As of 7:00 PM on September 29th, the character data for me and my dependable friends is roughly as follows.
Kirito: One-Handed Sword Wielder / Blacksmith / Carpenter / Mason / Woodworker / Tamer Level 16 «Strength»
Sinon: Gunner / Thief / Mason Level 16 «Agility»
Alice: Bastard Sword Wielder / Potter / Weaver / Tailor Level 15 «Strength»
Leafa: Bastard Sword Wielder / Woodworker / Potter Level 12 «Strength»
Lisbeth: Mace User / Blacksmith / Carpenter / Weaver Level 11 «Toughness»
Silica: Dagger User / Tamer / Weaver Level 10 «Agility»
Yui: Shortsword Wielder / Fire Mage / Cook / Weaver Level 10 «Intelligence»
Asuna: Rapier Wielder / Pharmacist / Cook / Carpenter / Potter / Weaver / Tailor / Tamer Level 9 «Intelligence»
Klein: Curved Sword Wielder / Woodworker / Mason Level 8 «Strength»
Agil: Ax User / Woodworker / Mason Level 8 «Toughness»
Misha: Spiny Cave Bear Level 6
Agah: Long-Billed Great Lizard Level 5
Kuro: Dark Panther Level 5
Pina: Feathered Little Dragon Level 2
Klein and Agil’s levels were low because they just converted yesterday, but Asuna, who had been logged in since Unital Ring’s conception, hadn’t leveled up much either, probably because she had been frequently assigned to guard duty. Even if she did acquire the greatest number of skills, in the end, your lifeline in a survival RPG was the amount of HP you had.
The reason why Sinon and I were at such high levels was that I defeated the Spiny Cave Bear—from a spawn before Misha—and Goliathlana, while Sinon defeated a boss-level monster called Sterokephalos. Next time, I should have Asuna accompany me on a hunt for big game; she’d definitely level up. But, now that I thought about it, the cat-eared knight running next to me had also been assigned to guard duty, just like Asuna.
I closed my friend list, which I had been gazing at while running along the riverbank, and asked my companion.
“Hey, Alice, when did you level up so much?”
“During the day yesterday and today, of course. It’s not like I have to go to school.”
Feeling the slightest hint of sourness in that answer, I shrank my neck. RATH seemed to fervently wish for Alice to attend the survivors’ school, but it wasn’t hard to imagine that she probably wouldn’t be accepted for the time being.
I prayed that she’d be able to at least visit the school before Asuna graduated next March, but trying to make that happen would be beset with difficulties in itself.
“Are there any monsters good for leveling up around the house… no, the town? I’ve only ever encountered foxes, bats, and other nimble animals, but…”
“In the woods, yes. Before that, you do know I don’t like to farm beasts for experience, whether they’re nimble or not, right?”
“Ah… right. Then how did you do it?”
Alice then glanced at the black surface of the river to her right before she said.
“Although I don’t know if it appears in this part of the river or not… There’s a very deep abyss just west of the town, where a monster called the «Great Four-Eyed Turbellarian Worm» is lurking.”
“Four-Eyed……? What kind of monster is that?”
“Basically, it’s a huge leech, fifteen cen wide and probably more than two mel long.”
Alice said as she spread her arms. Although she seemed to have gotten used to the real-world unit system and often used centimeters and meters, when it was just the two of us, she returned to Underworld’s «cen» and «mel». I didn’t think she even noticed it herself.
“Its entire body is a transparent gray that can only be seen clearly during the day when the sun is shining directly on the river’s surface. As its name suggests, it has four eyes on its head, and to defeat it, you need to accurately slash the center of its head. If it’s cut in the middle of its torso, another head will grow at the back, and in the blink of an eye, its body grows into two.”
“Ugh…… It’s like a planarian…”
【T/N: A planarian is one of many flatworms of the order Tricladida of the traditional class Turbellaria (sourced from Wikipedia).】
While frowning at the thought, I recalled. Planaria and bipalium should both be members of the Turbellaria family; I couldn’t be sure if I was correctly remembering what I learned in middle school.
