Tuesday, September 29, 1:35 p.m.
I was rocking back and forth on the Seibu Shinjuku Express line, constantly fighting Sandman.
As much as I wanted to use this time productively to address a bit of sleep deprivation (in other words, I wanted to just fall asleep), I was afraid to do so. Sitting next to me was the enigmatic transfer student, Tomo Hosaka, “Argo the Rat.” If I fell asleep on her shoulder or drooled over her, I was sure to be laughed at for years to come.
Thus, while desperately trying to raise my closing eyelids, I heard a voice laced with laughter.
“You look sleepy, Kii-bou. Do you want me to give you some eye drops?”
“Nah...... no need. By the way, why do you always want to give people eye drops?”
“It’s not as if I do that to just anyone.”
“Is that so... —Speaking of which, it’s about time you told me why you’re following me.”
“Ah, you’re crossing the line with that. Wasn’t I the one who taught you how to sneak out of school without being marked absent?”
I was afraid to rebut after she said so.
Showing up in Ginza at 3:00 p.m. on a weekday was undoubtedly a challenge for a high school student, and I had been reluctantly planning to miss my fifth and sixth class periods today. However, after I inadvertently told Argo of my situation when she showed up, she told me that if I applied to the school for a “workplace visit before accepting a job offer,” my afternoon classes would be excused.
Of course, in addition to the application, an electronic certification sent from the business I’d be visiting was required. So, I had that fabricated by the man who called me out. The application was accepted without a hitch, and I successfully avoided being marked as an unexcused absentee. But, I was still missing class.
_If all you’ve got is just some boring stuff, don’t blame me for eating up all the overpriced cake here_—I steeled my resolve.
“Wasn’t last night much harder compared to this? Your stronghold in Zeruethelial was attacked, wasn’t it?”
Suddenly asked that by Argo, I was silent for a second before asking in return.
“......How did you know?”
“The PKer party members are rambling about it all over SNS. Although it’s key for the time being, it had nothing to do with this Argo here.”
Argo’s intelligence-gathering abilities weren’t what made me groan; it was those players’ “rambling.” There wouldn’t be many days left until every single former ALO player still surviving in the Unital Ring world knew about our stronghold.
Swallowing my sigh back down, I replied to Argo again.
“That’s not good. Those guys, they wanted to demolish our stronghold for points from the very start... because they didn’t have mages, we were able to barely hold down the fort; if they had two or three mages, we’d have lost for sure.”
Speaking until that point, I suddenly tilted my head at my own words.
“That’s right... they managed to gather so many people, so why weren’t there any mages? There should’ve been heaps of people at the starting point who inherited magic skills......”
“Even if they inherited magic skills, they can’t be used just like that.”
“Eh? Is that so?”
“The skill itself remains in the list of learned skills, but to unlock its sealed state, you need a 《magic crystal》. After learning about that, there was a huge commotion around the Stith Ruins at the starting point as everyone went hunting for monsters that had 《magic crystals》.”
【T/N: The source most likely did not correctly romanize the ruins’ proper name.】
After making an unnatural reply, I hurriedly continued.
“But wouldn’t that make it too hard for players focused on magic skills? In fact, wouldn’t that be like starting without any inherited skills?”
“I thought so too, but perhaps it’s that inherited magic skills would just be too strong if they weren’t limited. Because in the four hours between the forced conversion and the end of the grace period, mages with a skill proficiency of 1000 would be able to use their highest-level magic at will, right? Then, wouldn’t they just ardently hunt the strongest mobs to continually level up?”
“Ah... well, yeah...”
In truth, their MP recovery speed wouldn’t have been able to keep up, so they wouldn’t be relying mainly on magic attacks at first. But, that problem could be solved by leveling up. As Argo said, the likelihood of unrivaled players appearing in Unital Ring was high if such skills were left unchecked. However, since the proficiency of inherited skills was lowered to 100, it still felt a bit too strict that they couldn’t unlock their magic without eating 《magic crystals》.
