(I do not own Sword Art Online. If I did, it wouldn't have taken over 2 years to post an update; sorry ;w;)

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Chapter 3: When you Challenge Fate

The afternoon wind passed through the small market square as various players moved about their daily lives in Aincrad.

I quickly flicked my hand to the side, opening a new Memo page in my menu as I continued to write. My opposite hand held a Bread Roll with some cream on it, the same that Kirito had earned from the first floor cow quest. Lisbeth and I had completed it that morning ourselves.

The taste was worth every lost hit-point.

We had spent a great deal of time wandering around the first floor of Aincrad for the better part of the last couple of weeks. Working together had garnered us more Exp than I ever did working solo, and at a faster rate too.

Our conversations were still fairly limited throughout our traveling, but we had a better understanding of what we were trying to say with our gestures and expressions. We did raise a few eyebrows every now and then when we were out in public due to it, but we did our best to ignore it.

Translation problems aside, it really was nice to have someone to talk to again. It kept me from going stir crazy, that's for sure.

Speaking of which, I was finally able to get a message to the real-real world — or 'True Earth' as I liked to call it — and gave Eila updates on what was happening in Aincrad every few days. She wasn't too excited to hear that I had disrupted Lisbeth's timeline, but she figured that it was too late to stop anything about it now.

She kept tabs on me when she could, but couldn't risk poking her nose too far into the system and risk being cut off again. It was enough to know that she was still working from her end to get me out, though the likelihood of hacking me out was pretty much nonexistent at this point in time. Guess I'd have to beat the game like everyone else. Or at least make it until floor 75 where Kirito would end it early.

Two years, huh? Guess I should get comfortable then.

I closed up my memo as I noticed Lisbeth exit a nearby armor shop. After a close call with a few Kobold Scout's the day before, we both agreed to buy some new equipment for ourselves.. Having both leveled up enough to gain a new skill slot, we both decided on getting the Light Metal Equipment skill, which had allowed us to upgrade our gear a bit. It wasn't much, but the metallic chestpiece was a definite improvement over the basic stuff that we had before.

So much had happened since we had first met, sometimes it's strange to realize that we were still on the first floor. There wasn't much that stood a chance against us, or any players for that matter, as long as we played it smart. Most of the time, a player died because of poor judgement or even just plain ridiculous actions.

Oh right… Death.

The first death I saw was unfortunately against the very same Kobold Scout's from before. Lisbeth and I had arrived too late to the sounds of fighting, just in time to watch the reptilian creatures cut down a lone player. A beta-tester, no doubt. No one else would have the gall to venture out so far by themselves.

We watched as his longsword snapped in two, its durability finally depleted, just seconds before the Kobold killed him. It was a bit of a surreal feeling to watch those shards of pixels float away, knowing that the person on the other side of that data was now gone forever. Even if I was from "True Earth", and the people here were even more ones and zeroes than I was, it still shook me to the core at the sight.

Incidentally, it did spark Lisbeth's interest in blacksmithing, which was good. She had already switched over one of her skills to Metal Equipment Repairing, which was simple enough to advance by simply repairing our own weapons and gear rather than taking them to an NPC to do it for us. It was definitely cheaper.

Of course, I may have been partly to blame for her decision, dropping subtle hints towards the idea in what ways I could. She had a ways to go before she became the well-known blacksmith she was in the show, but it was a start.

I stood and stretched out my arms as she approached, "Did you get everything you needed?" I put my thumb up to help get my point across.

Lisbeth nodded and gave me sly grin, swinging a brand new hammer over her shoulder. I looked on in awe as she said something to me in japanese, knowing her, it was probably a witty remark.

It was an excellent investment, as this hammer was meant for forging, and would allow us to repair our items without borrowing as many tools at the public smithys every time. We would still need to borrow an anvil or smeltery, but every Cor counted.

"Awesome!" I exclaimed, looking it over, "You're starting to look more like a real blacksmith now!"

Lisbeth blushed and rubbed the back of her head at my excitement before quickly depositing the item into her inventory. We still had a good portion of the afternoon to finish up our latest quest, so we were both eager to get right back to it.

I made sure to check the item shop on our way out one more time to see if Eila had left a new message for me, but there was nothing new. I had been stressing to her about the difficulty I was having with communication, and was really hoping she would come up with something soon so I wasn't left guessing what people were trying to say. Hopefully she would think of something soon.

I pulled out my sword as we left the village, feeling much safer with it in my hand whenever I was outside a safe zone. It also helped that Lisbeth was there, her usual Iron Hammer over her shoulder beside me. She definitely wasn't as nervous about fighting as when we first met, I noticed, though that didn't mean she let her guard down any less.

I turned my eyes to the dirt road ahead of us as it wound its way along a stream through the green forest. The light of the virtual sun broke through the tree leaves in patches and allowing anyone beneath to see easily. Our quest required us to locate and defeat a pair of enemy Kobolds that had stolen two wooden idols from an old saleswoman, and return them to her.

Judging from the directions she had so conveniently been able to provide, we had found one of them that morning and were on route to where the second one had run off to.

I took a deep breath of the cool forest air, "Onamae wa... nandesuka?" I asked slowly.

Lisbeth let out an amused huff and turned her head towards me as we continued to walk, "My name… is... Lisbeth desu."

I chuckled, " No, no 'desu'. Just, 'My name is Lisbeth.'"

We had been doing our best to learn each other's languages recently, but it wasn't exactly the smoothest of learning curves. Despite neither of us having much experience teaching such a thing, we had a few phrases down that were common enough to pick up: 'Good morning', 'Thank you', 'You're welcome', and things in that nature were among the list. We did what we could anyway.

Lisbeth groaned and grumbled something about my language being something-or-other, but she stopped when a pair of Kobold Scout's let out a screech from across the stream.

They had reached the bank and jumped across quickly, landing right where my glowing sword was beginning a Horizontal strike.

"Hrghah!" I yelled and slashed across the both of them as they touched down, jumping back as one of their spears came around to shove me. The second one had reeled back their spear in an attempt to skewer me, but all it took was a quick side-step for it to miss me, albeit a bit closely.

Lisbeth joined in quickly, slamming her hammer into the side of the first Kobold before it could react. The creature was sent stumbling backwards away from its counterpart, allowing us to focus on one enemy each.

They didn't last long. After a quick chain of sword skills from me and a couple of hammer skills from Liz, we were rewarded with the sounds of shattering glass as the scouts were defeated.

"At least they're not sending packs of these guys at us…" I muttered as I surveyed the area.

Lisbeth groaned and spoke, more than likely expressing her opinion of the battle as well, before turning back towards the trail.

I moved to follow her, but stopped and turned back towards where the kobolds had emerged across the stream in thought.

"Hey. Liz…" I said, loud enough for her to hear. The brown haired girl turned back to me with almost a bored expression, "I want to check something out really quick. C'mon." I gestured for her to follow me and began walking towards the stream.

Normally if an enemy ambushed you like that, they would just appear in a flash of light around you. It signaled their attack and gave players the chance to, at the very least, draw their weapons before attacking. These scouts, however, appeared almost normally from a distance, like they were there beforehand.

With a running start, I leapt across the stream. Or at least, I tried to. It wasn't too wide of a stream, but my Sprint skill did not add any real height to my jump, and I fell short by a few feet, landing up to my knees in the water.