“Well, indeed, the Great Four-Eyed Turbellarian Worm is also a living being, but farming it puts my conscience at ease much more than hunting foxes and rabbits. This is that so-called human…… What was it again……”
“That’s it. Real World people use a lot of weird Sacred Tongue… no, English, so it’s very hard to remember.”
Alice shrugged, and Kuro, who had been running steadily across the sand on my other side, barked a low “ga-oo” as if he agreed. Because I had just said, “Kuro, 攻撃 (kōgeki, attack)!” or “Kuro, アタック (attaku)!”… that wasn’t the case, probably.
“Well, I agree with you on that one. …But, it seems too dangerous to solo hunt pesky monsters that multiply when you slash them. In this world, if you die once, it’s over.”
“Underworld and the Real World are both like this.”
She immediately retorted with that, and I couldn’t help but be convinced that it was true. For Alice, who placed equal value on all worlds, «worlds in which you could be revived no matter how many times you died», such as ALO and GGO, were the actual exceptions.
After casually dying and then being resurrected in VRMMOs, the way we treated life would probably change…… As I pondered such things that I didn’t have any right to comment upon, Alice’s voice reigned in my wandering consciousness.
“Besides, the Great Four-Eyed Turbellarian Worm is good for leveling up because it multiplies when you cut it.”
“Huh? ……Oh, I see, you deliberately cut it to let it multiply so that you can continue hunting without waiting for it to respawn.”
I immediately felt a deep sense of admiration and then was struck with a sudden realization.
“If it’s a deep abyss, it’s an underwater battle, right? You can swim, Alice?”
As soon as I said this, a fingertip poked my unarmored upper right arm.
“You… like before, you’re constantly making insulting remarks about me. Indeed, many people of the Human World are not good swimmers, but that doesn’t include me.”
“But where exactly did you practice? You couldn’t have swum in the Ruhr River or Lake Norkia, right?”
When I mentioned the names of the rivers and lakes on the outskirts of North Centoria, Alice squinted nostalgically for a moment before quickly shaking her head.
“Of course not. You haven’t forgotten, right, the ninetieth floor of the Central Cathedral is forty mels long…”
Although her words trailed off unnaturally here, I didn’t notice Alice’s expression that seemed to be saying, “Ah, crap,” as I shouted.
“Eh, you, swimming in the large bath!? So that’s after you became an Integrity Knight, huh. What the heck…… you pretend to be serious in front of Eugeo and me, but when you’re alone, you swim in the bath…… Ouch!”
She jabbed me harder than earlier, and I let out a cry.
Although the Esteemed Knight next to me refused to speak anymore after that, I’d already figured out why she was able to level up so quickly. I jotted down in my mental notepad to have everyone try it out when we got the chance, then I focused on moving forward.
Stones were scattered all about the riverbank, but the sand at the edge of the water was wet and packed, making it easy to run on. Of course, there were monsters, but the only aggressive ones were the agile «Purple Climber Crab» and the detestable winged insect called the «Sawtooth Snake Dragonfly», neither of which had any troublesome special attacks. Their reasonably high levels would’ve made them tough opponents had our levels been in the single digits, but with Alice at level 15, me at level 16, and Kuro at level 5, we could defeat them without much effort. Mocri’s party that appeared the night before last and Schultz’s group of raiders who attacked last night had probably come through this riverbank.
【T/N: Intentionally or not, Kawahara uses his name in a play on words in the first sentence above, writing “riverbank” as 河原 (kawahara). His surname is written as 川原.】
In that case, if a new enemy was targeting our town now, there was a chance we might bump into them here in a head-on confrontation. Therefore, we couldn’t use torches for a while and could only rely on the dim light of the night sky. However, unlike the real world where it was raining, the moon was shining brightly here, so we could manage to run.
Accompanied by my increasing night vision skill proficiency, I pushed on for more than 30 minutes while staring into the darkness ahead. Finally, the exit from the woods came into view ahead of me, and I slowed down.
