March 13th, 2024

Over three thousand people had died in Sword Art Online, since Kayaba Akihiko had locked ten thousand players in his mad game of death. There probably wasn't a single player who hadn't known someone who died along the way, even among those who'd stayed back on the First Floor. No one who'd been clearing the frontlines for any length of time had completely avoided that loss.

Klein had been lucky. So far, he'd kept his entire guild alive, from their days as raw newbies to solid members of the clearing group. But he'd known a few people outside Fuurinkazan who'd been killed—and the latecomer to his guild had lost close friends.

He was pretty sure he was seeing most of those now, climbing out of the vats that lay at the center of the Dead Workshop. Rotting skin, tattered gear, battered weapons, and dripping black muck—but still with recognizable faces. One or two of them he knew by sight, from Fuurinkazan's climb up the level curve and from Floor Boss battles. More he knew by word of mouth.

"What now, Boss?" Dale demanded. He'd moved between the player-based Necros and Sachi, warding the freaked-out girl from them with his big sword. "Those things… this is a hell of a nasty trap!"

Yeah. Tell me something I don't know! Klein's mind raced. Raising his sword against things that looked like players, well, he wasn't looking forward to it, but he was pretty sure he could do it. What he wasn't so sure of was that Sachi could, and protecting her in the middle of a melee would be a pain and a half. It'd be easier if he could just send her out, but having her go alone would've been suicidal…

And there wasn't really time to think about it. There were at least a couple of dozen Necros climbing out of those vats now, and the first batch was starting to pick up speed.

Dammit, times like this I hate being guildmaster!

"Dale," Klein snapped over his shoulder, "you take Harry One and Issin, get Sachi out of here, and find whatever shuts this place down. There's bound to be something, if this floor can destroy towns I'm damn sure we can take down a dungeon. Dynamm, Kunimittz, and I will deal with these freaks."

"By yourselves?" Issin protested. "Klein, there's—"

A growl, a leap, and Klein's katana flashed out, cutting down a Necro whose face he didn't want to look at too close with a Tsujikaze. "There's no time to argue! Go, dammit!"

Splitting up was the last thing he wanted to do. That was the dumb thing they did in horror movies. But somebody had to stop the flow of Necros from the Dead Workshop, and somebody else had to make sure the ones already spawning didn't get out and freak out the clearers guarding the stairway.

Dale swore, but had to interrupt himself mid-word to slash at the first of the Black Cat Necros. Zombie Sasamaru stumbled back, gurgling; Sachi whimpered, seeming to recognize the sound, and that seemed to decide Dale. "Give 'em hell, Boss," he said, slinging his sword over his back so he could pick up the cowering girl. "Don't you dare die!"

"Not planning on it." The Necro Klein had swatted out of the air had gotten back up and was stalking toward him, brandishing a scimitar. He waited until the zombie was in close, then whipped his blade out in a Zekkuu across the chest. "We'll meet you outside!"

At least the player that one was imitating had never gotten above the Twentieth Floor. Those two strikes from Klein's katana, with a finishing stab to the heart from Kunimittz's spear when it was grounded, finished the job.

Only when the running footsteps behind them had faded did anyone else speak up. "You sure we can handle this, Boss?" Dynamm asked, edging closer to Klein. "There's gotta be over a dozen of them now. And who knows how long it'll take to find the 'off' switch, if there is one."

"Got any better ideas?" A pause, with neither player saying a word, and Klein smiled crookedly. "Didn't think so. Okay, Kunimittz, you're crowd control. Dynamm, try and finish off anything he knocks down." He brought his sword up to shoulder-level, pointing straight at one particular group. "I've got these guys."

He'd never met any of the Black Cats, except for Sachi and the ungrateful bastard Keita. It was still going to hurt, cutting down mobs Sachi had recognized as friends. Which was exactly why he was doing it, of course. It wasn't a job he was going to give to anyone else.

I'm guildmaster. The toughest jobs are my responsibility. Isn't that right, Kirito?

Klein led with a Hirazuki, letting the skill carry him over to his first target as Kunimittz opened a hole with a Spinning Cane. The high-level charge-type skill took him past the still-stumbling Zombie Sasamaru, and just barely under a mace blow from Zombie Tetsuo. They were the closest—but Klein knew where better to strike first, to divide and conquer.

Neither Kirito nor Sachi ever talked about the dead Black Cats if they could help it. Kizmel had, once, told him a few details. It felt dirty, using that info now to hurt them. To use what he knew to go straight for Ducker's heart, knowing he had the weakest weapon and armor.

He was a guildmaster. He would remember these were nothing but cruel copies, and do his duty.

No matter how much it hurt, hearing the zombie cry out in a voice that sounded all too close to human. Watching Ducker's rotting face contort into an all-too-human expression of anguish, as Klein's sword stabbed into the armored cage around his heart, and threw him back into the vats and the muck that made the Necros.

I'm sorry. I know this isn't really you, but… I'm sorry.

The spear that caught him in the back, just below his armor, driven by Zombie Sasamaru? Klein almost felt it was a penance.

But he was a guildmaster. He had a duty to remember none of these undead copies were real. So as inhuman teeth descended, rotting hands trying to use that spear to hold him in place, Klein reversed his sword in his grip—and stabbed into his own stomach, and through into Not-Sasamaru.

Not enough to kill, him or the Necro. Enough to send the zombie staggering back again, long enough for Klein to recover from the post-motion of the Hara-kiri. Long enough for him to growl, pull his blade out, back, and down, and with a wordless snarl launch the zombie straight into the air with the upstroke of an Ukifune.

"Dynamm!" he yelled, already turning to take Zombie Tetsuo's mace on one gauntleted forearm. "Kunimittz! Kill these things!"

It was like being trapped in a nightmare. So many times, in the last six months, her sleep had been disturbed by visions of her fallen guildmates—her friends—come back to accuse her. The ultimately futile quest for the Divine Stone of Returning Soul had helped her keep those nightmares at bay, yet they'd never gone away completely.

The Dead Workshop brought it all back to Sachi in vivid reality, not at all helped by the architecture being so similar to the dungeon in which half the Black Cats had died. She felt like she'd been thrown right back into that horrifying battle.

She felt helpless. Trapped by the reality that before her eyes faded in and out with visions of the past, Sachi could only cling to Dale as he ran. The thought of drawing her own sword, with Necros whose faces she was terrified would be familiar lurking around every corner, was one she just couldn't bear.

"Oh, now the zombies come out of the woodwork," Issin complained. Eyes half-closed, Sachi could only vaguely see him swatting a Necro into the wall with his sasumata, but she could hear his irritation plain as day. She clung to it, something of stable present against the past that threatened to overwhelm her. "Did that LC freak set this off, or was it just waiting for players to get here?"

"No idea." Harry One's breathing hitched, and then he yelped; from the sound of it, he'd set off another of the Workshop's traps. "Laughing Coffin seems to have some kind of control here, but to hear Kirito tell it Fallen Elf stuff is just that sadistic, too…"

It was. Sachi shuddered at the memory. Though she'd only been in a Fallen Elf dungeon once before, she wasn't about to forget it. Not the way the boss room had been designed for maximum impact on those careless enough to enter—not how vindictive The Commandant had been.

She couldn't make out much detail as they ran. Glimpses of obsidian, flashes of traps. Here and there, just a brief instant of a Necro passing close to Dale's side, before he or one of the others knocked it aside. She could tell they were focusing on speed, not trying to kill any of them; she wasn't sure if she was grateful or not, as one or two of those half-seen faces felt uncomfortably familiar.


"Dammit!" Sachi was jostled by Dale skidding to a sudden halt; through the crack in her half-closed eyelids, she saw a stone wall had slammed down right in their path. "This wasn't here on the way in… hey, guys are we even going the right way?"

"What is the right way?" Issin demanded. "Klein told us to find a way to stop the Workshop from spitting out more zombies, not run. Going back the way we came won't help anyway!"

Right… we went out to find out was happening, and stop it if we could. But… but I…

She saw again Sasamaru's face, rotting, glaring at her. He'd died because of Kirito's choice, while she'd lived. Lived to help the one Kirito had chosen that day. Lived to find the one item that might fix everything, only to find that it was just a lie.

"How can we stop this if we die here? Guys, this place is—son of a—!" Harry One broke off with a grunt, swore, and slashed; Sachi heard the flesh-and-iron sound of his sword crashing into a Necro and rebounding. "This is a maze, with traps, and who knows how many zombies! We might just be better off getting out and calling for reinforcements. I'd take even—"

Grunt, yelp. Vile curse, and a bright red flash, then shattering glass.

"I'd even take the DDA right now," he finished. "This is crazy!"

"We don't have time for that," Issin retorted. "Klein and the others are back at those crazy vats. If we don't stop this, they won't last that long!"

It's happening again. Just like six months ago. That's not… that's not right…

"I hate it when you're right," Dale groaned. "Okay, then, what do we do? Do Fallen Elf zombie-makers even have off switches? And where do we look? If it wasn't where the vats are, then—"

A groaning noise interrupted him. Like stone being pulled aside, somewhere above. Then a series of light impacts, like feet landing on the floor.

"That's not good," Harry One said, with the kind of detached calm Sachi had learned to associate with things going wrong in a raid. "Issin, Dale—"

Roars that were all too human interrupted him, and the air was suddenly filled with flashes of multicolored light that burned right through her eyelids. Sword Skills, accompanied by the shrieks of metal-on-metal, and cursing from her comrades. Her guildmates.

Her friends.

"Damn," Dale breathed. "Sorry, Sachi, I need my hands free. Stay down!" And his arms suddenly slipped away from her, freeing up his hands to swing out his heavy sword, catching a Necro that had leapt over Issin's head. That one went flying with a grunt that made her wince—but there was one slipping past Harry One, angling to take advantage of the post-motion from Dale's skill.

Sachi's boots hit the stone floor, her sword leapt from its scabbard, and she drove a Vorpal Strike into the Necro's face. She didn't have a chance to see whose face it might once have been before the head flew clean off, and the body toppled over backward. "Stay down?" she said, in a low and gravelly voice she hardly recognized. "Not this time!"

Not again! If I'd been faster back then, if I hadn't panicked, maybe no one would've died! I won't let that happen again! Not ever!

Harry One turned to flash a grin over his shoulder. "Good timing, Sachi! You gonna be okay?"

"I'll freak out later," she answered, as Dale brought his sword down in an Avalanche to hammer the zombie she'd beheaded. "No time for that now!"

There really wasn't. From a hole that had suddenly opened in the ceiling, almost a dozen Necros had dropped in. None of them were based on players she recognized, but she considered that a small mercy. In the relatively narrow confines of the stone corridor, numbers alone were going to be a problem. Numbers, and difficulty just striking a blow.

But I can fight, Sachi told herself. I can fight, and I'm going to fight.

"We can't fight all of them," Issin said, thrusting past Harry One to force another Necro back. "Hit the ones that matter, and run! There's gotta be a trick to this place somewhere!"

Awkward, with four players and so many zombies in so tight a space. Which was probably why Dale abruptly pushed to the front, blocking the way with his natural bulk, and spun in a Cyclone to knock the next rank of Necros clear off their feet. That alone staggered three behind them.

That was room enough. Dale leading the way, their half of Fuurinkazan charged back into the labyrinthine hallways of the Dead Workshop.

It wasn't easy going. There were still traps, if seemingly fewer than had been active when they first entered the dungeon. Sachi took a nasty set of stabs to her flank from a row of spikes that suddenly jutted out from one wall when she stepped on just the wrong floor tile. Harry One was flattened against another wall by a giant stone ball that came rolling down a side passage, and Issin nearly lost his head to whirling saw blades emerging from almost invisible slits in a doorway.

Through it all, though, they kept moving. There was at least enough light for them to see well enough, between the eerie blue torches and sunlight streaming in from impromptu skylights. That let them avoid some of the worst traps, and gave them warning when more groups of Necros approached.

It was hard to tell with how maze-like the Workshop was, but Sachi thought they were mostly coming from the interior. At least, her map seemed to point to that. Which meant that they were still coming from the vats—and that they'd gotten past Klein, Dynamm, and Kunimittz.

They were still alive. She could still see their HP bars on her HUD, even if they were gradually creeping lower. Yet they also had status icons showing they'd been bitten, and clearly they hadn't had enough breathing room for Holy Water.

Not that her group had, either. Dale hadn't said a word, but she'd seen him get bitten at least a couple of times along the way. So had Issin.

We have to end this. Somehow.

Shortly after Harry One had brutally destroyed another Necro—one whose face had prompted a bitter curse, leaving Sachi afraid to ask why—they found a stairway, and finally paused. "Stairs," Issin remarked, pulling a bottle from a belt pouch. "I should've figured this place would go up, on top of everything else. Think we're going the right way?"