I stumbled, but caught myself before I face planted into the side of the stream. Once safely out of the water, I turned and watched Lisbeth sigh and mutter something under her breath before looking up and down the stream.

After a moment, she moved over a few yards and easily hopped across some nearby stones sticking up just enough out of the water to keep players dry. Wonder how I missed that.

Once across she gave me a satisfied smile and gestured for me to lead the way.

I lead us through the bushes to a small clearing. The area sunk into the earth to where some stone circles lay scattered about with a few pillars bordering the area. It was almost tranquil to look at with the sunlight shining in through the trees here and there.

We shared a glance before making our way down into the ruins.

"I wonder if this is part of the quest?" I asked aloud, running my hand along one of the pillars as I passed.

There were runic looking carvings in each one, though it was impossible to say whether they meant anything or if it was just an artistic design by the game developers.

Or… you know… Eila's machine or whatever.

Lisbeth was similarly inspecting the area, the amazement on her face plain to see. It was still strange seeing her without the pink hair she was known for in the series, but she was still the same Liz. Just a bit younger than when Kirito first met her.

That got me wondering, how old was she, actually? She was about Kirito's age from what I recalled, so that made her… what, 15? 16?

Not that I looked much older myself, the machine cut a few years off my life when it gave me my new body so I was roughly the same age from what I could gather.

The exact numbers were hard enough to calculate anyway with my internal calendar more out of whack than anything.

It was early Fall when I went in the machine, and late Fall when I arrived in Aincrad. December was right around the corner in SAO, which meant the first floor boss raid was coming up. Even if I didn't participate, I needed to make sure I was at least keeping myself up-to-date with what was happening there. Maybe I could find Argo 'The Rat', and get some info on a few things.

Wait. I can't talk to anyone yet... Right…

I let out a sigh and moved over towards where Lisbeth was looking over the central stone circle, "Looks like this isn't the place. Maybe it's part of another quest line or some-"

A flicker of movement caught my eye, attracting my full attention.

From behind one of the larger pillars across from where we entered emerged a towering creature not unlike the two scouts we had encountered before. On its face was a white, bone-like mask that covered the top portion of its head, leaving only a pair of slots open for the eyes. It was much more muscular looking than the other kobolds we had faced, and over its shoulder it hefted a large blade that was nearly as tall as I was, and just as wide.

A Ruin Kobold Guardian, I almost didn't hear its footsteps or heavy breathing as I took in the name floating above its head.

Beside me, Lisbeth had also stopped moving as she took in the sight of the creature that was about twice as tall as she was.

I broke the silence first as the guardian stopped and eyed us from across the circle, "Lisbeth, stand back, and wait for an opening." I pulled my sword out in front of me and moved closer to the beast, my fear almost lost at the sight of it.

I could hear Lisbeth's screams of protest as I walked closer to the kobold, but I paid it no heed. I wasn't doing this to be heroic, or any other chivalrous reason. It was more for selfish reasons, if anything. The only real thought on my mind was-

"I want that sword..."

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[CROSSING FIELD ~ SAO INTRO 1]

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[Hiro_Lvl. 8]

{Equipped Weapon}

-Iron Sword

{Equipped Gear/Armor}

-(Hands) Adventurer's Gloves

-(Chest) Iron Breastplate

-(Forearms) Iron Bracers

{Skills}

-One Handed Sword [23/1000]

-Sprint [31/1000]

-Light Metal Equipment [2/1000]

{Party}

[Lisbeth_Lvl. 8]

{Equipped Weapon}

-Iron Hammer

{Equipped Gear/Armor}

-(Hands) Adventurer's Gloves

-(Chest) Iron Breastplate

{Skills}

-One Handed War Hammer [23/1000]

-Metal Equipment Repairing [11/1000]

-Light Metal Equipment [2/1000]

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Heavy breathing filled the silence of the forest clearing as Lisbeth and I sat back to back, catching our breath.

"We haven't had that much trouble… since the medicine quest…" I said between heaves of virtual air. Behind me, Lisbeth groaned a similar complaint.

I reached into my pouch and passed Lisbeth a healing potion, taking a second one for myself in the process. The poor tasting liquid nearly made me gag, but I gulped it down anyway as I watch my HP slowly rise from 30%. Beneath my health bar, I saw Lisbeth's HP increase as well.

The battle had resulted in a lot of close calls, but we were victorious and had netted us about 2,500 Cor each, as well as a fair amount of EXP for defeating the guardian. It had brought my total EXP up to where I was close to leveling up, and had sent Lisbeth's level up to 8 before stopping almost halfway to her next as well.

That wasn't even counting the last attack bonus I had received, which I hadn't had the chance to check yet.

I Swiped the empty space before me with my free hand and brought up my menu, checking my items list for the drop. Since it was a reward drop, I was able to see its name:

Oath of Guardian.

My mind was unable to decide whether to be excited by the find, or confused by the name. "Oath of Guardian" didn't quite flow off the tongue as well as it should, but I could always change the name at a smithy later.

I switch my menu to be visible and moved it around to where Lisbeth could see it, "Hey, Liz, check this out." The girl brought the potion bottle away from her lips and turned to look at the screen.

"Nani?" She asked as she tried to read the english text.

I sighed, "It says, 'Oath of Guardian.'"

"Oath ov… Gādian…" She repeated, close enough.

I stood and stretched my arms out, "Let's see what we have here then~." I smiled.

With a few flicks of my hand I unequipped my Iron Sword and equipped Oath of Guardian in its place.

The sudden weight that appeared in my right hand caught me off guard as the massive blade materialized and sent me off balance. I stumbled forward to catch myself and managed to stay on my feet, the sword held awkwardly in front of me.

"Whoa- This thing weighs a TON!" I blurted out as I leaned back enough to keep from tipping over.

Behind me Lisbeth was laughing and saying some things that were likely jokes about my clumsiness or something.

I grumbled and ignored her, instead taking the time to inspect my new weapon.

Oath of Guardian was unlike many of the other swords I had seen from the series. At least, I didn't recall anyone having something of this size, perhaps it was a unique weapon or rare drop.

The blade itself was metallic and roughly a foot and a half wide, with only one side of it sharpened. Well, sharpened was putting it nicely, as the edge in question looked almost worn or chipped in some places. Whether this was a testament to the actual quality of the sword, or just an aesthetic touch remained to be seen.

The face of the blade didn't look much better, and the handguard barely passed as a handguard at all. The handle itself, though, was neatly wrapped and easy to grip, with the shaft being long enough to grip dual-handed.

I hefted the sword and swung it around, testing its weight and usability. Practically speaking, it would be a poor choice to use Oath of Guardian over my old sword.

But it looked so cool. I had to use it.

"I wonder if I could wield it one-handed…" I asked aloud, removing my left hand off the handle. Immediately, my arm struggled against the weight of the weapon, threatening to drop it.

"Hngh!" I immediately brought my other hand back to support the sword, Pulling the monstrosity up and resting it on my right shoulder.

I let out a breath of relief as my arms no longer bore the weight of the virtual blade and turned back to Liz, who was still giggling behind me.

I smiled in embarrassment, "How about we finish up this quest then, huh? C'mon."

With that, I proceeded to leave the clearing, Lisbeth running up behind me, finally ceasing to laugh as she smiled at me. She had an amazing laugh, no doubt about that.

