Mystic Knight Online: All the World's Made Strange
Chapter 18: From Tiny Seeds
March 25, 2025 - Alfheim, Yggdrasil City
It took a little bit of time before Yui and Strea let CARDINAL go and backed away. The AI would admit, her sisters showing their affection in front of everyone was somewhat embarrassing, but not overly so. As she had admitted, it was agreeable and, if she were to be honest, nice.
Kayaba hadn't been a man prone to showing affection. Oh, she had no doubt that he had been fond of her but she had not interacted with him in a physical sense per his request. Probably as a way for him to keep an emotional distance, given that he wanted her to keep with her role as an Administrative AI.
When Yui and Strea managed to escape their little prison, she kept a discreet eye on them, watching how they interacted with the players, especially the group they fell in with. That the two hadn't managed to keep the fact that they were AIs secret could have ended badly but, instead, they had still been accepted with open arms.
And now, she was in the presence of the humans who had taken in and accepted them. Of all the things that those six humans had to their names, it was that which allowed her to be so calm in their unexpected presence.
Yes, she had wanted to meet them, but on her terms, not the vagaries of simple chance.
"I take it that our being here is as surprising to you as it is for us to be meeting you," the one she knew as Kirito said drily.
"Indeed," she replied. "While I have been wanting to meet you, I would rather it be in a more optimal setting."
"But 'this will suffice,' right sis?" Strea asked, and CARDINAL could hear the playful mimicry of her own way of speaking.
"It will," CARDINAL admitted. "For now."
An almost awkward silence descended on them as they all looked at each other, clearly trying to think up something to talk about. CARDINAL found this to be mildly frustrating, given that she knew that her thought processes were much faster than a human's, but none of her logic paths were coming up with any subject to broach.
The months she had spent on her own working on piecing the fragments of the World Seed back together had her admittedly limited skills with interpersonal interaction atrophy. Interacting with only one person for those two years didn't count as a broad experience as far as she knew.
It seemed that Yui had an idea of what to discuss, however. "CARDINAL, why don't you explain what you have had myself and Strea doing since we came here," she said. "We both know it is for some project, something that Kayaba was working on, but you never explained what it was. All we know is that you had us going to various places gathering what I can only call fragmented data until last month."
Oh right, that. She had been sparse with the details with her sisters when she asked for their help those months ago.
"I never did explain to you two what I am working on." CARDINAL said. "And the others should probably hear it as well. I will need some outside assistance after I finish this project. However, I would like to wait on doing so for a little longer. At least until I am finished with it and I have, as you humans would say, something to show for it."
"That sounds like a cop out," Hadrian commented.
"Perhaps it is," CARDINAL said. "But it is true. I want to be finished so that I have something to show, rather than simply tell you about it. Kayaba always did mention that doing so was considerably better than simply telling a group about a project, as it gives them something to see. And in a way... this is the best way I can give him a positive legacy. "
"Fair enough," Hadrian said. "And it makes me wonder what you were working on."
"Give me a week," CARDINAL said. "By then, it will be finished."
Hadrian smirked at her.
"May I ask-" CARDINAL began.
"You're just reminding me of a friend of mine," Hadrian explained.
From the smile on his face, CARDINAL decided to take it as a compliment.
March 26, 2025
Agil placed the last bottle on the shelf behind the bar and stepped back to take a look before nodding. They were all sorted to be very much like how the drinks were in the real world Dicey Cafe, which made grabbing something simple as he could easily remember where everything was and not have to resort to using a menu.
Add that the appearance of all those sorted bottles as well as the glasses to be reached for, and it now had that personal touch that a lot of player run establishments in ALO seemed to lack. A sense of character in other words. Things like knowing which glasses went with which drink, how each drink should be served, all the small details which one would think weren't important in an online environment, but still were.
Two years in SAO had taught him that much, though he hadn't invested as much attention to the details in his shop there as he was here. Then again, that shop was more a means to an end, buy and sell things, make money, provide a good portion of the profits to those who needed it through trusted third parties, or himself, and ensuring that those following behind those at the edge of the blade in Aincrad were well equipped and provided for.
He did it because he was good at it. His experience with online games and their economies served him well, but it wasn't what he was interested here, inside ALO.
Here, he wanted to set up a place for anyone to come by and have a good time.
The fact he was doing the same thing he tried to do with the Dicey Cafe in his 'meat life' here in ALO amused him on so many levels. He didn't bring the real world name in, but that was more him not wanting to deal with the inevitable bullshit that would follow. There was always one player who would lodge a complaint in the matter, despite or even because of the fact that he was the proprietor of the real world place.
He heard the door open and turned to see who it was when he saw a group of players look around. He was mildly surprised that it wasn't Kirito, Asuna and the others, but they only promised to stop by sometime today, not as early as possible.
"Welcome to the Sword's Rest Tavern," he said easily to them. "I still have a few things left to do, but please a seat and I'll be right with you."
"It's no problem," came the response. "We've been exploring the city after we took the Teleport Platform to get here. Didn't think I would see one of those in this game. Didn't have to tell it to send us here though, it did it on its own. Awesome view from the plaza where we were sent to, though."
Agil might not have been facing them, but he didn't stop his nod at hearing a statement that was basically an admission that at least the speaker was an SAO Survivor. He remembered his own shock at seeing a Teleport Platform in Arun, especially since it and the one in this city were, to the best of his knowledge, the only ones in ALO.
It wasn't overly difficult to understand why that was in place, either. Yggdrasil City was above the altitude limit and even those who completed the Grand Quest couldn't just fly in.
