Sword Art Online:Volume 2 Chapter 4 Part 2
“Thank you for your concern. Then we will respectfully accept it. Please protect us until we reach the exit.”
This was the first sentence the leader of «Black Cats of the Full Moon» guild, Keita spoke to me.
Five months had passed since the spring season's dusk when the death game called SAO began. In order to collect material for weapons, I had ventured into the labyrinth ten levels below the current front line.
As a Beater, I had rushed headlong since the beginning, utilizing my experience as a beta tester. Adopting a tough solo player approach, had enabled me to earn experience points very efficiently. It reached a point where I could even defeat monsters on the front line solo. As such, hunting at the current level was so easy and relaxing that it became a boring task. By avoiding other players, I was able to obtain the complete set of required amount of materials in two hours. As I was preparing to move toward the direction of the exit, I encountered a party retreating, a huge group of monsters pursuing them.
As a solo player, I immediately had the opinion that the party was totally unbalanced. Within the five player party, the only player who could assume a forward role is a guy carrying a mace and shield. The others were just a thief equipped with a dagger, a staff user carrying a two handed-staff and two long spear users. However when the mace user's hit points were reduced drastically, there was no one else who could substitute in. As a result, this type of party could only retreat slowly.
To determine the status of everyone, I checked their hit points. Apparently, it was more than sufficient for them to retreat safely to the exit. However, that would no longer apply if they encountered another group of monsters in the midst of retreating. After some slight hesitation, I dashed out from the path I was hidden in and spoke to the staff user who seemed to be the leader.
“Do you want me to assist with forward support?”
The staff user stared at me with his eyes wide open and nodded his head after a moment of hesitation.
“Then, sorry for troubling you, but please retreat immediately if there is any danger.”
I nodded my head in acknowledgement and pulled a sword off of my back before shouting from behind the mace user to switch in. Thus, I rushed into the monsters' assault.
The enemies were a group of goblins which I had defeated in numbers just a while back when hunting alone. These monsters could be quickly defeated if I went all out with my sword skills. Even if I was unable to defend against any of the attacks, I would be able to last for a long time by depending on my «battle healing» skill to recover my hit points. However, I was instantly concerned. Though I do not fear the goblins, I was deeply concerned with the thoughts of those players behind me.
In general, high-level players causing a big disturbance while training in the lower levels was considered bad manners. If it persisted for a period of time, the player would receive a harsh reprimand when a request was made to a guild in the higher levels to resolve it. The player would end up being reported in the newspaper's list of players with bad etiquette and were subjected to a number of punishments. Though that should not be an issue as I considered it an emergency situation, it made me concerned. If not handled properly, they would have labelled me as a Beater instead of showing gratitude.
As such, I intentionally prolonged the time required to defeat the group of goblins by limiting the usage of my sword skills. At that time, I was still unaware that this decision of mine would lead to an irreparable mistake.
The whole group of goblins was finally defeated after several rounds of rotation with the mace user, who had been constantly replenishing his hit points with medicine. I was startled when this unknown party of five players started to cheer loudly. They were mutually giving each other a high-five rejoicing in the victory.
Though feeling at a loss, I still put on an unaccustomed smile while shaking everybody's hands. The only female player in the party, a black haired spear user held my hand last with both her hands while repeatedly saying to me through her tears:
“Thank you...... Thank you so much. I was really afraid...... when you came to our rescue, I was really happy. I truly appreciate your help.”
Hearing such words while seeing the flowing tears, there was this indescribable emotion flowing through my chest. I remembered at that moment when I helped them, it felt very good that I was strong enough to be able to do so.
Although I had been a solo player since the game began, this was not my first time helping other parties on the front line. However in a strategic party, it is a tacit understanding that we were supposed to help each other on the battlefield. Since there would be a day when I would need help in return, I would help others without expecting anything in return. Further, those being helped would only give a brief greetings in return. This was the best way to quickly handle the post-battle silence before the start of the next battle. That simple rational exists as a way to continuously and efficiently strengthen oneself.
