October 18th, 2024

Breathing hard, Kirito took the last corner so tightly he almost slammed into the rock wall. He managed to turn it into a run a few steps up the wall, and flung himself through the rippling distortion that marked the boundary of his destination.

The [Safe Haven] pop-up that appeared in his vision, as he skidded into one of the dungeon's few safe rooms, was a tremendous relief. For all of about half a second, before he was knocked off his feet by a hard impact on his back, one that quickly turned into a pileup.

Five Swordmasters all trying to get into a safe area at the same time tended to have that effect.

A few moments of untangling limbs followed, Kirito finding himself grateful that his friends tended to be pretty pragmatic by then when it came to awkward physical contact in a crisis. Soon enough, they were all separated, resting against the shimmering rock wall, and trying to catch the breath their brains insisted their avatars still needed.

A raspy screech, cut off with a sudden, indignant squawk, drew his and his companions' attention back to the safe room's entrance. Two skeletal Demonic Servants and a Lizardman had hit the Safe Haven boundary and bounced, collapsing in a comical heap. Watching them try to pick themselves up, the reptile's tail tangling with undead bones, Kirito couldn't help but burst out into a raspy laugh, quickly joined by the rest of the group.

He couldn't help but think, as the mobs finally got themselves straightened out and left, that the monsters were offended by the laughter. That only made it worse, of course.

When they'd gone, it was Asuna who first managed to get out a coherent sentence. "You know," she said, clutching her sides, "I hadn't even noticed we'd aggroed anything on the way here?"

"Me either," Argo wheezed, laughter dying down to snickers. "Don't think I've… run so fast… since the zombies!"

"Too bad we were in such a hurry." Philia slumped against the wall, sliding down almost flat on her back. "They got so tangled up, they would've been easy targets. Hey, Rain," she added, looking over to the redhead, "you could've thrown something at them!"

"Not enough swords on me," Rain retorted. Knees drawn up to her chest, she wasn't even looking up. "Could've gotten one of them, maybe. All of 'em?" She shook her head. "Not worth it anyway. …Kinda panicked there, y'know?"

"I think we all did," Kirito said, as he and Kizmel wearily leaned against each other. "That thing… well, it's not the scariest-looking boss I've ever seen—Vemacitrin was worse—but that charge?" He shivered. "I know it couldn't really do it, but it sure looked like it was going to come out of the boss room after us. I've never seen one rush us on sight like that."

And he'd seen a lot of bosses, in the two years he'd been in Aincrad. Seventy-three Floor Bosses, and if he'd missed out on a couple of Field Bosses, he'd made up for it with some of bigger quest and event mobs. This was the first one he'd seen that had scared him so badly he'd run—he thought back to the last few panicked minutes, blinking in realization—several entire floors to get away.

It said something, probably something bad, that he was only beginning to feel safe down in the middle of the labyrinth tower, with several layers of rock between him and the boss.

"While we probably overreacted, there is precedent for such things going wrong," Kizmel pointed out. She'd allowed her saber and shield to simply clatter to the floor, and if she was crowding closer than she usually would in public, Kirito wasn't going to complain. Well, except maybe about her armor digging into his side. "As Argo said, there were the undead on the Fifty-Seventh Floor."

He wasn't the only one who winced at that. Seven months on, and there'd never been a repeat of that terrifying failure of the Safe Havens. Seven months on, every Swordmaster still worried about it, just a little, whenever they started clearing a new floor.

"Also," Kizmel went on, fingers moving to grip Kirito's, "that boss—The Gleam Eyes, was it called?—was… visceral. Or perhaps I should say primal?" Her long ears drooped, twitching in a way Kirito had never seen before. "I don't know about 'real world' mythology, but the stories of my youth spoke of such creatures. That was as close to a literal demon as I believe I've ever seen."

"Goat head and legs, snake fer a tail?" Argo nodded. "Yep. Just 'bout textbook Baphomet. Evil thing." She let out a long sigh, dropping down to lie flat on her back. "On the bright side, we can take a guess about what it can do to us."

"Big sword," Kirito noted, remembering a detail he'd caught the barest glimpse of in the instant before they'd all run screaming. "Reminded me of the Black Knights from the original Baneblade quest."

"We'll need shield tanks, probably," Asuna said. Frowning, she brought up her menu, and was soon typing up notes. "If it were a smaller blade, I'd say evade tactics would be better. With that one, it'll probably have shockwave AoE on impact…."

"I think it's safe to say the tail can probably bite," Rain put in thoughtfully. "Looked like a cobra, so I'm betting on a poison debuff. We'd better make sure the raid's stocked up on antidotes."

Kirito nodded, taking a mental inventory of his and Kizmel's shared supply. There were few things more horrifying than seeing the HP bar going down, slowly but steadily, even as healing potions tried to fight it. Some higher-level poisons worked so fast only a Healing Crystal could outpace them, and if they lasted long enough even that wouldn't help in the end.

"I suspect it can also breathe fire." He couldn't see Kizmel's face, her head leaning against his shoulder, but he could practically hear the grimace in her voice. "Certainly it was flaming at the mouth when it charged us, and that would fit with the stories I heard of such creatures."

"And no obstructions to block it. Mm." Asuna made another quick couple of notations. "Still better than lightning breath, I really hate paralysis attacks… we'd still better see about fire-resistant gear. I'll get in touch with Fuurinkazan and Liz, I remember they had to deal with a volcano dungeon a few months back…." Trailing off into mumbling, she swept a finger sideways across her menu, apparently switching tabs. "Well, that's enough for the scouts to start with. For now?"

A quick press of her finger, and a basket shimmered into her grip. Kirito's gaze snapped to it, and he found himself swallowing.

"Lunch!" Asuna announced, holding up the basket with a smile. "Don't worry, there's enough to go around—yes, Argo, even for you. When I'm with Kirito's team, I always make sure there's some extra, just in case…."

Peering warily down the weirdly-lit hall, Klein felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Or at least, the tingle he always seemed to get in place of the hairs his avatar didn't render. "Is it me, guys, or is the mob behavior up here really weird today?" He nodded at the pair of Demonic Servants just visible coming around the next corner, and the Lizardman accompanying them.

Not a normal mob group, that. Especially not crowded together like two drunks hauling their buddy home after three too many drinks.

"Looks to me like somebody's been through here," Dale opined. He held his big sword in a relaxed but ready stance, it and his own bulk carefully between the mobs and his self-imposed charge.

Lux was calmer than she'd been the first time she'd come with Fuurinkazan into a labyrinth tower, but the girl was still twitchy. Especially at the suggestion that other players might have been around. Though her exact role as Laughing Coffin's unwilling mole hadn't gotten around in any detail, the rumors had been… ugly.

Still, Klein considered it progress that Lux sheltered behind Dale, rather than trying to hold to herself like she had in the early days. Fuurinkazan, she'd apparently decided really could be trusted.

Which is great, but still doesn't change what's right in front of us. "Yeah, okay, that'd draw 'em out of their usual patterns. But like that?" Klein shook his head, and while he started forward down the hall again, he kept a wary eye out for any side passages. Weird mob groups sometimes meant somebody had walked into an ambush.

"Maybe someone was grinding here for mats, and only took the mobs they needed," Sachi suggested. The former Black Cat was like a ghost, half-visible under her Cloak of Illusion. Ready at a moment's notice to disappear completely, it was no longer her old fear, just a regular battle tactic. Of all Fuurinkazan, Sachi was probably the sneakiest.

Klein kind of liked it that way.

"Last I heard, even Agil and the Rat hadn't pinned down all the drops here," Dynamm said, the mustached pirate shaking his head. "And even then, who takes the risk of killing one or two and then leaves—"

"No… they were… running away…."

Later, Klein would be proud at how his guild handled the totally unexpected voice. Dynamm and Kunimittz kept facing front, Sachi whipped up her cloak and disappeared; Dale put Lux between himself and a wall, turning to ward off anything from the rear along with Harry One.

Issin joined Klein in turning their weapons directly to the voice, appearing out of a side corridor—and just as quickly in lowering them. For this, even if they'd been needed, it wasn't clear weapons would even have worked.

As translucent as ever, Griselda bowed. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I… didn't mean to… startle anyone…."

The ghost of Golden Apple's murdered guildmaster sounded stronger than the last time Klein had run into her. Firmly ordering his heartbeat to slow down, he bowed in return. "No apologies needed, Griselda-san," he said formally. "I'm sure it's hard not to surprise people… um, like that."

How was he supposed to talk to a ghost, anyway?

Sachi rippled back into view, pulling her hood back down. "Is something wrong, Griselda?" she asked warily. "Um, whenever you've appeared before, it was to warn us…."

Griselda shook her head, momentarily distracting Klein with the way her hair moved. "No… I'm just… feeling a bit stronger today." She smiled; a bittersweet expression. Not that Klein could blame her, being dead and all. "Little by little, I… feel like I can do more." She hesitated. "Do you… mind if I join you, for a little while…?"

Welp. That's pretty high on the weird meter. Isn't Kirito the one who's supposed to run into this kind of thing? Klein looked to his guild. "Any objections, guys?"

Mostly, he got baffled looks and a couple of shrugs. Lux… he supposed he wasn't surprised when she winced, edging closer to Dale again. "Um… well, I…."

Klein winced, realizing the poor girl was having another attack of guilt. Not that he blamed her, exactly, meeting the ghost of a murder victim was bound to bring up bad memories, but still. "Lux—"

"You… Laughing Coffin took you early this year, right?" Walking with footsteps that only reached the edge of Klein's hearing, like a dog whistle, Griselda stepped closer to Lux. "I heard them talking… sometimes. They mentioned that, once…."

