This article, SAOK: The Moneymaking Crusade, is the sixth chapter of Sword Art Online (Kenji). This chapter formally introduces Ino Choyo, under the avatar name «Ryne», into the story. Her first documented appearance was a reference made in the accompanying SAOK Timeline. Various revisions saw her make scattered appearances in the Inbetweeners side-stories.
December 19th 2022, 12:51.
Asuka and I were just sitting down to our lunch in the «Moo Moo Milk» restaurant that still served as our base of operations, despite the 3rd Floor having been open since the 14th of December. We had taken a leaf out of Arashi’s book and ditched our usual threads for casual attire made for us courtesy of Elise. She was dressed in a light pair of three-quarter length trousers and a long-sleeved white T-shirt with her usual purple ribbon in her hair. For myself, Elise had crafted up a pair of denim trousers and a sleeveless muscle vest.
We’d made it quite clear that we weren’t to be disturbed.
“You want me to handle the waitress?” She asked me.
“Yeah, go right ahead.”
I trusted her intuition.
You can imagine my surprise though when she ordered a portion of the spiced kebabs that she had earlier only picked around in the past. Maybe she was starting to develop a taste for them after all? This was accompanied by a dish vaguely reminiscent of lasagna, so maybe not. What she ordered for me was a dish closely resembling Caesar salad, a bowl of croutons to accompany it, and few bread rolls with a tasty meat filling.
“So, developing a taste for them now, eh?”
Her smile was radiant.
“I wouldn’t go that far.” She admitted. “I’m taking notes for Elise, if you must know. We can share the kebabs.”
“Ah, the cookbook! How’s that coming?”
“Quite well, actually. Her prawn cocktail? That’s been selling hand over fist. Shiro’s off gathering materials to let her make more right now.”
At Asuka’s direction, Elise had focused on the British version of the classical Marie Rose sauce, made using one part tomato ketchup and two parts mayonnaise. It was a simpler recipe and given the state of SAO’s flavourings it was probably a good place to start. Elise was our chef and potion brewer long before she was our leather and cloth armour crafter, and she had joined forces with Asuka to expand her culinary endeavours. As you already know, Asuka was something of a gourmet. She had an extensive food palette and a generally well-rounded knowledge about food in general, and thus had volunteered to help young Elise develop sauces and spices that more closely imitated those found in the real-world. These had proven quite popular. The example provided by Asuka was Marie Rose sauce, which was commonly used in various fish dishes, specifically prawn cocktail. Elise and Asuka had spent almost the entirety of December 17th refining the taste and texture of the sauce, whilst Arashi and I spent almost the whole day vanquishing the watery species present near the massive lake down on the 1st Floor, so they didn’t run out of fish to test it on. The fish wasn’t prawn but it was quite similar in taste and texture.
It wasn't as if you could call trading standards or the fraud squad. This was Aincrad! I happened to think the two of them were being extremely crafty.
Besides, you couldn’t spend your every waking hour resolving quests or farming mobs. Sometimes you just had to live.
“This place never disappoints.” Asuka insisted. “We finished?”
We unequipped our casual threads and equipped our battle-ready gear. You might be surprised. You see, our gear was different to the equipment we had when we fought against Zagan the Exile. Even before we had fought Zagan, Elise and Sheila had been busy power-levelling themselves and were now Level 12. Ever since the battle they had been busy converting all those lovely pieces of loot from our friend the Minotaur into custom pieces.
“I still can’t get over how awesome these new pieces are.” I admitted.
“They certainly outdone themselves.”
