This article, SAOK: The Twin Sword Conundrum, is the seventh chapter of Sword Art Online (Kenji).
December 22nd 2022, 03:15 in the early morning.
You would be forgiven for thinking I was the only person up and about at this ridiculous hour, but sadly that just wasn’t the case. I happened to know that Asuka, Shiro and Jiro were up and about as well. The threesome were doing some quests only available in the early hours, and I had decided to leave them to it for a time. I had also seen a few members of both the DKB and ALS out despite the early hour. Maybe this signified a change of focus? I just hoped they weren’t burning the candles at both ends. The accepted norm at the moment was quest during the day and rest at night. Very different from how things had been in the beta, but we weren’t trapped in the game during the beta and had full access to the «Log Out» button.
Anyway, my decision not to go with Asuka, Shiro and Jiro had irked Asuka a little. Why was she annoyed, though? I may have kind of promised to do a dedicated levelling session with her. So, yeah. She had not been pleased. Not that I could blame her, really. I was starting to make a habit of this.
Her already frosty look dropped by about twenty degrees.
“So you aren’t coming?” She asked me.
“Naw, I want to try something out.” I answered. “I’ll be back around 7:00 or 8:00. Then we can hit the levelling, as promised.”
“What are you trying this time?” She asked.
The time before being when I exploited the system in her company to chain Sword Skills from my one-handed curved sword Skill into my «Martial Arts» Sword Skills. This, of course, had become a corner-stone of my damage-focused build. In fact, the only players I actually knew who had «Martial Arts» equipped at present was Kirito and Ryne. And I wouldn’t be shocked if Kirito arrived at the same chaining exploit I had and was using it with impunity. If -- and it would happen eventually -- the rest of the player-base knew about the possibility they’d probably go gaga over it. I mean, who wouldn’t look at the possibility of hitting an enemy with two potential Sword Skills in quick succession whilst suffering only a single «Post Motion» delay, and not slot the Skills required to perform it for themselves? It was the kind of exploit that would start off under wraps before quickly going viral.
See? Very Beater-like of me. Maybe the term was beginning to grow on me? But you really want to know the best bit? It hadn’t been corrected by a patch and I had been maliciously abusing it.
“Knowing Kishi,” Shiro interjected, “he’s looking to exploit the system again and doesn’t want us there encase he fails. Image and all that.”
Jiro even laughed at me. It was scary how spot on he was with his assessment though.
“What’ll it be this time? You’ve already got «Wall Running» down pat.” Shiro continued, his grin revealing it was all in good fun. “You plan to go full Messiah on us and start «Water Walking» next?”
“...... Now there’s an idea.” I answered, completely serious.
“Please, don’t give him any ideas!” Asuka answered sharply. It was only then that her expression relaxed, and she lost the frosty edge to her delicate features. “Besides, if that head of his gets any bigger, it won’t fit into a helmet any more.”
“Did I wrong you two in a past life?” I bit back. “Besides, I don’t wear helmets. Elise would kill me if I wrecked the style she so painstakingly maintains for me.”
Just because you were stuck in a death game didn’t mean you have to be serious all the time. Nothing wrong with a bit of friendly banter.
Shiro and Jiro turned in the direction of Zumfut’s gate which led out into the greater «Forest of Wavering Mists» whilst I turned my attention towards the teleport plaza, my eyes set on the wide-open rock-dotted plains of the 2nd Floor. Asuka did not move and looked first towards Shiro and Jiro before she then glanced in my direction. Most of the player-base who filled their day with questing or farming were either here on the 3rd Floor or making their way up to the 4th Floor, which had been opened with the successful clearing of the 3rd Floor labyrinth and defeat of «Nerius the Evil Treant». Again, we hadn’t been involved, either in the labyrinth clearing or the Boss battle itself, and somehow that didn’t bother me at the moment. I had responsibilities, after all. Even Arashi was coming around to the reality of our situation, not that he would admit it, of course.
“Good luck, boss-man.” Joked Shiro. “Come on, Jiro, we’ve got Fallen to kill.”