"That's—" The green-haired girl swallowed, nodding shakily. "That's right, Griselda-san. I helped them—"

"That was… after I was murdered," Griselda told her. The older woman smiled. "I… have no reason… to dislike you, Lux-san."

That'll do. "There you have it," Klein declared, before Lux could try and second-guess. "No problems here, either way." Looking back to the ghost, he tilted his head and shrugged. "If you're up to it, Griselda-san," he said. "We were just doing some mapping."

"Mm…." As Fuurinkazan got back into motion, resuming course down the hallway, Griselda fell into step with them. Her footsteps were still eerie, and the way he could see the sparkling rock wall through her was disorienting, but… not bad, really. "As I was saying… there's a safe room… up ahead. Another party… just came through here…."

"Huh." Well, that explained… not much, really. "Any idea what they were running from, Griselda-san?" Klein asked with a frown, looking back at the strange monster trio they were now finally approaching.

"I only saw them… as they went by…." It was Griselda's turn to shrug, shifting her cloak with an oddly distant whisper of cloth. "But I think those mobs… were something they aggroed along the way…." She paused, then turned to look at him, one eyebrow raised and a small smile on her face. "And please… no need for 'san'. After all… we're both guildmasters… and what need has a ghost for formalities?"

Off the top of his head, at least three different quests with Astral-type mobs. Spirits with unfinished business could be touchy. But hey, he wasn't going to complain about being casual with a pretty girl.

Married, he reminded himself sternly. …I think. If she sticks around long enough—hey, has she ever hung around this long?—I really need to get that story out of her. She keeps saying something about her husband, and I don't think it's good….

Erk. Maybe not, he amended to himself, as they neared the strange mob group. Husband, bad things—maybe not something easy to talk about. If she wants to talk, fine. Otherwise—

Well, for right then, there were other things to worry about. Like Demonic Servants and the Lizardman. A lot of mobs in SAO were programmed to run away from any group with a combination of levels and numbers that they couldn't realistically defeat. Others weren't; Klein had once heard Kirito speculate that Kayaba had deliberately introduced a "random stupidity" factor for realism.

Or maybe Fuurinkazan was just between the mobs and what they considered "their" territory. Either way, Klein's musings about the friendly neighborhood ghost had to be put on hold for a minute or two, while he and his guild cleaned up.

"If people were running away from those, they must've been in a hell of a hurry," Dynamm remarked, when the second Demonic Servant shattered to polygons. "That was pretty wimpy…. Yeah." Sheathing his cutlass to check his menu instead, he snorted. "Party of eight? Not even enough EXP to be worth the trouble."

"Better that than being under-leveled enough to need it," Klein pointed out, flicking nonexistent blood off his Suzaku Blade. "Now… maybe we'd better try and find the guys who did run away."

Griselda glanced up; Klein realized abruptly she'd been watching the shattered pieces of mob pass right through her, with an odd frown. "The safe room… isn't far from here." She pointed beyond the next corner. "I noticed it… earlier."

"Probably where they went, then. C'mon, guys, we could use a break anyway." Just getting halfway up the labyrinth had been tedious. If they were going to try and find their way to the boss room up on the top floor, he figured they'd better be rested.

And, though he didn't want to say it with Lux around, he wanted to know exactly who was already in the labyrinth. There were a fair few clearers he liked, a bunch he trusted, and some more he at least tolerated. Others he wouldn't trust as far as Sachi could throw them.

A few of 'em, Klein thought darkly, as Fuurinkazan rounded the corner and approached the familiar blue ripples, I won't let anywhere near my guys. PoH is still out there.

"—You seriously managed to put all that info together? On top of your guild duties?!"

"Aa-chan, you sell those charts, an' I promise you'll be richer than Agil." A cackle. "I'd even do the legwork for ya, just for a token fee of some more o' those sandwiches!"

The laughing voices cut off just as Klein reached the safe room's threshold, no doubt warned by the clatter of his armor. But he'd recognized that nasally voice, and was already waving a hand when he walked in. "Hey, guys, it's just us! Nothing to worry about here!"

He had to admit, it was impressive how quickly the six Swordmasters jumped to their feet, swords and claws at the ready. Without quite losing their collection of sandwiches, no less. But Team Kirito, Klein knew, wasn't an official guild only by choice. In a pinch, he'd still bet on them over himself, most days.

Though he suspected Kirito wasn't in the mood for compliments just then. "Klein," the Black Swordsman said, lowering the sword that had appeared in his hand with a rueful shake of his head. "Don't startle us like… that…."

Klein blinked, confused by the way his old buddy broke off. It wasn't like he could've kited a mob in by accident, and anyway, Kirito would've gone for the sword again—oh.

"E-excuse me," Asuna said, face chalk-white. "Is… is that…?"

Griselda quickly bowed, cloak rustling distantly. "You are… Vice-Commander Asuna, yes? I'm sorry… for scaring you. I've heard… you have problems with ghosts."

"Um, no, no, that's fine—Griselda-san, wasn't it?" Asuna visibly struggled to compose herself, shakily returning the bow. "It's just, well—"

"She does have difficulty with astrals, yes." The Dark Elf of the group laid a reassuring arm across the Flash's shoulders. "She'll adjust soon enough, Lady Griselda." Kizmel quirked one eyebrow at Klein. "Though I admit, I'm quite curious as to exactly how this came about. Are you not always complaining Kirito is the one always attracting female company?"

"Heh. Well…." He scratched the back of his head, grinning sheepishly. "About that. There's not really anything special here, we just happened to run into each other. The guys and I were mapping today, the usual, when we noticed the mob patterns were weird today…."

"You hear our story, you'll get why, Klein." Argo had already dropped back to the floor, returning much of her attention to the sandwich she'd been eating when Fuurinkazan arrived. "Mind, I'd rather sell it, but I know Kii-bou, he'll just tell ya straight out."

"It's about the Floor Boss, Argo," Rain pointed out, rolling her eyes. "And this one looks to be pretty freaky."

Exchanging a quick look with Sachi, Klein couldn't help but wince. Oh, that doesn't sound ominous at all. "Okay," he said aloud, gesturing for his guild to drop and rest. "You tell me your side, and I'll give you ours. Not that we've had as much excitement today as it sounds like you guys have…."

Every once in a while, life with Swordmasters still seemed just a little… odd. Even compared to her childhood with Tilnel, as mischievous as her sister had sometimes been—especially after over twenty years in the far more somber life of a Pagoda Knight.

Certainly, in her old life, Kizmel could not have imagined such a rapid shift in events. To have gone from running in primal terror from a demonic Floor Boss, to having a delicious lunch while discussing the frankly dizzying research Asuna had done for her cooking, and ending with a band of samurai appearing in the company of a ghost.

For the moment, she was content to just watch, leaning lightly against Kirito, as the others carried the conversation. "People-watching", as Argo put it, was still one of her favorite ways of learning more about the Swordmasters. And there is no denying, she thought with a hidden smile, that Klein has a way of breaking the tension of any situation… intentionally or otherwise.

There hadn't been enough of Asuna's wonderful sandwiches for all of Fuurinkazan, but they'd all gotten at least a taste. Now Klein was staring, dumbfounded, at the traces of sauce left on his fingertips. "Mayo? Seriously? Two years we've been here, and I've never found anything that got mayo right!"

"And believe me, we've looked," Issin put in wryly, leaning on his sasumata. "Klein, going two years without a good teriyaki-mayo pizza? He's insufferable sometimes."

"You should've seen him on launch day," Kirito murmured in Kizmel's ear. "Klein's first thought when we found out we couldn't log out? To freak out that he was going to miss his pizza."

She couldn't help but snicker at that. From what she'd seen of the samurai, that didn't surprise her a bit. Klein was as reliable as they came, among the Swordmasters trapped in Aincrad—and when not in deadly danger, even more of an oddball than her husband. Which, she had to admit, was probably half of how he led his guild so well.

Asuna, for her part, was looking torn between an embarrassed blush and a giggle of her own. "Cooking's part of how I unwind," she told Klein, with a bashful shrug. "First I just wanted some good food that I could carry in the field, then… well, I guess it got to be a hobby."

"An' lemme tell ya, Klein, Agil an' me made a mint sellin' her ingredients and weird info." Argo, sitting cross-legged off to one side—where she could keep an eye on the entire group, Kizmel was sure—grinned. "Gotta admit, I had no idea just how much she'd done with it. Ya gotta try her soy sauce sometime!"

…Kizmel thought the last time she'd seen a group look so suddenly ravenous was after a three-day siege against Forest Elves, some ten years before. Griselda may have been drifting quietly at the edge, a wistful look on her face, but even Sachi and the still-skittish Lux were clearly intrigued. "Soy sauce?!" Sachi blurted. "Seriously?!"

"W-well, yes. It took me a couple of months to get that one right, but… well, see this?" With a few quick gestures, Asuna conjured up the charts she'd been showing Team Kirito when Fuurinkazan arrived. A frankly bewildering list of recipes, they were, showing how startling disparate—sometimes downright bizarre—combinations could produce truly heavenly tastes.

Kizmel was firmly of the opinion, now, that if Asuna were not the de facto raid leader, she would be the greatest chef in Aincrad. It was truly a pity there was no time for her friend to pursue that career.

"Soy sauce…." Harry One had a dreamy look on his face, gazing at a feast only he could see. "I haven't tasted soy sauce since…."

"Too long," Lux agreed, timidity chased away by the thought of tastes from home. "Um… Asuna-san, sometime, could we pay you to…?"

She didn't have to finish the sentence. The energetic nods of the rest of her guild made it quite plain everyone knew what she was thinking. Not, Kizmel admitted, that she could blame the other girl.

