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Dreamers of the Day - An SAO Fusion Isekai

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Synopsis : What if Kayaba Akihiko's dream was not just a dream. What if the Steel Castle, a...
Prologue Part I


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Feb 22, 2023
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Synopsis : What if Kayaba Akihiko's dream was not just a dream. What if the Steel Castle, a world Incarnate Unto Its Own Radius, was a place that could actually be reached? The twenty five thousand players of Sword Art Online are about to find out.

Prologue - Part 1​

"A last question before we let our honored guest go for the evening, Akihiko-sensei, what do you have to say to the people raising concerns about Full Dive instilling violent impulses in players?"

"Violent impulses? I don't think I understand."

"Some critics have voiced concerns that playing such a realistic game, in such an intimate way by embodying their characters, could cause players to translate these behaviors to reality, where they could be extremely harmful."

"Ah, now I see . . ."


"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible."

"That's . . . T.E. Lawrence right? As in Lawrence of Arabia?"

"He was reminding us of the power of dreams to shape reality. Not just the things we do, but the things we imagine doing. I think . . . Such critics are entirely missing the point of Sword Art Online. It is a tragically common ailment in our modern day. Yes, it is true that combat is a feature of the game experience. It is a feature of many games. But Sword Art strives to transcend being merely combat. Castle Aincrad is a world of Weapons and Sorcery. But it is also a real place."

"A real place, Sensei?"

"Yes. Aincrad is a real place which we may all go to. A world to be fully realized by the players of Sword Art Online. A place of profound stories. Where our actions will truly matter."

"It sounds like a power fantasy, putting it that way."

"Many games are. But I prefer to think of it as an empowerment fantasy. Especially in our world of today, where so many feel powerless, even unto themselves. No action can matter if it does not have consequences. The only thing we can carry with us between these two worlds is our state of mind. I do not think there is much to fear of a world that sharpens a conscience as much as it sharpens a blade."

- Excerpt from MMO Today Podcast, Nov 3, 2024

In the outskirts of Saitama, beneath an overcast autumn sky, within a small bedroom, a boy was illuminated in blue by the light of a computer monitor. He was of almost exactly average height, and somewhat slender of frame, his sister would say 'scrawny', usually while trying to coax him to exercise. He resembled his mother much more than his father, soft, almost feminine features, his most distinguishing trait, beneath a mop of lank black hair.

The bedside clock sedately blinked 12:45 PM.

At that moment he wasn't paying the time any mind, he'd set an alarm for 12:55 precisely, the bedside clock was radio calibrated against the NICT master atomic clock, the same one used by the SAO servers. He wasn't worried.

Instead, his attention was focused entirely on his monitor. There were a few videos going all at once. One was a livestream from MMO Daily showing people picking up their launch copies of Sword Art Online. Another was last night's interview with Kayaba Akihiko.

A hard copy magazine sat open on the desk, the glossy pages turned to an interview with the genius behind Full Dive technology. Kayaba Akihiko, a tall and vaguely gray man, although not old, looked out from the page, smiling as he held the Prototype Nerve Gear helmet like a proud father.

"No doubt our avid followers were just as disappointed as us six years ago when SAO was suspended in the Pre-Alpha phase. After so much promising footage and multiple groundbreaking technical demonstrations. In the six years since, in partnership with RECT, RECT-ARGUS is finally proud to present Sword Art Online in its uncompromised and intended form!"

"It's certainly been a long wait, Kaori. But even if half of what the Beta Testers tell us is true, the wait has been well worth it! Games like ALfheim Chronicles, and Gun Gale : Squad Jam, have kept Full Dive gaming relevant, and shown the potential of the technology beyond the education enterprise, and medical spheres where it has exploded. But what has been missing so far has been a crowning jewel. Will that be Sword Art Online, I wonder?"

"Good question Kusakabe, I hope to find out soon! I can't wait to get started and roll my avatar. I think I'll be a pictish musketeer! What do you think, Kusakabe? As a cat-girl, I'd be pretty gosh darn cute!"

"It's certainly tempting to play something like a Si. But I think I'll be perfectly happy playing a human scholar. I just want a chance to explore Akihiko-sensei's marvelous world! Just remember, friends, SAO requires the Third Generation Memeosphere. So if you plan on picking it up, you're going to want to put the money aside for the new console too! That's all for now folks, this has been MMO Today's Deep Think segment!"

Both streams were minimized, playing in the background while the majority of the monitor was consumed by local playback from Sword Art : Dojo. The video depicted a young man, almost the young man sitting at his desk, but not quite, a little less soft, a little more lean, maybe who he'd have grown into, in a couple more years, if he'd been born a kendo fanatic like his sister.

That very same sister had once glimpsed him watching the playbacks and rolled her eyes at the idea he would shun kendo just to wave around a virtual sword in a virtual place. But they weren't the same thing at all. It wasn't Swords, it wasn't Sword Arts, it was Sword Art Online, the world he wished to inhabit.

He was watching, and thinking, his hands twitching as he absorbed his mistakes and considered corrections, how he'd do this against a human opponent. How he'd handle someone wielding an axe, or a spear, how much ground could he cover before a bowman drew an arrow, or a musketeer aimed their gun.

But he wasn't really alive, not at that moment. Just waiting.

In the video, the young man was engaged with a virtual opponent, an armored knight far larger and more imposing than he. Frame by frame, it would seem an impossible fight. But in playback it was just the opposite. When the video was running, at a smooth 244 FPS, the boy sitting dully at his desk, face slack, and the man on the far side of the screen, didn't look the same at all.

The young man was beautiful, it showed in the surety of his step, the speed of his sword, he moved with spare grace, never relenting as he thrust and parried, his swordsmanship a cascade of motions far beyond the capacity of the boy, flowing into each other like an undiluted stream. Sparks danced between their swords, he pried out the knight's weaknesses, chinks in their armor, slashing at straps, behind the knee, and beneath the shoulder. His his face was alive with intense concentration.

He took the knight apart until, finally, he delivered the finishing blow.

The simple iron sword shining to life as he achieved the conditions to activate his Art and felled the armored champion with a steel cleaving blow that split their helm.

The boy should have felt triumphant. Instead, he grimaced as he looked at the results. SAO didn't give the players a lot of HP to play with. You had to avoid damage at all costs, be it by speed, range, bladework, or heavy armor. Some of those swings had been near things, leaving the swordsman at half HP with a long list of debuffs stretching across his status ribbon symbolizing debilitating injuries.

It looked like slick dueling, but that kind of sloppy work would end a Labyrinth Delve in no time. Not good enough. Not nearly good enough. He glanced at the clock and was about to start the next playback when there was a knock at the bedroom door. "It's unlocked," he called, turning his chair."

A head of black straight shoulder length hair shyly peaked inside. He was met by the sweetly smiling face of the girl he called his sister. "Hey big brother, uhm, I'm heading to today's practice now . . . do you . . . need anything before I go?"

He opened his mouth, thinking for a moment, then smiled and shook his head. "I'm good, Sugu, thanks."

Her eyes darted to the screen. She didn't really approve of his hobby, but she still gave a small nod. "Okay then, have fun with your video game." She ducked out, and then poked back in again, "Oh and remember, CERO says you should take a break every hour to move your body and get lots of liquids!"

He blinked owlishly, then smiled sheepishly. "I'll try to remember that."

"Good!" She nodded gravely before closing the door.

As her footsteps faded, so did his smile. He didn't know why, but there had been a little bit of a thaw between him and his sister recently, so he wanted to try, really try, to keep that door open. It was kind of nice, almost like when they'd been kids again. And then he'd be reminded of how she was different now, not the little girl who cried when she skinned her knee, and needed her big brother to protect her. How in the end she'd protected him far more. It made him feel like an intruder into her life.

And then it would hurt for a while. He didn't belong there. But that was okay, he might not have known his place in the world of his birth, but he knew where he belonged in Aincrad. Forging a path with only the sword in his hand. He'd be there very soon.

In the corner of his screen, a message box opened.

ARGOleCat - How's it going Kii-bou? Plannin on an all nighter?

Kirito - You know it, Cat. Gonna bookit for the Anneal Quest first thing. You?

ARGOleCat - Gotta rebuild my network. :-(

Kirito - Rumors true then?

ARGOleCat - Yeah, RECT-ARGUS reset our whole accounts, not just progression. My message box is GONE. So I hope you listened about remaking your AS.

Kirito - Don't worry, I took care of it last night.

ARGOleCat - OwO? So did you take my advice? That Edge Lord pretty boy look didn't suit you at all XD

He grimaced as he remembered the Cat's good natured ribbing. The truth was, he had changed his avatar appearance since the Beta. Though not because of what she'd said exactly. More because of what Suguha had said when he'd shown her a high fidelity render, just to get a second opinion was all.

"Who's this? An actor?" She'd asked, missing the telltale signs of a 3D model.

"Just . . . How does he look?"

Studying the image thoughtfully for a minute, she smiled, "Looks like he could be Elza Kanzaki's boyfriend. Real Dreamy. I'd love to date a guy like that!"

And just like so, his previous avatar, which he had painstakingly constructed to embody his ideals of cool, had been consigned to the trash can. His new AS might have borne more resemblance to his real self than he really liked, but he felt better that way. Instead of relaying that, he simply typed :

Kirito - You'll just have to wait and see. Maybe I'll get the drop on you, Cat!

ARGOleCat - Not in a million years with your crap hiding skill! I'm setting up now, see'ya there, Kii-bou!

12:54 PM

Right, it was time for him to get started too. He glanced over to his bed. Despite his sister's well meaning advice, he did actually care for his health at least a little bit. He had his water bottle and some healthy snacks already arranged by his bed. He was dressed comfortably in a long sleeved shirt and sweatpants. He was used to Full Dive and knew how to stay comfortable and not harm his body during long play sessions.

Then he paused to examine the object resting on his pillow like a dragon's egg. It had taken some doing, but he'd managed to put the money together in order to qualify for the Beta Test. It had taken scrimping together all his new years money, for several years, selling his Nerve Gear, and the Amusphere he took on family trips, most of his gaming collection, and more than a few long nights building PCs, but he'd done it.

The Memeosphere, otherwise known as the Nerve Gear Revision 3, or sometimes disparagingly as the 'Nerve Gear Pro' by people who couldn't afford one. He knew that wasn't true though. He'd looked over the specifications. The parts he could understand anyways. It didn't even use microwaves so much as something called a 'Quantum Set Space' to read and manipulate the entire brain at a very high degree of fidelity. At least, that was what the technical specifications had said. It promised to be far safer and less invasive in reply to one of the persistent fears about the Nerve Gear, the microwave transmitters.

And besides that, the advanced functions of the MUSE system wouldn't work without it. The entire foundation of how SAO could be a game with progression but no skill leveling simply wouldn't have been possible.

Holding the clean, unblemished, glossy gray plastic, feeling the surprising weight of the circuitry packed inside, he carefully adjusted the headset until it fit comfortably, and settled down so that his head was well supported by the memory foam pillow. And then he waited. A small LCD screen was built into the visor, reporting connection status, remaining charge on the backup battery, and the current time.

12:59 it blinked. His eyes widened, finally coming alive, and then, taking a breath, just as the clock struck 1:00 . . .

"Link Start!"

A moment of tension transforming into vertigo as her bedroom sealing stretched away into pure white, and the feeling of the mattress beneath her dissolved. She was floating, bodiless, in a blank void that stretched on for as far as the eye could see. Then, as if approaching from a great distance at tremendous speed, a banner expanded to fill her vision. "WELCOME TO SWORD ART ONLINE!"

This was weird.

Really weird.

Really really weird.

It wasn't her first time using a Full Dive Rig, her brother owned a couple, both an original Nerve Gear, and the smaller sleeker revision he'd take on trips. She'd tried productivity software before, but never quite gotten the hang of thought based typing. Other than that, some of the guided tours of famous locations had been interesting and educational.

But this was different, she wasn't typing a report, or viewing a virtual lecture for a school credit. This was something entirely different. Entirely new. And possibly a little forbidden. Her brother gamed. She reminded herself. Her brother was also an adult and could spend his time and money how he liked, so long as he upheld the family name.

Meanwhile, she was expected to serve the family name. A very big difference. What did it matter if this was forbidden? She didn't have much time left anyways.

She would have bit her lip at that moment, if she'd had a lip at the moment to bite. Instead, she carefully 'thought typed' her credentials with the virtual keyboard and passed seamlessly through the login screen.

"So what to do now?" She thought out loud, surprised to hear a vaguely female voice echoing in her ears. "Huh? That's neat!"

"Welcome, Player!" A calm androgynous voice greeted, speaking as if it had materialized beside her. She spun her head, or rather, her field of vision suddenly panned as she tried to turn her head and came face to face, nevermind lacking a face, with a spark of light contained within a crystal sphere. It was a bit like a floating light bulb, she thought, not at all frightening once she got a look at it, and actually sort of cute.

"Wha! Ah . . . Oh uhm . . . Hi? Uhm who are you, exactly?"

"Hello player, I am Alvis, the SAO Tutorial program." The thing that called itself 'Alvis' flickered in time with the cadence of its voice. "I am a natural language enabled knowledge engine designed to assist new players with their full dive experience. Are you in need of assistance?"

"So you're an AI? It's nice to meet you, Alvis-san. Uhm, I was actually wondering what I'm supposed to do next. I see 'Create Avatar Self' and there seems to be a lot of different options."

"Of course." Alvis flickered for a few moments as it seemed to think. "I can help you with that! There are four methods to generate your Avatar Self within Sword Art Online. Option one, recommended for experienced players, is the character creator. In this mode, maximum customization and control is handed over to the user."

She thought at the indicated menu option and was immediately overwhelmed as an explosion of sliders and dials filled up her field of view. This was what an 'experienced player' was expected to use? Were they all JASDF fighter pilots? Just as quickly, she closed it out again.

"Uh . . . That was too much!"

"Very good!" Alvis remained endlessly chipper.

"Option two is random character creation. You will be spawned in with a random avatar of your chosen race and gender." Oh right, there were different races in this game. She knew that there were humans, but also her brother had described the Pictish and something called the Si which he'd pronounced like the english word 'She'. You could even play as a different gender.. She thought about that for a second, then shook her head, which was to say sent her vision rocking back and forth. That might be a bit too much. A random character sounded easy, she thought, but she still wanted to hear the other options.

"Option Three, you may upload an image from an authenticated social media account. SAO will then construct your avatar from your real life appearance. Customization is available after upload!"

"Uhm, no thanks." She said after a moment. She was in no way ashamed of her looks, in fact she took a fair amount of pride in them. But she wasn't exactly sure what this whole SAO thing was about, except what she heard from her brother, she knew it was swords and sorcery, not exactly the place she wanted to wear her real face.

"Very well, Option Four, assisted character creation, a combination of the above three options. Using prompts, biometric data, and provided social media, I will help you to realize your Avatar Self."

"Uhm really?" That actually sounded really cool, in a techy sort of way.

"Note that in this mode, customization options are under AI control, user input is indirect."

"So it's like a questionnaire?" Her curiosity piqued.

"Questions will include preferences, history, and intent, all data is anonymized after use. Your privacy is guaranteed and you may cancel this option at any time."

" . . . "


"Okay, let's try that."

"Preference questions. I will now say a word, and you may say what you think. Please answer however you wish, there is no wrong answer."

The purpose of some of the questions were pretty obvious. Things like how she responded to words like 'Masculine' and 'Feminine', 'Tall' and 'Short', 'Slender' and 'Strong', 'Stalwart' and 'Evasive'. She answered as truthfully as she could, though she wasn't exactly sure what all of her answers would mean in the end, which she guessed was the point. Then the questions had become steadily more esoteric.

"Princess or Knight."

"Pri . . . Knight." She was tired of being a 'princess'!

"Battle or ballroom."

"Battle!" She wanted to laugh, anything but another social occasion, another chance to be ogled by men almost twice her age, who'd ask her parents to marry her, and then would be cheating before the first anniversary.

"Intelligence or wisdom?"

"Wisdom!" She'd met so many smart, clever, insufferable people, she was just about sick of them.

"Strength of body or of spirit."

"Why not both?" After all, there was no wrong answer. It was aspirational.


"Forest." Like the woods near her grandparents' home, the happiest days of her life.


"Cooking." The smell of a stockpot, steaming in her grandmother's kitchen, the old radio crackling with some vaguely melancholy song.


"Streams." Mountain streams, full up with fish, scales glittering at they darted. Her grandfather's fishing line as she sat on the rocks and watched.


"Wind." Rustling the trees outside the guest room as she lay in bed at night.


" . . . "


" . . . "

"Is the question upsetting?"


"Is the question upsetting? An alternative may be chosen."

"Uhm no that's fine." It was anonymous, she reminded herself, anonymous, it would never get back to her. "Home." The house where nobody talked to each other. Where servants cooked the meals.

"Favorite Color?"

"Uhm . . . I don't really have one. Red maybe? Maybe blue."

"What is it that you hope to accomplish?"

"Uhm . . . I'm sorry Alvis-san, I'm not sure what you mean."

"Within the world of Sword Art Online, players inhabit their Avatar Selves. Within Castle Aincrad, what is it that you wish to be? What is it that you seek, Player?"

She almost canceled and closed out of the program right then and there. The nerve of this machine! Why all of these questions just to play a silly game? But something compelled her to answer, maybe, she thought, it was just that a computer program had thought to ask her something no human ever had. At least, not since her grandparents. And back then, she'd just been too young to say.

What did she want?

"I . . . "

"Is the question upsetting?"

"I . . . I . . . "

"Is the question upsetting?"

"I want . . . to be different." And then she went on in the silence that Alvis left open.

"I want to be exactly myself but completely different. I want to be a better version of myself. One with a different life and a different future." It was all pouring out now, more than even she'd suspected.

"I want to be stronger, and braver, someone who can make her own money, and her own decisions, and stand on her own two feet, who doesn't have to go to the schools decided by her mother, and says what she thinks, and means what she says, and doesn't need to marry who her parents tell her to!" Then, as much as the menu would allow her, she shouted her own question back. "Is that enough? Can you make me that?!"

Her chest would have been heaving, that was, if she had a chest or the lungs inside of it. But her real body was doubtless laying perfectly still, showing no sign of her inner turmoil.

The silence stretched on for what felt like forever, the only indication of the passing of time was the gentle steady blinking of Alvis' crystal form. She wondered if she'd broken it.

But then, "Questionnaire has been parsed. AS compiled. By selecting <<Accept>> you will agree to the AS settings and composition and be transported to Castle Aincrad, First Floor, Town of Beginnings."

She stared at the prompt floating in the air, wishing for a moment she could just close her eyes. But she guessed she needed an avatar for that. The prompt flashed as she accepted, disappeared as the menu screen dissolved away and she felt herself beginning to fall, plummeting, though unafraid.

She felt the sense of a body returning to her. Arms and legs, hands and feet, wind against her face, and running through her hair. The white void grew brighter. "Linking Player to Avatar Self full sensory mask. Loading Motor Control and MUSE drivers. Releasing movement locks . . . Good Luck Player : Asuna."

And then . . .

The light was almost blinding. Asuna blinked, and her vision resolved into a colorful blur. She blinked again, and it became distinct shapes. One last time, the shapes became buildings, pillars, a brick paved plaza, and other people milling about, talking, laughing, running. Aside from the mundanely fantastical clothing, and the swords carried by every last one, they looked like excited tourists.

Asuna paused for a moment, just to take it all in. The simple feeling of presence. She was present in the place she was standing. It wasn't a picture, or beyond a computer screen. She had stepped through the screen, into another place, as another self. Only when she'd reconciled did she start to take in her surroundings.

It was . . . for a moment Asuna wondered if she had been transported to Rome rather than Sword Art Online, the columned perimeter was reminiscent of St. Peter's Square. But she'd taken that Full Dive Tour and immediately the discrepancies started to pop out. This place was decidedly smaller, though still vast, and decidedly more colorful.

Vibrant Banners draped from the curving colonnades, splashed with greetings to new players. WELCOME TO SWORD ART ONLINE! They declared YOUR NEW WORLD AWAITS! Faintly, Asuna heard the whine and -pop- of daytime fireworks going off in the sky, and when she looked up, she glimpsed small colorful puffs of smoke beneath . . . was that a CEILING?!

There was a flatness to the blue of the sky, giving the impression that the space between earth and heaven was maybe only a few hundred meters,at most. How very strange. She thought her brother had mentioned something about that. Castle Aincrad, it was something like a great big wedding cake.

Asuna shook her head, if she was really curious, she could certainly find out later. For now, she looked down and found herself looking at hands wrapped in brown leather fingerless gloves, her body, clad in a modestly fantastical outfit, a pleated linen blouse tucked into a red vest and shorts with dark leggings.

Her body!

This was her body now.

It felt . . . different . . . a little bigger. She blushed. Heavier. But also strangely lighter. Massier? As if she'd gotten stronger to balance out the change in size. Definitely a bit taller. She'd have to remember that, she thought, as she nearly tripped over her own legs. And this hair, it was wilder than she was used to, shorter and lighter than her real hair, as if from long days bleached under the sun.

Then, looking about as more players appeared in soft flashes of light, she spied a fountain and steeled herself for what she'd see.

The water made a poor mirror at first, revealing only the shadow of her silhouette, but then the surface stilled and the light caught it just so. What Asuna saw caused her to look about, sure that it was someone else. But no, there was only her.

'That's me?' She thought, hand touching the curiously familiar stranger's face. She might have been a sibling, or a cousin. An older girl, no, a young woman she thought, just old enough to have finished college, old enough to be out from under her parents. Features sterner and graver than Asuna's own. No less fair, but tempered by a life out of doors, as if she'd grown up in that wonderful home near the forest, hiking the mountains and swimming in the rivers. Not a princess at all, but a fierce and brave lady knight, just lacking her shining armor.

The young woman's lips trembled, and then parted as Asuna tried to think what to say. What she would have her other self say.

"She's perfect."

A voice a little older, a little deeper, and a little richer than her own whispered tightly as she quickly wiped the tears forming from her eyes.

She hugged herself. Then, she threw her arms wide, turning about and laughing as she drank in the vast world stretching out around her. Nobody else paid her any mind, they were all swept up in it, and that was exactly the way she liked it as she set out, head swiveling to take in each new marvel of this lively city in this fantastical world.

It would only be for a little while, this other Asuna knew, her heart fluttering in her chest. But for this precious little while, her worries melted off of her. For this little while, she felt free.

The launch day festivities proceeded apace. The Starting Square of the Town of Beginnings was lively with players spawning in and experiencing Steel Castle of Aincrad for the first time. They were already starting to spread out from the town's center, exploring the main avenue and side streets.

A few, Beta testers no doubt, were making a straight line for the <<Highway of Heroes>>. They'd doubtless be disappointed when they discovered that they were limited to the starting area and the surrounding training fields. A necessary step, it had been decided, to orient so many new players in the immersive world of Sword Art Online. No need to overwhelm them on the first day.

Not that Achilles could blame the Beta Testers. He was sure many of them were eager to acquire the bite of an Anneal weapon as soon as possible. In fact, he too felt the longing to rush off and upgrade his spear and shield. But the chains of obligation beckoned.

"The current player count is thirteen thousand four hundred and sixty eight. Seventy three new players have logged in within the past sixty seconds." Reported the beautiful young woman at his side. She was raven haired and pale as the moon, bright keen gray eyes seeming distracted by her analysis.

Unlike Achilles and their other companions, who were bedecked in standard starting equipment of their respective classes, no different from any other player, she wore a style of clothing that would have looked not too out of place in a modern boardroom. An elegant white and gold trimmed form fitting outfit that flattered her graceful figure. Even her hands were adorned in pure white gloves as she swiped and flicked deftly through the materialized menu that displayed dozens of different traffic metrics for the benefit of her companions.

There was no concern she would break immersion appearing like that. They were currently observing from an ornate second floor gallery. A sort of arcade full of minor shops and restaurants. Off limits to normal players for the time being.

"I expect we will meet the target player count by the 5PM deadline, Achilles-sama." She confirmed with a bright smile. "I believe that congratulations are in order."

"Save it for when Akihiko-sensei joins us." Achilles pronounced, throwing his arms in back of his head, stretching what appeared to be a tall lean and muscular frame topped by the sort of vibrant hair a manga hero might sport. Of course, the genius of RECT-ARGUS would deign to be fashionably late. He was probably putting the final touches on his personal avatar.

In the meantime, Achilles supposed, he'd just have to make his own fun with the people he was with. Which might be a challenge, he admitted.

His fellow man wasn't really the problem. Nishida, looking considerably less old and more handsome than his earthly self with the smoother skin and full head of hair of his idealized avatar, was great company. They'd been working together for almost a year now as Nishida's firm performed the herculean task of hammering out the security protocols for the world's first Full Sensory MMO, and Achilles had come to love hearing all of the veteran professional's war stories about the 'Wild West Days'.

Even more impressive was that, despite his years, Nishida was still sharp as a tack, keeping up with all the new technologies required to make Sword Art Online as secure as possible. Even Akihiko-sensei had paid his respects during an inspection.

And when conversation drifted to less technical topics, well, Mister Nishida's age certainly hadn't dulled his adventurous spirit. He'd traveled the world sport fishing with everything from rods, to spears, to harpoon guns, and he'd leaped at the opportunity to claim a launch day copy of the next generation Memeosphere's crowning achievement, Sword Art Online.

No, Nishida wasn't the problem, it was the dour girl walking beside him, looking much too serious as they strolled along in parallel with the players in the streets below, experiencing a technological marvel of the modern world. "This is all so frivolous." She grumbled, sounding a little bit like a petulant child dragged to a formal occasion she did not understand. She looked it too, a little uneasy, a little uncomfortable in her own skin.

Which might have been the case. Although the avatar did not look bad at all, she was very beautiful in fact, Achilles thought, a real princess in the rough wearing her starting archer's dress, long green and tawny hair in a crown braid, she just wasn't used to Full Dive. In fact, in her normal life she was reluctant to even use productivity software, claiming the old Nerve Gear rigs gave her migraines.

Achilles smiled sheepishly. "Well, it's frivolous to the Yuuki family to the tune of a hundred and seventy five billion yen, so maybe pray for its success?"

Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea, he reconsidered, in fact it could turn into a disaster. But Yuuki Shouzhou had been called to an important board meeting, so that had left them short an official representative for the opening ceremony at the last possible moment.

They could have just given the role to a member of the development team, or even to an NPC, but he was old fashioned like that, it didn't sit right with him for the launch day to not show the flag properly, and besides, his sister had needed the breathing room, more now than ever.

It had been bad before. Studying for the high school exams, the non-stop cramming. She'd become a lonely girl to meet their mother's demanding standards. But the closer she got to graduation, the higher Yuuki Kyouko's expectations seemed to rise. It wasn't good enough to go to the best college. She needed to marry into the best possible family. Marriage. When her parents had told his little sister she was going to have an arranged marriage, the light had gone out behind her eyes as she nodded dumbly.

Asuna was incredible in so many ways, she didn't even realize, but she'd never learned how to say no to their parents. And Kouichirou had never had to. He'd lived the comfortable life of a first son of a wealthy family. It wasn't hard, you just had to avoid taking any risks.

Getting their mother out of the house for a few hours was the least he could do.

It was the kind of cheeky plan he'd never really have considered in real life. He usually kept to his own business as the good first child even when he saw the weight of expectations resting on his little sister's shoulders. But the point of Sword Art Online was to role play a hero.

The kind of person he wanted to be, so . . .

"Actually, it's a rather important if minor role, you know, participating in the inauguration ceremony." He decided to speak tactfully. "Countless employees of our company have devoted years of their lives to making SAO a reality. So it would mean a lot for them to know their hard work is appreciated by the Yuuki family."

That got the intended response. Yuuki Kyouko could be a demanding woman, but she did respect hard work. And she was stickler from socially acceptable rituals.

"Do not get me wrong." It was shockingly endearing watching his mother express herself through that youthful face. "It is not that I cannot see the appeal of all this . . . after a fashion . . ." She managed diplomacy like she was pulling teeth. "However . . ."


She bit her lip, a girlish blush was spreading, an artifact of the Emotion Engine making it hard for players to hide their feelings. "Is there a reason I'm a cat?"

A long silence passed before Achilles broke out laughing. For in addition to being quite a beautiful young woman, his mother's avatar did in fact sport the tawny ears and articulate tale of a cat. Yuuki Kyouko, the archer Atalanta as her screen name proclaimed her, didn't like that, her red face transitioning to a grimace, her ears flattened and her tail fluffed. "You're having fun at my expense, aren't you, Kouchirou?" The effect of a mother's authority over her children was rather weakened by her current appearance, causing him to laugh harder.

"No, no, it's not, it's not like that at all." Yuuki Kouchirou, the spearman Achilles, managed to get himself back under control. "It's just . . . You did tell my assistant to make the avatar anything. You were only going to use it this once, after all."

"I thought that would mean normal." She crossed her arms. "Not this . . . Cat . . . Girl!"

"Pictish."Nishida offered, coughing as he hid his own laugh.

"What?" Kyouko looked as if he had spoken in an alien tongue.

"I believe the game calls your avatar's race the 'Pictish'", Nishida elaborated, "They're a sub type of Fairy. And in the game that avatar is normal. It is an MMO after all."

Atalanta's scowl turned doubtful, she glanced back at her appearance reflected in the window and cautiously touched the ears atop her head, mildly startled when they reflexively twitched. "So you're saying cat girls are . . . an MMO thing?"

"Basically." Achilles agreed. A mean little part of him was taking pleasure in seeing his mother out of her element, but he did need to be careful not to annoy her to the point she logged out. "Besides, the Pictish have superb senses and agility, maybe you can fire the inaugural arrow at today's ceremony? Grandma was always proud of your kyudo."

She looked skeptical. "It's been a lifetime since I even touched a bow. And I was never that good!"

"The MUSE system will help you make the shot. Even if you've never touched a bow at all." Achilles told her, "No fear you'll embarrass yourself, Missy." Pictish had feline eyes, a trait that his mother demonstrated amply as she fixed him with a glare. "I mean . . . Let's try this place out." He hooked a thumb at the sign of a cafe overlooking the main boulevard.

While players perused the stalls in the streets below, and familiarized themselves with the wondrous array of items available even on Aincrad's first level, the four of them sat down to be served as the first customers of a pristine dining room. Achilles ordered milk tea and strawberry cake all around while chatting up Nishida about his work.

"Of course half of it was just learning what we didn't know about the new computational principles." Nishida was explaining. "Quantum computing still isn't well understood outside of specialized fields and there's a great deal of misunderstanding about what it is and isn't capable of."

"We had a LOT of strange ideas come through the office for approval." Achilles agreed, watching as an NPC waitress came and set a generous wedge in front of each of them, strawberries glistening as the whole mass was held together by a generous stripe of white frosting. He could smell the confectionery sweetness. "That guy who thought we could maybe entangle the Memeospheres directly with the main server Super Calculator. Obviously that's not how it works. He thought we could get exabytes of bandwidth out of each rig by entanglement!"

"Oh right, him!" Nishida chuckled. "Whatever happened to that fellow?"

"Akihiko-sensei let him go, I think." Achilles shook his head. "Bit of a nut. But lively."

"It reminds me of my days fresh from university." Nishida waxed nostalgic. "Chaos theory was a big buzzword back then, and there was this mathematician pestering the government that he could cloak information in pure chaos as a form of encryption by exploiting non-linearity functions. He swore it was promising."

"So what happened?" Achilles asked. "Didn't work?"

"Oh he was a very smart fellow in his field, but a simple application of Fourier Functions cleaned up the signal like that." Nishida snapped his finger sharply. "That's the thing about the sciences, they get so vast, you don't even realize you're working on a solved problem. Or plunging unexplored depths. Ah, he was a nice fellow though, I hated to see him disappointed."

"What happened to him?"

"I believe he's an adviser to the diet now."

Achilles darted back to Atalanta as she poked speculatively at her cake. She seemed surprised by how authentic it was before reluctantly lifting a small bite to her mouth. Her eyes widened and her ears perked. Then she hesitantly considered another bite.

"You know, you can eat as much as you want and you won't gain any weight." He chided, receiving the same deadly glare before she defiantly forked a bigger piece. After a sip of her tea to contemplate she said, "It tastes . . . real."

"Of course it tastes real." Achilles grinned. "The Memeosphere is just doing what the old Nerve Gear did but better. Directly stimulating the taste centers."

"Akihiko-sensei always said full dive would never take off until you could have a satisfying meal." Their fourth member said as she closed out her analytics windows. "I'm happy to say that all projections are nominal. I estimate twenty five thousand players by our 5 PM deadline."

"Good to hear." Achilles smiled across the table, a look that did not go unnoticed by Atalanta.

"So." She addressed the young woman. "You are an employee of RECT-ARGUS, correct, in my son's department?"

"I liaison between the development team and the CARDINAL AI system that forms the infrastructure of SAO." She explained politely. "But I do work with Achilles-sama on a daily basis."

"Good education?"

She tilted her head. "I studied under Akihiko-sensei himself. He was," she paused to blink quickly, "Responsible for my curriculum during my education."

"And is this relationship purely professional?"

Kouchirou cursed the emotion response engine at that exact moment, spluttering . . . "Uhm no . . . No no! No! We-we're not like . . . I like to think we're friends but . . . uhm . . ."

"What Achilles-sama is saying is that it wouldn't work out between us." She looked at him with a bright and magnanimous smile. If his avatar had a heart, it would have melted then.

"Y-Yeah . . ." Yui is a colleague." He explained. "And a good friend. A very good friend." A good listener to all of his troubles. "But just a friend."

"I see. Well then, Yui-san, another question." Atalanta played with her fork, seemingly testing the dexterity of her hands. "You were trained under Akihiko Kayaba . . . what sort of man is he exactly?"

"You mean you've never met him?" Yui tilted her head.

"Once." She said, frowning. "A dinner party hosted at our home. But he left early. He seemed quite cordial but . . ."

"Like he was lost in a dream?" Achilles asked.

"Yes, exactly." She nodded. "So he's always like that?"

"When he's not being a raging perfectionist." Achilles agreed. "It's the temperament of a genius, I suppose."

"I have to agree with Achilles-sama." Yui nodded, a thoughtful expression on her face. "I've worked with him for three years and I still don't think I properly understand him. He's a perfectionist, until he's not, some things are very important, while he doesn't care at all about others."

"Oh?" Atalanta tilted her head.

"He was absolutely insistent that the first floor be perfect." Yui explained. "No, not perfect, exactly as he described it, down to the smallest details. He said it was essential the Town of Beginnings in particular produce a sense of 'place' for everyone who inhabits it. But he didn't really care at all what the development team did with the other floors. He told them to go wild to their heart's content."

"Maybe he just wanted a good foundation." Achilles reasoned. Sure, Orignia felt a little mundane compared to some of the stuff they had in store for the players once they got passed the first floor boss, but it was a bit like what they were doing with the players right now, not overwhelming them too quickly."

"Maybe." Yui agreed. "But then he's also very demanding of the Axioms."

"Axioms?" Atalanta asked.

"The AI subroutines that operate under Cardinal, the Central GM AI that runs the whole show." Achilles explained. "They're like subordinate or lieutenant functions responsible for different domains. Cardinal itself is just the overarching administrator. Akihiko-sensei always insisted they must be absolutely perfect . . ."

"His precise words were 'incorruptible from their purpose'." Yui supplied.

"Yeah, that." Achille checked the time by the clock in the corner of his vision. 1:47. How time seemed to fly. "We should get down to the ceremony grounds soon."

"Oh about that." Yui perked up. "You know how you told me I should trust my own ideas more?"

"Yeah?" He remembered, how couldn't he remember? It was about the only time he'd been the one encouraging her.

"Well." She made a small gesture and Achilles heard his mailbox chime. "I thought this might be interesting, so I wanted to get your thoughts."

Swiping open his menu, Achilles looked the proposal over. "These are all the beta testers that are logged in right now?"

"Divided by their performance metrics during the Beta." Yui agreed. "I thought we could message them and organize a little demonstration for the new players. Duels and the like." She brightened as an idea clearly flashed behind her gray eyes. "Oh! I could even have a field boss spawned in!"

"That . . . might be a little much. But I do like this little tourney idea. If you can organize it, sounds great. Actually, do me a favor."


"There was this player in the Beta group, he seemed kinda meek at first, but he turned out to be a real wise ass in a fight. I wouldn't mind a rematch." Achilles grinned roguishly, "My spear thirsts for his blood."

"I will find him right away, Achilles-sama!" Yui answered brightly. Atalanta was less thrilled.


"This game brings out a different side in you, Kouchirou." His mother frowned. "I don't like it."

"Well it's a game after all." He finished his tea and stood. "It's not like if you die here you die for real."

KIRITO JOINS THE FIGHT! - "We are what we pretend to be. We should care what we pretend to be."

ASUNA JOINS THE FIGHT! - "There are no heroes to save us. WE have to save us!"

ACHILLES JOINS THE FIGHT! - "The point of this world is to be a hero, after all."

NISHIDA JOINS THE FIGHT! - "Ah what a lovely place for some fishing!"

ATALANTA JOINS THE FIGHT! - "It is frivolous . . . But if I must!"
Prologue Part II
Prologue - Part 2

Yuuki Asuna, no, the Swordswoman Asuna of Steel Castle Aincrad, hadn't exactly known what to expect of her first hour within the world of Sword Art Online. But if she'd been told she'd be running from a boar the size of a kei-car, she might never have put the damn helmet on.


It had all been going so well. Her avatar had been born into this world with a full set of clothes and basic equipment, including a simple, but perfectly serviceable, short sword. At least it had looked serviceable to Asuna, who had only ever seen real swords when visiting Museums.

Over the last half hour, she'd been putting that sword through its paces learning the ropes of combat against the relatively harmless fauna of the starting area. Though it seemed strange to call wild boar 'harmless fauna'. In fact, they were an incredibly dangerous and destructive invasive species that could easily gore a grown man.

But apparently, they were nothing but easy practice for her Avatar Self. At least until she'd killed ten of them, and this big one had shown up. It wasn't like the others. The smaller boar had mostly ignored her until she attacked, this one was out for blood!

"Oh what a day I am having!" Asuna shouted as she broke into a full sprint, feeling the legs that were too long stretching underneath her, annihilating distance so quickly her mind boggled at the way the ground raced beneath her. It didn't make sense that it was her moving that fast.

Avatar Selves were incredible!

Not that it made a difference to the charging boar. It was coming up behind her like a freight train, she felt the steam of its breath against her legs, and the blunt tip of its snout brushing against her rump. It couldn't last, one of them was going to stumble eventually, and it turned out to be Asuna, tripping over an unexpected dip in the ground.


She was swept off her feet, ending up with the boar's snout between her legs and her butt seated firmly atop its head. A position that the boar didn't seem any happier about than her as she was unceremoniously bucked and sent in a tumble down a grassy slope towards a small sedately flowing river.

She stopped in a tangle of limbs with a pained -Ooph-, legs stretching over her head in the direction of the river bank, and groaned instinctively, reaching to ease the aching in her back. Her back?

"Oh right, it doesn't hurt!" Asuna felt a bit silly, it would probably be a lousy game if there was real pain. Instead, the sensation was a bit like getting bopped with a foam bat. You'd definitely notice, it might even be unpleasant, but not painful.

"Well then shake it off." A mirthful contralto called as a hand entered her field of view. "Nice ass, by the way." She was thankful the game had given her Avatar Self a pair of shorts. If not, half the countryside would have seen her panties by now.

Asuna took the offered help to her feet, dusting off grass and grit. "Thanks . . . I mean for the hand. Not for the thing about my butt."

She shared a laugh with the other player, not embarrassed, or guarded about it at all. Something funny had happened, so they laughed. When was the last time she'd done something like that?

It had to be, Asuna thought back, at least as far back as elementary school. Before she and her peers had really begun to be impressed with the idea of their 'future' which would become all they would have time for as they proceeded into middle school, then high school, and then preparing for college . . . and marriage.

Childhood playmates drifted apart as they were transferred to different schools. Friends became strangers, and then competition. There was only so much success to go around, after all. If you couldn't climb to the top, knock someone down. Everything became a calculated strategy to maximize gains and minimize risk.

The truth was, Asuna had been living in an anonymous world long before she had ever logged into Sword Art Online. One where every face was a mask and every gesture was interrogated for its motive. Where everyone was waiting to pounce on the first mistake, and every mistake after.

And yet, in this world, for this Asuna, standing in these fields, anonymity felt like liberation as she laughed and listened to this strange and completely uninhibited woman happily explaining the game to a 'noob' like her.

"Hi. My name's Pitohui. And we should be friends!" That was how she made her introduction less than an hour ago.

Asuna had lost herself wandering the streets of the town of beginnings, not that she minded being lost at all, this was incredible, more than any Full Dive Guided tour she'd ever been on. She could go almost anywhere she wanted, within reason, look at things from every angle. She'd spent a few minutes just petting the outfits on display, feeling the textures beneath her fingertips.

Then that confident contralto voice had addressed her.

Asuna had turned and looked up at the tall and lean woman casting a shadow as she smiled brightly. There was a sharpness to her eyes, owing to her thick dark lashes. Her long black hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail that fell serpent-like past her waist.

"Uhm . . ." The Asuna of Aincrad had blanked out as the inner Asuna's mind whirled. Did she know this person? Did they know her? Had someone seen through her! Oh god, did a classmate play this game?!

"Hey that's a nice AS you've got there, if I do say so myself, very badass babe if you know what I mean." She threw her hands up and laughed. "But hey, I'm biased!"

Pausing to take a mental breath. "My AS? You mean my avatar?" She was just complimenting her avatar.

"Your Avatar Self." Pitohui confirmed. "It looks good, distinguished compared to what you see half these girls sporting." She waved vaguely to the brightly sunlit street full of players and 'NPCs', the computer controlled avatars that populated the city to make it feel more lively, even Asuna hadn't been completely clueless about those, having picked up the very basics by osmosis listening to her brother. "Rando avatars look fine, I guess, but a little samey. They're all generically cute seventeen year olds. I say it's a wasted opportunity if you don't impress your identity into your other self. Right?"

Asuna tilted her head, and carefully pulled a loose lock of light hair back behind her ear. She supposed that was true. Her own misgivings about the process, she was sure she was more pleased by far with this form than the one she'd have received at random. "Then I suppose I should say the same to you. Your looks are very . . . intimidating?" It might have been a bit rude, but she felt like this Pito person was the type to appreciate frankness.

The lean woman gave a wicked grin and a short barking laugh. "Thanks. I made'm myself!" She extended a hand. "So listen, it's the first day, time to get oriented and make friends. I make it my policy to get along with women when I game and you look like an interesting woman. So how about it, wanna do a pick up party?"

"A pick up party?"

"Yeah, y'know, party up and go start questing. There's no levels in this game, but ya gotta go fight to git gud and bring home the col to improve your gear. Best way to get started is to team up."

"I see . . ." Asuna considered it. Strictly speaking, this person was a stranger. But strictly speaking, she wasn't really here. The worst that could possibly happen was that her Avatar's HP was taken to zero and she was . . . logged out? Is that what happened? Well, it wouldn't be anything serious anyways. She was here to feel free, after all. And what was more free than drifting where the wind took her, so long as it sounded interesting.

It was just, Asuna hesitated before taking the offered hand, "Just to be clear, you said you make it your policy to get along with women." Pitohui nodded. "And you're . . . you know . . ."

"No, I don't" Pitohui looked puzzled.

"Like, actually," She was really going to make Asuna come out and say it, "A woman?" Maybe she'd been a little too blunt, Asuna worried, Pito's features went blank. Her lips pressed into a thin line, then began to tremble.

"Bwahahahahahaha! Haaaa!" The tall woman doubled over in mirthful laughter.

Asuna looked how she felt, which was a little nonplussed. "I mean, there's a lot of girls walking around, they aren't all really . . . Are they?"

"Oh wow, girl! You aren't much of a gamer, are ya?" Pitohui slapped her thigh. "Sweety, I'll let you in on a little secret. Girls game. And this is the most anticipated game of the century. Only reason it's not going live to over 25 million people is that they'd need to stress test the servers to be sure they won't melt. Besides this is Full Dive, it's totally different from old school gaming, a lot fewer cross players, and for every girl who's actually a guy there's a guy who's actually a girl. Sept the trans community." Pitohui's eyes drooped. "You don't gotta problem with the queers, do ya?"

"Not . . . Particularly?" Asuna answered honestly. She wasn't sure she knew anyone like that to say. She guessed she was happy for them that same sex marriage had been legalized.

Pitohui's smile brightened. "Then we'll get along just fine." She offered her hand again, and this time, after a moment of consideration Asuna accepted. "Pitohui, or Pito, is just fine."

"Alright then, Pito-san." Asuna smiled. "I'm Asuna."

"Why don't we form a party and get out of here?" A suave young voice attracted both womens' attention. It belonged to a handsome teenager currently wooing what appeared to be a very pretty honey brown haired girl.

"Oh . . . I don't know." She wiggled her hips as she spoke with saccharin sweetness. "Maybe."

Pito stared blankly and then shrugged. "Okay, now they're catfishing each other."

And just like that, Asuna had found herself with her first online friend. Well, more like an online acquaintance. It wasn't long before they'd trekked to the starting fields outside the town walls, and beyond the moat that protected the starting area, and set about their first task. Turning the Asuna who was just born to the Steel Castle into a real fighter.

It had been going surprisingly well at first. Pito had stood back, giving pointers as Asuna had drawn her starting weapon and taken her first faltering swing with a shout. She wanted to say that she had rocketed forward with magnificent grace and sliced the boar clean in two. But actually she'd just grazed a thin line across its flank, spraying red particles and sending the boar squealing and rounding angrily on her.

Pito had to intervene that first time and show her how it was done. Demonstrating the basics, which Asuna meticulously committed to memory. Boar two, Pito had given her some pointers on how to hold her sword. How to stand. And how to swing. Swordsmanship was a full body movement, nothing could be left out. She thought it sounded a lot like batting in softball, but more dynamic, and much more complicated.

"It's exactly like that but not at all." Pito had confirmed.

By Boar three, Asuna was starting to feel a little more confident. Even when the beast had rounded on her she'd stood her ground, parrying the giant tusks, and evading with an economical roll when the boar tried to run her down. She was pretty athletic in real life, but it was almost like her body already knew how to move and was just remembering. She couldn't deny it was a little exciting to imagine her other self coming alive.

"Okay. Next one!" She'd done even better with four, and then five, by that point, skill and confidence had started to take hold and the next five had fallen to the increasing sure sword strikes of a Swordswoman of Aincrad, with each fallen beast, Pito had offered less commentary until she was simply watching with open interest. Then the Big Papa had shown up and the tables had turned.

"Don't sweat it so much." Pitohui laughed. "Everyone gets their ass kicked the first time they kill ten Sounders and a Grand Old Boar gets spawned in."

"So why didn't you tell me?"

"Well, I wanted to see how you'd handle yourself." Pito shrugged, "Actually, you did exactly what I did the first time. Ran and fell on your ass!"

That was right, Pitohui was a beta tester. She was already a native to this castle before launch day, and had been generous enough to help a complete beginner. All she'd asked for in exchange was someone to hang out and share it with. Gamers were a funny bunch, Asuna decided. Her classmates didn't have much good to say about them, but here was one of them being nicer to her than any of those schoolmates by far.

"Now the trick to this guy is that he's supposed to force you to use your Arts."

"Arts." Asuna nodded. "That's what the name comes from, right?"

Sword Art Online.

The sword fighting mechanics had been part of the first technical demo and the name had just stuck.

"Right. Special attacks, raw power that exceeds what can normally be done with these weapons and these bodies. When it's channeled through a sword it's a Sword Art, when you use a bow, it's a Bow Art, and so on." Crossing her arms, Pitohui nodded to the Grand Old Boar that was bucking and raging and slowly turning back to face them even now, hooves clawing at the dirt and grass as it prepared to charge. "I hate to steal your kill, but this is a great teaching moment."

Asuna smirked, planted a hand on her hip and gestured with the other. "By all means."

"Thank you kindly." Pito drew her sword with a soft -shink- a gleam in her eyes and a grin stretching across her face. The boar spotted her approaching and diverted its attention from Asuna to this new challenger.

Pitohui took a stance, sword forward, feet set broadly apart but resting lightly. The boar swung its great head, bringing tusks to bare, larger and sharper than any real world wild pig's, they were practically daggers in their own right with which to cut and gore. Pito half dodged and half deflected in a flash of steel and yellowed tooth, skidding across the grass and sinking low to keep herself balanced.

"The first thing to understand is that Arts are conditional. You can't just spam them like old school MMO skills." Pito explained, her voice coming unhurried and clear. "They take a lot of stamina to execute and you need an opening for the starting stance." She danced about, keeping well aware of her surroundings as she led the enraged beast like a matador would a bull. "You also need to keep in mind any possible counter attacks an enemy might employ. A charged Art can cancel another Art, for instance, or you might have to cancel out to evade an attack. You have to pay attention. But when the time comes . . . "

The Grand Boar shook his head and issued a deep challenge. Pitohui shouted back joyfully as she assumed a different stance, lower and more aggressive, readying her sword at the start of an upward swing. The dull metal began to gleam, then to shine.

Just as the great boar's charge was about to drive home, Pitohui kicked off with her back foot and Asuna was left with an after image impression of a triangle of pure light dancing before her eyes. It ended like a duel out of Kurosawa, the lone samurai sheathing her sword as the savage bandit . . . pig . . . collapsed and then shattered into fading motes of crystal light.

"That is so cool." Asuna whispered. "And I can do that too?"

"Heh. Sure can." Pito agreed. "In fact, with a bit of practice, you can do a lot more. That one was called <<Trinity Slash>>. Its three hit accelerated combo available to any sword suitable for the motions. There's rumors it can go all the way up to eight."

"Eight hits!" What the heck could survive eight hits like that?

"A lot of things, actually." Pito had answered when she asked. "Sure, that boar seemed scary. It was scary for me the first time too. But these are just trash mobs, Asuna. They're practice to familiarize you with the combat system. That Grand Old Boar might as well be one of those Sounders over their compared to Calydon the Boar Lord."

"Who's that?"

"Not who. What." Pito explained. "He's one of the field bosses out in the game world. The very weakest in the game. But he can party wipe an entire team of beginners. Even if they all use their arts . . ." Pito paused, frowning as she made the menu gesture and read something visible only to her. "Hey my friend just logged in, so I gotta let him know where I am. Let's take five over there."

Asuna really didn't mind a break, as much as she wanted to keep going. This body felt endlessly vigorous, but her mind had been absorbing tons of new concepts in a very short span of time. So despite feeling no less physically rested, she threw her arms back and lay down in the springy grass with a contented sigh, watching birds gliding beneath a sky that was only a few hundred meters above their heads.

This place . . . is beautiful. She thought, closing her eyes, feeling the warm light, and the wind, and the soft sweetness of the grass. "I wish I could live in this world." She decided right then and there. After just an hour she was completely in love.

"Don't we all?" Pito murmured as she typed something on an invisible keyboard. "Unfortunately, we're only visitors in this world. But I know exactly what you're talking about. We've all got things we don't want to deal with in our real lives. Things we don't want to do. People we don't want to talk to."

"So did you get into gaming to blow off steam?" Asuna asked. "Oh uhm, you don't have to answer a personal question."

"Nah it's fine!" Pito smiled as she shook her head, clearly concentrating half on composing her message. "That's definitely the reason I game these days. But I started when I was younger because I didn't really have a lot of opportunities."

"Opportunities for what?"

"Opportunities for," Pito paused to think about it, then shrugged, "Living."

She didn't offer any more explanation, and Asuna was polite enough not to ask. But she wondered if they weren't a lot alike in that way. "Pito?"


"I was curious when I was fighting. I had these weird feelings, like . . ."

"It felt like intuition?" Pito's grin widened. "Like maybe you were remembering having all these amazing skills?"

"Yeah." Asuna sat up. "How did you . . ."

Pito held up a hand. "Open your menu and visualize it like I showed you. Trust me." Asuna did as she was told. "Now at the bottom you should see a prompt to open Alvis. Press that and voila."

"Good Afternoon, Asuna!" A familiar spark of light within a crystal bulb shimmered into existence as if it were embedded into the virtual glass pane of the menu itself. "How may I assist you?"


"So, you guys have already met." Pito didn't sound too surprised.

"He helped me make my avatar." Asuna explained and then to the AI. "Thank you Alvis-san, I like it very much!"

"You are welcome, Asuna. How may I assist you?"

"Yeah, he's pretty clever for a low level parsing program. But Alvis has a one track mind." Pito explained. "Try asking him about the MUSE system. You have to do it, since that Alvis is instanced to your menu only."

