The first fight I had in the beta test of «Sword Art Online» that actually challenged me was… exhilarating. Never before had I imagined that I could feel that alive with a sword in my hand, never thought that I'd feel so… alive in a seemingly life or death fight, even knowing that my 'death' would just mean some dropped loot and Col, and respawning in the «Room of Resurrection».
The first fight I had in the official launch of Sword Art Online that actually challenged me, however… was terrifying. An actual battle for life or death—while it gave me a much larger and more euphoric rush, it also mentally exhausted me far more than any fight in the beta ever had. The efficiency you attain from knowing that the littlest mistake or misstep could be the death of you was draining.
…Or at least, the efficiency you should attain.
This current fight between the level six «Ruin Kobold Trooper» and a cloaked player Argo led me towards certainly looked efficient to the untrained eye. The player was accurately and effectively dodging the strikes of their opponents, attacking during the recharge time or during a stagger, and kiting the rest to repeat the process. A 'good fight', I'm certain someone like Klein would say. The strikes were fast, ended the fight as soon as possible, and the player almost never got hit.
But they were using only system assisted «Sword Skills». Because of my knowledge of how the system assist functioned I learnt how to avoid the system assist while still maintaining the damage output of a fully charged sword skill—but that was clearly not the case for this player. They held the stance for the basic rapier sword skill «Linear» just a little too long, and while I couldn't see the actual blade, I could easily see the trajectory of the light cast by the fully charged sword skill. Certainly, impressive for a rookie—but she used it again.
And it was this fact that worried me.
Sword skills, when making use of the NerveGear's «system assist», require an incredible amount of concentration at lower levels—it wasn't until around +35 INT that a player could reliably spam system assist sword skills without needing to factor in the concentration required. And the drain normally wasn't a negligible one—already I could see the player's strikes slowing.
Luckily for them, I'd taken care of the rest of the pop and we were close enough to a «Safe Zone» outside of the cave, so they wouldn't need to worry about taking on more Troopers.
…Except they didn't move towards the entrance of the cave. They moved to go deeper, leaning against one of the walls to catch their breath.
Normally I'd leave and find my own prey for the night. Not a method I quite preferred, but after that first day… besides a meeting with Argo and some player traders, I'd not approached a single player. Since leaving Klein and hearing the dying screams and begging of Coper… I'd selfishly lived as a solo player. Even when I saw another player in danger, I'd been unable to bring myself to leave the shadows to help them.
But this rookie… Even though they weren't in visible danger, and probably wouldn't die in the next several encounters (HP still near full)… I promised Argo. And so, after several seconds of deliberation and mental preparation, I left the shadows of the intersection and strode toward the now sitting rapier user.
Their torso was equipped with a crimson leather tunic and a light weight copper breast plate, dressed in neat leather pants and a pair of combat boots. The figure was wearing a hooded cloak, similar enough to my «Cloak of Shadow Mending»—fully hiding his face from view. Apart from the cloak, their equipment seemed very similar to that of a fencer—very similar to my own equipment as a swordsman. Because of the weight of the «Anneal Blade» I wear very little armour—a small chest guard over my own dark blue leather tunic and underneath my cloak.
Deactivating my Cloak and my «Hiding» skill, I let the sound of my heavy leather boots clicking against the dense stone echo through the cavernous room. At the sound the rapier user's shoulders trembled, as if she thought I was a monster. But why? My cursor was the same bright green as hers, and the cursor of every player was permanently visible unless they were making use of particularly high levelled Hiding skill. The rapier user had their face buried deep behind their knees, giving a strong 'just pass by and move on' impression.
I stopped right in front of them and opened my mouth—always my first mistake on meeting new people.
"That was an extreme overkill."
…Real comforting words there Kazuto.
The slim shoulders, covered by the thick cloth of the cloak, shifted slightly. The hood jerked, moved up a few centimetres, and from the darkness two pupils sharply shot towards me. The only thing I could discern was the narrowed hazel of her eyes—the shape of the face couldn't be seen at all. For a few seconds, they sat and watched me with that same sharp glare they'd worn in the prior battle… but then their head titled slightly.
Ah… an MMO rookie. Wonderful—thanks Argo.