However, they – the «Black Cats of the Full Moon» were different. The whole party was overcome with great joy just from a round of victory in battle, and were complementing each other's efforts. It seemed like the victorious trumpet sound part at the end of a stand-alone RPG game when I proposed to accompany them to the exit. That was probably influenced by the family-like atmosphere they had among themselves. To describe it further, I felt that it was in fact they who were finishing this mad game called SAO.
“I am also a little concerned about the remaining amount of recovery medicine I have...... If you don't mind, let's head toward the exit together.”
Keita nodded while expressing a huge laughter toward my lies.
“Thank you so much for your concern.”
No, when I finally started to realize that it was just me who had felt that it was a refreshing experience, it had been six months after the disappearance of «Black Cats of the Full Moon». As someone who had adopted the policy of being a solo player to accumulate strength, protecting someone much weaker than myself gave off a pleasant feeling similar to being depended upon. That is just how it was.
While in the main passage area after leaving the labyrinth, I had agreed to Keita's invitation to an ale house, their treat. As such, we were toasting in celebration with red wine they would consider expensive. When my self-introduction ended, Keita hesitantly asked about my current level in a whisper after the mood had calmed down.
I had more or less predicted this question would be asked. As such, I had thought of an appropriate fake number a while back. The number I told them was in fact about three levels higher than their average level...... but, it was actually twenty levels lower than my true level.
“Huh! You can solo at this place with your current level?”
My sour expression when I replied to Keita surprised him.
“There is no need to speak in such a manner...... even if being solo, but basically I only select isolated enemies to attack while avoiding detection. However in terms of efficiency, it is not very high.”
“Oh...... Indeed, then...... Although this is rather sudden....... But I think some guilds will invite you to join them very soon...... If you are willing, would you like to join our guild?”
Facing me, who was unsure how to respond, Keita's face, which was totally red, got more excited as he spoke.
“Look, based on our current level, we can safely train in the labyrinth we were previously in. As for the skills to move higher...... you would be well aware of our current circumstances. The only person who can assume the position of a forward is Tetsuo. No matter what, his recovery was unable to match the rate of deterioration. As such, the battle conditions will only get worse. If we have another companion to join us, things would have been much easier. Further...... Sachi, come here for a moment.”
Keita raised his hand and called aloud to the black haired spear user. The petite girl called Sachi came over while holding a glass of red wine and shyly nodded at me. Keita placed his hand on Sachi's head before continuing and said:
“This girl's primary skill as you can see, is using a two-handed long spear. But her skill is relatively low compared our other long spear user. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to convert her to a shield and sword user. It's just that we never had the opportunity to practice before this. Furthermore, we are also not familiar with one-handed swords. If you are willing, will you be her coach?”
“What's this! Treating me like a little kid!”
Sachi raised her cheek and stuck out her tongue slightly while smiling and said:
“This is because I have always been responsible for attacking the enemies from a distance. If you suddenly needed me to move forward and engage the enemy in close quarter combat, I would be afraid.”
“It will be fine as long as you take cover behind the shield. How many times do I need to repeat myself before you will understand...... seriously. You have been too easily frightened since long ago.”
I was only aware of the front lines of SAO where there were full of killings. No, in my opinion all players competed for resources in a MMORPG. As such, their interactions were both interesting and fascinating. When Keita noticed I was looking at him, he shyly smiled and said:
“Ah....... Our guild members are actually computer research club members from the same high school in the real world. In fact, she lives very close to me...... Ah, please don't be concerned since everyone here is very nice. You will definitely be able to get close with the others very quickly.”
Everyone in that group, Keita included, were decent people. That was something I already knew since I spent the return journey from the labyrinth with them. I felt guilty for deceiving that group of people when I forced a smile and nodded.
“Then...... Please allow me to join you all. Also, please offer me your guidance.”
With a second forward, the Black Cats' Party Balance improved drastically.
No, if any of them were showing any doubt, they would find that my HP wouldn't drop for some strange reason. However, these kind friends all believed me because of what I said, that I made this coat from some rare materials—and this wasn't a lie—and they never doubted me.