When even Rain and Philia started to give pointed looks, Asuna raised her hands in what Kizmel thought was only half-feigned defense. "Okay, okay! When we have time, I'll try and put together a big dinner for Fuurinkazan and Team Kirito. Maybe after the boss fight here? But," she added, lifting one very pointed finger, "I'll need everyone to chip in with ingredients. Feeding all of you—and yes, especially you, Kirito-kun!—won't be cheap."

There was a quick chorus of assent, even from the chagrined Kirito. Though Kizmel noticed Griselda, wearing a bittersweet smile, was starting to flicker at the edges—

Only to abrupt disappear, in the same moment a clatter of armored feet reached the safe room.

Fuurinkazan's response was as quick as ever, moving back against the wall at a simple gesture from Klein. Sachi quickly vanished under her cloak, while Dale put himself between Lux and whoever the newcomers were, and the others readied their weapons. Not that there ought to have been any danger, yet the memories of the Fifty-Seventh Floor still lingered.

Kizmel's own team was hardly any slower, momentary merriment forgotten in favor of positioning themselves to use their respective specialties—Kirito, she noticed, was only a quick gesture from switching out Elucidator in favor of the Baneblade. She herself snapped into place at his left, shield up and ready, while Asuna took up a duelist's stance to his right. Rain and Philia set themselves up at the flanks.

Argo, she wasn't surprised to notice, quickly pressed herself into one of the far corners of the safe room, compact and inconspicuous.

Yet when the owners of the heavy footfalls came into view, it was quickly clear the abundance of caution was completely unnecessary. "The Army!" Asuna hissed, just loud enough for elven—and independent Swordmaster—ears.

In theory, possibly a danger. Kizmel was still wary of certain groups of Swordmasters, followers of Kibaou included. In practice, she immediately saw that the group that had appeared so disciplined when Team Kirito had first spotted them were… not the elites they might have appeared to be.

The two columns of six were still in formation, but only barely. Kizmel was honestly perplexed by how tired they all looked; as she'd had cause to learn, over the past year, Swordmasters felt no fatigue as such. The mind could still tire out, yet a simple climb up a labyrinth tower should not have been nearly arduous enough.

Nonetheless, tired they clearly were. When they were all in the safe room, their leader—whose armor, Kizmel noticed, bore a crest in the shape of the Steel Castle itself, perhaps suggesting higher rank—turned to face them. "At ease," he barked, and with a chorus of weary sighs the other eleven dropped right to the floor.

Only then did the man turn his attention to those already in the room, as if noticing them for the first time. Taking off his helmet to reveal a face rather older than most Swordmasters Kizmel had known, he swept his gaze across the two groups. His eyes paused, brows creasing in a frown, when he spotted her. "An elf, here….?"

It was all Kizmel could do not to indulge in a very human facepalm, and she could hardly grudge the stifled snicker she heard from Argo's corner. Honestly, while she might not have been the celebrity Asuna "The Flash" had become, it was hardly news that a Dark Elf was a regular member of the clearing group!

Perhaps more vexing still, the man seemed to simply shrug it off after a moment. Cementing her opinion that he was clueless, he proceeded to ignore both the genuinely-famous Asuna and obvious guildmaster Klein, in favor of fixing his attention on Kirito. "I am Lieutenant Colonel Kobatz," he said gruffly. "Aincrad Liberation Force." Unspoken but plainly heard was the addendum, And you?

"Kirito, independent," her husband replied curtly, sheathing his sword with a wary look. "With my team, and Fuurinkazan."

Well, I suppose ignorance is better than resentment of the "Beater", Kizmel thought, noting the lack of recognition in the "Lieutenant Colonel's" eyes.

Instead, Kobatz simply gave a short nod. "Have you mapped past this floor yet?"

Kirito didn't quite edge back, but the way his eyes narrowed told Kizmel he was as bothered by the peremptory question as she was. "…We have. As of about ten minutes ago, clear to the boss room."

"Hm." The Colonel nodded again. Then, without any change in his tone or expression, he said, "I trust, then, that you'll supply us with the mapping data."

Not a request. Not even a question. Kizmel could feel how every other Swordmaster in the room bristled, and it was only with an effort she controlled her own expression. She felt like she was dealing with Lind, in all his arrogance. Lind, before his more recent softening into something approaching reasonable.

She started to snap out a reply before Kirito could, even as she heard a choking sound from Argo and an incoherent gurgle from Klein. Ahead of any of them, though, was an indignant squawk. "Supply you with it?!" Philia repeated, eyes wide with sheer incredulity. "Just like that?! Hey, mapping isn't that easy—and some people pay good money to get the scoop on the good treasure spots!"

"Indeed, we risked our lives for this, 'Colonel'," Kizmel told him, frowning deeply. "I'm not certain you understand the value of what you're asking."

Either she was out of practice, or Kobatz truly was clueless. He didn't even blink at the glare from a former Pagoda Knight. She wasn't sure if she was more worried about herself, or offended by his presumption.

Instead, Kobatz lifted his chin. "The Army is fighting for the liberation of all players," he said flatly. "It is the duty of all players to support our efforts!"

Offended, she decided, staring at him incredulously. Even Lind at his worst has never been this arrogant. He has always done his part, fighting on the frontlines. Presumptuous, condescending, yes. This?

"Oh, give me a break!" Klein snapped, taking an angry step forward. The Suzaku Blade wasn't in his hand, but it was obvious he was wishing he had an excuse to draw. "You, 'fighting for all the players'? Funny, I've been on the frontlines since the Fifty-First Floor, and I've never so much as seen you mapping!"

"He hasn't," Asuna said with a frown. Gone was the laughing chef, replaced by the stern Vice-Commander, who eyed Kobatz with no small wariness. "At least, I've never heard of him before, and I do keep track of who passes on info to the raid guilds."

"Hmph! You think the front is all that matters?" Kobatz snorted. "While you've only looked ahead, we have been the backbone, supporting those below—"

"Enough." Kirito's quiet, flat voice cut through the incipient argument. Looking more tired than Kizmel had seen since the Laughing Coffin Crusade, her husband brought up his menu. "It doesn't matter anyway. I was going to spread the new maps when we got back to town tonight anyway."

"For free?!" Argo piped up, aghast.

"He's right about one thing," he told her, flipping through to his map. "We're all better off with more people having more info, especially under the circumstances." A few more quick gestures, opening a trade with the Army commander, and he was done. "There. That's pretty much everything on this floor mapped. All that's left is the boss itself, now."

Kobatz gave another curt nod. "Your cooperation is appreciated," he said flatly, and quickly turned away. Already examining the new map, he pulled his helmet back on and walked back to his men.

Kizmel blinked. Surely he's not planning to—?

"Piece of advice?" Kirito called after Kobatz, clearing following her train of thought. "Don't go after the boss by yourself. You're not nearly ready."

That was an understatement. Not normally something that should even have needed to be said, to a man leading a group only a quarter the size of a proper raid. With his behavior, however….

Kobatz paused, very briefly. "That is my decision to make, swordsman."

"Are you nuts?" Klein blurted, wide-eyed. "You can't seriously be thinking about taking on a freakin' Floor Boss with twelve people! That's suicide, man!"

"For you, perhaps," Kobatz retorted. "Don't underestimate my men."

"The men half-asleep on the floor?" Kizmel couldn't resist chiming in. Because honestly, it was truly a bad sign for Swordmasters to be so visibly exhausted.

"They're only catching their breath! On your feet, slackers!"

Visibly weary, grumbling to themselves, the other eleven members of the Army group hauled themselves to their feet. With a clatter of armor, they reformed into their twin column formation, and plodded back out of the safe room.

When they'd gone, the saner Swordmasters exchanged incredulous looks. "…You don't really think they're crazy enough to take on the boss, do you?" Klein asked.

"I wouldn't think so," Asuna said slowly, watching the near end of the Army group disappear around the first corner. "I can't imagine Kibaou ordered them to take that kind of risk. He has to remember what happened to the ALF when they tried to fight The Adamantine Arachnid by themselves…."

"Indeed. Though I wasn't there myself, I certainly saw how the experience affected those who went on to battle Vemacitrin." Kizmel recalled quite well, in fact, the tension that had led up to that battle, as the survivors of the Twenty-Fifth Floor Boss estimated the difficulty of the Fiftieth.

An estimate that had, if anything, turned out to be low.

"Kibaou wouldn't, but I dunno 'bout that Kobatz guy." Argo emerged from her corner, an uncharacteristically worried frown creasing her brow. "Looked to me kinda like he had somethin' to prove, y'know?"

Yes. That was more or less what Kizmel thought, as well. And wounded pride was… dangerous.

For a long moment, none of them said anything, only looking back out into the hall down which the Army had disappeared. Gone already, much as Griselda—already long dead herself—had vanished minutes before.

At last, the silence was broken by a sigh. "Should we go after them?" Kirito ventured. "I'd feel kinda bad if they used our map data and got themselves killed or something…."

There was a gulp from Lux's direction, but after a moment there were no actual objections voiced. Only quick nods, and a sly grin from Klein.

"What's that look for?" Kirito demanded, as the group moved out.

"Oh, nothin' much. Just… nice to see you worried about a stranger." Klein cuffed him on the shoulder. "You really don't get enough credit, y'know that?"

"At least someone understands that much," Kizmel told the samurai, favoring him with an approving smile. "Now, if we could only convince him of that."

"Lost cause," Asuna opined, shaking her head with a smirk. "I've been trying since the Third Floor. If he hasn't got it by now, Kirito-kun never will."

Kirito shrugged off Klein's arm, striding quickly ahead—slowing only briefly, to let Kizmel catch up with him. "You guys? Are reading way too much into this…. Can we focus on keeping those noisy knights from getting themselves killed? Kobatz doesn't look like he knows what he's doing, but he definitely thinks he does…."