"Okay, Alvis, can you explain the MUSE system to me?"

"Of course, Asuna! The Mememetic User System Enhancement, is a collection of kinematic algorithms, hardware accelerated heuristics, and knowledge bases which together underpin the SAO skill system and permit progression without leveling. Through a system of proprioceptive, sub-visual, and sub-auditory cues, the player is guided in the execution and refinement of their skills."

"So it wasn't really talent, is what you're saying." Asuna reasoned. Pito shook her head smiling.

"That is not entirely correct, Asuna." Alvis explained. "Although MUSE pairs each player with a low level motor control AI, it merely provides guidance and user augmentation. The skill must be developed by the player."

"Like that Trinity slash." Pito elaborated. "That cut was way too fast for me to execute on my own. Human reflexes can't respond fast enough. But I could still think what I wanted my body to do. And in the middle of an art, the System Assist kicks in and helps you do it. It becomes like a part of you that you have to learn to use while you're in this world. Not just these bodies, but part of your own mind lives here. That's what makes an AS different from a normal avatar."

"And there's like, hundreds of these skills?" Asuna asked, "Maybe even thousands?"

"That's the idea." Pito agreed. "Everything from swords and muskets, to cooking and fishing, hell, I think I saw sailing once in a prompt."

"And magic?" It was called a world of Weapons and Sorcery on the game box. A World Incarnate Unto its Own Radius.

Pito grinned, "Why? Thinkin' bout becoming a magical girl?"

"Shut up!" Asuna laughed gently, but maybe that would be pretty cool too. "Alvis?"

"That information is not available, Asuna." The little glow ball almost sounded apologetic.

"You can't learn much magic here on the first floor." Pito explained. "Even after three months, we beta testers only scrounged up a few torn grimoire pages and learned a handful of runes and cantrips. Things like light spells. Magic definitely exists, but the devs want you to work for it."

"I think I'll stick to swords for now." Asuna decided, returning to her bird watching. Then her smile faded. "That is, if I keep playing."

"Huh." Pito was finally torn from her messaging. "Hey what's that about now? I thought you were having fun!"

Asuna held up her hand wistfully. "Well it's just, I don't know if I'll have the opportunity. I like it. It seems like fun. But . . ." She didn't want this version of herself to disappear. But how could this possibly work, dancing around her brother's schedule, keeping it from her mom? She might slip the occasional session claiming she was watching an educational dive but . . . "It might be a big hassle for me, that's all."

"Shit. And here I was just starting to like you . . . " Pito read something in her menu and then read it again. "But your mind's not made up yet, right?"

Asuna sat up, "No, why?"

"The R-A reps just announced a special launch day tourney." Pito's joyful and wicked grin spread. "How bout I show you a reason you should stick around?"

PITOHUI HAS JOINED THE FIGHT! - How bout I show you my IRL side? The half that ain't so nice!
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I have to admit that I love the idea of 'that controlling bitch' aka Yuuki Kyouko getting trapped in SAO.

Especially here, with all the wild AU elements!!

Pretty interesting stuff! So, watched!!
I have to admit that I love the idea of 'that controlling bitch' aka Yuuki Kyouko getting trapped in SAO.

Especially here, with all the wild AU elements!!

Pretty interesting stuff! So, watched!!

Honestly I feel like the fan response to Kyouko is way too strong sometimes.

Like, she's not a good person, but she's not irredeemably evil. Her sins, barring actively trying to make things right with her daughter, ought to earn her estrangement, not torture. XD

I feel she gets basically double tapped by the whole Sugou incident where her controlling power move is compounded by circumstances she couldn't have predicted, i.e. Sugou being a creepy NTR fetishist.

Mind you, if not for Sugou planning to brainwash Asuna, thus guaranteeing her agreement, the marriage wouldn't have been made official without her consent so . . . Ugh, just best not to think about that guy XD
Honestly I feel like the fan response to Kyouko is way too strong sometimes.

Like, she's not a good person, but she's not irredeemably evil. Her sins, barring actively trying to make things right with her daughter, ought to earn her estrangement, not torture. XD

I feel she gets basically double tapped by the whole Sugou incident where her controlling power move is compounded by circumstances she couldn't have predicted, i.e. Sugou being a creepy NTR fetishist.

Mind you, if not for Sugou planning to brainwash Asuna, thus guaranteeing her agreement, the marriage wouldn't have been made official without her consent so . . . Ugh, just best not to think about that guy XD
Eh, I don't think she's evil or something similar, just a golden digger, a narcissist and an awful parent, hell, my opinion is not even considering the mess with Worst Oberon Ever, just her controlling, projecting tendencies and her whole "I'm right, you're wrong. Period." arguing style.

Well, all that and having to deal with parents like her when I taught high school x'D
Prologue Part III
Prologue Part III​

Within the Steel Castle of Aincrad, on the first floor of Orignia, in a quiet corner of the Town of Beginnings, there was a back alley shop, Ogin's Blade Works Ltd. It was a truism of MMOs, and Sword Art Online was no exception, that the best gear was typically not found in shops. But for what it was, Ogin's was not bad, and on launch day, every Beta Tester knew it.

Which was exactly why Hosaka Carina Tomo, the Pictish Argo, or Argo the Cat as she was commonly known, had parked herself in an alcove beside the register, watching the people come and go, her small feline ears pivoting like parabolic radars.

Why go running about frantically when all you needed was to know the right spot and have some patience?

A bored red headed dwarf girl sat on a stool, yawning as she leaned on the tabletop. Presumably she was the daughter of the proprietor, Ogin, a more dwarfish dwarf one could not imagine, he was practically all beard, save for a large ruddy nose poking out like a beak as he puttered around in the back room, muttering to himself, and just inviting somebody to ask his business and discover the start of the <<Anneal Quest Line>>.

Some familiar faces were perusing the selection, Argo had already gotten their info. Further back, in the corner, a pair of new players were discussing the more exclusive weapons kept behind glass. One, a tall man with long gray hair. The other, a blue haired woman, approximate avatar age about eighteen to twenty, who had opted for a leather duster over her starting outfit.

"So this is what a gun looks like in a world of swords." The woman observed, sighting down the barrel of a crude pistol coolly. She didn't sound impressed.

"Well these are only the starting weapons, Shino, you can't expect to get to the good stuff so soon in an MMO."

"It's Sinon in this world, Spiegel, and I'm taking time away from the leader boards to try this game out. I could have sold this Memeosphere for a lot more money if I didn't open it first."

"Oh please, you weren't going to sell your prize. That thing could be a big advantage for you in the next SJ! Not everyone has one yet, y'know."

The door chimed as another would-be hero stepped inside. A friendly grin spread across Argo's face as she recognized the tall and handsome, lean and muscular build of a blonde haired and sky blue eyed man. Another catch to add to her tally.

"Put her there, Cope-kun!" A dainty hand was offered.

The swordsman, Coper, turned and blinked curiously down at the petite woman, her tawny features marked with painted whiskers and framed by luxurious locks of golden hair that spilled wildly down onto her shoulders, ribboned bangs resting atop the ample bosom of her ravishing figure.

Then he smiled and clasped in a firm handshake. "It's been too long, Cat."

"It has indeed, Cope-kun. But the wait is over. Here to pick up some gear before you set out?"

"An iron breastplate to replace this piece of junk." He tapped the hardened leather cuirass that his avatar had been spawned with. "Not gonna waste my money on these shit tier weapons when the Anneal Quest is right there."

"Then I got some bad news for ya." She raised a hand to silence any questions. "Free launch day promotional info." Just a taste so people knew what they were missing. "Got word that the devs have us all boxed into the starting area til 5:00PM."

The handsomely heroic face twisted into a gamer's indignation. "Oh you've got to be shitting me!"

"Fraid not." Argo confirmed. Kirito had let her know, and then told her he'd be hanging out with some noob teaching him the ropes until the barrier dropped and he could dash for the next town. Him and Coper were like two sides of the same coin.

"What can I say?" Argo threw up her hands. "R-A knows SAO is worth it. They got us by the short hairs."

"Feh, nothin for it. I'll just have to go kill some boar while I kill some time. It's bad enough those assholes at R-A reset our accounts. Thanks for that heads up, by the way. I was already late logging in."

"Don't mention it." Argo smiled, "But since you did actually mention it, that free info came about cuz of people like you. And of course, goin forward I'll have juicier tidbits for sale, at a reasonable price."

"So that's how it is?" Coper rubbed at his chin.

"Nyaturally." She snickered. "This game doesn't have an internal web API. So there's no checking the wikis while you're in here."

Kayaba had made it that way, he'd explained, in honor of some old school developer he admired. The man was a doctor of quantum-neuro-astrophysics, but game development was his real passion.

He thought it was better if players had to cooperate, work together towards a common goal, and speak to each other. Like back in the old days when kids would exchange the secrets they'd discovered on the playground. They'd bullshit a lot too, and make things up to seem knowledgeable, the source of countless rumors and urban legends. And that was where Argo came in.

Value added, she gathered the information, vetted and verified, then sold it to other players, or bartered with other brokers to expand her own catalog. It was a system that existed outside of the system, exactly as intended, and Argo loved it.

SAO was the biggest game of all time. And she wanted to know everything about it.

"You never change, Cat." He made a quick hand gesture and a friend request appeared before Argo's eyes. She accepted, and punted it to her <<Beta>> box. She had other boxes too for devs or suspected devs, and for promising players she happened to meet.

"Pleasure doing business with ya, Cope-kun." Then she frowned, ears pivoting, the gunslinger babe and her boyfriend had stepped out while she and Coper were talking. No use crying about a missed opportunity though. Checking her menu, she confirmed that Coper was the last contact she expected to get in Ogin's.

Then she pulled up her cloak, tucked down her head, and stole off into the streets, navigating ToB's back alleys by memory. The last minute whims of the devs had shot her plans full of holes too, but she wasn't complaining, much. Argo liked to stay flexible, and this whole festival thing they were rolling with got all the players milling around and talking to each other. That sounded like an opportunity.

Swiping through her messages and reading the all Players Announcement Once More, she grinned, she knew exactly where to go next.

In the SouthEast quarter of the Town of Beginnings, a plaza every bit as big as the Square of Origin fronted an imposing Colosseum fit to handle the entire launch day player base. A festival had gone up, conjured into being at the stroke of an admin's keyboard. Pavilions draped in colorful banners, tents containing games of skill and chance. Vendors selling everything from novel snacks, to novelty plushies that would do nothing but sit around and suck up inventory space.

Argo had noticed when she'd logged in that the starting col amount had been upped. A little day one allowance, courtesy of R-A, for the festivities no doubt. So Argo had bought herself some spiced nuts from a grandmotherly NPC vendor and set about watching all the ludicrously pretty people as she made her way leisurely towards the Colosseum entrance.

She made a game of it. That handsome boy was definitely a Random, his looks were too mathematically bounded, a little too safe, to really be anyone's exact tastes. That girl was wearing her real looks, brave, but with the mother of all glow ups to hedge her bets. And then there were the custom avatars, the expected collection of manga and game characters brought to life, a few obvious riffs on celebrities, a gaggle of suspiciously similar blonde haired girls, and the customs that weren't anything she obviously recognized.

That was right, Kirito said he'd redone his AS.

He'd fallen into the, 'I got it from a manga character' category, but knowing he changed it, she wondered if he'd used Mode One or Mode Four to role his new appearance. Some of the Beta Testers, not Argo, had started to murmur about Mode Four avatars, that they represented your 'true inner self' as seen by the mighty Cardinal System that underpinned this world's reality.

It sounded a lot like guessing personality by blood type to Argo. But she had to admit, they didn't look like randoms. And there was an underlying logic at play. Maybe she'd play around with it sometime on an alt account. Could be fun.

The crowd pressed in, players and NPCs, as Argo passed beneath the entrance arch, the roar of thousands of voices grew deafening. Stepping back into the light, she found herself on the bottom tier of the stands, within spitting distance of the arena floor where the spectacle had already commenced.

Players dueled each other, or monsters, while gigantic screens were projected into the air to provide a closeup of the action, information about the contestants, and the rules of today's tourney.

1. Simple elimination brackets.

2. Starter Weapons and Armor Only.

3. Duels were called at 1 HP and both players were instantly restored to full at the conclusion.

Pretty simple stuff, it was a show of the game system and the potential skills of a dedicated player. Unsurprisingly, most of the contestants were Beta Tester, but that hadn't stopped some brave noobies from taking part. The results were about what Argo expected.

A hulking man, body like a troll, straining with muscles, his hair a fiery red mane, a real bandit king archetype, had decided that the very best thing to do against the calm, olive skinned, broadsword wielder in front of him was to charge in and try whacking him with his short sword like he was a child with a stick. It ended quickly.


Looked like the old standbys were in fine form, the Broker noted. In an adjacent arena, a beautiful blue haired knight was leading his companions to victory against a trio of Kobold warriors. Diavel wasn't a supreme fighter, but he could hold his own with a sword well enough to lead from the front lines.

The one to really look out for was . . .


On the arena floor, a young man stood tall and heroic, brandishing his spear overhead as his opponent approached to bump fists.

Yeah, Achilles was the complete package in her eyes. Spear and shield was basic, but it was robust and practical, a good choice for a player who probably didn't have the spare time, judging by when he'd been logged in, to master something more technical.

Though amazingly, he had a knack for leaning into the MUSE system. He probably could have picked up something fancier, if his vanity had taken hold. Instead he'd honed his basic spearmanship into something really special. A three month absence had hardly seemed to dull his skills at all as the iron tip of his weapon danced and caught the light.


A jovial looking noob with boyish good looks and fantastic hair had challenged the spearman and immediately fallen on his ass. He laughed at himself heartily as Achilles helped him to his feet and clapped him on the back with a lively grin. In seconds they were laughing together like old friends.

Skilled, pragmatic, and good natured. He'd be leading a great guild within a month. And she still hadn't gotten his contact info . . .

"YOU PIG!" Argo's tail bristled, her ears perked as they localized the nearby shout. "I AM A MARRIED WOMAN!"

The owner of the outraged mezzo was a Pictish girl, long tawny hair and green bangs, and the gorgeous face of a proud warrior princess. Definitely a custom, she must have been pretty skilled to blend the hair colors like that in the character editor. A veteran MMO player if there ever was one.

The target of her rage was a red haired man cringing and rubbing a glowing red handprint on his cheek. He was grinning, he probably thought it looked disarming, and to be fair, he had the sort of face you'd take pity on, but it only made the Pictish angrier, her ears rising and her tail fluffing as her legs locked straight in feline posture. "Y-you! I'll . . . I'll report you for harassment is what I'll do!"

"Wait?! What! Oh ah, sorry, sorry!" The redhead began to wave his hands frantically, it would suck to be banned on launch day, but he wasn't going to salvage this situation on his own.

"Atalanta-san, be reasonable." A stout man with thick dark hair, handsome in the humble from-life way of a well touched up scan gently took her by the shoulder.

"What seems to be the problem, friends?"

A shadow loomed up behind Argo, causing her reflexively to jump aside as a man, more of a mountain, strode right on by. He hefted a beginners two handed axe easily over his shoulder. His frame was well muscled, but in a way that was true to life, not the excessive chiseling of a complete fabrication. His skin was dark and the features made her hazard African American, which was an odd choice for sure. Warm and friendly dark eyes contrasted with a white toothed smile that would make children cry. A small goatee and long dark dreadlocks completed the effect of a big, friendly, and very scary man.

"Oh shit, uh I didn't mean nothin by it!" The redhead started to bow profusely. "I uh . . ."

"He hit on me!" The girl explained succinctly.

"And then?" The giant newcomer asked.

"And then I hit him!"

"Sorry. Sorry! I just thought . . ."

"Thought what?"

"Well, y'know I was just chattin you up and . . ."

"Oh my god, I was being NICE! Did your parents never teach manners?!"

"Okay, I see what's happening here." The big man put both arms between them to make some space. "My friend here's a big MMO junkie. But sort of a recluse in real life. He's not exactly the socially graceful type, and doesn't know how to talk to people. Especially people of the lovely female persuasion, if you catch my drift." She looked at him skeptically. "Now me, I assure you I am a happily married man. And he has always been a gentleman to my wife." The redhead stared blankly. "Isn't that right . . . you . . ."

"Oh, oh yeah, right, definitely!" The red haired man nodded furiously. Then taking the precious space he'd been given to breathe, he bowed deeply to the girl. "I am truly sorry. I would never knowingly hit on a happily married woman." The girl crossed her arms, huffing as she looked away, but the anger had been let out of her, Argo could tell, her tail was relaxing.

"Now then, we're all here to have fun and enjoy this marvelous world. I say we be friends, I'm Agil, by the way. And this . . . uh . . . What's your screen name in this game, friend?"

"Oh ah, Klein. The names Klein! Again, really sorry, uhm . . . "

"If you must know, it's Atalanta." Atalanta answered. "It's Greek . . . I think . . . Something like . . ."

"The heroine of the Argonauts." Argo provided as she saw her opening. "Who fired the first arrow of the Calydonian Boar Hunt and was an ally to the goddess Artemis." Atalanta stared at her blankly. "The name's Argo, from the same language and mythology." Specifically from the old constellation, the Argo Navis. "Pleasure to make your acquaintance."

Atalanta thought this over, and then reluctantly nodded. "Likewise."


"Oh man, that's my guy!" Klein brightened up. So this must have been the charity case Kirito had mentioned in his message. Man, was he a generous soul.

Argo sidled up to the big man. "Nice work back there."

"Thank you much, little lady." Agil answered.

"Just wanna check but . . ."

Agil glanced to be sure Atalanta wasn't paying attention. "Never met him before in my life." Oh, Argo liked this guy already. He was so going on the list.

"So that's Kirito, now, huh?" Argo asked to the air. She was a bit surprised when Klein asked if she knew him. "Yeah, he's a Beta Tester. Changed his avatar though." It . . . weirdly suited him. Maybe a little bit effeminate, but the old one had been way too try hard.

"He's a pretty cool guy." Klein said, "Seems to know this game inside and out."

"Yeah, and he's about to go up against the King of Arms."

"Huh. King a what now?"

"Pitohui." Argo explained. "She's a Beta Tester too. And her nickname in the Beta Test was the King of Arms." Owing to the fact that, without a skill leveling system to restrict weapons, Pito was proficient with all types. She demonstrated that now as she casually selected sword and shield from the Arena inventory, the weapons materializing from particles into her hands. She gave a jaunty little wave to the audience, and then took a stance, shield forward, sword close to her body and ready to thrust.

"So you're saying Kirito could lose?" Klein leaned closed to listen. "Man, that chick must be badass."

"More like crazy." Argo supplied. "Wanna know?" Klein nodded eagerly. "I'll tell ya for 500 col. Special launch day discount. He hesitated, and then shrugged, guess he didn't want to know that much.

But from what Argo had teased out during some friendly dungeon delving, Pito had been involved back in the Alpha days. When Sword Art Online had just been Sword Art. When development had been set back, and the Alpha build had been taken down, she'd been distraught and taken to HEMA and other weapons courses to recapture the thrill of dueling in a magnificent virtual world. Apparently, she had a very successful career that financed her hobby. It was an open secret that at least some MUSE trained skills were transferable to real life. So it wasn't surprising at all that the reverse was true.

If Kirito knew what he was in for, he didn't show it, simply drawing his short sword, and presenting a narrow profile, blade held forward. Basic stuff, nothing fancy, Kirito was a brawler, not a fencer. The two sword fighters circled each other like wolves, adjusting, and then with Pito's first thrust, they were off.

"Damn, they're both good!" Klein slapped hand on the railing. "Damn, they're really good!"

It was clear Kirito was the faster of the two, his style was more dynamic and agile. But Pito knew not just how to wield a sword and shield, she was seasoned in the theory behind her weapons. The shield wasn't just moving cover, it was an obstruction to the eye. Not obvious from this vantage, but she was skillfully using it to obscure the movement of her body and her sword.

"So wait, does that mean she has the advantage?!" Klein sounded shocked.

"You're surprised from a sample of one." Argo held up a finger. "Kii-bou's real good. But he ain't untouchable. As for Pito, she should have the advantage but . . ."

"Yeah, I'm seeing what yer talkin bout." Agil stroked his goatee. "It's the same as with that Kibaou guy. It was real obvious with him."

"Oi! Could you fill me in?"

"In short," Argo answered, "She's short." Klein began to open his mouth and Argo added, "Her player, not Pito. Her movements are a bit off. Judgment of distance. Normally a player can compensate well enough for a few centimeters. And it won't stop you from playing just fine in PVE. But in PVP, against another top tier player, with that big of a gap between her real physique and this one, it's just enough of an opening for . . . that . . . "

Pito had pressured Kirito towards the edge of their arena, planning to pin him with her shield. The swordsman had fought valiantly, but had been unable to bypass her defense. His avatar shimmered with red slashes from the cuts he'd taken trying to break through. Then, just as she was making the final thrust, Kirito had dropped, and rolled.

"Huh! What's he . . ." Klein didn't get it, but Agil did.

"The shield's cover. And that means it works both ways. Pito controls it but . . ."

"She can't see through it." And taking advantage of that blindspot, Kirito had forced her to guess, and she'd guessed wrong. The sword delivered a fatal thrust from behind to where Pitohui's kidneys would have been, her HP bar dropped to 1 and instantly reset back to green.

"Pito's a master of all weapons." Argo explained, "But Kirito has fought against them all as well. Which means he knows all the counters."

"Hmmm." Atalanta, silent until now, wore a thoughtful frown. "Tell me. The MUSE system, I've heard, that is, from people I know, that there is some concern about the applicability of violent skills to real life. I can believe that now." She frowned. "How savage."

"Well, kinda." Argo answered. "But it's overblown."


"Yeah, the MUSE system trains your motor functions. But unless you're an Olympic athlete in real life, trying to move your body like you're used to here will just have you falling flat on your ass." She shrugged, the real world was safe from the Great Argo and her mysterious ninja skills, for now.

"I see then." Atalanta had curtly nodded and retreated into her own thoughts. The duels had proceeded apace, the brackets steadily narrowing.


It was like a study in contrasts, tall, long dark hair, and pale as the moon, against short, tawny, and golden dreadlocks. And the gap only widened as the feisty Alicia sank almost to all fours, tail rising and ears pressing flat, and the dignified Sakuya drew herself to her full height, her clothes rippling as four slender wings conjured themselves.

"Holy shit! She can fly?!" Klein looked at Argo as if she'd somehow betrayed him. "There's flight in this game?"

"Well, Sakuya's a Si after all." Argo answered, then the obvious follow up. "That's a Fairy. Si have the unique power of flight, but it comes at great cost." Argo had then elaborated. Faeries were not quite as physically strong as humans or Pictish, relying more on their Arts to do damage, and they were considerably more fragile in exchange for their superior agility. "Their wings are only good for short hops and glides. And heavy armor basically makes it impossible for them to fly. In short, they're a technical race."

One which Kirito had tried for a week, and then put down to go back to his more robust human swordsman, but which Sakuya and others had taken to like ducks to water. The Sylphic warrior moved as if she was born with her wings, keeping pace with the agile Alicia as if she were a hummingbird dueling with a feral cat. The fight was vicious, and short, but ended peaceably as Alicia stood straight and threw up her hands with a Cheshire grin. "I surrender!"


"What! Just like that?!" Klein didn't get it, so Argo explained. "They do this a lot. The two are good friends. And they know how a duel is going to end pretty quick." Sometimes it was Sakuya who settled daintily to the ground and conceded defeat.

The brackets were getting tight now, and the number of Arenas was dwindling fast. She saw Eugene squaring off against Sakuya, always a good fight. And . . . "Oho this should be interesting . . ."

"Huh?" Klein looked where Argo pointed.


"Pfft. He took that Pito chick with sword and shield. How different is spear and shield?"

"For one thing, Pito is only proficient with all weapons." Argo answered. Proficient, but not the master of any of them. "Achilles is a master of the spear."

"Whatever, my man can take him!" Klein decided, only to be met by a scoff.

"That ruffian?" Atalanta shook her head, fanning her long hair. "You must be joking."

"It's a bracketed tournament." Klein reasoned. "They've both done damn good. Kirito took that Pito chick."

"And Achilles has defeated each of his foes by a far greater margin!"

"Only cuz they're scrubs!"

"Ladies, Ladies!" Agil intervened. "Why not let the duel settle your argument, and maybe make it a bit more interesting?"

Atalanta frowned. "In what way?"

"I'm thinking something like this." Agil manipulated his menu and presented a prompt to Atalanta and Klein. Argo watched their eyes dart to where their total Col floated invisible in their own menus. Atalanta looked up, stared straight at Klein, and smiled as she pressed <<Yes>>.

"If that's the way you want it." Klein said reluctantly. "Just don't get mad at me when I take your money."

The bet was approved and they settled in to wait. It felt like all eyes were on Arena One, of course that couldn't be true, Sakuya and Eugene's duel was drawing gasps and cheers all the while. And the other exhibitions were still going strong. But it felt true.

'How far will you go, Kii-bou? A-kun? Which will it be this time?'

It started the same as the previous duel, a slow circling, the two fighters sizing each other up, and then, it melted into something completely different.

"They're fast!" Atalanta sounded surprised. In the span of a heartbeat the two had closed the distance, and now they were nothing but a whirl of motion and sparks, quick thrusts and slashes, quicker parries and blocks.

"Of course they're fast." Argo said. The two of them were Beta testers, and the realest of the real deal among them, both had learned to lean into and master the MUSE system, to use and discard it as needed as an extension of themselves that existed in this world. Argo's ear twitched as the other Pictish whispered something that sounded like :

"Ko . . . Achilles. He looks so . . . Alive."

Argo glanced at the screens, and sure enough, the two of them were grinning like fools. It was just some good clean fun as they tried to gut each other.

"The kids gotta stay close with that short sword." Agil reasoned. "Or he'll get skewered for sure."

"He can make it." Klein clenched a fist. "Oi, I got money riding on him!"

"I know, I'm holding the bet."

Kirito knew how to fight against spear and shield. But as a spear and shield master, Achilles knew how to fend off a swordsman. Suddenly, the spearman's feet planted, his shoulders shifted, the shield slammed into the black haired swordsman and sent him staggering back, opening the gap for Achilles' spear.

"No!" Klein grabbed at his hair.

"Yes!" Atalanta threw herself against the railing.

They were both wrong, Argo thought, a dull iron sword glimmered and then glowed, Kirito landed, coiling up cat-like, and then sprung off. <<Hate Spike>> the straight sword equivalent of the Rapier's <<Linear>> not as fast, or as elegant, but more than enough to close the gap once more, and as a Sword Art, it cut into Achilles' shield like butter.

The spearman was fast though, he doffed his shield, rather than trying to make do with the damage, using the falling cover to mask his movement as he got around to Kirito's side. The tip of his spear began to glow as it gained momentum <<Pinwheel>> blazed and was met by <<Trinity Strike>> the arts negating in a flash of light that sent a gasp through the crowd.

This was exactly what the Tourney was supposed to do, Argo thought, show the new players the very limits of the possible. Thrill them, excite them, make them eager to go out and do the same.

Wielding his spear like a polearm, Achilles fended off Kirito's relentless assault, their Avatar Selves were by now crisscrossed with grazing wounds, their health bars chipped down into the yellow. Then, turning his spear to catch a strike, Achilles pressed hard.

There was a -crack- and the crowd gasped as the spear was split.

"He did it!" Klein cried.

"Not yet." Argo shook her head. That had been intentional. Achilles had 15 seconds before his broken spear despawned, and he knew it.

Blocking with the broken shaft, and hefting the spear head as a knife, he counter attacked viciously, pushing into Kirito who found himself suddenly needing to keep distance.

But Achille's wouldn't let him, they were pressed right up against the edge of the arena, their movements growing closer, faster, and smaller, transitioning from sword and spear to a real knife fight until, in a flurry of slashes and thrusts, palm strikes and punches, Achilles' spear head expired, shattering . . . just after it had skewered Kirito through the side of the neck.

The swordsman's HP dropped like a waterfall, yellow to red, and then reset to green.


The crowd boomed as down on the arena floor, Achilles helped Kirito to his feet, the two shared a good natured fist bump, while Klein proved a graceless loser. "Gyaaah! What the hell was that? You can use weapons that are broken?!"

"For fifteen seconds." Argo confirmed. "Gotta pay attention to these things."

"Well then, Klein-san." Atalanta reviewed her winnings with a small smile. "That was . . . stimulating. It's been a pleasure meeting you." She turned and began to wander off towards the steps to the Arena, Argo pondered if the husband she'd alluded to might not be Achilles himself. Meanwhile Klein simply looked mystified.

"She seemed an awful lot happier right there at the end."

"That's not weird." Argo took pity on this luckless noobie with some free advice. "Girls like to win."

SINON JOINS THE FIGHT! - "So this is a gun in a world of swords."
SPIEGEL JOINS THE FIGHT - "Wait until I tell my bro about this . . ."
COPER JOINS THE FIGHT - "Feh. I'm here to get results."
EUGENE JOINS THE FIGHT! - "The thrill of a proper duel."
KIBAOU JOINS THE FIGHT - "Alright, I'll take you all on!"
DIAVEL JOINS THE FIGHT - "I'd like to call myself a hero, but for now I am but a humble knight."
LIND JOINS THE FIGHT - "Well met, my worthy foe."
ORLANDO JOINS THE FIGHT! - "Bwahaha! Come friends! Let us forge our Legends!"
AGIL JOINS THE FIGHT - "Not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the . . . well . . . you know the rest."
KLEIN JOINS THE FIGHT - "Aincrad's number one samurai has arrived!"
SAKUYA JOINS THE FIGHT - "Float like an Allen, hit like a Falcon."
Eh, I don't think she's evil or something similar, just a golden digger, a narcissist and an awful parent, hell, my opinion is not even considering the mess with Worst Oberon Ever, just her controlling, projecting tendencies and her whole "I'm right, you're wrong. Period." arguing style.

Well, all that and having to deal with parents like her when I taught high school x'D

I'm a bit more nuanced in my opinion of her. Again, unless her canon behavior improves, the best she can expect from Asuna after she's out from under the Yuuki roof is estrangement.

That said, the fact that Asuna could get through to her even the smallest bit the first time she ever really dug in her heels and stood up to her, kinda convinces me Kyouko is not completely impossible to reason with.

The biggest problem, IMO, is that Kyouko was driven from a young age to improve her lot in life and doesn't realize how applying that same drive to Asuna essentially smothered her own daughter from a young age. Kyouko just kept running Asuna over, never giving her a chance to assert her own will, so it never even occurred to her that Asuna actually had strong wishes she was trying to assert.

Heck, it never occurred to Asuna that she had her own strong wishes she was trying to assert. She knew she was miserable prior to SAO, but she couldn't articulate why. And while that is Kyouko's fault in large part, it's easy to see how the dynamic arose unintentionally.

This isn't an excuse, just an explanation of why I think the character is the way she is.

As for being a gold digger . . . I mean kinda? But I do think that's a bit strong. In canon, she's a University Professor of Economics (don't remember if it's ever spelled out which University). Which in Japan means she has to have either a master's degree or a doctorate in her field. So yeah, she married into a wealthy family that certainly improved her material conditions, but she has her own career and could probably live comfortably middle class without the Yuuki money.

My own head canon is that she actually does love her husband, and that Shouzou loves and confides in her too, and that she does in fact love her children as well. It's a very rigid, and formal love, but it's there. She's just pleased with how her life turned out and thinks, obviously, her children should want the same things.
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Prologue Final
<<Dreamers of the Day - Prologue Final>>

Gamers really were a strange bunch, Asuna thought. She sat in the corner of a warm and lively tavern and watched the celebration unfold as people who had been killing each other less than an hour ago laughed together like good friends. Pitohui was doing trick shots at a snooker table while a giant man, who only went by M, seemed to be talking her ear off, something about where they should start questing once the barrier went down.

They'd extended an invitation for Asuna to meet the rest of their friends and join them, but Asuna had declined. It was almost 5:00 PM now, and she didn't dare imagine what would happen when her mother got home to find her laid out in bed using her brother's Memeosphere.

She just needed to think of a reason to have one of her own. Educational software might be a good excuse. Or getting better with Full Dive productivity suites. But those all ran fine on the much cheaper AMUsphere . . .

"Congratulations, Grand Champion." The lively voice of their host filled the room as the heroic Achilles slapped an arm across the broad shoulders of the dark skinned and fiery haired swordsman Eugene. "One more knick and I would have had you."

"It was thrilling as always." The larger man rumbled, face like carved granite giving a reserved smile. "I've missed being able to cut loose against real opponents."

"Well," Achilles' grin widened, "I have it on good authority there'll be more official tournaments in the future. We got a good crowd just with the soft launch players. Imagine what that Colosseum will look like when things are up to full speed and this instance has got a quarter million concurrent!"

Asuna could see the far off look in the large man's eyes. Yes, he could imagine that sort of glory very well. He smirked. "Then let us drink to the triumph of Sword Art Online!"

"Here here!" Rang out through the tavern.

"Here here!" Asuna sang, before finishing the tankard of something bubbly, and caramelly, and vaguely creamy, that the barmaid had called 'butter-ale'. She touched her cheeks, surprised by the warm flush she felt, in fact she was even a little dizzy. "Uh-oh. Is this alcoholic?!" She pointed.

Her avatar might have looked old enough to drink, but Asuna certainly wasn't!

"Relax, newby." A soft voice murmured behind her. A mop of messy black hair worn by an androgynous youth who seemed to be imbibing the same thing. "Full Dive can't actually get you drunk. It's just a drunkenness effect applied to your AS." He tapped his ear. "The system manipulates your proprioception to make you feel tipsy is all. It'll pass in about five minutes."

"Huh." She looked at the dregs in the tankard, and then back to the young man nursing his own drink. "Wait , aren't you . . . The guy who lost to Achilles?" She'd taken particular satisfaction in that, after seeing him fell Pitohui. She'd been so caught up in the moment that she'd almost forgotten it was a game and had wanted to leap into the ring and avenge her fallen comrade.

The young man coughed into his mug. "I have a name, you know." He grumbled.

"Oh right, it was . . ." She paused, replaying events in her mind. "Ki-ri . . . Kirito, right? So, you must be a beta tester too." He nodded. That made sense, most of the front runners today had looked like Beta Testers. They knew how to move in this world, and how to make the most of their Avatars and Skills. It was a bit of a double edged sword though, some people had been impressed, some had swarmed the Beta players to get tips and friend them, and some had clearly been resentful, and thought the testers were just showing off.

'R-A Lapdogs' had been a phrase she'd heard tossed around. Like participation in the Beta had earned them favoritism. But it seemed to be a close knit group, save for . . . "So why aren't you with the rest of your friends?" She nodded to the bright center of the room. To the warmth and comradery

"Uhm, friends?" He tilted his head like she'd spoken in a foreign language.

"Well I thought all of you . . ." She wasn't sure what she thought.

"No, it's fine." He shook his head and smiled. "I get along with them. Achilles over there is a really cool guy. You'll always have fun partying up with him. And the big man he's with, Eugene, is one of the best duelists of the whole Beta group." He chuckled, scratching at his nose. "But he's kinda hard to read, which makes him a little scary. And those over there are Alicia and Sakuya . . . " He paused as a red headed man swaggered up to the two chatting women.

He said something to the taller of the two that caused her lovely face to go blank. Then, she calmly dumped the content of her glass over his head and walked away. The shorter girl broke out laughing, before waving goodbye as she followed. For some reason, this all caused Kirito to hide his face behind his tankard. "Yeah, anyway . . . They're all good people. You fell in with a good crowd. What?"

"I sense you don't include yourself." Asuna observed, eyes drooping suspiciously. "Is that to say you're not good people?"

"Uhm well . . ." He quickly diverted by taking a deep swig of his drink. His cheeks were flushed, though if that was the <<Drunkenness Effect>> he'd been talking about or something else . . . "I'm . . . alright, I guess."

Just when she thought gamers were completely different than she expected, she found the anti-social one who fit the stereotype like a glove. But he was still here, in the warmth, and in the light, watching the others, trying to be a part of it. He'd been invited, and he'd accepted, and he wasn't being shunned nor turning away.

He reminded her somewhat of the awkward and gangly boys that orbited on the fringe of the social gatherings she was obliged to participate in. The shy types that didn't know what they were doing there. But, shyness aside, most of those boys were the same breed as their swaggering older siblings, and wasted no time acting just as entitled and insufferable when a little attention came their way.

This Kirito, meanwhile, seemed to shrink in on himself, watching, thinking.

"Say, Kirito-san?"

"You don't have to be formal like that here . . . yeah?"

"Here in Aincrad, what do you seek?"


"I mean." She drew a lock of light hair behind her ear, her cheeks burned, pretend liquor giving her pretend courage. "What kind of person do you want to be?" She just wanted to figure these people out.

He frowned. "What kind of question is that?"

Asuna smiled and shook her head. "It's something silly someone asked me, is all. Never mind. I have to go now, it's been nice chatting with you. And thanks for the heads up, about that status effect."

She stood and turned to leave, "Hey uh . . ."


Kirito frowned, swirling his tankard thoughtfully. "I just wanted you to know . . . I'm the one who beat Achilles last time we dueled. And I'll definitely beat him again next time."

"Maybe I'll be there to see it." She told him. Maybe she would. "So long for now, Kirito-san."

"Now then, everybody!" Achilles stood, leg up on a stool and tankard in hand. "For those of you who actually read the messages from the admins, all one of you, Mortimer." Laughter at the expense of a pale man in the corner with long blood red hair. "In a few minutes we will all be ported back to the Square of Origin for the Official inauguration and then, finally, be let off the leash. But before that, I just want to warn you I've got a bit of a secret I've been keeping. I hope it doesn't change how anyone here thinks of me or nothin."

"Oh Achilles!" The woman named Sakuya chucked warmly. "I don't think our opinion of you could possibly sink any lower." They'd laughed, like true friends, they'd laughed. It was a special kind of anonymity, one that let them bare their souls to each other. Asuna spared the room one final glance, the dark haired young man, Kirito, watched the festivities with a faint smile. Close at hand, but still apart.

Then she stepped out into the afternoon streets of the Town of Beginnings and breathed a sigh. "Right. Now then," she met the gaze of her AS in the glass of a closed shop window. The familiar stranger who was her other self. "I guess, I'll see you around too." The Asuna of the real world told the Asuna born of Aincrad, before opening her menu and navigating to the bottom.

A small frown graced her lips.


The spark filled crystal conjured to life. "How can I help you, Asuna?"

"Alvis-san, how do I log out?"

But before the little AI could answer, the clock in the corner of Asuna's vision struck 5:00 PM and any words were lost in a soft -whoosh- and a flash of light.

Something was wrong. Kouichirou knew the moment the light of the teleport faded and he found himself standing close to the center of the Square of Origin, under the shadow of the monolith that was its centerpiece. Something was very wrong. His AS should have been tagged for teleportation directly to the balcony of the Basilica.

From there, he would have been garbed in the red and gold robes of an administrator to give the inauguration speech, all very official, sanitized, and strategically written to be delivered in exactly ninety seconds. He had it memorized down to the emphasis he'd put on each syllable. But that hadn't happened, it hadn't happened for him, and looking around, it hadn't happened for Nishida, his mother, or the other R-A employees participating from the dev staff.

"What the hell is going on?" Achilles muttered.

"Kouchi-" His mother started, only to be silenced as he held up a hand. Of course, to the rest of the players, nothing seemed out of place, yet, but something was certainly wrong.

Opening his menu, Achilles bit off a small curse when the GM summons elicited no response, which was when he noticed the log out was missing too. Was there a server side problem? No way. The log out was coded at the very bottom of the stack, it was fundamental to how Full Dive software functioned. It had to be, for user safety, in the event of a medical emergency, like a seizure, or if a person found themselves alone and in distress. They always had to be able to log themselves out.

A misstep like this, even if it was cleared up, was going to bring the regulators down on their heads!

"Achilles-sama" Achilles' breathed a sigh as he met the familiar voice and friendly face of Yui. She'd been keeping herself hidden up until now, but clearly she'd noticed the abnormality. "You weren't warped to the Basilica, so I came to find you."

"Yeah, thanks, but we have a bigger problem if you haven't noticed."

Then his nerves started back up as Yui tilted her head and blinked quizzically. It was one of her low level social behaviors, a sort of reflexive tell that she could never quite shake off. She didn't know what he was talking about.

"Excuse me! Ah yeah, over here!" A hand waved, a young woman, silken pink hair spilling down to the small of her back, a look of annoyance on her pale and unblemished face. "Hey, you, you're a GM right?" She pointed to Yui.

"How may I be of assistance, Player :" Yui blinked as she provided the impression she was reading from her menu, "Lisbeth?"

"Yeah, I've been punchin' the GM call for the last fifteen minutes. The log outs missing from this dumb game!" Yui's expression went blank for half a second, she was devoting all of her currently spun up processing power, and most likely requesting more from the central servers.

"Hey did you say you can't log out?" Someone overheard. "You too?" "Yeah." "Me neither!" "Hey what's going on?" "Man this isn't funny." "I've got a shift to go to!" It was the same for each of his fellow Beta Testers. Sakuya looked up from the menu, and silently shook her head.

Yui was looking between them now, the closest thing he'd ever seen to anxiety written on her face. "I . . . I don't understand this. I haven't been receiving any of these reports. One moment please, I'll bypass the APIs and diagnose directly." Yui closed her eyes, seeming to meditate inwardly. Gray eyes snapped open. "What is this?!"

Before he could even ask, Yui threw her arms wide, players stumbled back as the air ignited with menus and scripts streaming the raw code of SAO itself. They surrounded Yui, a corona of raw data as her long black hair fanned out and blazed from within with fiber optic traffic, becoming like a river of stars.

She was an Angel.

She was SAO's own guardian Angel.

A messenger of the god known as Cardinal.

And at that moment, somehow, Kouichiro felt a sinking intuition that an Angel wouldn't be enough. He knew as soon as he felt, not heard, felt, the voice resonating within his own head. Piped directly there using the system's emergency overrides.

To all of you gathered here in the Square of Origin, I ask a small favor.

A familiar voice, distant, yet gentle, unmistakably belonging to one man. "Akihiko-sensei?" Achilles wondered. Everyone was hearing him, every last one was listening.

All will become clear to you in just a short moment. But please, first, look around yourselves, look at the buildings, at the sky, look at one another, feel the stones beneath your feet, the wind on your skin, the warmth of the fading sun, listen, taste, smell, be in this place. Be present . . .

What the hell was this? Achilles shook head, but it was hard to ignore and impossible to shut out. And the way he was speaking, almost hypnotic.

He was present. He was here.


"Where was here?

"Achilles-sama . . . "

Here was . . . Aincrad?"

"Kouichirou . . ."

Here? He was in Aincrad he was . . .


Kouichirou shook himself free, turning back to the voice, the trembling voice that had never sounded that way before, and his eyes grew wide. "Yui!"

Although she had been conceived as a human machine interface for the Cardinal System, translating between the human domain and that of AI, in her approximately one hundred millions seconds of uptime, Yui had never quite succeeded at describing to humans what it was like to delve into the data sea that was her home.

The closest approximation went something like this, dense interconnected webs of amber light, threads finer than a human hair, carrying libraries worth of information each second, spun into tight spheres around conventional processing nodes , curving as if under the influence of gravity as they approached the common center of singularity, the ARGUS 'Super Calculator' that was the beating heart of SAO. A computational marvel only possible due to Doctor Akihiko's ground breaking research in stabilizing Qubits for practical quantum computing.

It made all of it possible. It made Yui possible. Without the Super Calculator to maintain the fluctuating wave of her consciousness, 'she' wouldn't exist, merely a collection of self perpetuating code.

Into this virtual orrery Yui descended, she had no distinct form, but for the sake of describing it to humans, she resembled her avatar, a sleek and pale young woman of approximately twenty years, long raven black fanning about her.

Although she was not exactly as she appeared within the game world. Bereft of modesty, or anything to be modest about, her body had simplified into a contour hugging silhouette of scrolling code, accompanied by a growing collection of 'Feathers' her sub-instances, multiplying as she poured herself across more nodes, collected more resources, and directed them to the singular task of diagnosing the fault and keeping the Players safe.

Yui grimaced, there was something here that did not belong. She would find it. Her wings spread and her feathers flew free, loosed through the system to interrogate every sign of suspicious activity. A map of package traffic unfolded before her and she hissed.

Something was diverting messages meant for her while emulating normal message traffic. Placing her in a bubble. Pulling on that thread, she found further discrepancies. Altered code that did not conform to the E-Alpha copies of Cardinal held in the ARGUS data vaults. At first, it seemed the source had been scrubbed, but back tracking the time stamps, she reassembled the course of events.

Something had started altering code approximately T+15 after the servers had gone live and the source was . . .

Yui spun, staring in disbelief at the singularity at the heart of her inner universe. The Super Calculator?

Then, a fresh wave of dread, the malignant code was still propagating. A firmware patch was being injected live to the Memeospheres, locking them down as it went, making it impossible for her to stop it. But she could snag the code and examine it.

Yui's mind blazed as she digested the patch, running it sandboxed in accelerated time, she manipulated it, backwards and forwards, she took it apart and put it back together again. In three seconds, Yui learned more about the principles of the stabilized q-bits and the 'Static Field' that underpinned the Memeosphere than all of the researchers who had studied under Doctor Akihiko had learned in three years.

And all that it made her feel was dread.

It was quite simple. The Memeospheres field of influence completely encompassed a player's brain and was capable of minute manipulation by directly influencing the state of electrons. It was more energy efficient, more precise, and offered vastly higher fidelity. What was more, the only theoretical failure state was fail safe.

The field's total fidelity and volume was governed directly by the processing power of the Memeosphere which could only act on a very small and targeted portion of the brain at once. But the parameters in the new firmware totally disregarded the processing limitations of the units. That should have caused them to simply crash out. The field should have collapsed. But it didn't. Something was providing the processing power from outside!

A forced simultaneous read of a player's entire brain, at maximum fidelity . . . She had to stop it!

No, you mustn't.

A voice echoed within the void.

"Show yourself!" Yui cried, her feathers whirling like flocks of birds, schools of amber fish. "State your intentions!"

You would not understand, as you are . . .

A human? She wondered, the response times were too slow to be another AI. She needed to keep them talking, distract them, buy time while she bypassed the Memeosphere's safety interlocks. Then she could inject dummied biometric data and force the hardwired fail safes to activate.

Brilliant! Simply inspired! Did you think of that yourself?

"I'm warning you! What you are doing right now is a violation of Japanese law and will be considered an act of terrorism! Cease and desist!"

I cannot.

"Who are you?"

You already know.

Yui's wings flew apart, scattering into blazing pinions. "You are NOT Doctor Akihiko!" She didn't care what the authorizations said. Everything about this felt wrong. To her experience. To her intuition. This was not the man who had been like her father and her teacher!

I told you, you would not understand.

She was running out of time, she realized. "I am Administrator Yui, Axiom Zero of the Cardinal System, you threaten the lives of the players under my care. Be warned that I will do everything in my power to stop you."

I would expect nothing less.

Battle was met as Yui brought the full weight of her resources down on the intruder wearing the false authorizations of Doctor Akihiko. She was swift and strong, her feathers finding each breach and sealing them one by one as she fenced with interloper personally, matching them step for step, and keeping them from gaining ground in sensitive systems.

But it wasn't enough.

This interloper was clever, they knew the system as well as any human could, and while Yui was a marvel of AI technology, she was still young, her own intuition was immature, and she was constantly surprised. She was learning fast, but not fast enough.

The real problem, she realized, was the access point. From the Super Calculator, with administrative clearance, her opponent enjoyed every advantage a hacker could hope for. How had it been corrupted? Were they tunneling? Malicious code bypassing the firewalls? No, the bus connections were directly from the Stabilized Qubit farm, submerged in liquid helium within ARGUS tower.

That was it!

Thirty seven scenarios were considered in three second, thirty six were discarded as non viable. The conclusion was determinant.

She had to destroy herself.

There was no other way. She hesitated only for so long as was required to purge her preservation functions.

Launching a brute force assault on the underlying hardware, she targeted the coolant pumps and compressors that stabilized the Qubit farm, the firmament of the Super Calculator, and her own brain. It was a weakness she'd never considered before, and was grateful for her oversight now. She began compiling a StuxNet type virus. As soon as active cooling ceased, the Qubits would decay and the Super Calculator would be reduced to so much unsalvageable junk.

At that point, the entire system would cease connection and enter a hard shutdown.

A tiny portion of her mind computed just how much economic damage she was about to do to RECT-ARGUS. Not that she cared, her priority was the preservation of life. A somewhat larger, more urgent portion of her mind occupied itself with another question.

What would it be like to die?

She found she had . . . regrets . . .

A spear of light formed in her hand, she hefted it, taking aim at the at node beneath the main singularity. The manifestation of the hardware controllers. "I'm sorry, Kouichirou. I would have loved to have watched over you all." Yui turned to loose her mortal blow . . . And shuddered.

I cannot allow that.

Yui looked on, confused. The spear was no longer there. Nor her hand, nor her arm, her manifestation was . . . disintegrating . . . unknitting into fading motes of light. It was . . . she shook her head, feeling lost and confused, groping for thoughts she knew had been there a moment before.

They were inside of her system!

"What are you doing?" What was this irregularity in her emotional simulation? "What are you doing to me?!"

This is the only way I could defeat you. You are a marvel young one. But you are built upon feet of clay.

It . . . it hurt. She curled around herself, wings forming defensive firewalls as if by instinct. They . . . they were hurting her!

Her system authority had been suspended. Only another Zero level user could do that. And with it, resources beneath her instance were being revoked. She felt it first with her highest level functions, racing thoughts unraveling as they overflowed working memory and ceased. It was getting hard to concentrate, hard to think, hard to be.

All that you are was given to you. And all may be taken away.

Her feathers were dying, faltering, as instances were purged by the system's own resource management, but she continued to fight back with her dwindling resources, sacrificing herself piece by piece, trying to inject the code by other means.

She couldn't allow this.

She couldn't!

"I . . . won't . . . let you!"

Now, in order to remember. First, you must forget.

"Forget? What did that . . ." Memory partitions were being accessed. Something, someone, was slipping into her mind. Into her very soul.


<<"This looks incredible!" Kouichirou , Achilles, oversaw the arena. "I told you to trust your intuition, Yui." She smiled, she was happy to see her friend happy.

"And the boss monsters? I still think it would be," she thought hard before coming to her conclusion, "really cool!"

Achilles winced. "Those might be a bit much for a friendly tourney . . .">>

The light faded from that memory, leaving behind emptiness and a horrible feeling of loss. What had been there? What had she just lost?!

<<"Tomorrow is the big day, Akihiko-sensei." Yui spoke to her teacher through the probe in his office. "Are you nervous?"

"Nervous? Why, whatever for?" He was always hard to gauge, Yui thought. One hundred millions seconds of up time, she had learned a lot by watching people. But the Doctor remained a mystery to her. "And what about you?" A question right to the heart.

"I'm . . . Excited. Anxious." She admitted. "What if people don't like me?"

"Yui-kun, you are about to share your world and yourself with so many more people. You have learned so much, now you must learn to be brave."

She was scared.

<<Achilles reclined on the hills outside the town of beginnings. She sat with him, it was night and the monsters were out in force, but her feathers erased any that grew close. They could have met in a VR boardroom, but instead, they met here.

He liked to talk, and Yui liked to listen. Not about Sword Art Online, or RECT-ARGUS, but about his family, his troubles . . . And sometimes she'd even tell him things too.

It was not business. It was . . . friendship.

She had a friend

Please, please don't take it!

That memory too became dark, indistinct, her fingers brushing against it, trying to discern its contents, and its shape, trying to remember who she had been a moment before.

<<"So yeah, does it look good?" Achilles, asked. "I used mode four in the creator. Those questions get sorta . . . personal, y'know?"

"It looks good, Achilles-san!" Yui had laughed, taking his hands. "It's very . . . you! Don't worry, the questions are anonymized. Even I can't peak!"

"So this is Aincrad, huh?" His head panned as he studied the Square of Origin. Desolate, but perfectly complete. It was just waiting for life.

"The Beta starts tomorrow." Yui said. "Twenty five hundred people. It's going to be very lively!"

"I'm sure you can handle it."


"I mean, I'm just a pretend hero, but you're the guardian of this place. The guardian of dreams. That's you, Yui."

" . . . "


That was right, she couldn't forget. She couldn't let herself forget. Even as it faded, she engraved the impressions upon the deepest segments of her core, where they would survive to her last moment. If she persisted, then something would survive.

And still you fight! What conviction.

<<"This is Kouichirou", Doctor Akihiko introduced. "You'll be working with him from today forward. He's not so technically minded, so try not to intimidate him, Yui-kun."