I chuckled to myself as we returned to the trail in search of the kobold thief once again.

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After nearly an hour of searching we had finally found the thief. On the way, we had run into a fair amount of enemies to fight. Normally, we would have no problem defeating them together, but…

Oath of Guardian was definitely NOT a one-handed weapon, which meant I was unable to use the same sword skills I had been using before to fight.

On top of that, the damn thing was so heavy that — while it did a surprising amount of damage — whenever went to swing it, I was open for the enemy to hit me every time. I just wasn't fast enough or strong enough to keep a guard up.

Luckily, Lisbeth was able to cover me whenever it happened, but I still lost a lot more HP than I normally would have with the Iron Sword. On the bright side, most enemies couldn't take more than a couple of direct hits from the thing, so hey, that's pretty neat.

"Switch!" Lisbeth jumped back as she called, having deflected the kobold's short sword and sending it off balance.

"I'm on it!" I replied.

I heaved the sword over my shoulder as I leaped towards the enemy, bringing it down in an arc that slashed across its entire body and causing it to shatter into glass-like pixels.

The sword hit the ground and buried itself in the dirt enough to hold itself up. I caught my breath before attempting to pull it out, placing it on my shoulder once again.

That thing took a lot more in order to swing it, but I was getting better.

Should I probably stick with using one-handed weapons?

Yes.

Am I going to?

...eh, the jury is still out.

I looked up as I heard Lisbeth stop in front of me, her expression one not dissimilar to a 'Seriously?'.

I shrugged and yanked the blade back onto my shoulder, "I just want to give it a try for a bit." I grumbled back, "Besides, I'd been planning to switch my weapon focus from the start anyway."

Her only response was to raise an eyebrow at me, a fair retort since she could probably guess that I'm just being a stubborn brat, which wasn't true.

I was not a brat.

After a moment Lisbeth let out a sigh, muttering something under her breath and turning towards the nearby path.

I let out a huff and begrudgingly followed her as we made our way back to town to complete the quest and call it a day. I let my mind wander as we walked alongside each other.

It'd probably be worth looking for info on weapons in Aincrad. As far as I was aware, it was unheard of for swords of this size to be used by anyone but monsters.

It was entirely possible that the sword wasn't even meant to be used, it could have been a quest item or a potential material to improve an existing blade, which would be a real bummer.

I wonder if Argo the Rat had set up shop yet. I couldn't remember where in the timeline she became an information broker, though finding her at all would be difficult enough since we'd never met and, again, I couldn't speak japanese so I was out of luck regardless.

Maybe Eila would be able to give me some info. Even without messing with the code, she could try and dig up what the deal with this blade was.

I could practically feel Lisbeth shooting me looks from beside me as I pondered along, free hand beneath my chin. It wasn't like she could ask what I was thinking about and expect an answer she could understand, though. But I could tell she wanted to ask.

I turned my head in her direction as she tried to steal another glance, causing her cheeks to flush slightly like she was caught red handed.

I let out a chuckle and gave her a small wave, "Don't worry, I'm just thinkin' a bunch is all." I said and tapped the side of my head with one finger.

She nodded in understanding as she smiled. I could feel my heart nearly skip a beat for a moment but forced back any emotions that tried to surface as we continued on.

It wouldn't do well for me to fall for someone while I was in this situation. There was too many problems with that, biggest one being that she wouldn't exist on "True Earth" like I did. None of the people here would.

It was only me.

I pushed the somber thoughts away as we finally returned to the town. Lisbeth and I made quick work of turning in the quest, collecting our reward, and returning to the inn for the day.

While we walked about, I started getting several strange looks from other players.

No doubt that the 6 foot tall slab of worn metal on my shoulder was grabbing everyone's attention. I think I even heard a wolf-whistle from some players eating lunch.

They could look all they wanted, I wasn't giving up Oath of Guardian for anything until I figured out what made it tick.

I stopped by the item shop out of habit to see if I had any messages from Eila, and was surprised when I found that she had, in fact, replied at long last!

I quickly snatched up the free letter item with a grin and turned to catch up with Lisbeth.

My path was blocked, however, by a small party of players that seemed to be eyeing Oath of Guardian a little too intensely.

The leader, at least from what I could gather, stepped forward and began speaking to me in a tone that was either demanding, or rudely questioning.

Either way, I didn't like it.

I just stared at him blankly in response, which was really how I responded to anyone that wasn't Liz these days. Most of the time she was actually there to help explain my situation, but unfortunately I was left on my own for this one.

Oh well.

After a few seconds of me not responding to whatever he had said, the player — who was a curved blade user, I had noticed — seemed to go from demanding/questioning to angrily shouting at me… and demanding I think.

Actually now that I thought about it, being threatened in a language you don't understand is definitely less intimidating when you're both in a "Safe Zone" and clueless as to what's actually being said. It was more amusing really.

I was shaken from my musings when a window appeared before my eyes.

["ZenKaiBoots has requested a Duel"]

[Accept? Y/N]

I blinked.

Was that what this was about? I looked over the message window at "ZenKaiBoots" — great name I might add — and realized that he was impatiently tapping his foot and grumbling something in japanese.

It was at this moment I realized that we had drawn a crowd, with several other groups pausing their tasks to watch our confrontation unfold.

Now that. That was a little intimidating.

I shook my head and declined the duel, I had just gotten the weapon and had no idea how to use it properly. Not only would I lose, I would lose BADLY.

"Sorry man, it wouldn't be much of a fight for you, maybe another time." I smiled apologetically and turned to walk away.

Unsurprisingly, ZenKai cut me off and sent the duel request again. I frowned and declined once again, turning to walk around him.

I only got a few feet when the message window appeared for the third time.

Okay, I may have been patient, probably more patient than most people, but this was starting to get really old, really fast. I declined.

["ZenKaiBoots has requested a Duel"]

[Accept? Y/N]

Declined.

["ZenKaiBoots has requested a Duel"]

[Accept? Y/N]

Declined.

["ZenKaiBoots has requested a Duel"]

[Accept? Y/N]

My hand gripping Oath of Guardian was clenching tight enough that my knuckles were probably turning white. I took a deep breath, but it did little to calm me down.

ZenKai was standing in front of me, the asshat had a determined expression on his face.

I stared at him.

I declined.

…..

["ZenKaiBoots has requested a Duel"]

[Accept? Y/N]

"Goddammit!" I slammed my fist into the accept button and spun to take my place across from him, seething through my teeth as I selected the duel type.

I was going to duel this asshat.

I was going to lose to this asshat.

I was going to look like a joke because of this asshat.

Then I was going to get on with my life, and forget this ASSHAT ever existed.

Did I mention he was an asshat?

Because he is. An Asshat.

Once I was a fair enough distance away I turned to glare at Zenkai who had the biggest shit-eating grin on his dumb face.

I was going to lose, but I was going to do my best to knock that stupid look off his face.

The market area was thankfully wide enough around that having a duel here wouldn't be an issue, and- oh would you look at that, we have an audience.

All of the players who had been watching us for the past few minutes were now circling us, creating an impromptu arena as the countdown timer between us counted down from 60.

The duel would go on until one of us dropped to 50%, a safety precaution more on my part in case I actually got a hit in. I wasn't yet sure of the damage Oath of Guardian could put out so I wanted to be careful.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Liz squeeze her way between members of the peanut gallery and I saw a look of shock and surprise rise to her face.

