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[PP-F26] On Frail Wings of Vanity and Wax

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He dreamt of the sky, unshackled from his chains. His eyes tore open, pupils tiny as his thoughts fixated on the freefall he experienced behind their lids. Alkor sat up in his bed. For a moment, he half expected the floor to fall out from under him and the dream to become reality, but Cardinal saw fit not to manifest that delusion. He was relieved after several seconds when he remained stationary.

The Twenty Sixth floor of Aincrad opened immediately after the boss fight, but not a single one of the Frontliners could have described exactly how it happened. What they did know were strange accounts given by the NPCs about a fierce storm, and the rebuilding that occurred thereafter. How long had they been indisposed? How much more time had they lost to this world?

He stood shirtless and glanced at the mirror. His body had changed with the update, all his skills and items changed. The system appeared to have underwent an overhaul, and he had a hefty amount of SP to reallocate. As he reviewed his items, Alkor noticed that his sword slipped back into his inventory, out of his equipment. When he looked, the description was replaced with "???"

He frowned. Did this mean he couldn't use his main weapon? Or, perhaps...

Alkor opened the menu and scrolled to his skills, where he began to allocate the points to a weapon skill. The Straight Sword, which was his preferred type of blade to begin with rather than the Curved. Once he had the first few points allocated, he checked the item again.

The description changed, reflective of the weapon's type in response to his choice. So, the system had given him the opportunity to make the weapon viable? Convenient. Fair, even. It made sense for Aincrad.

He began looking over the available skills other than his sword, which he set to the max and then put aside. What else had changed? Armor types, extra skills, utility skills... 

The system now had three types of armor, all with their own strengths and drawbacks. Under this system, the mediary armor type afforded a reasonable amount of defense but traded some swiftness. Alkor wasn't necessarily interested in being discrete or moving at immense speed. In fact, he much preferred the idea of medium armor, something that afforded him some defense while also giving him an edge in close combat.

The modifiers available on light armor suited him perfectly. Improved accuracy, out of the three options, seemed most beneficial to him. He also had no interest in wearing heavier armor. Then, there were the modifiers to his weapon skill. One that made his actions expend less energy... ideal, given how fast Sword Arts tore through those totals, and another that enhanced the damage output of his those same Sword Arts. Efficiency at its finest.

Now... a Combat Mastery? This was new. In lieu of a familiar, he could choose to enhance his own prowess in battle. That was actually optimal for him. The idea of coordinating with a familiar had grown familiar, but it wasn't ideal.

The finishing touch was a skill that afforded him extra energy for his pool. With that, Alkor looked back up and noticed that one of the mods enhanced his appearance, giving him more toned muscles. It made sense. Some of those changes drastically altered his capabilities and reflected a great deal of training. 

With those things complete, he equipped the rest of his clothing and stood up.

"It's time to go exploring," he declared.


Alkor level 31 [paragon 21]

740/740 HP 108/108 EN

Base Damage: 19 Mit: 30 Acc: 4 Eva: 3 Blight: 32 [afflicted target loses 20 Mitigation for duration] Bleed: 48 Paralyze

Skills: One Handed Straight Sword Rank 5, Light Armor Rank 5, Energist

Extra Skills: Combat Mastery Rank 3

Mods: Stamina, Ferocity, Meticulous, Resolve


Witchfang: T4 Demonic Straight Sword [Bleed | Paralyze| Blight | Cursed]

Cloak of the Wandering Warrior: T3 Perfect Cloak [3 EVA]

Eye of Osiris: T1 Perfect Trinket [3 ACC]

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Just as everyone else woke up, so did Chase. And it was a day most confusing. Just minutes ago, he could swear that he and the rest of the frontliners were fighting the Shadow next to Orgoth. But out of nowhere, they all blacked out. At least Chase knew he did. He was starting to worry if maybe, his physical condition was getting worse and it started affecting him in Aincrad too. How long had it been after all? But as soon as he sat up, he realised that wasn't the case at all.

Chase DBP Silent Unsure.png"I was just getting to learn the system and had written a whole basement filled with notes on its inner workings, and now...", he groaned as Cardinal's warning system informed him of the complete overhaul of multiple mechanics, opening up his menu to check all of them and groaning. Cooldowns? What the fuck was that supposed to mean? Or Focus, Delay, AoE- no, he knew that one. Cloth armor??? That's not even armor, what- "This is a fucking fever dream, give me a break.", he huffed and checked his armor, noticing it was now classified as cloth armor- made sense, it really was a jacket and pair of shorts after all. Everything else seemed pretty much the same, give or take. He had a weapon drop from the raid, and that was about it. His levels were all fucked up, but... Maybe talking with someone else would help shed some light on what the hell was going on. He was the least tech-savvy, let alone game savvy compared to everyone else trapped in Aincrad. And so, he sent a message to Alkor, groaning and tapping his foot on the ground impatiently as he waited for an answer.

ChaseR: Yo, what the fuck is up? Help me out, let's meet up.



Level: 31
Paragon Level: 56
HP: 840/840
EN: 102/102

Damage: 21
Mitigation: 69
Evasion: 3
Accuracy: 3
Battle Healing: 42
Loot Dice: 6
HLY: 16
V.D.: 42

Equipped Gear:
Weapon: <<Fragmented Blade>> (T4/2HSS/Perfect): HOLY II, PARA I
Armor: <<Azure Getup>> (T4/CA/Perfect): VDEF I, HBS I, MIT I
Misc: <<Chained Bracelet>> (T2/Trinket/Demonic): ACC II, EVA II

Cloth Armor R5
Battle Healing R5
Searching R4
Extended Weight Limit
Fighting Spirit

Active Mods:
Large Pockets

Inactive Mods:

Active Extra Skills:
Forgotten King’s Authority

Inactive Extra Skills:

Battle Ready Inventory:
Gugnir's Shard (T3/Instant/HP REC III): 15
Imugi's Inspiration (Mass HP Recovery): 1
Insta-Life ++ (T2/Perfect/HP REC III): 1
Woodland Armor (T3/Perfect) MIT III (1/3): 1

Housing Buffs:
Rested: -1 energy cost for the first two expenditures of each combat
Clean: The first time you would suffer DoT damage in a thread, reduce damage taken from DoT each turn by 20% (rounded down)
Filling: Increase the effectiveness of a single food item consumed in a thread by +1 T1 slot.
Relaxed: Increases out of combat HP regen by (5 * Tier HP) and decreases full energy regen to 2 Out of Combat Posts.
Skylight (Searching): +1 Rank to the Searching skill.
Advanced Training: +10% Exp to a thread. Limit one use per month [1/1]
Multipurpose: Gain +1 to LD, Stealth Rating, Stealth Detection, or Prosperity to one post in a thread. Can be applied after a roll
Decor [Potted Tanabata Bamboo Tree]: This buff affects the player and their choice of up to two party members.