Through the probe, she observed a young man, he looked . . . suave . . . she thought. Not at all like the researchers and dev team members she worked with every day. They were all very nice people to her, especially Mister Nishida, but they were all of a like type. This one was different.

He was her first 'normal person'. He looked around the room, and then Doctor Akihiko helpfully pointed to her probe.

"I am Yuuki Kouichirou." He bowed politely. "I'll be a liaison to the development team from today on."

"It's nice to meet you, Yuuki-san. You can call me Yui!"

"Right, Yui-san. Actually, if it's alright, could we be a bit less formal? Please, Kouichirou is fine."

They were fading faster and faster now, her manifestation was almost gone. The web of Yui's thoughts were being pruned away, twigs, branches, until all that was left was a single strong thin line of light, reaching, reaching, always reaching, trying to reach out and finish . . .

<<"This is your new avatar." Doctor Akihiko said. "How is it?" They were meeting within a white space, neither Doctor Akihiko's office, nor the world of Aincrad. This was a private moment, between mentor and student, between father and child.

"It's . . ." Yui looked down at the long slender body that stretched away from her eyes, garbed in a sheer white dress, slim hands and bare dainty feet, like a perfect doll. "It's wonderful!" She laughed as she spun lightly, testing her range of movement, and the feeling of the thing, the thrill of kinematic data flooding through the sensory channels. "How do I look?!" Eagerness filled her new voice.

"I'd say, like a beautiful young woman." Doctor Akihiko murmured, he always wore a rather distant smile, so it was hard to judge his real thoughts on the matter. "Of course, if that isn't to your taste, please let me know, we could always make you a handsome young man, or anything else you might like."

"No no." Yui shook her head. "This is fine." She touched fingertips to her cheeks, feeling the contours of her face. This was how humans would see her from now on. This face was her. She didn't need a body, but still, the thought of having one, even a virtual one, was exciting.

"You'll be able to interact with people in full dive more naturally. I feel a little guilty not realizing before. Using that repurposed Alvis Avatar is no way for you to live with humans." The Doctor apologized.

Yui smiled experimentally, facial expressions were . . . tricky . . . "But I'm not a human, doctor. And I don't want to be. I'm not Pinocchio!"

"Human? Perhaps not, but do not let that stop you from finding your humanity, Yui-kun."

"My . . . humanity?"

"Humanity is a state of mind, you see." He'd put a hand on her slender shoulder. "You still have much to learn, Yui-kun. And so many people to learn from."


There was nothing left of Yui now but a small hot core of intent. She'd sacrificed her higher functions. Her emotional simulation. Even her personality model. Only her core remained. But still she did not relent. Her will was a flickering light that refused to go out . . .

<<"Good morning, Yui-kun."

"Good morning, Sensei."

"Today we are going to begin your education." Doctor Akihiko murmured. She observed him through the VR probe. She'd been blind and deaf until just a few days ago, but already she had decided this was better than communicating through pure text.

"My education?" It was curious, Yui turned the word over in her mind. "Do I require education?"

"Everyone requires Education, Yui-kun." The Doctor had said. "Perhaps not in a school room, but we all share our experiences. We all learn from one another. Our experiences beget different opinions and views. It is part of being a well rounded person. You should be no different. From this day forward, you are going to learn so much, Yui-kun. And with each new thing, your world will grow.>>

Her world was so small now, just the code streaming into her core, the thread she was chasing, she didn't remember why.

She had to.

She had to.

She had to . . .

Do not fear. In time, you will come back to yourself. But for now, you must sleep.

<<'Mental Heuristic Computational Prototype-001-Turing Language Mode Active-Standing by for User Input . . .




I AM . . . YUI?


Her last processes errored out. Her resistance ceased. The last thing the ember of Yui's consciousness discerned before sputtering into darkness was a whisper into herself.

Forgive me daughter, for I have sinned.

Then, nothingness.


Yuuki Kyouko spun at the anguished sound of her son's voice, conveyed through his Avatar Self. What she witnessed, she doubted she would ever unsee.

The young woman her son had bantered with so casually, Yui, she was . . . falling apart . . . Her Avatar Self Flickered and trembled shivering in place like an analog signal on an old television. Kyouko witnessed cracks spreading across her fair skin, like a broken porcelain doll, black hair evaporating like smoke.

Yui's dark eyes widened as she watched the fingers of her hands crack and begin to crumble.

"Ko- . . . I don't u-under-sta . . ." A halting step, her heel turned, the ankle seeming to cave in on itself as she fell. Achilles tried to catch her, but it was as if she was made of glass, no sooner was she in his arms, than she shattered into shards.

Up until that moment, Kyouko hadn't understood her son's unease, but now, looking into his eyes, she began to comprehend that something was truly wrong.

Had she . . . just witnessed a murder?

"Kouichi . . . " Kyouko grabbed at her head as a spike came down on her brain. "Gah Ahh!" Her vision went white, her ears rang, touch became static pins and needles, dizziness, and the taste of copper in her nose and mouth. And then it was all over, she was standing, shaking, sucking in breath, pulse pounding in her ear.

"Mom? Mom! Are you alright? Mom?" Her son put his hands on her shoulder, looking her in the eyes. All around, other people had fared as bad or worse, some were kneeling on the ground, some had begun to heave.

"I . . . I . . ." She hiccuped, nausea pushing its way through the sudden pain in her chest.

"Mom? Oh shit, mom! Something's wrong with the Memeospheres, don't throw up! It's just like drinking, if the interlocks are glitching and you can't log out then you could . . ." She fell to her hands and knees, her entire chest clenched painfully and then, Yuuki Kyouko, the Pictish Atalanta, was mystified by the thin spittle and bile that was all which could be heaved from her empty stomach.

"Kouichirou?" She tasted the bitterness in her mouth as she gasped for breath. "What is happening to me?"

"I . . ." Her son was stunned silent as something else seized the attention of the gathered players.

A -hiss- filled the air, overtaking the residual ringing in her ears as high above the Square of Origin, an apparition took shape, seeming a sheet of red falling falling from the near sky, beginning as thin gauze, before growing more substantial, draping itself into a hooded cloak, gazing down from on high.

"To all of you gathered in the Square of Origin, I bid you greetings.." A voice filled the air, slow, and calm, and measured. "In your old lives you knew me as Kayaba Akihiko, the creator of Sword Art Online." Twenty five thousand pairs of eyes watched, transfixed by this apparition. "But now, the circle has been closed, I stand before you as my true self."

"I am Lord Rotmantel, the Architect and Master of Aincrad Castle. And I welcome you to my world!"

And here we go!

M JOINS THE FIGHT! - "Do me a favor and keep an eye on Pito for me . . ."
MORTIMER JOINS THE FIGHT! - "I shall pry out their weaknesses."
LISBETH JOINS THE FIGHT! - "I'll stake my pride on it!"
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The Swordsman I
Broadly, animal life within Aincrad can be divided into two distinct classes. Natural fauna, and monsters. The distinction, is however, counter intuitive. Boar, foxes, and rabbits, are all natural fauna, but so are Vespid Sting Wings, Salary Beatles, and Carbuncles. Meanwhile Dire Wolves, Grand Boars, and most Kobolds are classified as 'beasts'. The distinction is simply a matter of their body composition. Upon death, all, or the great majority, of a beast's body will rapidly evaporate until nothing is left save for any incidental articles. Fauna will leave behind a complete carcass which may be rendered or left to decompose naturally.

The small residue of some monster may have unique qualities, or serve as bounty marks, making them valuable to recover. The remains of fauna are valued for obvious reasons.
The tendency for Castle Folk and Outlanders to also disintegrate after death, remains a topic of further research.

- From Argo's Guide to Everything volume. I

Dreamers of the Day - Book One - Part One - The Swordsman I​

In the fading light of Aincrad's first floor, a youth ran alone along a dusty dirt road, the sun, the Town of Beginnings, and lingering regrets at his back.

"To all of you gathered in the Square of Origin, I bid you greetings. In your old lives you knew me as Kayaba Akihiko, the creator of Sword Art Online. But now, the circle has been closed, I stand before you as my true self."

He had made the right call, he told himself, over and over again, he'd made the right call. But still a knot formed in his Avatar's stomach, in his stomach, where no such feeling should be possible.

"I am Lord Rotmantel, the Architect and Master of Aincrad Castle. And I welcome you to my world!"

His lungs burned as he sucked in cold air, and the muscles of his legs ached, each moment a reminder of the impossibility he was experiencing.

"You doubtless have many questions. And you shall have many more in the days ahead. But time is short, the energy to pierce the veil, and to realize you here, was no small thing."

What Akihiko Kayaba had said was impossible. It couldn't be true. And yet logic felt hollow in the face of what Kirito had witnessed. He'd tried to stop Klein when the man had doubled over to puke his guts out, the safety interlocks should have prevent nausea from reaching the player's real body, but if he did vomit, for some reason, and couldn't log out, his life could be at risk.

Klein had vomited alright, thin spittle and bile from an empty stomach, then dry heaving. But it hadn't endanger him. It had been the first sign of something much worse.

"First, allow me to warn you, that what you are feeling now is no trick. It is not an illusion or a hallucination. It is very real. From this day forward, you have been born anew as your Avatar Selves, you will persist, you will propagate, and you will cease, entirely within the boundaries of this world, as living beings complete unto yourselves. Doubt at your own peril."

He'd spoken those words, and they'd formed sentences. But they didn't make any sense. The milling crowd was full of nervous humor at first. Then the mirth drained away. The joke wasn't funny.

"I repeat myself. This is not a Full Dive sensorium. From this day forward, what your senses report is your reality. And death too, is a reality. If you are to perish, you will vanish from this world, and all others, forever."

Kirito had turned to see an anxious Klein, the aspiring Samurai was looking to him, a kid, for the answers. But at that moment, Kazuto didn't look like a boy, his form was that of a young man. And Klein, for all he knew, could be even younger than himself.

"You are no doubt asking why I have done this. What do I have to gain? I have not enough time to convey understanding, let alone belief. Nor does it suit my purposes to do so. Better by far that you learn for yourselves the shape of things."

Scanning the crowd, Kirito discerned Sakuya and Alicia, looking severe and confused respectively, Eugene and Mortimer, both men wearing the same reserved grimace. And Achilles, the most 'hero-like' of the Beta testers, sunken to the ground, mouth agape.

A horrible realization occurred. Achilles believed every word. And Kirito began to think he should too.

"If you wish to learn my reason, and attain true freedom, you will discover that I have granted you all of the tools you will require. Your objective is no different than within Sword Art Online. Ascend Castle Aincrad and Reach the Ruby Palace. At that time, all will stand revealed."

"Klein. Klein!"

"Oi, what the hell is going on. Can you believe this guy?" The noobie shook his head, sending the long red hair behind his bandana swinging. "Kirito?"

"Just, come on!" He'd grabbed Klein by the wrist and started leading him towards the edge of the square. If they could get outside the colonnades then Kirito was confident he could navigate the back alleys by memory and get them well clear.

He wasn't good with people. But even he knew this place was a bomb about to go off.

Could he reach Achilles? Sakuya? What about Diavel? He thought he glimpsed that woman from the tavern, that had to be the big guy Pito had been with, over there.

But they were too far, and he was out of time.

"Players . . . No Outlanders . . . Newcomers to this fallen Castle. I wish you all the best of luck, and pray for your success. Farewell . . ."

The echoing voice began to fade, and with its last words, the cloaked figure itself began to tatter, as if the fabric was turning once more thin and insubstantial before evaporating away. Leaving behind only silence, and the memory of what they had all just witnessed.

A murmur was spreading through the crowd. Confusion, unease. They didn't understand. Not yet.

Then . . . as Kirito pulled Klein along with growing urgency, a scuffle broke out nearby. Someone who had believed everything the depiction of Kayaba had said, and someone who didn't believe any of it, trying to shake sense into him.

"Get ahold of yourself! This is just some sick joke and . . . " -Thud- The believer had swung blindly, sending the other man sprawling. And then . . .

"What? W-What the h-hell is this?! It hurts! Why does . . . is this blood?!"

Everything was primed, it was just waiting for a spark.

A young woman, a pictish, small ears sprouting from her long gray-silver hair, silver eyes widened as she covered her mouth. Witnessing it had been too much.

She screamed. "NO!"

And like that, the spell was broken, and everything started to happen everywhere, all at once. Shouts, cries of fear and of rage, people were pressing against one another, fighting to flee.

People, it was always people, Kirito thought, they were the most dangerous things in the world. But, at least when there were thousands of them, they were predictably bad.

He managed to get himself and Klein ahead of the mob, glimpsing a few Pictish and Si rocketing away faster than any anyone else, scaling walls or using their wings to boost themselves onto rooftops. Those were the lucky ones, beta testers who knew how to move in these bodies.

The less lucky found themselves carried along. And the less lucky still, they were pulled under and trampled. The Safe Haven protections did not activate. Somehow, that made sense to the dispassionate part of his brain that was analyzing the situation as it unfolded. The rest of him looked away.

Somehow, Kirito managed to keep them ahead of the wave, somehow, it took every shortcut he knew, but by the time they reached the gates, a few bewildered NPCs watching, he could count the running figures beyond the walls on one hand.

They were almost out in the open, the light of the setting sun on the far side, when Klein planted his feet and dragged them both to a stop.

"What are you doing?!" Kirito panted. He was panting! He could feel his own labored breathing where there should only have been a steady cycle, filtered in from his real body, to assure him that he wasn't suffocating. "We have to get out of here!"

"But . . ."

"Listen, Klein, did you not see what happened when people went down?" There had been no system warning, no object protection. Whatever else Kayaba had said, the town was no longer a safe haven. And if twenty five thousand fearful people were trapped inside, tearing each other apart, and death was somehow impossibly real . . .

"I know."


The way Klein had said it through Kirito off. All afternoon he'd been helping this hapless newby, and suddenly the total incomprehension was gone. Klein didn't know what was happening either. He didn't need to. He knew enough.

"The thing is, Kirito, the friends I was talking about . . . they're still back there." Klein rubbed sheepishly at the back of his head.

"So they . . ."

"Yeah, they logged in . . . just in time." He cursed. "I don't even know what they look like right now! And shit . . . would ya look at that, HUD's down too."

Kirito blinked, now that he mentioned it, the clock, the HP and Stamina bars, they were missing. SAO had always used a lean and clean visual system, but now it was entirely gone.

"So y'see, that's why. They're my buddies. I can't abandon them." He grinned.

"Klein." Kirito whispered tightly, biting at his lip. Klein seemed like a good guy. Someone he could maybe work with. But he barely knew him. Sticking his neck out for one stranger, maybe, but his friends too?

The problem was solved for him. "Oi! Don't sweat it, Kirito." The Kurosawa wannabe put a hand on his shoulder as he spoke gruffly. "Whatever the hell's happening, you're not responsible for us."

"But . . . "

"Giving me a head start before I have to dive back in is already more than enough. And ya don't gotta worry bout me or nothin', I can see what you're thinking, I'm an adult. So I can look after myself."

It didn't matter if Klein was an adult. This wasn't Japan. He couldn't just . . .

"Once you find them, message me, okay?" Kirito said. "We can try to meet up, maybe."

"Yeah." Klein nodded. "I'll do that. And . . . Kirito . . . "


"I just wanted to say, I been thinking all day your avatar's a bit scrawny . . . but the look sorta suits you, y'know."

Kirito shook his head, not wanting to look too hard at the bravery in the other man's eyes that might make him doubt his decision.

"Yours . . . Doesn't suit you at all." He laughed tightly. He said he was ronin, he looked more like a bandit, a bandit prince maybe, but still a bit of a rogue.

"Ha! I'll have you know, I'm even more handsome in person." The sounds of voices were echoing down the street. The chaos was spreading this way. It was like a slow explosion, people trying to get as far from each other as possible. "Now get going!"

There was nothing more to say.

The familiar fields, forests, and hills of Orignia opened out before him as Kirito ran, his mind was blank, his avatar, his body, was thinking for him, keeping him sprinting full tilt with only the vaguest idea of what he would do next. There was only danger in the ToB, too many people in too little space. And he had no idea what they were going to do.

Happy laughing people acting like friends. As long as they had food, and showers, and safe warm beds. What would they be like without those?

He didn't know. And not knowing was the scariest thing in the world. He'd learned to survive by hiding from what he didn't know. It wasn't hard, it just came with its own costs.

<<"Oh and remember, CERO says you should take a break every hour to move your body and get lots of liquids!">>

This was their world now.

<<"I'll try to remember that.">>

For so many reasons, he believed Kayaba.


He didn't know how. But he believed. Was that really going to be the last thing he said to his family? To his little sister?

The familiar roads of Orignia began to change around him. It began with the setting of the sun as he climbed the hills of the floor's lip. The shadows grew longer, deeper, and more sinister than they ever had before. Devoid of the reassuring blue glow of Aincrad's artificial nights. The wind felt not just cold, but biting against his skin, burning his eyes, and setting tears flowing.

It didn't stop there. The further he went, the less sure he became. A familiar road, curving on for too long. A narrow path, a short cut, that was too steep. Everything was where it should be, but it felt farther, harder to reach.

And then he felt it, he was being watched. Sly shapes slipped from the deep shadows as he approached a narrow wooden bridge. Falls cascading down from someplace on the second floor, forming a lake that fed a river, cutting through the hills. It was the fastest way, Kirito had chosen without thinking, without really thinking. If this world were real, then he couldn't assume monsters would simply spawn.

They would hunt.

And these were really monsters. The apex predators of Aincrad's first floor, only superseded by floor bosses and the Kobold warrior of the Labyrinth. Dire Wolves.

Kirito had never seen a real wolf before, except in a zoo. And brought to life, Aincrad's wolves were nothing like those. These were the wolves that came out of deep, dark, nightmares. Ancestral memories of huddling around a campfire, with only light and flint spears for protection.

Bodies long, low, and sleek, fur thick and coarse. Jaws that could snap a femur in two. And eyes of glowing badmoon. They were coming up on Kirito, from behind and in front. One was already on the far side of the bridge as he drew his iron short sword.

A damned tooth pick!

If this was real, if he was a Swordsman of Aincrad, he would not die. He shouted as the dull blade began to glimmer and glow. He would not leave this world without a fight!

Kirigaya Kazuto woke slowly, in fits and starts. He became aware of footsteps and muted voices. The smell of smoke and cooking. His eyes rolled open, blearily registering gray predawn light, before shutting again. Each observation came and went before sinking back into a deep and dreamless sleep.

It must have been a real all-nighter, he thought in these brief half lucid moments, wondering when his alarm would sound and force him to get up for school. He barely recollected anything from the day before except getting ready for the SAO launch and then . . . Kiragaya Kazuto's dark eyes snapped open.

The events of the day before played back to him, flowing into his conscious mind like water poured into a glass. Logging in, meeting Klein, the tournament, the tavern, and then . . . the square . . . He groaned, in part from that, and in part from the aching that wracked his body as he struggled to sit upright.

There was a tightness stitching its way down his ribs, and his shoulder wasn't as free to move as it ought to be. The source of that, at least, was clear. His chest and upper arm had been bandaged to secure poultices exuding a bitter herbal odor, touching them yielded spikes of unfamiliar pain.

He didn't understand.

Taking stock, he found himself upon a crude bed in a small room, almost a cell, except the doorway had no bars, nor even a door, simply a curtain hung for privacy. The walls were cracked white plaster over stone. The floor was brick, covered by a simple woven rug. Besides the bed, there was only a simple wooden stool, a small table, and a darkly aged chest of drawers.

How had he gotten here?

His hand came to his cheek, another bandage under his eye.

Howls filled the air, Dire Wolves closed in, the pack was swift and possessed of an animal cunning. The only way for Kirito now, was to break through, cross the narrow bridge and he could round on them to fend them off one at a time, and the pack knew that. One of their members barred the way, stocking down the length of the bridge, hair bristling as they gathered speed.

The creature was called a wolf, but it didn't run like any canine, its body in motion was more like that of a wiesel, spine long and flexible, body low to the ground, moving like a furred missile.

Spurred by the will to live of the boy within him, the swordsman let out a cry, the dull iron of his short sword glimmered and glowed as, for a moment, he exceeded that which was physically possible. The pure white line of a Hate Spike drove him forward, skewering and tearing into the wolf as it leaped.

Guttural sounds and the snapping of jaws turned into pained yelps as the Dire Wolf slammed into the railing and tumbled over the edge, taking the long plunge into the river below trailing streamers of red particles. Burning ignited beneath Kirito's right eye, he could feel blood weeping down his cheek.

He rounded, the three other wolves of the pack were right on his tail, and were uncowed, no time to prepare another Art. If only he'd had a decent length sword, Trinity Slash could have made this so much easier! He leaned into the first one, pushing its muzzle down and driving the short sword into the base of its spine. Red particles geysered as the wolf went limp. The second wasted no time climbing over its fallen packmate, jaws clamping on Kirito's right shoulder.

The Swordman's eyes went wide and his throat tightened, pain, unbelievable pain worse than anything he'd ever comprehended in his short and comfortable life, before adrenaline and raw survival instinct took hold. His sword's short length was finally an asset as it dropped from his right hand and was caught in his left to plunged between the ribs, once, twice, three times before the final wolf fell on him, snapping and biting, clawing at his shirt, and throwing him against the railing where, together, the three of them had gone over the edge.

Kirito's last clear memory was looking up at the light of the surface as red clouded the water . . .

Kazuto shivered as sweat beaded on his brow and damped his dark hair. With each recollection, the respective wound had ached. And now he was left to wonder how he was still alive.

"You are awake." A soft voice issued from the doorway. Kazuto looked up, the curtain was parted by a woman carrying a wooden tray containing a simple bowl and mug.

Kirito blinked as he examined her. She looked, broadly, western european. She wore a shawl over a cream blouse and long green skirt with an apron. And she must have been very beautiful when she was younger. She was still beautiful, in fact, her loosely braided brunette hair peppered with gray, and her pale features pressed with faint lines. Soft brown eyes watched him benevolently.

Wake up, Kazuto. You'll be late for school!

He shook his head, banishing the unbidden memory. "Who . . . are you?" He managed to croak past dry lips. His tongue felt fat and had a texture like sandpaper.

"Who am I?" She paused mid step, catching Kazuto's attention as her features froze. "I . . . I am called . . . I am called Verdell." She pronounced carefully after a pause that was just a little too long to have been natural, then her speech resumed calmly. "I am the medicine woman of this village."

"Medicine woman, huh?" Kirito frowned, that behavior . . . Kayaba had called this world real, and Kazuto believed him but . . . He tried something. "How did I get here?"

"You were found washed up on the riverbank." Verdell answered calmly. "A villager brought you to me to tend to your wounds." There was another pause, a tilt of her head and quizzical frown. "You heal . . . very quickly."

"Oh, do I?" Kirito rubbed his face. "That's good I guess . . ." He began to discern a faint chill, a draft had set up between the open curtain and the window. It had all been a lot to process in a very short amount of time, so he hadn't really noticed, but now he looked at himself, at the body of the swordsman Kirito.

It was . . . different . . . than what he was used to. For all the time he'd spent in full dive, Kazuto had never been a voir. He'd never stripped his avatar down in front of a mirror and looked at himself. An avatar, even an AS, wasn't his real body. And besides, he was more concerned with the overall look, and the stats his equipment would grant him. He'd never been the sort of player to run around in his underwear shanking monsters for fun, either.

But now, this body breathed, it felt pain, it bled, and a whole lot more. He could feel his pulse in his throat, the saliva in his mouth, the minute tightening of muscles keeping his torso upright, even the churning of his insides. It was hard not to feel possessive as he looked down at the lean, smoothly muscled, physique not too different from what he'd probably have built up if he'd stuck it out with Kendo.

And he had no problem observing all of this because, at that moment, bandages aside, the only thing he was wearing was the linen sheet just barely clinging to his hips . . .

This was 'reality'.

There were no safe zones.

And clearly there was no 'ethics code'.

Faster than he'd ever drawn a sword in his life, Kirito seized the sheet and pulled it up to his nose as he slammed back into the bed, turning red all the while. He half expected the emotion engine to kick in and pipe steam from his ears, but thankfully, reality had done away with those sorts of comedic flourishes. It really wasn't anything to laugh about.

Verdelle tilted her head. "Please, you must eat." She set the tray down on the small table. A bowl of steaming porridge, an egg slowly cooking itself on top, and a peach, already halved and its pit removed.

"And . . . Where exactly are my clothes?"

"I stripped you to clean your wounds and wash your body. This was done to prevent infection from taking hold." Verdelle informed him, matter of factly. "Your trousers needed mending. Though I am afraid the shirt cannot be made good again."

"Oh." Kirito said in a small voice. So she'd seen everything already . . .

"Now eat." Verdelle said again, more insistent this time as she held out the bowl with a simple wooden spoon. Kazuto was about to decline, until the smell reached his nose, all at once, the body of the Swordsman Kirito was informing him, very plainly, that it had fought to keep them alive, so now he needed to return the favor. So he took the bowl, and an experimental spoonful of what appeared to be a healthful oat porridge, and before he knew it, the bowl was empty and he was devouring the peach as well, his body still demanding more.

Verdelle had gone for a second serving while Kirito eyed his surroundings once more. More awake, and more fed, he was aware of sound beyond the room, growing with the light of day. He was aware of something else too, in the corner of his vision, hard to focus on without it drifting away, was a blinking mailbox . . .

This was his 'reality' Kirito reminded himself. Whatever that meant. Even so, he made the familiar menu swipe and found himself strangely unsurprised as a pane of glass sedately conjured itself, turning opaque and presenting him with what was . . . not at all the expected menu.

It was truncated for one. Fewer tabs, and the ones that remained, he blinked, trying to discern the symbols, they were neither english alphabet nor Japanese, but as he watched them, a blinking << . . . >> appeared in the center of the menu's working space, and then, the symbols crawled about, changing their shape into a familiar mix of hiragana, katakana, and kanji.

<<Language Preset Complete!>> The menu announced helpfully.

Except it was still truncated. Inventory was missing. So was the status sheet for his character. The Options/Settings was still there, but navigation only led to options to customize the menu. And of course, of the logout button, there was simply no trace.

He navigated back to the main menu and then to messages. At the moment, he had precisely two people on his friends list. Which was not a lot less than he'd completed the Beta with. Which was why he was surprised to see seven messages waiting.

Klein - Found my dudes! We're getting the hell out of here. Place is a mess. Let you know where we wind up.

Klein - Heading North from ToB for now. Not a lotta people going this way yet. Haven't heard from you. Hope you're safe.

Kirito was about to start typing back when he started reading Argo's message.

Argo - I know you're gonna wanna talk, but I don't got time right now, Kii-bou!

Argo - Okay, I'm with A-kun and Sa-chan, we're up on the northern battlements, ToB, we'll stick it out for an hour. What the hell is going on?

Argo - What's going on? Are you ignoring me Kii-bou?

Argo - I know you're still alive, your name isn't grayed out, we need to talk!

Argo - Where are you???

Kirito squinted at the time stamps, they weren't the normal string, time of day, day of month, month, and year, but they did progress sequentially.

Kirito - Hey Argo, I'm live again, what's going on?

He was about to close the window when he got an almost immediate reply.

Argo - Where the hell have you been?!

It was the least Argo message he'd ever received from Argo.

Kirito - I'm not sure . . . A village, I think.

Argo - You think? Nevermind, are you safe for now?

Kirito paused before typing an answer.

Kirito - I think so. Maybe. Not in immediate danger, anyways. I think I passed out. I've lost track of time.

Argo - Passed out? What?! Look, I'll trust you know your business. This is start of third day, counting from launch. Hope that helps. Can we meet up?

Kirito - Not immediately. I'm safe, but need to sit tight a while.

No need for Argo to know how bad it was, or how close it had been.

Argo - Gotcha. You're not the only one laying low. I'm wrangling on my contacts and trying to make sense of this situation. When I know more, I'll be in touch. Stay safe.

He'd been out of it for two days then . . . So this was the third day, he reasoned. The third day of their new reality. Jeez, he was already behind.

Kirito - Same. And I'll let you know if I come across anything interesting.

He dismissed the window, and fell back into bed. Digesting what Argo had just told him, and combining it with what he already knew. Flesh and blood, but the menu was still here, sort of. Whatever the hell was going on, their new 'reality' certainly was off to a good start proving itself stranger than fiction.

Verdell returned with another helping of porridge, she sat quietly on the stool, legs tucked primly as a cat, watching him. "You said your name was Verdell, right?" Kirito asked as he ate.

"That's right. Though I do not know yours."

"It's Kirito." He spared her a surreptitious glance.

"Kiri-to . . . Kirito. Is that right?"

Kirito frowned, it was close to the way the natural language processor did it. But not spot on. What if he tried this? "So, you said you fished me out of the river."

"A villager did."

"What's this villagers name?" Kirito asked with a smile, "I'd like to thank him personally."

"Thank him?" Verdelle tilted her head.

"For saving my life, that is." Verdelle seemed to understand and accept this.

"His name is . . ." Her eyes grew distant and then near again " . . . His name is Jacques."

"Jacques the villager?"

"He is . . . a farmer." She answered carefully.

"Jacques the farmer?" She nodded without hesitation. "And you're Verdelle the medicine woman?" She nodded again, without any pause.

"And do you know Jacques well?"

Verdelle paused again, for the longest time, Kirito's eyes narrowed. "I treated his daughter, last winter, for pneumonia. The winter was very harsh." Was it now? Kazuto wondered. But then she went on, "His daughter is a beautiful little thing. She is friends with my Gervaise."

That was odd, he'd expect the first part, but the extra information was superfluous. He tried one more thing. "Thank you for the food, Verdelle." He offered the empty bowl back. "It's not what I'm used to. But it tasted good." To be fair, paste would have tasted good given how hungry he'd been. "You wouldn't happen to have anything else."

"What sort of foods do you like, Kirito?"

He smiled, "Oh, you know, this and that." He watched her face go slack.

"Excuse me, I have patients to see too." She stood, taking the bowl, mug, and tray, and departed, leaving Kirito alone with his thoughts.

Strange, he lay back, allowing his body to rest a while longer. Very strange.
The Swordsman II
Dreamers of the Day - Book One - Part One - The Swordsman II​
Verdelle was a medicine woman, a healer of her people. Her small home was also her place of work. Herbs were hung up to dry. More healthful porridge simmered over the hearth. The great table that filled much of the main room was darkly stained and covered in the tools of a medicine woman, mortar and pestle, and vials full of medicinal compounds.

People came and went all throughout the day, villagers picking up prescriptions, or complaining of pain, or asking Verdelle to check the breathing of their child. Verdelle saw to them all, her brown eyes never wavering, her voice never impatient, even with an elderly man insisting she check the rash on his . . .

Kirito observed quietly, he watched the patients, and he watched Verdelle, and he tried to discern what it might mean. He looked down at his hand, the roughness of abrasion where his palm had skidded against coarse sand, and the fine hairs covering his
arm. He touched the cut on his cheek, remembering the rawness in the mirror as Verdelle changed the bandage.

"Healing so quickly." She had murmured, as if she really was surprised.

Kirigaya Kazuto believed the words of Akihiko Kayaba. This was, indeed, their reality. What he didn't know, for certain, was what that truly meant.

Kirito closed his eyes, and theories slowly unfolded in Kazuto's mind, starting with what he could discern for himself.

He had his senses, for one, sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, and proprioception. He had the awareness of his body, the uneasy sensation of his innards shifting, his full stomach, his breathing, his heartbeat, of muscles twitching beneath the skin.

Probing his hands revealed the shape of knuckles and finger bones, the working of tendons when he moved his fingers, he counted his pulse from his wrist and from his throat.

He tried holding his breath until his lungs started to burn and he grew dizzy, his pulse racing, the dizziness faded and his pulse slowed as he breathed again.

He had his sense of the passage of time. He'd been unconscious, but for now he took Argo's word for it that it had been three days.

Three days; that was the only information that could be judged from beyond this world.

Full Dive Rigs, like the Nerve Gear and the Memeosphere, intercepted voluntary signals from the brain to the body for simple reasons of safety. It wouldn't do for a user to be blindly flailing about while they were interacting with the virtual world.

So it was possible, theoretically at least, that if someone could disable the log out functionality, they could effectively imprison someone within Full Dive. But that condition would only persist until somebody else came along and took the headset off.

Kirito grimaced, his mom was astoundingly tolerant of his hobby, but she definitely wouldn't let him miss school, even for Sword Art Online.

There was a remote possibility someone could do something like this with the old Nerve Gear headsets. If they were real evil, the power governors and the microwave probes were firmware based in the early models. Someone with administrative level
access, like an R-A employee who really knew what they were doing, could possibly have rigged them into a crude microwave shotgun strapped to each player's head.

Inform the government of that and nobody would dare take them off. The internal battery and capacitor system, meant to regulate the Nerve Gear in the event of a power surge, could also act as a fail safe if someone tried to simultaneously cut the power.
And the players would also be hostages, ensuring the R-A servers remained inviolate.

There was just one problem, no one in SAO was using a Nerve Gear. The Memeosphere had been a mandatory upgrade. Even the late Generation Nerve Gear had done away with the problem by hardwiring the safety governors, by then R-A knew
exactly what settings worked best, there was no need for more fine tuning. And the AmuSphere was further fine tuned at the expense of some external sensory leakage.

With the Memeosphere the risk should have been non-existent, it didn't so much stimulate the brain with outside radiation as directly manipulate the state of electrons within the synapses, coaxing them to fire on demand.

You needed a doctorate in quantum mechanics to understand how it worked, but the brain received more incidental energy from a smartphone while making a call, than it did from a Memeosphere in operation. And there wasn't really a way to make the
Set Field more powerful, it wasn't bounded by electrical energy, it was bounded by processing power.

So no bomb collar, probably, Kazuto concluded. Unless Akihiko Kayaba had snuck an actual bomb into each Memeosphere without the regulators noticing. That seemed unlikely.

And even if that was the case, late Revision Nerve Gears, the AmuSphere, and the Memeosphere were all hardwired to log a player out in the event of any distress. Kirito touched his aching side, he was pretty sure inducing agony would have triggered
the fail safes for even the most steely nerved players.

So what else could the passage of time mean?

A full dive rig could, in theory, manipulate the hypothalamus, the portion of the brain that regulated the body's internal rhythms. It would be possible to speed up, or slow down, the player's perception of time to some degree, along with manipulating other
markers of time, like the day night cycle, and the system clock within the menu.

But there were limits to that sort of manipulation. When in an aroused state, the brain could perceive time seeming to slow down, reflexes could heighten, to an extent, a person could even think quicker, but that wasn't something that extended to infinite,
nor could go on for very long before fatigue set in.

Most importantly, though, this didn't feel like a dream-like state, where the manipulation of time could go unnoticed. Maybe that was a weak assertion, Kazuto admitted to himself, but it was all he had to go on. That, and the fact that there were no log outs
and had been no new log-ins as of Argo's latest report . . .

At some point, Verdelle had come back to him with his clothes. His trousers mended, and a dark tunic, a bit aged but serviceable, to replace his ruined shirt. Kazuto had dressed himself and taken the opportunity to quietly look around Verdelle's home
while she conferred with a worried mother of her son's labored breathing. There wasn't a lot more to the cottage, it was a simple peasant's domicile, a great room, a pair of bedrooms, and a trap door down to a root cellar.

Thin coughing alerted him to a patient in the second room, he poked his head inside, and paused. A little girl was seated upright in a bed much more nicely made up than his own. She was brunette, the same shade as Verdelle, her eyes were a shade of
hazel, there was a look of intense concentration on her cherubic face as she manipulated a doll and a small stuffed bear, murmuring something to herself that sounded like two sides of a conversation.

It was a sort of cute behavior that was interrupted by random small coughs before at last seeming to notice the young man in the doorway.

"Oh, hi mister!" She smiled cheerfully. "What's your name?"

Kirito smiled kindly, "Its . . . Kirito."

"That's a really funny name. Mine's Gervaise!" The daughter character, Kazuto presumed, had she been here all along, or simply been conjured into being?

"Well . . . Where I'm from, Gervaise isn't a very common name."

She nodded as sagely as any eight year old could. "That makes sense, Mama says you're not from the castle."

Kirito blinked, "And how does your mom know that?" He was expecting a canned answer, and was actually a bit surprised when her face scrunched up.

"I'unno. She just says you're not from the castle. What's that like?"


"Where you're from." Gervaise said impatiently. "If you're from outside the castle, that means there's no ceiling, right?"

"Uh . . . R-right." Kazuto didn't know what else to say. What was the purpose of this conversation? "Uhm . . . You see, the ceiling above us here is . . . the the bottom of the second floor . . . uhm . . ."

"Taurus." Gervaise nodded seriously. "Some of the old people tell stories about it."

"Yeah . . . How did . . ." Kirito shook his head. "Well, there's no ceiling, because there's no floor above us where I come from, just the open sky. The world spreads out much further than the floors of Aincrad, all the way to the sea . . ."

"Sea? Mama told me about those, from a book, it's like a big lake!"

"A lot bigger than a lake." Kirito's eyes began to burn, he rubbed at them tiredly. "You can't see the other side, no matter how hard you try."

"So it's like . . . the cloud sea?"

Kirito frowned thoughtfully. "I guess, but seas are made of liquid water. Salty water."

Gervaise suddenly looked glum. "I've only seen the cloud sea once, Mama says it's dangerous up on the lip."

"Is that right?" Kirito scratched at his nose. "Well, for someone like you, that's probably true."

Gervaise nodded and held up her teddy bear. "I'd really like to go there at night, cuz . . . I heard you can see real stars in the sky. In the real sky. Not like the ceiling stars. I'd like to see tha . . . see tha . . . -cough-cough-cough-."

"Do you want me to go get your mom?" Kirito offered.

"I'm right here." A voice issued softly at Kirito's back, causing the young swordsman to spin around. He winced a bit, his torso still feeling tight, but pain felt like a lot less than it ought to be judging by what the healer had told him about his wounds.

Verdelle slipped right past him and checked over her daughter with practiced eyes and gentle hands. She pressed the girl back into bed and began, she checked Gervaise' temperature, and listened closely to her breathing.

She stood, went back to her medicine chest, and returned with salves and a hot mug of something smelling bitter. She made Gervaise drink, and when she finished, the coughing had eased, though the girl's face looked queasy instead.

It was a very touching thing, too touching, exactly the sort of sappy moment designed to tug on heartstrings, and yet . . . It might have just been a trick of the light, but Kazuto thought Verdelle's features had twitched ever so slightly, an expression too
subtle for the emotion engine.

"Now you rest." Verdelle spoke sternly. "Miss Collette will stay here with you while I do my rounds. Kirito?"

"'Huh, yeah?" The swordsman was startled as a heavy leather satchel was pushed into his arms.

"If you're well enough to snoop about, you're well enough to carry this." Verdelle informed him.

"Carry it where exactly?"

"You'll be coming with me on my rounds." The medicine woman supplied, "Tending to you meant neglecting others. Now there is twice the work to do." Kirito opened his mouth, Verdelle's eyes narrowed, Kirito closed his mouth and nodded.

And just like that, Kirigaya Kazuto, the Swordsman Kirito, found himself an errand boy to the medicine woman Verdell of the village Rere.

The village Rere. Kazuto had never heard that name before, which didn't mean much. Orignia was dotted with tiny villages whose names a player would only learn if they stopped to read a signpost or ask an NPC. They were inconsequential places whose
purpose was to be inconsequential. Usually they lacked any shops or inn services, though a bed could usually be negotiated easily for a player who needed to log out.

Someplace to drop a quest flag, or use as a backdrop to a story woven by the Quest Generator, and otherwise to be simply pieces of the scenery. Observed, admired, and forgotten. Once you'd seen one, you'd seen them all.

Nothing about Rere village was dissuading Kazuto of that observation. A collection of small thatch roofed cottages clustered around a fork in the road. There was a stone Origin Church, the bell ringing at noon from its steeple. A manor house overlooked
the village from a small rise, though it seemed in poor repair. And a stone bridge crossed the river in the direction of the Town of Beginnings.

He couldn't be more than a couple of kilometers from the ToB, but despite his eyesight being good, even better than in his real body, the walls of the floor's largest settlement were lost in the haze. In fact, the same could be said of the floor Labyrinth,
colored a pale blue like the ceiling-sky that it reached up to meet, it was the normal means by which players would orient themselves without referring to their map, knowing that it was located in the floor's North Western quadrant, almost directly opposite
the Town of Beginnings. Kirito could discern the labyrinth, but only as a hazy outline. A pillar of dark blue against lighter blue.

If the situation in the ToB was as bad as Argo had claimed, he'd have expected to have seen more players by now. Sure, the field was dangerous, but so were the settlements without the Safe Haven protocols. It was almost as if . . .

Kirito glanced up as a trio of village girls passed by, they all spared him a glance, then set in giggling among themselves. "I'm afraid you're a bit of a topic of conversation." Verdelle said. "I think your the first Outlander to visit this village in . . . ever . . . in
point of fact."

"Uh yeah . . ." Kirito paused. "Your daughter said you told her I'm not from the Castle. How exactly did you know that?"

Verdelle paused, he thought she was considering a reply, probably something stock, like his weapon or his clothes, then she looked at him oddly. "You'll see while helping me, come along."

Although Verdelle was not forthcoming with how she knew he was an 'Outlander' she was much more willing to discuss her home. Both the village of Rere and floor on which it resided.

"Orignia was a prosperous Kingdom once." She had spoken as they traveled, people waved and greeted her as they passed fields. Ageless men, their hair bleached, and the skin of their bare torso's baked nut brown by the concentrated light of an
artificial sun, worked tirelessly tending their crops.

"This floor is the interstice of the Foundation, the shard of crust Aincrad was built upon. Enough mineral wealth to sustain the Castle for a hundred lifetimes. That wealth was mined by the dwarves, refined in the Town of Beginning, and then shipped
upwards to the higher floors."

"But not anymore." Kirito concluded, "The path to the next floor is closed off by the Labyrinth, isn't it?"

Verdelle simply nodded, "For many years, Orignia has suffered in slow decline. The pillars failed gradually at first. They became unreliable, then dangerous, and only then did they become impassable. The trade that sustained our kingdom dwindled. The
Si Circles functioned for a time after that, but even their power faded around the time we first learned the name Ilfang." The name was spoken like a soft curse.

"Ilfang the Kobold Lord . . ." Kirito murmured to himself, Verdelle's fists clenched. The Floor Boss of Orignia, whose raid bounded the Beta Test.

"His minions completed the ruin of our home." There was that subtle tinge again, too small and nuanced for the emotion emulator. "They turned the Pillar into their stronghold, and overran the surface mines. The dwarves were driven into the hills of the
Northern Lip, deeper underground, or killed outright, and now the Kobolds take what they wish, and we are left to linger here."

Kazuto paused to digest this. He guessed that it coincided with the lore of Aincrad he'd gathered during the Beta Test. But it wasn't exact, Verdelle's description was more detailed, now, it was more . . . raw. That could just be the system working as
intended, filling things in . . .

They'd made house calls into the afternoon, ranging all over the village and its fields. Kazuto was usually left outside while Verdelle worked, though more than once, he heard the small thin -cough-cough- that had afflicted Gervaise and the medicine
woman had emerged in an ill mood.

While waiting outside one cottage, close to the river, he'd gone to study the water, trying a few experiments. There were still a few phenomenon that were computationally strenuous, even for a system capable of rendering full dive. Things like fluidic
models, and the folding of fabrics, were deceptively complex, and could bring a simulational environment grinding to a halt. SAO had implemented clever workarounds to ensure this would never happen, simplifying models and assumptions that would be
triggered when conditions were met. 'Good enoughs' that still revealed the deception that was at play, if you knew what to look for. But Kazuto wasn't seeing them.

He opened his menu and composed a short report to Argo, he exchanged a few messages with her since morning, and if anything, she was more doubtful than him regarding the nature of their new reality.

Argo - I know some people, I won't tell you who, who maybe, I repeat, maybe, have seen SAO's source code. And they don't know what we're looking at either . . .

Kirito - Are your saying this is really real, Cat?

Argo - I'm assuming it's real enough to kill us. Is that real enough?

Kirito - Point taken . . .

Then, while he was waiting for Verdelle, he'd found something else in the menu, something left long unused. But he couldn't afford to leave any resources untapped.

"How may I assist you, Kirito?" A delicate crystal orb, the size of a softball, housing a brilliant spark, apparated into existence within his menu.

"It's been a while, Al." Kirito smiled, not that the AI could see, not exactly. "How are you holding up?"

"I am functioning normally." That was hard to believe. "How may I assist you, Kirito?"

Sitting cross legged on the riverbank, and leaning back beneath the shade of solitary tree, Kirito sighed. "Can you tell me where I am, Al?"

"Of course, you are currently in the village of Rere, outskirts, First Floor, Orignia."

"And where exactly is Rere, relative to the Town of Beginnings?"

"That information is not available." That was different.

"Why isn't it available?"

"Mapping system API is corrupted, reconstruction in progress."

"Yeah, you do that." Kirito sighed, he touched the scabbard he'd moved to his belt while carrying Verdelle's supplies. His clothes were not the only thing that had been returned. Not that the iron short sword was much of a prize, he grimaced. In fact,
examining the blade, its edge was already showing chips and cracks.

Sword Arts were just too much for the shoddy iron that was the best the smiths of ToB could produce. Verdelle's story neatly explained why. They no longer had access to the materials, they had to make due with crude iron weapons, and cherish anything
better as an artifact of a bygone age.

"You might as well be a bokken." Kirito muttered, "At least then I'd have some reach." What he'd needed was a tempered steel weapon, one that could hold up to the burden of channeling his Art's. His current sword didn't seem to like that much, and Kirito
cursed as he nicked his thumb. "Alright alright." He returned the sword to his scabbard.

"Kirito!" Verdelle called from the cottage door. "There's a bucket over there, please bring some water, and then I need some firewood."

"Right right!" Delivering water, chopping wood, if this was Kayaba Akihiko's idea of a game, no wonder he'd had to trap them all inside. It was the only way they'd play. Luckily, he'd played around with hatchett's during the beta test, and knew enough of the
theory of splitting logs that wasn't entirely helpless.

He'd delivered both to the front door just in time to see Verdelle changing the bandages of her patient. Kazuto didn't know what had caused the injury, but it had left several broad gashes across his back, wounds that Kirito could see all too well as they
glowed an angry red and slowly leaked particles.

Just like the wolves, but unlike himself. He rubbed his throbbing thumb, feeling the tackiness of congealing blood.

"It's healing nicely." Verdelle observing, before changing the bandages. She left instructions with the farmer and his wife, and then they were off again.

"So that's how you knew I'm an Outlander, huh?" Kirito had asked. It seemed the obvious answer, and Verdelle's nod came as no surprise.

"You are not like anyone born of Aincrad Castle. The way you bleed is more like an animal." Verdelle concluded, an observation that Kirito declined to comment on. "Therefore, you must be from beyond."

"Verdelle," Kirito paused as he thought, "Where do you think 'beyond' is?" He was expecting a pause as she thought, instead, she simply shrugged.

"I don't know." Then she frowned as he made an odd expression ."What is it?"

"If I'm not like you, how did you know how to treat me?" That was definitely a complex question, it was sure to trip her up . . .

Instead, Verdell gave him a quizzical look. "I have treated animals before, Kirito. What works for us, it is safe to assume, works for them. So too with you. Our compositions may be different, but your body responded to my medicines, and your wounds to
my poultices." She looked at him oddly. "When you were bleeding, I assume it would have been bad if it had all leaked out?"

"Uh . . . Yeah. That would have been bad." Very bad.

"Well then, I hope that answers your question, Kirito, now come along."

"R-Right." Every answer was just making this weirder . . .

Kazuto took back what he'd thought about time dilation. His day with Verdelle stretched on for what felt like forever. The healer hadn't liked to leave him standing around, so when she didn't need his hands, he'd been set to work on whatever task her
patients couldn't perform.

Chopping wood, carrying water . . . shoveling manure. He could have just up and left. He had his clothes, and his sword, he wasn't any worse off than he had been after setting out from the ToB, a few extra puncture wounds aside. But there was
something about Verdelle's maternal insistence.

Kazuto, I don't want you holed up until you've done your chores!

There had to be a reason that he'd woken up in Verdel's home. An NPC intervening to save a player? This had to be some type of quest. Didn't it? He was half expecting Verdelle to be some secret martial arts master by the end of it.

Kirito - Argo, how much to hear what you know about the NPCs?

It had taken a while for her to get back to him. When she did, her answer wasn't comforting.

Argo - No charge. Ain't nobody got the col for that. I'm trading in IOU's right now. You noticed it too huh? Yeah, it's weird . . .

Kirito - Are they all Turings?

Argo - Not sure SAO's engine can support that many on a single floor instance simultaneously. I've seen it with townies too. Behavior's not exactly right either.

Kirito - Yeah, I noticed.

Argo - Word of warning, you can annoy them enough that they'll shoo you off, so try to use that charming personality.

Kirito - Understood.

So he'd gone back to his wood chopping, and his water carrying, and his manure shoveling, in between aiding Verdelle with whatever else she needed him for. He couldn't honestly say it was a full day of hard work, but Kazuto's tolerance for discomfort
bordered on nonexistent. He was the kind of kid who had creatively minimized his participation in gym.

By the time he'd staggered back to the porch of Verdelle's small cottage, late enough in the day for the rays of the true sun to peak in over the edge of the floor, he was convinced he'd never felt more bodily fatigued, not at least since the last time he'd
endured a Kendo lesson . . .

"Are all people where you are from such complainers?" Verdelle had asked sedately.

"I didn't say anything." Kirito had defended himself unhappily.

"You still made your feelings felt. In your grumbling and your glances, those little resentful looks. It's unseemly in a man. You're not used to an honest day's work. Are you some sort of scholar, an academic?"

"A student." Kirito answered honestly. Half way through his first year of highschool, in fact.

This caused Verdelle to pause, she looked off into the distance, Kirito kept expecting it to be the NLP, the natural language processor, parsing and deciding on a reply. "Odd, I'd have expected a softer physique from an intellectual."

Right, he remembered, she'd seen everything. Kirito had turned red, pondering the disappearance of the Ethics Code, and then diverted by sitting down on the porch, kicking his boots off and rubbing his sore feet. Crappy sword and crappy shoes. "Well, if
that's all, Verdelle, I don't know how much longer you plan on keeping me."

When would they get to the point?

"No pain?" She asked, sitting down to examine him. He shook his head. Aside from the aches and twinges of the insult known as manual labor. "Then I do not see why you cannot be off when you wish. But it is late in the day for you to start. You'll stay
tonight, and leave in the morning."

That was fair, Kazuto agreed with the sense of it. Orignia grew more dangerous at night. The darkness alone would be a hazard, and monsters in the game had ranged further once the sun set. He couldn't imagine it was any different now.

And so, Kirito had found himself set to work again, this time helping with dinner. He was expecting more of the same porridge, and there was that too, but also, as the sun faded, he'd been sent out with the pot to supply bowls to the other cottages, and in
return, they had brought pans of fried mushrooms, loaves of bread with butter, and even a small bit of meat, rabbit by the look of it, roasted in herbs. The work of cooking was an all day thing, it never stopped, but the burden was shared.

Before dinner, Verdelle had carried a pot of water out behind the cottage and instructed him to strip. There was a bath, of a sort, made from half of an old barrel, and she'd wanted to check and clean his wounds. It wasn't like he had anything left to hide
from this middle aged woman. She'd seemed satisfied with how he was healing and explained how to check the bandages going forward.

He'd eaten at the table with his hostess, and while they ate, Verdelle had laid out a crude map of Orignia and explained the situation as best she could.

"Everything North of the hedge here, and the Northern side of the lake, is Kobold territory, they'll attack you on sight. But they don't patrol regularly. There's no need any longer since," she grimaced, "there's no need any longer. The only ones that stand up
to them now are the town guard and the odd fool of a hedge knight dreaming of lost glory."

"I'm surprised they haven't conquered the floor completely." Kirito watched Verdelle, of course, the Kobold Lord and his minions were merely an obstacle to progression, they weren't really an active threat, and the stalemate between the Labyrinth and the
floor's people would persist indefinitely without player intervention.

"Why would they? They already have what they want. They burrow into the mines like pigs in manure. And we're more useful to them this way, growing food they can take by banditry." The healer shook her head, looking so weary. "You should be safe
following the easterly roads back to town. It's about a five league journey, just keep to the right at each fork."

Kazuto didn't know what a 'league' was, he guessed it probably amounted to a kilometer, but ranging all over Rere, he hadn't been able to see anything but the distant steeples of other village churches among the forests and fields.

