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This article, SAOK: The Business of Grinding, is property of Kenji-Taichō. Permission is required to alter its content.

This article, SAOK: The Business of Grinding, is the fourth chapter of Sword Art Online (Kenji). It featured various members of what would become «Brightscale».


You can go right ahead and add me kicking Kayaba Akihiko firmly in the fork of the legs before I throw him out a window! I was pretty annoyed, and in more ways than one, this morning, and every single thread linking to my anger could trace itself back to Kayaba bloody Akihiko! It was the morning of December 7th 2022 and according to my display it was 05:55. My alarm bell was due in exactly 5 minutes, but I cancelled it. I’d spent almost the entire night awake anyway.

Seething anger tended to have that effect. It was also one helluva wake up pill.

I was also incredibly uncomfortable but that was secondary. Besides, you’d soon find out why.

My displeasure this morning was attributable to the two young twins’ who had latched onto me yesterday and refused to let go. Okay, that wasn’t fair. I wasn’t angry at the girls -- I was angry with Loki and secondly with Kayaba, not the girls. They were just the catalyst that loosed the lid on my anger. Arashi was the man who usually harboured violent thoughts and acted on them; he was a cage fighter, after all. It kind of came with the territory. In comparison, I was considered the ‘big brother’ of the group -- everyone got along with me, and I was often said to be the soul of the party. Me flying off the handle and acting like Arashi was far from my usual mentality.

Yet here I lay seriously considering the murder of another person. And do you really want to know something? I was serious. What really frightened me though is that it didn’t seem wrong to me.

Let’s backtrack a little though to give some context.

As I promised, I took the girls through the labyrinth with me to the 2d Floor of Aincrad, where they were introduced to my friends. The reactions to my intent to essentially take in two kids not even yet into their teenage years had gone exactly as I had envisioned. As expected, Arashi had almost blown a gasket, but thankfully Asuka was on-hand to shut him up. She did so quickly as well that it was actually kind of frightening! Arashi’s cousin, Jiro, who appeared to be far quieter and altogether more amicable than Arashi, didn’t appear to have an opinion either way. Jiro’s friend, who preferred the shortened name of Shiro, likewise wasn’t bothered by their presence; Arashi, beaten by the majority, had kept his peace since then, but had sulked like a child for the remainder of the evening. It certainly added a new dimension to the celebrations. Thing was, I had kind of gate-crashed a party. You see, after I got the girls introduced around the team and settled in, I realized that the team had arranged something of a celebratory drink to mark the occasion of Arashi and Jiro reuniting. This, of course, had started before I got there. It was all very nice; stories were traded and jokes told, people got to know one another, and the twins gave a few renditions of their favourite Disney songs when the subject of no entertainment came up.

It was all very weird. Never before had I thought Aincrad a suitable location for anyone to belt out Frozen’s “Let it Go!” or Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go” but the girls absolutely killed it!

My trouble and another reason for my sour mood, came after we decided to call it a night and hit our beds. The twins’ refused to be left alone! Asuka offered to let them sleep in her room, bless her, but they wouldn’t stay with anyone other than me. Even Shiro, whom I was convinced had kids of his own based on how well he could communicate with them, failed to sway their minds towards staying with Asuka. Arashi and Jiro had nothing further to add, Arashi calling them “my problem”, and the cousins had promptly retired with no further word on the subject. Our rooms had already been rented so my luxurious double bed with the firm mattress was occupied by the twins whilst poor me was laid out on the bedroll I kept in my inventory.

Hence, my discomfort. I was sleeping on a blasted brick!

I could have handled that though. One of the highlights of the virtual world was that one’s back and joints were generally unaffected by sleeping rough. In the real world I’d have been crippled without my orthopaedic mattress! Here I could sleep on a clothesline and not be the least bit affected. The part that really bugged me though -- and I mean left me so livid that I’d spend the whole night awake seriously contemplating murder -- was when the girls asked me to sleep by the door to the room.

“So he can’t get to us,” the light-haired Elise had said to me.

Blood and ashes! In what world was that a normal statement for a 12-year-old?

When it hit 06:00 the girls, roused by their respective alarms, began to wake. I pushed my anger aside and adopted what I hoped was an expression that showed a well-rested person, and not someone who’d spent the entire night nursing dark thoughts and murderous intent. As I lacked a mirror -- there was one buried deep in my inventory somewhere I knew -- I couldn’t tell if I succeeded or not. Before they fully woke I switched out my pyjamas, which I had to admit was some stripped monstrosity even my grandfather wouldn’t have been caught dead in, and donned my usual padded leather outfit with protective studs. Thanks to the convenience of equipment manifestation in SAO the entire procedure was completed in less than five seconds. The blackened sheath of my trusty «Scimitar» hung lightly from my waist.

