This article, SAOK: The Karma Scales, is the third chapter of Sword Art Online (Kenji). Kenji remains the main character.
December 6th 2022, 2nd Floor of Aincrad, 04:37.
“Why did this have to be so early? And why aren’t you sleepy?”
“You’re the one who asked me to show you how to enhance your claws.” I reminded.
“Yeah… But not at this hour! Who walks around at this time of the morning? The sun isn’t even up yet!”
Asuka was rubbing at her eyes with her right-hand and looked like she was still half asleep. Fatigue was handled by the system but wasn’t viewable by the player; rest and relaxation were the only things that could restore it, at least as far as I was aware. Just like in the real world the human body needed sleep to operate efficiently, and the body of your avatar in the virtual world was no different. So why wasn’t I as tired as my companion? I didn’t have any proof but maybe the amount of sleep required by a person was something the system had no control over, in the same way it couldn’t enhance one’s natural lung capacity? I was used to keeping long hours for my gaming channel and could get by on a minimum of between 4 and 6 hours of sleep and still feel well rested.
Maybe Asuka was one of those people who liked her sleep?
“What can I say? I’m a night owl.”
“Remind me to ply you with sleeping pills from now on.”
She can say what she wanted but her tongue was still as sharp as always, despite the early hour.
I led the way towards the blacksmith who would hopefully enhance Asuka’s claws, and I realized just how deserted the town was. During the beta it was the early hours like this where the truly hardcore players, myself included, did their questing and levelling. It hadn’t been unheard-of for the hardcore gamers to log in during the small hours and play for most of the day. The reverse seemed to be true in the official release. Granted we didn’t have a «Log Out» button, so that had to be taken into account, but the vast majority of the player-base did their questing during the day and kept the night for sleeping.
“Are we the only two people fool enough to be up and about?” Asuka asked.
The only people out at this time of the morning were system controlled NPC characters. The in-game economy didn’t suddenly close just because it was dark out; after all, there were a few who quested at night. Several shops, market stalls, and independent merchants were in evidence, and various civilian NPC’s were out doing odd jobs. One in particular was sweeping the step outside his home. Others still only showed up at this time of the day and these were the kind who would most likely have a quest associated with them.
It seemed Asuka had seen a quest-giver already.
“I thought I’d completed most of the quests in Urbus yesterday?”
“You probably completed the day-time offerings. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were quest-chains that can only be done at night, or early in the morning.”
Her eyes flashed angrily.
“Don’t you think for a minute we’re going to make this a usual occurrence!” She snapped, waving her fist at me. “I like my sleep.”
“I noticed. Hey, we’re here.”
Our blacksmith wasn’t what you would consider a stereotypical blacksmith. She was an attractive woman, with clearly defined and easily discernible muscles on her arms and neck, with her long blond hair tied up out of the way in a tight ponytail. Her blacksmiths’ apron was dark-blue with a black outline, the surface of which was blackened from working the blazing forge nestled into the wall behind her, and a pair of long, thick, gloves covered her hands and most of her forearm. The dungarees and trousers she wore were of the same shade of dark-blue as her apron.
Her shop made do with only slight illumination; the burning forge, and two solitary lamps in strategic locations, provided all the light she needed. She looked us up and down and set her tongs down on the tabletop before walking over to the counter.
“Morning. Aren’t you out early this morning?”
“You know the saying: Early bird catches the worm?”
She smiled knowingly.
“What will it be?”
Asuka looked to me with a somewhat nervous expression. I still remember her expressing confusion when I made it clear that her claws would be suitable for use up until at least the 4th Floor, and if she was careful in how she upgraded it, then it may well do for the 5th Floor as well. She knew enough from reading the description that 5 enhancement attempts could be made to the claws, but she didn’t have a clue where to even start when it came to tackling the enhancement system itself. SAO’s system was quite complex. Each weapon had only a finite amount of attempts. Asuka’s «Dire Wolf Claws» had 5 attempts whilst my own «Scimitar» had 8. I had already succeeded on 4 of those attempts so my «Scimitar» was labelled with a +4. With plentiful materials, and no small amount of luck, I might be able to push mine all the way to +8. But should one fail, and the worse case scenario occurs instead, the best my «Scimitar» could ever be would be +6.