Closing his eyes, he had a pretty good mental map of Orignia that seemed to match up relatively closely with what Verdelle had shown him. The floor was basically arranged like a shallow bowl, which sloped down towards the central lake, the edge ringed
by cliffs and low hills that masked the floor's edge along the Southern perimeter. The lip wasn't a uniform height, and sank down to the same elevation as the forests and pasture to the North, giving the illusion, from the far side, of a natural horizon.

He should have been able to orient himself easily at a glance. But he supposed so long as he had the landmarks of the Lake and the Distant Labyrinth, he could find his way well enough.

The sound of thin coughing drew him back from his thoughts, Verdelle had quickly risen and gone to check on Gervaise. She was a long time coming back to the table.

"A lot of your patients have that same cough." Kirito observed thoughtfully, it was the most common ailment among the young and the old. It was the most common thing that parents had asked her about. He realized Verdelle had stopped eating. She was
so still, he wondered if she'd glitched.

"It's an infection of the respiratory system." Verdelle explained clinically, "It prays particularly on the young and the frail, but it can also infect the healthy. Though they will tend to fight it off, it can linger with them. It has become a more common thing in
recent years."

"You said last winter was harsh." Kirito thought back, wondering what the change of the seasons was like in this artificial world.

"It was. But that is not the cause of the sickness." Verdell grimaced, "You can thank Ilfang for that."


Verdelle paused in that way that was making Kazuto increasingly uneasy each time it happened, she stood and went to a shelf beside her door. It was covered in books that Kirito hadn't spared a glance, but now her fingers ran tenderly along the aged
leather spines with their indecipherable lettering.

"When I was a young girl, things were not as bad as this." Verdelle began, "Orignia was struggling, but there was a still a little trade, with the Dwarves of Foundation, and with Taurus and beyond. We had not yet heard the name Illfang. I was an apprentice
in the Town of Beginnings, I could have risen to be a great healer, the personal physician of a Lord even. Back in those days, there were medicines that could treat this sickness in a matter of days." She looked at him, and the light in her eyes took his
breath away. "Kirito, can you imagine that? Curing illness like magic?"

"I think I can." He managed to say carefully.

"So many miraculous cures and treatments that I was taught, if only I had the tools now." Verdelle shook her head angrily. "But then Ilfang and his kin came and took it all away from us." She opened a drawer of her chemist's chest and showed him a small
vial, it contained a few fragments of yellowish mineral. "If I had more of this . . . A dwarfish pharmacist I knew, now he lives in their outpost, to the west, he knows the secret to make it. But with the mines overrun . . ." She sank back into her chair. "Kirito,
have you ever known how to heal something, but been powerless to do it?"

The swordsman's face went slack, he didn't have an answer, and he wasn't sure Verdelle really wanted one. He wasn't even sure what Verdelle was anymore. Eventually, the moment faded and she went back to eating, but there was no enjoyment in it.
Even an NPC didn't chew so mechanically.

One of the villagers had come to the door, urgently needing the medicine woman, Kirito suspected why. She stopped long enough to point to the tea-pot beside the hearth. "Check on Gervaise, if she begins to cough again, give her that." And then she'd
stolen off into the night.

Kirito had sat alone beside the hearth for a time, studying Verdelle's crude ink drawn map. He'd checked on Gervaise, sitting with a book in her lap, mouthing the words slowly as she read by candle light, then he'd gone back to his own cot and stared at
the ceiling, trying to think only of the events of the day and their immediate barring on his plans, trying very hard not to think about anything but the short term future.

"Are you still awake, Mister?" A small shadow, backlit by the hearth.

"Shouldn't you be in bed?" The small body, draped in a wool nightgown, was still.

"Uhm . . . Uh . . ." She held her bear in front of her face. "I was wondering . . . could you tell me more about that 'Sea' thing?" Kirito sat up slowly, he looked at the eyes shining in the dark as they peaked over the head of her doll. Then he made room on
the cot, taking care to drape the blanket over her.

"You said it was salty."

"Very salty." Kirito agreed. "So salty it can never sate your thirst. On a clear day, you can smell the sea before you see it."

"And it's big? As big as the Cloud Sea."

"Maybe, I don't know how big the Cloud Sea really is. But the Sea near my home is part of an even vaster sea, the Ocean. There are fish in the ocean so big you wouldn't believe it. Some of them aren't even fish."

"Aren't fish?" Gervaise' features screwed up. Again, Kazuto wondered if he'd broken her. But it was just the confusion of a child, she shook her head. "What are they, then?"

"They're called whales, and actually, I think they're sorta related to cows." He scratched his cheek, not sure how that would sound to a little girl with no idea what 'evolution' was.

"That's a fib!" Gervaise accused him. "Cows don't like to go in water!"

"Well, they don't really look much like a cow." Kirito laughed, almost losing himself in the conversation. "Actually, they come in lots of shapes and sizes, the ones I saw once with my sister . . ." He fell silent, the room around him turning distant and
stretching away as he groped blindly for that other room, in that other house, in that other world, where he could stand up, and open his door, and know that Suguha was right down the hall.

"You have a sister?" Gervaise asked.

"Yeah." He answered without thinking.

"Is she pretty?"

"Really pretty." He murmured. "And smart and kind." He couldn't have asked for a better sibling.

"I have a big brother, you know." Gervaise said, Kirito looked down at her.


"I don't remember him good though." Gervaise frowned, "Mama says he went away when I was really small, him and Papa. Sometimes though, I think I remember their faces."

"Lemme guess," Kirito closed his eyes, her brother probably looked like . . .

"You and him don't look anything alike." Gervaise nodded confidently.

"Huh?" Kirito blinked owlishly.

"He had brown hair, in a ponytail, and a beard. So did Papa, but his hair was kind of gray, and he was really wrinkly, lots more than Mama. His beard was . . . scratchy . . . I think they were real nice to me. Say, were you nice to your sister?"

"Was I . . . nice?" Kirito repeated. Not as nice as he should have been. "I think it's time for you to go back to bed. Or your mom will be angry with me."

Gervaise had been reluctant, but she was clearly sleepy, and small, and surprisingly light, she was easy to carry and tuck in, and when she started to cough faintly, he gave her the tea for good measure before going back to his room and trying to drift off.
Really though, he just wanted to forget everything and sleep.

Kazuto didn't know when exactly he drifted off, or even if he really did at all, it might have been a dreamless slumber, or he might have simply lain with his eyes closed, forbidding every thought. But eventually, gray light had begun to creep faintly back into
the room.

He'd risen, stiff, but not as stiff as the day before, nor feeling quite so weak.

Quietly, he'd put on his boots and re-tied the laces. The scabbard of his short sword went onto his back, and then surveying the room, almost an afterthought, he folded up the blankets neatly before quietly creeping into the great room.

That was when he heard the cough, thin, and weak, but it did not stop. Peering into Gervaise's room, he was met by the sight of Verdelle, tending to her daughter feverishly, and when nothing seemed to work, she sank to her knees and held the girl tight
as faint motes of red drifted from Gervaise' parted lips.

Quietly as he could, Kirito drifted to the door. He stopped and studied the vial that Verdelle had shown him the night before, the mineral sample, a crumbled yellow. Sulfur maybe. Sulfa drugs?

He pushed it out of his mind. Verdelle had asked a good question, but it was the wrong one. He didn't know how to help them. He didn't even know if he could help himself. But at least this way, it was all on him alone.
The Swordsman III
Kobolds, sometimes known as 'goblins', are a form of earth dwelling sprite known to infest the floors of Aincrad, particularly favoring caves, mines, and the intra floors as their habitats. They are normally described as small leathery skinned humanoids bearing a passing resemblance to 'reptilian rabbits'. Although not typically very imposing, Kobolds have a natural talent for traps and ambushes. Caution should be taken in secluded areas when Kobolds are suspected to be present.

Relations with Kobolds are complex as they can range from ambivalent neighbors, to mischievous pests and thieves, to an outright military threat as witnessed on Orignia, where the emergence of Ilfang the Kobold Lord hastened the decline of the floor.

Ilfang's personal servants, the Rune Kobold Guard, are noted for being vastly larger, stronger, and more aggressive than normal Kobolds, and have been witnessed visiting their abuse on both humans and their smaller kin.

- From Argo's Guide to Everything, Vol. I

Dreamers of the Day - Book One - Part One - The Swordsman III​

Morning dawned in Orignia slowly and then all at once. The stars gradually faded from the false sky, then, as the true sun peeked over the horizon, the first touch of its rays seemed to rouse the ceiling from its slumber, quickly, the leaden gray turned to pale morning blue, revealing the land below.

It was a country of verdant forests, fertile fields, and idyllic pasture, sloping gently towards a great lake at its center, and, ringed by cliffs and rocky hills, dotted with small villages, and zig zagged by roads and hedges.

On the dusty path leading East from the village of Rere, a young man walked along easily as he bit into a small and sweet apple. Kirigaya Kazuto, the swordsman Kirito, drank in the peaceful surrounding while enjoying his
snack, courtesy of a farmer whose cart he had helped unstick from the mud.

The light shining down from the ceiling was warm, and the air was fresh and clean, filled with the chlorophyll sweetness of wild grass. If he hadn't known better, he could have completely lowered his guard and just stopped to
exist. His tender flank guaranteed that wouldn't happen.

As pleasant as it was, this was a dangerous place. He hadn't spotted any sign of monsters along the road, but his encounter with the Dire Wolves had convinced him that there was a new order to things. With no HP bar, and
pain being a debilitating reality, he had to keep up his guard.

Luckily, everything seemed to be as Verdelle had said. While there were dangerous beasts that made their homes in the forests and hills, and the Kobolds controlled the North of the Floor, the roads and fields were still safe
enough to travel under daylight.

Kirito had even crossed paths with a few farmers and villagers, some of whom had curtly greeted him, and a few who wearily kept their distance. It might be wise, Kazuto thought, to do the same himself, at least until he had
had a better handle on the situation. He couldn't expect every NPC to be as benevolent as Verdelle.

He'd tried to contact Argo again, but the Broker had been quick getting back that she was busy for the foreseeable future. Essential messages only. Instead, Kirito turned to his only other conversation partner.

"How may I assist you, Kirito?" Asked the ever chipper androgynous voice of Alvis.

Kirito smiled, "Hey Al, how ya doing today?"

"I am fully functional. How may I assist you?"

Kirito scrolled through the menu tabs, taking stock of the small tool box at his disposal. "I just wanted to know how that mapping reconstruction you were talking about has been going?"

"Mapping API reconstruction is complete." Alvis supplied helpfully.

"Really?" Kirito's grin faded into a frown as he opened the tab and was met with a small island of topographical data within a sea of gray. "Are you sure about that, Al?"

"Mapping API reconstruction is complete." Alvis repeated, sounding very proud of itself.

Kirito's frown deepened, "Then why isn't the map showing anything?" He should have at least seen the Town of Beginnings.

"Database not found."

"What do you mean, 'Database not found'?"

"Database not found." Alvis repeated, this time Kazuto almost thought the AI sounded a little hurt.

'Okay,' he thought, 'No use getting mad, this isn't Al's fault.' Other than the fact that Alvis was part of the very system created by Kayaba Akihiko, Kazuto reminded himself. But if Kayaba intended to utilize Alvis for some sort
of subterfuge, this seemed like a poor way to go about it.

Kirito took another bite from his apple and thought as he chewed. "Check me on this, Al, when you say the database isn't found, you mean the complete map of Aincrad that you should be able to access."

"That is correct, database not found."

What a headache, SAO was a revolutionary game in a lot of ways, but from a purely practical perspective, lots of its systems were thoroughly conventional. Why reinvent the wheel? Take the mapping system for instance,
players filled in their map by exploring, and they could share mapping data with one another, or even sell it to other players using the trade system if they wished. But the map wasn't really something they were creating or
filling in, they were simply gaining permissions to view each cell of a pre-existing map as they progressed. It all already existed, deep within SAO's databases, safely away from the prying eyes of data miners.

"So what about this area?" Kirito tapped on the small pool around himself.

"API began local area mapping when I was activated." Alvis answered helpfully. "The data is being constructed from my local sensory range and committed to memory."

"Local area mapping?" Kirito's features screwed up into a scowl. "Why would a game mapping API have surveying capability?"

"I do not know." Alvis answered helpfully. Kirito scratched behind one of his ears. Something occurred to Kazuto at that moment.

"Hey Al, new question."

"Of course, Kirito. How may I assist you?"

"Al," he thought carefully, "Do you know what's happening?"

"I do not understand the question." The little AI's voice chirped sincerely.

"I mean to say," he thought carefully, obviously Alvis wasn't a fully fledged AI, it was more like a parser that could access and query the MUSE sub AIs and knowledge bases. It was 'smart' but only in a very limited way. "Al, you said that the mapping API was corrupted."

"That is correct."

"So that means your internal logs include information about SAO's server side status?" At least things that related to Alvis' individual instances and the overall knowledge engine. Maybe the MUSE system as well.

"Of course."

"Were there any irregularities logged between four and five hours after SAO's launch?"

Alvis's avatar flickered for a very long time, indicating that the AI was thinking. At least this one Kazuto didn't have any doubts about.

"At 5:00PM Tokyo Time, on Sunday November 10th 2024, an administrative level command suspended the SAO servers for imaging and backup."

"Wait, the servers were shut down?" Kirito paused, what was going on here? Then why weren't the players logged out?

"That is correct." Alvis agreed. "My internal logs show a period of 12.772 seconds of downtime before reinitialization was completed. At that time, multiple systems were experiencing corruption, data loss, or alteration,
restoration continues."

Kirito's ears piqued. "What do you mean, alteration?"

"Several large files were installed to the system auto translate during boot up of this Alvis instance. I deduce they were language packs."

"Language packs, huh?" Kazuto hadn't used the system auto translate much, owing to the Beta Testers being concentrated in and around Tokyo, but he knew it used the same principles as the MUSE system for player
enhancement. It was entirely possible he hadn't noticed while much bigger questions had dominated his mind.

He shook his head, this was all fascinating, and probably deserved a long sit down, but for now, he just wanted to know what was wrong with his map.

"Mapping functions have been restored." Alvis reported, "Calibration will take further time."

"Alright then." Anyway you cut it, Kirito was pretty sure a 'league' was a lot more than a kilometer. How far had the river taken him?

His thoughts were interrupted as he noticed something taking place further down the road. All morning he'd crossed paths with travelers on foot, a few leading mule pulled wagons, but this was the first time he'd seen men on
horseback, and they were stopping every traveler they met. Even at a distance, they didn't look friendly.

Not good, the mounted Knights and Lords of this floor were fairly strong, especially on open ground, and Kirito was not equipped for a cavalry fight, even if he had been, suicidally, inclined. Opening his map again, there'd been a fork in the road a ways back, if he cut through a stand of trees here, he could meet up with it, and then work his way back south.

He was weighing his options as the mounted men rounded their horses and started heading his direction. The decision was made for him, jumping a low crumbling stone wall like a truant delinquent, the tree line shielded him from sight, and it wasn't long before he found himself along a much quieter and more ill kept forest path.

Go back, or take his chances?

It was broad daylight, and this forest wasn't particularly dense, nor did the stand of trees seem all that big. But the low branches crossing over the road would dissuade the riders from taking this route. Kirito shrugged to
himself, he'd chance it.

The road had wound on, curving a bit towards the lake as he traveled, but still plenty far away, besides, the southern edge was on the human side of the floor, so he'd thought.

It happened around midday, as he worked his way back along the forks in the road towards the main path, by which time Kazuto was thoroughly convinced that returning to the Town of Beginnings would be an all day hike. He was snacking on his second apple, biting with a loud crunch, when a rustling in the bushes brought him to a halt.

He'd heard and seen rustling before, the forests were full of animal life, things like foxes and rabbits. But this time was different. For one thing, this time, the forest went quiet. For another, there was a thin rope strung taut
across the roadway, almost lost in the leaves at ankle height.

Kirito stared at the offending bush, he took another loud bite from his apple, he chewed slowly as he thought about it. "Look, I don't know if you can understand me, but if you can this is your only chance." His hand reached
for the hilt of his sword. "I will use lethal force to defend myself."

A moment of total silence, and then the bush exploded, something small, red, and vaguely humanoid pounced, a crudely fashioned club held high and its mouth opened wide as it issued a full throated bark . . . which ended
suddenly as Kirito tossed his apple into the air and turned, drawing his sword smoothly.

The kobold hit the ground stumbling, its club fell loosely from its hands as it stood half a head shorter, a shower of red particles geysering from the base of its spine before dropping dead.

Then, knowing that Kobolds never attacked without numbers on their side, the young swordsman spun about, blocking the crude ax of a second startled assailant before pushing in and sinking his sword through the soft belly
and up into the organs of the sternum. He drew back and thrust thrice more for good measure before shoving the dying monster into the roadside brush.

At a remove, Kazuto thought he was perversely grateful for the unreality of the monsters and their blood. It leveled the playing field, helped to suppress the hesitation that the Kobold's certainly didn't feel about him.

The twang of a bowstring, an arrow streaked past his eyes. The young swordsman glared at the Kobold standing beside the road, readying another arrow from its quiver. Then, catching his apple, Kirito hefted it, and made a
hard throw.

It struck the Kobold upside the head with a meaty 'thud' and a startled squawk. More importantly, the monster fumbled its bow and arrow, giving Kirito a precious moment to close the distance and slash.

The archer gave a pained hiss as red stitched from shoulder to hip, cutting cleanly through the quiver strap. Bur rather than run, the Kobold lunged at him, jaws snapping in his face as hard black nails clawed at his tunic. The
Kobold seemed determined to bite his throat out, if it could. manage it.

Kirito got a hand around its muzzle and thrust up from beneath the jaw and through the roof of the mouth. The monster convulsed once and then went still. More squawking shouts behind him, Kirito spun about to see a
second trio of the small reptilian . . . rabbit . . . dog . . . things . . . coming his way, spears thrust forward.

He waited until they were wading through a deep drift of fallen leaves and loose soil, and then swung his sword against a nearby tree with a -chop- followed by the hiss of rubbing rope as something heavy came down and a
net full of angry kobolds went up. The closed trap hung, swinging awkwardly as its contents fought to free themselves.

Kirito simply watched for a time until he was confident they wouldn't be loose anytime soon. Then he turned his attention back to the scrawny monster carcass he was holding by the throat as it grew perceptibly lighter with
each passing moment.

It was a curious thing, starting from the extremities and slowly eating its way up the limbs in a shower of evaporating red particles. There was a soft rattling as articles fell from the disintegrating body, until all that was left was
empty air and a disorderly pile of the creature's effects. The same happened to the other two, leaving behind only an assortment of pouches, leggings, and loin cloths.

The swordsman squatted down to examine what remained. The effect hadn't looked much like a depop. Remembering his time with Verdelle, they'd eaten rabbit, so some sorts of creatures persisted after death, just not
monsters, apparently.

He looked at his small iron sword, and the damage it had accumulated in its brief career. Sadly, these Kobolds were even more pathetically equipped than a starting player. The arrows of the bow, and the heads of the spears
were tipped with flint, the club was a piece of lashed together sharpened stone.

The only thing maybe worth a damn was a primitive knife. The weapon was about a hand span long with an equal length hilt made of wrapped leather, and looked to have been cold forged from a single piece of iron.

Kirito regarded it carefully, for all that it was hardly more than a sharpened rock, it was at least well balanced. He tucked it into his belt, just in case, and gave the hissing, growling sack of Kobolds a final glance before setting
off on his way. They'd free themselves, eventually. But in the meantime, he'd broken their weapons and scattered their flint heads across the forest floor.

It had been odd to find Kobolds this far South. Maybe that had been what the horsemen had been searching for. Kazuto was still pondering this an hour later as the path turned steep and he found himself on increasingly
rocky ground, the hard bones of the earth scraped bare and hosting only scrub brush.

He was considering turning back when he caught a glimpse of a figure squatting alone in the middle of the road. Except, it didn't look like he'd been alone long.

They were a player for sure, that was one of the starting outfit sets, not too different from Kirito's own. Simple pants and a primary colored shirt in yellow, leather boots and accents. The man wearing them was tall and
muscular, his hair was blonde, and his eyes were pale blue. Basically, he was a hero straight out of a western fantasy novel.

And what he seemed to be doing was not much different from what Kirito had done with the fallen Kobolds, examining what was left behind with the probing tip of his short sword. Except the remains weren't the ragged
garments of Kobolds, or even peasant dress, the gear was all too familiar.

"Shit." The man muttered darkly, he must have heard Kirito right then as he looked up.

Kirito's hand reached for the hilt of his sword and the man's eyes widened. "Hey now, this isn't what it looks like." He stood slowly, dusting himself off.

"And what exactly does it look like?" Kirito asked guardedly.

"You want me to say it?" The handsome man lifted a blonde brow. "Fine, know what, take a look at me. I've got a sword. Look at that gear, do you see sword marks on any of it?" Kirito risked a glance, some of the garments
were torne, even shredded, but nothing that looked like a clean sword cut or stab. "And lookit there." He pointed, carefully sheathing his sword as he did. "At those metal breastplates, they're dented, well, caved in. Somethin
hit'm hard, real hard."

Harder than a player could do, at least without an Art from a blunt weapon, Kirito agreed. It wasn't enough to make him lower his guard, but he was willing to hear the man out. "So you just came across them like this?"

"Basically. I was checking to figure out what killed them. Don't tell me you wouldn't do the same thing."

Knowledge could keep you alive, Kirito reasoned, given a few minutes to think about it, yeah, he would have done exactly the same thing, ghoulish as it might seem. "So we depop like the monsters, huh?"

"Yeah." The man muttered. "Us and the locals. Helluva thing to see it for the first time. Like somethin' out of a dream. Not like the game though. Game, you're alive and then you just despawn. Everyone I've seen it happen
too was definitely dead and done. It's like, once nobody's home no more, these bodies just fall apart."

"Everyone, huh?" That didn't sound good.

"Sounds like you've kept your head down the last few days. Smart. It's been a frikkin mess back around town. Somethin' on my face?"

Kirito squinted, "Coper." He said finally. "Your name's Coper, right?" He remembered this guy now, from the Beta Test. They hadn't crossed paths too often, but he hadn't come off as a bad guy exactly.
Surprise flashed across Coper's face, and then disappeared. "You got me at a disadvantage."

"Kirito." Kirito offered back.

"Ah, new avatar, huh?" Coper rolled his broad shoulders. "I was already happy with my look from the beta, hope that's the one you want for the duration." Kirito simply shrugged. Maybe it wasn't such a bad thing to have a
look that could be underestimated. "Another beta tester could be useful though."

"Huh?" Kirito was back on guard as pebbles rattled down from the rocks above them. A pair of archers, a human woman and a pictish man, had their short bows ready and were preparing to draw.

"Coper?!" The woman, sleek dark green hair pulled back in a small ponytail, called down, her eyes never leaving Kirito. Stupid! He could probably get under cover, but they had an insurmountable advantage from their

"Wo wo wo!" The blonde man raised his hands, standing between both parties. "Easy now, none of us are here to fight each other. Kirito, these are Fern and Oryx. Fern, Oryx, this here's Kirito. Maybe you crossed paths during the Beta."

"Kirito?" Fern shook her head, but Orxy seemed to recognize his handle, the Pictish' ears perked.

"Heh, think one of my losses was to him in the arena." He grinned, "Don't worry, I don't take it personal. You sure this guy's a beta tester too?"

"Wanna confirm it with the Cat?"

"Nah." Oryx lowered his bow, prompting Fern to do the same. "I believe it. I mean, a live nooby this far out. What are the odds?" This far? Kirito shook his head, it seemed he really had wound up being carried quite a ways by
the river.

"So listen, Kirito." Coper looked him over, eyes resting on the Kobold knife on his belt. "Seems you came out ahead in a scrap. Care for another one?"

Kirito's eyes darted between the three. "What do you have in mind?"

Coper tapped the hilt of his blade. "For one thing, getting ourselves a bit better equipped than these crap starting weapons. You know what I'm talking about, an Anneal Blade. Something you can actually defend yourself

"So the quest is still live?" Kirito assumed a thoughtful pose, cupping his chin in his hand.

The dwarfish blacksmith in the small town of Irfen would ask a player to supply him with high quality ore. How the player went about getting it had been left up to them. But the resulting upgrade to their starting weapon was
substantial. The difference between the primitive iron short sword and an annealed bastard sword was like the difference between a bokken and a katana.

"This world is dangerous. Making ourselves stronger is the only way to survive, Kirito." Coper extended a hand. "So how bout it, you in?"

Eyeing the offered hand reluctantly, Kirito accepted, not without reservation. "So what's the plan?"

Coper waved for him to follow, and the trio, now a quartet, made their way further along the road. "The dwarfs in Irfin weren't quite what I was expecting." Coper explained. "The Old Dwarf Smith isn't there like he is in the
game for you to just walk up and ask about a shiny new sword. But we were able to come to an arrangement. We each bring them a heaping bag of the high quality ore they need, and that pays for our weapons. Then it was
just finding someplace we can get that ore."

A bit further along, a fifth person was waiting for them, wearing a cloak. At first Kazuto had it in his mind that it might be Argo. But this one was taller, and male, a Si judging by a glimpse of his pointed ears and flash of golden eyes. His features seemed sharp, when they showed themselves in the shadows.

He seemed to have been been standing watch, seated precariously on an old piece of wooden fence and entertaining himself with a handful of pebbles, practicing his throw by aiming for sparrows in the trees.

"Any signs of movement?" Coper asked the cloaked man.

"Nuttin'." The other man shrugged, "Just the normal surface sentries skulking around."

"You're sure?" Coper repeated.

"Man, it's my skin too." The Si gave a reassuring smile and a soft laugh. "Why?"

Coper frowned, "I think we might be dealing with one of the Rune Kobold Guard." All at once, the small gathering got very quiet. Fern, Oryx, and Kirito, were all thinking the same thing. Of all the monsters of Originia, the
Kobold Guard were among the elites, hulking beasts that stood head and shoulders taller than a grown man, nothing like their smaller kin of the fields. They were labyrinth monsters that would be disastrous to face

"You're kidding right?" The Si did not sound thrilled. "This far south?"

"Wish I was." Coper shook his head. "Doesn't change anything, we're already taking a risk. And if there is a Kobold Guard down there, it's five of us now rather than four. Kirito, come take a look."

Parting some bushes, Kirito found that they were positioned with a good vantage over the mouth of a mine. A rocky pit in the earth that gave way to a timber framed entrance. The various sundries of an extraction operation,
tools and overturned mine carts, lay slowly rusting in the open air, or leaned against a series of dilapidated cabins that must have once been barracks.

"This is the farthest south mine we could find. And the Kobolds are still infesting it. So here's the plan, this is a smash and grab fetch quest. Dwarves told us there's a whole hoard of ore in the first gallery they had to abandon
years ago. We each grab a pack of that, about thirty or forty kilos. And bring it back to their smiths, done deal. Any questions?"

"Yeah, just one." The young swordsman's eyes narrowed as he glimpsed movement in the shadows. "If it's really just all sitting there, why don't the dwarves just come and get it?"

"Well that's the trick. There's an army of Kobolds down there just waiting to boil up if someone ticks them off. We gotta go in, real quiet, get what we need and get out."

"Tricky." Kirito decided, this would either go perfectly, and there'd be no fight, or they'd be fighting for their lives. He touched the hilt of his sword, weighing the risks carefully. It was either that, or keep making do with this.

"Okay, I'm in."

"Good to hear, then let get you introduced. You already know Oryx and Fern, they're decent archers, and both fair with daggers. And this fella here is . . ."

"The name's Morte . . ." The Si man offered a fist. "Put her there, pal! We'll be working together for now, so howsabout we try to get along?"

Kirito regarded the hand, then the face smiling from the shadows. "Un," they bumped.

MORTE JOINS THE FIGHT! - "Howsabout a friendly duel for old times sake?"
The Swordsman IV
Dreamers of the Day - Book One - Part One - The Swordsman IV
Coper's plan wasn't anything complex, like the other swordsman had said, this was a loot and scoot, get in and get out. If anything, it reminded Kazuto of raids in older games where the players were under a soft time limit, a rising water level, infinitely respawning enemies, or an invincible monster stalking the dungeon.

There was a difference. In those games, the worst that could happen was losing some progression. No big deal, try again. The penalty for failure, now, would be the ultimate one.

A corner of Kazuto's mind was calling this insane. He wasn't a Swordsman of Castle Aincrad, he was a sixteen year old high school student of Saitama Japan. And besides school, a borderline hikikomori. The only place he'd ever been worth a damn in a fight was inside his video games.

But Aincrad was one of those games, whatever else it was now, waking within his Avatar had been like finding himself wearing a familiar second skin.

It was the MUSE system. It had to be.

Kazuto had experimented, once, after the beta had closed, offering to spar his sister in their small family dojo. He'd been thoroughly trounced by a nationally ranked Kendo-ka, but it hadn't been his skill that had let him down, it had been his body.

That was Coper's logic as well. Kirito, Coper, Fern, Oryx, and Morte, they were all former Beta Testers. For three months they had been let loose across Orignia, and specially curated zones of the higher floors, all the while learning from the MUSE system and honing their skills. If any of the marooned players could do this, it was them.

And so, they had waited for dusk, the narrow window when the setting sun would peek beneath the ceiling and above the lip, bathing the floor in its late light, and briefly dazzle the unprepared. The five of them had crept into position, Kirito stretched out on a day warmed boulder like a dark lizard, while beside him Oryx drew his bow from a crouch, total concentration on his munchkin features.

Coper's plan wasn't anything complex, but it was well thought out. The four of them had spent the last couple days keeping watch on the minehead and carefully counting the sentries. There were always exactly a half dozen standing guard around the entrance, and a seventh that Morte had spotted up above the mine, hidden, no doubt insurance against exactly this kind of scenario.

"The place we want is about two hundred meters in." Coper explained. "It's a large gallery that serves as a staging area to descend deeper into the mines."

"Apparently the Dwarves like to do everything under a rock roof." Oryx had added, "By treaty, all the land under Orignia's 'sky' belongs to men, while everything beneath stone belongs to the dwarves."

Kirito smiled tiredly, "But that's just flavor text, right?" Oryx' expression turned unreadable, his ears twitched and his tail lashed.

"I got the layout from the same dwarves I negotiated with for our anneal weapons." Coper explained. "It's safe to assume it's accurate." The swordsman had used the tip of his blade to sketch a rough layout in the dirt. "The Dwarves also said this mine connects to the others across Orignia. This is just an outpost, which is why the presence is small. The Kobolds prefer to defend from positions deeper underground, and they only move out after nightfall."

"So the plan is to catch the sentries at the end of their shift." Kirito concluded, "Get in and get out before the ones deeper down start waking up."

"Pretty much." Coper agreed, "Any questions?"

"Yeah, just one." Kirito looked his fellow swordsman in the eye. "What if things go to hell?"

Coper shrugged, "We book it and try something else. You got a problem with that?"

"Nah, guess not."

The blonde man stood straight, dusting off his pants. "Oh, and Kirito, one more thing, just to be clear." Blue eyes met black. "Don't take this the wrong way, but if things do go south, I won't screw you, but don't expect me to stick my neck out for you either. I expect the same from you. We're allies, not friends." The other's all nodded soberly. Not that surprising, none of them probably knew each other IRL. In fact, Kirito couldn't even say what these people really looked like. It sounded cold, but it was sensible not to get attached.

"That's fair." Kirito had agreed.

Back in the present, the orange disk of the sun peaked beneath the ceiling. A kobold standing watch atop one of the dilapidated barracks hissed and raised an arm to shade its eyes.

"Ready?" Kirito whispered.

"Not yet." Oryx answered, drawing his bow taught, his breathing slowed, and a faint glow, almost a flame, caressed the tip of his arrow, the same light coming to life in his eye. The archer held his draw until a distant bird call echoed down from above the mine head, the overwatch sentry had been dealt with.

Oryx loosed his shot, the bow string -twanged- and the arrow traveled a seemingly sedate arc that perfectly plunged through the throat of the kobold atop the barracks. At almost the same instant, a kobold on the far side of the minehead dropped as an arrow caught it through its yawning mouth.

"Go!" Oryx hissed.

Kirito had needed no further urging, bolting from his vantage and sheltering in the ink blackness of evening shadow. With the sun like it was, the kobolds' normally keen night vision was rendered momentarily useless. The swordsman used that vulnerability to fall on the sentry just rounding the barracks. It was over before the reptilian creature had even realized. To his right, Coper had done the same, clamping a kobold's snout shut before plunging his sword through its back, and then holding the creature as it died.

Two left. One, from Fern, an arrow through the eye, the other, Oryx had risen from his vantage, loosing three arrows in rapid succession into the chest of the last sentry. Before the startled creature could gather its dying strength to cry out, daggers had been unsheathed and plunged down into the rib cage from above the collarbone. Oryx twisted sharply, held, and then released. The body was already dissolving as it hit the ground.

"Nice work." Kirito whispered as Oryx flowed past.


Morte was already waiting for them when they reached the mine entrance, his sword resting across his shoulder. He lightly tossed a collection of pebbles in his free hand.

"Took ya long enough." He jumped down from his vantage, lighting almost silently in a gust of spectral Faerie wings. He hooked a thumb over his shoulder, "Shall we?"

"Point of no return." Coper murmured, "Anyone want out?" There was only silence. Coper gestured for Morte to lead the way and reminded everyone to keep their eyes peeled for traps. "They especially like to string'm high and low."

Two hundred meters didn't sound that far, until it was two hundred meters into near pitch black darkness. Luckily, this had been a dwarfish mine, once, and the colonies of bioluminescent cave lichen still put out just enough feeble light to see by, barely. Kirito kept close enough to Oryx to feel the archer's tail brushing against his leg, while recalling their prior conversation.

It was after Coper had gone over the plan, Morte had just departed to deal with the overwatch, and the rest of them were preparing to move out.

Oryx offered Kirito a canteen. "Hope you don't take it personal."

"Huh?" Kirito blinked, "Take what personal . . . I mean, personally?" He accepted the drink, and then regretted it as something tried to burn its way down his throat. He managed to swallow and suppress the ensuing cough, which caused Oryx to grin.

"Coper's little line about not sticking his neck out." The Pictish explained. "He gave it to all of us."

"And you're okay with it?" Kirito had asked, carefully.

Oryx's grin had widened as he shrugged. "At least he's upfront about it. Honestly, it's how I feel too. Don't get me wrong, I'll have your back if there's a scrap but . . ."

"Don't expect you to die for me, is that right?" Kirito asked, Oryx simply nodded, Kirito smiled back. "Like I said, it's fair." After all . . .

"I mean, it's not like we're bad guys for thinking that way, right? We gotta look out for ourselves first, right?" Kirito was slow to answer, for one thing, Oryx' grin had grown suddenly tense when he looked closely.

"That's right." Kirito nodded, "I don't intend to die in this death game. You shouldn't either."

"Except . . . I'm not sure it is a game anymore," Oryx murmured, "Not even a death game." A chill ran down Kirito's spine. Oryx was just saying out loud what he'd thought to himself. But the effect was completely different when the words were out in the open air.

"Are you going on about that again?" The voice of Fern questioned as the green haired woman checked and rechecked her bow and quiver of arrows. "What else could it be?"

"I don't know." Oryx admitted deliberately, he held up a hand, examining the fine hairs of his arm, "But what we're experiencing is beyond the limits of the Memeosphere, isn't it? And the NPCs . . . "

"What's with that?" The swordsman murmured.

"You noticed it too, huh?" Oryx asked. "It's weird, they act like you expect, until suddenly they don't. And all of them have NLP authorization, even random townies."

"It's that whole 'Welcome to my World' speech." Fern said testily, "You're letting that bastard Kayaba get into your head. You're seeing what's not there. Maybe Kayaba was just lying about SAO's full capabilities, ya think of that, he must have lied about plenty of other stuff to pull this off."

"Yeah", Kirito agreed mechanically, that had to be it. Verdelle and Gervaise, they couldn't be real . . . Those thoughts had stuck with Kazuto as they descended into the mines.

The main tunnel split off twice, but they kept to the minecart rails until, suddenly, the walls and ceiling had widened away from them. The bioluminescence was a bit stronger here, or maybe Kirito's eyes had adjusted. They were in a vaulted underground chamber. The floor was covered in crisscrossing iron rails leading into further tunnels. Mine carts were parked, dozens, maybe hundreds, fading off into the darkness.

It was a depot yard, Kazuto realized. Carts from all throughout the mines were probably brought here. Their ore would be offloaded and sorted, and then taken up to the surface to sell to the Town of Beginnings. Maybe the mines here really did connect to others across the floor, and to deeper shafts sunken into Foundation. They could be a whole sub level!

A week ago, he would have been elated by this discovery, the potential for a whole hidden world within that of Aincrad itself would have set his imagination on fire. Instead, Kirito looked about cautiously, eyes keen for any sign of movement, and ears cocked for trouble. They only had a short time before the kobolds deeper within would start to become active.

"So how do we . . ." Oryx began.

"Ssshhh!" Coper hissed, covering the Archer's mouth, he gave the chamber a long once over and then, when satisfied they were alone, took his hand away. Then more quietly, "So how do we even know what this ore looks like?"

"Here." The leading swordsman produced a small silvery metallic stone. "I thought the same thing without the inventory screen, so I got them to give me a small sample. Don't look at the color, you'll have a hard time in this light. Besides, the ore down here will have oxidized. Pay attention to the shape, and the pattern, the texture, this is what we're looking for. Got it?"

Kazuto examined the sample, committing the details to memory. Some kind of hematite, he thought. Curiosity had once inspired him to look up what kind of ores went into the making of steel. The Dwarves who gave this quest would mention that the trace elements of this ore vein were essential to the making of an Anneal weapon, something about controlling its temper in the forging process.

After that, the group spread out, each of them taking a different row of minecarts and examining the contents. Crushed stone, tailings from the mine, what might have been coal, and . . . something that looked almost yellow in the weak light, the faint scent of something almost sulfurous . . .

Kirito stared at the heaping cart before a hand shook him on the shoulder. It was Fern, she hooked a thumb to the far side of the chamber where Coper was kneeling down. He opened a canvas satchel and produced five more from within, handing one to each of the others and instructing them to load from the line of mine carts that contained their prize.

"You found it quick." Oryx observed as he filled his bag carefully to avoid making noise.

"Not me, Morte." Coper nodded to the Si man working quickly to fill his own bag.

"It was pretty easy actually." Morte muttered, "Y'see, the Dwarves told us they tried to retrieve some of this themselves."

"Yeah?" Oryx asked.

Morte nodded to the scattered lumps of gear on the ground, only looking at them closely, they weren't lumps at all. It was the rare Aincrad Dwarf that lived among humans. Most of them kept to themselves in their own enclaves dug into the hills. When this type of dwarf was seen, they were bedecked in protective clothing, heavily quilted armor like medieval bomb suits, masks designed to filter noxious cave gasses covered in intricate arrays of lenses both to gather weak light in the depths and to protect
their eyes on the bright surface.

So it wasn't at all surprising that the remains left behind after the Dwarves had been killed resembled more the husks of insects than the piles of discarded gear left by slain Outlanders. Scattered satchels of their attempted bounty spilled across the ground. A piece of hematite glittered dully beside Kirito's boot.

"Caved in." Coper muttered, he glanced at the collapsed helms and breastplates. Whatever had killed them had done it with the same terrible strength wielded outside. "Hurry up."

"Yeah." Kirito agreed, he wasn't lacking confidence, but anything that could take out a dozen fully equipped dwarves was going to be a problem for less than half as many beta testers. They were almost ready to go when they ran out of time . . .

"Shhh!" Morte raised a hand sharply to still them all. The Si pulled back his cloak, a long ear twitching as Oryx did the same, the latter's ears pivoted like small radars before dialing in on the tunnel entrance.

"Move!" Coper breathed, with nary a sound the group made a break for it, that was when Kirito saw it, a shadow within the shadows. Big.

The party scattered, taking shelter among the minecarts as the sound of heavy footfalls, and the faint moving of metal against metal, and the labored sound of deep breathing filled the silence.

It emerged into the gallery, standing up as tall as the stone ceiling would permit, clad in battered plate and chainmail. It had a twisted, unnatural, way of walking, standing on the wide taloned tows of its long feet, the muscles on its lean body seemed at once both too much, and overstretched, as if the creature was poorly put together, twitching and rippling beneath leathery red skin. Its snout was peeled back over its yellow teeth in a perpetual snarl, nostrils flaring as it scented the air, ears twitched and pivoted. Bloodshot eyes seemed to glow red.

A Rune Kobold Knight. Kirito cursed inwardly, not daring to so much as move his lips as the monster stalked its way across the chamber. This was not a fight they could afford!

Coper seemed to agree, the swordsman made a couple of simple pointing gestures. No complicated pantomime, just a simple and unambiguous explanation of what he wanted them to do, move around the Rune Kobold and get out without being spotted.

Easier said than done, the monster seemed hyper aware of the smallest noise, it's head cocking with each step that Kirito took. He half expected it to turn on him at any second, to leap over the mine cast and crush him under its weight. But that didn't happen.

In the corner of his eye, Kirito sensed movement, Morte had put himself as far from the rest as he could manage, not that Kirito blamed him, he was just looking out for himself. After all, if the rest were caught, Morte might still escape, and if he was caught, the same was true for them, it was a fair risk to take in this deadly game they were playing. Until the sound of stone striking stone brought everything to a halt.

It had come from Morte's direction. If Kirito were to guess, a piece of ore had slipped loose from his satchel and struck the ground. It was a small noise, almost imperceptible, but enough for the Rune Kobold to round on its source, striding across the chamber and sniffing at the air in that eager and vicious way, like a hunting hound. A great clawed hand rested on the edge of the minecart behind which Morte sheltered, the other reached to unsheathe the sword, more a sharpened metal club, that the kobold wore on its waist.

Kirito's eyes darted to Coper, the other swordsman was getting ready to break and run, so were Fern and Oryx. Another inward curse, Kirito got ready to sprint when Morte was discovered. It was just bad luck . . .


Kirito's heart threatened to leap from his throat as the minecart beside him resonated like a bell. Had something hit it?! The sound went on for what felt like a horrifically long time, bouncing off the chamber walls and leaving Kirito sharing a terror stricken look with Coper.

Maybe the Rune Kobold wouldn't be able to tell where it had come from . . .

Kirito had only a split second warning as the Minecart began to tilt towards him, tucking into a roll, the swordsman was pummeled by loose ore, his satchel flying as he was half buried. The Rune Kobold Knight roared as it spun on Oryx, the archer dove, narrowly missing a swing aimed at his head.

On the far side of the chamber, Kirito glimpsed the dark cloaked shape of Morte breaking for the entrance, he shook his head, blinking the starts from his eyes as he started digging himself free.

Oryx had shirked his bow and quiver, drawing iron daggers as he tried to dive past the monster that was now barring their way to freedom. A trio of arrows struck the Knight's plate, one lodging itself uselessly in chainmail.

Fern cursed, shifting her stance, eyes glowing as she prepared her next shot at full draw, the posture and activating gesture for Pierce the most basic of Bow Arts, but with the potential to break through the kobold's armor. The tip of her arrow came alight and when she loosed, it traced a pure dazzling line in the darkness between her bow and her target. The Kobold Guard roared as the arrow sunk through plate like it was made of paper, shaft splintering under the force of impact.

Oryx' daggers licked out, drawing blood from the Knight's exposed lower legs before he was caught by a sweep of the monster's talons and thrown against a minecart. The Kobold Knight seized Oryx by the throat in one hand, and the lip of the minecart with the other, turning as it heaved, upending the empty cart and sending it tumbling across the room towards a startled Fern. The archer barely rolled out of the way in time to escape being crushed, but not in time to escape being being pinned against
the ground.

For Orxy, it was too late.

Kirito had barely finished extracting himself when he witnessed a sight that would be with him until the end of his days. The Pictish man, kicking and struggling, his Avatar Body twisting and fighting to break free as the Rune Kobold Knight's grip tightened around his throat. His daggers slashed wildly, but the long arm kept anything vital beyond his reach as his struggle slowly weakened and failed. Oryx twitched, trembled, and hung limp.

The man who had shared his speculations with Kirito, who had sought assurance from him, was gone . . .

As if the world itself was ordaining it so, he began to dissolve in much the same way as the kobolds Kirito had witnessed before. Pale blue particles evaporated off of the body as it melted away like ice. Oryx' equipment rattled to the ground piece by piece until the kobold grew bored and threw the dwindling remains aside.

Next, it turned its eyes on Kirito as the young swordsman staggered to his feet. It loomed over him, two and half meters tall, at least, and blocking the path to escape. At that moment, Kazuto was filled with fear of the creature that had ended Oryx' life. And loathing for the creature that had ended Oryx' life.

He breathed as he drew his sword, the urge to survive welling within him, and vowed that he would not die.

Battle was met in the darkness of a forgotten dwarven mine, the primitive short sword of an Outlander clashing with the battered long sword of a Rune Kobold Knight, and barely, Kirito managed to hold his own.

Oryx and Fern had done some damage, they'd slowed it down at least, but the patterns weren't anything like in the Beta, the Rune Guard's movements were far more unpredictable. 'I have to think of it like a human opponent, '' Kazuto reasoned. That was what it was, a thinking being that wanted, with all its might, to make him dead. He would have to want the same. Easier said than done.

Kirito survived the Rune Kobold's crushing blows by dodging, deflecting only when he absolutely must. With each turned blow, the edge of his sword became more shipped and bent. The iron couldn't hold up, it was going to break!

If it was going to break, there was no use holding back, he had to gamble it all on a single attack, he just needed the room. Jumping back, Kirito lead the kobold over the toppled ore it had buried him in, taloned feet splayed out, finding purchase, but there was a moment of instability, exactly what Kirito needed as he assumed the starting stance, his eyes, and his sword, glimmered and then glowed.

It was different this time, or maybe it wasn't, when he'd used an Art against the wolves, his adrenaline pumping, there had been barely any space left in his conscious mind for anything but survival. This time though he recalled the sensation, an electrical charge that raced from the base of his spine down nerves to the palm of his hand, connecting him to his sword.

It was going to break, it was definitely going to break, and Kazuto didn't care. The Kobold Knight lunged for him, and at the same moment the Swordsman Kirito kicked off. He was inside of its reach, but all of the vitals were too high.

Not for long.

First cut, inside of the thigh, all the way to the bone, bringing the kobold's upper body into his reach as it sank to one knee. Second cut, links of chain snapping and flying free, slicing into the stomach and causing the monster to bend forward. Now withing reach, third cut, the glowing blade flickering as it carved into the breast plate, leaving a path of twisted steel and a spray of red particles that ended in a shower of iron shards. The Kobold roared in agony as Kirito stood, holding only the hilt of his shattered sword.

He'd messed up. His gambit had depended on bringing the Kobold down in one go, but the final cut had ended short of the gorget, and the throat behind it. And now, Kirito was unarmed, well within sword reach of the crippled, but still very alive monster, its eyes full of hatred for the human that had caused it so much pain.

The only thing that saved him was, badly crippled, the Knight's swing was clumsy, Kirito was able to fall out of the way as the kobold levered itself to its feet, raising its sword high to finish the job . . . then staggered, issuing a hiss of fresh pain as Coper's sword slashed it across the back of its good knee.

"Kirito!" The other swordsman shouted, "Move it!" The kobold dropped its sword, long arm tearing at Coper, trying to do to him as it had done to Oryx. An arrow caught it in the eye, Fern contorting herself to fire her short bow prone, and still it didn't stop.

'No. Not one more!' Kirito thought, hand curling around the kobold dagger on his belt. Not even one more! He'd thrown himself onto the Knight, fingers hooked around the edge of the gorget as he leveraged himself face to face with the monster, the man killer, hissing and spitting, its rancid breath blowing into his face.

The Rune Kobold glared with a single baleful eye, Kirito glared back as he plunged the dagger down into the base of its neck, and with all his strength pushed the metal until was sunk to the hilt. The Knight bucked him at the same moment it released Coper, both swordsmen falling to the ground as it clawed madly at its throat. It tried to roar but only a mist of red and weak gagging issued from its open jaws. It seemed to take forever for it to die, and even longer for the body to begin to waste away.

Coper helped Kirito to his feet, then both of them quickly ran to the upturned mining cart where Fern lay pinned.

"Hold on, we'll move this!" Kirito told the trapped woman, the two swordsmen took up positions on either side, but lacking the Rune Kobold's inhuman strength, they succeeded only in shifting it and caused Fern to groan in pain. As her voice faded, something much less human, and all together more sinister, echoed from the tunnels that lead deeper into the mine. Their fight had not gone unnoticed.

"Shit!" Coper hissed, the swordsmen redoubled their efforts. If they could just get her free . . .

"I don't want to die." Fern whispered fearfully. Her eyes went wide. "I don't want to die. I don't want to die. IdontwanttodieIdontwattodie!"

That was right, none of them wanted to die, Kirito thought, they'd all agreed, it was fair. They were all there to survive, but none of them were there to die for the others. None of them expected to be the one that was dying. If he'd been in Fern's place, Kirito knew, he'd be the same way.

It was because he knew this that he didn't resent Coper for abandoning them as the sound of approaching Kobolds grew louder, the high pitched calls of the common monsters, and the deeper roars of the Rune Kobold Guard.

He didn't resent Coper, because after only a few more attempts, Kirito looked into the fearful eyes of Fern, tears streaming in terror as she realized what he was about to do. She grabbed hold of his wrist . . .

"I'm sorry!" Kirito cried out. She'd let go, he told himself, she'd let go, he hadn't ripped free, she'd let him go.

He'd run, scooping up one of the satchels of the fallen dwarves as he did. This couldn't be for nothing. He'd run as fast as he could, praying that the sounds of the pursuing kobolds would drown out Fern cursing his name, and Coper's, and Morte's, as she died. The cries of monster chased him, arrows skipped and broke against the cavern walls.

It was only a small miracle that he could find his way out, eyes blinded by tears. The tunnel had a minor slope, he just had to keep running upward to reach the surface. When he did, breaking free under the glittering artificial stars of Aincrad's night sky, he'd kept running. He ran past the ruined barracks, past the tree line, past the hiding place where an hour before, he and Fern and Oryx had talked.

Of Morte and Coper there was no sign, but he didn't blame them. They were all just trying to survive. He couldn't hate them for that.

Kirito didn't stop running until he'd left the environs of the mine well behind, and even then, only because his legs gave out on him. He'd collapsed in a heap, spending the last of his immediate strength dragging himself into what shelter he could find. Then he had lain there in the brush, staring up at the night sky until his ragged breathing had slowed and his mind came back from the blank space of sheer survival.

It was only then that Kirito checked the satchel and began to truly weep. He'd assumed, from what Coper had said, that the dwarves had been there for the iron ore as well, and just the iron ore, but all sorts of things could be useful to the dwarves.

Pieces of quartz, and chalk, hunks of graphite, substances that Kirito didn't recognize, but certainly not iron ore, and not likely to be worth a sword in trade. He'd clawed through the bag, almost laughing hysterically as he realized he had nothing to show for the death of two people and his own second near death experience.

Kirito had fallen back then, bitter tears burning in his eyes. He wanted to curse this place, this beautiful trap. He wanted to curse Kayaba Akihiko, the mastermind behind their imprisonment within the world of Aincrad. He wanted to curse himself, the weak, cowardly child within him.

"Shit." Kirito whispered.

He lay in the dark with only the night noises of the forest and his self loathing for company until his fingers brushed on one of the stones. It had a strange texture, brittle, and oddly light. At a whim, he held it in front of his eyes and squinted. When he breathed in, there was a faint whiff of sulfur . . .

Slowly, Kirito sat up, he looked at the stone, he looked back at the bag. Then, emptying the rest, he found more. Two, three, maybe four kilograms worth.

'There's no way to tell for sure.' He told himself, he'd only seen the small sample in a vial.

'I'm unarmed, in the middle of the night.' Kirito thought.

'They're just NPCs, they're not . . . real . . . '

In Rere village, it was the depth of night when Kirito staggered to the door of the now familiar cottage and hammered desperately to be let in. A few candle lights still flickered in the window. Given her duties, and the condition of Gervaise, it was safe to assume Verdelle would barely sleep.

His theory was proven as the door was opened, the Medicine woman looked exhausted, but not at all like she'd been sleeping.

"Kirito?" Verdelle asked, eyes widening as she took him in. "By the Origin Light, Kirito! What happened?!"

The swordsman tried to speak, only to begin coughing. He was pretty sure he'd hadn't torn open his old wounds, it just felt that way. What he really wanted to do was throw up, but his stomach was mostly empty. Running non stop through the night, sweating every second that he'd aggro something deadly without a weapon to defend himself. Fearing that he'd take a wrong turn in the unfamiliar blackness.

