November 8th, 2024

If the silence after Kizmel launched her attack had been profound, the one that followed her accusation was absolute. Even Kirito, who'd followed most of her logic before she struck, had difficulty processing the declaration—not least from sheer horror.

Two years, he'd wondered where Kayaba was. It had become obvious in the early months of his partnership with Kizmel that the deranged programmer was exerting some active influence, yet it was still subtle. The actions of an observer who wanted to interfere as little as possible.

That he'd been under their very noses, as the man they called the Paladin—the man Kirito himself had often thought was far more of a hero than the "Black Swordsman"—would never have even occurred to him. Not in his worst nightmares.

And… she called him "Father". Kayaba… how dare you…!

"Kayaba… Akihiko…?" It was Godfree who finally broke that silence, the Knight staring at Heathcliff in horrified disbelief. "No… no, that can't be true…."

Murmuring broke out among the surviving clearers, and Kirito vaguely noticed Rain and Philia drawing close to him, hands just a breath away from drawing steel. There was a tension growing in the air, one he hadn't felt since the wake of Illfang the Kobold Lord's defeat, when the clearing effort had almost collapsed before it really began.

But Heathcliff only glanced briefly at Kirito himself, metallic eyes unreadable, otherwise focusing his attention completely on the elf girl. "I'm curious," he said at last. "What led you to that conclusion, Kizmel-kun?"

Not quite an admission. Definitely not a denial. Even if he wasn't who Kizmel accused him of being, Heathcliff was far too calm to being anything resembling truly sane. What sane person would be so relaxed when accused of being the mass murderer who'd trapped them all?

I've seen how just about everyone in this world reacts under pressure. I've been at the center of accusations like that. I was never that calm.

"Truthfully, I might never have noticed, were it not for today," Kizmel said, voice tightly controlled. Only her bared teeth, and the way her fingers trembled on the hilt of her saber, told Kirito just how angry she really was. "Today, and one moment on the Fifty-Seventh Floor."

The zombies? Kirito blinked at that. He'd worked out everything else, but he couldn't guess what that had told her.

"There were many clues, if I'd only known to put them together," the elven knight continued. "For one, you always manage to be in the right place at exactly the right time. Which is interesting, considering your heavy shield."

Now Kirito nodded, his wife's words finally placing something else that had been nagging at him. "You're a tank, Heathcliff," he said, pushing himself to his feet. "Kizmel is right. You shouldn't be able to get around the battlefield that fast. I never noticed it before, but today…."

Heathcliff hummed thoughtfully. "The Skull Reaper was considerably more dangerous than even a quarter-boss was expected to be. My shield was needed more than ever. I see how that might've drawn your attention."

Still not quite confirming. Still not denying. Shaking with a mix of rage and cold horror, Kirito began to walk over to Kizmel. "And for all that you're the leader of the top clearing guild, you never seem to do much of anything except be in the right place at the right time. You let Asuna give most of the orders. Except for holding the line at crucial moments, you let everyone else do the fighting."

No one ever noticed, he suspected, because Heathcliff was always in the right place to save the day. Who cared if he slacked off the rest of the time, when he saved so many lives when it counted?

Kirito had admired him for it. Now he felt sick.

"You've never been seen to lose so much as half your HP," Kizmel said. Gesturing to the rest of the raid—the survivors—she pointed out their lifebars specifically. None of them were even close to full, and more than a few were in the red. "Not even when you held the line against Vemacitrin for ten minutes, a foe that killed other tanks almost instantly. Not even today, when others were killed with one blow." Her gaze flicked over to the DDA survivors. "Guildmaster Lind. Did you ever see Heathcliff so much as drink a single potion, in today's battle?"

"…No," Lind answered, looking as sick as Kirito felt. "I didn't. Did anyone else…?"

No one answered. The many uneasy looks said it all.

"When I realized all that, when I looked closely… that's when I remembered." Kizmel took a deep, steadying breath. She was visibly shaking anyway. "Thirty years it'd been, since last I saw your fighting style. Your stance. But the Necros on the Fifty-Seventh Floor made sure it was fresh in my memory. The last time I saw the way you fight, the way you stand at rest with your shield—they were unmistakably the ways of the Royal Guardsman Regius. My father."

There was something perversely satisfying about the way even Lind's eyes widened at that. The fighting style could've meant her father was programmed to use the Holy Sword Unique Skill. Outside of combat? It could only mean he was Regius, or Regius was based on him. There's no way that could've happened unless Heathcliff was part of Kayaba's plan, one way or another.

"That was the final proof," Kizmel said, voice beginning to tremble with anger. "But what made me look in the first place, Father? You were too calm. After Vemacitrin, before the Laughing Coffin Crusade, even after watching a quarter of a raid die in one battle, you were calm." Shaking, she swung her arm out to gesture again at the other Swordmasters. "Two years, I've spent with humans. Long enough to come to know them, to see how different they are from me. From the people with whom I grew up. They are not calm. Not after this. Never after something like this. Your behavior isn't that of a man who just survived a battle that killed fourteen of your comrades. It's that of an observer, untouched by the danger.

"Heathcliff. I know you to be my father, to be Kayaba Akihiko, because you act more the NPC than I do."

That final accusation struck the survivors like a hammer, and even Kirito flinched from it. But she was right. He himself had long realized Sword Art Online was built more as a story, or a new world for a society to develop itself in. In a world like that, Heathcliff was neither gamer nor survivor: his demeanor was that of an author, or a callous god.

Even after all that, Kirito's blood still went cold when Heathcliff slowly smiled. "Well reasoned, Kizmel-kun, Kirito-kun. Yes," he said, lifting his gaze to look over the raid as a whole. "I am Kayaba Akihiko, the creator of this world. Had these two not spoiled the surprise, I would have revealed myself on the Ninety-Fifth Floor, before leaving for the Ruby Palace. There, I would await you as the final boss."

No wonder he was never caught and forced to end this, Kirito thought distantly. If he was here the whole time, even if the authorities found him, they couldn't get anything out of him….

Taking a deep breath, he joined Kizmel in staring down Heathcliff. No. Kayaba. "You built up the KoB all this time, and then you were going to betray them?" His voice was whimsical; the only thing he could do, to cover his growing fear. "That's a pretty sick joke, don't you think?"

"Is it?" Kayaba shrugged, arching one eyebrow. "It's a common enough twist in stories. A hero, revealing himself at the last to be the true villain…. I thought it fitting, for the world I was creating. But I admit, the two of you have surprised me. I always expected you would be the one to face me in the end, of course," he added, pointing to Kirito's twin swords. "Illfang made you interesting. Your actions in the floors that followed cemented that you were one to watch…. Dual Blades was always meant for my antithesis, the hero who was to stand before me in the Ruby Palace. The Baneblade… that was something of a whim, created when I saw it was you that would receive the skill. It seemed appropriate, with the partnership you'd formed."

Oh, great. If he survived the next ten minutes, Kirito was going to have to put up with even more rumors. Maybe even more of the old "Beater" nonsense… oh, man, I'm gonna be sick.

"Kizmel-kun, however… you have certainly defied my expectations." Kayaba's gaze was thoughtful, as he focused again on the elf. "Yes. I am your father. Or at least, I played the role of Regius, for eighteen years of accelerated time. It was… interesting, yet in the end a failure. Or so I believed."

Accelerated time…?

"What do you mean?" Kizmel demanded hoarsely, saber trembling in her hand. "You—Mother—my sister—what did it all mean?!"

Kirito winced at her sudden shout. Kayaba only set his tower shield down, leaning on it, and responded with the dispassionate air of a professor addressing a class. "It is, honestly, a very long story, and I doubt any of you want to hear a lecture. Suffice to say, you've grown far beyond what I expected, once upon a time." He smiled then, a proud smile that Kirito couldn't help but find disturbing. "I never expected this. But it's fitting, I think, that someone born of this world should stand before me in defiance."

"Fitting?!" The outraged scream cut through anything Kizmel might've said in response. Kirito snapped his head around to see Rain, a sword in either hand, staring at Kayaba with an expression of pure fury. "You played the hero, inspired so many people—and you were going to betray it all?! You… all these people trusted you, svolotsch!"

Snake-quick, she flung one sword at Kayaba, and brought the other up and behind her shoulder. Even as he casually sidestepped the thrown blade, she threw herself into a Sonic Leap, blazing across the boss chamber.

Kayaba was faster. With no more movement than Rain herself would've used for Quick Change, his left hand—not the right, a clinical part of Kirito noticed; another difference from the genuine Swordmasters—released his shield, brought up his menu in the same motion, and tapped a single command.

Midair, Rain stopped as if she'd hit a wall, dropped to the floor, and lay frozen in place.

In the stunned silence that followed, he quickly sketched out a few more commands.

To Kirito's horror, a lightning bolt appeared under his lifebar, and his legs gave out in an instant. Shouts and frightened yelps, along with the clatter of dozens of suits of armor hitting the floor, told him the entire raid had been hit by the same thing. Paralysis, all at once, with the implacable power of SAO's one and only system administrator.

In seconds, only Kayaba himself was left standing. Kayaba, and Kizmel, who glared at him with a rage Kirito had never seen from her before. "So that's it?" she whispered. "We've spoiled your game, so now you intend to kill the witnesses?"

"Oh, hardly," Kayaba replied, as calm as if dozens of Swordmasters weren't glaring at him in impotent rage and terror. He only reclaimed his shield, and let out a chuckle. "I must accelerate my plans and depart for the Ruby Palace now, but that's acceptable. I've done my best to prepare the Knights of the Blood to lead the way, and you have Kirito-kun's Dual Blades. I do admit," he continued thoughtfully, looking over the crowd of badly injured Swordmasters, "that the Skull Reaper was a miscalculation on my part. It was certainly intended to be a difficulty spike, but I misjudged its parameters. I'll be sure to patch the remaining content to compensate. It's only fair."

"Fair," Asuna got out. Kirito's old partner could only barely raise her head against the Paralysis, but her voice was hard and clear. "You call this… fair…?"

"As fair as I can make it," he said amiably. "I'm told Kirito-kun once compared SAO to a single-player RPG, told through MMO mechanics? I honestly find that rather apt. Indeed, I've enjoyed watching the plot twists, though I confess I did wonder if I was going to have to intervene directly against the zombies." He chuckled again. "To think, in the end I was unmasked partly because Cardinal chose to use my old face in what was meant to be an ordinary quest. Remarkable."

If Kirito hadn't hated Kayaba before, the look of sick pain on Kizmel's face would've done it. This bastard has the gall to joke about what she's been through…?!

"Speaking of twists…." Kayaba frowned, a thoughtful expression that made Kirito instantly tense. "Yes, it's only fair to offer you this opportunity, after you fought your way to the truth. My daughter, a Knight born of this world…. Kizmel-kun. In honor of your achievements, I give you this chance: to fight me, here and now. No immortality, no system assistance. A battle between hero and villain, to bring about an 'alternate ending'. If you can defeat me here, I will release all six thousand players, right now.

"Defeat me, and the game will end today."

Even through the rage and sick horror, Kayaba's offer brought Kizmel up short. She hadn't really considered what would happen next, with "Heathcliff" defended by the same protections as the very structures of Aincrad. She'd cared only to expose him, too blinded by fury to see past that.

Now she eyed him more warily than ever, and stepped carefully between him and her paralyzed lover. "You can't be serious," she said at last. "Not after coming this far. Going to so much effort to create this world." Accelerated time… I have no idea how that could be, but if true, he is more dedicated to his "story" than even we ever dreamed.

"On the contrary. Twists are what make any story worthwhile, don't you think?" Kayaba smiled, a whimsical expression totally at odds with the situation. "More than once, I've contemplated the possibility that the Swordmasters might trigger an ending other than what I originally planned. I never foresaw this possibility at all. It's most intriguing…. And if anyone has the right to face me, to pursue a hero's justice, it is you. So, Kizmel-kun? Will you stake your life on the chance to free everyone?"

