Sword Art Online:Volume 2 Chapter 3 Part 2
Bathed in the white morning light, a gentle tune flowed into Asuna's drowsy consciousness. It was her wake-up alarm with the sound of an oboe playing. Enshrouded in the drifting sensation on the edge of awakening, Asuna plunged herself into the melody, somehow filled with nostalgia. Before long, the refreshing echoes of string instruments and the leading rhythm from the clarinet flowed over each other, along with a faint humming voice—
She was not the one singing. Asuna snapped her eyes open.
Within her arms, the black-haired girl had her eyelids closed... Humming along to the melody of Asuna's wake-up alarm.
The girl did not miss even a single beat. However, that was impossible. As Asuna had set the alarm to be audible to only herself, there was no chance that anyone could achieve a feat like singing along to the melody within her mind.
In any case, Asuna decided to put aside that doubt for now. Rather than that—
"Ki-Kirito-kun, geez, Kirito-kun!!"
Not moving an inch, she called to Kirito, sleeping in the bed behind. There were soon signs of Kirito softly murmuring as he awoke.
"...Morning. Something happened?"
"Hurry, come over here!"
The hushed creaking of the floorboards. Shifting his gaze over Asuna, onto the bed, Kirito widened his eyes immediately as well.
Asuna lightly shook the girl within her hands and called out.
"Hey, wake up... Open up, your eyes."
The girl stopped moving her lips. Soon, her long eyelashes weakly trembled, and slowly rose upwards.
With misty black eyes, she peered directly into Asuna's eyes, right before her. Blinking several times, she opened her almost colorless lips just the tiniest bit.
The girl's voice rang out, like the delicate vibrations of silverware, a fleetingly beautiful sound. Asuna sat up, still holding onto the girl.
"...Thank goodness, you woke up. Do you know anything about, well, what happened to you?"
When spoken to, the girl kept her silence for several seconds, shaking her head in small, short motions.
"I see... What's your name? Can you say it?"
"N...ame... M...y... name... "
As the girl inclined her head, a strand of her glossy, black hair fell onto her cheek.
"Yu...i. Yui. That is... name..."
"So, Yui-chan? That's a pretty name. I'm Asuna. And that person is Kirito."
As Asuna turned, the girl who called herself Yui followed suit and shifted her vision. Looking to and fro between Asuna and Kirito, who was half bent forward, she opened her mouth.
With her lips faltering, she spoke with disjointed sounds. Asuna felt her fears from the previous night returning. The girl's outer appearance was of at least eight years old; if you were to consider the time that had passed since she logged in, her actual age should have reached around ten by now. But the girl's shaky words, were as if they came from an infant who had just gained awareness.
"Hey, Yui-chan. Why were you on the twenty-second floor? Are your father or mother perhaps, anywhere near here?"
Yui moved her eyes downward and sank into silence. Keeping quiet for a moment, she shook her head back and forth.
"I don't... know... I don't... know, anything..."
After having been placed into a sitting posture on the chair at the dining table and offered some warm, sweet milk, the girl held the cup up to her chest with both hands and began sipping it. Watching over her out of the corner of her eye, Asuna decided to discuss the situation with Kirito a distance away from the girl.
"Hey, Kirito-kun. What are your thoughts...?"
Kirito chewed his lips with a serious expression, but soon spoke, with his face downcast.
"She doesn't... seem to have her memories. But, with those reactions... it's like, her mind was, damaged or..."
"Yeah... You think so too, huh..."
Kirito's face distorted, seemingly on the verge of tears.
"In this world... I've seen many horrible things... but this is... the worst. This is just too cruel..."
Seeing his eyes turn watery, Asuna too, felt something bursting out from her chest. Wrapping her arms around Kirito, she spoke.
"It'll be alright, Kirito-kun. ...If it's us, there's definitely something... we can do."
"...Yeah. That's right..."
Kirito raised his head and smiled faintly, placing his hand on Asuna's shoulder and returned towards the dining table. Asuna followed behind him.
Moving a chair with a clatter, Kirito sat down beside Yui and started a conversation with a bright voice.
"Aah, Yui-chan. ...Can I just, call you Yui?"
Raising her face from the cup, Yui nodded.
"I see. Then, Yui can just call me, Kirito."
"It's, Kirito. Ki, ri, to."
Yui put on a complex expression and kept quiet for a moment.
Kirito broke into a grin and laid his hand on Yui's head.
"Maybe that was a bit difficult. You can just, call me with any other easier name you want."
Yui once again pondered for a while. She didn't stir an inch, even when Asuna picked the cup up from the table and refilled the milk.
Soon enough, Yui slowly raised her face and looked at Kirito, and timidly, she opened her mouth.
Next, she turned to Asuna and spoke.
"Auna is... Mama."
Asuna trembled uncontrollably. She did not know if the girl had merely mistaken them for her actual parents, or perhaps— that her parents did not exist in this world at all, and she wanted them instead; but before dealing with that suspicion, Asuna frantically tried to restrain the feelings filling her heart and struggling to break loose and nodded with a smile.
"That's right... It's Mama, Yui-chan."
Hearing that, Yui broke into a smile for the first time. Under her straight fringe, her previously expressionless eyes shone with a gleam, and in that instant, color seemed to return to her face with doll-like features.
Looking at the arms outstretched towards her, Asuna felt a violent jolting pain within her chest.
Earnestly holding back the tears threatening to overflow, she somehow managed to preserve her smile. She carried Yui's small frame from the chair, and as she firmly hugged her, Asuna felt a single tear, filled with a mess of different emotions, spill out and trickle down her cheek.
Finishing off her drink of hot milk and a small bun, Yui seemed to have grown sleepy once again, with her head starting to sway to and fro while sitting in the chair.
Looking at the girl's status while seated on the opposite side of the table, Asuna wiped her eyes with a jerking hand and looked towards Kirito, beside her.
Despite opening her mouth, she was unable to form the words she wanted adequately.
"I'm sorry, I just have no idea, about what I should do..."
Kirito gazed upon Asuna with sympathetic eyes, but soon spoke with a sigh.
