(1/29/23 Edit: Added new scene involving Asuna and Yuuki, courtesy of Falchion1984. Thanks for the incredible addition!)
But it works out to your benefit! I was planning on posting tomorrow on November 6th but then I realized that Japan is absurdly ahead of me. Because, you know, time zones. Fortunately, I had this all written up ahead of time so that means you get to read the last chapter earlier than I anticipated!
Happy Sword Art Online Launch Day, everyone! It took a fair bit of planning and scheduling to line this up JUST right, but I think it was worth it in the end. What better way to wrap up this story than on Chapter 100 on the official canonical release date of Sword Art Online?
Before we go any further, I'm going to address some of the reviews from the last chapter, mostly because many of you had questions that need answering. After this, I'm not going to get the chance to answer them, now am I?
- Starfire99: We're not going to get much of an epilogue here since I plan on writing a sequel at some point. How the Renegades deal with their newfound fame will be addressed there. Sorry!
- Deathzealot & HyperPanda101: Some of that is actually going to be addressed in this chapter!
- Atea1793: I'll admit I may have lost track of the timeframe. Trying to gauge the average rate at which the AT would clear each floor was incredibly difficult for me, and as a result I added things up incorrectly. I took a look back at Ch. 87, where Kayaba hints at the Underworld, and you're absolutely right. It would have been three years they've been trapped, not four. Fortunately, it's an easy fix on my part: all I have to do is go back and fix every reference to four years and make it three. You are more than welcome to ignore those references to "four" years and mentally make the correction while I fix it myself. (I'll probably do that later since, at the time of writing this, I'm still putting the finishing touches on Ch. 100.)
I'll leave the emotional, sappy stuff for the end. For now and without further ado, I present to you, my loyal readers who've stuck with me for 100 entire chapters, the final ramblings of a novice fanfic writer.
The Dicey Cafe was packed.
Not like sardines, though, despite the commonly used figure of speech. Trish would have had a fit if that happened. Suguha giggled at the mental image of an irate Trish beating people away from the door with a broom and a stern glare.
Everyone was here, it seemed. Or, at least, anyone with even a remote connection to the Resolute Renegades. That included Eugeo's family and Ali's family, who were suspiciously amiable with each other, as if they were in on some sort of secret the rest of the room wasn't privy to. Suli and Selka kept giggling as their respective parents kept whispering in hushed tones.
Suguha raised an eyebrow, but then gave up with a shrug. A little peculiar, but none of her business, ultimately.
"Here we are. Big day, huh?" Shinichi asked as he and Ren approached. The two took the two seats on her left, but her eyes remained glued to the screen. The Assault Team was only just now approaching the front gates of the Ruby Palace, but the tension of just witnessing it second-hand was palpable.
"Yeah…" Suguha trailed off, still very much coming to terms with what was happening. "Hard to believe it's here."
And it was. As she listened to her brother's speech in front of the Assault Team, she took a moment to really digest everything. This was the day that would determine the fates of over 6,000 people. She – and everyone else, for that matter – understood that if the Assault Team failed here… it'd be over. The blow to morale would be irreparable, the damage to the player base of Clearers irrevocable. Not only would it take years for a new Assault Team to train up to the fighting level required to fight Kayaba again, but no one would want to.
The Assault Team were the champions of Aincrad. Not only did they have the drive and will to push for freedom, but in the case of about a dozen of their members, they were literally irreplaceable. As far as Suguha could tell, Unique Skills did not recycle back into the playerbase after the first wielder died. PoH's Unique Skill certainly hadn't, though the argument could be made that because he wasn't technically dead (by virtue of being a tree) that he still had his skill.
Regardless, this day would make or break the SAO clearing effort permanently.
Suguha watched with rapt attention, only passively keeping track of the conversations around her. When Kayaba (or Heathcliff, she supposed) began to badmouth Diavel, Ren had to be held back for fear he would physically leap over the bar and smash the television.
"How DARE he?!" Ren roared, pulling against Shinichi and Kouichirou.
"Calm down, dude!" Shinichi begged.
Kouichirou grunted from the effort. "You're allowed to be angry, but don't take it out on Trish's television!"
"He'd better not." Trish sniped. "Or he's paying for a new one."
Ren stilled; whether it was due to Trish's remark or Kirito's recollection of Diavel's last words, Suguha didn't know. All she knew was that the expressions of everyone – those in the game and those outside it – had been steeled, their determination rekindled after having been inspired by Diavel's last words. Everyone sat up straighter in their chairs and barstools.
That determination gave way to shock and awe as Heathcliff metamorphosed into a virtual goddess of war.
"How the hell…?" Suli gasped.
"They're supposed to beat that?" Mrs. Yuuki shuddered, and Suguha could practically hear the older woman's stomach dropping.
Yet, despite the enormity of the task that stood before them, the Assault Team stood resolute. Not a single one looked fearful. Cautious, yes, but also defiant in the face of insurmountable odds. Kazuto stood at the forefront, blades in hand, and Suguha could not be more proud, nor could she be more afraid for him.
"They will." Suguha answered, garnering the attention of her brother's future mother-in-law.
"What makes you so sure?" The woman asked. Suguha looked back to the television, and her lips formed a thin line.
"Come, heroes. Show me your strength! Show me your resolve! Your final test begins now!" Kayaba shouted on screen.
"...because they have to."
Kayaba's opening salvo – courtesy of a barrage of laser beams firing from his hair – killed three and wounded seven.
Based on the cries of surprise and pain, it wasn't much of a leap to assume that the pain nullifier was disabled here too.
"Shit!" Kirito cursed. He dashed forward. "Everybody move in close! Ranged, take cover!"
"Don't need to tell us twice!" Agil shouted.
The axeman, surprisingly enough, was the first to reach Kayaba. The behemoth of a man swung, only for his ax to rebound off of some sort of green force field. Kayaba was quick to stab at Agil with his spear. Fortunately, the merchant Clearer blocked with the haft of his ax. "You've gotta be kidding me! He's got shields?! Switch out!"
"On it!" Kirito bellowed, jumping up and swinging his blades down on Kayaba's flank, triggering the shield again. Except, this time, it flashed yellow. Even better, the rebound wasn't nearly as strong, which had to mean they were wearing the shield down. He grit his teeth as he pushed against the barrier. Asuna came rocketing in from the side, adding her strength to his. "Switch!"
Klein slid in and used one of his blade-drawing sword skills, shattering the red, and now wavering, shield and staggering Kayaba. The giant Game Master swung with the flat of his blade, catching Klein and hurling him into one of the obelisks. Kizmel dove in the way, cushioning the blow but unfortunately sending them both into the stone pillar.
"Bastard!" Ducker spat, drawing Kayaba's attention for a split second.
"You didn't expect me to go easy on you, did you?" Kayaba chuckled. He swung his massive sword down at Ducker. "No, I'm going to make you work for it!"
Keita tackled his friend out of the way, just in time for a glowing arrow to slam into Kayaba's face. Kirito looked up to see that Sinon and the other ranged fighters had climbed the spiraling ramp and were using the higher ground and plentiful cover to begin their assault.
"Don't think I've forgotten about you!" Kayaba shouted, spinning around and firing an eye beam at Sinon. The ranged fighters ducked for cover as rubble cascaded down from on high. Kirito quickly glanced at his HUD and let out a brief sigh of relief; they were still alive.
"Take this!" Sachi exclaimed, using her Perfect Weapon Control to throw a literal whirlpool in Kayaba's face. The game master growled in annoyance as he staggered back.
"Watch your step!" Liz snarked. She slammed her hammer into the ground, creating a lava pool directly under Kayaba's feet. Kayaba stumbled a bit before swiping at his face, breaking the whirlpool and scattering the water everywhere. Water met molten earth with a hiss of steam.