"We must be," Sachi said after a moment, examining her map. "We've searched just about everywhere else down here. Whatever we're looking for, it must be up there."

"Then let's get going." Dale was downing a bottle of Holy Water himself; his second since they'd stopped, she realized with a chill. "The Boss and the others are running out of time."

He didn't need to tell her. The others' HP gauges were going down faster now, and Dynamm's was flashing in a way Sachi really didn't like. There was also an icon just barely visible, next to the Necrosis status. Very faint, but she had a bad feeling it wouldn't stay that way.

"Right. Let's hurry!"

When a Necro came down the stairs just after, Sachi refused to acknowledge the face it wore. No matter how much seeing that girl again, rotting, hurt.


Wherever Kayaba was, Klein decided, he was going to gut the man. In the real world, if he could manage it. If there was any possible way, he was going to make SAO's mad creator see just what he'd done by letting a salaryman learn what it was to be samurai.

Katana bounced off mace, and with a face like stone Fuurinkazan's guildmaster rode the recoil to bring his blade back and down. With the precision of having practiced long into the night for months, he slid the sword smoothly into its scabbard—and with that same stone mask whipped the katana right back out, the blazing glow of an Iai arcing into Zombie Ducker's throat.

The head, still moaning, flew free, disappearing somewhere in the vat that had spawned the zombie. The horrifying sight of the body continuing to fight, slicing toward Klein in a Fad Edge, was becoming nauseatingly familiar. It was also fortunately brief this time, Dynamm's cutlass stabbing into Not-Ducker's heart from behind with a horrible grinding sound.

The ghastly caricature of the long-dead player shattered into incongruously bright shards, freeing up Klein to whirl and slash at the back of another Necro, just then trying to bash Kunimittz's head in with a mace. Bright red particles flew, the monster staggered with a moan of, "Keeiitaa..." and Kunimittz smashed Zombie Tetsuo in the jaw with the butt of his spear.

The impact sent the zombie staggering right back, with enough momentum Klein had to stand aside and let it tumble right back into the vat that had spawned it. Whether that counted as killing it, he didn't know and honestly didn't care.

Not the first set of Black Cats they'd taken down. Not the only faces they'd seen. Klein had already had to kill one he'd recognized as based on the dead DDA member Hafner twice over. He didn't recognize all the faces the Necros in the Dead Workshop used, but most of them were familiar, and he had a nasty feeling an algorithm was doing it on purpose.

He did know for sure every single face he knew coming from those vats was dead. He wasn't sure if that made it easier or harder. That some of them had started to speak definitely made it so much worse.

Damn good thing I sent Sachi away. She doesn't need to see this… C'mon, guys, find the self-destruct! Any zombie lab has to have a self-destruct!

"Can't keep this up forever, Boss," Dynamm got out, even as he smacked a rotting Sasamaru in the face with his shield. "There's… something wrong with me."

Klein turned to look at him sharply, sheer reflex alone letting him sidestep an Avalanche from a swordsman he didn't recognize. "What is it?" he demanded. "There's no pain here—"

He broke off. The green rot of Necrosis was creeping up on all of them by then, after all the bites they'd taken. On Dynamm, it had started to reach his face, and it brought with it a deeper glow highlighting the veins SAO's graphics engine didn't normally show in detail.

"I'm starting to have a bit of trouble moving," Dynamm said, shifting his sword arm with a wince. "It's like… something's fighting me—argh, not now!" He'd begun reaching for his belt with his shield hand; a whip cracking past his face changed his mind for him. Grimacing, he swatted aside another whip strike, then lunged with his cutlass.

Klein had only the barest chance to wonder who that had once been—whips were just about the rarest weapon in Aincrad, from what he'd seen—before he had to duck a Sonic Leap. Swearing, he waited a split second for his assailant to land, and promptly sent the zombie flying right back into the air with an Ukifune.

Damn you, Kayaba! What the hell is with this floor?!

They still didn't know exactly what the final stages of a Necrosis infection were. Klein had the horrible feeling they were going to find out, if this lasted much longer. Dynamm's was the farthest along, but he and Kunimittz weren't that far behind.

"We have to get out of here, Klein," Kunimittz called, ignoring the impact of a mace against his side in favor of pummeling another Hafner with the repeated stabs and spins of the six-hit skill Gale Dance. "We're not going to help anyone if we buy it here! Either the others are about to find the off switch, or there isn't one to find, so let's just get out!"

Klein swore. But he couldn't disagree. More and more Necros were climbing out of the vats. He was sure all too many had slipped past, into the halls and out of the Dead Workshop entirely. What Dale's half of the guild might've been facing by then, he didn't want to think about.

Even as he spun in a Tsumujiguruma to get at least a little breathing room, he felt jaws tearing away from his shoulder. A flick of his eyes told him his own HP was descending into the yellow, Dynamm's weird status was getting more solid by the moment, and Kunimittz—Kunimittz yelped as he was tackled by three Necros. The yelp turned to a gurgle, the weight toppling him into one of the vats.

"Kun!" Letting out something he wouldn't have said around Sachi, Klein hit the one Necro between him and the vat with the rising first hit of the Flying Crane, letting the charge skill carry him the rest of the way. Reversing his grip midair, he drove his katana down point-first for the second hit, praying he'd aimed right.

By some miracle, he had. When Kunimittz bolted up out of the black muck, screaming incoherently, only two of the Necros were still clinging to him. The mass Klein had landed on must have been the third—and the two remaining were flung off when Kunimittz unleashed the rapid spins of a Rod Typhoon.

Wild-eyed, Fuurinkazan's lancer spat out zombie-muck, took several heaving breaths, and turned a hard look on Klein. "We. Are. Getting out of this damned—"

The rumble from above, like shifting stone, cut him off. The lines of crimson light that suddenly lit up in ominous patterns along the walls even seemed to distract the Necros.

The sound that Klein couldn't help but think was like someone muttering in the Black Speech, almost too low to be audible, more felt than heard? One that his bones were convinced was the evil elf equivalent of a countdown?

Yanking his sword free from the disturbingly motionless body in the vat, flicking the muck off in a purely reflexive motion, Klein gave his guildmates the calmest wide-eyed stare he could manage. "Run?"

"Run," Kunimittz agreed, shaking off the black clinging to his armor.

Dynamm gripped his trembling sword arm with his shield hand. "Run," he rasped.

More Necros burst from the vat, moaning, gurgling, and calling out names Klein didn't want to hear. Swords swung, lances thrust, a mace tried for the back of Dynamm's head.

Fuurinkazan ran from it all—and despite, or maybe because of, the horror, Klein found himself wearing a manic grin. Good work, guys! You found it!

Now let's hope you gave us enough time to not go down with it!

Shuddering, Sachi led the way into the room that lay at the center of the Workshop's top floor. She was going to have nightmares about the place, she just knew it. Her only consolation was that if she could survive this place, there would be nothing in Aincrad that would ever frighten her again.

The others had tried to handle the worst of it. Dale had swatted the last set of zombified Black Cats out of one of the holes in the walls himself, showing himself as the best tank she could ask for. That still wouldn't change the fact that, to reach the end of the mad dungeon, Sachi had had to personally defeat—kill—a copy of the friend whose death had almost led to her own by despair, over a year before.

"This better be it," Issin said in a low voice, following her in. "'Cause I think we're about out of places to check, and the others are out of time."

"Pretty sure this is it," Harry One said, nodding at the center of the room. "We haven't seen anything like that before."

The room itself was fairly small. Made of the same obsidian stone as the rest of the Workshop, this one's rectangular walls were inlaid with glowing tracery of some kind, growing brighter and darker in a rhythm disturbingly like a pulse. All of it led to a circle in the floor, with a single line leading to the object in the middle.

Set in a pedestal, it was an onyx crystal, carefully shaped, pulsing with its own inner light. Sachi had the horrid feeling it was directly linked to the vats on the ground floor.

"If that's what I think it is, you'd think this place would've been guarded," Dale mused. He held his sword in a high guard, peering at the walls as if he expected something to jump out at any moment.

"I think it was," Sachi said quietly, gingerly approaching the crystal. "Someone's been here already. See?" She pointed to the circle. "Broken stones around there. Someone already came in here and smashed those. Activating the crystal, I think, since the… the Necros didn't start spawning until right when we got here."

"Probably not a background element." Issin grimaced. "You think that Laughing Coffin guy got here, took out whatever was guarding the place, and set this off?"

"Yeah." After all, they already knew the whole mess was deliberate. Sachi couldn't comprehend how someone could do that—but she knew Laughing Coffin would. This wasn't the first time, after all, that they'd used the Fallen Elves in a scheme to kill more players.

Something has to be done about them. This… if they can do something like this, who knows what else they might try?

"Okay, we're here." Harry One nodded at the crystal. "I'm going to take a wild guess and say shattering that thing is probably how we stop it. Am I the only one who thinks that's probably going to do more than just shut off the zombie-maker?" The collective silence was apparently the only answer he needed. "Collapsing lair time, then, given what else we've seen lately. And we don't have time to warn the Boss and the others."

Sachi shot him a Look, eyes narrow. "And what do you think he'd say?" She was burning with impatience, seeing her comrades'—her friends'—status getting worse by the moment.

"She's got a point." Dale gestured to the crystal with his heavy blade. "Hit it, Sachi."

She didn't ask why they were giving her the "honor". On the one hand, it bothered her—after everything, the last thing she wanted was to be treated as the weak link. On the other… she knew what they meant. And why.

And I need this. If I'm ever going to sleep again—if I'm ever going to be functional when we get out of this game—I have to do this, with my own hands. My own sword.

Sachi drew her sword back, and with a yell threw herself at the crystal. Five times she stabbed it, cracking its surface with every blow. Her sword came down, breaking a chunk off; back up, taking off a little more. Whirled, and with a scream slashed up with all the force her STR and System Assist could provide.

Onyx shattered—and the lines on the walls lit up with blinding crimson light. The floor shook. And a low, booming voice began to speak, uttering words Sachi didn't understand and never, ever wanted to.

"Self-destruct, check," Issin said calmly. "…Run!"

Out and back the way they'd come, and Sachi didn't even try to object when Dale swept her up into a princess carry. Back into hallways now lit with glowing reliefs, depicting scenes she was just as glad to not have time to interpret. Charging for the stairs down to the next level, ignoring most of the Necros that had followed them up, bodily smashing aside the few that directly blocked their retreat.

They were just down the first stairs toward the ground floor when the ceiling of the floor above crashed down, blocking it off. Not a problem, none of them wanted to go that way again, except—

"If we don't move it, we're not making it all the way down!" Harry One bit out. "Dammit, this is a bad one, what the hell was Kayaba thinking—!"

Two more floors, and the stairs to the next were nearly at the opposite end of the dungeon. Somehow, straining their avatars to the limit, they made it—but only just. This time, the impact of the collapsing stairway knocked Dale off his feet, sending Sachi tumbling to the floor.

And the rumbling was getting worse.

"No time to reach the next," Issin said flatly. "Guys?" He jerked his head at the wall. "Think we're close enough to the ground now?"

Rolling back to her feet, Sachi turned to look, and her eyes widened. One of the massive holes they'd seen on the way in, leading from the second floor of the dungeon right into open air. Under any other circumstances, she wouldn't have even considered risking it.

"No choice but to find out." Her statement was punctuated by a thud, and without looking she knew some of the ceiling on their floor had just caved in. "Jump!"

It said something about what she'd been through lately that taking a flying leap into open air barely registered on her terror meter. Much worse was the feeling of stone brushing against her heel, telling her she'd jumped only barely in time. She hadn't thought there was any room for more adrenaline in her system, but that did it.

For an endless moment, she and her friends seemed to hang. Then gravity remembered them, the ground rushed up, and the not-quite-pain of impact smashed into her face.

She wasn't sure how long she was stunned. All she knew was that, somehow, she'd survived the gamble, and from the lack of shattering sounds, so had the others. Her next coherent thought brought a spike of anxiety, remembering they weren't the only ones at risk—and then a whoop cut through the air, heartbeats ahead of the roar of collapsing stone.

Rolling upright, Sachi saw Klein, Dynamm, and Kunimittz hit the ground in a tumble, having thrown themselves out of the Workshop's main entrance. Unlike her, though, Klein sprang right back to his feet, yanked a crystal from his belt, and rushed to Dynamm's side.

No question as to why. Her heart leapt in her throat, seeing the way Dynamm shuddered, limbs seemingly locked in place. Klein and Kunimittz had thrown him, not just themselves, she realized. And whatever was wrong with him, it didn't look like ordinary Paralysis.

