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Kuroyukihimes return, p.1
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       Kuroyukihime’s Return, p.1

           Reki Kawahara
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Kuroyukihime’s Return


  ACCEL WORLD, Volume 1


  Translation by Jocelyn Allen

  Cover art by HIMA

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.



  All rights reserved.


  First published in Japan in 2009 by KADOKAWA CORPORATION, Tokyo.

  English translation rights arranged with KADOKAWA CORPORATION, Tokyo, through Tuttle-Mori Agency, Inc., Tokyo.

  English translation © 2014 by Yen Press, LLC

  Yen Press, LLC supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact the publisher. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

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  First Yen On eBook Edition: October 2017

  Originally published in paperback in July 2014 by Yen On.

  Yen On is an imprint of Yen Press, LLC.

  The Yen On name and logo are trademarks of Yen Press, LLC.

  The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.

  ISBN: 978-1-9753-0083-8



  The yellow message light blinked in the top right corner of the virtual blackboard.

  Haruyuki, who had drifted off during class, shifted the focus of both his eyes, pulling his neck back automatically. As he did, the deep green of the blackboard filling his field of vision faded suddenly to translucency, and the figure of the teacher standing beyond the orderly rows of student backs became clear.

  The classroom, his classmates, and the teacher were all real, but the transparent blackboard and the closely packed equations on it were not. The Neurolinker around the back of Haruyuki’s neck projected the numbers and symbols the teacher wrote in the air directly into his brain.

  The math teacher, a man in his early forties, continued with his whispered explanation of one formula while running an empty hand along a blackboard only he could see in areas that seemed particularly difficult somehow. His voice was nowhere near loud enough to reach Haruyuki’s ears as actual sound, but the Neurolinker twined around the teacher’s neck amplified and clarified it, conveying it to Haruyuki.

  When Haruyuki brought his gaze back in, the blackboard materialized once again, covered in even more equations than before. It seemed unlikely that the message he had received was a compressed file sent by the teacher packing up today’s homework. And given that he was separated from the global net right now, that meant the sender had to be another student in his school.

  In the six months since he’d started junior high, Haruyuki had long abandoned the hope that one of the girls might have broken school rules to send him a friendly message. He desperately wanted to drop the message unopened in the trash in the lower left corner of his eyeline, but if he did that, he’d have no idea what was going to happen to him later.

  Reluctantly, taking advantage of the teacher’s turned back, he raised his right hand in the air (this action was real rather than virtual) and clicked on the mail icon with the tip of his finger.

  In an instant, bubibaborububiru, a sound without any actual character, and graphics like a flood of primary colors assaulted Hiroyuki’s senses. Then the real message played—not text, but voice.

  Piggy, today’s command order! (Several voices laughing gleefully in the background.) Bring two yakisoba buns, one cream melon bun, and three strawberry yogurts to the roof five minutes after lunch starts! If you’re late, it’s pork bun punishment for you! And if you squeal, it’s the pork roast punishment! Got it?! (Another explosion of laughter.)

  Haruyuki mustered every ounce of willpower to fix his neck in place and not look in the direction of the eyes he could feel burning a hole through his left cheek. He knew he’d only be even more humiliated by the sneers of Araya and his underlings A and B if he allowed himself a glance.

  Since you obviously couldn’t record messages like this during class or add in these kinds of visual and auditory effects, the message had to have been prepared in advance. Those guys had too much free time on their hands. And then that “command order” stuff! Totally redundant! Idiots! Complete morons!

  Although he could curse them out in his head, Haruyuki couldn’t even answer this message, much less utter his curses out loud. Because if Araya was an idiot the likes of a cockroach, indestructible no matter how the world moved forward, Haruyuki was an even bigger idiot for being bullied by him. If he possessed even the tiniest bit of courage or the ability to act, it’d be an easy thing to submit the several dozen messages he’d saved, including this one, to the school as evidence and get those guys in trouble.

  But Haruyuki inevitably ended up thinking about what would come after that.

  People could talk all they wanted about how half of our lives were lived in the virtual network now that Neurolinkers were so ubiquitous that basically everyone in the country had one, but in the end, human beings only existed according to the lowest common denominators chaining them to their flesh-and-blood bodies. Three times a day, you get hungry; you go to the toilet; if you get hit, it hurts, and you cry as a consequence. It’s all so miserable you could die.

  Linker skills determining which school you went to and how far you made it in the world, these were nothing more than the enormous network industry’s branding strategies. What determined the value of a human being at the end of the day were simply the primitive parameters of appearance and physical strength. This was the conclusion Haruyuki reached at the age of thirteen, having reached sixty kilos when he was in fifth grade and never having run a fifty-meter dash in less than ten seconds.

