Pressure creates diamonds.
The warrior known as Doraku saw the phrase on a poster in one of the many doctor’s offices she visited as a child. Atop the block English letters stood a cartoon bear wearing sunglasses and giving a thumbs up, an absurdly huge diamond in its other hand. Wedged between cabinets and shelves lined with all manner of supplies, she focused on it every time she set foot in the office. It helped her ignore the tourniquet that wrapped around her thin arm, the all too familiar prick in the crook of her elbow, the full tubes that started a journey that always ended with bad news. That pressure never made her a diamond, but at least it earned her a cookie.
for every appointment, every needle stick, every somber-faced doctor
that stepped into her room, there had been one constant. Even in her
worst moments, she could count on feeling a familiar hand wrap tight
around hers, give a squeeze and tell her everything was all right.
Even when it wouldn’t be.
She longed for that voice now, more than anything else in the world. The loneliness pressed against with every step, a weight so daunting she feared it might crush her heart flat at any moment. Alone and idle, she often could do little more than hold her head in her hands and weep. That’s why she made it a point to keep those times to a minimum, and leaped at every possible distraction.
So as she parried the club of the kobold opposite her, she silently thanked the beast.
she could have finished it off at any time, she clung to the
distraction. Rather than take advantage of openings for attack, she
went back to a defensive posture instead. When she did lash out,
focusing her fear, frustration, and anger through the sword in her
hand, she aimed for the club rather than its wielder. When the fight
was over, the dungeon would fall silent again. She would be left
alone with her thoughts.
Then the kobold sidestepped her, and her heart leaped into her throat. She wasn’t alone, and her toying with the monster might have endangered her precious cargo.
Spinning on her heel, she saw it raise the club into the air, snarling at the motionless fencer. Luckily for the unconscious player, Doraku was faster. The sword started to glow as she took a step back. Before her opponent could even register the activated skill, the sword sang through the air. A horizontal strike pierced the kobold’s skin, then the blade doubled back. A second slash ripped another gash above the first, bright red polygons shimmering from the wounds. For a split second, the creature’s face registered something between rage and anger. An instant later, it shattered into misty light. Doraku dismissed the fight result screen and grabbed hold of the makeshift harness, and continued to drag the sleeping back through the dungeon.
It felt wrong to move the unconscious woman, let alone drag her like a sack of potatoes through the dungeon, but Doraku had no other choice. Her health meter hadn’t budged but she remained motionless on the floor. As near as she could tell, the other player collapsed from sheer exhaustion. A few kobold respawns convinced her that, even though she couldn’t reach the nearest town like this, there were better places to wait for her to recover than the labyrinth. If… no, when she recovered, there would be plenty of time to ask questions. Perhaps to convince her to abandon the idea of giving up, to keep living.
She glanced over her shoulder to the fencer. Asleep she looked serene, free of the panic and anger that marred her face when they first met. As with so many people she’d met, she wondered what sort of life the young woman left behind when she found herself trapped in the game of death. For some reason, as she pondered it, a rush of butterflies welled up in her stomach and she looked away and pressed forward. Strange nervous energy settled over her as she thought of the girl awakening. Somehow she found herself looking forward to her recovering and anxious about the prospect. Well, one more set of stairs, then the relatively short first floor. Then she could find a place for them to hide and wait.
Just shy of the stairs, a message notification popped up in the corner of her vision. Opening it was enough to elicit a rare frown from the young solo player. A self-styled leader had called a meeting to discuss planning an assault on the dungeon. The name of the ringleader wasn’t familiar, but she’d spent very little time among the game’s best players. The meeting would take place in three days, in the town of Tolbana.
Will you be attending?
She sighed and started to tap out a reply as she rounded a corner. Behind her, a dull thunk sounded against the side of the wall. She winced and turned just in time to see an <<IMMORTAL OBJECT>> warning fading away, just next to the fencer’s head.
If she asked, Doraku would leave out that particular detail of their escape.