Each step back up the labyrinth tightened Kirito's nerves that much more. And not, he was pretty sure, just because of the demonic boss waiting at the top. With how inexperienced the group from the Army clearly was, he'd honestly expected to catch up with them within a couple of minutes.

If nothing else, he was very surprised the mobs along the way hadn't slowed Kobatz's group. They were badly suited to basic exploration, to put it mildly. Instead, by the time Team Kirito and Fuurinkazan climbed back to the top floor of the labyrinth, there'd still been no sign whatsoever.

Worse, they'd had to fight all those intervening mobs themselves. With much the same trouble of getting in each other's way that they'd expected the Army would have.

"So…." Emerging from the staircase onto the labyrinth's highest floor, Klein turned back to the others with a wry smile—an effect ruined by the wary look he was giving the sparkling hallway ahead. "Half an hour since we saw 'em in the safe room, and nothing since. Think maybe they had an attack of sense and used Teleport Crystals to get out?"

"Unfortunately, not likely." Half-turned to watch Kirito's back, Kizmel ghosted into the hall herself. "Kobatz is driven by pride, and pride is not given to caution." She grimaced, fingers flexing on the hilt of her saber. "No, I fear it more probable that they were simply able to push through on the strength of their armor, leaving the monsters behind in their pursuit of a bigger prize."

"Yeah… that's what I was afraid of, too." Feeling a strange urgency, Kirito stepped out ahead of the others. "I'd like to think Kibaou learned a few lessons along the way, but if his guild is like I remember… they're pretty headstrong."

"I remember." Asuna shivered. "If we hadn't gotten ahead of them, back on the Fifth Floor—"

A high, wavering scream interrupted her, freezing the entire group in place.

That wasn't a monster, Kirito realized, blood running cold. That was a Swordmaster. They are still here, and the only thing in that direction is—

Griselda suddenly flickered into existence again, a dozen meters down the hall. "Hurry…!" she called, voice sounding as if from even farther away, yet just a bit stronger than earlier. "They've already… begun…!"

Kirito and his team had higher Agility than anyone in Fuurinkazan. They bolted ahead, galvanized by the dead guildmaster's obvious fear, rushing back down the path from which they'd fled only an hour before. Please let us be in time, Kirito thought, feet barely touching the ground in his haste. Please, don't let him have gotten anyone killed yet!

Yet. Oh, he had a bad feeling about this.

More screams reached them, even as the boss room's double-doors came into view. Doors that stood open, revealing flickering blue torchlight beyond, and allowing out yells and the clash of metal on metal.

"No…!" Asuna pushed on ahead, drawing on reserves of speed even Kirito couldn't match. "No, please, no…!"

She skidded to a halt just outside the boss room, boots striking sparks against stone. Kirito almost ran into her before he could stop, and he had to catch Kizmel by the arm before she could fall. Soon Rain and Philia were crowded there with them, and he could dimly feel Argo hovering at the edge—but his attention was fixed on the scene inside the room, where the screaming still continued.

There was the blue-furred demon, The Gleam Eyes, its huge sword swinging far faster than it had any right to. The beast's rumbling roars added to the hellish feeling the entire scene gave off, made worse by how small the others in the room looked next to it. Blue-white flames were scattered here and there across the floor; probably lingering fires from The Gleam Eyes' breath.

The boss' HP had fallen by maybe ten percent. Kirito wasn't surprised, seeing the utter disorder inside. The soldiers of the Army were scattered around the room, with nothing resembling a formation. Some of them were flat on the floor, some of them trying desperately to down potions, a couple of them wildly flailing with their weapons.

Two of them, by Kirito's count, no longer there at all. Please, tell me they teleported. Tell me someone had some sense here…!

A roar, a wide swing of that giant blade, and one of the Army men was flung screaming across the room. He hit hard, virtual breath exploding from his lungs; only then, seeing where the man landed, did Kirito realize The Gleam Eyes had somehow gotten between the understrength raid and the doors.

So why are they still here?! "Get out of there!" he shouted at the downed player. "Get a crystal out, and teleport!"

"W-we can't!" the man screamed back, already scrambling away from the boss again. "The crystals—they're not working! N-nothing's working—!"

Kirito's blood ran cold, and he felt Kizmel's shield-hand grip his arm. An anti-crystal trap. He remembered the Black Cats, remembered Laughing Coffin, and shuddered. There's never been one in a boss room before. Kayaba…!

"Then just run!" Asuna shouted, voice halfway between frightened and the sternness of the Vice-Commander. "Dodge, and run for the door!"

"Never!" On the far side of The Gleam Eyes, a figure raised a shining sword in defiance. "The Liberation Army never retreats! Fight, damn you!"

"You bastard!" Kirito screamed back at him, unable to believe his ears. "You're just going to die!" Like so much of Kibaou's original ALF had died in the Twenty-Fifth Floor boss raid, like two of Kobatz's own had already died here. They shouldn't have even started, and yet this idiot…!

"Hey, what's going on?" Klein demanded, Fuurinkazan finally clattering up behind. "That's—oh, hell, that's bad!"

"Two dead, anti-crystal trap," Rain told him quickly. "And Kobatz isn't letting them retreat!"

"Aw, hell." Klein swallowed, eyes wide. "Isn't there anything we can do?" His hands clenched on the hilt of the Suzaku Blade. "That stupid son of a…!"

Kirito was already thinking fast, and he could tell Kizmel and Asuna were running the same calculations he was. Normally, the strategy would've been to distract the boss until everyone could escape, but without the ability to teleport, that was putting his team—his friends—at a horrible risk. Trying to get through Kobatz's insane orders would just make it harder.

With Fuurinkazan and Argo, we've got fourteen people. Twenty-four with the Army survivors. Damn it, that's still not enough for a raid, even if we could get them on their feet and thinking—

Two of the Army players were almost dead, on top of that. The remaining seven were rallying behind Kobatz, still following his insane orders. There wasn't time, and there weren't enough people.



But Kobatz wasn't listening, not to Kirito, not to Fuurinkazan, not even to Asuna the Flash. He gave the order, and he led seven men in a charge Kirito knew was pointless. They weren't strong enough, they'd taken too much damage already, and with all of them going in at once they were just going to get in each other's way.

It was like watching a recording, from long ago and far away. Eight Swordmasters charged at the demon, screaming. The Gleam Eyes roared right back, a deep, unearthly sound, and bent forward to unleash a massive blast of fire from its goat-like muzzle.

The Army charged even through that, even as it punished them with a movement debuff and set capes on fire. They kept on going, rushing headlong—and the demon swung its massive sword.

Swordmasters scattered, flung all over the room. One of them was thrown clear over The Gleam Eyes' head, slamming hard into the floor right by the doors.

The impact shattered the man's helmet, and Lieutenant Colonel Kobatz stared up at Kirito. His HP was draining fast, too fast to stop. With a look of sheer disbelief, his mouth moved. "Im...possible…."

HP zero. Kobatz shattered like glass into a thousand azure shards, following his subordinates into death.

Time seemed to stop for Asuna, watching the polygons that had been a Swordmaster—a fellow human being—fade into nothing.

She'd seen people die before. She still remembered vividly, nearly two years before, watching the would-be knight Diavel fall to his own hubris against the very first Floor Boss, Illfang the Kobold Lord. The casualties of the Twenty-Fifth Floor had visited her nightmares for months, and the Fiftieth's deaths had been worse. She'd been there when Kirito had killed the mad PKer, Kuze.

Barely two months passed, she'd led the crusade that destroyed Laughing Coffin. Taken lives in that horrific battle herself.

Over three thousand people had died in Aincrad, in the past two years. She should've been used to it.

Asuna watched Lieutenant Colonel Kobatz die before her eyes, the latest in that litany of death. She watched him disappear as if he'd never been, and then her eyes lifted to The Gleam Eyes, the demon who'd killed him—whose sword had come up again, preparing to crash down on the sorely-wounded survivors of Kobatz's group.

Something inside her snapped in that moment. With a shriek of metal-on-metal, Lambent Light leapt from its scabbard into her hand, and she was dashing into the boss room. "No more!" she screamed. Heedless of the cries from her friends, she charged at the demon's back, and leapt as high as her stats allowed. She pulled her rapier back, the pre-motion for a skill, and then the system itself was pulling her forward, the last few precious meters to her target.

Just before The Gleam Eyes' heavy sword could come down, inevitably killing the Army players, Lambent Light struck it in the back of the head. Once, twice, three times, a perfect Triangular. Not enough to do more than scratch its HP, yet more than enough to make the demon stumble, its swing going wide.

Asuna landed hard on the stone floor, close enough to the lingering flames that the hem of her skirt started smoldering. The post-motion of a Triangular was brief enough she was able to start another skill almost instantly, and her rapier flashed forward in a Linear—

The Gleam Eyes was fast. Much faster than anything its size had any right to be. It was already recovering from her previous blow, and the spinning kick it unleashed caught her as her own skill's System Assist locked her on her course. The Linear still hit, still scratched at the demon's HP, but the kick came through anyway. The hoof filled her view, she saw a bright flash as they collided, and then she was flying back.

The impact left Asuna disoriented for precious instants. When she came back to her senses, she was caught in a Tumble—and The Gleam Eyes was coming for her, heavy sword coming down like a mountain about to chop her in two.

Oh, this was a bad idea…!

A blur of black and purple, twin roars of rage. A saber's Fell Crescent caught the demon in the back of one blue-furred leg, while a Sonic Leap crashed into its sword arm. "Get away from her!"

With a guttural yelp, The Gleam Eyes slammed into the stone floor, even as its attackers rebounded. As they pulled back, a swarm of red charged in with a collective battle cry, tearing into the demon's flank with everything they had. Its yelp turned into a groaning roar, skill after skill chipping away at it.