"Stay with me, buddy!" he ordered, moving the crystal over the pirate. "Damn Kayaba and Laughing Coffin both… Heal!"

For a long, horrifying moment, it looked like it wasn't going to work. The status effect discoloring Dynamm's HP gauge seemed to fight the Healing Crystal. Then, with almost palpable reluctance, his HP climbed back up, arrowing toward the blue at a rate Sachi hoped wasn't really as slow as it seemed to her.

Only then did Kunimittz slam down on his knees, yank Dynamm's mouth open, and pour a bottle of Holy Water down his throat. Then another. Then one more.

With agonizing slowness, Dynamm's limbs began to relax. After what Sachi knew intellectually couldn't have been more than a few seconds, he went limp, sighing in obvious relief. "Thanks… guys…" he got out. "That… that was…"

Wide eyed, she crawled over to them, not trusting her knees. "…What happened in there?"

"Badness," Klein said flatly. "I think I know another part of Laughing Coffin's angle here, and I'm going to kill whoever thought it was a good idea for a VR game, much less Kayaba's screwy scheme." Sitting down, he braced himself on his hands and visibly forced himself to relax. "Okay. We're all still here? Everybody heal up. Now."

There was no argument on that one. The next minute or two was taken up by drinking several potions and bottles of Holy Water all around. For all of them, it was the first chance they'd had to recover since the zombies had started climbing out of the vats.

"Okay," Klein said, once the guild's health was collectively back in the blue. "Well. I know the only thing we all want to do is rest, but there's no way we can do that until we find a safe place anyway, so here's the plan." Swiping a hand down, he brought up his menu, set it visible, and tabbed through to his message system. "We're going to warn everybody that some of those player-based Necros got out. Then I'm going to send Lind a message to get Schmidt up here, no arguments."

"Sounds like a plan," Kunimittz agreed wearily, flopping over on his back. "So where the hell do we go, Boss?"

"Working on it. But I know where to start." Klein tapped his menu. "Team Kirito is back on the map. We're going to find them, and hole up somewhere until we get everything sorted out."

Sachi slumped in relief. At least that was one thing that had gone right. If Kirito and Kizmel were back, she was sure everything was going to be okay.

"And then," Klein said grimly, turning to look back at the crumbled mound of black stone that had been the Dead Workshop, "we're going to track down the red players who set this all off. And we're going to kill them."

There were a lot of sensations Kirito had experienced in Sword Art Online, with the many ways the game had to get its point across without inflicting pain. That of his stomach trying to lift into his throat, from everything else falling? That one he'd managed to avoid since the retail version went live, knowing how easily fall damage could kill.

Until, that was, the train previously filled with zombies took a flying leap off a cliff, with him and his party still on it.

They were all fast, even if they hadn't been fast enough to bail before the train hit the end of the tracks. Asuna was first out the hole in the side of the car, hurling herself into open air. Rain was out an instant later, trailed by Philia. Kizmel stumbled, the train starting to twist under their feet mid-fall, but she managed to grab the edge of the hole and push off.

Kirito wasn't more than half a breath behind her. That was just enough for the twist to accelerate, throwing off his desperate lunge—and just as he got his body clear, one ragged edge of the hole caught the tail of his coat, yanking him to an abrupt stop.

From the inside, the twenty-meter plunge toward the lake seemed to take at least thirty seconds. Objectively, he was pretty sure he had less than three to struggle with his coat. At least one second too few for him to get free before the train hit the water, taking him with it.

On the bright side, the fall either wasn't high enough or fast enough to kill him outright. Kirito's HP only dropped to a hair above the red. That still left the problem that he was stuck, the wreckage that had moments before been a train was pulling him down, and in a moment of pure adrenaline-driven clarity, he remembered he'd left his Diving Mask from the Fifty-First Floor quests in storage back at the team's cabana.

It was another second or so of struggling, fighting to keep in his breath as he sank deeper, before that memory reminded him he could solve his problem in just a couple of seconds. That was long enough for it to solve itself, though, his longcoat simply tearing in half from the strain. About enough to resemble a ragged jacket stayed with him, the tail sinking down with the train.

For just a second, Kirito mourned its loss. He didn't forget he was still very much in danger, however, having been dragged a fair ways down before his coat sacrificed itself. As its remnants shattered into polygons around him, and his lifebar began to flash with the Drowning status, he hurriedly brought up his menu and stabbed at the Equipment tab, unequipping everything left as fast as he could.

The weight of waterlogged boots, pants, and shirt disappeared, leaving him light enough to start swimming up toward the unnervingly-distant surface. His HP was starting to drain, bringing him down into the red, but he thought he still had a chance—

Kizmel, stripped down to her own undergarments, suddenly filled his vision. Eyes wide with relief, she grabbed his hand, adding her efforts to his own.

Endless moments later, Kirito's HP about as low as he'd ever seen it, their heads broke the surface. And just then, he didn't care where they were or who might be watching. After a quick gasp for breath, he pulled the elf girl into his arms and kissed her, then and there, as hard as he could.

She reciprocated enthusiastically, and for those few moments the horror of the last two days and the danger of the past moments was driven from his mind completely. All he could feel was her, and right then he needed that.

When they did break apart, Kirito's health in danger from suffocation for a completely different reason than before, Kizmel smiled. "I was going to scold you for being slow to escape," she said, resting her chin on his shoulder as they tread water together. "But I believe, for that, I will forgive you, Kirito-kun." Pulling back far enough to meet his eyes, she lifted one eyebrow. "Or at least, as Argo would say, I'll consider it a 'down payment'."

He gulped, flushing at the realization of just what she meant. Not that he minded, exactly… "Later," he said, when he was sure his voice would be steady. "Right now, we should get to shore and heal up. Who knows what monsters might be in this lake."

"Mm. True. But I'll hold you to that, husband."

Soon they were swimming to shore, and then they were collapsing on the beach, where the other girls were already waiting. They were drinking potions like water, and if they were blushing, well, Kirito wasn't going to comment. Or apologize. A near-death experience earned him a reminder he was alive.

After Kizmel had practically forced a potion down his own throat, they flopped gracelessly down by the others, too tired to even move. "Well," Philia said at length. "That was a thing. I don't think I ever want to see a train again."

"Me either," Asuna groaned. "I thought I had enough of that IRL… At least I was never in a derailing before." Sighing, she propped herself up on one elbow, high enough to enter Kirito's field of view. The fact that she, too, was down to her underwear, the wet cloth clinging more than a swimsuit would've, barely registered to him. "What do you think happened to Kuze?"

"I doubt that fall killed him," he said wearily. "We'll have to go looking for him… Later. Right now we've got no clues, and I don't know about you guys, but I need to rest."

"After fighting through an entire train of zombies, a PKer, and a train derailment?" Rain managed a snort. "Yeah. I say we find the nearest town and crash. We need to report to the clearing group anyway, right?"

"Especially after being out of contact for a day," Kizmel agreed. Shifting closer to Kirito's side, she surprised him with a chuckle. "At least we've already had a bath?"

"I guess we have," Asuna said, smiling. "Nothing like what a good Dark Elf bath is like, though."

"Well, of course not. You humans simply haven't mastered that to the extent we have…"

Kirito couldn't help a tired smile of his own at the banter. It reminded him of earlier days in Aincrad, before they'd learned just how dark the game—and the players—could get. True, Asuna was a lot pricklier back then, but on a good day… It was fun.

We have to clear this floor. I want that feeling again. Here, the stakes are just too high.

He had a feeling of the world tilting at the thought. Sometimes, it was hard to remember risking his life on a daily basis wasn't normal, that a crisis like the one on the Fifty-Seventh Floor was objectively not much worse than his entire life had become.

This is normal, now, Kirito thought, pushing himself up enough to look around at his party. Over a year now, and this is just… normal. …I shouldn't like it so much.

When his gaze crossed Rain, the girl abruptly flushed, arms twitching as if she wanted to cover herself. "Ehehe… maybe it's about time we got dressed, guys? I mean, we're out of the water…"

The sound Kizmel made, Kirito couldn't quite interpret, though he thought it was more amusement than anything else. Philia only blinked and shrugged. Asuna… Asuna took a quick look down at herself, visibly realized just how revealing her undergarments were when soaked to the skin, and turned bright pink.

She surprised him, though, by giving a shrug of her own. "I don't see the rush. There's no mobs around, and it's not like Kirito-kun hasn't seen us all in less by now."

This time, Kirito was sure, Kizmel's reaction was a stifled chuckle, even as he flushed red. Not that she was wrong, of course, but her speaking so casually about it did surprise him. I guess she must've gotten used to it? I mean, back then, we did kind of have really bad luck with that…

Rain, though, uttered a squeak, and Philia's jaw dropped. "In less?" the treasure hunter said, staring at Asuna. "I mean, yeah, he and Kizmel, um, well… but, you and Kirito, too…?"

Asuna looked back at her, puzzled—then flushed crimson as the implication sank in. "No, no, no!" she said quickly. "Not like that! It was back in the Elf War quest! The Dark Elves don't have gender-segregated baths, and a certain someone here—" she turned a slight glare on Kizmel, who only smiled back "—decided it would be fun to trick us into thinking one hot spring was separated."

"All I said was that there were separate entrances," Kizmel said serenely, shifting to press closer against Kirito. "It is hardly my fault if you assumed that applied to the spring itself."

"Yeah. Sure." Shaking her head, Asuna looked back at the other girls. "You mean Kirito-kun hasn't seen either of you, um…?"

Rain quickly shook her own head, steam coming out of her ears. A verbal response was apparently beyond her. "In 'less' than this?" Philia finished, bemused. "Um. No. Just the swimsuits on the Fifty-First Floor. The cabana even has two bathrooms."

"I'm honestly surprised." Asuna settled back on the sand, chuckling. "Kirito-kun has a way of stumbling into situations like that. Maybe he settled down when he and Kizmel started dating?"

"We haven't been together that long, Asuna," Kirito protested. Stupidly, he knew—but he never had been able to keep his mouth shut, when he felt the need to correct the record.

"Yes, you have," she said firmly. "You just didn't want to admit it."

He opened his mouth to deny that, only to abruptly close it again when Kizmel nudged him. Which, he had to admit, was fair enough. The simple truth was that, if he hadn't been held back by the inequity of Kizmel not knowing the truth of her world and existence, even he would've acted on his feelings at least a month or two sooner than he had.

And, I guess, we weren't exactly acting like we were "just" partners for awhile before that. …Considering some of what Kizmel did in that time, maybe Asuna has a point about why I haven't been in awkward situations with other girls in awhile. Kizmel's kept it focused on her for months.

At least since the Forty-Third Floor, anyway.

"Oh, there you guys are! Glad you're all okay!"

There was a collective start at the voice, quickly exchanged glances—and then a mad scramble for their menus. However bizarrely comfortable they'd gotten with each other, none of them were so sanguine about someone else stumbling on them in the state they were in.

Regular clothing and armor hastily reequipped—Kirito reluctantly settling for his spare longcoat, an old and by then shabby one—attention turned to the new arrival. Strea, that was, the "agent of Cardinal", who was walking down to the beach with a cheery smile.

"Yeah, we're okay," Kirito told her, wearily climbing to his feet. "What about you, Strea? Last we saw, you were jumping out of the train. I know you said you don't have Immortal status…"

"Eh, no big deal," she said, with a careless shrug. "I knew how much damage the fall would do. Worth it, to get to the track switch in time."

It took a moment for that statement to sink in. When it did, Asuna beat the rest of them to the punch, good humor vanished from her face in favor of her Vice-Commander mask. "Excuse me, Strea," she said slowly. "Are you saying you sent the train going to the lake?"

"Well, yeah," Strea admitted readily, with a quizzical tilt of her head. "That player is one of the primary causes of the system errors on this floor. Cardinal isn't allowed to quarantine players, so I had to take measures within the gameplay engine. With the Necros gone, Cardinal was allowed to disable the brakes, but redirecting the train was judged a better plan."

Kirito wondered, vaguely, why Cardinal had been allowed to disable the brakes even then. That question was overshadowed, though, by the implications of the rest of her statement. The AI had just more or less admitted to trying to kill a player directly—and hadn't addressed the elephant in the room.

He almost brought it up himself, but Rain got to it first. The embarrassment of the past few minutes gone, she was looking at Strea with a very wary expression. "Strea," she said, very carefully, "you do realize you almost killed us in the process, right?"

"I know! That's why I'm so glad to see you all got out okay." Strea stuck out her tongue, tapping the side of her head sheepishly. "Sorry about that. Like I told you before, system stability is my priority. I'll try to warn you next time!" Nodding as if that settled everything, she gestured back the way she'd come, toward a road just barely visible from the beach. "Now, c'mon. There's a Dark Elf outpost not too far from here. We can regroup there. It's not an instanced map, either, so you guys can check messages and find out how things have been going while we were in quarantine."