Asuka wore a two-piece suit of darkly-coloured studded leather and tan leggings which comprised her upper-body and leg slots, with a long hooded cloak that took up her head and neck slot. The system identified both as the «Exiles Threads» and «Exiles Cloak» respectively. As Asuka's usual, her new clothes sported minimalist protective coverage with a focus on mobility and stealth. Additionally, they had special attributes that aided this function. The «Exiles Threads» gave her a flat +7 boost to Agility, and heightened her chances of landing a critical hit. The «Exiles Cloak» gave her a flat +2 to Agility -- nothing near as effective as the «Exiles Threads», true, but when equipped together they provided her with a buff to «Hiding». If what we had seen with her «Dire Wolf Claws» was any indication, then when maxed out she would essentially possess a functioning «Hiding» Skill without needing the Skill slotted. Overall, very nice in my opinion. The «Lightweight Galerus» and «Lightweight Manica» I had given to her back on the 1st Floor was still in evidence and was, aside from her belt buckle and a few metallic studs, comprised almost all of her metallic equipment.
Conversely, my gear wasn’t as minimalistic as it used to be. The battle with Zagan had opened my eyes a little; I couldn’t afford to skimp on gear, not any more. So when Elise asked me what kind of gear I wanted the vast majority of the work had been done by Sheila, who was our metal-worker. This new suit was called the «Cardiophylax» and was made from a mixture of Zagan’s hide and crafted alloys. It comprised the neck, upper-body and waist slots of my equipment mannequin. The main piece, which incorporated the neck slot and upper-body, focused its protection on the central chest-area and throat. It primarily safeguarded the lungs and heart, with an accompanying shoulder-guard on the left shoulder that extended down to shield my bicep, designed specifically for the off-hand. This shoulder could be turned towards an opponent during battle to serve as a makeshift shield. I didn’t use a shield so this was especially useful. The waist slot, meanwhile, featured several strips of studded leather that descended to cover my knees and hips, appearing similar to a skirt. Between the metal of the chest-piece and the skin was a layer of hardened leather for further protection. A good portion of my upper torso, including the outside area of my pectoral muscles and my entire right-shoulder, possessed lesser protection than the main cardiovascular areas. Stat-wise it provided me a flat +8 to Strength and +4 to Agility alongside a bonus to my «Hiding» Skill. That wasn’t the extent of my upgrade though. In fact, the only piece I retained from my battle with Zagan were my gloves and my «Scimitar», and I was on the lookout for an improvement glove-wise as well. My leg slot now consisted of a pair of black cotton trousers, identified by the system as «Oxen Cloth Trousers», and had been made from a «Trembling Ox» on the 2nd Floor. Remember back when I obtained the «Martial Arts» Extra Skill? Yup, the hide had been languishing in my inventory since then. Although its defensive strength was low it provided me a dual boost to my leg strength, which manifested in-game as a small boost to jumping and swimming. Very nice! Additionally, I had a new pair of footwear that also incorporated shin guards. Named «Martial Arts Leg Guards» this piece of gear balanced me out with regard to protection and mobility and was focused entirely on powering up my «Martial Arts» Skill-tree. This manifested as increased damage from my Sword Skills and also increased my Skill proficiency gain.
Overall, I looked like a gladiator. Asuka, meanwhile, looked like a hooded assassin.
“So, now that we’ve eaten, what’s the plan?” Asuka asked me.
“Head up to the 3rd Floor and meet up with Arashi. It’s time we got our guild up and running.”
Arashi and I figured it was best to let the front-runners advance a little before we started poking around the 3rd Floor areas, hence why we hadn’t been busting our backs over the last few days. You see, we considered the 3rd Floor the most important Floor opened up so far and that boiled down to the fact that two very important things became possible on that Floor. The first was the «Elf War» -- a series of quests referred to in-game as a «Campaign Quest» -- which began in the «Forest of Wavering Mists» on the 3rd Floor and didn’t resolve itself until the 9th Floor, so it would play a large role in our plans going forward. It had powerful quest rewards, valuable loot, and great potential for experience. Secondly, the 3rd Floor was where one initiated the guild quest, enabling the creation of a system-recognized «Guild». The perks of a guild included a shared item space which could be used to hold potions or loot for easier distribution, short instant messages outside a dungeon between members, and a slight boost to statistics whenever guild-members partied up together. Conversely, whenever a member of a guild earned money, they were taxed on it, with this tax going automatically into the guild’s coffers. This wasn’t even a detriment in the right setup.