"Don't listen to him!" Kirito rasped; there was the faintest scraping sound, as he fought to move against the paralysis. "It's a trap!"

"It has to be," Lind whispered, barely loud enough for Kizmel's long ears to catch. "Lady Kizmel… ending the game now… he'll kill you…."

Kayaba spared the DDA guildmaster an exasperated glance. "You misjudge me, Guildmaster. Though Kizmel-kun has the same risk of dying as any player, do you truly believe I would have designed this world to kill her when it falls? That would hardly be fair. Indeed, what father—even I—would be so cruel?"

"It doesn't matter!" There was desperation in Kirito's voice now, and when she looked back at him his dark eyes were shining, pleading. "Don't face him alone, Kizmel. Please… please, don't do this…."

Her heart clenched at his words, his expression. Looking at Asuna, Philia, all her friends, Kizmel could see much the same fear there, coupled with a fury that rivaled her own from Rain and Klein. A fear she couldn't deny she shared; she had no assurance Kayaba was telling the truth—about any of it—and she had no way of knowing how skilled he was without the powers of the world's administrator.

But looking at the other survivors, those who had no stake in her fate, she saw pleading. People who'd been trapped in a war they'd never expected, who had just survived a nightmare. Who saw a chance for it all to end, if only one person made a choice.

I want to live. I want to see the world that comes after. To be with Kirito, to explore his world. Dueling Kayaba, alone, could take that chance away as easily as it could end this twisted game sooner.

But people are dying. Fourteen in this one battle. Four thousand to reach this moment. I am a Knight. How could I possibly put myself over the survivors? How could I leave my friends trapped here, if there's any chance I could end this now…?

Shuddering, Kizmel took a deep, steadying breath. She looked to Asuna, giving the girl who'd become as close to her as a sister a reassuring smile. Turned the same smile on Fuurinkazan, on Philia and Rain.

"Don't do this, Kizmel," Kirito whispered. "Please, don't do this…."

She knelt down, set aside her saber, and stroked his cheek with armored fingers. "I must, Kirito-kun," she said softly. "If there's even a chance of ending this 'game' today…. I love you, so this is what I must do."


Standing, forcing back the tears she couldn't afford, she turned back to Kayaba. "Very well, Father. I accept your terms." Leaving her saber on the obsidian floor, Kizmel swept two fingers to bring up her menu, scrolled to the rewards she'd gained from the Skull Reaper's defeat, and selected one in particular.

Her fingers closed on the hilt of the silvery sword that shimmered into existence. The saber Grayswandir, whose color and edge echoed the monster she'd just helped kill. She hoped that was an omen.

"One on one," she continued, raising the new blade to point at Kayaba. "No tricks, no powers of the system. A fair duel, over the fate of the Swordmasters."

"Very well, Kizmel-kun. Then let us begin." He set down his shield again, reopening his menu. A few quick gestures triggered a status message over his head: [Changed Into Mortal Object]. A few more, and his HP—and hers—abruptly drained, settling deep into the red.

Low enough for a quick exchange of blows to end it, one way or the other, Kizmel observed, heart racing. Or one decisive strike. A fair chance, either way. …Very well.

The Swordmaster Kizmel stared down the Paladin Heathcliff, the Gamemaster Kayaba. Knight Captain Regius. Her father. She searched those cool, metallic eyes for any trace of the man who'd brought her up, and saw only the monster who'd trapped thousands of people for his own amusement.

Then I have no regrets.

With a yell, Kizmel launched herself forward, boots clanging on the obsidian floor. She led with her shield, and didn't even try to use so much as a Rage Spike to help cover the distance. Kayaba had created the Sword Skill system, after all, so she relied only on her own sword arm and reflexes to open the battle.

Their shields collided, and as the lighter she was bounced back. She'd expected as much, though, and as soon as her feet were back on the floor she stepped back in and slashed at neck-level. That, too, he intercepted, swinging his heavy shield to knock her blade sideways.

Kayaba made no move to counterattack, only holding his shield up as she spun with the parry's momentum. It was waiting when she came back around, her diagonal slice screeching across its surface. Once, twice, three times she slashed, back and forth, trying to catch that shield out of position, and Kayaba only defended, and watched.

He's toying with me, Kizmel thought, furious. He offered this duel, and he's mocking me!

She tried to throttle her anger, stepping back a pace before launching a quick thrust toward his shield, only to shift her saber to the side at the last moment. Her only chance lay in Kayaba holding to his word, and eschewing system assistance. If he played fair, she would be faster. I have to be faster!

He blocked that, too, and the next half-dozen blows after. With only a minimum of movement, he fended off her silver sword's thrusts and slashes; with no more emotion in his eyes than he'd shown against the Skull Reaper, he remained a casual step ahead of her.

He is a maker, not a warrior, Kizmel told herself, dancing around to Kayaba's left to try and get around his impenetrable defense. Surely if he could truly fight without the system's aid, he would never have taken the measures that exposed him!

Hissing after one deflected strike too many, she finally changed tactics, and swept her foot underneath his shield. Her boot glowed, as she risked one skill to use a Sweep Kick's power to outpace Kayaba's defenses.

For the first time, he showed a hint of emotion, eyes widening in faint surprise. The shield came down, but just a little slower this time; though her kick was blunted, she still struck a blow against his left leg, taking out a precious fraction of his HP.

So, he doesn't know everything I can do, she thought, viciously satisfied. In that case—ugh!

Kayaba's shield glowed and drove at Kizmel, while she was still recovering her own footing. Though she managed to get her own shield in the way in time, it still sent her tumbling backward, rolling past her friends. A worrying slice of her own HP vanished.

She tried to ignore Kirito's cry. It still fanned her rage, and she used the momentum to somersault back to her feet. Enough of this! Barring her teeth, she charged back at Kayaba—and just before she entered his reach, she leapt high into the air, somersaulting over his head. Twisting midair, she landed facing his back, and drove in for the kill.

Kayaba surprised her, dropping his shield and finally bringing his sword to bear as he spun. It wasn't quick enough to stop her thrust, but it kept it from being the decisive blow she'd intended. Lighter now, faster, he twisted so that her saber caught his shoulder instead of his chest. Then, pausing only to catch his shield, he was striking out himself, going on the offensive at last.

There was a furious exchange of blows in the next moments, steel ringing on steel. Kizmel stepped back, skipped sideways, lunged back in; she ran to the side, trying to flank him, yet he matched her as their battle began to carry them around the arena.

Kayaba was slower, without the aid of the system that had made him invincible. But it was clear he'd learned something in the time he'd played at being a Swordmaster, if only with his own style, and Kizmel found herself slowed by the need to step over and around paralyzed Swordmasters. In an arena littered with obstacles, her advantages were few.

And if he was slow, his defense was nearly impenetrable. After the initial surprise of her Unarmed strike, he allowed little through, his tower shield or cruciform sword always just where they needed to be. Longsword clanged on saber, shield boomed against shield—and in a clash of blades, Kizmel's defense was weaker.

The battle might've been moments; it might've been days. All Kizmel knew was that it needed to end—and with her HP blinking terribly close to gone, she had a horrible realization.

Whether he knows all Sword Skills as well as a true Swordmaster, he does know me. He taught me, all those years ago.

Kayaba was smiling, now, an enigmatic smile that frightened and enraged her in equal measure. His own HP had been whittled down far enough that a decisive strike could end either one of them, yet he showed no fear at all.

If he knows how I fight, then I must use what he never taught me!

Long Sword Skills were risky at best. She only ever used those with more than four hits if an enemy was safely immobilized. She had never used her strongest in a boss battle.

As Kayaba, as her father looked at her, smiling the smile of a man who saw victory was near, Kizmel howled in rage. Bracing herself, she dropped her shield and drew back her saber. The blade began to glow a brilliant blue-white, and then she was leaping high into the air.

Too late, she saw him bare teeth in a grin, and realized the trap. Of course… he knows the strongest….

Too late. She soared through the air, coming down in a heavy slash meant to break the enemy's defense. Kayaba's shield thrust forward to catch it, the Shield Bash canceling it out. When she landed, saber slashing up, the shield caught that blow just as well. The swing that should've slammed her free hand into his neck. It dropped to catch the roundhouse kick, and held steady to resist her pommel strike.

Two back-and-forth slashes screamed uselessly off that tower shield. It shrugged off another punch, and a knee blow that would've left any man reeling. And when Kizmel launched into the air, curling into a ball for the final vertical spin that ended the Nova Ascension, his sword was waiting.

The shining light of the Divine Sword froze her in the air. Before she could fall, the sword itself thrust out, broke through her breastplate, and pierced her heart in a critical hit.

She hit the cold stone floor, armor shattering, still impaled on the gamemaster's sword. As her HP ticked down, impossibly slowly, she looked up at Kayaba—and still saw nothing human. He only looked down at her with a wistful smile, and murmured, "A shame, Kizmel-kun. But I suppose, this ending isn't so bad. …Goodbye, my daughter. Know that you lived beyond my wildest expectations."

Distantly, she heard screaming. Cursing. A cry of horror and rage she'd never heard before.

Kizmel's world shattered, and her vision went dark, her last sight as the black closed in Kayaba's metallic, inhuman eyes.


[You Are Dead].

[You Are Dead].

Kizmel had seen Swordmasters die all too many times, since she became Kirito's partner. Since learning the truth of the world, she'd occasionally wondered what it was like for them, in those final moments. Killed by an uncaring system, taunted with one last message.

In darker times, she'd wondered what it would be like for her. A being that existed only within a machine, what would death be like for her, if it came? Would she see the same message as a "player", or would she only blink out of existence, snuffed out like a candle?

[You Are Dead].

Now she saw it, that final, taunting message. Glaring red words, all she saw in the blackness, flickering and buzzing with static. The end, she saw, was as bleak and horrible as she'd imagined it would be, a madman's construct mocking her to the very end. All other sensation was gone, even of the cold, obsidian floor.

All that remained in her world was that crimson message, its flaws only serving to remind her she was nothing more than a ghost in a machine.

In the tiny moments before even that was fated to disappear, Kizmel felt regret. She had hoped to free Kirito, free all her friends, by dueling Kayaba. Instead, she was only going to bring them pain. I'm so sorry, Kirito-kun….

[You Are—]

There was a buzz. For a second, the static completely overwhelmed the death message. Then, suddenly, it winked out. Her vision went white.

Kizmel felt a pressure under her back. Cold under her tight-clad legs. And in her ears, instead of buzzing, she distinctly heard sobs. Something wet was hitting her face.

"...Kizmel… Kizmel…!"

Blinking, her eyes slowly came into focus. The first thing she saw was Kirito's face above her. He was crying, sobbing openly in a way she'd never before seen from him, his tears landing on her cheeks. He was supporting her with one arm, and she just barely had time to see a stone in his other hand before it shattered.

Beside him, face stark white, Sachi collapsed. "I made it this time," the former Black Cat whispered. "I… made it this time…."

Sachi. You used it, didn't you…? Thank you…. Shakily, Kizmel reached to touch her husband's face. "Kirito-kun," she whispered. "Sorry… to have worried you…."

"You should be!" Wrapping her in a tight hug, he buried his face in her shoulder. "You can't go! We… we promised, remember? That I'd show you… the stars… in my world." He clutched her, desperately, tears soaking her tunic. "We're supposed to fight together… don't leave me!"

Swallowing against a lump in her throat, Kizmel returned the hug. "I'm sorry," she whispered again. "I won't do that again. I promise."

Two years before, Kirito and Asuna had given her something to live for, after her sister's death. Only then, almost too late, did she finally understand that it went both ways. Whatever friends he had, whatever family was waiting for him… now, she finally understood what he'd told her before, about how precious bonds were to him. Whatever he hoped to repair, when he returned to his world, in that moment she was his family.

I nearly inflicted upon him what Tilnel's death did to me. Oh, my husband….

"I am so sorry…."

Slow clapping interrupted the moment, and she looked up to see Kayaba looking over them. He'd set aside sword and shield entirely, and was simply watching, a small smile on his face.