Guild Hall Buffs:

Scents of the Wild:
Tanos Statue: +25 Mitigation for a thread.

Wedding Ring:


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Okay, so she didn't know what was on the twenty-sixth. Big whoop. Not like she needed Cardinal itself to tell her what it was or anything. Not like she wanted to care.

Not like she needed to check off more boxes on her task list or anything.

Bistro had her busy after breakfast. Because she forced herself to be busy, to have her attention strayed away from the on goings of her home. And the distraction was welcome, despite the fact that the interface kept alerting its player of a mishap in its calculations. To redistribute skill points refunded to her. The thought of needing to retool her build was exhausting.

"So here," she'd offered to her broker, slumping down in a corner of her workshop. "You do it. You figure it out."

It took her aide no more than a few minutes to find a suitable equivalent path. Imagine that. NIGHT would've spent the entire day ruminating over the possible choices, completely forgetting the state of her equipment whilst she was at it.

(Perhaps, at least. Most likely she'd spend her focus mulling over some issue else.)

She'd check in on her network. For some reason, everyone was awake, and no one was talking about the sudden overhaul to the entire system. What gives? NIGHT could vaguely recall the buzz and heated discussions of her time in an office, or watching an ancient newsfeed pile higher and higher upwards with differing opinions over a hot button topic. Now it was just silence.

The player wondered if she could have that for something this life-changing.

Not like she wanted to talk to anyone else, because she didn't, so NIGHT instead fired a message to one of her closest ally. If she'd bothered Yuki, she swore the woman wouldn't catch a break, and that went doubly so for Crow. Alkor, for what he was worth as a guildmate, was still someone she wasn't too familiar with -- the player wondered if it was their failings as members in their connections to each other. The same could've been said for every other person in Tarot.

But thank Cardinal this man didn't have a guild.

> ChaseR

NIGHT: dude tell me uve seen the new system
NIGHT: whats ur build like
NIGHT: sm1 told me eva tanking took a hit is it true???


 | HP: 840/840 | EN: 142/142 
 | DMG: 24 | ACC: 4 | EVA: 1 | MIT: 38
 | LM: 2 | PRLYZ | ABS. ACC | LD: 4
 | Stealth Rating: 5


 | equipment

  • Cosmic Devourer
    -- [ Paralyze I | Natural successful attack rolls of 9-10 remove the enemy’s action on their next turn. Paralyzed opponents lose any evasion properties. ]
    -- [ Absolute Accuracy | +1 ACC. Attack rolls of 1 no longer automatically miss. ]
    -- [ Accuracy I | +1 ACC. ]
  • Second Wind
    -- [ Mitigation I | +18 MIT. ]
    -- [ Light Momentum II | +2 ACC on an unsuccessful attack. Buff is removed on a successful attack. ]
  • Silver Crescent Necklace
    -- [ Accuracy II | +2 ACC ]
    -- [ Evasion II | +2 EVA ]

 | battle-ready inventory

  • - - -
  • - - -
  • - - -

 | skills


mod count: 7/7

  • 2HSS | RANK 5/5
    • ferocity, stamina
    • athletics, nimble
  • SEARCHING | RANK 3+1/5


    • blindside, vanish, surprise attack-t

 | consumed buffs





  1. - - -
  2. - - -

 | misc. buffs



  • Dimensional Backpack, Item Stash
    | +2 Battle-Ready Inventory Slots.
  • Well Rested
    | -1 EN for the first three expenditures of each combat. 
  • Relaxed
    | +(5 * Tier) HP per out-of-combat post. Full energy restoration occurs after two turns out of combat.
  • Squeaky Clean
    | -25% DoT damage taken from the first DoT applied to this player in a thread.
  • Skylight: Searching
    | +1 Expertise to declared utility skill. Cooldown of 30 days to reassign.
  • Multipurpose
    | +1 LD/Prosperity/Stealth/Detection to one post per thread. Can be applied after a roll.
  • Filling
    | +1 T1 slot to a food consumed by this player in a thread. Can exceed Cook enhancement caps.
  • Col Deposit
    | +5% col from loot-minimum mobs, +10% col from treasure chests.


  • Lv. 5 | Gain additional col equivalent to 10% of EXP earned in that thread.
  • Lv. 10 | +3% EXP Gain.


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Yo, what the fuck is up? Help me out, let's meet up.

The message from ChaseR appeared across his HUD in the moment that he pushed the door to the inn open, and obstructed his view of the world beyond. He blinked. If Chase of all people didn't know what was going on, then Alkor was at a total loss. The Blue haired boy had a penchant for finding new knowledge and a borderline obsessive pursuit of any means to beat the bastard system. Alkor adapted quickly because of his previous experiences with online gaming, but the two were on entirely different levels. He frowned.

Alkor: I thought you'd be the one with the inside scoop on this.
Alkor: The Frontliners cleared the boss, right? What the hell happened?
Alkor: Meet me on Floor 26. We can figure things out while we look around.

With the message sent off, Alkor dismissed the window and found himself staring out into a world unlike anything he'd seen in Aincrad. The city was vast, perhaps greater even than the Town of Beginnings, which was designed to impress and beguile the nubile Players into a false sense of wonder. "What the f-" Alkor started to say, but the words died on his lips. He watched in abject wonder as the sound of a steam engine overhead stole his attention. Flying machines, no, airships. There were many of them, not simply one illustrious example. It was a staple of the architecture and technology of the Floor, something he quickly surmised as he noted them moving from location to location like a taxi service. Some of them went further, and he postulated that they could ferry Players to more isolated locations as well.