“Good morning,” I greeted.

“G’morning’,” came their sleepy reply.

I suppressed a chuckle. Sheila was all but hidden under a mop of black-coloured bed-head, the only indication she was awake being the hand that rubbed at her dark-brown eyes. Elise, meanwhile, managed to look at least somewhat dignified. She was up and alert, hair combed to neatness, in under a minute.

“You lost in there, Sheila?” I asked, a smile on my face.

Her no doubt scathing reply was effectively muffled by the combination of hair and bed sheets.

We were the first to arrive at the breakfast table though Asuka followed only moments later.

“Morning,” she greeted. “You… don’t look like you slept at all.”

It wasn’t a question. Thankfully the twins were so absorbed in their ordering that they barely paid us any attention.

“That bad, eh?” I asked, shrugging. “Yeah, well, let’s just say my thoughts weren’t very conducive to pleasant dreams.”

“... I can imagine.” She ordered without missing a beat and continued right where she had left off. “What are you going to do?”

“That depends on Loki and whether he heeds my threat. If he stays away, all well and good. If he doesn’t… well, I suppose I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”

I seriously hoped he stayed away. I had spent a great deal of time last night doing some soul-searching and the results scared the absolute hell out of me. Because apparently I was the kind of person who could contemplate murder and find the entire scenario perfectly justified.

“Shall we change the subject before we spoil our appetites?” Asuka asked me. “Speaking of, your breakfast is here.”

I hadn’t even seen the NPC deliver it. I also hadn’t noticed that Asuka had ordered for me as well.

“Thanks,”

The morning flew by. Arashi and I hashed out exactly what our plans were going forward now that we had the young Elise and Sheila amongst our ranks, whilst Jiro and Shiro conversed with Asuka and the twins. You see, we couldn’t just leap into the front-line areas and start knocking out quests and farming hunting zones. Arashi and I were still leaps and bounds ahead of the others in terms of level and equipment. With that in mind we decided that Arashi would take Asuka, Jiro and Shiro and head to the labyrinth on the 1st Floor for intensive farming. Whilst he did that I’d be running mostly fetch quests with the twins here on the 2nd Floor with the goal of increasing them from level 4 to level 6 in order to open up their third skill slot. Thankfully they were already quite close to level 5 courtesy of my bandit farming yesterday.

But before we started that I stopped Shiro before he left with the others.

“Hold up, Shiro.”

“What’s up?”

“You’ve either been really unlucky with gear drops or you’ve got a sentimental attachment to your equipment.”

I hoped I wasn’t coming across as a know it all but the truth was that Shiro’s current equipment load out was bare bones at best, and the way he slowly nodded his head told me I had hit the nail on the head. He was a sword and shield Tank and while his equipment did convey that fact he wore «Medium Metal Armour» I knew came from the more expensive markets in the Town of Beginnings. At present, he wore simple «Bronze Armour» with a bulky metallic protective pauldron on the off-hand to maximize defensive coverage when equipped with a shield. His trousers were padded leather with the legs disappearing into a pair of bronze greaves and his gloves were lightweight leather with only a small bronze overlay on the backhand and wrist. Hanging from his belt was a «Small Sword» buffed to its max at +1 because it shone with a dim light.

“I doubt its sentimental.” I continued.

He chuckled.

“Bad drops,” he answered. “I figured my luck would turn eventually but RNGesus hasn’t been kind.”

“RN who?” Asuka, grinning, asked me.

Teacher me answered before realizing the trap.

“It’s a portmanteau of random number generator and Jesus. Remember your claws? People have been known to ‘pray to RNGesus’ whenever they need a really rare drop. RNG is a game system that controls chance-based-”

“Thanks, teach!”

It was only at that point that I realized she knew what the term meant from the start. Once again I found myself falling victim to her particular brand of deviousness but I wasn’t worried on that front. Her question, my answer, and her subsequent quip had got the group laughing. She really was good at reading the room. That said, I would get her back later.

I returned my attention to Shiro and opened up my menu interface and then selected the «Trade» function.

“This might help.”