"Well, well," the gamemaster declared. "Today truly is a day for surprises. To use that… and that you even could, in that moment." One more clap, and then he lifted a hand to stroke his chin. "The paralysis was set to end with the duel, yet you moved before that, Kirito-kun. True, I had noticed interesting feedback in your NerveGear before, but I hadn't realized…. Hm. Well, I certainly won't be bored, awaiting our next meeting. You've given me much data to analyze."

"Data…?" Kirito lifted his head, eyes red, and glared. "Data…?! Is that all this is to you, Kayaba?! You killed her!"

"According to the rules of a duel, agreed upon by both parties. And now she lives, courtesy of a truly inspired act. My complements, Sachi-san." Kayaba nodded toward Sachi, who looked torn between relief and fury. "To be honest, I'd completely forgotten the Divine Stone even existed. It was created by an event programmer, and I never believed it would be practical to use it when the true SAO began. Truly, you've all surpassed my expectations today."

Still detached, still looking at it all like it was a game. Even through the shock of surviving her own death, Kizmel couldn't help but feel anger rising again. You have no right to call me "daughter", Kayaba….

"So what happens now?" Asuna demanded. She pushed herself to her feet, clutched Lambent Light in shaking fingers, and stared at the gamemaster. "Kizmel lost, but she's still alive. So what now, Commander—Kayaba?"

Kayaba raised a calm eyebrow. "The terms stand, Asuna-kun. That Kizmel-kun was revived changes nothing. I will now depart, to await you all at the Ruby Palace. In the meantime, as I promised, I will re-balance what remains in light of my miscalculation."

Though the paralysis had been dispelled, no one even tried to interfere as the man opened his menu again. Likely, he'd restored his immortality in any case. He was left free to conjure up a crystal, shaped like a standard Teleport but a brilliant ruby in color.

Raising it aloft, Kayaba paused, frowned thoughtfully, and looked back at the scattered raiders. "Before I go… it is true you achieved something extraordinary today, so I'll leave you with one hint. Kirito-kun's Duel Blades skill was granted on the basis of him having the fastest reflexes of any player. The other nine Unique Skills have different conditions, but one thing they share in common is the Meditation skill. Kirito-kun can explain.

"Well, then… until we meet again. Good luck—"

"Wait!" Kizmel struggled against unfamiliar fatigue—the fatigue of returning from death, she thought—pulling herself up against Kirito's shoulder, and called out to the man who dared to claim her as his daughter. "Kayaba!" Her voice was hoarse, but she had to say it. "What… what am I?!"

The question that had been plaguing her for nearly a year, since the day Lind had told her the truth of her world. The answer that even Kirito had been unable to give her, despite his knowledge of "real world" machines. The one that still haunted her dreams, as she remembered dying before Kirito's eyes, again and again.

Kayaba turned to look at her, a smile playing at his lips. "More than you fear you are, Kizmel-kun. But what, indeed…. That, my daughter, is a question whose answer you must find yourself. After all, what worth has any truth that is not grasped with your own hands?"

A low growl escaped Kirito's throat. "Why, you…!"

"Don't be so angry, Kirito-kun, Kizmel-kun." The man in red smiled, that infuriating, proud smile he'd worn before the duel. "The answer is within reach, if you can but find it. You unmasked me. Surely you can unravel this riddle as well." He took one last look over the gathered Swordmasters—the survivors—and nodded slowly. "Truly, you have all surpassed my expectations brilliantly. Once again, Swordmasters, I wish you the best of luck." Kayaba Akihiko lifted the ruby crystal again, and called out, "Teleport: Ruby Palace!"

A bright blue flash, and he was gone.

Kirito buried his face in Kizmel's shoulder again, clutched her tight, and sobbed.

Kirito cried. He didn't care who saw it. He didn't care what anyone thought of it. He barely even noticed Rain, Philia, and Asuna coming over to huddle with them. All he cared about was Kizmel, solid, in his arms, alive. The battle had shattered her armor, but she was alive.

I'm taking you home. Somehow. I will find a way to bring you to the real world, Kizmel. I'm never losing you again. Never!

He couldn't remember ever being so terrified in his life. Not when Kayaba first revealed the death game. Not when the Black Cats faced the Commandant. Not even when they'd all fought Vemacitrin. Watching Kizmel fight Kayaba, watching her lose, knowing she was only seconds from disappearing forever—

Words couldn't express how grateful Kirito was to Sachi. When he'd broken the paralysis—because no damned program was going to keep him from Kizmel—he'd only thought to catch Kizmel in her final moments. When Sachi had flung the Divine Stone of Returning Soul….

Within ten seconds. I made it, somehow. Thank you, Sachi. As Kizmel's hand came up to stroke his hair, Kirito just kept his face buried in her shoulder, letting it all out. Kizmel… I'm never letting you go again. Not alone. Not ever.

"…What the hell just happened?!"

He almost ignored the angry shout. Kizmel was alive; anything else could wait. Even the fallout of Heathcliff turning out to be Kayaba. But something in the tone set off warning bells, and he reluctantly pulled far enough back to look.

A door had appeared at the far end of the boss chamber, and those through which they'd entered had reopened. Most of the thirty-two remaining Swordmasters were sitting up, using potions and cautiously trying out Healing Crystals. But among the DDA, one man stood tall, and angry. Orochi, Kirito realized after a moment, the katana wielder Kizmel had clashed with more than once in the past.

"What the hell?!" Orochi demanded again, pointing a shaky finger at the KoB survivors. "Heathcliff was really Kayaba?! All this time?! Then what the hell was the KoB all about, huh?! Were you all in on this?!" He took a menacing step forward. "Answer me, dammit! What did you know?!"

"Hey!" Godfree fired back. The bearded Knight pushed himself to his feet, and turned a shaken glare right back on the Divine Dragon. "We didn't know anything about this, either! We're just as much victims—and we lost more people in the boss fight, in case you missed it! What I want to know is—" He wheeled on Fuurinkazan. "You had the Divine Stone all this time? All right, so you weren't there a year ago, for Vemacitrin. But today—today, you could've a life. Instead, you used it on that? On an NPC?!"

"That's a good question, too," Orochi said tightly, his glare shifting to Sachi. The former Black Cat stared defiantly back, but he didn't seem to care. "So, you really did end up using it on your pet, huh, Beater? Now, we've put with a lot from you, but this is just too much!"

Kirito saw red. How dare you—?! He didn't care if it meant going orange, no one was going to get away with that, not now, not after what had just happened—

"Shut. The. Hell. Up!"

He and Kizmel both turned, then, to see Agil lunging to his feet. The big axeman wore the angriest glare he'd ever seen on the man's face, and he was turning it on Godfree and Orochi both.

"Oh, don't you start, merchant," Orochi snapped. "This isn't your—"

"I said shut up! I am tired of you, an' the DDA, and all of you!" Agil stomped to the center of the chamber, axe up and resting on his shoulder. "Enough is enough! Two years, I've been watching you throw this at Kirito, and I am done with it! Everything he's done to keep the clearing going, even when your boss Lind and that idiot Kibaou were tripping all over each other… every damned floor, every boss fight, he's been there. Every time somebody tried something to screw us all up, who was it that fixed it? Huh? Answer me!"

The witch hunt that almost went after all the beta testers. The upgrade scam on the Second Floor, that almost provoked the clearers to murder. The schemes PoH had tried, using the Elf War quest to destroy everything. Dozens of boss battles. Kirito had been through it all, even when there was no one to see.

He'd never asked for thanks. Never expected it, when all he was really trying to do was survive, and maybe get one girl—or two—out with him.

"Maybe some of you don't know what I'm talkin' about, but Lind? You damned well do. Lind, Shivata, a couple of the KoB…." Agil swung his axe down and around, using it as a pointer—or a threat. "I was there, two years ago, when you all started the damned 'Beater' nonsense. And I. Have had. Enough!" He pointed at Lind, at Shivata, at a couple of the KoB Kirito vaguely remembered had fought Illfang. "Kirito's saved more raids than I can count. Stopped things in the shadows you idiots never even heard about. And now you've got the stones to yell at him for saving his girlfriend?! What the hell is wrong with you?!"

Lind had the good grace to wince. So did Shivata, even though Kirito couldn't remember the tank ever having much of a problem with him. But Orochi only sneered; backed up by a solo, whom Kirito belatedly recognized as Kumari. "Do not give us that, Agil," the ninja-styled Swordmaster snarled angrily. "Fourteen players died today, including my partner. She is just an NPC—"

Agil threw his axe. The heavy polearm whirled through the air, nearly took a suddenly pale Orochi's head off, and bounced loudly off the far wall.

Trembling with fury, the axeman stalked over to the Divine Dragons, grabbed Orochi and Kumari by the throat—one in each hand—and lifted them both off the floor. "The first time I met Kizmel," he growled, "she an' Kirito an' Asuna—and a bunch of Dark Elves—saved us from the Fourth Floor's boss. After she teamed up with Kirito again, she fought with us against fifty Floor Bosses—including this one—and a bunch of Field Bosses. She's saved your worthless hides more than once. All of that, knowing clearing the game might kill her. She's earned her place.

"If any of you still wanna say she's not a person, that she's 'just an NPC', you'll answer to me." He threw the two of them down, slamming them to the floor in a clatter of armor. "Trust me: you won't like that."

Watching the display, Kirito swallowed a lump in his throat, and laced his fingers with Kizmel's. I really do have some good friends, don't I? Sachi, Agil… thank you. Thank you so much.

Later, he was going to take the time to say it directly. Right then, he bowed his head, leaning his forehead against Kizmel's, and buried himself in the proof that she was still alive.

But Agil wasn't done. Whirling, he stalked over to where Asuna still lay in a heap, looking shell-shocked. Expression softening, he bent a knee and extended a hand. "C'mon, young lady," he said gently. "I know it's been a hard day, but it's not over just yet. You good to go a little longer?"

Asuna took a deep, shuddering breath. She visibly gathered herself, and took Agil's hand, letting him pull her to her feet. Kirito wanted to cry all over again, seeing his old partner school her face into the calm of a guild leader, walling away the pain she had to be feeling. He couldn't help but feel it was partly his fault, for having pushed her to join a guild so long ago.

As soon as she was safely on her feet, Agil swung around to glare at the raid's survivors again. "Before anybody gets any more stupid ideas," he growled, "let me just remind y'all that she was here from Illfang, too. Kirito kept the raid moving when Diavel got himself killed. Asuna got 'em inspired. From the Twenty-Sixth Floor on, she's been leading the clearing, since even before Heathcliff turned out to be Kayaba, he never did a damn thing outside the fightin'. So if anybody wants to have a go at her…."

He swept his fingers down to open his menu, made a couple of quick adjustments, and his thrown axe materialized back in his hands.

"If anybody wants to go after Asuna the Flash," he said, voice going deadly soft, "they'll go through me. And I remind you all, I was part of the Laughing Coffin crusade. Most of you weren't." He let the implicit threat hang in the air, sweeping his eyes around the boss chamber as if daring someone to do something stupid.

Please be smart, Kirito prayed, clutching Kizmel close. Please. Today's been bad enough as it is. We can't afford to lose anyone else….

No one said a word. Though some among the survivors—especially the DDA—shifted uneasily, no one so much as tried to stand. No one except for Klein and Fuurinkazan, who pulled themselves up, shouldered their weapons, and fanned out defensively. Half of them joined Agil by Asuna; Klein led the other half into a vanguard around Kirito and Kizmel, the samurai's face like carved stone.

After a long silence, Agil finally nodded sharply. "Good answer. Klein! Make sure those two get home okay." He paused, frowning; what he was looking for, Kirito couldn't guess. "And take the scenic route," he continued. "I know they wanna be alone, but I want 'em reminded they ain't alone first."

Kirito wanted to protest, to say that he just wanted to take Kizmel straight home, but the look on Klein's face stopped him. The look, and the way Kizmel's grip on his hand tightened. When he looked down at her, she mutely shook her head. So he let Klein haul him up, carefully drawing the elf girl up with him, and surrendered himself to the idea of being taken care of by someone else for a change.