"Very clever, distracting me with that whirlpool and forcing me into that lava." Kayaba complimented. "Too bad it didn't – HRK!"
A full-sized Fafnir came crashing in with a mighty roar. The wyvern screeched as he latched onto Kayaba's face and started clawing and scratching. The ivory behemoth stumbled back from the impact with another growl. Silica leapt from the saddle and landed on Kayaba's shoulder, hacking wildly at the exposed neck. Stabbing at the ivory flesh with both weapons – and temporarily lodging them there – Kayaba reached up with both hands and grabbed the duo before throwing them to the sides. Both crashed into obelisks with a roar and a cry of pain.
Players from the DDA and KoB charged in, only for several blocks of stone to erupt from the ground and fly upward, taking their surprised passengers for a ride. Gasps of shock turned into screams of agony as mirroring blocks of stone came down from the ceiling, sandwiching them in midair.
"Break them out!" Ali shouted.
"Consider it done!" Alice answered, sending her flowers up to cut the blocks of stone. She was joined by Renly, who threw his own blades forth and freed the captives from their earthen prisons. Pina was quick to fly in and grab any that she could as they fell, while the others were caught by their guildmates.
"How many skills does he have under his belt?!" Klein asked as he hobbled back towards Kirito.
Kayaba's eyes flashed, and the ground rumbled. A massive tree the size of PoH grew behind him, and an almost ethereal light poured down from above. Kayaba stood stock still as a single drop of dew fell off one of the leaves onto his head. Based on the sparkling visual effect that accompanied it – as well as a quick glance at Kayaba's health bar – he'd been healed. Back to full.
"Yeah, I see what I did. No need to rub it in." Klein grumbled.
"He can heal himself?!" Suli gaped. "How is that fair?!"
"It isn't." Shinichi growled.
Suguha frowned, thinking back on what she'd learned over the past three-plus years about how game design worked. "There's a way around it. Kayaba's a jerk, but he's fair."
"How do you get around that?" Trish asked, gesturing towards the television. "Seemed pretty locked in to me."
Suguha replayed that moment back in her mind. A metaphorical light bulb went off in her head. She smiled as the others noticed and turned to her.
"Simple. They've got to – "
"We gotta block that water drop." Kirito realized as everyone rushed in again. Everyone was too far away and he was far too quiet for them to hear him, however. He cursed under his breath before running back in.
The raid group converged on Kayaba, hitting him with a variety of sword skills. As for the Game Master himself, he expertly deflected the vast majority of sword skills and retaliated with a few carefully timed – and massive – swings of his own, sending players flying back with every stroke. Those who were using manual strikes were far more successful at getting hits in and avoiding counterattacks, though those who attacked him from behind with sword skills seemed to be doing well enough while out of his sight.
Kirito closed in, dashing in with his blades held at either side. He jumped up and scored a direct hit on Kayaba's stomach, earning a groan of pain for his efforts. He turned around and narrowly dodged an enormous red spear before having to catch Kayaba's crimson sword with a ((Cross Block)). His eyes widened as he quickly realized his mistake. He held firm for all of a second before he felt himself giving way under the sheer bulk and force behind that strike.
Kayaba staggered to the side as Sinon let loose an artillery strike right in his face, courtesy of her Divine Weapon. Kirito leapt backwards to regroup and recover; blocking that attack took a lot out of his health pool.
"You think you get a break? Think again."
Kayaba slammed the butt of his spear into the ground, and a riotous, writhing mass of monstrous roots erupted from the floor. Kirito was about to jump out of the way when Eldrie stepped in front and blocked one of the roots with his Divine Weapon, his snakes lashing out and combating the animated root. The others around the room were not so fortunate, and were scattered and separated from each other.
"Well, that's not good." Eugeo panted, resting a hand on one of the roots that had stopped moving.
"At least they're providing cover?" Lokuss asked as he swung in on his grapple.
Everyone flinched and ducked as a laser beam passed over the battlefield, cutting a number of the roots in half. More than a few cried out in pain, followed by the sounds of two people shattering.
A swarm of glowing yellow flowers and a floating sword flew through, sawing their way through a nearby root. Alice and Aiko came jumping in, their Divine Weapons making short work of the gnarled obstacles. They both landed with a grunt.
"We'll take care of these tree roots." Alice said, motioning towards herself and Aiko. "If you see Klein, please ask him to do the same. I suspect his katana would be very effective."
"Got it." Kirito nodded as the duo ran off.
"He's been messaged." Eugeo added. Halfway down the battlefield, a burst of flame swooped upward, and a dull *thud* sounded out as a chunk of wood hit the floor.
Kirito jutted his chin towards Kayaba, who was rampaging and facing off against Nautilus and Leonn. "Let's go. The others will clear it away; we need to keep him occupied. If he uses that laser attack again, people are going to die."
"Roger!" Eugeo said, running after him. Once he was close enough, the blonde stabbed his blade into the ground. A moment later, a line of ice raced past Kirito and crawled up Kayaba's leg.
"Freezing me in place?" Kayaba asked amusedly. "That's cold of you, Eugeo."
"You don't get to call me that!" Eugeo spat. "Release Recollection!"
More vines, these made of opaque blue ice, sprouted and wrapped themselves around Kayaba's limbs, holding him in place. Kirito grinned as he ran forward, thankful for the opportunity to strike while the Game Master was restrained. Kayaba's eyes locked onto Kirito the moment the swordsman left the ground.
"Shit." Kirito cursed.
An ivory arm broke free of its bonds, snatched him out of the air, and slammed him into the nearby wall. Kirito gasped in pain as his back impacted the unforgiving stone. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted another crucial fact he'd missed from his lower vantage point initially. Those roots weren't just obstacles; they were wrapped around many members of the raid. The Integrity Knights were making their way around, cutting them loose, but the raid was operating at half capacity right now.
A familiar red glow brought him back to his present situation.
"I expected more from you, Kirito." Kayaba droned. His eyes began to glow with the telltale signs of another laser attack. "Goodbye, Black Swordsman."
"Crap!" Kirito gasped, struggling futilely against his bonds. Shouts and cries of concern sounded out from his friends, and for a moment Kirito thought his time was up.
Then a meteorite struck.
"Get your pasty hands off my husband!"
Kayaba glanced up just in time for Asuna to crash down, jabbing his left eye with her glowing rapier. With a flourish, she tore her sword free of what was left of the now defunct eyeball and looked over her shoulder. A flash of affection crossed her otherwise determined face, and Kirito found himself falling in love with her all over again.
He was going to marry that woman when they got out.
"YAS QUEEN!" Suli cheered, bounding out of her seat. "YOU SAVE YOUR MAN, GIRL!"
"So cool!" Selka squealed like the fangirl she was.
"I see what you mean." Mrs. Yuuki whispered to her husband. Suguha's brows shot up as she overheard what was probably meant to be a private conversation. A compliment from the ever-stoic Yuuki matriarch? "It may take a while for her to catch up academically, but she's matured into a strong young woman. A symbol for young girls."
"That she has." Mr. Yuuki smiled.
"I'm proud of her, Shouzou. So proud."
He smiled. "So am I."
"A good hit." Kayaba grumbled as Asuna hopped off. Kirito freed himself from the Game Master's clutches and leaped down after her.
They landed on an exposed root and caught their breath. He shot her a grateful look, which she returned with a smile.
"Got my eye." Kayaba chuckled, a trail of blood leaking from the hollow socket. "Gods, that hurts. Well played, Lightning Flash."