"...Until that kid regains her memories, you want to stay here and look after her, right? I understand... those feelings. I feel the same. But still... it's a real dilemma... If we do that, we can't return to completing the game for a while, and with that, the time needed to break this kid free from here will be delayed as well..."
"Yeah... that's true, after all..."
Putting herself aside, Asuna started thinking. Not to exaggerate, but Kirito's presence as a clearing player towered above the rest of them, providing maps of the traversable areas in the labyrinth, with the quantity beyond even many prominent guilds, while being a solo player. Despite planning it as just a few weeks of newly-wed life, monopolizing Kirito by herself like this was enough to make her feel traces of guilt.
"For now, let's just do what we can."
Looking over at Yui, who had dozed off, Kirito continued his words.
"Firstly, let's head for the Starting City and see if we can find the kid's parents or siblings. With her standing out so much as a player, I believe there's bound to be some people who recognize her, at least."
It was a natural conclusion. But Asuna noticed her feelings of not wanting to be separated from the girl, from within herself. It was the life where she could be alone with Kirito, that she had even dreamed about; but somehow, she had no objections with it becoming a group of three. It might be because she felt as if Yui would be like the child of Kirito and her... Getting to that line of thought, Asuna was startled and came to her senses, blushing to her ears.
"...? What's the matter?"
Asuna turned to Kirito, who looked suspicious, and shook her head back and forth.
"Th-That's right. When Yui-chan wakes up, let's go to the Starting City. We can put something up in the Q&A corner of the newspaper on the way too."
Still not able to look Kirito in the face, Asuna spoke quickly while tidying up the table in a hurry. When she looked towards Yui, sound asleep in the chair, perhaps it was just her imagination, but her sleeping face seemed different from yesterday, appearing more tranquil.
Moved to the bed, Yui slept through the entire morning, and wondering if she had gone into a coma again, Asuna nervously worried; but fortunately, she woke up just as the preparations for lunch were completed.
Despite baking a fruit pie, which she rarely ever makes, for Yui's sake, when Yui took her place at the table, rather than the pie, she showed more interest in a sandwich, filled with plenty of mustard, that Kirito was heartily biting into, perplexing the pair.
"Ah, Yui, this is really spicy."
"Uu... I want to, have the same as Papa."
"I see. I won't stop you if you've already made up your mind. Everything is an experience."
Handing a sandwich over, Yui widened her petite mouth with all her might and took a bite without even a single trace of hesitation.
The couple held their breaths as they watched over her, Yui, chewing the food with a complicated expression, finally swallowed it down her throat with a gulp and beamed cheerfully.
"This one has got quite some guts."
Kirito too, smiled as he rubbed Yui's head.
"Let's challenge ourselves with a burning hot full course for dinner."
"Geez, don't get carried away! There's no way I'll make something like that!"
But if they were to find Yui's guardians at the Starting City, the only ones returning here will be just the two of them. Thinking so, Asuna felt a tinge of loneliness running through her heart.
Asuna faced towards Yui, who decided to finish up the rest of the sandwich and was drinking some milk tea with a satisfied look, before speaking.
"Oh, Yui-chan, let's go out for a bit in the afternoon."
Looking straight at Yui's puzzled face, she paused, wondering how to explain when Kirito cut in.
"We're going to look for Yui's friends."
"Friends... What are those?"
Reacting to that answer, the two instinctively exchanged glances. There were many peculiar traits to Yui's «syndrome». Rather than merely her mental age receding, it was closer to giving the impression as if bits and pieces of her memory were vanishing.
In order to improve her condition, it would be best to find her actual guardians... Telling herself that, Asuna faced Yui and answered.
"Well, friends are the people who are able to help out Yui-chan. Now, let's get ready."
Yui's expression still showed signs of doubt, but she nodded and got up.
The white one-piece dress worn by the girl, having short puff sleeves and made from a thin material, looked like it would be cold to go out in during this season, the start of winter. Of course, feeling cold, or perhaps catching a cold, suffering from some damage, things like that do not happen— well, it would be a different story if you were to strip and go to a frigid area, but— The fact that one would usually feel at unease does not change.
Asuna scrolled through her item list, materializing heavy clothing, one after another, and when she finally found a sweater that suited the girl, she came to a sudden stop.
Normally, when equipping clothes, one would manipulate the equipment figure from the status window. Cloth, liquids and such soft objects were not very well reproduced in SAO, and thus, rather than an independent, separate object, clothes were treated as a part of the body instead.
Taking note of Asuna's hesitation, Kirito questioned Yui.
"Yui, about your window, can you open it?"
As expected, the girl tilted her head to the side in complete ignorance.
"Well then, try moving your finger on your right hand. Like this."
Kirito waved his finger, and a purple rectangular window appeared under his hand. Seeing that, Yui mimicked the motion with an unsteady hand, but the window did not open.
"...As I thought, there's some kind of system bug. But still, not being able to open your status is just way too serious... You can't do anything like that."
Just as Kirito bit his lips, in that instant. Getting annoyed, Yui, who was waving her finger on her right hand, waved her left hand instead this time. Right at that moment, a glowing purple window was displayed under her hand.
Above Yui, who was grinning away with delight, Asuna exchanged glances with Kirito, who was taken aback with surprise. She had no idea what was going on any longer.
"Yui-chan, let me take a look."
Asuna leaned over and peered into the girl's window. However, the status was usually hidden to all except the owner, and all she got a glimpse of was a bare, plain screen.
"Sorry, let me have your hand."
Asuna took Yui's hand in hers, moving her slim index finger, clicking around where she thought the visibility mode button was by intuition.
Her aim accurate, the features of the screen soon came into sight with a short sound effect. Typically, as stealing a glance into another's status was considered a heavy breach of etiquette, despite the uncommon circumstances, Asuna tried her best to keep from looking at it and nimbly open only the inventory, but...
"Wh-What's with this!?"
The second she glanced across the top section of the screen, she burst out in astonishment.