The city itself was a wonder, with the quarter where he stood immediate revealed on the map as the "Aquilinean Bazaar." It matched the description perfectly, with fine linen and expensive orientals on display as an obvious display of the Mercantile affinity for acquisition. The men and women who flecked the marketplace were swathed in finery, golds and silvers and silks that only made the surroundings seem more pompous and stifling. With guards present to preserve their interests, every merchant seemed nonplussed, utterly disinterested in the possibility that they might be robbed.

These were not like the guards in other settlements, however. They were standardized, disciplined. With what he knew about ancient history, Alkor surmised that they were clad in uniform armor and emblazoned with the sigils of some power inherent to the Floor. With some careful deduction, he might even be able to glean what the arms etched into their garb indicated. Alkor paused for a moment as his mind reeled from the sudden overload of information. A new floor meant new story, new enemies, new quests, and new possibilities. It also meant more to process. The Frontliners had moved from an oceanic world to a labyrinth and finally into what appeared to be a world of vast wealth and influence. It must have been harrowing for them. Modern humans rarely experienced culture shock on that level. Many never left their habitats for anything that wasn't nominally familiar. Life in this era wasn't as exciting as it had been in ancient times.

Perhaps that was something Kayaba Akihiko set out to rectify when he designed Sword Art Online.

Alkor: I'm in the Aquilinean Bazaar.

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With messages coming in left and right, Chase groaned and put both hands to his head, letting out a tired sigh and even pulling on his hair a little. "F-Fuck off, why is everyone waking up now... What the hell did we even wake up from? How long were we out- god damn it.", his ramblings stopped as he went to read both Alkor's and NIGHT's messages, not sending anything to Alkor and opting only for the rogue- the black haired one.

ChaseR: I seriously don't have a single clue.
ChaseR: Me and Alkor are meeting at the 26th. Some stupid Bazaar, I don't know what it looks like
ChaseR: Come.

There was little to be done, let alone said past that. He made sure to don his armor and sword once more, moving forwards and going straight for the teleporter. At least the path from his home all the way to the teleporter was the same, and the settlement didn't seem different any. If it was, there wasn't something he could just spot right away. So that left the new floor, hopefully, and nothing else was different. Off to find out.

Chase DBP Oops.pngStepping on the teleporter, the familiar blue light glowed around the male and completely encompassed him before he teleported to the twenty sixth, appearing and standing still, as though turned a statue somewhere during the trip. "What the everloving fuck.", he fired another f-bomb, blinking and staying with wide eyes as he stepped off the teleporter and looked around with a hand right on his sword. His instincts were to draw it just like when he'd started; that's just how overwhelmed he was with all of these changes having taken place out of nowhere. Aincrad didn't even have bicycles, let alone airships. And the town itself was massive, glorious and beautiful, the streets hustling and bustling. He moved about and tried to get used to the basic layout, feeling his heart race. Literally shocked, and culturally too. It didn't take much looking around before he ended up finding the Bazaar, silent and with no clue what to say. Throughout all the people, it wasn't hard to tell Alkor apart. Although he seemed different, after seeing this town everything really did. He approached him, tapped his shoulder and gave a choked "H-Hey" before going quiet again. "What has happened to Aincrad???" was the only question he posed before starting to look around again, completely dumb founded. So this is what humans felt like when they first discovered fire, huh?

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What? So players were talking about it -- just not with her. Figures. Maybe it was a lesson in being anti-social, not that NIGHT needed company around her all the time, anyway. She'd done fine so far acting on her own and a handful of other close friends. She could continue to do so, surely, if Cardinal allowed.

> Chaser

NIGHT: omw

Her feet shuffled across the wooden boards -- Bistro grunted a farewell to her, to which the player passed on responding. Cross the dusty weathered stone pavements, skittering through the crowd of false environmental constructs, the player stopped a few feet in front of the teleporter. Her mind echoed her lie from earlier that day.

A land of glaciers, more ice and blue than white snow.

That's not even remotely true, and you know it.

So she didn't need to change was the woman's best guess. Poison filled her mouth at the thought, and she took a breath, releasing herself of the guilt of misinformation. Her thoughts lied on that fake bunny she'd made up, her feet almost stumbling upon it as she ascended the steps, and before NIGHT could register the fact that she'd never heard the name of the twenty-sixth settlement before, Cardinal caught her by the collar of her shirt and pulled her through, above and beyond.

She left the Town of Beginnings far, far behind, and was sent to a world of marble and bronze.

When the cyan light faded from her eyes, a force near shoved her off the shallow platform. Metal, hollow; was that concrete she was standing on? The texture, though foreign, was still familiar to her urban memory, and her gaze from a mixture of hazy browns went straight up above the horizon, the blue skies patterned with specks of wispy clouds, dotted with the shadows of balloons and egregious blimps.

You're kidding, was NIGHT's first thought. Her fingers curled, a reflex, until she realized there was nothing but emptiness in her hands. In another universe, this may have been different, and the player examined her palm reflecting that fact.

Her hands brushed the side of her pants. She redirected her attention back to the present.

Not once had she felt so small in a city in Aincrad, their plans designed around an abundance of space despite the castle's true measurements. But this was different, for the buildings here were both large and tall -- a grand idea from a fantasy novel. Skyscrapers or otherwise, NIGHT still found herself feeling out of her element; even the streets back home in reality weren't as packed and cramped as these.

The player's eyes drifted from one potted shrub to another signage; light and ornate, a hanging sign beating back and forth with a mild breeze. Another structure caught her attention -- pillars of white, gilded with decor pieces dyed copper. They fronted a seating area outdoors for an eatery of some sort. She traced the outlines of its wooden seats and striped awning. In the back of the street she stared down, there had to be an antique store of a refined, regal manner.

A bump to her right shoulder told her she was still for too long. So much for admiration and observance. Her eyes glanced to the figure that passed her by, pulling her out of her trance; some NPC in a grey suit with a fur trim (the type with coat tails), that black top-hat, a cane--

No, she was looking too much again. Or it was merely a clustered location near the settlement's entry. Funny how she kept being ping-ponged around by constructs more than actual players. NIGHT huffed as another in a fitted shirt and auburn vest shoved her ahead a step.

She took it as her late signal to move.

'Some stupid Bazaar' wouldn't tell her much about her destination. If anything, the player quickly found herself lost, feeling incredibly out of place as she passed down roads of increasing widths. The people around her simply continued to gain more signals of wealth and influence; a pearl necklace here, a gold earring and a diamond ring there.