Keeping one arm around Kizmel, he turned his attention to the rest of his team. "Rain, Philia," he said, pushing the words past the lump in his throat. "Are you two…?"

Philia nodded, shambling to join them. She looked as tired as Kirito had ever seen, maybe even more than after the Laughing Coffin crusade. "Yeah," she rasped. "I just… wanna go home."

Rain, though, shook her head. "Not yet," she got out. Her eyes were hidden behind a curtain of red hair, so he couldn't see her expression, but her voice was at least as raspy as the treasure hunter's. Given her reaction to Kayaba's unmasking, he wasn't really surprised. "I… need to see this through. Okay?"

Kirito couldn't guess exactly what she meant. That was okay, though. If she needed to talk, he'd be there. It was the least he could do, after everything she and the others had bizarrely put up with from him. And if she didn't want to talk, it was just as important that he let it be.

Besides, he thought, as Klein, Dynamm, and Sachi led him and his wife out of the boss chamber, I… can't deal with any of that now. Not today.

Kizmel… I'm never letting you go again!

Asuna watched them go. Her best friend, and the elf girl who had become a sister to her in all but blood, along with a treasure hunter she'd come to cherish in her own way. She watched them go, escorted by an honor guard of Fuurinkazan samurai, and wished desperately to go with them.

I watched Kizmel die. I watched her die, and I couldn't do anything about it. If Sachi hadn't had the Stone, I would've lost her… and I know, somehow, I'd have lost Kirito-kun, too. After everything he's been through, that would've broken him. …I feel like breaking, right now.

She wanted to go with them, to curl up with them somewhere safe and just cling to the proof that they were all alive, after everything that had happened. She wanted it so badly—but looking around the boss chamber, at the bewildered solos, at the suspicious Divine Dragons, at her own Knights of the Blood, she knew she couldn't. Godfree was the only one of them besides herself even on his feet, and he'd just said things unbecoming of a Knight.

The Knights were all stunned and confused, and Asuna couldn't blame them. Their leader, the man who'd put the guild together as the absolute best group SAO's clearers could field, had turned out to be none other Kayaba Akihiko, the very man who'd trapped them in the death game to begin with. Asuna was barely able to process the truth herself. If she broke now, she knew, the guild would never recover.

We can't afford that. The DDA is good, but Lind has never managed to be the successor of Diavel he thinks he is. Fuurinkazan is strong, but small. No one else is remotely large enough or organized enough. After what just happened, we can't lose the KoB now.

So Asuna steeled herself, nodded a silent thank you to Agil, and turned to face the survivors of her guild. "All right," she began, voice pitched to carry to all the survivors, not just her own people. "Knights of the Blood. As of this moment, with our founder revealed as our enemy, I am now assuming the position of Commander of the guild. Does anyone have any objections?"

There were nervous glances among her remaining guildmates. She caught the edges of a few whispers, and Godfree visibly swallowed hard. None of them spoke up, though, nor had she honestly expected anyone to do so. She would've been very surprised if any of them had wanted the job, under the circumstances.

I don't want the job. Someone has to, though.

Asuna waited a full thirty seconds, just for form's sake. When no objection came, and the silence started to become oppressive, she took a deep breath, and nodded. "All right, then. We have a lot to discuss, and this isn't the place for it. We'll regroup back at Headquarters in Granzam. For today…." She looked over the players that were now very specifically her responsibility, and hid a wince. Most of them were still sprawled where Kayaba's system-induced paralysis had left them; Godfree was still the only one on his feet. "For today, I want most of you to just go home and rest. I realize today has been… stressful."

Stressful. She heard a snort from somewhere—someone in the DDA, she thought—and couldn't begrudge it. She felt like breaking into hysterical laughter herself. Or maybe just plain hysteria. Over a quarter of the raid dead, our Commander was Kayaba, Kizmel died… When I can make it to a bed, I'm going to have a screaming fit.

Later. It would have to be later. In that moment, she had to be the Commander, and she made her face reflect that. "Before we go, though, there is one thing I need to address. As I'm now Commander, I need a deputy. Someone I know I can trust. I refuse to be the kind of guildmaster Heathcliff—Kayaba—was, but I am going to need help."

That brought her Knights out of the near-stupor the last few minutes had left them in, and as it sank in Asuna watched them glance around at each other. Godfree and Uzala, leaders of the KoB's other frontline teams, eyed each other, clearly wondering which of them she'd choose. Or maybe they think I'll promote Daizen, she thought, feeling just a flicker of humor at the thought. If it were any other day, their teams would be taking bets.

She looked the two team leaders over, and then turned her attention to the sea of white and crimson beyond them. Her gaze settled on one particular patch of red, and she steeled herself for the uproar she was about to cause.

"Rain," Asuna called out. "I know you've always stayed away from the guilds, like Kirito-kun. I know what happened to you, back in the first year. But I need you. Will you join the Knights of the Blood, as my vice-commander?"

A dropped pin would've been deafening. The entire room gawked, from her KoB to Lind and the DDA, the Legend Braves, and the surviving solos. Even Agil's jaw dropped, and Rain herself looked like she'd just bitten into one of the electrified narsos fruits of the Seventh Floor.


Asuna had expected the reaction, more or less, even if hearing it collectively from pretty much the entire raid group was more than she'd bargained for. She weathered it, ignored it, and focused on the startled solo. A solo whose deep red coat was tattered, who had a pile of swords scattered around her, and whose expression had moments before reflected a deep depression.

A solo who, in that moment, was the only person Asuna trusted to fill the role she so desperately needed.

"…I'm sorry," Rain got out, blinking rapidly. "Could… could you say that again, Asuna?"

"I'm asking you to join the KoB, to be my vice-commander," Asuna said, crossing her arms in a show of calm she didn't quite feel. "I need you, Rain. Right now, maybe more than Kirito-kun does. We all need you."

"But…." The redhead shook her head, bewildered. "Why me? The KoB still has plenty of people, even after the raid! So why…?"

"I have to agree with her, Commander!" Godfree glanced between Rain and Asuna, confusion and no small anger obvious on his face. "Commander, I must protest. After what just happened, now more than ever the Knights of the Blood need to present a united front! Surely there's someone within the guild that you could promote! Certainly, we'll need to do recruiting to recover from today's losses, but the vice-commander—!"

Uzala nodded rapidly, if anything looking angrier than Godfree. The other KoB survivors didn't look any happier, and Asuna could hear muttering in tones she didn't think were really appropriate. She also, in that moment, quite simply did not care.

"And who should I choose, Godfree-san?" Asuna snapped, letting some of the day's stress and anger into her voice. "Who can I trust? Our founder was just outed as the man who's killing us all in the first place. Kuradeel, the 'bodyguard' Heathcliff—Kayaba—assigned to me has been stalking me. Daizen hasn't been outside Headquarters except to buy supplies in six months. And you, Godfree-san? You just objected to one of my best friends being saved from death. More than a friend—whatever she may be, she's one of the best clearers we have. Personal connections or not, if we're going to be cold-blooded about it, Kizmel is worth ten other clearers."

It honestly felt good, letting it out. She'd joined the KoB when the guild was first formed of her own free will, and much as she'd sometimes hated guild politics, she'd never really regretted her choice. It was where she could best help the clearing efforts, and she knew it. But damned if it hadn't been wearing on her lately, as the KoB cemented its place as the premiere clearing guild, and its members began to take it for granted.

"To be blunt, Godfree-san," she continued, before the bearded team leader could muster a response, "after today, I don't know who, exactly, I can trust. No doubt most of our Knights are good people, but until I know exactly who is and is not on the level, I can't take chances. Rain is my friend. More, she tried to kill Kayaba. Right now, she's exactly who I need at my right hand. If you still don't like it, we can discuss it after the guild has gotten back on its feet. For now—either accept it or leave the guild." She paused, staring down the other Knights. "Or would you like to be Commander instead?"

It wasn't the kind of fight she really wanted to have in front of the other clearers. This was airing dirty laundry in front of practically everybody who mattered, and Asuna regretted that. After their own guildmaster had turned out to be Kayaba, though, she saw no choice but to make this much perfectly clear to the other guilds.

After a long silence, as she matched glares with her own guildmates, it was Godfree who finally looked away. Only then did Asuna relax, and turn her attention back to the redhead. "I'm sorry you had to see that, everyone," she said, as calmly as she could. "Rain?"

Rain started, quickly shook her head, and cleared her throat. "Well," she said slowly, "I can't say I ever expected this, but… if you need me that badly, Asuna, you've got me. I'm sure Kirito and the others will understand."

I'm sure they will, too. …It's a good thing Kirito-kun has Kizmel, though. I hate to take away one of the few people he can stand to be around. But we all need Rain with me right now.

"Welcome aboard, then," Asuna said aloud, holding out a hand. When Rain walked over and hesitantly shook it, the fencer turned to look at the rest of the raid's survivors. "The KoB will now withdraw. I suggest you all do the same. We're all going to need to regroup, resupply, and recover from what just happened."

There was a clatter of armor, and her attention was drawn to the DDA. Lind was finally climbing back to his feet, along with Shivata and Liten. If the Divine Dragon leader's face was still drawn, he clearly hadn't lost all of his wits, as he squared his shoulders and braced himself. "We will, Commander—after we activate the Teleport Gate on the Seventy-Sixth Floor. Whatever happened here today, we have to keep moving." He paused, taking a long look at his own battered players, then at the KoB. "For the moment, I believe the DDA will be taking the lead in clearing the next floor."

Of course you will. Suddenly, Asuna was just too tired to even care if Lind was making his play out of the simple acknowledgment that the KoB would be out of action by necessity, or if he was angling once again for the better position. Either way, it was just the natural result.

"Do as you like," she said wearily, turning away. "I'll be in touch when we're ready to move on to the next floor ourselves. Knights of the Blood—return to Headquarters."

Asuna wasn't looking forward to returning to that dreary steel-plated castle. Not accompanied by the tired, stunned, and unhappy Knights who clambered to their feet behind her in a clatter of armor. All she wanted was to fall into bed, and preferably stay there for a week. But I'm Commander now. Though we probably should take a few days off, first the guild needs to be stabilized. This boss did enough damage before Kizmel unmasked Heathcliff.

She had no intention of complaining, when she noticed Agil falling into step with her, lending a shoulder and just incidentally acting as a buffer between her and Godfree. She wasn't going to say a word, when the half of Fuurinkazan Klein had left casually joined them. When she could, she was going to make sure the KoB could stand on their own. Until then, she'd gladly take any help she could get.

Rain sidled in close to her, as they trudged back out of the boss chamber, into the misty labyrinth corridors. "You sure about this, Asuna?" she whispered.

Asuna listened to the clanking as the DDA headed up the stairs to the next floor, and managed a tired snort. "Let them have it for once," she muttered. "Right now Lind can have the ego boost, if he wants it."

"Well, that too, though I see your point…." The redhead managed a weak chuckle, before quickly sobering. "I meant… you sure about me, as vice-commander? I've never even been in a guild before."

"Rain," Asuna said with total sincerity, reaching out to grip the other girl's shoulder, "right now there's no one I'd trust more. Not even Kirito-kun. Not for this. I need you."

"Well… I'll do my best, then."

The Commander of the KoB smiled, nodded, and glanced back over her shoulder. Fourteen people had just died, in that now-empty boss chamber. Kizmel had nearly died with them. And Heathcliff, the Paladin, the great hope for the Swordmasters that they might one day escape the Steel Castle, had revealed himself as Kayaba Akihiko, the architect of all their suffering.

This isn't the end, she promised herself. We killed the Skull Reaper. Kizmel proved even Kayaba can be hurt. We're wounded, yes, but not beaten. We'll be back.

We'll win this game yet, Kayaba. I swear it.

Thunder rumbled, a brilliant white flash briefly overwhelming Aincrad's sourceless blue night-lighting. Rain hammered at the roof above, and rattled the window by the bed. A heavy storm had overtaken the western edge of the Fifty-First Floor's sea, venting its wrath on the tiny island nestled there, and the small house built upon it.