Asuka, however, didn’t immediately turn around to walk away. Maybe Shiro had foreseen this? Her sparkling brown eyes kept looking to where my HP would be had I still been a member of the party, and I was fairly sure I knew what she was thinking. One of the times I went off on my own I had become so engrossed in my endeavour -- increasing my proficiency in «Martial Arts» if you’ll recall -- that I ran out of HP potions and only returned to town when I unlocked the «Relax Equipment Conditions» mod that would allow me to use «Martial Arts» even whilst equipped with a weapon in my main-hand weapon slot. My HP at the time had fallen into the red and Asuka had force-fed me a potion upon my return to town whilst thoroughly admonishing me for my wanton disregard for my own life.
I realized after about thirty seconds that she wasn’t going to let me go alone.
“You’ve got a bad track record for this kind of thing.” She said finally.
“Can’t argue with that. So, are you coming then?”
“We’ll catch you two later!” I called after my comrades.
Shiro only waved his hand at me without turning around. Jiro, however, was chuckling to himself. They made quite a sight walking off -- Jiro dressed as a lancer who’d been deprived of his horse, and Shiro looking quite literally like a walking heap of bones. His armour was dubbed «Suit of the Exile» and while the system identified it as «Heavy Metal Armour» the entire suit comprised bone and leather and, like our own newly minted equipment, had come from materials dropped by «Zagan the Exile». It was form-fitting and in possession of the same «Lightweight» property that Arashi’s «Armour of Xiphias» possessed. The helmet, which he wouldn’t wear unless assured of battle, sported two forward-pointing horns and a T-shaped visor. Stat-wise it boosted Strength by 14, Vitality by 22, and provided resistance to Paralysis effects. In fact, it was currently the only item our guild had encountered that could theoretically stand against the potent Level 2 Paralysis possessed by Jiro’s «Crimson Tide». Statistically it wasn’t as imposing as Arashi’s «Armour of Xiphias» but it wasn’t far off. Our Tanks were actually extremely well-equipped.
If you hadn’t guessed already, Jiro’s «Crimson Tide» scared the hell out of me. Back during my time in the beta I was a player killer so well-known my fellow festers had nicknamed me «The Reaper». The truth was this: if I had that spear during my beta days I’d have terrorized the testers even more than I had. You see, I hadn’t been a one-build man back then. If I found something effective then I swapped my Skills to accommodate it. In the wrong hands, say in the hands of someone willing to rob other players like Loki, then that Paralysis Level 2 effect could lead to something very bad. I couldn’t stop picturing my friends laying on the floor with a lightning bolt status effect floating beside their name on my display.
That spear shouldn’t exist. But there was nothing I could do about it. I could only take solace in the fact someone like Jiro had it and not someone less responsible.
I turned back to Asuka.
“Here, you might want to eat this.”
“Oh, my favourite!”
She regarded my gift, smiled, and ate it quickly. In seconds the familiar DoT buff, indicated by a poor man suffering bleeding wounds with a little + sign beside him, blinked into existence at the same time her name appeared below mine to signify the two of us forming a party.
So much for my solo play. It looked likely that I’d be partying up with Asuka for the rest of my Sword Art Online career. Yet that didn’t bother me. I barely knew her three weeks and already I couldn’t imagine being stuck in this game without her. Why? Couldn’t answer that. I didn’t understand my own feelings myself! All I know is, when I look to my right and see her standing there beside me, I feel happy. Secure. My worry even took a back-seat when I was with her. In a sick kind of way, I was thankful to Kayaba. Yeah, yeah. I know. I’ve been thinking about throwing him from the nearest tall window with various embellishments depending on my mood at the time ever since I got trapped in this game, and now I’m thanking the guy? Trust me, I do see the irony. But you tell me: where else would I meet a woman like Asuka? I’m a gamer! I go for a run in the morning and spar with Arashi to keep myself in shape, and go to the occasional club at the weekend, but I’ve never met someone I can honestly say I can be myself around. When I tell the girls I’m a professional gamer they look at me like I’ve suddenly contracted a terminal disease!
Yet here Asuka was, despite knowing of my profession.
“Thanks,” I said.
“I will accept payment in more confectionery.”