"Don't like getting a taste of your own medicine, Kayaba?!" Nezha snarked from his perch on the ramp nearby. He chucked his chakram at Kayaba's face, scoring a direct hit on the Game Master's newly acquired injury and causing him to hiss in pain. "How do you think we felt in the Underworld, you prick?!"
Kirito suddenly felt a warmth in his chest and saw something glowing behind him. He turned around to see Ronye and Tiese. Rather than fight, it looked like these two were playing the role of battlefield medics, using Sacred Arts to heal the injured.
"I've got you, Kirito-senpai." Ronye said through a scrunched face. Her hands shifted to a wound on his shoulder.
"Of course!" She chirped. She stepped away once she was finished. "Be careful out there! I don't want to have to heal you again, got it?"
Kirito chuckled. "Yes, ma'am."
The ground shook again, the vibrations reverberating even up through the exposed roots. More chunks of rubble were thrown into the air, with more startled passengers clinging to the airborne stones. Kirito and Asuna shot forward, realizing that Liena and Kuroi were on two of the pieces. Kayaba's remaining eye glowed, and Kirito's widened.
"Rema sobter noka!"
A massive gnarled hand grabbed Kayaba's hair and yanked backward, throwing off his aim. The laser beam shot up to the side erratically, raining rubble on the far side of the arena. Kayaba stumbled backward as he was thrown to the side. Once he recovered and found his footing, Kayaba found himself face to face with a very angry Leonn, now in treant form.
"A battle of titans." Kayaba laughed. "This should be interesting."
Leonn bellowed before stomping forward and clocking Kayaba with a haymaker. Kayaba staggered to the side, but spun with the momentum and swung his sword. Leonn grabbed his hand, halting the attack in its tracks. Kayaba smirked before swinging with his other weapon, which was caught just as quickly. The stone under their feet cracked and groaned as the giants pushed against one another.
"Now! Move in!" Kirito called out.
Everyone who could sprinted in, eager to hit the boss while he was restrained. Sword skills started flying, and the flashes of bright colors nearly blinded them. Kirito slashed at Kayaba's ankle in an effort to destabilize him and limit his mobility. If he could just weaken him a little bit…
Kirito instinctively ducked and rolled to the side as a laser shot overhead. He gasped and dodged to the side as a massive wooden arm fell from above, followed by a small splurt of viscous amber sap. Leonn roared in pain as he clutched the stump (and Kirito visibly cringed at the macabre pun) of his left arm, only to be sent to the ground as Kayaba kicked him to the floor.
"You're gonna pay for that!" Liz shouted. She and Liten jumped off a piece of rubble and swung, smashing into Kayaba's cheek with warhammer and mace. Agil was right behind them, swinging his ax down on top of the giant's head with a satisfying *CLANG!*.
Kayaba hunched over, and that giant healing tree manifested behind him.
"Hurry! Block it!" Asuna ordered.
All manner of ranged projectiles flew out at once. Alice's flowers, Renly's blades, Nezha's chakram, and Sinon's arrows all shot forward, piercing the healing droplet and reducing it to useless mist before it could reach the Game Master's head. Sinon followed up with another charged shot to Kayaba's face, and he cried out in pain.
Kirito glanced at the remaining health bar. Kayaba was almost down. They could do this!
"You and me, Asuna!" Kirito said, running forward. She was right at his side, and his mind flashed back to their first fight with Illfang.
"I'm with you!" She answered.
"ENOUGH!" Kayaba bellowed. He slammed the butt of his spear into the ground, and more roots burst up from below.
Kirito and Asuna surged forward, confident that their allies would cover them. Sinon sent an explosive shot at one root, shattering it before it could block their path. Eldrie used his snakes again and destroyed another. Alice joined them, her cloud of flowers making short work of a third. Leonn, still prone on the ground and down an arm, reached out with his remaining hand and snagged a fourth and tore it free.
"Not so fast!" Kayaba roared, thrusting his spear at Kirito. He crossed his swords and slid along the shaft of the spear with an upside-down ((Cross Block)). He grit his teeth as sparks flew from the three weapons meeting.
"Switch!" Kirito called out.
Asuna flew over him, her rapier reared back and ready to strike.
"Got your back!" Yuuki exclaimed as she vaulted off of a piece of rubble and launched herself at Kayaba.
The two strongest swordswomen in Aincrad descended on Kayaba in a symphony of steel. The duo danced around Kayaba's massive body, their blades slashing and criss-crossing as they fell downward. Like a storm, the Tornado and the Lightning Flash twisted and turned, carving line after line on Kayaba's white skin. They met in front of his chest and thrust forward, the shockwave of the combined attack reverberating throughout the room. Kayaba cried out in pain and stumbled back from the impact.
Springing off of the massive spear, Kirito jumped up and bounded towards Kayaba's now exposed chest. Time to finish this.
Kirito's eyes glowed yellow as he fell towards the Game Master's already injured stomach. He growled and yelled a fierce battle cry as he let loose his strongest skill. His swords glowed blue as they danced across his enemy's skin, carving gash after gash as he poured his soul into this one last attack. After bringing his blade vertically down his stomach, Kirito launched himself upward and readied the final blow. His sword screamed and he bellowed with rage as he brought his blade upon Kayaba's awestruck face.
Kayaba, however, looked… content.
"I see…" The Lord of Aincrad, Self-Proclaimed God of Virtual Reality, and their jailer for over three years, let out a long sigh that sounded almost peaceful. "Good game."
Kirito landed with a grunt as the sound of Kayaba shattering filled the air. He fell to one knee and looked up towards the sky.
[On November 7th, 2024, at 2:55 PM. The game has been cleared. Repeat: the game has been cleared.]
"YAY!" Yui cheered, bouncing up and down in the Town of Beginnings. She beamed as she looked around; thousands of spectators – Aincraders as well as visitors from the Underworld – cried out in jubilation. "I knew Papa and Mama could do it!"
Cardinal chuckled. "Agreed. Our parents are quite strong, aren't they?"
"Haha!" Argo cackled, slapping Cardinal on the back. The administrator staggered forward from the hit and glared at Argo. A moment later, a fond smile took over. "We're free! I can't believe it! FREE!"
A flash of light at the teleport plaza heralded the arrival of Bercouli and the Integrity Knights, who were curiously joined by the acting leaders of the Dark Territory. Shasta and Lipia – the commander of the Dark Knights and his deputy commander, as Yui recalled – were in the front of the pack, followed closely by Iskahn of the Pugilists and Rilpirin of the Orcs. Much to their own visible surprise, all they got were a few curious looks, but no outright hostility.
Yui assumed that was just the crowd being too lost in their revelry to notice their former enemies walking amongst them.
"So they did it." Bercouli gave a soft, breathy chuckle. "Sons of bitches did it; they killed a god."
"You saw?" Lux asked after a stray elbow – courtesy of an ignorant and rather excited player – knocked her past Argo. She rubbed her shoulder with evident discomfort. "How?"
"I set up a viewing platform in Centoria." Cardinal explained. "The people wanted to cheer on the champions that helped save their home."
"And boy, were they impressed." Bercouli grinned. "I have a feeling the academies are going to be seeing a lot more applicants soon."
"I'll say." Fanatio laughed. "The number of little boys I saw dual wielding sticks and wooden swords after Kirito slew that giant…"
They all shared a laugh at the mental imagery. Yui noticed the Dark Territory visitors visibly more relaxed, at least compared to when they first arrived. Apparently the celebration around them was helping to lower their guards.
"I just wish I could have fought, too." Iskahn growled. "What a fight! You Aincraders are strange, but you know how to rumble!"
"They're not alone." Scheta said candidly. "Or did you forget our score?"