The top screen of the menu window was normally separated into three areas. The arrangement was such that in the topmost section, the name was shown in English characters along with the long and thin HP and EXP bars, and below that, in the right half, would be the equipment figure, while the left half would be the summary of command buttons. There were countless sample designs to customize with for the icons and such, but the default layout cannot be changed. On the other hand, in the topmost section of Yui's window, only the strange name display, «Yui-MHCP001» exists, with neither the HP bar nor EXP bar, or even the level display. Although the equipment figure was there, the amount of command buttons was drastically less than usual, with only «Item» and «Option» there.
Finding Asuna's freeze fishy, Kirito approached and peeked into the window as well, losing his breath. Yui, not knowing the significance behind the window's abnormalities herself, looked up at the pair curiously.
"Is this also... a bug in the system...?"
Asuna muttered, and a deep groan escaped from Kirito's throat.
"For some reason... rather than a bug, it looks more like it was designed in this manner from the very start... Damn, I don't think I've ever been more irritated that there aren't any GMs around, more than I am today."
"Normally, in SAO, there aren't really any bugs or lag to speak of, so there isn't really any need for GMs... There's no point brooding about that issue anymore, I guess..."
Shrugging her shoulders, Asuna moved Yui's finger once again, opening up the inventory. Placing the sweater she picked up from the table onto it, the item was stored into the window with a glint of light. Next, she dragged the name of the sweater towards the equipment figure, dropping it there.
Along with a sound effect resembling a bell, Yui's body was enveloped in particles of light right away, modifying the light-pink sweater into an actual object onto her.
Wearing a sunny expression, Yui stretched out her hands and looked down at her own body. Asuna continued, getting a skirt of a similar color with black tights, red shoes and equipping the items on, one after another, finally having returned the original one-piece dress back to the inventory, she dismissed the window.
Finished dressing, Yui looked delighted, rubbing her cheek against the fluffy sweater's texture and pulling on the skirt.
"Now, let's get going, then."
"Um. Papa, carry."
Responding to Yui reaching out with both hands without a care, Kirito shyly gave a wry smile as he lifted the girl's body up. While doing so, he glanced at Asuna, and spoke.
"Asuna, just in case, be prepared for battle anytime. We shouldn't be going out of the city, but... that is the «Army»'s territory, after all..."
"Hm... It's best not to let our guard down."
With a nod, Asuna checked through her own inventory and walked towards the door together with Kirito. It would be good if the girl's guardians were found; those really were her honest feelings, but imagining parting with Yui made her feel strangely uncomfortable. They had only known each other for a single day, but Yui seemed to have completely taken over a tender part of Asuna's heart.
It had actually been months since her last descent to the first floor, the «Starting City».
Feeling complex emotions within her, Asuna stood still near the teleport gate's exit, scouting out the huge plaza and the streets stretching out beyond that.
Of course, as this was Aincrad's largest city, comparing the number of facilities essential to adventuring here with those of other cities, there was no competition at all. Prices were generally low, and all sorts of inns could be found here. Judging in terms of efficiency, this was a most suitable place to be used as a base town.
However, if you were to go by Asuna's contacts, not even a single high level player had stayed in the Starting City all the way until now. The oppression from the «Army» was one of the reasons, but it was mainly due to the fact that when standing in the central plaza and looking up toward the sky, one could not help but recall what had happened back then.
The start of it all was merely a whim.
Born through a relationship between a businessman father and a scholar mother, Asuna— Yuuki Asuna, was raised, subjected to the expectations of her parents from the very time she gained awareness. Both of her parents were people who were mercilessly firm with themselves, while being gentle to Asuna, and due to that, she was afraid of how they would react if she did not live up to their expectations.
Her brother was probably the same. Both Asuna and her brother had gone to the private school chosen by their parents, and without a hitch, constantly retained their excellent results. From the time her brother finally reached the age to be admitted into university and left the house, she existed with nothing on her mind, but solely to live up to her parents' expectations. Taking up lessons for multiple activities, socializing only with friends approved by her parents, but as she went through life like that, Asuna eventually felt her world shrinking, as though it was steadily deflating. If she continued on this predetermined path— proceeding onwards to the high school and university chosen by her parents, marrying the partner chosen by her parents, she believed she would definitely be trapped within an extraordinarily hard shell, even smaller than she was then, and be forever unable to escape from it; these were the fears she had always suffered from.
That was why, when her brother was employed by the company managed by her father and came back home, speaking so spiritedly with a Nerve Gear and a copy of SAO that he had gotten through his connections, about what would become the world's first «VRMMO», even Asuna who had not touched a television console game before, felt a minor trace of interest about that strange new world.
Of course, if her brother were to use it in his own room, she probably would have soon forgotten and not bothered about things such as the Nerve Gear. However, thanks to bad timing, her brother had to go on a business trip overseas on the very first day of the start of the SAO service, and so, Asuna ended up requesting to borrow it from her brother, for just a single day on a mere whim. Feeling the desire to peek into a world she had never seen before, that was all it was—
And thus, everything changed.
Even now, she could still recall the excitement of that day, when she changed from Asuna to "Asuna", finding herself on an unknown street, among people unknown to her.
But immediately after that, when that god of emptiness descended down and announced this death game, with the inability to escape from this world, the first thing Asuna thought about was the Mathematics work that she did not yet start on.
If she did not hurry back and settle that, she would get scolded by her teacher in the following day's lesson. For the life that Asuna had led thus far, that would be a failure that she could not allow... but of course, the severity of the situation was not of such a degree.
One week, two weeks, even as each day was idly passed by, there was no sign of help from the outside. Secluding herself within one of the rooms of a Starting City's inn, cowering atop the bed, Asuna constantly experienced a ridiculous amount of panic. Screaming every now and then, even beating on the walls as she wailed. It was the winter of her third year in middle school. Soon would be her examinations, and after that, the new school term. Being derailed from that path was considered the same as the devastation of her life, to Asuna.
Asuna spent each day amidst troubled fits, embracing deep, murky convictions.
Rather than being concerned for their child's body, her parents were definitely busy being extremely disappointed over the daughter who failed her examinations due to a game console. Her friends, while suffering from some grief, were probably pitying the one who dropped out of their group, or perhaps sneering over it.