I waved her off with a sigh and turned to prepare for battle.

40 seconds.

Honestly I didn't even have a fighting style from another game to fall back on. Cloud used a similar sword in his game but I never played much of the series. I guess Kirito technically used a larger blade in Alfheim, but he had big numbers on his side and years of practice with the game at that point.

30 seconds.

I settled into a crouch after some thought, left foot first while leveling my blade out to the side pointed forward. I had to use both hands to keep it upright and that was hard on its own. I also didn't have any two-handed skills so this was all going come down to flailing and hoping for the best.

20 seconds.

Can I mention that this 60 second countdown idea seems excessive. It's more awkward since we're both just staring at each other. I mean I get it's meant to draw out the tension or give you time to prepare but it's just a long time. I might as well be making faces to get a rise out of him…

I mocked a kiss at him.

10 seconds.

Haha, yeah that took him off-guard, haha… It was worth the strange looks I'm bound to be getting, but what do I care.

Oh, here we go.

[Begin!]

"Ch-yah!"Zenkai sped towards me faster than I expected, and I barely had enough time to bring the flat of my blade up to shield me from his glowing strike. His curved sword bouncing off of Oath of Guardian like it was a shield.

I grunted from the impact and shifted around to swing horizontally at Zenkai, but he had already recovered and was retreating back away from my wide arc.

"Wahh- too much, TOO MUCH!" I yelped as I overextended and sent myself in an unbalanced spin around.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Zenkai charging in at the opportunity. The only thing I could do was follow the blade's momentum and hope to hit him on the next pass.

Altering my stance I hefted Oath of Guardian onwards as I spun, swinging the monstrous sword at a surprised Zenkai who was too far into a sword skill to stop his attack.

"Gwah!"

Oath of Guardian struck him across the chest and sent him flying off course. The actual attack actually wound up looking like a clumsy golf swing, but it hit.

"Four!" I called out as I came to a stop.

The crowd was a mix of cheers and surprised voices as Zenkai's health fell from 100% to 75%. I could pick out Lisbeth cheering me on from nearby, but didn't have time to spare her a glance.

Everyone including myself was amazed that a single strike from Oath of Guardian could bring down an entire quarter of Zenkai's HP without a sword skill.

My fascination didn't last long, as once he regained his bearings, Zenkai resumed his assault. This time, however, I was in even less of a position to defend myself, as Oath of Guardian took too much time to build up momentum and was too slow to maneuver between me and the next set of sword skills that ripped across my body.

"Grrhh-!" I grit my teeth at the sting of his curved blade as red pixels poured from my the slashes across my legs and arms.

I maneuvered myself around my blade, opting to use it as a shield and keeping it between me and Zenkai.

I eyed my HP,which had settled just above 70% after his assault. I was losing now, but at least it wasn't going to be a one-sided victory.

I wasn't entirely sure what the durability on Oath of Guardian was, but I knew it had to be pretty high, given its size. It would definitely outlast Zenkai's curved sword in a battle of attrition, but that'd take forever. I was going to have to attack.

Twisting as I dodged another strike from Zenkai, I tugged at the handle of Oath of Guardian and swung it in a circle. If I could just get a decent hit on him just once more, I could actually win.

"Hrrghah!" I grunted in effort as my blade carved through where Zenkai was standing, only hitting air as I continued to spin, looking every direction for my opponent.

"GAH!"

I stumbled as an intense pain dug itself across my back, causing me to stumble off-balance and fall to the cold floor.

The duel ended as my HP fell to below 50%.

Cheers and light applause filled the market area as I pushed myself to my feet with Oath of Guardian. as a crutch and let out a sigh.

Only one hit. That was a bit disappointing, but better than expected I suppose.

I looked up at the sound of footsteps running up to me, finding Lisbeth rushing over to check on me with a worried expression.

I smiled as she approached and gave her a thumbs up, causing her to sigh in relief before fixing me with an annoyed look. She then flicked my forehead.

"Hey now, it wasn't my fault." I defended as I rubbed the now sore spot, "He wouldn't take no for an answer."

She raised an eyebrow, before shaking her head. It was funny how well she can understand me without actually understanding me.

Another set of footsteps brought both of our attentions to an approaching Zenkai, his face alight with his cocky grin as he seemed to be boasting about his victory.

I sighed and stared at him, reminding myself that wanting to punch him in his dumb face would only result in me hurting myself or sending my cursor orange as a player-attacker.

Or wait, this was a safe area. I could still knock him to the ground without any issues… huh.

My eyes widened as Liz stepped up to Zenkai and shoved a finger into his chest, causing him to step back in surprise. She began berating him in a scolding tone that I'd only heard her use on me when I did something foolish.

I didn't understand everything that she was saying, but I did pick out pieces that were similar to when she explains how I don't speak japanese and that I have no idea what he's saying.

Surprisingly, Zenkai seemed shocked as he looked between me and Liz as she finished her rant. By now, his party had arrived as well and had heard Liz explaining everything.

I didn't pay them much mind, though, as I was too busy smiling softly at Lisbeth as she turned to look at me with a smile of her own.

My smile faded as Zenkai walked up to me, his expression serious.

For a moment, I thought he was going to start insulting me or something for playing SAO without being able to speak the language. It honestly wouldn't have been the first time.

Instead, he stuck out his hand. "Gomen." (Sorry)

I hesitated for a moment as I processed the situation before clasping his hand in my own, a small smile returning to my face.

"No worries." I replied with a nod, dispelling most of the hard feelings we may have had at the moment.

He grinned as well and, before we could continue, our group was swarmed by many of the onlookers who wanted to congratulate our duel, ask questions, or just gawk at Oath of Guardian.

It took nearly thirty minutes of mingling with the crowd before they dispersed enough for us to leave.

Lisbeth did her best to talk in my stead while I showed off Oath of Guardian to curious players. I even allowed Zenkai to hold it as a sign of good faith, and was treated with the hilarious sight of him hardly being able to wield it, which gave me a bit of a confidence boost.

It actually ended up being a great distraction for everyone, the duel. No one seemed worried about the death game for the entirety and I actually managed to add Zenkai to my friends list, with the promise of a rematch some time in the future.

In the end, Lisbeth and I were able to retreat to the inn and settle in for a meal, exhausted after all of the excitement.

I had returned Oath of Guardian to my inventory so it wouldn't cause a scene the rest of the day as the two of us munched away on our bread and milk.

Partway through our meal, I remembered the letter from Eila and pulled it out to read it. Lisbeth gave me a curious look, but it wasn't the first time I've pulled out a piece of paper she couldn't read, so she simply focused on her own meal while I read.

[Dear Hiro,

I'm glad to hear that things are going smoothly for you so far, things are still pretty slow here on my end.

And by slow, I mean practically nonexistent, but that's nothing new I guess.

Everything major thing we try seems to get blocked before we can fully implement it, so we've started to try and rethink our strategy before we try anything else on that scale. Which means that you're going to have to tough it out on your own, like we expected.

Of course, that doesn't mean we I can't try to help you out where I can, in fact I have some news you might be interested in~

I bet you're still having trouble being unable to talk to anyone in SAO yet, so I went ahead and spent the last few nights pouring through the fies for a solution, and actually came up with something concrete enough to work.