NIGHT gave up after a moment, resorting to ascend a building's side instead. Up a ladder, the woman perched herself on a ledge, a corner nook, and fired up her messenger for practicality's sake.

> Chaser, Alkor

NIGHT: whr r u

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The Bazaar was less crowded than labyrinthine, but the sheer volume of bodies made it difficult to navigate. Even when Alkor thought he'd found a clear path through, someone made a sudden movement or happened to trip up and he found himself dodging or weaving. It reminded him remotely of a more crowded city, like Tokyo or New York. It wasn't necessarily that the buildings were close in proximity to one another, it was just the heavy rate of commerce that made it inconvenient. He managed to find an open plaza within the Bazaar where there was a break in the flow of motion, and that was where he waited for ChaseR.

He turned to regard the voice that called out, the familiar tone of the blue Player. "The best I can tell, it'd be a patch," he reckoned. The servers were still open after all this time, but the company had likely shut down due to the SAO incident. Alkor couldn't imagine that the Government wouldn't step in and seize everything to ensure their safety and condemn the actions of a psychopath. But even that was conjecture at this point, because this was their reality. Communication with the outside world was impossible. That left grave implications for this scenario. Who would have thought to patch Sword Art Online at this point? It had to have been the creator, but to do it with all the Players logged in... that had to be dangerous.

No wonder portions of his memory were entirely gone.

His lips tugged downward into a slight frown as he explained further. "When a system is outdated or there are bugs, or something needs a hotfix, the programmers take the server down for a brief time and update things. Normally, it'd force out Players for the duration and use specific protocols to save their progress. That's what's bugging me about this situation. We didn't get booted out, so we got treated just like part of the program. There's no telling what the implications of that are, especially our memories, how our minds work... it's like a science experiment and we're guinea pigs."

That was the most Alkor had postulated about the state of Aincrad in a long time, and it gave him no small amount of existential dread. "That said, I feel fine," he shrugged. Alkor didn't want to make Chase uneasy, though his words had already struck that chord. He paused and glanced up, toward the network of small ships jetting between buildings. They seemed like worker bees moving about a hive, an integral part of everyday function. That was about the time that they received a message in unison.

>Alkor, ChaseR

NIGHT: Whr r u?

He blinked, then realized Chase must have invited the woman because she was just as confused as the rest of them. He hit the reply button and began typing quickly.


Alkor: It's an area of the city called the Aquilinean Bazaar, the map should show you. It's a safe zone.

The next moment, he sent the message and turned back to regard ChaseR. "I wouldn't say that the changes to the system have overall changed the way things work," he began, "because so far, much of the experience has been the same. Levels and health totals, item overhauls, but functionally the everyday options like movement and sleep haven't changed at all. At the very least, we haven't been further digitized. I can assume the base template for interaction hasn't shifted at all. Combat should work pretty much the same, for example."

It was just a guess, but when they did system changes in MMOs, they were content to gut character creation, customization, skills, items, and all of the other frills that contributed to the overall experience but programmers rarely messed with the real guts. Combat in some of the most tried and true MMO games remained constant from inception through to their twilight days. He was willing to take that to the bank. "When NIGHT gets here, we can get a better idea of what's going on. Maybe."

Honestly, Alkor didn't know NIGHT all that well. She seemed like a no-nonsense type of person. Between the fluctuating sounds of the market around them, the boisterous merchants and displeased nobles and the intermittent chink of guards in armor as they stepped in to handle disputes, he found himself distracted from that thought. Unlike previous floors, the Twenty Sixth had more real time interaction between NPCs. Everything felt like a crisper, more realistic experience than before. This was unlike the previous experiences in SAO, where the Players would interact with a single NPC at a time and move between quests. Now, the NPCs were bickering, fighting, treating each other like living, breathing creatures instead of strands of code.

And they seemed to take active interest in Players, as well. A curt nod here, a bright smile there- it wasn't like the way they used to attend Players only when prompted. Now they would engage. A quirky greeting or a scowl, realistic expressions of emotion... 

Alkor felt a chill run down his spine. Before, it felt like they could disassociate all of this as a game. Suddenly, that didn't seem like an option.

"I don't like it."

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And then came all the nerd talk from Alkor. 'Nerd' was a funny way to put it seeing as Chase was trapped in here too, but it really felt like science that he was supposed to get; and he wasn't. All the special terminologies and whatnot that made no sense. "Levels aren't the same, and neither is my health. You were a low level, but my health was dropped to below half of what it used to be- and there's EXP and SP, when there used to be just EXP for professions... I don't get any of this, I absolutely hate it.", he hissed with the same lack of awareness that he had starting out, keeping his hand on top of his sword's hilt all the time.

Chase DBP Glare Nervous.png"And everyone is creepy. I don't like it.", he let out another complaint, looking around at the city that was hustling and bustling as though it were a real life one. No longer were NPCs locked in their shops, behind counters or stalls, but now they moved in a way that with Chase's disregard of cursors for the most part, it was impossible to tell them apart from actual players. "Wh-Why are they even greeting us when we don't know a single one...", the bluehead's complaints kept on coming and coming, with no end to the barrage. Without noticing, even his stance had gotten more defensive, almost as though ready to start whacking whoever approached any closer to the duo. "You told NIGHT where to come get us? And 'y dos she tipe lik ths'?", he tried throwing out a joke that seemed more like bashing her (on accident), and managed to only make things more awkward for himself when his intent was to relieve some stress. 

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She finally had a name.

Then disregard the map. NIGHT was confident in at least navigating urban spaces. Down the side of the building, the player slipping off the ledge and letting her palm rest against the brick's surface, she'd landed with a roll that barely disrupted traffic. Good for her; the player didn't want to be trampled over at a moment's notice. She headed one way where she'd recalled taking notice of a set of directional signages. Cross a plaza, weave through a couple more streets leading uphill, and she eventually stumbled upon her way there.

What, was she supposed to ask for directions?

Her eyes tracked the scenery; she was in a residential district, from the looks of it, although how city planning had managed to account for the lofty altitude of this particular hill was something she had to question. Maybe it was an error in terrain generation. Whoever was at the helm of the system must've been creating the new floors, too. The player passed several mansions, large estates as she chased the slanted horizon. A courier passed her by. On the occasion she'd take her sights off the thinning crowd to catch a glimpse of her surroundings, there'd be a few conversing NPCs, dressed in fine garb.