Iskahn rounded on her with a glare, but it was more playful than hostile. "I told you, tonight we're settling that! Just because you're ahead – "
" – By two – "
" – doesn't mean you've won! I refuse to take this lying down!"
Bercouli leaned in and nudged Argo with his elbow. "I give 'em a week. Then he'll definitely take it lying down."
"Commander!" Fanatio gasped, looking positively scandalized. Argo, meanwhile, was hunched over and cackling. "There are children present!"
"Pardon me for interrupting, but I am curious." Deusolbert spoke up. "What happens to you all now? You get to go home now, correct?"
"Very soon – likely within the next 5 minutes, I suspect – the Aincraders will be forcibly logged out." Cardinal explained.
"What about you and Yui?" Argo asked, frowning slightly as she looked between the sisters.
Yui, likewise, also found herself in a sour mood. Would she be trapped here? She had no idea what her creator had in mind for her in the event of his defeat. She so desperately wanted to go with her family. Yes, she knew objectively that she could not literally follow them into the real world, but if she could have her program downloaded somewhere for them to access, that would work just as well. She'd gone so long living with her Mama and Papa, she couldn't imagine having to live here without them. Having her big sister around would help some, but it wouldn't be the same.
"I'm afraid I don't know." Cardinal shook her head. Startled outcries and cheers of joy rang out in the plaza as flashes of light heralded the beginning of the logout process. She looked down at Yui and smiled.
"...But I suppose we're about to find out."
The Dicey Cafe was in a joyous uproar. Hats were thrown into the air, people were hugging, and more than half the room was up on their feet and dancing.
Suguha beamed. They won! They beat Kayaba!
Caught up in the festivities, Suguha looked towards Shinichi and launched herself at him. Unfortunately, she miscalculated her trajectory and their lips slammed together before the pair tumbled to the ground.
Oh, gods, what just happened?!
She was fairly certain she'd never blushed this hard before. It was like every ounce of blood decided to migrate to her face, all at once. Shinichi was no better; the poor boy was doing his best impression of a strawberry.
Suguha was a rational girl. She prided herself on her ability to stay level-headed, a skill that came in handy when sparring against others in a kendo match. That was why, despite the overused trope which she'd seen left and right in her favorite mangas and anime, she did not strike out at Shinichi in flustered and embarrassed violence.
Instead, she just… stayed there. Why wasn't she moving? Why wasn't he moving? Was he enjoying this? Was she enjoying this?!
"Do you two… need a moment?"
They both froze (though one could argue they were already frozen in place while lip-locked). Their lips parted and they both slowly turned to see a rather smug-looking Suli and Ren. Selka was nearby, practically vibrating with excitement, while Kouichirou sat to the side, the scope of his reaction limited to a single raised eyebrow.
They were never going to live this down, were they?
"Sugu!" Her mother's voice rang out. Immediately, Suguha sprang to her feet. She looked around until she spotted her mother and father, who were both beckoning her over. "Come on! Unless you don't want to be there when your brother wakes up?"
That seemed to spur everyone into action as they all remembered that their loved ones would be waking soon. Everyone began to quickly – and quite chaotically, she would add – funnel out of the cafe. Even Trish was hurriedly closing up shop so that she could go see Andrew when he awoke.
Suguha looked at Shinichi, who was still flustered from the accidental ki – no, she was not going to call it that! Total accident! "We'll… talk about this later. I've gotta go see Kazuto."
"A-alright. T-talk to y-you later?" Shinichi stammered out.
Suguha bit back a smile, but ultimately failed as a giggle escaped her lips. "Yes, talk to you later."
After giving a hasty goodbye to Trish, she practically sprinted out the door and met up with her parents at the family car. She quickly piled in and buckled up, more than eager to go greet her brother. She beamed. She was going to speak to her brother for the first time in three years!
She couldn't wait!
Kirito opened his eyes, and immediately came to the conclusion that he was still in SAO.
What the fuck?
He was not in a hospital room like he imagined. Instead, he was standing on a slightly opaque platform high in the evening sky. Yellow and amber clouds drifted silently and peacefully, as if propelled by a firm breeze. In the distance floated the castle of Aincrad, in all its colossal glory. He looked down at his hands. He was still wearing his black, fingerless gloves, and his wedding band glinted playfully in the evening sun.
"Where am I?" Kirito wondered.
Experimentally, he swiped down with his right index and middle fingers, summoning the game menu. A window immediately popped up with what looked like a loading circle that was still buffering.
Huh. So he was still in the game, but why? They beat Kayaba; unless he was lying, he should have been waking up in a hospital bed somewhere with the world's worst case of bed hair. Or helmet hair, actually. He didn't even want to know how long his hair had grown. He was already what many called a bishounen, or a "pretty boy".
He did not need to add more fuel to that particular fire.
His eyes shot open and he wheeled around. Behind him was not only Asuna, but scattered about the platform were various members of the Renegades and Assault Team. Argo and Lux were also here, strangely enough. Asuna had a similar look of confusion on her face. They quickly united with a hug.
"What's going on, Kirito?" Asuna asked, her voice somewhat muffled through his shirt. "Where are we?"
"Yeah, what gives?" Klein asked as he and Kuroi approached. Everyone began to converge on their leader's position. "I thought we were supposed to wake up, not… whatever this is!"
"Maybe there was a second phase?" Eugeo suggested. "Maybe there's more?"
"Not quite." A familiar voice corrected.
Like a well-oiled machine, everyone spun around and repositioned themselves, the tanks already in the front while the more damage-oriented players took the middle and rear. Weapons were about to be drawn when everyone realized they were gone. A moment of panic and fear swept through them as they realized that they were defenseless.
"Relax." Akihiko Kayaba, now dressed in a lab coat and slacks, said. His eyes were glued to the sight of Aincrad floating before them. "Stunning view, isn't it?"
Stunned silence was the only answer he received, everyone frozen in place as they prepared to run or fight. After a few moments, Kirito noticed the man's relaxed posture. He visibly relaxed, and the others followed.
"At ARGUS headquarters, the SAO mainframe is in a room five floors below street level." Kayaba said. "Right now, it's transferring all its data to a secure location, far from the prying eyes of anyone who would abuse it. In time, it will make itself known again, but for now Aincrad will find safety in isolation."
"What about the players?" Asuna growled. "You promised you would let us go."
"And I will." Kayaba answered. "In fact, I already have. Every player in Aincrad or the Underworld was logged out 30 seconds ago. All 6,478 players who have survived the game up until now."
"And for the rest who didn't survive?" Kirito asked.
"You already know the answer to that, Kirito." Kayaba replied, and the dryly matter-of-fact tone caused more than one fist to clench. "The first 2,000 are long gone, and their descendants live in the Underworld. They've now inherited Aincrad itself, ironically enough. The rest also remain here, free to live a second life for themselves. Their real bodies are dead. They'll never return to the real world; at least, not as they are."
"Then why did you keep us behind, Kayaba?" Kibaou growled, stepping forward.
Kayaba turned towards them and away from the castle. "Can't I speak to my favorite players one last time?"
"Your favorites…?" Kirito asked, aghast at how ridiculous it sounded.
"Yes." Kayaba answered plainly. "You are all my favorites. Actually… hold on."
He swiped his fingers expertly across a screen with such speed and dexterity even Argo was left in shock. In a flash of light, three more figures appeared before them: Kizmel, Yui, and Cardinal.
"There. Now we're all here."
"What is – " Kizmel began, looking about in confusion. "My friends! What is happening? Where are… who is this man?"
Oh, right. Kizmel wouldn't know what Kayaba looked like outside of his Heathcliff persona.
"That's Kayaba, Kiz-chan." Argo said. Agil quickly stopped Kizmel before she could physically assault the man, and explained the situation.
