Progressive Story about the "Day of Beginnings" of that man who no one knows.
"So this is Aincrad, huh?"
An endless expanse of blue sky, dotted with white clouds stretched before him. Underfoot, a field of bright green grass. As a gentle breeze caressed his cheeks, he gazed out at the time-worn town before him, listening to the click of the cobblestones as he walked.
Though he knew all of this was a mere facsimile, nothing more than digital data being sent to his brain, he still could not believe how close to reality this game came.
This truly was the cutting edge of science and technology.
...Though, it was just a simulation.
Everything was much too fake.
There should be the stench of vomit, sewage, and excrement in the air; roads strewn with garbage and filth; buildings covered with graffiti; people always fighting in the streets; and occasionally, people screaming in fear or anger.
He didn‘t feel a single sliver of homesickness for the place he grew up in, but until he turned 15, he lived in a town that was always like that.
And this "Town of Beginnings" didn't have an ounce of reality to it.
It had a kind of forced immaculateness stemming from the mind of whoever designed it. In other words...it was filled with lies.
Vassago Cassals, A.K.A. PoH, was an assassin belonging to an illegal organization.
The heads of the organization had determined that SAO, having been transformed into a Death Game, presented the perfect opportunity to achieve that which they could not in the real world. And it was at their behest that he was sent here into this virtual world.
But as a button man, he never thought this would be a simple job.
"...Must be nice, up there in their ivory tower, getting us to do all their dirty work.“
Then he wondered what would happen next.
He tried to read up on SAO as much as he could for the dive, but there were still plenty of things he didn't know about the game. Quite some time has passed since that crazy designer Kayaba caused this whole commotion, and certainly things have taken a turn since then.
And if that's the case, first he needed to do some recon...and check out the lay of the land.
"Hey, you over there, are you alright?"
PoH found himself clearly being called out to.
Turning his gaze toward the source of the voice, he locked eyes with a pair of men.
"...We're here to collect a quest reward for some Cor. These kinds of quests are pretty standard, straightforward monster-killing affairs. In certain, designated areas, low-level monsters will appear, and simply defeating them will clear the quest."
So explained the swordsman, tall in stature, ambling through the grassy plain.
"There are all sorts of quests to take on, but doing these at the beginning is an easy way to progress."
The swordsman looked to be about 20 years old. He wore a cheerful expression, stood straight and tall, and appeared to be openhearted. This was the man who had first called out to PoH.
His player name read "Castor".
"There's no problem going it alone, but typically you should form a party for the best results. I mean, you get more rewards the more monsters you defeat."
The smaller man with him continued on without a trace of affability.
From his looks, he appeared to be about three or four years younger than his partner. He wore light equipment, and his build looked to be one made for recon.
His player name read "Pollux".
"Ah, where are our manners? I'm Castor. This is Pollux."
"Ah, the twins from Greek mythology. Does that mean the two of you are brothers?"
"We may not share blood, but we're close enough to be brothers. We've been together for ages. Not bad for player names, right? People know we're a unit right off the bat.“
"...Hey, don't go blabbin' all that to someone we just met. You're embarrassing me."
"What? You're the one who came up with our names!"
"I told you, it's embarrassing!“
Pollux pouted as the words passed his lips, turning his head to the side.
"Sorry, he can be a little crabby. So, you're "PoH"... Do you read that like 'Pooh'? That's a pretty cute name."
"This name was given to me by my parents, I'll have you know,"
PoH said as a smile formed on his face. A calculated countenance that would make him appear friendly.
"...Still, offering to form a party and help me with questing is really a kind gesture. I mean, I appreciate it, but what benefit would it be to you two to form a party with a newbie like me?"
PoH had his suspicions from the beginning that these two might be up to something, but that notion was quickly dispelled. The reason for that was despite these two having left the town's "Anti-Criminal Code Effect Area"—entering an area where players could kill each other—they didn't seem to be on guard in the slightest.
They didn't even seem to consider the possibility that PoH might turn against them or try to book it. If they were looking to ensnare him in some kind of trap, there's no way they'd be this at ease.
"Well, we called out to you 'cause you looked like you were having some trouble..."
So answered Castor.
"I guess you could say it was not simply out of kindness. Hey PoH, what do you think of the 'Town of Beginnings’?”
"What do I think of it?"
