November 7, 2022
Mornings sucked. That much was fact as far as Renee was concerned. They were cold, and her bed was so, so warm. Sunlight poked through the curtains like a ghoul's grin, deceitful and cruel as it shone in her eyes and tried to wrest her from sleep. It was hard enough to pull herself out of bed on a normal day but yesterday had felt so long and she was still so tired. So it was Renee's thought that the sun rose too early that morning… and so did Ashe.
"Nooo…. Five more minutes."
She tightened her arms around her friend's waist in hopes of dissuading her from getting up.
"You're the one who wanted to get an early start today," Ashe retorted as she tried to pull the other girl's hands apart. "Come on, let go."
"But you're comfy…"
Renee heard Ashe huff as she said, "You should be doing this with Masaru, not me."
"He's not here, though," she responded. Ashe groaned and, still trying to pry apart the blonde's hands, rolled over. Renee rolled with her and got a mouthful of blankets and the air knocked from her lungs as she hit the floor.
Ashe's feet hit the floorboards beside her and the brunette leaned forward. "Time to get up." With a drawn out groan Renee rolled onto her stomach and picked herself up. Talk about a rude awakening.
It was a small room they'd rented in Horunka's sole inn. There was a window and a small table on the far wall, a chair, and a single bed that the two of them had opted to share for the night. Ashe thumbed through her menu a moment before being enveloped in a brief flash of light. When it faded she was all dressed for the day. Renee had noted before but despite losing the red hair, she had kept the colour in her clothes. The red collared shirt poked out from under her leather chest plate and system of straps. Following her lead, Renee did the same, equipping her own long-sleeve blue shirt, slacks and leather vest.
"When'd you get that?" Renee asked as a glint of light in Ashe's hand caught her eye. Ashe turned around at the question, still midway through tying her hair back. Evidently she hadn't realized that that, too, could be done through the menu. Renee stepped around the bed and behind the girl to get a closer look. "Oh, it's cute, too. Any bonuses?"
"Plus one to strength."
Renee nodded her approval. It was a nice little accessory, probably something Ashe had picked up for cheap in the town shop. It hadn't been that late when they arrived the day before, so after starting and opting to put on hold the «Secret Medicine of the Forest quest», she and Ashe had done some shopping to improve their base gear. Being a small village on the first floor Horunka didn't have a very generous selection to pick from, but any bonuses were good this early in the game. Strength was especially good for Ashe, who still insisted on wielding her heavy pole arm.
"You want to go grab Rikki and we'll head out?" Ashe asked as she finished with her hair. Renee sighed and gave an exaggerated roll of her head.
Making her way past the bed again she climbed up onto the table and pushed the curtains out of the way. Morning light poured in and Renee squinted against it as she opened the window. The town's ambience trickled in. The winding melody played off the roofs of the houses and drew her eyes upward. If it weren't for the bottom of the second floor blocking out the sky, she almost would've been able to think that she wasn't still in Aincrad. According to all the logic she retained from the game's beta period, falling asleep in here should have logged her out and allowed her to wake up in the real world. Honestly, up until she had woken up just now a good part of her had still held onto the hope that that would still be true despite yesterday's announcement.
She shook her head to stop that train of thought. Stuff like that was a bit too heavy for her this early in the day. Besides, she needed to look down, not up.
Renee leaned further out the window and looked down into the alley between the inn and the NPC house next door. "Wakey, wakey down there," she called. Rikki craned his neck to look up at her and squinted. "Come on, it's your stuff we're getting." He waved her off but she waited there until she saw him start to stand up. He had more than enough cor saved up from killing boars and wolves in the fields the day before to afford a room of his own but the miser insisted on sleeping outside to save on money. She and Ashe had offered twice already to give him the money for one but he still refused.
Ashe was waiting at the door when Renee pulled the window shut. "He awake?" Renee nodded and the two went to meet him outside.
He met them at the door, still looking groggy in his starting clothes. "You mind if we stop somewhere else first?" he asked after stifling a yawn.
"You'd sleep better if you slept in a bed," Ashe said as she stepped out into the street. Renee neglected to mention that it hardly made a difference inside a game. He grunted and looked away. "So," Ashe continued. "Where to?"
Rikki led them to the town's weapon shop, a curious destination considering his vice grip on his wallet the night before. He'd refused to shop around with them last night upon their arrival when she and Ashe had made some additions to their gear. The building itself was pretty standard for its kind: stone walls, a steady trickle of smoke coming out the chimney and the purposeful clanging of metal working coming from inside.
