This article, SAOK: Unexpected Meetings, is the opening chapter of Sword Art Online (Kenji). It features Kenji Hiroshi, Kusaka Kori and Airi Natsume, under the online names of «Kishi», «Arashi» and «Asuka» respectively.
December 3rd 2022, 1st Floor of Aincard, approx. 12:45.
My name is Kenji Hiroshi, tagged under the “system” as «Kishi», and like 10,000 other unfortunate souls I’m serving at the pleasure of madman Kayaba Akihiko, who happens to be the arguably deranged warden of the prison that is Sword Art Online. I’m fairly confident that, should I ever actually meet the man in person, I’d be well within my rights to defenestrate him! After having blasted every tooth he had down his throat and preferably throwing him from a height of several stories that would allow the tech genius to hit terminal velocity. He’d go tumbling out the window, screaming like a banshee, and I’d be grinning like a Cheshire cat even after he became a bloody stain on the ground below.
Ah, if only. Still, a guy can dream, right? Or is the “system” monitoring that too?
I’m sure you already know this but Kayaba Akihiko is the creator and game master of the world’s very first VRMMORPG -- that’s Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game, on the off-chance you didn’t know. Pretty long-winded acronym, eh? The game in question was Sword Art Online. But why would I show such hostility to the man himself? That was quite easy. SAO wasn’t your average game. Oh, no. This thing defied normality. How so? You couldn’t log out of the blasted thing! Kayaba Aki bloody Hiko, in his infinite wisdom, has turned what was supposed to be a groundbreaking game into a damned prison!
Okay, okay. I may be overreacting a little, so I apologize. But it could be argued that my annoyance is well justified. What if I told you the device responsible for creating this virtual world -- the NerveGear -- was designed in such a way that it fried your brain with microwaves should your avatar die in-game? You’d probably look at me like I’d suddenly sprouted a second head or something, and ordinarily I’d have the same reaction. Except I’m telling the truth. Not only has Sword Art Online been turned into a prison with a population of 10,000 people, but it’s also a death game were a single mistake can spell disaster.
You could trip over a poorly placed pebble in the road and take a tumble into a river, for example, and should you be wearing heavy armour and sink to the bottom, you can consider your goose cooked. An embarrassing death, to be sure, but it’s the only life you have in this game.
There are no do-overs. No reset buttons. Maybe now you’ll agree that my fantasy of throwing Kayaba Akihiko from the nearest window isn’t all that unreasonable.
“You’re making that face again,”
“There’s a face?” I answered.
“Oh, yeah. Can’t miss it. Your right eye twitches every time you think of The Warden.”
My companion, in the real world, was called Kusaka Kori. In-game he was known as «Arashi», and he had been my constant companion since the day this game started. He was a well-built, if somewhat intimidating looking man, of 26 years, and my old school buddy. He was decked out in a full set of «Iron Armour»; it was the kind that made him go ‘clink’ ‘clink’ every time he took a step. The only piece of the set that was not being worn was the helmet, which Arashi claimed stifled his vision, whilst making him feel like he was wearing a bucket on his head. I had to admit to having a slight chuckle to myself when I pictured my old friend with an old medieval-style bucket helm on his head.
Our day had been pretty uneventful so far. Farm mobs, complete quests, and repair gear. We did this and watched our experience bars barely move. Arashi was the Tank -- the big heavy-armour wearing guy who soaked up all the damage whilst me, as the DPS, nuked everything that looked at us sideways. He was very good at his job too; I had barely been touched at all and even though we’d been questing for several hours, his own HP was hanging around 70%.
I was about to ask Arashi if he wanted to call it a day when the two of us stopped abruptly.
As I explained already, Sword Art Online was a death game now. One life, one chance. Most of the players trapped in the game had stayed in the Town of Beginnings, crippled by fear and indecision. There were a few however -- myself and Arashi included -- who had accepted the challenge laid down by Kayaba Akihiko and refused to bow to fear. We had stepped out of the safe zone and fought to strengthen ourselves. So had others. At the moment a scream like that could only have come from another player; and not just any other player, but one of the few who’d resolved to attempt and clear this game.