The AI turned then and started back toward the road, looking for all the world as if she expected Kirito's team to just follow after.

After some shared, uneasy glances, they did. But Kirito didn't miss Rain sticking close to Philia, one hand resting almost too casually on the hilt of her sword. Nor how Asuna tucked in on his left, almost as close as Kizmel was on the other side. "We'd better keep an eye on that girl," Asuna murmured, almost too low to hear. "I know she told us upfront she wasn't really on 'our' side, but I didn't expect… that."

"Me, either." Kirito shivered. "At least with Tia, we know to expect problems. Strea's a wild card. And… I'm not sure I like that there's a Dark Elf outpost here. That's a little convenient, don't you think?"

"It is," Kizmel agreed. She was looking distinctly uneasy, and he didn't blame her. Except for a brief visit to the Royal Capital to confirm her own existence, she hadn't been to a Dark Elf map of any kind since learning the truth. "I would suspect this is either Kayaba or Cardinal taking a more indirect hand—"

Kirito didn't ask why she broke off. He felt it, too: the prickling on the back of the neck. The conviction they were being watched, by something hostile. Though he kept following Strea at a steady, relaxed pace, his hand crept up to the Baneblade's hilt. If Kuze had caught up with them, he fully intended to make the PKer regret it.

"You…" came the voice from the treeline, a few dozen yards on the opposite side of the road. "Found you…! Kirito…!"

Damn! I would've preferred Kuze!

"It's that thing again!" Rain called, just as the Revenant emerged from the trees at a dead run. "How did it find us?!"

"You don't wanna know!" Strea told her, unslinging her heavy sword. "Look, I'm sending you the map data—get going! I'll hold this thing off, and meet you at the Twilight Fort later!"

"Kirito…!" the Revenant roared. "You… kill you…!" Faster than something its size had any right to be, the glowing eyes behind its heavy helmet fixated on Kirito, chilling him to the bone. It wasn't looking at Asuna, or Kizmel, or even Strea.

It wanted him. Whatever bizarre mob it was, it wanted him. It reminded him all too much of The Commandant, only this felt somehow more personal.

He didn't want to stay and fight. The Revenant invoked exactly the kind of primal fear for him that ghosts did for Asuna. At the same time, he couldn't stand the thought of leaving Strea to fight it alone, however unpredictable she was. It wasn't right.

She didn't seem to agree with him, though. Moving in a blur that said her AGI was as high as her STR, Strea put herself right in the Revenant's path, and swung her huge sword up to block its even bigger weapon. "I said go!" she yelled. "You and Fuurinkazan are the best chance to stop Laughing Coffin's exploit! I promise, I'll be fine!"

"Out… of… the way…!" The Revenant hauled back, beginning an Avalanche—only to be countered by Strea whirling her own blade in a Cyclone. "You won't… stop me…!"

It opened its mouth wide, then, in what Kirito recognized as a pre-motion rather than speech. He yanked out the Baneblade then—only for Asuna and Kizmel to yank on his free arm. "We're leaving," Asuna hissed at him. "She's right, Kirito-kun!"

"I doubt this will be the end for Strea," Kizmel agreed, pulling him in the wake of the already-fleeing Rain and Philia. "Remember—the clearing depends on our success, Kirito. We cannot stop here."

Trust the knight to get to the heart of the issue. Swearing, Kirito let the Baneblade fall back into its scabbard, and ran. "Get out as soon as you can, Strea!" he called over his shoulder. "We'll be waiting!"

Strea risked a smile back, even as she slammed down to one knee from the roar the Revenant unleashed. If she got out any verbal reply, though, Kirito never heard it. All he heard was the clash as she somehow, visibly struggling against the Stun effect, brought up her sword to block the Revenant's.

That—and one last roar. "You won't… escape… me… Twinblader…!"

"Fort" was perhaps something of an overstatement for what the team found, a kilometer or so from the lake. Deep within one of the not-quite-alive forests of the Fifty-Seventh Floor, its structure most reminded Kizmel of human towns from the previous floor. A simple outer wall, made from logs with sharpened tips. Within those walls, a handful of log cabins.

It would've surprised Kizmel, even after learning the truth of "construction" within Aincrad, on any other floor. Among the elves, even the Fallen, cutting down live trees for such a task was an unthinkable act. The twisted woods of the Fifty-Seventh Floor, she suspected, represented a loophole of sorts.

In any case, it wasn't the architecture that had her so uneasy, passing between the Twilight Fort's guards and into the outpost itself. This was the first time Kizmel had been back to Dark Elf territory since she'd truly accepted the nature of Aincrad. It was… unsettling.

"You okay, Kizmel?" Kirito murmured in her ear, as they headed toward a cabin somewhat larger than the others. "We can leave, if you want."

She watched a pair of guards march around the inner perimeter, with a precision she now recognized as unnatural. Watched another elf busily tidy supplies by another cabin, moving the same items again and again. A small group was sparring in one corner, occasionally switching out, but never quite leaving.

Only the lack of comparison with real, living beings could've blinded her to the truth for so long, she realized now. In a world of dolls following a script, only she and her family had ever had anything resembling the life of the Swordmasters.

"I'll be fine," she said now, shaking her head. Not that she was even fooling herself, really, but… "We have little choice. Once we have our bearings, we can head for Reccoa City. Until then, we need somewhere safe to rest, and I suspect this is the best we're going to get for now." She glanced at him sidelong. "Are you all right?"

Kizmel knew the answer to that question, of course. Kirito hated leaving others to fight while he ran. Truly, she normally did as well—but she didn't trust Strea. The girl was friendly, and a great aid in battle, but it was plain they were allies of convenience only. If Strea was willing to cause a train derailment with them onboard, when they were supposedly facing the same threat, who knew what she might do when their interests were less aligned.

Somewhat to her surprise, Kirito's smile and shrug were only half-feigned. "I'm worried about Strea, yeah. But she's tough—and I don't think the Revenant was interested in sticking around to fight her, anyway."

"That's for sure," Asuna agreed, shivering. She cast a wary look back at the gates, once again closed now that they were all inside. "I'm glad this is a walled fort. As long as nobody opens the gates at a bad moment, that thing shouldn't be able to get in here."

"Don't even say that," Rain told her sternly. "That thing was after Kirito. Let's not give anything that might be listening any ideas, okay?"

"Twinblader", the Revenant had called Kirito. After also calling him by name. Which meant… well, Kizmel didn't really know what it meant, that such a strange monster had both known his name and directly called out his secret skill. It might have been nothing—but if there was one thing she'd learned, since joining forces with Kirito, it was that quests that singled out one or the other of them were seldom as generic as the usual fare of Aincrad.

"Uh, guys?" Philia said, interrupting her introspection. Nodding ahead to the cabin they were approaching, she continued, "Is it me, or does it look like that girl is coming for us?"

Not the treasure hunter's imagination, Kizmel was fairly sure. Coming out of what she was also fairly sure was the Fort's headquarters was a Dark Elf in Royal Guard armor. A bit shorter than Kizmel herself, she judged, with long black hair tied up in a ponytail. Her face was… gentle, was the best Kizmel could think of to describe her. Similar to someone else she'd known, she thought, but couldn't quite place who. She also wore a rapier not too different from the Chivalric Rapier a Dark Elf blacksmith had once forged for Asuna.

A fairly unique appearance, for a Dark Elf. Once Kizmel would hardly have noticed; now, it was hard not to pick up on how distinct this knight was, compared to the lesser warriors in the fort. If she was any judge, that likely meant they had stumbled on one of the "tailored" quests she and Kirito had so often been guided into, during their partnership.

Then again, Viscount Yofilis is a distinctive man himself, yet Yofel Castle hosts more than merely "our" quests. I shouldn't borrow trouble. …Though the fact that she has an exclamation point over her head does not reassure me.

Either way, the elven knight walked right up to the party, brought her right hand to her chest in salute, and inclined her head. "Swordmaster Asuna, Lady Kizmel, everyone," she said. "Welcome to the Twilight Fort. I'm Vanel, of the Pagoda Knights, second in command here. Dare I hope you're here because of the crisis with the Necro Plague?"

Kizmel exchanged quick glances with Kirito and Asuna both. Usually, when Dark Elves took note of any of them by name, it was herself and Kirito… "We are," Asuna answered for them, taking the initiative. "I take it the Dark Elves here are affected by the situation, as well?"

"Everyone on this floor is, Swordmaster," Vanel answered, even as the symbol over her head turned to a question mark. "As will be all of Aincrad, if this isn't stopped. Unfortunately, there's little the Dark Elves can do alone. My commander has even gone missing, with a group of our best knights. I could only hope that Swordmasters who knew us might come here… Will you please join me?"

There was something deeply surreal about the whole thing, Asuna thought, as she found herself leading the rest of the party into the Twilight Fort commander's cabin. It was almost like being back with Kirito, running the Elf War campaign quest, except with a couple of extra players along. And with herself still in the command position she held in Knights of Blood, at that.

Why Kirito and Kizmel were letting her take the lead, she wasn't sure. Though the fact that both of them apparently had their own reasons to be unsettled might've been related. Not to mention, Kirito-kun has always preferred to let others do the leading, she thought ruefully, walking into what appeared to be the commander's office. I wonder how his party functions when I'm not around?

Though there was a desk in that room, made of the same eerie wood as the fort itself, the Elven Royal Guard Vanel led them to a table off to one side, instead. On it was a map of the Fifty-Seventh Floor, with more detail than the player party had managed to put together yet.

"We don't know exactly what is happening here," Vanel began, nodding down at the map. "You're the first contact we've had with anyone from the other side of the Garda Mountains for over a week now. We did receive a message from the humans guarding their settlements in that region, however, just yesterday morning."

"Humans contacted the Dark Elves?" Philia said, surprised. "I, um, kinda thought the two races didn't have much to do with each other…?"

"We don't," Vanel agreed. "Though that's begun to change, since Swordmasters Kirito and Asuna helped Lady Kizmel end the war with the Forest and Fallen elves…"

Kirito twitched at that, and Asuna didn't blame him. It was very unusual for a non-instanced map to acknowledge their specific run of the Elf War campaign. Not quite unheard of, admittedly, and they were in a situation that had Cardinal itself scrambling, but still. She made a mental note of it.

"Regardless," Vanel was continuing, "this situation is unlike anything our races have dealt with since the Great Separation. Unfortunately," she added with a grimace, "the human courier succumbed to the Necro Plague himself, and we were forced to put him down. The dispatch he carried, however, told us what was happening, and the suspicions their guards held as to the cause." She tapped a spot on the eastern edge of the map. "Somehow, a human must have gotten inside the Dead Workshop, and revived the Mordite crystal at its core."

"Dead Workshop," Rain repeated, even as Asuna shivered. "No, that's not creepy at all… Mordite?"

"And what makes you so sure it was a human?" Kirito jumped in. "No offense, but couldn't it have been an elf?"

"Mordite is essentially the opposite of a human Healing Crystal," Vanel answered Rain. "The Fallen Elves found a way, long ago, to turn its properties as crystallized anti-life to the creation of an undead plague. Which is part of why we're fairly sure it was a human who restored it," she went on, turning to Kirito. "While it's possible there may yet be Fallen Elven remnants, it seems… unlikely, given recent events."

The end of the Elf War, and the destruction of the "remnant" that had nearly wiped out the Black Cats, Asuna was fairly sure. Theoretically, given that the Elf War wasn't "really" over, there might still have been others, but she suspected Vanel had a point.

Besides, lore or not, we know Laughing Coffin is in this up to their necks, she reminded herself. It's just a question of how.

"More directly," Vanel said then, "the courier had made an addendum to the message, from his own observations. The Necro Plague was being directed by someone's will before the Dead Workshop was revived, and there is only one artifact capable of such. Considering it was entrusted long ago to a human king, whose demesne now lies on the Forty-Third Floor…"

Asuna didn't miss the way Kirito and Kizmel glanced at each other at that, nor how they looked just as quickly away, both of them with just the faintest hint of a blush. The Forty-Third Floor again. What in the world happened back there? One of these days, I'm going to drag that out of them.

This wasn't the time for that, though, and she knew it. "That's something we'll look into, then," Asuna said aloud. "We've already met the human who got the artifact. I don't suppose you have any suggestion as to where he might've gone?"

"Three possibilities come to mind," Vanel answered. "The Fifty-Seventh Floor was, once, a bastion for the Fallen Elves. The Dead Workshop was only one of four strongholds they had here." She tapped a spot on the southwest edge of the map. "We're here, not far from Lake Zelora. Northeast of here is Reccoa City, the largest human settlement on this floor. A rail line links the city here—" her finger moved almost due west of the city "—to the Revenant's Lodge. North of that is the Revenant Proving Grounds. Either of those are possible, if the culprit is simply seeking more minions."

