Aincrad 22nd floor, October 2024
On a certain evening, a few days after the newly married life of Asuna and I begun, in the log house inside the deep forests on Aincrad’s 22nd floor.
While talking about places visited during the day or eaten dishes, on the sofa which was placed in front of the fireplace, Asuna suddenly said what she was thinking aloud.
“Hey, Kirito-kun. I think, maybe that person wasn’t an NPC but a player……”
Not understanding her sudden topic, my mouth was left slightly opened.
While sitting side by side on the sofa, her lips continued to sip from her tea cup.
“Well, that shop’s master, I naturally believed he was an NPC without a doubt…… But today, somehow, while I was watching his face, I suddenly felt that that person is actually a player.”
The subject of our conversation was a restaurant. It was located deep within the back of the back and even further back of the lower part of the 50th floor’s main block town «Algade». If we were to go there without a map, not just arriving at the destination, coming back out would be difficult. Actually «restaurant» was not an appropriate word to describe it, «Food Shop» would be more suitable. Its name was «Algade House».
The building looked as if it would collapse if it was blown by a somewhat strong wind. There was a sign curtain hung at the sliding door entrance. The interior had a stone floor —— or rather a bare concrete floor, there were two four-seat-tables and another four seats at the counter. All the furniture had a strong presence of cheapness, and it wasn’t like they were specially ordered to make them cheap either.
In the menu, there were only three entries. «Algade Soba», «Algade Grilled» and «Algade Boiled», none of them had any motivation behind their naming. They were, in the menu order, a ramen which didn’t look like a ramen, an okonomiyaki which didn’t look like an okonomiyaki, and last one, I still don’t have any idea what it is supposed to be.
The order was then cooked by the same shopkeeper. While Asuna was saying «that shop’s master», My mind imagined the short master with a white smock and a white toque, whose round face of unknown age was hidden behind the long forelock, then I finally replied,
“……P..Player? ……but that person didn’t say anything……”
“At least he did say ‘Welcome’ and ‘Thank you’.”
“Those are normal for NPC though. ……actually if you target him with the cursor……”
Saying up to this point, I noticed something.
There is a definite distinction between a player and an NPC, focusing the gaze on the target will bring up the «Color Cursor». Although both types would appear in green, for an NPC, under the HP bar will be clearly displayed [NPC]. But this distinction method wouldn’t work inside the shop, as it was classified as inside a building, due to the consideration of the system. It is probably impossible to eat quietly if the cursor kept appearing whenever someone is seen, so even if I focus my gaze on the store’s master, the cursor wouldn’t appear.
But, normally nobody cares about determining an NPC, because they are so obvious with just a glance. Unlike flesh and blood humans operating through the NerveGear, system controlled NPCs have unique characteristics. Being imprisoned inside SAO for two years, it was a no-brainer to know if other people are a player or an NPC without even thinking —— while I thought about that, my brain re-checked the master of Algade House’s gloomy standing pose.
Then, my eyes opened wide in amazement.
“……This is bad, somehow I can’t be sure.”
Asuna smiled happily for some reason.
Her smile, which hasn’t changed since we first met, shot through my heart, whenever this happens, I always stretch my hand out dizzily to reach her. But this time, the face of the master that had been floating in my brain prevented my action.
I scratched my head to push that unpleasant image out of my mind.
“No, but is it even possible that someone can’t be identified whether they are a player or an NPC? I’m sure there must be a simple way to check it……”
“How about checking his reaction after being attacked? But once we use various reckless methods and he turns out to be a player, we won’t be able to go back to that shop anymore. ……Well, at this point, I don’t think I want to go back there anyway.”
“No, I’m bothered, really bothered.”
Asuna quickly shook her head and sighed.
“……Kirito-kun, what on earth do you like about that shop? It’s been half a year since you brought me there the first time, I really don’t understand……”
“About that, I don’t know the reason myself. Unfriendly atmosphere, bad food…… but occasionally I can’t resist the urge to try that mystery ramen again.”