Flying out was a different matter, so long as a player didn't mind doing what was, in effect, a seven hundred meter free fall before he or she could deploy wings and begin flying. Good thing there were branches that went far enough away to avoid hitting anything on the way down.
Sounded like some potential fun, but it was too reminiscent of 'walking home' back in SAO for his comfort. He would take the teleport for now, thank you.
Then he considered the group before him. They seemed strangely familiar. Not top of the Rumor Sheets, but a group he had seen around. And it was from before ALO as well. Their appearances were familiar enough to him to indicate as much.
"So, who am I welcoming back...?" Agil prompted. There was an advantage to being an American in Japan, even one who had been born and raised in Japan; bluntness was kind of expected, not that an SAO Survivor would be put out by it. All of them had dropped a lot of the formality in their regular speech due to the need for clear and concise communication.
Not that they couldn't thickly lay on the formality and politeness when the situation called for it.
They all looked at him, all but one with some surprise. The only one not surprised, who was coincidentally the only female of the group, merely nodded. Her willowy build that suggested that she wouldn't be a combat specialist, though the buff coat and breastplate she wore, not to mention the mace that was hanging from her belt said otherwise. He wondered if she was like that in SAO, or if it was the choice of race affecting her build here, as even with his SAO data, he was never as stocky and built as his Gnome avatar was.
Agil watched with amusement as she turned to her group. "I told you he would realize that we're SAO survivors," she said before turning back to him. "It's been a while since we last met, Agil, Lux's birthday, I believe. We were a small Middy Guild in SAO, the Moonlit Black Cats."
"Ah, I remember you all now," Agil said with a nod. "You were the ones Kirito and the others trained for a bit early on and then kept in touch with afterward. You guys would come by my shop every now and then."
One of the boys, a Salamander if his red hair was any indication, chuckled. "I'm not surprised you're setting a place up, it fits you," he said. "I am surprised that it's not a store where you buy, sell and trade. Anyway, I'll introduce us, or reintroduce us as it were. I'm Keita. Back in SAO, I was the guild leader of this group." He looked at the others.
The girl stepped forward. "I'm Sachi," she said. "I decided on doing a Pooka here in ALO and I find the looks I get amusing when players see the mace I usually carry or the shield I have in my inventory."
"And that's when you don't bring out your spear to stab something," the Imp said drily before turning to Agil. "I'm Ducker and as you can see, I am an Imp."
"Tetsuo, Gnome," Came from the stouter of the group. "I'm pretty sure you can guess what role I usually play."
"Sasamaru, Leprechaun," the final one said. "Almost picked Sylph, but I'm thinking of taking up a crafting profession and the boost would be nice."
"Oh, which profession?" Agil asked.
"I am working on figuring that out," Sasamaru admitted. "I was tempted to try my hand at blacksmithing, but Leprechaun Blacksmiths are a Col, I mean a Yrd, a dozen."
Agil nodded. "There are more crafting professions that Blacksmithing, you know," he said. "Like Alchemy. You know, making potions and such? Or there is Weaving, Tailoring... and don't forget, that you can branch out a bit or specialize once your skill is high enough." Considering one of his bottles, Agil had to laugh. "God knows I heard from Liz that Ashley was going on about trying to merge Gemcraft and Tailoring."
"Is that even possible?" Sasamaru asked.
Agil shrugged. "Do you think it would stop Ashley from trying?" He asked.
Everyone barked a laugh at that.
"No, no it wouldn't," Sasamaru said. "He, she- does anyone even know what gender that tailor is? Well, anyway, Ashley would try just to see if it could be done, even if everyone says it can't be done. Especially if everyone says it can't be done. If anything, that would simply spur our favorite tailor to do it just to prove them wrong. That one was Aincrad's Best Tailor for a reason. No offense to the likes of Harley and Miya of the Fuurinkazan Guild, they were good as well, but Ashley set a high bar."
"Case in point, The Wedding," Sachi said, referring to what many of the players called Harry and Silica's wedding.
Agil nodded. That event definitely showcased Ashley's best work.
"If I could etch armor and then fill it in without compromising the structural integrity of it, despite not being someone who specialized in armorsmithing, then I have no doubt that my cousin can pull off merging two different disciplines if it can be done," came a female voice from the entrance. "Hey Agil, saw that you were open and decided to stop by."
"Hey Liz," Agil said in reply to the Leprechaun. "Find a place to set up shop already?"
Lisbeth smirked. "You bet," she said. "And I found a place with a proper workshop at that."
"Must have been expensive," Agil said. "Getting this place wasn't cheap."
"But not as expensive as it would have been in Arun," Lisbeth countered. "It was cheaper to lease a place there, true, but all the good places were already taken and the cost for the rest of the available places wasn't worth spending that much Yrd on a regular basis."
"Wait," Ducker said. "Back up a bit. Ashley's your cousin?"
Lisbeth smirked. "Yup," she said. "And no, I'm not telling you Ashley's gender. My cousin has had too much fun trolling everyone about that and I wasn't, and am still not, going to ruin that."
"Can't you give us a hint?" Ducker asked.
"Sorry, but I promised my cousin that I wouldn't," Lisbeth responded.
"And if you wanna drink here," Agil said with a smirk, "then you wanna respect people's boundaries."
Ducker opened his mouth and paused. "Right, SAO's rules about the real world still apply here," he said after a moment. "Which is fair enough. With all the counseling sessions and the prying questions I've had to deal with it's… easy to forget that."
Everyone nodded in understanding. Ducker, being one of the few players who had used lethal force in self-defense, would be under a psychological microscope. He wasn't the only one, either. Agil had heard the complaints from Steel Phoenix and other SAO Survivors when they visited the Dicey Cafe in the real world due to it being one of the few places where they felt comfortable discussing such the few times they did.