"That's not what he's really after," Philia said immediately, shaking her head. "That guy, Kuze, seemed to be trying for something bigger. He called the Necros on the train a 'bonus'."

Vanel nodded. "If he knows what the artifact he bears can really do, I'd expect as much." Her finger moved west again, to the image of a tower. "In that case, the man responsible for this is most likely going here, to the Necromancer's Tower. To the Lair of Vestar, the Fallen Elf Necromaster who unleashed the Necro Plague ages ago."

Asuna swallowed. She liked zombie movies, yes, but this was getting to be too much for her. She hadn't felt this entangled in SAO's world, this much like Aincrad and its quests were real, since the height of the Elf War.

And that quest might've been real, at least in the danger of the Sanctuary, she reminded herself. Just like this one has the potential to overrun all of Aincrad, if we don't stop it.

"What would he find at the Necromancer's Tower, Lady Vanel?" Kizmel asked then, entering the discussion for the first time. There was a shadow in her eyes, as if she, too, was remembering the end of the War. "What would be worse than what he's already found, and used?"

"What almost ended everything, before Vestar was stopped," Vanel replied, straightening from her perusal of the map to meet Kizmel's eyes. "If he'd had the chance to bring the Mordite and the Necromaster Armlet there, he might've corrupted all of Aincrad. Even if this 'Kuze' can't enact the worst-case scenario, he could do terrible harm regardless. Because at the top of the Tower lies the horrific result of Vestar's experiments: the Well of Life…"

There was something deeply nostalgic about sharing Dark Elf field lodgings with Asuna and Kizmel again. Though it was a log cabin this time, it was about the same size as the tent the three of them had used in the Dark Elf camp all the way back on the Third Floor. Despite the construction material, the bedding consisted of fur rugs and blankets.

It was different, with Philia and Rain along, and Kizmel tucked under his own blanket. But it still made Kirito strangely nostalgic. Almost… homesick, as little sense as that made.

Even with Kizmel's warm softness pressed against him, though—and Asuna crowding closer than she usually did, on the other side—Kirito couldn't relax as he had back then. There were too many whirling thoughts in his mind, each darker than the last. It had been that kind of day.

"The Well of Life, huh?" Rain mused, not even bothering to ask if the others were still awake. "So, um, correct me if I'm wrong, but… isn't that what the Baneblade is supposed to need, for its next power-up?"

"That's what it said," Philia confirmed. The two of them were on the other side of the cabin, not quite cuddling for comfort themselves. "I noticed Vanel didn't explain what it was, but I kinda got a bad feeling about that."

"It has to do with the Fallen Elves," Kirito said wearily. "If we don't all have 'bad feelings' about it, we'd be crazy." The only time contact with anything Fallen Elf hadn't ended at best disturbingly, in his experience, had been Hyrus Fortress. And even that, now that he thought about it, had had the extremely eerie Mirror Boss.

"At least we don't have to worry about the 'worst-case scenario'," Kizmel said, voice muffled by Kirito's chest. "For that, we're all in Fuurinkazan's debt."

"We sure are." Asuna let out a long, wavering sigh. "Kirito-kun? I know you have this guilt complex thing, but you really did good, helping Guildmaster Klein. Fuurinkazan joining the clearers has really helped."

Kirito shifted uncomfortably at the praise. Personally, he still considered himself a coward for abandoning Klein on launch day. Still, Kizmel was finally getting it into his head that, just maybe, he'd done some good along the way.

Especially with Fuurinkazan, he admitted to himself, idly stroking his wife's hair. If what I taught Klein had anything to do with it, I'll count that as a good deed.

He hoped Fuurinkazan was still okay. The message he'd gotten, after the meeting with Vanel, had had the deeply relieving news that the Mordite crystal had been destroyed. The news that Reveno Village had also been overrun was less welcoming, and he didn't like Klein's implications that someone in the DDA was hiding a lead one bit.

Worse was the knowledge that Klein was intending to lead his guild through the Garda Mountains railway tunnel to reach Reccoa City. Not that there was much choice, with inhabited towns on the east side of the mountains gone or overrun, but the idea was still worrying. Judging from the map Vanel had provided, the best Fuurinkazan could manage for resting along the way was a field safe zone or two.

It might not be that bad, though, Kirito reminded himself. Klein said he was going to insist on the DDA sending some people, and drag along a Knight or two from the KoB. If they meet up along the way…

He did, at least, have some reassurance about Strea. An instant message from her had arrived just as his party was settling in for the night, saying she was going on ahead to Reccoa.

Though the Revenant is still out there, she didn't kill it… and from what Vanel said about a "Lodge" and "Proving Grounds", there might be more. Dammit, Kayaba, what were you thinking with this floor?

"What are you going to do for armor, Kirito-kun?" Asuna asked a few minutes later, with the air of someone looking for a less disturbing topic. "You lost your coat in the train wreck, right? That spare of yours looked pretty ratty."

"Yeah," he said, with a shrug that drew a wordless complaint from the elf girl resting on his shoulder. "It's an old backup, nothing recent." And given that he was normally a lot more careful about his gear in the field, he only had that one with him because of a previous incident that had involved one outright dissolving. He'd learned his lesson then.

It said something about the situation that he was almost tempted to tell that story, despite the company. Casual as Asuna had apparently gotten about the whole idea, he was pretty sure the Slimold Caves on the Forty-Third Floor would still have gotten quite the reaction out of her.

"We'll have to look into that, then," Asuna said, finally sounding tired. "Reccoa City should have an armor shop somewhere…"

"And if they don't have anything long and black," Philia put in with a sleepy chuckle, "we'll just scrounge. Sounds like a fun quest, when all this is over."

It did, at that. Silly as it was, Kirito had gotten so used to wearing black longcoats that he felt deeply uncomfortable without them. He didn't personally buy into the whole "Black Swordsman" thing, but he couldn't deny the rep sometimes had its uses.

We'll ask Argo about that, when we finish this floor off, he thought, pulling Kizmel a little bit closer. Klein and Sachi stopped the Dead Workshop, Vanel implied taking out Kuze's armlet should stop the plague… at least we've got leads, now…

Just before he could drift off with that comforting thought, Kizmel pulled herself up, slowly and quietly, to whisper in his ear. "A fine quest indeed," she said, breath warming the side of his face. "But my reward comes first, husband. I insist…"

March 14th, 2024

Reccoa City was a welcome sight indeed, when the party emerged from the woods south of the human settlement. Kizmel could see her friends' shoulders easing—Kirito's in particular. Her husband had been understandably tense since their morning departure from the Twilight Fort, given the Revenant was still out there somewhere.

So far, there had been no sign of the persistent monster. There'd still been more than their fair share of "ordinary" Necros wandering about, which spoke ill of the situation at large. While Kuze's attempt at bringing them directly into Reccoa had been foiled, either he or the PKer Fuurinkazan had reported had clearly been busy with a secondary plan.

At least we had assistance of our own, this far.

Vanel, leading the small party of Dark Elves that had accompanied them, breathed a sigh of relief. "Reccoa City still stands, then," she said, sliding her rapier back into its scabbard. "Their guards were supposed to be more capable than most, but with a pair of Swordmasters turned against them… I admit I was worried."

"I hear that," Kirito muttered, sheathing the Baneblade and Andvar. Even with the Dark Elf escort, he'd resorted to Dual Blades in the interests of crossing from the southern side of Lake Zelora to the city as quickly as possible. "The way this week is going, I half-expected… never mind. If the city is still okay, we can base ourselves here for now."

"Good." Vanel raised her fist to her chest in salute. "This is as far as we go, Swordmasters. I wish you luck."

"You're not coming to the city?" Asuna said; more curious, Kizmel thought, than truly surprised. "I thought Dark Elves and humans are on better terms now?"

"We are, but I have my duties," Vanel replied regretfully. "I still have hope my commander will return alive, and if he doesn't, someone has to command the Fort. Either way, I'll send a courier as soon as we learn anything more."

With a respectful nod, the Royal Guard turned back to the forest, leading her knights away from the city.

Kizmel still felt a pang, watching them go. Standard "NPC" behavior, she knew now, and her quest log even reflected Vanel's parting words: [Search For Clues To Necromaster's Location (Optional: Await Word From Royal Guard)].

She was still undecided as to whether it was more or less eerie to know that what she'd once thought of as "Mystic Scribing" didn't magically summarize, but rather was directly connected to the "system" that ordained events in Aincrad to begin with.

"We shouldn't be surprised they're not coming with," Rain said then, turning back to face Reccoa. "You ask me, Cardinal is improvising to try and fix this mess, and it's not sure what the next step is yet." She flicked a glance at Asuna. "So. 'Vice-Commander'? Do we go looking, or do we wait for info?"

Asuna frowned. "First," she said after a few moments, "we go looking for merchants. We weren't able to repair or restock at the Twilight Fort, and it's been days. Kirito-kun, especially, needs some new armor. After that… well, we'll see. Fuurinkazan is supposed to be meeting us here in the next couple of days, with more clearers, and Strea should be in town somewhere."

"Maintenance and resupply, check," Philia chimed in, giving her scratched and notched swordbreaker a rueful look. "Dunno how long we want to wait around, though. I don't think it's a good sign that we were fighting so many Necros on this side of the mountains."

Kizmel didn't like it, either. Not least because of the question of where, exactly, Kuze had found enough humanoid mobs to infect so quickly. Most of them had seemingly started life as goblins and other demi-humans, which at least suggested he hadn't managed to wipe out another town, yet that only brought up other possible hazards. If nothing else, no likely dungeon had been on Vanel's map.

Even so…

"That just means we have to be more careful," Kirito said, anticipating her thoughts. "We know there are at least two PKers around, making this a two-pronged attack. Kuze is probably going for the Necromancer's Tower, if he isn't there already, but that still leaves the other one unaccounted for. Even if we end up taking the Tower by ourselves, I'd prefer backup heading off whatever the other guy is doing."

"Indeed," Kizmel agreed. "The train, we dealt with alone of necessity. I'd rather not have to do that again."

"It's a risk, but one we have to take for now," Asuna said decisively. "If we get word that the stairway guards are being overwhelmed, we'll rethink a daring assault. For now, I'd rather we were ready."

Discussion more or less settled—Philia didn't look happy, but then none of them really were—they resumed the hike to Reccoa.

The city certainly merited the term, Kizmel thought as they approached. Surrounded by stone walls, built of tall wooden buildings—some of the tallest she'd seen in a human settlement, at that. Many of them reached as high as six floors, higher than anything short of some fortifications and eccentric sages' towers, in her experience.

The gates set at intervals in the outer wall were at least ten meters across, yet well-guarded. Two pairs to a side of humans in heavy armor, wielding greatswords fit for Swordmaster clearers. Ordinary Necros would likely be no match, nor Redclaws. Kizmel suspected even Jacklanterns might have done little more than knock down Reccoa's guards.

"This may be the largest city I've seen in Aincrad," she murmured to Kirito, as they entered those gates. "Short of the City of Beginnings, at least. …Is this common in your world?"

A flash of what she thought was homesickness flickered across his face, only to be chased off by a playful grin. "You think this is big? The tallest structure in my homeland is a bit over six floors high." He paused dramatically. "Six Aincrad floors, that is."

Kizmel had never been so grateful to see a busy human street in her life. Both because the sight of so many human NPCs going about their daily business—however scripted—was a relief after seeing almost nothing but undead for days, and because it helped ground her against the dizzying image Kirito's words conjured.

The height of six of Aincrad's floors? Made in a world with no magic, and without the excuse of being only a vivid dream? The scale of Kirito's world had always intrigued her, compared to the confines of the Steel Castle. Now the sheer scope of what his people could build struck her, forcefully.

"Don't think too hard on that, Kizmel-chan," Asuna said, nudging her shoulder and rolling her eyes at Kirito. "The Tokyo Skytree is the second-tallest building in the world. Most buildings, especially in our homeland, aren't anywhere near that tall." She paused, giving the buildings lining the street down which they walked a thoughtful look. "But, okay, quite a bit bigger than these…"

Second-tallest. Humans built something taller still? Kizmel looked at the buildings around them now, trying to imagine just what the people of the Swordmasters' world did consider "normal" for a city, and slowly shook her head. "The world from which you all came must be a place of marvels, indeed."

"Oh, sure," Rain agreed. "But don't sell your world short, Kizmel." She gestured at the city that surrounded them—no, Kizmel thought, more like the entire Steel Castle in which they stood. "Forget Kayaba. Why do you think ten thousand of us came here, if we didn't think this world was wonderful?"