“Have you thought about your attributes?” I asked.
“I was thinking Sharpness, for damage?”
“That would probably be best,” I answered. “Accuracy would be a good alternative, but considering your gear and Skills, Sharpness is best.”
When she approached the blacksmith and her blazing hot forge -- who was being very patient, I might add -- a pop-up menu appeared with a number of options. Asuka set the window to visible, allowing me to see what would otherwise be private information, and looked at me expectantly. I guided her finger, making sure to ask permission like a gentlemen first, and selected the «Reinforcing» option from the menu.
“Sharpness, correct?” The blacksmith asked.
“Yes, please. I have the materials required for three.” Asuka answered crisply, if a tad hesitantly.
There was no dispute about the first 4 enhancement attempts being the easiest of the entire lot and almost guaranteed to succeed should the necessary materials be available, which Asuka had covered. She probably had enough on-hand to push it up to +4. This was why I wasn’t worried personally but Asuka was absolutely beside herself and I soon found my hand being squeezed by her own. She was biting her lip nervously even as her eyes widened in amazement at the flashing silver flames. She jumped when the first blow of the blacksmith’s hammer struck the claws! This repeated exactly thirty times -- ten blows for every enhancement -- and when the blacksmith was finished Asuka’s window, which was still visible to me, read the following: «Dire Wolf Claws» +3 (3S).
Every single attempt had been successful and her weapon still had two left! Like every piece of gear that had been buffed to a sufficient level close to its maximum they glowed as if imbued with an inner strength.
“Thanks!” Her smile was as bright as her claws. “Now what?”
“Pull up it’s properties a minute. I wanna see if its changed from the beta.”
«Agility +3. Percentage chance to inflict Bleeding status 30%.»
“... Say what now?” I said, eyes widening in disbelief. “Thirty percent!? That’s madness! It was only fifteen during the beta and that was at +5! This thing will definitely keep until the 5th Floor.”
“I can’t wait to try them out!” She exclaimed, practically hopping with excitement. “What’s the questing goal for today?”
“Arashi’s meeting up with his cousin and his cousin’s friend.” I answered. I had only got the message before turning in last night. “If it’s fine with you, I’d like you to spend the day with them. Arashi’s gonna help them level fast.”
“What are you going to be doing?”
“I want to gauge player morale now that the 2nd Floor is open, so I’ll be on the 1st Floor doing a lot of watching and listening.”
“Creepy,” she teased.
The only one I had had this conversation with so far was Arashi but my intention was to form a guild on the 3rd Floor. Arashi, Asuka and myself was a good start and judging by Arashi’s message last night, his cousin, who was known in-game as «Jiro», was a damage-dealer whilst his friend, who went by the name «Shirozuki», was a sword and shield Tank. Both had indicated their desire to meet with us. So what was the rub? Leadership. The only thing we couldn’t reconcile was leadership: I wanted it to be Arashi, as the guy was a leader on the battlefield, whilst Arashi wanted it to be me, because apparently I was what he called a people person. We hadn’t gone as far as to argue about it, but we’d effectively reached a stalemate on the topic. At this rate it would likely be a vote amongst the prospective members, which could also lead to division. No, best Arashi and I come to some kind of agreement.
“Well, while you do that, I’m going to make a start on the nocturnal quests. I take it you’re leaving now?”
“Yeah, there are still a good few players around Tolbana, so I want to get there before the afternoon.”
“That’s a long run!”
She should know: it was around Tolbana that Arashi and I had come to her rescue from the jaws of an «Alpha Dire Wolf». I couldn’t believe that had happened only three days ago. I realized that I didn’t want to go back to the two-man dynamic of myself and Arashi. The guy was solid -- we were old school buddies -- but he wasn’t exactly Mr. Personality. Asuka, as I had claimed already, was a breath of fresh air.