"You know," Renee said as they stepped inside. "We're getting you a free sword today." He wasn't listening to her as he walked up to the blacksmith and opened up a trade. He picked something from the shopkeep's wares and she wondered if the miser was loosening his purse strings.
He wasn't, she learned, as he leaned his elbows on the counter and started haggling with the NPC. Ashe gave her a confused look then so she tried to explain. Renee pulled up her menu and set it to visible. "It's a skill," she said as she scrolled down the list to find it.
"It just let's you get discounts when you buy from NPCs."
There were any number of skills available in this game, but this was one of a few Renee saw no merit in. Getting a deal on an item was nice, but there was no real need for it. Unlike in the real world money would be plentiful in here once they got started. And this early on in the game she knew Rikki's proficiency wasn't high enough to make his haggling attempt worth it. He started frowning then, and smacked the button to finish his purchase. That was all the confirmation she needed to know she'd been right.
Ashe looked startled by it, but only for a moment. "All done?" The boy grumbled something before he nodded.
Raising her hand Renee asked, "Do we get to see?"
His mouth turned to a hard line but he reopened his menu and a moment later his peasant's clothes were covered by a heavy green coat with a simple banded iron chest plate over top.
"So," he started as she turned to the girls, "how do I look?"
He seemed so self-conscious about his new armour set that Renee couldn't help herself. "Like a sketchy merc."
"No one asked you." Rikki's response was instant.
And as usual Ashe had to smooth things over. "You look fine, Rikki. Like a warrior."
"Thank you," Rikki said and puffed out his chest.
Rikki's ego aside, it seemed like his business here was done and Renee was itching to get moving. "So if you two are done flirting over there…"
The comment earned her a light smack on the head from her friend and a swift, "Shut up." Renee noted that Ashe hadn't denied it.
The safety of the village was far behind them, invisible through the network of trees that made up the forest they'd be hunting in for the next while when Rikki started to lag behind the other two.
"You're not getting cold feet, are you?" Renee asked. It was a valid question but to her left Rikki shot her a black look in response. Unbothered, she rolled her shoulders. It was fine if he was, but if he dug his heels in now they'd be here longer than they had to be.
They'd arrived in Horunka village within a couple hours of Kayaba's announcement and Renee had led their little ragtag bunch to an NPC home to pick up the «Secret Medicine of the Forest» quest immediately after. Neither she nor Ashe needed the long sword that was the quest's reward, but Rikki did. The starting iron long sword belted at his hip would be useless before long. She knew it, and so did he.
"So remind me," Rikki started as he drummed his fingers on his sword's pommel, "We're killing the ones with the flowers?"
Renee nodded. "And the normal ones if we don't see a flower."
"But not the ones with the fruit…" he said.
Renee pretended not to notice his apprehension as he said it. "Yeah, don't touch those ones."
Killing one of the predatory plants with a flower would give them the item «Little Nepent's Ovule», the thing they needed to finish the quest, and killing the normal ones did nothing but help more Little Nepenthes to re-spawn. But they'd seen as a group what the result was of attacking a Nepent with a fruit on its head.
Their plan had originally been to start and be done with this quest the same day the game launched. But by the time they'd reached Horunka it was getting dark, and someone else was in the forest killing the giant plants. The kids had both looked about middle-school age and one of the young duo had hit the Nepenthes' fruit. When attacked, even if it was only a scratch, the fruit would explode and emit an odour capable of drawing a large number of the eyeless creatures to the area. Since very few players had set foot outside of the starting town by that point, the area was chock full of the creatures and it served its purpose as a lethally effective trap. One kid in a leather half coat had managed to fight his way out, a daring feat to say the least. The other hadn't been so lucky.
Unsurprisingly Rikki had been hesitant to take on the beasts after that. With a little convincing from an equally nervous Ashe, Renee had relented, and the group had turned back to town to rest up and return the following morning. His new armour was a surprise, but it was a good step up from his starting clothes.
Ashe nudged her and pointed off to their right. "Found them."
Renee followed her finger and spotted the carnivorous plant dragging itself along by its roots. More of the flowerless and fruitless varieties were meandering about a ways behind it, too. Despite the name «Little Nepenthes», there was nothing little about them. At about a meter and a half tall they were shorter than Ashe and Rikki by a notable margin but they nearly matched Renee in height. Still, she would cling to whatever few inches she still had over the creatures. It made this a little less nerve-wracking.