That's right. I might have a small solution to your language problem. Am I great or what~?

Well… there is one catch, however.

Altering any of the player data is pretty much impossible for me to manage at this point, so I had to come up with a loophole. Instead of altering a player, I went and altered some enemy data, essentially adding in my own enemy file and allowing anyone who defeats it an item that will help you out.

It will bind to whoever gets the last attack bonus and I only placed one of the enemy into the world to be found, so you'll only get one chance.

Oh, and just so you know, I had to make it a similar level to you in order for it to fit the field requirements to actually appear, sorry.

It should spawn outside of the town at midnight, just off the path towards Tolbana.

Wish I could help you more, best of luck!

-Eila

]

I reread the message a few times as my eyes lit up. Finally some good news!

I shifted my gaze to the window of the inn to see that it was already starting to get late into the afternoon, with the orange glow of the virtual sky easily slowing down the busy nature of the small town.

I set an alarm for 11:30 so I could make it to the town gates with plenty of time to spare. I could easily sneak out claim my language solution and be back before anyone else could take it.

I let out a content sigh as I happily tore into the rest of my meal, Lisbeth's gaze leveled at me questioningly as I returned the letter into my inventory.

-========EEEEEEEE###########_

My eyes clenched as my alarm woke me from my slumber.

I opened them with a sigh as I waved around to silence the offending noise before forcing myself to the edge of the bed and sitting up.

It didn't matter how important the situation. Waking up always sucked when there was no coffee to be found.

I rubbed my eyes before letting them adjust to the dim light of the room, the sole other occupant currently curled up in the blankets of their own bed.

At first, Lisbeth and I damn near refused to share a room once we both had the funds to rent our own each night, but after a while we realized that it was really just a waste to pay for almost double the cost just to have a wall between us.

In the end we settled for just splitting a double room, which was much cheaper in the long run compared to our previous arrangements.

It did come with its own drawbacks, though. Namely how Liz would REFUSE to allow me into the room until she was properly dressed in her nightwear. While I just settled for changing beneath the sheets using my inventory system.

It was actually quite convenient to be able to change outfits at the push of a button.

Lisbeth currently had her back turned towards me, which allowed me to change without worrying about her seeing the flash of equipment being generated as I stood up from the bed.

I did think about inviting her to help me out with this, but I wasn't even sure how I would begin to explain myself.

Besides, I needed the item to bind to me specifically, and having her help would lower the odds of it working out in my favor.

That left it to me to solo whatever creature my dearest sister decided to drop into the game for me to beat.

Being careful not to make much noise, I krept across the room and slipped out the door.

Once outside the room, I let out a deep breath before making my way out of the inn and down the road towards the path to Tolbana.

The virtual air was crisp as the Fall weather was simulated throughout Aincrad.

Actually, November was apparently called the Month of Cypress here. Which was a neat trivia fact to learn about, even though remembering what month it was in general was hard enough.

It was pitch black out, with only some moonlight and lamps to light my way out of the town.

I considered using my Iron Sword to fight with ever since I read the letter, but I was too stubborn to allow myself to give up on Oath of Guardian.

I was hoping that, if I used it enough, I would unlock the skill I needed to wield it properly, and then just replace my one-handed skill with that.

At least, that's how I hoped it would work.

My feet crunched along the dirt path as I walked far enough away from the town to leave the 'Safe Zone' before looking around.

The town itself had been empty, as NPC's and players alike were asleep at this hour, since no one had the skills to see properly in the darkness while fighting groups of monsters.

It did make me nervous, thinking about that. But I was only here for a single enemy and didn't plan to be out here any longer than I needed to.

My eyes scanned the treeline as the time ticked closer to midnight, waiting for the telltale glow of an enemy spawning in.

I waited quietly, but I was worried. It would be bad if a group of monsters wandered up while I was dealing with this, and I couldn't let it get away for someone else to come across.

Eventually, the clock ticked over to midnight and I tensed at the familiar ring of a spawn, tearing my eyes across the treeline until I saw the fading glow not but thirty feet away.

In any other situation, I would have laughed at the sight. Of course Eila would have chosen a monster from Kingdom Hearts to use as my enemy.

Standing before me was a single Soldier Heartless.

The little guy looked like a noble knight-type of warrior at first glance, the creature barely reaching my chest at full height. It's movements were as sporadic as I remembered from the game, and it looked ready to fight.

I settled into my bastardized fighting stance as I remembered that this thing was about my level and that even though they were pushovers in Kingdom Hearts, it was still my life on the line if I lost.

After a moment of staring each other down, the two of us raced forward and began our battle.

I sent Oath of Guardian swinging around as I spun, hoping that even if I missed I could carry the momentum around for another strike.

As it turns out, the little bastard was as quick as I had assumed and easily dodged my horizontal swing, but my arc kept him from getting close enough to attack before I came back around and slammed the oversized blade down at him, grazing him and knocking him back.

I didn't have any time to celebrate, however, as the Soldier recovered and sent a flurry of scratches at me while I tried to heft Oath of Guardian out of the dirt.

"Hrgh!" I grunted as my HP dropped by 15% before I could shove the Heartless away as I swung my blade around and back to my shoulder.

The Soldier was relentless, and seemed to almost dance around me as it attacked, dropping my precious HP a little bit each time.

I bit back a curse and swung again and again, missing each time due to its small size and speed. This fight was not going well at all, and I began to regret my decision to use Oath of Guardian instead of my much faster and more experienced Iron Sword.

I racked my brain for ideas as I defended against the Soldiers attacks like I had with ZenkaiBoots in the duel, keeping the large blade between me and it.

I didn't have any time to maneuver my way into my inventory to switch weapons, as dealing with the Heartless was a full-time job. I was in desperate need of a sword skill to end this quickly, but all of the skills I had were meant for the one-handed weapon skill.

...unless.

My brain worked overtime as I remembered the skill that Eila had gifted me back with the Little Nepent quest. Retaliation.

It wasn't listed in the skills for one-handed weapons, maybe it was a universal skill?

It was all I had, but I wasn't even sure what the trigger was for it. I haven't been able to use it since I received it, what was different?

I was desperate and on the back foot, just like then. I didn't have any party members helping me at the moment. My health was a bit higher than-

Wait, my health bar.

I glanced to the side, my HP was at 40% and dropping with every lucky strike the Heartless got in.

I gulped as I realized that Retaliation likely only activated when I was close to death, more as a last resort than anything.

But right now I was out of options.

I cringed and stepped out from behind Oath of Guardian.

Immediately I was hit by a barrage of swipes from the Soldiers jagged claws and stubby feet, sending my health plummeting down below 20%.

I grunted through the virtual pain as red pixels floated from my body, and pulled my blade from the ground.

The glow from the human-sized weapon lit the area as the skill began to activate.

"Here I come!" I screamed and let the skill carry me along for the ride as Oath to Guardian danced across the battlefield with more grace than it's likely ever been wielded with.

The scales tipped as the Soldier fell onto the back foot, dodging around my blade as best as it could but still being grazed by the stikes it couldn't avoid.

Damn this thing was agile! I watched as its HP dropped to just over 10% as my skill came to an end, and I felt the horrifying feeling of the Post-Motion effect.

Post-Motion, an effect that makes it so once a sword skill — or a string of skills — ended, the user was left vulnerable for several seconds unable to move.