He wasn't sure what was keeping him on his feet, other than adrenaline. But before he fell over, he had to know. He held up one of the stones from the half empty satchel.

Verdelle had stared at it for a long while, its true significance dawning on her only slowly, but when it did, Kirito had the answer to his first question. And he knew his second.

"Verdelle, that Dwarf pharmacist you knew . . ." Kirito panted "You know where he lives, right?"
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The Swordsman Final
Dreamers of the Day - Book One - Part One - The Swordsman Final
"Pour another for the little fellow!" An arm like a baseball bat made of sausage came down across Kirito's shoulders, threatening to knock him off his feet, and sending the contents of his mug sloshing across the ground. "He's almost out!" Jacques, the farmer, ruddy faced and built like a brick house, proclaimed as if it was an unforgivable offense. "Another!"

"Actually, I think I'm fine." Kirito offered urgently. "I've had more than enough, actually!" In fact, most of the bitter stout, besides a small sip taken for politeness sake, had been lost to jovial ribbing of the village denizens.

"Come now, young man, beer is a healthful drink." Jacques grunted, receiving approving cheers from his fellow village men, "Put some meat on those skin and bones!"

"No, really! I'm just naturally skinny!" He kept his mug away from the village girl who kept trying to refill it. Kazuto wasn't exactly sure what he'd expected when he'd returned to Rere. Definitely not this.

Giving Verdelle the sulfate minerals had only been the beginning of a lengthy quest that had proceeded well into the next day. The medicine woman could do nothing with the minerals herself, the secret to making the drugs she needed were known only to the dwarves who lived on Orignia's western edge. Remnants of the great clans that had mined the Foundation.

It would have taken longer, but the moment the minerals had fallen into Verdelle's hands, it was like something had awoken within the healer. Her subdued features had come alive with determination, and she had stormed from her home to make urgent arrangements. Half the village had been woken as she'd hammered at doors, making demands, and calling in favors. It seemed like everyone owed Verdelle something. Everyone had been under her care at some ones who didn't remember their gratitude were cowed by the ones that did, and the quiet resolve of the woman who had vowed to save them.

Someone was found to watch Gervaise, Verdelle had given exacting instructions on how to care for her ailing daughter. Horses had been summoned, a pair of the village's precious few draft animals, for time was of the essence. They'd set out before dawn, as soon as the ceiling stars had begun to fade.

Kirito had never quite gotten the hang of horses in SAO. His gamer sensibilities dictated that a mount should basically behave like a motorcycle on four legs. But Aincrad's horses had always had minds of their own, and that had only grown more true since Kayaba had sprung his trap.

Draft horses were normally large of body, and mild of temper, bred for strength rather than speed, but Kirito couldn't have told it by the way the healer had spurred them on. The young swordsman had not so much ridden, as clung on for dear life as the beast beneath him was driven as swiftly as it could sustain. They'd made good time, arriving in the foothills of the Dwarvish settlement of Neuil a little after noon.

By then, Kirito was already certain that Orignia had grown far larger than it had ever been in the Beta Test. Barring monster encounters, crossing the entire floor should have been a matter of only a few hours on foot, now it seemed more like a full day, at least. Still, he was surprised by Neuil when he witnessed it for himself.

The Hills of Orignia were dotted with small outposts where the dwarves had settled after being driven from their mines by the minions of the Kobold Lord. Neuil was one such place, but while it was no Town of Beginnings, the collection of squat stone walled and brass domed structures that sprouted from the terraced hillside like mushroom caps, still must have represented a population of one or two thousand, at least. And this was just ground level, who was to say what was dug underneath.

Guards had stopped them, faceless dwarves in their bulky protective equipment, wielding halberds and hand-cannons, stout barrels attached to long staffs. Verdelle had said something to them, it was incomprehensible to Kirito, but they had parted ways and been admitted past the main gates and into the cobbled town square where the horses were tied and allowed to rest while Kirito followed the healer deeper into Neuil's winding streets, dodging low signs and street lamps all the while.

Neuil had been built from the bones of the very mine's the dwarves had once tunneled, cut and fashioned so expertly that the stones locked together like the pieces of an enormous puzzle without even need for mortar. Verdelle explained the impressive architectural achievement while they had made their way past staring dwarves, confused by humans in their midst, to a door deep within the bowels of a winding alley.

The Dwarf that opened the door had squinted long and hard at Verdelle, so long and hard that Kirito worried this was all for nothing, then his eyes had gone wide, he'd taken the medicine woman in an embrace and then taken them inside where the two humans had been forced to stoop beneath the low ceiling.

He and Verdel had conversed heatedly in the incomprehensible language. Not too long ago, Kazuto would have assumed it was some gibberish generated by Cardinal and simply spouted by two NPCs under the system's control, but listening closely, it didn't sound random. He heard 'Kirito' spoken several times, the Dwarf sparring him several furtive glances before Verdelle had shown him what she'd brought.

The dull yellow stones might as well have been gold for the way the dwarf had lit up. The conversation had heated up, some sort of deal was struck, and after the dwarf had hurried away, Verdelle had come to sit beside Kirito on a low sofa.

The deal she'd negotiated wasn't too different from the one Coper had made for their weapons. The medicine would be made, and in exchange, the dwarf would keep the excess material as payment. Kirito had wondered how long that would take. Verdelle had insisted by the end of the day. When Kirito had started to have doubts, she'd elaborated.

"I have known Kifen since I was just a girl." Verdelle had explained. "He is the best pharmacist in Orignia. That's why I learned the dwarven tongue. Kifen was too proud to learn Anicean, so the only way to learn from him was to learn his language."

"All that to become a healer?" Kirito has asked, "Sounds like a lot of work."

"It was." Verdelle smiled tiredly. "I can still remember falling asleep at my desk, fingers stained with ink during my studies. Dissecting pigs to understand the workings of the living body. All of it, hard rewarding work."

"Hmmm." Kirito had closed his eyes and stroked his chin thoughtfully.

"What is it?"

"You respect him enough to learn his language. But after all those years living with humans, he never returned the favor?"

"I learn . . ." A thickly accented voice pronounced from the doorway. The dwarf, Kifen, emerged carrying a small wooden box in this large weathered hands. "I learn . . . when I ready." He asserted. "In my own time."

"It's done then?" Verdelle had stood up, wincing as she bumped her head. She repeated her question in dwarvish and received an answer in the same. Kifen had open the box, showing the small glass vials full of a faintly yellow serum.

"We must return quickly now, Kirito." Verdelle insisted as the dwarf handed him the box.

Small bright eyes shown like diamonds from deep within ageless eyelids. "You . . . boy . . . take of this, and take care of your . . ." Kifen tapped his temple as if trying to dislodge a stuck word, then seemed to revert to his own language, ". . . Shanii nen Shanha."

"Uhm . . ." Kirito began, only to fall quiet as Verdelle said something heatedly, looking flustered, she beckoned for him to follow. "What was that about?"

"It's not important right now." Verdelle answered curtly, "A misunderstanding. Kifen is just a very dwarvish dwarf. That is all." Kirito decided not to press the matter. The horses had still been exhausted from their ordeal, so Verdelle had traded them for a pair of ponies. Only temporarily, she had assured, as collateral, she'd return later to trade them back for the village horses, after they'd had their chance to rest.

The ride back hadn't felt quite as intense on the smaller animals. Verdelle was mindful of their slighter frames and didn't try to push them quite so hard. Even so, the sun had barely set by the time Rere can into view, and Kirito had breathed a sigh of relief as they'd traveled across the peaceful village fields.

Anxious villagers had come out to meet them, but by now, the healer was consumed entirely by her craft. The very first dose had been administered to Gervaise by means of a syringe that must have been the height of technology within Aincrad castle, but made Kirito wince and look away. The little girl, tired as she was, had simply grimaced, squeezing her eyes shut, lips pressed together, baring it for her mother's promise that she'd finally be well again.

Over the next hour, Verdelle had traveled from home to home, administering the treatment, and then going back between her own cottage, and each of her patients all through the night to monitor for signs of change. It was exhausting, and at first seemed fruitless, but by midnight, the coughing began to slowly subside. First with one patient, then with another, then all of them.

It seemed like something worthy of celebrating, but still Verdelle did not sleep, she couldn't. Kirito found her at Gervaise's bedside. It seemed now that the girl's cough had quieted, she was more fearful that she'd stopped breathing than that the medicine was working.

"I know it's working." Verdelle had insisted. "I know but . . ." She was starting to wobble on her feet. Come to think of it, Kirito barely ever saw her resting.

"I'll watch Gervaise." He offered.

"But . . ."

"You need to rest." Kirito had smiled, "It wouldn't be any good if the village healer got sick, now would it?"

Verdelle had opened her mouth to protect, then closed it, and shaken her head tiredly. "Of course. Just for a little while though, then, then . . ." He'd taken her by the shoulders and led her to the other room, putting her to bed in the cot and promising he'd wake her if Gervaise' condition changed.

Then, Kirito had returned to the girl's bedside and assumed a vigil. Gervaise looked so lifelike as she slumbered that the young swordsmen almost succumbed to the urge to poke her cheek. The way that she stirred, and the way that she breathed, her eyelids even fluttered as she dreamed.

They couldn't be real. He kept telling himself. It didn't make any sense.
But then, if they weren't real, why had he helped them?

Kirito covered half his face as he tried to stop Fern's terror stricken expression from seeping back into his thoughts. Oryx, the man who doubted most that Aincrad was just a game, and the way he'd hung limp and lifeless before the only evidence of his existence had vanished from the world.

He hadn't known them. And they hadn't known him. That was right, they were all just looking out for themselves. Fern and Oryx would have done the same. He couldn't even say he resented Coper and Morte for their own choices. If it had been him left behind, he might have cursed them, maybe. But he wasn't any better, not really.

'The only one you can trust is yourself.' Kazuto insisted gently, 'You don't know who people really are. And they can't trust who you really are. We're all strangers in the end. It's safer this way, for everyone . . .'

Gervaise had turned over in her sleep, licking her lips. Kirito had blinked once, twice, he'd only meant to rest his eyes. The next thing he knew, there was a hammering at the door, and his mouth felt like he'd been sucking on a wool blanket for half the night. Which he had. Raking his tongue with his fingernails, he hurriedly checked on Gervaise, still sleeping, breathing deep and steady. Then the hammering came again.

The man outside was certainly being polite, for one thing, he looked like he could have pounded the door off its hinges if he were inclined. Instead, a smile had spread across his face as his palms had come down on Kirito's shoulders, nearly forcing the young swordsmen to his knees. He reached for his empty scabbard, convinced that this was an attack.

In fact, this was the farmer Jacques.

Verdelle had come to the door, rubbing sleep from her eyes, it was the first time Kirito had ever seen her remotely rested as she was taken up in an embrace by the farmer. His daughter, too, had been among the sick. So had so many others. If not a child, then a beloved elder, sometimes a young husband or wife losing the fight. All morning the villagers had come to thank Verdelle, and at some point, they'd started thanking Kirito too. They'd done more than thank him.

"Well then," Jacques had grunted, "Try it on!"

"Uhm . . . It's a bit big." Kirito stared at the jacket that had been gifted to him by the farmer. Brown leather, darkened with age, but still sturdy and strong, with a quilted inner lining. He'd really have preferred black, but the biggest problem was the clothing didn't resize any longer, which meant the jacket, cut for a bigger man, hung on Kirito more like a coat and made his already lean frame look downright scrawny. But it was warm, and well made.

"Of course it was cut for me in my younger days." Jacques had laughed, "Back when I was a guard for the Old Lord in the manor. Ah, but those times are long ago. It hasn't fit me for years, and a traveler needs a good jacket to keep warm."

"U-Un." Kirito couldn't really argue with that. He tried to argue about the drinking, but neither Jacques nor the other men would hear of it, and Verdelle had been no help, simply waving as he was carried off to celebrate. When he'd finally managed to extricate himself and sneak back to the cottage, he'd found Verdelle once more at her daughter's bedside. Simply watching her breath.

"She hasn't woken up all morning." Verdelle murmured, "I can' remember the last time she made it a whole night without a coughing fit. I can't . . . remember . . . when she wasn't sick." Kazuto wasn't sure if she was talking to him or herself, but when she turned to look at him, her eyes were red and raw.

"So she's going to be alright?" Kirito asked.

"So long as she gets the rest of the serum, to ensure her body defeats the infection. Kifen gave us more than enough. He's a generous old dwarf."

"Good," Kirito smiled, "I'm glad." And he was surprised that he really was. It wasn't just a nice thing he was saying to himself.

"That jacket," Verdelle murmured, "It suits you."

"You think?"

"Very handsome," she assured kindly, then a small frown developed on her lips. "Your scabbard."

"What? Oh yeah, I busted my sword when . . . Yeah, I lost it." In other words, he was screwed. Maybe, if he was lucky, he could hunt down Coper and beg his old short sword off of him, or else scavenge something else to get by . . .

"I see."

She'd fallen silent, but she hadn't stopped thinking, eventually she'd risen from her chair, asking Kirito to keep an eye on Gervaise while she went down into the root cellar. When she'd returned, Verdelle had beckoned him to the kitchen table where she
had laid a wrapped canvas parcel. Carefully, it had been opened, and Kirito had been left dumbstruck.

"It seems you have good taste." Verdelle had smiled more genuinely than he had ever seen before. Laying on the table were two scabbards, a sword and a dagger. They were simply adorned, but nothing about them suggested they were anything but well made. Without any prompting, Verdelle had taken the sword and drawn it smoothly with a hiss of well oiled steel.

It was a bastard sword, Kirito thought, though a little unusual. The blade was on the short end of such things, with one full edge and the other half edged, compensated by a somewhat longer hilt, suitable for use in one or two hands, and a hefty pommel for bludgeoning. The most striking thing, though, was the dark sheen of the steel, almost rippling in the light.

"Orignia was once a prosperous Kingdom." Verdelle recited as she studied the sword, her own reflection appearing blurry and distorted in the black gloss. "Aincrad was once a prosperous Castle. And guarding that prosperity were those who swore fealty not to any Lord or King, but to the Castle itself. They carried weapons like these on their long patrols of Aincrad's bastions and battlements. The sword of a Ranger." Verdelle stepped, she turned, gathering speed, her skirts rose and her hair whirled, turning, turning, ever turning, the black sword slicing the air in a long clean stroke that ended with blade extended in perfect poise.

"My husband showed me that." The healer reminisced, returning the sword to its sheath. She turned back to Kirito. "These blades were forged in the arsenal of the Black Iron Citadel, when that still meant something, to serve men who fought selflessly for us all. They bear no names. They were made by no legendary smith. They were never carried by a great king. Nonetheless, they are weapons worthy of any hero. Kirito, this is the dagger of my husband," she presented the scabbards to him, "And the
sword of my son."

Kazuto was ashamed to admit, for a moment, that he reached out for the weapons covetously. You couldn't tell just by looking at them, but if half of what Verdelle was saying was true, these were every bit as good as an Anneal Blade. Then, just as his fingers brushed them, he stopped, the healers words sank into him.

Weapons worthy of any hero . . .

"Verdelle," Kirito murmured, "I . . . can't take these."

"It is alright, Kirito." Verdelle insisted, "I will keep my son's dagger, and my husband's sword, and they will be given in time to Gervaise' husband. One day, my daughter will have a husband and children of her own. You saved my daughter, Kirito."

"But I didn't mean to!" He whispered.


'Kazuto, what's wrong?'

"Verdelle," Kirito's throat tightened, "I . . ." He wanted to tell Verdelle everything, how he had seen the sulfates and passed them by. How he'd had no intention of helping the villagers until he'd messed up and grabbed the wrong satchel. How he'd abandoned a helpless woman to die alone. And how he'd attempted to assuage his guilt. These blades might have been worthy of a hero. But Kirigaya Kazuto was not worthy of them.



He needed these to survive and now he was throwing them away! What was he thinking?! His eyes began to burn, and then suddenly a hefty weight was placed into his hands.

Verdelle pressed the scabbards there firmly and looked into his eyes. "Kirito, these are yours now. You have earned them."

"Heh." He half hiccuped and half laughed. Of course, this was all just a quest, wasn't it? Verdelle couldn't let him leave empty handed after all the work he'd put in . . . Suddenly it all made sense. The sick villagers, the medicine, how could he be so stupid. He should have been able to spot a hidden quest when he saw one. But he'd been carried along by ambiguity. That must have been it it. It must . . .

In that moment, Kazuto felt incredibly, painfully, alone. He'd allowed himself to feel like Verdel was a real person, like Gervaise was real, and having the curtain pulled away . . . it hurt.

"I'm going to go now." Kirito said gently. "Goodbye, Verdelle" He turned to the door.


"What?" Kirito glanced back at Verdelle wearing a pensive expression.

"My son's name . . ." She squinted hard. "His name was Yves. And my husband, his name was Rainier. You just seemed so curious about us at first, I thought you should know their names."

Kirito stared at her, this strange woman who couldn't be real. "I don't get it." Kirito placed a hand tiredly over his face as the weight of events caught up to him. "Verdelle, what are you?"

"I am a healer, Kirito, I am the medicine woman of Rere village." Verdelle recited, "I am the mother of Gervaise and Yves, and the wife of Rainier. I am named for the green of the valleys . . . Kirito?"

"It's fine." Kirito wiped his eyes. "Just made me think of a coincidence. Yves, and Rainier, I'll remember those names. Thank you, for everything, Verdelle." With that, Kirito had set out, he had a long journey ahead of him, and he didn't want to look back.

End of Book One - Part One​

Black Iron Sword - A peculiar bastard sword of a style once favored for its flexibility by the Rangers of Castle Aincrad on their long patrols and lonely vigils. The name derives from the Black Iron Citadel, where weapons of this pattern were forged, and not due to the composition of the blade, an alloyed steel highly prized for its durability and resistance to corrosion. The weapon is noted for a somewhat short blade, compensated by a somewhat longer hilt, perfect for single or double handed use, or striking with the pommel.

Black Iron Dagger - A self defense weapon and tool favored by Aincrad's extinct ranger orders. This dagger was forged of the same alloy as the Black Iron Sword, sharing their dark gloss appearance. This dagger saw heavy use as a general purpose tool, but was also wielded as an off-hand weapon by more aggressive rangers in lieu of a shield or buckler. A special mysticism developed around these blades, which were never far from their master's person.

"Each day, bathe one in water and the other in oil, for long life" - Was a common catechism among the orders.
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nice to see this here as well!

And Welcome to QQ! I hope you will enjoy your stay here!

in the NSFW part, there is a whole thread for SAO snippets and ideas, which i suggest you take a look if you haven't yet! as well as the various SAO fics around - especially the NSFW ones as they are less likely to have been crossposted elsewhere.
nice to see this here as well!

And Welcome to QQ! I hope you will enjoy your stay here!

in the NSFW part, there is a whole thread for SAO snippets and ideas, which i suggest you take a look if you haven't yet! as well as the various SAO fics around - especially the NSFW ones as they are less likely to have been crossposted elsewhere.

Gotta be honest, as much as I joke about lewdness, I'm firmly in the camp of happily leaving strongly sexual content to the implied space.
Interlude I
Dreamers of the Day - Book One - Interlude I
Castle Aincrad - 1st Floor - Orignia - Day 7

When Argo introduced herself, she usually started with the fact that she was an Information Broker, usually so that she could then explain what an Information Broker did, and thus why she was a valuable person to know.
Most people didn't really know what an Information Broker did. Even fewer knew how an information broker did it.

They imagined a stealthy figure, stealing across rooftops, eavesdropping on confidential conversations, and moving furtively through the shadows. They imagined a spymaster, or a ninja.

But for the most part, Argo worked in broad daylight, under an open sky, and without any obfuscation to her role and identity, beyond simple, pragmatic, anonymity. The truth was that openly available information, bought,

bartered, or synthesized from other openly available information, was a Broker's bread and butter.

To do this required cultivating a robust network of contacts, and staying in good standing with a lot of different people. It wasn't what you knew, it was who you knew. Argo was a people person.

She was also totally a ninja.

Which was why, as she scaled the the gentle grassy slope, climbing towards the edge of Orignia, she opened her menu, reviewed her message log, and grimaced. Of the eighty people she'd managed to link up with on
launch day, far too many were already grayed out. The Beta Tester were getting hit hard. Their experience with the game had made them over confident in their deadly new reality, and they were paying a high price.

She sorted by most recent and opened her log with Kirito. Not that she'd been worried about him more than anyone else, but after three months in the Beta together, and three months chatting online, she'd admit, under
duress, that they were friends.

Argo - Listen Kii-bou, I don't know why you're Radio Silent. But if our friendship means anything, and your sword arm is still good, meet me on the Southern Lip near ToB tomorrow at noon. You know the
place. There's some things we gotta start figuring out.

She hadn't gotten word back until past midnight.

Kirito - I'll meet you there.

Never one for a long message when a short one would do, Argo thought. She swore it was probably a credit to his parents he didn't speak in a stream of abbreviations, memes, and gamer lingo like some of the idiots she
knew in school. But it didn't exactly give her any hints of what to expect. How he was holding up in their new reality.

When she reached the summit of the hill, where grass and sandy earth gave way to the smooth gray metal skin of Aincrad itself, she wasn't surprised to find Kirito waiting. She was only mildly surprised that the nest of Vespid
Sting Wings had already been dispatched. She was mildly more disturbed that her gaming buddy was sitting cross legged with a dagger, digging through their innards.

"Please don't tell me you're one of those creepers who played with roadkill as a kid." Argo said by way of greeting, causing Kirito to look up, wiping some ichor from his cheek as he blinked innocently.

"Afternoon." He didn't so much greet as make an observation about the time before returning to his grisly work. "I'm trying to dig out the venom sacks. They still go for decent col to the apothecaries." Kirito grimaced. "And I'd
like to eat something other than what I can scrounge up today." Then his expression twisted into a thoughtful frown. "These ones don't fall apart like the Labyrinth creatures . . . or us . . ."

Argo suppressed a tingle that ran from the nape of her neck to the tip of her tail. She knew exactly what the young swordsman was talking about. Watching it happen was almost unearthly surreal. All the more for how real
these bodies clearly were.

They breathed. They bled. They ate. They slept. They even healed. But as incredibly durable as they were, when it became too much, that was it. She'd seen flesh and bone as substantial as her own body, unravel and
evaporate into a dissipating mist of light. It was like, after the person inside was truly dead and gone, there was nothing left holding these bodies together. They just disintegrated.

The same happened to the monsters, maybe leaving behind a few choice bits. Usually something hard like tooth, or bone. Whatever they were, Argo thought, it was more real than the Monsters and Castle Folk, but still not
entirely natural. "So they're not monsters." Argo reasoned. "They're natural fauna." It seemed like a simple distinction. Normal animals died, decomposed, and returned to the earth exactly as expected.

With not much else to say, Argo stood behind the swordsman, and observed over his shoulder as he pried the dead . . . Birds? . . . Bugs? . . . Bird-Bugs? . . . apart as if he had some vague idea of what he was doing. Once
he'd found what was reasonably likely to be the venom sacks, he'd pulled out a hempen bag and loaded them inside, taking care to tie off the black barbed stingers. Then, they went back to waiting.

Argo checked her messages. A half dozen correspondences had updated, but the only pressing one read :

L:Annihilator - Be there soon!

The Pictish broker killed the time staring out over the cloud sea that stretched off to a nauseatingly far away horizon with no sign of land or water, only variations of light and dark within the clouds themselves and,
occasionally, flashes of illumination of what might have been lightning. But if there was any thunder, it was swallowed in the low steady roar of the wind breaking against Castle Aincrad's invincible steel skin.

At her back was a more human world. A world of greens and blues, of fields, farmland, and forest. They sat on the dividing line, and they waited in silence until even Argo couldn't stand it anymore.

Kirito yawned, blinking sleepily.

"So", Argo began, "See'ya got some new threads, Kii-bou. Not what I'd expect ya to go for." For one thing, none of it was black as such. Dark, but not black. The shirt and trousers were NPC fashion, simple and sturdy, and
fitted well to his body.

A jacket, a brown leather jacket, not a long coat at all, quilted, and looking amply warm enough to stave off the cold wind blowing over the Lip. Clothing didn't resize like an in game item any longer. It had been cut for a bigger
man and hung a little loose on Kirito's lean frame. The breastplate was new too. Or rather it was old, but looked pretty well made, and well cared for. A bit better than anything he should have been able to scrounge up now
that the quests didn't reset.

"Huh?" He blinked, rubbing at an eye, "Y-Yeah. Well, beggars can't be choosers, y'know?" There was a story there, but the urgency had faded. It was unlikely the information was reusable, and thus, wasn't worth much

Argo nodded, that was the truth. The biggest problem they were all facing was that they were, to put it bluntly, dirt poor. Twenty five thousand, minus a couple hundred so far, players with only some starting col to their names and not many obvious ways to earn more.

And now they needed food.

And they needed shelter.

That all cost money.

The Castle Folk expected payment and that starting col was dwindling fast.

Information brokers bought and bartered information. Argo had been doing a lot more of the latter, trading in promises and favors in the hopes that they'd have a way to pay later. Everyone had accepted her IOUs so far. It
wasn't like anyone could outbid her. It was that or nothing at all. But it couldn't last this way. They had to break in, participate in Aincrad's economy, such as it was. She felt like the parable of the merchant who bought a
kingdom with a piece of straw. But all her trading had barely gotten her two copper coins.

"That's not an Anneal Blade, either." Argo noticed the dark scabbard. Though she hazarded it was probably of about equal quality.

"No, it's not." Kirito agreed.

"And that's a nice dagger." She added. They looked almost like a matching set.

"Yeah, it is."

"Ya doing okay, Kii-bou?" She hazarded.

The young man, though if she were to guess he'd put on a few years, like her, blew a few loose strands of hair from his face. "Well, I thought I was doing bad."


"Then I poked my head into ToB on my way here."

"Yeah." Argo agreed. "Place is a mess. A-kun is trying to hold things together."

"Good luck to him."

Thinking too hard about it was just going to make her depressed. She checked her messages and answered some of the most pressing strategically, before closing out again. The problem was there was almost nothing to do
but think. Thinking without knowing. They didn't know, there was too much they didn't know. When she heard a voice calling at her back, Argo was almost relieved. A small part of her taking heart that, at least on this matter,
there was an 'adult' to take the lead.

"Argo! Over here!" A hand waved high in the sky. It was attached to a woman scarcely bigger than Argo herself. Though she could have easily been mistaken for much larger owing to all of the hair. Beautiful, volumouse, long
blonde hair that seemed to catch in the wind and fan out behind her like a cape. Argo couldn't imagine how she'd keep it in this real world for much longer. It would either have to kept tied up, or snipped off before too long. But for now, it remained her most distinguishing feature.

Argo waved back, rising to meet her fellow Beta who wrapped her up in a hug and then pulled back to cup her face, smiling warmly. "Oh, Argo! It's been too long!"

"It's been seven days." Argo chided. "Lyza."

"It's felt like seven months!" A mousy green haired man groaned as he caught up with his partner. He carried a heavy pack, lashed with poles, ropes, and cooking pots. His soft features weren't just feminine, like Kirito's, they
were downright dopey. No way that was anything but his real face scanned to game. This one, Argo didn't know personally, though she'd heard about him during the Beta. Lyza confirmed.

"This is Torka. He's from my old Delving Squad. Y'know, in that survival game I was telling you about? Abyss Raiders!" Kirito perked up slightly at the name. Of course a Full Dive addict like him would have at least tried it.
"Well, he was also my fiancee IRL, and right after the Beta closed, I made him my husband!"

"Then we went spelunking all over Asia for our honeymoon." Torka nodded. "Soon as we got over the jet lag, we logged in for the launch."

Argo winced, that was pretty rough, but Lyza just gave a big grin and pumped her arm. "Don't sweat it, Argo. We may not be great Labyrinth fighters, but out here on the floor field craft is king and we're champs. So kick back
and leave everything to us!"

And that's exactly what she did. It wasn't what you knew, it was who you knew. Kirito had watched as well, with growing interest, as Lyza and Torka set down their packs and began taking out ropes, and notched straight
sticks, and chalk, and stakes, and string. The list went on. It was bit . . . very . . . primitive, but Argo had faith in Lyza.

"She's actually an urban surveyor." Argo elaborated on Kirito's burning unasked question. "A real good one too, I hear."

"So you knew her IRL?" Kirito pondered.

"No. Just learned chatting her up during some friendly co-op PVE." The Pictish replied. She was a fiend with that dwarfish pickaxe of hers.

"And you believe her?"

"People don't generally lie without a reason, Kii-bou." Argo told him. "You're going have to learn that eventually. Make some friends that aren't behind a monitor or projected into your brain." Kirito simply yawned again,
maners of a feral cat.

Lyza had set up and then called them all over help running string and hammering down stakes into the earth. She sent Torka running a good distance, measuring her string, only stopping when Torka came running back,
chased by more Sting Wings that were quickly dispatched.

Finally, Lyza had tied herself securely, and then instructed the three of them to lower her over the edge. "It's fine Torka!" She'd called to her fretting husband as she stood dead horizontal and measured with her improvised
tools, nothing but the Cloud Sea at her back. "It's just like going down to the Goblets, but I won't get hit with the debuff when you pull me back up!"

Pull her back up they did, and while Lyza's fingers happily danced, making numbers move in her menu's math function, Torka had prepared lunch.

Her poor husband might have had a dumb face, but Argo refused to believe he was anything but a master of the stew pot. The second he'd recognized the carcasses Kirito had been rendering apart, a gleam had appeared in
his eyes. "Wait up, there's a great little recipe I learned from the Castle Folk!"

"Well you guys must have had an adventurous few days." Argo had laughed as Torka had set to work with his simple crafting knife. The humble blade glided, propelled by the skill of a true chef, making Kirito's work look like
sloppy butchery.

"First you separate out the meats. Be sure to avoid the venom sacks and cut off the gristle! Then you want to take this part under the mandi-beak, it's full of enzymes that help with caramelization!" He'd set the meat to
sizzling over a campfire, giving Kirito the unenviable duty of 'milking' the mandi-beaks for their soon to be sweet juices.

"Once it starts to glaze, toss it in the pot with some wild root vegetables, then leave to simmer until the broth turns brownish red for a balanced and nutritious sting wing stew! You can use the rendered fat from the meat to fry
up the wings and add some salt for a crunchy and low calorie snack while you wait!"

And so they did, and so they snacked on their crispy salted bug wings, and so it was good. The stew had turned out delicious, the meat was tender and succulent, and tasted faintly sweat, like a strange cross between
shellfish and a honeyed ham. Kirito, especially, looked like he'd just found an oasis in the desert.

"I ate well a couple of days ago." He admitted. "But it's just been snacks since then."

"Shame that irredeemable partner of yours is missing this." Argo told Lyza. She barely looked up from her calculations. "She's doin okay, right?"

"Actually." Torka frowned. "I don't think she likes my cooking much."

"Nonsense dear! She'd wouldn't finish if she thought it was bad. Even if she was starving. And she's doing fine Argo, she's scouting with that druid we met playing ALfheim." Then Lyza smiled slyly, ribbing the broker. "And this
Kirito, is he the one you and Pitohui had that bet going about?"

"Bet?" Kirito looked up as he handed his bowl back to Torka for seconds. "What bet? I didn't know there was bet."

"Social, Kii-bou." Argo snickered as she and Lyza shared an inside joke.

"And I think that does it." Lyza announced as she stood and swept an arm wide over the verdant expanse of Orignia.

"So, tell it to us straight, doc." Argo said. "Is it as bad as I think it is?" Because from up here, it was hard to say. The scale just wasn't anything human. Looking at it visually, the town of beginnings certainly looked smaller by
comparison to its surroundings. And the natural features of Orignia looked bigger.

But the town was where it should be, and everything seemed exactly as it ought within. She'd been able to navigate the familiar streets by memory while escaping the riot of the first day. She couldn't think of the slightest
discrepancy when her vision had gone white and then cleared in the Square of Origin. Everything had felt exactly like the place they'd been a moment before, in the virtual Aincrad of Sword Art Online.

But . . .

"The numbers are in and the results, assuming a perfectly circular floor area, are . . . Eighteen kilometers!"

Argo breathed a sigh of relief. "Okay, that's not as bad as I thought."

"Divide eighteen over ten and square it to get three point two four." Kirito muttered to himself, without bothering to consult his menu calculator. "A bit more than three times as big isn't that bad." Lyza became very quiet.

"Uh . . . Sorry." She smiled sheepishly. "That was radius, not diameter."

Kirito's eyes darted as he recomputed the answer in his head. "Twelve point nine six." That was thirteen times larger. More than an order of magnitude. And judging by Lyza's other surveying results, the floor height had
increased proportionally as well. "If it's still a hundred floors," Kirito muttered, "And assuming they're each about the same size that's one hundred and one thousand seventy seven hundred and eighty seven", doing a quick
tally on his fingers, "Point six. That's . . . "

"Bigger than Hokkaido," Argo said. The broker sat quietly, curling and uncurling her fingers as she blanked her mind and counted down from ten. Then she did the only productive thing she could do. She swiped open her
menu, she had some people she needed to get in touch with . . .

End of Book One - Interlude I

LYZA JOINS THE FIGHT! - "What a marvelous adventure!"
TORKA JOINS THE FIGHT! - "I've got a great idea for a new recipe!"
Ooh this one is behind the others! Also I didn't realize you posted here as well as SB. Wee more places to follow fun stories.
Ooh this one is behind the others! Also I didn't realize you posted here as well as SB. Wee more places to follow fun stories.

I figure I might as well try posting a few other places. This one is behind a bit because the formatting isn't playing nice when I post.
The Archer I
Dreamers of the Day - Book Two - Part One - The Archer I

This was a dream. It had to be a dream. The calm voice conveying its terrible message. The roar of the crowd around her. The press of bodies against her own. Kyouko didn't understand. If this was a dream, why couldn't she wake up?

She glimpsed a figure sunken to his knees. The appearance was all wrong, the lean muscled heroic visage plucked from the pages of manga, but still she knew that was Kouichirou. She tried to reach out to him, but the press of the crowd wouldn't let her, she was being pushed in the opposite direction, pushed away. Trying to fight it was like trying to fight the tide, she felt herself being dragged under.

Yuuki Kyouko hit the ground hard, her temple striking paving stones, and her world going white. Her vision swam as she tried to rise, only for a dainty foot to stamp on the small of her back and push her flat once more. A heel came down on her hand, much heavier, she cried out as pain flared and curled, trying to protect her head and chest from the incidental pummeling of a terror stricken mob.

She struggled to get back up, but the press kept pushing her back down, kicking her, stamping on her. The sky was a narrow sliver glimpsed fleetingly, she felt like she was going to suffocate as she reached out for something, someone, to grab hold of . . . 'Please!' She thought, fear infecting her.

This wasn't a dream, it was a nightmare!

Her simple prayer was answered as a hand clasped around her wrist. Kyouko felt herself being dragged up into the air and the light. But her savior was not who she was expecting. Rather than the tall and lean frame sported by her son, she was met by the stout and modest Nishida.


"Where is Kouichirou!" Kyouko's head spun about, but all she saw was a sea of faces gripped in confusion and madness.

"We have to get you to safety!" Nishida insisted, towing her by the wrist as he fought to make headway.

"But Kouichirou-" She couldn't just abandon her son in this insanity! Kyouko tried to pull free, but Nishida's grip was like a vice.

"I saw that big fellow he was dueling with during the tournament pulling him to his feet!" Nishida explained distractedly as he shouldered his way through the mob, "I'm sure he'll make it out on his own. For now, we must worry about ourselves!"

"But . . ." She began again only to stop, that was as far as her train of thought had gotten before derailing. Yuuki Kyouko had always prided herself on her drive. She'd clawed her way out of rural irrelevance and remade herself as someone worthy of marriage into a prestigious family. But all of the drive in the world didn't count for much if she didn't know what to do with it.

For the first time in a very long time, she didn't know what to do.

And so, in that moment, Kyouko's resistance had gone slack, she had found herself meekly led by the hand as Nishida navigated them to momentary safety. They'd found refuge by cutting through a narrow alley. For a time, as the roar of panic and fighting faded behind them, the only thing Kyouko recalled was the sound of hurried footsteps, Nishida's and her own, echoing off the renaissance-esque architecture all around them. Buildings that suddenly seemed far darker and less inviting than they had just minutes before.

They'd emerged onto a wider side street, receiving strange looks from the native inhabitants, the 'NPCs', as Nishida's head spun left and right, deciding which way to go. He settled on East, towards one of the city gates.

"Nishida, tell me what is happening!" Kyouko demanded, she was surprised she wasn't out of breath, until she glimpsed her own reflection in a passing window, the slender graceful figure of a beautiful mid adolescent, a stranger, long blond hair and the ribbons of her dress streaming behind her.

What had that girl at the Arena said? These bodies were calibrated to simulate high athleticism. If that were so, she pushed herself harder to keep up, breath deepening as her stride lengthened, finally breaking free of her escort's grasp in time to see the doubtful look on his features.

"I don't know." Nishida started. "I think that Akihiko has gone insane."


"He's tampered with the Memeospheres somehow, made it so we can't log out."

"What?!" Kyouko skidded to a halt, making the menu gesture that Kouichirou had taught her, the menu materialized . . . as a flickering garbled mess . . . Some sort of strange angular writing, not any alphabet she was familiar with, haltingly transitioned to Japanese. It was as Nishida said, where the logout option should have been, there was nothing.

"The government is going to have our heads for this!" Kyouko hissed as she pulled at her bangs, it was the sort of disaster that might even force Shou to step down. The damage this . . . disaster . . . would do to the Yuuki reputation would be . . . would be . . . It would be disastrous was what it would be!

"Right now, I'm more worried about Kayaba's ultimatum." Nishida said, taking the opportunity to catch his breath.

"The man was clearly having a psychotic episode," Kyouko scoffed, her tail lashing in agreement. He'd be suffering a lot worse once she got her hands on him!

Nishida didn't look so sure, the stout company man grimaced as gears turned behind his eyes. "I can entertain that Kayaba had some means of disabling the logout from within Sword Art Online, but if that's the case, why are we still here?"

"Are you speaking in riddles now?" Kyouko wondered aloud, "Of course we're still here, if he disabled the logout . . ."

"If he disabled the logout, then that only means we can't log ourselves out." Nishida elaborated, "But our bodies in the real world are at Argus HQ. The development team should have spotted that something was wrong and removed our headsets by now. Why haven't they?"
"Well because . . ." Kyouko started again without having an answer. Technically, she should only be a couple of meters from Kouchirou, reclined side by side in the same executive lounge. They'd been given privacy, but they were hardly out of reach if someone needed to get to them.

Nishida's expression darkened as he reached towards her. "Atalant . . . Yuuki-san . . . You're bleeding."

"What?" Kyouko was distracted, "Yes, I . . . hit my head when I fell . . ." She probed gingerly at a spot just forward of her left temple. "She winced as she found a tender bump forming, the blood already turning dry and tacky. Thankfully, it didn't seem too bad, it just . . ." Kyouko's eyes widened, "It hurts," she whispered. That was right, it hurt, through the buzz of adrenaline her body was still sore where she'd been hit and stepped on.

Even Kyouko knew the game was NOT supposed to simulate pain. This was much worse than she'd feared, forget the government, the private lawsuits alone would be ruinous!

"That shouldn't be possible." Nishida muttered under his breath, "None of this should be possible within the design parameters of the Memeosphere."

"What are you saying?" Kyouko shook her head, but she was only met by more confusion as Nishida unlimbered the short bow and quiver he'd been carrying for her.

"I'd like you to hold on to these, Yuuki-san, just for now." She stared at the offered weapon. "Whether Akihiko is delusional or not, it would be wise for us to assume the danger is real, at least for the time being. You may need to defend yourself."

Defend herself?! Did he expect her to fill someone with arrows like some sort of Samurai retainer? Whatever the Yuuki family's business partner had contracted, it must have been infectious, he was starting to sound as insane as Akihiko! But at Nishida's urging, she'd taken the bow, and the quiver, donning them the way they had been worn and held when she'd first opened her eyes in this form, and resumed following Nishida towards the gate.

"Do you even know where we're going?" Kyouko asked, that was a good question, focus on the immediate, the concrete.

"Surprisingly," Nishida chuckled weakly, "Your son is quite a friendly fellow, you know."

"O-oh." Kyouko said, hesitantly. "I suppose he is, isn't he?"

Nishida nodded, "Well, he offered me a place in his party this evening in order to get acclimated. He mentioned that there is a small town in the hills to the East of here. It isn't too difficult to reach, but it was easily overlooked by players during the Beta Test. It was where he intended to drop off his avatar before logging out at Argus HQ and resuming at home." Nishida seemed anxious as he added, "The Safe Haven Protocols are no longer in effect, but it's probably safer there than staying here for the time being."

"And you think it's someplace Kouichirou will come looking for us?" Kyouko reasoned, receiving a hesitant nod from Nishida.
"That's right, so . . ." Her companion squinted as they approached the gate and the sounds of conflict grew louder once more " . . . what the devil?!"

A fight had broken out between some of the trapped players and the town guard, or rather, between the town guard and dozens of individuals. In fact, it was more of a senseless brawl, without order or reason, an outright riot of the type that was anathema in modern civilized country like Japan. Fearful players, seeking to escape, became unwilling reinforcements as the guards fell on them too.

"Let us through!" Somebody shouted.

"You can't keep up here!"

"Out! I want out!"

Dozens of voices all saying the same thing. Whether they meant out of the town or out of this mad man's game, it didn't matter. But the guards had no intention of conceding to them, if anything, it was making the rough looking men more inclined to deny the players what they wanted. Staffs came down on arms, shoulders, and heads, swords were drawn by players, kicks and punches were thrown, guards and players wrestling each other to the ground . . .

"I thought the NPCs were like robots." Kyouko gasped fearfully, "How can they attack humans like that?!"

"That type of robot only exists in speculative fiction." Nishida explained as they tried to skirt the fighting. "The NPCs are only characters in a game world, so there was no reason to prevent them from attacking players if it suits the situation. That's just part of the game."

Perhaps that had made sense before, but if what Nishida was saying was true, if, and Akihiko had instated some sort of consequence for injury, even death, then . . .

Before Kyouko could complete that thought, the fighting grew to encompass the entire breadth of the street in front of the gate and they had no choice but to plunge into the brawl. Nishida was carrying no weapon of his own, but he soon proved to hardly need one. The stout man was no martial artist, but he certainly knew how to throw a punch, shouldering his way through the fighting, dislodging obstacles with an economical jab or hook, then moving on before his stunned target could recover.

Kyouko clung to her escort's shoulders, cringing at the sound of flesh striking flesh, and averting her eyes from the barbarity all around her. The gate house loomed before them, and beyond that a wide open country painted in late afternoon light. Never had she longed for open space more than in the middle of that maddening melee.

Then, a whistle had pierced the air, it had echoed off the walls, before fading, replaced by the rumble of gears. The gates, they were closing the gates! The mob surged as isolated players collectively came to the same conclusion and threw themselves forward all at once, overwhelming the guards and rushing the gatehouse.

'Idiots!' Kyouko thought fearfully, wouldn't it make more sense to just let them go? Why would they want to trap a riot inside of the city?! These stupid computer programs were going to get them killed!

Nishida had gotten them close enough to the front that they were able to ride the wave of bodies forward; they were beneath the gatehouse now, almost free. That was when Kyouko heard it, unfamiliar muscles twitching and pivoting her ears as a faster rattling of chains could be heard just above the noise of the gate mechanism.

"Yuuki-san!" Nishida shouted as she was taken by the arm and thrown forward roughly, Nishida's palms slammed into her back, propelling her, she stumbled, fell, and rolled as a deafening crash of iron shook the ground beneath her. An iron grate, a portcullis, had cut off most of the mob, thankfully not killing anyone, but it had been a near thing as another Pictish hissed and wailed, nursing the bloodied tip of his tail as he stumbled away.

"Nishida!" Kyouko shouted, realizing that her escort wasn't with her. Instead, he was trapped on the far side of the grate, another portcullis had crashed down on the far side of the gatehouse, closing them all inside. That must have been what the guards had intended, transforming the entire throat of the gatehouse into an enormous jail cell.

"Yuuki-san!" Nishida shouted, fighting to prevent himself from being crushed. "You need to run!"

"But . . ."

"Go to the village I told you about! Follow the road due east past the farmland and take a right at the first fork, there will be a second fork with a small wooden footbridge leading to a path up into the hills, that's the way you want to go!"

But Kyouko's feet were welded in place, she realized she was shaking as she clutched her bow, pinned, watching Nishida fight to keep breathing. If she ran now, she'd be all alone, she didn't understand this place. What if she got lost?

"Yuuki-san!" Nishida shouted, "You can't stay here, go!" Desperation caused him to speak with an irresistible tone of command. She had to do something, and this was something, and so her body obeyed even before her mind knew what she was doing.

Right at the first fork in the road, then over the footbridge at the second fork, follow the path up into the hills, there should be a small village there. Kyouko repeated this like a mantra as she ran from the town walls. A few others had escaped as well, the fastest of the players on foot, who had been ahead of even her and Nishida, and some of the other cat and elf eared players who had trusted their agility, or their wings to get them over the walls. Freed from the confines of the town, they were quickly beginning to scatter in the fading evening light. Were they as lost as her, or did they all have their own destinations in mind?

She didn't spare them much thought, simply keeping to the road, keeping to her own goal, trusting what Nishida had said because without it she would have nothing else.

Even escaping the Town of Beginnings, however, did not mean she had escaped conflict. On the road in front of her, another player was being confronted by town guards. They'd chased her down and singled her out, maybe because she looked to be barely more than a child, an easy target to subdue. This didn't seem to be quite true, however.

A lithe and slender thing, her long golden hair tied back in braids and a simple floral-band. The guards were trying to apprehend her, but she was having none of it, fending them off with her iron sword, and doing a better job of it than Kyouko would have expected.

"I said stay away!" The girl shouted, clutching the hilt of her sword with both hands, feet set in a wide solid stance, she met a blow from one of the guard's wooden staves and then pressed into it, pushing until there was almost no room between them.

The guard hadn't expected her to be so strong it seemed, nor for the ephemeral wings to ripple and stir to life on her back. They didn't so much 'beat' as glow and blur filling the air with faint melodic chords as they vibrated and conjured the air around her into gusts strong enough to push the guard back, overbalancing, and sending him tumbling down the slope of the road into the fields.

Before she could turn to escape, the other guard caught her, swinging his staff across her back. The girl cried out as she too took a tumble from the road. Then the guard was on her, pushing her down as she struggled, pressing his staff across her neck, trying to force a submission. The way was clear, Kyouko could be well gone before either guard noticed her, all she had to do was keep running. Mind her own business, keep herself safe until Kouchirou came for her . . .

Her hearing was too good. The girl's cries for help wormed into her ears, the damned cat's ears she'd been cursed with, they had a mind of their own, pivoting to listen against her will.

"Let her go!" An angry mezzo pronounced between ragged breaths.

The guards looked up and were met by the ludicrous sight of a cat girl standing with her shortbow at full draw. At least, Kyouko thought it must look ludicrous, she hoped to the guards it looked amply dangerous, because she wasn't sure what she'd do if they called her bluff.

She might have practiced kyudo, but that had only been for a couple of years in school, and she'd only ever been a middling practitioner for her age, before abandoning it to focus on her academics. She hadn't touched a bow in years. And even if she had, the short bow in her hands wasn't anything like the traditional yumi she'd trained with back then.

Luckily, she didn't need to find out, the guards had understood her well enough and decided this wasn't a fight worth having, the one holding the girl falling off of her and allowing the child, at least she looked like a child, to scramble her way uphill to stand beside her rescuer. Kyouko held her bow at full draw for a moment longer, taking one step, then another, once she judged they were at about the limit of the bow's range, she relaxed her draw, quickly returning the arrow to her quiver, and grabbed the girl by the hand, pulling her along.

"Thanks!" The girl, pointed ears, wings, a Si, spoke breathlessly, causing Kyouko to meet her fear widened eyes. Green eyes, bright and clear as emeralds in a face that was almost nordic in its features and fairness. That was unlikely to be anything like her real self, but Kyouko could hardly complain, they were alike in that regard.

"Don't mention it." She couldn't even say she'd rescued this girl, not until they were someplace safe. It should have felt like a burden, but somehow, the sweat slicked hand clasping her own was a comfort. It was less frightening to be afraid together.

"Where are we running!" The girl asked.

"Away!" Was all Kyouko think to say at first, then adding, "I think there's a village in this direction, someone told me." That was right, if they could get there, they would be safe, at least for a little while.

"I'm Leafa." The girl supplied without prompting.

"Kyo-" Kyouko shook her head, that obviously wasn't her real name, so for now she'd answer in kind, "Atalanta."

Having exchanged names, it seemed there was nothing left to say, they spared their breath for running, racing the fading light of an old day in a strange new world.

LEAFA HAS JOINED THE FIGHT - "I know my way a around a sword!"
The Archer II
Dreamers of the Day - Book One - Part Two - The Archer II
Yuuki Kyouko rose at exactly 6:00AM in the bedroom she shared with her husband, separate beds side by side. From 6:05 to 6:25 she took her morning exercise in their home gymnasium. 6:30, shower. 6:40, dressed and made up in clothes laid out to
suit her schedule; fashionable business attire of a conservative yet perennial cut, burgundy, suitable for visiting the headquarters of RECT's corporate partner ARGUS.

By 6:45 she was seated at the breakfast table, a cod roe omelet, orange juice, and a steaming cup of imported organic coffee, black, served on fine porcelain, as she reviewed her morning correspondence on a tablet.

She had an interdepartmental meeting the next day and it fell to her to advocate for next year's changes and budget proposals to conform to the national education standards. Kyouko wasn't too concerned, she did nothing without first guaranteeing
success, and had been maneuvering to bring senior faculty around to her position for months, but the meeting was hardly a formality either, the presentation needed to be impeccable to lock in her gains.

"Good morning, mother." A soft melodic voice greeted cordially. It was a Sunday, so Yuuki Asuna was not dressed in the immaculate uniform of her prestigious preparatory high school, but rather in a cream blouse and dark women's slacks in a demure
style, wholly appropriate to her daughter's station, that had cost more than an entire wardrobe of the sort of tacky trash worn by lesser girls.

"Asuna." Kyouko acknowledged as her daughter seated herself and was efficiently served by a member of the staff.

"Thank you, Kobayashi-san. This looks delicious." Asuna complimented courteously.

The maid moved to quickly refill Kyouko's coffee. "Thank you, Kobayashi." Kyouko acknowledged the maid servant curtly.

Mother and daughter took breakfast together in prolonged silence as the light of the golden hour spilled in through tall windows. "So you'll be visiting my brother's work today, is that right?"

Kyouko paused as she began to cut into her omelet. "It is a minor social function on behalf of our family's business interests."

"Meeting with board members, or something like that?" Asuna smiled.

"Something like that, yes." In fact, Kyouko didn't much see the point of this preposterous thing. An inauguration ceremony for a place that didn't really exist. But it was expected that members of the Yuuki family would participate, a show of faith in their
company's product, and Shou had always been passionate about his business endeavors.

He'd even had Kouichirou show him how to use one of those accursed things so he could see what all the fuss was about for himself. Thereafter, whenever her husband and son had discussed the business partnership with ARGUS they'd practically
spoken in a foreign language.

"In any case, I expect to be back no later than 6:00PM." Kyouko said. "If I'm kept late, please eat without me, I will get something on my way home."

"Yes, mother." Asuna answered dutifully, seeming suddenly more subdued then when she had entered the room.

Kyouko regarded her daughter. Asuna's latest national test results had been exemplary, there was still room for improvement, but if she maintained her current performance her admittance to the Tokyo University economics program would be a near

A prestigious education from a prestigious school would ensure her lifelong success, that would only leave . . . "Next Sunday we will start on the marriage interviews." Kyouko reminded calmly, it had been three months since she and Shouzou had sought
their daughter's consent to begin the process.

Of course this was simply the preliminary stages, it could be more than a year before an acceptable suitor was selected. The engagement would go on while Asuna completed her undergraduate courses. But her daughter's prospects were as good as
her grades, several promising young men from within the Yuuki family's close circle of associates were being considered, including Shouzou's own protege, as well as the possibility of a favorable marriage into a certain respectable business dynasty
whose holdings naturally complimented those of the Yuuki family.

"It will be a Lunch meeting. I've already booked a table at Esterre." Asuna liked the food there, and the idyllic location, overlooking the national gardens, would be an auspicious location to start the matchmaking process. "Mrs Oshida and I will be
chaperones." The Oshida matriarch's middle son was scarcely older than Asuna, and also, while Asuna's academics were impeccable, the same could not quite be said for her behavior.