She dissolved the party herself and for a minute I did act like a creep because I watched her leave, my eyes naturally gravitating to her ample ba- I slapped myself!
“Bad Kenji,” I whispered, although I couldn’t deny that there was an attraction. She was both beautiful and funny.
Still, Asuka hadn’t been wrong. The journey ahead of me would only be possible in the virtual world because no normal person could travel the distance required in one day short of hopping on a plane or helicopter. They’d die of exhaustion.
The 1st Floor of Aincrad was the largest of the floating castles 100 Floors and the geography of the Floor was varied and mixed, with plentiful species of terrible beast more than willing to make a meal out of you. To the north-west of the Town of Beginnings was a forested area that lay beyond the wide-open plains, and to the north-east was a massive region whose main geographical obstacle was a lake. It didn’t matter which region you passed through because both eventually led into a dangerous mountainous area with monsters far more dangerous than any preceding them. Only if you survived those obstacles could you reach the town of Tolbana. The forest was the safer route but also slower, the winding paths between the trees providing its own obstacle. That didn’t mean the lake was devoid of risk either. Large bodies of water were probably one of the highest risks to players now that Sword Art Online was a death game.
Thankfully I wasn’t using either route. Instead, I’d be heading backwards through the recently cleared labyrinth from the 2nd Floor, very close to Urbus. Despite having been cleared there were no shortage of groups -- I encountered three in total -- farming mobs and poking around for missed treasure chests. I highly doubted the existence of the latter -- Diavel and his party had been pretty thorough mapping this place, but it was nice to see groups attempting to catch-up. The stone-paved floors and walls didn’t seem as oppressive when you knew there were other plays nearby.
My mission to gauge player morale had got off to a good start.
It was just after 12:20 when I skidded to a halt inside the walled castle-like town of Tolbana.
“Hey, what kind of gear is there on the 2nd Floor?”
“It’s a big savannah!”
“The front-runners are calling it the ‘cow floor’.”
“What’s the quests like?”
Tolbana’s main market place was still very active even with the 2nd Floor unlocked. Most of the players here fell into the middle-of-the-road category. They were below the level of the front-runners and did not have the kind of quality gear that could bridge the gap with superior stats. That said there was a general air of excitement with the players here. If the front-line was ever going to succeed then it needed more bodies. There was no getting around that. The Floor Bosses where powerful, tricky, with mechanics potentially different from what they had been in the beta test. Only coordination and teamwork would get us through this game until the end.
“Hey, Sheila! How many fetch quests we got left?”
“Then it's onto the bandits!”
“We need help for that!”
The two players who whizzed past me, very nearly knocking into me in the process, I might add, shouted back quick apologies before disappearing behind a large fountain and out of sight. If I had to guess I’d put their age at no more than 12 or 13. Poor kids. Sword Art Online was recommended for ages 14+ but with every cool game ever released in human history the chances of people adhering to the age rating was almost unheard-of. In this case their curiosity to play the world’s very first virtual reality MMO had resulted in their entrapment. Still, there was a bright side. They hadn’t been traumatized as severely as some young people trapped in this game. I was aware of some players who refused to leave their inn rooms unless to eat.
I didn’t know if there was a player-ran foodbank or something on the 1st Floor to make the feeding of players who refused to quest or hunt possible.
My display made the sound, indicating I had received a message, which I was not surprised to find had come from Asuka.
«How do you work with this man!? He’s a slave driver! The two new guys look frightened.»
I didn’t need clarification regarding said man’s identity. I immediately knew she was talking about Arashi.
«Would be shocked if they weren’t. Put up with it for a while longer: I should be back by evening.»
«If you aren’t then it’s your fault if I go crazy and scratch his face off with these new claws.»
Somehow I pictured Arashi with three scars running vertically down his face. He was intimidating to look at, even at the best of times, but somehow a scarred Arashi sent a shiver up my spine! The guy was nothing if not intense. Still, it was probably best if I warn her just who she was planning to cat scratch.
«Wouldn’t recommend that. The guy’s a cage fighter on the outside.»
«……...OMG! That explains so much!!! Talk later, have to bug him with questions.»