The color drained from my face as I watched the Soldier land a few feet beside me and hurtle its small body at mine as hard as it could, kicking me in the gut and sending me to the ground.

My HP dropped to 10%, and Retaliation was in a cooldown and unusable.

I struggled to my knees as the Heartless spun and danced around me tauntingly, almost like it had for Sora in the game it had originated.

Is this how I die?

On my knees against a single Soldier?

Pathetic.

I groaned and planted my blade once more as I tried to keep it between me and the Soldier. Praying for the cooldown to finish quicker.

The soldier kicked at Oath of Order, sending a rumble down my arms as I kept it in place, shifting as it tried to circle around and hit me again and again.

My eyes widened in horror as the Heartless finally outmaneuvered me, dodging around my blade as I tried to block in the opposite direction.

I watched it's claws rise and fall in my direction.

0%.

A shatter.

The Soldier was defeated, and standing in its place was an even scarier figure.

Lisbeth let out a sigh of relief and turned towards me, her expression a mixture of relief, anger, and betrayal.

Out of fear, I dropped Oath of Guardian and waved my hands, "L-Look I can explain! I'm sorry I didn't say anything, I-I was just trying to-"

"I don't want to hear another word you, you IDIOT! Do you realize how terrifying it is to wake up and not only not see your partner, but to see their HP dropping like sales at the store!"

Her shouts rang out across the empty field as I cowered beneath her rage.

She pushed her hand up to her forehead with a groan, "First that duel earlier today and now THIS? I'm starting to feel like a babysitter here."

Liz continued to complain under her breath as my mind — which was previously on the verge of accepting my death — finally began to process what was happening as I paled in realization.

"...Liz."

"WHAT?" Her gaze settled on me again and if looks could kill, what was left of my HP would be gone.

I gulped, "I think… Can you… understand me?"

Her eyes widened as her anger sputtered into confusion.

This was going to take some explaining. A LOT of explaining.

-========EEEEEEEE###########_

"So let me get this straight. Your sister is some kind of genius hacker who's been trying to get us out of the game since day one?"

Lisbeth had a skeptical look on her face as she questioned my shoddily put together explanation.

It had taken some coaxing, but I was able to convince Liz to return to our room at the inn before I started to explain why she can now SUDDENLY understand what I'm saying.

The walk back was awkward, to say the least, but it gave me a few minutes to gather my thoughts about what I could say to her that would be believable.

What I came up with was more or less a web of truths that I had crafted into what was essentially a lie.

My sister was a genius, and was in fact hacking to get players out of SAO. What I didn't mention was that it was only me that she was trying to free, seeing as how none of the other players in Aincrad actually existed outside of my dive.

"Yeah, that's right." I confirmed from the edge of my bed.

I was adamant about discussing it here since the inn rooms blocked out sounds unless you were inside, or knocked on the door. It granted us some privacy from anyone who might have been awake at the time.

Lisbeth sighed across from me, sat on her own bed. "I guess you couldn't have exactly told me before now." She brought her wrist up, inspecting a small, silver bracelet adjourned with a set of three intricate magenta jewels. "So what exactly IS this thing."

I scratched the back of my head sheepishly, "I'm pretty sure that was the item Eila made in order to help me speak to other players. Oh, Eila is my sister's name, by the way." I added quickly.

Lisbeth twisted her wrist back and forth as she spoke, "Your sister has good taste, but I guess it explains how I can understand you now. I wonder how it works?"

I shrugged, "I have no idea. She didn't exactly go into detail about how it functions, only that it's supposed to bind to the person who receives it."

Liz cringed slightly as I said that, "So… does that mean I'm stuck with this now?"

I sighed, "Looks like it." It was a bit of a bummer, knowing that I had almost died again for nothing. Now that Liz had the bracelet she could understand and speak the same language as me, but that meant I was still going to struggle communicating with anyone else.

"Sorry I pretty much stole this from you." Lisbeth admitted. I waved her off.

"Don't worry about it. I should have told you what I was doing for the start, so it's my fault to begin with."

She grinned, "It seems we're in agreement on that, then." she teased. "So what now?"

I checked the time in my menu, "Let's get some sleep I guess. I'll send a message to Eila in the morning and explain what happened. Maybe she can figure something else out."

Liz nodded and stood up from her bed, "Alright. Just promise me you won't keep things like this from me anymore. Especially since I can talk to you now."

I nodded, "I promise."

She smiled and pointed to the door, "Good. Now step outside for a minute, I need to change before I go to bed again."

-========EEEEEEEE###########_

November, The Month of Cypress, ended and brought about December, The Month of Holly.

Lisbeth and I continued our partnership all the way to Tolbana, the second largest city on the first floor of Aincrad.

It was also the settlement closest to the first floor labyrinth dungeon, and gave Liz and I access to a welcome increase to our quality of life.

The inns and food accessible to us were noticeably better than we had come across beforehand. Liz practically cheered at the discovery of functioning bathhouses in the city, and honestly I found myself fairly relieved as well.

Even though there was no real measure of cleanliness in SAO, the feeling of actually being able to wash up — even though the sensation of bathing wasn't quite perfect — was something we both craved, if at least for our own peace of mind.

It's the little things.

As it turns out, Liz was still able to speak japanese to anyone who wasn't me, which was definitely something we were relieved about. This more or less designated her as the official translator for me whenever it was necessary, even if she wasn't too thrilled about it herself.

Being able to actually communicate was a HUGE benefit when we were in combat as well, as having the ability to actually strategize above just calling out a 'switch' made battles easier.

We also bumped into ZenKaiBoots and his friends in Tolbana, and the five of us went out on a quest together, followed by a meal at the inn.

I was officially introduced to 'Rillkin' and 'Chayam', a pair of tanks for their small party. It turns out they and Zenkai all knew each other outside of SAO and were planning on forming a guild once it became an option.

It was jovial, and we all were in high spirits as we shared tales of the small adventures we had all had so far.

It was strange to think how accustomed to this world we had all become in less than month, how our normal daily lives were now anything but.

There were days that I forgot how I was the only real person in this virtual meta-world. Everyone was so full of life, and had I not had Eila to message and talk to I may have already forgotten that fact entirely.

Speaking of Eila, she was not pleased to hear that the Bracelet of Allspeak, as she called it, did not make it into my possession.

Actually, she was more disappointed to hear how much trouble a single Soldier Heartless was for me. I'm sure I'll never live it down, even if I get out of here.

It did push me, however, to train with and learn more about Oath of Guardian.

When we first arrived in Tolbana, I made sure to get ahold of a copy of the guidebook written by the beta-testers from one of the shops.

I poured over everything inside with the help of Lisbeth, since it was written by another player in japanese and, therefore, had no translation.

Using some of what I learned about skills, I forced myself to once again use my old Iron Sword, training non-stop whenever I could to level up my One-Handed Sword skill enough to unlock the desperately needed Two-Handed Sword skill. It was a little bitter-sweet in the end, since in order to equip the new skill I was forced to part with one of my current ones.

It just couldn't be simple, huh?

I decided to replace my Sprint skill in the end. I figured that I would rather have the option to fall back on my one-handed skill in a pinch, and I could always reclaim the skill at a higher level, since it was fairly easy to level up compared to my combat skills.