It was all too fitting weather, after everything that had happened that day. Kizmel shivered, despite the protection of the closed window, and pressed herself closer against Kirito's chest. One long ear flattened against him, she could hear the steady beating of his heart, a counterpoint to the storm. That heartbeat, he'd once told her, was the one thing from the Swordmasters' real bodies that carried through to Aincrad's constructed world. Their one tangible link to a reality they could no longer feel.

In that moment, Kizmel needed that. Desperately. In a world that had once again been tossed as surely as the storm thrashing the sea, she needed something she knew was real.

On returning to their cabana, Philia had quietly withdrawn to her room, leaving Kizmel alone with Kirito. She'd pulled him into their own bedroom, and wordlessly begged him for comfort. For something, anything to distract her from what had happened that day.

I knew this day would be terrible, she thought, listening to her husband's steady heartbeat, feeling his fingers gently stroke her ear, his hand rubbing her back. After what they told me of the Arachnid, after Vemacitrin, it could be no other way. Yet I never, in my worst nightmares, imagined… this.

So many died in a flash, struck down more quickly and brutally than anything Kizmel had ever known. Even in the worst of the war between the Dark Elves and Forest, against the Fallen who'd manipulated them both, she'd never seen such sudden death. In the world Kayaba Akihiko had created, nothing ever died from a single blow. Not like that.

[You Are Dead]. Just the memory of those words, burning into her eyes, made her shiver.

Above her, she heard a sigh, and Kirito pulled her closer. "…Do you want to talk about it, Kizmel?" he whispered, breaking the silence for the first time in hours.

She swallowed, and buried herself deeper into his warm embrace. "I died, Kirito-kun," she breathed. "I… I am a knight. Even now, even after everything that's changed, everything I've learned, I am a knight. I thought I was prepared to face my own death." Reluctantly, she lifted her head to look up at him, meeting shadowed onyx eyes. "I was wrong. I never… I never expected… that."

Kirito shifted, moving one hand up to her cheek. "I can't really imagine," he admitted quietly, brushing away a tear she hadn't even realized she'd shed. "I mean, I know what you must've seen—I saw it often enough in the beta—but… I've kind of tried never to think about what it'd be like, seeing it… well, here. For real."

Kizmel nodded. She couldn't blame him for that. If she, a knight for thirty years, had flinched when truly facing death, the players who had become the Swordmasters surely had it even worse. "Perhaps," she mused, leaning her face into his palm, "the nature of this world makes it even worse. That Kayaba even has power over my final moments… it's far more horrifying than I could have imagined."

Kayaba. Just thinking of the name made her shudder all over again. More than the fourteen fallen clearers, more even than her own death, that truth had thrown her into turmoil.

Feeling a sudden need to move, Kizmel pulled away from Kirito. Sitting up, she conjured her menu, dove into the storage that they had shared since the moment they were married, and selected one particular item.

After over a year with the powers of a Swordmaster, she had thought herself accustomed to how the world functioned for them. In that moment, though, she couldn't help but be struck by the oddity of choosing clothing like turning the pages in a book, without even the physical evidence of the cloak clasp that had once governed her attire.

Called out by the "charm" she had once known as Mystic Scribing, one of her husband's plain black shirts shimmered into existence over her bare skin. Taking comfort in the familiar garment, she stood and padded over to the window, the better to see the storm raging outside.

"Eight months ago," Kizmel whispered, watching waves roil outside, battered by wind and rain, "I thought I understood how you felt, Kirito-kun. I thought I knew, then, what it was like for life's bedrock to suddenly turn to sand." She gripped the windowsill; another crack of thunder and flash of lightning showed her the tremble in her fingers. "I… was wrong."

Kirito stepped up behind her, footsteps so soft only elven ears could catch them. Silently, he wrapped his arms around her again; as close as he was to her height, he rested his chin on her shoulder, cheek pressing against hers. She reveled in that touch, and in the feel of his heartbeat against her back.

"My family is a lie," she said softly, closing her eyes against the tears Aincrad wouldn't let her hold in. "I have hope that Tilnel was real, was true, but my mother, my father…. If the Royal Guard Regius was Kayaba Akihiko, then I can only imagine the herbalist Klaris was some manner of accomplice." Her breathing hitched; she cursed the world for even that being fake, her breathing only mattering so far as a cruel system could determine she wasn't outright suffocating. "He gave me hope that I am real, and in the same breath shattered my past."

He nodded against her cheek. Kizmel took some solace in that, knowing that he, if anyone, truly did understand what she was feeling. His parents not who he'd believed them to be, his sister in truth a cousin, and the grandfather he'd strongly implied was abusive the only family who was as Kirito had always assumed. Though his father was not the monster mine has proven to be, his pain was little different from mine.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, breath tickling her ear. "…What were they like, growing up? You've told Asuna and me about Tilnel before, but you've never really said much about your parents at all. I can't imagine what it must've been like, with Heathcliff… Kayaba… acting as a father."

Blinking back her tears, she looked out over the storm-tossed sea, and thought back to those long-ago days. To memories she'd tried to bury, as it had simply been too painful to think of happier times, as her life became ever lonelier. Until I lost even Tilnel, and any reason to carry on. Without Kirito and Asuna, I would have had nothing at all, even had I survived that battle.

"…My mother died when Tilnel and I were only children," Kizmel said finally, lifting one hand to clasp Kirito's at her waist. "I remember her as… warm. Caring. Yet always somehow… sad." She frowned, searching deep into those murky memories. "My father… I believe he said once, after Mother died, that they had had another child before me, who died in infancy. It seems Mother never got over it, however much she loved my sister and me."

She wondered, then, what that had meant. Had there really been another child? Tia had once mentioned she and Tilnel were made differently from the other "real" people of Aincrad, in a way Kayaba hadn't been able to duplicate. Was her parents' first child simply another piece of fiction, created to make the constructed world more real? Or were Tilnel and I simply the first successes, after some unknown failure?

For the moment, Kizmel pushed that thought away. There was nothing she could do to learn the truth either way, not at that moment. "Mother was always sickly, as long as I knew her," she murmured, turning back to the original point. "She passed away when I was not yet ten years old—as much from sadness, my father told me, as her illness. I never understood what he meant…." She laughed, then, a dry, sad laugh. "Then again, in many ways I feel I understood little before I met you and Asuna. The two of you have always been so much more vibrant than any elf I've ever known, outside my family."

Vibrant, energetic—even silly, and somewhat childish at times. Kizmel had always appreciated the humor her friends had brought into her life, as much as their strength as comrades in arms, long before she ever fell in love with Kirito. No wonder, in hindsight, that she'd grown attached to them so quickly. Of everyone she'd known in her life, only her sister Tilnel had ever felt so alive.

She felt Kirito sigh, and press a gentle kiss into her hair. She leaned into it gratefully, holding onto that proof of the bond they'd built together. Remembering how awkward, how alone, Kirito had once been, she felt a flush of warmth at realizing she bad brought this out in him, and clung to it.

He didn't say anything. Kizmel didn't really need him to.

"My father…." She shivered, even in Kirito's warm arms. "My father was… distant. As a Knight of Lyusula, of course, he had his duties. Yet he always made time for us, teaching us about our history, the legends of our people. He…." She fumbled for the right words, realizing only then that her family had, perhaps, been less tightly-knit than even Kirito's. "He was warm, in his way, yet now it seems to me that he was never quite sure how to rear a child."

Kirito drew a soft breath; she sensed him hesitating, unsure whether to speak his mind. Finally, though, he did, very slowly and gently. "I don't know much about Kayaba's personal life, but… as far as I know, he's never had kids. I think he's only about twelve years older than me. And what I've seen in interviews, he's… pretty much the picture of a geek who knows computers lots better than people." He paused. "Um… I guess that's kinda like me, actually…."

"No." Kizmel's denial was quick and firm, and she tightened her grip on his hand. "No, Kirito-kun. You are nothing like that sorcerer… nor like the father he played at being. You may be shy, you may have difficulty when a woman makes her intentions clear—" she couldn't help a smile, then, remembering his honestly endearing discomfort when first she began to court him "—but you are a warm, caring man, behind the mask of the Black Swordsman."

He'd called himself a coward, more than once. Kizmel had never accepted that, and in Kayaba she felt she'd seen true cowardice. A coward who cared only for himself would never have gone to the lengths he had, both for the clearers and for her people. Especially not for my people, when he knew well none but I were even real.

She held onto that, kept her tight grip on his hand, until he finally relaxed and even chuckled into her ear. She clutched at the brief humor as long as she could, and then sighed, returning to the matter at hand.

"As I grew older," Kizmel said, blinking against another flash of lightning, "Father's lessons turned more to war. The conflict with the Forest Elves had ebbed and flowed over decades, even centuries—or so I was told—and the conflict was growing hotter once again. Though Tilnel never showed a gift for the sword, I took to it quickly, and Father trained me in the basics of swordsmanship. The charms that lent magic strength to our blades."

"Sword Skills," Kirito said quietly. His hand, the one not held in hers, came up, resting on her head to brush through her hair. "He never really taught you how to fight without them, did he?"

"No. That was left to the armsmasters in the Knights, when I was older. Even they were much… stiffer, I suppose, than what I've since learned from you and other Swordmasters."

Now she knew why, on both counts. The marionettes that were most of Aincrad's population were apparently very clever by the standards of their kind, going by what Kirito had told her, but even the best could only act by rote. And Father—Kayaba—was a builder of worlds, not a warrior in truth. Whatever he may have learned since beginning his twisted game, he was at least as dependent upon the "system" as any of the Swordmasters he trapped here.

"In the end," she continued, after a long pause, "Father died in battle with the Forest Elves, mere months after I was knighted. For thirty years, my only real companion was Tilnel, and then… well, you know the rest." She blinked at fresh tears, remembering her sister's death by ambush. She pushed that memory away, focusing instead on what had come mere days after. "Then you and Asuna appeared from nowhere, saving my life and my soul."

Kizmel would never forget, however long she lived, the moment two humans had charged into her losing battle with a Forest Elf knight, saving her for no apparent gain. Even now, knowing what had originally brought Kirito into her life, she treasured that, knowing also that her dear friends had come to value her people—and her—over and above mere numerical advantages.

The hand brushing her hair moved to gently stroke her ear, and with a pleased hum she leaned into the intimate contact. The first time he'd done that—that time on those very seas, when he'd bitten her there—she'd been genuinely startled, but not at all displeased. Her words of caution after had not truly been a warning, but rather an enticement. She would never allow the gesture from anyone else; from him, she reveled in it.

Kirito's breath tickled her other ear, as he whispered, "I'm not leaving you, Kizmel. Never. You know that, right?"

"Of course I do. After everything, I could never doubt that, Kirito-kun." She took a deep, shaky breath. "I'm sorry. I believed it my duty as knight, to take even the slightest chance to free you and the other Swordmasters. I believed I could defeat Kayaba, knowing he was not truly a warrior himself. That even in his guise as a Swordmaster, he'd always eschewed combat with other Swordmasters, and would not truly be prepared for such a duel.

"I was wrong." She swallowed hard, and whispered, "I misjudged his skill, and nearly left you. I am so, so sorry, Kirito-kun."

"Just… don't do it again," Kirito said thickly, pressing closer against her neck. "I don't know what I'd do if I lost you now, Kizmel. But you know… you were on the right track. Kayaba's awkward, without Sword Skills—I could see that, when you fought him. Even with, he wasn't as smooth as a real clearer. If you hadn't lost your temper, I think you could've beaten him. Next time…." He took a deep breath of his own, and when he spoke again, his voice was clearer, stronger. "Next time, we fight him together, Kizmel. And we'll beat him, together."

"I know we will."

She had no doubt Kayaba had also learned from their duel, and that when next they met at the Ruby Palace, he would have new tactics. She was just as sure that she and her husband would be better prepared. Never again would she make the mistake of challenging such a foe alone, nor would she allow her fury to dull her swordsmanship.