"She's right," Kirito said, nodding firmly. Squeezing her hand with one of his, his other arm echoed Rain's wide sweep. "There's no dragons where we come from. No magic, not even the 'weak charms' of the current Aincrad. Nothing at all like a Steel Castle in the sky." His eyes took on a distant look. "And… no adventure. Not like what we expected when we came here. Not even like what we got. In our homeland, you fit in with your place in society… or you're left behind."

"Yes," Asuna said, very softly. "In that world, in our country, that's how it is. Not like here, where a single sword can take you anywhere you want to go…"

There was a story there, Kizmel was sure. Unlike Kirito, now that she thought about it, she'd never learned much about Asuna's life in the "real" world. What, she wondered now, had led her friend to embrace a dreamworld with such enthusiasm, as Asuna had before the responsibilities of leadership had begun to grind her down?

She wouldn't ask. Not until Asuna was ready. But someday, I want to know. I want to know all about them. This world won't last forever—so I'll be their friend, their knight, in their world as well.

It was a goal. Something to live for, beyond merely surviving the end of Aincrad. Perhaps more importantly, something that would keep her on even footing with her husband, in a world in which she would be the floundering newcomer. Before everything else, they were equal partners, and she would not allow herself to be less.

Philia abruptly cleared her throat, breaking the silence before it could become truly oppressive. "So! Speaking of swords—how are yours doing, Kirito? Need any work done on those, on top of the coat?"

Kirito glanced at the hilts rising above the shoulders of his tattered spare coat. "The Baneblade should be fine for awhile longer," he said. "The bonus against 'evil' is making up for the stat numbers falling behind, and it's durable. Andvar I'm more worried about. It's not quite up to this floor's enemy levels. And I'm kind of worried about it breaking," he added, glancing at Kizmel with a quick smile. "Unfortunately I'm not likely to find anything close in a shop."

"What about that drop from Vemacitrin?" Asuna asked. "I remember you couldn't equip it back then, but that was two months ago…"

He shrugged, with a slightly bitter smile. "Almost," he said, bringing up his menu. "If we could risk doing a little grinding…" A quick flick through his storage, a moment's inspection, and he shook his head. "Two more levels, maybe. One if I'm really lucky. Of course, with that same luck I'd be so busy fighting as to not have time to switch anyway…"

"Then let's check the shops anyway," Rain said, moving a pace ahead of them to take the lead. "We already know Cardinal it trying to stack the deck for us as much as it can, so maybe blacksmith inventories have been tweaked, too—"


Asuna's sudden scream had them all drawing weapons and turning to face her. She'd turned chalk-white, dropped into a crouch, and pressed tight against Kirito's side. Wide-eyed, a heartbeat from burying her face in his coat, she was staring into the mouth of an alley they'd just started to pass.

A tall brunette in a hooded cloak stood there, green eyes fixated on their party. A surprising enough sight, with theirs as the first group of Swordmasters to reach Reccoa City. Not half as surprising as the fact that Kizmel could see right through her.

"Be careful," the apparition whispered. "He didn't know this would happen… but it's too late now. You have to stop them, or else…"

Whatever else she might've said, none of them heard. As if caught in a gust of wind, the ghostly woman wavered, and vanished into the air.

March 15th, 2024

BONG… thud!

Seeing the Necro bounce off the tunnel wall after being knocked flying by the Shield Bash, where it was promptly skewered by a Vorpal Strike out of nowhere, Klein had to admit to being impressed. The Knights of Blood might've been oddly willing to let the Divine Dragons take the initiative on this floor, but when Heathcliff took to the field himself, he did his job right.

Klein had known a fair few tanks in his time. The one they called the Paladin was easily one of the best, and he had a sneaking feeling Heathcliff had deliberately arranged for that last zombie to fly into Sachi's reach. Not bad, considering the girl was spending most of the trip invisible.

Better than a certain other tank is doing, he thought sourly, glancing toward the DDA contingent as they mopped up the latest group of mobs to block their way. Always thought there was something funny about Schmidt. He's got some explaining to do, that's for damn sure.

At least he'd convinced Lind to bring the guy. The back-and-forth messages when Fuurinkazan had finally gotten out of the Dead Workshop had been more annoying than trying to argue face-to-face, in Klein's considered opinion. In the end, though, his leverage of his guild being the only ones both in contact and with a clue about the situation had won out. Helped, admittedly, by Team Kirito reappearing and also demanding a proper meeting.

Why they wanted to do things in person, Klein wasn't sure and was kind of afraid to ask. But he wasn't going to complain. As it was, it had taken over a day to get this expedition underway, and neither he nor his guild had enjoyed camping out in a safe zone in the field that long.

Now, though, Fuurinkazan was part of a larger group making its way through the railway tunnel leading to the west side of the Garda Mountains. Heathcliff had brought a small contingent of KoB players, leaving a sour fellow by the name of Kuradeel behind to lead the remaining guards at the stairs to the previous floor. Lind, by contrast, had come along with his own favored clearing party, plus Schmidt. Along with them had come Argo the Rat, unusually grim and silent.

The news they'd brought, when the groups met up at the rail station at the mouth of the tunnel, had been a bit of a relief. The tide of Necros trying to reach the lower floors had slowed considerably, suggesting taking out the Dead Workshop really had done some good.

On the other hand, Klein thought, motioning for the impromptu raid group to get back in motion when he was sure the way was clear again, they said they have something best said with everybody in person. Damn, I have a feeling I'm gonna have nightmares tonight…

More nightmares. He was pretty sure the reason none of his guild had any trouble running through a poorly-lit tunnel strewn with roving bands of Necros and Redclaws was that it wasn't as scary as their own minds. He knew he had had nightmares about facing Necro versions of his own friends—and Sachi had woken them all, once, with a scream. The Dead Workshop had done a number on all of them.

Damn you, Kayaba, he thought, noticing absently that Heathcliff had fallen back again to guard their flanks, giving Lind the lead. Your estate had better be big enough to pay for everyone's therapy bills, we get out of this. For damn sure you're not going to be around for anybody to sue.

He didn't know how, when, or where, but Klein was convinced—determined—that Kayaba would not live to see prison. Not a thought the salaryman whose name he seldom thought about anymore would've had. But it was the only thought possible for the samurai he was.

That was for the future, though. Just then, they had a tunnel to get through, if they were going to put together all their bad news. So far they'd had to fight off at least six groups of Necros, and one of them had about BSOD'd the KoB and DDA players. As Klein had feared, some of the player-based ones had gotten out of the Workshop, and if he hadn't recognized any of them, the old-timer clearers apparently had.

Even Argo had flipped out that time, giving Klein his first look at the Rat in a fight. Whatever news she brought, it had left her snarling more like a cat when one of the faces she saw pushed her buttons. Afterward she'd turned even quieter, face buried in her hood as she prowled further ahead.

So my guys are the calmest ones here, and we're the newest on the frontline. How crazy is that? Gah, this is gonna hurt when I have to stop being a samurai…

Later. He was woolgathering, and he knew it. Probably because he wasn't quite as jaded about the whole mess as he liked to think. Right then, though, he needed to focus on the present. No way to tell when another batch of zombies would turn up.

How long Klein had been lost in his own head, and how much farther the raid group had gotten through the tunnel, he wasn't sure. He was sure he wanted to strangle Lind when the DDA leader suddenly spoke up. "That's odd," the man said, peering warily down a side passage. "How long has it been since the last Necro attack?"

"Don't ask that!" Argo hissed at him, turning a glare on him. "Something might hear you!"

Lind looked surprisingly sheepish at the scolding, and raised the hand not holding a scimitar in apology. "Sorry. It's just… with how this floor has been, I don't like this." He hesitated. "And frankly, an ugly thought occurred to me. Though if you'd rather I didn't say it…"

There was an uneasy silence at that, and Heathcliff turned to raise one eyebrow. Klein, though, only rolled his eyes. It'd been that kind of week. "Out with it, Lind. You've already thought it, might as well know what's going to bite us now."

"Ah. Well…" Lind coughed. "I understand why there's no train going west, given Team Kirito's experience and Argo's news about Karika. But… we don't know where the PKer you encountered went. And if there was a train going west, couldn't there be…?"

Klein didn't even swear at the man, however much he wanted to. It just wasn't worth it, especially when it probably wasn't really his fault. The Knights of Blood, on the other hand, about turned the air blue, and Argo let out an incoherent screech.

He didn't blame any of them. Not when an all-too-clear whistle blew somewhere up ahead, and a light appeared at the end of the tunnel.

"Lind!" Sachi shouted, from somewhere near one of the tunnel walls. "You owe us for this one!"

If Lind had a reply, none of them heard it. The raid group was too busy scrambling for the nearest side passage, as the light rapidly turned into an oncoming train.

If there was one good thing about no other players having yet reached Reccoa City, it was that their team had their pick of lodgings. Which, surprisingly enough for a town on a floor filled with zombies, included some pretty good choices. Rain didn't think it was as good as what her party had gotten back on the Fifty-First Floor, but being able to rent the entire top floor of a six-story tower wasn't half bad.

About a third of it was divided into two bedrooms, with the team splitting them as usual, Asuna staying with Kirito and Kizmel. The remaining two-thirds were taken up by an open room that made Rain think of a medieval penthouse. It had breathtaking views of the town on three sides, including a good one of the main gate.

Just then, though, she wasn't able to focus on the view. She instead paced the room, ten meters to one end and back again. Two days had passed since the train crash, with nothing much happening since reaching the Twilight Fort. She was feeling increasingly restless. Something was going to happen, she was sure, and soon.

It's got to be the Necromancer's Tower, Rain thought, pausing to glare out at the town gate, still stubbornly empty of arriving players. Whatever Kuze's up to, it has to be there! If we can just finish him off, we'll have all the time in the world to deal with his accomplice…

Unfortunately, it had turned out not to be that simple. Strea had turned up briefly the day before, not long after their encounter with a ghost, and reported the Tower required a key—one she was pretty sure was in the Revenant Proving Grounds. The Tower, their party might've been able to take by themselves. The Proving Grounds were, according to her, swarming with enough Redclaws and Jacklanterns to need a raid party to survive.

None of them really trusted Strea. But for all her focus on system stability, she didn't seem to be a liar. From her casual admission to having caused the train crash, it didn't seem to occur to her to lie.

"So where are they?" Rain muttered, wheeling away from the window to resume pacing. "They were supposed to be here around noon…"

"Klein is still on my friends list," Kirito told her, from the couch he was sharing with Kizmel. "He's definitely still alive. If anything really bad had happened, we'd have a message."

"The raid group probably ran into the Necro swarm Strea said was heading out from the Lodge," Asuna put in. She had claimed a chair in one of the room's corners, where she could keep an eye on the whole room at once. Ever since the ghost encounter the day before, she'd been… twitchy. "They'll be here soon, Rain."

"It's best if they did encounter that group," Kizmel said thoughtfully, leaning against Kirito's shoulder. She was looking a bit tense herself, though Rain didn't really want to guess why. "A raid group shouldn't find them too serious a threat, but the guards at the stairway likely would. Better to head them off."

Rain sighed, but didn't disagree. Under other circumstances, she'd have been all for going after that mob herself, for that very reason. It was just knowing where to go to finish it all off, and not being able to, that was grating on her nerves.

Especially knowing there was probably only one way Kuze was going to be stopped.

Before she could follow that train of thought too far—as she'd done more than once, the last couple of days—Philia perked up. Standing at the door, one ear pressed against it, her gaze went distant, listening to something only she could hear. "Footsteps," she said then, stepping away from the door. "Unless the Immortal Object status has finally glitched up, too, that'll be them."

Ugly thought. Fortunately only a thought, though. Moments after they'd all scrambled to gather around the big room's table, as if they hadn't all just been sprawled like slacking solos, there was a knock. A familiar knock, to anyone who'd ever dealt with the Rat, and with no small relief Rain pulled open the door.

"This is a fine mess, Kii-bou," Argo said by way of greeting, stalking into the room. "You have no idea what a sight you are for a Rat's sore eyes!"

Before any of them could react to that, or the fact that her hooded cloak was looking a bit tattered, Klein stormed in, looking for all the world like he was mad he couldn't slam the door open himself. Following him was the rest of Fuurinkazan, then a typically-calm Heathcliff and a couple of his Knights.

Lind brought up the rear, with Shivata, Liten, and a very twitchy Schmidt tailing him. The DDA guildmaster's scaly cape was at least as battered as Argo's cloak, and he wore what would've looked like a very sheepish expression had it not been tempered by something grimmer.

"So!" Klein said, as the DDA tanks flanked the door, most of the others sat, and Heathcliff took up a silent vigil behind Asuna's chair. "Any of you guys nearly been hit by a train today?"