The dense grove of trees close to the riverbank gradually thinned into low undergrowth, which also eventually disappeared. Beyond that was a plain reminiscent of an African savannah—the eastern edge of the vast Giyol Flatlands. The river continued to flow to the south, but the sandy ground that was easy to run on disappeared, and the right and left banks were replaced by sheer cliffs. From here, we had no choice but to proceed through the grasslands.
“…If only we had a boat…”
I blurted as I fed Kuro some bison meat jerky, and Alice tilted her head lightly.
“Do you think it can be built?”
“What, a boat?”
“A grand sailboat would be impossible, of course, but a dugout canoe or something like that might…”
I nodded in agreement. According to Klein and the others, our destination, the Stith Ruins, was located at the south end of the river. It would be difficult to go upstream on a dugout canoe, but if we just wanted to ride the current downstream—.
I called out the ring menu and opened my elementary level carpentry skill’s production menu. After scrolling down through the housing-related options such as [Crude Wood Shed] and [Crude Stone Wall], sure enough…
“Ah… there it is.”
At almost the end of the list, I found a [Crude Large Dugout Canoe] and snapped my fingers. Moreover, the icon displayed to the right of the name was a double square mark. If it were a hammer icon, the log would need to be shaved by hand, but with a double square mark, as long as you had the materials, you could immediately craft it with just a single press of a button from the menu. There was also a [Crude Small Dugout Canoe] just below, but it seemed to be a two-seater boat. Considering that Kuro was coming along for the ride, we needed to build a bigger one.
“Let’s see, the materials for a large wooden boat… one «thick sawn log», two «sawn logs», ten «thin ropes», twenty «iron nails», and two bottles of «flaxseed oil».”
“I didn’t expect to need so many materials……”
“Well, obviously, just hollowing out a log wouldn’t be enough.”
As I answered, I tapped one-by-one on the names of the material items listed. Unital Ring’s UI was quite well-designed; when I tapped on an item name, the system displayed the quantity I currently possessed in addition to its description.
“I don’t have a log, but we can probably just down the tree over there. I only have half the required amount of thin rope, but the rest can be made from the grass here… Ugh, I’m missing three iron nails, and they can’t be made here.”
To make an iron nail from scratch, iron ore had to be melted in an ironmaking furnace to make an ingot, then placed on an anvil and hammered with a hammer. Our only furnace and anvil were in the yard of the log house, but we couldn’t go back now.
“We have three bottles of flaxseed oil…… Alice, you should have nails.”
“Don’t get your hopes up.”
After her retort, Alice opened her ring menu, navigated to the storage tab, and quickly sorted through it.
“…… Don’t have any……”
The production skills that Alice learned were sewing, pottering, and weaving, none of which had anything to do with nails. To begin with, iron nails were considered valuables at our current point in the game, made only to repair wooden houses and build wells.
“We’ve got no choice; let’s go through the plains. That was the plan from the start”
As Alice nodded, her fingers, about to close the window, stopped abruptly.
“No…… wait. Actually… in the belongings of the bandits we defeated yesterday…”
Her fingers quickly flashed, and decisively tapped a button. What materialized above the window was…
Indeed, it was a small, round chair. It had a simple design, with four legs attached to the seat and a rather old-fashioned color.
“…Why did the people who came to kill us bring a chair…?”
“Who knows…… Didn’t you use it on your break?”
“…Well, it seems a bit more comfortable than sitting on the ground. So… what do you want me to do with this chair?”
“That should be obvious. Take it apart.”
Being told that, I couldn’t help but smack my left palm with my right fist in a salute of admiration. Indeed, all the legs of the round chair seemed to have been hammered into the seat with iron nails. If we could recover the nails, we would have the materials needed for the canoe.
“But, the odds of recovering the nails without damaging them aren’t very high.”
“So, since you have carpentry skills, you break it down. That should improve the odds a little.”