Victorian? NIGHT was never good at eras. And though she had the thought of sneaking over to eavesdrop on their discussion, the player still had a destination she'd have to get to, and companions that were waiting on her.

She did feel small in her oversized tracksuit, though. If she'd been paying less attention to her surroundings and her directions, perhaps she would've noticed the gazes, too, of the world looking at an outsider who'd somehow crossed their border, sticking out like a sore thumb.

NIGHT was thankful when she reached the top of the hill. Even fortunate still was when she found her own way to descend, finally reaching the players and their meet-up point. She frowned when she finally pulled open her interface, several meters across her companions, pretending to have arrived in a timely fashion. Anyone careful would've noticed she came in the opposite direction of the shortest route from the teleporter.

Figures. The right way was always in the last place she'd looked.

The player rubbed the back of her neck as she drew close, menus fading away from her vision. "I didn't get lost," she retorted without prompting. "I was just exploring before I managed to find you two. That's all."

It was a half truth. Not a total flub.

"But it's crazy, isn't it? The system overhaul." NIGHT winced just thinking about looking over her skill tree, the way she was ordered to reallocate her points. She folded her arms, holding herself close. "Please tell me you guys know about that at least."

If she'd been the only one—

NIGHT didn't want to become Cardinal's favourite victim in the end.

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ChaseR did nothing to hide the fact that he saw a significant difference between them in terms of previously ordained level, and it only made Alkor shake his head slightly. The difference between them wasn't much in that way. He'd always considered Chase stronger while they were leveling up, and the man had always been blunt. It was almost a surprise to hear him complain about the sudden equalization, though. The blue haired player had never seemed the type to get bent over something so trivial. Then again, there were a lot of things going on and he could understand a certain degree of anxiety. It wasn't worth ribbing the guy over.

"An experience system makes more logical sense from a programmer's perspective, I'd wager. It's hard to balance one to one with something as arbitrary as the same skill points that go into building your character traits. That just makes for things getting bogged down with too many parameters-" he stopped himself short, because he realized as he was talking that there was a vacant expression on the man's face. Either it was going over his head, or this kind of thing just bored the man to tears. Chase wasn't the type to pretend to be interested, either. "Anyway, breaking things down into different units makes it easier to manage in the code. It doesn't read the same things, and so the system won't become confused by similar or like variables. Also, smaller numbers are easier to compute. Having an arbitrarily high HP total for example- feels great to a Player, but it's unnecessarily clunky and hard to compute."

He glanced around. "But I definitely agree with you," he said as a chill ran down his spine. "They're more lifelike now. More interactive. It's like suddenly the system became more cunning about trying to give us Stockholm Syndrome. It wants to encourage us to treat this like less of a simulation and more of a realistic experience." Alkor glanced to Chase again and his shoulders sagged a bit. "I already hate talking to most people," he added, unenthused.

The sounds of trade and dispute grew louder and more boisterous with the moment, and a fight even broke out between two NPCs not so far away. Alkor watched as they traded blows until one of the many guards in the area stirred and made up his mind to put an end to it. The common garb in this region looked strange, almost renaissance era Italian in its style; but there were subtle vibes that reminded him of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Togas and nudity had phased out of style, replaced with drab, earthen tones and finery that denoted ones status in an overt fashion. Gilded chain links adorned the guard's neck, some sort of classification that Alkor had yet to decipher. Most likely, given the silver color of many others, it signified the man's rank.

They were visibly armed and wore the ornate plate of some noble house. The ones in this area were notably different from others he'd seen en route from the inn where he'd stayed. It was possible that different factions controlled different areas of the City, or at the very least, shared some measure of control. If that was true, was their interaction an important aspect of the Floor's lore? Alkor found himself fascinated with the prospect of factions and reputation, much like he'd seen in other online multiplayer games prior to Sword Art Online. Most often, they came with bounties if you decided to chase one hard enough.

That thought subsided when ChaseR joked about NIGHT's typing. "Probably something to do with simplicity and time management," he hazarded his best guess. NIGHT never struck him as the type to unironically type in shorthand, so if she was it was likely in order to save time. She was a very function over form person in his limited experience. She didn't mince words. None of them did.

He didn't need to confirm that he'd given her the directions, because no sooner was he inclined to do so than did she join them proper. With an addendum that she wasn't lost. Obviously. Alkor nodded. "Yeah, we were just talking about it," he said of the Update. "It's pretty well sabotaged a lot of the effort some people have put in for things. ChaseR for instance doesn't have a massive gulf in level between the two of us anymore, and I think his feelings are hurt because of it." Alkor smirked and shot the man a quick wink. They weren't usually the type to joke around, but sometimes it felt good to melt some of the tension in the air. Especially when it came to things like a massive system overhaul that caused Players to reimagine the entire game from the ground up. "Damn shame Akihiko didn't decide to throw in some patch notes like a good sport. We'll just have to figure everything out the old fashioned way." He shrugged. "Nothing new there."

He then decided to add, "It hasn't set me back any," he revealed. "I actually switched weapons fairly easily because of the changes, so it saved me some time and Col."


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There was little for blue to say when he was hit with more programmer mumbo jumbo. Alkor thought it would bore him to tears, and bore him to tears it actually did. He yawned and wiped a tear from his face while the blonde kept on going, sighing and giving a small nod. He woke back up as soon as NIGHT approached and his partner threw some shade on him. "H-Hey hey hey hey hey!", he growled slightly and slid his menu open, turning it to the two.

Chase DBP Silent Guilty.png"Look at this- 820 HP. I used to have a ton of it, I almost had 1800 HP, this is literally a tiny amount. My whole armor set relied on Vampiric Defense and my Battle Healing, so the higher my level, the higher the survivability I have. But now I had to change that, my armor is a lot weaker so I had to compensate with the little skill points I have, my energy is much less and sword arts have these stupid ass cooldowns, and I even had to pick between damage and accuracy. I'm literally leagues weaker, it's not that my feelings are hurt, I just want to know I can't die without noticing, monsters had way too much damage, this is like... Literally the start of Tier 2 in terms of how things were, I got slaughtered.", he began frantically trying to explain his position, beads of sweat having formed all over his head as he exchanged glances between the two with a disgruntled expression. "Th-This just feels wrong...", he grumbled lowly and slumped forwards, letting his arms hang and exhaling deeply. Chase felt as annoyed about this as he did tired, and that was a lot of both. Way to start sounding like a grandfather and going 'back in my day...' anytime now.