“That was not ramen though, ……Well, why not just ask? Are you an NPC or a player, like that”
Already having considered Asuna’s idea several seconds ago, I shook my head.
“Nope, it won’t work. That shopkeeper’s unfriendliness is like ten Heathcliffs together. I’m absolutely certain the question will be ignored. Well, that place was also a good place too.
“R..Really, ……just leave it as a mystery then. I’m sorry for starting the weird topic, Do you want more cookies?”
After saying that, Asuna stood up, but I quickly grabbed her left hand and pulled her back.
“……No, I can’t leave it.”
“Feeling anxious over and over like this will become unbearable, I can’t go back to the front lines until I know whether the shopkeeper is human or NPC.”
Upon hearing that, ‘Don’t say something like that!’ was clearly showed in Asuna’s expression, but she sat down again without saying it out.
“……But, then what should we do? I don’t know any way to confirm it, and asking is also out of the question, right?”
“Nope, there is a way. In short, just seeing the cursor when that master is outside the shop is enough. For a player, he would surely need to go out to buy food ingredients, while NPC also have specific behaviors like cleaning the outside of the shop too.”
“………………Y..You don’t mean…”
Asuna made a stiff face and tried to walk away from the sofa again, but I grabbed both her shoulders and said,
“OK, tomorrow let’s go camp there at six in the morning. There is an empty passage across the street, it won’t raise any suspicion if we observe from there.”
“………………It’s cold, surely, very cold.”
“Yes, we need cold resistant equipment! I’m sure we have enough for both of us in the storage, then the boxed lunch will be made using cold resistance boosting ingredients too. The preparation is now flawless, I’ll leave it to you Asuna!”
To my words that gushed out, Asuna made a very complex face then responded with ‘Oh~’. But enthusiasm seemed missing from her words for some reason.
While it was still dark, wearing thick fur cloaks, we entered our observation position on the pedestrian bridge across from the Algade House’s eaves.
Six hours later.
We were forced to retreat after realizing our prospect bore no fruit.
“……He didn’t come out at all, did he!”
At an open cafe along the main street, Asuna complained after quickly drinking hot milk and placing the empty cup back on the table.
“Even before that, the sign curtain was left out during the night, and there was no indication of the outside cleaning either. I’m very bothered!”
“…………Really sowwy about that.”
I first have to apologize on behalf of the shopkeeper.
Algade House’s level of lethargy is much higher than anticipated. The shopkeeper never came out to purchase stocks nor clean outside. The only change we observed was the sign plate on the sliding door, which was changed from [Closed] to [Open] at ten. Of course, just that action on its own wasn’t enough to determine if he is a player or an NPC.
“………….Hmm, but the food ingredients should eventually run out…… Then he surely has to go out to restock……”
After finishing my mumbling, Asuna replied with a sharp glance toward me,
“……Then, do you really want to wait for that to happen? If you think about it, that shop doesn’t even have any customers, how many days will it take for the ingredients to run out? I won’t be surprised even if it takes several weeks! I’m not going to do that for sure!”
I apologized again, then thought desperately.
Something—— there must be a way. A way to confirm whether he is a player or not, without him taking a single step out of the shop.
If we’re unable to check the person, how about the shop? Is there any way to determine if the shop is a player’s shop or an NPC’s shop? It would be clearly a player’s action if it stood out among the elegant buildings on the street of Salemburg. But this is Algade, the most chaotic town in Aincrad, there were plenty of similar shady shop once we enter the back streets.
——It was no good. Continuing being in the clearing group for two years in this Aincrad, accepting the alias «Black Swordsman», but unable to distinguish whether that person was a player or an NPC. It was such a laughing matter.
A smile of self-ridicule floated to my face, then —— An idea flashed out in my brain.
“T…… That’s it!”
In spite of Asuna’s skeptic glance toward me, I rattled on,
“If the ingredients won’t deplete, then we’ll deplete them ourselves! Listen, for NPC restaurants, the term out of stock doesn’t exist to begin with, the food just springs out from the kitchen. But a player’s shop is different, the shopkeeper has to purchase the stock or else food can’t be made. That means……”
At this point Asuna suddenly rose from the table and tried to escape with a dash.