When she passed her critical point with those dark thoughts, Asuna finally made a decision— to leave the inn. Not waiting to be rescued, but to escape from here with her own strength. To become the savior who would put an end to this incident. If she hadn't taken that path, she most likely would not have been able to retain her presence within the minds of the people around her any longer.
Asuna prepared some equipment, memorized the entire reference manual, and headed out into the field. Sleeping time for each day was restricted to two, three hours, and the rest of her time was sunk into level training. As a result of focusing all of her natural wisdom and willpower into clearing the game, it was not long before she was able to enter the list of top level players. This was how the ardent swordswoman, Asuna the «Flash», was born.
And back to the present— Two years have passed, and the now seventeen year old Asuna looked back at the self from that time with bitter feelings. No, not just the period right after the game started. Towards all that had happened before that, that self that lived within that solid, shrinking world too, she recollected that part of her past with a wretched, painful sorrow.
She did not understand the meaning of what it was like «to live». All she had done was think of nothing but the ideal future, sacrificing the present in the process. The «now» was naught but the means to bring about the perfect future, and hence, with its demise, there was nothing left but to disappear into the middle of nothingness.
It was no good with only one or the other. Overlooking the world of SAO, she thus concluded seriously.
One chasing the future would be like what she once was, fanatically advancing towards the clearing of the game, while one clinging only to the past would still be cowering in an inn's room. And the one who lives only for the moment would seek transient pleasure as a criminal at times.
But despite being in this world, there were people who enjoyed the present, making memories, one after another, while working hard to escape. The one who taught that to her was the black-haired swordsman she met a year ago. The desire for his way of life— from the moment that entered her mind, the hue of her day to day life changed.
Now, even if it was in the real world, she felt like she would be able to break through that shell. She believed that she would be able to live for her own sake. As long as this person stayed by her side—
Asuna gently approached Kirito, embracing his own deep feelings as he stared down the streets. The pain that she felt once again, as she gazed upon the stone roof in the sky, was a mere, faint thing.
Shaking her head once as though she was trying to clear up her sentiments, Asuna peered into Yui's face, still being carried by Kirito.
"Yui-chan, do you have any memories of any buildings, or things like that?"
With a complex expression, Yui looked around at the rock structures, extending out from the plaza, before finally shaking her head.
"I don't know..."
"Well, the Starting City is pretty darn big, after all."
Kirito spoke while rubbing Yui's head.
"Well, something will probably ring a bell sooner or later if we keep walking around. Let's just check out the central marketplace for now."
"I guess you're right."
Nodding in agreement, the couple started walking towards the main street to the south.
But still— As she walked, Asuna looked over the plaza once again with some doubt. There were an unexpectedly small number of people around.
The gate plaza of the Starting City was wide as expected, being able to fit all ten thousand players two years back, at the opening of the server. In the middle of all that stone-paved empty space in the shape of a perfect circle, lies a towering clock tower, with the teleport gate flickering blue within its lower section. Flowerbeds extended out, set in concentric circles around the tower, with multiple elegant, white benches lined up between them. It would not be strange at all for it to be crowded with people seeking a moment of rest on such a nice afternoon; but all of the human figures around were either at the gate, or heading towards the plaza's exit, with barely anyone standing around or sitting on the benches.
For the major streets on the upper floors, the gate plaza would always be in a clutter with a flood of players engaging briskly in gossip, searching for party members, setting up modest street stalls; and as a result of all the people hanging around, even walking forward was difficult, but—
Asuna asked as Kirito turned around.
"Around how many players are over here right now?"
"Hmm, well... The number of players still alive are around six thousand, and roughly thirty percent of that are still in the Starting City if we include the «Army»; so it would be just below two thousand, wouldn't it?"
"Considering that, don't you think there're too little people around?"
"When you point it out that way... Maybe they're gathered around the market?"
However, entering the main street from the plaza, even as they drew close to the market area with shops and carts lined up, the streets remained quiet. The random touting from the energetic NPC shopkeepers echoed futilely through the streets.
Despite that, they were able to find a man sitting under a large tree in the middle of the street, and Asuna approached and tried calling out to him.
"Ah, excuse me."
The man, staring upwards towards the treetops with an oddly serious expression, spoke as though it was a bother, without adjusting his view.
"What is it?"
"Well... Around this area, are there any places that act as a space for searching for people?"
Hearing those words, the man finally shifted his vision towards Asuna. He scrutinized Asuna's face without reserve.
"What, so you were an outsider."
"Ah, yes. Well... we're kind of trying to look for the guardians of this child..."
She pointed at Yui, dozing off while held in Kirito's arms, behind her.
Garbed in a plain uniform that made it hard to determine his class, the man widened his eyes slightly when he gave a fleeting glance at Yui, but he soon moved his view back to the treetops.
"...A lost child, huh, that's rare. ...At the church beside the river of the seventh district in the east, there's a bunch of kid players gathered and living there, so try there."
Able to get ahold of surprisingly promising information, Asuna quickly bowed her head. Having done that, she tried putting out another question.
"Ahh... Just what, are you doing over here? And also, why are there so little people around?"
Even as the man made a grimace, he replied, apparently not as bothered as he might appear.
"That would be a classified secret, or so I would like to say. Well, seeing as you're outsiders... Look, you can see it, right? That high branch over there."
Asuna followed the path of the man's outstretched finger. The overhanging branches of the sizable trees by the road were vividly dyed in the colors of autumn, but if you were to focus and stare at them, you could spot several yellow fruits, springing up in the shadows of the leaves.
"Of course, as the roadside trees are indestructible objects, even if you climb it, you won't even be able to get a single leaf off it."
The man continued his words.
"Everyday, there's a few times when that fruit falls down... There's only a few minutes before it rots and disappears, but if you don't miss that chance and manage to pick it up, you can sell it to the NPC for quite a bit. Not to mention it tastes pretty good."
For Asuna, who had mastered her cooking skill, discussions about ingredient items were of remarkable interest.
"Around how much does it go for?"
