March 6th, 2024, Lisbeth's Smith Shop on Floor 48
"Hyaaah! Gah! Fuyaaah!"
Lisbeth watches from the window of her shop and home as a swordsman outside practices with his newly forged sword underneath the rising sun. A red blade with the edges colored black, matching the clothes he wears that gives him his designation as the Crimson Warrior. For now, he has ditched the slightly armored red tunic and chainmail, wearing only his black shirt and pants He will wield the blade alongside its sister shield, a perfect blend of offense and defense.
She has known him since December 2022, in which he was one of the many clearers quickly advancing up the first few floors. Back then, he had a female partner, and the two of them saved Lisbeth from a mob and assisted her on her personal quest while at the same time fulfilling the story questline with the elves.
Fast forward a year and a little more than two complete months, he has changed. Two weeks ago, his partner died at the hands of a PKer and a dangerous bleeding effect. He blamed himself, but Lisbeth also blamed herself. Had she not asked him to help her gather materials for her developing store, he could have been with their friend and saved her. He stayed away from the frontlines these last two weeks, keeping himself busy by helping her finish her shop. She felt guilty at first, but he insisted it is better to help than to be in her residence doing absolutely nothing but be a nuisance. Today, she opens her doors and he returns to the front.
She finds herself outside, standing a few steps away as he sheathes his sword and gazes at the sunrise. He hasn't noticed her or acknowledged his presence, and it is just the two of them. She regards him as a dear friend, someone she owes more than she can ever repay, and she doesn't want him to go unless he's ready. "Jaymes, are you sure you ready to go?"
"I have to," he says softly. "I have...to fulfill a promise I made to Koharu. To clear the game and make sure that everyone she cared about returns to the real world." He turns around, his brown eyes meeting her own. They hold his pain, but behind them is his determination. "Besides, I am being personally requested to return by two friends of mine. I've known them way too long to just ignore them. They're having trouble on the 56th Floor, and it is unlike them to...have such a hard time."
Lisbeth nods, understanding why Jaymes must go. Slowly she steps up and throws her arms around the tall boy, barely able to place her head on his shoulder. "Jaymes, promise me you won't be a hero. And come back...home to me."
"Home? But this is your place, I couldn't-"
"You helped build it. So until you fulfill Koharu's wish, this is your home as much as it is mine. If I know Koharu, she wants someone to take care of you. I owe her that." She steps back, holding up her right pinky. "Swear it."
For the first time since that fateful day, she sees a smile on the boy's avatar. "Fine. I'll come back once I can." He locks his pinky with hers, sealing the promise. At the same moment, his stomach starts to grumble, in which he sheepishly laughs. "Hey, uh...how about some food?"
She sighs and shakes her head as she heads back to the house. "Incorrigible. Come on."
The meeting doesn't begin for another quarter-hour as I wait outside. Some players have gone inside the cave where the meeting is to be held, while others like me rather bathe in sunlight. I just hate being early, that's all. After going through fifty-five meetings already, I have gotten bored of listening to everyone squabble over tactics. But from what I hear, the Knights of the Blood Oath are in charge of this operation, and an old friend of mine is leading it. Doesn't mean much, but compared to the days of the rivalry between the old Aincrad Liberation Squad and the Dragon Knights Brigade, the bickering of the KoB and the Divine Dragon Alliance doesn't compare.
"I didn't think you'll come." I turn to my rights, seeing a young woman with brown hair too long for its own good. Her brown eyes match her cheerful face, just as happy to see me as I am to see her. Her white and red dress, her uniform for the KoB, is as elegant as I know it to be. I step off the three as the girl approaches. She inspects me and my new gear before grabbing me into a hug. "I'm so sorry."
"It's fine Asuna," I say as I return the hug. "I've done all the mourning I can do. Now it is time for me to finish what we started."
Asuna steps back and pats my armored left shoulder. "I see. You got an upgrade in gear. How much did this cost?"