The boy turned to NIGHT with the same frown, furrowing his brows and inspecting her appearance. All seemed the same, thankfully. "Say, tell me you remember something. Anything from the boss fight. We killed the last Horrors and then what?". There was a huge memory gap for him, so he hoped it really was just him and nobody else. He wanted to know there was at least some reason everyone was here, the way they were.

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"Between the two of who?"

NIGHT had been on track to hitting the rumored level cap, just a few digits behind before entering the twenty-fifth boss fight. The player couldn't recall the last time she'd seen Alkor in battle, and despite their distance, she figured anyone roped into the Tarot was one of Aincrad's most battle-hardy warriors. Funny, then, how ChaseR was mocked for his distance. She only afforded a blank look to her guildmate, unfazed by the pipe of disproportion.

Her worries made sense when put to words by Blue, though. With values changing, it was difficult to rely on the security of knowledge; half the stuff in the common Player's Handbook was surely to be thrown out at the system's short notice. Little wonder that Bistro kept herself busy this morning, and only spared her enough time to tend to necessary business. "Probably because it is wrong," NIGHT commented, watching ChaseR arch his back. "It's one thing to add in new content, but sending the rest of the player base into another frenzy is something Machiavellian."

It almost reminded her of their first day again. She wondered to what degree and in which aspects their updates had been intentional.

The woman agreed with Alkor with a nod; "Nothing new there," she echoed. But hearing of the man's sudden swap to a different weapon was surprising. "For your sake, I hope you know what you're doing." There had been a few new options between available arms when she'd been scanning the skill tree, though it made sense to stick with what she knew best. Experience over numbers. "To that end, unless you've had some practice with that new blade of yours, I'm not interested in heading with you outside of town." Too many moving parts made the wilderness unpredictable; new enemy behaviours, potential weapon bugs and glitches, damage numbers being altered...

"—Though I don't suppose you two are only here to chat, either."

Before she could continue, ChaseR sprung the loaded question onto her. The boss fight, a plain and simple topic, but the answer sat locked behind her lips for longer than she'd wanted to remain quiet for.

(Because all I could remember is —)

"... We were..."

The words fell out of her in a slur. NIGHT took a small breath, shaky, before rousing herself to continue. "... Fighting the horrors. And then Orgoth threw open the doors, thinking that the fight was done..." Her eyes were fixated on some tile on the ground, the woman almost closing her eyes in recollection. "I couldn't see Shadow. I didn't think he was still standing, at that point. But his minions were still there. So were the chains."

"When the door burst open..."

There was a tsunami, a wash of great darkness and void.

"We got washed up in a storm."

She didn't catch sight of her companions nor her allies in turn, but in the onslaught of ink, tar and pitch, she captured the back of their minotaur ally overtaken by the swell of everlasting nothingness.

"And then... To me, everything went black."

NIGHT could only think back to the cold, the emptiness. She thought of that feeling of shock turned to dread, and in her final moments in the dark, fear and horror and loss.

(And wanting.
And missing.
And hoping someone else would be okay.)

"The next thing I knew, I was back at home, awake in bed."

From her inventory, she drew her weapon out, pointing the blade downwards once it swirled to life with a light. It was a bright two-hander, a standard greatsword's model; NIGHT herself had seen it in steel multiple times when visiting NPC blacksmiths during her work in the past.

But this was drenched in white. Shining, aglow. Familiar. It hummed faintly in her hands.

"It's called Orgoth's Wrath," she stated. Her sights matched with ChaseR's. "I woke up this morning..."

She paused.

"—In my bed." NIGHT bit her lip. "Only to be greeted by the system and its new overhaul. Buried underneath those windows was this." The woman flipped it over. "D'you have one of these?"

While waiting for ChaseR to provide her a response, NIGHT turned to Alkor, trying to chase away her burning thoughts. "I didn't think you two were here just to talk," she reiterated, "so what's on the agenda for today? A walk around the settlement perimeters?" If circumstances were nice enough, the player had a mind to join them.

Between what she knew of her peers and what she didn't want to acknowledge, the woman was definitely certain on one fact.

She didn't want to go home just yet.

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He gave a sigh and shrugged, the only visible or audible suggestion that he found the exchange tiresome. Alkor thought to make light of the situation, but it was apparent that some of the Frontliners who had been at the apex of strength had misgivings about the new situation. To be summarily brought down to the same level as many other Players with only a handful of caveats had to be harrowing. That was why he didn't press the issue much. It wasn't like Alkor hadn't been there as well, strong and then suddenly thrown back to the start of the climb to power. Circumstances were different, but he knew the struggle intimately.

"Wrong?" Alkor shook his head. "What a defeatist attitude. It's outside our control. There are things we can control and things we can't. The ability to overcome adversity and adapt to new situations is the sole factor that seperates men from baser animals." He left the implication alone at that point. Everyone understood Survival of the Fittest. Hell, their ability to live this long in Aincrad was an unspoken testimony to Darwinism. For NIGHT to call it Machiavellian seemed more tongue in cheek than anything. While she and ChaseR pined over the lamentations of the system overhaul, Alkor glanced out past the bazaar, toward the large tower that stood at the center of the city. Everything stretched outward from there, like a hub or the center of a great Imperial city. Perhaps that wasn't far off the mark, either. The insignias, the castes, the NPCs segregated into different ranks and cells- all of that fell in line with Auxillaries and Legionnaires. There was more in line with Roman Civilization with every observation.