PoH's honest impression was that it reeked of lies, but he figured that wasn't what they were asking.
He thought for a moment before answering.
Castor nodded as if PoH's answer had been just what he'd been looking for.
"The town's full of players who refuse to leave for fear of being killed. Then there's a scattering of players who've progressed in the game, mostly beta testers. But no matter how many of them there are, there's no way we'll clear this game if we just rely on them to do it. The rest of us have to step up eventually."
"Huh? You mean that you're out here gathering players together and aiming to clear this game?"
"Well, I’m not cut out to be a leader or anything, but I still think that it would be best if everyone could band together and try to clear the game. But first, we've got to get the players stronger. Which means getting their confidence back and doing away with this feeling of resignation that seems to have infected them like a plague."
"I honestly think it's none of our business, but whatever," muttered Pollux.
"You just don't get it Castor. Humans by and large aren't optimists. Sometimes they just want to be left alone."
"That might be true...but nothing's going to get done if we just sit here waiting around. The more people who actively play the game, the more Clearers there will be. Even if it's just a small number of players who make it that far, we'll still have a better chance of beating this game."
"So, does that mean you think I've got what it takes?"
"Yep. I mean, if you're out here looking like you're having a hard time, that means you've got the will to go out there and do things for yourself, right? And that’s the benefit of us helping you. Alright, we're coming up on our destination."
To be continued…
As their physical appearances would suggest, they each had specific roles, with Pollux scouting for enemies and Castor handling physical combat.
Castor was especially adept in battle, having just taken down several insect-type monsters on his own with ease.
"...Stealing the spotlight again, are we? I'd like it if I could get in on the action too every now and then."
"Just hold on a bit longer. I'll give you the OK when the time is right. Besides, wouldn't it be safer to raise your level and stats a little first? Your life is on the line here, after all."
"I-I know that...! But the same goes for you, right?"
"I'm strong, so it's fine. I'm the perfect guy for the job."
As if silenced by Castor's smug grin, Pollux begrudgingly relented.
Players who don't participate in actual combat obviously can't gain experience. But when it came to party quests, completion bonus EXP was distributed to all members, so it was not as if direct combat was the only way to raise one's level.
Thanks to this system, PoH, who had merely been watching Castor’s efforts, could also reap the benefits of battle.
"...I've got nothing to offer you guys."
"That's fine. I mean, if you could continue to help us out, that'd be great, but you're more than welcome to just keep doing whatever you want. Whether it's honing your combat skills or learning to craft, if you can find something you enjoy doing, it'll help motivate you to keep surviving. Like I said before, if we can get more people like that out there, I really think we might be able to bring about some change."
...Talk about being optimistic.
Although feeling rather cynical about the whole thing, PoH decided to shrug off his doubts.
He had come to this world for his "work"—other affairs didn't concern him.
"...There’s another heading this way from the forest!"
Pollux announced, his voice quivering from anxiety.
Not a moment later, a plant-type monster entered Castor and PoH's field of vision as well.
"...A Little Nepenthes? Seems to be our target for the quest, but it's my first time seeing one,"
Castor uttered to himself, drawing his sword for battle.
"Hey, let me handle this one. There are plenty of rewards and monster intel to go around. It's not like you have anything to lose sitting by this one out."
"Then you could just let me—"
"You two just wait here."
"Ugh, again...? There's only one monster. Even I could beat this thing."
"Someone needs to watch after PoH, remember? From what I can tell from its cursor's color, the enemy's level isn't that high. If it ends up having some tough special attack, I'll run back to join you."
Castor headed towards the enemy, leaving an exasperated Pollux behind.
The Little Nepenthes was about the size of a human child. Its body was somewhat long, akin to the shape of a vase, with a large mouth at the top. Even further above, at the top of what could be called its head, sat a round, decorative bud. With countless roots in the place of legs, it could move around nimbly, though not fast enough to be considered a threat.
So, its main means of attack are its arms made of ivy. For the moment, it seemed like Castor was making quick work of the foe.
Pollux watched the battle from a distance, a tinge of resentment written on his face.
PoH thought to himself for a while before speaking up.
"Hey, would you happen to be the reason why Castor got caught up in this game?“
As if being shot in the chest, Pollux looked over in shock.
