"... Goddamn alarm...!"
It was exactly 5:55 in the morning on December 7th, 2022, and once again I was not in a festive mood. The one thing I did not want to do was get out of my bed. Or to be more specific my camping bedroll. On the floor of my second-floor room in the house of an NPC very near Urbus, which had cost me 200 cor. There where four rooms on the 2nd floor of this NPC's house and all four where rented out by myself and my friends. Asuka was on her own of course whilst Arashi and his cousin Jiro shared. The final was occupied by Shirozuki or, as he preferred, Shiro. Shiro was a new addition to the team who'd been partying with Arashi's cousin.
I stirred and massaged my shoulders. In the real world sleeping on the floor like that would likely have crippled me. Yay for the benefits of SAO.
I suppose I'd have to give some explanation as to why I was currently kipping on my own floor and not sleeping in the comfortable double bed?
You see, yesterday I had a rather tense meeting with a player by the name of Loki. Like me he had seen two young girls -- Elise and Sheila -- splashing cash in Tolbana's marketplace to upgrade their crafting gear. The twins where acting off beta knowledge bought from Argo regarding a particular quest -- information I'd bought from the same source shortly after meeting them. The crux? Said mission was difficult even for a party of two. Understandably they where looking for a high-level player to party with them and essentially complete the quest for them in order to benefit from the rare equipment. The quest in question was «Clearing Out The Storehouse» and, thanks to a spawn mechanic that ensured the Bandits kept spawning so long as the «Bandit Leader» remained, the mobs could be killed over and over and over again. Two mobs in particular dropped an «Heirloom Sewing Kit» and an «Heirloom Hammer» respectively. Loki's intention had been to take the girls to the site of the quest and extort them for money. When Sheila refused he opted instead to rob them and turned orange as a result. Unluckily for Loki I found the whole scene somewhat suspicious when I spied their meeting in Tolbana and I ended up trailing the party of three. When I intervened upon seeing Loki turn orange I dueled Loki and succeeded in driving him off without going orange myself.
Nabbed his discarded Anneal Blade for my trouble too!
Now what did this have to do with me being unable to sleep in my own bed you ask?
When night finally came and we all agreed it was time to hit the sack both girls refused to leave my side! You should have seen them. There I was in the teleport plaza ready to buy them a nice room at a good inn when suddenly I had two 12 year-old girls dangling from either arm! Where in blazes was the anti-criminal code then!? Not even a twinkle of purple. I think feeling aggrieved was justified. It was like something straight out of an anime. I was swinging my arms in an attempt to dislodge them and I think their grip just tightened. If it where possible to die in SAO from laughing too hard then I imagine Asuka's name would have joined the list on the 1st Floor memorial!
So they ended up sleeping in my bed while I took my camping bedroll and occupied the floor directly blocking the door.
"For security," they had said.
"So this is to be my life in Aincrad? Lovely! I'm a glorified doorstop."
By 6:30 we had sorted our gear and just finished eating our breakfast. I surveyed my growing team and began to see the beginnings of a guild. Overall I was impressed by what I seen.
Arashi, who was one of our two tanks, had seen a noticeable equipment upgrade; his armor was a lighter variant to his earlier iron set but sported superior stats across-the-board, so he was at least quicker on his feet. He'd also applied tats to his face since the last time I partied with him. He sported three vertical lines down his face which were meant to invoke the appearance of scars, a small 69 was tattooed on his left cheek, and a horizontal blue stripe ran across the left side of his face and over the bridge of his nose. His two-handed sword was a freaking monstrosity! Suffice to say when he swung it most things on the 2nd Floor died.
I'd have to ask him about those tattoos later 'cause I sensed a story behind them. Right now he looked like a punk. He might even be more frightening than Kibaou!
My vision left Arashi and settled on Jiro.
Jiro was Arashi's cousin but I didn't see the resemblance. For starters Arashi's hair was as black as the ace of spades and Jiro's was as blonde as a Barbie dolls that was styled to cover the right side of his face. He preferred lightweight metal armour and carried a Two-handed Assault Spear roughly as tall as he was. Like me he was a damage-dealer.
Shirozuki -- Shiro for short -- was next in-line.