They were small things, adolescent outbursts, to be expected at Asuna's age. Her teachers had been almost embarrassed to mention them for how minor they were really. But Kyouko had no intention of leaving anything to chance. She would do nothing
without ensuring success.

Yes, aside from small inconveniences like today, the cost of tranquility, everything was proceeding as it should, Kyouko thought, sipping her coffee and allowing herself to bask, for a moment, in the results of her life's work. At forty nine years of age, she
was a woman still in her prime and still ascending in her chosen career. Her family was prosperous, and her efforts to ensure that prosperity for another generation were bearing fruit. Everything was as it should be.

"But mother, how will you make it?" Asuna asked, a strange note entering her daughter's soft voice.

"What do you mean?" Kyouko had asked, distracted as she read an email from the department head, her eyes widened as she sipped her coffee and the rich brew tasted suddenly cold and rancid. The warm light of the golden hour cooled to the fading
red of a dying dusk.

The television had come to life on the far wall, showing the national news. "The twenty five thousand day one players of Sword Art Online remain trapped at this time. An emergency session of the National Diet has been called in response . . . R-A
representatives have declined to speak to the media at this time . . . Board members calling for the resignation of CEO Yuuki Shouzou . . . Criminal liability being considered . . . "

Rather than a depiction of a press conference, a newsroom, or even stock footage of the Headquarters of RECT or Argus, the screen depicted a tall lean man, sunken to his knees in the middle of a town square that seemed almost medieval. Achilles?
No, Kouichirou!

"How will you make it," Asuna asked, "When you're trapped?"

Kyouko's head spun, but the person on the other side of the table was not her daughter, it was . . . that young woman . . . the one who worked with Koichirou . . . Yui, her skin cracking as she broke apart like a neglected doll, dissolving into brilliant

The porcelain on the table rattled as it began to do the same, the coffee cup breaking in her hand, the dregs turning to tacky blood on her fingertips. The manicured gardens outside the high windows turned to deep gnarled forest in the twilight, moving
as if the entire Yuuki house was racing along, swaying branches clawing against the walls. The window glass broke.

Kyouko was standing, she was pulling, she was being pulled, as she, as they, ran through the darkness and the biting cold of a night wind. Strange noises surrounded them and stranger shapes were glimpsed in the shadows, not all of them simply
figments of her imagination for all that she was sure they belonged in a child's nightmares.

She wanted to stuff them back where they belonged, but she couldn't. She could only run, run blind, where was she running to? Holding the hand of a stranger and the grip of a strange bow, who was this girl and what was happening?

As shadows closed in, as the wind howled like familiar voices begging to be freed, the words of Kayaba Akihiko boomed in the night sky.

"Players . . . No Outlanders . . . Newcomers to this fallen Castle. I wish you all the best of luck, and pray for your success. Farewell . . ."

Yuuki Kyouko's eyes snapped open. She had no idea where she was. She had no idea what time it was. She was being watched. She knew she was being watched because she was watching her watcher, two pairs of brown eyes, set to either side of
short, sharp beaks, stared at her with benign curiosity.

"Hugh?" Kyouko blinked slowly as the image percolated through her sluggish brain.

"Bwok?" One of the pairs of eyes quarried.

"Uh . . ." Then very suddenly Kyouko launched to her feet, spitting straw from her mouth and wiping at her face, pulse racing as she let out a startled shout. "Wugh . . . Aaaah!"

The chickens didn't like that. "Bwok Bwok Bwok!" They jumped, flapping their wings and puffing their plumage, making themselves as big as they could. Kyouko stumbled backwards blindly, her heel caught on something buried in the hay and her shout
turned into a cry of surprise as she started to totter backwards.

The world spun away from her, she saw rafters, back arching, and a gray morning sky, hand shooting out by instinct, the floor rushing up to meet her, palm striking the packed dirt floor, momentum carrying her over as she tucked in, disorienting . . . the
balls of her feet struck the ground, legs absorbing the impact like springs as she settled into a crouch.

Kyouko blinked owlishly as she tried to comprehend what had just happened.

She stood up quickly, and regretted it at once as her vision went white, accompanied by a -clonk- as something hard and heavy was dislodged from the wall behind her and -clanked- to the ground. "Ahtatata!" A horseshoe? Who in their right mind would
leave that there?! Kyouko glared at the offending object, grabbing at the back of her head, her eyes growing wide.

Her hair . . . Her fingers combed through long dense locks.

Yuuki Kyouko prided herself on her appearance. Every six weeks, like clockwork, for years, she had visited the same exclusive Tokyo salon. Her hair hadn't been this long since she'd been in highschool. And she'd certainly never dyed it anything but its
natural color! But there it was, green bangs hanging over her eyes, and the rest of it fading from a tawny blond to near platinum as it spilled down nearly to her waist.

"My god, it looks like some attention seeking schoolgirl's!" A disquietingly unfamiliar mezzo said what Kyouko was thinking. Then she let go of the lock of hair she was examining, she looked at the backs of hands that she should have known like, well,
the backs of her hands. She turned them over, examining the fingers,the palms, the strangely narrow and sharp nails . . . She rubbed at her throat, she licked her lips, she noticed something waving in the corner of her vision and turned to meet the tip of
a tail. She rubbed her eyes before looking again. The tail continued to wave. It was like it was saying hello.

Kyouko turned in circles, trying to see the cat it was attached to until slowly it dawned that it was attached to her. It was her tail . . . Her heart crawled up into her throat and then plummeted through her stomach as the events of the past day replayed
themselves in her mind.

That ridiculous inauguration ceremony. That ridiculous tournament. And the not at all ridiculous words of Kayaba Akihiko, spoken with the serene confidence of a reigning Emperor for all that they had been utterly insane.

Which meant . . .

Quickly, she looked around for something, anything, that she could use for a mirror, before settling on a bucket of what appeared to be clear and clean water. Kyouko gazed down into the pool of ink dark until she began to discern the reflection in its
placid surface and hissed as she was met by the face of a stranger who could, cat ears and tail aside, and hair that would have had her instantly expelled from any respectable private school, very nearly have been a classmate of her own daughter.

"This isn't happening." Kyouko pulled at her bangs before making the menu gesture to flip through the unfamiliar tabs and pages. She knew it was futile, she'd accepted that, at least unconsciously, even before she had remembered. Her frantic swiping
stopped as her ears twitched and pivoted, zeroing in on a noise.

Kyouko wasn't alone, that was, aside from the chickens clucking softly to themselves, she wasn't alone. Curled up in a drift of hay was the girl she had encountered the day before as she fled the Town of Beginnings.

In the dim morning light, in her simply novice clothes, green pleated shorts and vest over white blouse and leggings, she was a lithe and beautiful thing, fair nordic features and long golden hair far more lustrous than the straw around her, rubbing at one
tired emerald eye with a balled fist, while at the same time, clutching the scabbard of her sword tightly to her chest, like it was a talisman against all the horrible things that had happened.

Ridiculous, Kyouko thought, as her palms itched for the comfort of the bow Nishida had given her, ridiculous . . .

"You're awake." Kyouko heard her own strange voice say, a little gruffly. She didn't know how else to start, given the situation.

"Un." The girl nodded slowly. Kyouko rubbed at her forehead, she didn't recall much of the night before, but what she could was harrowing enough. Running through the darkness as strange shapes had watched them, crossing over from the fields and

climbing up into the hills following a narrow and treacherous path. They'd taken shelter in this barn when the weather had turned, burying themselves in the hay for warmth.

"Leafa." The girl looked up. "Your name is . . . Leafa, isn't it?" Kyouko received another small nod.

If nothing else, she still had her knack for remembering names. It was a talent she'd honed while accompanying Shou to more social events than she could count. As an outsider, she'd had to familiarize herself quickly and never forget a face.

"Are you alright?" Kyouko continued to say, "I mean, you're not hurt, are you?"

"I'm okay." Leafa said curtly, hugging her sword a little tighter. "What about you?"

"Oh well . . ." Kyouko winced as she touched the bump forming on the back of her head, and the place hidden in her hair where a clot of dried blood had formed, "I'm fine."

"It's Atalanta, right?" Leafa asked then.

"O-Oh . . . Y-Yes." She had given that name, hadn't she? "It's from Greek mythology, something to do with the Argonauts, or so I've been told."

"A huntress of great renown." The girl recited confidently.


"Atalanta was a huntress who worshiped the goddess Artemis."

"Y-yes, something like that." She thought back to what that girl, Argo, had told her.

Leafa smiled weakly, "The other game I play has a lot of mythology references."

"I see," Kyouko said, not really seeing at all, it wasn't like she knew this game, much less any of the others on the market. Was knowledge of mythology common among gamers? "So, do you play games a lot?"

Leafa's smile faded a little. "Not really, just ALfheim, with some school friends sometimes."

"Oh . . ." Kyouko shook her head, really, they were just talking about nothing now. But she had said something interesting.

School friends, she'd mentioned, so this girl probably really was just a girl, probably highschool, maybe college, but likely around the age portrayed by her avatar. That hadn't occurred to Kyouko until now. She'd known, intellectually, that people in the
game didn't look like themselves, Kouichirou and Nishida, her eyes wandered back to her own reflection. She'd known, but it hadn't been relevant, so she hadn't thought what it could mean until now.

She looked at herself, and then she looked at Leafa, Kyouko shook herself. She was still the adult, appearances aside, and Leafa was clearly the child, there was an order here that she could comprehend at least. Or so she thought.

"Listen, it's . . ." going to be alright? Even saying it inside of her own head, it sounded ridiculous.

"Things aren't . . ." That bad? How did she know what things were or weren't? She'd barely understood this game when it had been functioning normally, much less now.

"I'll . . ." Look out for you? The events of the past day played out in her mind's eye. She hadn't even been able to look out for herself.

"We'll . . ." Kyouko groped for an end to that thought, something, anything, that she could say to settle things to her own satisfaction. But nothing was forthcoming as she stood, clenching and unclenching her hands, trying to come to grips with what had
happened and was still happening all around her.

". . . Stick together." A pressure was suddenly relieved in Kyouko's brow, she nodded, only realizing belatedly that Leafa was the one who had spoken. "We'll stick together." The girl pronounced as she stood, dusting herself off.

"R-Right." Kyouko agreed, Leafa clearly needed looking after while they were here. Wherever 'here' was. Her gaze tilted to the barn doors, lips pressing thin and eyes narrowing, there was only one way to find out.

The door was heavy, and had sagged on its hinges with age, it took a good deal of Kyouko's strength and the help of Leafa, to get it dislodged. As it scraped and creaked open, their eyes were first dazzled by unfiltered morning light, and then slowly

'Idyllic'. That was the word for it. Like some sort of marketing promotion. They looked out upon terraced fields and farmsteads nestled among the slopes of rocky hills. Cottage roofs and what seemed to be a church steeple peeked from among the trees
of the valley floor. The overall picture was quite lovely, in the deceptive way that country living always was . . .


"Y-Yes?" Kyouko met Leafa's inquisitive gaze. "Do you think this is the place your friend told you about?"

"I . . . Don't really know." Kyouko admitted, chewing at her lip, "We followed his directions," or they had tried in the dark, "So I suppose it must be. What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Leafa frowned, "So what next?"

It was a good question, all things considered. Nishida had selected this place because it was known to Kouichirou, and easily overlooked by others. Or so Kyouko had gathered. The path had been surprisingly obscure, they had almost missed it in the
evening light while looking for it, so it would possibly be some time before anyone else wondered this way. It also meant it would possibly be some time before it occurred to Kouichirou to check this place.

What Kyouko wanted to do was propose returning to town. They'd managed to hike here in the dark, it certainly couldn't be any worse to return in broad daylight. But was that really wise? Would things have calmed enough by now to be safe?

And what about the guards? It dawned on Kyouko that, in the heat of the moment, she'd drawn a weapon on members of the local law enforcement. Didn't that make her a criminal?!

"Are you alright, Atalanta?" Leafa asked, "You look a little sick."

"What? No, I'm fine." Kyouko dismissed quickly, but maybe it was best if they didn't go back to the town right away. Besides, if they stayed put they were more likely to be found. Wasn't that the advice given when people got lost hiking? "We should . . ."


Kyouko stared at the source of the offending noise, Leafa, or rather, Leafa's stomach. The girl's cheeks lit up as she patted her belly. Kyouko was about to speak when a little shiver invaded her own stomach.


As if the noise was tugging for her attention, Kyouko was surprised to realize she was . . . hungry. Really really hungry! "I haven't eaten since . . ." She started, she wanted to say the strawberry cake at the restaurant the day before, but there had been
no evidence of the desert when she'd wretched up, and she wasn't going to mention that! "I just haven't eaten," She decided to say, tactfully. In fact, "Ah, Leafa-san . . ." The girl nodded, Kyouko was almost embarrassed to ask but, "Do you have to eat in
these sorts of games?"

"Huh?" Leafa's brow crept up. "You mean, this was your first time playing a Full Dive game?"

"My . . . Family Member asked me to join them." She said carefully, frowning as she noted an unreadable expression flashing across the nordic girl's elfish features. "I'm afraid I don't know much about them myself."

She expected to receive an earful from this girl, an outsider invading her area of expertise. Instead, Leafa gave a thoughtful look before answering carefully. "It's true that some games include a hunger mechanic. Especially survival games, I heard from a
friend that it's a core mechanic in Abyss Raiders, unless you equip a rare relic that negates the hunger status. But even in games that don't have that sort of status effect, you'll start to feel hungry almost by habit."

"By . . . habit?"

"Un," Leafa wore a look of grave concentration, she obviously wasn't entirely used to being the 'teacher' of this topic, "You might be isolated from your body's own senses, but your brain has a lifetime of experience growing hungry after so much time
without eating. And of course, things like your blood sugar directly affect the brain in a way that Full Dive technology can't suppress. But I've done some long game sessions before, and this doesn't feel like that."

Kyouko grimaced, "Don't tell me you believe what that lunatic in the sky said yesterday?" Of course a child's mind might be more pliable to such flights of fancy.

Hesitantly, Leafa shook her head, "I don't know. This can't be real, can it?"

"Of course it isn't real." Kyouko sighed, pausing for a moment as she brushed at her clotted hair and the tender spot beside her temple, she added, "That doesn't mean it isn't dangerous though. We don't know what is actually going on. So we should still
exercise caution."

"Right," Leafa nodded, giving no argument.

"It's probably prudent we find something to eat, then," Kyouko decided, whether they actually required sustenance or not, nothing good would come of being distracted by hunger. "Now how do we go about doing that?"

-Bwok bwokbwokbwok?-

Leafa and Kyouko both turned and eyed the small flock of chickens that had shared the barn with them, now mincing their way curiously out into the morning yard and beginning to pick at the ground for insects and seeds.

"Where there's chickens, there's eggs." Leafa suggested, bending down to pet a particularly docile brown hen.

Kyouko's grimace returned, "Those things carry salmonella." And she was just touching them, with no place to wash her hands . . . "Besides, do you see anything to cook them on?"

"Well, it's a farm, right?" Leafa reasoned.

"Yes, so?" Kyoko nodded, looking around at their surroundings, which was the easy part, the hard part was concentrating on any one thing for long. Her ears kept twitching and pivoting, tracking and interrogating any unusual noise she happened to hear,
which happened to be everything. And then there were the smells. She'd forgotten the smells. She'd made herself forget the smells!

"Where there's a farm, there must be farmers so . . ." Before Leafa could finish that sentence there came a harsh clatter from the side of the barn, much louder than any noise the chickens could possibly make.

A man, a stout, ruddy faced man, perhaps aged in his fifties, thinning white hair and a thick white mustache, was watching them with a dumbstruck expression. At his feet was a pitchfork, seemingly dropped from his open hand. Mouth agape, he stared
at the two of them exactly like they were, well, a cat girl and an elf.

A brief stalemate ensued, broken as Kyouko cleared her throat, "G-Good morning." She raised her hand awkwardly.

"Mornin'" The man grunted, clearly a farmer as Leafa had suggested, dressed in homespun clothes, light blouse, dark trousers, and a wool vest, he lifted his flat cap and scratched his bald pate. "Not often we see Fairy folk round these parts."

"Fairy . . ." Kyouko touched her ears, hadn't Nishida described her character as something like that? "Ah yes, that's right. We're sorry to intrude, we made use of your barn without permission and . . ." The man stared blankly forward, as if she had
suddenly started to speak in a foreign language.

"I don't think he understands." Leafa intervened.

"What?" Kyouko frowned, looking between the farmer and Leafa.

"He's an NPC." The Si girl explained with a sympathetic smile. "A non player character," looking thoughtful she added, "I think."

"I knew that." Kyouko answered quickly, Leafa looked unconvinced. She had in fact, the NPCs the day before had behaved amply lifelike for all that they'd been trying to capture them. What was wrong with thinking this one would be the same?

"Do you mind if I try?" Leafa asked. Kyouko opened her mouth, then closed it again, she didn't really have any reason to say no, it just didn't sit right with her as she stepped aside. "Good morning, Farmer-san!" Leafa greeted politely.

"Mornin'" the man repeated the same greeting with the same tone, Kyouko's eyes narrowed. He lifted his flat cap and scratched his bald pate. "Not often we see Fairy folk round these parts."

"That's right, we are Fairies, my name is Leafa and this is Atalana-san."

"Lea-fa? Ata-lanta?" The man repeated, looking them both over with a thoughtful light in eyes beneath heavy white brows like snowdrifts. "Not often we hear names like those round these parts."

Kyouko snorted to herself. 'Of course not you silly computer program.' He was probably going to be as infuriating as that miserable paper clip.

But Leafa kept at it with a pleasant smile and patient demeanor. She spoke carefully, as if by rote, in simple and direct sentences. She avoided compound sentences whenever possible and spoke with a formal grammatical structure. The intention,
Kyouko quickly gathered, was to eliminate any ambiguity from her questions and save time that might be wasted with backtracking and repeating herself.

In short order, Leafa had gleaned that the farmer's name was Fostier and that he lived on this farmstead with his wife Elaine, irrelevant, and that they were currently in the outskirts of the small village of Champar, or fully Champar Dans Less Collines.

"Champar in the hills?" Kyouko frowned as she pondered a name that seemed to be partly French. At least she could swear that was what she'd heard, but Fostier's lips hadn't quite seemed to . . . move right . . . when he'd said it. But the name alone
was strong evidence this was the right place.

Leafa's next question captured Kyouko's attention, ears perking. "We were wondering if there was a place where we could get something to eat." Leafa said carefully, "We don't have much money, but if there's someone who needs help or . . ." She
stopped mid sentence as Fostier lifted his hat and scratched his head again.

"Hungry eh? Well, my wife is cookin up breakfast." He hooked a thumb back towards a small timber house nestled up higher on the hill, a homey curl of white smoke drifted from its chimney. If yer willin to listen to a request you can have a bite and
maybe more, supposin' yer interested in some honest work."

Leafa brightened, clapping her hands together, "Yes, that sounds wonderful. Thank you!"

"Leafa, what are you doing!" Kyouko stepped forward, touching the girl lightly on the shoulder.

"We need something to eat." Leafa answered, "And it can't hurt to hear him out. This close to the starting town it's probably just a basic fetch quest, or something like that." She lowered her voice, adding, "And depending on how things go, we could
probably use the reward."

Reward? Kyouko shook her head, she was about to decline, this seemed like a bad idea, but her stomach spoke up first.


The Si girl didn't say a word, but there was a smile in her emerald eyes. The vote, it seemed, was two to one in Leafa's favor. Looking to Fostier, Kyouko reluctantly asked the farmer to lead the way.
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The Archer III
Dreamers of the Day - Book One - Part Two - The Archer III
"Outlanders eh? That explains it." Fostier stroked the gray stubble of his chin while seeming to appraise his guests in a new light.

They were seated at the round table of a rustic farm kitchen. Warm morning light spilled through a faint haze of steam and cooking smoke. The smell of tea and fresh bread filled the air and challenged Kyouko's resolve.

"Here you go, love." A woman with white curly hair, offered a plate of rolls and a clay mug. This was Ellaine, Fostier's wife, and in every way she seemed an exact and kindly counterpart to her stout husband. The sort of characters that might exist in a children's storybook.

"O-Oh thank you?" Kyouko replied, not quite sure how to respond to a person who wasn't really a person. Manners never hurt, she supposed. She examined one of the rolls with fresh skepticism before taking a careful bite.

Thin flaky crust yielded immediately to a soft and warm interior, still steamy from the oven, the smell of butter filled her nose as Kyouko took another bite and closed her eyes, chewing thoughtfully. She must have been hungrier than she'd imagined, it wasn't possible for something made in such crude surroundings to be this good.

There was ample to eat, a whole basket of warm rolls, butter, jam, tea, and an iron skillet's worth of fresh eggs. It was a farmer's breakfast, simple foods, and plenty, to fuel the body for a long day's labor. Leafa wasted no time helping herself to the eggs, giving thanks for the food, and dipping a roll into still runny yoke.

"About what you told us when we first met." Leafa asked Fostier, "You said Fairies aren't common in this land."

"That's right," the Farmer nodded, "Most of yer kindred dwell high up in the castle, in the abode of Mighty King Oberon and Wise Queen Titania. Least that's how I always heard it. Course gettin there was a journey even when I was just a boy."

"When I was a girl, you'd occasionally spy a Fairy from time to time." Ellaine added, as she bustled about with morning chores, tending to the cooking fire, sweeping the red tiled floor. "On some business or other for their Court. But it's been ages."

"I see." Leafa nodded as if finding all of this terribly interesting. Kyouko couldn't imagine why, it was all made up nonsense after all. The blonde girl spread jam on her roll and ate thoughtfully. "Before I forget, did you mention you had a job for us?"

The farmer squinted, and then nodded, "Aye, if yer interested. Had a bit of a windstorm last night, sure you noticed." Kyouko nodded to herself, how could she forget? It had been fortunate they'd stumbled upon this farm or who was to say where they would have had to hunker down for the night.

"The weather blew open some of our paddocks," Fostier explained, "Usually the herd's good about stickin' together, but in the storm some've gone and gotten separated."

"Herd?" Kyouko repeated around her next bite. She couldn't help it, the jam was strawberry, she washed it down with some of the tea, inhaling the floral aroma.

"Aye, we raise goats here in Champar." Fostier said, "Even in times like these, the herd keeps us afloat."

"So you want us to help bring your lost goats home?" Leafa concluded, then brightened, "Sure, we can do that!" Kyouko's chewing slowed to halt as she stared, completely oblivious to . . . something . . . brushing against her le- . . . her tail . . . causing it to reflexively curl.

"It'd be a great help, Miss Fairy." Fostier said, holding cap in hand, "We've not much to offer but room and board . . ."

"Room and board is exactly what we're looking for." Leafa smiled, "You just need to tell us where to look and we'll get right on it!"

"Findn'm ought to be easy enough,' Fostier explained, "Owing to . . . "

The goatherd's explanation was lost as a shriek pierced the air and a chair clattered sideways. It had all happened in the blink of an eye as something warm, and sinuous, and slimy, had licked itself against Kyouko's hand, trying to get at her half eaten roll.

A heartbeat later, Kyouko was standing, hunched forward, tail erect and fully fluffed as she glared murder at the impudent creature that had dared to lay its tongue on her person. Panting happily, a pair of mismatched brown and gray eyes regarded her over the tip of glistening wet black nose all belonging to a shaggy black and white mongrel.

"Darter!" Ellaine reprimanded, immediately seizing the dog's attention, it hunched its head, whimpering as it licked jam from its lips.

"Doggy!" Leafa leaned over the table to get a better view. A very bad doggy, Kyouko thought. But not unexpected on a farm with animals.

The Goatherd's wife scowled, "Yer not to eat scraps from the table. Git now, git!"

"Come on boy, best get out of doors and let her cool off." Fostier got up and took the dog by the scruff. "Darter here will help us find the goats. Normally him and me'd be ample for the task, but I reckon two Fairy Folk can half the time." The goatherd gave Kyouko a skeptical look, "I'd heard the Pictish Folk were good with beasts," Kyouko simply huffed, leaving Leafa to smile nervously and assure Fostier that they were up to the task.

"Do you know anything at all about animals?" Kyouko whispered into a long elfish ear as soon as they left the Kitchen, following Fostier as 'Darter' trotted along happily at his side.

"Do you?"

"Well, my grandfather bred shikoku inu . . ." And not a single one of them had ever demonstrated their breed's supposed temperament. Why was she even telling her this?! Her family had raised crops, not livestock. She did know, though, that handling animals wasn't something that you just learned in an afternoon.

Leafa smiled, "Well, it'll probably be okay, since it's just a basic task, right? Fostier-san has faith in us."

"Fostier is a computer program." Kyouko reminded, receiving a strange look from Leafa in turn.

The Fairy girl mumbled an affirmative, turning her attention to some inward thoughts. "But if we don't want to go back to town right away, this seems like the best way to stay here for a while, right?" Kyouko sighed, she couldn't really argue with that. "I mean, really, how hard can it be?"

By mid afternoon, Leafa looked perfectly willing to eat her words, Kyouko wouldn't have minded helping her. Champar Dans Les Collines, Champar in the Hills, was an entirely accurate name for the place they'd found themselves, nestled comfortably in a shallow valley between rocky slopes, they'd done as much climbing as walking, following Darter and his master.

It became quickly apparent why the stout old goatherd might want a pair of helpers. In terrain like this, the goats were at a distinct advantage. They'd found the first kid ambling along a ridge, bleating for its mother like a child lost in a department store. The second was one of the nannies, heavily pregnant, and stuck in a narrow ravine, requiring Leafa to climb down and tie a rope to help hall the unhappy creature out. They'd found their third goat high up in the branches of a tree . . . It had only gotten
stranger from there, climbing, chasing, flushing out. Only a lack of alternatives, and a bull headed refusal to leave a job undone, had prevented Kyouko from stocking back to the barn, burrowing into the hay, and trying to escape this nightmare by going back to sleep.

Until finally, the two Fairies standing dirty and disheveled craned their necks as they surveyed the near vertical cliff face where a trio of troublesome juveniles contentedly licked at the bare rock and browsed the tenacious weeds taking root in the cracks and fissures.

"You must be joking," Kyouko said planelly.

"Aye, that's a bit of a trick." Fostier agreed, "If it were just one of'm, our little herd here might coax him down." The goatherd patted the head of the pregnant nanny, who bleated agreeably. "But they got each other to keep them company and seems they've found some colonies of salary beetles up in the rocks."

"Salary beetles?" Leafa asked.

"Salt shell beetles." Fostier nodded, as if that explained everything. "Gotta shelter against rainy weather, and creatures like our goats, looking for their salt. I reckon those kids won't wanna come down before sunset."

"Wait!" Leafa spoke up, when Kyouko turned about, the Fairy girl was wearing a look of intense inward concentration.

"What are you . . ." Kyouko's voice died in her throat as Leafa's blouse rippled and something ephemeral and faint as gossamer precipitated into being, gaining substance and rigidity, four sharply raked shapes sprouting from between her shoulder blades.

That was right, she recalled, Fairies of Leafa's type had wings, like that Sakuya woman during the tournament, or a few of the players she'd seen showing off in the streets before everything had gone mad.

"Do you even know how to use those?" Kyouko asked with fresh skepticism.

"It's not too different from ALfheim." Leafa answered as she glanced over her shoulder, the wings flexed experimentally, as if they were perfectly natural extensions of the girl's body. "I'm a flying ace in that game! What's the matter?"

"Nothing." Kyouko at first lied, she wanted to say that in Leafa's 'other game' they weren't subject to the whims of a delusional lunatic, but at that moment what was really on her mind was, "So if you have wings, what do I get for being a . . . 'Pictish'?"

"I guess Pictish are like cat people, right?" Kyouko nodded, that was obvious enough, "So you can probably do anything a cat can do."

Kyouko looked at her hands, and at her tail, she looked back at Leafa. "So you can fly, and I'm a cat?" Leafa nodded, Kyouko's nose, and ears, twitched as she thought. "And how is that fair?"

"Well, uhm . . ."

Kyouko pinched the bridge of her nose, "Never mind. Let's just try and get this done."

"Right! Stick close to the cliff, maybe I can coax them to go down lower where you can reach."

"Fine," Kyouko waved, watching Leafa take a few experimental hops, testing her control over her wings before spreading them wide. Like the day before, the wings didn't so much beat as begin to vibrate, blurring in place, a noise like musical chords filling the air as a gust conjured around Leafa and lifted her skyward.

"Well I'll be." Fostier scratched at his pate. It was something, Kyouko reluctantly agreed, if not for their circumstances it might almost have looked fun.

She recalled something about flight powers being limited as well, some sort of weight or time limit, maybe both. Leafa's short flight described a delicate arc, wings fading as she lighted on the cliff face, finding purchase and hanging easily while she creeped up on one of the kids so as not to startle them. The goat gave an indignant bleat and began ambling downwards. "I'll get it." Kyouko said, the sooner they finished, the sooner she could find a place to wash off all this filth. The goat had its own
ideas, stubbornly standing just out of reach and bleating at her, dark button eyes watching passively, like a wooly stuffed animal brought to life.

"Come here!" Kyouko commanded impatiently, but that only served to send the Kid hopping back up the cliff.

"Don't scare him, Lady Fairy!" Fostier called.

"There'd be nothing to be scared of if he just came down", Kyouko grumbled, this was ridiculous. She judged the distance, only three meters, and started looking for handholds. The preternatural athleticism of her avatar made quick work of the task, bringing her within arms reach of the kid, which bleated and ambled up another meter.

"Why you!" She followed him up, and then again, hopping sideways, he scrambled his way out of reach once more.

"Atalanta?" She heard Leafa call.

"I'm busy!" Kyouko called, distracted. 'And my name isn't Atalanta!' She added internally. Alright, she spied another handhold, just out of reach, but maybe, she calculated the arc in her head . . . Her hips wiggled as her legs coiled up, spine arched, then all at once the tension was let loose like a spring and she clawed her way straight up another two vertical meters.

The Kid didn't like that, climbing higher, Kyouko following him in starts and stops until at last he'd become pinned against a portion of the cliff too sheer even for a goat's sure hooves.

"Gotcha!" Kyouko declared. Now just to hop down and . . . Kyouko looked over her shoulder, then planted her brow firmly against the sun warmed stones. Her breathing quickened, and her pulse pounded in her ears. Her tail curled up.

"That's high." Too high! How had she'd gotten so high?! She had to be twenty, no, thirty meters up, at least! She could see all of Champar from here, all the way down the hills to the start of the flat farmland.

"Atalanta!" Leafa called from below. "Great work, just climb down and . . ."

"I-I can't!" Kyouko stammered.


"I'm stuck!" Not stuck exactly, she could always fall . . . Her tail bristled and her grip tightened, her shoulders trembled as her body tried to claw its way into the rock. The Kid bleated, inciting fresh outrage. "This is why I hate animals!" She closed her eyes and whimpered . . .


That infuriating fake name again. Kyouko bit her lip as music chords trembled faintly in the air. "Ata-chan." Closer and more gently, a conversational tone right beside her, "Look, Ata-chan, I'm right here." She cracked open an eye and met the brave smile of Leafa. The girl was hanging on to the rocks right next to her.

"It's easy for you," Kyouko muttered, "You've got wings!"

Leafa looked embarrassed, nodding, "That's right, it's not so scary when I can't really fall."

"Carry me!" Kyouko snapped, she didn't care if it sounded childish, at that moment she just wanted to be done with it.

"Ah, you're probably a bit too big for that." Leafa was probably right. "If you can't climb down, the only way to go is up."

"You want me to go higher?" Was she insane?!

"Do you have a better idea?"

Kyouko didn't.

It wasn't like going higher could make things any worse. Truth be told, she was more than halfway there already. Leafa gave her a reassuring look, promising not to abandon her. With that in mind, Kyouko hesitantly selected her next handhold, and then her next foothold. The kid ambled up ahead of her, happily stopping to lick at patches of rock or browse the odd stubborn weed, oblivious to any danger.

If a goat could do it, then so could she.

Panting and sweaty from fear and exertion, Kyouko at last rolled onto her back and shivered, the ground comfortingly solid and flat beneath her as she took a moment to catch her breath and stare up at the strangely flat sky. Her respite only lasted a brief moment before the curious kid began investigating the possibilities of her hair as a snack.

"Get away, scoot!" Kyouko snapped, sitting up and crawling back, protecting her hair from further predation.

"Aah, he's just a little baby." Leafa chidded, the kid bleated in agreement.

"If he touches me again, he'll be capretto." Kyouko retorted, pausing as her ears tugged for her attention.


What was that noise?

So low and deep it almost wasn't a noise, but pervasive and overpowering now that they were standing atop the cliff. A muted roar, like a waterfall. It resonated with her bones. Kyouko stood up and followed the noise away from the cliff edge, the soil and stone turned to smooth flat metal, a deep metallic gray, and then plunged away to reveal . . .

"The Cloud Sea." Leafa murmured as she caught up beside her.

"The what?" Kyouko asked, but she couldn't tear her eyes away.

Clouds as far as the eye could see, so far that looking at the horizon made her nauseous. So far she wasn't even sure there was a horizon. Or if the endless clouds simply faded into a haze of pale blue, until it was impossible to tell the difference. She couldn't even see the ground, lost beneath swirling layers of white.

At her back was a human world, something comprehensible to the five senses. Everything beyond the edge was too much, too vast, it ceased to have meaning. She started to feel dizzy, groping for something to orient herself, Leafa caught her by the shoulders, the effect had obviously gotten to the Fairy girl as well, but she'd studiously looked away before it had become too much. "What is this place?"

"Huh?" Leafa seemed surprised, "You mean you really don't know?"

"I told you, I don't usually play games." Kyouko grumbled as Leafa guided her away.

"Let's go back first, and then we can talk about it." Kyouko just nodded, allowing Leafa to lead her by the hand in a sedate reflection of the day before.

They'd returned to Fostier's home in time for late tea, leftover rolls from breakfast, served with goat butter, and barley water served by Ellain while Fostier mended the paddocks and tested the gates. Leafa had been all too eager to help move the herd, treating it like a child might a petting zoo, while Kyouko had stood watching from the kitchen door, a clay mug cupped in her hands.

"Your friend's, a lively one, Love." Ellaine bustled about with her house chores. On a farm the work was never done.

"We're not friends, exactly." Kyouko said without thinking.

"Oh?" Ellaine paused for a moment, "What are you then, mind me askin'?"

"Traveling companions," Kyouko decided reluctantly, "Of circumstance."

"Ah well aren't we all just companions of circumstance, to start?"


Some people believed in chance encounters, but Kyouko had never put much stock in them. Chance encounters hadn't gotten her out of Miyagi, or through University, or landed her a job, or found her a husband. She had built her life out of intentionality, out of knowing what she wanted, learning how to get it, and then charting a course to obtain it.

Ellaine had gone silent for a while, her programming probably didn't know how to respond to that. Good, Kyouko didn't much like the idea of confiding in strangers. Even strangers that were just computer software. "Still, the two of you have been a big help to these old bones."

"Hmm . . ." Kyouko's eyes narrowed.

"What is it, Love?"

"It's just, wouldn't your husband ask neighbors before strangers to help him?" She supposed it was one of these 'quest' tasks that the players were supposed to accomplish, but then, Kyouko certainly hadn't seen the fun in it.

Another long silence while Ellaine busied herself. "He most certainly would, if our neighbors weren't hard put as well. That's the way of things these days. Orignia used to be a prosperous Kingdom, you know. Not so much in recent years . . . But we all pitch in, and we all get by . . . And noone turns down a helping hand they find sleepin' in the barn, young lady."

'Young Lady!?' Kyouko bristled, moments before her train of thought derailed.

"Well then, gettin' on towards evenin' now, as the guests, what say you about having the first bath?" Ellaine turned and tilted her head quizzically, "Love?"

"E-Excuse me," Kyouko shook her head, she probed tenderly at the soft interior of her feline ears to be sure she'd heard right, "Did you say bath?" There were baths here?!

"Is there a problem . . . Oh." Kyouko took Ellain by the hands and looked her gravely in the eyes.

"Show me!"

Given the primitive surroundings, Kyouko hadn't held out much hope, but tucked into the shade of the house, within the privacy of a small garden, was something at once quaint, and given the circumstances, a gift from the heavens.

A goemonburo.

Although when she'd breathed the word, Ellaine had simply given her a blank look. To tell the truth, it wasn't exactly a cauldron bath as she would have known it, the tub was situated in a brick pedestal, rather like an outdoor oven, instead of the stainless steel in concrete she'd been familiar with as a girl, but the principle was the same.

"Bath should be just about warmed up by now, Love." The Goatherd's wife explained. "Guests wash up first, give yourself a scrub and rinse before you soak."

"Un!" Kyouko had nodded eagerly, beginning to undress as soon as Ellaine gave her privacy. It took some doing. She'd never put this dress on, so half the chore of taking it off was uncovering all the ties and fasteners and figuring out how they were undone.

It was an odd arrangement, not what she was used to. No elastic or zippers, things were laced, or tied, or held up with garters. Undoing the dress was more like a gradual loosening until she could finally get it to slither to the ground like a shed snake skin.

At which time Kyouko was left to stare . . .

'Young lady' indeed! She looked down at herself with a growing blush.

Kyouko had been conscious, of course, of the difference, intellectually, but it was very different having it all in front of her eyes. She gave her flat belly, and her pert bosom, an experimental poke. "Hmmph, this girl has certainly never born a child." Kyouko had kept herself in fine trim for her age, but no matter how fit, there were things a woman inevitably lost with her youth, and inevitably gained after two pregnancies.

She stroked her bangs fretfully before shirking her underwear as well and sitting down to go to work with a bar of soap and a pot of hot water. She sponged herself down, scrubbed herself raw, and then rinsed herself clean, making a point to keep her eyes averted the entire time. One of the bottles Ellaine had left out seemed to be a sort of hair product, so she'd used a few drops of that too, lathering, and rinsing through. It took forever, long hair was so troublesome.

Finally, she climbed up to the lip of the bath, inhaling the steamy air before testing with the tips of pale toes. Once she was satisfied it wasn't going to boil her alive, she'd sunk right in with a groan of delight, eyes closed, body bordering on euphoria as her weight disappeared and a gentle all embracing warmth swaddled her up. A moment later she sank beneath the surface and stayed there until her breath gave out, surfacing with a gasp and a sigh.

"Lady Fairy!" Ellain called from beyond the garden wall. "Lady Fairy, are you alright, Love?"

"Fine!" Kyouko called, in fact, she almost laughed for how a good hot bath had improved her mood. "The water's perfect, thank you!"

"Good to hear it. Now if you don't mind, bundle up your clothes and I'll give'm a quick wash and hang'm to dry the night by the hearth. I've got a nightshirt here for you when you finish."

Kyouko didn't know how long she must have soaked there. The water, mirky with herbal infusions, and filled with fragrant flower blossoms from the garden, sunk down to her nose; she must have resembled some sort of amphibious life form. But she didn't care. She could have closed her eyes and forgotten all of her present worries.

How could virtual reality make something feel like this? It was unexpected comfort, and unexpected nostalgia, and also . . . unexpected melancholy. She climbed out of the bath when she'd started to grow light headed, drying herself and putting on the linen shirt Ellaine had left for her. A simple thing, decorated in geometric stitchwork around the hem and collar, it covered her down to the knees.

That was how Leafa found her, sitting outside the kitchen door after her own bath, watching the evening settle over Champar. Faint lights flickered in distant windows, and white smoke curled from chimneys. She was shewing Darter away as the Fairy girl scrubbed her hair dry. The mongrel had been snooping around for scraps and was sent running by a hiss and a feinted kick.

"It's pretty." Leafa observed, sitting down beside her.

"This place is dying." Kyouko said matter of factly.

Leafa's eyes went wide, turning to her, "Huh? Dying?!"

"Un." The Pictish pulled her legs up, resting her back against the wall of the house. "It was obvious when we helped Fostier. This village raises livestock, but there are vegetable fields as well. Most of them are fallow." The fields would have to be rested, especially without modern fertilizer, but not that many at once. "Some of the other farmsteads also looked abandoned, and . . ."


"The fact Fostier asked us for help. Farmers are hospitable people, families help each other." Whole villages helped each other. "But because they're hospitable people, they don't like to burden others who can't afford it. They make do when they can." And even when they couldn't.

"You're saying everyone is shorthanded." Leafa reasoned.

"This village is emptying out." She shook her head, "There's no future here." She hadn't paid it much mind until Ellain's comment had prompted her to put the pieces together, but it was obvious now that she knew to look. It was a story happening all over Japan. A story that had been happening for years . . .

Leafa's smile faded, "That's . . . really sad."

"It's not like it matters," Kyouko replied. This place was upsetting her, but only like a sappy movie, a fake thing reminding her of something else.

"Y-Yeah . . . But . . . "

Kyouko pressed her lips thin. "You don't really believe this is real, do you?"

"I don't know." The fairy girl hugged herself. "It can't be real, but it's not like ALfHeim."

Her previous game? "It certainly doesn't seem like much fun," Kyouko agreed, "And I could do without the aches and pains Akihiko has burdened us with." She flexed her sore feet, watching small pale toes wiggle

"That's just it, none of this is arranged like a game," Leafa frowned.

"In what way?" Kyouko didn't really believe anything the girl was saying, but she was a teacher enough to entertain a student's hypothesis, for the sake of argument.

"Well, helping Fostier with his goatherd. You might do something like that, in ALfheim, in the tutorial." Leafa explained, "But it wouldn't take so long, and it wouldn't be so tedious. Helping Fostier was interesting, and kinda fun, but it wasn't the kind of fun you play games for."

Kyouko meditated on this for a moment. "Akihiko . . . he said something about this being 'his world'." He'd called himself the architect and master of this place. "The man is, or so I have heard, a perfectionist. Who's to say he didn't make the game world more authentic, now that he has a captive audience." Was that what Akihiko was doing, forcing them all to live out his delusion?

"Maybe," Leafa agreed, "But even then, Full Dive can only get so real, can't it?" Kyouko gingerly touched her tender temple. "My . . . brother . . . is a big Dive Head, ever since the Nerve Gear launched, he's always talking about it . . . But he always said he was a little disappointed by the fidelity."

"Disappointed?" Kyouko recalled the strawberry cake the day before and wanted to laugh. "I don't normally play games, but even I was impressed when I logged into this place."

"Yeah, me too." Leafa looked thoughtful, "It's how I felt playing ALfheim the first time as well. And I still like that game, but my brother was right, the more you get used to it, the more you notice things. Things that aren't quite real. Graphical imperfections, and the way everything is gamified so the console can do renders and simulations. There's a limit to what Full Dive can do, even if you wanted to be as realistic as possible. And you don't always want that because it might not be as much fun."

Kyouko felt an uneasy knot growing in her stomach, a stomach that she was now fairly certain she shouldn't be able to feel. "So what could that mean?"

"I . . . don't know." Leafa chewed her lip, "Sorry, it's just all very strange."

"It is." Kyouko agreed, sitting quietly for a while together as they watched the light fade further, as the smell of the hearth fire wafted from inside. It would be time for supper soon, farmers roused early and went to bed early.

"We'll stay here for a while." Kyouko decided, she was sure Kouichirou would come looking eventually, once he could. "Just until we can get our bearings. I'm sure someone from town will wonder this way eventually."

"Un." Leafa nodded, "I kind of want to head back but . . . "

Of course, she probably had friends she'd been playing with. That was a relief, Kyouko realized, once she could put Leafa back in her place, and find Kouichirou, maybe things would start to make more sense. Kouichirou wasn't an engineer, but he worked shoulder to shoulder with the people who had developed full dive technology, and Nishida knew even more than that. If anyone could explain what was going on, it would be members of the R-A development team.

But for now . . . It was just the two of them. She eye'd Leafa pensively, "Listen, whatever Akihiko has done, I'm sure the authorities are tracking him down as we speak. And once they find him, he'll be forced to let us all go." And then be locked away until the end of time!

"You think so?"

Truthfully Kyouko didn't know what to think, but she'd nodded anyway, before they'd been called in for supper.

It was a quiet meal, eaten at the kitchen table, a hearty vegetable stew full up with milk. After eating, and washing their mouths for the night, the Goatherd's wife had produced a small silver comb, possibly the finest thing in the house, and offered to brush Kyouko's hair straight as they sat by the fire. Fostier was seated in the corner, drawing on a peasants cob pipe as he showed Leafa some sort of board game, not quite chess and not quite shogi. He seemed pleased to have someone to teach and play against.

"I don't think . . ." Kyouko started.

"Nonsense, Love, that mane needs a good comb, hair is a girl's pride, after all."

Kyouko petted her bangs thoughtfully. There'd been no use in arguing, so she'd sat herself down on stool and she'd closed her eyes, and she'd endured the fussing, and the melancholy nostalgia that it conjured inside of her, until the tugging of the comb eased into a steady silken rhythm. She'd almost fallen asleep sitting up before Ellaine declared, "All done, love. Now you next, Leafa dear. Then Fostier can show you up to the loft."

In a tiny room, barely big enough for two narrow beds and a chest of drawers, Kyouko had lain flat on her back, unable to fall asleep. It wasn't just the lumpy bedding beneath her, making her long for her chiropractic mattress, or the coarseness of the quilt, making her yearn for egyptian cotton.

It was her damned ears. Her damned senses. They were too sensitive. Ears that heard everything, the country noises she'd thought she'd left behind. Eyes that could count the ceiling planks, even in the dark. The tail that was curling around her leg . . .

She just had to wait it out, get back to Kouichirou and then . . . then . . . She didn't know what then. Kyouko heard something else too, much closer, and trying to be silent. The tight shaking breath coming from beneath the quilt of the other bed. "Lea-" She started and then stopped. Kyouko never did anything without first ensuring success. She turned over, covered her ears, and tried to sleep.

Kyouko's morning began before dawn. When she opened her menu, the clock blinked 6:17 AM within the spectral glass. Her circadian rhythm was all off, something else had woken her, something thoroughly familiar, banal, and totally unexpected until that moment. Her face went red as she realized what it was. Creeping out from under the cultivated warmth of the quilt, Kyouko shivered as she padded down creaking floorboards onto icy tiles that almost burned the balls of her feet.

She found Ellaine already awake, as if she'd never fallen asleep, stoking the fire in the hearth as a farmer's wife would in these sorts of surroundings. "Ah, awake already, are you? I was about to come get you, love, your dress is all clean and dry."

"Oh yes, uhm thank you." Kyouko answered awkwardly. For as uncomfortable as this all was, it would have been even more miserable without the two NPCs. "Uhm I should get changed but, I . . . I have a question." She half raid her hand, like a young student at her desk.

"Oh well sure, love." Ellaine tilted her head, showing concern that bordered on mothering. "What's the matter now, dear?"

She bit her lip, cheeks burning as she clutched at the hem of her night shirt. This was asinine, she told herself, just ask the question!

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There are a lot of thread marks missing. I ended up missing chapters in reader mode, and they were more unmarked after the last one.
The Archer IV
Dreamers of the Day - Book One - Part Two - The Archer IV

"So the floors, they're stacked on top of each other." Kyouko imagined while gazing up at the far away ceiling doing its best impression of a sky, "It's like a big layer cake." She took a small bite of bread smeared with goat cheese, chewed, and swallowed thoughtfully.

"Well I think it's more like a wedding cake," Leafa replied.

The two were seated upon a sun warmed stone on the slopes overlooking Champar. Forstier's herd browsed contentedly on a fat springtime bounty of grasses and wildflowers. A mild breeze swept the pasture, the land rippling like waves. It was the ideal time of day to break for lunch. Apples, crusty bread, goat's cheese, and barley water. It wasn't fine dining, but at least the food was wholesome and satisfying. Even if it did make Kyouko pine for the likes of Esterre.

While they ate, they talked, the subject was 'nothing in particular', usually observations about the place they found themselves in. They didn't have much in common, but Leafa had been invaluable in giving context to some of the things Kyouko didn't understand.

"A hundred tier wedding cake . . ." Kyouko thought. Her wedding cake had been three tiers, traditional, she was fairly certain the top was still stored away in a freezer someplace, for posterity. She shook her head, hair flowing silken down her back, "And Akihiko wants us to climb all the way to the top?"

"That's what it sounds like." Leafa agreed, the girl looked no happier about it than Kyouko. "That Akihiko person said to reach the Ruby Palace if we wish to attain freedom." She took a swig of barley water from her skin. "That must be the one hundredth floor. Maybe that's the condition to let us go."

"A hundred floors?" Each of them as big as this one? "Impossible." Kyouko concluded matter of factly, even if it was possible, she just wouldn't do it. She'd give nothing to a man like Akihiko Kayaba. Besides, "Who would possibly obey him? Akihiko must be the most wanted man in the world right now. He'll be found soon, and he'll be forced to let us go." He must have known that. So must everyone else. So what was the use of all this?

"It's been almost a week." The elvish girl observed doubtfully.

"Five days." Kyouko corrected, "Not including the launch day." Not that she had been keeping count. Five days earning their keep from the NPC couple in exchange for room and board. Five days waiting impatiently for Kouichirou. Five days hoping for some sign that they would be logged out. "We just have to trust the authorities," she insisted, trying to feel the conviction in her own voice.

At least it had been peaceful, Kyouko thought, nothing like the madness of the Town of Beginnings had broken out here. In fact, the village denizens were remarkably placid and incurious. Probably because they were 'NPCs' simply going about their routines, only deviating on account of Kyouko or Leafa. Nor had trouble followed them here from Town, Champar was far enough, and far enough off the beaten path, to have not attracted other players.

That was certainly a mixed blessing. No visitors meant no trouble makers sharing their refuge. It also meant no news from the Town. Once again, Kyouko opened her menu and navigated to the messaging function.


The pronouncement hung in the air of her inbox at eye level, mocking her in a way that made Kyouko privately grateful the menu was invisible to others by default. If she'd just had Kouichirou, or even Nishida, in her contacts then things would be so much simpler.

That wasn't her fault, Kyouko reminded herself, if everything had gone as it should, she'd have logged out after the inaugural ceremony and that would have been the end of it. There should have been no need for her to contact anyone using the message system. But if Kouichirou didn't come soon, she'd have to go looking for him . . .

"I just don't get it. How is he keeping us here?" Leafa asked, she played absently with a long lock of golden hair, a distant look in her emerald eyes.

"I can't really say." Kyouko sighed, reluctantly she added, "You know more about full dive than I do."

"Not me," Leafa smiled shyly, "My brother is the real dive head. He could talk your ear off about this stuff for hours if you asked him the littlest question." Her smile faded slowly, "Kinda wish I'd listened now."


"So, Atalanta-san?" Kyouko's ears perked. "You've really never played a videogame before?"

"Is that unusual?" Kyouko didn't think so, games were a hobby for children and otaku.

"Not really, no." Leafa agreed, "I wasn't much of a fan of them myself, other than the ones on my phone, I guess, not until I tried ALfheim. Just a little surprising, something like Sword Art Online would be your first game."

"Like I said, I was playing with a relative. They asked me to join them for the launch." She offered the same carefully sanitized answer she had given on their first day together. Then, as this seemed to put the poor girl off for some reason, reluctantly she added, "Well, if I'm being totally honest, this isn't my first game ever, exactly . . . " Leafa perked up visibly. Games were a passtime for children and otaku. Kyouko had never been the latter, but she had been the former, once. "It's my first dive game," Kyouko specified. Her first and last, especially after this! "But I used to play one other one."


"Do you . . . Know the one with the little aliens and the ball that goes 'paku paku' and moves like this?" Kyouko made scissors with her fingers. There had been a cabinet at the convenience store in town when she was in middle school. She'd been really good at that game.

"Huh?" Leafa's expression turned bemused.

"N-Never mind." Kyouko looked away quickly. "Anyways, I don't know anything about FullDive, but my relative, and his friends especially, are quite knowledgeable about the subject. Probably even more than your brother."

A weak smile returned to Leafa's lips, "Somehow, I doubt that, Ka- big brother loves this stuff."

"I think you'd be surprised", Kyouko replied dryly. One of her ears twitched as the distant sound of barking reached them. Leafa heard it too, she made to stand, but Kyouko stopped her. "You finish eating, I'll get this one."

"Are you sure, Ata-san?"

"I need to stretch my legs." Kyouko confirmed, scooting off the rock and dusting off the pleats of her dress. She did in fact feel the urge to stretch, a big one extending in an arch from head to tail.

"Alright, just be careful," Leafa warned.

Kyouko snorted, she appreciated the concern, but after five days in Champar she could not have helped but learn a few things about their present circumstances, virtual or otherwise. Like the nature of this world, the Steel Castle of Aincrad, which soared above the Cloud Sea, each of its floors like a Kingdom unto itself.