“Good luck Arashi,” I thought.
My dinner was a long honey-flavoured bread roll with something resembling ham and mayonnaise filling inside, though the taste was way off. The mayonnaise was too sweet, the ham had a hint of spice that didn’t so much as tickle your taste buds but give them a solid kick. The bread may have been advertised as honey-flavoured but it was probably the worst tasting honey I had ever swallowed. Two bites was all it took before I let the roll fall to the floor and disintegrate. In the real world I’d get dirty looks about littering but here in Aincrad food items lost their durability more or less the moment you dropped them, so litter of food at any rate was impossible. I’d have to remind Kayaba if I ever saw him, in addition to throwing him out the nearest window, that he’d conquered -- at least partially -- the problem of food waste.
It was just now hitting 14:12, and I was about to sign off and call my mission a success.
That was until I heard the voices of those two young girls who had very nearly crashed into me earlier. What was it they said? Something about fetch quests and needing help? They were standing on the edge of the safe zone that would take them out of Tolbana on the side farthest from the labyrinth and were talking to any player who passed by them. The girls appeared to be twins: one sported light coloured brown hair with equally light brown eyes, whilst the other was black haired with eyes a darker shade of brown. They were mirrors of one another in terms of appearance, down to the very clothes they wore. If it wasn’t for the green cursor above their heads I would have mistaken the both of them as an NPC. Simple wool tops, leather trousers, and store-bought boots. What really caught my eye, however, was their complete lack of weapons of any kind.
In Sword Art Online a player’s lifeline was their weapon; you lived and died by its quality, by its ability to deal damage. What hung from their belts wasn’t a weapon, but rather a crafting tool. They weren’t fighters but rather crafters!
Something altogether rare in SAO, actually. In fact, they were the first player crafters I had seen.
You could consider my curiosity piqued.
I watched the scene for a while, seeing their repeated pleas for quest help to be rebuffed at every turn. I even recognized some people they asked. Each time they asked, however, and got the same answer, their energy lessened. By the time I was about to offer them my own help their shoulders had slumped in defeat, and they looked thoroughly dejected. But I stopped. There was another player approaching and I returned to my seat to watch.
This player had darkly coloured skin and had seemingly stepped from the shadows of an alleyway running along the exterior wall and the closest building, indicating a high «Hiding» Skill. His entire face was obscured, his white mask covering his mouth and nose and a pair of equally white goggles covering his eyes, and his hair was styled backwards and up in a shape vaguely reminiscent of a spiky afro. A long leather jacket, sleeveless, descended to his knees, and wore underneath was a protective suit of studded leather armour. Hanging at his waist was an «Anneal Blade» which, even with the 2nd Floor opened, was a weapon even a front-runner wouldn’t turn their nose up at. In terms of attack power and usefulness it was every bit the equal to my own «Scimitar».
I was close enough to eavesdrop without a Skill.
“I heard you two girls needed help.”
“Yes, Mr!” The light-haired twin answered, her former energy seemingly restored. “We heard about good crafting gear from a quest called «Clearing Out The Storehouse». Have you heard of it?”
“I have indeed!” The man answered. I was immediately on full alert. “Quite dangerous for two non-combats. You are very wise to look for help.”
His voice was obscured by the mask he wore, creating a distorted effect, but I was sure I had heard it before. I just couldn’t place where! Still, I didn’t like this. But I couldn’t exactly act. Not yet at least. After all, he hadn’t done anything wrong. Yet. Hell, what I was doing was just as bad. I was eavesdropping and spying! And I was about to add stalking to that list because in very short order the man had been paid, and he subsequently led them out of the safe zone and down south. My eyes shone green, indication that I had activated my «Searching» Skill, and I followed behind roughly 50 seconds behind. I had the «Tracking» Mod, which highlighted footsteps based on proficiency, and mine was new; at the minute I could track footsteps a minute-old.
Thankfully I knew the quest the girls had spoken about.