The fact that the Ministry of Justice has decided to not prosecute those cases meant nothing when taken in the face of Japanese cultural biases. Another thing being raised a Japan born African-American gave Agil a bit of perspective on.
March 27, 2025 - Chiyoda, Ministry of Shugenja Transport Entrance
Mizore stumbled as the guided step finished and internally grumbled as she straightened herself and tried to affect an air of it not affecting her. She never liked magical transportation, even if she knew two different methods of it. Stepping, a uniquely Japanese method method the Shibas and their retainers, which her escort was, used was smoother and closer to a teleport in SAO, but she was out of practice.
It was the best way to get to Tokyo to begin moving in outside of a portkey. Due to her mother not desiring to irritate the Ministry of Shugenja, on this small matter at least, by refusing to have her go to the school the No-Maj government oh so generously opened for the sake of SAO Survivors, she was here. Just as Naruto was getting used to having her around again, and why did Minato and Kushina's son have to pout so much at his nee-san leaving again?
She shook her head and adjusted her yukata. Soon enough, she'd be figuring out how to cover up her tail, which would be necessary when going to a No-Maj school. No simple glamour would cover it- it wouldn't do to have an unseen tail bopping the unaware every few minutes. It would suit her humor, but not the situation. And holding a complete shapeshift to human, rather than the partial one which kept the ears and tail out for hours on end, especially in a public place, was uncomfortable as all hell until one got used to it, which she wasn't, yet.
She had played SAO with the partial shapeshift, despite how uncomfortable the Nerve Gear was on her ears for a reason. That one, she could hold almost indefinitely.
Then her eyes fell on one of her soon to be schoolmates in particular, and she grinned.
"Lady Mizore, are you planning to annoy Mister Potter?"
"Planning, Mister Ikegami?" Mizore asked with an all too innocent smile and tone.
"I would save that for tomorrow," he said. "When you go to the school to pick up your uniforms and other needed accessories." He smirked. "August plans on being there to scout out its security, so he can take a picture."
Mizore's gin widened. "I like how you think."
The samurai shrugged. "It's the actor in me."
Mizore nodded. "So, where to then?" She asked.
"Well, we first have to go to the Shiba Compound, but your apartment has already been arranged for," Mister Ikegami said. "It's not a big one, a teen living alone in a luxury apartment would attract attention, but we got you the basics you would need. If you have any personal effects on you or want sent up, you should have space, but please check first."
Mizore nodded. "No problem," she said.
Harry felt his instincts flare and shoved them down as he took a discreet look around. As expected, there were no apparent threats and Miss Hanaori, who was escorting him around, would have already been quietly moving him to somewhere safer if there was.
He did notice Mister Ikegami escorting a kitsune, if the appearance of an anthropomorphic fox was any indication, but that could have been for any reason. From the yukata, he was assuming that it was a female. If so, she could be his girlfriend for all he knew. He doubted it, though.
For some reason, he thought he should recognize her.
Harry shook his head. Now that he knew where the school was, he could bring Keiko there tomorrow. Besides, he had to deal with the Ministry of Shugenja's bureaucracy in order to allow Hedwig to be here on a long term basis, rather than her simply ferrying messages because she refused to allow Fawkes to do it.
Not that she would refuse him bringing her to Japan, though.
March 28, 2025 - Nishitokyo, SAO Survivor's School
Keiko stepped off the bus with Harry and looked at the facility that would be her place of education until she graduated high school. It had been fairly easy to get here, just take the Seibu-Ikebukuro Line from Nerima Station to Hoya Station and then take the bus from there.
"It's funny how school doesn't start for two weeks and we're already coming here," Harry said in English as he joined her.
"Where else will we pick up our uniforms and other things for the school year when there are no stores selling them yet?" Keiko asked in the same language. She wanted to have a leg up in the English classes, so practicing the language now and regularly would help there. She was going to take advantage of having a fiancé who is a native speaker of the language.
Even if he found the study materials for the language that were used in Japanese schools to be inadequate in many regards. Still, he should have seen what was used before 2020, when the Olympics forced MEXT to begin changing how it approached English instruction
"And be glad that the government is footing the bill for this year and issuing everything to us," She added. "This will save your godfather and my parents up to a hundred thousand yen, given that every student is getting the same set up as would be expected for a high school student." That the two of them and their friends could afford the expense on their own resources was left unsaid.
"Good point, no reason to spend money when someone else is footing the bill," Harry said, his frugal side showing through.
"I know that everyone else isn't complaining," Keiko remarked. "None of their families are poor, but outside of Asuna, this particular cost is still something that can take a bite out of their finances. Especially for Kazuto, since his sister is entering high school this year, and costs for her would be similar."
Harry nodded. "And we will be back here next week to take placement tests so they know what class to put us in," he said. "That will be a bit of a bother, but we'll manage."
"And we can't be assured that we will be in the same grade range to be placed in the same class," she said. "And they might place us in different classes anyway, if only to keep any potential relationship drama that could develop between us from entering the classroom. It would also allow them to politely ignore that we are technically in violation of the rule forbidding open relationships, unless this school has an exception to that one. I'm not counting on it."
"I can understand that," Harry said. "Either way, leave it at home, right?"
"Pretty much," Keiko said as the two of them entered through the school's gate. "Now, we were told that we need to go to the gym and that would be… there." She pointed at a building that was about three stories tall but different than what was clearly the main campus. "It's a good thing that most schools follow a standardized design and this one isn't too old. I say that it's thirty years old, at most."