"...Don't spread this around. For each of them, five col."
Looking upon the man's proud expression, Asuna was unintentionally rendered speechless. She was surprised by just how cheap the price was. In that case, toiling by clinging onto this tree for the entire day did not quite match up with the results.
"Ah, well... In that case, it's not quite worth it, or rather... If you were to just defeat a single worm in the field, you could get thirty col."
At the moment she said that, the man stared in wonder this time. He did not quite accuse her of not being right in the head, but turned towards Asuna with an expression showing how absurd he thought it was.
"You seriously saying that? If you were to go and fight monsters in the field... You might actually die, wouldn't you."
Asuna could not think of a reply. It was just as the man had said; fighting against monsters always had the danger of death accompanying it. But with Asuna's current mentality, it was like worrying about getting into a traffic accident while crossing the road in the real world all day and night; there was no use getting scared over it.
Whether her own sense of death in SAO had been dulled, or whether the man was being overly nervous, being unable to judge that in an instant, Asuna stood motionlessly still. Probably, neither of them could be considered as correct. At the Starting City, what the man had said was definitely common sense.
Not taking any notice of Asuna's complicated mental state, the man continued speaking.
"And, what was it, the reason why there isn't anyone around? It's not that they aren't around. Everyone's cooped up in their inn rooms. They might meet up with the Army's tax collection force in the daytime, after all."
"Ta-Tax collection... Just what do you mean by that?"
"It's just the polite way of saying extortion. Be on the lookout; those guys won't spare you even if you're outsiders. Oh, looks like one's falling... that's the end of this chat."
Shutting his mouth, the man started glaring at the skies seriously. Asuna quickly bowed, and noticing that Kirito had kept his silence during the entire conversation, turned around to her back.
At that spot, was Kirito's figure, focusing on the yellow fruit with a serious look, not unlike that worn in the midst of combat. It seems that he intends to go all out to attain the next fruit that drops.
"Stop that already, geez!"
"B-But you see, doesn't it bother you?"
Gripping Kirito by the nape of his neck, Asuna started walking while dragging him away.
"Ah, ahh... and it looked good too..."
Pulling Kirito by his ear, with his regrets still lingering, she forced him to turn around.
"Rather than that, which way is the seventh eastern district? There seems to be young players living together there, so let's try going there."
Taking over Yui, who had completely fallen asleep, and holding onto her tightly, Asuna pored over the map while keeping pace beside Kirito.
As Yui had the external form of someone around ten years of age, doing something like this in the real world would cause her arms to fail in just a few minutes, but thanks to the compensation from her physical strength parameter, Asuna felt the weight of nothing more than a pillow filled with feathers.
Walking towards the south-east through the spacious streets for ten minutes, barely passing by anyone as before, they finally approached a vast garden-like area. The forest of broad-leaved trees with their colors changing were waving dejectedly in the cold winds of the early winter.
"Let's see, this is shown as the eastern seventh district on the map, but... I wonder just where is that church."
"Ah, isn't it over there?"
Beyond the forest, stretching out on the right side of the road, Asuna spotted a distinctively tall spire and fixed her sight in that direction. At the summit of the ashen blue roofed tower, a metal ankh formed by combining a cruciform with a circle, was gleaming. It was the unmistakable mark of a church, of which at least one exists in every town. And through the altar inside, tasks such as removing the attack unique to monsters, «Curse», and the blessing of weapons to go up against undead monsters with, were possible. In SAO, where magic-based components barely exist, it could be considered a most mysterious place. Also, as long as col was regularly offered, a small room within the church could be borrowed and used as a replacement for an inn.
"Wa-Wait a moment."
Asuna unwittingly called Kirito to a stop, just as he was planning to walk towards the church.
"Hm? What is it?"
"Ah, no... Well... if, we happen upon Yui's guardians over there, we'll be... leaving Yui-chan there, right...?"
Kirito's black eyes softened with sympathy towards Asuna. He drew his arms close, gently embracing Asuna's body along with the sleeping Yui.
"I don't want to part with her either. Just how do I say this... with Yui's presence, that house in the forest really felt like it became a real home... well, that was how it felt like... But, it's not like you'll never meet again. If Yui regains her memories, she'll definitely come and visit again."
"Hm... That's right."
Giving a small nod, Asuna brought Yui, still in her arms, closer and lightly grazed her cheek, before walking forth, having resolved her feelings.
The church building was a mere trifle when compared with the scale of the city. It was a two-storied building, with only a single spire that acted as its symbol. But still, there were multiple churches within the Starting City, and the ones near the gate plaza were at the size of a minor castle.
Reaching the grand double doors in the front, Asuna pushed one of them open with her right hand. Being a public facility, it was naturally not locked. The interior was dim, and only the flames from the candles, decorating the altar at the front, burned, weakly illuminating the stone-paved flooring. There were no signs of life at first glance.
Popping only her upper body through the entrance, Asuna called out.
"Ahh, is there anyone here?"
Even as the sound of her voice trailed away with an echo effect, no one seemed to have appeared.
"Is there no one here...?"
As she tilted her head to the side, Kirito refuted her in a low voice.
"Nah, there's people. Three in the right room, four in the left... And more on the second floor."
"...With the detection skill, you're even able to tell the number of people beyond walls?"
"From the proficiency of nine hundred and eighty, that is. It's pretty handy, so you should increase it too."
"No way, training is so boring that I'll just go crazy. ...Putting that aside, I wonder why they're hiding..."
Asuna softly stepped into the church's interior. The surroundings were engulfed in a deathly silence, but she somehow felt the presence of people concealing their breaths within.
"Ah, excuse me, we're searching for someone!"
She tried calling out in a louder voice. With that— the door on the right side opened just the slightest bit, and a feeble female voice sounded out from there.
"...You aren't from the «Army», are you?"
"We aren't. We came here from the upper floors."
Both Asuna and Kirito did not have their swords, or even a single piece of armor meant for battle put on. Players belonging to the Army had a uniform of heavy armor on at all times, so one should be able to tell that they were unrelated to the Army even through appearances alone.