Consciousness returned to Asuna in fits and starts, a jumble of brief moments rather than anything coherent. The ceiling of the labyrinth passing by quickly overhead even though her legs weren’t moving. In her addled state, it felt like she flew. What felt like an instant later, something struck her at the base of her skull. Then the Aincradian sky stretched out overhead, a shooting star cutting a bright path across the heavens. The sun’s warmth settled on her face next, and she rolled to one side in desperate search of a darker, more comfortable position. When lucidity finally returned, a blurry form greeted her, not far from her face.
Her vision focused, and the face of a beast loomed large just in front of her.
She jumped to her feet with a start, then tumbled backward into a thicket of flowers, disappearing into them in an undignified heap. Scrambling for a better position, she turned her attention back to the beast that rattled her. A tiny rabbit, ears as long as its body, emerged from the middle of the flower field. Tilting its head curiously to one side, it studied Asuna for a few seconds then scampered away, long ears flagging behind it as it ran.
Asuna rubbed the back of her inexplicably tender neck and surveyed the scene. Her vision remained bleary, and the inside of her head felt like the practice space for a band with no real talent who tried to mask it by increasing the volume. Still, she tried to regain her bearings. Her sword had been put back into a sheath at her side, and a sleeping bag stretched out across the ground where she’d been laying. Tall flowers in a rainbow of colors surrounded her, blanketing a small hill. At the summit stood a large tree, its broad branches casting deep shadows all around it.
And there, leaning against its trunk, was the woman who saved her life.
You’d underestimate her based on looks alone, Asuna decided. In the daylight, the qualities Asuna noticed in the bleakness of the dungeon stood out even more boldly. Her face looked gentle, almost cherubic, but a hint of mischief glinted behind her eyes. At some point she’d pulled her hair out of the ponytail, using the mask as a bandanna to try and rein in her unruly locks. It almost worked, though her bangs spilled out on either side and framed her face, while another stubborn strand rose straight up above her forehead. Even with the sword beside her, she hardly looked like a warrior. More like something beautiful and even fragile, like a flower on the verge of being blown apart in the wind.
They’d never met before that encounter in the dungeon. Even then, the swordswoman had never introduced herself. Nonetheless, Asuna knew her name without so much as asking. Doraku.
It took her only a few seconds to notice Asuna back on her feet and she pushed away from the trunk and waved at her. Then she once again surprised Asuna, this time with a smile. A smile of all things, in this world!
you’re awake!” She waited as Asuna padded up the hill, her legs
still wobbly. “Sorry I dumped ya in the middle of all those
flowers, but I couldn’t think of another way to keep you hidden from
all the wandering mobs. It was hard enough getting past all the
kobolds in the dungeon, so I thought I should wait until you were
awake to head out again. Besides, better to have two people fighting
than one, right?”
The girl’s rapid-fire delivery meshed with Asuna’s aching head like oil and water, and she replied first with a groggy grunt. “How long was I out for?”
“Hmmm.” Doraku leaned back, pressed a finger to her temple and pursed her lips. “Ten hours. Maybe a little more.”
“I see.” It took a moment for the number to register. When it did, her head jerked up with a start. “Wait. You were watching me the entire time.”
“Of course.” The corner of her mouth twitched, fighting a frown. “Well, I did stop to eat but I kept looking up while I was doing it!”
“You must be exhausted!”
“Maybe a little.” Her jaw dropped into a huge yawn she neglected to cover, instead stretching her arms out over her head. “You offering to keep watch while I take a nap now?”
Asuna blinked. “Um. Well. I… I guess it’s only fair if you need to.”
“I was kidding! Sheez, you’re way too serious.” Doraku giggled, only furthering the divide between Asuna’s expectations of the almost mythical warrior and the reality in front of her. “I’m more hungry than tired, and I bet you’re starving after being down there so long.” She flopped back to the ground then opened her menu with one hand, gesturing for Asuna to sit next to her with the other. “Now, where did I put it…”
“Why?” The fencer demanded.
The other girl shrugged. “I think it’s because of… Merida called it, um, verisimilitude, I think? She liked big words like that. If we didn’t get hungry or need to eat, it would ruin the immersion in the game. Plus you get to try—”
“No. I didn’t mean why do we eat here. I mean, why did you save me from the dungeon?”