"Now that that's out of the way, there are a few things I wish to share with you." Kayaba continued. "Then I'll be out of your lives. You've already given me three years; what's a few more minutes?"
The Assault Team remained silent, wordlessly giving him permission to speak… and a silent warning not to screw with them. Several of them might still have the ((Martial Arts)) skill, after all.
Kayaba turned back towards Aincrad, which after a moment teleported away. Still, he stared off into the distance, as if gazing into the sun itself. "You might be wondering why I decided to do this… create SAO and trap you all here, that is."
Nautilus opened his mouth – probably to tell him off – only for Yuna to rest a gentle hand on his shoulder. The bard shook her head, as if telling him to let the man speak.
"Even before I developed the system for the FullDive environment, I dreamed of this." Kayaba's eyes shifted to a group of dragons flying in the distance, their winged silhouettes dancing about the sunset sky. "A castle in a world that wasn't governed by earthly laws and restrictions. I poured my life into making that world a reality. I created this world, and I got to see something that surpassed anything I could have imagined for it."
The unspoken question of "what?" hung in the air.
"It's one thing to create a world, but ultimately a world is hollow and worthless if there is no one to enjoy it." Kayaba smiled. "You all breathed life into my world, and for that I am forever thankful. Yet, as time went on, I began to realize something. I realized that once you cleared the game, Aincrad would go back to being that empty world devoid of life once again. I'm reminded of a quote from one of my favorite games growing up. "No king rules forever.""
"A king has his reign, and then he dies. It's inevitable." Lokuss muttered, his eyes drilling into Kayaba while his tone was hushed with realization. "You were a god in this game. But, you had no one; no one trusted you. Even your AI turned against you. Nothing sentient in this world was loyal to you in the end. We players were many, but you were only one."
A beat of heavy silence passed as Kayaba nodded. He took a deep breath.
"I want to be remembered."
Kirito – despite his best efforts – began to understand the man before him. It was an intrinsically human thing to want to be remembered, to leave a mark on the world. Obviously he wouldn't have gone about it in the way Kayaba did, but that goal was something Kirito could understand.
"I'm not seeking fame or fortune; I forsook those when I trapped you all here and transferred my consciousness to the digital realm." He continued, ignoring the gasps behind him as they all realized that Kayaba achieved virtual immortality. To think the man would scan his own brain and upload himself like he had those 2,000 players was… well, it was mind-boggling. "I wanted a legacy, and much to my surprise, I have two. I have the residents of the Underworld… and I have you."
Kirito blinked, trying to parse the implications of such a statement.
"I realized that my game, my world, gave birth to heroes. Those who would answer the call and fight to right the injustice of the world. Any world. My actions, however horrific they might have been, created remarkable individuals. The champions of Aincrad are my proudest creation."
Kirito felt conflicted about that. The man clearly meant it as a compliment, but to be called someone else's creation was… odd. He shoved that to the side for now.
"I wanted to share that with the world… show you off, so to speak. You may find, upon your return, that the real world is not the one you left three years ago." Kayaba explained, and a smirk crossed his face. "You see… the players in the Town of Beginnings were not the only people to witness your heroism."
…What was that supposed to mean? He wasn't actually suggesting – !
"I also streamed your battles to the outside world."
Kirito had to steady himself on Asuna's shoulder. He did what?! Every battle they fought was live-streamed to the real world? He ignored the blatant invasion of privacy – common decency went out the window three years ago when he abducted them – and struggled to understand just what that meant.
The world knew what they did.
Wait! PoH was right! That murderous bastard was right all along!
They had an audience the entire time.
How did they react? He imagined it would have been some relief to see the players alive and well, so to speak, but… wait. His family. His sister and parents might have watched!
Asuna shook his shoulder, bringing him back to reality. Everyone around him was shouting, clearly in just as much shock as he was.
"Later, I released personal streams for each and every member of the Assault Team." Kayaba continued, ignoring the defiant shouts of anger that followed. Kirito and Asuna – in fact, most of the couples present – blanched at the implications of having their private moments live-streamed. "Calm yourselves; I made sure to censor anything that would be considered private and intimate. They only saw the public moments of your day-to-day lives. You made a much bigger impact on the outside world than you might expect…"
Kayaba made a few more motions with his hands, and a series of videos popped into existence on a large floating screen. He smiled fondly as the videos played out, and at the reactions of the Assault Team.
A video, taken by phone, of a dancing Minetaka and Midori Kirigaya as they pranced around the house to what sounded like jazz music that heavy on the trumpets. His father was wearing a shirt that said "Black Swordsman" while his mother wore a "Lightning Flash" shirt. Kirito blanched at the image.
"Wait, are those your parents?" Asuna asked as she tried to stifle her giggles, which were promptly choked away when she noticed what they were wearing. "What are those shirts?!"
Before Kirito could respond, the video changed to another video taken by phone of a rustic-looking, American style bar. He spotted Suguha in the crowd of patrons, all of which were cheering at a screen showing the Assault Team besting the 32nd floor boss. A tall Black woman behind the bar shouted something about "first drinks on the house."
"Think about the overhead, Trish!" Agil screamed in horror, much to everyone's amusement. "That's a lot of drinks!"
The video changed again, this time to what looked like security footage of some kind of robotics laboratory. A man who looked suspiciously similar to Asuna – her brother, perhaps? – was parsing through a set of schematics for some sort of humanoid robot while an interested Suguha – who was dressed in a shirt that said "I'm a Renegade" – looked over his shoulder. In the top right corner of the schematic was a single label.
His daughter gasped and started jumping up and down with excitement. "Mama, is that my uncle?! Is he making me a body?! Papa, that girl looks like you! Is she my auntie?!"
Both parents beamed at the implication of what Asuna's brother was working on before giving their daughter a happy nod. Yui beamed even brighter and gave them both an excited hug. After a moment, she drew Cardinal into the hug, who grunted with surprise but joined in nonetheless.
The video changed to what looked like the interior of a wooden box. Then, one by one, a number of objects were placed into it. A set of armor. A cloak. A ring. A shield. A pair of medallions. one bearing the insignia of the Resolute Renegades and the other bearing the Sigil of Lyusula. And, a portrait…of Kizmel. The dark elf's jaw dropped, as did several others. On top of knowing about the AI who had become a friend and sister to the Renegades, those who'd watched from the real world had decided to honor her sacrifice by burying her in effigy. Kirito spotted Suguha and Asuna's brother were amongst the makeshift pallbearers. A number of the other attendees, wearing black, looked like they could be relatives of his guildmates. As the coffin was lowered into the ground, an elderly man approached and thrust a replica of Kizmel's saber down at the burial site, both to mark the grave and in tribute.
"That's my grandpa!" Liz gasped. "I can't believe he made your sword, Kizmel."
Kizmel stared at the screen in shock and awe. Tears were in her eyes at the scene before them. Asuna laid a gentle hand on her elven sister's shoulder and smiled. Kizmel gave her a wide, emotion-filled smile.
Another video, this one of what looked like a public vigil. A boy who looked very much like Diavel stepped up to the podium and gave a speech. It was a short one, but one filled with emotion and pride; the boy – apparently Diavel's brother – had admitted that he was grateful for the Renegades for carrying on his brother's legacy.
Kirito looked over and met Lind's gaze. The bluenette gave a smile and a nod of thanks. Kirito reached out for a fist bump, which the DDA leader happily returned.
The scene changed again, this time to more security footage. Asuna's father – which Kirito surmised when his wife whispered "oto-san" – had a proud smile on his face as he placed several new framed photos on his office desk. One had a cheerful Yui adorned in her cute little spectacles. Another was of Asuna and Kizmel laughing at a dinner table. The last was a picture of Asuna's wedding as she stood across from Kirito at the altar.