During a party battle, I was only in charge of defense, and to let the members behind me deal with the enemies and gain experience points. Keita and the rest quickly leveled up, and after I joined in for a week, we were training at a main hunting ground that was a level higher.
We sat around in a safe zone within the dungeon. Keita was eating a bento Sachi made as he excitedly told me his dream,
“Of course, our allies' safety is of the most importance. But...if, if we only wanted safety, we just needed to lock ourselves in the city right from the beginning. Since we're training and increasing our levels like this, we hope to at least be on the clearing group. Even though the front lines are far away from us, we can only leave it to elite guilds like the Knights of the Blood or the Divine Dragons Alliance to conquer them...eh, Kirito, what's the difference between them and us?”
“Eh...un, information. Those guys have information on which areas were the most effective in training, how to get the strongest weapons in the game and so on.”
That's the reason why I was in the attack squad, but Keita didn't seem to be happy about this answer.
“This...is obviously a reason. But I feel that it was willpower. Their desire to protect their friends, all the players are strong. It's because of this power that they were able to win in dangerous boss battles. We're the ones being protected, but our feelings won't lose to them. So...I feel that if we continue to work hard like this, we can catch up.”
Though I said that, I felt that it wasn't some amazing reason like that. The reason why the clearing groups had their motivation was that they always had a top swordsman who stood above thousands of players. The proof was that if they aimed to clear SAO just to protect players, those elite players should have provided all the information and equipment they got to the mid-level players. Then they could have improved every player's level, and the number of people who joined the clearing groups would increase.
The reason why they did that was because they hoped to be the strongest. Of course, I was the same as well. At that time, I would sneak out of our rest place and go to the front lines to continue leveling myself up. This act continued to pull my difference in level from the members of the Black Cats. Even though I knew the outcome, I continued to betray them.
But at that moment, I more or less believed that if the level of the Black Cats increased, we would be able to fight in the front lines. At that point, I thought that Keita's ideals may change the closed nature of the clearing groups.
In fact, the Black Cats were improving at what could be said to be an abnormally fast rate. The training area which we were using was a place I used to clear as part of the front lines. I knew all about that place, whether it was the danger spots or the effective spots. I continued to guide them like it was nothing, continued to come up with the most efficient plans, causing the average level of the Black Cats guild to greatly surpass that of the mainstream players. When I joined, we were still ten levels away from the front line, but this gap quickly became five. We continued to gain momentum and col, and it was even likely that we would soon have enough to buy a guild home.
However, there was one problem. Sachi's shield swordsman's transformation couldn't continue on.
But that couldn't be helped. When facing against savage monsters at close distance, what's more important than the value in levels was the courage to endure the fear and fight on until the end. Soon after SAO started, many players died because they panicked and sank into chaos. If I had to really say it, Sachi was really a quiet coward who didn't look like she could take the role of a forward.
I felt that there was no need for Sachi to change types because I had the status that far exceeded that required to be a shield. However, the other members didn't feel that way. Or rather, they seemed to be rather apologetic that I had to be the one being the forward, which would be extremely taxing. Even though she didn't say it because the morale within the group was good, Sachi felt that the pressure was becoming greater.
Then one night, Sachi suddenly disappeared from the rest place.
Everyone thought that the reason why they couldn't identify her location from the guild member list was because she was alone in a dungeon. This made the members under Keita panic, and they immediately went out to look.
However, I was the only one to insist on searching outside the dungeon. The apparent reason was that there were several spots that couldn't be tracked down. But in fact, I already had the high-level skill 'Trace' that could allow me to search for opposing enemies. Of course, I couldn't explain this to my allies.
As Keita and the rest ran to the dungeon in that level, I went to Sachi's room, activated the trace function, and followed the light green footsteps that appeared.
The small footprints went in a way everyone, including me, didn't expect at all. She disappeared at a drain that was somewhat far from the main street. I tilted my head and walked in, and saw that in a corner in the darkness where the water droplets could be here, Sachi was squatting down with a mantle that she just got, one with an invisibility function.