The words weren’t out of my mouth more than two or three seconds before Arashi was repeating the same thing on his end. In mere moments Shiro’s face did a complete turnabout! In the couple of seconds it took to doff his old gear and equip the stuff we had just given him we all spied the man beneath the armour. He was ripped! The man was taller than I was, with a body even I was ogling, and he sported strikingly coloured long red hair tied up in a tight braid. He either had a really physical job in real life or spent almost all his time in the gym because I was fairly sure I had just seen the physique of an Olympic athlete. The only member of our current party who even came close to rivalling Shiro’s physique was Arashi, and I was pretty sure I just saw the flame of rivalry begin to burn in Arashi’s grey eyes.

Asuka’s appreciative whistle indicated that she certainly appreciated the brief glimpse.

“I’m a carpenter who eats right.” Shiro answered, as if this reply was rehearsed, his cheeks colouring slightly. “Also happily married.” The last he said to Asuka before his face relaxed into a smile. “Sorry!”

“You can be eye candy and still be married, right?”

In place of his old gear Shiro now wore Arashi’s old tin soldier getup in the form of his old «Iron Armour» and, like Arashi, he had opted against a helmet. Instead, he favoured a non-protective cloth bandanna with golden tribal designs against black cloth. Instead of being «Medium Metal Armour» his new suit was «Heavy Metal Armour» and I was fairly confident that he had now just switched his Skills to highlight the change.

“This is awesome, thank you.” He said.

“You haven’t looked at what I gave you yet.” I pointed out.

“Oh, sorry! It got buried under Arashi’s gifts.”

His eyes nearly popped out of his skull! Shiro’s old weapon had been the starting equipment of almost every player in the game; the sole difference being that he had managed to successfully enhance his, which went a small way to increasing its lifespan. But the fact remained that it sucked. No two ways about it. What I just gave him was infinitely superior in every way imaginable.

“It’s an «Anneal Blade»…! Kishi, this thing sells for an absolute fortune right now! Are you sure you just want to give me this?”

“Consider it my welcoming gift.” I answered, all the while shaking the big man’s offered hand. “Besides, I’ve already been paid for it.”

The currency, however, hadn’t been paid in cor. Only the twins knew where I had actually got the «Anneal Blade» from and their smile was both knowing and thankful at the same time. I had no way of knowing at present though just how much those girls would help our cause in this game. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Looks good,” Jiro interjected.

Up until now he had been talking quietly with Arashi. That was his way however. Arashi had told me a little about his cousin: he was a programmer, an only child, and something of a recluse. In fact, his only real friend was Shiro. The guy couldn’t look any different from Arashi despite their familial relationship. Arashi’s hair was as black as the ace of spades, Jiro’s was as blonde as a Barbie doll, and they couldn’t be more different in terms of physicality or personality even if you had personally randomized everything about them. As already said Arashi was built similarly to Shiro and had something of a temper. Jiro, meanwhile, was slight of build with thin arms and long limbs, and the only way I could describe his personality was subdued.

I hoped that changed in the coming weeks.

Equipment wise he was a damage-dealer like myself. The difference was player build: I was a Strength and Agility mix who leaned more on Strength. Jiro focused on Strength and Accuracy which, considering his weapon was a two-handed spear with tremendous piercing power and heightened chance to land critical hits, made sense. His gear was likewise different from mine with a very different stat distribution. I favoured mobility as you already knew with minimal protection outside key areas. Jiro, meanwhile, wore «Light Metal Armour». His cuirass, greaves, gloves and hips all sported lightweight armour that reflected the morning sun.

“We’re wasting daylight.”

It was a very Arashi-like statement and served to realign our shifting focus.

“And you’re right!” I followed up. “Elise, Sheila, you’re with me today. Everyone else goes with Arashi and all I can say is good luck.”

“Kill me now,” Asuka pleaded as she walked out the door with Jiro and Shiro.

Before Arashi could leave however I stopped him short.

“What’s up with your face?”

He gave me a rare smile.

“Someone who shall remain nameless threatened to ‘scratch my face off’, so I made it look like she did.”

Arashi wore several tattoos on his face that hadn’t been there when Asuka and I cleared quests in Urbus on the 5th of December. The first comprised a set of three scars straight over his right eye that continued down his cheek, the second comprised a "69" on his left cheek, whilst the third consisted of a blue-stripe tattoo that ran across his left cheek and over the bridge of his nose. All in all my musings about a scarred Arashi proved true: the guy was absolutely frightening to look at!

“Have fun.”

I had no need to invite the twins to my party; they had been a mainstay ever since I came to their aid against Loki yesterday. No, bad Kenji. Stop thinking about Loki. There was no need to sour my mood all over again.

