This article, SAOK: The Karma Scales, is the third chapter of Sword Art Online (Kenji). Kenji remains the main character.
December 6th. Yet I wasn't in a festive mood.
If circumstances weren't what they where then I'd be at home getting my weather-beaten house decorated with my two cute nieces. Last year my sister was going through some financial difficulties and the two girls had spent the holidays with me. Up until then I had to admit that I wasn't much of an uncle -- I was either too busy playing games, or hanging out with my friends, or getting drunk at the weekend. But when the chips where down and they needed me I had no choice but to step up.
And it was probably the best thing I had ever done. I had never had a Christmas as enjoyable.
My recollections where disturbed by something odd. Two young girls -- probably no older than ten or eleven -- where running about the markets spending money like it grew on trees. I saw their equipment change a few times and they spoke at length with a few players but where looking markedly more desperate as the day went on. They had shining green cursors above their heads so they weren't NPC's.
I ate a roll of bread and accidentally brushed shoulders with a bandanna-wearing man who warned me to watch where I was going. I decided to let it slide. As I turned around to finish my bread two blurs ran past me -- damn near knocking into me in the process -- and two hasty apologies followed. It was the two girls.
"It's a shame kids as young as them are trapped here. If I ever meet Kayaba in this game I'd happily introduce him to the Reaper from the beta and stick my sword down his throat."
They where now talking to an older man -- the one I'd bumped into -- right on the edge of the safe zone surrounding Tolbana. I'd left Asuka's levelling in Arashi's hands for the day and came down to the 1st Floor to gauge the player mood now that the 1st Floor had been cleared, but I found myself stopping to look at the two girls. They wore basic tunics and carried no weapons -- if I had to guess I'd say they where crafters. But if that where so then how in blazes had they got to Tolbana?
Then it finally clicked into place in my mind. They must have hired players to get them here. The fact they looked so dejected before was probably because no one had agreed to their request this time.
"Hello, Mr!" The light-haired girl greeted. "You're going to help us with our quest?"
"Sure am kiddo!"
"Wait a sec... Where have I heard that voice?"
The dark-haired girl didn't show much reaction but her friend practically beamed. The man wore a one-handed sword at his waist -- an Anneal Blade I noticed -- and wore a cloth bandanna around his head that practically hid his features from view. In no time at all money had exchanged hands and the man was leading the girls outside town. There shouldn't have been anything suspicious about that. But there was something about that man that rubbed me the wrong way, and I couldn't shake the feeling that I knew him.
I made my decision within two seconds and tailed the girls and the older man using my «Hiding» skill.
Somewhere in the back of my head I knew how this looked. I'd watched these girls shop and was now stalking them. Thankfully my intentions where pure.
"Ummm, are we really going to right way, Mr?" One of the girls -- I thought it was the light-haired one -- asked.
"Of course!" The man answered. "I'm just taking us on a safer route."
I was really starting to dislike this whole situation. I shot Arashi a quick friend message:
«Found some shifty guy in Tolbana. I'll fill you in on the details later but chances are high I'll be doing a Karma quest tonight so I'll probably miss our meet-up time. I'll keep you posted.»
«Stay safe. But what's a 'Karma' quest?»
It wasn't Arashi who replied to my message but Asuka.
Karma, of course, was a quest a player could undertake if their cursor changed from green to orange, and the difficulty of the quest increased with repeated attempts. Orange status came about through illegal actions: killing or otherwise harming a player or attacking an NPC where some examples. As a prolific player-killer in the beta I spent the vast majority of my time as an orange player. My PKing had become so prolific that the Karma quests essentially became impossible for me to complete.
And it seemed I was about to go orange again.
The man had led the girls towards a cave entrance carved into a large rock-face. This particular location was the site of a quest called «Clearing Out The Storehouse» and was one of the few on the 1st Floor that involved human-type enemies. The quest giver was an elderly NPC woman in Tolbana who used to use this cave as a storeroom and was upset that robbers had effectively turned it into their base of operations. The rewards where paltry from a fighters perspective but two enemies in particular -- a tailor and blacksmith respectively -- dropped equipment very useful to a fledgling crafter. Not many knew about it but those drops where equivalent to 3rd Floor shop-bought gear.
I scanned the terrain and noticed a way to firmly place myself between the girls and the man.
"Now, if you want to get out of here, you'll be giving me all your money."
The man practically snarled the statement! And in that moment I recognised him. He was a former beta tester like myself. I must have killed his avatar in the beta more times than anyone else. He favoured daggers as his primary weapon of choice and had particular skill in «Mixing» and «Cooking» if I recalled. He was one of the few beta testers who'd successfully mixed poison and paralysis effects. The presence of that Anneal Blade is what threw me off so long.