"Wh-What...?! Why do you think—"
"Well, it's not like I have any real evidence to go off of. It just seems like you two were very close even in real life, but I just get the sense that you have this awkward sense of guilt, while he appears to show excessive concern towards you. Or am I wrong?"
Apparently executing its unique special attack, the Little Nepenthes spat out some light-green liquid from its large mouth. However, Castor dodged the attack effortlessly.
Looking back at his partner, Pollux began to open up, little by little.
"...He's an old childhood friend from the same neighborhood. Our moms were friends. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to call us brothers. He was always like a big brother to me, after all."
Castor was gifted since he was young, and now he was apparently enrolled at a famous university. Pollux, however, was a mere high school student—three years his junior—and, unable to fit in at school, had a habit of skipping classes.
The two had shared a love of video games, and it was this hobby that continued to connect them in the present day.
One day, having learned of the NerveGear and SAO, Pollux invited his closest gaming friend, Castor, to play. Castor had been in the middle of job hunting at the time, so he was reluctant to join. However, he was no match for Pollux's enthusiasm, and he ended up giving in and diving into the world of SAO.
And that was how the two of them had become entangled in the events of this death game.
"...He never blamed me, and never left my side. He's better at dealing with things than I am, plus his level is higher, so he could've partnered up with someone stronger or more reliable a long time ago.“
The ideal older brother—strong yet kind. So this is what the beautiful and unbreakable bond between brothers looks like.
PoH unconsciously started to press against the left side of his body, where his kidney had been removed.
That was his only meager connection to his older brother, born to another mother.
Though, his avatar in the virtual world had no internal organs nor any surgery scars to speak of.
"I know he's looking out for me, and it’s not that I don’t appreciate it. But...if things go on like this, I'll never be able to make it up to him. I just know this sense of inferiority will keep hanging over me. And if it's always going to be like this, then he might as well..."
He might as well go ahead and abandon me. Pollux's voice could barely be heard as he struggled to mutter these words.
"So, basically, you don't want to become complacent towards your current situation, huh?"
"W-Well yeah, of course not..."
"Then let me give you a piece of advice. Something that will help you and Castor become equals so you can lose that inferiority complex."
Pollux had a complicated look on his face. He found himself half-suspicious, yet half-curious at the proposal.
"Listen carefully. Those Little Nepenthes actually have a major weakness. If you can work up the courage to strike at its weak point, you can take it down in a single blow. If you do that, you’ll be able to take that first step in becoming equals, right?"
"A-A weakness? Really? H-How do you even know about—"
"How do I know about stuff like this? ...The truth is, I was actually a beta tester."
"I was keeping quiet about it because I didn't want to stand out or be hassled for it...but you guys have shown me nothing but kindness. So, see it as me returning the favor. What do you say? You wanna hear the rest?"
Staring silently at PoH, Pollux nodded his head.
To be continued…
A bloodcurdling scream tore through the air, and just like that, it was quiet again.
"...So, is it over?"
PoH, who'd left the safe area all by himself, slowly lifted his head up and began walking, seemingly without a care.
Moments ago, he had told two lies to Pollux.
The first lie was that PoH had not been a beta tester.
Or, rather, he at least had knowledge of the game befitting a beta tester. Of the information his organization had gathered about SAO beforehand, most of it had come from beta testers. His knowledge of Little Nepentheses came from that very source.
The second lie was when he told Pollux that he knew of Little Nepentheses' weak points.
But that would mean, what he had told Pollux was in fact—
"Wow. Seems we managed to scrape by on the skin of our teeth."
Before PoH stood a tall swordsman, utterly spent from the battle moments ago.
Castor slowly raised his head. His expression was that of utter exhaustion.
The man had been a portrait of unwavering confidence just moments before, but that had completely vanished at this point.
"Pollux came rushing in and split that thing's bud clean in half. But then...a bunch of its buddies surrounded us...and I couldn't manage to save him..."
Yes, Little Nepentheses' buds can produce a kind of smoke when damaged, calling its brethren to come to its aid. It wasn't its weakness at all; it was, if anything, a trap.
"I'm sorry... I couldn't do anything to help either..."
said PoH, trying his hardest to sound mournful.
"As I watched you fight, I felt like things were coming to a head... So I steeled my courage, let out a yell, and jumped in head first. But I never wanted it to go like this... I never wanted it to come to suicide..."