Our journey was quick. As far as our Levels went, I was 15 and Asuka was 13. We were well above the safety margin on this Floor and, as a result, we pretty much breezed our way through most of the monsters on the 2nd Floor without breaking stride. Even the once-dangerous «Trembling Ox» was reduced to polygonal oblivion in quick order when faced with our stats and weapons. We didn’t stop until we hit the very location where I had earlier chained my Sword Skills. The buzzing of various large insects signalled we had arrived and unlike the last time we were here Asuka showed none of the fear and hesitation she had before. Asuka was allergic to insect stings, such as wasps and bees, and was understandably hesitant to face insects in Sword Art Online. This probably had more to do with their size than anything else: the «Windwasp» alone was roughly 50 cm in length! This alone made it larger than any insect native to the real world, yet they were perhaps the smallest monster in Aincrad.
“So, now that we’re here, what exactly are you attempting to do?”
My grin almost split my face in two.
“... I was about to say that’s impossible, but I’ve seen you exploit the system before.” She said, looking completely unsurprised. “So, how are you going to attempt it? I mean, you’ll drop into an «Irregular Equipment» state, won’t you?”
“... You’ve been polishing up on your gaming knowledge, I see.”
“I had a good teacher. But seriously. What’s your plan?”
“Equip another sword.”
Luckily, I had just such a weapon — my backup one-handed curved sword for when my «Scimitar» neared the limits of its durability and I still had questing and farming to do. This was my «Pale Edge: the selfsame curved-sword wielded by Lind. He was the leader of the Dragon Knight’s Brigade which itself was one of the two largest guilds in Sword Art Online at present. This sword was slightly wider than my preferred «Scimitar», roughly the same length and weight, and sported a bar-shaped guard and a notched hilt with a gently curving pommel. I had got it back during the 10th of December and had upgraded it to +4 Sharpness shortly before setting off with Asuka.
“First and foremost, I want to see what limbs that «Irregular Equipped» state applies to.” I clarified.
“Why would limbs be important?”
I decided to show her rather than explain it. I grabbed aggro on the nearest «Windwasp» and casually blocked its stinger attack by crossing both my blades in an X-shape and slashing upwards. My Strength was sufficient for the task and the wasp found itself reeling backwards. Before it could flutter out of reach however I dropped into the «Pre-Motion» for «Crescent Moon». I stepped forward with my left leg and impacted the ground hard before the system cycled me through the animation, my right leg glowing with the indicative colour of an impending Sword Skill. My foot impacted the «Windwasp» in its slim middle section, the force of my kick separating its small body into two halves! Within seconds these twin halves burst into polygons.
Asuka was nodding her head.
“The status only applies to your arms.” She concluded. “But aside from Sword Skills that focus on kicking alone, you won’t do much damage.”
She was right too. In Sword Art Online, there were roughly three broad categories of damage-dealing attacks. The first was the type most familiar to the players trapped in the game, and this was Sword Skills. This included my charging attack «Reaver» and Asuka’s «Acute Vault». The second familiar type of damage was monster abilities. Creatures such as the «Windwasp» I had just defeated did not wield weapons of any kind and used their own bodies or special effects to do damage. If you think back to our good friend «Zagan the Exile» you’ll recall how he used both Sword Skills and monster abilities. His «Lightning Breath» was an example of a unique monster Skill completely unusable by the player populace. The third type of damage was from basic attacks. These were usable by all players but did virtually no damage. As things stood I would only be able to inflict serious damage using my «Martial Arts» Skill-tree, and even then I would be restricted to Sword Skills relying solely on the use of my legs.
“I think it’s all about timing.”
I just wasn’t sure how I could twist the timing to my favour.
“How so?” Asuka asked. “I mean, you can’t launch Sword Skills period, unless they use your legs.”
“Well, we already know there’s a small window following a Sword Skill and the user dropping into their «Post-Motion» delay. Maybe I can exploit that window again?”
“I don’t know. This all seems rather complicated for not very much gain.”
Again, she wasn’t wrong. But this had been a goal of mine since my time in the beta. Could dual-wielding actually be useful in Aincrad? It was already available for anyone to use: the problem was efficiency and usability. You had the benefit of two weapons boosting your stats but at the same time you couldn’t put these stats to effective use because your damage was tanked into the floor because of your inability to launch powerful Sword Skills. I tested various tactics over the next hour with only marginal success. It was certainly possible to dual-wield — all it required was the equipping of two one-handed weapons, and that was what gave me the impression it was implemented on purpose. Why else would it be possible? If it couldn’t be used wouldn’t it make more sense for the off-hand to be relegated to shields? There was probably a Skill for it and if there was it would certainly be interesting.