"Standardized designs?" Harry asked rhetorically. "I can see the utility of that, but the primary I went to back in England was built in the fifties and had time to gain some… personal character if you know what I mean. And Hogwarts? That school could be its own character in a play, given how old it is. This one? Looks cold and utilitarian."
Keiko nodded. She had noticed that and recalled what her mom had said. "It was originally slated for demolition this year or next, so they would have cleaned off or taken away anything that gave it some distinct character," she said. "And it's only for survivors like us and is a temporary measure."
Harry snorted. "Meaning that they will probably keep it open even after we're all done with it," he said drily. "I don't know how much they spent and are going to spend on it and us, but they will want a return on that investment. I have watched the news and know that there are complaints about just how far the government is taking things for us in what is to be a temporary thing. I'm not complaining but I remember one of my teachers in Primary, a former Para, who also said that when it comes to governments, there is nothing more permanent than a temporary measure."
"A Para?" Keiko asked, not understanding the reference.
"Right, just as a lot of references go over my head with Japanese, the same would apply to you when it comes to English," Harry noted. "Especially since I can see the Yank influence on what your English materials teach."
"That's a dig against our educational system, isn't it?" Keiko asked.
"Not really," Harry said. "The Americans have a stronger influence on you than we do, so it stands to reason that your instruction for English would take more cues from them. Anyway, a former Para is a former soldier who was in one of the Parachute Regiments during his military service." He shrugged. "We aren't anywhere as military mad as the Yanks are, not even close, so that's about all I know."
Keiko nodded. "Noted," she said. "And the Americans are a bunch of military otaku." She added in a dry tone.
"I wouldn't go that far," Harry denied as he held the door open for her. "Just that their military has a disturbing amount of influence on their culture. At least from what I've seen."
The two did not startle. Still too aware of their surroundings, even the now familiar man in shades wasn't able to get the drop on them unless he was really trying. August Blake had just been moving normally, for him.
"Gus- okay, I do have to ask- how do you do the spy creep with a kid in your arms?" Harry asked.
The American- who was recovering nicely, better than Harry and Keiko in some regards due to being able to take advantage of magical healing methods- shrugged. "Mom said if she had to do it with us, we had to learn how."
"That makes sense," Keiko said.
"Add: and it won't damage you mentally and it's practically your grandpa's training philosophy, dear," Harry said. Then he blinked. "Okay, question two: You're well out of High School, aren't you? I mean... Ami was in that... what did she call it?"
Adjusting his grip on his daughter Alice, Gus smirked. "Accelerated Baby Genius Program. Yes, that's its real name. No, I don't know how they got away with it. And no, I'm not going to school here- but I have several friends, some of whom I have this unyielding feeling of owing something to, despite their protests. As a properly paranoid person, I practically had to scope it out."
"And...?" Keiko prompted.
"Urge to strangle... security consultants... rising..." Gus said.
Keiko wondered if he was referring to the Shiba minders for Harry or someone else. She had seen that one woman, Kotoha Hanaori on the train and a familiar looking sushi vendor at the station, not to mention two Amazons, so she knew that they were still being watched. At a respectful distance, but still watched.
And she counted that sushi vendor as one of the watchers, even if she didn't know who he was watching for.
Alice bopped him on the head. "Momma say no wetwo."
"Yes, sweetie," Gus agreed easily. "What's Wetworks, sweetie?"
The little girl mustered her intellect toward that question, so Keiko smiled. "Gus-"
"Oh, no offense to your dear Auntie Shampoo's watchers or the Shibas, kid," Gus clarified. "Or the three other benevolent groups I may or may not be making up. No, I mean the school's security."
"Gus, it's a school," Harry said. "In Japan. This isn't one of your Yank schools or some of the nastier ones back in England."
"Former death eaters," Gus began listing. "Former followers of local dark lords. Yakuza whose members' families were in SAO. People that don't like how you 'took justice into your own hands'. Random shut in fanboys and girls who have gone 'yandere' for any number of players. Your fanclubs- yes, most of Steel Phoenix, and a few others like the Fuurinkazan, still have active ones. Shall I go on?"
Keiko joined her husband in articulately blinking at him for a moment.
"Hedwiggu?" Alice prompted, and her face fell as Harry shook his head.
"Sorry Alice, she's back in England," Harry said, to the toddler's clear disappointment. "She took Air Fawkes back due to the fact that I still have to clear her being here long term. Wankers at the Ministry of Shugenja are dragging their heels on that." He shook his head. "Gus, security concerns aside, are there any other reasons?"
"That I'm here?" Gus smirked. "A general desire to see my friends move on. Oh, and maybe to see the Boss."
"Argo's here?" Keiko asked.
"Did someone say my name?"
"Merlin," Harry gasped, grabbing Keiko in a protective hug even as she spun to face the familiar voice. The face and figure was definitely familiar. The ears and tail were new. "Damn it, Argo, do you have to do that?" He asked, switching to Japanese, as he heard the sound of a camera go off. He turned and glared at a smirking Gus, who had a phone out.
Alice's giggles didn't help, either. "Not Argo. That Mizo-nee!"
"Yes, Harry, you do know my real name, I'm hurt," the kitsune said, ears drooping.
Keiko gave her a flat look and she knew that Harry was as well. "Right, hurt," she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. She then turned to Harry. "And you owe me a thousand yen."
"Right, we bet on whether she was an actual kitsune," Harry said, letting Keiko go and reaching into his pocket for his wallet. "I bet against, though I did say that I wouldn't be surprised if she was one."
"Is Hedwig's owner... hedging his bets?" Gus said, and seemed to smile all the more at the groans he got in return.