But my focus on increasing Agility stat displayed its results, her hand was grabbed before she made any distance.
“——We just have to eat it! Anything from that shop’s menu!”
“Don’t wanna! What if it’s an NPC restaurant? An infinite amount of food will just come out, won’t it?”
“That’s that, then we’ll know he’s an NPC right? Let’s go now! The problem is —— Which one to pick from the menu. «Algade Soba», «Algade Grilled», or «Algade Boiled»…… ——Asuna, what do you like?”
Sub-leader of the guild Knights of the Blood, the rapier user whose title was «The Flash» shot her gaze towards me which would be able to pierce a small hole in the middle of my forehead after hearing my question——
After a short while, she sat back on the chair and said,
“«Boiled» is absolutely out, ……«Grilled» that sometimes contained strange things is also out.”
“Then «Soba» it is. Yeah, it is suitable for this challenge too, because it’s also what we ate the first time we went there.”
“…………That’s right, but didn’t we invite the guild leader as well back then?”
When I seriously tried to recall it, Asuna immediately shook her head.
“It was a joke. ——Then, when are we going to do it?”
I grinned while standing up, and said,
“Isn’t it great, we haven’t eaten lunch here.”
Several minutes later.
Asuna and I were standing in front of the food shop, which will soon be the battlefield of our one-sided duel.
“…………Here we go.”
After confirming with the nod from my partner —— My left hand pushed aside the dirtied sign curtain, while my right hand forced open the sliding door.
The usual greeting voice from inside the counter was by none other than the shopkeeper. I sat at the counter instead of my usual table. As soon as Asuna sat down beside me, I made an order.
“Two Algade Soba.”
The shopkeeper prepared the bowls without replying, two mysterious balls of noodle were tossed into the large pot. From these action, is was still not possible to confirm whether he was a player or not. After a while, the shopkeeper used the long chopsticks to move the eased up noodle to the bowls, hot water switching, which is required in the real world, seems unnecessary here. He placed a thinly sliced meat, a lump of boiled vegetable, and half a boiled egg, then poured the light colored soup into the bowl.
Two bowls had lined up on the counter, a sound effect rang out when I pulled out the soba from my storage.
Both of us took the chopsticks and said ‘Itadakimasu’ at the same time. It was the start of the first round of the battle.
In regards to Aincrad cuisine, the taste was recreated from the presets of basic taste data, however, with the addition of seasoning, one can customize the taste even further. For example, the Brown Stew, which is Asuna’s pride, was made by slightly mixing the spices set into the taste of ready-made sauce. In other word, with the aid of a player’s hand, the flavour of the dish could be strengthened, and in most cases, enriched the taste.
——But it would be quite a miraculous to say the «There is not even one taste» feeling from the Algade Soba was from the aid of the player hand. Even if the flavour of the soup had seasoning added, the strength of the taste was like it had been diluted to a different dimension, it was like a drawing which the background was firmly written but the subject didn’t exist.
Maybe what pulled me back to this shop was that missing flavour, for the moment one day that this dish will be «Completed», an ephemeral expectation like that —— But of course, I somehow knew that the moment would never come.
As I was deeply indulged in my thoughts, Asuna, whose face had an expression which could be read as ‘Why is this happening to me’ was beside me. We finished eating at the same time.
I returned empty bowls back to the counter —— then said,
“……Two Algade Soba, refill!”
There was a slight pause in the shopkeeper’s action, but it was probably was just my imagination. The round face of the man in his thirties to forties under the long forelock bore no expression at all, the shopkeeper threw two balls of noodles into the large pot.
From that point on, the endless battle of me and Asuna against the master begun.
Of course, no matter what was eaten in Aincrad, there won’t be anything entering the stomach in the body of the real world. But the taste reproduction engine tricks the brain, which lead to an unavoidable feeling of ‘full’.
To be honest, that feeling already came after the second bowl had emptied, but there was no path for me to retreat.