In a moment, Asuna felt hands gripped her arms, hauling to her feet. Then she was on her feet, looking into the very concerned faces of Kirito and Kizmel. "Are you okay?!" her old partner demanded.

"Please, don't be so reckless," Kizmel said in the same breath. "This battle—" She glanced over her shoulder, where The Gleam Eyes was already rallying itself. "Asuna, we must withdraw."

That was the sane thing to do. With what they had on hand, they probably could've made an opening now, to get the survivors of Kobatz's squad out. They had no business staying there to continue the fight, not after everything that had already happened.

But Asuna looked at The Gleam Eyes, and saw in it deaths that could've been avoided. Deaths that should never have happened. Deaths that would have been for nothing if they retreated now.

Nine members of the Army. Fuurinkazan's eight. Argo. Team Kirito, and me. …Good enough.

Asuna took a deep breath. "I'm fine. Kirito-kun—can you and Fuurinkazan keep the boss busy?"

Her friends looked at her like she was crazy. Which, yeah, she probably was. But Kirito looked into her eyes, saw something in them, and hesitated. Glanced back over his shoulder, where The Gleam Eyes had hauled itself back to its feet, and was even then unleashing a spinning attack that sent Fuurinkazan sprawling.

A sword flashed through the air, catching the demon dead in the right eye. It didn't reel back, but it did howl in pain, and its next attack was just slow enough for Philia and Argo to dash in, striking at its legs. Rain followed a moment later, a new sword flashing into her hand even as she launched the red lance of a Vorpal Strike up at the boss.

Kirito shared a quick glance with Kizmel, and they both nodded. "We've got this, Asuna. Just give the word."

Vice-Commander Asuna took a deep breath. Let it out. "Go!" Even as the two of them obeyed, she lifted Lambent Light in the air like a beacon, and called out, "Fuurinkazan, I need three people over here! Potions out!"

She somehow wasn't surprised when Lux was the first to heed her call. The green-haired girl, skittish at the best of times, was clearly terrified at being in a full-on boss fight. Asuna didn't blame her a bit. I just hope she can hold up. If not—I hope she can run fast enough.

With a quick command and a few hand gestures, Asuna directed Lux and Dale toward one end of the boss room, and the scattered Army players still trying to drag themselves up. Dynamm snatched up an unlucky player who'd fallen way too close to the fighting; Argo pulled back from the fighting to help drag the man off to the side.

Good. Argo shouldn't really be here any more than Lux-san.

Asuna herself hauled two Army men bodily to their feet, shoving a potion into one's mouth. "On your feet, all of you," she snapped. "Heal up, and get ready!"

"Ready for what?" the one not choking on healing demanded. He'd lost his helmet at some point, and his eyes were wide and terrified. "We've gotta get out of here!"

A roar punctuated his statement, followed by the indescribable yet unmistakable sound of fire breath rushing across the room. Asuna didn't even flinch, simply glaring up at the Army player. "If we run, your friends will have died for nothing," she said harshly. She gestured sharply toward The Gleam Eyes, which had just scorched Kizmel's cloak but paid for it when Sachi crashed a Sonic Leap into its face while it was recovering. "We know its patterns. We have good people. If you stand and fight, we can win!"

They would win. They had to win. The game that wasn't a game kept killing, held the survivors captive even as it gave them an illusion of freedom within it. The Gleam Eyes itself had killed three more players.

Asuna shoved a healing potion at the panicking Army player, not giving him a chance to respond, and dashed over to those the Fuurinkazan detachment was helping. She rolled under an errant attack from The Gleam Eyes along the way, dodging its snake-head tail when it tried to bite her, and got ready with another potion.

You've killed more of ours, she thought, casting the demon a furious glance as she went. Well, then—we're going to kill you!

Klein flung himself out of the way of another blast of fire from The Gleam Eyes' goat-like snout, hit the floor in a roll, and came up already in the pre-motion for a Hirazuki. The flat thrust carried him across the three meters between him and the boss, burying his Suzaku Blade in its leg.

He wasn't sure the boss even really noticed, as good as his so-called "demon weapon" was. It was a full-on Floor Boss, he was just one Swordmaster—though he was pretty sure it did notice Harry One's hammer smashing a Hammerblow into its knee. So he judged, anyway, from the roar of rage, followed by what he was pretty sure was a Serration Wave.

The impact from the semi-circular AoE sent Klein and Harry One both tumbling away. Damn! Trying to catch himself before he rolled right into the wall—and took added impact damage—the red samurai could only rail against the unfairness of the whole mess. Sword that big, might as well be using Two-Handed skills—gah!

Turning his sword mid-roll, Klein silently apologized to the weapon and jammed its tip into the floor. Sparks flew, and he hated to think how much Durability his katana was losing, but the friction slowed him enough to turn the tumble into a roll back to his feet. He glanced to his right just in time to see Harry One slam his hammer down to do much the same; but his real focus was on the boss.

Which, since their very impromptu raid group had entered the boss room, had gone down to about half of its first lifebar. Of four.

Forty percent, he amended, as Sachi appeared from under her cloak to slash the inverted triangle of a Sharp Nail into The Gleam Eyes' back. Damn it, that's not good enough. We've got twenty-three people, if you count the idiots from the Army. Not even half a full raid.

I know she's your friend, Kirito, but Vice-Commander Asuna is nuts if she thinks we're gonna pull this off.

Well, if she was, Kirito and Kizmel were just as crazy. The Black Swordsman's Elucidator was a dark blur as he cut a Vertical Square into the demon's flank; the Dark Elf was right there beside him, her kite shield swinging up and out to shove The Gleam Eyes' sword just far enough to not smash the two of them were they stood. Then she was throwing herself into a spin, the triple-whirl of a Treble Scythe, while he flung his sword into a Spinning Shield to ward off the boss' fire breath.

Flames hit the skill and rolled right off. The duo took some damage anyway, and Klein winced at the sight of their HP trickling away.

Winced, and with a loud "Kiai!" threw himself into a Flying Crane. Even from halfway across the boss room, he was able to leap and slash across The Gleam Eyes' nose, rocking it back and just a little off-target. Even as his clothes started to smolder, he reversed his grip and stabbed down viciously, snapping the demon's mouth shut.

Well, then, I guess I'm crazy, too!

Klein tumbled backward off the recoiling boss' snout, only barely managing to land on his feet. "You two? Are way too reckless!" he panted.

"Look who's talking," Kirito shot back, managing a grin. A grin that vanished a moment later, replaced by pure intent. "Duck!"

The samurai didn't ask questions. He hit the deck, just in time for The Gleam Eyes' snake-head tail to snap right where his head—no, more like his entire upper body—had been. Instead of a nice, juicy Swordmaster, the fangy mouth closed on nothing but air.

Air, and a thrown sword. Klein had no idea how far down it went, but from the demon's strangled yelp, it wasn't fun. Rain following up with a Sonic Leap that bashed the snake-head away entirely probably didn't make its day, either. Philia catching it with the serrated back of her sword, right where scales merged into blue fur?

He didn't think he'd ever heard a boss make a sound quite like that before.

He hoped he never would again, given that The Gleam Eyes responded with another Serration Wave, catapulting him, Team Kirito, and Harry One right back across the room.

Klein kind of lost track of things for a bit after that. When he had his head on straight again, Issin was hauling him to his feet, handing him a potion to deal with the whopping forty-percent damage he'd managed to take without noticing. Waiting for that to kick in—cursing the anti-crystal trap all the while—he had a chance to look at the big picture.

Kunimittz and Sachi were managing a good double-team, keeping the thing from focusing in one direction for more than a single attack. The former Black Cat's ambush-predator style seemed to trip it up as much as a good Switch did. Though from the look of things, The Gleam Eyes had started to notice, and Klein was any judge was trying to herd her into the flame-patches left behind by its breath.

So far, she was keeping ahead, but if her cloak did catch fire….

A glance beyond showed Asuna was, against all odds, rallying the Army survivors. Their HP was climbing nicely—but if he was any judge, they were still shaky as hell. He did not want to think of what it was going to be like when she actually led them back into the fight.

Flicking his gaze at Kirito, he could tell his friend was making much the same judgments. The youth tended to be either grim or loud in a boss fight, and right then he was looking really, really grim.

Above the boss' head, HP slowly trickled away. One lifebar was almost down, and probably would be as soon as Klein and Team Kirito could reenter the fight. Maybe sooner, with the way Argo darted in to tag-team with Sachi.

Three bars were still left. One way or another, this would be a battle of attrition.

I hope everybody brought enough potions. Dammit, I wasn't expecting a boss fight today….

As Rain retrieved the sword she'd just thrown at The Gleam Eyes' spine, hitting the Quick Change command with a flicker of motion that was becoming instinct-level, she made a silent promise to herself. When this insane battle was over, she was going to have words with Asuna. And probably Kirito, too. Not to mention Kizmel. After all, those two had volunteered the whole team for the Vice-Commander's scheme.

This is completely nuts, she thought, ducking under a bite attempt by the boss' tail. Sure, I decided to be a hero—but I never wanted to be a crazy one!

Oh, sure. Crazy came with the territory, working with the Black Swordsman. Usually, though, it was either planned crazy, or out-of-nowhere, no-place-to-hide crazy. Not "We looked, saw it was nuts, and jumped in anyway!" crazy.

"Rain, watch out!"

Only Philia's timely warning, and abrupt dash to her side, kept Rain from being smashed into the floor by The Gleam Eyes' dropping a Vertical on her head. Between the two of them, flinging up a matched pair of Uppercuts to counter, they managed to force the heavy sword just off to one side. It was still a near thing, and the shockwave from the impact tossed them both off their feet.