He paused his synopsis when NIGHT talked about him "knowing what he was doing." Alkor glanced back over his shoulder. "I've done it before," he remarked dryly. "When I woke up after the Hydra fight, I changed from Straight Sword to Curved. I made the decision to switch back because of higher gross damage output potential when compared to higher critical hit rate. It's not like I did it on a whim." All three of them were logical thinkers, so he now realized the error in making a joke offhand. Both NIGHT and ChaseR had taken it literally, and if their situations had been reversed, he would have done the same thing. He shouldn't talk to this group like he did the rest of the people in Aincrad. "All the same, I haven't seen anything to suggest that there's much "outside" of the city. More accurately, it's feasible to assume that certain areas of the city aren't safe zones, and that some of the guards or people that look like NPCs are actually enemies." He'd noticed it while he was moving through the Bazaar. Some of the guards were flagged with different colored cursors, and simply hadn't lashed out at him due to the safe zone rules. They had eyed him in a vaguely unsavory manner, which threw the first clue that they might have attacked under different circumstances. They also moved in a pattern, sometimes leaving the safe zone for other parts of the city.

"I'm thinking we should be careful," he added after a moment. The System overhaul didn't leave out the possibility for new mechanics to be added to gameplay. Things like rogues who pilfered from people's pockets were entirely within the realm of possibility. Something might get knicked off them if they didn't stay aware of their surroundings. If NIGHT didn't want to leave the safe zone with Alkor, that was certainly her prerogative; but they had plenty of other things to consider.

When they started talking about the boss fight, Alkor's mind trailed off. He watched the movements of the guards a bit more, testing his hypothesis. Then, NIGHT mentioned the storm. Alkor whipped around. "Storm?" he asked suddenly. "I was on floor seven. There was a strange storm, black rain... and I don't remember much after that. It gets blurry." He wore a skeptical expression. "You mean to say that wasn't contained to the seventh floor?"

That made him go quiet. Extremely quiet. Things like that weren't normal. Events in Aincrad were generally isolated between floors. Their environments weren't shared. Not unless...

Not unless it was a system event.

NIGHT again prompted that they hadn't come just to talk, and Alkor nodded. After recovering from the sudden frightening implications, he spoke up. "We wanted to get a look around the floor," he ventured. "Find out how things work, what the deal is. Maybe scope out some quests before the Info Brokers can sink their teeth in."

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What NIGHT had just mentioned experiencing once the boss fight was over, Chase didn't remember anything of. "Someone ran at the final Shadow Horror, and then I heard Orgoth's voice. I turned to look at him and Mari, but I blacked out. I then just remember staying fainted on the floor. Woke up a few minutes ago in my house... I don't like this.", he echoed the sentiment of everyone by now, letting out a deep sigh and looking up at the sky- or what he could see of it with all the airships and whatnot.

Chase DBP Silent Guilty.pngAnd then NIGHT showed him a sword that looked... standard. He gave his inventory a peek, and only then happened to see a weapon he had too. Another one named after Orgoth, but this one was his 'Legacy', not 'Wrath'. He took it out of his inventory and showed it to her, silent. "Holy, Phase, Accuracy. The enhancements seem to be the same.", he tried helping them put two and two together, groaning and tapping his head with his knuckles in annoyance before he put it back in his inventory. And then, the scientist began to talk. "Hey, Darwin. Safezones are safezones, you can't fight in here. The game will protect you if you get attacked, and if it's not safezone, monsters can go in. There's no way Cardinal would allow monsters to enter the city in any way.", he growled, less so at Alkor's theory and more so at the fact that by this point, it might as well be within the realm of possibility. The only reason Chase doubted it was because Kayaba had proven to care little about destroying everything in Aincrad, and more so about giving everyone an equal chance. "Kayaba wouldn't make the system that way. He wants us to get out alive, not kill us or the towns we use off.", the grumbling continued with a low tone, looking down at the ground discouraged and clenching his fists.

"We should probably look around town. Let's just not go out of the safezone.", he agreed with Alkor's plan, raising his head to look at the other two just to exchange glances and make sure that they were all on the same page. All of the changes being made here were such a massive pain to deal with. Way too much unconfirmed information, and they already had to start working with. So this is the uncertainty people began to explore SAO with, huh?

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So ChaseR did have a similar weapon. If they were made to be of equal mechanical value, why was hers so drastically different? Favoritism? The thought send a shiver down her spine.

(In all honesty, it was most likely a [System Error] than not.)

The light trickled out of her hands as her attention went back to Alkor. Areas within the settlement that weren't safe zones. The idea alone was but a horrifying thought. Her great sword companion seemed to rebuke the idea; but NIGHT paused for a moment. Was it possible?

Certainly -- instances of combat areas in games had been created before, both by the system and by disallowing sanctuary rules in a locale. Either they had been a separate location, or a unique buff granted to the player to facilitate the execution it in an otherwise non-combat area. Granted, Sword Art Online had their villages and outposts mostly guaranteed as places where players could put their fears of fighting to rest. For the system to have started making exceptions was but another signifier of the heightened danger Cardinal was willing to put them through.

It made sense for a city this high up in the tower to have featured it. NIGHT couldn't imagine what it might've looked like on the first floor. Though--

"What do you mean there's not much outside the city?"

Wasn't the exploration of a wilderness the entire point of new floors? If Aincrad were so invested in keeping players in an urban space, there wouldn't be a point in selling a 'Fantasy' theme or game in that genre. As much as NIGHT, too, wanted to give credit to the game's developers, she wasn't sure if she could hand the same trust over to the self-monitoring software that was meant to keep watch over the players' progress. She couldn't even trust its pawns to keep themselves in order.

Additionally, wasn't it possible for it to be faulty or flawed in some way? That its content generation wasn't linear, or generic; that the developers or the data they'd provided to Cardinal to pull from was based off biased references. There had been Platform Hell-type games made before; the player was surprised she could recall a viral cat Mario game from memory after being so out of touch with the real world, but her point was solid in that line of thinking. After all, a difficult game was still a game. Reckless, impossible, taking players by shock...

But if the players were meant to fail, they would've been dead by now. Cardinal had many chances beforehand. Even before the system update was put in place.

Mentioning the storm seemed to catch Alkor by surprise. Black rain? On the seventh. It did seem eerily reminiscent of the ooze that they'd been put through, but whether it extended across the castle was a different issue altogether.

"Like I would know," she stated, sights lowered slightly. "We were too busy fighting the Shadow to have noticed. The boss room was closed off from the outside world, for one. And I doubt Chase nor I would receive a message mid-fight."

What was even the point of such a flood? A system event like that-- for dramatics? A theme? Or was it meant to be something greater in the grand scheme of Aincrad's lore?