Doraku stopped, and the playfulness vanished. Her brow furrowed as her eyes narrowed into a look of pure determination, and for the first time, Asuna saw in her the fearsome warrior that took down the kobold mob without missing her beat. When she spoke, her voice took on a serious tone, but one tinged with sorrow at the edges. “Because no one should want to die. And no one should die alone.”
People would underestimate her, Asuna thought, but they’d do so at their own peril.
The moment passed and the fire faded from her eyes, replaced by that warm smile once more. “Besides, you’re pretty good! I bet you’re gonna be an amazing player with more experience. Oh! I found it. You ready to have something to eat?”
Asuna almost declined the offer to appease the lingering embers of annoyance at the girl’s earlier interference. Her stomach, however, had other ideas and growled loud enough to be heard. With a sheepish look, she sat down next to her, though she made a point to avoid her gaze.
instant later, two bread rolls appeared in Doraku’s hands. Asuna knew
them well, as she’d all but lived off them during her two weeks in
Aincrad. But along with the bread, a small jar also materialized that
she set between them. She pressed a finger to the top of it, and the
tip began to glow. With a quick motion, she dragged her finger along
one of the rolls, which took on a glossy sheen. Beaming, she offered
the bread to Asuna. Asuna, in turn, stared blankly at it.
“Go on, try it!” There was an impish quality to her smile, that flicker of mischief behind her eyes smoldering now.
“What did you do?”
“It’s a surprise.”
took the roll into her hand but peered at it from different angles
before looking back to Doraku. “…you poisoned it, didn’t
“Your finger was glowing, like our swords do before an attack. That means you did… something to the bread. How do I know I can trust you?”
It was Doraku’s turn to stare in dumbfounded confusion, then her face turned serious. “Yes. You figured it out. I dragged you through five floors and watched over you for almost half a day on top of that. All so I could say I killed you with bread.” The grin then returned in earnest. “Doncha see how silly that sounds?”
“I’ve met a few strange people in this game so—” Asuna stopped. “Wait. You dragged me?” Her hand went to the tender spot at the base of her skull. “What, did you bounce my head on the stairs?”
“I can assure you,” Doraku said solemnly, though a dusting of red colored her cheeks, “Your head never hit a single stair.”
“You don’t sound so sure.”
the durability of this roll won’t last forever, so you should try it
before it goes to waste. I’ll do the same thing to mine and eat it at
the same time if that will convince you.”
Asuna stared at the roll, mulling over the options. It did sound like a silly plot when she said it out loud. Hesitantly, she took a small bite. Normally the bread rolls tasted like dark rye, surprisingly good but also dry. The taste that greeted her this time was different, a richness that permeated the bread and complimented its flavor perfectly.
“Is that… cream?”
“Yeah! Isn’t it great? I’ve been saving it for…” She trailed off as Asuna was no longer listening, but devouring the bread. “Um, special occasion. I know how to get more, though! And I’ve heard there’s even better food the higher you get into the castle. I can’t wait to try all of them!”
“Huh? You mean you haven’t tried them before?”
“Well, we’re still on the first floor.”
“But I thought you were a beta tester.”
“Nope!” As she nibbled on her bread, she stopped and wrinkled her nose. “But why would you think anything about me when we’ve only just met?”
Asuna tilted her head to one side. “But… you are Doraku, right? And there’s no way Doraku would be good if she wasn’t a beta tester.”
While the smile remained, it looked more forced than before. “Well. You’ve got one part of it right. Doraku was a beta tester.”
“Then you’re not her?”
“I am, but I’m not.” She stopped, then giggled. “Wow! That sounds kinda crazy when I say it out loud, doesn’t it?”
She rubbed the back of her neck. “I’ve been telling everyone I meet that I’m Doraku, and since I’ve never formally joined their party, they haven’t known any differently. Doraku, the real Doraku, was part of a guild during the beta test. She asked me to come here and…”
When she trailed off, Asuna looked back over. Her lower lip trembled, and for a second she could have sworn she saw tears welling up in the young woman’s eyes. In spite of everything, she fought the urge to reach out and put a hand on her shoulder. With one deep breath, though, she banished whatever thoughts brought that moment on and continued.