Post-motion probably would've kept them out of action that long anyway, true. By sheer luck, neither of them were hit by Tumble status, and before the demon could follow up, Kirito and Kizmel hit it from behind in a good try at hamstringing it.

I'm still going to shout at people about this. Rolling back to her feet, Rain hauled Philia back up with her. Not bothering to retrieve the sword she'd dropped in the fall, she just hit Quick Change again, swapping in to the sword she liked to call Oathkeeper, rather than its "official", and boring, name "Silver Sword".

She'd inherited it from a Knight of the Blood whose name she'd never had the courage to ask. Of all her growing collection of swords, it was the one she took the most care of, and despite its bland origins was probably her best by now.

Good enough for a boss fight. Fortunately. Though she'd definitely be taking it to Lisbeth when the fight was over. The maintenance bill was going to be a nightmare.

For now, it was good enough, and Rain was quickly charging back into the fight. In the time she and Philia had been down, half of Fuurinkazan had blitzed The Gleam Eyes from the side; between that and Kirito and Kizmel's attack, the boss had actually fallen to its knees. That gave them a priceless opening, which from the look of it they needed desperately.

"Klein!" Philia shouted, swinging her Swordbreaker up and over her shoulder. "Switch!"

The Fuurinkazan guildmaster and his men didn't hesitate, immediately splitting off to either side. That gave the two girls room to rush the demon, Philia leading off by launching into a Sonic Leap at its broad back. Not a very high-level skill, but then that wasn't really the point.

The treasure hunter had spun the sword in her hand, turning its ridged back into her attack. The serrations tore a more ragged gash in the boss' back than usual, inflicting a minor Bleed effect in the process. With how high she hit, the skill also dragged much farther down than it normally would have.

More importantly, The Gleam Eyes' reaction—a roar of pain, and a sudden, intense focus on a single target—gave Rain her opening. Dashing between the demon's legs, she ended up right behind it again when it turned, with just the right position and opening to launch a bigger skill that she otherwise would've dared.

With a yell, she stabbed up and ahead, once, twice, three times—five times, in the end. Raising Oathkeeper a little higher, she brought it slashing straight down, then dragged it right back up again. The motion carried her clear into a backflip, with the momentum going straight into one last upward slash.

Landing from the eight-hit skill, Rain couldn't help but feel a moment's pride. It wasn't often she got to hit a full-on Floor Boss with a Howling Octave, and she'd done it perfectly.

She also realized, a crucial second too late—while still trapped in the painfully-long post-motion—that she'd done enough damage fast enough to trigger a nasty reaction.

Roaring high and loud, The Gleam Eyes snapped its snake-headed tail at her, and she had no time at all to move. Giant jaws snapped closed on her, burying fangs deep in her chest. As sheer, atavistic horror gripped her, the tail whipped violently, flinging Rain clear across the room.

She hit the wall with a bone-jarring thud, before dropping hard to the stone floor.

After an endless moment of disorientation, the first thing Rain noticed was her own HP dropping, draining steadily from blue deep into yellow, edging dangerously close to red. The second thing to catch her eye was the lightning bolt icon under her HP, notifying her—to her horror—that she'd been paralyzed.

Only then did she manage to look back at the battle, just in time to see things going wrong.

The same tail-snap that had thrown her had knocked Philia off her feet. The Gleam Eyes had apparently followed that up with a blindingly-fast Serration Wave, which had caught half of Fuurinkazan and sent them tumbling like bowling pins. And as she watched, heart in her throat, the demon's mouth opened, and it launched a torrent of flame straight into Kirito and Kizmel's faces.

Rain couldn't tell exactly what happened after that, the firebreath obscuring her friends from her angle. She could see, though, The Gleam Eyes sweeping its head from side to side, still breathing fire. From somewhere in that inferno, there was a scream, and Sachi became visible in the flames of her own ignited cloak.

None of them were killed. They were clearers, more than tough enough to take a couple of hits from a Floor Boss and keep going. But Rain could see, even trapped by paralysis, that most of the impromptu raid was off-balance, they were badly injured, and The Gleam Eyes' HP still hadn't gone below half of its third bar.

We have to get out of here. We have to run…!

"Army Team A!" a clear, commanding voice rang out. "Hit it!"

Out of the flames, Asuna the Flash leapt straight for The Gleam Eyes' face. The four hits of an amazing midair Quadruple Pain struck it right between the eyes, the impact and the skill's inherent stun effect cutting off its breath with a strange, choked sound.

Out of the lingering flames, a screaming group of black knights hit the demon running, shields warding off fire and lances stabbing deep.

She did it, Rain thought, incredulous. She got them on their feet. Philia was on her feet, too, rushing toward the redhead with an antidote in hand, but Rain hardly noticed. …We've still got a chance…!

Watching Asuna the Flash lead a group of just-healed Army knights right into a Floor Boss' face, Lux felt a mix of awe and sheer, howling terror. If things had been different, she'd have just been amazed that the KoB Vice-Commander had pulled the Army survivors together at all, let alone that she'd gotten them to attack the boss again.

Waiting with the other half of those survivors, plus her own guild's Dale, the awe was fighting with terror at the knowledge that she was going to have to go in there soon. She hadn't been so terrified since the day she'd played stalking horse for Argo the Rat, and finally escaped Laughing Coffin.

Usually, Klein didn't even ask her to go along when Fuurinkazan headed out for Floor Boss raids. She wasn't ready for it, mentally or statistically, and they all knew it.

I don't want to die, Lux thought, shaking. Watching as two Army knights stabbed at The Gleam Eyes with lances, while three others did their best to keep the boss' retaliating blows at bay with shields. Watching Asuna dart between, around, above, her gleaming rapier stabbing the demon anywhere and everywhere there was an opening. That's amazing—and I can't do it!

She'd never been a clearer, even before Laughing Coffin dragged her in. She'd never had the courage. All the while, she'd hated herself for that, hearing exploits of the famous frontline players—the Flash, the Black Swordsman, the Paladin. Now she was watching them in person, watching Asuna shout orders while launching her own Sword Skills all the while. Seeing Kirito haul SAO's most famous NPC out of the fire, his black sword shedding flame while she drank a potion with one hand, brushing aside more fire with the shield in her other gauntlet.

It was the most impressive thing Lux had seen, in two years trapped in a fantasy world. And more than anything, it scared her to the bone, because she knew she was going to be told to go in there soon herself. She could see Team A's HP grinding away, despite the tanks' best efforts, and knew it was only a matter of time before even Asuna had to pull back, and send in the next group.

With Fuurinkazan and Team Kirito still recovering from The Gleam Eyes' last barrage of skills, Lux knew the moment was coming.

Then the demon's mouth was opening again, and Asuna was leaping back in an elegant backflip. "Team A, withdraw!" she shouted. "Team B, get ready!"

Lux's hand shook on the hilt of her sword, and she wondered if she was going to be able to move when the order was given.

A gloved hand landed on her shoulder, and she jumped. "Easy there," Dale told her, surprising her with just how calm he was. "We can do this. And if things go bad, we can still make a run for it before our HP hits red." He hefted his big sword with his free hand. "No matter what, I'll make sure you get out, Lux. Fuurinkazan's honor."

She wished that was reassuring. Well, it did make her feel a bit better about her own chances—but the idea of other people risking their lives for her, again, after everything she'd done….

I shouldn't be here. People are going to die, and I… I can't stand it being my fault again….

"Team B, go!"

Lux shook a like a leaf. Every nerve in her body screamed at her to just run away. But when the survivors of Kobatz's Army squad, whose skills and gear made her look like a veteran clearer, charged in with a battle cry—when the mountain that was Fuurinkazan's Dale, the self-assigned protector of the guild's weaker members, headed right in at the head—she found her answer.

Her own voice rising in a scream that was half terror, half challenge, Lux ran straight for The Gleam Eyes, sword swinging back for a Sharp Nail's pre-motion.

Falling back with the rest of the improvised Team A, Asuna made sure to down a potion the moment she was out of The Gleam Eyes' reach. Or what I think is its reach, she thought uneasily, watching Team B head in. We've got a handle on its Sword Skills and firebreath by now, and it doesn't even seem to use that tail much. Still….

They'd taken it down almost to the end of its third lifebar, out of four. Which was an awful lot more than they might've expected to manage, with a half-strength raid full of amateurs against a Floor Boss. It was also enough to make her very, very nervous. The last improvised raid she'd been part of, way back on the Fifth Floor, had been against a boss that had been as much a puzzle as a fight. The Gleam Eyes was pure, straight-up offense.

We have taken more damage, each, than we usually do these days, Asuna thought, taking stock of the raid group. Her team of Army survivors were perilously close to the red, from a stretch of combat that would've barely put a regular raid party in the yellow at all. Team Kirito was scattered halfway across the boss room, having broken into two pairs that struck whenever and wherever they could, with no real strategy, and they'd all taken more damage than she was used to seeing from them.

As she watched Dale lead Team B into a repeat of what she'd done with A, the surviving tanks drawing aggro while he and Lux hit the boss with an Avalanche and a shaky but effective Sharp Nail, she tried to figure out just where Argo had gotten to. The Rat had absolutely no business being in a boss raid at all, so on the one hand, it was good sign that she seemed nowhere near the fight itself. On the other, it worried Asuna that she couldn't see her friend at all.

Those of Fuurinkazan not bolstering the Army were off on the sidelines, patching up the heavy damage they'd taken from the one time The Gleam Eyes had hit them with everything. Asuna did not like how burnt Sachi had gotten, for one. But they were still alive, and their HP was climbing. If they could just get some time to regroup, then what she'd managed to pull off with the Army survivors might just have made the difference.