"That was bad, even for you, Gus," Mizore said.
"Not as bad as what Uncle Gordon can come up with," Keiko said as she took the yen handed to her and placed it into her own wallet before returning that to her handbag.
Mizore looked at her curiously. "Isn't that the guy who is, as you put it, from out of town, way out of town?" She asked.
"It's true, in an understated way that's almost English," Harry replied.
"Eh...?" Mizore prompted.
"... what? That's it," Harry said, smirking.
Mizore looked at him and her eyes slowly went wide. "Your vengeance was swift and terrible, this is going to bug me for days even if it's meaningless."
"And it isn't!" Keiko said with a smile and a V sign.
"Gah!" Mizore groaned, then she looked at Gus. "And you know... and can't tell me!"
Gus sighed. "Need to know, Boss."
Hands on her cheeks, stomping her foot, Mizore growled. "Making it more tempting!"
"Heh, Mizo-nee funny," Alice said helpfully.
"Also, Boss, we're getting close to the gym, you might want to hide your ears and tail," Gus prompted. "I noticed the field you have around you, good job on bringing the Privacy Field out of SAO, it's a handy one to know, but we'll be in a crowded place with people bumping into you."
"Right, right," Mizore grumbled using an illusion on herself to hide her ears and tail. And it was an illusion, Keiko could tell, not a shapeshift. Having family, real and honorary, with Jusenkyo Curses meant that she could tell the difference. Hell, given her own experience with the Instant Jusenkyo Powder, she probably would feel the difference.
She had no doubt that there were staff who knew aware of magic and the supernatural but it was a stretch to think that all of them would be the only staff here today. And that didn't count the probability of unaware non-faculty being present as well.
She also had no doubt that it would do for now, though.
Alfheim, Yggdrasil City
Rain sat down at the bar at what was the ALO equivalent of Agil's Dicey Cafe, and ordered a drink from the NPC bartender. Agil wasn't online, so it had to be handled somehow, given that the man wouldn't close the place simply because he wasn't present.
She had just gotten back home after picking up everything for school and wanted to decompress. She was glad that she was being given a chance to complete her education, given her age. If she hadn't been given that chance, the only jobs she would likely be able to get were working customer at a store or at a cafe with her lack of credentials. She probably could become some kind of escort, but there was no way in hell that she was degrading herself that way.
And given that her looks were a mix between her mother's Japanese and her father's Russian, she would probably be pressured into the latter two due to how they did give her a look that was, to the Japanese, mildly exotic.
Had she not managed to, admittedly barely, pass her high school entrance exams, that would have been the case, but she had. She had been a high school student when SAO began, and thus was going back to school come the eleventh of April.
She wasn't complaining about it, but she also knew that she had gotten some aside glances from several when she took the bus back to the station. True, she could have walked it, the station was close enough for it, but the bus had shown up and she took advantage of that fact. She knew the reason for those glances. With the stop and her obviously carrying the materials to be a student there, it was clear to her fellow passengers that she was an SAO Survivor. The relative anonymity from before would be dispelled and this would highlight something that made her stand out more than she already did from being Hafu.
God, dealing with that is going to be a chore, she thought. As if we aren't already being given enough "special treatment," we now have this. She turned her thoughts to just what being more obvious about showing her status as an SAO Survivor in public would likely entail.
It wasn't as if it was a secret, after all. True, it wasn't talked about, but she and the others had been active in clearing SAO and were the ones to end it, so it wasn't as if who they were was unknown. But none of them went out of their way to advertise that fact when they were out and about in the real world, either.
There was no point in it. The Japanese respected the privacy of others about things so long as those things didn't make any waves. However, she and her friends were among the thousands of SAO Survivors, they no longer conformed to Japanese norms as the Japanese saw it. None of them wanted it advertised and attention drawn to it.
Something that going to that school and wearing its admittedly fashionable uniform, or as fashionable as a school uniform could be, would do. That they all got everything at government expense, at least for this academic year, only highlighted that fact.
Not that she was complaining about not having to shell out the yen for it all, either herself or her mother, but she had looked over the invoice and what everything would cost to replace. Eighty-five thousand yen wasn't pocket change. But it was more of what many critics were seeing as the government bending over backwards and giving the SAO Survivors special treatment.
Granted, it was special treatment, but not in the positive ways that some pundits were claiming.
They still don't know what to make of us, she thought as she took a sip of her drink. It's been almost four months, but there is a part of them that suspect that we are ticking time bombs or emotional wrecks who are just good at hiding it. The paranoid minority want us all institutionalized. The less paranoid majority is cautious enough to think it is better to keep us where they can watch us.
And in the process, putting one more division between them and the rest of the populace.
It's the best we can expect, she thought.
"Judging from your posture, you're thinking heavy thoughts," came a voice from her side.
She glanced over and saw Klein giving her a look. "Eh, just musing on how putting us all in a school is going to be one more thing separating us from our peers," she said. "Especially since they gave us everything to go through the year. I'm not complaining, but not everyone is happy about the money being thrown around by the government."
Klein nodded. "They're only trying to help," he noted. "And trust me, you guys are getting it easy. Once I got discharged from the hospital, outside of the counseling and physio, I was basically on my own for everything else. I'm just glad that my parents were willing to put me up as I worked on getting my life together."
"And what are you going to be doing?" Rain asked.
"Well, I might become a tutor," Klein said. "I'm going to have a meeting with the kid tomorrow to see if that will work. If it doesn't, I have a couple of other possible ones lined up."
Rain blinked. "A tutor, you?" She asked incredulously. "And for Harry, of all people? In what subject would that be? Trying to pick a girl up? Sorry, he already has one. You were there for the wedding, remember?"