Alice had a good point, but even with the increased success rate awarded from the system thanks to my skill, I had no confidence in my own luck. I even secretly wondered if the good fortune I had received at birth had been exhausted when I survived SAO with Asuna.
I was about to voice my concerns for Alice to help me analyze when Kuro rubbed his head against my waist.
With his bark of reproach, I came to a realization. Yesterday, when we were on the verge of freezing to death, I was fortunate enough to be able to tame Kuro. Based on its combat power and spawn frequency, the Dark Panther was a considerably rare monster, and the odds of my taming success without a taming skill should have been close to zero.
“…Yeah… I’m plenty lucky.”
I scratched the back of Kuro’s neck, then lifted the round chair with my hands. After I tapped on the item with my right hand while being surprised by its unexpected weight, its name «High-Quality Japanese Evergreen Oak Stool» popped up. I didn’t think that this item could have been made by last night’s assailants. In other words, they may have found it somewhere.
For a moment, I thought that it would be a shame to destroy an item labeled as «high-quality», but upon closer inspection, it had barely any durability left. After reassuring myself that I would be able to make quality furniture one day if I diligently honed my carpentry skills, I pressed the disassembly button in the menu window.
Ga-ko! The sound of destruction echoed as the chair fell apart then disappeared. The recovered material was set to go into storage as is, so I opened the window nervously. At the top of the list, sorted by order of acquisition, was the item «High-Quality Iron Nails», of which there were…… three.
“You did it!”
As Alice, who was looking at the window from my side, exclaimed with an unusually radiant smile, I lifted both my hands. Then, I made the knight-sama, who looked at me in puzzlement, do the same and vigorously high-fived her. Before she could get angry, I dashed into the nearby woods and lit a torch after deciding that it was probably alright to do so now. Holding up the light, I began to look for trees that looked good. The primary material specified was a «thick sawn log», so I would need to cut down a tree larger than a Meguri pine.
Fortunately, in the short time it took for Alice to catch up with me, I was able to spot an imposing broadleaf tree about a meter in diameter. After I tapped on the smooth bark, a small window floated up with a swooshing sound. «Ancient Zerue Teak Tree» …I believed there was a tree species called teak in the real world, but what was Zerue… After craning my neck around, I realized.
“Ah… It’s Zerue as in the Great Zeruethelial Forest…”
“It’s a magnificent tree.”
Hearing these words from Alice, who seemed to ignore high-fives, I nodded forcefully.
“Maybe it’s a rare tree. Let’s remember its location”
“Wouldn’t it be better to mark it on the map”
While wondering whether that could even be done, I opened the map window, and after pressing and holding our current location, a sub-window with several small icons appeared. I decided for now to select the mark that looked like a tree. With a popping sound, a three-dimensional icon appeared on the map.
“Oh… this is convenient. You could’ve told me sooner”
“You’re probably the only one who didn’t notice”
I closed the window while apologizing for my incompetence and moved to draw the sword on my left hip. However.
“Let me do it. Because my sword is heavier… I’ll leave the lighting to you”
“Ehh? Just saying, it takes a lot of skill to cut down a tree with a sword.”
“Didn’t I already tell you; I used to earn a living in Rulid Village by felling trees much larger than this one.”
“…Ah, that’s right.”
She faintly smiled at me for a second as I muttered, and then gestured for us to back off. I retreated backward with Kuro and watched while holding up the torch.
After taking off the hood she was wearing and looking up at the Zerue Teak tree, the knight widened her stance. She gripped the hilt of the bastard sword with her right hand and smoothly drew it out. After slightly lowering her center of gravity, she activated the Sword Skill «Horizontal» without hesitation.
At that moment, Alice’s figure, with her unbleached white skirt and crude iron armor, was overlaid by that of the golden Integrity Knight. The long sword, sweeping a blue flash of light in the darkness of the night, caught the trunk of the Zerue Teak at the perfect angle. Kaan! A clear impact sound resonated. When the flashy effect light faded, the sword blade had cut more than twenty centimeters into what looked like a very hard trunk.
“Oh… one hit won’t do.”