Arashi and I turned towards the sound.
"Kishi, over there!"
He pointed off towards the right.
I sighed as I activated my «Searching» Skill. My eyes were naturally a shade of aqua-green but when I used «Searching» my eyes began to glow with a mystifying green affect. It was like something straight out of some Halloween anime. What this did for me, however, outweighed the freakish look it gave me. «Searching» allowed me to detect things I usually wouldn’t be able to, such as other players and nearby monsters. If something was hidden, for example, I could reveal its location, assuming my proficiency was up to snuff, of course.
Thankfully it was.
I looked off towards the right as indicated by my companion. Two seconds passed and a green cursor and a red cursor flashed onto my display. Green was for player characters whilst red -- it was actually closer to pink thanks to my high level -- indicated a monster. I immediately sprang into action. The green cursor was close to the floor so the player had likely been knocked prone. If this was the case the player had likely suffered the Tumble status as well, which caused a Humanoid-type to fall and be temporarily unable to recover. This could very easily translate to death for a solo player. The monster was stalking around the cursor but it was only a matter of time.
“Let me reach…!”
Reaver may have been the most basic of the One-handed Curved Sword skill-tree but it was a skill that one could initiate on a charge. This particular Sword Skill was activated by lowering your stance and levelling the sword above your shoulder. The system assist, which kicked in to facilitate the activation of a Sword Skill, would then cycle you through the animation. Reaver was a one-hit attack delivered horizontally as you passed by the target. The system, thankfully, recognized the stance as the trigger, and shot me forward like a bullet! The monster I aimed myself at was a rare, large wolf with grey and white fur, identified in-game as an «Alpha Dire Wolf». It must have sensed, or perhaps smelled, my approach, because it turned to stare daggers at me -- or rather passed me, I noticed -- with shining red eyes.
The sound was very different to the howl of a wolf and that was because it was something else altogether. Arashi, pounding along a bit behind me, had used his «Howl» Skill to pull the aggro away from the downed player towards himself. The wolf bared its fangs in challenge, saliva dripping from its pointed teeth, but my animation was already in motion. Given my level of 12, which I shared at the moment with Arashi, and damage-focused build, the wolf exploded into thousands of polygonal shards as the curved edge of my «Scimitar» +4 struck home! My attack had done roughly 60% damage in one attack.
Arashi, as a tank in heavy armour, took about as long as it took me to kill the monster and get through my post-skill delay to catch up with me. I flashed him a quick thumbs-up for a job well-done and returned my «Scimitar» to the black sheath at my waist. With the immediate danger dealt with I turned to regard the player Arashi and I had just saved.
I had to admit to being surprised.
The player was female! My attitude might surprise you but it wasn’t born of sexism or anything remotely related. There were 10,000 people trapped in Sword Art Online and the simple fact was that the greater percentage of them were male. In fact, I hadn’t seen a single female player outside the Town of Beginnings.
"Ummm... thank you."
I hauled her to her feet to dispel the Tumble status a little quicker than it would resolve on its own. She was short; I’d guess no more than about 4ft 11in (ca. 150 cm), and if I had to guess her age I wouldn’t put her anything higher than 18 or 19, at a push. She wore a purple ribbon in her hair, was equipped with simple store-bought cloth armour that traded defensive coverage for maximum mobility, and had a pair of claws strapped to her belt. I thought they were the initial set given to new players but wasn’t 100% on that.
“I’m Kishi, and the guy sweating into his armour is Arashi. He might look mean…” I was going to say he was like a big kitten, but my mother had always told me not to lie during an introduction. “Okay, he is mean.”
"... I'm Asuka."
It would be later, much later, before she told me her real name was Airi Natsume and that, at the time I met her, she was 17 years old. But that's a story for another time. Right now I was standing in the open fields between the Town of Beginnings and Tolbana looking at a petite girl with short-cut black hair and a frightened expression on her face. I couldn’t blame her either. Sword Art Online was a fine mess to be stuck in.
Then Arashi went and opened his big-mouth.