I promised Kirito we would see his world together. I nearly broke that promise. Never again.

"You're not alone, Kizmel," he murmured in her ear. "The family you knew may have been a lie… but mine isn't. They took me in… they'll take you in, too. I promise."

Kizmel looked away from the stormy sea, turning in Kirito's arms to face him. She wrapped her arms around his back, and nestled her face against his shoulder. "Take me home, my love," she whispered. "As much as I love this world… take me home."

"Take me home…."

Long into the night, Kirito held close the elf girl who had become his world. He'd never seen Kizmel so vulnerable, not even when she learned the truth of her world. Not so adrift. In the two years they'd known each other, she'd always been the one to be his rock, through all the trauma they'd faced together. Being on the other end was novel, and not in a good way.

Not like I'm much better off right now, he thought, stroking the slumbering elf's back, listening to the rain still battering the roof. I almost lost her. I did lose her, for five seconds. Kayaba… you'll pay for what you did today.

Kayaba had always been the ultimate threat, looming in the background, however little Kirito had thought about it in recent months. He was the one who'd trapped ten thousand people in a death game, and Kirito had somewhat suspected for a long time that he would appear at the very end, as he had at the beginning. Kirito had cursed the mad programmer often enough, for the deaths caused in Aincrad, especially in the worst boss fights.

The aftermath of the Skull Reaper had finally made it personal. For all of them, really—he'd seen Rain's fury, and hadn't been as surprised as he might once have been by the message she'd sent later, revealing Asuna had recruited her into the KoB. He understood, for all that it left him with an unexpected pang at his team being that much smaller. He'd known for nearly a year how she felt about heroes, and Heathcliff's unmasking had to be one of the worst betrayals possible to her.

The KoB needs her, too. Which means we all need her. We can't have one of the best guilds collapse, not now. But… it's going to be lonelier around here.

Between Rain's departure, confronting the man face to face, and learning exactly what he'd done to Kizmel, Kirito was angrier at Kayaba than he'd ever been. Angry enough to be glad they wouldn't be meeting again until the Ruby Palace, because he was very much afraid he'd lose his temper in a fight, just as Kizmel had.

And I'm angry at myself, too. I should've seen this months ago, as soon as Kizmel mentioned her parents' names. Heathcliff? Regius, and Klaris? Klariskrays, I'll just bet. Kayaba must've played too much Phantasy Star…. Why didn't I see it then?

Kirito usually spotted Kayaba's little references easily. That he'd missed the most important one of all—the one that hurt not just the Swordmasters, but Kizmel personally—made him angry, at Kayaba and himself.

But I have to keep it together, when we face him again. I can't lose. I… have to get home.

Because Kizmel was right. They couldn't stay in Aincrad forever. Sword Art Online would end someday, one way or another. He could quibble all he wanted about whether "constructed" meant "fake", but the end was coming whether he fought for it or not.

And I'll take her with me. Kayaba said she can survive Aincrad's end, and that much I'll believe. So… it's my job to figure out how to bring her home with me. It's not enough to just take her out of SAO.

Well. Robotics weren't Kirito's area, but as a computer geek, he wasn't completely ignorant of the subject. He knew where to start looking—and thanks to the Library of the Ancients Kayaba himself had put within SAO, he could begin his research any time.

Not just robotics, though, he thought, his hand sliding up Kizmel's back to touch one long, pointed ear. She shifted in her sleep, not waking but letting out a hum that was almost a cat's purr. I know technology's come a long way with synthetics, even two years ago, but that's not good enough. I know I read a few things about biotech years back that sounded promising…. Damn. I don't know enough biology. But I will.

It would be insanely expensive, he was sure. He had no idea how he'd fund it. Heh. Argus is probably being sued into bankruptcy about now. Maybe I'll get a share of the payout…. Right then, though, he didn't care. He'd figure out what was physically possible, and he'd worry about how to get the money later. There would be a way, he was certain of it.

Holding Kizmel close, listening to the storm howl outside, Kirito promised himself he wouldn't rest until he'd done it. He wouldn't be content until he had her in his arms, in the best body he could make for her, in his own bed, in the real world.

I will take you home, Kizmel. No matter what.

November 9th, 2024

Sachi's scream, as she sat bolt upright in bed, echoed off the walls. It took her a second to even see her bedroom walls, her eyes still fixated on the phantom image of sharpened bone, blurring toward her. The hideous grin of the Skull Reaper's mandible-jaws, snapping at her.

Her friends, dying one by one, killed by a single strike. Kizmel, shattered on Heathcliff's sword….

Heaving for breath, Sachi shuddered, clutching at her blankets. It's over, she told herself. We all lived, even if a lot of other people didn't. I even saved Kizmel. This time… this time, I made it.

All of Fuurinkazan had made it, despite everything the Skull Reaper had thrown at them. It wasn't like the battle with the Commandant, where she'd lost three of her friends to swords and one more to his own despair. They'd made it, and she'd been fast enough to get Kirito the Divine Stone when it counted. If anything, she thought, she should've been ecstatic at having helped get her friends through the worst battle she'd ever seen.

Instead, only the soundproof nature of interior rooms in SAO kept her from waking the rest of the guild with her screaming nightmares. She hadn't had nightmares that bad since the Fifty-Seventh Floor's zombies. She was pretty sure she hadn't slept more than an hour at a stretch, after getting home from the battle.

A quick glance at her HUD told Sachi it was barely six in the morning. Some clearers she knew got up that early as a matter of course. Klein's Fuurinkazan usually preferred a later start, to make sure everyone was rested. It was part of how he'd kept them all alive for so long. That morning, though, she knew she wasn't going to get any more sleep.

Wearily switching from sleepwear to a casual sweater and skirt, she shambled out of her bedroom into the guildhall's common area. She wasn't too surprised to find the rest of the guild already there, most of the guys slouched around like the living dead. Dynamm, Issin, and Harry One were all slumped by mugs of coffee at the main table, while Dale curled up, half asleep, under the blankets of one of the couches. Kunimittz, in a display that had her torn between worried and giggling, was so out of it that he was standing at a wall mirror, empty hand moving like he was trimming his goatee.

Klein was in his usual place at the head of the table, head propped up on hand, reading a newsletter, while Lux poured him a cup of tea. Their newest member, Sachi noticed, was about the only one who didn't look half-dead.

The green-haired girl was also the first to notice Sachi walk in, and she hurried over with another cup. "Good morning, Sachi," she said quietly, holding out the cup. "You had a rough night, too?"

"I haven't had nightmares like that in a long time," Sachi admitted, gratefully accepting the tea. "Did any of the guys get any sleep?"

"Not much," Lux said, guiding her over to the table. "I think the Guildmaster was up all night; when I got up, I caught him checking everybody's rooms. Dale might've slept a little, I guess? He's been in that chair since you guys got back. The others came out over the last hour or so."

The former Laughing Coffin victim helped her onto the bench; as tired as she was, Sachi couldn't complain. She felt like she was going to fall off at any moment. "I'm not surprised," she murmured. "Now we know how the veteran clearers felt after the Fiftieth Floor, and they didn't have to deal with what happened after the boss."

Not that Sachi honestly wanted to think much about that just then. Coming so close to losing Kizmel was giving her the shakes every time she remembered it as it was. Finding out that Heathcliff was Kayaba Akihiko left her wanting to scream even now that she was awake. That nightmare wasn't over, and wouldn't be for who knew how long yet.

"I've heard it was… bad," Lux said hesitantly, settling herself onto the bench—close enough to catch Sachi if she started to fall off. "So, um…." The green-haired girl swallowed. "So Heathcliff is really…?"

"Kayaba? Yeah. Son of a bitch sure is."

They both jumped, Lux having to quickly catch Sachi. The former Black Cat turned to see Agil, the big merchant heaving himself to his feet by the front door. I forgot he stayed the night, she thought, sternly ordering her adrenaline levels to go down. Agil looked as angry as she'd ever seen, but she knew it wasn't directed at her, or anyone else in the guildhall. He still scared her.

Not least because he'd quietly admitted, the night before, that he didn't want to go home to an empty room all by himself. The boss, and what came after, had spooked even him just that much.

"Never would've guessed it," Agil rumbled, leaning heavily against the wall. "Right under our damned noses, all this time, as the great 'Paladin'." He scoffed, smacking one fist against the wall; the [Immortal Object] pop-up made Sachi flinch. "We still wouldn't know, if Kizmel and Kirito hadn't pulled the thread. Then Kizmel had to pull that damn stunt and get herself killed…."

"It didn't stick, big guy," Klein called, wearily dropping his newsletter on the table. "Thanks to our Sachi here. We still won yesterday." He took a gulp of his tea, and gave a seated bow. "Thanks, by the way. For heading things off before they could get too ugly. Kirito and Kizmel owe you one, and I owe you. Those idiots might've tried to do something stupid to Sachi, and I would've had to do something drastic."

Sachi felt warm at that, and saw Lux blush, knowing he'd have said the same for her. One thing about Fuurinkazan: there was never any doubt that the guildmaster had their backs. It was the only clearing guild that had gotten through seventy-five floors with no casualties, after all.

"Feh." Agil smacked the wall again. "I've wanted to tell off those idiots for years. This was just a good excuse. Stupid jerks always goin' after Kirito, after everything the kid's done for us over the years…."

"The stuff he taught the boss is why we're still alive," Dynamm put in, pulling his mustache out of his coffee, blinking blearily. "We all owe him big." He managed a tired smirk. "Not sure we should be calling him 'kid' these days. He's killed more monsters than any of us, and unlike us he's got luck with girls."

"Hey, now." The big merchant's glower softened into something more comical. "I'll grant you he's a man now, but he ain't the only one around who's lucky in love. I'll have you know I've got a wife waiting for me, along with a nice little cafe in—"

A knock at the door next to him interrupted him, and instantly sent Fuurinkazan from half asleep to upright and reaching for the weapons they weren't carrying. Sachi found herself tumbling from the bench, landing in a crouch and reflexively reaching for the cloak she wasn't wearing. Lux squeaked and ducked under the table itself, while Klein vaulted clear over it to land by Sachi.

She was halfway through opening her menu to equip her battle gear when her brain caught up with her, and she remembered they were in a Safe Haven. All the same, when she looked up at a sheepish Klein, she saw in his expression the same thought she was having: after Heathcliff's unmasking, none of them felt like taking any chances.

The knock came again, though, and Fuurinkazan exchanged cautious glances. Then Agil, expression grim, raised a hand, turned to the door, and slowly pulled it open.

The face that appeared took one look at the collection of tense clearers, and blinked in obvious surprise. "Ah… hello…? Sorry, is this a bad time?"

It took Sachi a second to recognize the new arrival. Dressed in ninja-black, a mask covering the lower half of her face, a black ponytail falling past a sword on her back, Kumari was a player she'd only seen a couple of times before. During the last stages of the Fifty-Seventh Floor's clearing, if she remembered right. And most recently in the aftermath of the Skull Reaper battle.

She was partnered with… Krueger, I think? …And she was with Orochi, after the battle. Sachi eyed the woman warily. She was one of the ones complaining that I saved Kizmel.

"All right. I know, you all are friends with the Black Swordsman…." Kumari raised her hands. "Look, I know I said some things I shouldn't have. That's part of why I'm here. May I come in?"

Klein stared at her for a long moment, gauging her with the reliable guildmaster's eyes, no trace of the would-be Casanova Sachi was used to seeing at times like this. Finally, he gave a slow nod. "If you come in peace, we can talk," he said, motioning for Agil to step out of the way. "Can't say I have any idea why you'd be coming to see us, though."

Kumari stepped carefully into the guildhall, clearly aware of how on edge the samurai were. Then, to Sachi's surprise, she dropped to one knee, head bowed. "I am sorry," she said formally. "I may not be clear on Kizmel-dono's circumstances, but I do know I was out of line. I must apologize for my actions yesterday."