I was about to throw my hands up and surrender when I noticed Asuka do something completely surprising.
Her «Dire Wolf Claws» vanished from her hand and in their place rested a «Throwing Pick». I knew for a fact she did not possess the «Throwing Blade» Skill, but she nevertheless struck the retreating «Windwasp» on its right wing, causing its flight to significantly slow. This allowed her to swiftly switch back to her claws and dispatch her target before it could fly beyond the reach of her weapon. Quite brilliant, I had to admit. The almost instantaneous switch would only be possible with the «Quick Change» modification, meaning she had taken that as an option when her proficiency in «Wild Dance» had allowed her to select an additional «Mod». Beyond that though it gave me an idea.
When I walked towards her I kissed her quickly on the cheek and expressed my thanks.
“What are you thanking me for!?”
You can imagine my delight that she didn’t object to the kiss.
Probably the best way was just to show her. I approached a group of three «Windwasps» at a run! I didn’t attack immediately though; instead, I pierced the earth with the blade of my «Scimitar» and released my grip on the hilt. Luckily this did exactly what I hoped it would: it dispelled the «Irregular Equipped» state I had been under, which of course freed me to use Sword Skills. I immediately lashed out with «Fell Crescent» -- a one-handed area-of-effect curved Sword Skill which struck out in a circle whose range depended on the weapons length combined with the user’s arm-length. It was one of the few Sword Skills were a lankier person could use it more effectively. My «Pale Edge» cut in a wide circular motion and in the brief window of time between the Sword Skill ending and the «Post Motion» kicking in I immediately dropped the blade and, with my dominant hand, grasped the hilt of the «Scimitar» earlier sheathed within the earth. Since I dropped my «Pale Edge» I was no longer considered to be dual-wielding and I immediately launched the basic two-hit combination attack «Leaver» on the sole remaining «Windwasp»!
All this in the brief window between the first Sword Skill ending and the «Post Motion» beginning. Damn, I was on fire!
“... No way…!” Asuka exclaimed.
I leapt into the air and pumped my fist in celebration!
“How did you even come up with that?” She asked me.
“You gave me the idea.” I admitted. “You’ve got the «Quick Change» mod, haven’t you?”
She looked momentarily surprised but quickly grasped at the fundamentals of what I was saying.
“Still, that’s amazing. Are you going to practice it?”
“Yeah, for a little while at least.”
The conclusion I came to when we finally returned to Urbus was that dual-wielding was certainly possible. The style had its pros and cons, with more of the latter than the former, with one glaring con being its impracticality. Still, it was usable, and anything I could add to my arsenal that gave me an option — even if that option only applied to once in a million situation — was something I’d grasp with both hands. Sword Art Online was a death game. Survival didn’t always boil down to skill and luck; at times it came from plain old ingenuity and how well you could adapt the few Skills you did possess to the situation at hand. If that meant abusing the mother-loving hell out of the system that governed everything in this game, then so be it. I’d abuse it willingly.
Again, very Beater-like of me. And I didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of it.
It had just turned 08:20.
“You want to grab a bite to eat before heading up to the 4th Floor?” Asuka asked me.
“You bet. I could eat an entire cow.”
“We’re certainly on the right floor.”
Once again we settled on the «Moo Moo Milk» establishment as our restaurant of choice. I drank Aincrad’s version of coffee, which had a sweeter taste than I was generally used to in the real world, whilst Asuka settled on a cup of unsweetened hot chocolate. Our drinks were accompanied by small pastries and cold cuts of ham and cheese. This was dry-cut and, according to Asuka, was likely equivalent to prosciutto, which was tasty with a slight salty kick. The savoury bread went well with the ham and I thoroughly enjoyed it. We decided against the «Moo Moo Cheesecake» at this time and instead ordered the takeaway variety, which was then spirited away into our inventories.
“What’s the 4th Floor like?”
“In the beta, it was a dusty wasteland. I didn’t hang around it much.”