The apparent non sequitur had Rain and her party exchanging bemused looks. "…No," Kirito said after a moment. "That was a couple days ago for us." He blinked. "Wait, did you…?"

"Trains run east as well as west, Kirito," Lind said. "We were somewhat delayed finding a detour. Though it did at least clear out some of the Necros." He coughed, schooling his face to his Guildmaster calm. "I'm sure we all have news. If no one objects, I'll begin."

Scary, that nobody did. The KoB and DDA bickered even during Floor Boss planning meetings, and Fuurinkazan had had a grudge ever since the Christmas Eve event. But this time, Klein only waved an irritable hand, and Asuna nodded. "Please, Lind-san. A Cardinal NPC has been able to find out some things for us, but only on this side of the Garda Mountains."

"A Cardinal—? No, never mind. One thing at a time." Lind took a deep breath. "Let's keep this simple, and short. Karika and Reveno Village have both been destroyed."

The news hit Rain like a punch to the gut. If she hadn't already been sitting, she would've been on the floor. "Destroyed?" she parroted. "We already knew the towns were infected, but—you don't mean—?"

"Destroyed, as in burnt down and no longer considered Safe Havens," he confirmed grimly. "Fuurinkazan found Reveno like that when they arrived, and Argo found Karika blazing when we made for the rail tunnel. There's nothing left but burning wreckage."

For a long moment, no one said anything at all. Added to the horror they'd already seen on the Fifty-Seventh Floor, it seemed both just one more punch to the face, and at the same time a completely fresh nightmare. Bad enough that the Necro Plague somehow bypassed Safe Haven protections. If those protections were somehow being destroyed entirely…

Klein, Rain could hear, started swearing viciously under his breath. Kirito's teeth could be heard grinding from across the table, and if Kizmel wasn't gripping his hand hard enough to break bones under the table, Rain would never trust her ability to read an expression again.

Somehow, Asuna held herself to briefly closing her eyes. And if there was a quaver in her voice, when she looked up again and spoke, no one was likely to complain. "All right," she said quietly. "That adds urgency to finding and stopping Laughing Coffin. Fortunately, we at least have reason to believe these mechanics are limited to this floor. In the meantime, we do have some news ourselves."

At that cue, Philia pushed back her chair and stood. She was a bit shaky herself, her face pale—but like half the players in that room, she'd lived through the fight with Vemacitrin. In Rain's experience, that put steel in anyone. "We've got a good idea of how to stop it," she said. "We found the player who set off the plague on the train, a PKer called Kuze. He was infected, too—but he was also wearing a quest item on his arm. Something called the Necromaster's Armlet, according to an NPC."

There was a rattle by the door, and what sounded like a stifled gasp. Rain ignored it, though, instead picking up where Philia left off. "We don't know exactly what it can do," she said, with a shiver as she remembered what they had seen. "It gives Kuze some control of Necros—but he implied there was more to it than that. The Dark Elf we talked to said there's something bad that will happen if he gets it to the Well of Life in the Necromancer's Tower, but what, she didn't know."

More rattling. This time, it kept on, a low background noise, like something was shaking.

"I can take a wild guess at that one," Klein said grimly. Resting a clenched fist on the table, he took a deep breath of his own, and let it out in a hiss. "So. Here's what we know. There's another PKer in this mess. Guy with an estoc, a skull mask, and a really annoying way of talking."

"XaXa," Kizmel said, the word sounding like a curse. "Kirito and I fought him several months ago, during the Reliquary quest. He is… not to be taken lightly."

"I can believe that. Son of a bitch is fast… Anyway. He got something called the Dead Workshop going. Not for long, we put paid to that, but it was… bad." To Klein's right, Sachi made a stifled sound of pain. His expression eased for just a moment, and he rested a reassuring hand on her arm. "Long story short? Necros based on dead players. Sachi here took out the crystal running it, but we know some got out of the Workshop before that."

Rain didn't think she'd ever seen that particular expression on Kirito's face. Not even the day Lind had dropped the bombshell on Kizmel. He said something under his breath, then, something she couldn't quite catch but thought wasn't Japanese. Whatever it was, Kizmel nodded sharply, murder in her own eyes.

"All right, then," he said a moment later, visibly forcing himself to calm down. "You think the Well of Life will let Kuze do that again?"

"No. I think he's up to something worse." Klein looked Kirito dead in the eye. "Kirito. You're the computer genius. What do you think about ghosts in the machine? Real ghosts?"

It was a sign of the situation that Asuna only twitched. It was Argo, though, who answered, eyes narrow. "Heard a coupla stories here and there, Klein," she said. "Thought I'd seen one or two weird things m'self… And Kii-bou and Kii-chan ran into somethin' like that back in the Reliquary quest. Why?"

"'Cause a ghost told Sachi something very interesting." Without warning, Klein shoved himself to his feet, wheeled toward the door—and advanced on Schmidt.

Schmidt—who Rain realized then was the one whose armor had been rattling—saw him coming, and made a break for the door. Klein was too fast, though, catching the DDA tank by the front of his armor, lifting him clear off his feet, and slamming him into the wall.

Kirito bolted out of his chair. "Klein—!"

The red samurai ignored him, just as he ignored a shocked Lind's attempts to pry him away from Schmidt. "Tall woman!" he snarled. "Brown hair! Guildmaster's ring! Sound familiar, Schmidt?!"

Schmidt quickly shook his head, still struggling against Klein's grip. It was a testament to either his own fright or the samurai's strength stat that he didn't have any luck. "I—I—!"

"Golden Apple!" Klein snapped. "Griselda! She said your name, Schmidt! Said you did something! Said you'd know what the Armlet was!" He pulled the terrified tank away from the wall, just far enough to be able to slam him back into it. "She's dead, and you know something! More people are gonna die, if we don't stop this! What do you know?!"

"I—I didn't know!" Schmidt babbled. "I didn't know she'd die—I don't know why she died! I just—I just did what the message said, and—!"

"Murder details later." Kirito pushed Lind aside, stepping up by Klein. "Schmidt. Your guild got the Armlet. Somehow it got to Laughing Coffin. Right now I don't care how. What does it do?"

"It—it said something about controlling people," Schmidt got out, going slack in Klein's grip. "Swordmasters. If they got infected. It—it didn't say what, or how, or anything, and we thought it was just flavor text. We didn't even know what quest it was for. After—after Griselda died, we didn't know where it went, she had it, Grimlock said he didn't get it—"

Klein threw him to one side, leaving him to hit the floor in a clatter of armor and a bright [Immortal Object] notice. "Son of a bitch!" he hissed. "So that is what was happening to Dynamm! If Kuze had been there—dammit!" Ignoring the fallen Schmidt entirely, he whirled on Kirito. "Where do we go? How do we stop it?"

"We think Kuze is in the Necromancer's Tower, west of here," Kirito said, a frighteningly calm fury on his own face. "The Armlet let him get in. But we need a key, and that's supposed to be in the Revenant Proving Grounds northeast of here. We'd need a raid to get in."

"That, we have." Lind glanced briefly at Schmidt, with an expression Rain couldn't decipher. Then he looked to Shivata and Liten, who both gave him sober—if pale-faced—nods. "We brought more players with us; they're downstairs. Between the KoB and DDA, there should be enough players on hand to storm one dungeon."

"There's a rail line leading from here to the other dungeons," Asuna said, nodding. "This city is a defensible location to base ourselves. It can work." She frowned. "What bothers me is that Kuze and XaXa have to have realized more clearers would be coming. And we haven't heard anything about either of them in two days…"

Rain didn't think she was psychic. No more than any other clearer, anyway. But the knock on the door that followed Asuna's words, she was somehow sure, was about to lead them into something worse than they'd yet seen.

When Klein irritably yanked open the door, she thought her dread was warranted. His reaction, on the other hand, was to stare at the very female figure who sauntered in. "Who the…?"

"Eh? Oh, new faces!" The lavender-haired girl grinned. "More Swordmasters, good timing! I'm Strea, agent of Cardinal. Nice to meet you!"

Strea's abrupt entrance and bubbly attitude, Rain thought, was completely inappropriate for the situation. On the other hand, she supposed, breaking the tension wasn't such a bad thing just then. For a minute she'd been afraid Klein would try to PK Schmidt, and with the news that Safe Havens could break down she wasn't sure he wouldn't have succeeded.

From the look on Sachi and Kirito's faces, she thought she wasn't the only one who expected him to deliver his usual introduction to a girl right then and there. Instead… "Agent of Cardinal?" Klein repeated, obviously confused. "…Shouldn't you be wearing a suit?"


"Never mind him." Asuna pushed Klein aside. "Strea. What have you got for us?"

"Oh, right!" Strea knuckled her head sheepishly. "Yeah. Thought you guys should know that there's a bunch of Doppels and Necroblades heading for Reccoa City right now. I think I got here, oh, maybe five minutes ahead of them? So you guys might want to get ready to go."

"Doppels," Asuna muttered to herself. "From 'doppelgänger? The player-based zombies? But what's a Necroblade?"

"Mutated Necros, equipped with big, nasty wrist-claws," the AI said helpfully. "Fast, with high-level Battle Healing. Kuze must have woken them up. Only twenty-five of them so far, but if he gets the raw materials from the Lodge, he'll be able to make more."

"That's… not good," Lind said, in Rain's opinion understating horribly. "Still," he added, shoulders easing, "we should be able to deal with it." He headed back to the table, materialized a map, and spread it on the top. "Reccoa's well-defended. We can probably let the NPC guards handle some of it. I know," he said quickly, glancing at an indignant Kizmel. "I don't like it either, Kizmel-san, but right now I don't think we really have a choice. They're coming to us, this time."

Rain hated it when Lind was right about something. But he was. They didn't have the numbers to launch an immediate attack, especially not against unknown mobs. And unlike The Geocrawler, they didn't have the luxury of the enemy being passive.

Walking over to the window overlooking the town's main gates while the others grouped around the table to work up a strategy, she couldn't help but resent the whole situation. That kind of thing was exactly what she had joined the clearing group to prevent. Even if it was mostly NPCs at risk, well, they'd all learned the hard way they couldn't just dismiss them that way.

I wanted to be a knight, like Kizmel, she thought. Because someone has to. Because otherwise… I don't know what I'll be, here or when we get out. Letting them in like this…

Rain had just noticed, looking out that window, that something wasn't quite right with the NPC crowds down below when Strea cleared her throat. "Uh, guys? Is this a bad time to mention Reccoa has a tunnel system leading out of the Safe Haven?"

Heads snapped around to face her. "What?" Kirito demanded. "But even those should be guarded! This—oh, no."

"Special floor, one-time questline," Strea confirmed with a helpless shrug. "Sorry, couldn't say before. But now I'm allowed to explain—"

"Necros in the streets, guys!" Rain snapped, whirling away from the window. "They're already spreading!"

"—That when an entire town's NPC population has been infected, the Safe Haven status collapses."

Horrified stares at Strea, then around at each other. On the one hand, a logical explanation for why Karika and Reveno were gone. On the other—

They all ran for the door. Fuurinkazan was out first, ahead of the jam; the DDA was quick to follow—aside from Lind himself, staying behind to try to help a very shaky Schmidt back to his feet. Heathcliff passed the two of them in a calm but quick stride, leading most of the KoB out with him.

Rain and her party were last out before the two DDA stragglers. As they bolted for the stairs to the lower floors, she heard Schmidt talking, to himself as much as Lind. "Kuze… it was Kuze all along… that bastard…"

This was not the first time Kizmel and her friends had had to rush out of a safe haven into a throng of the undead. She devoutly hoped it would be the last.

How many Necros were already in Reccoa City, she didn't care to guess. Clearly they weren't born of the group Strea had reported, yet if they'd been there long the chaos would undoubtedly already have been much worse. I think.

Cold comfort either way, as what they had was bad enough.

The infection was like a wave coming down the street toward them. Kizmel could see the existing Necros coming toward them—and as they reached the screaming, running NPCs of Reccoa, they lunged, took hold, and bit.

Even knowing the people of Reccoa were lifeless dolls, it was still painful to watch them scream, struggle, and twist into something horrific and unnatural. Horrific, and a sight from which she couldn't bring herself to look away. She was a knight. She owed the people she was failing.

And I will bring them vengeance, she swore, drawing her sword with her friends as they charged straight at that horror. This ends tonight. On my honor.

"Just a second!" Rain shouted, a familiar book materializing in her left hand. "If we're going to be fighting in a Safe Haven—Lacho calad! Drego morn!"

The charm that would let even ordinary blades harm the undead spread across the entire raid group. Which, of course, was when another group of monsters burst from a side street, blundering right into the clearers. Necros and Redclaws, including at least one turned City Guard. Thoughts of vengeance against Laughing Coffin were suddenly far away, pushed back by the immediacy of swords and claws.