While MMO rookies weren't exactly rare in MMOs, even Sword Art Online—a few of the beta testers that had never played an MMO before and only played a few lighter RPGs, seeing a solo player that was also a rookie was incredibly uncommon. And one so skilled…
The «Linear» release was so perfect I couldn't resist a shiver. The conciseness of the pre-motion and the post-motion… the speed of the thrust… Only once before have I beheld such a terrifying sword skill execution, but that was in the real world.
I'd originally thought they were a beta tester like I was—that they'd practiced for endless hours to attain that speed and form like I had. But after seeing the Linear the second time, I started to doubt that. «Minimal Side Step Defence» certainly had its advantages—a higher counterattack speed over parrying or blocking, and it wouldn't decrease armour or weapon durability at the same speed. But the technique was incredibly risky—the kind of thing someone with a glass cannon build like myself would make use of, it was risky for rookie MMO players to practice in live battle situations, especially when the battle situation was in a death game.
Prioritising maximum DPS with minimal movement over defence—if a hit were to miss or the opponent were to move slightly faster than the attacker with a prioritised attack then the attacker would be hit with counter-damage and would risk being stunned. And for solo players, «stun» status effects are almost always fatal.
Because of that… I was curious. Even with my misgivings towards sword skills, I knew that this rapier user had perfected their movements for readying and finishing a sword skill and given enough time they could probably make use of non-assisted sword skills like me. But pairing that with the risky defensive tactics… I was interested. Being honest with myself, that was the biggest reason I moved closer and stated the overkill.
Hyper obsessiveness and fixation I tell ya'.
However the other player didn't seem to understand the MMO term. I took a short breath and explained. "'Overkill' means… in comparison to the enemy's remaining HP, the damage dealt was way too much. The Kobold Trooper earlier was practically dead after the second Linear." I shook my head. "No, your victory was already practically guaranteed after the first. Its HP was only at 35%, a few well-placed regular attacks would have been more than enough."
That… was the most I've spoken since that first night. Unused the voice in this new body, and having nobody really to talk to, I'd tried to be as silent as possible since Coper's death. How many weeks has it been since said more than a sentence or two in conversation?
Being a solo player was both a virtue and a curse. It meant no pain of having to watch friends die, saving you from having to look after others that were much lower level or of severely lower skill. Kept you from having to care—and in a death game, being able to fixate on surviving helped distract from the loneliness caused from being solo.
Granted… my experience of playing solo was in MMOs where I wasn't spending twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, logged in. Being alone for a few days at a time was one thing, I was used to that. But for almost an entire month… for someone that already had issues understanding social cues and understanding other people, that level of isolation was incredibly harmful to social growth and development—removing any reason to survive and complete this… 'game'.
"Overkill… is there any problem with it?"
Finally they—she—spoke. Spoke a question… I really didn't need to answer. Obviously she could fight and stay alive on her own—it wasn't my responsibility to teach her how to stay alive in this Hellish prison. But… a part of me, some part that was desperate for interaction that my little sister had filled and watered for several years to try to help me grow, couldn't stop me from answering her.
"Overkill has… not penalty or demerit, no. But… it's bad for efficiency. System assisted sword skills require concentration, using them continuously is mentally exhausting." I stopped to make sure she was paying some level of attention. "You also need to consider the return path—"
I stopped. "…Yes…" I drew out. "The exit to the dungeon is about twenty, thirty minutes from here. And from there «Tolbana» is about two hours away, even for high AGI players like you and I. Exhaustion increases mistakes, and for solo players like us, even the slightest mistake can be fatal."
Finally having a chance to observe my voice, I noticed how… soft it was—my real voice was naturally soft already, from being young and rarely speaking as it is. But it was still noticeably masculine. This new avatar's voice… was definitely very effeminate.
Why did… why did I feel warm realising that?
"…Then there's no problem, I'm not returning."
She broke me out of my thoughts.
"What?" I asked dumbfoundedly. "N… not returning to town? But… but healing potions, equipment repairing, sleep… You need these things in this world."
"I don't need medicines when I'm not taking damage," she said, like a smart aleck. "And I brought five of the same sword. There's a «Safe Area» a few minutes that way, so I can rest there."
Safe areas were special rooms in dungeons that monsters couldn't enter, and where players couldn't cause harm to each other—easily recognisable by a special coloured torch placed on the walls of its corners. It was a wonderful place to rest while hunting and mapping—to catch a breather and restore whatever health you might have lost. But it was awful for any sort of actual resting—made of cold stone with no bed, and sleeping bags weren't provided by NPC stores or available for crafting by players until around the fourth floor. And of course, you could still hear the footsteps and growls of the nearby mobs—on top of sensing their murderous intent.