If it doesn't pull off a state change when we hit the last lifebar. Asuna anxiously checked Team A's health, making sure the still-shaky survivors were getting enough potions down. Even that had been sub par, Kobatz's group having arrived on the frontlines with healing items better suited for dungeons at least ten levels below. She'd distributed some from her own inventory, but she hadn't come to the labyrinth expecting to fight a boss at all, let alone having to supply other players.

Right now, we're winning. But…. A roar, and The Gleam Eyes' heavy sword slammed down; though the tanks mostly caught it, Lux tripped, forcing Dale to yank her back and take some of the blow on himself. Not enough to hurt the experienced player's HP very badly, but more than enough to make Asuna wince.

Please, hold out a little longer. We can still win this. We can still make Kobatz's death mean something…!

Asuna's HP was still ten percent from full. Her team was much worse off, and Fuurinkazan's main group wasn't even close. Team Kirito was still scattered.

The Gleam Eyes' HP was five percent above its final lifebar. Four percent. Three.

We can do this, Lux thought, carving a Savage Fulcrum's numeral four into The Gleam Eyes' stomach, even as the Army tanks behind her took its sword on their shields. We can do this…. I can do this…!

It was terrifying. When she'd stumbled, she'd thought that was the end, before Dale took the hit himself and slammed a Cyclone into the demon. If it hadn't been for that, and an Army lancer stabbing at the boss even while he was crying in fear, she didn't think she could've kept going.

But she had. She was still alive, and she'd at least realized one thing: a boss wasn't personal. It wasn't like the hate—or worse, the glee—of a PKer. It was just a program, and a program, somehow, wasn't as scary. The worst it would do was kill her.

It wouldn't make her kill anyone else.

So Lux kept fighting, dodging when Dale dodged, unleashing the best Sword Skills she had whenever she had the chance. She was terrified, and she was praying for Asuna to call them back, for someone to take over, but she was still fighting. As long as she still had her sword, she was going to fight.

She fell back after ripping a the back-and-forth snicker-snack of a Snake Bite through The Gleam Eyes' left leg. That gave Dale room to leap up and drop a mid-air Avalanche onto the boss' sword arm, while the Army's lancers hit its gut with synchronized Straight Thrusts.

The big Fuurinkazan swordsman was frowning as he landed, though, as if something had only just occurred to him. "Weird," he muttered, so low Lux almost didn't hear him over the sounds of so many Sword Skills going off. "It's almost down to its last lifebar, but still no adds. Usually, that means…."

She'd never been a clearer. She had no idea what that meant. The way Dale's face suddenly paled sent her terror to a new high anyway.

"Oh, hell," he whispered.

In that moment, Lux looked up, and realized The Gleam Eyes' HP was just about to run down to its fourth and final lifebar. So, from the look of it, did The Gleam Eyes, which in that moment suddenly tensed.

"Team B!" she heard Asuna yell. "Get out of there!"

The Gleam Eyes' fur had looked like fire from the moment Lux first saw it. In the instant its HP dropped to its final bar, flames erupted from that fur, and suddenly all the world was fire.

She couldn't see anything but blue flames. Couldn't hear anything, in that moment, except the roar of the fire, a bone-chilling roar from the demon, and high, terrified screaming. Some of it hers. In the sudden inferno, she could only barely glimpse her HP dropping; she couldn't tell what was going on, couldn't move, couldn't fight—

An impact out of that blinding blue fire threw her across the room. She hit, hard, and rolled. When the world stopped spinning, she still couldn't see—and caught in a Tumble, she couldn't move. She could only look up into fire, and listen to the sound of screaming—and to a sound she recognized as a Sword Skill charging up. One so big, it had to be the boss.

A bright red flash cut through the fire, The Gleam Eyes' huge sword coming down. With her HP already dipping into the red, Lux couldn't possibly survive it.

I'm going to die.

In the instant before the sword came down—the instant it came through the flames—something else hit Lux from the side, shoving her away. At the same moment, a crimson flash came from below, arcing up to meet the descending strike. Sword Skill hit Sword Skill, in a crash that would've been agony if she could feel pain.

The clash blew away the flames, and Lux found herself wrapped in the arms of the Dark Elf Kizmel, the NPC's shield between them and the boss. Beyond the elf girl, coat billowing in the wind of the colliding skills, the Black Swordsman screamed a wordless challenge, and with his odd black sword shoved The Gleam Eyes' blade to the side, where it smashed to the floor with a loud boom.

Lux stared, transfixed. …Wow….

Made it!

Even as he trembled in relief, Kirito couldn't help but wince at the sound—and feel—of The Gleam Eyes' sword crashing into the floor only a meter away. His HP still wasn't quite recovered from his last clash with the demon, but he'd had no choice but to engage. When he'd seen the state change coming, realized the team engaging the boss couldn't handle what was about to happen, he hadn't had a choice.

Kirito hated seeing players die right in front of him. Worse, Lux was one of them. Though he didn't know the girl well, he knew what she'd been through.

But I made it, he thought, risking a quick glance back. Kizmel and I made it.

The Gleam Eyes roared again, then, a sound of challenge that Kirito somehow thought was meant for him. Its huge sword came up again, and he tensed to move. Lux was out of danger, there was no reason to stand and take it this time—

"Komuro!" came the anguished cry, from somewhere behind him. "Komuro, no!"

Oh, hell. The Army…!

No time to think. No time to wonder if that was a cry of grief, or just terror. Instead of running, Kirito flung Elucidator up in the fastest, strongest Uppercut he could manage, meeting that descending sword. He couldn't block it, not really, he could only force it to the side again, and he winced as it sheared against his black blade and slammed down into the stone floor again.

His HP sheared away right along with it, and his heart was pounding in his chest. He wanted to run, to heal. He had to, now.

Kirito risked another glance back. Kizmel was leading Lux away, but there were still several members of the Army sprawled back there, HP too low to survive another hit from The Gleam Eyes. And the boss had clearly decided it was going to finish what it had started.

Just like Vemacitrin. It's going for the weak ones. …I have to….

"Kirito-kun, look out!"

Asuna's cry was just in time, giving him just enough warning to set off another Uppercut and step clumsily to one side. More of his HP went down with the blow—and The Gleam Eyes was already moving again, prepping a skill he just knew was going to hit a lot harder.

Dammit, I don't have a choice!

"Buy me some time!" Kirito shouted, already tossing Elucidator to free up his right hand. "Someone, just get me ten seconds!"

Ten seconds. An insane demand, in a fight like this. He didn't know if anyone was even still in any shape to give him that. But if he could just get those ten seconds—



Argo came charging out of absolutely nowhere, tearing into the demon's legs with the blurring claw-strikes of a Berserker Barrage. At the same time, Klein leapt into view, his Flying Crane biting into the boss' back. One of Rain's flung swords skewered its tail, and Philia's Sonic Leap tore into its left arm.

The Gleam Eyes roared. But it was scratch damage, nothing next to the full lifebar it had left—not enough even to draw aggro. Its burning gaze fixed on Kirito—on the badly wounded Swordmasters behind him—mouth opening to torch them, and he still wasn't ready.

"…Over… here…!"

The Gleam Eyes' jaws snapped shut abruptly. It spun, the motion sending Kirito's friends tumbling in all directions, and fixed its flaming eyes on a figure who hadn't even been there a moment before. It stared, taking an uncertain step, at the wavering, translucent woman.

"Face… me…!" Griselda shouted at the demon, brandishing a sword as ethereal as her body. "You… won't… hurt them….!"

A brief gout of flame erupted from The Gleam Eyes' mouth, only to immediately cut off. Its snake-head tail swung forward, and stopped abruptly. Its sword came up, charging what looked like the biggest Vorpal Strike Kirito had ever seen, only to pause, glowing red but going nowhere.

It's confused. It can see her, but its algorithms don't know what she is. …Good enough!

Switching Elucidator to his left hand, Kirito's right closed on the hilt of the Baneblade. With a scream, he launched himself into the air, whirling into the six-hit buzz saw of a Corkscrew. His twin swords bit into the demon's back, cutting deep again and again and again.

That got its attention.

The Gleam Eyes spun, fixated entirely on Kirito now. He had time to land, barely, and then its sword was coming down in an absolutely brutal Vertical. There was no way a regular block would work, not even another One-Handed Sword Skill could've stopped it.

Elucidator and the Baneblade, forming the "X" of a Cross Block, caught it. Barely.

Kirito winced at the impact, felt his heart rate going up at the block damage he took anyway, but he stopped the blow. Stopped it, and with a yell forced The Gleam Eyes' sword up and away. Even as he heard running footsteps behind him, Fuurinkazan and his own team moving to pull the Army survivors away, he took advantage of the brief opening to thrust both swords up and into the boss' stomach.

The Twin Stab was a basic Dual Blades attack. That still made it more powerful than any single-hit skill from another weapon, and it even forced The Gleam Eyes back a pace. It recovered fast, coming in with a Horizontal Arc that would've taken his head off before bisecting his torso for good measure; he met it halfway, charging forward and slashing down with the Baneblade, then Elucidator.

Double Circular beat Horizontal Arc. Both were blown back, both took damage, but the demon took more.

With another scream, Kirito hurled himself up and in, contorting himself into another Corkscrew. Three hits scored solidly on The Gleam Eyes' chest, sending out a spray of red particles—and then its left first came around, punched him in the gut, and threw him across the room.


"Not yet!" he snarled, twisting midair, landing on his feet in a skid and a spray of bright blue sparks. "It's not over yet!"

Dual Blades was an "unfair" skill. Whatever it was meant for, The Gleam Eyes clearly wasn't it, its HP going down faster in the last thirty seconds than it had in the whole fight up to that point. Kirito's was going down almost as fast, and he didn't have as much of it to begin with.

It wasn't over yet—but it had to end now.