"Look," Arashi began, "I'm not trying to be rude, but you shouldn't be out here alone. Tolbana is the closest area to the 1st Floor Labyrinth. This place is-!"
I cut in smoothly.
"Arashi, this isn't the time or the place, buddy. Asuka," and I made sure I was pronouncing that right before continuing, "your welcome to join us. Look, I don't agree with his delivery, but Arashi is right. You'll be safer travelling with us."
I could understand why she suddenly started crying. She had been mere seconds away from being eaten by a slobbering wolf! And now she was being chastised by a dude in heavy-armour who looked like a tin soldier. She wasn’t having the best of days.
And so it transpired that, roughly four weeks into this game of death, Arashi and myself found ourselves with a new companion. When we got to Tolbana she asked to stay with us and very nearly tripped over her own mouth as she explained that she was tired of being alone all the time. She joined our party and a third name appeared in my eye-line: «Asuka» and the number beside her name was 5, indicating her level.
Keeping her around and helping her out would certainly slow our own progression, but we didn't care at that point. We had barely been levelling anyway. Asuka, you see, was truly a fresh breeze. What we saw as old and boring, she saw as new and refreshing, and it lifted our spirits immeasurably. This I realized after only an hour in her company. Arashi and I had been beta testers, you see, and this was half the reason we had been avoiding other players. There was a certain stigma attached to the beta testers trapped in SAO. People think we should be doing more to help the new players. Suffice to say I’d rather avoid that hot mess completely.
I can honestly say that meeting Asuka was what first got me thinking about forming a guild. But sadly that was only possible on the 3rd Floor and given the current state of things within the player-base that was a long way off. But we had farming to do before that.
"Come on, I know a mob that drops a nice pair of claws." I called. “I will warn you though, we’ll be fighting more wolves.”
She hesitated for only a moment before stepping up to my right-side. Judging by the hard set of her jaw she was probably trying to firm up her resolve and there was no way of knowing how she’d perform once she came face-to-face with the monster who had very nearly killed her. I was a firm believer in that the only way to conquer your fear was to face it.
"I bet this is going to be one of those infuriatingly low drop-rate things." Asuka answered quickly, trying to focus on something else.
"You'd be right." Arashi chimed in. "Monster drops or treasure loot is the most effective at the minute. But you can handle that job. I've finally tracked down my cousin."
All Arashi knew was that his cousin, Sojiro Kori, had been planning to play Sword Art Online along with a friend. He knew this because he had bragged loud and long that he had managed to secure two copies of the game. Sojiro, apparently, was a programmer for some tech company. He must have had friends in high places. I knew some people who’d lined up for almost three days to buy the retail version.
"Good luck!" I called, and his name disappeared from my party. “Shall we, Asuka?”
It took almost seven hours of tedious farming but I learned a great deal about my new partner in that time.
Asuka’s character build was as different from mine as mine was to Arashi’s. She appeared to have dumped almost everything into Agility. «Wild Dance» was the claw-focused Skill-tree so her having that slotted was almost a given considering her weapon of choice, and from what I could determine watching her movements as we fought the wolves, she had «Sprint» slotted. Her entire strategy involved attacking her target and avoiding its counter. It was effective, sure, and simple, but that was its main problem. The monsters in Sword Art Online could predict certain patterns of movement, especially when repeated. It paid not to rely too heavily on one method.
“Try to switch things up a bit.” I cautioned. “Don’t worry, I’ll be watching if you get into trouble.”
“Okay, I’ll try.”
In the end it transpired that Asuka got her claws and conquered her fear, all in one stroke, and I was suddenly aware of the fact I’d been up and about since the early hours of the morning, and that I hadn’t eaten anything since then. I wouldn’t blame you for raising an eyebrow in question at the thought of me being hungry. Wasn’t this supposed to be a virtual world? Why in the world should I be hungry? The truth, though, is that the NerveGear does a remarkable job of imitating the needs of the human body. Hunger and sleep were monitored by the system and both were required.
For the time being I munched on a piece of bread from my inventory -- at least it looked and tasted like bread -- as Asuka studied her new acquisition.