Two-Handed Sword made it immediately easier to hold Oath of Guardian and made it feel lighter when I wielded it. It may have also helped that I was able to gain just enough EXP to reach level 9, to which I added the 3 stat points granted to me into my Strength stat.

I also gained my first usable sword-skill for it, 'Cleave'.

It was a pretty basic skill, similar to the 'Horizontal' skill for smaller swords, but the damage output was by far more severe. It did have a longer cooldown than its smaller counterpart, but the price was worth it in my eyes.

And not a day too soon.

"Thank you all for showing up today. My name is Diabel."

I could practically hear the english translation from the anime as I sat on the stone seating of the outdoor auditorium.

It was December 2nd, the day of the meeting for fighting the 1st Floor Boss.

I was higher up in the stands on my own, for once.

Liz was on the fence about going up against something as strong as the Floor Boss, and opted to wander the market that day while I excused myself to go train with Oath of Guardian some more.

Obviously I was not doing that. I wanted to see this meeting with my own eyes while I poured over my thoughts.

Diabel dies during the boss raid. I can stop it from happening.

But was it something I should actually do?

The thought of willingly letting someone die sickened me, even if that person was just data like Eila said, was I really any different right now?

We had discussed the opportunities to save other players from dying, such as the Moonlit Black Cats from episode three, or Diabel from Episode 2.

In the end it usually came down to her stressing to me how I was being a 'baka'. "You can't go playing with the timeline like this." Or, "You might just make things worse than they already are!"

They were good points… but I figured if I did save Diabel, or even other random players, it would give us more manpower and morale to beat Aincrad much sooner.

I figured I could at least try. In the end, I was sure Kirito would beat this game anyway.

Speaking of the Black Swordsman.

I turned my gaze off to the far side of the auditorium as Diabel explained how the Boss Room was discovered.

Yup, there's the little hero.

He wasn't sitting all by himself. Nearby was the familiar figure of Asuna who still had her cloak and hood up, just like it should be.

I had noticed how the events happening in SAO were displaying a strange hybrid of details from the anime and details from other mediums such as the novels or manga. I wasn't entirely sure how it worked but it was possible that, since the anime lacked content between cuts, the dive machine pulled from whatever info it could find to make the world function properly.

"In that case…" I strained my eyes further back, to the top of the auditorium seating. "Aha!"

It took several moments of staring at the pillars behind us, but I was able to spot a small, shadowed figure leaning against one of the crumbling columns.

Argo the Rat. Information Broker.

"So my hunch was correct after all." I mused.

In the anime, Argo didn't appear during this scene, which means that this SAO was pulling information to keep itself presented as a complete world of players.

I was going to have to ask Eila to send me copies of every novel that existed so I could go over what might happen. My memory on them was kind of rusty.

Shouting from the stage brought my attention back to the front.

Ah, Kibaou was grilling the beta-testers for not sharing resources or items, right on cue.

I absent-mindedly watched the scene unfold, occasionally glancing at Kirito and Asuna as it did.

"So, you're the American player I've heard so much about~"

I damn near jumped out of my skin as a voice emanated from inches away from my head. I choked back a yelp of surprise as I turned my head towards the sound, only to find none other than the Rat herself, sly grin on display.

"H-How did you-?" I stuttered. I didn't even have my weapon equipped in order to avoid any attention.

She chuckled, "Please, did you think someone as skilled in their craft as me would miss someone with hair like that~?" she gestured to the red locks of hair on my head.

Honestly she was right, but I was more surprised to know she could speak english.

Fancy that.

"Alright…" I started slowly, "what do you want?"

I didn't want to get involved with an information broker unless it was of my own initiative. For all I know she could be just fishing for any information she could get out of me that would make her some Cor.

Her sickeningly innocent smile all but confirmed it, "I just wanted to meet the American that used a Buster-Sword in a duel last month. Is that so wrong~?"

Yes. "I guess not." I replied.

"You know, a lot of people would be willing to pay top Cor for a unique weapon this early in the game~" she reasoned. I could see dollar signs in her eyes.

I steeled my expression, "Sorry, it's not for sale."

She raised a finger, "It's not for sale NOW~"

I bit back a groan and tried to play for an advantage, "I'll tell you what. If I ever think about selling it, I'll let you know first."

Argo's smile fell as she contemplated my proposal, tapping her chin in thought. "Hmmm, this needs to be an exclusive deal to me only. Something rare enough that I've never seen it would be worth more than just Cor, to the right people~" she wiggled her eyebrows at me.

She looked like she wanted to say more, but stopped as Kibaou and the crowd began trying to out the beta-testers and Argo specifically. Instead she shot me an almost knowing smile before speeding away from the auditorium.

I lost sight of her quickly, "Great… looks like I'm on the map already." I groaned.

"Oi! Hiro-san!"

I whipped my head back around to find ZenKaiBoots and his party approaching. I smiled, pushing the Rat out of my thoughts and waved.

"Ohayo, Zenkai!" I greeted.

It turns out they wanted me in their party for the raid, since they were only a team of four — they had recruited another member from the crowd — having me would help balance their team.

I hesitated, thinking of Liz. She would not be happy to know that I was taking part in the Boss Raid, and would probably chew me out for it when she found out.

On the other hand, I still wanted to save Diabel from his unfortunate death. It might help to keep Kirito from forcing the burden of being a Beater onto himself as well, in theory.

It was a dumb idea, but I decided to accept.

-========EEEEEEEE###########_

Lisbeth was not happy when she found out that night. Shouting at me, "The Floor Boss?! Are you insane?!"

It was inevitable, but she all but forced me to add her to the party. I didn't even try to argue, and I didn't have a good reason to turn her down either.

The door to the Boss Room was even more intimidating in person, as I stood amongst the raid group. It was now December 4th.

We had spent the better part of yesterday preparing for the raid, learning how to work as a larger raid group and mingling with our fellow 'warriors in arms'.

Actually, I was glad that Liz had tagged along. Since there were many phrases I needed to memorize in order to fight properly.

ZenKai was the party leader for the six of us, and as long as I followed him and switched when I needed to, we would be fine.

I was still worried about the boss's weapon switch, and I cursed myself for not telling anyone about it, but I wouldn't have any way to backup my claims and would probably be outed as some kind of plant by Kayaba if I did. But it was too late to worry about it now.

I was actually able to make decent acquaintances yesterday with familiar faces, such as Agil and Diabel himself. Kibaou tried to grill me about being some kind of beta-tester or hacker because of Oath of Guardian, but he was quickly put in his place by both Liz and ZenKai, whom the latter I was starting to grow a good friendship with.

Oath of Guardian did attract a lot of attention. Almost everyone in the raid party wanted to see it, hold it, or even tried to offer trades for it. I declined those, of course, but I did find enjoyment watching people try to swing it around failingly.

Actually, Agil and Diabel both managed to wield it pretty decently, with Egil managing due to his strength stat and Diabel due to pure force of will.

The only ones who did not approach me about my weapon were Kirito and Asuna. The swordsman seemingly okay with watching while the other was probably still too shy to say anything.

I did share a smile with him, though, when I caught him eying Oath of Guardian from across the way, and that was enough of a conversation for me.

Liz managed to sit down and chat up Asuna, funnily enough, and I could tell that the fencer was a little more at ease knowing that she wasn't the only girl in the raid.