“Where are we going today!?” Elise asked, with all her usual energy restored. “I love sight-seeing!”

“... Elise, stop smothering him.” Sheila added.

My smile was genuine.

“Questing and farming with a sprinkle of sight-seeing? I suppose I could manage that. Shall we?”

Before going anywhere however I made a point of investing in the twins combat ability. «Throwing Picks» were throwing weapons that provided a player with ranged options, though the damage they caused was low even amongst general non-Sword Skill attacks. Still, the damage they did cause contributed to the experience points gained when a mob died, and this was exactly why I was buying them. For armour, I outfitted them in lightweight leather tunics with metallic breast plates, studded leather skirts, cloth leggings, fur-lined gloves and boots, and ridiculous looking leather caps. There were some complaints about how awful it looked -- and they weren’t wrong -- but I put my foot down on this topic and soon my goal of levelling them began in earnest.

“Say, Kishi,” Sheila began to ask, “do you know if there are any-”

“Yup, I know where there’s a sweet shop.”

“Told you he’d know!” Elise chimed in.

Maybe I was clairvoyant? Or maybe Asuka’s suggestion of taking them to a sweet shop had tipped me off? I wasn’t telling. Couldn’t lose my mystique factor.

And that was pretty much how my day went from there. I ran from pillar to post, from marketplace to some NPC house on quest-related business, from house loft to tavern cellar, and from the top of bleeding Aincrad to the bottom of it! Okay, that last part may have been an exaggeration, but I think you get the picture. I covered a helluva lot of ground today. And the two kids who had attached themselves to me weren’t even the tiniest bit tired! Like, at all. The sun was beginning to set, my yawns were coming thick and fast, and still these twins were running about the place like something half demented! It didn’t half make me feel older than my actual age of 26 suggested.

But our mission was wholly successful: they were both level 6.

“Let’s head back.” I suggested. “I need a nap.”

My journey back was filled with heckles from the twins calling me an old man. When I reacted with over-the-top anger and chased them through the streets of Urbus they ran from me with playful laughter, all the while hurling what I hoped was apples at me. One exploded against my forehead, soaking me in juices, and this of course made them laugh even louder! By the time we spilled in the front door of our inn Arashi’s levelling party had already returned and all their eyes fell on the scene of two twins skidding lithely around the door frame and ducking behind a table, whilst I barrelled through the front door like a battering ram only to collide heavily with the staircase!

It wasn’t stars that circled around my head but rather the highlights of the purple barrier that sprang up whenever an indestructible object was hit with sufficient force.

“Owwwww!”

It was Asuka who hauled me to my feet.

“Having fun?”

“Whale of a time!” I answered, obviously dazed. “Is it possible to be concussed in SAO? ‘Cause I think I am.”

She left me and returned to the table were the twins now stood.

“Have fun today?”

“Yup! Kishi took us all over Urbus!” Elise answered. “Look at all the material I got!”

Alarm bells began going off in my head but rather than warn my friends I ducked beneath the counter tucked into the stairways side. I ignored the pestering of the NPC clerk who, after several seconds without an answer, rolled her eyes and went back to her designed routine. Elise, you see, manoeuvred to the «Materialize All» function buried in the player’s inventory menu and within seconds there wasn’t a man, woman or child who wasn’t covered from head-to-toe in an avalanche of animal skins, monster parts, pieces of clothing, something that smells vaguely of fish, and small pastries! Well, there was one person unaffected, and I was pretty sure the NPC clerk was looking at me with hatred numerous degrees of magnitude higher than before.

“Oops,” Elise sounded.

“Glad that wasn’t my inventory.” Sheila quipped.

The prevailing sound was laughter, but I was pretty sure a volcano was about to erupt, and its name was Arashi.

“GET THIS SHIT OFF OF ME!!”

By the time we got Arashi calmed down and everything back where it belonged in Elise’s inventory, the girls were fast asleep at the table. Shiro and I ferried them to my bedroom and set them gently on the bed. It looked likely the floor was again going to be my mattress tonight.

“You look like you had a good time today.”

It was Asuka.

“I actually did.”

She patted me affectionately on the chest, called me a big softie, and finally wished me goodnight. I returned the sentiment before settling down to sleep on my bedroll. All things considered the day had been a massive success. Everyone in Arashi's party had gained a level; Jiro was now Level 10, Shiro was also Level 10, Asuka was now Level 9, and Arashi himself had jumped to Level 13. I was unchanged at Level 14 whilst the twins were sitting sweet at Level 6.

Very nice.

End.
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