"The KoB will hold the rear!" Heathcliff called, over the sounds of blades on hardened flesh and ringing of Sword Skills. "Keep going! Clear the path out of the city!"

"Working on it!" Kirito grunted. The Baneblade was shining brightly enough to dazzle Kizmel's eyes, were she not now a Swordmaster herself. The Vorpal Strike he unleashed caught the Redclaw that was attempting to bite his throat, and carried on through two more. "Hey! Did anybody see where Strea went?!"

"Who knows?!" Asuna replied through clenched teeth, thrusting her rapier into a Necro's chest with a perfect Linear. "She's crazy—come on, we have to keep moving!"

Their party, with the DDA, pushed through the ambushers that had gotten around in front of them. In the next moments of confusion, Kizmel found herself hacking off the arm of one Necro, while Philia sawed through the other a bare instant before its claws could rake her face. Then they were splitting to either side, allowing a thrown sword from Rain to pierce its heart.

Argo, ill-suited as she was to such a melee, ducked and whirled through it all, her claws scratching wherever she found an opening. Her overall strength might've been low, but one blow in the right place could sometimes make all the difference. And in a brief moment, when the Rat darted close by, Kizmel noticed her claws dripping with some kind of corrosive poison.

Shivata and Liten led the way ahead, shields and heavy armor shrugging off blows that would've infected anyone else. Lind's scimitar licked out between them, where it could. Others of his team hacked, thrust, and hammered at the foes coming from the left. A mace against what Kizmel thought was once an innkeeper here; there, a spear thrust to the heart of an NPC she couldn't bear to examine closely, but was far too small.

To the right, beginning to surge ahead, Klein led Fuurinkazan into the melee with an angry battlecry. The guild was a blur of red, Sachi flickering in and out of visibility. Even in the midst of the chaos, Kizmel caught a glimpse of the girl's face, and wanted to weep at the iron mask she wore.

Heathcliff was as good as his word, using his tall shield and those of his Knights to turn the ambushers. Instead of coming from the flanks, soon the Necros were directly behind the raid group, and the Knights of Blood held the rear guard even as they followed the rest toward the town gates. Here and there a Redclaw's sharp fingers got through, scratching unprotected faces—but the KoB held.

Kizmel didn't remember, after, every nightmarish meter of that street. She didn't know where so many more Necros were coming from so quickly, and she didn't care to know. She only fought to stay by her husband's side, echoing his yells with her own. Her saber matched the Baneblade, sometimes blow for blow, and in the moments when she glimpsed more NPCs falling to Necrosis, she only drove herself the harder.

"When we're clear," Lind called, most of the way to the gates, "the DDA will head for the Proving Grounds! We'll get that key! I swear it!"

"The Knights of Blood will go as well." Heathcliff raised his sword high, letting out a blinding flash from the blade. In the moment of grace that bought them, Necros stumbling back from the light, he continued, "Asuna-kun, Kirito-kun, please take your party to the Lodge. I fear we haven't seen the worst of what Laughing Coffin has planned."

"We'll stop them!" Kizmel told him, not bothering—nor needing—to consult her friends. "This has gone far enough!"

Their first encounter with Kuze had been hampered by a desire to avoid killing, if they could help it. When next they met, she had no intention of allowing him that grace. This was no longer a time or place for Swordmaster justice. The ways of Aincrad, manufactured though they may have been, were those that now needed to be followed.

How long they fought simply to reach Reccoa's outer wall, Kizmel wasn't sure. As swords flashed, Necros howled, bit, and clawed, and Swordmasters fought for the time to cure infections, she only knew it was too long. There were more Necros pouring down the street every minute, at least two for every one the Swordmasters' enchanted blades succeeded in striking down.

Whirling into a Treble Scythe to send three more Redclaws flying, Kirito buying her time with another Vorpal Strike, she couldn't help but curse Kayaba and Cardinal both. If the tunnels under Reccoa had not existed, none of this would've been happening. If Strea had deigned—or been allowed—to inform the clearers of them sooner, something could've been done to head them off.

Instead, the Necro Plague had clearly gotten into the city at least a full day before any Swordmaster became aware of it. How'd they'd infected so many without notice, she didn't know—though she suspected Kuze's armlet had allowed him enough control to keep them hidden.

Regardless, the infection was spreading like a grass fire. Even so, the raid group pushed through, leaving bodies to shatter and limbs to scatter across the street behind them. The gates, at last, were within reach, and when a turned City Guard attempted to block their path, a roaring Kirito speared him with yet one more Vorpal Strike. Asuna forced him farther still, with a brilliant Linear. Klein hacked off both arms with an Iai and a scream.

Kizmel herself took the City Guard's head with a leaping Helmsplitter. Sachi, with a banshee's shriek, rippled into view and struck his heart with a last Vorpal Strike of her own.

Then they were through. Through all of the infected denizens of Reccoa City, and Necros from who-knew-where that had turned them. Through the gates—to face the foes that lay beyond.

The sound they made was the first thing Kizmel noticed. Rasping, uneven breathing, loud enough to be heard over the gurgles and howls of the Necros still behind them. It was a sound out of nightmares, the breathing of creatures that only the foulest sorcery could've birthed.

They moved with a gait as jerking and uneven as their their breath. Fast, but horribly unnatural; Kizmel thought it was as if they were suffering the phenomenon Kirito referred to as "lag", only somehow far more horrifying. And their faces…

Swallowing bile, Kizmel devoutly hoped the Necroblades had not begun life as humans, even within Aincrad's manufactured history. The idea of intelligent beings being reduced to such twisted, warped forms, faces bearing no discernible features save a wound-like mouth, was simply too horrifying to contemplate.

She heard several of her comrades reduced to incoherence and profanity. Someone—Schmidt, she thought—was gagging. Rain said something in the other language she sometimes used, something Kizmel couldn't understand but suspected was truly vile.

"What… are those…?" Asuna whispered. "Where did Kayaba get those from…?"

"It doesn't matter." Kirito's voice was flat, hard as mythril. There was horror in his eyes, too, when he glanced at Kizmel, but he kept a firm grip on himself all the same. "They're coming. And we're not letting them stop us!"

It was a relief, when the Necroblades lurched into the reach of their blades. They were fast, and the claws tied to their wrists were sharp—sharp enough that Philia yelped, her HP dropping a noticeable percentage, when an errant swing got through—but it was something they all knew.

Fast, and wild. Kizmel was sure there was a pattern to their attacks, in this world only the Swordmasters were truly unpredictable, but there was no time to discern what it was. With a dozen Necroblades lunging at the raid group, there was only time to block, to parry—and to try to cut down the abominations in turn.

Damnably hard to do, as they found quickly. Kizmel was soon furiously parrying the wild swings of one Necroblade, with no time to even attempt Sword Skills. Kirito attempted a beheading Horizontal from behind while she kept its claws busy, the Baneblade slicing straight through its neck. Asuna and Philia stabbed at it from the sides, and then Kirito was jumping back to let another thrown sword from Rain sink into the back of its head.

Or rather, pass clean through its head. The wound closed right up behind the sword, as did the other thrusts and slashes, leaving not even the red grids that a Swordmaster saw as injury.

Strea said they healed quickly, Kizmel remembered, catching an overhand swing on her shield. I never expected this. Now I know how Titan's Hand felt!

Then she was ducking and spinning away, another Necroblade having gotten behind her. She felt the impact of claws on her shoulder, and hissed at the slice they took from her health. Yet for all the speed and power, it seemed the Necroblades were not infectious. A small mercy, but one for which she was thankful.

As the clearers tangled with the abominations, though—Lind at one point sent rolling, only for Shivata and Liten to mercilessly skewer his assailant; Fuurinkazan splitting to hack two more to pieces between them—Kizmel was left with a nagging, dreadful thought.

Strea said there were twenty-five of them.

Heathcliff was holding off two of the Necroblades himself, the Paladin's usual nerves of steel serving him well. He kept their attention focused on him, their claws clanging and screeching across his shield, while five of his Knights tore into them from behind. Argo was with them, dancing between the two Necroblades, the poison on her own claws eating away at them despite their prodigious healing.

There are perhaps twelve here. A formidable force, yes, but…

Finally, under attack from three sides by Kizmel, Kirito, and Asuna, one of the Necroblades uttered a rasping moan, and collapsed. Instead of shattering instantly into azure fragments, though, it first wobbled, shuddering disturbingly—and then its torso blew apart, leaving its legs to lie twitching on the ground for several moments.

Where are the others? What could Laughing Coffin be planning now?

A scream, high and shrill, broke into that horror of a battlefield to answer her. And though she was already clashing saber against the claws of another Necroblade, Kizmel took the time to look.

A pair of Necroblades that the DDA contingent had been fighting had broken free of the wider melee to grapple Schmidt—whose only resistance was that scream, his body otherwise completely unresponsive. Why was not even a question, the veins in his face pulsing with a sickly green glow.

He must've been infected during the escape from the city!

"Schmidt!" Lind shouted, trying to break away from the Necroblades his party was then fighting off. A wide swing cut him off in that moment of distraction, though, sending him sprawling. "Schmidt! What's happening—?!"

A wild laugh, breaking into that horror of a battlefield, was his answer.

Standing atop a hill, not far from Reccoa's walls, Kuze lifted his katana high, Necromaster Armlet glowing the same sickly green as Schmidt's face even at that distance. Surrounding him were at least six more of the Necroblades, swaying in place but disturbingly docile. "Hey, guys!" he shouted. "How do you like my little surprise?!"

Others of the raid group were going to Schmidt's aid, then, but the Necroblades were carrying him were fast, and those still in the fight displayed unnerving coordination in blocking the way. They hurled themselves now with even greater ferocity on the Swordmasters, using reach and a sheer disregard for their own safety to entangle blades and feet.

Asuna viciously stabbed the Necroblade delaying their own party, one, twice, eight times in a Star Splash, staggering the abomination. It fell against Rain's enchanted blade, already flashing into a Sharp Nail, and Asuna whirled to face the PKer. "What do you want?!" she demanded. "Why are you doing this?!"

"Wouldn't you like to know?! Ha!" Kuze twirled his sword—and pointed it at Kirito. "How's this? You catch me before this whole floor goes to hell, and I'll tell you! Everything you want to know is yours, before I kill you! Come on, and meet me at the top of the Necromancer's Tower, if you dare—Black Swordsman!"

"You'll regret that invitation!" Kirito snarled. "This isn't a game—and I'll show you that myself!"

Laughing, a high sound of amusement entirely out of place in that field of clashing swords and rasping monsters, Kuze saluted with his blade. "I'll hold you to that—if you survive! You're out of hiding places, heroes!"

The PKer—no, the Necromaster, Kizmel corrected herself—turned, and with his horrific bodyguards headed down the far side of the hill. The Necroblades carrying Schmidt chased after, the tank screaming for help.

Behind the Swordmasters, even as they fought with the remaining Necroblades, Reccoa City burst into flames. No longer a safe haven for humans, it was nothing but a necropolis, now.

Author's Note:

So, yeah. About two and a half months. Sorry about that, but at least Defiance is out of the way, so I'll be focusing entirely on Duet for the time being. For what it's worth, the draft of this chapter was written over the course of fourteen writing sessions, so if I can just work on it consistently further chapters shouldn't take too long. (Seriously. Lots easier to write than Defiance had gotten.)

Quick heads-up: several chapters have been edited slightly for consistency and to use the official translation of a particular term—though this will probably be the last time I bother keeping consistent with the official, as I learned from Progressive Volume 6 that the official translations aren't always consistent with themselves. (Seriously. Volume 3 gives one spelling for a name, Volume 6 gives another, and somewhere along the line they switched from American measurements to metric. Which admittedly makes more sense, their straight substitution of yards for meters made no sense whatsoever, but still. Make up your minds, guys.) Ahem. Also, several other edits were made to Chapter 21 in particular, to fill in a couple of plot holes.

Oh, about the Mordite? Not intended to be the same stuff as from The Dresden Files. I just thought the name was really appropriate.

So. Yeah, getting some serious arc fatigue here, and I'll be the first to admit it. Especially since I kinda think this chapter took way too many words to cover not nearly enough plot. I can, however, promise that the zombie stuff really will be done with Chapter 23—and that the next arc will be only a single chapter long. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm getting a bit impatient to wrap up the Aincrad part of the story—if only because I'm running out of ideas to advance the core plot of the freaking fic while still in Aincrad—so I'm really going to try to cut down on the "eighty-thousand-word" arcs after this.

That being said, I hope this chapter was at least somewhat entertaining, even if I suspect it didn't live up to my grandiose promises. 'Til next time, comrades. -Solid