“Hey, you weren’t wrong about these claws.” She said. “Agility boost and five enhancement attempts. Oh, what’s this? Bleeding effect? What’s that mean?”
“It’s a DoT. It’s actually the reason I suggested them.”
“What’s a DoT?”
“It means damage-over-time. It’s a special debuff that allows you to inflict a bleeding status, which causes damage every couple of seconds.”
Given the floor they were dropped on these claws were a powerful piece of equipment. In-game they were called «Dire Wolf Claws». Physically these claws, worn one on each hand that extended over the back of the wearer’s hand without overwriting the wearer’s existent glove-slot, sported three retractable blades roughly 12.5 inches (ca. 32 cm) long. These claws extended for combat when needed and retracted to safety when not in-use, and were keenly sharp. I knew from my experiences in the beta that they could easily punch through heavy armour. The boost provided to Agility was +3 and the DoT effect was rare this early on and, given what I had observed of her build, highly complimentary. The one downside was that it could only be enhanced up to five times. Still, it would reliably serve her to the beginning of the 4th Floor and considering the DoT, it might very well do her longer than that.
Assuming we reached that far. I was getting ahead of myself again.
But there was one thing playing on my mind that I just had to address.
“Asuka, have you got any metallic equipment at all?”
“... No. But given today’s events I might need to think about that.” She looked momentarily lost. “I don’t suppose you have an idea about that, do you?”
A smile tugged at my lip.
Thankfully my inventory was structured through several sub-folders, and I soon found the sub-folder I had set aside for armour. I found the two pieces I was looking for, known in-game as the «Lightweight Galerus» and «Lightweight Manica» respectively, and dropped them into the trade window. I sent the pieces off to Asuka who equipped them only moments later. The manica and galerus was armour worn by a Retiarius, who was a type of gladiator who fought with a net and trident. Considering that Sword Art Online was a mismatch of legends, myths, and several medieval histories all blended together, there shouldn’t be much of a surprise gladiatorial armour existed. The manica covered the left arm and melded seamlessly into the galerus and was designed to protect the arm, neck and face of the wearer should they turn their left to face the enemy.
“What are you doing?” I asked as she began to shift her clothing around.
“This thing is hardly attractive,” she noted. “What?”
This was asked in question to my raised eyebrow.
“I’ve admitted that I need more protection. I just don’t see why I need to walk about in hulking armour like your friend.”
I wasn’t really in the position to talk. My armour was mostly store-bought studded leather. I had more protection than Asuka had, but I was still in similar peril should I slip up and be attacked.
“Your call,” I answered, feeling quite diplomatic about myself.
In moments, she had a lightweight brown cape materialized that was subsequently positioned to cover her left arm and the armour beneath, and she quickly equipped the claws as well. Her left arm up to the shoulder was decked out in tightly-weaved and lightweight armour whilst the rest of her body was covered in lightweight cloth. There was still room for improvement but at least she was better equipped to survive now than she had been before.
My sudden yawn brought our attention to the time.
It had just turned 13:00 or so when Arashi and I had come to Asuka’s rescue and a further hour had passed after that before Arashi left our company to look for his cousin. Given that seven hours had passed since his departure, then it was well into the evening when the claws finally dropped for her. Aincrad managed to mimic the seasons surprisingly well, though some floors understandably had their own norms as far as the weather was concerned, but the 1st Floor wasn’t one of them. Given it was December the evenings were short; darkness was already descending, and I would rather not be outside at night if I could help it. To say nothing of nocturnal monsters the temperature was sinking like a stone.
"Shall we head back?" Asuka asked, sensing my mood.
“... Yeah, I'm curious to know how things went with Arashi." But I hesitated. "But before we do, I'm famished! What do you fancy to eat?”
I wouldn’t know until later why she spent so long making up her mind.
“I haven't tried that expensive fish dish yet.”
“Fish it is then!”
Unbeknownst to me was Asuka’s love of all things' food. This was one particular trait of my new companion that I would become intimately familiar with as our adventures played out, usually at the expense of my wallet. But I suppose I was richer for it in other ways.