"Free. I have a blacksmith who is a friend. Helped her set up shop and all the last two weeks. Even a new sword and shield. Her name's Lisbeth, 48th Floor. She's the best."
'I'll have to check her out soon, put your praise to the test. Anyway, shall I brief you on our current trouble?"
"Sure." I follow Asuna towards the cave, drawing some stares from a few other players. I don't see two guys I know should be part of the clearing group, but everyone else either looks at me in jealously or in sadness. I expect word that the Kindred Assassin was PK'ed weeks ago would have spread, and seeing me alone confirms it. As for the jealous stares (mainly from KoB guild members), Asuna is walking rather close to me. I see her little bodyguard by the entrance to the cave, looking like he might pop a vessel. "What the situation, Second-In-Command?"
"The Field Boss here has been giving us trouble. Way more than I like to admit."
"Wow, that is troubling." It is not an issue to say that the game has become harder to advance as we progressed. It took us three months since we started to advance to get to and clear the 25th Floor, another ten to clear Floor 50. I told Koharu last November that, if everything went as quickly as they were, we might be out the game sometime around her 18th birthday next year, but that doesn't seem likely. But if a Field Boss is giving one of the strongest players and her guild trouble, plus some other strong players I know, that is bad news.
"Not just difficult, almost impossible to beat. The Geocrawler is a worm-like creature, impervious to slashing, piercing, thrusting, and blunt weapons and attacks. The weak point is its belly, but it is quite hard to get to. We tried many ideas, including baiting it with meat, but those strategies failed."
I stop walking, folding my arms and smirking. "Is it a plan he's going to like?" I dart my vision to a boy dressed in all black inspecting his sword. At the sight of him Asuna sighs and pushes her hair back.
"When does he ever like my plans?'
'You do know I don't like being in the middle of your...problems. I am as much as Kirito's friend as I am yours. You both are the reason I'm here."
"Well, I am the girl between us, so you should side with me automatically against mean boys."
I sigh while feigning sadness. "I'm sure one of these guys would do it, but at a price. A dinner date with the Lightning Flash, a kiss, maybe a little more… But I guess I'll do it for free since we're friends and I'm not the Black Swordsman." Asuna stares at me with a glare that reminds me of Koharu, Lisbeth, and my other lady friends whenever I act like this towards girls, whether they're an NPC or player. It used to scare me, but now I'm used to it.
"So glad you're back, pervert."
Saying it is tense in this room is an understatement. This Field Boss must be a serious business. I need no further indication of that once I see Klein, a normally laid-back guys, with his arms folding and a serious disposition on his face. I glance towards Asuna, seeing her face in a perpetual frown. She told me she had a plan, but is she reconsidering it? Is she looking for other options? One thing is sure, I don't see the Black Swordsman, but I know he's in the room.
Asuna slams her hand down on the map. "Lure it to the village. That's how we get the boss." Oh… Oh my, she's bold. She wants to use the NPC villagers as a distraction? It causes quite the clamor in the room, even drawing Kirito to the table.
"Wait, you can't be serious! If we do, the boss will go after the villagers!"
"Yes, that's the idea. And while the boss is busy killing NPCs, we can attack it and kill it."
"But they're not just objects! NPCs are different from rocks and trees! Look, they're-"
"You think they're alive? Really? In this game, they are just objects, and unlike us, if they are killed, they can always respawn."
Kirito, despite the logic behind Asuna's plan, shakes his head. "Sorry, but I'm not cool with that plan."
She stands up, giving Kirito an even more deadly glare. "I'm running this operation, okay? In case you forgot, I'm still Second-In-Command of the Knights of the Blood Oath. You'll obey my orders, like it or not."
The two former partners engage in a brief staredown before I raise my hand and intervene. I turn to Kirito first. "I have to agree with Asuna, NPCs are objects in this game. You may not like to admit it, but that's the truth. Their lives are not above ours, and if it means that we keep more of alive by sacrificing them, then I support Asuna's plan. However," I turn my head towards Asuna, "not all NPCs are just...objects. Some are beyond it. So unless we cannot figure out a better plan, only then should we go with yours. So, any other ideas?" I wait a minute for anyone to voice their opinion, but no one says anything. They must have really exhausted every possible idea imaginable. I bit my lip as I face Kirito again. "Do you truly believe there's a less violent way to deal with this?"