«Clearing Out The Storehouse» tasked the player with clearing out an NPC’s storeroom. The room in question had originally served as a guard post built inside a small cave, but had come into the possession of an elderly NPC who had the space converted for storing trade goods. In something of a cliche the room inevitably fell into the hands of bandits and it was up to the player to clear them out. I’d completed it in the beta and knew it was designed for a party of between two and four players between levels 4 and 6. The rewards were paltry from a warrior’s perspective but two of the bandits in particular were crafters -- a blacksmith and tailor. These dropped crafting tools equivalent to the store-bought items on the 3rd Floor.
I was impressed that the girls even knew about that though.
“Now, if you want to complete the quest, then you’ll give me the rest of your money.”
I wasn’t close enough to hear the particulars, especially with his voice muffled as it was with the mask, but I did hear the squeal quickly stifled.
“Dick move,” I whispered, suddenly furious.
I fired off a quick message to Arashi:
«Might not make our meeting this evening. I’ll explain later but chances are high I’m about to go orange.»
«Keep me posted.»
I was close to the mouth of the cave and was currently behind the group. I could see the man with the afro -- his cursor had turned orange -- and he was very near to the wall. The girls had managed to back up away from him, but were blocked by the cave, so if I was going to do anything then I’d need to do it now. My Skill slots did not include «Sprint» -- what I did have however was a decent Agility stat and a very good Strength stat. I ran right at the wall, leapt high, took three strides along the walls surface, before finally launching myself off! I landed lightly and spun around quickly, my «Scimitar» hissing from its blackened sheath.
“Whatthfuwatha,” he exclaimed, his expletive effectively lost in his own surprise.
I risked a look over my shoulder at the girls. Their shoulders were slumped, tears were falling freely down their cheeks, and they were shaking! My hand tightened on the hilt of my «Scimitar» but none of that anger reached my eyes or altered my tone.
“Sit tight, kids. I’ve got this and then I’ll help you both with your quest. Just stay behind me, alright?”
They nodded, their eyes filled with equal parts fear and surprise. When I sent them a party invite the black-haired girl tapped a few options on her menu, probably dissolving her current party with Loki, and then their names materialized below my own. «Elise» and «Sheila» were their names and my anger outright tripled when I noticed that Sheila’s -- the black-haired one -- HP bar was not full. They saw my own name followed by my level, which was currently 14, and they both gasped in surprise. I heard them whisper amongst themselves that I must be a front-runner.
“As for you,” and suddenly my voice was dripping acid. “You’re going to disappear.”
“And if I don’t?”
My smile was predatory.
“I go orange and you turn into polygons. Either way you disappear.”
What a lot of people didn’t know about me was the exact nature of my beta testing experience. You see, I wasn’t a normal player; I helped clear the labyrinth’s and defeat the Field Bosses, but my real skill lay in player-killing. I was one of those players who killed other players for sport, or because I liked the weapon they had. Or because they looked at me wrong. The prolificness of my player-killing had earned me an epithet: «The Reaper». Afro didn’t recognize me, it seemed, because a duel notification popped up on my display, challenging me to a «Half Loss Duel». Spineless chicken. I was more than prepared to carry this through to its natural conclusion, reputation be damned. It took a special kind of lowly snake to target two children and try to rob them! His name was «Loki» and suddenly my beta brain was firing on all cylinders! I knew this asshole from the beta. He was originally a dagger wielder who had «Mixing» slotted. He was actually one of the first players amongst the beta testers who had been able to mix himself poison and paralysis effects into food and drink. Poor Loki had also fallen victim to my blade in the beta quite a few times.
I accepted without hesitation and watched the sixty-second timer start to tick down.
“You’re going to lose.” I said, voice as cold as ice.
One second before the timer turned to zero I began the «Pre-Motion» for Reaver. My sword cut deeply into his sword-arm the moment the timer indicated zero -- which was when a duel legally began, so technically I hadn’t broken any rules at all -- and watched as the arm holding his «Anneal Blade» went spinning away from his body!