“I’m already amazed that you could cut that much in a single blow…”
I let out a mumble of admiration before raising my voice.
“Alice, I’ll make the rope, so I’m leaving the tree to you!”
As the knight gave me a thumbs up, I pinned the torch to a nearby branch and crouched into the grass by my feet.
Five minutes later, having gathered all of the materials, we headed back to the riverbank.
Once again, I opened the elementary carpentry skill menu and pressed the Create button for the «Crude Large Dugout Canoe». A translucent light-purple boat appeared on the black water surface in front of me. It showed up as a ghost object, just like when building the stone wall.
I shifted the ghost object, which turned gray the moment it was moved out of the river, with my right hand. Apparently, it could only be crafted over the water’s surface. Moving it as close to the shore as I could, I then forcefully closed my hand into a fist.
The parts of the boat came raining down from the air with a noisy sound, materializing in a position perfectly overlapping the ghost object. The object that floated to the surface with a splash was, indeed, a dugout canoe about five meters long and 90 centimeters wide. However, it wasn’t just a substitute for a hollowed-out log, as a long, narrow pontoon, or so-called outrigger, was attached to two arms that extended to the right. The width of the boat, including the pontoon, could be estimated at nearly two meters. A long oar was also provided, and an anchor rode extended from the stern into the water.
“Ooh, isn’t it splendid?”
“Must be because the tree you felled made really good lumber.”
As I replied, I jumped into the boat. Thanks to the outrigger, it seemed to be more stable than I thought it would be. I inserted the torch into a socket on the side of the ship and gave Alice a hand to climb aboard, while Kuro nimbly leaped up to the bow. As expected of its name «large», even with two people and a beast on board, there was still plenty of room in the nearly five-meter-long boat.
The time was now 8 PM. Although it had taken nearly thirty minutes to build the canoe, it should save us a lot of time compared to traveling overland and having to fight monsters.
“Alright, let’s go!”
I energetically proclaimed as I pulled up the anchor, while Kuro, on the bow, let out a mighty roar, “Ga-ruru!”
It only took two or three minutes of practice to learn how to operate the canoe with the oar. This was because it worked basically the same as the gondola that had played a big part on the fourth floor in Aincrad. Rowing forward was for moving the boat forward, keeping the oar upright was for braking, and rowing backward was for moving in reverse. Rowing to the right was for making a left turn; rowing to the left was for making a right turn. Since we were riding downstream now, the boat accelerated smoothly with only light paddling. After a little while, the message [Boating Skill Acquired. Proficiency reached 1] appeared. I checked the effect, and it seemed that the boat’s turning speed increased while the probability of capsizing decreased.
Although rowing the boat itself was fun, unfortunately, the river was flanked by towering cliffs that extended endlessly. This scenery was incomparable to the spectacular views of the fourth floor in Aincrad, even at night. While maneuvering the oars, I reminisced about the days when Asuna and I sailed around waterways and lakes on the gondola painted in pure white, «Tilnel». That’s when Alice, sitting on the bench in front of me, turned her head around and pulled me out of my distant memories.
“So… what’s the situation with Dr. Rinko?”
After a moment of confusion, I realized that she was referring to the message about the “expensive cake shop.”
“Ah…… that, Rinko-san was just asked to relay a message.”
“I see… I thought that was the case.”
With a mumble, Alice turned her body back around.
“It was Kikuoka who summoned you, wasn’t it?”
From her tone and expression, it seemed that Alice did not have a very good impression of Kikuoka Seijirou. It couldn’t be helped since Alice had hardly talked with Kikuoka before.
—That old man may be shady, but he still has some good traits. Such as treating others to cake.
I omitted the latter sentence and asked Alice.
“Did you follow me here just to ask that, by any chance?”
“Not only that, though. So… what did Kikuoka say?”
I hesitated for a moment, but decided to start explaining it to her here, tonight. I slowed the canoe down slightly and said concisely.
“It seems that someone from somewhere has intruded into Underworld.”