Soon enough, the door creaked open, and a single female player timidly showed up.
A head of dull blue short hair, with a large pair of glasses with black rims, and within those, deep green eyes were opened wide, filled with apprehension. Dressed in a plain dress of a simple dark blue shade, she had a dagger sheathed in its scabbard in her hand.
"You really... aren't from the Army's tax collection group, right...?"
Asuna gave the woman a reassuring smile, and nodded.
"Yes, we are searching for someone and just got here from above today. We're absolutely not related to the Army at all."
In that instant—
"From above!? You mean that you're actual swordsmen!?"
Along with a high-pitched boyish shout, the door behind the woman opened wide, and several human figures ran out disorderly. Immediately following that, the door on the left side of the altar was thrown open as well, and similarly, several people burst out.
Taken aback with surprise, as Asuna and Kirito watched over the scene without speaking, the ones lined up in a row on both sides of the bespectacled woman were all young players who could be considered as young boys and girls. The youngest was probably twelve, while the oldest would be around fourteen. All of them were in a state of keen interest over Asuna and Kirito, ogling all over them.
"Hey, all of you, I said to stay hidden in the room, didn't I!"
Only the woman, pushing back the children in a fluster, could be seen as around twenty of age. That said, not a single child was following her order.
But right after that, the first one who ran out from the room, a boy with short, red, bristling hair standing up on end yelled out in a disappointed tone.
"What's with that, you aren't even holding a single sword. Hey, didn't you come from above? Shouldn't you have a weapon at least?"
The latter half of those words were directed at Kirito.
"N-No, it's not that we don't have any, but..."
Kirito replied as he darted his eyes about in surprise, and the children's faces instantly brightened up once again. Lemme see, lemme see, all of them pleaded insistently.
"See here now, you can't just go about speaking so impolitely to people you've just met. —Sorry, we rarely ever welcome any guests around, so..."
Facing the truly sorry-looking bespectacled woman bowing down, Asuna spoke in a hurry.
"N-No, it's not a problem. —Hey, Kirito-kun, I think you have some still left in your inventory, so why don't you let them see?"
Nodding to Asuna's proposal, Kirito opened a window and moved his finger, changing about ten weapon-type items into objects at the same time, and piling them up on the long table nearby. They were items dropped by monsters during a recent adventure that were left alone as he did not have the time to sell them off yet.
Kirito closed the window, with all of the surplus items except the couple's equipment taken out, and the children cheered loudly and swarmed around them. Getting a feel of the swords, maces and such, one after another, cries of "Heavyy" and "Cool" soon resounded. It was a scene that would leave any overprotective parent faint, but no matter how weapons were handled within towns, it was impossible for them to suffer any damage.
"—I'm truly sorry..."
Although the bespectacled woman bowed her head down troubled, a smile came to her face at the sight of the delighted children, and she spoke.
"...Ah, do come this way. I'll prepare some tea, so..."
Guided to the small room in the place of worship, Asuna and Kirito took a sip of the hot tea offered to them and let out a relieved sigh.
"Then... you mentioned that you came to search for someone...?"
The bespectacled female player sitting on the opposing chair asked, with a slight incline of her head.
"Ah, yes. Er... I'm Asuna, and this person would be Kirito."
"Ahh, excuse me, I haven't even given my name yet. I am Sasha."
And she quickly bowed with her introduction.
"And, this child is Yui."
While brushing the hair of the still sleeping Yui on her lap, Asuna continued.
"This child got lost in the middle of the forest on the twenty-second floor. She... seemed to have lost her memories, so..."
The woman who called herself Sasha widened her large deep green eyes, hidden behind her glasses.
"She didn't have anything aside from clothes equipped either, so it didn't seem like she lived on the upper floors... And so, perhaps her guardians are at the Starting City... or maybe people who knew this child might be around, we thought; hence, we came here to find them. Thus, when we heard that the children were gathered at the church here..."
"So that was how it was..."
Sasha grasped the cup within her hands, and dropped her gaze to the table.
"...Right now, there are twenty living here in this church, children from grade school to children around middle school. I believe it should be, more or less, all of the child players around in this city. At the time this game started..."
Sasha began to speak in a hushed, but clear tone.
"Almost that many children went into panic attacks and essentially underwent mental problems. Of course, there were children who got used to the game and left the city, but I believe them to be the exceptions."
It was something that Asuna experienced too, in her third year of middle school at that time. When she secluded herself in that inn room, she believed that she certainly did feel her mind crumbling away, almost driven to a corner.
"It's only to be expected; they were still at the age when they wanted to be spoiled by their parents. To be suddenly told something like them being unable to get out from here, maybe even never ever returning to the real world— those children mostly broke down, and within them... it seems there were some that broke the connection just like that."
Sasha's mouth firmly grew stiff.
"For a month or so after the game started, I thought about aiming for the completion of the game and went to train in the field, but... one day, I saw one of those children at a street corner, and I just couldn't leave the child alone; so I brought the child with me and started living together in the inn. And then, when I thought of all the other children still around like that child, I started to go about the city, so as to call out to children by themselves. Before I knew it, it turned out this way. That's why, somehow... despite there being people fighting at the upper floors like the two of you, to think that I dropped out, it feels inexcusable."
"That's... That's not—"
While shaking her head, Asuna struggled with all her might to find the appropriate words, but her voice was caught in her throat. Picking up the slack, Kirito spoke.
"That's not true at all. You're fighting valiantly... Much greater than someone like me is."
"Thank you very much. But I'm not quite doing this out of a sense of duty. It's been very enjoyable living with these children."
Sasha smiled sweetly and stared at the sleeping Yui worriedly.
"That's why... For two years straight, we went through all the buildings in an area each day, checking to see if there were any children who needed help. If there was such a small child left around, we would have definitely noticed. I'm sorry to say this... but as for this child, I don't believe she was living in the Starting City."
"Is that so..."
Asuna hung her head down, hugging tightly onto Yui. She pulled herself together and looked towards Sasha.
"Er, this seems like it would be intruding into your privacy, but how do you get by, for your daily living expenses and such?"