"Then there's only one way I suggest we settle this. Asuna and Kirito will duel. Asuna wins, we go along with her plan and Kirito will participate in it without objection. Kirito wins, we will search for another for three days. If another plan is found, we will try it without objection from Asuna and she will participate in it. If no other idea can be formulated or works in that amount of time, or the cost of our lives outweighs the NPCs, then we engage in Asuna's plan and Kirito will participate without objection. Deal?"
Asuna lost the duel, but she didn't lose the fight. Afterward, the two of us encountered an NPC that sang a lullaby. We had a player who had a high Musical Instrument skill learn the song and play it during the fight. When the Geocrawler fell asleep, we defeated it easily.
As we pick ourselves up from the battle, Kirito waves and approaches me as I explore the nearby village to restock on supplies. "Hey, glad to finally catch up with you."
I nod to the infamous "Beater" (which I am also "guilty" of, sine Koharu, Kirito, and I played the SAO beta and met there) and take the ailment potions from the vendor. Done with my shopping, I now have to decide whether to get ahead of the game and advance or head back to the 48th to Lisbeth. "I see you're doing well. Still being the hero?"
He sighs. "Just doing what's right, I guess. But if we owe this victory to anyone, it is you diffusing a tense situation fairly. Who knows if we'd ever find that NPC with the lullaby before we lost any lives."
"So I guess we're back to some senes of normality. You the hero, I the mediator, Asuna the strategist."
"It's not...totally normal." I know what he's implying, and I hoped to not talk about her anymore for a while. But if anyone understands losing someone close to you and the biting guilt that comes with it, Kirito knows it. It was just last year that he lost his former guild, the Moonlit Cats, and last Christmas he tried finding an item that resurrects a player, but on the condition that it is used within ten seconds of the death.
I turn away from the vendor, making my way out of the village. "Yeah, I guess so. But it's not like with you and Sachi. You lost her to, for better or worse, the design of the game. I lost Koharu to a selfish prick who believes killing others for sport is fine. On her birthday of all days. But I cannot let my guilt swallow me any longer. The only way I'll forgive myself is by beating this game and getting our friends out."
"You're not alone: Kirito says, earning a raised eyebrow from me. He shrugs and holds his arms up. "I know, that ironic coming from the solo player. But we've been there for each other since the beginning, and...well… we're friends."
I shake my head. "You don't have many real-life friends, do you? That's very sad that your friends right now is a Japanese-African American, two older men, and a young girl. Oh, and Asuna, who doesn't even like you right now...or maybe I'm wrong about the both of you."
"What are you implying?"
"You'll figure it out." I smile as we return to the field. It's still fun to mess with Kirito and Asuna about their hidden feelings for each other. Asuna usually teased me back about Koharu, which I eventually stopped denying, but I can't do anything about it now. I open up my menu, deciding returning to Lisbeth is the best option for today. She must be worried about me. "Hey, Kirito."
"Thanks for checking up on me. I think I am better now, Also, thanks for looking after Silica. I would say I owe you one for it...but I guess I paid it off."
He nods. "No problem, man. Well, I guess I'll go check on the next floor. You?"
"I'll make my way there tomorrow."
"Let me know, then. We can tackle it together...as a party." He extends his arm out, hoping for a handshake. I take it, lightly shaking our limbs while laughing.
"You're only doing this to be nice, huh?"
"Well, that and because it is either I get you or Asuna does. Rather be ahead of the game."
The bell to Lisbeth's shop announces my entry, though I don't see the blacksmith in the front of the store. She must be in the smithy, cooking up her next masterpiece. Then again, it is past business hours, so she could be in the upstairs residence. I wouldn't be surprised, however, to find her hard at work on orders.