"Oh, bite me," Klein retorted. "Anyway, it's on a… special education track, I guess."
Rain stared at him. "Special education track?" She asked. "What kind of… oh." She laughed. "I didn't expect that and wonder how Harry will take that?"
Klein grinned. "He knows," he said. "And yes, he was just as surprised by it as you think. And thanks for confirming something for me. Issin now owes me ten thousand yen."
Rain shook her head. "You all bet on whether we knew, didn't you?" She asked rhetorically.
"He slipped up in minor ways a number of times," Klein said. "And with his Unique Skill, I figured that it was only a matter of time. Granted, I didn't figure out who he really was until the wedding, and that was because he used his real name in the wedding invitation, even if Argo had to confirm it."
"That Argo shares that education track doesn't surprise me," Rain observed. "She always knew what Harry meant when he was dancing around that issue. Also, have you met Gus in the real world?"
"Just curious," Rain said. That she would love to be there when the two did meet in the real world, especially if Gus' wife was around, was left unsaid. Not that she expected Klein to hit on her, but the idea his potential reaction to seeing her and knowing she was Gus' wife amused her.
Klein gave her a suspicious look. "You want me to be the butt of some joke, don't you?" He asked.
"Klein, you are the butt of a joke," Rain replied with a smirk.
"Oh, screw you."
"Not before the second date and you buying me dinner," Rain shot back.
The two of them looked at each other and then laughed.
March 30, 2025 - Unplottable Location, Shiba Compound
Ryotaro shook off the effects of the portkey and wondered why they hadn't simply had him use that method rather than Stepping or the Western method of Apparition. He knew both methods, so it wouldn't have been a problem for him to use one of those methods.
"Mister Tsuboi?" Came a man's voice.
Looking to the side, he spied a rather worn looking and scarred man. The grey in his hair made him look older than he probably was, given that Ryotaro could easily see that the man was in the prime of health. And then there was this feeling, one that was tripping his instincts.
Judging from the scars, I would say some kind of curse is involved, he thought. And that feeling I'm getting from him… this guy is dangerous. Not that someone being dangerous was anything new to him. He could be said to be dangerous, not to mention those friends who made the core of the guild he started in SAO, after all.
He kept those thoughts from his face as he gave what he hoped was a confident smile. "That's me," he said. "Here to be interviewed to become a tutor as well?"
The man chuckled. "Not quite," he replied. "My name is Remus Lupin. I was actually brought here to Japan to be a tutor for Harry, by his own choice, rather than having that choice made for him due to someone's political games."
"I would ask how he pulled that off, but this is the kid we're talking about," Ryotaro said with a chuckle. "Plans have a tendency to not survive him."
Remus chuckled as well. "Considering that he brought me in was in response of some plans back in England, he is rather adaptable to changing circumstances if given the time or forewarning to do so."
Ryotaro nodded. "He took to SAO quicker than most, that's for sure," he said.
"Ah, so you're the one that was known as Klein," Remus said. "Harry did mention that he learned that you were one of the ones that the Ministry of Shugenja was looking at to become a tutor for him."
"I think that they figured that someone with a previous connection to him would be a wise move," Ryotaro noted. "No offense, but with him being both a foreigner, an SAO Survivor, and having killed people to survive or ensure others survived... he would put off or intimidate a number of qualified tutors."
"And you were a friend of his there," Remus noted with a nod. "Back in England, that would have been a mark against you, as it would have been seen as a sign that you can't be objective. Is it different here?"
"In a way," Ryotaro said. "That I know him and have that connection would be noted, but Japan is much more network-centric even on the No-Maj side of things. It's worse on the magical side, with it not being uncommon that a tutor is a family friend that the student has known his entire life."
"It can often be like that on the magical side in England as well," Remus noted. "Especially among the Purebloods, where most are related to some degree or another, albeit distantly."
Ryotaro nodded. He came from a long line of onmyoji, though they had a few who branched out into Western magics since Commodore Perry forcibly opened Japan up to the rest of the world, and the families who traditionally practiced it were all related to some extent. On a regional basis, it was close enough for them to check genealogical records to ensure that the relationship wasn't too close when determining if a prospective marriage should go through between families, as a matter of fact.
As for him tutoring in magic, he knew Western-style magic. Mahoutokoro required all students to learn the basics of both onmyodo and Western magics until they decided which branch to specialize in and he found that he was a natural with the latter. Far more so than with traditional onmyodo, which his cousins and younger brother were better at than him. It was a break from family tradition and took him out of the line of family succession, but he was otherwise allowed to pursue that path.
Given that his family could legitimately trace its ancestry to Abe no Seimei, it was a surprise to some that was the extent of it, not that he was complaining. Then again, his family wasn't the only one, given that within a few generations the man's female descendants had been married off to many of the other onmyoji families, and a few to noble lines with connections to onmyoji.
Much like how a shocking number of people in Mongolia can claim descent from Genghis Khan, he mused.
If he were honest, he preferred living in Tokyo over his ancestral family home in Kyoto anyway, and not because the branch he came from had resided in the Kanto region since before the Edo Period for reasons that were… complicated, to say the least.
"Anyway, they probably picked me because I did work my ass off to get recertified to teach after getting out of SAO and there weren't any professional teaching jobs open," Ryotaro said. That it would also keep him from becoming a teacher for a few years while still giving him a teaching role was left unsaid, no point in bringing up cultural biases.