"Ah, for that, aside from me, there are several older children protecting this place around... they're at a level that ensures their complete safety as long as they stay within the fields around this city, so we can still do something about our food supply. We can't afford to live luxuriously though."
"Oh, that's amazing... Judging from what I heard earlier in the city, something like hunting monsters in the field is considered a suicidal act that goes against common sense."
Sasha nodded at Kirito's words.
"Basically, I believe that's what all of the players left in the Starting City think. I won't deny that idea; it can't really be helped, when you consider there's the danger of death... However, that could also be the reason why we're earning more money when compared to the average player in this city."
That was certainly true; to regularly reserve the guest room in this church, a hundred col would probably be needed every day. It was an amount that greatly exceeded the daily income of that fruit hunter from earlier.
"That is why I've been keeping my eyes on them recently..."
Sasha's gentle eyes turned stern in an instant. Just as she opened her mouth to continue her words, at that moment...
"Sensei! Sasha-sensei! It's horrible!!"
The door to the room slammed open, and several children flooded in like an avalanche.
"Hey now, you're being rude to our guests!"
"That's not the matter here!!"
The red-haired youth from earlier shouted, with tears threatening to spill from his eyes.
"Ginn-bro and the others have been captured by the Army!"
Getting up with a manner so resolute that it felt as though she became another person, Sasha asked of the young boy.
"At the vacant land behind the second-hand shop at the fifth eastern district. The Army is blocking the passageway with ten people or so. Kotta was the only one who managed to get away."
"Understood, I'll go right away. —Excuse me, but..."
Turning around to face Asuna and Kirito, Sasha lightly bowed her head.
"I cannot just ignore the children in need. We will continue the conversation later on..."
"We'll go as well, sensei!!"
As the red-haired boy cried out, the entire crowd of children behind too, shouted out in agreement. Rushing next to Kirito, the boy had a desperate expression as he spoke.
"Bro, let us have the weapons from earlier for a while! If we have them, even those guys from the Army will run away!"
"I cannot accept that!"
Sasha let loose her refusal.
"The lot of you will wait here!"
At that time, Kirito, who had been watching over the development silently, raised his right hand, as though to pacify the children. He rarely ever read the air or understood the extent of conversations right, but only at times like this, did he exhibit a mysterious presence, quickly silencing the children.
"—It's a pity though—"
Kirito began speaking in a composed tone.
"The parameters required for that weapon are way too high, so someone like you wouldn't be able to equip it. We'll help you out. Even if she does look like that, that big sis over there is unreasonably strong."
Glancing at Kirito, Asuna too, returned a firm nod. Getting up, she turned towards Sasha and opened her mouth.
"Please allow us to help as well. Having more manpower should be for the best."
"—Thank you, I'll be counting on you."
Sasha gave a deep bow, firmly pulled up her glasses, and spoke.
"Well then, forgive me, but we'll be running!"
Rushing out from the church, Sasha began running straight ahead with her dagger shaking on her waist. Holding onto Yui, Asuna too, chased behind her along with Kirito. As Asuna glanced towards her back while running, she found a huge crowd of children following behind, but it did not seem like Sasha had any intention to send them away.
Weaving their way through the groves of trees, they entered the sixth eastern district and dove through the back alleys. It seemed that they were taking shortcuts for the shortest distance possible, and as they crossed through NPC store fronts, gardens belonging to private houses and such, they spotted a group blocking the thin alleyway in front. There were probably at least ten people. Dressed in uniform ash-green and steel-black equipment, they were unmistakably members of the «Army».
As Sasha, who was dashing through the alleyways without hesitation, drew to a stop, she caught the attention of the players from the Army, and they turned around with a broad grin.
"Oh, the baby-sitter is here."
"...Please return the children."
Sasha spoke with an unwavering voice.
"Don't just tarnish our reputation like that. We'll return them soon; we're just instilling some proper social etiquette into them."
"Yeah, yeah. The townspeople do have their responsibility to pay up their taxes, after all."
The men went wa-ha-ha-ha, letting loose raucous laughter. Sasha's tightly closed fist trembled.
"Ginn! Kain! Mina!! Are you there!?"
When Sasha called out towards the men, a frightened girlish voice soon rang out in response.
"Sensei! Sensei... help us!"
"Don't worry about the money, just hand it all over!"
"Sensei... we can't just...!"
This time, it was a strained boyish voice.
"Nha, ha, ha."
One of the men blocking up the road spluttered out a laugh that resembled a spasm.
"Well, it's all because you guys haven't been paying up quite a bit of taxes... Money just isn't enough like this, eh."
"That's right, that's right. We'll have you drop your equipment here too. All of your armor too... every single, last piece."
Looking on at the men's vulgar smirks, Asuna instantly guessed at the state of affairs from within the alley. This «tax collection force» was no doubt demanding for the group of children, which included a girl, to take off all of their clothes as well. A fury close to blood-thirst began swelling within Asuna.
Sasha seemed to have reached the same conclusion, drew closer to the men, brimming with hostility.
"Get out... Get out of my way! Otherwise..."
"Otherwise what, baby-sitter? You gonna pay the tax in their place?"
The smirking men made no effort to move whatsoever.
Within towns, or within the boundary of the town's range, so to speak, as the program known as the Crime Protection Code is always activated, trying to inflict damage, as well as attempts to move other players against their will were completely impossible. But in return, malicious players blocking paths cannot be eliminated. Sealing up the roadway by standing there, to «block»; even getting several people to surround the target directly to immobilize the victim, to «box»; the existence of these unethical harassment methods ended up being allowed.
That said, those acts were only effective in cases where one was moving on the ground after all. Asuna looked at Kirito, and spoke.
"Let's go, Kirito-kun."
Nodding in agreement, they casually kicked off the ground.
Towards the pair jumping using all of their dexterity and strength, Sasha and the member of the Army could only look up dumbfounded as they soared over them easily, landing in the space that was enclosed from all sides.
Several men in there jumped back with fright.
In the corner of the area, two boys and a girl in their early tens were huddled together stiffly. Their armor was already removed, dressed only in simple underwear. Asuna bit her lips, stepped up to the children, and spoke with a smile on.