“I wanted to find her guild and tell them why she couldn’t join them on the release date. But I had trouble finding them. I didn’t see their names on the Monument at all, but maybe they changed them. So I thought if I used her name when I was helping people, the word might eventually get back to her guild. I still haven’t found any of ‘em, but I’ll keep looking. And if I can help people in the meantime, that’s even better.”
There were about a dozen questions swimming around in Asuna’s minds after all of that. She only managed the obvious one. “If you’re not Doraku, then who are you?”
“Doraku’s friend, of course!” She finished the last bite of her bread then offered a hand. “Name’s Yuuki. It’s nice to meet you!”
It took a moment for that to register with Asuna. What were the odds? It wasn’t until she’d taken Yuuki’s hand into her own that she’d not touched another human being in two weeks. Even though she knew the sensation in her hand was nothing more than digital code, it still felt real. Perhaps that brief moment of connection explained why she held the grip longer than one normally might. Yuuki’s gentle grip belied her ferocity in battle. Perhaps the truly strong never felt the need to prove themselves at all times.
“Nice to meet ya!” Pulling away from the shake, Yuuki clasped her hands together and rested her chin atop them. “So Miss Asuna, what are you going to do now?”
“Go back to town and restock, I suppose.”
“And then back to the labyrinth?”
“It didn’t work out too great the last time.”
“Maybe not. But at least I’d be doing something.”
“You know,” Yuuki said, then glanced over her shoulder at the labyrinth entrance, “If you’re really going to throw yourself into that, you could use a better strategy. You were just using the most basic sword skill, after all!”
“Wait. There are others?”
“You… you’re joking, right? It doesn’t work like a traditional RPG, but you can learn sword skills like magic in other RPGs.”
“Oh. Right. Of course.” She nodded like she understood what the other girl was talking about.
“You’re still a total newbie, aren’t you?” Yuuki kipped up to her feet and looked across the field that stretched out in front of them. “If you’re determined to do it again, why don’t we journey back together? I could teach you a few things along the way.”
“You’re not going to try and talk me out of it?”
“It sounds like you’ve already made your mind up, and I doubt a stranger would be able to talk you out of it. The least I can do is give you a better chance to survive, right? If you don’t want to, we can go our separate ways here.” Yuuki paused, and for another brief moment that earlier sadness returned to her face. “I don’t think you should give up yet. No matter how bad it looks, as long as you’re still alive there’s always hope.” With that, she stretched her hand down in an offer to help Asuna to her feet. “I don’t mind helping. But it’s your choice.”
Perhaps it was that last part of the offer, that she left the decision to Asuna rather than insisting. Maybe it was her strange charm, the ebullient attitude she held onto in spite of everything they’d experienced. But for the first time since Kayaba’s announcement, a flicker of hope sparked to life within her. She took her hand and stood up next to her.
“In that case, I’m ready to learn.”
They’d made it to the bottom of the hill before Asuna realized, for the first time in Aincrad, she smiled when she gave her answer.
Yuuki finally started to question the wisdom of her plan when she found herself staring down the gullet of a Midnight Dire Wolf.
To that point, her only regret had been that Asuna’s smile faded quickly, a hint of blue sky peeking out from the dark clouds of a deluge. She responded to Yuuki’s questions with the level of enthusiasm usually reserved for root canals and socks under the Christmas tree. Each step stabbed the ground like a hard kick, as though the soil itself somehow insulted that.
That paled in comparison to the way she fought when they encountered random mobs. Yuuki channeled her anger into her strikes as well, but in a calculated manner, her opponent’s skills and weaknesses at the forefront of her planning. Asuna, on the other hand, swung into battle as a blur of speed and ferocity, striking and slashing and scowling the entire time. Her aggressive fight style was only fueled by the fact she picked up on every skill Yuuki taught her instantly. Though she didn’t apply the tactics, she was a fast learner in every regard. She imagined that skill extended beyond the realm of Aincrad.
Everything Yuuki picked up on about her newfound traveling companion came from the context clues like that she picked up along the way. In addition to being smart, Asuna carried herself with a poise and dignity. Though her anger showed in her fighting style, she never unleashed her fury against Yuuki with any sort of tirade. That she’d seemed like such a notice yet owned a NerveGear suggested her family didn’t worry about money that much. The delicate hair braid that wrapped around her head only added to the impression of class and privilege.