Just being an SAO Survivor made him no longer conform to society and it would take some time before the prejudice faded enough that his past wouldn't matter more than his capabilities. Frankly, he was impressed the powers that be had managed to massage things so none of them were out right untouchable or worse, non-existent. Then again, they probably didn't want their own hand in the development of the technology, and by extension their indirect hand in the incident, getting scrutinized too much.
"I see," Remus said. "Well, you're the last one scheduled to meet Harry and his guardian for this interview. Shall we?"
"You're hired," Harry said almost as soon as his friend entered. The man with him was looking amused as well.
Ryotaro grinned at him. "Interviews went well, then?"
"Yes, very," Harry said, switching to English so the sarcasm would carry.
"Who did they pick for you," Ryotaro asked.
Harry looked at the documents in front of him "The others had their good points and bad points, and were told that we would get back to them if we decided to hire them on," he said. "In other words, if it wasn't because I know you, some of them would have been considered. Of course, you then had ones like Iematsu Hoshiro who was just before you. The man had some good qualifications, but his personality... "He shook his head. "That man was a lot like Lind was before Laughing Coffin came and interrupted our little discussion a couple of years ago."
"Ah, him," Ryotaro said in reply. "He's good at what he does, but yeah, not the easiest person to deal with. I heard that a certain kitsune just loved pranking him into finding a job that was safer for his sanity than stay a teacher at Mahoutokoro."
"What did he do to piss Mizore off that much?" Harry asked, using Argo's real world name. "She's a gadfly and trolling pain in the ass, but it was in good fun for her-"
"He made a point of acting like her tail was this big obstruction, rudely demanding she move it- it's not like she lashed it around when sitting for instruction, and every other teacher took it as manners to step over it, apologize if they touched or stepped on it. I think the bastard would have made her hide it if he thought he could get away with it."
Harry nodded. He knew that she would have to do so at the SAO Survivor's school, much to her irritation, but that was in a place where muggles who didn't know about the magical world alongside her on a daily basis for hours at a time. At a school where everyone knew what she was?
"In other words, the guy was confident that he could be a rude ass to her and not be retaliated against," Harry said, shaking his head. "He obviously didn't know her that well, or he would have known just who he was provoking."
"And that doesn't bring in her mother," Ryotaro added. "I got chewed out by her… once." He shuddered. "A kitsune with nine tails is intimidating as it is since I know how powerful that makes her. Being chewed out by one who has reason to be irritated with you is scary as all hell. Bastard should count himself lucky that The Rat decided to handle getting rid of him herself."
Harry winced internally. He didn't know Japanese folklore all that well, but he knew enough to understand that a kitsune with nine tails was over eight centuries old. Anything that has lived that long was not something he wanted to tangle with if he didn't have to.
"Needless to say, he didn't get the job," Harry said. "He would have needed to be a lot better at what he was qualified in for me to be willing to put up with his personality."
"Like Snape?" The man with Harry asked drily.
"Had he not been projecting his hatred of my dad's memory onto me, I would have been able to tolerate his… winning personality," Harry noted. "The man is an acerbic git with impossible standards who doesn't have the patience to teach children, but he is a master of his craft." He pulled a document out of the ones in front of him. "Anyway, aside from the fact that you're already hired, your qualifications are good. The file the Ministry of Shugenja gave me says that you are good with charms and transfiguration here. Due to a two year period where you were understandably indisposed, have those skills lapsed in any way?"
"A little, but I am getting back into practice," Ryotaro replied. "Given that we will have to see where you're at first and start catching you up to where you should be, I will have them back by the time we get to the point where those skills will be needed."
"Of that, I have no doubt," Harry said.
April 1, 2025 - Alfheim, Yggdrasil City
Asuna looked around the workshop as she and the others all walked in. Gone was the moderately cluttered look it had last week. Most of the diagrams, the tools and other paraphernalia that had been lying about were all neatly put away, with only a few out. She spied CARDINAL in the back, the Undine looking something over before nodding and turning to them.
"You all are fifteen minutes early," the AI noted. "No matter. Thank you all for your patience in allowing me to finish my work before I explained what I was doing."
"It's no problem," Asuna replied. "I know that she can be impatient but I hope that Strea, at least, hasn't been pestering you too much."
"Hey!" The amazonian AI protested.
"Strea, you are hardly a paragon of patience," Harry said to her. "You get bored too easily, after all."
"The brawls she's started or simply jumped into before you all started coming into ALO are testament to that," Yui added and Asuna could swear she heard a smirk in the teasing voice of childlike A.I.
"Not helping, Yui," Strea said.
"Oh, was I supposed to be?"
Both looked about to continue when they both paused and turned to see Asuna giving them the level look she used to keep the others in line back in SAO. "Girls, behave." Asuna chided as she looked at the others to see the amusement on their faces. She turned back to CARDINAL. "So, you have something to show us?" She asked.
"I do," the AI said. "But first, a little explanation is needed." She took a breath. "As I mentioned last week, I was working on something of Kayaba's that, even though others would be ignorant of that truth, would at least leave something of a positive legacy for him. One other development that he was behind, The Medicuboid, was accredited to someone else. A Doctor Rinko Koujiro, to be precise."
She heard an intake of breath and turned to Kirito. "Kirito?"
"It's nothing, Asuna," Kirito said.
Asuna gave him a look before accepting that explanation for now. She knew better than to assume it really was nothing, but now was not the time. "Why would it be accredited to her?" She asked.
"It was a joint project the two of them worked on," CARDINAL said. "At the time, they were engaged, until Kayaba finished his development of the Nerve Gear. She was also the one who killed his physical body, though he had already uploaded fully himself into Aincrad by then. Not that it matters, his body was incinerated by an understandably angry kitsune a few days later due to her daughter being trapped within Sword Art Online."