The demon's fur was glowing again, preparing for the AoE fire attack that had nearly wiped out the raid. Its mouth was opening, preparing to breathe right into Kirito's face. Its sword was drawing up and back, glowing the red of an imminent Vorpal Strike.

Kirito's lips drew back in a snarl. "…Starburst…!"

He launched himself forward, legs blurring as he charged right into the erupting fire. He ignored it, ignored the way his coat started to smolder, ignored even the shouts and screams from the other Swordmasters. He ignored everything, except the need to bury his swords in the demon.

The twin blades came down together, slamming into The Gleam Eyes' chest before it could follow the flames with the Vorpal Strike. It rocked back, and he chased it, a backhand blow from the Baneblade, thrust from Elucidator. One sword spun in his hand, then the other, circular strikes biting deep. He whirled his entire body, not giving the boss a chance to retaliate, hitting it again and again and again.

He was still on fire. He didn't care, and couldn't stop if he did. Nine times, ten, eleven, he chopped, sliced, cleaved. Spun into the twelfth, leapt into the thirteenth. Swept his arms out wide in twin backhands for the fourteenth, brought Elucidator down in a brutal overhand for the fifteenth.

The demon's sword was suddenly coming down, falling into his view. The Baneblade flew forward in the same moment, burying itself in its gut on last time.

The world froze, heavy sword centimeters from Kirito's head. The demon's last roar cut off suddenly, the sword fell with a clang, and the demon staggered back, off the impaling sword. Falling away, The Gleam Eyes shattered into a thousand azure shards before it could ever follow its blade to the stone floor.

After an endless moment, Kirito's right arm fell away from that last thrust. Slumping, he managed to raise his gaze to his own HP bar.

Only a sliver of red remained. Twenty HP, so low it barely registered at all. In that moment, a tap from a basic Frenzy Boar could've killed him.

But… we won…. I… saved them….

Kirito didn't even see if there was the usual system message confirming victory. Sudden, incredible fatigue gripped him, even as his friends called out to him. His swords slipped from nerveless fingers, and he surrendered his consciousness.


"Kirito-kun, are you all right?"

Consciousness came back slowly and fuzzily, along with a soft feeling beneath him. Blinking muzzily, Kirito found himself looking up into violet eyes, and realized Kizmel was cradling him in her arms. When she saw he was awake, her eyes started to shimmer, and then she was pulling him into a tight hug.

She'd taken off her armor, so at least he could be sure the fight really was over. "Hey," he said, returning the hug as well as he could, tired as he was. "Careful there. My HP's low enough as it is…."

"Be quiet," she said into his shoulder, tightening her grip. "Don't frighten me like that, Kirito-kun. For a moment, I was sure I was going to lose you."

Well. He couldn't blame her for that. For a minute, he hadn't been sure he was going to survive The Gleam Eyes' last attack, either. Two years in Aincrad, and his HP had never gotten that low before. As much to fight off the sudden shaking in his own arms, he leaned into her, burying himself in the proof that they'd both survived.

"She wasn't the only one, Kirito," Rain put in, sounding as tired as he felt. "…I thought we were all going to die, when that last state change hit."

Only then did Kirito pull back, just a little, from Kizmel, and take stock of the situation. With The Gleam Eyes gone, the room was lit only by the blue torches scattered around; enough for him to see his friends were all still there. Rain and Philia were kneeling on either side of Kizmel; sudden pressure at his back—and locks of chestnut hair in the corner of his eye—announced Asuna's presence behind him. Argo was hanging around the edge, her trademark grin present but obviously stressed.

Fuurinkazan stood off to one side, more or less intact. Lux was shaking like a leaf, and Sachi was scorched, but they were alive. Kirito noticed Griselda was still there, too, a translucent figure standing a bit apart from the samurai guild.

Grouped together farther away, he saw the Army survivors. Bunched up as they were, he couldn't see exactly how many there were, but….

Swallowing, Kirito looked back at Klein. "Okay. Tell me. How many?"

"Kobatz and two of his buddies before we got here," the red samurai told him bluntly. "Two more when that state change hit." His right hand tightened into a fist, and he looked away, teeth clenching. "That damned idiot. Their levels were too low, their gear was trash, their formation was dumb, and there weren't near enough of them…. What the hell was he thinking?"

Kirito would've liked to have asked Kobatz that himself. When he had the chance, he intended to track down Kibaou, and find out exactly what orders he'd given the late "colonel". Because he couldn't believe the grouchy Osakan would've been that stupid, not after losing so much of his guild seventy floors before.

Right then, all he felt was weary. "Five dead," he said dully, leaning into Kizmel again. "When we hadn't lost anybody to a boss fight since the Sixty-Seventh Floor."

"It could've been worse, though," Asuna told him, almost whispering into his ear. "If you hadn't used Dual Blades at the end there, Kirito-kun… it all would've been for nothing."

Yeah. He was going to be telling himself that a lot for a while, he was pretty sure. At least until the nightmares eased off. Oh, man, am I going to have nightmares about this. …I'll still take those over the Crusade.

Klein cleared his throat. "Yeah, 'bout that… Kirito, what the hell was that, anyway?" He turned a hard look on Argo. "I don't remember seeing that on any of the skill lists you've sold, Rat. Not even when I bought the latest to help Lux get her feet under her."

The whiskered girl raised her hands, shaking her head. "Oi, don't look at me, Klein. Gotta give Kii-bou credit, I had no idea he had that trick up his sleeve. Hard as it may be t' believe, he an' his team—and Aa-chan, I guess—kept that one under wraps. Even from me."

"That's because I don't know how I got it," Kirito said wearily. "It just popped up in my skill list last year. I get enough trouble for having the Baneblade, y'know. …And sometimes, it's helped to have a trump card nobody knew about."

No more chance for that. His friends, he trusted; even Argo, he was pretty sure, would've kept quiet about that one. The Army survivors, he suspected, wouldn't be so understanding.

From the way he grimaced, Klein got his point, including the parts he didn't say. "Fair enough." Abruptly, he dropped to the floor, hands on his knees in an inelegant sprawl. "Well… done's done, I guess. We're alive, right?"

"Yes. We are." Kizmel finally pulled back, shifting so that she leaning into Kirito's side instead. "We're alive, and we just defeated a Floor Boss with an improvised raid and no help from the DDA. I believe we have all earned our keep today."

"And a vacation," Philia put in. The treasure hunter was looking over her Swordbreaker with a critical eye; even from where he was, Kirito could see the blade was much the worse for wear after the battle. "I don't know about you guys, but I think it's time to let the KoB and DDA do the hard work for a bit."

"Agreed." Asuna let go of Kirito's back, and in a second was slouched against Kizmel's other side. "I'm going to tell Guildmaster Heathcliff that I'm extending my vacation. He can do some field work himself for a week or two, if he doesn't want to lose his vice-commander completely."

Kirito couldn't help but blink at that. He honestly couldn't remember the last time his old partner had been so firm about taking a break; even getting her to join the Yule Festival the year before had practically required him to blackmail Heathcliff.

He was distracted from that topic, though, when Kizmel suddenly gripped his chin in her fingers, turned his head toward her, and pulled him into a deep kiss. Rational thought was out of the question for the duration, lost in the elf girl's mouth—not that he really minded.

When she finally released him—to a chorus of awkward throat-clearing, at least one giggle, and a whistle he was pretty sure was from Klein—Kizmel stared right into his eyes. "Kirito-kun. I've been waiting seven months for a proper honeymoon.

"We're going Now."

Author's Note:

2020 sucked. Is there really anything else I need say about this chapter's delay? It sucked, and seems to be lingering as a zombie. The Year That Wouldn't Die.

Ahem. Anyway. Personal retrospective on this chapter: not the best I've written, not the worst. Not sure the battle turned out quite as well as I wanted, and with so many extra characters involved, nobody got quite the focus I would've liked. At the least, though, I think it wasn't terrible, and I did get in one or two bits of important setup for later arcs. (If I were to name one specific irritation, it's that once again Kirito and Kizmel didn't get much focus. Considering their relationship is the point of the story, that's starting to annoy me.)

Continuity note: as I've done before, the single named member of Kobatz's group got his moniker from the Monument of Life, as depicted at the end of the first anime episode. At least this time I paired the name with a canon role?

Second continuity note: I've seen at least three, maybe as many as five, different spellings for that particular Army moron. I went with the one the SAO wiki uses, as I've found the site often more reliable than official translations. (See: "Col", which makes no sense when the currency's name is supposed to be an acronym for "Coin Of Radius".)

Title note: for the non-musically-educated—like me—the title refers to playing a piece of music without having reviewed the material ahead of time. Given the absolute, impromptu mess this boss fight is, it seemed appropriate.

Next chapter is going to be purely lighthearted; still not as much Kirito/Kizmel content as I'd like, but what there is, I guarantee is going to be Grade-A fluff. In general, I think we need one more breather, 'cause after that comes The Skull Reaper, and I think we all know what that means. Aincrad's not ending right there, but there's still gonna be a roller coaster, and I'm not spoiling how.

For those waiting for another chapter of Oath of Rebellion, I can now assure you I have—finally—worked out how that's going to go. For the record, I'd gotten around half of it written before realizing I didn't know how to make it anything more than a "bridge" between arcs, and I just wasn't satisfied with that. Now I believe I've got the inspiration I needed to spice it up, as well as kick off the new arc in general. So I'll be getting that back underway very shortly.

For those who may be interested, I should also be posting the first chapter of a two-shot Kirito/Alice fic soon. Nothing hugely groundbreaking with that one, but given the near-total absence of any fics for that pairing, people may find it interesting.

Hm… I think that about covers things for now. Apologies for the long delay, and while I make no promises, there's a good chance more content will be coming from me soon. In the meantime, I hope this chapter was at least mildly entertaining. -Solid