Sachi blinked, taken aback by the ninja's elaborate apology. She caught Klein and Agil exchanging baffled looks, and heard Dynamm mutter, "Damn. Haven't heard that kind of language since the time we bumped into those Fuumaningun weirdos, way back."

Who…? Oh, yeah, I remember them from the beta. Come to think of it, they were probably half the reason I took to Kizmel so easily. Those role-players acted more "real" people of Aincrad than she ever has.

Kumari twitched at the name, and her formal ninja appearance was cracked by a sigh. "In point of fact, I was with the Fuuma, some time ago," she admitted, head still bowed. "Behavior such as I displayed yesterday is part of why I left. I am ashamed at having fallen to that level."

"…Okay, then." Klein frowned. He sat down on the table bench, folded his arms, and gave the ninja another measuring look. "We're not the ones who really deserve an apology, but you did talk bad about one of my people, so I'll take it. But, uh." His professional demeanor cracked. "Can I ask just what you're doing here, otherwise?"

"I was hoping for your assistance contacting the Knights of the Blood," Kumari said, finally lifting her head. "After what happened yesterday, I wish to join the clearing effort properly. The Divine Dragons are not an option—not so long as that coward Schmidt remains with them."

"You… know Schmidt." Klein's eyebrows went up at the grimace visible even through Kumari's half-mask. "Okay, maybe you should give it to me from the top."

The ninja complied, and Sachi soon found her own eyebrows going up. Kumari never broke her formal character, even as she described leaving the Fuumaningun out of disgust—and joining a small, up-and-coming guild called "Golden Apple", where she had met the now-deceased Krueger.

After Golden Apple had fallen apart with its guildmaster's death, Kumari and Krueger had stayed together, choosing to push ahead in hopes of eventually joining the clearing group. They didn't know who had murdered Griselda, but they knew it was murder. The others were too cowardly—as they saw it—to find the truth, so they intended to themselves.

"Then Kuze found us, right when we grew strong enough to map the frontlines," Kumari said bitterly. Sitting then at the table, a mug of tea clutched in gloved hands, she stared down into her drink. "He told us everything. Almost everything. That Schmidt was the one who allowed Griselda-dono's killers into her room—and that he, Kuze, had killed her himself." Her fingers trembled on the mug. "Then he infected us, and used us as puppets…. You would not believe the nightmares we both had, after that."

"I would," Sachi said softly, gazing down into her own drink. She'd never suffered from the Necro plague herself—though seeing the look on Dynamm's face, she remembered he had—but she had her own traumas from that floor. Seeing her old friends' faces on zombies had kept her in screaming nightmares for weeks.

"Me, too," Lux whispered, shivering. "I… I know what Laughing Coffin does…."

Sachi winced. Yes, if anyone had an idea what it was like to be used as a puppet by a member of Laughing Coffin, it would've been Lux. As far as Fuurinkazan had ever been able to determine, the girl had never been connected to any of the worst excesses of LC—apart from briefly escorting Tia during the mess with the zombies—but by all accounts just being around the PKers was a nightmarish experience.

Having to play as their gofer… that might not be as bad as what Kuze did with the Armlet, but it had to have been close.

Kumari looked Lux's way, frowning. "You… oh. Oh, of course. You would, at that." Face softening, she turned back to Klein. "Team Kirito saved us, and I do not mourn Kuze's death. Still, it took us some time to be ready for the frontlines again. And when we finally were…."

"The Skull Reaper. Yeah, I get it." Klein sighed, rubbing his temples. "Okay. Guess I can't blame you for blowing up, and you did say you're sorry. Give Kirito and Kizmel an apology in person, and I'll get you an interview with Commander Asuna. If you're still up for clearing, we damn sure need you."

"You will have me, one way or another," Kumari said firmly. She took a deep sip of her tea, before scowling at it like it had somehow offended her. "This twisted 'game' has to end. And I still have not found the mastermind behind Griselda-dono's murder. Kuze said it was not his idea, and as much a coward as he is, I cannot imagine it was Schmidt—"

"It was not… Kumari…."

Oh. I wondered where she was. Griselda had left again almost as soon as Fuurinkazan returned from the Skull Reaper raid, looking pale even for a ghost. Whatever it was she'd been looking into lately, it had her grimmer by the day. What bothered Sachi even more was that the fallen guildmaster hadn't told them what any of it was about.

Considering they'd first met Griselda when the poor ghost was trying desperately to warn them about what was really going on with the Fifty-Seventh Floor, it was worrying that she wasn't saying anything this time. That told Sachi that it was very bad, and it wasn't something Fuurinkazan could even do anything about.

Appearing again in Fuurinkazan's guildhall, Griselda was pale, drawn—and angry. Sachi had little time to dwell on the uncharacteristic glower on the ghost's face, though, distracted as she was by Kumari starting violently, and tumbling off the bench.

I forgot we're the only ones she usually appears to.

"G-Griselda-dono?!" Kumari blurted out, scrambling to her feet. "How—why—what is happening?!" As pale as only SAO's emotional expression system could make someone, she stared at her former guildmaster, eyes wide. "B-but, you died, and we—I—!"

"Easy there, Kumari-san," Dale cut in, moving to drop a reassuring hand on the ninja's shoulder. "It's a long story, and we don't know all of it, either. But she's not out to get revenge on her killers, or anything like that. 'Sides, you had nothing to do with it, right?"

"N-no, but, but we all failed her, and…." Kumari swallowed, blinking rapidly, and abruptly dropped to one knee. "Griselda-dono! I am sorry, we failed you. After you died, the guild fell apart, and Krueger and I still have not found the ones behind your murder. Kuze is dead, but—"

"Please, Kumari, it was not… your fault." Expression softening into a gentle smile, Griselda glided over to the ninja. Attempting to rest a hand on Kumari's shoulder herself, her smile flickered when her fingers passed right through. "As you say, Kuze has already paid for his crime. And now… now I know the full truth. It was Grimlock who arranged for my murder."

Sachi didn't miss the hard look that appeared in Klein's eyes, nor the way it spread to the rest of the guild. She had a feeling her own face was scary, in that moment. They'd all suspected, in the months since Griselda had begun hanging around, but none of them had wanted to voice it.

After all, who really wanted to suggest that a woman had been murdered by her own—supposedly—loving husband?

"Grimlock-dono?" Kumari stared up at Griselda, uncomprehending. "But he—he loved you, Griselda-dono! How could he have…?"

"Love… is a fickler thing than I imagined, Kumari," Griselda told her gently. "What Grimlock felt… but no, there is no time for that now. Klein." She turned to look at Fuurinkazan's guildmaster, her face darkening again into a glower. "We must… meet with the clearers. My husband… has made a horrible bargain. I don't know what they intend to do, but… PoH looked ecstatic…."

PoH…?! Oh, no, not again!

Rain looked down at herself, tugged at her new coat, and gave a weak chuckle. "I still think I look kinda silly in this thing." Half-gloved fingers plucked at red-trimmed white leather, so different from the darker shades she was used to wearing. "And it's not even exactly like the usual uniform for you guys. Are you sure this is okay?"

"You look fine, Rain," Philia assured her earnestly, holding up a recording crystal. Her smirk didn't exactly reassure the redhead. "And of course it's not the same as the other guys' uniforms! The Commander and Vice-Commander are supposed to stand out, aren't they?"

Says the girl baring more skin than anybody on the frontlines, Rain thought, her rueful smile caught in the crystal's flash. I don't think I should be taking fashion advice from you.

They stood in the tower of a castle overlooking the Seventy-Sixth Floor's main town, Ark Sophia. Newly-minted Commander Asuna had taken one look at the fortress and immediately hauled the KoB's advance team over to it, quickly claiming it for the Knights. As she'd explained after, they needed to do some serious PR work after Heathcliff's unmasking, and getting out of the bleak steel-plated castle they'd been using as a headquarters was the first step.

Rain didn't think anyone was likely to complain too much. Castle Kreutzen resembled a smaller, brighter version of the Dark Elves' Moongleam Castle, exactly the kind of majestic, fairy-tale look someone might've expected from Knights. Much more appropriate, she thought, than what they'd had before.

Even Daizen didn't squawk, and I've heard he's a real penny-pincher. Well, Asuna did say they—heh, we—were selling some spare equipment Heathcliff left in the guild storage. Must've made a mint from it.

From Kreutzen's highest tower, all of Ark Sophia could be easily seen, which among other things was making it easier to explore the city. Which was about the only thing the clearers could do so far, given what else was clearly visible from up there. The glimmering barrier surrounding Ark Sophia had them completely blocked in, unable to even begin mapping the Seventy-Sixth Floor as a whole.

[Maintenance In Progress] was painted all over that barrier. Whatever else had come of the previous day's events, it looked like Kayaba was keeping his word on one point. Clearly, the higher floors were being adjusted in some fashion. Rain could only hope that he really was re-balancing the difficulty.

We can't take another boss like the Skull Reaper. We'd run out of clearers before we got anywhere near the Ruby Palace.

Well, they'd deal with that when the time came. Right then, with clearing forcibly on hold, the Knights of the Blood were busy reorganizing after the chaos the previous day's events had caused. All the highest-ranking members had gathered in the tower Asuna had picked for her office, while the rest busily set up shop on the lower floors of the castle.

"Philia's right, actually," Asuna told her, settling in behind the tower office's desk. "Trust me, the lower ranks would complain if you and I didn't wear special outfits." She gestured at one of the other Knights, the portly Daizen. "I tried to turn down my uniform. Ask Daizen how that turned out."

"It would've been a waste, Commander," the KoB's treasurer insisted, barely glancing up from the spreadsheets projected in front of him. "Commander H—ahem, the previous commander had already commissioned it, and we could hardly sell it to anyone else. Who else would wear KoB colors?"

"So that's how it happened," Kirito murmured. Standing by the far wall, Kizmel leaning against his shoulder, he chuckled wryly. "I always wondered how they convinced you to wear something like that."

Rain hadn't, but in hindsight she supposed she should have. Knowing Asuna as well as she'd gotten to, the Flash had a will a steel. It must've taken ironclad logic to convince her to wear something she didn't want to, standard uniform for the guild or not.

I notice she hasn't changed since she took command, though. Not that I think anybody would be comfortable seeing her in Heathcliff's colors. What he did….

She still burned with rage at that. She'd spent the last two years trying to emulate heroes like Heathcliff the Paladin, because she'd learned the hard way those who could be heroes had to be, if anyone was going to get out of Aincrad alive. Learning the greatest hero of them all had really been their greatest enemy, stringing them along? It was probably a good thing, she reflected, that she still had twenty-five floors to cool off.

"Philia is right, though," Kizmel put in. The elf girl's smile was shadowed—not that Rain was surprised; she'd outright died, however briefly—but genuine. "The uniform suits you very well, Rain. I'm sure you will do it greater honor that some have."

And wasn't that just a loaded comment. Rain appreciated the sentiment, but had to wonder who, exactly, Kizmel was talking about at the end. Though Heathcliff—Kayaba—was obvious, there was also Kuradeel. Maybe others. I get the impression Kizmel's not really impressed with other Knights here, right now.

Godfree and Uzala were off at the other side of the room, talking in low tones. Ostensibly they were hashing out getting their teams back on their feet—both of them had suffered casualties from the Skull Reaper—but Rain hadn't missed the looks they'd given her, when they thought she wasn't looking. She had a pretty strong feeling her early days as Vice-Commander weren't going to be easy.

Pushing that aside for the moment, she turned a smile on her friends. "Well, thanks, guys," she said sincerely. "That means a lot. …Sorry to leave you in the lurch, though."

"The KoB needs you, Rain," Kirito told her, waving a dismissive hand. "They didn't take the bulk of the losses, but they did take the worst hits overall. And honestly, we need the KoB." He chuckled, smiling lopsidedly, and waved at himself. "Solos like me can't lead the clearing, and I sure don't trust Lind to take over. We need the KoB in good shape as soon as possible. If Asuna needs you to do it, then that's where you should be."