Then Rikki posed the question on all of their minds. "So, who's going first?"
They all exchanged looks and, when they still appeared hesitant Renee raised her hand. "Guess it's me." She stepped forward, cutlass in hand and looked around. There were no bright red flowers in sight, of course. They couldn't be that lucky.
"Their weak point is the spot between the pitcher and the stalk. Use horizontal sword skills whenever you can, no verticals, and if their fat heads start expanding get ready to dodge to the side, not back. We'll focus on one at a time until you guys feel comfortable tackling them on your own, okay?" She saw Ashe and Rikki nod and the boy drew his sword. "Both got your potions?" They nodded again and Renee saw Ashe poke around in the pouch at her side.
"Just making sure," Ashe said when she caught Renee looking.
It was weirdly comforting to know that she wasn't the only one on edge about this. At level 3 the Little Nepenthes weren't that strong, and they were normally content to live and let live so long as you kept your distance, but Renee recalled dying at least a few times in the beta test trying to get this lousy ovule. The frustration from that, coupled with the low spawn rate of the flowered variety and the dozens of other players also farming Nepents and she'd given up before completing the quest. She'd switched to the curved blade she now held in her hand following a hunch shared with her by a fellow tester. The blonde fixed her grip on the sword's hilt. It was funny how a collection of polygons under her virtual hand could feel so reassuring.
She looked around once more for any flowers or fruits and, finding none of either variety, took a moment to breathe. There weren't any players here either, and she wanted to finish before that changed. Time to go.
Renee darted forward and the Nepenthe cried – an ugly piercing sound – and reeled back. It raised its vines in a violent display, a tell tale sign for the first of its two available attacks. It thrust one forward toward her and she pushed off hard to the side. The appendage hit the ground with a smack and the sword in her hand came to life with an orange glow and a metallic whir. Red pixels spilled from the gash created as she dragged the blade across its side and through bulge where its two arm vines connected to the main body.
There was an added flash effect to signal a critical hit and its health stopped just shy of yellow.
"Switch," she called over her shoulder, and jumped back the moment her foot met the ground. Rikki moved first and traded her places.
He'd learned how to handle that long sword pretty well by now and it showed as the creature's health dropped to red with two fell strokes. Ashe struck the killing blow with a thrust from the side and with another cry the carnivorous plant erupted in a shower of blue pixels. The trio all shared a quick cheer and a joint high five in celebration of their first successful Little Nepenthes kill. It was nothing to brag about but it seemed an appropriately happy moment.
It would have been even better if Renee hadn't had to jump to reach both their hands, purposely held too high for her to reach normally.
"You guys suck," she said to a smug grin from Rikki and a quiet laugh from Ashe.
After that, confidence in their skill over the giant plants only grew and the three of them split to tackle the plants separately. Ashe and Rikki with their higher strength stats were able to make quick work of the creatures once they'd gotten used to their attack patterns. Watching the brunette land those heavy-hitting two-handers gave Renee a new appreciation for the pole arm.
The day was well underway, with still no sign of a flowered Nepent when she heard Rikki start cursing.
"Ah, shit… clear back!"
Having just finished off yet another Nepenthes, Renee peered through the pixels to see the problem. For a brief moment she wondered if he'd attacked one with a fruit and activated the trap and she readied herself to bolt. Instead she saw the Nepenthes' head, swollen and leaning back.
Rikki bounded to the side to escape and Renee hurried to do the same, hooking her arm with Ashe's to pull her clear of the corrosive fluid that the giant plant spewed forth. With a range of nearly five meters, dodging backward in time was difficult. But quite possibly the most annoying part of the attack, and a good part of the reason Renee had originally given up on the quest, was its side effects.
In terms of dealing damage the pale green fluid wasn't all that bad. It was the hit to durability their equipment would take on contact, and the penalty to movement speed that were the real harm. Already more than three hours into the hunt for the ovule the durability of their weapons had dropped considerably. More than a couple hits from that spray and they'd be unarmed. And if they were slowed on top of that, getting away would be difficult.
"Kill it already," Renee yelled as she came back to her feet.
The stream of fluid slowed to a trickle and she watched the now level 3 swordsman shuffled closer to it. Sword poised, he pulled his arm back and lashed out with a «Horizontal» to end it.
The pixels were still flying when the call rang out.
"There it is!"
Both their heads snapped around and saw Ashe pointing off to their left. Renee followed her finger and after a couple seconds spotted the bright red flower topping one of the giant plants.