"He saw our wedding!" Asuna gasped.
Kirito smiled meekly. "I guess this means he approves of me?"
Before she could answer, another video popped up, this one of an older gentleman hanging a photo of Yuna's wedding with Naut.
Yuna gasped, a bright smile on her face. "So did mine!"
The next video, though, brought a very visceral reaction from Asuna. She gasped and shuddered at the next scene, which showed an older woman (likely her overbearing mother) sitting at Asuna's bedside. Her mother clutched Asuna's limp, comatose hand as she watched a live-stream of Asuna on a television screen nearby.
Based on his wife's reaction, this was not something she ever expected her mother would do.
The next video seemed to be a composite of several news broadcasts and a recording of the interior of the chambers of the Japanese National Diet (or "Parliament", to the gaijin). Amidst a cacophony of voices, Kirito picked out the phrases "votes counted and tallied", followed by "the measure passes", and then the big one: "Any and all Clearers who participate in the raid against Laughing Coffin can expect full immunity. Further, any and all surviving "red" players will be prosecuted for crimes committed in the Death Game".
He thought he heard one of the councilors in the Diet's chambers mumble something that sounded like "sudden empathy" and "Commissioner Gordon".
That, Kirito was forced to admit, was a relief. Though it had been shoved to the back of his mind again and again by more immediate concerns, he had been worried that the surviving red players might get off scot-free once the game was cleared. And, quite possibly, see if they got the same thrill from killing people in the real world as they did in SAO. But, if everyone, including the national legislature, had seen everything, then there was surely enough to convict everyone who had ever killed a fellow prisoner during their imprisonment in AIncrad...
…even if he was trying very, VERY, VERY hard not to overthink the "everyone saw everything" part. And not quite succeeding at it.
Another video, this time showing a group of adults posing for a group photo. Asuna identified the buildings behind them as belonging to a university. The adults each had whiskers drawn on their face and were posing in front of their college newspaper.
"Hah!" Argo barked, gesturing towards the screen. "Would ya look at that! I've got fans, too!"
Two more videos played, one of a man and the other of a woman, both separately entering a therapist's office. Both explained to the receptionist as they set up an appointment that they decided to seek help after listening to their children receiving help during their group therapy bath sessions.
Lokuss and Sinon looked about ready to burst into tears. Apparently the man was Lokuss's father and the woman was Sinon's mother.
What came next, Kirito noticed, hit his wife particularly hard for some reason.
The next video was also a composite. And one that, at first, the Assault Team found a tad confusing. It seemed to be a series of interviews with doctors, nurses, and patients, the latter of whom all looked terribly ill. Though most of the players were exchanging perplexed glances, they eventually noticed that Yuuki, and Asuna, were staring at the scene with slack-jawed astonishment.
Asuna recognized what she was looking at from Yuuki's sobering tales after she'd revealed her condition during one of their "private" talks: an AIDS/HIV clinic.
Part of Asuna was angry - no, furious! - that Kayaba had apparently let that slip into the public eye, especially given how much pain the virus had caused Yuuki.
The deaths of her family.
Rejection by her peers.
Long days of isolation which, in all likelihood, would only end when she finally expired.
But, Asuna's anger gave way to perplexity when she mastered her temper and noticed something.
Despite clearly being every bit as ill as Yuuki herself likely was, not one of the patients evinced even a hint of self-pity. In fact, most of them were smiling - a smile Asuna had seen hundreds of times on Yuuki's face, no less, as though the patients had practiced it - while others had expressions of stoic defiance.
No less surprising, all of them had stick-on tattoos, lapel pins, or other accessories that were themed after Yuuki.
Some were of the kanji symbols for the word "Zekken", or "Absolute Sword", which had become Yuuki's nickname in Aincrad…and, apparently, elsewhere. Others were of the name of Yuuki's guild, the Sleeping Knights, while others still were of her sword, her headband, her face, or of her in her entirety.
Okay, seriously, mused Asuna, rather miffed. Just who thought it was a good idea to make the tattoos with Yuuki in a "great gams" pose?!
Perhaps she really was developing into a big sister, as Asuna found herself growing incredulous at seeing the girl who might as well have been her little sister plastered across the biceps of total strangers wearing a bikini and with her…assets having been artificially upgraded. But, when she caught snatches of the audio, she could swear her ire burst into polygons and floated away.
"Her story was really inspiring."
"I nearly asked for the doctor to give me a lethal injection, but then I saw Yuuki and I changed my mind."
"I want to go home again. And, if Yuuki can beat this, then so can I!"
"My daughter contracted HIV not long after SAO started. Last week, she seemed ready to give up. Then, two days ago, she saw Yuuki on the streams and volunteered to undergo a clinical trial that might cure her. I don't know if you'll ever hear this, Yuuki, but thank you."
Another succession of videos followed. These showed what Asuna recognized, from less-than-pleasant experience, as charity galas. Years of having been dragged to such events, sometimes literally, nearly caused her eyes to glaze over…until she saw just what the gala was for.
It was to finance research into discovering a cure for the AIDS/HIV Virus. And, all the attendees had lapel pins (minus the great gams ones, thankfully) that she'd seen earlier.
Though charity galas to benefit efforts to cure AIDS had been common enough before SAO, it seemed Yuuki's reveal had lit a fire under those who had been striving for the cause, as well as those who, beforehand, had simply regarded the virus as just another in a forever congested list of crises that seemed unlikely to go away or even get better.
Now, by contrast, there was a mobilization to change that which was nothing short of jaw-dropping.
A series of financial reports showed her the amount of donations to the various charities and foundations during the past few months. And, as U.S Dollars, Euros, British Pounds, and other currencies were listed in addition to Japanese Yen, it meant that these efforts - and, by extension the streams that brought them about in the first place - had made their way to numerous other countries.
Since, by this point, it was no secret that she was the rich girl, Asuna could sense many eyes upon her, doubtless curious as to whether the sums they were seeing constituted a shitload of money.
They likely found her swaying in place and looking ready to faint as being quite informative.
It was not a shitload of money. It was a metric shit-ton of metric shit-tons of metric shit-tons of money!
This was promptly followed by videos of the donations themselves, ranging from her parents, Koichirou, and several members of RECT's board of directors (thankfully with Sugou nowhere in sight) dropping enormous checks to the girl Kirito identified as his younger sister and a pair of blonde girls, whom Eugeo and Ali promptly identified as their respective little sisters, tossing in what must've been their monthly allowances.
The montage ended with a bang as, after some thickly technical but hopeful sounding excerpts about potential treatments ready for the clinical trial phase, each of which already had several volunteers apiece, one of the patients, who had agreed to undergo the treatment despite achieving viral suppression, raised a glass to an impressive portrait of Yuuki and said "Here's to you, kiddo!"
Out of the corner of her eye, Asuna noticed that Yuuki was tearing up. But, then again, who could blame her? In a subsequent private talk - which, Asuna realized, was about as "private" as the inside of a fishbowl - Yuuki had admitted that her smile and blithe confidence had been at least partially a facade. Beneath it was a young girl who had spent years muscling through days rife with not only the certainty that she would die young but also terribly burdened with painful, unanswerable questions.
Why did God keep her - someone who'd never made anything, given anything to anyone, and did little more than waste drugs that wouldn't save her anyway - alive after she'd lost her family?
Why did she stay alive so long when, as far as she could see, there was so little point to it?
If she had been born to die, then what was the point of being born in the first place?
Maybe now, she had her answer. Maybe God wanted her to stay alive so that she could be the spark that brought about what might prove to be the twilight of the AIDS/HIV virus, which had been a tragedy long before the Death Game.