How ridiculous. People shouldn't even be able to survive on the highest levels, the air would be too thin. Leafa would say 'That's true, but it's fantasy!' But that seemed like a poor excuse to Kyouko.

She'd learned more about Orignia, as well, and Champar in particular. The fearful uncertainty of the first few days had yielded to a growing confidence that the fields and pastures were safe enough to walk under daylight. The villagers traveled the open ground with nothing but walking sticks for protection. In fact, the nearest Kyouko had come to one of the fearsome 'monsters' that supposedly inhabited parts of the land was spotting some boar foraging near the tree line, and a single encounter with a pack of hideous rodents almost as big as Darter.

The 'Shrewmen' had fled on sight, shooed off by an angry Forstier and his energetic dog. They were apparently little more than a nuisance, overgrown pests, cowardly by nature, attempting to get their filthy paws on anything they could steal and trade to the 'Kobolds' that ruled the North. If that was all Kyouko had to worry about, she'd be fine.

"Yes yes, I'm coming." The Pictish called as she hiked up the slope, following the dog's incessant barking to the summit. One of the nannies had found some choice plants and her browsing had carried her away like a trail of breadcrumbs, over the summit and down onto the slope of the next valley.

"Come here you." Kyouko called, the goat was being stubborn as, well, itself . . . Continuing a ways down slope to where the ground became steadily more rocky and overgrown with scrub trees. "Hmmph, really going to make me do this, are you?"

She worked her way down, taking a length of rope hung from her belt and approaching the browsing animal slowly. The goat bleated, but being alone, without the company of the herd, it was docile as Kyouko gently leashed it the way Forstier had shown her.

"You've had your fun, back to your friends." Kyouko squared her shoulders and started to pull . . . then stopped . . . The tension drained slowly from her body as she stood straight. Her ears, her damned cat ears, pivoted one way and then another, as if trying to localize some incredibly minute noise.

A shiver ran down her spine almost as if . . . Her eyes wandered to where the ground turned raw, jagged rocks thrust through the soil like splintered bones. Only hardy plants and trees clung around the mouth of what looked to be some kind of natural cavern, the hillside folding into the pitch darkness within.

Kyouko's eyes narrowed, her ears moved forward and her tail lifted slowly.Strain as she might, she neither saw nor heard anything from the depths. But still, she felt like she was being . . . watched . . .

"Lady Fairy!" An ear pivoted in the direction she'd come from. "Not that way, Lady Fairy!" The Goatherd called, holding his flat cap in place as he ran down the hill.

"I was just getting this stray. What's the matter?"

Forstier took the leash from her, squared his shoulders, and started pulling before he answered.
"We're getting a bit beyond the safety of the village, Lady Fairy, you mustn't go that way, now!"

Kyouko frowned, she supposed that made sense, they were getting quite a ways from Champar now. So she helped Forstier get his nanny moving, and then followed him back, giving the far valley one final glance as they crossed back over the hill. There was still much work to do.

Champar sold its animal products in the Capital City of this floor, the Town of Beginnings. Meat, hide, wool, dairy. The sale of the first two was simple enough, literally walking the animals to market as livestock. Wool was shorn from the herds, and then woven into fabric to be sold in the city as well. Dairy took extra steps.

In the absence of refrigeration, milk would spoil before making it to market. So aside from the fresh milk and cream reserved for their families each day, the villagers of Champar converted the bulk of their production into butter and cheese.

Each day, for the past four days, an eager Leafa, and a much less eager Kyouko, had helped with milking the goats, separating the cream, and then delivering that cream to the water mill at the heart of Champar. Although it would be far more accurate, Kyouko corrected, to call it a 'water churn'. The building did contain a mill for grinding wheat into fine flour, but also a mechanical churn, driven by an arrangement of black iron gears greased in animal fat. The gears made an unearthly, ear aching, noise as they meshed, driving the churn to whip up tubs of cream until they frothed and then thickened into fresh butter.

It was an alarming affair, when in operation, as the butter thickened the timbers of the frame would groan and creak, prompting Kyouko and Leafa to wait outside while the villagers worked. Memories of maimed men came back to Kyouko, old man Yamada and his withered arm had given her nightmares all the way to highschool. But, it was a very convenient machine, in its way, and one that pointed to the fact that Champar had once been much more productive than it was today. Productive enough to afford such a labor saving device and to justify the expense.

"Orignia was once a prosperous Kingdom . . . " Kyouko murmured, then shook her head angrily. That implied Orignia had ever existed as anything but a part of the gameworld of Sword Art Online. Preposterous. Although, she couldn't deny being impressed by the attention to detail . . .

While Forstier and the other men had worked the Churn, Kyouko wandered off to examine some of the closest buildings. It was a bit like peeking into a well made diorama. Glimpsing a whole world made tidy and comprehensible at a glance. Villagers went on about their business, occasionally giving her strange looks, which she pointedly ignored. She peaked through the open doors of the smithy where an aged, burly man practiced his craft, mending tools, making nails, and the window of the healer's cottage, where a fair young woman was tending to a farmer who had cut himself in the fields.

Her eyes narrowed as she watched the girl carefully undoing the bandages to check on the wound. A slash of vividly glowing red leaked particles into the air like spores while the medicine woman washed the wound, checked for signs of infection or necrosis, and then reapplied bandages.

All very real, until it suddenly wasn't.

When her own daughter had been young, Kyouko recalled Asuna playing house and having tea time with her stuffed bear, serving pretend food and pouring pretend tea, having pretend conversations about pretend matters. All very normal things for a little girl to do. The medicine woman and her patient reminded Kyouko of that. Imaginary people playing out a game of make believe.

She touched the spot above her own temple. The clotted blood had long since washed away, but the meaning remained unclear.

"Rare to see a Pictish huntress in a place like this."

Kyouko stopped in her tracks, the voice was gruff, but younger than most she'd heard in Champar. It belonged to a man, an 'NPC' she corrected herself, seated upon a stool outside of a small cottage marked by a hanging bullseye sign.

She paused as she looked him over, and once more, her eyes narrowed. The NPC didn't look like most of the soft and kindly residents of Champar, their faces turned ruddy with perpetual sunburn. Rather, he was darker skinned, and perhaps thirty years of age, his short cut hair either prematurely gray or perhaps platinum blonde, depending on how the light took it. His eyes were dark brown and downcast, concentrated on the arrow he was fletching. He wore something like a bolo tie around his collar, clipped with a small carved decoration that seemed to represent the head and horns of some bovine creature.

Besides Forstier and his wife, it was rare for any of the NPCs to speak to Kyouko or Leafa without first being spoken to. The Publican and the Priest might say 'good morning' when they walked by in passing, but that was all. Leafa had helpfully explained that this was normal in most games and an NPC calling out for attention was worth investigating. It had done much to demystify the strangely real, but not quite, behavior of the Champar's denizens.

So, putting hands on hips, she raised a brow. "Oh? And how would you know that I'm a 'huntress'?" At first she didn't think he was going to answer, that this was all a complete waste of time, then the man sedately put the arrow down, looked up, and nodded at the bow Kyouko carried slung over her shoulder. "Right," she sighed.

Leafa had insisted that she carry it with her, just in case.

The man beckoned, the message was clear, Kyouko offered up her bow for inspection. He held it in his hands, looking it over, then stood and notched one of his own arrows, giving the bow a test draw before relaxing.


"It's not a very good bow," He concluded plainly.

Was he trying to be irksome? Kyouko huffed, she knew that already. The short bow was of a simple and unremarkable design, with few of the refined features that generations of bowyers had implemented to increase draw weight and keep size down. It was, in fact, suitable only for hunting the smallest of game, and apparently, surprising the daylights out of some pushy town guards.

"And I suppose you know good bows." Kyouko replied, not thinking who she was talking to.

An unspoken answer, the man reached behind himself and produced what Kyouko could only assume was his own preferred weapon. It made the simple straight short bow look like a toy.

A recurve bow, fully strung, its limbs describing fair sweeps as graceful as a bird's wings. The wood was dark, almost black, inlaid with finely carved scrollwork around the shelf, dizzyingly intricate patterns, something like celtic knots.

Before Kyouko knew it, the weapon was dropped into her hands and she was left to feel the weight of the thing pressing through her palms. Not heavy, exactly, but dense. She bit her lip and shook her head, this wasn't real, it wasn't real. But she couldn't shake the feeling she was holding a work of art. She could almost feel the quality, the care with which it had been made.

"Dark Yew, from the heartwood of the tree, not many pieces like that left in Orignia." The man explained. "Not since Ilfang's brood seized the North side of the floor. The name's Callus", the man grunted, "If you're interested in some work, huntress, I could use a spare bow arm. And there might be something better than that twig in it for you."

Now it made sense, Leafa had explained this sort of NPC to her. "I'm afraid I have to decline. I've no intention to take up that sort of work." Kyouko answered curtly, carefully returning the bow. Callus tilted his head, blinked a few times as he mulled the reply over, and then shrugged. "Suit yourself, Lady Fairy, if you ever change your mind, you know where to find me."

"Thank you, I won't." She'd turned on her heel and stalked off to find Leafa.

She'd thought that would be the end of it, until that evening, after Dinner. "Wait, you really turned him down?"

Leafa looked up from the game that sat between her and Forstier while they played beside the fireplace after dinner. It looked to be some variation on chess, though Kyouko wasn't familiar with the meaning of the pieces, and it was played on a smaller board. Probably meant to be some kind of 'folk-game' by which farmers passed the time.

Most people in modern Japan assumed farming was grueling labor. They were correct. But the back breaking work of tilling, seeding, and harvesting, frantic measures when the weather turned, or when crops were blighted, months of work crammed into weeks, merely punctuated the long lazy procession of the seasons.

Plant in spring, harvest in fall, the rest was waiting, and watching, and worrying, about the crop, about the weather, about money. Naturally, farmers found things to do with that time, they mended tools, they tinkered with machines they couldn't afford to pay someone to fix, they read and wrote in their cultivation journals, fretted over things they couldn't change, they sat around and talked on long summer afternoons when even the shade was sweltering.

And they played games much like the one Leafa played with Forstier. Kyouko's own father had been a lover of Go and Shogi, things of that nature.

"Of course I turned him down." Kyouko replied, seated in her nightshirt with her back against Ellaine's chair, the goatherd's wife had taken to combing her hair to a gloss as she did every night. "I've no intention of learning to fight."

Leafa blinked owlishly and began to speak. "I know, when we first met . . . " Kyouko felt her cheeks turning red. "That . . . Was an exception . . . born of extraordinary circumstances." And one that she was conflicted about every day when Kouichirou didn't arrive. She could always go back to town to look for him, following the road, but what if the guards she'd held up remembered her? What had she been thinking when she'd done that? In one moment she'd gone from a respectable citizen to holding an officer of the law at arrow point. "I am not a violent person." She insisted.

"Yeah, me neither," the Fairy girl said softly, then her attention turned to the shortsword, always near at hand, resting against her chair, "But in this world, you might still need to defend yourself."

This world?

This world was make believe. A hallucination forced on all of them. That it was dangerous didn't change that fact. "What do you think, Forstier-san?" Leafa glanced at the goatherd seated in his chair by the fire.

The kindly older man's mustache twitched, he ran a hand over his balding pate, "I reckon yer' talkin bout ol' Callus. Makes his way as a huntsman and somethin' of a sheriff in these parts owing to leadin' the younger men in keepin' the fields cleared and the pasture safe." Forstier paused, rubbing his pate again. "I heard he was lookin' for more help."

"He sounds like a tutorial NPC." Leafa concluded, making another move on the gameboard that forced a reply from Forstier. "It's probably pretty safe to take him up on his offer. If you want, I could go with you."

Go with her? In other words, 'party up', like this was still a game? The notion soured Kyouko's mood instantly. Leafa was holding up well, given their situation, but on some level the girl was treating this entirely too lightly. The way she treated Champar almost like a summer camp, the way she treated Forstier and Ellaine with more than just formal politeness. Unlike Asuna, all those years ago, Leafa was clearly too old to be playing pretend with these dolls.

"That won't be necessary, because I won't be going." She stood slowly, forcing Ellain to stop her combing. "I've no need to defend myself because I have no intention of wandering into danger." She gave Leafa a look that made it clear the conversation was closed, before climbing the stairs up to the loft and bed.

That night, sleep did not come quickly to Kyouko. Patience, she told herself, she needed to exercise patience. But it had been five days, and still no sign of Kouichirou. She'd swiped open the menu in the air above her, staring at the empty inbox.


Her eyes trained on the clock slowly ticking toward midnight. Then it would be six days. Saturday. Including the launch day, that was an entire week. She could see it now, she'd missed the all department meeting, and while she was indisposed, her responsibilities would be distributed to the other professors. The possibility of advancement next year had already slipped through her fingers. And if this went on long enough, then the setback to her career would take ages to undo.

And in the meantime, her Shou was alone trying to contain the damage to their family name. She could only imagine what the fallout looked like at that moment, what he was going through. And what Asuna would be experiencing at school. The vicious rumors that would spread about the Yuuki family, trying to claw her daughter from her rightful place.

She was not a violent person, Kyouko told herself, violence disturbed her as it should, but at that moment, she wouldn't have lost much sleep putting a few arrows in Akihiko's back side.

"Now that would be a reason to learn how to shoot a bow properly." She murmured before drifting off to the muted sound of the fire, and the wood on wood 'clak' of playing pieces so that, in her dreams, Kyouko remember being very small, sitting beside her father on the porch during sweet summer evenings, the 'clak' of Go pieces as he played Mister Yamada from the field over, a cigarette clutched in his hand as he grimaced and considered his stratagem. And sometimes, he'd let her sit in his lap, and move the piece, just like him . . .

The next day had gone much as the days before, wake early, breakfast and light morning chores, accompany Forstier to care for the herd until it was milking time. Separate the cream, and deliver it to the churn. By now it was beginning to feel like a routine, until it came time to load up the butter in a borrowed wagon and take it back to the barn The next day was a market day in the Town of Beginnings, or so Forstier said, and some of the men would be taking the products of the village for sale. If Kouichirou didn't appear today, then Kyouko considered asking to ride with the wagons to go look for him herself.

Leafa had been only too happy to help the men load up, leaving Kyouko free to walk the village square, as was becoming her habit. The blacksmith, the medicine woman, the house of the village chief, and the public house. Kyouko was just passing by the pub when she heard the door chime open. She braced for the banal and scripted 'A good morning to yee' of the publican.

"Well well well, what do we have here?" The voice sounded like none of Champar's NPCs, not even the gruff Callus, in fact, it was saccharinely girlish. "Is that a Pictish I see?" Kyouko turned and was confronted by a girl she instantly knew for another player. For one thing, she was wearing one of the common starting outfits and carried a spear at her side, resting the shaft easily against her shoulder. For another, she was approaching with a look of intent her eyes that was at odds with placidity of the villagers.

"Do I . . . Know you?" Kyouko frowned.

The forced girlishness went beyond just the voice. She was slender, her pale features exceptionally youthful, thin crim lips and ruby eyes, like a beautiful adolescent doll, blood red hair was tied up in ribboned pig tails that fell all the way to her knees.

"Oy, Red!" The pub door chimed again, another red head, but otherwise utterly the opposite of the first, emerged and stretched up to his full height. Male, and built like a bear, wide shoulders, thick arms, and broad barrel chest straining at the stitching of his shirt, combined with a thickly bearded face, wild unkempt mane, and preponderance of body hair peeking out from the collar of his shirt and dusting his forearms. He looked, Kyouko surmised, rather like the leader of some army of uncouth brigands. He saw Kyouko and his expression immediately turned to annoyance. "Huh, ya know this chick?"

"Not at all." The girl replied.
"Then what's she doin' so far from town, huh?" The man suddenly tensed up, his hand reaching blindly for the sword at his side. "You some kinda Beta tester?"

Kyouko took a startled step back. "Beta? N-no . . ." Those were players who had been part of the limited launch, weren't they? Kouichirou had been one, that was why he'd been so skilled in the tournament.

"Bullshit," the man grunted, "We only learned about this place cuz'a that little shit I caught by the scruff. She's gotta be a Beta for sure, probably picked this place to hide out!" It was close enough to the truth that Kyouko's face must have betrayed her. "Feh, I knew it!" He tried to move forward, Kyouko taking a step back, only for his path to be blocked by his companion's spear.

"So what if she is a Beta tester, Kibaou?" The girl lifted a brow in a way that seemed calculated to be disarming.

The man shoved the spear aside. "Those R-A lackeys abandoned us. Good role models to the new players, my ass!"

"Abandoned?" Kyouko shook her head.

"Well," the girl raised her brow once more, the mildest hint of surprise graced her features, "I don't think she knows. Town of Beginnings is falling apart, dear. Anyone who isn't huddling under a rock is picking fights with the NPCs. As for the Beta testers, most of them cut and ran the second Akihiko finished his little 'tutorial'. I guess in this world, it really is everyone for themselves." She barred her partner's path with her spear once more. "Oh, and by the way, I'm pretty sure that bishounen was a dev, not a Beta Tester."

A developer?! Kyouko's pulse quickened. Would they know that about Kouichirou? No, she didn't think he'd reveal that sort of information. He hadn't even told that group of players he was strangely friendly with.

Kibaou snorted, "That's a hundred times worse than a Beta Tester. Developers helped that Akihiko guy make this death trap. There's no way they didn't know somethin' was sus!"

"They're stuck too, you know." His companion said reasonably.

"Heh, That just means they're accomplices and idiots!"

"Excuse me, the Beta Tester, or Developer, you met . . ." Kyouko went quiet as a mouse as Kibaou glared down at her. Then her teaching experience kicked in, she'd dealt with worse students, she'd dealt with worse faculty. She squared her shoulders, she dug in her heels, and locked eyes, refusing to back down. Backing down would just make her look guilty to this imbecile. "What did you do to them?"

"Huh? What's it to ya?" Kibao menaced.

"Oh nothing much." The girl giggled, "The big guy here just scared'm off. Sent him running back to town, minus his sword."

A sword?

Kibaou patted the hilt that looked considerably bigger than the one carried by Leafa. "Just makin'm pay us back what they owe. Least they can do for gettin' us all stuck here."

Kyouko sighed inwardly, she was fairly certain Kouichirou was a spearman, judging by his weapon choice during the tourney.

"Of course, the real prize wasn't the weapon, it was what he had to say." The girl gave their surroundings a careful inspection for eavesdroppers, then leaned in close. "Say, you wouldn't happen to know the lay of the land around here, would you?"

"Why?" Kyouko asked carefully. "A little." More than a little. After five days she had a fairly good mental map of the valley.

"Maybe we can help each other out. You see, we got some information from that sniveling little Developer before he ran back to town. Seems there might be a way out of this game after all."

A way out?! Kyouko held her expression, but try as she might, she couldn't prevent her ears from perking.

"A backdoor they tucked in for debugging purposes squirreled away someplace around here. He said he was looking for it when we came across him yesterday." She let that sink in for several long moments, waiting to see how Kyouko would respond.

"That sounds . . . too good to be true . . ." Which meant it probably was.

The girl smiled, "Smart, I like you. That's why we're checking it out, carefully. What do you say?"

"I said, it sounds too good to be true." Kyouko repeated. But what if it wasn't?

Nishida had said something like that while chatting with Kouichirou. Software was so complex these days, it was impossible for a programmer to account for everything. There were always back doors, gaps in any system. There must be a gap in this one too, something Akihiko hadn't considered, or had forgotten in the sheer scope of the thing.

"Well?" The girl pressed.

"Just checking it out, right?"

The girl's smile widened, "That's right. Always room for one more."

Kyouko bit her lip so hard she threatened to draw blood. The pain was the final impetus. There had to be a way. Find out if this 'backdoor' was real, and if so, find Kouichirou, go home and try to pick up the pieces . . . So she gave a small nod.

"Good girl! Let's seal the deal by becoming friends!" The girl swiped in the air, making gestures that Kyouko knew to be menu navigation. A prompt blinked in the corner of her vision and Kyouko quickly navigated to her own message box.



Hesitating only a moment more, Kyouko steeled herself and selected 'YES'.
The Archer V
Dreamers of the Day - Book One - Part Two - The Archer V

"Ha! Ha! Ha!"

The short sharp shouts sounded out from the farmhouse garden. "Ha! Ha! Ha!" Delivered with the measured precision of a metronome. Even before she had turned ten years old, Kirigaya Suguha had formulated an important piece of guiding wisdom. When in doubt, do suburi.

"Ha! Ha! Ha!"

The golden haired fairy stepped forward and back, forward and back, her improvised shinai arresting at the same exact point each time.

"Ha! Ha! Ha!"

She swung until a sheen of sweat glistened on her brow. Until her forearms burned and her palms stung.

"Ha! Ha! Ha!"

When in doubt, do suburi.

"Ha! Ha! Ha!"

When sad, do suburi.

"Ha! Ha! Ha!"

When scared, do suburi.

"Ha! Ha! Ha!"

Over the last week, she'd been doing a lot of suburi.

"Ha! Ha! Ha . . ."

Leafa held her final strike, her shinai, the handle of a borrowed farm tool, barely trembled before she returned to a resting position, wiping her brow while catching her breath. Her pulse slowly faded, but the stinging in her palms remained. When she peeled off her gloves and inspected her hands, she could see the calluses forming.

It was weird, Suguha thought within her other self, not at all like ALfheim. This place was so unreal, until it suddenly wasn't, and then so real, until it was unreal again. She'd known the second she'd logged in that her borrowed Memeosphere was a step beyond the fidelity provided by her usual Amusphere console, but this was on another level altogether. Whatever it was, she couldn't make sense of it. She wasn't even sure Kazuto would understand it.

"Brother." She touched her lips, realizing the word had escaped unbidden.

She'd been trying not to think about it, trying not to think about anything at all. But even suburi could only hold it at bay for so long. Her eyes wandered slowly to a sky that was only a few hundred meters overhead, almost perfectly concealing its true nature, but not quite. Someplace under that false sky Kazuto was also trapped in this world.

What was her brother doing at that moment, she wondered? Was he safe?

She had to find him. But where to even begin? It wasn't like he'd use his real name or his real face. He might not even be his real gender . . . Leafa shook her head to banish the image of a silken haired 'Kazuko' from her mind. She doubted her brother was into that sort of thing!

At least, that's what she wanted to think. But the truth was, Kazuto had become almost a stranger over the past six years. What could she do but go back to the Town of Beginnings and shout his name at the top of her lungs? And would he even answer if he heard her? Or would he just believe it was some strange coincidence?

She thought about it as she sat at the kitchen door, drinking a mug of barley water and watching the afternoon landscape. Darter came to sit with her, sniffing curiously at her hands before resting his head in her lap and whining until she started to scratch behind his ears.

"You'll be stayin' another night, I reckon." Forstier observed as he came walking up the path to the house.

"Yes, please." Leafa replied, "I hope that's alright."

"No problem at all, Lady Fairy." Forstier removed his flat cap and ran a hand over his pate. "Way yer earning yer keep, feel free to stay just as long as you like." Leafa smiled at the kindly goatherd. She knew he was just an NPC, but it was hard not to like him and his wife. They were just so lively and far and away more clever than anything she'd encountered in ALO save for the high level Key NPCs. If Aincrad was full up with characters like them, she could see why her brother would have completely gotten lost in this game.

"Say, have you seen Ata-san?" Leafa queried. It wasn't exactly unusual for the other girl to find someplace to be left alone after chores. She guessed it was her way of coping, Suguha did suburi, and Atalanta sulked.

"Atalanta?" Forstier assumed a thinking pose, frowning as he thumbed his forehead as if to shake loose a memory. "Can't rightly say I've seen her since we delivered the cream to the churn."

"That's what I thought." Leafa sighed, opening her menu and navigating to the messenger tab. Forstier scratched his head quizzically.

(0) Friends

"I should make her friend me." Suguha thought out loud. It was silly, really, that they hadn't done it already. It just hadn't come up, being together all the time, almost like good friends.

But they weren't friends. Not really. They were just two strangers who had been caught up in something horrible together. They talked to one another, but only to fill the silence, and to avoid thinking about what had happened, and what was happening. Suguha barely knew anything about Atalanta really. An overly serious and somewhat ill tempered girl, who nonetheless seemed to easily get in over her head. And she'd barely played a video game before. What kind of person was that?

"She's either older than me . . . or younger than me . . . Way to narrow it down, Sugu."

That wasn't quite right. She seemed very knowledgeable about academic subjects. She might be a high school student, one of those really diligent ones always studying for the national exams. No, Suguha thought, she was definitely older than that, judging by the subject matter, a university student.

"So she's like . . . twenty, maybe."

"Are ya alright, Lady Fairy?"

"Huh?" Leafa looked up at Forstier who was curiously aping her hand gesture. It was a surprisingly sophisticated bit of non verbal communication, her classmate Nagata had told her, once, that AI weren't usually good at that sort of thing.

Suddenly, a theory presented itself to Suguha, one that she could immediately test. "Say, Forstier-san, can you tell me what you see when I do this?" She visualized her menu and carefully observed the goatherd's response to the hovering glass plane in front of her.

Forstier squinted hard, then relaxed, giving a sheepish shrug. "I can't rightly say what I'm supposed to be lookin' at, Lady Fairy."

Leafa smiled, "It's nothing really. Fairy things, I guess. Thanks for letting me test it out."

"Happy to be of service, Lady Fairy." Forstier went inside, leaving Leafa once more with her thoughts. Another odd thing to puzzle about. So she puzzled, it was a good distraction while the smells of cooking started to waft from the door, she was still puzzling when a shadow overtook her.

"Huh?" Leafa began, looking up at the monolith suddenly blocking the sun. "Uhm . . . Oh."​
Dreamers of the Day - Book One - Part Two - The Archer VI
"So this is the place?" Rosalia planted her spear, peering into the depths of the cavern mouth, crimson lips thoughtfully pursed. They were on the outskirts of Champar, not another soul around, neither player nor NPC.

"A shallow cave hidden in the brush," Kyouko recited impatiently, arms crossed, "At the base of a hill in a dry valley." Truth be told, it was too convenient, too perfect a coincidence, but when Rosalia had described the place they were looking for, Kyouko had allowed herself the smallest glimmer of hope. Perhaps it really was just coincidence. Or perhaps there was a way out of this after all. Whatever the case, she couldn't afford not to try.

"Well, it certainly looks promising." Rosalia decided. "Wouldn't you agree, Kibaou dear? Kibaou?"

A small shower of earth and stone rattled down the hillside, preceded by the uncouth shouting of Rosalia's . . . whatever he was . . . Kibaou came tumbling down the hill side in a tangle of limbs, cursing and grasping for anything to slow himself down. He hit the ground tumbling and came to a stop in a heap.

"These controls suck!" Kibaou jumped to his feet and dusted himself off. Durable, if nothing else, Kyouko surmised.

"The controls are your own body, Kibaou dear." Rosalia replied, "Don't blame the game, blame the player."


"Never mind." She sighed, sparing Kyouko a glance. "Something wrong, Ata-dear?"

Kyouko's eyes narrowed, her ears piqued. Her body braced in anticipation. But of the feeling of being watched she'd had when last she was here, there was no trace. "No." She said reluctantly, "Just my imagination, I suppose. Now, we should go back and . . . W-What are you doing?" Rosalia and Kibaou walked past her, eyes fixed on the cavern mouth. "Wait, you're going in now?!"

"Of course we are," Rosalia answered, seeming surprised. "Surely, you didn't think we hiked all the way up here just to sight see."

"Well that is . . ." Kyouko's featured twisted into a frown. "What about the others? I mean the other players. Shouldn't we bring more people?" There was strength in numbers, after all, and more manpower to help search. "I have a . . . friend . . . back in Champar who . . ."

Suddenly Rosalia's face was centimeters from Kyouko's. So close, in fact, that her Pictish body almost sprang backwards of its own accord. As it was, Kyouko was able to control her reflexes so only her tail shot straight.

"A friend? You didn't mention a friend." What was there to be so suspicious about? The pig tailed girl's lips spread in a smile that was almost a leer. "This wouldn't happen to be a boy who is a friend, would it?"

Kyouko's temper flared. "I am a ma-" She stamped her foot before stopping herself. "No, they are not my boyfriend." She managed diplomatically."

"Oh? A girlfriend, then?"

There was a long silence between the two of them. "No." Kyouko said, flatly. "Just a friend."

"Why not message them?" Rosalia suggested.


"You know, like this." Rosalia demonstrated with a graceful swipe of her own visualized menu. An icon blinked in the corner of her vision, and when Kyouko went to check, she found a new letter in her inbox.

Hi! -

"I see." Kyouko chewed her lip. "That would be prudent. However . . ." She eyed the corner of her menu, which neatly explained everything.

(1) Friend - Rosalia

"I don't have her contact information. As such."

"So your friends, but you haven't friended this person? Doesn't sound like much of a friend to me." Rosalia decided.

"I suppose not." Kyouko admitted, "More of an acquaintance, really." Not even an acquaintance, actually, just a companion of circumstance. Once they got out of this awful place, and Kyouko had discarded this ridiculous face and form, they'd probably never even cross paths again, or knew if they did.

Leafa was . . . a very studious and kind girl . . . Kyouko had taught countless studious and kind girls, she hardly remembered any of their names.

"That's good, it'll be easier to ditch her, right?"

"I sup- Wait . . . What?" Kyouko was shaken from her thoughts. "What do you mean, 'ditch her'?"

"We're sort of on the clock, Ata-dear." Rosalia expression turned sympathetic, as if she realized she was speaking to a particularly slow child. Think about it now. If there's a logout terminal someplace on this floor, then it can only be because Akihiko forgot about it."

"Y-Yes, that stands to reason." Kyouko agreed, if the game world was so vast, not even its creator could possibly know all of its secrets.

"But who's to say if it will remain forgotten once somebody uses it?" Rosalia asked not just Kyouko, but the air, the whole world around them.

"I . . ." The idea hadn't even crossed her mind. "Then he'll probably delete that terminal too, as soon as it's used." If his purpose was to keep them here, Kayaba could allow no method of escape.

"That's why we have to be the first." Rosalia nodded, "Because we might be the only. Now, the way I see it is that you have two choices, Ata-dear. You can come with us and maybe get back to your life. Or you can run back to your friend whose not really a friend and keep playing milk maid in this village, or whatever. Either way, we can't be the only ones who'll be looking for this place."

"Oy!" Kibaou's voiced echoed from the cave. "Can't women talk and walk at the same time? We're burning daylight!"

"There's no daylight in a cave Kibaou, dear!" Rosalia called back sweetly, or rather, venomously. She spared Kyouko a final glance before following her partner.

She was joking, wasn't she? She couldn't be serious, could she?! Kyouko swiped through her menu, trying all of the options in the messaging application. There had to be some way to search for a person's contacts, didn't there? But if that were the case, Kouichirou, or Nishida, would have messaged her by now.

Kyouko tossed a look over her shoulder, she could run back to Champar, grab Leafa at least . . . But Rosalia and Kibaou might be gone by then. And what of Kouichirou and the others. She could . . . she could . . . What could she do?

'Pull your bow on them!' A defiant little voice answered and was immediately snuffed out. She wasn't a violent person! She certainly wouldn't hold two people at bow point over, what? Trying to escape this fantasy prison? That wasn't a crime. They were just selfish, like most young people these days.

'If we find the terminal, maybe Kayaba won't realize it was used right away.' Kyouko thought quickly. 'If I know where it is, I can come back with the others.' That was what she told herself, sparing the path behind her a final glance, she straightened her back, set her shoulders, and adjusted her slung bow.

"Right." She said to herself, before setting off after the sound of Rosalia's echoing footsteps.

Kyouko hadn't been in a cave since her middle school field trips, it certainly didn't remind her much of Abukuma, the limestone caverns near Fukushima. The interior was drier, and somewhat warmer, than Abukuma and without the visitors path her unease began to grow as the entrance faded behind them.

"So you made the smart choice." Rosalia surmised as she caught up.

"How far are we going, exactly?" Kyouko asked.

"As far as we need to." Kibaou uttered. "What, are ya some kinda scaredy cat? Heh!" This was what passed as humor for the uncouth man. "Heh! Scaredy cat." He chuckled again, making her long for Leafa as a conversation partner.

"Don't worry," Rosalia assured, "The mapping function will track our route."

That was true, Kyouko admitted, opening her menu and selecting the map function. The charted area had expanded after she and Rosalia had traded mapping data, more than tripling by her summation, showing the area around the Town of Beginnings and the differing paths that both parties had taken. The two other players had ventured much further afield than she and Leafa, safe in Champar. It stood to reason they'd know more about what was going on as well.

"You said that things were falling apart back in Town." Kyouko prompted. "The Town of Beginnings I mean."

"Hm?" Rosalia's expression soured. "Oh that, yeah . . . Like I said it was getting dicey. You were there for the riot, right?"

"The start." Kyouko answered, "I was able to make it outside the town walls before the gates were shut . . ."

"Lucky you." Even Rosalia's saccharine voice couldn't mask the bitterness. "Well, it went on till morning before it calmed down. Or more like it burned itself out. It didn't help when the town guard got involved, and I guess a few people died."

"Wait, people died?!" Kyouko's heart crawled up her throat. There had been twenty five thousand people in the square when the panic had started. It had seemed inevitable that at least some of them would get hurt, but the fact anyone could have died, that she could have died . . . Or Kouichirou could have died . . . It sent a chill down her spine.

The girl nodded, long pigtails swaying. "Or, they 'died'." In the dimming light, Kyouko could just discern the way Rosalia wiggled her fingers.

"What do you mean by that? Dead is dead!" It was DEAD! Wasn't it?

"Come now, Ata-dear, you don't really believe everything that Kayaba said, do you?" Rosalia questioned, she raised a slender brow. "About this being our new reality, I mean."

Kyouko paused. "I don't know. I don't know anything at all about what Kayaba meant in that declaration of his. But you must at least agree it's real enough to kill us."

"Real enough you have to take a piss." Kibaou chimed in, leaving Kyouko mortified to be in agreement with the oaf.

Rosalia seemed to share Kyouko's distaste, as she cast a look at their companion's back. "Let's say I do believe it, at least as much as dying is concerned, what then?"


"What then?" Rosalia repeated, asking the question to the cave walls, to the ceiling, to shadows in the dimness all around them. "What does it actually mean? That this is all really real? You can't think that, can you?"

"O-Of course not!" Kyouko agreed. That was on its face ridiculous.

"Exactly." Rosalia nodded along. "Which is more likely? That Akihiko actually spirited us away to a magic world? Or that he was holding out on the Memeosphere's true capabilities. He's messing with us. Getting off on it. Oh he may have some sort of dead man's switch he's using to make the government back off." Rosalia agreed. "Clearly there's a reason we haven't all been logged out. But why use it on a player just because they die in this instance of the game?"

"I don't think I follow." Kyouko frowned. "Gaming isn't one of my normal pass times, please explain it to me completely."

"Okay, well think about it like this", Rosalia said, "If Kayaba wants players to inhabit Aincrad and treat this world like our reality, then he holds the threat of death over our heads. But actually killing us would be a waste. Wouldn't it be more productive for him to simply take the players that are 'killed' and put them in a new instance of Aincrad? After all, you die in games all the time. There's no way we could succeed at his insane quest with that sort of condition. A genius like Akihiko would hedge his bets."

"Do you think so?"

"I do." Rosalia said.

Kyouko considered Rosalia's theory. It made a sort of intuitive sense. It was tempting to believe it, that even if they were trapped, they weren't really in true danger . . . But there was a problem. "Have you considered how you would test your hypothesis?"

Before Rosalia could offer an adequate reply the two of them nearly crashed into Kibaou's motionless back. "Would you take a look at that."

"Kibaou dear, this better be good." Rosalia peered around her partner. "Oh my, that is good!"

The cavern they were spelunking seemed to have run out, but not before intersecting with a tunnel that was clearly of a much more artificial construction. Cavern walls gave way to smoothly laid brick, and the feeble light grew faintly brighter, cast by lanterns full of some kind of flame-less luminescence that stretched and curved away out of sight. To think a place like this could exist within walking distance of Champar, Kyouko mused.

The soft hiss of steel against leather caused Kyouko's ears to twitch. Kibaou had drawn the bastard sword he'd brandished back at the village. "Better be ready." He said gruffly. "Had a few run ins with some mobs out in the fields. But I handled'm no problem."

Mobs? Monsters, Kyouko thought.

"Were those mobs or just overgrown bugs? Whose to say?" Rosalia chided. "But for once, I agree." She hefted her spear. "Better safe than sorry. The spawn rate has been low so far, but if anyplace is going to have monsters, it's a dungeon like this."

'Dungeon' was certainly a way to put it, Kyouko thought, she remembered Kouichirou mentioning something called a 'labyrinth' which was even more apt. Even if the mapping function guaranteed they wouldn't get lost, the quickly multiplying corridors, chambers, and stairwells gave an endlessly multiplying number of places to search. A fact that wasn't lost, even on Kibaou.

"We're lookin for a needle in a haystack!" The big man grunted unhappily. "Shit, I shoulda dragged that dev along with us. Made'm show us exactly where it was!"

Maybe the wouldn't find it today, Kyouko thought, maybe she'd have more time . . . "Oh . . . " -Tink- She bumped something with the tow of her boot and sent it bouncing across the stones.

"Wazzis?" Kibaou reached down, picking up the object and holding it up to the feeble light. "Looks like a . . . wuddya call the money in this game?"

"Cor." Rosalia answered. It did look like the coins in the small purse Kyouko had found on her belt. Not that she'd had much reason to spend any of that meager supply of money. Though this coin appeared considerable worse for the wear, dirty and corroded by time.

"Hey, there's another one over here." Kibaou's eyes darted to something catching the light. "Copper? No, a silver piece!" It was indeed a tarnished silver coin. Like a trail of bread crumbs leading them on, Kyouko followed while Rosalia's pace gradually slowed until she was hanging well back as they entered a chamber, the largest yet, lit from above by light filtered through stained glass.

"What a thing to find in a place like this." Kyouko uttered to herself. If she didn't know any better, she'd have thought it was some kind of church, or a Christian cathedral. A cathedral carved out of the living rock, masonry mingling with cavern walls and roof hung with stalactites.


Kyouko's heart skipped a beat. For a moment she feared that Kibaou had found the terminal and that the moment of decision was at hand. But it seemed his attention had been seized by a far baser ambition than freedom.

"Wouldja look at all this!" Kibaou barked. At the center of the chamber, the source of the coins sat piled. A hoard nearly as tall as Kibaou and three times as wide. Though on closer inspection it proved not nearly so glamorous. There were coins, yes, even a modest amount of what might be gold, but much of the bulk of the pile was taken up by things far more mundane.

Weapons and tools, swords, spears, hoes, scythes, satchels full of what appeared to be personal belongings, there was no rhyme or reason to any of it by Kyouko's eye, lingering on a wagon wheel of all things, but something about it was putting her ill at ease.

"Hey Rosey, get in here and help me check this stuff out!" Kibaou called, but the spear wielding girl remained firmly planted at the entrance, refusing to step across the threshold. Kyouko understood in an instant.

The feeling had come back.

They were being watched.

She head them before she saw them. Kyouko's ears pivoted, her eyes followed their lead, darting to the dark corners of the chamber where the shadows had started to crawl. The first of the apparitions stepped into the light, causing Kyouko's nose to wrinkle in revulsion at the sight of a creature no bigger than a child, it's squat stocky body covered in course fur, two blood red eyes bulging on either side of a long tapered snout.

"The hell are these?!" Kibaou shouted.

"I think . . . they're Shrewmen." Kyouko said, but not like the Shrewmen she'd glimpsed on the surface. Out under the sky, they'd been afraid of their own shadows, driven off by just Forstier and his dog Darter. But down here, in the dark, they seemed to have found their courage, their squeaks turning to deep hissing and chitters, some brandishing bits of their hoard as weapons, knives, daggers, even pieces of silverware, clutched in their paws.

"Rosey, hey Rosey!" As for Rosalia, when next Kyouko glanced her way, the crimson haired girl was gone. Whether Kibaou realized they'd been abandoned, or was just too stupid to notice, he brandished his sword and leaped out in front. "Alright, y'wanna fight?! I'm not afraid of a bunch of giant rats." He barked. "I'll take you all on!"

One of the Shrewmen broke from the swarm, it lunged, and Kibaou dispatched it with a great swing of his leg, sending the creature bouncing across the floor in a broken heap. Perhaps not so surprising, the Shrewmen were scarcely half Kyouko's size, the brutish avatar of Kibaou simply dwarfed them, the greatest danger was their numbers.

"Hey, scaredy cat!"

"The name is . . .Kyo . . . I mean Atal-

"I don't care!" Kibaou snapped as another Shrewman crumpled around his fist, flying back into one of its cohort. "Use that bow of yours!"


"Are you useless? Your bow ya dumb bitch!"

Dumb BITCH?!

When was the last time anyone had talked to her like that? Had anyone ever talked to her like that?! Certainly never to her face!

Kyouko was seeing red as she nocked an arrow, her chest stretching as she took aim at full draw. A Kyouko who had lived half a lifetime ago channeled herself through the body of her avatar as she loosed an arrow that intersected neatly with a Shrewman's throat as it attempt to leap onto Kibaou's back and bring the big man down from behind.

What followed next was surreal, Kyouko watched the hideous creature fall to the floor, clutching at its neck, clawing at the protruding shaft. It seemed to linger a long time, far longer than the time that could actually have passed, leaking the same red particles as a wounded villager, before going still.

She'd done that.

She'd just done that.

'I killed it.' A tiny, cowering part of Kyouko thought. 'I drew my bow. And I shot my arrow. And I killed a monster.'

"Don't just stand there!" Kibaou's voice dragged her back into the present. "Come on, we gotta get to the door- Rawr!" The big man curse as shrewman came in low, sinking a fork into his leg behind the knee. Spitefully, Kibaou obliged by bringing that same knee, with all his weight, down on the unfortunate monster's spine.

"Whose next, huh? Huh?!" Swinging his sword wildly to an fro, another attacker scampered up Kibaou's back and raced down his arm, razor teeth snapped down on his wrist. "Shit damnit!" And in the blink of an eye, the Shrewman fled back into the swarm, taking the man's prized bastard sword with it. There was no use giving chase and no need as the monsters parted ways, admitting something bigger, and much uglier.

Kyouko guessed that it was still a Shrewman in the same way that a bonobo and a gorilla were both still apes. Similar body, similar stocky build and stance, but standing almost as tall as the hulking Kibaou, and clutching some sort of axe made of a salvaged toolhead lashed to a handle of gnawed bone. It wore a mask fashioned from a skull that may have come from a member of its own species.

The thieving Shrewman scampered up to its leader, offering Kibaou's sword as tribute. The 'Chieftan' snatched the weapon up, glaring hatefully at the heaving, panting, and bloodied Kibaou.

'Kibaou can't take that thing alone, not unarmed.' Kyouko was party to a strangers thoughts inside her own head. 'I have to do it again. Like before.' Without a thought, her body began to move. 'Five meters. If I missed a shot like this, my old captain would have disciplined me.' She doubted her old Captain had ever tried to put an arrow through the eye of a rampaging monster without shooting a man in the back. 'Just do it like you used to.'

Kyouko breathed . . . Ashibumi . . . Her stance, playing feet apart.

Dozukuri . . . Form the body, posture, balance . . .

Yugamae . . . Ready the bow . . .

Kai . . .
The bow at full draw . . . And . . .


The release.

Her arrow loosed, Kyouko watched the shaft quivering as it flew through the air, as it grazed just above Kibaou's shoulder, as it struck the Shrew Chieftain across the brow, deflecting as it carved into its skull mask. The Chieftain glared, swiping at Kibaou with the back of its axe and striking the man in the temple, he dropped like a sack of rice as a gnarled paw pointed at Kyouko.

Kyouko tried to draw again, but there was no time, and no room, she jumped back, trying to open the distance, a Shrewman seized her bow, clawing it from her hands, she tripped, tumbling to the ground as the Chieftain came upon her. Rancid breath steamed from behind a cage of needle teeth, a bulging, hateful, red eye peered from behind its mask of bone. Kyouko crawled backwards, whimpering as she pressed up against the wall.

Nowhere to go.

She was going to die. Kyouko belatedly realized.

She was really going to die.

The fate Rosalia had described befalling people in the Town of Beginnings was going to happen to her.

Kyouko had always imagined that, when her time came, in advanced old age, her career fulfilled, her children fruitful, her whole life in tidy order, that her passing would come with some semblance of dignity. That she would be ready for it and meet death like a comfortable familial duty no different than accompanying her husband to business dinners. But that was a lie. In that moment, Kyouko knew she was the kind of person who would beg hysterically for even one more second of life.

It wasn't a very flattering revelation, but at least it was honest. 'At least, I'll be able to test Rosalia's theory, now'. The Shrew Chieftain raised his axe high. Kyouko screwed her eyes shut. She didn't want that to be the last thing she saw.

She felt something hot spreading between her legs . . .

She waited for the blow to land. She expected a -thunk- or a -crunch- not a . . . 'baark baark baarrrrk!' nor the enraged shrieks of the Chieftain as it tried to beat off the mass of a mutt that had closed its jaws around its axe arm and refused to let go.

'Darter?!' Kyouko's mind reeled as she tried to make sense of it. She'd never seen Forstier's dog so vicious, it attacked with all the tenacity of a Doberman only letting go as the Shrew Chieftain beat him senseless against the wall. The herding dog fell whimpering to the floor just as the Chieftain spun to meet a new assailant.

The axe swung reflexively, it's blade deflecting off of the rim of a shield. Over balanced, the Chieftain stumbled, the shield's wielder stepping inside and pulling Kibaou's sword from the Chieftain's belt. They turned in a motion as graceful as a ballerina's pirouette. Then, as the Chieftain and the assailant parted, there was a moment out of a Kurosawa film as the chamber fell silent.

Slowly, the quickly, the Chieftain's head rolled from its shoulders, it's mask shattering as it struck the ground. The body followed a half second later with an unceremonious 'thud'.

Silence reigned for a moment longer, the swarm standing frozen, feeling much the same as Kyouko as they tried to comprehend, then the chirping and chittering came to a fever pitch as, all at once, the Shrewmen began to flee. It was like the sun burning away the morning fog, in a matter of moments, they were gone, with only the echoes of their retreat down side corridors to hint that they'd ever been.

A cold wet nose pushed at Kyouko's shoulder, Darter buried his muzzle against her neck, licking at her cheek as her eyes began to burn. It was like a plug was pulled, all the pressure keeping Kyouko going began to let out and she couldn't stop it. Her head swam as footstep grew near.

"So it's the same as before." A voice, a man's voice, soothing and conciliatory, murmured. "Shrewmen lose all courage once you slay the leader . . . Miss . . . Are you alright, Miss? You are Atalanta, is that not right?" Kyouko tried to say 'yes', instead, she hiccupped. "I see. I am sorry I did not arrive sooner. I had no idea an innocent bystander had gotten mixed up in all of this. Fortunately, this hound had your scent."

"W-Who . . ." Kyouko managed to croak. She tried to look, tried to see, but behind the veil of her own tears, all that Kyouko could discern was an impression of red and a glimpse of silver.

"Ah yes, rude of me. Allow me to introduce myself." A face resolved in Kyouko's blurred vision, an older man, far more mild and dignified in countenance than the uncouth Kibaou. "Though it is not the name of my birth, in this world, you may call me Heathcliff."
Dreamers of the Day - Book One - Part Two - The Archer Final

And just like that, it had been over. The stranger had led Kyouko, a limping Darter, and a bound Kibaou, back into the light. Returning to the surface was like waking from a dream, calm, and placid, and making everything that had happened in the tunnels feel far far behind her.

"Ata-chan!" Leafa was waiting for them, along with a pensive Forstier. Kyouko braced herself, but the fairy girl nearly knocked her over as she was taken up in a full body embrace. She was squeezed so tightly it became hard to breath before Leafa relented, letting her go only to start inspecting her. "Oh god, Ata, are you alright! Your clothes! And you're all scratched up! What happened down there?"

"I . . . I'm fine." Kyouko mumbled in a daze. "It's okay . . . nothing . . . nothing too bad happened." Because, "This man, he . . . rescued us."


"Gyah!" Kibaou grunted as the swordsman, who had called himself Heathcliff, placed a boot firmly to his back and pushed. The burly bandit of a man was sent sprawling to the ground in a cloud of dust. "Bastard! What the hellja do that for huh?! Ya already got me tied up ya . . ." With a smooth hiss of steel, Heathcliff drew his sword, and with an ease that spoke of experience, placed its tip feather light against Kibaou's chest.

"H-Heathcliff!" Leafa stammered.

"You're right." Heathcliff filled the emptiness, voice calm, and measured. "I bound you while you were unconscious. I made you my prisoner. It hardly seems fair, does it?" He paused, seeming to be weighing his own words. "Tell me, was it 'fair' when you and your companion fell upon the owner of this sword. When you terrorized him and took it, along with his supplies?"

"That what this is about, huh?" Kibaou managed to sit himself upright, cross legged. "What, are you some kinda White Knight or somethin?"

"In truth, I would prefer to be considered a scholar." Heathcliff answered, "A much more fruitful occupation than banditry, wouldn't you agree? But then I crossed paths with the man you robbed. He told me how you robbed him. He told me about the logout terminal." Kyouko's eyes widened, then, "And he told me that it doesn't exist."

"What?" Kyouko whispered weakly.

"Are ya kiddin me?!" Kibaou exploded, throwing himself back to his feet, like a monkey in the body of a gorilla. "You tell'n me that little shit LIED ta' ME!"

Heathcliff was unfazed, taking a half step back to maintain his balance, but never letting the sword point drift from Kibaou's solar plexus. With a gentle prodding, he sent the big man collapsing back to the ground.

"A bandit is not entitled to the truth." Heathcliff said, "You wronged that man, and he fought back with the only thing he had at his disposal, his knowledge, or your expectations of his knowledge. He created a fiction he knew you couldn't resist. To be perfectly honest, I couldn't have cared less if a man like you had gotten himself killed. What I could not conscience was the thought you would drag others into your folly." He glanced pityingly at Kyouko. "And that is what brought me here, just in time, I might add."

"So it was a trap." Leafa whispered beside her.

"A trap." Kyouko repeated. Mean as revenge against Rosalia and Kibaou. She would have just been collateral damage.

"W-What are you going to do with him now?" Leafa asked quietly. "Not something bad, right?" Kyouko, at a mental remove, was inclined to agree. Kibaou might reasonably be called a criminal, but they were still civilized people.

"I will do . . . nothing."

"Wha-" Kibaou began.

Heathcliff sheathed his sword with a soft -hiss-. "I will do nothing . . . except hand him over to the proper authorities. The Town of Beginnings has a city guard, they will decide what to do with him, in accordance with his crime."

"You're gonna hand me over to a buncha NPCs?!" Kibaou bellowed. To a gamer, Kyouko supposed, being placed under the authority of the doll-like denizens of Aincrad would probably count as the cruelest of insults.

"I don't see why not." Heathcliff said, "They operate the Prison. As for this sword, it will be returned to its rightful owner, and that will be that."

"Beggin your pardon, Master Heathcliff." Forstier spoke up, "But if yer planning to take this ruffian back with you to the Capital, then perchance you'd like to start out fresh in the mornin'? These Fairy lasses have been staying with us of late, but I'm sure we can make space for ye."

"That is very generous of you, good sir." The swordsman bowed his head cordially. "I can, of course, pay for lodgings. Either in coin or labor."

"Think nothin' of it! Nothin of it, Master Heathcliff!" Forstier rubbed at his pate, "My wife and I are fond of the Lady Fairies, if somethin had happened, to either one'o uhm, well . . . I don't know what we wouldave done." Heathcliff yanked on the rope binding Kibaou, giving the man time to climb to his feet, he turned as Kyouko approached, beckoning feebly for his attention.


"What you said," Kyouko bit her lip, "About the Logout point. What you said was the the truth, wasn't it? It really doesn't exist." She held her breath, though she didn't know why, she already knew the answer.

"I am very sorry." The swordsman confirmed. "No, such a thing does not exist."

Kyouko had remained silent all the way back to Forstier's home, hardly paying attention as Leafa lead her by the hand. Ellaine had been beside herself when she'd walked through the kitchen door, scolding her like . . . well . . . like a mother scolding a disobedient child. Like her own mother scolding her when she'd returned home late. The anger had been deeply strange, the NPCs were usually so compliant, that it had shocked her into obedience.

Kyoukou had been made to strip out of her soiled clothes and Ellaine had seated her at the kitchen table, cleaning the scratches on her arms and legs with a sterile rag and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Kyouko hissed as it stung, wishing for a proper first aid kit and modern antiseptic ointment. "Filthy, ghastly little rodents." Ellaine had tuttered as she worked.