"Well, what do you think? From what I heard, I think his not wanting to fight with you was more than the answer I'm looking for."
"What?! No, that's not—"
Then, as if he'd just been struck by a boss monster, Castor winced toward the ground.
He tried to prop himself up with his sword, but his exhaustion overcame him, and he fell to his knees.
"I...I just wanted to keep him out of harm's way, but by doing so, was I actually helping...or hurting him? Is that why he tried to get me involved...? Because he wanted to die alongside me? I...wanted to help get him back to the real world... That's all I wanted. And now I can only ask myself...what was this all for?"
As Castor continued to wallow in sorrow, muttering to himself, PoH suddenly became very cold, unfeeling.
He picked Pollux's sword up from the ground and casually stabbed Castor through a gap in his armor.
Castor's HP dropped to 0.
Without fully understanding what had just happened, Castor was enveloped by the game's death animation and faded from existence. He spilled no blood and left no corpse. His murderer felt none of the weight such a sin should carry, and Castor's life simply extinguished without fanfare.
"I'd pity you, but your life was already worthless to begin with. I'd say, 'nice knowing you,' but I really don't think I can spare the time."
A sigh of desperation escaped PoH's lips as he spoke the words.
"If you want to change the world, then you can't get all bent outta shape over a little setback like this. Why didn't you just get back up on your feet like a man? A sacrifice isn't a sacrifice if you don't try to make something of it, moron!"
There had been so many places for Castor to pick up on PoH's treachery: what had transpired between him and Pollux? How did he know about the Little Nepentheses' bud?
It should not have been difficult to figure out that the one who had incited Pollux to act was the very one toward which Caster should have taken revenge on. But hindsight is 20/20...
"That you would believe me, without any hesitation, over a friend you'd known for years! Ha! In my heart I feel nothing but chagrin for your unbounding weakness. If you had actually cared about him, if you had actually been there for him, there's no way I'd have been able to spin the kind of yarn I did."
In the end, all their lofty ideals and brotherhood were nothing but a sham that crumbled into so much dust.
PoH thought to himself that, even though he'd been the one who'd guided them toward this fate, and even though his plan had worked flawlessly, there was still one thing he wasn't satisfied with.
"If the world is a forgery, that means the human heart is filled with nothing but lies...or rather, that in order for one to bear any hint of truth, layers upon layers of lies need to be peeled back first."
Regardless, PoH was wasting time that could be better spent working toward his goal.
What am I doing here, wasting my time like this?
His brows knitted, and his lips curled into a self-deriding snarl.
There's things I still need to do. That's the reason I'm here to begin with.
But, what is it that I want to do?
It's true that I did find Castor and Pollux interesting. And while they ultimately disappointed, it was invigorating watching them die a needless death like my countrymen, like my brother, like...my father.
―What is this feeling I feel...? Is it the urge to kill again?
"...Next time, I'll try for more than just two."
Without realizing it, the ends of his mouth began to curl upwards.
I'll lead a gaggle of them to the slaughter, just like I led those two.
And let's try to make as many of them Japanese players as we can, yeah? Heh heh heh...
In a world where death is always by our side, people will surely be more than willing to bare their souls and expose their own lies for what they are.
Sheer joy began to wash over his whole body, but PoH felt one question still nagging at him. And that was―
If...if among that filth I were to encounter one with an unbending spirit, one whom I could not defile...what would I do then?
And while he wanted to believe there was no way such a thing could come to pass, he found himself being guided toward the true answer, almost effortlessly.
―Should I meet that person, I will love them with all my might.
Yes, love them with utter devotion. I'll love them so violently, there won't be anything left of them.
This is a fire in my heart that will transcend time, the universe, even death and rebirth.
I am sure that my spirit will forever be tethered in unending fascination to that which is "real."
Oh yeah, Castor said something like that, didn't he?
"...Just keep doing whatever you want." "Whether it's honing your combat skills or learning to craft, if you can find something you enjoy doing, it'll help motivate you to keep surviving."
"...He wasn't anything special, but I guess a dead clock's right twice a day."
The menu read today's date as November 21, 2022.
I've found what I want to do. Starting today, the Prince of Hell will reside in a forest of delights.
PoH picked up anything worth taking that his two victims had left behind, humming to himself all the while.