There were a lot of things Rain wanted to say to that. She wanted to tell him that he could join, too, even though she knew he'd never go for it. She wanted to say she'd changed her mind, and would stay with Team Kirito after all. She wanted to say… a lot of things she knew she never could.

So she settled for another smile, and an impulsive hug that pulled in both awkward teen and elf. "Thanks, guys," she said again, into Kirito's shoulder. "I just want you to know—I really liked being part of the team. We had some really good times, didn't we?"

"We did," Kizmel replied, returning the hug with feeling. "Kirito and I have never fit in with guilds or the Swordmaster community as a whole. Had you and Philia not joined us when you did, we would've remained alone. Thank you, for being with us."

"Yeah," Kirito said awkwardly, his own arm going around Rain. "What she said."

Heh. That's very… you, Kirito. Good thing I speak Black Swordsman!

She was pulled out of the hug by Philia, the treasure hunter giving her a big one herself. "Hey, now," the blonde said, "don't talk like that. We're all clearers, right? We'll still be seeing a lot of each other." Philia pulled back to grin at her. "Heck, Asuna spends half her nights at the cabana anyway. You'll still be living there too, right?"

"…Oh, yeah." Rain pulled one arm away to sheepishly scratch her head. "I kinda forgot about that? Just not used to this whole guild thing, I guess."

After all, it was probably the biggest change in her life since getting trapped in SAO. Even with Team Kirito, she'd never really been more than just another clearer, however skilled. From now on, she was going to be one of the movers and shakers of one of the strongest guilds. She thought she could be forgiven for getting a little mixed up.

"Anyway," she said, reluctantly pulling away from Philia, "I should probably be getting to work. We've got a lot to do, don't we, Asuna?"

"It's going to be a busy day, yeah," the KoB's new commander said with a sigh, slumping down in her chair. "Though honestly, it's going to be a couple hours before it all gets going. We've got a lunch meeting with the Legend Braves; from what Orlando said, they're starting to get antsy about being independent. Depending on how things go, we might be getting some new recruits."

Huh. That wouldn't replenish the losses overall, since the Legend Braves were already clearers, but Rain supposed that might streamline raid planning a little. If the Legend Braves folded into the KoB's hierarchy, that'd be one less complication. Though how the existing team commanders will take it… oh, man, why do I think being vice-commander is going to be a real headache?

Kirito coughed into his hand. "Well, uh, I guess we should probably leave you guys to it," he said, edging toward the door leading back down into the castle proper. "We might be friends and all, but I'm sure the inner workings of the guild are still pretty private, and—"

He was interrupted by the door swinging open, letting in a Knight with short black hair. Fultz, if Rain remembered right, a member of Asuna's own standard party. Right then he was wearing a perplexed expression. "Excuse me, Commander," he said. "I'm sorry for interrupting, but there's someone here to see you, and I think it's urgent."

"Someone?" Asuna blinked. Straightening in her chair, she shook herself. "Of course, send them in."

The woman who entered a moment later, Rain didn't think she'd ever seen before. Tall, mature, with long silver hair tied in a ponytail, carrying a short sword on one hip and a coiled whip on the other. Rain didn't think she'd ever seen anyone using a whip in SAO.

The uniform, though—that, she knew. A dark green coat under an iron-gray cape, the distinctive uniform of the Aincrad Liberation Force. A uniform Rain had last seen worn by a team of twelve, led by one of the stupidest men she'd ever met in her life.

This woman seemed cut from a different cloth, though. Wearing a drawn, harried expression, she bowed to Asuna the moment she was in the room. "Pardon my intrusion," she said. "You're the new Commander of the KoB, right? I heard about what happened yesterday, at least some of it…."

"That's me," Asuna confirmed warily. "Commander Asuna, and the redhead is my new Vice-Commander, Rain. …May I ask what the KoB can do for the ALF?"

"Ah, right, sorry." The woman straightened. "I'm Vice-Commander Yulier, of the Aincrad Liberation Force. I need help, and I honestly don't know who I can trust." She swallowed. "Our Commander, Thinker, has disappeared. That is, he was lured into a trap by another vice-commander—Kibaou—and is somehow out of our reach."

"Kibaou?" Kirito said sharply. "What's he done now?"

Good question. Not that Rain could quite say she was shocked by Yulier's claim. Though she hadn't been part of the clearing efforts in those days, she certainly knew of Kibaou's early actions. Not to mention Lieutenant Colonel Kobatz's mad attack on the Gleam Eyes, only weeks before. But what's he up to now?

"It's a long story," Yulier said, turning a curious look on the swordsman in black. "The short version is that Kibaou's position has been precarious ever since he sent Kobatz to scout the Seventy-Fourth Floor. There's been friction in the guild between his old ALS survivors and the MTD side, and… well, Thinker was going to try and talk things out. Kibaou invited him to a meeting this morning, alone, and…."

Asuna groaned, lowering her face into her hands. "Alone, with a desperate Kibaou," she muttered. "I never thought Kibaou was that stupid, but after Kobatz…." She rubbed her temples, and looked back up at Yulier. "What happened after that?"

"I don't know," Yulier answered, shrugging helplessly. "Thinker went to meet with him in a chamber we recently discovered underneath the Black Iron Castle, and then he just… disappeared. He's still alive, but his location is glitched somehow in the guild roster. And since then, Kibaou's people have locked down the Castle. I… I don't know what to do, or where to look, but I thought if anyone could help, it would be the clearers. I know this is a bad time, after what happened yesterday…."

That was one way of putting it. Exchanging a look with Asuna, though, Rain could see she and her new commander were on the same page: this was something they couldn't ignore. Between the implications of another system error, and the kind of damage the ALF could do if they went off the rails…. Maybe it's a good thing we can't start exploring this floor yet. But man, if we'd just had time to get our own house in order….

Asuna was just opening her mouth to respond to Yulier when rapid footsteps interrupted her. Coming up the stairs at a dead run, Fuurinkazan's Klein suddenly burst into the room, trailed by half his guild, the ghostly Griselda, and a ninja Rain only vaguely recognized. "'Scuse me!" Klein blurted out. "Sorry to interrupt, I know this ain't good manners, but we have a problem!"

"A problem," Kizmel repeated. It was the Dark Elf's turn to rub her forehead, leaning heavily against Kirito. "This does seem to be the morning for that…."

"Sorry, I know you guys have gotta be really busy, but this is bad." Klein took a moment to catch his virtual breath, before straightening and gesturing at the ghost. "Griselda's been looking into her husband—uh, long story. The big thing is, the guy turned out to be working with PoH, and now they've figured out how to reach someplace called the Hollow Area. Not sure what that is, except players apparently aren't supposed to be able get there. It's not on any regular floor or anything."

Like what happened with Thinker. What the—

"That is bad," Asuna got out. Getting up from her desk, she started to pace. "Do you know what PoH is trying to do this time?"

"I couldn't hear everything," Griselda whispered, grimacing. "But he did say it would give Laughing Coffin a new army. Something bigger than they ever had, even before the crusade…."

"Oh." Kirito looked pale, and it was his turn to lean against Kizmel. "That's… really not good."

PoH, with an army. Yeah, "not good" really doesn't even say it! Rain remembered the last time they'd all taken on the PKers. She certainly saw it often enough in her nightmares. She'd had to kill people that day. I don't think I'll ever forgive PoH for making me do that.

"Okay," Asuna said slowly, frowning deeply, "that's two problems, on top of what we already had. Something tells me this 'Hollow Area' has something to do with Thinker's disappearance, too, so at least we might be able to look into both at once. But we're really not—"

More running footsteps interrupted her. Somehow, Rain wasn't even surprised, after the last couple of days. She was surprised, though, by just who came dashing up the stairs into the tower this time.

"I'm very sorry to interrupt," the Dark Elven Royal Guard Vanel said, giving Asuna a quick bow. "But this is an emergency. The quest NPCs you know as the Echo have joined forces with the remnants of Laughing Coffin, and are moving to begin the final stage of the questline. Lady Asuna, Swordmaster Kirito, Lady Kizmel—they've found the way to the Sanctuary, and thanks to another Swordmaster—Grimlock—they have the means to open it."

The Sanctuary? What's….? Oh, hell!

Asuna went white, Kirito turned ash gray, and Kizmel uttered an elvish word Rain was pretty sure wasn't fit for polite company. Not that she blamed any of them, as close as she herself suddenly was to panic. She'd only heard stories about the Sanctuary, and only after she and Philia had joined Team Kirito for the long haul, but those stories had kept her up at night once or twice.

Swallowing hard, Asuna turned to her Knights. "Daizen, get in touch with the Legend Braves, see if they're willing to move up the meeting. Godfree, Uzala, get your teams together; everyone else, for that matter. We need a full-guild meeting, ASAP."

"Of course, Commander," Godfree said, clearly bewildered. "But—what's the emergency? What's this 'Sanctuary'?"

"It's from the Elf War campaign quest. I'm not surprised you never heard about it; Kirito-kun and I were the only players who ever completed it, and even Argo the Rat was sworn to secrecy over it." Ignoring the shock at that statement, Asuna walked over to the window, looking out at the barrier still surrounding Ark Sophia. "We never saw it ourselves, but we certainly heard about what would've happened if we'd failed the quest. Though we always hoped it was just flavor text, we never completely disregarded it. The Sanctuary is the core of Aincrad itself. If Laughing Coffin opens the Sanctuary, it's game over.

"Every single player will die."

Author's Note:

Bam! This may have the most Wham Moments of any chapter I've ever written. I'll be very interested in seeing how many of the less obvious details everybody picks up on.

Quick note: yes, "Heathcliff" is very possibly a reference to Wuthering Heights. I however found the Phantasy Star connection more useful, and regardless of the PSO2 references I added, it's certainly the conclusion Kirito is more likely to jump to.

Balancing Kayaba's personality here was… tricky, especially in his interactions with Kizmel. Canon, the man is not so much malicious as horrifyingly detached, evil through lack of concern more than intent. Yet he's also demonstrably capable of some affection, given his relationship with Koujiro Rinko—a fact which plays a role here, for reasons I can't yet go into. So trying to keep both his canon detachment and canon capacity for affection was one of the harder things I've done lately. I hope it worked out.

Quick note on Kizmel faring better against Kayaba than Kirito did: I've been deliberately playing up for some time the idea that Kayaba doesn't entirely understand how his own game is played—trust me, I've known MMO devs like that—plus in canon, Kirito was panicking. Without that panic, I think Kirito would've won in the end. Kizmel was not panicking, so she fared better, yet she was also getting really, really mad, so… same result in the end.

Speaking of: that result resembling an event in another recently-posted fic is a complete coincidence. I'd written that part of this chapter before said fic was posted.

One minor thing I'm curious about: will any of you recognize the name of Kizmel's new sword?

Sorry for no major Philia scene yet, but don't worry, her reaction to all this is going to be very important soon enough.

Hate to say it, but the next chapter is gonna be a bit delayed. At this point, I really need to get Oath of Rebellion back on track, and I honestly need to take a week or so to just jot down notes for both. Rebellion is beginning to suffer arc fatigue, so I need to work out exactly what needs to happen there so I can tighten it up a little. And the next arc in Duet… let's say I don't want a repeat of how the zombies turned out. As the end of this chapter should make plain, there's a lot of intersecting plot points in the Hollow Area, and I want it all as tightly-coordinated as possible.

I'm gonna try not to leave this hanging too long. I do know the overview of what I've got in mind, so it's just a matter of getting straight what happens in what order, and of course I don't want to leave everybody with this cliffhanger too long. Just saying, it is going to be more of a delay than any of us would like.

Also hate to say it, but as Kumari's prominence here probably suggests, I'm going to have to start using OCs to a certain degree from here on out. I've just run too short on canon characters, especially in the KoB; for sure, one scene here suffered badly from a lack of usable KoB voices. I don't like to do that—those who know my older work know I have a troubled history with OCs—but I don't have much choice now.

Hm… I think that covers everything? I'll let this chapter speak for itself, and see what you guys make of it. …To think, I expected this to be a short chapter…. -Solid