As discussed, Asuka and I used the teleport plaza and in short order we were walking under the shade of three massive baobab trees. The town of Zumfut was built into these three trees, which formed a loose triangle, and were roughly 100 feet (ca. 30 m) in width and 230 feet (ca. 70 m) in height.
“You’re late!” Arashi barked, eyes narrowing.
“No, you’re just early.” Asuka bit back, her eyes issuing a challenge.
She really did have Arashi sussed.
Arashi greeted us at the exit of the town. Accompanying him was Shiro, Jiro, the twins, and Ryne. Ryne was a newcomer who had been introduced to us by Elise and Sheila a couple of days ago. The twins had run into her during their solo power-levelling spree between the 8th and 15th of December whilst we were busying ourselves questing and farming, and Ryne had taken an interest in their respective crafts. At her direction the twins had gathered a decent clientele by offering gear repairs at prices below that of the NPC vendors. Ryne was a business-savvy woman, you see, whom I guessed was in her early twenties. Her hair was jaw-length and blonde, her figure was curvaceous with a generous bust, round hips, and a slim waist. Her lightweight cloth and leather armour emphasized this figure well and the way she walked gave me the impression of a glamour model. If she took me to the side and told me that she was one in the real world I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest. That aside, her ability to see trends and read the market was exceptional, and we had already taken advantage of her insights to inflate our purses.
“Afternoon!” Ryne greeted, before walking over to Asuka. “Hello, Asuka. Any juicy details to share?”
“Ryne!! Behave yourself!”
“Aww, you’re no fun! You aren’t going to tell me anything? Nothing at all?”
I was pleased another woman had joined our ranks if only so Asuka had someone to talk to other than us men. Now all I had to do was figure out how to get Ryne off the topic of Asuka and me dating. It wasn’t that I was against the idea; quite the contrary, in fact. I would date her in a heartbeat. The thing was, Aincrad wasn’t exactly conducive to a healthy relationship. Then again it wasn’t conducive to looking after two 12-year old girls either.
I stepped forward and put my arm around Asuka.
“Now now, Ryne. Some things we just can’t discuss. Especially with young ears around.”
At times the twins made quite an effective scapegoat.
“Are we done?” Shiro asked. “If we’re going to get through this schedule you and Arashi have drawn up for today, we’d better start now.”
The schedule that Shiro referred to was our plan to start both the Elf War and guild quest today. We’d do the guild quest first with a party of 6 -- the maximum allowed at one time by the system. Following the guild quest resolution we’d split into two parties to take on the Elf War, all the while benefiting from slightly elevated stats from being guild members. The campaign quest allowed one to take on the side of either the Dark Elves or the Forest Elves. Arashi and I talked it through yesterday and decided that it would be best to do both sides simultaneously, even if it meant splitting our manpower. I would lead Team A which would include myself, Asuka and Shiro. Arashi would lead Team B which comprised himself, Jiro and Ryne. Elise and Sheila would party with me up through the initial events of the quest to gain access to the Dark Elf controlled areas, at which point I’d escort them back to town to continue their crafting endeavours.
For now though all six of us were together. Until we returned with the guild insignia the twins would stay here in Zumfut, with their «Vendor Carpets» in-hand, selling their wares.
I took them to the side.
“Are you two going to be alright?” I was genuinely concerned. “We’ll be in and out of instanced areas so you won’t always be able to message me.”
Elise nodded her head energetically but I knew better than that. I had watched the girls quite closely ever since they had come into my care, and I was getting to the point I knew when they weren’t being entirely honest. I looked at Sheila.
“... We won’t leave the safe-zone.” Sheila answered. “Promise! Besides, the DKB are here in Zumfut. Shivata’s really nice! We told Mr. Lind that we’d look after his guilds gear for a while, at a special price, if Shivata stays with us for a while.”