Once I said that, she shook her shoulder length black hair and looked up, muttering in surprise,
“Kirito...how did you know that I was here?”
I hesitated about how to answer it, and finally said.
Sachi smiled and again put her face into the knees she was hugging. I tried my best to think of words, and said something that lacked creativity,
“...Everyone's worried about you. They even sent people to the dungeon to look for you. Hurry up and go back.”
This time, it became a long silence. After a minute or two, I wanted to say the same thing again, but this time, Sachi's weak voice came while she lowered her head,
“Hey, Kirito, let's run away.”
I asked instinctively,
“Run away...from where?”
“From this town, everyone at the Black Cats, monsters...from SAO.”
I wasn't so familiar with girls—or even humans such that I could answer this immediately. After thinking about it for a long time, I timidly asked,
“Do you...have an intention of committing suicide together?”
After a short silence, Sachi smiled.
“Fufu...yeah, that should be okay...no, sorry. I lied. If I had the courage to commit suicide, I wouldn't have hid inside the town...don't stand around. Sit down too.”
I didn't know what to do, so I sat down slightly beside Sachi on the stone floor. From the semi-circle exit of the drain, I could see the town lights that were as small as the stars.
“...I'm scared of death. Because I'm scared, I practically couldn't sleep during this time.”
Finally, Sachi muttered.
“Why did such a thing happen? Why couldn't we leave the game? Why is it that we could die even if it is only a game? What could that Kayaba get by doing this? What's the meaning in this...”
Actually, I could make an answer to each of the five questions. But even I knew that Sachi wasn't looking for that sort of answer. I tried my best to think and said,
“Most likely, there's no meaning...and nobody could benefit from it. The moment the world became like this, everyone lost the most precious thing to them.”
I endured my tears as I told a huge lie to the girl. That's because I lied to myself to get stronger, and felt the satisfaction of this secret when I entered the Black Cats gang. In that sense, I obviously got my benefit.
At that time, I should have told everything to Sachi. If I had even a teeny-weeny bit of sincerity, I should have revealed my ugly ego out. In that case, Sachi may have some stress taken from her, and she may even feel somewhat relaxed.
However, what I could only say was a lie to steel myself more.
“...You won't die.”
“Why do you say that?”
“...Even in our current state, the Black Cats are still a strong guild. We have achieved a safe margin too. If you stay in that guild, you can continue to live on safely. Also, you don't really need to change into a swordsman.”
Sachi lifted her head and showed me a reliant expression. However, I couldn't look straight into those eyes and lowered my head.
“...Really? I can live on until the end? Back to reality?”
“Ahh...you won't die. You'll live until the day when the game is cleared.”
Those were words that weren't convincing and had no weight in them. Even so, Sachi leaned over to me, brought her face over to my left shoulder and cried for a while.
After a while, I sent a message to Keita and company and brought Sachi back to our hotel. Sachi went back to her room to rest, and I waited at the first level at the bar for Keita and the rest to return. I told them a few things—Sachi needed a much longer time to become a swordsman, and if possible, she should continue to be a lancer. Also, I could continue to be the forward.
Keita and the rest were wondering what happened between Sachi and me, but they happily agreed to my proposal. I heaved a sigh of relief, but this wouldn't settle the real problem.
From the next night on, Sachi would come over to sleep in my room. She said that if she continued to be with me and hear that she wouldn't die, she would be able to sleep peacefully. Now I definitely couldn't sneak out at night to earn experience. Even so, it didn't mean that my guilt of lying to Sachi and the rest disappeared.
For some reason, that memory was as compressed as a snowball, so I couldn't remember much. One thing I was certain of though was that Sachi and I didn't have a romantic relationship. We never slept in the same bed together, never cuddled with each other, talk about love or even look at each other.
Our relationship was more likely stray cats that were licking each other's wounds. Sachi would forget about her fear a bit because of my words, and I would rely on her to forget the guilt that I was a beater.