Before long, Yuuki started to invent her own backstory and lost herself in the process. She’d been in the middle of debating whether Asuna was the daughter of a prominent politician or a pop star trying to escape her life of fame(that might explain the hooded cloak she wore) when she heard the howl. Four Dire Wolves leaped from the shadows. Yuuki barely had time to look up and start for her sword when a larger canine with jet black fur burst forward from the tree line. The Midnight Dire Wolf plowed into her and knocked her off balance, wrenching the sword from her hand as both tumbled to the ground.
With one hand she held back the maw of the wolf, the other groping for her sword or anything else she could use as a weapon. The wolf’s teeth scraped against her form arm. Even that brief contact chipped away at her health bar. Just then, her fingers closed around something solid. Not her sword. A fallen tree branch. She snatched it up and wedged the stick into the open jaw. The vice-like jaws slammed shut, and the branch’s durability lasted only seconds before shattering.
Yuuki needed only a few seconds, however. She drove her knee hard into the wolf’s ribs. Only a sliver of its health vanished, but it also forced the wolf into a defensive counter. That gave her a chance to skitter out from beneath it, rolling to the side just as it drove its massive paws down, kicking up dirt and pebbles. Jumping back to her feet, she recovered her sword and chanced a glance to Asuna.
other girl faced off against two ordinary Dire Wolves… well, as
ordinary as a pair of bloodthirsty massive wolves could be, anyway.
They’d formed a pincer around her, attacking from both sides. Only
Asuna’s quick reaction time kept her safe, and she even managed a
strike between parrying their attacks. She’d offered help once she
took out the bigger one.
Midnight Dire had other ideas and closed the distance between them in
an instant. Yuuki twirled around the pounce, pivoted away from the
snapping jaw that followed. Her blade flashed but the wolf dodged,
the slash leaving only a tiny red slash on its side. The wolf snarled
and charged. Yuuki pirouetted, the monster barreling past like an
angry bull. The dance continued for a few more movements. The Dire
Wolf lashed out with its teeth and claws, Yuuki knocking each attack
aside with her blade. Unlike the kobold, she wasn’t merely toying
with her opponent. She studied the patterns, the tells for which
attack would come next, the cooldown times and vulnerabilities laid
bear after the strike. She knew how to defeat it.
She stood with her sword down and idle, presenting a target. The wolf’s legs spread apart a split second before it bolted forward into the pounce. Yuuki held her ground as it drew close. As she peeled off to the side, her sword began to glow. Landing in front of her, the Midnight Dire Wolf’s back was completely exposed. As soon as its cooldown started, the sword skill started and the system took over. Three quick slashes. Diagonal. Horizontal. Vertical. All three unleashed with savage speed. The wolf didn’t even have time to react before it shattered into polygons that drifted away in the wind.
Yuuki turned back to the fencer just in time to see her dispatch the last remaining wolf with a sword skill of her own.
“That was great! You’re really getting the hang of this.”
“I didn’t have a lot of choice.” Asuna’s breathing was labored as she walked over. “Are you okay?”
“I took a little damage but nothing too bad. You?”
“I had to use my last healing pot, and we’re not close to the Town of Beginnings yet.”
“Hmmm.” Yuuki paused and opened up her menu. “Though we’re not far from Horunka Village. Maybe we could get some supplies there.”
“Horunka Village? There are different towns on this floor?”
“Of course.” Yuuki blinked. “Um, Asuna? How many RPGs have you played before this one?”
“Um.” Her eyes darted away, and her reply came as a barely audible whisper. “None.”
Yuuki blanched. “And… how many video games?”
“A few.” Asuna bit her lower lip. “On my phone. Mostly Tetris.”
“Okay, so in a MMORPG like this, one of the best parts is exploring and finding new stuff! And sometimes you even unlock special quests in the different towns. Maybe we’ll find something cool in Horunka!”
“Then we should go there.” Asuna sighed. “If they don’t have any more healing items, though, we’re probably in big trouble.”
“Follow me!” Yuuki took off with a spring in her step. The fencer who hours earlier wanted to die in the dungeon now cared about staying alive. Maybe there was hope for her yet.