She didn’t even have time to bring her menu down and select a weapon. The day had seemed so tranquil she hadn’t bothered to equip her kopis blade. As soon as she registered the mass of skeletal dogs scrambling towards her position, she turned on her heel and ran for the nearest safe zone, nearly four klicks to the east.
When she had first logged into the beta of Sword Art Online, Aurora had been delighted by the muted physicality. She could run, kick, swing her sword, and jump around endlessly without getting tired. She never felt her muscles burn, and she was free of the pain that dogged her in real life when she tried to run on her bad ankle. No player had unlimited speed and strength; one still had to put in the time to level up these abilities. However, Aurora had paid her dues in lower and mid-level dungeons. She was fast, and she was strong. Starting out fresh during the launch of the official game, Aurora hadn’t been worried about reaching her previous level from the beta.
After the game creator, Akihiko Kayaba, revealed to the players that they were trapped in SAO until someone cleared the game, Aurora stayed calm. She wasn’t afraid of death. In real life, she knew her body could feel pain and illness. Here, she was free of all of that. In Aincrad, she never even ran out of breath.
Aurora knew it must be psychological, that her brain’s signals must be interfering with the game’s buffer against pain and discomfort. She’d seen it happen to a few players, especially those who were near death. Many of them lost control entirely and screamed in pain. Apparently once you know the game is real, Aurora thought grimly, the pain is real too. Now she knew those players hadn’t been imagining it.
Her breath burned like fire in her lungs. She couldn’t get enough air; she felt like she was only exhaling. Her booted feet thumped along the ground and her arms pumped back and forth as she put on an extra burst of speed.
The skeletal dogs howled behind her. She chanced a glance over her shoulder to discern their level. Their cursors were red, showing that they had locked on to her as an enemy. The level of the nearest one was 60.
Sixty? How could such a high-level monster spawn outside of a dungeon? Aurora redoubled her efforts to escape. She had defeated level 60 monsters in higher level dungeons, but always as a part of a raiding team, never alone. If even one of these things caught up to her, she’d be dead.
Dying in Aincrad meant dying in real life too.
Aurora was not afraid of death, but she did not choose to welcome it. Not today.
When the first fang closed around her shoulder, she dropped and rolled before the dog could latch on. Coming up to a knee she tried to open her menu to equip her sword, but two more of the skeletal dogs were already upon her. With unearthly shrieks, the hounds began tearing at her. Aurora, already on her knees, was buffeted even further into the ground as more fangs tore at her arms, which she had thrown up to protect her face.
Aurora noticed her HP dropping into the yellow zone. Although she knew she was in no real pain, each lash of the skeletal dogs’ fangs felt like a razor sharp knife. In desperation, she brought one arm back as though she were holding her sword, and the motion activated the system’s sword skill. Her whole arm glowed bright green and she thrust it forward into the snarling face of the dog creature before her.
She was rewarded by another shriek, and the HP of the dog dropped a little. Aurora struggled against the weight of her attackers to bring one foot up so that she was kneeling on one knee. With a great cry she brought her glowing arm up into an uppercut that caught one of the dogs squarely in the jaw. Using the space she had just created, Aurora rolled out from under the other dogs and leapt to her feet. Snapping jaws reached just inches from her face as she darted backwards, trying to find space enough to equip her weapon. When another dog hammered her from the right side, she shrieked in frustration. Her HP dropped to red. Aurora’s vision began to dim and blur. The creatures pummeled her on both sides, attempting to tear her apart.
“HEADS UP!” A voice rang through Aurora’s haze and she looked up just us one of the dogs cuffed her in the face, tearing a wide, pixelated gash in her check. Angrily, she lashed out again with her arm, and again she activated a sword skill without the actual weapon. Her glowing fist plunged straight through the face of the skeleton hound, cracking digital bone as it went, and she reached through to grab the spine and squeeze. The dog howled angrily, bones rattling, but Aurora held on. Her HP continued to drop, but still she held on. Her vision blurred, and strength left her legs. She sagged onto her knees, but still she held on until the bones ceased vibrating and the creature exploded in a shower of octagonal sparks.
Aurora squeezed her eye shut, wondering what it would be like to die. Maybe she would wake up in her own bed, warm, safe, happy, home. Maybe Kayaba was telling the truth and she really was about to die.
A few moments passed, and all Aurora could really make out was her own HP gauge. It was red, but it wasn’t falling anymore. Aurora inhaled, and tried to move. She was lying on the grass of a meadow, and she could hear fighting in her vicinity. The dogs that she had just been batting were apparently fighting someone else. Aurora rolled over, still groggy, and tried to see what was happening.
A man was fighting. He must have hit each skeletal dog in order to draw them away from Aurora. His long brown hair whipped around her as he swung a tremendously heavy-looking axe to and fro. Aurora wasn’t in a party with the stranger, so she couldn’t see his HP gauge, but he must have been taking damage. Aurora blinked and coughed and stood up, shaking her head to clear it. She brought up her menu and selected a precious healing crystal, using it to bring her HP back up to green. Then she equipped her kopis, a dangerously curved short-bladed sword, and a shield. Drawing digital air into her lungs, she charged into the fray, determined to slay as many skeletal dogs as possible.
The stranger said nothing to Aurora as she jumped into the fray. The man’s face was grim as he buried his axe into the head of the nearest creature, which burst into octagonal droplets of light. Aurora flipped her sword so it lay across her forearm and charged at the enemy, shield first. She turned her shield flat and swiped the dog across its eerie face and followed up with a backhanded slash from her kopis. Now that she was armed and healed, she felt more in control. She eyes her targets cooly, clinically, judging the distances and angles in order to make the perfect strike.