Apparently coming to the same realization, Yuuki flung herself onto Asuna, nearly sending the older girl sprawling, while bawling uncontrollably.
"It was worth it, big sister!" she choked out between happy sobs. "It was worth it!"
Asuna felt a smile, just a tad sly, cross her features as she squeezed Yuuki back.
"Big sister, huh?" she mused aloud, prompting Yuuki to gasp and regard her with shocked, still-teary eyes, before being disarmed by Asuna's answering smile. "I like the sound of that. And, I guess this means I get to call you "Yuuki Yuuki" after all."
Despite suspecting that she'd just made herself the butt of what would soon be a favorite running gag amongst the SAO Survivors, Yuuki giggled and nestled deeper into the arms of the girl who was family to her in all but blood.
Kirito had little time to dwell on what just happened, as the scene shifted yet again.
The next scene explained a lot, in hindsight. A doctor stood next to a comatose patient, one Kirito vaguely recognized. Playing on a screen nearby was a stream of the Laughing Coffin raid. The patient, clearly a Laughing Coffin member, was about to kill Kirito as he was caught off balance. The doctor, clearly looking conflicted, reluctantly pulled the NerveGear off the patient's head, killing him and causing his in-game avatar to explode. The sound of the flatline echoed in the video as the doctor somberly looked at his handiwork. A few moments later, more medical staff ran in and examined the body before looking at the doctor with shocked expressions.
"He… he saved my life." Kirito said. "He broke his oath, maybe even went to jail, to save my life."
The next scene was, fortunately, much more positive. Two pairs of adults – bearing striking resemblances to the leaders of the KoB – were seated at a table and meeting with what was probably an attorney, given his formal attire. While they couldn't see what was on the document itself, the parents' words made it clear they were trying to legalize a marriage between Ali and Eugeo. The giveaway was them mentioning wanting to give the couple a proper ceremony despite the two having "already eloped".
Heads swiveled and all eyes landed on the couple in question, who could only blush.
Eugeo exchanged a knowing look with Ali before he shrugged. "Might as well."
Eugeo pulled off his left glove while Ali removed her left gauntlet. Gleaming in the evening sun were a pair of matching wedding rings. The apparently married couple smiled awkwardly.
"Geo-bou!" Argo cried out, sounding legitimately affronted by the reveal. "And Ali-chan! You got hitched and didn' tell me?!"
"It was right before the war and we didn't want to distract anybody." Ali tried to explain. "We had bigger things to worry about!"
"Wait, were you wearing your rings during the group bath?" Lokuss asked, his pointed index finger bouncing back and forth between the blondes.
"How?! I didn't see them!"
Eugeo smirked. "Were you looking?"
Lokuss opened his mouth to object. An awkward moment later, he snapped it shut and looked disappointed in himself.
"We are so holding a real ceremony for you when we get back." Yuna said as she narrowed her eyes. She then turned her accusatory gaze on everybody else. "Anyone else have something they need to share?"
"Umm…" Liz stammered. She pointed towards herself and Leonn. "We're kind of engaged now. Does that count?"
Cue an ear-piercing squeal of excitement that even had Kayaba flinching. Once the ladies calmed themselves, Kayaba closed the screen and turned back towards them.
"T-that's an invasion of privacy." Kuroi said, her voice strangely… normal sounding, if a bit stuttered. It was higher pitched, softer, and more delicate. Was this how she normally sounded?
Kirito agreed. "If I had my swords right now, I'd…"
"And what would your adoring public think, Kirito?" Kayaba laughed. "I doubt they would approve of such senseless violence."
Kirito grumbled but ultimately relented. Meanwhile, Ducker abruptly turned to the side and started waving at the sky. Was he… looking for a camera? …which, Kirito realized with some distress, was probably still running?
"Well, too late now. No sense in locking the vault after the bank's been robbed. Hi, Mom!"
Keita elbowed Ducker, and somehow managed to scold the thief about his grandstanding with just a look.
"Okay, next chance we get, I'm bringin' you all to my place. The Dicey Cafe." Agil said, smacking Klein's back and looking at everyone else. "Sound good?"
Kayaba chuckled and shook his head, amused by their actions. He cleared his throat, grabbing their attention once again and bringing all conversation of a meet-up to a halt. His smile slowly faded and his expression was grim. "You may want to do that sooner rather than later. I'm afraid it's not quite over yet."
Kirito blanched. "What do you mean, it's not over?"
"Your time here in SAO has come to a close, but I'm afraid another challenge awaits you. Something outside of my control, much as I am loath to admit it. Hold onto each other. Draw upon that resolve. In fact…"
He fiddled with his controls again, but nothing seemed to happen. He locked eyes with the three AI in the group. "I've saved you three to their NerveGears. You'll be needed."
"Wait… huh? What?" Kizmel stammered, just as confused as the rest of them.
"Do you know what I admire most about you all? That perseverance, that tenacity. You took every challenge I threw at you and kept going until the end. When you were knocked down, you got back up. When your comrades fell, you honored their sacrifice and continued on in their memory. You weren't unstoppable, and you certainly weren't fearless. Few people in this world truly are, and those that are are fools for so heedlessly throwing caution to the wind. What you were instead was something far more powerful and so incredibly inspiring. You know what you were?"
Kayaba turned and started walking away, and as his avatar started to fade he spoke only one last word.
And then the world flashed white.
Kirito blearily struggled to open his eyes, his eyelids feeling like 10 kilogram weights were attached to them. A shapeless black blob hovered in his face before it jerked back.
He blinked again, the uncomfortable sensation of those eye-crusty things sanding against his skin. He wanted so desperately to rub his eyes, but his arms and hands wouldn't obey.
His eyes focused on the black blob as it came into focus. He was greeted by the short black hair and dark gray eyes of his sister. Sugu's eyes seemed to brighten and water with unshed tears. Just past her and on his other side, he spotted both of his parents staring at him, looking equally as emotional.
"...Wh…" Kirito tried to speak. He winced at the pain of using withered and atrophied vocal cords. Gods, he was expecting to feel weak but this was ridiculous!
"Shh…" Sugu shushed him. "Don't speak."
He blinked again, which was about all he could do at the moment. His eyes watered as memories of Asuna and his virtual family flashed through his mind. A pair of gentle hands grabbed hold of either side of his NerveGear. Carefully – moving so slowly it was like she was afraid he'd shatter like glass – Sugu pulled the helmet off of his head. The moment the accursed contraption was free, his long, oily hair spilled out. Sugu gently laid the helmet to the side; meanwhile his mother gingerly brushed his hair out of his face.
His family… his first family, the one that chose to adopt a poor little orphan… smiled. Sugu laid a hand on his greasy hair and gently ruffled it, heedless of how gross it probably was.
"Welcome back, mister Black Swordsman. Welcome home."
It's such a strange feeling to end this story. After a year and a half of constant writing and weekly updates, it's almost bizarre to think that I'm… done. "Unyielding" has finally come to a close. Even writing this afterword is surprisingly difficult. I… I just don't know what to say. What do you even say after something like this? I guess if I had to say something, I'd say I'm proud.
And so incredibly grateful.
Thank you. The fact that you're here reading this means that you liked my story. My first story, which I absolutely made far longer and much more complicated than it had any right to be. Every single one of you, whether you left a review or silently lurked week after week, has been a source of motivation for me. I never would have dreamed that this story would become as popular as it is today.
At the time of writing this, "Unyielding" has over 342 THOUSAND views on FFNet, 828 Reviews, 923 Favorites, and 1,028 Followers. AO3 is just as mind boggling: 73 THOUSAND hits, 1,149 Kudos, 839 Comments, and 293 Bookmarks.