“……Two Algade Soba, refill”
This full feeling was only a hallucination, the soba was merely digital data. Which meant there was nothing preventing me from eating these forever.
Having fooled myself like that, I finished the third bowl and proceeded to the fourth bowl. There was also Asuna, whom I could always rely on in the big battle, she was at exactly the same pace as me.
——But immediately after she finished the soup from the fifth bowl,
“…………Kirito-kun, I’m sorry.”
her faint whisper echoed from the emptied bowl.
“I..can’t go any further, I’ll have to leave the rest to you…… The truth..you must..find..it……”
Her chestnut color hair fluttered, then «The Flash» collapsed on the counter.
Was what I wanted to scream, but doing that might allow the virtual stomach to reverse something back out, so I limited myself to a short ‘GJ’.
I lifted my face and glared at the shopkeeper,
“……One Algade Soba……refill”
I was also near my limit.
For Asuna’s sake, I can’t be defeated here. But while sipping from the sixth bowl of something which wasn’t ramen, I was unable to stop the fear which sprung out inside me.
——Maybe he’s really an NPC? After all we had done, the noodles and the soup still spring out without any pause. Did I challenge him to a fight in which we had no chance of winning?
——No, even if it’s the case, it isn’t the time to fall yet. For Asuna.
HP bar of my stomach was now in deep red, but the expression of shopkeeper was still unchanged. I slurped the noodle one by one, while thinking of a way to reverse the flow of the current battle situation.
If it was a real ramen shop, there would be pepper, fish meals, or onions at the counter. It was possible to eat the latter half deliciously by changing the flavour. But this shop had no such wonderful things. There was only one way, with «Algade Boiled» being an exception, it was possible to mix the other two orders together, but doing that would be the same as stopping oneself by stabbing. Why «Boiled»? I once accompanied Klein and we requested that, we both said ‘Give up’ just after two mouthfuls, it was menu of the legend.
——So is this the end?
Within my fading consciousness, I heard the reviving voice from a distant memory.
The face of Asuna, who was here eating Algade Soba with me at the beginning, said,
“Someday I want to make a soy sauce, otherwise this unpleasant feeling won’t ever disappear.”
My eyes fully opened, and my trembling hand moved to open our shared storage. Scrolling through the enormous item lists, finding the target item.
Once I grabbed what I was looking for, I tilted it over the bowl, a slightly dark liquid poured down and immediately caused the thin yellow color of the soup to change to brown. The drifting fragrance can’t be compared to anything else, the smell that is ingrained at the base of my memory was —— soy sauce. It was the result of Asuna’s long research, Aincrad’s ultimate seasoning that no one but her could make.
Placing the small bottle down, I held the bowl and sipped large amounts of noodles and soup.
“…………This is it.”
I murmured with a hoarse voice. It was this taste. The one I was looking for, the completed form of Algade Soba. It had arrived here and now.
If eating this, then no matter how many bowls —— No, maybe I can eat five more bowls, I still can fight!
————At that time.
The words I have never heard within this shop before echoed from overhead.
“…………Mister, that, taste it……can I?”
I raised my confused face, nodded and pushed the bowl to him.
The mystery master grabbed it up and ate the mouthful of noodles and soup together. He looked up for a while after placing the bowl back on the counter——
Soon after that, two lines of tears flowed from behind his long forelock.
“…………This is it. This taste… real world’s… my shop’s taste!”
————So you are a player after all!
————Then act more graciously!
Swallowing what I wanted to scream, I asked,
“…………Your shop, where is it located?”
“Hmm, It was at Ogikubo, I got sucked into NetGame so it went out of business. But once the game is cleared and I go back to the other side, I’m going to open a ramen shop again. With this ramen, also «Grilled» and «Boiled» will make the appearance too, come by all means.”
Tears still flowing down his face, where was that silent character earlier? While watching the shopkeeper who had gained momentum talking, I collapsed onto the counter.
As my consciousness was fading, My last thought was,
————I won’t go, absolutely————