I find the girl in the red and white dress where I expect, hammering a heated blade. I decide to not bother her, leaning on the doorframe and watching her craft. I find it amazing that the pink-haired girl put her effort towards this skill,but at the end of the day, Lisbeth is the best player blacksmith I know, maybe even better than NPCs.
When she's done, she throws the sets the hammer down and wipes her forehead. She then picks up the blade, a spear tip, and inspects it. She looks satisfied, to say the least, as she sets it down and douses the flames. Her work today must be complete, so I walk inside the smithy, picking up the spear tip. My assumption is correct. "Impressive. Level 75 spear. Very high strength and speed stats. Also comes with armor-piercing and fire attributes."
"Customer paid good Col for it to have such a weapon made. I'll finish it in the morning." Lisbeth stretches her arms after collecting her tools and placing them on a table. As she comes to me I set the blade back in place. "I hear the 56th Floor is explorable. Good job."
"I wouldn't give me that much credit, although I will say that my presence made a difference. Took me one day to solve a problem that they had for a week… Oh." Lisbeth takes me by surprise by hugging me again, but this one is different. It's not a farewell hug, it's welcoming me home.
"I'm glad you're safe...and home."
I chuckle as I hold her and look into her chocolate eyes, her cute face still lit by the dying embers. Suddenly I become aware of myself. My hands hold her slender waist. Our bodies barely brush against each other, but it's enough to elicit a sensory response. But for better or worse, I cannot look away from her face.
My stomach saves the day as it gurgles. I look down at it, remembering that I haven't eaten since...breakfast, if I even had that. Backing away, I sheepishly grin and hold my tummy. "Advancing the front is hard on the stomach, hehe."
Lisbeth sighs and leads us out the smithy. "Did you forget to eat again? Jaymes!"
"Sorry. I was focused on the battle this morning and grabbed a light snack. As for lunch… I merely forgot. But hey, I mean, I can always come back here and eat."
"Are you implying that I am supposed to feed you?" Lisbeth shouts as we ascend the stairs. "Besides the misogyny in those words, it's not like I am that great of a cook."
I sigh. "We're both well aware of that, which is good that I have worked on my Cooking skill. Funny how you can turn water into steam but suck at boiling it." I snicker as I grab an apple and begin to snack on it while thinking about dinner preparation. I turn around, seeing the blacksmith stare at the fruit basket on her table intently. My thoughts go back to a few moments prior. I had just lost a girl I really liked two weeks ago, and now I'm sparking ideas for another. Not exactly a rebound, but at the same time...then again, it isn't wrong at all. Well, probably bad for me, but I had two weeks of no sudden feelings for Lisbeth. It just happened. Maybe it was in the moment. I should investigate further, but how? Living with her won't work, I'll be in and out between rest and fighting in the frontlines. Hmm… Oh, I have an idea. "Hey, Lisbeth?"
"Sometime soon, I have to pay you back for everything. Setting up the shop doesn't personally make it up. I want to do something for you that's personal."
Lisbeth looks up, the middle of her face turning red. "Wh-What do you mean?"
"There's this nice restaurant on the 29th Floor. It's a quality place, very expensive but worth the Col. The next time you and I have a free day, let me treat you to dinner."
"A-A-Are you aa-a-a-sking me on a d-d-d-date?"
Technically I am. I don't want to lie to her, I can see the nervousness bouncing off the cherry head of hers. I set a kettle full of broth in the fireplace and turn the flames on. "Well...a friendly one, I guess. No catch. Just a dinner between… I guess we're roommates, huh? So… What do you say?"
Lisbeth takes a deep breath and glances up at me, smiling slightly. "I guess it is hard to deny a free meal, from you most of all. You must be swimming in Col because you just made a mistake, Jaymes. I accept, but just to be clear… I want to be spoiled."
I roll my eyes as I grab some veggies and start chopping them up. "I have no problem with that."
"Oh, you'll regret it, mister."