"It's alright now. You can return your equipment."
The youths immediately nodded with round eyes, picking up the armor at their feet frantically, and started operating their windows.
"Oi... Oi, oi, oi!!"
At that moment, a player from the Army finally came to his senses and shouted out loud.
"The heck's with you guys!! Don't you dare obstruct the work of the «Army»!!"
"Now, now, wait a bit."
Stopping that, a man with noticeably heavier armor stepped forward. He seemed to be the leader of the group.
"We haven't seen you guys around, but do you know what it means to go against the Liberation Force? If you still intend to, we can even hear out your case in detail at the headquarters."
The leader's slim eyes shone with a vile light. Pulling out a large broadsword from his waist, he stepped up while repeatedly striking the sword blade with his palm, as if on purpose. The surface of the sword glittered with the light from the low-lying setting sun. A shallow gleam typical of a weapon that had never experienced or been repaired from damage even a single time.
"Or do you want to bring this «outside the boundary» to settle it, outside the boundary? Eh!?"
At the moment she heard that single phrase.
The clenching of Asuna's teeth rang out. She thought it best to settle the matter amicably, but when she saw the youths shivering with fear, her fury had already passed her limit.
"...Kirito-kun, I'll leave Yui-chan to you."
Yui was handed over to Kirito, and before anyone knew what was happening, he had already flung out the materialized Asuna's rapier with a single hand. Drawing the sword as she received it, she nimbly moved towards the leader.
Facing the man, still unable to catch up with the situation with his mouth left half-open, Asuna suddenly threw all her power into a single-handed stab.
The surroundings were dyed in a violet flash of light. The sound of an impact on the level of an explosion. The man's menacing face was thrown back, and he fell backwards onto his rear in a daze, with his eyes still open.
"If you wish for a battle that much, there's no need to go all the way to the field."
Walking right up to the man, Asuna once again brandished her right hand. The flash repeated, and a deafening sound rumbled out. The leader tumbled backwards, as though he was repelled.
"Don't worry, your HP didn't drop after all. Well, thanks to that though, I don't have to stop either."
Looking up at the figure of Asuna approaching with steady steps with trembling lips, the leader appeared to have finally realized what she implied.
Within the range of the Crime Prevention Code, even if attacks from weapons are targeted at players, it will be stopped by an invisible barrier and no damage will be inflicted. But this rule too, had an alternate significance: that the attacker would have no worries of being corrupted into the colors reserved for criminals.
An example that uses that fact would be the «Within Boundary Battle», usually done as a mock battle used for practice. However, with the increase of the attacker's stats and skills, the noise of the impact and the luminosity of the color created by the system, at the time the Code was activated, will be intensified accordingly; And in addition to that, with the power of the sword skill used, though slight, a knockback effect would be produced as well. For people not used to it, it was not an easy thing to bear, even if they do understand that their HP was not reduced.
Knocked down onto the ground by Asuna's sword attack, the leader screeched out.
"You guys... don't just watch... do something about it...!!"
Finally regaining their senses with that voice, the members of the Army pulled out their weapons one after another.
The blocking players, who sensed the abnormality of the situation, ran in too, from the north and south roads.
Surrounded by the men in the shape of a semicircle, Asuna faced them with eyes blazing brightly, as though she had returned to the time when she was the ardent warrior. Kicking off the ground without a word, she sliced the troops right before her.
In just an instant, the narrow space was filled with the consecutively howling of a thunderous roar.
About three minutes later.
As Asuna, having regained her senses, stopped moving and lowered her sword, all that laid within that area, were the collapsed bodies of the players from the Army, scattered around. The only ones left all seemed to have deserted their leader and escaped.
Taking a large breath of air, she sheathed her rapier back into its scabbard and turned around— all she saw were the figures of Sasha and the children from the church, standing stock still, lost for words.
Asuna took a step back as she held her breath. She believed that she had definitely frightened the children when she abandoned herself to her fury and lashed out earlier, and cast her eyes down in depression.
But at that moment, the usual boy who stood at the head of the children, with his combed back red hair, cried out with his eyes sparkling.
"Amazing... That was amazing, sis!! That was the first time I saw anything like that!!"
"I told you that this big sister was unreasonably strong, didn't I?"
Kirito stepped forward with a broad smile. Holding onto Yui with his left hand, a sword hung lowered on his right. It seemed that he had faced off several others.
Asuna laughed, feeling troubled, and the children suddenly gave several loud cheers, jumping towards her.
Sasha held her two hands tightly before her bosom, smiling with eyes that seemed to be holding back tears.
"Everyone's.... Everyone's hearts are—"
A slight, but clear voice resounded. Asuna raised her face, startled. Within Kirito's arm, Yui who had awoken without anyone noticing, looked towards blank air and reached out with her right hand.
Asuna looked towards that direction in a fluster, but there was nothing there.
"Everyone's hearts... are..."
"Yui! What's the matter, Yui!!"
Kirito cried out, and Yui blinked twice or thrice, looking on with a blanked out expression. Asuna too, ran up in her confusion, grasping onto Yui's hand.
"Yui-chan... could it be, that you remembered something!?"
Frowning, she hung her head down.
"I, wasn't... here... Always, by myself, in the darkness..."
Frowning as though she recalled something, she bit her lips. And, at that moment...
"Wa... aa... aaah!!"
Throwing her head back, a high-pitched shriek surged out from her slender throat.
Zsh, zsh, a sound similar to electronic noise reverberated within Asuna's ears for the first time ever since she was in SAO. Immediately after that, Yui's petrified body started trembling here and there, as though they were decaying away.
Asuna screamed and wrapped her hands around that body frantically.
"Mama... scary... Mama...!!"
Holding up the feebly moaning Yui from Kirito's arm, Asuna tightly embraced her within her chest. Several seconds later, the mysterious phenomenon settled down, and the strength escaped from Yui's rigid body.
"What... happened just now..."
The hollow murmur from Kirito faintly flowed through the empty space consumed in silence.
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