I happened to know Shivata. In fact, I knew most of the front-line members either as casual acquaintances or actual friends. Well, as friendly as you can be with people you’ve never met in real life, whose only shared experience is being trapped in a death game. Boy does that sound weird. Kibaou and Lind were both on my friends list; though that was mostly for information sharing, rather than actual conversation. Argo too, though my relationship with her was a little stronger. We’d met in the beta for example so at least there was a little shared history. There were a few others I knew and thankfully Shivata was one of them.
“Yeah, he’s a solid guy.”
The twins skipped away and I noticed an «Iron Mail»-wearing man armed with a one-handed sword and shield follow behind the girls closely. I fired off a message of thanks to Shivata, who raised his hand and waved rather than reply, and shortly the three were out of my sight.
“Those girls are lucky to have you.” Ryne said. “Do you know they tell people you’re their brother?”
Arashi snorted; one of the most genuine expressions of laughter I had seen from the man since we got stuck in this death game, and I flashed him the middle finger.
“No, but that doesn’t matter. They could introduce me as worst. Anyway! We’ve wasted enough time! Onward, people.”
The guild quest took one to a public dungeon inhabited by large poisonous spiders. The Boss was a particularly large Queen Spider labelled in-game as «Nephila Regina». Of course, the difficult part wasn’t the battle itself -- our Levels and numbers would let us pretty much cake-walk the dungeon, and there was also the fact Arashi, Ryne and myself were beta testers. Sword Art Online, at least at this point, was pretty much old hand to us by now. Rather, the difficulty would actually be in finding her lair. The cave where she resided was a randomly generated public dungeon, and because it was public and not instanced, we wouldn’t be getting any chests. Ryne had already been to this cave yesterday gathering materials for Elise to use in various potions, and the place had been picked clean before she got there. Probably by Kirito and Asuna, now that I was thinking. Regardless, we made good time. I didn’t know if spider queens existed in real life or not but in short order «Nephila Regina» was reduced to little more than polygons. Asuka and I weren’t the only ones whose equipment had seen a sizeable improvement.
“This is barely even a challenge any more.” Arashi remarked.
“Isn’t that the point?” I answered.
“I’m certainly not complaining.” Shiro replied. “You just about done, Jiro?”
He was finishing off the last of the spider’s who had rushed to save their queen.
Jiro had netted himself a powerful spear made using Zagan’s horns twisted round like a rope which culminated in a viciously sharp tip. It strengthened his «Armour Pierce» Skill in the same manner my «Martial Arts Leg Guards» strengthened my «Martial Arts» Skill. While powerful in its own right -- it probably outshone my «Scimitar» +8 (5S3D) at present -- what made it truly frightening was its additional trait: Level 2 Paralysis poison. The organ generating the lightning breath attack that almost spelled my end had dropped for Arashi, which he had given to Jiro. The spear was dubbed «Crimson Tide» and it scared the hell out of me. Why, you ask? We couldn’t protect against that at the moment! The potions required to cure it, the Skills capable of resisting it, or equipment rendering one immune to the poison? Yeah, we had nothing. The closest we came was equipment offering mild resistance and even that wasn’t guaranteed. Now, what made paralysis so frightening? The minimum duration of any paralysis effect was 10 minutes. I’ll let that sink in. 10 minutes. In an ordinary MMO that could be dealt with -- you could rinse and repeat, try again. SAO did not have that luxury. In Sword Art Online paralysis was a death sentence, plain and simple. Spear aside, he had a new silver-coloured cuirass embossed with a bull on the front. This gave a flat boost of +2 to Strength and Vitality and a +4 boost to Agility. Not bad for a piece that only incorporated a single equipment slot.
Our return was a lot quicker. It was barely past 15:00 when we walked through the gates of Zumfut and approached the marketplace.