So you can imagine my surprise when we stepped out onto the teleport plaza of Rovia. The dusty and plain design of the beta was nowhere in evidence; instead of dull grey stone buildings whose entrances were located on the second floor and accessed by way of a staircase, the town was filled with waterways and gondolas! The white-hued stone walls of the buildings and the flowing water of the canals gave the impression of a chalk city floating on a square lake.
Not what I was expecting.
“It’s just like Venice!” Asuka squeaked.
“The Italian city with all the boats?” I asked.
Of course, one place my feet had never set foot in was Venice. My whole experience with the city was from my time playing the Assassin Creed series of video games, where the player navigates the game world from the perspective of Ezio Auditore da Firenze.
“Yup. So, what does this mean? Your beta knowledge likely won’t apply to this Floor.”
She might have a point.
“... I guess we’ll see!”
There would come a time when being a beta tester would mean absolutely nothing anyway. This would occur when we hit the 10th Floor, which was the extent of the beta testers advancement at the time the beta period concluded. My own knowledge extended only to the 9th Floor, which is where the «Elf War» concluded. I had completed the aforementioned campaign quest on the side of the Dark Elves whilst Arashi had completed it on the side of the Forest Elves. Would the stigma unfairly attached to the beta testers stop at that point? Or would the animosity linger like a cancer?
Another thing only time would tell.
“Hey, Earth to Kishi!”
“Sorry! What’s up?”
“Where are we off to?”
“Bear forest. If it exists, that is.”
It did, but just like the main town of Rovia the forest was different in the official release as well. Before it had been a dry and desolate forest completely opposite to the forests of the 3rd Floor, which had brimmed with life. Now this forest was brimming with life! I couldn’t see the sky for the canopy of branches above my head, the floor was slick with moss, and little sprigs were growing all over the place. The monsters, as expected of a location called «Bear Forest», mostly consisted of large bears. As was usual in Sword Art Online these bears were larger than their real-life counterparts and highly belligerent; they attacked on-sight with powerful claw attacks, had a tendency to throw their considerable bulk behind a charge, and were capable of taking considerable punishment. I was able to cancel their attacks out with a Sword Skill of my own, thus establishing me as the highest hate target, and Asuka cut in smoothly to slash at them with their claws. We continued battling up through the afternoon and stopped only when we had put a noticeable dent in our experience bars.
“I see you didn’t try to dual wield again.” She noted.
“Not until I’ve had a helluva lot more practice.” I admitted. “Too risky. Without having the timing down pat, I’d only be a liability. And here every mistake could be your last.”
She smiled at that.
“I’m glad to see you’re finally learning.”
“I had a good teacher.”
We were about to walk away when I stopped dead in my tracks. I hadn’t been sure of my feelings before today, but they were starting to become clear to me. I liked Asuka -- it was just as Arashi had said, back on the 2nd Floor.
“Asuka,” she turned her head towards me. “How about we take tomorrow off? Do something normal?”
“Like a date. No swords, no monsters, no guild. Just you and me doing something normal.”
When she didn’t immediately answer me I had to admit that my heart was in my mouth. I was about to run off and stick my head in the sand when, at last, she smiled.
“... I do like boat trips.”
Never mind doing nothing tomorrow. We did absolutely nothing for the rest of the day. Even when Arashi, joined by Ryne and the twins, asked us if we wanted to join them for a while, we both declined. By the evening, we were sitting in the double room we had rented in an inn called «The Unsinkable Lady», with a hearty fire blazing away in the background. The two of us were dressed in black-coloured kimonos with white undergarments and black bottoms, which had been created en masse by Elise to serve as a casual uniform of sorts. On our arms were simple armbands emblazoned with the kitemark symbol that served as our guilds sigil. The romantic air was shattered when someone knocked on the door and, despite myself, I groaned aloud. Asuka merely chuckled. Upon opening the door however, I discovered a metallic tray with an assortment of what I guessed where potato chips, various types of nuts, and a bottle of wine. It wouldn’t get us drunk but it would certainly add to the atmosphere.
A note, however, caught my eye:
«Don’t say I never do anything for you.»
There was no name attached but I knew immediately who had left it there: my childhood friend and wingman, Arashi.
God bless that man.
“We’ve got room service.” I announced.
“I didn’t know NPC’s did that.”
“They don't. Arashi does though.”
We never left the room for the rest of the night.