That's right—It was because I neglected Sachi's troubles that I found out this element of the SAO incident for the first time. Before that, I probably never felt the real terror of this SAO that had evolved into a death game. I systematically beat the low-leveled monsters I beat during the beta test, continued to level up and maintained in this safety margin. I wasn't the Paladin Heathcliff, but in my memory, my life had never dropped into the danger zone.
I relied on the vast resources I got easily. Once I knew—that there were many players who were scared of death like this, I finally found a way to remove my guilt. Of course, that method was to continue protecting Sachi and the Black Cats.
For my own satisfaction, I forgot that I hid my level before entering the guild, forgot the memory that I ended up being the one protecting them, grooming them to be a top-notch guild. Every night, I would be at the bedside, comforting Sachi who was curled up in anxiety, saying to her 'you won't die, you won't die, you'll live on' like a mantra. Every time I say that, Sachi will show a smile somewhat under the blanket, stare at me and enter a light sleep.
However, Sachi still died in the end.
Less than a month after that night in the drain, she was hacked to death by a monster in front of me, and her body and soul were all scattered.
That day, Keita wanted to buy a little house as our guild home, brought the sum of money we finally gained and went to meet with the players who dealt with property. Sachi, I and the other three members were laughing as we were looking at the guild member common items column which had no items as we waited for Keita to return back. But after a while, the mace-user Tetsuo said,
“Let's head to the dungeon before Keita comes back, arrange the function and scare that guy.”
The five of us entered the dungeon which we never went to before, the one which was just below the 3 levels the frontlines were at. Of course, I fought in that place before, and I knew that it was a place that was easy to earn money but had lots of traps. However, I didn't tell them that.
In the dungeon, the levels were within the safe area, so our hunting was proceeding smoothly. After an hour, we earned the targeted amount of money, and just when everyone was ready to head back and buy things, the member who was the thief discovered a treasure chest.
At that time, I was vocal about ignoring it. But once I was asked the reason, I couldn't say that the trap difficulty was up a level from this level on, and I could only stutter and emphasize that it looked dangerous.
The alarm trap sounded loudly, and the monsters swarmed into the room like a tidal wave. Immediately recognizing that the situation was dangerous, I immediately called for everyone to use the emergency escape crystal to get away. However, that place was designated as a place where the crystal would be ineffective—at that time, everyone, including me, ended up in either light or heavy panic.
The first one to die was the thief who activated the alarm. Then, it was mace-user Tetsuo, and the male lancer died behind him.
Panicking, I continued to swing the high-level sword skills I hid and killed waves after waves of monsters. But there were too many, and I didn't have a chance to destroy the treasure chest that continued to ring.
As Sachi's HP disappeared completely after being surrounded by the monster mob, she reached her right hand out to me as if she wanted to say something. Those widened eyes still showed the glow that she trusted me, just like every single night, until it was all heartbreaking.
I couldn't remember how I survived. As I recovered, the mob of monsters and the 4 allies of mine weren't in that room. But even in that situation, my HP bar dropped to about half.
Unable to think, I blankly returned back to the hotel.
Keita, who placed the brand new guild home key on the table and was waiting for us to come back, listened to me—how the 4 of them died, how I survived, and stared at me without expression. He said something like how beaters like me didn't have a right to join them.
He ran out of the town in Aincrad, and then jumped over the fence without hesitation as I followed him from behind, into the endless void.
What Keita said was the truth. It couldn't be debated. It was my arrogance that killed 4 members of the Black Cats of the Full Moon—no, 5. If they never met me, they would have continued to remain in the safe middle zone, and they wouldn't trigger what was a trap.
To survive in SAO, what we needed wasn't reflexes or numerical value in levels, but ample information. I increased their levels with high efficiency but didn't tell them information. That was a tragedy I caused with my own two hands, and I personally killed Sachi who I swore to protect.
Whether she wanted to curse viciously at her final moment, I had to endure it. The reason why I continued to look for that rumored revival item was just to listen to those words.