Actual sleep was just absolutely impossible and prolonged time being awake was mentally… exhausting…
"…How many hours have you been here?" My voice shook and was filled with fear and worry. Don't… don't say…
She took a deep breath. "Three… maybe four days?" Damn it no, no, no… "Is that all? The monsters around here should spawn soon."
She pushed off the wall and stood up shakily. The rapier, which was still drawn, dropped heavily as if she were trying to wield a two-handed sword with one hand. Her cloak, I could see now, was in tatters—the fact that it was still intact at all was a miracle. For cloth equipment, four day expeditions without any sort of repair from a tailor was… it shouldn't have been possible.
For as arrogant as it made her sound, her 'when I'm not taking damage' has to have been true.
Suddenly, before I could even process what I was doing, my hand snapped out and grabbed her wrist to keep her from moving forward. "If you fight like that you will die."
The rapier user made no movement for a few seconds, and suddenly she was turning her neck to look at me. From under the hood, I could see her red and black rimmed hazel eyes gazing at me.
"…Everyone wild die in the end anyway."
"In just one month, 7000 people have died, and not even this floor has been cleared. It isn't possible to clear this game. Where and how you die… the only difference is when it will happen."
He's right, but…
Suddenly, the rapier user seemed to have been struck by an unseen paralyzing attack and slowly sank to the floor. I cursed silently as she suddenly collapsed. Why, why did she think it was a good idea to stay in this dungeon for four days? As she fell to the ground, I ran up and caught her body in my arms.
I suddenly wished I'd chosen to roll 2:1 STR/AGI build and not a 2:1 AGI/STR build.
I sighed as I heaved the body onto my back—which wasn't much of an easy task. As an AGI/STR build at level nine, with ten STR to my sixteen AGI, lifting other players and carrying them efficiently while avoiding mobs (even with my Cloak and Hiding skill) was… a challenge.
I had to get us out of here as soon as possible though. If she was right then more mobs would be spawning here soon—while the Kobold class of monsters weren't the most challenging outside of the boss room, fighting became exponentially harder when you're carrying and trying to protect an unconscious player on your back as well. After a couple minutes of walking I felt the fencer's breathing start to even.
Good… she's asleep.
In the distance I heard the tell-tale spawning of monsters not too far away. 'Kay… really gotta' move it if I want to avoid a fight.
It wasn't much longer until we made it out of the dungeon and into the forest surrounding the path leading back to town. Finding my way to a random clearing, I placed the rapier user onto the ground and found a nearby tree to lay against while waiting for her to wake up.
In the silence of the night, gazing up at the stars through the canopy of the forest, with the soft breathing of the sleeping rapier user next to me the only presence to keep me company, I wondered.
Why is she… is she really so willing to give up her life in this new reality?
As much as I didn't want to accept it—or maybe it's because I really did want to accept it but didn't want to admit it—«Sword Art Online» is our reality now. And to be so willing to just give that up…
…Why doesn't she want to live Here?
Here where the weak can be strong, where the worthless can belong, where we all spent tens of thousands of yen just to have first day. Why would she want to give up her life Here?
User Name: Kirito
Character Level: 9
Cloth Shirt (F)- +0pts armour
Light Iron Cuirass (+3)- +20pts armour
Leather Coat (F)- 6pts armour
Leather Trousers (F)- +3pts armour
Leather Boots (F)- +2pts armour, +2 movement speed
«Anneal Blade (+6)»- (20*One-handed Sword*STR)pts damage
«Cloak of Shadow Melding (+4)»- +4pts armour, +9 «Hiding», +18 Stealth
One-handed Sword- 48/1000
Hiding- 55*/1000 (*«Cloak of Shadow Melding» +9)
Friends Online- 2/2
Active Parties- 0/0
Short chapter-I wanted to stop before I got to doing Asuna' POV for the beginning of the next chapter. Gonna' be starting to go a little of canon in characterisation, interactions, and the progression of events starting around the time of the boss meeting. Meanwhile I'm also trying to balance my numbers to make progression not seem too fast. I've officially written more of The Black Blade, Reforged in under a week than I did of Kuroi Kenshi in a whole two months six years ago, and I feel pretty good about that.
Hope you all enjoyed the chapter, and I'll be getting to work on the next chapter almost immediately upon posting this one.