Back to the matter of the hour; the rationale behind their meetup. NIGHT nodded to ChaseR as he glanced around for confirmation. "I don't see a reason to keep the information from the public," she said, to her guildmate's revelation about brokers. Them and the adventurers of Aincrad; they were working as a unit, a network, with each player an individual part of the larger whole, striving to achieve one shared goal. Were they not?

The player waved a hand, dismissing any disagreements that might've been shot her way. "If you're keen on it, I won't tell." After all, keeping things secret did also have its usefulness, one way or another.

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He glanced to ChaseR warily. "This is a safezone, sure," he agreed, "but I don't think that's true of every district in the city." Alkor gestured toward where the guards were patrolling out of the market, to different wards of the city that they hadn't gone yet. "What I'm saying is," he turned his gaze toward NIGHT, "I think this city is Floor 26." He let the implication sink in, almost like it was beyond any of their ability to comprehend, and yet suddenly it wasn't as insane as it sounded. It made perfect sense, but it also flew in the face of everything that they'd known up to this point. It meant that the game had changed, drastically, and they had new rules to get used it. One thing Chase said didn't sit well with Alkor, however.

"If you think Kayaba wants us to get out of here, you're giving him a lot more credit than he's due. The guy trapped us in a world where he gets to play god. He didn't do it because he wanted to help us. It was amusement. Whether we get out of this or not, he's already got what he wanted." It was easy to associate other people with humanity, because most people were capable of empathy. Those with god complexes, the socially and morally bankrupt, the ones who say other humans as playthings- such things didn't apply to them. He didn't want Chase to make the mistake of falsely assuming good intentions where none existed, because Aincrad was too unforgiving for that. 

Of course, the blue player was free to draw his own conclusions about that.

Alkor pointed now toward the framework where the outside of town was generated, fields and expansive suburban growth. At a glance, one might simply assume that it was navigable, but still, the city was massive to a point where a Player might believe that it hadn't ended when they were walking toward the false scenery. It was just a hunch, but Alkor thought it looked a great deal like an invisible barrier, a point at which they could go no further but the game generated architecture to keep the thematic background intact. Full immersion within the world of Aincrad. "We should check it out," he agreed, "because I'm willing to bet that we can't go beyond a certain point, even if it looks like we can from here." He'd noticed it at first when he interacted with some of the poorer refugees, albeit only loosely.

"I think the setting is an Imperial City, in the wake of a great war with a foreign kingdom," he added. "There were some refugees in another part of the town. People who are treated like lower class citizens, who aren't allowed to travel to certain areas. If we're going to figure things out, I think that learning more about that might give us a frame of reference." Alkor hesitated for a moment.

"Also, I wouldn't mind a ride on an airship." That part was a bit less serious than the rest of his thoughts, but no less important to him. They all had to be wondering about it, right? Maybe the skies of this city would give them a bird's eye view, and a better look at their new surroundings.

With those things settled, they were in agreement. "Okay," he said. "Let's get looking."

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A lot had been said and right now, Chase wasn't sure what to add to it or say for himself. If Kayaba wanted them dead, he would have done so a while now, especially considering the demonstration of power at the start of the game. The boy had his doubts about him sitting somewhere up there, playing God and watching everyone suffer to his sick enjoyment. But he wasn't sure what Kayaba really was doing, where he was, what he was and if he was doing something to them, or with them.

Chase DBP Silent Unsure.png"Nothing either of us knew about a storm, we were locked in the boss room when we were fighting.", he confirmed with NIGHT echoing the statement, remaining quiet afterwards. "Let's just give everything a look and see what we make of the floor.", he sighed, stuffing both hands in his pockets and looking down at the ground. All the questions racing through the back of his mind for all this time, he was now faced with once more, and there wasn't any way to answer them. He'd gone around making friends and looking for what little sense he could make when it came to Kayaba, but nothing to say right here. Just a sigh and disappointment before he looked over to the other two. Maybe leading the way wouldn't get them anywhere, especially when he hated the way everybody else around kept looking at him and even froze in place every here and there because of it. "... Anyone wanna lead?"

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"That's on the other side of town," NIGHT rebuked. With only a few of those luxurious vehicles hanging out in the sky, no doubt that whatever class of people were likened to make the clouds their home had to be wealthy enough to afford the fuel for such living arrangements. She'd pulled open her map once again, eager to right herself with the roads through town; out of all the other settlements, this was the one she should've been the most at ease with. And for all of their discussions, neither of the men had made a move.

So NIGHT pulled ahead, down one avenue she was more familiar with. Boutiques, shop houses, bakeries and ateliers soon had their entrances shuttered, the further down the path they'd traveled. Roads decorated with foliage, flags and flyers were quick to peter out in numbers at the sudden bends and crossroads of their excursion, the closer they got towards the refugee zone. So too did the number of citizens dwindle, the ones wearing garb too gaudy for NIGHT to have preferred noticing, instead being replaced by simple vests and buttoned shirts.

And then the latter began to dwindle.

They'd passed the structure that NIGHT could only assume defined the walls of the city. Yet, where there should've been solid resistance, an entirely different subdivision of town was open for them to explore. Not the farmlands that Alkor had been expecting, however; those were still far, far on the horizon.

Only simple cloths remained of what people were walking around the muddied streets, unmaintained; shingles were broken and falling apart upon rooftops that hung low, and the once neatly cobbled trail was starting to grow bumps, eager to trip passer-bys uncareful. Black mold and grime was apparent in between the stone tiles, and ditches held deep puddles of brown, down convex curves on the road.

The faint smell of something foul was stark, apparent. NIGHT made a note to bug her neighbour about a mask the next time she passed by his store.

How would a proper exit past the city look like? That was NIGHT's first question as she stumbled around the slums, uncertain of what to look out for -- and ideally, she would've liked to find it fast, spending little to no time in the vicinity of this dreadful, unkempt place. But after passing a few quarters, she wasn't able to find anything that resembled an out of their settlement. Hell, looking down several alleys which she figured might've lead to an escape of some sorts only netted her the definition of a dead end. The city's lesser class wasted away in these conditions, hogging the spaces in between broken homes with no trace of hope left in their sullen eyes.

NIGHT began to think there wasn't a way to leave, either, watching their sorry state. With a sigh, she turned to her companions, frowning, thinking. A tuck of an arm, and two fingers to her temples.

"Anyone else want to give this a shot...?"

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