Speaking of which, ZenKai, Rillkin, Chayam, and I had to practically act as bodyguards for the two of them, since it was apparently a big deal that two girls were joining the raid that many of the 'smells-of-desperation' players couldn't help but be creeps towards them.

All of that had ended, however, and now the real show was about to start.

Our party was a supplement group, meaning that we went wherever we were at our weakest as a whole. We stayed back until the fighting started, and then move to cover for those who needed a break or were overwhelmed.

Seemed easy enough. I made it a point to keep an eye on Diabel and his party when things got underway.

"You okay?"

The sudden question shook me from my thoughts and I turned towards Liz, who seemed concerned.

I realized that I was starting to clench the handle of Oath of Guardian fairly tightly, and forced myself to relax.

I took a deep breath, "Just nerves I guess." I replied

Liz patted my shoulder with her free hand, in her other was her Iron Hammer +2. We had both poured some resources into improving our weapons before the raid. Her hammer now having higher durability and heaviness, while my Oath of Guardian had extra quickness.

Her hand was shaking slightly as well, "You're not the only one."

We smiled at each other as Diabel began his pre-battle speech. Lisbeth whispered a translation into my ear as he did, and I tensed up knowing what was to come.

-========EEEEEEEE###########_

Oath of Guardian carved it's way through another Ruin Kobold Sentinel, marking it as the fifth one we've had to deal with since the fight started.

"Switchu!" Zenkai commanded as he charged in to finish it off.

I ducked back, panting as the raid raged on around me. Virtual exhaustion sucked.

I wasn't the only one feeling it, everyone seemed to be running low on juice, but we were getting close to the 25% mark on the boss, Ilfang, The Kobold Lord.

Beside me was Lisbeth, who was switching out at the same time I was. The two of us had the lowest defense in our party, and would rotate in to deal damage before letting the others cycle in to block incoming attacks.

Just a pair of glass-canons, us two.

"How's your health?" I asked aloud, looking over to see Liz downing a healing potion a fast as she could.

With a loud sigh as she finished she responded, "I'll live… but I never want to do this again."

Her complaints elicited a chuckle from me, and honestly helped with my mood a bit.

"How about you?" She questioned.

I rolled my shoulders in response, "I think if maybe a few more of them came at us I'd have a problem." I joked.

"Says the guy who nearly died to a monster half his size not even a few weeks ago?" she teased.

"Hey, I thought we said we'd never bring that up?" I whined.

That got her grinning, "I made no such promises."

"Switchu!"

The two of us refocused, expressions immediately serious as we jumped in to strike at the Sentinel.

A combination of sword and hammer skills from us had the mob exploding into pixels seconds later. Another victory.

*CLANG*

A loud clang cut off any small celebration we might have had, and as we looked towards the main group my eyes hardened.

"It's going into its second stage…"

In the second that followed, I had to make a choice.

Stay with my group, or race in to save the lives of Diabel and his party.

In the end, I had really already made up my mind.

"Hiro-san?!"

"Hiro!"

I ignored Zenkai and Liz as I charged forward as fast as I could without my Sprint skill. Diabel and his party were already moving in to finish off the boss.

Unlike the anime, Diabel actually wasn't out to steal the LA — Last Attack — bonus. Instead, it followed what I remembered from the manga, where it was already decided that he would get it as the Raid Leader.

"Diabel! Stop!" I cried out as Illfang brandished the katana it was concealing.

Behind me I could hear Kirito crying out as well, realizing the situation moments after I had already taken off.

As I crossed the distance between myself and the boss, Illfang roared and bared its katana. In a single motion, the blade curved through the air with a yellow glow, passing across the entire party.

The damage was minimal, but that wasn't the issue as everyone in front of the kobold boss was in varying states of stun, or Temporary Movement Disability. Anyone suffering from the ailment would hardly be able to defend against attacks or escape for a calculated segment of time.

"Buster-san!"

I spared a quick glance as Kirito was able to reach me with his superior Speed stat, Asuna not far behind.

His expression was deathly serious as he nodded at me, and the three of us charged forward, desperately trying to make it in time.

Kirito called out orders to the group over his shoulder as a single sentinel moved to intercept us.

I cringed and moved to slice through it, but the pair of swordsman beside me were faster and made quick work of tearing it apart before I could even activate a skill.

"Diabel-han!"

I returned my attention to the lead party as someone — Kibaou I think — shouted out over the chaos.

Sure enough, Diabel was fighting against the stun and baring his shield to protect another player from an attack.

"Diabel-san!"

"Diabel!" I shouted along with Kirito. The two were behind me again, having spared a precious few seconds to eliminate the sentinel, leaving me free to keep up my pace.

Diabel raised his sword as it began to glow, at the same time Illfang reared his own blade back to finish the knight off.

This was it. I had to block this attack.

I reached Diabel's side with 'Cleave' already activated and flying straight at the boss's katana.

The echo of clashing metal resonated throughout the boss room as my behemoth of of a blade repelled the deadly katana and sending both swords in opposite directions.

The Post-Motion effect took hold and I let a sigh of relief escape me, I had made it.

It was short lived, as the boss now leveled its gaze at me and growled. In its teeth was Diabel's sword, which had been thrust at the monsters face by said knight, only to be removed from his grip entirely.

With a mighty 'CRUNCH', the beast shattered the blade to pieces with a bite, sending shards of pixels flying as it wound up for another attack.

Unlike me, it was not as affected by the post-motion as I was.

"I'm going to show you the true meaning of fear, just you wait." Illfang spoke in a guttural tone.

Surprised was a term I used lightly.

I barely had a time to register the threat as the katana carved towards me.

"Gah!" Instead of the feeling of steel tearing through my body, however, I found myself being thrown to the floor.

I quickly rose to my knees and processed what was happening.

My eyes widened as I saw Diabel standing where I once was, smile on his face as though there was nothing wrong with the world. The only evidence that anything was amiss being the single red line that bisected his body from shoulder to hip.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see the form of Kirito reaching out as if to grab him and hold his body together himself.

I could see Asuna's face of horror as she witnessed her first player death.

I could see Lisbeth running with the most worried expression from afar as she left our party to come assist me.

Through it all, Diabel spoke, "This… is how it's meant... to be."

Then there was a shatter, and the knight was gone.

How it was meant… to be.

His last words carved themselves into my psyche as I heard cries of despair from around.

One cry made my heart stop as I turned back to my party.

Lisbeth was doing the same as she came to halt halfway to where I was crouched as we both watched in horror as our team was overwhelmed by a pair of sentinels.

The team we had both inadvertently abandoned.

"Zenkai!" I screamed my voice hoarse as I watched my comrade's blade shatter, finally having reached its limit and allowing the kobold's heavy mace to slam into the side of his head.

I didn't even hear the shatter from this distance. I felt numb.

"No... " This wasn't how it was supposed to happen… What have I done?

-========EEEEEEEE###########_

Next time on, 'A Machine Between Worlds'...

"Both of you… You're both beta-testers aren't you!"

[Spectators should not interfere in the affairs of this game.]

"The Knight's of the Blood Oath have need of your services."

"Thousand of people in this god-forsaken place and only a handful that speak english."

"You're nothing but a foolish mercenary desperately trying to play the hero."

[Your body wasn't meant to handle a dive longer than a few hours...]

"I'm finished losing! This life is the only thing I have left to lose!"

"Hiro? Is it... really you?"

Next time… 'The Loser'

...END