  He was forced to spend the five hundred yen his mother charged to his Neurolinker in the morning for lunch money to buy buns and yogurt for Araya and the rest, and still he ran over budget. He had a little of the seven thousand yen saved up from his allowance, all the money he had in the world, but if he spent that now, he wouldn’t be able to buy the Linker game coming out later that month.

  Haruyuki’s ample build got terrible mileage. If he skipped just one meal, he ended up dizzy with hunger. Even so, he had no choice but to suffer through it today. At least he still had one trick to get through the day, a full dive, only allowed during lunch.

  Sucking in his round body as far as it would go, Haruyuki headed for the second school building, which held nothing but special classrooms. And because everything from science experiments to home ec cooking classes were conducted virtually now, the building no longer served any purpose, and few people went near it. Particularly during lunch, the place was devoid of students.

  Haruyuki’s special hiding place was the boys’ washroom in one corner of the dusty hallway. Trudging into this refuge, he stopped with a sigh and looked at the mirror above the sink.

  Staring back at him from the cloudy glass was the fat bullied kid, so hopelessly clichéd that if this were
a TV show, people would roll their eyes at the stereotype. His hair had a strong will of its own, springing up here and there, and the curves of his cheeks held not even a hint of definition. His uniform tie and silver Neurolinker were eaten up by his flabby neck as if they were a tightening noose.

  There was a time when he’d tried to do something about his appearance, when he pushed himself hard, practically giving up eating and forcing himself to go running. But the result of that effort was that he collapsed during lunch from anemia and ended up with the lunches of several female students, a now-legendary story that haunted him. Ever since, Haruyuki had been determined to ignore his real self—at least while he was a student.

  He yanked his eyes away from the mirror and moved farther into the washroom, entering the private stall at the end. He made sure the door was locked and sat on the toilet with the lid down. The creaking and squeaking of the plastic under his body were old friends. He leaned back against the tank, relaxed, and closed his eyes. He chanted the magical incantation to release his soul from this cumbrous form:

  “Direct link.”

  Receiving his voice command, the Neurolinker moved up from audiovisual mode to full sensory mode on the quantum connection level, and the weight and the sense of hunger strangling his stomach disappeared from Haruyuki’s body.

  The hardness of the toilet seat and the tightness of his school uniform were also gone. The laughing voices of students echoing in the distant schoolyard, the scent of cleansers filling the washroom, and even the featureless door in front of him melted into inky darkness and disappeared. Full dive.

  Even his sense of gravity was severed, and Haruyuki plunged into the darkness.

  Soon, however, his entire body was enveloped by a gentle floating feeling and rainbow-colored lights. The avatar he used during full dives began forming from the tips of his hands and feet.

  Black, hoof-shaped hands and feet. Plump limbs and a ball-like torso a vibrant peach-pink. He couldn’t see them, but he should also have had a flat noise protruding from the center of his face and large ears hanging down. In short, he was a pink pig.

  Wearing this ridiculous avatar, he dropped down with a thud in the middle of a fairy-tale forest in the Ministry of Education’s recommended design.

  Giant mushrooms grew everywhere, and in the center of a patch of grass framed in a circle of light from the particularly bright sun, a crystalline spring bubbled up from the ground. On its outer edge, enormous, hollow trees formed a circle and towered over the area. The inside of each tree was divided up into several levels you could use to chat or play, connected by stairs. This virtual space was the in-school local net for Umesato Junior High School, a private institution in Suginami City, Tokyo.

  The majority of other figures passing through the forest or laughing in groups of twos and threes were, like Haruyuki, also not human. Roughly half were silly animals walking on two legs, while the rest were fairies with wings sprouting from their backs (although they couldn’t actually fly), tin robots, or robed mages. All were avatars of Umesato Junior High students and teachers diving in the local net.

  Students could choose from a wide selection of base avatar forms and customize them. If you had the patience, you could also construct a completely original avatar from scratch, taking advantage of the editor provided. The result was ultimately a combination of the technology available and taste of a junior high school student, but even so, the black knight avatar Haruyuki created and unveiled in April had garnered a lot of attention.

  …The sad majesty of that avatar. Sighing, Haruyuki glanced down at his current form. In the blink of an eye, Araya had ripped off his black knight avatar and forced him to use this default pig.

  Obviously, in terms of originality, this pink pig could not be beat. No one else would make such a deliberately masochistic choice. Desperately sucking in his round body just like he did in the real world, Haruyuki set his sights on a single tree and headed out at a trot.

  As he did, he noticed an unusually large throng of people gathered beside the spring at the heart of the forest. Casting his eyes in that direction as he ran, Haruyuki slowed his pace unconsciously. In the middle of the ring of students, he spotted a marvelously rare avatar, the kind you hardly ever see.