Alice’s blue eyes widened, and she rose slightly from the bench.
“An intruder……!? Who is it!?”
“We don’t know, and there’s no way to find out from the Real World.”
Hearing this, Alice, who had been frozen half-bent-over for a moment, sighed and sat back down.
“……Why didn’t Dr. Rinko tell me about this?”
“That’s because, of course, if she told you, you’d 速攻 (sokkō, immediately) dive in alone.”
“I recently learned, when you use the term «速攻» (sokkō, literally “swift attack”), you don’t really mean a full-speed attack.”
Alice seemed to calm down a bit and nodded slightly in agreement.
“I can’t deny that. I’m apparently more temperamental than I thought I was.”
—You just noticed that?!
I certainly couldn’t let these words come out of my mouth, so I just nodded to the knight.
“I’m just as worried as you are… But, it’s impossible to find a single person in the vast Underworld without a plan…”
“So you’re just going to leave it at that?”
“No way. The reason Kikuoka called me out was to request a dive into Underworld.”
“……! If you’re going, I’m also…”
I held Alice down with my left hand as she made the motion to rise once again.
“Of course, you’ll be coming along. This condition has been OK’d already. Don’t blame Dr. Rinko for not telling us about the intruder… she values our safety more than anything else.”
“……I know. Rinko is one of the people I trust the most in the Real World.”
“Eh... am I one of those people too?”
“Your credibility is diminished because you ask such questions.”
After saying this in response to my surprised expression, Alice haphazardly added.
“…Am I the only other one Kikuoka requested?”
“No… um… well… Asuna too.”
“I thought so.”
I tried to guess what Alice was thinking from her side profile as she nodded, but I didn’t have that kind of skill.
During our conversation, the canoe continued on the black surface of the river, and the total distance traveled since leaving the forest town soon exceeded fifteen kilometers. It seemed that the distance to our destination, the Stith Ruins, was about 30 km, so we’d arrive in about 30 minutes if nothing else happened.
Despite drinking a lot of water and eating a lot of food before I left, I noticed that my TP bar had been reduced by almost half. At least we didn’t have to worry about running out of water while on the boat. I took an unglazed cup out of my storage and scooped up the river water, taking turns drinking it with Alice. It was night, so I was worried that I couldn’t check the water’s clarity, but since it tasted fine and Kuro didn’t mind drinking it, I didn’t think it would get us sick.
Even though the river seemed to be gradually widening, the monotonous scenery of the steep cliffs to the left and right stretched on and on, making me feel sleepy. However, as if purposefully waiting for this moment, a dragonfly-nymph-like monster and a river-snail-like monster jumped into the canoe and started a battle. I continued to play the boatman role, taking care not to cause any accidents by drowsy driving.
Most of the still-open map was swallowed by gray, indicating unexplored areas, with only one straight line in the middle colored blue. Not long after, my «Boating Skill» rose to level 5; at that moment, I figured I might as well change my main job and become a sailor…
“Kirito…, do you hear something?”
While I was pondering my career choices, Alice, who was staring straight ahead, suddenly spoke up. Kuro, who was occupying the bow of the ship, lifted his long tail and also growled in a low voice, “Grrr…”
An enemy? Did a field boss appear?
Bracing myself, I strained my ears and heard a faint bass sound. It was like a supermassive beast roaring, except there was no change in the sound. It just boomed monotonously. Only the volume gradually increased.
“Kirito, stop the boat!”
As soon as Alice shouted, I realized it too. It was difficult to see with just the light from the moon and the torch, but it looked like the river surface had disappeared in front of us.
“… I-it’s a waterfall—!”
With a shout, I pushed the oar backward as hard as I could, but a canoe going at full speed would not stop so easily. The roaring sound, which had become deafening in the blink of an eye, quickly drowned out mine and Alice’s cries.
Suddenly, I felt as if my body was floating.
No, we really were floating. The canoe flew out of the mouth of the waterfall, soaring through the air.
Our two screams overlapped with Kuro’s howl, “Ao~~~~n!”