I didn't see what happened next but his cursor changed from green to orange and one of the girls cried out.
My blood ran cold. "I'll happily go orange for this."
My agility and strength where just about sufficient to the task I had in mind. I managed three steps along the wall -- an Outside System Skill I liked to call «Wall Running» -- before I used my strength to launch myself off the wall. I landed lightly on my feet and immediately turned as I drew my trusty Scimitar +4!
I'm glad that particular expletive was garbled into the what the hell was that statement the man came out with.
"Good afternoon!" I exclaimed. I risked a brief look over my shoulder and smiled encouragingly at the girls. "I'll deal with this guy and then I'll help you out with your quest. Just stay behind me okay?"
They nodded, eyes wide with equal parts fear and surprise, and I returned my attention to the man.
"You're going to disappear."
The man didn't use a shield that I could see and favoured light leather armour. His equipment wasn't particularly high-end and I suspected the only valuable item he held was his Anneal Blade.
"And if I don't?"
"I go orange and you turn into polygons. Either way you disappear."
My cheery voice did a complete turn-about-face. I sounded cold even to my own ears! He still didn't know who I was and he hastily challenged me to a duel, snarling at me like an animal. I didn't even hesitate and accepted it the second I saw the request pop up before me.
Could I kill him though? I guess I'd find out shortly.
Half Loss Mode. My opponent's name... was «Loki».
The sixty second interval for the duel passed by in the blink of an eye. The second the countdown reached "1" I fired off my Reaver skill. The charging skill connected when the countdown reached "0" and since that was when the duel officially started no rules where broken: evidently Loki didn't know that and was completely unprepared for my surprise attack. His arm went flying, he dropped his Anneal Blade, and roughly 20% of his HP vanished in one blow.
My Scimitar +4 was +3 to Sharpness and +1 to Durability. His armour put up about as much resistance as butter did when faced with a hot knife.
"Son of a-!"
I didn't let Loki finish his sentence. There where young ears nearby to consider and my right leg shone. In the last two days my proficiency with «Martial Arts» had increased to 75. I did a full back-flip before I suffered Reaver's post-motion delay and let loose with Crescent Moon. My foot impacted the man right below the chin and sent him flying backwards to impact the ground roughly!
His HP sank below the halfway point and a large "Victorious" message flashed up before my eyes. Behind me the girls where cheering loudly. I must have critted with that Crescent Moon.
I took the opportunity to invite the girls to my party and two names came into view below my own. «Elise» and «Sheila», both only level 4. And Sheila's HP was not full so I pressed a healing potion into her small hands. It had been her who Loki had evidently attacked. When they saw my own level -- currently 14 -- they gasped in surprise and started whispering amongst themselves about me being a front-runner.
I glared down at Loki.
"Tell me something: do you remember the Reaper from the beta?" Loki's eyes went wide and if we'd been in the real world he would likely have gone pale as well. "I wouldn't mind going orange to take out trash like you. I'm going to count to 5. If you aren't gone by the time I hit 3 you'll be nothing but a name on the monument in the Town of Beginnings."
I didn't even need to count. Loki was up and gone before I'd even finished my own sentence. And because our fight had been a duel sanctioned by the system I did not have to worry about turning orange either.
"All's well that-"
The tension drained out of me as I spoke but I couldn't even finish my quip. I was tackled by the two girls and fell to the floor! There where tears and thanks and snot and tears and I was thoroughly dishevelled by the time we finished the quest. They got their rewards and a level-up for their trouble. What was my reward? I got Loki's unblemished Anneal Blade +0.
Oh, and the satisfaction of kicking Loki's ass and saving two damsels in distress, of course.
I could keep the blade or sell it. 16,000 wasn't to be sniffed at. But then again it was a powerful blade.
"Thank you very much!!"
The two girls bowed so low that their heads nearly touched their toes. I was about to turn around and leave but when I took the time to actually look at them they both looked frightened. Not surprising I suppose. The playful energy they had shown earlier was gone. If I left them here now they'd likely retreat to the Town of Beginnings and lock themselves in an inn room forever.
And that was no way to live.
And, to tell the truth, all I saw where my own nieces staring at me. I couldn't leave them. Not after that image flashed into my mind.
"... Come on, you two. I know a nice restaurant on the 2nd Floor."
All I could think about as I took them back to the Town of Beginnings and up to the second floor from the teleport plaza was how Arashi was going to kill me. And his reaction was exactly what I had been expecting. What I didn't expect was Asuka's reaction. She shut Arashi down so quickly it was actually frightening! And just like that Elise and Sheila -- probably two of the few player crafters in SAO at present -- joined our fledgling group.
I'll let you in on a secret. The gear those two made for us saved our skins more times than I could count. But I suppose I'm getting a little ahead of myself.