  It wasn’t pulled from the default settings. She wore a jet-black dress studded with transparent jewels. In her hand, a folded black parasol. On her back, the wings of a spangled butterfly shot through with rainbow-colored lines. With a face white like snow framed by long, straight hair, the avatar was so perfectly gorgeous, it was hard to believe it was handmade. The design skill involved was beyond anything Haruyuki could ever have hoped to achieve. It could easily have passed for a pro’s work.

  Haruyuki knew the girl. Her slender body leaning casually against a giant mushroom, a weary expression on her face as she attended to the compliments of the avatars surrounding her, she was in eighth grade and the vice president of the student council. This shockingly beautiful form was for all intents and purposes a flawless re-creation of her real-world body, thus her nickname: Kuroyukihime.

  That a creature like this and someone like Haruyuki could share even the single commonality of both being students at Umesato seemed impossible to him. Just turning his virtual gaze on her, Haruyuki felt the awareness of his diminutive stature that tortured his consciousness swell unpleasantly, and he forced himself to focus the path in front of him again.

  The destination he was barreling toward at full speed was a large tree with recreation rooms inside. It was basically an arcade, but naturally, there were absolutely no commercial games like RPGs or war games or such. It was all educational stuff, like quizzes or puzzles or wholesome sports games, but even so, a number of students gathered in groups in every corner, laughing and chatting.

  All of them were on full dives from their own desks or the cafeteria. During the dive, their flesh-and-blood bodies were left defenseless, but messing with people in the middle of a dive was a clear violation of etiquette, so no one besides Haruyuki worried about it. He had returned to his classroom after a dive in the local net to find the pants on his uniform pulled down maybe a month or so after school started.

  Hiding his flesh body in the toilet and wanting to avoid other eyes even in the virtual world, he started climbing the stairs carved into the tree that was his destination. The higher he climbed, the less popular the games. After passing baseball, basketball, golf, and tennis, and even ignoring the Ping-Pong floor, he finally arrived at the virtual squash corner.

  There wasn’t a single student in the room. The reason for the floor’s lack of popularity was clear. Squash is sort of like tennis, but you hit the ball with a racquet in a space enclosed from top to bottom and on all sides by hard walls. The ball bounces back, and the player silently returns it over and over. It was a thoroughly lonely sport.

  In reality, Haruyuki liked first-person shooter games the best, the kind where players run around a battlefield carrying a machine gun, and in those games, he was good enough to hold his own against guys in the states (the home of the FPS). It was also a popular genre in Japan, of course, but there was no way something like that would be available on the school network. When he was in elementary school, Haruyuki had killed pretty much all of the guys in his class with a single handgun, and from the next day on, he had been bullied mercilessly. Ever since, Haruyuki had promised himself he would never again play the same games as the kids at school, no matter the genre.

  He walked over to the right edge of the deserted court and held up the control panel with one hand. The panel accessed Haruyuki’s student ID number and retrieved his saved level and high scores. Since the middle of the first term, he had been killing time here during his lunch hour, focusing exclusively on this game. As a result, he’d achieved a staggeringly high score. He was actually getting tired of squash, but it wasn’t like he had anywhere else to go.

  Haruyuki grabbed the racquet that popped up from the panel and held it firmly in his pink right ha
nd with its black hoof. After the words GAME START appeared, a ball dropped down out of nowhere. He hit it with everything he had, pouring every ounce of today’s misery into the racquet.

  Thk! Leaving a momentary flash, the ball flew up like a laser and struck the floor and the forward wall before returning. Aided by reflex more than sight, Haruyuki returned the ball with a backhand, taking a step to the left in line with the optimal solution to which his brain automatically guided him.

  The real Haruyuki obviously could not move like this. But this was an electronic world, free of the chains of meatspace. Watching the ball and moving his body were just quantum signals traveling back and forth between his brain and the Neurolinker.

  The ball abruptly lost its substance, leaving nothing but a faint trace of light on the court. The thwack it made sounded several times a second, echoing like a machine gun. Still, Haruyuki made his pig’s body leap and dance and his racket sing in every direction.

  Dammit, who needs reality anyway?

  The scream of resentment pierced the back of his brain, unable to shut out his problems even while tackling the game at top speed.

  Why do we need dumb stuff like a real classroom or a real school? People can live entirely virtually already. I mean, the world stinks with grown-ups actually doing just that. So much so that they even did those experiments way back when, where they turned a person’s entire consciousness into quantum data and tried to build a real parallel universe.

  And yet despite all that, they toss groups of us kids into real-life cages to learn group life and develop some kind of morals, or for whatever other idiotic reasons they have. All well and good for Araya and them, probably helps them relax a bit and save their allowances. But for me…I don’t know what else I can do.

  A bell sounded, and his game increased a level in the corner of his vision.

  The ball accelerated abruptly. The angle of return was also irregular, and the ball came powering along, drawing an arc from an unexpected direction. Haruyuki’s reaction time gradually started to lag.

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