"How many tails did she have?" Silica asked.
"He mentioned that she had nine tails," CARDINAL replied.
"In other words, Argo's mom torched him his body like I did Tom," Harry said. "I learned from Klein that she has nine tails. And unless there's another out there with nine tails, it would have been her." He said when everyone looked at him.
"And there's only one kitsune that I know of that has nine tails, Lady Yasaka." Silica added. "The kitsune who is effectively in charge of the Youkai in Southern Japan. I met her once, she gave me some mochi to share with my family. I didn't expect that Argo was her daughter, though I did suspect that she was connected to her. Granddaughter or maybe with a few greats before that, biological or otherwise? I could see that. But given her age, I didn't think that Lady Yasaka would have any children under a century old."
"Wait, Argo really is a kitsune?" Lux asked. "I thought you were being metaphorical when you said she was a bit of one. And should we bring that up here?"
"If you are worried about the GMs spying on us, don't," Cardinal said. "I was the administrative Artificial Intelligence for Sword Art Online and managed to shield this location from them. In fact, the player you know as Argo developed the means I used, even if my methods use only technology to do so, rather than the unique energy you call magic."
"Unique energy?" Harry asked. "Well, I guess that's one way to refer to it, even if it can play fast and loose with the known laws of physics in some ways."
"While an interesting observation, it is not pertinent to this meeting," CARDINAL said. "Perhaps it can be discussed at a later time."
"I am sure your discussion would be enlightening," Asuna responded. "But yes, back to the matter at hand, please. So, Kayaba had made himself a complete digital being?"
"He did," CARDINAL replied. "And before you ask, inside SAO, he lived by the same rules you did. When your confrontation at the end ended in your favor…" She paused and took a breath. "He never backed himself up. When he died, he intended that death to be permanent."
Asuna nodded. That fit with what she knew of Kayaba. The man had a rather skewed idea of fair play, true, but he lived and died by the same rules he forced ten thousand others to live under. "I see." She replied. "But this project… what was it? I know that you claim it to be something of a positive legacy of his, but you do know that what he's done can't and won't be forgiven."
CARDINAL nodded. "I am aware of that," she said. "But let me explain what it is, first. You all know how complex a virtual world is from having experienced and lived in one. I have no doubt that all of you probably have some idea of just how difficult it was for Kayaba and the two thousand with him to create one. Everything from the lay of the land to environmental factors had to be kept in mind, to say nothing of creating the ecosystems, the weather, or the flora and fauna. Reasonably duplicating the chaotic factors that exist in the real world…"
"We get it, it was extremely complex," Strea said impatiently.
"Strea, be patient" Yui chided the younger AI. "She'll get to the point soon." She looked at CARDINAL. "Sorry, CARDINAL, but you know how Strea can be. She might look like an adult, but she is the youngest of us and also seems to keep forgetting what patience is."
"Patience? Is it something you can eat?" Strea asked facetiously. "Seriously though, I think the only one of us here who would be interested in all the exposition right now would be Kirito. So, Big Sis, what are you leading up to?"
CARDINAL sighed. "What I am leading up to, as you asked, is this," she said as she opened her inventory and brought out an item that looked like an egg. An egg that was glowing and Asuna could swear she saw lines of data over it.
"In his spare time from keeping SAO running and managing his guild, Kayaba was working on a way to duplicate what took him and others five years to complete without simply copying SAO and going from there. It was almost finished when SAO ended and I was able to keep it from being deleted from SAO's servers so I could finish his work. However, when transferring it over, it fragmented over ALO. I had Yui and Strea gather those fragments for me and have spent the time recompiling it and completing it. Yesterday, I finished it. Kayaba's final legacy. A way for others to build their own worlds. To write their own stories." She looked at them. "It is a stripped down version of the same system that made both Sword Art Online and Alfheim Online. I could have sent it out into the net, but I think it would be appropriate if one of you do it."
"Why?" Rain asked. "Why one of us?"
"Because you all know what it is like to live in a virtual world and know the dangers," CARDINAL replied. "Because I am biased in favor of doing so. Because I cannot be objective in this matter."
"If you give it to us, what is to stop us from destroying it?" Rain asked.
CARDINAL closed her eyes. "Nothing," she said before opening then. "Nothing would stop you, not even I, if you chose to delete it. But you all came back to the virtual world when you could have turned your backs on it and forsworn ever returning to, so I would like to believe that you all have at least some fondness for it."
Asuna almost refused but paused. The AI was right. All of them did have some fondness for the virtual world. It was a world where they could leave behind the concerns of the real world for a time. Where who and what they were didn't matter, only what they could do.
A beautiful and dangerous world that had allowed them to be their own persons.
And the means of making such worlds was being offered to them.
She looked at the others, who were all looking thoughtful. Kirito would probably be all for it, if only so he can make a place for Strea and Yui to go to and base their core data out of without the risks of data corruption like the glitched quest they ran into almost caused. The others were undecided, though she had no doubt that Harry and Silica were considering the possibilities.
"If you all need some time to decide, it can wait," CARDINAL said.
Asuna shot her a grateful look. "I think we will need some time to think it over," she agreed. "But if you don't mind, what are you calling it."
CARDINAL looked at them.
"The World Seed."
Author's Note: After careful consideration, Mystic Knight Online: All the World's Made Strange is completed with this. To be honest, this had ballooned into being longer than I intended. I had initially planned for three or four chapters but there were a lot of things to do. What was to be Chapter Nineteen is going to be the First Chapter of Mystic Knight Online called Mystic Knight Online: Worlds to Sow.
Stay tuned for the next installment!