Shivata greeted me with a wave and left soon after I gave him my thanks for watching the girls. Speaking of the girls, they really were in their element. Elise had set up her «Vendor’s Carpet» with three small tables and two display racks. The first of the tables held various pieces of confectionery and various pieces of Christmas-themed handkerchiefs, the second had various boots and gloves, whilst the third had various potions arrayed in neat rows. The display racks, which sat behind both her and the tables, held the actual armours she had created which ranged from various suits of leather to lightweight cloth. There was even three full kimonos on display! Sheila was likewise occupied. Her «Vendor’s Carpet» sported a portable forge and anvil; this allowed her to either enhance and repair weapons, or enhance and repair gear. Three racks sat arranged in a somewhat haphazard fashion in a loose semi-circle away from the forge and anvil, and these had formerly held various suits of armour ranging from lightweight all the way up to heavy metal. There was also various swords, from one-handed straight edges to one-handed curved, alongside several shield designs.
I walked up and stood behind Sheila. She smiled over at me, waved in greeting, and then returned to her customers.
The one standing in line right now sported strikingly white-coloured hair, was little more than 12 or 13 if he were a day, and wielded the same classification of weapon I did: one-handed curved sword. In fact, he was actually carrying a «Scimitar» like me.
“I’ll have four enhancements please, for the time being. I have the materials. All to sharpness.”
I was about to step forward but Sheila spoke up. She sounded so confident that I stopped in my tracks to watch instead.
“... That’s fine, but I would reconsider at least one of those enhancements. You see, the «Scimitar» may be powerful, but it has one major flaw: it is prone to damage along the edge, especially when placed under stress. I see you don’t use a shield? You’ll be using it to block. With that in mind, I suggest at least one to Durability.”
I only approached when she waved me over.
“This is Kishi. Like you he has a «Scimitar» and I’ve been mending his gear for a while now.”
“What she just told you,” I began, “is spot-on.”
I drew my own «Scimitar» and held the black-sheathed blade out before me. It shined to show that it had been buffed to the max. The kid’s turquoise eyes nearly popped right out of his skull.
“I’ve sunk three Durability enhancements into this blade. The other five were Sharpness. Like an «Anneal Blade» it’ll do you until the early 4th Floor. At a push it’ll carry through the 4th Floor but I wouldn’t test it beyond that.”
“... Thanks for the suggestion, but I don’t have the materials for a Durability enhancement.”
He actually sounded quite dejected.
“That’s fine!” Sheila answered quickly. “I have the materials here. Maybe we could trade? You cover my materials with your own, and we’ll call it even?”
Overall, I was quite impressed. Not just with how Sheila handled things, mind you, but by the white-haired kid’s attitude as well. The system employed for enhancements was generous to a certain degree; again I was coming back to the whole thing about Sword Art Online being fundamentally fair. Don’t tell Kayaba, alright? I’d like that to be a surprise for when I kick him in the ass, throw him from a window, and listen to him squeal like a banshee before going SPLAT! Back on-topic though: The degree of success dropped significantly once an item reached +4. Since that was where the kid said he was stopping he was more-or-less guaranteed to be successful so long as he had the required materials, and would soon be sporting a «Scimitar» +4. It was as I said; he thanked Sheila profusely, bowed his head to me, and walked off towards Elise’s stall. Once there, he spoke to her for a time about various pieces of equipment. The deal was struck and in mere seconds various cloth and leather pieces that had been hanging on the rack that looked vaguely like Edward Kenway’s modified assassin’s robes from Assassin’s Creed disappeared from their hangers and materialized on the young man’s body instead. I was there when Elise had made those particular pieces. Upper-body, gloves, legs, feet and waist; the «Outlaw Coat», the «Outlaw Metal Bracers», «Outlaw Breeches», «Outlaw Cavalier Boots» and the «Outlaw Leather Belt».
Rather than ask I looked over to the sign that sat between their two stalls: “Here until 17:00”, in big bold letters, followed by “DKB members 50% off”. So, that left just under an hour and a half to kill.
“Kishi,” Shiro beckoned over to me, “Arashi and Ryne said they would stay with the girls. With that in-mind Jiro and I we’re planning to get a little grinding in for an hour. We found this perfect place near an old gnarled oak tree. It was pretty much deserted.”
There was a reason for that. Well, assuming it was unchanged from the beta, that was.