He was a tank just like Arashi. He wore the old iron armor Arashi used to wear and had since equipped the Anneal Blade I'd gotten from Loki. Both had been an improvement over his old gear. As far as appearances went he was easily the most distinguishable of the whole group! He wore his long red hair in a tight braid dangling over his left shoulder. If I had to guess he had a younger sister -- he had been the best at dealing with Elise and Sheila, for it was he who'd convinced them to let my arms go. I'd only known him a few hours but I already knew he was a dependable guy.
Finally there was Asuka who'd already been with Arashi and I for a spell.
Her Dire Wolf Claws gleamed at her waist; her enhancement had been successful and they where now +3. All three had been to «Sharpness». That wasn't all though: the chance they had to inflict their DoT affect had also been buffed by the enhancement and now rested at 30%! No wonder she was smiling. Her armor, however, was like my own: minimal. Her build was agility-focused after all. It was no understatement to say she was already quicker than me.
The four of them stood ready and would begin their day with a quick visit to Urbus to partake of the food buff there before heading out to complete quests and camp efficient hunting grounds. The whole point of today's excursion was to bridge the level gap a little more effectively. Arashi, having slowed his pace to accommodate Asuka, now had to do the same with his cousin Jiro and his team-mate Shiro. Arashi himself was still at level 12. Asuka had hit 8 whilst Jiro and Shiro sat at 9.
I was 14.
"We'll see you later babysitter!" Asuka called as way of farewell.
"I hope you choke on your cheesecake!" I called back.
That left me with Elise and Sheila, both at level 4. My day was to be spent helping them gather materials whilst running a few of the fetch quests here on the opening town of the 2nd Floor. Elise had the «Sewing» and «Cooking» skills slotted whilst Sheila had «Heavy Metal Armor Forging» and «Light Metal Armor Forging». It was my goal to get both to level 6 today in order to open up their third skill slot. According to Sheila they where already very close to hitting level 5. «Mixing» and «Metal Refining» respectively where their goals.
So we set out. On the way back to Urbus I had them attack any monster we seen with pebbles to draw initial aggro before I swiftly ended them with a Sword Skill. Our diversion meant it took us little over 30 minutes to reach our destination.
"Hey, Kishi?" Elise said. Her eyes where wide as saucers. "Can we explore the floor? Pretty please?"
"We have a job to do." Sheila interjected. "So stop pestering him."
"I was not!"
"You were too!"
I was having flashbacks and decided to calmly put an end to their bickering.
"There's no reason we can't do both." They turned to look at me with those saucer-eyes again. "Girls can multitask right? So you can sight-see while we quest. How's that?"
Two nodding heads signalled my successful negotiation.
"Do you know if-"
"Yes, I know where there's a sweet shop."
And that was how my day went. I ran from pillar to post, from marketplace to NPC house, from house loft to tavern cellar, and from the top of Aincrad to the bottom of it. Okay, that may have been a lie. But you get the picture: I covered a helluva lot of ground today. And these kids weren't tired! Like at all. The sun was beginning to set and they where still running about the place like something half demented.
There was an upside though. Our questing -- coupled with a bit of improvised power-levelling courtesy of what the twins called my "ridiculous level" allowing me to kill mobs in a single Skill chain -- and they got their two level-ups. When I told the levelling party when they got back that snippet of news I could see them staring daggers at me. You see they'd only went up one level apiece.
"Did you two have fun today?" Asuka asked.
"Uh-huh!" They even answered in unison.
"Kishi took us all over Urbus!" The excitable Elise was hopping in place. "Look at all the material I got!"
My eyes went wide.
Too late. She hit «Materialise All» and suddenly there wasn't a man, woman or child who wasn't buried beneath an avalanche of monster skins, pieces of cloth, and something that smelled Godawful.
"I'm glad that's not my inventory." Sheila quipped.
"GET THIS SHIT OFF ME!!"
By the time we got Arashi calmed down and all the items back safely into Elise's inventory the twins where fast asleep.
"... I have to admit." I said when it was only Asuka and myself in the hallway of our rented floor. "I had fun today."
She patted my chest in a way I could only describe as affectionately before wishing me goodnight and entering her room. I did the same and once more found myself occupying the bedroll laid out to block the door.
And it didn't bother me in the slightest.