The fight lasted longer than any boss fight Aurora had ever encountered. She and the stranger did not speak, although Aurora had tried once or twice to yell out, worried that the man might be losing HP too quickly. He was absorbing hits like a tank and Aurora wanted to switch to save him some of the beating. However, the man did not respond and there was no way to safely approach him as he swung his long-handled axe.
Aurora managed to avoid taking too much damage after her initial beating. Being a primarily solo player, she had above average defensive skills and her shield could be used as both a weapon and a form of protection. When the last dog vanished in a blinding flash of pixelated droplets, Aurora watched as the man who saved her nearly fell to his knees, holding himself up only by the handle of his axe, which he had buried into the ground on his last strike.
Aurora hurried over, selecting a second healing crystal from her inventory, and offered it to the man, who was sweaty and pale. He waved his hand to refuse it, and Aurora just stood by and watched him. He sagged for a moment longer, then sat with a thump, still holding on to the handle of his axe. Aurora pulled down her menu and replaced her shield, but held on to her sword.
“I don’t know where those dogs came from,” She said nervously, “Don’t want to let my guard down just yet.” She pointed her sword at the ground and bowed politely. “Thank you for...saving me, I guess.”
“No problem,” the dark-haired man responded. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I can stand up just yet.”
“It’s okay,” Aurora said quickly. “I’m Aurora”
“Nice to meet you.”
There was another silence, quite awkward, while Aurora debated whether or not Rochester wanted to be left alone. She felt it might be poor manners to simply walk away from someone who had just saved her life.
Apparently Rochester had no such compunctions. He waved his hand airily in the direction of the town. “Go on ahead.” He said quietly. “You don’t have to wait on me. I’ll be fine in a minute.” Aurora didn’t move.
“No, it’s okay. I just...I’ll sit with you a bit,” She said, “Don’t want another bunch of monsters to come by.”
Aurora seated herself gently on the grass, out of reach of Rochester’s dangerous-looking axe. The man just looked at her for a few moments.
“How did you drag all those dogs from the dungeon out here?” He asked, a note of accusation in his voice. Aurora’s hackles went up, slightly.
“I didn’t! I was just minding my own business when they locked onto me. Someone must have taunted them enough to draw them out. Monsters of that level don’t usually make it to the open meadows, even on upper floors.”
“Who would do that?” Rochester wondered. “You should report it to your guild.”
“I don’t have a guild.” Aurora replied sheepishly.
“What? You’re all the way up on floor twenty with no guild? You fought up here on your own?”
“I joined a few raiding parties for the larger bosses. I prefer fighting solo.”
“Fighting solo has serious drawbacks.” Rochester said seriously, like a teacher scolding a student. "It's really not the way the game is supposed to be played. It's too dangerous."
Aurora smiled ruefully. “I guess. I could have died today.”
“You could have.” Rochester said thoughtfully. He looked at Aurora again, eyes bright and keen. “What was it like?”
“What was what like?”
“Knowing you were about to die?”
Aurora sucked in her breath, then let it out again. Who would ask such a personal question to someone they just met? But Rochester was waiting expectantly.
“Uh.....I just felt….angry. I felt angry.”
“Yes. Angry that some madman decided to drop us in this social experiment to watch us die off one by one. I hate that someone I don’t know has control over my life.”
“Ah, you mean Akihiko Kayaba?”
“But he doesn’t really have control over your life, you know.” Rochester said, looking over the horizon thoughtfully. “You are the only one who has control over your life.”
“It doesn’t feel like it.” Aurora said, surprising herself with the surge of emotion she felt. “It feels like I’m an experiment. Like I don’t matter at all.”
Virtual tears pricked at the corners of Aurora’s eyes. Rochester noticed, and tutted softly. He scooted over to her and took her sword hand gently in his own.
“You matter,” He said. “That’s why I saved you. That’s why people all over Aincrad fight. They fight to get free, yes, but also to save each other. Because everyone in this game matters.”
He clutched her hand tighter. “In this hand, you have everything you need to survive. In this hand, you have your life, and the lives of others. In this hand, you hold your freedom.”
Aurora stared at him, astonished at his speech. She smiled a little sadly at him. He had a kind face. He smiled back at her. She steeled herself.
“Would you…” She stammered, “Would you like to party up with me for a little while? It might be nice to fight with someone for a change.”
Rochester seemed to consider it, then nodded. “I suppose that might suit my purpose even better than what I had planned.”
Aurora drew down her menu and sent the party request. Rochester agreed to the request on his own menu and a smaller HP bar appeared underneath Aurora’s own. She squinted her eyes to read it.
“Heathcliff?” She asked, “You told me your name was Rochester.”
Rochester smiled warmly as he stood up and offered Aurora a hand. “I think Heathcliff might sound too severe, but it’s too late to change it now, right?” he chuckled, as though laughing at himself. “Want to get something to eat? I’ve never been to that town,” he said.
Aurora nodded, but felt confused. “How is it you’ve never been to that town? That's where the gate is."
“I’ve been laying low,” Rochester confided as they started down the hill. The sun was beginning to set and the meadow was bathed in golden light. “But I realized that’s not as much fun as playing for myself. Today’s my first day out, really.”
The tall, mild-looking man and the young girl continued down the hill. Aurora stored her sword back in her inventory, looking over at Rochester. He seemed like a safe person to be around.