"About time," Rikki muttered.
He rushed past them then, and Renee's mouth split into a grin at the sight. With a half broken laugh she gave chase, following the trail of green light his sword gave off. She could hear Ashe behind them, swinging her halberd left and right, clearing away the ones they ignored.
The boy carved a long red line across the Nepenthes' side to draw its attention. It worked, perhaps a little too well, and he didn't move quick enough to avoid the lashing vine. It slammed into his side and threw him to the ground.
Taking the opening, Renee caught the creature with a second attack on its weak point. With a piercing screech, the Nepenthes' pitcher tilted back and a yellow border wrapped around its body. It was stunned. Renee carried through the swing and snapped her arm back. The blade cleaved through the Nepenthes' stalk. Its health emptied out and its body fragmented before her.
The results screen appeared in its place, listing a sum of cor and experience gained. It was enough that if they kept at this another half hour or so they would likely all reach level 4, still well below the minimum level she'd recommend for clearing the first floor, but higher than the majority of players right now. But under the items listing the screen was empty. Her face fell and she dismissed the window. And then –
"I got it!" Rikki shouted from his spot on the ground.
"Let me see!"
Like a couple of excited schoolgirls, she and Ashe crouched down behind him and leaned over his shoulders as he pulled up his inventory and set it to visible. There it was, right there at the top.
«Little Nepents Ovule»
"Nope. You've gotta answer it," Renee said as the boy looked down at the sword in his hands. It'd been more than an hour since they returned to Horunka but Rikki hadn't been able to tear his eyes from the shiny black blade since he'd received it.
"Says the one who didn't want to talk personal," Rikki muttered.
Having heard him, Renee shook her head. "Nothing too personal. No real names or anything like that."
In a town of ten houses, the inn was the only place that served food. The entire front space was set up like a tavern, with the barkeep behind the back counter offering rooms for rent as well as drinks. Stairs on either side of him led to the second floor landing where her and Ashe's room was located. And while it had only been a day since the game's official launch and the reveal of its frightening conditions, a large handful of players had already arrived, either milling about in here with them, or on their way to the forest. Even lacking the noise one might expect of a tavern, just the presence of others gave the place a more lively feel.
The NPC waitress came by their table and with a quick comment set their meals down in front of them.
Renee nodded her thanks, though the NPC didn't react, and turned back to the boy. "Come on," she insisted. "It'll be fun."
Rikki glared at her from under his brows and gave her a look that said he'd had enough fun for today. But she persisted, and soon enough Ashe leaned over the table to her rescue.
"You can ask us questions, too."
The boy arched a brow at that and Renee could see him silently debating it. She kept staring at him expectantly and eventually the boy heaved a sigh. He finally sheathed his new «Anneal Blade» and leaned back in his chair. "Alright, fine. Shoot."
He didn't seem too into this, but that was okay. When it came to a game of twenty questions, Renee had enough enthusiasm for the both of them. "So, how old are you anyway?" she asked.
"You said nothing personal."
"It's just a number."
His trademark frown made another appearance then, not that it dissuaded her any. Although it had been at Ashe's insistence that he'd come with them at all, if they were going to stay partied together then it couldn't hurt to get to know each other a little better. As things stood all she knew about the boy in front of her was his character name.
Grumbling and looking more than a little reluctant to answer, he said, "Twenty-one."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
He didn't appear to like that comment very much. Renee had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing. "Nothing. It's just… I didn't think you'd be older than us." He didn't like that either. Brows creased, Rikki crossed his arms over his chest and stared her down from his seat across the table.
"So how old are you, then?" Rikki asked as he turned to Ashe.
Ashe pointed to Renee. "Nineteen, same as her."
He hummed at that and opened his mouth to pose another question. Renee was quick to cut him off.
"Nuh-uh. Her turn now."
"But I wasn't done."
She held up her index finger to silence him. "One question per turn." It wouldn't be fair otherwise. Renee gestured to her friend then.
Ashe drummed her fingers on the table as she thought and Renee enjoyed watching her eyes dart about in search of a question whose answer wouldn't spill too far over into his real life. "Why, exactly, did you want to sleep outside last night?"
Honestly speaking, Renee was curious about that as well. It wasn't like you couldn't sleep outside, but aside from the obvious issues of comfort, avatars didn't disappear when you slept which left them vulnerable. Without the guaranteed protection provided by a system-locked door, it wouldn't surprise Renee if someone decided to try their luck with manipulating some poor sap to loot their inventory.