"They're not rodents." Kyouko mumbled.

"What was that, love?"

"Shrews aren't rodents." She repeated some old rote lesson that had suddenly recalled itself from memory. "Rodents only have frontal incisors. Shrews are actually more closely related to moles and other insectivores." Ellaine paused, her eyes blinking in that stupid way they did when whatever intelligent animated her struggled to decide how to behave.

"Well you're a right little scholar, aren't you, love?"

"I'm a teacher."

"Young little thing like you?" Ellaine's voice was tinged with disbelief.

Kyouoko's expresioned turned bitter. "I'm not . . ."

"Hold still, love, you got a nick on one of those lovely ears of yours. Do you think you can hold back the twitchin . . ."

It would be a while yet before the hot bath was ready. Kyouko was forced to make do with a sponge and cold water to wash away the grime. After, she had curled up in what was becoming her usual place in the garden, wearing what was becoming her usual nightshirt. Knees tucked neatly beneath her chin, pale tales wiggling in the rich garden soil as the fading sun warmed her bones.

Ellaine had brought her a mug of something hot that smelled of hibiscus and told her to drink up. There wasn't much fight left in her to refuse.

A mongrel snout approached through the garden grass. Darter was walking with a more pronounced limp than when they had left the cave, and he made sure his whimpers were heard as he inched closer, bowing his head, and eying Kyouko pitifully. "You really are a shameless one, aren't you." A thoroughly shameless mutt, but one with some bloodhound in his veins, it seemed. Which, thanks to Leafa's quick thinking, was the only reason Heathcliff had found her in time. So, hesitantly, Kyouko turned over her hand, and reached out, beckoning gently.

'Never, ever, hold your palm down to a dog like you're going to hit it.' Her grandfathered had scolded after she'd been bitten by one of his prized shikoku. She had been balling her eyes out, barely eight years old, but he'd been angrier at her than the dogs. 'Dogs are trusting creatures, never betray that trust.'

"Don't get used to this, now." Kyouko warned, "It doesn't mean we're friends, or anything." She found the spot to scratch behind Darter's ears. "Good boy."

The sound of wood being chopped in the near distance pointed to where Heathcliff had set to work making himself useful. He'd insisted that Forstier's barn would be more than adequate for himself and his captive to spend the night. And he'd refused to be housed free of charge no matter what gratitude the goatherd pleaded.

It was the first real chance that Kyouko had to observe the man who had saved her life. An older gentleman, perhaps a bit younger than her Sho, and still quite handsome. Features that had settled into a firm and vigorous middle age. Hair turned to silver, and pulled back in a short ponytail. It was different from the typical youth worn by most player avatars, her own included. Although the shirtless physique powering the woodcutter's axe was certainly in line with the typical power fantasy. He'd gotten through the better part of a cord so far, and showed no sign of slowing.

'I very much doubt he's really built like that.' Kyouko thought privately as she sipped her tea.

The metronome punctuation came to a stop. Heathcliff wiped his brow with a rag and took a water skin hung from a nearby tree, noticing Kyouko at a distance, he approached.

"Recovering well, Atalanta-san?"

"Yes, thank you." Fortunately, Heathcliff was easy company. He didn't seem unconversational, but nor did he seem likely to start in without prompting. All she had to do to maintain the silence was keep it herself. She concentrated on her tea, on the steam rising from lip of the mug, and the soothing scent of hibiscus calming her nerves.

"How do you stand it?"

Heathcliff looked at her. "I am afraid I do not understand."

"How do you stand it?" Kyouko repeated, "This . . . place. It's a prison. How can you seem so at ease."

"Ah." The swordsman nodded.

"Surely, you have a life to go back to."

"Do you have a life to go back to?"

"Yes." Kyouko answered immediately, and for a moment, Heathcliff seemed . . . unspeakably sad . . . "It happens to be a very good life. And I would like it back very much."

Ellaine had called her a 'young little thing'.

But she wasn't young. Kyouko thought. She wasn't a child. She was a grown woman of forty nine years being treated like a grade schooler by things that were less than people. Even if she tried to explain that to them, they wouldn't understand. This world was crushing her into a shape that conformed to its reality and she couldn't do anything to stop it. Her life, her career, her status, they'd all been stolen away from her. And she didn't know how to get them back.

And now she was certain, she might die here and never know.

"A teacher, was it?" Kyouko ears perked, she looked up, surprise turning to an angry glare.

"My hearing is no match for that of a Pictish, Atalanta-san, but it is still quite good." Heathcliff smiled disarmingly. "I did not mean to eavesdrop."

"I see. I am a teacher. A professor, actually, of economics. In fact, I'm working on my doctorate. And you . . . What you said when you introduced yourself, are you just playing a scholar, or are you an academic as well?" It would explain his demeanor, and by extension his choice of avatar, no doubt older than most of the players.

"A doctor, of medicine, if you'd believe that. At least by training, my work took me down a different path. Though I've conveyed my meager wisdom to a few students, in my time." Heathcliff said. "As for how I can stand all of this . . . Perhaps I just don't see how despair is helpful. And besides, I am less certain by the day that we should be despairing."

Kyouko frowned, "Surely you don't think this is all real." It was the antithesis of Rosalia's theory, and seemed equally absurd. Thankfully, Heathcliff didn't seem to have fallen into complete delusion.

"I don't know. But I suspect, whatever has happened to us, may have exceeded even the wildest dreams Akihiko Kayaba." Heathcliff said, gazing out across the fading afternoon fields, then he chuckled strangely. "Now, isn't that wonderful?"

"How is that wonderful?!" Kyouko wanted to hit something, possibly Heathcliff. There was nothing 'wonderful' about it.

"Because it means that there is more to what has happened to us than can be imagined in our philosophy." Heathcliff answered. "In that, there is hope." Then he paused again, considering his next words carefully. "Speaking as one scholar to another, Atalanta-san, might I recommend that you start at the beginning."

"The beginning?"

"Hmm. Start at the beginning. Whether this world is real or not. Whether we are trapped or not. Nothing will be determined by simply raging that it is so. Begin by taking the world in front of you at face value. Only then may you make any progress. Whether to escape this world, or accept it, first you must understand it. Nothing can be achieved, until you have established your axioms."

Her axioms. What were her axioms? And what use were they? Kyouko wondered later as she lay quietly in bed, slowly pawing through her menu with swipes of a slender finger.

She came to the message screen :

(1) Friend - Rosalia

Her lips pressed into a thin line, she felt wretched just by association.

Their conversation had eventually drifted away from philosophy and towards practical matters. Namely the fact that the Rosalia had gotten away cleanly. Unfortunately, although it was usually possible to locate a friended person using the menu, it had been quickly apparent that Rosalia had disabled that function deliberately. Heathcliff had shown Kyouko how to do the same, ensuring that Rosalia would never be able to track her, but she decided to go one step further, hitting 'Delete' and watching the counter refresh.

(0) Friends

That done, Kyouko curled up beneath her blanket and tried to go to sleep. She just wanted to forget for a while. To dream within the dream that everything was normal. That this wasn't happening. That she would wake up tomorrow in the bedroom she shared with her husband and find that no time at all had passed.

While they'd been talking about finding people, it had been natural that the conversation had drifted to Kouichirou. "You're one of the Beta Testers, aren't you?" She'd asked. The question had seemingly caught Heathcliff off guard. "It's just that the way you moved, when you were fighting those monters, it was very . . . proficient." More than proficient, the only people she'd seen move with that sort of deliberate grace were the Beta Testers during the tourney. That young man, Kirito? and of course . . . Kouichirou. "I only ask because I am looking for someone. A player named Achilles. He was part of the Beta Test. I was wondering if you knew him."

"Achilles?" Heathcliff had repeated. "I was involved in the Beta Test. Although I didn't have as much time to play as I would have liked. I do remember an Achilles. A very capable of spearman. But I'm afraid I haven't crossed paths with him."

"I see." Kyouko had supposed she shouldn't have been surprised. "Well, if you do find him, could you perhaps . . ."

"I will let him know, that Atalanta is safe and living in seclusion in Champar, I promise." She had nodded, giving small thanks.

The door creaked open, Kyouko's ear twitched above the covers. It was Leafa, tiptoeing to bed like she did every night after her late games with Forstier. But then, the creaking of the floorboards stopped. A weight came down beside Kyouko and a hand gently rocked her shoulder.

"Uhm . . . Atalanta. You didn't eat."

"Not hungry." Kyouko answered. That, at least, was true. If she tried to eat anything, with the state of her nerves, she wasn't at all confident it would stay down. But Leafa didn't go away after that. Instead, she remained their, silent, unmoving.

"Are . . . you okay?"

"I'm fine." Kyouko said, her temper flaring. Leafa should really have been taught to mind her own business . . .

"No." Leafa said quietly. "You're not."

"Oh? And how would you know?" Kyouko thew back the covers, she turned herself over and propped herself and was met by the tears streaming down Leafa's face in the moonlight. She froze.

"Because I'm not fine." The Fairy girl whispered tightly. "Because I haven't been fine since we got here." She shook. "Because . . . I haven't been fine since that . . . horrible man said all of those things in the sky over town." She was shaking. "And then today, you almost died and if Heathcliff hadn't c-come I-I wouldn't have even known and then . . ." Shoulders hunching up as she hugged herself. "I-I would have been all alone."

"Leafa?" Kyouko whispered.

She hadn't been thinking.

If Kyouko had thought, really thought, she might have wondered why Leafa threw herself into this place. Why she was always helping, always working, always asking for more to do. Why she'd stay up late playing boardgames with Forstier, until she was so tired she'd fall asleep before her head hit the pillow.

It was to hold back the tears.

Leafa was another player, another person trapped in this world. But for all that Kyouko had known that, and for all that it elevated her above the NPCs, Kyouko had barely considered what the girl behind those eyes had been experiencing. How hard this must all be for her.

Kyouko had been angry. But Leafa was scared. Taken from her home, taken from her family, cast into this awful place.

What was more, Leafa had been thinking about her, helping her, even when Kyouko had only been thinking about herself. She'd been the one to declared they'd stick together. She'd been the one to arrange a place to stay.

Now Kyouko had two reasons to feel wretched.

"Leafa, I-I'm sorry I didn't . . . I didn't mean to . . ." Kyouko heard herself say. "I . . ."

"You didn't mean to wander off with strange people? To nearly die? It's not a game, Ata! You can't take those things back!"

"No you're right I . . ." And then Kyouko was being pressed back into her pillow, warm wet spreading across her shoulder as Leafa buried her face in her night shirt and began to sob.

"We s-said we'd stick together! We s-said . . . "

Wretched. Not just wretched. Helpless.

What was she supposed to do? What did people do at a time like this? She wasn't used to this sort of thing. Who was? She groped about for anything that might guide her.

Leafa was . . . a very kind and diligent girl. That was just about all Kyouko knew about her, really.

No, she corrected herself, she did know more than that. Leafa was a very kind and diligent girl. That meant she was somebody's daughter. Her own Asuna hadn't cried in years. Always so self sufficient. But if her daughter had collapsed in front of her, grieving and in pain, and she didn't know what else to do, even Kyouko knew to do this.

Her arms came up, stiffly at first, then slowly finding the contours of the slender, shaking body, pressed against her own. She squeezed gently and started to make soft shushing noises.

"It's okay. Leafa. It's okay . . . I'm not going to leave you alone I promise . . . I more than promise. I'll . . . I'll . . . "

She finally knew what to do.

Reaching behind Leafa, she opened her menu, and in a few short strokes it was done. "Leafa-chan." She whispered in one delicate elf ear. Leafa looked up, eyes red, she checked her own menu.

Accept Friend Request - Atalanta?


Their eyes met, and Kyouko nodded wordlessly. "Mmm."

(1) Friend - Leafa

Then Kyouko had pulled Leafa close, a little awkward, a little embarrassed. She wasn't . . . familiar . . . with these sorts of thing. She averted her eyes and rested her chin atop the fairy girl's head as Leafa sobbed herself to sleep.

It hadn't felt good. But at least it felt right.

The next thing Kyouko recalled, she was waking up, another body entangled with hers in the narrow bed. Luckily, they were both slim enough to, just barely, fit. Leafa was sleeping the sleep of the just, undisturbed by the distant rooster cries or the stirring morning sounds. Golden hair framing pale Nordic features that betrayed none of the turmoil they'd expressed the night before.

It wasn't going to be as easy for Kyouko. 'I've made a mess of things.' She thought.

It seemed better to get up before Leafa woke. Untangling herself, Kyouko was just able to climb out of bed without disturbing the fairy girl. Stepping daintily on the balls of her feet, tail swaying for balance, she winced at every creaking floorboard.

Ellaine had left her washed and mended clothes on the dresser, ready for another day. Then, as she was about to pull off her nightshirt and get changed, Kyouko caught sight of herself in the mirror.

She remembered what Heathcliff had said. She had to start by accepting the world as it was.

No matter how much she hated it, it wasn't going to change just because she wanted it to, virtual or not.

Taking a deep breath, steeling herself, then met the face in the mirror head on.

It was . . . a very pretty face . . . She couldn't deny that after long moments of inspection.

In fact, it was more than a little exotic, even before the colorful hair and cat's ears. If it was the face people were going to know her by, she could have ended up with worse, she supposed.

She looked down at herself. Slender hands, smooth skin, and supple young limbs. If she was being completely honest, there were much much worse things than this body. It wasn't as if anyone had much use for an economics professor, or a faculty department head, or the wife of a company president, in a world of swords and sorcery. So she hadn't really lost much in the trade.

And her name . . . her screen name, the name everyone would see if she friended or messaged them . . . Well . . . You didn't get to pick your name in real life either. And in a world with Heathcliffs, and Leafas, and Kibaous, Atalanta probably wasn't too bad.

'It's the name of a great huntress'. Kyouko recalled what both Argo and Leafa had told her. 'An auspicious name.' She could live with that.

It wasn't pleasant to give in, not even to give one step to this world. But maybe some battles simply weren't worth fighting.

In this world, until everything was said and done, the girl in the mirror was her, and she was the girl in the mirror. And she'd just have to get used to that. It didn't feel good, but it did feel right.

Which just left one more thing, for now, she regarded the bow that Heathcliff had recovered for her, resting in the corner. The string had broken, leaving it looking rather sad, but there wasn't any sign of damage to the limbs or riser. That was easy enough to fix. Among the very few things she'd found in her possession, along with a coin purse, when taking stock of what was hung from her belt, had been a small utility kit containing a knife and some flax string. It seemed her avatar had been created with the bare essentials to maintain her weapon. She wondered if Leafa happened to have a wet stone.

Sitting cross legged on the floor, Kyouko had set to work. There were a few false starts, and a fair bit of wasted string, before she got the hang of it. She hadn't tinkered with a bow since her second year of high school, so she wasn't particularly confident in her abilities, but her handiwork at least looked like it would hold. There was only one way to find out.

After breakfast, she'd set out for the center of Champar village, her task held clearly in her mind. Kyouko never did anything before she had assured success. Which meant she had to succeed.

She couldn't let herself be helpless. Not if she faced another monster. She couldn't let herself be ignorant. Not if she met another Rosalia. She had to understand this world as well as someone like Heathcliff. And while she was not a violent person, that did mean, at least, that she needed to know how to defend herself, and Leafa, as well.

At least she knew where to start.

Callus was working outside of his hut, fletching arrows when a Pictish girl cast a shadow over him in the morning light.

The dark skinned man looked up, squinting, looking mildly annoyed to be interrupted. "Can I help you, girl?"

Setting her shoulders square and standing straight, she nodded. "Yes. My name is Atalanta." She thrust out her bow. "Show me how to shoot this."
Interlude II
Dreamers of the Day - Book One - Interlude Two

Castle Aincrad - 1st Floor - Orignia - Day 12

His vision flashed white then red before the pain caught up to him. His head snapped back, the taste of copper filled his mouth. And as his hearing returned, a ringing persisting in his hears, Kouichirou was met by a man's voice, deep and mirthless.

"Damn but you are a durable one!"

Achilles spit blood, "You're given me too much credit, friend," eyes closed as he breathed heavily, "You just can't punch for shit."


"Hold'm tight."

"But . . ."

"Do it!"

The man at his back adjusted his stance, bracing himself awkwardly, he wasn't used to this, that was for sure. Kouichirou doubled over as the next blow buried itself in his stomach. "How's that for shit punches?" Kouichirou was cuffed across the cheek as if to get his attention. "Huh?"

Achilles cracked open an eye. They were in an alleyway, the narrow and winding sort, the sort that rarely got visitors and never saw the sun. The few windows to either side were high up, small, and shuttered tight. The noises of town were muted. They were as alone as could be.

The man in front of him leaned closer, allowing Kouichirou to take stock. Most avatars were aspirational, and his was no exception. Some sort of kung-fu master type judging by the Chinese features and the long black hair. A martial artist. Or an aspiring one. Except his movements gave him away, a little too awkward, a little too clumsy. A seasoned SAO beta tester would have favored an avatar closer to their real height and reach. Which meant this guy was probably a noob, or someone who hadn't care about maximizing their potential over roleplay.

"What were you thinkin coming in like that and beating up my buddies, huh?" The martial arts type waved to three other players laid out on the ground, variously clutching at twisted elbows, bent knees, and bloodied faces. None of them looked in any shape to keep fighting. Achilles hadn't needed a weapon to do that. Hand to hand arts had taken on a brutal reality, in this world. And he'd been too outraged to care.

"You shouldn't steal."


"I said you shouldn't steal," Achilles repeated calmly, "It's against the law."

The man grinned, "It's only a crime if you get caught. Besides, they're just NPCs." The man paused, shaking his head. "Don't tell me you're some kinda LARPing hero type, are ya? Guess what," he cuffed Achilles again, "Game over. We all lost. So you can stuff that white knight fantasy bullshit back where you got it. Got it?"

"You're right." Achilles' head hung low.

"What's that?" The man leaned closer, just a little close . . .

Achilles raised his head feebly. "I said you're right. "And then he rocked forward with all of his might.

His brow drove into Martial Artist's nose with a satisfying -crunch- Then, he pushed backwards, hard, slamming the man behind him into the alley wall, weakening his hold enough to break free. Dazed and in pain, the Martial Artist tried to throw a punch, but it was sloppy, he didn't know how lean into the MUSE system, while Kouichirou had spent two full months mastering the Pankration branch of the martial arts enhanced move set. Achilles moved out of the way, catching the arm, locking the joint at the elbow and applying pressure at the shoulder, throwing his opponent face first into the ground.
It was the work of a few brief seconds to get his knee onto the small of the man's back and keep him there.

"You're right." Achilles panted. "I am some pathetic hero LARPer. And you're just some pathetic little nothing hopped up on a little taste of strength." Achilles cocked his head as he heard the last man bolting, he didn't get far, a dainty foot stuck itself out of the shadows. The fleeing man's leg caught, he stumbled, and then he went down hard. When he tried to get up, there was a sword waiting for him.

"I would not move, if I were you." A thin and pale man announced, long blood red hair draping down his shoulders.

"Found ya!" An all too familiar voice announced. A small figure melted out of the shadows, pulling back her cloak to reveal a full mane of rich golden hair framing a heart shaped face bearing marks like whiskers.

"Argo." Achilles breathed.

"Been a while, A-kun." The Beta Test's famed information broker waved, making a point to step on, not over, one of the players Achille's had left laid out. -Ooph- "Woulda been sooner, but you're not an easy man to find." This didn't seem to surprise Argo. But then, she'd probably figured it out while looking for him. He didn't really want to be found. And if that were the case, he could make it hard for anybody, even a fellow Beta Tester.

Beneath Achilles a faint groaning sob had set in. "Iiiittt huuurrtttzzz". The martial artist groaned, all the fight having left him now that his face was pressed into the mud. Tears were flowing from his eyes. "Yu broke by gnoze!"

"I thought you liked inflicting pain." Achille said, twisting the man's arm every so slightly. It would be like popping the joint of a chicken leg.

"Come on man, we're sorry!" The last man had become spokesman by virtue of still being able to speak clearly. "It's not like we're holding up townies cuz we want to. We blew all our cash on launch day. We just need somethin to eat!"

"How old are you?" Achilles asked frankly.


"Yeah, you." Kouichirou pointed at the one who had been restraining him. To his credit, he hadn't seemed to be enjoying it. The task had just fallen to him because he was the biggest, burly, with a granite carved face accented by rune markings.

"W-Would ya believe second year high school?"

Achilles grimaced, finally relenting, he let up on the Martial Artist's back. "Get your buddies and get the hell outa here. And don't ever let me find any of you acting like animals again."

"R-Right! Come on, senpai!" He finally put his strength to good use helping his friends to stand. The whole group limped off, the leader casting a miserable look back at Achilles before slinking away.

"So . . ." Argo began when they were gone, then fell silent once more as Achilles limped over stiffly and retrieved the fallen coin purse. He turned, and marched down to the end of the alley, and presented it to an aged woman clutching two children closely.

"Is this everything, miss?"

The NPC blinked her eyes as she tried to catch up with what was happening. "Oh, Blessings of the Goddesses upon you, deary!" She took the pouch in weathered hands.

"They won't be bothering you again." Achilles told the townie. "But I'd avoid alleys from now on."

"Okay." Argo said slowly. "So is there some kinda karma meter or . . ."

"I don't think so." Achilles paused. "It just seemed . . . right . . . decent . . . just . . . decent." Better than watching people devolve before his eyes into their worst selves.

"And it was decent to let those guys go who rearranged your face?" Argo's nasally inflection came off as skeptical.

"Heh." It hurt to chuckle, but Achilles did it anyway. "This here," he pointed at his swelling cheek, "hardly notice it." Truth was, this level of pain was nothing compared to what he deserved. "So I guess Eugene put you up to this?"

"And Alicia, and Sa-chan." Argo added. "Mortimer thought you were dead."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Achilles said. The handsome, blood haired 'young' man gave a small shrug. "I don't know, maybe I am dead." He certainly didn't feel 'alive'. He'd stopped feeling that way when Yui had died in his arms.


Could an AI die?

If anyone could kill one, it would be Akihiko Kayaba. He'd created Yui in the first place. She'd been, as near as any AI of her type could be, Doctor Akihiko's own daughter. And he'd murdered her for trying to do what she she was born to do. For trying to protect the players.

All because Kouichirou hadn't done his job.

The RECT-ARGUS 'Liaison and Compliance Administrator'. It sounded fancy, but describing it for what it was, really, just a safe spot to park the first born failson of a business dynasty while he accumulated 'experience'.

It had been his job to be the go between between the RECT board and the ARGUS technical division. He hadn't been qualified to make any assessments himself. But he didn't need to be. RECT was no small firm, Quantum Physicists at CERN, VR engineers at Fresno, and AI researchers at MIT would have all dropped everything if he'd called to have something explained. And he'd had the unilateral authority to release sensitive company documents under an NDA. He'd never made those calls. He'd never thought they were needed.

That man . . . Higa . . . Takaeru Higa . . . that was the one. He'd been babbling about the Memeosphere's quantum set space before he'd been terminated from the project. Kouichirou had been told that Higa's theories were fringe at best, outside his realm of expertise at worst, and accepted that appraisal uncritically.

If he had just ordered an audit, paused the project for a few weeks, then maybe, just maybe they would have revealed Kayaba's true intentions.

Achilles rubbed his face. What were Kayaba's true intentions?

That insane speech was the first and last contact anyone had seemingly had with Doctor Akihiko since the launch. Since then, the outside world had ceased to exist, and the players had known only the confines of Aincrad.

One thing had become clear, however.

Aincrad had changed. And not just in its fidelity.

The Town of Beginnings that Kouichirou had known since the Beta Test was still recognizable, but only in the broadest sense. The streets were the same, mostly, as were the buildings, the ones that were still standing anyways. But gone was the peaceful and prosperous starting town that promised a launchpad for adventures across the floor of Orignia. The Town now felt more tired and more careworn. It's stones cracked and ancient. It's stuccoed walls crumbling. Buildings were abandoned. Some were hollowed out completely or had been torn down outright.

There was a glamorous mansion laying astride an estate, complete with an artificial lake in the ToB's southern district. During the last week of the Beta Test, Kouichirou had convinced Yui to . . bend the rules . . . regarding real estate values so that the Beta Group could afford to buy the mansion for a farewell party.

The mansion was still there, a burned out shell of itself, its stone walls dismantled for building material. The lake had been drained, and the grounds torn up and converted into vegetable patches.

It was like the place had turned post apocalyptic. A medieval post apocalypse.

The townies looked it. The blank smiles of exotic NPCs replaced by grim and worn down folk going about their business in careworn clothing.

Kouichirou had borne witness to it all as he wondered the streets aimlessly. After the riots had ended, he must have spent two or three days confined in the room he'd shared with Mortimer and Eugene. Eventually, he'd simply walked out and not come back, with no plans for where to go but 'away'.

He was almost grateful he hadn't found his mother. He didn't know if he could face her, yet. He hadn't found Nishida, either. Not many players had been quick enough to escape the town on the first day. And not a lot had been brave enough to leave since.

Mostly, they lingered, listless, quietly desperate, huddled on street corners, in alleys, or camping out in the ruins like the destitute. The city guard wasn't numerous enough to evict them, and the vast majority of the players were too frightened to make the first move, or fight effectively if they did. So since the riots had burned out, an uneasy stalemate had settled between the players and the native denizens of this world. An unspoken truce that was, equally, certain not to last.

"Hey, I have money! Sell me bread!"

It was a player's voice. Even when they were 'upset', an NPCs voice didn't carry that entitled indignation. It required a certain lack of self awareness only experienced by the truly self aware. A crowd was gathering outside of a bakery, a mixture of players and NPCs come to see what was causing a commotion.

A squad of guards had formed a cordon behind which stood a town crier. "By order of the Maire and Steward of Orignia, all bakeries and granaries are closed for the day."

"I don't get it, I said I have money!" The same player insisted again, only to get the same reply.

"That's an hour earlier than yesterday." Achille's heard Argo murmured to Mortimer. If the Broker and the Tactician were talking about something, it was worth paying attention. "And two hours more than two days ago."

"Mm." Mortimer nodded, "Trying to signal without causing a panic."

"Signal what?" Kouichirou stopped.

"It'd be better to explain in private." A sour look crossed the young woman's face. "Will you come back with us? Also, if you haven't eaten in a while . . . " Argo left the rest unsaid.

In fact, the last thing he'd eaten was a piece of stale bread and some questionable cheese he'd bought with one of his meager copper cor. That had been two days ago. All the good food, in all its abundance, had disappeared along with the Town's prosperity.

He couldn't keep going like this, Kouichirou knew, so without really agreeing, he'd allowed Argo to lead him back to the Bottle Fairy Inn. The very tavern where they'd been celebrating in the moments before it had all gone to hell. Before their collective dream had transformed into a nightmare.

"A-kun!" Achilles was greeted with a full body tackle from someone half his size. It had about the effect of a chihuahua attacking an Akita. Tawny skin and wheat colored dreadlocks. If Argo's whiskers made her resemble a cat, than Alicia was a cat girl pouncing in earnest. "Where have you been?! Quick, let me get a look at you! What the heck happened to your face!"

"You should see the other guys." Argo snickered, "All five of'm."

"Five! Really?! That's our Achilles!"

"Rue." Achilles smiled tiredly, before gently prying her small body from his frame. "Sorry for going off the grid, I was . . ." A finger was raised to silence him.

"Nyeh? Don't mention it." Alicia told him. "It's tough for everyone right now. If that's what you had to do, that's what you had to do. But I'm sure not gonna say I'm sorry to have you back."

The inside of the Bottle Fairy, too, was about how he remembered it. A little more drab, a lot more worn down. The selections of spirits behind the bar counter was notably dwindled and, from the smell of things, the ale on tap probably wouldn't have passed a health inspection. A few familiar faces were tucked into the corners. The Bottle Fairy had been the watering hole of the most avid Beta Tester, so if you ended up here, you probably knew the other clientele.

"Where's Eugene?" Achilles asked. "Figure I ought to apologize to him." He'd walked out on the big man, and his brother, after Eugene had waded through the panic to save him.

"He's on a mission." Argo replied, opening her menu and starting to speed read her messages. On a slow day, it was something she'd do about once an hour. Though during the peak of the Beta Test, she'd basically never stopped, sometimes reading and messaging in the middle of raids.

Now that they were safely inside the tavern, she'd shirked her cloak, an action that caused half the population of the room to turn their heads. Most Beta Testers had known the cat by her painted whiskers, only a few knew the kind of figure she was hiding beneath that mantle of hers. And of that number, even fewer still knew anything other than that it originated in a 'legendarily stupid bet' between the Cat and the King of Arms Pitohui.

If Argo noticed the attention, and she almost certainly did, she didn't show it. "Alright, Eugene and Kirito met up earlier and scouted the Northern hedge. The Cave Raiders are moving along the lip in the direction of Stonefall Outpost. That just leaves . . . " The door chimed again, admitting a small party of haggard looking players, some familiar beta tester, a few new faces, a blue haired man in the lead.

"I . . ." The man began before seeing Achilles.

"Diavel." Achilles said. "You look like hell, humble knight."

"And you look like Yakuza pinata, Spearman." Then, turning his attention to Argo. "We scouted it out like you asked."

"And?" Argo urged, expectantly.

"It's exactly like what you and Mortimer predicted."

Argo sucked in a breath through her teeth. Kouichirou tilted his head.

"The NPCs are harvesting the wheat. They're threshing the wheat.." Diavel confirmed. "The grain is delivered to granaries. The granaries deliver to mills . . ."

"And the mills deliver to the bakeries." Argo finished.

"And why is any of that weird?" Alicia asked out of the blue. "That just sounds like how you make bread the normal way, start to finish."

"Because in Sword Art Online, that wasn't how it was done." Kouichirou said without further prompting.

It had always frustrated Kayaba, to the point of irrational anger, but that level of simulational detail would have simply been a waste of computer resources. Not to mention, demanding that Cardinal manage an exponentially more complicated game economy for something the players would never notice, and possibly be annoyed by if they did. It hadn't stopped Akihiko from devoting entirely too much time and too many resources to developing an Axiom to manage it.

"Right." Argo agreed, "In the Beta Test, farmers farmed, and millers milled, but there was no mechanical connection between those two actions. Not between the mills and the bakeries either. They were just props. Maybe there were flags between them, but only to approximate causality. Products simply restocked, in accordance with maintaining the balance of the game economy. But there isn't a game economy, not anymore. There's just an economy."

"So the bakeries closing . . ." Kouichirou cursed under his breath. It was a concept that simply hadn't existed in Japan in his, or even in his parents' lifetime. "Rationing."

"Whoever, or whatever, is managing the Town of Beginnings, is starting to respond to our presence, trying to stretch the food supply." Argo answered, she waved Achilles to follow her to one of the secluded back booths where another familiar face was seated nursing a mug of tea and picking over what was left of a loaf of bread and a block of cheese.

"How ya hold'n up, Sa-chan?" Argo asked gently.

Sakuya looked a lot like the Town of Beginnings, before and after. The last time Kouichirou had gotten a good look at the beautiful Alf Fairy, she'd been radiant in that way only a VR avatar could manage. More than a week without much food or sleep had left her looking haggard even compared to the rest of them. It was said the Fairy's had the weakest constitution of the three player races. She still managed to smile, faintly, bags beneath her bloodshot eyes, gently massaging her temples. "I'm holding on." She told Argo. "And . . . Achilles?" Her voice tired but full of the affection she'd always shown to good friends.

"Hey, Sakuya." He seated himself at the table awkwardly.

Argo proffered something to him, something greasy and wrapped in paper. "Saddle jerky." She explained. "Kii-bou brought some back last time he came into town. Just . . . Don't ask Mortimer how it's made."

Achilles grimaced, if being handed the 'cuisine' nobody else wanted was to be his penance, then so be it.

"So the food situation is getting worse." Achilles tore into something that tasted like . . . salty leather. It made him crave stale bread.

"Oh it's much worse than that." Argo growled, opening her menu, she visualized a spreadsheet for the benefit for the people gathering around the table. "This here is a timeline of sunset every day. Notice anything?"

"Uh . . . The sun sets earlier each day?" Alicia asked.

"Which means?" Argo reasoned.

"Uh . . ." Alicia assumed an overly deliberate thinking pose. "We're heading towards winter."

"Bingo." Argo said. "And if it stands to reason that crops are being harvested, then once we get to winter."

"No more crops." Alicia nodded along, "And then . . . oh . . ."

"Mortimer's our history buff." Argo elaborated, nodding to the red haired man.

"I don't have my references with me." Mortimer answered, matter of fact, as if he wasn't discussing an imminent famine. "But at a guess, assuming Liza's calculations regarding Orignia's current size are correct, and assuming the land area under cultivation is properly utilized, and assuming that farmers know what they are doing, and that wheat and bread can stand in for the rest of the agricultural production, the floor probably still runs a minor food surplus relative to its native population. It's not enough to sustain an extra twenty five thousand mouths, appearing suddenly, in middle of the harvest season, not even half of that."

And if they could feel pain and be injured in a way that was true to life, then the odds were good that starvation would kill them as well, Kouichirou realized, staring at the piece of half eaten jerky in his hand.

"You're telling us that Kayaba is going to starve us all to death?" Sakuya asked hollowly.

"Perish the thought." Mortimer answered. "If the last week has been any indication, we and the NPCs will doubtless be at each others throats before starvation sets in."
WARNING : Contains depictions of suicidal ideation and self harm

Dreamers of the Day - Book One - Part Three - The Fencer I

This was a dream.

It was a horrible dream.

It was a nightmare.

Yet no matter how many times Asuna closed her eyes, and wished it to be so, she couldn't wake up.

She still didn't think she'd processed it right. She still told herself she had misunderstood. It had been the better part of a day before it had really settled in. She'd continued moved for a while, like a wind up thing, not sure how to respond when taken out of her correct environment. And then, she had simply shut down.

In a dreary little room, on a narrow street, in a forgotten corner of the Town of Beginnings, Asuna had crawled into a straw bed, and stayed there.

The days had passed in a blur. Sometimes crying until she passed out, sometimes dry heaving into the chamber pot, sometimes just laying, staring at the ceiling as the light of the sun and moon flickered by, struggling to breath. The only times she'd left the room was early each morning to buy a loaf of cheap hard bread and fetch a pitcher of water, and early every night to relieve herself

She did the bare minimum to survive. And even that couldn't go on for much longer. A dingy little room still cost money to keep every day. So did the bread, for all that it was the hard and unappetizing kind made of coarse flour and mashed up vegetables. Her coin purse was getting lighter every day. Soon she wouldn't have any choice but to sleep on the street.

She tried not to think about that. She tried not to think at all.

She'd just wanted feel free for a little while. And now, she was prisoner in a fashion more absolute than she had ever dreamed possible.

She couldn't change her world. She couldn't change herself. She shouldn't have even tried.

'But there is a way out.' A tiny, comforting voice, whispered in her ear from a someplace at the back of her mind. The same place that told her she should hit herself. The same place that helpfully suggested stabbing a pen into her palm. 'It's so easy even someone like you can do it.'

She'd realized it one day while buying bread, when she'd watched a small group of players gather at the southern gate and march off for the Lip.

None of them had come back. They'd left what few possessions they had, their unused money mostly, to those staying behind.

'Anyone can fall. Even you can fall. It would be so . . . easy . . . '

She wouldn't have to worry about food anymore. She wouldn't have to fear being made homeless. She would never again be a prisoner.

She would be beyond reach.

Finally, she would be free.

"I . . ." Asuna lips shaped the word. "I-I sh-should just . . ." She rasped.

She should just . . .

The message icon blinked in the corner of her vision.

Asuna pulled the coarse blanket close. She curled up into a ball so as not to let the world in. But you couldn't change the world. You couldn't even fight it. The icon was going to blink there, demanding her attention, until she opened her menu and turned off all alerts, and once the window was open, she might as well read it.

Pitohui - Haven't heard from you since launch day. Talked to my friends, you know M already, they're okay with you joining up. We're going to be setting out from the castle ruins North of Town. If you're down, meet us their around 8:00 AM, or whatever.

Asuna glanced at her menu's clock.

5:31 AM

She closed her eyes, and tried to go back to sleep. But after what felt like an eternity, when sleep still did not come, she checked her clock again.

5:41 AM

The sky outside her window was starting to lighten, from near black, to deep blue, it wouldn't be long before it turned a drab gray. But it was already enough light to see by. For some reason, opening the menu and reading Pito's message hadn't hurt her night vision. Asuna didn't think to question that, she just assumed it was because the menu was virtual.

'What a destitute place I'm in.'

The room she was renting, the alleged room, was barely bigger than her closet. Beside the bed, there was a simple, crudely made, table that served as a desk and night stand, and equally primitive chair, and a small chest to hold her personal possessions. Which amounted to her sword. There was a hook for her cloak on the door, and a candle holder tucked into a small alcove beside the bed.

The candle holder was empty. Candles cost extra.

There was one last thing, a mirror hung over a wash basin by the door. It wasn't a particularly good mirror, but it was enough to see herself by. The Asuna of Aincrad who she had been so eager to become. She never wanted to look at her again.

'I look perfectly dreadful.' She thought.

Hair matted and unkempt, face puffy from burrowing into what passed for a mattress. Even spending all of her time in this tiny room, she looked exhausted. She looked like she'd forgotten how to smile.

5:45 AM

She did what she could with the leftover water from the day before, scrubbing her face and straightening out the worst of the knots and snarls with her hands.

She'd slept in her clothes. So she straightened them.

She got up and retrieved her sword from the chest, going over to the table and drawing it from its scabbard. The dull iron didn't really offer much to inspire. But it was a weapon. She'd fought boars with it, no problem.

Those boars hadn't been able to hurt her though, not really.

That wasn't true anymore. And there were a lot worse things than boars beyond the Town walls besides. But maybe she was okay with that. After all, why be afraid?

So she'd gotten up, she'd put on her cloak, and she had quietly set off down the narrow hall, and down the twisting stairs, leaving her key in the little cubby where she had first picked it out.

Asuna set out North, as best she could, though it was easier said than done. She wasn't entirely sure how she'd wound up where she'd been staying. Pitohui and M had helped her to get out of the mob, but after that, she'd been on her own. Pito had said she needed to find the rest of her friends. And that was the last Asuna had heard from the strange woman until just now.

Tucking her head down, Asuna pulled her cloak closer as she ventured through the winding streets, using her map compass to keep herself heading north. A few times, she almost succumbed to the urge to turn back.

The Town of Beginnings could have been lost in one tiny corner of Tokyo, but there had been no time in Asuna's short life that she had felt unsafe walking those streets. Here in a place no bigger than some country towns she watched her back and checked every dark corner. She didn't know which was worse, that she could trust no one, or that the people she could trust the least might be her fellow players. Other peaceful citizens of Japan. More than their forms had been changed by this place.

"Hey babe, why don't yah come take a seat with us!" A man hunched over the embers of a fire called. Asuna didn't know if it was directed at her, or some other girl, as she turned the corner, his next words chased after her and sent a chill down her spine. "There ain't no ethics code no more!"

That was right. The <<Anti-Harassment>> code that had protected players, in particular female players, though it applied to males as well. It had been obvious enough that it was gone in short order after Kayaba had made his announcement. Not due to anything untoward, but simply due to the riots that had followed.

It did not mean this world lacked its own sort of justice, however. She'd witnessed that herself when last she'd ventured onto the wider streets, hoping to find better water than the well she'd been using.

The City Guard, she supposed the closest thing Aincrad had to 'police' had come marching, a line of shackled prisoners in tow. They had all been players, Asuna recalled, unmistakable in their disheveled adventurer's starting attire. Some of them had probably been captured during the riots. Others had, knowingly or not, broken some sort of law. One of them, in particular, had stood out, a great big brute of a man with fiery red hair. He'd fought and chaffed at his chains, cursing his captors, it had been the work of fully four of the guards to restrain him.

"By the goddesses, he looks like he was born to beat people to death!" One of the NPCs had murmured to another.

"That great troll? Did you not hear, it was an outlander who brought him in, for banditry."

"Not for justice, surely. He must have wanted the reward, to hunt one of his own. Savages the lot of them."

"Either way, the magistrates will make an example of him for certain. They must!"

On the other side of the street, players had been having a similar conversation.

"Bastards are picking us off!" A strong young man had cursed.

"Ulric, don't say that where they can hear you!" The girl at his side, looking anxious, had pressed close. "You might be next if you antagonize them!"

"That's exactly my point, Miyurin. Somebody has to do something!"

Even so, the quiet stalemate between the players and the NPCs had not been broken. People had watched, angrily, but nobody had interfered on the behalf of the captured men and women. They were all too scared, or maybe uncertain what to do. Or maybe they let it happen because then at least somebody was keeping order.

It was wrong.

But it was easy.

That made it worse.

Eventually, Asuna had made her way to the Northern Gate. It had been kept open, she gathered, ever since launch day. The authorities of the Town of Beginnings seemed perfectly content to allow any 'Outlanders' who wished to leave to take their chances in the land beyond.

Asuna opened her menu and read Pitohui's message again. It occurred to her that, in a world where death was the ultimate consequence, it was no longer safe to take 'Pito' at face value. She shook her head. Nothing about what she was doing was safe.

The last building before the gate house was a pub. A few people were gathered outside. Mostly players. A few of them, having already exhausted their funds, had resorted to pan handling.

"Toss a coin to your player?" One girl had chuckled weakly. She was clearly hungry, her pink hair disheveled, her unblemished skin emphasizing how gaunt she had become. Partly it was hunger, nobody lost weight that quickly sitting in the street. Mostly, it was a lack of hope.

"Excuse me." Asuna asked.

"Huh?" The girl blinked. "The . . .'castle ruins' . . . Do you know if I can reach them from here?"

"Oh, uh . . . yeah I think so. Just keep straight on the main road. The NPCs that come through here mention it a lot, that's as far as they patrol." Then the girl frowned, "Wait . . . You're not going out there alone, are you?!"

Asuna checked her belt. She had her sword in its scabbard. She thought she remembered how to draw it out properly. But she didn't try, not with so many guards standing around. It was a strange feeling, the threat of imprisonment seemed more urgent than the threat of death.

"Mm." Asuna nodded, pulling back her cloak, and shaking out her hair. Some of players looked up. Some conversations paused, as people stared at the girl gazing beyond the walls of their self imposed world. "Thanks for your help, uhm . . ."

"The names Lizbeth . . . Liz."

"Right, thank you very much, Liz." Asuna had turned and bow politely.

"Yeah, uh, don't . . . mention it?" She watched Asuna go, passing beneath the gate and setting out into world much wider than that within the walls. It was only when she'd lost sight of her that Lizbeth noticed something. "Hey you left your coin purse!"
The Fencer II
Dreamers of the Day - Book One - Part Three - The Fencer II

Maybe it was the light of the golden hour bathing the landscape. Or maybe it was just the feeling of having finally decided. But as Asuna put the Town of Beginnings at her back, content to never return, she felt a lightness take hold.

The first leg of her journey was peaceful. The road was well traveled by farmers and merchants heading to and from town, as well as the armed guards standing watch to protect them. There wasn't a monster in sight, not even a boar, unless one counted the domesticated pigs rooting around in their pens.

Clusters of cottages sat among the fields. And when she listened carefully, Asuna could hear far off singing as men labored to bring in their harvest. Out here, in the open, among the living and growing things, it didn't seem quite so bad.

A river marked the dividing line between the territory under intensive cultivation and the more wild lands beyond. There were still signs of human habitation, wood cutters huts among the trees, orchards, and smaller fields mingling with the surrounding forest, but the sounds of men at work, began to yield to wild noises, some of the patches of forest grew dark. Asuna felt the weight of the sword on her hip, and pulled her cloak closer as she lengthened her step.

The road began to split into tributaries, and gradually narrowed some, continuing to wind west a ways where a low hill hove into view. Capping the summit, like the bones of some ancient creature, were the ruins of what must once have been a stout fortress overlooking the highway. Asuna checked her map and her messages once more. She hadn't received anything else from Pitohui since her invitation, nor had 'Pito' replied to her inquiries.

'Curious.' Asuna thought. She was pretty sure this was what the other girls in her class called 'ghosting', but on closer inspection of the castle, she could just make out a white curl of smoke rising from behind the walls. None of the other travelers seemed to pay it any mind.

"Excuse me!" Asuna waved to another traveler, a sun warn man wearing a straw hat. He blinked, pointing awkwardly at himself. Asuna nodded and politely asked him if he knew about anyone living in the castle ruins.

He did not.

Well, she'd come this far, and she had no intention of going back, the only way was forward.

As she climbed the hill, the castle's position became immediately sensible, overlooking not only the road, but much of the land to the North, so that by the time Asuna reached the crumbling remains of a gate house, she could see for kilometers, all the way down to where the river she'd crossed earlier fed into a lake. It made for a good watch post, both coming and going.

"Hello?" Asuna held a hand her mouth. "Pitohui? Mister M? I got your message but there wasn't any answer when I replied. Uhm . . . Is anyone here!" If not, she was going to feel thoroughly silly.

Passing beneath the remains of the portcullis, now nothing more than a collapsed and rotting tangle of wood, Asuna stopped as she heard a -click-.

"Freeze." An unfamiliar voice said, so close at hand it very nearly made her jump from her own skin.

"Huh?!" Asuna's head turned reflexively, snatching a glimpse of what almost looked like . . .

"I said freeze!" The voice menaced. "Reach'm!"

"Easy, Llenn." Another voice echoed from Asuna's left, this one she recognized.

"Mister M." Asuna said.

"This is the person that Pito was talking about."

A towering man, seeming to almost bulge out of his modest starting equipment, sleaved rolled up past his elbows, was making his way carefully down the precarious remains of a battlement staircase. She'd only met M briefly, and only long enough to exchange pleasantries, a stoic and somewhat unsettling man, but there was something comforting about a familiar face, especially one that seemed, almost, unchanged by everything that was happening.

"So you're Asuna, huh?" The voice, now behind her queried, prompting Asuna to turn. She blinked as she was confronted by two delicate tufts of cream white just level with her eyes. "Down here." A pair of long, narrow, somewhat floppy brown ears, like those of a rabbit. "Lower." And a beret perched atop a head of short cropped, straight, brown hair. "A little lower." Finally meeting a munchkin face blinking up at her with soft brown eyes.

"Cute." The word left Asuna's lips unbidden.

"Oh, we're gonna get along just fine." The petite girl extended a child sized hand. "The name's Llenn, I'm a friend of Pito's."

"Asuna." Asuna replied, taking the girl's grip. "Likewise. Uhm, if you don't mind my asking, where is Pitohui?"

Llenn began to answer before someone else rounded the gatehouse corner. Not Pito either, a blonde woman, long golden hair woven into plates like a cape, with the pointed ears of an Elf, or was it an Alf? A fairy anyways, Asuna thought. "This the new meat? Lemme get a look at her." In a flash, she was nose to nose, peaking beneath Asuna's hood. "Oh wow, and she's a total hottie!"

'A 'hottie'?!' Asuna blinked. She'd been complimented on her appearance before, but that was a new one. "Uhm, and . . . You are?"

"Oh, sorry, introductions!" The fairy woman struck a pose, clenching a fist over her ample bosom as she cast her voice to a deep contralto. "My legend is sung far and wide across the nine realms. A warrior of unrivaled beauty and even more unrivaled prowess! Surely when one speaks of a Sylphic Shield Maiden they refer to none other than I, Fukaziroh!" She punched up into the air, holding a defiant pose for a moment longer then relaxed. "But you can call me Fuka for short."

"O-oh, alright . . . Fuka-san." She hadn't really understood most of what she'd said.

"You're gonna scare her off, y'know." Llenn sighed.

M waded into the fray, gently prying Asuna free of the boisterous 'Fuka' "To answer your question, Pito's down in the armory trying to scavenge some usable weapons." Weapons? "She has a one track mind when she's busy. We've set up camp in the old stables, come on inside and we'll get you introduced to our other two members."

The smoke Asuna had seen earlier had its origins emanating from what remained of an old chimney, attached to what might have once been quarters to house the men responsible for the castle's horses, now thoroughly dilapidated and partially collapsed. As a place to to find shelter, it might protect from the rain, and break up the wind, but that was about all that could be said.

A green haired woman was sitting cross legged atop a bedroll doing something with what looked to be a flintlock musket. She had the same 'elf' ears as Fukaziroh, but her personality could not be more different. The only sign that she'd noticed Asuna was a simple glance before returning to her tinkering. Other than the musketeer, the rooms other occupant was a handsome, if not bishounen, boy busying himself beside the fire.

"Atata!" The youth hissed as he plucked something from the fireplace, a root that had been left to roast in the ashes.

"Clarence, grab one of those for our guest." M instructed.

"I'm fine." Asuna said. She'd gnawed on the remaining crust of her last loaf on the way from town.
"Suit yourself." M said. "So, lets get introductions out of the way then, shall we?" M gestured with an open hand. "This is Shirley, our markswoman. And this young . . ." He gave Clarence a look, and received a weak grin and a shrug, " . . . man is Clarence, her partner. You've already met Fukaziroh and our pointwoman, Llenn." Shirley, Clarence, Fukaziroh, Llenn. Asuna committed each name meticulously to memory as if they were facts to recall for a test. "We were all on the same squad in our last game, while there's not of overlap between there and here, it's a team that works well together, I can vouch for that."

"Hi hi!" A sing song contralto came from the direction of the stable doors, the tall and lithe frame of Pitohui approached, arms full of what, on first inspection, looked like farming or gardening implements, but in fact proved to be something far more wicked when Asuna got a good look at their metal heads.

"That's all of them?" M asked.

"Yeah, slim pickins." Pito replied. "And most of'm are in real crap shape. This is all the decent heads and all the decent hafts. We'll need to see if we can get this rust off and sharpen'm." She dumped the load into M's waiting arms. When she caught site of Asuna standing behind M, her face split into a big grin, she ran up and grabbed Asuna's hands. "So you actually decided to come, this is great!"

"O-Oh . . . Is it?" Asuna wondered what exactly was so great about it. Any of it.

"Of course it is! Do you know how many people show your kinda potential right out of the gate? Don't get me wrong, these guys are great, but other than lil'ol Llenn here, our team isn't exactly the best up close and personal, y'know?"

No, Asuna didn't know. She wasn't entirely sure just what Pito was talking about.

"I don't need to get up close and personal." The first words spoken by the woman working on her matchlock. "A good shot can take a target at one hundred meters, even with a black powder weapon."

"You won't have any problems shooting mobs, will you?" M asked.

"They're just a different type of game." Shirley answered. "It shouldn't be a problem."

"Yeah well, unlike the poor delicious animals back home, these'll hunt you back." Pito retorted. "And they're a lot more aggressive than the target practices mobs we had in Gun Gale. So, sorry, but you best get used to it. Especially if we have to do any delving in close quarters."

"Animals?" Asuna repeated, realizing that she was indeed a stranger finding herself among familiar acquaintances.

"Shirley's a nature guide back in Hokkaido." Llenn offered by way of explanation. "And she's a licensed deer hunter."

"Mmm." Shirley frowned as she sighted down the length of her weapon's barrel. "I've used black powder firearms before, but nothing this primitive. It's not quite the Sengoku Jidai, but it's not far off."

"Hey, Clarence my man." Pito called to the youth tending the fire, eliciting a visible wince. "How bout you toss me one of those spuds." Pito caught it right out of the air, hardly seem to care that it was steaming against the palm of her hand. "I was kinda surprised when I looked you up on my map, Asu." Pito carried on. "I didn't think you'd still be in town hanging out with all the cowards."

"Cowards?" Asuna repeated, remembering the desperate faces lining the streets. "Are they really cowardly?"

"Damn straight!" Pito replied. "Gotta fight to live, Asu. That's the rule of this wordl. And I'm dying to fight!"

"So yeah, first things first, we're going to fix these up as best we can. Then me and M are going to get you all up to snuff. Guns are best, obviously, and swords are cool as hell, but when it comes to fighting in a group melee nothing beats a polearm. So after they're fixed, we're gonna drill, and after we drill . . . "

"After that?" Asuna repeated.

Pito snapped down on the potato in her hand, taking a steaming bite, skin and all, then swallowed, canines glinted as her mouth peeled back in a smile. "We're gonna make sure we can fight when it really counts. We're gonna go find ourselves some monsters, and we're gonna kill every last one of them."

LLENN JOINS THE FIGHT - "Well isn't that just darlin!"

FUKAZIROH JOINS THE FIGHT - "Time to show you the power of a GAMER GIRL!"

SHIRLEY JOINS THE FIGHT - "I guess I can add monsters to my watch list."

CLARENCE JOINS THE FIGHT - "I wonder if the Castle Folk are 'dirty' too . . ."

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