【T/N: All the below instances of 「电车」 (literally: electric + car) have been translated as “trains,” referring to “EMUs,” or “electric multiple units.” These are the electric-powered passenger train carriages used in commuter rail or light rail networks around the world, including the Seibu Shinjuku Line.】
After the express train arrived at the Kami-Shakujii Station, it let a few passengers on and off then started moving again. The train was unimaginably empty after the morning and evening rush. Afternoon sunlight radiated through the windows, illuminating the pattern on the floor. Leisurely plopping down on the bench, my desire for sleep came back to haunt me.
It turned out that yesterday, or this morning, we persevered until 5 a.m. Making great effort to fulfill my 《Declaration of Building a Town in Four Hours》, we took one hour to gather all the materials for the well and one hour to find the crops to be grown in the fields. That was just the predetermined part.
But everyone worked tirelessly, and we finally built the town—which gave off a very game-worldly feeling in the end—and even then, we had really only developed the basic framework. Outside the fifteen-meter diameter stone wall that surrounded the cabin, we cleared a patch of forest (most of the trees were already burned by the attackers, so the work itself was easy). Then, a circular wall was built, and the interior was divided into four areas: north, south, east, and west. The north zone was where the fields and pets would live, the south zone was the commercial zone, the east zone was where the Pattel people would live, and the west zone was where other races of NPCs would live in the future. The west zone only had a stone pedestal for now, and the south zone didn’t have any operational stores, but I thought it already looked like a town from the exterior. The circle-divided-into-quadrants construction was pretty much the same as Underworld’s capital, Centoria, but I hadn’t noticed until Alice pointed it out. Of course, our town was only about sixty meters in diameter; in terms of area, it was less than a block of North Centoria.
Nevertheless, it was all thanks to Silica’s new partner 《Misha》 that we were able to construct such a surprisingly proper-looking town overnight. 《Misha》, who had equipped itself with the 《Carrying Bag for Large Animals》 made using Asuna’s tailoring skill and crafting skill, helped us transport a huge number of stones and logs with its nearly unlimited item carrying capacity. Of course, if a pet was driven to work, that could also cause a significant drop in its SP corresponding to the amount of labor it performed. Therefore, ensuring a stable source of food was also a problem, but in the river of the south zone, we were able to catch fish with a grass net made by Asuna. Initially, we found only small fish, but as our skill proficiency of casting nets increased, we were also able to catch large fish. Agah and Kuro also happily ate the cooked fish, so it could be said that our pets’ food supply problem had been temporarily solved.
There was also no guarantee that the players who were sooner or later going to attack us again would avoid 《Raiding and Destroying the Town》. I would absolutely never do something like that, but some players would set fire to it. It was impossible to know until we saw it for ourselves. Perhaps, as I was being rocked around in the train, a new group of assailants was sneaking into town.
—The problem really is this 《Teacher》......
Resting my head on the handlebar by my seat, I thought about the person lurking behind these series of attacks—about possibly unknown players. Specializing in PvP, the original PK instigators—these words brought back haunting memories of the murderous guild 《Laughing Coffin》 and its leader, PoH. I couldn’t imagine the man from Underworld, who could supposedly cause irreversible damage to Fluctlights, appearing in Unital Ring now as a PKer, either. Besides, psychological theories such as “not grasping a part but the whole” weren’t PoH’s style. His style was more like using flowery rhetoric to lure people into drinking poisoned water.
—If that’s how it is, who exactly is the 《Teacher》......
Argo, who had unknowingly rested her head on my left shoulder drowsily, lifted her head with a “huh?”
“Using what you saw from the commenters’ accounts, do you have any clues regarding our stronghold and the reason behind the attacks?”
“Mm? The reason, huh... They were baited by a Salamander colleague. Even though they only wrote that bit, I still felt something.”
That Salamander was no doubt Schulz. In that case, this 《Teacher》 was probably only on good terms with him alone.
—“Kirito... you really...”
Before disappearing from Unital Ring for good, Schulz left these words behind. Geez, it’d been a whole night, yet his words were still utterly baffling. Of course, Schulz wasn’t really dead, so we could follow clues to find him in the real world and contact him.
“Hey! I’m about to charge you for the information.”
“I’ll treat you to a very expensive cake in Ginza. So... do you know of anyone in ALO who was called 《Teacher》 by the players? “
I couldn’t help but turn to look toward her face beneath the curly hair, as I didn’t expect her to answer so quickly.
