro backhanded the commander with «Shield Bash»! The commander tumbled into his guard and knocked the latter prone. It was only at that point Asuka let rip with a timely «Acute Vault». Although it was usually a one-target attack, if the targets were tightly grouped, then the subsequent attack could quite easily hit more. This is what happened, thankfully, and the guard dispersed into polygons.
“You hear that!?” Shiro called to me.
It was hard not to hear: shouting voices and pounding feet. The cave did a good job of enhancing such sounds so it was clearly audible even over the sound of battle. Thankfully, we weren’t taken by surprise. We had expected as much.
“Yeah! Asuka, we’ve got reinforcements!”
I was about to call a change of plans but Shiro flicked his head in the direction of the passageway.
“I’ve got the commander! You and Asuka keep those reinforcements occupied!”
“... On it! Asuka, stay behind me!”
Shiro really impressed me though. Given my experiences in this game I was convinced that there should be a picture of the guy beside the term “dependable” in the dictionary. He was a very different kind of Tank than Arashi, who I have to admit I was used to working with and may be somewhat biased against. We still hadn’t our teamwork down completely, otherwise we wouldn’t be shouting so many suggestions to one another in the heat of battle, but we were getting better. Shiro was an absolute rock. Neither myself nor Asuka had suffered so much as a single point of damage since we entered this dungeon and whilst he had suffered some himself, Shiro was using delaying actions and slowing effects even as he fought to ensure that the healing-over-time effect of the healing potions currently available to us could serve a benefit in the midst of battle. I had to marvel at the guy’s skill. Damn, did we luck out.
He was the difference. I’d have to make a point of telling him as much when we returned to our base on the 4th Floor.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The passageway was narrow enough to allow only two people to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. As such, there were two fallen elves approaching me and two hanging further back. Instead of meeting them head-on with Sword Skills, however, I deliberately materialized my «Pale Edge» and began to dual-wield. I wasn’t going to do much damage -- my goal was to keep the pair in front occupied whilst Asuka whittled their HP down. Thankfully, I was ahead of the Level curve for this particular Floor, and my Strength stat was sufficient to the task of parrying their strikes without the need for Sword Skills. Due to this I was able to keep them focused on me whilst Asuka did her thing. It was only after both had been inflicted with a «Bleeding» debuff that I struck out with a «Martial Arts» Sword Skill.
By the time Asuka and I were finishing up our guards, Shiro was finishing up with the boss.
We talked about the loot that was randomly split between us on our trip back to the Dark Elf camp.
“I got his sword and a pair of boots that muffle the sound of your footsteps.” I revealed.
Shiro didn’t speak so much as model. Or, well, attempt to model, I suppose.
He materialized a long sandy-coloured cloak that extended to knee-length whilst removing his horned helmet in favour of a white bandanna. I knew what this item was because I had seen it in the beta: «Swordsman Long Cape». It was a mostly cosmetic item but it did have one special attribute. It boosted the Skill proficiency gain of the one-handed sword Skill. He did a little twirl to show off his new acquisition.
“You are no Ryne,” Asuka remarked.
“Yeah, I don’t have the ass for modelling.”
“So glad we didn’t burst your career aspirations.”
“What about you Asuka? What did you get?”
“I’ve been reading the description and If I’m right, then I’ll probably never take it off. Here, look.”
She turned her menu to visible and stood between Shiro and me, so we could easily read the information. I saw what confused her immediately. The item in question was one I wasn’t familiar with. Identified as a «Sheath Knife Belt» this particular belt allowed one to equip and throw upwards of three «Throwing Picks» without the wearer being burdened by an «Irregular Equipped» state. The sheaths could easily be restocked.
“Basically, if you had the «Throwing Blade» Skill, you could use those Sword Skills without being classified as dual-wielding. It’s very nice.”
“Agreed.” Shiro continued. “Even without the Skill you could simply throw the picks into a large target and let the piercing damage tick away. It actually compliments your build well.”
We picked up the twins in the Dark Elf camp but opted instead to return to town rather than resolve the quest immediately. It was Christmas Eve! It was time to party.
“I’m going straight to a bath.” Asuka said with a hearty sigh.
“You’ll find me at the pub. Even if the drink can’t get us drunk, I need to unwind.”
“Think I’ll join you.” I answered.
“Oh, that reminds me! There’s a party being held in Rovia. The invite was open to everyone.”
“Guess it’s time to rove all over Rovia, eh?”
No one -- not even the twins -- laughed at my absolutely killer joke.