“Yeah, and if they haven’t changed anything, its deserted for a good reason. Fallen elves can spawn there -- one of the few places on the Floor they do if you haven’t accepted the Elf War campaign.”
“And what’s wrong with Fallen elves?” Asuka asked, with none of her deviousness in evidence.
“Easy: weapons with Level 1 paralysis. I won’t stop you from going, just be careful.”
The big man grinned wide.
“Will do. Jiro, we’re heading out!”
“Later, everyone.” Jiro added.
I turned to the twins.
“We’ll take it easy for a bit. Meet us in the «Lofty Perch» when you’re both done here, and we’ll get the guild formed after. Oh, and Elise! Save me one of those tasty jelly-looking tart-things. My belly is screaming FEED ME!!”
And that’s just what we did. The «Lofty Perch» was influenced by the Elven theme of this particular Floor. The food on offer was distinctly vegetable themed and I ended up settling on something vaguely resembling sliced eggplant.
“I miss meat already,” I huffed.
“Here, you big baby.”
She materialized a few long pieces of charred jerky from her inventory and handed them off to me. The NPC waiter serving our dishes gave us a sidelong look when I popped a few bits into my mouth.
“Hmmmm, gotta love the cow floor.”
It wasn’t anything flashy or involved. When the twins were finished and Shiro and Jiro had made it back safely, we collectively turned in the insignia obtained from the spider’s cave, thus completing the guild quest. This insignia became a modifiable item, allowing the party to choose the insignia, name, and colours for their guild. We had a number of conversations about names and such, and the consensus was «Brightscale». Our colours were white and, according to Ryne, this signified a sense of safety. I wasn’t particularly into my colour symbolism to know what white meant and I wasn’t going to argue with her about it, either. White it was.
Ryne had also insisted that our abbreviation be «BS» -- that got quite a laugh from Arashi and me, but Ryne was completely serious. Apparently, the term BS meant something else in Great Britain, other than being shorthand for the excrement that drops from a bull’s backside. In Great Britain BS was the abbreviation used for the British Standard Institution. Since Ryne was confident of getting a tourist company up and running at some point I suppose that the BS indicated our seriousness in addressing standards for safety, the same way Elise and Sheila had standards in the gear they put up for sale. Given that SAO was a death game now safety for anything involving other players was a very serious matter. We ran with it. Our logo reinforced this -- a kite mark, adorned with bright scales. The kite mark, supposedly, was used by the British Standard Institution to identify products where safety was paramount.
That said, we still had a few things to settle. And that was leadership.
Unexpectedly, there wasn’t an argument. In fact, Arashi grasped me by the shoulder and smiled.
“I vote for Kishi. He is our ‘people person’, after all.”
The twins, naturally, voted for me as well. They were followed quickly by Shiro and Asuka; Jiro and Ryne claimed there was no need to vote now, saying I had five of the seven votes. Arashi was a leader, true, but his skills translated solely to the battlefield. Which is exactly why I offered the following compromise:
“I’ll lead the guild so long as Arashi is our Raid Leader.”
“Raid leader?” Asuka asked.
“What he did against Zagan.” Shiro provided. “I can agree with that. At least this way we’ll find a use for his loud voice.”
With us all in agreement we split the party into Teams A and B in preparation for the second phase of today's schedule. Arashi and I did our best to split the strengths equally, and I think we accomplished this quite well. Arashi was the Tank of his team, Jiro was the primary DPS, and Ryne wielded a «Chakram». This allowed for powerful ranged attacks -- something very rare for Sword Art Online, which did not feature magical attacks like the classical Fireball. Shiro was the tank of my Team A, I served as primary DPS, and Asuka was our crowd controller. Although she lacked the ranged options Ryne possessed, Asuka was versatile. I hadn’t learned this until recently, but she had both «Trap Dismantling» and «Picking» slotted. Given her stat distribution and focus she was more or less embodying the classical Thief archetype.
“... Look after yourself.” Arashi whispered to me.
“... And you.”
By the end of the day, at exactly 23:48, our respective parties had cleared up through the first four quests of the Elf War campaign.