“Son of a-”
The «Martial Art» Sword Skill Crescent Moon, which I initiated before my «Post-Motion» took effect, impacted him below the chin as I back-flipped away, effectively shutting him up! Loki landed heavily on the broad of his back, the air knocked from his lungs, and I completed my delay long before he even made an attempt to return to his feet. During my wait a large VICTORY flashed before my eyes. The duel was over; more than half of Loki’s HP was gone in only two attacks, with the entire fight having taken me only 4 seconds to finish.
“Tell me something: do you remember the Reaper from the beta? 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.”
His eyes went wide in shock -- he definitely recognized me now -- and suffice to say he did not stick around to test my threat. He even left his dropped «Anneal Blade» which, of course, I took for myself.
“Well, I suppose all’s well-”
The words never left my mouth and were instead replaced with a quickly stifled groan! I was convinced that the system only intervened with warning prompts if you somehow saw the contact made as threatening or unwanted, because no such prompt popped up on my display when the girls tackled me around the midsection and all three of us tumbled to the floor! There were tears and thanks and snot followed by yet more tears and thanks, and before long I was fairly sure my leather coat had been used as a snot rag on more than one occasion.
They disentangled their arms from around me long enough for me to return to my feet.
“So, what exactly are you two looking for out of this quest?” I asked.
They shared a hesitant look but the dark-haired twin eventually stepped forward.
“Let me guess: you two are after the «Heirloom Hammer» and «Heirloom Sewing Kit», right?”
They nodded in unison.
“Stay in sight, I’ve got this.”
As I had already said the quest was designed for a group of between two and four between levels 4 and 6. My level was 14 and more than enough to power through the quest. But I didn’t go right for the «Bandit Leader». There was a trick to this quest: so long as the leader remained, then the bandits continued to respawn. The blacksmith and tailor included. This allowed you to essentially farm the two until you got the required drops, which happened for me after roughly an hour and a half of battle. The «Bandit Leader» was likewise easily dispatched and the moment he died this leg of the quest was considered complete and all that remained was for us to return to Tolbana and get our rewards. As for the twins I opened up a trading window and gave them their desired rewards alongside everything else I had received as loot. An «Anneal Blade» was reward enough for my time -- it was worth at least 16,000 cor if I chose to sell it.
I was conflicted though.
“What are you girls going to do now?”
I asked this question as we made our way back to Tolbana. They didn’t answer but the nervous look on both their faces was all the answer I needed. Except for the outpouring of thanks I had received the energy that they had displayed all day was gone; they walked along behind me, dragging their feet all the while, and their lips were trembling. They would likely retreat to an inn room after this and never trust another player again.
I had a decision to make.
I could take them along with me to the 2nd Floor. Arashi would be livid -- and that said I still needed to message him back -- but Asuka would likely be happy enough with their presence. Or I could leave them in Tolbana and reinforce every negative stigma ever directed at a beta tester since this death game began. No, that wasn’t an option. All I saw when I looked at those girls were my own nieces. Arashi would just have to make do.
In short order we returned to Tolbana and officially completed the quest.
“So, I guess-”
The girls clamped tightly to one of my arms apiece, effectively holding me in place, and refused to let go! If this was an anime I’d be the protagonist waving his arms around in a futile effort to dislodge them, but this wasn’t an anime. Sadly this was real-life, and we were trapped in a virtual death scape.
My mind had already been made-up but if anything their reaction to what they thought was my departure just served to reinforce my decision.
“Come on, I’m going to the 2nd Floor, and you’re both welcome to join me. We’ll be passing through the labyrinth, though, so be sure and stay behind me.”
I was right. Arashi was livid. I honestly thought the guy was going to blow a gasket somewhere down the road but before he could get into a proper mood for scolding Asuka leapt down his throat and shut him down in two seconds flat! It was kind of intimidating really; never had I known Arashi to back down so quickly, and never had I seen Asuka so angry. With that, though, we added the two crafters to our party, in addition to Arashi’s cousin and his friend.
I’ll let you in on a secret. Elise and Sheila, despite only being level 4, saved our backsides more times than I can count. The gear they forged for us was exceptional in its quality.
But I suppose I’m getting ahead of myself.