This issue didn't appear to occur to him. Rikki eyed her for a few seconds, apparently having expected something else, before he made some sort of noise in his throat. "I don't know. I don't like spending money when I don't need to." It was more evasion than it was a proper answer. He pointed to himself. "So it's my turn again now, right?"
"I thought you didn't want to play?" Renee asked.
"I'll take that as a yes," he said, and proceeded to ignore her question. He swept his hand toward her then. "So what's this?"
What sort of question was that?
"Your hair," he said, and gestured toward her again. She was beginning to understand where he was going with this. "Are you foreign or something? Or is it dyed?"
Renee stole a glance over at Ashe who flashed a little smile and nudged her arm. The blonde stuck her tongue out at the girl before giving her answer. "Japanese, born and raised."
"Don't believe her; she's lying," Ashe said, and laughed when Renee smacked her on the arm. "Okay, fine. Half lying."
"Traitor," Renee mumbled. Rikki was sitting back, hands folded neatly on the table as he waited. She kind of wanted to smack him now, too. "For your information it is natural. And –" she continued when he rolled his wrist for her to go on, "I was, in fact, born in Japan. My mother was not." She held her hands up to say that that was it. He looked disappointed at the lack of a story but she had nothing else to say. "Now," she said. "It's my turn."
"But you didn't finish answering mine," he protested.
"Ask a better question next time, then."
And so they went, trading questions back and forth. An NPC came, collected their plates and replaced the girls' twice. The world outside the window was dark before long.
"Wait… your brother is how old?"
"Nineteen," Ashe replied.
Rikki looked like he was trying to wrap his head around some sort of difficult concept as he went on to ask, "But I thought you were nineteen?"
"I am," Ashe confirmed, and his expression only became more confused.
Renee watched with mute amusement and saw the moment the light bulb went on in his head.
"Twins?" he asked. Ashe nodded and he smacked his hand down on the table, startling the party seated a couple tables down. He'd gotten surprisingly into this little back and forth game since it got going and, much to Renee's surprise, started honestly grinning for the first time since they'd walked out of the Black Iron Palace the day before. "So there's a guy out there that looks like a male version of you?"
"Oh, god no!" Ashe shouted, and a few players sitting about the place turned to stare at them then. Let them stare. At least her party was having a bit of fun. "We're fraternal twins. We don't look that much alike. Besides, if you ask me he just looks like a butt."
At that Renee grinned from ear to ear and added, "He's got a nice one, too."
Ashe had picked up her glass to have a drink and nearly choked on it. "Renee!"
"What? It's true. Not like you have to be jealous. Yours is fine, too." It was her friend's turn to hit Renee on the arm now, and she gingerly rubbed the spot afterward, even despite the lack of pain.
"You know," Rikki chipped in, "if you had a shield you might've been able to block that."
"Don't need one," she shot back.
He shrugged his shoulders. "Just saying. I hear idiots with one-handed swords die quick in games like these."
"Guess you'd better look into getting yourself a shield then."
Beside her, Ashe snickered behind her hand, but the boisterous air about their table had gone down a few notches.
Rikki cleared his throat quickly. "I don't have any money left for one." That was bullshit and she said as much. He'd made plenty in those hours spent killing Nepents and he'd ordered the cheapest thing on the menu for dinner so there was no way he'd squandered it all away. "Either I get a shield or I sleep inside. Can't afford both."
"So you're actually going to sleep in a bed tonight?" Ashe asked him.
"Never said that," he hurried to say.
Earlier he'd said he was twenty-one, but right now he really was turning into quite the old miser.
Not taking his backtracking for an answer, Ashe stood and Renee watched as the brunette made her way around the table and hauled the boy to his feet.
"H-hey, wait a second!"
"I will give you the money but you are not sleeping in an alleyway again." Oblivious to the staring eyes of other players, Ashe dragged Rikki across the room by his coat collar, only stopping when they were in front of the barkeep.
Still grinning, Renee leaned back in her seat and looked up at the ceiling. It had only been a day since they'd met the boy and simultaneously been trapped in this floating castle. There was no ignoring the fact that this game was dangerous. It was downright terrifying even, but it was definitely beatable. It would take time, but she had no doubt that they'd get home.
And when that happened she and Ashe could pick up their lives right where they'd left off. Until then, Renee would continue as she always did. There were some strings attached but this was a video game all the same.
She intended to have fun with it.