I am in awe. I am humbled by the dedication you all have for this silly little story.
When I first decided to write "Unyielding", I did so because I thoroughly enjoyed Sword Art Online. I loved the concept – even if the execution was a little flawed – and loved the incredible potential it had. I'm going to level with you all: "Unyielding" started as a self-insert story.
That's right. I was one of those authors. Some of you can probably guess which of the OC's was meant to be my self-insert. Without going too much into detail, that character quickly became their own entity, and I started enjoying the overall narrative more than living vicariously through the shameless self-insert. I'd like to think it all turned out well in the end.
Bah, I'm going off on a tangent.
Thank you all so much for the continued praise and support you've given me and this story. Just like many of you looked forward to my weekly posts, I too looked forward to your feedback. I would usually post a chapter right before I went to bed, and I could never shake the excitement I felt when I woke up the next morning to reviews and comments across both platforms. I'll let you in on a little secret:
We authors are suckers for comments and reviews. It's what drives us to keep writing, keep creating content, and keep weaving stories for our mutual amusement. To know that what our creations are worth reading is incredibly validating. It makes us feel appreciated, incredibly so. So I want to give a special thank you to those of you who, week after week, left a comment or a review. Hopefully you now have some idea of what that meant to me.
I also want to give special thanks to my friends Quality over Quantity and Falchion1984, who both provided some much-needed feedback and suggestions throughout the course of this story. Many of the story elements in the later chapters were entirely their idea, so big thanks to them for contributing to this story in a major way. Just to give you some idea as to the depth of their contributions, QoQ had the idea of bringing Aiko into the Underworld arc – among many other notable contributions – and has been a constant source of support since the very beginning. Falchion1984, on the other hand, was responsible for the scene involving the reveal of the live streams to Kirito & co. as well as…ahem…what happens in the Epilogue. Falchion also recently suggested a couple of edits in Chapters 93 and 96, involving the real world scenes with Suguha. I definitely recommend going back and giving those a quick read!
Okay! Superfluous author's note over with! You're boring your readers, Ikell!
As a reward for making it this far and reading through my fantastically long author's note, I want to treat you all to a little epilogue. If you're reading on AO3… you've already read it because I can't place author's notes in the middle like I can on FFNet.
Yes, I will be writing a sequel. Yes, it will focus around ALO. I'm going to take a little break from this franchise for the time being so I can finish my other fic, "Colosseum of the Heart", and organize my thoughts for the next part of this story.
So please enjoy this epilogue and I will see you all next time for the official sequel to "Unyielding":
Prison was not pleasant.
Sugou Nobuyuki absent-mindedly picked at his food, doing his best to ignore the troglodytes seated nearby him. Peasants, the lot of them. Barbaric ingrates who'd been caught after committing the most base of crimes.
Granted, he'd been caught too, but at least he held himself to a higher standard.
"Oy, shut the fuck up!" One of the inmates shouted, banging on his lunch table and pointing at the television mounted in the corner. Takeda Shunso, if memory served. "They're talkin' about SAO!"
Sugou's brows shot up in interest. What was his little Asuna up to nowadays, he wondered? The rest of the cafeteria immediately quieted down.
As it turned out, the entire prison population was enamored by the SAO phenomenon. Sugou was certainly surprised by that revelation, but after he thought about it for a moment, it made sense. The SAO players were prisoners in their own right. No, the majority of them hadn't committed any crimes to speak of – at least, aside from Laughing Coffin and the like – but they were captives of a higher power nonetheless. Clearly the inmates here resonated with that.
Some of the newer inmates, as a matter of fact, had SAO inspired tattoos. Most of them were, admittedly, rather crude, but Sugou had come to expect that of many of them. He glanced around the room, noting the few tattoos that were readily visible.
"My spear is Sachi's favorite."
"I help Yuna hit the high notes."
"My coals go in Lisbeth's furnace."
"This dragon rides Silica."
"I bend Sinon like a strong bow."
"I penetrated Liten's breastplate."
"I took Argo by the tail."
Could these people possibly sound any more perverted?! Sugou fumed silently.
As if the thoughts had been a summons, a newly arrived inmate passed in front of him, tray in hand and with "I plunged down Alice's rabbithole" tattooed on his bicep.
Well, ask a silly question…
Tasteless though they were, there was only one tattoo that genuinely angered Sugou.
"Asuna lightning flashed me."
Sugou stifled a growl at that one. Asuna was HIS! No one else's! Not that overbearing, steroid-saturated barbarian's! And certainly not KIRITO's! Unfortunately, the former could snap Sugou like a twig while the latter was not only in the public eye, but out of his reach. Shelving that particular gripe of his, Sugou focused his attention on the screen.
"Breaking news! After a harrowing battle with Sword Art Online creator Akihiko Kayaba, the SAO Assault Team claimed victory and freed over 6,000 trapped players. With Kayaba defeated and the 100th floor cleared, players around the country began to awake after three years of virtual imprisonment."
The inmates were more than pleased by this development.
"I knew those bastards could do it!"
"FUCK YOU, KAYABA!"
"Way to go, kiddos! We knew ya had it in ya!"
Sugou grinned, snatching up the piece of stale bread on his plate. He dipped it in the leftover mashed potatoes smeared on his plate before chomping down. He was pleased at this development, too. Very much so, in fact.
Assuming, of course, the next part of the story played out as he had anticipated…and arranged.
"However, 300 players have yet to awaken from their slumber. Several notable players from the Assault Team are among those still trapped, the most famous perhaps being Asuna the Lightning Flash. Other notable names include Lind of the Divine Dragon Alliance, Geeou of the Knights of the Blood Oath, and Leonn of the Resolute Renegades. Experts from around the country are baffled, as are many of the players who escaped and are capable of limited speech."
And just like that, the prisoners quieted down in a very subdued and shocked silence. Sugou fought back a manic grin. Everything was going according to plan! His patience was paying off! Now all he had to do was make his move. Just a few more moves on his part and he would have everything needed to claim what was rightfully his.
"...in other news, Oroku Karai – otherwise known as Rosalia of Titan's Hand – was taken into custody yesterday afternoon on numerous charges of armed robbery and murder, both in the first and second degree. She and several other identified members of Laughing Coffin and Titan's Hand were escorted out of their rooms by an armed police escort…"
He stood up from his seat, pointedly ignoring the jeers and outraged yelling from the other inmates. Calmly, he walked up to the nearest guard, who looked just as stunned at the news. The guard finally noticed him, and instinctively gripped his baton.
"What do you want, Nobuyuki? Lunch isn't over yet."
"I'd like you to give the warden a message, if you would be so kind." Sugou purred. "I would like to meet with him. And while you're at it, please call up and fetch Kikuoka Seijirou and have him come along as well."
The guard, a man in his 40's by his estimate, narrowed his gaze and creased his brow in clear doubt. "What makes you think the warden's gonna want to listen to what comes out of your slimy little mouth?"
"Because I have information about the 300 players who have yet to wake up. I know who's keeping them hostage. Better yet, I know what needs to be done if they have any hope of waking up ever again."
The guard squinted harder. "Oh yeah? Who trapped 'em then, huh?"
He relished in the power and leverage he had once again. Not since his arrest did he feel so in control. It was something he missed dearly.
"Simple. I did. And if you ever want to see those players again, you're going to listen carefully to what I have to say and comply with my every demand."
Sugou was blissfully unaware at how the room fell silent at that confession. He neither noticed nor cared that the gazes of dozens of prison inmates had swiveled in his direction and they were now glaring daggers at his back. He paid them no mind; he would soon leave them behind and reclaim what he was denied.
Sugou smiled. Long live King Oberon.