“Mm. It’s a guy called 《Blackie-sensei》.”
I let out a “pfft” through my nose. I, too, had a clue who the player with that nickname was, but it was certainly not the character in question.
【T/N: “Sensei” means “teacher,” and “Blackie-sensei" was an uncomplimentary nickname for Kirito. Kirito mockingly thinks about who “Blackie-sensei" could be when he knows it refers to himself.】
“Forget about that guy. Is there anyone else?”
After groaning for a moment, she slowly shook her head.
“No, I can’t think of any. The ALO players who were converted to UR seem to have formed a couple of teams already, so it could perhaps be one of their leaders; we won’t know the answer without further investigations.”
“Teams? Something like guilds?”
“They’re a little smaller than that; they’re more like a major information exchange group. Their names are also very fitting... 《Absolute Survivors Team》, 《Announcer-chan’s Fan Club》, 《Weed Eaters》, 《Virtual Research Club》, etc...”
“Indeed, very mellow team names... well, for now, please look into their team leaders.”
“You owe me a cake.”
As I looked toward the sharp-mouthed Argo’s face, with her smooth, whiskerless cheeks, I asked further questions.
“Argo, didn’t you say at the meeting yesterday that you hadn’t logged in to Unital Ring? Don’t you know too many details for an outsider?”
“I got the gist of it all by carefully collecting the information distributed on the Internet. Compared to the SAO era, when I could only run around doing research in person, it was so easy that I felt like I’d get fat.”
Wait a second there. Her body was as slender as it was in the SAO era, wrapped in a windbreaker and sailor suit. I couldn’t help but rub my belly with my right hand while saying, “Nah, that’s not true.” I thought, this person was no longer the 《Rat》 of unknown gender, but a female high schooler who was one grade above me.
“...But, I think it’s about time I logged in. Kii-bou, you’ll be my bodyguard on the way from the starting point to your base, right?”
“Well...... I want to see the Stith Ruins once too; it’s not like I can’t do it......”
“Great, I’ll see you tonight, then!
Well, it looked like today’s adventure was going to be even longer... As I thought that, I looked up at the information display above the door. The train had just departed from Saginomiya Station.
After getting off at Takadanobaba Station and transferring to the subway, we finally arrived in Ginza. Even though it was a weekday, there were still lots of people. The beautifully-dressed-up ladies and the foreign tourists were very conspicuous, and although we, in our high school uniforms, were a little different from the rest, we couldn’t hesitate.
Heading south on Chuo-dori Street, which had many high-end brands’ flagship stores, we entered a particularly iconic red building at the corner of the 7-chōme intersection. The designated shop was on the third floor here. After getting off the elevator, we were accompanied by soft classical music that somewhat gave the place very classy vibes, but I suppressed that feeling and entered the shop.
【T/N: “Chuo-dori Street” is like “Main Street.” It’s the main shopping artery that runs through Ginza. 「丁目」(chōme) is a city district municipal division.】
“Welcome. Will it be a table for two?”
I told the waiter who bowed her head attentively that we already had a reservation and looked around the spacious cafe.
Immediately, from a seat against the window, an utterly unceremonious voice called out to me.
“Hey, Kirito-kun, this way, this way!”
He was doing it on purpose, wasn’t he?!—Complaining in my mind while crossing the floor, we hurried toward the source of the sound.
The man, who had obliterated nearly half the fruit sandwiches on the table before it was even 3:05, wore a dark brown suit with a tie and black-framed glasses.
He was an officer of the Ministry of Internal Affairs when we first met, then a Lieutenant Colonel of the Ground Self-Defense Force. I didn’t know what he was doing now; of all the people I knew, Kikuoka Seijirou was the most suspicious. He smiled and raised his right hand toward me—then he quickly noticed Argo next to me and blinked under his glasses.
“Mm... well, we’ll order later.”
Argo and I sat side-by-side, facing him, as the waiter set down his iced tea and left. Kikoka again muttered, “hmm.”
“Well, it’s not Asuna-kun, it’s not Suguha-kun, it’s not Shino-kun...... Ah. Kirito-kun, who’s this lady over here?”
Before I could speak, Argo smiled in response.
“You should know about me already. We meet at last, Chrysheight-san.”